An Incidental Tragedy
Dave Murray stretched his legs comfortably under the table, blew rings of smoke toward the ceiling, and waited for Stanley Wentworth to speak.
Having his full share of worldly wisdom, Murray knew that there was a reason for Wentworth’s most urgent invitation to lunch with him at his club. While they had been friends for years and had lunched together on many previous occasions, there was a formality about this invitation that presaged something of importance. So, when they reached the cigars, Murray smoked and waited.
“You win, Dave,” Wentworth announced at last.
“I knew I would—when you married,” returned Murray. “It was only a question of time then.”
“Especially after you got the ear of my wife,” said Wentworth. “You worked that very nicely, Dave. Do you remember the story you told her about the man who couldn’t give any time to life insurance during the busy season and who was on his death-bed when the date he had set for his examination arrived?”
“It was true, too,” asserted Murray. “The man was a good risk when I went after him, and there would have been ten thousand dollars for his wife if he hadn’t procrastinated. There’s no money in the policy that a man was just going to take out, Stanley.”
“Well, you win, anyway,” said Wentworth. “We’ve been jollying each other on this insurance business for six or eight years, and I’ve stood you off pretty well, but I can’t stand against the little woman at home. I was lost, Dave, the day I took you up to the house and introduced you to her.”
“I guess I played the cards pretty well,” laughed Murray. “I told you at the beginning that I was going to insure you before I got through, and a good insurance man doesn’t let a little matter like the personal inclinations of his subject interfere with his plans. Why, I’ve been known to put a man in a trance, have him examined, and abstract the first premium from his pocket before he waked up. But you were the hardest proposition I ever tackled. You ought to have taken out a policy ten years ago.”
“I couldn’t see any reason for it,” explained Wentworth. “I thought I was a confirmed bachelor: had no family and never expected to have one. That was at twenty-five, and at thirty I considered the matter absolutely settled, but at thirty-five the little woman just quietly reached out and took me into camp—and I’m glad of it. Never knew what real life was before. Still, I hate like thunder to surrender to you after our long, harmonious and entertaining fight, Dave; I wouldn’t do it if you hadn’t taken advantage of my hospitality to load my wife up with insurance ghost stories. If you want to be fair, you’ll pay her half the commission.”
“I’ll do it!” exclaimed Murray; “not in cash, of course, but I’ll make her a present that will cover it—something nice for the house. You won’t be jealous, will you?”
“Jealous!” returned Wentworth with a hearty laugh. “Well, I guess not! Why, I’ll help out by making the policy worth while: I’ll take out one for twenty-five thousand. I tell you, Dave, I’m not going to run any risk of leaving the little woman unprovided for, and I lost four thousand in the last month.”
The conversation had been jocular, with an undercurrent of seriousness in it, but Wentworth became really serious with the last remark. Murray saw that this loss had had more to do with the decision than any arguments that had been advanced, and he, too, dropped his bantering tone.
“I never could see,” Wentworth went on, “why insurance was any better than an investment in good stock—”
“A little more certain,” suggested Murray, “so far as your wife is concerned. No stock is safe while a man lives and continues in business. It is too convenient as collateral and can be reached too easily in the case of failure. You will take risks with stock that you will not take with insurance, even when you can; you will sell stock to get ready cash for a business venture that may prove disastrous, but it’s like robbing your own widow to touch life insurance money. No man ever raised money on his policy without feeling meaner than a yellow dog, for he is gambling with the future of the one he loves, or at least should love. He has taken money that he promised her; money that she will sadly need in case of his unexpected death. That she consented to it does not ease his conscience, if he is any sort of a man, for no woman ever freely consents to jeopardizing any part of her husband’s life insurance money; she is led to do it, against her better judgment, by love and faith, and he knows that he has demanded of her what may prove to be a great sacrifice. That is why insurance is a better investment than stocks for the purpose you have in mind, Stanley; whatever your business needs, you never can ask your wife to join you in hypothecating the policy without feeling like a mean heartless sneak.”
“I never looked at in that way,” returned Wentworth thoughtfully, “but you’re right, Dave. The policy will have a sacredness that no stock can possess. To touch it, to risk any part of it in business, would seem like taking money out of the baby’s bank. Still,” he added whimsically, “a game in which you have to die to win never did appeal to me very strongly.”
