Six hours on the train had nearly exhausted Joseph Cargan. He had read all the available magazines, looked up his connections twice in the railway guide, and even gazed for an hour out of the window. But there were only woods and farms to be seen, scarcely a bill-board, and no automobiles. He dropped his cigar wearily into the spittoon by his chair in the club car and relapsed into lethargy. With dull iteration he ran over the plans for the deal in prairie land that he hoped to put through to-morrow, and guessed lazily at whether $6000 would purchase the tract of which they had written him. He thought of his wife, and hoped that his telegram would be telephoned over to the Runkles’ so that she might meet him at the station with the clean shirt he had asked for. Afterwards he cut his nails, yawned loudly, and was just going to sleep when they stopped at Joline and a boy came in with papers.
Cargan turned first, as usual, to the stock-market reports. There were only two items of interest since he had left the tape. Montana Pacific had gone off a little more. But 200 shares of Benningham Common had sold at 17, a drop of ten points! His eye caught an explanatory note: the dividend on the preferred had been cut; the surplus was heavily reduced. His mind, searching rapidly over their business, fixed upon two marginal accounts—Jim Smith’s and Waldron’s. In each case the collateral deposited had already been insufficient. Drawing out his note-book he swiftly figured. ‘That old gambler Smith’s always on the edge,’ he reflected. ‘We can hold him a little longer. Gotta sell Waldron out. Must have made a thousand dollars out of that account first and last. Too bad.’ A momentary sense of Waldron’s calamity swept over him, but quickly evaporated. ‘Business is business,’ he thought, and remembered, with a little angry satisfaction, Anita Waldron’s coming-out dance and how the Runkles, who were invited, kept talking about it all winter. ‘Old Waldron won’t be so darn particular next year.’
As the train pulled into his home town he hurried out upon the station platform, and saw with pride and pleasure that his wife was just stepping out of the Runkles’ motor. Looking about to see who might be there to note the company she was keeping, his eye fell on a tall and stooping gentleman with a trimmed beard and eyeglasses, who was searching with weary eyes the train windows; but even while he frowned at the recognition, his wife had seized him by the shoulder, caroling, ‘Hello, Jimmy. Give me a kiss, dear, and take your old shirt.’ She was a graceful woman, stiffened by an obvious corset, and faintly powdered. A long yellow feather dangled from her orange hat, big pearls were set in her ears, and her shoe-buckles glittered as she walked.
He kissed her admiringly. ‘Say, Martha, you look great,’ he chuckled. ‘I hate to have to go right on. You tell the kids I’ll bring ’em something when I get back.’
The train was starting; indeed he had just time to dash up the steps of his car. ‘Good-bye, dear,’ she caroled. ‘Good-bye, dee-ar,’ hummed the brakeman, and slammed down the swinging floor of the vestibule. Cargan was already balancing himself along the corridor of the club car. A lurch of the train swung him heavily out among the chairs; to save himself he caught a shoulder and dropped into a seat. His neighbor had but just sat down. It was Waldron.
They shook hands as if nothing were in the air, and then compared watches to see if the train were on time. This done, Waldron took off his glasses, swung them on their black cord, and began to polish them nervously, blinking with short-sighted eyes into the space that hurried past the car windows. Cargan offered him a cigar, but he put it aside quickly.
‘No, thank you; no, thank you—Well—they cut the dividend.’ He looked at Cargan with a wan smile. ‘What’ll I do, Cargan? They told me I’d find you on the train, and I thought I’d ask your advice.’
Cargan was relieved. ‘Sell, Mr. Waldron,’ he answered earnestly, ‘sell right off. That Brogan crowd’s runnin’ the company now, and they’re no good, sell quick.’
Waldron looked at him in doubt. ‘How much do I lose?’ he asked feebly.
‘’Bout six thousand’—against his will Cargan made the tone apologetic. ‘Say, put up only five thousand more collateral and we’ll carry you till better luck.’
The old man blinked rapidly, then conquered his pride. With punctilious care he unbuttoned his gray cutaway, took out a wallet from under the button of the Society of Colonial Wars, drew forth a sheet of note paper, and with a pencil inscribed a broad O. ‘There’s my collateral, Mr. Cargan,’ he said whimsically.
He was so helpless, and so elegant in his helplessness, that the bully awoke in Cargan. With an effort he broke through the nervous deference with which Waldron always inspired him and spoke roughly:—
‘We don’t do business without either collateral or cash, Waldron.’
