HARRY LEON WILSON
Author of Bunker Bean, Ruggles of Red Gap, Somewhere in Red Gap, etc.
TO WILLIAM EUGENE LEWIS
I. MA PETTENGILL AND THE ANIMAL KINGDOM
II. A LOVE STORY
III. RED GAP AND THE BIG-LEAGUE STUFF
V. ONE ARROWHEAD DAY
VI. THE PORCH WREN
VII. CHANGE OF VENUS
VIII. CAN HAPPEN!
IX. THE TAKER-UP
X. AS TO HERMAN WAGNER
MA PETTENGILL AND THE ANIMAL KINGDOM
From the Arrowhead corrals I strolled up the poplar-bordered lane that leads past the bunk house to the castle of the ranch's chatelaine. It was a still Sunday afternoon—the placid interlude, on a day of rest, between the chores of the morning and those of evening. But the calm was for the ear alone. To the eye certain activities, silent but swift, were under way. On the shaded side piazza of the ranch house I could discern my hostess, Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill; she sat erect, even in a rocking-chair, and knitted. On the kitchen steps, full in the westering sun, sat the Chinese chef of the Arrowhead, and knitted—a yellow, smoothly running automaton. On a shaded bench by the spring house, a plaid golfing cap pushed back from one-half the amazing area of his bare pate, sat the aged chore-boy, Boogles, and knitted. The ranch was on a war basis.
And more: As I came abreast of the bunk house the Sabbath calm was punctured by the tart and careless speech of Sandy Sawtelle, a top rider of the Arrowhead, for he, too, was knitting, or had been. On a stool outside the doorway he held up an unfinished thing before his grieved eyes and devoutly wished it in the place of punishment of the wicked dead. The sincere passion of his tones not only arrested my steps but lured through the open doorway the languorous and yawning Buck Devine, who hung over the worker with disrespectful attention. I joined the pair. To Buck's query, voiced in a key of feigned mirth, Sandy said with simple dignity that it was going to be a darned good sweater for the boys in the trenches. Mr. Devine offered to bet his head that it wasn't going to be anything at all—at least nothing any one would want round a trench. Mr. Sawtelle ignored the wager and asked me if I knew how to do this here, now, casting off. I did not.
"I better sneak round and ask the Chink," said Sandy. "He's the star knitter on the place."
We walked on together, seemingly deaf to certain laboured pleasantries of Mr. Devine concerning a red-headed cow-puncher that had got rejected for fighting because his feet was flat and would now most likely get rejected for knitting because his head was flat. By way of covering the hearty laughter of Mr. Devine at his own wit I asked why Sandy should not consult his employer rather than her cook.
With his ball of brown wool, his needles and his work carried tenderly before him Sandy explained, with some embarrassment as it seemed, that the madam was a good knitter, all right, all right, but she was an awful bitter-spoken lady when any little thing about the place didn't go just right, making a mountain out of a mole hill, and crying over spilt milk, and always coming back to the same old subject, and so forth, till you'd think she couldn't talk about anything else, and had one foot in the poorhouse, and couldn't take a joke, and all like that. I could believe it or not, but that was the simple facts of the matter when all was said and done. And the Chink was only too glad to show off how smart he was with a pair of needles.
This not only explained nothing but suggested that there might indeed be something to explain. And it was Sandy's employer after all who resolved his woolen difficulty. She called to him as he would have left me for the path to the kitchen door:
"You bring that right here!"
It was the tone of one born to command, and once was enough. Sandy brought it right there, though going rather too much like a martyr to the stake, I thought; for surely it was not shameful that he should prove inept in the new craft.
Nor was there aught but genial kindness in the lady's reception of him. Ma Pettengill, arrayed in Sabbath bravery of apparel, as of a debutante at a summer hotel where the rates are exorbitant, instantly laid by her own knitting and questioned him soothingly. It seemed to be a simple difficulty. Sandy had reached the point where a sweater must have a neck, and had forgotten his instructions. Cordially the woman aided him to subtract fourteen from two hundred and sixty-two and then to ascertain that one hundred and twenty-four would be precisely half of the remainder. It was all being done, as I have remarked, with the gentlest considering kindness, with no hint of that bitterness which the neophyte had shown himself to be fearing in the lady. Was she not kindness itself? Was she not, in truth, just a shade too kind? Surely there was a purr to her voice, odd, unwonted; and surely her pupil already cringed under a lash that impended.
Yet this visible strain, it seemed, had not to do with knitted garments. Ma Pettengill praised the knitting of Sandy; praised it to me and praised it to him. Of course her remark that he seemed to be a born knitter and ought to devote his whole time to it might have seemed invidious to a sensitive cowman, yet it was uttered with flawless geniality. But when Sandy, being set right, would have taken his work and retired, as was plainly his eager wish, his mentor said she would knit two of the new short rows herself, just to make sure. And while she knitted these two rows she talked. She knitted them quickly, though the time must have seemed to Sandy much longer than it was.
"Here stands the greatest original humorist in Kulanche County," said the lady, with no longer a purring note in her voice. She boomed the announcement. Sandy, drooping above her, painfully wore the affectation of counting each stitch of the flashing needles. "And practical jokes—my sakes alive! He can think of the funniest jokes to put up on poor, unsuspecting people! Yes, sir; got a genius for it. And witty! Of course it ain't just what he says that's so funny—it's the noisy way he says it.
"And you wouldn't think it to look at him, but he's one of these here financial magnets, too. Oh, yes, indeed! Send him out with a hatful of ten-dollar bills any day and he won't let one of 'em go for a cent under six dollars, not if buyers is plenty—he's just that keen and avaricious. That's his way. Never trained for it, either; just took it up natural."
With drawn and ashen face Mr. Sawtelle received back his knitting. His pose was to appear vastly preoccupied and deaf to insult. He was still counting stitches as he turned away and clattered down the steps.
"Say!" called his employer. Sandy turned.
"You seen the party that stopped here this morning in that big, pompous touring car?"
"They was after mules."
"They offered me five hundred dollars a span for mine."
"No, ma'am—I mean, yes, ma'am!"
"That's all. I thought you'd rejoice to know it." The lady turned to me as if Mr. Sawtelle had left us. "Yes, sir; he'd make you die laughing with some of his pranks, that madcap would. I tell you, when he begins cutting up—"
But Mr. Sawtelle was leaving us rapidly. His figure seemed to be drawn in, as if he would appear smaller to us. Ma Pettengill seized her own knitting once more, stared grimly at it, then stared grimly down at the bunk house, within which her victim had vanished. A moment later she was pouring tobacco from a cloth sack into a brown cigarette paper. She drew the string of the sack—one end between her teeth—rolled the cigarette with one swift motion and, as she waited the blaze of her match, remarked that they had found a substitute for everything but the mule. The cigarette lighted, she burned at least a third of its length in one vast inhalation, which presently caused twin jets of smoke to issue from the rather widely separated corners of a generous mouth. Upon which she remarked that old Safety First Timmins was a game winner, about the gamest winner she'd ever lost to.
Three other mighty inhalations and the cigarette was done. Again she took up the knitting, pausing for but one brief speech before the needles began their shrewd play. This concerned the whale. She said the whale was the noblest beast left to us in all the animal kingdom and would vanish like the buffalo if treated as food. She said it was shameful to reduce this majestic creature of the deep to the dimensions of a chafing dish and a three-cornered slice of toast. Then she knitted.
She had left numerous openings; some humorous emprise of Sandy Sawtelle, presumably distressing; the gameness of one Timmins as a winner; the whale as a food animal; the spectacular price of mules broken to harness. Rather than choose blindly among them I spoke of my day's fishing. Departing at sunrise I had come in with a bounteous burden of rainbow trout, which I now said would prove no mean substitute for meat at the evening meal.
Then, as she grimly knitted, Ma Pettengill discoursed of other boasted substitutes for meat, none of which pleased her. Hogs and sheep were other substitutes, there being but one genuine meat, to wit, Beef. Take hogs; mean, unsociable animals, each hog going off by himself, cursing and swearing every step of the way. Had I ever seen a hog that thought any other hog was good enough to associate with him? No, I hadn't; nor nobody else. A good thing hogs couldn't know their present price. Stuck up enough already! And sheep? Silly. No minds of their own. Let one die and all the rest think they got to die also. Do it too. No brain. Of course the price tempted a lot of moral defectives to raise 'em, but when you reflected that you had to go afoot, with a dog that was smarter than any man at it, and a flea-bitten burro for your mess wagon—-not for her. Give her a business where you could set on a horse. Yes, sir; people would get back to Nature and raise beef after the world had been made safe once more for a healthy appetite. This here craze for substitutes would die out. You couldn't tell her there was any great future for the canned jack-rabbit business, for instance—just a fad; and whales the same. She knew and I knew that a whale was too big to eat. People couldn't get any real feeling for it, and not a chance on earth to breed 'em up and improve the flesh. Wasn't that the truth? And these here diet experts, with their everlasting talk about carbos and hydrates, were they doing a thing but simply taking all the romance out of food? No, they were not. Of course honest fish, like trout, were all right if a body was sick or not hungry or something.
