THERE crashed upon Penstock in that one moment’s idle reflection the whole, ugly truth of his condition—middle-aged and a failure! The thought, vaguely originated, leaped forward in his mind, took form, and, gathering bulk, ruthlessly swept aside the pretenses with which he had shielded himself from realization. Now he-saw himself as he was; and the shock of it was as dizzying as a blow between the eyes. He stood before himself, as naked as a soul before the judgment-seat; and a glow of shame suffused him. Had he been able, Penstock would have put on again the rags of self-delusion that had been torn away.
Seizing his pen, he jabbed it roughly at the ink-pot, his cheek flushed and his hand unsteady. But the pen, instead of returning to its work, wandered absently to the wide, blue blotter on the desk, and there described meaningless diagrams, vaguely and tremulously drawn.
He sat alone. It was after office hours, and the others long since had gone. But it was no new thing for Penstock to stay behind to toil. To work!—there was another sting of pain—he knew little else but work! Success wins leisure; and, with the awakening wonder of discovery, he realized how little of it had ever been granted him. He sat alone, but his brain rang with many voices; together they uttered a united judgment— that only he himself was to blame. Yes!—he had failed; and he felt as if the knowledge laid hold of the last atom of courage within his breast, and strangled it with ruthless hands. Nothing seemed left to him now but the mere barren privilege of existence. He still might live, a failure. His eyes,fixed straight before him, swam mistily; and then, as if in scorn of the instant’s self-pity, he grinned in sardonic derision. Penstock sat alone; but his brain was an ugly, peopled world.
He saw—or he thought he saw—as he looked back, the causes of his defeat. He had lived and fed upon the promises of the future. That was it! He had lived on hope, trusting all to hope’s easy assurances; and hope’s other name is tomorrow! He had let to-day slip by—an untold number of todays; and he looked back now, and saw the past dotted, as if by so many mile-stones, with the chances he had missed. There he grinned again; for if hope were to-morrow, opportunity had been yesterday!—or so it seemed to him in that moment’s bitterness of reflection. He had been content, day by day, with the little he had gained; for always there had been before him the lying, deluding hope of the future. It had seemed that he need only reach forward to the morrow; then he should grasp the prize. But in all the time that he had lived he had never stopped suddenly in the present and gripped masterfully the opportunity that was floating by on the tide. So time had brought him nothing—nothing but middle-age—and failure! He arose and slowly closed his desk. Then, with his hat drawn down about his eyes, he shuffled out. One might see in his lowered head and listless walk the man who realizes defeat.
In actual years Penstock was not middle-aged. He was still within two months of forty; but in active business affairs forty is well pa^st the midway post. Before then a man must have arrived—or have shown that he may arrive if he is to escape the stigma of failure. Penstock knew now that he had deluded only himself; and when he thought what others must say of him, his cheek flushed anew. An honest, steady fellow—a good man; that's what they were calling him ; and he ground his teeth in a rage. In the street, with a conscious grimness, he turned his head to look up at the office windows; and his eyes paused for an instant upon the familiar lettering of the firm title:
LETHBRIDGE & Co.,
Wholesale Coal.& Co.
It was the “& Co.'' that filled him with wrath. For through nineteen hard, slow-footed years, Penstock had made himself useful to Lethbridge & Co., and what had he to show for it? He had given to the firm loyalty, hard work, all his intelligence—the best there was in him. He had come early and stayed late; and except for his right to resign, he had been little better than a bond slave. In that moment of bitter self-analysis, he contrasted himself with the others —with old Lethbridge, head of the firm; and Coyne and De Mille, the junior partners. By what superior intelligence or industry had they won where he had failed? Penstock knew the story of old Lethbridge, the tale the old man was so fond of telling— of the first thousand dollars saved by harsh deprivation, and of the wise investment that had brought the money rolling in. Penstock, too, had saved his thousand dollars—once—and at the old man's suggestion had invested the hoard, wisely, without doubt. But it had brought him only a beggarly six per cent.—$60 a year—and then sickness and other needs had eaten into it. Penstock, still analyzing, could not repress a sneer; for it must have been more than the first storied investment that had put Lethbridge on his feet—luck, more likely. But then there were Coyne and De Mille. They had come to the employ of thç firm some years after Penstock; arid now the two were partners—Coyne, the active manager, and De Mille in charge of its finances. But Penstock, 118 faithful and honest, Penstock was still only a salesman, and little better than a hired clerk.
