I met Adam at the bookstore. He was in the section marked Biography/History and he was looking, extensively, at a book about some historical event no one’s ever heard of. The only way I knew it was an historical event was because the cover was in black and white and had a photo on it of a tank. But it wasn’t a World War II book; WWII has its own section, way over on the other side of the store.
I myself was aiming for the art books, because my friend Terrie had just had a life-changing experience from looking at a photograph of a clown. She’d spent her childhood terrified of clowns but when she saw this photo, on a friend’s coffee table, she experienced a 180 degree shift – one of those rare moments when the other side becomes clear as anything, and we can no longer understand why it was so hard to get before.
“Clowns are desperate,” she’d told me, with wonder in her voice. “That’s why they’re so scary.”
It hadn’t occurred to me either, and I wanted to see if she was right. I too had had the experience of a childhood clown doll that one day had transformed from delightful toy-friend into the diabolical engineer of my nightmares. It had to be sold at the neighbor’s garage sale, because I refused to sell it at my own. Someone bought it for seventy-five cents – some kid too young to feel the fear yet – and I threw the cursed coins into the outdoor trash, observing as the other neighborhood kids spotted and retrieved them. Let them spend it, I thought, from the safety of my bedroom. It will only bring them grief.
They used the quarters to buy ice cream.
Story of my life.
I found the art book Terrie had been talking about, and flipped towards the photo of the clown, which, according to the table of contents, was on page 32. As I skipped through those shiny pages, pages that smelled like a hair salon, Adam turned and held up the war book. “Do you know this photo?” he asked me, tapping the cover.
“Oh,” I said. “Is that World War I?”
He shook his head, and his hair was very light brown, almost colorless, and as it shifted, it caught no light.
“Korean war,” he said. “A photo from then.”
He shelved the book. “They told me it was a good read but I just read a page and it was so dull,” and then he stepped closer. Aside from that colorless hair, he had a wide open face, sort of big-featured, with a big nose and big eyes and teeth. Likeable. The kind of face you could immediately trust, even against better judgment.
I held my finger before page 32. I didn’t want to look at the clown first off. It seemed too intimate, even if I was just looking with myself. So I was looking, then, instead, at a washed-up movie star wearing sequins in some kind of aquarium tank emptied of water. I guess they were trying to work with the phrase ‘washed up’, but the star didn’t seem aware of that because she was grinning in the tank like it was all funny and fun. Maybe the whole book should’ve been titled desperation.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, peering over my shoulder.
“Art photos,” I said.
“Wait, wasn’t she in that cop movie?”
We stared at her together, in that tank. “Was she?” I asked. She had giant breasts, ornamented by magenta sequins. I found her painful, so I turned the page to have something to do, and there was the clown, with its big nose and scary mouth makeup and scary eyes and red costume. And I could see what she meant, Terrie. Right off, I got what she was saying. It was trying so hard. That was part of what was so menacing – its enormous effort to amuse. You kind of wanted to hurt the clown, before it smothered you into total suffocation.
“Do you think it looks desperate?” I asked him.
He squinted his eyes, and stared at the photo for at least a minute. “Why do they do the eyes like that?” he said, at last. “I mean, the star-shaped thing? Is that clown protocol?”
We ended up at the Greek coffee place next door, and he bought no biography and before we left the store, I flipped through the rest of the photo book to see if the others were desperate too but they weren’t, not in the same way. They were just pictures of other shiny figures that looked good in bright colors, like Vegas acrobatic performers at Rite-Aid, or a tomato farmer in his garden reading Newsweek. Only pages 30-32 were terrifying.
Adam got up to get the coffees while I looked out at the cars driving by on Sunset. It was raining a little, and watching the windshield wipers made me feel more settled. The air smelled like city, like damp city.
“They told me that was the definitive book on Korea,” he said, returning with the coffees. “I’m disappointed.”
I felt attractive, talking to him. Next to those big features of his, I could feel myself as delicate. When the conversation waned, I sipped from my bitter little Greek coffee, and told him that my friend Terrie was having surgery the following day. That she was young, still, but they’d found problematic shapes in her bronchitis x-ray. “Lumpy shapes,” I said, “inside her lungs.”
He stirred his coffee, and nodded with appropriate solemnity. He seemed more measured, now that he was caffeinated.
The cars whisked by.
“You know,” I said. “I just lied. That’s not true.”
I reached out, and touched his arm. “I didn’t know what to say,” I said, and his arm was warm, “so I made up Terrie’s lumps. That’s awful of me.”
He leaned in, then, and he didn’t kiss me but it was too close for regular. We spent a few minutes there, blinking together, breathing the coffee-scented air. Who knew what would happen? He had that trustworthy face, a face I didn’t trust, simply because I’d trusted it so swiftly.
We agreed to meet the following afternoon at the beach in Santa Monica, and the directions we gave each other were complicated enough, were distinct enough, so neither could possibly get lost. Of course I was early because I’m always early, and I didn’t head over to the water just yet, instead wandering past the snack bar, reading the names of foods listed in black plastic stick-on letters: chili dog. Onion rings. Popsicle. Words I love to see in black plastic stick-on, words that conveyed summer to me, on this cloudy November afternoon. I hadn’t called Terrie the night before, because I’d sold her out for flirting; it seemed I’d cursed her, and although I was fairly certain I had no cursing abilities, it was not in the spirit of good friendship and this I knew. But I had not been flirted with in many months, and this man had not rejected the reeking desperation of either the clown or the old star, and asking for sympathy about a dying friend was the first tool that appeared from my own personal flirting toolbox. Sometimes my own capacity for smallness is surprising, even to myself.
Adam was already at the beach when I walked over, and he had a picnic basket in his hands. He’d set up a blowzy checkered blanket, whose corners picked up with the wind, and when I walked across the sand, bumpy and difficult to traverse, he smiled at me with those wide open eyes. For a few minutes we chit-chatted, and at one point, he threw his hands into the air and said some exclamations, about nothing, really, but just showing a sense of spirit. I felt the love, spreading roots in my chest, making it so easy to smile, the way the promise of love loosens and eases the muscles of the face, and how the onset of pain had tightened them before, into tense lines and grit. How good it felt, to let go of grit for a second! We settled onto the blanket and he opened a small size bottle of champagne and we toasted and the water waves crashed, and other than a homeless man way to the left and two teenagers trying to get tan on the right, we were alone. I reached out a hand, and touched his colorless hair, and he turned his face to my palm. Then he reached into the picnic basket, and pulled out two plates, two checkered napkins, and two forks.
“Wow,” I said. “You go all out.”
As he removed the plastic food containers, he told me he used to be a chef, that he used to own his own restaurant. He told me the name of it, and how he’d gotten a great review last year in the L.A. Weekly, saying he had a knack for unusual flavor combinations. “Really?” I said, impressed, and then, after a pause, he said no. “I mean, I’ve always liked to cook. Never got paid for it. Sorry.” We looked out at the water. It was the second lie, and it was clear, from the tone of his takeback, that he had surprised himself with it. For whatever reason, it seemed we couldn’t help but lie to each other. It didn’t even feel like a big deal to me at first, but like an unexpected shift in weather, as the food came out of the basket, his mood collapsed. When he removed pieces of a roasted chicken from the container, and handfuls of green grapes, they were almost like apologies, for something he had committed long ago and I would never understand. Certainly he had no reason to apologize to me, me who was so ready to love him. He handed me a charred chicken leg, and a bunch of grapes, and refilled my champagne. “It’s lovely,” I said, about five times, but he wriggled under the compliment, and wouldn’t look over, and the way he sealed the remaining food back into its containers, with careful palm and thumb, made me feel badly, as if I’d done something wrong, or as if we both knew, in the future, that we would wrong each other irreparably. The seagulls approached. I ate the chicken and grapes, peeling stripes of chicken off the leg, but everything tasted a little off. Not like poison, but just not fulfilling, and Adam was striking me now as very difficult to know. “Why’d you want that book?” I asked, as I peeled the skin off a grape in slippery little triangles, and I understood then that I would be undressing every item of food I could because my clothes would be staying on.
“I like war books,” he said, out to the ocean. “Of wars people don’t read. I like to remember the forgotten wars.”
For dessert, he brought out oatmeal macadamia cookies that he had baked himself, but I could hardly eat them, my mouth felt so dry, and without thinking, I threw a few sprinkles to the seagulls who stepped closer on their webbed feet. I slipped my whole cookie into the sand when he wasn’t looking. Adam and I walked to the water and held hands and touched our bare cold toes to the foam. I felt like crying, then, with those seagulls invading our perfect picnic behind us, eating the cookies and the chicken, stepping all over the napkins, cackling, shoving each other out of the way.
I touched his arm again, and my eyes filled with tears.
“I know,” he said. “It isn’t right.”
When we finally kissed, it was clear that it was our last. His lips pressed gently against mine. I felt that kind of wrenching in my heart, and as I turned and walked the other way, I could hear him packing the picnic back into his basket. It took some effort to shoo away the seagulls, but finally they squawked and flew over us. A flock of seagulls. As a child, I’d found them so wonderful, seabirds, with their curving yellow-orange beaks and funny strut. They lived at the ocean, and anything that lived at the ocean I felt I could love forever. But they turned, in my mind. Sometime around adolescence, after hitting the critical mass of beach picnics, after seeing them come over again and again, pushing each other out of the way, squawking so loud, eating chicken and turkey sandwiches without pause, I found them repulsive.
At the snack bar, I ordered a basket of onion rings and sat on the green-painted ocean bench, watching the water. The clouds were thick, and the water took on a metallic gray sheen that eased my mind. When Adam passed by, with his picnic basket all packed up, I nodded, and he nodded. The look he gave my onion rings was that of a betrayed lover. But I have always liked onion rings. They were the thickly-cut kind, each ring the width of a plastic bracelet, dipped in golden-brown crumbs. I ate almost the whole basket, licking the bits off my fingers, and when I was done, I threw the remaining few to the trio of waiting seagulls, who, after all, were only hungry. Opinions change.
This version of the story is in English. In Milan. Standing tiptoe on the edge of a king-sized bed. She is shutting a window cut into the slant of the ceiling. She is naked. It is the largest bed she has ever seen. Since she arrived, the nights have been good. Good summer nights, dark and bold as a shape. This night, a friendly night she can shut a window on. Later, open the window to the same good night. For seven weeks, she has been teaching the verb to be, the verb to lie, the verb to want, the verb to go. Some verbs more active than others. All verbs conjugate. All verbs useful. Some more useful than others. Not the confusion she studied in college, people asking, “But what does the verb to be really mean? What is Being?” Maybe there was “Having” too. She dropped the course and took Italian, where she asked the professor, “You mean to say that the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb to be has a masculine end even if the subject of the sentence is hundreds of women and only one man?”
“Ending,” the professor corrected. “Yes. That is true of any Romance language. As long as a man is part of the group, the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb to be will have a masculine ending.”
“An old-fashioned idea of romance,” she joked. No one laughed.
Someone else said, “The notion of romance is more old-fashioned in English. In English there is never any discussion of sex between verb and subject.”
This story includes him. He is here, too. His English is basic, so words should be chosen with care. He is lying on the king-sized bed. To create the Italian version of this story, possibly all the words of the English version must be tossed into the air, allowed to fragment and fall back down onto new pages. Or perhaps the English version is created from Italian words thrown this way. But why talk about possibilities? There is little enough room for fact. In the Italian, all the verbs of this story are in the present perfect and therefore require past participles. This is not true in the English version. For him, the English version tries very hard to stay in the present and the present progressive. There are a few past tenses, one or two conditionals.
He is lying in bed. He is thinking about the sleek front of the new refrigerator door his company is marketing. His girlfriend is in Rome. She is marketing the new refrigerator door in Rome. She would call him a cheater. A liar. An ass. Obvious, stupid names. Names for millions of men, not meant only for him. He has been taking English classes for seven weeks. He never imagined lying naked in bed waiting for his teacher to shut the window in the slant of his ceiling. She is naked. On tiptoe. That is it. Enough. Sleek is a hard word. Slant is a hard word. The story slows down. Explains more. Now. He lies in bed. The window. A large rectangle. She, naked. Summer. Milan. Night. Words American and other English-speaking people use. Useful words. Useful is use in its adjectival form.
She is standing tiptoe on the edge of the board at the end of the bed. Edge is a hard word. Here. This. Edge. The edge of the footboard or baseboard? She is not sure. Not important, really. The word. Not all beds have them. Naked. She. Footboard/baseboard. Window. Night. Milan. Oh – Summer. Bed. King-sized bed. The footboard/baseboard runs from the edge of the bed under the window to the edge of the bed near the closet. Complicated use of run. The footboard/baseboard goes from the right edge to the left edge of the bed. It lies flat. Complicated again for both goes and lies. (Runs. Goes. Lies.) Boards have an active life we know nothing about. He does not laugh. No. Sorry. Sorry. No. nothing. A joke. Complicated. Nonsense. She stands on the footboard/baseboard. No longer tiptoe. The flat board. The moon is round. Flat is the opposite of round.
Remember shapes? The window is a rectangle. The moon is a circle in the center of the rectangle. The circle is at the center of the window. The moon is central to the rectangle. The light lies in a square on her naked back. Prepositions are not easy. Lies has different meanings depending on context. He can lie. He is lying. He is lying. He waits for her to lie. She steps on the footboard/baseboard. Foot over foot, like a tightrope walker. As in the circus. The circus with clowns and horses.
Naked in the circle moon and square light. She understands now. Now she sees. A complicated see. Not with the eyes. A seeing of the flat in the round of the moon. She does not want to lie on the king-sized bed. Not now. Not naked. Not with him. Her walk has to end at the closet edge. A complicated form of have. Different from the ownership have. Must has the same meaning as has to, in this case. The first has in this last sentence showing ownership. The meaning belongs to the must. Now. Like a tightrope walker. Must owning meaning and has to meaning must. Ownership central to the rectangular window. She sees. Her back flat in the round moon. Naked. Walking. Milan. Night. Summer. Teacher. Footboard/baseboard. Tightrope. Flat. Foot over foot. Lie. Her walk must end at the edge near the closet.
Maybe there is a better way to explain the verbs? Let us see. The same complicated see as before. Not with the eyes. (Flat. Naked. Round.) Does see make sense now? (Summer. Milan. Night.) Does slant make sense now? (Light. Naked. Moon.) Does lie make sense now? (Round. Naked. Eyes.) Does run make sense now? Adjectives are harder to explain.
The story ends with her at the edge of the footboard/baseboard. The story’s end in English is different from the story’s end in Italian. In English, this story ends with her running. Remember, run? (Round. Naked. Eyes.) In Italian, the story ends in the king-sized bed with a verb in the past participle conjugated with the verb to be. It is that gender agreement between verb and subject that makes the ending of this story in Italian different from the prudish English ending. Let us point out that he sees and she sees (Flat. Naked. Round.) that the meaning of the different ends is the same.
She does not love him, and he does not love her.
On the third day after they moved to the country he came walking back from the village carrying a basket of groceries and a twenty-four-yard coil of rope. She came out to meet him, wiping her hands on her green smock. Her hair was tumbled, her nose was scarlet with sunburn; he told her that already she looked like a born country woman. His gray flannel shirt stuck to him, his heavy shoes were dusty. She assured him he looked like a rural character in a play.
Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee. They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.
Gosh, no, he hadn’t. Lord, now he’d have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him. He thought, though, he had everything else. She reminded him it was only because he didn’t drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it quick enough. Suppose they ran out of cigarettes? Then she saw the rope. What was that for? Well, he thought it might do to hang clothes on, or something. Naturally she asked him if he thought they were going to run a laundry? They already had a fifty-foot line hanging right before his eyes? Why, hadn’t he noticed it, really? It was a blot on the landscape to her.
He thought there were a lot of things a rope might come in handy for. She wanted to know what, for instance. He thought a few seconds, but nothing occurred. They could wait and see, couldn’t they? You need all sorts of strange odds and ends around a place in the country. She said, yes, that was so; but she thought just at that time when every penny counted, it seemed funny to buy more rope. That was all. She hadn’t meant anything else. She hadn’t just seen, not at first, why he felt it was necessary.
Well, thunder, he had bought it because he wanted to, and that was all there was to it. She thought that was reason enough, and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t said so, at first. Undoubtedly it would be useful, twenty-four yards of rope, there were hundreds of things, she couldn’t think of any at the moment, but it would come in. Of course. As he had said, things always did in the country.
But she was a little disappointed about the coffee, and oh, look, look, look at the eggs! Oh, my, they’re all running! What had he put on top of them? Hadn’t he known eggs mustn’t be squeezed? Squeezed, who had squeezed them, he wanted to know. What a silly thing to say. He had simply brought them along in the basket with the other things. If they got broke it was the grocer’s fault. He should know better than to put heavy things on top of eggs.
She believed it was the rope. That was the heaviest thing in the pack, she saw him plainly when he came in from the road, the rope was a big package on top of everything. He desired the whole wide world to witness that this was not a fact. He had carried the rope in one hand and the basket in the other, and what was the use of her having eyes if that was the best they could do for her?
Well, anyhow, she could see one thing plain: no eggs for breakfast. They’d have to scramble them now, for supper. It was too damned bad. She had planned to have steak for supper. No ice, meat wouldn’t keep. He wanted to know why she couldn’t finish breaking the eggs in a bowl and set them in a cool place.
Cool place! If he could find one for her, she’d be glad to set them there. Well, then, it seemed to him they might very well cook the meat at the same time they cooked the eggs and then warm up the meat for tomorrow. The idea simply choked her. Warmed-over meat, when they might as well have had it fresh. Second best and scraps and makeshifts, even to the meat! He rubbed her shoulder a little. It doesn’t really matter so much, does it, darling? Sometimes when they were playful, he would rub her shoulder and she would arch and purr. This time she hissed and almost clawed. He was getting ready to say that they could surely manage somehow when she turned on him and said, if he told her they could manage somehow she would certainly slap his face.
He swallowed the words red hot, his face burned. He picked up the rope and started to put it on the top shelf. She would not have it on the top shelf, the jars and tins belonged there; positively she would not have the top shelf cluttered up with a lot of rope. She had borne all the clutter she meant to bear in the flat in town, there was space here at least and she meant to keep things in order.
Well, in that case, he wanted to know what the hammer and nails were doing up there? And why had she put them there when she knew very well he needed that hammer and those nails upstairs to fix the window sashes? She simply slowed down everything and made double work on the place with her insane habit of changing things around and hiding them.
She was sure she begged his pardon, and if she had had any reason to believe he was going to fix the sashes this summer she would have left the hammer and nails right where he put them; in the middle of the bedroom floor where they could step on them in the dark. And now if he didn’t clear the whole mess out of there she would throw them down the well.
Oh, all right, all right – could he put them in the closet? Naturally not, there were brooms and mops and dustpans in the closet, and why couldn’t he find a place for his rope outside her kitchen? Had he stopped to consider there were seven God-forsaken rooms in the house, and only one kitchen?
He wanted to know what of it? And did she realize she was making a complete fool of herself? And what did she take him for, a three-year-old idiot? The whole trouble with her was she needed something weaker than she was to heckle and tyrannize over. He wished to God now they had a couple of children she could take it out on. Maybe he’d get some rest.
Her face changed at this, she reminded him he had forgot the coffee and had bought a worthless piece of rope. And when she thought of all the things they actually needed to make the place even decently fit to live in, well, she could cry, that was all. She looked so forlorn, so lost and despairing he couldn’t believe it was only a piece of rope that was causing all the racket. What was the matter, for God’s sake?
Oh, would he please hush and go away, and stay away, if he could, for five minutes? By all means, yes, he would. He’d stay away indefinitely if she wished. Lord, yes, there was nothing he’d like better than to clear out and never come back. She couldn’t for the life of her see what was holding him, then. It was a swell time. Here she was, stuck, miles from a railroad, with a half-empty house on her hands, and not a penny in her pocket, and everything on earth to do; it seemed the God-sent moment for him to get out from under. She was surprised he hadn’t stayed in town as it was until she had come out and done the work and got things straightened out. It was his usual trick.
It appeared to him that this was going a little far. Just a touch out of bounds, if she didn’t mind his saying so. Why the hell had he stayed in town the summer before? To do a half-dozen extra jobs to get the money he had sent her. That was it. She knew perfectly well they couldn’t have done it otherwise. She had agreed with him at the time. And that was the only time so help him he had ever left her to do anything by herself.
Oh, he could tell that to his great-grandmother. She had her notion of what had kept him in town. Considerably more than a notion, if he wanted to know. So, she was going to bring all that up again, was she? Well, she could just think what she pleased. He was tired of explaining. It may have looked funny but he had simply got hooked in, and what could he do? It was impossible to believe that she was going to take it seriously. Yes, yes, she knew how it was with a man: if he was left by himself a minute, some woman was certain to kidnap him. And naturally he couldn’t hurt her feelings by refusing!
Well, what was she raving about? Did she forget she had told him those two weeks alone in the country were the happiest she had known for four years? And how long had they been married when she said that? All right, shut up! If she thought that hadn’t stuck in his craw.
She hadn’t meant she was happy because she was away from him. She meant she was happy getting the devilish house nice and ready for him. That was what she had meant, and now look! Bringing up something she had said a year ago simply to justify himself for forgetting her coffee and breaking the eggs and buying a wretched piece of rope they couldn’t afford. She really thought it was time to drop the subject, and now she wanted only two things in the world. She wanted him to get that rope from underfoot, and go back to the village and get her coffee, and if he could remember it, he might bring a metal mitt for the skillets, and two more curtain rods, and if there were any rubber gloves in the village, her hands were simply raw, and a bottle of milk of magnesia from the drugstore.
He looked out at the dark blue afternoon sweltering on the slopes, and mopped his forehead and sighed heavily and said, if only she could wait a minute for anything, he was going back. He had said so, hadn’t he, the very instant they found he had overlooked it?
Oh, yes, well . . . run along. She was going to wash windows. The country was so beautiful! She doubted they’d have a moment to enjoy it. He meant to go, but he could not until he had said that if she wasn’t such a hopeless melancholiac she might see that this was only for a few days. Couldn’t she remember anything pleasant about the other summers? Hadn’t they ever had any fun? She hadn’t time to talk about it, and now would he please not leave that rope lying around for her to trip on? He picked it up, somehow it had toppled off the table, and walked out with it under his arm.
Was he going this minute? He certainly was. She thought so. Sometimes it seemed to her he had second sight about the precisely perfect moment to leave her ditched. She had meant to put the mattresses out to sun, if they put them out this minute they would get at least three hours, he must have heard her say that morning she meant to put them out. So of course he would walk off and leave her to it. She supposed he thought the exercise would do her good.
Well, he was merely going to get her coffee. A four-mile walk for two pounds of coffee was ridiculous, but he was perfectly willing to do it. The habit was making a wreck of her, but if she wanted to wreck herself there was nothing he could do about it. If he thought it was coffee that was making a wreck of her, she congratulated him: he must have a damned easy conscience.
Conscience or no conscience, he didn’t see why the mattresses couldn’t very well wait until tomorrow. And anyhow, for God’s sake, were they living in the house, or were they going to let the house ride them to death? She paled at this, her face grew livid about the mouth, she looked quite dangerous, and reminded him that housekeeping was no more her work than it was his: she had other work to do as well, and when did he think she was going to find time to do it at this rate?
Was she going to start on that again? She knew as well as he did that his work brought in the regular money, hers was only occasional, if they depended on what she made – and she might as well get straight on this question once for all!
That was positively not the point. The question was, when both of them were working on their own time, was there going to be a division of the housework, or wasn’t there? She merely wanted to know, she had to make her plans. Why, he thought that was all arranged. It was understood that he was to help. Hadn’t he always, in summers?
Hadn’t he, though? Oh, just hadn’t he? And when, and where, and doing what? Lord, what an uproarious joke!
It was such a very uproarious joke that her face turned slightly purple, and she screamed with laughter. She laughed so hard she had to sit down, and finally a rush of tears spurted from her eyes and poured down into the lifted corners of her mouth. He dashed towards her and dragged her up to her feet and tried to pour water on her head. The dipper hung by a string on a nail and he broke it loose. Then he tried to pump water with one hand while she struggled in the other. So he gave it up and shook her instead.
She wrenched away, crying out for him to take his rope and go to hell, she had simply given him up: and ran. He heard her high-heeled bedroom slippers clattering and stumbling on the stairs.
He went out around the house and into the lane; he suddenly realized he had a blister on his heel and his shirt felt as if it were on fire. Things broke so suddenly you didn’t know where you were. She could work herself into a fury about simply nothing. She was terrible, damn it: not an ounce of reason. You might as well talk to a sieve as that woman when she got going. Damned if he’d spend his life humoring her! Well, what to do now? He would take back the rope and exchange it for something else. Things accumulated, things were mountainous, you couldn’t move them or sort them out or get rid of them. They just lay and rotted around. He’d take it back. Hell, why should he? He wanted it. What was it anyhow? A piece of rope. Imagine anybody caring more about a piece of rope than about a man’s feelings. What earthly right had she to say a word about it? He remembered all the useless, meaningless things she bought for herself: Why? because I wanted it, that’s why! He stopped and selected a large stone by the road. He would put the rope behind it. He would put it in the tool-box when he got back. He’d heard enough about it to last him a life-time.
When he came back she was leaning against the post box beside the road waiting. It was pretty late, the smell of broiled steak floated nose high in the cooling air. Her face was young and smooth and fresh-looking. Her unmanageable funny black hair was all on end. She waved to him from a distance, and he speeded up. She called out that supper was ready and waiting, was he starved?
You bet he was starved. Here was the coffee. He waved it at her. She looked at his other hand. What was that he had there?
Well, it was the rope again. He stopped short. He had meant to exchange it but forgot. She wanted to know why he should exchange it, if it was something he really wanted. Wasn’t the air sweet now, and wasn’t it fine to be here?
She walked beside him with one hand hooked into his leather belt. She pulled and jostled him a little as he walked, and leaned against him. He put his arm clear around her and patted her stomach. They exchanged wary smiles. Coffee, coffee for the Ootsum-Wootsums! He felt as if he were bringing her a beautiful present.
He was a love, she firmly believed, and if she had had her coffee in the morning, she wouldn’t have behaved so funny . . . There was a whippoorwill still coming back, imagine, clear out of season, sitting in the crab-apple tree calling all by himself. Maybe his girl stood him up. Maybe she did. She hoped to hear him once more, she loved whippoorwills . . . He knew how she was, didn’t he?
Sure, he knew how she was.
Katherine Anne Porter, “Rope” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.
At the Great American Lunch Hour young George O’Kelly straightened his desk deliberately and with an assumed air of interest. No one in the office must know that he was in a hurry, for success is a matter of atmosphere, and it is not well to advertise the fact that your mind is separated from your work by a distance of seven hundred miles.
But once out of the building he set his teeth and began to run, glancing now and then at the gay noon of early spring which filled Times Square and loitered less than twenty feet over the heads of the crowd. The crowd all looked slightly upward and took deep March breaths, and the sun dazzled their eyes so that scarcely any one saw any one else but only their own reflection on the sky.
George O’Kelly, whose mind was over seven hundred miles away, thought that all outdoors was horrible. He rushed into the subway, and for ninety-five blocks bent a frenzied glance on a car-card which showed vividly how he had only one chance in five of keeping his teeth for ten years. At 137th Street he broke off his study of commercial art, left the subway, and began to run again, a tireless, anxious run that brought him this time to his home–one room in a high, horrible apartment-house in the middle of nowhere.
