HARRY LEON WILSON
Author of The Spenders, The Lions of the Lord, The Boss of Little Arcady, etc.
Illustrated By F. R. Gruger
Garden City ... New York Doubleday, Page & Company
To H.G. WELLS
"Every time I get alone I just giggle myself into spasms. Isn't it the funniest?"
It was a friendly young face he saw there, but troubled
"I feared he was discommoding you," ventured the Countess, elegantly apologetic
"Daughter!" said Breede with half a glance at the flapper
In that instant Bean read the flapper's look, the look she had puzzled him with from their first meeting
"Oh, put up your trinkets!" said Bean, with a fine affectation of weariness
Thereafter, until late at night, the red car was trailed by the taxi-cab
"Lumbago!" said Bean, both hands upon the life-belt
Bunker Bean was wishing he could be different. This discontent with himself was suffered in a moment of idleness as he sat at a desk on a high floor of a very high office-building in "downtown" New York. The first correction he would have made was that he should be "well over six feet" tall. He had observed that this was the accepted stature for a hero.
And the name, almost any name but "Bunker Bean!" Often he wrote good ones on casual slips of paper and fancied them his; names like Trevellyan or Montressor or Delancey, with musical prefixes; or a good, short, beautiful, but dignified name like "Gordon Dane." He liked that one. It suggested something. But Bean! And Bunker Bean, at that! True, it also suggested something, but this had never been anything desirable. Just now the people in the outside office were calling him "Boston."
"Gordon Dane," well over six feet, abundant dark hair, a bit inclined to "wave" and showing faint lines of gray "above the temples"; for Bean also wished to be thirty years old and to have learned about women; in short, to have suffered. Gordon Dane's was a face before which the eyes of women would fall in half-frightened, half-ecstatic subjection, and men would feel the inexplicable magnetism of his presence. He would be widely remarked for his taste in dress. He would don stripes or checks without a trace of timidity. He would quail before no violence of colour in a cravat.
A certain insignificant Bunker Bean was not like this. With a soul aspiring to stripes and checks that should make him a man to be looked at twice in a city street, he lacked courage for any but the quietest patterns. Longing for the cravat of brilliant hue, he ate out his heart under neutral tints. Had he not, in the intoxication of his first free afternoon in New York, boldly purchased a glorious thing of silk entirely, flatly red, an article to stamp its wearer with distinction; and had he not, in the seclusion of his rented room, that night hidden the flaming thing at the bottom of a bottom drawer, knowing in his sickened soul he dared not flaunt it?
Once, truly, had he worn it, but only for a brief stroll on a rainy Sunday, with an entirely opaque raincoat buttoned closely under his chin. Even so, he fancied that people stared through and through that guaranteed fabric straight to his red secret. The rag burned on his breast. Afterward it was something to look at beyond the locked door; perhaps to try on behind drawn shades, late of a night. And how little Gordon Dane would have made of such a matter! Floated in Bean's mind the refrain of a clothing advertisement. "The more advanced dressers will seek this fashion." "Something dignified yet different!" Gordon Dane would be "an advanced dresser."
But if you have been afraid of nearly everything nearly all your life, how then? You must be "dignified" only. The brave only may be "different." It was all well enough to gaze at striking fabrics in windows; but to buy and to wear openly, and get yourself pointed at—laughed at! Again sounded the refrain of the hired bard of dress. "It is cut to give the wearer the appearance of perfect physical development. And the effect so produced so improves his form that he unconsciously strives to attain the appearance which the garment gives him; he expands his chest, draws in his waist and stands erect."
A rustling of papers from the opposite side of the desk promised a diversion of his thoughts. Bean was a hireling and the person who rustled the papers was his master, but the youth bestowed upon the great man a look of profound, albeit not unkindly, contempt. It could be seen, even as he sat in the desk-chair, that he was a short man; not an inch better than Bean, there. He was old. Bean, when he thought of the matter, was satisfied to guess him as something between fifty and eighty. He didn't know and didn't care how many might be the years of little Jim Breede. Breede was the most negligible person he knew.
He was nearly nothing, in Bean's view, if you came right down to it. Besides being of too few inches for a man and unspeakably old, he was unsightly. Nothing of the Gordon Dane about Breede. The little hair left him was an atrocious foggy gray; never in order, never combed, Bean thought. The brows were heavy, and still curiously dark, which made them look threatening. The eyes were the coldest of gray, a match for the hair in colour, and set far back in caverns. The nose was blunt, the chin a mere knobby challenge, and between them was the unloveliest moustache Bean had ever been compelled to observe; short, ragged, faded in streaks. And wrinkles—wrinkles wheresoever there was room for them: across the forehead that lost itself in shining yellow scalp; under the eyes, down the cheeks, about the traplike mouth. He especially loathed the smaller wrinkles that made tiny squares and diamonds around the back of Breede's neck.
Sartorially, also, Bean found Breede objectionable. He forever wore the same kind of suit. The very same suit, one might have thought, only Bean knew it was renewed from time to time; it was the kind called "a decent gray," and it had emphatically not been cut "to give the wearer the appearance of perfect physical development." So far as Bean could determine the sole intention had been to give the wearer plenty of room under the arms and at the waist. Bean found it disgusting—a man who had at least enough leisure to give a little thought to such matters.
Breede's shoes offended him. Couldn't the man pick out something natty, a shapelier toe, buttons, a neat upper of tan or blue cloth—patent leather, of course? But nothing of the sort; a strange, thin, nameless leather, never either shiny or quite dull, as broad at the toe as any place, no buttons; not even laces; elastic at the sides! Not shoes, in any dressy sense. Things to be pulled on. And always the same, like the contemptible suits of clothes.
He might have done a little something with his shirts, Bean thought; a stripe or crossed lines, a bit of gay colour; but no! Stiff-bosomed white shirts, cuffs that "came off," cuffs that fastened with hideous metallic devices that Bean had learned to scorn. A collar too loose, a black satin cravat, and no scarf-pin; not even a cluster of tiny diamonds.
From Breede and his ignoble attire Bean shifted the disfavour of his glance to Breede's luncheon tray on the desk between them. Breede's unvarying luncheon consisted of four crackers composed of a substance that was said, on the outside of the package, to be "predigested," one apple, and a glass of milk moderately inflated with seltzer. Bean himself had fared in princely fashion that day on two veal cutlets bathed in a German sauce of oily richness, a salad of purple cabbage, a profusion of vegetables, two cups of coffee and a German pancake that of itself would have disabled almost any but the young and hardy, or, presumably, a German.
Bean guessed the cost of Breede's meal to be a bit under eight cents. His own had cost sixty-five. He despised Breede for a petty economist.
Breede glanced up from his papers to encounter in Bean's eyes only a look of respectful waiting.
"Take letter G.S. Hubbell gen' traffic mag'r lines Wes' Chicago dear sir your favour twen'th instant—"
The words came from under that unacceptable moustache of Breede's like a series of exhausts from a motorcycle. Bean recorded them in his note-book. His shorthand was a marvel of condensed neatness. Breede had had trouble with stenographers; he was not easy to "take." He spoke swiftly, often indistinctly, and it maddened him to be asked to repeat. Bean had never asked him to repeat, and he inserted the a's and the's and all the minor words that Breede could not pause to utter. The letter continued:
"—mus' have report at your earl's' convenience of earnings and expenses of Grand Valley branch for las' four months with engineer's est'mate of prob'le cost of repairs and maintenance for nex' year—"
Breede halted to consult a document. Bean glanced up with his look of respectful waiting. Then he glanced down at his notes and wrote two other lines of shorthand. Breede might have supposed these to record the last sentence he had spoken, but one able to decipher the notes could have read: "That is one rotten suit of clothes. For God's sake, why not get some decent shoes next time—"
The letter was resumed. It came to its end with a phrase that almost won the difficult respect of Bean. Of a rumour that the C. & G.W. would build into certain coveted territory Breede exploded: "I can imagine nothing of less consequence!" Bean rather liked the phrase and the way Breede emitted it. That was a good thing to say to some one who might think you were afraid. He treasured the words; fondled them with the point of his pencil. He saw himself speaking them pithily to various persons with whom he might be in conflict. There was a thing now that Gordon Dane might have hurled at his enemies a dozen times in his adventurous career. Breede must have something in him—but look at his shiny white cuffs with the metal clasps, on the desk at his elbow!
Bean had lately read of Breede in a newspaper that "Conservative judges estimate his present fortune at a round hundred million." Bean's own stipend was thirty dollars a week, but he pitied Breede. Bean could learn to make millions if he should happen to want them; but poor old Breede could never learn to look like anybody.
There you have Bunker Bean at a familiar, prosaic moment in an afternoon of his twenty-third year. But his prosaic moments are numbered. How few they are to be! Already the door of Enchantment has swung to his scared touch. The times will show a scar or two from Bean. Bean the prodigious! The choicely perfect toy of Destiny at frolic! Bean the innocent—the monstrous!
* * * * *
Those who long since gave Bean up as an insoluble problem were denied the advantages of an early association with him. Only an acquaintance with his innermost soul of souls could permit any sane understanding of his works, and this it is our privilege, and our necessity, to make, if we are to comprehend with any sympathy that which was later termed his "madness." The examination shall be made quickly and with all decency.