He thought of Coyne, alert, confident, and able. He knew that Coyne, but for De Mfile's interference, would have given him a better chance. And he liked Coyne, respecting his quiet friendliness with the men under him; but there were times when he flinched at his authority—a man younger than he, yet put in charge over him. For Penstock had arrived at that period in life when one always makes the age comparison; had Coyne been older than he, the man's established success would never have caused him that pang of envious inferiority. But by what means had Coyne risen? Old man Lethbridge had found him running a one-horse coal-pit in the Hocking district ; and, elevating him over the heads of old employes, had put him in charge of the larger operations of Lethbridge & Co. Why ? Penstock tried to think, and could not. He saw no ^vide differences between his own methods and those of Coyne ; indeed, they seemed to him identical. Then his mind turned to De Mille.
De Mille! The very thought of him filled Penstock's mind with a tumult of bitter questions. Again he sneered; for De Mille seemed to him narrow-minded, lacking in all keener intelligence, even stupid. Furthermore, Penstock knew him to be dishonest; long ago he had made the discovery. Luck might have helped Lethbridge to success, and Coyne might have won because he was Iikeable—but how had De Mille succeeded? There was the poser. He knew how De Mille had made the money that had given him a start; but not for a moment could he connect it then with the man's obvious prosperity. Indeed, in that hour of acute debasement, Penstock had lost all power to think clearly. Still plunged in his despondency, he let himself in at his door; and at the sound of his wife's and children's voices, made a manful effort to hide the gloom in his face.
But that night, in the sitting-room with his family, despondency seized him anew. “Milly,” he said suddenly, but with regret, and not criticism, in his tone, “that gown of yours is pretty shabby.”
Milly shook her head and smiled. She was a tall, well-proportioned woman with a strong, cheerful face, and a quiet, determined air—a man’s vigorous helpmeet. Penstock observing her now, felt, with an added self abasement, that she would have done better with another man. But Penstock’s wife had not yet lost her confidence ; nor, if she had, was she of the kind to admit it.
“Why, no,” she said, smoothing down the front of her dress; “it doesn’t seem shabby to me. It might be a little newer, perhaps,” she added with a laugh, and plucking a fold of the cloth between her fingers, regarded it whimsically, with her head perked on one side; “but it’ll do a while yet. Why, I’ve only just turned it for the first time.”
Penstock fluttered his paper, cringing as if he had been struck a blow. He glanced sidewise as he turned the sheet; and his eye fell upon his younger boy, curled up in a rocker and mumbling the morrow’s lesson. One knee was thrust forward; and the sight of the boy’s stocking, overly darned, stabbed him anew with a sense of his failure. He could not provide for his own as other men provided for theirs. There was Coyne, for instance; but Coyne had no children. Still, were Coyne a father, his children would have been better cared for than were Penstock’s. There was De Mihe, too—he had a wife and children; and the paper’s printed characters swam before Penstock’s sight, and he hid behind the sheet.
Again De Mille!—this De Mille, who had succeeded. He had seen what De Mille lavished on his family, De Mille, who whined and snarled and almost wept when the men in the office asked for advancement and better pay. There came to him the sudden, sickening contrast between his own family and De Mfile’s, De Mfile’s wife and children, arrogant, pampered, supercilious; and Penstock’s, grateful for the year’s necessities, skimping along narrowly on what De Mfile’s brood threw away in a single month.
But that was the obvious privilege of success—to trick out one’s wife and children luxuriously, as if in advertisement of one’s own ability, one’s power of making money. For it was by money alone that Penstock rated success; by money made honestly, as he had tried to make it. Now, as if by inspiration, came the swift companion thought: To make money, honestly if you could, but to make it somehow. Suddenly, with a swift memory of former events, he ’saw De Mille revealed; he understood the secret of his success. De Mille had risen because of his dishonesty!
De Mille had improved a single chance. In the third year of his employment, he had been sent down into West Virginia to buy up undeveloped coal lands. In this new and unknown field the price was low—$40—$50 an acre—for the farmers had not yet thoroughly realized the value of their lands. Old Lethbridge had been willing to go $60; and what De Mille had done was to get secretly for himself options on a large acreage, and then, under an assumed name, to turn it over to the firm. Old Lethbridge had paid a flat $60 for the lands; and De Mille, getting it at an average of $45, had pocketed the difference. Penstock, sent on a trifling errand about the titles, had found out the truth. But he had never “peached,” regarding De Mille’s trick only as a stroke in high finance of a kind that did not tempt him. But now— Well, there was the difference ! A savage resentment filled Penstock’s breast. Give him the chance again, and he would not let it slip.
