Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 8 page 143
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ITH the precision of clockwork, every day of the his life but Sundays, Nathaniel Mar walked down the main street of Valdivia to the bank. People who lived out of sight of the City Hall timepiece, set their watches by the appearance of the lame man with the stick. He never varied the route, any more than he altered his time, and both had been exactly the same for twenty-eight years.
The other bank cashiers (few of them over thirty) said that, in their opinion, Mr. Mar had hung on quite long enough. They did not hesitate to add that his post would have fallen to a younger man years ago had Mar not been "a sort of relation." Even so it was pretty steep that an old codger of sixty should be blocking up the way like that. A bank was no place for the superannuated, unless, of course, a man was a director.
So acute was the hearing of the old codger (who was not yet sixty) that sotto-voce observations of this sort had, from time to time, reached his ears.
He saw all about him men, younger than himself, turned out of positons they had occupied, with usefulness and integrity, for years, and for no other reason than to make way for some "boy" in his early twenties. Men of his own standing had from time to time in the past decade raged hopelessly against this tendency in a
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nation, where the great god, Efficiency, demands the fine flower of each man 's life, and looks with disfavor upon lined faces and whitening hair, even when the capacity for service is unimpaired. It is part of the doctrine of "show me." There being any good, or any force not capable of being "shown"--well, it was doubtful. Best not take chances.
Mar had sympathized with his contemporaries for being elbowed out of their places, but he had smiled at one or two who had suffered the common fate of the American clerk, in spite of having dyed their hair, and worn jaunty pince-nez instead of "good honest spectacles." Nevertheless, Mar's own secret uneasiness--not being assuaged by hair dye or dissipated by pince-nez--took the form of making him the more ready to be the Trennor Brothers' pack-horse, unconsciously the more eager to oblige any and everybody at the bank, to "show" from Monday morning to Saturday afternoon how indispensable he was. He knew they could get no one to do what he did with the same care and assiduity for the same salary. His astonishment was, therefore, hardly less than his chagrin, when he found upon his desk, one morning, a letter from the firm "terminating their long and pleasant connection upon the usual notice."
In the bitterness of that hour he felt that nothing he ever had suffered before had mattered so vitally. As long as a man has work he can bear trouble and disappointment--life without work--it was something not to be faced. For the work, little by little, had devoured everything else, narrowed down his friendships, cut off his recreations, produced a brain-fag that made him unfit even for reading anything but newspapers.
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He set instantly about finding another post. The story of the days that followed--the writing to and interviewing whippersnapper young managers of flourishing concerns, and of being more or less cavalierly "turned down,'' as the slang phrase went--it would make a book of itself; a tragic and significant book to boot, and one essentially "American."
The Mar boys behaved very well. They, at least, were not surprised. They had, in point of fact, expected the occurrence long before.
What they had not expected was that the old man "would take it so mighty hard." Why, he could scarcely be more cut up if he were alone in the world--dependent entirely upon his own exertions--instead of having two fine go-ahead sons, who were getting on in life so rapidly that it really was n't a matter of vital importance whether the old man did anything or not; for they had every intention of being good to their father.
They told him so. And he had not shown himself grateful. And still they meant to be "good" to him. They were "mighty nice young men."
NATHANIEL MAR saw clearly by the time the "notice" was up, that he lagged superfluous. There was no opening for him anywhere.
The first morning that he had no right to go down to the bank was one of the most difficult he had known. He went out just the same, at precisely the same moment, and came in at the usual time. No one knew where he had spent those hours, but he looked tired and ill when he sat down to the midday meal. After it was over, he said he thought he would "go up and lie down." He
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had never done such a thing before in his life, at that hour of the day. The following mornings he spent at his writing-table in the dining-room, and although there were no screaming children there now, and the room was bright and pretty, he sat miserably, day after day, turning over old letters and papers, till in despair he would get up and take down a book to read. But his thoughts were all "down at the bank."
Mrs. Mar dashed in and out, called brisk directions to the Chinaman, who presided now in the kitchen, and when there was nothing else to do, she would fly at the sewing-machine. This appeared to be the kind of mechanism which was worked with the whole human body. The hands traveling briskly along with the moving seam, head going like a mandarin's, knees up, knees down, Mrs. Mar pedaled and buzzed away.
Her husband seldom spoke. Having retired within himself directly after the breakfast things were cleared away, he seemed to be averse from making the smallest movement while his wife was in the room. He sat there intensely still, even turning the leaf of his book only at long intervals, surreptitiously, without a sound. It was as though, by a death-like stillness, he should prove that he was not there. He was really down at the bank--his motionlessness seemed to say.
