For a long month Ogden Secor lay at St. Luke's. Surgeons pulled their whiskers, glaring owl-like at the patient the while they wondered why the deuce nature had not come to their rescue. At last she did--to some measure at least--and he was bundled off home, weak and broken.
They advised him to seek change and rest in a long ocean voyage; but he felt that his business, already long neglected, needed him. Not that he longer found the old keen delight in anticipation of strenuous coping with the storms and buffetings of the commercial world, but rather that habit drove him to it.
He found conditions in a frightful muddle. No one seemed to know what had been transpiring in the office--Stickler least of all. Secor did not deem it necessary to question Sammy--it had been better for him had he done so.
One of his first inquiries was for Miss Lathrop. Mr. Stickler looked at him in surprise.
"Why, I discharged her, Mr. Secor," he said. "You certainly cannot mean that you would have cared to continue her in our employ after learning the reputation she bore?"
"'Reputation'?" repeated Secor, "I do not quite grasp you, Mr. Stickler."
Mr. Stickler explained. It soon became evident to him that there was something radically wrong with his employer. There was a blank look of utter incomprehension upon Ogden Secor's face.
"It is odd," he said at last, "that I do not recall any of the incidents which you relate. You are quite sure, Stickler?"
"Quite sure, Sir."
As day succeeded day Ogden Secor realized more and more fully what an unusual secretary Miss Lathrop had been. He no longer mentioned her to Mr. Stickler, but he missed her very much, just the same. At times he recalled with a start the things that Stickler had told him about the girl's past, and then he would realize that after all it would have been impossible to have retained her. It was too bad, he thought; too bad--such secretaries as she were scarce.
As to Stickler's assertion that she had connived with the cracksmen, furnishing them the combination to the safe, Secor would not believe it.
Months rolled by. September came again. Long since Mr. Stickler had realized that his chief's memory was far from what it had been prior to the injuries he had received at the hands of the burglars. Ogden Secor, too, had guessed at something of the sort. He seemed to have lost his grasp. His usually alert mind was no longer equal to the emergencies that were constantly arising in his business.
Not only did he find it more and more difficult to close contracts, but those that he did obtain netted him losses now instead of the profits of the past. There was a leak somewhere, but Ogden Secor was not mentally fit to discover it.
Matters went from bad to worse. His losses on the year's work entailed the necessity of mortgaging the bulk of his real-estate holdings to complete a large public works contract in a neighboring city. Unable longer to concentrate his mind upon the work in hand, it ran completely away with him. Stickler assumed more and more the direction of it.
High prices were paid for inferior material, and for large amounts that were never delivered. Where the difference went the books of the corporation did not show, and if they had it is doubtful if Ogden Secor's waning mentality would have been able to understand that he was being persistently and systematically betrayed and robbed.
The final blow came when the engineers of the city for which the work was being done refused to accept it on the grounds that scarcely any of the material used was up to specifications. Coincidentally Mr. Stickler resigned his position with John Secor & Co., to accept the management of a stronger competitor.
An expensive lawsuit followed the refusal of the municipality, for which the work had been done, to pay the bill. In the end Secor lost. Bankruptcy proceedings followed, and on the first of the following February Ogden Secor found himself a ruined man--almost penniless, and broken as well in health and mentality.
With the exception of a worthless and barren farm in Idaho and a few articles of clothing, he had disposed of everything he possessed in an endeavor to meet the demands of his creditors. The farm, too, would have gone with the rest had he recalled the existence of it.
During the past few months of mental and nervous stress Secor had seen but little of Sophia Welles. He had not felt equal to the rounds of social activity which constituted her life, nor had he found her generously sympathetic.
Now that the end had come he sought her, hoping against hope that the ubiquitous Mr. Pursen would not be present. To his relief he found Sophia Welles alone.
She did not need the evidence of his tired and haggard face to realize the demand that might presently be made upon her sympathy and generosity--she had but just laid aside the noon edition of an afternoon paper in which she had perused the last of the rapidly dwindling references to a failure that had at first occupied a large part of the front pages of many editions. Sophia Welles knew at last that Ogden Secor was a hopelessly ruined man.
