"Have you had a pretty good holiday, Jim?"
"That's good. That's as it should be. We've enjoyed a pretty good time together, my son; haven't we?"
"Great! It was a dandy vacation!"
There came another silence. On the boy's face lingered a slight retrospective smile, as he mentally reviewed the two weeks now ending with the impending departure for school. Certainly he had had a splendid time. His father had engineered all sorts of parties and amusements for him – schoolboy gatherings at the Ice Rink; luncheons and little dances in their own home, to which school comrades and children of old friends were bidden; trips to the Bronx, to the Aquarium, to the Natural History Museum; wonderful evenings at home together.
The boy had gone with his father to see the "Wizard of Oz," to see Nazimova in "The Comet" – a doubtful experiment, but in line with theories of Cleland Senior – to see "The Fall of Port Arthur" at the Hippodrome; to hear Calv? at the Opera.
Together they had strolled on Fifth Avenue, viewed the progress of the new marble tower then being built on Madison Square, had lunched together at Delmonico's, dined at Sherry's, motored through all the parks, visited Governor's Island and the Navy Yard – the latter rendezvous somewhat empty of interest since the great battle fleet had started on its pacific voyage around the globe.
Always they had been together since the boy returned from Saint James school for the Christmas holidays; and Cleland Senior had striven to fill every waking hour of his son's day with something pleasant to be remembered.
Always at breakfast he had read aloud the items of interest – news concerning President Roosevelt – the boy's hero – and his administration; Governor Hughes and his administration; the cumberous coming of Mr. Taft from distant climes; local squabbles concerning projected subways. All that an intelligent and growing boy ought to know and begin to think about, Cleland Senior read aloud at the breakfast table – for this reason, and also to fill in every minute with pleasant interest lest the dear grief, now two years old, and yet forever fresh, creep in between words and threaten the silences between them with sudden tears.
But two years is a long, long time in the life of the young – in the life of a fourteen-year-old boy; and yet, the delicate shadow of his mother still often dimmed for him the sunny sparkle of the winter's holiday. It fell across his clear young eyes now, where he sat thinking, and made them sombre and a deeper brown.
For he was going back to boarding school; and old memories were uneasily astir again; and Cleland Senior saw the shadow on the boy's face; understood; but now chose to remain silent, not intervening.
So memory gently enveloped them both, leaving them very still together, there in the library.
For the boy's mother had been so intimately associated with preparations for returning to school in those blessed days which already had begun to seem distant and a little unreal to Cleland Junior – so tenderly and vitally a part of them – that now, when the old pain, the loneliness, the eternal desire for her was again possessing father and son in the imminence of familiar departure, Cleland Senior let it come to the boy, not caring to avert it.
Thinking of the same thing, both sat gazing into the back yard.
At length Cleland Senior's glance fell again upon the tall clock. He swallowed nothing, stared grimly at the painted dial where a ship circumnavigated the sun, then squaring his big shoulders he rose with decision.
The boy got up too.
In the front hall they assisted each other with overcoats; the little, withered butler took the boy's luggage down the brown-stone steps to the car. A moment later father and son were spinning along Fifth Avenue toward Forty-second Street.
As usual, this ordeal of departure forced John Cleland to an unnatural, off-hand gaiety at the crisis, as though the parting amounted to nothing.
"Going to be a good kid in school, Jim?" he asked, casually humorous.
The boy nodded and smiled.
"That's right. And, Jim, stick to your Algebra, no matter how you hate it. I hated it too… Going to get on your class hockey team?"
"I'll do my best."
"Right. Try for the ball team, too. And, Jim?"
"You're all right so far. You know what's good and what's bad."
"No matter what happens, you can always come to me. You thoroughly understand that."
"You've never known what it is to be afraid of me, have you?"
The boy smiled broadly; said no.
"Never be afraid of me, Jim. That's one thing I couldn't stand. I'm always here. All I'm here on earth for is you! Do you really understand me?"
Red-capped porter, father and son halted near the crowded train gate inside the vast railroad station.
Cleland Senior said briskly:
"Good-bye, old chap. See you at Easter. Good luck! Send me anything you write in the way of verses and stories."