Trout reminded her of something, and here again the baleful tooth of calumny fleshed itself in the fair repute of one Timmins. She described him as "a strange growth named Timmins, that has the Lazy 8 Ranch over on the next creek and wears kind of aimless whiskers all over his face till you'd think he had a gas mask on." She talked freely of him.
"You know what he does when he wants a mess of trout? Takes one of these old-fashioned beer bottles with patent stoppers, fills it up with unslaked lime, pours in a little water, stops it up, drops it in a likely looking trout pool, and in one minute it explodes as good as something made by a Russian patriot; all the trout in the pool are knocked out and float on the surface, where this old highbinder gathers 'em in. He's a regular efficiency expert in sport. Take fall and spring, when the wild geese come through, he'll soak grain in alcohol and put it out for 'em over on the big marsh. First thing you know he'll have a drunken old goose by the legs, all maudlin and helpless. Puts him in a coop till he sobers up, then butchers him.
"Such is Safety First: never been known to take a chance yet. Why, say, a year ago when he sold off his wool there was a piece in the county paper about him getting eighteen thousand dollars for it; so naturally there was a man that said he was a well-known capitalist come up from San Francisco to sell him some stock in a rubber company. Safety admits he has the money and he goes down to the big city for a week at the capitalist's expense, seeing the town's night life and the blue-print maps and the engraved stock and samples of the rubber and the capitalist's picture under a magnificent rubber tree in South America, and he's lodged in a silk boudoir at the best hotel and wined and dined very deleteriously and everything is agreed to. And the night before he's going to put his eighteen thousand into this lovely rubber stock that will net him two hundred per cent, at the very lowest, on the capitalist's word of honour, what does he do but sneak out and take the train for home on his return ticket that he'd made the capitalist buy him.
"Ever talk to one of these rich capitalists that has rubber stock for sale in South America or a self-starting banana orchard? You know how good they are.
"You're certainly entitled to anything of your own that you've kept after they get through with you. And would you think that this poor, simple-minded old rancher would be any match for their wiles? But if you knew he had been a match and had nicked 'em for at least three hundred dollars, would you still think something malignant might be put over on him by a mere scrub buckeroo named Sandy Sawtelle, that never made a cent in his life except by the most degrading manual labour? No, you wouldn't. No fair-minded judge of criminals would.
"But I admit I had a weak moment. Yes, sir; for a brief spell I was all too human. Or I guess what it was. I was all blinded up with immoral designs, this here snake-blooded Timmins having put things over on me in stock deals from time to time till I'd got to lying awake nights thinking how I could make a believer of him. I wanted him to know there is a God, even if it hadn't ever seemed so to him.
"Of course I knew it would have to be some high-grade felony, he being proof against common depredations. Well, then, along come this Sunday paper, with two whole pages telling about how the meat of the common whale will win the war, with a picture of a whale having dotted lines showing how to butcher it, and recipes for whale patties, and so forth. And next comes the circus to Red Gap, with old Pete, the Indian, going down to it and getting crazy about elephants. And so that was how it happened."
The lady now knitted in silence, appearing to believe that all had been told.
I waited a decent interval, then said I was glad indeed to know how it had all happened; that it was a great help to know how it had happened, even if I must remain forever ignorant of what it was that had happened. Of course I couldn't expect to be told that.
It merely brought more about mules. Five hundred dollars a span for mules looked good until you remembered that you needed 'em worse than the other party did. She had to keep her twenty span of old reliables because, what with the sailors and section hands you got nowadays to do your haying, you had to have tame mules. Give 'em any other kind and they'd desert the ship the minute a team started to run. It cost too much for wagon repairs.
I now said I had, it was true, heard much low neighbourhood scandal about the Timmins man, but that I had learned not to believe all I heard about people; there was too much prejudice in the world, and at least two sides to every question.
This merely evoked the item that Timmins had bought him a thrift stamp on the sole ground that it had such a pretty name; then came the wish that she might have seen him dining in public at that rich hotel where the capitalist paid the bills.
She thought people must have been startled by some of his actions.
"Yes, sir; that old outlaw will eat soup or any soft food with almost no strategy at all."
As we seemed to be getting nowhere I meanly rolled the lady a cigarette. She hates to stop knitting to roll one, but she will stop to light it.
She stopped now, and as I held the match for her I said quite frankly that it had become necessary for me to be told the whole thing from start to finish. She said she had told me everything—and believed it—but would go over it again if I didn't understand. Though not always starting at command, the lady has really a full habit of speech.
I told you about whales, didn't I? Whales started it—whales for table use. It come in the Sunday paper—with the picture of a handsome whale and the picture of a French cook kissing his fingers over the way he has cooked some of it; and the picture of a pleased young couple eating whale in a swell restaurant; and the picture of a fair young bride in her kitchenette cutting up three cents' worth of whale meat into a chafing dish and saying how glad she was to have something tasty and cheap for dearie's lunch; and the picture of a poor labouring man being told by someone down in Washington, D.C., that's making a dollar a year, that a nickel's worth of prime whale meat has more actual nourishment than a dollar's worth of porterhouse steak; and so on, till you'd think the world's food troubles was going to be settled in jig time; all people had to do was to go out and get a good eating whale and salt down the side meat and smoke the shoulders and grind up some sausage and be fixed for the winter, with plenty to send a mess round to the neighbours now and then.
And knocking beef, you understand, till you'd think no one but criminals and idiots would ever touch a real steak again, on account of its being so poor in food values, like this Washington scientist says that gets a dollar a year salary and earns every cent of it. It made me mad, the slanderous things they said about beef; but I read the piece over pretty carefully and I really couldn't see where the whale was going to put me out of business, at least for a couple years yet. It looked like I'd have time, anyway, to make a clean-up before you'd be able to go into any butcher shop and get a rib roast of young whale for six cents, with a bushel or two of scraps thrown in for the dog.
Then this Sunday paper goes out to the bunk house and the boys find the whale piece and get excited about it. Looks like if it's true that most of 'em will be driving ice wagons or something for a living. They want me to send down for a mess of whale meat so they can see if it tastes like regular food. They don't hardly believe these pictures where people dressed up like they had money are going into spasms of delight about it. Still, they don't know—poor credulous dubs! They think things you see in a Sunday paper might be true now and then, even if it is most always a pack of lies thought up by dissipated newspaper men.
I tell 'em they can send for a whole whale if they want to pay for it, but none of my money goes that way so long as stall-fed beef retains its present flavour; and furthermore I expect to be doing business right here for years after the whale fad has died out—doing the best I can with about ten silly cowhands taking the rest cure at my expense the minute I step off the place. I said there was no doubt they should all be added to the ranks of the unemployed that very minute—but due to other well-known causes than the wiping out of the cattle industry by cold whale hash in jelly, which happened to be the dish this French chef was going crazy over.
They chewed over that pointed information for a while, then they got to making each other bets of a thousand dollars about what whale meat would taste like; whether whale liver and bacon could be told from natural liver and bacon, and whether whale steak would probably taste like catfish or mebbe more like mud turtle. Sandy Sawtelle, who always knows everything by divine right, like you might say, he says in superior tones that it won't taste like either one but has a flavour all its own, which even he can't describe, though it will be something like the meat of the wild sea cow, which roams the ocean in vast herds off the coast of Florida.
Then they consider the question of a whale round-up in an expert manner. It don't look none too good, going out on rodeo in water about three miles too deep for wading, though the idea of lass'ing a whale calf and branding it does hold a certain fascination. Sandy says it would be the only livestock business on earth where you don't always have to be fearing a dry season; and Buck Devine says that's so, and likewise the range is practically unlimited, as any one can see from a good map, and wouldn't it be fine riding herd in a steam yacht with a high-class bartender handy, instead of on a so-and-so cayuse that was liable any minute to trade ends and pour you out of the saddle on to your lame shoulder.
They'd got to kidding about it by this time, when who should ride up but old Safety First Timmins. They spring the food whale on Safety with much flourish. They show him the pictures and quote prices on the hoof—which are low, but look what even a runt of a yearling whale that was calved late in the fall would weigh on the scales!—and no worry about fences or free range or winter feeding or water holes; nothing to do but ride round on your private steamboat with a good orchestra, and a chance to be dissolute and count your money. And look what a snap the pioneers will have with all the mavericks; probably not a single whale in the ocean yet branded! And does Timmins want to throw in with us? If he does mebbe they can fix up a deal with me because I want a good business man at the head of the new outfit.
