A CHOSEN FEW
FRANK R. STOCKTON
WITH AN ETCHED PORTRAIT BY W. H. W. BICKNELL
NEW YORK CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS 1895
Copyright, 1895, by CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
THE DE VINNE PRESS.
The stories contained in this little volume were chosen, by virtue of a sort of literary civil-service examination, in order that they might be grouped together as a representative class of the author's best-known work in this line.
Several of these stories have points of peculiar interest to the author. For instance, "Negative Gravity" was composed in Switzerland when the author was temporarily confined to the house in full view of unreachable Alps.
"His Wife's Deceased Sister" was suggested by an editorial disposition to compare all the author's work with one previous production, and to discard everything which did not accord exactly with the particular story which had been selected as a standard of merit.
"The Lady, or the Tiger?" was printed in the hope that the author might receive the cheerful cooperation of some of his readers in a satisfactory solution of the problem contained in the little story; but although he has had much valuable assistance in this direction he has also been the recipient of a great deal of scolding.
After reading several stories by Clark Russell, the author's mind was led to consider the possibility of inventing some sort of shipwreck which had never yet been made the subject of a story. His efforts in this line resulted in "The Remarkable Wreck of the 'Thomas Hyke.'"
"A Piece of Red Calico" is a description, with exaggerated points, of an actual experience.
A TALE OF NEGATIVE GRAVITY From "The Christmas Wreck"
ASAPH From "The Watchmaker's Wife"
"HIS WIFE'S DECEASED SISTER" From "The Lady, or the Tiger?"
THE LADY, OR THE TIGER?
THE REMARKABLE WRECK OF THE "THOMAS HYKE" From "The Christmas Wreck"
OLD PIPES AND THE DRYAD From "The Bee-man of Orn"
THE TRANSFERRED GHOST From "The Lady, or the Tiger?"
"THE PHILOSOPHY OF RELATIVE EXISTENCES" From "The Watchmaker's Wife"
A PIECE OF RED CALICO From "The Lady, or the Tiger?"
A TALE OF NEGATIVE GRAVITY
My wife and I were staying at a small town in northern Italy; and on a certain pleasant afternoon in spring we had taken a walk of six or seven miles to see the sun set behind some low mountains to the west of the town. Most of our walk had been along a hard, smooth highway, and then we turned into a series of narrower roads, sometimes bordered by walls, and sometimes by light fences of reed or cane. Nearing the mountain, to a low spur of which we intended to ascend, we easily scaled a wall about four feet high, and found ourselves upon pasture-land, which led, sometimes by gradual ascents, and sometimes by bits of rough climbing, to the spot we wished to reach. We were afraid we were a little late, and therefore hurried on, running up the grassy hills, and bounding briskly over the rough and rocky places. I carried a knapsack strapped firmly to my shoulders, and under my wife's arm was a large, soft basket of a kind much used by tourists. Her arm was passed through the handles and around the bottom of the basket, which she pressed closely to her side. This was the way she always carried it. The basket contained two bottles of wine, one sweet for my wife, and another a little acid for myself. Sweet wines give me a headache.
When we reached the grassy bluff, well known thereabouts to lovers of sunset views, I stepped immediately to the edge to gaze upon the scene, but my wife sat down to take a sip of wine, for she was very thirsty; and then, leaving her basket, she came to my side. The scene was indeed one of great beauty. Beneath us stretched a wide valley of many shades of green, with a little river running through it, and red-tiled houses here and there. Beyond rose a range of mountains, pink, pale green, and purple where their tips caught the reflection of the setting sun, and of a rich gray-green in shadows. Beyond all was the blue Italian sky, illumined by an especially fine sunset.
My wife and I are Americans, and at the time of this story were middle-aged people and very fond of seeing in each other's company whatever there was of interest or beauty around us. We had a son about twenty-two years old, of whom we were also very fond; but he was not with us, being at that time a student in Germany. Although we had good health, we were not very robust people, and, under ordinary circumstances, not much given to long country tramps. I was of medium size, without much muscular development, while my wife was quite stout, and growing stouter.
The reader may, perhaps, be somewhat surprised that a middle-aged couple, not very strong, or very good walkers, the lady loaded with a basket containing two bottles of wine and a metal drinking-cup, and the gentleman carrying a heavy knapsack, filled with all sorts of odds and ends, strapped to his shoulders, should set off on a seven-mile walk, jump over a wall, run up a hillside, and yet feel in very good trim to enjoy a sunset view. This peculiar state of things I will proceed to explain.
I had been a professional man, but some years before had retired upon a very comfortable income. I had always been very fond of scientific pursuits, and now made these the occupation and pleasure of much of my leisure time. Our home was in a small town; and in a corner of my grounds I built a laboratory, where I carried on my work and my experiments. I had long been anxious to discover the means not only of producing, but of retaining and controlling, a natural force, really the same as centrifugal force, but which I called negative gravity. This name I adopted because it indicated better than any other the action of the force in question, as I produced it. Positive gravity attracts everything toward the centre of the earth. Negative gravity, therefore, would be that power which repels everything from the centre of the earth, just as the negative pole of a magnet repels the needle, while the positive pole attracts it. My object was, in fact, to store centrifugal force and to render it constant, controllable, and available for use. The advantages of such a discovery could scarcely be described. In a word, it would lighten the burdens of the world.
I will not touch upon the labors and disappointments of several years. It is enough to say that at last I discovered a method of producing, storing, and controlling negative gravity.
The mechanism of my invention was rather complicated, but the method of operating it was very simple. A strong metallic case, about eight inches long, and half as wide, contained the machinery for producing the force; and this was put into action by means of the pressure of a screw worked from the outside. As soon as this pressure was produced, negative gravity began to be evolved and stored, and the greater the pressure the greater the force. As the screw was moved outward, and the pressure diminished, the force decreased, and when the screw was withdrawn to its fullest extent, the action of negative gravity entirely ceased. Thus this force could be produced or dissipated at will to such degrees as might be desired, and its action, so long as the requisite pressure was maintained, was constant.
When this little apparatus worked to my satisfaction I called my wife into my laboratory and explained to her my invention and its value. She had known that I had been at work with an important object, but I had never told her what it was. I had said that if I succeeded I would tell her all, but if I failed she need not be troubled with the matter at all. Being a very sensible woman, this satisfied her perfectly. Now I explained everything to her—the construction of the machine, and the wonderful uses to which this invention could be applied. I told her that it could diminish, or entirely dissipate, the weight of objects of any kind. A heavily loaded wagon, with two of these instruments fastened to its sides, and each screwed to a proper force, would be so lifted and supported that it would press upon the ground as lightly as an empty cart, and a small horse could draw it with ease. A bale of cotton, with one of these machines attached, could be handled and carried by a boy. A car, with a number of these machines, could be made to rise in the air like a balloon. Everything, in fact, that was heavy could be made light; and as a great part of labor, all over the world, is caused by the attraction of gravitation, so this repellent force, wherever applied, would make weight less and work easier. I told her of many, many ways in which the invention might be used, and would have told her of many more if she had not suddenly burst into tears.
"The world has gained something wonderful," she exclaimed, between her sobs, "but I have lost a husband!"
"What do you mean by that?" I asked, in surprise.
"I haven't minded it so far," she said, "because it gave you something to do, and it pleased you, and it never interfered with our home pleasures and our home life. But now that is all over. You will never be your own master again. It will succeed, I am sure, and you may make a great deal of money, but we don't need money. What we need is the happiness which we have always had until now. Now there will be companies, and patents, and lawsuits, and experiments, and people calling you a humbug, and other people saying they discovered it long ago, and all sorts of persons coming to see you, and you'll be obliged to go to all sorts of places, and you will be an altered man, and we shall never be happy again. Millions of money will not repay us for the happiness we have lost."
These words of my wife struck me with much force. Before I had called her my mind had begun to be filled and perplexed with ideas of what I ought to do now that the great invention was perfected. Until now the matter had not troubled me at all. Sometimes I had gone backward and sometimes forward, but, on the whole, I had always felt encouraged. I had taken great pleasure in the work, but I had never allowed myself to be too much absorbed by it. But now everything was different. I began to feel that it was due to myself and to my fellow-beings that I should properly put this invention before the world. And how should I set about it? What steps should I take? I must make no mistakes. When the matter should become known hundreds of scientific people might set themselves to work; how could I tell but that they might discover other methods of producing the same effect? I must guard myself against a great many things. I must get patents in all parts of the world. Already, as I have said, my mind began to be troubled and perplexed with these things. A turmoil of this sort did not suit my age or disposition. I could not but agree with my wife that the joys of a quiet and contented life were now about to be broken into.
