ROUND THE BLOCK
An American Novel
JOHN BELL BOUTON
NEW YEAR'S DAY.
I. THE BLOCK. II. THREE BACHELORS. III. PEEPS. IV. QUIGG. V. PLEASURE AS BUSINESS. VI. SOMETHING HIDDEN. VII. THE BOY BOG. VIII. MALTBOY'S TWENTIETH AFFAIR. IX. MRS. SLAPMAN AT HOME. X. INFIRMITIES OF GENIUS.
I. THE ENIGMA. II. A DELICATE PROPOSITION. III. AN AUXILIARY OF MODERN CIVILIZATION. IV. MISS PILLBODY. V. A FRIEND IN NEED. VI. BRANCHING OUT. VII. THE LITTLE PUPIL.
TRAIL OF THE SERPENT.
I. "ONE—TWO—THREE—FOUR." II. THE FALLING BOARD. III. SNEAKING JUSTIFIED. IV. UP IN THE AIR. V. TONGUES OF FIRE.
CHILDREN OF THE WORLD.
I. MENDERT VAN QUINTEM AND SON. II. BUYING GOOD BEHAVIOR. III. THE YOUNG MONSTER. IV. WESLEY TIFFINS. V. THE PANORAMA OF AFRICA.
I. STOLEN—MORE THAN A PURSE. II. CONSOLATIONS OF HIGH ART. III. LOVING AFAR OFF. IV. LEGERDEMAIN.
MYSTERIES OF THE NIGHT.
I. THE UNKNOWN HAND. II. IN VAIN—IN VAIN. III. THE CLASHING ORBS. IV. A VISION OP HORRORS. V. WHAT THE MORNING BROUGHT.
JOURNEYINGS AGAINST FATE.
I. PEA-SHOOTING AS A SCIENCE. II. BY STEAM. III. PIGWORTH, J.P. IV. STOOP. V. AN AUDIENCE ANALYZED. VI. HUMORS OF THE MANY-HEADED. VII. SCENES NOT IN THE BILLS.
A DRAMATIC INTERLUDE.
I. THE OVERTURE. II. CURTAIN UP. III. ACT SECOND. IV. HOW THE PLAY ENDED.
I. CORONER AND JURY. II. STATEMENT OF THE PRISONER. III. JUSTICE GOES TO DINNER. IV. LIGHT IN THE PRISON. V. THE SORROW OF WHITE HAIRS. VI. WHAT PAPER, TYPES, AND INK CAN DO. VII. PET AS A WITNESS. VIII. THE BENEFICENCE OF FIRE BELLS. IX. AN OLD MAN'S OFFERING.
DONE ON BOTH SIDES.
I. A FISHER OF MEN. II. PLAYING WITH THE LINE. III. PULLING IN. IV. THE FIRST OF MAY. V. DEMOLITION OF CERTAIN AIR CASTLES. VI. MR. WHEDELL'S CREDITORS IN CONVENTION ASSEMBLED. VII. DEUS EX MACHINA.
I. THE OLD HOUSE REVISITED. II. A POSTHUMOUS SECRET. III. OVERTOP FINDS A SENSIBLE WOMAN. IV. INNOCENCE ON A SLIPPERY ROAD. V. BOG'S OPEN SESAME. VI. TRACKED. VII. FOUND AND LOST.
SPECULATIONS—PECUNIARY AND MATRIMONIAL.
I. THE "COSMOPOLITAN WINDOW FASTENER." II. MIDDLE-AGED CUPID. III. SLAPMAN vs. SLAPMAN. IV. HOW OVERTOP SEALED A CONTRACT IN A WAY UNKNOWN TO CHITTY. V. A RETURNED CALIFORNIAN. VI. REVELATIONS OF A LAUGH.
THE STRANGE LADY.
I. A STORY OP THE PAST. II. POSSIBLE LOVE. III. UNCLE AND NIECE.
I. OWNERS OF THE BEAUTIFUL. II. THE LAST OF A MYSTERY. III. LOVE CROWNED. IV. FIVE YEARS.
NEW YEAR'S DAY
On the east side of the block were four brownstone houses, wide, tall, and roomy. Seen from the street, they had the appearance of not being inhabited. In the upper stories, all the curtains or blinds were closely drawn. In the lower story, the heavy lace that hung in carefully careless folds on each side of the window, seemed never to have been disturbed since it left the upholsterer's hands. Whatever life and motion there might have been in the basement, were sheltered from observation by conical firs or square-clipped box borders, set out on strictly geometrical principles in each of the four front yards. The doors were ponderous and tight fitting, as if they were never meant to be opened; and the vivid polish of their surfaces showed no trace of human handling. No marks of feet could be detected on the smooth, heavy flagstones which led up from the sidewalk, or on the great steps flanked by massive balustrades. The four mansions, in their new, lofty, and apparently tenantless state, looked, like the occasional residences of people for some purpose of ceremony, rather than the dear homes of the small, loving, domestic circles that really lived there.
Such was the outer view of the east side of the block, and it is the only view that the reader of this book will get; for it is the author's intention profoundly to respect the select seclusion of the occupants.
Now, the west side of the block was in all respects, exactly opposite to the east side. The houses were built of bricks, dingy with the whirling dust of twenty years. Two of the three stories swarmed with women and children, always visible at all seasons; and the lower story was devoted to some kind of cheap trade. Wholesale business is gregarious in its ways; but it is the habit of retail business to scatter, so as to present, in the same neighborhood, no two people in exactly the same line. Thus it happened that, on the west side of the block, there was only one drygoods dealer, whose shop front and awning posts were festooned with calicoes and other fabrics, ticketed with ingeniously deformed figures, and bearing some attractive adjective, expressing the owners private and conscientious opinion of their excellence. There was one boot-maker, who strung up his products in long branches, like onions; and, although his business was not at all flourishing, solaced himself with the reflection that he had a monopoly of it on the block. There was one apothecary, between whose flashing red and yellow lights and those of his nearest rival there was a desirable distance. A solitary coffinmaker, a butcher, a baker, a newspaper vender, a barber, a confectioner, a hardware merchant, a hatter, and a tailor, each encroaching rather extensively on the sidewalk with the emblems of his trade, rejoiced in their exemption from a ruinous competition. The only people on the block whose interests appeared to clash, were the grocers, who flanked either corner, and made a large and delusive show of boxes, barrels, and tea chests; and it was strongly suspected that they were identical in interests, under different names, and maintained a secret league to catch all the custom of the vicinity.
The south side was a gradation of buildings, from the two-story brick grocery on the west corner to the grandest of the stone mansions on the east. With the exception of two or three houses built in the early history of the block, and occupied by obstinate old proprietors, it presented such a regularly ascending line of roofs, that a giant could have walked up stairs from one end to the other. Although each house was built upon a plan peculiar to itself, and supposed to reflect the long-cherished views of the original owner, there were certain resemblances among them. This was sometimes the effect of a jealous rivalry; sometimes of imitation. In one dozen houses there was a costly struggle for supremacy in window curtains. In another dozen, the harmless contest pertained to Grecian urns crowned with flowers, or dry dolphins, tritons, or naiads, rising from the bosoms of little gravel beds in miniature front yards. In a third dozen, there was a perspective of broad iron balconies elegantly constructed for show, and sometimes put to hazardous use, on warm summer nights, by venturesome gentlemen with cigars, or ladies with fans.
About the middle of the block was a colony of doctors, who had increased, in five years, from two to ten. Their march was eastward, and it could be calculated to a nicety how long it would be before the small black, gilt-lettered signs of their profession would press hard upon the great house at the corner. Why they thus congregated together, unless with the friendly purpose of relieving each other's patients in each other's absence, and so saving humanity from sudden suffering and death, was a mystery to everybody but themselves.
The north side lacked variety. One part of it, comprising twenty lots, had been built up on speculation by an enterprising landowner. The houses were precisely alike, from coal cellar to chimney top, with front railings of exactly the same pattern, crowned with iron pineapples from the same mould, encompassing little plots of ground laid out in walks similar to the fraction of a hair; the sole ornaments of which were four little spruce trees, planted at equal distances apart.
This row of houses was very distracting even to the occupants, with whom it was a feat of arithmetic to identify their homes in the daytime, and much more so at night, when the landmarks were shadowy and indistinguishable. Occasionally, well-meaning tenants found themselves pulling at wrong doorbells; and there was one man who got tipsy every Saturday night, and rang himself quite through the row before he tumbled in on his own hall carpet. It was in counting the spruce trees, he said, which had a perplexing way of doubling, that he invariably lost the track.
In nearly every house on this block there was a piano. The piano was the great equalizer of the block. And, though in the loftier houses the pianos might have been larger and costlier, and unquestionably noisier, it did not follow that they were better played or pleasanter to hear than the humbler instruments which served to swell the tumultuous chorus in hours of morning practice. With regard to these pianos, it may here be observed, that a gentleman with a passion for statistics, who chanced to be well acquainted through the block, made the remarkable discovery that the players were usually unmarried ladies; and that, when they acquired husbands (as they occasionally did on that block), they put aside the piano as something quite incapable of contributing to their new-found happiness.
Near the centre of the north side of the block stood a house in which three men, who have much to do in this story, were whiling away an hour before dinner, at the edge of evening, in the month of December, 185-. The house had strange stones let in over the windows and door, and was broad and sturdy, and was entered by steps slightly worn, and was shaded by a tall and old chestnut tree, and showed many signs of age. It was because of these evidences of antiquity, although the house was in good preservation and vastly comfortable, that it had been picked out and rented by the three men, two weeks previously.
Yet the three men exhibited no marks of age, past or coming, upon them. The oldest, Mr. Marcus Wilkeson, looked no more than thirty-two; but frankly owned to thirty-six. Being six feet and two inches high, having a slim figure, round face, smooth brow, gentle eyes, perfect teeth to the utmost extent of his laugh, and a head of hair free from the plague-spot of incipient baldness which haunts the young men of this generation, his appearance, now that he was confessedly a man, was very much like that of an overgrown boy. On the contrary, when he was really a boy, his extraordinary height (six feet at sixteen years) had given him the outward semblance of a premature man. Probably his long legs and arms, which were exceedingly supple, and were always swinging about with a certain juvenile awkwardness, contributed much to the youthfulness of his appearance.