There had been three times, at least, when Penstock might have laid the foundation of a fortune as easily as had De Mille. But Penstock had been honest—yes !—there was the rub ; and with a growing bitterness, he thought how his honesty had served only to keep him back.
For in that moment Penstock’s resolution was formed. Conscience, struck a body blow, lay dormant; and Penstock was akin to the bank clerk who, detecting the officials’ dishonesty, starts in to tap the till. He would remain a failure no more.
But opportunity lagged. Months passed, and all they brought to Penstock was a deeper sense of his own inability, a clearer, more severe indictment against himself. The chance of dishonest, as of honest, success was only a mocking promise for the future. Penstock must wait even to become dishonest. And, in his bitter waiting, he drew into himself, displaying at the office a gloom and an aloofness so unusual that the others wondered at the change.
Once Penstock thought that his chance had come. It was during a period of inactivity, the season when all the year’s output of coal was already sold under contract. Little was required of Penstock, as a salesman, except to visit the trade occasionally, and to look about him for prospective business.
He sat in the office, lending his help to a clerk, when he heard the voice of De Mille raised in earnest argument in an inner room.
The discussion concerned certain coal lands that De Mille wished to buy, and that Coyne was opposed to buying; and at its significance Penstock pricked up his ears.
“I say we ought to have that acreage,” cried De Mille loudly. “We’ll need it later on, and we ought to buy to-day.”
Coyne’s voice, calm and resolute, was so modulated that Penstock could hear him only indistinctly. He arose, and, pretending to search for a pen, edged closer to the partition.
“No, De Mille,” he heard Coyne declare; “it’ll take a lot of money to swing a deal like that. Money’s too close, I tell you; and our obligations are already pretty heavy. We’d have trouble in managing it, though later. De Mille’s voice cut in sharply. “Later on!” he cried derisively, almost with a sneer; “why, that’s only throwing money away. They’ll add twenty per cent, a year to the price, if 120 they know their business. They ask a hundred and twenty five an acre now ; but-”
Coyne’s voice made some reply indistinguishable to Penstock, and De Mille spoke again:
“Well, I’ll be square with you, Coyne. I’m going to Lethbridge ; and if he sees straight, he’ll send a man there—and without any waiting, either—to get options on every acre.”
Penstock went back to his desk, his head ringing. He knevv the coal lands they spoke of—6,000 acres lying behind the piece on which De Mille, long before, had turned his trick. He knew, too, whom they would send to get options on it—himself !—and besides, he knew the class of men who owned the lands—farmers holding each a small piece that made up the total acreage. A hundred and twentyfive dollars an acre ! Penstock grinned furtively. Why, these farmers would jump at $120; and five times 6,000— hunh ! five, the difference between 120 and 125—five times 6,000 are 30,000. Thirty thousand dollars! Penstock could almost feel it burning in his hand.
But all his plans came to naught. He waited, wild with impatience; and when he heard nothing more of the projected deal, tried clumsily to get at the facts.
“What’s happened to that West Virginia business?” he asked Coyne one day. ‘T heard we were about to buy additional acreage.”
“Hey, what?” exclaimed Coyne, looking up sharply from his work.
Penstock strove to hide his embarrassment under an air of flippant coolness. He repeated his query, though his eyes dropped beneath Coyne’s steady stare.
“Oh, I just heard some talk in the street,” he replied, answering a terse question of Coyne’s. “They were just talking, I suppose.”
Coyne regarded him in a moment’s grave silence. “I hope you haven’t said anything, Penstock.” He spoke quietly, laying down his pen. “We’re not buying yet, but we’re going to, later on; and if they find out that
Lethbridge and Company is after the lands, they’ll make us pay all kinds of prices. De Mille wants to buy now, but we decided to wait a while. He’ll attend to it personally.”
Then he himself would have no chance ! With an effort, he raised his eyes, as Coyne still kept on speaking.
“Yes, De Mille’s doing it,” said Coyne, trusting Penstock absolutely. “I thought we ought to let you handle it, when the time came; but De Mille won’t let any one but himself have a hand in it. You must say nothing about it, of course.”
No. Penstock would say nothing. He started to his desk, with brain reeling and feet dragging, as if he had heard his death-warrant read. “Oh, Penstock!” Coyne called him back. “Why, Penstock,” he added, “I meant to tell you, but it escaped me. Tell the bookkeeper to add twenty-five a month to your check. I forgot it, but I think you won’t,” he added, laughing.
