- CHAPTER XXVI WHEN THE SECRET CAME OUT
|<< chapter 25||< chapter 1||chapter 27 >|
WHEN THE SECRET CAME OUT
FATHER was in the library when Peter got home. One did not open the door and walk straight into this sacred room. One knocked, and if Father happened to be engaged in any pursuit which he did not wish the family eye to see, he had time to smuggle it away and take up a newspaper, or even a book, before calling out "Come in."
To-day, not being well, he was allowing himself the luxury of a jig-saw puzzle, but as he considered the amusement frivolous for a man of his position, at the sound of his son's voice he hustled the board containing the half-finished picture into a drawer of his roll-top desk. In order to be doing something, he caught up a paper. It was Town Tales, and his eye, searching instinctively for the name of Rolls, saw that of the Marchese di Rivoli coupled with it and a slighting allusion. A wave of physical weakness surged over the withered man as he asked himself if he had done wrong in sanctioning his daughter's engagement to the Italian.
"What do you want?" he greeted Petro testily.
He was invariably testy when indigestion had him in its claw, and his tone gave warning that this was a bad moment. Still Petro was bursting with his subject. He could not bear to postpone the fight. Instead of putting it off, he resolved to be exceedingly careful in his tactics.| | 288
"I want to talk with you, Father, if you don't mind," he began pleasantly. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything important?"
"I am supposed to be left to myself in the mornings," said Peter senior, martyrized. "Though I don't go to the store, I must read Croft's reports and keep in touch with things."
"It's about the store I'd like to talk." Peter was thankful for this opening. He perched hesitatingly on the arm of an adipose easy chair, not having been specifically invited to sit.
"Why, what have you got to say about the Hands?" Defiance underlay tone and look.
"It was in this very room I promised you I'd keep my hands off the Hands," Peter quoted. "But I want you to let me take the promise back."
"I'll do nothing of the sort!" shrilled Peter senior. "What do you mean?"
"I need to work. I've tried other things, but my thoughts always come back to the Hands. I'm proud of your success, you know. I want to—to batten on it. And I want to carry it on. I have ideas of my own."
"I bet you have, and damned poor ideas, too," snapped the old man. "I'm not going to have them tried in my place while I'm alive."
"Let me tell you what some of them are, won't you, before you condemn them?" his son pleaded, refusing to be ruffled.
"No. I won't have my time wasted on any such childishness," growled Peter senior. "You ought to know better than to trouble me with every silly, trifling idea you get into your head."
"To me this is not trifling," Peter argued. "It's so serious that if you refuse to take me into your business—I don't care how humble a position you start me in—I shall begin to make my own way in the world, I | | 289 can't go on as I am, living on you, with an allowance that comes out of the Hands, unless you give me some hope that I can soon work up to having a voice in the management."
"I suppose what you are really hinting at is a bigger allowance under a different name," sneered old Peter. "Now you're turning socialist—oh, you don't suppose I'm blind, when I come to your name and your quixotic schemes in the newspapers! You don't like the red-hot chaps raving about 'unearned increment,' or whatever they call it."
"No, it isn't that," Peter said simply. "I don't much care what people say, so long as I can help things along a bit; though, of course, I'd rather it would be with my money than yours, no matter how generous you are about giving and asking no questions. I don't ask for more, or want it. But I do want to feel that—forgive me, Father!—I do want to feel that on the money I handle there's no sweat wrung out of men's bodies or tears from women's eyes."
Peter senior had sat only half turned from his desk as if suggesting to Peter junior that the sooner he was allowed to get back to work, the better. But at these last words, unexpected as a blow, he swung violently round in his revolving chair to glare at the young man.
"Well, I'm damned!" he ejaculated.
Peter sincerely hoped not, but felt that silence was safer than putting his hopes into words.
"This comes of turning socialist! You insult your father who supports you in luxury——"
"I don't mean to insult you, Father, and I don't want to be supported in luxury. I want to work for every cent I have. I want to work hard."