At the time of his introduction here, his legs were as quiet as in their nature they could be, having been elevated, for the greater comfort of the owner, to the top of a pianoforte, and presenting an inclination of forty-five degrees to Mr. Wilkeson's body, reposing calmly and smoking an antique pipe in his favorite chair below. One of his long arms was hanging listlessly by his side, and the other made a sharp projecting elbow, and terminated in the interior of his vest. This was the attitude which, of all possible adjustments of the human anatomy, Mr. Wilkeson preferred; and he always assumed it and his pipe the moment he had put on his dressing gown and Turkey slippers. He was well aware that popular treatises on the "Art of Behavior" and the "Code of Politeness" were extremely hard upon this disposition of the legs. His half-sister, Philomela Wilkeson, who was high authority, had often visited his legs with the severest censure, when, upon suddenly entering the room where he was seated, she found the offending members confronting her from the top of the piano, or the table, or a chair, or sometimes from the mantelpiece. While Marcus Wilkeson admitted the full force of her strictures as applied to legs in general, he claimed an exception for his legs, which were always in his own or other people's way when they rested on the floor, or were crossed after the many fashions popular with the short-legged part of mankind.
Marcus Wilkeson's heretical opinion concerning legs was part of a system of independent views which he entertained of life generally. He had given up a profitable broker's shop in Wall street, a year before, because he had made a fortune ten times larger than he would ever spend. Having fulfilled the object for which he started in business, and for which he had toiled like a slave ten years, he conceived that nothing could be more sensible than to retire from it, make room for other deserving men, and enjoy his ample earnings in the ways which pleased him most, before an old age of money getting had deadened his five senses, his intellect, and his heart.
Persons who knew Marcus Wilkeson well were aware that he was a shy, self-distrustful fellow, amiable, generous, and that the only faults which could possibly be alleged against him were an excessive fondness for old books, old cigars, and profitless meditations, and a catlike affection for quiet corners. And when his half-sister Philomela—who had no hypocritical concealment about her, thank heaven! and always told people what she thought of them—pronounced the first of those luxuries "trash," the second "disgusting," and the other two "idiotic," he met her candid criticisms with a pleasant laugh, and said that, at any rate, they hurt nobody but himself.
To which Philomela invariably retorted: "But suppose every strapping fellow, at your time of life, should take to novel-reading, and such fooleries, what would become of the world, I would like to know?"
And her brother, puffing out a long stream of smoke, would respond: "Suppose, my dear sister, every woman was destined to be an old maid, as you are, what would become of the world, I would like to know?"
The conversation always terminated at this point, by Philomela declaring that coarse personality was the refuge of weak-minded people when they could not answer arguments, and that, for her part, she would never take the trouble to say another plain, straightforward word for his good; whereupon there would be a truce, lasting sometimes a whole day.
Fayette Overtop, the second of the three young men—the one looking out of the window, drumming idly on the glass, and continually tossing back his head to clear the long black hair from his brow, over which it hung in an incurable cowlick—was a short, compact, nervous person, twenty-five years old. Mr. Overtop had been educated for the law, but, finding the profession uncomfortably crowded when he came into it, had not yet achieved those brilliant triumphs which he once fondly imagined within his reach. For three years he had been in regular attendance at his office from nine A.M. to three P.M. (as per written card on the door), except in term time, when he was a patient frequenter of the courts. During these three years he had picked up something less than enough to pay his half of the rent of two small, dimly lighted, but expensive rooms on the fourth floor of a labyrinth in the lower part of the city.
Mr. Overtop, when asked to explain this state of things, about which he made no concealment, always attributed it to a "lack of clients."
If he had clients enough, and of the right kind, he felt confident that he could make a figure in the profession. Having few clients, and those in insignificant cases only, of course he had no opportunities for distinction. He could not stand in the street and beg for clients, or drag men forcibly into his chambers and compel them to be clients; and he would not degrade the dignity of his calling by advertising for clients, or taking any means whatever to get them, except by establishing a reputation for professional learning and integrity. The only inducement which he ever put in the way of clients, was a series of signs, outside the street door, on the first flight of stairs, at the head of the first landing, on the second flight of stairs, at the head of the second landing, and so on to the fourth floor, where the firm name of "Overtop & Maltboy" confronted the panting climber for the eighth and last time, painted in large gold letters on black tin, nailed to the office door.
Mr. Overtop was willing to give clients every facility for finding him, when they had once started at the bottom of the building; and would, as it were, lead them gently on, by successive signs; but good luck and a good name, slowly but surely acquired, must do the rest.
A snug property, of which Mr. Overtop spent less than the income, fortunately enabled him to indulge in these novel views, and to regard clients, much as they were desired, as by no means indispensable to his existence. In his unprofessional hours, Mr. Overtop was everything but a lawyer. He was chiefly a philosopher, a discoverer, a searcher after truth, a turner-up of undeveloped beauties in every-day things, which, he said, were rich in instruction when intelligently examined. He could trace out lines of beauty in a gridiron, and detect the subtle charm that lurks in the bootjack.
As not unfrequently happens, in partnerships of business and of other descriptions, Matthew Maltboy—the young man standing before the blazing coal fire, and critically surveying his own person—was quite the opposite of Fayette Overtop. Maltboy was fat and calm. Portraits were in existence showing Maltboy as a young lad in a jacket and turn-down collar, having a slim, graceful figure, a delicate face, and a sad but interesting promise of early decay upon him. Other portraits, of the same original, taken at later periods of the photographic art, represented a gradual squaring out of the shoulders, a progressive puffiness in the cheeks, lips, and hands, incipient folds in the chin, and a prevalent swollen appearance over all of Matthew Maltboy that the artist permitted the sun to copy.
Portraits of Maltboy for a series of years would have proved a valuable contribution to human knowledge, as showing the steady and remarkable changes through which a man who is doomed to be fat passes onward to his destiny. But Maltboy stopped sitting for portraits when he reached the age of twenty, deciding, as many another public character has done, to transmit only the earlier and more ethereal representations of himself to posterity.
By some compensating law of Nature, there were given to Maltboy a light and cheerful heart, a tendency to laugh on the smallest provocation, and a nice susceptibility to the beautiful. Not the beautiful in rivers, forests, skies, and other inanimate things, but the beautiful in woman. And as Overtop was gifted to discover charms in material objects which were plain in other eyes, so Maltboy possessed the wonderful faculty of seeing beauty in female faces, where other people saw, perhaps, only a bad nose, dull eyes, and a pinched-up mouth. This mental endowment might have been a priceless gift to a portrait painter, who was desirous of gratifying his sitters; but it was for Matthew Maltboy a fatal possession. It had led him to love too many women too much at first sight, and to shift his admiration from one dear object to another with a suddenness and rapidity destructive to a well-ordered state of society.
Though these multiplied transfers of affection occasionally caused some disappointment among the victims of Mr. Maltboy's inconstancy, it was wisely ordained that he should be the principal sufferer—that every new passion should involve him in new difficulties, and subject him to a degree of mental distress which would have reduced the flesh of any man not hopelessly predisposed to fatness. As Mr. Matthew Maltboy stood by the fire, he was not taking the profitable retrospective view of his life which he should have taken, but was glancing with an expression of concern at the circumference of a showy vest pattern which cut off the view of his legs.
The apartment in which the three bachelors were keeping a meditative silence, was large, square, high, on the first floor back, commanding an ample prospect of neglected rear yards, and all the strange things that are usually huddled into those strictly private domains. The furniture of the room was rich and substantial, but not too good to be used. The chairs were none of those frail, slippery structures of horsehair and mahogany so inhospitably cold to the touch; but they were oak, high backed, deep, long armed, softly but stoutly cushioned with leather, and yawned to receive nodding tenants and send them comfortably to sleep amid the fragrant clouds of the after-dinner pipe or cigar.
At one end of the room was Marcus Wilkeson's library, consisting of about five hundred volumes, of poems, novels, travels by land and sea, histories, and biographies, which the owner dogmatically held to be all the books in the world worth reading. The admission of a new book to this select company of standard worthies, Mr. Wilkeson was vain enough to regard as a high compliment to the author, and as a final settlement of any disputes which might have been abroad as to its merits.
On another side of the room was a grand piano, open, and covered with the latest music, and sometimes played on in a surprisingly graceful manner by the fat fingers of Matthew Maltboy. On the walls hung some pictures, that were not unpleasant to look at. There were two portraits of danseuses, with little gauzy wings, and wands tipped with magic stars; one large, full-faced likeness of a pet actress, taken in just the right attitude to show the rounding shoulders, the lightly poised head, and the heavy hair, to the best advantage; some charming French prints, among them "Niobe and her Daughters" and "Di Vernon;" and a half dozen pictures of the fine old English stage-coach days. Over the fireplace were suspended several pairs of boxing gloves, garnishing the picture of a tall fellow in fighting attitude, whose prodigious muscles were only a little smaller than those of all the saints and angels of all the accredited masterpieces of ancient art. A pair of foils and masks, neatly arranged over each corner of the mantelpiece, completed the decorations of the room.
The three bachelors had gone into housekeeping by way of experiment, as a relief from the tedium and oppression of hotels and boarding houses, and as an escape from female society, which was beginning to pall even upon the huge appetite of Matthew Maltboy.
But two weeks of this self-imposed exile—with no female society but Miss Philomela Wilkeson, and Mash, the cook—proved rather too much for Matthew's fortitude. He yawned audibly.
"I understand you," said Marcus; "you are sick of this."
"Well—hum—it's a little prosy at times." Maltboy yawned again.
"Incorrigible monster!" cried Marcus. "What shall we do with him, Top?"
The person addressed swung back the rebellious cowlick from his forehead, as if to clear his thinking faculties from a load while he considered the grave question. "Do with him? Do with him? Oh! I'll tell you." Here the speaker's eyes flashed with the light of a great discovery. "Tether him like a horse, with a certain limited area to feed in. D'ye see? D'ye see?"
"A horse? Can't say that I do," returned Mr. Marcus Wilkeson.
"And I can't say that I do, either," added Mr. Matthew Maltboy. "A horse! Why not say a donkey? I should see it quite as well."
"As you please," resumed the impetuous Overtop. "A donkey, then. Perhaps the metaphor will be better. What I mean—what you two are so dull as not to see—is to put this unreliable Maltboy on a moderate allowance of flirtation; to keep him, for example, within the limits of this block. D'ye see? D'ye catch the idea?"
