A crusty old curmudgeon was Lawyer Quercus Cottonby, but two lovers discover that you cant always judge a potato by its overcoat
AGAINST the sombre background of Quercus Cottonby’s ancient law office, Ruth Dahl glowed fair and sweet and young and lovable.
That sombre office at the head of its shadowy stair had housed lawyers for more than seventy years. Its very atmosphere was redolent of musty litigation.
Here the great Edward Rolleston, afterward member of the legislature and senator, had first hung out his shingle as a callow graduate. For two decades the imposing partnership of Rolleston, Graham, Shaw & Wood had carried on busy practice, had trained a flock of eager students of whom a youth named Cottonby was one; had defended notorious criminals still unforgotten, and had prepared briefs in cases that were fought to the privy council to establish new precedents. Here, later, the firm became Rolleston, Graham, Wood & Cottonby; and still later, when Rolleston died a suicide, Wood and Cottonby carried on.
Now, Quercus Cottonby, a hard-faced man in his gray sixties, sat alone in an atmosphere of vanished days and mighty traditions, while the notorious criminals and rich lawsuits of these later times went elsewhere.
He wore a rusty black suit of ancient pattern, did Cottonby; a white collar, very stiff and straight; a plain black tie; cuffs, shiny, hard and scrupulously clean. He was the only man in Carisford to wear a silk hat week days as well as Sundays.
‘Pettifogger!’ whispered the public. ‘Hard as granite!’ Crooked as a dog’s hind leg!’ Apt comparisons voiced in the street below likened Quercus Cottonby, in his gloomy office at the head of the shadowy stair, to a hungry, chattel-mortgage shark lurking about financial reefs, or a rusty, black spider spinning a tangled web for hapless flies.
This was his repute, when sweet-faced Ruth Dahl came to work for him, and to feel sorry for him—sorry
for the lonely old man her imagination pictured behind the hard-faced lawyer she actually knew.
She discovered a queer fondness for the gloomy office that came to be part and parcel of her life. She loved the wide fireplaces with their smoke from smouldering logs or crackling cannel on a sharp winter day; the old walls, black with the grime and dust of seventy years; the walnut panelings still revealing, despite neglect, the rich, dark gleam of early days; the rounded doors of private offices, from which the name-plates of great lawyers had vanished; the huge vault with its clanging, heavy door and its musty pigeon-holes filled with yellowed documents.
Her glistening typewriter desk, her clattering machine, her neat, fair self, furnished the sole hint of discordant newness. But when, at the close of a winter day, she donned her brown furs and paused before the little mirror, in a flash the diligent business girl was transformed into 3 great lady, serenely beautiful against the rich, dark background of old and leisurely years.
“Ah!” breathed Cottonby, huskily. “Now, my dear, you fit into the picture.” His hard, old eyes grew dreamy; and Ruth Dahl questioned again if he were indeed the tight-fisted, cold-blooded schemer even she had pictured him . . . She had still to learn how pitilessly calculating he was.
Her altruistic soul had always inclined her to the salvage of things repellent. As a little girl, she had cajoled warty toads from the perilous, lighted sidewalks to the safety of grass and shadow; she had fed and fondled bedraggled canines; she had tried to give a home
to every homeless kitten. She had carefully planted and tended her mother’s discarded geraniums, and rejoiced to see their glowing' blossoms illumine an ugly corner. All life, she fervently believed, was like that. She strove to see the best in the worst. So, subconsciously, she persistently labored to find some good in Quercus Cottonby.
“My dear,” said the old lawyer, frowning, “did Mrs. Mason pay her mortgage interest?”
“Yes, Mr. Cottonby.”
“The payment was two weeks past due, you remember? There was seventeen cents interest on interest?”
Ruth made a wry face.
“That—that was paid, Mr. Cottonby.” Which was true, in a sense; after poor Mrs. Mason had gone with her tale of sickness and trouble, sympathetic Ruth, knowing her tight-fisted employer, had paid the seventeen cents out of her qwn purse.
“Oh,” she told herself, still making excuses for Cottonby, “it’s not his nature, but his training makes him hard. He’s lived all these years just for his business . . . And he’s good to me.” So, fighting her losing fight, she defended Cottonby to herself. “Why, he never swears when I’m around.”
