Two gentlemen were seated, one March morning in 189—, in the private office of French and Company, Limited, on lower Broadway. Mr. Kirby, the junior partner—a man of thirty-five, with brown hair and mustache, clean-cut, handsome features, and an alert manner, was smoking cigarettes almost as fast as he could roll them, and at the same time watching the electric clock upon the wall and getting up now and then to stride restlessly back and forth across the room.
Mr. French, the senior partner, who sat opposite Kirby, was an older man—a safe guess would have placed him somewhere in the debatable ground between forty and fifty; of a good height, as could be seen even from the seated figure, the upper part of which was held erect with the unconscious ease which one associates with military training. His closely cropped brown hair had the slightest touch of gray. The spacious forehead, deep-set gray eyes, and firm chin, scarcely concealed by a light beard, marked the thoughtful man of affairs. His face indeed might have seemed austere, but for a sensitive mouth, which suggested a reserve of humour and a capacity for deep feeling. A man of well-balanced character, one would have said, not apt to undertake anything lightly, but sure to go far in whatever he took in hand; quickly responsive to a generous impulse, and capable of a righteous indignation; a good friend, a dangerous enemy; more likely to be misled by the heart than by the head; of the salt of the earth, which gives it savour.
Mr. French sat on one side, Mr. Kirby on the other, of a handsome, broad-topped mahogany desk, equipped with telephones and push buttons, and piled with papers, account books and letter files in orderly array. In marked contrast to his partner's nervousness, Mr. French scarcely moved a muscle, except now and then to take the cigar from his lips and knock the ashes from the end.
"Nine fifty!" ejaculated Mr. Kirby, comparing the clock with his watch. "Only ten minutes more."
Mr. French nodded mechanically. Outside, in the main office, the same air of tense expectancy prevailed. For two weeks the office force had been busily at work, preparing inventories and balance sheets. The firm of French and Company, Limited, manufacturers of crashes and burlaps and kindred stuffs, with extensive mills in Connecticut, and central offices in New York, having for a long time resisted the siren voice of the promoter, had finally faced the alternative of selling out, at a sacrifice, to the recently organised bagging trust, or of meeting a disastrous competition. Expecting to yield in the end, they had fought for position—with brilliant results. Negotiations for a sale, upon terms highly favourable to the firm, had been in progress for several weeks; and the two partners were awaiting, in their private office, the final word. Should the sale be completed, they were richer men than they could have hoped to be after ten years more of business stress and struggle; should it fail, they were heavy losers, for their fight had been expensive. They were in much the same position as the player who had staked the bulk of his fortune on the cast of a die. Not meaning to risk so much, they had been drawn into it; but the game was worth the candle.
"Nine fifty-five," said Kirby. "Five minutes more!"
He strode over to the window and looked out. It was snowing, and the March wind, blowing straight up Broadway from the bay, swept the white flakes northward in long, feathery swirls. Mr. French preserved his rigid attitude, though a close observer might have wondered whether it was quite natural, or merely the result of a supreme effort of will.
Work had been practically suspended in the outer office. The clerks were also watching the clock. Every one of them knew that the board of directors of the bagging trust was in session, and that at ten o'clock it was to report the result of its action on the proposition of French and Company, Limited. The clerks were not especially cheerful; the impending change meant for them, at best, a change of masters, and for many of them, the loss of employment. The firm, for relinquishing its business and good will, would receive liberal compensation; the clerks, for their skill, experience, and prospects of advancement, would receive their discharge. What else could be expected? The principal reason for the trust's existence was economy of administration; this was stated, most convincingly, in the prospectus. There was no suggestion, in that model document, that competition would be crushed, or that, monopoly once established, labour must sweat and the public groan in order that a few captains, or chevaliers, of industry, might double their dividends. Mr. French may have known it, or guessed it, but he was between the devil and the deep sea—a victim rather than an accessory—he must take what he could get, or lose what he had.