"It begins to dawn on me," said Wilkeson.
"And I catch a ray or two of it," added Maltboy. But—"
"Excuse me," interrupted Overtop, stepping between his two companions, and gesticulating wildly at each of them in turn, as if he would dart conviction into them like electricity from the tips of his fingers. "Here is a block full of people. Their houses are joined together, or nearly so, all the way round. The inhabitants hear each other's pianos playing and each other's babies squalling all day long. If a fire breaks out in the block, it may be all burned down together. If the measles makes its appearance on the block, it probably runs through it. Is there not, therefore, a community of dangers among us; and if of dangers, why not of pleasures? Why should not the inhabitants of a block be regarded as a distinct settlement, or tribe, whose members owe kindness and goodwill to each other before the rest of the world? Looking at it in the light of humanity, is it not our duty to know our neighbors?"
"And Matt would say, To love them too—that is, the young and pretty ones," observed "Wilkeson.
"Precisely," said Maltboy.
"Excuse me," continued Overtop, deprecating further interruption with both hands. "That is the point I was just coming to. Since Maltboy must have female society, and cannot be kept out of it by main force, why not give him the range of this block? Catch the idea, eh?—in its full force and bearings?"
"Wilkeson and Maltboy implied, by nods, that they caught it.
"And—ahem—I think I'll take the same range too," added Overtop. "Not because I care a pin about female society, but just to test my new theory."
Cries of "Oh! oh!" from Marcus Wilkeson.
Overtop laughed. "You'll be a convert to it yet, my good fellow."
"Never," said Marcus, inflexibly, "so long as books and tobacco hold out."
"We'll see," replied Overtop. "But let me think how we are to begin." He rubbed his nose with a forefinger, then tossed back the cowlick, and said, impetuously: "I have it—I have it! We know Quigg, the grocer, at the corner below, for we are customers of his. Of course, he has an immense number of customers on the block, and will make New Year's calls on all of them, in the way of business. Why can't he take us in tow? It's as plain as daylight."
"Plain enough, I admit," said Marcus Wilkeson; "but what will Quigg's customers say?"
"Poor fellow!" returned Overtop. "How feebly you hermits reason about society! If you had knocked round town on New Year's days, as Matt and I have often done, you would know that visitors are valued only because they swell the number of calls, and that it is entirely immaterial who they are, or who introduces them. The militia general, the banker, the judge, the D.D., the butcher, the drygoods clerk, are units of equal value on that day, each adding one more to the score which is privately kept behind the door. We shall be welcome; never fear for that. You must come with us, and see for yourself."
"I thank you," said Marcus Wilkeson, laughing. "No such fooleries at my time of life."
"Very well," said Overtop. "Matt and I will try to represent the new firm of bachelor housekeepers creditably. Matt will look after the pretty girls, and I after the sensible ones—that is, if there happen to be any on this block."
"Agreed," observed Matthew Maltboy, catching a view of himself in a glass over the fireplace, and not wholly displeased with his appearance.
"Another thought strikes me," said Overtop, explosively. "It's nearly half an hour to sunset. I am impatient to begin my acquaintance with our fellow citizens—our future friends, if I may so call them. Let us look out of the windows, and see what the excellent people are doing. Perhaps it may interest even a recluse and bookworm like you."
"Nonsense," rejoined Marcus Wilkeson. "There's no curiosity in my composition."
And yet, when his two companions stood at the window of the little back parlor, pressing their noses against the glass, and looking out, he could not resist the temptation to join them, although he thought proper to punch them in the ribs, and call them a pair of inquisitive puppies, by way of showing how much he was superior to the great human infirmity.
The uniform row of houses on the other side of a dead waste of snow, to which the attention of the three friends was ardently directed, promised, at first sight, a poor return of instruction and entertainment. The rear view presented one dull stretch of bricks irregularly set even in those houses which displayed imposing fronts of brown stone. The blinds were of a faded green color, and broken. The stoops, the doors opening on them, and the steps leading down to the dirty, sodden snow, had a generic look of cheapness and frailty. "Whatever the censorious critic might say of the front, he could not charge the rear with false pretences; for there was apparent, all over it, an utter indifference to the opinions of mankind. Perhaps because the owners of the houses did not expect mankind to study their property from that point of view.
"Say!" was Mr. Fayette Overtop's first remark, after a moment's observation; "do not those rustic fences on the roofs remind you of the sweet, fresh country in summer time?" Mr. Overtop alluded to the barriers which are erected to keep people from getting into each other's houses, and which are scaled not without difficulty even by cats.
Neither of his friends answering this remark except by a quiet, incredulous smile, Overtop continued, a little pettishly:
"And you really mean to tell me that that pastoral object, happily introduced on the roofs of houses, does not recall the green fields, daisies, babbling brooks, and cloudless skies of early boyhood? Humbug!" The speaker flattened his nose still more against the glass by way of emphasis.
"You look for beauties among the chimney pots, while I search for them in back-parlor windows," said Matthew Maltboy. "Observe where I throw my eye now."
Mr. Maltboy threw his eye toward a house near the middle of the block. His companions followed it, and saw a tall girl with prodigious skirts standing at a window, and looking, as they thought, at them. The view which she obtained was evidently not satisfactory, for with her handkerchief she wiped off the moisture from several of the panes; and, when the glass was clear to her liking, shook out the folds of her dress, and peered forth again, this time more decidedly, at the window occupied by the three friends. Her use of the handkerchief was not lost upon Maltboy, who straightway pulled out his extensive cambric, and polished up their window too. This improvement of the medium of vision on both sides, enabled the three friends to form some idea of the tall girl's personal charms. Her figure was straight; her hair was black; her eyes were brilliant; her complexion was healthy; she exhibited jewelry in her ears, on her neck, her bosom, her wrists, and her fingers; her dress gave her a great deal of trouble, as she leaned forward to look out.
"Charming, is she not?" said Maltboy.
"Hard to say, at this distance," returned Overtop, who, feeling neglected in the matter of the rustic fence, was controversially disposed.
"You may find it so," said Maltboy; "but as for me, the flash of her eyes—there, now, for instance!—is convincing enough."
"Perhaps you have seen her before," remarked Marcus Wilkeson.
"Perhaps," was that gentleman's answer, implying, by his accent and accompanying wink, that he had seen her repeatedly.
"And said nothing about her to us, you inveterate humbug," added Marcus.
Mr. Maltboy felt the compliment conveyed in the word "humbug"—as most people do when that accusation of shrewdness and deep dissembling is brought against them—and smiled.
"I confess," he replied, as he polished the window simultaneously with the performance of that process across the way, "I confess I have noticed her several times; but what was the use of mentioning it to a pair of woman haters like you?"
His two companions laughed pleasantly, thereby expressing their gratification at the return compliment involved in the phrase "woman haters."
"You are such dull fellows now," continued Maltboy, "that perhaps you will say this fair stranger is not looking at us; that she does not desire to be seen by us—that is, by me; and that her rubbing of the window with a handkerchief is not a signal which she expects to be answered."
"We say nothing," replied the disputatious Overtop. "We only wait for proof. It is easy to find out whether a signal is meant or not. Rub the window now."
Maltboy did so, concluding the act with an unmistakable flourish of the handkerchief. Whereupon the tall girl averted her face, pulled down the curtain, and eclipsed herself.
Wilkeson and Overtop laughed, and, with a common impulse, punched Maltboy triumphantly in the ribs—a friendly salute that was always vastly amusing to that gentleman.
"Be it understood, at this stage of affairs," said Marcus, solemnly, "that I reject the Overtop theory, and wash my hands of all responsibility for Maltboy's misdeeds.—Hallo! There he is again."
"Who? Where?" exclaimed his two friends.
"In the house nearly opposite—the one with the grape arbor. Isn't he a fine old fellow?"
Overtop and Maltboy looked, and there saw, sitting at a window, and placidly gazing out of it, an old gentleman with long and thick white hair, a ruddy face, a white neckcloth, and a large projecting shirt frill—which were all the peculiarities of person and dress that could be distinctly made out. He was smoking a long pipe, and placidly rocking himself to and fro. His appearance, through the two windows, was that of a finely preserved relic of a past generation,
"He always has a long pipe in his mouth, and looks benignantly into the open air," said Wilkeson,
"So even you are not wholly devoid of curiosity, and do take some interest in the people on our block," remarked Matthew Maltboy,
"I have noticed the old gentleman often, when I have been reading near the window; and own that I should like to know him. I think, too, from certain signs, that he would not object to knowing me. Unless I am much mistaken, he has bowed to me several times. But fearing that the supposed bow might have been nothing more than a sleepy nod, I have never ventured to answer it. Step back a moment, and see if he observes me."
Maltboy and Overtop retired a few paces. A moment afterward, the old gentleman looked over to Wilkeson, and made a bow at him about which there could be no mistake.
"Answer him." "Answer him," said his two friends. Acting upon this advice, Marcus Wilkeson, blushing, returned a courtly salute, which was immediately reciprocated by a still lower bow, and a pleasant smile from the old gentleman. Wilkeson bowed again, and added a smile. The old gentleman did the same; and this odd exchange of civilities was beginning to get awkward for Wilkeson, when the old gentleman's attention was suddenly called off.
A slender young man, whose broad black mustache contrasted unpleasantly with the sallow whiteness of his face, dressed in the jauntiest costume of the period, and bearing in one hand a black cane with a large ivory handle, which looked, even in the distance, like a human leg, stood by the old gentleman's side. The old gentleman put down his pipe, seized the young man's disengaged hand, and gazed affectionately at him (so the three observers thought). Some conversation then took place between them, during which the old gentleman repeatedly pressed the young man's hand, and sometimes reached up and softly patted him on the shoulder. The young man appeared to receive the words and caresses of the old gentleman with a sullen indifference. Several times he pettishly drew his hand away, and at last shook his head fiercely, folded his arms, and seemed (though the spectators could only conjecture that) to stamp the floor with his foot. At this, the old gentleman bowed his head in his hands. The young man held his defiant attitude unmoved, until, glancing out of the window, he saw for the first time that he was watched. "With a jerk, he pulled down the curtain, and cut off a scene which the three observers had begun to find profoundly interesting.
"Well," said Marcus Wilkeson, "though I have given up making calls as a business, I shall certainly take the New-Year's privilege of dropping in on the venerable unknown over the way."