Let us regard Bean through the glass of his earliest reactions to an environment that was commonplace, unstimulating, dull—the little wooden town set among cornfields, "Wellsville" they called it, where he came from out of the Infinite to put on a casual body.
Of Bean at birth, it may be said frankly that he was not imposing. He was not chubby nor rosy; had no dimples. His face was a puckered protest at the infliction of animal life. In the white garments conventional to his age he was a distressing travesty, even when he gurgled. In the nude he was quite impossible to all but the most hardened mothers, and he was never photographed thus in a washbowl. Even his own mother, before he had survived to her one short year, began to harbour the accursed suspicion that his beauty was not flawless nor his intelligence supreme. To put it brutally, she almost admitted to herself that he was not the most remarkable child in all the world. To be sure, this is a bit less incredible when we know that Bean's mother, at his advent, thought far less highly of Bean's father than on the occasion, seven years before, when she had consented to be endowed with all his worldly goods. In the course of those years she came to believe that she had married beneath her, a fact of which she made no secret to her intimates and least of all to her mate, who, it may be added, privately agreed with her. Alonzo Bean, after that one delirious moment at the altar, had always disbelieved in himself pathetically. Who was he—to have wed a Bunker!
When little Bean's years began to permit small activities it was seen that his courage was amazing: a courage, however, that quickly overreached itself, and was sapped by small defeats. Tumbles down the slippery stairway, burns from the kitchen stove, began it. When a prized new sailor hat was blown to the centre of a duck-pond he sought to recover it without any fearsome self-communing. If faith alone could uphold one, Bean would have walked upon the face of the waters that day. But the result was a bald experience of the sensations of the drowning, and a lasting fear of any considerable body of water. Ever after it was an adventure not to be lightly dared to cross even the stoutest bridge.
And flying! A belief that we can fly as the birds is surely not unreasonable at the age when he essayed it. Nor should a mere failure to rise from the ground destroy it. One must leap from high places, and Bean did so. The roof of the chicken house was the last eminence to have an experimental value. On his bed of pain he realized that we may not fly as the birds; nor ever after could he look without tremors from any high place.
Such domestic animals as he encountered taught him further fear. Even the cat became contemptuous of him, knowing itself dreaded. That splendid courage he was born with had faded to an extreme timidity. Before physical phenomena that pique most children to cunning endeavour, little Bean was aghast.
And very soon to this burden of fear was added the graver problems of human association. From being the butt of capricious physical forces he became a social unit and found this more terrifying than all that had gone before. At least in the physical world, if you kept pretty still, didn't touch things, didn't climb, stayed away from edges and windows and water and cows and looked carefully where you stepped, probably nothing would hurt you. But these new terrors of the social world lay in wait for you; clutched you in moments of the most inoffensive enjoyment.
His mother seemed to be director-general of these monsters, a ruthless deviser of exquisite tortures. There were unseasonable washings, dressings, combings and curlings—admonitions to be "a little gentleman." Loathsomely garbed, he was made to sit stiffly on a chair in the presence of falsely enthusiastic callers; or he was taken to call on those same callers and made to sit stiffly again while they, with feverish affectations of curiosity, asked him what his name was, something they already knew at least as well as he did; made to overhear their ensuing declarations that the cat had got his tongue, which he always denied bitterly until he came to see through the plot and learned to receive the accusation in stony silence.
Boys of his own age took hold of him roughly and laid him in the dust, jeeringly threw his hat to some high roof, spat on his new shoes. Even little girls, divining his abjectness, were prone to act rowdyish with him. And this especially made him suffer. He comprehended, somehow, that it was ignoble for a man child to be afraid of little girls.
Money was another source of grief. Not an exciting thing in itself, he had yet learned that people possessing desirable objects would insanely part with them for money. Then came one of the Uncle Bunkers from over Walnut Shade way, who scowled at him when leaving and gave him a dime. He voiced a wish to exchange this for sweets with a certain madman in the village who had no understanding of the value of his stock. His mother demurred; not alone because candy was unwholesome, but because the only right thing to do with money was to "save" it. And his mother prevailed, even though his father coarsely suggested that all the candy he could ever buy with Bunker money wouldn't hurt him none. The mother said that this was "low," and the father retorted with equal lowness that a rigid saving of all Bunker-given money wouldn't make no one a "Croosus," neither, if you come down to that.
It resulted in his being told that he could play freely with his dime one whole afternoon before the unexciting process of saving it began. Well enough, that! He had grown too fearful of life to lose that coin vulgarly out in the grass, as another would almost surely have done.
But he was beguiled in the mart of the money changers. To him, standing safely within the front gate where nothing could burn him, fall upon him, or chase him, "playing" respectfully with his new dime, came one of slightly superior years and criminal instincts demanding to inspect the treasure. The privilege was readily accorded, to arouse only contempt. The piece was too small. The critic himself had a bigger one, and showed it.
The two coins were held side by side. Bean was envious. The small coin was of silver, the larger of copper, but he was no petty metallurgist. He wanted to trade and said so. The newcomer assented with a large air of benevolence, snatched the despised smaller coin and ran hastily off—doubtless into a life of prosperous endeavour. And little Bean, presently found by his mother crooning over a large copper cent, was appalled by what followed. He had brought back "a bigger money," yet he had done something infamous. It was the first gleam of an incapacity for finance that was one day to become brilliant. He came to think money was a pretty queer thing. People cheated it from you or took it away for your own good. Anyhow, it was not a matter to bother about. You never had it long enough.
Then there was language. Language was words, and politeness. Certain phrases had to be mouthed to strangers, designed to imply a respect he was generally far from feeling. This was bad enough, but what was worse was that you couldn't use just any word you might hear, however beautiful it sounded. For example, there was the compelling utterance he got from the two merry gentlemen who passed him at the gate one day. So jolly were they with their songs and laughter that he followed them a little way to where they sat under a tree and drank turn by turn from a bottle. His ear caught the thing and his lips shaped it so cunningly that they laughed more than ever. He returned to his gate, intoning it; the fresh voice rose higher as the phrasing became more familiar. Then he was on the porch, chanting as a bard from the mere sensuous beauty of the words. Through the open door he saw three faces. The minister and his wife were calling on his mother.
The immediate happenings need not be set down. After events again became coherent he was choking back sobs and listening to the minister pray for those of unclean lips. And the minister prayed especially for one among them that he might cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord. He knew this to mean himself, for his mother glared over at him where he knelt; he was grateful for the kneeling posture at that moment; he would not have cared to sit. But all he had learned was that if you are going to use words freely it had much better be when you are alone; this, and that the minister had enormous feet, kneeling there with the toes of his boots dug into the carpet.
No sooner was this language spectre laid than another confronted him; that of class distinction. Certain people were "low" and must be shunned by the high, unless the high perversely wished to be thought equally low. His mother was again the arbiter. Her rule as applied to children of his own age wrought but little hardship. She considered other children generally to be low, and her son feared them for their deeds of coarsely humorous violence. But he was never quite able to believe that his father was an undesirable associate.
In all his young life he had found no sport so good as riding on the seat beside that father while he drove the express wagon; a shiny green wagon with a seat close to the front and a tilted rest for one's feet, drawn by a grand black horse with a high-flung head, that would make nothing of eating a small boy if it ever had the chance. You drove to incoming trains, which was high adventure. But that was not all. You loaded the wagon with packages from the trains and these you proceeded to deliver in a leisurely and important manner. And some citizen of weight was sure to halt the wagon and ask if that there package of stuff from Chicago hadn't showed up yet, and it was mighty funny if it hadn't, because it was ordered special. Whereupon you said curtly that you didn't know anything about that—you couldn't fetch any package if it hadn't come, could you? And you drove on with pleased indignation.
Yet so fine a game as this was held by his mother to be unedifying. He would pick up a fashion of speech not genteel; he would grow to be a "rough." She, the inconsequent fair, who had herself been captivated by the driver of that very wagon, a gay blade directing his steed with a flourish! To be sure, she had found him doing this in a mist of romance, as one who must have his gallant fling at life before settling down. But the mist had cleared. Alonzo Bean, no longer the gay blade, had settled down upon the seat of his wagon. Once he had touched the guitar, sung an acceptable tenor, jested with life. Now he drove soberly, sang no more, and was concerned chiefly that his meals be served at set hours.
Small wonder, perhaps, that the mother should have feared the Bean and laboured to cultivate the true Bunker strain in her offspring. Small wonder that she kept him when she could from the seat of that wagon and from the deadening influence of a father to whom Romance had broken its fine promises. Little Bean distressed her enough by playing at express-wagon in preference to all other games. He meant to drive a real one when he was big enough—that is, at first. Secretly he aspired beyond that. Some day, when he would not be afraid to climb to a higher seat, he meant to drive the great yellow 'bus that also went to trains. But that was a dream too splendid to tell.
In the summer of his seventh year, when his mother was finding it increasingly difficult to supply antidotes for this poison, she even consented to his visiting some other Beans. Unfortunately, there were no Bunkers to harbour the child of one who had made so palpable a mesalliance; but the elder Beans would gladly receive him, and they at least had never driven express wagons.
To the little boy, who had no sense of their relationship, they were persons named "Gramper" and "Grammer" whom he would do well to look down upon because they were not Bunkers. So much he understood, and that he was to ride in a stage and find them on a remote farm. It was to be the summer of his first feat of daring since he had reached years of moral discretion.
