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Title: For Once in a Way Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1000761h.html Language: English Date first posted: November 2010 Date most recently updated: November 2010 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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"The ideal Christmas we have waited for so long is going to be ours at last, Hilda," Loftus said. "We have waited for it long enough, goodness knows."
But Hilda Loftus merely sighed.
The dainty mechanism purred, like a thing of life, much as if the click of the switch had stirred up a hive of bees. Quivering steel and whirling brass fitted in together, dazzlingly swift like the flight of a cloud of fireflies. There was no noise beyond the steady hum and the prick, prick, of the shining needles. The whole machine was little longer than a cigar box, and not very much heavier, yet there was fame and fortune in it, as Hugh Loftus very well knew. He was speaking quietly into a tiny brass receiver above the clouded fireflies, and as the words fell from his lips, behold they were faithfully recorded by the gyrating needles. The miracle had been accomplished, and behold, the first mechanical stenographer stood confessed; Hilda should be happy this Christmas or the whole scheme of creation was wrong.
The vocagraph would go down to posterity with the phonograph and wireless. They had both been held impossible in their conception, but they were both born all the same. The suggestion of breathing a word into steel and brass and stamping those words faithfully on paper had been the dream of a madman, and yet the dream had been accomplished, aye, and in a cheap commercial form, too. The vocagraph could be 'placed on the market'--that was what Marshall Clint said--at fifteen pounds, and at that figure give the investor an almost fabulous fortune.
The thing was absolutely complete, it worked smoothly and without a hitch. Loftus had tested it in a hundred ways. He had actually discovered a new force, a brand new secret in dynamics. For three years he had devoted his whole time to it. He had disposed of everything he possessed, stripped himself of house and home, of pleasure and luxury, almost of the necessities of life. He had grown grey at the temples and hollow under the eyes. He was almost boyishly grateful when some chance acquaintance offered him a cigarette. How long was it since he had last played a game of gold? He loved the field and the flood, the gun and the rod and the oar. Some day, please heaven, he would have his own place in the country, and grow roses again. There were times when he ached for the fields and the sunshine and the smell of the good red earth.
And he was not far on the wrong side of 40, and this was his third invention. He did not care to think of the other two and the way he had been robbed of them. Alcott drove a Rolls Royce now, and Pearson had just purchased a villa at Nice. Loftus had nothing. And, unless fortune was on his side, he would get nothing out of this.
Circumstances had forced him to go to Clint. A man he had met in the city had put him on to Clint. Nobody would listen to a man who declared that he had invented a machine capable of recording the human voice on paper. He must be either a knave or a fool. He was dreadfully shabby, too. Down at the heel, failure in every threadbare seam and ragged edge. Besides, his machine, together with its tools and spare parts, had been taken under an execution, and despair had him by the throat. Unless he could raise some money he would have to start over again--on something fresh. He entered Clint's' office, bankrupt in hope and credit, and manhood almost, too.
He came out of Copthall Avenue with a cheque for a thousand pounds in his pocket. He did not know that Clint had made money out of his other ventures. He did not know that Clint was fond of a gamble in patents, he did not know that Clint was accustomed to make or lose a thousand pounds without turning a hair. He did not know exactly what he had signed except that it was something to the effect that unless the thousand pounds be paid in six months everything reverted to the lender. Clint's tame lawyer had drawn up the paper ... What did it matter? If the money was repaid, then Clint and the inventor shared the proceeds between them equally.
Six months! Pooh! Long before then the world would be talking about the vocagraph. And now somehow the six months was nearly up, and by the end of the week--Longstaff had warned Loftus what would happen if the money was not repaid. Clint would grab the lot; that queer twisted, humorous mouth of his would smile, but there would be no money, no extension of time. Longstaff was a good chap, and he had promised to find the money by Saturday provided that Loftus would agree to leave things in his hands and go nowhere else. Two days more and then--Freedom.
Hilda Loftus wished that she could share this rosy view. She was only 24, and very much in love with this simple-hearted, handsome dreamer of hers, but the strain of the last three years had been hard, and besides, she was a struggling author, and the gift of insight was hers. She disliked Longstaff; she did not trust him. And, she had made a discovery the day before that filled her with uneasiness. There was a cloud on her pretty face, a shadow on the grey eyes as she stood watching the machine at work.
"It's wonderful, dearest," she said. "All our troubles should be over by now."
Loftus laughed as he tossed back his black hair with the grey in it.