“A game in which you are sure to win when you die is better than a game in which you are likely to lose twice,” retorted Murray, “or one in which you have to live to win, so long as life is something over which you have no jurisdiction. With insurance you win when you lose, but with stocks you may lose both ways and leave nothing but a reputation for selfish improvidence. Of course, I am looking at it from the family, rather than the personal, point of view.”
“Surely,” acquiesced Wentworth. “I am thinking of the little woman and the baby.” He settled back in his chair and smoked dreamily for a few moments, his thoughts evidently wandering to the home that had given him so much of happiness during the last eighteen months. And Murray was silent, too. The affair was as much one of friendship as of business with him. It had been largely a joke when he had first declared that he would write a policy on Wentworth’s life, although he believed implicitly that every man should have insurance and should get it when he is young enough to secure a favorable rate. At that time Wentworth had no one dependent upon him, but Murray had kept at him in a bantering way, telling him that he would surely have need of insurance later and that he had better prepare for it while the opportunity offered. Then, when celibacy seemed to have become a permanent condition with him, he had married, and thereafter, while still treating the subject lightly and humorously, Murray had conducted a campaign that was really founded on friendship. No one knows better than a man who has been long in the insurance business of the tragedies resulting from procrastination and neglect; no one can better appreciate how great a risk of such a tragedy a friend may be running. So Murray, jolly but insinuating, was actuated by something more than purely business interest when he made whimsical references to his long campaign in the presence of Mrs. Wentworth and incidentally, apparently only to tease her husband, described some of the sad little dramas of life that had come to his notice. And he had won at last.
“Get the application ready,” said Wentworth, suddenly rousing himself, “and let me know when your doctor wants to see me.”
That evening Wentworth told his wife that he had arranged to take out a twenty-five-thousand-dollar policy, and she put her arms around his neck and looked up at him in an anxious, troubled way.
“You don’t think I’m mercenary, do you, Stanley?”
“Indeed, I don’t, little woman,” he replied, as he kissed her; “I think you are only wise.”
“It seems so sort of heartless,” she went on, “but you know I’m planning only for the baby. There is something sure about life insurance, and everything else is so uncertain. Some of the stories Mr. Murray told were very sad.”
“Oh, Murray was after business,” he said with a laugh. “He told me long ago that he intended to insure me, and it’s been a sort of friendly duel with us ever since. But he has convinced me that he is right in holding that every married man should carry life insurance, and, aside from that, I would cheerfully pay double premiums to relieve you of any cause for worry. The insurance company is going to get the best of me, though: I’ll live long enough to pay in more than it will have to pay out.”
“Of course you will!” she exclaimed confidently. “You’re so big and strong it seems foolish—except for the baby. That’s why we mustn’t take any chances.”
So cheerful and confident was Wentworth that he failed to notice the solemnity of the physician who examined him the next day. The doctor began with a joke, but he ended with a perplexed scowl.
“You certainly look as strong as a horse,” he said. “But you’re not,” he added under his breath.
Then he made his report to Murray.
“Heart trouble,” he explained. “The man may live twenty or thirty years or he may die to-morrow. My personal opinion is that he will die within two years.”
Murray was startled and distressed. Wentworth was his close personal friend, and to refuse his application after he had striven so hard to get it seemed heartless and cruel, especially as the refusal would have to be accompanied by an explanation that would be much like a death-warrant. Of course, he was in no way responsible for the conditions, but it would seem as if he were putting a limit on his friend’s life.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Positive,” replied the physician. “It is an impossible risk.”
“Did you tell him?”
“And I am to dine with him and his wife to-night,” said Murray. “They will be sure to ask about the policy.”
Murray was tempted to send word that he could not come, but it was rather late for that. Besides, the information would have to be given some time, so what advantage could there be in procrastinating? But it came to him as a shock. The news of actual death would hardly have affected him more seriously, for it seemed like a calamity with which he was personally identified and for which he was largely responsible. He knew that he was not, but he could not banish the disquieting feeling that he was. He closed his desk and walked slowly and thoughtfully to Wentworth’s house, wishing, for once, that he had been less successful in the “friendly duel.”