"I never thought," Peter senior reflected aloud, abruptly changing his tone, "to hear a son of mine | | 290 spout this sort of cheap folderol, and I never thought that anyone of my blood would be weak enough to come crawling and begging to break a solemn promise."
"It means strength, not weakness, to break some promises—the kind that never ought to have been made," Peter junior defended himself. "I'd break it without crawling or begging if I thought you'd prefer, except that it would be no use. Unless I had your permission, I couldn't get taken into the Hands."
"Well, you don't get it. See?" retorted the head of the Hands as rudely as he could ever have spoken in old days to his humblest subordinate.
"Then, Father, if that's your last word on the subject," said Petro, rising, "this means for you and me, where business is concerned, the parting of the ways."
The old man's sallow face was slowly, darkly suffused with red. "You're trying to bully me," he grunted. "But I'm not taking any bluff."
"You misjudge me." Petro still kept his temper. "I'd be a disgusting cad to try on such a game with you, and I don't think I am that. I'm more thankful than I can tell you for all you've done for me. You've had a hard life yourself, and you've secured me an easy one. You never had time to see the world, but you let me see it because I longed to—when I found you had no use for me in the business. You let me give money away, and, thanks to your generosity, one or two schemes I had at heart are in working order already. There's enough saved out of my allowance for the last few years to see them through, if I never take another cent from you. And I never will, from this day on, Father, while you run the Hands on present lines."
"You're a blank idiot!" snarled the old man; but | | 291 a strained, almost frightened look was sketched in queer lines on his yellow face. He was thinking of Ena and of the newspapers. He could hear the dogs yapping round his feet.
"Young Peter Rolls breaks away from home. Earns his living with his own hands, not father's Hands. What he says about his principles"—or some such rot as that would certainly appear in big black headlines just when Ena and her magnificent marchese were searching the columns for gush over the forthcoming marriage. It would spoil the girl's pleasure in her wedding.
Old Peter was furious with young Peter, but began angrily to realize that the matter was indeed serious. He desired to be violent, but fear of Ena dashed cold water on the fire of his rage. Against his will and against his nature he began to temporize, meaning later to revenge his present humiliation upon his son.
"Who the devil has been upsetting you with lies about the Hands?"he spluttered.
"I'm afraid we must take for granted that what has 'upset' me isn't lies." Peter let his sadness show in face and voice. "I don't wonder you're surprised and perhaps angry at my coming to you and suddenly throwing out some sort of accusation, when year after year I've been receiving money from the Hands, as meek as a lamb without a word or question. I don't defend myself for lack of interest in the past or for too much now. Maybe I'm to blame both ways. But please remember, Father, you said that unless I distrusted you, I was to stand aside. After that I was so anxious to prove I trusted you, all right, that I hurried to promise before I'd stopped to think. Since then I've been made to think—furiously to think—and——"
"I was brought up to believe there was no excuse | | 292 for breaking a promise," Peter senior cut him short severely.
There was Petro's chance to score, and—right or wrong—he took it.
"Then things have changed since the days when you were being brought up," he said, with one of those straight, clear looks old Peter had always disliked as between son and father. "Because, you know you promised Ena you would give up going to the store except for important business meetings once or twice a year. And you haven't given it up. You go there nearly every night."
Peter senior physically quailed. His great secret was found out! No use to bluster. Somehow young Peter had got hold of the long-hidden truth. He was, in a way, at the fellow's mercy. If Petro chose to tell Ena this thing she would fancy that every one except the family knew how old Peter's grubbing habits had never been shaken off; that with him once a shopkeeper always a shopkeeper, and that behind her back people must be laughing at the difference between her aristocratic airs and her father's commonness.
The old man's stricken face shocked Peter. He was as much ashamed of himself as if he had kicked his father.
"I oughtn't to have told you, I know," he stammered. "Anyhow, not like this. I'm sorry."
Peter senior gathered himself together and feebly bluffed.
