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ExcerptCHAPTER I THE SHERIFF'S WRIT The residence of the Reverend John Swinton was on Riverside Drive, although the parish of which he was the rector lay miles away, down in the heart of the East Side. It was thus that he compromised between his own burning desire to aid in the cleansing of the city's slums and the social aspirations of his wife. The house stood on a corner, within grounds of its own, at the back of which were the stables and the carriage-house. A driveway and a spacious walk led to the front of the mansion; from the side street, a narrow path reached to the rear entrance. A visitor to-night chose this latter humble manner of approach, for the simple reason that this part of the grounds lay unlighted, and he hoped, therefore, to pass unobserved through the shadows. The warm, red light that streamed from an uncurtained French window on the ground floor only deepened the uncertainty of everything. The man stepped warily, closing the gate behind him with stealthy care, and crept forward on tiptoe to lessen the sound of the crunching gravel beneath his heavy shoes. It was an undignified entry for an officer of the law who carried his authorization in his hand; but courage was not this man's strong point. His fear was lest he should meet tall, stalwart Dick Swinton, who, on a previous occasion of a similar character, had forcibly resented what he deemed an unwarrantable intrusion on the part of a shabby rascal. The uncurtained window now attracted the attention of the sheriff's officer, and he peered in. It was the rector's study. The rector himself was seated with his back toward the window, at his desk, upon which were piled account-books and papers in hopeless confusion. A shaded lamp stood upon the centre of the table, and threw a circle of light which included the clergyman's silver-gray hair, his books, and a figure by the fireside--a handsome woman resplendent in jewels and wearing a low-cut, white evening gown--Mary Swinton, the rector's wife. The room was paneled, and the shadows were deep, relieved by the glint of gilt on the bindings of the books that filled the shelves on the three sides. The fireplace was surmounted by a carved mantel, upon which stood two gilt candelabra and a black statuette. The walls were burdened by scarce a single picture, and the red curtains at the windows were only half-drawn. On looking in, the impression given was one of luxury and of artistic refinement, an ideal room for a winter's night, a place for retirement, peace and repose. Mrs. Swinton sat in her own particular chair by the fireside--a most comfortable tub of a chair--and reclined with her feet outstretched upon a stool, smoking a cigarette. Her graceful head was thrown back, and, as she toyed with the cigarette, displaying the arm of a girl and a figure slim and youthful, it was difficult to believe that this woman could be the mother of a grown son and daughter. Her brown hair, which had a glint of gold in it, was carefully dressed, and crowned with a thin circlet of diamonds. Her shapely little head was poised upon a long, white throat rising from queenly shoulders. She looked very tall as she lounged thus with her feet extended and her head thrown back, watching the smoke curl from her full, red lips. Opposite her, deep in an armchair, and scarcely visible behind a large fashion journal, sat Netty Swinton, her daughter, a girl of nineteen, a mere slip of a woman. The pet name for Netty was, "The Persian," because she somewhat resembled a Persian cat in her ways, always choosing the warmest and most comfortable chairs, and curling up on sofas, quite content to be quiet, only asking to be left alone and caressed at rare intervals by highly-esteemed persons. From the ladies' gowns, it was obvious that they were going somewhere; and, by the rector's ruffled hair and shabby smoking-jacket, that he would be staying at home, busy over money affairs--the eternal worry of this household. The rector was even now struggling with his accounts. The clever man seemed to be a fool before the realities of life as set down in numerals. As a young man, he had been a prodigy. People then spoke of him as a future bishop, and he filled fashionable churches of the city with the best in the land. They came to hear his sensational sermons, and they patted him on the back approvingly in their drawing-rooms. He was immensely popular. Perhaps his wonderful masculine beauty was responsible for much of the interest he excited. It certainly captivated Mary Herresford, a girl of nineteen, who was among those bewitched. She adored the young preacher, whom later she married secretly; and the red flame of their passionate love had never died down. The wealthy father of the bride had only forgiven them to the extent of presenting his daughter with the property on Riverside Drive, where they had since made their home, to the considerable inconvenience of the rector himself. Soon after the marriage, John Swinton had taken the rectorship of St. Botolph's, that great