The gentleman put his wallet back hurriedly as if some one had laughed at it, and cast a quick, hurt look at his broker.
‘You haven’t been thinking of selling me out—after all the business I’ve given you?’
Incredulity, horror, resolve, passed over Waldron’s face. ‘You cannot! It’s impossible!’ he said firmly.
The assertion in his tone was irritating. ‘What’s goin’ to stop us?’ Cargan asked coolly; shoved his hands into his pockets, and puffed clouds from his cigar.
Different worlds of imagination revolved in the two men’s minds. Theophilus Waldron thought of the children, and of his father the governor, and of the family pride. Sudden poverty was as bad as disgrace. ‘I didn’t mean it that way,’ he answered hurriedly. ‘I’m in temporary difficulties. My house is mortgaged. I’ve borrowed money from my wife—and other places.’—He was too proud to add, ‘This is confidential.’—’My boy’s just entered college, my girl’s just come out. It isn’t just the money—’ a gush of emotion reddened his face—’You’ve got to pull me through, Cargan. It’s impossible; it’s out of the question for me to break now!’
But Cargan was remembering how he lost his job in the department store and couldn’t pay the rent. When he was kicked out, nobody said it was impossible! Nobody said it was impossible when they went into the top of a tenement! The contrast made him bitter; but it was the thought that he had never felt it to be impossible, the inescapable inferiority always forced upon him in the presence of Waldron, which roused his temper.
‘Business is business, Mr. Waldron,’ he said curtly. ‘Ab-so-lute-ly, we won’t take the risk.’
They were rattling through coal-sheds and grain-elevators at the edge of a town. Waldron got up stiffly and carefully brushed the cinders from his coat.
‘This is Bloomfield, I think,’ he said coldly. ‘I’m meeting my family here. Mr. Cargan, there are considerations above business.’ His voice failed a little. ‘This is a matter of life and death.’
Cargan had heard that bluff before. ‘What d’ you mean?’ he grunted.
Mr. Waldron was staring fixedly out of the window. ‘I mean,’ he faltered, ‘that I may not be able to stand up under it.’ And then his voice resumed its desperate certainty. ‘I mean, sir, that what you propose is impossible. I mean that ab-so-lute-ly you cannot sell me out.’
He bowed and felt his way down the corridor.
‘I can’t, can’t I!’ Cargan flung after him; then jerked a sheet from the telegraph pad in the rack beside him and wrote: ‘Sell out Waldron at noon to-morrow unless 5000 collateral.’ ‘Something’ll drop for you, old boy,’ he growled, addressed the telegram to his partner, and gave it to the porter.
Outside, Cargan heard a burst of merry voices and saw Waldron hurried away by two laughing girls to an automobile waiting with a trunk strapped behind it. Mrs. Waldron followed. She was a stiff woman, a little faded, quietly dressed. Her face was troubled, and when they reached the motor, she caught her husband’s elbow gently as if to ask him something, but he merely nodded and turned her glance toward Cargan’s window. She bowed and smiled very sweetly in his direction, and Cargan smiled sourly in return. Then the children hustled the old folks into the tonneau and they were off, just as the train started.
Cargan felt hardly used. ‘A man’s got to look out for himself,’ he thought angrily. ‘Business is business—that’s the thing for him to remember. “It’s impossible!” Nevertheless, in self-defense he began to calculate what it might have cost to carry the account, until the appalling magnitude of the risk shut off the discussion. ‘The darned old self-confident aristocrat!’ he murmured, working himself up into a fury. ‘Thinks he can bluff me, but he’ll find out what’s impossible, believe me!’ Then he dispelled his irritation by a cocktail and hurried into the diner.
He snored in his berth while the train ran out farther and farther upon the great Kansas plain; slept while signs of culture disappeared one by one, and arose in the midst of an endless, unfamiliar world of grass. When he sat down in the diner for his morning meal, the great wheel of the horizon rimmed round his little train without a notch on the perfect circle; over night the outer world had changed, but he was absorbed in fitting his choices into a sixty-cent breakfast.
The train stopped quickly and firmly, and lay dead upon the prairie.
‘Eccentrics or hot-box,’ said the man who jumped off the step beside him. ‘Nothing much else goes wrong with an engine nowadays. What is it, Bill?’
And the conductor, looking about him to see that no more passengers were within earshot, answered, ‘Eccentrics—two hours anyway.’
