Old Mr. Saunders went home with bowed head and angry brow. He had not known that Dick was in the habit of coming in late, but he had now no doubt of the fact. He himself went to bed early and slept soundly, as a man with a good conscience is entitled to do. But the boy's mother must have known the hours he kept, yet she had said nothing; this made the matter all the blacker. The father felt that mother and son were leagued against him. He had been too lenient; now he would go to the root of things. The young man would speedily change his ways or take the consequences. There would be no half measures.
Poor old Mrs. Saunders saw, the moment her husband came in, that there was a storm brewing, and a wild fear arose in her heart that her boy was the cause. The first words of the old man settled the question.
"What time did Richard come in last night?"
"I--I don't know," she hesitated. "Shuffling" her husband always called it. She had been a buffer between father and son since Dick was a child.
"Why don't you know? Who let him in?"
She sighed. The secret had long weighed upon her, and she felt it would come out at some hapless moment.
"He has a key," she said at last.
The old man glared in speechless amazement. In his angriest mood he had never suspected anything so bad as this.
"A key! How long has he had a key?"
"About six months. He did not want to disturb us."
"He is very thoughtful! Where does he spend his nights?"
"I don't know. He told me he belongs to a club, where he takes some kind of exercise."
"Did he tell you he exercised with cards? Did he say it was a gambling club?"
"I don't believe it is; I am sure Dick doesn't gamble. Dick is a good boy, father."
"A precious lot you know about it, evidently. Do you think his employer, banker Hammond, has any idea his clerk belongs to a gambling club?"
"I am sure I don't know. Is there any thing wrong? Has any one been speaking to you about Dick?"
"Yes; and not to his credit."
"Oh dear!" cried the mother in anguish. "Was it Mr. Hammond?"
"I have never spoken to Hammond in my life," said the old man, relenting a little when he saw how troubled his wife was. "No, I propose to stop this club business before it gets to the banker's ears that one of his clerks is a nightly attendant there. You will see Richard when he comes home this evening; tell him I wish to have a word or two with him to-night. He is to wait for me here. I will be in shortly after he has had his supper."
"You will not be harsh with him, father. Remember, he is a young man now, so please advise and do not threaten. Angry words can do no good."
"I will do my duty," said the old man, uncompromisingly.
Gentle Mrs. Saunders sighed--for she well knew the phrase about duty. It was a sure prelude to domestic trouble. When the old gentleman undertook to do his duty, he nailed his flag to the mast.
"See that he waits for me to-night," was the parting shot as the old man closed the door behind him.
Mrs. Saunders had had her share of trouble in this world, as every woman must who lives with a cantankerous man. When she could save her son a harsh word, or even a blow, she was content to take either uncomplainingly. The old man's severity had put him out of touch with his son. Dick sullenly resented his boyhood of continual fear. During recent years, when fear had gradually diminished and finally disappeared, he was somewhat troubled to find that the natural affection, which a son should have for his father, had vanished with it. He had, on several occasions, made half-hearted attempts at a better understanding, but these attempts had unfortunately fallen on inopportune moments, when the old man was not particularly gracious toward the world in general, and latterly there had been silence between the two. The young man avoided his father as much as possible; he would not have remained at home, had it not been for his mother. Her steady, unwavering affection for him, her belief in him, and the remembrance of how she had stood up for him, especially when he was in the wrong, had bound her to him with bonds soft as silk and strong as steel. He often felt it would be a pleasure to go wrong, merely to refute his father's ideas regarding the way a child should be brought up. Yet Dick had a sort of admiration for the old man, whose many good qualities were somewhat overshadowed by his brutal temper.
When Richard came home that evening he had his supper alone, as was usual with him. Mrs. Saunders drew her chair near the table, and while the meal went on she talked of many things, but avoided the subject uppermost in her mind, which she postponed until the last moment. Perhaps after all she would not need to ask him to stay; he might remain of his own accord. She watched him narrowly as she talked, and saw with alarm that there was anxiety in his face. Some care was worrying him, and she yearned to have him confide his trouble to her. And yet she talked and talked of other things. She noticed that he made but a poor pretence of eating, and that he allowed her to talk while he made few replies, and those absent-mindedly. At last he pushed back his chair with a laugh that sounded forced.
