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- THE THREE PARTNERS - 10/36 -


CHAPTER II.

When George Barker returned to the outer ward of the financial stronghold he had penetrated, with its curving sweep of counters, brass railings, and wirework screens defended by the spruce clerks behind them, he was again impressed with the position of the man he had just quitted, and for a moment hesitated, with an inclination to go back. It was with no idea of making a further appeal to his old comrade, but--what would have been odd in any other nature but his--he was affected by a sense that HE might have been unfair and selfish in his manner to the man panoplied by these defenses, and who was in a measure forced to be a part of them. He would like to have returned and condoled with him. The clerks, who were heartlessly familiar with the anxious bearing of the men who sought interviews with their chief, both before and after, smiled with the whispered conviction that the fresh and ingenuous young stranger had been "chucked" like others until they met his kindly, tolerant, and even superior eyes, and were puzzled. Meanwhile Barker, who had that sublime, natural quality of abstraction over small impertinences which is more exasperating than studied indifference, after his brief hesitation passed out unconcernedly through the swinging mahogany doors into the blowy street. Here the wind and rain revived him; the bank and its curt refusal were forgotten; he walked onward with only a smiling memory of his partner as in the old days. He remembered how Stacy had burned down their old cabin rather than have it fall into sordid or unworthy hands--this Stacy who was now condemned to sink his impulses and become a mere machine. He had never known Stacy's real motive for that act,-- both Demorest and Stacy had kept their knowledge of the attempted robbery from their younger partner,--it always seemed to him to be a precious revelation of Stacy's inner nature. Facing the wind and rain, he recalled how Stacy, though never so enthusiastic about his marriage as Demorest, had taken up Van Loo sharply for some foolish sneer about his own youthfulness. He was affectionately tolerant of even Stacy's dislike to his wife's relations, for Stacy did not know them as he did. Indeed, Barker, whose own father and mother had died in his infancy, had accepted his wife's relations with a loving trust and confidence that was supreme, from the fact that he had never known any other.

At last he reached his hotel. It was a new one, the latest creation of a feverish progress in hotel-building which had covered five years and as many squares with large showy erections, utterly beyond the needs of the community, yet each superior in size and adornment to its predecessor. It struck him as being the one evidence of an abiding faith in the future of the metropolis that he had seen in nothing else. As he entered its frescoed hall that afternoon he was suddenly reminded, by its challenging opulency, of the bank he had just quitted, without knowing that the bank had really furnished its capital and its original design. The gilded bar-rooms, flashing with mirrors and cut glass; the saloons, with their desert expanse of Turkey carpet and oasis of clustered divans and gilded tables; the great dining-room, with porphyry columns, and walls and ceilings shining with allegory--all these things which had attracted his youthful wonder without distracting his correct simplicity of taste he now began to comprehend. It was the bank's money "at work." In the clatter of dishes in the dining- room he even seemed to hear again the chinking of coin.

It was a short cut to his apartments to pass through a smaller public sitting-room popularly known as "Flirtation Camp," where eight or ten couples generally found refuge on chairs and settees by the windows, half concealed by heavy curtains. But the occupants were by no means youthful spinsters or bachelors; they were generally married women, guests of the hotel, receiving other people's husbands whose wives were "in the States," or responsible middle-aged leaders of the town. In the elaborate toilettes of the women, as compared with the less formal business suits of the men, there was an odd mingling of the social attitude with perhaps more mysterious confidences. The idle gossip about them had never affected Barker; rather he had that innate respect for the secrets of others which is as inseparable from simplicity as it is from high breeding, and he scarcely glanced at the different couples in his progress through the room. He did not even notice a rather striking and handsome woman, who, surrounded by two or three admirers, yet looked up at Barker as he passed with self-conscious lids as if seeking a return of her glance. But he moved on abstractedly, and only stopped when he suddenly saw the familiar skirt of his wife at a further window, and halted before it.

"Oh, it's YOU," said Mrs. Barker, with a half-nervous, half- impatient laugh. "Why, I thought you'd certainly stay half the afternoon with your old partner, considering that you haven't met for three years."

There was no doubt she HAD thought so; there was equally no doubt that the conversation she was carrying on with her companion--a good-looking, portly business man--was effectually interrupted. But Barker did not notice it. "Captain Heath, my husband," she went on, carelessly rising and smoothing her skirts. The captain, who had risen too, bowed vaguely at the introduction, but Barker extended his hand frankly. "I found Stacy busy," he said in answer to his wife, "but he is coming to dine with us to-night."