As if Mrs. Mar divined this mental ruse of his, and felt a need to unmask it, she would look at him sideways, and "What are you doing ?" she would ask briskly.
"That old Franklin again? Why, you 've read it three or four times already!" No answer. "Why don't you get something up-to-date from the library?" Still
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no response. "Content just to sit and sit!" she would comment inwardly. Then aloud, "Don't they want a manager up at Smithson's!"
"Why don 't you try for the secretaryship of the New Pickwick?"
"Monty Fellowes has got it."
"Ah, well, I suppose Monty Fellowes went the length of asking for it."
Nathaniel Mar had also gone that length, though the post was beneath a man of his powers. But he could not tell over again at home the tale of his failures. Better she should think he had n't tried.
But, oh, the very look of him sat upon her spirit, and still she looked.
"You 'll be ill if you stay in the house so much. Remember you 've had a walk twice a day for going on thirty years." No answer. His immobility made it a positive necessity for her to get up and poke the fire vigorously, or do something with might and main. That was a thing he had never tried in his life--to do something with might and main! And that was why lie was stranded like this now. A man of only fifty-eight! Why, she herself--Harriet T. Mar--was fifty-nine. And just see how she took hold of existence--very much as she gripped the poker. Oh, it was a trial living in the same house, and all day long in the same room with a "logy" man! He was more sodden with failure every day he lived. Misfortune acted upon him like an opiate. Ha! If she--Harriet T. Mar--were ninety, misfortune would sting her into action. At the mere thought she sprang up and stung her husband, or the imperturbable Mongol
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in the kitchen, or the gentle Hildegarde. But truth to tell, though that girl looked such a tender, simple creature, it was as little rewarding to wrestle with Hildegarde as with Mar, or the stolid Chinaman.
Indeed, the more the mother bustled the quieter grew the girl--not at first consciously as a form of protest, but by a process of natural reaction that was largely responsible for Hildegarde's seeming calm to the verge of insensibility.
Mrs. Mar never wholly realized how much to the mother's exuberant energy the daughter owed her impassive air. These influences playing about sensitive people produce a curious rhythm in family life. Nathaniel Mar's supineness made his wife seize the reins and ceaselessly whip up the horses of their car. Mrs. Mar's frantic urging of the pace, the dust and noise and whip-cracking of her progress, produced not merely a yearning for peace in Hildegarde's mind, but a positive physical need to simulate it. People talk much of the value of good example, forgetting that we are sometimes shown there is nothing so salutary as a bad example, since out of example is wrought not merely the impulse toward imitation, but often a passionate realization of the advantage of "another way."
There was always in the Mar house one person with an eye upon the clock--why need you wear a watch?
No need for you to spur on a servant, or make example of a tardy errand boy. There was always Mrs. Mar to do these things with a swingeing efficacy. Those who live with the Mrs. Mars of the world do not realize that they owe their own reputation for sweetness largely to the caustic temper of some one else. Under Mrs. Mar 's roof
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you may "cultivate kindness" and not suffer for it. Away from her drastic influence, you yourself will have to apportion grace and discipline more evenly.
So various is life that we have sometimes a chance of learning from people 's vices what their virtues could never so deeply have impressed.
Something of this the "slow" girl arrived at.
The day Mrs. Mar and Hildegarde went off to spend a week down at the ranch with the Waynes, the two came into the dining-room to say good-by to Mr. Mar. It was to be "a house-party," and Cheviot and Mr. Mar had been asked, too. Cheviot had accepted--"from Saturday night till Monday morning"--but Mar had declined to go for any length of time whatever.
"A body would think he had affairs too important to leave! Well, good-by, Nathaniel. Don 't let hot cinders fall on the new hearth-rug. Take care of yourself, and I hope you 'll have some news for me when I come home."
Upon their return the following week, he was found sitting in exactly the same place, in the precise attitude, and one might almost think with the same old book on his knee open at the self-same page.
"Upon my soul!" ejaculated Mrs. Mar, stopping short on the threshold, while Hildegarde went forward to kiss her father. "No need to ask if you 've found anything to do! You have n't even remembered to put on a little coal." She fell upon the poker and punished the flagging fire. "Have you been sitting there like that ever since I went away?"
Mar drew himself out from Hildegarde's embrace, took firm hold on his walking-stick and rose to his feet. He
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looked huge, as he towered above the two women, and rather wonderful, as both of them had often thought of late. Even the flippant Bella had said, "He 's more and more like Moses and the Prophets."