"My dear," said I, "I believe, with you, that the thing will do us more harm than good. If it were not for depriving the world of the invention I would throw the whole thing to the winds. And yet," I added, regretfully, "I had expected a great deal of personal gratification from the use of this invention."
"Now listen," said my wife, eagerly; "don't you think it would be best to do this: use the thing as much as you please for your own amusement and satisfaction, but let the world wait? It has waited a long time, and let it wait a little longer. When we are dead let Herbert have the invention. He will then be old enough to judge for himself whether it will be better to take advantage of it for his own profit, or simply to give it to the public for nothing. It would be cheating him if we were to do the latter, but it would also be doing him a great wrong if we were, at his age, to load him with such a heavy responsibility. Besides, if he took it up, you could not help going into it, too."
I took my wife's advice. I wrote a careful and complete account of the invention, and, sealing it up, I gave it to my lawyers to be handed to my son after my death. If he died first, I would make other arrangements. Then I determined to get all the good and fun out of the thing that was possible without telling any one anything about it. Even Herbert, who was away from home, was not to be told of the invention.
The first thing I did was to buy a strong leathern knapsack, and inside of this I fastened my little machine, with a screw so arranged that it could be worked from the outside. Strapping this firmly to my shoulders, my wife gently turned the screw at the back until the upward tendency of the knapsack began to lift and sustain me. When I felt myself so gently supported and upheld that I seemed to weigh about thirty or forty pounds, I would set out for a walk. The knapsack did not raise me from the ground, but it gave me a very buoyant step. It was no labor at all to walk; it was a delight, an ecstasy. With the strength of a man and the weight of a child, I gayly strode along. The first day I walked half a dozen miles at a very brisk pace, and came back without feeling in the least degree tired. These walks now became one of the greatest joys of my life. When nobody was looking, I would bound over a fence, sometimes just touching it with one hand, and sometimes not touching it at all. I delighted in rough places. I sprang over streams. I jumped and I ran. I felt like Mercury himself.
I now set about making another machine, so that my wife could accompany me in my walks; but when it was finished she positively refused to use it. "I can't wear a knapsack," she said, "and there is no other good way of fastening it to me. Besides, everybody about here knows I am no walker, and it would only set them talking."
I occasionally made use of this second machine, but I will give only one instance of its application. Some repairs were needed to the foundation-walls of my barn, and a two-horse wagon, loaded with building-stone, had been brought into my yard and left there. In the evening, when the men had gone away, I took my two machines and fastened them, with strong chains, one on each side of the loaded wagon. Then, gradually turning the screws, the wagon was so lifted that its weight became very greatly diminished. We had an old donkey which used to belong to Herbert, and which was now occasionally used with a small cart to bring packages from the station. I went into the barn and put the harness on the little fellow, and, bringing him out to the wagon, I attached him to it. In this position he looked very funny with a long pole sticking out in front of him and the great wagon behind him. When all was ready I touched him up; and, to my great delight, he moved off with the two-horse load of stone as easily as if he were drawing his own cart. I led him out into the public road, along which he proceeded without difficulty. He was an opinionated little beast, and sometimes stopped, not liking the peculiar manner in which he was harnessed; but a touch of the switch made him move on, and I soon turned him and brought the wagon back into the yard. This determined the success of my invention in one of its most important uses, and with a satisfied heart I put the donkey into the stable and went into the house.
Our trip to Europe was made a few months after this, and was mainly on our son Herbert's account. He, poor fellow, was in great trouble, and so, therefore, were we. He had become engaged, with our full consent, to a young lady in our town, the daughter of a gentleman whom we esteemed very highly. Herbert was young to be engaged to be married, but as we felt that he would never find a girl to make him so good a wife, we were entirely satisfied, especially as it was agreed on all hands that the marriage was not to take place for some time. It seemed to us that, in marrying Janet Gilbert, Herbert would secure for himself, in the very beginning of his career, the most important element of a happy life. But suddenly, without any reason that seemed to us justifiable, Mr. Gilbert, the only surviving parent of Janet, broke off the match; and he and his daughter soon after left the town for a trip to the West.
This blow nearly broke poor Herbert's heart. He gave up his professional studies and came home to us, and for a time we thought he would be seriously ill. Then we took him to Europe, and after a Continental tour of a month or two we left him, at his own request, in Goettingen, where he thought it would do him good to go to work again. Then we went down to the little town in Italy where my story first finds us. My wife had suffered much in mind and body on her son's account, and for this reason I was anxious that she should take outdoor exercise, and enjoy as much as possible the bracing air of the country. I had brought with me both my little machines. One was still in my knapsack, and the other I had fastened to the inside of an enormous family trunk. As one is obliged to pay for nearly every pound of his baggage on the Continent, this saved me a great deal of money. Everything heavy was packed into this great trunk—books, papers, the bronze, iron, and marble relics we had picked up, and all the articles that usually weigh down a tourist's baggage. I screwed up the negative-gravity apparatus until the trunk could be handled with great ease by an ordinary porter. I could have made it weigh nothing at all, but this, of course, I did not wish to do. The lightness of my baggage, however, had occasioned some comment, and I had overheard remarks which were not altogether complimentary about people travelling around with empty trunks; but this only amused me.
Desirous that my wife should have the advantage of negative gravity while taking our walks, I had removed the machine from the trunk and fastened it inside of the basket, which she could carry under her arm. This assisted her wonderfully. When one arm was tired she put the basket under the other, and thus, with one hand on my arm, she could easily keep up with the free and buoyant steps my knapsack enabled me to take. She did not object to long tramps here, because nobody knew that she was not a walker, and she always carried some wine or other refreshment in the basket, not only because it was pleasant to have it with us, but because it seemed ridiculous to go about carrying an empty basket.
There were English-speaking people stopping at the hotel where we were, but they seemed more fond of driving than walking, and none of them offered to accompany us on our rambles, for which we were very glad. There was one man there, however, who was a great walker. He was an Englishman, a member of an Alpine Club, and generally went about dressed in a knickerbocker suit, with gray woollen stockings covering an enormous pair of calves. One evening this gentleman was talking to me and some others about the ascent of the Matterhorn, and I took occasion to deliver in pretty strong language my opinion upon such exploits. I declared them to be useless, foolhardy, and, if the climber had any one who loved him, wicked.
"Even if the weather should permit a view," I said, "what is that compared to the terrible risk to life? Under certain circumstances," I added (thinking of a kind of waistcoat I had some idea of making, which, set about with little negative-gravity machines, all connected with a conveniently handled screw, would enable the wearer at times to dispense with his weight altogether), "such ascents might be divested of danger, and be quite admissible; but ordinarily they should be frowned upon by the intelligent public."
The Alpine Club man looked at me, especially regarding my somewhat slight figure and thinnish legs.
"It's all very well for you to talk that way," he said, "because it is easy to see that you are not up to that sort of thing."
"In conversations of this kind," I replied, "I never make personal allusions; but since you have chosen to do so, I feel inclined to invite you to walk with me to-morrow to the top of the mountain to the north of this town."
"I'll do it," he said, "at any time you choose to name." And as I left the room soon afterward I heard him laugh.
The next afternoon, about two o'clock, the Alpine Club man and myself set out for the mountain.
"What have you got in your knapsack?" he said.
"A hammer to use if I come across geological specimens, a field-glass, a flask of wine, and some other things."
"I wouldn't carry any weight, if I were you," he said.
"Oh, I don't mind it," I answered, and off we started.
The mountain to which we were bound was about two miles from the town. Its nearest side was steep, and in places almost precipitous, but it sloped away more gradually toward the north, and up that side a road led by devious windings to a village near the summit. It was not a very high mountain, but it would do for an afternoon's climb.
"I suppose you want to go up by the road," said my companion.
"Oh no," I answered, "we won't go so far around as that. There is a path up this side, along which I have seen men driving their goats. I prefer to take that."
"All right, if you say so," he answered, with a smile; "but you'll find it pretty tough."
After a time he remarked:
"I wouldn't walk so fast, if I were you."