"If you mean Jim Stacy, the banker," said Captain Heath, brightening into greater ease, "he's the busiest man in California. I've seen men standing in a queue outside his door as in the old days at the post-office. And he only gives you five minutes and no extension. So you and he were partners once?" he said, looking curiously at the still youthful Barker.

But it was Mrs. Barker who answered, "Oh yes! and always such good friends. I was awfully jealous of him." Nevertheless, she did not respond to the affectionate protest in Barker's eyes nor to the laugh of Captain Heath, but glanced indifferently around the room as if to leave further conversation to the two men. It was possible that she was beginning to feel that Captain Heath was as de trop now as her husband had been a moment before. Standing there, however, between them both, idly tracing a pattern on the carpet with the toe of her slipper, she looked prettier than she had ever looked as Kitty Carter. Her slight figure was more fully developed. That artificial severity covering a natural virgin coyness with which she used to wait at table in her father's hotel at Boomville had gone, and was replaced by a satisfied consciousness of her power to please. Her glance was freer, but not as frank as in those days. Her dress was undoubtedly richer and more stylish; yet Barker's loyal heart often reverted fondly to the chintz gown, coquettishly frilled apron, and spotless cuffs and collar in which she had handed him his coffee with a faint color that left his own face crimson.

Captain Heath's tact being equal to her indifference, he had excused himself, although he was becoming interested in this youthful husband. But Mrs. Barker, after having asserted her husband's distinction as the equal friend of the millionaire, was by no means willing that the captain should be further interested in Barker for himself alone, and did not urge him to stay. As he departed she turned to her husband, and, indicating the group he had passed the moment before, said:--

"That horrid woman has been staring at us all the time. I don't see what you see in her to admire."

Poor Barker's admiration had been limited to a few words of civility in the enforced contact of that huge caravansary and in his quiet, youthful recognition of her striking personality. But he was just then too preoccupied with his interview with Stacy to reply, and perhaps he did not quite understand his wife. It was odd how many things he did not quite understand now about Kitty, but that he knew must be HIS fault. But Mrs. Barker apparently did not require, after the fashion of her sex, a reply. For the next moment, as they moved towards their rooms, she said impatiently, "Well, you don't tell what Stacy said. Did you get the money?"

I grieve to say that this soul of truth and frankness lied--only to his wife. Perhaps he considered it only lying to HIMSELF, a thing of which he was at times miserably conscious. "It wasn't necessary, dear," he said; "he advised me to sell my securities in the bank; and if you only knew how dreadfully busy he is."

Mrs. Barker curled her pretty lip. "It doesn't take very long to lend ten thousand dollars!" she said. "But that's what I always tell you. You have about made me sick by singing the praises of those wonderful partners of yours, and here you ask a favor of one of them and he tells you to sell your securities! And you know, and he knows, they're worth next to nothing."

"You don't understand, dear"--began Barker.

"I understand that you've given your word to poor Harry," said Mrs. Barker in pretty indignation, "who's responsible for the Ditch purchase."

"And I shall keep it. I always do," said Barker very quietly, but with that same singular expression of face that had puzzled Stacy. But Mrs. Barker, who, perhaps, knew her husband better, said in an altered voice:--

"But HOW can you, dear?"

"If I'm short a thousand or two I'll ask your father."

Mrs. Barker was silent. "Father's so very much harried now, George. Why don't you simply throw the whole thing up?"

"But I've given my word to your cousin Henry."

"Yes, but only your WORD. There was no written agreement. And you couldn't even hold him to it."

Barker opened his frank eyes in astonishment. Her own cousin, too! And they were Stacy's very words!

"Besides," added Mrs. Barker audaciously, "he could get rid of it elsewhere. He had another offer, but he thought yours the best. So don't be silly."

By this time they had reached their rooms. Barker, apparently dismissing the subject from his mind with characteristic buoyancy, turned into the bedroom and walked smilingly towards a small crib which stood in the corner. "Why, he's gone!" he said in some dismay.

"Well," said Mrs. Barker a little impatiently, "you didn't expect me to take him into the public parlor, where I was seeing visitors, did you? I sent him out with the nurse into the lower hall to play with the other children."


THE THREE PARTNERS - 10/36

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