Old Lady Pratt's Spectacles

SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS is perhaps not so reprehensible a vice as many another, yet it is one which few of us can afford to indulge ; not only does it warp the judgment and impede that growth in grace for which we are taught to strive, but it estranges one’s fellow-creatures to a degree quite out of proportion to the intrinsic evil of it. Of this very obvious truism no one ever had a better understanding than Old Lady Pratt, that wise old moralist who never moralized, that keen philosopher who had never heard of her own contemporaries, Kant and Schlegel, wherein she was by just that much less befogged than the average smatterer of a later generation. She was the first to detect indications of this failing in her grandson Aleck, and scarcely was that admirable little person out of pinafores when she gave utterance to her misgivings. True to her principles, however, Old Lady Pratt — already at fiftyodd in the enjoyment of that honorable title — reserved her criticism for the ears of those most nearly concerned.

One pleasant summer morning her daughter-in-law Emmeline, whom she greatly liked, came running in, hatless and enthusiastic, bearing a fresh-baked loaf of sponge cake. She found Mrs. Pratt and Betsy shelling peas in the dining-room, the sunlight glinting through the blinds and playing pranks with the swiftly moving fingers.

“There, mother!” Emmeline cried, after warmly kissing the two ladies, who had long ago adjusted their minds to the highly spontaneous caresses of Anson’s wife. “ I believe we’ve succeeded at last! It’s full of eggs as it will hold, — and it has puffed out, and breathed in, and dried up, and moistened down, and done every single thing it ought to do, and so I just thought you and father might enjoy a loaf, — and Betsy too,” she added, as she set her basket down on the dining-table and drew up a chair close to her young sister-in-law, who was so “ hard-o’-hearin’ ” that she had long ago given up the effort. Emmeline Pratt, whose household duties were for the moment in abeyance, was capable of forgetting nearly everything that she ought to remember, but she had never yet forgotten to be kind.

“ Did Alfred come in yesterday ? ” she asked, pitching her voice to an earsplitting key.

“ Why, yes! ” Betsy was almost as proud of having understood the question as she was of the implication that young Williams’s visits particularly concerned her. “ He stayed to supper, and we had a game of six-handed euchre afterward.”

“Who beat?” Emmeline inquired, with eager interest.

“ Yes, it was, — very pleasant indeed! ” — And Betsy, happily unconscious, relapsed into a contented silence, smiling softly to herself.

Old Lady Pratt meanwhile had stepped over to the table, where she lingered, “ hefting ” the cake with the air of a connoisseur. The small, wiry figure stood firm-planted as Justice with the scales, — differing however from its august prototype in that the shrewd black eyes had never yet been blindfolded.

“Yes,” she declared, “you’ve succeeded this time, sure enough. ’T ain’t too heavy, and ’t ain’t too light, ’n’ it crinkles jest right. I guess you made that cake yourself, Emmeline; you never could have taught that Hannah to do it.”

“ I’m afraid that’s the trouble with me,” Emmeline lamented, as she picked up a handful of peas and began snapping pods over the yellow bowl in Betsy’s lap. “ I never can make people do as I say, — anybody except little Aleck. He always minds.”

“ Minds better ’n Robbie; don’t he? ”

“ I should hope so,” was the laughing admission. “ Robbie does n’t mind much of any, — except when he’s sorry! ”

Old Lady Pratt was shelling peas with great energy; the supply was getting low.

“ I suppose Aleck knows what a good boy he is,” she remarked casually.

“Why, how can he help knowing? The child has n’t had a bad mark in school, not since Christmas. He told me so himself.”

“ Seems kind o’ proud of it; eh? ”

Emmeline looked up quickly. She rarely fumbled over a meaning when there was one.

“ Now, mother, what are you driving at?” she asked, desisting from her labors, as she had a way of doing when her thoughts were taking a turn.

“ Well, Emmeline, if you want the truth I may as well speak out. We all know that Aleck is a good boy, but he’s getting to be a little prig.”