He was still so timid at the beginning of the wonderful journey that when the kind old gentleman who drove the stage stopped his horses at a point on the road where ripe red apples hung thickly on a tree, climbed the fence and returned with a capacious hat full of the fruit, he was chilled with horror at the crime. He had been freely told what was thought of people, and what was done with them, who took things not their own. Afraid to decline the two apples proffered by the robber, who resumed his seat and ate brazenly of his loot, the solitary passenger would still be no party to the outrage. He presently dropped his own two apples over the back of the stage, and later, lacking the preacher's courage, averred that he had eaten them—and couldn't eat another one, thank you. He was not a little affected by the fine bravado with which the old man ate apple after apple along miles of the road, full in the gaze of passersby, to whom he nodded in open-faced greeting, as might an honest man; but he was disappointed that there was no quick dragging to a jail, nor smiting by the hand of God, which quite as often occurred, if his mother and the minister knew anything about such matters. He decided that at least the elderly reprobate would wake up in the dark that very night and cry out in mortal agony under the realization of his sin.
And yet he, the unsullied, the fine theoretical moralist, was to return along that road a thief. A thief of parts, of depraved daring.
"Gramper" and "Grammer" proved to be an incredibly old couple, brown and withered and gray of locks, shrunken in stature, slow and feeble in action, and even rather timid themselves in their greetings. They made much of this grandchild, but they were diffident. Slowly it came to his knowledge that he was set up as a creature to adore. He enjoyed a blissful new sensation of being deferred to. Thereafter he lorded it over them, speaking in confident tones and making wild demands of entertainment. His mother had been right. They were Beans and, therefore, not much. He had brought his own silver napkin-ring and had meant to show them how wonderfully he folded and rolled his napkin after each meal. But it seemed they possessed no napkins whatever. Even his mother hadn't thought anything so repulsive as that of these people. He now boldly played the new game at table that his mother had frowned on. This was to measure off your meat and potatoes into an equal number of "bites," so that they would "come out even." If you were careful and counted right, the thing could be done every time.
And for the first time in all his years he asked for more pie. Of course this was anarchy. He knew well enough that one piece of pie is the heaven-allotted portion; that no one, even partly a Bunker, should crave beyond it; yet this fatuous old pair seemed to invite just that licentiousness, and they watched him with doting eyes while he swaggered through his second helping.
If more had been needed to show the Beanish lowness, it would have come after the first supper, for Gramper and Grammer sat out on a little vine-covered porch and smoked cob-pipes which they refilled at intervals from a sack of tobacco passed companionably back and forth. His own father was supposed to smoke but once a week, on Sunday, and then a cigar such as even a male Bunker might reputably burn. But a pipe, and between the lips of Grammer! She managed it with deftness and exhaled clouds of smoke into the still air of evening with a relish most painful to her amazed descendant. Yet she inspired him with an unholy ambition.
Asked the next day about the habit of smoking, Gramper said it was a bad habit; that it stunted people and shortened their days. Both he and Grammer were victims and warnings. Grammer had lumbago sometimes so you wouldn't hardly believe any one could suffer that way and live. As for Gramper himself, he had a cough brought on by tobacco that would carry him off dead one of these days; yes, sir, just like that! And then, to point his warning, Gramper coughed falsely. Even to the unpractised ear of his grandson the cough did not ring true. It lacked poignance.
Late that afternoon, when both the old ones slept, he abstracted a pipe, stuffed it with the rich black flakes and fled with matches to a nook of charming secrecy in the midst of the lilac clump. Thence arose presently clouds of smoke from the strongest tobacco money could buy.
At last he had dared something that didn't hurt him. He puffed valiantly, blowing out the smoke even as Grammer had done. Up to a certain moment his exaltation was intense, his scared soul expanding to greater deeds.
Then he coughed rather alarmingly. But that was to be expected. He drew in another breath of the stuff and coughed again. It was an honest cough; no doubt about that. Perhaps Gramper's cough had been honest. Perhaps the pipe he had selected was Gramper's own pipe, the one that made coughs. He became conscious of something more than throaty discomfort. Tiny beads of sweat bejewelled his brow, the lilac bush began to revolve swiftly about him. He must have taken Grammer's pipe after all—the one that led to lumbago. From revolving with a mere horizontal motion the lilacs now began also to whirl vertically. He had eaten a great deal at dinner....
A pallid remnant of himself declined supper that night. Never could he sit at table again to eat of food. Gramper and Grammer were at first alarmed and there was talk of sending for a veterinary, the nearest to a professional man of medicine within miles and miles. But this talk died out after Gramper had made a cursory examination of the big yard, with especial attention to the lilac clump, where a pipe and other evidence was noticed. After that they not only became strangely reassured, but during their evening smoke on the little porch they often chuckled as if relishing in secret some rare jest. It did not occur to Bean that they laughed at him. He did not suspect that any one could laugh at a little boy who had nearly died of lumbago. And he sat far away that night. The sight of the fuming pipes made him dizzy. His lesson had told. He was never to become an accomplished smoker.
His new spirit of adventure being thus blunted, he spent much of the next day indoors. Grammer opened the "front room" for him, no small concession, for this room was never put to vulgar use; rarely entered, indeed, save once a month for dusting. Here he found an atmosphere in keeping with his own chastened gloom, a musty air of mortality and twilight.
Such poor elegance as could be achieved by Beans alone, unaided by any Bunker, was here concentrated; a melodeon that groaned to his touch, with the startling effect of a voice from a long-closed tomb; a centre-table, luminous with varnish; gilded chairs in formal array; portraits in gilded frames; and best of all, a "whatnot," a thing to fit a corner, having many shelves and each shelf loaded with fascinating objects that maddened one because they must not be touched. Varnished pine-cones, flint arrow-heads, statuettes set on worsted mats, tiny strange boxes rarely ornamented—you mustn't even shake them to see if they contained anything—a small stuffed alligator in the act of climbing a pole; a frail cup and saucer; a watch-chain fashioned from Grammer's hair probably long before she fell into evil habits; a pink china dog that simpered; a dusty black cigar with a gay red-and-gold belt that had once upon a time been given to Gramper by a gentleman in Chicago; a silver cup inscribed "Baby"; a ball of clearest glass, bigger than any marble, with a white camel at its centre looking out unconcernedly; a gilded horseshoe adorned with a bow of blue ribbon; an array of treasure, in short, that made one suspect the Beans might have been something after all if only they had tried.
Then on the lower shelf, when Grammer, relying on his honour, had left the room, he made his wondrous discovery—a thing more beautiful than ever he had dreamed of beauty; a thing that caught all the light in the room and shot it back like a risen sun; a thing that excited, enchained, satisfied with a satisfaction so deep that somehow it became pain. It was a shell from the sea, polished to a dazzling brilliance of opal and jade, amethyst and sapphire, delicately subdued, blending as the tints in the western sky at sunset, soft, elusive, fluent. To his rapturously shocked soul, it was a living thing. Instantly a spell was upon him; long he gazed into its depths. It was more than deep; it was bottomless. In some magic solution he there beheld himself and all the world; imperiously it commanded his being. To his ear utterance came from that lucent abyss, a murmur of voices, a confusion of tones; and then invisible presences seemed to reach out greedy hands for him. It was no place for a small boy, and his short legs twinkled as he fled.
Out in the friendly, familiar yard, he looked curiously about him, basking in the sudden peace of it. A light wind stirred in the trees, the sky was a void of blue, the scent of the lilacs came to him. That was all reassuring; but something more came: a consciousness that he could translate only as something vast, yet without shape or substance, that opened to him, enfolded him, lifted him. It was a vision of boundless magnitudes and himself among them—among them and with a power he could put upon them. While it lasted he had a child's dim vision of the knowledge that life would be big for him. He heard again the confusion of voices, and his own among them, in far spacious places. He always remembered this moment. In after years he knew it had been given him then to run an eye along the line of his destiny.
The moment passed; his mind was again vacant. He picked a green apple from the low tree under which he stood, bit into it, chewed without enthusiasm, then hurled the remnant at an immature rabbit that he saw regarding him from the edge of the lilac clump. The missile went wild, but the rabbit fled and Bean pursued it. He was not afraid of a rabbit—not of a young rabbit.
Returning from the chase, an unavailing one, he believed, only because the game used quite unfair tactics of concealment, he remembered the shell. A longing for possession seized him. It was more than that. The thing was already his; had always been his. Yet he foresaw complications. His ownership might be stupidly denied.
He went in to drag Grammer again before the whatnot, his mind sharpened to subtlety.
"Are everything there yours?" He pointed to the top shelf.
He lowered the pointing finger to the second shelf.
"Are everything there yours?"
"All of 'em!"
"And this one, too?"
"For the land's sake, yes!" averred Grammer of the choice contents of the fourth shelf. She was baking pies and found herself a bit impatient of this new game.
"Well, that's all, now!" and he dismissed her, not daring to inquire as to the lower shelf. He had seen the way things were going—a sickening way. But, having shrewdly stopped at the lower shelf, having prevented Grammer from saying that those valuable objects were also hers, he had still the right to come into his own. If the shell mightn't belong to her it might belong to him; therefore it did belong to him; which, as logic, is not so lame as it sounds. At least it is a workaday average.