There was but one thing to do--she must forestall him.
"I am glad that you have come to-day, Ogden," she said, after a brief exchange of greetings. "For almost a year now I have had a great load weighing heavily upon my shoulders."--Miss Welles did not say upon her heart--" and I am only sorry that I did not speak of it long ago, for I can only too well realize the motives that may now be unjustly attributed to me in pressing the subject at this time of temporary financial trouble in which you find yourself.
"To be quite frank, I discovered long since that my affections were surely directing themselves toward another. I should have told you at once, but I was not sure at first, and I dreaded causing you useless pain."
She paused. Secor looked at her through dull eyes. It was evident that he was going to take it much harder than she had supposed.
It is true that not once since his accident had he spoken to her of their engagement. There had never been much in the way of sentimental exchanges between them, so that the absence of these had aroused little or no surprise in the girl's mind. She was glad now that it had been so, for it was going to make a difficult job much less difficult than it would otherwise have been.
Yet it was going to be hard enough--she could see that. She wondered why he didn't say something.
Finally he coughed--a slight flush mounting his pale face.
"I am quite sure, Sophia," he said, "that I shall always be most satisfied with what brings you the greatest happiness."
She noted the puzzled expression on his face, attributing it to a natural desire to learn who had supplanted him in her affections.
"I feel," she explained, "that we are not exactly suited to one another--our ideals are not the same. You do not find interest in that which interests me most, and so it seems to me that as there may never be any deep-rooted common interest between us that we should soon be most unhappy together."
The puzzled expression seemed to have been growing upon the handsome face of Mr. Ogden Secor.
"Yes," he breathed, "I fear that you are quite right."
"Mr. Pursen, on the contrary," went on Miss Welles, "feels precisely as I do upon the subjects that are closest to my heart--they are the same that are closest to his. "In fact, Ogden, I am going to ask you to release me from my engagement to you."
Involuntarily Ogden Secor's mouth opened but whether in surprise or because of a terrible shock to his love and pride it would have been difficult to say. Miss Welles attributed it to the latter. At last he found words.
"My dear Sophia," he said, "you know perfectly well that if you love Mr. Pursen I shall be the last person on earth to stand in the way of your realizing to the full every happiness that may be found at his disposal. I congratulate you, Sophia--sincerely--and I beg that you will give no further thought to me other than as a friend and well-wisher."
"You are very generous, Ogden," she said, as she bade him good-by, glad that the ordeal was so easily over.
It would have been a much surprised Miss Welles could that young lady have read Ogden Secor's thoughts as he ran down the broad steps before her home and made his way to the nearest elevated station.
"And to think," thought he, "that for over a year I have been engaged to Sophia Welles without once recalling the fact! Those cracksmen most assuredly cracked something belonging to Ogden Secor beside his safe."
It was with a feeling of relief and elation that he had not felt before for months that he strode along the street. Evidently the obligation of his engagement had been weighing upon him heavily through the medium of his subconsciousness without his having once objectively sensed other than an inexplicable call to duty that had drawn him to Sophia Welles when he gladly would have been elsewhere.
As he walked toward the elevated he tried to recall under what circumstances he had become engaged to Miss Welles. As he viewed the matter now it was difficult to realize that any possible contingency could have arisen that would have caused him to look with tender affection upon the cold and calculating Sophia.
The loss of his fortune affected Ogden Secor less than might have been expected. Possibly he did not fully realize the completeness of his financial ruin, or what it was bound to mean to him. In a way he felt principally a certain relief from the galling pressure and annoyances of the past bitter year. No longer was he weighted with burdensome responsibilities and grave apprehensions--the worst had happened. There was no further calamity possible--at least so he thought.
Vaguely he felt that he could again build up a fortune equal to that which was gone; but there was none of the old-time assurance and determination that had marked him in the past--it seemed quite impossible for him to concentrate his mind for a sufficient length of time upon the subject to formulate even the foundation of a well-considered plan.
He sought out old friends upon whose business acumen he might rely with the intention of talking over his plans with them, for at last, and the first time in his life, Ogden Secor felt unequal to the task of reasoning for himself, much less deciding in any matter of importance.
