In His Own Interest
These two lovers discover that loyalty is not the least of the major virtues
JOSEPH LISTER RUTLEDGE
JOHN GRAY watched the bent, retreating back with a sudden, poignant regret. It seemed only yesterday since Stephen Hardy had come stamping into the office, a picture of dynamic energy, for all his greying hair, his heavy cane making a great clatter on the floor. But the energy had burned out swiftly in the end.
John Gray turned to his companion. His face was still sober. “Stephen’s an old man, now, Aaron.”
Aaron Spencer, a dried wisp of a man, looked up with a short laugh. “Ever struck you that we’re all growing old, Stephen and I—and you, too? It’s an old firm — too old.”
“But there’s a younger generation coming on. They’re part of it.”
“Hmm,” Spencer’s tone was not enthusiastic, “that younger generation—don’t know that I think so much of them. Arthurs and Forrest!” He growled, discontentedly.
“They’re keen enough.”
Spencer’s only comment was another growl, that might have meant assent, or only a growing disapproval.
“Then there’s Britton.”
“Britton’s a different breed,” Spencer admitted, grudgingly.
“I’ve sometimes thought, Aaron, that when StephenIt won’t be so very long now, I’m afraid—I was thinking that we might take Britton in, one of these days. We’ve leaned on him a good deal as it is.”
“Hmm. We’ve made the part we lean on.” “Well, you might say that, but we’ve done as much for a lot of others. We can build on a man V;.' like that, Aaron. And
when I looked at Stephen to-day, I thought young Britton’s chance was coming, perhaps sooner than he knows. Anyway, it’s something to think and plan for — the succession.” John Gray stood
up. He was a tall man with a leonine head that sat proudly on broad shoulders. There was no sign of age about him. The brows beneath the grizzled hair were black and bristling; but their apparent fierceness was offset by kindly blue eyes. He was thinking of young Britton and Madeline. He wondered, a little, if there was anything between them; anything more than youth and common interests. If it should shape out that way— He smiled to himself.
He was still standing there, looking down at his friend and associate with a faintly humorous smile on his lips, when a knock sounded on the door.
“I’m glad I found you, sir.” There was a certain breathlessness about the man who entered. “A message has just come in that Mr. Britton has been hurt. His car skidded on a curve, just outside the city, and went down an embankment and overturned.”
“Seriously hurt?” The question came in the dry, incisive tones of Spencer.
“I’m afraid so, sir. They have taken him to the Samaritan Hospital.”
Gray nodded quietly. “Thank you, Norton. Would you see that my car is called, at once?”
The door closed and the two men faced one another. “The succession you spoke of,” said the dry voice, “is running out.”
“I’m not thinking of that. I’m thinking of the boy.” “I’m thinking of him, too; but I can’t think of him apart from this business. You remember you said that we’d leaned on him?” He rose and touched the other’s arm, gently. “In my dry old heart I’ve leaned on him more than I would admit. You’re going over. Let me know if I can do anything.”
Gray nodded without answering.
TT WAS late afternoon, and Gray sat in his own comfortable library. His face was sober at the memory of that white and silent face. Poor lad, he thought.
He looked up as Madeline stood in the doorway waving her hand in greeting. The frosty weather had given a heightened color to her cheeks, and an added sparkle to her eyes. To John Gray, she seemed to be the essence of youth and loveliness. She came toward him, seating herself on the arm of his chair. Her arm was about his shoulder. “What is it?” she asked.
“It’s sixty odd years,” he smiled back at her. “They take their toll.”
She shook her head, reprovingly. “You might as well tell me. You’ll have to sooner or later, you know.”
He hesitated before answering. “It’s young Britton. He’s been hurt. I was at the hospital.”
“Not Geoff. Britton?”
He looked up, quickly, at the sharpness of her tone, and saw the color slowly drain from her face, at his nod. He sighed a little.
