A GRIM RETROGRESSION--THE PHANTOM OF CHANCE
"Why, Mrs. Wheeler," said Mrs. Vance, looking Carrie over in a glance, "where have you been? Why haven't you been to see me? I've been wondering all this time what had become of you. Really, I----"
"I'm so glad to see you," said Carrie, pleased and yet nonplussed. Of all times, this was the worst to encounter Mrs. Vance. "Why, I'm living down town here. I've been intending to come and see you. Where are you living now?"
"In Fifty-eighth Street," said Mrs. Vance, "just off Seventh Avenue--218. Why don't you come and see me?"
"I will," said Carrie. "Really, I've been wanting to come. I know I ought to. It's a shame. But you know----"
"What's your number?" said Mrs. Vance.
"Thirteenth Street," said Carrie, reluctantly. "112 West."
"Oh," said Mrs. Vance, "that's right near here, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Carrie. "You must come down and see me some time."
"Well, you're a fine one," said Mrs. Vance, laughing, the while noting that Carrie's appearance had modified somewhat. "The address, too," she added to herself. "They must be hard up."
Still she liked Carrie well enough to take her in tow.
"Come with me in here a minute," she exclaimed, turning into a store.
When Carrie returned home, there was Hurstwood, reading as usual. He seemed to take his condition with the utmost nonchalance. His beard was at least four days old.
"Oh," thought Carrie, "if she were to come here and see him?"
She shook her head in absolute misery. It looked as if her situation was becoming unbearable.
Driven to desperation, she asked at dinner:
"Did you ever hear any more from that wholesale house?"
"No," he said. "They don't want an inexperienced man."
Carrie dropped the subject, feeling unable to say more.
"I met Mrs. Vance this afternoon," she said, after a time.
"Did, eh?" he answered.
"They're back in New York now," Carrie went on. "She did look so nice."
"Well, she can afford it as long as he puts up for it," returned Hurstwood. "He's got a soft job."
Hurstwood was looking into the paper. He could not see the look of infinite weariness and discontent Carrie gave him.
"She said she thought she'd call here some day."
"She's been long getting round to it, hasn't she?" said Hurstwood, with a kind of sarcasm.
The woman didn't appeal to him from her spending side.
"Oh, I don't know," said Carrie, angered by the man's attitude. "Perhaps I didn't want her to come."
"She's too gay," said Hurstwood, significantly. "No one can keep up with her pace unless they've got a lot of money."
"Mr. Vance doesn't seem to find it very hard."
"He may not now," answered Hurstwood, doggedly, well understanding the inference; "but his life isn't done yet. You can't tell what'll happen. He may get down like anybody else."
There was something quite knavish in the man's attitude. His eye seemed to be cocked with a twinkle upon the fortunate, expecting their defeat. His own state seemed a thing apart--not considered.
This thing was the remains of his old-time cocksureness and independence. Sitting in his flat, and reading of the doings of other people, sometimes this independent, undefeated mood came upon him. Forgetting the weariness of the streets and the degradation of search, he would sometimes prick up his ears. It was as if he said:
"I can do something. I'm not down yet. There's a lot of things coming to me if I want to go after them."
It was in this mood that he would occasionally dress up, go for a shave, and, putting on his gloves, sally forth quite actively. Not with any definite aim. It was more a barometric condition. He felt just right for being outside and doing something.
On such occasions, his money went also. He knew of several poker rooms down town. A few acquaintances he had in downtown resorts and about the City Hall. It was a change to see them and exchange a few friendly commonplaces.
He had once been accustomed to hold a pretty fair hand at poker. Many a friendly game had netted him a hundred dollars or more at the time when that sum was merely sauce to the dish of the game-- not the all in all. Now, he thought of playing.
"I might win a couple of hundred. I'm not out of practice."
It is but fair to say that this thought had occurred to him several times before he acted upon it. The poker room which he first invaded was over a saloon in West Street, near one of the ferries. He had been there before. Several games were going. These he watched for a time and noticed that the pots were quite large for the ante involved.
