Title: Waifs and Strays
Author: O. Henry
Release date: August 1, 2000 [eBook #2295]
Most recently updated: October 30, 2021
|PART I—TWELVE STORIES
|The Red Roses of Tonia
|Round The Circle
|The Rubber Plant’s Story
|Out of Nazareth
|Confessions of a Humorist
|The Sparrows in Madison Square
|Hearts and Hands
|The Detective Detector
|The Dog and the Playlet
|A Little Talk About Mobs
|The Snow Man
A trestle burned down on the International Railroad. The south-bound from San Antonio was cut off for the next forty-eight hours. On that train was Tonia Weaver’s Easter hat.
Espirition, the Mexican, who had been sent forty miles in a buckboard from the Espinosa Ranch to fetch it, returned with a shrugging shoulder and hands empty except for a cigarette. At the small station, Nopal, he had learned of the delayed train and, having no commands to wait, turned his ponies toward the ranch again.
Now, if one supposes that Easter, the Goddess of Spring, cares any more for the after-church parade on Fifth Avenue than she does for her loyal outfit of subjects that assemble at the meeting-house at Cactus, Tex., a mistake has been made. The wives and daughters of the ranchmen of the Frio country put forth Easter blossoms of new hats and gowns as faithfully as is done anywhere, and the Southwest is, for one day, a mingling of prickly pear, Paris, and paradise. And now it was Good Friday, and Tonia Weaver’s Easter hat blushed unseen in the desert air of an impotent express car, beyond the burned trestle. On Saturday noon the Rogers girls, from the Shoestring Ranch, and Ella Reeves, from the Anchor-O, and Mrs. Bennet and Ida, from Green Valley, would convene at the Espinosa and pick up Tonia. With their Easter hats and frocks carefully wrapped and bundled against the dust, the fair aggregation would then merrily jog the ten miles to Cactus, where on the morrow they would array themselves, subjugate man, do homage to Easter, and cause jealous agitation among the lilies of the field.
Tonia sat on the steps of the Espinosa ranch house flicking gloomily with a quirt at a tuft of curly mesquite. She displayed a frown and a contumelious lip, and endeavored to radiate an aura of disagreeableness and tragedy.
“I hate railroads,” she announced positively. “And men. Men pretend to run them. Can you give any excuse why a trestle should burn? Ida Bennet’s hat is to be trimmed with violets. I shall not go one step toward Cactus without a new hat. If I were a man I would get one.”
Two men listened uneasily to this disparagement of their kind. One was Wells Pearson, foreman of the Mucho Calor cattle ranch. The other was Thompson Burrows, the prosperous sheepman from the Quintana Valley. Both thought Tonia Weaver adorable, especially when she railed at railroads and menaced men. Either would have given up his epidermis to make for her an Easter hat more cheerfully than the ostrich gives up his tip or the aigrette lays down its life. Neither possessed the ingenuity to conceive a means of supplying the sad deficiency against the coming Sabbath. Pearson’s deep brown face and sunburned light hair gave him the appearance of a schoolboy seized by one of youth’s profound and insolvable melancholies. Tonia’s plight grieved him through and through. Thompson Burrows was the more skilled and pliable. He hailed from somewhere in the East originally; and he wore neckties and shoes, and was made dumb by woman’s presence.
“The big water-hole on Sandy Creek,” said Pearson, scarcely hoping to make a hit, “was filled up by that last rain.”
“Oh! Was it?” said Tonia sharply. “Thank you for the information. I suppose a new hat is nothing to you, Mr. Pearson. I suppose you think a woman ought to wear an old Stetson five years without a change, as you do. If your old water-hole could have put out the fire on that trestle you might have some reason to talk about it.”
“I am deeply sorry,” said Burrows, warned by Pearson’s fate, “that you failed to receive your hat, Miss Weaver—deeply sorry, indeed. If there was anything I could do—”
“Don’t bother,” interrupted Tonia, with sweet sarcasm. “If there was anything you could do, you’d be doing it, of course. There isn’t.”
Tonia paused. A sudden sparkle of hope had come into her eye. Her frown smoothed away. She had an inspiration.
“There’s a store over at Lone Elm Crossing on the Nueces,” she said, “that keeps hats. Eva Rogers got hers there. She said it was the latest style. It might have some left. But it’s twenty-eight miles to Lone Elm.”
The spurs of two men who hastily arose jingled; and Tonia almost smiled. The Knights, then, were not all turned to dust; nor were their rowels rust.
“Of course,” said Tonia, looking thoughtfully at a white gulf cloud sailing across the cerulean dome, “nobody could ride to Lone Elm and back by the time the girls call by for me to-morrow. So, I reckon I’ll have to stay at home this Easter Sunday.”
And then she smiled.
“Well, Miss Tonia,” said Pearson, reaching for his hat, as guileful as a sleeping babe. “I reckon I’ll be trotting along back to Mucho Calor. There’s some cutting out to be done on Dry Branch first thing in the morning; and me and Road Runner has got to be on hand. It’s too bad your hat got sidetracked. Maybe they’ll get that trestle mended yet in time for Easter.”
“I must be riding, too, Miss Tonia,” announced Burrows, looking at his watch. “I declare, it’s nearly five o’clock! I must be out at my lambing camp in time to help pen those crazy ewes.”
Tonia’s suitors seemed to have been smitten with a need for haste. They bade her a ceremonious farewell, and then shook each other’s hands with the elaborate and solemn courtesy of the Southwesterner.
“Hope I’ll see you again soon, Mr. Pearson,” said Burrows.
“Same here,” said the cowman, with the serious face of one whose friend goes upon a whaling voyage. “Be gratified to see you ride over to Mucho Calor any time you strike that section of the range.”
Pearson mounted Road Runner, the soundest cow-pony on the Frio, and let him pitch for a minute, as he always did on being mounted, even at the end of a day’s travel.
“What kind of a hat was that, Miss Tonia,” he called, “that you ordered from San Antone? I can’t help but be sorry about that hat.”
“A straw,” said Tonia; “the latest shape, of course; trimmed with red roses. That’s what I like—red roses.”
“There’s no color more becoming to your complexion and hair,” said Burrows, admiringly.
“It’s what I like,” said Tonia. “And of all the flowers, give me red roses. Keep all the pinks and blues for yourself. But what’s the use, when trestles burn and leave you without anything? It’ll be a dry old Easter for me!”
Pearson took off his hat and drove Road Runner at a gallop into the chaparral east of the Espinosa ranch house.
As his stirrups rattled against the brush Burrows’s long-legged sorrel struck out down the narrow stretch of open prairie to the southwest.
Tonia hung up her quirt and went into the sitting-room.
“I’m mighty sorry, daughter, that you didn’t get your hat,” said her mother.
“Oh, don’t worry, mother,” said Tonia, coolly. “I’ll have a new hat, all right, in time to-morrow.”
When Burrows reached the end of the strip of prairie he pulled his sorrel to the right and let him pick his way daintily across a sacuista flat through which ran the ragged, dry bed of an arroyo. Then up a gravelly hill, matted with bush, the horse scrambled, and at length emerged, with a snort of satisfaction into a stretch of high, level prairie, grassy and dotted with the lighter green of mesquites in their fresh spring foliage. Always to the right Burrows bore, until in a little while he struck the old Indian trail that followed the Nueces southward, and that passed, twenty-eight miles to the southeast, through Lone Elm.
Here Burrows urged the sorrel into a steady lope. As he settled himself in the saddle for a long ride he heard the drumming of hoofs, the hollow “thwack” of chaparral against wooden stirrups, the whoop of a Comanche; and Wells Pearson burst out of the brush at the right of the trail like a precocious yellow chick from a dark green Easter egg.
Except in the presence of awing femininity melancholy found no place in Pearson’s bosom. In Tonia’s presence his voice was as soft as a summer bullfrog’s in his reedy nest. Now, at his gleesome yawp, rabbits, a mile away, ducked their ears, and sensitive plants closed their fearful fronds.
“Moved your lambing camp pretty far from the ranch, haven’t you, neighbor?” asked Pearson, as Road Runner fell in at the sorrel’s side.
“Twenty-eight miles,” said Burrows, looking a little grim. Pearson’s laugh woke an owl one hour too early in his water-elm on the river bank, half a mile away.
“All right for you, sheepman. I like an open game, myself. We’re two locoed he-milliners hat-hunting in the wilderness. I notify you. Burr, to mind your corrals. We’ve got an even start, and the one that gets the headgear will stand some higher at the Espinosa.”
“You’ve got a good pony,” said Burrows, eyeing Road Runner’s barrel-like body and tapering legs that moved as regularly as the pistonrod of an engine. “It’s a race, of course; but you’re too much of a horseman to whoop it up this soon. Say we travel together till we get to the home stretch.”
“I’m your company,” agreed Pearson, “and I admire your sense. If there’s hats at Lone Elm, one of ’em shall set on Miss Tonia’s brow to-morrow, and you won’t be at the crowning. I ain’t bragging, Burr, but that sorrel of yours is weak in the fore-legs.”
“My horse against yours,” offered Burrows, “that Miss Tonia wears the hat I take her to Cactus to-morrow.”
“I’ll take you up,” shouted Pearson. “But oh, it’s just like horse-stealing for me! I can use that sorrel for a lady’s animal when—when somebody comes over to Mucho Calor, and—”
Burrows’ dark face glowered so suddenly that the cowman broke off his sentence. But Pearson could never feel any pressure for long.
“What’s all this Easter business about, Burr?” he asked, cheerfully. “Why do the women folks have to have new hats by the almanac or bust all cinches trying to get ’em?”
“It’s a seasonable statute out of the testaments,” explained Burrows. “It’s ordered by the Pope or somebody. And it has something to do with the Zodiac I don’t know exactly, but I think it was invented by the Egyptians.”
“It’s an all-right jubilee if the heathens did put their brand on it,” said Pearson; “or else Tonia wouldn’t have anything to do with it. And they pull it off at church, too. Suppose there ain’t but one hat in the Lone Elm store, Burr!”
“Then,” said Burrows, darkly, “the best man of us’ll take it back to the Espinosa.”
“Oh, man!” cried Pearson, throwing his hat high and catching it again, “there’s nothing like you come off the sheep ranges before. You talk good and collateral to the occasion. And if there’s more than one?”
“Then,” said Burrows, “we’ll pick our choice and one of us’ll get back first with his and the other won’t.”
“There never was two souls,” proclaimed Pearson to the stars, “that beat more like one heart than yourn and mine. Me and you might be riding on a unicorn and thinking out of the same piece of mind.”
At a little past midnight the riders loped into Lone Elm. The half a hundred houses of the big village were dark. On its only street the big wooden store stood barred and shuttered.
In a few moments the horses were fastened and Pearson was pounding cheerfully on the door of old Sutton, the storekeeper.
The barrel of a Winchester came through a cranny of a solid window shutter followed by a short inquiry.
“Wells Pearson, of the Mucho Calor, and Burrows, of Green Valley,” was the response. “We want to buy some goods in the store. Sorry to wake you up but we must have ’em. Come on out, Uncle Tommy, and get a move on you.”
Uncle Tommy was slow, but at length they got him behind his counter with a kerosene lamp lit, and told him of their dire need.
“Easter hats?” said Uncle Tommy, sleepily. “Why, yes, I believe I have got just a couple left. I only ordered a dozen this spring. I’ll show ’em to you.”
Now, Uncle Tommy Sutton was a merchant, half asleep or awake. In dusty pasteboard boxes under the counter he had two left-over spring hats. But, alas! for his commercial probity on that early Saturday morn—they were hats of two springs ago, and a woman’s eye would have detected the fraud at half a glance. But to the unintelligent gaze of the cowpuncher and the sheepman they seemed fresh from the mint of contemporaneous April.
The hats were of a variety once known as “cart-wheels.” They were of stiff straw, colored red, and flat brimmed. Both were exactly alike, and trimmed lavishly around their crowns with full blown, immaculate, artificial white roses.
“That all you got, Uncle Tommy?” said Pearson. “All right. Not much choice here, Burr. Take your pick.”
“They’re the latest styles” lied Uncle Tommy. “You’d see ’em on Fifth Avenue, if you was in New York.”
Uncle Tommy wrapped and tied each hat in two yards of dark calico for a protection. One Pearson tied carefully to his calfskin saddle-thongs; and the other became part of Road Runner’s burden. They shouted thanks and farewells to Uncle Tommy, and cantered back into the night on the home stretch.
The horsemen jockeyed with all their skill. They rode more slowly on their way back. The few words they spoke were not unfriendly. Burrows had a Winchester under his left leg slung over his saddle horn. Pearson had a six shooter belted around him. Thus men rode in the Frio country.
At half-past seven in the morning they rode to the top of a hill and saw the Espinosa Ranch, a white spot under a dark patch of live-oaks, five miles away.
The sight roused Pearson from his drooping pose in the saddle. He knew what Road Runner could do. The sorrel was lathered, and stumbling frequently; Road Runner was pegging away like a donkey engine.
Pearson turned toward the sheepman and laughed. “Good-bye, Burr,” he cried, with a wave of his hand. “It’s a race now. We’re on the home stretch.”
He pressed Road Runner with his knees and leaned toward the Espinosa. Road Runner struck into a gallop, with tossing head and snorting nostrils, as if he were fresh from a month in pasture.
Pearson rode twenty yards and heard the unmistakable sound of a Winchester lever throwing a cartridge into the barrel. He dropped flat along his horse’s back before the crack of the rifle reached his ears.
It is possible that Burrows intended only to disable the horse—he was a good enough shot to do that without endangering his rider. But as Pearson stooped the ball went through his shoulder and then through Road Runner’s neck. The horse fell and the cowman pitched over his head into the hard road, and neither of them tried to move.
Burrows rode on without stopping.
In two hours Pearson opened his eyes and took inventory. He managed to get to his feet and staggered back to where Road Runner was lying.
Road Runner was lying there, but he appeared to be comfortable. Pearson examined him and found that the bullet had “creased” him. He had been knocked out temporarily, but not seriously hurt. But he was tired, and he lay there on Miss Tonia’s hat and ate leaves from a mesquite branch that obligingly hung over the road.
Pearson made the horse get up. The Easter hat, loosed from the saddle-thongs, lay there in its calico wrappings, a shapeless thing from its sojourn beneath the solid carcass of Road Runner. Then Pearson fainted and fell head long upon the poor hat again, crumpling it under his wounded shoulders.
It is hard to kill a cowpuncher. In half an hour he revived—long enough for a woman to have fainted twice and tried ice-cream for a restorer. He got up carefully and found Road Runner who was busy with the near-by grass. He tied the unfortunate hat to the saddle again, and managed to get himself there, too, after many failures.
At noon a gay and fluttering company waited in front of the Espinosa Ranch. The Rogers girls were there in their new buckboard, and the Anchor-O outfit and the Green Valley folks—mostly women. And each and every one wore her new Easter hat, even upon the lonely prairies, for they greatly desired to shine forth and do honor to the coming festival.
At the gate stood Tonia, with undisguised tears upon her cheeks. In her hand she held Burrow’s Lone Elm hat, and it was at its white roses, hated by her, that she wept. For her friends were telling her, with the ecstatic joy of true friends, that cart-wheels could not be worn, being three seasons passed into oblivion.
“Put on your old hat and come, Tonia,” they urged.
“For Easter Sunday?” she answered. “I’ll die first.” And wept again.
The hats of the fortunate ones were curved and twisted into the style of spring’s latest proclamation.
A strange being rode out of the brush among them, and there sat his horse languidly. He was stained and disfigured with the green of the grass and the limestone of rocky roads.
“Hallo, Pearson,” said Daddy Weaver. “Look like you’ve been breaking a mustang. What’s that you’ve got tied to your saddle—a pig in a poke?”
“Oh, come on, Tonia, if you’re going,” said Betty Rogers. “We mustn’t wait any longer. We’ve saved a seat in the buckboard for you. Never mind the hat. That lovely muslin you’ve got on looks sweet enough with any old hat.”
Pearson was slowly untying the queer thing on his saddle. Tonia looked at him with a sudden hope. Pearson was a man who created hope. He got the thing loose and handed it to her. Her quick fingers tore at the strings.
“Best I could do,” said Pearson slowly. “What Road Runner and me done to it will be about all it needs.”
“Oh, oh! it’s just the right shape,” shrieked Tonia. “And red roses! Wait till I try it on!”
She flew in to the glass, and out again, beaming, radiating, blossomed.
“Oh, don’t red become her?” chanted the girls in recitative. “Hurry up, Tonia!”
Tonia stopped for a moment by the side of Road Runner.
“Thank you, thank you, Wells,” she said, happily. “It’s just what I wanted. Won’t you come over to Cactus to-morrow and go to church with me?”
“If I can,” said Pearson. He was looking curiously at her hat, and then he grinned weakly.
Tonia flew into the buckboard like a bird. The vehicles sped away for Cactus.
“What have you been doing, Pearson?” asked Daddy Weaver. “You ain’t looking so well as common.”
“Me?” said Pearson. “I’ve been painting flowers. Them roses was white when I left Lone Elm. Help me down, Daddy Weaver, for I haven’t got any more paint to spare.”
[This story is especially interesting as an early treatment (1902) of the theme afterward developed with a surer hand in The Pendulum.]
“Find yo’ shirt all right, Sam?” asked Mrs. Webber, from her chair under the live-oak, where she was comfortably seated with a paper-back volume for company.
