ON THE STAIRS
by Henry B. Fuller
Author of Lines Long and Short
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
The Riverside Press Cambridge
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY HENRY B. FULLER
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published March 1918
This volume may seem less a Novel than a Sketch of a Novel or a Study for a Novel. It might easily be amplified; but, like other recent work of mine, it was written in the conviction that story-telling, whatever form it take, can be done within limits narrower than those now generally employed.
ON THE STAIRS
In the year 1873—
No, do not turn away from such an opening; I shall reach our own day within a paragraph or so.
In the year 1873, then, Johnny McComas was perfectly willing to stand to one side while Raymond Prince, surrounded by several of the fellows, came down, in his own negligent and self-assured way, the main stairway of Grant's Private Academy. For Johnny was newer there; Johnny was younger in this world by a year or two, at an age when a year or two makes a difference; and Johnny had but lately left behind what might be described as a condition of servitude. So Johnny yielded the right of way. He lowered his little snub nose by a few degrees, took some of the gay smile out of his twinkling blue eyes, and waited with an upward glance of friendly yet deferential sobriety until Raymond should have passed.
"How are you, Johnny?" asked Raymond carelessly.
"I'm pretty well," replied Johnny, in all modesty.
In the year 1916—
Yes, I told you we should reach our own times presently.
In the year 1916, then, Raymond Prince was standing to one side, whether willing or not, while John W. McComas, attended by several men who would make their cares his own, came down the big marble stairway of the Mid-Continent National Bank. Raymond, who had his cares too, would gladly have been included in the company (or, rather, have replaced it altogether); but he saw clearly that the time was not propitious. McComas looked out through this swarm of lesser people, half-saw Prince as in a mist, and gave him unsmilingly an abstracted half-bow.
"How do you do?" he mumbled impersonally.
"I'm pretty well," returned Prince, in a toneless voice. But he was far from that, whether in mind or estate.
Between these two dates and these two incidents lies most of my story. Be quite sure that I shall tell it in my own fashion.
First, however, this: I do not intend to magnify the Academy and its stairway. The Academy did very well in its day, and it happened to be within easy distance of James Prince's residence. If its big green doors were flanked on one side by a grocery and on the other by a laundry, and if its stairway was worn untidily by other feet than those of Dr. Grant's boys, I shall simply point out that this was all in the day of small things and that Fastidiousness was still upon her way. Should this not satisfy you, I will state that, in the year following, the Academy moved into other quarters: it lodged itself in a near-by private residence whose owner, in real estate, sensed down-heeled Decadence stealing that way a few years before any of his neighbors felt it, and who made his shifts accordingly. If even this does not satisfy you, I might sketch the entrance and stairway, somewhere in Massachusetts, which are to know the footfalls of Lawrence D. McComas, aged ten, grandson of Johnny; but such a step would perhaps take us too far afield as well as slightly into the future. One does not pass a lad through that gateway on the spur of the moment.
Nor ought I to magnify, on the other hand, the marble stairway of the Mid-Continent. This was not one of the town's greater banks; and the stairway was at the disposal not only of the bank's clientele, but at that of sixteen tiers of tenants. However, it represented some advanced architect's ideal of grandeur, and it served to make the bank's president seem haughty when in truth he was only preoccupied.
As you may now surmise, this story, even at its highest, will not throw millions on the habituated and indifferent air; nor, at its most distended, will it push the pride of life too far. That has been done already in sufficing measure by many others. Let us ride here an even keel and keep well within rule and reason.
I am simply to tell you how, as the years moved on, John McComas climbed the stairs of life from the bottom to the top—or so, at least, he was commonly considered to have done; and how, through the same years, Raymond Prince passed slowly and reluctantly along the same stairs from top to bottom—or so his critics usually regarded his course. Nor without some color of justice, I presume that they will pass each other somewhere near the middle of my volume.
In 1873 James Prince was living in a small, choice residential district near the Lake. Its choiceness was great, but was not duly guarded. The very smallness of the neighborhood—a triumphant record of early fortunes—put it upon a precarious basis: there was all too slight a margin against encroachments. And, besides, the discovery came to be made, some years later, that it was upon the wrong side of the river altogether. But it held up well in 1873; and it continued to do so through the eighties. Perhaps it was not until the middle or later nineties that the real exodus began. Some of the early magnates had died; some had evaporated financially; others had come to perceive, either for themselves or through their children, that the road to social consideration now ran another way. In due course a congeries of bulky and grandiose edifices, built lavishly in the best taste of their own day, remained to stare vacantly at the infrequent passer-by, or to tremble before the imminent prospect of sinking to unworthy uses: odd, old-time megatheriums stranded ineptly in their mortgage-mud. But through the seventies the neighborhood held up its head and people came from far to see it.
James Prince lived in one of these houses; and, around the corner, old Jehiel Prince lingered on in another.
James was, of course, Raymond's father. Jehiel was his grandfather. Raymond, when we take him up, was at the age of thirteen. And Johnny McComas, if you care to know, was close on twelve.
Jehiel Prince was of remote New England origin, and had come West by way of York State. He had been born somewhere between Utica and Rochester. He put up his house on no basis of domestic sociability; it was designed as a sort of monument to his personal success. He had not left the East to be a failure, or to remain inconspicuous. His contractor—or his architect, if one had been employed—had imagined a heavy, square affair of dull-red brick, with brown-stone trimmings in heavy courses. Items: a high basement, an undecorated mansard in slate; a big, clumsy pair of doors, set in the middle of all, at the top of a heavily balustraded flight of brown-stone steps; one vast window on the right of the doors to light the "parlor," and another like it, on the left, to light the "library": a facade reared before any allegiance to "periods," and in a style best denominated local or indigenous. Jehiel was called a capitalist and had a supplementary office in the high front basement; and here he was fretting by himself, off and on, in 1873; and here he continued to fret by himself, off and on, until 1880, when he fretted himself from earth. He was an unhappy man, with no essential mastery of life. His wife existed somewhere upstairs. They seldom spoke—indeed seldom met—unless papers to shift the units of a perplexed estate were up for consideration. Sometimes her relatives stole into the house to see her and hoped, with fearfulness, not to meet her husband in some passageway. He himself had plenty of relatives, by blood as well as by marriage; too many of these were rascals, and they kept him busy. The town, in the seventies, was at the adventurous, formative stage; almost everybody was leaving the gravel walks of Probity to take a short cut across the fair lawns of Success, and the social landscape was a good deal cut up and disfigured.
"Poor relations!"—such was Jehiel's brief, scornful rating of the less capable among these supernumeraries. A poor relation represented, to him, the lowest form of animal life.
And when the chicane and intrigue of the more clever among them roused his indignation he would exclaim: "They're putting me through the smut-machine!"—an ignominious, exasperating treatment which he refused to undergo without loud protests. These protests often reduced his wife to trembling and to tears. At such times she might hide an elder sister—one on the pursuit of some slight dole—in a small back bedroom, far from sight and hearing.
An ugly house, inhabited by unhappy people. Perhaps I should brighten things by bringing forward, just here, Elsie, Jehiel's beautiful granddaughter. But he had no granddaughter. We must let Elsie pass.
Yet a fresh young shoot budding from a gnarled old trunk would afford a piquant contrast—has done so hundreds of times. Jehiel Prince undoubtedly was gnarled and old and tough; a charming granddaughter to cajole or wheedle him in the library, or to relax his indignant tension over young men during their summer attendance on swing or hammock, would have her uses. Yet a swing or a hammock would suggest, rather than the bleak stateliness of Jehiel's urban environment, some fair, remote domain with lawns and gardens; and Jehiel was far from possessing—or from wanting to possess—a country-house. Elsie may be revived, if necessary; but I can promise nothing. I rather think you have heard the last of her.
James lived a few hundred yards from his father; his house bulked to much the same effect. It was another symmetrical, indigenous box—in stone, however, and not in brick. It had its mortgage. If this mortgage was ever paid up, another came later—a mortgage which passed through various renewals and which, as values were falling, was always renewed for a lesser amount and was always demanding ready money to meet the difference. In later years Raymond, with this formidable weight still pressing upon him, received finally an offer of relief and liberation; some prosperous upstart, with plans of his own, said he would chance the property, mortgage and all, if paid a substantial bonus for doing so.
The premises included a stable. I mention the stable on account of Johnny McComas. He lived in it. Downstairs, the landau and the two horses, and another horse, and a buggy and phaeton, and sometimes a cow; upstairs, Johnny and his father and mother. Johnny could look out through a crumpled dimity curtain across the back yard and could see his father freezing ice-cream on a Sunday forenoon on the back kitchen porch; and he could also look into one of Raymond's windows on the floor above.
Every so often he would beg:—
"Oh, father, let me do it,—please!"
Then he would lose the double prospect and get, instead, a plate of vanilla with a tin spoon in it.
