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?”
This story is from the collection called “The Sheik of Alexandria and his Slaves,” and is supposed to be told by a slave to the Sheik.
Sir, those people are much mistaken who fancy that there were no fairies and enchanters, except in the time of Haroun Al Raschid, Lord of Bagdad, or even pronounce untrue those accounts of the deeds of genii and their princes, which one hears the story-tellers relate in the market-places of the town. There are fairies now-a-days, and it is but a short time since that I myself was witness of an occurrence in which genii were evidently playing a part, as you will see from my narrative. In a considerable town of my dear fatherland, Germany, there lived many years ago a cobbler, with his wife, in an humble but honest way. In the daytime he used to sit at the corner of a street mending shoes and slippers; he did not refuse making new ones if any body would trust him, but then he was obliged to buy the leather first, as his poverty did not enable him to keep a stock. His wife sold vegetables and fruit, which she cultivated in a small garden outside the town-gates, and many people were glad to buy of her, because she was dressed cleanly and neatly, and knew well how to arrange and lay out her things to the best advantage.
Now this worthy couple had a beautiful boy, of a sweet countenance, well made, and rather tall for his age, which was eight years. He was in the habit of sitting in the market with his mother, and often carried home part of the fruit and vegetables for the women and cooks who had made large purchases; he seldom, however, returned from one of these journeys without bringing either a beautiful flower, a piece of money, or a cake, which the mistresses of such cooks gave him as a present, because they were always pleased to see the handsome boy come to the house.
One day the cobbler’s wife was sitting as usual in the marketplace, having before her some baskets with cabbages and other vegetables, various herbs and seeds, besides some early pears, apples, and apricots, in a small basket. Little James (this was the boy’s name) sat by her, crying the things for sale in a loud voice: “This way, gentlemen, see what beautiful cabbages, what fragrant herbs; early pears, ladies, early apples and apricots; who will buy? My mother sells cheap.”
While the boy was thus crying, an old woman was coming across the market; her dress was rather tattered and in rags, she had a small, sharp face, quite furrowed with age, red eyes, and a pointed, crooked nose, which reached down to her chin; in her walk she supported herself by a long stick, and yet it was difficult to say exactly how she walked, for she hobbled and shuffled along, and waddled as if she were on casters, and it was as if she must fall down every instant and break her pointed nose on the pavement.
The cobbler’s wife looked attentively at this old woman. For sixteen years she had been sitting daily in the market, yet she had never observed this strange figure, and therefore involuntarily shuddered when she saw the old hag hobbling towards her and stopping before her baskets.
“Are you Jane, the greengrocer?” she asked in a disagreeable, croaking voice, shaking her head to and fro.
“Yes, I am,” replied the cobbler’s wife; “what is your pleasure?”
“We’ll see, we’ll see, we’ll look at your herbs—look at your herbs, to see whether you have what I want,” answered the old woman; and stooping down she thrust her dark brown, unsightly hands into the herb-basket, and took up some that were beautifully spread out, with her long spider-legged fingers, bringing them one by one up to her long nose, and smelling them all over. The poor woman almost felt her heart break when she saw the old hag handle her herbs in this manner, but she dared not say any thing to her, the purchasers having a right to examine the things as they pleased; besides which, she felt a singular awe in the presence of this old woman. After having searched the whole basket, she muttered, “wretched stuff, wretched herbs, nothing that I want—were much better fifty years ago—wretched stuff! wretched stuff!”
Little James was vexed at these words. “Hark ye,” he cried, boldly, “you are an impudent old woman; first you thrust your nasty brown fingers into these beautiful herbs and squeeze them together, then you hold them up to your long nose, so that no one seeing this will buy them after you, and you abuse our goods, calling them wretched stuff, though nevertheless the duke’s cook himself buys all his herbs of us.”
The old woman leered at the bold boy, laughed disgustingly, and said in a hoarse voice, “Little son, little son, you like my nose then, my beautiful long nose? You shall have one too in the middle of your face that shall reach down to your chin.”
While she thus spoke she shuffled up to another basket containing cabbages. She took the most beautiful white heads up in her hand, squeezed them together till they squeaked, and then throwing them into the basket again without regard to order, said as before, “Wretched things! wretched cabbages!”
“Don’t wriggle your head about in that ugly fashion,” cried the little boy, somewhat frightened; “why your neck is as thin as a cabbage-stalk and might easily break, then your head would fall into the basket, and who would buy of us?”
“You don’t like such thin necks then, eh?” muttered the old woman with a laugh. “You shall have none at all, your head shall be fixed between your shoulders, that it may not fall down from the little body.”
“Don’t talk such nonsense to the little boy,” at length said the cobbler’s wife, indignant at the long-looking, examining, and smelling of the things; “if you wish to buy any thing be quick, for you scare away all my other customers.”
“Well, be it as you say,” cried the old woman, with a furious look, “I will buy these six heads of cabbages; but you see I must support myself by my stick, and cannot carry any thing, therefore, allow your little son to carry them home for me, I will reward him for it.”
The little boy would not go with her, and began to cry, for he was terrified at the ugly old woman, but his mother commanded him earnestly to go, as she thought it a sin to load the feeble old soul with this burden. Still sobbing, he did as he was ordered, and followed the old woman over the market.
She proceeded but slowly, and was almost three-quarters of an hour before she arrived at a very remote part of the town, where she at length stopped in front of a small dilapidated house. She now pulled out of her pocket an old rusty hook, and thrust it dexterously into a small hole in the door, which immediately opened with a crash. But what was the astonishment of little James as he entered! The interior of the house was magnificently adorned, the ceiling and walls were of marble, the furniture of the most beautiful ebony, inlaid with gold and polished stones, the floor was of glass, and so smooth, that little James several times slipped and fell down. The old woman now took a small silver whistle from her pocket, and blew a tune on it which sounded shrilly through the house. Immediately some guinea-pigs came down the stairs, and little James was much amazed at their walking upright on their hind legs, wearing on their paws nut-shells instead of shoes, men’s clothes on their bodies, and even hats in the newest fashion on their heads.
“Where are my slippers, ye rascally crew?” cried the old woman, striking at them with her stick, so that they jumped squeaking into the air; “how long am I to stand here waiting?”
They quickly scampered up the stairs and returned with a pair of cocoa-nut shells lined with leather, which they placed dexterously upon the old woman’s feet.
Now all her limping and shuffling was at an end. She threw away her stick, and glided with great rapidity over the glass floor, pulling little James after her with her hand. At length she stopped in a room which was adorned with a great variety of utensils, and which almost resembled a kitchen, although the tables were of mahogany, and the sofas covered with rich cloth, more fit for a drawing-room.
“Sit down,” said the old woman, very kindly, pressing him into a corner of a sofa, and placing a table before him in such a manner that he could not get out again; “sit down, you have had a heavy load to carry, human heads are not so light—not so light.”
“But, woman,” replied the little boy, “you talk very strangely; I am, indeed, tired, but they were cabbage heads I was carrying, and you bought them of my mother.”
“Why, you know but little about that,” said the old woman, laughing, as she took the lid from the basket and brought out a human head, which she held by the hair. The little boy was frightened out of his senses at this; he could not comprehend how it all came to pass; and thinking of his mother, he said to himself, “If any one were to hear of these human heads, my mother would certainly be prosecuted.”
“I must give you some reward now, as you are so good,” muttered the old woman; “have patience for a minute, and I will prepare you a soup which you will remember all your life.” Having said this, she whistled again, and immediately there came first some guinea-pigs dressed like human beings; they had tied round them kitchen aprons, fastened by a belt, in which were stuck ladles and carving-knives; after them came skipping in a number of squirrels, that wore large, wide Turkish trousers, walked upright, and had small caps of green velvet on their heads. These seemed to be the scullions, for they climbed very nimbly up the walls and brought down pans and dishes, eggs and butter, herbs and flour, and carried it to the hearth. The old woman slided continually to and fro upon her cocoa-nut slippers, and little James observed that she was very anxious to cook something good for him. Now the fire crackled and blazed up higher, there was a smoking and bubbling in the saucepan, and a pleasant odour spread over the room, but the old woman kept running up and down, the squirrels and guinea-pigs after her, and as often as she passed the hearth she poked her long nose into the pot. At length it began to boil and hiss, the steam rose from the pot, and the scum flowed down into the fire. She then took off the saucepan, and pouring some into a silver basin, gave it to James.
“Now, my dear little son, now,” said she, “eat this soup and you will have in your own person all that you admired so much in me. You shall moreover become a clever cook, that you may be something at least, but as for the herb, that you shall never find, because your mother did not have it in her basket.”
The little boy did not exactly understand what she was saying, but was the more attentive to eating his soup, which he relished uncommonly. His mother had cooked various savoury soups, but never any like this. The flavour of the fine herbs and spice ascended from it, and it was at the same time very sweet, and very sharp and strong. While he was sipping the last drops of the delicious soup, the guinea-pigs lighted some Arabian incense which floated through the room in blue clouds, which became thicker and thicker, and then descended. The smell of the incense had a stupifying effect upon the boy; in vain did he repeatedly say to himself that he must return to his mother, for as often as he endeavoured to rouse himself, as often did he relapse into slumber and, at length, actually fell into a profound sleep upon the old woman’s sofa.
Strange dreams came over him, while he thus slept. It seemed as if the old woman was taking off his clothes, and putting on him the skin of a squirrel. Now he could make bounds and climb like a squirrel; he associated with the other squirrels and guinea-pigs, who were all very polite, decent people, and he did his duty of waiting upon the old woman in his turn with the rest. At first he had to perform the service of a shoeblack, that is, he had to oil and polish the cocoa-nut shells which his mistress wore instead of slippers. Having often blacked and polished shoes at home, he performed his duty well and quickly. After the lapse of about one year, he dreamt again, (according to the sequel of his dream) that he was employed for more delicate work, that is, in company with some other squirrels, he was obliged to catch the atoms in the sun, and, when they had caught enough, to sift them through the finest hair-sieve, as the old woman considered them the nicest thing, and not being able to masticate well for want of teeth, had her bread prepared of such atoms.
At the end of another year, he was raised to the rank of one of the servants who had to collect the water the old woman drank. But you must not suppose that she had a cistern dug for that purpose, or a tub placed in the yard to catch the rain-water; she had a much finer plan. The squirrels, and James with them, had to collect in their hazel-nut shells the dew from roses, and this was the beverage of the old woman. The labour of these water-carriers was not a very light one, as she used to drink a prodigious quantity. After another year, he was employed in in-door service, his duty being to clean the floors, and as they were of glass and showed the least speck, it was not a very easy task. He and his fellow-servants were obliged to brush the floors, and with pieces of old cloth tied to their feet dexterously skated about the rooms. In the fourth year, he received an appointment in the kitchen, which was so honourable an office, that one could succeed to it only after a long probation. James here served from scullion upwards to the post of first pastrycook, and acquired such an extraordinary skill and experience in every thing relating to the culinary art, that often he could not help wondering at himself; the most difficult things, pies composed of two hundred different ingredients, soups prepared with all the herbs of the globe,—all these, and many other things, he learned to make quickly and efficiently.
Seven years had thus passed away in the service of the old woman, when one day, pulling off her shoes of cocoa-nut, and taking her basket and crutch in hand in order to go out, she told him to pluck a chicken, stuff it with herbs, and roast it nice and brown, during her absence. He did this according to the rules of his art; twisted the chicken’s neck, scalded it in hot water, pulled out the feathers cleverly, scraped its skin smooth and fine, and then drew it. Next he began gathering the herbs with which he was to stuff the chicken. Now when he came to the chamber where these herbs were kept, he perceived a small cupboard in the wall that he had never before noticed, and finding the door of it half open, he had the curiosity to go near, in order to see what it contained, when behold! there stood a great many little baskets in it, from which proceeded a strong pleasant smell. He opened one of these little baskets, and found in it a herb of a most singular form and colour; its stalks and leaves were of a bluish green, and it had a flower of burning red fringed with yellow at the top. He looked thoughtfully at this flower, and smelled it, when it emitted the same powerful odour as the soup which the old woman had cooked for him when he first came there. But the smell was so strong that he began to sneeze, was obliged to keep sneezing, and at last awoke, sneezing still.
He now found himself upon the old woman’s sofa, and looked around him with astonishment. “Heavens!” he said to himself, “how vividly one may dream; I would almost have sworn that I was a wanton squirrel,—a companion of guinea-pigs and other vermin, but at the same time had become a great cook. How my mother will laugh when I tell her all this! But will she not also scold me for falling asleep in a strange house instead of helping her in the market?” While engaged in these thoughts, he started up to run away; but his limbs were still quite stiff with sleep, and particularly his neck, for he was unable to move his head well to and fro. He could not help smiling at himself and his drowsiness, for every moment, before he was aware, he ran his nose against a cupboard or the wall, or turning suddenly round, struck it against a door-post. The squirrels and guinea-pigs crowded whining around him, as if anxious to accompany him, and he actually invited them to do so when he was on the threshold, for they were nice little creatures, but they glided quickly back into the house on their nutshells, and he only heard them howling at a distance.
As it was a very remote part of the town to which the old woman had brought him, he could hardly find his way through the narrow streets, and as, moreover, there was a great crowd of people, wherever he went, he could only account for this by supposing there must be a dwarf somewhere in the neighbourhood for show, for he heard everywhere cries of, “Only look at the ugly dwarf! Where does the dwarf come from? O! what a long nose he has, and how his head sits between his shoulders, and look at his brown ugly hands!” At any other time, he would probably have followed the cry, for he was very fond of seeing giants and dwarfs, and any sort of curious, foreign costume, but now he was obliged to hurry and get to his mother.
He felt quite weary when he arrived at the market. He found his mother still sitting there, and she had a tolerable quantity of fruit in the basket; he could not therefore have been sleeping long, but still it appeared to him, even at a distance, as if she were very melancholy, for she did not call to those coming past to buy, but supported her head by one hand, and on coming closer he likewise thought she looked paler than usual. He hesitated as to what he should do; and at length mustering up courage, crept gently behind her, and putting his hand familiarly upon her arm, asked, “Dear mother, what’s the matter with you? are you angry with me?”
The woman turned round, but started back with a shriek of terror, saying, “What do you want with me, you ugly dwarf? Begone, begone! I do not like such jokes.”
“But mother, what is the matter with you?” asked James, quite terrified; “surely you must be unwell, why will you turn your son away from you?”
“I have told you already to be gone,” replied Jane, angrily; “you will not get any money from me by your juggleries, you ill-favoured monster.”
“Surely God has deprived her of the light of her intellect,” said the dwarf, deeply grieved within himself; “what shall I do to get her home? Dear mother, pray do listen to reason; only look well at me, I am indeed your son—your own James.”
“Why this is carrying the joke too far,” she said to her neighbour; “only look at that ugly dwarf; there he stands, and will no doubt drive away all my customers; nay, he even dares to ridicule my misfortune, telling me that he is my son, my own James, the impudent fellow.”
At this her neighbours rose, and began as much abuse as possible, (every one knows that market women understand this well,) and reproaching him with making light of poor Jane’s misfortune, who seven years ago had had her beautiful boy kidnapped, with one accord they threatened to fall upon him and tear him to pieces, unless he took himself off immediately.
Poor James did not know what to make of all this. Indeed it seemed to him that he had that very morning, as usual, gone to market with his mother, had helped her to lay out her fruit, and had afterwards gone with the old woman to her house, eaten some soup, slept a little while, and had now come back; and yet his mother and her neighbours talked of seven years, calling him at the same time an ugly dwarf. What then was the change that had come over him? Seeing, at length, that his mother would no longer listen to any thing he said, he felt the tears come in his eyes, and went sorrowfully down the street towards the stall where his father sat in the daytime mending shoes.
“I am curious to see,” he thought to himself, “whether he, too, will disown me? I will place myself in the doorway and talk to him.” And having come there he did so and looked in.
The cobbler was so busily engaged at work that he did not see him; but happening to cast a look towards the door, he dropped shoe, twine, and awl on the ground, and cried, with astonishment, “For Heaven’s sake what is that?”
“Good evening, master,” said the little dwarf, stepping inside the booth. “How fare you?”
“Badly, badly, my little gentleman,” replied James’s father, to his utter amazement; for he, too, did not seem to recognise him. “I have to do all the work myself, for I am alone and now getting old, and yet I cannot afford to keep a journeyman.”
“But have you no son to assist you in your work?” inquired the dwarf further.
“Indeed I had one, whose name was James, and he now must be a handsome, quick lad, twenty years old, who might effectually assist me. Ah! what a pleasant life I should lead! Even when he was twelve years old he showed himself quite handy and clever, and understood a great deal of the business. He was a fine engaging little fellow; he would soon have brought me plenty of custom, so that I should no longer have been mending shoes and boots but making new ones. But so goes the world.”
“Where is your son, then?” asked James, in a tremulous voice.
“That God only knows,” replied his father. “Seven years ago, yes! it is just that now, he was stolen from us in the market-place.”
“Seven years ago, you say?” cried James, with astonishment.
“Yes, little gentleman, seven years ago; the circumstance is as fresh in my memory as if it had happened to-day, how my poor wife came home weeping and crying, saying that the child had not come back all day, and that she had inquired and searched everywhere without finding him. But I always said it would come to that; for James was a pretty child, no one could help saying so, therefore my poor wife was proud of him and fond of hearing people praise him, and often sent him with vegetables and such like things to the houses of the gentlefolks. All this was very well; he always received some present. But said I, mark me, the town is large, and there are many bad people in it, so take care of James. But it happened as I always said. Once there comes an ugly old woman to the market, bargains for some fruits and vegetables, and at length buys so much that she cannot carry it home herself. My wife, kind soul, sends the lad with her, and—has never seen him again since that hour.”
“And that is now seven years, say you?”
“Seven years this spring. We had him cried in the town, we went from house to house inquiring; many had known and liked the pretty lad, and searched with us, but all in vain. Neither did any one know the woman who bought the vegetables; a very aged woman, however, ninety years old, said, ‘it might possibly have been the wicked fairy, Krauterweis, who once in fifty years comes to the town to buy various articles.'”
Thus spoke James’s father hastily, hammering his shoes at the same time, and drawing out at great length the twine with both hands. Now by degrees light broke on the little dwarf’s mind, and he saw what had happened to him, viz., that he had not been dreaming, but had served as a squirrel seven years with the evil fairy. Rage and sorrow now filled his heart almost to bursting.
The old witch had robbed him of seven years of his youth, and what had he in exchange? What was it that he could polish slippers of cocoa-nut shell? that he could clean rooms with glass floors? that he had learned all the mysteries of cooking, from the guinea pigs? Thus he stood for some time meditating on his fate, when at length his father asked him—
“Do you want to purchase any thing, young gentleman? Perhaps a pair of new slippers or, peradventure, a case for your nose?” he added, smiling.
“What do you mean about my nose?” asked James; “why should I want a case for it?”
“Why,” replied the cobbler, “every one according to his taste; but I must tell you, that if I had such a terrible nose, I should have a case made for it of rose-coloured morocco. Look here, I have a beautiful piece that is just the thing; indeed we should at least want a yard for it. It would then be well guarded, my little gentleman; whereas now I am sure you will knock it against every door-post and carriage you would wish to avoid.”
The dwarf was struck dumb with terror; he felt his nose, it was full two hands long and thick in proportion. So then the old hag had likewise changed his person; and hence it was his mother did not know him, and people called him an ill-favoured dwarf.
“Master,” said he, half crying to the cobbler, “have you no looking-glass at hand in which I might behold myself?”
“Young gentleman,” replied his father, gravely, “you have not exactly been favoured as to appearance so as to make you vain, and you have no cause to look often in the glass. You had better leave it off altogether. It is with you a particularly ridiculous habit.”
“Oh! pray let me look in the glass,” cried the dwarf. “I assure you it is not from vanity.”
“Leave me in peace, I have none in my possession; my wife has a little looking-glass, but I do not know where she has hid it. If you really must look into one,—why then, over the way lives Urban, the barber, who has a glass twice as big as your head; look in there, and now, good morning.”
With these words his father pushed him gently out of the stall, locked the door after him, and sat down again to his work. The little dwarf, much cast down, went over the way to the barber, whom he well remembered in former times.
“Good morning, Urban,” said he to him, “I come to beg a favour of you, be so kind as to let me look a moment in your looking-glass.”
“With pleasure,” cried the barber, laughing, “there it is;” and his customers who were about to be shaved laughed heartily with him. “You are rather a pretty fellow, slim and genteel; you have a neck like a swan, hands like a queen, and a turn-up nose, such as one seldom sees excelled. A little vain you are of it, no doubt; but no matter, look at yourself, people shall not say that envy prevented me from allowing you to see yourself in my glass.”
