AT an unearthly hour in the morning John Scidmore sat up suddenly in his bed and remembered Julia Norris’s telephone message. He rose at once, switched on the shaded light on the bureau, and looked at his watch: the minute hand had just swung past three o’clock.
Undisturbed by her husband’s nocturnal prowling, Kitty Scidmore slept with almost childish naturalness. He plunged the room into darkness again and felt his way out into the hall and down the short flight of stairs to the dining-room.
The night was unusually warm. As he opened the garden window, pungent odors of dry stubble wet with a late October dew floated toward him. He leaned out and drew in a deep breath, but his attempts at calmness failed utterly.
He knew that it was absurd to fret; he might just as well go back to bed and sleep peacefully. One could not place a line of insurance at three o’clock in the morning. Upon what day had Julia Norris telephoned? Was it last Friday? Yes, he remembered now, perfectly. He had been busy with a peevish customer who haggled about a twentyfive-cent overcharge. In the midst of the controversy, in her characteristically impulsive way, Julia Norris had rung up: —
‘Oh John! is that you, John? Place ten thousand dollars with the Falcon Insurance Company on my flats in the Richmond District.’
He had recognized her voice even before she gave her name. And he had been so sure he would not forget. Why, he had been so very sure that he had not troubled to make a memorandum. And to think that the excitement of arguing a twenty-flve-cent overcharge should have so completely put to rout Julia Norris’s order!
A sudden rage at his carelessness seized him. How he loathed his life, his work, and the soul-killing routine and cramped vision of the figurative counting-house! He switched on the light and peered into the mirror over the mantel, smiling satirically at the reflection greeting him, — the reflection of plain Johnny Scidmore, insurance broker’s clerk, a commonplace, rather undersized, law-abiding citizen just turning forty, whose face showed the lack of that forceful ability necessary to convert opportunity into success.
As he drew back from the glass with a shrug of disgust, the futility of his life flashed over him. He still could remember the time when he went blithely to the day’s work, buoyed by youth’s intangible hope of better things. But the years soon took their toll of enthusiasm, and there were days when John Scidmore went through his paces like a trick horse urged by the whip of necessity. Lately he had been worried to find how easily he was forgetting things — telephone messages, instructions from his chief, orders to place insurance. So far nothing very important had slipped by him, but now he felt quite sure that he could never trust himself again. There were many reasons why he should have remembered Julia’s Norris’s orders. First, because she was his wife’s friend; second, because a ten-thousand-dollar order to his credit was not an everyday occurrence; and third, because the circumstance that had overshadowed it was relatively of so little importance.
For over a week, then, Julia Norris’s property had gone without insurance protection. What if it had burned up? What if it were burning up at this very moment? He sat down suddenly.
He got up again, fumbled about, and found cigarettes and a box of matches. Two cigarettes quieted him. He began to think that he was a silly fool, mooning about when he should have been sleeping. In the morning he would take an early train to San Francisco and place the line without further ado. Yes, after all, he was as silly and notional as a young schoolgirl. He put down the window, turned off the lights, and crawled upstairs to bed.
True to his resolve, John Scidmore took an early train to San Francisco next morning, although he could not have said why. It was as impossible to place insurance at eight-thirty as it was at three A.M., since no self-respecting insurance office opened until nine. Still there is a certain comfort in even futile activity when one has the fidgets.
It was a beautiful October morning such as often veils the Berkeley hills in faint purple and draws a soft glamour over the city of San Francisco; and as Scidmore walked briskly down the elmshaded streets of Berkeley toward the train he felt elusively happy, notwithstanding the ripples below’ the surface of his content.
The office-boy was taking books out of the safe when he arrived at the office. In a corner by the wash-basin one of the stenographers stood, fluffing up her hair. A janitor dusted the desks with casual attention.
As Scidmore entered he noticed a woman sitting near the counter. She rose instantly, lifting her veil, smiling a welcome at him. He crossed over to her — it was Julia Norris. His heart began to beat violently, but the next moment he had recovered himself and was able to smile back at her in perfect self-control.
‘You are early,’ he said, offering her his hand.
‘Yes, and I’m in trouble. You know those flats I insured last week — they burned down early this morning. They tell me there is n’t a stick left standing.’
His hand fell as if a blow had wilted it. ‘The flats you insured last week —’ he echoed, sparring for time. ‘I don’t believe I — understand.’
‘Why, did n’t you get my telephone message? I ’phoned last Tuesday. I thought I talked to you. I was sure it was your voice. Could I have rung up the wrong office?’