But Safety says right off quick that it's all a pack of nonsense. He says it's the mad dream of a visionary or feeble-minded person. He don't deny there would be money in whales if they could be handled, but you couldn't handle anything that had the whole ocean to swim in that covers three quarters of the earth's surface, as he has often read. And how would you get a branding iron on a whale, and what good would it do you? He'd beat it out for Europe. He said they was foolish to think whales would stay in a herd, and he guessed I'd been talking just to hear myself talk, or more likely I'd been kidding 'em to get a good laugh.
Sandy says: "Well, I wasn't going to tell you at first, but I guess it'll be safe with you, you being a good friend of the Arrowhead, only don't let it go no farther; but the fact is the boss is negotiating for the whale privilege in Great Salt Lake. Yes, sir, she's bribing the Utah legislature this very minute to let the bill go through! And I guess that don't look much like kidding. As soon as the governor has signed the bill she'll put in a couple of good three-year-old bull whales and a nice little herd of heifers and have the world's meat supply at her finger ends in less than five years—just killing off the yearling steers."
Safety looks a bit startled at this, and Sandy goes on to say that though whale meat is now but a fad of the idle rich it's bound to be the meat of rich and poor alike in future. He'd bet a thousand dollars to a dime that by the time the next war come along the first thing they'd do would be to establish a whaleless day. He said whale meat was just that good.
Safety chewed his gum quite a time on this—he says if a man chews gum he won't ruin himself in pocket for tobacco—and he read the whale article over carefully and looked at the pictures again, but he still said it didn't sound to him like a legitimate business enterprise. He said for one thing there'd be trouble shipping the original herd up to Salt Lake. Sandy said it was true; there would be the initial expense of loading on to flat cars, and a couple of tunnels would have to be widened so the bulls wouldn't be rasped going through, but that I have already taken this up with the railroad company.
Safety says that may all be true, but, mark his words, the minute my herd gets into inland waters it will develop some kind of disease like anthrax or blackleg, and the whole bunch will die on me. Sandy says it will be a simple matter to vaccinate, because the animals will be as affectionate as kittens by that time through having been kindly handled, which is all a whale needs. He says they really got a very social nature and are loyal unto death. Once a whale is your friend, he says, it's for life, rain or shine, just so long as you treat him square. Even do a whale a favour just once and he'll remember your face, make no difference if it's fifty years; though being the same, it is true, in his hatreds, because a whale never forgives an injury. A sailor he happens to know once give a whale he had made friends with a chew of tobacco just for a joke and the animal got into an awful rage and tried to tear the ship down to get at him, and then he followed the ship all over the world waiting for this sailor to fall off or get wrecked or something, till finally the hunted man got so nervous he quit the sea and is now running a news stand in Seattle, if Safety don't believe it. It just goes to show that a whale as long as you're square with him is superior in mind and morals to a steer, which ain't got sense enough to know friend from foe.
Safety still shakes his head. He says "safe and sane" has been his motto throughout a long and busy life and this here proposition don't sound like neither one to him. The boys tell him he's missing a good thing by not throwing in with us. They say I'm giving 'em each a big block of stock, paid up and non-assessable, and they don't want him to come round later when they're rolling in wealth and ask why they didn't give him a chance too.
"I can just hear you talk," said Sandy. "You'll be saying: 'I knew that whole fool bunch when not one ever had a dollar he could call his own the day after he was paid off, and now look at 'em—throwing their hundreds of thousands right and left; houses with pianos in every room; new boots every week; silver-mounted saddles at a thousand each; choice wines, liquors, and cigars; private taxicabs; and Alexander J. Sawtelle, the wealthy banker, being elected to Congress by an overwhelming majority!' That's the way you'll be talking," said Sandy, "with regret eating into your vitals like some horrible acid that is fatal to man and beast."
Safety says he thinks they're all plumb crazy, and a fool and his money is soon parted—this being a saying he must have learned at the age of three and has never forgotten a word of—and he comes up to the house to see me. Mebbe he wanted to find out if I had really lost my mind, but he said nothing about whales. Just set round and talked the usual hard luck. Been in the stock business thirty years and never had a good year yet. Nothing left of his cattle but the running gear; and his land so poor you couldn't even raise a row on it unless you went there mad; and why he keeps on struggling in the bitter clutch of misfortune he don't know. But I always know why he keeps on struggling. Money! Nothing but money. So when he got through mourning over his ruined fortunes, and feebly said something about taking some mules off my hands at a fair price, I shut him off firmly. Whenever that old crook talks about taking anything off your hands he's plotting as near highway robbery as they'll let him stay out of jail for. He was sad when I refused two hundred and fifty dollars a span for my best mules.
He went off shaking his head like he hadn't expected such inhumanity from an old friend and neighbour to one who through hard luck was now down and out.
Well, I hear no more about whales; but a circus is coming to Red Gap and old Pete, the Indian, says he must go down to it, his mind being inflamed by some incredible posters pasted over the blacksmith shop at Kulanche. He says he's a very old man and can't be with us long, and when he does take the one-way trail he wants to be able to tell his friends on the other side all about the strange animals that they never had a chance to see. The old pagan was so excited about it I let him go. And he was still more excited when he got back two days later. Yes, sir; he'd found a way to fortune.
He said I'd sure think he was a liar with a crooked tongue and a false heart, but they had an animal at that circus as big as our biggest covered mess wagon and it would weigh as much as the six biggest steers I ever shipped. It has a nose about five feet long—he was sure I wouldn't believe this part—that it fed itself with, and it carried so much meat that just one ham would keep a family like Pete's going all winter. He said of course I would think he was a liar, but I could write down to Red Gap to a lawyer, and the lawyer would get plenty of people to swear to it right in the courthouse. And so now I must hurry up and stock the place with these animals and have more meat than anybody in the world and get rich pretty quick. Forty times he stretched his arms to show me how big one of these hams would be, and he said the best part was that this animal hardly ate anything at all but a little popcorn and a few peanuts. Hadn't he watched it for hours? And if I didn't hurry others would get the idea and run prices up.
I guess Pete's commercial mind must of been engaged by hearing the boys talk about whales. He hadn't held with the whale proposition, not for a minute, after he learned they live in the ocean. He once had a good look at the ocean and he promptly said "Too much water!" But here was a land animal packing nearly as much meat as a whale, eating almost nothing, and as tame as a puppy. "I think, 'Injun how you smart!'" he says when he got through telling me all this in a very secret and important way.
I told him he was very smart indeed and ought to have a job with the Government at a dollar a year telling people to quit beef meat for the elephant. I said I was much obliged for the tip and if I ever got to going good in elephants I'd see he had a critter of his own to butcher every fall. So Pete went out with all his excitement and told the boys how I was going to stock the ranch with these new animals which was better than whales because you wouldn't have to get your feet wet. The boys made much of it right off.
In no time at all they had all the white-faces sold off and vast herds of pure-bred elephants roaming over the ranch with the Arrowhead brand on 'em. Down on the flat lands they had waving fields of popcorn and up above here they had a thousand acres of ripening peanuts; and Sandy Sawtelle, the king of the humourists, he hit on another idea that would bring in fifty thousand dollars a year just on the side. He said if a crowd come along to a ranch and bought the rancher's own hay for the sake of feeding it to his own steers they would be thought weak-minded. Not so with elephants. He said people would come from far and near and bring their little ones to buy our own peanuts and popcorn to feed our own elephants. All we needed to do was put the stuff up in sacks at a nickel a throw. He said of course the novelty might die out in time, but if he could only get the peanut-and-popcorn concession for the first three years that would be all he'd want for his simple needs of living in a swell marble house in Spokane, with a private saloon and hired help to bring him his breakfast in bed and put on another record and minister to his lightest whim. Buck Devine said he'd be able to throw his own good money right and left if he could get the ivory privilege, which is made from the horns of the elephant and is used for many useful purposes; and one of the other boys says they'll develop a good milk strain and get a dairy herd, because the milk of this noble animal ought to be fine for prize fighters and piano movers.
In about ten minutes they was doing quite a business for old Pete's benefit, and Pete very earnest about it. He says I've promised him a young animal to butcher every fall, and they tell him there ain't no meat so good as a prime young popcorn-fed elephant, and he'll certainly live high. And just then up rides old Safety First again. So they get silent and mysterious all at once and warn Pete, so Safety will hear it, not to say a word to any one. Pete looks secretive and hostile at the visitor and goes back to his woodpile. Safety naturally says what fool thing have they got into their heads now, and he supposes it's some more of that whale nonsense.
The boys clam up. They say this is nothing like whales, but a dry-land proposition too important to talk about; that I've sworn everyone to secrecy, but he'll see soon enough what it is when the big money begins to roll in. They don't mind telling him it's an African proposition of new and nourishing food, a regular godsend to the human race, but they got to keep quiet until I get my options bought up so I'll have the cream of the business.
Safety sniffs in a baffled manner and tries to worm out a hint, but they say it's a thing would go like wildfire once it got known, being so much tastier than whale meat and easier to handle, and eating almost nothing.