There it was on the bureau, the letter– in sacred ink, on blessed paper– all over the city, people, if they listened, could hear the beating of George O’Kelly’s heart. He read the commas, the blots, and the thumb-smudge on the margin–then he threw himself hopelessly upon his bed.
He was in a mess, one of those terrific messes which are ordinary incidents in the life of the poor, which follow poverty like birds of prey. The poor go under or go up or go wrong or even go on, somehow, in a way the poor have– but George O’Kelly was so new to poverty that had any one denied the uniqueness of his case he would have been astounded.
Less than two years ago he had been graduated with honors from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had taken a position with a firm of construction engineers in southern Tennessee. All his life he had thought in terms of tunnels and skyscrapers and great squat dams and tall, three-towered bridges, that were like dancers holding hands in a row, with heads as tall as cities and skirts of cable strand. It had seemed romantic to George O’Kelly to change the sweep of rivers and the shape of mountains so that life could flourish in the old bad lands of the world where it had never taken root before. He loved steel, and there was always steel near him in his dreams, liquid steel, steel in bars, and blocks and beams and formless plastic masses, waiting for him, as paint and canvas to his hand. Steel inexhaustible, to be made lovely and austere in his imaginative fire…
At present he was an insurance clerk at forty dollars a week with his dream slipping fast behind him. The dark little girl who had made this mess, this terrible and intolerable mess, was waiting to be sent for in a town in Tennessee.
In fifteen minutes the woman from whom he sublet his room knocked and asked him with maddening kindness if, since he was home, he would have some lunch. He shook his head, but the interruption aroused him, and getting up from the bed he wrote a telegram.
“Letter depressed me have you lost your nerve you are foolish and just upset to think of breaking off why not marry me immediately sure we can make it all right–”
He hesitated for a wild minute, and then added in a hand that could scarcely be recognized as his own: “In any case I will arrive to-morrow at six o’clock.”
When he finished he ran out of the apartment and down to the telegraph office near the subway stop. He possessed in this world not quite one hundred dollars, but the letter showed that she was “nervous” and this left him no choice. He knew what “nervous” meant–that she was emotionally depressed, that the prospect of marrying into a life of poverty and struggle was putting too much strain upon her love.
George O’Kelly reached the insurance company at his usual run, the run that had become almost second nature to him, that seemed best to express the tension under which he lived. He went straight to the manager’s office.
“I want to see you, Mr. Chambers,” he announced breathlessly.
“Well?” Two eyes, eyes like winter windows, glared at him with ruthless impersonality.
“I want to get four days’ vacation.”
“Why, you had a vacation just two weeks ago!” said Mr. Chambers in surprise.
“That’s true,” admitted the distraught young man, “but now I’ve got to have another.”
“Where’d you go last time? To your home?”
“No, I went to–a place in Tennessee.”
“Well, where do you want to go this time?”
“Well, this time I want to go to–a place in Tennessee.”
“You’re consistent, anyhow,” said the manager dryly. “But I didn’t realize you were employed here as a travelling salesman.”
“I’m not,” cried George desperately, “but I’ve got to go.”
“All right,” agreed Mr. Chambers, “but you don’t have to come back. So don’t!”
“I won’t.” And to his own astonishment as well as Mr. Chambers’ George’s face grew pink with pleasure. He felt happy, exultant–for the first time in six months he was absolutely free. Tears of gratitude stood in his eyes, and he seized Mr. Chambers warmly by the hand.
“I want to thank you,” he said with a rush of emotion. “I don’t want to come back. I think I’d have gone crazy if you’d said that I could come back. Only I couldn’t quit myself, you see, and I want to thank you for–for quitting for me.”
He waved his hand magnanimously, shouted aloud, “You owe me three days’ salary but you can keep it!” and rushed from the office. Mr. Chambers rang for his stenographer to ask if O’Kelly had seemed queer lately. He had fired many men in the course of his career, and they had taken it in many different ways, but none of them had thanked him–ever before.
Jonquil Cary was her name, and to George O’Kelly nothing had ever looked so fresh and pale as her face when she saw him and fled to him eagerly along the station platform. Her arms were raised to him, her mouth was half parted for his kiss, when she held him off suddenly and lightly and, with a touch of embarrassment, looked around. Two boys, somewhat younger than George, were standing in the background.
“This is Mr. Craddock and Mr. Holt,” she announced cheerfully. “You met them when you were here before.”
Disturbed by the transition of a kiss into an introduction and suspecting some hidden significance, George was more confused when he found that the automobile which was to carry them to Jonquil’s house belonged to one of the two young men. It seemed to put him at a disadvantage. On the way Jonquil chattered between the front and back seats, and when he tried to slip his arm around her under cover of the twilight she compelled him with a quick movement to take her hand instead.
“Is this street on the way to your house?” he whispered. “I don’t recognize it.”
“It’s the new boulevard. Jerry just got this car to-day, and he wants to show it to me before he takes us home.”
When, after twenty minutes, they were deposited at Jonquil’s house, George felt that the first happiness of the meeting, the joy he had recognized so surely in her eyes back in the station, had been dissipated by the intrusion of the ride. Something that he had looked forward to had been rather casually lost, and he was brooding on this as he said good night stiffly to the two young men. Then his ill-humor faded as Jonquil drew him into a familiar embrace under the dim light of the front hall and told him in a dozen ways, of which the best was without words, how she had missed him. Her emotion reassured him, promised his anxious heart that everything would be all right.
They sat together on the sofa, overcome by each other’s presence, beyond all except fragmentary endearments. At the supper hour Jonquil’s father and mother appeared and were glad to see George. They liked him, and had been interested in his engineering career when he had first come to Tennessee over a year before. They had been sorry when he had given it up and gone to New York to look for something more immediately profitable, but while they deplored the curtailment of his career they sympathized with him and were ready to recognize the engagement. During dinner they asked about his progress in New York.
“Everything’s going fine,” he told them with enthusiasm. “I’ve been promoted–better salary.”
He was miserable as he said this–but they were all so glad.
“They must like you,” said Mrs. Cary, “that’s certain–or they wouldn’t let you off twice in three weeks to come down here.”
“I told them they had to,” explained George hastily; “I told them if they didn’t I wouldn’t work for them any more.”
“But you ought to save your money,” Mrs. Cary reproached him gently. “Not spend it all on this expensive trip.”
Dinner was over–he and Jonquil were alone and she came back into his arms.
“So glad you’re here,” she sighed. “Wish you never were going away again, darling.”
“Do you miss me?”
“Oh, so much, so much.”
“Do you–do other men come to see you often? Like those two kids?”
The question surprised her. The dark velvet eyes stared at him.
“Why, of course they do. All the time. Why–I’ve told you in letters that they did, dearest.”
This was true–when he had first come to the city there had been already a dozen boys around her, responding to her picturesque fragility with adolescent worship, and a few of them perceiving that her beautiful eyes were also sane and kind.
“Do you expect me never to go anywhere”–Jonquil demanded, leaning back against the sofa-pillows until she seemed to look at him from many miles away–”and just fold my hands and sit still–forever?”
“What do you mean?” he blurted out in a panic. “Do you mean you think I’ll never have enough money to marry you?”
“Oh, don’t jump at conclusions so, George.”
“I’m not jumping at conclusions. That’s what you said.”
George decided suddenly that he was on dangerous grounds. He had not intended to let anything spoil this night. He tried to take her again in his arms, but she resisted unexpectedly, saying:
“It’s hot. I’m going to get the electric fan.”
When the fan was adjusted they sat down again, but he was in a super-sensitive mood and involuntarily he plunged into the specific world he had intended to avoid.
“When will you marry me?”
“Are you ready for me to marry you?”
All at once his nerves gave way, and he sprang to his feet.
“Let’s shut off that damned fan,” he cried, “it drives me wild. It’s like a clock ticking away all the time I’ll be with you. I came here to be happy and forget everything about New York and time–”
He sank down on the sofa as suddenly as he had risen. Jonquil turned off the fan, and drawing his head down into her lap began stroking his hair.
“Let’s sit like this,” she said softly, “just sit quiet like this, and I’ll put you to sleep. You’re all tired and nervous and your sweetheart’ll take care of you.”
“But I don’t want to sit like this,” he complained, jerking up suddenly, “I don’t want to sit like this at all. I want you to kiss me. That’s the only thing that makes me rest. And anyways I’m not nervous–it’s you that’s nervous. I’m not nervous at all.”
To prove that he wasn’t nervous he left the couch and plumped himself into a rocking-chair across the room.
“Just when I’m ready to marry you you write me the most nervous letters, as if you’re going to back out, and I have to come rushing down here–”
“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“But I do want to!” insisted George.
It seemed to him that he was being very cool and logical and that she was putting him deliberately in the wrong. With every word they were drawing farther and farther apart–and he was unable to stop himself or to keep worry and pain out of his voice.
But in a minute Jonquil began to cry sorrowfully and he came back to the sofa and put his arm around her. He was the comforter now, drawing her head close to his shoulder, murmuring old familiar things until she grew calmer and only trembled a little, spasmodically, in his arms. For over an hour they sat there, while the evening pianos thumped their last cadences into the street outside. George did not move, or think, or hope, lulled into numbness by the premonition of disaster. The clock would tick on, past eleven, past twelve, and then Mrs. Cary would call down gently over the banister–beyond that he saw only to-morrow and despair.
In the heat of the next day the breaking-point came. They had each guessed the truth about the other, but of the two she was the more ready to admit the situation.
“There’s no use going on,” she said miserably, “you know you hate the insurance business, and you’ll never do well in it.”
“That’s not it,” he insisted stubbornly; “I hate going on alone. If you’ll marry me and come with me and take a chance with me, I can make good at anything, but not while I’m worrying about you down here.”
She was silent a long time before she answered, not thinking–for she had seen the end–but only waiting, because she knew that every word would seem more cruel than the last. Finally she spoke:
“George, I love you with all my heart, and I don’t see how I can ever love any one else but you. If you’d been ready for me two months ago I’d have married you–now I can’t because it doesn’t seem to be the sensible thing.”
He made wild accusations–there was some one else–she was keeping something from him!
“No, there’s no one else.”
This was true. But reacting from the strain of this affair she had found relief in the company of young boys like Jerry Holt, who had the merit of meaning absolutely nothing in her life.
George didn’t take the situation well, at all. He seized her in his arms and tried literally to kiss her into marrying him at once. When this failed, he broke into a long monologue of self-pity, and ceased only when he saw that he was making himself despicable in her sight. He threatened to leave when he had no intention of leaving, and refused to go when she told him that, after all, it was best that he should.
For a while she was sorry, then for another while she was merely kind.
“You’d better go now,” she cried at last, so loud that Mrs. Cary came down-stairs in alarm.
“Is something the matter?”
“I’m going away, Mrs. Cary,” said George brokenly. Jonquil had left the room.
“Don’t feel so badly, George.” Mrs. Cary blinked at him in helpless sympathy–sorry and, in the same breath, glad that the little tragedy was almost done. “If I were you I’d go home to your mother for a week or so. Perhaps after all this is the sensible thing–”
“Please don’t talk,” he cried. “Please don’t say anything to me now!”
Jonquil came into the room again, her sorrow and her nervousness alike tucked under powder and rouge and hat.
“I’ve ordered a taxicab,” she said impersonally. “We can drive around until your train leaves.”
She walked out on the front porch. George put on his coat and hat and stood for a minute exhausted in the hall–he had eaten scarcely a bite since he had left New York. Mrs. Cary came over, drew his head down and kissed him on the cheek, and he felt very ridiculous and weak in his knowledge that the scene had been ridiculous and weak at the end. If he had only gone the night before–left her for the last time with a decent pride.
The taxi had come, and for an hour these two that had been lovers rode along the less-frequented streets. He held her hand and grew calmer in the sunshine, seeing too late that there had been nothing all along to do or say.
“I’ll come back,” he told her.
“I know you will,” she answered, trying to put a cheery faith into her voice. “And we’ll write each other–sometimes.”
“No,” he said, “we won’t write. I couldn’t stand that. Some day I’ll come back.”
“I’ll never forget you, George.”
They reached the station, and she went with him while he bought his ticket…
“Why, George O’Kelly and Jonquil Cary!”
It was a man and a girl whom George had known when he had worked in town, and Jonquil seemed to greet their presence with relief. For an interminable five minutes they all stood there talking; then the train roared into the station, and with ill-concealed agony in his face George held out his arms toward Jonquil. She took an uncertain step toward him, faltered, and then pressed his hand quickly as if she were taking leave of a chance friend.
“Good-by, George,” she was saying, “I hope you have a pleasant trip.
“Good-by, George. Come back and see us all again.”
Dumb, almost blind with pain, he seized his suitcase, and in some dazed way got himself aboard the train.
Past clanging street-crossings, gathering speed through wide suburban spaces toward the sunset. Perhaps she too would see the sunset and pause for a moment, turning, remembering, before he faded with her sleep into the past. This night’s dusk would cover up forever the sun and the trees and the flowers and laughter of his young world.
On a damp afternoon in September of the following year a young man with his face burned to a deep copper glow got off a train at a city in Tennessee. He looked around anxiously, and seemed relieved when he found that there was no one in the station to meet him. He taxied to the best hotel in the city where he registered with some satisfaction as George O’Kelly, Cuzco, Peru.
Up in his room he sat for a few minutes at the window looking down into the familiar street below. Then with his hand trembling faintly he took off the telephone receiver and called a number.
“Is Miss Jonquil in?”
“This is she.”
“Oh–” His voice after overcoming a faint tendency to waver went on with friendly formality.
“This is George O’Kelly. Did you get my letter?”
“Yes. I thought you’d be in to-day.”
Her voice, cool and unmoved, disturbed him, but not as he had expected. This was the voice of a stranger, unexcited, pleasantly glad to see him–that was all. He wanted to put down the telephone and catch his breath.
“I haven’t seen you for–a long time.” He succeeded in making this sound offhand. “Over a year.”
He knew how long it had been–to the day.
“It’ll be awfully nice to talk to you again.”
“I’ll be there in about an hour.”
He hung up. For four long seasons every minute of his leisure had been crowded with anticipation of this hour, and now this hour was here. He had thought of finding her married, engaged, in love–he had not thought she would be unstirred at his return.
There would never again in his life, he felt, be another ten months like these he had just gone through. He had made an admittedly remarkable showing for a young engineer–stumbled into two unusual opportunities, one in Peru, whence he had just returned, and another, consequent upon it, in New York, whither he was bound. In this short time he had risen from poverty into a position of unlimited opportunity.
He looked at himself in the dressing-table mirror. He was almost black with tan, but it was a romantic black, and in the last week, since he had had time to think about it, it had given him considerable pleasure. The hardiness of his frame, too, he appraised with a sort of fascination. He had lost part of an eyebrow somewhere, and he still wore an elastic bandage on his knee, but he was too young not to realize that on the steamer many women had looked at him with unusual tributary interest.
His clothes, of course, were frightful. They had been made for him by a Greek tailor in Lima–in two days. He was young enough, too, to have explained this sartorial deficiency to Jonquil in his otherwise laconic note. The only further detail it contained was a request that he should not be met at the station.
George O’Kelly, of Cuzco, Peru, waited an hour and a half in the hotel, until, to be exact, the sun had reached a midway position in the sky. Then, freshly shaven and talcum-powdered toward a somewhat more Caucasian hue, for vanity at the last minute had overcome romance, he engaged a taxicab and set out for the house he knew so well.
He was breathing hard–he noticed this but he told himself that it was excitement, not emotion. He was here; she was not married–that was enough. He was not even sure what he had to say to her. But this was the moment of his life that he felt he could least easily have dispensed with. There was no triumph, after all, without a girl concerned, and if he did not lay his spoils at her feet he could at least hold them for a passing moment before her eyes.
The house loomed up suddenly beside him, and his first thought was that it had assumed a strange unreality. There was nothing changed–only everything was changed. It was smaller and it seemed shabbier than before–there was no cloud of magic hovering over its roof and issuing from the windows of the upper floor. He rang the door-bell and an unfamiliar colored maid appeared. Miss Jonquil would be down in a moment. He wet his lips nervously and walked into the sitting-room–and the feeling of unreality increased. After all, he saw, this was only a room, and not the enchanted chamber where he had passed those poignant hours. He sat in a chair, amazed to find it a chair, realizing that his imagination had distorted and colored all these simple familiar things.
Then the door opened and Jonquil came into the room–and it was as though everything in it suddenly blurred before his eyes. He had not remembered how beautiful she was, and he felt his face grow pale and his voice diminish to a poor sigh in his throat.
She was dressed in pale green, and a gold ribbon bound back her dark, straight hair like a crown. The familiar velvet eyes caught his as she came through the door, and a spasm of fright went through him at her beauty’s power of inflicting pain.
He said “Hello,” and they each took a few steps forward and shook hands. Then they sat in chairs quite far apart and gazed at each other across the room.
“You’ve come back,” she said, and he answered just as tritely: “I wanted to stop in and see you as I came through.”
He tried to neutralize the tremor in his voice by looking anywhere but at her face. The obligation to speak was on him, but, unless he immediately began to boast, it seemed that there was nothing to say. There had never been anything casual in their previous relations–it didn’t seem possible that people in this position would talk about the weather.
“This is ridiculous,” he broke out in sudden embarrassment. “I don’t know exactly what to do. Does my being here bother you?”
“No.” The answer was both reticent and impersonally sad. It depressed him.
“Are you engaged?” he demanded.
“Are you in love with some one?”
She shook her head.
“Oh.” He leaned back in his chair. Another subject seemed exhausted–the interview was not taking the course he had intended.
“Jonquil,” he began, this time on a softer key, “after all that’s happened between us, I wanted to come back and see you. Whatever I do in the future I’ll never love another girl as I’ve loved you.”
This was one of the speeches he had rehearsed. On the steamer it had seemed to have just the right note–a reference to the tenderness he would always feel for her combined with a non-committal attitude toward his present state of mind. Here with the past around him, beside him, growing minute by minute more heavy on the air, it seemed theatrical and stale.
She made no comment, sat without moving, her eyes fixed on him with an expression that might have meant everything or nothing.
“You don’t love me any more, do you?” he asked her in a level voice.
When Mrs. Cary came in a minute later, and spoke to him about his success–there had been a half-column about him in the local paper–he was a mixture of emotions. He knew now that he still wanted this girl, and he knew that the past sometimes comes back–that was all. For the rest he must be strong and watchful and he would see.
“And now,” Mrs. Cary was saying, “I want you two to go and see the lady who has the chrysanthemums. She particularly told me she wanted to see you because she’d read about you in the paper.”
They went to see the lady with the chrysanthemums. They walked along the street, and he recognized with a sort of excitement just how her shorter footsteps always fell in between his own. The lady turned out to be nice, and the chrysanthemums were enormous and extraordinarily beautiful. The lady’s gardens were full of them, white and pink and yellow, so that to be among them was a trip back into the heart of summer. There were two gardens full, and a gate between them; when they strolled toward the second garden the lady went first through the gate.
And then a curious thing happened. George stepped aside to let Jonquil pass, but instead of going through she stood still and stared at him for a minute. It was not so much the look, which was not a smile, as it was the moment of silence. They saw each other’s eyes, and both took a short, faintly accelerated breath, and then they went on into the second garden. That was all.
The afternoon waned. They thanked the lady and walked home slowly, thoughtfully, side by side. Through dinner too they were silent. George told Mr. Cary something of what had happened in South America, and managed to let it be known that everything would be plain sailing for him in the future.
Then dinner was over, and he and Jonquil were alone in the room which had seen the beginning of their love affair and the end. It seemed to him long ago and inexpressibly sad. On that sofa he had felt agony and grief such as he would never feel again. He would never be so weak or so tired and miserable and poor. Yet he knew that that boy of fifteen months before had had something, a trust, a warmth that was gone forever. The sensible thing–they had done the sensible thing. He had traded his first youth for strength and carved success out of despair. But with his youth, life had carried away the freshness of his love.
“You won’t marry me, will you?” he said quietly.
Jonquil shook her dark head.
“I’m never going to marry,” she answered.
“I’m going on to Washington in the morning,” he said.
“I have to go. I’ve got to be in New York by the first, and meanwhile I want to stop off in Washington.”
“No-o,” he said as if reluctantly. “There’s some one there I must see who was very kind to me when I was so–down and out.”
This was invented. There was no one in Washington for him to see–but he was watching Jonquil narrowly, and he was sure that she winced a little, that her eyes closed and then opened wide again.
“But before I go I want to tell you the things that happened to me since I saw you, and, as maybe we won’t meet again, I wonder if–if just this once you’d sit in my lap like you used to. I wouldn’t ask except since there’s no one else–yet–perhaps it doesn’t matter.”
She nodded, and in a moment was sitting in his lap as she had sat so often in that vanished spring. The feel of her head against his shoulder, of her familiar body, sent a shock of emotion over him. His arms holding her had a tendency to tighten around her, so he leaned back and began to talk thoughtfully into the air.
He told her of a despairing two weeks in New York which had terminated with an attractive if not very profitable job in a construction plant in Jersey City. When the Peru business had first presented itself it had not seemed an extraordinary opportunity. He was to be third assistant engineer on the expedition, but only ten of the American party, including eight rodmen and surveyors, had ever reached Cuzco. Ten days later the chief of the expedition was dead of yellow fever. That had been his chance, a chance for anybody but a fool, a marvellous chance–
“A chance for anybody but a fool?” she interrupted innocently.
“Even for a fool,” he continued. “It was wonderful. Well, I wired New York–”
“And so,” she interrupted again, “they wired that you ought to take a chance?”
“Ought to!” he exclaimed, still leaning back. “That I had to. There was no time to lose–”
“Not a minute?”
“Not a minute.”
“Not even time for–” she paused.
He bent his head forward suddenly, and she drew herself to him in the same moment, her lips half open like a flower.
“Yes,” he whispered into her lips. “There’s all the time in the world…”
All the time in the world–his life and hers. But for an instant as he kissed her he knew that though he search through eternity he could never recapture those lost April hours. He might press her close now till the muscles knotted on his arms–she was something desirable and rare that he had fought for and made his own–but never again an intangible whisper in the dusk, or on the breeze of night…
Well, let it pass, he thought; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.
I had seen the Magic Shop from afar several times; I had passed it once or twice, a shop window of alluring little objects, magic balls, magic hens, wonderful cones, ventriloquist dolls, the material of the basket trick, packs of cards that LOOKED all right, and all that sort of thing, but never had I thought of going in until one day, almost without warning, Gip hauled me by my finger right up to the window, and so conducted himself that there was nothing for it but to take him in. I had not thought the place was there, to tell the truth—a modest-sized frontage in Regent Street, between the picture shop and the place where the chicks run about just out of patent incubators, but there it was sure enough. I had fancied it was down nearer the Circus, or round the corner in Oxford Street, or even in Holborn; always over the way and a little inaccessible it had been, with something of the mirage in its position; but here it was now quite indisputably, and the fat end of Gip’s pointing finger made a noise upon the glass.
“If I was rich,” said Gip, dabbing a finger at the Disappearing Egg, “I’d buy myself that. And that”—which was The Crying Baby, Very Human—“and that,” which was a mystery, and called, so a neat card asserted, “Buy One and Astonish Your Friends.”
“Anything,” said Gip, “will disappear under one of those cones. I have read about it in a book.
“And there, dadda, is the Vanishing Halfpenny—, only they’ve put it this way up so’s we can’t see how it’s done.”
Gip, dear boy, inherits his mother’s breeding, and he did not propose to enter the shop or worry in any way; only, you know, quite unconsciously he lugged my finger doorward, and he made his interest clear.
“That,” he said, and pointed to the Magic Bottle.
“If you had that?” I said; at which promising inquiry he looked up with a sudden radiance.
“I could show it to Jessie,” he said, thoughtful as ever of others.
“It’s less than a hundred days to your birthday, Gibbles,” I said, and laid my hand on the door-handle.
Gip made no answer, but his grip tightened on my finger, and so we came into the shop.
It was no common shop this; it was a magic shop, and all the prancing precedence Gip would have taken in the matter of mere toys was wanting. He left the burthen of the conversation to me.
It was a little, narrow shop, not very well lit, and the door-bell pinged again with a plaintive note as we closed it behind us. For a moment or so we were alone and could glance about us. There was a tiger in papier-mache on the glass case that covered the low counter—a grave, kind-eyed tiger that waggled his head in a methodical manner; there were several crystal spheres, a china hand holding magic cards, a stock of magic fish-bowls in various sizes, and an immodest magic hat that shamelessly displayed its springs. On the floor were magic mirrors; one to draw you out long and thin, one to swell your head and vanish your legs, and one to make you short and fat like a draught; and while we were laughing at these the shopman, as I suppose, came in.
At any rate, there he was behind the counter—a curious, sallow, dark man, with one ear larger than the other and a chin like the toe-cap of a boot.
“What can we have the pleasure?” he said, spreading his long, magic fingers on the glass case; and so with a start we were aware of him.
“I want,” I said, “to buy my little boy a few simple tricks.”
“Legerdemain?” he asked. “Mechanical? Domestic?”
“Anything amusing?” said I.
“Um!” said the shopman, and scratched his head for a moment as if thinking. Then, quite distinctly, he drew from his head a glass ball. “Something in this way?” he said, and held it out.
The action was unexpected. I had seen the trick done at entertainments endless times before—it’s part of the common stock of conjurers—but I had not expected it here.
“That’s good,” I said, with a laugh.
“Isn’t it?” said the shopman.
Gip stretched out his disengaged hand to take this object and found merely a blank palm.
“It’s in your pocket,” said the shopman, and there it was!
“How much will that be?” I asked.
“We make no charge for glass balls,” said the shopman politely. “We get them,”—he picked one out of his elbow as he spoke—“free.” He produced another from the back of his neck, and laid it beside its predecessor on the counter. Gip regarded his glass ball sagely, then directed a look of inquiry at the two on the counter, and finally brought his round-eyed scrutiny to the shopman, who smiled.
“You may have those too,” said the shopman, “and, if you DON’T mind, one from my mouth. SO!”
Gip counselled me mutely for a moment, and then in a profound silence put away the four balls, resumed my reassuring finger, and nerved himself for the next event.
“We get all our smaller tricks in that way,” the shopman remarked.
I laughed in the manner of one who subscribes to a jest. “Instead of going to the wholesale shop,” I said. “Of course, it’s cheaper.”
“In a way,” the shopman said. “Though we pay in the end. But not so heavily—as people suppose…. Our larger tricks, and our daily provisions and all the other things we want, we get out of that hat… And you know, sir, if you’ll excuse my saying it, there ISN’T a wholesale shop, not for Genuine Magic goods, sir. I don’t know if you noticed our inscription—the Genuine Magic shop.” He drew a business-card from his cheek and handed it to me. “Genuine,” he said, with his finger on the word, and added, “There is absolutely no deception, sir.”
He seemed to be carrying out the joke pretty thoroughly, I thought.
He turned to Gip with a smile of remarkable affability. “You, you know, are the Right Sort of Boy.”
I was surprised at his knowing that, because, in the interests of discipline, we keep it rather a secret even at home; but Gip received it in unflinching silence, keeping a steadfast eye on him.
“It’s only the Right Sort of Boy gets through that doorway.”
And, as if by way of illustration, there came a rattling at the door, and a squeaking little voice could be faintly heard. “Nyar! I WARN ‘a go in there, dadda, I WARN ‘a go in there. Ny-a-a-ah!” and then the accents of a down-trodden parent, urging consolations and propitiations. “It’s locked, Edward,” he said.