Her uncertainty steadied him. Unconsciously she opened a door of escape. Scidmore laid his hat on the counter. Julia Norris fluttered back to her seat and he sat down beside her.
‘I suppose I’ve bungled things again,’ she went on. ‘Usually I leave everything to Mr. Rice, but this insurance matter I took into my own hands. I wanted you to have the business, so I left positive instructions with Mr. Rice to let me know when the next insurance policy expired. That was last Friday. I ’phoned you at once. I can’t imagine — ’
As she rattled on, pointing an accusing finger at herself, John Scidmore grew surer and surer of his next step. There was not the faintest note of calculation in his attitude; confused and dazed he merely followed her lead.
‘And you never received any policy?’ he questioned. ‘Not after a week? You must have thought we were rather inattentive — or slow.’
She shook her head. ‘I forgot the whole transaction — until this morning. Rice ’phoned me at eight o’clock.’
‘But there may still be a chance,’ Scidmore suggested, shamed by the very ease with which he was escaping. ‘ Perhaps another clerk got the message. I’ll question them all. Or — maybe you rang up the Falcon’s office direct.’
She laid a gloved hand on his arm as she shrugged.
He shook his head. ‘You can’t imagine how this bothers me,’ he went on. He began to feel a certain boldness, such as thieves feel when they put over a sharp trick. He wanted to prolong the discussion, to dally with danger. ‘To think that in trying to be of service to me you should have gone astray. I would n’t have had it happen for — Let me see, what was the amount of your order?’
‘Ten thousand dollars.’
‘ Ten thousand dollars! That’s a lot of money.’
‘Yes,’ she admitted slowly, as she moved toward the door. ‘I’m pretty comfortable, but nobody likes to throw money into the street.’
He thrust his hands into his pockets in an effort at nonchalance. He could feel his temples throbbing. But his confusion cleared before Julia Norris’s unruffled smile, deepening a growing sense of irritation. She was not greatly concerned, first, because she did not have to be, and second, because her faith in his integrity was unshaken. Her complacency and trustfulness enraged him. What was ten thousand dollars to her?
In the midst of his musings, her voice, curiously remote, roused him.
‘I’m going to have lunch with Kitty,’ she said, almost gayly.
‘Lunch with Kitty?’ he echoed. Then, floundering with mingled consternation and embarrassment, he finished, ‘Oh, yes, — won’t that be fine! Yes, by all means do!’
And yet, unnerved as he was, he went through the conventional motions of courtesy, bowing her to the door, pressing her hand cordially, sweeping her a good-bye with exaggerated warmth. Even when she was gone her unperturbed smile mocked him. She did not have the slightest suspicion of his unworthiness, and therein lay the essence of the sudden and unqualified hate he began to feel for her.
John Scidmore questioned all the clerks as they entered the office. Had any one received a telephone message about a week ago from Mrs. Julia Norris? He was playing his game so earnestly that he would not have been surprised to find somebody acknowledging the transaction. The manager came in at ten o’clock; Scidmore even presented the case to him: Mrs. Julia Norris, a client of his, had telephoned an order for insurance over a week ago. Nobody remembered it. The property to be insured had burned up. Of course, Mrs. Norris might have been mistaken (she admitted as much), but there was just a chance —
The manager, instantly interested, adjusted his glasses. A ten-thousand-dollar line neglected! Incredible! He began to investigate personally, calling up one clerk after another, while Scidmore listened like a highwayman, tempting chance from a spirit of sheer bravado. Nobody remembered, even under the most searching cross-examination. The private exchange operator, who was usually very keen about such matters, could not place the call.
Then came a discussion of how to prevent such a lapse should one occur. Scidmore sat at the manager’s desk, quite the hero of the hour — a very important personage, whose ten-thousand-dollar client had come to grief. It was years since he had figured in a question of office policy. Gradually the uniqueness of his position pushed Julia Norris and her loss into a hazy background.
He returned to his routine work with a gay spirit. Several times during the morning the manager called him for further conference and inquiry. Finally a letter was drafted to Mrs. Julia Norris, to the effect that the California Insurance Brokers’ Company regretted exceedingly to inform her that upon closer examination no trace could be found of her telephone message. They could only conclude that she inadvertently had rung up the wrong office. Inquiry at the Falcon Company’s office, however, developed that no such insurance had been placed, even by a rival firm. They hoped that this unfortunate occurrence would not stand in the way of other favors at her hands, and so forth.
John Scidmore signed the letter with a flourish.