"Whales was pretty good," says Sandy; "but since the boss got a line on this other animal she's disposed of her whale interests for seventy-three thousand dollars."
Buck Devine says I showed him the check, that come in yesterday's mail, and let him hold it a minute so he could say he once held seventy-three thousand dollars in his hand just like that. And the money was to be put into this new business, with the boys being let in on the ground floor, like they had been with the whales. Sandy says that in probably a year from now, or eighteen months at the most, he won't be a thing but a dissipated millionaire. Nothing but that!
Safety is peculiar in his mind. If you told him you found a million gold dollars up in the top of that jack pine he wouldn't believe it, yet still and all he'd get a real thrill out of it. He certainly does cherish money. The very notion of it is romantic to him. And he must of been thrilled now. He hung round, listening keenly while the boys squandered their vast wealth in various reprehensible ways, trying to get some idea about the new animal. Finally he sniffed some more, and they was all crazy as loons, and went off. But where does he go but over to old Pete at the woodpile and keeps him from his work for ten minutes trying to get the new animal's name out of Pete. But he can't trap the redman into any admissions. All he can find out is that Pete is serious and excited.
Then he come up to ask me once more if he couldn't take some mules off my hands. He found out quick and short that he couldn't. Still he hung round, talking nonsense as far as I could make out, because I hadn't yet been let in on the new elephant proposition. He says he hears I'm taking up a new line of stock, the same not being whales nor anything that swims, and if it's more than I can swing by myself, why, he's a good neighbour of long standing, and able in a pinch, mebbe, to scrape up a few thousand dollars, or even more if it's a sure cinch, and how about it, and from one old friend to another just what is this new line?
Being busy I acted short. I said I was sticking to cattle in spite of the infamous gossip against 'em, and all reports to the contrary was mere society chatter. Still he acted like I was trying to fool him. He went out saying if I changed my mind any time I was to let him know, and he'd be over again soon to talk mules at least, if nothing else, and anything he could do for me any time, just say the word, and try some of this gum, and so forth. I was right puzzled by these here refined civilities of his until Pete comes in and tells me how the boys have stocked the old ranch with elephants and how Safety has tried to get him to tell the secret. I tell Pete he's done right to keep still, and then I go down to the bunk house and hear the whole thing.
By this time they're shipping thousands of steer elephants at top prices; they catch 'em up off soft feed and fatten 'em on popcorn and peanuts, and every Thanksgiving they send a nice fat calf down to the White House, for no one looks at turkey any more. Sandy is now telling what a snap it will be to ride herd on elephants.
"You pick out a big one," he says, "and you build a little cupalo up on top of him and climb up into it by means of a ladder, and set there in this little furnished room with a good book, and smoke and pass the time away while your good old saddle elephant does the work. All you got to do is lean out of the front window now and then and jab him in the forehead with an ice pick, whichever way you want him to turn."
I said trust a cow-puncher to think up some way where he'd have to do as little work with his hands as he does with his head. But I admitted they seemed to have landed on old Timmins for once, because he had tried to get Pete to betray the secret and then come wheedling round to me about it. I said I could talk more intelligently next time, and he would sure come again because he had lavished two sticks of gum on me, which was an incredible performance and could not have been done except for an evil purpose.
"Now say," says Sandy, "that does look like we got him believing. I was going to kid him along about once more, then spring elephants on him, and we'd all have a good laugh at the old wolf. But it looks to me like a chance for better than a laugh; it looks to me like we might commit a real crime against him."
"He never carries anything on him," I says, "if you're meaning something plain, like highway robbery."
Sandy says he don't mean that; he means real Wall Street stuff, such as one gentleman can pull on another and still keep loose; crooked, he says, but not rough. I ask what is the idea, and Sandy says get him more and more feverish about the vast returns from this secret enterprise. Then we'll cut out a bunch of culls—thin stuff and runts and cripples—and make him give about four times what they're worth on a promise to let him into the new deal; tell him we must be rid of this stuff to make room for the new animals, and naturally we'll favour our friends.
"There, now!" says Sandy. "I should be in Wall Street this minute, being able to think up a coop as pernicious as that: and I would of been there, too, only I hate city life."
"For once in the world's history," I says, "there may be a grain of sense in your words. Only no cows in the deal. Even to defraud the old crook I wouldn't let him have hide nor hair of a beef, not since he worked on my feelings in the matter of them bull calves two years ago. Mules, yes. But the cow is too worthy a beast to be mixed up in anything sinful I put over on that profiteer. Now I'll tell you what," I says, very businesslike: "you boys tole him along till he gets hectic enough to take that bunch of mule runts down in the south field, and anything you get over fifty dollars a head I'll split with you."
Sandy hollers at this. He says this bunch ain't mules but rabbits, and that I wouldn't refuse forty a head for 'em this minute. He says even a man expecting to be let in on a sure-thing elephant ranch would know something wicked was meant if asked to give even as much as fifty dollars for these insects. I tell him all very true; but this is just the margin for his lasting financial genius which he displays so little reticence about that it'll get into the papers and make him a marked man from coast to coast if he ain't careful. He says oh, all right, if I want to take it that way, and he'll see what he can do. Mebbe he can get fifty-five a head, which would not only give the boys a good laugh but provide a little torch money.
I left 'em plotting against a man that had never been touched by any plot whatever. I resolved to remain kind of aloof from their nefarious doings. It didn't seem quite dignified for one of my standing to be mixed up in a deal so crooked—at least no more than necessary to get my share of the pickings.
Sure enough, the very next day here come the depraved old outcast marauding round again at lunch time and et with the boys in the kitchen. He found 'em full of suppressed excitement and secret speech and careless talk about large sums of money. It must of been like sweetest music to his ears. One says how much would it be safe to count on cutting up the first year—how much in round numbers; and another would say that in round numbers, what with the expense of getting started and figuring everything down to the last cent, it wouldn't be safe to count on more than a hundred thousand dollars; but, of course, for the second year, now, why it would be nearer two hundred thousand in round numbers, even figuring everything fine and making big allowance for shrinkage. After that they handed money back and forth in round numbers till they got sick of the sound of it.
They said Safety set and listened in a trance, only waking up now and then to see if he couldn't goad someone into revealing the name of this new animal. But they always foiled him. Sandy Sawtelle drew an affecting picture of himself being cut off by high living at the age of ninety, leaving six or eight million dollars in round numbers and having his kin folks squabble over his will till the lawyers got most of it. They said Safety hardly et a morsel and had an evil glitter in his eyes.
And after lunch he went out to the woodpile where old Pete was working and offered him two bits in money to tell him the secret, and when old Pete scorned him he raised it to four bits. I guess the idea of any one refusing money merely for a little talk had never seemed possible to him. He must of thought there was sure something in it. I was away that day, but when I got back and heard about his hellish attempt to bribe old Pete I told the boys they sure had the chance of a lifetime. I said if there was a mite of financial prowess in the bunch they would start the price on them runt mules at one hundred dollars flat, because it was certain that Safety had struck the skids.
Next day it looked better than ever. Safety not only appeared in the afternoon but he brought me a quart jar of honey from his own bees. Any one not having looked up his criminal record would little understand what this meant. I pretended to be too busy to be startled at the gift, which broke thirty years of complete inactivity in that line. I looked worried and important with a litter of papers on my desk and seemed to have no time to waste on callers. He mentioned mules once or twice with no effect whatever, then says he hears I'm going into a new line that seems like it might have a few dollars in it, and he hopes I won't lose my all, because so many things nowadays look good till they're tried. I was crafty. I said I might be going into a new line, then again it might be nothing but idle talk and he better not believe everything he hears.
He took up the jar of honey and fondled it, with his face looking like he was laying a loved one to rest, and said he wouldn't mind going into something new himself if he could be sure it was sound, because the stock business at present was a dog's life. He said the war was to be won by food, and every patriot should either go across or come across, and he was trying to stand by the flag and save all the food he could, but by the way his help acted at mealtime you'd think they was a gang of German spies. Watch 'em eat beans, he said, and you'd think they'd never heard that beans had gone from three cents a pound to sixteen; but they had heard it, because he'd told 'em so in plain English more than once. But it had no effect. The way they dished into 'em you'd think we'd been endowed with beans the same as with God's own sunlight.
He said it was discouraging to a staunch patriot. Here was the President trying to make democracy safe for the world, and he was now going to stand by the Administration even if he had voted the Republican ticket up to now; but three of his men had quit only yesterday and the war was certainly lost if the labouring classes kept on making gods of their stomachs that way. And as a matter of fact now, as between old friends and neighbours, if I had something that looked good, why not keep it all together just with us here in the valley, he, though a poor man, being able to scrape up a few thousand dollars in round numbers for any enterprise that was a cinch.