TI^HEN Geoffrey Britton came fully to himself, it was ’ * in a wide, bright room, and in a great, walnut bed. There had been other days in that same room when he had been too tired to think consecutively, or to wonder how it was that he had come to escape from that affair of white iron, with its trim and starched attendant, who could be so inexorably calm and decided. There were days before that, again, long, measureless days of dull pain and heavy, unending weariness. There was a dim memory, too, of that fine erect figure sitting beside his bed. Seemingly, every time that he returned to that dim land of consciousness, he was there—dear old John Gray, and Spencer, too. Once or twice he had seen the old man’s pinched white face. Tears of weakness filled his eyes. And, then, there was the memory of a slim, girlish figure
that had sat and watched him, with such tragic eyes. It had been like Madeline, but, no, they were not Madeline’s eyes. Her eyes were always bright with laughter— probably just a part of the shadowy maze of figures, born of his own fevered fancy. But Gray was real. It was the same Gray who had sat with him on his first days of reawakening consciousness. He brushed his hand across his eyes with a tired gesture.
At the slight movement, a soft-footed attendant approached the bed. “Is there anything you need, sir? My name is Hudson.”
Britton nodded feebly. “Please sit down and tell me what has happened. I don’t remember much since that steering wheel locked.
From Hudson, he learned that he had been in the hospital seven weeks; that Mr. Gray had called every day, and had removed him to his own home as soon as the hospital authorities would permit.
A week or so later, with Hudson’s aid, he made his tottering way to a seat on the verandah, overlooking the wide garden. And, then, Madeline’s slim form came down the path at the end, and he forgot everything else. She waved to him gayly as she came toward him, a great cluster of flowers in her hand.
She stooped and tucked the rug more closely about him. He caught her hand and held it. She let it rest, for a moment in his, while a faint flush colored her cheek. Then she withdrew it, gently, and seated herself beside him. “You gave us a terrible fright, Geoff.” She smiled at him, her eyes soft and friendly.
“Would you have cared—cared much, I mean—if they hadn't pulled me through?”
The flush faded from her face. “Of course, I would have cared,” she said, in a strangely hushed voice.
“You’ve been unbelievably kind,” he said, “everyone has. I don’t know how ever I will be able to repay it.”
“Repay,” she scoffed, lightly; “who wants you to repay anything. Besides, you have repaid it, in a way.”
He looked at her with such a puzzled air that she laughed outright. “You got better, didn’t you? Just as half a dozen eminent doctors had got through shaking their heads, sadly, over you. My dear old dad had set his heart on your doing just that.”
“I wouldn’t have,” he said, soberly, “if it hadn’t been for him—and you,” he ended softly.
“But you did, which is all that matters. You are a kind of game with him. He likes to put you in some position and watch you work your way through. He’s just like a boy with one of those wind-up toys.”
'T'HERE were a great many to-morrows, when Made-*• line sat with him on the terrace or, as he got a little stronger, walked with him about the grounds, or took him for long drives in her car. And often in the evenings, now that the hard regimen of Hudson was ended, would sit before the great fire in the darkened living room.
They sat together on one such night, an unaccustomed silence between them. Outside, the moon was spraying the garden with a soft radiance. It slanted in through the windows of the darkened room and fell on Madeline’s face and shoulders, where she sat just outside the glow of the fire.
Geoff sat watching her, watching the play of moonlight on her face. Suddenly he was back in that hospital room, with its staring walls ghostly white under the night light, looking into those eyes that were so like Madeline’s, yet so pitifully different.
“There were days,” he said, huskily, “in that ghastly place, when I would have gone away, if it hadn’t been for you. You were always there, holding me, keeping me.” He hesitated. “It wouldn’t have been worth while, dear,” he continued, unsteadily, “unless you are ready to keep me always.”
Her eyes met his, misty and soft.
Something caught at his throat. “Madeline, Madeline!” He opened his arms for her. “I love you so. I can’t do without you, ever again.”
And then, with a little sigh of happy content, she was in his arms. They closed about her, crushing her to him, as though they would never let her go.
John Gray stood for a moment in the doorway. He said nothing, but his eyes were gentle and understanding. Then he closed the door, very softly, and went away.
'T'HEY had stolen away from the house to the coolness of the balcony that overlooked the garden. There was a softness in the air, the scent of flowers, indefinitely sweet. She leaned against his shoulder with a little sigh of weariness. “Oh, I am tired,” she said. She looked at him, wonderingly. “You never seem to tire, and it’s only two months since you went back to work.”
