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   Chapter 5 THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

A Modern Chronicle -- Volume 05 By Winston Churchill Characters: 12378

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


It was Saturday morning, but Honora had forgotten the fact. Not until she was on the bottom step did the odour of cigarettes reach her and turn her faint; and she clutched suddenly at the banisters. Thus she stood for a while, motionless, and then went quietly into the drawing-room. The French windows looking out on the porch were, as usual, open.

It was an odd sensation thus to be regarding one's husband objectively. For the first time he appeared to her definitely as a stranger; as much a stranger as the man who came once a week to wind Mrs. Forsythe's clocks. Nay, more. There was a sense of intrusion in this visit, of invasion of a life with which he had nothing to do. She examined him ruthlessly, very much as one might examine a burglar taken unawares. There was the inevitable shirt with the wide pink stripes, of the abolishment or even of the effective toning down of which she had long since despaired. On the contrary, like his complexion, they evinced a continual tendency towards a more aggressive colour. There was also the jewelled ring, now conspicuously held aloft on a fat little finger. The stripes appeared that morning as the banner of a hated suzerain, the ring as the emblem of his overlordship. He did not belong in that house; everything in it cried out for his removal; and yet it was, in the eyes of the law at least, his. By grace of that fact she was here, enjoying it. At that instant, as though in evidence of this, he laid down a burning cigarette on a mahogany stand he had had brought out to him. Honora seized an ash tray, hurried to the porch, and picked up the cigarette in the tips of her fingers.

"Howard, I wish you would be more careful of Mrs. Forsythe's furniture," she exclaimed.

"Hello, Honora," he said, without looking up. "I see by the Newport paper that old Maitland is back from Europe. Things are skyrocketing in Wall Street." He glanced at the ash tray, which she had pushed towards him. "What's the difference about the table? If the old lady makes a row, I'll pay for it."

"Some things are priceless," she replied; "you do not seem to realize that."

"Not this rubbish," said Howard. "Judging by the fuss she made over the inventory, you'd think it might be worth something."

"She has trusted us with it," said Honora. Her voice shook.

He stared at her.

"I never saw you look like that," he declared.

"It's because you never look at me closely," she answered.

He laughed, and resumed his reading. She stood awhile by the railing. Across the way, beyond the wall, she heard Mr. Chamberlin's shrill voice berating a gardener.

"Howard," she asked presently, "why do you come to Newport at all?"

"Why do I come to Newport?" he repeated. "I don't understand you."

"Why do you come up here every week?"

"Well," he said, "it isn't a bad trip on the boat, and I get a change from New York; and see men I shouldn't probably see otherwise." He paused and looked at her again, doubtfully. "Why do you ask such a question?"

"I wished to be sure," said Honora.

"Sure of what?"

"That the-arrangement suited you perfectly. You do not feel-the lack of anything, do you?"

"What do you mean?"

"You wouldn't care to stay in Newport all the time?"

"Not if I know myself," he replied. "I leave that part of it to you."

"What part of it?" she demanded.

"You ought to know. You do it pretty well," he laughed. "By the way, Honora, I've got to have a conference with Mr. Wing to-day, and I may not be home to lunch."

"We're dining there to-night," she told him, in a listless voice.

Upon Ethel Wing had descended the dominating characteristics of the elder James, who, whatever the power he might wield in Wall Street, was little more than a visitor in Newport. It was Ethel's house, from the hour she had swept the Reel and Carter plans (which her father had brought home) from the table and sent for Mr. Farwell. The forehanded Reginald arrived with a sketch, and the result, as every one knows, is one of the chief monuments to his reputation. So exquisitely proportioned is its simple, two-storied marble front as seen through the trees left standing on the old estate, that tourists, having beheld the Chamberlin and other mansions, are apt to think this niggardly for a palace. Two infolding wings, stretching towards the water, enclose a court, and through the slender white pillars of the peristyle one beholds in fancy the summer seas of Greece.

Looking out on the court, and sustaining this classic illusion, is a marble-paved dining room, with hangings of Pompeiian red, and frescoes of nymphs and satyrs and piping shepherds, framed between fluted pilasters, dimly discernible in the soft lights.

In the midst of these surroundings, at the head of his table, sat the great financier whose story but faintly concerns this chronicle; the man who, every day that he had spent down town in New York in the past thirty years, had eaten the same meal in the same little restaurant under the street. This he told Honora, on his left, as though it were not history. He preferred apple pie to the greatest of artistic triumphs of his daughter's chef, and had it; a glorified apple pie, with frills and furbelows, and whipped cream which he angrily swept to one side with contempt.

"That isn't apple pie," he said. "I'd like to take that Frenchman to the little New England hilltown where I went to school and show him what apple pie is."

Such were the autobiographical snatches-by no means so crude as they sound that reached her intelligence from time to time. Mr. Wing was too subtle to be crude; and he had married a Playfair, a family noted for good living. Honora did not know that he was fond of talking of that apple pie and the New England school at public banquets; nor did Mr. Wing suspect that the young woman whom he was apparently addressing, and who seemed to be hanging on his words, was not present.