“But it isn’t,” said I.
“It is, sir,” said the shopman, “always—for that sort of child,” and as he spoke we had a glimpse of the other youngster, a little, white face, pallid from sweet-eating and over-sapid food, and distorted by evil passions, a ruthless little egotist, pawing at the enchanted pane. “It’s no good, sir,” said the shopman, as I moved, with my natural helpfulness, doorward, and presently the spoilt child was carried off howling.
“How do you manage that?” I said, breathing a little more freely.
“Magic!” said the shopman, with a careless wave of the hand, and behold! sparks of coloured fire flew out of his fingers and vanished into the shadows of the shop.
“You were saying,” he said, addressing himself to Gip, “before you came in, that you would like one of our ‘Buy One and Astonish your Friends’ boxes?”
Gip, after a gallant effort, said “Yes.”
“It’s in your pocket.”
And leaning over the counter—he really had an extraordinarily long body—this amazing person produced the article in the customary conjurer’s manner. “Paper,” he said, and took a sheet out of the empty hat with the springs; “string,” and behold his mouth was a string-box, from which he drew an unending thread, which when he had tied his parcel he bit off—and, it seemed to me, swallowed the ball of string. And then he lit a candle at the nose of one of the ventriloquist’s dummies, stuck one of his fingers (which had become sealing-wax red) into the flame, and so sealed the parcel. “Then there was the Disappearing Egg,” he remarked, and produced one from within my coat-breast and packed it, and also The Crying Baby, Very Human. I handed each parcel to Gip as it was ready, and he clasped them to his chest.
He said very little, but his eyes were eloquent; the clutch of his arms was eloquent. He was the playground of unspeakable emotions. These, you know, were REAL Magics. Then, with a start, I discovered something moving about in my hat—something soft and jumpy. I whipped it off, and a ruffled pigeon—no doubt a confederate—dropped out and ran on the counter, and went, I fancy, into a cardboard box behind the papier-mache tiger.
“Tut, tut!” said the shopman, dexterously relieving me of my headdress; “careless bird, and—as I live—nesting!”
He shook my hat, and shook out into his extended hand two or three eggs, a large marble, a watch, about half-a-dozen of the inevitable glass balls, and then crumpled, crinkled paper, more and more and more, talking all the time of the way in which people neglect to brush their hats INSIDE as well as out, politely, of course, but with a certain personal application. “All sorts of things accumulate, sir…. Not YOU, of course, in particular…. Nearly every customer…. Astonishing what they carry about with them….” The crumpled paper rose and billowed on the counter more and more and more, until he was nearly hidden from us, until he was altogether hidden, and still his voice went on and on. “We none of us know what the fair semblance of a human being may conceal, sir. Are we all then no better than brushed exteriors, whited sepulchres—”
His voice stopped—exactly like when you hit a neighbour’s gramophone with a well-aimed brick, the same instant silence, and the rustle of the paper stopped, and everything was still….
“Have you done with my hat?” I said, after an interval.
There was no answer.
I stared at Gip, and Gip stared at me, and there were our distortions in the magic mirrors, looking very rum, and grave, and quiet….
“I think we’ll go now,” I said. “Will you tell me how much all this comes to?….
“I say,” I said, on a rather louder note, “I want the bill; and my hat, please.”
It might have been a sniff from behind the paper pile….
“Let’s look behind the counter, Gip,” I said. “He’s making fun of us.”
I led Gip round the head-wagging tiger, and what do you think there was behind the counter? No one at all! Only my hat on the floor, and a common conjurer’s lop-eared white rabbit lost in meditation, and looking as stupid and crumpled as only a conjurer’s rabbit can do. I resumed my hat, and the rabbit lolloped a lollop or so out of my way.
“Dadda!” said Gip, in a guilty whisper.
“What is it, Gip?” said I.
“I DO like this shop, dadda.”
“So should I,” I said to myself, “if the counter wouldn’t suddenly extend itself to shut one off from the door.” But I didn’t call Gip’s attention to that. “Pussy!” he said, with a hand out to the rabbit as it came lolloping past us; “Pussy, do Gip a magic!” and his eyes followed it as it squeezed through a door I had certainly not remarked a moment before. Then this door opened wider, and the man with one ear larger than the other appeared again. He was smiling still, but his eye met mine with something between amusement and defiance. “You’d like to see our show-room, sir,” he said, with an innocent suavity. Gip tugged my finger forward. I glanced at the counter and met the shopman’s eye again. I was beginning to think the magic just a little too genuine. “We haven’t VERY much time,” I said. But somehow we were inside the show-room before I could finish that.
“All goods of the same quality,” said the shopman, rubbing his flexible hands together, “and that is the Best. Nothing in the place that isn’t genuine Magic, and warranted thoroughly rum. Excuse me, sir!”
I felt him pull at something that clung to my coat-sleeve, and then I saw he held a little, wriggling red demon by the tail—the little creature bit and fought and tried to get at his hand—and in a moment he tossed it carelessly behind a counter. No doubt the thing was only an image of twisted indiarubber, but for the moment—! And his gesture was exactly that of a man who handles some petty biting bit of vermin. I glanced at Gip, but Gip was looking at a magic rocking-horse. I was glad he hadn’t seen the thing. “I say,” I said, in an undertone, and indicating Gip and the red demon with my eyes, “you haven’t many things like THAT about, have you?”
“None of ours! Probably brought it with you,” said the shopman—also in an undertone, and with a more dazzling smile than ever. “Astonishing what people WILL carry about with them unawares!” And then to Gip, “Do you see anything you fancy here?”
There were many things that Gip fancied there.
He turned to this astonishing tradesman with mingled confidence and respect. “Is that a Magic Sword?” he said.
“A Magic Toy Sword. It neither bends, breaks, nor cuts the fingers. It renders the bearer invincible in battle against any one under eighteen. Half-a-crown to seven and sixpence, according to size. These panoplies on cards are for juvenile knights-errant and very useful—shield of safety, sandals of swiftness, helmet of invisibility.”
“Oh, daddy!” gasped Gip.
I tried to find out what they cost, but the shopman did not heed me. He had got Gip now; he had got him away from my finger; he had embarked upon the exposition of all his confounded stock, and nothing was going to stop him. Presently I saw with a qualm of distrust and something very like jealousy that Gip had hold of this person’s finger as usually he has hold of mine. No doubt the fellow was interesting, I thought, and had an interestingly faked lot of stuff, really GOOD faked stuff, still—
I wandered after them, saying very little, but keeping an eye on this prestidigital fellow. After all, Gip was enjoying it. And no doubt when the time came to go we should be able to go quite easily.
It was a long, rambling place, that show-room, a gallery broken up by stands and stalls and pillars, with archways leading off to other departments, in which the queerest-looking assistants loafed and stared at one, and with perplexing mirrors and curtains. So perplexing, indeed, were these that I was presently unable to make out the door by which we had come.
The shopman showed Gip magic trains that ran without steam or clockwork, just as you set the signals, and then some very, very valuable boxes of soldiers that all came alive directly you took off the lid and said—. I myself haven’t a very quick ear and it was a tongue-twisting sound, but Gip—he has his mother’s ear—got it in no time. “Bravo!” said the shopman, putting the men back into the box unceremoniously and handing it to Gip. “Now,” said the shopman, and in a moment Gip had made them all alive again.
“You’ll take that box?” asked the shopman.
“We’ll take that box,” said I, “unless you charge its full value. In which case it would need a Trust Magnate—”
“Dear heart! NO!” and the shopman swept the little men back again, shut the lid, waved the box in the air, and there it was, in brown paper, tied up and—WITH GIP’S FULL NAME AND ADDRESS ON THE PAPER!
The shopman laughed at my amazement.
“This is the genuine magic,” he said. “The real thing.”
“It’s a little too genuine for my taste,” I said again.
After that he fell to showing Gip tricks, odd tricks, and still odder the way they were done. He explained them, he turned them inside out, and there was the dear little chap nodding his busy bit of a head in the sagest manner.
I did not attend as well as I might. “Hey, presto!” said the Magic Shopman, and then would come the clear, small “Hey, presto!” of the boy. But I was distracted by other things. It was being borne in upon me just how tremendously rum this place was; it was, so to speak, inundated by a sense of rumness. There was something a little rum about the fixtures even, about the ceiling, about the floor, about the casually distributed chairs. I had a queer feeling that whenever I wasn’t looking at them straight they went askew, and moved about, and played a noiseless puss-in-the-corner behind my back. And the cornice had a serpentine design with masks—masks altogether too expressive for proper plaster.
Then abruptly my attention was caught by one of the odd-looking assistants. He was some way off and evidently unaware of my presence—I saw a sort of three-quarter length of him over a pile of toys and through an arch—and, you know, he was leaning against a pillar in an idle sort of way doing the most horrid things with his features! The particular horrid thing he did was with his nose. He did it just as though he was idle and wanted to amuse himself. First of all it was a short, blobby nose, and then suddenly he shot it out like a telescope, and then out it flew and became thinner and thinner until it was like a long, red, flexible whip. Like a thing in a nightmare it was! He flourished it about and flung it forth as a fly-fisher flings his line.
My instant thought was that Gip mustn’t see him. I turned about, and there was Gip quite preoccupied with the shopman, and thinking no evil. They were whispering together and looking at me. Gip was standing on a little stool, and the shopman was holding a sort of big drum in his hand.
“Hide and seek, dadda!” cried Gip. “You’re He!”
And before I could do anything to prevent it, the shopman had clapped the big drum over him. I saw what was up directly. “Take that off,” I cried, “this instant! You’ll frighten the boy. Take it off!”
The shopman with the unequal ears did so without a word, and held the big cylinder towards me to show its emptiness. And the little stool was vacant! In that instant my boy had utterly disappeared?…
You know, perhaps, that sinister something that comes like a hand out of the unseen and grips your heart about. You know it takes your common self away and leaves you tense and deliberate, neither slow nor hasty, neither angry nor afraid. So it was with me.
I came up to this grinning shopman and kicked his stool aside.
“Stop this folly!” I said. “Where is my boy?”
“You see,” he said, still displaying the drum’s interior, “there is no deception—-”
I put out my hand to grip him, and he eluded me by a dexterous movement. I snatched again, and he turned from me and pushed open a door to escape. “Stop!” I said, and he laughed, receding. I leapt after him—into utter darkness.
“Lor’ bless my ‘eart! I didn’t see you coming, sir!”
I was in Regent Street, and I had collided with a decent-looking working man; and a yard away, perhaps, and looking a little perplexed with himself, was Gip. There was some sort of apology, and then Gip had turned and come to me with a bright little smile, as though for a moment he had missed me.
And he was carrying four parcels in his arm!
He secured immediate possession of my finger.
For the second I was rather at a loss. I stared round to see the door of the magic shop, and, behold, it was not there! There was no door, no shop, nothing, only the common pilaster between the shop where they sell pictures and the window with the chicks!…
I did the only thing possible in that mental tumult; I walked straight to the kerbstone and held up my umbrella for a cab.
“‘Ansoms,” said Gip, in a note of culminating exultation.
I helped him in, recalled my address with an effort, and got in also. Something unusual proclaimed itself in my tail-coat pocket, and I felt and discovered a glass ball. With a petulant expression I flung it into the street.
Gip said nothing.
For a space neither of us spoke.
“Dada!” said Gip, at last, “that WAS a proper shop!”
I came round with that to the problem of just how the whole thing had seemed to him. He looked completely undamaged—so far, good; he was neither scared nor unhinged, he was simply tremendously satisfied with the afternoon’s entertainment, and there in his arms were the four parcels.
Confound it! what could be in them?
“Um!” I said. “Little boys can’t go to shops like that every day.”
He received this with his usual stoicism, and for a moment I was sorry I was his father and not his mother, and so couldn’t suddenly there, coram publico, in our hansom, kiss him. After all, I thought, the thing wasn’t so very bad.
But it was only when we opened the parcels that I really began to be reassured. Three of them contained boxes of soldiers, quite ordinary lead soldiers, but of so good a quality as to make Gip altogether forget that originally these parcels had been Magic Tricks of the only genuine sort, and the fourth contained a kitten, a little living white kitten, in excellent health and appetite and temper.
I saw this unpacking with a sort of provisional relief. I hung about in the nursery for quite an unconscionable time….
That happened six months ago. And now I am beginning to believe it is all right. The kitten had only the magic natural to all kittens, and the soldiers seem as steady a company as any colonel could desire. And Gip—?
The intelligent parent will understand that I have to go cautiously with Gip.
But I went so far as this one day. I said, “How would you like your soldiers to come alive, Gip, and march about by themselves?”
“Mine do,” said Gip. “I just have to say a word I know before I open the lid.”
“Then they march about alone?”
“Oh, QUITE, dadda. I shouldn’t like them if they didn’t do that.”
I displayed no unbecoming surprise, and since then I have taken occasion to drop in upon him once or twice, unannounced, when the soldiers were about, but so far I have never discovered them performing in anything like a magical manner.
It’s so difficult to tell.
There’s also a question of finance. I have an incurable habit of paying bills. I have been up and down Regent Street several times, looking for that shop. I am inclined to think, indeed, that in that matter honour is satisfied, and that, since Gip’s name and address are known to them, I may very well leave it to these people, whoever they may be, to send in their bill in their own time.
My hatred for Agnes led directly to our family’s appearance on Oprah. You’d say, oh, you didn’t hate her; she was just your older sister. But she was not my older sister. She looked older, but I was the elder by two years. No matter. People thought she was prettier, older, smarter. It didn’t matter that I got better grades, that I was three classes ahead of her. It didn’t matter, for example, that the Antropolis was my idea.
Everyone credited Agnes with the Antropolis, even my parents and Uncle Hayward, but I made it up one night as I read Kid’s Life with a penlight under my covers. I lifted a corner of the blanket so I could see Agnes where she sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor, braiding her long hair.
I said, “You know what’s a good idea, Agnes?” “What, Hannah?”
“If we made ant farms and sold them for twice as much money.” She wrinkled her nose, disgusted. “Ants are grody.”
Grody. That was her word, direct quote. But the next day she was telling Uncle Hayward all about it. He had arrived recently from the city to settle what he called “rambunctious nerves.” He thought the ants were a brilliant idea. He ordered the kits, which included special soil and food, a thin plastic farm, and about twenty-five Western-Harvester ants per purchase. He opened one door of our four-door garage and for days we swept and organized. He read us the directions for taking care of the ants, and even though I understood them from the get-go, Agnes had him repeat everything at least three times.
“But why do they die so fast?” she whined. She didn’t like that the ants only lived a month or so in the farms, and I admit I didn’t like it either, but while I understood this as merely a fact of life, Agnes was practically slitting her wrists over it.
“Without a queen,” Uncle Hayward said, “they just don’t live as long.” From where I stood next to the garage’s chest freezer, I sighed and scratched at my elbow. Hayward was my favorite uncle, but he could be so annoyingly patient with Agnes.
He continued, “The company that we order the ants from doesn’t permit us to order queens.”
“But why not?” Agnes continued, even though he’d already explained this earlier that week.
“Because, stupid,” I said, “they might run rampant and then cause severe ecological damage.” I was good at quoting pamphlets directly. It was a photographic trait that drove my teachers and peers nuts. “Like fire ants, for example, or killer bees in Texas.”
Hayward patted my head in a way that made me feel less smart than I sounded. “Maybe if you girls learn something from these ant-kits, you can start digging up your own ants and find a queen, yourselves.”
I liked this idea. I foresaw huge glimmering dollar signs. “Don’t order any more ants,” I told Hayward. “I’ll supply the ants from now on.”
At first, our parents were skeptical of the whole ant farm idea. Hayward argued for us.
“It’s a great summer project. The girls will learn a ton.”
Though Dad respected Hayward as a businessman, he questioned his rationality. “I don’t want ants all over my garage,” he growled.
“There are ants all over your garage. Only these ants will be in tightly-sealed cases.”
Dad shook his head.
Hayward pressed, “Don’t you want the girls to learn fiscal responsibility? Customer-service relations? Respect for God’s creatures?”
Mom said to him, “What do you care, Brett? You’re never home anyway.”
Dad sold medical equipment to hospitals all over the nation. He was making us, as Mom often said, “rich but unfulfilled.” Mom, herself, believed that parenting consisted of greeting us after school and sitting with us on the couch while she stared glassy-eyed at the television. She wanted us to benefit from the womanly genius of Oprah, the only black person Mom had ever regarded seriously, aside from a kid named Eldridge that I had met at Jolly Cheezers and had played with in the ball crawl. The whole way home from Jolly Cheezers, Mom had applauded herself for not being a racist. “I was happy you were playing with that child,” she told me. “I was ecstatic.” She glowed over dinner and told Dad the whole story, too, and he said, “Good for you, Martha, good for you” This was always the encouragement he gave her when his mind had wandered elsewhere.
But yes, there was Oprah, and Mom would talk to us about the virtues discussed on the show, and then there was Springer, and Mom would tsk-tsk and sigh and tell us how pitiable these lower class people could be (the poor things have never learned a modicum of morality. I mean, they have no time to think of such things). Despite her disgust, I don’t think Agnes bleeding from her ears on the couch would have torn Mom’s eyes away from the brutality of that television set. I also believe, at the time, that she thought Springer was a hottie. Once he had embraced a pear-shaped, middle-aged woman not unlike herself, who was weeping because her husband had cheated on her yet again. With a passionate gasp, Mom sank her fingers into my forearm. When she let go, there were long white claw marks where the blood used to be. I was hoping that these would turn into bruises so that I could tell the school counselor the next day. Maybe I would get invited to the Springer show myself. Or even better, because it would destroy my mother, Oprah would call and ask me to share my dreadful experiences with her. But within minutes my arm was back to normal.
At first, Mom gushed about how Uncle Hayward’s appearance in the house would be “absolutely grand.” I think she assumed he would take her side on all things, especially where her husband was concerned. But while Hayward doted on Agnes and me, he gave my parents little attention. “Your concerns are your concerns,” he told my mother, and when she retorted that his involvement with the Antropolis idea was “a stupid, horrible sign of how horribly immature” he always had been and still very much was, Uncle Hayward just laughed. Dad didn’t seem to mind Hayward’s presence so much, although sometimes he muttered things like, “Hayward seems more than a little off,” and “What sort of a man doesn’t enjoy beer?” These statements arrived at odd moments, like when he was shaving, or when he sitting by himself with the newspaper. They were always said to no one in particular. Mom said that Dad’s talking to himself was the surest sign of his megalomania.
The week before school ended, Agnes and I went around the hallways taping up hand-scrawled flyers advertising “The Antropolis!!!” I had come up with the name after rifling through hundreds of variations: Anttastic, Ant You Happy, Ants in Your Pants. Agnes had come up with one lousy name, “Antsville,” which Hayward feigned to like until I belted out, Antropolis! Agnes started crying. Hayward patted her back and said things like, “She wouldn’t have thought of it if you hadn’t said ‘Antsville,’” which was a total lie, and that “Those who succeed stand upon the shoulders of giants,” which made her a giant and me a total shrimp. I saw an ant glide beneath me on the cool pavement. I put my foot to it and wiped its guts into a sweeping frown. “Is it Antropolis or not?” I asked. Hayward nodded at me but also put a finger to his lips. I stomped into the house. Later, prompted by Hayward, Mom visited me in my room and told me not to be upset by his giving Agnes more attention. “She’s younger than you and more sensitive,” Mom said. But what she meant was “She’s stupider than you and more attractive.” I told Mom to stuff it and thus martyred myself out of a fried-chicken dinner. Dad snuck a piece to me later. He knew it was my favorite.
The week after school finished, we had a flurry of customers. The neighborhood mothers found Hayward handsome, and they couldn’t wait to sidle up to him, stroking the pearls that grew like pale tumors from their necks and wrists, and purr about what a “deliciously adorable thing” he’d done, helping darling Agnes and that (“What’s her name again? Oh yes, of course”) Hannah with such a “cute” project. I ignored these distractions. With every passing hour I grew more and more attached to my ants. A dollop of honey on the driveway lured a herd of them from the Bermuda Triangle of our lawn. Old Popsicle sticks worked well for the transfer into large mason jars. I stabbed holes in the top with needles, and sometimes you could see the little legs poking through. “Ew,” Agnes said, “grody.” Despite her fragile stomach, she helped me transplant the ants into their new homes. Occasionally we crushed them between our fingers, or smashed them with the Popsicle sticks, and then we would have a solemn ten seconds of silence for each little death. But for the most part, everything went smoothly.
It was in one of my ant-fueled reveries, wondering what made one ant happy and the next sluggish, that I discovered Custom Ant-farm Creation. I explained this to a boy from my class, a boy named Viktor who had ridden his bike all the way from the valley to see what we were doing.
“What does that mean?” he asked me, picking up a farm and shaking it like an etch-a-sketch.
“Don’t do that, please,” I said. “It agitates them.” “What does custom creation mean?”
“Well,” I explained, delighted to find an interested patron, “let’s say you don’t want any old ant farm. Let’s say you want one where the ants are happier than regular ants, like a sort of Ant Playground or something, or let’s say you want one where the ants are super hard workers, three times as fast or something. You can place the order with me. Within a week I’ll make your ant farm happy, or fast, or jumpy, or whatever.”
Viktor seemed to like this idea. He looked at my sister, who sat beside me at the table fiddling with a pencil and staring up at him like he was made of gold. “What about horny ants,” he said.
“Oh, Viktor,” I laughed, “don’t say that in front of Agnes.”
Agnes blushed and Viktor smiled. Then he said to me, “It’s not Victor. It’s Viktor.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, you didn’t. You say it wrong. I’m Vick-TOR, and you say it ‘Vick-TER’.”
I looked confused. “What’s the difference?” “The difference,” Agnes said, “is the TOR.” My knuckles itched.
“It’s Russian,” Viktor said. “I’m a direct descendant of the Tsar.” “What Tsar?” I asked.
“What, you stupid or something?” Viktor said. Agnes giggled.
“You her older sister?” he asked her.
“She’s two years younger than me, Vick-TOR.” He whistled. “Could have fooled me.”
The thing was, I had always liked Viktor. I liked that in class he didn’t speak a lot, and that some of the other kids seemed to find him annoying. They treated him sort of the same way they treated me, as if he had a cow’s head sprouting from one shoulder. We were both skinny and pale, too. In the right light we looked translucent. I daydreamed about how our children would come out of our mansion squinting into the light, all wormy and bone-white, bitter and smart.
Agnes, of course, had pink cheeks and actual boobs. She had gotten her period a year before I’d had mine. This made her somewhat awkward in her own year, I’d noticed, but had also given her a sort of other-worldly appeal. It had been the disgrace of my life this last spring when, having discovered blood during a routine bathroom break at school, I’d had to ask my little sister for a maxi pad. She’d been friendly enough about it, but I could never shake the feeling that in the race to womanhood, I hadn’t even made the B-squad.
Boys loved Agnes, of course. A few of them, some from her class, some older, skidded their bicycles to a stop on our driveway and glanced shyly into the garage. For the next several weeks, they treated our home like the parking lot in front of Jolly Cheezers, laughing loudly and exchanging jokes and ultimately pretending not to notice Agnes when any old idiot knew they were thinking of nothing else. Agnes poured soil into the plastic farms and ignored them just as efficiently. One of those short, bratty-looking boys said, without even trying to conceal his high voice, “They can’t be sisters. Hannah’s ugly as a horse,” and then he blew such a huge snot-rocket onto the pavement that the other boys exclaimed, “Wicked!” Agnes’s head snapped toward me and she said, “They suck. Nobody likes them.” But I knew this was a lie. They were the most popular boys at school. The fact that they sought her out like so many heat-seeking missiles meant only one thing: she was the most popular girl. Over the summer, the shame, like the heat, only thickened.
After the first few weeks, the numbers of interested parties grew scarce. Uncle Hayward didn’t return the lonely mothers’ and housewives’ flirtations, so they eventually retreated back into their expensive homes. The boys on their bikes still stopped by, but having less of a people-screen to hide behind, they grew skittish like lambs and stayed for shorter and shorter periods of time. Agnes and I still spent most of our days in the garage or on the driveway. I wore bruises into my knees and palms from foraging the pavement for more ants. There were now mason jars swarming with them. I had yet to find a queen.
Even though I protested, Uncle Hayward forced us to slow production. We could search for queens, he said, but we didn’t need more ants. He also suggested we keep the ants in a shadier place. “They’ll fry like bacon,” he warned. I pinned up signs in the coolest corner of the garage. They read, in alphabetical order, “Eager Farms,” “Happy Farms,” “Hardworking Farms,” “Super Farms,” “Wonderful Farms.” Hayward asked, “What’s the difference? They’re all the same.”
I knew that was baloney. “Believe me,” I told him. “Every ant has its own personality.”
Hayward laughed and ruffled my hair. “Don’t take yourself too seriously, kiddo.”
It took all of my newfound benevolence to just grit my teeth and smile.
The good thing, at first, was that Viktor kept stopping by. One day, I showed him the Horny Ant Farm I had made (without, of course, Hayward’s knowing). When he lifted it off of my workstation and peered through the plastic walls, he only said, “Nah. There’s no humping.”
I laughed, despite feeling hurt. How was I supposed to know there should be humping? I told him, “Take it anyway. It’s a gift.”
For the first time ever, he looked straight at me. “Wow, really?
Thanks.” He tucked the farm under his arm and asked, “Where’s Agnes?” I frowned. “Who cares?” Viktor clucked his tongue and stared off into the distance. “I’m in love with her,” he said dreamily.
“You’re stupid,” I hollered at him, much louder than necessary. “She’s stupid and you’re stupider.”
Viktor frowned. “What’s your prob? You jealous? Jealous that your sister’s pretty? Jealous you’re such a rat?”
Hayward heard the yelling and came over from the yard, where he had been sunning himself and listening to the radio.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I was just leaving,” Viktor said, and shoved the ant farm at me. I took it from him, about to cry. “I don’t want your stupid farm. They aren’t Horny Ants. They’re Stupid Ants. Those are the only ants you can make, Hannah.”
He cycled away.
Hayward said, “Horny ants?”
“He hates me,” I wailed. Hayward sat down next to me and patted his knee. I perched there and wiped at my face. It was strange sitting on a grown man’s knee. I hadn’t sat on my own father’s knee in years.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Hayward said. “He probably has a crush on you. That’s how boys act.”
I shook my head. “Viktor likes Agnes,” I said. “All the boys do. He said,” I started crying again, “he said I was a rat.”
Hayward hugged me and kissed the back of my head. “Now, now. You don’t believe that, do you? It’s not true.” His breath smelled of Altoids and cigarettes.
“He likes her,” I said resolutely. Hayward let me go and I stood up. “He does. Just ask her.”
Hayward looked troubled. “She’s so young,” he said. “Not to him.”
“Maybe I should say something.” Hayward looked at me as though wanting my approval.
“Yes. Definitely. You should.”
I hoped a boy-related conversation with Uncle Hayward would humiliate Agnes. At least a little bit.
Then Agnes appeared on her bike, looping slowly around the driveway. “What’s wrong?” she called.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Let’s look for a queen.” She dismounted and let the bike crash to the pavement.
