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THE CUT DIRECT
A typographical error in one of the papers caused no end of amusement to every one except Monty and Miss Drew. The headlines had announced: "Magnificent ball to be given Miss Drew by her Finance," and the "Little Sons of the Rich" wondered why Monty did not see the humor of it.
"He has too bad an attack to see anything but the lady," said Harrison one evening when the "Sons" were gathered for an old-time supper party.
"It's always the way," commented the philosophical Bragdon. "When you lose your heart your sense of humor goes too. Engaged couples couldn't do such ridiculous stunts if they had the least particle of it left."
"Well if Monty Brewster is still in love with Miss Drew he takes a mighty poor way of showing it." "Subway" Smith's remark fell like a bombshell. The thought had come to everyone, but no one had been given the courage to utter it. For them Brewster's silence on the subject since the DeMille dinner seemed to have something ominous behind it.
"It's probably only a lover's quarrel," said Bragdon. But further comment was cut short by the entrance of Monty himself, and they took their places at table.
Before the evening came to an end they were in possession of many astonishing details in connection with the coming ball. Monty did not say that it was to be given for Miss Drew and her name was conspicuously absent from his descriptions. As he unfolded his plans even the "Little Sons," who were imaginative by instinct and reckless on principle, could not be quite acquiescent.
"Nopper" Harrison solemnly expressed the opinion that the ball would cost Brewster at least $125,000. The "Little Sons" looked at one another in consternation, while Brewster's indifference expressed itself in an unflattering comment upon his friend's vulgarity. "Good Lord, Nopper," he added; "you would speculate about the price of gloves for your wedding."
Harrison resented the taunt. "It would be much less vulgar to do that, Monty, saving your presence, than to force your millions down everyone's throat."
"Well, they swallow them, I've noticed," retorted Brewster, "as though they were chocolates."
Pettingill interrupted grandiloquently. "My friends and gentlemen!"
"Which is which?" asked Van Winkle, casually.
But the artist was in the saddle. "Permit me to present you to the boy Croesus — the only one extant. His marbles are plunks and his kites are made of fifty-dollar notes. He feeds upon coupons a la Newburgh, and his champagne is liquid golden eagles. Look at him, gentlemen, while you can, and watch him while he spends thirteen thousand dollars for flowers!"
"With a Viennese orchestra for twenty-nine thousand!" added Bragdon. "And yet they maintain that silence is golden."
"And three singers to divide twelve thousand among themselves! That's absolutely, criminal," cried Van Winkle. "Over in Germany they'd sing a month for half that amount."
"Six hundred guests to feed — total cost of not less than forty thousand dollars," groaned "Nopper," dolefully.
"And there aren't six hundred in town," lamented "Subway" Smith. "All that glory wasted on two hundred rank outsiders."
"You men are borrowing a lot of trouble," yawned Brewster with a gallant effort to seem bored. "All I ask of you is to come to the party and put up a good imitation of having the time of your life. Between you and me I'd rather be caught at Huyler's drinking ice cream soda than giving this thing. But — "
"That's what we want to know, but what?" and "Subway" leaned forward eagerly.
"But," continued Monty, "I am in for it now, and it is going to be a ball that is a ball."
Nevertheless the optimistic Brewster could not find the courage to tell Peggy of these picturesque extravagances. To satisfy her curiosity he blandly informed her that he was getting off much more cheaply than he had expected. He laughingly denounced as untrue the stories that had come to her from outside sources. And before his convincing assertions that reports were ridiculously exaggerated, the troubled expression in the girl's eyes disappeared.
"I must seem a fool," groaned Monty, as he left the house after one of these explanatory trials, "but what will she think of me toward the end of the year when I am really in harness." He found it hard to control the desire to be straight with Peggy and tell her the story of his mad race in pursuit of poverty.
Preparations for the ball went on steadily, and in a dull winter it had its color value for society. It was to be a Spanish costume-ball, and at many tea-tables the talk of it was a god-send. Sarcastic as it frequently was on the question of Monty's extravagance, there was a splendor about the Aladdin-like entertainment which had a charm. Beneath the outward disapproval there was a secret admiration of the superb nerve of the man. And there was little reluctance to help him in the wild career he had chosen. It was so easy to go with him to the edge of the precipice and let him take the plunge alone. Only the echo of the criticism reached Brewster, for he had silenced Harrison with work and Pettingill with opportunities. It troubled him little, as he was engaged in jotting down items that swelled the profit side of his ledger account enormously. The ball was bound to give him a good lead in the race once more, despite the heavy handicap the Stock Exchange had imposed. The "Little Sons" took off their coats and helped Pettingill in the work of preparation. He found them quite superfluous, for their ideas never agreed and each man had a way of preferring his own suggestion. To Brewster's chagrin they were united in the effort to curb his extravagance.
"He'll be giving automobiles and ropes of pearls for favors if we don't stop him," said "Subway" Smith, after Monty had ordered a vintage champagne to be served during the entire evening. "Give them two glasses first, if you like, and then they won't mind if they have cider the rest of the night."
"Monty is plain dotty," chimed in Bragdon, "and the pace is beginning to tell on him."
As a matter of fact the pace was beginning to tell on Brewster. Work and worry were plainly having an effect on his health. His color was bad, his eyes were losing their lustre, and there was a listlessness in his actions that even determined effort could not conceal from his friends. Little fits of fever annoyed him occasionally and he admitted that he did not feel quite right.
"Something is wrong somewhere," he said, ruefully, "and my whole system seems ready to stop work through sympathy."
Suddenly there was a mighty check to the preparations. Two days before the date set for the ball everything came to a standstill and the managers sank back in perplexity and consternation. Monty Brewster was critically ill.