Raymond, who had no mastering passion for games, sat a good deal in his room, sometimes at one of the side windows; occasionally at the back one, in which case Johnny was quite welcome to look. Raymond had more desks than one, and books everywhere on the walls between them. He had a strong bent toward study, and was even beginning to dip into literary composition. He studied when he might better have been at play, and he kept up his diary under a student lamp into all hours of the night. He had been reading lately about Paris, and he was piecing out the elementary instruction of the Academy by getting together a collection of French grammars and dictionaries. He had about decided that sometime he would go to live on that island in the Seine near Notre Dame.
His father told him he was working too hard and too late—that it would hurt his health and probably injure his eyes. His mother made no comment and gave no advice. She was an invalid and thus had absorbing interests of her own. Raymond kept on reading and writing.
Perhaps I should begin to sketch, just about here, his awakening regard for some Gertrude or Adele, and his young rivalry with Johnny McComas for her favor; telling how Johnny won over Raymond the privilege of carrying her books to school, and how, in the end, he won Gertrude or Adele herself from Raymond, and married her. Fiddlesticks! Please put all such conventional procedures out of your head, and take what I am prepared to give you. The school was a boys' school. There was no Gertrude or Adele—as yet—any more than there was an Elsie. Raymond kept to his books and indulged in no juvenile philanderings. Forget all such foolish stereotypings of fancy.
As for the romance and the rivalry: when that came, it came with a vast difference.
Jehiel Prince was a capitalist. So was James: a capitalist, and the son of a capitalist. They had some interests in common, and others apart. There was a bank, and there were several large downtown business-blocks whose tenants required a lot of bookkeeping, and there was a horse-car line. There was a bus-line, too, between the railroad depots and the hotels. James destined Raymond for the bank. He would hardly go to college, but at seventeen or so would begin on the collection-register or some such matter; later he might come to be a receiving-teller; pretty soon he might rise to an apprehension of banking as a science and have a line as an official in the Bankers' Gazette. Beyond that he might go as far as he was able. James thought that, thus favored in early years, the boy might go far.
But Raymond had just taken on Rome, and was finding it even more interesting than Paris. The Academy's professor of ancient history began to regard him as a prodigy. Then, somehow or other, Raymond got hold of Gregorovius, with his "City of Rome in the Middle Ages"—though his teacher did not know of this, and would have been sure to consider it an undesirable deviation from the straight and necessary path; and thenceforth the dozens of ordinary boys about him counted, I feel sure, for less than ever.
Do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to put myself into the story as one of the characters. Then the many I's will no longer refer to the author named on the title-page, but will represent the direct participation—direct, even though inconspicuous—of a person whose name, status, and general nature will be made manifest, incidentally and gradually, as we proceed. You object that though one's status and general nature may be revealed "gradually," such can scarcely be the case as regards one's name? But if I tell you that my Christian name is, let us say, Oliver, and then intimate in some succeeding section that my surname is Ormsby, and then do not disclose my middle initial—which may be W—until the middle of the book (in some documentary connection, perhaps), shall I not be doing the thing "gradually"?
Oliver W. Ormsby. H'm! I'm not so sure that I like it. Well, my name may turn out, after all, to be something quite different. And possibly I may be found to be without any middle initial whatever.
But to return to the method itself. You will find it pursued in many good novels and in many bad ones; with admirable discretion—to make an instance—in "The Way of All Flesh"; and the procedure may be humbly copied here. It will involve, of course, a rather close attendance on both Raymond and Johnny through a long term of years; but perhaps the difficulties involved—or, rather, the awkwardnesses—can be got round in one way or another.
At the Academy we like Raymond well enough, on the whole—
You see at once how the method applies: I make myself an attendant there, and I place my age midway between the ages of the other two.
As I say, we liked Raymond well enough, yet did not quite feel that he coalesced. "Coalesced" was hardly the word we used—such verbal grandeurs were reserved for our "compositions"; but you know what I mean. Another point to be made clear without delay is this: that when Johnny appeared at the Academy, he had lately left behind him the previous condition of servitude involved in a lodgment above the landau, the phaeton, and sometimes the cow. His father and mother, as I saw them and remember them, appeared to be rather nice people. Perhaps they had lately come from some small country town and had not been able, at first, to realize themselves and their abilities to the best advantage in the city. Assuredly his father knew how to drive horses and to care for them; and he had an intuitive knack for safeguarding his self-respect. And Johnny's mother was perfectly competent to cook and to keep house—even above a stable—most neatly. If Johnny's curtain was rumpled, that was Johnny's own incorrigible fault. The window-sill was a wide one, and Johnny, I found, used it as a catch-all. He kept there a few boxes of "bugs," as we called his pinned-down specimens, and an album of postage-stamps that was always in a state of metamorphosis. He had some loose stamps too, and sometimes, late in the afternoon or on Saturdays, we "traded." Johnny's mother was likely to caution us about her freshly scrubbed floors, and sometimes gave me a cooky on my leaving. I never heard of Raymond's having been there.
But presently the trading stopped, and the "bugs," however firmly pinned down, took their flight. Johnny's father and mother "moved"—that was the brief, unadorned, sufficing formula. It was all accepted as inevitable; hardly for a boy a little past twelve, like myself, to question the movements of Olympian elders; nor even, in fact, to feel an abiding interest in them when I had seen them but three or four times in all. I never speculated—never asked where they had come from; never considered the nature of their tenure (not wondering how much Johnny's father may have been paid for driving the two bays and washing the parlor and bedroom windows and milking the cow, when there was one, and not figuring the reduction in wages due to the renting value of the three or four small rooms they occupied); nor did I much concern myself as to whither they might have gone. Probably opportunity had opened up a more promising path. However, the path did not lead far; for Johnny, a month or two later, made his first appearance at the Academy, on the opening of the fall term. During the preceding year he had been going to a public school "across the tracks" and had played with a boisterous crowd in a big cindered yard.
Therefore, when Raymond, surrounded by half a dozen other boys, took occasion, on the stairs, to say:—
"How are you, Johnny?"—
And Johnny, with his back to the wall of the landing, replied:—
"I'm pretty well,"—
Johnny may have meant that, despite the novelty and the strangeness of his situation, he was very well, indeed; feeling, doubtless, that he was finally where he had a right to be and that his alert face was turned the proper way.
The boys about Raymond were asking him to take part in a football game. It was not that Raymond was especially popular; but he could run. In that simple day football was football—principally a matter of running and of straightforward kicking; and Raymond could do both better than any other boy in the school. He could also outjump any of us—when he would take the trouble to try. In fact, his physical faculties were in his legs; his arms were nowhere. He was never able to throw either far or straight. Some of his early attempts at throwing were met with shouts of ridicule, and he never tried the thing further. If he fell upon the ill luck of finding a ball in his hands, he would toss it to somebody else with an air of facetious negligence. To stand, as Johnny McComas could stand, and throw a ball straight up for seventy-five feet and then catch it without stirring a foot from the spot where he was planted, would have been an utter impossibility for him. In fact, Raymond simply cultivated his obviously natural gifts; he never exerted himself systematically to make good any of his deficiencies. He was so as a boy; and he remained so always.
In those early days we had no special playgrounds. We commonly used the streets. There was little traffic. Pedestrians took their chances on the sidewalks with leapfrog and the like, and we took ours, in turn, in the wide roadway with "pom-pom-peel-away" and similar games. Football, however, would take us to a vacant corner lot, some two streets away. Some absentee owner in the East was doubtless paying taxes on it with hopes of finally recouping himself through the unearned increment. Meanwhile it ran somewhat to rubbish and tin cans, to bare spots from which adjoining homemakers had removed irregular squares of turf, and to holes in the dry, brown earth where potatoes had been baked with a minimum of success and a maximum of wood ashes and acrid smoke. It was on the way to this frequented tract that Raymond carelessly let fall a word about Johnny McComas. Perhaps he need not have said that Johnny had lately been living above his father's stable—but he spoke without special animus. A few of the boys thought Johnny's intrusion odd, even cheeky; but most of them, employing the social assimilability of youth,—especially that of youth in the Middle West,—laid little stress upon it. Johnny made his place, in due time and on his own merits. Or shall I say, rather, by his own powers?
You are not to suppose that while I was free to visit Johnny in the stable, I was not free to visit Raymond in the house. Though my people lived rather modestly on a side street, the interior of the Prince residence was not unknown to me. On one occasion Raymond took me up to his room so that I might hear some of his writings. He had been to Milwaukee or to Indianapolis, and had found himself moved to set down an account of his three days away from home. He led me through several big rooms downstairs before we got to his own particular quarters above. The furnishing of these rooms impressed me at the time; but I know, now, that they were heavy and clumsy when they were meant to be rich and massive, and were meretricious when they were meant to be elegant. It was all of the Second Empire, qualified by an erratic, exaggerated touch that was natively American. I am afraid I found it rather superb and was made uncomfortable—was even intimidated by it; all the more so that Raymond took it completely for granted. One room contained a big orchestrion with many pipes in tiers, like an organ's. On one occasion I heard it play the overture to "William Tell," and it managed the "Storm" very handily. There was a large, three-cornered piano in the same room—one of the sort I never could feel at home with; and this instrument, more than the other, I suppose, gave Raymond his futile and disadvantageous start toward music. Travel; art; anything but the bank.