“ Oh, mother! Not really! ”

“ Yes, really. You ain’t so much to blame. It’s his father that’s spoiling him. Anson’s so tickled to have a boy that keeps his collar straight and don’t slam the doors, that he can’t conceal his admiration. Both those boys know just as well as I do that Aleck is their father’s favorite, and Aleck knows why, if Robbie don’t. And so Aleck is getting to feel so superior that I would give ninepence to box his ears,— only he’s such a little deacon that he never gives me a chance! ”

“ And poor little Robbie always seems to be offering up his ears for boxing! ” Emmeline sighed. “ Why, only yesterday, when Mr. Fields was taking tea with us, Robbie — the little sinner never listens to him in the pulpit — got so interested in the talk that he flooded his plate with maple syrup, and half the tablecloth into the bargain, before anybody saw what he was doing! I have n’t seen Anson so angry, I don’t know when! ”

“ Well, I declare for ’t! That was a bad mess! ” the grandmother admitted, frankly aghast at thought of the trickling disaster. “ And yet, — I can’t think of anything that would do Aleck more good than to come to grief in jest that way! Mind you, I’m not saying that the child deserves a spanking. He’s as good a little boy as ever lived. But if he could deserve one, jest once, I do believe it would be his salvation.”

But, alas, Aleck never did! Unspanked, unchidden, he went his decorous way. He was never late to school, he never fell asleep in church; his sums always came out right, and he rarely tore his clothes, unless he was betrayed into a fight. For Aleck was a good fighter and got into more scrimmages than so proper a little boy should have done. Perhaps he was irritating; I am inclined to think he was. But he was a fair fighter, and it would be difficult to explain why onlookers would have liked to see him whipped.

Robbie, for his part, was rarely among the lookers-on at such bloody encounters. He had an inherent aversion to black eyes, and would have no traffic in them. In fact, Robbie was singularly devoid of the evil passions which find their account in fisticuffs. But there were few other items in the childish decalogue that were not recorded against him. He could be frank to impudence, yet he was an adroit fibber. He had a dandified taste in shoes and collars, yet his pockets had to be sewed up to keep his hands out of them. He never mastered the multiplication table, but “Casabianca” and “A Soldier of the Legion ” slipped off his tongue as easily as the Lord’s Prayer, which he had repeated every day of his life since long before it dawned upon him that such words as “hallowed” or “trespass” had any meaning whatever. And so Robbie grew up an ingratiating ne’er-do-weel whom nobody loved the less for that, while Aleck, methodical, long-headed, irreproachable, did his duty in every relation of life, and nobody loved him the better for it.

In due course Aleck made a well-considered, advantageous marriage with a warm-hearted girl, who, taking his handsome face for a cue, idealized him and prepared to spoil him in wifely fashion. But Aleck was not to be spoiled; he was too well-balanced for that. Nor did he prove in the long run altogether stimulating as an ideal. There was never any lapse of morals on his part, never any parleyings with the tempter. As husband and father he was above reproach, and Louisa never lost sight of his many virtues. But after some ten or fifteen years’ experience of them, she used sometimes to catch herself wishing that he would once, just once, have the grace to be in the wrong!

Robert, on the other hand, who could so abundantly have gratified a wife in this particular, had, for reasons best known to himself, remained single, and it was with the detached air of a bachelor that he contemplated his brother’s achievements in the domestic field, wondering idly at their unflagging excellence.

In the mean time Old Lady Pratt, balked in a pet ambition, found herself obliged to quit the scene of her long and beneficent earthly activity without having once seen her way clear to boxing Aleck’s ears. Furthermore, such was the sheer weight of his judgment and integrity, that she felt constrained to appoint him executor under her will, — indemnifying herself, however, by naming his mercurial elder brother co-executor, with equal powers. One may imagine the sly satisfaction with which the old lady inserted this thorn into her impeccable grandson’s flesh.

Now Aleck, who credited himself with all the conventional sentiments, was under the impression that he and his brother loved each other, — an illusion, be it observed, which the latter was far from sharing. Yet it is but fair to admit that no brotherly love, real or imagined, could have made Robert — undisciplined freelance that he was — tolerable as running-mate in any serious business.

“ I’ve half a mind to refuse the job,” Aleck declared, in a burst of conjugal confidence. “It’s a paltry little property, anyway! ”

Louisa’s very needle paused in midair. Such a word applied to any matter that concerned Old Lady Pratt bordered on sacrilege.

“Why, Aleck! ” she protested, “ what would grandmother say ? ”

“ I don’t care what grandmother would say. It’s what she has done that we’ve got to consider. I really thought she had more sense! ” And Aleck stalked out of the room, conscious of that mild exhilaration which the righteous are prone to derive from a strictly innocuous profanity.