Their clasped hands fell apart; the boy went through the gate, followed by his porter and by numerous respectable and negligible travelling citizens, male and female, bound for destinations doubtless interesting to them. To John Cleland they were merely mechanically moving impedimenta which obscured the retreating figure of his only son and irritated him to that extent. And when the schoolboy cap of that only son disappeared, engulfed in the crowd, John Cleland went back to his car, back to his empty, old-fashioned brownstone house, seated himself in the library that his wife had made lovely, and picked up the Times, which he had not read aloud at breakfast.
He had been sitting there more than an hour before he thought of reading the paper so rigidly spread across his knees. But he was not interested in what he read. The battle fleet, it seemed, was preparing to sail from Port-of-Spain; Mr. Taft was preparing to launch his ponderous candidacy at the fat head of the Republican party; a woman had been murdered in the Newark marshes; the subway muddle threatened to become more muddled; somebody desired to motor from New York to Paris; President Roosevelt and Mr. Cortelyou had been in consultation about something or other; German newspapers accused the United States of wasting its natural resources; Scotti was singing Scarpia in "Tosca"; a new music hall had been built in the Bronx —
Cleland Senior laid the paper aside, stared at the pale winter sunshine on the back fence till things suddenly blurred, then he resumed his paper, sharply, and gazed hard at the print until his dead wife's smiling eyes faded from the page.
But in the paper there seemed nothing to hold his attention. He turned to the editorials, then to the last page. This, he noticed, was still entirely devoted to the "Hundred Neediest Cases" – the yearly Christmastide appeal in behalf of specific examples of extreme distress. The United Charities Organization of the Metropolitan district always made this appeal every year.
Now, Cleland Senior had already sent various sums to that particular charity; and his eyes followed rather listlessly the paragraphs describing certain cases which still were totally unrelieved or only partially aided by charitable subscriptions. He read on as a man reads whose heart is still sore within him – not without a certain half irritable sense of sympathy, perhaps, but with an interest still dulled by the oppression which separation from his son always brought.
And still his preoccupied mind plodded on as he glanced over the several paragraphs of appeal, and after a while he yawned, wondering listlessly that such pitiable cases of need had not been relieved by somebody among the five million who so easily could give the trifles desired. For example:
"Case No. 47. A young man, 25, hopelessly crippled and bedridden, could learn to do useful work, sufficient to support him, if $25 for equipment were sent to the United Charities office."
Contributors were asked to mention Case No. 47 when sending cheques for relief.
He read on mechanically:
"Case No. 108. This case has been partly relieved through contributions, but thirty dollars are still required. Otherwise, these two aged and helpless gentlewomen must lose their humble little home and an institution will have to take care of them. Neither one has many more years to live. A trifling aid, now, means that the few remaining days left to these old people will be tranquil days, free from the dread of separation and destitution."
"Case 113. The father, consumptive and unable to work; the mother still weak from childbirth; the only other wage-earner a daughter aged sixteen, under arrest; four little children dependent. Seventy dollars will tide them over until the mother can recover and resume her wage-earning, which, with the daughter's assistance, will be sufficient to keep the family together. Three of the children are defectives; the oldest sister, a cash-girl, has been arrested and held as a witness for attending, at her mother's request, a clinic conducted by people advocating birth-control; and the three dollars a week which she brought to the family has been stopped indefinitely."
"Case 119. For this case no money at all has been received so far. It is the case of a little child, Stephanie Quest, left an orphan by the death or suicide of both drug-addicted parents, and taken into the family of a kindly German carpenter two years ago. It is the first permanent shelter the child has ever known, the first kindness ever offered her, the first time she has ever had sufficient nourishment in all her eleven years of life. Now she is in danger of losing the only home she has ever had. Stephanie is a pretty, delicate, winsome and engaging little creature of eleven, whose only experience with life had been savage cruelty, gross neglect, filth and immemorial starvation until the carpenter took her into his own too numerous family, and his wife cared for her as though she were their own child.
"But they have five children of their own, and the wife is soon to have another baby. Low wages, irregular employment, the constantly increasing cost of living, now make it impossible for them to feed and clothe an extra child.
"They are fond of the little girl; they are willing to keep and care for her if fifty dollars could be contributed toward her support. But if this sum be not forthcoming, little Stephanie will have to go to an institution.
