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Twas a cold, rainy February night. Outside.
the wind was sweeping up and down the slippery streets, now almost deserted.
A gray mist was settling down over the city, bring. ing a sense of desolation and loneliness everywhere; the street lamps gleamed out like lonely lighthouses through the fog. In great contrast to this outer dreariness were the surroundings of James Carpenter. In one corner of the library in his bachelor apartments, a sea-coal fire was burning. The gas was turned down and the ruddy glint from the coals flickered over the black oak fittings of the room. Nearby, on a small table, lay the latest books and magazines; at his elbow stood a box of cigars. Carpenter, however, was not reading. From the set look upon his face it was evident he was thinking and, judging from the deep creases in his forehead, thinking hard.
The truth of the matter was that Carpenter had come to the point where, after long and incessant activity, a man can at last stop, draw a deep breath, and review his actions in a passive, impersonal way. His battle had been fought and won. For over a year Carpenter and a former school friend, Barret, had been engaged in a vigorous contest, and this contest had in it the two essential elements of business and love, or if perchance any one object to the order, love and business. Both were suitors for the hand of Edith Whitely, a charming, demure young woman of twenty, who had been perfectly well content to accept the attentions of both, while herself maintaining a sort of armed neutrality which kept matters from advancing at any more rapid pace than was pleasing to herself. Both men were members of the Produce Exchange and dealt extensively in wheat. Now at last, after a year of incessant watching, skirmishing and parrying, Carpenter had secured a slight advan
tage, and pushing it had succeeded in cornering the wheat market. Barret had been caught short-in fact, very badly short. As the brokers whispered one to another, he was very decidedly “to the bad.”
When the first suspicion of the existence of a corner in the wheat market rippled through the Exchange, there was a lull of a minute or two until the members could mentally take account of stock and see just where they stood. Then came a mad, wild rush of the shorts to "cover.” Wheat rose by leaps and bounds one point, two points, ive, ten, until in thirty minutes of the wildest trading on the Exchange in many a day, wheat had risen from sixty cents a bushel to the neighborhood of a dollar ten.
This it was that accounted for the easy, comfortable attitude of Carpenter before his blazing grate fire that evening-for the faint smile that turned the corners of his lips into a rather hard, unpleasantly agreeable expression that bespoke the inner satisfaction of the man. He was thinking of the settlement to come. Barret was absolutely in his power. Carpenter did not look like a man who would neglect to improve an advantage once gained.
At last rising with a characteristically quick, nervous movement, he turned to his desk and in a few sentences dashed off a note to Barret, making an engagement with him in the private dining room of a prominent cafe for the following evening after the opera, when, as he put it, "he was sure they would be able without any difficulty to reach a satisfactory settlement." This proved Carpenter not to be altogether lacking in that quality which many men find unnecessary in business-humor. That this humor was of a rather ironic turn does not change its essential nature. Having sealed and addressed this letter, Carpenter now began another which seemed to give him somewhat more dificulty. Several sheets of note paper were consigned to the waste-paper basket in rapid succession. After some little time,
however, he seemed to be able to look upon the results of his labor with at least comparative approval. This note in rather stilted terms begged the favor of an interview the following afternoon with Miss Edith Whitely on a matter of pressing importance. Having accomplished one victory, Carpenter was not slow in turning to his next attack. Tapping a bell for his man, he dispatched the notes. The following day was destined to be of some little importance to him. The remainder of the evening he spent in anticipation.
The following afternoon Carpenter, clear skinned, ruddy, scrupulously dressed, was ushered into the presence of Miss Whitely. If the greeting was not as warm as his imagination had painted, he did not in any way allowed himself to be perturbed. A cold or distant manner usually failed of any appreciable effect on Carpenter. It was actions he dealt with, and only actions were recognized by him as being worthy of any careful attention. Some little time was spent in chat on general subjects, then very adroitly he led and coaxed the conversation around to a point where he could begin the plan of campaign he had laid down for himself.
“My dear Miss Whitely,” he began, “I am about to speak upon a subject which I trust will not prove entirely unexpected or disagreeable to you. You can hardly be unprepared for something of the sort. In short, I wish to make you a proposal of marriage. In family connections I think I am worthy the honor of your hand. In business I have been successful perhaps beyond the standard of most men. I beg that you will not keep me longer than necessary in suspense.”
Miss Whitely had risen at Carpenter's first words and stood listening with averted face and a rather curious expression in her eyes. Once she seemed about to interrupt him, but changing her mind, let him speak on to the end. “Mr. Carpenter" Her voice was so low and unsteady that Carpenter looked up in surprise.
“Mr. Carpenter, you will pardon me, I know, if I refer to another matter for a minute before answering you. This morning I heard something which I know you will deny. It is foolish perhaps for me to speak of it at all. Mr. Carpenter, you and Mr. Barret are old friends-school friends. You aren't going to push him to the wall? I know it's false--that you couldn't do anything so unworthy of you, but say it's not true. Say it. Say it."
Carpenter's face was a study. At first his whole countenance revealed his absolute surprise, but quickly remembering himself, he regained his composure, and there flitted across his features the subtle, crafty expression of the man of business.
“Miss Whitely,” he answered, “I beg of you do not let business intrude itself into the relations between
Believe me, you could not easily understand this matter. It is purely a question of give and take, into which I cannot allow any feeling of sentiment to enter."
Whether Carpenter's answer was pleasing to Miss Whitely or not could not have been determined from her face. Her answer at least was quick and decided.
“Mr. Carpenter, I could never marry a man who would act as I find it necessary to believe you are about to act. I must beg of you to excuse me from any fur. ther discussion of this matter. Unless you find it possible to change your mind, I shall be unable to receive you again. Good afternoon.”
Carpenter stared blankly at the door through which she had disappeared, then passed out of the house like a man in a daze.
The rest of the afternoon he passed in uncertainty and hesitation. His ambition, his love of power, that instinct of the hunter which will not let him stop short of actual possession of his game, no matter by
what hardships obtained, held him to his original intention of squeezing Barret to the last dollar. His love, for he was honestly in love so far as it was possible for a man of his nature to feel that passion, inclined him toward the side of leniency. Ordinarily a man of quick decision, with a supreme contempt for vacillation, this hesitancy of mind wore upon him. Yet in the end his love, sweeping away all barriers, won the day. The thought of Miss Whitely and all the charms with which his memory pictured her, combined with the hope of being restored to her favor, inclined him to do what no other thing would have made him do. He kept his appointment with Barret, fully resolved to allow him to cover his short shares at the original selling price.
Barret was evidently prepared for the worst. He bore himself with the self-poise of a man who has nothing more to lose, who knows his fate is sealed, but intends to make the best of it.
Carpenter opened the interview without any preliminaries. “Now, Mr. Barret,” he began somewhat weakly, “I don't doubt but that we can fix this matter up somehow. I don't want to do anything hasty. Let's talk the matter over."
Barret's lips curled in a rather cynical smile.
“Oh, come, come Carpenter. Don't play the fisherman. You've got me hooked fast enough. Pull me in. Don't play me any. It's a waste of time.”
“No, no, Barret, you don't understand me. I don't want to push you hard in this matter. I'm going to do the fair thing by you—"
Carpenter stopped somewhat abruptly, as if uncertain what the “fair thing” might be. There was the gleam of the hunted animal in Barret's eyes, of the man with his back to the wall who asks no quarter.
“I am sure Mr. Carpenter's reputation"
The words slipped smoothly with an ironic pleasantry from his lips.