As he closed the sitting-room door, with due regard to the latch, Louisa gave a patient little sigh. It would have done him so much good to slam that door! Her very ears craved the sound of it.

As to Robert — if there had been nothing actually discreditable in his business career, beginning in his father’s warehouse, of which he had soon wearied, and continuing at irregular intervals in one or another signally profitless commercial venture of his own, there had not been lacking evidence of an instability calculated to make the judicious grieve. His taste for horses, too, for cards, for harmless conviviality, all counted against him; while some there were among his sincere well-wishers who believed him to be seriously handicapped by his native predilection for music, play-acting, and the like, which, as every one knows, are at direct variance with such higher aims as moneymaking and personal advancement.

Upon the still recent death of his mother, who had survived her husband but a few months, Robert, having thereby fallen heir to a modest patrimony, promptly renounced the pursuit of wealth in favor of his latest hobby, the collection and earnest study of a great variety of musical instruments. That a man nearing forty should take to such foolishness was a deplorable circumstance, yet one which might have its uses. For it was an open secret that Robert had at one period allowed himself to be drawn into unholy and disastrous dealings on the stock market, and the hope was that this new vagary of his, developing at the critical moment of his finding himself in funds, might serve at least to keep him clear of that pitfall. Better waste his breath on wood-winds than his substance in gambling; if he needs must choose between two evils, better the fiddle than the ticker!

Great was Aleck’s relief, then, when it transpired that Robert, far from pressing his authority as executor, seemed rather bored by the honor thrust upon him, and quite ready to leave matters in more competent hands. In fact, he let fall something to that effect as the two brothers walked together to Old Lady Pratt’s house in Green Street the morning after the reading of the will, — a function which had been postponed several days, owing to the pathetic passing of Aunt Betsy on the very evening following her mother’s funeral. That unlooked-for event, the only striking incident of a faithful soul’s career, had pulled sharply at the family heart-strings; but now that the poor lady had been laid to rest, close at her mother’s feet as beseemed a devoted slave, she bade fair to be soon forgotten. Even Robert, who was rarely lacking in the finer sensibilities, was already finding himself more open to reminders of the imperative little grandmother than of her meek familiar.

To-day, as the two executors sat before the safe in the dining-room pantry, it was with a curious compunction that Robert watched his brother unconcernedly rifling the miniature stronghold which none till now had ever violated. How often had he seen Old Lady Pratt open the ponderous little door to “get out ” the silver for some festive occasion, — jealously securing it again like the good housewife she was. Now and then, when minded to be indulgent, she would draw forth some single object from one or another of the partitions, each of which the children believed to be the abode of priceless treasure; and trifling as the exhibit was, — her grandmother’s weddingring perchance, or her husband’s masonic badge, — it served but to whet the childish curiosity. There was one drawer, having a key of its own, which the most favored child had never seen opened, and in this, as now appeared, were housed the handful of securities which had furnished means of sustenance to the thrifty old lady and her dependents. As it yielded up its contents, Robert could not forbear an only half-humorous protest.

“I say, Aleck,” he exclaimed, “ can’t you almost hear grandma teil us not to meddle ? ”

“ What puzzles me,” Aleck remarked, with the fine disregard of other people’s mental processes which had always characterized him, “ is how those two women managed to make such a good appearance on a pittance like this.”

“Well, they didn’t live exactly like fighting-cocks, you must admit,” Robert threw in, with a glance about the little interior in its Spartan simplicity.

“Here are six governments,” Aleck went plodding on, wholly engrossed in his inventory, “and that Smithson mortgage. Twenty-five shares in the Dunbridge horse-railroad, — a gas-certificate, and — I’m blessed if they didn’t do the old lady for a Realty Company bond,— and she never let on! ”

“What’s that?” Robert inquired, with languid interest.

“ Oh, a western mortgage swindle the Dunbridge National blundered into Waste paper! Has n’t honored a coupon in ten years! ”

At the marked animus with which the offending document was tossed upon the table, Robert became gleefully alert.

“Didn’t get scorched yourself?” he inquired, with a tender solicitude expressly designed to enrage the victim,

“Everybody got scorched.”

I did n’t.” Robert’s modest disavowal was worth going far to hear.

“ It was n’t put on the market as a gamble ! ” Aleck flung back.

The co-executor raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. He had once taken lessons of a French violinist, from whom he had learned certain foreign tricks not contracted for, and which Aleck especially abominated.