"Why do you say should, like that?" he asked. "Our fortune is made. We'll take that place at Hindhead and the cottage on the coast near Sandwich. And I'll play golf every day this summer. We'll have a car and go touring round. You wait till Saturday. By that time Longstaff will have found me the money, and I shall be free from old Clint."
"He's not old--not more than 50, anyway."
"Isn't he? Well, he might be a hundred by the look of him. And what a life. He works so hard that he can't eat anything--beyond his dinner he does not know what it is to get a meal. And he suffers from insomnia. Longstaff says he is worth two millions. And if he had twice as much he would be just as keen for more. A form of disease I call it."
Hilda nodded thoughtfully. She had seen Clint, who had once called to look at the mechanism. A big, powerful man, with broody, faraway eyes, and a queer, twisted mouth with just a suggestion of cruel humour about it. With his bent shoulders and head thrust forward he looked like some bloated spider holding on to the threads of his web. He had said nothing, had expressed no opinion of any kind. A hard man, Hilda thought, surely there was no tender spot in Clint. Hilda heard something as regarded that some weeks later.
It was another accident that made her acquainted with Marshall Clint's mother. Hilda did a little odd journalism when fortune came her way, and Mrs. Clint came into the sphere of operations. But this Hilda had kept to herself--it was plainly her duty not to paint Clint in anything but dark colours. And the fateful Saturday in December was getting too close.
"Why are you so sure Mr. Longstaff will come to the rescue?" she asked.
"My dear girl, he benefits to a great extent. Besides, he hates Clint. He'd do anything, even lose money, to spite that chap. The money will come along to-morrow, you'll see. We'll buy the motor."
"Yes, we shall see," Hilda said thoughtfully. "Isn't it possible that Longstaff and Clint are working together? May it not be the fact that Longstaff has been put on to keep you from going somewhere else, and that you may find yourself let down at that last moment when it will be too late."
"Oh, you women. Those chaps hate one another. They don't speak."
"Don't they? Well, as you know, Mr. Clint lives in Seymour-street, No. 55. The night before last I was passing there, and the door stood open. In the hall was Mr. Clint. He was just seeing a man out. I heard him say he had no time to spare. He was going to dine and the next hour or two was sacred to him. And the man who was in the hall was John Longstaff. They shook hands at parting in quite a friendly manner."
"Hilda! Why did you not tell me this before?"
"Oh, I should have told you. Only--only you are so trustful, and I hoped for the best. Besides, Longstaff promised faithfully that you should have the money next day. Again, I had a little scheme of my own--something that I hope to make a short story of later on. Oh, it is quite clear to me those men are working together. You are to be fooled until it is too late for you to go anywhere else. If you could pay Mr. Clint the 1000 pounds, you would have a few days in which to turn round. And I have spoken about the invention to the proprietor of the Forum. He is in Paris till next Wednesday, but he told me that he would gladly find money for you if the vocagraph did work properly; he said any one would."
"Wednesday will be too late," Loftus said gloomily.
"Oh, I quite see that, Hugh. We must do something between now and Saturday--only to-morrow remains. And there is my little scheme to be tried first."
"No, to-night. Stay here and go on with that little experiment of yours. I am going out, and I am going, if necessary, to spend a whole sovereign, about the last I have in the world. It is now seven o'clock. At eight I shall be dining in solitary state in a certain exclusive restaurant in the West End. Oh, you need not worry about me, I shall be perfectly safe. An old newspaper hand like myself is safe anywhere. No, I shall not answer any questions, Hugh."
Loftus shrugged his shoulders. His faith in his wife was childlike. He merely raised his eyebrows as she came into the room presently, dressed for going out. She wore a simple dress of some clinging black material, her neck and arms gleamed like old ivory against the dusky lace. There was a rose in her golden hair. Her eyes were shining with suppressed excrement.
"Do I look well?" she asked. "Are you pleased with me, Hugh?"
Loftus caught her in his arms and kissed her. She had been everything to him for the last three years. He pictured her in the cottage, with the roses climbing over it, he saw her framed in Crimson Ramblers. He would not spoil everything by asking her to explain.
"You are lovely," he said. "So long as I have you the rest matters nothing. You will come back with your pocket full of gold. I feel that the invention is safe."
Hilda laughed as she freed herself from his close embrace.
"You are spoiling my chevelure," she said. "We shall see what we shall see. Now call me a taxi. The ship must not be spoilt for a haporth of tar."