It was a raise, the added money that Penstock so long had asked for. He knew that Coyne had prevailed against De Mille, and that he had been glad to manage it. But gladness, on Penstock’s side, was not evident. A deep flush mantled his face, and he spoke his thanks with difficulty. Twenty-five dollars a month—$300 a year! Penstock had been dealing in thousands; and there came only three hundred a year ! But Coyne accepted his nervous and mumbled sentences as due to the embarrassment of gratitude; and, to set Penstock at his ease, began a crisp story of how he had won his first increase of salary. Penstock listened with distaste. He escaped from Coyne as quickly as possible; and denned himself, like a bear, behind his desk. Nor could he find heart to announce the news to his wife, sick as he was at the thought of it. At the end of that week he gave her his check, and winced when she cried out sharply at the amount.
“Yes—it’s a raise,” he answered gloomily, from behind his paper. “There’s going to be a strike,” he went on, cutting in upon her expressions of elation. “Have you heard? The hard-coal miners are really going out.” He turned over the sheet. “Well, if they do, I shan’t have to run my legs off to sell what coal we’ve got. No—soft coal will have to take the place of anthracite, and it’ll be easy to get rid of it. About time, too.”
Milly looked at. him sharply, but said nothing. A moment later she smiled, thinking what the added money would mean to them in comforts; but her husband still sat hedged behind his paper, in utter abjectness. Twenty-five a month! Why, De Mille’s wife and children tossed away lightly in a month as much as that on their gloves and hair-ribbons—and De Mille had grudgingly allowed him this pittance after blocking him in a deal that might have meant thousands.
It was as Penstock had predicted— the anthracite strike came on, spurring to unexampled prosperity every operation on the soft-coal side. Coal, either hard or soft, became, in a few short months, a rare commodity, and difficult to get. On the basis of run 0’ mine, fuel that sold normally at a dollar a ton, fo.b. mines, was now quoted at an advance of fifty cents a ton, and was climbing higher day by day. Coyne, as usual, had looked ahead. He had reserved unsold a large tonnage; and was waiting now to place it not only at an advantage in price, but with an eye to getting future business. He expressed his views to Penstock; but Penstock, most of his interest lost, cared very little about it.
Yet it was through this means that opportunity knocked at his door again.
“Oh, Penstock,” called Coyne; and Penstock, arising, shuffled wearily into Coyne’s private office.
“I want you to go north to-night,” said Coyne tersely; and then as tersely told why. He had heard only a moment before that the Midshire Steel Company, a large consumer, was in desperate need of fuel. Time and again Coyne had tried for the business ; but the tonnage had gone always to Hargreaves & Co., a firm of middlemen, who had been able by some invincible influence to keep their grip on it. Now Hargreaves & Co.had fallen down on the contract, since the mines from which it had formerly bought had been tempted by higher prices, and had sold the coal elsewhere. Thus the great Midshire Company was in a tight place, and was squirming in the fear that it must be closed down for want of fuel.
“You get after them, Penstock. Close at a good price—a dollar sixty as a minimum—but don’t squeeze them. They’re in a place to feel grateful for favors, and it’ll do us good later on. We’ve got to have a good price, though, or they won’t respect us. But if we rob them, they’ll hate Lethbridge and Company. You understand ?”
Penstock nodded. He understood, but he assented with so little energy and interest that Coyne looked at him sharply.
“You get a bounce on, Penstock,” he added crisply; “it’s a good chance for you. If you can get that business and control it, there’ll be a good deal in it for you.”
Penstock reached Midshire the morning after, and sent in a card to the purchasing agent. Then, after the agent, as a matter of business principle, had kept him cooling his heels in the hallway for nearly three-quarters of an hour, Penstock was admitted to the presence.
“Morning,” said the buyer, afraid to the last to show any interest, lest Penstock might add to his price ; “what can I do for you?”
But Penstock knew buyers and their ways ; and he smiled listlessly
“Oh, nothing—not much,” he answered, without fervor; “does twenty-five thousand tons interest you—run o’ mine, or three-quarters? D’you want it?”
He felt tired and careless. He knew that the Midshire did want it ; but it was only a sale, even though a sale with a “chance” in it for him—it was just another incident in a long and wearisome procession of such drudgeries.