“Shall we mark it ‘insecurity’ and pigeon-hole it?” he inquired, tucking the bond into one of the open partitions, cheek by jowl with a bundle of family letters.

Aleck, with an impatient grunt that might pass for acquiescence, proceeded to gather up the other papers and restore them to the locked drawer. Having made everything ship-shape, and folded his inventory to fit his wallet, he stood a moment irresolute, fingering the bunch of keys which dangled from a single ring.

“ I suppose you’ll have to have the duplicate keys,” he observed grudgingly.

“ It would seem a painful necessity, — unless you prefer entrusting them to Eliza!”

Whereupon Aleck, feeling in his heart that Eliza, the “ hired girl,” who had served Old Lady Pratt from time immemorial, would be quite as available a depositary as Robert, detached one set of keys and reluctantly handed them over to his brother. As he stepped aboard the horse-car a few minutes later, on the way to his counting-house ire the city, the thought of that Realty Company bond crossed his mind, and he took himself to task for suffering his irresponsible partner to treat it so cavalierly. Not that the bond itself was worth its ink and paper; but, after all, business was business, and it would never do to encourage Robert in loose views.

That his own judgment had been at fault in this particular instance was brought home to him in a manner not altogether painful, when, only a few weeks later, there appeared in his mail a notification from the Realty people to the effect that a small payment would be made on the bonds of the company upon their presentation at a given office in State Street.

Pending its final distribution, the little property had been left in its accustomed quarters, and thither Aleck repaired in quest of the despised bond. To his extreme annoyance, it was not to be found; and after diligently searching every nook and corner of the safe, he set out for his brother’s lodgings in no conciliatory mood. The cheerful warble of a flute which greeted him as he mounted the stairs did not tend to allay his irritation, and with only the pretense of a knock he entered what Robert was pleased to call his “ work-shop,” and closed the door behind him.

The flute warbled blithely on, and Aleck stood a moment feeding his wrath on the sight of those inflated cheeks and grotesquely arched eyebrows.

“ Robert! ” he called sharply, when no longer able to contain his disapproval.

The performer merely changed the angle of his right eyebrow in token of intelligence, but not until he had finished the little roulade did he come to speech. Then, removing the instrument from his lips, and gravely drying the mouthpiece upon a silk handkerchief, “ A pity you don’t like music,” he observed pleasantly. “ It’s a delightful resource.”

“ I have no lack of resources,” was Aleck’s curt rejoinder, as he seated himself face to face with the offender, whose countenance was gradually resuming its normal hue. “ In fact, I’m rather too much occupied to be called upon to keep my co-executor in order.”

“ Your co-executor ? Why, that’s me! Sounds quite important! Well, what’s wrong with the co-executor ? ” And by way of concession to the dignity of the office Robert laid his flute on the table.

“ I thought it was understood that the handling of grandmother’s estate was to be left to me.”

It was Aleck’s most aggressive tone, and Robert was prompt to accept the challenge.

“ Well, supposing it was,” he mocked. “That’s nothing to get mad about! ”

“ Look here, Robert, we’re not in the grammar school! ”

“ Glad to hear it. Thought for a moment that we were! And now, what can I do for you ? ”

“ You can tell me what you have done with that Realty Company bond.”

“ Done with it ? I understood that it was done with us.”

“ What have you done with the bond ? ”

“ I have n’t done anything with it.” And here Robert, as a delicate hint that he considered the subject exhausted, fell to fingering the keys of the recumbent flute.

“ When did you take it out of the safe ? ” Aleck persisted.

“ Did n’t take it out of the safe.”

“ That’s nonsense, Robert. The bond’s gone, and you’re the only person that has access to the papers.”

“ Really ? How about yourself ? ”

“ I’m a business man, and entirely accountable.”

“ Well, then; I’m not a business man, and I never assume any accountability that I can keep clear of.” And from this point on, the flute was left to its own devices.

“ Pity you could n’t have kept clear of this, then!

“ Come, Aleck! Better go easy. You ’re running this thing,— that’s agreed between us, — and you’ll do as you please with the plunder. But you’ll be good enough to let my character alone.”

“ Your character ? ”

“ Yes, my character. It’s a poor thing, but mine own, — that’s Shakespeare, by the way, — you ought to feel complimented, — but such as it is, I really must ask you to keep your hands off it.”

