The Devil, His Due

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The Devil, His Due  (1913) 
by Philip Curtiss

From The Century Magazine, Oct 1913

For, when the lights left their sudden wave of darkness on the mixed and rollicking group, Furniss quietly and modestly followed the promptings of his profession, turned slowly, gathered the nearest woman into his arms, and thoroughly and deliberately kissed her.



NOW, Furniss was a devil. I mean that exactly, and if I might, I should like to explain it, for I wish to draw a distinction between the devils and the merely devilish. If argot had not spoiled the phrase, I might have said that he was a regular devil, as distinguished from the volunteer, the territorial, the occasional, or the would-be devil.

The distinction between a regular devil and one who is merely devilish is exactly the distinction between the professional and the amateur in all occupations. The devilish do things purely for the éclat of the doing, while the devils do them because they want the things done. A professional carpenter carpenters in order that he may have a table, to be used for his varying ends; an amateur uses his tools merely for the sake of the chips. That an occasional amateur displays unusual brilliancy in the accomplishment has nothing to do with the distinction. The real devils, moreover, regard the devilish purely with a mild amusement, if they regard them at all. Their only vexation is that of professional craftsmen at the "pin-money" workers, whose spasmodic efforts cut into legitimate trade.

The most powerful proof which I can bring to the statement that Furniss was a real devil, however, is the one that he did not regard himself as a devil at all. On the contrary, he regarded himself as an industrious citizen, fairly successful in the accomplishments of his ends. As a career, devilishness did not interest him in the slightest. Its material rewards were all that he sought.

Now, at midnight, on the thirtieth of October, Furniss, with the best intentions in the world, was standing in a group in the ball-room of the Fitchly Country Club, harmlessly singing "Auld Lang Syne." At one minute past twelve the engineer turned out all the lights, having standing instructions to do so, for Fitchly was a goodly town, and on this particular night the steward had forgotten to make an exception. The result was that which usually occurs when the lights are turned out on a perfectly respectable and usually sane gathering of grown men and women—every bit of asininity in the mob swarmed to the surface. There were cat calls, screams, and suggestive labials, while all the naturally executive began groping toward the door and the steward.

What the others did, however, did not matter. It was generally understood that they were merely devilish, and no score was to be counted against them. Furniss, on the other hand, played everything for stakes, and his tally had to meet with a reckoning. For, when the lights left their sudden wave of darkness on the mixed and rollicking group, Furniss quietly and modestly followed the promptings of his profession, turned slowly, gathered the nearest woman into his arms, and thoroughly and deliberately kissed her. Who she was he had not the slightest idea, nor did he, indeed, have any very lively curiosity. The act was purely professional, perfectly methodic, as automatic and unemotional as a response in a ritual. Thus, despite Furniss's known make-up, the fact would have passed unnoticed had it not been for two things, first, that, owing to the deliberateness of Furniss and the quickness of the engineer, the lights went on again before he was through, and the second that the woman thus discovered in his arms was the only one in the room whom he would have had the slightest reason for wanting to kiss. It was a perfect triumph of circumstantial evidence.

The sudden hush which fell on the group when the lights were restored at once displayed the awfulness of Furniss's depravity, as viewed by the Fitchly Country Club, in riot assembled. Had any other man been caught in the same act, with any other woman, there would have been merely a triumphant outcry of self-acknowledged devilishness. The man would have bought at the bar below, and the women would have screamed themselves to their motors; but, by some unusual instinct that was positively primitive, every man and woman in the room realized that Furniss was a professional and his act took a much more vital aspect. By the same perfect precision of instinct not a single iota of blame was attached to the lady in question, for the accurate conception of Furniss on the part of the Country Club demonstrated also that she was only an instrument in a tragedy of the elements. One does not accuse a person of being an accessory to a cyclone.

At the vivid and not wholly beautiful picture thus presented by the electrics, the whole room foolishly and utterly unsuccessfully attempted to give an imitation of a gathering which knows that nothing has happened. After the awful hush of the first moment, the women began quietly conversing in tones unusually subdued; the men began skylarking and shouting on subjects unusually hollow. The object of instructing the engineer to turn on the lights again, after midnight, had been to allow the dance to continue until two in the morning. At one there was not a single person left in the ball-room, and the waiters were already sweeping up the fragments. Some fragments, however, they could not sweep, and these make the following prelude:

Ten years before, at the age of twenty-five, Furniss had had one chance in a million of being decent; that is to say, he had nearly married a good woman, and that woman, needless to explain, was the one whom by sheer accident he kissed just ten years later. Furthermore, it was the nearest that he had ever come to marrying anybody, or ever would come, and it was a hollow victory for the law of chances.

