The suicide of Charles Cressler had occurred on the tenth of June, and the report of it, together with the wretched story of his friend's final surrender to a temptation he had never outlived, reached Curtis Jadwin early on the morning of the eleventh.
He and Gretry were at their accustomed places in the latter's office, and the news seemed to shut out all the sunshine that had been flooding in through the broad plate-glass windows. After their first incoherent horror, the two sat staring at each other, speechless.
"My God, my God," groaned Jadwin, as if in the throes of a deadly sickness. "He was in the Crookes, ring, and we never knew it--I've killed him, Sam. I might as well have held that pistol myself." He stamped his foot, striking his fist across his forehead, "Great God--my best friend--Charlie--Charlie Cressler! Sam, I shall go mad if this--if this--
"Steady, steady does it, J.," warned the broker, his hand upon his shoulder, "we got to keep a grip on ourselves to-day. We've got a lot to think of. We'll think about Charlie, later. Just now ... well it's business now. Mathewson & Knight have called on us for margins--twenty thousand dollars."
He laid the slip down in front of Jadwin, as he sat at his desk.
"Oh, this can wait?" exclaimed Jadwin. "Let it go till this afternoon. I can't talk business now. Think of Carrie--Mrs. Cressler, I--"
"No," answered Gretry, reflectively and slowly, looking anywhere but in Jadwin's face. "N--no, I don't think we'd better wait. I think we'd better meet these margin calls promptly. It's always better to keep our trades margined up."
Jadwin faced around.
"Why," he cried, "one would think, to hear you talk, as though there was danger of me busting here at any hour."
Gretry did not answer. There was a moment's silence Then the broker caught his principal's eye and held it a second.
"Well," he answered, "you saw how freely they sold to us in the Pit yesterday. We've got to buy, and buy and buy, to keep our price up; and look here, look at these reports from our correspondents--everything points to a banner crop. There's been an increase of acreage everywhere, because of our high prices. See this from Travers"--he picked up a despatch and read: "'Preliminary returns of spring wheat in two Dakotas, subject to revision, indicate a total area seeded of sixteen million acres, which added to area in winter wheat states, makes total of forty-three million, or nearly four million acres greater than last year.'"
"Lot of damned sentiment," cried Jadwin, refusing to be convinced. "Two-thirds of that wheat won't grade, and Europe will take nearly all of it. What we ought to do is to send our men into the Pit and buy another million, buy more than these fools can offer. Buy 'em to a standstill."
"That takes a big pile of money then," said the broker. "More than we can lay our hands on this morning. The best we can do is to take all the Bears are offering, and support the market. The moment they offer us wheat and we don't buy it, that moment--as you know, yourself--they'll throw wheat at you by the train load, and the price will break, and we with it."
"Think we'll get rid of much wheat to-day?" demanded Jadwin.
By now it had became vitally necessary for Jadwin to sell out his holdings. His "long line" was a fearful expense, insurance and storage charges were eating rapidly into the profits. He must get rid of the load he was carrying, little by little. To do this at a profit, he had adopted the expedient of flooding the Pit with buying orders just before the close of the session, and then as the price rose under this stimulus, selling quickly, before it had time to break. At first this had succeeded. But of late he must buy more and more to keep the price up, while the moment that he began to sell, the price began to drop; so that now, in order to sell one bushel, he must buy two.
"Think we can unload much on 'em to-day?" repeated Jadwin.
"I don't know," answered Gretry, slowly and thoughtfully. "Perhaps--there's a chance--. Frankly, J., I don't think we can. The Pit is taking heart, that's the truth of it. Those fellows are not so scared of us as they were a while ago. It's the new crop, as I've said over and over again. We've put wheat so high, that all the farmers have planted it, and are getting ready to dump it on us. The Pit knows that, of course. Why, just think, they are harvesting in some places. These fellows we've caught in the corner will be able to buy all the wheat they want from the farmers if they can hold out a little longer. And that Government report yesterday showed that the growing wheat is in good condition."
"Nothing of the sort. It was a little over eighty-six."
"Good enough," declared Gretry, "good enough so that it broke the price down to a dollar and twenty. Just think, we were at a dollar and a half a little while ago."
"And we'll be at two dollars in another ten days, I tell you."
"Do you know how we stand J.?" said the broker gravely. "Do you know how we stand--financially? It's taken pretty nearly every cent of our ready money to support this July market. Oh, we can figure out our paper profits into the millions. We've got thirty, forty, fifty million bushels of wheat that's worth over a dollar a bushel, but if we can't sell it, we're none the better off--and that wheat is costing us six thousand dollars a day. Hell, old man, where's the money going to come from? You don't seem to realise that we are in a precarious condition." He raised an arm, and pointed above him in the direction of the floor of the Board of Trade.
"The moment we can't give our boys--Landry Court, and the rest of 'em--the moment we can't give them buying orders, that Pit will suck us down like a chip. The moment we admit that we can't buy all the wheat that's offered, there's the moment we bust."
"Well, we'll buy it," cried Jadwin, through his set teeth. "I'll show those brutes. Look here, is it money we want? You cable to Paris and offer two million, at--oh, at eight cents below the market; and to Liverpool, and let 'em have twopence off on the same amount. They'll snap it up as quick as look at it. That will bring in one lot of money, and as for the rest, I guess I've got some real estate in this town that't pretty good security."
"What--you going to mortgage part of that?"
"No," cried Jadwin, jumping up with a quick impatient gesture, "no, I'm going to mortgage all of it, and I'm going to do it to- day--this morning. If you say we're in a precarious condition, it's no time for half measures. I'll have more money than you'll know what to do with in the Illinois Trust by three o'clock this afternoon, and when the Board opens to-morrow morning, I'm going to light into those cattle in the Pit there, so as they'll think a locomotive has struck 'em. They'd stand me off, would they? They'd try to sell me down; they won't cover when I turn the screw! I'll show 'em, Sam Gretry. I'll run wheat up so high before the next two days, that the Bank of England can't pull it down, and before the Pit can catch its breath, I'll sell our long line, and with the profits of that, by God! I'll run it up again. Two dollars! Why, it will be two fifty here so quick you won't know how it's happened. I've just been fooling with this crowd until now. Now, I'm really going to get down to business."
Gretry did not answer. He twirled his pencil between his fingers, and stared down at the papers on his desk. Once he started to speak, but checked himself. Then at last he turned about.
"All right," he said, briskly. "We'll see what that will do."
"I'm going over to the Illinois Trust now," said Jadwin, putting on his hat. "When your boys come in for their orders, tell them for to-day just to support the market. If there's much wheat offered they'd better buy it. Tell them not to let the market go below a dollar twenty. When I come back we'll make out those cables."
That day Jadwin carried out his programme so vehemently announced to his broker. Upon every piece of real estate that he owned he placed as heavy a mortgage as the property would stand. Even his old house on Michigan Avenue, even the "homestead" on North State Street were encumbered. The time was come, he felt, for the grand coup, the last huge strategical move, the concentration of every piece of heavy artillery. Never in all his multitude of operations on the Chicago Board of Trade had he failed. He knew he would not fail now; Luck, the golden goddess, still staid at his shoulder. He did more than mortgage his property; he floated a number of promissory notes. His credit, always unimpeachable, he taxed to its farthest stretch; from every source he gathered in the sinews of the war he was waging. No sum was too great to daunt him, none too small to be overlooked. Reserves, van and rear, battle line and skirmish outposts he summoned together to form one single vast column of attack.
It was on this same day while Jadwin, pressed for money, was leaving no stone unturned to secure ready cash, that he came across old Hargus in his usual place in Gretry's customers' room, reading a two days old newspaper. Of a sudden an idea occurred to Jadwin. He took the old man aside. "Hargus," he said, "do you want a good investment for your money, that money I turned over to you? I can give you a better rate than the bank, and pretty good security. Let me have about a hundred thousand at--oh, ten per cent."
"Hey--what?" asked the old fellow querulously. Jadwin repeated his request.
But Hargus cast a suspicious glance at him and drew away.
"I--I don't lend my money," he observed.
"Why--you old fool," exclaimed Jadwin. Here, is it more interest you want? Why, we'll say fifteen per cent., if you like."