"Deal me a hand," he said at the beginning of a new shuffle. He pulled up a chair and studied his cards. Those playing made that quiet study of him which is so unapparent, and yet invariably so searching.
Poor fortune was with him at first. He received a mixed collection without progression or pairs. The pot was opened.
"I pass," he said.
On the strength of this, he was content to lose his ante. The deals did fairly by him in the long run, causing him to come away with a few dollars to the good.
The next afternoon he was back again, seeking amusement and profit. This time he followed up three of a kind to his doom. There was a better hand across the table, held by a pugnacious Irish youth, who was a political hanger-on of the Tammany district in which they were located. Hurstwood was surprised at the persistence of this individual, whose bets came with a sang- froid which, if a bluff, was excellent art. Hurstwood began to doubt, but kept, or thought to keep, at least, the cool demeanour with which, in olden times, he deceived those psychic students of the gaming table, who seem to read thoughts and moods, rather than exterior evidences, however subtle. He could not down the cowardly thought that this man had something better and would stay to the end, drawing his last dollar into the pot, should he choose to go so far. Still, he hoped to win much--his hand was excellent. Why not raise it five more?
"I raise you three," said the youth.
"Make it five," said Hurstwood, pushing out his chips.
"Come again," said the youth, pushing out a small pile of reds.
"Let me have some more chips," said Hurstwood to the keeper in charge, taking out a bill.
A cynical grin lit up the face of his youthful opponent. When the chips were laid out, Hurstwood met the raise.
"Five again," said the youth.
Hurstwood's brow was wet. He was deep in now--very deep for him. Sixty dollars of his good money was up. He was ordinarily no coward, but the thought of losing so much weakened him. Finally he gave way. He would not trust to this fine hand any longer.
"I call," he said.
"A full house!" said the youth, spreading out his cards.
Hurstwood's hand dropped.
"I thought I had you," he said, weakly.
The youth raked in his chips, and Hurstwood came away, not without first stopping to count his remaining cash on the stair.
"Three hundred and forty dollars," he said.
With this loss and ordinary expenses, so much had already gone.
Back in the flat, he decided he would play no more.
Remembering Mrs. Vance's promise to call, Carrie made one other mild protest. It was concerning Hurstwood's appearance. This very day, coming home, he changed his clothes to the old togs he sat around in.
"What makes you always put on those old clothes?" asked Carrie.
"What's the use wearing my good ones around here?" he asked.
"Well, I should think you'd feel better." Then she added: "Some one might call."
"Who?" he said.
"Well, Mrs. Vance," said Carrie.
"She needn't see me," he answered, sullenly.
This lack of pride and interest made Carrie almost hate him.
"Oh," she thought, "there he sits. 'She needn't see me.' I should think he would be ashamed of himself."
The real bitterness of this thing was added when Mrs. Vance did call. It was on one of her shopping rounds. Making her way up the commonplace hall, she knocked at Carrie's door. To her subsequent and agonising distress, Carrie was out. Hurstwood opened the door, half-thinking that the knock was Carrie's. For once, he was taken honestly aback. The lost voice of youth and pride spoke in him.
"Why," he said, actually stammering, "how do you do?"
"How do you do?" said Mrs. Vance, who could scarcely believe her eyes. His great confusion she instantly perceived. He did not know whether to invite her in or not.
"Is your wife at home?" she inquired.
"No," he said, "Carrie's out; but won't you step in? She'll be back shortly."
"No-o," said Mrs. Vance, realising the change of it all. "I'm really very much in a hurry. I thought I'd just run up and look in, but I couldn't stay. Just tell your wife she must come and see me."
"I will," said Hurstwood, standing back, and feeling intense relief at her going. He was so ashamed that he folded his hands weakly, as he sat in the chair afterwards, and thought.
Carrie, coming in from another direction, thought she saw Mrs. Vance going away. She strained her eyes, but could not make sure.
"Was anybody here just now?" she asked of Hurstwood.