I have no idea at what time of day he introduced me into the house, but it was an hour at which the men, as well as the women, were at home. In one part or another of the hall I met his mother. She was dark and lean; without being tall, she looked gaunt. She seemed occupied with herself, as she moved out of one shadow into another, and she gave scant attention to a casual boy. Raymond was really no more hospitable than any young and growing organism must be; but perhaps she was thankful that it was only one boy, instead of three or four.
In another room, somewhere on the first floor, I had a glimpse of his father. I remember him as a sedate man who did not insist. If he set a boy right, it was done but verbally; the boy was left to see the justness of the point and to act on it for himself. I gathered, later, that James Prince had done little, unaided, for himself; whatever he had accomplished had been in conjunction with other men—with his father, particularly; and when his father died, a few years later, he was the chief heir—and he never added much to what he had received. To him fell the property—and its worries. The worries, I surmise, were the greater part of it all. Everything has to be paid for, and James Prince's easily gained success was paid for, through the ensuing years, with considerable anxieties and perturbations.
It was his father, I presume, who was with him as I passed the library door: a bent, gray man, with a square head and a yellow face. A third man was between them; a tall, dry, cold fellow with iron-gray beard and no mustache—a face in the old New England tradition. This man was, of course, their lawyer, and I judge that he gave them little comfort. I felt him as chill and slow, as enjoying the tying and untying of legalities with a stiff, clammy hand, and as unlikely to be hurried on account of any temperament possessed by himself or manifested by his clients. Fire, in a wide sweep, had overtaken the town a year or two before—a community owned by the Eastern seaboard and mortgaged to its eyebrows; and the Princes, as I learned years later, had been building extensively on borrowed capital just before the fire-doom came. Probably too great a part of the funds employed came from their own bank.
Raymond, once the second floor was reached, showed me his desks and bookcases; also a new sort of pen which he had thought to be able to use, but which he had cast aside. And he offered to read me his account of the three days in Milwaukee, or wherever.
"If you would like to hear...?" he said, with a sort of bashful determination.
"Just as you please," I replied, patient then, as ever after, in the face of the arts.
Nothing much seemed to have happened—nothing that I, at least, should have taken the trouble to set down; but a good part of his fifteen pages, as he read them, seemed interesting and even important. I suppose this came from the way he did it. As early as thirteen he had the knack; then, and always after, he enjoyed writing for its own sake. I feel sure that his father did not quite approve this taste. His grandfather, who had had a lesser education and felt an exaggerated respect for learning, may have had more patience. He talked for years about endowing some college, but never did it; when the time finally came, he was far too deep in his financial worries.
James Prince, as I have noted, occasionally mentioned to Raymond his conviction that he was wasting his time with all this scribbling, and that so much work by artificial light was imperiling his eyesight.
"What good is it all going to do you?" I once heard him ask. His tone was resigned, as if he had put the question several times before. "I don't think I'd write quite so much, if I were you."
Raymond looked at him in silence. "Not write?" he seemed to say. "You might as well ask me not to breathe."
"At least do it by daylight," his father suggested, or counseled,—scarcely urged. "You won't have any eyes at all by the time you're thirty."
But Raymond liked his double student-lamp with green shades. He liked the quiet and retirement of late hours. I believe he liked even the smell and smear of the oil.
His father spoke, as I have reported; but he never took away the pen or put the light out. The boy seemingly had too strong a "slant": a misfortune—or, at least, a disadvantage—which a concerned parent must somehow endure. But he did take a more decided tack later on: he never said a word about Raymond's going to college, and Raymond, as a fact, never went. He fed his own intellectual furnace, and fed it in his own way. He learned an immense number of useless and unrelated things. In time they came to cumber him. Perhaps college would have been better, after all.
I never knew Raymond to show any affection for either of his parents; and he had no brothers and sisters. His father was an essentially kind, just man, and might have welcomed an occasional little manifestation of feeling. One day he told Raymond he had no heart. That was as far as emotion and the expression of emotion could carry him. Raymond's mother might have been kindly too, if she had not had herself. But a new doctor, a new remedy, a new draught from a new quarter—and her boy was instantly nowhere. Raymond's own position seemed to be that life in families was the ordained thing and was to be accepted. Well, this was the family ordained for him, and he would put up with it as best he might. But I kept on developing my own impression of him; and I see now just what that impression was going to be. Raymond, almost from the start, felt himself as an independent, detached, isolated individual, and he must have his little zone of quiet round him. Why in the world he should ever have married...!
I never knew him to show gratitude for anything given him by his parents. On the other hand, I never heard him ask them for anything. He possessed none of the little ingenuities by which boys sometimes secure a bit of pocket-money. If he wanted anything, he went without it until it was offered. Frankly, he seldom had to wait long.
Not that what came was always the right thing. He showed me his fountain-pen—one of the early half-failures—with some disdain. He always carried a number of things in his pocket, but never the pen. I myself tried it one day, and it went well enough; I should have been glad to have it for my own. But steel pens sufficed him; save once, when I saw him, in a high mood, experimenting fantastically with a quill one.
He cared no more about his clothes than any of the rest of us. He never laid any real stress on them at any time of life. He developed early a notion of the sufficiency of interior furnishings; mere external upholstery never quite secured his interest. I heard his father once or twice complain of his looking careless and shabby. He waited with equanimity until his father could take him to the clothier's. He asked but one thing; that there should be no indulgence in sartorial novelties at his expense. And I never met a sedater taste in neckties.
Three or four were hanging over the gas-jet, close to the window; they were all dark blues or grays, and most of them frayed. He expected a new one about Christmas; no hurry.
From that window, across the back yard, we saw Johnny McComas, in a bright new red tie, busy at his own window. I waved my hand, and he waved back. Raymond looked at him, but made no special sign. Johnny was packing up his specimens and his postage-stamps, preparatory to the family hegira, though neither of us knew.
Raymond, who might have asked for almost anything, asked for nothing. Johnny, who was in position to ask for next to nothing, asked for almost everything. He was constantly teasing his parents, so far as my observation went; and his teasing was a form of criticism. "You are not doing the right thing by me"—such might have seemed his plaint. He was beginning to spread, to reach out: acquisitiveness and assimilativeness were to be his two watchwords. He hankered after the externalities; he wanted "things." If it was only a new stamp-album, he wanted it hard, and he said so. I shall not go so far as to say that he hectored his parents into sending him to our school. They were probably feeling, on their own account, that they had come to town for better things than they had been getting; and likely enough they met his demands halfway. There was usually a certain element of cheeriness in his nagging; but the cheeriness was quite secondary to the insistence.
"Oh, come, mother!" or, "Oh, father, now!" was commonly Johnny's opening formula, employed with a smile, wheedling or protesting, as the occasion seemed to require.
And, "Oh, well...!" was commonly the opening formula for the response—meaning, in completed form, "Well, if we must, we must."
However, his parents were probably ready to meet with an open mind the scorings of their young, sole critic, thinking that his urgency might advance themselves no less than him. Well, in the autumn Johnny turned up at the Academy with an equipment that included everything approved and needed; and he was not long in letting us know that his father was manager in the supply-yard of a large firm of contractors and builders. His father had spent his earlier married years, it transpired, about the grounds of a small-town "depot," and knew a good deal in regard to lumber and cement.
To most of us fathers were fathers and businesses were businesses—things to be accepted without comment or criticism. Our own youthfulness, and the social tone of the day and region, discouraged either. If I thought anything about it, I must have thought, as I think still, that it was a manly and satisfying matter to come to grips with the serviceable actualities of the building trades. Construction, in its various phases, still seems to me a more useful and more tonic concern than brokerage, for example, and similar forms of office life.
Johnny soon suggested that I go with him, some Saturday afternoon, to the "yard." I asked Raymond to join us. Raymond had just come on Gothic architecture and was studying its historical phases. He was picking up points about the English cathedrals and was making drawings to illustrate the development of buttresses and of window tracery. The yard was only a mile and a half away and the three of us frolicked loosely along the streets until we got there. Johnny's father was going about the place in an admirable pair of new blue overalls, and carried a thick, blunt pencil behind one ear. He showed an independent, breezy manner that had not been very marked before. He was loud and clear and authoritative, and kept a dozen or more stout fellows pretty busy. Once an elderly man in a high silk hat passed through the yard on his way to its little office. He stopped, and he and Johnny's father had some talk together. "Yes, sir!" said Johnny's father, with considerable emphasis and momentum. I enjoyed his "Yes, sir!" It was pleasant to find him so hearty and so well-mannered. He seemed to have escaped from something and to be glad of it. The man in the high hat hardly tried to stand up against him. As he turned away he smiled in a curious fashion; and I thought I heard him say to himself, as he moved back toward the door of the shed that had the sign "Office" on it: "I wonder whether I'm going to run him, or whether he's going to run me?"