Perhaps the most exasperating thing about Robert was his entire absence of heat, — quite as if he did n’t at bottom care enough about Aleck’s aspersions to resent them seriously.

“ I’ve not attacked your character,” Aleck protested, yet in the perfunctory tone of one merely desiring to keep within the law.

“ Indeed? And what is it that you are attacking? I state that I haven’t touched your old bond, and you —” “Can you state that you haven’t opened the safe in my absence ? ”

“ Assuredly not; for I did open it a day or two ago.”

“ Well, there we have it! ”

“ I went there to get a bunch of letters that mother wrote grandmother when I was a little shaver and had the scarlet fever. Grandma showed them to me after mother died, and I knew she had always kept them in the safe.”

“ Did they happen to be in the same pigeon-hole where you put the bond ? ” “ Might have been, for all I know.”

“ Hm! That explains it. You took the bond too by mistake.”

“ Nothing of the kind. I stopped and read the letters then and there, just where I was sitting when grandma showed them to me. There was no bond among them.”

“ Will you oblige me by examining those letters now ? ”

“ No, I won’t! ”— And at last Robert did change countenance.

“ May I ask why ? ”

“ Because I have n’t got them.”

“ Did you destroy them ? ”

“ That’s my business.”

“Ah! Then you did n’t.” Aleck eyed his brother narrowly, and a conviction of the truth seized him. “ So — you lost them on the way home.”

“ Well, what if I did ? I ’ve done what I could about it, for I valued those letters more than forty of your tuppenny bonds! ”

“ And what have you done about it?” Aleck probed.

“ Advertised.”

“And got no answer. Naturally! The man that’s got that bond is n’t going to show up.”

“ I tell you there was no bond there, Aleck. I know what I’m talking about. But those letters! Why, man, mother was a genius! I had forgotten how good they were. You see she was in quarantine with me, —I can see her now, moving about the room, her pretty — ”

Aleck was on his feet.

“ We’re not concerned about family letters just now,” he broke in. “ The bond is lost, and as you won’t own to having lost it, I must make it good myself.”

Robert’s little burst of feeling had gone out like a flame.

“ An inexpensive matter,” he remarked dryly, “since it’s known to be worthless.”

“ You are mistaken,” Aleck retorted, with injured dignity. “There is a payment to be made to-day.”

“ Indeed ? How large a payment, — if the co-executor may be so indiscreet as to inquire.”

“ Fifty dollars.”

“ Hope it won’t ruin you though if you think it will — ”

“ It’s not this payment,” Aleck made haste to declare. “ It’s the bond itself. That will naturally rise in value, and I shall replace it with one of my own.”

“ Very right, I am sure,” Robert chimed in, with a sententiousness copied after Aleck’s own. “ I hope it will make you more careful in future. Otherwise I might, as senior executor, find myself constrained to suggest your handing the keys over to Eliza.”

And before Aleck was well out of hearing, the dulcet whistle of the flute was again audible in the corridors of the lodging-house.

As Louisa listened that evening to the tale of Robert’s dereliction, she was too dutiful a wife not to do justice to her husband’s grievance. The attitude of the culprit was in itself trying enough, while the loss of a thousand-dollar bond, whatever its immediate status, was not to be regarded lightly. Old Lady Pratt had certainly blundered. Incredible as it must seem, even she, the ultimate authority, had suffered a lapse of judgment. Only Aleck had been right, — fatally, indisputably right, — as usual!

To this conclusion all were fain to subscribe when, in course of time, the family learned of the way in which Robert had again demonstrated his business incompetency. They took the matter rather seriously, these Pratt relatives. It was really mortifying that one of their number should be so slack as to let a valuable paper slip through his fingers. And perhaps the worst feature of the case was the indifference with which the delinquent himself persisted in regarding the affair. He would not even take the trouble to defend himself, but, quietly, characterizing the matter as a bee in Aleck’s bonnet, he went about his business, if business it could be called, as if nothing had happened. There was something so vexatious about this, considering too how ready every one would have been to pity and condone that for once the family sympathy veered to Aleck’s side.

The feeling against Robert reached its height when, after a few days, it came out that his precious letters had been restored to him and that he had let the finder depart without so much as asking his address, — let alone making any inquiry whatever for the missing bond. Why should he insult the man gratuitously, he would like to know ? A pretty return that would be for a thumping great favor!