So she went on making excuses for old Quercus Cottonby; till the affair of young Alec Grant revealed Cottonby just as he was.
'T'HOUGH Ruth Dahl knew young Alec Grant by repute, she faced him without embarrassment. Her business assets included a superb aloofness, calculated to keep fast young men at a respectful distance.
She motioned Grant to a chair, and turned to summon Cottonby. Normally, Cottonby made no haste to meet clients . . . This time, though, he had caught the client’s name, and came stamping out of his private office.
“So,” he began, “you’re Alec Grant? And you’ve come to me—at last? I knew you would.”
His tricky, gray eyes cunningly analyzed the dejected young man, who tried to smile back, and ended by staring at the floor.
“Come in here,” commanded Quercus Cottonby.
The old lawyer, assisted by Ruth Dahl’s facile calculations, spent a dreary hour analyzing young Alec Grant’s financial tangle. At the end of it all he gripped the girl’s penciled tabulation with taloned fingers, and gazed at young Grant across the old-fashioned walnut desk.
“Your problem,” he said, surprisingly, “is anything but financial.”
Grant vented a bitter laugh. “Not financial! When I’m fifty-five hundred in the hole, and this police court affair has brought my creditors down on me like a flock of buzzards!”
“I said it—not financial. You are the problem. Solve
that, and the financial tangle will automatically straighten itself out. How much have you been making?”
“Close to six thousand a year.”
“Six thousand, easy money. No one but yourself to keep—in a town like Carisford, where there’s no coâtly diversions unless you invent them. Six years of it, making more and more money all the time. You should have saved $20,000.”
He referred to his tabulation.
“And you’ve saved nothing; or, to be exact, fifty-five hundred dollars less than nothing! Where has the money gone?”
Ruth Dahl could have told him. She heard all the gossip. There had been poker parties at the Carisford Club where sharp professionals time and again picked a young man who cleanly insisted on playing for the game and not for the winnings. A joy-ride had ended with a $5,000 car hopelessly wrecked, and several people in the hospital—and, if whispers were correct, the car owner without question footing the bills. There had been orchids for Edith Elliott—fair, stately Edith Elliott who, after the episode of Policeman Pentz, had promptly returned the young man’s diamond.
Cottonby referred witheringly to that incident. “Why,” he rasped, “try to thrash a policeman twice your size?”
Grant shrugged his shoulders. He had refused to explain, had faced police court, had paid his fine, had gone his way unjustified in Carisford’s eyes . . . But Cottonby persisted; so now the truth came out, reluctant, like a sore tooth.
“I just had to play the game, don’t you see, Mr. Cottonby? I promised those fellows I’d stall off Pentz while they made their getaway, and wouldn’t squeal on them. I just had to keep my word.”
“After they got you into the game—eh? You know Ben Cedar is nothing but a bum. He’d have been sent down ... So you stand up to a policeman twice your size, get beaten up, go into police court, pay a fine, keep your mouth shut, and open every other mouth in Carisford—all to save a drunken scoundrel who wouldn’t be worth hanging if hemp cost nothing!”
“But Fd promised him . . . why, can’t you see, Mr. Cottonby, I just had to play the game?”
Cottonby, rising excitedly, stamped up and down the office.
“What a pity,” he growled, “you didn’t promise once in a while to do something worth doing . . . You make me tired, with your idiotic heroism . . . D’you like to sell cars?”
“It’s easy money—”
Quercus Cottonby sputtered. “Son, I promised Miss Dahl if she’d work here I wouldn’t cuss . . . but when I think of the grandson of old Alec Grant . . .”
Ruth Dahl noticed that the grandson of old Alec Grant stared at the floor, and flushed.
“Cars were easy to sell,” he protested, “and it meant big money. I’d calculated in a few years I’d save enough for what I really wanted to do.”
Then, haltingly, he told what he wanted to do.