Thus spoke the barber, and a yell of laughter resounded through the room. In the meantime the dwarf had stepped to the glass and looked at himself. The tears came in his eyes, while saying to himself; “Yes, dear mother, thus you could not indeed recognise your James, he did not look like this in the days of your happiness, when you delighted to show him off before the people?” His eyes had become little, like those of pigs; his nose was immense, hanging over his mouth down to his chin; his neck seemed to have been taken away altogether, for his head sat low between his shoulders, and it was only with the greatest pain that he could move it to the right or left; his body was still the same size as it had been seven years ago, when he was twelve years old, so that he had grown in width what others do in height, between the ages of twelve and twenty. His back and chest stood out like two short, well-filled bags; and this thick-set body was supported by small thin legs, which seemed hardly sufficient to support their burden; but so much the larger were his arms, which hung down from his body, being of the size of those of a full-grown man; his hands were coarse, and of a brownish hue, his fingers long, like spiders’ legs, and when he stretched them to their full extent, he could touch the ground without stooping. Such was little James’s appearance, now that he had become an ugly dwarf. He now remembered the morning on which the old woman had stopped before his mother’s baskets. All that he then had found fault with in her—viz., her long nose, and ugly fingers—all these she had given him, only omitting her long, palsied neck.
“Well, my prince, have you looked enough at yourself now?” said the barber, stepping up to him, and surveying him with a laugh. “Truly, if we wished to dream of such a figure, we could hardly see one so comical. Nevertheless, I will make you a proposition, my little man. My shaving-room is tolerably well frequented, but yet not so much so as I could wish. That arises from my neighbour, the barber Schaum, having discovered a giant, who attracts much custom to his house. Now, to become a giant is no great thing, after all, but to be such a little man as you, is indeed a different thing. Enter my service, little man, you shall have board and lodging, clothes and every thing; for this you shall stand in my door-way in the morning, and invite people to come in; you shall beat up the lather, hand the towel to the customers, and you may be sure that we shall both make it answer; I shall get more customers through you than my neighbour by his giant; and you will get many presents.”
The little man felt quite indignant at the proposal of serving as a decoy to a barber. But was he not obliged to submit patiently to this insulting offer? He, therefore, quietly told the barber he had no time for such services, and went away.
Although the evil hag had thus stunted his growth, yet she had had no power to affect his mind, as he felt full well; for he no longer thought and felt as he did seven years since, and believed that he had become wiser and more sensible in the interval. He did not mourn for the loss of his beauty, nor for his ugly appearance, but only that he was driven from his father’s door like a dog. However, he resolved to make another trial with his mother.
He went again to her in the market, and entreated her to listen to him patiently. He reminded her of the day on which he had gone with the old woman; he called to her mind all the particular incidents of his childhood, told her then how he had served seven years as a squirrel with the fairy, and how she had changed him because he had then ridiculed her person.
The cobbler’s wife did not know what to think of all this. All that he related of his childhood agreed with her own recollections, but when he talked of serving seven years as a squirrel, she said, “It is impossible; there are no fairies;” and when she looked at him she felt a horror at the ugly dwarf, and would not believe that he could be her son. At length she thought it would be best to talk the matter over with her husband; therefore she took up her baskets and bade him go with her.
On arriving at the cobbler’s stall she said: “Look, this fellow pretends to be our lost James. He has told me all the circumstances, how he was stolen from us seven years since, and how he was enchanted by a fairy.”
“Indeed,” interrupted the cobbler in a rage, “has he told you this? wait, you rogue!—I have told him all this an hour ago, and then he goes to make a fool of you. Enchanted you have been, my little chap, have you? Wait a bit, I will soon disenchant you!” So saying, he took a bundle of straps that he had just cut, jumped up towards the dwarf, and beat him on his humped back and his long arms, making the little fellow scream with pain and run crying away.
Now in that town, as in others, there were but few of those compassionate souls who will support a poor unfortunate with a ridiculous appearance. Hence it was that the unlucky dwarf remained all day without food, and was obliged in the evening to choose for his night’s quarters the steps of a church, though they were hard and cold.
When on the following morning the first rays of the sun awoke him, he began seriously to think how he should prolong his existence, now that his father and mother had rejected him; he was too proud to serve as a sign-board to a barber; he would not hire himself us a merry-andrew to be exhibited; what then should he do? It now occurred to him that as a squirrel he had made considerable progress in the culinary art, and thought he might justly expect to prove a match for any cook; he therefore resolved to turn his art to advantage.
As soon, therefore, as the morning had dawned, and the streets became animated, he entered a church and performed his devotions; thence he proceeded on his way. The duke (the sovereign of the country) was a notorious gourmand, who kept a good table, and sought cooks in all parts of the world. To his palace the dwarf went. When he arrived at the outer gate the porter asked his errand, and began to crack his jokes on him; when he asked for the chief cook they laughed and led him through the inner courts, and wherever he went the servants stood still, looked at him, laughed heartily, and followed him, so that in a short time a great posse of menials of all descriptions crowded up the steps of the palace. The grooms threw away their curry-combs, the running footmen ran with all their might, the carpet-spreaders ceased beating their carpets, all crowded and thronged around him, as if the enemy was at the gates, and the shouts of “A dwarf, a dwarf! have you seen the dwarf?” filled the air.
At this moment the steward of the palace, with a furious countenance and a large whip in his hand, made his appearance at the door, crying, “For Heaven’s sake, ye hounds, what is all this uproar for? Do you not know that our gracious master is still asleep?” At the same time he flourished his whip, laying it rather roughly about the backs of some grooms and porters.
“Why sir,” they all cried, “don’t you see that we are bringing a dwarf, such a dwarf as you never saw?” The steward suppressed, though with difficulty, a loud laugh, when he got sight of the little man, for he was afraid that laughter would derogate from his dignity. He therefore drove them all away with his whip except the dwarf, whom he led into the house and asked what he wanted. Hearing that the little man wished to see the master of the kitchen, he replied, “You make a mistake, my little son; I suppose you want to see me, the steward of the palace, do you not? You wish to become dwarf to the duke, is it not so?”
“No, sir,” replied the dwarf, “I am a clever cook and skilled in the preparation of all sorts of choice meats; be so kind as to bring me to the master of the kitchen, perhaps he may be in want of my skill.”
“Every one according to his wish, my little man; but you are an inconsiderate youth. To the kitchen! why, as the duke’s dwarf you would have nothing to do and plenty to eat and drink to your heart’s desire, and fine clothes into the bargain. But we shall see; your skill in the culinary art will hardly be such as a cook to the duke is required to possess, and you are too good for a scullion.” As he said the last words he took the dwarf by the hand and conducted him to the apartments of the master of the kitchen.
On arriving there the dwarf said, with so deep a bow that his nose touched the floor, “Gracious, sir, are you in want of a skilful cook?”
The master of the kitchen, surveying him from top to toe, burst into a loud fit of laughter, and said, “What, you a cook? Do you think that our hearths are so low that you could even look on one, though you should stand on tiptoe, and stretch your head ever so much out of your shoulders? My good little fellow, whoever sent you here to hire yourself as a cook, has been making a fool of you.” Thus saying, the master cook laughed heartily, and was joined by the steward of the palace and all the servants in the room.
But the dwarf was not to be discomposed by this. “Of what consequence is it to waste a few eggs, a little syrup and wine, some flour and spice, upon trial, in a house where there are plenty? Give me some dainty dish to prepare,” said he, “procure all that is necessary for it, and it shall be immediately prepared before your eyes, so that you shall be constrained to avow that I am a first-rate cook.”
While the dwarf was saying all this, and many other things, it was strange to see how his little eyes sparkled, how his long nose moved to and fro, and his fingers, which were like spider’s legs, suited their movements to his words.
“Well!” exclaimed the master cook, taking the steward by the arm, “Well! be it so for the sake of the joke, let us go to the kitchen.”
They walked through several large rooms and corridors till they came to the kitchen. This was a large spacious building magnificently fitted up; on twenty hearths fires were constantly burning, clear water was flowing through the midst, serving also as a fishpond; in cupboards of marble and choice wood, the stores were piled, which it was necessary to have at hand for use, and on either side were ten rooms, in which were kept all the delicious dainties for the palate which can be obtained in all the countries of Europe or even the East. Servants of all descriptions were running to and fro, handling and rattling kettles and pans, with forks and ladles; but when the master cook entered, all stood motionless, and the crackling of the fire, and the rippling of the brook were alone to be heard.
“What has the duke ordered for breakfast this morning?” he asked an old cook, who always prepared the breakfast.
“Sir, his highness has pleased to order the Danish soup, with the small red Hamburg dumplings.”
“Well,” continued the master cook, “did you hear what the duke wishes to eat? Are you bold enough to attempt this difficult dish? At all events the dumplings you will not be able to make, that is quite a secret.”
“Nothing easier than that,” replied the dwarf, to their astonishment; for he had often made this dish when he was a squirrel. “Nothing easier, only give me the herbs, the spices, fat of a wild boar, roots and eggs for the soup; but for the dumplings,” said he, in a low voice, so that only the master cook and the breakfast-maker could hear, “for the dumplings I want various meats, wine, duck’s fat, ginger, and the herb called the stomach comforter.”
“Ah, by St. Benedict, to what enchanter have you been apprenticed?” cried the cook in astonishment. “You have hit all to a hair, and as to the noted herb, we did not know of that ourselves; yes! that must make the dish still more delicious. Oh! you miracle of a cook!”
“I should never have thought this,” said the master cook, “but let us make the trial, give him all he asks and let him prepare the breakfast.”
His orders were obeyed, and the necessary preparations were made on the hearth; but they now found that the dwarf could not reach it. They therefore put two chairs together, laid a slab of marble on them, and asked the little wonder to step up and begin his skill. In a large circle stood the cooks, scullions, servants, and others, looking at him in amazement, to see how readily and quickly he proceeded, and how cleanly and neatly he prepared every thing. When he had finished, he ordered both dishes to be put to the fire, and to be boiled until he should call out; then he began to count one, two, three, and so on up to five hundred, when he cried out, “Stop, take them off,” and then invited the head cook to taste them.
The taster ordered the scullion to bring him a gold spoon, which he first rinsed in the brook, and then gave it to the head cook. The latter, stepping up to the hearth with a grave mien, took a spoonful, tasted it, and shutting his eyes, smacked his lips with delight, saying, “Delicious! by the duke’s life, delicious! Would you not like to taste a spoonful, Mr. Steward?” The latter, bowing, took the spoon, tasted it, and was beside himself with delight.
“With all due respect to your skill, dear breakfast-maker, you aged and experienced cook, you have never been able to make the soup or dumplings so delicious.”
The cook also tasted it, shook the dwarf reverentially by the hand, saying, “My little man, you are a master of your art, yes, that herb ‘stomach comforter’ imparts a peculiar charm to the whole.”
At this moment the duke’s valet entered the kitchen, and informed them that the duke wished his breakfast. The preparations were now dished up in silver, and sent up to the duke; but the head cook took the dwarf to his own room to converse with him. They had scarcely sat down long enough to say half a paternoster, when a messenger came and called the head cook to the duke. He quickly put on his best clothes, and followed the messenger.
The duke looked well pleased, He had eaten all they had served, and was just wiping his beard as the master-cook entered. “Master,” said he, “I have hitherto always been well satisfied with your cooks; but tell me who prepared the breakfast this morning? It never was so delicious since I sat on the throne of my fathers; tell me the name of the cook, that I may send him a ducat as a present.”
“My lord, this is a strange story,” replied the master; and he told the duke that a dwarf had been brought to him that morning, who earnestly solicited the place of a cook, and how all had happened. The duke was greatly astonished, ordered the dwarf to appear, and asked him who he was, and whence he came. Now poor James did not exactly wish to say that he had been enchanted, and had served as a squirrel. But yet he adhered to truth, telling him that he now had neither father nor mother, and had learned cooking of an old woman. Much amused by the strange appearance of his new cook, the duke asked no more questions, but said, “If you wish to remain here, I will give you fifty ducats a-year, a suit of livery, and two pair of breeches beside. Your duty shall be to prepare my breakfast; yourself every day to give directions how the dinner shall be prepared, and to take the general superintendence of the cooking. As each in my palace has his proper name, you shall be called ‘Nose,’ and hold the office of sub-master-cook.”
The dwarf prostrated himself before the mighty duke, kissed his feet, and promised to serve him faithfully.
Thus the dwarf was for the present provided for, and did honour to his office. And it must be remarked that the duke had become quite an altered man since Nose the dwarf had been in the palace. Formerly, he had often been pleased to throw the dishes and plates that were served up at the heads of the cooks; indeed, he even once, in a fit of rage, threw a fried calf’s foot that was not sufficiently tender, with such violence at the head of the master-cook, that the latter fell to the ground, and was compelled for three days to keep his bed. ‘Tis true, the duke made him amends for what he had done by some handfuls of ducats, but still no cook ever came before him with his dishes, without trembling and terror.
Ever since the dwarf had been in the palace, all seemed to be changed, as if by magic. The duke, instead of three, had now five meals a day, in order to relish properly the skill of his little servant, and yet never showed the least sign of discontent. Indeed, he found all new and excellent, was kind and pleasant, and became fatter daily.
He would often in the midst of a meal send for the master-cook and the dwarf, set one on his right, and the other on the left hand, and put with his own gracious fingers some morsels of the delicious viands into their mouths; a favour which both knew how to appreciate fully. The dwarf was the wonder of the whole town, and people requested the permission of the master-cook to see him cook, while some of the principal folks prevailed upon the duke to permit their servants to profit by the instructions of the dwarf in his kitchen, by which he obtained much money, for those who came to learn paid daily half a ducat. In order, however, to keep the other cooks in good humour, and prevent jealousy, Nose let them have the money that was paid by the masters for instruction.
Thus Nose lived almost two years in great comfort and honour, the thought of his parents alone saddening him, and nothing remarkable occurring until the following circumstance happened. The dwarf being particularly clever, and fortunate in his purchases, went himself, as often as time permitted, to the market, to buy poultry and fruit. One morning he went to the poultry-market, and walking up and down inquired for fat geese such as his master liked. His appearance, far from creating laughter and ridicule, commanded respect, since he was known as the duke’s celebrated cook, and each poultry-woman felt herself happy if he but turned his nose to her. At length coming to the end of a row of stalls, he perceived in a corner, a woman with geese for sale, who did not, like the others, praise her goods, nor call to the customers.
He stepped up to her, examined the geese, weighed them in his hand, and finding them to his liking, bought three, with the cage they were in, put them on his shoulders and trotted home. It appeared singular to him that only two of the geese cackled and cried like others, the third being quite quiet and thoughtful, and occasionally groaning and moaning like a human being.
“She is not well,” said he to himself, “I must hasten to get home and dress her.” But the goose replied, distinctly,
“If thou stick’st me,
Why I’ll bite thee,
And if my neck thou twistest round.
Thou soon wilt lie below the ground.”
Quite startled, the dwarf put down the basket, and the goose, looking at him with her fine intelligent eyes, sighed. “Why what have we here?” cried Nose. “You can talk, Miss Goose. I never expected that. Well, make yourself easy; I know the world and will not harm so rare a bird. But I would wager something that you have not always been covered with feathers. Indeed I was once a poor squirrel myself.”
“You are right,” replied the goose, “in saying I was not born with this disgraceful disguise. Alas! it was never sung at my cradle that Mimi, the great Wetterbock’s daughter, would be killed in the kitchen of a duke.”
“Pray be easy, dear Miss Mimi,” said the dwarf, comforting her, “for as sure as I am an honest fellow, and sub-master cook to his highness, no one shall touch your throat. I will give you a stall in my own apartments, you shall have enough food, and I will devote my leisure time to converse with you. I’ll tell the others in the kitchen that I am fattening a goose with various herbs for the duke, and at the first opportunity you shall be set at liberty.”
The goose thanked him, with tears in her eyes, and the dwarf, as he had promised, killed the other two geese, but built a stall for Mimi, under the pretence of preserving her for some special occasion. Instead of feeding her on grain he gave her pastry and sweetmeats. As often as he had time he went to converse with her and comfort her. They related their histories to each other, and Nose learnt that she was the daughter of the enchanter, Wetterbock, who lived in the island of Gothland. Being involved in a quarrel with an old fairy, her father had been conquered by stratagems and cunning, and out of revenge the fairy had changed her into a goose, and brought her to the town.
When the dwarf told his history, she said, “I am not inexperienced in these matters, my father having given me and my sisters what instruction he was allowed to impart. The story of the dispute at your mother’s fruit stall, your sudden metamorphosis, when you smelled the herb, as well as the words the old woman used, show me that you are enchanted through herbs; that is to say, if you can find out the herb of which the fairy thought when she bewitched you, you may be disenchanted.” This was but poor consolation for the dwarf, for how should he find the herb? Yet he thanked her and felt some hope.
About this time the duke had a visit from a neighbouring prince, his friend. He, therefore, ordered the dwarf to appear, and said, “Now is the time for you to show whether you serve me faithfully and are master of your art. The prince, who is now visiting me, keeps, as is well known, the best table after me. He is a great connoisseur in good living, and a wise man. Let it now be your care to supply my table every day so that his astonishment shall daily become greater. But you must not, under pain of my displeasure, repeat the same dish during his visits. You may ask of my treasurer all you want, and should it be needful to fry gold and diamonds you must do it. I would rather become poor than forfeit his good opinion of my taste.”
When the duke had concluded, the dwarf bowed most respectfully, saying, “be it as you say, my lord; please God I shall do all to gratify the palate of this prince of gourmands.”
The little cook now mustered all his skill. He did not spare his master’s treasures, and still less did he spare himself. He was seen all day at the fire, enveloped by clouds of smoke, and his voice constantly resounded through the vaults of the kitchen, for he governed the scullions and under cooks.
During a fortnight the foreign prince lived happily, and feasted sumptuously with the duke. They ate not less than five times a day, and the duke was delighted with his dwarf, seeing satisfaction expressed on the countenance of his guest. But on the fifteenth day it happened, that the duke, while at table, sent for the dwarf, presented him to his guest, and asked how he was satisfied with his cooking?
“You are a wonderful cook,” replied the prince, “and know what good living is. All the time I have been here you have not repeated a single dish, and have prepared every thing exquisitely. But pray tell me, why have you not all this time prepared that queen of dishes, the pie called ‘souzeraine?'”
The dwarf was startled at this question, for he had never heard of this queen of pies; however he recovered himself and replied, “My lord, I was in hopes that your serene countenance would shine some time yet on this court, therefore I deferred this dish; for with what dish but the queen of pies should the cook honour the day of your departure?”
“Indeed!” said the duke, laughing; “I suppose then you wish to wait for the day of my death to honour me, for you have never yet sent it up to me. But think of another dish to celebrate the departure, for to-morrow that pie must be on the table.”
“Your pleasure shall be done, my lord,” replied the dwarf, and retired. But he went away uneasy, for the day of his disgrace and misfortune had come. He did not know how to prepare this pie. He went therefore to his chamber, and wept over his fate, when the goose Mimi, who was allowed to walk about, came up and inquired the cause of his grief. When she heard of the pie, “Dry your tears,” said she, “this dish came often to my father’s table, and I know pretty well what is necessary for it; you have only to take such and such things in certain quantities, and should these not be all that are really necessary, I trust that the taste of these gentlemen is not sufficiently refined to discover the deficiency.”
At these words the dwarf danced with joy, blessed the day on which he had purchased the goose, and set about making this queen of pies. He first made a trial in miniature, and lo! the flavour was exquisite, and the master-cook, to whom he gave the small pie to taste, praised once more his great skill.
The following day he prepared the pie on a larger scale, and, after having garnished it with flowers, sent it hot as it came from the oven to table. After which he dressed in his best and went to the dining-hall. On entering, he found the steward engaged in carving the pie, and presenting it on silver dishes to the duke and his guest. The duke swallowed a large piece, turned his eyes upward, saying “ha! ha! ha! justly is this called the queen of pies; but my dwarf is also a king of cooks. Is it not so, my friend?”
His guest took a small morsel, tasted it carefully, and smiled somewhat scornfully and mysteriously.
“The thing is made pretty well,” replied he, pushing his plate away, “but it is not quite the Souzeraine, as I well imagined.”
At this the duke frowned with indignation, and turned red, saying, “You hound of a dwarf, how dare you do this to your lord? I will have your big head cut off as a punishment for your bad cooking.”
“Ah, my lord,” said the dwarf trembling, “for Heaven’s sake have compassion on me; I have made that dish, indeed, according to the proper receipt, and am sure that nothing is wanting.”
“‘Tis a lie, you knave,” replied the duke, giving him a kick, “’tis a lie; else my guest would not say there was something wanting. I will have you yourself cut up and baked in a pie.”
“Have compassion on me!” exclaimed the dwarf, shuffling on his knees up to the prince, and clasping his feet; “tell me what is wanting to this pie and why it does not suit your palate: let me not die for a handful of meat or flour.”
“This will not avail you, my good Nose,” replied the prince, laughing; “even yesterday I thought you would not be able to make this dish as well as my cook. Know there is wanting a herb called Sneeze-with-pleasure, which is not even known in this country. Without it this pie is insipid, and your master will never eat it in such perfection as I do.”
At this the duke flew into a rage, and cried with flashing eyes:
“I will eat it in perfection yet, for I swear by my princely honour, that by to-morrow I will either have the pie set before you, such as you desire it, or the head of this fellow shall be spiked on the gate of my palace. Go, you hound, I give you once more twenty-four hours!” cried the duke.
The dwarf again went to his chamber and mourned over his fate with the goose that he must die, as he had never heard of this herb. “If it is nothing more,” said she, “I can help you out of the difficulty, as my father has taught me to know all herbs. At any other time your death, no doubt would have been certain, and it is fortunate for you that we have a new moon, as the herb is only then in flower. Now tell me, are there any old chesnut trees in the neighbourhood of the palace?”
