Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 6

NILS BERQUIST has his own ways, and whether or not they were practical or customary to mankind at large influenced him in no degree. He called himself a socialist, but in pure fact he was simply one of those persons who require a cause to fight for and argue about, as a Hedonist craves his pleasures, or the average man an income.

Real socialism, with the communal interests it implies, was foreign to Berquist’s very nature. He could get along, in a withdrawn kind of way, with almost anyone. He would share what small possessions he had with literally anyone. But his interest went to such abstractions of thought as were talked and written by men of his own kind, while himself — his mind — he kept for the very few. Those are the qualities of an aristocrat, not a socialist.

One result of his paradoxical attitude showed in the fact that when it came to current news, Nils was as ignorant a man as you could meet in a day’s walk. My various troubles and activities had kept me from thinking of him, but when I again happened on Nils in town one evening it hurt my feelings to discover that the spectacular downfall of Barbour & Hutchinson might have occurred on another planet, so far as he was concerned.

News that had been blazoned in every paper was news to him all this time afterward. Even learning it from me in person, he said little, though this silence might have been caused by embarrassment. Roberta was with me, and to tie Nils’ tongue you had only to lead him into the presence of femininity in the person of a young, pretty girl.

I at last recalled the fact, and because for a certain reason I wished a chance to talk with him where he would talk, I asked if he couldn’t run out some night and have dinner with us. Cathy’s cooking was nothing wonderful, but I knew Nils wouldn’t mind that, nor the cramped quarters we had to live in. I reckoned on taking him up to my own room later for a private confab.

After a short hesitation he accepted.

“You take care of yourself, Clay,” he added. “You’re looking pale — run down. Don’t tell me you’ve been laid up sick along with all this other trouble?”

“No, indeed, old man. Working rather harder than I used to and — lately I haven’t slept very well. Bad dreams — but aside from that, nothing serious.”

After a few more words, we parted, he striding off on his lonely way to some bourne unknown; Roberta and I proceeding toward the movies.

A fortnight had passed since the strange face had made its first appearance. If Nils thought I looked pale, there was reason for it. “Bad dreams,” I had told him, but bad dreams were less than all.

My resolve to visit a doctor had come to nothing. I had called, indeed, upon our family physician, as I had meant. The moment I entered his presence, however, that instinct for concealment which had prevented me from confiding in Roberta or my family rose up full strength. The symptoms I actually laid before Dr. Lloyd produced a smile and a prescription that might as well have been the traditional bread pills. I didn’t bother to have it filled. I went out as alone with my secret as when I entered.

A face — boyish in manner, pleasant, half-smiling usually; with an amused slyness to the clear, light-blue eyes; an agreeable inward quirk at the corners of the finely cut lips. I had come to know every lineament ultimately well.

It had not returned again until some time after the first appearance. Then — at the bank, the afternoon following my futile conference with Dr. Lloyd — I happened to close my eyes, and it was there, behind the lids.

There was a table in Mr. Terne’s office, over which he used to spread out his correspondence and papers. I was seated at one side of the table and he on the other, and I started so violently that he dropped his pen and made a straggling ink-feather across the schedule of securities he was verifying.

He patiently blotted it, and I made such a fuss over getting out the ink-eradicator and restoring the sheet of minutely figured ledger paper to neatness, that he forgot to ask what had made me jump in the first place.

After that the face was with me so often that if I shut my eyes and saw nothing, its absence bothered me. I would feel then that the face had got behind me, perhaps, and acquired the bad habit of casting furtive glances over my shoulder.

You may think that if one must be burdened with a companion invisible to the world, such a good-humored countenance as I have described would be the least disagreeable. But that was not so.

There was to me a subtle hatefulness about it — like a thing beautiful and at the same time vile, which one hates in fear of coming to love it.

I never called the face “him,” never thought of it as a man, nor gave it a man’s name. I was afraid to! As if recognition would lend the vision power, I called it the Fifth Presence, and hated it.