Back of the old Grant homestead on Lake Erie stretched a vast expanse of marsh. Fifty years ago, the first Alec Grant had dreamed of a deep channel to the lake, draining the marsh land. Up this channel ships would come, to carry to Port Stanley and even to Toronto the products of thousands of acres reclaimed from marsh grass and bulrushes. The first Alec Grant had grown to manhood, had cut his deep channel and built his wharves, had seen the rich muck-land grow huge crops . . . And then his son’s death had shattered the old man’s purposes.
“When I was a boy,” said young Alec Grant, “I could see the old wharves rotting, the old channel silting up, and the wide acres going back to bulrushes and marsh grass. I could see myself growing to manhood, to finish what my grandfather began . . . Some day I will.”
There was silence.
“That,” said Grant at last, “is the one thing I want to do. There must be ditches and cross-cuts and dykes to shut out high water, and a pumping plant. It will cost thousands . . . That’s why I’ve sold cars when I’d rather be on the land. Some day, when I get a few thousand ahead ...”
“Some day,” retorted Cottonby, “you’ll . . . Ruth, my dear—ahem!—will you please retire? I simply must cuss.”
TEN minutes later, Ruth Dahl, returning, met a moody, young man with bowed head, emerging from Quercus Cottonby’s office. The moody, young man did not look up at her.
She found old Cottonby chuckling at his desk.
“Alec Grant?” The old lawyer shook his gray head, to her question. “He is impossible. A spoiled child, my dear. His old grandfather made much of him. He never knew the curb. Then he came to Carisford. Too much money here, and no curb either. That Elliott girl might have helped him, but she just laughed at the things he did. It is a pity,” concluded Quercus Cottonby. “His grandfather and his father were fine men, both, but—ah, this Alec Grant is a spoiled child.’
Quercus Cottonby chuckled deep down in his chest;
but his gray eyes were mirthless. The stenographer sensed uneasily that her employer plotted another deep, shrewd, cold-blooded scheme.
“What did you advise him, Mr. Cottonby?”
“My dear”—Cottonby’s growl became a purr—“I found I couldn’t advise him. I just remembered I had a claim against him for collection. Oh, it was fortunate he came to me, though. Fortunate for my client, Mr. Carlton, you remember? My dear, will you look in the collection docket for a claim of Carlton v. Grant.”
“But there’s no such claim, Mr. Cottonby.”
“Tut, tut, my dear! In the private pigeon-hole.” Incredulous, Ruth Dahl did look; and found in the private pigeon-hole along envelope endorsed inCottonby’s scraggly chirography: ‘Carlton v. Grant’.
She felt irritated. Cottonby had a bad habit of taking claims for collection, and telling her nothing about them,and of keeping secret, even from her, half of what the office did. Like Providence, he moved in a mysterious way
This claim, though,was not new. It had, so Cottonby claimed, lain dormant in the private pigeon-hole nearly two years. Before the young woman’s wondering, brown eyes the rusty lawyer spread out the following document:
‘$10,000.00 Carisford, AprilJ22, 1919.
One month after date I promise to pay to Robert Carlton or order the sum of Ten Thousand Dollars, value received.
Cottonby purred: “We will sue on this at once, my dear.”
Ruth Dahl’s clean, young soul found something singularly repellent in accepting young Grant’s confidence, and next moment taking this mean advantage. Grant might be bad, but Cottonby was worse.
“In the Supreme Court of Ontario,” said Cottonby, “file a lis pendens on the Grant homestead and attach everything in sight.”
“But,” she protested, “is that fair, Mr. Cottonby? He came to you, Mr. Grant did—he is a client—he—”
“Ah, my dear,” corrected Cottonby; “Mr. Carlton was my client first—I couldn’t act for Mr. Grant, too. To think a young man with no one to keep should make away with six thousand a year, and go fifty-five hundred in the hole, and drop this ten thousand also. That young man must have been a veritable sink-hole for money. Will you draw the papers, my dear, while I call on Miss Elliott? I expect she will settle this for him, but we might as well be ready for whatever happens.”
Ruth Dahl, busy drawing the papers during Cottonby’s absence, knew in her heart of hearts that Edith Elliott would not help. The police court affair had been too disgraceful. What Grant had done would not have been so catastrophic but for the unexpected climax of huge Policeman Pentz butting into a game for high stakes and arresting the one player who stayed to face him. That made Alec Grant’s reputed fastness a matter of official record.