“Oh yes,” replied Nose, with a lighter heart, “near the lake, about two hundred yards from the palace, there is a clump of them; but what of them?”
“Why,” said Mimi, “the herb only flowers at the foot of them. Now let us lose no time but go to fetch what you want; take me on your arm, and put me down when we get out, that I may search for you.”
He did as she requested, and went towards the gate of the palace, but here the porter levelled his gun and said: “My good Nose, it is all over with you, you must not pass; I have strict orders respecting you.”
“But I suppose I may go into the garden,” replied the dwarf. “Be so good as to send one of your fellow servants to the master of the palace, and ask whether I may not go into the garden to fetch herbs.” The porter did so and permission was given, since, the garden having high walls, escape was impossible. But when Nose and Mimi had got out he put her carefully down, and she ran quickly before him towards the lake, where the chesnuts were. He followed with a heavy heart, since this was his last and only hope. If she did not find the herb he was resolved rather to plunge into the lake than to have his head cut off. The goose searched in vain under all the chesnut trees; she turned every herb with her beak, but no trace of the one wanted was to be found, and she now began to cry out of compassion and fear for the dwarf, as the evening was already growing dusk, and the objects around were difficult to distinguish.
At this moment the dwarf cast a glance across the lake, and cried suddenly: “Look, look, yonder across the lake there stands a large old tree; let us go there and search; perhaps my luck may bloom there.” The goose hopped and flew before him, and he ran after her as quickly as his short legs would permit him; the chesnut tree cast a large shade, and it was so dark around that scarcely anything could be distinguished; but suddenly the goose stopped, flapped her wings for joy, put her head quickly into the high grass, and plucked something which she reached gracefully with her bill to the astonished Nose, saying; “There is the herb, and plenty is growing here, so that you will never want for it.”
The dwarf looked thoughtfully at the herb, and a sweet odour arose from it, which immediately reminded him of the scene of his metamorphosis; the stalk and leaves were of a blueish green, bearing a glowing red flower, with a yellow edge.
“God be praised!” he now exclaimed, “What a miracle! I believe this is the very herb that transformed me from a squirrel into this hideous form; shall I make a trial, to see what effect it will have on me!”
“Not yet,” entreated the goose. “Take a handful of this herb with you, let us go to your room and put up all the money and whatever you have, and then we will try the virtue of the herb.”
They did so, and went again to his room, the dwarf’s heart beating audibly with anticipation. After having put up about fifty or sixty ducats which he had saved, he tied up his clothes in a bundle, and said: “If it please God, I shall get rid of my burthensome deformity.” He then put his nose deep into the herb and inhaled its odour.
Now his limbs began to stretch and crack, he felt how his head started from his shoulders, he squinted down on his nose and saw it became smaller and smaller, his back and chest became straight, and his legs longer.
The goose viewed all this with great astonishment, exclaiming, “Ah, what a tall handsome fellow you have now become. God be praised, there is no trace left in you of what you were before.” Now James was highly rejoiced, he folded his hands and prayed. But his joy did not make him forget what he owed to Mimi the goose; his heart indeed urged him to go to his parents, yet from gratitude he overcame his wish and said, “To whom but to you am I indebted that I am again restored to my former self? Without you I should never have found this herb, but should have continued for ever in that form, or else have died under the axe of the executioner. Well, I will repay you. I will bring you back to your father; he being so experienced in magic will be able easily to disenchant you.”
The goose shed tears of joy and accepted his offer. James fortunately escaped unknown from the palace with his goose, and started on his way for the sea-coast towards Mimi’s home.
It is needless to add that their journey was successful, that Wetterbock disenchanted his daughter, and dismissed James laden with presents; that the latter returned to his native town, that his parents with delight recognized in the handsome young man their lost son, that he, with the presents that he had received, purchased a shop and became wealthy and happy.
Only this much may be added, that after his departure from the duke’s palace, there was a great sensation, for when, on the next morning, the duke was about to fulfil his oath, and to have the dwarf beheaded in case he had not discovered the herbs, he was nowhere to be found; and the prince maintained that the duke had let him escape secretly rather than lose his best cook, and accused him of breaking his word of honour. This circumstance gave rise to a great war between the two princes, which is well known in history by the name of the “Herb War.” Many battles were fought, but at length a peace was concluded, which is now called the “Pie Peace,” because at the festival of reconciliation the Souzeraine, queen of pies, was prepared by the prince’s cook, and relished by the duke in the highest degree.
Thus the most trifling causes often lead to the greatest result; and this, reader, is the story of “Nose, the Dwarf.”
That very singular man old Dr. Heidegger once invited four venerable friends to meet him in his study. There were three white-bearded gentlemen—Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew and Mr. Gascoigne—and a withered gentlewoman whose name was the widow Wycherly. They were all melancholy old creatures who had been unfortunate in life, and whose greatest misfortune it was that they were not long ago in their graves. Mr. Medbourne, in the vigor of his age, had been a prosperous merchant, but had lost his all by a frantic speculation, and was now little better than a mendicant. Colonel Killigrew had wasted his best years and his health and substance in the pursuit of sinful pleasures which had given birth to a brood of pains, such as the gout and divers other torments of soul and body. Mr. Gascoigne was a ruined politician, a man of evil fame—or, at least, had been so till time had buried him from the knowledge of the present generation and made him obscure instead of infamous. As for the widow Wycherly, tradition tells us that she was a great beauty in her day, but for a long while past she had lived in deep seclusion on account of certain scandalous stories which had prejudiced the gentry of the town against her. It is a circumstance worth mentioning that each of these three old gentlemen—Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew and Mr. Gascoigne—were early lovers of the widow Wycherly, and had once been on the point of cutting each other’s throats for her sake. And before proceeding farther I will merely hint that Dr. Heidegger and all his four guests were sometimes thought to be a little beside themselves, as is not infrequently the case with old people when worried either by present troubles or woeful recollections.
“My dear old friends,” said Dr. Heidegger, motioning them to be seated, “I am desirous of your assistance in one of those little experiments with which I amuse myself here in my study.”
If all stories were true, Dr. Heidegger’s study must have been a very curious place. It was a dim, old-fashioned chamber festooned with cobwebs and besprinkled with antique dust. Around the walls stood several oaken bookcases, the lower shelves of which were filled with rows of gigantic folios and black-letter quartos, and the upper with little parchment-covered duodecimos. Over the central bookcase was a bronze bust of Hippocrates, with which, according to some authorities, Dr. Heidegger was accustomed to hold consultations in all difficult cases of his practice. In the obscurest corner of the room stood a tall and narrow oaken closet with its door ajar, within which doubtfully appeared a skeleton. Between two of the bookcases hung a looking-glass, presenting its high and dusty plate within a tarnished gilt frame. Among many wonderful stories related of this mirror, it was fabled that the spirits of all the doctor’s deceased patients dwelt within its verge and would stare him in the face whenever he looked thitherward. The opposite side of the chamber was ornamented with the full-length portrait of a young lady arrayed in the faded magnificence of silk, satin and brocade, and with a visage as faded as her dress. Above half a century ago Dr. Heidegger had been on the point of marriage with this young lady, but, being affected with some slight disorder, she had swallowed one of her lover’s prescriptions and died on the bridal-evening. The greatest curiosity of the study remains to be mentioned: it was a ponderous folio volume bound in black leather, with massive silver clasps. There were no letters on the back, and nobody could tell the title of the book. But it was well known to be a book of magic, and once, when a chambermaid had lifted it merely to brush away the dust, the skeleton had rattled in its closet, the picture of the young lady had stepped one foot upon the floor and several ghastly faces had peeped forth from the mirror, while the brazen head of Hippocrates frowned and said, “Forbear!”
Such was Dr. Heidegger’s study. On the summer afternoon of our tale a small round table as black as ebony stood in the centre of the room, sustaining a cut-glass vase of beautiful form and elaborate workmanship. The sunshine came through the window between the heavy festoons of two faded damask curtains and fell directly across this vase, so that a mild splendor was reflected from it on the ashen visages of the five old people who sat around. Four champagne-glasses were also on the table.
“My dear old friends,” repeated Dr. Heidegger, “may I reckon on your aid in performing an exceedingly curious experiment?”
Now, Dr. Heidegger was a very strange old gentleman whose eccentricity had become the nucleus for a thousand fantastic stories. Some of these fables—to my shame be it spoken—might possibly be traced back to mine own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale should startle the reader’s faith, I must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction-monger.
When the doctor’s four guests heard him talk of his proposed experiment, they anticipated nothing more wonderful than the murder of a mouse in an air-pump or the examination of a cobweb by the microscope, or some similar nonsense with which he was constantly in the habit of pestering his intimates. But without waiting for a reply Dr. Heidegger hobbled across the chamber and returned with the same ponderous folio bound in black leather which common report affirmed to be a book of magic. Undoing the silver clasps, he opened the volume and took from among its black-letter pages a rose, or what was once a rose, though now the green leaves and crimson petals had assumed one brownish hue and the ancient flower seemed ready to crumble to dust in the doctor’s hands.
“This rose,” said Dr. Heidegger, with a sigh—”this same withered and crumbling flower—blossomed five and fifty years ago. It was given me by Sylvia Ward, whose portrait hangs yonder, and I meant to wear it in my bosom at our wedding. Five and fifty years it has been treasured between the leaves of this old volume. Now, would you deem it possible that this rose of half a century could ever bloom again?”
“Nonsense!” said the widow Wycherly, with a peevish toss of her head. “You might as well ask whether an old woman’s wrinkled face could ever bloom again.”
“See!” answered Dr. Heidegger. He uncovered the vase and threw the faded rose into the water which it contained. At first it lay lightly on the surface of the fluid, appearing to imbibe none of its moisture. Soon, however, a singular change began to be visible. The crushed and dried petals stirred and assumed a deepening tinge of crimson, as if the flower were reviving from a deathlike slumber, the slender stalk and twigs of foliage became green, and there was the rose of half a century, looking as fresh as when Sylvia Ward had first given it to her lover. It was scarcely full-blown, for some of its delicate red leaves curled modestly around its moist bosom, within which two or three dewdrops were sparkling.
“That is certainly a very pretty deception,” said the doctor’s friends—carelessly, however, for they had witnessed greater miracles at a conjurer’s show. “Pray, how was it effected?”
“Did you never hear of the Fountain of Youth?” asked Dr. Heidegger, “which Ponce de Leon, the Spanish adventurer, went in search of two or three centuries ago?”
“But did Ponce de Leon ever find it?” said the widow Wycherly.
“No,” answered Dr. Heidegger, “for he never sought it in the right place. The famous Fountain of Youth, if I am rightly informed, is situated in the southern part of the Floridian peninsula, not far from Lake Macaco. Its source is overshadowed by several gigantic magnolias which, though numberless centuries old, have been kept as fresh as violets by the virtues of this wonderful water. An acquaintance of mine, knowing my curiosity in such matters, has sent me what you see in the vase.”
“Ahem!” said Colonel Killigrew, who believed not a word of the doctor’s story; “and what may be the effect of this fluid on the human frame?”
“You shall judge for yourself, my dear colonel,” replied Dr. Heidegger.—”And all of you, my respected friends, are welcome to so much of this admirable fluid as may restore to you the bloom of youth. For my own part, having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry to grow young again. With your permission, therefore, I will merely watch the progress of the experiment.”
While he spoke Dr. Heidegger had been filling the four champagne-glasses with the water of the Fountain of Youth. It was apparently impregnated with an effervescent gas, for little bubbles were continually ascending from the depths of the glasses and bursting in silvery spray at the surface. As the liquor diffused a pleasant perfume, the old people doubted not that it possessed cordial and comfortable properties, and, though utter sceptics as to its rejuvenescent power, they were inclined to swallow it at once. But Dr. Heidegger besought them to stay a moment.
“Before you drink, my respectable old friends,” said he, “it would be well that, with the experience of a lifetime to direct you, you should draw up a few general rules for your guidance in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!”
The doctor’s four venerable friends made him no answer except by a feeble and tremulous laugh, so very ridiculous was the idea that, knowing how closely Repentance treads behind the steps of Error, they should ever go astray again.
“Drink, then,” said the doctor, bowing; “I rejoice that I have so well selected the subjects of my experiment.”
With palsied hands they raised the glasses to their lips. The liquor, if it really possessed such virtues as Dr. Heidegger imputed to it, could not have been bestowed on four human beings who needed it more woefully. They looked as if they had never known what youth or pleasure was, but had been the offspring of Nature’s dotage, and always the gray, decrepit, sapless, miserable creatures who now sat stooping round the doctor’s table without life enough in their souls or bodies to be animated even by the prospect of growing young again. They drank off the water and replaced their glasses on the table.
Assuredly, there was an almost immediate improvement in the aspect of the party—not unlike what might have been produced by a glass of generous wine—together with a sudden glow of cheerful sunshine, brightening over all their visages at once. There was a healthful suffusion on their cheeks instead of the ashen hue that had made them look so corpse-like. They gazed at one another, and fancied that some magic power had really begun to smooth away the deep and sad inscriptions which Father Time had been so long engraving on their brows. The widow Wycherly adjusted her cap, for she felt almost like a woman again.
“Give us more of this wondrous water,” cried they, eagerly. “We are younger, but we are still too old. Quick! give us more!”
“Patience, patience!” quoth Dr. Heidegger, who sat, watching the experiment with philosophic coolness. “You have been a long time growing old; surely you might be content to grow young in half an hour. But the water is at your service.” Again he filled their glasses with the liquor of youth, enough of which still remained in the vase to turn half the old people in the city to the age of their own grandchildren.
While the bubbles were yet sparkling on the brim the doctor’s four guests snatched their glasses from the table and swallowed the contents at a single gulp. Was it delusion? Even while the draught was passing down their throats it seemed to have wrought a change on their whole systems. Their eyes grew clear and bright; a dark shade deepened among their silvery locks: they sat around the table three gentlemen of middle age and a woman hardly beyond her buxom prime.
“My dear widow, you are charming!” cried Colonel Killigrew, whose eyes had been fixed upon her face while the shadows of age were flitting from it like darkness from the crimson daybreak.
The fair widow knew of old that Colonel Killigrew’s compliments were not always measured by sober truth; so she started up and ran to the mirror, still dreading that the ugly visage of an old woman would meet her gaze.
Meanwhile, the three gentlemen behaved in such a manner as proved that the water of the Fountain of Youth possessed some intoxicating qualities—unless, indeed, their exhilaration of spirits were merely a lightsome dizziness caused by the sudden removal of the weight of years. Mr. Gascoigne’s mind seemed to run on political topics, but whether relating to the past, present or future could not easily be determined, since the same ideas and phrases have been in vogue these fifty years. Now he rattled forth full-throated sentences about patriotism, national glory and the people’s right; now he muttered some perilous stuff or other in a sly and doubtful whisper, so cautiously that even his own conscience could scarcely catch the secret; and now, again, he spoke in measured accents and a deeply-deferential tone, as if a royal ear were listening to his well-turned periods. Colonel Killigrew all this time had been trolling forth a jolly bottle-song and ringing his glass in symphony with the chorus, while his eyes wandered toward the buxom figure of the widow Wycherly. On the other side of the table, Mr. Medbourne was involved in a calculation of dollars and cents with which was strangely intermingled a project for supplying the East Indies with ice by harnessing a team of whales to the polar icebergs. As for the widow Wycherly, she stood before the mirror courtesying and simpering to her own image and greeting it as the friend whom she loved better than all the world besides. She thrust her face close to the glass to see whether some long-remembered wrinkle or crow’s-foot had indeed vanished; she examined whether the snow had so entirely melted from her hair that the venerable cap could be safely thrown aside. At last, turning briskly away, she came with a sort of dancing step to the table.
“My dear old doctor,” cried she, “pray favor me with another glass.”
“Certainly, my dear madam—certainly,” replied the complaisant doctor. “See! I have already filled the glasses.”
There, in fact, stood the four glasses brimful of this wonderful water, the delicate spray of which, as it effervesced from the surface, resembled the tremulous glitter of diamonds.
It was now so nearly sunset that the chamber had grown duskier than ever, but a mild and moonlike splendor gleamed from within the vase and rested alike on the four guests and on the doctor’s venerable figure. He sat in a high-backed, elaborately-carved oaken arm-chair with a gray dignity of aspect that might have well befitted that very Father Time whose power had never been disputed save by this fortunate company. Even while quaffing the third draught of the Fountain of Youth, they were almost awed by the expression of his mysterious visage. But the next moment the exhilarating gush of young life shot through their veins. They were now in the happy prime of youth. Age, with its miserable train of cares and sorrows and diseases, was remembered only as the trouble of a dream from which they had joyously awoke. The fresh gloss of the soul, so early lost and without which the world’s successive scenes had been but a gallery of faded pictures, again threw its enchantment over all their prospects. They felt like new-created beings in a new-created universe.
“We are young! We are young!” they cried, exultingly.
Youth, like the extremity of age, had effaced the strongly-marked characteristics of middle life and mutually assimilated them all. They were a group of merry youngsters almost maddened with the exuberant frolicsomeness of their years. The most singular effect of their gayety was an impulse to mock the infirmity and decrepitude of which they had so lately been the victims. They laughed loudly at their old-fashioned attire—the wide-skirted coats and flapped waistcoats of the young men and the ancient cap and gown of the blooming girl. One limped across the floor like a gouty grandfather; one set a pair of spectacles astride of his nose and pretended to pore over the black-letter pages of the book of magic; a third seated himself in an arm-chair and strove to imitate the venerable dignity of Dr. Heidegger. Then all shouted mirthfully and leaped about the room.
The widow Wycherly—if so fresh a damsel could be called a widow—tripped up to the doctor’s chair with a mischievous merriment in her rosy face.
“Doctor, you dear old soul,” cried she, “get up and dance with me;” and then the four young people laughed louder than ever to think what a queer figure the poor old doctor would cut.
“Pray excuse me,” answered the doctor, quietly. “I am old and rheumatic, and my dancing-days were over long ago. But either of these gay young gentlemen will be glad of so pretty a partner.”
“Dance with me, Clara,” cried Colonel Killigrew.
“No, no! I will be her partner,” shouted Mr. Gascoigne.
“She promised me her hand fifty years ago,” exclaimed Mr. Medbourne.
They all gathered round her. One caught both her hands in his passionate grasp, another threw his arm about her waist, the third buried his hand among the glossy curls that clustered beneath the widow’s cap. Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. Yet, by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grand-sires ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam. But they were young: their burning passions proved them so.
Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow, who neither granted nor quite withheld her favors, the three rivals began to interchange threatening glances. Still keeping hold of the fair prize, they grappled fiercely at one another’s throats. As they struggled to and fro the table was overturned and the vase dashed into a thousand fragments. The precious Water of Youth flowed in a bright stream across the floor, moistening the wings of a butterfly which, grown old in the decline of summer, had alighted there to die. The insect fluttered lightly through the chamber and settled on the snowy head of Dr. Heidegger.
“Come, come, gentlemen! Come, Madam Wycherly!” exclaimed the doctor. “I really must protest against this riot.”
They stood still and shivered, for it seemed as if gray Time were calling them back from their sunny youth far down into the chill and darksome vale of years. They looked at old Dr. Heidegger, who sat in his carved armchair holding the rose of half a century, which he had rescued from among the fragments of the shattered vase. At the motion of his hand the four rioters resumed their seats—the more readily because their violent exertions had wearied them, youthful though they were.
“My poor Sylvia’s rose!” ejaculated Dr. Heidegger, holding it in the light of the sunset clouds. “It appears to be fading again.”
And so it was. Even while the party were looking at it the flower continued to shrivel up, till it became as dry and fragile as when the doctor had first thrown it into the vase. He shook off the few drops of moisture which clung to its petals.
“I love it as well thus as in its dewy freshness,” observed he, pressing the withered rose to his withered lips.
While he spoke the butterfly fluttered down from the doctor’s snowy head and fell upon the floor. His guests shivered again. A strange dullness—whether of the body or spirit they could not tell—was creeping gradually over them all. They gazed at one another, and fancied that each fleeting moment snatched away a charm and left a deepening furrow where none had been before. Was it an illusion? Had the changes of a lifetime been crowded into so brief a space, and were they now four aged people sitting with their old friend Dr. Heidegger?
“Are we grown old again so soon?” cried they, dolefully.
In truth, they had. The Water of Youth possessed merely a virtue more transient than that of wine; the delirium which it created had effervesced away. Yes, they were old again. With a shuddering impulse that showed her a woman still, the widow clasped her skinny hands before her face and wished that the coffin-lid were over it, since it could be no longer beautiful.
“Yes, friends, ye are old again,” said Dr. Heidegger, “and, lo! the Water of Youth is all lavished on the ground. Well, I bemoan it not; for if the fountain gushed at my very doorstep, I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it—no, though its delirium were for years instead of moments. Such is the lesson ye have taught me.”
But the doctor’s four friends had taught no such lesson to themselves. They resolved forthwith to make a pilgrimage to Florida and quaff at morning, noon and night from the Fountain of Youth.
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
Breakfast was not yet over before the men came to put up the marquee.
“Where do you want the marquee put, mother?”
“My dear child, it’s no use asking me. I’m determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest.”
But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket.
“You’ll have to go, Laura; you’re the artistic one.”
Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It’s so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.
