For a moment the tension of inquiry and embarrassment between the three endured in silence; then an odd, hot flush seemed to envelop the heart of Cleland Senior Ц and something tense within his brain loosened, flooding his entire being with infinite relief. The man had been starving for a child; that was all. He had suddenly found her. But he didn't realize it even now.
There was a shaky chair in the exceedingly clean but wretchedly furnished room. Cleland Senior went over and seated himself gingerly.
"Well, Steve?" he said with a pleasant, humourous smile. But his voice was not quite steady.
"Thank the good, kind gentleman!" burst out Mrs. Schmidt, beginning to sob again, and to swab the welling tears with the mottled backs of both fists. "You're going to stay with us, dearie. They ain't no policeman coming to take you to no institoot for orphan little girls! The good, kind gentleman has give the money for it. Go down onto your knees and thank him, Steve Ц !"
"Are you really going to keep me?" faltered the child. "Is it true?"
"Yes, it's true, dearie. Don't go a-kissing me! Go and thank the good, kind Ц "
"Let me talk to the child alone," interrupted Cleland drily. "And shut the door, please!" Ц glancing into the farther room where a clothes-boiler steamed, onions were frying, five yelling children swarmed over every inch of furniture, a baby made apocryphal remarks from a home-made cradle, and a canary bird sang shrilly and incessantly.
Mrs. Schmidt retired, sobbing, extolling the goodness and kindness of John Cleland, who endured it with patience until the closed door shut out eulogies, yells, canary and onions.
Then he said:
"Steve, you need not thank me. Just shake hands with me. Will you? I Ц I like children."
The little girl, whose head was still turned toward the closed door behind which had disappeared the only woman who had ever been consistently kind to her, now looked around at this large, strange man in his fur-lined coat, who sat there smiling at her in such friendly fashion.
And slowly, timidly, over the child's face the faintest of smiles crept in delicate response to his advances. Yet still in the wonderful grey eyes there remained that heart-rending expression of fearful inquiry which haunts the gaze of children who have been cruelly used.
"Is your name Stephanie?"
"What shall I call you? Steve?"
"Yes, sir," winningly grave.
"All right, then. Steve, will you shake hands?"
The child laid her thin, red, water-marred fingers in his gloved hand. He retained them, and drew her nearer.
"You've had a rather tough deal, Steve, haven't you?"
The child was silent, standing with head lowered, her bronzed brown hair hanging and shadowing shoulders and face.
"Do you go to school, Steve?"
"Oh, yes. I forgot. What do you learn in school?"
"Things Ц writing Ц reading."
"Do you like school?"
"What do you like best?"
"Do they teach that? What kind of dancing do you learn to do?"
"Fancy dancing Ц folk-dances. And I like the little plays that teacher gets up for us."
"Do you like any other of your studies?" he asked drily.
"Yes, sir," she replied, flushing painfully.
"Oh. So they teach you to draw? Who instructs you?"
"Miss Crowe. She comes every week. We copy picture cards and things."
"So you like to draw, Steve," nodded Cleland absently, thinking of his only son, who liked to write, and who, God willing, would have every chance to develop his bent in life. Then, still thinking of his only son, he looked up into the grey eyes of this little stranger.
As fate would have it, she smiled at him. And, looking at her in silence he felt the child-hunger gnawing in his heart Ц felt it, and for the first time, vaguely surmised what it really was that had so long ailed him.
But the idea, of course, seemed hopeless, impossible! It was not fair to his only son. Everything that he had was his son's Ц everything he had to give Ц care, sympathy, love, worldly possessions. These belonged to his son alone.
"Are you happy here with these kind people, Steve?" he asked hastily.
But though his conscience should have instantly acquitted him, deep in his lonely heart the child-hunger gnawed, unsatisfied. If only there had been other children of his own Ц younger ones to play with, to have near him in his solitude, to cuddle, to caress, to fuss over as he and his dead wife had fussed over their only baby! Ч
"You are sure you will be quite happy here?"
"Would you Ц " A pause; and again he looked up into the child's face, and again she smiled.
"Steve, I never had a little girl. It's funny, isn't it?"
"Would you like to Ц to go to a private school?"
The child did not understand. So he told her about such schools and the little girls who went to them. She seemed deeply interested; her grey eyes were clear and seriously intelligent, and very, very intently fixed on him in the effort to follow and understand what he was saying.
He told her about other children who lived amid happy surroundings; what they did, how they were cared for, schooled, brought up; what was expected of them by the world Ц what was required by the world from those who had had advantages of a home, of training, of friends, and of an education. He was committing himself with every word, and refused to believe it.