Continued on page 43
Continued from page 15
Rumor had exaggerated, doubtless; but rumor had added one circumstance more. As Grant was paying his fine, a special messenger handed him a letter, in a feminine hand. From Edith Elliott, said rumor. The young man paled as he read the message; then, his face momentarily defiant, tore the letter into shreds.
Cottonby came back from his visit to Edith Elliott. To Ruth’s unvoiced question he shook his head; then rubbed his hands in self-gratification at his own sharp cunning.
“What law firm will I serve?” she asked.
“Serve Mr. Grant himself.”
She found young Grant at the Carisford Motor Sales office. He recognized her, with a warm smile. She felt unutterably mean. He gasped as he glanced at the writ she handed him; then his composure swiftly came back.
“Thank you, Miss Dahl. I’ll accept service.” His manner was courtly; but his face was white.
Ruth Dahl went out, hating Quercus Cottonby for what he had done, and hating him still more for what he had made her do.
D UTH DAHL still strove to make excuses for Cottonby; but she never quite succeeded in reconciling herself to that bit of sharp practice. Grant’s friendly smile, as she handed him the papers, continued to haunt her. With all his reputation, she fancied'in the young man avague trace of something likeable. There was a dash of heroism in his ftl'y.
She tried to tell herself, practically, that Grant could not have been spared in any event. Out of the host of creditors, the one who issued the first writ and filed the first lis pendens secured the inside track. Any other lawyer with an unsettled claim against the young spendthrift would have done just what Cottonby did.
Cottonby indeed, showed traces of regret. He made blundering efforts to keep the proceedings quiet. But the spectacular truth had to come out; and Ruth Dahl, on the streets, in other law offices, at her boarding house, heard Carisford gossip, that had whispered over the police court episode, buzz out loud regarding the Carlton writ.
A promissory note for $10,000 from Alec Grant to Robert Carlton, held in abey-
anee nearly two years—buzzing gossip assured itself that more than mere money was involved. There was mystery behind that note, folks said; yes, and a woman behind the mystery; That $10,000 promise-to-pay had been given for . . . what?’
To keep Alec Grant from figuring as co-respondent in divorce proceedings, explained some scandal-mongers. Others averred Grant had given the note to protect, not himself, but the erring woman.
“He was a fool to pay so much!” declared Mrs. (Alderman) Morrison. Mrs. Morrison’s sporty husband had settled for his romances much more cheaply. “Just like Alec Grant, though!”
Well, it would all come out in court. They would see this Carlton, and probably the woman . . . Yes, there would be a big crowd to hear the case.
Then it leaked out that Alec Grant had confessed judgment for the entire amount. To keep that woman out of court complained gossip, exasperated; and went on speculating as to whether Robert Carlton was the woman’s father, or her husband.
‘He’ll never find the money,’ decided the gossips. ‘That water-soaked old homestead isn’t worth a thousand dollars, let alone ten thousand.’
Ruth Dahl was relieved to learn there would be no court case. The whisperings she heard everywhere she went had pictured an Alec Grant much blacker, to her way of thinking, than the daredevil spendthrift she had met just twice in her life.
The day after Grant confessed judgment, Cottonby made an announcement:
“Young Mr. Grant, my dear, will liquidate that judgment in weekly instalments. You are to receive the money, and deposit it in a separate account to my credit, in trust for Robert Carlton.”
She choked down a half-uttered protest. She shrank from Grant, when she thought of what he had been; she shrank from him even more when she recalled Cottonby’s mean treachery. The first time the young man came with his money, she could not face him. She stared at the receipt pad on which she wrote, and was glad when Grant went out.
Indeed, it was weeks before she dared venture a good look at him. Then she was surprised at his aspect. He did not look like a wicked man; and, more surprising still, he showed no trace of resentment.
“I’ve got to do something with this money, Miss Dahl,” he told her, philosophically. “In the old days I’d go into a store, see something I fancied, say ‘Charge it!’ and the storekeeper would hug me. Now—if I show myself, even with a fistful of cash, the boss yells, ‘Throw that dead-beat out on his head, boys!’ ”
But his laugh was unconvincing. That laugh reproached Ruth for what she had helped Cottonby do.