"Two things are plain," said Fayette Overtop. "One is, that the pale, rascally looking young man is the old man's son. Now, I don't suppose either of you will dispute that?" (Overtop paused a moment to receive and dispose of objections, but none were made.) "The other is, that the old fellow is immensely rich—worth a million or two, maybe. Perhaps you would like to argue that point." Overtop smiled, as if nothing would give him greater pleasure than to annihilate a few dozen opinions to the contrary.
"To save argument, as usual, we admit everything," responded Wilkeson. "But, pray condescend to tell us how you know this fine old boy to be superlatively rich."
Overtop smiled upon his ignorant friends, and answered:
"Because he wears a white cravat. The man isn't a clergyman, is he? Do clergymen smoke pipes? He isn't a Quaker, is he? Do Quakers, or those of them who indulge in white cravats, wear their coat collars turned down? Consult your own experience, now, and tell me whether you ever saw anybody but a very rich man (with the exceptions already stated) wearing a white cravat. I leave it to your candor."
Wilkeson and Maltboy nodded their heads, as if stricken dumb with conviction.
Overtop, gratified with this ready acquiescence, modestly went on to say that he would not undertake to explain the phenomenon; that task he left to some more philosophical mind. He contented himself with making a humble record of facts.
"And now that each of you have made a discovery in the row of houses, let me try my luck." Overtop rubbed the window, looked out, and carefully surveyed the row from end to end, and back again. "Ah, I have it!" he said. "A real mystery, too. Look at that four-story house near the western end of the block, the one a trifle shabbier than its neighbors. Do you see, in the open window, a man with a pale, intellectual face, gray hair, and arms bare to the elbows, filing away at something held in a vise before him? Now he stops to examine a paper—a plan, probably—which he holds in his hand. Now he wipes the perspiration from his forehead. Can't you see him?"
"Distinctly," was the joint reply.
"What do you suppose he is doing?" asked Overtop.
"No idea," said Wilkeson. "Perhaps mending a teakettle."
"Or repairing an umbrella," suggested Maltboy.
Overtop smiled, and said:
"A person with the slightest powers of observation, would see that that man has genius in his face; that his thin arm is not used to hard mechanical labor; that his brain is so heated with great ideas, that he tries to cool it by opening the window. The tinkering of an umbrella or teakettle would not make a man sweat in midwinter. You won't deny the force of that suggestion."
As he spoke, a young girl advanced from the back part of the room, and stood by the pale workman's side. She wore a bonnet, and a shawl tightly wrapped around her. Though the features of her face could not be distinguished in the distance, it was not hard to detect a pleasant expression in her eyes, a smile on her lips, and a high color on her cheeks, as if she had just come in from the street. She held up a little basket for the workman's inspection.
He paused in his labor, took the girl's head between his hands, and kissed her fondly on the brow. Then he opened the little basket, and drew from it a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese, which he began eating hurriedly. He also seemed, by signs, to press the girl to eat; but she shook her head, smiled more than before, and looked up affectionately into his face. Having bolted a few mouthfuls, the workman placed the remains of the repast on the bench or table before him, kissed the young girl, and resumed his work. She watched every motion of his hand with eager eyes. Once she moved as if to close the window, but he shook his head, and again wiped the sweat from his brow.
He had consulted the paper, and attacked his task with fresh energy for the third or fourth time, when his eyes happened to rest upon the window full of scrutinizing faces. His lips moved in some sudden exclamation, and then he shut the window with vehemence, and drew the curtain which obscured the lower half of it.
"Not a very kind reception of your theory, so far," said Marcus.
"Prejudice—nothing more," said Overtop. "When they see that we have no wish to pry into their private affairs, but are animated with a neighborly regard for them, they will not repel our advances. It isn't human nature."
During the following two weeks, up to New Year's day, the three friends made little progress in their observations. The tall girl in the immense skirts appeared rarely to reward Matthew Maltboy's ardent gaze, and even then seemed to look down at the dingy snow beneath, or the clouds overhead, or to something or somebody across the way, but never to the fluttering Maltboy.
Nothing more was seen of the pale and grayhaired workman; for he kept the lower curtain of his window jealously drawn. But at night his shadow, strongly projected on the curtain, was in incessant motion; and far into the morning hours a gigantic head and arms shifted and blended upon it in grotesque forms. At the other window of the workman's apartment the young girl often sat, book in hand, and moved her lips as if she were reading aloud. Her eyes were never seen to wander to the outer world with those longings for freedom and fresh air which are natural to the youthful heart, but were always fixed upon the book, or upon some object within the room. She was entirely unconscious of the distant and imperfect scrutiny to which her form and movements were subjected by Marcus Wilkeson, who had begun to take a strange interest in her, and in the shadow on the curtain, since the healthy and amiable old gentleman directly opposite had ceased to smoke his pipe and indulge in his tranquil meditation daily.
Twice only had he shown himself, and then, after a grave bow to Marcus Wilkeson, who returned it with more than the usual inclination of head, the old gentleman had taken a few whiffs at his pipe, looked out of the window with a troubled air, and vanished from the sight of his sympathizing observer, as if the quiet old sitting place had lost its charm for him. The young man—the disturbing element of the old gentleman's life, as Marcus Wilkeson regarded him—was not again seen in the room where he had made his first appearance, but was discovered, several days after that event, sitting at a table near a window in the second story, and writing industriously. His labors were evidently not disagreeable; for, after an hour's engagement with his pen, he would sit back in his chair, laugh, take a long drink from a black bottle which stood at his elbow, and light a fresh cigar. Whatever his occupation, he was completely absorbed in it, and did not notice the pair of keen eyes peering at him from behind a book in the house opposite. Every afternoon, about three o'clock, the young man sat at the table with his bottle, cigars, and writing materials, and pursued his pleasant labors.
Marcus Wilkeson would never have pretended that it was not highly improper to watch one's neighbors. He would have denounced it as deserving of the severest reprobation. But he would have said, that if, while he was sitting, according to his invariable custom, at his own window, for the sole purpose of reading a book, people chose to bring themselves within the range of his vision, he was not therefore under obligations to vacate his seat. He would have insisted that any glances which he might have directed at his neighbors, were so levelled in fits of mental abstraction, or in the exercise of a friendly regard for them. The Overtop theory he discarded as fallacious, and likely to get its talented founder into trouble.
That founder and his only follower, Maltboy, were determined, however, to put the new social system into practice on New Year's day, and had secured the ready services of Quigg, the grocer, as originally proposed by the sagacious Overtop. Marcus Wilkeson obstinately refused to participate in this projected grand tour; which refusal was too bad, said Overtop, because the fourth seat in the double sleigh that had been hired for the occasion would be left vacant.
At last came New Year's day; and the sky was cloudless, and the sun was bright, and the weather was just cold enough to make the blood tingle pleasantly, and the snow was a foot deep, and well beaten down in the side streets. The elements themselves had conspired to give the Overtop theory every chance of success.
J.M. Quigg, grocer, was elaborately attiring himself in the snug sleeping room behind his store, at ten o'clock on the morning of the eventful day. He little knew the tremendous importance of the part which he was about to perform. He looked upon Overtop and Maltboy, not as the expounders of a new social philosophy, but as cash customers to a considerable extent, and as partners in defraying the heavy expenses of a large double team. Mr. Quigg exercised the virtue of prudence even in his dissipations, and derived pleasure from the reflection that he would make his annual round of complimentary calls in an elegant turnout at a moderate cost.
Therefore Mr. Quigg hummed pleasantly as he dressed himself, by the aid of a large mirror which he had taken for a bad debt, and which was the only ornament of the plainly furnished little room. Mr. Quigg was a man of business, and never fretted with cravats, nor made himself unhappy on the subject of hair. Three turns and a pull adjusted the former; and a half dozen well-directed dabs with a stiff brush regulated the latter. Fifteen minutes after he began his toilet, he took a comprehensive view of himself in the large mirror, and mentally expressed the conviction that, for a man of thirty-seven, he was not bad looking.
Quigg was right; and his just opinion of himself was shared by the young widows and unmarried ladies of his acquaintance. He was about six feet high, with a graceful figure, and the head of a statesman. A more intellectual face, and a broader or more massive brow, assisted, perhaps, in its general effect, by a slight baldness, were rarely if ever seen. A distinguished professor of phrenology had picked out Quigg's head from among half an acre of heads at a lecture upon that subject in the city, and had pronounced it the "model head," greatly to the disgust of all the other large-skulled men in the hall. The professor had also assured Quigg, upon learning who and what he was, that it was a solemn duty he owed to society to abandon the grocery business, and devote himself to "philosophical culture, the development of the humanities, and the true expansion of his interior individuality." Notwithstanding this flattering opinion, Quigg still sanded his sugar, and reduced his whiskey, and found his delight as well as his-profit in those gross material pursuits.
The interior Quigg, of whom the professor had spoken so hopefully, was still undeveloped. The professor's views of Quigg's head had, however, made a deep impression upon the owner of it, and had given to Quigg's ordinary observations on the weather, the state of his health, and the other familiar topics to which his remarks were principally addressed, an oracular importance in his own opinion. Such were the deceptive effects produced by his large, polished brow, and slow, imposing speech, that he always seemed to be on the point of uttering vital truths. But the listener's ear ached in vain for them.
Quigg put on his overcoat, took a small glass of bitters from a bottle kept behind the large mirror, locked up the store, proceeded to the nearest restaurant, hastily despatched a lean, unsatisfactory chop and a cup of weak tea, gave a half dime to the waiter who bade him, in a loud and significant voice, "Happy New Year, sir," and then returning found the double sleigh punctual to appointment.
It was a swan-shaped vehicle, brightly painted, thickly covered with buffalo robes, and drawn by two high-stepping horses, which tossed their heads and shook their bells merrily as if they shared in the prevailing jovialty of the day.
On the front seat, and nearly filling up the whole width of the sleigh, sat the driver. His shoulders were broad enough for two men; his legs and arms were of twice the common size, and he had two well-defined chins. He seemed to be double in all his dimensions, like the sleigh.
"Hallo, Quigg!" said the driver, in a voice of double strength, snapping his whip playfully at that gentleman as he approached.
"Hallo to you, Cap," returned Quigg, pleasantly. "It is a very fine day. I guess there will be a great many calls made." Quigg uttered these words slowly, as if they were precious, and he hated to part with them.