Cargan flung his cigarette on the ground. ‘I’ll miss my connection at Hay Junction!’ he protested. ‘I’ve gotta be in Hamden this afternoon.’
‘Walk then,’ said the conductor stolidly. ‘It’s only ten miles from here straight across.’
There was no house in sight, no road, nothing but the dead train, the new land of endless shimmering prairies, and, beyond the ditch, a single horseman looking curiously at the long cars and the faces strained against the glass of the windows.
‘Say, you!’ Cargan called, ‘can you get an auto anywhere here?’
The figure looked at him impassively, then shook its dusty head.
‘Or a team?’
It shook its head again.
‘Or a—horse?’ Cargan hesitated. He had never ridden a horse.
A sudden gleaming idea shot across the man’s solemn features. He slid off his pony and led him nearer the ditch.
‘Say’—he suddenly became voluble,—’you said you wanted to get to Hamden. Well, if you’ll make it five plunks, and give me your ticket, you can take this horse, an’ I’ll go round by train. Say—do you want to?’
Cargan was tempted. All you had to do was to stick on.
‘What’ll I do with my suit-case?’
‘Gimme it to take for you. I guess it ain’t worth more’n my horse.’
They helped him on, and pointed out the dim line of telephone poles which marked a road a mile beyond. He walked his horse onward, not daring to trot, struck the dusty highway, rode on over an imperceptible roll of the plains, and was alone on a vast bare earth, naked as when born from the womb of time.
Plover swung up before him with melancholy cries. A soft haze rose from the plains. They grew more vast, more endless. In the north, a white cloud-mass piled itself up and up until it seemed as if it might topple over upon the flat world beneath. He had never before looked at the country except as real estate, never seen the plains, and a curious new sense of the bigness of the earth oppressed him. He felt very small and very mean. The humiliation of his spirits was a novel feeling and an unpleasant one; he tried to hum it away:—
‘Just wait till I strike Broadway
And watch me with the girls,
For I’m the man that invented it—
The hair that always curls.’
His harsh voice in the stillness was ridiculous,—even to him,—but when he stopped singing, the silence flowed over him as a stream that had been held back. The sky was enormous; he was only a speck on the vast floor. As he plodded on and on and on through the dust, he began to grow dizzy from the glare and the heat. He could not collect his thoughts for business. A curious sense of weakened identity perplexed him, and his head was full of drifting pictures—Waldron’s face among them. That face lingered. He saw him looking vaguely out of the car window—saying that he couldn’t stand up under it—that it was ‘impossible.’ He wondered if it was a bluff, after all. The face faded away leaving a dull pity behind it, a struggling remorse. Cargan shifted uneasily in his saddle, and tried to think of business. But instead of business queer childish ideas began floating in and out of his mind, accompanied by words remembered from Sundays in his boyhood. He was alone with God. God saw into his heart. A little nervous shiver ran over him, and when he checked it with a laugh there followed a wave of superstitious emotion.
A low wave of the prairies had hidden from him a little house and barn standing crudely new against the sky in the distance. Tiny figures were moving behind the buildings, and a dust-cloud rose from the highway in front. Cargan suddenly became conscious of his appearance—his serge suit, his straw hat, his awkward seat in the saddle. The loneliness of the plains had shaken his usual self-assurance.
‘Maybe they’ll think I stole this horse. Guess I’ll go round,’ he said aloud. He jerked his steed from the road into the grass, and urged him into a trot. Instantly he found himself beaten and jolted like a ship in a tempest. He lost a stirrup, he slipped sidewise on the saddle; then in a panicky fright he began to shout and saw at the bit. Frightened by the voice and the thunder of hoofs, a chaparral cock darted from beneath the horse’s nose. It was enough to make the beast swerve, then toss his head, and in a panic madder than his rider’s, break into a run and dash unrestrainably onward. Cargan, numb with fright, leaned over his neck and wound his hands in the mane. The speed sickened him. The flat earth swung beneath, the sky swam dizzily. He dared not pull on the reins; he could only hold on grimly and shut his eyes. Once he slipped, and, screaming, saw for an instant a blur of grass before he could pull himself back to safety. And then the speed increased, the sweaty shoulders labored beneath him, and his senses whirled.