At times he paused to question her, and she always nodded seriously that she understood.
"But this," he added smilingly, "you may not entirely comprehend, Steve; that such children, brought up as I have explained to you, owe the human race a debt which is never cancelled." He was talking to himself now, more than to her; voicing his thoughts; feeling his way toward the expression of a philosophy which he had heretofore only vaguely entertained.
"The hope of the world lies in such children, Steve," he said. "The world has a right to expect service from them. You don't understand, do you?"
Her wonderfully clear eyes were almost beautiful with intelligence as they looked straight into his. Perhaps the child understood more than she herself realized, more than he believed she understood.
"Shall I come to see you again, Steve?"
"Yes, sir, please."
There was a pause. Very gently the slight pressure of his arm, which had crept around her, conveyed to her its wistful meaning; and when she understood she leaned slowly toward him in winning response, and offered her lips with a gravity that captivated him.
"Good-bye, Steve, dear," he said unsteadily. "I'll come to see you again very soon. I surely, surely will come back again to see you, Steve."
Then he put on his hat and went out abruptly Ц not down town to Christensen's, but back to the United Charities, and, after an hour, from there he went down town to his attorney's, where he spent the entire day under suppressed excitement.
For there were many steps to take and much detail to be attended to before this new and momentous deal could be put through Ц a transaction concerning a human soul and the measures to be taken to insure its salvage.
During the next few weeks John William Cleland's instinct fought a continuous series of combats with his reason.
Instinct, with her powerful allies, loneliness and love, urged the solitary man to rash experiment; reason ridiculed impulse and made it very clear to Cleland that he was a fool.
But instinct had this advantage; she was always awake, whispering to his mind and heart; and reason often fell asleep on guard over his brain.
But when awake, reason laughed at the conspirators, always in ambush to slay him; and carried matters with a high hand, rebuking instinct and frowning upon her allies.
And John Cleland hesitated. He wrote to his only son every day. He strove to find occupation for every minute between the morning awakening in his silent chamber and the melancholy lying down at night.
But always the battle between reason and instinct continued.
Reason had always appealed to Cleland Senior. His parents and later his wife and son had known the only sentimental phenomena which had ever characterized him in his career. Outside of these exceptions, reason had always ruled him. This is usually the case among those who inherit money from forebears who, in turn, have been accustomed to inherit and hand down a moderate but unimpaired fortune through sober generations.
Such people are born logical when not born fools. And now Cleland Senior, mortified and irritated by the increasing longing which obsessed him, asked himself frequently which of these he really was.
Every atom of logic in him counselled him to abstain from what every instinct in him was desiring and demanding Ц a little child to fill the loneliness of his heart and house Ц something to mitigate the absence of his son, whose absences must, in the natural course of events, become more frequent and of longer duration with the years of college imminent, and the demands of new interests, new friends increasing year by year.
He told himself that to take another child into his home would be unfair to Jim; to take her into his heart was disloyal; that the dear past belonged to his wife alone, the present and the future to his only son.
And all the while the man was starving for what he wanted.
Well, the arrangements took some time to complete; but they were fairly complete when finished. She kept her own name; she was to have six thousand dollars a year for life after she became twenty-one. He charged himself with her mental, moral, spiritual, physical, and general education.
It came about in the following manner:
First of all, he went to see a gentleman whom he had known for many years, but whose status with himself had always remained a trifle indefinite in his mind Ц somewhere betwixt indifferent friendship and informal acquaintanceship.
The gentleman's name was Chiltern Grismer; his business, charity and religion. He did not dispense either of these, however; he made a living for himself out of both. Cleland had learned at the United Charities that Grismer was an important personage in the Manhattan Charities Concern, a separate sectarian affair with a big office building, and a book bindery in Brooklyn for the immense tonnage of sectarian books and pamphlets published and sold by the "Concern," as it called itself. The profits were said to be enormous.
Grismer, tall, bony, sandy and with a pair of unusually light yellowish eyes behind eye-glasses, appeared the classical philanthropist of the stage. With his white, bushy side-whiskers, his frock coat, and his little ready-made black bow-tie, slightly askew under a high choker, he certainly dressed the part. In fact, any dramatic producer would have welcomed him in the r?le, for he had no "business" to learn; it was perfectly natural for him to join his finger tips together while conversing; and his voice and manner left nothing whatever to criticize.
"Ah! My friend of many years!" he exclaimed as Cleland was ushered into his office in the building of the Manhattan Charities Concern. "And how, I pray, can I be of service to my old friend, John Cleland? M-m-m'yes Ц my friend of many years!"