“It balances perfeckly, Marthy,” answered Sam, with a suspicious pleasantness in his tone. “At first I was about ter be a little reckless and kick ’cause ther buttons was all off, but since I diskiver that the button holes is all busted out, why, I wouldn’t go so fur as to say the buttons is any loss to speak of.”
“Oh, well,” said his wife, carelessly, “put on your necktie—that’ll keep it together.”
Sam Webber’s sheep ranch was situated in the loneliest part of the country between the Nueces and the Frio. The ranch house—a two-room box structure—was on the rise of a gently swelling hill in the midst of a wilderness of high chaparral. In front of it was a small clearing where stood the sheep pens, shearing shed, and wool house. Only a few feet back of it began the thorny jungle.
Sam was going to ride over to the Chapman ranch to see about buying some more improved merino rams. At length he came out, ready for his ride. This being a business trip of some importance, and the Chapman ranch being almost a small town in population and size, Sam had decided to “dress up” accordingly. The result was that he had transformed himself from a graceful, picturesque frontiersman into something much less pleasing to the sight. The tight white collar awkwardly constricted his muscular, mahogany-colored neck. The buttonless shirt bulged in stiff waves beneath his unbuttoned vest. The suit of “ready-made” effectually concealed the fine lines of his straight, athletic figure. His berry-brown face was set to the melancholy dignity befitting a prisoner of state. He gave Randy, his three-year-old son, a pat on the head, and hurried out to where Mexico, his favorite saddle horse, was standing.
Marthy, leisurely rocking in her chair, fixed her place in the book with her finger, and turned her head, smiling mischievously as she noted the havoc Sam had wrought with his appearance in trying to “fix up.”
“Well, ef I must say it, Sam,” she drawled, “you look jest like one of them hayseeds in the picture papers, ’stead of a free and independent sheepman of the State o’ Texas.”
Sam climbed awkwardly into the saddle.
“You’re the one ought to be ’shamed to say so,” he replied hotly. “’Stead of ’tendin’ to a man’s clothes you’re al’ays setting around a-readin’ them billy-by-dam yaller-back novils.”
“Oh, shet up and ride along,” said Mrs. Webber, with a little jerk at the handles of her chair; “you always fussin’ ’bout my readin’. I do a-plenty; and I’ll read when I wanter. I live in the bresh here like a varmint, never seein’ nor hearin’ nothin’, and what other ’musement kin I have? Not in listenin’ to you talk, for it’s complain, complain, one day after another. Oh, go on, Sam, and leave me in peace.”
Sam gave his pony a squeeze with his knees and “shoved” down the wagon trail that connected his ranch with the old, open Government road. It was eight o’clock, and already beginning to be very warm. He should have started three hours earlier. Chapman ranch was only eighteen miles away, but there was a road for only three miles of the distance. He had ridden over there once with one of the Half-Moon cowpunchers, and he had the direction well-defined in his mind.
Sam turned off the old Government road at the split mesquite, and struck down the arroyo of the Quintanilla. Here was a narrow stretch of smiling valley, upholstered with a rich mat of green, curly mesquite grass; and Mexico consumed those few miles quickly with his long, easy lope. Again, upon reaching Wild Duck Waterhole, must he abandon well-defined ways. He turned now to his right up a little hill, pebble-covered, upon which grew only the tenacious and thorny prickly pear and chaparral. At the summit of this he paused to take his last general view of the landscape for, from now on, he must wind through brakes and thickets of chaparral, pear, and mesquite, for the most part seeing scarcely farther than twenty yards in any direction, choosing his way by the prairie-dweller’s instinct, guided only by an occasional glimpse of a far distant hilltop, a peculiarly shaped knot of trees, or the position of the sun.
Sam rode down the sloping hill and plunged into the great pear flat that lies between the Quintanilla and the Piedra.
In about two hours he discovered that he was lost. Then came the usual confusion of mind and the hurry to get somewhere. Mexico was anxious to redeem the situation, twisting with alacrity along the tortuous labyrinths of the jungle. At the moment his master’s sureness of the route had failed his horse had divined the fact. There were no hills now that they could climb to obtain a view of the country. They came upon a few, but so dense and interlaced was the brush that scarcely could a rabbit penetrate the mass. They were in the great, lonely thicket of the Frio bottoms.
It was a mere nothing for a cattleman or a sheepman to be lost for a day or a night. The thing often happened. It was merely a matter of missing a meal or two and sleeping comfortably on your saddle blankets on a soft mattress of mesquite grass. But in Sam’s case it was different. He had never been away from his ranch at night. Marthy was afraid of the country—afraid of Mexicans, of snakes, of panthers, even of sheep. So he had never left her alone.
It must have been about four in the afternoon when Sam’s conscience awoke. He was limp and drenched, rather from anxiety than the heat or fatigue. Until now he had been hoping to strike the trail that led to the Frio crossing and the Chapman ranch. He must have crossed it at some dim part of it and ridden beyond. If so he was now something like fifty miles from home. If he could strike a ranch—a camp—any place where he could get a fresh horse and inquire the road, he would ride all night to get back to Marthy and the kid.
So, I have hinted, Sam was seized by remorse. There was a big lump in his throat as he thought of the cross words he had spoken to his wife. Surely it was hard enough for her to live in that horrible country without having to bear the burden of his abuse. He cursed himself grimly, and felt a sudden flush of shame that over-glowed the summer heat as he remembered the many times he had flouted and railed at her because she had a liking for reading fiction.
“Ther only so’ce ov amusement ther po’ gal’s got,” said Sam aloud, with a sob, which unaccustomed sound caused Mexico to shy a bit. “A-livin’ with a sore-headed kiote like me—a low-down skunk that ought to be licked to death with a saddle cinch—a-cookin’ and a-washin’ and a-livin’ on mutton and beans and me abusin’ her fur takin’ a squint or two in a little book!”
He thought of Marthy as she had been when he first met her in Dogtown—smart, pretty, and saucy—before the sun had turned the roses in her cheeks brown and the silence of the chaparral had tamed her ambitions.
“Ef I ever speaks another hard word to ther little gal,” muttered Sam, “or fails in the love and affection that’s coming to her in the deal, I hopes a wildcat’ll t’ar me to pieces.”
He knew what he would do. He would write to Garcia & Jones, his San Antonio merchants where he bought his supplies and sold his wool, and have them send down a big box of novels and reading matter for Marthy. Things were going to be different. He wondered whether a little piano could be placed in one of the rooms of the ranch house without the family having to move out of doors.
In nowise calculated to allay his self-reproach was the thought that Marthy and Randy would have to pass the night alone. In spite of their bickerings, when night came Marthy was wont to dismiss her fears of the country, and rest her head upon Sam’s strong arm with a sigh of peaceful content and dependence. And were her fears so groundless? Sam thought of roving, marauding Mexicans, of stealthy cougars that sometimes invaded the ranches, of rattlesnakes, centipedes, and a dozen possible dangers. Marthy would be frantic with fear. Randy would cry, and call for dada to come.
Still the interminable succession of stretches of brush, cactus, and mesquite. Hollow after hollow, slope after slope—all exactly alike—all familiar by constant repetition, and yet all strange and new. If he could only arrive somewhere.
The straight line is Art. Nature moves in circles. A straightforward man is more an artificial product than a diplomatist is. Men lost in the snow travel in exact circles until they sink, exhausted, as their footprints have attested. Also, travellers in philosophy and other mental processes frequently wind up at their starting-point.
It was when Sam Webber was fullest of contrition and good resolves that Mexico, with a heavy sigh, subsided from his regular, brisk trot into a slow complacent walk. They were winding up an easy slope covered with brush ten or twelve feet high.
“I say now, Mex,” demurred Sam, “this here won’t do. I know you’re plumb tired out, but we got ter git along. Oh, Lordy, ain’t there no mo’ houses in the world!” He gave Mexico a smart kick with his heels.
Mexico gave a protesting grunt as if to say: “What’s the use of that, now we’re so near?” He quickened his gait into a languid trot. Rounding a great clump of black chaparral he stopped short. Sam dropped the bridle reins and sat, looking into the back door of his own house, not ten yards away.
Marthy, serene and comfortable, sat in her rocking-chair before the door in the shade of the house, with her feet resting luxuriously upon the steps. Randy, who was playing with a pair of spurs on the ground, looked up for a moment at his father and went on spinning the rowels and singing a little song. Marthy turned her head lazily against the back of the chair and considered the arrivals with emotionless eyes. She held a book in her lap with her finger holding the place.
Sam shook himself queerly, like a man coming out of a dream, and slowly dismounted. He moistened his dry lips.
“I see you are still a-settin’,” he said, “a-readin’ of them billy-by-dam yaller-back novils.”
Sam had traveled round the circle and was himself again.
We rubber plants form the connecting link between the vegetable kingdom and the decorations of a Waldorf-Astoria scene in a Third Avenue theatre. I haven’t looked up our family tree, but I believe we were raised by grafting a gum overshoe on to a 30-cent table d’hôte stalk of asparagus. You take a white bulldog with a Bourke Cockran air of independence about him and a rubber plant and there you have the fauna and flora of a flat. What the shamrock is to Ireland the rubber plant is to the dweller in flats and furnished rooms. We get moved from one place to another so quickly that the only way we can get our picture taken is with a kinetoscope. We are the vagrant vine and the flitting fig tree. You know the proverb: “Where the rubber plant sits in the window the moving van draws up to the door.”
We are the city equivalent to the woodbine and the honeysuckle. No other vegetable except the Pittsburg stogie can withstand as much handling as we can. When the family to which we belong moves into a flat they set us in the front window and we become lares and penates, fly-paper and the peripatetic emblem of “Home Sweet Home.” We aren’t as green as we look. I guess we are about what you would call the soubrettes of the conservatory. You try sitting in the front window of a $40 flat in Manhattan and looking out into the street all day, and back into the flat at night, and see whether you get wise or not—hey? Talk about the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden—say! suppose there had been a rubber plant there when Eve—but I was going to tell you a story.
The first thing I can remember I had only three leaves and belonged to a member of the pony ballet. I was kept in a sunny window, and was generally watered with seltzer and lemon. I had plenty of fun in those days. I got cross-eyed trying to watch the numbers of the automobiles in the street and the dates on the labels inside at the same time.
Well, then the angel that was molting for the musical comedy lost his last feather and the company broke up. The ponies trotted away and I was left in the window ownerless. The janitor gave me to a refined comedy team on the eighth floor, and in six weeks I had been set in the window of five different flats. I took on experience and put out two more leaves.
Miss Carruthers, of the refined comedy team—did you ever see her cross both feet back of her neck?—gave me to a friend of hers who had made an unfortunate marriage with a man in a store. Consequently I was placed in the window of a furnished room, rent in advance, water two flights up, gas extra after ten o’clock at night. Two of my leaves withered off here. Also, I was moved from one room to another so many times that I got to liking the odor of the pipes the expressmen smoked.
I don’t think I ever had so dull a time as I did with this lady. There was never anything amusing going on inside—she was devoted to her husband, and, besides leaning out the window and flirting with the iceman, she never did a thing toward breaking the monotony.
When the couple broke up they left me with the rest of their goods at a second-hand store. I was put out in front for sale along with the jobbiest lot you ever heard of being lumped into one bargain. Think of this little cornucopia of wonders, all for $1.89: Henry James’s works, six talking machine records, one pair of tennis shoes, two bottles of horse radish, and a rubber plant—that was me!
One afternoon a girl came along and stopped to look at me. She had dark hair and eyes, and she looked slim, and sad around the mouth.
“Oh, oh!” she says to herself. “I never thought to see one up here.”
She pulls out a little purse about as thick as one of my leaves and fingers over some small silver in it. Old Koen, always on the lockout, is ready, rubbing his hands. This girl proceeds to turn down Mr. James and the other commodities. Rubber plants or nothing is the burden of her song. And at last Koen and she come together at 39 cents, and away she goes with me in her arms.
She was a nice girl, but not my style. Too quiet and sober looking. Thinks I to myself: “I’ll just about land on the fire-escape of a tenement, six stories up. And I’ll spend the next six months looking at clothes on the line.”
But she carried me to a nice little room only three flights up in quite a decent street. And she put me in the window, of course. And then she went to work and cooked dinner for herself. And what do you suppose she had? Bread and tea and a little dab of jam! Nothing else. Not a single lobster, nor so much as one bottle of champagne. The Carruthers comedy team had both every evening, except now and then when they took a notion for pig’s knuckle and kraut.
After she had finished her dinner my new owner came to the window and leaned down close to my leaves and cried softly to herself for a while. It made me feel funny. I never knew anybody to cry that way over a rubber plant before. Of course, I’ve seen a few of ’em turn on the tears for what they could get out of it, but she seemed to be crying just for the pure enjoyment of it. She touched my leaves like she loved ’em, and she bent down her head and kissed each one of ’em. I guess I’m about the toughest specimen of a peripatetic orchid on earth, but I tell you it made me feel sort of queer. Home never was like that to me before. Generally I used to get chewed by poodles and have shirt-waists hung on me to dry, and get watered with coffee grounds and peroxide of hydrogen.
This girl had a piano in the room, and she used to disturb it with both hands while she made noises with her mouth for hours at a time. I suppose she was practising vocal music.
One day she seemed very much excited and kept looking at the clock. At eleven somebody knocked and she let in a stout, dark man with tousled black hair. He sat down at once at the piano and played while she sang for him. When she finished she laid one hand on her bosom and looked at him. He shook his head, and she leaned against the piano. “Two years already,” she said, speaking slowly—“do you think in two more—or even longer?”
The man shook his head again. “You waste your time,” he said, roughly I thought. “The voice is not there.” And then he looked at her in a peculiar way. “But the voice is not everything,” he went on. “You have looks. I can place you, as I told you if—”
The girl pointed to the door without saying anything, and the dark man left the room. And then she came over and cried around me again. It’s a good thing I had enough rubber in me to be water-proof.
About that time somebody else knocked at the door. “Thank goodness,” I said to myself. “Here’s a chance to get the water-works turned off. I hope it’s somebody that’s game enough to stand a bird and a bottle to liven things up a little.” Tell you the truth, this little girl made me tired. A rubber plant likes to see a little sport now and then. I don’t suppose there’s another green thing in New York that sees as much of gay life unless it’s the chartreuse or the sprigs of parsley around the dish.
When the girl opens the door in steps a young chap in a traveling cap and picks her up in his arms, and she sings out “Oh, Dick!” and stays there long enough to—well, you’ve been a rubber plant too, sometimes, I suppose.
“Good thing!” says I to myself. “This is livelier than scales and weeping. Now there’ll be something doing.”
“You’ve got to go back with me,” says the young man. “I’ve come two thousand miles for you. Aren’t you tired of it yet. Bess? You’ve kept all of us waiting so long. Haven’t you found out yet what is best?”
“The bubble burst only to-day,” says the girl. “Come here, Dick, and see what I found the other day on the sidewalk for sale.” She brings him by the hand and exhibits yours truly. “How one ever got away up here who can tell? I bought it with almost the last money I had.”
He looked at me, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off her for more than a second. “Do you remember the night, Bess,” he said, “when we stood under one of those on the bank of the bayou and what you told me then?”
“Geewillikins!” I said to myself. “Both of them stand under a rubber plant! Seems to me they are stretching matters somewhat!”
“Do I not,” says she, looking up at him and sneaking close to his vest, “and now I say it again, and it is to last forever. Look, Dick, at its leaves, how wet they are. Those are my tears, and it was thinking of you that made them fall.”
“The dear old magnolias!” says the young man, pinching one of my leaves. “I love them all.”
Magnolia! Well, wouldn’t that—say! those innocents thought I was a magnolia! What the—well, wasn’t that tough on a genuine little old New York rubber plant?
Okochee, in Georgia, had a boom, and J. Pinkney Bloom came out of it with a “wad.” Okochee came out of it with a half-million-dollar debt, a two and a half per cent. city property tax, and a city council that showed a propensity for traveling the back streets of the town. These things came about through a fatal resemblance of the river Cooloosa to the Hudson, as set forth and expounded by a Northern tourist. Okochee felt that New York should not be allowed to consider itself the only alligator in the swamp, so to speak. And then that harmless, but persistent, individual so numerous in the South—the man who is always clamoring for more cotton mills, and is ready to take a dollar’s worth of stock, provided he can borrow the dollar—that man added his deadly work to the tourist’s innocent praise, and Okochee fell.
The Cooloosa River winds through a range of small mountains, passes Okochee and then blends its waters trippingly, as fall the mellifluous Indian syllables, with the Chattahoochee.
Okochee rose, as it were, from its sunny seat on the post-office stoop, hitched up its suspender, and threw a granite dam two hundred and forty feet long and sixty feet high across the Cooloosa one mile above the town. Thereupon, a dimpling, sparkling lake backed up twenty miles among the little mountains. Thus in the great game of municipal rivalry did Okochee match that famous drawing card, the Hudson. It was conceded that nowhere could the Palisades be judged superior in the way of scenery and grandeur. Following the picture card was played the ace of commercial importance. Fourteen thousand horsepower would this dam furnish. Cotton mills, factories, and manufacturing plants would rise up as the green corn after a shower. The spindle and the flywheel and turbine would sing the shrewd glory of Okochee. Along the picturesque heights above the lake would rise in beauty the costly villas and the splendid summer residences of capital. The naphtha launch of the millionaire would spit among the romantic coves; the verdured hills would take formal shapes of terrace, lawn, and park. Money would be spent like water in Okochee, and water would be turned into money.