Now, such indifference savored of moral turpitude, or so his cousin Susan Daggett declared, and Susan ought to know, for she had married a professor of Christian Ethics. This sentiment about his mother was all very well. Aunt Emmeline had written a very good letter no doubt, even if her spelling had been a bit, well — old-fashioned, to say the least. But — “ Really, Robert,” the good lady urged, “ you might have put the question, if only out of consideration for the family feeling,”

“ True, Susan! And while I was about it I might have inquired whether there did n’t happen to be a diamond tiara under the strap. So easy to overlook a little thing like that!” With which arrant flippancy Robert dismissed the subject for the hundredth time.

Meanwhile, a very few weeks had sufficed for the settling of the estate, and today Aleck sat at his library desk, agreeably conscious of a task well done. At five o’clock that afternoon he was to preside at a meeting of the heirs, here in his own library, to render an account of his prompt and able stewardship, and to apportion to each his just share in the little property. Before him was his check-book containing checks drawn to the order of the several beneficiaries; here were the receipts awaiting their respective signatures; and there, in the yellow envelope where once had housed the goodly little company of “ governments,” still lingered that Realty Company bond which he had sacrificed on tire altar of brotherly — shall we say exasperation ? — and for which no market had offered. The envelope was of the accordion-shaped variety, designed to open out for the accommodation of a number of papers, and having once been taxed nearly to its capacity, it now presented a slipshod, overblown appearance which offended Aleck’s sense of fitness. He picked it up and inserted his fingers, with a view to removing the bond, which, however, seemed disinclined to come loose. Impatient of such contumacy in that particular paper, he gave the thing a shake, when lo, with a hitch and a flop, quite in character, there dropped on the desk, — his own broad desk, dedicated for years to conscientious and punctilious labor, — not his sacrificial offering alone, but its shameless double, none other than Old Lady Pratt’s own bond!

For one bewildered moment Aleck believed that he was dreaming. He clutched the arms of his chair in the vain hope that they might crumble in his grasp. He lifted his head and glanced across the room, lest perchance the portrait of his father, — steady, incorruptible man of affairs whose mantle had descended upon him, — lest perchance the portrait might have melted away, as even more substantial things have a way of doing in dreamland. But alas, everything was in its accustomed place. The very canary-bird across the hall was singing at the top of its voice; he could hear his tom-boy daughter Sophie whistling as she came in from school, and for the first time in his life he felt no impulse to administer a well-merited reproof. Yes, it was clearly he, Aleck Pratt, who had lost his bearings, — it seemed to him as if the whole fabric of his life were suffering disintegration.

Then, in a lurid flash of memory, he recalled the very act of placing that miserable paper there with his own hands. He remembered returning that same afternoon to verify his inventory, careful man that he was, — and that then and there he had half mechanically rescued the “ insecurity,” and tucked it in with the other bonds. What imp of darkness had impelled him to put it into just that envelope, the only one having inner folds to form a trap for its detention ? And why, oh why, since it had remained in hiding through every previous examination, must it come to light now, when the mischief was done past remedy?

Past remedy? Was it then past remedy ? And as the excellent man sat there in deadly consternation, the remedy he pondered was not of the wrong done Robert. It was his own personal straits that held possession of his mind, his own hideous discomfiture. Must he then face exposure, he asked himself, his heart hardening within him, — must he produce the bond ? Had he not made good its loss ? Had he not more than fulfilled every obligation toward the heirs in that as in every other particular? Why take any step tending to lessen their faith in him ? Since he had made good that trifling matter (how much more trifling it seemed to-day than ever before!), why rake it up again, at the expense of his reputation as a trustworthy business man ? And how about Robert’s reputation ? The thought gave him pause for a moment only. Robert’s business reputation! As if he had ever had any to lose! It was not as if Robert’s probity had been in doubt. No one had ever questioned that. But neither had any one ever taken Robert’s irregularities seriously, least of all Robert himself! In this very matter of the bond, — what had Robert cared ? The man was too indifferent to his own reputation to take the most obvious measures for clearing it. Of course, if Robert had cared, — if he had been distressed, mortified, even decently regretful! But he did n’t care! And whatever he had lost in family esteem, it was a thing he had not valued, while Aleck! — why, a doubt cast upon his, yes, infallibility (he boldly used the word himself) a doubt cast upon that would be a family misfortune.