It was a long walk; he could easily have put in another half-hour at the office had he chosen to take the elevated; but he was in no humor for business and he preferred to walk. It gave him additional time for thought. He must decide when and how he would tell Wentworth, and it is no easy task to tell a friend that his hold upon life is too slight to make him a possible insurance risk.
He would not do it to-night. It would be nothing short of brutal so to spoil a pleasant evening. Wentworth would have the knowledge soon enough, even with this respite, and he was entitled to as much of joyousness and pleasure as could be given him.
Murray was noticeably dispirited. He tried to be as jovial as usual, but he found himself looking at his friend much as he would have looked at a condemned man. There was sympathy and pity in his face. He wondered when the hour of fate would arrive. Might it not be that very evening? A moment of temporary excitement might be fatal; anything in the nature of a shock might mean the end. Indeed, the very information he had to give might be the one thing needed to snap the cord of life. If so, he would feel that he had really killed his friend, and yet he had no choice in the matter: he must refuse and he must explain why he refused. If it had been his own personal risk, he would have taken it cheerfully, but even had he so desired, he could not take it for the company in the face of the doctor’s report.
“What makes you so solemn?” asked Mrs. Wentworth. “You look as if you had lost your best friend.”
“I feel as if I had,” Murray replied thoughtlessly, and then he hastened to explain that some business affairs disturbed and worried him.
“But your victory over Stanley ought to make you cheerful,” she insisted. “Think of finally winning after so long a fight!”
“When shall I get the policy?” asked Wentworth.
“Policies are written at the home office,” answered Murray evasively.
“But the insurance becomes effective when the application is accepted and the first premium paid, doesn’t it?” asked Wentworth.
“Yes,” answered Murray.
“Well, now that I am at last converted to insurance I am an enthusiast,” laughed Wentworth. “We won’t waste any time at all. Get out your little check-book, Helen, and give Murray a check for the first premium. I’ll make it good to you to-morrow.”
“I don’t believe I could accept it now,” said Murray hesitatingly. “There are certain forms, you know—”
“Oh, well, I’ll send you a check the first thing in the morning,” interrupted Wentworth. “Perhaps it isn’t just the thing to turn a little family dinner into a business conference.”
“Better wait till you hear from me,” advised Murray, and his face showed his distress. He wished to avoid anything unpleasant at this time, but he was being driven into a corner.
“Is—is anything wrong?” asked Mrs. Wentworth anxiously.
“There is an extraordinary amount of red tape to the insurance business,” explained Murray, and the fact that he was very ill at ease did not escape the notice of Wentworth. The latter said nothing, but he lost his jovial air and he watched Murray as closely as Murray had previously watched him. It did not take him long to discover that Murray was abstracted and uncomfortable; that he was a prey to painful thoughts and kept track of the conversation only by a strong effort of will.
Mrs. Wentworth, too, discovered that something was wrong, and when the men retired to the library to smoke she went to her own room in a very unhappy frame of mind. She was sure that Murray had some bad news for her husband, but it did not occur to her that it concerned the insurance policy; it probably related to some business venture, she thought, for she knew that her husband had recently lost money and had still more invested in a speculative enterprise. Well, he would get the news from Murray, and she would get it from him.
Murray did not remain long, and he went out very quietly. Usually the two men laughed and joked at parting, but there was something subdued about them this time. As they paused for a moment at the door, she heard her husband say, “That’s all right, old man; it isn’t your fault.” Then, instead of coming to her, he put on his hat and left the house almost immediately after Murray had gone.
It was late when he came back, but she was waiting for him, and his face frightened her. He seemed to have aged twenty years in a few hours; he was haggard and pale and there was something of fear in his eyes.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. “You look sick.”
“A little tired,” he answered with an attempt at carelessness. “I’ll be all right to-morrow.”
“Mr. Murray was troubled, too,” she persisted. “What’s it all about?”
“Oh, Murray has been unfortunate in a little business affair,” he explained.
“And you’re concerned in it, too,” she said.
“Yes,” he admitted. “But it’s all right, so don’t worry.”