The fate of the good town is quickly told. Capital decided not to invest. Of all the great things promised, the scenery alone came to fulfilment. The wooded peaks, the impressive promontories of solemn granite, the beautiful green slants of bank and ravine did all they could to reconcile Okochee to the delinquency of miserly gold. The sunsets gilded the dreamy draws and coves with a minting that should charm away heart-burning. Okochee, true to the instinct of its blood and clime, was lulled by the spell. It climbed out of the arena, loosed its suspender, sat down again on the post-office stoop, and took a chew. It consoled itself by drawling sarcasms at the city council which was not to blame, causing the fathers, as has been said, to seek back streets and figure perspiringly on the sinking fund and the appropriation for interest due.
The youth of Okochee—they who were to carry into the rosy future the burden of the debt—accepted failure with youth’s uncalculating joy. For, here was sport, aquatic and nautical, added to the meagre round of life’s pleasures. In yachting caps and flowing neckties they pervaded the lake to its limits. Girls wore silk waists embroidered with anchors in blue and pink. The trousers of the young men widened at the bottom, and their hands were proudly calloused by the oft-plied oar. Fishermen were under the spell of a deep and tolerant joy. Sailboats and rowboats furrowed the lenient waves, popcorn and ice-cream booths sprang up about the little wooden pier. Two small excursion steamboats were built, and plied the delectable waters. Okochee philosophically gave up the hope of eating turtle soup with a gold spoon, and settled back, not ill content, to its regular diet of lotus and fried hominy. And out of this slow wreck of great expectations rose up J. Pinkney Bloom with his “wad” and his prosperous, cheery smile.
Needless to say J. Pinkney was no product of Georgia soil. He came out of that flushed and capable region known as the “North.” He called himself a “promoter”; his enemies had spoken of him as a “grafter”; Okochee took a middle course, and held him to be no better nor no worse than a “Yank.”
Far up the lake—eighteen miles above the town—the eye of this cheerful camp-follower of booms had spied out a graft. He purchased there a precipitous tract of five hundred acres at forty-five cents per acre; and this he laid out and subdivided as the city of Skyland—the Queen City of the Switzerland of the South. Streets and avenues were surveyed; parks designed; corners of central squares reserved for the “proposed” opera house, board of trade, lyceum, market, public schools, and “Exposition Hall.” The price of lots ranged from five to five hundred dollars. Positively, no lot would be priced higher than five hundred dollars.
While the boom was growing in Okochee, J. Pinkney’s circulars, maps, and prospectuses were flying through the mails to every part of the country. Investors sent in their money by post, and the Skyland Real Estate Company (J. Pinkney Bloom) returned to each a deed, duly placed on record, to the best lot, at the price, on hand that day. All this time the catamount screeched upon the reserved lot of the Skyland Board of Trade, the opossum swung by his tail over the site of the exposition hall, and the owl hooted a melancholy recitative to his audience of young squirrels in opera house square. Later, when the money was coming in fast, J. Pinkney caused to be erected in the coming city half a dozen cheap box houses, and persuaded a contingent of indigent natives to occupy them, thereby assuming the role of “population” in subsequent prospectuses, which became, accordingly, more seductive and remunerative.
So, when the dream faded and Okochee dropped back to digging bait and nursing its two and a half per cent. tax, J. Pinkney Bloom (unloving of checks and drafts and the cold interrogatories of bankers) strapped about his fifty-two-inch waist a soft leather belt containing eight thousand dollars in big bills, and said that all was very good.
One last trip he was making to Skyland before departing to other salad fields. Skyland was a regular post-office, and the steamboat, Dixie Belle, under contract, delivered the mail bag (generally empty) twice a week. There was a little business there to be settled—the postmaster was to be paid off for his light but lonely services, and the “inhabitants” had to be furnished with another month’s homely rations, as per agreement. And then Skyland would know J. Pinkney Bloom no more. The owners of these precipitous, barren, useless lots might come and view the scene of their invested credulity, or they might leave them to their fit tenants, the wild hog and the browsing deer. The work of the Skyland Real Estate Company was finished.
The little steamboat Dixie Belle was about to shove off on her regular up-the-lake trip, when a rickety hired carriage rattled up to the pier, and a tall, elderly gentleman, in black, stepped out, signaling courteously but vivaciously for the boat to wait. Time was of the least importance in the schedule of the Dixie Belle; Captain MacFarland gave the order, and the boat received its ultimate two passengers. For, upon the arm of the tall, elderly gentleman, as he crossed the gangway, was a little elderly lady, with a gray curl depending quaintly forward of her left ear.
Captain MacFarland was at the wheel; therefore it seemed to J. Pinkney Bloom, who was the only other passenger, that it should be his to play the part of host to the boat’s new guests, who were, doubtless, on a scenery-viewing expedition. He stepped forward, with that translucent, child-candid smile upon his fresh, pink countenance, with that air of unaffected sincerity that was redeemed from bluffness only by its exquisite calculation, with that promptitude and masterly decision of manner that so well suited his calling—with all his stock in trade well to the front; he stepped forward to receive Colonel and Mrs. Peyton Blaylock. With the grace of a grand marshal or a wedding usher, he escorted the two passengers to a side of the upper deck, from which the scenery was supposed to present itself to the observer in increased quantity and quality. There, in comfortable steamer chairs, they sat and began to piece together the random lines that were to form an intelligent paragraph in the big history of little events.
“Our home, sir,” said Colonel Blaylock, removing his wide-brimmed, rather shapeless black felt hat, “is in Holly Springs—Holly Springs, Georgia. I am very proud to make your acquaintance, Mr. Bloom. Mrs. Blaylock and myself have just arrived in Okochee this morning, sir, on business—business of importance in connection with the recent rapid march of progress in this section of our state.”
The Colonel smoothed back, with a sweeping gesture, his long, smooth, locks. His dark eyes, still fiery under the heavy black brows, seemed inappropriate to the face of a business man. He looked rather to be an old courtier handed down from the reign of Charles, and re-attired in a modern suit of fine, but raveling and seam-worn, broadcloth.
“Yes, sir,” said Mr. Bloom, in his heartiest prospectus voice, “things have been whizzing around Okochee. Biggest industrial revival and waking up to natural resources Georgia ever had. Did you happen to squeeze in on the ground floor in any of the gilt-edged grafts, Colonel?”
“Well, sir,” said the Colonel, hesitating in courteous doubt, “if I understand your question, I may say that I took the opportunity to make an investment that I believe will prove quite advantageous—yes, sir, I believe it will result in both pecuniary profit and agreeable occupation.”
“Colonel Blaylock,” said the little elderly lady, shaking her gray curl and smiling indulgent explanation at J. Pinkney Bloom, “is so devoted to businesss. He has such a talent for financiering and markets and investments and those kind of things. I think myself extremely fortunate in having secured him for a partner on life’s journey—I am so unversed in those formidable but very useful branches of learning.”
Colonel Blaylock rose and made a bow—a bow that belonged with silk stockings and lace ruffles and velvet.
“Practical affairs,” he said, with a wave of his hand toward the promoter, “are, if I may use the comparison, the garden walks upon which we tread through life, viewing upon either side of us the flowers which brighten that journey. It is my pleasure to be able to lay out a walk or two. Mrs. Blaylock, sir, is one of those fortunate higher spirits whose mission it is to make the flowers grow. Perhaps, Mr. Bloom, you have perused the lines of Lorella, the Southern poetess. That is the name above which Mrs. Blaylock has contributed to the press of the South for many years.”
“Unfortunately,” said Mr. Bloom, with a sense of the loss clearly written upon his frank face, “I’m like the Colonel—in the walk-making business myself—and I haven’t had time to even take a sniff at the flowers. Poetry is a line I never dealt in. It must be nice, though—quite nice.”
“It is the region,” smiled Mrs. Blaylock, “in which my soul dwells. My shawl, Peyton, if you please—the breeze comes a little chilly from yon verdured hills.”
The Colonel drew from the tail pocket of his coat a small shawl of knitted silk and laid it solicitously about the shoulders of the lady. Mrs. Blaylock sighed contentedly, and turned her expressive eyes—still as clear and unworldly as a child’s—upon the steep slopes that were slowly slipping past. Very fair and stately they looked in the clear morning air. They seemed to speak in familiar terms to the responsive spirit of Lorella. “My native hills!” she murmured, dreamily. “See how the foliage drinks the sunlight from the hollows and dells.”
“Mrs. Blaylock’s maiden days,” said the Colonel, interpreting her mood to J. Pinkney Bloom, “were spent among the mountains of northern Georgia. Mountain air and mountain scenery recall to her those days. Holly Springs, where we have lived for twenty years, is low and flat. I fear that she may have suffered in health and spirits by so long a residence there. That is one portent reason for the change we are making. My dear, can you not recall those lines you wrote—entitled, I think, ‘The Georgia Hills’—the poem that was so extensively copied by the Southern press and praised so highly by the Atlanta critics?”
Mrs. Blaylock turned a glance of speaking tenderness upon the Colonel, fingered for a moment the silvery curl that drooped upon her bosom, then looked again toward the mountains. Without preliminary or affectation or demurral she began, in rather thrilling and more deeply pitched tones to recite these lines:
“The Georgia hills, the Georgia hills!—
Oh, heart, why dost thou pine?
Are not these sheltered lowlands fair
With mead and bloom and vine?
Ah! as the slow-paced river here
Broods on its natal rills
My spirit drifts, in longing sweet,
Back to the Georgia hills.
“And through the close-drawn, curtained night
I steal on sleep’s slow wings
Back to my heart’s ease—slopes of pine—
Where end my wanderings.
Oh, heaven seems nearer from their tops—
And farther earthly ills—
Even in dreams, if I may but
Dream of my Georgia hills.
The grass upon their orchard sides
Is a fine couch to me;
The common note of each small bird
Passes all minstrelsy.
It would not seem so dread a thing
If, when the Reaper wills,
He might come there and take my hand
Up in the Georgia hills.”
“That’s great stuff, ma’am,” said J. Pinkney Bloom, enthusiastically, when the poetess had concluded. “I wish I had looked up poetry more than I have. I was raised in the pine hills myself.”
“The mountains ever call to their children,” murmured Mrs. Blaylock. “I feel that life will take on the rosy hue of hope again in among these beautiful hills. Peyton—a little taste of the currant wine, if you will be so good. The journey, though delightful in the extreme, slightly fatigues me.” Colonel Blaylock again visited the depths of his prolific coat, and produced a tightly corked, rough, black bottle. Mr. Bloom was on his feet in an instant.
“Let me bring a glass, ma’am. You come along, Colonel—there’s a little table we can bring, too. Maybe we can scare up some fruit or a cup of tea on board. I’ll ask Mac.”
Mrs. Blaylock reclined at ease. Few royal ladies have held their royal prerogative with the serene grace of the petted Southern woman. The Colonel, with an air as gallant and assiduous as in the days of his courtship, and J. Pinkney Bloom, with a ponderous agility half professional and half directed by some resurrected, unnamed, long-forgotten sentiment, formed a diversified but attentive court. The currant wine—wine home made from the Holly Springs fruit—went round, and then J. Pinkney began to hear something of Holly Springs life.
It seemed (from the conversation of the Blaylocks) that the Springs was decadent. A third of the population had moved away. Business—and the Colonel was an authority on business—had dwindled to nothing. After carefully studying the field of opportunities open to capital he had sold his little property there for eight hundred dollars and invested it in one of the enterprises opened up by the book in Okochee.
“Might I inquire, sir,” said Mr. Bloom, “in what particular line of business you inserted your coin? I know that town as well as I know the regulations for illegal use of the mails. I might give you a hunch as to whether you can make the game go or not.”
J. Pinkney, somehow, had a kindly feeling toward these unsophisticated representatives of by-gone days. They were so simple, impractical, and unsuspecting. He was glad that he happened not to have a gold brick or a block of that western Bad Boy Silver Mine stock along with him. He would have disliked to unload on people he liked so well as he did these; but there are some temptations toe enticing to be resisted.
“No, sir,” said Colonel Blaylock, pausing to arrange the queen’s wrap. “I did not invest in Okochee. I have made an exhaustive study of business conditions, and I regard old settled towns as unfavorable fields in which to place capital that is limited in amount. Some months ago, through the kindness of a friend, there came into my hands a map and description of this new town of Skyland that has been built upon the lake. The description was so pleasing, the future of the town set forth in such convincing arguments, and its increasing prosperity portrayed in such an attractive style that I decided to take advantage of the opportunity it offered. I carefully selected a lot in the centre of the business district, although its price was the highest in the schedule—five hundred dollars—and made the purchase at once.”
“Are you the man—I mean, did you pay five hundred dollars for a lot in Skyland” asked J. Pinkney Bloom.
“I did, sir,” answered the Colonel, with the air of a modest millionaire explaining his success; “a lot most excellently situated on the same square with the opera house, and only two squares from the board of trade. I consider the purchase a most fortuitous one. It is my intention to erect a small building upon it at once, and open a modest book and stationery store. During past years I have met with many pecuniary reverses, and I now find it necessary to engage in some commercial occupation that will furnish me with a livelihood. The book and stationery business, though an humble one, seems to me not inapt nor altogether uncongenial. I am a graduate of the University of Virginia; and Mrs. Blaylock’s really wonderful acquaintance with belles-lettres and poetic literature should go far toward insuring success. Of course, Mrs. Blaylock would not personally serve behind the counter. With the nearly three hundred dollars I have remaining I can manage the building of a house, by giving a lien on the lot. I have an old friend in Atlanta who is a partner in a large book store, and he has agreed to furnish me with a stock of goods on credit, on extremely easy terms. I am pleased to hope, sir, that Mrs. Blaylock’s health and happiness will be increased by the change of locality. Already I fancy I can perceive the return of those roses that were once the hope and despair of Georgia cavaliers.”
Again followed that wonderful bow, as the Colonel lightly touched the pale cheek of the poetess. Mrs. Blaylock, blushing like a girl, shook her curl and gave the Colonel an arch, reproving tap. Secret of eternal youth—where art thou? Every second the answer comes—“Here, here, here.” Listen to thine own heartbeats, O weary seeker after external miracles.
“Those years,” said Mrs. Blaylock, “in Holly Springs were long, long, long. But now is the promised land in sight. Skyland!—a lovely name.”
“Doubtless,” said the Colonel, “we shall be able to secure comfortable accommodations at some modest hotel at reasonable rates. Our trunks are in Okochee, to be forwarded when we shall have made permanent arrangements.”
J. Pinkney Bloom excused himself, went forward, and stood by the captain at the wheel.
“Mac,” said he, “do you remember my telling you once that I sold one of those five-hundred-dollar lots in Skyland?”
“Seems I do,” grinned Captain MacFarland.
“I’m not a coward, as a general rule,” went on the promoter, “but I always said that if I ever met the sucker that bought that lot I’d run like a turkey. Now, you see that old babe-in-the-wood over there? Well, he’s the boy that drew the prize. That was the only five-hundred-dollar lot that went. The rest ranged from ten dollars to two hundred. His wife writes poetry. She’s invented one about the high grounds of Georgia, that’s way up in G. They’re going to Skyland to open a book store.”
“Well,” said MacFarland, with another grin, “it’s a good thing you are along, J. P.; you can show ’em around town until they begin to feel at home.”
“He’s got three hundred dollars left to build a house and store with,” went on J. Pinkney, as if he were talking to himself. “And he thinks there’s an open house up there.”
Captain MacFarland released the wheel long enough to give his leg a roguish slap.
“You old fat rascal!” he chuckled, with a wink.
“Mac, you’re a fool,” said J. Pinkney Bloom, coldly. He went back and joined the Blaylocks, where he sat, less talkative, with that straight furrow between his brows that always stood as a signal of schemes being shaped within.
“There’s a good many swindles connected with these booms,” he said presently. “What if this Skyland should turn out to be one—that is, suppose business should be sort of dull there, and no special sale for books?”
“My dear sir,” said Colonel Blaylock, resting his hand upon the back of his wife’s chair, “three times I have been reduced to almost penury by the duplicity of others, but I have not yet lost faith in humanity. If I have been deceived again, still we may glean health and content, if not worldly profit. I am aware that there are dishonest schemers in the world who set traps for the unwary, but even they are not altogether bad. My dear, can you recall those verses entitled ‘He Giveth the Increase,’ that you composed for the choir of our church in Holly Springs?”
“That was four years ago,” said Mrs. Blaylock; “perhaps I can repeat a verse or two.
“The lily springs from the rotting mould;
Pearls from the deep sea slime;
Good will come out of Nazareth
All in God’s own time.
“To the hardest heart the softening grace
Cometh, at last, to bless;
Guiding it right to help and cheer
And succor in distress.
“I cannot remember the rest. The lines were not ambitious. They were written to the music composed by a dear friend.”
“It’s a fine rhyme, just the same,” declared Mr. Bloom. “It seems to ring the bell, all right. I guess I gather the sense of it. It means that the rankest kind of a phony will give you the best end of it once in a while.”
Mr. Bloom strayed thoughtfully back to the captain, and stood meditating.
“Ought to be in sight of the spires and gilded domes of Skyland now in a few minutes,” chirruped MacFarland, shaking with enjoyment.