"Shouldn't wonder," answered Cap, which was a short name for Captain (nobody knew of what), and added, without any apparent sequence of ideas: "I s'pose you're goin' to take some brandy along, old fellow? It's hardly fair for me to be sittin' into the cold outside, with nothin' to drink, while you chaps are drinkin' your champagne punch before a warm fire."
Mr. Quigg reflected a moment, as one who reckons up profit and loss. He then said:
"A good idea, Cap. Brandy is not a bad thing on a cold day." He spoke with impressive solemnity.
"Or any other day," added the driver. "Partickley 'lection day. Leastways, such was the 'pinion of the voters into my ward, last December, when I run for School Inspector, you know. Unfortunately, I didn't know the ropes then; and thought, when I got the nomination, I was sure to be 'lected. My 'ponent issued tickets for free drinks at all the rum mills into the ward. I didn't find out his game till about two o'clock in the afternoon, and then I tried it myself. But I was too late. He had six hours' start of me, and beat me by five hundred drinks—I mean votes."
Mr. Quigg nodded, and said, "Of course," as if he had often heard of such instances, and there was nothing surprising in them. He then abruptly cut off the Captain's political reminiscences, by unlocking the store and entering it. After a few minutes' absence, he returned with a half-gallon jug and a tin dipper.
"A nice, fat little feller," rapturously exclaimed Captain Tonkins, taking the proffered jug. Placing it in the bottom of the sleigh, where such of the public as were stirring in that vicinity could not see the operation, he half filled the tin dipper, and, raising it suddenly to his mouth, drank the contents with a double gulp. "Prime stuff, that," said the Captain, smacking his lips. "A hogshead of it would make a school commissioner, an alderman, mebbe a major of you, Quigg."
"I dare say," said Quigg. "But what would a dull, practical fellow like me be good for in public life?" This was Quigg's habitual way of depreciating himself, and it always impressed the hearer with a sense of Quigg's eminent ability.
Quigg then drew a pair of yellow gloves on his large, hairy hands, slightly ripping the two thumbs and most of the fingers in the operation, took a seat in the double sleigh, and proclaimed himself ready to start.
PLEASURE AS BUSINESS.
Captain Tonkins cracked his whip with professional sonority over the heads of his lively horses, and they started off at a slapping pace, which brought them to the house of the three friends before the bells had fairly begun to jingle in unison. The door was instantly opened, and Overtop and Maltboy presented themselves, dressed in the most elaborate and captivating style. Marcus Wilkeson appeared just behind them, in his dressing gown and slippers, calmly smoking his well-browned Meerschaum.
After the salutations of the day, both Overtop and Maltboy addressed a last appeal to Marcus to give up his ridiculous prejudices, and join the party; but he obstinately refused, saying that he should make only one call, and that was upon the old gentleman over the way.
The arrangements for the day had already been made. The party were to call on a few dozen of Quigg's customers (selected from a carefully prepared list of one hundred) within range of a mile or two; also on a few friends of Overtop and Maltboy, who could not well be slighted, and then come back to the block.
Quigg looked upon the day as one of business, and not of pleasure, and had methodized a system of callmaking, which was submitted to his companions, and highly approved by them. The order of exercises was as follows: First, a jerk at the doorbell; second, precipitate entrance, hat in hand; third, "Happy New Year," remark on fine weather, and introduction of friends; fourth, a second remark on fine weather, or any other one remark which might occur to friends on inspiration of moment; fifth, acceptance of one sip of wine, and one bite of cake, if any offered, with compliments on excellence of both; sixth, reference to list in hand, observation on the necessity of retiring, and regret for the same; seventh, precipitate retreat.
The system did not work smoothly at first, in consequence of Overtop's and Maltboy's strained, excessive efforts to make themselves agreeable. It happened that, at the first two or three houses visited, Maltboy discovered charming young ladies, and could not resist the temptation to linger beyond the prescribed minutes, and talk trifles to them. It also fell out, that Overtop found a number of those sensible women for whom his heart ever longed, and whose starving souls, as he called them, were not to be satisfied with the dry crust of ordinary compliment. To them, therefore, he addressed observations on the inner or spiritual significance of the New Year's call; on the reminiscences of childhood suggested by sleigh bells; on the typical meaning of snow as the shroud of death, and, at the same time, the warming garment of coming life; on wine or lemonade (as the case might be), as an emblem of hospitality; and on many other little things as expressive of the loftiest truths.
It was only after earnest remonstrances from Quigg, that the discursive Overtop brought himself down to the rules of the day. In deference to Quigg, Mr. Maltboy also steeled his too susceptible heart against the attractions which he was perpetually encountering, and kept strictly to the weather. He, as well as Overtop, was surprised to find that the single stereotyped observation, "It's a fine day," was, after all, more acceptable than a longer and more strikingly original remark for it imposed no tax upon the conversational resources of the ladies, and left them unfatigued to succeeding scores of visitors.
About this time, it was observed of Captain Tonkins that he began to show signs of fatigue, rocking heavily in his seat with every oscillation of the sleigh, and talking thick like a jaded man. These phenomena seeming to require some explanation, the Captain stated that he had been up late the past three nights, and could keep himself awake only by taking occasional draughts of Quigg's brandy. The Captain then proceeded to indulge in random recollections of his political career, and withering denunciations of one Larry Mulcahy, his successful rival for the office of School Inspector, whom the Captain did not hesitate to brand as a jailbird.
When the party returned to the block where the Overtop theory was to be tested, Mr. Quigg's services were found invaluable. He had not only been the principal grocer in the vicinity for five years, but he had served on Ward Committees for the relief of the poor at other people's expense, and had participated largely in those admirable institutions for the promotion of matrimony known as Sociables. Therefore, Quigg knew about everybody on the block worth knowing. There were a few persons in that old house near the corner, who sent in for herrings, cheap butter, and pounds of flour, and whom, of course, he did not know. There was a queer old Dutchman in that square, old-fashioned house in the middle of the block, whom neither he nor anybody else knew.
They went through half of the south side of the block, and found only plain and commonplace people. Overtop and Maltboy began to be weary. The former was gradually discovering that his theory was a bore. The latter wondered whether Quigg knew the tall girl, concerning the identity of the front part of whose residence Maltboy was at fault, although he knew every brick of the rear.
"In this 'ere house," said Quigg, "I shall be treated rudely, because they owe me fifty dollars for groceries. It's a curious fact, but I have noticed that debtors always act kind o' cold to creditors, as if it was the creditors that owed the money."
Mr. Quigg spoke with an important air, as if he had made an original discovery in human nature.
While this exploring party were going through the block, Mr. Marcus Wilkeson dressed himself with more than usual care, preparatory to a call upon the unknown old gentleman over the way, who that very morning had appeared at his window, the first time in three days, and tendered the compliments of the season in two low bows and a smile. Having carefully adjusted his necktie, and smoothed the creases of his gloves, Mr. Wilkeson grasped his old friend, a hickory cane, by its sturdy elbow, and marched forth to make his solitary visit.
As 'he turned the corner of the street upon which the unknown old gentleman's residence was situated, thinking of the oddity of the call he was about to make, and half inclined to abandon it, he saw, in a doorway a few yards in front of him, a little girl who bore a striking resemblance to the patient creature that he had often noticed sitting at a window in the room of the pale mechanic. A single glance at the cracked and dirty front of the building established its connection with the weather-stained and shaky rear premises in which the worker toiled at his strange task from morning to night, and far into the morning again.
The little girl was earnestly talking with a rough, hungry-looking fellow in a greasy cap and tattered blue overalls. As Marcus approached, he heard the following fragment of conversation:
"Yer can't fool this child again, now, I tell yer. Why don't he pay me? that's what I want to know. I will go up." The man stepped forward, as if to ascend the stairs.
"Please don't, Mr. Gilsum," said the girl, in a sweet, pleading tone, laying a red and toilworn little hand softly on his arm. "Papa will pay you next week. He will, believe me, sir."
"So you told me last week," growled Mr. Gilsum, "and the week before that. It's all humbug. Why don't he pay me now? that's what I want to know." Again he put a foot forward, and was again restrained by the hand of the little girl.
"I have tried very hard to earn money, Mr. Gilsum," said the musical and plaintive voice, but have been disappointed. Next week I am sure I will have some for you."
"Pshaw!" ejaculated the man, pulling the greasy cap over his eyes in a spirit of savage determination. "I can't waste time talking. I will find out why he don't pay me now."
The inexorable Mr. Gilsum pushed aside the feeble hand of the little girl, and was about to go up the stairs in good earnest, when Marcus Wilkeson, who had lingered near the door to catch the exact purport of the conversation, called out to him:
"Hallo, my friend! what's the row?"
Mr. Gilsum stopped, and, turning, said snappishly:
"None of yer business. Unless," he prudently added, "yer a friend of the comical old chap up stairs, and want to pay his debts."
"I am a friend, and I will pay them," rejoined Marcus, speaking from the impulse of the moment. Since he had become rich, and could afford the luxury, he frequently spoke and acted upon impulse, without regard to consequences.
Mr. Gilsum's face suddenly changed from an aspect of moroseness to one of bewitching amiability. He stood in the doorway, and said:
"It's only a matter of ten shillings, sir, for brass and screws, and little odds and ends from my shop—the locksmith's shop over in the next street—you may remember it, sir. I'm sure I don't want to be hard on the gentleman."
To cut short explanations, which he hated, Marcus paid the locksmith his ten shillings, and suggested that he need not wait longer. The locksmith, having received the money, thought it incumbent upon him to apologize and explain still further, till Marcus took hold of the door, as if to close it, when he accepted the hint, and departed, mumbling an apology as he went.
The young girl, who had looked on in amazement, turned a pair of soft blue eyes toward the face of the stranger, and said:
"Papa will thank you very much, sir."
Marcus now had an opportunity to observe her more closely. Her figure was slightly formed, and undersized for her apparent age of seventeen years. Her face would have been plain, but for one peculiarity which made it charming, in his practised judgment. This rare excellence was her complexion, which showed a perfect pink and white, without roughness, spot, or blemish, under the strong light of a noonday sun, made more dazzling by its reflection from the snow. Marcus had never seen but one such complexion, and that was many years ago. He looked at it in silent wonder, until the delicate bloom in the centre of her cheeks began to invade the neighboring white, and the large blue eyes drooped in confusion.