"Oh, I like to step along briskly," I said. And briskly on we went.
My wife had screwed up the machine in the knapsack more than usual, and walking seemed scarcely any effort at all. I carried a long alpenstock, and when we reached the mountain and began the ascent, I found that with the help of this and my knapsack I could go uphill at a wonderful rate. My companion had taken the lead, so as to show me how to climb. Making a detour over some rocks, I quickly passed him and went ahead. After that it was impossible for him to keep up with me. I ran up steep places, I cut off the windings of the path by lightly clambering over rocks, and even when I followed the beaten track my step was as rapid as if I had been walking on level ground.
"Look here!" shouted the Alpine Club man from below, "you'll kill yourself if you go at that rate! That's no way to climb mountains."
"It's my way!" I cried. And on I skipped.
Twenty minutes after I arrived at the summit my companion joined me, puffing, and wiping his red face with his handkerchief.
"Confound it!" he cried, "I never came up a mountain so fast in my life."
"You need not have hurried," I said, coolly.
"I was afraid something would happen to you," he growled, "and I wanted to stop you. I never saw a person climb in such an utterly absurd way."
"I don't see why you should call it absurd," I said, smiling with an air of superiority. "I arrived here in a perfectly comfortable condition, neither heated nor wearied."
He made no answer, but walked off to a little distance, fanning himself with his hat and growling words which I did not catch. After a time I proposed to descend.
"You must be careful as you go down," he said. "It is much more dangerous to go down steep places than to climb up."
"I am always prudent," I answered, and started in advance. I found the descent of the mountain much more pleasant than the ascent. It was positively exhilarating. I jumped from rocks and bluffs eight and ten feet in height, and touched the ground as gently as if I had stepped down but two feet. I ran down steep paths, and, with the aid of my alpenstock, stopped myself in an instant. I was careful to avoid dangerous places, but the runs and jumps I made were such as no man had ever made before upon that mountain-side. Once only I heard my companion's voice.
"You'll break your —— neck!" he yelled.
"Never fear!" I called back, and soon left him far above.
When I reached the bottom I would have waited for him, but my activity had warmed me up, and as a cool evening breeze was beginning to blow I thought it better not to stop and take cold. Half an hour after my arrival at the hotel I came down to the court, cool, fresh, and dressed for dinner, and just in time to meet the Alpine man as he entered, hot, dusty, and growling.
"Excuse me for not waiting for you," I said; but without stopping to hear my reason, he muttered something about waiting in a place where no one would care to stay, and passed into the house.
There was no doubt that what I had done gratified my pique and tickled my vanity.
"I think now," I said, when I related the matter to my wife, "that he will scarcely say that I am not up to that sort of thing."
"I am not sure," she answered, "that it was exactly fair. He did not know how you were assisted."
"It was fair enough," I said. "He is enabled to climb well by the inherited vigor of his constitution and by his training. He did not tell me what methods of exercise he used to get those great muscles upon his legs. I am enabled to climb by the exercise of my intellect. My method is my business and his method is his business. It is all perfectly fair."
Still she persisted:
"He thought that you climbed with your legs, and not with your head."
And now, after this long digression, necessary to explain how a middle-aged couple of slight pedestrian ability, and loaded with a heavy knapsack and basket, should have started out on a rough walk and climb, fourteen miles in all, we will return to ourselves, standing on the little bluff and gazing out upon the sunset view. When the sky began to fade a little we turned from it and prepared to go back to the town.
"Where is the basket?" I said.
"I left it right here," answered my wife. "I unscrewed the machine and it lay perfectly flat."
"Did you afterward take out the bottles?" I asked, seeing them lying on the grass.
"Yes, I believe I did. I had to take out yours in order to get at mine."
"Then," said I, after looking all about the grassy patch on which we stood, "I am afraid you did not entirely unscrew the instrument, and that when the weight of the bottles was removed the basket gently rose into the air."
"It may be so," she said, lugubriously. "The basket was behind me as I drank my wine."
"I believe that is just what has happened," I said. "Look up there! I vow that is our basket!"
I pulled out my field-glass and directed it at a little speck high above our heads. It was the basket floating high in the air. I gave the glass to my wife to look, but she did not want to use it.
"What shall I do?" she cried. "I can't walk home without that basket. It's perfectly dreadful!" And she looked as if she was going to cry.
"Do not distress yourself," I said, although I was a good deal disturbed myself. "We shall get home very well. You shall put your hand on my shoulder, while I put my arm around you. Then you can screw up my machine a good deal higher, and it will support us both. In this way I am sure that we shall get on very well."
We carried out this plan, and managed to walk on with moderate comfort. To be sure, with the knapsack pulling me upward, and the weight of my wife pulling me down, the straps hurt me somewhat, which they had not done before. We did not spring lightly over the wall into the road, but, still clinging to each other, we clambered awkwardly over it. The road for the most part declined gently toward the town, and with moderate ease we made our way along it. But we walked much more slowly than we had done before, and it was quite dark when we reached our hotel. If it had not been for the light inside the court it would have been difficult for us to find it. A travelling-carriage was standing before the entrance, and against the light. It was necessary to pass around it, and my wife went first. I attempted to follow her, but, strange to say, there was nothing under my feet. I stepped vigorously, but only wagged my legs in the air. To my horror I found that I was rising in the air! I soon saw, by the light below me, that I was some fifteen feet from the ground. The carriage drove away, and in the darkness I was not noticed. Of course I knew what had happened. The instrument in my knapsack had been screwed up to such an intensity, in order to support both myself and my wife, that when her weight was removed the force of the negative gravity was sufficient to raise me from the ground. But I was glad to find that when I had risen to the height I have mentioned I did not go up any higher, but hung in the air, about on a level with the second tier of windows of the hotel.
I now began to try to reach the screw in my knapsack in order to reduce the force of the negative gravity; but, do what I would, I could not get my hand to it. The machine in the knapsack had been placed so as to support me in a well-balanced and comfortable way; and in doing this it had been impossible to set the screw so that I could reach it. But in a temporary arrangement of the kind this had not been considered necessary, as my wife always turned the screw for me until sufficient lifting power had been attained. I had intended, as I have said before, to construct a negative-gravity waistcoat, in which the screw should be in front, and entirely under the wearer's control; but this was a thing of the future.
When I found that I could not turn the screw I began to be much alarmed. Here I was, dangling in the air, without any means of reaching the ground. I could not expect my wife to return to look for me, as she would naturally suppose I had stopped to speak to some one. I thought of loosening myself from the knapsack, but this would not do, for I should fall heavily, and either kill myself or break some of my bones. I did not dare to call for assistance, for if any of the simple-minded inhabitants of the town had discovered me floating in the air they would have taken me for a demon, and would probably have shot at me. A moderate breeze was blowing, and it wafted me gently down the street. If it had blown me against a tree I would have seized it, and have endeavored, so to speak, to climb down it; but there were no trees. There was a dim street-lamp here and there, but reflectors above them threw their light upon the pavement, and none up to me. On many accounts I was glad that the night was so dark, for, much as I desired to get down, I wanted no one to see me in my strange position, which, to any one but myself and wife, would be utterly unaccountable. If I could rise as high as the roofs I might get on one of them, and, tearing off an armful of tiles, so load myself that I would be heavy enough to descend. But I did not rise to the eaves of any of the houses. If there had been a telegraph-pole, or anything of the kind that I could have clung to, I would have taken off the knapsack, and would have endeavored to scramble down as well as I could. But there was nothing I could cling to. Even the water-spouts, if I could have reached the face of the houses, were embedded in the walls. At an open window, near which I was slowly blown, I saw two little boys going to bed by the light of a dim candle. I was dreadfully afraid that they would see me and raise an alarm. I actually came so near to the window that I threw out one foot and pushed against the wall with such force that I went nearly across the street. I thought I caught sight of a frightened look on the face of one of the boys; but of this I am not sure, and I heard no cries. I still floated, dangling, down the street. What was to be done? Should I call out? In that case, if I were not shot or stoned, my strange predicament, and the secret of my invention, would be exposed to the world. If I did not do this, I must either let myself drop and be killed or mangled, or hang there and die. When, during the course of the night, the air became more rarefied, I might rise higher and higher, perhaps to an altitude of one or two hundred feet. It would then be impossible for the people to reach me and get me down, even if they were convinced that I was not a demon. I should then expire, and when the birds of the air had eaten all of me that they could devour, I should forever hang above the unlucky town, a dangling skeleton with a knapsack on its back.