I wiped at my face and said okay. Even Hayward helped. I knelt at a small hole in the yard from where I had seen some ants emerge, and I waited. “There’s a queen down there,” I whispered. I was going to find her and capture her and make an ant-farm immortal. Viktor would read about me in the papers, when I had become a famous entomologist, and he would regret his terrible behavior. He would call me up and I would laugh. Then I would tell him – but right then I saw a long, strange, winged ant. It moved sluggishly from the small hole and into the light. My heart thudded. I put my hand gingerly over it. “I’ve got one!” I screamed. “I’ve got a queen!” Agnes was impressed. “That’s so cool,” she said, after we had transferred it to a farm. I was beaming. Uncle Hayward patted me on the back. “See?” he said. “Life’s not so bad.”
I shrugged. But right then, life did feel pretty great.
Later that night, the phone rang during dinner. Dad hated it when the phone rang. “For the love of Christopher,” he said, standing, “can’t a man enjoy his dinner without being interrupted?”
“You could turn the ringer off,” Mom suggested. She always suggested this.
“It could be Elias. ”This was always Dad’s reply. Elias was Dad’s boss. Moments later, Dad returned from the den. “That was some snotty-sounding kid for Agnes. A Victor or something?” “Viktor, Dad,” Agnes corrected.
“Aren’t you, what, ten years old?” Dad said. “What’s with the opposite-sex phone calls?”
Agnes looked embarrassed. “I dunno. He’s never called before.” She saw me glowering at her and said over a forkful of peas, “What, Hannah? I think he’s stupid.”
“Ha,” I said. “So do I. Too bad he loves you.”
Mom said, “Is this the little Russian boy from your class, Hannah? I find the Russians so fascinating.”
“He’s not a Russian, Mom. He’s a liar.”
“Hannah,” she scolded, “it’s not polite to disallow someone their cultural heritage.”
The whole time, Hayward sat there regarding Agnes with his face all scrunched up. His concern gathered when Dad handed her an index card complete with Viktor’s misspelled name and telephone number.
“Is this such a good idea?” Hayward asked the table. “She’s a ten-year-old girl. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea. If this boy is pursuing her, after all.”
I loved Hayward for saying this.
“Oh please, Hayward,” Dad boomed, “what sort of twelve-year-old boy could even recognize his dick in a line-up?”
Mom gasped. “Brett, please!” Then she peered closer at the index card. “Oh!” she gasped delightedly. “That’s a downtown number. You should call him, Agnes, and invite him over tomorrow. The poor thing doesn’t breathe a drop of fresh air in that neighborhood.”
Hayward put his hands over his face. I could tell he was on my side.
Later that night, while Dad snored in front of the television and Mom went to take one of her lengthy peach-smelling baths, I went to the garage to read comics with my penlight on the old sofa Hayward had stored in one corner. I had just been getting to a great scene where Antzilla crushes all those who have ever tried to smash her, when light from the kitchen fell in a yellow rectangle across the hood of Dad’s car. Hayward and Agnes entered, Hayward shutting the door softly behind them. I catapulted over the back of the couch with my comic book, and then sat cross-legged against the couch’s moldy spine. I shut off my penlight. For some reason, Hayward did not switch on the overhead lamp.
On the way to the couch, they bumped into things. Agnes said, “I’m sorta afraid of the dark.”
Uncle Hayward replied in no more than a whisper, “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” They sat down. I could smell the rising dust.
At first, I was impressed with what Hayward was saying. He told Agnes, “It’s not right, that boy with you. It’s just not.”
“Cause he’s in Hannah’s class?”
“Well, that, and that he wants to take advantage of you.”
I imagined that Agnes was, per usual, confused by Hayward’s remarks.
“Look,” Hayward said, “some boys are nice boys. Some are mean. That Viktor. He’s a bad seed. He does not want to be nice to you, do you see? I think he wants to be mean to you.”
“But Hannah likes him,” Agnes said. After a moment’s pause, she suggested, “Maybe she should date him.”
“Sure, sure. Hannah should date him. But you’re too lovely for those boys.” I heard, then, the sound of one body snuggling closer to the other. Then Hayward grunted as if he were lifting something. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. It took me a moment to figure out that Agnes was now seated squarely on Hayward’s lap, both of them facing away from me.
In the dark, her head appeared to be growing from out of his right shoulder.
“I want to be nice to you,” he said. “You’re always nice, Uncle Hayward.” “Do you want me to be nice to you?”
“Well, sure.” Agnes’s voice sounded tighter now, almost annoyed. Then she said, as though eager for a subject change, “Isn’t it cool that Hannah found a queen?”
Hayward’s voice was muffled, in her hair or something. “That wasn’t a queen. I didn’t want to tell her, the poor thing, but that was just a young male ant. You need to dig up a queen, you know. They look almost the same, I guess, but you’re not going to find some queen just randomly roaming around.”
“Oh,” Agnes said. “Sucky.”
“Our little secret, though, right?” Hayward whispered this. I could hear his hands groping.
The tips of my ears flushed hot. I thought about the winged ant, something that looks special, but really is not. I bit my lip to keep from bawling. I wanted to believe that Hayward was wrong, but some dark part of me knew that he was right.
A“That tickles,” Agnes said. I could see that she was squirming.
“Just be quiet for a moment. Let me be nice to you.” He shuffled around on the couch again. “The most beautiful little girl. The most precious thing.”
I hated him so much. The most beautiful little girl. The most precious thing. I groped around for something, anything, to hurt him with, and what I came up with was one of my mason jars filled with about three-hundred ants. I unscrewed the jar. The lid made a rasping sound, the air escaping in one soft sigh, smelling sour like pee. Agnes said, “What was that?” but Uncle Hayward panted loudly in her ear, “I should stop. I should really stop,” and she said, sounding bored, “This is sorta weird. I want to go in now, Uncle Hayward.” I squatted behind them and turned over the jar right above the dark heavy line of his shoulders. The next second they were up on their feet, and he was screaming. The garage flooded with light. Dad stood at the top of the stairs, gaping. When my eyes adjusted, I saw Agnes standing there calmly, blinking, with part of her t-shirt pushed over the top of her right boob. Hayward was shaking himself and tearing off his shirt and begging for help.
“What’s going on here?” Dad roared.
“Hayward was being nice to me,” Agnes said, not without disgust. Ants glided from the open mason jar onto my fingers and up my arm. Dad stared, silent. Hayward wept and squirmed. Mom materialized and the sounds grew loud and sharp. Somehow Agnes and I were ushered inside. We sat on the floor of my bedroom together and said nothing. She picked an ant out of my hair and asked if I wanted to play cards. I said okay.
That was the last time we ever saw Hayward. The next day, while Mom continued to panic and make doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment for Agnes, Dad tossed out all of our ant farms. I asked if I could keep even one, the one with the winged ant, and he said “No.” Agnes tried to come to my defense. “But the ants were what saved me,” she said. But even her perfect charm failed. Dad would have none of it.
Agnes, of course, was fine. “He only kissed my neck and touched my boob,” Agnes said. I said to her, and also to Mom, “He kissed me, too.” Mom didn’t seem too worried about me. She wrote a letter to Oprah, describing how her brother had molested her littlest daughter without her even realizing it. “And under my own roof, Oprah!” One of Oprah’s representatives called a couple of weeks later and asked if they’d come on a special show, “Blind Mothers, Molested Daughters.” Mom was ecstatic. I asked if I was going to be on the show, too. She said no.
Dad and I flew to Chicago with them, anyway. We watched the show from a fancy hotel. Dad seemed embarrassed, seeing them on-screen. Mom was so excited that she couldn’t stop grinning, even when Agnes told Oprah, “Then he touched my boob and kissed my neck.”
Dad said, “Your mother looks psychotic.”
When they came back, we all went for a walk on the lake. Mom and Dad sat on a park bench and watched us from afar.
“Did you see the show?” Agnes asked. She was sullen. “Yeah.”
“Did you hear what I said about you?” I shook my head.
“Maybe they cut it. I told them you saved me. You and the ants.” “Really?”
We walked along silently, kicking at stones. “I guess it must kind of suck for you,” I said.
“Nah. One of the girls on the show I felt so sorry for. Some dude stuck his wiener in her!”
“Ick,” I said. We kind of laughed.
“I can’t believe they cut that,” she said, “what I said about you.”
I didn’t exactly trust her, but it made me kinder toward her. Even if she hadn’t told Oprah that I was her hero, she had at least admitted it to me. I would always have one-up on her for that.
We stood at the water’s edge and let it lick the tips of our sandals. “This water smells like bird poop,” I said.
“I wish I could lop these things off and toss them into the waves.” She was looking down at her breasts.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell if this was all a performance or not.
We went back to the hotel and ordered cokes and chicken-strips and French fries with extra ketchup through room service. When we had successfully pigged-out, Agnes and I put on our pajamas and brushed our teeth. Mom and Dad went to the bar downstairs, saying they’d be back soon. “Don’t let anyone in here,” Mom warned. The heavy door locked squarely behind them.
Alone, we flipped through all of the channels that we weren’t supposed to watch. In the scratchy grayness of one station, the screen swarming with herds of black ants, we could hear moans, and we could see a thigh here, a breast there, slightly unfamiliar game pieces of shuddering bodies.
“Shut it off,” Agnes said. I did.
I wouldn’t mind taking orders from her sometimes. If I could be her hero, then that meant she was salvageable. It wasn’t too hard to accept surrender then. But there were times, following, when out of either anger or pity I almost admitted, Hey, I saved you for all the wrong reasons.
*This story is taken from: Favorite Monster © 2012 by Sharma Shields, Autumn House Press.
One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought that so far as he was concerned it was a true story.
He told it me with such a direct simplicity of conviction that I could not do otherwise than believe in him. But in the morning, in my own flat, I woke to a different atmosphere, and as I lay in bed and recalled the things he had told me, stripped of the glamour of his earnest slow voice, denuded of the focussed shaded table light, the shadowy atmosphere that wrapped about him and the pleasant bright things, the dessert and glasses and napery of the dinner we had shared, making them for the time a bright little world quite cut off from every-day realities, I saw it all as frankly incredible. “He was mystifying!” I said, and then: “How well he did it!. . . . . It isn’t quite the thing I should have expected him, of all people, to do well.”
Afterwards, as I sat up in bed and sipped my morning tea, I found myself trying to account for the flavour of reality that perplexed me in his impossible reminiscences, by supposing they did in some way suggest, present, convey—I hardly know which word to use—experiences it was otherwise impossible to tell.
Well, I don’t resort to that explanation now. I have got over my intervening doubts. I believe now, as I believed at the moment of telling, that Wallace did to the very best of his ability strip the truth of his secret for me. But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege, or the victim of a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess. Even the facts of his death, which ended my doubts forever, throw no light on that. That much the reader must judge for himself.
I forget now what chance comment or criticism of mine moved so reticent a man to confide in me. He was, I think, defending himself against an imputation of slackness and unreliability I had made in relation to a great public movement in which he had disappointed me. But he plunged suddenly. “I have” he said, “a preoccupation—”
“I know,” he went on, after a pause that he devoted to the study of his cigar ash, “I have been negligent. The fact is—it isn’t a case of ghosts or apparitions—but—it’s an odd thing to tell of, Redmond—I am haunted. I am haunted by something—that rather takes the light out of things, that fills me with longings…”
He paused, checked by that English shyness that so often overcomes us when we would speak of moving or grave or beautiful things. “You were at Saint Athelstan’s all through,” he said, and for a moment that seemed to me quite irrelevant. “Well”—and he paused. Then very haltingly at first, but afterwards more easily, he began to tell of the thing that was hidden in his life, the haunting memory of a beauty and a happiness that filled his heart with insatiable longings that made all the interests and spectacle of worldly life seem dull and tedious and vain to him.
Now that I have the clue to it, the thing seems written visibly in his face. I have a photograph in which that look of detachment has been caught and intensified. It reminds me of what a woman once said of him—a woman who had loved him greatly. “Suddenly,” she said, “the interest goes out of him. He forgets you. He doesn’t care a rap for you—under his very nose…”
Yet the interest was not always out of him, and when he was holding his attention to a thing Wallace could contrive to be an extremely successful man. His career, indeed, is set with successes. He left me behind him long ago; he soared up over my head, and cut a figure in the world that I couldn’t cut—anyhow. He was still a year short of forty, and they say now that he would have been in office and very probably in the new Cabinet if he had lived. At school he always beat me without effort—as it were by nature. We were at school together at Saint Athelstan’s College in West Kensington for almost all our school time. He came into the school as my co-equal, but he left far above me, in a blaze of scholarships and brilliant performance. Yet I think I made a fair average running. And it was at school I heard first of the Door in the Wall—that I was to hear of a second time only a month before his death.
To him at least the Door in the Wall was a real door leading through a real wall to immortal realities. Of that I am now quite assured.
And it came into his life early, when he was a little fellow between five and six. I remember how, as he sat making his confession to me with a slow gravity, he reasoned and reckoned the date of it. “There was,” he said, “a crimson Virginia creeper in it—all one bright uniform crimson in a clear amber sunshine against a white wall. That came into the impression somehow, though I don’t clearly remember how, and there were horse-chestnut leaves upon the clean pavement outside the green door. They were blotched yellow and green, you know, not brown nor dirty, so that they must have been new fallen. I take it that means October. I look out for horse-chestnut leaves every year, and I ought to know.
“If I’m right in that, I was about five years and four months old.”
He was, he said, rather a precocious little boy—he learned to talk at an abnormally early age, and he was so sane and “old-fashioned,” as people say, that he was permitted an amount of initiative that most children scarcely attain by seven or eight. His mother died when he was born, and he was under the less vigilant and authoritative care of a nursery governess. His father was a stern, preoccupied lawyer, who gave him little attention, and expected great things of him. For all his brightness he found life a little grey and dull I think. And one day he wandered.
He could not recall the particular neglect that enabled him to get away, nor the course he took among the West Kensington roads. All that had faded among the incurable blurs of memory. But the white wall and the green door stood out quite distinctly.
As his memory of that remote childish experience ran, he did at the very first sight of that door experience a peculiar emotion, an attraction, a desire to get to the door and open it and walk in. And at the same time he had the clearest conviction that either it was unwise or it was wrong of him—he could not tell which—to yield to this attraction. He insisted upon it as a curious thing that he knew from the very beginning—unless memory has played him the queerest trick—that the door was unfastened, and that he could go in as he chose.
I seem to see the figure of that little boy, drawn and repelled. And it was very clear in his mind, too, though why it should be so was never explained, that his father would be very angry if he went through that door.
Wallace described all these moments of hesitation to me with the utmost particularity. He went right past the door, and then, with his hands in his pockets, and making an infantile attempt to whistle, strolled right along beyond the end of the wall. There he recalls a number of mean, dirty shops, and particularly that of a plumber and decorator, with a dusty disorder of earthenware pipes, sheet lead ball taps, pattern books of wall paper, and tins of enamel. He stood pretending to examine these things, and coveting, passionately desiring the green door.
Then, he said, he had a gust of emotion. He made a run for it, lest hesitation should grip him again, he went plump with outstretched hand through the green door and let it slam behind him. And so, in a trice, he came into the garden that has haunted all his life.
It was very difficult for Wallace to give me his full sense of that garden into which he came.
There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, that gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well being; there was something in the sight of it that made all its colour clean and perfect and subtly luminous. In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely glad—as only in rare moments and when one is young and joyful one can be glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there…
Wallace mused before he went on telling me. “You see,” he said, with the doubtful inflection of a man who pauses at incredible things, “there were two great panthers there… Yes, spotted panthers. And I was not afraid. There was a long wide path with marble-edged flower borders on either side, and these two huge velvety beasts were playing there with a ball. One looked up and came towards me, a little curious as it seemed. It came right up to me, rubbed its soft round ear very gently against the small hand I held out and purred. It was, I tell you, an enchanted garden. I know. And the size? Oh! it stretched far and wide, this way and that. I believe there were hills far away. Heaven knows where West Kensington had suddenly got to. And somehow it was just like coming home.
“You know, in the very moment the door swung to behind me, I forgot the road with its fallen chestnut leaves, its cabs and tradesmen’s carts, I forgot the sort of gravitational pull back to the discipline and obedience of home, I forgot all hesitations and fear, forgot discretion, forgot all the intimate realities of this life. I became in a moment a very glad and wonder-happy little boy—in another world. It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky. And before me ran this long wide path, invitingly, with weedless beds on either side, rich with untended flowers, and these two great panthers. I put my little hands fearlessly on their soft fur, and caressed their round ears and the sensitive corners under their ears, and played with them, and it was as though they welcomed me home. There was a keen sense of home-coming in my mind, and when presently a tall, fair girl appeared in the pathway and came to meet me, smiling, and said ‘Well?’ to me, and lifted me, and kissed me, and put me down, and led me by the hand, there was no amazement, but only an impression of delightful rightness, of being reminded of happy things that had in some strange way been overlooked. There were broad steps, I remember, that came into view between spikes of delphinium, and up these we went to a great avenue between very old and shady dark trees. All down this avenue, you know, between the red chapped stems, were marble seats of honour and statuary, and very tame and friendly white doves…
“And along this avenue my girl-friend led me, looking down—I recall the pleasant lines, the finely-modelled chin of her sweet kind face—asking me questions in a soft, agreeable voice, and telling me things, pleasant things I know, though what they were I was never able to recall… And presently a little Capuchin monkey, very clean, with a fur of ruddy brown and kindly hazel eyes, came down a tree to us and ran beside me, looking up at me and grinning, and presently leapt to my shoulder. So we went on our way in great happiness…”
“Go on,” I said.
“I remember little things. We passed an old man musing among laurels, I remember, and a place gay with paroquets, and came through a broad shaded colonnade to a spacious cool palace, full of pleasant fountains, full of beautiful things, full of the quality and promise of heart’s desire. And there were many things and many people, some that still seem to stand out clearly and some that are a little vague, but all these people were beautiful and kind. In some way—I don’t know how—it was conveyed to me that they all were kind to me, glad to have me there, and filling me with gladness by their gestures, by the touch of their hands, by the welcome and love in their eyes. Yes—”
He mused for awhile. “Playmates I found there. That was very much to me, because I was a lonely little boy. They played delightful games in a grass-covered court where there was a sun-dial set about with flowers. And as one played one loved…
“But—it’s odd—there’s a gap in my memory. I don’t remember the games we played. I never remembered. Afterwards, as a child, I spent long hours trying, even with tears, to recall the form of that happiness. I wanted to play it all over again—in my nursery—by myself. No! All I remember is the happiness and two dear playfellows who were most with me… Then presently came a sombre dark woman, with a grave, pale face and dreamy eyes, a sombre woman wearing a soft long robe of pale purple, who carried a book and beckoned and took me aside with her into a gallery above a hall—though my playmates were loth to have me go, and ceased their game and stood watching as I was carried away. ‘Come back to us!’ they cried. ‘Come back to us soon!’ I looked up at her face, but she heeded them not at all. Her face was very gentle and grave. She took me to a seat in the gallery, and I stood beside her, ready to look at her book as she opened it upon her knee. The pages fell open. She pointed, and I looked, marvelling, for in the living pages of that book I saw myself; it was a story about myself, and in it were all the things that had happened to me since ever I was born…
“It was wonderful to me, because the pages of that book were not pictures, you understand, but realities.”
Wallace paused gravely—looked at me doubtfully.
“Go on,” I said. “I understand.”
“They were realities—yes, they must have been; people moved and things came and went in them; my dear mother, whom I had near forgotten; then my father, stern and upright, the servants, the nursery, all the familiar things of home. Then the front door and the busy streets, with traffic to and fro: I looked and marvelled, and looked half doubtfully again into the woman’s face and turned the pages over, skipping this and that, to see more of this book, and more, and so at last I came to myself hovering and hesitating outside the green door in the long white wall, and felt again the conflict and the fear.
“‘And next?’ I cried, and would have turned on, but the cool hand of the grave woman delayed me.
“‘Next?’ I insisted, and struggled gently with her hand, pulling up her fingers with all my childish strength, and as she yielded and the page came over she bent down upon me like a shadow and kissed my brow.
“But the page did not show the enchanted garden, nor the panthers, nor the girl who had led me by the hand, nor the playfellows who had been so loth to let me go. It showed a long grey street in West Kensington, on that chill hour of afternoon before the lamps are lit, and I was there, a wretched little figure, weeping aloud, for all that I could do to restrain myself, and I was weeping because I could not return to my dear play-fellows who had called after me, ‘Come back to us! Come back to us soon!’ I was there. This was no page in a book, but harsh reality; that enchanted place and the restraining hand of the grave mother at whose knee I stood had gone—whither have they gone?”
He halted again, and remained for a time, staring into the fire.
“Oh! the wretchedness of that return!” he murmured.
“Well?” I said after a minute or so.
“Poor little wretch I was—brought back to this grey world again! As I realised the fulness of what had happened to me, I gave way to quite ungovernable grief. And the shame and humiliation of that public weeping and my disgraceful homecoming remain with me still. I see again the benevolent-looking old gentleman in gold spectacles who stopped and spoke to me—prodding me first with his umbrella. ‘Poor little chap,’ said he; ‘and are you lost then?’—and me a London boy of five and more! And he must needs bring in a kindly young policeman and make a crowd of me, and so march me home. Sobbing, conspicuous and frightened, I came from the enchanted garden to the steps of my father’s house.
“That is as well as I can remember my vision of that garden—the garden that haunts me still. Of course, I can convey nothing of that indescribable quality of translucent unreality, that difference from the common things of experience that hung about it all; but that—that is what happened. If it was a dream, I am sure it was a day-time and altogether extraordinary dream… H’m!—naturally there followed a terrible questioning, by my aunt, my father, the nurse, the governess—everyone…
“I tried to tell them, and my father gave me my first thrashing for telling lies. When afterwards I tried to tell my aunt, she punished me again for my wicked persistence. Then, as I said, everyone was forbidden to listen to me, to hear a word about it. Even my fairy tale books were taken away from me for a time—because I was ‘too imaginative.’ Eh? Yes, they did that! My father belonged to the old school… And my story was driven back upon myself. I whispered it to my pillow—my pillow that was often damp and salt to my whispering lips with childish tears. And I added always to my official and less fervent prayers this one heartfelt request: ‘Please God I may dream of the garden. Oh! take me back to my garden! Take me back to my garden!’
“I dreamt often of the garden. I may have added to it, I may have changed it; I do not know… All this you understand is an attempt to reconstruct from fragmentary memories a very early experience. Between that and the other consecutive memories of my boyhood there is a gulf. A time came when it seemed impossible I should ever speak of that wonder glimpse again.”
I asked an obvious question.
“No,” he said. “I don’t remember that I ever attempted to find my way back to the garden in those early years. This seems odd to me now, but I think that very probably a closer watch was kept on my movements after this misadventure to prevent my going astray. No, it wasn’t until you knew me that I tried for the garden again. And I believe there was a period—incredible as it seems now—when I forgot the garden altogether—when I was about eight or nine it may have been. Do you remember me as a kid at Saint Athelstan’s?”
“I didn’t show any signs did I in those days of having a secret dream?”
He looked up with a sudden smile.
“Did you ever play North-West Passage with me? . . . . . No, of course you didn’t come my way!”
“It was the sort of game,” he went on, “that every imaginative child plays all day. The idea was the discovery of a North-West Passage to school. The way to school was plain enough; the game consisted in finding some way that wasn’t plain, starting off ten minutes early in some almost hopeless direction, and working one’s way round through unaccustomed streets to my goal. And one day I got entangled among some rather low-class streets on the other side of Campden Hill, and I began to think that for once the game would be against me and that I should get to school late. I tried rather desperately a street that seemed a cul de sac, and found a passage at the end. I hurried through that with renewed hope. ‘I shall do it yet,’ I said, and passed a row of frowsy little shops that were inexplicably familiar to me, and behold! there was my long white wall and the green door that led to the enchanted garden!
“The thing whacked upon me suddenly. Then, after all, that garden, that wonderful garden, wasn’t a dream!”…
“I suppose my second experience with the green door marks the world of difference there is between the busy life of a schoolboy and the infinite leisure of a child. Anyhow, this second time I didn’t for a moment think of going in straight away. You see… For one thing my mind was full of the idea of getting to school in time—set on not breaking my record for punctuality. I must surely have felt some little desire at least to try the door—yes, I must have felt that… But I seem to remember the attraction of the door mainly as another obstacle to my overmastering determination to get to school. I was immediately interested by this discovery I had made, of course—I went on with my mind full of it—but I went on. It didn’t check me. I ran past tugging out my watch, found I had ten minutes still to spare, and then I was going downhill into familiar surroundings. I got to school, breathless, it is true, and wet with perspiration, but in time. I can remember hanging up my coat and hat… Went right by it and left it behind me. Odd, eh?”
He looked at me thoughtfully. “Of course, I didn’t know then that it wouldn’t always be there. School boys have limited imaginations. I suppose I thought it was an awfully jolly thing to have it there, to know my way back to it, but there was the school tugging at me. I expect I was a good deal distraught and inattentive that morning, recalling what I could of the beautiful strange people I should presently see again. Oddly enough I had no doubt in my mind that they would be glad to see me… Yes, I must have thought of the garden that morning just as a jolly sort of place to which one might resort in the interludes of a strenuous scholastic career.
“I didn’t go that day at all. The next day was a half holiday, and that may have weighed with me. Perhaps, too, my state of inattention brought down impositions upon me and docked the margin of time necessary for the detour. I don’t know. What I do know is that in the meantime the enchanted garden was so much upon my mind that I could not keep it to myself.
“I told—What was his name?—a ferrety-looking youngster we used to call Squiff.”
“Young Hopkins,” said I.
“Hopkins it was. I did not like telling him, I had a feeling that in some way it was against the rules to tell him, but I did. He was walking part of the way home with me; he was talkative, and if we had not talked about the enchanted garden we should have talked of something else, and it was intolerable to me to think about any other subject. So I blabbed.
“Well, he told my secret. The next day in the play interval I found myself surrounded by half a dozen bigger boys, half teasing and wholly curious to hear more of the enchanted garden. There was that big Fawcett—you remember him?—and Carnaby and Morley Reynolds. You weren’t there by any chance? No, I think I should have remembered if you were…
“A boy is a creature of odd feelings. I was, I really believe, in spite of my secret self-disgust, a little flattered to have the attention of these big fellows. I remember particularly a moment of pleasure caused by the praise of Crawshaw—you remember Crawshaw major, the son of Crawshaw the composer?—who said it was the best lie he had ever heard. But at the same time there was a really painful undertow of shame at telling what I felt was indeed a sacred secret. That beast Fawcett made a joke about the girl in green—”
Wallace’s voice sank with the keen memory of that shame. “I pretended not to hear,” he said. “Well, then Carnaby suddenly called me a young liar and disputed with me when I said the thing was true. I said I knew where to find the green door, could lead them all there in ten minutes. Carnaby became outrageously virtuous, and said I’d have to—and bear out my words or suffer. Did you ever have Carnaby twist your arm? Then perhaps you’ll understand how it went with me. I swore my story was true. There was nobody in the school then to save a chap from Carnaby though Crawshaw put in a word or so. Carnaby had got his game. I grew excited and red-eared, and a little frightened, I behaved altogether like a silly little chap, and the outcome of it all was that instead of starting alone for my enchanted garden, I led the way presently—cheeks flushed, ears hot, eyes smarting, and my soul one burning misery and shame—for a party of six mocking, curious and threatening school-fellows.
“We never found the white wall and the green door …”
“I mean I couldn’t find it. I would have found it if I could.
“And afterwards when I could go alone I couldn’t find it. I never found it. I seem now to have been always looking for it through my school-boy days, but I’ve never come upon it again.”