"You needn't be sorry," he blustered in a thin voice at the top of his throat. "What do I care whether you know or not? There's no disgrace in looking after my own business, I guess! To please Ena, I've made a sort of secret of it, that's all. I never ' promised." I only let her and other folks it didn't concern suppose I lived in idleness, like the lords they admire so much. No | | 293 harm in that! As for you, you're welcome to know what I do with my time when I go to New York. But it's none of your business, all the same, and you'd better keep still about it, or you'll regret your meddling. Who told you? That's what I want to get at. Who stuffed you up to the neck with all that damned nonsense about' sweat and tears'? I bet it's the same man who tried to blackmail me with my own son about my going to the Hands nights."
"It wasn't a man who told me," said Peter, "it was a woman—or, rather, a girl. It was me she was blaming, not you. She thought I was responsible for the wrongs she and other employés suffer from. She didn't know it was a secret, your visiting the place. She simply mentioned it as a fact——"
"And you, a son of mine, stood quietly listening to abuse of your father and the house that's made his fortune—his fortune and yours—from a pert young clerk in his store!"
At last Peter senior could speak with the voice of injured virtue. He could reach Peter junior with the well-deserved lash of reproach. But no! The lash striking out, touched air.
"Father, I listened because I love the girl," Peter answered. "Wait, please! Let me explain. I fell in love with her on the Monarchic. Then something happened and I lost sight of her. Yesterday I found her at the Hands. I wanted to talk to her about love, but she made me listen to her instead. She said sharp things about the store, things that cut like knives. Don't think I'm accusing you if the Hands is a sweat-shop. You trust Croft, and he's abused his trust. That must be it. For God's sake, give me a chance to help you put things straight."
For a moment—a long moment—Peter senior did not speak, and Peter junior would have given much to | | 294 know where his thoughts had gone. They were away somewhere—with the Hands or with the girl who had made Petro listen.
"Will you do it, Father? Will you give me a chance?" his son repeated.
Old Peter started. "Old Peter" seemed the only name that fitted him just then.
"One of my children is going to marry a marquis and the other wants to marry a clerk behind my counters," he almost whimpered.
Then Petro knew, without telling, which direction his father's thoughts had taken.
"Don't be afraid that she isn't a lady." The young man humoured the old man's prejudices. "She's English and beautiful and clever and brave. She saved a woman from being burned to death to-day at the Hands. She didn't tell me that story, but I heard it. God made her to be a princess. Misfortune put her behind a counter in our store. Oh, no! not misfortune. Though she's had a hard time at the Hands, and shows it in her face, I believe she'd say herself that she's glad of the experience. And if through her those that have suffered wrong from us can be——"
"Don't talk to me any more about all this just now, my son," Peter senior suddenly implored rather than commanded. "You've given me a shock—several shocks. I—I'm not fit for 'em to-day, I guess. I told you I wasn't well. I'm feeling bad. I'm feeling mighty bad."
His looks confirmed his words. In the last few moments, since the angry flush had passed, the old man's face had faded to a sicklier yellow than Petro had ever seen upon it—except one day, long ago, when Peter Rolls senior had tried to be a yachtsman in order to please Ena—and the weather had been unkind. The young man was stabbed by remorse. Reason told him | | 295 that now was the moment to press his point home. But compassion bade him withdraw it from the wound. It was true that his father was not well and had warned him of the fact at the beginning of their conversation. Petro had gone too far.
"I'm sorry, Father," he apologized. "I meant to stir you up, but I didn't mean to give you a shock. Shall I ring? Is there anything you want?"
"Only to be alone," replied the other. "I'll lie down here on the sofa. By and by, if I don't feel better, I'll go to my room maybe and make it dark and sleep this headache off. I don't remember when I've been so bad. But don't say anything to your mother."
"You mean about your going to the Hands? She knows about the girl."