It occurred to him once to ask for the shell bluntly. But reason forbade this. It was not conceivable that any one having so celestial a treasure would willingly part with it. When a thing was yours you took it, with dignity, but quietly.
During the remainder of his stay he was not conspicuously an occupant of the front room. No day passed that he did not contrive at least one look at his wonderful shell, but he craftily did not linger there, nor did he ever utter words about the thing, though these often crowded perilously to his lips.
A later day brought a letter to Grammer, and Gramper delightedly let it be known that the doctor at Wellsville had brought little Bean a fine new baby brother. Bean himself was not delighted at this. He had suffered the ministrations of that same doctor and he could imagine no visit of his to result in a situation at all pleasant to any one concerned. If he had brought a baby it was doubtless not a baby that people would care to have around the house. He was not cheered when told that he might now go home.
He meant to stay on, and said so.
But the second day brought another letter that had a curious effect on Gramper and Grammer. Grammer cried, and Gramper told him with a strange, grave manner that now he must go. He knew that he was not told why; something, he overheard them agree, needn't be told "just yet." This was rather exciting and reconciled him to leaving.
He crept softly down the narrow stairs that night, alleging, when called to by Grammer, the need of a drink of water. When he returned his hands trembled about the shell. Swiftly it went to the bottom of his small box, his extra clothing, all his little belongings, being packed cleverly about it.
They kissed him many times the next morning, and when he looked back under the trees to where the old couple stood in front of the little weather-beaten house he saw that Grammer was crying again. His conscience hurt him a little; he wondered how they would get along without the shell. But they couldn't have it, because it was his shell.
The stage turned after a bit, and suddenly there was Gramper at the roadside, breathless after his run across a corner of the east forty. Instantly he was in the clutch of a great fear; the loss had been discovered. He sat frozen, waiting.
But Gramper only flourished the napkin-ring, and humorously taunted him with not having packed everything, after all. The stage drove on, but for the next mile his breathing was jerky.
Toward the end of the day-long ride—Gramper couldn't be running after them that far—he surrendered to his exultation, opened the box and drew out the shell, fondling it, fascinated anew by its varying sheen, excited by the freedom with which he now might touch it. Again he was the sole passenger and he called to the old driver, to whom nothing at all seemed to have happened because of his filching fruit.
"See my shell I found at Grammer's!"
But the old man was blind to beauty. He turned a careless eye upon the treasure, turned it off again with a formless grunt that might have been perfunctory praise, and resumed his half-muttered talk to himself, marked by little oblique nods of triumph—some endless dispute that he seemed to hold with an invisible opponent.
The owner of the shell was chilled but not daunted. There would surely be others less benighted who must acclaim the shell's charm.
Presently he was at the familiar front gate and his father, looking unusual, somehow, came to lift him down.
"See my shell I found at Grammer's!"
"Your mother is dead."
"See my shell I found at Grammer's!"
"Your mother is dead."
It was the sinister iteration by which he was stricken, rather than the news itself. The latter only stunned. His hand in his father's, he went up the walk and into the house. There were women inside, women who moved with an effect of bustling stillness, the same women who had so often asked him what his name was. They seemed to know it well enough now. He was aware that his entrance created no little sensation. One of them kissed him and told him not to cry, but he had no thought of crying. He became aware of the thing in his hands.
"See my shell I found at Grammer's!"
The invitation was a general one. They looked in silence and some of them moved about, and then through a doorway he saw in the next room an object long and dark and shining set on two chairs.
He had never seen anything like it, but its suggestion was evil. The women waited. Something seemed to be expected of some one. His father led him into that room and lifted him up to see. His mother's face was there under a glass. He could see that she wore her pretty blue dress, and on one arm beside her was something covered with white. He called softly to her.
But she did not open her eyes.
Then he was out again where the people were, and the people seemed to forget about him. He went to his little room under the sloping roof. He had not let go of the shell and now, in the fading light from the low window, he lost himself once more in its depths. Inwardly he knew that a terror lurked near, but he had not yet felt it. Only when bedtime came did the continued silence of his mother become meaningful. When he was left alone, he cried for her, still clutching his shell.
The minister came the next day, and many people, and the minister talked to them about his mother. The two Uncle Bunkers were there, grim, hard-mouthed, glaring, for they hated each other as only brothers can hate. He wondered if they would still let him be partly a Bunker, now that his mother was gone. He wondered also at the novel consideration he saw being shown to his father. Dressed in a new suit of black, with an unaccustomed black hat, his father was plainly become a man of importance. He was one apart, and people of undoubted consequence deferred to him—to the very last. He earnestly wished his mother could see that; his nervous little mother with the flushed face and tired eyes, always terrifically concerned about one small matter or another. He thought she would have liked to see that his father was some one, after all.
The Chicago epoch began a year later. The true nature of its causes never lay quite clearly in the mind of Bean. There was, first, an entirely new Uncle Bunker whom he had never seen, but whom he at once liked very much. He was a younger, more beautiful uncle, with a gay, light manner and expensive clothing. He wore a magnificent gold watch and chain, and jewelled rings flashed from his white fingers as he, in absent moments, daintily passed a small pocket-comb through the meshes of his lustrous brown side-whiskers. Little Bean knew that he did something on a board in Chicago; that he "operated" on the Board of Trade was the accustomed phrasing. He liked the word, and tried to picture what "operating" might mean in relation to a board.
The good people of Wellsville regarded this uncle with quite all the respect so flashing a figure deserved. Not so the two other Uncle Bunkers from over Walnut Shade way. Their first known agreement, voiced of this financier, was in saying something wise about a fool and his money.
Later, and perhaps for the last time on earth, they agreed once more. That was when the news of his marriage came to them—for what was she? Nothing but his landlady's daughter! Snip of a girl that helped her mother run a cheap Chicago boarding-house! Him that could have taken his pick, if he was going to be a fool and tie himself up! You could bet that the pair had "worked" him, that mother and the girl; landed him for his money, that was plain! Well, he'd made his bed!
Bean was not slow to liken this uncle to his mother, who had also "made her bed." He had at first a misty notion that the bride might a little resemble his father, a notion happily dispelled when he saw her. For the pair came to Wellsville. It was a sort of honeymoon combined vaguely with business. The bride was wonderfully pretty, Bean thought; dark and dainty and laughing, forever talking the most irresistible "baby-talk" to her adoring mate. Her name for him was "Boo'ful."
Bean at once fell deeply in love with this bride, a passion that was to endure beyond the life of most such affairs. She professed an infatuation equal to his own, and regretted that an immediate marriage, which he timidly advocated in the course of their first interview, was not practicable. That she was frivolous, light-minded, and would never settle down to be a good worker, was a village verdict he scorned. Who would have her otherwise? Not he, nor the adoring Boo'ful, it is certain. He determined to go to live at her house, and, strangely enough—for these sudden plans of his were most often discouraged—the thing seemed feasible. For one thing, his father was going to bring home a new mother; a lady, he gathered, who had not only settled down to be a good worker, but who, in espousing his father, would curiously not marry beneath her. Without being told so, he had absorbed from his first mother a conviction that this was possible to but few women. He felt a little glow of pride for his father in this affair.
Another matter that seemed to bear on his going away was that this brilliant and human Uncle Bunker was a "trustee." Not only a trustee, but his trustee; his very own, like his shell, or anything. This led to his discovery that he had money. His mother, it seemed, had left it to him; Bunker money that the two older uncles had sought and failed to divert from her on the occasion of her wedding one below her station. Money! and the capable Uncle Bunker as trustee of that money! Money one could buy things with! He was pleasantly conscious of being rather important under the glance of familiars. Even his father spoke formal words of counsel to him, as if a gulf was between them—his father now bereft of all Bunker prestige, legal or social.
And the new uncle was to "educate" him, though this was to be paid for out of that money of his very own. He was rudely shocked to learn that you had to pay money to go to school. Loathing school as he did, to pay money for your own torture—money that would buy things—seemed unutterably silly. But despite this inbecility the prospect retained its glamour.
He would have suffered punishments even worse than school for the privilege of existing near that beautiful bride, whom he was now calling, at her especial request, "Aunt Clara." She readily understood any affair that he chose to explain to her; understood about his shell and said it was the most beautiful thing in all the world. She understood, too, and was deeply sympathetic about Skipper, the dog. Skipper was one of a series of puppies that Bean had appropriated from the public highway. Some had shamefully deserted him after a little time of pampering. Others, and these were the several that had howled untimely in the far night, had mysteriously disappeared. Bean had sometimes a hurt suspicion that his father knew more than he cared to tell about these vanishings. But Skipper had stayed and had not howled. Buffeted wastrel of a thousand casual amours, soft-haired, confiding, ungainly, he was rich in understanding if not in beauty. And yet he must be left. Even the discriminating and ever-just Aunt Clara felt that Skipper would not do well in a great city. Of course she was not clumsy enough to suggest that there were other dogs in the world, as did her less discerning husband. But she said that it would come out all right, and Bean trusted her. She knew, too, what would happen on his first night away, and came softly to his bed and solaced him as he lay crying for Skipper.