One August day Grant lingered, folding and unfolding the receipt, and regarding her curiously: “Miss Dahl, I want you to do me a favor,” he said, hesitantly.
She had to guard herself. She knew perfectly well what he meant to ask of her. He was about to tell her the next week’s payment would not be forthcoming. Well, Cottonby had harshly warned her that he would tolerate no excuses; Grant must keep up his payments.
“I want you to go for a drive with me tomorrow.”
She asked Cottonby for the day off; and was surprised when the old lawyer, after a spell of hesitation, growled a gruff assent.
They motored twenty miles or more, over hill and dale in the warm, August sunshine, to a place where an arm of Lake Erie stretched across marshlands to their feet. They had lunch at an old stone farmhouse. Alec Grant said little. He was poor company this day; but he watched Ruth with a queer intentness.
After lunch they followed a footpath
to the fringe of the marsh, and Grant helped the girl over a rickety wooden footbridge. She picked out, under his guidance, traces of rotten piling and the reed-grown path of an ancient channel, silted up in the course of years. The sun shone bright overhead, and in the faint breeze the brown heads of the bulrushes nodded.
“There,” said Alec Grant, “was my dream.”
Ruth Dahl turned to him, a question in her eyes.
“Yes,” he said, “this is the old Grant homestead. It is mine—subject to a judgment recorded against it in favor of one Robert Carlton. When I have satisfied that judgment, the place is mine again. Old Leiber, who waited table just now for us,has been running the place on shares, and growing microscopic crops on that fringe of dry land. But things were different those few years, when my grandfather’s channel was new.”
His gaze, suddenly masterful, swept the wide expanse of bulrushes. It seemed as though, transported back to these scenes of his boyhood, he became a different Alec Grant from the dejected young man she had first met in Cottonby’s office.
She tried to speak, to voice some word of encouragement; but she could find none.
“I shall satisfy that judgment,” went on Alec Grant. “It is a penance for my sins. Before I redeem this marsh I must redeem myself . . . Then I am coming back here to realize my dreams.”
They drove home through the twilight. Ruth Dahl forgot the warm sunshine on the nodding bulrushes. She pictured the wide marsh locked tight in the gray winter ice, cold as Cottonby’s eyes; and a chill wind sweeping in from the lake. Alec Grant had told her of winter nights in the old farm house when the fire-logs crackled and there was warm comfort. Still, she shivered.
“You are cold,” said Grant, concernedly. “I’m afraid I shouldn’t have brought you to this parade of my dead dreams. No, I shouldn’t have brought you, Ruth.”
She started from her own dream at sound of his voice. He had called her ‘Ruth’.
D UTH DAHL had felt always at least -*^a trifle sorry for Grant in his misfortune, just as she had once felt sorry for old Quercus Cottonby in his cold-blooded scheming. Her sympathy for both was as uncontrollably involuntary as her befriending of the feline and canine waifs of her girlish days. Cottonby was mean when he might have been noble, so he merited a pity. Grant was a tragic failure when he might have been a big success; he also merited pity. That he deserved his failure did not check her growing sympathies.
Then, too, he bore himself so wel|, remained so pleasant through it all, was so desperately resolute to come back . . . She came to feel he was a much abused young man.
Young? Regarding from week to week his furrowed brow and graying temples, she questioned if this catastrophe were not prematurely ageing him. The easy, careless grace of his early Carisford days faded little by little as weeks and months dragged by. A growing seriousness showed even in his determined smile.
So she told herself, in keen selfreproach for her innocent part in the catastrophe.
The matter of what lay behind that $10,000 promissory note to Robert Carlton had no check on her runaway sympathies. Rumor had long since supplied the answer. The promised $10,000 was hush money—the price of Carlton’s silence . . . Carlton, Cottonby had told her, lived in Winnipeg, but had spent one summer near Carisford.
What little Cottonby told her left her all the more unreasoningly sorry for Grant, and condemnatory of all con-
cerned in Grant’s downfall . . . yes, condemnatory of even the stately Edith Elliott.