"No, I mean about my head. I don't care whether or no your mother hears that I go to the Hands. Its Ena and outside folks I care for, and them only for Ena's sake. She's so proud! And when she gets home from France——"
"Not a word to her, I promise. Nor to anyone outside. But do you know, I believe Mother would be glad to hear that you sometimes go to the store? She'd think it was like old times. And she loves the old times."
"Tell your mother anything you like. She's got a still tongue in her head." Peter senior gasped out his words with the desperate air of a man at the end of his tether. "Only go now—go, and let my head rest. You and I can discuss all these things later. That'll be best for us both."
Peter junior was silenced, though he thought he knew his father too well to draw great encouragement from an offer of future discussion. The old man assuredly did feel ill, and it would have been brutal to force him into further argument. The only thing was to go now and | | 296 attack him again before the sensitive surface of his feelings had had time thoroughly to harden.
Young Peter and his mother lunched alone together at the stately English hour of two which Ena had decreed for the household. Old Peter had ordered a cup of hot milk and had sent word that, his indigestion being rather worse than usual, he intended to spend the afternoon lying down. This had often happened before, and Mother, though distressed, was not alarmed.
She would not have admitted it in words to herself, but she was happy in her tête-à-tête with Petro. He had his place moved near hers. They dared to dismiss the dignified servants and help themselves to what they wanted. Or rather, Petro jumped up and helped her, whether she wanted things or not. They talked about Miss Child, and Petro related his adventure at the Hands, which he had not, until the luncheon hour, been able to describe in detail.
He told his mother again, several times over, how wonderful Win was, and Mother was not bored. She listened with a rapt smile, especially to the part about the fire in the hospital room and the girl's quick presence of mind. Win having refused to confess how she had hurt her hands, Petro had used the influence of his name to find out, tactfully, from another source, all that had happened. And he made quite a good story out of it for his mother. The latter promised gladly to go and see Miss Child and to wear the pearl-grey wrap, which she thought very pretty, reflecting marvellous credit on the taste of the chooser.
Petro did not touch upon Miss Child's indictment of the Hands. It seemed unnecessary to distress Mother just when she was interested and even delighted (not at all shocked or startled) at having Father's secret broken to her.
"It's more natural," she said, "that he should take | | 297 an interest in the Hands. More like he used to be. I often wondered——"
Another sentence which she did not need to finish!
For a while Petro's whole soul was so steeped in the joy of Mother's sympathy, and in plans for the future, that he forgot the faint uneasiness which had stirred within him at Father's message about the milk. Something had seemed to whisper: "It's only an excuse." And his asking not to be disturbed all the afternoon, "can it mean that he's got a special reason for wanting to be let alone hour after hour?"
But Petro and Mother had been deep in conversation before the whisper came. In the very midst of it she had asked a beautifully understanding question about Win, and in answering Petro forgot everything else for a time.
They talked intimately in the big unfriendly, imitation Elizabethan dining-room which for once they had to themselves. And then they continued their talk still more intimately in the "den." It was only the grandfather clock striking four that reminded Petro of his uneasiness and of the whisper.
Why it did remind him he could hardly have explained except that the clock had a very curious individuality for him. It had belonged to his great-grandmother and had come down through her to his mother. Even as a little boy he had felt that it was more than a clock: it was an old friend who had ticked through the years, keeping time with the heart-beats of those for whom it told the passing moments of life and death. Often he had imagined that with its ticking it gave good advice, if only one could understand. Now, when it struck four, it seemed to Petro that it did so in a dry, peremptory manner intended to be arresting, to remind him of something important that he was in danger of forgetting.| | 298
This pause in his thoughts left room for the whisper to come again. It came, adding to its first suggestion: "Don't you know that while you and Mother were lingering so happily over your lunch Father stole away and went off to make mischief between you and the girl?"
Petro sprang up. He was ashamed to harbour such a thought of treachery, but it was there. He could easily learn whether Father had gone to New York by inquiring if one of the motors had been taken out. But it was hardly worth while to ask questions. Peter knew that his father had gone, and why.
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