Furniss was a devil because he came of that stock. It bred true to type, merely with refinements in each succeeding generation. His father was a stout, red-faced man of the kind that, thirty years ago, drove trotting-horses to a red-wheeled run-about, with wooden, knobs on the reins, and loops to hold to—a true example of the days when it took absolute defiance to be a sporting-man. Furniss himself drove the best-looking motor-car in Fitchly, and his effect was esthetically better than his father's, for, owing to the rigidity of the thing, it is much easier to have a good taste in motor-cars than in horses. His mother was a blonde, expensively-dressed woman of the type which goes through life in the hideous belief that tight-lacing will make feminine obesity anything but revolting.

Yet at twenty-five Furniss had had his chances. He went to college and played foot-ball. He played it well. It is frequently the noblest thing that men of his stamp ever do, except one. They sometimes get into the army, and into the cavalry; less frequently into the infantry, but never, absolutely never, into the engineers. It was, moreover, the heyday of the college athlete, those golden years of the nineties when men wore huge white Y's and H's on high-necked sweaters at mountain resorts all summer, and when reputations lasted more than a year. With one of these reputations Furniss had come out of college, and tentatively, against its judgment, Fitchly had received him. It was one of those inconceivable cases when reason and instinct battle. Everybody knew old man Furniss and had not the slightest illusions about him; yet here was young Furniss a half-back at Yale! Time has helped us to understand these things nowadays, but they troubled us then.

In Furniss's case reason won over instinct, and Fitchly received him with open arms which wavered slightly. The only return he made was to fall mildly in love with Helen Witherspoon. It would be nice to think that something in the sweet, old-fashioned manner of this dainty, refined girl, whose ancestors had been immigrants two hundred years before Furniss's, appealed to the brute and barbaric in the foot-ball hero, and perhaps it did, but a more plausible reason for his falling in love with her was that every one else was doing it. It was the temptation of the desired, the invitation of a contest, and of all things this appealed most to Furniss. Every one was doing it; but in a very short time it narrowed down to Furniss and Butley Smith, of the well-known legal firm of Smith, Smith & Smith, which drew up the city charter and refused to accept criminal practice. She married Smith. You could hardly call it a disappointed love-affair. It was rather precision by elimination, and Furniss was eliminated. Furnisses were all right as half-backs, but we did n't marry them in Fitchly; at least Father and Mother Witherspoon did n't marry them, and in Fitchly they did the marrying.

From Furniss's point of view it was unfortunate, but it was natural. As an economic system, marriage did not wholly persuade him, anyway.

So Furniss reverted to type, and did well at it. He lost little of his athletic good looks, and he was certainly invaluable as a club-man. Thirty-five found him stocky, but not fat, with a face rather round, but not repellent; a tiny, trim mustache; the inevitable blue serge and that almost offensively white linen which one associates with the broker type—that whiteness which threatens to, but does not quite, suggest scented soap. It would have been extremely difficult to say whether or not he had brains. His achievements rather pointed to the fact that he had, and his tastes to the fact that he had not; but, in any case, he made money, and whatever might be his misdeeds, he never bothered any one by telling about them. He manufactured in quantity the best off-set drill in America, and furthermore, as he held the patents, the wholesale jobbers who bought the drill troubled not one whit with his morals. The society of Fitchly shook its head occasionally, but on the whole kept him along. It would be extremely difficult to drop a man who had nowhere to drop to; and as he asked nothing of Fitchly, there was nothing to refuse. This occasion at the Country Club, then, was the first real instance in which the elements had come in conflict.