More he refused to say, but later in the night, waking suddenly, she heard him in the library, and, stealing down stairs, found him pacing the floor in his dressing-gown and slippers. He meekly went back to bed when she gently chid him, but he was restless and slept little.
The next morning he held her in his arms several minutes before leaving for the office, and he knelt for some time beside the baby’s crib. It was such a leave-taking as might have been expected if he were going on a long journey. And she knew that he was withholding something from her.
At the office he shut himself up for nearly the whole morning.
“It must be a mistake,” he kept muttering. “That doctor is a fool. I’ll try another company.”
In the afternoon he put in an application and suggested that, as a matter of business convenience, he would like to be examined at once. Two days later he was politely informed that the company, on the advice of its physician, felt constrained to decline the risk. But the man who is condemned to death does not give up hope: he appeals to a higher court, holding to the last that an error of law or of fact will be discovered. Wentworth appealed his case, but the verdict of the specialist he consulted was the same: he might live many years, but he might die at any moment.
“I would advise you,” said the physician, “to give up active business and to get your financial affairs in the best possible shape. If you are to live, you must take unusual precautions to avoid excitement and worry.”
Avoid worry! What a mockery, when he was deprived of the opportunities to make proper provision for the little woman and the baby! He was well-to-do, but only so long as he continued to live and make money. Some investments he had, but they were neither numerous nor large, and not of a character that would be considered absolutely safe. He had invested to make money rather than to save it in most instances, so the amount that he had in really first-class securities was comparatively trifling.
“If I continue in business, how long can I expect to live, Doctor?” he asked.
“It is problematical,” was the reply. “Frankly, I don’t think I would give you more than two or three years of active business life, with the possibility of death at any moment during that time. Still, if you are careful, you ought to last two years.”
Wentworth shuddered. He had told the physician to speak frankly, but it was horrible to have the limit of life set in this way.
“Retire from business,” the doctor added, “go to some quiet place, and you may
live as long as any other.”
“But I can’t!” cried Wentworth. “I haven’t the money, and I must provide for the little woman and the baby. My God! how helpless they would be without me!”
Wentworth went from the doctor’s office to the safe-deposit vaults where he kept his securities. He was a desperate man now—a man who had deliberately decided to sacrifice his life for those he loved. He would continue in business another year—two years, if necessary and the Lord permitted—and he would bend every energy to making provision for his little family. It might—nay, probably would—kill him, but what matter? To buy life at the expense of their future would be supremely selfish. And he might succeed before the fatal summons came: he might get his affairs in such shape in a year that he could retire with almost as good a chance of life as he had now—if he could stand the strain so long. But in his heart he felt he was pronouncing his own doom. He might put the optimistic view of the situation in words, but he did not believe the words. A great fear—a fear that was almost a certainty—gripped hard at his heart.
" he said to himself, as he went over the securities and estimated the amount of available cash he could command. He had speculated before and had been reasonably successful in most instances; he must speculate again, for in no other way could he bring his resources up to the point desired within the time limitations. The moment he reached this point he would put everything in stocks or bonds that would be absolutely safe. Indeed, he would do this as fast as he got a little ahead of the game.
Wentworth had speculated previously only with money that he could afford to lose; but he was speculating now with his entire surplus. It had been a divertisement before; it was a business now. He had to win—and he lost. No one could be more careful than he, but his judgment was wrong. When he had given the markets no particular attention he had taken an occasional “flier” with success; when he made a study of conditions and discussed the situation with friendly authorities he found himself almost invariably in error.
There was something pathetic and disquieting in the affection and consideration he displayed for his wife and child during this time. He endeavored to conceal his own distress, but morning after morning his wife clung to him and looked anxiously into his face. He spoke cheeringly, but he grew daily more haggard, and she knew he was concealing something. Once she asked for news about the life insurance policy.
“Oh, that’s all settled,” he replied, but he did not tell her how it was settled.
Finally she went to see Murray. He had brought the news that had made this great change in her husband, and he could tell her what was worrying him. Murray had not called since that evening. While in no sense responsible for it, he had been so closely identified with this blow that had fallen on his friend that he felt his presence, for a time at least, would be only an unpleasant reminder.