“Go to the devil,” said Mr. Bloom, still pensive.
And now, upon the left bank, they caught a glimpse of a white village, high up on the hills, smothered among green trees. That was Cold Branch—no boom town, but the slow growth of many years. Cold Branch lay on the edge of the grape and corn lands. The big country road ran just back of the heights. Cold Branch had nothing in common with the frisky ambition of Okochee with its impertinent lake.
“Mac,” said J. Pinkney suddenly, “I want you to stop at Cold Branch. There’s a landing there that they made to use sometimes when the river was up.”
“Can’t,” said the captain, grinning more broadly. “I’ve got the United States mails on board. Right to-day this boat’s in the government service. Do you want to have the poor old captain keelhauled by Uncle Sam? And the great city of Skyland, all disconsolate, waiting for its mail? I’m ashamed of your extravagance, J. P.”
“Mac,” almost whispered J. Pinkney, in his danger-line voice, “I looked into the engine room of the Dixie Belle a while ago. Don’t you know of somebody that needs a new boiler? Cement and black Japan can’t hide flaws from me. And then, those shares of building and loan that you traded for repairs—they were all yours, of course. I hate to mention these things, but—”
“Oh, come now, J. P.,” said the captain. “You know I was just fooling. I’ll put you off at Cold Branch, if you say so.”
“The other passengers get off there, too,” said Mr. Bloom.
Further conversation was held, and in ten minutes the Dixie Belle turned her nose toward a little, cranky wooden pier on the left bank, and the captain, relinquishing the wheel to a roustabout, came to the passenger deck and made the remarkable announcement: “All out for Skyland.”
The Blaylocks and J. Pinkney Bloom disembarked, and the Dixie Belle proceeded on her way up the lake. Guided by the indefatigable promoter, they slowly climbed the steep hillside, pausing often to rest and admire the view. Finally they entered the village of Cold Branch. Warmly both the Colonel and his wife praised it for its homelike and peaceful beauty. Mr. Bloom conducted them to a two-story building on a shady street that bore the legend, “Pine-top Inn.” Here he took his leave, receiving the cordial thanks of the two for his attentions, the Colonel remarking that he thought they would spend the remainder of the day in rest, and take a look at his purchase on the morrow.
J. Pinkney Bloom walked down Cold Branch’s main street. He did not know this town, but he knew towns, and his feet did not falter. Presently he saw a sign over a door: “Frank E. Cooly, Attorney-at-Law and Notary Public.” A young man was Mr. Cooly, and awaiting business.
“Get your hat, son,” said Mr. Bloom, in his breezy way, “and a blank deed, and come along. It’s a job for you.”
“Now,” he continued, when Mr. Cooly had responded with alacrity, “is there a bookstore in town?”
“One,” said the lawyer. “Henry Williams’s.”
“Get there,” said Mr. Bloom. “We’re going to buy it.”
Henry Williams was behind his counter. His store was a small one, containing a mixture of books, stationery, and fancy rubbish. Adjoining it was Henry’s home—a decent cottage, vine-embowered and cosy. Henry was lank and soporific, and not inclined to rush his business.
“I want to buy your house and store,” said Mr. Bloom. “I haven’t got time to dicker—name your price.”
“It’s worth eight hundred,” said Henry, too much dazed to ask more than its value.
“Shut that door,” said Mr. Bloom to the lawyer. Then he tore off his coat and vest, and began to unbutton his shirt.
“Wanter fight about it, do yer?” said Henry Williams, jumping up and cracking his heels together twice. “All right, hunky—sail in and cut yer capers.”
“Keep your clothes on,” said Mr. Bloom. “I’m only going down to the bank.”
He drew eight one-hundred-dollar bills from his money belt and planked them down on the counter. Mr. Cooly showed signs of future promise, for he already had the deed spread out, and was reaching across the counter for the ink bottle. Never before or since was such quick action had in Cold Branch.
“Your name, please?” asked the lawyer.
“Make it out to Peyton Blaylock,” said Mr. Bloom. “God knows how to spell it.”
Within thirty minutes Henry Williams was out of business, and Mr. Bloom stood on the brick sidewalk with Mr. Cooly, who held in his hand the signed and attested deed.
“You’ll find the party at the Pinetop Inn,” said J. Pinkney Bloom. “Get it recorded, and take it down and give it to him. He’ll ask you a hell’s mint of questions; so here’s ten dollars for the trouble you’ll have in not being able to answer ’em. Never run much to poetry, did you, young man?”
“Well,” said the really talented Cooly, who even yet retained his right mind, “now and then.”
“Dig into it,” said Mr. Bloom, “it’ll pay you. Never heard a poem, now, that run something like this, did you?—
A good thing out of Nazareth
Comes up sometimes, I guess,
On hand, all right, to help and cheer
A sucker in distress.”
“I believe not,” said Mr. Cooly.
“It’s a hymn,” said J. Pinkney Bloom. “Now, show me the way to a livery stable, son, for I’m going to hit the dirt road back to Okochee.”
There was a painless stage of incubation that lasted twenty-five years, and then it broke out on me, and people said I was It.
But they called it humor instead of measles.
The employees in the store bought a silver inkstand for the senior partner on his fiftieth birthday. We crowded into his private office to present it. I had been selected for spokesman, and I made a little speech that I had been preparing for a week.
It made a hit. It was full of puns and epigrams and funny twists that brought down the house—which was a very solid one in the wholesale hardware line. Old Marlowe himself actually grinned, and the employees took their cue and roared.
My reputation as a humorist dates from half-past nine o’clock on that morning. For weeks afterward my fellow clerks fanned the flame of my self-esteem. One by one they came to me, saying what an awfully clever speech that was, old man, and carefully explained to me the point of each one of my jokes.
Gradually I found that I was expected to keep it up. Others might speak sanely on business matters and the day’s topics, but from me something gamesome and airy was required.
I was expected to crack jokes about the crockery and lighten up the granite ware with persiflage. I was second bookkeeper, and if I failed to show up a balance sheet without something comic about the footings or could find no cause for laughter in an invoice of plows, the other clerks were disappointed. By degrees my fame spread, and I became a local “character.” Our town was small enough to make this possible. The daily newspaper quoted me. At social gatherings I was indispensable.
I believe I did possess considerable wit and a facility for quick and spontaneous repartee. This gift I cultivated and improved by practice. And the nature of it was kindly and genial, not running to sarcasm or offending others. People began to smile when they saw me coming, and by the time we had met I generally had the word ready to broaden the smile into a laugh.
I had married early. We had a charming boy of three and a girl of five. Naturally, we lived in a vine-covered cottage, and were happy. My salary as bookkeeper in the hardware concern kept at a distance those ills attendant upon superfluous wealth.
At sundry times I had written out a few jokes and conceits that I considered peculiarly happy, and had sent them to certain periodicals that print such things. All of them had been instantly accepted. Several of the editors had written to request further contributions.
One day I received a letter from the editor of a famous weekly publication. He suggested that I submit to him a humorous composition to fill a column of space; hinting that he would make it a regular feature of each issue if the work proved satisfactory. I did so, and at the end of two weeks he offered to make a contract with me for a year at a figure that was considerably higher than the amount paid me by the hardware firm.
I was filled with delight. My wife already crowned me in her mind with the imperishable evergreens of literary success. We had lobster croquettes and a bottle of blackberry wine for supper that night. Here was the chance to liberate myself from drudgery. I talked over the matter very seriously with Louisa. We agreed that I must resign my place at the store and devote myself to humor.
I resigned. My fellow clerks gave me a farewell banquet. The speech I made there coruscated. It was printed in full by the Gazette. The next morning I awoke and looked at the clock.
“Late, by George!” I exclaimed, and grabbed for my clothes. Louisa reminded me that I was no longer a slave to hardware and contractors’ supplies. I was now a professional humorist.
After breakfast she proudly led me to the little room off the kitchen. Dear girl! There was my table and chair, writing pad, ink, and pipe tray. And all the author’s trappings—the celery stand full of fresh roses and honeysuckle, last year’s calendar on the wall, the dictionary, and a little bag of chocolates to nibble between inspirations. Dear girl!
I sat me to work. The wall paper is patterned with arabesques or odalisks or—perhaps—it is trapezoids. Upon one of the figures I fixed my eyes. I bethought me of humor.
A voice startled me—Louisa’s voice.
“If you aren’t too busy, dear,” it said, “come to dinner.”
I looked at my watch. Yes, five hours had been gathered in by the grim scytheman. I went to dinner.
“You mustn’t work too hard at first,” said Louisa. “Goethe—or was it Napoleon?—said five hours a day is enough for mental labor. Couldn’t you take me and the children to the woods this afternoon?”
“I am a little tired,” I admitted. So we went to the woods.
But I soon got the swing of it. Within a month I was turning out copy as regular as shipments of hardware.
And I had success. My column in the weekly made some stir, and I was referred to in a gossipy way by the critics as something fresh in the line of humorists. I augmented my income considerably by contributing to other publications.
I picked up the tricks of the trade. I could take a funny idea and make a two-line joke of it, earning a dollar. With false whiskers on, it would serve up cold as a quatrain, doubling its producing value. By turning the skirt and adding a ruffle of rhyme you would hardly recognize it as vers de societe with neatly shod feet and a fashion-plate illustration.
I began to save up money, and we had new carpets, and a parlor organ. My townspeople began to look upon me as a citizen of some consequence instead of the merry trifler I had been when I clerked in the hardware store.
After five or six months the spontaniety seemed to depart from my humor. Quips and droll sayings no longer fell carelessly from my lips. I was sometimes hard run for material. I found myself listening to catch available ideas from the conversation of my friends. Sometimes I chewed my pencil and gazed at the wall paper for hours trying to build up some gay little bubble of unstudied fun.
And then I became a harpy, a Moloch, a Jonah, a vampire, to my acquaintances. Anxious, haggard, greedy, I stood among them like a veritable killjoy. Let a bright saying, a witty comparison, a piquant phrase fall from their lips and I was after it like a hound springing upon a bone. I dared not trust my memory; but, turning aside guiltily and meanly, I would make a note of it in my ever-present memorandum book or upon my cuff for my own future use.
My friends regarded me in sorrow and wonder. I was not the same man. Where once I had furnished them entertainment and jollity, I now preyed upon them. No jests from me ever bid for their smiles now. They were too precious. I could not afford to dispense gratuitously the means of my livelihood.
I was a lugubrious fox praising the singing of my friends, the crow’s, that they might drop from their beaks the morsels of wit that I coveted.
Nearly every one began to avoid me. I even forgot how to smile, not even paying that much for the sayings I appropriated.
No persons, places, times, or subjects were exempt from my plundering in search of material. Even in church my demoralized fancy went hunting among the solemn aisles and pillars for spoil.
Did the minister give out the long-meter doxology, at once I began: “Doxology—sockdology—sockdolager—meter—meet her.”
The sermon ran through my mental sieve, its precepts filtering unheeded, could I but glean a suggestion of a pun or a bon mot. The solemnest anthems of the choir were but an accompaniment to my thoughts as I conceived new changes to ring upon the ancient comicalities concerning the jealousies of soprano, tenor, and basso.
My own home became a hunting ground. My wife is a singularly feminine creature, candid, sympathetic, and impulsive. Once her conversation was my delight, and her ideas a source of unfailing pleasure. Now I worked her. She was a gold mine of those amusing but lovable inconsistencies that distinguish the female mind.
I began to market those pearls of unwisdom and humor that should have enriched only the sacred precincts of home. With devilish cunning I encouraged her to talk. Unsuspecting, she laid her heart bare. Upon the cold, conspicuous, common, printed page I offered it to the public gaze.
A literary Judas, I kissed her and betrayed her. For pieces of silver I dressed her sweet confidences in the pantalettes and frills of folly and made them dance in the market place.
Dear Louisa! Of nights I have bent over her cruel as a wolf above a tender lamb, hearkening even to her soft words murmured in sleep, hoping to catch an idea for my next day’s grind. There is worse to come.
God help me! Next my fangs were buried deep in the neck of the fugitive sayings of my little children.
Guy and Viola were two bright fountains of childish, quaint thoughts and speeches. I found a ready sale for this kind of humor, and was furnishing a regular department in a magazine with “Funny Fancies of Childhood.” I began to stalk them as an Indian stalks the antelope. I would hide behind sofas and doors, or crawl on my hands and knees among the bushes in the yard to eavesdrop while they were at play. I had all the qualities of a harpy except remorse.
Once, when I was barren of ideas, and my copy must leave in the next mail, I covered myself in a pile of autumn leaves in the yard, where I knew they intended to come to play. I cannot bring myself to believe that Guy was aware of my hiding place, but even if he was, I would be loath to blame him for his setting fire to the leaves, causing the destruction of my new suit of clothes, and nearly cremating a parent.
Soon my own children began to shun me as a pest. Often, when I was creeping upon them like a melancholy ghoul, I would hear them say to each other: “Here comes papa,” and they would gather their toys and scurry away to some safer hiding place. Miserable wretch that I was!
And yet I was doing well financially. Before the first year had passed I had saved a thousand dollars, and we had lived in comfort.
But at what a cost! I am not quite clear as to what a pariah is, but I was everything that it sounds like. I had no friends, no amusements, no enjoyment of life. The happiness of my family had been sacrificed. I was a bee, sucking sordid honey from life’s fairest flowers, dreaded and shunned on account of my sting.
One day a man spoke to me, with a pleasant and friendly smile. Not in months had the thing happened. I was passing the undertaking establishment of Peter Heffelbower. Peter stood in the door and saluted me. I stopped, strangely wrung in my heart by his greeting. He asked me inside.
The day was chill and rainy. We went into the back room, where a fire burned, in a little stove. A customer came, and Peter left me alone for a while. Presently I felt a new feeling stealing over me—a sense of beautiful calm and content, I looked around the place. There were rows of shining rosewood caskets, black palls, trestles, hearse plumes, mourning streamers, and all the paraphernalia of the solemn trade. Here was peace, order, silence, the abode of grave and dignified reflections. Here, on the brink of life, was a little niche pervaded by the spirit of eternal rest.
When I entered it, the follies of the world abandoned me at the door. I felt no inclination to wrest a humorous idea from those sombre and stately trappings. My mind seemed to stretch itself to grateful repose upon a couch draped with gentle thoughts.
A quarter of an hour ago I was an abandoned humorist. Now I was a philosopher, full of serenity and ease. I had found a refuge from humor, from the hot chase of the shy quip, from the degrading pursuit of the panting joke, from the restless reach after the nimble repartee.
I had not known Heffelbower well. When he came back, I let him talk, fearful that he might prove to be a jarring note in the sweet, dirgelike harmony of his establishment.
But, no. He chimed truly. I gave a long sigh of happiness. Never have I known a man’s talk to be as magnificently dull as Peter’s was. Compared with it the Dead Sea is a geyser. Never a sparkle or a glimmer of wit marred his words. Commonplaces as trite and as plentiful as blackberries flowed from his lips no more stirring in quality than a last week’s tape running from a ticker. Quaking a little, I tried upon him one of my best pointed jokes. It fell back ineffectual, with the point broken. I loved that man from then on.
Two or three evenings each week I would steal down to Heffelbower’s and revel in his back room. That was my only joy. I began to rise early and hurry through my work, that I might spend more time in my haven. In no other place could I throw off my habit of extracting humorous ideas from my surroundings. Peter’s talk left me no opening had I besieged it ever so hard.
Under this influence I began to improve in spirits. It was the recreation from one’s labor which every man needs. I surprised one or two of my former friends by throwing them a smile and a cheery word as I passed them on the streets. Several times I dumfounded my family by relaxing long enough to make a jocose remark in their presence.
I had so long been ridden by the incubus of humor that I seized my hours of holiday with a schoolboy’s zest.
Mv work began to suffer. It was not the pain and burden to me that it had been. I often whistled at my desk, and wrote with far more fluency than before. I accomplished my tasks impatiently, as anxious to be off to my helpful retreat as a drunkard is to get to his tavern.
My wife had some anxious hours in conjecturing where I spent my afternoons. I thought it best not to tell her; women do not understand these things. Poor girl!—she had one shock out of it.
One day I brought home a silver coffin handle for a paper weight and a fine, fluffy hearse plume to dust my papers with.
I loved to see them on my desk, and think of the beloved back room down at Heffelbower’s. But Louisa found them, and she shrieked with horror. I had to console her with some lame excuse for having them, but I saw in her eyes that the prejudice was not removed. I had to remove the articles, though, at double-quick time.
One day Peter Heffelbower laid before me a temptation that swept me off my feet. In his sensible, uninspired way he showed me his books, and explained that his profits and his business were increasing rapidly. He had thought of taking in a partner with some cash. He would rather have me than any one he knew. When I left his place that afternoon Peter had my check for the thousand dollars I had in the bank, and I was a partner in his undertaking business.
I went home with feelings of delirious joy, mingled with a certain amount of doubt. I was dreading to tell my wife about it. But I walked on air. To give up the writing of humorous stuff, once more to enjoy the apples of life, instead of squeezing them to a pulp for a few drops of hard cider to make the pubic feel funny—what a boon that would be!
At the supper table Louisa handed me some letters that had come during my absence. Several of them contained rejected manuscript. Ever since I first began going to Heffelbower’s my stuff had been coming back with alarming frequency. Lately I had been dashing off my jokes and articles with the greatest fluency. Previously I had labored like a bricklayer, slowly and with agony.