All morning the fiction of Julia Norris’s mistake still persisted. Why had she not taken greater precautions? The idea of telephoning in a line of insurance and not inquiring the name of the person who took the message! Common sense would dictate such a course. He began to feel abused, as if Julia Norris had betrayed him in some way.
It was not until John Scidmore had scrambled aboard the ferryboat on his way home and sat himself down in his usual place, under the pilot-house, that his inflated spirits began to collapse. The afternoon had been spent in a mad rush of business, — an avalanche of petty orders and details such as periodically afflicts an insurance broker’s office.
The sense of security which had enveloped him all day fell away before a vague uneasiness. Before an audience, he had played his part spiritedly; without the spur of interested auditors his performance lagged. There was an element of excitement in serving moral fiction to unsuspecting listeners, but hoodwinking himself proved a boresome task. The boldest highwayman had a cleaner record: at least such an outlaw made bold plays and took great chances. He had not risked so much as his little finger on his enterprise, and his victim’s cheek was still warm with the kiss of betrayal. Lies, thievery, murder — one by one these suggestions of outlawry mentally passed in review and sank into insignificance before this sinister word — betrayal. In all the calendar of human weaknesses, John Scidmore could recall none that served so contemptible an end as betrayal. And he, John Scidmore, had been guilty of this crowning meanness.
If the memory of Julia Norris’s confidence stabbed him, what of the attitude of his superiors at the office? They had never even thought of questioning him. As he looked back on the events of the morning he was appalled. It seemed that all these years he had built up barriers of moral responsibility only to see them swept away before a freshet of fears.
A tramping of feet warned him that the boat was swinging into the slip. He rose mechanically. The exertion of following the scrambling crowd and finding himself a seat on the train interrupted his self-accusation. By the time he was comfortably settled again, he mentally had begun his defense.
Why should he make such an absurd fuss over confessing his fault to Julia Norris? She was rich; her husband had left her a cool million. Ten thousand dollars did n’t matter, and besides, she was Kitty’s friend. Had he the right to purchase a quiet conscience at the expense of Kitty’s pride?
What had he given Kitty in the fifteen years of their wedded life? Had he played the game boldly and well? Did she hold her head high at the mention of his name? No, he had fallen short of his own standards. How much more must he have fallen short of her hopes for him. And now he was lacking the courage to swallow his medicine. He was ready to whimper and whine at the load which his own inefficiency had forced upon his conscience. He argued that strong men made bold plays and damned the consequence; in other words, they took a chance. But his soul was tricking itself out in a dramatic subterfuge. What lie really had discovered was something to excuse his weakness, and this something loomed up conveniently in the person of Kitty Scidmore, his wife.
When Scidmore arrived home, he went directly to his room and closed the door. The thought of meeting Kitty troubled him. But after he had slipped on an old coat and freshened up, he felt better.
At the dinner table he noticed a tired, pinched look about his wife’s mouth. Julia Norris was every day as old as his wife, but time had dealt kindly with her. Her face was still fresh and rosy; there was not even a glint of gray in her hair. Resentment began to move him, resentment at Julia Norris, at her fortune, at her friendship for his wife, at every detail connected with his memory of her.
Kitty began to talk. Scidmore sat silent, crumbling his bread. Finally the dread subject came to life. Kitty looked up and said, —
‘Julia was late to-day, as usual. Poor dear Julia, what a generous soul she is!’
Scidmore began to fidget. ‘Late? How did that happen? She left our office long before ten o’clock.’
‘Oh, but you don’t know Julia! She did a thousand and one things before she arrived here. And such a disheveled creature as she was! And so full of apologies and troubles! Nothing to speak of — she laughed them all away in five minutes.’
‘Then she did n’t tell —’
‘About the insurance? I should say she did. She was so worried for fear you’d be distressed about it all. She admitted that she was to blame. But she knows how conscientious you are, and she was afraid —’
Scidmore impatiently interrupted his wife. ‘ Julia Norris ought to have some business sense, Kitty; upon my word she should. And it has worried me. A woman like that — one never can be sure of just what she does think. It’s an even chance that deep down she believes that she delivered the message to me, and that I neglected it.’
He could feel his face flushing with mingled indignation and disapproval as he voiced his displeasure.
Kitty got up to pour a glass of water.