Four men in their shirt-sleeves stood grouped together on the garden path. They carried staves covered with rolls of canvas, and they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive. Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it, and she couldn’t possibly throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.
“Good morning,” she said, copying her mother’s voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, “Oh—er—have you come—is it about the marquee?”
“That’s right, miss,” said the tallest of the men, a lanky, freckled fellow, and he shifted his tool-bag, knocked back his straw hat and smiled down at her. “That’s about it.”
His smile was so easy, so friendly that Laura recovered. What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue! And now she looked at the others, they were smiling too. “Cheer up, we won’t bite,” their smile seemed to say. How very nice workmen were! And what a beautiful morning! She mustn’t mention the morning; she must be business-like. The marquee.
“Well, what about the lily-lawn? Would that do?”
And she pointed to the lily-lawn with the hand that didn’t hold the bread-and-butter. They turned, they stared in the direction. A little fat chap thrust out his under-lip, and the tall fellow frowned.
“I don’t fancy it,” said he. “Not conspicuous enough. You see, with a thing like a marquee,” and he turned to Laura in his easy way, “you want to put it somewhere where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me.”
Laura’s upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye. But she did quite follow him.
“A corner of the tennis-court,” she suggested. “But the band’s going to be in one corner.”
“H’m, going to have a band, are you?” said another of the workmen. He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?
“Only a very small band,” said Laura gently. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind so much if the band was quite small. But the tall fellow interrupted.
“Look here, miss, that’s the place. Against those trees. Over there. That’ll do fine.”
Against the karakas. Then the karaka-trees would be hidden. And they were so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. Must they be hidden by a marquee?
They must. Already the men had shouldered their staves and were making for the place. Only the tall fellow was left. He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing? Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.
It’s all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom… And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers. Some one whistled, some one sang out, “Are you right there, matey?” “Matey!” The friendliness of it, the—the—Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.
“Laura, Laura, where are you? Telephone, Laura!” a voice cried from the house.
“Coming!” Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the porch. In the hall her father and Laurie were brushing their hats ready to go to the office.
“I say, Laura,” said Laurie very fast, “you might just give a squiz at my coat before this afternoon. See if it wants pressing.”
“I will,” said she. Suddenly she couldn’t stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze. “Oh, I do love parties, don’t you?” gasped Laura.
“Ra-ther,” said Laurie’s warm, boyish voice, and he squeezed his sister too, and gave her a gentle push. “Dash off to the telephone, old girl.”
The telephone. “Yes, yes; oh yes. Kitty? Good morning, dear. Come to lunch? Do, dear. Delighted of course. It will only be a very scratch meal—just the sandwich crusts and broken meringue-shells and what’s left over. Yes, isn’t it a perfect morning? Your white? Oh, I certainly should. One moment—hold the line. Mother’s calling.” And Laura sat back. “What, mother? Can’t hear.”
Mrs. Sheridan’s voice floated down the stairs. “Tell her to wear that sweet hat she had on last Sunday.”
“Mother says you’re to wear that sweet hat you had on last Sunday. Good. One o’clock. Bye-bye.”
Laura put back the receiver, flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall. “Huh,” she sighed, and the moment after the sigh she sat up quickly. She was still, listening. All the doors in the house seemed to be open. The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it.
The front door bell pealed, and there sounded the rustle of Sadie’s print skirt on the stairs. A man’s voice murmured; Sadie answered, careless, “I’m sure I don’t know. Wait. I’ll ask Mrs Sheridan.”
“What is it, Sadie?” Laura came into the hall.
“It’s the florist, Miss Laura.”
It was, indeed. There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
“O-oh, Sadie!” said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.
“It’s some mistake,” she said faintly. “Nobody ever ordered so many. Sadie, go and find mother.”
But at that moment Mrs. Sheridan joined them.
“It’s quite right,” she said calmly. “Yes, I ordered them. Aren’t they lovely?” She pressed Laura’s arm. “I was passing the shop yesterday, and I saw them in the window. And I suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies. The garden-party will be a good excuse.”
“But I thought you said you didn’t mean to interfere,” said Laura. Sadie had gone. The florist’s man was still outside at his van. She put her arm round her mother’s neck and gently, very gently, she bit her mother’s ear.
“My darling child, you wouldn’t like a logical mother, would you? Don’t do that. Here’s the man.”
He carried more lilies still, another whole tray.
“Bank them up, just inside the door, on both sides of the porch, please,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Don’t you agree, Laura?”
“Oh, I do, mother.”
In the drawing-room Meg, Jose and good little Hans had at last succeeded in moving the piano.
“Now, if we put this chesterfield against the wall and move everything out of the room except the chairs, don’t you think?”
“Hans, move these tables into the smoking-room, and bring a sweeper to take these marks off the carpet and—one moment, Hans—” Jose loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama. “Tell mother and Miss Laura to come here at once.
“Very good, Miss Jose.”
She turned to Meg. “I want to hear what the piano sounds like, just in case I’m asked to sing this afternoon. Let’s try over ‘This life is Weary.’”
Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta! The piano burst out so passionately that Jose’s face changed. She clasped her hands. She looked mournfully and enigmatically at her mother and Laura as they came in.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then… Good-bye!”
But at the word “Good-bye,” and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.
“Aren’t I in good voice, mummy?” she beamed.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream—a Wa-kening.”
But now Sadie interrupted them. “What is it, Sadie?”
“If you please, m’m, cook says have you got the flags for the sandwiches?”
“The flags for the sandwiches, Sadie?” echoed Mrs. Sheridan dreamily. And the children knew by her face that she hadn’t got them. “Let me see.” And she said to Sadie firmly, “Tell cook I’ll let her have them in ten minutes.”
“Now, Laura,” said her mother quickly, “come with me into the smoking-room. I’ve got the names somewhere on the back of an envelope. You’ll have to write them out for me. Meg, go upstairs this minute and take that wet thing off your head. Jose, run and finish dressing this instant. Do you hear me, children, or shall I have to tell your father when he comes home to-night? And—and, Jose, pacify cook if you do go into the kitchen, will you? I’m terrified of her this morning.”
The envelope was found at last behind the dining-room clock, though how it had got there Mrs. Sheridan could not imagine.
“One of you children must have stolen it out of my bag, because I remember vividly—cream cheese and lemon-curd. Have you done that?”
“Egg and—” Mrs. Sheridan held the envelope away from her. “It looks like mice. It can’t be mice, can it?”
“Olive, pet,” said Laura, looking over her shoulder.
“Yes, of course, olive. What a horrible combination it sounds. Egg and olive.”
They were finished at last, and Laura took them off to the kitchen. She found Jose there pacifying the cook, who did not look at all terrifying.
“I have never seen such exquisite sandwiches,” said Jose’s rapturous voice. “How many kinds did you say there were, cook? Fifteen?”
“Fifteen, Miss Jose.”
“Well, cook, I congratulate you.”
Cook swept up crusts with the long sandwich knife, and smiled broadly.
“Godber’s has come,” announced Sadie, issuing out of the pantry. She had seen the man pass the window.
That meant the cream puffs had come. Godber’s were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.
“Bring them in and put them on the table, my girl,” ordered cook.
Sadie brought them in and went back to the door. Of course Laura and Jose were far too grown-up to really care about such things. All the same, they couldn’t help agreeing that the puffs looked very attractive. Very. Cook began arranging them, shaking off the extra icing sugar.
“Don’t they carry one back to all one’s parties?” said Laura.
“I suppose they do,” said practical Jose, who never liked to be carried back. “They look beautifully light and feathery, I must say.”
“Have one each, my dears,” said cook in her comfortable voice. “Yer ma won’t know.”
Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.
“Let’s go into the garden, out by the back way,” suggested Laura. “I want to see how the men are getting on with the marquee. They’re such awfully nice men.”
But the back door was blocked by cook, Sadie, Godber’s man and Hans.
Something had happened.
“Tuk-tuk-tuk,” clucked cook like an agitated hen. Sadie had her hand clapped to her cheek as though she had toothache. Hans’s face was screwed up in the effort to understand. Only Godber’s man seemed to be enjoying himself; it was his story.
“What’s the matter? What’s happened?”
“There’s been a horrible accident,” said Cook. “A man killed.”
“A man killed! Where? How? When?”
But Godber’s man wasn’t going to have his story snatched from under his very nose.
“Know those little cottages just below here, miss?” Know them? Of course, she knew them. “Well, there’s a young chap living there, name of Scott, a carter. His horse shied at a traction-engine, corner of Hawke Street this morning, and he was thrown out on the back of his head. Killed.”
“Dead!” Laura stared at Godber’s man.
“Dead when they picked him up,” said Godber’s man with relish. “They were taking the body home as I come up here.” And he said to the cook, “He’s left a wife and five little ones.”
“Jose, come here.” Laura caught hold of her sister’s sleeve and dragged her through the kitchen to the other side of the green baize door. There she paused and leaned against it. “Jose!” she said, horrified, “however are we going to stop everything?”
“Stop everything, Laura!” cried Jose in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
“Stop the garden-party, of course.” Why did Jose pretend?
But Jose was still more amazed. “Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.”
“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”
That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys. Washerwomen lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler, and a man whose house-front was studded all over with minute bird-cages. Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
“And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman,” said Laura.
“Oh, Laura!” Jose began to be seriously annoyed. “If you’re going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life. I’m every bit as sorry about it as you. I feel just as sympathetic.” Her eyes hardened. She looked at her sister just as she used to when they were little and fighting together. “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental,” she said softly.
“Drunk! Who said he was drunk?” Laura turned furiously on Jose. She said, just as they had used to say on those occasions, “I’m going straight up to tell mother.”
“Do, dear,” cooed Jose.
“Mother, can I come into your room?” Laura turned the big glass door-knob.
“Of course, child. Why, what’s the matter? What’s given you such a colour?” And Mrs. Sheridan turned round from her dressing-table. She was trying on a new hat.
“Mother, a man’s been killed,” began Laura.
“Not in the garden?” interrupted her mother.
“Oh, what a fright you gave me!” Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.
“But listen, mother,” said Laura. Breathless, half-choking, she told the dreadful story. “Of course, we can’t have our party, can we?” she pleaded. “The band and everybody arriving. They’d hear us, mother; they’re nearly neighbours!”
To Laura’s astonishment her mother behaved just like Jose; it was harder to bear because she seemed amused. She refused to take Laura seriously.
“But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?”
Laura had to say “yes” to that, but she felt it was all wrong. She sat down on her mother’s sofa and pinched the cushion frill.
“Mother, isn’t it terribly heartless of us?” she asked.
“Darling!” Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. “My child!” said her mother, “the hat is yours. It’s made for you. It’s much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!” And she held up her hand-mirror.
“But, mother,” Laura began again. She couldn’t look at herself; she turned aside.
This time Mrs. Sheridan lost patience just as Jose had done.
“You are being very absurd, Laura,” she said coldly. “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.”
“I don’t understand,” said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I’ll remember it again after the party’s over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan…
Lunch was over by half-past one. By half-past two they were all ready for the fray. The green-coated band had arrived and was established in a corner of the tennis-court.
“My dear!” trilled Kitty Maitland, “aren’t they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf.”
Laurie arrived and hailed them on his way to dress. At the sight of him Laura remembered the accident again. She wanted to tell him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all right. And she followed him into the hall.
“Hallo!” He was half-way upstairs, but when he turned round and saw Laura he suddenly puffed out his cheeks and goggled his eyes at her. “My word, Laura! You do look stunning,” said Laurie. “What an absolutely topping hat!”
Laura said faintly “Is it?” and smiled up at Laurie, and didn’t tell him after all.
Soon after that people began coming in streams. The band struck up; the hired waiters ran from the house to the marquee. Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn. They were like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans’ garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.
“Darling Laura, how well you look!”
“What a becoming hat, child!”
“Laura, you look quite Spanish. I’ve never seen you look so striking.”
And Laura, glowing, answered softly, “Have you had tea? Won’t you have an ice? The passion-fruit ices really are rather special.” She ran to her father and begged him. “Daddy darling, can’t the band have something to drink?”
And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.
“Never a more delightful garden-party… “ “The greatest success… ” “Quite the most… ”
Laura helped her mother with the good-byes. They stood side by side in the porch till it was all over.
“All over, all over, thank heaven,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Round up the others, Laura. Let’s go and have some fresh coffee. I’m exhausted. Yes, it’s been very successful. But oh, these parties, these parties! Why will you children insist on giving parties!” And they all of them sat down in the deserted marquee.
“Have a sandwich, daddy dear. I wrote the flag.”
“Thanks.” Mr. Sheridan took a bite and the sandwich was gone. He took another. “I suppose you didn’t hear of a beastly accident that happened to-day?” he said.
“My dear,” said Mrs. Sheridan, holding up her hand, “we did. It nearly ruined the party. Laura insisted we should put it off.”
“Oh, mother!” Laura didn’t want to be teased about it.
“It was a horrible affair all the same,” said Mr. Sheridan. “The chap was married too. Lived just below in the lane, and leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies, so they say.”
An awkward little silence fell. Mrs. Sheridan fidgeted with her cup. Really, it was very tactless of father…
Suddenly she looked up. There on the table were all those sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all uneaten, all going to be wasted. She had one of her brilliant ideas.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s make up a basket. Let’s send that poor creature some of this perfectly good food. At any rate, it will be the greatest treat for the children. Don’t you agree? And she’s sure to have neighbours calling in and so on. What a point to have it all ready prepared. Laura!” She jumped up. “Get me the big basket out of the stairs cupboard.”
“But, mother, do you really think it’s a good idea?” said Laura.
Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all. To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?
“Of course! What’s the matter with you to-day? An hour or two ago you were insisting on us being sympathetic, and now—”
Oh well! Laura ran for the basket. It was filled, it was heaped by her mother.
“Take it yourself, darling,” said she. “Run down just as you are. No, wait, take the arum lilies too. People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.”
“The stems will ruin her lace frock,” said practical Jose.
So they would. Just in time. “Only the basket, then. And, Laura!”—her mother followed her out of the marquee—“don’t on any account—”
No, better not put such ideas into the child’s head! “Nothing! Run along.”
It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade. How quiet it seemed after the afternoon. Here she was going down the hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn’t realize it. Why couldn’t she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else. How strange! She looked up at the pale sky, and all she thought was, “Yes, it was the most successful party.”
Now the broad road was crossed. The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men’s tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window. Laura bent her head and hurried on. She wished now she had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat! Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?
No, too late. This was the house. It must be. A dark knot of people stood outside. Beside the gate an old, old woman with a crutch sat in a chair, watching. She had her feet on a newspaper. The voices stopped as Laura drew near. The group parted. It was as though she was expected, as though they had known she was coming here.
Laura was terribly nervous. Tossing the velvet ribbon over her shoulder, she said to a woman standing by, “Is this Mrs. Scott’s house?” and the woman, smiling queerly, said, “It is, my lass.”
Oh, to be away from this! She actually said, “Help me, God,” as she walked up the tiny path and knocked. To be away from those staring eyes, or to be covered up in anything, one of those women’s shawls even. I’ll just leave the basket and go, she decided. I shan’t even wait for it to be emptied.
Then the door opened. A little woman in black showed in the gloom.
Laura said, “Are you Mrs. Scott?” But to her horror the woman answered, “Walk in please, miss,” and she was shut in the passage.
“No,” said Laura, “I don’t want to come in. I only want to leave this basket. Mother sent—”
The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have heard her. “Step this way, please, miss,” she said in an oily voice, and Laura followed her.
She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp. There was a woman sitting before the fire.
“Em,” said the little creature who had let her in. “Em! It’s a young lady.” She turned to Laura. She said meaningly, “I’m ‘er sister, miss. You’ll excuse ‘er, won’t you?”
“Oh, but of course!” said Laura. “Please, please don’t disturb her. I—I only want to leave—”
But at that moment the woman at the fire turned round. Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible. She seemed as though she couldn’t understand why Laura was there. What did it mean? Why was this stranger standing in the kitchen with a basket? What was it all about? And the poor face puckered up again.
“All right, my dear,” said the other. “I’ll thenk the young lady.”
And again she began, “You’ll excuse her, miss, I’m sure,” and her face, swollen too, tried an oily smile.
Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the bedroom, where the dead man was lying.
“You’d like a look at ‘im, wouldn’t you?” said Em’s sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. “Don’t be afraid, my lass,”—and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet—“‘e looks a picture. There’s nothing to show. Come along, my dear.”
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy… happy… All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.
“Forgive my hat,” she said.
And this time she didn’t wait for Em’s sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie.
He stepped out of the shadow. “Is that you, Laura?”
“Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?”
“Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!” She took his arm, she pressed up against him.
“I say, you’re not crying, are you?” asked her brother.
Laura shook her head. She was.
Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he said in his warm, loving voice. “Was it awful?”
“No,” sobbed Laura. “It was simply marvellous. But Laurie—” She stopped, she looked at her brother. “Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life—” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
“Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.
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.
Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.
“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered. “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room…” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”
“I really think,” said the Doctor, “that, at any rate, one of us should go and try whether or not the thing is an imposture.”
“Good!” said Considine. “After dinner we will take our cigars and stroll over to the camp.”
Accordingly, when the dinner was over, and the La Tour finished, Joshua Considine and his friend, Dr. Burleigh, went over to the east side of the moor, where the gipsy encampment lay. As they were leaving, Mary Considine, who had walked as far as the end of the garden where it opened into the laneway, called after her husband:
“Mind, Joshua, you are to give them a fair chance, but don’t give them any clue to a fortune—and don’t you get flirting with any of the gipsy maidens—and take care to keep Gerald out of harm.”
For answer Considine held up his hand, as if taking a stage oath, and whistled the air of the old song, “The Gipsy Countess.” Gerald joined in the strain, and then, breaking into merry laughter, the two men passed along the laneway to the common, turning now and then to wave their hands to Mary, who leaned over the gate, in the twilight, looking after them.
It was a lovely evening in the summer; the very air was full of rest and quiet happiness, as though an outward type of the peacefulness and joy which made a heaven of the home of the young married folk. Considine’s life had not been an eventful one. The only disturbing element which he had ever known was in his wooing of Mary Winston, and the long-continued objection of her ambitious parents, who expected a brilliant match for their only daughter. When Mr. and Mrs. Winston had discovered the attachment of the young barrister, they had tried to keep the young people apart by sending their daughter away for a long round of visits, having made her promise not to correspond with her lover during her absence. Love, however, had stood the test. Neither absence nor neglect seemed to cool the passion of the young man, and jealousy seemed a thing unknown to his sanguine nature; so, after a long period of waiting, the parents had given in, and the young folk were married.
They had been living in the cottage a few months, and were just beginning to feel at home. Gerald Burleigh, Joshua’s old college chum, and himself a sometime victim of Mary’s beauty, had arrived a week before, to stay with them for as long a time as he could tear himself away from his work in London.
When her husband had quite disappeared Mary went into the house, and, sitting down at the piano, gave an hour to Mendelssohn.
It was but a short walk across the common, and before the cigars required renewing the two men had reached the gipsy camp. The place was as picturesque as gipsy camps—when in villages and when business is good—usually are. There were some few persons round the fire, investing their money in prophecy, and a large number of others, poorer or more parsimonious, who stayed just outside the bounds but near enough to see all that went on.
As the two gentlemen approached, the villagers, who knew Joshua, made way a little, and a pretty, keen-eyed gipsy girl tripped up and asked to tell their fortunes. Joshua held out his hand, but the girl, without seeming to see it, stared at his face in a very odd manner. Gerald nudged him:
“You must cross her hand with silver,” he said. “It is one of the most important parts of the mystery.” Joshua took from his pocket a half-crown and held it out to her, but, without looking at it, she answered:
“You must cross the gipsy’s hand with gold.”
Gerald laughed. “You are at a premium as a subject,” he said. Joshua was of the kind of man—the universal kind—who can tolerate being stared at by a pretty girl; so, with some little deliberation, he answered:
“All right; here you are, my pretty girl; but you must give me a real good fortune for it,” and he handed her a half sovereign, which she took, saying:
“It is not for me to give good fortune or bad, but only to read what the Stars have said.” She took his right hand and turned it palm upward; but the instant her eyes met it she dropped it as though it had been red hot, and, with a startled look, glided swiftly away. Lifting the curtain of the large tent, which occupied the centre of the camp, she disappeared within.
“Sold again!” said the cynical Gerald. Joshua stood a little amazed, and not altogether satisfied. They both watched the large tent. In a few moments there emerged from the opening not the young girl, but a stately looking woman of middle age and commanding presence.
The instant she appeared the whole camp seemed to stand still. The clamour of tongues, the laughter and noise of the work were, for a second or two, arrested, and every man or woman who sat, or crouched, or lay, stood up and faced the imperial looking gipsy.
“The Queen, of course,” murmured Gerald. “We are in luck to-night.” The gipsy Queen threw a searching glance around the camp, and then, without hesitating an instant, came straight over and stood before Joshua.
“Hold out your hand,” she said in a commanding tone.
Again Gerald spoke, sotto voce: “I have not been spoken to in that way since I was at school.”
“Your hand must be crossed with gold.”
“A hundred per cent at this game,” whispered Gerald, as Joshua laid another half sovereign on his upturned palm.
The gipsy looked at the hand with knitted brows; then suddenly looking up into his face, said:
“Have you a strong will—have you a true heart that can be brave for one you love?”