And the old hound being worth a good half million dollars at that instant! But I kept control of my face and looked still more worried and important and said I might have to take in a good man, and then again I might not. I couldn't tell till I got some odd lots of stock cleaned up. Then I looked at some more documents and, like I was talking unconsciously to myself, I muttered, though distinctly: "Now that there bunch of runt mules—they'll have to go; but, of course, not for any mere song."
Then I studied some more documents in a masterful manner and forgot my caller entirely till at last he pussyfooted out, having caught sight of Sandy down by the corral.
Pretty soon Sandy reports to me. He says Safety is hurt at my cold manner to an old friend and neighbour that's always running in with a jar of honey or some knickknack; and he had mentioned the runt mules, saying he might be induced to consider 'em though I probably won't let 'em go for any mere song, contemptible as they are. Sandy says he's right; that it's got to be a whole opera with words and music for them mules. He says I got a reason for acting firm about the price, the reason being that this new line I'm going to embark in is such a sure thing that I want only friends to come in, and I got to be convinced first that their heart is in the right place.
Safety says his heart is always getting the best of his head in stock deals, but just how foolish will I expect an old and tried friend to seem about these scrub mules that nobody in his right mind would touch at any price.
Sandy yawns like he was weary of it all and says a hundred dollars flat. He said Safety just stood still and looked at him forever without batting an eye, till he got rattled and said that mebbe ninety-five might be considered. That's a trick with this old robber when a party's got something to sell him. They tell their price and he just keeps still and looks at 'em—not indignant nor astonished, not even interested, but merely fishlike. Most people can't stand it long, it's that uncanny. They get fussed and nervous, and weaken before he's said a single word.
But it was certain now that the mystery was getting to Safety, because otherwise he'd have laughed his head off at the mention of a hundred dollars for these mules. Three months before he'd heard me himself offer 'em for forty a head. You see, when I bought bands of mules from time to time I'd made the sellers throw in the little ones to go free with the trade. I now had twenty-five or so, but it had begun to get to me that mebbe those sellers hadn't been so easy as I thought at the time. They was knotty-headed little runts that I'd never bothered to handle.
Last spring I had the boys chink up the cracks in the corral and put each one of the cunning little mites into the chute and roach it so as to put a bow in its neck; then I put the bunch on good green feed where they would fatten and shed off; but it was wasted effort. They looked so much like field mice I was afraid that cats would make a mistake. After they got fat the biggest one looked as if he'd weigh close up to seven hundred and fifty. It was when they had begun to buy mules too; that is to say, mules! But no such luck as a new West Pointer coming to inspect these; nothing but wise old cavalry captains that when they put an eye on the bunch would grin friendly at me and hesitate only long enough to put some water in the radiator. I bet there never was a bunch of three-year-old mules that stood so much condemning.
After offering 'em for forty a head one time to a party and having him answer very simply by asking how the road was on beyond and which turn did he take, I quit bothering. After that when buyers come along I told the truth and said I didn't have any mules. I had to keep my real ones, and it wasn't worth while showing those submules. And this was the bunch Sandy had told S.F. Timmins he could take away for a hundred a head—or even ninety-five. And Safety hadn't laughed!
And would you have wondered when he sifts in a couple days later and makes me a cold offer of sixty dollars a head for this choice livestock? Yes, sir! He says "Live and let live" is his motto, and he wants to prove that I have wronged him in the past if I ever had the faintest suspicion that he wasn't the ideal party to have in on a deal that was going to net everyone concerned a handsome fortune. He says the fact is money goes through his fingers like water if you come right down to it; and sixty or even sixty-five if I want to push him to extremes, because he's the last man on God's green earth to let five dollars split up old neighbours that ought to be hand and glove in any new deal that come up.
It like to of keeled me over, but I recovered and become busier than ever and got out my bank book and begun to figure over that. I said Sandy Sawtelle had the handling of this particular bunch of my assets and I couldn't be bothered by it.
So he mooches down to the barn till Sandy come in with Buck Devine. They was chattering about three hundred thousand dollars in round numbers when they got near enough for him to overhear their private conversation. They wondered why they had wasted so much of their lives in the cattle business, but now them old hard-working days was over, or soon would be, with nothing to do but travel round in Pullman palace cars and see America first, and go to movies, and so forth. Safety wished to haggle some about the mules, but Sandy says he's already stated the price in clear, ringing tones, and he has no time to waste, being that I must send him down that night to get an order on the wire for two carloads of the Little Giant peanut. Safety just blinked at this, not even asking why the peanuts; and the boys left him cold.
When I told 'em about the offer to me of sixty or a possible sixty-five, they at once done a medicine dance.
"This here will be the richest coop ever pulled off west of Cheyenne," says Buck; and Sandy says he guesses anybody not blind can now see that well-known street in New York he ought to have his office on. He says he hopes Safety don't fall too easy, because he wants more chance to work it up.
But Sandy is doomed to disappointment. Safety holds off only two days more. Two days he loafs round at mealtimes, listening to their rich converse and saying he'd like to know who's a better friend of this outfit than he's been for twenty years. The boys tell him if he's such a good friend to go ahead and prove it with a little barter that would be sure to touch my heart. And the first day Safety offers seventy-five a head for these here jack rabbits, which they calmly ignore and go on talking about Liberty Bonds being a good safe investment; and the second day he just cries like a child that he'll pay eighty-five and trust to their honour that he's to have in on this new sure-thing deal.
That seemed enough, so they all shook hands with the spendthrift and slapped him on the back in good fellowship, and said they knew all the time he had a heart of gold and they feel free to say now that once the money has passed he won't be let to go off the place till he has heard all about the new enterprise and let in on the ground floor, and they hope he won't ever forget this moment when the money begins to roll in fit to smother him in round numbers. So Safety says he knows they're a good square set of boys, as clean as a hound's tooth, and he'll be over to-morrow to take over the stock and hear the interesting details.
The boys set up late that night figuring their share of the burglary. There was twenty-five of these ground squirrels. I was to get my fifty a head, at least ten of which was illegitimate. Then for the thirty-five, which was the real robbery, I was to take half, and eight of the boys the other half. I begun to wonder that night just what could be done to us under the criminal law. It looked like three years in some good jail wouldn't be a bit too harsh.
Next day bright and early here comes frugal Safety, gangling along behind his whiskers and bringing one of his ill-fed hirelings to help drive the stuff back. Safety is rubbing his hands and acting very sprightly, with an air of false good fellowship. It almost seems like he was afraid they had thought better of the trade and might try to crawl out. He wants it over quick. They all go down and help him drive his purchase out of the lower field, where they been hiding in the tall grass, and in no time at all have the bunch headed down the lane on to the county road, with Safety's man keeping well up to protect 'em from the coyotes.
Next there's kind of a solemn moment when the check is being made out. Safety performs that serious operation down at the bunk house. Making out any check is always the great adventure with him. He writes it with his heart's blood, and not being the greatest scholar in the world he has to count the letters in his name after it's written—he knows there ought to be nine together—and then he has to wipe the ink off his hands and sigh dismally and say if this thing keeps up he'll be spending his old age at the poor farm, and so forth. It all went according to schedule, except that he seemed strangely eager and under a severe nervous strain.
Me? I'd been, sort of hanging round on the edge of events while the dastardly deed was being committed, not seeming to be responsible in any way. My Lord! I still wanted to be able to face the bereaved man as an honest woman and tell him it was only some nonsense of the boys for which I could not be held under the law, no matter how good a lawyer he'd get. When they come trooping out of the bunk house I was pretending to consult Abner, the blacksmith, about some mower parts. And right off I was struck by the fact that Safety seemed to be his old self again; his air of false gayety and nervous strain had left him and he was cold and silent and deadly, like the poisonous cobra of India.
But now they was going to spring the new secret enterprise on him, so I moved off toward the house a bit, not wanting to be too near when his screams begun. It did seem kind of shameful, taking advantage of the old miser's grasping habits; still, I remembered a few neat things he'd done to me and I didn't slink too far into the background. Safety was standing by his horse with the boys all gathered close round him, and I heard Sandy say "Elephants—nothing but elephants—that's the new idea!"
Then they all begun to talk at once, jabbering about the peanuts and popcorn that crowds of people will come to buy from us to feed back to our stock, and how there's more meat in an elephant than in six steers, and about how the punchers will be riding round in these little cupalos up on top of their big saddle elephants; and they kept getting swifter and more excited in their talk, till at last they just naturally exploded when they made sure Safety got the idea and would know he'd been made a fool of. They had a grand time; threw their hats in the air and danced round their victim and punched each other, and their yells and hearty laughter could of been heard for miles up and down the creek. Two or three had guns they let off to add to the gleeful noise. Oh, it was deuces wild for about three minutes. They nearly died laughing.
Then the whole thing kind of died a strange and painful death. Safety wasn't taking on one bit like a man that's been stung. He stood there cold and malignant and listened to the noise and didn't bat an eye till he just naturally quelled the disorder. It got as still as a church, and then Safety talked a little in a calm voice.