"As to sitting here"--he looked down sternly on his wife--"you may as well understand, Harriet, that this is the house I propose to sit in till I go out lying down. Only not in this room. I agree with you as to the unfitness of that." He limped over to the kitchen door, opened it, and said, "John, will you light a fire in the young gentlemen's bedroom."
Mrs. Mar stared a moment, and then went up-stairs to take off her things. It was no secret between her and Hildegarde that "after all" they stood a little in awe of the head of the house. The girl, however, knowing herself a privileged character, attempted to smooth things over with a little jest. She linked her arm in his, and told how her mother, on the way down in the train, had produced the book rest and a minute pencil from her traveling-bag, had fastened the rest on the back of the seat in front of her, to the surprise and inconvenience of the occupants, had set up the French biography, put on her spectacles, got out her crochet and read her "Lucien Pérey" and crocheted for dear life (or for the Hindus rather) every minute of the time that she was being rushed along by the express to Fern Lea; "and Louis Cheviot leaned over and whispered in my ear, 'Your mother 's losing time with her feet.'"
But Mar's faint smile was pretty grim. "Your mother has all the virtues, my dear, but she 's a woman of an implacable industry."
With the help of John Chinaman and the grocer's boy,
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that very afternoon Mr. Mar got his big desk established in "the spare chamber" that had been Trenn 's and Harry's room, and still was theirs when one or other of them was in town,--which was often enough whenever Bella was staying at the Mars'.
But whether it was that uncomfortable as the old quarters had been, it disturbed Mar to change them after thirty years, certainly, in spite of his pronouncement to his wife, he did not "sit" at home as much after this. He made a habit of going down town after breakfast, to the San Joaquin Hotel "to read the papers," really to smoke in peace, and exchange views on the political situation, or the Cuban atrocities, with chance travelers or old habitués.
Then came the day when Spanish incompetence and cruelty found a rival excitement. In a remote region of British North America gold had been discovered. The veterans in the San Joaquin reading-room pooh-poohed the notion--all but Nathaniel Mar.
From the beginning he took the Klondike seriously. Not long before everybody was doing the same. Instead of quickly exhausting itself the excitement grew. Had diamonds been discovered in Dakota, the matter would have been a nine days' wonder, and then died as the easily accessible fields were reached and appropriated. Paradox as it might appear, it was owing to the forbidding circumstances under which those pioneers of '97 found their treasure, that made the appeal "Klondike" so irresistible to the marvel-loving fancy of the world. The papers overflowed with accounts of the awful hardship and the huge reward-combination irresistible since history began. And if any Missourian said "show me!"
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he was shown. The actual nuggets and the veritable dust, displayed in a bank window, made would-be miners of men as they passed, or as they meant to pass and stood riveted, staring, seeing there a type of what they might attain unto, if only they had much courage and a little money for an outfit. Who lacked the first? Who could not, for so alluring a purpose, collect the second?
The trains to the ports of San Francisco, Seattle, Victoria, were crammed; the north-bound ships overflowed. Unenterprising, indeed, any store on the Pacific coast that did not advertise some essential to a Klondike outfit. People talked with as much earnestness of the science of life under arctic conditions as they before had discussed Spanish misrule in the South. Even for the vast majority who had no hope of being able to join the rush, the great problem of transportation and the value of evaporated food stuffs, obscured many an issue nearer home.
The one man that he was on fairly intimate terms with, yet to whom Mar had not mentioned the new craze, was Cheviot. It was the kind of thing he would be certain to scoff at. People at the San Joaquin had noticed that scoffing at the Klondike annoyed Mr. Mar, and they wondered a little. Mar had quite made up his mind not to give Cheviot 's skepticism a chance for expression. If you were unwary you might easily think, "So sympathetic and understanding a young man can't help taking fire over this burning question." And then Cheviot would show you how easily he could help it. Watch him playing with his little nephews and nieces and you 'd say, "So kind to children, he will be kind to the childishness in me." And behold he was n't. He was an "aw-
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fully good fellow," but he expected a man to be grown up--and few are.
Mar's anticipation of what would be Cheviot's views about the new craze were very much Hildegarde's own. Her astonishment was therefore well-nigh speechless, when, on the occasion of his next visit, after ten minutes' general conversation in the garden, Cheviot said, "By the way, Hildegarde, I 've come to tell you I 'm going to the Klondike."
"You!" and she stared at him in silence till she could reassure herself by saying," "Nonsense!"
"It may be nonsense, but I 'm going."
"You can't be in earnest!"
She stood, watering-pot in hand, her big eyes wider than ever he had seen them, and a look on her face certainly disturbed, even annoyed.
