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   Chapter 3 No.3

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 16924

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Hillars hadn't been down to the office in two days, so the assistant said.

"Is he ill?" I asked, as I carried a chair to the window.

"Ill?" The young man coughed affectedly.

"Do you believe it possible for him to come in this afternoon?"

"It is quite possible. One does not use the word impossible in regard to Hillars. It is possible that he may be in St. Petersburg by this time, for all I know. You see," with an explanatory wave of the hand, "he's very uncertain in his movements. For the last six months he has been playing all over the table, to use the parlance of the roulette player. I have had to do most of the work, and take care of him into the bargain. If I may take you into my confidence--," with some hesitancy.

"Certainly," said I. "I want you to tell me all about him. He was my roommate at college. Perhaps I can straighten him up."

"The truth is, the trouble began last September. He came back from the Continent, where he had been on an errand, a changed man. Hillars always drank, but never to an alarming extent. On his return, however, he was in a bad shape. It was nearly November before I got him sobered up; and then he went under on an average of three times a week. I asked him bluntly what he meant by it, and he frankly replied that if he wanted to drink himself to death, that was his business. When he isn't half-seas over he is gloomy and morose. From the first I knew that something had gone wrong on the mainland; but I couldn't trap him for a farthing. No man at his age drinks himself to death without cause; I told him so, but he only laughed at me. I'd give a good deal to know what the truth is; not from curiosity, mind you, but to find the disease in order to apply a remedy. Dan's father died of drink."

"No," said I coldly; "he was shot."

"Oh, I know that," was the reply; "but give a conditioned man the same wound and he will recover, nine times out of ten. The elder Hillars was so enervated by drink that he had no strength to fight the fever which came on top of the bullet-hole. Something happened over there; and it's pounds to pence there's a woman back of the curtain. It is some one worth while. Hillars is not a man to fall in love with a barmaid."

I began to respect the young man's wisdom.

"So you believe it to be a woman?"

"Yes. The wind blows from one point at a time. There are four points to the vane of destiny; there is ambition for glory, ambition for power, ambition for wealth, and ambition for love. In Hillars's case, since the wind does not blow from the first three, it must necessarily blow from the fourth. You know him better than I do; so you must certainly know that Hillars is not a man to drink because glory or power or wealth refused to visit him."

"You are a very discerning young man," said I, whereat he laughed.

"Did he get my cable?"

"No. I thought that it was some order from headquarters and opened it myself. I put it in his desk. I spoke to him, but he was too drunk to pay any heed to what I said. Well, I must be going. I am getting out a symposium of editorials from the morning papers on the possibility of a Franco-Russian alliance. It must be at the cable office in half an hour. If you are going to wait, you'll find the Berlin and Paris files in the next room. I'll see you later," and he departed.

It was five of the clock. The Strand was choked. Here and there I saw the color of martial attire. Save for this, and that the buildings were low and solid, and that most of the people walked slower, I might have been looking down upon Broadway for all the change of place I saw. There is not much difference between New York and London, except in the matter of locomotion. The American gets around with more rapidity than does his English cousin, but in the long run he accomplishes no more. It is only when one steps onto the Continent that the real difference in the human races is discerned. Strange as this may seem, it is not distinguishable in a cosmopolitan city. My eyes were greeted with the same huge wearisome signs of the merchants; the same sad-eyed "sandwich men;" the same newsboys yelling and scampering back and forth; the same rumble of the omnibuses, the roar of the drays, and the rattle of the cabs. I was not much interested in all I saw. Suddenly my roving eyes rested upon a familiar face. It was Hillars, and he was pushing rapidly across the street. Any one would have instantly marked him for an American by the nervous stride, the impatience at being obstructed. I went into the fire-room, intending to give him a little surprise. I did not have long to wait. The door to the main office opened and he came in, singing a snatch from a drinking song we used to sing at college. The rich baritone that had once made the old glee club famous was a bit husky and throaty. I heard him unlock his desk and roll back the lid. There was a quiet for a moment.

"Dick!" he called. "Hi, Dick! Well, I'm hanged!"

Evidently he had discovered my cable.

"Dick isn't in," said I, crossing the threshold.

In a moment our hands were welded together, and we were gazing into each other's eyes.

"You old reprobate!" I cried; "not to have met me at the station, even."