As days of this passed, there came a time when the face began trying to talk to me. There, at least, I had the advantage. Though I could see the lips move, forming words, by merely opening my eyes I was able to banish it, and so avoid learning what it wished to say.

In bed, I used to lie with my eyes wide open sometimes, for hours, waiting for sleep to come suddenly. When that happened I was safe, for though my dreams were often bad, the face never invaded them.

I discovered, too, that the name Serapion had in a measure lost power to throw me off balance, since the face had come. My mother continued to harp on the superiority of my dead uncle’s character, and how he would have shielded us from the evils that had befallen, until dad acquiesced in sheer self-protection. But though I didn’t like to hear her talk of him, and though the sound of the name invariably quickened my heartbeat, hearing neither increased nor diminished the vision’s vividness.

It was with me, however, through most of my waking hours — waiting behind my lids — and if I looked pale, as Nils said, the wonder is that I was able to appear at all as usual. So I wished to talk with Nils, hoping that to the man who had warned me against the Moores, I could force myself to confide the distressing aftermath of my visit at the “dead-alive house.”

He had promised to come out the next night but one, which was Wednesday. Unfortunately, however, I missed seeing him then, after all, and because of an incident whose climax was to give the Fifth Presence a new and unexpected significance.

About two-thirty Wednesday afternoon I ran up the steps of the Colossus Trust, and at the top collided squarely with Van, Jr. By the slight reel with which he staggered against a pillar and caught hold of it, I knew that Van had been hitting the high spots again and hoped he had not been interviewing his father in that condition. On recovering his balance, Van stood up steady enough.

“Old scout Clay! Say, you look like a pale, pallid, piffling freshwater clam, you do. ‘Pon my word, I’m ashamed of the old Colossus. The old brass idol has sucked all the blood out of you. My fault, serving up the best friend I ever had as a — a helpless sacrifice to my father’s old brass Colossus. Come on with me — you been good too long!”

He playfully pretended to tear off the brass-lettered name of the trust company, which adorned the wall beside him, cast it down and trample on it. When I tried to pass he caught my arm. “Come on!”

“Can’t,” I explained quietly. “Mr. Terne was the best man at a wedding today, but he left me a stack of work.”

Van sniffed. “Hub! I know that wedding. I was invited to that wedding, but I wouldn’t go. Measly old teetotaler wedding! Just suits Fatty Terne. When you get married, Clay, I’ll send along about eleven magnums for a wedding present, and then I’ll come to your wedding!”

“You may — when it happens.” Again I tried to pass him.

“Wait a minute. You poor, pallid work slave — you know what I’m going to do for you?”

“Get me fired, by present prospects. I must-”

“You must not. Just listen. You know Barney Finn”’

“Not personally. Let me go now, Van and I’ll see you later.”

“Barney Finn,” he persisted doggedly, “has got just the biggest li’l engine that ever slid round a track. Now you wait a minute. Barney’s another friend of mine. Told me all about it. Showed it to me. Showed me how it’s going to make every other wagon at Fairview tomorrow look like a hand-pushed per-perambulator!”

“All right. Come around after the race and tell me how Finn made out. Please-”

“Wait. You’re my friend, Clay, and I like you. You put a thousand bones on Finney’s car, and say goodbye to old Colossus.”

I laughed. But he went on.

“My dear friend, you misjudge me, sadly — yes, indeed! Didn’t I wrest one pitiful Century from Colossus five minutes ago, and isn’t that the last that stood between me and starvation, and ain’t I going right out and plaster that century on Finn’s car? Would I imimpoverish the Colossus and me, puttin’ that last century on anything but a sure win? Come across, boy!”

Now, one might think that Van’s invitation lacked attractiveness to a sober man. I happened to know, however, that drunk or sober, his judgment was good on one subject, the same being motorcars. Barney Finn, moreover, was a speed-track veteran with a mighty reputation at his back. He had, in the previous year, met several defeats, due to bad luck, in my opinion, but they had brought up the odds. If he had something particularly good and new in his car for tomorrow’s race at Fairview, there was a chance for somebody to make a killing, as Van said. “What odds?” I queried.