"I don't lend my money," exclaimed Hargus, shaking his head. "I ain't got any to lend," and with the words took himself off."
One source of help alone Jadwin left untried. Sorely tempted, he nevertheless kept himself from involving his wife's money in the hazard. Laura, in her own name, was possessed of a little fortune; sure as he was of winning, Jadwin none the less hesitated from seeking an auxiliary here. He felt it was a matter of pride. He could not bring himself to make use of a woman's succour.
But his entire personal fortune now swung in the balance. It was the last fight, the supreme attempt--the final consummate assault, and the thrill of a victory more brilliant, more conclusive, more decisive than any he had ever known, vibrated in Jadwin's breast, as he went to and fro in Jackson, Adams, and La Salle streets all through that day of the eleventh.
But he knew the danger--knew just how terrible was to be the grapple. Once that same day a certain detail of business took him near to the entrance of the Floor. Though he did not so much as look inside the doors, he could not but hear the thunder of the Pit; and even in that moment of confidence, his great triumph only a few hours distant, Jadwin, for the instant, stood daunted. The roar was appalling, the whirlpool was again unchained, the maelstrom was again unleashed. And during the briefest of seconds he could fancy that the familiar bellow of its swirling, had taken on another pitch. Out of that hideous turmoil, he imagined, there issued a strange unwonted note; as it were, the first rasp and grind of a new avalanche just beginning to stir, a diapason more profound than any he had yet known, a hollow distant bourdon as of the slipping and sliding of some almighty and chaotic power.
It was the Wheat, the Wheat! It was on the move again. From the farms of Illinois and Iowa, from the ranches of Kansas and Nebraska, from all the reaches of the Middle West, the Wheat, like a tidal wave, was rising, rising. Almighty, blood-brother to the earthquake, coeval with the volcano and the whirlwind, that gigantic world-force, that colossal billow, Nourisher of the Nations, was swelling and advancing.
There in the Pit its first premonitory eddies already swirled and spun. If even the first ripples of the tide smote terribly upon the heart, what was it to be when the ocean itself burst through, on its eternal way from west to east? For an instant came clear vision. What were these shouting, gesticulating men of the Board of Trade, these brokers, traders, and speculators? It was not these he fought, it was that fatal New Harvest; it was the Wheat; it was--as Gretry had said--the very Earth itself. What were those scattered hundreds of farmers of the Middle West, who because he had put the price so high had planted the grain as never before? What had they to do with it? Why the Wheat had grown itself; demand and supply, these were the two great laws the Wheat obeyed. Almost blasphemous in his effrontery, he had tampered with these laws, and had roused a Titan. He had laid his puny human grasp upon Creation and the very earth herself, the great mother, feeling the touch of the cobweb that the human insect had spun, had stirred at last in her sleep and sent her omnipotence moving through the grooves of the world, to find and crush the disturber of her appointed courses.
The new harvest was coming in; the new harvest of wheat, huge beyond possibility of control; so vast that no money could buy it, so swift that no strategy could turn it. But Jadwin hurried away from the sound of the near roaring of the Pit. No, no. Luck was with him; he had mastered the current of the Pit many times before--he would master it again. The day passed and the night, and at nine o'clock the following morning, he and Gretry once more met in the broker's office.
Gretry turned a pale face upon his principal.
"I've just received," he said, "the answers to our cables to Liverpool and Paris. I offered wheat at both places, as you know, cheaper than we've ever offered it there before."
"Well," answered Gretry, looking gravely into Jadwin's eyes, "well--they won't take it."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
On the morning of her birthday--the thirteenth of the month--when Laura descended to the breakfast room, she found Page already there. Though it was barely half-past seven, her sister was dressed for the street. She wore a smart red hat, and as she stood by the French windows, looking out, she drew her gloves back and forth between her fingers, with a nervous, impatient gesture.
"Why," said Laura, as she sat down at her place, "why, Pagie, what is in the wind to-day?"
"Landry is coming," Page explained, facing about and glancing at the watch pinned to her waist. "He is going to take me down to see the Board of Trade--from the visitor's gallery, you know. He said this would probably be a great day. Did Mr. Jadwin come home last night?"
Laura shook her head, without speech. She did not choose to put into words the fact that for three days--with the exception of an hour or two, on the evening after that horrible day of her visit to the Cresslers, house--she had seen nothing of her husband.
"Landry says," continued Page, "that it is awful--down there, these days. He says that it is the greatest fight in the history of La Salle Street. Has Mr. Jadwin, said anything to you? Is he going to win?"
"I don't know," answered Laura, in a low voice; "I don't know anything about it, Page."
She was wondering if even Page had forgotten. When she had come into the room, her first glance had been towards her place at table. But there was nothing there, not even so much as an envelope; and no one had so much as wished her joy of the little anniversary. She had thought Page might have remembered, but her sister's next words showed that she had more on her mind than birthdays.
"Laura," she began, sitting down opposite to her, and unfolding her napkin, with laborious precision. "Laura--Landry and I--Well ... we're going to be married in the fall."
"Why, Pagie," cried Laura, "I'm just as glad as I can be for you. He's a fine, clean fellow, and I know he will make you a good husband."
Page drew a deep breath.
"Well," she said, "I'm glad you think so, too. Before you and Mr. Jadwin were married, I wasn't sure about having him care for me, because at that time--well--" Page looked up with a queer little smile, "I guess you could have had him--if you had wanted to."
"Oh, that," cried Laura. "Why, Landry never really cared for me. It was all the silliest kind of flirtation. The moment he knew you better, I stood no chance at all."
"We're going to take an apartment on Michigan Avenue, near the Auditorium," said Page, "and keep house. We've talked it all over, and know just how much it will cost to live and keep one servant. I'm going to serve the loveliest little dinners; I've learned the kind of cooking he likes already. Oh, I guess there he is now," she cried, as they heard the front door close.
Landry came in, carrying a great bunch of cut flowers, and a box of candy. He was as spruce as though he were already the bridegroom, his cheeks pink, his blonde hair radiant. But he was thin and a little worn, a dull feverish glitter came and went in his eyes, and his nervousness, the strain and excitement which beset him were in his every gesture, in every word of his rapid speech.
"We'll have to hurry," he told Page. "I must be down there hours ahead of time this morning."
"How is Curtis?" demanded Laura. "Have you seen him lately? How is he getting on with--with his speculating?"
Landry made a sharp gesture of resignation.
"I don't know," he answered. "I guess nobody knows. We had a fearful day yesterday, but I think we controlled the situation at the end. We ran the price up and up and up till I thought it would never stop. If the Pit thought Mr. Jadwin was beaten, I guess they found out how they were mistaken. For a time there, we were just driving them. But then Mr. Gretry sent word to us in the Pit to sell, and we couldn't hold them. They came back at us like wolves; they beat the price down five cents, in as many minutes. We had to quit selling, and buy again. But then Mr. Jadwin went at them with a rush. Oh, it was grand! We steadied the price at a dollar and fifteen, stiffened it up to eighteen and a half, and then sent it up again, three cents at a time, till we'd hammered it back to a dollar and a quarter."
"But Curtis himself," inquired Laura, "is he all right, is he well?"
"I only saw him once," answered Landry. "He was in Mr. Gretry's office. Yes, he looked all right. He's nervous, of course. But Mr. Gretry looks like the sick man. He looks all frazzled out."
"I guess, we'd better be going," said Page, getting up from the table. "Have you had your breakfast, Landry? Won't you have some coffee?"
"Oh, I breakfasted hours ago," he answered. "But you are right. We had better be moving. If you are going to get a seat in the gallery, you must be there half an hour ahead of time, to say the least. Shall I take any word to your husband from you, Mrs. Jadwin?"
"Tell him that I wish him good luck," she answered, "and--yes, ask him, if he remembers what day of the month this is--or no, don't ask him that. Say nothing about it. Just tell him I send him my very best love, and that I wish him all the success in the world."
It was about nine o'clock, when Landry and Page reached the foot of La Salle Street. The morning was fine and cool. The sky over the Board of Trade sparkled with sunlight, and the air was full of fluttering wings of the multitude of pigeons that lived upon the leakage of grain around the Board of Trade building.