It was n't very nice, this feeling as if the bottom were dropping out of existence. He had no right to make her feel like that.
Very neatly he switched off the head of a withered flower with his stick, and began, "The Klondike--"
"It 's rather horrid of you, "Hildegarde interrupted, "but of course I know-you-you 're only seeing how I 'd take it--"
"I shan 't be here to see how you '11 take it."
She set down the watering can. "You surely won't dream of doing anything so foolish - so--so--dangerous."
He did n't answer, and she walked beside him down the path to the lower gate. When they got beyond the group of conifers, she stopped. "You simply must n't."
"Why do you say that! You don't care where I go."
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"You know quite well I do."
He did n't even look at her, and he shook his head. Then, after a little pause, "Who knows, you might even come to feel differently about things--if--if--"
"Do you mean"--Hildegarde drew herself up--"if you came home a millionaire!"
"If I did n't come home at all."
"At least for a long time, like--"
"I certainly hope"--nervously she forestalled the utterance of that other name--"that you won't do anything so disappointing to all your old friends. It 's the kind of fortune-hunting expedition for the ne'er-do-well. It is n't for a man like you."
"Well, I 've thought it over," he said, "and I 've come to the conclusion that I 'm best out of Valdivia for a time. You see, Hildegarde, you 're too used to me."
"I 'm not 'too used.'"
"Too certain of me--yes, you are. I 've been uncommon helpless in the matter. I 've got nothing of the actor in me. I can't be near you and inspire you with the smallest doubt as to how things are with me. The one thing I can do is not to be near. And that 's what I 'm going to do."
She wrinkled up her white forehead with a harassed attempt to keep her wits about her, and not be betrayed into rash professions. "You can go away from Valdivia for a while, if that idea is so attractive, without going to the horrible Klondike."
"Yes, I could go to Pasadena or some seaside resort, so that I could come running back, as I did last year from Monterey, on the first hint that you might be miss-
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ing me a little. No, all that 's been tried. It does n't work. I must go to some place where I can't take the first train back; where I won't live through the day expecting a letter from you. It is n't easy in these times for anybody to be really 'out of reach.' When we all know that we 've only to go to the nearest telegraph office for news, we can't know what it would be like utterly to lose some one--unless death teaches us. The nearest approach to the sort of thing I mean--this side of Kingdom Come--is the Klondike."
"Oh, Klondike, Klondike! I 'm sick of the very sound of those two syllables. There 's something un-canny about them. People have gone mad since they heard the ugly word, but not you!"--to give her words more than common emphasis, to insure winning the day she laid her hand on his arm, and said again, with soft deliberation--"Not you, Louis."
"You 'd like me to stay here and suffer. Yes, I know that." Her hand dropped from his sleeve. "But I shan't stay here," he went on unmoved, "and pretty soon I shan't suffer--so much."
From that old, recurrent touch of hardness in his voice and air, she once again recoiled. "Well, I 've said all I mean to say. You must please yourself."
"Pleasure is of course what one expects in the Klondike."
They walked in absolute silence back to the porch Hildegarde went in at once, saying "good-night" over her shoulder, and quite sure that as usual he would follow her. But he stayed behind for fully twenty minutes talking with Mr. Mar, who was smoking out there in the dusk. Hildegarde turned up the electric light in the
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parlor, and moved about the room, picking up and putting down one book after another. How many of them he had given her--that provoking person who stayed so long talking to her father! By and by she heard her own name called. Was that her father? How curious his voice sounded!"
"Yes," she answered, but made no great haste. When at last she reached her father's side, she could n 't see where Cheviot was. She looked round in the dim light, and a little sharply, "Has he gone?" she said. As the words fell on the quiet air, she heard the gate shut. The sound jarred. It gave her a sensation as of a being abandoned. The house was very quiet to-night.
"Gone? Yes. Where 's your mother, Hildegarde!" Mar asked with unheard-of briskness.
"She 's over at the Coxes'."
"Ah!" A moment's pause, and then, "To think of Cheviot! Cheviot of all men! Were n't you surprised!"
"You are n't talking about the Klondike!"
"What else should I be talking of!" he demanded unreasonably, for after all there were other topics.
"Do you think he really means it?" Hildegarde asked.
"Means it?--with a year's leave granted, and his ticket in his pocket? He 's been getting ready all this week. That 's why we have n't seen him. Sails Wednesday."
