These are the directions for finding the office of Carteret & Carteret, Mill Supplies and Leather Belting:
You follow the Broadway trail down until you pass the Crosstown Line, the Bread Line, and the Dead Line, and come to the Big Cañons of the Moneygrubber Tribe. Then you turn to the left, to the right, dodge a push-cart and the tongue of a two-ton four-horse dray and hop, skip, and jump to a granite ledge on the side of a twenty-one-story synthetic mountain of stone and iron. In the twelfth story is the office of Carteret & Carteret. The factory where they make the mill supplies and leather belting is in Brooklyn. Those commodities—to say nothing of Brooklyn—not being of interest to you, let us hold the incidents within the confines of a one-act, one-scene play, thereby lessening the toil of the reader and the expenditure of the publisher. So, if you have the courage to face four pages of type and Carteret & Carteret’s office boy, Percival, you shall sit on a varnished chair in the inner office and peep at the little comedy of the Old Nigger Man, the Hunting-Case Watch, and the Open-Faced Question—mostly borrowed from the late Mr. Frank Stockton, as you will conclude.
First, biography (but pared to the quick) must intervene. I am for the inverted sugar-coated quinine pill—the bitter on the outside.
The Carterets were, or was (Columbia College professors please rule), an old Virginia family. Long time ago the gentlemen of the family had worn lace ruffles and carried tinless foils and owned plantations and had slaves to burn. But the war had greatly reduced their holdings. (Of course you can perceive at once that this flavor has been shoplifted from Mr. F. Hopkinson Smith, in spite of the “et” after “Carter.”) Well, anyhow:
In digging up the Carteret history I shall not take you farther back than the year 1620. The two original American Carterets came over in that year, but by different means of transportation. One brother, named John, came in the Mayflower and became a Pilgrim Father. You’ve seen his picture on the covers of the Thanksgiving magazines, hunting turkeys in the deep snow with a blunderbuss. Blandford Carteret, the other brother, crossed the pond in his own brigantine, landed on the Virginia coast, and became an F. F. V. John became distinguished for piety and shrewdness in business; Blandford for his pride, juleps; marksmanship, and vast slave-cultivated plantations.
Then came the Civil War. (I must condense this historical interpolation.) Stonewall Jackson was shot; Lee surrendered; Grant toured the world; cotton went to nine cents; Old Crow whiskey and Jim Crow cars were invented; the Seventy-ninth Massachusetts Volunteers returned to the Ninety-seventh Alabama Zouaves the battle flag of Lundy’s Lane which they bought at a second-hand store in Chelsea, kept by a man named Skzchnzski; Georgia sent the President a sixty-pound watermelon—and that brings us up to the time when the story begins. My! but that was sparring for an opening! I really must brush op on my Aristotle.
The Yankee Carterets went into business in New York long before the war. Their house, as far as Leather Belting and Mill Supplies was concerned, was as musty and arrogant and solid as one of those old East India tea-importing concerns that you read about in Dickens. There were some rumors of a war behind its counters, but not enough to affect the business.
During and after the war, Blandford Carteret, F.F.V., lost his plantations, juleps, marksmanship, and life. He bequeathed little more than his pride to his surviving family. So it came to pass that Blandford Carteret, the Fifth, aged fifteen, was invited by the leather-and-mill-supplies branch of that name to come North and learn business instead of hunting foxes and boasting of the glory of his fathers on the reduced acres of his impoverished family. The boy jumped at the chance; and, at the age of twenty-five, sat in the office of the firm equal partner with John, the Fifth, of the blunderbuss-and-turkey branch. Here the story begins again.
The young men were about the same age, smooth of face, alert, easy of manner, and with an air that promised mental and physical quickness. They were razored, blue-serged, straw-hatted, and pearl stick-pinned like other young New Yorkers who might be millionaires or bill clerks.
One afternoon at four o’clock, in the private office of the firm, Blandford Carteret opened a letter that a clerk had just brought to his desk. After reading it, he chuckled audibly for nearly a minute. John looked around from his desk inquiringly.