Presently I opened a letter from the editor of the weekly with which I had a regular contract. The checks for that weekly article were still our main dependence. The letter ran thus:
As you are aware, our contract for the year expires with the present month. While regretting the necessity for so doing, we must say that we do not care to renew same for the coming year. We were quite pleased with your style of humor, which seems to have delighted quite a large proportion of our readers. But for the past two months we have noticed a decided falling off in its quality. Your earlier work showed a spontaneous, easy, natural flow of fun and wit. Of late it is labored, studied, and unconvincing, giving painful evidence of hard toil and drudging mechanism.
Again regretting that we do not consider your contributions available any longer, we are, yours sincerely,
I handed this letter to my wife. After she had read it her face grew extremely long, and there were tears in her eyes.
“The mean old thing!” she exclaimed indignantly. “I’m sure your pieces are just as good as they ever were. And it doesn’t take you half as long to write them as it did.” And then, I suppose, Louisa thought of the checks that would cease coming. “Oh, John,” she wailed, “what will you do now?”
For an answer I got up and began to do a polka step around the supper table. I am sure Louisa thought the trouble had driven me mad; and I think the children hoped it had, for they tore after me, yelling with glee and emulating my steps. I was now something like their old playmate as of yore.
“The theatre for us to-night!” I shouted; “nothing less. And a late, wild, disreputable supper for all of us at the Palace Restaurant. Lumpty-diddle-de-dee-de-dum!”
And then I explained my glee by declaring that I was now a partner in a prosperous undertaking establishment, and that written jokes might go hide their heads in sackcloth and ashes for all me.
With the editor’s letter in her hand to justify the deed I had done, my wife could advance no objections save a few mild ones based on the feminine inability to appreciate a good thing such as the little back room of Peter Hef—no, of Heffelbower & Co’s. undertaking establishment.
In conclusion, I will say that to-day you will find no man in our town as well liked, as jovial, and full of merry sayings as I. My jokes are again noised about and quoted; once more I take pleasure in my wife’s confidential chatter without a mercenary thought, while Guy and Viola play at my feet distributing gems of childish humor without fear of the ghastly tormentor who used to dog their steps, notebook in hand.
Our business has prospered finely. I keep the books and look after the shop, while Peter attends to outside matters. He says that my levity and high spirits would simply turn any funeral into a regular Irish wake.
The young man in straitened circumstances who comes to New York City to enter literature has but one thing to do, provided he has studied carefully his field in advance. He must go straight to Madison Square, write an article about the sparrows there, and sell it to the Sun for $15.
I cannot recall either a novel or a story dealing with the popular theme of the young writer from the provinces who comes to the metropolis to win fame and fortune with his pen in which the hero does not get his start that way. It does seem strange that some author, in casting about for startlingly original plots, has not hit upon the idea of having his hero write about the bluebirds in Union Square and sell it to the Herald. But a search through the files of metropolitan fiction counts up overwhelmingly for the sparrows and the old Garden Square, and the Sun always writes the check.
Of course it is easy to understand why this first city venture of the budding author is always successful. He is primed by necessity to a superlative effort; mid the iron and stone and marble of the roaring city he has found this spot of singing birds and green grass and trees; every tender sentiment in his nature is battling with the sweet pain of homesickness; his genius is aroused as it never may be again; the birds chirp, the tree branches sway, the noise of wheels is forgotten; he writes with his soul in his pen—and he sells it to the Sun for $15.
I had read of this custom during many years before I came to New York. When my friends were using their strongest arguments to dissuade me from coming, I only smiled serenely. They did not know of that sparrow graft I had up my sleeve.
When I arrived in New York, and the car took me straight from the ferry up Twenty-third Street to Madison Square, I could hear that $15 check rustling in my inside pocket.
I obtained lodging at an unhyphenated hostelry, and the next morning I was on a bench in Madison Square almost by the time the sparrows were awake. Their melodious chirping, the benignant spring foliage of the noble trees and the clean, fragrant grass reminded me so potently of the old farm I had left that tears almost came into my eyes.
Then, all in a moment, I felt my inspiration. The brave, piercing notes of those cheerful small birds formed a keynote to a wonderful, light, fanciful song of hope and joy and altruism. Like myself, they were creatures with hearts pitched to the tune of woods and fields; as I was, so were they captives by circumstance in the discordant, dull city—yet with how much grace and glee they bore the restraint!
And then the early morning people began to pass through the square to their work—sullen people, with sidelong glances and glum faces, hurrying, hurrying, hurrying. And I got my theme cut out clear from the bird notes, and wrought it into a lesson, and a poem, and a carnival dance, and a lullaby; and then translated it all into prose and began to write.
For two hours my pencil traveled over my pad with scarcely a rest. Then I went to the little room I had rented for two days, and there I cut it to half, and then mailed it, white-hot, to the Sun.
The next morning I was up by daylight and spent two cents of my capital for a paper. If the word “sparrow” was in it I was unable to find it. I took it up to my room and spread it out on the bed and went over it, column by column. Something was wrong.
Three hours afterward the postman brought me a large envelope containing my MS. and a piece of inexpensive paper, about 3 inches by 4—I suppose some of you have seen them—upon which was written in violet ink, “With the Sun’s thanks.”
I went over to the square and sat upon a bench. No; I did not think it necessary to eat any breakfast that morning. The confounded pests of sparrows were making the square hideous with their idiotic “cheep, cheep.” I never saw birds so persistently noisy, impudent, and disagreeable in all my life.
By this time, according to all traditions, I should have been standing in the office of the editor of the Sun. That personage—a tall, grave, white-haired man—would strike a silver bell as he grasped my hand and wiped a suspicious moisture from his glasses.
“Mr. McChesney,” he would be saying when a subordinate appeared, “this is Mr. Henry, the young man who sent in that exquisite gem about the sparrows in Madison Square. You may give him a desk at once. Your salary, sir, will be $80 a week, to begin with.”
This was what I had been led to expect by all writers who have evolved romances of literary New York.
Something was decidedly wrong with tradition. I could not assume the blame, so I fixed it upon the sparrows. I began to hate them with intensity and heat.
At that moment an individual wearing an excess of whiskers, two hats, and a pestilential air slid into the seat beside me.
“Say, Willie,” he muttered cajolingly, “could you cough up a dime out of your coffers for a cup of coffee this morning?”
“I’m lung-weary, my friend,” said I. “The best I can do is three cents.”
“And you look like a gentleman, too,” said he. “What brung you down?—boozer?”
“Birds,” I said fiercely. “The brown-throated songsters carolling songs of hope and cheer to weary man toiling amid the city’s dust and din. The little feathered couriers from the meadows and woods chirping sweetly to us of blue skies and flowering fields. The confounded little squint-eyed nuisances yawping like a flock of steam pianos, and stuffing themselves like aldermen with grass seeds and bugs, while a man sits on a bench and goes without his breakfast. Yes, sir, birds! look at them!”
As I spoke I picked up a dead tree branch that lay by the bench, and hurled it with all my force into a close congregation of the sparrows on the grass. The flock flew to the trees with a babel of shrill cries; but two of them remained prostrate upon the turf.
In a moment my unsavory friend had leaped over the row of benches and secured the fluttering victims, which he thrust hurriedly into his pockets. Then he beckoned me with a dirty forefinger.
“Come on, cully,” he said hoarsely. “You’re in on the feed.”
Thank you very much!
Weakly I followed my dingy acquaintance. He led me away from the park down a side street and through a crack in a fence into a vacant lot where some excavating had been going on. Behind a pile of old stones and lumber he paused, and took out his birds.
“I got matches,” said he. “You got any paper to start a fire with?”
I drew forth my manuscript story of the sparrows, and offered it for burnt sacrifice. There were old planks, splinters, and chips for our fire. My frowsy friend produced from some interior of his frayed clothing half a loaf of bread, pepper, and salt.
In ten minutes each of us was holding a sparrow spitted upon a stick over the leaping flames.
“Say,” said my fellow bivouacker, “this ain’t so bad when a fellow’s hungry. It reminds me of when I struck New York first—about fifteen years ago. I come in from the West to see if I could get a job on a newspaper. I hit the Madison Square Park the first mornin’ after, and was sitting around on the benches. I noticed the sparrows chirpin’, and the grass and trees so nice and green that I thought I was back in the country again. Then I got some papers out of my pocket, and—”
“I know,” I interrupted. “You sent it to the Sun and got $15.”
“Say,” said my friend, suspiciously, “you seem to know a good deal. Where was you? I went to sleep on the bench there, in the sun, and somebody touched me for every cent I had—$15.”
At Denver there was an influx of passengers into the coaches on the eastbound B. & M. express. In one coach there sat a very pretty young woman dressed in elegant taste and surrounded by all the luxurious comforts of an experienced traveler. Among the newcomers were two young men, one of handsome presence with a bold, frank countenance and manner; the other a ruffled, glum-faced person, heavily built and roughly dressed. The two were handcuffed together.
As they passed down the aisle of the coach the only vacant seat offered was a reversed one facing the attractive young woman. Here the linked couple seated themselves. The young woman’s glance fell upon them with a distant, swift disinterest; then with a lovely smile brightening her countenance and a tender pink tingeing her rounded cheeks, she held out a little gray-gloved hand. When she spoke her voice, full, sweet, and deliberate, proclaimed that its owner was accustomed to speak and be heard.
“Well, Mr. Easton, if you will make me speak first, I suppose I must. Don’t you ever recognize old friends when you meet them in the West?”
The younger man roused himself sharply at the sound of her voice, seemed to struggle with a slight embarrassment which he threw off instantly, and then clasped her fingers with his left hand.
“It’s Miss Fairchild,” he said, with a smile. “I’ll ask you to excuse the other hand; it’s otherwise engaged just at present.”
He slightly raised his right hand, bound at the wrist by the shining “bracelet” to the left one of his companion. The glad look in the girl’s eyes slowly changed to a bewildered horror. The glow faded from her cheeks. Her lips parted in a vague, relaxing distress. Easton, with a little laugh, as if amused, was about to speak again when the other forestalled him. The glum-faced man had been watching the girl’s countenance with veiled glances from his keen, shrewd eyes.
“You’ll excuse me for speaking, miss, but, I see you’re acquainted with the marshall here. If you’ll ask him to speak a word for me when we get to the pen he’ll do it, and it’ll make things easier for me there. He’s taking me to Leavenworth prison. It’s seven years for counterfeiting.”
“Oh!” said the girl, with a deep breath and returning color. “So that is what you are doing out here? A marshal!”
“My dear Miss Fairchild,” said Easton, calmly, “I had to do something. Money has a way of taking wings unto itself, and you know it takes money to keep step with our crowd in Washington. I saw this opening in the West, and—well, a marshalship isn’t quite as high a position as that of ambassador, but—”
“The ambassador,” said the girl, warmly, “doesn’t call any more. He needn’t ever have done so. You ought to know that. And so now you are one of these dashing Western heroes, and you ride and shoot and go into all kinds of dangers. That’s different from the Washington life. You have been missed from the old crowd.”
The girl’s eyes, fascinated, went back, widening a little, to rest upon the glittering handcuffs.
“Don’t you worry about them, miss,” said the other man. “All marshals handcuff themselves to their prisoners to keep them from getting away. Mr. Easton knows his business.”
“Will we see you again soon in Washington?” asked the girl.
“Not soon, I think,” said Easton. “My butterfly days are over, I fear.”
“I love the West,” said the girl irrelevantly. Her eyes were shining softly. She looked away out the car window. She began to speak truly and simply without the gloss of style and manner: “Mamma and I spent the summer in Denver. She went home a week ago because father was slightly ill. I could live and be happy in the West. I think the air here agrees with me. Money isn’t everything. But people always misunderstand things and remain stupid—”
“Say, Mr. Marshal,” growled the glum-faced man. “This isn’t quite fair. I’m needing a drink, and haven’t had a smoke all day. Haven’t you talked long enough? Take me in the smoker now, won’t you? I’m half dead for a pipe.”
The bound travelers rose to their feet, Easton with the same slow smile on his face.
“I can’t deny a petition for tobacco,” he said, lightly. “It’s the one friend of the unfortunate. Good-bye, Miss Fairchild. Duty calls, you know.” He held out his hand for a farewell.
“It’s too bad you are not going East,” she said, reclothing herself with manner and style. “But you must go on to Leavenworth, I suppose?”
“Yes,” said Easton, “I must go on to Leavenworth.”
The two men sidled down the aisle into the smoker.
The two passengers in a seat near by had heard most of the conversation. Said one of them: “That marshal’s a good sort of chap. Some of these Western fellows are all right.”
“Pretty young to hold an office like that, isn’t he?” asked the other.
“Young!” exclaimed the first speaker, “why—Oh! didn’t you catch on? Say—did you ever know an officer to handcuff a prisoner to his right hand?”
The most notable thing about Time is that it is so purely relative. A large amount of reminiscence is, by common consent, conceded to the drowning man; and it is not past belief that one may review an entire courtship while removing one’s gloves.
That is what Trysdale was doing, standing by a table in his bachelor apartments. On the table stood a singular-looking green plant in a red earthen jar. The plant was one of the species of cacti, and was provided with long, tentacular leaves that perpetually swayed with the slightest breeze with a peculiar beckoning motion.
Trysdale’s friend, the brother of the bride, stood at a sideboard complaining at being allowed to drink alone. Both men were in evening dress. White favors like stars upon their coats shone through the gloom of the apartment.
As he slowly unbuttoned his gloves, there passed through Trysdale’s mind a swift, scarifying retrospect of the last few hours. It seemed that in his nostrils was still the scent of the flowers that had been banked in odorous masses about the church, and in his ears the lowpitched hum of a thousand well-bred voices, the rustle of crisp garments, and, most insistently recurring, the drawling words of the minister irrevocably binding her to another.
From this last hopeless point of view he still strove, as if it had become a habit of his mind, to reach some conjecture as to why and how he had lost her. Shaken rudely by the uncompromising fact, he had suddenly found himself confronted by a thing he had never before faced—his own innermost, unmitigated, arid unbedecked self. He saw all the garbs of pretence and egoism that he had worn now turn to rags of folly. He shuddered at the thought that to others, before now, the garments of his soul must have appeared sorry and threadbare. Vanity and conceit? These were the joints in his armor. And how free from either she had always been—But why—
As she had slowly moved up the aisle toward the altar he had felt an unworthy, sullen exultation that had served to support him. He had told himself that her paleness was from thoughts of another than the man to whom she was about to give herself. But even that poor consolation had been wrenched from him. For, when he saw that swift, limpid, upward look that she gave the man when he took her hand, he knew himself to be forgotten. Once that same look had been raised to him, and he had gauged its meaning. Indeed, his conceit had crumbled; its last prop was gone. Why had it ended thus? There had been no quarrel between them, nothing—
For the thousandth time he remarshalled in his mind the events of those last few days before the tide had so suddenly turned.
She had always insisted upon placing him upon a pedestal, and he had accepted her homage with royal grandeur. It had been a very sweet incense that she had burned before him; so modest (he told himself); so childlike and worshipful, and (he would once have sworn) so sincere. She had invested him with an almost supernatural number of high attributes and excellencies and talents, and he had absorbed the oblation as a desert drinks the rain that can coax from it no promise of blossom or fruit.
As Trysdale grimly wrenched apart the seam of his last glove, the crowning instance of his fatuous and tardily mourned egoism came vividly back to him. The scene was the night when he had asked her to come up on his pedestal with him and share his greatness. He could not, now, for the pain of it, allow his mind to dwell upon the memory of her convincing beauty that night—the careless wave of her hair, the tenderness and virginal charm of her looks and words. But they had been enough, and they had brought him to speak. During their conversation she had said:
“And Captain Carruthers tells me that you speak the Spanish language like a native. Why have you hidden this accomplishment from me? Is there anything you do not know?”
Now, Carruthers was an idiot. No doubt he (Trysdale) had been guilty (he sometimes did such things) of airing at the club some old, canting Castilian proverb dug from the hotchpotch at the back of dictionaries. Carruthers, who was one of his incontinent admirers, was the very man to have magnified this exhibition of doubtful erudition.
But, alas! the incense of her admiration had been so sweet and flattering. He allowed the imputation to pass without denial. Without protest, he allowed her to twine about his brow this spurious bay of Spanish scholarship. He let it grace his conquering head, and, among its soft convolutions, he did not feel the prick of the thorn that was to pierce him later.
How glad, how shy, how tremulous she was! How she fluttered like a snared bird when he laid his mightiness at her feet! He could have sworn, and he could swear now, that unmistakable consent was in her eyes, but, coyly, she would give him no direct answer. “I will send you my answer to-morrow,” she said; and he, the indulgent, confident victor, smilingly granted the delay. The next day he waited, impatient, in his rooms for the word. At noon her groom came to the door and left the strange cactus in the red earthen jar. There was no note, no message, merely a tag upon the plant bearing a barbarous foreign or botanical name. He waited until night, but her answer did not come. His large pride and hurt vanity kept him from seeking her. Two evenings later they met at a dinner. Their greetings were conventional, but she looked at him, breathless, wondering, eager. He was courteous, adamant, waiting her explanation. With womanly swiftness she took her cue from his manner, and turned to snow and ice. Thus, and wider from this on, they had drifted apart. Where was his fault? Who had been to blame? Humbled now, he sought the answer amid the ruins of his self-conceit. If—
The voice of the other man in the room, querulously intruding upon his thoughts, aroused him.