Appendicitis, the doctors called it, and an operation was imperative.
"Thank heaven it's fashionable," laughed Monty, who showed no fear of the prospect. "How ridiculous if it had been the mumps, or if the newspapers had said, 'On account of the whooping-cough, Mr. Brewster did not attend his ball.' "
"You don't mean to say — the ball is off, of course," and Harrison was really alarmed.
"Not a bit of it, Nopper," said Monty. "It's what I've been wanting all along. You chaps do the handshaking and I stay at home."
There was an immediate council of war when this piece of news was announced, and the "Little Sons" were unanimous in favor of recalling the invitations and declaring the party off. At first Monty was obdurate, but when some one suggested that he could give the ball later on, after he was well, he relented. The opportunity to double the cost by giving two parties was not to be ignored.
"Call it off, then, but say that it is only postponed."
A great rushing to and fro resulted in the cancelling of contracts, the recalling of invitations, the settling of accounts, with the most loyal effort to save as much as possible from the wreckage. Harrison and his associates, almost frantic with fear for Brewster's life, managed to perform wonders in the few hours of grace. Gardner, with rare foresight, saw that the Viennese orchestra would prove a dead loss. He suggested the possibility of a concert tour through the country, covering several weeks, and Monty, too ill to care one way or the other, authorized him to carry out the plan if it seemed feasible.
To Monty, fearless and less disturbed than any other member of his circle, appendicitis seemed as inevitable as vaccination.
"The appendix is becoming an important feature in the Book of Life," he once told Peggy Gray.
He refused to go to a hospital, but pathetically begged to be taken to his old rooms at Mrs. Gray's.
With all the unhappy loneliness of a sick boy, he craved the care and companionship of those who seemed a part of his own. Dr Lotless had them transform a small bedchamber into a model operating room and Monty took no small satisfaction in the thought that if he was to be denied the privilege of spending money for several weeks, he would at least make his illness as expensive as possible. A consultation of eminent surgeons was called, but true to his colors, Brewster installed Dr. Lotless, a "Little Son," as his house surgeon. Monty grimly bore the pain and suffering and submitted to the operation which alone could save his life. Then came the struggle, then the promise of victory and then the quiet days of convalescence. In the little room where he had dreamed his boyish dreams and suffered his boyish sorrows, he struggled against death and gradually emerged from the mists of lassitude. He found it harder than he had thought to come back to life. The burden of it all seemed heavy. The trained nurses found that some more powerful stimulant than the medicine was needed to awaken his ambition, and they discovered it at last in Peggy.
"Child," he said to her the first time she was permitted to see him, and his eyes had lights in them; "do you know, this isn't such a bad old world after all. Sometimes as I've lain here, it has looked twisted and queer. But there are things that straighten it out. To-day I feel as though I had a place in it — as though I could fight things and win out. What do you think, Peggy? Do you suppose there is something that I could do? You know what I mean — something that some one else would not do a thousand times better."
But Peggy, to whom this chastened mood in Monty was infinitely pathetic, would not let him talk. She soothed him and cheered him and touched his hair with her cool hands. And then she left him to think and brood and dream.
It was many days before his turbulent mind drifted to the subject of money, but suddenly he found himself hoping that the surgeons would be generous with their charges. He almost suffered a relapse when Lotless, visibly distressed, informed him that the total amount would reach three thousand dollars.
"And what is the additional charge for the operation?" asked Monty, unwilling to accept such unwarranted favors.
"It's included in the three thousand," said Lotless. They knew you were my friend and it was professional etiquette to help keep down expenses."
For days Brewster remained at Mrs. Gray's, happy in its restfulness, serene under the charm of Peggy's presence, and satisfied to be hopelessly behind in his daily expense account. The interest shown by the inquiries at the house and the anxiety of his friends were soothing to the profligate. It gave him back a little of his lost self-respect. The doctors finally decided that he would best recuperate in Florida, and advised a month at least in the warmth. He leaped at the proposition, but took the law into his own hands by ordering General Manager Harrison to rent a place, and insisting that he needed the companionship of Peggy and Mrs. Gray.
"How soon can I get back to work, Doctor?" demanded Monty, the day before the special train was to carry him south. He was beginning to see the dark side of this enforced idleness. His blood again was tingling with the desire to be back in the harness of a spendthrift.
"To work?" laughed the physician. "And what is your occupation, pray?"
"Making other people rich," responded Brewster, soberly.
"Well, aren't you satisfied with what you have done for me? If you are as charitable as that you must be still pretty sick. Be careful, and you may be on your feet again in five or six weeks."
Harrison came in as Lotless left. Peggy smiled at him from the window. She had been reading aloud from a novel so garrulous that it fairly cried aloud for interruptions.
"Now, Nopper, what became of the ball I was going to give?" demanded Monty, a troubled look in his eyes.
"Why, we called it off," said "Nopper," in surprise.
"Don't you remember, Monty?" asked Peggy, looking up quickly, and wondering if his mind had gone trailing off.
"I know we didn't give it, of course; but what date did you hit upon?"
"We didn't postpone it at all," said "Nopper." How could we? We didn't know whether, — I mean, it wouldn't have been quite right to do that sort of thing."
"I understand. Well, what has become of the orchestra, and the flowers, and all that?"
"The orchestra is gallivanting around the country, quarreling with itself and everybody else, and driving poor Gardner to the insane asylum. The flowers have lost their bloom long ago."
"Well, we'll get together, Nopper, and try to have the ball at mid-Lent. I think I'll be well by that time."
Peggy looked appealingly at Harrison for guidance, but to him silence seemed the better part of valor, and he went off wondering if the illness had completely carried away Monty's reason.