“I don’t feel anything, to-night,” he laughed excitedly. “I have such news for you. I’m leaving the firm. I’m taking over the Blair and Kirby name. You’ve heard of them—their reputation. Mr. Kirby will be a silent partner. He’s going to finance me. It’s a wonderful chance, dear.”
He waited for her reply, for her words of surprise and congratulation.
“But surely, Geoff, surely you can’t mean it? It can’t be true.” Her voice was so low that he could barely catch the words, but excitement carried him on.
“Yes, it’s true. Blair retired, you know, years ago, and Kirby’s not well. I’m to have virtually full charge. I’m sorry to leave, of course, in a way; but such a chance.”
He turned to her suddenly, surprised by her lack of enthusiasm. “You must be tired,” he said, with just a hint of impatience.
But, at the white weariness of her face, his impatience vanished. “I shouldn’t have come, to-night,” he said,
contritely. “But, I just couldn’t wait to tell you. I’m going now, but to-morrow, when you are rested, we can talk it all over.” And he had kissed her and gone away.
As he drove up to the house the next afternoon, he found Madeline waiting for him in the garden.
“I’ve given myself a few hours off,” he said. “What do you say to a drive, and dinner somewhere in the country, and a trip back by the moonlight that has been provided for the occasion?”
“It sounds very pleasant,” she answered, slowly.
“Then suppose you get some wraps,” he retorted, happily, “and we can start the programme.”
They had started their homeward way before the subject that was uppermost in their minds was mentioned.
“I was thinking of what you told me, Geoff,” she said slowly. “I have been trying to see it through your eyes, trying to find excuses, but I can’t. I don’t see how it is possible after all they have done for you.”
He jerked suddenly erect, as though at the shock of cold water. An overmastering surprise, a hint of anger showed on his face. But it passed as quickly as it had come. It was just that she had not understood.
“I would like you to believe,” he said, slowly, “that I do appreciate all that they have done for me. I have not forgotten their unfailing kindness. I won’t forget it. But—”
She stirred a little in her seat, and he turned his sober fact to look at her.
“You think,” he continued quietly, “that I wouldn’t have had this chance, but for them. That’s true, in a sense. But, don’t you see. If, because of that, I stayed where I am—if everyone else stayed where they were, then there would be no progress anywhere?”
He looked up, hopefully. The girl on the seat beside him stirred.
“I’m listening,” she said, in a soft far-away voice. “I want to be convinced, Geoff. You don’t know how much I want it.” She drew her coat a little closer about her.
“This has opened a new door,” he said. “Kirby is offering me a chance, just as your father did. Have I a right to refuse?”
She flamed out in sudden anger. “If it were only the business, I wouldn’t say a word. I wouldn’t care. But you are hurting the two people I love best in the world.”
He glanced at her sharply.
“My father and you,” she finished bravely.
He reached over and caught her hand, and she let it rest in his, unresisting. He said nothing, but she knew that he was not convinced.
In silence, they drove through the big gates and halted at the door. “Is there anything else?” he asked, smiling faintly
“Little things, Geoff,” she answered, gently, “but they were so small that I just put them away and forgot.” She smiled up at him. “You must have discovered a lot of nasty little things about me, too.”
He shook his head.
“You would have, if you hadn’t shut your eyes to them. What I mean is, that this is the first big thing. Somehow, it seems to bring all the little things back to life again.”
“Big thing?” He laughed uncertainly.
She nodded. “You have been thinking so much of what you have to gain,” she urged, gently, “have you thought what you will lose?
“I haven’t lost the friendship of your father or old Spencer. I’m adding a black mark in your book that’s about all.”
“Do you remember,” she said, with seeming irrelevance, something someone wrote about one of your old baseball heroes? You told me about it. ‘Nobody will ever
be able to say that he thought of himself first and hi team second.’ ”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Everything. It’s just the whole of it. Think of whai people will say of you:‘He’s clever. He’ll do finely. He’l be a good man for us, until our interests and his inter esi clash. Then his interests will come first.’ ”
“I don’t follow you,” he said, stubbornly. “I can’t set it that way, at all. I’ve got to make’my own way. That’s the way the world advances, on the progress of each individual.”
She was standing on the step with her hand on the door. “I’m sorry, Geoff,” she said, and she leaned forward and dropped something in his hand.