"Mr. Cressler used to feed them regularly," said Landry, as they paused on the street corner opposite the Board. "Poor--poor Mr. Cressler--the funeral is to-morrow, you know."
Page shut her eyes.
"Oh," she murmured, "think, think of Laura finding him there like that. Oh, it would have killed me, it would have killed me."
"Somehow," observed Landry, a puzzled expression in his eyes, "somehow, by George! she don't seem to mind very much. You'd have thought a shock like that would have made her sick."
"Oh! Laura," cried Page. "I don't know her any more these days, she is just like stone--just as though she were crowding down every emotion or any feeling she ever had. She seems to be holding herself in with all her strength--for something--and afraid to let go a finger, for fear she would give way altogether. When she told me about that morning at the Cresslers' house, her voice was just like ice; she said, 'Mr. Cressler has shot himself. I found him dead in his library.' She never shed a tear, and she spoke, oh, in such a terrible monotone. Oh! dear," cried Page, "I wish all this was over, and we could all get away from Chicago, and take Mr. Jadwin with us, and get him back to be as he used to be, always so light-hearted, and thoughtful and kindly. He used to be making jokes from morning till night. Oh, I loved him just as if he were my father."
They crossed the street, and Landry, taking her by the arm, ushered her into the corridor on the ground floor of the Board.
"Now, keep close to me," he said, "and see if we can get through somewhere here."
The stairs leading up to the main floor were already crowded with visitors, some standing in line close to the wall, others aimlessly wandering up and down, looking and listening, their heads in the air. One of these, a gentleman with a tall white hat, shook his head at Landry and Page, as they pressed by him.
"You can't get up there," he said, "even if they let you in. They're packed in like sardines already."
But Landry reassured Page with a knowing nod of his head.
"I told the guide up in the gallery to reserve a seat for you. I guess we'll manage."
But when they reached the staircase that connected the main floor with the visitors' gallery, it became a question as to whether or not they could even get to the seat. The crowd was packed solidly upon the stairs, between the wall and the balustrades. There were men in top hats, and women in silks; rough fellows of the poorer streets, and gaudily dressed queens of obscure neighborhoods, while mixed with these one saw the faded and shabby wrecks that perennially drifted about the Board of Trade, the failures who sat on the chairs of the customers' rooms day in and day out, reading old newspapers, smoking vile cigars. And there were young men of the type of clerks and bookkeepers, young men with drawn, worn faces, and hot, tired eyes, who pressed upward, silent, their lips compressed, listening intently to the indefinite echoing murmur that was filling the building.
For on this morning of the thirteenth of June, the Board of Trade, its halls, corridors, offices, and stairways were already thrilling with a vague and terrible sound. It was only a little after nine o'clock. The trading would not begin for another half hour, but, even now, the mutter of the whirlpool, the growl of the Pit was making itself felt. The eddies were gathering; the thousands of subsidiary torrents that fed the cloaca were moving. From all over the immediate neighborhood they came, from the offices of hundreds of commission houses, from brokers' offices, from banks, from the tall, grey buildings of La Salle Street, from the street itself. And even from greater distances they came; auxiliary currents set in from all the reach of the Great Northwest, from Minneapolis, Duluth, and Milwaukee. From the Southwest, St. Louis, Omaha, and Kansas City contributed to the volume. The Atlantic Seaboard, New York, and Boston and Philadelphia sent out their tributary streams; London, Liverpool, Paris, and Odessa merged their influences with the vast world-wide flowing that bore down upon Chicago, and that now began slowly, slowly to centre and circle about the Wheat Pit of the Board of Trade.
Small wonder that the building to Page's ears vibrated to a strange and ominous humming. She heard it in the distant clicking of telegraph keys, in the echo of hurried whispered conversations held in dark corners, in the noise of rapid footsteps, in the trilling of telephone bells. These sounds came from all around her; they issued from the offices of the building below her, above her and on either side. She was surrounded with them, and they mingled together to form one prolonged and muffled roar, that from moment to moment increased in volume.
The Pit was getting under way; the whirlpool was forming, and the sound of its courses was like the sound of the ocean in storm, heard at a distance.
Page and Landry were still halfway up the last stairway. Above and below, the throng was packed dense and immobilised. But, little by little, Landry wormed a way for them, winning one step at a time. But he was very anxious; again and again he looked at his watch. At last he said:
"I've got to go. It's just madness for me to stay another minute. I'll give you my card."
"Well, leave me here," Page urged. "It can't be helped. I'm all right. Give me your card. I'll tell the guide in the gallery that you kept the seat for me--if I ever can get there. You must go. Don't stay another minute. If you can, come for me here in the gallery, when it's over. I'll wait for you. But if you can't come, all right. I can take care of myself."
He could but assent to this. This was no time to think of small things. He left her and bore back with all his might through the crowd, gained the landing at the turn of the balustrade, waved his hat to her and disappeared.
A quarter of an hour went by. Page, caught in the crowd, could neither advance nor retreat. Ahead of her, some twenty steps away, she could see the back rows of seats in the gallery. But they were already occupied. It seemed hopeless to expect to see anything of the floor that day. But she could no longer extricate herself from the press; there was nothing to do but stay where she was.
On every side of her she caught odds and ends of dialogues and scraps of discussions, and while she waited she found an interest in listening to these, as they reached her from time to time.
"Well," observed the man in the tall white hat, who had discouraged Landry from attempting to reach the gallery, "well, he's shaken 'em up pretty well. Whether he downs 'em or they down him, he's made a good fight."
His companion, a young man with eyeglasses, who wore a wonderful white waistcoat with queer glass buttons, assented, and Page heard him add:
"Big operator, that Jadwin."
"They're doing for him now, though."
"I ain't so sure. He's got another fight in him. You'll see."
"Ever see him?"
"No, no, he don't come into the Pit--these big men never do."
Directly in front of Page two women kept up an interminable discourse.
"Well," said the one, "that's all very well, but Mr. Jadwin made my sister-in-law--she lives in Dubuque, you know--a rich woman. She bought some wheat, just for fun, you know, a long time ago, and held on till Mr. Jadwin put the price up to four times what she paid for it. Then she sold out. My, you ought to see the lovely house she's building, and her son's gone to Europe, to study art, if you please, and a year ago, my dear, they didn't have a cent, not a cent, but her husband's salary."
"There's the other side, too, though," answered her companion, adding in a hoarse whisper: "If Mr. Jadwin fails to-day--well, honestly, Julia, I don't know what Philip will do."
But, from another group at Page's elbow, a man's bass voice cut across the subdued chatter of the two women.
"'Guess we'll pull through, somehow. Burbank & Co., though--by George! I'm not sure about them. They are pretty well involved in this thing, and there's two or three smaller firms that are dependent on them. If Gretry-Converse & Co. should suspend, Burbank would go with a crash sure. And there's that bank in Keokuk; they can't stand much more. Their depositors would run 'em quick as how-do-you-do, if there was a smash here in Chicago."
"Oh, Jadwin will pull through."
"Well, I hope so--by Jingo! I hope so. Say, by the way, how did you come out?"
"Me! Hoh! Say my boy, the next time I get into a wheat trade you'll know it. I was one of the merry paretics who believed that Crookes was the Great Lum-tum. I tailed on to his clique. Lord love you! Jadwin put the knife into me to the tune of twelve thousand dollars. But, say, look here; aren't we ever going to get up to that blame gallery? We ain't going to see any of this, and I--hark!--by God! there goes the gong. They've begun. Say, say, hear 'em, will you! Holy Moses! say--listen to that! Did you ever hear--Lord! I wish we could see--could get somewhere where we could see something."
His friend turned to him and spoke a sentence that was drowned in the sudden vast volume of sound that all at once shook the building.
The other shouted into his ear. But even then his friend could not hear. Nor did he listen. The crowd upon the staircases had surged irresistibly forward and upward. There was a sudden outburst of cries. Women's voices were raised in expostulation, and even fear.
"Oh, oh--don't push so!"
"My arm! oh!--oh, I shall faint ... please."
But the men, their escorts, held back furiously; their faces purple, they shouted imprecations over their shoulders.
"Here, here, you damn fools, what you doing?"