It was not until she had put her napkin on the table that she awoke with a start and gazed into his face and saw written there still another history than the one he had been telling her. The face was hidden, indeed, by the red beard. What she rea

d was in the little eyes that swept her with a look of possession: possession in a large sense, let it be emphasized, that an exact justice be done Mr. James Wing,-she was one of the many chattels over which his ownership extended; bought and paid for with her husband. A hot resentment ran through her at the thought.

Mr. Cuthbert, who was many kinds of a barometer, sought her out later in the courtyard.

"Your husband's feeling tiptop, isn't he?" said he.

"He's been locked up with old Wing all day. Something's in the wind, and

I'd give a good deal to know what it is."

"I'm afraid I can't inform you," replied Honora.

Mr. Cuthbert apologized.

"Oh, I didn't mean to ask you far a tip," he declared, quite confused. "I didn't suppose you knew. The old man is getting ready to make another killing, that's all. You don't mind my telling you you look stunning tonight, do you?"

Honora smiled.

"No, I don't mind," she said.

Mr. Cuthbert appeared to be ransacking the corners of his brain for words.

"I was watching you to-night at the table while Mr. Wing was talking to you. I don't believe you heard a thing he said."

"Such astuteness," she answered, smiling at him, "astounds me."

He laughed nervously.

"You're different than you've ever been since I've known you," he went on, undismayed. "I hope you won't think I'm making love to you. Not that I shouldn't like to, but I've got sense enough to see it's no use."

Her reply was unexpected.

"What makes you think that?" she asked curiously.

"Oh, I'm not a fool," said Mr. Cuthbert. "But if I were a poet, or that fellow Dewing, I might be able to tell you what your eyes were like to-night."

"I'm glad you're not," said Honora.

As they were going in, she turned for a lingering look at the sea. A strong young moon rode serenely in the sky and struck a path of light across the restless waters. Along this shimmering way the eyes of her companion followed hers.

"I can tell you what that colour is, at least. Do you remember the blue, transparent substance that used to be on favours at children's parties?" he asked. "There were caps inside of them, and crackers."

"I believe you are a poet, after all," she said.

A shadow fell across the flags. Honora did not move.

"Hello, Chiltern," said Cuthbert. "I thought you were playing bridge…"

"You haven't looked at me once to-night," he said, when Cuthbert had gone in.

She was silent.

"Are you angry?"

"Yes, a little," she answered. "Do you blame me?"

The vibration of his voice in the moonlit court awoke an answering chord in her; and a note of supplication from him touched her strangely. Logic in his presence was a little difficult-there can be no doubt of that.

"I must go in," she said unsteadily, "my carriage is waiting."

But he stood in front of her.

"I should have thought you would have gone," she said.

"I wanted to see you again."

"And now?"

"I can't leave while you feel this way," he pleaded. "I can't abandon what I have of you-what you will let me take. If I told you I would be reasonable-"

"I don't believe in miracles," she said, recovering a little; "at least in modern ones. The question is, could you become reasonable?"

"As a last resort," he replied, with a flash of humour and a touch of hope. "If you would-commute my sentence."

She passed him, and picking up her skirts, paused in the window.

"I will give you one more chance," she said.

This was the conversation that, by repeating itself, filled the interval of her drive home. So oblivious was she to Howard's presence, that he called her twice from her corner of the carriage after the vehicle had stopped; and he halted her by seizing her arm as she was about to go up the stairs. She followed him mechanically into the drawing-room.

He closed the door behind them, and the other door into the darkened dining room. He even took a precautionary glance out of the window of the porch. And these movements, which ordinarily might have aroused her curiosity, if not her alarm, she watched with a profound indifference. He took a stand before the Japanese screen in front of the fireplace, thrust his hands in his pockets, cleared his throat, and surveyed her from her white shoulders to the gold-embroidered tips of her slippers.

"I'm leaving for the West in the morning, Honora. If you've made any arrangements for me on Sunday, you'll have to cancel them. I may be gone two weeks, I may be gone a month. I don't know."

"Yes," she said.

"I'm going to tell you something those fellows in the smoking room to-night did their best to screw out of me. If you say anything about it, all's up between me and Wing. The fact that he picked me out to engineer the thing, and that he's going to let me in if I push it through, is a pretty good sign that he thinks something of my business ability, eh?"

"You'd better not tell me, Howard," she said.

"You're too clever to let it out," he assured her; and added with a chuckle: "If it goes through, order what you like. Rent a house on Bellevue Avenue-any thing in reason."

"What is it?" she asked, with a sudden premonition that the thing had a vital significance for her.

"It's the greatest scheme extant," he answered with elation. "I won't go into details-you wouldn't understand'em. Mr. Wing and some others have tried the thing before, nearer home, and it worked like a charm. Street railways. We buy up the little lines for nothing, and get an interest in the big ones, and sell the little lines for fifty times what they cost us, and guarantee big dividends for the big lines."

"It sounds to me," said Honora, slowly, "as though some one would get cheated."

"Some one get cheated!" he exclaimed, laughing. "Every one gets cheated, as you call it, if they haven't enough sense to know what their property's worth, and how to use it to the best advantage. It's a case," he announced, "of the survival of the fittest. Which reminds me that if I'm going to be fit to-morrow I'd better go to bed. Mr. Wing's to take me to New York on his yacht, and you've got to have your wits about you when you talk to the old man."

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