"Elephants?" says he, kind of amused. "Why, elephants ain't no good stock proposition because it takes 'em so long to mature! Elephants is often a hundred and twenty years old. You'd have to feed one at least forty years to get him fit to ship. I really am surprised at you boys, going into a proposition like that without looking up the details. It certainly ain't anything for my money. Why, you couldn't even veal an elephant till he was about fifteen years old, which would need at least six thousand dollars' worth of peanuts; and what kind of a stock business is that, I'd like to know. And even if they could rustle their own feed, what kind of a business is it where you could only ship once in a lifetime? You boys make me tired, going hell-bent into an enterprise where you'd all be dead and forgotten before the first turnover of your stock."
He now looked at 'em in a sad, rebuking manner. It was like an icy blast from Greenland the way he took it.
Two or three tried to start the big laugh again, but their yips was feeble and died quickly out. They just stood there foolish. Even Sandy Sawtelle couldn't think of anything bright to say.
Safety now climbs on his horse, strangely cheerful, and says; "Well, I'll have to be getting along with them new mules of mine." Then he kind of giggled at the crowd and says: "I certainly got the laugh on this outfit, starting a business where this here old Methusalem hisself could hardly get it going good before death cut him off!"
And away he rides, chuckling like it was an awful joke on us. Not a single scream of agony about what had been done to him with them stunted mules.
Of course that was all I needed to know. One deadly chill of fear took me from head to foot. I knew perfectly well our trench was mined and the fuse lighted. Up comes this chucklehead of a Sawtelle, and for once in his life he's puzzled.
"Well," he says, "you got to give old S.F. credit for one thing. Did you see the way he tried to switch the laugh over on to us, and me with his trusty check right here in my hand? I never would have thought it, but he is certainly one awful good game loser!"
"Game loser nothing!" I says. "He's just a game winner. Any time you see that old boy acting game he's won. And he's won now, no matter how much the known facts look against it. I don't know how, but he's won."
They all begin to tell me I must be mistaken, because look at the price we got for stuff we hadn't been able to sell at any price before. I says I am looking at that, but I'm also obliged to look at Safety after he's paid that price, and the laws of Nature certainly ain't been suspended all at once. I offer to bet 'em what they've made on the deal that Safety has run true to form. "Mark my words," I says, "this is one sad day for the Arrowhead! I don't know how or why, but we'll soon find out; and if you don't believe me, now's the time to double your money."
But they hung off on that. They got too much respect for my judgment. And they admitted that Safety's way of standing the gaff had been downright uncanny. So there was nothing to do but pay over their share of this tainted money and wait for the blow, eight hundred and seventy-five dollars being the amount I split with 'em for their masterly headwork in the depredation.
That very day in the mail comes a letter that has been delayed because this here Government of ours pinches a penny even worse than old Timmins does. Yes, sir; this letter had been mailed at Seattle with a two-cent stamp the day after the Government had boosted the price to three cents. And what does the Government do? Does it say: "Oh, send it along! Why pinch pennies?" Not at all. It takes a printed card and a printed envelope and the time of a clerk and an R.F.D. mail carrier to send me word that I must forward one cent if I want this letter—spends at least two cents to get one cent. Well, it takes two days for that notice to reach me; and of course I let it lie round a couple of days, thinking it's probably an advertisement; and then two days for my one-cent stamp to go back to this parsimonious postmaster; and two days for the letter to get here; making about eight days, during which things had happened that I should of known about. Yes, sir; it's a great Government that will worry over one cent and then meet one of these smooth profiteers and loosen up on a million dollars like a cowhand with three months' pay hitting a wet town. Of course it was all over when I read this letter.
* * * * *
I rolled another cigarette for the injured woman it being no time for words.
"It just goes to show," she observed after the first relishing draft, "that we should be honest, even with defectives like old Timmins. This man in Seattle that keeps track of prices for me writes that the top of the mule market has blown sky-high; that if I got anything looking at all like a mule not to let it go off the place for less than two hundred dollars, because mule buyers is sure desperate. Safety must of got the same tip, only you can bet his correspondent put the full three cents on the letter. Safety would never have trusted a strange postmaster with the excess. Anyway he sold that bunch of rabbits a week later for one hundred and seventy-five a head, thus adding twenty-two hundred and fifty dollars of my money to his tainted fortune. You can imagine the pins and needles he'd been on for a week, scared I'd get the tip and knowing if he even mentioned them runts at any price whatever that I'd be wise at once. That joke of the boys must of seemed heaven-sent to him.
"You ought to heard the lecture I read them fool punchers on common honesty and how the biter is always bit. I scared 'em good; there hasn't been an elephant on the place since that day. They're a chastened lot, all right. I was chastened myself. I admit it. I don't hardly believe I'll ever attempt anything crooked on old Safety again—-and yet, I don't know."
The lady viciously expelled the last smoke from her cigarette and again took up the knitting.
"I don't really know but if there was some wanton, duplicity come up that I could handle myself and not have to leave to that pack of amateur thieves out in the bunk house, and it was dead sure and I didn't risk doing more than two years' penal servitude—yes, I really don't know. Even now mebbe all ain't over between us."
A LOVE STORY
I had for some time been noting a slight theatrical tinge to the periodical literature supported by the big table in the Arrowhead living room. Chiefly the table's burden is composed of trade journals of the sober quality of the Stockbreeder's Gazette or Mine, Quarry & Derrick or the "Farmer's Almanac." But if, for example, one really tired of a vivacious column headed "Chats on Fertilizers" one could, by shuffling the litter, come upon a less sordid magazine frankly abandoned to the interests of the screen drama.
The one I best recall has limned upon its cover in acceptable flesh tints a fair young face of flawless beauty framed in a mass of curling golden ringlets. The dewy eyes, shaded to mystery by lashes of uncommon length, flash a wistful appeal that is faintly belied by the half-smiling lips and the dimpling chin. The contours are delicate yet firm; a face of haunting appeal—a face in which tears can be seldom but the sprightly rain of April, and the smile, when it melts the sensitive lips, will yet warn that hearts are made to ache and here is one not all too merry in its gladness. It is the face of one of our famous screen beauties, and we know, even from this tinted half-tone, that the fame has been deserved.
On one of those tired Arrowhead nights, inwardly debating the possible discourtesy of an early bedding after ten wet miles of trout stream, I came again and again to this compelling face of the sad smile and the glad tears. It recalled an ideal feminine head much looked at in my nonage. It was lithographed mostly in pink and was labeled "Tempest and Sunshine." So I loitered by the big table, dreaming upon the poignant perfections of this idol of a strange new art. I dreamed until awakened by the bustling return of my hostess, Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill, who paused beside me to build an after-dinner cigarette, herself glancing meantime at the flawless face on the magazine cover. I perceived instantly that she also had been caught by its not too elusive charm.
"A beautiful face," I said.
Ma Pettengill took the magazine from me and studied the dainty thing.
"Yes, he's certainly beautiful," she assented. "He's as handsome as a Greek goddess." Thus did the woman ambiguously praise that famous screen star, J. Harold Armytage. "And the money he makes! His salary is one of them you see compared with the President's so as to make the latter seem a mere trifle. That's a funny thing. I bet at least eighteen million grown people in this country never did know how much they was paying their president till they saw it quoted beside some movie star's salary in a piece that tells how he's getting about four times what we pay the man in the White House. Ain't it a great business, though! Here's this horrible male beauty that would have to be mighty careful to escape extermination if he was anything but an actor. Being that, however, he not only eludes the vengeance of a sickened populace, but he can come out and be raw about it. Here, let me show you."
She turned to the page where J. Harold Armytage began to print a choice few of the letters he daily received from admirers of the reputedly frailer sex. She now read me one of these with lamentable efforts of voice to satirize its wooing note: "My darling! I saw that dear face of yours again to-night in All For Love! So noble and manly you were in the sawmill scene where first you turn upon the scoundrelly millionaire father of the girl you love, then save him from the dynamite bomb of the strikers at the risk of your own. Oh, my dearest! Something tells me your heart is as pure and sweet as your acting, that your dear face could not mask an evil thought. Oh, my man of all the world! If only you and I together might—"
It seemed enough. Ma Pettengill thought so too. The others were not unlike it. The woman then read me a few of the replies of J. Harold Armytage to his unknown worshippers. The famous star was invariably modest and dignified in these. Tactfully, as a gentleman must in any magazine of wide circulation, he deprecated the worship of these adoring ones and kindly sought to persuade them that he was but a man—not a god, even if he did chance to receive one of the largest salaries in the business. The rogue! No god—with the glorious lines of his face there on the cover to controvert this awkward disclaimer! His beauty flaunted to famished hearts, what avail to protest weakly that they should put away his image or even to hint, as now and again he was stern enough to do, that their frankness bordered on the unmaidenly?