Johnny was all eyes for a tall stack of lathing in bundles and for a pile of sacks filled with hair from cows' hides, which last was to go into plaster. Raymond looked at these objects of interest—and at several others—with some degree of abstractedness. The English cathedrals, as I was told later, had not been plastered. Raymond had already developed some faculty for entertaining a concept freed from clogging and qualifying detail; and this faculty grew as he grew. He liked his ideal net; facts, practical facts, never had much charm for him. I remember his once saying, when about twenty-three, that he should have liked to be an architect, but that plumbing and speaking-tubes had turned him away. If he could have drawn facades and stopped there, I think he might have been quite happy and successful in the profession.
Johnny pulled a lath for each of us out of one of the bundles, and we used them in our tour of the yard as alpenstocks. We found a glacier in the shape of a mortar bed and were using the laths to sound its depths, when Johnny's father appeared from round the corner of a lumber pile. He clapped his hands with a loud report.
"Here! that won't do!" he said; and none of us thought it remotely possible to withstand him. "Enough for one morning," he added, and he waved both arms with a broad scoop to motion us toward the street gate.
"Oh, father, now!" began Johnny (with no smile at all), conscious of his position as host.
"No more, to-day," said his father. "School six days a week would be about my idea."
Raymond said nothing, but drew up his mouth to one side and himself led us toward the street.
I would not seem to stress either the saliency or the significance of these incidents. I simply put them down, after many years, just as they return to my memory. Memory is sporadic; memory is capricious; memory is inconsequent, sometimes forgetting the large thing to record the little. And memory may again prove itself all these, and more, if I attempt to rescue from the past a children's party.
It was my young sister who "gave" it, as our expression was; parents in the background, providing the funds and engineering the mechanism, were not allowed greatly to count. The party was given for my sister's visitor, a little girl from some small interior town whose name (whether child's or town's) I have long since forgotten. Raymond was invited, of course;—"though he isn't very nice to us," as my sister ruefully observed; and some prompting toward fair play (as I vaguely termed it to myself) made me suggest Johnny McComas. He came.
There must have been some twenty-five of us—all that our small house would hold. There were more games than dances; and the games were largely "kissing" games: "post-office," "clap-in, clap-out," "drop the handkerchief," and such-like innocent infantilities. Some of us thought ourselves too old for this sort of thing, and would willingly have left it to the younger children; but the eager lady from next door, who was "helping," insisted that we all take part. This is the place for the Gertrudes and the Adeles, and they were there in good measure, be-bowed and be-sashed and fluttering about (or romping about) flushed and happy. And this would be pre-eminently the place for Elsie, Jehiel's granddaughter and Raymond's cousin. Elsie would naturally be, in the general scheme, my childhood sweetheart; later, my fiancee; and ultimately my wife. Such a relationship would help me, of course, to keep tab more easily on Raymond during the long course of his life. For instance, at this very party I see her doing a polka with Johnny McComas, while Raymond (who had been sent to dancing-school, but had steadfastly refused to "learn") views Johnny with a mixture of envy and contempt. A year or two later, I see Elsie seated in the twilight at the head of her grandfather's grandiose front steps, surrounded by boys of seventeen or eighteen, while Raymond, sent on some errand to his grandfather's house, picks his way through the crowd to say to himself, censoriously, in the vestibule: "Well, if I can't talk any better at that age than they do...!" Yes, Elsie would undeniably have been an aid; but she never existed, and we must dispense with her for once and for all.
Raymond could always make himself difficult, and he usually did so at parties. To be difficult was to be choice, and to be choice was to be desirable. Therefore he got more of the kisses than he might have got otherwise—many more, in fact, than he cared for. But on this occasion a good part of his talent for making himself difficult was reserved until refreshment time. Most of the boys and girls had paired instinctively to make a prompt raid on the dining-room table, with Johnny McComas unabashedly to the fore; but Raymond lingered behind. My mother presently found him moping alone in the parlor, where he was looking with an over-emphatic care at the pictures.
"Why, Raymond dear! Why aren't you out with the others? Don't you want anything to eat?"
No; Raymond didn't want anything.
"But you do—of course you do. Come."
Then Raymond, thus urged and escorted,—and, above all, individualized,—allowed himself to be led out to the refreshments; and, to do him justice, he ate as much and as happily as any one else. Johnny McComas, with his mouth full, and with Gertrudes and Adeles all around him, welcomed him with the high sign of jovial camaraderie.
Yes, Johnny took his full share of the ice-cream and macaroons; he got his full quota of letters from the "post-office"; the handkerchief was dropped behind him every third or fourth time, and he always caught the attentive little girl who was whisking away—if he wanted to. He even took a manful part in the dancing.
"What a good schottische!" exclaimed one of the Adeles, as the industrious lady from next door, after a final bang, withdrew her hands from the keyboard. "And how well you dance!"
"Gee!" exclaimed Johnny, with his most open-faced smile; "is that what you call it—a schottische? I never tried it before in my life!"
"Learn by doing"—such might have been the motto of the town in those early, untutored days. And Johnny McComas emphatically made this motto his own.
Raymond went into the bank; not in due course, but rather more than a year later. After seeing some of his more advanced schoolfellows depart for Eastern colleges, after indulging a year of desultory study at home, and after passing a summer and autumn among the Wisconsin lakes, he was formally claimed by Finance. There was no Franciscan ardor to clasp her close, as others have clasped Poverty and Obedience. He began his business career, as men have been recommended to begin their matrimonial career, with a slight aversion. However, his aversion never brought him any future good.
His year at home, so far as I could make out, was taken up largely with aesthetics and music. He read the "Seven Lamps of Architecture" and they lighted him along a road that led far, far from the constructional practicalities of the yard where we had spent a Saturday forenoon, some five years before. He had begun to collect books on the brickwork of Piacenza and Cremona, and these too led him farther along the general path of aestheticism. During our years at the Academy the town, after an unprecedentedly thorough sweep by fire, had been rebuilding itself; and on more than one Saturday forenoon of that period we had tramped together through the devastated district, rejoicing in the restorative activities on every hand and honestly admiring the fantasies and ingenuities of the "architects" of the day. But Raymond had now emerged from that innocent stage; summoning forth from some interior reservoir of taste an inspirational code of his own, he condemned these crudities and aberrations as severely as they probably deserved, and cultivated a confident belief that somewhere or other he was to find things which should square better with his likings and should respond more kindly to his mounting sensibilities.
"Not going to cut us?" I once asked. "Just as we're picking up, too?"
But Raymond looked abstractedly into the distance and undertook no definite reply. Possibly he had responded to Ruskin; more probably to some divine young sense of truth and fitness such as forms the natural endowment, by no means uncommon, of right-minded youth. Or it may be that he had simply reached the "critical" age, when Idealism calls the Daily Practicalities to its bar and delivers its harsh, imperious judgments; when it puts the world, if but for a few brief months, "where it belongs." His natural tendency toward generalization helped him here—helped, perhaps, too much. He passed judgment not only on his parents, whom he had been finding very unsatisfactory, and on most of his associates (myself, for example, whenever I happened to speak an appreciative word for his essentially admirable father), but on the community as such. A filmy visitant from Elsewhere had grazed his forehead and whispered in his ear that the town allotted to him by destiny was crude, alike in its deficiencies and in its affirmations, and that complete satisfaction for him lay altogether in another and riper quarter.
Perhaps it was some such discontent as this that led him in the direction of musical composition—or toward attempts at it. He had no adequate preparation for it, nor, so far as I could perceive, any justificatory call. He had once taken a few terms on the piano; and he had on his shelves a few elementary works on harmony; and he had in his fingertips a certain limited knack for improvisation; and he had once sketched out, rather haltingly, a few simple songs. Yet, all the same, another reservoir, one of uncertain depth and capacity, was opening up for him at an age when opening-up was the continuing and dominating feature of one's days—a muse was stirring the vibrant air about him; and I gathered, after two or three certain visits to his house, that he had embarked on some composition or other of an ambitious and comprehensive nature: a cantata, possibly, or even some higher flight. As he had never domesticated musical theory and musical notation in his brain, most of his composing had to be carried on at the keyboard itself. The big piano in the big open drawing-room resounded with his strumming experiments in melody and harmony—sounds intelligible, often enough, to no ears but his own, and not always agreeable to them. I am sure he tried his parents' patience cruelly. His reiterated phrases and harmonizings were audible throughout a good part of the house. They did nothing toward relieving his mother's headaches, nothing toward raising his father's hopes that, pretty soon, he would come to grips with the elements of Loans and Discounts. Even the servants, setting the table, now and again closed the dining-room door.