Sitting there, motionless, still gripping the arms of his chair, head down-bent, eyes unseeing, thinking, thinking, thinking, Aleck felt himself becoming with every moment more strongly intrenched in his position. The family could not afford to lose confidence in him. They had been too long accustomed to turn to him for counsel in their business dealings. How faithfully he had served them, as executor, as trustee, as general adviser! Had he ever failed them ? Never once. Yet did not the very stanchness of their faith in him render it vulnerable ? Too strong to bend, might it not break under the shock of an unprecedented blow ? It was surely not for him to deal that blow, not for him to imperil his own usefulness. A slight oversight must not be magnified into a damning misdeed. And with this forcible conclusion our hardpressed sophist rose to his feet and continued his preparations for the impending formalities.

And when the family met in that very room a few hours later, there was naught in Aleck’s face to betray the crisis through which he had passed. He sat, erect, authoritative, in his accustomed chair, giving his mind to the matter in hand, as untroubled by doubts of his own position as by misgivings touching the reality of the black-walnut furniture which he had regarded with such suspicion a few hours earlier.

Robert had declined the post of honor beside his co-executor, with the brief disclaimer: “Oh, no, Aleck; this is your funeral! ” And so sure of himself was Aleck that he could contemplate without a qualm the grewsome truth that might have lurked in Robert’s words had not common-sense taken command of the situation.

The ceremony of distribution was an affair of but a few minutes, for, aside from the checks in Aleck’s book, there remained only the personal effects to be considered. These, under his practiced and conscientious appraisal, had been collected in numbered parcels, to be assigned by the drawing of lots. Contrary to a well-worn tradition that has furnished grist to many a humorist’s mill, the little rite was in this instance performed with a reverential quiet, eloquent of feeling. As one and another took possession of his small allotment, not all eyes were dry, nor was every voice quite steady, though we may be sure that no pains were spared to conceal such weakness.

While the others were comparing notes, or chatting in subdued tones, Robert sat, somewhat apart from the rest, studying a set of pink-lustre teacups which had, inappropriately as might appear, come his way. But he had no fault to find with Fortune’s caprice. He had always loved those little shiny cups, whose natural claim to handles had been mysteriously denied them. As he lifted one of them in his hand, his mind was crossed by a curious analogy with himself. Was there not something akin to their ingenuous futility in his own equipment for life? He too had his shiny surfaces, oh, yes! and his ready receptivity. Was it perhaps the handles that he too had lacked ? Was that why he had — well, spilled so much out of life ? why the cup had so often slipped, just when the elixir was brimming? Across his fanciful reverie struck his brother’s voice, harshly breaking in upon the lower murmur of conversation.

“ I have something to say, that you must all hear.”

To most of those present the accent was merely a trifle more strenuous than usual. But to Robert’s ear, trained to the perception of undertones, there was a difference. Nor did it escape Louisa’s notice. She glanced at her husband in quick anxiety. Yes, his face was tense with suppressed emotion, as she had rarely seen it. He stood in rigid isolation over there by the desk, the very picture of stolid self-sufficiency; yet in those square-set shoulders, in that stiffly awkward pose, was something that smote her to the heart.

In his hand Aleck held a pair of goldbowed spectacles. There was no one in that little company that did not recognize them at a glance, though none attached any special significance to their appearance at just that juncture. They had been included in the little collection of valuables which the Law of Chance — sometimes so curiously relevant — had awarded Aleck. When he had come upon them thus, a moment since, he had suffered a severe shock. It was not the peculiar shape of the heavy gold rims, squared off at the corners, that appealed with such poignant force to his memory, — not the initials cut in the edge, recording a gift from husband to wife. It was nothing less than a startlingly realistic vision of the bright black eyes that had animated them for so many decades, — of those eyes, so shrewd, so humorous, so kindly, and always so unerringly clear, — eyes before whose penetrating glance the boldest child had firmly believed that “ his sin would surely find him out.” What other articles might have fallen to his share Aleck heeded not. He had seen only those spectacles, and more distinctly still the eyes of her whom he had loved and reverenced all his life. And now, as he stood before his kindred, with the glasses in his hand, he was impelled to speech by a power that he never once thought of resisting.

“ I have something to say,” he declared, “ that you must all hear.” — And in face of the censure, the disparagement, the ridicule he was inviting, his bearing only stiffened to a greater tension, while a queer, discordant break shook his voice. “ The Realty Company bond which you have all heard about has been found. Robert had nothing to do with the loss of it. I myself had taken it in charge, and then — forgotten,”

A slight movement stirred the little company, but no one spoke, although all eyes were fixed upon him, as he went on to the bitter end.