He did not note how far they ran; but at last came a slower motion, a gallop, and then a trot. Weak from exhaustion, he was bumped from the saddle, and found himself clutching and kicking with both arms around his horse’s neck. Flinging himself outward, he rolled over on the soft ground, and lay groaning on the prairie. The well-trained horse stopped and began to graze; he too was quivering with fatigue, but his fright was over. The sun was burning near the zenith. The world again was empty, and this time there was no road.
Cargan was lost.
When he recovered a little, he caught the horse, and, too shaken to mount him, limped on, leading him by the bridle, in what direction he did not know. Pangs of hunger and faintness assailed him. The awful loneliness chilled him through in spite of the blaze of heat and light. He remembered stories of men who had wandered on the prairie, round and round in an endless circle, until they had gone crazy and blown out their brains. A profound pity for himself stirred him. Never had he so felt the need of humanity, of human aid. He would have given a hundred dollars to be walking up Main Street, with the boys calling to him from Rooney’s cigar store, and the world where it was yesterday.
Just in front a little calf stumbled to its feet and ran toward them, mooing piteously. It, too, was lost. Cargan stroked its nostrils, and a sympathy for all suffering things flowed through his heart. He thought with a shudder of Waldron, pacing somewhere like himself, alone, lost, helpless, his pride gone. In his awakened imagination, he saw him wandering nearer and nearer the fatal act. ‘He’ll shoot himself. I ought to done something,’ he whispered, with a sudden rush of unfamiliar emotion; and all the sentiment in his nature heaved and struggled to the light.
A cow lowed somewhere beyond them; his horse pricked up his ears, and the calf ambled off in the direction of the sound. Cargan limped after hurriedly, leading his horse. A hundred yards brought them to the edge of a slight bowl in the plains, with a little moisture around which pewees were flying, and his heart leaped to see beside it a tiny house of unpainted boards. Wires stretched from one window, along the depression which led westward, until they disappeared in the endless horizon; and, as he paused to survey, a sharp bell rang.
‘Hello, is that Annie?’ came faintly across the silence.
He looked at his watch, and saw that it was only eleven. ‘I’ll talk to Casey about Waldron,’ he said guiltily. Relief for his escape, and still more the hush of that enormous plain, the solemnity of the great and shining sky, filled him with high and noble thoughts.
‘Say, is Hamden near here?’ he asked of a slim woman in a gingham dress who appeared at the door.
‘And say, can I use your telephone?’
She hesitated, looking him over, then motioned him incuriously to the stool behind the pine table. Solitude seemed to have made her unready of speech. He called Cargan & Casey, then waited, fidgeting. Silence invaded the little kitchen. The clock ticked in a hush; the chickens droned in whispers; the woman herself worked over the stove with slow fingers, moving the kettles gently. Cargan & Casey were ‘busy.’ He fumed for an instant, then gave his own home number.
‘It’s Jim,’ he said, and heard his wife’s carol of surprise. He could see her tiptoeing at their telephone. ‘I’m all right,’ he shouted in response to her eager words; and the thought of their little sitting-room, and the kids playing behind her, warmed his blood. ‘I got run away with on the plains, but I’m all right—’ Her frightened ejaculation thrilled him with loving pride—’honest I am.’ And then suddenly a wave of generous emotion mounted to his head. ‘Martha,’ he called quickly,—’tell Casey not to sell out Waldron—tell him right away. I’ll explain to-morrow.’
The connection roared and failed. He hung up the instrument. The quiet room, the gently moving woman, the immensity without, rushed back on his sight. Exhilarated, clear-hearted, looking heaven in the face, he asked the necessary questions, mounted his horse, and pushed onward.
Hamden was already a blotch upon the horizon. ‘Say, it’s great to get into a big country,’ he murmured, lifted his bare head to the free air, and in a curious exaltation of mind rode on dreamily. He noticed the flowers in the coarse grass, watched the wild doves flying with their quick, strong wing-beats, and swung his eye joyfully around the blue horizons that receded until one felt the curve and pitch of the world.
The mood lasted until Cargan reached the first straggling houses of the village street, so that he entered upon the rutty highway between dirt sidewalks with regret, as one whose holiday was ending. He scarcely noticed the loiterers who stared at him, or thought of his streaked face, his trousers split at the knee, his hat lost on the wild ride.
But as he plodded onward the atmosphere of town had its effect. His eye began to take note of the size of the shops glittering under their false fronts, the new houses behind rows of stiff young trees, the number and make of automobiles. His subconsciousness grasped the financial level of Hamden, although his thoughts were still in the wide spaces of the plains. A boy ran out from the side-walk to sell him a paper. He stuck it in his side pocket, and suddenly began to feel like a man of this world again.