“What’s this,” he asked, sharply. He held it up, and the ring sparkled in the moonlight.
“Do you mean that a little difference like this, a business difference, something that you know nothing about, has made you stop caring?’ he asked, with a queer harsh note in his voice.
“Oh no, I haven’t stopped caring, not the littlest bit! Down inside, my heart aches and aches, and goes on caring just the same. But you see, there is a doubt in me, too; and I can’t marry a doubt, Geoff, no matter how much I care. So I can’t keep your ring, can I?” “But it’s such a little thing,” he urged, incredulously.
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She shook her head, soberly.
“I won’t give you up,” he maintained, stubbornly.
She smiled up at him, then, with a hint of mistiness in her eyes. “I don’t think I want to be given up, Geoff. I could dance and ride and motor with a doubt. But the other is' different. You understand, don’t you?” she pleaded.
“No, I don’t understand, but I suppose I will have to let it go at that, now.”
DY TACIT consent they seemed to evade the subject. -*-* Britton had gone to his new business, and that fact had given a certain finality to the decision. The slight flurry that his leaving had occasioned was forgotten.
Madeline and he went about as usual. There was no apparent change in their relationship, and it was only at rare intervals that the thought of their difference arose to trouble him. Now that it was all settled she would see that he had been right. He was confident of that.
They had been dancing together, and he had come into the house with her for just a moment. She was smiling at him,happily, her cheeks flushed with pleasure.
“I want to give you back your ring, dear,” he said, with an answering smile.
Slowly the light died from her face. She shook her head, sadly.
It was a shock to him. He had been so confident.
“Don’t you think,” he said, almost sharply, “that in being fair to a business you are being unfair to me. I have thought over what I have done, and, even after the most sober reflection, I cannot see that I am not entirely justified.” His words came with a stiff precision. “I should have thought that the fact that I have considered my way is right and honorable, is all that should really matter to you.”
“Oh, no!” she said, almost sharply.
“Why not?” he demanded, gruffly.
For a moment her hand lay on his arm. “I don’t want to hurt you, Geoff, and I don’t know how to answer you without hurting you. What am I to do?”
“Go on,” he answered, grimly.
“It is just because you do think it right. It isn’t only something done. It is something done and considered and approved. She faced him with an effort at a smile, waiting for him to speak; when he didn’t, she continued, bravely. “If you did something, knowing it was wrong, anyone would know that someday you would come to regret it and be bitterly sorry.” Still he didn’t speak. “A man might steal, and you could be sorry, oh, so sorry that he could do it! but you could forgive him and care for him, in spite of it. But, if he said that it was quite right for him to steal, you haven’t got the sorry "part to hold to. If he thought it was all right for him to do something that he should have known was all wrong, then you could never be quite, quite sure again, that, sometime, he wouldn’t convince himself that other wrong things were right for him.”
“I won’t raise the argument again,” he said, stiffly, and with a curt word of farewell, he was gone.
She followed him to the door, waiting for some word that would soften the harshness of his anger; but he did not look back, and the door closed with a savage finality.
She stood there, straight and tall, struggling to hold back the tears, then she turned and went, unsteadily, down the hall.
It was late, but there was a light, still, in the library where John Grey sat reading. As she passed the door he looked up and smiled at her. “Won’t you corne in and talk to me?” he asked.
She brushed a furtive hand across her eyes, and entered with a tremulous smile on her lips.
He held out a hand to her, and she came and sat on the
arm of his chair, brushing her soft cheek against his hair, so that he might not see the dimness of her eyes.
“Is there any trouble between you and Geoff?” he asked.
She evaded that running long fingers through his greying hair. “You’re the youngest man I know,” she said, with a little laugh, “and the dearest and most trustworthy.”
“What has Geoff done that isn’t trustworthy?” he asked gently.
“I didn’t say anything about his not being trustworthy. I didn’t say anything about him at all.”
“No, my dear, but I’m old enough, and perhaps wise enough, to know that when a lovely young lady picks out certain qualities, in an old man, it is because she has taken them away from someone else. ‘So, don’t you think you had better tell me the whole story?”
“There isn’t any story,” she said, wearily. “It’s just that Geoff left.”