‘Why, John,’ she half chided, ‘I’m sure Julia would n’t be guilty of such a thought. You don’t know her — generous— impulsive. Why, she’d forgive you for neglecting, if you really had neglected anything. As a matter of fact she said very decidedly, “If I’d been dealing with anybody but John Scidmore, I do believe I’d be inconsistent enough to try to blame the other fellow, but of course I know —’
‘ Yes,’ he broke in excitedly, ‘that’s just it. That’s the way she puts it, to you. But such a remark as that just bears out what I say— she’s not altogether satisfied. I know what she thinks; I saw it in her face this morning— this is what comes of trying to help one’s poor friends.'
His wife stopped pouring water and laid down the pitcher. ‘Nonsense. Julia Norris has perfect faith in you.’
‘ Why should she have? ’ he persisted hotly. ‘Is n’t it just as possible for me to forget, to overlook a telephone message, as the other fellow? I’m not infallible any more than she is.’
‘No,’ Kitty returned very quietly. ‘I don’t think she imagines that you are infallible. But she knows that if you took her message and forgot it, you ’d admit it.’
He rallied from this blow with a feeling of fierce antagonism. ‘Well,’ he sneered sarcastically. ‘If she’s silly enough to have any such notions, she does need a guardian! As a matter of fact, I’d conceal my mistakes as quickly as any one else would.’
Kitty began to laugh, a full-throated, indulgent laugh, that made him bite his lips. ‘What a lot of foolish brag you’re indulging in, Johnny Scidmore. Well, after all, let’s forget about it; Julia herself laughed it off.’
He crumpled the napkin in his hand. ‘Yes, that’s just it. She can laugh over it, while we — why, if we lost ten thousand it would be a tragedy. I could n’t help thinking to-day after she’d left the office, suppose, just suppose, I had received Julia Norris’s ’phone message — and forgotten it. The very thought made me sick all over.’
He paused, frightened at the lengths to which his uneasiness had forced him. His wife’s smile gave way to a puzzled look as she returned very quietly, —
‘Do you really think it worth while to face these imaginary situations?’
His resentment flared again at the comfortable evenness of her tone. ‘Yes, I do,’ he snapped back. ‘It helps one to exercise one’s morals. I wanted to know just how I would act in such an emergency. And I’ve found out. The very thought frightens me too much. I know that I should feel morally bound to confess, but I’d never have the courage of my convictions. Now, what do you suppose you would advise me to do in a situation like that? What would you tell me to do?’
Kitty Scidmore looked straight at her husband. He dropped his eyes.
‘I would not advise you, John,’ she said, distinctly.
He glanced up at her. ‘You’d not say a word ? ’
She shook her head. ‘No, it would n’t be necessary.’
He began to stir his tea. His hand was shaking, and his spoon rattled noisily against the teacup.
After he had helped Kitty with the dishes, John Scidmore left the house for a walk. It was a calm, beautiful night, lit by a slender moon hung high in the heavens and stars twinkling cheerily. As he went along the elm-shaded streets, he drew in deep breaths, striving to steady the tumult within him.
Kitty’s words hummed themselves into his inner consciousness. ‘No, John, it would n’t be necessary.’ What did she really mean? Did she think he had the courage to settle such a question decisively — righteously? Did — He stopped, turning the phrase over in his mind. He knew that materially he had been a failure. People called him a nice fellow and let it go at that. Was it possible for his wife, the wife who had lived so close to all his weaknesses, to glorify him with so large a hope? The thought began to thrill him.
He heard the Old Library clock on the University campus chime nine.
He began to walk slowly in the direction of the chiming clock. He was still undecided, still battling with his cowardice. The shrill whistle of an incoming train arrested him. This same train would swing back to San Francisco in ten minutes. He retraced his steps. In ten minutes — His legs seemed weighted. He wondered whether he would really catch it.
Standing before the massive façade of the Hotel Fairmont, John Scidmore had a fleeting hope that Julia Norris would not be at home. But almost as instantly he felt a desperate need to clear himself at once. If he waited even an hour he could not vouch for the outcome. He walked rapidly into the lobby, gave his name to the hotel clerk, and awaited the reply with beating heart. Mrs. Norris was in. A bell-boy, answering the clerk’s summons, showed him to her apartments.
A maid ushered him into a reception room. He sank into one of the luxurious chairs, drumming upon its arms with nervous fingers.
A lamp on the centre table threw a rich, golden light over the surroundings. Thrown over a chair a lace scarf fell with the undulating softness of a cascade. Near a vase of blood-red roses a long white glove had been dropped carelessly.