“ I apologize to you all,” he said, while a dark flush mounted to his very hair. “ I apologize to you all, and most of all to Robert.”

There was a second’s embarrassed silence; then the click of a small teacup set in a saucer as Robert remarked, in a tone of easy unconcern, “ That’s all right, Aleck. I always told you the matter was not worth talking about!

And at that the murmur of voices was resumed, and each member of the company fell to examining his newly acquired possessions with an exaggerated interest.

When the last guest had departed, Aleck returned from escorting his Aunt Harriet, now the senior member of the family, to her carriage. He walked up the path with dragging step, his head bowed, his hands clasped behind him, prey to a profound nervous reaction. They had all been very kind, oh yes. The Pratts were a good sort; not one of them all had shown the least disposition to exult in his downfall. Uncle Ben, to be sure, who must have his joke, had poked him in the ribs and said something quite inoffensive about humble-pie; but Uncle Ben’s jokes never rankled. A cousin or two had gone so far as to give his hand a significant squeeze under cover of the general leavetaking, which was a long sight worse than Ben’s pie. But they meant well. Yes, they had all been very kind, — especially Aunt Harriet, who had leaned from her carriage to say, “ I think mother would have been pleased, Aleck,” adding, — the better to point her allusion, — “I wondered whether you realized that you were holding her spectacles in your hand all the time.”

Realized it! As if he had realized anything else! And he did not, even now, regret what it had driven him to. No, he did not regret it, — except for Louisa. It had hurt at the time, hurt atrociously, but now that it was over, the only person that really seemed to matter was Louisa. Louisa had always respected him so. He had always been aware of her respect; but only now did he perceive how much it had meant to him all these years. He somehow could not bear to step down from the pedestal which he felt assured that he had occupied in her esteem.

As he entered the house, in gloomy self-absorption, and drew near the library, his attention was arrested by a muffled sound. He stayed his step, embarrassed and alarmed. There, in the chair where he himself had sat enthroned an hour ago, in fancied security, was Louisa, her arms resting on the desk, her head upon them, sobbing gently. The lamp shone full upon the pretty hair, striking its decorous brown plaits into bronze. Had they been less severely disciplined, those heavy plaits of hair, they might have got entangled in the gold-bowed spectacles, so close, did these lie, there where they had dropped, when their brief mission was accomplished.

A quick compunction seized Aleck. He had not thought that she would take it this way; he had only imagined her thinking less highly of him. But that she should feel it like this, that she too should be mortified and distressed, — on that he had not reckoned. He could not remember that he had ever before seen her cry since their little Emmy died. Why, this would never do, never in the world!

He crossed the room, with a curious hesitancy and self-distrust, and stood beside her, deeply troubled, not on his own account, but for her.

“ Don’t lake it so hard, dear,” he begged. When before had he ever called her “ dear ” ? “ Nobody’s going to think the less of you.”

“Of me?” she sobbed. “ Of me? Oh, Aleck! ”

He began patting her shoulder rather awkwardly.

“ Don’t cry! ” he entreated. “ Don’t cry, — dearest !

At that reckless, that incredible endearment, Louisa lifted a face, radiant through its tears.

“ I’m not taking it hard,” she gasped, with a blissful inconsequence. “ I never was so happy in my life before! ”

“ Happy, Louisa ? Happy ? ”

“ Yes, happy! Ah, don’t you understand ? You’ve been wrong, wrong, outrageously wrong! — and you’ve owned up like a splendid great hero, and — oh, Aleck, I adore you ! ” And, seizing his faithful hand, she pressed her face against it in an excess of joyful emotion.

Then Aleck, grown old before his time on a diet of respect and esteem and suchlike sober fare, took his first draught of adoration like a man. What if it did go to his head a bit? Louisa would have been the last to mind that. For suddenly she felt herself caught up into her husband’s arms in a swift embrace which was quite the most delectable thing she had ever known. And as she hid her face against the familiar waistcoat, on which she had that very morning sewed an unconscious button, “Louisa,” she heard him declare, with an uncontrollable throb of feeling, “ Louisa, I don’t care what they say about me, now that I know you are on my side, — and grandmother,” he added under his breath.

Whereupon those same gold-bowed spectacles might have been seen to twinkle more knowingly than ever.