"Don't crowd so!"
"Get back, back!"
"There's a lady fainted here. Get back you! We'll all have a chance to see. Good Lord! ain't there a policeman anywheres?"
"Say, say! It's going down--the price. It broke three cents, just then, at the opening, they say."
"This is the worst I ever saw or heard of."
"My God! if Jadwin can only hold 'em.
"You bet he'll hold 'em."
"Hold nothing!--Oh! say my friend, it don't do you any good to crowd like that."
"It's the people behind: I'm not doing it. Say, do you know where they're at on the floor? The wheat, I mean, is it going up or down?"
"Up, they tell me. There was a rally; I don't know. How can we tell here? We--Hi! there they go again. Lord! that must have been a smash. I guess the Board of Trade won't forget this day in a hurry. Heavens, you can't hear yourself think!
"Glad I ain't down there in the Pit."
But, at last, a group of policemen appeared. By main strength they shouldered their way to the top of the stairs, and then began pushing the crowd back. At every instant they shouted:
"Move on now, clear the stairway. No seats left!"
But at this Page, who, by the rush of the crowd had been carried almost to the top of the stairs, managed to extricate an arm from the press, and hold Landry's card in the air. She even hazarded a little deception:
"I have a pass. Will you let me through, please?"
Luckily one of the officers heard her. He bore down heavily with all the mass of his two hundred pounds and the majesty of the law he represented, to the rescue and succour of this very pretty girl.
"Let the lady through," he roared, forcing a passage with both elbows. "Come right along, Miss. Stand back you, now. Can't you see the lady has a pass? Now then, Miss, and be quick about it, I can't keep 'em back forever."
Jostled and hustled. her dress crumpled, her hat awry, Page made her way forward, till the officer caught her by the arm, and pulled her out of the press. With a long breath she gained the landing of the gallery.
The guide, an old fellow in a uniform of blue, with brass buttons and a visored cap, stood near by, and to him she presented Landry's card.
"Oh, yes, oh, yes," he shouted in her ear, after he had glanced it over. "You were the party Mr. Court spoke about. You just came in time. I wouldn't 'a dared hold your seat a minute longer."
He led her down the crowded aisle between rows of theatre chairs, all of which were occupied, to one vacant seat in the very front row.
"You can see everything, now," he cried, making a trumpet of his palm. "You're Mister Jadwin's niece. I know, I know. Ah, it's a wild day, Miss. They ain't done much yet, and Mr. Jadwin's holding his own, just now. But I thought for a moment they had him on the run. You see that--my, my, there was a sharp rally. But he's holding on strong yet."
Page took her seat, and leaning forward looked down into the Wheat Pit.
Once free of the crowd after leaving Page, Landry ran with all the swiftness of his long legs down the stair, and through the corridors till, all out of breath, he gained Gretry's private office. The other Pit traders for the house, some eight or ten men, were already assembled, and just as Landry entered by one door, the broker himself came in from the customers' room. Jadwin was nowhere to be seen.
"What are the orders for to-day, sir?"
Gretry was very pale. Despite his long experience on the Board of Trade, Landry could see anxiety in every change of his expression, in every motion of his hands. The broker before answering the question crossed the room to the water cooler and drank a brief swallow. Then emptying the glass he refilled it, moistened his lips again, and again emptied and filled the goblet. He put it down, caught it up once more, filled it, emptied it, drinking now in long draughts, now in little sips. He was quite unconscious of his actions, and Landry as he watched, felt his heart sink. Things must, indeed, be at a desperate pass when Gretry, the calm, the clear-headed, the placid, was thus upset.
"Your orders?" said the broker, at last. "The same as yesterday; keep the market up--that's all. It must not go below a dollar fifteen. But act on the defensive. Don't be aggressive, unless I send word. There will probably be very heavy selling the first few moments. You can buy, each of you, up to half a million bushels apiece. If that don't keep the price up, if they still are selling after that ... well"; Gretry paused a moment, irresolutely, "well," he added suddenly, "if they are still selling freely after you've each bought half a million, I'll let you know what to do. And, look here," he continued, facing the group, "look here--keep your heads cool ... I guess to-day will decide things. Watch the Crookes crowd pretty closely. I understand they're up to something again. That's all, I guess."
Landry and the other Gretry traders hurried from the office up to the floor. Landry's heart was beating thick and slow and hard, his teeth were shut tight. Every nerve, every fibre of him braced itself with the rigidity of drawn wire, to meet the issue of the impending hours. Now, was to come the last grapple. He had never lived through a crisis such as this before. Would he prevail, would he keep his head? Would he avoid or balk the thousand and one little subterfuges, tricks, and traps that the hostile traders would prepare for him--prepare with a quickness, a suddenness that all but defied the sharpest, keenest watchfulness?
Was the gong never going to strike? He found himself, all at once, on the edge of the Wheat Pit. It was jammed tight with the crowd of traders and the excitement that disengaged itself from that tense, vehement crowd of white faces and glittering eyes was veritably sickening, veritably weakening. Men on either side of him were shouting mere incoherencies, to which nobody, not even themselves, were listening. Others silent, gnawed their nails to the quick, breathing rapidly, audibly even, their nostrils expanding and contracting. All around roared the vague thunder that since early morning had shaken the building. In the Pit the bids leaped to and fro, though the time of opening had not yet come; the very planks under foot seemed spinning about in the first huge warning swirl of the Pit's centripetal convulsion. There was dizziness in the air. Something, some infinite immeasurable power, onrushing in its eternal courses, shook the Pit in its grasp. Something deafened the ears, blinded the eyes, dulled and numbed the mind, with its roar, with the chaff and dust of its whirlwind passage, with the stupefying sense of its power, coeval with the earthquake and glacier, merciless, all-powerful, a primal basic throe of creation itself, unassailable, inviolate, and untamed.
Had the trading begun? Had the gong struck? Landry never knew, never so much as heard the clang of the great bell. All at once he was fighting; all at once he was caught, as it were, from off the stable earth, and flung headlong into the heart and centre of the Pit. What he did, he could not say; what went on about him, he could not distinguish. He only knew that roar was succeeding roar, that there was crashing through his ears, through his very brain, the combined bellow of a hundred Niagaras. Hands clutched and tore at him, his own tore and clutched in turn. The Pit was mad, was drunk and frenzied; not a man of all those who fought and scrambled and shouted who knew what he or his neighbour did. They only knew that a support long thought to be secure was giving way; not gradually, not evenly, but by horrible collapses, and equally horrible upward leaps. Now it held, now it broke, now it reformed again, rose again, then again in hideous cataclysms fell from beneath their feet to lower depths than before. The official reporter leaned back in his place, helpless. On the wall overhead, the indicator on the dial was rocking back and forth, like the mast of a ship caught in a monsoon. The price of July wheat no man could so much as approximate. The fluctuations were no longer by fractions of a cent, but by ten cents, fifteen cents twenty-five cents at a time. On one side of the Pit wheat sold at ninety cents, on the other at a dollar and a quarter.
And all the while above the din upon the floor, above the tramplings and the shoutings in the Pit, there seemed to thrill and swell that appalling roar of the Wheat itself coming in, coming on like a tidal wave, bursting through, dashing barriers aside, rolling like a measureless, almighty river, from the farms of Iowa and the ranches of California, on to the East--to the bakeshops and hungry mouths of Europe.
Landry caught one of the Gretry traders by the arm.
"What shall we do?" he shouted. "I've bought up to my limit. No more orders have come in. The market has gone from under us. What's to be done?"
"I don't know," the other shouted back, "I don't know. We're all gone to hell; looks like the last smash. There are no more supporting orders--something's gone wrong. Gretry hasn't sent any word."
Then, Landry, beside himself with excitement and with actual terror, hardly knowing even yet what he did, turned sharply about. He fought his way out of the Pit; he ran hatless and panting across the floor, in and out between the groups of spectators, down the stairs to the corridor below, and into the Gretry-Converse offices.
In the outer office a group of reporters and the representatives of a great commercial agency were besieging one of the heads of the firm. They assaulted him with questions.
"Just tell us where you are at--that's all we want to know."
"Just what is the price of July wheat?"