“I must know this secret,” she told Murray with earnest directness of speech. “It is killing Stanley. He is worried and anxious, and he is working himself to death in an effort to straighten out some complication.”
“He mustn’t do that!” exclaimed Murray quickly. “Work and worry are the two things for him to avoid.”
“Why?” demanded Mrs. Wentworth.
Murray hesitated. He knew why Wentworth had kept this from his wife, but was it wise? The man was deliberately walking to his grave. Ought not his wife to be informed in order that she might take the necessary steps to save him? It would be a breach of confidence, but did not the circumstances justify it? Wentworth was his friend, and he had a sincere regard for Mrs. Wentworth. Surely he ought not to stand idly by and witness a tragedy that he might prevent.
'You—you didn’t insure him?' she said inquiringly
“Mrs. Wentworth,” he said at last, “the thing that is worrying Stanley is the fact that we had to decline him as a risk.“
“You—you didn’t insure him?” she said inquiringly, as if she did not quite comprehend.
“He let me think you had.”
“Because he did not wish to distress you, and I assure you, Mrs. Wentworth, I would not tell you this myself, were it not for the fact that Stanley is doing the most unwise thing possible.”
“I am very glad you did tell me,” she said quietly. She was not an emotional woman, but the pallor of her face and something of anxious fright in her eyes told how deeply she felt. “What must I do?”
“Get him out of business and away from excitement,” replied Murray promptly. “In a quiet place, if he takes care of himself, he may live as long as any of us.”
When Wentworth reached home that evening, the little woman, always affectionate, greeted him with unusual tenderness. She said nothing of her visit to Murray, but later she brought up the subject of moving to the country.
“I’m dreadfully worried about you, Stanley,” she said. “You must take a vacation.”
“I can’t,” he replied.
“But you must,” she insisted. “You’ve been working too hard lately.”
“Next year,” he said, “I hope to get out of this city turmoil and take you away to some quiet place, where we can live for each other and the baby.”
She went over and knelt beside him, as he leaned wearily back in his big arm-chair.
“Why not now?” she pleaded.
“My God! I can’t, Helen!” he cried. “I want to, but I can’t! If you only knew—”
“I only know that you will break down, if you don’t take a rest,” she interrupted hastily. It would only add to his distress to learn that she knew his secret. “Don’t you suppose I can see how you are overtaxing your strength? We must go away for a time, anyway.”
“Little woman,” he said, putting an arm round her, “it’s a question of finance, and you never could understand that very well. When I get things in shape we will go, but not yet. I have some investments to watch, and,”—wearily,—“things have gone rather against me lately. There are lots of things to be done before I can take any extended vacation, and it is even a more serious matter to retire permanently. My earning capacity is about all we have to live on now.”
“I thought you had money invested,” she remarked.
“I had,” he replied, “but it was not enough, and in trying to make it enough I made some wrong guesses on the market.”
“Never mind,” she said cheerily. “We’ll make the best of what’s left. We won’t need much if we get away from this fearful life. It isn’t money that the baby and I want, it’s you; and we don’t want you to die for us, but to live for us.”
Wentworth gave his wife a quick glance, for this was hitting very close to his secret; but he saw in her only the very natural anxiety of a loving wife, who knew that her husband was overtaxing his strength.
“You mean well,” he said, “but you don’t know.”
Mrs. Wentworth was not a business woman, and she knew little of her husband’s affairs, but she had a feeling that this question of life insurance was all that stood in the way of the precautions that he ought to take. He could get something for his interest in the business, if he retired, but not enough to make proper provision for her. He could take up some quiet pursuit and continue to make a little money as long as he lived, but he could leave only the most trifling income. And, in his efforts to improve matters, he had only made them worse. She understood so much.
There was an undercurrent of sadness, but still something beautiful, in the life that followed this conversation. All the little sympathetic attentions that love can suggest, each gave to the other, while each worried in secret, seeking only to make life a little easier and more cheerful for the other.
But Mrs. Wentworth was becoming as desperate as her husband, and even more unreasoning. Was not her husband’s life worth all the money of all the insurance companies? And were they not condemning him to death by their action? It was more than a risk that depended upon life; it was a life that depended upon the risk. In a little time she convinced herself that the insurance companies could save him and would not, failing utterly to appreciate the fact that, even with the greatest precautions, the chances were against him; that there was only a possibility that he might live longer than a few years, the probability being quite the reverse.
