( Originally Published 1917 )
AS a matter of fact each went a different route, for Rodney climbed up on a stage to get the fresh air, he said, and Peale wended his way east on foot.
Poor Ambrose ! He wouldn't have admitted it to anybody in the world but for once in his life he was downcast and discouraged. His unfailing goodnature was cloaked and veiled a little, and no mistake. He was blue.
What was worse his blues lasted, off and on, this time, for almost two weeks. He had felt an extra loneliness at the office lately, an extra width of separation between himself and the two lovers. Whether from his blues, or the bachelor regrets for the married bliss that might have been, which every now and then assails the sturdiest single man, he imagined something rather special between Mary and Rodney these days. And yet it was part of his creed to appear almost always chipper and joyful in the office. If he had moments of depression at home he did not talk about them down town. His companions in the company did not see the drooping of his spirits any more than they guessed the dreary view of New York backyards that he saw from his windows when he reached the place that stood him in the stead of home.
He let himself in the front door of his boarding house, one afternoon late, kicking the pink gas bill that had been tucked beneath it as he crossed the threshold, and his nose was assailed by that familiar but never enjoyable, mingled odor of cats and turnips that pervades the basements of old New York. He ate his dinner grimly and climbed the stairs to his back room, throwing himself into the shabby rocking chair, of the vintage of the early eighties, which constituted the one luxury of his small cubicle. Even the cigar which he presently lighted failed of its usual solace. The caterwauling of some cats and the barking of a dog on the other side of the fence came up to him from the yard below, sustained by the heavy rumble of the Third Avenue elevated. It was the hour when the express trains were bringing their toiling thousands up town from dingy offices to shabby homes. Lucky slaves, he thought, not to know the meaning of those dread words, assets and liabilities. If they hated their bosses they might console themselves with the thought that bosses had sometimes more worries than theirs.
In the distance he could see the long graceful strand of lights on the Queensboro Bridge. The peculiar mournful whistle of the Fall River boat sounded, passing Blackwell's Island as usual at this hour and signaling importantly to other craft. With unaccustomed sensitiveness to these impressions a taste of world-smart struck sharply to the soul of Ambrose Peale. He stood up and yawned and stretched, throwing his cigar into the chipped cuspidor near the washstand. What was the use of it all anyway?
As the criminal returns to the scene of his crime so Ambrose's spirit was drawn back to his old haunts of the show world again. The Queensboro lights were tiny candles compared with the blaze of Broadway's electric lane. He put on a clean collar, retied his four-in-hand and went out.
Riding down in the red cars through the gaudy glare of Third Avenue and transferring west on Forty-second Street, he fluttered like a moth to the blaze of the Great White Way. Was he tired of the 13 Soap Company? Did his faith in advertising begin to wane? Or did Mary and Rodney, billing and cooing in the office when he came upon them unawares, give him some hint of what was lacking in his life? He wasn't jealous; he liked them both. And he had for Rodney the kind of undemonstrative affection that springs up sometimes between men when they have fought side by side in the battlefield of business. If he thought his being in the company prejudiced the old gentleman against Rodney he would-
" Hello, Mr. Pe-e-ele."
He was interrupted in his altruistic intentions by a shrill feminine voice sounding his name in an accent that blended the Bowery and Berlitz, and turned to see the " Countess." They were in front of the Knickerbocker, and she was headed for the revolving doors on Forty-second Street. Peale gravitated at once to her side and jumped into the whirling compartment behind her.
Well, cutie," he said, as they dropped down together on a lounge in the crowded corridor, " what are you up to? "
People were passing hither and there, coming from the restaurant and going on to the play. The revolving storm doors swung round continuously, reminding Peale of the scheme he had once conceived of utilizing their power for driving dy-i namos. Great scheme it was; but nothing ever came of it. Ambrose didn't need dynamos him-self to electrify him where a pretty woman like the Countess was concerned.
" You're a grand little guy," said the Countess agreeably; " I like you."
But all the time her eyes roved round the place as if she were looking for another man.
"How are you getting along now? " she went on. " As far as I'm concerned, trim everybody you can. You're there, Ambrose, you're there."
" But we're on the level," Peale assured her.
So am I," said the Countess.
" If you were I'd give you a job," laughed Peale.
" Me work on a job," cried the Countess; " there's no excitement in that. Why, now every time I meet a cop I get a thrill."
" I know — I know; the dull life is dull," Peale agreed. " I wonder if I ought to marry you and reform you? "
" No, Ambrose," said the Countess quite sincerely; " I wouldn't do such a thing to you as marry you. I could talk to you about your needing a loving faithful wife, and maybe you do at that. But the trouble with me is I'd rather trim a guy out of a hundred than earn a thousand; so leave me lay, kid, leave me lay —"
At this moment, Peale, following her gaze, saw what she was looking for, and apparently " it " was Ellery Clark. Ellery, in full evening war paint, was wandering up and down evidently looking for her.
" Shall I bring him over ? " asked Peale.
" No," said the Countess; " wait a moment.
I want to talk to you a second about Ellery. He's kind of stuck on me," she added shyly.
" Say, I'm for you," broke in Peale, " but if you're aiming to trim Ellery I can't help you there; it'd be too easy."
" Easy! You don't know Ellery—he's wise all right," she protested.
" Funny — I thought you were a smart dame," Peale retorted; " and yet you think Ellery is wise —"
Well, they say love is blind," said the girl, smiling.
" Say, I don't like Ellery," said Peale quickly, " but if you're planning to Maxixe down the bridal path with him I won't stand for it."
" Oh, I wouldn't hitch up. No, Ambrose, you got me wrong," said the Countess plaintively. What is the graft, then? "
The Countess looked at him with a great show of dignity.
" Say, Mr. Peale," she said, " don't you think I got some sense of decency? And anyhow, I wouldn't go after Ellery. He'd be on in a minute. No, sir, I stack up against men of my own size.
It always goes. But at that I'm on the level about Ellery. I just couldn't keep from drifting into dramatics. Do tell him I'm a real French dame."
" Absolutely," said Peale. " Hello, Peter, Piccadilly," he added, as Ellery at last discovered them; " what brings you to the haunts of pleasure? "
He didn't wait for Ellery's answer, but promptly vacated the place at the girl's side and left them to each other and their fates.
In his present mood the meeting and the talk for all his chaff, only strengthened the wings of his black butterflies. The sight of Ellery Clark completed his distaste with the whole sorry scheme of things, making him itch to remold it nearer to his heart's desire. Ellery Clark, that pinhead, went round with girls who trimmed him like the " Countess," supplied with plenty of money by his doting father, while Rodney and Mary had to slave and worry.
It was all wrong, unnatural. Something must be the matter between old Rodney and his father, and he believed he knew what it was. He would go up and see old Mr. Martin at once, tonight, before it was too late. No, not to-night, tomorrow morning, Saturday, when the soap magnate would be home and the coast dear. No, Saturday afternoon, after lunch, when people were more apt to feel gay and good-natured.
That was how, as a consequence of this mood and various meetings and reflections, Ambrose Peale came to give his name to Johnson at the soap king's house next day.