"Well, mother," he said, "what is it? Is there a row on, or is it merely looming in the horizon? Has the Lord of Creation----"
"Hush, Dick, you mustn't talk in that way. There is nothing much the matter, I hope? I want to speak with you about your club."
Dick looked sharply at his mother for a moment, then he said: "Well, what does father want to know about the club? Does he wish to join?"
"I didn't say your father----"
"No, you didn't say it; but, my dear mother, you are as transparent as glass. I can see right through you and away beyond. Now, somebody has been talking to father about the club, and he is on the war-path. Well, what does he want to know?"
"He said it was a gambling club."
"Right for once."
"Oh, Dick, is it?"
"Certainly it is. Most clubs are gambling clubs and drinking clubs. I don't suppose the True Blues gamble more than others, but I'll bet they don't gamble any less."
"Oh, Dick, Dick, I'm sorry to hear that. And, Dick, my darling boy, do you----"
"Do I gamble, mother? No, I don't. I know you'll believe me, though the old man won't. But it's true, nevertheless. I can't afford it, for it takes money to gamble, and I'm not as rich as old Hammond yet."
"Oh yes, Dick dear, and that reminds me. Another thing your father feared was that Mr. Hammond might come to know you were a member of the club. It might hurt your prospects in the bank," she added, not wishing to frighten the boy with the threat of the dismissal she felt sure would follow the revelation.
Dick threw back his head and roared. For the first time that evening the lines of care left his brow. Then seeing his mother's look of incomprehension, he sobered down, repressing his mirth with some difficulty.
"Mother," he said at last, "things have changed since father was a boy; I'm afraid he hardly appreciates how much. The old terrifying relations between employer and employee do not exist now--at least, that is my experience."
"Still if Mr. Hammond came to know that you spent your evenings at----"
"Mother, listen to me a moment. Mr. Julius Hammond proposed me for membership in the club--my employer! I should never have thought of joining if it hadn't been for him. You remember my last raise in salary? You thought it was for merit, of course, and father thought it was luck. Well, it was neither--or both, perhaps. Now, this is confidential and to yourself only. I wouldn't tell it to any one else. Hammond called me into his private office one afternoon when the bank was closed, and said, 'Saunders, I want you to join the Athletic Club; I'll propose you.' I was amazed and told him I couldn't afford it. 'Yes, you can,' he answered. 'I'm going to raise your salary double the amount of entrance fee and annual. If you don't join I'll cut it down.' So I joined. I think I should have been a fool if I hadn't."
"Dick, I never heard of such a thing! What in the world did he want you to join for?"
"Well, mother," said Dick, looking at his watch, "that's a long story. I'll tell it to you some other evening. I haven't time to-night. I must be off."
"Oh, Dick, don't go to-night. Please stay at home, for my sake."
Dick smoothed his mother's grey hair and kissed her on the forehead. Then he said: "Won't to-morrow night do as well, mother? I can't stay to-night. I have an appointment at the club."
"Telegraph to them and put it off. Stay for my sake to-night, Dick. I never asked you before."
The look of anxiety came into his face again.
"Mother, it is impossible, really it is. Please don't ask me again. Anyhow, I know it is father who wants me to stay, not you. I presume he's on the duty tack. I think what he has to say will keep till to- morrow night. If he must work off some of his sentiments on gambling, let him place his efforts where they are needed--let him tackle Jule Hammond, but not during business hours."
"You surely don't mean to say that a respected business man--a banker like Mr. Hammond--gambles?"
"Don't I? Why, Hammond's a plunger from Plungerville, if you know what that means. From nine to three he is the strictest and best business man in the city. If you spoke to him then of the True Blue Athletic Club he wouldn't know what you were talking about. But after three o'clock he'll take any odds you like to offer, from matching pennies to backing an unknown horse."
Mrs. Saunders sighed. It was a wicked world into which her boy had to go to earn his living, evidently.
"And now, mother, I really must be off. I'll stay at home to-morrow night and take my scolding like a man. Good-night."