church planned for the betterment of the most hopeless slums. The clergyman's admirers believed that this was but the beginning of magnificent achievements. On the contrary, the result threatened disaster to his good-standing before the world. The population of the parish grew in poverty, rather than in grace. The rector was a man of ideals, generous to a fault. His means were small; his bounty was great. The income enjoyed by his wife did not count. Old Herresford allowed his daughter only sufficient for her personal needs, which were, naturally, rather extravagant, for she had been reared and had lived always in the atmosphere of wealth. Matters were further complicated by the fact that Mrs. Swinton, though she adored her husband, hated his parish cordially. She belonged to the aristocracy, and she had no thought of tearing herself from the life with which she was familiar, while her husband, on the contrary, doted on his parish and avoided, so far as he might, the company of the frivolous idlers who were his wife's companions. Husband and wife, therefore, agreed to differ, and to be satisfied with love. After their son was born, the wife drifted back to her old life, and was a most welcome figure in the gayest society. Yet, no scandal was ever associated with her name, and none sneered at her love for her husband. The rector, when he yielded to her persuasions and accompanied her on social excursions, was as welcome as she; and everybody proclaimed Mrs. Swinton a clever woman to be able to live two entirely-different lives at the same time, with neither overlapping. At forty, she was still young and beautiful, with a ripe maturity that only the tender crow's feet about the corners of the eyes betrayed to the inquisitive. She set the pace for many a younger woman, and was far more active than prim little Netty, her daughter. Needless to say, she was adored by her son, to whom she was both mother and chum. Dick Swinton was like his father, the same gentlemanly spirit combined with a somewhat unpractical mind, which turned to the beautiful and the good, and refused to admit the ugliness of unpleasant facts. Indeed, the young man's position was even more awkward than his father's. As grandson and heir of Richard Herresford much was expected of him. Everybody did not know that the rich old man was such a miser that, after paying for his grandson's education, at his daughter's persuasion, he allowed him only a thousand dollars a year, and persistently refused to disburse this sum until it was dragged from him by Mrs. Swinton. The rector turned over the leaves of the account-books, and sighed heavily. "It's no use," he cried, at last. "I can't make them up. They are in a hopeless muddle. I know, though, that I can't raise a thousand cents, much less a thousand dollars, and the builder threatens to make me bankrupt, if I don't pay at once." "Bankrupt, John!" his wife murmured, languidly raising her brows. "You are exaggerating." "No, my dear. The truth must be faced. Pressure is being applied in every direction. I signed a note, making myself security for the building of the Mission-room. And here are other threats of suits. I already have judgments against me, that they may try to satisfy at any moment. Why, even our furniture may be seized! And this man declares that he will make me bankrupt. It's a horrible position--bad enough for any man, fatal for a clergyman. We've staved off the crash for about as long as we can.--And I'm tired of it all!" He flung the account-book from him, and, brushing his gray hair from his forehead in an agitated fashion, started up. His brow was moist, and his hand trembled. "Only a matter of a thousand dollars, John?" cried Mrs. Swinton, after another puff from her cigarette. Then, glancing at the clock, she added: "What a time they are getting the carriage ready! We shall be late. Netty, go and see why they are so long." Netty slipped away. "Mary, you must be late for once," cried the disturbed husband, striding over to her. "We must talk this matter out." She smiled up at him bewitchingly, and he melted, for he adored her still. "Father will have to pay the money," she said, rising lazily and facing him--as tall as he, and wonderfully graceful. She put her hand upon his shoulder. "Yes, John, I'll go to father once more. It's really shameful! He absolutely promised you a thousand dollars for that Mission Hall, and then afterward refused to pay it." "Yes, of course, he did. That was why I became responsible. But you know what his promises are." "His promises should be kept like those of other men. It is wicked to give money with one hand, and then take it away with the other. He allowed you to compromise yourself in the expectation of this unusual lavishness on his part; and now he repudiates the whole thing, like the miser that he is." "Hush, darling! He is a very old man." "Oh, yes, it's all very well for you to find excuses for him. You would find excuses for Satan himself, John. You are far too lenient. Just think what father would say, if you were to be made