“I say, Trysdale, what the deuce is the matter with you? You look unhappy as if you yourself had been married instead of having acted merely as an accomplice. Look at me, another accessory, come two thousand miles on a garlicky, cockroachy banana steamer all the way from South America to connive at the sacrifice—please to observe how lightly my guilt rests upon my shoulders. Only little sister I had, too, and now she’s gone. Come now! take something to ease your conscience.”
“I don’t drink just now, thanks,” said Trysdale.
“Your brandy,” resumed the other, coming over and joining him, “is abominable. Run down to see me some time at Punta Redonda, and try some of our stuff that old Garcia smuggles in. It’s worth the trip. Hallo! here’s an old acquaintance. Wherever did you rake up this cactus, Trysdale?”
“A present,” said Trysdale, “from a friend. Know the species?”
“Very well. It’s a tropical concern. See hundreds of ’em around Punta every day. Here’s the name on this tag tied to it. Know any Spanish, Trysdale?”
“No,” said Trysdale, with the bitter wraith of a smile—“Is it Spanish?”
“Yes. The natives imagine the leaves are reaching out and beckoning to you. They call it by this name—Ventomarme. Name means in English, ‘Come and take me.’”
I was walking in Central Park with Avery Knight, the great New York burglar, highwayman, and murderer.
“But, my dear Knight,” said I, “it sounds incredible. You have undoubtedly performed some of the most wonderful feats in your profession known to modern crime. You have committed some marvellous deeds under the very noses of the police—you have boldly entered the homes of millionaires and held them up with an empty gun while you made free with their silver and jewels; you have sandbagged citizens in the glare of Broadway’s electric lights; you have killed and robbed with superb openness and absolute impunity—but when you boast that within forty-eight hours after committing a murder you can run down and actually bring me face to face with the detective assigned to apprehend you, I must beg leave to express my doubts—remember, you are in New York.”
Avery Knight smiled indulgently.
“You pique my professional pride, doctor,” he said in a nettled tone. “I will convince you.”
About twelve yards in advance of us a prosperous-looking citizen was rounding a clump of bushes where the walk curved. Knight suddenly drew a revolver and shot the man in the back. His victim fell and lay without moving.
The great murderer went up to him leisurely and took from his clothes his money, watch, and a valuable ring and cravat pin. He then rejoined me smiling calmly, and we continued our walk.
Ten steps and we met a policeman running toward the spot where the shot had been fired. Avery Knight stopped him.
“I have just killed a man,” he announced, seriously, “and robbed him of his possessions.”
“G’wan,” said the policeman, angrily, “or I’ll run yez in! Want yer name in the papers, don’t yez? I never knew the cranks to come around so quick after a shootin’ before. Out of th’ park, now, for yours, or I’ll fan yez.”
“What you have done,” I said, argumentatively, as Knight and I walked on, “was easy. But when you come to the task of hunting down the detective that they send upon your trail you will find that you have undertaken a difficult feat.”
“Perhaps so,” said Knight, lightly. “I will admit that my success depends in a degree upon the sort of man they start after me. If it should be an ordinary plain-clothes man I might fail to gain a sight of him. If they honor me by giving the case to some one of their celebrated sleuths I do not fear to match my cunning and powers of induction against his.”
On the next afternoon Knight entered my office with a satisfied look on his keen countenance.
“How goes the mysterious murder?” I asked.
“As usual,” said Knight, smilingly. “I have put in the morning at the police station and at the inquest. It seems that a card case of mine containing cards with my name and address was found near the body. They have three witnesses who saw the shooting and gave a description of me. The case has been placed in the hands of Shamrock Jolnes, the famous detective. He left Headquarters at 11:30 on the assignment. I waited at my address until two, thinking he might call there.”
I laughed, tauntingly.
“You will never see Jolnes,” I continued, “until this murder has been forgotten, two or three weeks from now. I had a better opinion of your shrewdness, Knight. During the three hours and a half that you waited he has got out of your ken. He is after you on true induction theories now, and no wrongdoer has yet been known to come upon him while thus engaged. I advise you to give it up.”
“Doctor,” said Knight, with a sudden glint in his keen gray eye and a squaring of his chin, “in spite of the record your city holds of something like a dozen homicides without a subsequent meeting of the perpetrator, and the sleuth in charge of the case, I will undertake to break that record. To-morrow I will take you to Shamrock Jolnes—I will unmask him before you and prove to you that it is not an impossibility for an officer of the law and a manslayer to stand face to face in your city.”
“Do it,” said I, “and you’ll have the sincere thanks of the Police Department.”
On the next day Knight called for me in a cab.
“I’ve been on one or two false scents, doctor,” he admitted. “I know something of detectives’ methods, and I followed out a few of them, expecting to find Jolnes at the other end. The pistol being a .45-caliber, I thought surely I would find him at work on the clue in Forty-fifth Street. Then, again, I looked for the detective at the Columbia University, as the man’s being shot in the back naturally suggested hazing. But I could not find a trace of him.”
“—Nor will you,” I said, emphatically.
“Not by ordinary methods,” said Knight. “I might walk up and down Broadway for a month without success. But you have aroused my pride, doctor; and if I fail to show you Shamrock Jolnes this day, I promise you I will never kill or rob in your city again.”
“Nonsense, man,” I replied. “When our burglars walk into our houses and politely demand, thousands of dollars’ worth of jewels, and then dine and bang the piano an hour or two before leaving, how do you, a mere murderer, expect to come in contact with the detective that is looking for you?”
Avery Knight, sat lost in thought for a while. At length he looked up brightly.
“Doc,” said he, “I have it. Put on your hat, and come with me. In half an hour I guarantee that you shall stand in the presence of Shamrock Jolnes.”
I entered a cab with Avery Knight. I did not hear his instructions to the driver, but the vehicle set out at a smart pace up Broadway, turning presently into Fifth Avenue, and proceeding northward again. It was with a rapidly beating heart that I accompanied this wonderful and gifted assassin, whose analytical genius and superb self-confidence had prompted him to make me the tremendous promise of bringing me into the presence of a murderer and the New York detective in pursuit of him simultaneously. Even yet I could not believe it possible.
“Are you sure that you are not being led into some trap?” I asked. “Suppose that your clue, whatever it is, should bring us only into the presence of the Commissioner of Police and a couple of dozen cops!”
“My dear doctor,” said Knight, a little stiffly. “I would remind you that I am no gambler.”
“I beg your pardon,” said I. “But I do not think you will find Jolnes.”
The cab stopped before one of the handsomest residences on the avenue. Walking up and down in front of the house was a man with long red whiskers, with a detective’s badge showing on the lapel of his coat. Now and then the man would remove his whiskers to wipe his face, and then I would recognize at once the well-known features of the great New York detective. Jolnes was keeping a sharp watch upon the doors and windows of the house.
“Well, doctor,” said Knight, unable to repress a note of triumph in his voice, “have you seen?”
“It is wonderful—wonderful!” I could not help exclaiming as our cab started on its return trip. “But how did you do it? By what process of induction—”
“My dear doctor,” interrupted the great murderer, “the inductive theory is what the detectives use. My process is more modern. I call it the saltatorial theory. Without bothering with the tedious mental phenomena necessary to the solution of a mystery from slight clues, I jump at once to a conclusion. I will explain to you the method I employed in this case.
“In the first place, I argued that as the crime was committed in New York City in broad daylight, in a public place and under peculiarly atrocious circumstances, and that as the most skilful sleuth available was let loose upon the case, the perpetrator would never be discovered. Do you not think my postulation justified by precedent?”
“Perhaps so,” I replied, doggedly. “But if Big Bill Dev—”
“Stop that,” interrupted Knight, with a smile, “I’ve heard that several times. It’s too late now. I will proceed.
“If homicides in New York went undiscovered, I reasoned, although the best detective talent was employed to ferret them out, it must be true that the detectives went about their work in the wrong way. And not only in the wrong way, but exactly opposite from the right way. That was my clue.
“I slew the man in Central Park. Now, let me describe myself to you.
“I am tall, with a black beard, and I hate publicity. I have no money to speak of; I do not like oatmeal, and it is the one ambition of my life to die rich. I am of a cold and heartless disposition. I do not care for my fellowmen and I never give a cent to beggars or charity.
“Now, my dear doctor, that is the true description of myself, the man whom that shrewd detective was to hunt down. You who are familiar with the history of crime in New York of late should be able to foretell the result. When I promised you to exhibit to your incredulous gaze the sleuth who was set upon me, you laughed at me because you said that detectives and murderers never met in New York. I have demonstrated to you that the theory is possible.”
“But how did you do it?” I asked again.
“It was very simple,” replied the distinguished murderer. “I assumed that the detective would go exactly opposite to the clues he had. I have given you a description of myself. Therefore, he must necessarily set to work and trail a short man with a white beard who likes to be in the papers, who is very wealthy, is fond ‘of oatmeal, wants to die poor, and is of an extremely generous and philanthropic disposition. When thus far is reached the mind hesitates no longer. I conveyed you at once to the spot where Shamrock Jolnes was piping off Andrew Carnegie’s residence.”
“Knight,” said I, “you’re a wonder. If there was no danger of your reforming, what a rounds man you’d make for the Nineteenth Precinct!”
[This story has been rewritten and published in “Strictly Business” under the title, The Proof of the Pudding.]
Usually it is a cold day in July when you can stroll up Broadway in that month and get a story out of the drama. I found one a few breathless, parboiling days ago, and it seems to decide a serious question in art.
There was not a soul left in the city except Hollis and me—and two or three million sunworshippers who remained at desks and counters. The elect had fled to seashore, lake, and mountain, and had already begun to draw for additional funds. Every evening Hollis and I prowled about the deserted town searching for coolness in empty cafes, dining-rooms, and roofgardens. We knew to the tenth part of a revolution the speed of every electric fan in Gotham, and we followed the swiftest as they varied. Hollis’s fiancee. Miss Loris Sherman, had been in the Adirondacks, at Lower Saranac Lake, for a month. In another week he would join her party there. In the meantime, he cursed the city cheerfully and optimistically, and sought my society because I suffered him to show me her photograph during the black coffee every time we dined together.
My revenge was to read to him my one-act play.
It was one insufferable evening when the overplus of the day’s heat was being hurled quiveringly back to the heavens by every surcharged brick and stone and inch of iron in the panting town. But with the cunning of the two-legged beasts we had found an oasis where the hoofs of Apollo’s steed had not been allowed to strike. Our seats were on an ocean of cool, polished oak; the white linen of fifty deserted tables flapped like seagulls in the artificial breeze; a mile away a waiter lingered for a heliographic signal—we might have roared songs there or fought a duel without molestation.
Out came Miss Loris’s photo with the coffee, and I once more praised the elegant poise of the neck, the extremely low-coiled mass of heavy hair, and the eyes that followed one, like those in an oil painting.
“She’s the greatest ever,” said Hollis, with enthusiasm. “Good as Great Northern Preferred, and a disposition built like a watch. One week more and I’ll be happy Jonny-on-the-spot. Old Tom Tolliver, my best college chum, went up there two weeks ago. He writes me that Loris doesn’t talk about anything but me. Oh, I guess Rip Van Winkle didn’t have all the good luck!”
“Yes, yes,” said I, hurriedly, pulling out my typewritten play. “She’s no doubt a charming girl. Now, here’s that little curtain-raiser you promised to listen to.”
“Ever been tried on the stage?” asked Hollis.
“Not exactly,” I answered. “I read half of it the other day to a fellow whose brother knows Robert Edeson; but he had to catch a train before I finished.”
“Go on,” said Hollis, sliding back in his chair like a good fellow. “I’m no stage carpenter, but I’ll tell you what I think of it from a first-row balcony standpoint. I’m a theatre bug during the season, and I can size up a fake play almost as quick as the gallery can. Flag the waiter once more, and then go ahead as hard as you like with it. I’ll be the dog.”
I read my little play lovingly, and, I fear, not without some elocution. There was one scene in it that I believed in greatly. The comedy swiftly rises into thrilling and unexpectedly developed drama. Capt. Marchmont suddenly becomes cognizant that his wife is an unscrupulous adventuress, who has deceived him from the day of their first meeting. The rapid and mortal duel between them from that moment—she with her magnificent lies and siren charm, winding about him like a serpent, trying to recover her lost ground; he with his man’s agony and scorn and lost faith, trying to tear her from his heart. That scene I always thought was a crackerjack. When Capt. Marchmont discovers her duplicity by reading on a blotter in a mirror the impression of a note that she has written to the Count, he raises his hand to heaven and exclaims: “O God, who created woman while Adam slept, and gave her to him for a companion, take back Thy gift and return instead the sleep, though it last forever!”
“Rot,” said Hollis, rudely, when I had given those lines with proper emphasis.
“I beg your pardon!” I said, as sweetly as I could.
“Come now,” went on Hollis, “don’t be an idiot. You know very well that nobody spouts any stuff like that these days. That sketch went along all right until you rang in the skyrockets. Cut out that right-arm exercise and the Adam and Eve stunt, and make your captain talk as you or I or Bill Jones would.”
“I’ll admit,” said I, earnestly (for my theory was being touched upon), “that on all ordinary occasions all of us use commonplace language to convey our thoughts. You will remember that up to the moment when the captain makes his terrible discovery all the characters on the stage talk pretty much as they would, in real life. But I believe that I am right in allowing him lines suitable to the strong and tragic situation into which he falls.”
“Tragic, my eye!” said my friend, irreverently. “In Shakespeare’s day he might have sputtered out some high-cockalorum nonsense of that sort, because in those days they ordered ham and eggs in blank verse and discharged the cook with an epic. But not for B’way in the summer of 1905!”
“It is my opinion,” said I, “that great human emotions shake up our vocabulary and leave the words best suited to express them on top. A sudden violent grief or loss or disappointment will bring expressions out of an ordinary man as strong and solemn and dramatic as those used in fiction or on the stage to portray those emotions.”
“That’s where you fellows are wrong,” said Hollis. “Plain, every-day talk is what goes. Your captain would very likely have kicked the cat, lit a cigar, stirred up a highball, and telephoned for a lawyer, instead of getting off those Robert Mantell pyrotechnics.”
“Possibly, a little later,” I continued. “But just at the time—just as the blow is delivered, if something Scriptural or theatrical and deep-tongued isn’t wrung from a man in spite of his modern and practical way of speaking, then I’m wrong.”
“Of course,” said Hollis, kindly, “you’ve got to whoop her up some degrees for the stage. The audience expects it. When the villain kidnaps little Effie you have to make her mother claw some chunks out of the atmosphere, and scream: “Me chee-ild, me chee-ild!” What she would actually do would be to call up the police by ’phone, ring for some strong tea, and get the little darling’s photo out, ready for the reporters. When you get your villain in a corner—a stage corner—it’s all right for him to clap his hand to his forehead and hiss: “All is lost!” Off the stage he would remark: “This is a conspiracy against me—I refer you to my lawyers.’”
“I get no consolation,” said I, gloomily, “from your concession of an accentuated stage treatment. In my play I fondly hoped that I was following life. If people in real life meet great crises in a commonplace way, they should do the same on the stage.”
And then we drifted, like two trout, out of our cool pool in the great hotel and began to nibble languidly at the gay flies in the swift current of Broadway. And our question of dramatic art was unsettled.
We nibbled at the flies, and avoided the hooks, as wise trout do; but soon the weariness of Manhattan in summer overcame us. Nine stories up, facing the south, was Hollis’s apartment, and we soon stepped into an elevator bound for that cooler haven.
I was familiar in those quarters, and quickly my play was forgotten, and I stood at a sideboard mixing things, with cracked ice and glasses all about me. A breeze from the bay came in the windows not altogether blighted by the asphalt furnace over which it had passed. Hollis, whistling softly, turned over a late-arrived letter or two on his table, and drew around the coolest wicker armchairs.
I was just measuring the Vermouth carefully when I heard a sound. Some man’s voice groaned hoarsely: “False, oh, God!—false, and Love is a lie and friendship but the byword of devils!”
I looked around quickly. Hollis lay across the table with his head down upon his outstretched arms. And then he looked up at me and laughed in his ordinary manner.
I knew him—he was poking fun at me about my theory. And it did seem so unnatural, those swelling words during our quiet gossip, that I half began to believe I had been mistaken—that my theory was wrong.
Hollis raised himself slowly from the table.
“You were right about that theatrical business, old man,” he said, quietly, as he tossed a note to me.
I read it.
Loris had run away with Tom Tolliver.
“I see,” remarked the tall gentleman in the frock coat and black slouch hat, “that another street car motorman in your city has narrowly excaped lynching at the hands of an infuriated mob by lighting a cigar and walking a couple of blocks down the street.”
“Do you think they would have lynched him?” asked the New Yorker, in the next seat of the ferry station, who was also waiting for the boat.
“Not until after the election,” said the tall man, cutting a corner off his plug of tobacco. “I’ve been in your city long enough to know something about your mobs. The motorman’s mob is about the least dangerous of them all, except the National Guard and the Dressmakers’ Convention.