"The child is now physically healthy. She is of a winning personality, but somewhat impulsive, unruly, and wilful at times; and it would be far better for her future welfare to continue to live with these sober, kindly, honest people who love her, than to be sent to an orphanage."
"Case No. 123. A very old man, desperately poor and ill and entirely – "
John Cleland dropped the paper suddenly across his knees. A fierce distaste for suffering, an abrupt disinclination for such details checked further perusal.
"Damnation!" he muttered, fumbling for another cigar.
His charities already had been attended to for the year. That portion of his income devoted to such things was now entirely used up. But he remained uneasily aware that the portion reserved for further acquisition of Americana – books, prints, pictures, early American silver, porcelains, furniture, was still intact for the new year now beginning.
That was his only refuge from loneliness and the ever-living grief – the plodding hunt for such things and the study connected with this pursuit. Except for his son – his ruling passion – he had no other interest, now that his wife was dead – nothing that particularly mattered to him in life except this collecting of Americana.
And now his son had gone away again. The day had to be filled – filled rather quickly, too; for the parting still hurt cruelly, and with a dull persistence that he had not yet shaken off. He must busy himself with something. He'd go out again presently, and mouse about among musty stacks of furniture "in the rough." Then he'd prowl through auction rooms and screw a jeweller's glass into his right eye and pore over mezzotints.
He allowed himself just so much to spend on Americana; just so much to spend on his establishment, so much to invest, so much to give to charity —
"Damnation!" he repeated aloud.
It was the last morning of the exhibition at the Christensen Galleries of early American furniture. That afternoon the sale was to begin. He had not had time for preliminary investigation. He realized the importance of the collection; knew that his friends would be there in force; and hated the thought of losing such a chance.
Turning the leaves or his newspaper for the advertisement, he found himself again confronted by the columns containing the dreary "Hundred Neediest Cases." And against every inclination he re-read the details of Case 119.
Odd, he thought to himself angrily, that there was nobody in the city to contribute the few dollars necessary to this little girl. The case in question required only fifty dollars. Fifty dollars meant a home, possibly moral salvation, to this child with her winning disposition and unruly ways.
He read the details again, more irritated than ever, yet grimly interested to note that, as usual, it is the very poor with many burdens who help the poor. This carpenter, living probably in a tenement, with a wife, an unborn baby, and a herd of squalling children to support, had still found room for another little waif, whose drug-sodden parents had been kind to her only by dying.
John Cleland turned the page, searched for the advertisement of the Christensen Galleries, discovered it, read it carefully. There were some fine old prints advertised to be sold. His hated rivals would be there – beloved friends yet hated rivals in the endless battle for bargains in antiquities.
When he got into his car a few minutes later, he told the chauffeur to drive to Christensen's and drive fast. Halfway there, he signalled and spoke through the tube:
"Where is the United Charities Building? Where? Well, drive there first."
"Damn!" he muttered, readjusting himself in the corner under the lynx robe.
"Would you care to go there and see the child for yourself, Mr. Cleland? A few moments might give you a much clearer idea of her than all that I have told you," suggested the capable young woman to whom he had been turned over in that vast labyrinth of offices tenemented by the "United Charities Organizations of Manhattan and the Four Boroughs, Inc."
John Cleland signed the cheque which he had filled in, laid it on the desk, closed his cheque-book, and shook his head.
"I'm a busy man," he said briefly.
"Oh, I'm sorry! I wish you had time to see her for a moment. You may obtain permission through the Manhattan Charities Concern, a separate organization, winch turns over certain cases to the excellent child-placing agency connected with our corporation."
"Thank you; I haven't time."
"Mr. Chiltern Grismer would be the best man to see – if you had time."
There was a chilly silence; Cleland stood frowning at space, wrapped in gloomy preoccupation.
"But," added the capable young woman, wistfully, "if you are so busy that you have no time to bother with this case personally – "
"I have time," snapped Cleland, turning red. For the man was burdened with the inconvenient honesty of his race – a sort of tactless truthfulness which characterized all Clelands. He said:
"When I informed you that I'm a busy man, I evidently but unintentionally misled you. I'm not in business. I have time. I simply don't wish to go into the slums to see somebody's perfectly strange offspring."