“I don’t believe we need it,” answered Gaines, with an assumption of indifference. But, as the words were spoken, Penstock noted in his eyes a quick and leaping light of relief. Twenty-five thousand tons would put the Midshire on its feet again.
“We don’t need it; but you might quote us in case we do.”
The instinct of the seller quickened in Penstock; and with a sudden command of all his forces, he woke up, and began to play his hand in the game.
“Oh, well,” he answered, rising and reaching for his hat; “if you don’t need it, there’s no use wasting your time. Sorry to have bothered. Warm, isn’t it?”
He heard a door open behind him; and then another voice cut in. Penstock knew the owner of that voice; it was Barbour, general manager of the steel plant.
“Hold on there, Penstock,” called Barbour, and waved Penstock back to his seat. “You got any coal to sell?” he demanded shortly.
“Yes. Twenty-five thousand— three-quarter, or run o’ mine.”
“What price?” demanded Barbour crisply, and Gaines, trained to hemming and hawing, gasped at the general manager’s rashness in showing the weakness of his cards. “What price?” demanded Barbour openly; for Barbour knew that the loss of closing down the plant would be far greater than any extras that Penstock might tack on to his price.
Then Penstock, the seller, began to hem and haw. “You see,” he began, impressing on Barbour the favor he should confer if he sold him the coal, “there are a lot of companies after that tonnage. They know we can make delivery at once ; and Coyne has said that we’d perhaps bettér keep it to help out our old customers.”
“Hunh !” grunted Barbour savagely; “if you didn’t have it to sell, what did you come here for, then?”
Penstock smiled affably. “Why,” he explained, and comfortably crossed one leg over the other, “I thought if you needed it that Coyne might be willing to help yon out.”
“We do need it,” growled the general manager; “now what’s your price?”
“Can’t say yet. “I’ll have to talk to Coyne.” Penstock arose and again made for the door. “I’ll let you know in the morning, Mr. Barbour.”
“I want to know to-day.”
Penstock shook his head, smiling. “I’ll talk to Coyne,” he answered, “and let you know by 10 a.m.”
Penstock already had the price, but he was in no hurry to give it.
It would do Barbour good to stew a little longer; and he looked casually from the general manager to Gaines—Gaines could stew, too, for the purchasing agent had been pretty impudent, making him wait so long-. Then, as he walked down the steps, he thought in swift self-derogation that Coyne or De Mille would not have been kept waiting like that.
He had hardly reached the hotel when a card was sent up to him. He read the name—Joel Hargreaves —Hargreaves, of Hargreaves & Co., The firm did no business with Lethbridge & Co., but it cost Penstock little reflection to know what Hargreaves was after.
“Morning, Mr. Hargreaves,” said Penstock, and as he motioned his visitor to a chair, he noted the perspiration on his brow.
“Look here,” said Hargreaves bluntly, as he mopped his face and fixed his eyes anxiously on the salesman; “you’re trying to sell the Midshire people coal.”
Penstock nodded; and the old man cleared his throat noisily.
“Penstock,” he said, leaning forward anxiously, “won’t Lethbridge and Company let me have that coal? I’m willing to pay a good stiff price for it.”
Penstock shook his head. “No,” he answered slowly; “we’re going to sell it to the Midshire.”
Again old Hargreaves cleared his throat, the perspiration starting out on his face. “Let me have it, Penstock,” he almost pleaded. “I know about what price you’re going to ask about $1.80 f. o. b. mines. Give it to me and I’ll stand for $2.05—I’ll pay a premium of twenty-five cents the ton.”
Again Penstock shook his head. “It’s not that, Mr. Hargreaves,” he answered: “It’s not the price
we’re after, and you know it. The Midshire people have as much as said they’re done with middlemen, and I’m after the business.”
Old Hargreaves huddled down in his chair, his face miserable. But there was strong stuff in the man, and a moment later his jaw squared sullenly.
“You can’t get their business. Hargreaves and Company have had their trade for fifteen years; and you can’t get it away from us.”
“It remains to be seen,” said Penstock and then he felt a pity for the man who was so evidently in deep anxiety. “Mr. Hargreaves,” he add ed gently, “I hate to refuse you, but you’ve had your show, and now I’m looking for mine. I want to get the Midshire business, for it’ll mean a big thing to me, a contract like that I’d like to ask Coyne to help you out; but business is business—and in business, it’s every man for himself. I’m in it for what I can get for myself.”