‘Say, sonny,’ he called; ‘who sells land in this burg?—Dubell—John Dubell?—Thanks.’
He went more and more slowly.
A drug-store, blazing with marble and onyx in the afternoon sun, made Cargan’s dry throat wrinkle with thirst. He pulled his horse toward that side of the street. There was a row of customers along the soda-water counter, and through the open windows came scraps of conversation: two boys were teasing each other about a girl; a group of men were talking auctions, options, prices, real estate. He drank their talk in greedily, with a pang of homesickness and a rush of returning common sense. Dismounting stiffly, he tied his horse, and stood for an instant on the cement pavement, feeling his dirt and tatters, wondering if they would throw him out for a bum. Then he slid inside the door, and ordered a chocolate soda.
The clerk was reading the paper while he juggled the milk-shakes. Cargan, carefully concealing his torn trousers, climbed a stool, and began to look back upon the vagaries of the day with sullen wonder. He brushed furtively at the caked dust on his legs, remembering, irritably, the elegance of Waldron, whom he had saved. In the mirror of the soda fountain he saw himself, torn, dirty, shrinking, and the sight filled him with disgust and anger. He felt as ridiculous as when he had come out with a glass too much from the Stoneham bar, and tripped over the steps of the main entrance. ‘Gimme a cigar,’ he called to the boy at the magazine counter; bit off the end, lit it, and began to think business.
The clerk, swirling a cataract of milk from glass to glass, revealed the inner sheet of the paper propped before him. Cargan read beneath his arm the full-page advertisement of a land sale—the land sale he had come through all this tomfoolery to reach. His eyes bulged as he saw that they were going to throw a thousand acres on the market. ‘Good gosh,’ he gulped inwardly, ‘what a chance!’ It was a sure thing for the man with the money.
The last of his fine sentiments evaporated. Except for Waldron he could have scooped it all in; but now four hundred was all he dared touch,—and perhaps not that. Raging against his softness back there on the plains, which seemed a hardly recognizable world, he ground his teeth, and coughed and choked over his soda. Soft-headed donkey! The reaction was complete.
Suddenly a little thought no bigger than a minute rose in one corner of his brain, and spread, and spread. He looked furtively at the clock over the clerk’s head, and saw that it was only half-past two. With guilty deliberation he rose and walked slowly toward the door of the telephone booth, keeping back from full consciousness just what he was about to do. Then he slammed himself within, and shouted Casey’s address to the operator. As he waited, his wrath mounted. ‘What in heck was the matter with me anyway!’ He smoked furiously in the stifling box.
‘Go ahead,’ said the operator,—and, at the word, ‘Hey there, Casey,’ he yelled at the dim voice on the wires, ‘I’ve gotta have five thousand quick! Sell that Benningham Common—yes, Waldron’s.’ At the name his anger broke loose. ‘The old high-brow tried to bluff me. What!!—’ The connection failed and left him gasping.
‘What! Sold it! He told you to!—No, I dunno anything about a court decision. Up 15 points on a merger! Well what do you think—’ He gulped down the sudden reversal and felt for words. ‘Say, tell him,—’ he licked his lips,—’tell him I’m sure glad I saved him. I’m sure glad.’
The wires roared again,—and Cargan, putting down the receiver grinned shamefacedly into the dirty mirror. But gradually a sense of conscious virtue began to trickle pleasantly through his veins. ‘I’m sure glad,’ he repeated more vigorously; ‘carryin’ him to-day was what did it.’ A vision of Mrs. Waldron’s happy face rose to bless him; the exhilaration of the morning coursed back into his heart, with a comfortable feeling of good business about it. He felt better and better. From somewhere a saying floated into his head: ‘Doing good unto others is the only happiness.’ ‘By heck, that’s true,’ he commented aloud, and sat smoking peacefully, his mind aglow with pleasant thoughts.
The bell whirred raucously. He saw that he had forgotten to replace the receiver, and putting it to his ear caught Casey’s voice again:—
‘Say, Carg, Jim Smith’s in the office, and won’t leave till he’s heard from you. Montana Pacific’s off two points more. Say, do you want to carry him? He says he’s done for if you sell him out.’
A fire of indignation rushed through Cargan. ‘What d’ you think I am—a damned philanthropist?’ he yelled. ‘Sell out the old gambler! Sell him out!’ And he hung up.