THE rain falling not more than a foot and a half from the geographical tip of the nose out-jutting from the face in the doorway had in it a quality falsely apologetic but, nevertheless, stubbornly persistent despair.
It seeped under one's nerves, that rain, and left them uncomfortably soggy.
"Like a hypocritical old woman selfishly enjoying her misery all over the confounded house," reflected the face in the doorway. "That last drop actually sighed quaveringly on my nose. It's quite wet, my nose."
The face produced a handkerchief which had withstood, not without scars of service, the onslaughts of numerous laundries, and the wet nose was solicitously patted back to a state of dryness.
And when the face itself was once more disclosed to view from behind its crumpled concealment, no pedestrian on that rain-simmering street paused to view it. Not one pedestrian gave it so much as a passing glance. This universal lack of interest was apparently accepted by the face without bitterness or regret. It seemed to appreciate the fact that it was the type of face at which few persons ever troubled to look, and even when they did look they found no difficulty in pursuing the even tenor of their thoughts, assuming they had any to pursue. The face was well accustomed to being not looked at. Of late it had much preferred being not looked at. It had felt rather retiring and undressed, as if uncertain of the expression that might be surprised on its unremarkable surface.
This face was the exclusive property of a Mr. Hector Owen. At the moment its moody eyes were staring from lean, bleak features through a vista of rain-drenched twilight upon the untidy prospect of Sixth Avenue at Fourteenth Street. The rumble of the elevated trains on the tracks above formed a monotonous background to his thoughts. Without his realising it, coloured electric lights were flashing in his mind. Eva Le Gallienne's theatre kept reminding him that it was still there. A little farther down the street the stones of the armoury bunched themselves together in the wet gloom as if desirous of a blanket.
Mr. Hector Owen's chief occupation in life was that of a sort of urban bailiff for a wealthy estate, the owners of which, so far as he could gather, spent nearly all of their time either in jail, in bed, or intoxicated, or in any combination of the three, such as intoxicated in bed, intoxicated in jail, or just simply intoxicated somewhere in Europe, and always in trouble.
There had been times—usually when Mr. Owen was reading letters from the heirs in difficulties or depositing untoiled-for funds to their accounts—when he had secretly wished he too were intoxicated in bed or in jail or even right there at his desk. Any one of these places of intoxication would have been a welcome relief to Mr. Hector Owen of the legal profession if not of the legal mind.
Recently there had been increasing agitation on the part of the heirs—probably the disgruntled result of an especially virulent hangover—to transfer the estate from the conscientious hands of Mr. Owen to the less human but more efficient management of a trust company. And this agitation had been augmented by the fact that he was unreasonably held accountable for the strange disappearance of one of the estate's most invaluable heirs, one who had mysteriously ceased to offend the public eye. The remaining drunken or bedridden or incarcerated heirs were considerably worked up over this. In the absence of anyone better to blame, they became indignant at Mr. Owen. They demanded that he return to them at once the missing heir. They desired this missing heir not because they had affectionate natures or felt in the least responsible or were in any way decent-minded or public-spirited. Probably they would have been gratified had Mr. Owen returned the missing heir to them quite dead. In lieu of death certificate or a dead body, they earnestly desired the signature of the missing heir in order to dispose of enough real estate to enable them to pursue uncramped their lives of lavish debauchery.
Accordingly the shadow of the trust company lay across Hector Owen's business like a threat of suffocation. It lay across more than his business. It darkened his entire life, for without that estate to manage there would not be enough left of the Owen law practice upon which even the thinnest shadow could sprawl with any measure of comfort. That missing heir was essential to the man's continued existence. Also, in a lesser degree, it was essential to the happiness of Lulu Owen, his wife. Of course Lulu had money of her own, but of late Hector had rather begun to suspect that his wife regarded her money as entirely and exclusively her own while the money he made she considered in the light of a joint income in which he held the short end.
This was by no means the only thing he had begun to suspect of Lulu, and these suspicions served to intensify the steadily deepening shadow through which he had been labouring during the last six months of depression. Only this morning a tentative draft of the estate, or trust, transfer had been laid before him together with a covering letter signed somewhat shakily by all of the heirs but one, and that one was still missing.
