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COALS OF FIRE
It was not that he had realized heavily in his investments which caused his friends and his enemies to regard him in a new light; his profit had been quite small, as things go on the Exchange in these days. The mere fact that he had shown such foresight proved sufficient cause for the reversal of opinion. Men looked at him with new interest in their eyes, with fresh confidence. His unfortunate operations in the stock market had restored him to favor in all circles. The man, young or old, who could do what he had done with Lumber and Fuel well deserved the new promises that were being made for him.
Brewster bobbed uncertainly between two emotions — elation and distress. He had achieved two kinds of success — the desired and the undesired. It was but natural that he should feel proud of the distinction the venture had brought to him on one hand, but there was reason for despair over the acquisition of $50,000. It made it necessary for him to undertake an almost superhuman feat — increase the number of his January bills. The plans for the ensuing spring and summer were dimly getting into shape and they covered many startling projects. Since confiding some of them to "Nopper" Harrison, that gentleman had worn a never-decreasing look of worry and anxiety in his eyes.
Rawles added to his despair a day or two after the Stock Exchange misfortune. He brought up the information that six splendid little puppies had come to bless his Boston terrier family, and Joe Bragdon, who was present, enthusiastically predicted that he could get $100 apiece for them. Brewster loved dogs, yet for one single horrible moment he longed to massacre the helpless little creatures. But the old affection came back to him, and he hurried out with Bragdon to inspect the brood.
"And I've either got to sell them or kill them," he groaned. Later on he instructed Bragdon to sell the pups for $25 apiece, and went away, ashamed to look their proud mother in the face.
Fortune smiled on him before the day was over, however. He took "Subway" Smith for a ride in the "Green Juggernaut," bad weather and bad roads notwithstanding. Monty lost control of the machine and headed for a subway excavation. He and Smith saved themselves by leaping to the pavement, sustaining slight bruises, but the great machine crashed through the barricade and dropped to the bottom of the trench far below. To Smith's grief and Brewster's delight the automobile was hopelessly ruined, a clear loss of many thousands. Monty's joy was short-lived, for it was soon learned that three luckless workmen down in the depths had been badly injured by the green meteor from above. The mere fact that Brewster could and did pay liberally for the relief of the poor fellows afforded him little consolation. His carelessness, and possibly his indifference, had brought suffering to these men and their families which was not pleasant to look back upon. Lawsuits were avoided by compromises. Each of the injured men received $4,000.
At this time everyone was interested in the charity bazaar at the Astoria. Society was on exhibition, and the public paid for the privilege of gazing at the men and women whose names filled the society columns. Brewster frequented the booth presided over by Miss Drew, and there seemed to be no end to his philanthropy. The bazaar lasted two days and nights, and after that period his account-book showed an even "profit" of nearly $3,000. Monty's serenity, however, was considerably ruffled by the appearance of a new and aggressive claimant for the smiles of the fair Barbara. He was a Californian of immense wealth and unbounded confidence in himself, and letters to people in New York had given him a certain entrée. The triumphs in love and finance that had come with his two score years and ten had demolished every vestige of timidity that may have been born with him. He was successful enough in the world of finance to have become four or five times a millionaire, and he had fared so well in love that twice he had been a widower. Rodney Grimes was starting out to win Barbara with the same dash and impulsiveness that overcame Mary Farrell, the cook in the mining-camp, and Jane Boothroyd, the school-teacher, who came to California ready to marry the first man who asked her. He was a penniless prospector when he married Mary, and when he led Jane to the altar she rejoiced in having captured a husband worth at least $50,000.
He vied with Brewster in patronizing Barbara's booth, and he rushed into the conflict with an impetuousity that seemed destined to carry everything before it. Monty was brushed aside, Barbara was preempted as if she were a mining claim and ten days after his arrival in New York, Grimes was the most talked-of man in town. Brewster was not the sort to be dispatched without a struggle, however. Recognizing Grimes as an obstacle, but not as a rival, he once more donned his armor and beset Barbara with all the zest of a champion who seeks to protect and not to conquer. He regarded the Californian as an impostor and summary action was necessary. "I know all about him, Babs," he said one day after he felt sure of his position. "Why, his father was honored by the V. C., on the coast in '49."
"The Victoria Cross?" asked Barbara innocently.
"No, the vigilance committee."
In this way Monty routed the enemy and cleared the field before the end of another week. Grimes transferred his objectionable affection and Barbara was not even asked to be wife number three. Brewster's campaign was so ardent that he neglected other duties deplorably, falling far behind his improvident average. With Grimes disposed of, he once more forsook the battlefield of love and gave his harassed and undivided attention to his own peculiar business.
The fast-and-loose game displeased Miss Barbara greatly. She was at first surprised, then piqued, then resentful. Monty gradually awoke to the distressing fact that she was going to be intractable, as he put it, and forthwith undertook to smooth the troubled sea. To his amazement and concern she was not to be appeased.
"Does it occur to you, Monty," she said, with a gentle coldness that was infinitely worse than heat, "that you have been carrying things with a pretty high hand? Where did you acquire the right to interfere with my privileges? You seem to think that I am not to speak to any man but you."
"O, come now, Babs," retorted Monty, "I've not been quite as unreasonable as that. And you know yourself that Grimes is the worst kind of a bounder."
"I know nothing of the sort," replied the lady, with growing irritation. "You say that about every man who gives me a smile or a flower. Does it indicate such atrocious taste?"