"Yes," he said guiltily; "Mrs. Vance."
"Did she see you?" she asked, expressing her full despair. This cut Hurstwood like a whip, and made him sullen.
"If she had eyes, she did. I opened the door."
"Oh," said Carrie, closing one hand tightly out of sheer nervousness. "What did she have to say?"
"Nothing," he answered. "She couldn't stay."
"And you looking like that!" said Carrie, throwing aside a long reserve.
"What of it?" he said, angering. "I didn't know she was coming, did I?"
"You knew she might," said Carrie. "I told you she said she was coming. I've asked you a dozen times to wear your other clothes. Oh, I think this is just terrible."
"Oh, let up," he answered. "What difference does it make? You couldn't associate with her, anyway. They've got too much money.
"Who said I wanted to?" said Carrie, fiercely.
"Well, you act like it, rowing around over my looks. You'd think I'd committed----"
"It's true," she said. "I couldn't if I wanted to, but whose fault is it? You're very free to sit and talk about who I could associate with. Why don't you get out and look for work?"
This was a thunderbolt in camp.
"What's it to you?" he said, rising, almost fiercely. "I pay the rent, don't I? I furnish the----"
"Yes, you pay the rent," said Carrie. "You talk as if there was nothing else in the world but a flat to sit around in. You haven't done a thing for three months except sit around and interfere here. I'd like to know what you married me for?"
"I didn't marry you," he said, in a snarling tone.
"I'd like to know what you did, then, in Montreal?" she answered.
"Well, I didn't marry you," he answered. "You can get that out of your head. You talk as though you didn't know."
Carrie looked at him a moment, her eyes distending. She had believed it was all legal and binding enough.
"What did you lie to me for, then?" she asked, fiercely. "What did you force me to run away with you for?"
Her voice became almost a sob.
"Force!" he said, with curled lip. "A lot of forcing I did."
"Oh!" said Carrie, breaking under the strain, and turning. "Oh, oh!" and she hurried into the front room.
Hurstwood was now hot and waked up. It was a great shaking up for him, both mental and moral. He wiped his brow as he looked around, and then went for his clothes and dressed. Not a sound came from Carrie; she ceased sobbing when she heard him dressing. She thought, at first, with the faintest alarm, of being left without money--not of losing him, though he might be going away permanently. She heard him open the top of the wardrobe and take out his hat. Then the dining-room door closed, and she knew he had gone.
After a few moments of silence, she stood up, dry-eyed, and looked out the window. Hurstwood was just strolling up the street, from the flat, toward Sixth Avenue.
The latter made progress along Thirteenth and across Fourteenth Street to Union Square.
"Look for work!" he said to himself. "Look for work! She tells me to get out and look for work."
He tried to shield himself from his own mental accusation, which told him that she was right.
"What a cursed thing that Mrs. Vance's call was, anyhow," he thought. "Stood right there, and looked me over. I know what she was thinking."
He remembered the few times he had seen her in Seventy-eight Street. She was always a swell-looker, and he had tried to put on the air of being worthy of such as she, in front of her. Now, to think she had caught him looking this way. He wrinkled his forehead in his distress.
"The devil!" he said a dozen times in an hour.
It was a quarter after four when he left the house. Carrie was in tears. There would be no dinner that night.
"What the deuce," he said, swaggering mentally to hide his own shame from himself. "I'm not so bad. I'm not down yet."
He looked around the square, and seeing the several large hotels, decided to go to one for dinner. He would get his papers and make himself comfortable there.
He ascended into the fine parlour of the Morton House, then one of the best New York hotels, and, finding a cushioned seat, read. It did not trouble him much that his decreasing sum of money did not allow of such extravagance. Like the morphine fiend, he was becoming addicted to his ease. Anything to relieve his mental distress, to satisfy his craving for comfort. He must do it. No thoughts for the morrow--he could not stand to think of it any more than he could of any other calamity. Like the certainty of death, he tried to shut the certainty of soon being without a dollar completely out of his mind, and he came very near doing it.