"Bless my soul, Jack, this cable was the first intimation that you were within 3,000 miles of London. But it does my heart good to see you!" pumping my hand again. "Come out to dinner with me. Now don't begin to talk till we've had something to eat; I'm almost famished. I know all the questions you want to ask, but not now. There's a Bohemian joint a block above that'll do your heart good to see. We'll have chops and ale, just like we did in the old days, the green and salad days, I would they were back again"-soberly. "Oh, I've a long story to tell you, my son; time enough when we get to my rooms; but not a word of it now-not a word. It will all be forgotten in ten minutes with you. We'll rake up the old days and live 'em over for an hour or so. I'm glad that I suggested you in my letter. What did the old man say about my nervous prostration?"-with half a laugh.

"He put quotation marks around it," I answered. "I wanted to see you particularly. They told me that you were rolling downhill so fast that if some one did not put a fulcrum under you, you'd be at the bottom in no time at all. I'm going to be the lever by which you are to be rolled uphill again."

He smiled grimly. "If any one could do that-well, here we are;" and we entered the chop house and took a table in one of the side rooms. "Woods," he said to the waiter, "chops for two, chipped potatoes, and fill up those steins of mine with ale. That will be all. I brought those steins from across, Jack; you'll go crazy over them, for they are beauties."

A college-bred bachelor, nine times out of ten, has a mania for collecting pipes or steins, or both. Dan and I had been affected this way. During the year I had studied at Heidelberg I had gathered together some fifty odd pipes and steins. I have them yet, and many a pleasant memory they beget me. As for the steins of Dan, they were beyond compare.

"I'll tell you a story about them," said Dan, after he had taken a deep swallow of the amber ale. "Few men can boast of steins like these. Not many months ago there was a party of men and women, belonging to the capital of a certain kingdom, who attended a dinner. It was one of those times when exalted personages divest themselves of the dignity and pomp of court and become free and informal. There were twenty of these steins made especially for the occasion. By a circumstance, over which I had no control, I was the only alien at this dinner. The steins were souvenirs. How I came by two was due to the lady whom I took down to dinner, and who presented hers to me after having-after having-well, kissed the rim. Do you see the crest?" pointing to the exquisite inlaid work.

"Why," I said eagerly, "it is the crest of--"

"Yes, a noted King," Dan completed. "And these were made by his express command. But never mind," he broke off. "It's merely a part of the story I am going to tell you when we get to my rooms. I am always thinking of it, night and day, day and night. Talk to me, or I'll be drinking again. This is the first time I've been sober in a month. It's drink or morphine or something like. Do you ever see anything of the old glee boys?"

"Once in a while. You know," said I, lighting a cigarette, "all

the fellows but you and I had money. Most of them are carrying on the business of their paters and ornamenting dinner parties and cotillions."

"I thought that you had a rich uncle," said Dan.

"I did have, but he is no more," and I told him all about the bequest.

He laughed so long and heartily over it that I was glad for his sake that it had happened. Already I was beginning to look wholly upon the humorous side of the affair.

"It is almost too good not to be printed," he said. "But his son may square matters when he dies."

"I do not want matters squared," I growled. "I can earn a living for a few years to come. I shan't worry."

"By the way, is that Miss Landors whom you used to rave about in your letters married yet?"

"No." Miss Landors was Phyllis only to her intimate friends. I called the waiter and ordered him to replenish my stein, Dan watching me curiously the while. "No, Miss Landors is not married yet."

"I have often wondered what she looked like," he mused.

"When do you go on your vacation?" I asked irrelevantly.

"In a week or ten days; may be to-morrow. It's according to how long I stay sober."

I was sorry that he had recalled to me the name of Phyllis. It dampened my sociability. I was not yet prepared to take him into my confidence. The ale, however, loosened our tongues, and though we did not talk about our present affairs we had a pleasant time recounting the days when we were young in the sense that we had no real trouble. Those were the times when we were earning fifteen and twenty the week; when our watches were always in durance vile; when we lied to the poor washerwoman and to the landlady; when we would always be "around to-morrow" and "settle up" with our creditors.

"There was no ennui those days," laughed Hillars.

"True. Do you remember the day you stayed in bed because it was cheaper to sleep than work on an empty stomach?"

"And do you remember the time I saved you from jail by giving the Sheriff my new spring overcoat to pay a washerwoman's bill of six months' standing?"

"I hung around Jersey City that day," said I. And then there was more ale; and so on. It was nine when at last we rose.

"Well, we'll go back to the office and get your case," said Dan.

"Where's your trunk?"

"At the Victoria."