Inwardly, as he stared misanthropically at the rain-dimpled surface of the street, Hector Owen cursed the missing heir. The fact that the missing heir was a girl, a girl, young and beautiful though no better than she should be, if as good, diminished neither the size nor sincerity Of Mr. Owen's oaths. He cursed her sexlessly and selflessly like God berating the world. While the missing Signature of this loose creature prevented him from carrying out the wishes of the other heirs to their entire satisfaction, it did not prevent them from carrying off their estate to some trust company to his utter and eternal undoing. Mr. Hector Owen was not temperamentally equipped to compete for business in the modern marts of law. The estate business upon which he depended had been a legacy from his father, who in turn had received it in the same convenient manner.
Standing there in that doorway, Hector Owen had much more than enough to think about. Any one of his thoughts would have been sufficient to send a heart far stouter than his down for the third time. Especially the one about Lulu and Mal Summers. That was a black thought indeed. A man could not very well walk up to his wife and say: "By the way, darling, yesterday you spent a pleasant but nevertheless highly adulterous afternoon with a dirty snake in the grass by the name of Mal Summers." His wife would promptly accuse him of having an evil mind, after which she would throw things at him and end up by packing her suitcase during a protective fit of hysteria. Nothing could ever be settled that way. Nothing ever was. Although he was morally certain of his facts, he could confront her with no shred of actual proof. And even had he been in a position to say: "Yesterday, my dear, I enjoyed the somewhat doubtful privilege of being present though concealed while you and one of my alleged friends conducted yourselves in a manner which, to say the least, was disillusioning"—even had Mr. Owen been prepared to make this statement he would have baulked at it like a nervous horse. In spite of his legal training his reticent nature, inhibited as it was by all sorts of gentlemanly instincts, would have pleaded with him to remain silent. Mr. Owen had one of those visual minds that beheld in graphic detail the things of which he spoke. Anyway, he was sufficiently well acquainted with his wife to forecast the nature of her reply. That good lady would indubitably have told him with bafflingly feminine sophistry: "In the first place, you wouldn't have been there if you hadn't an evil mind, and, in the second place, if you hadn't an evil mind I wouldn't have been there myself."
It never occurred to the less quick-witted Mr. Owen to admit quite frankly that he had an evil mind. For some strange and unexamined reason it is an admission few persons care to make, even those whose minds are a great deal more than evil. Yet, if the simple truth were known, everyone has an evil mind when it comes to such matters, and if they have not, they are extremely dumb, or indifferent to a fault.
Hector Owen was neither dumb nor indifferent. His face, such as it was, had looked out on the passing of thirty-eight neat, orderly, uneventful years. Although it was not a face to attract at first glance, it was one that amply justified a second. It was a keen face in a quiet way, keen, thoughtful, and sentient. A trifle long, with high cheek bones, and lips of a rather attractively unplanned pattern. It could look exceedingly mournful, as it did now, this face, and even when the lips arranged themselves in a smile, the blue eyes above responded slowly, as if sceptical of the levity taking place below. This gave to Mr. Owen's smile a sort of double emphasis, and made it something to be pleasantly remembered. It was such a slow, well considered smile that the observer found himself, or herself, in a position to get to know all of it. One felt that one had played a helpful part in this smile—participated at its birth, so to speak.
Among his various other incongruities was the studious dignity with which he moved his five feet eight inches of slim body from place to place. He was by nature a jointy sort of an animal whom God or evolution had designed to assume a lounging attitude towards life, yet Mr. Owen, for some stuffy reasons of his own, had seen fit to set these intentions aside by imposing on his person a bearing of austere restraint. This made it all the more alarming when Mr. Owen, unexpectedly seized by some lighter impulse, was discovered in the act of twirling experimentally on his toes or thoughtfully moving his feet to the rhythm of some secret melody. In spite of the rigorous restraint he placed upon his actions, he was occasionally subject to these seemingly frivolous seizures. Those who beheld them carried away the impression that they had witnessed something only a little short of a resurrection, and were for the rest of the day depressed by the instability of matter.