“I hope so; but I am afraid I have not vanity enough to say ‘yes.'”
“Then I will answer for you; for I read resolution in your face—resolution desperate and determined if need be. You have a wife you love?”
“Then leave her at once—never see her face again. Go from her now, while love is fresh and your heart is free from wicked intent. Go quick—go far, and never see her face again!”
Joshua drew away his hand quickly, and said, “Thank you!” stiffly but sarcastically, as he began to move away.
“I say!” said Gerald, “You’re not going like that, old man; no use in being indignant with the Stars or their prophet—and, moreover, your sovereign—what of it? At least, hear the matter out.”
“Silence, ribald!” commanded the Queen, “you know not what you do. Let him go—and go ignorant, if he will not be warned.”
Joshua immediately turned back. “At all events, we will see this thing out,” he said. “Now, madam, you have given me advice, but I paid for a fortune.”
“Be warned!” said the gipsy. “The Stars have been silent for long; let the mystery still wrap them round.”
“My dear madam, I do not get within touch of a mystery every day, and I prefer for my money knowledge rather than ignorance. I can get the latter commodity for nothing when I want any of it.”
Gerald echoed the sentiment. “As for me I have a large and unsaleable stock on hand.”
The gipsy Queen eyed the two men sternly, and then said, “As you wish. You have chosen for yourself, and have met warning with scorn, and appeal with levity. On your own heads be the doom!”
“Amen!” said Gerald.
With an imperious gesture the Queen took Joshua’s hand again, and began to tell his fortune.
“I see here the flowing of blood; it will flow before long; it is running in my sight. It flows through the broken circle of a severed ring.”
“Go on!” said Joshua, smiling. Gerald was silent.
“Must I speak plainer?”
“Certainly; we commonplace mortals want something definite. The Stars are a long way off, and their words get somewhat dulled in the message.”
The gipsy shuddered, and then spoke impressively. “This is the hand of a murderer—the murderer of his wife!” She dropped the hand and turned away.
Joshua laughed. “Do you know,” said he, “I think if I were you I should prophesy some jurisprudence into my system. For instance, you say ‘this hand is the hand of a murderer.’ Well, whatever it may be in the future—or potentially—it is at present not one. You ought to give your prophecy in such terms as ‘the hand which will be a murderer’s,’ or, rather, ‘the hand of one who will be the murderer of his wife.’ The Stars are really not good on technical questions.”
The gipsy made no reply of any kind, but, with drooping head and despondent mien, walked slowly to her tent, and, lifting the curtain, disappeared.
Without speaking the two men turned homewards, and walked across the moor. Presently, after some little hesitation, Gerald spoke.
“Of course, old man, this is all a joke; a ghastly one, but still a joke. But would it not be well to keep it to ourselves?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, not to tell your wife. It might alarm her.”
“Alarm her! My dear Gerald, what are you thinking of? Why, she would not be alarmed or afraid of me if all the gipsies that ever didn’t come from Bohemia agreed that I was to murder her, or even to have a hard thought of her, whilst so long as she was saying ‘Jack Robinson.’ “
Gerald remonstrated. “Old fellow, women are superstitious—far more than we men are; and, also, they are blessed—or cursed—with a nervous system to which we are strangers. I see too much of it in my work not to realise it. Take my advice and do not let her know, or you will frighten her.”
Joshua’s lips unconsciously hardened as he answered: “My dear fellow, I would not have a secret from my wife. Why, it would be the beginning of a new order of things between us. We have no secrets from each other. If we ever have, then you may begin to look out for something odd between us.”
“Still,” said Gerald, “at the risk of unwelcome interference, I say again be warned in time.”
“The gipsy’s very words,” said Joshua. “You and she seem quite of one accord. Tell me, old man, is this a put-up thing? You told me of the gipsy camp—did you arrange it all with Her Majesty?” This was said with an air of bantering earnestness. Gerald assured him that he only heard of the camp that morning; but he made fun of every answer of his friend, and, in the process of this raillery, the time passed, and they entered the cottage.
Mary was sitting by the piano but not playing. The dim twilight had waked some very tender feelings in her breast, and her eyes were full of gentle tears. When the men came in she stole over to her husband’s side and kissed him. Joshua struck a tragic attitude.
“Mary,” he said in a deep voice, “before you approach me, listen to the words of Fate. The Stars have spoken and the doom is sealed.”
“What is it, dear? Tell me the fortune, but do not frighten me.”
“Not at all, my dear; but there is a truth which it is well that you should know. Nay, it is necessary so that all your arrangements can be made beforehand, and everything be decently done and in order.”
“Go on, dear; I am listening.”
“Mary Considine, your effigy may yet be seen at Madame Tussaud’s. The juris-imprudent stars have announced their fell tidings that this hand is red with blood—your blood. Mary! Mary! My God!” He sprang forward, but too late to catch her as she fell fainting on the floor.
“I told you,” said Gerald. “You don’t know them as well as I do.”
After a little while Mary recovered from her swoon, but only to fall into strong hysterics, in which she laughed and wept and raved and cried, “Keep him from me—from me, Joshua, my husband,” and many other words of entreaty and of fear.
Joshua Considine was in a state of mind bordering on agony, and when at last Mary became calm he knelt by her and kissed her feet and hands and hair and called her all the sweet names and said all the tender things his lips could frame. All that night he sat by her bedside and held her hand. Far through the night and up to the early morning she kept waking from sleep and crying out as if in fear, till she was comforted by the consciousness that her husband was watching beside her.
Breakfast was late the next morning, but during it Joshua received a telegram which required him to drive over to Withering, nearly twenty miles. He was loth to go; but Mary would not hear of his remaining, and so before noon he drove off in his dog-cart alone.
When he was gone Mary retired to her room. She did not appear at lunch, but when afternoon tea was served on the lawn, under the great weeping willow, she came to join her guest. She was looking quite recovered from her illness of the evening before. After some casual remarks, she said to Gerald: “Of course it was very silly about last night, but I could not help feeling frightened. Indeed I would feel so still if I let myself think of it. But, after all, these people may only imagine things, and I have got a test that can hardly fail to show that the prediction is false—if indeed it be false,” she added sadly.
“What is your plan?” asked Gerald.
“I shall go myself to the gipsy camp, and have my fortune told by the Queen.”
“Capital. May I go with you?”
“Oh, no! That would spoil it. She might know you and guess at me, and suit her utterance accordingly. I shall go alone this afternoon.”
When the afternoon was gone Mary Considine took her way to the gipsy encampment. Gerald went with her as far as the near edge of the common, and returned alone.
Half-an-hour had hardly elapsed when Mary entered the drawing-room, where he lay on a sofa reading. She was ghastly pale and was in a state of extreme excitement. Hardly had she passed over the threshold when she collapsed and sank moaning on the carpet. Gerald rushed to aid her, but by a great effort she controlled herself and motioned him to be silent. He waited, and his ready attention to her wish seemed to be her best help, for, in a few minutes, she had somewhat recovered, and was able to tell him what had passed.
“When I got to the camp,” she said, “there did not seem to be a soul about. I went into the centre and stood there. Suddenly a tall woman stood beside me. ‘Something told me I was wanted!’ she said. I held out my hand and laid a piece of silver on it. She took from her neck a small golden trinket and laid it there also; and then, seizing the two, threw them into the stream that ran by. Then she took my hand in hers and spoke: ‘Naught but blood in this guilty place,’ and turned away. I caught hold of her and asked her to tell me more. After some hesitation, she said: ‘Alas! alas! I see you lying at your husband’s feet, and his hands are red with blood.'”
Gerald did not feel at all at ease, and tried to laugh it off. “Surely,” he said, “this woman has a craze about murder.”
“Do not laugh,” said Mary, “I cannot bear it,” and then, as if with a sudden impulse, she left the room.
Not long after Joshua returned, bright and cheery, and as hungry as a hunter after his long drive. His presence cheered his wife, who seemed much brighter, but she did not mention the episode of the visit to the gipsy camp, so Gerald did not mention it either. As if by tacit consent the subject was not alluded to during the evening. But there was a strange, settled look on Mary’s face, which Gerald could not but observe.
In the morning Joshua came down to breakfast later than usual. Mary had been up and about the house from an early hour; but as the time drew on she seemed to get a little nervous, and now and again threw around an anxious look.
Gerald could not help noticing that none of those at breakfast could get on satisfactorily with their food. It was not altogether that the chops were tough, but that the knives were all so blunt. Being a guest, he, of course, made no sign; but presently saw Joshua draw his thumb across the edge of his knife in an unconscious sort of way. At the action Mary turned pale and almost fainted.
After breakfast they all went out on the lawn. Mary was making up a bouquet, and said to her husband, “Get me a few of the tea-roses, dear.”
Joshua pulled down a cluster from the front of the house. The stem bent, but was too tough to break. He put his hand in his pocket to get his knife; but in vain. “Lend me your knife, Gerald,” he said. But Gerald had not got one, so he went into the breakfast-room and took one from the table. He came out feeling its edge and grumbling. “What on earth has happened to all the knives—the edges seem all ground off?” Mary turned away hurriedly and entered the house.
Joshua tried to sever the stalk with the blunt knife as countrycooks sever the necks of fowl—as schoolboys cut twine. With a little effort he finished the task. The cluster of roses grew thick, so he determined to gather a great bunch.
He could not find a single sharp knife in the sideboard where the cutlery was kept, so he called Mary, and when she came, told her the state of things. She looked so agitated and so miserable that he could not help knowing the truth, and, as if astounded and hurt, asked her:
“Do you mean to say that you have done it?”
She broke in, “Oh, Joshua, I was so afraid.”
He paused, and a set, white look came over his face. “Mary!” said he, “is this all the trust you have in me? I would not have believed it.”
“Oh, Joshua! Joshua!” she cried entreatingly, “forgive me,” and wept bitterly.
Joshua thought a moment and then said: “I see how it is. We shall better end this or we shall all go mad.”
He ran into the drawing-room.
“Where are you going?” almost screamed Mary.
Gerald saw what he meant-that he would not be tied to blunt instruments by the force of a superstition, and was not surprised when he saw him come out through the French window, bearing in his hand a large Ghourka knife, which usually lay on the centre table, and which his brother had sent him from Northern India. It was one of those great hunting-knives which worked such havoc, at close quarters with the enemies of the loyal Ghourkas during the mutiny, of great weight but so evenly balanced in the hand as to seem light, and with an edge like a razor. With one of these knives a Ghourka can cut a sheep in two.
When Mary saw him come out of the room with the weapon in his hand she screamed in an agony of fright, and the hysterics of last night were promptly renewed.
Joshua ran toward her, and, seeing her falling, threw down the knife and tried to catch her.
However, he was just a second too late, and the two men cried out in horror simultaneously as they saw her fall upon the naked blade.
When Gerald rushed over he found that in falling her left hand had struck the blade, which lay partly upwards on the grass. Some of the small veins were cut through, and the blood gushed freely from the wound. As he was tying it up he pointed out to Joshua that the wedding ring was severed by the steel.
They carried her fainting to the house. When, after a while, she came out, with her arm in a sling, she was peaceful in her mind and happy. She said to her husband:
“The gipsy was wonderfully near the truth; too near for the real thing ever to occur now, dear.”
Joshua bent over and kissed the wounded hand.
Between the silver ribbon of morning and the green glittering ribbon of sea, the boat touched Harwich and let loose a swarm of folk like flies, among whom the man we must follow was by no means conspicuous—nor wished to be. There was nothing notable about him, except a slight contrast between the holiday gaiety of his clothes and the official gravity of his face. His clothes included a slight, pale grey jacket, a white waistcoat, and a silver straw hat with a grey-blue ribbon. His lean face was dark by contrast, and ended in a curt black beard that looked Spanish and suggested an Elizabethan ruff. He was smoking a cigarette with the seriousness of an idler. There was nothing about him to indicate the fact that the grey jacket covered a loaded revolver, that the white waistcoat covered a police card, or that the straw hat covered one of the most powerful intellects in Europe. For this was Valentin himself, the head of the Paris police and the most famous investigator of the world; and he was coming from Brussels to London to make the greatest arrest of the century.
Flambeau was in England. The police of three countries had tracked the great criminal at last from Ghent to Brussels, from Brussels to the Hook of Holland; and it was conjectured that he would take some advantage of the unfamiliarity and confusion of the Eucharistic Congress, then taking place in London. Probably he would travel as some minor clerk or secretary connected with it; but, of course, Valentin could not be certain; nobody could be certain about Flambeau.
It is many years now since this colossus of crime suddenly ceased keeping the world in a turmoil; and when he ceased, as they said after the death of Roland, there was a great quiet upon the earth. But in his best days (I mean, of course, his worst) Flambeau was a figure as statuesque and international as the Kaiser. Almost every morning the daily paper announced that he had escaped the consequences of one extraordinary crime by committing another. He was a Gascon of gigantic stature and bodily daring; and the wildest tales were told of his outbursts of athletic humour; how he turned the juge d’instruction upside down and stood him on his head, “to clear his mind”; how he ran down the Rue de Rivoli with a policeman under each arm. It is due to him to say that his fantastic physical strength was generally employed in such bloodless though undignified scenes; his real crimes were chiefly those of ingenious and wholesale robbery. But each of his thefts was almost a new sin, and would make a story by itself. It was he who ran the great Tyrolean Dairy Company in London, with no dairies, no cows, no carts, no milk, but with some thousand subscribers. These he served by the simple operation of moving the little milk cans outside people’s doors to the doors of his own customers. It was he who had kept up an unaccountable and close correspondence with a young lady whose whole letter-bag was intercepted, by the extraordinary trick of photographing his messages infinitesimally small upon the slides of a microscope. A sweeping simplicity, however, marked many of his experiments. It is said that he once repainted all the numbers in a street in the dead of night merely to divert one traveller into a trap. It is quite certain that he invented a portable pillar-box, which he put up at corners in quiet suburbs on the chance of strangers dropping postal orders into it. Lastly, he was known to be a startling acrobat; despite his huge figure, he could leap like a grasshopper and melt into the tree-tops like a monkey. Hence the great Valentin, when he set out to find Flambeau, was perfectly aware that his adventures would not end when he had found him.
But how was he to find him? On this the great Valentin’s ideas were still in process of settlement.
There was one thing which Flambeau, with all his dexterity of disguise, could not cover, and that was his singular height. If Valentin’s quick eye had caught a tall apple-woman, a tall grenadier, or even a tolerably tall duchess, he might have arrested them on the spot. But all along his train there was nobody that could be a disguised Flambeau, any more than a cat could be a disguised giraffe. About the people on the boat he had already satisfied himself; and the people picked up at Harwich or on the journey limited themselves with certainty to six. There was a short railway official travelling up to the terminus, three fairly short market gardeners picked up two stations afterwards, one very short widow lady going up from a small Essex town, and a very short Roman Catholic priest going up from a small Essex village. When it came to the last case, Valentin gave it up and almost laughed. The little priest was so much the essence of those Eastern flats; he had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown paper parcels, which he was quite incapable of collecting. The Eucharistic Congress had doubtless sucked out of their local stagnation many such creatures, blind and helpless, like moles disinterred. Valentin was a sceptic in the severe style of France, and could have no love for priests. But he could have pity for them, and this one might have provoked pity in anybody. He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor. He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket. He explained with a moon-calf simplicity to everybody in the carriage that he had to be careful, because he had something made of real silver “with blue stones” in one of his brown-paper parcels. His quaint blending of Essex flatness with saintly simplicity continuously amused the Frenchman till the priest arrived (somehow) at Tottenham with all his parcels, and came back for his umbrella. When he did the last, Valentin even had the good nature to warn him not to take care of the silver by telling everybody about it. But to whomever he talked, Valentin kept his eye open for someone else; he looked out steadily for anyone, rich or poor, male or female, who was well up to six feet; for Flambeau was four inches above it.
He alighted at Liverpool Street, however, quite conscientiously secure that he had not missed the criminal so far. He then went to Scotland Yard to regularise his position and arrange for help in case of need; he then lit another cigarette and went for a long stroll in the streets of London. As he was walking in the streets and squares beyond Victoria, he paused suddenly and stood. It was a quaint, quiet square, very typical of London, full of an accidental stillness. The tall, flat houses round looked at once prosperous and uninhabited; the square of shrubbery in the centre looked as deserted as a green Pacific islet. One of the four sides was much higher than the rest, like a dais; and the line of this side was broken by one of London’s admirable accidents—a restaurant that looked as if it had strayed from Soho. It was an unreasonably attractive object, with dwarf plants in pots and long, striped blinds of lemon yellow and white. It stood specially high above the street, and in the usual patchwork way of London, a flight of steps from the street ran up to meet the front door almost as a fire-escape might run up to a first-floor window. Valentin stood and smoked in front of the yellow-white blinds and considered them long.
The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.
Aristide Valentin was unfathomably French; and the French intelligence is intelligence specially and solely. He was not “a thinking machine”; for that is a brainless phrase of modern fatalism and materialism. A machine only is a machine because it cannot think. But he was a thinking man, and a plain man at the same time. All his wonderful successes, that looked like conjuring, had been gained by plodding logic, by clear and commonplace French thought. The French electrify the world not by starting any paradox, they electrify it by carrying out a truism. They carry a truism so far—as in the French Revolution. But exactly because Valentin understood reason, he understood the limits of reason. Only a man who knows nothing of motors talks of motoring without petrol; only a man who knows nothing of reason talks of reasoning without strong, undisputed first principles. Here he had no strong first principles. Flambeau had been missed at Harwich; and if he was in London at all, he might be anything from a tall tramp on Wimbledon Common to a tall toast-master at the Hotel Metropole. In such a naked state of nescience, Valentin had a view and a method of his own.
In such cases he reckoned on the unforeseen. In such cases, when he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places—banks, police stations, rendezvous—he systematically went to the wrong places; knocked at every empty house, turned down every cul de sac, went up every lane blocked with rubbish, went round every crescent that led him uselessly out of the way. He defended this crazy course quite logically. He said that if one had a clue this was the worst way; but if one had no clue at all it was the best, because there was just the chance that any oddity that caught the eye of the pursuer might be the same that had caught the eye of the pursued. Somewhere a man must begin, and it had better be just where another man might stop. Something about that flight of steps up to the shop, something about the quietude and quaintness of the restaurant, roused all the detective’s rare romantic fancy and made him resolve to strike at random. He went up the steps, and sitting down at a table by the window, asked for a cup of black coffee.
It was half-way through the morning, and he had not breakfasted; the slight litter of other breakfasts stood about on the table to remind him of his hunger; and adding a poached egg to his order, he proceeded musingly to shake some white sugar into his coffee, thinking all the time about Flambeau. He remembered how Flambeau had escaped, once by a pair of nail scissors, and once by a house on fire; once by having to pay for an unstamped letter, and once by getting people to look through a telescope at a comet that might destroy the world. He thought his detective brain as good as the criminal’s, which was true. But he fully realised the disadvantage. “The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic,” he said with a sour smile, and lifted his coffee cup to his lips slowly, and put it down very quickly. He had put salt in it.
He looked at the vessel from which the silvery powder had come; it was certainly a sugar-basin; as unmistakably meant for sugar as a champagne-bottle for champagne. He wondered why they should keep salt in it. He looked to see if there were any more orthodox vessels. Yes; there were two salt-cellars quite full. Perhaps there was some speciality in the condiment in the salt-cellars. He tasted it; it was sugar. Then he looked round at the restaurant with a refreshed air of interest, to see if there were any other traces of that singular artistic taste which puts the sugar in the salt-cellars and the salt in the sugar-basin. Except for an odd splash of some dark fluid on one of the white-papered walls, the whole place appeared neat, cheerful and ordinary. He rang the bell for the waiter.
When that official hurried up, fuzzy-haired and somewhat blear-eyed at that early hour, the detective (who was not without an appreciation of the simpler forms of humour) asked him to taste the sugar and see if it was up to the high reputation of the hotel. The result was that the waiter yawned suddenly and woke up.
“Do you play this delicate joke on your customers every morning?” inquired Valentin. “Does changing the salt and sugar never pall on you as a jest?”
The waiter, when this irony grew clearer, stammeringly assured him that the establishment had certainly no such intention; it must be a most curious mistake. He picked up the sugar-basin and looked at it; he picked up the salt-cellar and looked at that, his face growing more and more bewildered. At last he abruptly excused himself, and hurrying away, returned in a few seconds with the proprietor. The proprietor also examined the sugar-basin and then the salt-cellar; the proprietor also looked bewildered.
Suddenly the waiter seemed to grow inarticulate with a rush of words.
“I zink,” he stuttered eagerly, “I zink it is those two clergy-men.”
“What two clergymen?”
“The two clergymen,” said the waiter, “that threw soup at the wall.”
“Threw soup at the wall?” repeated Valentin, feeling sure this must be some singular Italian metaphor.
“Yes, yes,” said the attendant excitedly, and pointed at the dark splash on the white paper; “threw it over there on the wall.”
Valentin looked his query at the proprietor, who came to his rescue with fuller reports.