I called Ma Pettengill's attention to this engaging modesty. I said it must be an affair of some delicacy to rebuff ardent and not too reticent fair ones in a public print, and that I considered J. Harold Armytage to have come out of it with a display of taste that could be called unusual. The woman replied, with her occasional irrelevance, that if the parties that hired him should read this stuff they probably wouldn't even then take him out on the lot and have him bitterly kicked by a succession of ten large labouring men who would take kindly to the task. She then once more said that the movies was sure one great business, and turned in the magazine to pleasanter pages on which one Vida Sommers, also a screen idol, it seemed, gave warning and advice to young girls who contemplated a moving-picture career.
Portraits of Vida Sommers in her best-known roles embellished these pages. In all of the portraits she wept. In some the tears were visible; in others they had to be guessed, the face being drawn by anguish. Her feminine correspondents wished particularly to be told of the snares and temptations besetting the path of the young girl who enters this perilous career. Many of them seemed rather vague except upon this point. They all seemed to be sure that snares and temptations would await them, and would Vida Sommers please say how these could be avoided by young and impressionable girls of good figure and appearance who were now waiting on table at the American House in Centralia, Illinois, or accepting temporary employment in mercantile establishments in Chicago, or merely living at home in Zanesville, Ohio, amid conditions unbearably cramping to their aspirations?
And Vida Sommers told every one of them not to consider the pictures but as a final refuge from penury. She warned them that they would find the life one of hard work and full of disappointments. It seemed that even the snares and temptations were disappointing, being more easily evaded than many of her correspondents appeared to suspect. She advised them all to marry some good, true man and make a home for him. And surely none of them could have believed the life to be a joyous one after studying these sorrowful portraits of Vida Sommers.
"That's my little actress friend," said Ma Pettengill. "Doesn't she cry something grand!"
"You've been cheating me," I answered. "I never knew you had a little actress friend. How did you get her? And doesn't she ever play anything cheerful?"
"Of course not! She only plays mothers, and you know what that means in moving pictures. Ever see a moving-picture mother that had a chance to be happy for more than the first ten feet of film? You certainly got to cry to hold down that job. Ain't she always jolted quick in the first reel by the husband getting all ruined up in Wall Street, or the child getting stole, or the daughter that's just budding into womanhood running off with a polished shoe-drummer with city ways, or the only son robbing a bank, or husband taking up with a lady adventuress that lives across the hall in the same flat and outdresses mother?
"Then it's one jolt after another for her till the last ten feet of the last reel, when everything comes right somewhere on a ranch out in the great clean West where husband or son has got to be a man again by mingling with the honest-hearted drunken cowboys in their barroom frolics, or where daughter has won back her womanhood and made a name for herself by dancing the Nature dance in the Red Eye Saloon for rough but tender-hearted miners that shower their gold on her when stewed. Only, in this glad time of the last ten feet she still has to cry a-plenty because the clouds have passed and she's Oh, so happy at last! Yes, sir; they get mother going and coming. And when she ain't weeping she has to be scared or mad or something that keeps her face busy. Here—I got some programmes of new pieces Vida just sent me. You can see she's a great actress; look at that one: 'Why Did You Make My Mamma Cry?' And these other two."
I looked and believed. The dramas were variously and pithily described as The Picture with the Punch Powerful—The Smashing Five-Reel Masterpiece—A Play of Peculiar Problems and Tense Situations—Six Gripping Reels, 7,000 Feet and Every Foot a Punch! Vida Sommers, in the scenes reproduced from these plays, had indeed a busy face. In the picture captioned "Why Did You Make My Mamma Cry?" the tiny golden-haired girl is reproaching her father in evening dress. I read the opening lines of the synopsis: "A young business man, who has been made successful through his wife's money, is led to neglect her through pressure of affairs, falls into the toils of a dancer in a public place and becomes a victim of her habit, that of drinking perfume in her tea—"
But I had not the heart to follow this tragedy. In another, "The Woman Pays—Powerful and Picturesque, a Virile Masterpiece of Red-Blooded Hearts," Vida Sommers is powerfully hating her husband whom she has confronted in the den of a sneering and superbly gowned adventuress who declares that the husband must choose between them. Of course there can be no doubt about the husband's choice. No sane movie actor would hesitate a second. The caption says of Vida Sommers: "Her Love Has Turned to Hate." It may be good acting, but it would never get her chosen by the male of her species—the adventuress being what is known in some circles as a pippin.
I studied still another of these documents—"Hearts Asunder." Vida Sommers has sent her beautiful daughter to the spring for a pail of water, though everyone in the audience must know that Gordon Balch, the detestable villain, is lurking outside for precisely this to occur. The synopsis beautiful says: "The mother now goes in search of her darling, only to find her struggling in the grasp of Gordon Balch, who is trying to force his attentions on her." This is where Vida Sommers has to look frightened, though in a later picture one sees that her fright changed to "A Mother's Honest Rage." The result is that Gordon Balch gets his, and gets it good. The line under his last appearance is "The End of a Misspent Life." Vida Sommers here registers pity. As Ma Pettengill had said, her face seemed never to have a moment's rest.
While I studied these exhibits my hostess had not been silent upon the merits of her little actress friend. Slowly she made me curious as to the origin and inner life of this valued member of an exalted profession.
"Yes, sir; there she is at the top, drawing down big money, with a nice vine-clad home in this film town, furnished from a page in a woman's magazine, with a big black limousine like a hearse—all but the plumes—and a husband that she worships the ground he walks on. Everything the heart can desire, even to being mother to some of the very saddest persons ever seen on a screen. It shows what genius will do for a woman when she finds out what kind of genius she's got and is further goaded by the necessity of supporting a husband in the style to which he has been accustomed by a doting father. She's some person now, let me tell you.
"She spent a week with me in Red Gap last fall, and you'd ought to seen how certain parties kowtowed to me so they'd get to meet her. I found that about every woman under fifty in our town is sure she was born for this here picture work, from Henrietta Templeton Price to Beryl Mae Macomber, who's expecting any day to be snapped up by some shrewd manager that her type is bound to appeal to, she being a fair young thing with big eyes and lots of teeth, like all film actresses. Metta Bigler, that teaches oil painting and burnt wood, give Vida a reception in her Bohemian studio in Red Gap's Latin Quarter—the studio having a chain of Chianti bottles on the wall and an ash tray with five burnt cigarette ends on a taboret to make it look Bohemian—and that was sure the biggest thrill our town has had since the Gus Levy All Star Shamrock Vaudeville Company stranded there five years ago. It just shows how important my little actress friend is—and look what she come up from!"
I said I wouldn't mind looking what she come up from if she had started low enough to make it exciting.
Ma Pettengill said she had that! She had come up from the gutter. She said that Vida Sommers, the idol of thousands, had been "a mere daughter of the people." Her eyes crinkled as she uttered this phrase. So I chose a chair in the shadow while she built a second cigarette.
Ten years ago I'm taking a vacation down in New York City. Along comes a letter from Aunt Esther Colborn, of Fredonia, who is a kind of a third cousin of mine about twice removed. Says her niece, Vida, has had a good city job as cashier of a dairy lunch in Boston, which is across the river from some college, but has thrown this job to the winds to marry the only college son of a rich New York magnate or Wall Street crook who has cast the boy off for contracting this low alliance with a daughter of the people. Aunt Esther is now afraid Vida isn't right happy and wants I should look her up and find out. It didn't sound too good, but I obliged.
I go to the address in Sixty-seventh Street on the West Side and find that Vida is keeping a boarding house. But I was ready to cheer Aunt Esther with a telegram one second after she opened the door on me—in a big blue apron and a dustcap on her hair. She was the happiest young woman I ever did see—shining it out every which way. A very attractive girl about twenty-five, with a slim figure and one of these faces that ain't exactly of howling beauty in any one feature, but that sure get you when they're sunned up with joy like this one was.
She was pleased to death when I told her my name, and of course I must come in and stay for dinner so I could see all her boarders that was like one big family and, above all, meet her darling husband Clyde when he got home from business. The cheeriest thing she was, and I adore to meet people that are cheery, so I said nothing would please me better. She took me up to her little bedroom to lay my things off and then down to the parlour where she said I must rest and excuse her because she still had a few little things to supervise. She did have too. In the next hour and a half she run up and down two flights of stairs at least ten times. I could hear her sweeping overhead and jamming things round on the stove when she raced down to the kitchen. Yes, she had several little things to supervise and one girl to help her. I peeked into the kitchen once while I was wandering through the lower rooms, and she seemed to be showing this girl how to boil potatoes. I wondered if she never run down and if her happy look was really chronic or mebbe put on for my benefit. Still, I could hear her singing to herself and she moved like a happy person.