“It’s done every day.” He answered, soberly.
“What you’ve done for Geoff isn’t done every day.” He was silent for a moment. “Anything that was. done, that was more than the average business man might do, was out of affection, that didn’t ask any return.”
“But you didn’t expect him to go?”
“We were sorry—sorry that he could not realize that we had more in mind for him than we were able to tell him—sorry that, if it was a matter of money, he did not realize that the fact that we had dealt generously with others, implied that we would do as much for him. Yes and we were sorry that he found it so easy to see an opportunity elsewhere,"and so hard to see one here.” He looked up at her with a smile. “At the worst, dear, just a mistake. After all, he is our kind. That’s why we cared for him.”
“And that’s why we mustn’t care too much,” her voice broke a little, “at least, that’s why we mustn’t do more than care.”
He gathered her in his arms.
“Caring is about all that matters, dear. When you are older, you will learn that; but, until you do, don’t waste your happiness fighting against that truth.
I have known Geoff a good many years, and I have seen little in him that I would wish to change.
Don’t let your loyalty to an old man spoil that caring, for you.”
“If it had been just a mistake,” she answered, softly,
“he would have realized it, and been sorry for it.”
“Perhaps he will, some day.”
“If only ‘some day’ isn’t too late.”
“We must see to it, that it isn’t,” he answered, soberly.
/GEOFFREY BRITTON threw himself into his work with a feverish energy, that sent him back to his comfortable rooms in the evening too tired for any wish to move about. Anyway, where was there to go? His life, aside from business, had centred around Madeline. There was a bitter tinge to his thoughts She should have understood— should have appreciated his viewpoint. But these thoughts only came at times. His whole heart longed for her, but his pride kept him grinding at his work until he was too weary for any emotion.
Sometimes, Allen Landen would come home with him, and they would work and plan far into the night. Landen had been a find, quick and sure and reliable. He had picked him by chance, a young fellow just out of college, because he had been keen and interested, and had ambition and enthusiasm. Landen had taken to the work, and had quickly come to grips with it. He had a quick-acting brain that seemed to be constantly leaping ahead of instructions. He had come to be a part of all Britton’s plans. It won’t be long, he thought, until I can give him real work to do; and between the two of us wecan build this into a big thing!
Britton was so immersed in his work that the Stradburn proposal, with a salary offer that almost doubled his present earnings, surprised, but did not particularly interest him. He considered it, but with his decision already virtually made. Kirby had been pleased with his work, had been generous in his praise, and in salary arrangements also, for that matter. The offer looked large, but that was looking at it from the viewpoint of to-day. With Landen and the rest, he could make this business into something that would make the Stradburn offer look sickly. 'He had refused it, and thought no more about it.
A day or so later, Landen came into his office. He did not sit down, when Britton motioned to a chair, but stood twisting his hat with an unaccustomed awkwardness.
“I came to tell you,” he said, as Britton looked up with a smile, “that the Stradburn Company have made me an offer—so good an offer that I couldn’t very well refuse.”
“I see.” Britton kept his voice level, but there was anger in his very quietness. So. When they hadn’t been able to get him, they had gone after Landen, gambling on the ability he had trained into the boy. “What sort of future does it offer?” he asked, in the same carefully even voice.
“It gives me double the salary.”
Britton brushed the words aside. “Future?” he said, a little impatiently, “a chance to grow into something.”
“The same chance as here, I should think,” Landen retorted, stiffly.
Britton was silent for a moment. “It might interest you to know that they also approached me, on about the same relative terms, and that I refused. What I mean is,
that I saw a future here that I didn’t see there; and the same thing applies to you.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“Of course not; I couldn’t. It depended on you. There was an opening, and I have been doing everything in my power to make you fit for it. Now when it looks as though my work and your native ability were going to make that possible, you let someone else take you away.”
“Youseem toimplythatlhavedone something unfair.” Landen spoke slowly, but with a hint of anger in his voice. “The possibility of my leaving was one of the hazards you took voluntarily.”
“To some extent,” Britton answêred dryly.