The amazed young woman listened, hesitated, then threw back her pretty head and laughed:
"Mr. Cleland, your frankness is most refreshing! Certainly there is no necessity for you to go if you don't wish to. The little girl will be most grateful to you for this generous cheque, and happy to be relieved of the haunting terror that has made her almost ill at the prospect of an orphanage. The child will be beside herself with joy when she gets word from us that she need not lose the only home and the only friends she has ever known. Thank you – for little Stephanie Quest."
"What did the other people do to her?" inquired John Cleland, buttoning his gloves and still scowling absently at nothing.
"The ones who – her parents, I mean. What was it they did to her?"
"They were dreadfully inhuman – "
"What did they do to the child? Do you know?"
"Yes, I know, Mr. Cleland. They beat her mercilessly when they happened to be crazed by drugs; they neglected her when sober. The little thing was a mass of cuts and sores and bruises when we investigated her case; two of her ribs had been broken, somehow or other, and were not yet healed – "
"Oh, Lord!" he interrupted sharply. "That's enough of such devilish detail! – I beg your pardon, but such things – annoy me. Also I've some business that's waiting – or pleasure, whichever you choose to call it – " He glanced at his watch, thinking of the exhibition at Christensen's, and the several rival and hawk-like amateurs who certainly would be prowling around there, deriding him for his absence and looking for loot.
"Where does that child live?" he added carelessly, buttoning his overcoat.
The capable young woman, who had been regarding him with suppressed amusement, wrote out the address on a pad, tore off the leaf, and handed it to him.
" – In case you ever become curious to see little Stephanie Quest, whom you have aided so generously – " she explained.
Cleland, recollecting with increasing annoyance that he had three hundred dollars less to waste on Christensen than he had that morning, muttered the polite formality of leave-taking required of him, and bowed himself out, carrying the slip of paper in his gloved fingers, extended as though he were looking for a place to drop it.
Down in the street, where his car stood, the sidewalks were slowly whitening under leisurely falling snowflakes. The asphalt already was a slippery mess.
"Where's that!" he demanded peevishly, shoving the slip of paper at his chauffeur. "Do you know?"
"I can find it, sir."
"All right," snapped John Cleland.
He stepped into the little limousine and settled back with a grunt. Then he hunched himself up in the corner and perked the fur robe over his knees, muttering. Thoughts of his wife, of his son, had been heavily persistent that morning. Never before had he felt actually old – he was only fifty-odd. Never before had he felt himself so alone, so utterly solitary. Never had he so needed the comradeship of his only son.
He had relapsed into a sort of grim, unhappy lethargy, haunted by memories of his son's baby days, when the car stopped in the tenement-lined street, swarming with push-carts and children.
The damp, rank stench of the unwashed smote him as he stepped out and entered the dirty hallway, set with bells and letter boxes and littered with d?bris and filthy melting snow.
The place was certainly vile enough. A deformed woman with sore eyes directed him to the floor where the Schmidt family lived. On the landing he stumbled over several infants who were playing affectionately with a dead cat – probably the first substitute for a doll they had ever possessed. A fight in some room on the second floor arrested his attention, and he halted, alert and undecided, when the dim hallway resounded with screams of murder.
But a slatternly young woman who was passing explained very coolly that it was only "thim Cassidys mixing it"; and she went her way down stairs with her cracked pitcher, and he continued upward.
"Schmidt? In there," replied a small boy to his inquiry; and resumed his game of ball against the cracked plaster wall of the passage.
Answering his knock, a shapeless woman opened the door.
"Yes, sir," – retying the string which alone kept up her skirt.
He explained briefly who he was, where he had been, what he had done through the United Charities for the child, Stephanie.
"I'd like to take a look at her," he added, "if it's perfectly convenient."
Mrs. Schmidt began to cry:
"Ex-cuse me, sir; I'm so glad we can keep her. Albert has all he can do for our own kids – but the poor little thing! – it seemed hard to send her away to a Home – " She gouged out the tears abruptly with the back of a red, water-soaked hand.
"Steve! Here's a kind gentleman come to see you. Dry your hands, dearie, and come and thank him."
A grey-eyed child appeared – one of those slender little shapes, graceful in every unconscious movement of head and limbs. She was drying her thin red fingers on a bit of rag as she came forward, the steam of the wash-boiler still rising from her bare arms.
A loud, continuous noise arose in the further room, as though it were full of birds and animals fighting.