Those first Chicago days were rich in flavour. The city was a marvel of many terrors, a place of weird sounds, strange shapes and swift movements, among which—having been made timid by much adversity—you had need to be very, very careful if your hand was in no one's. The house itself was wonderful: a house of real brick and very lofty. If you started in the basement you could go "upstairs" three distinct times in it before you reached the top. He had never imagined such a house for any but kings to live in. Within were many rooms; he hardly could count them all; and regal furnishings, gay with colour; and, permeating it all, a most appetizing odour of cooked food, eloquent tale of long-eaten banquets, able reminder of those to come.
Out beside the front door was a rather dingy sign that said "Boarders Wanted." His deduction after reading the sign was that the person who wanted the boarders was Aunt Clara's mother. She was like Aunt Clara in that she was dark and small, but in nothing else. She did not wear pretty dresses nor laugh nor address baby talk to "Boo'ful." She was very old and not nice to look at, Bean thought; and an uneasy woman, not knowing how to be quiet. Mostly she worked in the kitchen, after a hasty morning tour of the house to "do" the rooms. Bean was much surprised to learn that her name, too, was Clara. She did not look at all like any one whose name would be Clara.
And presently there was to be a house even more magnificent than this, where they would all live together and where, so they jested, the old Clara wouldn't know what to do, because there would be nothing to do. The house would be ready just as soon as Boo'ful made his "next turn," and that was so near in time that there was already a fascinating picture of the lines of the house, white lines on blue paper, over which Boo'ful and Aunt Clara spent many an evening in loving dispute. It seemed that you could change the house by merely changing those lines. Sometimes they put a curve into the main stairway or doubled the area of stained-glass window in the music-room; sometimes it was a mere detail of alteration in the butler's pantry, or the coachman's room over the stable. The old Clara displayed no interest in these details. She seemed to be content to go on wanting boarders.
This was not, as he saw it, an unlovely want. It surrounded her with gay companions at meal-time; they were "like one big family," as one of the number would frequently observe. He was the one that most often set them all to laughing by his talk like that of a German who speaks English imperfectly, which he didn't have to do at all. It was only make-believe, but very funny.
After this joyous group and his Aunt Clara, who really came first, his preference in humans was for a lady who lived two doors away. If you rang her bell she might be one of three persons. It depended on what you were looking for. She might be the manicure and chiropodist whose sign was displayed; she might be Madam Wanda, the world-renowned clairvoyant, sittings from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., Advice on Love, Marriage and Business; sign also displayed; or she might be merely Mrs. Jackson, with a choice front room for a single gentleman, as declared by the third sign. In any case she was a smiling, plump lady with a capable blue eye and abundant dark hair that was smooth and shiny.
It was in company with his uncle that he first made her acquaintance. His uncle knew all that one need know about Love and Marriage, but it seemed that his knowledge of Business could be extended. There were times when only the gifts of a world-renowned clairvoyant could enable one to say what May wheat was going to do.
The acquaintance, lightly enough begun, ripened soon to intimacy, and so were the eyes of Bean first opened to mysteries that would later affect his life so vitally. He was soon carrying wood and coal up the back stairs of Mrs. Jackson, in return for which the lady ministered to him in her professional capacities. At their first important session on a rainy Saturday of leisure she trimmed and polished each of his ten finger-nails, told his past, present and future—he was going to cross water and there was a dark gentleman he had need to beware of—and suggested that his feet might need attention.
He squirmingly demurred at this last operation, and successfully resisted it. But the bonds of their friendship were sealed over a light collation which she served. She was a vegetarian, she told him. You couldn't get on to a high spiritual plane if you ate the corpses of murdered animals. But her food seemed sufficing and she drank beer which he brought her in a neat pitcher from the cheerful store on the corner where they sold such things. Beer, she explained to him, was a strictly vegetable product, though not the thing for growing boys. The young must discriminate, even among vegetables.
They liked each other well and in a little time he had absorbed the simple tale of her activities. When you rented rooms, people sometimes left without paying you. So had gone Professor de Lavigne, the chiropodist; so had vanished the original Madam Wanda. They had left their signs, and nothing else. The rest was simple after you had been seeing how they did it—a little practice with a nail-file, a little observation of parties that came in with crepe on, to whom you said, "Standing right there I see some one near and dear to you that has lately passed on to the spirit land"; or male parties that looked all fussed up and worried, to whom you said that the deal was coming out all right, only they were always to act on their first impulse and look out for a man with kind of brownish hair who carried a gold watch and sometimes wore gloves. She said it was strange how she could "hit it" sometimes, especially where there were initials in the hats they left outside in the hall, or a name inside the overcoat pocket. It was wonderful what she had been able to tell parties for a dollar.
Bean cared little for these details, but he was excited by the theory back of them; a world from which the unseen spirits of the dead will counsel and guide us in our daily affairs if we will listen. It was a new terror added to a world of terrors—they were all about you, striving with futile hands to touch you, whispering words of cheer or warning to your deaf ears.
Mrs. Jackson herself believed it implicitly and went each week to consult one or another of the more advanced mediums. The last one had seen the spirit of her Aunt Mary, a deceased person so remote in time that she had been clean forgotten. But it was a valuable pointer. When you come to think about it, at least seven parties out of ten, if they were any way along in years, had a dead Aunt Mary. And it was best to go to the good ones. Mrs. Jackson admitted that. You paid more, but you got more.
Uncle Bunker became of this opinion very soon. What Mrs. Jackson disclosed to him about May wheat had seemed to be hardly worth the dollar she asked. He began going to the good ones, and Bean gathered that even their superior gifts left something to be desired. The brilliant uncle began to accustom his home circle to frowns. Bean and the older Clara (she was beginning to complain about not sleeping and a pain in her side) were sensible of this change, but the younger Clara only pouted when she noticed it at all, prettily accusing her splendid consort of not caring for her as he had once professed to. She spent more time over her hair and shopped extensively for feminine trappings.
Then one day his uncle came home, a slinking wreck of beauty, and told Aunt Clara that all was lost save honour. Bean heard the interesting announcement, and gathered, after a question from his aunt, that his own patrimony had been a part of that all which was lost save honour. He heard his uncle add tearfully that one shot would end it now.
He was frightened by this, but his Aunt Clara seemed not to be. He heard her say, "There, there! Did a nassy ol' martet do adainst 'ums!" And later she was seen to take him up tea and toast and chicken.
* * * * *
The years seemed to march more swiftly then—school and growing and little changes in the house. Boo'ful never fired the shot that would have ended all. The older Clara inconsequently died and the frivolous Clara took her place in the kitchen. She had not corrected her light manner, but slowly she changed with the years until she was almost as faded as the old Clara had been. More ambitious, however, and working to better purpose. They went to a new and finer house that would hold more boarders; and the sign, which was lettered in gold, said, "Boarders Taken," a far more dignified sign than the old with its frank appeal of "Boarders Wanted." That new sign intimated a noble condescension.
Aunt Clara had not only settled down to be a worker, but she had proved to be a manager. Boo'ful actually performed little services about the house, staying in the kitchen at meal-time to carve and help serve the food. Aunt Clara had been unexpected adamant in the matter of his taking a fine revenge on the market that had gone against him. She refused to provide the very modest sum he pleaded for to this end, and as the two old Uncle Bunkers were equally obdurate—they said they had known when he married that flutter-budget just how he would end—his leisure was never seriously menaced.
Aunt Clara was especially firm about the money because of the considerable life-insurance premium she soon began to pay. It was her whim that little Bean had not been of competent years to lose all save honour, and she had discovered a life-insurance company whose officers were mad enough to compute Boo'ful's loss to the world in dollars and cents. He was, in fact, considered an excellent risk. He did not fade after the manner of the busy Aunt Clara, that gay little wretch whose girlish graces lingered on incongruously—like jests upon a tombstone.
Bean grew to college years. Aunt Clara had been insistent about the college; it was to be the best business college in Chicago. Bean matriculated without formality and studied stenography and typewriting. Aunt Clara had been afraid that he might "get in" with a fast college set and learn to drink and smoke and gamble. It may be admitted that he wished to do just these things, but he had observed the effects of drink, his one experience with tobacco remained all too vivid, and gambling required more capital than the car fare he was usually provided with. Besides, you came to a bad end if you gambled. It led to other things.
Nor would he, on the public street, join with any number of his class in the college yell. He was afraid a policeman would arrest him. Even in the more mature years of a comparatively blameless life he remained afraid of policemen, and never passed one without a tremor. All of which conduced to his efficiency as a student. When others fled to their questionable pleasures he was as likely as not to remain in his chair before a typewriter, pounding out again and again, "The swift brown fox jumps over the lazy dog—" a dramatic enough situation ingeniously worded to utilize nearly all the letters of our alphabet.
At last he was pronounced competent, received a diploma (which Aunt Clara framed handsomely and hung in her own room beside the pastel portrait of Boo'ful in his opulent prime) and took up a man's work.
* * * * *
The veil that hangs between mortal eyes and the Infinite had many times been pierced for him by the able Mrs. Jackson. He was now to enter another and more significant stage of his spiritual development.