He kissed her and hurried away before she could say anything more, leaving her sitting there with folded hands to await, with her customary patience and just a trifle of apprehension, the coming of her husband. There was no mistaking the heavy footfall. Mrs. Saunders smiled sadly as she heard it, remembering that Dick had said once that, even if he were safe within the gates of Paradise, the sound of his father's footsteps would make the chills run up his backbone. She had reproved the levity of the remark at the time, but she often thought of it, especially when she knew there was trouble ahead--as there usually was.
"Where's Richard? Isn't he home yet?" were the old man's first words.
"He has been home, but he had to go out again. He had an appointment."
"Did you tell him I wanted to speak with him?"
"Yes, and he said he would stay home to-morrow night."
"Did he know what I said to-night?"
"I'm not sure that I told him you----"
"Don't shuffle now. He either knew or he did not. Which is it?"
"Yes, he knew, but he thought it might not be urgent, and he----"
"That will do. Where is his appointment?"
"At the club, I think."
"Ah-h-h!" The old man dwelt on the exclamation as if he had at last drawn out the reluctant worst. "Did he say when he would be home?"
"Very well. I will wait half-an-hour for him, and if he is not in by that time I will go to his club and have my talk with him there."
Old Mr. Saunders sat grimly down with his hat still on, and crossed his hands over the knob of his stout walking-stick, watching the clock that ticked slowly against the wall. Under these distressing circumstances the old woman lost her presence of mind and did the very thing she should not have done. She should have agreed with him, but instead of that she opposed the plan and so made it inevitable. It would be a cruel thing, she said, to shame their son before his friends, to make him a laughing-stock among his acquaintances. Whatever was to be said could be said as well to-morrow night as to-night, and that in their own home, where, at least, no stranger would overhear. As the old man made no answer but silently watched the clock, she became almost indignant with him. She felt she was culpable in entertaining even the suspicion of such a feeling against her lawful husband, but it did seem to her that he was not acting judiciously towards Dick. She hoped to turn his resentment from their son to herself, and would have welcomed any outburst directed against her alone. In this excited state, being brought, as it were, to bay, she had the temerity to say--
"You are wrong about one thing, and you may also be wrong in thinking Dick--in--in what you think about Dick."
The old man darted one lowering look at her, and though she trembled, she welcomed the glance as indicating the success of her red herring.
"What was I wrong about?"
"You were wrong--Mr. Hammond knows Dick is a member of the club. He is a member himself and he insisted Dick should join. That's why he raised his salary."
"A likely story! Who told you that?"
"Dick told me himself."
"And you believed it, of course!" Saunders laughed in a sneering, cynical sort of way and resumed his scrutiny of the clock. The old woman gave up the fight and began to weep silently, hoping, but in vain, to hear the light step of her son approaching the door. The clock struck the hour; the old man rose without a word, drew his hat further over his brow, and left the house.
Up to the last moment Mrs. Saunders hardly believed her husband would carry out his threat. Now, when she realised he was determined, she had one wild thought of flying to the club and warning her son. A moment's consideration put that idea out of the question. She called the serving-maid, who came, as it seemed to the anxious woman, with exasperating deliberation.
"Jane," she cried, "do you know where the Athletic Club is? Do you know where Centre Street is?"
Jane knew neither club nor locality.
"I want a message taken there to Dick, and it must go quickly. Don't you think you could run there----"
"It would be quicker to telegraph, ma'am," said Jane, who was not anxious to run anywhere. "There's telegraph paper in Mr. Richard's room, and the office is just round the corner."
"That's it, Jane; I'm glad you thought of it. Get me a telegraph form. Do make haste."
She wrote with a trembling hand, as plainly as she could, so that her son might have no difficulty in reading:--
"Richard Saunders, Athletic Club, Centre Street.
"Your father is coming to see you. He will be at the club before half-an-hour."
"There is no need to sign it; he will know his mother's writing," said Mrs. Saunders, as she handed the message and the money to Jane; and Jane made no comment, for she knew as little of telegraphing as did her mistress. Then the old woman, having done her best, prayed that the telegram might arrive before her husband; and her prayer was answered, for electricity is more speedy than an old man's legs.