“Yes, sir,” he said, “it’s quite true, though I don’t suppose it has anything to do with the sugar and salt. Two clergymen came in and drank soup here very early, as soon as the shutters were taken down. They were both very quiet, respectable people; one of them paid the bill and went out; the other, who seemed a slower coach altogether, was some minutes longer getting his things together. But he went at last. Only, the instant before he stepped into the street he deliberately picked up his cup, which he had only half emptied, and threw the soup slap on the wall. I was in the back room myself, and so was the waiter; so I could only rush out in time to find the wall splashed and the shop empty. It don’t do any particular damage, but it was confounded cheek; and I tried to catch the men in the street. They were too far off though; I only noticed they went round the next corner into Carstairs Street.”
The detective was on his feet, hat settled and stick in hand. He had already decided that in the universal darkness of his mind he could only follow the first odd finger that pointed; and this finger was odd enough. Paying his bill and clashing the glass doors behind him, he was soon swinging round into the other street.
It was fortunate that even in such fevered moments his eye was cool and quick. Something in a shop-front went by him like a mere flash; yet he went back to look at it. The shop was a popular greengrocer and fruiterer’s, an array of goods set out in the open air and plainly ticketed with their names and prices. In the two most prominent compartments were two heaps, of oranges and of nuts respectively. On the heap of nuts lay a scrap of cardboard, on which was written in bold, blue chalk, “Best tangerine oranges, two a penny.” On the oranges was the equally clear and exact description, “Finest Brazil nuts, 4d. a lb.” M. Valentin looked at these two placards and fancied he had met this highly subtle form of humour before, and that somewhat recently. He drew the attention of the red-faced fruiterer, who was looking rather sullenly up and down the street, to this inaccuracy in his advertisements. The fruiterer said nothing, but sharply put each card into its proper place. The detective, leaning elegantly on his walking-cane, continued to scrutinise the shop. At last he said, “Pray excuse my apparent irrelevance, my good sir, but I should like to ask you a question in experimental psychology and the association of ideas.”
The red-faced shopman regarded him with an eye of menace; but he continued gaily, swinging his cane, “Why,” he pursued, “why are two tickets wrongly placed in a greengrocer’s shop like a shovel hat that has come to London for a holiday? Or, in case I do not make myself clear, what is the mystical association which connects the idea of nuts marked as oranges with the idea of two clergymen, one tall and the other short?”
The eyes of the tradesman stood out of his head like a snail’s; he really seemed for an instant likely to fling himself upon the stranger. At last he stammered angrily: “I don’t know what you ‘ave to do with it, but if you’re one of their friends, you can tell ‘em from me that I’ll knock their silly ‘eads off, parsons or no parsons, if they upset my apples again.”
“Indeed?” asked the detective, with great sympathy. “Did they upset your apples?”
“One of ‘em did,” said the heated shopman; “rolled ‘em all over the street. I’d ‘ave caught the fool but for havin’ to pick ‘em up.”
“Which way did these parsons go?” asked Valentin.
“Up that second road on the left-hand side, and then across the square,” said the other promptly.
“Thanks,” replied Valentin, and vanished like a fairy. On the other side of the second square he found a policeman, and said: “This is urgent, constable; have you seen two clergymen in shovel hats?”
The policeman began to chuckle heavily. “I ‘ave, sir; and if you arst me, one of ‘em was drunk. He stood in the middle of the road that bewildered that—”
“Which way did they go?” snapped Valentin.
“They took one of them yellow buses over there,” answered the man; “them that go to Hampstead.”
Valentin produced his official card and said very rapidly: “Call up two of your men to come with me in pursuit,” and crossed the road with such contagious energy that the ponderous policeman was moved to almost agile obedience. In a minute and a half the French detective was joined on the opposite pavement by an inspector and a man in plain clothes.
“Well, sir,” began the former, with smiling importance, “and what may—?”
Valentin pointed suddenly with his cane. “I’ll tell you on the top of that omnibus,” he said, and was darting and dodging across the tangle of the traffic. When all three sank panting on the top seats of the yellow vehicle, the inspector said: “We could go four times as quick in a taxi.”
“Quite true,” replied their leader placidly, “if we only had an idea of where we were going.”
“Well, where are you going?” asked the other, staring.
Valentin smoked frowningly for a few seconds; then, removing his cigarette, he said: “If you know what a man’s doing, get in front of him; but if you want to guess what he’s doing, keep behind him. Stray when he strays; stop when he stops; travel as slowly as he. Then you may see what he saw and may act as he acted. All we can do is to keep our eyes skinned for a queer thing.”
“What sort of queer thing do you mean?” asked the inspector.
“Any sort of queer thing,” answered Valentin, and relapsed into obstinate silence.
The yellow omnibus crawled up the northern roads for what seemed like hours on end; the great detective would not explain further, and perhaps his assistants felt a silent and growing doubt of his errand. Perhaps, also, they felt a silent and growing desire for lunch, for the hours crept long past the normal luncheon hour, and the long roads of the North London suburbs seemed to shoot out into length after length like an infernal telescope. It was one of those journeys on which a man perpetually feels that now at last he must have come to the end of the universe, and then finds he has only come to the beginning of Tufnell Park. London died away in draggled taverns and dreary scrubs, and then was unaccountably born again in blazing high streets and blatant hotels. It was like passing through thirteen separate vulgar cities all just touching each other. But though the winter twilight was already threatening the road ahead of them, the Parisian detective still sat silent and watchful, eyeing the frontage of the streets that slid by on either side. By the time they had left Camden Town behind, the policemen were nearly asleep; at least, they gave something like a jump as Valentin leapt erect, struck a hand on each man’s shoulder, and shouted to the driver to stop.
They tumbled down the steps into the road without realising why they had been dislodged; when they looked round for enlightenment they found Valentin triumphantly pointing his finger towards a window on the left side of the road. It was a large window, forming part of the long facade of a gilt and palatial public-house; it was the part reserved for respectable dining, and labelled “Restaurant.” This window, like all the rest along the frontage of the hotel, was of frosted and figured glass; but in the middle of it was a big, black smash, like a star in the ice.
“Our cue at last,” cried Valentin, waving his stick; “the place with the broken window.”
“What window? What cue?” asked his principal assistant. “Why, what proof is there that this has anything to do with them?”
Valentin almost broke his bamboo stick with rage.
“Proof!” he cried. “Good God! the man is looking for proof! Why, of course, the chances are twenty to one that it has nothing to do with them. But what else can we do? Don’t you see we must either follow one wild possibility or else go home to bed?” He banged his way into the restaurant, followed by his companions, and they were soon seated at a late luncheon at a little table, and looked at the star of smashed glass from the inside. Not that it was very informative to them even then.
“Got your window broken, I see,” said Valentin to the waiter as he paid the bill.
“Yes, sir,” answered the attendant, bending busily over the change, to which Valentin silently added an enormous tip. The waiter straightened himself with mild but unmistakable animation.
“Ah, yes, sir,” he said. “Very odd thing, that, sir.”
“Indeed?” Tell us about it,” said the detective with careless curiosity.
“Well, two gents in black came in,” said the waiter; “two of those foreign parsons that are running about. They had a cheap and quiet little lunch, and one of them paid for it and went out. The other was just going out to join him when I looked at my change again and found he’d paid me more than three times too much. ‘Here,’ I says to the chap who was nearly out of the door, ‘you’ve paid too much.’ ‘Oh,’ he says, very cool, ‘have we?’ ‘Yes,’ I says, and picks up the bill to show him. Well, that was a knock-out.”
“What do you mean?” asked his interlocutor.
“Well, I’d have sworn on seven Bibles that I’d put 4s. on that bill. But now I saw I’d put 14s., as plain as paint.”
“Well?” cried Valentin, moving slowly, but with burning eyes, “and then?”
“The parson at the door he says all serene, ‘Sorry to confuse your accounts, but it’ll pay for the window.’ ‘What window?’ I says. ‘The one I’m going to break,’ he says, and smashed that blessed pane with his umbrella.”
All three inquirers made an exclamation; and the inspector said under his breath, “Are we after escaped lunatics?” The waiter went on with some relish for the ridiculous story:
“I was so knocked silly for a second, I couldn’t do anything. The man marched out of the place and joined his friend just round the corner. Then they went so quick up Bullock Street that I couldn’t catch them, though I ran round the bars to do it.”
“Bullock Street,” said the detective, and shot up that thoroughfare as quickly as the strange couple he pursued.
Their journey now took them through bare brick ways like tunnels; streets with few lights and even with few windows; streets that seemed built out of the blank backs of everything and everywhere. Dusk was deepening, and it was not easy even for the London policemen to guess in what exact direction they were treading. The inspector, however, was pretty certain that they would eventually strike some part of Hampstead Heath. Abruptly one bulging gas-lit window broke the blue twilight like a bull’s-eye lantern; and Valentin stopped an instant before a little garish sweetstuff shop. After an instant’s hesitation he went in; he stood amid the gaudy colours of the confectionery with entire gravity and bought thirteen chocolate cigars with a certain care. He was clearly preparing an opening; but he did not need one.
An angular, elderly young woman in the shop had regarded his elegant appearance with a merely automatic inquiry; but when she saw the door behind him blocked with the blue uniform of the inspector, her eyes seemed to wake up.
“Oh,” she said, “if you’ve come about that parcel, I’ve sent it off already.”
“Parcel?” repeated Valentin; and it was his turn to look inquiring.
“I mean the parcel the gentleman left—the clergyman gentleman.”
“For goodness’ sake,” said Valentin, leaning forward with his first real confession of eagerness, “for Heaven’s sake tell us what happened exactly.”
“Well,” said the woman a little doubtfully, “the clergymen came in about half an hour ago and bought some peppermints and talked a bit, and then went off towards the Heath. But a second after, one of them runs back into the shop and says, ‘Have I left a parcel!’ Well, I looked everywhere and couldn’t see one; so he says, ‘Never mind; but if it should turn up, please post it to this address,’ and he left me the address and a shilling for my trouble. And sure enough, though I thought I’d looked everywhere, I found he’d left a brown paper parcel, so I posted it to the place he said. I can’t remember the address now; it was somewhere in Westminster. But as the thing seemed so important, I thought perhaps the police had come about it.”
“So they have,” said Valentin shortly. “Is Hampstead Heath near here?”
“Straight on for fifteen minutes,” said the woman, “and you’ll come right out on the open.” Valentin sprang out of the shop and began to run. The other detectives followed him at a reluctant trot.
The street they threaded was so narrow and shut in by shadows that when they came out unexpectedly into the void common and vast sky they were startled to find the evening still so light and clear. A perfect dome of peacock-green sank into gold amid the blackening trees and the dark violet distances. The glowing green tint was just deep enough to pick out in points of crystal one or two stars. All that was left of the daylight lay in a golden glitter across the edge of Hampstead and that popular hollow which is called the Vale of Health. The holiday makers who roam this region had not wholly dispersed; a few couples sat shapelessly on benches; and here and there a distant girl still shrieked in one of the swings. The glory of heaven deepened and darkened around the sublime vulgarity of man; and standing on the slope and looking across the valley, Valentin beheld the thing which he sought.
Among the black and breaking groups in that distance was one especially black which did not break—a group of two figures clerically clad. Though they seemed as small as insects, Valentin could see that one of them was much smaller than the other. Though the other had a student’s stoop and an inconspicuous manner, he could see that the man was well over six feet high. He shut his teeth and went forward, whirling his stick impatiently. By the time he had substantially diminished the distance and magnified the two black figures as in a vast microscope, he had perceived something else; something which startled him, and yet which he had somehow expected. Whoever was the tall priest, there could be no doubt about the identity of the short one. It was his friend of the Harwich train, the stumpy little cure of Essex whom he had warned about his brown paper parcels.
Now, so far as this went, everything fitted in finally and rationally enough. Valentin had learned by his inquiries that morning that a Father Brown from Essex was bringing up a silver cross with sapphires, a relic of considerable value, to show some of the foreign priests at the congress. This undoubtedly was the “silver with blue stones”; and Father Brown undoubtedly was the little greenhorn in the train. Now there was nothing wonderful about the fact that what Valentin had found out Flambeau had also found out; Flambeau found out everything. Also there was nothing wonderful in the fact that when Flambeau heard of a sapphire cross he should try to steal it; that was the most natural thing in all natural history. And most certainly there was nothing wonderful about the fact that Flambeau should have it all his own way with such a silly sheep as the man with the umbrella and the parcels. He was the sort of man whom anybody could lead on a string to the North Pole; it was not surprising that an actor like Flambeau, dressed as another priest, could lead him to Hampstead Heath. So far the crime seemed clear enough; and while the detective pitied the priest for his helplessness, he almost despised Flambeau for condescending to so gullible a victim. But when Valentin thought of all that had happened in between, of all that had led him to his triumph, he racked his brains for the smallest rhyme or reason in it. What had the stealing of a blue-and-silver cross from a priest from Essex to do with chucking soup at wall paper? What had it to do with calling nuts oranges, or with paying for windows first and breaking them afterwards? He had come to the end of his chase; yet somehow he had missed the middle of it. When he failed (which was seldom), he had usually grasped the clue, but nevertheless missed the criminal. Here he had grasped the criminal, but still he could not grasp the clue.
The two figures that they followed were crawling like black flies across the huge green contour of a hill. They were evidently sunk in conversation, and perhaps did not notice where they were going; but they were certainly going to the wilder and more silent heights of the Heath. As their pursuers gained on them, the latter had to use the undignified attitudes of the deer-stalker, to crouch behind clumps of trees and even to crawl prostrate in deep grass. By these ungainly ingenuities the hunters even came close enough to the quarry to hear the murmur of the discussion, but no word could be distinguished except the word “reason” recurring frequently in a high and almost childish voice. Once over an abrupt dip of land and a dense tangle of thickets, the detectives actually lost the two figures they were following. They did not find the trail again for an agonising ten minutes, and then it led round the brow of a great dome of hill overlooking an amphitheatre of rich and desolate sunset scenery. Under a tree in this commanding yet neglected spot was an old ramshackle wooden seat. On this seat sat the two priests still in serious speech together. The gorgeous green and gold still clung to the darkening horizon; but the dome above was turning slowly from peacock-green to peacock-blue, and the stars detached themselves more and more like solid jewels. Mutely motioning to his followers, Valentin contrived to creep up behind the big branching tree, and, standing there in deathly silence, heard the words of the strange priests for the first time.
After he had listened for a minute and a half, he was gripped by a devilish doubt. Perhaps he had dragged the two English policemen to the wastes of a nocturnal heath on an errand no saner than seeking figs on its thistles. For the two priests were talking exactly like priests, piously, with learning and leisure, about the most aerial enigmas of theology. The little Essex priest spoke the more simply, with his round face turned to the strengthening stars; the other talked with his head bowed, as if he were not even worthy to look at them. But no more innocently clerical conversation could have been heard in any white Italian cloister or black Spanish cathedral.
The first he heard was the tail of one of Father Brown’s sentences, which ended: “… what they really meant in the Middle Ages by the heavens being incorruptible.”
The taller priest nodded his bowed head and said:
“Ah, yes, these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?”
“No,” said the other priest; “reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason.”
The other priest raised his austere face to the spangled sky and said:
“Yet who knows if in that infinite universe—?”
“Only infinite physically,” said the little priest, turning sharply in his seat, “not infinite in the sense of escaping from the laws of truth.”
Valentin behind his tree was tearing his fingernails with silent fury. He seemed almost to hear the sniggers of the English detectives whom he had brought so far on a fantastic guess only to listen to the metaphysical gossip of two mild old parsons. In his impatience he lost the equally elaborate answer of the tall cleric, and when he listened again it was again Father Brown who was speaking:
“Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’”
Valentin was just in the act of rising from his rigid and crouching attitude and creeping away as softly as might be, felled by the one great folly of his life. But something in the very silence of the tall priest made him stop until the latter spoke. When at last he did speak, he said simply, his head bowed and his hands on his knees:
“Well, I think that other worlds may perhaps rise higher than our reason. The mystery of heaven is unfathomable, and I for one can only bow my head.”
Then, with brow yet bent and without changing by the faintest shade his attitude or voice, he added:
“Just hand over that sapphire cross of yours, will you? We’re all alone here, and I could pull you to pieces like a straw doll.”
The utterly unaltered voice and attitude added a strange violence to that shocking change of speech. But the guarder of the relic only seemed to turn his head by the smallest section of the compass. He seemed still to have a somewhat foolish face turned to the stars. Perhaps he had not understood. Or, perhaps, he had understood and sat rigid with terror.
“Yes,” said the tall priest, in the same low voice and in the same still posture, “yes, I am Flambeau.”
Then, after a pause, he said:
“Come, will you give me that cross?”
“No,” said the other, and the monosyllable had an odd sound.
Flambeau suddenly flung off all his pontifical pretensions. The great robber leaned back in his seat and laughed low but long.
“No,” he cried, “you won’t give it me, you proud prelate. You won’t give it me, you little celibate simpleton. Shall I tell you why you won’t give it me? Because I’ve got it already in my own breast-pocket.”
The small man from Essex turned what seemed to be a dazed face in the dusk, and said, with the timid eagerness of “The Private Secretary”:
“Are—are you sure?”
Flambeau yelled with delight.
“Really, you’re as good as a three-act farce,” he cried. “Yes, you turnip, I am quite sure. I had the sense to make a duplicate of the right parcel, and now, my friend, you’ve got the duplicate and I’ve got the jewels. An old dodge, Father Brown—a very old dodge.”
“Yes,” said Father Brown, and passed his hand through his hair with the same strange vagueness of manner. “Yes, I’ve heard of it before.”
The colossus of crime leaned over to the little rustic priest with a sort of sudden interest.
“You have heard of it?” he asked. “Where have you heard of it?”
“Well, I mustn’t tell you his name, of course,” said the little man simply. “He was a penitent, you know. He had lived prosperously for about twenty years entirely on duplicate brown paper parcels. And so, you see, when I began to suspect you, I thought of this poor chap’s way of doing it at once.”
“Began to suspect me?” repeated the outlaw with increased intensity. “Did you really have the gumption to suspect me just because I brought you up to this bare part of the heath?”
“No, no,” said Brown with an air of apology. “You see, I suspected you when we first met. It’s that little bulge up the sleeve where you people have the spiked bracelet.”
“How in Tartarus,” cried Flambeau, “did you ever hear of the spiked bracelet?”
“Oh, one’s little flock, you know!” said Father Brown, arching his eyebrows rather blankly. “When I was a curate in Hartlepool, there were three of them with spiked bracelets. So, as I suspected you from the first, don’t you see, I made sure that the cross should go safe, anyhow. I’m afraid I watched you, you know. So at last I saw you change the parcels. Then, don’t you see, I changed them back again. And then I left the right one behind.”
“Left it behind?” repeated Flambeau, and for the first time there was another note in his voice beside his triumph.
“Well, it was like this,” said the little priest, speaking in the same unaffected way. “I went back to that sweet-shop and asked if I’d left a parcel, and gave them a particular address if it turned up. Well, I knew I hadn’t; but when I went away again I did. So, instead of running after me with that valuable parcel, they have sent it flying to a friend of mine in Westminster.” Then he added rather sadly: “I learnt that, too, from a poor fellow in Hartlepool. He used to do it with handbags he stole at railway stations, but he’s in a monastery now. Oh, one gets to know, you know,” he added, rubbing his head again with the same sort of desperate apology. “We can’t help being priests. People come and tell us these things.”
Flambeau tore a brown-paper parcel out of his inner pocket and rent it in pieces. There was nothing but paper and sticks of lead inside it. He sprang to his feet with a gigantic gesture, and cried:
“I don’t believe you. I don’t believe a bumpkin like you could manage all that. I believe you’ve still got the stuff on you, and if you don’t give it up—why, we’re all alone, and I’ll take it by force!”
“No,” said Father Brown simply, and stood up also, “you won’t take it by force. First, because I really haven’t still got it. And, second, because we are not alone.”
Flambeau stopped in his stride forward.
“Behind that tree,” said Father Brown, pointing, “are two strong policemen and the greatest detective alive. How did they come here, do you ask? Why, I brought them, of course! How did I do it? Why, I’ll tell you if you like! Lord bless you, we have to know twenty such things when we work among the criminal classes! Well, I wasn’t sure you were a thief, and it would never do to make a scandal against one of our own clergy. So I just tested you to see if anything would make you show yourself. A man generally makes a small scene if he finds salt in his coffee; if he doesn’t, he has some reason for keeping quiet. I changed the salt and sugar, and you kept quiet. A man generally objects if his bill is three times too big. If he pays it, he has some motive for passing unnoticed. I altered your bill, and you paid it.”
The world seemed waiting for Flambeau to leap like a tiger. But he was held back as by a spell; he was stunned with the utmost curiosity.
“Well,” went on Father Brown, with lumbering lucidity, “as you wouldn’t leave any tracks for the police, of course somebody had to. At every place we went to, I took care to do something that would get us talked about for the rest of the day. I didn’t do much harm—a splashed wall, spilt apples, a broken window; but I saved the cross, as the cross will always be saved. It is at Westminster by now. I rather wonder you didn’t stop it with the Donkey’s Whistle.”
“With the what?” asked Flambeau.
“I’m glad you’ve never heard of it,” said the priest, making a face. “It’s a foul thing. I’m sure you’re too good a man for a Whistler. I couldn’t have countered it even with the Spots myself; I’m not strong enough in the legs.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” asked the other.
“Well, I did think you’d know the Spots,” said Father Brown, agreeably surprised. “Oh, you can’t have gone so very wrong yet!”