"Is Jadwin winning or losing?"
But the other threw out an arm in a wild gesture of helplessness.
"We don't know, ourselves," he cried. "The market has run clean away from everybody. You know as much about it as I do. It's simply hell broken loose, that's all. We can't tell where we are at for days to come."
Landry rushed on. He swung open the door of the private office and entered, slamming it behind him and crying out:
"Mr. Gretry, what are we to do? We've had no orders."
But no one listened to him. Of the group that gathered around Gretry's desk, no one so much as turned a head.
Jadwin stood there in the centre of the others, hatless, his face pale, his eyes congested with blood. Gretry fronted him, one hand upon his arm. In the remainder of the group Landry recognised the senior clerk of the office, one of the heads of a great banking house, and a couple of other men--confidential agents, who had helped to manipulate the great corner.
"But you can't," Gretry was exclaiming. "You can't; don't you see we can't meet our margin calls? It's the end of the game. You've got no more money."
"It's a lie!" Never so long as he lived did Landry forget the voice in which Jadwin cried the words: "It's a lie! Keep on buying, I tell you. Take all they'll offer. I tell you we'll touch the two dollar mark before noon."
"Not another order goes up to that floor," retorted Gretry. "Why, J., ask any of these gentlemen here. They'll tell you."
"It's useless, Mr. Jadwin," said the banker, quietly. "You were practically beaten two days ago."
"Mr. Jadwin," pleaded the senior clerk, "for God's sake listen to reason. Our firm--"
But Jadwin was beyond all appeal. He threw off Gretry's hand.
"Your firm, your firm--you've been cowards from the start. I know you, I know you. You have sold me out. Crookes has bought you. Get out of my way!" he shouted. "Get out of my way! Do you hear? I'll play my hand alone from now on."
"J., old man--why--see here, man," Gretry implored, still holding him by the arm; "here, where are you going?"
Jadwin's voice rang like a trumpet call:
"Into the Pit."
"Look here--wait--here. Hold him back gentlemen. He don't know what he's about."
"If you won't execute my orders, I'll act myself. I'm going into the Pit, I tell you."
"J., you're mad, old fellow. You're ruined--don't you understand?--you're ruined."
"Then God curse you, Sam Gretry, for the man who failed me in a crisis." And as he spoke Curtis Jadwin struck the broker full in the face.
Gretry staggered back from the blow, catching at the edge of his desk. His pale face flashed to crimson for an instant, his fists clinched; then his hands fell to his sides.
"No," he said, "let him go, let him go. The man is merely mad."
But, Jadwin, struggling for a second in the midst of the group that tried to hold him, suddenly flung off the restraining clasps, thrust the men to one side, and rushed from the room.
Gretry dropped into his chair before his desk.
"It's the end," he said, simply.
He drew a sheet of note paper to him, and in a shaking hand wrote a couple of lines.
"Take that," he said, handing the note to the senior clerk, "take that to the secretary of the Board at once."
And straight into the turmoil and confusion of the Pit, to the scene of so many of his victories, the battle ground whereon again and again, his enemies routed, he had remained the victor undisputed, undismayed came the "Great Bull." No sooner had he set foot within the entrance to the Floor, than the news went flashing and flying from lip to lip. The galleries knew it, the public room, and the Western Union knew it, the telephone booths knew it, and lastly even the Wheat Pit, torn and tossed and rent asunder by the force this man himself had unchained, knew it, and knowing stood dismayed.
For even then, so great had been his power, so complete his dominion, and so well-rooted the fear which he had inspired, that this last move in the great game he had been playing, this unexpected, direct, personal assumption of control struck a sense of consternation into the heart of the hardiest of his enemies.
Jadwin himself, the great man, the "Great Bull" in the Pit! What was about to happen? Had they been too premature in their hope of his defeat? Had he been preparing some secret, unexpected manoeuvre? For a second they hesitated, then moved by a common impulse, feeling the push of the wonderful new harvest behind them, they gathered themselves together for the final assault, and again offered the wheat for sale; offered it by thousands upon thousands of bushels; poured, as it were, the reapings of entire principalities out upon the floor of the Board of Trade.
Jadwin was in the thick of the confusion by now. And the avalanche, the undiked Ocean of the Wheat, leaping to the lash of the hurricane, struck him fairly in the face.
He heard it now, he heard nothing else. The Wheat had broken from his control. For months, he had, by the might of his single arm, held it back; but now it rose like the upbuilding of a colossal billow. It towered, towered, hung poised for an instant, and then, with a thunder as of the grind and crash of chaotic worlds, broke upon him, burst through the Pit and raced past him, on and on to the eastward and to the hungry nations.
And then, under the stress and violence of the hour, something snapped in his brain. The murk behind his eyes had been suddenly pierced by a white flash. The strange qualms and tiny nervous paroxysms of the last few months all at once culminated in some indefinite, indefinable crisis, and the wheels and cogs of all activities save one lapsed away and ceased. Only one function of the complicated machine persisted; but it moved with a rapidity of vibration that seemed to be tearing the tissues of being to shreds, while its rhythm beat out the old and terrible cadence:
Blind and insensate, Jadwin strove against the torrent of the Wheat. There in the middle of the Pit, surrounded and assaulted by herd after herd of wolves yelping for his destruction, he stood braced, rigid upon his feet, his head up, his hand, the great bony hand that once had held the whole Pit in its grip, flung high in the air, in a gesture of defiance, while his voice like the clangour of bugles sounding to the charge of the forlorn hope, rang out again and again, over the din of his enemies:
"Give a dollar for July--give a dollar for July!"
With one accord they leaped upon him. The little group of his traders was swept aside. Landry alone, Landry who had never left his side since his rush from out Gretry's office, Landry Court, loyal to the last, his one remaining soldier, white, shaking, the sobs strangling in his throat, clung to him desperately. Another billow of wheat was preparing. They two--the beaten general and his young armour bearer--heard it coming; hissing, raging, bellowing, it swept down upon them. Landry uttered a cry. Flesh and blood could not stand this strain. He cowered at his chief's side, his shoulders bent, one arm above his head, as if to ward off an actual physical force.
But Jadwin, iron to the end, stood erect. All unknowing what he did, he had taken Landry's hand in his and the boy felt the grip on his fingers like the contracting of a vise of steel. The other hand, as though holding up a standard, was still in the air, and his great deep-toned voice went out across the tumult, proclaiming to the end his battle cry:
"Give a dollar for July--give a dollar for July!"
But, little by little, Landry became aware that the tumult of the Pit was intermitting. There were sudden lapses in the shouting, and in these lapses he could hear from somewhere out upon the floor voices that were crying: "Order--order, order, gentlemen."
But, again and again the clamour broke out. It would die down for an instant, in response to these appeals, only to burst out afresh as certain groups of traders started the pandemonium again, by the wild outcrying of their offers. At last, however, the older men in the Pit, regaining some measure of self-control, took up the word, going to and fro in the press, repeating "Order, order."
And then, all at once, the Pit, the entire floor of the Board of Trade was struck dumb. All at once the tension was relaxed, the furious struggling and stamping was stilled. Landry, bewildered, still holding his chief by the hand, looked about him. On the floor, near at hand, stood the president of the Board of Trade himself, and with him the vice-president and a group of the directors. Evidently it had been these who had called the traders to order. But it was not toward them now that the hundreds of men in the Pit and on the floor were looking.
In the little balcony on the south wall opposite the visitors' gallery a figure had appeared, a tall grave man, in a long black coat--the secretary of the Board of Trade. Landry with the others saw him, saw him advance to the edge of the railing, and fix his glance upon the Wheat Pit. In his hand he carried a slip of paper.
And then in the midst of that profound silence the secretary announced:
"All trades with Gretry, Converse & Co. must be closed at once."
The words had not ceased to echo in the high vaultings of the roof before they were greeted with a wild, shrill yell of exultation and triumph, that burst from the crowding masses in the Wheat Pit.
Beaten; beaten at last, the Great Bull! Smashed! The great corner smashed! Jadwin busted! They themselves saved, saved, saved! Cheer followed upon cheer, yell after yell. Hats went into the air. In a frenzy of delight men danced and leaped and capered upon the edge of the Pit, clasping their arms about each other, shaking each others' hands, cheering and hurrahing till their strained voices became hoarse and faint.
