Wherry stared wonderingly at the tall, lithe figure by the fire.
“Carl,” he said at last, “tell me, are you honestly in earnest when you rag the fellows so about work and decency and all that sort of thing?”
Carl yawned and lighted a cigar.
“I believe,” said he, “in the eternal efficacy of good. I believe in the telepathic potency of moral force. I believe in physical conservation for the eugenic good of the race and mental dominance over matter. But I’m infernally lazy myself, and it’s easy to preach. It’s even easier to create a counter-philosophy of condonance and individualism, and I’m alternately an ethical egoist, a Fabian socialist and a cynic. Moreover, I’m a creature of whims and inconsistencies and there are black nights in my temperament when John Barleycorn lightens the gloom; and there are other nights when he treacherously deepens it—but I’m peculiarly balanced and subject to irresistible fits of moral atrophy. All of which has nothing at all to do with the soundness of my impersonal philosophy. Wherefore,” with a flash of his easy impudence, “when I preach, I mean it—for the other fellow.”
Wherry glanced at the handsome face of his erratic friend with frank allegiance in his eyes.
Carl flung his cigar into the fire, poured himself some whiskey and pushed the decanter across the table.
“Have a drink,” he said whimsically.
Dick obeyed. It was an inconsistent supplement to the sermon but characteristic.
“Carl,” he said, flushing under the ironical battery of the other’s eyes, “I don’t think I understand you—”
“Nobody does,” he said. “I don’t myself.”
The fire in the marble fireplace died down, leaping in fitful shadow over the iron-bound doors riveted in nail-heads. They too were relics from the Spanish castle which Norman Westfall had stripped of its ancient appurtenances to fashion an appropriate setting for the beautiful young Spanish wife whose death at the birth of Diane had goaded him to suicide. That Norman Westfall had regarded the vital spark within him as an indifferent thing to be snuffed out at the will of the clay it dominated, was consistent with the Westfall intolerance of custom and convention.
By the fire Carl smoked and stared at the dying embers. For all his insolent habit of dominance and mockery he was keenly sensitive and to-night the significant defection of Starrett and Payson after months of sycophantic friendship, had made him quiver inwardly like a hurt child. Only Wherry had stayed with him when his career of reckless expenditure had arrived at its inevitable goal of ruin.
There remained, financially, what? Barely four thousand a year in securities so iron-bound by his mother’s will that he could not touch them.