"Pardon me, my child," said Marcus, in a gentle, reassuring voice.
She looked up, much embarrassed, and said:
"Will you be so good as to walk up and see my poor father, sir? He will be delighted to meet a friend, for he is very much in want of one, sir."
"I do not know him, my child; but I should be happy to make his acquaintance."
The girl was surprised to learn that her father's benefactor was a stranger to him, and looked doubtingly at him for a moment—but only a moment—and then ran briskly up the stairs, asking him to follow.
The stairs were uncarpeted, and had little feet-worn hollows in the middle of them. The banisters were rickety, and had been notched by the knives of reckless tenants. The first and second floors were occupied by different families (so Marcus inferred from the distinct set of baby cries issuing from each), and the halls were dirty, and flavored with a decided odor of washing day. But on the third story he saw a clean, white floor, and drew breaths of pure air from an open rear window, and heard no noise save the dull sound of filing.
The little girl paused a second at a door bearing the inscription, "Private," asked the visitor to please wait, and opened the door just wide enough to admit her body, and entered, nearly closing it behind her. In the one glance which Marcus then obtained of the interior of the room, he saw the pale mechanic hastily rise from a jumble of cog wheels before him, and put up a screen to shelter his work from observation, after which he stepped forward, or rather sprang, to meet his child.
Mr. Wilkeson heard a few words of hurried conversation between the father and daughter, and then the door was thrown wide open, and the mechanic stood in full view. He was a man of medium height, of a spare build, and attired in faded, seedy black. His head seemed altogether too large for his body; and his almost livid complexion, hollow cheeks, and gleaming eyes, told a story of constant and consuming thought. The strange, fixed glitter of his eyes was unpleasant to behold. Marcus had noticed the same thing in insane persons.
"My name is Minford," said the mechanic, in a deep and solemn voice, "and I thank you for saving me from the annoying visits of that impertinent fellow. I beg, sir, that you will give me your address, and assure you that the sum shall positively be repaid to you next week."
"Never mind the repayment," said Marcus, kindly. "The sum was a trifle for me."
The mechanic's eyes flashed with new fire, and his lower lip curved with pride, as he answered:
"But I shall insist on returning it, sir. We are temporarily poor, sir; but we are not beggars yet, I trust that, some day, we shall be in a position to confer benefits, instead of receiving them."
Marcus knew that the man was turning over in his mind the troublesome question of "MOTIVE," with which so many people like to make themselves unhappy; and he therefore said:
"I took the liberty of assisting you, sir, because I am a neighbor of yours, living on the other side of the block, in a house which can be plainly seen from your window; and I think it is the duty of neighbors to be neighborly, on New Year's day at least. My name is Marcus Wilkeson."
The mechanic's face assumed a pleasanter expression. "Perhaps," said he, "you are the gentleman that I have sometimes seen sitting with a book, in a window covered with grape vines?"
"I am," returned Marcus.
"As a scholar, then—as one who is superior to mean motives and vulgar curiosity—you are welcome to my poor home. Pray, walk in, sir. Pet, give the gentleman a chair."
The girl, whose face had been clouded during the first part of this conversation, brightened up at its close, and obeyed her father with alacrity, brushing the clean chair with her handkerchief, to make it the more acceptable to their visitor. She also took his hat and cane, and placed them carefully away.
The room was simply but neatly furnished, and very clean. The hand of taste and order was everywhere visible. Snow-white curtains festooned the two small windows, and concealed all of a turn-up bedstead but two of its legs. A small array of white crockery shone from an open closet; and a squat-looking stove, which made the apartment agreeably warm, was smartly polished, and was evaporating cheerful music out of a bright teakettle. Through a door partly ajar could be seen another room, covered with a rag carpet, and the companion of the first in simplicity and neatness.
Marcus had not intended to look at the mechanic's corner, which was almost completely screened from view, being desirous to justify the high opinion which Mr. Minford had expressed of him; but his eyes were irresistibly attracted to the mysterious spot, and obtained a clearer glimpse, through an open space between the two screens, of a something composed of cogwheels, springs, bands, and levers. His host, observing this casual glance, much to the guest's mortification, rose, and placed the screens close together at right angles, thus shutting out a view of the corner.
Mr. Minford opened his lips as if to offer some explanation of the act, but did not offer it. A moment afterward, he said:
"I have not always been a poor man, Mr. Wilkeson. Six years ago I possessed a handsome fortune, which enabled me to pursue certain philosophical experiments, in which I had taken great interest, at leisure. An unfortunate speculation in real estate, year before last, nearly ruined me. I converted the remains of my property into cash, and went on with my experiments, undiscouraged. Like all laborers in the cause of science—which is the cause of humanity—I have met with many obstacles. Several times, when I have been on the point of perfecting my great invention, some small, unforeseen difficulty has occurred, compelling me to reconstruct large portions of the machinery. Eighteen months passed away, and I found myself penniless. I tried to borrow money, but without success. Now, who do you suppose has supported us the last three months?"
"Some benevolent relative, perhaps," said Mr. Wilkeson, hazarding a wild guess.
"You are right, sir. And a near and dear relative it is—no other than my little Pet here." Mr. Minford placed his right hand fondly on the shining head of the young girl, who sat on a low stool by his side, looking into his face.
She blushed deeply, and said:
"You forget the unknown good friend who sent the letters with money to you, papa."
"No, no, I don't, Pet," continued Mr. Minford, patting her playfully on the cheeks; "but you were the dearest and sweetest of my guardian angels. You know you were, you rogue. Why, sir, you will hardly believe it, but this little creature, when she knew our money was nearly gone, taught herself the art of embroidery, with the aid of some illustrations from an old magazine, and in less than a fortnight could work so beautifully, that she was able to earn from three to four dollars a week. When she first told me that she was going out to look for work, I opposed it fiercely; but the obstinate little Pet would have her way. She was lucky enough to get a job from a milliner, and pleased her employer so well, that steady work was given to her, until last week, when the kind-hearted lady died, and now little Pet has nothing to do. Some people think, because she is young—"
"Please don't talk about me any more, papa," said Pet, who had been blushing deeply, and looking very beautiful in the visitor's eyes. "You forget what the postman used to bring you every Saturday."
"No, I don't, you little, troublesome, impertinent Pet. I was just about to speak of it, when you interrupted me. You must know, Mr. Wilkeson, that every Saturday the postman, on his first morning round, delivered to me a letter, marked 'New York City,' containing two dollars, without a word of writing inside, and addressed to me in large capitals, each nearly half an inch long. The object of this singular style of address was either to make it so plain that the postman could not mistake, or to disguise some handwriting which otherwise I might recognize. Now, as I have no relatives living, and no friends that I know of, who would lend me a dollar except on the best security, I am greatly puzzled, as you may suppose, to guess the name of my unknown benefactor. Generous man! For aught I know, he may now be dead, or himself reduced to poverty; for, last Saturday, the regular weekly remittance failed to come."
"Then I see that I am just in season to help you," said Marcus Wilkeson, who, during the recital of this brief history, had decided upon his course of action.
"I thank you most gratefully," returned Mr. Minford, "and fully appreciate the noble motives of your conduct. Your appearance convinces me that you are entirely disinterested. But I should feel ashamed to take money from you, without giving some security for its repayment. I shall therefore insist upon making over to you a certain interest in the invention, the most valuable of modern times, which lies almost finished behind those screens. Let me give you some idea of it, and you can then decide how much money you will advance, merely as a matter of business. I cannot consent to put our negotiations upon any other ground. The invention, then, is—" The speaker looked at the corner as he spoke, and paused.
Marcus Wilkeson knew that the inventor was about to part with his secret unwillingly, and that he would regret it forever after. To save him from unpleasant feelings on that score, and to maintain friendly relations between them for the future, Marcus put a stop to the reluctant disclosure. He said:
"Never mind it, Mr. Minford. I know nothing of mechanical matters, and take no interest in them. Your explanation would only be wasted on me. Besides, it is entirely uncalled for, as I am willing to take your own opinion of the invention, and will pay you five hundred dollars for a one-tenth interest in it, if those terms will suit." Marcus took a keen delight in acting upon this singular impulse, and was sorry he had not said a "thousand," when he saw the glow of happiness that irradiated the sweet face of Pet, still sitting on the stool by her father's side.
"Heaven bless you, sir!" said Mr. Minford. "You will be the means not only of relieving me and my dear child, but also of conferring the boon of a great discovery upon mankind. But your terms are too liberal, sir. I shall insist upon assigning one fifth of my right to you, which, mark my prediction, will prove of itself a fortune. Furthermore, I feel that I ought, if only to show my complete confidence in you, to tell you what it is. It is—" Mr. Minford hesitated for a word.
"Now I beg, as a particular favor, that you won't tell me," said Marcus, goodhumoredly. "If you bore me with any of those dull details, I'll—I'll take back my offer. As to the proportion of the invention which I am to have, I will accept one fifth, since you insist on it, not because I want it, but that we may not say another word about the matter."
"As you please, sir. But how shall I sufficiently thank you?"
Marcus, who was already overcome with the gratitude which shone from the large, soft eyes of the young girl, answered, with a laugh and a blush (he had not outgrown the habit of reddening on occasions):
"By changing the subject."
Mr. Minford was about to protest against this extraordinary method of thanking a benefactor, when a rap was heard at the door.
THE BOY BOG.
In reply to the invitation, "Come in," a tall boy opened the door, and started back on seeing a stranger.
"Do come in, Bog," said Mr. Minford. "I have good news to tell you. This is a friend of ours, Mr. Wilkeson. What with his running of errands, and doing little jobs for us, we really couldn't get along without him. Oh, walk in, Bog; you're always welcome here."
"Now do come in, Bog," added the little girl, in a winning tone, rising from her stool, stepping to the door, and placing a hand on his shoulder.
The new comer, after a few shuffles on the threshold, and an unintelligible murmur of words, walked in with painful awkwardness, and took a seat upon a corner of the chair which Pet offered him, as if the whole chair were more of a favor than he could conscientiously accept; He was a bony, strongly built stripling, with a record of anywhere from seventeen to nineteen years written in his red, resolute, honest face. He wore a coarse but neat suit of boy's clothes, one inch too small in every dimension, a white turn-down collar, and a black neckerchief fastidiously tied; and carried a slouched cloth cap in his hand, with which he slapped his knees alternately, after he had taken a seat, and continued to do so without cessation.
