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THE NIGHT BEFORE
"It's all up to Jones now," kept running through Brewster's brain as he drove off to keep his appointment with Peggy Gray. "The million is gone — all gone. I'm as poor as Job's turkey. It's up to Jones, but I don't see how he can decide against me. He insisted on making a pauper of me and he can't have the heart to throw me down now. But, what if he should take it into his head to be ugly! I wonder if I could break the will — I wonder if I could beat him out in court."
Peggy was waiting for him. Her cheeks were flushed as with a fever. She had caught from him the mad excitement of the occasion.
"Come, Peggy," he exclaimed, eagerly. "This is our last holiday — let's be merry. We can forget it to-morrow, if you like, when we begin all over again, but maybe it will be worth remembering." He assisted her to the seat and then leaped up beside her. "We're off!" he cried, his voice quivering.
"It is absolute madness, dear," she said, but her eyes were sparkling with the joy of recklessness. Away went the trap and the two light hearts. Mrs. Gray turned from a window in the house with tears in her eyes. To her troubled mind they were driving off into utter darkness.
"The queerest looking man came to the house to see you this afternoon, Monty," said Peggy. "He wore a beard and he made me think of one of Remington's cowboys."
"What was his name?"
"He told the maid it did not matter. I saw him as he walked away and he looked very much a man. He said he would come to-morrow if he did not find you down town to-night. Don't you recognize him from the description?"
"Not at all. Can't imagine who he is."
"Monty," she said, after a moment's painful reflection, "he — he couldn't have been a —"
"I know what you mean. An officer sent up to attach my belongings or something of the sort. No, dearest; I give you my word of honor I do not owe a dollar in the world." Then he recalled his peculiar indebtedness to Bragdon and Gardner. "Except one or two very small personal obligations," he added, hastily. "Don't worry about it, dear, we are out for a good time and we must make the most of it. First, we drive through the Park, then we dine at Sherry's."
"But we must dress for that, dear," she cried. "And the chaperon?"
He turned very red when she spoke of dressing. "I'm ashamed to confess it, Peggy, but I have no other clothes than these I'm wearing now. Don't look so hurt, dear — I'm going to leave an order for new evening clothes to-morrow — if I have the time. And about the chaperon. People won't be talking before to-morrow and by that time — "
"No, Monty, Sherry's is out of the question. We can't go there," she said, decisively.
"Oh, Peggy! That spoils everything," he cried, in deep disappointment.
"It isn't fair to me, Monty. Everybody would know us and every tongue would wag. They would say, 'There are Monty Brewster and Margaret Gray. Spending his last few dollars on her.' You wouldn't have them think that?"
He saw the justice in her protest. "A quiet little dinner in some out of the way place would be joyous," she added, persuasively.
"You're right, Peggy, you're always right. You see, I'm so used to spending money by the handful that I don't know how to do it any other way. I believe I'll let you carry the pocketbook after to-morrow. Let me think; I know a nice little restaurant down town. We'll go there and then to the theater. Dan DeMille and his wife are to be in my box and we're all going up to Pettingill's studio afterward. I'm to give the 'Little Sons' a farewell supper. If my calculations don't go wrong, that will be the end of the jaunt and we'll go home happy."
At eleven o'clock Pettingill's studio opened its doors to the "Little Sons" and their guests, and the last "Dutch lunch" was soon under way. Brewster had paid for it early in the evening and when he sat down at the head of the table there was not a penny in his pockets. A year ago, at the same place and at the same hour, he and the "Little Sons" were having a birthday feast. A million dollars came to him on that night. To-night he was poorer by far than on the other occasion, but he expected a little gift on the new anniversary.
Around the board, besides the nine "Little Sons," sat six guests, among them the DeMilles, Peggy Gray and Mary Valentine. "Nopper" Harrison was the only absent "Little Son" and his health was proposed by Brewster almost before the echoes of the toast to the bride and groom died away.
Interruption came earlier on this occasion than it did that night a year ago. Ellis did not deliver his messages to Brewster until three o'clock in the morning, but the A.D.T. boy who rang the bell at Pettingill's a year later handed him a telegram before twelve o'clock.
"Congratulations are coming in, old man," said DeMille, as Monty looked fearfully at the little envelope the boy had given him.
"Many happy returns of the day," suggested Bragdon. "By Jove, it's sensible of you to get married on your birthday, Monty. It saves time and expense to your friends."
"Read it aloud," said "Subway" Smith. "Two to one it's from Nopper Harrison," cried Pettingill.
Brewster's fingers trembled, he knew not why, as he opened the envelope. There was the most desolate feeling in his heart, the most ghastly premonition that ill-news had come in this last hour. He drew forth the telegram and slowly painfully unfolded it. No one could have told by his expression that he felt almost that he was reading his death warrant. It was from Grant & Ripley and evidently had been following him about town for two or three hours. The lawyers had filed it at 8:30 o'clock.
He read it at a glance, his eyes burning, his heart freezing. To the end of his days these words lived sharp and distinct in his brain.
"Come to the office immediately. Will wait all night for you if necessary. Jones has disappeared and there is absolutely no trace of him. Grant & Ripley."
Brewster sat as one paralyzed, absolutely no sign of emotion in his face. The others began to clamor for the contents of the telegram, but his tongue was stiff and motionless, his ears deaf. Every drop of blood in his body was stilled by the shock, every sense given him by the Creator was centered upon eleven words in the handwriting of a careless telegraph operator---"Jones has disappeared and there is absolutely no trace of him."
"JONES HAS DISAPPEARED!" Those were the words, plain and terrible in their clearness, tremendous in their brutality. Slowly the rest of the message began to urge its claims upon his brain. "Come to our office immediately" and "Will wait all night" battled for recognition. He was calm because he had not the power to express an emotion. How he maintained control of himself afterward he never knew. Some powerful, kindly force asserted itself, coming to his relief with the timeliness of a genii. Gradually it began to dawn upon him that the others were waiting for him to read the message aloud. He was not sure that a sound would come forth when he opened his lips to speak, but the tones were steady, natural and as cold as steel.
"I am sorry I can't tell you about this," he said, so gravely that his hearers were silenced. "It is a business matter of such vital importance that I must ask you to excuse me for an hour or so. I will explain everything to-morrow. Please don't be uneasy. If you will do me the honor to grace the board of an absent host, I'll be most grateful. It is imperative that I go, and at once. I promise to return in an hour." He was standing, his knees as stiff as iron.
"Is it anything serious?" asked DeMille. "What! has anything happened?" came in halting, frightened tones from Peggy.
"It concerns me alone, and it is purely of a business nature. Seriously, I can't delay going for another minute. It is vital. In an hour I'll return. Peggy, don't be worried — don't be distressed about me. Go on and have a good time, everybody, and you'll find me the jolliest fellow of all when I come back. It's twelve o'clock. I'll be here by one on the 23d of September."
"Let me go with you," pleaded Peggy, tremulously, as she followed him into the hallway.
"I must go alone," he answered. "Don't worry, little woman, it will be all right."
His kiss sent a chill to the very bottom of Peggy's heart.