Meanwhile Mr. Saunders strode along from the suburb to the city. His stout stick struck the stone pavement with a sharp click that sounded in the still, frosty, night air almost like a pistol shot. He would show both his wife and his son that he was not too old to be master in his own house. He talked angrily to himself as he went along, and was wroth to find his anger lessening as he neared his destination. Anger must be very just to hold its own during a brisk walk in evening air that is cool and sweet.
Mr. Saunders was somewhat abashed to find the club building a much more imposing edifice than he had expected. There was no low, groggy appearance about the True Blue Athletic Club. It was brilliantly lit from basement to attic. A group of men, with hands in pockets, stood on the kerb as if waiting for something. There was an air of occasion about the place. The old man inquired of one of the loafers if that was the Athletic Club.
"Yes, it is," was the answer; "are you going in?"
"I intend to."
"Are you a member?"
"Got an invitation?"
"Then I suspect you won't go in. We've tried every dodge ourselves."
The possibility of not getting in had never occurred to the old gentleman, and the thought that his son, safe within the sacred precincts of a club, might defy him, flogged his flagging anger and aroused his dogged determination.
"I'll try, at least," he said, going up the stone steps.
The men watched him with a smile on their lips. They saw him push the electric button, whereupon the door opened slightly. There was a brief, unheard parley; then the door swung wide open, and, when Mr. Saunders entered, it shut again.
"Well, I'm blest!" said the man on the kerb; "I wonder how the old duffer worked it. I wish I had asked him." None of the rest made any comment; they were struck dumb with amazement at the success of the old gentleman, who had even to ask if that were the club.
When the porter opened the door he repeated one of the questions asked a moment before by the man on the kerb.
"Have you an invitation, sir?"
"No," answered the old man, deftly placing his stick so that the barely opened door could not be closed until it was withdrawn. "No! I want to see my son, Richard Saunders. Is he inside?"
The porter instantly threw open the door.
"Yes, sir," he said. "They're expecting you, sir. Kindly come this way, sir."
The old man followed, wondering at the cordiality of his reception. There must be some mistake. Expecting him? How could that be! He was led into a most sumptuous parlour where a cluster of electric lamps in the ceiling threw a soft radiance around the room.
"Be seated, sir. I will tell Mr. Hammond that you are here."
"But--stop a moment. I don't want to see Mr. Hammond. I have nothing to do with Mr. Hammond. I want to see my son. Is it Mr. Hammond the banker?"
"Yes, sir. He told me to bring you in here when you came and to let him know at once."
The old man drew his hand across his brow, and ere he could reply the porter had disappeared. He sat down in one of the exceedingly easy leather chairs and gazed in bewilderment around the room. The fine pictures on the wall related exclusively to sporting subjects. A trim yacht, with its tall, slim masts and towering cloud of canvas at an apparently dangerous angle, seemed sailing directly at the spectator. Pugilists, naked to the waists, held their clinched fists in menacing attitudes. Race-horses, in states of activity and at rest, were interspersed here and there. In the centre of the room stood a pedestal of black marble, and upon it rested a huge silver vase encrusted with ornamentation. The old man did not know that this elaborate specimen of the silversmith's art was referred to as the "Cup." Some one had hung a placard on it, bearing, in crudely scrawled letters the words:--
"Fare thee well, and if for ever Still for ever Fare thee well."
While the old man was wondering what all this meant, the curtain suddenly parted and there entered an elderly gentleman somewhat jauntily attired in evening dress with a rose at his buttonhole. Saunders instantly recognised him as the banker, and he felt a resentment at what he considered his foppish appearance, realising almost at the same moment the rustiness of his own clothes, an everyday suit, not too expensive even when new.
"How are you, Mr. Saunders?" cried the banker, cordially extending his hand. "I am very pleased indeed to meet you. We got your telegram, but thought it best not to give it to Dick. I took the liberty of opening it myself. You see we can't be too careful about these little details. I told the porter to look after you and let me know the moment you came. Of course you are very anxious about your boy."
"I am," said the old man firmly. "That's why I'm here."
"Certainly, certainly. So are we all, and I presume I'm the most anxious man of the lot. Now what you want to know is how he is getting along?"