“It’s from mother,” said Blandford. “I’ll read you the funny part of it. She tells me all the neighborhood news first, of course, and then cautions me against getting my feet wet and musical comedies. After that come vital statistics about calves and pigs and an estimate of the wheat crop. And now I’ll quote some:
“‘And what do you think! Old Uncle Jake, who was seventy-six last Wednesday, must go travelling. Nothing would do but he must go to New York and see his “young Marster Blandford.” Old as he is, he has a deal of common sense, so I’ve let him go. I couldn’t refuse him—he seemed to have concentrated all his hopes and desires into this one adventure into the wide world. You know he was born on the plantation, and has never been ten miles away from it in his life. And he was your father’s body servant during the war, and has been always a faithful vassal and servant of the family. He has often seen the gold watch—the watch that was your father’s and your father’s father’s. I told him it was to be yours, And he begged me to allow him to take it to you and to put it into your hands himself.
“‘So he has it, carefully enclosed in a buck-skin case, and is bringing it to you with all the pride and importance of a king’s messenger. I gave him money for the round trip and for a two weeks’ stay in the city. I wish you would see to it that he gets comfortable quarters—Jake won’t need much looking after—he’s able to take care of himself. But I have read in the papers that African bishops and colored potentates generally have much trouble in obtaining food and lodging in the Yankee metropolis. That may be all right; but I don’t see why the best hotel there shouldn’t take Jake in. Still, I suppose it’s a rule.
“‘I gave him full directions about finding you, and packed his valise myself. You won’t have to bother with him; but I do hope you’ll see that he is made comfortable. Take the watch that he brings you—it’s almost a decoration. It has been worn by true Carterets, and there isn’t a stain upon it nor a false movement of the wheels. Bringing it to you is the crowning joy of old Jake’s life. I wanted him to have that little outing and that happiness before it is too late. You have often heard us talk about how Jake, pretty badly wounded himself, crawled through the reddened grass at Chancellorsville to where your father lay with the bullet in his dear heart, and took the watch from his pocket to keep it from the “Yanks.”
“‘So, my son, when the old man comes consider him as a frail but worthy messenger from the old-time life and home.
“‘You have been so long away from home and so long among the people that we have always regarded as aliens that I’m not sure that Jake will know you when he sees you. But Jake has a keen perception, and I rather believe that he will know a Virginia Carteret at sight. I can’t conceive that even ten years in Yankee-land could change a boy of mine. Anyhow, I’m sure you will know Jake. I put eighteen collars in his valise. If he should have to buy others, he wears a number 15½. Please see that he gets the right ones. He will be no trouble to you at all.
“‘If you are not too busy, I’d like for you to find him a place to board where they have white-meal corn-bread, and try to keep him from taking his shoes off in your office or on the street. His right foot swells a little, and he likes to be comfortable.
“‘If you can spare the time, count his handkerchiefs when they come back from the wash. I bought him a dozen new ones before he left. He should be there about the time this letter reaches you. I told him to go straight to your office when he arrives.’”
As soon as Blandford had finished the reading of this, something happened (as there should happen in stories and must happen on the stage).
Percival, the office boy, with his air of despising the world’s output of mill supplies and leather belting, came in to announce that a colored gentleman was outside to see Mr. Blandford Carteret.
“Bring him in,” said Blandford, rising.
John Carteret swung around in his chair and said to Percival: “Ask him to wait a few minutes outside. We’ll let you know when to bring him in.”
Then he turned to his cousin with one of those broad, slow smiles that was an inheritance of all the Carterets, and said:
“Bland, I’ve always had a consuming curiosity to understand the differences that you haughty Southerners believe to exist between ‘you all’ and the people of the North. Of course, I know that you consider yourselves made out of finer clay and look upon Adam as only a collateral branch of your ancestry; but I don’t know why. I never could understand the differences between us.”
“Well, John,” said Blandford, laughing, “what you don’t understand about it is just the difference, of course. I suppose it was the feudal way in which we lived that gave us our lordly baronial airs and feeling of superiority.”
“But you are not feudal, now,” went on John. “Since we licked you and stole your cotton and mules you’ve had to go to work just as we ‘damyankees,’ as you call us, have always been doing. And you’re just as proud and exclusive and upper-classy as you were before the war. So it wasn’t your money that caused it.”
“Maybe it was the climate,” said Blandford, lightly, “or maybe our negroes spoiled us. I’ll call old Jake in, now. I’ll be glad to see the old villain again.”