“You see, when little Willie Goldstein is sent by his mother for pigs’ knuckles, with a nickel tightly grasped in his chubby fist, he always crosses the street car track safely twenty feet ahead of the car; and then suddenly turns back to ask his mother whether it was pale ale or a spool of 80 white cotton that she wanted. The motorman yells and throws himself on the brakes like a football player. There is a horrible grinding and then a ripping sound, and a piercing shriek, and Willie is sitting, with part of his trousers torn away by the fender, screaming for his lost nickel.
“In ten seconds the car is surrounded by 600 infuriated citizens, crying, ‘Lynch the motorman! Lynch the motorman!’ at the top of their voices. Some of them run to the nearest cigar store to get a rope; but they find the last one has just been cut up and labelled. Hundreds of the excited mob press close to the cowering motorman, whose hand is observed to tremble perceptibly as he transfers a stick of pepsin gum from his pocket to his mouth.
“When the bloodthirsty mob of maddened citizens has closed in on the motorman, some bringing camp stools and sitting quite close to him, and all shouting, ‘Lynch him!’ Policeman Fogarty forces his way through them to the side of their prospective victim.
“‘Hello, Mike,’ says the motorman in a low voice, ‘nice day. Shall I sneak off a block or so, or would you like to rescue me?’
“‘Well, Jerry, if you don’t mind,’ says the policeman, ‘I’d like to disperse the infuriated mob singlehanded. I haven’t defeated a lynching mob since last Tuesday; and that was a small one of only 300, that wanted to string up a Dago boy for selling wormy pears. It would boost me some down at the station.’
“‘All right, Mike,’ says the motorman, ‘anything to oblige. I’ll turn pale and tremble.’
“And he does so; and Policeman Fogarty draws his club and says, ‘G’wan wid yez!’ and in eight seconds the desperate mob has scattered and gone about its business, except about a hundred who remain to search for Willie’s nickel.”
“I never heard of a mob in our city doing violence to a motorman because of an accident,” said the New Yorker.
“You are not liable to,” said the tall man. “They know the motorman’s all right, and that he wouldn’t even run over a stray dog if he could help it. And they know that not a man among ’em would tie the knot to hang even a Thomas cat that had been tried and condemned and sentenced according to law.”
“Then why do they become infuriated and make threats of lynching?” asked the New Yorker.
“To assure the motorman,” answered the tall man, “that he is safe. If they really wanted to do him up they would go into the houses and drop bricks on him from the third-story windows.”
“New Yorkers are not cowards,” said the other man, a little stiffly.
“Not one at a time,” agreed the tall man, promptly. “You’ve got a fine lot of single-handed scrappers in your town. I’d rather fight three of you than one; and I’d go up against all the Gas Trust’s victims in a bunch before I’d pass two citizens on a dark corner, with my watch chain showing. When you get rounded up in a bunch you lose your nerve. Get you in crowds and you’re easy. Ask the ‘L’ road guards and George B. Cortelyou and the tintype booths at Coney Island. Divided you stand, united you fall. E pluribus nihil. Whenever one of your mobs surrounds a man and begins to holler, ‘Lynch him!’ he says to himself, “Oh, dear, I suppose I must look pale to please the boys, but I will, forsooth, let my life insurance premium lapse to-morrow. This is a sure tip for me to play Methuselah straight across the board in the next handicap.’
“I can imagine the tortured feelings of a prisoner in the hands of New York policemen when an infuriated mob demands that he be turned over to them for lynching. ‘For God’s sake, officers,’ cries the distracted wretch, ‘have ye hearts of stone, that ye will not let them wrest me from ye?’
“‘Sorry, Jimmy,’ says one of the policemen, ‘but it won’t do. There’s three of us—me and Darrel and the plain-clothes man; and there’s only sivin thousand of the mob. How’d we explain it at the office if they took ye? Jist chase the infuriated aggregation around the corner, Darrel, and we’ll be movin’ along to the station.’”
“Some of our gatherings of excited citizens have not been so harmless,” said the New Yorker, with a faint note of civic pride.
“I’ll admit that,” said the tall man. “A cousin of mine who was on a visit here once had an arm broken and lost an ear in one of them.”
“That must have been during the Cooper Union riots,” remarked the New Yorker.
“Not the Cooper Union,” explained the tall man—“but it was a union riot—at the Vanastor wedding.”
“You seem to be in favor of lynch law,” said the New Yorker, severely.
“No, sir, I am not. No intelligent man is. But, sir, there are certain cases when people rise in their just majesty and take a righteous vengeance for crimes that the law is slow in punishing. I am an advocate of law and order, but I will say to you that less than six months ago I myself assisted at the lynching of one of that race that is creating a wide chasm between your section of country and mine, sir.”
“It is a deplorable condition,” said the New Yorker, “that exists in the South, but—”
“I am from Indiana, sir,” said the tall man, taking another chew; “and I don’t think you will condemn my course when I tell you that the colored man in question had stolen $9.60 in cash, sir, from my own brother.”
EDITORIAL NOTE.—Before the fatal illness of William Sydney Porter (known through his literary work as “O. Henry”) this American master of short-story writing had begun for Hampton’s Magazine the story printed below. Illness crept upon him rapidly and he was compelled to give up writing about at the point where the girl enters the story.
When he realized that he could do no more (it was his lifelong habit to write with a pencil, never dictating to a stenographer), O. Henry told in detail the remainder of The Snow Man to Harris Merton Lyon, whom he had often spoken of as one of the most effective short-story writers of the present time. Mr. Porter had delineated all of the characters, leaving only the rounding out of the plot in the final pages to Mr. Lyon.
Housed and windowpaned from it, the greatest wonder to little children is the snow. To men, it is something like a crucible in which their world melts into a white star ten million miles away. The man who can stand the test is a Snow Man; and this is his reading by Fahrenheit, Réaumur, or Moses’s carven tablets of stone.
Night had fluttered a sable pinion above the cañon of Big Lost River, and I urged my horse toward the Bay Horse Ranch because the snow was deepening. The flakes were as large as an hour’s circular tatting by Miss Wilkins’s ablest spinster, betokening a heavy snowfall and less entertainment and more adventure than the completion of the tatting could promise. I knew Ross Curtis of the Bay Horse, and that I would be welcome as a snow-bound pilgrim, both for hospitality’s sake and because Ross had few chances to confide in living creatures who did not neigh, bellow, bleat, yelp, or howl during his discourse.
The ranch house was just within the jaws of the cañon where its builder may have fatuously fancied that the timbered and rocky walls on both sides would have protected it from the wintry Colorado winds; but I feared the drift. Even now through the endless, bottomless rift in the hills—the speaking tube of the four winds—came roaring the voice of the proprietor to the little room on the top floor.
At my “hello,” a ranch hand came from an outer building and received my thankful horse. In another minute, Ross and I sat by a stove in the dining-room of the four-room ranch house, while the big, simple welcome of the household lay at my disposal. Fanned by the whizzing norther, the fine, dry snow was sifted and bolted through the cracks and knotholes of the logs. The cook room, without a separating door, appended.
In there I could see a short, sturdy, leisurely and weather-beaten man moving with professional sureness about his red-hot stove. His face was stolid and unreadable—something like that of a great thinker, or of one who had no thoughts to conceal. I thought his eye seemed unwarrantably superior to the elements and to the man, but quickly attributed that to the characteristic self-importance of a petty chef. “Camp cook” was the niche that I gave him in the Hall of Types; and he fitted it as an apple fits a dumpling.
Cold it was in spite of the glowing stove; and Ross and I sat and talked, shuddering frequently, half from nerves and half from the freezing draughts. So he brought the bottle and the cook brought boiling water, and we made prodigious hot toddies against the attacks of Boreas. We clinked glasses often. They sounded like icicles dropping from the eaves, or like the tinkle of a thousand prisms on a Louis XIV chandelier that I once heard at a boarder’s dance in the parlor of a ten-a-week boarding-house in Gramercy Square. Sic transit.
Silence in the terrible beauty of the snow and of the Sphinx and of the stars; but they who believe that all things, from a without-wine table d’hôte to the crucifixion, may be interpreted through music, might have found a nocturne or a symphony to express the isolation of that blotted-out world. The clink of glass and bottle, the aeolian chorus of the wind in the house crannies, its deeper trombone through the cañon below, and the Wagnerian crash of the cook’s pots and pans, united in a fit, discordant melody, I thought. No less welcome an accompaniment was the sizzling of broiling ham and venison cutlet indorsed by the solvent fumes of true Java, bringing rich promises of comfort to our yearning souls.
The cook brought the smoking supper to the table. He nodded to me democratically as he cast the heavy plates around as though he were pitching quoits or hurling the discus. I looked at him with some appraisement and curiosity and much conciliation. There was no prophet to tell us when that drifting evil outside might cease to fall; and it is well, when snow-bound, to stand somewhere within the radius of the cook’s favorable consideration. But I could read neither favor nor disapproval in the face and manner of our pot-wrestler.
He was about five feet nine inches, and two hundred pounds of commonplace, bull-necked, pink-faced, callous calm. He wore brown duck trousers too tight and too short, and a blue flannel shirt with sleeves rolled above his elbows. There was a sort of grim, steady scowl on his features that looked to me as though he had fixed it there purposely as a protection against the weakness of an inherent amiability that, he fancied, were better concealed. And then I let supper usurp his brief occupancy of my thoughts.
“Draw up, George,” said Ross. “Let’s all eat while the grub’s hot.”
“You fellows go on and chew,” answered the cook. “I ate mine in the kitchen before sun-down.”
“Think it’ll be a big snow, George?” asked the ranchman.
George had turned to reenter the cook room. He moved slowly around and, looking at his face, it seemed to me that he was turning over the wisdom and knowledge of centuries in his head.
“It might,” was his delayed reply.
At the door of the kitchen he stopped and looked back at us. Both Ross and I held our knives and forks poised and gave him our regard. Some men have the power of drawing the attention of others without speaking a word. Their attitude is more effective than a shout.
“And again it mightn’t,” said George, and went back to his stove.
After we had eaten, he came in and gathered the emptied dishes. He stood for a moment, while his spurious frown deepened.
“It might stop any minute,” he said, “or it might keep up for days.”
At the farther end of the cook room I saw George pour hot water into his dishpan, light his pipe, and put the tableware through its required lavation. He then carefully unwrapped from a piece of old saddle blanket a paperback book, and settled himself to read by his dim oil lamp.
And then the ranchman threw tobacco on the cleared table and set forth again the bottles and glasses; and I saw that I stood in a deep channel through which the long dammed flood of his discourse would soon be booming. But I was half content, comparing my fate with that of the late Thomas Tucker, who had to sing for his supper, thus doubling the burdens of both himself and his host.
“Snow is a hell of a thing,” said Ross, by way of a foreword. “It ain’t, somehow, it seems to me, salubrious. I can stand water and mud and two inches below zero and a hundred and ten in the shade and medium-sized cyclones, but this here fuzzy white stuff naturally gets me all locoed. I reckon the reason it rattles you is because it changes the look of things so much. It’s like you had a wife and left her in the morning with the same old blue cotton wrapper on, and rides in of a night and runs across her all outfitted in a white silk evening frock, waving an ostrich-feather fan, and monkeying with a posy of lily flowers. Wouldn’t it make you look for your pocket compass? You’d be liable to kiss her before you collected your presence of mind.”
By and by, the flood of Ross’s talk was drawn up into the clouds (so it pleased me to fancy) and there condensed into the finer snowflakes of thought; and we sat silent about the stove, as good friends and bitter enemies will do. I thought of Ross’s preamble about the mysterious influence upon man exerted by that ermine-lined monster that now covered our little world, and knew he was right.
Of all the curious knickknacks, mysteries, puzzles, Indian gifts, rat-traps, and well-disguised blessings that the gods chuck down to us from the Olympian peaks, the most disquieting and evil-bringing is the snow. By scientific analysis it is absolute beauty and purity—so, at the beginning we look doubtfully at chemistry.
It falls upon the world, and lo! we live in another. It hides in a night the old scars and familiar places with which we have grown heart-sick or enamored. So, as quietly as we can, we hustle on our embroidered robes and hie us on Prince Camaralzaman’s horse or in the reindeer sleigh into the white country where the seven colors converge. This is when our fancy can overcome the bane of it.
But in certain spots of the earth comes the snow-madness, made known by people turned wild and distracted by the bewildering veil that has obscured the only world they know. In the cities, the white fairy who sets the brains of her dupes whirling by a wave of her wand is cast for the comedy role. Her diamond shoe buckles glitter like frost; with a pirouette she invites the spotless carnival.
But in the waste places the snow is sardonic. Sponging out the world of the outliers, it gives no foothold on another sphere in return. It makes of the earth a firmament under foot; it leaves us clawing and stumbling in space in an inimical fifth element whose evil outdoes its strangeness and beauty, There Nature, low comedienne, plays her tricks on man. Though she has put him forth as her highest product, it appears that she has fashioned him with what seems almost incredible carelessness and indexterity. One-sided and without balance, with his two halves unequally fashioned and joined, must he ever jog his eccentric way. The snow falls, the darkness caps it, and the ridiculous man-biped strays in accurate circles until he succumbs in the ruins of his defective architecture.
In the throat of the thirsty the snow is vitriol. In appearance as plausible as the breakfast food of the angels, it is as hot in the mouth as ginger, increasing the pangs of the water-famished. It is a derivative from water, air, and some cold, uncanny fire from which the caloric has been extracted. Good has been said of it; even the poets, crazed by its spell and shivering in their attics under its touch, have indited permanent melodies commemorative of its beauty.
Still, to the saddest overcoated optimist it is a plague—a corroding plague that Pharaoh successfully side-stepped. It beneficently covers the wheat fields, swelling the crop—and the Flour Trust gets us by the throat like a sudden quinsy. It spreads the tail of its white kirtle over the red seams of the rugged north—and the Alaskan short story is born. Etiolated perfidy, it shelters the mountain traveler burrowing from the icy air—and, melting to-morrow, drowns his brother in the valley below.
At its worst it is lock and key and crucible, and the wand of Circe. When it corrals man in lonely ranches, mountain cabins, and forest huts, the snow makes apes and tigers of the hardiest. It turns the bosoms of weaker ones to glass, their tongues to infants’ rattles, their hearts to lawlessness and spleen. It is not all from the isolation; the snow is not merely a blockader; it is a Chemical Test. It is a good man who can show a reaction that is not chiefly composed of a drachm or two of potash and magnesia, with traces of Adam, Ananias, Nebuchadnezzar, and the fretful porcupine.
This is no story, you say; well, let it begin.
There was a knock at the door (is the opening not full of context and reminiscence oh, best buyers of best sellers?).
We drew the latch, and in stumbled Etienne Girod (as he afterward named himself). But just then he was no more than a worm struggling for life, enveloped in a killing white chrysalis.
We dug down through snow, overcoats, mufflers, and waterproofs, and dragged forth a living thing with a Van Dyck beard and marvellous diamond rings. We put it through the approved curriculum of snow-rubbing, hot milk, and teaspoonful doses of whiskey, working him up to a graduating class entitled to a diploma of three fingers of rye in half a glassful of hot water. One of the ranch boys had already come from the quarters at Ross’s bugle-like yell and kicked the stranger’s staggering pony to some sheltered corral where beasts were entertained.
Let a paragraphic biography of Girod intervene.
Etienne was an opera singer originally, we gathered; but adversity and the snow had made him non compos vocis. The adversity consisted of the stranded San Salvador Opera Company, a period of hotel second-story work, and then a career as a professional palmist, jumping from town to town. For, like other professional palmists, every time he worked the Heart Line too strongly he immediately moved along the Line of Least Resistance. Though Etienne did not confide this to us, we surmised that he had moved out into the dusk about twenty minutes ahead of a constable, and had thus encountered the snow. In his most sacred blue language he dilated upon the subject of snow; for Etienne was Paris-born and loved the snow with the same passion that an orchid does.
“Mee-ser-rhable!” commented Etienne, and took another three fingers.
“Complete, cast-iron, pussy-footed, blank... blank!” said Ross, and followed suit.
“Rotten,” said I.
The cook said nothing. He stood in the door weighing our outburst; and insistently from behind that frozen visage I got two messages (via the M. A. M wireless). One was that George considered our vituperation against the snow childish; the other was that George did not love Dagoes. Inasmuch as Etienne was a Frenchman, I concluded I had the message wrong. So I queried the other: “Bright eyes, you don’t really mean Dagoes, do you?” and over the wireless came three deathly, psychic taps: “Yes.” Then I reflected that to George all foreigners were probably “Dagoes.” I had once known another camp cook who had thought Mons., Sig., and Millie (Trans-Mississippi for Mlle.) were Italian given names; this cook used to marvel therefore at the paucity of Neo-Roman precognomens, and therefore why not—
I have said that snow is a test of men. For one day, two days, Etienne stood at the window, Fletcherizing his finger nails and shrieking and moaning at the monotony. To me, Etienne was just about as unbearable as the snow; and so, seeking relief, I went out on the second day to look at my horse, slipped on a stone, broke my collarbone, and thereafter underwent not the snow test, but the test of flat-on-the-back. A test that comes once too often for any man to stand.
However, I bore up cheerfully. I was now merely a spectator, and from my couch in the big room I could lie and watch the human interplay with that detached, impassive, impersonal feeling which French writers tell us is so valuable to the litterateur, and American writers to the faro-dealer.
“I shall go crazy in this abominable, mee-ser-rhable place!” was Etienne’s constant prediction.