"Yes; I want to know the truth."
"Well, unfortunately, the truth is about as gloomy as it can be. He's been going from bad to worse, and no man is more sorry than I am."
"Do you mean to tell me so?"
"Yes. There is no use deluding ourselves. Frankly, I have no hope for him. There is not one chance in ten thousand of his recovering his lost ground."
The old man caught his breath, and leaned on his cane for support. He realised now the hollowness of his previous anger. He had never for a moment believed the boy was going to the bad. Down underneath his crustiness was a deep love for his son and a strong faith in him. He had allowed his old habit of domineering to get the better of him, and now in searching after a phantom he had suddenly come upon a ghastly reality.
"Look here," said the banker, noticing his agitation, "have a drink of our Special Scotch with me. It is the best there is to be had for money. We always take off our hats when we speak of the Special in this club. Then we'll go and see how things are moving."
As he turned to order the liquor he noticed for the first time the placard on the cup.
"Now, who the dickens put that there?" he cried angrily. "There's no use in giving up before you're thrashed." Saying which, he took off the placard, tore it up, and threw it into the waste basket.
"Does Richard drink?" asked the old man huskily, remembering the eulogy on the Special.
"Bless you, no. Nor smoke either. No, nor gamble, which is more extraordinary. No, it's all right for old fellows like you and me to indulge in the Special--bless it--but a young man who needs to keep his nerves in order, has to live like a monk. I imagine it's a love affair. Of course, there's no use asking you: you would be the last one to know. When he came in to-night I saw he was worried over something. I asked him what it was, but he declared there was nothing wrong. Here's the liquor. You'll find that it reaches the spot."
The old man gulped down some of the celebrated "Special," then he said--
"Is it true that you induced my son to join this club?"
"Certainly. I heard what he could do from a man I had confidence in, and I said to myself, We must have young Saunders for a member."
"Then don't you think you are largely to blame?"
"Oh, if you like to put it that way; yes. Still I'm the chief loser. I lose ten thousand by him."
"Good God!" cried the stricken father.
The banker looked at the old man a little nervously, as if he feared his head was not exactly right. Then he said: "Of course you will be anxious to see how the thing ends. Come in with me, but be careful the boy doesn't catch sight of you. It might rattle him. I'll get you a place at the back, where you can see without being seen."
They rose, and the banker led the way on tiptoe between the curtains into a large room filled with silent men earnestly watching a player at a billiard table in the centre of the apartment. Temporary seats had been built around the walls, tier above tier, and every place was taken. Saunders noticed his son standing near the table in his shirt- sleeves, with his cue butt downward on the ground. His face was pale and his lips compressed as he watched his opponent's play like a man fascinated. Evidently his back was against the wall, and he was fighting a hopeless fight, but was grit to the last.
Old Saunders only faintly understood the situation, but his whole sympathy went out to his boy, and he felt an instinctive hatred of the confident opponent who was knocking the balls about with a reckless accuracy which was evidently bringing dismay to the hearts of at least half the onlookers.
All at once there was a burst of applause, and the player stood up straight with a laugh.
"By Jove!" cried the banker, "he's missed. Didn't put enough stick behind it. That comes of being too blamed sure. Shouldn't wonder but there is going to be a turn of luck. Perhaps you'll prove a mascot, Mr. Saunders."
He placed the old man on an elevated seat at the back. There was a buzz of talk as young Saunders stood there chalking his cue, apparently loth to begin.
Hammond mixed among the crowd, and spoke eagerly now to one, now to another. Old Saunders said to the man next him--
"What is it all about? Is this an important match?"
"Important! You bet it is. I suppose there's more money on this game than was ever put on a billiard match before. Why, Jule Hammond alone has ten thousand on Saunders."
The old man gave a quivering sigh of relief. He was beginning to understand. The ten thousand, then, was not the figures of a defalcation.