Hargreaves shot him a sudden, piercing look. There came a silence that ended in the older man’s rising, hat in hand. “Give me twenty-five thousand,” he said slowly, “and I’ll tell you what I’ll do, young man. If I can get this coal, I can hold the Midshire’s business; and, next year, I’ll give you the contract. I’ll buy from Lethbridge and Company through you—and the year after— every year so long as we hold it.” As he spoke, his hand had reached to the door-knob, and nervously half-opened the door. Now he closed it, and looked quickly in Penstock’s face.
“Help me out, and I’ll pay you the twenty-five cents premium over and above the price Lethbridge and Company asks us for the coal.”
Penstock looked at him, his jaw falling.
“Six thousand, two hundred and fifty dollars—cash on the nail !” Old Hargreaves fumbled in his breast pocket, and half revealed a checkbook. Penstock turned white.
The Midshire Company got its coal. It came from the Lethbridge and Co. mines, and it was delivered through the firm of Hargreaves and Co. Penstock had arranged the matter.
“It’s this way,” he said, facing Coyne with an energetic directness rather new in him: “the Midshire people are tied up to Hargreaves and Company, and won’t leave them. No one can get the business away. I tried to sell them straight, and they only sent Hargreaves to me, notwithstanding that they were allmost closed down for want of coal. But I’ve got Hargreaves where we want him. Give him the twentyfive thousand tons, and he promises —in writing, mind you—to buy from us, yearly, at the same price that our responsible competitors bid for the business.”
Coyne pursed up his lips, looking out of the window doubtfully.
“He’ll pay a dollar eighty for the twenty-five thousand tons,” urged Penstock, with a heart failing suddenly at Coyne’s expression. “That’s twenty rents above the price you told me to quote the Midshire. Remember, too, the total tonnage for the year will be a hundred and twenty-five thousand tons.”
Coyne turned abruptly to him. “Let ’em have it,” he said: “it’s petty fair business, anyway!”
Penstock walked out, his head reeling like a drunkard’s. Tn his breast pocket was hidden a bankcheck that burned like an ember laid on the living flesh. A day later he cashed it. and asked for a week off to attend to some personal business. To his wife he said that he was going away for the firm.
Penstock hurried straight into West Virginia. He secured options to himself, under an assumed name, on nearly the entire block of coal land that the company had in view. His $6,250, paid down to the owners, gave him the right, within one year, to buy 4,300 acres at $115 an acre. If he did not take up the option in the specified time, the money would be lost. But in January, Lethbridge and Co., flush with the money made through the advance in the price of their soft coal, bought in the acreage. De Mille wondered that options had been given on so large a block of it just before him; but behind the name of Amos Steers, Chicago, he could not see Penstock, a salesman in his own employ. And he bought in the unknown Penstock’s option, haggling with Penstock’s lawyer-agent, who knew nothing of his client’s real identity; and Penstock was jewed down to $120 an acre. He had demanded $125 at first; but De Mille had his own reasons for holding ouLagainst it. What these reasons were, Penstock understood when he peeped into Lethbridge & Co.’s books after the transaction was closed. De Mille had paid him $120 an acre; but on the books it was set down at $125; and Penstock felt a sense of failure even in his wrong-doing. For De Mille had quietly pilfered the extra $5 an acre that Penstock should have pilfered for himself.
Yet Penstock had cleared $21,500 on the deal; and in his elation his mind freed itself of regret—regret for what De Mille’s abilities had cost him, and regret for the price that conscience had been forced to pay. The day that the check came—the price paid for his wrecked integrity —he stopped at a high-priced dressmaker’s and bought his wife an order for three expensive dresses.
“Here you are!” he cried jubilantly. giving it to her; “you get them, and go call on Mrs. De Mille and let her see them.”
Milly’s face clouded over. “I can’t wear three dresses at once,” she said quietly, turning the order over in her hand. “Why have you been so extravagant?”
“Oh, shucks!” he exclaimed: “don't worry about that. I've made a little money on the side. You don't understand such things, or I'd tell you how. You go ahead and get the dresses ; the boys need new clothes, too.”
Milly looked at him queerly. He was flushed and excited. “Have you been speculating?” she asked; and Penstock nodded. It was an easy explanation. “Well, I wish you wouldn’t,” she declared, distressed; “it's nothing but sheer gambling; and you know what Mr. Lethbridge thinks of it.”
Pooh ! Little he cared for what old Lethbridge had to say.