"Don't be silly Barbara. You know perfectly well that you have talked to Gardner and that idiot Valentine by the hour, and I've not said a word. But there are some things I can't stand, and the impertinence of Grimes is one of them. Jove! he looked at you, out of those fishy eyes, sometimes as though he owned you. If you knew how many times I've fairly ached to knock him down!"
Inwardly Barbara was weakening a little before his masterfulness. But she gave no sign.
"And it never occurred to you," she said, with that exasperating coldness of the voice, "that I was equal to the situation. I suppose you thought Mr. Grimes had only to beckon and I would joyfully answer. I'll have you know, Monty Brewster, right now, that I am quite able to choose my friends, and to handle them. Mr. Grimes has character and I like him. He has seen more of life in a year of his strenuous career than you ever dreamed of in all your pampered existence. His life has been real, Monty Brewster, and yours is only an imitation."
It struck him hard, but it left him gentle.
"Babs," he said, softly, "I can't take that from you. You don't really mean it, do you?
Am I as bad as that?"
It was a moment for dominance, and he missed it. His gentleness left her cold.
"Monty" she exclaimed irritably, "you are terribly exasperating. Do make up your mind that you and your million are not the only things in the world."
His blood was up now, but it flung him away from her.
"Some day, perhaps, you'll find out that there is not much besides. I am just a little too big, for one thing, to be played with and thrown aside. I won't stand it."
He left the house with his head high in the air, angry red in his cheeks, and a feeling in his heart that she was the most unreasonable of women. Barbara, in the meantime, cried herself to sleep, vowing she would never love Monty Brewster again as long as she lived.
A sharp cutting wind was blowing in Monty's face as he left the house. He was thoroughly wretched.
"Throw up your hands!" came hoarsely from somewhere, and there was no tenderness in the tones. For an instant Monty was dazed and bewildered, but in the next he saw two shadowy figures walking beside him. "Stop where you are, young fellow," was the next command, and he stopped short. He was in a mood to fight, but the sight of a revolver made him think again. Monty was not a coward, neither was he a fool. He was quick to see that a struggle would be madness.
"What do you want?" he demanded as coolly as his nerves would permit.
"Put up your hands quick!" and he hastily obeyed the injunction.
"Not a sound out of you or you get it good and proper. You know what we want. Get to work, Bill; I'll watch his hands."
"Help yourselves, boys. I'm not fool enough to scrap about it. Don't hit me or shoot, that's all. Be quick about it, because I'll take cold if my overcoat is open long. How's business been to-night?" Brewster was to all intents and purposes the calmest man in New York.
"Fierce!" said the one who was doing the searching. "You're the first guy we've seen in a week that looks good."
"I hope you won't be disappointed," said Monty genially. "If I'd expected this I might have brought more money."
"I guess we'll be satisfied," chuckled the man with the revolver. "You're awful nice and kind, mister, and maybe you wouldn't object to tellin' us when you'll be up dis way ag'in."
"It's a pleasure to do business with you, pardner," said the other, dropping Monty's $300 watch in his pocket. "We'll leave car-fare for you for your honesty." His hands were running through Brewster's pockets with the quickness of a machine. "You don't go much on jewelry, I guess. Are dese shoit buttons de real t'ing?"
"They're pearls," said Monty, cheerfully. "My favorite jool," said the man with the revolver. "Clip 'em out, Bill."
"Don't cut the shirt," urged Monty. "I'm going to a little supper and I don't like the idea of a punctured shirt-front."
"I'll be careful as I kin, mister. There, I guess dat's all. Shall I call a cab for you, sir?" "No, thank you, I think I'll walk."
"Well, just walk south a hundred steps without lookin' 'round er yellin' and you kin save your skin. I guess you know what I mean, pardner."
"I'm sure I do. Good-night."
"Good-night," came in chuckles from the two hold-up men. But Brewster hesitated, a sharp thought penetrating his mind.
"By gad!" he exclaimed, "you chaps are very careless. Do you know you've missed a roll of three hundred dollars in this overcoat pocket?" The men gasped and the spasmodic oaths that came from them were born of incredulity. It was plain that they doubted their ears.
"Say it ag'in," muttered Bill, in bewildered tones.
"He's stringin' us, Bill," said the other.
"Sure," growled Bill. "It's a nice way to treat us, mister. Move along now and don't turn 'round."
"Well, you're a couple of nice highwaymen," cried Monty in disgust.
"Sh — not so loud."
"That is no way to attend to business. Do you expect me to go down into my pocket and hand you the goods on a silver tray?"
"Keep your hands up! You don't woik dat game on me. You got a gun there."
"No, I haven't. This is on the level. You overlooked a roll of bills in your haste and I'm not the sort of fellow to see an earnest endeavorer get the worst of it. My hands are up. See for yourself if I'm not telling you the truth."
"What kind of game is dis?" growled Bill, dazed and bewildered. "I'm blowed if I know w'at to t'ink o' you," cried he in honest amazement. "You don't act drunk, and you ain't crazy, but there's somethin' wrong wid you. Are you givin' it to us straight about de wad?"
"You can find out easily."
"Well, I hate to do it, boss, but I guess we'll just take de overcoat and all. It looks like a trick and we takes no chances. Off wid de coat."
Monty's coat came off in a jiffy and he stood shivering before the dumbfounded robbers.
"We'll leave de coat at de next corner, pardner. It's cold and you need it more'n we do. You're de limit, you are. So long. Walk right straight ahead and don't yell."
Brewster found his coat a few minutes later, and went whistling away into the night. The roll of bills was gone.