“Did the fellows—make it disagreeable?”
“Beastly… Carnaby held a council over me for wanton lying. I remember how I sneaked home and upstairs to hide the marks of my blubbering. But when I cried myself to sleep at last it wasn’t for Carnaby, but for the garden, for the beautiful afternoon I had hoped for, for the sweet friendly women and the waiting playfellows and the game I had hoped to learn again, that beautiful forgotten game…
“I believed firmly that if I had not told—… I had bad times after that—crying at night and wool-gathering by day. For two terms I slackened and had bad reports. Do you remember? Of course you would! It was you—your beating me in mathematics that brought me back to the grind again.”
For a time my friend stared silently into the red heart of the fire. Then he said: “I never saw it again until I was seventeen.
“It leapt upon me for the third time—as I was driving to Paddington on my way to Oxford and a scholarship. I had just one momentary glimpse. I was leaning over the apron of my hansom smoking a cigarette, and no doubt thinking myself no end of a man of the world, and suddenly there was the door, the wall, the dear sense of unforgettable and still attainable things.
“We clattered by—I too taken by surprise to stop my cab until we were well past and round a corner. Then I had a queer moment, a double and divergent movement of my will: I tapped the little door in the roof of the cab, and brought my arm down to pull out my watch. ‘Yes, sir!’ said the cabman, smartly. ‘Er—well—it’s nothing,’ I cried. ‘My mistake! We haven’t much time! Go on!’ and he went on…
“I got my scholarship. And the night after I was told of that I sat over my fire in my little upper room, my study, in my father’s house, with his praise—his rare praise—and his sound counsels ringing in my ears, and I smoked my favourite pipe—the formidable bulldog of adolescence—and thought of that door in the long white wall. ‘If I had stopped,’ I thought, ‘I should have missed my scholarship, I should have missed Oxford—muddled all the fine career before me! I begin to see things better!’ I fell musing deeply, but I did not doubt then this career of mine was a thing that merited sacrifice.
“Those dear friends and that clear atmosphere seemed very sweet to me, very fine, but remote. My grip was fixing now upon the world. I saw another door opening—the door of my career.”
He stared again into the fire. Its red lights picked out a stubborn strength in his face for just one flickering moment, and then it vanished again.
“Well”, he said and sighed, “I have served that career. I have done—much work, much hard work. But I have dreamt of the enchanted garden a thousand dreams, and seen its door, or at least glimpsed its door, four times since then. Yes—four times. For a while this world was so bright and interesting, seemed so full of meaning and opportunity that the half-effaced charm of the garden was by comparison gentle and remote. Who wants to pat panthers on the way to dinner with pretty women and distinguished men? I came down to London from Oxford, a man of bold promise that I have done something to redeem. Something—and yet there have been disappointments…
“Twice I have been in love—I will not dwell on that—but once, as I went to someone who, I know, doubted whether I dared to come, I took a short cut at a venture through an unfrequented road near Earl’s Court, and so happened on a white wall and a familiar green door. ‘Odd!’ said I to myself, ‘but I thought this place was on Campden Hill. It’s the place I never could find somehow—like counting Stonehenge—the place of that queer day dream of mine.’ And I went by it intent upon my purpose. It had no appeal to me that afternoon.
“I had just a moment’s impulse to try the door, three steps aside were needed at the most—though I was sure enough in my heart that it would open to me—and then I thought that doing so might delay me on the way to that appointment in which I thought my honour was involved. Afterwards I was sorry for my punctuality—I might at least have peeped in I thought, and waved a hand to those panthers, but I knew enough by this time not to seek again belatedly that which is not found by seeking. Yes, that time made me very sorry…
“Years of hard work after that and never a sight of the door. It’s only recently it has come back to me. With it there has come a sense as though some thin tarnish had spread itself over my world. I began to think of it as a sorrowful and bitter thing that I should never see that door again. Perhaps I was suffering a little from overwork—perhaps it was what I’ve heard spoken of as the feeling of forty. I don’t know. But certainly the keen brightness that makes effort easy has gone out of things recently, and that just at a time with all these new political developments—when I ought to be working. Odd, isn’t it? But I do begin to find life toilsome, its rewards, as I come near them, cheap. I began a little while ago to want the garden quite badly. Yes—and I’ve seen it three times.”
“No—the door! And I haven’t gone in!”
He leaned over the table to me, with an enormous sorrow in his voice as he spoke. “Thrice I have had my chance—thrice! If ever that door offers itself to me again, I swore, I will go in out of this dust and heat, out of this dry glitter of vanity, out of these toilsome futilities. I will go and never return. This time I will stay… I swore it and when the time came—I didn’t go.
“Three times in one year have I passed that door and failed to enter. Three times in the last year.
“The first time was on the night of the snatch division on the Tenants’ Redemption Bill, on which the Government was saved by a majority of three. You remember? No one on our side—perhaps very few on the opposite side—expected the end that night. Then the debate collapsed like eggshells. I and Hotchkiss were dining with his cousin at Brentford, we were both unpaired, and we were called up by telephone, and set off at once in his cousin’s motor. We got in barely in time, and on the way we passed my wall and door—livid in the moonlight, blotched with hot yellow as the glare of our lamps lit it, but unmistakable. ‘My God!’ cried I. ‘What?’ said Hotchkiss. ‘Nothing!’ I answered, and the moment passed.
“‘I’ve made a great sacrifice,’ I told the whip as I got in.
‘They all have,’ he said, and hurried by.
“I do not see how I could have done otherwise then. And the next occasion was as I rushed to my father’s bedside to bid that stern old man farewell. Then, too, the claims of life were imperative. But the third time was different; it happened a week ago. It fills me with hot remorse to recall it. I was with Gurker and Ralphs—it’s no secret now you know that I’ve had my talk with Gurker. We had been dining at Frobisher’s, and the talk had become intimate between us. The question of my place in the reconstructed ministry lay always just over the boundary of the discussion. Yes—yes. That’s all settled. It needn’t be talked about yet, but there’s no reason to keep a secret from you… Yes—thanks! thanks! But let me tell you my story.
“Then, on that night things were very much in the air. My position was a very delicate one. I was keenly anxious to get some definite word from Gurker, but was hampered by Ralphs’ presence. I was using the best power of my brain to keep that light and careless talk not too obviously directed to the point that concerns me. I had to. Ralphs’ behaviour since has more than justified my caution… Ralphs, I knew, would leave us beyond the Kensington High Street, and then I could surprise Gurker by a sudden frankness. One has sometimes to resort to these little devices… And then it was that in the margin of my field of vision I became aware once more of the white wall, the green door before us down the road.
“We passed it talking. I passed it. I can still see the shadow of Gurker’s marked profile, his opera hat tilted forward over his prominent nose, the many folds of his neck wrap going before my shadow and Ralphs’ as we sauntered past.
“I passed within twenty inches of the door. ‘If I say good-night to them, and go in,’ I asked myself, ‘what will happen?’ And I was all a-tingle for that word with Gurker.
“I could not answer that question in the tangle of my other problems. ‘They will think me mad,’ I thought. ‘And suppose I vanish now!—Amazing disappearance of a prominent politician!’ That weighed with me. A thousand inconceivably petty worldlinesses weighed with me in that crisis.”
Then he turned on me with a sorrowful smile, and, speaking slowly; “Here I am!” he said.
“Here I am!” he repeated, “and my chance has gone from me. Three times in one year the door has been offered me—the door that goes into peace, into delight, into a beauty beyond dreaming, a kindness no man on earth can know. And I have rejected it, Redmond, and it has gone—”
“How do you know?”
“I know. I know. I am left now to work it out, to stick to the tasks that held me so strongly when my moments came. You say, I have success—this vulgar, tawdry, irksome, envied thing. I have it.” He had a walnut in his big hand. “If that was my success,” he said, and crushed it, and held it out for me to see.
“Let me tell you something, Redmond. This loss is destroying me. For two months, for ten weeks nearly now, I have done no work at all, except the most necessary and urgent duties. My soul is full of inappeasable regrets. At nights—when it is less likely I shall be recognised—I go out. I wander. Yes. I wonder what people would think of that if they knew. A Cabinet Minister, the responsible head of that most vital of all departments, wandering alone—grieving—sometimes near audibly lamenting—for a door, for a garden!”
I can see now his rather pallid face, and the unfamiliar sombre fire that had come into his eyes. I see him very vividly to-night. I sit recalling his words, his tones, and last evening’s Westminster Gazette still lies on my sofa, containing the notice of his death. At lunch to-day the club was busy with him and the strange riddle of his fate.
They found his body very early yesterday morning in a deep excavation near East Kensington Station. It is one of two shafts that have been made in connection with an extension of the railway southward. It is protected from the intrusion of the public by a hoarding upon the high road, in which a small doorway has been cut for the convenience of some of the workmen who live in that direction. The doorway was left unfastened through a misunderstanding between two gangers, and through it he made his way…
My mind is darkened with questions and riddles.
It would seem he walked all the way from the House that night—he has frequently walked home during the past Session—and so it is I figure his dark form coming along the late and empty streets, wrapped up, intent. And then did the pale electric lights near the station cheat the rough planking into a semblance of white? Did that fatal unfastened door awaken some memory?
Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?
I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. There are times when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me superstitious if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than half convinced that he had in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something—I know not what—that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination. We see our world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit. By our daylight standard he walked out of security into darkness, danger and death. But did he see like that?
The Palace Hotel at Fort Romper was painted a light blue, a shade that is on the legs of a kind of heron, causing the bird to declare its position against any background. The Palace Hotel, then, was always screaming and howling in a way that made the dazzling winter landscape of Nebraska seem only a gray swampish hush. It stood alone on the prairie, and when the snow was falling the town two hundred yards away was not visible. But when the traveller alighted at the railway station he was obliged to pass the Palace Hotel before he could come upon the company of low clapboard houses which composed Fort Romper, and it was not to be thought that any traveller could pass the Palace Hotel without looking at it. Pat Scully, the proprietor, had proved himself a master of strategy when he chose his paints. It is true that on clear days, when the great trans-continental expresses, long lines of swaying Pullmans, swept through Fort Romper, passengers were overcome at the sight, and the cult that knows the brown-reds and the subdivisions of the dark greens of the East expressed shame, pity, horror, in a laugh. But to the citizens of this prairie town and to the people who would naturally stop there, Pat Scully had performed a feat. With this opulence and splendor, these creeds, classes, egotisms, that streamed through Romper on the rails day after day, they had no color in common.
As if the displayed delights of such a blue hotel were not sufficiently enticing, it was Scully’s habit to go every morning and evening to meet the leisurely trains that stopped at Romper and work his seductions upon any man that he might see wavering, gripsack in hand.
One morning, when a snow-crusted engine dragged its long string of freight cars and its one passenger coach to the station, Scully performed the marvel of catching three men. One was a shaky and quick-eyed Swede, with a great shining cheap valise; one was a tall bronzed cowboy, who was on his way to a ranch near the Dakota line; one was a little silent man from the East, who didn’t look it, and didn’t announce it. Scully practically made them prisoners. He was so nimble and merry and kindly that each probably felt it would be the height of brutality to try to escape. They trudged off over the creaking board sidewalks in the wake of the eager little Irishman. He wore a heavy fur cap squeezed tightly down on his head. It caused his two red ears to stick out stiffly, as if they were made of tin.
At last, Scully, elaborately, with boisterous hospitality, conducted them through the portals of the blue hotel. The room which they entered was small. It seemed to be merely a proper temple for an enormous stove, which, in the centre, was humming with godlike violence. At various points on its surface the iron had become luminous and glowed yellow from the heat. Beside the stove Scully’s son Johnnie was playing High-Five with an old farmer who had whiskers both gray and sandy. They were quarrelling. Frequently the old farmer turned his face towards a box of sawdust—colored brown from tobacco juice—that was behind the stove, and spat with an air of great impatience and irritation. With a loud flourish of words Scully destroyed the game of cards, and bustled his son up-stairs with part of the baggage of the new guests. He himself conducted them to three basins of the coldest water in the world. The cowboy and the Easterner burnished themselves fiery-red with this water, until it seemed to be some kind of a metal polish. The Swede, however, merely dipped his fingers gingerly and with trepidation. It was notable that throughout this series of small ceremonies the three travellers were made to feel that Scully was very benevolent. He was conferring great favors upon them. He handed the towel from one to the other with an air of philanthropic impulse.
Afterwards they went to the first room, and, sitting about the stove, listened to Scully’s officious clamor at his daughters, who were preparing the mid-day meal. They reflected in the silence of experienced men who tread carefully amid new people. Nevertheless, the old farmer, stationary, invincible in his chair near the warmest part of the stove, turned his face from the sawdust box frequently and addressed a glowing commonplace to the strangers. Usually he was answered in short but adequate sentences by either the cowboy or the Easterner. The Swede said nothing. He seemed to be occupied in making furtive estimates of each man in the room. One might have thought that he had the sense of silly suspicion which comes to guilt. He resembled a badly frightened man.
Later, at dinner, he spoke a little, addressing his conversation entirely to Scully. He volunteered that he had come from New York, where for ten years he had worked as a tailor. These facts seemed to strike Scully as fascinating, and afterwards he volunteered that he had lived at Romper for fourteen years. The Swede asked about the crops and the price of labor. He seemed barely to listen to Scully’s extended replies. His eyes continued to rove from man to man.
Finally, with a laugh and a wink, he said that some of these Western communities were very dangerous; and after his statement he straightened his legs under the table, tilted his head, and laughed again, loudly. It was plain that the demonstration had no meaning to the others. They looked at him wondering and in silence.
As the men trooped heavily back into the front-room, the two little windows presented views of a turmoiling sea of snow. The huge arms of the wind were making attempts—mighty, circular, futile—to embrace the flakes as they sped. A gate-post like a still man with a blanched face stood aghast amid this profligate fury. In a hearty voice Scully announced the presence of a blizzard. The guests of the blue hotel, lighting their pipes, assented with grunts of lazy masculine contentment. No island of the sea could be exempt in the degree of this little room with its humming stove. Johnnie, son of Scully, in a tone which defined his opinion of his ability as a card-player, challenged the old farmer of both gray and sandy whiskers to a game of High-Five. The farmer agreed with a contemptuous and bitter scoff. They sat close to the stove, and squared their knees under a wide board. The cowboy and the Easterner watched the game with interest. The Swede remained near the window, aloof, but with a countenance that showed signs of an inexplicable excitement.
The play of Johnnie and the gray-beard was suddenly ended by another quarrel. The old man arose while casting a look of heated scorn at his adversary. He slowly buttoned his coat, and then stalked with fabulous dignity from the room. In the discreet silence of all other men the Swede laughed. His laughter rang somehow childish. Men by this time had begun to look at him askance, as if they wished to inquire what ailed him.
A new game was formed jocosely. The cowboy volunteered to become the partner of Johnnie, and they all then turned to ask the Swede to throw in his lot with the little Easterner, He asked some questions about the game, and, learning that it wore many names, and that he had played it when it was under an alias, he accepted the invitation. He strode towards the men nervously, as if he expected to be assaulted. Finally, seated, he gazed from face to face and laughed shrilly. This laugh was so strange that the Easterner looked up quickly, the cowboy sat intent and with his mouth open, and Johnnie paused, holding the cards with still fingers.
Afterwards there was a short silence. Then Johnnie said, “Well, let’s get at it. Come on now!” They pulled their chairs forward until their knees were bunched under the board. They began to play, and their interest in the game caused the others to forget the manner of the Swede.
The cowboy was a board-whacker. Each time that he held superior cards he whanged them, one by one, with exceeding force, down upon the improvised table, and took the tricks with a glowing air of prowess and pride that sent thrills of indignation into the hearts of his opponents. A game with a board-whacker in it is sure to become intense. The countenances of the Easterner and the Swede were miserable whenever the cowboy thundered down his aces and kings, while Johnnie, his eyes gleaming with joy, chuckled and chuckled.
Because of the absorbing play none considered the strange ways of the Swede. They paid strict heed to the game. Finally, during a lull caused by a new deal, the Swede suddenly addressed Johnnie: “I suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room.” The jaws of the others dropped and they looked at him.
“What in hell are you talking about?” said Johnnie.
The Swede laughed again his blatant laugh, full of a kind of false courage and defiance. “Oh, you know what I mean all right,” he answered.
“I’m a liar if I do!” Johnnie protested. The card was halted, and the men stared at the Swede. Johnnie evidently felt that as the son of the proprietor he should make a direct inquiry. “Now, what might you be drivin’ at, mister?” he asked. The Swede winked at him. It was a wink full of cunning. His fingers shook on the edge of the board. “Oh, maybe you think I have been to nowheres. Maybe you think I’m a tenderfoot?”
“I don’t know nothin’ about you,” answered Johnnie, “and I don’t give a damn where you’ve been. All I got to say is that I don’t know what you’re driving at. There hain’t never been nobody killed in this room.”
The cowboy, who had been steadily gazing at the Swede, then spoke: “What’s wrong with you, mister?”
Apparently it seemed to the Swede that he was formidably menaced. He shivered and turned white near the corners of his mouth. He sent an appealing glance in the direction of the little Easterner. During these moments he did not forget to wear his air of advanced pot-valor. “They say they don’t know what I mean,” he remarked mockingly to the Easterner.
The latter answered after prolonged and cautious reflection. “I don’t understand you,” he said, impassively.
The Swede made a movement then which announced that he thought he had encountered treachery from the only quarter where he had expected sympathy, if not help. “Oh, I see you are all against me. I see—”
The cowboy was in a state of deep stupefaction. “Say.” he cried, as he tumbled the deck violently down upon the board “—say, what are you gittin’ at, hey?”
The Swede sprang up with the celerity of a man escaping from a snake on the floor. “I don’t want to fight!” he shouted. “I don’t want to fight!”
The cowboy stretched his long legs indolently and deliberately. His hands were in his pockets. He spat into the sawdust box. “Well, who the hell thought you did?” he inquired.
The Swede backed rapidly towards a corner of the room. His hands were out protectingly in front of his chest, but he was making an obvious struggle to control his fright. “Gentlemen,” he quavered, “I suppose I am going to be killed before I can leave this house! I suppose I am going to be killed before I can leave this house!” In his eyes was the dying-swan look. Through the windows could be seen the snow turning blue in the shadow of dusk. The wind tore at the house and some loose thing beat regularly against the clap-boards like a spirit tapping.
A door opened, and Scully himself entered. He paused in surprise as he noted the tragic attitude of the Swede. Then he said, “What’s the matter here?”
The Swede answered him swiftly and eagerly: “These men are going to kill me.”
“Kill you!” ejaculated Scully. “Kill you! What are you talkin’?”
The Swede made the gesture of a martyr.
Scully wheeled sternly upon his son. “What is this, Johnnie?”
The lad had grown sullen. “Damned if I know,” he answered. “I can’t make no sense to it.” He began to shuffle the cards, fluttering them together with an angry snap. “He says a good many men have been killed in this room, or something like that. And he says he’s goin’ to be killed here too. I don’t know what ails him. He’s crazy, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Scully then looked for explanation to the cowboy, but the cowboy simply shrugged his shoulders.
“Kill you?” said Scully again to the Swede. “Kill you? Man, you’re off your nut.”
“Oh, I know.” burst out the Swede. “I know what will happen. Yes, I’m crazy—yes. Yes, of course, I’m crazy—yes. But I know one thing—” There was a sort of sweat of misery and terror upon his face. “I know I won’t get out of here alive.”
The cowboy drew a deep breath, as if his mind was passing into the last stages of dissolution. “Well, I’m dog-goned,” he whispered to himself.
Scully wheeled suddenly and faced his son. “You’ve been troublin’ this man!”
Johnnie’s voice was loud with its burden of grievance. “Why, good Gawd, I ain’t done nothin’ to ‘im.”
The Swede broke in. “Gentlemen, do not disturb yourselves. I will leave this house. I will go away because”—he accused them dramatically with his glance—”because I do not want to be killed.”
Scully was furious with his son. “Will you tell me what is the matter, you young divil? What’s the matter, anyhow? Speak out!”
“Blame it!” cried Johnnie in despair, “don’t I tell you I don’t know. He—he says we want to kill him, and that’s all I know. I can’t tell what ails him.”
The Swede continued to repeat: “Never mind, Mr. Scully; nevermind. I will leave this house. I will go away, because I do not wish to be killed. Yes, of course, I am crazy—yes. But I know one thing! I will go away. I will leave this house. Never mind, Mr. Scully; never mind. I will go away.”
“You will not go ‘way,” said Scully. “You will not go ‘way until I hear the reason of this business. If anybody has troubled you I will take care of him. This is my house. You are under my roof, and I will not allow any peaceable man to be troubled here.” He cast a terrible eye upon Johnnie, the cowboy, and the Easterner.
“Never mind, Mr. Scully; never mind. I will go away. I do not wish to be killed.” The Swede moved towards the door, which opened upon the stairs. It was evidently his intention to go at once for his baggage.
“No, no,” shouted Scully peremptorily; but the white-faced man slid by him and disappeared. “Now,” said Scully severely, “what does this mane?”
Johnnie and the cowboy cried together: “Why, we didn’t do nothin’ to ‘im!”
Scully’s eyes were cold. “No,” he said, “you didn’t?”
Johnnie swore a deep oath. “Why this is the wildest loon I ever see. We didn’t do nothin’ at all. We were jest sittin’ here play in’ cards, and he—”
The father suddenly spoke to the Easterner. “Mr. Blanc,” he asked, “what has these boys been doin’?”
The Easterner reflected again. “I didn’t see anything wrong at all,” he said at last, slowly.
Scully began to howl. “But what does it mane?” He stared ferociously at his son. “I have a mind to lather you for this, me boy.”
Johnnie was frantic. “Well, what have I done?” he bawled at his father.
“I think you are tongue-tied,” said Scully finally to his son, the cowboy, and the Easterner; and at the end of this scornful sentence he left the room.
Up-stairs the Swede was swiftly fastening the straps of his great valise. Once his back happened to be half turned towards the door, and, hearing a noise there, he wheeled and sprang up, uttering a loud cry. Scully’s wrinkled visage showed grimly in the light of the small lamp he carried. This yellow effulgence, streaming upward, colored only his prominent features, and left his eyes, for instance, in mysterious shadow. He resembled a murderer.
“Man! man!” he exclaimed, “have you gone daffy?”
“Oh, no! Oh, no!” rejoined the other. “There are people in this world who know pretty nearly as much as you do—understand?”
For a moment they stood gazing at each other. Upon the Swede’s deathly pale checks were two spots brightly crimson and sharply edged, as if they had been carefully painted. Scully placed the light on the table and sat himself on the edge of the bed. He spoke ruminatively. “By cracky, I never heard of such a thing in my life. It’s a complete muddle. I can’t, for the soul of me, think how you ever got this idea into your head.” Presently he lifted his eyes and asked: “And did you sure think they were going to kill you?”
The Swede scanned the old man as if he wished to see into his mind. “I did,” he said at last. He obviously suspected that this answer might precipitate an outbreak. As he pulled on a strap his whole arm shook, the elbow wavering like a bit of paper.
Scully banged his hand impressively on the foot-board of the bed. “Why, man, we’re goin’ to have a line of ilictric street-cars in this town next spring.”
“‘A line of electric street-cars,'” repeated the Swede, stupidly.
“And,” said Scully, “there’s a new railroad goin’ to be built down from Broken Arm to here. Not to mintion the four churches and the smashin’ big brick school-house. Then there’s the big factory, too. Why, in two years Romper ‘ll be a metropolis.”
Having finished the preparation of his baggage, the Swede straightened himself. “Mr. Scully,” he said, with sudden hardihood, “how much do I owe you?”
“You don’t owe me anythin’,” said the old man, angrily.
“Yes, I do,” retorted the Swede. He took seventy-five cents from his pocket and tendered it to Scully; but the latter snapped his fingers in disdainful refusal. However, it happened that they both stood gazing in a strange fashion at three silver pieces on the Swede’s open palm.
“I’ll not take your money,” said Scully at last. “Not after what’s been goin’ on here.” Then a plan seemed to strike him. “Here,” he cried, picking up his lamp and moving towards the door. “Here! Come with me a minute.”
“No,” said the Swede, in overwhelming alarm.
“Yes,” urged the old man. “Come on! I want you to come and see a picter—just across the hall—in my room.”
The Swede must have concluded that his hour was come. His jaw dropped and his teeth showed like a dead man’s. He ultimately followed Scully across the corridor, but he had the step of one hung in chains.
Scully flashed the light high on the wall of his own chamber. There was revealed a ridiculous photograph of a little girl. She was leaning against a balustrade of gorgeous decoration, and the formidable bang to her hair was prominent. The figure was as graceful as an upright sled-stake, and, withal, it was of the hue of lead. “There,” said Scully, tenderly, “that’s the picter of my little girl that died. Her name was Carrie. She had the purtiest hair you ever saw! I was that fond of her, she—”
Turning then, he saw that the Swede was not contemplating the picture at all, but, instead, was keeping keen watch on the gloom in the rear.
“Look, man!” cried Scully, heartily. “That’s the picter of my little gal that died. Her name was Carrie. And then here’s the picter of my oldest boy, Michael. He’s a lawyer in Lincoln, an’ doin’ well. I gave that boy a grand eddycation, and I’m glad for it now. He’s a fine boy. Look at ‘im now. Ain’t he bold as blazes, him there in Lincoln, an honored an’ respicted gintleman. An honored an’ respicted gintleman,” concluded Scully with a flourish. And, so saying, he smote the Swede jovially on the back.
The Swede faintly smiled.
“Now,” said the old man, “there’s only one more thing.” He dropped suddenly to the floor and thrust his head beneath the bed. The Swede could hear his muffled voice. “I’d keep it under me piller if it wasn’t for that boy Johnnie. Then there’s the old woman—Where is it now? I never put it twice in the same place. Ah, now come out with you!”
Presently he backed clumsily from under the bed, dragging with him an old coat rolled into a bundle. “I’ve fetched him,” he muttered. Kneeling on the floor, he unrolled the coat and extracted from its heart a large yellow-brown whiskey bottle.
His first maneuver was to hold the bottle up to the light. Reassured, apparently, that nobody had been tampering with it, he thrust it with a generous movement towards the Swede.
The weak-kneed Swede was about to eagerly clutch this element of strength, but he suddenly jerked his hand away and cast a look of horror upon Scully.
“Drink,” said the old man affectionately. He had risen to his feet, and now stood facing the Swede.
There was a silence. Then again Scully said: “Drink!”
The Swede laughed wildly. He grabbed the bottle, put it to his mouth, and as his lips curled absurdly around the opening and his throat worked, he kept his glance, burning with hatred, upon the old man’s face.
After the departure of Scully the three men, with the card-board still upon their knees, preserved for a long time an astounded silence. Then Johnnie said: “That’s the dod-dangest Swede I ever see.”
“He ain’t no Swede,” said the cowboy, scornfully.
“Well, what is he then?” cried Johnnie. “What is he then?”
“It’s my opinion,” replied the cowboy deliberately, “he’s some kind of a Dutchman.” It was a venerable custom of the country to entitle as Swedes all light-haired men who spoke with a heavy tongue. In consequence the idea of the cowboy was not without its daring. “Yes, sir,” he repeated. “It’s my opinion this feller is some kind of a Dutchman.”
“Well, he says he’s a Swede, anyhow,” muttered Johnnie, sulkily. He turned to the Easterner: “What do you think, Mr. Blanc?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied the Easterner.