Cleland told his story very simply, adding:
"I understand that your Concern is handling Case 119, Grismer Ц acting, I believe, for a child-placing agency."
"Which case?" demanded Grismer, almost sharply.
"Case 119. The case of Stephanie Quest," repeated Cleland.
Grismer looked at him with odd intentness for a moment, then his eyes shifted, as though something were disturbing his suave mental tranquillity:
"M-m-m'yes. Oh, yes. I believe we have this case to handle among many others. M-m-m! Quite so; quite so. Case 119? Quite so."
"May I have the child?" asked Cleland bluntly.
"Bless me! Do you really wish to take such chances, Cleland?"
"Why not? Others take them, don't they?"
"M-m-m'yes. Oh, yes. Certainly. But it is usually people of the Ц ah Ц middle and lower classes who adopt children. M-m-m'yes; the middle and lower classes. And, naturally, they would not be very much disappointed in a foundling or waif who failed to Ц ah Ц develop the finer, subtler, more delicate Christian qualities that a gentleman in your position might reasonably expect Ц m-m-m'yes!†Ц might, as it were, demand in an adopted child."
"I'll take those chances in the case in question," said Cleland, quietly.
"M-m-m'yes, the case in question. Case 119. Quite soЕ I am wondering Ц " he passed a large, dry hand over his chin and mouth, reflectively, while his light-coloured eyes remained alertly on duty. "I have been wondering whether you have looked about before deciding on this particular child. There are a great many other deserving cases, m-m-m'yes Ц a great many deserving cases Ц "
"I want this particular child, Grismer."
"Quite so. M-m-m'yes." He looked up almost furtively. "You Ц ah Ц have some previous knowledge, perhaps, of this little girl's antecedents?"
Mr. Grismer's voice grew soft and persuasive; his finger tips were gently joined. Cleland, looking up at him, caught a glimmer resembling suspicion in those curiously light-coloured eyes.
"Yes, I have learned certain things about her," he said shortly. "I know enough! I want that child for mine and I'm going to have her."
"May I ask Ц ah Ц just what facts you have learned about this unfortunate infant?"
Cleland, bored to the verge of irritation, told him what he had learned.
There was a silence during which Grismer came to the conclusion that he had better tell Cleland another fact which necessary legal investigation of the child's antecedents might more bluntly reveal. Yes, certainly Grismer felt that he ought to place himself on record at once and explain this embarrassing fact in his own way before others cruelly misinterpreted it to Cleland. For John Cleland's position in New York among men of wealth, of affairs, of influence, and of culture made this sudden and unfortunate whim of his for Stephanie Quest a matter of awkward importance to Chiltern Grismer, who had not cared to figure in the case at all.
Grismer's large, dry hand continued to massage his jaw. Now and then the bony fingers wandered caressingly toward the white side-whiskers, but always returned to screen the thin lips with a gentle, incessant massage.
"Cleland," he began in a solemn voice, "have you ever heard that this child is Ц ah Ц is a very distant connection of my family?†Ц m-m-m'yes Ц my immediate family. Have you ever heard any ill-natured gossip of this nature?"
Cleland, too astonished to reply, merely gazed at him. And Grismer wrongly concluded that he had heard about it, somewhere or other.
"M-m-m'yes Ц a connection Ц very distant, of course. In the event that you have heard of this unfortunate affair from sources perhaps unfriendly to myself and family Ц m-m-m'yes, unfriendly Ц possibly it were judicious to explain the matter to you Ц in justice to myself."
"I never heard of it," said Cleland, " Ц never dreamed of such a connection."
But to Grismer all men were liars.
"Oh, I did not know. I thought you might have heard malicious rumours. But it is just as well that you should be correctly informedЕ Do you recollect ever reading anything concerning my Ц ah Ц late sister?"
"Do you mean something that happened many, many years ago?"
"That is what I refer to. Did you read of it in the newspapers?"
"Yes," said Cleland. "I read that she ran away with a married man."
"Doubtless," continued Grismer with a sigh, "you recollect the dreadful disgrace she brought upon my family? The cruel scandal exploited by a pitiless and malicious press?"
Cleland said nothing.
"Let me tell you the actual facts," continued Grismer gently. "The unfortunate woman became infatuated with a common Pullman conductor Ц an Irishman named Conway Ц a very ordinary man who already was married.
"His religion forbade divorce; my wretched sister ran away with him. We have always striven to bear the disgrace with resignation Ц m-m-m'yes, with patience and resignation. That is the story."
Cleland, visibly embarrassed, sat twisting the handle of his walking-stick, looking persistently away from Grismer. The latter sighed heavily.