Some few of the older men protested. There were cries of:
"Order--let him alone."
"Let him be; he's down now. Shame, shame!"
But the jubilee was irrepressible, they had been too cruelly pressed, these others; they had felt the weight of the Bull's hoof, the rip of his horn. Now they had beaten him, had pulled him down.
"Yah-h-h, whoop, yi, yi, yi. Busted, busted, busted. Hip, hip, hip, and a tiger!"
"Come away, sir. For God's sake, Mr. Jadwin, come away."
Landry was pleading with Jadwin, clutching his arm in both his hands, his lips to his chief's ear to make himself heard above the yelping of the mob.
Jadwin was silent now. He seemed no longer to see or hear; heavily, painfully he leaned upon the young man's shoulder.
"Come away, sir--for God's sake!"
The group of traders parted before them, cheering even while they gave place, cheering with eyes averted, unwilling to see the ruin that meant for them salvation.
"Yah-h-h. Yah-h-h, busted, busted!"
Landry had put his arm about Jadwin, and gripped him close as he led him from the Pit. The sobs were in his throat again, and tears of excitement, of grief, of anger and impotence were running down his face.
"Yah-h-h. Yah-h-h, he's done for, busted, busted!"
"Damn you all," cried Landry, throwing out a furious fist, "damn you all; you brutes, you beasts! If he'd so much as raised a finger a week ago, you'd have run for your lives."
But the cheering drowned his voice; and as the two passed out of the Pit upon the floor, the gong that closed the trading struck and, as it seemed, put a period, definite and final to the conclusion of Curtis Jadwin's career as speculator.
Across the floor towards the doorway Landry led his defeated captain. Jadwin was in a daze, he saw nothing, heard nothing. Quietly he submitted to Landry's guiding arm. The visitors in the galleries bent far over to see him pass, and from all over the floor, spectators, hangers-on, corn-and-provision traders, messenger boys, clerks and reporters came hurrying to watch the final exit of the Great Bull, from the scene of his many victories and his one overwhelming defeat.
In silence they watched him go by. Only in the distance from the direction of the Pit itself came the sound of dying cheers. But at the doorway stood a figure that Landry recognised at once--a small man, lean-faced, trimly dressed, his clean-shaven lips pursed like the mouth of a shut money bag, imperturbable as ever, cold, unexcited--Calvin Crookes himself.
And as Jadwin passed, Landry heard the Bear leader say:
"They can cheer now, all they want. They didn't do it. It was the wheat itself that beat him; no combination of men could have done it--go on, cheer, you damn fools! He was a bigger man than the best of us."
With the striking of the gong, and the general movement of the crowd in the galleries towards the exits, Page rose, drawing a long breath, pressing her hands an instant to her burning cheeks. She had seen all that had happened, but she had not understood. The whole morning had been a whirl and a blur. She had looked down upon a jam of men, who for three hours had done nothing but shout and struggle. She had seen Jadwin come into the Pit, and almost at once the shouts had turned to cheers. That must have meant, she thought, that Jadwin had done something to please those excited men. They were all his friends, no doubt. They were cheering him--cheering his success. He had won then! And yet that announcement from the opposite balcony, to the effect that business with Mr. Gretry must be stopped, immediately! That had an ominous ring. Or, perhaps, that meant only a momentary check.
As she descended the stairways, with the departing spectators, she distinctly heard a man's voice behind her exclaim:
"Well, that does for him!"
Possibly, after all, Mr. Jadwin had lost some money that morning. She was desperately anxious to find Landry, and to learn the truth of what had happened, and for a long moment after the last visitors had disappeared she remained at the foot of the gallery stairway, hoping that he would come for her. But she saw nothing of him, and soon remembered she had told him to come for her, only in case he was able to get away. No doubt he was too busy now. Even if Mr. Jadwin had won, the morning's work had evidently been of tremendous importance. This had been a great day for the wheat speculators. It was not surprising that Landry should be detained. She would wait till she saw him the next day to find out all that had taken place.
Page returned home. It was long past the hour for luncheon when she came into the dining-room of the North Avenue house.
"Where is my sister?" she asked of the maid, as she sat down to the table; "has she lunched yet?"
But it appeared that Mrs. Jadwin had sent down word to say that she wanted no lunch, that she had a headache and would remain in her room.
Page hurried through with her chocolate and salad, and ordering a cup of strong tea, carried it up to Laura's "sitting-room" herself.
Laura, in a long tea-gown lay back in the Madeira chair, her hands clasped behind her head, doing nothing apparently but looking out of the window. She was paler even than usual, and to Page's mind seemed preoccupied, and in a certain indefinite way tense and hard. Page, as she had told Landry that morning, had remarked this tenseness, this rigidity on the part of her sister, of late. But to-day it was more pronounced than ever. Something surely was the matter with Laura. She seemed like one who had staked everything upon a hazard and, blind to all else, was keeping back emotion with all her strength, while she watched and waited for the issue. Page guessed that her sister's trouble had to do with Jadwin's complete absorption in business, but she preferred to hold her peace. By nature the young girl "minded her own business," and Laura was not a woman who confided her troubles to anybody. Only once had Page presumed to meddle in her sister's affairs, and the result had not encouraged a repetition of the intervention. Since the affair of the silver match box she had kept her distance.
Laura on this occasion declined to drink the tea Page had brought. She wanted nothing, she said; her head ached a little, she only wished to lie down and be quiet.
"I've been down to the Board of Trade all the morning," Page remarked.
Laura fixed her with a swift glance; she demanded quickly:
"Did you see Curtis?"
"No--or, yes, once; he came out on the floor. Oh, Laura, it was so exciting there this morning. Something important happened, I know. I can't believe it's that way all the time. I'm afraid Mr. Jadwin lost a great deal of money. I heard some one behind me say so, but I couldn't understand what was going on. For months I've been trying to get a clear idea of wheat trading, just because it was Landry's business, but to-day I couldn't make anything of it at all."
"Did Curtis say he was coming home this evening?"
"No. Don't you understand, I didn't see him to talk to."
"Well, why didn't you, Page?"
"Why, Laura, honey, don't be cross. You don't know how rushed everything was. I didn't even try to see Landry."
"Did he seem very busy?"
"Who, Landry? I--"
"No, no, no, Curtis."
"Oh, I should say so. Why, Laura, I think, honestly, I think wheat went down to--oh, way down. They say that means so much to Mr. Jadwin, and it went down, down, down. It looked that way to me. Don't that mean that he'll lose a great deal of money? And Landry seemed so brave and courageous through it all. Oh, I felt for him so; I just wanted to go right into the Pit with him and stand by his shoulder."
Laura started up with a sharp gesture of impatience and exasperation, crying:
"Oh, what do I care about wheat--about this wretched scrambling for money. Curtis was busy, you say? He looked that way?"
Page nodded: "Everybody was," she said. Then she hazarded:
"I wouldn't worry, Laura. Of course, a man must give a great deal of time to his business. I didn't mind when Landry couldn't come home with me."
"Oh--Landry," murmured Laura.
On the instant Page bridled, her eyes snapping.
"I think that was very uncalled for," she exclaimed, sitting bolt upright, "and I can tell you this, Laura Jadwin, if you did care a little more about wheat--about your husband's business--if you had taken more of an interest in his work, if you had tried to enter more into his life, and be a help to him--and--and sympathise--and--" Page caught her breath, a little bewildered at her own vehemence and audacity. But she had committed herself now; recklessly she plunged on. "Just think; he may be fighting the battle of his life down there in La Salle Street, and you don't know anything about it--no, nor want to know. 'What do you care about wheat,' that's what you said. Well, I don't care either, just for the wheat itself, but it's Landry's business, his work; and right or wrong--" Page jumped to her feet, her fists tight shut, her face scarlet, her head upraised, "right or wrong, good or bad, I'd put my two hands into the fire to help him."