“For each li’l bone you plant, twelve li’l bones will blossom. Good enough? I could get better, but this will be off Jackie Rosenblatt, an’ you know that he’s a reg’lar old Colossus his own self. Solid an’ square. Hock his old high silk hat before he’d welch.”

“Yes, Rosie’s square.” I did some quick mental figurine, and then pulled a thin sheaf of bills from an inner coat pocket. Instantly, Van had snatched them out of my hand.

“Not all!” I exclaimed sharply. “Take fifty, but I brought that to deposit-”

“Deposit it with Jackie! Why, you old miser with your bank account! Four entire centuries, and you weepin’ over poverty! Say, Clay, how much is twelve times four?”

“Forty-eight, but-”

“Lightnin’ calculator!” he admired. “Say, doesn’t forty-eight hundred make a bigger noise in your delikite ear than four measly centuries? Come across!”

I don’t think I nodded. I am almost sure that I had begun reaching my hand to take all, or most of those bills back. But Van thought otherwise. “Right, boy!”

With plunging abruptness he was off down the steps. I hesitated. Forty-four hundred. Then I caught myself and was after him, but too late. His speedy gray roadster was already nosing recklessly into the traffic. Before I reached the bottom step it had shot around the corner and was gone.

Off Mr. Terne’s spacious office there was a little glass-enclosed, six-by-eight cubbyhole which I called my own.

Ten o’clock Thursday morning found me seated in the one chair, staring at a pile of canceled notes on the desk before me. I had started to check them half an hour ago, but so far just one checkmark showed on the list beside them. I had something worse to think of than canceled notes.

As I sat, I could hear Mr. Terne fussing about the outer office. Then I heard him go out. About two minutes afterward the door banged open so forcibly that I half started up, conscience clamoring.

But it wasn’t the second vice returning in a rage. It was Van. He fairly bolted into my cubbyhole, closed the door, pitched his hat in a corner, and swung himself to a seat on my desk-edge, scattering canceled notes right and left. There he sat, hands clasped, staring at me in a perfect stillness which contrasted dramatically with his violent entry. His eyes looked dark and sunken in a strained, white face. My nerves were inappreciative of drama.

“Where were you last night?” I demanded irritably. “I hunted for you around town till nearly midnight.”

“What? Oh, I was way out in — I don’t know exactly. Some dinky roadhouse. I pretty nearly missed the race and — and I wish to Heaven I had, Clay!” He passed a shaking hand across his eyes.

“Did Finn lose?” I snapped. “But — why, the race can hardly be more than started yet!”

“Finn started!” he gulped.

“Ditched?” I gasped, a flash of inspiration warning me of what was coming.

He nodded. “Turned turtle on the second lap and — say, boy — I helped dig him out and carry him off — you know, I liked Barney. It was — bad. The mechanism broke his back clean — flung against a post — but Barney — say, what was left of him kind of — kind of came apart — when we — ” He stopped short, gulped again, and: “Guess I’m in bad shape this morning,” he said huskily. “Nerves all shot to pieces.”

I should have imagined they would be. A man straight from an all-night debauch can’t witness a racing-car accident, help handle the human wreckage afterward, and go whistling merrily to tell his friends the tale.

I expressed that, though in more kindly chosen words, and then we both were silent a minute. Barney Finn had not been my friend, or even acquaintance, and while I was vicariously touched by Van’s grief and horror, my own dilemma wasn’t simplified by this news. Yet I hated to fling sordidness in the face of tragedy by speaking of money.

“Afterward I didn’t feel like watching the race out.” As Van spoke, I heard the outer door open again. This time it really was Mr. Terne, for I recognized his step.

“So I came straight here,” Van continued.

My own door opened, and a kindly, dignified figure appeared there.

“Barbour,” said the second vice, “have you that — ah, good morning, Richard.” He nodded rather coldly to Van, and went on to ask me for the list I was supposed to be at work on.