Her father, Eben H. Elliott, was wealthy: and Edith had a fortune of her own. The right woman, so impulsive Ruth Dahl told herself, would have come to her sweetheart’s rescue, gossip or no gossip. If he was her man, in his time of trouble her place was at his side. Whatever mistake in Grant’s life that debt to Carlton represented, Edith could still have saved him the tedious burden of these payments, week after week, to bloodsucking, old Cottonby.
They could have determined to shut out the past, to forget whatever shameful thing lay at the root of the Carlton affair, to go away together and make a new beginning ... so sympathetic Ruth insisted.
They should do it yet, she presently decided. Alec Grant must have his second chance.
For weeks Ruth Dahl nursed her sympathy for Grant. Her soul was a kiln, wherein her feelings scorched dry; till one day a chance remark from Cottonby set the tinder ablaze: “Mr. Grant came to you, Mr. Cottonby. He confided everything. He counted on your help. Instead of helping, you took mean advantage of his confidence. Was that honest?”
Cottonby’s callous smile was his sole comment on her outburst. That smile nettled the girl.
“Think, Mr. Cottonby, of all this talk about him ... all the unjust suspicions ...”
Cottonby’s gray eyes flamed.
“Oh,” he said, “if he is unjustly suspected, he is not the first to suffer that way ... or the last. And he brought all his trouble on himself.”
The gnarled, old face softened into a look of cruel enjoyment; as Cottonby contemplated his own trickery. He rubbed his hands together; his chuckle purred contentment.
“My dear,” was his ultimatum, “that young man owes. He must pay.”
Her hands clenched. Now she had nothing but pity for Grant; nothing but contempt for her employer.
“If,” she said, “that judgment is paid in full—”
Quercus Cottonby grumbled: “I cannot refuse the money if it is offered. But where would Mr. Grant get the money to pay in full?”
Ruth Dahl smiled. She knew. But she did not tell Cottonby. She would wait till the office closed for the day . . . As a matter of fact, day after day went by, while her courage still failed her. She sought desperately to drive herself into doing what she had impulsively determined to do; yet faltered on the threshold of action.
Two successive afternoons she walked all the way out to the fashionable west end, and gazed despairingly across the wide lawns at the great house Eben H. Elliott had piled up for his only daughter and himself . . . Who was she, a working girl in a gloomy law office, to talk to Edith Elliott, about Alec Grant?
Those two long walks were futile, except that she came back to her boarding house on two successive evenings, late for dinner and very tired.
Yet she harassed herself into a desperate mood that at last, one rainy afternoon, drove her up the long walk to the door. Even then she might have turned away, but Edith Elliott by chance came out.
Edith Elliott, men said admiringly and women enviously, was the most beautiful girl in Carisford. She was very fair, with a chaste coldness of aspect that suggested marble chiselled by a master hand. Her greeting to her visitor had little warmth; hardly enough to encourage Ruth in a plea for a few words with her.
But her blue eyes warmed when she learned that this visit concerned Alec Grant. Ruth Dahl watched, hopeful ... In the sitting room, with Edith Elliott opposite her, expectant, she
faltered, wondering how to begin. She had turned over and over in her mind what she meant to say, and pictured the sweet persuasiveness with which she would argue and convince.
The old homestead, and Grant’s cherished ambition; these, she had determined, would furnish the keynote. She had felt that with the memory of the August sunshine on the bulrushes, and Grant’s dream of the dead years she would be eloquent . . . But now as she stammered out her words, she knew that she had blundered and her argument lacked conviction.
She watched the cold smile creep over Edith Elliott’s face.
“Oh,” she said, when Ruth, chilled by her manner, faltered at last and fell silent, “but you don’t begin to understand. Do you know why Alec Grant is paying that money?”
Ruth regarded her with sudden alarm. That question had always haunted her; its recurrence terrified her now.
“N-no. I don’t, Miss Elliott.”
“Well, I know.”
Ruth waited. Edith Elliott explained no further. Ruth realized, presently, that the woman did not intend to tell her. Perhaps the truth was something too hideous to be told . . .Yet, however hideous, Edith Elliott, knowing it, sat here, statuesquely calm, with that cold smile lighting her face like the gleam of a wintry sun on ice.