In private life Mr. Owen, with the tactful aid of his wife, had come to regard himself as one who danced uninspiredly, mixed even worse, and who understood the social amenities not at all.
However, he had his moments of rebellion—moments when he refused to accept his wife's valuations either of himself or of life, and when he gave inner voice to the opinion that Lulu's friends were for the most part common, coarse, uninteresting men and women who upon the loss of their sexual powers would have nothing else left in life. These moments were not so rare as they were self-contained. Leading so much as he did through his professional activities the lives of others, he had developed an elaborate private or secret life of his own. And this secret life was composed of many and various lives which fortunately for society, but unhappily for himself, he would never live in reality. Of course, it was nothing less than a system of escape set up to provide Mr. Hector Owen with the excitement and self-esteem his days so sorely lacked.
For example, there were mornings when he arose with the well considered opinion that had he the time and opportunity he could become a moving-picture actor of no mean ability. On other mornings he was content to be merely an inspired director. There were other moments when he quite modestly decided that if he only set his mind on it he could dance with the best of them and sleep with the worst. The detached manner in which he arrived at this last conclusion softened somewhat its lewd character. On occasions Hector's suppressed ego would be satisfied with the part of a victorious general leading his troops not only into battle, but also clean through the lines and out on the other side while even the enemy cheered. The safe arrival of himself and his troops on the other side pleased him a great deal more than the actual shedding of blood itself. The enemy cheering, he thought, was a nice touch. He had no desire to shed the blood of those brave and cheering soldiers.
As a matter of fact, he had no desire to shed any blood at all save that of the missing heir and Mr. Mal Summers, who had become such a humid friend of the family. Mal's blood he would have gladly extracted with an eye dropper. To have observed him seated solemnly at his desk earlier in the day, no one would have suspected that Mr. Hector Owen, the third in an honourable line of lawyers, was happily watching himself in his mind's eye as he busily went about the business of extracting drops of Mr. Mal Summers' blood, searching with diligent patience from vein to vein until not a drop of the unfortunate gentleman's blood remained to foul another nest.
In his more serious moments Mr. Owen saw himself in the flattering role of a leader and liberator of men, swaying them by the sheer intellectual vigour of his reason and the measured eloquence of his winged words. That he was not and never would be even the least of the characters he felt himself so well qualified to become occasionally depressed him. However, owing to the fact that even while envying the good fortune of one of his creations he was already arranging for himself another career of equal honour and distinction, his moods of depression were of short duration. And inasmuch as no one suspected the man of entertaining such mad thoughts of self-aggrandizement in his seemingly sober mind, no harm was done to anyone, and Mr. Owen was better able to struggle through the day, scrutinising bills and speculating idly as to the number and quality of the mistresses jointly maintained by the heirs. It faintly amused him to reflect that although he knew none of these women he could walk into their apartments at any time of the year and tell them where their underthings came from, how much they cost, and give each article its technical classification. Occasionally he toyed with the idea of calling one of them up and inquiring how she enjoyed her last selection of Naughties or if she was making out any better in the recent delivery of Speedies.
Yes, Hector Owen's life was extremely secret, and, it is to be feared, not always nice, which is, of course, part of the fun in having a secret life. Good clean thoughts no doubt have their place in the scheme of things, but there is nothing so satisfactory as a good evil one unless it is the deed itself. And this is especially true when the evil thought can be hurled with crackling vigour into the innocuous ranks of a lot of neatly dressed clean ones.
Of Mrs. Lulu Owen it would be perhaps more charitable to say that she was merely a female member of the race, and let matters stand at that. In so far as she presented to the world in the form of an agreeable body those time-honoured dips and elevations so commonly found diverting by members of the opposite sex Mrs. Lulu Owen was every inch a woman. True enough, the elevations were threatening to become immensities and the dips were gradually growing less alluringly pronounced. Still, with regular exercise and careful dieting, the charming creature had at least ten good years of sheer animalism ahead of her. After that she would probably become active in a movement whose aim was a constructive criticism of the morals and manners of the young.