Hilda smiled to herself as the well trained waiter removed her wrap. She wondered if he had any inkling of the true state of things, of the solitary gold coin in her pocket, the fact that she had subsisted on tea and bread and butter for days. The well-ordered glare, the yellow flicker of the electrics dazzled her, the smell of flowers oppressed her senses. Blue and gold and crimson whirled before her eyes. And out of the shimmering haze presently a pleasant refined picture began to focus itself. Here were fair women and brave men, a frothy sea of silk and chiffon, and with it no suggestion of care or anxiety or suffering anywhere.
"I am looking for Mr. Clint," she said.
The waiter was, if possible, a shade more humble in his manner. Mr. Clint had not yet arrived, but was expected at any moment. That was his table by the angle of the wall. Mr. Clint had given no orders for a second cover, indeed the insinuation was that the millionaire invariably dined alone a la carte. If madame would come this way----
Hilda took her seat and dismissed the waiter. Her courage was coming back to her now. She was getting accustomed to the glittering picture; the facets of the diamonds no longer blinded and bewildered her. She was conscious presently that Clint was standing close by regarding her with frank annoyance. There was a moody look in his eyes, his hard mouth was straight and stern. He glanced towards the distant waiter.
"Do please sit down, Mr. Clint," Hilda said steadily. "I am quite aware of the fact that I am occupying the table reserved for you. I had a fancy to dine here to-night."
"Indeed," said Clint coldly. "And why not?"
"Why not indeed? Do please sit down. I shall be able to make my confession sound more sensible to you if you will do so. I came to dine with you."
"Really! Ladies as a rule are not--you understand? As your host----"
"Oh, dear, I did not mean that at all," Hilda smiled. "I am paying for my own dinner, if you don't mind. I hardly know how to explain. As I came along it seemed quite easy and now it strikes me as foolish and extravagant. Especially as I understand that this, is your sacred hour when nobody but a woman----"
"You are quite right," Clint said grimly. "Nobody but a woman would."
"But a woman is always allowed to be illogical, Mr. Clint. And I don't think you will find her quite illogical when she comes to explain."
Clint looked at his vis-a-vis for the first time. It struck him with the force of a new truth that she was exceedingly pretty. The clear depths of those grey eyes reminded him of--pah--foolishness. He had not given a thought to--what was her name?--for years. And the pleading look in those eyes, the pathetic half-frightened droop of her mouth. She was horribly afraid of him, too. She had come here begging, of course. Women always were rapacious creatures. Improvident, too. Probably spending her last sovereign----
"I am," Hilda declared. "You are quite correct."
"You are what?" questioned Clint.
"Here in company with the last few shillings I have in the world. And I don't regret it. If the worst comes to the worst, there is a short story here."
"My dear madame, you are my guest," Clint retorted. "You must be. This is my table; I pay a subsidy for it. Besides, what would the waiter think if you asked for your bill? A little soup? A mouthful of fish and a bird of some kind? Champagne. No? You are quite wise to choose claret. Now talk to me. Let me hear you chatter like all the other women are doing. Ask me a lot of questions. It will he a treat, a new sensation to me."
Hilda laughed gaily enough. But it was not until the coffee was on the table and Clint had asked permission to smoke that she spoke in earnest. The grey eyes had grown serious, the little mouth was set firm.
"Mr. Clint," she said. "How much money would satisfy the average man?"
"All he could get and just a little more," Clint smiled. "It is that little more that keeps the wheels of commerce working. We all want that little more. I do. The ambition of to-day is merely the policy of to-morrow."
"You mean to say you are never satisfied?"
"Well, yes. You may take it for granted that I never am satisfied. I expect you rather despise me for that remark?"
"I do. It is deplorable. I mean this loving to pile up money. Now, I'll ask you another question. Have you ever been in love, Mr. Clint?"
Clint's eyes flashed angrily. His brow knotted in a heavy frown.
"Are you not going too far?" he demanded.
"Of course I am. I came here for that purpose. And you have answered my question, although you did not mean to do so. And I am in love--deeply in love--with my own husband. Nobody but myself knows the depths of his gentle, generous, confiding nature. Why do I tell of the struggles and privation of the past three years? I watch him growing older and greyer. I can see his dream of peace and comfort in some pleasant country house fading away day by day. A little time back that dream looked like becoming a reality. Unless a miracle happens he is a ruined beggar before many hours have gone."
"As a matter of business," Clint began. "As a legal transaction----"
"Please let me finish. We owe you money. If that money is not repaid by Christmas Eve starvation stands before us. My husband's great invention passes into your hands. May I ask what you propose to do with it?"