Kirby, as he breathed rather than spoke the words, threw away his scarcely lighted cigarette, and gripped the arms of his chair spasmodically. His partner's attitude had not varied by a hair's breadth; except for the scarcely perceptible rise and fall of his chest he might have been a wax figure. The pallor of his countenance would have strengthened the illusion.
Kirby pushed his chair back and sprung to his feet. The clock marked the hour, but nothing happened. Kirby was wont to say, thereafter, that the ten minutes that followed were the longest day of his life. But everything must have an end, and their suspense was terminated by a telephone call. Mr. French took down the receiver and placed it to his ear.
"It's all right," he announced, looking toward his partner. "Our figures accepted—resolution adopted—settlement to-morrow. We are——"
The receiver fell upon the table with a crash. Mr. French toppled over, and before Kirby had scarcely realised that something was the matter, had sunk unconscious to the floor, which, fortunately, was thickly carpeted.
It was but the work of a moment for Kirby to loosen his partner's collar, reach into the recesses of a certain drawer in the big desk, draw out a flask of brandy, and pour a small quantity of the burning liquid down the unconscious man's throat. A push on one of the electric buttons summoned a clerk, with whose aid Mr. French was lifted to a leather-covered couch that stood against the wall. Almost at once the effect of the stimulant was apparent, and he opened his eyes.
"I suspect," he said, with a feeble attempt at a smile, "that I must have fainted—like a woman—perfectly ridiculous."
"Perfectly natural," replied his partner. "You have scarcely slept for two weeks—between the business and Phil—and you've reached the end of your string. But it's all over now, except the shouting, and you can sleep a week if you like. You'd better go right up home. I'll send for a cab, and call Dr. Moffatt, and ask him to be at the hotel by the time you reach it. I'll take care of things here to-day, and after a good sleep you'll find yourself all right again."
"Very well, Kirby," replied Mr. French, "I feel as weak as water, but I'm all here. It might have been much worse. You'll call up Mrs. Jerviss, of course, and let her know about the sale?"
When Mr. French, escorted to the cab by his partner, and accompanied by a clerk, had left for home, Kirby rang up the doctor, and requested him to look after Mr. French immediately. He then called for another number, and after the usual delay, first because the exchange girl was busy, and then because the line was busy, found himself in communication with the lady for whom he had asked.
"It's all right, Mrs. Jerviss," he announced without preliminaries. "Our terms accepted, and payment to be made, in cash and bonds, as soon as the papers are executed, when you will be twice as rich as you are to-day."
"Thank you, Mr. Kirby! And I suppose I shall never have another happy moment until I know what to do with it. Money is a great trial. I often envy the poor."
Kirby smiled grimly. She little knew how near she had been to ruin. The active partners had mercifully shielded her, as far as possible, from the knowledge of their common danger. If the worst happened, she must know, of course; if not, then, being a woman whom they both liked—she would be spared needless anxiety. How closely they had skirted the edge of disaster she did not learn until afterward; indeed, Kirby himself had scarcely appreciated the true situation, and even the senior partner, since he had not been present at the meeting of the trust managers, could not know what had been in their minds.
But Kirby's voice gave no hint of these reflections. He laughed a cheerful laugh. "If the world only knew," he rejoined, "it would cease to worry about the pains of poverty, and weep for the woes of wealth."
"Indeed it would!" she replied, with a seriousness which seemed almost sincere. "Is Mr. French there? I wish to thank him, too."
"No, he has just gone home."
"At this hour?" she exclaimed, "and at such a time? What can be the matter? Is Phil worse?"
"No, I think not. Mr. French himself had a bad turn, for a few minutes, after we learned the news."
Faces are not yet visible over the telephone, and Kirby could not see that for a moment the lady's grew white. But when she spoke again the note of concern in her voice was very evident.
"It was nothing—serious?"
"Oh, no, not at all, merely overwork, and lack of sleep, and the suspense--and the reaction. He recovered almost immediately, and one of the clerks went home with him."
"Has Dr. Moffatt been notified?" she asked.
"Yes, I called him up at once; he'll be at the Mercedes by the time the patient arrives."