His first employer was a noble-looking old man, white-bearded, and vast of brow, who came to be a boarder at Aunt Clara's. He was a believer in the cult of theosophy and specialized on reincarnation. Neither word was luminous to Bean, but he learned that the old gentleman was writing a book and would need an amanuensis. They agreed upon terms and the work began. The book was a romance entitled, "Glimpses Through the Veil of Time," and it was to tell of a soul's adventures through a prolonged series of reincarnations. So much Bean grasped. The terminology of the author was more difficult. When you have chiefly learned to write, "Your favour of the 11th inst. came duly to hand and in reply we beg to state—" it is confusing to be switched to such words as "anthropogenesis" and to chapter headings like "Substituting Variable Quantities for Fixed Extraordinary Theoretic Possibilities." Even when the author meant to be most lucid Bean found him not too easy. "In order to simplify the theory of the Karmic cycle," dictated the white-bearded one for his Introduction, "let us think of the subplanes of the astral plane as horizontal divisions, and of the types of matter belonging to the seven great planetary Logoi as perpendicular divisions crossing these others at right angles."
What Bean made of this in transcribing his notes need not be told. What is solely important is that, as the tale progressed, he became enthralled by the doctrine of reincarnation. It was of minor consequence that he became expert in shorthand.
Had he lived before, would he live again? There must be a way to know. "Alclytus," began an early chapter of the tale, "was born this time in 21976 B.C. in a male body as the son of a king, in what is now the Telugu country not far from Masulipatam. He was proficient in riding, shooting, swimming and the sports of his race. When he came of age he married Surya, the daughter of a neighbouring rajah and they were very happy together in their religious studies—"
Had he, Bunker Bean, perhaps once espoused the daughter of a rajah, and been happy in religious studies with her? Had he, perchance, been even the rajah himself? Why not?
The romance was never finished. A worried son of the old gentleman appeared one day, alleged that he had run off from a good home where he was kindly treated, and by mild force carried him back. But he had performed his allotted part in Bean's life.
A few books had been left and these were read. Death was a recurring incident in an endless life. Wise men he saw had found this an answer to all problems—founders of religions and philosophies—Buddha, Pythagoras, Plato, the Christ. Wise moderns had accepted it, Max Mueller and Hume and Goethe, Fichte, Schelling, Lessing. Bean could not appraise these authorities, but the names somehow sounded convincing and the men had seemed to think that reincarnation was the only doctrine of immortality a philosopher could consider.
It remained, then, to explore the Karmic past of Bunker Bean; not in any mood of lightness. A verse quoted by the old man had given him pause:
"Who toiled a slave may come anew a prince For gentle worthiness and merit won; Who ruled a king may wander earth in rags For things done and undone."
What might he have been? For ruling once as a king, a bad king, was he now merely Bunker Bean, not precisely roaming the earth in rags, but sidling timidly through its terrors, disbelieving in himself, afraid of policemen, afraid of life?
So he confronted and considered the thing, fascinated by its vistas as once he had been by the shell. If it were true that we cast away our worn bodies and ever reclothe ourselves with new, why should not the right member of Mrs. Jackson's profession one day unfold to him his beginningless past?
"The courts havin' decided," continued Breede, in staccato explosions, "that the 'quipment is nes'ry part of road, without which road would be tot'ly crippled, you will note these first moggige 'quipment bonds take pri'rty over first-moggige bonds, an' gov'n y'sef 'cordingly your ver' truly—"
He glanced up at Bean, contracted his brows to a black menace and emitted a final detonation.
"'S all for 's aft'noon!"
He bit savagely into his unlighted cigar and began to rifle through a new sheaf of documents. Bean deftly effaced himself, with a parting glare at the unlighted cigar. It was a feature of Breede that no reporter ever neglected to mention, but Bean thought you might as well chew tobacco and be done with it. Moreover, the cigars were not such as one would have expected to find between the lips of a man whose present wealth was estimated at a round hundred million. Bulger, in the outer office, had given up trying to smoke them. He declared them to be the very worst that could be had for any money.
Before beginning the transcription of his notes, Bean had to learn the latest telephone news from the ball-ground. During the last half-hour he had inwardly raged more than usual at Breede for being kept from this information. Bulger always managed to get it on time, beginning with the third inning, even when he took dictation from Breede's confidential secretary, or from Tully, the chief clerk.
Bean looked inquiringly at Bulger now. Bulger nodded and presently strolled from his own desk to Bean's, where he left a slip of paper bearing the words, "Cubs, 3; Giants, 2; 1st 1/2 4th."
Bean had envied Bulger from the first for this man-of-the-world ease. In actual person not superior to Bean, he had a temperament of daring. In every detail he was an advanced dresser, specializing in flamboyant cravats. He would have been Bean's model if Bean had been less a coward. Bulger was nearly all that Bean wished to be. He condescended to his tasks with an air of elegant and detached leisure that raised them to the dignity of sports. He had quite the air of a wealthy amateur with a passion for typewriting.
He had once done Breede's personal work, but had been banished to the outer office after Bean's first try-out. Breede had found some mysterious objection to him. Perhaps it was because Bulger would always look up with pleased sagacity, as if he were helping to compose Breede's letters. It may have been simple envy in Breede for his advanced dressing. Bulger had felt no unkindness toward Bean for thus supplanting him in a desirable post. But he did confide to his successor that if he, Bulger, ever found Breede under his heel, Breede could expect no mercy. Bulger would grind him—just like that!
Bean dramatized this as he wrote his letters; Breede pleasantly disintegrating under the iron heel of Bulger: Breede "The Great Reorganizer," as he was said to be known "in the Street," old "steel and velvet," meeting a just fate! So nearly mechanical was his typewriting that he spoiled one sheet of paper by transcribing two lines of shorthand not meant to be a part of the letter. Only by chance did a certain traffic manager of lines west of Chicago escape reading a briefly worded opinion of the clothes he wore that would have puzzled and might have pained him, for Breede, such had come to be his confidence in Bean, always signed his letters without reading them over. Bean gasped and wisely dismissed the drama of Bulger's revenge from his mind.
At four-thirty the day's work ended and Bean was free to forget until another day the little he had been unable to avoid learning about high railroad finance; free to lead his own secret life, which was a thing apart from all that wordy foolery.
He changed from his office coat to one alleged by its maker to give him the appearance of perfect physical development, and descended to the street-level in company with Bulger. Bean would have preferred to walk down; he suffered the sensations of dying each time the elevator seemed to fall, but he could not confess this to the doggish and intrepid Bulger.
There were other weaknesses he had to cloak. Bulger proffered cigarettes from a silver case at their first meeting. Bean declined.
"Doctor's orders," said he.
"Nerves?" suggested Bulger, expertly.
"Heart—gets me something fierce."
"Come in here to Tommy's and take a bracer," now suggested the hospitable Bulger. But again the physician had been obdurate.
"Won't let me touch a thing—liver," said Bean. "Got to be careful of a breakdown."
"Tough," said Bulger. "Man needs a certain amount of it, down here in the street. Course, a guy can't sop it up, like you see some do. Other night, now—gang of us out, y'understand—come too fast for your Uncle Cuthbert. Say, goin' up those stairs where I live I cert'n'ly must 'a' sounded like a well-known clubman gettin' home from an Elks' banquet. Head, next A.M.?—ask me, ask me! Nothing of the kind! Don't I show up with a toothache and con old Tully into a day off at the dentist's to have the bridge-work tooled up. Ask me was I at the dentist's? Wow! Not!—little old William J. Turkish bath for mine!"
Bean was moved to raw envy. But he knew himself too well. The specialist he professed to have consulted had put a ban upon the simplest recreations. Otherwise how could he with any grace have declined those repeated invitations of Bulger's to come along and meet a couple of swell dames that'd like to have a good time? Bulger, considered in relation to the sex not his own, was what he himself would have termed "a smooth little piece of work." Bean was not this. Of all his terrors women, as objects of purely male attention, were the greatest. He longed for them, he looked upon such as were desirable with what he believed to be an evil eye, but he had learned not to go too close. They talked, they disconcerted him horribly. And if they didn't talk they looked dangerous, as if they knew too much. Some day, of course, he would nerve himself to it. Indeed he very determinedly meant to marry, and to have a son who should be trained from the cradle with the sole idea of making him a great left-handed pitcher; but that was far in the future. He longed tragically to go with Bulger and meet a couple of swell dames, but he knew how it would be. Right off they would find him out and laugh at him.
Bulger consumed another high-ball, filled his cigarette case, and the two stood a moment on Broadway. Breede, the last to leave his office, crossed the pavement to a waiting automobile.
"There's his foxy Rebates going to the arms of his family," said Bulger, disrespectfully applying to Breede a term that had more than once made him interesting to the Interstate Commerce Commission.
"See the three skirts in the back? That's the Missis and the two squabs. Young one's only a flapper, but the old one's a peacherine for looks. Go on, lamp her once!"
Bean turned his diffident gaze upon the occupants of the tonneau with a sudden wild dream that he would stare insolently. But his eyes unaccountably came to rest in the eyes of the young one—the flapper. He saw only the eyes, and he felt that the eyes were seeing him. The motor chugged slowly up Broadway, nosing for a path about a slowly driven truck; the flapper looked back.
"Not half bad, that!" said Bean, recovering, and speaking in what he felt was the correct Bulger tone.
"Not for mine," said Bulger firmly. "Big sister, though, not so worse. Met up with her one time out to the country place, takin' stuff for the old man the time he got kidneys in his feet. I made a hit with her, too, on the level, but say! nothin' doing there for old John W. me! I dropped the thing like it was poison ivy. Me doin' the nuptial in a family like that, and bein' under Pop's thumb the rest of my life? Ask me, that's all; ask me! Wake me up any time in the night and ask me."