In looking round the parlour I was greeted on every wall by pictures of a charming youth I guessed was darling Clyde. A fine young face he had, and looked as happy as Vida herself. There was pictures of him with a tennis racket and on a sailboat and with a mandolin and standing up with his college glee club and setting on a high-powered horse and so forth, all showing he must be a great social favourite and one born to have a good time. I wondered how he'd come to confer himself on the cashier of a quick-lunch place. I thought it must be one of these romances. Then—I'm always remembering the foolishest things—I recalled a funny little absent look in Vida's eyes when she spoke of her darling coming home from business. I thought now it must of been pride; that he was performing some low job in a factory or store while she run the boarding house, and she didn't want me to know it. I thought he must be a pretty fine rich man's son to stand the gaff this way when cast off by his father for mixing up with a daughter of the people.
It come dinnertime; about a dozen boarders straggling in, with Vida in a pretty frock anxious because darling Clyde was ten minutes late and of course something fatal must of happened to him in crossing a crowded street. But nothing had. He showed up safe and sound and whistling in another ten minutes, and became the life of the party. He looked near as happy as Vida did when she embraced him out in the hall, a fine handsome young fellow, the best-natured in the world, jollying the boarders and jollying me and jollying Vida that he called Baby Girl, or Babe. I saw, too, that I must of been mistaken about the job he was holding down. He was dressed in a very expensive manner, with neat little gold trinkets half concealed about him, the shirt and collar exactly right and the silk socks carefully matching the lavender tie.
He kept the table lively all through dinner with jokes and quips from the latest musical comedies and anecdotes of his dear old college days, and how that very afternoon he had won a silver cup and the pool championship of his college club—and against a lot of corking good players, too, he didn't mind saying. Also I noticed we was eating a mighty good dinner; so darned good you didn't see how Vida could set it up at the price boarders usually pay.
After dinner Clyde sat down to the piano in the parlour and entertained one and all with songs of a comic or sentimental character. He knew a piano intimately, and his voice was one of these here melting tenors that get right inside of you and nestle. He was about the most ingratiating young man I'd ever met, and I didn't wonder any more about Vida's look of joy being permanent. She'd look in on the party every once in a while from the kitchen or the dining room where she was helping her Swede do the dishes for fifteen people and set the table for breakfast.
She was about an hour at this, and when at last she'd slipped out of her big apron and joined us she was looking right tuckered but still joyous. Clyde patted his Baby Girl's hand when she come in, and she let herself go into an easy-chair near him that one of the boarders got up to give her. I got the swift idea that this was the first time all day she'd set down with any right feeling of rest.
Then Clyde sung to her. You could tell it was a song he meant for her and never sung till she'd got the work done up. A right pretty old song it was, Clyde throwing all the loving warmth of his first-class tenor voice into the words:
Good night, good night, beloved! I come to watch o'er thee, To be near thee, to be near thee.
I forget the rest, but there was happy tears in Vida's eyes when he finished in one climbing tenor burst. Then Clyde gets up and says he has an engagement down to his college club because some of his dear old classmates has gathered there for a quiet little evening of reminiscence and the jolly old rascals pretend they can't get along without him. Vida beams on him brighter than ever and tells him to be sure and have a good time, which I'd bet money he'd be sure to.
It was a very pretty scene when they said good night. Vida pretended that Clyde's voice was falling off from smoking too many cigarettes at this club. "I wouldn't mind you're going there, but I just know you spend most of the time in the club's horrid old smoking room!" She tells him this with a pout. Smoking room of a club! The knowing little minx! And Clyde chided her right back in a merry fashion. He lifted one of her hands and said his Baby Girl would have to take better care of them because the cunnun' little handies was getting all rough. Then they both laughed and went out for a long embrace in the hall.
Vida come back with a glowing countenance, and the boarders having dropped off to their rooms when the life of the party went to his club we had a nice chat. All about Clyde. She hoped I did like him, and I frankly said he was about the most taking young brat I'd ever been close to. She explained how their union had been a dream; that during their entire married life of a year and a half he had never spoken one cross word to her. She said I couldn't imagine his goodness of heart nor his sunny disposition nor how much everyone admired him. But the tired thing got so sleepy in ten minutes, even talking about her husband, that she couldn't keep back the yawns, so I said I'd had a wonderful evening and would have to go now.
But up in the bedroom, while I'm putting my things on, she gets waked up and goes more into detail about her happiness. I've never been able to figure out why, but women will tell each other things in a bedroom that they wouldn't dream of telling in any other room. Not that Vida went very far. Just a few little points. Like how Clyde's father had cast him off when they married and how she had felt herself that she was nothing but a bad woman taking advantage of this youth, she being a whole year older than he was; but Clyde had acted stunning in the matter, telling his father he had chosen the better part. Also it turned out this father hadn't cast him off from so much after all, because the old man went flat broke in Wall Street a couple of months later, perishing of heart failure right afterward, and about the only thing Clyde would of drawn from the estate anyway was an old-fashioned watch of his grandfather's with a chain made from his grandmother's hair when she was a bride.
I gathered they had been right up against it at this time, except for the two thousand dollars that had been left Vida by her Uncle Gideon in the savings bank at Fredonia. Clyde, when she drew this out, wanted they should go to Newport with it where they could lead a quiet life for a couple of months while he looked about for a suitable opening for himself. But Vida had been firm, even ugly, she said, on this point. She'd took the two thousand and started a boarding house that would be more like a home than a boarding house, though Clyde kept saying he'd never be able to endure seeing the woman bearing his name reduced to such ignoble straits.
Still he had swallowed his foolish pride and been really very nice about it after she got the business started. Now he was always telling her to be sure and set a good table. He said if you were going to do a thing, even if it was only keeping a boarding house, to do it well. That was his motto—do it well or don't do it at all! So she was buying the best cuts of meats and all fresh vegetables because of his strict ideas in this matter, and it didn't look as if they'd ever really make a fortune at it—to say nothing of there being more persons than I'd believe that had hard luck and got behind in their payments, and of course one couldn't be stern to the poor unfortunates.
I listened to this chatter till it seemed about time to ask what business Clyde had took up. It seemed that right at the moment he was disengaged. It further seemed that he had been disengaged at most other moments since he had stooped to this marriage with a daughter of the people. I mustn't think it was the poor boy's fault, though. He was willing at all times to accept a situation and sometimes would get so depressed that he'd actually look for work. Twice he had found it, but it proved to be something confining in an office where the hours were long and conditions far from satisfactory.
That's how she put it, with glowing eyes and flushed cheeks: "It proved to be mere dull routine work not in the least suited to darling Clyde's talents and the conditions were far from satisfactory. I had the hardest time prevailing on him to give the nasty old places up and wait patiently for a suitable opening. He was quite impatient with me when he consented—but, of course, he's only a boy of twenty-four, a whole year younger than I am. I tell him every day a suitable opening is bound to occur very soon. You see, he had so many grand friends, people of the right sort that are wealthy. I insist on his meeting them constantly. Just think; only last week he spent Saturday and Sunday at one of the biggest country houses on Long Island, and had such a good time. He's a prime favourite with a lot of people like that and they're always having him to dine or to the opera or to their balls and parties. I miss him horribly, of course, and the poor dear misses me, but I tell him it will surely lead to something. His old college chums all love him too—a boy makes so many valuable friends in college, don't you think? A lot of them try to put things in his way. I couldn't bear to have him accept a situation unworthy of him—I know it would kill him. Why, he wilts like a flower under the least depression."
Well, I set and listened to a long string of this—and not a word for me to say. What could any one of said? Wasn't it being told to me by the happiest woman I ever set eyes on? Yes, sir; I'd never believe how gentle natured the boy was. Why, that very morning, being worried about something that went wrong with breakfast, which she had to turn out at five A. M. to get started hadn't she clean forgot to change his studs to a fresh shirt? And, to make it worse, hadn't she laid out a wrong color of socks with his lavender tie? But had he been cross to her, as most men would of been? Not for one second! He'd simply joked her about it when she brought up his breakfast tray, just as he'd joked her to-night about her hands getting rough from the kitchen work. And so forth and so forth!
The poor thing had got so dead for sleep by this time that she was merely babbling. She'd probably of fallen over in her clothes if I hadn't been there. Anyway, I got her undressed and into bed. She said Clyde's goodnight song always rung in her ears till she slept. It didn't ring long this night. She was off before I got out the door. Darned if I hadn't been kind of embarrassed by her talk, knowing it would never do for me to bust in with anything bordering on the vicious, such as suggesting that if Clyde now and then went into the kitchen and helped Baby Girl with the dishes it would make a very attractive difference in him. I took another good look at his pictures in the parlour before I let myself out of the house. He still looked good—but hell!
I wrote Aunt Esther the same evening not to worry one minute about Vida's happiness, because I wished we could all be as happy as she was. All the same I took pains to go round to that boarding house a couple times more because it seemed like the girl's happiness might have a bum foundation. Darling Clyde was as merry and attentive as ever and Vida was still joyous. I guess she kept joyous at her work all day by looking forward to that golden moment after dinner when her boy would sing Good night, good night, beloved—he'd come to watch o'er her! How that song did light her face up!