“Well, what do you think makes him act that way?” asked the cowboy.
“Why, he’s frightened.” The Easterner knocked his pipe against a rim of the stove. “He’s clear frightened out of his boots.”
“What at?” cried Johnnie and cowboy together.
The Easterner reflected over his answer.
“What at?” cried the others again.
“Oh, I don’t know, but it seems to me this man has been reading dime-novels, and he thinks he’s right out in the middle of it—the shootin’ and stabbin’ and all.”
“But,” said the cowboy, deeply scandalized, “this ain’t Wyoming, ner none of them places. This is Nebrasker.”
“Yes,” added Johnnie, “an’ why don’t he wait till he gits out West?”
The travelled Easterner laughed. “It isn’t different there even—not in these days. But he thinks he’s right in the middle of hell.”
Johnnie and the cowboy mused long.
“It’s awful funny,” remarked Johnnie at last.
“Yes,” said the cowboy. “This is a queer game. I hope we don’t git snowed in, because then we’d have to stand this here man bein’ around with us all the time. That wouldn’t be no good.”
“I wish pop would throw him out,” said Johnnie.
Presently they heard a loud stamping on the stairs, accompanied by ringing jokes in the voice of old Scully, and laughter, evidently from the Swede. The men around the stove stared vacantly at each other. “Gosh!” said the cowboy. The door flew open, and old Scully, flushed and anecdotal, came into the room. He was jabbering at the Swede, who followed him, laughing bravely. It was the entry of two roisterers from a banquet-hall.
“Come now,” said Scully sharply to the three seated men, “move up and give us a chance at the stove.” The cowboy and the Easterner obediently sidled their chairs to make room for the new-comers. Johnnie, however, simply arranged himself in a more indolent attitude, and then remained motionless.
“Come! Git over, there,” said Scully.
“Plenty of room on the other side of the stove,” said Johnnie.
“Do you think we want to sit in the draught?” roared the father.
But the Swede here interposed with a grandeur of confidence. “No, no. Let the boy sit where he likes,” he cried in a bullying voice to the father.
“All right! All right!” said Scully, deferentially. The cowboy and the Easterner exchanged glances of wonder.
The five chairs were formed in a crescent about one side of the stove. The Swede began to talk; he talked arrogantly, profanely, angrily. Johnnie, the cowboy, and the Easterner maintained a morose silence, while old Scully appeared to be receptive and eager, breaking in constantly with sympathetic ejaculations.
Finally the Swede announced that he was thirsty. He moved in his chair, and said that he would go for a drink of water.
“I’ll git it for you,” cried Scully at once.
“No,” said the Swede, contemptuously. “I’ll get it for myself.” He arose and stalked with the air of an owner off into the executive parts of the hotel.
As soon as the Swede was out of hearing Scully sprang to his feet and whispered intensely to the others: “Up-stairs he thought I was tryin’ to poison ‘im.”
“Say,” said Johnnie, “this makes me sick. Why don’t you throw ‘im out in the snow?”
“Why, he’s all right now,” declared Scully. “It was only that he was from the East, and he thought this was a tough place. That’s all. He’s all right now.”
The cowboy looked with admiration upon the Easterner. “You were straight,” he said. “You were on to that there Dutchman.”
“Well,” said Johnnie to his father, “he may be all right now, but I don’t see it. Other time he was scared, but now he’s too fresh.”
Scully’s speech was always a combination of Irish brogue and idiom, Western twang and idiom, and scraps of curiously formal diction taken from the story-books and newspapers, He now hurled a strange mass of language at the head of his son. “What do I keep? What do I keep? What do I keep?” he demanded, in a voice of thunder. He slapped his knee impressively, to indicate that he himself was going to make reply, and that all should heed. “I keep a hotel,” he shouted. “A hotel, do you mind? A guest under my roof has sacred privileges. He is to be intimidated by none. Not one word shall he hear that would prejudice him in favor of goin’ away. I’ll not have it. There’s no place in this here town where they can say they iver took in a guest of mine because he was afraid to stay here.” He wheeled suddenly upon the cowboy and the Easterner. “Am I right?”
“Yes, Mr. Scully,” said the cowboy, “I think you’re right.”
“Yes, Mr. Scully,” said the Easterner, “I think you’re right.”
At six-o’clock supper, the Swede fizzed like a fire-wheel. He sometimes seemed on the point of bursting into riotous song, and in all his madness he was encouraged by old Scully. The Easterner was incased in reserve; the cowboy sat in wide-mouthed amazement, forgetting to eat, while Johnnie wrathily demolished great plates of food. The daughters of the house, when they were obliged to replenish the biscuits, approached as warily as Indians, and, having succeeded in their purpose, fled with ill-concealed trepidation. The Swede domineered the whole feast, and he gave it the appearance of a cruel bacchanal. He seemed to have grown suddenly taller; he gazed, brutally disdainful, into every face. His voice rang through the room. Once when he jabbed out harpoon-fashion with his fork to pinion a biscuit, the weapon nearly impaled the hand of the Easterner which had been stretched quietly out for the same biscuit.
After supper, as the men filed towards the other room, the Swede smote Scully ruthlessly on the shoulder. “Well, old boy, that was a good, square meal.” Johnnie looked hopefully at his father; he knew that shoulder was tender from an old fall; and, indeed, it appeared for a moment as if Scully was going to flame out over the matter, but in the end he smiled a sickly smile and remained silent. The others understood from his manner that he was admitting his responsibility for the Swede’s new view-point.
Johnnie, however, addressed his parent in an aside. “Why don’t you license somebody to kick you down-stairs?” Scully scowled darkly by way of reply.
When they were gathered about the stove, the Swede insisted on another game of High Five. Scully gently deprecated the plan at first, but the Swede turned a wolfish glare upon him. The old man subsided, and the Swede canvassed the others. In his tone there was always a great threat. The cowboy and the Easterner both remarked indifferently that they would play. Scully said that he would presently have to go to meet the 6.58 train, and so the Swede turned menacingly upon Johnnie. For a moment their glances crossed like blades, and then Johnnie smiled and said, “Yes, I’ll play.”
They formed a square, with the little board on their knees. The Easterner and the Swede were again partners. As the play went on, it was noticeable that the cowboy was not board-whacking as usual. Meanwhile, Scully, near the lamp, had put on his spectacles and, with an appearance curiously like an old priest, was reading a newspaper. In time he went out to meet the 6.58 train, and, despite his precautions, a gust of polar wind whirled into the room as he opened the door. Besides scattering the cards, it dulled the players to the marrow. The Swede cursed frightfully. When Scully returned, his entrance disturbed a cosey and friendly scene. The Swede again cursed. But presently they were once more intent, their heads bent forward and their hands moving swiftly. The Swede had adopted the fashion of board-whacking.
Scully took up his paper and for a long time remained immersed in matters which were extraordinarily remote from him. The lamp burned badly, and once he stopped to adjust the wick. The newspaper, as he turned from page to page, rustled with a slow and comfortable sound. Then suddenly he heard three terrible words: “You are cheatin’!”
Such scenes often prove that there can be little of dramatic import in environment. Any room can present a tragic front; any room can be comic. This little den was now hideous as a torture-chamber. The new faces of the men themselves had changed it upon the instant. The Swede held a huge fist in front of Johnnie’s face, while the latter looked steadily over it into the blazing orbs of his accuser. The Easterner had grown pallid; the cowboy’s jaw had dropped in that expression of bovine amazement which was one of his important mannerisms. After the three words, the first sound in the room was made by Scully’s paper as it floated forgotten to his feet. His spectacles had also fallen from his nose, but by a clutch he had saved them in air. His hand, grasping the spectacles, now remained poised awkwardly and near his shoulder. He stared at the card-players.
Probably the silence was while a second elapsed. Then, if the floor had been suddenly twitched out from under the men they could not have moved quicker. The five had projected themselves headlong towards a common point. It happened that Johnnie, in rising to hurl himself upon the Swede, had stumbled slightly because of his curiously instinctive care for the cards and the board. The loss of the moment allowed time for the arrival of Scully, and also allowed the cowboy time to give the Swede a great push which sent him staggering back. The men found tongue together, and hoarse shouts of rage, appeal, or fear burst from every throat. The cowboy pushed and jostled feverishly at the Swede, and the Easterner and Scully clung wildly to Johnnie; but, through the smoky air, above the swaying bodies of the peace-compellers, the eyes of the two warriors ever sought each other in glances of challenge that were at once hot and steely.
Of course the board had been overturned, and now the whole company of cards was scattered over the floor, where the boots of the men trampled the fat and painted kings and queens as they gazed with their silly eyes at the war that was waging above them.
Scully’s voice was dominating the yells. “Stop now? Stop, I say! Stop, now—”
Johnnie, as he struggled to burst through the rank formed by Scully and the Easterner, was crying, “Well, he says I cheated! He says I cheated! I won’t allow no man to say I cheated! If he says I cheated, he’s a ——— ———!”
The cowboy was telling the Swede, “Quit, now! Quit, d’ye hear—”
The screams of the Swede never ceased: “He did cheat! I saw him! I saw him—”
As for the Easterner, he was importuning in a voice that was not heeded: “Wait a moment, can’t you? Oh, wait a moment. What’s the good of a fight over a game of cards? Wait a moment—”
In this tumult no complete sentences were clear. “Cheat”—”Quit”—”He says”—these fragments pierced the uproar and rang out sharply. It was remarkable that, whereas Scully undoubtedly made the most noise, he was the least heard of any of the riotous band.
Then suddenly there was a great cessation. It was as if each man had paused for breath; and although the room was still lighted with the anger of men, it could be seen that there was no danger of immediate conflict, and at once Johnnie, shouldering his way forward, almost succeeded in confronting the Swede. “What did you say I cheated for? What did you say I cheated for? I don’t cheat, and I won’t let no man say I do!”
The Swede said, “I saw you! I saw you!”
“Well,” cried Johnnie, “I’ll fight any man what says I cheat!”
“No, you won’t,” said the cowboy. “Not here.”
“Ah, be still, can’t you?” said Scully, coming between them.
The quiet was sufficient to allow the Easterner’s voice to be heard. He was repealing, “Oh, wait a moment, can’t you? What’s the good of a fight over a game of cards? Wait a moment!”
Johnnie, his red face appearing above his father’s shoulder, hailed the Swede again. “Did you say I cheated?”
The Swede showed his teeth. “Yes.”
“Then,” said Johnnie, “we must fight.”
“Yes, fight,” roared the Swede. He was like a demoniac. “Yes, fight! I’ll show you what kind of a man I am! I’ll show you who you want to fight! Maybe you think I can’t fight! Maybe you think I can’t! I’ll show you, you skin, you card-sharp! Yes, you cheated! You cheated! You cheated!”
“Well, let’s go at it, then, mister,” said Johnnie, coolly.
The cowboy’s brow was beaded with sweat from his efforts in intercepting all sorts of raids. He turned in despair to Scully. “What are you goin’ to do now?”
A change had come over the Celtic visage of the old man. He now seemed all eagerness; his eyes glowed.
“We’ll let them fight,” he answered, stalwartly. “I can’t put up with it any longer. I’ve stood this damned Swede till I’m sick. We’ll let them fight.”
The men prepared to go out-of-doors. The Easterner was so nervous that he had great difficulty in getting his arms into the sleeves of his new leather coat. As the cowboy drew his fur cap down over his cars his hands trembled. In fact, Johnnie and old Scully were the only ones who displayed no agitation. These preliminaries were conducted without words.
Scully threw open the door. “Well, come on,” he said. Instantly a terrific wind caused the flame of the lamp to struggle at its wick, while a puff of black smoke sprang from the chimney-top. The stove was in mid-current of the blast, and its voice swelled to equal the roar of the storm. Some of the scarred and bedabbled cards were caught up from the floor and dashed helplessly against the farther wall. The men lowered their heads and plunged into the tempest as into a sea.
No snow was falling, but great whirls and clouds of flakes, swept up from the ground by the frantic winds, were streaming southward with the speed of bullets. The covered land was blue with the sheen of an unearthly satin, and there was no other hue save where, at the low, black railway station—which seemed incredibly distant—one light gleamed like a tiny jewel. As the men floundered into a thigh deep drift, it was known that the Swede was bawling out something. Scully went to him, put a hand on his shoulder and projected an ear. “What’s that you say?” he shouted.
“I say,” bawled the Swede again, “I won’t stand much show against this gang. I know you’ll all pitch on me.”
Scully smote him reproachfully on the arm. “Tut, man!” he yelled. The wind tore the words from Scully’s lips and scattered them far alee.
“You are all a gang of—” boomed the Swede, but the storm also seized the remainder of this sentence.
Immediately turning their backs upon the wind, the men had swung around a corner to the sheltered side of the hotel. It was the function of the little house to preserve here, amid this great devastation of snow, an irregular V-shape of heavily incrusted grass, which crackled beneath the feet. One could imagine the great drifts piled against the windward side. When the party reached the comparative peace of this spot it was found that the Swede was still bellowing.
“Oh, I know what kind of a thing this is! I know you’ll all pitch on me. I can’t lick you all!”
Scully turned upon him panther fashion. “You’ll not have to whip all of us. You’ll have to whip my son Johnnie. An’ the man what troubles you durin’ that time will have me to dale with.”
The arrangements were swiftly made. The two men faced each other, obedient to the harsh commands of Scully, whose face, in the subtly luminous gloom, could be seen set in the austere impersonal lines that are pictured on the countenances of the Roman veterans. The Easterner’s teeth were chattering, and he was hopping up and down like a mechanical toy. The cowboy stood rock-like.
The contestants had not stripped off any clothing. Each was in his ordinary attire. Their fists were up, and they eyed each other in a calm that had the elements of leonine cruelty in it.
During this pause, the Easterner’s mind, like a film, took lasting impressions of three men—the iron-nerved master of the ceremony; the Swede, pale, motionless, terrible; and Johnnie, serene yet ferocious, brutish yet heroic. The entire prelude had in it a tragedy greater than the tragedy of action, and this aspect was accentuated by the long, mellow cry of the blizzard, as it sped the tumbling and wailing flakes into the black abyss of the south.
“Now!” said Scully.
The two combatants leaped forward and crashed together like bullocks. There was heard the cushioned sound of blows, and of a curse squeezing out from between the tight teeth of one.
As for the spectators, the Easterner’s pent-up breath exploded from him with a pop of relief, absolute relief from the tension of the preliminaries. The cowboy bounded into the air with a yowl. Scully was immovable as from supreme amazement and fear at the fury of the fight which he himself had permitted and arranged.
For a time the encounter in the darkness was such a perplexity of flying arms that it presented no more detail than would a swiftly revolving wheel. Occasionally a face, as if illumined by a flash of light, would shine out, ghastly and marked with pink spots. A moment later, the men might have been known as shadows, if it were not for the involuntary utterance of oaths that came from them in whispers.
Suddenly a holocaust of warlike desire caught the cowboy, and he bolted forward with the speed of a broncho. “Go it, Johnnie! go it! Kill him! Kill him!”
Scully confronted him. “Kape back,” he said; and by his glance the cowboy could tell that this man was Johnnie’s father.
To the Easterner there was a monotony of unchangeable fighting that was an abomination. This confused mingling was eternal to his sense, which was concentrated in a longing for the end, the priceless end. Once the fighters lurched near him, and as he scrambled hastily backward he heard them breathe like men on the rack.
“Kill him, Johnnie! Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” The cowboy’s face was contorted like one of those agony masks in museums.
“Keep still,” said Scully, icily.
Then there was a sudden loud grunt, incomplete, cut short, and Johnnie’s body swung away from the Swede and fell with sickening heaviness to the grass. The cowboy was barely in time to prevent the mad Swede from flinging himself upon his prone adversary. “No, you don’t,” said the cowboy, interposing an arm. “Wait a second.”
Scully was at his son’s side. “Johnnie! Johnnie, me boy!” His voice had a quality of melancholy tenderness. “Johnnie! Can you go on with it?” He looked anxiously down into the bloody, pulpy face of his son.
There was a moment of silence, and then Johnnie answered in his ordinary voice, “Yes, I—it—yes.”
Assisted by his father he struggled to his feet. “Wait a bit now till you git your wind,” said the old man.
A few paces away the cowboy was lecturing the Swede. “No, you don’t! Wait a second!”
The Easterner was plucking at Scully’s sleeve. “Oh, this is enough,” he pleaded. “This is enough! Let it go as it stands. This is enough!”
“Bill,” said Scully, “git out of the road.” The cowboy stepped aside. “Now.” The combatants were actuated by a new caution as they advanced towards collision. They glared at each other, and then the Swede aimed a lightning blow that carried with it his entire weight. Johnnie was evidently half stupid from weakness, but he miraculously dodged, and his fist sent the over-balanced Swede sprawling.
The cowboy, Scully, and the Easterner burst into a cheer that was like a chorus of triumphant soldiery, but before its conclusion the Swede had scuffled agilely to his feet and come in berserk abandon at his foe. There was another perplexity of flying arms, and Johnnie’s body again swung away and fell, even as a bundle might fall from a roof. The Swede instantly staggered to a little wind-waved tree and leaned upon it, breathing like an engine, while his savage and flame-lit eyes roamed from face to face as the men bent over Johnnie. There was a splendor of isolation in his situation at this time which the Easterner felt once when, lifting his eyes from the man on the ground, he beheld that mysterious and lonely figure, waiting.
“Arc you any good yet, Johnnie?” asked Scully in a broken voice.
The son gasped and opened his eyes languidly. After a moment he answered, “No—I ain’t—any good—any—more.” Then, from shame and bodily ill he began to weep, the tears furrowing down through the blood-stains on his face. “He was too—too—too heavy for me.”
Scully straightened and addressed the waiting figure. “Stranger,” he said, evenly, “it’s all up with our side.” Then his voice changed into that vibrant huskiness which is commonly the tone of the most simple and deadly announcements. “Johnnie is whipped.”
Without replying, the victor moved off on the route to the front door of the hotel.
The cowboy was formulating new and un-spellable blasphemies. The Easterner was startled to find that they were out in a wind that seemed to come direct from the shadowed arctic floes. He heard again the wail of the snow as it was flung to its grave in the south. He knew now that all this time the cold had been sinking into him deeper and deeper, and he wondered that he had not perished. He felt indifferent to the condition of the vanquished man.
“Johnnie, can you walk?” asked Scully.
“Did I hurt—hurt him any?” asked the son.
“Can you walk, boy? Can you walk?”
Johnnie’s voice was suddenly strong. There was a robust impatience in it. “I asked you whether I hurt him any!”
“Yes, yes, Johnnie,” answered the cowboy, consolingly; “he’s hurt a good deal.”
They raised him from the ground, and as soon as he was on his feet he went tottering off, rebuffing all attempts at assistance. When the party rounded the corner they were fairly blinded by the pelting of the snow. It burned their faces like fire. The cowboy carried Johnnie through the drift to the door. As they entered some cards again rose from the floor and beat against the wall.
The Easterner rushed to the stove. He was so profoundly chilled that he almost dared to embrace the glowing iron. The Swede was not in the room. Johnnie sank into a chair, and, folding his arms on his knees, buried his face in them. Scully, warming one foot and then the other at a rim of the stove, muttered to himself with Celtic mournfulness. The cowboy had removed his fur cap, and with a dazed and rueful air he was running one hand through his tousled locks. From overhead they could hear the creaking of boards, as the Swede tramped here and there in his room.
The sad quiet was broken by the sudden flinging open of a door that led towards the kitchen. It was instantly followed by an inrush of women. They precipitated themselves upon Johnnie amid a chorus of lamentation. Before they carried their prey off to the kitchen, there to be bathed and harangued with that mixture of sympathy and abuse which is a feat of their sex, the mother straightened herself and fixed old Scully with an eye of stern reproach. “Shame be upon you, Patrick Scully!” she cried. “Your own son, too. Shame be upon you!”
“There, now! Be quiet, now!” said the old man, weakly.
“Shame be upon you, Patrick Scully!” The girls, rallying to this slogan, sniffed disdainfully in the direction of those trembling accomplices, the cowboy and the Easterner. Presently they bore Johnnie away, and left the three men to dismal reflection.
“I’d like to fight this here Dutchman myself,” said the cowboy, breaking a long silence.
Scully wagged his head sadly. “No, that wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be right.”
“Well, why wouldn’t it?” argued the cowboy. “I don’t see no harm in it.”
“No,” answered Scully, with mournful heroism. “It wouldn’t be right. It was Johnnie’s fight, and now we mustn’t whip the man just because he whipped Johnnie.”
“Yes, that’s true enough,” said the cowboy; “but—he better not get fresh with me, because I couldn’t stand no more of it.”
“You’ll not say a word to him,” commanded Scully, and even then they heard the tread of the Swede on the stairs. His entrance was made theatric. He swept the door back with a bang and swaggered to the middle of the room. No one looked at him. “Well,” he cried, insolently, at Scully, “I s’pose you’ll tell me now how much I owe you?”
The old man remained stolid. “You don’t owe me nothin’.”
“Huh!” said the Swede, “huh! Don’t owe ‘im nothin’.”
The cowboy addressed the Swede. “Stranger, I don’t see how you come to be so gay around here.”
Old Scully was instantly alert. “Stop!” he shouted, holding his hand forth, fingers upward. “Bill, you shut up!”
The cowboy spat carelessly into the sawdust box. “I didn’t say a word, did I?” he asked.
“Mr. Scully,” called the Swede, “how much do I owe you?” It was seen that he was attired for departure, and that he had his valise in his hand.
“You don’t owe me nothin’,” repeated Scully in his same imperturbable way.
“Huh!” said the Swede. “I guess you’re right. I guess if it was any way at all, you’d owe me somethin’. That’s what I guess.” He turned to the cowboy. “‘Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!'” he mimicked, and then guffawed victoriously. “‘Kill him!'” He was convulsed with ironical humor.
But he might have been jeering the dead. The three men were immovable and silent, staring with glassy eyes at the stove.
The Swede opened the door and passed into the storm, giving one derisive glance backward at the still group.
As soon as the door was closed, Scully and the cowboy leaped to their feet and began to curse. They trampled to and fro, waving their arms and smashing into the air with their fists. “Oh, but that was a hard minute!” wailed Scully. “That was a hard minute! Him there leerin’ and scoffin’! One bang at his nose was worth forty dollars to me that minute! How did you stand it, Bill?”
“How did I stand it?” cried the cowboy in a quivering voice. “How did I stand it? Oh!”
The old man burst into sudden brogue. “I’d loike to take that Swade,” he wailed, “and hould ‘im down on a shtone flure and bate ‘im to a jelly wid a shtick!”
The cowboy groaned in sympathy. “I’d like to git him by the neck and ha-ammer him “—he brought his hand down on a chair with a noise like a pistol-shot—”hammer that there Dutchman until he couldn’t tell himself from a dead coyote!”
“I’d bate ‘im until he—”
“I’d show him some things—”
And then together they raised a yearning, fanatic cry—”Oh-o-oh! if we only could—”
“And then I’d—”
The Swede, tightly gripping his valise, tacked across the face of the storm as if he carried sails. He was following a line of little naked, gasping trees, which he knew must mark the way of the road. His face, fresh from the pounding of Johnnie’s fists, felt more pleasure than pain in the wind and the driving snow. A number of square shapes loomed upon him finally, and he knew them as the houses of the main body of the town. He found a street and made travel along it, leaning heavily upon the wind whenever, at a corner, a terrific blast caught him.
He might have been in a deserted village. We picture the world as thick with conquering and elate humanity, but here, with the bugles of the tempest pealing, it was hard to imagine a peopled earth. One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb. The conceit of man was explained by this storm to be the very engine of life. One was a coxcomb not to die in it. However, the Swede found a saloon.
In front of it an indomitable red light was burning, and the snow-flakes were made blood color as they flew through the circumscribed territory of the lamp’s shining. The Swede pushed open the door of the saloon and entered. A sanded expanse was before him, and at the end of it four men sat about a table drinking. Down one side of the room extended a radiant bar, and its guardian was leaning upon his elbows listening to the talk of the men at the table. The Swede dropped his valise upon the floor, and, smiling fraternally upon the barkeeper, said, “Gimme some whiskey, will you?” The man placed a bottle, a whiskey-glass, and a glass of ice-thick water upon the bar. The Swede poured himself an abnormal portion of whiskey and drank it in three gulps. “Pretty bad night,” remarked the bartender, indifferently. He was making the pretension of blindness which is usually a distinction of his class; but it could have been seen that he was furtively studying the half-erased blood-stains on the face of the Swede. “Bad night,” he said again.
“Oh, it’s good enough for me,” replied the Swede, hardily, as he poured himself some more whiskey. The barkeeper took his coin and maneuvered it through its reception by the highly nickelled cash-machine. A bell rang; a card labelled “20 cts.” had appeared.
“No,” continued the Swede, “this isn’t too bad weather. It’s good enough for me.”
“So?” murmured the barkeeper, languidly.
The copious drams made the Swede’s eyes swim, and he breathed a trifle heavier. “Yes, I like this weather. I like it. It suits me.” It was apparently his design to impart a deep significance to these words.
“So?” murmured the bartender again. He turned to gaze dreamily at the scroll-like birds and bird-like scrolls which had been drawn with soap upon the mirrors back of the bar.
“Well, I guess I’ll take another drink,” said the Swede, presently. “Have something?”
“No, thanks; I’m not drinkin’,” answered the bartender. Afterwards he asked, “How did you hurt your face?”
The Swede immediately began to boast loudly. “Why, in a fight. I thumped the soul out of a man down here at Scully’s hotel.”
The interest of the four men at the table was at last aroused.
“Who was it?” said one.
“Johnnie Scully,” blustered the Swede. “Son of the man what runs it. He will be pretty near dead for some weeks, I can tell you. I made a nice thing of him, I did. He couldn’t get up. They carried him in the house. Have a drink?”
Instantly the men in some subtle way incased themselves in reserve. “No, thanks,” said one. The group was of curious formation. Two were prominent local business men; one was the district-attorney; and one was a professional gambler of the kind known as “square.” But a scrutiny of the group would not have enabled an observer to pick the gambler from the men of more reputable pursuits. He was, in fact, a man so delicate in manner, when among people of fair class, and so judicious in his choice of victims, that in the strictly masculine part of the town’s life he had come to be explicitly trusted and admired. People called him a thoroughbred. The fear and contempt with which his craft was regarded was undoubtedly the reason that his quiet dignity shone conspicuous above the quiet dignity of men who might be merely hatters, billiard markers, or grocery-clerks. Beyond an occasional unwary traveller, who came by rail, this gambler was supposed to prey solely upon reckless and senile farmers, who, when flush with good crops, drove into town in all the pride and confidence of an absolutely invulnerable stupidity. Hearing at times in circuitous fashion of the despoilment of such a farmer, the important men of Romper invariably laughed in contempt of the victim, and, if they thought of the wolf at all, it was with a kind of pride at the knowledge that he would never dare think of attacking their wisdom and courage. Besides, it was popular that this gambler had a real wife and two real children in a neat cottage in a suburb, where he led an exemplary home life; and when any one even suggested a discrepancy in his character, the crowd immediately vociferated descriptions of this virtuous family circle. Then men who led exemplary home lives, and men who did not lead exemplary home lives, all subsided in a bunch, remarking that there was nothing more to be said.