"What business--" began Laura; but Page was not to be interrupted. "And if he did leave me alone sometimes," she said; "do you think I would draw a long face, and think only of my own troubles. I guess he's got his own troubles too. If my husband had a battle to fight, do you think I'd mope and pine because he left me at home; no I wouldn't. I'd help him buckle his sword on, and when he came back to me I wouldn't tell him how lonesome I'd been, but I'd take care of him and cry over his wounds, and tell him to be brave--and--and--and I'd help him."
And with the words, Page, the tears in her eyes and the sobs in her throat, flung out of the room, shutting the door violently behind her.
Laura's first sensation was one of anger only. As always, her younger sister had presumed again to judge her, had chosen this day of all others, to annoy her. She gazed an instant at the closed door, then rose and put her chin in the air. She was right, and Page her husband, everybody, were wrong. She had been flouted, ignored. She paced the length of the room a couple of times, then threw herself down upon the couch, her chin supported on her palm.
As she crossed the room, however, her eye had been caught by an opened note from Mrs. Cressler, received the day before, and apprising her of the date of the funeral. At the sight, all the tragedy leaped up again in her mind and recollection, and in fancy she stood again in the back parlour of the Cressler home; her fingers pressed over her mouth to shut back the cries, horror and the terror of sudden death rending her heart, shaking the brain itself. Again and again since that dreadful moment had the fear come back, mingled with grief, with compassion, and the bitter sorrow of a kind friend gone forever from her side. And then, her resolution girding itself, her will power at fullest stretch, she had put the tragedy from her. Other and--for her--more momentous events impended. Everything in life, even death itself, must stand aside while her love was put to the test. Life and death were little things. Love only existed; let her husband's career fail; what did it import so only love stood the strain and issued from the struggle triumphant? And now, as she lay upon her couch, she crushed down all compunction for the pitiful calamity whose last scene she had discovered, her thoughts once more upon her husband and herself. Had the shock of that spectacle in the Cresslers' house, and the wearing suspense in which she had lived of late, so torn and disordered the delicate feminine nerves that a kind of hysteria animated and directed her impulses, her words, and actions? Laura did not know. She only knew that the day was going and that her husband neither came near her nor sent her word.
Even if he had been very busy, this was her birthday,--though he had lost millions! Could he not have sent even the foolishest little present to her, even a line--three words on a scrap of paper? But she checked herself. The day was not over yet; perhaps, perhaps he would remember her, after all, before the afternoon was over. He was managing a little surprise for her, no doubt. He knew what day this was. After their talk that Sunday in his smoking-room he would not forget. And, besides, it was the evening that he had promised should be hers. "If he loved her," she had said, he would give that evening to her. Never, never would Curtis fail her when conjured by that spell.
Laura had planned a little dinner for that night. It was to be served at eight. Page would have dined earlier; only herself and her husband were to be present. It was to be her birthday dinner. All the noisy, clamourous world should be excluded; no faintest rumble of the Pit would intrude. She would have him all to herself. He would, so she determined, forget everything else in his love for her. She would be beautiful as never before--brilliant, resistless, and dazzling. She would have him at her feet, her own, her own again, as much her own as her very hands. And before she would let him go he would forever and forever have abjured the Battle of the Street that had so often caught him from her. The Pit should not have him; the sweep of that great whirlpool should never again prevail against the power of love.
Yes, she had suffered, she had known the humiliation of a woman neglected. But it was to end now; her pride would never again be lowered, her love never again be ignored.
But the afternoon passed and evening drew on without any word from him. In spite of her anxiety, she yet murmured over and over again as she paced the floor of her room, listening for the ringing of the door bell:
"He will send word, he will send word. I know he will."
By four o'clock she had begun to dress. Never had she made a toilet more superb, more careful. She disdained a "costume" on this great evening. It was not to be "Theodora" now, nor "Juliet," nor "Carmen." It was to be only Laura Jadwin--just herself, unaided by theatricals, unadorned by tinsel. But it seemed consistent none the less to choose her most beautiful gown for the occasion, to panoply herself in every charm that was her own. Her dress, that closely sheathed the low, flat curves of her body and that left her slender arms and neck bare, was one shimmer of black scales, iridescent, undulating with light to her every movement. In the coils and masses of her black hair she fixed her two great cabochons of pearls, and clasped about her neck her palm-broad collaret of pearls and diamonds. Against one shoulder nodded a bunch of Jacqueminots, royal red, imperial.
It was hard upon six o'clock when at last she dismissed her maid. Left alone, she stood for a moment in front of her long mirror that reflected her image from head to foot, and at the sight she could not forbear a smile and a sudden proud lifting of her head. All the woman in her preened and plumed herself in the consciousness of the power of her beauty. Let the Battle of the Street clamour never so loudly now, let the suction of the Pit be never so strong, Eve triumphed. Venus toute entiere s'attachait a sa proie.
These women of America, these others who allowed business to draw their husbands from them more and more, who submitted to those cruel conditions that forced them to be content with the wreckage left after the storm and stress of the day's work--the jaded mind, the exhausted body, the faculties dulled by overwork--she was sorry for them. They, less radiant than herself, less potent to charm, could not call their husbands back. But she, Laura, was beautiful; she knew it; she gloried in her beauty. It was her strength. She felt the same pride in it as the warrior in a finely tempered weapon.
And to-night her beauty was brighter than ever. It was a veritable aureole that crowned her. She knew herself to be invincible. So only that he saw her thus, she knew that she would conquer. And he would come. "If he loved her," she had said. By his love for her he had promised; by his love she knew she would prevail.
And then at last, somewhere out of the twilight, somewhere out of those lowest, unplumbed depths of her own heart, came the first tremor of doubt, come the tardy vibration of the silver cord which Page had struck so sharply. Was it--after all--Love, that she cherished and strove for--love, or self-love? Ever since Page had spoken she seemed to have fought against the intrusion of this idea. But, little by little, it rose to the surface. At last, for an instant, it seemed to confront her.
Was this, after all, the right way to win her husband back to her--this display of her beauty, this parade of dress, this exploitation of self?
Self, self. Had she been selfish from the very first? What real interest had she taken in her husband's work?" Right or wrong, good or bad, I would put my two hands into the fire to help him." Was this the way? Was not this the only way? Win him back to her? What if there were more need for her to win back to him? Oh, once she had been able to say that love, the supreme triumph of a woman's life, was less a victory than a capitulation. Had she ordered her life upon that ideal? Did she even believe in the ideal at this day? Whither had this cruel cult of self led her?
Dimly Laura Jadwin began to see and to understand a whole new conception of her little world. The birth of a new being within her was not for that night. It was conception only--the sensation of a new element, a new force that was not herself, somewhere in the inner chambers of her being.
The woman in her was too complex, the fibres of character too intricate and mature to be wrenched into new shapes by any sudden revolution. But just so surely as the day was going, just so surely as the New Day would follow upon the night, conception had taken place within her. Whatever she did that evening, whatever came to her, through whatever crises she should hurry, she would not now be quite the same. She had been accustomed to tell herself that there were two Lauras. Now suddenly, behold, she seemed to recognise a third--a third that rose above and forgot the other two, that in some beautiful, mysterious way was identity ignoring self.
But the change was not to be abrupt. Very, very vaguely the thoughts came to her. The change would be slow, slow--would be evolution, not revolution. The consummation was to be achieved in the coming years. For to-night she was--what was she? Only a woman, weak, torn by emotion, driven by impulse, and entering upon what she imagined was a great crisis in her life.
But meanwhile the time was passing. Laura descended to the library and, picking up a book, composed herself to read. When six o'clock struck, she made haste to assure herself that of course she could not expect him exactly on the hour. No, she must make allowances; the day--as Page had suspected--had probably been an important one. He would be a little late, but he would come soon. "If you love me, you will come," she had said.
But an hour later Laura paced the room with tight-shut lips and burning cheeks. She was still alone; her day, her hour, was passing, and he had not so much as sent word. For a moment the thought occurred to her that he might perhaps be in great trouble, in great straits, that there was an excuse. But instantly she repudiated the notion.
"No, no," she cried, beneath her breath. "He should come, no matter what has happened. Or even, at the very least, he could send word."