Landen flushed. “You are putting me on the defensive, Mr. Britton. You infer that I have not met my obligations.” He hesitated. “Please remember, that I do not mean to be offensive, but I have heard exactly the same thing said of you. It is common talk on the street.” “It is an entirely different case.” Britton’s disappointment made him answer shortly. “I had to move to get a chance, and I had given, not months, but years of service.’ “The man who told me,:S^id that they had treated you like a son,” Landen began."
Britton stopped him with a gesture. “I don’t know that I need or care to attempt to justify myself, because of something you may have heard. I am entirely justified in my own mind.”
Landen smiled, the smile of a swordsman who has made a touch. “You will pardon me if I feel exactly the same way. We are both figthing to get on—to do the best for ourselves. We live up to the letter of the law. But when a real opportunity presents itself we would be foolish if we let some sentiment stand in our way. I’m sorry, Mr. Britton, I didn’t come to argue the case.”
Britton held out his hand. “I’m sorry, too, Landen. I’m disappointed that we couldn’t pull the thing through, together. But that’s settled. Forget it, if I said more than I should! I wish you every kind of luck.”
So, that was what they were saying about him on the street. The sting of Landen’s words remained even after he had gone. He tried to put the thought aside. The young pup—too young for that cheap, worldlywise cynicism—and he bracketed me with himself! Britton scowled at the thought, The cases were totally different. Yet, were they? There was a troubled frown on his face. So they thought, on the street, that he hadn’t played fair. Like a son—That was true enough! He had let himself be part of it, part of the family. After all, didn’t that imply an obligation? Certainly, there hadn’t been much of the son, in his departure.
His thoughts returned to Landen—done a lot for the boy —had seemed to appreciate it, too—seemed to like him; yet he thought as the street thought. His mind focussed sharply. That’s what Madeline thinks. And that’s what I think, when the case doesn’t happen to be my own!
If I hadn’t been building on the fellow!” he returned to his own grievance. Suddenly, it flashed upon him. That was it. That was the sting in it. It was what was put in that didn’t show—that couldn’t show—that really counted. If I’d known enough not to build on Landen, but just to do what I could to make him a producer for the moment, he’d have pretty well returned value. But I didn’t know. I did build on him; and he’s wrong. It wasn’t repaid. His face clouded. “And I’m wrong,” he said, aloud. “I’m a long sight
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more wrong; and I’m in a devil of a jam.” “So Landen’s leaving you?” Half a dozen times he had been compelled to face that half veiled question. There seemed more in it than appeared on the surface. “Hear your old firm’s not getting on too well. Arthurs went bad on them.” The way some reference to the old firm seemed coupled with every reference to Landen’s departure, was evidence enough that these casual acquaintances blocked their cases together.
He wasn’t so surprised about Arthurs, though he hadn’t heard of it before. It would hurt the old firm. Arthurs had been a business getter. They hadn’t too many of that sort, even with him. His own going had made a big gap, and now Arthurs, and they hadn’t anyone to train in a new crowd. Too heavy, at the top, that’s the trouble with them, he thought.
As he walked home that night he came to a definite plan. It had its difficulties. He considered them a little, ruefully. Still there was one thing, Kirby was home; that, at least, made it possible.
He broached the matter the next day. Kirby heard him out without comment.
“My usefulness here depends a good deal on the respect in which I am held.” “I’ve heard ail that talk,” Kirby retorted dryly. “I don’t know that outside opinion is likely to affect your position any more in the future than it has done in the past months. You’ve demon-
strated your usefulness. Mind, I’m not challenging the general principle of your argument.
“But my opinion of myself will affect it.” He did not wait for Kirby’s comment, but hurried on. “You’re here to watch things.”
“I don’t want to watch them. I want you to watch them for me.”
“Then there is only one other way,” Britton said, slowly. “I don’t want to take that way. There is a big future for me here; but I want to feel right about it when I take it. We are in for a quiet time,’ he urged, “and it is a good staff, even with Landen gone. It should not be too great a strain on you; and you will be saving the very generous share of the profits that you allowed me, and salary as well.” “Hmm. Giving that up?”
“If the plan I outlined to you goes through, yes.”
Kirby thought for a moment. “It’s all a bit quixotic, Britton, but if you have to try it, all right.”
BRITTON was anything but at ease as he faced Gray and Spencer in the sedate old office. They were friendly, but manifestly at a loss to account for his presence. After their first words of greeting, they waited for him to speak.