"Well, Bog," said Mr. Minford, kindly, but condescendingly, "you are just in time to hear good news. This gentleman has taken a partnership in my invention (Mr. Minford thought it best to state the case that way), and, with his assistance, I shall be able to complete it and bring it before the public immediately."
"Glad to hear it, sir," answered the boy Bog, blushing hard, lifting his eyes from the floor long enough to glance at Mr. Minford and his daughter, and all the while slapping his knees vigorously.
"He is in the bill-posting business," said Mr. Minford to Marcus. "You may have seen him at the head of his company of walking advertisers. Ha! ha!"
Marcus remembered having seen that honest face, that thick head of hair, and that identical cap, sticking out of the top of a portable wooden frame covered with placards, setting forth the virtues of quack medicines, the excellencies of dry goods, or the unequalled attractions of concert saloons. He also remembered that this wooden frame was much taller than any of the long procession of frames which followed it, and that, from a hole in the right side thereof, protruded a fist about the size of the boy Bog's, clutching a broomstick, with which the inmate kept a semblance of order among the wilful and eccentric occupants of the frames behind him. "Oh, yes; I have seen you very often, Bog. How do you like the business?" said Marcus, pleasantly.
"Very well, sir, thank you," replied Bog, with his eyes still on the floor, "'cept when the boys poke fun at us; 'cos we can't run after 'em in them boxes, and wollop 'em. 'S rather hard, that." Bog caught Miss Minford's eye as he concluded these remarks, and blushed till he perspired, to think that he should have dropped such a brutal observation in presence of that young lady.
Mr. Minford noticed the confusion of his young friend, and unintentionally added to it, by saying:
"Bog is a good boy. By his industry, he earns eight or ten dollars a week, not only supporting himself, but his aunt."
"Not this week, nor last week neither, Mr. Minford," said Bog, mopping the modest sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his coat. "The adv'tisin' line a'n't as good as't used to be. I only got three jobs with my company the last fortnight, and nary cent of pay from any of 'em. Of course, all my boys had to be paid just the same."
"And you paid them?" asked Marcus.
"Certainly," said Bog.
"Then be good enough to accept five dollars from me, as a reward for your honesty," said Marcus, acting upon another of his impulses.
"No, thank you, sir. No, thank you," returned Bog, quickly, to prevent Marcus from pulling the money out of his pocket. "I sha'n't take it, sir; I won't have it anyway. I'm goin' into the reg'lar bill-postin' business, as Jack Fink's assistant, to-morrow, and can earn all I want." Bog blushed, but this time with honest pride, though he was flustered to look up and see that Miss Minford nodded in approval of his independent spirit.
Bog then slapped each knee about a dozen times with his cap, and betrayed many symptoms of fever heat and great mental distress. After which, he said that he had only called to see if he could do anything for them.
"Now do you mean to tell us that it is not a regular New Year's call," said Mr. Minford, playfully, "and that you have not a dozen more to make?"
Bog looked guilty of an enormous fraud, dropped his cap, in his confusion, twice, murmured something inaudible, rose to his feet, and backed out of the room, making one comprehensive bow to everybody, and saying "Good-night" before it was two P.M.
As Bog shut the door, everybody laughed, but not so loud as to be heard by the boy; and, under the cover of the general good humor, Marcus rose, and said that he must go. He was afraid he had made his visit too long for a first one. He would call again on the following day, if agreeable, and complete the proposed arrangement. In conclusion, he placed his card in Mr. Minford's hand, with the names of a few references pencilled on the margin.
Mr. Minford was very sorry that their pleasant acquaintance should take his leave so abruptly, and hoped that they would enjoy many visits from him, not merely as a business partner (Mr. Minford laid emphasis on this), but as a friend.
Pet repeated her father's regrets and hopes in the more impressive language of her sweet eyes, and, for the twentieth time that day, conjured up, in the memory of Marcus Wilkeson, a vague reminiscence of the distant past.
MALTBOY'S TWENTIETH AFFAIR.
The house which had elicited Quigg's last sagacious remark, was a three-story brownstone front, and was one of the finest looking on the south side. The heavy mahogany door was opened by a slovenly girl, who ushered the callers into the front parlor, which was carefully darkened, according to the custom of the day. The only objects plainly visible were two female figures, each seated near a front window, under the rosy shade of damask curtains artfully disposed. One of the ladies, whom Matthew Maltboy was not slow to recognize, looked like a fountain of pink silk, gushing out with great vehemence in high, curving jets on every side; from which fountain a slim, graceful figure had risen, as far as the waist, like a modern Arethusa. The gleam of a shapely neck, of a pearl necklace and diamond cross, of diamond earrings, of an enormous gold brooch, of golden gyves an inch broad on each wrist, as the rose-tinted rays fell on those natural and artificial charms, produced a dazzling effect in the shady corner. On plainer persons, this display might have seemed, in Maltboy's eyes, a glaring instance of bad taste. But, looking at that small, oval face, those large, flashing black eyes, complexion of red and white, so beautifully blended that it hardly seemed a work of nature, pouting lips, even, white teeth, and heavily braided hair, Maltboy thought that no decorations could be-too gaudy for a creature of such radiant loveliness.
At the same instant (as their feet passed the parlor threshold) that Maltboy made these comprehensive observations, the quick eyes of Fayette Overtop were scanning the lady that basked in the subdued light of the other window. She rose from a smaller fountain of silk to a less height than her companion. She was fat to such a degree, that the bodice of her dress seemed ready to burst with the excessive pressure beneath, immediately suggesting to every beholder the obvious humanity of enlarging it, by taking only a small portion from the superfluous silk below. She was quite pretty, and very healthy, and had a smile lurking on her lips, and in the corners of her small blue eyes, and in the dimples of her round, red cheeks, and in the curved crease which was beginning to show under her apple of a chin. She wore plain colors, and exhibited no ornaments save a large brooch with braided hair in it. The lean Overtop immediately felt a tender inclination toward this fat young lady.
Mr. Quigg paid the compliments of the season in his neat, settled style, to Miss Whedell—the tall young lady—who received them with marked coldness, and then begged leave to introduce Messrs. Overtop and Maltboy, to whom she smiled graciously, rising slightly from her chair, and sinking back again, without disturbing the symmetrical flow of the silken fountain. With a wave of her jewelled right hand she performed the ceremony of introduction between the three callers and Mrs. Frump—the fat young lady—who also carefully raised herself about two inches from her chair, and lowered herself again, without disarranging a ripple.
In compliance with an invitation from Miss Whedell, the three callers sat down. Mr. Maltboy gravitated by a natural instinct to the side of his charmer. Mr. Overtop was drawn by an irresistible impulse into the vicinity of Mrs. Frump, having detected in her general appearance certain indications of what he called "a sensible woman." Mr. Quigg, feeling that he was one too many, took a "seat equally removed from the two ladies, and commenced playing soft tunes on his hat, and looking vacantly about the room.
"I had begun to wonder, Mr. Maltboy," said Miss Whedell, "what makes our friends so backward to-day. I do declare, we have not had a caller for more than—how long is it, Gusty, since Colonel Bigford dropped in?"
Maltboy thought her voice had a sweet, metallic ring.
"About half an hour," replied Mrs. Frump, after a brief mental calculation.
"Why, Gusty!" exclaimed Miss Whedell; "how can you sit there and tell such stories? You know it is not five minutes."
"Just as you please, dear," said Mrs. Frump, leaving on the minds of her hearers the impression that her estimate was the correct one.
"I never saw anything so slow," pursued Miss Whedell. "Would you believe it, Mr. Maltboy—here are two hours gone, and we have not had more than—how many callers have we had, Gusty? You keep account of them."
Mrs. Frump drew out a little memorandum book from one of her pockets, and consulted. "Exactly eleven, Clemmy," said she.
"Gusty Frump," returned Miss Whedell, with some warmth, "you ought to be ashamed of yourself! We have had fifty callers, to my certain knowledge."
"I presume you are right," said Mrs. Frump, with a smile that irradiated the whole of her fat face, and again imparted the idea that Miss Whedell was wrong.
"For one," said Matthew Maltboy, improving the opportunity to put in a word, "I should not be surprised to learn that you had a hundred."
Miss Whedell appreciated the delicate compliment, and beamed fascination upon him.
"It has been a horrid, dreary winter, has it not, Mr. Maltboy?" said she, in a tone that invited sympathy and confidence.
Mr. Maltboy, supposing that she alluded to the prevalent snow and ice of the season, said that it certainly had.
"No balls, no opera—or none to speak of—no parties, no anything. You will hardly believe it, Mr. Maltboy, but I declare I haven't been to twenty parties this winter—have I, Gusty?"
"To only two that I know of," responded Mrs. Frump, in a winning voice.
"You provoking creature," said Miss Whedell, "to talk so, when you know that I have been to at least eighteen parties!" Miss Whedell scowled charmingly as she spoke, and then added, with a pleasant smile, for the benefit of Mr. Maltboy: "She's a gay young widow; and you know what widows are."
Mr. Maltboy's knowledge of that species of the human family was extensive and exact. He nodded, to signify that he knew something of them, and felt forearmed, from that moment, against the charms of Mrs. Frump.
Mrs. Frump told Miss Whedell that she thanked her very much for the compliment, and laughed so prettily, that Fayette Overtop determined to apply some of his grand tests for the discovery of sensible women.
Abandoning the vein of commonplace conversation which he had worked during the five minutes since his arrival, he remarked:
"It really makes us feel young again—does it not, Mrs. Frump?—to renew this charming custom of receiving and making calls."
Mr. Overtop spoke in general terms, like a philosopher; whereas Mrs. Frump made a personal application of the remark to herself, and replied, rather coldly: "I have no doubt that it makes old persons feel younger," and then she looked at Matthew Maltboy, and seemed to be listening to the conversation between him and Miss Whedell.
Mr. Overtop paused a moment, and tried again: "Is it not pleasant, though sad, Mrs. Frump, to think of the friends whom we knew many, many years ago, who no longer live to greet us on this festal day?" The speaker alluded to mankind at large.
Mrs. Frump responded tartly, that she could not speak from experience, of course, but she presumed that Mr. Overtop's opinion was correct. And again she glanced at Maltboy.