When I explained that the checking wasn’t quite finished, he turned away; then glanced back.

“By the way, Barbour,” he said, “Prang dropped me a line saving that when you were in his office yesterday he paid up our hundred he has owed me since last June. If you were too late to deposit yesterday afternoon, get it from my box and we’ll put it in with this check from the United.”

I felt myself going fiery-red. “Sorry,” I said. “I’ll let you have that money this afternoon, Mr. Terne, I-I-”

“He gave it to me to deposit for him, and I used it for something else,” broke in Van with the utmost coolness.

On occasion Van’s brain worked with flashlight rapidity. He had put two and two of that four hundred together while another man might have been wondering about it. Terne stared, first at Van, then at me.

“You — you gave it — ” he began slowly.

“He came here for your pass-book,” ran Van’s glib tongue. “I dropped in on him, and as I was going out past the tellers, I offered to put it in for him. Then I stuck it in my pocket, forgot it till too late, and needing some cash last night, I used that. Barbour has been throwing fits ever since I told him. I’ll get it for you this afternoon.”

Terne stared some more, and Van returned the look with cool insolence.

A brick-reddish color crept up the second v.p.‘s cheeks, his mouth compressed to an unfamiliar straightness, and turning suddenly he walked out of not only my cubbyhole but his own office. The door shut with a rattle of jarred glazing.

“You shouldn’t have done that!” I breathed.

“Oh, rats! Fatty Terne’s gone to tell the old man. But he’ll get thrown out. No news to the old man, about me, and he’s sick of hearing it. Anyway, this is my fault, Clay’ and I ought to stand the gaff. You’ve worked like the devil here, and then I come along and spoil everything. Drunken fool, me! Knew I’d queer you if we got together, and till yesterday I had sense enough to keep off. When I took those bills I knew there was something wrong, but I was too lit up to have any sense about it. Plain highway robbery! Never mind, old pal, I’ll bring you back the loot this afternoon if I have to bust open one of the old Colossus’ vaults for it!”

At my elbow the office phone jingled.

“Just a minute,” I said. “No; wait, Van. Hello. Hel — Oh, Mr. Vansittart? Yes, sir. Be over at once, sir. Yes, he’s here. What? Yes — ” The other receiver had clicked up.

“We’re in for it,” I muttered. “Apparently your father hasn’t thrown Terne out!”

Vansittart, Sr., the gruff old lion, granted lax discipline to no man under his control save one; and even Van, Jr., was, if not afraid, at least a bit wary of him. Though he had taken me on in the bank at a far higher wage than my services were worth, he had also made it very clear that so far as I was concerned, favoritism ended there. For me, I was sure the truth of the present affair would mean instant discharge.

“Shut the door!” he growled as we entered. “Now, Dick, I’ll thank you to explain for exactly what reason you stole Mr. Terne’s four hundred.”

“Stole!” Van’s slim figure stiffened and he went two shades whiter.

“Stole, yes! I said, stole. That is the usual term for appropriating money without the owner’s consent.”

“I don’t accuse the boy of theft!” Terne’s set face of anger relaxed suddenly. He didn’t like Van, but he was a man who could not be unfair if he tried.

“Keep out of this, Terne — please. Dick, I’m waiting.”

“Well, really,” Van drawled “if you put it that way, I couldn’t say what I did use the money for. There was a trifle of four hundred, owned, I believe, by Mr. Terne, which I borrowed, intending to return it in a few hours-”

“From what fund?” The old man was alert. I felt instinctively that this interview was a bit different from any that Van had been through heretofore. “Are you aware that your account in this bank is already overdrawn to the sum of — ” he consulted a slip before him-“of forty-nine dollars and sixty cents? You perhaps have reserve funds at your command elsewhere?”

Van looked his father in the eye. What he saw must have been unusual. His brows went up slightly and the same fighting look came into his face which I had seen there when he and I confronted the faculty together. On that occasion I had been genuinely inclined to meekness. I remained in college while Van was thrown out.