"And so," he murmured, "our door was forever closed to her and hers. She became as one ignobly dead to us Ц as a soul damned for all eternity."
"Oh, come, Grismer Ц "
"Damned Ц hopelessly, and for all eternity," repeated Grismer with a slight snap of his jaw; " Ц she and her children, and her children's children Ц "
" Ц The sins of the parents that are borne through generations!"
"Nonsense! That is Old Testament bosh Ц "
"Pardon!" said Grismer, with a pained forbearance. "It is the creed of those who worship and believe the truth as taught in the church of which I am a member."
"Oh, I beg your pardon."
"Granted," said Grismer sadly.
He sat caressing his jaw in silence for a while, then:
"Her name was Jessie Grismer. She Ц ah Ц assumed the name of ConwayЕ God did not bless the unholy union. There was a daughter, Laura. A certain Harry Quest, the profligate, wasted son of that good man, the Reverend Anthony Quest, married this girl, Laura ConwayЕ God, mindful of His wrath, still punished the seed of my sinful sister, even until the second generationЕ Stephanie Quest is their daughter."
"Good heavens, Grismer! I can't understand that you, knowing this, have not done something Ц "
"Why? Am I to presume to interfere with God's purpose? Am I to question the righteousness of His wrath?"
"But Ц she is the little grandchild of your own sister!†Ц "
"A sister utterly cut off from among us! A sister dead to us Ц a soul eternally lost and to be eternally forgotten."
"Is that your ЧcreedЦ†Grismer?"
"Oh. I thought that sort of Ц I mean, I thought such creeds were out of date Ц old-fashioned Ц "
"God," said Chiltern Grismer patiently, "is old-fashioned, I believe Ц m-m-m'yes Ц very old fashioned, Cleland. But His purposes are terrible, and His wrath is a living thing to those who have the fear of God within their hearts."
"Oh. Well, I'm sorry, but I really can't be afraid of God. If I were, I'd doubt Him, GrismerЕ Come; may I have the little girl?"
"Do you desire her to abide under your roof after what you have learned?"
"Why, Grismer, I'd travel all the way to hell to get her now, if any of your creed had managed to send her there. Come; I've seen the child. It may be a risk, as you say. In fact, it can't help being a risk, Grismer. But Ц I want her. May I have her?"
"M-m-m Ц " he touched a bell and a clerk appeared. Then he turned to Cleland. "Would you be good enough to see our Mr. Bunce? I thank you. Good afternoon! I am happy to have conversed again with my old friend, John Cleland,†Ц m-m-m'yes, my friend of many years."
An hour later John Cleland left "our" Mr. Bunce, armed with proper authority to begin necessary legal proceedings.
Talking it over with Brinton, his attorney, that evening, he related the amazing conversation between himself and Chiltern Grismer.
"It isn't religious bigotry; it's just stinginess. Grismer is the meanest man on Manhattan Island. Didn't you know it?"
"No. I don't know him well Ц though I've been acquainted with him for a long while. But I don't see how he can be stingy."
"Well, he's interested in charity Ц "
"He's paid a thumping big salary! He makes money out of charity. Why shouldn't he be interested?"
"But he publishes religious books Ц "
"Of course. They sell. It's a great graft, Cleland. Don't publish novels if you want to make money; print Bibles!"
"Is that a fact?"
"You bet! There are more parasites in pulpit, publishing house and charity concerns, who live exclusively by exploiting God, than there were unpleasant afflictions upon the epidermis of our late friend, Job. And Chiltern Grismer is one of them Ц the old skinflint!†Ц hogging his only sister's share of the Grismer money and scared stiff for fear some descendant might reopen the claim and fight the verdict which beggared his own sister!"
"By Gad!" exclaimed Cleland, very red; "I've a mind to look into it and start proceedings again if there is any ground Ц "
"Not if you adopt this child."
"Not in her behalf?"
"Your motives would be uncharitably suspected, Cleland. You can give her enough. Besides, you don't want to stir up anything Ц rattle any skeletons Ц for this little girl's sake."
"No, of course not. You're quite right, Brinton. No money could compensate her. And, as you say, I am able to provide for her amply."
"Besides," said Brinton, "there's the paternal aunt, Miss Rosalinda Quest. She's as rich as mud. It may be that she'll do something for the child."
"I don't want her to," exclaimed Cleland angrily. "If she'll make no objection to my taking the girl, she can keep her money and leave it to the niggers of Senegambia when she dies, for all I care! Fix it for me, Brinton."
"You'd better go down to Bayport and interview her yourself," said the lawyer. "And, by the way, I hear she's a queer one Ц something of a bird, in fact."