"Oh, Raymond, Raymond; not to-day!" his mother would sometimes plead.
I presume that, during this period, the diary was still going on; and no one with such a gift for writing will stop short at a diary. In fact, Raymond tried his hand at a few short stories—still another muse was fluttering about his temples. Most of these stories came back; but a few of them got printed obscurely in mangled form, and the failure of the venturesome periodicals sometimes deprived him of the honorarium (as pay was then pompously called) which would have given the last convincing touch to his claims on authorship. He spoke of these stories freely enough to me, but disclaimed all attempts at poetry: short of that field, I believe, he really did stay his hand.
Well, perhaps too many good fairies—good only to the pitch of velleity—buzzed and brushed, like muses, or pseudo-muses, about his brows. All this unsettled him—and sometimes annoyed his daily associates. But how, without these instinctive young passes at Art, could the unceasing, glamorous and needful rebirth of the world get itself accomplished?
As for Johnny McComas, he found one year of our Academy enough. It was the getting in, not the staying in, that provoked his young powers. Our school, moreover, was explicitly classical in a day when the old classical ideal still ruled respected everywhere; and Johnny, much as he liked being with us and of us, could not see the world in terms of Latin paradigms. He wanted to be "doing something"; he wanted to be "in business." During the summer following his year at Dr. Grant's I heard of him as somebody's office-boy somewhere downtown, and then quite lost sight of him for the five years that succeeded.
It occurred to me that Johnny must be doing just the right thing for himself; he would make the sort of office-boy that "business men" would contend for: easy to imagine the manoeuvres, even the feuds, that would enliven business blocks in the downtown district for the possession of Johnny's confident smile and dashing, forthright way. I learned, in due season, that Johnny had cast in his lot with a real-estate operator, and had been cherished, through periods harried by competition, as a pearl of price.
The city was emphatically still in the "real-estate" stage. Anybody arriving without profession or training straightway began to sell lots. Nothing lay more openly abundant than land; the town had but to propagate itself automatically over the wide prairies. The wild flowers waved only to welcome the surveyor's gang; and new home-seekers—in the jargon of the trade—were ever hurrying to rasp themselves upon the ragged edges of the outskirts.
One Sunday morning in May, Raymond and I determined on an excursion to the country—or, at all events, to some of the remoter suburbs. The bank would not claim his thoughts for twenty-four hours, nor the law-school mine. We left the train at a promising point and prepared to scuffle over a half-mile splotched with vervain and yarrow, yet to bloom, toward a long, thin range of trees that seemed to mark the course of some small stream. But between us and that possible stream there soon developed much besides the sprinkling of prairie flowers. We began to notice rough-ploughed strips of land that seemed to mean streets for some new subdivision; piles of lumber, here and there, which should serve to realize the ideals of the "home-seekers"; and presently a gay, improvised little shack with a disproportionate sign to blazon the hopes and ambitions of a well-known firm back in town. And in the doorway of the shack stood Johnny McComas.
He was as ruddy as ever, and his blue eyes were a bit sharper. He was slightly heavier than either of us, but no taller. He knew us as quickly as we knew him. For some reason he did not seem particularly glad to see us. He made the reason clear at once.
"They had me out here last Sunday," he said, looking about his chaotic domain disparagingly, "and they say they may have to have me out here next Sunday—somebody's sick or missing. But they won't," he continued darkly. It was a threat, we felt—a threat that would make some presumptuous superior cower and conform. "I really belong at our branch in Dellwood Park, where there is something; not out here, beyond the last of everything." And he said more to indicate that his energies and abilities were temporarily going to waste.
But having put himself right in his own eyes and in ours, he began to give rein to his fundamental good nature. Emerging from the cloud that was just now darkening his merits and his future, he asked, interestedly enough, what we ourselves were doing.
I had to confess that I was still a student. Raymond mentioned briefly and reluctantly the bank. It was nothing to him that he, no less than Johnny, was now a man on a salary.
"Bank, eh?" said Johnny. "That's good. We're thinking of starting a bank next year at our Dellwood branch. It's far enough in, and it's far enough out. Plenty of good little businesses all around there. And I'm going to make them let me have a hand in managing it."
This warm ray of hope from the immediate future quite illumined Johnny. He told us genially about the prospects of the venture in the midst of which he was encamped, and ended by feigning us as a young bridal couple that had come out to look for a "home."
"There may be one or two along pretty soon, if the day holds fair; so I might as well keep myself in practice." Then he jocularly let himself loose on transportation, and part payments down, and street improvements "in," and healthful country air for young children. He was very fluent and somewhat cynical, and turned the seamy side of his trade a little too clearly to view.
He explained how the spring had been exceptionally wet in that region,—"which, after all, is low," he acknowledged,—and how his firm, by digging a few trenches in well-considered directions, had drained all its standing water to adjoining acres still lower, the property of a prospective rival. Recalling this smart trick made Johnny think better of the people who would maroon him for a succession of Sundays, and he became more genially communicative still.
"That gray streak off to the west—if you can see it—is our water drying up. Better be drying there than here. You can put a solid foot on every yard of our ground to-day. Come along with me and I'll show you your cottage—domus, a, um. Not quite right? Well, no great matter."
He pointed toward a yellow pile of two-by-fours, siding, and shingles. "Be sure you make your last payment before you find yourselves warped out of shape."
We followed. Johnny seemed much more expert and worldly-wise than either of us. We held our innocent excursion in abeyance and bowed with a certain embarrassed awe to Johnny's demonstration of his aptitude for taking the world as it was and to his light-handed, care-free way of handling so serious a matter, to most men, as the founding of a home. As we continued our jaunt, I began to feel that I now liked Johnny a little less than I could have wished.
At about this time Raymond and I found ourselves members of a little circle that expressed itself chiefly through choral music. It was almost a neighborhood circle, and almost a self-made circle—it gradually evolved itself, with no special guidance or intention, until, finally, there it was. I, at that period, may have felt that it would verge on the presumptuous to pick and choose—to attempt consciously the fabrication of a social environment—and so I adopted with docility the one which presented itself. Raymond, on the other hand, may have felt that even the best which was available was unlikely to be good enough and have accepted fatalistically anything which could possibly be made to do.
Just why our little group of a dozen or so should have united on a musical basis and have expressed itself in a weekly "sing" I might find it hard to explain. None of us fellows was especially blessed with a voice; and the various Gertrudes and Adeles that met with us were assuredly without any marked sanction to vocalize. Possibly the "sing" was the mere outcome of youthful exuberance and of the tendency of young and eager molecules to crystallize into what came, later, to be termed a "bunch."
As for Raymond himself, he never sang at all. "Oh, come, Rayme; join in!" the other fellows would suggest—and suggest in vain.
"I'm doing my part," he would return, giving the piano-stool a nearer hitch to the keyboard.
In fact, it was his specific function to preside at the Chickering, the Weber, the Steinway, according to the facilities offered by the particular home—for we moved about in rotation. This service, which we presently came to consider sufficient in itself, dispensed him from exhibiting his nature in so articulate a thing as actual vocal utterance. This he was quite opposed to: he would never even try a hymn in church. But he could accompany; he could improvise; he could modulate; he could transpose any simple air. The ease and readiness with which he did all this made less obvious—indeed, almost imperceptible—his fundamental unwillingness to abandon himself before others (especially if members of his own circle) to any manifestation that might be taxed with even a remote emotionalism. And yet, at that very time, he was laying the foundations of a claim to be that broad and vague thing called an "artist." Even as early as this, apparently, he was troubled by two contradictory impulses: he wanted to be an artist and give himself out; and he wanted to be a gentleman and hold himself in. An entangling, ruinous paradox.
This comment on Raymond's musical inclinations and musical services may require a bit of shading: I believe that, after all, he never quite cared for music unless he had, in all literalness, his "hand" in it. He never liked to hear any one else play the piano, still less the violin; concerts of all sorts were likely to bore him; and he never really rose to an understanding of the more recondite and elaborate musical forms: to have his fingers on the keyboard—especially when improvising in a secure inarticulateness—was his great desideratum.
