And then—and then they sped away, and I followed them with dimming gaze till I could see them no more. I trudged home. . . .
I stood on the upper deck. The spires and domes of the city faded on my sight till all merged into a gray smoky patch on the horizon. With a dead cigar clenched between my teeth I watched and watched with a callous air, as though there had been no wrench, as though I had not left behind all I loved in the world. And yet I gazed, the keen salt air singing past my ears, till there was nothing but the sea as far as the eye could scan.
Thus I began the quest of the elusive, which is a little of love, a little of adventure, and a little of all things.
Hillars hadn’t been down to the office in two days, so the assistant said.
“Is he ill?” I asked, as I carried a chair to the window.
“Ill?” The young man coughed affectedly.
“Do you believe it possible for him to come in this afternoon?”
“It is quite possible. One does not use the word impossible in regard to Hillars. It is possible that he may be in St. Petersburg by this time, for all I know. You see,” with an explanatory wave of the hand, “he’s very uncertain in his movements. For the last six months he has been playing all over the table, to use the parlance of the roulette player. I have had to do most of the work, and take care of him into the bargain. If I may take you into my confidence——,” with some hesitancy.
“Certainly,” said I. “I want you to tell me all about him. He was my roommate at college. Perhaps I can straighten him up.”
“The truth is, the trouble began last September. He came back from the Continent, where he had been on an errand, a changed man. Hillars always drank, but never to an alarming extent. On his return, however, he was in a bad shape. It was nearly November before I got him sobered up; and then he went under on an average of three times a week. I asked him bluntly what he meant by it, and he frankly replied that if he wanted to drink himself to death, that was his business. When he isn’t half-seas over he is gloomy and morose. From the first I knew that something had gone wrong on the mainland; but I couldn’t trap him for a farthing. No man at his age drinks himself to death without cause; I told him so, but he only laughed at me. I’d give a good deal to know what the truth is; not from curiosity, mind you, but to find the disease in order to apply a remedy. Dan’s father died of drink.”
“No,” said I coldly; “he was shot.”
“Oh, I know that,” was the reply; “but give a conditioned man the same wound and he will recover, nine times out of ten. The elder Hillars was so enervated by drink that he had no strength to fight the fever which came on top of the bullet-hole. Something happened over there; and it’s pounds to pence there’s a woman back of the curtain. It is some one worth while. Hillars is not a man to fall in love with a barmaid.”