The King’s Grip
Edward Boltwood in Munsey’s Magazine.
How the Boss, who Held a Great City in his Clutches, After Deciding to Release His Hold and Quit the Old Life Forever, was Abruptly Turned Aside in His Course by Intervention, Which, Though Well Intentioned, was Decidedly Inopportune.
THE three men who owned the city had met by appointment in the king’s library. Although they were calculating royal revenues, there was a strange lack of papers and books of account. Occasionally it was necessary for them to scribble figures, but as soon as each memorandum had served its purpose, Abraham Wolfe studiously burned it on a capacious ashtray. Drifting through an open window, the night wind from one of the Great Lakes stirred the ashes.
The king’s library was furnished, like the other rooms in the king’s residence, with simple and somber luxury. There were no bright colors, and the woodwork was gloomy and massive. The depths of a gigantic leather chair swallowed Abraham Wolfe, who looked like an attenuated college professor, with his seedy black coat and bulging forehead. Across the table glistened the red countenance of Mr. Terry Dermody, close to whose bejevVeled fingers were, as usual, a decanter and a glass.
The king sat at the end of the table. His name was John Cameron, and in the grip of his strong hand he held the city’s mayor, the city’s judges, the city’s police, and the city’s gambling-houses.
“Then there’s the little Motson Street joint,” Dermody said. That’s worth seventyfive thousand.”
“Nearer ninety,”piped Wolfe, tugging at his sparse gray beard.
“Call it ninety.” conceded Dermody. “Call it ninety thousand dollars a year. That
totals, divided by three-”
“By two,” said the king quietly. He was a big man, but his voice was unobtrusive. The salient note in it now was the one of peaceful contentment which becomes a
monarch arranging his voluntary abdication. “It's all to be divided by two. same as I told you,” he explained. “I’m out of the Motson Street joint, same as the others. Understand that! I’m going clean out.”
' Wolfe’s hungry eyes snapped behind his thick spectacles, but Dermody scowled anxiously, and the whiskey loosened his tongue.
“I suppose it’s no sense tackling you again, John,” said the Irishman, “but everything will be on the punk with you away. Everything will smash up. The Reform Cub and the ministers think they are raising the devil already. We can manage them, of course ; but some cheap politician is almighty liable to use ’em so’s to slide into the City Hall, like Hen ville done in ninety-nine when you were in Europe, and close us up, and do all the business himself. John, the ring is pitched for a finish scrap ; you’re a sure winner, and here you are quitting before the gong. Do you know what they’ll say—them parsons and reformer.-.? They’ll say they chased King Cameron— that you’re a sneaker, that you’re afraid !” “They can sav what they please,” placidlv remarked Cameron. “Parsons make noise, but their lip won’t carry to Italy.” “Italy !” growled Dermody. “According to ITenville, of all the lonely, rotten holes
“I’m not going to Italy to be lonely, Terry,” said the king.
His lips tightened inscrutably as he shoved back his chair. The two cabinet ministers went to the street, roused the sleepv chauffeur, and climbed into the automobile.
“Well, it beats me!” complained Dermody. “I never looked to see Cameron lose his grip. It certainly beats me !”
“Ever heard of a chance of his marrying Donald Rufane’s widow?” asked Wolfe.
Dermody bent forward in surprise.
“Mrs. Rufane?” he said. “Not marry her—not old John? But she’s got no license to kick at Cameron staying on the job, even so. She stood for Donald.”
“Women are queer sometimes,” observed Wolfe.
“A woman will queer us this time,” said Dermody, with a sad attempt at pleasantry. “It’ll be a licking for ours, without the old king,” an*l he swore morosely.
The next day Cameron entered the city’s railroad station. In his dark and perfectly made clothes, the king's sturdy figure carried his fifty years to admiration. A bank president and a portly magistrate, coming from the suburbs to their morning duties, offered him wary salutations. A detectivesergeant dropped his eyelids reverentially as the king passed. Two green-goods men, •in wait for victims, regarded him with surreptitious awe.
Cameron appreciated these tokens of kingship mechanically, with no more effort than a telegraph operator exercises in taking a message. He knew the secret financial entanglements of the banker and the secret political promises of the judge; he could break the sergeant by a nod, and force the two swindlers into honest poverty by a wave of his hand. In any of the city’s crowds the king was aware of his imperial power, but aware of it only with a sort of subconsciousness ; and upon his smoothly shaven face neither the knowledge of his sovereignty nor his cruel and base uses of it had written a visible record.