Such thoughts were not reassuring, and I determined that if I could find no means of getting down without assistance, I would call out and run all risks; but so long as I could endure the tension of the straps I would hold out, and hope for a tree or a pole. Perhaps it might rain, and my wet clothes would then become so heavy that I would descend as low as the top of a lamp-post.
As this thought was passing through my mind I saw a spark of light upon the street approaching me. I rightly imagined that it came from a tobacco-pipe, and presently I heard a voice. It was that of the Alpine Club man. Of all people in the world I did not want him to discover me, and I hung as motionless as possible. The man was speaking to another person who was walking with him.
"He is crazy beyond a doubt," said the Alpine man. "Nobody but a maniac could have gone up and down that mountain as he did! He hasn't any muscles, and one need only look at him to know that he couldn't do any climbing in a natural way. It is only the excitement of insanity that gives him strength."
The two now stopped almost under me, and the speaker continued:
"Such things are very common with maniacs. At times they acquire an unnatural strength which is perfectly wonderful. I have seen a little fellow struggle and fight so that four strong men could not hold him."
Then the other person spoke.
"I am afraid what you say is too true," he remarked. "Indeed, I have known it for some time."
At these words my breath almost stopped. It was the voice of Mr. Gilbert, my townsman, and the father of Janet. It must have been he who had arrived in the travelling-carriage. He was acquainted with the Alpine Club man, and they were talking of me. Proper or improper, I listened with all my ears.
"It is a very sad case," Mr. Gilbert continued. "My daughter was engaged to marry his son, but I broke off the match. I could not have her marry the son of a lunatic, and there could be no doubt of his condition. He has been seen—a man of his age, and the head of a family—to load himself up with a heavy knapsack, which there was no earthly necessity for him to carry, and go skipping along the road for miles, vaulting over fences and jumping over rocks and ditches like a young calf or a colt. I myself saw a most heartrending instance of how a kindly man's nature can be changed by the derangement of his intellect. I was at some distance from his house, but I plainly saw him harness a little donkey which he owns to a large two-horse wagon loaded with stone, and beat and lash the poor little beast until it drew the heavy load some distance along the public road. I would have remonstrated with him on this horrible cruelty, but he had the wagon back in his yard before I could reach him."
"Oh, there can be no doubt of his insanity," said the Alpine Club man, "and he oughtn't to be allowed to travel about in this way. Some day he will pitch his wife over a precipice just for the fun of seeing her shoot through the air."
"I am sorry he is here," said Mr. Gilbert, "for it would be very painful to meet him. My daughter and I will retire very soon, and go away as early to-morrow morning as possible, so as to avoid seeing him."
And then they walked back to the hotel.
For a few moments I hung, utterly forgetful of my condition, and absorbed in the consideration of these revelations. One idea now filled my mind. Everything must be explained to Mr. Gilbert, even if it should be necessary to have him called to me, and for me to speak to him from the upper air.
Just then I saw something white approaching me along the road. My eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, and I perceived that it was an upturned face. I recognized the hurried gait, the form; it was my wife. As she came near me, I called her name, and in the same breath entreated her not to scream. It must have been an effort for her to restrain herself, but she did it.
"You must help me to get down," I said, "without anybody seeing us."
"What shall I do?" she whispered.
"Try to catch hold of this string."
Taking a piece of twine from my pocket, I lowered one end to her. But it was too short; she could not reach it. I then tied my handkerchief to it, but still it was not long enough.
"I can get more string, or handkerchiefs," she whispered, hurriedly.
"No," I said; "you could not get them up to me. But, leaning against the hotel wall, on this side, in the corner, just inside of the garden gate, are some fishing-poles. I have seen them there every day. You can easily find them in the dark. Go, please, and bring me one of those."
The hotel was not far away, and in a few minutes my wife returned with a fishing-pole. She stood on tiptoe, and reached it high in air; but all she could do was to strike my feet and legs with it. My most frantic exertions did not enable me to get my hands low enough to touch it.
"Wait a minute," she said; and the rod was withdrawn.
I knew what she was doing. There was a hook and line attached to the pole, and with womanly dexterity she was fastening the hook to the extreme end of the rod. Soon she reached up, and gently struck at my legs. After a few attempts the hook caught in my trousers, a little below my right knee. Then there was a slight pull, a long scratch down my leg, and the hook was stopped by the top of my boot. Then came a steady downward pull, and I felt myself descending. Gently and firmly the rod was drawn down; carefully the lower end was kept free from the ground; and in a few moments my ankle was seized with a vigorous grasp. Then some one seemed to climb up me, my feet touched the ground, an arm was thrown around my neck, the hand of another arm was busy at the back of my knapsack, and I soon stood firmly in the road, entirely divested of negative gravity.
"Oh that I should have forgotten," sobbed my wife, "and that I should have dropped your arms and let you go up into the air! At first I thought that you had stopped below, and it was only a little while ago that the truth flashed upon me. Then I rushed out and began looking up for you. I knew that you had wax matches in your pocket, and hoped that you would keep on striking them, so that you would be seen."
"But I did not wish to be seen," I said, as we hurried to the hotel; "and I can never be sufficiently thankful that it was you who found me and brought me down. Do you know that it is Mr. Gilbert and his daughter who have just arrived? I must see him instantly. I will explain it all to you when I come upstairs."
I took off my knapsack and gave it to my wife, who carried it to our room, while I went to look for Mr. Gilbert. Fortunately I found him just as he was about to go up to his chamber. He took my offered hand, but looked at me sadly and gravely.
"Mr. Gilbert," I said, "I must speak to you in private. Let us step into this room. There is no one here."
"My friend," said Mr. Gilbert, "it will be much better to avoid discussing this subject. It is very painful to both of us, and no good can come from talking of it."
"You cannot now comprehend what it is I want to say to you," I replied. "Come in here, and in a few minutes you will be very glad that you listened to me."
My manner was so earnest and impressive that Mr. Gilbert was constrained to follow me, and we went into a small room called the smoking-room, but in which people seldom smoked, and closed the door. I immediately began my statement. I told my old friend that I had discovered, by means that I need not explain at present, that he had considered me crazy, and that now the most important object of my life was to set myself right in his eyes. I thereupon gave him the whole history of my invention, and explained the reason of the actions that had appeared to him those of a lunatic. I said nothing about the little incident of that evening. That was a mere accident, and I did not care now to speak of it.
Mr. Gilbert listened to me very attentively.
"Your wife is here?" he asked, when I had finished.
"Yes," I said; "and she will corroborate my story in every item, and no one could ever suspect her of being crazy. I will go and bring her to you."
In a few minutes my wife was in the room, had shaken hands with Mr. Gilbert, and had been told of my suspected madness. She turned pale, but smiled.
"He did act like a crazy man," she said, "but I never supposed that anybody would think him one." And tears came into her eyes.
"And now, my dear," said I, "perhaps you will tell Mr. Gilbert how I did all this."
And then she told him the story that I had told.
Mr. Gilbert looked from the one to the other of us with a troubled air.
"Of course I do not doubt either of you, or rather I do not doubt that you believe what you say. All would be right if I could bring myself to credit that such a force as that you speak of can possibly exist."
"That is a matter," said I, "which I can easily prove to you by actual demonstration. If you can wait a short time, until my wife and I have had something to eat—for I am nearly famished, and I am sure she must be—I will set your mind at rest upon that point."
"I will wait here," said Mr. Gilbert, "and smoke a cigar. Don't hurry yourselves. I shall be glad to have some time to think about what you have told me."
When we had finished the dinner, which had been set aside for us, I went upstairs and got my knapsack, and we both joined Mr. Gilbert in the smoking-room. I showed him the little machine, and explained, very briefly, the principle of its construction. I did not give any practical demonstration of its action, because there were people walking about the corridor who might at any moment come into the room; but, looking out of the window, I saw that the night was much clearer. The wind had dissipated the clouds, and the stars were shining brightly.
"If you will come up the street with me," said I to Mr. Gilbert, "I will show you how this thing works."
"That is just what I want to see," he answered.
"I will go with you," said my wife, throwing a shawl over her head. And we started up the street.