“Never knew Mark Twain to bore me before,” said Ross, over and over. He sat by the other window, hour after hour, a box of Pittsburg stogies of the length, strength, and odor of a Pittsburg graft scandal deposited on one side of him, and “Roughing It,” “The Jumping Frog,” and “Life on the Mississippi” on the other. For every chapter he lit a new stogy, puffing furiously. This in time, gave him a recurrent premonition of cramps, gastritis, smoker’s colic or whatever it is they have in Pittsburg after a too deep indulgence in graft scandals. To fend off the colic, Ross resorted time and again to Old Doctor Still’s Amber-Colored U. S. A. Colic Cure. Result, after forty-eight hours—nerves.
“Positive fact I never knew Mark Twain to make me tired before. Positive fact.” Ross slammed “Roughing It” on the floor. “When you’re snowbound this-away you want tragedy, I guess. Humor just seems to bring out all your cussedness. You read a man’s poor, pitiful attempts to be funny and it makes you so nervous you want to tear the book up, get out your bandana, and have a good, long cry.”
At the other end of the room, the Frenchman took his finger nails out of his mouth long enough to exclaim: “Humor! Humor at such a time as thees! My God, I shall go crazy in thees abominable—”
“Supper,” announced George.
These meals were not the meals of Rabelais who said, “the great God makes the planets and we make the platters neat.” By that time, the ranch-house meals were not affairs of gusto; they were mental distraction, not bodily provender. What they were to be later shall never be forgotten by Ross or me or Etienne.
After supper, the stogies and finger nails began again. My shoulder ached wretchedly, and with half-closed eyes I tried to forget it by watching the deft movements of the stolid cook.
Suddenly I saw him cock his ear, like a dog. Then, with a swift step, he moved to the door, threw it open, and stood there.
The rest of us had heard nothing.
“What is it, George?” asked Ross.
The cook reached out his hand into the darkness alongside the jamb. With careful precision he prodded something. Then he made one careful step into the snow. His back muscles bulged a little under the arms as he stooped and lightly lifted a burden. Another step inside the door, which he shut methodically behind him, and he dumped the burden at a safe distance from the fire.
He stood up and fixed us with a solemn eye. None of us moved under that Orphic suspense until,
“A woman,” remarked George.
Miss Willie Adams was her name. Vocation, school-teacher. Present avocation, getting lost in the snow. Age, yum-yum (the Persian for twenty). Take to the woods if you would describe Miss Adams. A willow for grace; a hickory for fibre; a birch for the clear whiteness of her skin; for eyes, the blue sky seen through treetops; the silk in cocoons for her hair; her voice, the murmur of the evening June wind in the leaves; her mouth, the berries of the wintergreen; fingers as light as ferns; her toe as small as a deer track. General impression upon the dazed beholder—you could not see the forest for the trees.
Psychology, with a capital P and the foot of a lynx, at this juncture stalks into the ranch house. Three men, a cook, a pretty young woman—all snowbound. Count me out of it, as I did not count, anyway. I never did, with women. Count the cook out, if you like. But note the effect upon Ross and Etienne Girod.
Ross dumped Mark Twain in a trunk and locked the trunk. Also, he discarded the Pittsburg scandals. Also, he shaved off a three days’ beard.
Etienne, being French, began on the beard first. He pomaded it, from a little tube of grease Hongroise in his vest pocket. He combed it with a little aluminum comb from the same vest pocket. He trimmed it with manicure scissors from the same vest pocket. His light and Gallic spirits underwent a sudden, miraculous change. He hummed a blithe San Salvador Opera Company tune; he grinned, smirked, bowed, pirouetted, twiddled, twaddled, twisted, and tooralooed. Gayly, the notorious troubadour, could not have equalled Etienne.
Ross’s method of advance was brusque, domineering. “Little woman,” he said, “you’re welcome here!”—and with what he thought subtle double meaning—“welcome to stay here as long as you like, snow or no snow.”
Miss Adams thanked him a little wildly, some of the wintergreen berries creeping into the birch bark. She looked around hurriedly as if seeking escape. But there was none, save the kitchen and the room allotted her. She made an excuse and disappeared into her own room.
Later I, feigning sleep, heard the following:
“Mees Adams, I was almost to perish-die-of monotony w’en your fair and beautiful face appear in thees mee-ser-rhable house.” I opened my starboard eye. The beard was being curled furiously around a finger, the Svengali eye was rolling, the chair was being hunched closer to the school-teacher’s. “I am French—you see—temperamental—nervous! I cannot endure thees dull hours in thees ranch house; but—a woman comes! Ah!” The shoulders gave nine ’rahs and a tiger. “What a difference! All is light and gay; ever’ting smile w’en you smile. You have ’eart, beauty, grace. My ’eart comes back to me w’en I feel your ’eart. So!” He laid his hand upon his vest pocket. From this vantage point he suddenly snatched at the school-teacher’s own hand, “Ah! Mees Adams, if I could only tell you how I ad—”
“Dinner,” remarked George. He was standing just behind the Frenchman’s ear. His eyes looked straight into the school-teacher’s eyes. After thirty seconds of survey, his lips moved, deep in the flinty, frozen maelstrom of his face: “Dinner,” he concluded, “will be ready in two minutes.”
Miss Adams jumped to her feet, relieved. “I must get ready for dinner,” she said brightly, and went into her room.
Ross came in fifteen minutes late. After the dishes had been cleaned away, I waited until a propitious time when the room was temporarily ours alone, and told him what had happened.
He became so excited that he lit a stogy without thinking. “Yeller-hided, unwashed, palm-readin’ skunk,” he said under his breath. “I’ll shoot him full o’ holes if he don’t watch out—talkin’ that way to my wife!”
I gave a jump that set my collarbone back another week. “Your wife!” I gasped.
“Well, I mean to make her that,” he announced.
The air in the ranch house the rest of that day was tense with pent-up emotions, oh, best buyers of best sellers.
Ross watched Miss Adams as a hawk does a hen; he watched Etienne as a hawk does a scarecrow, Etienne watched Miss Adams as a weasel does a henhouse. He paid no attention to Ross.
The condition of Miss Adams, in the role of sought-after, was feverish. Lately escaped from the agony and long torture of the white cold, where for hours Nature had kept the little school-teacher’s vision locked in and turned upon herself, nobody knows through what profound feminine introspections she had gone. Now, suddenly cast among men, instead of finding relief and security, she beheld herself plunged anew into other discomforts. Even in her own room she could hear the loud voices of her imposed suitors. “I’ll blow you full o’ holes!” shouted Ross. “Witnesses,” shrieked Etienne, waving his hand at the cook and me. She could not have known the previous harassed condition of the men, fretting under indoor conditions. All she knew was, that where she had expected the frank freemasonry of the West, she found the subtle tangle of two men’s minds, bent upon exacting whatever romance there might be in her situation.
She tried to dodge Ross and the Frenchman by spells of nursing me. They also came over to help nurse. This combination aroused such a natural state of invalid cussedness on my part that they were all forced to retire. Once she did manage to whisper: “I am so worried here. I don’t know what to do.”
To which I replied, gently, hitching up my shoulder, that I was a hunch-savant and that the Eighth House under this sign, the Moon being in Virgo, showed that everything would turn out all right.
But twenty minutes later I saw Etienne reading her palm and felt that perhaps I might have to recast her horoscope, and try for a dark man coming with a bundle.
Toward sunset, Etienne left the house for a few moments and Ross, who had been sitting taciturn and morose, having unlocked Mark Twain, made another dash. It was typical Ross talk.
He stood in front of her and looked down majestically at that cool and perfect spot where Miss Adams’ forehead met the neat part in her fragrant hair. First, however, he cast a desperate glance at me. I was in a profound slumber.
“Little woman,” he began, “it’s certainly tough for a man like me to see you bothered this way. You”—gulp—“you have been alone in this world too long. You need a protector. I might say that at a time like this you need a protector the worst kind—a protector who would take a three-ring delight in smashing the saffron-colored kisser off of any yeller-skinned skunk that made himself obnoxious to you. Hem. Hem. I am a lonely man, Miss Adams. I have so far had to carry on my life without the”—gulp—“sweet radiance”—gulp—“of a woman around the house. I feel especially doggoned lonely at a time like this, when I am pretty near locoed from havin’ to stall indoors, and hence it was with delight I welcomed your first appearance in this here shack. Since then I have been packed jam full of more different kinds of feelings, ornery, mean, dizzy, and superb, than has fallen my way in years.”
Miss Adams made a useless movement toward escape. The Ross chin stuck firm. “I don’t want to annoy you, Miss Adams, but, by heck, if it comes to that you’ll have to be annoyed. And I’ll have to have my say. This palm-ticklin’ slob of a Frenchman ought to be kicked off the place and if you’ll say the word, off he goes. But I don’t want to do the wrong thing. You’ve got to show a preference. I’m gettin’ around to the point, Miss—Miss Willie, in my own brick fashion. I’ve stood about all I can stand these last two days and somethin’s got to happen. The suspense hereabouts is enough to hang a sheepherder. Miss Willie”—he lassooed her hand by main force—“just say the word. You need somebody to take your part all your life long. Will you mar—”
“Supper,” remarked George, tersely, from the kitchen door.
Miss Adams hurried away.
Ross turned angrily. “You—”
“I have been revolving it in my head,” said George.
He brought the coffee pot forward heavily. Then bravely the big platter of pork and beans. Then somberly the potatoes. Then profoundly the biscuits. “I have been revolving it in my mind. There ain’t no use waitin’ any longer for Swengalley. Might as well eat now.”
From my excellent vantage-point on the couch I watched the progress of that meal. Ross, muddled, glowering, disappointed; Etienne, eternally blandishing, attentive, ogling; Miss Adams, nervous, picking at her food, hesitant about answering questions, almost hysterical; now and then the solid, flitting shadow of the cook, passing behind their backs like a Dreadnaught in a fog.
I used to own a clock which gurgled in its throat three minutes before it struck the hour. I know, therefore, the slow freight of Anticipation. For I have awakened at three in the morning, heard the clock gurgle, and waited those three minutes for the three strokes I knew were to come. Alors. In Ross’s ranch house that night the slow freight of Climax whistled in the distance.
Etienne began it after supper. Miss Adams had suddenly displayed a lively interest in the kitchen layout and I could see her in there, chatting brightly at George—not with him—the while he ducked his head and rattled his pans.
“My fren’,” said Etienne, exhaling a large cloud from his cigarette and patting Ross lightly on the shoulder with a bediamonded hand which, hung limp from a yard or more of bony arm, “I see I mus’ be frank with you. Firs’, because we are rivals; second, because you take these matters so serious. I—I am Frenchman. I love the women”—he threw back his curls, bared his yellow teeth, and blew an unsavory kiss toward the kitchen. “It is, I suppose, a trait of my nation. All Frenchmen love the women—pretty women. Now, look: Here I am!” He spread out his arms. “Cold outside! I detes’ the col-l-l! Snow! I abominate the mees-ser-rhable snow! Two men! This—” pointing to me—“an’ this!” Pointing to’ Ross. “I am distracted! For two whole days I stan’ at the window an’ tear my ’air! I am nervous, upset, pr-r-ro-foun’ly distress inside my ’ead! An’ suddenly—be’old! A woman, a nice, pretty, charming, innocen’ young woman! I, naturally, rejoice. I become myself again—gay, light-’earted, ’appy. I address myself to mademoiselle; it passes the time. That, m’sieu’, is wot the women are for—pass the time! Entertainment—like the music, like the wine!
“They appeal to the mood, the caprice, the temperamen’. To play with thees woman, follow her through her humor, pursue her—ah! that is the mos’ delightful way to sen’ the hours about their business.”
Ross banged the table. “Shut up, you miserable yeller pup!” he roared. “I object to your pursuin’ anything or anybody in my house. Now, you listen to me, you—” He picked up the box of stogies and used it on the table as an emphasizer. The noise of it awoke the attention of the girl in the kitchen. Unheeded, she crept into the room. “I don’t know anything about your French ways of lovemakin’ an’ I don’t care. In my section of the country, it’s the best man wins. And I’m the best man here, and don’t you forget it! This girl’s goin’ to be mine. There ain’t going to be any playing, or philandering, or palm reading about it. I’ve made up my mind I’ll have this girl, and that settles it. My word is the law in this neck o’ the woods. She’s mine, and as soon as she says she’s mine, you pull out.” The box made one final, tremendous punctuation point.
Etienne’s bravado was unruffled. “Ah! that is no way to win a woman,” he smiled, easily. “I make prophecy you will never win ’er that way. No. Not thees woman. She mus’ be played along an’ then keessed, this charming, delicious little creature. One kees! An’ then you ’ave her.” Again he displayed his unpleasant teeth. “I make you a bet I will kees her—”
As a cheerful chronicler of deeds done well, it joys me to relate that the hand which fell upon Etienne’s amorous lips was not his own. There was one sudden sound, as of a mule kicking a lath fence, and then—through the swinging doors of oblivion for Etienne.
I had seen this blow delivered. It was an aloof, unstudied, almost absent-minded affair. I had thought the cook was rehearsing the proper method of turning a flapjack.
Silently, lost in thought, he stood there scratching his head. Then he began rolling down his sleeves.
“You’d better get your things on, Miss, and we’ll get out of here,” he decided. “Wrap up warm.”
I heard her heave a little sigh of relief as she went to get her cloak, sweater, and hat.
Ross jumped to his feet, and said: “George, what are you goin’ to do?”
George, who had been headed in my direction, slowly swivelled around and faced his employer. “Bein’ a camp cook, I ain’t over-burdened with hosses,” George enlightened us. “Therefore, I am going to try to borrow this feller’s here.”
For the first time in four days my soul gave a genuine cheer. “If it’s for Lochinvar purposes, go as far as you like,” I said, grandly.
The cook studied me a moment, as if trying to find an insult in my words. “No,” he replied. “It’s for mine and the young lady’s purposes, and we’ll go only three miles—to Hicksville. Now let me tell you somethin’, Ross.” Suddenly I was confronted with the cook’s chunky back and I heard a low, curt, carrying voice shoot through the room at my host. George had wheeled just as Ross started to speak. “You’re nutty. That’s what’s the matter with you. You can’t stand the snow. You’re getting nervouser, and nuttier every day. That and this Dago”—he jerked a thumb at the half-dead Frenchman in the corner—“has got you to the point where I thought I better horn in. I got to revolving it around in my mind and I seen if somethin’ wasn’t done, and done soon, there’d be murder around here and maybe”—his head gave an imperceptible list toward the girl’s room—“worse.”
He stopped, but he held up a stubby finger to keep any one else from speaking. Then he plowed slowly through the drift of his ideas. “About this here woman. I know you, Ross, and I know what you reely think about women. If she hadn’t happened in here durin’ this here snow, you’d never have given two thoughts to the whole woman question. Likewise, when the storm clears, and you and the boys go hustlin’ out, this here whole business ’ll clear out of your head and you won’t think of a skirt again until Kingdom Come. Just because o’ this snow here, don’t forget you’re living in the selfsame world you was in four days ago. And you’re the same man, too. Now, what’s the use o’ getting all snarled up over four days of stickin’ in the house? That there’s what I been revolvin’ in my mind and this here’s the decision I’ve come to.”
He plodded to the door and shouted to one of the ranch hands to saddle my horse.
Ross lit a stogy and stood thoughtful in the middle of the room. Then he began: “I’ve a durn good notion, George, to knock your confounded head off and throw you into that snowbank, if—”
“You’re wrong, mister. That ain’t a durned good notion you’ve got. It’s durned bad. Look here!” He pointed steadily out of doors until we were both forced to follow his finger. “You’re in here for more’n a week yet.” After allowing this fact to sink in, he barked out at Ross: “Can you cook?” Then at me: “Can you cook?” Then he looked at the wreck of Etienne and sniffed.
There was an embarrassing silence as Ross and I thought solemnly of a foodless week.
“If you just use hoss sense,” concluded George, “and don’t go for to hurt my feelin’s, all I want to do is to take this young gal down to Hicksville; and then I’ll head back here and cook fer you.”
The horse and Miss Adams arrived simultaneously, both of them very serious and quiet. The horse because he knew what he had before him in that weather; the girl because of what she had left behind.
Then all at once I awoke to a realization of what the cook was doing. “My God, man!” I cried, “aren’t you afraid to go out in that snow?”
Behind my back I heard Ross mutter, “Not him.”
George lifted the girl daintily up behind the saddle, drew on his gloves, put his foot in the stirrup, and turned to inspect me leisurely.
As I passed slowly in his review, I saw in my mind’s eye the algebraic equation of Snow, the equals sign, and the answer in the man before me.
“Snow is my last name,” said George. He swung into the saddle and they started cautiously out into the darkening swirl of fresh new currency just issuing from the Snowdrop Mint. The girl, to keep her place, clung happily to the sturdy figure of the camp cook.
I brought three things away from Ross Curtis’s ranch house—yes, four. One was the appreciation of snow, which I have so humbly tried here to render; (2) was a collarbone, of which I am extra careful; (3) was a memory of what it is to eat very extremely bad food for a week; and (4) was the cause of (3) a little note delivered at the end of the week and hand-painted in blue pencil on a sheet of meat paper.
“I cannot come back there to that there job. Mrs. Snow say no, George. I been revolvin’ it in my mind; considerin’ circumstances she’s right.”