In our little group we ran from seventeen to nineteen; some of us just finishing high school, others just on the edge of college, others (like myself) engaged in professional studies, and still others making a debut in business as clerks. We sang mostly the innocent old songs, American or English, of an earlier day, and sometimes the decorous numbers from the self-respecting operetta recently established in London. No contributions from a new and dubious foreign element had yet come to cheapen our taste, to disturb our nervous systems, or to throw upon the negro, the Hawaiian, or the Argentine the onus of a crass passion that one was more desirous of expressing than of acknowledging. No; there was assuredly no excess of emotional life—whether good or bad—in the body of music we favored. Perhaps what our little circle really desired was simply good-fellowship and a high degree of harmonious clamor. Certainly all our doings, whether on Friday evening, or on the other forenoons, afternoons, and evenings of the week, were quite devoid of an embarrassing sex-consciousness. We "trained together," as the expression went—all the fellows and all the Gertrudes and Adeles—with no sense of malaise, and postponing, or setting aside, in the miraculous American fashion, all sexual considerations whatsoever.
I hardly know just why I should have thought that Johnny McComas could be introduced successfully into this circle. Johnny, as he had told us in his suburb, had cut loose from his parents. He was now living on his own, in a neighborhood not far from ours—from his, as it had once been. One evening I ventured to bring him round. He developed an obstreperous baritone—it was the same voice, now more specifically in action, that I had first heard on the devastated prairie; and he made himself rather preponderant, whether he happened to know the song or not.
"Why, you're quite an addition!" commented one of the girls, in surprise—almost in consternation.
"He is, indeed,—if he doesn't drown us all out!" muttered one of the fellows, behind his back.
Yes, Johnny was vociferous—so long as the singing went on. But he developed, besides an obstreperous voice, an obstreperous interest in one of our Adeles—a piercing soprano who was our mainstay; and he showed some tendency to defeat the occasion by segregating her in a bay window. Segregation was the last of our aims, and Johnny did not quite please. Furthermore, Johnny seemed to feel himself among a lot of boys who were yet to make their "start," overlooking the fact that Raymond was in the bank, and ignorant of the further fact that one of our fellows was just beginning to be a salesman in a bond house. Johnny became violently communicative about the attractions of Dellwood Park and seemed to want to figure demonstratively in the eyes of Gertrude and Adele as an up-and-coming paladin of the business world. To most of us he seemed too self-assertive, too self-assured. He knew too clearly what he wanted, and showed it too clearly. Indeed it became apparent to me that while a boy of twelve may be accepted easily (at least in an early, simple society), a youth of eighteen cannot altogether escape the issues of caste. It was borne in on me presently that Johnny might as well have remained away. In fact—
"We shan't need him again," said the brother of the soprano to me, as the evening broke up.
And Raymond himself remarked to me a day later:—
"Don't push him; he'll get along without your help."
While the rankness of new elements in a new era had not penetrated our homes, it had begun to make itself manifest in public places. The town, within sixty years, had risen from a population of nearly nil to a population of some five or six hundred thousand; and it was only in due course, perhaps, that "vice" now raised its head and that a "criminal class" came into effective, unabashed functioning. It was to be many years before the better elements learned how to combine for an efficient opposition to impudent evils. A heterogeneous populace, newly arrived, was still willing to elect mayors of native blood; but one of these, elected and reelected to the town's lasting harm, might as well have been of the newer, and wholly exterior, tradition: a genial, loose-lipped demagogue who saw an opportunity to weld the miscellany of discrepant elements into a compact engine for the furtherance of his own coarse ambitions, and who allowed his supporters such a measure of license as was needed to make their support continuing. A shameless new quarter suddenly obtruded itself with an ugly emphasis; unclassifiables, male and female, began to assert and disport themselves more daringly than dreamt of heretofore; and many good citizens who would crowd the town forward to a population of a million and to a status undeniably metropolitan came to stroll these tawdry, noisy new streets with a curiosity of mind at once disturbed, titillated, and somehow gratified. Said some: "This is a new thing; do we quite like it?" Said others: "The town is certainly moving ahead; we don't know but that we do."
Yes, a good many social observers set forth to see for themselves the new phenomena and to appraise the value of them in the coming political and social life of the community. Of course, many of these observers were too young and heedless to draw inferences from the sudden flood of new bars and bright lights and crass tunes and youthful creatures in short skirts who seemed not quite to know whether their proper element was the stage above or the range of tables below; in fact, these observers waived all attempt at speculative thought and became participants.
Raymond and I had heard comments on the new developments from our elders; we were not without our own curiosity (though we had enough fastidiousness not to graze things very close, still less to wade into them very deep), and we decided one evening that we would look into two or three of these new and notable places of public entertainment.
The first of them offered little. The second of them developed Johnny McComas. He sat at a table, talking too familiarly, or at least too forbearingly, with a rubicund, hard-faced man in shirt-sleeves standing at his elbow—probably the head of the place, or his first aide; and he was buying obviously unnecessary glasses of things for two of the young creatures in short skirts—Gertrudes and Adeles of that particular stratum, or Katies and Maggies, if preferred. Johnny sat there happy enough: an early example of the young business warrior diverting himself after the fray. Years afterward the scene came back to me when I met with a showy painting in the resonant new lobby of one of the greater hotels. It showed a terrace overlooking some placid Greek sea; the happy warrior standing ungirt and uncasqued, with a beautiful maiden of indeterminate status seated beside him; a graceful attendant holding a wreath above each happy and prosperous head, and a group of sandaled dancing-girls lightly footing it for the pleasure of the fortunate pair; the whole scene illuminated by the supreme, smiling self-satisfaction of the relaxed soldier amid the pipings of peace. So Johnny; he had earned the money and won the right to spend it in pleasure; his, too, the duty of refreshing himself for the strenuous morrow.
He saw us and nodded. "Life!"—that was what he seemed to say. He made a feint to interest us in his companions; but they were poor things, as we knew, and as he must have known too. He left them without much regret and without much ceremony, and took us on to the next place.
"It's life, isn't it?" he said in so many words.
Raymond's nose went up disdainfully. "Life!" Some such manifestations, if properly handled and framed, might be life in Paris, perhaps; but he could not accept them as life here at home, within a mile or two of his own study. What this evening offered him seemed to require a considerable touch of refining before it could reach acceptance. It was all only an imperfectly specious substitute for life, only a coarse parody on life. The town, he told me the next day, made him think of a pumpkin: it was big and sudden and coarse-textured. "I've had enough of it," he added; "I want something different, and something a lot better."
Johnny, as I say, took us to the next place; we might not have known how to take ourselves there. Johnny honestly liked the glare, the noise, the uproarious music, and the human press both on the sidewalks and in the packed, panting interiors. I liked it all, too,—for once in a way; but I soon saw that, for Raymond, even once in a way was once too often. In this last place a girl with a hand too familiarly laid on his arm gave the finishing touch; it was a coarse, dingy little hand, with some tawdry rings. Raymond never liked close quarters; neither in those days, nor ever after, did he care to come decisively to grips with actual life. "Keep off!" was what his look said to the offender. The poor, puzzled little debutante quickly stepped back, and we all regained the street. Raymond was trembling with embarrassment and vexation.
"Why, you were making a hit," said Johnny.
"Let's get home," said Raymond to me, ignoring Johnny. "This is enough, and more than enough. What a hole this town is coming to be!"
Raymond stayed on at the bank, though—if one might judge by his words and actions—with no enthusiasm in the present and no hopefulness for the future. He did what he had to do, and did it fairly well; but there was no sign that he was looking forward, and there remained scant likelihood that he would meet the expectations of his father and grandfather by mastering the business. On the contrary, I think he actually set his face against it: he seemed as resolute not to learn banking as he had been resolute not to learn dancing. Professor Baltique and the little girls in light-soled shoes and bright-colored sashes had given him up in the waltz; and it looked as if James B. Prince must presently renounce all hope of his ever learning how to turn the collective spare cash of many depositors to profit. I recall the day when the chief little light of the dancing-class, after some moments of completely static tramplings by Raymond in the midst of the floor, suddenly began to pout and to frown, and then left him in the midst of the dance and of the company and came to tears before she could reach an elder sister by the side wall. Raymond accepted the incident without comment. If his demeanor expressed anything, it expressed his satisfaction at carrying a point.
But he did not wait until a vexed and disappointed bank left him high and dry. Though he must have known that many young clerks in the office envied him his billet and that many young fellows outside it would have been glad to get in on any terms whatever, he never gave a sign that he valued his opportunity; and when he finally pulled out it was with no regard to any possible successor.
The younger men in the bank were a rather trim lot, and were expected to be. They did wonders, in the way of dressing, on their sixty or seventy-five dollars a month. Raymond's own dressing, for some little time past, had grown somewhat slack and careless. I did him the injustice of supposing that he felt himself to be himself, and hors concours so far as the general body of clerklings was concerned; but he had other reasons.
He had given up buying books and periodicals; no new volumes to be seen in his room except works of travel (preferably guide-books) and grammars and dictionaries of foreign languages. For all such works of general uplift and inspiration as the intending tourist in Europe might expect to profit by, he depended on circulating libraries or the shelves of friends. I myself lent him a book of travels in the Dolomites, and scarcely know, now, whether I did well or ill. Raymond, in short, was silently, doggedly saving, with the intention of taking a trip—or of making a sojourn—abroad.