However, when a restriction was placed upon him—as, for instance, when a strong clique of members of the new Pollywog Club refused to permit him, even as a spectator, to appear in the rooms of the organization—the candor and gentleness with which he accepted the judgment disarmed many of his foes and made his friends more desperately partisan. He invariably distinguished between himself and a respectable Romper man so quickly and frankly that his manner actually appeared to be a continual broadcast compliment.
And one must not forget to declare the fundamental fact of his entire position in Romper. It is irrefutable that in all affairs outside of his business, in all matters that occur eternally and commonly between man and man, this thieving card-player was so generous, so just, so moral, that, in a contest, he could have put to flight the consciences of nine-tenths of the citizens of Romper.
And so it happened that he was seated in this saloon with the two prominent local merchants and the district-attorney.
The Swede continued to drink raw whiskey, meanwhile babbling at the barkeeper and trying to induce him to indulge in potations. “Come on. Have a drink. Come on. What—no? Well, have a little one, then. By gawd, I’ve whipped a man to-night, and I want to celebrate. I whipped him good, too. Gentlemen,” the Swede cried to the men at the table, “have a drink?”
“Ssh!” said the barkeeper.
The group at the table, although furtively attentive, had been pretending to be deep in talk, but now a man lifted his eyes towards the Swede and said, shortly, “Thanks. We don’t want any more.”
At this reply the Swede ruffled out his chest like a rooster. “Well,” he exploded, “it seems I can’t get anybody to drink with me in this town. Seems so, don’t it? Well!”
“Ssh!” said the barkeeper.
“Say,” snarled the Swede, “don’t you try to shut me up. I won’t have it. I’m a gentleman, and I want people to drink with me. And I want ’em to drink with me now. Now—do you understand?” He rapped the bar with his knuckles.
Years of experience had calloused the bartender. He merely grew sulky. “I hear you,” he answered.
“Well,” cried the Swede, “listen hard then. See those men over there? Well, they’re going to drink with me, and don’t you forget it. Now you watch.”
“Hi!” yelled the barkeeper, “this won’t do!”
“Why won’t it?” demanded the Swede. He stalked over to the table, and by chance laid his hand upon the shoulder of the gambler. “How about this?” he asked, wrathfully. “I asked you to drink with me.”
The gambler simply twisted his head and spoke over his shoulder. “My friend, I don’t know you.”
“Oh, hell!” answered the Swede, “come and have a drink.”
“Now, my boy,” advised the gambler, kindly, “take your hand off my shoulder and go ‘way and mind your own business.” He was a little, slim man, and it seemed strange to hear him use this tone of heroic patronage to the burly Swede. The other men at the table said nothing.
“What! You won’t drink with me, you little dude? I’ll make you then! I’ll make you!” The Swede had grasped the gambler frenziedly at the throat, and was dragging him from his chair. The other men sprang up. The barkeeper dashed around the corner of his bar. There was a great tumult, and then was seen a long blade in the hand of the gambler. It shot forward, and a human body, this citadel of virtue, wisdom, power, was pierced as easily as if it had been a melon. The Swede fell with a cry of supreme astonishment.
The prominent merchants and the district attorney must have at once tumbled out of the place backward. The bartender found himself hanging limply to the arm of a chair and gazing into the eyes of a murderer.
“Henry,” said the latter, as he wiped his knife on one of the towels that hung beneath the bar-rail, “you tell ’em where to find me. I’ll be home, waiting for ’em.” Then he vanished. A moment afterwards the barkeeper was in the street dinning through the storm for help, and, moreover, companionship.
The corpse of the Swede, alone in the saloon, had its eyes fixed upon a dreadful legend that dwelt atop of the cash-machine: “This registers the amount of your purchase.”
Months later, the cowboy was frying pork over the stove of a little ranch near the Dakota line, when there was a quick thud of hoofs outside, and presently the Easterner entered with the letters and the papers.
“Well,” said the Easterner at once, “the chap that killed the Swede has got three years. Wasn’t much, was it?”
“He has? Three years?” The cowboy poised his pan of pork, while he ruminated upon the news. “Three years. That ain’t much.”
“No. It was a light sentence,” replied the Easterner as he unbuckled his spurs. “Seems there was a good deal of sympathy for him in Romper.”
“If the bartender had been any good,” observed the cowboy, thoughtfully, “he would have gone in and cracked that there Dutchman on the head with a bottle in the beginnin’ of it and stopped all this here murderin’.”
“Yes, a thousand things might have happened,” said the Easterner, tartly.
The cowboy returned his pan of pork to the fire, but his philosophy continued. “It’s funny, ain’t it? If he hadn’t said Johnnie was cheatin’ he’d be alive this minute. He was an awful fool. Game played for fun, too. Not for money. I believe he was crazy.”
“I feel sorry for that gambler,” said the Easterner.
“Oh, so do I,” said the cowboy. “He don’t deserve none of it for killin’ who he did.”
“The Swede might not have been killed if everything had been square.”
“Might not have been killed?” exclaimed the cowboy. “Everythin’ square? Why, when he said that Johnnie was cheatin’ and acted like such a jackass? And then in the saloon he fairly walked up to git hurt?” With these arguments the cowboy browbeat the Easterner and reduced him to rage.
“You’re a fool!” cried the Easterner, viciously. “You’re a bigger jackass than the Swede by a million majority. Now let me tell you one thing. Let me tell you something. Listen! Johnnie was cheating!”
“‘Johnnie,'” said the cowboy, blankly. There was a minute of silence, and then he said, robustly, “Why, no. The game was only for fun.”
“Fun or not,” said the Easterner, “Johnnie was cheating. I saw him. I know it. I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight it out alone. And you—you were simply puffing around the place and wanting to fight. And then old Scully himself! We are all in it! This poor gambler isn’t even a noun. He is kind of an adverb. Every sin is the result of a collaboration. We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede. Usually there are from a dozen to forty women really involved in every murder, but in this case it seems to be only five men—you, I, Johnnie, old Scully, and that fool of an unfortunate gambler came merely as a culmination, the apex of a human movement, and gets all the punishment.”
The cowboy, injured and rebellious, cried out blindly into this fog of mysterious theory: “Well, I didn’t do anythin’, did I?”
Dr. Spencer looked up from his misery to the long, winding lines— dark eyes, brown clothes, the occasional red and yellow native costume—and each day before this and after seemed a wretched sameness to him, as if Ellis Island were a prison rather than a reception point, and he was the one locked inside. It made him wonder for the first time if these people were worth all the trouble.
Dr. Hauss, down the line, was new, so his inspection—just clubfeet and goiters—still took twice as long as it should. Waiting for him to finish, Spencer slumped against the metal railing and pressed his palms over his ears, gently rubbing his temples with his extended pinkie fingers, aware that he looked haggard, but not caring. These people’s murmurings—a dozen disparate languages ricocheting like a symphony of ignorance off the tile walls—made his head throb more than last night’s bottle of brandy. Who were they to judge him? Human flotsam. Desperate castoffs. They had no right. They did not know him.
The next person was a woman in her forties, then a man in his twenties, followed by a family of four who all had conjunctivitis. He passed them on, then stopped and glanced at their backs. Really? Had he run his finger under every eyelid? Of course. It was so automatic he did it without thinking.
Spencer reached for his face, then jerked his hand back. Damn her!
He’d almost touched his eye without disinfecting. Spencer dunked his hands up to the wrists, splashing solution onto his instrument stand. It took only a moment to risk his sight, his whole life.
Just like it took Laura only a moment to excise him from hers. Six words—I don’t want to marry you—had reduced thirty years of confidence, work, friends, and good looks to the simple, ridiculous fear of not being good enough to love. It felt as though she’d stamped his forehead “undesirable” and he would walk around trying to hide under his hat the rest of his life, tripping over obstacles with his brim pulled down too far. Spencer wasn’t sure whether or not to believe what she had said—that there was no one else—but what did it matter? Was it better or worse than what his sister had said—that Laura came from a different class of people. “I’m surprised she ever went out with you.”
While Hauss muddled through the next large family, Spencer absently arranged the things on his stand—a row of blue chalk, a flat piece of metal like a buttonhook for inverting eyelids, a notebook for interesting observations and a gold-plated, new ballpoint-style pen Laura had given him. Spencer opened his notebook and looked at his name, written with the pen in the top left-hand corner of the inside cover. The crisp lines of his signature, the perfectly round dots between his M and his D, suddenly seemed a mockery. He decided to throw the pen out as soon as he could get a different one.
Spencer had gotten a job on Ellis Island right after he finished his training and last year he’d been promoted to the eye and brain man, responsible for diagnosing trachoma, a highly contagious infection that caused blindness, and mental deficiencies. Like all the physicians, he used blue chalk to mark his diagnosis on the person’s shoulder, in his case CT for trachoma and a circled X for the deranged and retarded. Inspectors further down the line separated people based on their marks. People marked with CT were sent to the infirmary for a second check. If confirmed for trachoma, they joined those with a circled X back on the boat, bound for wherever they started. Which is why Spencer’s position was left to the most experienced.
Finally Hauss sent up a group of eight and Spencer worked through, starting youngest to oldest—the best way since younger kids got scared off if they saw him use the buttonhook.
Done, he leaned on his podium, head in his hands. God, Hauss was so damn slow! Perhaps he could go to the administrator’s office and tell them he was ill. Who would question a doctor’s diagnosis of himself? But with Hauss’s speed, if he went home sick, they might have to shut the whole line down for the day. People whose relatives were waiting for them to disembark would get stuck on the boats. Maybe he could at least get a damn chair to sit on. Wasn’t he entitled to that much? A chair? He was a doctor after all.
Spencer pushed his glasses up on his tall nose and rubbed his eyes, then glanced quickly at his hands. What the hell was wrong with him? He never touched his eyes at work. Had he remembered to disinfect? Of course, he hadn’t seen a case of trachoma all day. Still.
He dipped his hands in the bowl of disinfectant on the stand’s lower shelf. Some of the doctors on the Island didn’t bother with this precaution—as if they had no common sense at all. Sometimes, seeing this, Spencer wondered if he should feel proud of his job. Was it true what Laura had implied, that only the desperate take a job on the Island? Spencer’s father owned a grocery. He had no medical connections. So what of it?
A man approached with red, watery eyes. Spencer swirled his instrument in the disinfectant, flipped up the man’s eyelid and ran his finger along the underside. It took only a second to feel the white granules. The man forced his eye shut, face wrinkled in outrage, and muttered something in Yiddish. Trachoma and the Jews. They had it the worst, especially of late.
Spencer marked him on the shoulder with a CT, then smiled kindly, eager not to alarm him—he looked as though he could be trouble—and motioned for him to go on ahead.
Waiting for the next group, he scanned the lines, focusing on the women, wondering what they thought of him. Were they ashamed to have a strange man touch them? Or did they admire him, a doctor, an American? Did they resent him for judging them or seek his approval gladly, like a child seeks a parent’s?
Spencer washed his hands again, straightened his tie, then glanced up. Laura stood in front of Hauss. Laura? The same crackly red hair, like fall leaves. The same white neck. The mole? Was it there? Hauss had his hand on the woman’s neck, checking for goiters. She looked afraid and angry. Spencer’s stomach felt bound like a tourniquet on a wound. He knew now: that’s what Laura went to last night. Someone else’s touch.
He passed the next two people without the mental exam—they seemed good enough, just go—and picked up a fresh piece of chalk, rolling it slowly between his hands, the dust leaving blue trails in his fingerprints.
Fredek held his book high so that he could appear to be reading while actually watching the pretty girl from their ship. Her name was Macia, but he thought of her as Goldene because she’d told him that’s what the Jews called America, Goldene Medene.
She approached the first man along the pipe and he took her throat in his hands. He seemed to be massaging it, which Fredek thought a strange way to greet someone.
Fredek began to scratch his head, but the Old Loaf slapped his hand away before he could get any satisfaction. “How many times do I have to tell you? You want them to think you have lice? Hm?”
Fredek smiled and stuck his hand in his pocket. At least she was moving again. For weeks his grandmother had sat on her bunk aboard ship as if she were a baker’s sample, long gone stale in the window. Fredek couldn’t even remember seeing her get up to use the toilet. Now that they were on land, her body had begun to expand to its normal shape, which he thought of as a paczki, sweet and thick and soft.
If he had asked her, Wicktoria would have said she was more like a dinner roll—hard crust, good slash across the top for bursting. She’d have explained to him there was nothing to worry about, though. It was only natural after weeks of sitting in rail offices, waiting in ticket lines, riding on strange buggies, walking on unfamiliar roads and sleeping in common beds that she’d become flattened, like unleavened bread. Which was fine. Such bread lasted longer.
And last she would have to. The journey had taken an extra week due to rough waters, and then they’d been forced to sit on board, just off the coast, for three days waiting for the Island to clear. On day two the rumor started that they were not going to be let off at all, that the whole ship would be turned around and sent back. In the wavering darkness of steerage Wicktoria had listened to the mumblings in Magyar and Russian, Yiddish and German, and tried to remain flat. No hope. No fear. These were the opposite ends of useless.
She knew her grandson was only pretending to read. She followed his eyes to the redheaded Jewess in front of them in line. On the ship the girl had a berth just across from them and Wicktoria had warned Fredek to stay away from her. Everyone knew the Jews were infected with a disease of the eye which kept you from getting into America.
“She looks fine to me,” Fredek had said a hundred times over the past few weeks, but Wicktoria wasn’t taking any chances.
While the man examining the girl made notes, she dabbed at her eyes and Wicktoria nudged Fredek. “See, I told you.”
“She’s crying, Babcia, because of the bags.” When they’d come in on the first floor the men in blue made them leave their suitcases in a pile before they were allowed in line. It kept the lines moving more smoothly, with less congestion. The Old Loaf had heard rumors of this policy on the boat and had taken the precaution of concealing their valuables—cash money, her late-husband’s pocket watch, some dried biscuits, her Bible and her mother’s rosary—under her knitting in a small bag she could easily carry. While they waited in line, the knitting would also keep her occupied.
Goldene had argued with one of the men in blue and Fredek had tried to help, translating for her, until the Old Loaf had pulled him away. “You want us to go back on the ship? You want to go to prison for talking like your father?” It was the first time since they’d left home he had heard real fear in her voice.
Goldene dropped her handkerchief. Fredek grabbed it and handed it to her before the Old Loaf had time to interfere. “Cheer up,” he told her. “It’s just stuff.”
She grinned and reached to pat his cheek. Wicktoria slapped away her hand. “No touching!” She’d already told the girl why they preferred not to associate.
“It’s nice,” Goldene whispered in Polish, “to have a young man think of me.” She turned back to the man at the pipe, who pantomimed removing his shoes. She leaned down to unlace her own boots and Fredek enjoyed the view of her wide hips and her hair, like fired clay, falling across her face.
The Old Loaf whispered, “Mind your manners.”
Embarrassed—did she miss nothing?—Fredek turned his attention to his book, a small volume covered in blue, wrinkled leather. Gilded letters rubbed brown read, “An Emigrant’s Guide to the United States of America.” He read the book slowly, puzzling out each word from context and the English his father had taught him. He marked the passages that seemed most important with a light pencil dot.
Here he can do everything which is right, and no man can with impunity do anything to him that is wrong. If he is not in debt, an event necessary only from sickness or decrepitude, he is absolutely his own master, and the master of all his possessions.
Fredek didn’t know what “impunity” or “decrepitude” meant, but he knew what “his own master” meant—he would be free, just as his father had promised.
It is only the sober, the honest, and the industrious who succeed. Fredek marked the word “industrious” to look up when he bought an English/ Polish dictionary.
Despite her admonishment, Wicktoria did not judge the boy harshly for enjoying the pretty girl’s backside. She was proud of him, in fact, that amid all the loss he’d suffered—both parents gone, his home, his friends, everything left behind—he could still find joy in what God had made. Nonetheless, there were matters of respect to consider.
The last night on the ship, Fredek asleep and the lights all extinguished, Wicktoria had decided to put on her good dress. She knew she’d get better treatment on the Island if she looked more presentable. It still plagued her, whether she’d made the right decision to save the money on second class and take steerage. After she’d bought the tickets she’d heard second-class passengers were given a more cursory inspection.
When Wicktoria slipped her dress over her head and turned her head to free her long hair, she saw him—the man across and one bunk down from her. She’d thought he was asleep, but no—that was clearly a glint off his wet eyeball, open, staring at her. She paused, holding her dress in front of her. What interest could he have in an old woman like her?
She looked at him questioningly, then slipped her top off, letting her pendulous breasts sway out nearly bare, covered only in the thin fabric of her undergarment. He smiled and nodded in appreciation. She’d proceeded to pull off her old stockings—thick, black wool with tiny, random moth holes—then slid her fresh stockings—white with red poppies embroidered along the outer calf—up her dimpled, fine-veined thighs, and fastened them to her garter.
The man smiled at her, then closed his eye, the glint gone.
Finally, on the third morning, the doors opened and the darkness began to move, the long, wide skirts, leather bags tied shut with rope, pillowcases full of nothing worth having, only worth not losing.
On the ferry Wicktoria sat at the window, cheek against the cold glass, eyes closed while Fredek strained over her, looking out. She tried to imagine a moment of complete rest, complete aloneness, a moment when she could let go all her bags, take off her coat and dress, shed the papers with her fake name and pretend husband, crumple the damn tag they’d pinned to her collar, and return to a world in which she could lay down without another pair of eyes to see her drift away.
Now Wicktoria watched the second man further down the line at the elbow in the pipe. He handled each person like a mother who’d had enough—grabbing their faces and peering in their eyes as if they were peepholes, asking questions, writing directly on their clothes. Would this be the end of it? She doubted that. At least it was warm in here.
Wicktoria breathed in a great quantity of air. Her whole chest rose, the papers with her false name, her pretend husband waiting in America, pressing against her breasts. She turned her face toward the high windows above and felt an intense desire to fly, to be able to rise up far away, just her, not even Fredek, into the enormous open space above her, the towering arch of the ceiling, where she could touch the cool tiles on the upper wall, curl up in the immense chandeliers under the gentle warmth of their electric light.
The man waved Goldene down to the next station at the elbow in the pipe and consulted his clipboard again. Fredek glanced at the Old Loaf to ask if he should go on up, but she was staring at the ceiling, her gray head twisting in circles. Fredek followed her eyes to the arched windows, where a faint snow fell against the gray light. He, too, thought of flying— out the windows, out into the new world of rules, laws, languages, and the only thing he feared was leaving behind the Old Loaf. His parents were dead, but she had saved him. He looked at her wrinkled, spotted hand. The knuckles were especially wide and flat, like a man’s. She wore a gold band that had grown too tight some time ago and now sat in a permanent depression which made it seem that removing it would require amputation. Fredek took the hand in his and squeezed it.
Hauss, so miserably slow, seemed to have been manhandling the poor girl for hours. Finally he’d waved her down to Spencer.
“Your name?” Spencer asked, his voice almost a whisper. Her high-necked blouse made it impossible for him to see if she had a mole like Laura’s, a soft-brown spot, perfectly round, just above the clavicle.
She didn’t reply, so he asked loudly if she knew English. “No,” she shouted in Yiddish.
Another Jew. Spencer wondered if she was trying to escape the Pale of Settlement the Russians had set up.
He asked in his limited Yiddish where she was from. The girl looked at him with that expression, the way they all stared, defiant and vacant, resentful, assuming you had something against them, which you didn’t.
“Oh, for God’s sake, I don’t have time for this.” He snapped some papers out of her hands. Macia. He was fairly sure that was Miriam in English. “Miriam, where’s your husband?” It wasn’t his job to ask these questions, but really, what was a woman her age doing coming to America alone?
She said something he didn’t understand, this time in Polish. Why was she switching to that awful language? Did she think he was a bohunk? That he might understand it any better than Yiddish?
The old woman behind Miriam took several steps forward, then stopped under his glare and spoke in Polish to the girl.
“I’m not ready for you yet,” Spencer said sternly, hoping his tone, if not his words, would convey the message.
A boy took the old woman’s hand and pulled her away, mumbling “sorry” in English. Spencer frowned a warning, and went back to Miriam. He was going to just wave the girl through—she was clearly not insane—when he noticed her eyes. Red, puffy. He wiped his hands slowly, rubbing his chalk-laden fingers white again. Then he cupped her jaw. She looked frightened. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “I just have to check your eyes.” Instead of using the buttonhook, he took her fragile, blue-veined lid between his thumb and forefinger. The girl muttered something in Yiddish. He caught the word “don’t.”
“It’s okay,” he muttered, but she pulled away from him, shaking her head and blinking.
“Healthy!” she said in English.
And so she was. No granules, no weeping. At most, she had viral conjunctivitis. More likely, she’d just been crying. “I thought you didn’t speak English,” Spencer said flatly.
“A little,” the girl replied.
If he marked her with a CT and they held her over for examination, Spencer would have a chance to speak to her. He glanced behind him out the window—the gray swirling day, the Statue of Liberty in the distance. If it were sunny they could sit in the wooden folding chairs on the dock and watch ships come in. He would teach her English, then explain America, where to live, how to get a job, warn her against the charlatans on the trains and in the bus stations. She would grow to depend on him. At the board of inquiry he would defend her, explain that his diagnosis had been overly cautious. She’d be indebted.
Spencer waved the boy behind Miriam in line up to him. The old woman followed.
“Do you speak English?” “Some words,” the boy said. “Your name?”
Spencer nodded. “Frederick,” he immediately amended the name by adding a syllable, “you tell her what I say, all right? You can do that?”
“Ask her how old she is.”
“Twenty-three,” Frederick translated.
A year younger than Laura. Dr. Spencer smiled. “Ask her if she is alone.”
“Yes,” Frederick said. “So she’s not married?” “No, sir.”
“How is she going to make a living?” Frederick shook his head.
“Money,” Spencer said, “how will she make money, live, pay rent, buy food.”
Frederick nodded and asked Miriam. She said she was a seamstress and she was meeting her brother, who’d come over last year.
Spencer reached out slowly and touched her hair, winding a lock around his finger. It was just like Laura’s. Even dirty, it felt like hers, crackly autumn leaves in huge piles. Miriam pulled away, looking to Frederick for an explanation. Frederick shrugged. The old woman addressed the boy. He answered her in a word.
Spencer spoke sharply, “You are not up yet. Tell your mother to be quiet.” Hauss had gone through two more people. They waited respectfully several feet away.
The boy said something to the old woman. She replied and Frederick began to translate, but Spencer waved him off, nodding toward Miriam. “Tell her to unbutton her blouse.” He felt sure she had the mole, and he wanted to see it.
Frederick translated, but Miriam pulled her gray shawl more tightly around her shoulders and glanced at the old woman, who stepped forward and spoke. Frederick translated. “Sir, it is a problem, uh, young woman,” he nodded at Miriam, “she is…” He stumbled. “Not want to open blouse, not with men.”
“It’s a medical exam. You have to submit,” Spencer said. Frederick didn’t translate. Spencer slapped him on the arm. “Boy, tell her what I said. People are waiting!”
Frederick told the two women something. Spencer was beginning to doubt he could speak English all that well.
“I need to check her out,” he said. “I’ll take her down to the nurses.
Tell her to come with me.”
Frederick explained this to Miriam, who took a step back, next to the old woman. The woman put her arm around the girl and told the boy something. Frederick hesitated, whispering to the old woman.
Spencer reached out for Miriam’s arm. “Come with me.” She pulled away from him. “No,” she said in English.
The boy said, “She is my sister. Where are you taking her? She is with us.”
“You said she was alone. What do you mean she’s your sister?”
“I…” Frederick stumbled again, then listened for a moment to the old woman. It was clear to Spencer there was something fishy going on.
“She is my sister,” the boy repeated.
Spencer demanded their identification papers. “You don’t have the same last name. Now leave us be, step aside.” He shoved Frederick, who stumbled into the old woman. She spoke sharply to Spencer, clearly reprimanding him for pushing the boy.
Spencer tried to talk above her. “I need to get this girl to the infirmary. She needs to be examined.” He grabbed Miriam’s arm. She yanked it away. He grabbed again and tried to pull her down the line.
The girl’s face had gone blotchy. The old woman and the boy rushed forward. Spencer tried to dodge, but she hit him with her canvas bag while the boy grabbed the girl’s free arm and knitting needles clicked out onto the tile floor. The old woman was shouting. He thought it sounded like the universal language of profanities. Miriam’s shawl fell on the floor. People were staring. The boy hollered, “You hurt her!”
Spencer realized he could feel Miriam’s humerus. He let go. Hauss was staring. The bedraggled faces of those in line were staring. The damn old woman and her boy refused to look away.
Spencer walked back to his station and snatched a piece of chalk. He wrote CT on Miriam’s pleated blouse, then motioned for the old woman to step forward. On her right shoulder he drew a large blue X with a circle around it.
An inspector had come up to see what the ruckus was. “Mental defective?” he asked, watching the old woman move down the line with Miriam and the boy.
“Yes,” Spencer said. “I could see it in her eyes. She’s not all there.” He hadn’t bothered with the boy. He would go back with her automatically, and later, Spencer would find Miriam in the infirmary and comfort her.
The inspector walked off. Spencer rearranged his chalk into neat, clean lines. Hauss had returned to work, but seemed distracted, checking and rechecking his damn clipboard. God, they’d be here all night! Spencer smoothed his shirt and tie. Everything was fine. The old woman and her boy would be gone soon. He motioned with his finger for the next person. A man stepped forward, Spencer looked him over quick—catch up now or never, he figured—and waved him through. Then a woman and her daughter, a young couple.
Spencer waved them through quickly, then scanned the line for Miriam. She, the boy, and the old woman were still several people short of the next station, where inspectors checked for chalk marks and put the ones for return in one wired area, the ones for treatment in another. The three of them were deep in conversation. Then Miriam smiled and turned away, stepping forward in line as he knew she would. She had nothing to do with that annoying kid and his mother. Spencer was about to look away when he saw Frederick motion to the old woman’s shoulder. She slipped off her coat and looked at the mark, then said something to the boy.
“Put the damn coat on and get going,” Spencer muttered. He glanced down the line. Hauss was still flustered. He could see it in his hands, the way they fluttered the pages on the clipboard.
He looked back. The old woman and the boy were hunched together, talking. Then she began to roll up her coat. She removed a pile of yarn from her little bag, stuffed the coat in the bottom, then replaced the yarn on top.
Spencer began to step out from the iron pipes, the words almost in the air—“What do you think you’re doing?”—then stopped. The boy was tapping Miriam on the shoulder, saying something. After a moment, she rubbed at the mark on her blouse vigorously, then covered the smudged blue with her shawl.
In three years not one person had thought to do anything about the marks he chalked on them. Of all those he had diagnosed—which must add up to thousands—the old woman and her boy were the first to understand: it is not good when they mark you apart.
Spencer watched the three of them proceed past the wire compartments, down into the main inspection lines, where they would be asked for their papers, which he’d already seen were in good order. Afterward they’d retrieve whatever remained of their luggage, then step out into the cold and the strangeness of a land they had never seen, didn’t know, couldn’t speak to. For those who left here there was no language, only sound. There was no knowledge, only hope. Once you stepped off the Island the marks you carried could not be stuffed in a bag or washed off a garment. Spencer wanted to call after them, to tell them he was sorry. To holler out “Good luck!” but someone had walked up, another old woman, this one with two boys and an old man. Spencer laid down his chalk and slowly reached for their eyes.
*This story was taken from: You Should Pity Us Instead © 2016 by Amy Gustine, Sarabande Books.