Through the window of the Pullman he smiled cheerfully at the cheerful landscape. Because he was going to-dav to ask a woman to marry him, Cameron rejoiced in sympathy with the spring and the sunshine.
Drawing a faded letter from his pocket, he unfolded it tenderly. The letter was dated five years before, from a health resort in Colorado :
Dear John :
The doctors give me a month, but I reckon that is pressing the bet more than it’s worth. Look out for Lilian and the boy. She ought to have married you instead
of me. This is not a dying fool’s fancy, 60
King. I would rest easier if I knew my two best pals—Lil and you—were going to get together for keeps. But it’s the boy, after all, that counts for everything with my wife and me. I want him brought up to be straight. I want him brought up to be different from us, John. The boy bears my father’s name. If only for that reason, my brother ought to forgive the child for his parentage and give him a show. But my brother has risen so high in the church now that I presume black sheep are less popular with him than ever.
Good-by, John, and good luck to you. Be a father to my kid, and for God’s sake try to make him an honest man.
The king smiled again, sternly this time, and with resolution, and sauntered to the smoking-room. His tobacco was of a regal brand. He read his newspaper between the lines; his underground knowledge of men and affairs expanded insignificant paragraphs into sensational columns.
On the opposite seat a tall middle-aged stranger was enjoying the final whiffs of a cigar. His face, stature and attire oddly resembled Cameron’s, but his masterful mouth and scholarly brow had been cast in a finer mold. Somehow his courteous presence seemed slightly to disquiet the king. John Cameron’s intuitive mental habit was to classify people, to label and price them. The stranger vaguely puzzled him.
When he was alone in the compartment, Cameron picked up a purple cigarband, which the tall man had chanced to leave on the window sill. The king recognized it, with a tiny grunt of commendation.It" told him that whoever wished to buy the stranger must pay well.
Berringvale was a small rural station, two hours from the city. A double-seated surrey, from the local livery stable, was at the platform. Cameron greeted the driver familiarly, and had his foot on the step when he heard the tall stranger talking to the station agent.
“Yes, I can telephone for another rig,” said the agent; “or maybe you—maybe there’s room for you-”
The official concluded with a tentative glance at Cameron.
“Sure, there’s room, sir,” responded the king hospitably. “Plenty of room. I’m not going far.”
“Thank you—you arc very kind,” saidthe stranger. “I will leave the valise. I wish to be taken to Mrs.—to a place called Clover Lodge, I believe.”
“Clover Lodge?” blurted the driver, with a bashful grin. “Why that’s Mrs. Rufane’s, just where-”
“I am bound the same way,” said Cameron. “Get right in.”
“You are very kind, sir,” repeated the stranger.
The wonderfully trained muscles of Cameron’s face were an impenetrable mask as the surrey rolled through thé little v.llage and up the slope beyond. After polite formalities, the king’s companion let conversation lapse. His mind was elsewhere ; he stared, with brooding eyes at the wheel near his elbow. Cameron and the driver fell into a jocular discussion of race horses.
“Anybody who knows about steeplechasers,” contended the king, “will tell you the same. I leave it to you, sir,” and he turned to the stranger, who laughed urbanely.
“Don’t leave it to me,” he protested. “I’m a steeplechaser of another stamp !”
“So?” muttered Cameron.
“A clergyman,” said the stranger.
“This is Clover Lodge,” said the king.
It was a comfortable, green and white cottage, with wide lawns and profuse shrubbery, trimmed to the last refinement of neatness.
“Pray don’t bother to get out,” said the stranger ; but the king had already descended, and a lady in a gray dress came from a recess of the broad piazza.
“Why, John !” she cried ; and then, seeing the stranger, stopped short.
“Good morning, Lilian,” said the king composedly.
“Excuse me.” hesitated the other visitor. “Mrs. Rufane? I am afraid I—I did not know that this gentleman-”
Mrs. Rufane’s air of mild bewilderment was charming. Her cheeks flushed prettily. She was no longer young, but her figure was graceful, and her brown hair, rippling low over her forehead, lent a singular girlishness to her delicate features.
“I have called on a—a somewhat confidential matter,” the stranger faltered. “I can wait—another time, perhaps.”
“Oh, no!” objected the lady pleasantly. “You’ll pardon us, John?”
“Certainly,” said the king. “My name is John Cameron, Mr.-”
The pause was mandatory, and the stranger dropped a hand on the balustrade with a helpless gesture.
“I am Mark Rufane,” he said.
The lady’s lips trembled for an instant.
“If your errand concerns me, sir,” she said, “I would rather Mr. Cameron heard it. He is my faithful friend, and was my husband’s.”