“How in blazes do you know all these horrors?” cried Flambeau.
The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent.
“Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose,” he said. “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest.”
“What?” asked the thief, almost gaping.
“You attacked reason,” said Father Brown. “It’s bad theology.”
And even as he turned away to collect his property, the three policemen came out from under the twilight trees. Flambeau was an artist and a sportsman. He stepped back and swept Valentin a great bow.
“Do not bow to me, mon ami,” said Valentin with silver clearness. “Let us both bow to our master.”
And they both stood an instant uncovered while the little Essex priest blinked about for his umbrella.
“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel endeavoured to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.
“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; “you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction, came into the nice division.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.
“Hardly a soul,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
He made the last statement in a tone of distinct regret.
“Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?” pursued the self-possessed young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.” Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back some day, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’ as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window—”
She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes to-day, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you men-folk, isn’t it?”
She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic; he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,” announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention—but not to what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window; they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall-door, the gravel-drive, and the front gate were dimly-noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid an imminent collision.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window; “fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?”
“A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton; “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of good-bye or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
Romance at short notice was her speciality.
Found among the Papers
of the Late Diedrich Knickerbocker.
A pleasing land of drowsy head it was,
Of dreams that wave before the half-shut eye;
And of gay castles in the clouds that pass,
Forever flushing round a summer sky.
CASTLE OF INDOLENCE.
In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town. This name was given, we are told, in former days, by the good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days. Be that as it may, I do not vouch for the fact, but merely advert to it, for the sake of being precise and authentic. Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity.
I recollect that, when a stripling, my first exploit in squirrel-shooting was in a grove of tall walnut-trees that shades one side of the valley. I had wandered into it at noontime, when all nature is peculiarly quiet, and was startled by the roar of my own gun, as it broke the Sabbath stillness around and was prolonged and reverberated by the angry echoes. If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.
From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.
The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.
Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.
It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.
I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud, for it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New York, that population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water, which border a rapid stream, where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current. Though many years have elapsed since I trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow, yet I question whether I should not still find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom.
In this by-place of nature there abode, in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, who sojourned, or, as he expressed it, “tarried,” in Sleepy Hollow, for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity. He was a native of Connecticut, a State which supplies the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest, and sends forth yearly its legions of frontier woodmen and country schoolmasters. The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.
His schoolhouse was a low building of one large room, rudely constructed of logs; the windows partly glazed, and partly patched with leaves of old copybooks. It was most ingeniously secured at vacant hours, by a withe twisted in the handle of the door, and stakes set against the window shutters; so that though a thief might get in with perfect ease, he would find some embarrassment in getting out,—an idea most probably borrowed by the architect, Yost Van Houten, from the mystery of an eelpot. The schoolhouse stood in a rather lonely but pleasant situation, just at the foot of a woody hill, with a brook running close by, and a formidable birch-tree growing at one end of it. From hence the low murmur of his pupils’ voices, conning over their lessons, might be heard in a drowsy summer’s day, like the hum of a beehive; interrupted now and then by the authoritative voice of the master, in the tone of menace or command, or, peradventure, by the appalling sound of the birch, as he urged some tardy loiterer along the flowery path of knowledge. Truth to say, he was a conscientious man, and ever bore in mind the golden maxim, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Ichabod Crane’s scholars certainly were not spoiled.
I would not have it imagined, however, that he was one of those cruel potentates of the school who joy in the smart of their subjects; on the contrary, he administered justice with discrimination rather than severity; taking the burden off the backs of the weak, and laying it on those of the strong. Your mere puny stripling, that winced at the least flourish of the rod, was passed by with indulgence; but the claims of justice were satisfied by inflicting a double portion on some little tough wrong-headed, broad-skirted Dutch urchin, who sulked and swelled and grew dogged and sullen beneath the birch. All this he called “doing his duty by their parents;” and he never inflicted a chastisement without following it by the assurance, so consolatory to the smarting urchin, that “he would remember it and thank him for it the longest day he had to live.”
When school hours were over, he was even the companion and playmate of the larger boys; and on holiday afternoons would convoy some of the smaller ones home, who happened to have pretty sisters, or good housewives for mothers, noted for the comforts of the cupboard. Indeed, it behooved him to keep on good terms with his pupils. The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda; but to help out his maintenance, he was, according to country custom in those parts, boarded and lodged at the houses of the farmers whose children he instructed. With these he lived successively a week at a time, thus going the rounds of the neighborhood, with all his worldly effects tied up in a cotton handkerchief.
That all this might not be too onerous on the purses of his rustic patrons, who are apt to consider the costs of schooling a grievous burden, and schoolmasters as mere drones, he had various ways of rendering himself both useful and agreeable. He assisted the farmers occasionally in the lighter labors of their farms, helped to make hay, mended the fences, took the horses to water, drove the cows from pasture, and cut wood for the winter fire. He laid aside, too, all the dominant dignity and absolute sway with which he lorded it in his little empire, the school, and became wonderfully gentle and ingratiating. He found favor in the eyes of the mothers by petting the children, particularly the youngest; and like the lion bold, which whilom so magnanimously the lamb did hold, he would sit with a child on one knee, and rock a cradle with his foot for whole hours together.
In addition to his other vocations, he was the singing-master of the neighborhood, and picked up many bright shillings by instructing the young folks in psalmody. It was a matter of no little vanity to him on Sundays, to take his station in front of the church gallery, with a band of chosen singers; where, in his own mind, he completely carried away the palm from the parson. Certain it is, his voice resounded far above all the rest of the congregation; and there are peculiar quavers still to be heard in that church, and which may even be heard half a mile off, quite to the opposite side of the millpond, on a still Sunday morning, which are said to be legitimately descended from the nose of Ichabod Crane. Thus, by divers little makeshifts, in that ingenious way which is commonly denominated “by hook and by crook,” the worthy pedagogue got on tolerably enough, and was thought, by all who understood nothing of the labor of headwork, to have a wonderfully easy life of it.
The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle, gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson. His appearance, therefore, is apt to occasion some little stir at the tea-table of a farmhouse, and the addition of a supernumerary dish of cakes or sweetmeats, or, peradventure, the parade of a silver teapot. Our man of letters, therefore, was peculiarly happy in the smiles of all the country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard, between services on Sundays; gathering grapes for them from the wild vines that overran the surrounding trees; reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering, with a whole bevy of them, along the banks of the adjacent millpond; while the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address.
From his half-itinerant life, also, he was a kind of travelling gazette, carrying the whole budget of local gossip from house to house, so that his appearance was always greeted with satisfaction. He was, moreover, esteemed by the women as a man of great erudition, for he had read several books quite through, and was a perfect master of Cotton Mather’s “History of New England Witchcraft,” in which, by the way, he most firmly and potently believed.
He was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow. It was often his delight, after his school was dismissed in the afternoon, to stretch himself on the rich bed of clover bordering the little brook that whimpered by his schoolhouse, and there con over old Mather’s direful tales, until the gathering dusk of evening made the printed page a mere mist before his eyes. Then, as he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful woodland, to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination,—the moan of the whip-poor-will from the hillside, the boding cry of the tree toad, that harbinger of storm, the dreary hooting of the screech owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened from their roost. The fireflies, too, which sparkled most vividly in the darkest places, now and then startled him, as one of uncommon brightness would stream across his path; and if, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give up the ghost, with the idea that he was struck with a witch’s token. His only resource on such occasions, either to drown thought or drive away evil spirits, was to sing psalm tunes and the good people of Sleepy Hollow, as they sat by their doors of an evening, were often filled with awe at hearing his nasal melody, “in linked sweetness long drawn out,” floating from the distant hill, or along the dusky road.
Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him. He would delight them equally by his anecdotes of witchcraft, and of the direful omens and portentous sights and sounds in the air, which prevailed in the earlier times of Connecticut; and would frighten them woefully with speculations upon comets and shooting stars; and with the alarming fact that the world did absolutely turn round, and that they were half the time topsy-turvy!
But if there was a pleasure in all this, while snugly cuddling in the chimney corner of a chamber that was all of a ruddy glow from the crackling wood fire, and where, of course, no spectre dared to show its face, it was dearly purchased by the terrors of his subsequent walk homewards. What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path, amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night! With what wistful look did he eye every trembling ray of light streaming across the waste fields from some distant window! How often was he appalled by some shrub covered with snow, which, like a sheeted spectre, beset his very path! How often did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the frosty crust beneath his feet; and dread to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him! And how often was he thrown into complete dismay by some rushing blast, howling among the trees, in the idea that it was the Galloping Hessian on one of his nightly scourings!
All these, however, were mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind that walk in darkness; and though he had seen many spectres in his time, and been more than once beset by Satan in divers shapes, in his lonely perambulations, yet daylight put an end to all these evils; and he would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the Devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.
Among the musical disciples who assembled, one evening in each week, to receive his instructions in psalmody, was Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and only child of a substantial Dutch farmer. She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father’s peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations. She was withal a little of a coquette, as might be perceived even in her dress, which was a mixture of ancient and modern fashions, as most suited to set off her charms. She wore the ornaments of pure yellow gold, which her great-great-grandmother had brought over from Saardam; the tempting stomacher of the olden time, and withal a provokingly short petticoat, to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round.
Ichabod Crane had a soft and foolish heart towards the sex; and it is not to be wondered at that so tempting a morsel soon found favor in his eyes, more especially after he had visited her in her paternal mansion. Old Baltus Van Tassel was a perfect picture of a thriving, contented, liberal-hearted farmer. He seldom, it is true, sent either his eyes or his thoughts beyond the boundaries of his own farm; but within those everything was snug, happy and well-conditioned. He was satisfied with his wealth, but not proud of it; and piqued himself upon the hearty abundance, rather than the style in which he lived. His stronghold was situated on the banks of the Hudson, in one of those green, sheltered, fertile nooks in which the Dutch farmers are so fond of nestling. A great elm tree spread its broad branches over it, at the foot of which bubbled up a spring of the softest and sweetest water, in a little well formed of a barrel; and then stole sparkling away through the grass, to a neighboring brook, that babbled along among alders and dwarf willows. Hard by the farmhouse was a vast barn, that might have served for a church; every window and crevice of which seemed bursting forth with the treasures of the farm; the flail was busily resounding within it from morning to night; swallows and martins skimmed twittering about the eaves; and rows of pigeons, some with one eye turned up, as if watching the weather, some with their heads under their wings or buried in their bosoms, and others swelling, and cooing, and bowing about their dames, were enjoying the sunshine on the roof. Sleek unwieldy porkers were grunting in the repose and abundance of their pens, from whence sallied forth, now and then, troops of sucking pigs, as if to snuff the air. A stately squadron of snowy geese were riding in an adjoining pond, convoying whole fleets of ducks; regiments of turkeys were gobbling through the farmyard, and Guinea fowls fretting about it, like ill-tempered housewives, with their peevish, discontented cry. Before the barn door strutted the gallant cock, that pattern of a husband, a warrior and a fine gentleman, clapping his burnished wings and crowing in the pride and gladness of his heart,—sometimes tearing up the earth with his feet, and then generously calling his ever-hungry family of wives and children to enjoy the rich morsel which he had discovered.
The pedagogue’s mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare. In his devouring mind’s eye, he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce. In the porkers he saw carved out the future sleek side of bacon, and juicy relishing ham; not a turkey but he beheld daintily trussed up, with its gizzard under its wing, and, peradventure, a necklace of savory sausages; and even bright chanticleer himself lay sprawling on his back, in a side dish, with uplifted claws, as if craving that quarter which his chivalrous spirit disdained to ask while living.
As the enraptured Ichabod fancied all this, and as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness. Nay, his busy fancy already realized his hopes, and presented to him the blooming Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on the top of a wagon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee,—or the Lord knows where!
When he entered the house, the conquest of his heart was complete. It was one of those spacious farmhouses, with high-ridged but lowly sloping roofs, built in the style handed down from the first Dutch settlers; the low projecting eaves forming a piazza along the front, capable of being closed up in bad weather. Under this were hung flails, harness, various utensils of husbandry, and nets for fishing in the neighboring river. Benches were built along the sides for summer use; and a great spinning-wheel at one end, and a churn at the other, showed the various uses to which this important porch might be devoted. From this piazza the wondering Ichabod entered the hall, which formed the centre of the mansion, and the place of usual residence. Here rows of resplendent pewter, ranged on a long dresser, dazzled his eyes. In one corner stood a huge bag of wool, ready to be spun; in another, a quantity of linsey-woolsey just from the loom; ears of Indian corn, and strings of dried apples and peaches, hung in gay festoons along the walls, mingled with the gaud of red peppers; and a door left ajar gave him a peep into the best parlor, where the claw-footed chairs and dark mahogany tables shone like mirrors; andirons, with their accompanying shovel and tongs, glistened from their covert of asparagus tops; mock-oranges and conch-shells decorated the mantelpiece; strings of various-colored birds eggs were suspended above it; a great ostrich egg was hung from the centre of the room, and a corner cupboard, knowingly left open, displayed immense treasures of old silver and well-mended china.
From the moment Ichabod laid his eyes upon these regions of delight, the peace of his mind was at an end, and his only study was how to gain the affections of the peerless daughter of Van Tassel. In this enterprise, however, he had more real difficulties than generally fell to the lot of a knight-errant of yore, who seldom had anything but giants, enchanters, fiery dragons, and such like easily conquered adversaries, to contend with and had to make his way merely through gates of iron and brass, and walls of adamant to the castle keep, where the lady of his heart was confined; all which he achieved as easily as a man would carve his way to the centre of a Christmas pie; and then the lady gave him her hand as a matter of course. Ichabod, on the contrary, had to win his way to the heart of a country coquette, beset with a labyrinth of whims and caprices, which were forever presenting new difficulties and impediments; and he had to encounter a host of fearful adversaries of real flesh and blood, the numerous rustic admirers, who beset every portal to her heart, keeping a watchful and angry eye upon each other, but ready to fly out in the common cause against any new competitor.
Among these, the most formidable was a burly, roaring, roystering blade, of the name of Abraham, or, according to the Dutch abbreviation, Brom Van Brunt, the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood. He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. From his Herculean frame and great powers of limb he had received the nickname of BROM BONES, by which he was universally known. He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar. He was foremost at all races and cock fights; and, with the ascendancy which bodily strength always acquires in rustic life, was the umpire in all disputes, setting his hat on one side, and giving his decisions with an air and tone that admitted of no gainsay or appeal. He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom. He had three or four boon companions, who regarded him as their model, and at the head of whom he scoured the country, attending every scene of feud or merriment for miles round. In cold weather he was distinguished by a fur cap, surmounted with a flaunting fox’s tail; and when the folks at a country gathering descried this well-known crest at a distance, whisking about among a squad of hard riders, they always stood by for a squall. Sometimes his crew would be heard dashing along past the farmhouses at midnight, with whoop and halloo, like a troop of Don Cossacks; and the old dames, startled out of their sleep, would listen for a moment till the hurry-scurry had clattered by, and then exclaim, “Ay, there goes Brom Bones and his gang!” The neighbors looked upon him with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good-will; and, when any madcap prank or rustic brawl occurred in the vicinity, always shook their heads, and warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it.
This rantipole hero had for some time singled out the blooming Katrina for the object of his uncouth gallantries, and though his amorous toyings were something like the gentle caresses and endearments of a bear, yet it was whispered that she did not altogether discourage his hopes. Certain it is, his advances were signals for rival candidates to retire, who felt no inclination to cross a lion in his amours; insomuch, that when his horse was seen tied to Van Tassel’s paling, on a Sunday night, a sure sign that his master was courting, or, as it is termed, “sparking,” within, all other suitors passed by in despair, and carried the war into other quarters.
Such was the formidable rival with whom Ichabod Crane had to contend, and, considering all things, a stouter man than he would have shrunk from the competition, and a wiser man would have despaired. He had, however, a happy mixture of pliability and perseverance in his nature; he was in form and spirit like a supple-jack—yielding, but tough; though he bent, he never broke; and though he bowed beneath the slightest pressure, yet, the moment it was away—jerk!—he was as erect, and carried his head as high as ever.
To have taken the field openly against his rival would have been madness; for he was not a man to be thwarted in his amours, any more than that stormy lover, Achilles. Ichabod, therefore, made his advances in a quiet and gently insinuating manner. Under cover of his character of singing-master, he made frequent visits at the farmhouse; not that he had anything to apprehend from the meddlesome interference of parents, which is so often a stumbling-block in the path of lovers. Balt Van Tassel was an easy indulgent soul; he loved his daughter better even than his pipe, and, like a reasonable man and an excellent father, let her have her way in everything. His notable little wife, too, had enough to do to attend to her housekeeping and manage her poultry; for, as she sagely observed, ducks and geese are foolish things, and must be looked after, but girls can take care of themselves. Thus, while the busy dame bustled about the house, or plied her spinning-wheel at one end of the piazza, honest Balt would sit smoking his evening pipe at the other, watching the achievements of a little wooden warrior, who, armed with a sword in each hand, was most valiantly fighting the wind on the pinnacle of the barn. In the mean time, Ichabod would carry on his suit with the daughter by the side of the spring under the great elm, or sauntering along in the twilight, that hour so favorable to the lover’s eloquence.
I profess not to know how women’s hearts are wooed and won. To me they have always been matters of riddle and admiration. Some seem to have but one vulnerable point, or door of access; while others have a thousand avenues, and may be captured in a thousand different ways. It is a great triumph of skill to gain the former, but a still greater proof of generalship to maintain possession of the latter, for man must battle for his fortress at every door and window. He who wins a thousand common hearts is therefore entitled to some renown; but he who keeps undisputed sway over the heart of a coquette is indeed a hero. Certain it is, this was not the case with the redoubtable Brom Bones; and from the moment Ichabod Crane made his advances, the interests of the former evidently declined: his horse was no longer seen tied to the palings on Sunday nights, and a deadly feud gradually arose between him and the preceptor of Sleepy Hollow.
Brom, who had a degree of rough chivalry in his nature, would fain have carried matters to open warfare and have settled their pretensions to the lady, according to the mode of those most concise and simple reasoners, the knights-errant of yore,—by single combat; but Ichabod was too conscious of the superior might of his adversary to enter the lists against him; he had overheard a boast of Bones, that he would “double the schoolmaster up, and lay him on a shelf of his own schoolhouse;” and he was too wary to give him an opportunity. There was something extremely provoking in this obstinately pacific system; it left Brom no alternative but to draw upon the funds of rustic waggery in his disposition, and to play off boorish practical jokes upon his rival. Ichabod became the object of whimsical persecution to Bones and his gang of rough riders. They harried his hitherto peaceful domains; smoked out his singing school by stopping up the chimney; broke into the schoolhouse at night, in spite of its formidable fastenings of withe and window stakes, and turned everything topsy-turvy, so that the poor schoolmaster began to think all the witches in the country held their meetings there. But what was still more annoying, Brom took all opportunities of turning him into ridicule in presence of his mistress, and had a scoundrel dog whom he taught to whine in the most ludicrous manner, and introduced as a rival of Ichabod’s, to instruct her in psalmody.
In this way matters went on for some time, without producing any material effect on the relative situations of the contending powers. On a fine autumnal afternoon, Ichabod, in pensive mood, sat enthroned on the lofty stool from whence he usually watched all the concerns of his little literary realm. In his hand he swayed a ferule, that sceptre of despotic power; the birch of justice reposed on three nails behind the throne, a constant terror to evil doers, while on the desk before him might be seen sundry contraband articles and prohibited weapons, detected upon the persons of idle urchins, such as half-munched apples, popguns, whirligigs, fly-cages, and whole legions of rampant little paper gamecocks. Apparently there had been some appalling act of justice recently inflicted, for his scholars were all busily intent upon their books, or slyly whispering behind them with one eye kept upon the master; and a kind of buzzing stillness reigned throughout the schoolroom. It was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a negro in tow-cloth jacket and trowsers, a round-crowned fragment of a hat, like the cap of Mercury, and mounted on the back of a ragged, wild, half-broken colt, which he managed with a rope by way of halter. He came clattering up to the school door with an invitation to Ichabod to attend a merry-making or “quilting frolic,” to be held that evening at Mynheer Van Tassel’s; and having delivered his message with that air of importance, and effort at fine language, which a negro is apt to display on petty embassies of the kind, he dashed over the brook, and was seen scampering away up the hollow, full of the importance and hurry of his mission.
All was now bustle and hubbub in the late quiet schoolroom. The scholars were hurried through their lessons without stopping at trifles; those who were nimble skipped over half with impunity, and those who were tardy had a smart application now and then in the rear, to quicken their speed or help them over a tall word. Books were flung aside without being put away on the shelves, inkstands were overturned, benches thrown down, and the whole school was turned loose an hour before the usual time, bursting forth like a legion of young imps, yelping and racketing about the green in joy at their early emancipation.