“What do you expect me to do?”
“Why . . . end it, Miss Elliott,” cried Ruth with fervor. “Knock off Alec Grant’s chains and set him free to do the one thing he should do. You have money. You can do just that ...”
“Oh,” said Edith Elliott, oddly, “but that would spoil it all. Alec Grant is a nice boy, of course, and I like him. But I like him far too well to do what you ask.” Ruth’s heart sank. Whatever Edith Elliott had written Grant that day of the police court affair, plainly she did not mean to give him up.
“He is a nice boy, but he needs discipline. He is getting that now. He has been—oh, just a bit foolish. Now he is learning, the only way he can learn. I know, Miss Dahl, more of this case than you know. We talked it all over, Mr. Cottonby and I. Alec Grant”—she spoke with calm practicality—“will be all the better man for what he is undergoing now. He can do big things, just as you say, and—do you know, I’ve always been proud of him? Even the foolish things he did were big, in a way. But it wouldn’t do for him to go on being foolish. He needs just this discipline, and when he has gone through with it—”
She smiled, with a wintry radiance. “Then,” she finished, in a tone that was like an unexpected slap, “he knows perfectly well I’m waiting for him to come and plead his own case.”
As she went down the walk from Eben H. Elliott’s great house, Ruth Dahl’s face tingled as though the slap had been physical. Edith Elliott knew the truth about the Carlton business, all that hideous truth Cottonby had kept concealed from her. Edith Elliott and Cottonby had understood one another from the first . . . Edith Elliott was waiting calmly for Alec Grant to fight his way unaided out of the marsh of life. She was the marsh light that lured him to struggle on . . . yes, and she was Eben H. Elliott’s true daughter. She knew just what she wanted, just what Alec Grant needed. She could watch Alec Grant’s long-drawn agony with the practical detachment that belonged to her breed, knowing that Alec Grant, disciplined as he had to be disciplined, would come to her the moment he was free.
Ruth Dahl cried out to the weeping skies: “She’s cruel. She thinks she loves him . . . loves him enough to let him suffer for his own good. But she doesn’t love him. If she loves him she could not stand by and see him suffer.”
CO THE second summer wore into ^autumn, and autumn into winter. Once again came spring. The ice went out of the marsh below the old Grant homestead. The bulrushes grew green along the silted channel. Still Grant, doggedly working in Carisford, paid his weekly instalments to insatiable Cottonby; while Ruth Dahl kept tragic silence regarding her futile effort to help him.
For a passing moment she had seen things with the cold blooded clarity, that was part of Edith Elliott’s heritage. Edith Elliott, she told herself, knew Alec Grant. She knew this harsh discipline would be the making of him. She was content to wait while, under discipline, Grant remade himself according to her heart’s desire.
But Ruth told herself she knew Grant better. This discipline had gone too far. It had long since done the utmost good; now it was transforming the man into a machine—a machine selling cars and collecting commissions, and turning over the last pinched cent of the money to a wizened, old spider in a gloomy web ... At times she suspected her sympathies were mistaken, at other times she knew she was wrong; yet she told herself insistently she was right, and that the remorseless grip of his debt to the insatiable Carlton was warping Grant’s soul.
Even were he clear of that judgment, what then? The other creditors, their judgments unsatisfied, waited to pounce upon him.
She grew conscious of a subtle change in Grant. The old-time raillery gave place to a quiet earnestness. In his weekly calls he still talked of reclaiming the marsh land—some day, when his penance was done. As for the sin for which he did penance: “I was a fool,” was all he vouchsafed.
As he voiced the words, a beam of spring sunshine fell athwart her bright desk, streaming through the high window; it lit the uplifted face and flashed back from sudden tears in her eyes. And then . . . before she knew it, he stooped and kissed her!
She rose, white-faced, staring at him. Her heart pounded. He regarded her with shamefaced apprehension. He tried to laugh; and flushed in apology for his laugh.
“There,” he blundered, “I always meant to do that, but I always meant to wait till the day I was free. But it’s so near now ...”
She knew then in a flash what all these troubled communings with her own soul had meant ... all her harassed sympathy for him . . yes, and even that
futile effort to help him through the woman he loved.