Mother says that when I start talking I never know when to stop. But I tell her the only time I get a chance is when she ain’t around, so I have to make the most of it. I guess the fact is neither one of us would be welcome in a Quaker meeting, but as I tell Mother, what did God give us tongues for if He didn’t want we should use them? Only she says He didn’t give them to us to say the same thing over and over again, like I do, and repeat myself. But I say:
“Well, Mother,” I say, “when people is like you and I and been married fifty years, do you expect everything I say will be something you ain’t heard me say before? But it may be new to others, as they ain’t nobody else lived with me as long as you have.”
So she says:
“You can bet they ain’t, as they couldn’t nobody else stand you that long.”
“Well,” I tell her, “you look pretty healthy.”
“Maybe I do,” she will say, “but I looked even healthier before I married you.”
You can’t get ahead of Mother.
Yes, sir, we was married just fifty years ago the seventeenth day of last December and my daughter and son-in-law was over from Trenton to help us celebrate the Golden Wedding. My son-in-law is John H. Kramer, the real estate man. He made $12,000 one year and is pretty well thought of around Trenton; a good, steady, hard worker. The Rotarians was after him a long time to join, but he kept telling them his home was his club. But Edie finally made him join. That’s my daughter.
Well, anyway, they come over to help us celebrate the Golden Wedding and it was pretty crimpy weather and the furnace don’t seem to heat up no more like it used to and Mother made the remark that she hoped this winter wouldn’t be as cold as the last, referring to the winter previous. So Edie said if she was us, and nothing to keep us home, she certainly wouldn’t spend no more winters up here and why didn’t we just shut off the water and close up the house and go down to Tampa, Florida? You know we was there four winters ago and staid five weeks, but it cost us over three hundred and fifty dollars for hotel bill alone. So Mother said we wasn’t going no place to be robbed. So my son-in-law spoke up and said that Tampa wasn’t the only place in the South, and besides we didn’t have to stop at no high price hotel but could rent us a couple rooms and board out somewheres, and he had heard that St. Petersburg, Florida, was the spot and if we said the word he would write down there and make inquiries.
Well, to make a long story short, we decided to do it and Edie said it would be our Golden Honeymoon and for a present my son-in-law paid the difference between a section and a compartment so as we could have a compartment and have more privatecy. In a compartment you have an upper and lower berth just like the regular sleeper, but it is a shut in room by itself and got a wash bowl. The car we went in was all compartments and no regular berths at all. It was all compartments.
We went to Trenton the night before and staid at my daughter and son-in-law and we left Trenton the next afternoon at 3.23 P.M.
This was the twelfth day of January. Mother set facing the front of the train, as it makes her giddy to ride backwards. I set facing her, which does not affect me. We reached North Philadelphia at 4.03 P.M. and we reached West Philadelphia at 4.14, but did not go into Broad Street. We reached Baltimore at 6.30 and Washington, D.C., at 7.25. Our train laid over in Washington two hours till another train come along to pick us up and I got out and strolled up the platform and into the Union Station. When I come back, our car had been switched on to another track, but I remembered the name of it, the La Belle, as I had once visited my aunt out in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, where there was a lake of that name, so I had no difficulty in getting located. But Mother had nearly fretted herself sick for fear I would be left.
“Well,” I said, “I would of followed you on the next train.”
“You could of,” said Mother, and she pointed out that she had the money.
“Well,” I said, “we are in Washington and I could of borrowed from the United States Treasury. I would of pretended I was an Englishman.”
Mother caught the point and laughed heartily.
Our train pulled out of Washington at 9.40 P.M. and Mother and I turned in early, I taking the upper. During the night we passed through the green fields of old Virginia, though it was too dark to tell if they was green or what color. When we got up in the morning, we was at Fayetteville, North Carolina. We had breakfast in the dining car and after breakfast I got in conversation with the man in the next compartment to ours. He was from Lebanon, New Hampshire, and a man about eighty years of age. His wife was with him, and two unmarried daughters and I made the remark that I should think the four of them would be crowded in one compartment, but he said they had made the trip every winter for fifteen years and knowed how to keep out of each other’s way. He said they was bound for Tarpon Springs.
We reached Charleston, South Carolina, at 12.50 P.M. and arrived at Savannah, Georgia, at 4.20. We reached Jacksonville, Florida, at 8.45 P.M. and had an hour and a quarter to lay over there, but Mother made a fuss about me getting off the train, so we had the darky make up our berths and retired before we left Jacksonville. I didn’t sleep good as the train done a lot of hemming and hawing, and Mother never sleeps good on a train as she says she is always worrying that I will fall out. She says she would rather have the upper herself, as then she would not have to worry about me, but I tell her I can’t take the risk of having it get out that I allowed my wife to sleep in an upper berth. It would make talk.
We was up in the morning in time to see our friends from New Hampshire get off at Tarpon Springs, which we reached at 6.53 A.M.
Several of our fellow passengers got off at Clearwater and some at Belleair, where the train backs right up to the door of the mammoth hotel. Belleair is the winter headquarters for the golf dudes and everybody that got off there had their bag of sticks, as many as ten and twelve in a bag. Women and all. When I was a young man we called it shinny and only needed one club to play with and about one game of it would of been a-plenty for some of these dudes, the way we played it.
The train pulled into St. Petersburg at 8.20 and when we got off the train you would think they was a riot, what with all the darkies barking for the different hotels.
I said to Mother, I said:
“It is a good thing we have got a place picked out to go to and don’t have to choose a hotel, as it would be hard to choose amongst them if every one of them is the best.”
We found a jitney and I give him the address of the room my son-in-law had got for us and soon we was there and introduced ourselves to the lady that owns the house, a young widow about forty-eight years of age. She showed us our room, which was light and airy with a comfortable bed and bureau and washstand. It was twelve dollars a week, but the location was good, only three blocks from Williams Park.
St. Pete is what folks calls the town, though they also call it the Sunshine City, as they claim they’s no other place in the country where they’s fewer days when Old Sol don’t smile down on Mother Earth, and one of the newspapers gives away all their copies free every day when the sun don’t shine. They claim to of only give them away some sixty-odd times in the last eleven years. Another nickname they have got for the town is “the Poor Man’s Palm Beach,” but I guess they’s men that comes there that could borrow as much from the bank as some of the Willie boys over to the other Palm Beach.
During our stay we paid a visit to the Lewis Tent City, which is the headquarters for the Tin Can Tourists. But maybe you ain’t heard about them. Well, they are an organization that takes their vacation trips by auto and carries everything with them. That is, they bring along their tents to sleep in and cook in and they don’t patronize no hotels or cafeterias, but they have got to be bona fide auto campers or they can’t belong to the organization.
They tell me they’s over 200,000 members to it and they call themselves the Tin Canners on account of most of their food being put up in tin cans. One couple we seen in the Tent City was a couple from Brady, Texas, named Mr. and Mrs. Pence, which the old man is over eighty years of age and they had come in their auto all the way from home, a distance of 1,641 miles. They took five weeks for the trip, Mr. Pence driving the entire distance.
The Tin Canners hails from every State in the Union and in the summer time they visit places like New England and the Great Lakes region, but in the winter the most of them comes to Florida and scatters all over the State. While we was down there, they was a national convention of them at Gainesville, Florida, and they elected a Fredonia, New York, man as their president. His title is Royal Tin Can Opener of the World. They have got a song wrote up which everybody has got to learn it before they are a member:
“The tin can forever! Hurrah, boys! Hurrah!
Up with the tin can! Down with the foe!
We will rally round the campfire, we’ll rally once again,
Shouting, ‘We auto camp forever!'”
That is something like it. And the members has also got to have a tin can fastened on to the front of their machine.
I asked Mother how she would like to travel around that way and she said:
“Fine, but not with an old rattle brain like you driving.”
“Well,” I said, “I am eight years younger than this Mr. Pence who drove here from Texas.”
“Yes,” she said, “but he is old enough to not be skittish.”
You can’t get ahead of Mother.
Well, one of the first things we done in St. Petersburg was to go to the Chamber of Commerce and register our names and where we was from as they’s great rivalry amongst the different States in regards to the number of their citizens visiting in town and of course our little State don’t stand much of a show, but still every little bit helps, as the fella says. All and all, the man told us, they was eleven thousand names registered, Ohio leading with some fifteen hundred-odd and New York State next with twelve hundred. Then come Michigan, Pennsylvania and so on down, with one man each from Cuba and Nevada.
The first night we was there, they was a meeting of the New York-New Jersey Society at the Congregational Church and a man from Ogdensburg, New York State, made the talk. His subject was Rainbow Chasing. He is a Rotarian and a very convicting speaker, though I forget his name.
Our first business, of course, was to find a place to eat and after trying several places we run on to a cafeteria on Central Avenue that suited us up and down. We eat pretty near all our meals there and it averaged about two dollars per day for the two of us, but the food was well cooked and everything nice and clean. A man don’t mind paying the price if things is clean and well cooked.
On the third day of February, which is Mother’s birthday, we spread ourselves and eat supper at the Poinsettia Hotel and they charged us seventy-five cents for a sirloin steak that wasn’t hardly big enough for one.
I said to Mother: “Well,” I said, “I guess it’s a good thing every day ain’t your birthday or we would be in the poorhouse.”
“No,” says Mother, “because if every day was my birthday, I would be old enough by this time to of been in my grave long ago.”
You can’t get ahead of Mother.
In the hotel they had a card-room where they was several men and ladies playing five hundred and this new fangled whist bridge. We also seen a place where they was dancing, so I asked Mother would she like to trip tne light fantastic toe and she said no, she was too old to squirm like you have got to do now days. We watched some of the young folks at it awhile till Mother got disgusted and said we would have to see a good movie to take the taste out of our mouth. Mother is a great movie heroyne and we go twice a week here at home.
But I want to tell you about the Park. The second day we was there we visited the Park, which is a good deal like the one in Tampa, only bigger, and they’s more fun goes on here every day than you could shake a stick at. In the middle they’s a big bandstand and chairs for the folks to set and listen to the concerts, which they give you music for all tastes, from Dixie up to classical pieces like Hearts and Flowers.
Then all around they’s places marked off for different sports and games–chess and checkers and dominoes for folks that enjoys those kind of games, and roque and horse-shoes for the nimbler ones. I used to pitch a pretty fair shoe myself, but ain’t done much of it in the last twenty years.
Well, anyway, we bought a membership ticket in the club which costs one dollar for the season, and they tell me that up to a couple years ago it was fifty cents, but they had to raise it to keep out the riffraff.
Well, Mother and I put in a great day watching the pitchers and she wanted I should get in the game, but I told her I was all out of practice and would make a fool of myself, though I seen several men pitching who I guess I could take their measure without no practice. However, they was some good pitchers, too, and one boy from Akron, Ohio, who could certainly throw a pretty shoe. They told me it looked like he would win them championship of the United States in the February tournament. We come away a few days before they held that and I never did hear if he win. I forget his name, but he was a clean cut young fella and he has got a brother in Cleveland that’s a Rotarian.
Well, we just stood around and watched the different games for two or three days and finally I set down in a checker game with a man named Weaver from Danville, Illinois. He was a pretty fair checker player, but he wasn’t no match for me, and I hope that don’t sound like bragging. But I always could hold my own on a checker-board and the folks around here will tell you the same thing. I played with this Weaver pretty near all morning for two or three mornings and he beat me one game and the only other time it looked like he had a chance, the noon whistle blowed and we had to quit and go to dinner.
While I was playing checkers, Mother would set and listen to the band, as she loves music, classical or no matter what kind, but anyway she was setting there one day and between selections the woman next to her opened up a conversation. She was a woman about Mother’s own age, seventy or seventy-one, and finally she asked Mother’s name and Mother told her her name and where she was from and Mother asked her the same question, and who do you think the woman was?
Well, sir, it was the wife of Frank M. Hartsell, the man who was engaged to Mother till I stepped in and cut him out, fifty-two years ago!
You can imagine Mother’s surprise! And Mrs. Hartsell was surprised, too, when Mother told her she had once been friends with her husband, though Mother didn’t say how close friends they had been, or that Mother and I was the cause of Hartsell going out West. But that’s what we was. Hartsell left his town a month after the engagement was broke off and ain’t never been back since. He had went out to Michigan and become a veterinary, and that is where he had settled down, in Hillsdale, Michigan, and finally married his wife.
Well, Mother screwed up her courage to ask if Frank was still living and Mrs. Hartsell took her over to where they was pitching horse-shoes and there was old Frank, waiting his turn. And he knowed Mother as soon as he seen her, though it was over fifty years. He said he knowed her by her eyes.
“Why, it’s Lucy Frost!” he says, and he throwed down his shoes and quit the game.
Then they come over and hunted me up and I will confess I wouldn’t of knowed him. Him and I is the same age to the month, but he seems to show it more, some way. He is balder for one thing. And his beard is all white, where mine has still got a streak of brown in it. The very first thing I said to him, I said:
“Well, Frank, that beard of yours makes me feel like I was back north. It looks like a regular blizzard.”
“Well,” he said, “I guess yourn would be just as white if you had it dry cleaned.”
But Mother wouldn’t stand that.
“Is that so!” she said to Frank. “Well, Chancy ain’t had no tobacco in his mouth for over ten years!”
And I ain’t!
Well, I excused myself from the checker game and it was pretty close to noon, so we decided to all have dinner together and they was nothing for it only we must try their cafeteria on Third Avenue. It was a little more expensive than ours and not near as good, I thought. I and Mother had about the same dinner we had been having every day and our bill was $1.10. Frank’s check was $1.20 for he and his wife. The same meal wouldn’t of cost them more than a dollar at our place.
After dinner we made them come up to our house and we all set in the parlor, which the young woman had give us the use of to entertain company. We begun talking over old times and Mother said she was a-scared Mrs. Hartsell would find it tiresome listening to we three talk over old times, but as it turned out they wasn’t much chance for nobody else to talk with Mrs. Hartsell in the company. I have heard lots of women that could go it, but Hartsell’s wife takes the cake of all the women I ever seen. She told us the family history of everybody in the State of Michigan and bragged for a half hour about her son, who she said is in the drug business in Grand Rapids, and a Rotarian.
When I and Hartsell could get a word in edgeways we joked one another back and forth and I chafed him about being a horse doctor.
“Well, Frank,” I said, ” you look pretty prosperous, so I suppose they’s been plenty of glanders around Hillsdale.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ve managed to make more than a fair living. But I’ve worked pretty hard.”
“Yes,” I said, “and I suppose you get called out all hours of the night to attend births and so on.”
Mother made me shut up.
Well, I thought they wouldn’t never go home and I and Mother was in misery trying to keep awake, as the both of us generally always takes a nap after dinner. Finally they went, after we had made an engagement to meet them in the Park the next morning, and Mrs. Hartsell also invited us to come to their place the next night and play five hundred. But she had forgot that they was a meeting of the Michigan Society that evening, so it was not till two evenings later that we had our first card game.
Hartsell and his wife lived in a house on Third Avenue North and had a private setting room besides their bedroom. Mrs. Hartsell couldn’t quit talking about their private setting room like it was something wonderful. We played cards with them, with Mother and Hartsell partners against his wife and I. Mrs. Hartsell is a miserable card player and we certainly got the worst of it.
After the game she brought out a dish of oranges and we had to pretend it was just what we wanted, though oranges down there is like a young man’s whiskers; you enjoy them at first, but they get to be a pesky nuisance.
We played cards again the next night at our place with the same partners and I and Mrs. Hartsell was beat again. Mother and Hartsell was full of compliments for each other on what a good team they made, but the both of them knowed well enough where the secret of their success laid. I guess all and all we must of played ten different evenings and they was only one night when Mrs. Hartsell and I come out ahead. And that one night wasn’t no fault of hern.
When we had been down there about two weeks, we spent one evening as their guest in the Congregational Church, at a social give by the Michigan Society. A talk was made by a man named Bitting of Detroit, Michigan, on How I was Cured of Story Telling. He is a big man in the Rotarians and give a witty talk.
A woman named Mrs. Oxford rendered some selections which Mrs. Hartsell said was grand opera music, but whatever they was my daughter Edie could of give her cards and spades and not made such a hullaballoo about it neither.
Then they was a ventriloquist from Grand Rapids and a young woman about forty-five years of age that mimicked different kinds of birds. I whispered to Mother that they all sounded like a chicken, but she nudged me to shut up.
After the show we stopped in a drug store and I set up the refreshments and it was pretty close to ten o’clock before we finally turned in. Mother and I would of preferred tending the movies, but Mother said we mustn’t offend Mrs. Hartsell, though I asked her had we came to Florida to enjoy ourselves or to just not offend an old chatter-box from Michigan.
I felt sorry for Hartsell one morning. The women folks both had an engagement down to the chiropodist’s and I run across Hartsell in the Park and he foolishly offered to play me checkers.
It was him that suggested it, not me, and I guess he repented himself before we had played one game. But he was too stubborn to give up and set there while I beat him game after game and the worst part of it was that a crowd of folks had got in the habit of watching me play and there they all was, hooking on, and finally they seen what a fool Frank was making of himself, and they began to chafe him and pass remarks. Like one of them said:
“Who ever told you you was a checker player!”
“You might maybe be good for tiddle-de-winks, but not checkers!
I almost felt like letting him beat me a couple games. But the crowd would of knowed it was a put up job.
Well, the women folks joined us in the Park and I wasn’t going to mention our little game, but Hartsell told about it himself and admitted he wasn’t no match for me.
“Well,” said Mrs. Hartsell, “checkers ain’t much of a game anyway, is it?” She said: “It’s more of a children’s game, ain’t it? At least, I know my boy’s children used to play it a good deal.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “It’s a children’s game the way your husband plays it, too.”
Mother wanted to smooth things over, so she said:
“Maybe they’s other games where Frank can beat you.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Hartsell, “and I bet he could beat you pitching horse-shoes.”
“Well,” I said, “I would give him a chance to try, only I ain’t pitched a shoe in over sixteen years.”
“Well,” said Hartsell, “I ain’t played checkers in twenty years.”
“You ain’t never played it,” I said.
“Anyway,” says Frank, “Lucy and I is your master at five hundred.”
Well, I could of told him why that was, but had decency enough to hold my tongue.
It had got so now that he wanted to play cards every night and when I or Mother wanted to go to a movie, any one of us would have to pretend we had a headache and then trust to goodness that they wouldn’t see us sneak into the theater. I don’t mind playing cards when my partner keeps their mind on the game, but you take a woman like Hartsell’s wife and how can they play cards when they have got to stop every couple seconds and brag about their son in Grand Rapids?
Well, the New York-New Jersey Society announced that they was goin’ to give a social evening too and I said to Mother, I said:
“Well, that is one evening when we will have an excuse not to play five hundred.”
“Yes,” she said, “but we will have to ask Frank and his wife to go to the social with us as they asked us to go to the Michigan social.”
“Well,” I said, “I had rather stay home than drag that chatterbox everywheres we go.”
So Mother said:
“You are getting too cranky. Maybe she does talk a little too much but she is good hearted. And Frank is always good company.”
So I said:
“I suppose if he is such good company you wished you had of married him.”
Mother laughed and said I sounded like I was jealous. Jealous of a cow doctor!
Anyway we had to drag them along to the social and I will say that we give them a much better entertainment than they had given us.
Judge Lane of Paterson made a fine talk on business conditions and a Mrs. Newell of Westfield imitated birds, only you could really tell what they was the way she done it. Two young women from Red Bank sung a choral selection and we clapped them back and they gave us Home to Our Mountains and Mother and Mrs. Hartsell both had tears in their eyes. And Hartsell, too.
Well, some way or another the chairman got wind that I was there and asked me to make a talk and I wasn’t even going to get up, but Mother made me, so I got up and said:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “I didn’t expect to be called on for a speech on an occasion like this or no other occasion as I do not set myself up as a speech maker, so will have to do the best I can, which I often say is the best anybody can do.”
Then I told them the story about Pat and the motorcycle, using the brogue, and it seemed to tickle them and I told them one or two other stories, hut altogether I wasn’t on my feet more than twenty or twenty-five minutes and you ought to of heard the clapping and hollering when I set down. Even Mrs. Hartsell admitted that I am quite a speechifier and said if I ever went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, her son would make me talk to the Rotarians.
When it was over, Hartsell wanted we should go to their house and play cards, but his wife reminded him that it was after 9.30 P.M., rather a late hour to start a card game, but he had went crazy on the subject of cards, probably because he didn’t have to play partners with his wife. Anyway, we got rid of them and went home to bed.
It was the next morning, when we met over to the Park, that Mrs. Hartsell made the remark that she wasn’t getting no exercise so I suggested that why didn’t she take part in the roque game.
She said she had not played a game of roque in twenty years, but if Mother would play she would play. Well, at first Mother wouldn’t hear of it, but finally consented, more to please Mrs. Hartsell than anything else.
Well, they had a game with a Mrs. Ryan from Eagle, Nebraska, and a young Mrs. Morse from Rutland, Vermont, who Mother had met down to the chiropodist’s. Well, Mother couldn’t hit a flea and they all laughed at her and I couldn’t help from laughing at her myself and finally she quit and said her back was too lame to stoop over. So they got another lady and kept on playing and soon Mrs. Hartsell was the one everybody was laughing at, as she had a long shot to hit the black ball, and as she made the effort her teeth fell out on to the court. I never seen a woman so flustered in my life. And I never heard so much laughing, only Mrs. Hartsell didn’t join in and she was madder than a hornet and wouldn’t play no more, so the game broke up.
Mrs. Hartsell went home without speaking to nobody, but Hartsell stayed around and finally he said to me, he said:
“Well, I played you checkers the other day and you beat me bad and now what do you say if you and me play a game of horseshoes?”
I told him I hadn’t pitched a shoe in sixteen years, but Mother said:
“Go ahead and play. You used to be good at it and maybe it will come back to you.”
Well, to make a long story short, I give in. I oughtn’t to of never tried it, as I hadn’t pitched a shoe in sixteen years, and I only done it to humor Hartsell.
Before we started, Mother patted me on the back and told me to do my best, so we started in and I seen right off that I was in for it, as I hadn’t pitched a shoe in sixteen years and didn’t have my distance. And besides, the plating had wore off the shoes so that they was points right where they stuck into my thumb and I hadn’t throwed more than two or three times when my thumb was raw and it pretty near killed me to hang on to the shoe, let alone pitch it.
Well, Hartsell throws the awkwardest shoe I ever seen pitched and to see him pitch you wouldn’t think he would ever come nowheres near, but he is also the luckiest pitcher I ever seen and he made some pitches where the shoe lit five and six feet short and then schoonered up and was a ringer. They’s no use trying to beat that kind of luck.
They was a pretty fair size crowd watching us and four or five other ladies besides Mother, and it seems like, when Hartsell pitches, he has got to chew and it kept the ladies on the anxious seat as he don’t seem to care which way he is facing when he leaves go.
You would think a man as old as him would of learnt more manners.
Well, to make a long story short, I was just beginning to get my distance when I had to give up on account of my thumb, which I showed it to Hartsell and he seen I couldn’t go on, as it was raw and bleeding. Even if I could of stood it to go on myself, Mother wouldn’t of allowed it after she seen my thumb. So anyway I quit and Hartsell said the score was nineteen to six, but I don’t know what it was. Or don’t care, neither.
Well, Mother and I went home and I said I hoped we was through with the Hartsells as I was sick and tired of them, but it seemed like she had promised we would go over to their house that evening for another game of their everlasting cards.
Well, my thumb was giving me considerable pain and I felt kind of out of sorts and I guess maybe I forgot myself, but anyway, when we was about through playing Hartsell made the remark that he wouldn’t never lose a game of cards if he could always have Mother for a partner.
So I said:
“Well, you had a chance fifty years ago to always have her for a partner, but you wasn’t man enough to keep her.”
I was sorry the minute I had said it and Hartsell didn’t know what to say and for once his wife couldn’t say nothing. Mother tried to smooth things over by making the remark that I must of had something stronger than tea or I wouldn’t talk so silly. But Mrs. Hartsell had froze up like an iceberg and hardly said good night to us and I bet her and Frank put in a pleasant hour after we was gone.
As we was leaving, Mother said to him: “Never mind Charley’s nonsense, Frank. He is just mad because you beat him all hollow pitching horseshoes and playing cards.”
She said that to make up for my slip, but at the same time she certainly riled me. I tried to keep ahold of myself, but as soon as we was out of the house she had to open up the subject and begun to scold me for the break I had made.
Well, I wasn’t in no mood to be scolded. So I said:
“I guess he is such a wonderful pitcher and card player that you wished you had married him.”
“Well,” she said, “at least he ain’t a baby to give up pitching because his thumb has got a few scratches.”
“And how about you,” I said, “making a fool of yourself on the roque court and then pretemiding your back is lame and you can’t play no more!”
“Yes,” she said, “but when you hurt your thumb I didn’t laugh at you, and why did you laugh at me when I sprained my back?”
“Who could help from laughing!” I said.
“Well,” she said, “Frank Hartsell didn’t laugh.”
“Well,” I said, “why didn’t you marry him?”
“Well,” said Mother, “I almost wished I had!”
“And I wished so, too!” I said.
“I’ll remember that!” said Mother, and that’s the last word she said to me for two days.
We seen the Hartsells the next day in the Park and I was willing to apologize, but they just nodded to us. And a couple days later we heard they had left for Orlando, where they have got relatives.
I wished they had went there in the first place.
Mother and I made it up setting on a bench.
“Listen, Charley,” she said. “This is our Golden Honeymoon and we don’t want the whole thing spoilt with a silly old quarrel.”
“Well,” I said, “did you mean that about wishing you had married Hartsell?”
“Of course not,” she said, “that is, if you didn’t mean that you wished I had, too.” So I said:
“I was just tired and all wrought up. I thank God you chose me instead of him as they’s no other woman in the world who I could of lived with all these years.”
“How about Mrs. Hartsell?” says Mother.
“Good gracious!” I said. “Imagine being married to a woman that plays five hundred like she does and drops her teeth on the roque court!”
“Well,” said Mother, “it wouldn’t be no worse than being married to a man that expectorates towards ladies and is such a fool in a checker game.”
So I put my arm around her shoulder and she stroked my hand and I guess we got kind of spoony.
They was two days left of our stay in St. Petersburg and the next to the last day Mother introduced me to a Mrs. Kendall from Kingston, Rhode Island, who she had met at the chiropodist’s.
Mrs. Kendall made us acquainted with her husband, who is in the grocery business. They have got two sons and five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. One of their sons lives in Providence and is way up in the Elks as well as a Rotarian.
We found them very congenial people and we played cards with them the last two nights we was there. They was both experts and I only wished we had met them sooner instead of running into the Hartsells. But the Kendalls will be there again next winter and we will see more of them, that is, if we decide to make the trip again.
We left the Sunshine City on the eleventh day of February, at 11 A.M. This give us a day trip through Florida and we seen all the country we had passed through at night on the way down.
We reached Jacksonville at 7 P.M. and pulled out of there at 8.10 P.M. We reached Fayetteville, North Carolina, at nine o’clock the following morning, and reached Washington, D. C., at 6.30 P.M., laying over there half an hour.
We reached Trenton at 11.01 P.M. and had wired ahead to my daughter and son-in-law and they met us at the train and we went to their house and they put us up for the night. John would of made us stay up all night, telling about our trip, but Edie said we must be tired and made us go to bed. That’s my daughter.
The next day we took our train for home and arrived safe and sound, having been gone just one month and a day.
Here comes Mother, so I guess I better shut up.