Mr. Overtop briefly rested, and then remarked:
"It may be merely a poetical conceit of mine, but it seems to me that the horses prance higher, and shake their bells more merrily on New Year's than any other day, as if they partook in our enjoyment of the occasion. May not the horse, by some mysterious instinct, know that it is the beginning of the year?"
Mrs. Frump smiled, and answered: "Not being a horse, of course I can't say. But I would suggest, whether ostlers do not give their animals an extra quantity of oats on New Year's day, to make their action more stylish?"
Mr. Overtop marked a quizzical expression in the widow's left eye, and was disgusted.
For the third time she looked intently at Matthew Maltboy, who was putting in a few words with great animation; and then turned her face toward Mr. Quigg, who was taking his third mental inventory of the furniture, and executing "Hail Columbia," with variations, on his hat.
"It's a finer New Year's day than the last one, is it not, Mr. Quigg?"
Mr. Quigg, who had an astonishing memory for dates and conditions of the weather, replied, after a second's reflection:
"It is a much finer day, Mrs. Frump. It rained last New Year's. Perhaps you may remember my leaving an umbrella at the house where you were then stopping, in Sixteenth street, and my calling for it again, on which occasion you said I reminded you of Paul Pry, in the play, who was always forgetting his umbrella."
The widow laughed, and said that she distinctly remembered the circumstances.
Mr. Quigg, thus encouraged, went on:
"New Year's days differ very much. The one before the last was very snowy in the forenoon, with hail in the afternoon; and the one before that was so mild, that I found an overcoat really uncomfortable. The one before—"
"Excuse me for the interruption," said Mrs. Frump, suddenly, "but I can't help saying how much Mr. Maltboy looks like Dr. Warts. Doesn't he, Clemmy?"
"Like Dr. Warts!" exclaimed Miss Whedell. "Who's he?"
"Why, don't you remember, Clemmy, the doctor that you consulted about your hair?" The widow looked the picture of guilelessness as she asked the question.
Miss Whedell turned slightly red in parts of her face that were not red before, and involuntarily raised her hands to two heavy braids of hair which fronted each ear, and adjusted them. Then she said, sarcastically:
"Mr. Maltboy must feel much flattered at being compared with a notorious quack."
Mrs. Frump, with a laugh spreading all over her gentle face, replied:
"Oh! of course you call him a quack, because he could not save your—"
"You are rude, madam," said Miss Whedell, with emotion.
"And you are silly, miss," retorted Mrs. Frump, still smiling, "to take offence at nothing."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, madam."
Greatly to the relief of the three callers, who were seized with a desire to laugh aloud during this short, snapping dialogue, a bell rang, and a new figure entered upon the scene. The two ladies rose about three inches, and greeted him as Mr. Chiffield. Mr. Chiffield bowed stiffly, smiled mechanically, and cast a sweeping glance at the three men present. This glance, and the looks with which it was met, called up a singular train of associations.
Maltboy remembered the new comer as a fellow who had trod on his corns getting into an Amity street stage. Overtop remembered him as an eccentric individual, who always carried, without the slightest reference to existing weather, an umbrella under his arm, with the point rearward, and held at just the angle to pierce the eye of a person walking incautiously after him. Overtop had frequently felt a strong inclination to pull the umbrella out from behind, and ask the bearer to carry it in a less threatening manner.
Mr. Chiffield, on the other hand, readily recalled Matthew Maltboy as a suspicious person whom he had seen hanging around an up-town hotel, about a year and a half before (when Maltboy was paying his ineffectual addresses to a cruel Cuban beauty who passed the summer months at that house). Mr. Chiffield had always supposed him to be a confidence man of superior abilities.
Of Overtop, Mr. Chiffield was vaguely reminiscent. Unless he was mistaken, that person was the one who wore an entire suit of pepper and salt, including a felt hat, necktie, and gaiters, two summers before.
Mr. Quigg was a novelty in Mr. Chiffield's eyes; but Mr. Chiffield was well known by sight to Mr. Quigg, who also remembered to have heard that he was a partner in the great drygoods house of Upjack, Chiffield & Co.
Mr. Chiffield was about forty years of age, and had a bald head, a square, heavy face, scanty whiskers, small, shrewd eyes, and a bilious complexion. He dressed in profound black, wore his necktie negligently, exhibited neither ring nor breastpin nor gold chain, spoke as if he were always thinking inwardly of his private business, and never laughed. These peculiarities indicated, beyond any doubt, that Mr. Chiffield was a wealthy man; though it might be difficult to trace the exact processes of reasoning by which this conclusion was reached. Any unprejudiced stranger, seeing Mr. Chiffield, and being told that he was a partner in a large drygoods house, would instantly think, "That drygoods house will stand in the midst of fires, earthquakes, and financial revulsions."
With that fine instinct peculiar to lovers, Matthew Maltboy immediately recognized in Mr. Chiffield a rival—and a dangerous one. Having seen much of society, Maltboy was well aware that Mr. Chiffield's mature age, his grim appearance, his sparse whiskers, and even the bald spot on the top of his head, were eminent advantages with which youth and bloom, and a full head of hair could not cope—unless with the aid of that fascination which Matthew flattered himself that he possessed, and which, he thought, he had used to some purpose during his hurried conversation with his twentieth enslaver, Miss Whedell. The usages of New Year's day, as well as frequent impatient nods from Quigg, and suggestive coughs from Overtop, would not permit of his staying longer. He therefore, rose to take his leave, his fellow pilgrims doing likewise, when Miss Whedell remarked that they were in a great hurry, and regretted that they could not remain a few minutes more.
The captivated Maltboy toyed, with his hat in an uncertain way, and was half disposed to sit down again, when Quigg hastily produced his visiting list, and said, with his best business smile:
"We Should certainly be very happy, Miss Whedell; but we have seventy-five calls still to make, and it is now (consulting his watch) two o'clock."'
As the three visitors withdrew (declining, at every step, a pressing invitation to taste the refreshments which were piled in mountainous form on a table in an adjoining alcove), Maltboy exchanged a look of deep, sentimental meaning with Miss Whedell, who rose at least six inches from her chair, and followed it with a slight hostile glare at Mr. Chiffield, upon whose equable face it fell harmless. Overtop bowed coldly to everybody, as if he were disappointed in the human species; and Quigg gave a parting grin at the room in general, and at nobody or nothing in particular,
"We're all right, Top," whispered Maltboy, as they descended the steps to the sidewalk. "She smiled slightly when I mentioned having seen her from our back parlor window. I have obtained permission to call again."
"You'll have to do it without me, my dear fellow," returned Overtop, tossing back his head from force of habit, the offensive cowlick being then suppressed by his hat. "Nothing on earth could induce me to speak to that dull widow again."
"She doesn't live there," said Quigg. "She is some connection, I believe, of the queer old Dutchman that I spoke of, and is probably only helping Miss Whedell to receive callers. I should think, from the way they abuse each other, that they were old and dear friends."
MRS. SLAPMAN AT HOME.
Full of new and pleasant thoughts, Marcus Wilkeson walked on toward the half-antique house which contained the strange old gentleman. Just as he was about to swing back the iron gate of the front yard, he saw, at a distance, the two friends of his bosom and Mr. Quigg descending a flight of steps to the sidewalk. They saw him at the same time; and both Overtop and Maltboy violently beckoned him to approach. Mr. Quigg added his solicitations in a calmer and more dignified manner, moving his arm like an automaton three times from the elbow. Even the driver, Captain Tonkins, in the spirit of invitation peculiar to his mental state, steadied himself on the seat, poked his right arm and his long whip toward Marcus, and said: "Hu-hullo there—come along?" Having done this, Captain Tonkins furtively poured a gill of brandy into the tin cup, and drank it under cover of the buffalo robe.
In compliance with this general request, Marcus forbore to open the gate of the old gentleman's house, and joined his friends.
"How many people have you called on, you old humbug?" asked Overtop, as Marcus drew near.
Marcus was on the point of alluding to the chance acquaintances that he had made that morning; but a moment's reflection stopped him.
"I told you," said he, "that my only visit was to be to our odd old neighbor. I was at his gate, when you called. And now, what do you want?"
"I want to tell you," said Matthew Maltboy, "that Miss Whedell—the Juno-like young lady with the handkerchief, you know—is—"
"All your fancy painted her," interrupted Marcus.
"She's lovely—she's divine," said Maltboy, rapturously finishing the quotation. "I have made an impression. Congratulate me, old boy!"
"I do," said Marcus, laughing, "and only hope that you will find it as easy getting out of the scrape as into it. And what have you discovered, Top?"
"That there isn't a sensible woman or an original idea, so far, on the block. I wouldn't budge an inch farther, but for Quigg's promise to introduce me to a young widow who lives next door—a regular prodigy of science and art, according to his story. I think you said she was a widow, Quigg?"
"I suppose so," said Quigg, "as I never saw nor heard of her husband; and she's lived on this block five years last May."
The three besieged Marcus to lay aside his scruples for once, and join them in visiting this accomplished lady. Marcus fought them until his patience was exhausted, and then gave in.
The door to which they climbed, bore, on a large and shining plate, the name "Slapman." This door was opened to them by a tall negro in livery, which, like the wearer, had a borrowed appearance. As they entered, they saw a little wiry man, with a pale face full of wrinkles and crowsfeet, bounding up the first flight of stairs, two steps at a time. When the little man reached the first landing he looked back, and directed a strange, suspicious glance at the callers.
The opening of the parlor door discovered a room full of men, who were sipping wine, eating cold fowl and confections, talking and laughing loudly with each other, or exchanging repartees with a lady who stood in the centre of the apartment and shed her light upon all. This lady was Mrs. Grazella Jigbee Slapman.
Previous to her marriage, she had been not altogether unknown to the corners of several weekly newspapers, under the name of "Grazella." She had also cultivated a natural talent for painting, so assiduously, that a little cabinet piece of hers, representing a cat, a lobster, and a plate of fruit, was considered good enough to exhibit in the window of a Broadway print shop, in which her uncle was a silent partner, and was approvingly paragraphed in a paper partly owned by her first cousin. To gifts capable of producing results like these, she added a great aptitude for music; although an incurable indolence, she gracefully said, had always prevented her from learning the piano. While yet sustaining the name of Jigbee, she had achieved a high reputation in private circles as a merciless judge of music. But her conversation had been, from earliest girlhood, her chief attraction. She possessed the extraordinary faculty of talking with a dozen persons upon a dozen different subjects at the same time.