There was a little further conversation on matters of business, and Kirby would willingly have prolonged it, but his news about Mr. French had plainly disturbed the lady's equanimity, and Kirby rang off, after arranging to call to see her in person after business hours.
Mr. Kirby hung up the receiver with something of a sigh.
"A fine woman," he murmured, "I could envy French his chances, though he doesn't seem to see them--that is, if I were capable of envy toward so fine a fellow and so good a friend. It's curious how clear-sighted a man can be in some directions, and how blind in others."
Mr. French lived at the Mercedes, an uptown apartment hotel overlooking Central Park. He had scarcely reached his apartment, when the doctor arrived—a tall, fair, fat practitioner, and one of the best in New York; a gentleman as well, and a friend of Mr. French.
"My dear fellow," he said, after a brief examination, "you've been burning the candle at both ends, which, at your age won't do at all. No, indeed! No, indeed! You've always worked too hard, and you've been worrying too much about the boy, who'll do very well now, with care. You've got to take a rest—it's all you need. You confess to no bad habits, and show the signs of none; and you have a fine constitution. I'm going to order you and Phil away for three months, to some mild climate, where you'll be free from business cares and where the boy can grow strong without having to fight a raw Eastern spring. You might try the Riviera, but I'm afraid the sea would be too much for Phil just yet; or southern California—but the trip is tiresome. The South is nearer at hand. There's Palm Beach, or Jekyll Island, or Thomasville, Asheville, or Aiken—somewhere down in the pine country. It will be just the thing for the boy's lungs, and just the place for you to rest. Start within a week, if you can get away. In fact, you've got
to get away."
Mr. French was too weak to resist—both body and mind seemed strangely relaxed—and there was really no reason why he should not go. His work was done. Kirby could attend to the formal transfer of the business. He would take a long journey to some pleasant, quiet spot, where he and Phil could sleep, and dream and ride and drive and grow strong, and enjoy themselves. For the moment he felt as though he would never care to do any more work, nor would he need to, for he was rich enough. He would live for the boy. Phil's education, his health, his happiness, his establishment in life—these would furnish occupation enough for his well-earned retirement.
It was a golden moment. He had won a notable victory against greed and craft and highly trained intelligence. And yet, a year later, he was to recall this recent past with envy and regret; for in the meantime he was to fight another battle against the same forces, and others quite as deeply rooted in human nature. But he was to fight upon a new field, and with different weapons, and with results which could not be foreseen.
But no premonition of impending struggle disturbed Mr. French's pleasant reverie; it was broken in a much more agreeable manner by the arrival of a visitor, who was admitted by Judson, Mr. French's man. The visitor was a handsome, clear-eyed, fair-haired woman, of thirty or thereabouts, accompanied by another and a plainer woman, evidently a maid or companion. The lady was dressed with the most expensive simplicity, and her graceful movements were attended by the rustle of unseen silks. In passing her upon the street, any man under ninety would have looked at her three times, the first glance instinctively recognising an attractive woman, the second ranking her as a lady; while the third, had there been time and opportunity, would have been the long, lingering look of respectful or regretful admiration.
"How is Mr. French, Judson?" she inquired, without dissembling her anxiety.
"He's much better, Mrs. Jerviss, thank you, ma'am."
"I'm very glad to hear it; and how is Phil?"
"Quite bright, ma'am, you'd hardly know that he'd been sick. He's gaining strength rapidly; he sleeps a great deal; he's asleep now, ma'am. But, won't you step into the library? There's a fire in the grate, and I'll let Mr. French know you are here."
But Mr. French, who had overheard part of the colloquy, came forward from an adjoining room, in smoking jacket and slippers.
"How do you do?" he asked, extending his hand. "It was mighty good of you to come to see me."
"And I'm awfully glad to find you better," she returned, giving him her slender, gloved hand with impulsive warmth. "I might have telephoned, but I wanted to see for myself. I felt a part of the blame to be mine, for it is partly for me, you know, that you have been over-working."
Copyright © 2005 by Charles Chesnutt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.