Between Friends

Robert W. Chambers


Graylock looked at Drene's heavily sagging pocket and knew what was in it. A sudden sweat chilled his temples, but he said steadily enough: 
          "I'd like to say a word or two--if you'll give me time."  And, as Drene made no reply;--"You're quite right: This business of ours should be finished one way or another. I can't stand it any longer." 
          "In that case," remarked Drene with an evil stare at him, "I may postpone it--to find out how much you can stand." He dropped his right hand into the sagging pocket, looking intently at Graylock all the while: 
          "What do you want here anyway?" 
          "I fancy that you have already guessed." 
          "Maybe.  All the same, what do you want?"--fumbling with his bulging pocket for a moment and then remaining motionless. 
          Graylock's worn eyes rested on the outline of the shrouded weapon: he stood eyeing it absently for a moment, then seated himself on the sofa, his heavy eyes shifting from one object to another. 
          But there were few objects to be seen in that silent place;--a star overhead glimmering through the high expanse of glass above;--otherwise gray monotony of wall, a clay shape or two swathed in wet clothes, a narrow ring of lamp light, and formless shadow. 
          "It's a long time, Drene." 
          Drene mused in silence, now and then watching the other obliquely. 
          Presently he withdrew his right hand from his coat pocket, pulled an armchair toward him and seated himself. 
          "It's many years," repeated Graylock.  "I expected you to do something before this." 
          "Were you uneasy?" sneered Drene.  Then he shrugged, knowing that Graylock was no coward, sorry he had intimated as much, like a man who deals a premature and useless blow. 
          He sat brooding for a while, his lean dangerous head lowered sideways as though listening; his oblique glance always covering Graylock. 
          "I suppose you'll be surprised when I tell you one reason that I came here," said Graylock. 
          "Do you suppose you can still surprise me by anything you may say or do?" 
          The man remained silent, sitting with his hands tightly clasped on his knees. 
          "Drene," he said, in a low voice, "don't strike at me through this young girl." 
          Drene began to laugh, unpleasantly. 
          "Are you in love with her?" 
          "Yes. . . .  You know it." 
          Drene said, still laughing: "It's the common rumor.  You may imagine it amuses your friends--if you have any left." 
          Graylock spoke in a voice that had a ghostly sound in the great room: 
          "Don't harm her, Drene.  It is not necessary.  I shall never see her again--if that will content you." 
          Drene laughed: "I never saw my wife again.  Did that help me?  I never saw her again, but as long as she lived I knew what she was . . . My wife. And when she died, still my wife. There was no relief--no relief." 
          Graylock, deathly white, framed his haggard face between his hands and stared at nothing: 
          "I know," he said.  "I understand now.  I am here to-night to pay the reckoning." 
          "You can't pay it." 
          "No, not the whole score.  There's another bill, I suppose, waiting for me--somewhere. But I can settle my indebtedness to you--" 
          "That's up to you, Drene." 
          "How?" repeated Drene, violently. 
          Graylock made a slight gesture with his head toward Drene's sagging pocket: "That way if you like. Or," he added, "There is a harder punishment." 
          "What is it?" 
          "To give her up." 
          "Yes," said Drene, "that is harder.  But I can make it even harder than that. I can make it as hard for you as you made it for me. I can let you live through it." 
          He laughed, fisted in his pocket, drew out the lumpy automatic and leisurely pushed the lever to "safe." 
          He said: "To kill you would be like opening the cell door for a lifer. You know what you are while you're alive; maybe you'd forget if you were dead. I--" 
          He ceased, fiddling absently with the dull-colored weapon on his knee; and for a while they remained silent, not looking at each other. And when Drene spoke again he was still intent upon the automatic. 
          "If I knew what happens after a man dies I could act intelligently." He shot an ugly look at Graylock: "I don't know about you, either. You're a rat. But you might fool me at that. You might be repentant. And in that case you'd get away--if it's true that the eleventh hour is not too late. . . . If it's true that Christ is merciful. . . . So I'll take no chances of a getaway. You might fool me--one way or another--if you were dead." 
          Graylock lifted his head from his hands: "I don't know how much of the other debt I've already paid, Drene. But I've paid heavily since I knew her--if that is any satisfaction to you. And since I knew she cared for you, and when I realized that you meant to strike me through her--I have paid, heavily. . . . Yet, if you were honestly in love with her--" 
          "Is that any of your damned business?" 
          "She's only a child--" 
          "You rat!  That's what's coming to you!" 
          "If you say so.  But what is coming to her, Drene?" 
          "Continue to guess.  But I know you.  It's yourself you're sorry for and what you'll have to endure--live through. That's what you can't stand, and remain the sleek, self-satisfied rat you are. No, it will make earth a living hell for you; never a second, day or night, will you be able to forget--if you really do love her. . . . And I believe you do--I don't understand how a thing like you can love--but it seems it can." 
          After a silence Graylock said: "You don't care if you damn yourself?" 
          "It's worth it to me." 
          "Are you willing that I should know you are as great a blackguard as I am?" Drene's gaunt features reddened and he set his jaws in silence. 
          "Don't you care what you do to her?" asked Graylock, unsteadily. "It's a viler business than that for which you are punishing me." 
          For a long time Drene sat there looking down at the weapon on his knees. And after a while, the other man spoke huskily: "It's bad enough either way for me, Drene. I'll do what you wish in the matter. I'll leave the country; I'll stay; whichever you say. Or," he said with a ghastly smile, "I'll clean out that automatic for you to-night--if you'll marry her." 
          Drene looked up, slowly: 
          "What did you say?" 
          "I said that I'd clean out your automatic for you--to-night--if you wish. . . . It can be an accident or not, just as you say." 
          "In my own rooms--if it is to be an accident." 
          "Do you offer--" 
          "Yes; if you'll marry her afterwards.  If you say you will I'll take your word." 
          "And then you'll be out of your misery, you damned coward!" 
          "God knows. . . .  But I think not," said Graylock, under his breath. 
          Drene twisted the automatic, rose and continued to twirl it, considering. Presently he began to pace the floor, no longer noticing the other man. Once his promenade brought him up facing the wall where a calendar hung. 
          He stood for a while looking at it absently.  After a few moments he stepped nearer, detached the sheet for the present month, then one by one tore off the remaining sheets until he came to the month marked December, Graylock watching him all the while. 
          "I think it happened on Christmas," remarked Drene turning toward the other and laying a finger on the number 25 printed in red. 
          Graylock's head bent slightly. 
          "Very well.  Suppose about eleven o'clock on Christmas night you give your automatic a thorough cleaning. 
          "If you say so." 
          "You have one?" 
          "I shall buy one." 
          "Didn't you come here armed?" 
          Drene looked at him very intently.  But Graylock had never been a liar. After a few moments he went over to his desk, replaced the weapon under the papers, and, still busy, said over his shoulder: 
          "All right. You can go." 


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