CHARLES HANEY had no scruples. From the moment of his first meeti ig with his brother's young wife he determined to make himself "solid" with her. Convinced that Mart was not long for this world, he set to work to win Bertha's favor, for this was the only way to harvest the golden fortune she controlled.
"Mart is just fool enough and contrary enough to leave every cent of his money to her." Here he placed one finger against his brow. "Carlos, here is where you get busy. It's us to the haberdasher. We shine."
Notwithstanding all his boasting, he was not only an actor out of an engagement, but flat broke, badly dressed, and in sorry disrepute with managers. "I've been playing in a stock company in San Francisco," he had explained, "and I'm now on my way to New York to produce a play of my own. Hence these tears. I need an 'angel.' "
He distinctly said "the first of the month "in this announcement, but as the days went by he only settled deeper into the snug corners of the Haney home, making no further mention of his triumphal eastward progress. On the contrary, he had the air of a regular boarder, and turned up promptly for meals, rotund and glowing in the opulence of his brother's hospitality.
On the strength of his name he found favor with the tailors, and bourgeoned forth a few days later in the best cloth the shops afforded, and strutted and plumed himself like a turkey-cock before Bertha, keeping up meanwhile a pretension of sympathy and good-fellowship with Mart.
In this he miscalculated; for Bertha, youthful as she seemed, was accustomed, as she would say, to "standing off mashers," and her impassive face and keen, steady eyes fairly disconcerted the libertine. "For Mart's sake, we'll put up with him," she said to her mother. "He's a loafer; but I can see the Captain kind o' likes to have him around—for old times' sake, I reckon."
This was true. When alone with his brother, Charles dropped his egotistic brag and dramatic bluster, and touched craftily upon the dare-devil, boyish life they had led together. He was shrewd enough to see and understand that this was his most ingratiating rdle, and he played it "to the limit," as Bertha would have said.
And yet no one in the house realized how his presence reacted against Bertha.
"What are we to think of a girl so obtuse that she permits a man like this fat, disgusting actor to dangle about her?" asked Mrs. Crego of her husband, who was Haney's legal adviser.
"He's her husband's brother, you know," argued Crego.
"All the same, I can't understand her. She looks nice and sweet, and you say she is so; and yet here she is married to a notorious gambler, and associating with mountebanks and all sorts of malodorous people. Why, I've seen her riding down the street with the upholsterer, and Mrs. Congdon told me that she saw hei stop her carriage in front of a cigar store and talk with a barber in a white jacket for at least ten minutes."
Crego laughed. "What infamy! However, I can't believe even the upholsterer will finally corrupt her. The fact is, my dear, we're all getting to be what some of my clients call 'too a-ristocratic' Bertha Haney is sprung from good average American stock, and has associated with the kind of people you abhor all her life. She hasn't begun to draw any of your artificial distinctions. I hope she never will. Her barber friend is on the same level with the clerks and grocery-men of the town. They're all human, you know. She's the true democrat. I confess I like the girl. Her ability is astonishing. Williams and Haney both take her opinion quite as weightily as my own."
Mrs. Crego was impressed. "Well, I'll call on her if you really think I ought to do so."
"I don't. I withdraw my suggestion. I deprecate your calling—in that spirit. I doubt if she expects you to call. I hardly think she has awakened to any slights put upon her by your set. Indeed, she seems quite happy in the society of Thomas, Richard, and Harry."
"Don't be brutal, Allen."
"I'm not. The girl is now serene—that's the main thing; and you might raise up doubts and discontents in her mind."
"I certainly shall not go near her so long as that odious actor is hanging about. His smirk at me the other day made me ill."
This conversation was typical of many others in homes of equal culture, for Bertha's position as well as her face and manner piqued curiosity. After all, the town was a small place—just large enough to give gossip room to play in—and the sheen of Mrs. Haney's wealth made her conspicuous from afar, while her youth and boyish beauty had been the subject of admiring club talk from the very first. Haney was only an old and wounded animal, whose mate was free to choose anew.
"It makes me ache to see the girl go wrong," said Mrs. Frank Congdon, wife of a resident portrait-painter, also in delicate health (she was speaking to Mrs. Crego). "Think of that great house—Frank says she runs it admirably—filled with tinkers and tailors and candlestick-makers, not to mention touts and gamblers—when she might be entertaining—well, us, for example!" She laughed at the unbending face of her friend; then went on: "Dr. Cronk says the mother is a sweet old lady and of good New England family—a constitutional Methodist, he calls her. I wish she kept better company."
"But what can you expect of a girl brought up in a pigsty. Her mother was mistress of a little miners' hotel in Junction City, Allen says, and the girl boasts of it."
Mrs. Congdon smiled. "I'm dying to talk with her. She's far and away the most interesting of our newly rich, and I like her face. Frank has called, you know?"
"On business, of course. She has decided to have him paint her husband's picture. She's taken her first step upward, you see."
"I should think she'd be content to have her saloonkeeper husband's face fade out of her memory."
"Frank is enthusiastic. I'm not a bit sure that he didn't suggest the portrait. He is shameless when he takes a fancy to a face. He's wild to paint them both and call it 'The Lion Tamer and the Lion' He considers Haney a great character. It seems he saw him in Cripple Creek once, and was vastly taken by his pose. His being old and sad now—his face is one of the saddest I ever saw—makes it all the more interesting to Frank. So I'm going to call—in fact, we're going to lunch there soon."