Murray was shocked when she called to see him again. The change in her husband was no greater than the change in her. Was not the man she loved committing suicide before her eyes? And was he not doing this for love of her and the baby? Would not such a condition of affairs make any woman desperate and unreasoning?
“Mr. Murray,” she said, “if you are as good a friend to my husband as he has always been to you, you will save his life.”
“I will do anything in my power, Mrs. Wentworth,” replied Murray. “Nothing in life ever has so distressed me as this.”
“Then give him the policy he wants.”
“Impossible! Why, the doctor—”
“You can fix it with the doctor; you know you can! Or you can get another doctor to pass him! Oh, Mr. Murray! I am not asking for money; I am asking for life—for his life! It’s suicide—murder! I want to get him away! I must get him away! But I can’t while he fears for our future—the baby’s and mine! He must provide for us, and he’s losing the little he had! He can’t stand it a month longer! Give him the policy, Mr. Murray, and I’ll swear to you never to present it for payment! It’s only for him that I ask it! You can give him life—give your friend life! Won’t you do it?”
The tears were running down the little woman’s cheeks, and Murray could not trust himself to speak for a moment.
“Mrs. Wentworth,” he said at last, “every cent I have is at your husband’s disposal, if he needs it, but what you ask is utterly impossible. The risk would be refused at the home office, even if I passed it, for the fact that he has been refused by two other companies would be reported there.”
In the case of another, Murray would have said more, but he knew that Mrs. Wentworth was quite beside herself and did not really appreciate that she was asking him to be dishonest with the company that employed him.
“He wouldn’t touch a cent of the money of such a friend!” she exclaimed with sudden anger. “He’s not a beggar, and neither am I! All I seek for him is the tranquility that means life; all I ask is the removal of the anxiety that means death. And this little you will not do for a friend!” She was beside herself with desperation.
It was bitter, it was harsh, it was unjustifiable, but Murray had forgiven her before she had ceased speaking. The depth of her feeling and the excitement under which she was laboring were sufficient to excuse her. But he felt as if he really were condemning his friend to death. Yet what could he do? He would cheerfully give a thousand dollars out of his own pocket to make things easier for the two suffering ones, but it was not a matter of ready cash. Wentworth had enough of that.
In the deepest distress Murray was pacing back and forth when the door opened and Wentworth himself staggered in. Murray was at his side in a moment and guided him to a chair.
“What’s the matter, old man?”
“Lost everything,” Wentworth gasped. “Tried to protect—margined to limit—all gone!”
“But your interest in the business?”
“Sold it—to protect deal.” He seemed almost at the point of collapse, but he rallied for a moment. “Insurance!” he cried. “I must have it! Damn the company! You must put it through for me! You hear, Murray!” The man was almost crazy, and he spoke fiercely. “You’ve got to do it—for humanity’s sake! Can’t leave them penniless!”
“We’ll talk about it to-morrow,” said Murray soothingly.
“You lie, Murray!” the excited man cried. “You won’t do it at all; you’ll see them starve first, you—you dog! I’ll kill you, if you don’t—”
Wentworth had risen in frenzied fury, as he pictured the future of his loved ones; he swayed for an instant, and Murray caught him as he fell. He was dead before Murray could get him back into the chair.
Murray did all that anyone could do for the bereaved woman, and more than any one else would have done, for the next day he sent her this letter:
Dear Mrs. Wentworth: After a conference with our physician we decided that a small risk on Mr. Wentworth would be justified, and the matter was closed up yesterday afternoon just previous to his death. As a result of my close personal relations with him, I know that he left his affairs in rather a complicated condition, so, as it will take a little time to file the necessary proofs and get the money from the company, I am taking the liberty of sending you my personal check for the amount of the policy, one thousand dollars, and I hope that you will not hesitate to call on me for any service that is in my power to render. With the deepest sympathy, I am,
Very sincerely yours,
“A lie,” he muttered, referring to the insurance item; “a cold, deliberate lie, but I feel better for telling it.”