He did not wait long. Julia Norris came toward him with her usual warm smile, and a hand outstretched in welcome. He stood up. She was very simply dressed, in white, and a band of velvet at her throat set off a fine cameo ringed with pearls, but her air of quiet elegance caught and held his resentful eyes. A fierce, unreasoning hate began to sway him; for a moment his vision blurred.
As she stepped back to pick up her lace scarf from the chair, John Scidmore recovered his poise.
‘I was afraid you would be out,’ he began inadequately.
She threw the scarf about her shoulders. ‘I was preparing to drift downstairs to watch the dancing,’ she answered. ‘You caught me just in time.’
He stood irresolutely, almost awkwardly, watching her dainty manipulations of the filmy lace. Then quite suddenly, so suddenly as to surprise even himself, he blurted out, —
‘I lied to you this morning. I took your order for insurance. I forgot to place it.’
She stood for a moment in silence. ‘What made you —’
John Scidmore shrugged. His vision was clearing. He felt quite calm. ‘You suggested the idea yourself. You were so ready to take the blame. I suppose it was self-preservation. I began to strike blindly — as any desperate man would. I’m not what they call a success — I never have been. You know how it is, some people— Oh, well! Some of us don’t get by, that’s all.’
He turned away. Julia Norris touched him on the shoulder. ‘John, can’t you see that the ten thousand dollars does n’t matter to me? But you and Kitty— you and Kitty do matter.’
He began to crush his hat between his clasped hands.
She threw the scarf from her shoulders. ‘Look here, John —’
He stopped her with an abrupt gesture. ‘ I’ve won this victory for Kitty’s sake,’ he said. ‘This is the first time in my life I’ve lived up to her hope of me. If you were a failure you’d realize how much that means.’
She was standing by the vase of roses, scattering petals with ruthless fingers. She crossed over to him and put both her hands in his. >
‘You’re not a failure, John Scidmore,’ she said simply.
The rose-petals were dropping in a steady shower upon the table. He saw them lying lightly on the white glove. He felt a great relief as he put his clenched hand to his eyes.
As John Scidmore rode home he felt desperately tired. He never remembered a day that had seemed longer.
He dragged up the elm-shaded street, down which he had whistled his confident way twelve hours before, a shuffling, ineffectual figure. As he opened the front door his hand shook.
He lingered in the hall, hanging his hat with unnecessary care, twisting his necktie into shape, smoothing the thin wisps of hair about his temples.
He found Kitty in the living-room. A tiny fire crackled in the grate. Standing in the doorway he watched the needle which Kitty deftly plied slipping about its task with fascinating gleams. Her face was happily flushed and she was humming softly to herself. The elegant memory of Julia Norris rose before him. He saw again the golden shower of light from the huge tablelamp, the vase of American Beauty roses, the lace scarf thrown carelessly across a brocade chair. He pressed his lips together and entered the room.
Kitty looked up. He stopped short. ‘Something new?’ he ventured.
She gave a little laugh. ‘New? I should say not. Just freshening up a bit for to-morrow.’
‘To-morrow?’ he echoed dully. ‘What’s on for to-morrow?’
‘Guest day at the club. Mrs. Wiley has asked me to pour tea. What kept you out so late, Johnny?’
He crossed over to the fire, pulling his easy chair into place. ‘I went over to the city — to see Julia Norris.’
He stood a moment, undecided, his back turned toward Kitty, his hand upon the chair. He was waiting for Kitty to question him. Finding that she did not answer, he turned and looked at her. She was intent on her sewing, but he fancied that the flush of happiness suddenly had fled her cheeks.
‘I went over to see Julia Norris,’ ho repeated desperately. ‘You said your advice would n’t be necessary.’
He sank into a chair. Across the room he heard the monotonous ticking of a clock.
He was wondering what Kitty would say. Of course she understood; the whiteness of her face told him that her feminine intuition had bridged the gaps in his explanation. He began to have a terror lest she would come up to him, or speak — perhaps even weep. The fire in the grate flared up suddenly, turned faintly blue, and died. Still Kitty said nothing; still the clock ticked rhythmically.
He leaned back, closed his eyes, and drew a long breath. Kitty was stirring. She came over and dropped gently before the fire, leaning her head against him.
‘I forgot to tell you,’ she said slowly. ’I asked Julia Norris over for Sunday dinner. She’s so awfully stuffed up in that horrible hotel.’
Her bravery smote him more than tears could have. He did not answer, but he just put out his hand and touched her hair caressingly, as she finished, —
‘It’s very grand, I know, and all that. But, after all, it is n’t home, Johnny, is it?’