Again Bean was thrilled, resolving then and there that no daughter of Breede's should ever wed him. Bulger was entirely right. It wouldn't do. Bulger looked at his watch.
"Well, s'long; got a date down in the next block. She's out at five. Say, I want you to get a flash at her some day. Broadway car, yesterday, me goin' uptown with Max, see? she lookin' at her gloves. 'Pipe the queen in black,' I says to Max, jes' so she could hear, y' understand. Say, did she gimme the eye. Not at all! Not at all! Old William H. Smoothy, I guess yes. Pretty soon a gink setting beside her beats it, and quick change for me. Had her all dated up by Fourteenth Street. Dinner and a show, if things look well. Some class to her, all right. One the manicures in that shop down there. Well, s'long!"
Looking over his shoulder with sickish envy after the invincible Bulger, Bean left the curb for a passing car and came to a jolting stop against the biggest policeman he had ever seen. He mumbled a horrified apology, but his victim did not even turn to look down upon him. He fled into the car and found a seat, still trembling from that collision. From across the aisle a pretty girl surveyed him with veiled insolence. He furtively felt of his neutral-tinted cravat and took his hat off to see if there could be a dent in it. The girl, having plumbed his insignificance, now unconcernedly read the signs above his head. There was bitterness in the stare he bestowed upon her trim lines. Some day Bulger would chance to be on that car with her—then she'd be taken down a bit—Bulger who, by Fourteenth Street, had them all dated up.
Presently he was embarrassed by a stout, aggressive man who clutched a strap with one hand and some evening papers with the other, a man who clearly considered it outrageous that he should be compelled to stand in a street car. He glared at Bean with a cold, questioning indignation, shifting from one foot to the other, and seeming to be on the point of having words about it. This was not long to be endured. Bean glanced out in feigned dismay, as if at a desired cross-street he had carelessly passed, sprang toward the door of the car and caromed heavily against a tired workingman who still, however, was not too tired to put his sense of injury into quick, pithy words of the street. The pretty girl tittered horribly and the stout man, already in Bean's seat, rattled his papers impatiently, implying that people in that state ought to be kept off in the first place.
He had meant to leave the car and try another, but there at the step was another too-large policeman helping an uncertain old lady to the ground, so he slinkingly insinuated himself to the far corner of the platform, where, for forty city blocks, a whistling messenger boy gored his right side with the corners of an unyielding box while a dreamy-eyed man who, as Bulger would have said, had apparently been sopping it up like you see some do, leaned a friendly elbow on his shoulder, dented his new hat and from time to time stepped elaborately on his natty shoes with the blue cloth uppers. Also, the conductor demanded and received a second fare from him. What was the use of saying you had paid inside? The conductor was a desperate looking man who would probably say he knew that game, and stop the car....
Something of the sort always happened to him in street cars. It was bad enough when you walked, with people jostling you and looking as if they wondered what right you had to be there.
At last came the street down which he made a daily pilgrimage and he popped from the crowd on the platform like a seed squeezed from an orange.
Reaching the curb alive—the crossing policeman graciously halted a huge motor-truck driven by a speed-enthusiast—he corrected the latest dent in his hat, straightened his cravat, readjusted the shoulder lines of the coat appertaining to America's greatest eighteen-dollar suit—"$18.00—No More; No Less!"—and with a fear-quickened hand discovered that his watch was gone, his gold hunting-case watch and horseshoe fob set with brilliants, that Aunt Clara had given him on his twenty-first birthday for not smoking!
A moment he stood, raging, fearing. His money was safe, but they might decide to come back for that. Or the policeman might come up and make an ugly row because he had let himself be robbed in a public conveyance. He would have to prove that the watch was his; probably have to tell why Aunt Clara had given it to him.
With a philosophy peculiarly his own, a spirit of wise submission that was more than once to serve him well, he pulled his hat sharply down, braced and squared such appearance of perfect physical development as the eighteen dollars had achieved, and walked away. He had always known the watch would go. Now it was gone, no more worry. Good enough! As he walked he rehearsed an explanation to Bulger: cleverly worded intimations that the watch had been pawned to meet a certain quick demand on his resources not morally to his credit. He made the implication as sinister as he could.
And then he stood once more before the shrine of Beauty. In the show-window of a bird-and-animal store on Sixth Avenue was a four-months-old puppy, a "Boston-bull," that was, of a certainty, the most perfect thing ever born of a mother-dog. Already the head was enormous, in contrast, yet somehow in a maddening harmony with the clean-lined slender body. The colour-scheme was golden brown on a background of pure white. On the body this golden brown was distributed with that apparent carelessness which is Art. Overlaying the sides and back were three patches of it about the size and somewhat the shape of maps of Africa as such are commonly to be observed. In the colouring of the noble brow and absurdly wide jaws a more tender care was evident. There was the same golden brown, beginning well back of the ears and flowing lustrously to the edge of the overhanging upper lip, where it darkened. Midway between the ears—erectly alert those ears were—a narrow strip of white descended a little way to open to a circle of white in the midst of which was the black muzzle. At the point of each nostril was the tiniest speck of pink, Beauty's last triumphant touch.
As he came to rest before the window the creature leaped forward with joyous madness, reared two clumsy white feet against the glass (those feet that seemed to have been meant for a larger dog), barked ably—he could hear it even above the din of an elevated train—and then fell to a frantic licking of the glass where Bean had provocatively spread a hand. Perceiving this intimacy to be thwarted by some mysterious barrier to be felt but not seen, he backed away, fell forward upon his chest, the too-big paws outspread, and smiled from a vasty pink cavern. Between the stiffened ears could be seen the crooked tail, tinged with just enough of the brown, in unbelievably swift motion. Discovering this pose to bring no desired result, he ran mad in the sawdust, excavating it feverishly with his forepaws, sending it expertly to the rear with the others.
The fever passed; he surveyed his admirer for a moment, then began to revolve slowly upon all four feet until he had made in the sawdust a bed that suited him. Into this he sank and was instantly asleep, his slenderness coiled, the heavy head at rest on a paw, one ear drooping wearily, the other still erect.
For two weeks this daily visit had been almost the best of Bean's secrets. For two weeks he had known that his passion was hopeless, yet had he yearned out his heart there before the endearing thing. In the shock of his first discovery, spurred to unwonted daring, he had actually penetrated the store meaning to hear the impossible price. But an angry-looking old man (so Bean thought) had come noisily from a back room and glowered at him threateningly over big spectacles. So he had hastily priced a convenient jar of goldfish for which he felt no affection whatever, mumbled something about the party's calling, himself, next day, and escaped to the street. Anyway, it would have been no good, asking the price; it was bound to be a high price; and he couldn't keep a dog; and if he did, a policeman would shoot it for being mad when it was only playing.
But some time—yet, would it be this same animal? In all the world there could not be another so acceptable. He shivered with apprehension each day as he neared the place, lest some connoisseur had forestalled him. He quickened to a jealous distrust of any passerby who halted beside him to look into the window, and felt a great relief when these passed on.
Once he had feared the worst. A man beside him holding a candy-eating child by the hand had said, "Now, now, sir!" and, "Well, well, was he a nice old doggie!" Then they had gone into the store, very businesslike, and Bean had felt that he might be taking his last look at a loved one. Lawless designs throbbed in his brain—a wild plan to shadow the man to his home—to have that dog, no matter how. But when they came out the child carried nothing more than a wicker cage containing two pink-eyed white rabbits that were wrinkling their noses furiously.
With a last cherishing look at most of the beauty in all the world—it still slept despite the tearing clatter of a parrot with catarrhal utterance that shrieked over and over, "Oh, what a fool! Oh, what a fool!"—he turned away. What need to say that, with half the opportunity, his early infamy of the shell would have been repeated. He wondered darkly if the old man left that dog in the window nights!
He reached for his watch before he remembered its loss. Then he reminded himself bitterly that street clocks were abundant and might be looked at by simpletons who couldn't keep watches. He bought an evening paper that shrieked with hydrocephalic headlines and turned into a dingy little restaurant advertising a "Regular Dinner de luxe with Dessert, 35 cts."
There was gloom rather than gusto in his approach to the table. He expected little; everything had gone wrong; and he was not surprised to note that the cloth on the table must also have served that day for a "Business Men's Lunch, 35 cts.," as advertised on a wall placard. Several business men seemed to have eaten there—careless men, their minds perhaps on business while they ate. A moody waiter took his order, feebly affecting to efface all stains from the tablecloth by one magic sweep of an already abused napkin.
Bean read his paper. One shriek among the headlines was for a railroad accident in which twenty-eight lives had been lost. He began to go down the list of names hopefully, but there was not one that he knew. Although he wished no evil to any person, he was yet never able to suppress a strange, perverse thrill of disappointment at this result—that there should be the name of no one he knew in all those lists of the mangled. His food came and he ate, still striving—the game of childhood had become unconscious habit with him now—to make his meat and potatoes "come out even." The dinner de luxe was too palpably a soggy residue of that Business Men's Lunch. It fittingly crowned the afternoon's catastrophes. He turned from it to his paper and Destiny tied another knot on his bonds. There it was in bold print:
COUNTESS CASANOVA Clairvoyant ... Clairaudient Psychometric. Fresh from Unparalleled European Triumphs. Answers the Unasked Question.