The cleavage came in James Prince's front parlor, one Sunday afternoon, and I happened to be present. A very few words sufficed. Raymond's father had picked up a thick little book from the centre-table, the only book in the room, and was looking back and forth between this work—an Italian dictionary—and Raymond himself.
"What do you expect to get out of this?" he asked.
"I expect to learn some Italian," Raymond replied.
"Wouldn't French be more useful?"
"I know all the French I need."
"Where do you expect to use your Italian?"
"In Italy. I didn't go to college."
Impossible to depict the quality of Raymond's tone in speaking these five words. There was no color, no emphasis, no seeming presentation of a case. It was the cool, level statement of a fact; nor did he try to make the fact too pertinent, too cogent. An hour-long oration would not have been more effective. He had calmly taken off a lid and had permitted a look within. His father saw—saw that whatever Raymond, by plus or by minus, might be, he was no longer a boy.
"I know," said James Prince, slowly. He was looking past us both and was opening and shutting the covers of the book unconsciously.
A day or two later, Raymond gave me the rest. His father had asked him how much money he had. Out of his sixty or seventy-five a month Raymond had set aside several hundreds; "and I said I could make the rest by corresponding for some newspaper," he continued. This was in the simple day when travel-letters from Europe were still printed and read in the newspapers, and even "remunerated" by editors. Incredible, perhaps, in this day; yet true for that.
His father had asked him how long he intended to be away. Raymond was non-committal. He might travel for a year, or he might try "living" there for a while—a long while. A matter of funds and of luck, it seemed. His father, without pressing him closely, offered to double whatever sum he had saved up. He appeared neither pleased nor displeased by Raymond's course. He felt I suppose, that the bank would hardly suffer, and that Raymond (whom he did not understand) might get some profit. Fathers have their own opinions of sons, which opinions range, I dare say, all the way from charitableness to desperation. In the case of my own son, I am glad to say, a very slight degree of charitableness was all the tax laid upon me. There were some distressing months of angularity, both in physique and in manners, at seventeen; then a quick and miraculous escape into trimness and grace. And my grandson, now at nine, promises to be, I am glad to state, even more of a success and a pleasure. As for Raymond, he had developed unevenly: his growth had gone athwart. Possibly the "world," that vast, vague entity of which his father's knowledge was restricted almost to one narrow field, might aid in straightening the boy out.
"Well, try it for a year," his father said, not unkindly, and almost wistfully.
When Johnny McComas heard of Raymond's resolve, he drew up his round face into a grimace. He thought the step queer, and he said so. But, "Oh, well, if a fellow can afford it!" he added. And he did not explain just what meaning he attached to the word "afford."
But Johnny could see no valid reason for a fellow's giving the town the go-by at nineteen and at just that stage of the town's development. Johnny was so made that the community which housed him was necessarily the centre of the cosmos; he himself, howsoever placed, was necessarily at the centre of the circle—so why leave the central dot for some vague situation on the circumference? And take this particular town: what a present! what a future! what a wide extension over the limitless prairie with every passing month!—a prairie which merely needed to be cut up into small checkers and sold to hopeful newcomers; a prairie which produced profits as freely as it produced goldenrod and asters; a prairie upon which home-seekers might settle down under agents whose wide range, running from helpful cooeperation to absolute flimflam, need leave no competent "operator" other than rich.
"What are you going to get out of it?" asked Johnny earnestly.
Raymond attempted no set reply. Johnny, he recognized, was out for positive results, for tangible returns; his idea was to get on in the world by definite and unmistakable stages. Raymond never welcomed the idea of "getting on"—not at least in the sense in which his own day and place used the expression. To do so was but to acknowledge some early inferiority. Raymond was not conscious of any inferiority to be overcome. Johnny might, of course, on this particular point, feel as he chose.
About this time old Jehiel Prince began to come more frequently to his son's house. He was yellower and grayer, and he was getting testy and irascible. He sometimes brought his lawyer with him, and the pair made James Prince an active participant in their concerns. However, Jehiel was perhaps less unhappy here than in his own home. When there, he sat moodily alone, of evenings, in his basement office; and Raymond, who was sometimes sent over with documents or with messages, impatiently reported him to me as "glum."
"Poor old fellow! he doesn't know how to live!" said Raymond in complacent pity. He himself, of course, had but to assemble all the bright-hued elements that awaited him a few months ahead to make his own life a poem, a song.
"I can do that," he once said, in a moment when exaltation had briefly made him confidential.
Raymond never saw his grandmother—at least he never cared to see her. Here, if nowhere else, he was willing to take a cue, and he took it from the head of the family. He thought that so many years of town life might have made her a little less rustic in the end: the York State of 1835 or of 1840 need not have remained York State so immitigably. And if there was a domestic blight on the house he was willing to believe that she was two thirds to blame: behind the old soul was a pack of poor relations. Particularly a brother-in-law—a bilious, cadaverous fellow, whom I saw once, and once was enough. He had been an itinerant preacher farther East, and he lived in a woeful little cottage along one of Jehiel's horse-car routes. His mournful-eyed wife was always asking help. He too had "gone into real-estate," and unsuccessfully. He was the dull reverse of that victorious obverse upon which Johnny McComas was beginning to shine.
Another of her relatives, a niece, had married a small-town sharper. He had brought her to the larger town, and his sharpness had taken on a keener edge. He, too, had gone into real-estate—a lean, wiry little man, incredibly arid and energetic, and carrying a preposterously large mustache. There was trouble with him after Jehiel's death. It developed that one of the documents which old Beulah Prince had been cajoled or hectored into signing had deeded to him—temporarily and for a specific purpose—some forty acres of purple and yellow prairie flowers, delightful blossoms nodding and swaying in the wind, and that he had refused to deed more than half of them back: his services at that particular juncture were "worth something," he said. Well, life (as may have been remarked previously) would be quite tolerable without one's relatives. Meanwhile the summer flowers bloomed and nodded on, under the windy blue sky, all unaware of their disgrace.
A month after Raymond's decision, flowers (of the sort favored in cemeteries) were trying to bloom over old Jehiel. Some stroke, some lesion, had put a period to the unhappy career of this grim old man. Raymond set to one side, for a few weeks, his new trunk and portmanteau; for a few weeks only—he had no notion of making, ultimately, any great change in his plans. It was obvious that James Prince was looking forward to a year or two of harassing procedure in the courts, for old Jehiel's estate was unlikely to smooth out with celerity; but Raymond was clearly of no use at home, even as a mere source of sympathy. A fortnight after his grandfather's funeral he was off.
The singing-class would have given him good-bye in a special session; but his eyes were now on brighter matters and the vocalizing Gertrudes and Adeles were dim. He got out of it. Besides, the affair might come to involve something like ceremony; and he was always desirous of avoiding (save in the arts) the ceremonial side of life. When he came back from his first sojourn on the Continent he was a young man of mark, as things went in our particular town and time; or, rather, he might have been such, had he but chosen. The family fortunes were then merely at the stage of worry and still far from that of impending disaster. Raymond came back with money, position, and a certain aureole of personal distinction—just the sort of young man who would be asked to act as usher at a wedding. He was asked repeatedly; but he never acted, and his excuses and subterfuges for avoiding such a service almost became one of the comedies of the day. He had no relish for seeing himself walking ceremonially up a church aisle under the eyes of hundreds, and I knew better than to ask him to walk up any aisle for me. He never did the thing but once, and that was under the inescapable compulsion of his fiancee—who, for her part, insisted on eyes and plenty of them. A man may never cease to be astonished at the workings of feminine preferences on such an occasion, but can hardly escape accommodating himself to them. Gertrudes are Gertrudes.
But the wedding is years ahead, while the departure for Europe is imminent. Raymond had a tepid, awkward parting with his mother, whose headaches would not allow her to go to the train; and he shook hands rather coldly and constrainedly with his father, who would have welcomed, as I guess, some slight show of filial warmth, and he threw an embarrassedly facetious word to me about the weight of his portmanteau, and so was off. And it was years, rather than months, before he came back.
While Raymond was taking his course abroad, Johnny McComas was shaping his course at home. A colorless, unbiased statement—as it was meant to be; one which, despite the slight difference between "taking" and "shaping," has no slant and displays no animus. Colorless, yes; too colorless, perhaps you will object. If so, I will reword the matter. While Raymond, then, was in Europe cultivating his gentler faculties, Johnny remained in America, strengthening certain specific powers. Or, again: while Raymond was preparing, or so he thought, for a desirably decorative place in the "world" (the world at large), Johnny was qualifying himself, as he felt sure, for an important and remunerative position in that particular section of the world to which he had decided to confine his endeavors. And if you ask me, after I have colored a colorless statement, to bias an unbiased one, I shall refuse. I am not taking sides. Each of them was following his own likings—not the worst of rules for a growing and avid organism.