“But,” she whispered, “there’s Miss Elliott—”
“No,” he said. “There’s no one but you.”
“When I’m free,” he began, “then—”
She gazed at Alec Grant. “When you’re free?” she repeated, in tones clear as the chime of bells. “Why wait?”
/^\LD Quercus Cottonby blundered in.
He halted in the doorway of the gloomy office, blinking his eyes. Ruth, business-like, went to the supreme court docket.
“Mr. Cottonby,” she said, with decision, “I have a check for the four hundred and twenty dollars still due on that Carlton judgment.”
Quercus Cottonby blinked at the check she handed him.
“My dear,” he urged, “did you compute the full interest—?”
Ruth Dahl’s look withered him.
“I computed the last cent of interest, and gave you the benefit of the half cent.” Cottonby chuckled harshly. “It’s all paid. No, Alec, you mustn’t”— as Grant tried to interpose. “I can do what I like with my own savings. That’s law, isn’t it, Mr. Cottonby? Even when we are married, Alec, you have nothing to do with them.”
His blandness irritated her.
“Now, Mr. Cottonby,” pursued Ruth Dahl. “I have one thing more to give you. It’s a week’s notice. That’s all you’re entitled to, and it’s all you’ll get from me. You’re nothing but a blood-sucking old scoundrel. I’m ashamed I ever worked for you.”
Quercus Cottonby coughed and sputtered.
“Tut, tut! A week’s notice . . that
means, you’re still working for me. Please take some dictation.” He paused, while she got her note-book. ‘Wanted, stenographer and book-keeper, must be capable and experienced. Apply, Q. Cottonby, Peninsular Trust Building.’ Run that in the Meteor, t.f. A-hem!”
He busied himself with a check-book. “Here, Alec, is my check for $4,882.71, the balance of the Robert Carlton trust. Whatever else you paid, I used to wipe out the claims of your creditors. You are clear now—absolutely.”
Cottonby’s rebellious helper stared, uncomprehending.
“My dear”—the old eyes, kindly now, regarded her—“I once said Alec Grant was not the first man nor the last subject to unjust suspicion. Your blood-sucking employer was another ... I knew the first Alec Grant, years ago. As a boy I played with the second Alec Grant. I tried to advise his son. Well, the boy would not listen till the pinch came. Then he came to me.
“That day we talked it over, Alec and I. We had a ghastly problem. To discipline Alec Grant—to protect him from his creditors while he was getting on his feet—to protect his creditors from their own panic-stricken eagerness to grab what they could. Yes and to save the old homestead. I saw only one way. To get a judgment recorded against him and everything he had, ahead of anybody else. Then—then he signed that note.”
“But that,” protested honest Ruth Dahl, “was dishonest,”
“Just what Alec Grant told me that day, my dear. I had a dickens of a time to persuade him into it. Yes, now I think it over, it was a bit crooked. There was no Robert Carlton—never was; no criminality behind that debt, no debt indeed— except the debt a young man owed his misused youth. Yet if it hadn’t been for my crookedness, the old homestead would have gone, the creditors would have got a few cents on the dollar, Alec would have continued downhill. Now the creditors are paid in full, Alec holds the old homestead, he has a stake, he has a man’s chance, he has—you.”
His face furrowed as though the crookedness of this thing began at this late day to trouble him.
“I could not tell you, Alec, all I intended. Even you, my dear, I dared not tell. I made one miscalculation. I meant this to be merely the test of a man’s manhood; not the test of the womanhood of two women Are you
positive you must leave me?”
Ruth Dahl regarded the old lawyer fixedly; then with a faint flush she took his taloned fingers in her warm, rosy, little hand. After her long-cherished bitterness she felt a bewildering tenderness toward him. She tried to make him feel it by her look.
“I would like to stay for your sake, but . . if you can manage, I would leave
Quercus Cottonby smiled. “Very well, my dear. You can go when you have attended to that advertisement and put away the docket-books.”
He turned to his desk, momentarily lit by spring sunshine through the dusty windows.
“Springtime,” he muttered. “It makes me think of days when I was a boy on a farm down by Lake Erie, and your father, Alec, and I went paddling among the reeds.”