Maurice sat down, cleared his throat, and put his hands in his pockets so they would not betray him. “I—” he said.
Mr. Houghton appeared absorbed in biting off the end of his cigar.
“I—” Maurice said again.
“Maurice,” said Henry Houghton, “keep the peace. If you and Eleanor have fallen out, don’t stand on your dignity. Go upstairs and say you’re sorry, whether you are or not. Don’t talk about lawyers.”
“My God!” said Maurice; “did you suppose it was that?”
Mr. Houghton stopped biting the end of his cigar, and looked at him. “Why, yes; I did. You and she are rather foolish, you know. So I supposed—”
Maurice dropped his face on his arms on the big dusty table, littered with pamphlets and charcoal studies and squeezed-out paint tubes. After a while he lifted his head: “That’s nothing. I wish it was that.”
The older man rose and stood with his back to the mantelpiece. They both heard the clock ticking loudly. Then, almost in a whisper, Maurice said:
Mr. Houghton whistled.
“I’ve had a letter from a woman. She says—”
“Has she got anything on you?”
“No proof; but—”
“But you have made a fool of yourself?”
Mr. Houghton sat down again. “Go on,” he said.
Maurice reached for a maulstick lying across the table; then leaned over, his elbows on his knees, and tried, with two trembling forefingers, to make it stand upright on the floor. “She’s common. She can’t prove it’s—mine.” His effort to keep the stick vertical with those two shaking fingers was agonizing.
“Begin at the beginning,” Henry Houghton said.
Maurice let the maulstick drop against his shoulder and sunk his head on his hands. Suddenly he sat up: “What’s the use of lying? She’s not bad all through.” The truth seemed to tear him as he uttered it. “That’s the worst of it,” he groaned. “If she was, I’d know what to do. But probably she’s not lying... She says it’s mine. Yes; I pretty well know she’s not lying.”
“We’ll go on the supposition that she is. I have yet to see a white crow. How much does she want?”
“She’s only asked me to help her, when—it’s born. And of course, if it is mine, I—”
“We won’t concede the ‘if.’”
“Uncle Henry,” said the haggard boy, “I’m several kinds of a fool, but I’m not a skunk. I’ve got to be decent”
“You should have thought of decency sooner.”
“I know. I know.”
“You’d better tell me the whole thing. Then we’ll talk lawyers.”
So Maurice began the squalid story. Twice he stopped, choking down excuses that laid the blame on Eleanor.... “It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been—been bothered.” And again, “Something had thrown me off the track; and I met Lily, and—”