Lulu was such a creature of sex that she never found time to stop to have a baby, which shows that the modern conception of the cave man and woman is a totally erroneous one. Cave people got busy about sex only by fits and starts, and these opportunities were much rarer than is commonly supposed. One cannot become very sexy in the presence of a frowning Ichthyosaurus, while one glance at an enraged Mammoth is quite sufficient to make the ruggedest voluptuary forget all about sex save perhaps his own, which, if he is in his right mind, he will remove from the scene of danger as speedily as possible. Lulu was not at all like a cave woman. She was impurely a modern creation. There was nothing frank about her. Nor could it be said of Lulu Owen that she was lacking in mentality. She had a mind quite definitely her own. It was one of those small, unimaginative, competently dishonest compositions that can twist its owner out of all tight places while others are left stupidly holding the bag. It is an exceedingly valuable type of mind to have if one wants to live comfortably in the world as it is constituted today. Although adept in the art of registering all the nicer and more conventional emotions, she was capable of responding sincerely to only the most elementary, such as hunger, cold, heat, anger, greed, gratified vanity, fear, and, of course, all sorts of sex stimuli in little and large degree. In short, she was no better nor worse than thousands of other men and women who for lack of a more accurate name are loosely classified as human beings in contradistinction to their betters, the brute beasts.
And the irony of it was that Mr. Hector Owen had always considered her just about the finest woman, the most desirable creature and the loveliest spirit that had ever sacrificed herself to the coarse and selfish impulses of man. Thus it has always been.
As a lover his wife had always found Mr. Owen far from satisfactory. To her way of thinking the bed was no place for vaguely poetic fancies or idle philosophical discourses such as her husband habitually indulged in as he eased his various joints and members into what he fondly hoped would be both a pleasant and comfortable ensemble. It was all quite simple to the lady. One went to bed either to sleep or not to sleep.
It is to be feared that Lulu Owen was not much of a companion. Of recent months her husband had come to suspect as much. Although they carried on more or less as usual, their words ceased to have any special value or meaning. They were merely words dropped at random like so many scraps of paper about the room, then later collected and carelessly tossed away.
Hector was not the man to thrive under this sort of existence. His wife was indifferent to it. As long as men continued to inhabit the world she would have enough food for thought to occupy her mind. Hector was not so easily satisfied. He was growing afraid to think at all. He was still sufficiently old-fashioned to want his wife to be exactly that, to want her also to be a companion, an audience, admirer, and what not. He did not demand so much in the line of admiration—merely an occasional word or so, a small scrap to make a man feel a little less grim and alone.
When eventually it was borne in on his consciousness that in Lulu he could find none of these sources of comfort, he was surprised no less than distressed. He had married her under the impression that she was a delicately complex creature of many charming moods and fancies. Now he found her no better than a sleeping and eating partner. He might just as well have a great big beautiful cat in the house. A cat would be an improvement, in fact. Cats did not give utterance to hateful, goading remarks and pack suitcases and slam doors and hurl books and talk for hours of their sacrifices in life and the innumerable stitches of clothing they did not have to their backs. Yes, taking everything into consideration, a cat would most decidedly be a welcome relief.
Yet, in spite of this knowledge, there he stood waiting in the rain for this very wife to whom he would have preferred a cat. Certainly, he decided, he would not have stood there waiting for all the cats in the world. Why, then, should he wait for his wife, who was not as good as any one of all these cats? It did not seem reasonable. Why not tell her to go incontinently and blithely to hell for all time, and then walk diagonally across Sixth Avenue to that speakeasy where he could get himself as wet inside as most people seemed to be outside? Better still, why not grab off some wench and ply her with gin and improper proposals? Why not make a night of it? It had been years since he had made a night of it. And then it had not been a whole night, nor had he made so much of it. He still had money enough in his pocket to buy the companionship he lacked at home. Some of these Greenwich Village speakeasy girls were good sports, he had been told—rough and unreliable but good-hearted and regular. They understood men and knew how to please them. He would get himself one of those.
Strangely impelled by the fascination and the prospect of immediate release presented by this daring idea, Hector Owen's secret life was about to merge for once with his real one. He cast a swift, bright glance across the street and was on the point of directing his feet to follow the path taken by his eyes when a face peered in at him through the curtain of the rain.