When we were outside the little town I found the starlight was quite sufficient for my purpose. The white roadway, the low walls, and objects about us, could easily be distinguished.
"Now," said I to Mr. Gilbert, "I want to put this knapsack on you, and let you see how it feels, and how it will help you to walk." To this he assented with some eagerness, and I strapped it firmly on him. "I will now turn this screw," said I, "until you shall become lighter and lighter."
"Be very careful not to turn it too much," said my wife, earnestly.
"Oh, you may depend on me for that," said I, turning the screw very gradually.
Mr. Gilbert was a stout man, and I was obliged to give the screw a good many turns.
"There seems to be considerable hoist in it," he said, directly. And then I put my arms around him, and found that I could raise him from the ground.
"Are you lifting me?" he exclaimed, in surprise.
"Yes; I did it with ease," I answered.
"Upon—my—word!" ejaculated Mr. Gilbert.
I then gave the screw a half-turn more, and told him to walk and run. He started off, at first slowly, then he made long strides, then he began to run, and then to skip and jump. It had been many years since Mr. Gilbert had skipped and jumped. No one was in sight, and he was free to gambol as much as he pleased. "Could you give it another turn?" said he, bounding up to me. "I want to try that wall." I put on a little more negative gravity, and he vaulted over a five-foot wall with great ease. In an instant he had leaped back into the road, and in two bounds was at my side. "I came down as light as a cat," he said. "There was never anything like it." And away he went up the road, taking steps at least eight feet long, leaving my wife and me laughing heartily at the preternatural agility of our stout friend. In a few minutes he was with us again. "Take it off," he said. "If I wear it any longer I shall want one myself, and then I shall be taken for a crazy man, and perhaps clapped into an asylum."
"Now," said I, as I turned back the screw before unstrapping the knapsack, "do you understand how I took long walks, and leaped and jumped; how I ran uphill and downhill, and how the little donkey drew the loaded wagon?"
"I understand it all," cried he. "I take back all I ever said or thought about you, my friend."
"And Herbert may marry Janet?" cried my wife.
"May marry her!" cried Mr. Gilbert. "Indeed, he shall marry her, if I have anything to say about it! My poor girl has been drooping ever since I told her it could not be."
My wife rushed at him, but whether she embraced him or only shook his hands I cannot say; for I had the knapsack in one hand and was rubbing my eyes with the other.
"But, my dear fellow," said Mr. Gilbert, directly, "if you still consider it to your interest to keep your invention a secret, I wish you had never made it. No one having a machine like that can help using it, and it is often quite as bad to be considered a maniac as to be one."
"My friend," I cried, with some excitement, "I have made up my mind on this subject. The little machine in this knapsack, which is the only one I now possess, has been a great pleasure to me. But I now know it has also been of the greatest injury indirectly to me and mine, not to mention some direct inconvenience and danger, which I will speak of another time. The secret lies with us three, and we will keep it. But the invention itself is too full of temptation and danger for any of us."
As I said this I held the knapsack with one hand while I quickly turned the screw with the other. In a few moments it was high above my head, while I with difficulty held it down by the straps. "Look!" I cried. And then I released my hold, and the knapsack shot into the air and disappeared into the upper gloom.
I was about to make a remark, but had no chance, for my wife threw herself upon my bosom, sobbing with joy.
"Oh, I am so glad—so glad!" she said. "And you will never make another?"
"Never another!" I answered.
"And now let us hurry in and see Janet," said my wife.
"You don't know how heavy and clumsy I feel," said Mr. Gilbert, striving to keep up with us as we walked back. "If I had worn that thing much longer, I should never have been willing to take it off!"
Janet had retired, but my wife went up to her room.
"I think she has felt it as much as our boy," she said, when she rejoined me. "But I tell you, my dear, I left a very happy girl in that little bedchamber over the garden."
And there were three very happy elderly people talking together until quite late that evening. "I shall write to Herbert to-night," I said, when we separated, "and tell him to meet us all in Geneva. It will do the young man no harm if we interrupt his studies just now."
"You must let me add a postscript to the letter," said Mr. Gilbert, "and I am sure it will require no knapsack with a screw in the back to bring him quickly to us."
And it did not.
There is a wonderful pleasure in tripping over the earth like a winged Mercury, and in feeling one's self relieved of much of that attraction of gravitation which drags us down to earth and gradually makes the movement of our bodies but weariness and labor. But this pleasure is not to be compared, I think, to that given by the buoyancy and lightness of two young and loving hearts, reunited after a separation which they had supposed would last forever.
What became of the basket and the knapsack, or whether they ever met in upper air, I do not know. If they but float away and stay away from ken of mortal man, I shall be satisfied.
And whether or not the world will ever know more of the power of negative gravity depends entirely upon the disposition of my son Herbert, when—after a good many years, I hope—he shall open the packet my lawyers have in keeping.
* * * * *
[NOTE.—It would be quite useless for any one to interview my wife on this subject, for she has entirely forgotten how my machine was made. And as for Mr. Gilbert, he never knew.]
About a hundred feet back from the main street of a village in New Jersey there stood a very good white house. Half-way between it and the sidewalk was a large chestnut-tree, which had been the pride of Mr. Himes, who built the house, and was now the pride of Mrs. Himes, his widow, who lived there.
Under the tree was a bench, and on the bench were two elderly men, both smoking pipes, and each one of them leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. One of these, Thomas Rooper by name, was a small man with gray side-whiskers, a rather thin face, and very good clothes. His pipe was a meerschaum, handsomely colored, with a long amber tip. He had bought that pipe while on a visit to Philadelphia during the great Centennial Exposition; and if any one noticed it and happened to remark what a fine pipe it was, that person would be likely to receive a detailed account of the circumstances of its purchase, with an appendix relating to the Main Building, the Art Building, the Agricultural Building, and many other salient points of the great Exposition which commemorated the centennial of our national independence.
The other man, Asaph Scantle, was of a different type. He was a little older than his companion, but if his hair were gray, it did not show very much, as his rather long locks were of a sandy hue and his full face was clean shaven, at least on Wednesdays and Sundays. He was tall, round-shouldered, and his clothes were not good, possessing very evident claims to a position on the retired list. His pipe consisted of a common clay bowl with a long reed stem.
For some minutes the two men continued to puff together as if they were playing a duet upon tobacco-pipes, and then Asaph, removing his reed from his lips, remarked, "What you ought to do, Thomas, is to marry money."
"There's sense in that," replied the other; "but you wasn't the first to think of it."
Asaph, who knew very well that Mr. Rooper never allowed any one to suppose that he received suggestions from without, took no notice of the last remark, but went on: "Lookin' at the matter in a friendly way, it seems to me it stands to reason that when the shingles on a man's house is so rotten that the rain comes through into every room on the top floor, and when the plaster on the ceilin' is tumblin' down more or less all the time, and the window-sashes is all loose, and things generally in a condition that he can't let that house without spendin' at least a year's rent on it to git it into decent order, and when a man's got to the time of life—"
"There's nothin' the matter with the time of life," said Thomas; "that's all right."
"What I was goin' to say was," continued Asaph, "that when a man gits to the time of life when he knows what it is to be comfortable in his mind as well as his body—and that time comes to sensible people as soon as they git fairly growed up—he don't want to give up his good room in the tavern and all the privileges of the house, and go to live on his own property and have the plaster come down on his own head and the rain come down on the coverlet of his own bed."
"No, he don't," said Thomas; "and what is more, he isn't goin' to do it. But what I git from the rent of that house is what I have to live on; there's no gittin' around that pint."
"Well, then," said Asaph, "if you don't marry money, what are you goin' to do? You can't go back to your old business."
"I never had but one business," said Thomas. "I lived with my folks until I was a good deal more than growed up; and when the war broke out I went as sutler to the rigiment from this place; and all the money I made I put into my property in the village here. That's what I've lived on ever since. There's no more war, so there's no more sutlers, except away out West where I wouldn't go; and there are no more folks, for they are all dead; and if what Mrs. McJimsey says is true, there'll be no more tenants in my house after the 1st of next November. For when the McJimseys go on account of want of general repairs, it is not to be expected that anybody else will come there. There's nobody in this place that can stand as much as the McJimseys can."
"Consequently," said Asaph, deliberately filling his pipe, "it stands to reason that there ain't nothin' for you to do but marry money."