The anthracite strike ran its course; and after that came the reaction. There was a drop in prices ; soft coal went down inversely as it had risen. Hard times came knocking at many business doors; and one day there was a commotion in the house of Lethbridge & Co. Old Lethbridge himself, routed out of his long ease, appeared on the scene, and was closeted with Coyne. Penstock, with a view to investing his money, had been reading the financial papers. He knew that money had again become perilously tight in the coal trade; for as the weeks went by the selling price of soft coal had sagged close to the cost of production. In coal, as in the iron and steel trade, it was either a feast or a famine. Famine was on now. That day an order was given to cast up a trial balance ; Lethbridge & Co. needed to know exactly where it stood. The firm, long established soundly, for the first time found itself in stormy waters.
“If it hadn't been for those new West Virginia lands,” said the head book-keeper confidentially to Penstock, “we'd have been all right. But I don't know—I don’t know.”
Then came something else—a discovery. The trial balance was struck off, and Coyne himself came back to look at the books. Whether Coyne suspected or had been told, no one ever new. But one day he and old Lethbridge were closeted together, and De Mille was called in to stand before them. Penstock knew what was in the air, and he trembled guiltily, though his own tracks were closely covered. But for De Mille now there was no escape ; in the inner office was a noise of high voices; and De Mille came out of the conference looking like a beaten dog. A week later they learned in the outside office that he was no longer with the firm; and, hedged behind his desk, Penstock heard the news with another sharp quiver of guilty apprehension. He knew what would happen to him, too, were he detected —he of whose integrity they were so confident. De Mille’s successful crookedness was now no longer an object for his envy. He heard, on the heels of this, that Lethbridge & Co. had become hard pressed for ready money—that the West Virginia deal had saddled the firm with a burden. It needed money badly; and had Penstock known a way, he would have turned over to Lethbridge & Co. the proceeds of his dishonesty. But how could he do it, and still preserve himself? He thought once of telling Coyne that a distant relative had died and left him a windfall. But reflection told him that wouldn't do. Again he felt the agony of self-abasement. For he knew now that in a new sense he was a failure.
A failure—yes; for there came to him, as if in a blinding flash of light, the realization that mere money does not mean success. To succeed involves contentment in the victory, ease of conscience and peace of mind, the consciousness of honesty as well as of ability. In imagination he became pleader at the bar, prisoner, prosecutor, jury and judge combined. His sentence was that the money must be returned—but how ? “Milly,” said he, cautiously, as if sounding perilous depths, “I wish I could buy a partnership in the firm.”
Milly looked up from her sewing. “Yes—only I don’t know where you could get the money. But I’d rather see you promoted to a partnership. That would be better than buying your advancement.”
He writhed at his wife’s unconscious stab. It was a return to the old theme—had he been more active and capable and less willing to trust blindly to the future, he would not have failed of the goal. He would have arrived, as Coyne had, for instance, by sheer force of effort—not like a De Mille, who had made his way dishonestly, only to face ruin at the end.
“I don’t see where you can get the money,” said Milly, returning quietly to her sewing.
Her answer checked the words on his lips. He had been on the point of saying that he had made enough, intending to explain it by that easy lie of fortunate speculations. But he looked into Milly’s clear, honest eyes, and he dared not. He knew, then, that he could get no aid from her, unless he openly confessed and was willing to make restitution.
But out of that night’s sleepless thought came the knowledge of what he must do. There was but one thing: he must return the money to Lethbridge & Co., and he must hunt another place. They would not let him remain, of course, once they knew of his dishonesty; but until he had returned what he had stolen, Penstock’s conscience would allow him no rest. For this was the type of failure that he had become—less unscrupulous than those that succeed unscrupulously —less able in application than those that achieve by honest ability.
But his heart weakened when he looked for another place. Famine still lay upon the coal trade, and new places were few and far between. There was an overproduction, too and with too much coal on hand, who would need a sales 126 man? He inquired furtively, fearful lest Lethbridge & Co. might hear of it, and discharge him before he had found another place; but the firm was too much troubled with its own affairs to bother about the concerns of its hired men.
Eventually, he got a chance. A company in the Ohio field made him an offer; but it was $25 a month less than Lethbridge & Co. were paying. Should he take it? The thought came to him that he must explain to Milly why he chose to begin life anew and with less money to provide for his family. But he saw in this the only way.
He arose after a sleepless night, and went to the office, nerved for that climax of shame when he must lay bare his soul to Coyne. He sat at his desk, his face haggard and his eyes burning; and then came a bitter revulsion of feeling. No—he would not! He thought of the men he knew—successful, conscienceless, unscrupulous. How they would laugh at him ! No, he would be of their kind instead!