“Wait just a moment,” said John. “I’ve got a little theory I want to test. You and I are pretty much alike in our general appearance. Old Jake hasn’t seen you since you were fifteen. Let’s have him in and play fair and see which of us gets the watch. The old darky surely ought to be able to pick out his ‘young marster’ without any trouble. The alleged aristocratic superiority of a ‘reb’ ought to be visible to him at once. He couldn’t make the mistake of handing over the timepiece to a Yankee, of course. The loser buys the dinner this evening and two dozen 15½ collars for Jake. Is it a go?”
Blandford agreed heartily. Percival was summoned, and told to usher the “colored gentleman” in.
Uncle Jake stepped inside the private office cautiously. He was a little old man, as black as soot, wrinkled and bald except for a fringe of white wool, cut decorously short, that ran over his ears and around his head. There was nothing of the stage “uncle” about him: his black suit nearly fitted him; his shoes shone, and his straw hat was banded with a gaudy ribbon. In his right hand he carried something carefully concealed by his closed fingers.
Uncle Jake stopped a few steps from the door. Two young men sat in their revolving desk-chairs ten feet apart and looked at him in friendly silence. His gaze slowly shifted many times from one to the other. He felt sure that he was in the presence of one, at least, of the revered family among whose fortunes his life had begun and was to end.
One had the pleasing but haughty Carteret air; the other had the unmistakable straight, long family nose. Both had the keen black eyes, horizontal brows, and thin, smiling lips that had distinguished both the Carteret of the Mayflower and him of the brigantine. Old Jake had thought that he could have picked out his young master instantly from a thousand Northerners; but he found himself in difficulties. The best he could do was to use strategy.
“Howdy, Marse Blandford—howdy, suh?” he said, looking midway between the two young men.
“Howdy, Uncle Jake?” they both answered pleasantly and in unison. “Sit down. Have you brought the watch?”
Uncle Jake chose a hard-bottom chair at a respectful distance, sat on the edge of it, and laid his hat carefully on the floor. The watch in its buckskin case he gripped tightly. He had not risked his life on the battle-field to rescue that watch from his “old marster’s” foes to hand it over again to the enemy without a struggle.
“Yes, suh; I got it in my hand, suh. I’m gwine give it to you right away in jus’ a minute. Old Missus told me to put it in young Marse Blandford’s hand and tell him to wear it for the family pride and honor. It was a mighty longsome trip for an old nigger man to make—ten thousand miles, it must be, back to old Vi’ginia, suh. You’ve growed mightily, young marster. I wouldn’t have reconnized you but for yo’ powerful resemblance to old marster.”
With admirable diplomacy the old man kept his eyes roaming in the space between the two men. His words might have been addressed to either. Though neither wicked nor perverse, he was seeking for a sign.
Blandford and John exchanged winks.
“I reckon you done got you ma’s letter,” went on Uncle Jake. “She said she was gwine to write to you ’bout my comin’ along up this er-way.
“Yes, yes, Uncle Jake,” said John briskly. “My cousin and I have just been notified to expect you. We are both Carterets, you know.”
“Although one of us,” said Blandford, “was born and raised in the North.”
“So if you will hand over the watch—” said John.
“My cousin and I—” said Blandford.
“Will then see to it—” said John.
“That comfortable quarters are found for you,” said Blandford.
With creditable ingenuity, old Jake set up a cackling, high-pitched, protracted laugh. He beat his knee, picked up his hat and bent the brim in an apparent paroxysm of humorous appreciation. The seizure afforded him a mask behind which he could roll his eyes impartially between, above, and beyond his two tormentors.
“I sees what!” he chuckled, after a while. “You gen’lemen is tryin’ to have fun with the po’ old nigger. But you can’t fool old Jake. I knowed you, Marse Blandford, the minute I sot eyes on you. You was a po’ skimpy little boy no mo’ than about fo’teen when you lef’ home to come No’th; but I knowed you the minute I sot eyes on you. You is the mawtal image of old marster. The other gen’leman resembles you mightily, suh; but you can’t fool old Jake on a member of the old Vi’ginia family. No suh.”
At exactly the same time both Carterets smiled and extended a hand for the watch.