Of the many mixed emotions which accompanied the premature withdrawal from the Country Club that night, only two will suffice for illustration, as they marked the extremes—those of Furniss himself and of Butley Smith, the Menelaus of the ravished Helen. Those of Furniss, indeed, were no doubt very similar to the emotions of the son of Priam himself on the occasion of the original Hellenic uprising—an amusing incident and an unfortunate one, but why this unseemly outcry? His kissing someone when the lights went out had been a perfectly consistent act. It was not an emotional impulse; it was, in a way, a duty to the conventions, and how was he to know that the recipient was a former sweetheart? He had no desire to repeat the crime. The attitude of the Country Club had made osculation rather nauseous. It would seem better breeding not to notice it; and yet, and yet, it was rather funny that it should have been Helen. It was the first personal illustration which Furniss had ever had of the dramatic, and he began to ponder. If you ever wish to reclaim a devil, just try him on the dramatic. It is the only uplifting influence which sleeps in the souls of most of them.

The emotions of Butley Smith were less happily chosen. He also felt the impulse of the drama, but his was the stiff and unnatural drama of the classic schools, for his cue directed him to punch in the face of the offending Furniss. It was a glowing idea, but it was n't practical, as associates of Butley brutally pointed out when they drew attention to the fact that the face of the ex-half-back, and the present associate of half the prize-fighters in the East, would be an extremely hard one to pummel, and their logic suggests an admirable course of action for one who would play a dramatic part in such histories. If you must be an outraged husband, be one in a novel or a play, where you will always he able to thrash or horse-whip or shoot the villain within an inch of his life. The physical incapacity of villains in these circles is admirable. In real life, unfortunately, they are quite apt to be fully the equals of the outraged husband, or otherwise the husbands would be less frequently outraged.

The probabilities of this situation were easily comprehended by a legal mind which spurned a criminal practice, and Butley Smith had to take his satisfaction in biding his time, reserving, however, the privilege of biting his lip, to which extent he lived up to the unities. Meantime the situation in Fitchly did not improve.

Just how bad the situation was growing, just how fitfully the pot was boiling, how it was even fanned by his own disregard of it, was utterly aside from the observation of Furniss. He never knew, for example, and probably would not have cared if he did, that there had been a proposition to expel him from the Fitchly Country Club. But, then, as was pointed out by Carter of the firm of Carter, Pills & Carter, who did take an occasional criminal case, if an action were instituted against Furniss, it must necessarily involve the guileless Helen, and, whatever might be the popular verdict, just how much she could be called an accomplice would be a decision extremely delicate for the trained legal mind. It was certain that Furniss's face had borne no scratches when the lights went on again.

So Butley boiled and chafed under his natural injunction against punching Furiss, and bit his lip, and bided his time, until ultimately it began to react on Helen, whose original emotions had been as simple as those of the criminal. He boiled and chafed and bided his time until the desperate Helen resolved on a terrible step—no less than an actual move to the walls of Ilium. She wrote a note, and invited Furniss to meet her in the private dining-room of the Fitchly Inn.

He went. We will not flatter Furniss. Any note in a feminine handwriting would have brought him just the same, and his mood was not of the most elevated. His dim, uncertain stirrings of the dramatic on the morning of the thirty-first had gone permanently back to sleep, and on this particular day he had reasons to be distinctly savage, for he had just lost a forty-thousand-dollar order for the off-set drill, and he had no active inclinations toward mushrooms. Still, business was business, and one had to buy luncheon for two, anyway.

So Helen met him, and Helen pleaded. Aside from the boiling of Butley, her feminine sense of the just had told her that wrong must be righted and happy endings must prevail. She had not the rude melodrama of her consort, which saw a trouncing as the only fit remedy for non-patrons of husbandry; but she had, nevertheless, an Emersonian theory of compensation, which perceived that the apparent impunity of the outrager was contrary to the ultimate laws of existence. So Helen pleaded, and Paris got mad. He did n't like Butley, anyway. He would apologize to Helen, but he would n't to Menelaus. He could n't see that the affair was international, anyway. It seemed to him distinctly Parisian. But Helen wore a tailored gown with a fringe of lace at her neck, so Paris surrendered, and the entente cordiale was restored. He promised to apologize at the Quoits Club that very day, and that evening, at a prearranged dinner, the nations would banquet in harmony. Seven stalwart oxen would be killed, a libation poured to the gods, and for seven hours—

But just then the waiter brought the bill.

The bill, with tips, was twenty-four dollars and sixty cents, and with a sudden recollection of the forty-thousand-dollar order, Furniss reverted to type. With the usual inconsistency of a man who can lose large sums with apparent indifference, he raved and fumed at the loss of a penny. He raved and fumed all the afternoon at his office, and it was not until well after five that he made an unaccustomed appearance at the Quoits Club, still raging and fuming, with the only horror that a man of his type can ever know—the horror of losing money.