"Sell it, I presume," Clint said sourly.
"Why, to make money, to be sure. Make a good fortune if you like. If you think that by coming whining to me----"
"I beg your pardon, sir; I am not whining. I am seeking your information. You have twice as much as need be, ten times as much as you can ever spend. You have practically nobody to care for you but your mother. I have met your mother--a dear, kind-hearted honourable old lady, who is intensely proud of you and your career. In her eyes you are the most honourable and upright man in the world. She regards you as being as charitable and generous as herself, and she is beloved by all who know her. What would she say if she knew that you were nothing more than a cold, callous money-grubber--the Man with the Muckrake that Bunyan speaks of in 'The Pilgrim's Progress'? What would she say if she knew that you had deliberately conspired to rob my poor boy of the fruits of his brain? Oh, you like to stand well in the eyes of your mother."
"You would tell her this?" Clint demanded hoarsely. "You would blackmail----"
"Mr. Clint," Hilda cried, "with all your money and power you are a pitiable creature. If it were to save my husband from ruin to-morrow, if it were to give us the fortune you are taking off our hands, I would not tell the good woman who bore you the truth. What is it you want? What do you gain by robbing us? The money makes you no happier. You are not a happy man in any case; your face speaks of sullen discontent, and yet you would stoop to deceit, you would make a tool of John Longstaff, who has tricked and fooled my husband into the belief that ample capital is coming in time to save us. Mr. Longstaff professes to hate you, and declares that he will help us if only to spite you. You two are supposed to be at daggers drawn. Yet he visits you secretly, for I have seen him coming from the house. I have seen you part in the most friendly fashion. Saturday will come, and with it Mr. Longstaff, professing to be in the depths of despair over his failure to get the money. My husband's invention is yours. And when you next go and see your mother, and she looks so fondly and lovingly into your eyes, you will remember that you are but a false idol, and that you have been guilty of a foul and dishonourable action, and that you have deliberately robbed an honest man who trusted you through your paid tool. Oh, why do you do it, why do you want this money? Tell me what qualities go with the making of a millionaire of your class and creed. Is it a disease like drinking drugs that has you?"
"Nobody has ever dared to talk to me like this before," Clint said. "If I deny it----"
"Deny what you please. But I know what I know. I have quite finished. Will you ask the waiter to call a cab for me."
Hilda rose to her feet, but Clint detained her.
"Just a moment," he said. "Are there many women in the world like you?"
"Thousands. And prepared to act like me when their homes and happiness are threatened."
"I did not know it," Clint said quietly. "I did not know it, Mrs. Loftus. There was a woman once, and she--well, she didn't behave like you. And that is the history of my life in ten words. Do you know that you have displayed marvellous courage to-night."
"The courage of despair. And to no purpose, as I knew before I started."
Clint's face flushed, but his eyes no longer gleamed angrily. He looked almost human.
"There you are wrong," he said. "Let me show you that for once in a way--you know what I mean. Now here is a cheque for a thousand pounds that came to me just as I was coming out. I slipped it into my pocket. I am going to endorse this and hand it over to you, and on Saturday you can come to the office and repay your husband's loan. If he knew of this----"
"Allow me to remark that he has not the slightest idea----"
"I beg your pardon," Clint said. "I ought not to have said that, but it is not an easy matter to get out of the habits of a lifetime all at once. But I am going to try and justify the belief that one woman has in me--I am speaking of my mother. I need not say anything about her to you, because you know. Now, supposing that you and your husband join our Christmas dinner tomorrow. You need not hesitate, because I know my mother will be pleased. You see, she still regards me more or less as a successful boy, and it is a source of trouble to her that I have no friends to look after me when she is gone. I want you to help me to show her that she is mistaken. I want you to try and realise that one woman has not spoilt my life entirely. Now say you will come with your husband at 6 o'clock to-morrow night. Tell him that you have made a mistake in old Clint, and remind him that once upon a time, years ago, 'The Christmas Carol' was a favourite story of mine. Tell him that Ebenezer Scrooge is a reformed character, and that between us we will make your husband's invention famous to all the world. I am not going to take any refusal, please understand that."
"We will come, with pleasure," Hilda said. "And now I'd like to get home and tell my husband what a wonderful thing has happened."
It was just striking 12 as Hilda got into the house. One look at her face was sufficient for Loftus.
"What have you done?" he asked.
"I have found Ebenezer Scrooge," Hilda said unsteadily, "and we are going to dine with him to-morrow."
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