Uncle Jake’s wrinkled, black face lost the expression of amusement to which he had vainly twisted it. He knew that he was being teased, and that it made little real difference, as far as its safety went, into which of those outstretched hands he placed the family treasure. But it seemed to him that not only his own pride and loyalty but much of the Virginia Carterets’ was at stake. He had heard down South during the war about that other branch of the family that lived in the North and fought on “the yuther side,” and it had always grieved him. He had followed his “old marster’s” fortunes from stately luxury through war to almost poverty. And now, with the last relic and reminder of him, blessed by “old missus,” and intrusted implicitly to his care, he had come ten thousand miles (as it seemed) to deliver it into the hands of the one who was to wear it and wind it and cherish it and listen to it tick off the unsullied hours that marked the lives of the Carterets—of Virginia.
His experience and conception of the Yankees had been an impression of tyrants—”low-down, common trash”—in blue, laying waste with fire and sword. He had seen the smoke of many burning homesteads almost as grand as Carteret Hall ascending to the drowsy Southern skies. And now he was face to face with one of them—and he could not distinguish him from his “young marster” whom he had come to find and bestow upon him the emblem of his kingship—even as the arm “clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful” laid Excalibur in the right hand of Arthur. He saw before him two young men, easy, kind, courteous, welcoming, either of whom might have been the one he sought. Troubled, bewildered, sorely grieved at his weakness of judgment, old Jake abandoned his loyal subterfuges. His right hand sweated against the buckskin cover of the watch. He was deeply humiliated and chastened. Seriously, now, his prominent, yellow-white eyes closely scanned the two young men. At the end of his scrutiny he was conscious of but one difference between them. One wore a narrow black tie with a white pearl stickpin. The other’s “four-in-hand” was a narrow blue one pinned with a black pearl.
And then, to old Jake’s relief, there came a sudden distraction. Drama knocked at the door with imperious knuckles, and forced Comedy to the wings, and Drama peeped with a smiling but set face over the footlights.
Percival, the hater of mill supplies, brought in a card, which he handed, with the manner of one bearing a cartel, to Blue-Tie.
“Olivia De Ormond,” read Blue-Tie from the card. He looked inquiringly at his cousin.
“Why not have her in,” said Black-Tie, “and bring matters to a conclusion?”
“Uncle Jake,” said one of the young men, “would you mind taking that chair over there in the corner for a while? A lady is coming in—on some business. We’ll take up your case afterward.”
The lady whom Percival ushered in was young and petulantly, decidedly, freshly, consciously, and intentionally pretty. She was dressed with such expensive plainness that she made you consider lace and ruffles as mere tatters and rags. But one great ostrich plume that she wore would have marked her anywhere in the army of beauty as the wearer of the merry helmet of Navarre.
Miss De Ormond accepted the swivel chair at Blue-Tie’s desk. Then the gentlemen drew leather-upholstered seats conveniently near, and spoke of the weather.
“Yes,” said she, “I noticed it was warmer. But I mustn’t take up too much of your time during business hours. That is,” she continued, “unless we talk business.”
She addressed her words to Blue-Tie, with a charming smile.
“Very well,” said he. “You don’t mind my cousin being present, do you? We are generally rather confidential with each other—especially in business matters.”
“Oh no,” caroled Miss De Ormond. “I’d rather he did hear. He knows all about it, anyhow. In fact, he’s quite a material witness because he was present when you—when it happened. I thought you might want to talk things over before—well, before any action is taken, as I believe the lawyers say.”
“Have you anything in the way of a proposition to make?” asked Black-Tie.
Miss De Ormond looked reflectively at the neat toe of one of her dull kid-pumps.
“I had a proposal made to me,” she said. “If the proposal sticks it cuts out the proposition. Let’s have that settled first.”
“Well, as far as—” began Blue-Tie.
“Excuse me, cousin,” interrupted Black-Tie, “if you don’t mind my cutting in.” And then he turned, with a good-natured air, toward the lady.
“Now, let’s recapitulate a bit,” he said cheerfully. “All three of us, besides other mutual acquaintances, have been out on a good many larks together.”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to call the birds by another name,” said Miss De Ormond.
“All right,” responded Black-Tie, with unimpaired cheerfulness; “suppose we say ‘squabs’ when we talk about the ‘proposal’ and ‘larks’ when we discuss the ‘proposition.’ You have a quick mind, Miss De Ormond. Two months ago some half-dozen of us went in a motor-car for a day’s run into the country. We stopped at a road-house for dinner. My cousin proposed marriage to you then and there. He was influenced to do so, of course, by the beauty and charm which no one can deny that you possess.”