"Off to 'Frisco to-morrow," said her father, still in that odd brisk voice--"four days to see about his outfit. He--it 's a queer world!--he said Trenn had been into the bank this afternoon, and offered to grubstake him. But Cheviot 's got money. So anything he finds will be
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his own. Trenn! H'm! Trenn!" He repeated, as though he could n't get over it. Then it seemed to dawn upon him that Hildegarde had been unprepared for something else than her brother's part in the affair. "I thought Cheviot said he 'd been talking to you about it--had said good-by."
"I--I did n't believe he was in earnest."
"Why not?" demanded her father a little harshly, and then, perceiving that her incredulity might have other grounds than disapproval of the enterprise in itself, he said more gently: "He talks very sensibly about it, my dear. A man can't save much at the bank--he may go on for thirty years and find-- Cheviot has seen what that may come to. He gives himself a nine months' holiday, with the chance of its turning out the most profitable nine months of his life. I did n't discourage him."
Hildegarde sat down on the step. "Oh, you did n't discourage him," she repeated dully. Behind her own sense of being wronged in some way, as well as disappointed, she was conscious of an umwonted excitement in her father.
He, sitting there in the dusk, puffing out great clouds of smoke, was oblivious of everything except that the old pride of discovery had awaked in him, and the fever of his youth came back.
"Even Cheviot! And think of Trenn!" That Trenn should be looking about for some one to send to the North on this errand--it touched the topmost pinnacle of the fabulous. And yet, why not? The country was aflame. Thousands starting off on an uncertainty to try for the thing he, Nathaniel Mar, had been certain of.
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"Hildegarde, where is your mother?"
"I told you, at the Coxes'."
"Oh, at the Coxes'."
"Would you like to know the reason I did n't discourage Cheviot from going to the--"
"Yes, father," said the girl dully.
"Then come nearer."
She moved toward him. Feeling a little dreary, she came quite close. She laid her head against the one strong knee.
In a vigorous undertone, the voice with new life in it told why Nathaniel Mar did n't blame any young man--there was more treasure in the North than even the Klondiker dreamed. Mar had known it all along--and then the story. In spite of the girl's listlessness when he began, he could feel directly that the thing was taking hold of her. She was intensely still; that was because she was being "held," and small wonder! It was a better story than he had realized. It took hold of him even, who knew it so well. Before he got to the end, his voice was shaking, and he leaned forward thirsting to see an answering excitement in the young face at his knee. But the darkness shrouded it, and he went on. He wished she would speak or move. Always so still, that girl! Now he was telling her of his home-coming from that barren coast in the North--explaining, excusing what, by this new lurid light of the Klondike, seemed inexcusable--his never going back. He tried to reconstruct for her the obstacles--huge, insurmountable; the long illness, and the new wife; the post at the bank; the children, poverty, skepticism and the obscuring dust of the years.
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And lo! as he disturbed these ashes, he saw afresh the agonies they hid--remembered with a growing chill, what had befallen before whenever he told this story; saw the tolerant smile of the smug young bankers; saw the dull embarrassment in Elihu Cox's eye; heard Mrs. Mar leading the family chorus, "You 've got to show me!"
Even Hildegarde might ask--he hastened to forestall the dreaded word. "There was nothing to show," he said, " " absolutely nothing to prove it was n't a dream." And she made no sign that for her either it was more than fantasy.
He wondered miserably why he had told her. "Of course it was all long before anybody had heard of the Khondike," he said, and he drew a heavy breath. "The theory was, that geologically speaking, gold could n't exist up there, and even people who were n 't geologists agreed it could n't be got out if it was there"--all the confidential earnestness had vanished out of the voice, and he paused like one very weary. "Nobody believed--" he tried to go on, and to speak as usual, but memory, master of the show, brought up Trenn--Trenn with the look he had worn the day his father had told him the great secret. Mar drew back into the deeper shadow. But the critical boy face found his father out, and stung him in the dark.
He was an old fool. What had possessed him to rake it all up again. Oh, yes, he said bitterly in his heart, there was one member of his family who had n't yet smiled and said, "Show me. I 'm from Missouri." It was Hildegarde's turn.
"Well, my girl," he ended miserably, "that 's the story that nobody believed."
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Hildegarde lifted her head and put up her two hands, feeling in the dark for his. But Mar shrank back. Not from Hildegarde herself could he in that hour take mere sympathy, craving hopelessly as he did with the long thirst of years a thing more precious than pity--the thing that he once had had and had no more.
Like a man who utters his own epitaph, "I lost faith myself," he said.
"But I have found it, father!" and there was joy as well as the sound of tears in the thrilling young voice.
"Found--what did you say, Hildegarde?"
"That I believe the gold 's there, waiting!"
"Ah-h-h!" He bent over her with a sound that was almost a sob. "Then I--I believe it, too!"
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