He laughed lightly. “Excuse me half an hour while I run out and sell the li’l old roadster. Forty-nine sixty, you said? I’ll pay you yours first, dad!”

“That’s kind! After stealing one man’s money you propose selling another man’s car to replace it. Yes, my car, I said. What have you got in this world but your worthless brains and body to call your own? Wait. We’ll go into this matter of ownership more deeply in a few minutes. Barbour,” he whirled on me, “you allowed funds belonging to your supervisor to pass into unauthorized hands. That is not done in this bank. As things stand, I shall leave your case to Mr. Terne, but first you will make one direct’ statement. I wish it made so that no question can arise afterward. Did you or did you not hand four hundred dollars in bills, the property of Mr. Terne, to my — to my son?”

It was up to me in earnest. I was now sure beyond doubt of what Van had run against. His parent had turned at last, and even the whole truth would barely suffice to save him. My lips opened. To blame though he was in a way, Van mustn’t suffer seriously in my protection. I could not forget that momentary hesitation on my part, save for which I could easily have retrieved the bills before Van was out of reach.

“I gave it to him,” I began.

And then, abruptly, silently, another face flashed in between me and the president. Instead of Vansittart’s dark, angry eyes, I was staring into a pair of clear, amused, light-blue, ones. A finely cut mouth half smiled at me with lips that moved.

Always theretofore the face had come only when my lids were closed. Its wish to communicate with me — and that it did wish to communicate I was sure as if the thing had been a living man, following me about and perpetually tugging at my sleeve — had been a continual menace, but one which I had grown to feel secure from because the thing’s power seemed so limited.

Now, with my eyes wide open, there hung the face in mid air. It was not in the least transparent. That is, its intervening presence obscured Vansittart’s countenance as completely as though the head of a real man had thrust in between us. And yet — it is hard to express, but there was that about it, a kind of flatness, a lack of normal three-dimensional solidity, which gave it the look of a living portrait projected on the atmosphere.

I knew without even glancing toward them that Van and Mr. Terne did not see the thing as I did. It was there for me alone. At the moment, though I fought the belief again later, I knew beyond question that what I beheld was the projection of a powerful, external will, the same which, with Alicia’s dynamic force to aid, had once actually taken possession of my body.

The finely cut, lips moved. No audible sound came from them, but as they formed words, the speech was heard in my brain distinctly as if conveyed by normal sound vibrations through the eardrums. It was silent sound. The tone was deep, rather agreeable, amiably amused:

“You have said enough,” the face observed pleasantly. “You have told the truth; now stop there. Your friend has a father to deal with, while you have an employer. He is willing to shoulder all the blame, and for you to expose your share in it will be a preposterous folly. Remember, that hard as you have worked, you are receiving here twice the money you are worth — three times what you can hope to begin on elsewhere. Remember the miserable consequences of your own father’s needless sacrifices. Remember how often, and very justly, you have wished that he had thought less of a point of fine-drawn honor, and more of his family’s happiness. Will you commit like folly?”

I can’t tell, so that anyone will understand, what a wave of accumulated memories and secret revolts against fate overswept me as I stared hard into the smiling, light-blue eyes. But I fought.

Grimly I began again. “I gave it to him . . . ” and then — stopped.

“That’s enough.” This time it was Vansittart speaking. “You may go, Barbour. Mr. Terne, I will ask you to leave us. You will receive my personal check for the amount you have lost.”

“But-but — ” I stammered desperate while those clear eyes grew more amused more dominating.

The old man’s hard-held calmness broke in a roar. “Get out! Both of you! Go!”

Mr. Terne laid his hand on my arm, and reluctantly I allowed myself to be steered toward the door. As I turned away the face did not float around with the turning of my eyes.

It hung in mid air, save for that odd, undimensional flatness real as any of the three other faces there. When my back was to the president, the — the Fifth Presence was behind me. On glancing back, it still hung there. Then it smiled at me — a beautiful, pleased, wholly approving smile — and faded to nothing.

I went out with Mr. Terne, and left Van alone with his father.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30