The gallant Ichabod now spent at least an extra half hour at his toilet, brushing and furbishing up his best, and indeed only suit of rusty black, and arranging his locks by a bit of broken looking-glass that hung up in the schoolhouse. That he might make his appearance before his mistress in the true style of a cavalier, he borrowed a horse from the farmer with whom he was domiciliated, a choleric old Dutchman of the name of Hans Van Ripper, and, thus gallantly mounted, issued forth like a knight-errant in quest of adventures. But it is meet I should, in the true spirit of romantic story, give some account of the looks and equipments of my hero and his steed. The animal he bestrode was a broken-down plow-horse, that had outlived almost everything but its viciousness. He was gaunt and shagged, with a ewe neck, and a head like a hammer; his rusty mane and tail were tangled and knotted with burs; one eye had lost its pupil, and was glaring and spectral, but the other had the gleam of a genuine devil in it. Still he must have had fire and mettle in his day, if we may judge from the name he bore of Gunpowder. He had, in fact, been a favorite steed of his master’s, the choleric Van Ripper, who was a furious rider, and had infused, very probably, some of his own spirit into the animal; for, old and broken-down as he looked, there was more of the lurking devil in him than in any young filly in the country.
Ichabod was a suitable figure for such a steed. He rode with short stirrups, which brought his knees nearly up to the pommel of the saddle; his sharp elbows stuck out like grasshoppers’; he carried his whip perpendicularly in his hand, like a sceptre, and as his horse jogged on, the motion of his arms was not unlike the flapping of a pair of wings. A small wool hat rested on the top of his nose, for so his scanty strip of forehead might be called, and the skirts of his black coat fluttered out almost to the horses tail. Such was the appearance of Ichabod and his steed as they shambled out of the gate of Hans Van Ripper, and it was altogether such an apparition as is seldom to be met with in broad daylight.
It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet. Streaming files of wild ducks began to make their appearance high in the air; the bark of the squirrel might be heard from the groves of beech and hickory-nuts, and the pensive whistle of the quail at intervals from the neighboring stubble field.
The small birds were taking their farewell banquets. In the fullness of their revelry, they fluttered, chirping and frolicking from bush to bush, and tree to tree, capricious from the very profusion and variety around them. There was the honest cock robin, the favorite game of stripling sportsmen, with its loud querulous note; and the twittering blackbirds flying in sable clouds; and the golden-winged woodpecker with his crimson crest, his broad black gorget, and splendid plumage; and the cedar bird, with its red-tipt wings and yellow-tipt tail and its little monteiro cap of feathers; and the blue jay, that noisy coxcomb, in his gay light blue coat and white underclothes, screaming and chattering, nodding and bobbing and bowing, and pretending to be on good terms with every songster of the grove.
As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts, and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty-pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies; and anon he passed the fragrant buckwheat fields breathing the odor of the beehive, and as he beheld them, soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.
Thus feeding his mind with many sweet thoughts and “sugared suppositions,” he journeyed along the sides of a range of hills which look out upon some of the goodliest scenes of the mighty Hudson. The sun gradually wheeled his broad disk down in the west. The wide bosom of the Tappan Zee lay motionless and glassy, excepting that here and there a gentle undulation waved and prolonged the blue shadow of the distant mountain. A few amber clouds floated in the sky, without a breath of air to move them. The horizon was of a fine golden tint, changing gradually into a pure apple green, and from that into the deep blue of the mid-heaven. A slanting ray lingered on the woody crests of the precipices that overhung some parts of the river, giving greater depth to the dark gray and purple of their rocky sides. A sloop was loitering in the distance, dropping slowly down with the tide, her sail hanging uselessly against the mast; and as the reflection of the sky gleamed along the still water, it seemed as if the vessel was suspended in the air.
It was toward evening that Ichabod arrived at the castle of the Heer Van Tassel, which he found thronged with the pride and flower of the adjacent country. Old farmers, a spare leathern-faced race, in homespun coats and breeches, blue stockings, huge shoes, and magnificent pewter buckles. Their brisk, withered little dames, in close-crimped caps, long-waisted short gowns, homespun petticoats, with scissors and pincushions, and gay calico pockets hanging on the outside. Buxom lasses, almost as antiquated as their mothers, excepting where a straw hat, a fine ribbon, or perhaps a white frock, gave symptoms of city innovation. The sons, in short square-skirted coats, with rows of stupendous brass buttons, and their hair generally queued in the fashion of the times, especially if they could procure an eel-skin for the purpose, it being esteemed throughout the country as a potent nourisher and strengthener of the hair.
Brom Bones, however, was the hero of the scene, having come to the gathering on his favorite steed Daredevil, a creature, like himself, full of mettle and mischief, and which no one but himself could manage. He was, in fact, noted for preferring vicious animals, given to all kinds of tricks which kept the rider in constant risk of his neck, for he held a tractable, well-broken horse as unworthy of a lad of spirit.
Fain would I pause to dwell upon the world of charms that burst upon the enraptured gaze of my hero, as he entered the state parlor of Van Tassel’s mansion. Not those of the bevy of buxom lasses, with their luxurious display of red and white; but the ample charms of a genuine Dutch country tea-table, in the sumptuous time of autumn. Such heaped up platters of cakes of various and almost indescribable kinds, known only to experienced Dutch housewives! There was the doughty doughnut, the tender oly koek, and the crisp and crumbling cruller; sweet cakes and short cakes, ginger cakes and honey cakes, and the whole family of cakes. And then there were apple pies, and peach pies, and pumpkin pies; besides slices of ham and smoked beef; and moreover delectable dishes of preserved plums, and peaches, and pears, and quinces; not to mention broiled shad and roasted chickens; together with bowls of milk and cream, all mingled higgledy-piggledy, pretty much as I have enumerated them, with the motherly teapot sending up its clouds of vapor from the midst—Heaven bless the mark! I want breath and time to discuss this banquet as it deserves, and am too eager to get on with my story. Happily, Ichabod Crane was not in so great a hurry as his historian, but did ample justice to every dainty.
He was a kind and thankful creature, whose heart dilated in proportion as his skin was filled with good cheer, and whose spirits rose with eating, as some men’s do with drink. He could not help, too, rolling his large eyes round him as he ate, and chuckling with the possibility that he might one day be lord of all this scene of almost unimaginable luxury and splendor. Then, he thought, how soon he’d turn his back upon the old schoolhouse; snap his fingers in the face of Hans Van Ripper, and every other niggardly patron, and kick any itinerant pedagogue out of doors that should dare to call him comrade!
Old Baltus Van Tassel moved about among his guests with a face dilated with content and good humor, round and jolly as the harvest moon. His hospitable attentions were brief, but expressive, being confined to a shake of the hand, a slap on the shoulder, a loud laugh, and a pressing invitation to “fall to, and help themselves.”
And now the sound of the music from the common room, or hall, summoned to the dance. The musician was an old gray-headed negro, who had been the itinerant orchestra of the neighborhood for more than half a century. His instrument was as old and battered as himself. The greater part of the time he scraped on two or three strings, accompanying every movement of the bow with a motion of the head; bowing almost to the ground, and stamping with his foot whenever a fresh couple were to start.
Ichabod prided himself upon his dancing as much as upon his vocal powers. Not a limb, not a fibre about him was idle; and to have seen his loosely hung frame in full motion, and clattering about the room, you would have thought St. Vitus himself, that blessed patron of the dance, was figuring before you in person. He was the admiration of all the negroes; who, having gathered, of all ages and sizes, from the farm and the neighborhood, stood forming a pyramid of shining black faces at every door and window, gazing with delight at the scene, rolling their white eyeballs, and showing grinning rows of ivory from ear to ear. How could the flogger of urchins be otherwise than animated and joyous? The lady of his heart was his partner in the dance, and smiling graciously in reply to all his amorous oglings; while Brom Bones, sorely smitten with love and jealousy, sat brooding by himself in one corner.
When the dance was at an end, Ichabod was attracted to a knot of the sager folks, who, with Old Van Tassel, sat smoking at one end of the piazza, gossiping over former times, and drawing out long stories about the war.
This neighborhood, at the time of which I am speaking, was one of those highly favored places which abound with chronicle and great men. The British and American line had run near it during the war; it had, therefore, been the scene of marauding and infested with refugees, cowboys, and all kinds of border chivalry. Just sufficient time had elapsed to enable each storyteller to dress up his tale with a little becoming fiction, and, in the indistinctness of his recollection, to make himself the hero of every exploit.
There was the story of Doffue Martling, a large blue-bearded Dutchman, who had nearly taken a British frigate with an old iron nine-pounder from a mud breastwork, only that his gun burst at the sixth discharge. And there was an old gentleman who shall be nameless, being too rich a mynheer to be lightly mentioned, who, in the battle of White Plains, being an excellent master of defence, parried a musket-ball with a small sword, insomuch that he absolutely felt it whiz round the blade, and glance off at the hilt; in proof of which he was ready at any time to show the sword, with the hilt a little bent. There were several more that had been equally great in the field, not one of whom but was persuaded that he had a considerable hand in bringing the war to a happy termination.
But all these were nothing to the tales of ghosts and apparitions that succeeded. The neighborhood is rich in legendary treasures of the kind. Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered, long-settled retreats; but are trampled under foot by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places. Besides, there is no encouragement for ghosts in most of our villages, for they have scarcely had time to finish their first nap and turn themselves in their graves, before their surviving friends have travelled away from the neighborhood; so that when they turn out at night to walk their rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon. This is perhaps the reason why we so seldom hear of ghosts except in our long-established Dutch communities.
The immediate cause, however, of the prevalence of supernatural stories in these parts, was doubtless owing to the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow. There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land. Several of the Sleepy Hollow people were present at Van Tassel’s, and, as usual, were doling out their wild and wonderful legends. Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major André was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow. The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.
The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust-trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water, bordered by high trees, between which, peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson. To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace. On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered. The tale was told of old Brouwer, a most heretical disbeliever in ghosts, how he met the Horseman returning from his foray into Sleepy Hollow, and was obliged to get up behind him; how they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge; when the Horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the tree-tops with a clap of thunder.
This story was immediately matched by a thrice marvellous adventure of Brom Bones, who made light of the Galloping Hessian as an arrant jockey. He affirmed that on returning one night from the neighboring village of Sing Sing, he had been overtaken by this midnight trooper; that he had offered to race with him for a bowl of punch, and should have won it too, for Daredevil beat the goblin horse all hollow, but just as they came to the church bridge, the Hessian bolted, and vanished in a flash of fire.
All these tales, told in that drowsy undertone with which men talk in the dark, the countenances of the listeners only now and then receiving a casual gleam from the glare of a pipe, sank deep in the mind of Ichabod. He repaid them in kind with large extracts from his invaluable author, Cotton Mather, and added many marvellous events that had taken place in his native State of Connecticut, and fearful sights which he had seen in his nightly walks about Sleepy Hollow.
The revel now gradually broke up. The old farmers gathered together their families in their wagons, and were heard for some time rattling along the hollow roads, and over the distant hills. Some of the damsels mounted on pillions behind their favorite swains, and their light-hearted laughter, mingling with the clatter of hoofs, echoed along the silent woodlands, sounding fainter and fainter, until they gradually died away,—and the late scene of noise and frolic was all silent and deserted. Ichabod only lingered behind, according to the custom of country lovers, to have a tête-à-tête with the heiress; fully convinced that he was now on the high road to success. What passed at this interview I will not pretend to say, for in fact I do not know. Something, however, I fear me, must have gone wrong, for he certainly sallied forth, after no very great interval, with an air quite desolate and chapfallen. Oh, these women! these women! Could that girl have been playing off any of her coquettish tricks? Was her encouragement of the poor pedagogue all a mere sham to secure her conquest of his rival? Heaven only knows, not I! Let it suffice to say, Ichabod stole forth with the air of one who had been sacking a henroost, rather than a fair lady’s heart. Without looking to the right or left to notice the scene of rural wealth, on which he had so often gloated, he went straight to the stable, and with several hearty cuffs and kicks roused his steed most uncourteously from the comfortable quarters in which he was soundly sleeping, dreaming of mountains of corn and oats, and whole valleys of timothy and clover.
It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters, with here and there the tall mast of a sloop, riding quietly at anchor under the land. In the dead hush of midnight, he could even hear the barking of the watchdog from the opposite shore of the Hudson; but it was so vague and faint as only to give an idea of his distance from this faithful companion of man. Now and then, too, the long-drawn crowing of a cock, accidentally awakened, would sound far, far off, from some farmhouse away among the hills—but it was like a dreaming sound in his ear. No signs of life occurred near him, but occasionally the melancholy chirp of a cricket, or perhaps the guttural twang of a bullfrog from a neighboring marsh, as if sleeping uncomfortably and turning suddenly in his bed.
All the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal. He was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid. In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip-tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air. It was connected with the tragical story of the unfortunate André, who had been taken prisoner hard by; and was universally known by the name of Major André’s tree. The common people regarded it with a mixture of respect and superstition, partly out of sympathy for the fate of its ill-starred namesake, and partly from the tales of strange sights, and doleful lamentations, told concerning it.
As Ichabod approached this fearful tree, he began to whistle; he thought his whistle was answered; it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches. As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling but, on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan—his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze. He passed the tree in safety, but new perils lay before him.
About two hundred yards from the tree, a small brook crossed the road, and ran into a marshy and thickly-wooded glen, known by the name of Wiley’s Swamp. A few rough logs, laid side by side, served for a bridge over this stream. On that side of the road where the brook entered the wood, a group of oaks and chestnuts, matted thick with wild grape-vines, threw a cavernous gloom over it. To pass this bridge was the severest trial. It was at this identical spot that the unfortunate André was captured, and under the covert of those chestnuts and vines were the sturdy yeomen concealed who surprised him. This has ever since been considered a haunted stream, and fearful are the feelings of the schoolboy who has to pass it alone after dark.
As he approached the stream, his heart began to thump; he summoned up, however, all his resolution, gave his horse half a score of kicks in the ribs, and attempted to dash briskly across the bridge; but instead of starting forward, the perverse old animal made a lateral movement, and ran broadside against the fence. Ichabod, whose fears increased with the delay, jerked the reins on the other side, and kicked lustily with the contrary foot: it was all in vain; his steed started, it is true, but it was only to plunge to the opposite side of the road into a thicket of brambles and alder bushes. The schoolmaster now bestowed both whip and heel upon the starveling ribs of old Gunpowder, who dashed forward, snuffling and snorting, but came to a stand just by the bridge, with a suddenness that had nearly sent his rider sprawling over his head. Just at this moment a plashy tramp by the side of the bridge caught the sensitive ear of Ichabod. In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.
The hair of the affrighted pedagogue rose upon his head with terror. What was to be done? To turn and fly was now too late; and besides, what chance was there of escaping ghost or goblin, if such it was, which could ride upon the wings of the wind? Summoning up, therefore, a show of courage, he demanded in stammering accents, “Who are you?” He received no reply. He repeated his demand in a still more agitated voice. Still there was no answer. Once more he cudgelled the sides of the inflexible Gunpowder, and, shutting his eyes, broke forth with involuntary fervor into a psalm tune. Just then the shadowy object of alarm put itself in motion, and with a scramble and a bound stood at once in the middle of the road. Though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame. He made no offer of molestation or sociability, but kept aloof on one side of the road, jogging along on the blind side of old Gunpowder, who had now got over his fright and waywardness.
Ichabod, who had no relish for this strange midnight companion, and bethought himself of the adventure of Brom Bones with the Galloping Hessian, now quickened his steed in hopes of leaving him behind. The stranger, however, quickened his horse to an equal pace. Ichabod pulled up, and fell into a walk, thinking to lag behind,—the other did the same. His heart began to sink within him; he endeavored to resume his psalm tune, but his parched tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and he could not utter a stave. There was something in the moody and dogged silence of this pertinacious companion that was mysterious and appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for. On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless!—but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle! His terror rose to desperation; he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder, hoping by a sudden movement to give his companion the slip; but the spectre started full jump with him. Away, then, they dashed through thick and thin; stones flying and sparks flashing at every bound. Ichabod’s flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lank body away over his horse’s head, in the eagerness of his flight.
They had now reached the road which turns off to Sleepy Hollow; but Gunpowder, who seemed possessed with a demon, instead of keeping up it, made an opposite turn, and plunged headlong downhill to the left. This road leads through a sandy hollow shaded by trees for about a quarter of a mile, where it crosses the bridge famous in goblin story; and just beyond swells the green knoll on which stands the whitewashed church.
As yet the panic of the steed had given his unskilful rider an apparent advantage in the chase, but just as he had got half way through the hollow, the girths of the saddle gave way, and he felt it slipping from under him. He seized it by the pommel, and endeavored to hold it firm, but in vain; and had just time to save himself by clasping old Gunpowder round the neck, when the saddle fell to the earth, and he heard it trampled under foot by his pursuer. For a moment the terror of Hans Van Ripper’s wrath passed across his mind,—for it was his Sunday saddle; but this was no time for petty fears; the goblin was hard on his haunches; and (unskilful rider that he was!) he had much ado to maintain his seat; sometimes slipping on one side, sometimes on another, and sometimes jolted on the high ridge of his horse’s backbone, with a violence that he verily feared would cleave him asunder.
An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand. The wavering reflection of a silver star in the bosom of the brook told him that he was not mistaken. He saw the walls of the church dimly glaring under the trees beyond. He recollected the place where Brom Bones’s ghostly competitor had disappeared. “If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath. Another convulsive kick in the ribs, and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash,—he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.
The next morning the old horse was found without his saddle, and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass at his master’s gate. Ichabod did not make his appearance at breakfast; dinner-hour came, but no Ichabod. The boys assembled at the schoolhouse, and strolled idly about the banks of the brook; but no schoolmaster. Hans Van Ripper now began to feel some uneasiness about the fate of poor Ichabod, and his saddle. An inquiry was set on foot, and after diligent investigation they came upon his traces. In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.
The brook was searched, but the body of the schoolmaster was not to be discovered. Hans Van Ripper as executor of his estate, examined the bundle which contained all his worldly effects. They consisted of two shirts and a half; two stocks for the neck; a pair or two of worsted stockings; an old pair of corduroy small-clothes; a rusty razor; a book of psalm tunes full of dog’s-ears; and a broken pitch-pipe. As to the books and furniture of the schoolhouse, they belonged to the community, excepting Cotton Mather’s “History of Witchcraft,” a “New England Almanac,” and a book of dreams and fortune-telling; in which last was a sheet of foolscap much scribbled and blotted in several fruitless attempts to make a copy of verses in honor of the heiress of Van Tassel. These magic books and the poetic scrawl were forthwith consigned to the flames by Hans Van Ripper; who, from that time forward, determined to send his children no more to school, observing that he never knew any good come of this same reading and writing. Whatever money the schoolmaster possessed, and he had received his quarter’s pay but a day or two before, he must have had about his person at the time of his disappearance.
The mysterious event caused much speculation at the church on the following Sunday. Knots of gazers and gossips were collected in the churchyard, at the bridge, and at the spot where the hat and pumpkin had been found. The stories of Brouwer, of Bones, and a whole budget of others were called to mind; and when they had diligently considered them all, and compared them with the symptoms of the present case, they shook their heads, and came to the conclusion that Ichabod had been carried off by the Galloping Hessian. As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him; the school was removed to a different quarter of the hollow, and another pedagogue reigned in his stead.
It is true, an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after, and from whom this account of the ghostly adventure was received, brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood partly through fear of the goblin and Hans Van Ripper, and partly in mortification at having been suddenly dismissed by the heiress; that he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar; turned politician; electioneered; written for the newspapers; and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court. Brom Bones, too, who, shortly after his rival’s disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.
The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe; and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the millpond. The schoolhouse being deserted soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue and the plowboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.
Found in the Handwriting of Mr. Knickerbocker.
The preceding tale is given almost in the precise words in which I heard it related at a Corporation meeting at the ancient city of Manhattoes, at which were present many of its sagest and most illustrious burghers. The narrator was a pleasant, shabby, gentlemanly old fellow, in pepper-and-salt clothes, with a sadly humourous face, and one whom I strongly suspected of being poor–he made such efforts to be entertaining. When his story was concluded, there was much laughter and approbation, particularly from two or three deputy aldermen, who had been asleep the greater part of the time. There was, however, one tall, dry-looking old gentleman, with beetling eyebrows, who maintained a grave and rather severe face throughout, now and then folding his arms, inclining his head, and looking down upon the floor, as if turning a doubt over in his mind. He was one of your wary men, who never laugh but upon good grounds–when they have reason and law on their side. When the mirth of the rest of the company had subsided, and silence was restored, he leaned one arm on the elbow of his chair, and sticking the other akimbo, demanded, with a slight, but exceedingly sage motion of the head, and contraction of the brow, what was the moral of the story, and what it went to prove?
The story-teller, who was just putting a glass of wine to his lips, as a refreshment after his toils, paused for a moment, looked at his inquirer with an air of infinite deference, and, lowering the glass slowly to the table, observed that the story was intended most logically to prove–
“That there is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures–provided we will but take a joke as we find it:
“That, therefore, he that runs races with goblin troopers is likely to have rough riding of it.
“Ergo, for a country schoolmaster to be refused the hand of a Dutch heiress is a certain step to high preferment in the state.”
The cautious old gentleman knit his brows tenfold closer after this explanation, being sorely puzzled by the ratiocination of the syllogism, while, methought, the one in pepper-and-salt eyed him with something of a triumphant leer. At length he observed that all this was very well, but still he thought the story a little on the extravagant–there were one or two points on which he had his doubts.
“Faith, sir,” replied the story-teller, “as to that matter, I don’t believe one-half of it myself.” D. K.
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