He found it difficult to begin. He knew, that if he outlined the plan as it had presented itself to him, they would
hear him through, quietly, and courteously, but firmly disclaim any obligation on nis part. He wouldn’t be allowed to make repayment that way; yet repayment he was determined to make. “I have come,” he began slowly, “with an offer of my services.” He looked up and caught the expression of amazement on Gray’s face, and saw Spencer turn tc him with a little flickering smile of cynicism.
“You haven’t severed your connection with your own firm, Geoff?” Gray was i puzzled but kindly.
“No. But it seemed to me that I might be of service to you.”
He saw them stiffen perceptibly, and the cynical smile deepened on Spencer’s face. They did not understand, of course. They were suspicious of him; he saw that now. They were wondering what .end of his own he was serving. Then, after all, their kindness in letting him go, without comment, had not been a matter of understanding, or agreement with his position, but a matter of pride.
The thought stiffened his resolution. “No,” he went on, “I am still interested in Blair and Kirby, and I still think that my future lies there.”
“Then why—?” Spencer began, testily, j “Will you let me explain?” Britton retorted, quietly. “Will you let me put it as something of a hypothetical case. Perhaps, at the moment, the business with which I am connected will get on as ! well without me. Conditions are not over brisk with us, and I do not expect that j they will be during the coming year. We have a fairly large staff. They are good men; not planners, but producers. Our plans for the coming year are fairly well formulated, and Mr. Kirby is back in charge. Now that he is home, there is less immediate need for me; and what I take out of the business is a considerable matter.”
“An interesting viewpoint, Britton,” Spencer agreed, “but I do not yet see—” “You mean, that you would come to us, temporarily, in some such position as you held when you left?” Gray interposed.
“Yes, that’s it. I’m not actually needed at the moment, where I am. Here, I think I could be of some value; as I believe I was in the past.”
“You’ve hit it, Britton,” Spencer’s dry voice broke in. “You’ve put a finger on our weakness, no use to deny it. We need someone who can actually get business.” He turned to Gray, and their looks crossed, surprise, almost disappointment in the one, a cynical amusement in the other.
“It would be worth our while,” Spencer was saying, “to pay fairly well for someone who could do that work competently. Is that what you mean?”
Britton flushed, darkly. They were misjudging him; thinking that he was coming back for what he could get out of it.
' Gray’s steady eyes were on him, inquiring but kindly. “You see, Geoff, it was different when you joined us years ago. Your future was problematical then. We could offer you what that problematical service was worth in the open market. But it is different now. You have a responsible position. You have considerable money. The place we need filled is not a responsible position, in the sense that I have used the term. It cannot pay unlimited prices.”
“I am not asking that it should,” Britton retorted, almost sharply.
Then his mood changed. “Suppose,” he said, “that we leave all that in abeyance or, if you prefer it, suppose we say the salary I was getting when I left.” i “You’ll leave the matter, beyond that, entirely to us?” Spencer asked, surprised. “Quite!”
Again, the eyes of the two older men met. “If you care to undertake the work on those rather unusual conditions,” Gray said, soberly, “we would be glad to have you.”
Britton smiled in open relief. “If you wish it, I can report at once.”
“Yes, do.” !
As the door closed behi nd Britton, Spencer turned to his friend. “I wonder what the young devil’s up to now. We’ll have to watch oursolves, friand John, or we will be having to find a new busi ness for ourselves. But, anyway,” he chuckled dryly, “it will be interesting to watch; and we can certainly use him.
TT WAS while Gray and Madeline were
at dinner that night, that he broke the news.
“Geoff is coming back with us,” he said, trying to make his tone purely conversational.
“Coming back with you?” There was a bewildered amazement in her question. “But why?”
“That is what I have been asking myself, without any suitable answer presenting itself. But we can use him. Oh, yes, we can use him very well indeed, if only—” He ceased speaking, suddenly.
“You do know,” she said, accusingly. “That’s why you took him back. You do know.”
“My dear,” he smiled at her with kindly eyes, “I don’t know anything. I can only guess.”
“He’s coming back in the hope of pleasing me.”
“Is that so very strange, dear?”