Raymond wrote, of course,—it was impossible that he should not; and I think I showed one or two of his early letters to Johnny. Johnny was not exactly interested; vistas were opened for which he had no eyes and which possessed no appositeness to his own aims.
"Still over there, eh?" he asked, on my producing a second letter. "These are the years that count," he added. He was probably implying that the final score would make a better showing for the man who spent those years in his native and proper environment.
He disregarded the general drift of the letters, but hit upon one or two novel expressions, and repeated them, half-quizzical, half-intrigue.
"Still over there," I echoed. A developing nature, I felt, must reach out for whatever it needs; and, in simpler form, I said so.
"Well, I'm no misfit," he rejoined briefly. To "feel at home" at home—that, I presume, was the advantage he was asserting.
Johnny, "at home," was not long in outgrowing the opportunities of Dellwood Park. Though he did not make, quite yet, the central district, a year or two later found him in an older and more important suburb—one that had passed the first acuteness of speculation and had pretty well settled down to a regulated life. It was not a suburb of the first rank, nor even perhaps of the second; but it suited his tastes and his present purposes. The new business combined banking and real-estate, and the banking department even maintained a small safety-deposit vault. There was also some insurance; and a little of mortgage-broking. Johnny was a highly prized element in this business and was pleased from the start with the outlook.
"A fellow," he said, "can pick up more experience out there in a month than he could in one of these big downtown offices in a year."
Nearly two years passed before I was to see him in his new environment. There came up a bit of business for a suburban client of mine which could as well be settled at Johnny's place as at another. It needed no more than a glance to perceive that Johnny was the dominant factor of the little institution. His was the biggest roller-top seen through a maze of gilt letters on a vast sheet of plate glass by commuters turning the corner morning and evening. His, too, chiefly, the deference of clerks and office-boy. He was ruddy and robust, and seemed likely to impose himself anywhere, when the time came. Thus far, a small Forum, perhaps; but he was the Caesar in it. He did not disdain to attend to my affair himself; he even showed an emphatic, if not ponderous, bonhomie.
Just as I was getting up to leave, a man of forty-five or more, with the general aspect of a contractor's foreman, put in his head. It was Johnny's father.
"I guess you know George Waite," Johnny said to him; "and I guess he knows you."
We shook hands, under Johnny's direction, and said that he was right. His father's hand—rough and with a broken nail or two—was that of a superintendent who on occasion helped with a plank or a mortarboard. He had an open face and a pleasant manner; he was not at all the dominant personage I remembered meeting in that "yard," years ago. Johnny, it seemed, was putting up a row of small houses on the suburb's edge, and his father was supervising the job. Johnny was pretty direct in saying what he wanted done, or not done, in connection with this work; and if his father made a suggestion it was as likely as not to be overruled. He was only one of the senators in Johnny's little curia, and probably far from the most important of them.
Johnny's father got away, after all, before I did. Johnny asked me to stay for a little, and there was not much for a young professional man to do after catching the 4.52 into town. We sat for a while talking of indifferent matters. Johnny, surrounded by his own prosperity, asked with a show of interest, and without condescension, about my progress in the law, and I was replying with the cautious vagueness of one whose practice is not yet all he hopes it will be. During this time I had noticed, through the maze of gilt lettering, a limousine standing just round the corner. Its curtains were drawn: "an odd circumstance," I had commented inwardly. All of a sudden the street-door of the bank burst open, and three masked men, brandishing revolvers, rushed in.
"You cover the cashier!" cried one; "we'll take care of the vault!"
Johnny McComas flung open a drawer, seized a revolver of his own, sprang to his feet—
Pardon me, dear reader. The simple fact is, I have suddenly been struck by my lack of drama. You see how awkwardly I provide it, when I try. What bank robbers, I ask you, would undertake such an adventure at half-past four in the afternoon? I cannot compete with the films. As a matter of fact, the vault stood locked, the tellers were gone, even the office-boy had stolen away, and Johnny and I were left alone together, exchanging rather feebly, and with increasing feebleness, some faint and unimportant boyhood reminiscences.... I feel abysmally abashed; let us open a new section.
As I have said, Raymond wrote. He wrote, for example, with a voluminous duteousness, to his parents. His letters to them, so far as they came to my notice, were curious; probably he meant that they should be saved and should become a sort of journal of his travels. They were almost completely impersonal. There was plenty of straight description; but beyond some slight indications of his own movements, past or intended, there was no narration. He never mentioned people he met; he never described his adventures—if he had any. He seemed to be saying to Europe, as Rastignac said to Paris, "A nous deux, maintenant!" He was at grips with the Old World, and that sufficed.
His letters to me, however, were not devoid of personal reactions. These commonly took an aesthetic turn. An early letter from Rome had a good deal to say about the Baroque. He met it everywhere; it was an abomination; it tried his soul. Fontana and Maderna, the Gog and Magog of architecture, had flanked the portals of art and had let through a hideous throng of artificialities and corruptions.... The word "Baroque" was new to me, and I looked it up. I learned that it described, not a current movement, as I had supposed, but an influence which had exhausted itself nearly three hundred years ago. But it was still recent and real to Raymond. And I learned, further, that this style had modern champions who could say a good word for it. In any event, it might be accepted calmly as a valuable and characteristic link in the general historic chain.
In another letter he was ecstatic over the Gothic brickwork of Cremona. It was so beautiful, he said in as many words, that it made his heart ache; not often did Raymond let himself go like that. Eager to follow his track—and to understand, if possible, his heart, however peculiar and baffling—I looked up, in turn, North Italian brickwork. This was twice three hundred years old. But it had stirred other modern hearts than Raymond's; for an English aesthete had tried (and almost succeeded) to impose it on his country as a living mode. "Very well," I said; "Italian brickwork may reasonably be accepted as a modern interest."
Raymond, before descending to Italy, had spent some months in Paris. Circumstances had enabled him to frequent a few studios, and his first letter to me from that city had been rather technical and "viewy." Incidentally, he had seen something of the students, and had found little to approve, either in their manners or their morals. He left Paris without reporting any moral infractions of his own and settled down for some stay in Florence. He was studying the language further, he reported: a language, he said, which was easy to begin, but hard to continue—the longer you studied the less you really knew. However, he knew enough for daily practical purposes. His pension was pleasant; small, and the few visitors were mostly English.
But there were one or two Americans in the house, and they came home a few months later with their account of Raymond and his ways. It was needed; for the three or four letters that he had printed in one of our newspapers contained little beyond descriptions of set sights—to think we should have continued to welcome that sort of thing so long! Well, these people reported him as conscientiously busy, for his hour each day, with grammar and dictionary. He was also getting his hand in painting; and he had "taken on" musical composition, even to instrumentation. "Too many irons!" commented my lively young informant. "And I think I should get my painting in Paris and my music in Germany." She also said that Raymond had next to no social life—he showed hardly the slightest desire to make acquaintances.
"An old Frenchman came to the place for a few days," she continued; "and as he was leaving he said your friend was living in an ivory tower—the windows few, the door narrow, and the key thrown away. 'Ivory tower'—do you understand what that means?"
"No," I said. But of course I understand now.
As a consequence of my call at Johnny McComas's office (or as a probable consequence), I received, some six months later, an invitation to his wedding. You will expect to hear that I was present, and perhaps acted as usher, or even as best man. Nothing of the sort was the case, however; I was absent at the time in the East. Nor are you to imagine me as continually following, at close range, the vicissitudes, major and minor, which made up his life, or made up Raymond's. An exact, perpetual attendance of fifty years is completely out of the question. Don't expect it.
Johnny married, I was told, a young woman living in his own suburb, the daughter of a manufacturer of some means. I met him about two months after his great step. He was still full of the new life, and full of the new wife.
"She's fine!" he declared. "Not too fine, but fine enough for me."
He cocked his hat to one side.
"Do you know, I talk to her just as I would to a man."
"Johnny!" I began, almost gasping.
"Well, what's wrong? Ever said anything much out of the way to you? Ever heard me say anything to any other fellow?"
"Why, no...." I was obliged to acknowledge.
"Then why the row? It's all easy as an old shoe. She likes it."
"I know. But—talking with a woman ... It isn't quite like...."
"Don't make any mistake. Just have the big things right, and they'll overlook lots of the little ones."
"H'm," I said doubtfully. "I supposed it was just the other way. Lay a lot of stress on certain little things, and larger shortcomings won't bother them. Bring her a bunch of flowers to-day, and she'll help you deed away the house and lot to-morrow."
"Fudge!" said Johnny. "I mean the really big things. There's only two. Ground to stand on and air to breathe."