There was more of it. The Countess had been "prevailed upon by eminent scientists to give a brief series of tests in this city." Evening tests might be had from 8 to 10 P.M. Ring third bell.
The old query came back, the old need to know what he had been before putting on this present very casual body. Was his present state a reward or a penance? From the time of leaving the office to the last item in that sketchy dinner, he had been put upon by persons and circumstances. It was time to know what life meant by him.
And here was one who answered the unasked question!
Precisely at eight he rang the third bell, climbed two flights of narrow stairs and faced a door that opened noiselessly and without visible agency. He entered a small, dimly lighted room and stood there uncertainly. After a moment two heavy curtains parted at the rear of the room and the Countess Casanova stood before him. It could have been no other; her lustrous, heavy-lidded dark eyes swept him soothingly. Her hair was a marvellously piled storm-cloud above a full, well-rounded face. Her complexion was wonderful. One very plump, very white hand rested at the neck of the flowing scarlet robe she wore. A moment she posed thus, beyond doubt a being capable of expounding all wingy mysteries of any soul whatsoever.
Then she became alert and voluble. She took his hat and placed it in the hall, seated him before the table at the room's centre and sat confronting him from the other side. She filled her chair. It could be seen that she was no slave to tight lacing.
Although foreign in appearance, the Countess spoke with a singularly pure and homelike American accent. It was the speech he was accustomed to hear in Chicago. It reassured him.
The Countess searched his face with those wonderful eyes.
"You are intensely psychic," she announced.
Bean was aware of this. Every medium he had ever consulted had told him so.
The Countess gazed dreamily above his head.
"Your spiritual aura is clouded by troubled curnts, as it were. I see you meetin' a great loss, but you mus' take heart, for a very powerful hand on the other side is guardin' you night an' day. They tell me your initials is 'B.B.' You are employed somewheres in the daytime. I see a big place with lots of other people employed there—"
The Countess paused. Bean waited in silence.
"Here"—she came out of the clouds that menaced her sitter—"take this pad an' write a question on it. Don't lemme see it, mind! When you got it all wrote out, fold it up tight an' hold it against your forehead. Never leggo of it, not once!"
Bean wrote, secretly, well below the table's edge.
"Who was I in my last incarnation?"
He tore the small sheet from the pad, folded it tightly and, with elbows on the table, pressed it to his brow. If the Countess answered that question, then indeed was she a seer.
She took up the pad from which he had torn the sheet.
"Concentrate," she admonished him. "Let the whole curnt of your magnetism flow into that question. Excuse me! I left the slate in the nex' room. My control will answer you on the slate."
She withdrew between the curtains, but reappeared very soon. Bean was concentrating.
"That'll do," said the Countess. "Here!" She presented him with a double slate and a moist sponge. "Wipe it clean."
He washed the surfaces of the slate and the seer placed it upon the table between them, enclosing within its two sections a tiny fragment of slate pencil. She placed her hands upon the slate and bade her sitter do likewise.
"You often hear skeptics say they is sometimes trickery in this," said the Countess, "but say, listen now, how could it be? I leave it to you, friend. I ain't seen your question; you held it a minute and then put it in your pocket. An' you seen the slate was clean. Now concentrate; go into the Silence!"
Bean went into the Silence without suspicion, believing the Countess would fail. She couldn't know his question and no human power could write on the inside of that slate without detection. He waited with sympathy for the woman who had overestimated her gifts.
Then he was startled by the faintest sound of scratching, as of a pencil on a slate. It seemed to issue from beneath their hands at rest there in plain sight. The medium closed her eyes. Bean waited, his breath quickening. Little nervous crinklings began at the roots of his hair and descended his spine—that scratching, faint, yet vigorous, did it come from beyond the veil?
The scratching ceased. The ensuing silence was portentous.
"Open it and look!" commanded the Countess. And Bean forthwith opened it and looked a little way into his dead and dread past. Apparently upon the very surface he had washed clean were words that seemed to have been hurriedly inscribed:
"The last time you was Napolen Bonopart."
He stared wonderingly at those marks made by no mortal hand. He thrilled with a vast elation; and yet instantly a suspicion formed that here was something to his discredit, something one wouldn't care to have known. He had read as little history as possible, yet there floated in his mind certain random phrases, "A Corsican upstart," "An assassin," "No gentleman!"
"I—I suppose—you're sure there can't be any doubt about this?"
He looked pleadingly at the Countess. But the Countess was a mere psychic instrument, it seemed, and had to be told, first of the question—he produced it with a suspicion that she might doubt his honesty—and then of the astounding answer. Thus enlightened, she protested that there could be no doubt about the truth of the answer; she was ready to stake her professional reputation on its truth. She regarded Bean with an awe which she made no attempt to conceal.
"You had your day," she said significantly; "pomps and powers and—and attentions!"
Bean was excitedly piecing together what fragments of data his reading had left him.
"Emperor of France—"
But some one else had rung the third bell, perhaps one of those scientists coming to be dumfounded.
"He was," the Countess replied hurriedly, "the husban' of Mary Antonett, an' they both got arrested and gilletined in the great French revolution."
He was pretty certain that this was incorrect, but the Countess, after all, was a mere instrument of higher intelligence, and she now made no pretence of speaking otherwise than humanly.
"An' my controls say they'll leave me in a body if I take a cent less 'n three dollars."
One of the controls seemed to be looking this very threat or something like it from the medium's sharpened eyes.
Bean paid hastily, thus averting what would have been a calamity to all earnest students of the occult. The advertisement, it is true, had specifically mentioned one dollar as the accustomed honorarium, but this was no time to haggle.
"Don't furgit the number," urged the Countess, "an' if you got any friends, I'd appreciate—"
"Certainly! Sure thing!" said the palpitating one, and blindly felt his way into the night.
The same stars shone above the city street; the same heedless throng disregarded them; disregarded, too, the slight figure that paused a moment to survey the sky and the world beneath it through a new pair of eyes.
He walked buoyantly home. He had a room at the top of a house in an uptown cross-street. Having locked his door and lighted a gas-jet he stood a long time before his mirror. It was a friendly young face he saw there, but troubled. The hair was pale, the eyes were pale, the nose small. The mouth was rather fine, cleanly cut and a little feminine. The chin was not a fighter's chin, yet neither chin nor mouth revealed any weakness. He scanned the features eagerly, striving to relate them with vaguely remembered portraits of Napoleon. He was about the same height as the Little Corporal, he seemed to recall, but an eagle boldness was lacking. Did he possess it latently? Could he develop it? He must have books about this possible former self of his. He had early become impatient of written history because when it says sixteen hundred and something it means the seventeenth century. If historians had but agreed to call sixteen hundred and something the sixteenth century, he would have read more of them. It was annoying to have to stop to figure.
Before retiring he went through certain exercises with an unusual vehemence. He was taking a course in jiu-jitsu from a correspondence school. Aforetime he had dreamed of a street encounter, with some blustering bully twice his size, from which, thanks to his skill, he would emerge unscarred, unruffled, perhaps flecking a bit of dust from one slight but muscular shoulder while his antagonist lay screaming with pain.
With the approach of sleep all his half-doubts were swept away. Of course he had been Napoleon. He could almost remember Marengo—or was it Austerlitz? There was a vague but not distressing uncertainty as to which of these conflicts he had directed, but he could—almost—remember.
And he had been one who commanded, and who, therefore, would make nothing of pricing a dog. He would enter that store boldly to-morrow, give its proprietor glare for glare, and demand to be told the price of the creature in the window. Napoleon would have made nothing of it.
* * * * *
The old man came noisily from his back room and again glowered above his spectacles. But this time he faced no weakling who made a subterfuge of undesired goldfish.
Bean gulped once, it is true, before words would come.
"I—uh—what's the price of that dog in the window?"
The old man removed his spectacles, ran a hand through upstanding white hair, and regarded his questioner suspiciously.
"You vant him, hey? Vell, I tell. Fifdy dollars, you bed your life!"
The blood leaped in his veins. He had expected to hear a hundred at least. Still, fifty was a difficult enough sum. He hesitated.
"Er—what's his name?"
"What?" He could not believe this thing.
"Naboleon. It comes in his bedigree when I giddim. You bed your life I gif him nod such names—robber, killer, Frenchman!"
Bean felt assaulted.
"He was a fighter?"
"Yah, fider—a killer unt a sdealer. You know what?"—his face lightened a little with garrulity—"my granmutter she seen him, yah, sure she seen him, seddin' on his horse when he gone ridin' into Utrecht in eighdeen hunderd fife, with soljus. Sure she seen him; she loogs outer a winda' so she could touch him if she been glose to him, unt a soljus rides oop unt says, 'Ve gamp right here, not?' unt Naboleon he shneer awful unt say, 'Gamp here vere dey go inter dem cellus from der ganal-side unt get unter us unt blow us high wit bowder—you sheep's head! No; we gamp back in der Malibaan vere is old linden drees hunderd years old, eighd rows vun mile long, dere is vere we gamp, you gread fool!' Sure my granmutter seen him. He pull his nose mit t'um unt finger, so! Muddy boods, vun glofe off, seddin' oop sdraighd on a horse. Sure, she seen him. Robber unt big killer-sdealer! She vas olt lady, but she remember it lige it was to-morrow."