“Mr. Cameron’s name is known to me, of course,” said the bishop stiffly.
Mrs. Rufane led the way to a secluded nook of the piazza behind a screen of palms. Cameron bowed, giving the churchman precedence, and followed in silence. The king’s silence had won many a fight. They sat in wicker chairs, gaily caparisoned with Mexican tapestry. Birds sang on the lawn below, and woodbine, swaying in the breeze, dimmed the glare of noonday.
“It is not easy to begin,” acknowledged the bishop. “I have come to speak of the boy—of my brother Donald’s son.”
“Of my son,” said the widow.
Her amendment of the possessive was not emphatic, but it seemed to narrow Cameron’s eyes sharply. Any of his lieutenants would have recognized the manifestation of royal applause.
“Of your son,” yielded the bishop readily. “I came to speak of the boy who will carry, through his life, my father’s name.”
“You have been many years without speaking of him, sir,” the lady hinted.
At this the king frowned disapproval. It was evident to him that the bishop should be left to play his cards unaided.
“I am aware of that,” rejoined Bishop Rufane. “My brother and I, Heaven forgive us, quarreled long ago. He died in the course of the life he had chosen. I judged him then, in my worldly bitterness. I do not judge him now. Were he alive, I would go to him with nothing in my heart but love. If Donald were here, and would clasp my hand. I would humbly thank God. I would thank God, too. if reparation could be allowed me, Mrs. Rufane.”
He was so deeply in earnest that both he and the lady appeared to have forgotten Cameron. The king perceived this and creaked his chair faintly.
“I can think of no possible reparation, sir,” said Mrs. Rufane. “I am sincerely grateful for your kindness in telling me what you have told. I shall remember it always. But—reparation?”
“The boy,” said the bishop.
Cameron’s chair creaked again; now, however, because of no intention of the king’s. He drew a long breath.
“Í am childless,” pursued the bishop softly. “I want to love my brother’s child, so far as such a thing can be, as if he were my own. I want to do what I can to make him the m%n Donald could have been, the man I ought to be, the man our father was. I want to do what I can to make him upright, honored, of honorable use to his fellows, and bearing his name worthily.”
“Ah !” sighed Mrs. Rufane.
“For this,” said the bishop, “I offer all that I have, all that I can do, and a home for you and the boy with my good wife and myself. I promise that there shall be faith in the future, and no thought of the past.”
“How I thank you, sir !” she exclaimed, her eyes filling. “I can’t think—I can’t answer—may I have a word with—with-”
Bishop Rufane arose.
“If you like,” he assented gravely. “It is my duty to make one thing very plain, I fear. I promise no thought of the past, if you accept my offer, Mrs. Rufane. But there must be, too, no associations with the past,” and he faced the king squarely. “For the boy’s sake, we must have no associations with the past,” he repeated.
The king rose also, and squarely also faced his foe.
“I am sorry I have to say this,” concluded the bishop ; “but I am not sorry to say it, if I must say it at all, in the presence of Mr. John Cameron, my poor brother’s mentor and model. Shall I wait here, Mrs Rufane?”
He went through a doorway to the drawing-room. Across the lawn rang out the clear, treble voice of a little boy at play.
The bright fittings of the drawing-room exhibited the best of womanly taste. Flowers were everywhere. The walls were lined with bookcases, some well-chosen water-colors, a classical bas-relief in plaster. The bishop tiptoed about, smiling with satisfaction. A Chopin prelude was outspread on^jhe music-rack of the piano. Taking a
volume of Thackeray from the table, where it lay open, the bishop read the book for many minutes on the divan.
“Every one knows what harm the bad do, but who knows the mischief done by the good ?”
The printed phrase annoyed the bishop, and he raised his eyes irritably from the page as the king entered the room.
“Well, sir?” demanded the bishop.
Cameron half sat on the edge of the table.
“Mrs. Rufane has gone to fetch the boy,” he answered. “I’m to give you her decision. She’s sort of accustomed to let me advise her.”
“She needs advice from such a source no longer,” contested the bishop coldly.
“It’s done her no hurt,” said Cameron. “It’ll do her no hurt now.”
“For the benefit you’ve done my brother’s widow by your care of her, Mr. Cameron,” said the bishop, “I sincerely.. award you gratitude and credit. For all the harm and pain I’ve caused her by my neglect, I sincerely ask forgiveness.” He fluttered the leaves of the book reflectively. “But now •—why, Mr. Cameron, between us is a gulf, of your own making. You have chosen to be a man whom right-minded people cannot and should not trust. You have chosen to be a power of public, and, I must believe, of private evil. That is the reason why your advice is unnecessary.”