Well-dressed guests moving to and fro over the thick carpets carried him back to the old days. A young lady, a guest of the house, playing a piano in an alcove pleased him. He sat there reading.
His dinner cost him $1.50. By eight o'clock he was through, and then, seeing guests leaving and the crowd of pleasure-seekers thickening outside wondered where he should go. Not home. Carrie would be up. No, he would not go back there this evening. He would stay out and knock around as a man who was independent-- not broke--well might. He bought a cigar, and went outside on the corner where other individuals were lounging--brokers, racing people, thespians--his own flesh and blood. As he stood there, he thought of the old evenings in Chicago, and how he used to dispose of them. Many's the game he had had. This took him to poker.
"I didn't do that thing right the other day," he thought, referring to his loss of sixty dollars. "I shouldn't have weakened. I could have bluffed that fellow down. I wasn't in form, that's what ailed me."
Then he studied the possibilities of the game as it had been played, and began to figure how he might have won, in several instances, by bluffing a little harder.
"I'm old enough to play poker and do something with it. I'll try my hand to-night."
Visions of a big stake floated before him. Supposing he did win a couple of hundred, wouldn't he be in it? Lots of sports he knew made their living at this game, and a good living, too.
"They always had as much as I had," he thought.
So off he went to a poker room in the neighbourhood, feeling much as he had in the old days. In this period of self-forgetfulness, aroused first by the shock of argument and perfected by a dinner in the hotel, with cocktails and cigars, he was as nearly like the old Hurstwood as he would ever be again. It was not the old Hurstwood--only a man arguing with a divided conscience and lured by a phantom.
This poker room was much like the other one, only it was a back room in a better drinking resort. Hurstwood watched a while, and then, seeing an interesting game, joined in. As before, it went easy for a while, he winning a few times and cheering up, losing a few pots and growing more interested and determined on that account. At last the fascinating game took a strong hold on him. He enjoyed its risks and ventured, on a trifling hand, to bluff the company and secure a fair stake. To his self-satisfaction intense and strong, he did it.
In the height of this feeling he began to think his luck was with him. No one else had done so well. Now came another moderate hand, and again he tried to open the jack-pot on it. There were others there who were almost reading his heart, so close was their observation.
"I have three of a kind," said one of the players to himself. "I'll just stay with that fellow to the finish."
The result was that bidding began.
"I raise you ten."
"Right you are."
It got to where Hurstwood had seventy-five dollars up. The other man really became serious. Perhaps this individual (Hurstwood) really did have a stiff hand.
"I call," he said.
Hurstwood showed his hand. He was done. The bitter fact that he had lost seventy-five dollars made him desperate.
"Let's have another pot," he said, grimly.
"All right," said the man.
Some of the other players quit, but observant loungers took their places. Time passed, and it came to twelve o'clock. Hurstwood held on, neither winning nor losing much. Then he grew weary, and on a last hand lost twenty more. He was sick at heart.
At a quarter after one in the morning he came out of the place. The chill, bare streets seemed a mockery of his state. He walked slowly west, little thinking of his row with Carrie. He ascended the stairs and went into his room as if there had been no trouble. It was his loss that occupied his mind. Sitting down on the bedside he counted his money. There was now but a hundred and ninety dollars and some change. He put it up and began to undress.
"I wonder what's getting into me, anyhow?" he said.
In the morning Carrie scarcely spoke and he felt as if he must go out again. He had treated her badly, but he could not afford to make up. Now desperation seized him, and for a day or two, going out thus, he lived like a gentleman--or what he conceived to be a gentleman--which took money. For his escapades he was soon poorer in mind and body, to say nothing of his purse, which had lost thirty by the process. Then he came down to cold, bitter sense again.
"The rent man comes to-day," said Carrie, greeting him thus indifferently three mornings later.
"Yes; this is the second," answered Carrie.
Hurstwood frowned. Then in despair he got out his purse.
"It seems an awful lot to pay for rent," he said.
He was nearing his last hundred dollars.