“I wish I had you for a press agent, Mr. Carteret,” said the beauty, with a dazzling smile.
“You are on the stage, Miss De Ormond,” went on Black-Tie. “You have had, doubtless, many admirers, and perhaps other proposals. You must remember, too, that we were a party of merrymakers on that occasion. There were a good many corks pulled. That the proposal of marriage was made to you by my cousin we cannot deny. But hasn’t it been your experience that, by common consent, such things lose their seriousness when viewed in the next day’s sunlight? Isn’t there something of a ‘code’ among good ‘sports’—I use the word in its best sense—that wipes out each day the follies of the evening previous?”
“Oh yes,” said Miss De Ormond. “I know that very well. And I’ve always played up to it. But as you seem to be conducting the case—with the silent consent of the defendant—I’ll tell you something more. I’ve got letters from him repeating the proposal. And they’re signed, too.”
“I understand,” said Black-Tie gravely. “What’s your price for the letters?”
“I’m not a cheap one,” said Miss De Ormond. “But I had decided to make you a rate. You both belong to a swell family. Well, if I am on the stage nobody can say a word against me truthfully. And the money is only a secondary consideration. It isn’t the money I was after. I—I believed him—and—and I liked him.”
She cast a soft, entrancing glance at Blue-Tie from under her long eyelashes.
“And the price?” went on Black-Tie, inexorably.
“Ten thousand dollars,” said the lady, sweetly.
“Or the fulfillment of the engagement to marry.”
“I think it is time,” interrupted Blue-Tie, “for me to be allowed to say a word or two. You and I, cousin, belong to a family that has held its head pretty high. You have been brought up in a section of the country very different from the one where our branch of the family lived. Yet both of us are Carterets, even if some of our ways and theories differ. You remember, it is a tradition of the family, that no Carteret ever failed in chivalry to a lady or failed to keep his word when it was given.”
Then Blue-Tie, with frank decision showing on his countenance, turned to Miss De Ormond.
“Olivia,” said he, “on what date will you marry me?”
Before she could answer, Black-Tie again interposed.
“It is a long journey,” said he, “from Plymouth rock to Norfolk Bay. Between the two points we find the changes that nearly three centuries have brought. In that time the old order has changed. We no longer burn witches or torture slaves. And to-day we neither spread our cloaks on the mud for ladies to walk over nor treat them to the ducking-stool. It is the age of common sense, adjustment, and proportion. All of us—ladies, gentlemen, women, men, Northerners, Southerners, lords, caitiffs, actors, hardware-drummers, senators, hod-carriers, and politicians—are coming to a better understanding. Chivalry is one of our words that changes its meaning every day. Family pride is a thing of many constructions—it may show itself by maintaining a moth-eaten arrogance in a cobwebbed Colonial mansion or by the prompt paying of one’s debts.
“Now, I suppose you’ve had enough of my monologue. I’ve learned something of business and a little of life; and I somehow believe, cousin, that our great-great-grandfathers, the original Carterets, would indorse my view of this matter.”
Black-Tie wheeled around to his desk, wrote in a check-book and tore out the check, the sharp rasp of the perforated leaf making the only sound in the room. He laid the check within easy reach of Miss De Ormond’s hand.
“Business is business,” said he. “We live in a business age. There is my personal check for $10,000. What do you say, Miss De Ormond—will it he orange blossoms or cash?”
Miss De Ormond picked up the cheek carelessly, folded it indifferently, and stuffed it into her glove.
“Oh, this’ll do,” she said, calmly. “I just thought I’d call and put it up to you. I guess you people are all right. But a girl has feelings, you know. I’ve heard one of you was a Southerner—I wonder which one of you it is?”
She arose, smiled sweetly, and walked to the door. There, with a flash of white teeth and a dip of the heavy plume, she disappeared.
Both of the cousins had forgotten Uncle Jake for the time. But now they heard the shuffling of his shoes as he came across the rug toward them from his seat in the corner.
“Young marster,” he said, “take yo’ watch.”
And without hesitation he laid the ancient timepiece in the hand of its rightful owner.