The first man to whom he went was the president of a bank of which Secor was still a director, and with which he had transacted the bulk of his banking business. The president was an old personal friend, a man of about Secor's own age, a member of the same clubs and the same set. Heretofore he had been wont to drop whatever had been engaging him and come into the anteroom to greet Secor whenever he had chanced to call. To-day the caller waited thirty minutes before the bank president appeared.
"Well, Secor," he said, "what can I do for you?" Heretofore it had always been "Ogden." There was an unquestionable air of haste in his manner, too; nor did he take Mr. Secor familiarly by the arm and drag him into his luxurious private office as formerly. It was just: "Well, Secor, what can I do for you?"
Those who are congenitally inefficient are prone to sensitiveness, and the same is often true of men who, through illness or preposterous circumstance, find themselves temporarily unfit to cope with the stern demands of modern success building. Supersensitiveness ofttimes begets a preternatural and almost uncanny ability to sense the secret motives underlying the acts of others.
Ogden Secor had never been over-sensitive. Until now he had not appreciated the fact that there could possibly be any material difference in the Ogden Secor of yesterday and the Ogden Secor of to-day. He had never gaged men by their bank accounts, so it is not strange that he should have been unsuspecting that any might have gaged him by such a standard.
The words and manner of the bank president, however, awoke him violently and painfully, for Ogden Secor was now, whatever he might have been in the past, an inefficient, and, accordingly, a supersensitive.
"There is nothing that you can do for me, Norton," he said. "I just dropped in for a chat. You're busy, though, and I won't detain you." He turned to go.
"I am mighty busy to-day," replied the bank president, a trifle more cordially. "Come in again some time, won't you?"
"Thanks," replied Secor.
When he reached the street he found himself cold all over--cold with a heart-coldness with which the bleak February northeaster had nothing to do. He did not venture to call upon another friend. Instead he dropped into a bar on La Salle Street and took a stiff drink of whisky. It was the first time he had done that for a longer time than he could recall.
The drink warmed him, sending an intoxicating, if artificial, renewal of hope and confidence surging through him. He took another.
There was a genial stranger drinking alone at the same bar. He commented upon the severity of the storm. Ogden Secor, friends with all the world now, entered into conversation with him.
"Wish I was back in Idaho," remarked the stranger, "where I could get thawed out and see that the sun was doing business at the same old stand."
Idaho! It awakened something in Secor's memory.
"I thought that it was usually pretty cold there," he said.
"Not where I come from," replied the stranger. "I got a little fruit-ranch down in the South-Western corner of the State. Greatest little climate in the world, sir; never gets anywheres near zero; and sunshine! Why, man, you ain't got a bowin' acquaintance with old Sol back here. Three hundred and sixty days of sunshine out of every three hundred and sixty-five."
Secor smiled. "You remind me of the boosters of sunny southern California," he laughed.
"Don't," said the Idahoan, raising a deprecating hand. "What I'm tellin' you is the truth."
"What part of Idaho did you say you are from?" asked Secor.
"'Bout ten miles south of Goliath. Goliath's a division headquarters on the Short Line."
"Goliath," repeated Secor. "Why, I've got a ranch around there somewhere myself--took it on a trade years ago and forgot all about it. One hundred and sixty acres, I think it was."
"Sort o' funny for a man to forget a hundred-and-sixty-acre ranch," remarked the stranger a bit skeptically.
During the following week Ogden Secor drank a great deal more than was good for him, or for any man. Several times he met old acquaintances on the streets. Ever eager now to discover changes in the attitude of former friends, he was quick to note the seeming coldness of their greetings, and the remarkable stress of unprecedented business which invariably hurried them along.
After each encounter he sought the nearest bar. His mind was much occupied with thoughts of his forgotten ranch, and when a summons to his attorneys' offices revealed the fact that the final settlement with his creditors would leave him with several hundred dollars of unexpected wealth, he obtained an advance from them, purchased a ticket for Goliath, Idaho, and shook the grimy snow of the Loop from his feet--he hoped forever.