Thomas Rooper took his pipe from his mouth and sat up straight. Gazing steadfastly at his companion, he remarked, "If you think that is such a good thing to do, why don't you do it yourself? There can't be anybody much harder up than you are."
"The law's agin' my doin' it," said Asaph. "A man can't marry his sister."
"Are you thinkin' of Marietta Himes?" asked Mr. Rooper.
"That's the one I'm thinkin' of," said Asaph. "If you can think of anybody better, I'd like you to mention her."
Mr. Rooper did not immediately speak. He presently asked, "What do you call money?"
"Well," said Asaph, with a little hesitation, "considerin' the circumstances, I should say that in a case like this about fifteen hundred a year, a first-rate house with not a loose shingle on it nor a crack anywhere, a good garden and an orchard, two cows, a piece of meadow-land on the other side of the creek, and all the clothes a woman need have, is money."
Thomas shrugged his shoulders. "Clothes!" he said. "If she marries she'll go out of black, and then she'll have to have new ones, and lots of 'em. That would make a big hole in her money, Asaph."
The other smiled. "I always knowed you was a far-seein' feller, Thomas; but it stands to reason that Marietta's got a lot of clothes that was on hand before she went into mournin', and she's not the kind of woman to waste 'em. She'll be twistin' 'em about and makin' 'em over to suit the fashions, and it won't be like her to be buyin' new colored goods when she's got plenty of 'em already."
There was now another pause in the conversation, and then Mr. Rooper remarked, "Mrs. Himes must be gettin' on pretty well in years."
"She's not a young woman," said Asaph; "but if she was much younger she wouldn't have you, and if she was much older you wouldn't have her. So it strikes me she's just about the right pint."
"How old was John Himes when he died?" asked Thomas.
"I don't exactly know that; but he was a lot older than Marietta."
Thomas shook his head. "It strikes me," said he, "that John Himes had a hearty constitution and hadn't ought to died as soon as he did. He fell away a good deal in the last years of his life."
"And considerin' that he died of consumption, he had a right to fall away," said Asaph. "If what you are drivin' at, Thomas, is that Marietta isn't a good housekeeper and hasn't the right sort of notions of feedin', look at me. I've lived with Marietta just about a year, and in that time I have gained forty-two pounds. Now, of course, I ain't unreasonable, and don't mean to say that you would gain forty-two pounds in a year, 'cause you ain't got the frame and bone to put it on; but it wouldn't surprise me a bit if you was to gain twenty, or even twenty-five, pounds in eighteen months, anyway; and more than that you ought not to ask, Thomas, considerin' your height and general build."
"Isn't Marietta Himes a good deal of a freethinker?" asked Thomas.
"A what?" cried Asaph. "You mean an infidel?"
"No," said Thomas, "I don't charge nobody with nothin' more than there's reason for; but they do say that she goes sometimes to one church and sometimes to another, and that if there was a Catholic church in this village she would go to that. And who's goin' to say where a woman will turn up when she don't know her own mind better than that?"
Asaph colored a little. "The place where Marietta will turn up," said he, warmly, "is on a front seat in the kingdom of heaven; and if the people that talk about her will mend their ways, they'll see that I am right. You need not trouble yourself about that, Thomas. Marietta Himes is pious to the heel."
Mr. Rooper now shifted himself a little on the bench and crossed one leg over the other. "Now look here, Asaph," he said, with a little more animation than he had yet shown, "supposin' all you say is true, have you got any reason to think that Mrs. Himes ain't satisfied with things as they are?"
"Yes, I have," said Asaph. "And I don't mind tellin' you that the thing she's least satisfied with is me. She wants a man in the house; that is nateral. She wouldn't be Marietta Himes if she didn't. When I come to live with her I thought the whole business was settled; but it isn't. I don't suit her. I don't say she's lookin' for another man, but if another man was to come along, and if he was the right kind of a man, it's my opinion she's ready for him. I wouldn't say this to everybody, but I say it to you, Thomas Rooper, 'cause I know what kind of a man you are."
Mr. Rooper did not return the compliment. "I don't wonder your sister ain't satisfied with you," he said, "for you go ahead of all the lazy men I ever saw yet. They was sayin' down at the tavern yesterday—only yesterday—that you could do less work in more time than anybody they ever saw before."
"There's two ways of workin'," said Asaph. "Some people work with their hands and some with their heads."
Thomas grimly smiled. "It strikes me," said he, "that the most head-work you do is with your jaws."
Asaph was not the man to take offence readily, especially when he considered it against his interest to do so, and he showed no resentment at this remark. "'Tain't so much my not makin' myself more generally useful," he said, "that Marietta objects to; though, of course, it could not be expected that a man that hasn't got any interest in property would keep workin' at it like a man that has got an interest in it, such as Marietta's husband would have; but it's my general appearance that she don't like. She's told me more than once she didn't so much mind my bein' lazy as lookin' lazy."
"I don't wonder she thinks that way," said Thomas. "But look here, Asaph, do you suppose that if Marietta Himes was to marry a man, he would really come into her property?"
"There ain't nobody that knows my sister better than I know her, and I can say, without any fear of bein' contradicted, that when she gives herself to a man the good-will and fixtures will be included."
Thomas Rooper now leaned forward with his elbows on his knees without smoking, and Asaph Scantle leaned forward with his elbows on his knees without smoking. And thus they remained, saying nothing to each other, for the space of some ten minutes.
Asaph was a man who truly used his head a great deal more than he used his hands. He had always been a shiftless fellow, but he was no fool, and this his sister found out soon after she asked him to come and make his home with her. She had not done this because she wanted a man in the house, for she had lived two or three years without that convenience and had not felt the need of it. But she heard that Asaph was in very uncomfortable circumstances, and she had sent for him solely for his own good. The arrangement proved to be a very good one for her brother, but not a good one for her. She had always known that Asaph's head was his main dependence, but she was just beginning to discover that he liked to use his head so that other people's hands should work for him.
"There ain't nobody comin' to see your sister, is there?" asked Thomas, suddenly.
"Not a livin' soul," said Asaph, "except women, married folk, and children. But it has always surprised me that nobody did come; but just at this minute the field's clear and the gate's open."
"Well," said Mr. Rooper, "I'll think about it."
"That's right," said Asaph, rubbing his knees with his hands. "That's right. But now tell me, Thomas Rooper, supposin' you get Marietta, what are you goin' to do for me?"
"For you?" exclaimed the other. "What have you got to do with it?"
"A good deal," said Asaph. "If you get Marietta with her fifteen hundred a year—and it wouldn't surprise me if it was eighteen hundred—and her house and her garden and her cattle and her field and her furniture, with not a leg loose nor a scratch, you will get her because I proposed her to you, and because I backed you up afterward. And now, then, I want to know what you are goin' to do for me?"
"What do you want?" asked Thomas.
"The first thing I want," said Asaph, "is a suit of clothes. These clothes is disgraceful."
"You are right there," said Mr. Rooper. "I wonder your sister lets you come around in front of the house. But what do you mean by clothes—winter clothes or summer clothes?"
"Winter," said Asaph, without hesitation. "I don't count summer clothes. And when I say a suit of clothes, I mean shoes and hat and underclothes."
Mr. Rooper gave a sniff. "I wonder you don't say overcoat," he remarked.
"I do say overcoat," replied Asaph. "A suit of winter clothes is a suit of clothes that you can go out into the weather in without missin' nothin'."
Mr. Rooper smiled sarcastically. "Is there anything else you want?" he asked.
"Yes," said Asaph, decidedly; "there is. I want a umbrella."
"Cotton or silk?"
Asaph hesitated. He had never had a silk umbrella in his hand in his life. He was afraid to strike too high, and he answered, "I want a good stout gingham."
Mr. Rooper nodded his head. "Very good," he said. "And is that all?"
"No," said Asaph, "it ain't all. There is one more thing I want, and that is a dictionary."
The other man rose to his feet. "Upon my word," he exclaimed, "I never before saw a man that would sell his sister for a dictionary! And what you want with a dictionary is past my conceivin'."
"Well, it ain't past mine," said Asaph. "For more than ten years I have wanted a dictionary. If I had a dictionary I could make use of my head in a way that I can't now. There is books in this house, but amongst 'em there is no dictionary. If there had been one I'd been a different man by this time from what I am now, and like as not Marietta wouldn't have wanted any other man in the house but me."