Butley Smith was already at the Quoits Club, as Helen well knew he would be; but Furniss was an unaccustomed presence. He usually preferred the Racquets, where the stakes were worth playing, and his advent in this, the stronghold of strictly civil practice, made a commotion. The commotion, moreover, soon attracted the attention of Butley, who was straying through the tables looking for a partner.

Now, Butley Smith was rated a magnificent card-player, which meant that he played auction like a stop-watch, and poker like a two-year-old child. The exact opposite was true, by reputation, of Furniss, and at sight of him in the stronghold of his own followers, who demanded his redemption, Butley had a sudden golden inspiration. He ceased biting his lip, and his time was bid. He would heard the lion in his den, and beard him he did.

"Furniss," he said, "are you busy?"

Furniss looked up in perplexity.

"Suppose," continued Butley, "that we throw a few hands of poker."

Butley was right. With Furniss of Fitchly that was indeed an audacious suggestion to give, but, brooding on the circumstances of the last two months, in the minds of the Quoits Club it instantly assumed Homeric proportions. The turn of a card, the fall of a die, a woman's honor—there was a romance about it that struck clear home to their devilishness; a veritable thrill went among them. Only Furniss was mystified; but, then, he was a devil, and naturally did not know how it felt to be devilish. But he saw light—his own light, a light that is not on land or sea, only in the waters under the earth.

"I'm on," he said, and Butley dealt.

In a crowded club-room at five o'clock in the afternoon a two-handed game would ordinarily have been a monstrosity, but this was no ordinary contest. It was a fight to the very death, and without a word the spectators gathered at the only points where it is proper for spectators to gather in a poker-game—without a word and without a suggestion to join.

I want to do justice to that game, but the truth is that Butley did not win a single hand—or just one in the early part.

"I raise you four," said Furniss as the clock struck six.

Butley glanced at his hand.

"It's yours," he said sadly, and regretfully laid down three Jacks, while Furniss rapidly shuffled an ace high into the pack and looked at his watch.

Six o'clock had been fixed as the hour for stopping, as both had confessed the common engagement for dinner, and Butley rose with the sad, sweet air of one defeated, but still game. Knowing Furniss of Fitchly, the onlookers applauded. But Furniss was busily counting his chips.

"Twenty—twenty-two—twenty-four—twenty-four-fifty"—the last chip! A sudden warm triumph came over him. Like a flash, he drew ten cents from his pocket.

"Butley," he exclaimed, "I 'll match vou for a dime."

Was it a challenge to game on all fields? Was it a contemptuous fling at the triviality of the winnings? Or was it really the recognition of the instincts of one sportsman by another? Butley did not know; but if Furniss was flinging down the glove, he would still pick it up again. Any one would die game for ten cents, and with the debonair air of the devilish, Butley drew forth a coin and slapped it down on the table. Two heads. Furniss had won, and Butley had paid for the luncheon.

Nevertheless, most astounding of all, the unities were suddenly restored, for across the table, with a genial, companionable smile, Furniss was extending the right hand of fellowship.

"Butley," he said, and honestly, with the thought of twenty-four-sixty, "if there is anything that I have to apologize for, you can take this for my apology."

Now at this point there settles down a despondency like a pall. Oh, how one might wish that one could leave them there with that happy scene as a curtain, and that devils were not, and that they were all merely devilish. But this is the story of Furniss.

For after the prearranged dinner that evening, while Furniss and Butley were making a four at bridge with the hosts, fair Helen, who played bridge not at all, was strumming faint chords in the music-room. And during his partner's play, while Butley was racking his mathematical memory to recall every card that had ever been played in the world, this Furniss pushed in through the curtains, and Helen looked up.

"You apologized?" she asked him, softly, still playing the bass.

He nodded.

She looked down, then up again wistfully.

"For my sake!"

"For your sake," lied Furniss. his eyes like a babe's.

She took both hands from the keyboard and faced him, while Furniss leaned over. She did not move back, and a slow, gentle smile reflected his own while Furniss deliberately kissed her.

In the card-room Menelaus was recalling the bid.

"One lily," he said with elation.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1964, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.