In his nervousness the name rang in his brain as if they had called— not his name—but “Prisoner to the bar!”
With his heart in his throat, Penstock walked unsteadily into Coyne’s office; for it was Coyne that had called. Now was the time!
Coyne sat wearily at his desk, looking absently from the window. His brows were wrinkled in a frown, and he did not look at Penstock. Again Penstock’s heart leaped into his throat—discovery had come, forestalling his confession.
But Coyne knew nothing yet of his guilt. “Penstock,” he said, turning to look at him, “I hear you’re going to quit us. Why do you do that?”
Astonishment and the revulsion from his terror convulsed Penstock so that speech failed him.
“Are you leaving because you've heard we’re in trouble, Penstock*’ I’d hate to think that.”
“No!” gasped Penstock.
“I told Lethbridge I didn’t believe you were,” Coyne said. “We don’t wish you to leave, you see; and if you haven’t decided yet, perhaps you’ll reconsider.”
Reconsider? He clutched the table with an unsteady hand, trying to read in Coyne’s eyes what lay hidden in his mind.
“De Mille’s gone, Penstock—I needn’t tell you why. Perhaps you know. He’s no longer with the firm, and Lethbridge and I thought we’d put you in his place. I mean as partner—15 per cent, share in the profits, and the stock in your own name.”
Partner! He heard the word, its sense striking him as had that other word failure—as if he had been hit a blow between the eyes.
“Lethbridge and I thought it would be all right. You’re a hard worker and careful, and you know the business. We’ve seen, for years, how you’ve put Lethbridge & Company’s interest before your own; and you’re the kind of man we’d like to have in the firm.”
He looked at Penstock, his keen eyes searching him narrowly; and Penstock saw integrity and fearlessness and unclouded conscience in the eyes, haggard and weary though they now were with the effort of steering Lethbridge & Co. through perilous waters. Penstock, abased with a thousand recriminating voices shrieking in his mind, clung to the table and gulpeff.
“You know, of course, Penstock that Lethbridge & Co. have had a narrow squeak. But it looks now as if we’re safe. It will be hard work for all of us yet ; and, Penstock, if you have a better chance, I won’t ask you to make a sacrifice. Don’t let loyalty stand in your way.” Speech came to Penstock at last. “Give me an hour,” he said hoarsely, “and I’ll tell you.”
Under his breath, as he blundered out, he repeated the words to him-self—a man condemned, pleading for the reprieve: “An hour—for God’s sake, only an hour!”
Fie put on his hat and rushed home. “Milly!” he cried; and when she came into the room, she found him with his head on his arms, and shaken to the soul. “Oh—oh !” he groaned, his face hidden, “A failure—a failure ! God Almighty, how I have failed!”
She knelt beside him, her arm across his shoulder; and there, stripping his soul naked in a relieving agony of the confessional, he laid bare all his guilt. The hour passed —and then another. But he returned to the office, at last, his face white yet confident; and with his eyes on Coyne, he closed the door behind him.
“Sit down, Penstock,” urged Coyne, and the man shook his head. In one hand he held a strip of watered blue paper with writing across the face. “Coyne, how much does Lethbridge & Co. need to tide it over? I’d like to know.”
Coyne, thinking that the state of the firm’s finances had to do with Penstock’s decision, figured rapidly. “Our assets exceed liabilities by sixty per cent: but collections, as you know, are far delayed. Eighty thousand spot cash would see us safe; I can get twenty-five thousand by the first of the month, and Lethbridge will come up with thirty. It will be a struggle to get the balance, though—somewhere around $25,000. Does that frighten you?” Penstock drew a hand across his brow. Then, abruptly, he threw out his other hand, disclosing to the startled Coyne the narrow strip of watered blue paper.
“There’s a check for twenty-one thousand, five hundred,” he said, and breathed deeply as if he had just set down a heavy burden from his shoulders.
“For God’s sake !” cried Coyne, leaping up, a wild look of relief in his eyes; “for God’s sake, Penstock!” he repeated.
“No—say nothing,” he murmured, looking at the other steadily; “the money belongs to Lethbridge & Company: for I stole it from the firm.”
The middle-aged failure shuffled to the door, his chin bent to his breast; and there, for an instant, he turned, looking back, a wistful smile on his lips. Then the door closed behind him slowly.