bankrupt. Can't you hear his delighted, malevolent chuckles? Oh, it is too terrible, too outrageous! You know what everyone would say--that you had been speculating, or gambling, just because you dabbled a little in mines a few years ago." "A thousand dollars would only delay the crash. We owe at least ten times as much as that," groaned the unhappy man, sinking into the chair his wife had just vacated. He rested his elbows on his knees, and his throbbing head in his hands. "They'll have to find another rector for St. Botolph's. I've tried hard to satisfy everybody. I've begged and worked. We've had bazaars, concerts, collections, everything. But people give less and less, and they want more and more. The poor cry louder and louder." "John, you are too generous. It's monstrous that father should cling to his money as he does. He has nobody to leave it to but us--in fact, it is as much ours as his. Yet, he cripples us at every turn. I have almost to go down on my knees for my own allowance--" "And, when you get it, dearest, I have to borrow half. I'm a wretched muddler. I used to think great things of myself once, but now--well, they'd better make me bankrupt, and have done with it. At least, I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that, if I have robbed the rich man and the trader, it has been to relieve the poor. Why, my own clothes are so shabby that I am ashamed to face the sunlight." It did not for one moment occur to his generous nature to glance at the costly garments of his beautiful wife, who wanted for nothing, who spent her days in a round of pleasure. He took her hand as she stood beside him, and raised it to his lips. "I have been a miserable failure as a husband for you, Mary," he said. "You remember that they used jestingly to call you the bishop's wife, and said that you would never regret having married a parson. Well, I really thought in those days that I should make up for the disparity in our relative positions, and raise you to an eminence worthy of you." "Poor old John!" laughed his wife, smoothing his gleaming, silvery hair. "It's not your fault. Father ought to have done more. He's a perfect beast. He is a miser, mean, deceitful, avaricious, spiteful, everything that's wicked. He is ruining you, and he will ruin Dick, too. He threatens that, when he dies, we may find all his wealth left to charities. Charities, indeed, when we have to pinch and screw to satisfy insolent tradesmen, and the everlasting hunger of a lot of cringing, crawling loafers and vagabonds who won't work!" "Hush, hush, my darling! Don't let's get on that topic to-night. We never agree as to some things, and we never shall." "There's talk, too, of Dick's going to the front. And that will cost money. Anyway, I shall see father to-morrow. You must write to that wretched builder man, and tell him he will have his money. I'll get it somehow, if I have to pawn my jewels." "Your father has repeatedly informed you, dearest," the rector objected, "that your jewels do not really belong to you--that he has only loaned them to you." "Yes, that's a device of his, although they belonged to my mother. At any rate, write the man a sharp letter." "Very well, my dear," replied the rector, wearily, and he rose, and walked with bowed head toward his desk. "I'll say that I hope to pay him." The two had been through scenes like this before, but never had the situation hitherto been so desperate as to-night. Netty, soft-footed and soft-voiced, returned to announce that the carriage was ready. Mrs. Swinton thereupon threw away her cigarette, and gathered up her train. For one moment, she bent over her husband's shoulder, and pressed her soft, fair cheek to his. "Don't look so worried, dear," she murmured. "What's a thousand dollars! Why, I might win that much at bridge, to-night." "Don't, darling, don't!" the husband groaned, distractedly. Any mention of bridge was as salt upon an open wound to him. He knew that his wife played for high stakes among her own set--indeed, every parishioner of St. Botolph's knew it; it was a whispered scandal. Yet, her touch thrilled him, and he was as wax in her fingers. She spent her life in an exotic atmosphere, but he knew that there was no evil in her nature. There were weaknesses, doubtless; but who was weaker than he, and where is the woman in the world who is at once beautiful and strong? The man without, lurking beside the window, watched the departure of the mother and daughter. He remained within the shadow until the yellow lights of the carriage had disappeared through the gates; then, he came forward, just as Rudd, the manservant, was closing the front door. "What, you again?" gasped the servant. "Yes. It's all right, I suppose? He ain't here?" "The young master?" Rudd inquired, with a grin. "No. And it's lucky for you that he ain't." "Parson in?" came the curt query. "Yes," Rudd answered, reluctantly. "Well, tell him I'm here," the deputy commanded, with a truculent air. "He'll want to see me, I guess. Anyhow, he'd better!"
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