“My dear,” he protested, gently, “charity, you know. You must not think ill of a man because he tries to please you. An admirable attitude in a prospective husband, I should think.”
“It’s hateful! It wasn’t that he left that mattered, but that he thought it was right to leave, as he did. And now, just because I don’t think so he’s ready to change, not for principle, but for a personal end. It’s—it’s crafty. That’s what’s so hateful. Why did you let him come back?”
John Gray sighed, a little wearily. “One wants happiness, dear, not so much for oneself, perhaps, at my age, but for those around one. There’s no happiness in nursing old grudges.”
She rose and stood beside him and, stooping, touched his hair lightly with her lips. “You’re a darling,” she whispered softly.
GEOFF undoubtedly had hoped that Madeline would have been pleased at his return; but she met the changed situation with a detached interest that had in it nothing personal. He did not notice it, at first. He was too busy to notice anything.
“I haven’t yet discovered what the catch in this may be,” Spencer said, in his dry voice; “but we look as though we were likely to profit, anyway.”
“Why not give the boy the benefit of the doubt,” Gray retorted, with wholly unusual sharpness.
Spencer’s withered face cracked in a wry smile. “I am ready to give him anything, within reason, but the doubt remains.”
That was the underlying current that seemed to meet Britton, everywhere. They were not happy months, but he stuck doggedly to his purpose. He had grown a little bitter, and there was a hardness about his eyes. He was doing what Madeline had wanted, at a considerable cost. It was not because she had wanted it; but he felt that the doing ought to have softened her attitude toward him. She was, outwardly, as friendly as ever, as glad of his company; but there was that underlying sense of a hidden reproach, like a veil between them.
It was in a mood of bitterness that he went again to see Gray and Spencer in their sedate office.
“I have come to tell you,” he said, “that I must return to my own business.” For a moment, a smile seemed to flicker about Gray’s lips, but it died out. He nodded soberly, ¡,1t was Spencer’s turn to look surprised.
“You have three men now,” Britton continued, tersely, “who can do as well as I can. I have trained them as best I
know how. I can’t do any more for them. With them, the production end of your business should not suffer. You have no more need for me. So, if it is satisfactory to you, I will leave, at once. I have made every arrangement.”
Gray nodded soberly. “We’ll be sorry to lose you, Geoff.”
“And there is, of course, a settlement to be made with you before you leave,” Spencer’s dry voice broke in. y “There is no settlement. I have received what I agreed to take. That is all, I think. Except,” his voice softened, “I would like to thank you for your unfailing kindness.” He turned, and before they could answer, he had left the room.
Geoff Britton went out to his car and drove in search of Madeline. His lips were set in a rather grim smile, but his eyes were not happy. He might as well get it over, he thought.
He found her in the garden making life unhappy and difficult for certain rose bugs. After her first nod of greeting she went on with her work. “If there were only as many roses as there are bugs,” she said, “wouldn’t it be a lovely world?”
He did not answer. The world, at that moment, had narrowed down for him to two people.
“I’m going back to my own business,” he said slowly, “to-morrow.”
Very carefully she fed a little more
nicotine to some agile red spiders. When she looked up, her face was radiant.
“That’s just what I wanted,” she said, smiling up at him. “I don’t care so much about the bugs, now. It’s a beautiful world even with them, isn’t it?”
“But,” he said, “I don’t understand.” “Don’t you see, if you are going back now, it means just that you have made things, oh so straight and clear?”
“But things don’t matter,” he said. “I’m thinking of you and me. It’s the same old story over again. I’m going away. I’m leaving the ship.”
“With your papers clear, I see now. | You came back to clear them, and if you ; aren’t staying, it couldn’t be for any other reason.
“I’m talking about you and me,” he persisted, soberly.
“Sc am I,” she laughed.
“And you mean that you can care for me?”
“Oh, my dearest! I have never stopped caring. You can’t put caring on and off, like a coat. I just stopped wearing your ring. But I’ll wear it again, if you want me to.”
“A look of horror crossed h's face. “But—but I haven’t got it with me. 1 didn’t know—I didn’t expect—”
She laughed at his rueful face, and reaching up, she kissed him. “Then we’ll go after it, and get it, now,” she said.