"All your luggage must be sent to my rooms. I will not hear of your going elsewhere for lodging while in town. I have a floor, and you shall share it. It's a bachelor's ranch from basement to garret, inhabited by artists, journalists, one or two magazine men, a clever novelist, and three of our New York men. There is no small fry save myself. We have little banquets every Friday night, and they sometimes last till Saturday noon. I've taught the Frenchman who represents the Paris Temps how to play poker, and he threatens to become my Frankenstein, who will eventually devour me." Hillars laughed, and it sounded like the laughter of other days. "Jack, I think you will do me good. Stay with me and keep me away from the bottle if you can. No man drinks for pure love of liquor. My father never loved it, and God knows what he was trying to forget. For that's the substance of it all, to forget. When you start out to the point of forgetfulness, you must keep it up; regret comes back threefold with soberness. It seems silly and weak for a man who has been buffeted as I have, who is supposed to gather wisdom and philosophy as a snowball gathers snow as it rolls down hill, to try to drown regret and disappointment in liquor. A man never knows how weak he is till he meets the one woman and she will have none of him."

And somehow I got closer to Hillars, spiritually. There were two of us, so it seemed, only I was stronger, or else my passion did not burn so furiously as his.

The apartments occupied by Dan were all a bachelor could wish for. The walls were covered with photographs, original drawings, beer steins, pipes, a slipper here, a fan there, and books and books and books. I felt at home at once.

I watched Hillars as he moved about the room, tidying up things a bit, and I noticed now more than ever how changed he was. His face had grown thin, his hair was slightly worn at the crown and temples, and there were dark circles under his eyes. Yet, for all these signs of dissipation, he was still a remarkably handsome man. Though not so robust as when I last saw him, his form was yet elegant. In the old days we had called him Adonis, and Donie had clung to him long after the Cambridge time.

"Now," said he, when we had lighted our pipes, "I'll tell you why I'm going to the dogs. I've got to tell it to some one or go daft; and I can't say that I'm not daft as it is."

"It is a woman," said I, after reflection, "who causes a man to drink, to lose all ambition."

"It is."

"It is a woman," I went on, holding the amber stem of my pipe before the light which gleamed golden through the transparent gum, "who causes a man to pull up stakes and prospect for new claims, to leave the new country for the old."

"It is a woman indeed," he replied. He was gazing at me with a new interest. "If the woman had accepted him, he would not have been here."

"No, he would not," said I.

"In either case, yours or mine."

"In either case. Go on with your story; there's nothing more to add to mine."

Some time passed, and nothing but the breathing of the pipes was heard. Now and then I would poke away at the ashes in my pipe bowl, and Dan would do the same.

"Have you a picture of her?" I asked, reaching for some fresh tobacco.

"No; I am afraid to keep one."

To me this was a new phase in the matter of grand passions.

"A likeness which never changes its expression means nothing to me," he explained. "Her face in all its moods is graven in my mind; I have but to shut my eyes, and she stands before me in all her loveliness. Do you know why I wanted this vacation? Rest?" His shoulders went up and his lips closed tighter. "My son, I want no rest. It is rest which is killing me. I am going across. I am going to see her again, if only from the curb as she rolls past in her carriage, looking at me but not recognizing me, telling her footman to brush me aside should I attempt to speak to her. Yet I would suffer this humiliation to see that glorious face once more, to hear again that voice, though it were keyed to scorn. I am a fool, Jack. What! have I gone all these years free-heart to love a chimera in the end? Verily I am an ass. She is a Princess; she has riches; she has a principality; she is the ward of a King. What has she to do with such as I? Three months in the year she dwells in her petty palace; the other months find her here and there; Paris, St. Petersburg, or Rome, as fancy wills. And I, I love her! Is it not rich? What am I? A grub burrowing at the root of the tree in which she, like a bird of paradise, displays her royal plumage. 'Masters, remember that I am an ass; though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass.' The father of this Princess once rendered the present King's father a great service, and in return the King turned over to his care a principality whose lineal descendants had died out. It was with the understanding that so long as he retained the King's goodwill, just so long he might possess the principality, and that when he died the sovereignty would pass to his children. The old King died, and his son sat upon his father's throne. The father of the Princess also died. The King of to-day made the same terms as his father before him. The Princess Hildegarde accepted them, not counting the cost. Last spring she was coronated. Shortly before the coronation, Prince Ernst of Wortumborg became a suitor for her hand. The King was very much pleased. Prince Ernst was a cousin of the Princess Hildegarde's father, and had striven for the principality in the days gone by. The King, thinking to repair the imaginary wrongs of the Prince, forced the suit. He impressed upon the Princess that it was marry the Prince or give up her principality. She gave her consent, not knowing what to do under the circumstances. Prince Ernst is a Prince without principality or revenues. In marrying the Princess he acquires both. I shall tell you how I became concerned."

Hillars laid his smoking pipe in the ash pan. He got up and roamed about the room, stopped at the window and stared at the inken sky, then returned to his chair.

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