“Lilian is acting on it, anyhow,” replied the king.
Disarmed by his composure, the bishop placed the volume resignedly on the table.
“And I’m going to give you some advice, too,” went on Cameron. “No—sit down, sir. I’m going to smooth things for you and Lilian. You see, she married your brother in Colorado, where I’d taken him for his—his trouble. She didn’t know then but what he was straight as you are, and she doesn’t know-now.”
“Impossible, Mr. Cameron!”
“Because she knew you as my brother’s, intimate friend,” argued the amazed bishop. “Because your name is notorious—the newspapers-”
“Well,” interjected the king, “there isn’t any talk he(e in Berringvale. She likes to live by herseiT-mostly, and doesn’t see hardly anybody except the kid—and me. I told her what newspaper stories she ran across were lies. She believed me.”
The bishop leaned back, with a gasp of astonishment.
"You cheated her into believing you are honest—you—King Cameron !”
"I did, and made her believe Donald Rufane was honest,” said Cameron, nodding impatiently. "But now there’s a risk she may quit believing in Donald. She mustn’t quit that. Listen! I’ve just told her the kind of man I am.”
"Had to,” said the king; "so’s to make her do right by herself and the boy. I had to tell her I’m crooked. You’re the man for her to tie to—not me. She and the kid must be kept straight among straight folks. I could only try to do it—you can do it sure. I’m wise to that. I’d have to lie to her all my life, and cheat her, and that isn’t the ticket with Lilian Rufane. I told her so, out there on the porch, and that’s the end of it. But now that she’s onto me, she may guess about Don. See the risk? If she does guess, it’ll hurt. She mustn’t. Understand ?”
He bit off the words, pounding a brawny fist on his knee. And the bishop understood, and began to understand, too, although dimly, the man’s sacrifice.
“I may have wronged you, sir,” allowed the bishop.
“You can’t wrong me much,” retorted Cameron grimly. "Count me out of it. I want you to think the best you can of Don. Here’s a letter he wrote me a week before he cashed in. Read what he wanted done with the boy, that’s all. Don’t let her see the note. Keep it—it’s no more use to me. You left a valise at the station, didn’t you? I’ll send the rig back with it. You’d better stay on here for a day or two. She’ll make you comfortable.” He looked wistfully around the room. "Well, good-by.”
"Won’t you wait for—for Lilian?” murmured Bishop Rufane.
“We’ve had our good-by,” said the king. "What you told her about cutting out the past was dead right. I couldn’t help doing ’em harm, I expect. You can’t help doing ’em the opposite. My life wouldn’t hitch with what theirs ought to be. Once I grip, I don’t often let loose, but this is one of the times. Good-by!”
He was gone. The surrey rattled on the driveway. While the bishop was reading
the letter, Mrs. Rufane came into the room, with her son clinging timidly to her hand. The bishop kissed the hand, and kissed the boy, but his thoughts were with the king.
The house of the Reform Club was on the city’s principal avenue, and three or four members sat by a window, gazing ruefully out at the thoroughfare.
"The surprising part,” said one, “is the abruptness with which the old villain whipped around. Why, only a fortnight ago he was on the run !”
“How do you know that, Kenware?” queried another.
Kenware, a young lawyer, flourished his eyeglasses.
"We had a detective on Cameron’s private trail,” he said. “Cameron was closing up shop—getting rid of his real estate and stuff—had an ocean yacht chartered in New York. Yes, sir, the king was ready to quit! His heelers were scared green. Dermody and Abe Wolfe were in a panic. We thought we were going to unhorse the bunch; and, by jingo! we could have, with the king away! Now, all of a sudden, it\ different. No more property-selling 01 yacht business. Cameron’s in the saddle safer than ever, and it looks as if he’d stiel till doomsday.”
"Bad?” declaimed Kenware. “I guest it’s bad ! See that alderman out there in the cab? See those cops? See that courthouse? He owns ’em. King Cameron owns ’em. iknd a couple of weeks since he was certainly letting go his hold.”
"I wonder who persuaded Cameron to tighten it up again !” remarked Kenware’s interlocutor.
A tall, elderly man, sitting apart from the group, laid down his newspaper.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Kenware in disgust. “A rascally pal, probably. But I’ll tell you one thing—whoever led the king to relock his grip on this town deserves forty years in State's prison. How do you do, Bishop Rufane? Glad to see you, sir. We’ve missed you for some time.”
"Yes,” sighed the bishop. "I have been spending a few days at Berringvale ;” and he picked up his newspaper rather wearily.