The minutes dragged by. No roll of wheels echoed under the carriage porch; no step sounded at the outer door. The house was still, the street without was still, the silence of the midsummer evening widened, unbroken around her, like a vast calm pool. Only the musical Gregorians of the newsboys chanting the evening's extras from corner to corner of the streets rose into the air from time to time. She was once more alone. Was she to fail again? Was she to be set aside once more, as so often heretofore--set aside, flouted, ignored, forgotten? "If you love me," she had said.
And this was to be the supreme test. This evening was to decide which was the great influence of his life--was to prove whether or not love was paramount. This was the crucial hour. "And he knows it," cried Laura. "He knows it. He did not forget, could not have forgotten."
The half hour passed, then the hour, and as eight o'clock chimed from the clock over the mantelshelf Laura stopped, suddenly rigid, in the midst of the floor.
Her anger leaped like fire within her. All the passion of the woman scorned shook her from head to foot. At the very moment of her triumph she had been flouted, in the pitch of her pride! And this was not the only time. All at once the past disappointments, slights, and humiliations came again to her memory. She had pleaded, and had been rebuffed again and again; she had given all and had received neglect--she, Laura, beautiful beyond other women, who had known love, devoted service, and the most thoughtful consideration from her earliest girlhood, had been cast aside.
Suddenly she bent her head quickly, listening intently. Then she drew a deep breath, murmuring "At last, at last!"
For the sound of a footstep in the vestibule was unmistakable. He had come after all. But so late, so late! No, she could not be gracious at once; he must be made to feel how deeply he had offended; he must sue humbly, very humbly, for pardon. The servant's step sounded in the hall on the way towards the front door.
"I am in here, Matthew," she called. "In the library. Tell him I am in here."
She cast a quick glance at herself in the mirror close at hand, touched her hair with rapid fingers, smoothed the agitation from her forehead, and sat down in a deep chair near the fireplace, opening a book, turning her back towards the door.
She heard him come in, but did not move. Even as he crossed the floor she kept her head turned away. The footsteps paused near at hand. There was a moment's silence. Then slowly Laura, laying down her book, turned and faced him.
"With many very, very happy returns of the day," said Sheldon Corthell, as he held towards her a cluster of deep-blue violets.
Laura sprang to her feet, a hand upon her cheek, her eyes wide and flashing.
"You?" was all she had breath to utter. "You?"
The artist smiled as he laid the flowers upon the table. "I am going away again to-morrow," he said, "for always, I think. Have I startled you? I only came to say good-by--and to wish you a happy birthday."
"Oh you remembered!" she cried. "You remembered! I might have known you would."
But the revulsion had been too great. She had been wrong after all. Jadwin had forgotten. Emotions to which she could put no name swelled in her heart and rose in a quick, gasping sob to her throat. The tears sprang to her eyes. Old impulses, forgotten impetuosities whipped her on.
"Oh, you remembered, you remembered!" she cried again, holding out both her hands.
He caught them in his own.
"Remembered!" he echoed. "I have never forgotten."
"No, no," she replied, shaking her head, winking back the tears. "You don't understand. I spoke before I thought. You don't understand."
"I do, believe me, I do," he exclaimed. "I understand you better than you understand yourself."
Laura's answer was a cry.
"Oh, then, why did you ever leave me--you who did understand me? Why did you leave me only because I told you to go? Why didn't you make me love you then? Why didn't you make me understand myself?" She clasped her hands tight together upon her breast; her words, torn by her sobs, came all but incoherent from behind her shut teeth. "No, no!" she exclaimed, as he made towards her. "Don't touch me, don't touch me! It is too late."
"It is not too late. Listen--listen to me."
"Oh, why weren't you a man, strong enough to know a woman's weakness? You can only torture me now. Ah, I hate you! I hate you!"
"You love me! I tell you, you love me!" he cried, passionately, and before she was aware of it she was in his arms, his lips were against her lips, were on her shoulders, her neck.
"You love me!" he cried. "You love me! I defy you to say you do not."
"Oh, make me love you, then," she answered. "Make me believe that you do love me."
"Don't you know," he cried, "don't you know how I have loved you? Oh, from the very first! My love has been my life, has been my death, my one joy, and my one bitterness. It has always been you, dearest, year after year, hour after hour. And now I've found you again. And now I shall never, never let you go."
"No, no! Ah, don't, don't!" she begged. "I implore you. I am weak, weak. Just a word, and I would forget everything."
"And I do speak that word, and your own heart answers me in spite of you, and you will forget--forget everything of unhappiness in your life--"
"Please, please," she entreated, breathlessly. Then, taking the leap: "Ah, I love you, I love you!"
"--Forget all your unhappiness," he went on, holding her close to him. "Forget the one great mistake we both made. Forget everything, everything, everything but that we love each other."
"Don't let me think, then," she cried. "Don't let me think. Make me forget everything, every little hour, every little moment that has passed before this day. Oh, if I remembered once, I would kill you, kill you with my hands! I don't know what I am saying," she moaned, "I don't know what I am saying. I am mad, I think. Yes--I--it must be that." She pulled back from him, looking into his face with wide-opened eyes.
"What have I said, what have we done, what are you here for?"
"To take you away," he answered, gently, holding her in his arms, looking down into her eyes. "To take you far away with me. To give my whole life to making you forget that you were ever unhappy."
"And you will never leave me alone--never once?"
"Never, never once."
She drew back from him, looking about the room with unseeing eyes, her fingers plucking and tearing at the lace of her dress; her voice was faint and small, like the voice of a little child.
"I--I am afraid to be alone. Oh, I must never be alone again so long as I shall live. I think I should die."
"And you never shall be; never again. Ah, this is my birthday, too, sweetheart. I am born again to-night."
Laura clung to his arm; it was as though she were in the dark, surrounded by the vague terrors of her girlhood. "And you will always love me, love me, love me?" she whispered. "Sheldon, Sheldon, love me always, always, with all your heart and soul and strength."
Tears stood in Corthell's eyes as he answered:
"God forgive whoever--whatever has brought you to this pass," he said.
And, as if it were a realisation of his thought, there suddenly came to the ears of both the roll of wheels upon the asphalt under the carriage porch and the trampling of iron-shod hoofs.
"Is that your husband?" Corthell's quick eye took in Laura's disarranged coiffure, one black lock low upon her neck, the roses at her shoulder crushed and broken, and the bright spot on either cheek.
"Is that your husband?"
"My husband--I don't know." She looked up at him with unseeing eyes. "Where is my husband? I have no husband. You are letting me remember," she cried, in terror. "You are letting me remember. Ah, no, no, you don't love me! I hate you!"
Quickly he bent and kissed her.
"I will come for you to-morrow evening," he said. "You will be ready then to go with me?"
"Ready then? Yes, yes, to go with you anywhere."
He stood still a moment, listening. Somewhere a door closed. He heard the hoofs upon the asphalt again.
"Good-by," he whispered. "God bless you! Good-by till to-morrow night." And with the words he was gone. The front door of the house closed quietly.
Had he come back again? Laura turned in her place on the long divan at the sound of a heavy tread by the door of the library.
Then an uncertain hand drew the heavy curtain aside. Jadwin, her husband, stood before her, his eyes sunken deep in his head, his face dead white, his hand shaking. He stood for a long instant in the middle of the room, looking at her. Then at last his lips moved:
"Old girl.... Honey."
Laura rose, and all but groped her way towards him, her heart beating, the tears streaming down her face.
"My husband, my husband!"
Together they made their way to the divan, and sank down upon it side by side, holding to each other, trembling and fearful, like children in the night.
"Honey," whispered Jadwin, after a while. "Honey, it's dark, it's dark. Something happened.... I don't remember," he put his hand uncertainly to his head, "I can't remember very well; but it's dark--a little."
"It's dark," she repeated, in a low whisper. "It's dark, dark. Something happened. Yes. I must not remember."
They spoke no further. A long time passed. Pressed close together, Curtis Jadwin and his wife sat there in the vast, gorgeous room, silent and trembling, ridden with unnamed fears, groping in the darkness.
And while they remained thus, holding close by one another, a prolonged and wailing cry rose suddenly from the street, and passed on through the city under the stars and the wide canopy of the darkness.
"Extra, oh-h-h, extra! All about the Smash of the Great Wheat Corner! All about the Failure of Curtis Jadwin!"