Mr. Rooper stood looking upon the ground; and Asaph, who had also arisen, waited for him to speak. "You are a graspin' man, Asaph," said Thomas. "But there is another thing I'd like to know: if I give you them clothes, you don't want them before she's married?"
"Yes, I do," said Asaph. "If I come to the weddin', I can't wear these things. I have got to have them first."
Mr. Rooper gave his head a little twist. "There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip," said he.
"Yes," said Asaph; "and there's different cups and different lips. But what's more, if I was to be best man—which would be nateral, considerin' I'm your friend and her brother—you wouldn't want me standin' up in this rig. And that's puttin' it in your own point of view, Thomas."
"It strikes me," said the other, "that I could get a best man that would furnish his own clothes; but we will see about that. There's another thing, Asaph," he said, abruptly; "what are Mrs. Himes's views concernin' pipes?"
This question startled and frightened Asaph. He knew that his sister could not abide the smell of tobacco and that Mr. Rooper was an inveterate smoker.
"That depends," said he, "on the kind of tobacco. I don't mind sayin' that Marietta isn't partial to the kind of tobacco I smoke. But I ain't a moneyed man and I can't afford to buy nothin' but cheap stuff. But when it comes to a meerschaum pipe and the very finest Virginia or North Carolina smoking-tobacco, such as a moneyed man would be likely to use—"
At this moment there came from the house the sound of a woman's voice, not loud, but clear and distinct, and it said "Asaph."
This word sent through Mr. Rooper a gentle thrill such as he did not remember ever having felt before. There seemed to be in it a suggestion, a sort of prophecy, of what appeared to him as an undefined and chaotic bliss. He was not a fanciful man, but he could not help imagining himself standing alone under that chestnut-tree and that voice calling "Thomas."
Upon Asaph the effect was different. The interruption was an agreeable one in one way, because it cut short his attempted explanation of the tobacco question; but in another way he knew that it meant the swinging of an axe, and that was not pleasant.
Mr. Rooper walked back to the tavern in a cogitative state of mind. "That Asaph Scantle," he said to himself, "has got a head-piece, there's no denying it. If it had not been for him I do not believe I should have thought of his sister; at least not until the McJimseys had left my house, and then it might have been too late."
Marietta Himes was a woman with a gentle voice and an appearance and demeanor indicative of a general softness of disposition; but beneath this mild exterior there was a great deal of firmness of purpose. Asaph had not seen very much of his sister since she had grown up and married; and when he came to live with her he thought that he was going to have things pretty much his own way. But it was not long before he entirely changed his mind.
Mrs. Himes was of moderate height, pleasant countenance, and a figure inclined to plumpness. Her dark hair, in which there was not a line of gray, was brushed down smoothly on each side of her face, and her dress, while plain, was extremely neat. In fact, everything in the house and on the place was extremely neat, except Asaph.
She was in the bright little dining-room which looked out on the flower-garden, preparing the table for supper, placing every plate, dish, glass, and cup with as much care and exactness as if a civil engineer had drawn a plan on the table-cloth with places marked for the position of each article.
As she finished her work by placing a chair on each side of the table, a quiet smile, the result of a train of thought in which she had been indulging for the past half-hour, stole over her face. She passed through the kitchen, with a glance at the stove to see if the tea-kettle had begun to boil; and going out of the back door, she walked over to the shed where her brother was splitting kindling-wood.
"Asaph," said Mrs. Himes, "if I were to give you a good suit of clothes, would you promise me that you would never smoke when wearing them?"
Her brother looked at her in amazement. "Clothes!" he repeated.
"Mr. Himes was about your size," said his sister, "and he left a good many clothes, which are most of them very good and carefully packed away, so that I am sure there is not a moth-hole in any one of them. I have several times thought, Asaph, that I might give you some of his clothes; but it did seem to me a desecration to have the clothes of such a man, who was so particular and nice, filled and saturated with horrible tobacco-smoke, which he detested. But now you are getting to be so awful shabby, I do not see how I can stand it any longer. But one thing I will not do—I will not have Mr. Himes's clothes smelling of tobacco as yours do; and not only your own tobacco, but Mr. Rooper's."
"I think," said Asaph, "that you are not exactly right just there. What you smell about me is my smoke. Thomas Rooper never uses anything but the finest-scented and delicatest brands. I think that if you come to get used to his tobacco-smoke you would like it. But as to my takin' off my clothes and puttin' on a different suit every time I want to light my pipe, that's pretty hard lines, it seems to me."
"It would be a good deal easier to give up the pipe," said his sister.
"I will do that," said Asaph, "when you give up tea. But you know as well as I do that there's no use of either of us a-tryin' to change our comfortable habits at our time of life."
"I kept on hoping," said Mrs. Himes, "that you would feel yourself that you were not fit to be seen by decent people, and that you would go to work and earn at least enough money to buy yourself some clothes. But as you don't seem inclined to do that, I thought I would make you this offer. But you must understand that I will not have you smoke in Mr. Himes's clothes."
Asaph stood thinking, the head of his axe resting upon the ground, a position which suited him. He was in a little perplexity. Marietta's proposition seemed to interfere somewhat with the one he had made to Thomas Rooper. Here was a state of affairs which required most careful consideration. "I've been arrangin' about some clothes," he said, presently; "for I know very well I need 'em; but I don't know just yet how it will turn out."
"I hope, Asaph," said Marietta, quickly, "that you are not thinking of going into debt for clothing, and I know that you haven't been working to earn money. What arrangements have you been making?"
"That's my private affair," said Asaph, "but there's no debt in it. It is all fair and square—cash down, so to speak; though, of course, it's not cash, but work. But, as I said before, that isn't settled."
"I am afraid, Asaph," said his sister, "that if you have to do the work first you will never get the clothes, and so you might as well come back to my offer."
Asaph came back to it and thought about it very earnestly. If by any chance he could get two suits of clothes, he would then feel that he had a head worth having. "What would you say," he said, presently, "if when I wanted to smoke I was to put on a long duster—I guess Mr. Himes had dusters—and a nightcap and rubbers? I'd agree to hang the duster and the cap in the shed here and never smoke without putting 'em on." There was a deep purpose in this proposition, for, enveloped in the long duster, he might sit with Thomas Rooper under the chestnut-tree and smoke and talk and plan as long as he pleased, and his companion would not know that he did not need a new suit of clothes.
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Himes; "you must make up your mind to act perfectly fairly, Asaph, or else say you will not accept my offer. But if you don't accept it, I can't see how you can keep on living with me."
"What do you mean by clothes, Marietta?" he asked.
"Well, I mean a complete suit, of course," said she.
"Winter or summer?"
"I hadn't thought of that," Mrs. Himes replied; "but that can be as you choose."
"Overcoat?" asked Asaph.
"Yes," said she, "and cane and umbrella, if you like, and pocket-handkerchiefs, too. I will fit you out completely, and shall be glad to have you looking like a decent man."
At the mention of the umbrella another line of perplexity showed itself upon Asaph's brow. The idea came to him that if she would add a dictionary he would strike a bargain. Thomas Rooper was certainly a very undecided and uncertain sort of man. But then there came up the thought of his pipe, and he was all at sea again. Giving up smoking was almost the same as giving up eating. "Marietta," said he, "I will think about this."
"Very well," she answered; "but it's my opinion, Asaph, that you ought not to take more than one minute to think about it. However, I will give you until to-morrow morning, and then if you decide that you don't care to look like a respectable citizen, I must have some further talk with you about our future arrangements."
"Make it to-morrow night," said Asaph. And his sister consented.
The next day Asaph was unusually brisk and active; and very soon after breakfast he walked over to the village tavern to see Mr. Rooper.
"Hello!" exclaimed that individual, surprised at his visitor's early appearance at the business centre of the village. "What's started you out? Have you come after them clothes?"
A happy thought struck Asaph. He had made this visit with the intention of feeling his way toward some decision on the important subject of his sister's proposition, and here a way seemed to be opened to him. "Thomas," said he, taking his friend aside, "I am in an awful fix. Marietta can't stand my clothes any longer. If she can't stand them she can't stand me, and when it comes to that, you can see for yourself that I can't help you."