"Yes," continued the other, "it's the great match for the cup. There's been a series of games, and this is the culminating one. Prognor has won one, and Saunders one; now this game settles it. Prognor is the man of the High Fliers' Club. He's a good one. Saunders won the cup for this club last year, so they can't kick much if they lose it now. They've never had a man to touch Saunders in this club since it began. I doubt if there's another amateur like him in this country. He's a man to be proud of, although he seemed to go to pieces to-night. They'll all be down on him to-morrow if they lose their money, although he don't make anything one way or another. I believe it's the high betting that's made him so anxious and spoiled his play."
"Hush, hush!" was whispered around the room. Young Saunders had begun to play. Prognor stood by with a superior smile on his lips. He was certain to go out when his turn came again.
Saunders played very carefully, taking no risks, and his father watched him with absorbed, breathless interest. Though he knew nothing of the game he soon began to see how points were made. The boy never looked up from the green cloth and the balls. He stepped around the table to his different positions without hurry, and yet without undue tardiness. All eyes were fastened on his play, and there was not a sound in the large room but the ever-recurring click-click of the balls. The father marvelled at the almost magical command the player had over the ivory spheres. They came and went, rebounded and struck, seemingly because he willed this result or that. There was a dexterity of touch, and accurate measurement of force, a correct estimate of angles, a truth of the eye, and a muscular control that left the old man amazed that the combination of all these delicate niceties were concentrated in one person, and that person his own son.
At last two of the balls lay close together, and the young man, playing very deftly, appeared to be able to keep them in that position as if he might go on scoring indefinitely. He went on in this way for some time, when suddenly the silence was broken by Prognor crying out--
"I don't call that billiards. It's baby play."
Instantly there was an uproar. Saunders grounded his cue on the floor and stood calmly amidst the storm, his eyes fixed on the green cloth. There were shouts of "You were not interrupted," "That's for the umpire to decide," "Play your game, Saunders," "Don't be bluffed." The old man stood up with the rest, and his natural combativeness urged him to take part in the fray and call for fair play. The umpire rose and demanded order. When the tumult had subsided, he sat down. Some of the High Fliers, however, cried, "Decision! Decision!"
"There is nothing to decide," said the umpire, severely. "Go on with your play, Mr. Saunders."
Then young Saunders did a thing that took away the breath of his friends. He deliberately struck the balls with his cue ball and scattered them far and wide. A simultaneous sigh seemed to rise from the breasts of the True Blues.
"That is magnificent, but it is not war," said the man beside old Saunders. "He has no right to throw away a single chance when he is so far behind."
"Oh, he's not so far behind. Look at the score," put in a man on the right.
Saunders carefully nursed the balls up together once more, scored off them for a while, and again he struck them far apart. This he did three times. He apparently seemed bent on showing how completely he had the table under his control. Suddenly a great cheer broke out, and young Saunders rested as before without taking his eyes from the cloth.
"What does that mean?" cried the old man excitedly, with dry lips.
"Why, don't you see? He's tied the score. I imagine this is almost an unprecedented run. I believe he's got Prognor on toast, if you ask me."
Hammond came up with flushed face, and grasped the old man by the arm with a vigour that made him wince.
"Did you ever see anything grander than that?" he said, under cover of the momentary applause. "I'm willing to lose my ten thousand now without a murmur. You see, you are a mascot after all."
The old man was too much excited to speak, but he hoped the boy would take no more chances. Again came the click-click of the balls. The father was pleased to see that Dick played now with all the care and caution he had observed at first. The silence became intense, almost painful. Every man leaned forward and scarcely breathed.
All at once Prognor strode down to the billiard-table and stretched his hand across it. A cheer shook the ceiling. The cup would remain on its black marble pedestal. Saunders had won. He took the outstretched hand of his defeated opponent, and the building rang again.
Banker Hammond pushed his way through the congratulating crowd and smote the winner cordially on the shoulder.
"That was a great run, Dick, my boy. The old man was your mascot. Your luck changed the moment he came in. Your father had his eye on you all the time."
"What!" cried Dick, with a jump.
A flush came over his pale face as he caught his father's eye, although the old man's glance was kindly enough.
"I'm very proud of you, my son," said his father, when at last he reached him. "It takes skill and pluck and nerve to win a contest like that. I'm off now; I want to tell your mother about it."
"Wait a moment, father, and we'll walk home together," said Dick.