A shade settled upon Mr. Rooper's face. During the past evening he had been thinking and puffing, and puffing and thinking, until everybody else in the tavern had gone to bed; and he had finally made up his mind that, if he could do it, he would marry Marietta Himes. He had never been very intimate with her or her husband, but he had been to meals in the house, and he remembered the fragrant coffee and the light, puffy, well-baked rolls made by Marietta's own hands; and he thought of the many differences between living in that very good house with that gentle, pleasant-voiced lady and his present life in the village tavern.
And so, having determined that without delay he would, with the advice and assistance of Asaph, begin his courtship, it was natural that he should feel a shock of discouragement when he heard Asaph's announcement that his sister could not endure him in the house any longer. To attack that house and its owner without the friendly offices upon which he depended was an undertaking for which he was not at all prepared.
"I don't wonder at her," he said, sharply—"not a bit. But this puts a mighty different face on the thing what we talked about yesterday."
"It needn't," said Asaph, quietly. "The clothes you was goin' to give me wouldn't cost a cent more to-day than they would in a couple of months, say; and when I've got 'em on Marietta will be glad to have me around. Everything can go on just as we bargained for."
Thomas shook his head. "That would be a mighty resky piece of business," he said. "You would be all right, but that's not sayin' that I would; for it strikes me that your sister is about as much a bird in the bush as any flyin' critter."
Asaph smiled. "If the bush was in the middle of a field," said he, "and there was only one boy after the bird, it would be a pretty tough job. But if the bush is in the corner of two high walls, and there's two boys, and one of 'em's got a fishnet what he can throw clean over the bush, why, then the chances is a good deal better. But droppin' figgers, Thomas, and speakin' plain and straightforward, as I always do—"
"About things you want to git," interrupted Thomas.
"—about everything," resumed Asaph. "I'll just tell you this: if I don't git decent clothes now to-day, or perhaps to-morrow, I have got to travel out of Marietta's house. I can do it and she knows it. I can go back to Drummondville and git my board for keepin' books in the store, and nobody there cares what sort of clothes I wear. But when that happens, your chance of gittin' Marietta goes up higher than a kite."
To the mind of Mr. Rooper this was most conclusive reasoning; but he would not admit it and he did not like it. "Why don't your sister give you clothes?" he said. "Old Himes must have left some."
A thin chill like a needleful of frozen thread ran down Asaph's back. "Mr. Himes's clothes!" he exclaimed. "What in the world are you talkin' about, Thomas Rooper? 'Tain't likely he had many, 'cept what he was buried in; and what's left, if there is any, Marietta would no more think of givin' away than she would of hangin' up his funeral wreath for the canary-bird to perch on. There's a room up in the garret where she keeps his special things—for she's awful particular—and if there is any of his clothes up there I expect she's got 'em framed."
"If she thinks as much of him as that," muttered Mr. Rooper.
"Now don't git any sech ideas as them into your head, Thomas," said Asaph, quickly. "Marietta ain't a woman to rake up the past, and you never need be afraid of her rakin' up Mr. Himes. All of the premises will be hern and yourn except that room in the garret, and it ain't likely she'll ever ask you to go in there."
"The Lord knows I don't want to!" ejaculated Mr. Rooper.
The two men walked slowly to the end of a line of well-used, or, rather, badly used, wooden arm-chairs which stood upon the tavern piazza, and seated themselves. Mr. Rooper's mind was in a highly perturbed condition. If he accepted Asaph's present proposition he would have to make a considerable outlay with a very shadowy prospect of return.
"If you haven't got the ready money for the clothes," said Asaph, after having given his companion some minutes for silent consideration, "there ain't a man in this village what they would trust sooner at the store for clothes," and then after a pause he added, "or books, which, of course, they can order from town."
At this Mr. Rooper simply shrugged his shoulders. The question of ready money or credit did not trouble him.
At this moment a man in a low phaeton, drawn by a stout gray horse, passed the tavern.
"Who's that?" asked Asaph, who knew everybody in the village.
"That's Doctor Wicker," said Thomas. "He lives over at Timberley. He 'tended John Himes in his last sickness."
"He don't practise here, does he?" said Asaph. "I never see him."
"No; but he was called in to consult." And then the speaker dropped again into cogitation.
After a few minutes Asaph rose. He knew that Thomas Rooper had a slow-working mind, and thought it would be well to leave him to himself for a while. "I'll go home," said he, "and 'tend to my chores, and by the time you feel like comin' up and takin' a smoke with me under the chestnut-tree, I reckon you will have made up your mind, and we'll settle this thing. Fer if I have got to go back to Drummondville, I s'pose I'll have to pack up this afternoon."
"If you'd say pack off instead of pack up," remarked the other, "you'd come nearer the facts, considerin' the amount of your personal property. But I'll be up there in an hour or two."
When Asaph came within sight of his sister's house he was amazed to see a phaeton and a gray horse standing in front of the gate. From this it was easy to infer that the doctor was in the house. What on earth could have happened? Was anything the matter with Marietta? And if so, why did she send for a physician who lived at a distance, instead of Doctor McIlvaine, the village doctor? In a very anxious state of mind Asaph reached the gate, and irresolutely went into the yard. His impulse was to go to the house and see what had happened; but he hesitated. He felt that Marietta might object to having a comparative stranger know that such an exceedingly shabby fellow was her brother. And, besides, his sister could not have been overtaken by any sudden illness. She had always appeared perfectly well, and there would have been no time during his brief absence from the house to send over to Timberley for a doctor.
So he sat down under the chestnut-tree to consider this strange condition of affairs. "Whatever it is," he said to himself, "it's nothin' suddint, and it's bound to be chronic, and that'll skeer Thomas. I wish I hadn't asked him to come up here. The best thing for me to do will be to pretend that I have been sent to git somethin' at the store, and go straight back and keep him from comin' up."
But Asaph was a good deal quicker to think than to move, and he still sat with brows wrinkled and mind beset by doubts. For a moment he thought that it might be well to accept Marietta's proposition and let Thomas go; but then he remembered the conditions, and he shut his mental eyes at the prospect.
At that moment the gate opened and in walked Thomas Rooper. He had made up his mind and had come to say so; but the sight of the phaeton and gray horse caused him to postpone his intended announcement. "What's Doctor Wicker doin' here?" he asked, abruptly.
"Dunno," said Asaph, as carelessly as he could speak. "I don't meddle with household matters of that kind. I expect it's somethin' the matter with that gal Betsey, that Marietta hires to help her. She's always wrong some way or other so that she can't do her own proper work, which I know, havin' to do a good deal of it myself. I expect it's rickets, like as not. Gals do have that sort of thing, don't they?"
"Never had anything to do with sick gals," said Thomas, "or sick people of any sort, and don't want to. But it must be somethin' pretty deep-seated for your sister to send all the way to Timberley for a doctor."
Asaph knew very well that Mrs. Himes was too economical a person to think of doing such a thing as that, and he knew also that Betsey was as good a specimen of rustic health as could be found in the county. And therefore his companion's statement that he wanted to have nothing to do with sick people had for him a saddening import.
"I settled that business of yourn," said Mr. Rooper, "pretty soon after you left me. I thought I might as well come straight around and tell you about it. I'll make you a fair and square offer. I'll give you them clothes, though it strikes me that winter goods will be pretty heavy for this time of year; but it will be on this condition: if I don't get Marietta, you have got to give 'em back."
"I know what you are grinnin' at," said Thomas; "but you needn't think that you are goin' to have the wearin' of them clothes for two or three months and then give 'em back. I don't go in for any long courtships. What I do in that line will be short and sharp."
"How short?" asked Asaph.
"Well, this is Thursday," replied the other, "and I calculate to ask her on Monday."
Asaph looked at his companion in amazement. "By George!" he exclaimed, "that won't work. Why, it took Marietta more'n five days to make up her mind whether she would have the chicken-house painted green or red, and you can't expect her to be quicker than that in takin' a new husband. She'd say No just as certain as she would now if you was to go in and ask her right before the doctor and Betsey. And I'll just tell you plain that it wouldn't pay me to do all the hustlin' around and talkin' and argyin' and recommendin' that I'd have to do just for the pleasure of wearin' a suit of warm clothes for four July days. I tell you what it is, it won't do to spring that sort of thing on a woman, especially when she's what you might call a trained widder. You got to give 'em time to think over the matter and to look up your references. There's no use talkin' about it; you must give 'em time, especially when the offer comes from a person that nobody but me has ever thought of as a marryin' man."