SOMEWHERE IN RED GAP
HARRY LEON WILSON
Illustrated by John R. Neill, F. R. Gruger, and Henry Raleigh
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers
To GEORGE HORACE LORIMER
I. The Red Splash of Romance II. Ma Pettengill and the Song of Songs III. The Real Peruvian Doughnuts IV. Once a Scotchman, Always V. Non Plush Ultra VI. Cousin Egbert Intervenes VII. Kate; or, Up From the Depths VIII. Pete's B'other-in-law IX. Little Old New York
THE RED SPLASH OF ROMANCE
The walls of the big living-room in the Arrowhead ranch house are tastefully enlivened here and there with artistic spoils of the owner, Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill. There are family portraits in crayon, photo-engravings of noble beasts clipped from the Breeder's Gazette, an etched cathedral or two, a stuffed and varnished trout of such size that no one would otherwise have believed in it, a print in three colours of a St. Bernard dog with a marked facial resemblance to the late William E. Gladstone, and a triumph of architectural perspective revealing two sides of the Pettengill block, corner of Fourth and Main streets, Red Gap, made vivacious by a bearded fop on horseback who doffs his silk hat to a couple of overdressed ladies with parasols in a passing victoria.
And there is the photograph of the fat man. He is very large—both high and wide. He has filled the lens and now compels the eye. His broad face beams a friendly interest. His moustache is a flourishing, uncurbed, riotous growth above his billowy chin.
The checked coat, held recklessly aside by a hand on each hip, reveals an incredible expanse of waistcoat, the pattern of which raves horribly. From pocket to pocket of this gaudy shield curves a watch chain of massive links—nearly a yard of it, one guesses.
Often I have glanced at this noisy thing tacked to the wall, entranced by the simple width of the man. Now on a late afternoon I loitered before it while my hostess changed from riding breeches to the gown of lavender and lace in which she elects to drink tea after a day's hard work along the valleys of the Arrowhead. And for the first time I observed a line of writing beneath the portrait, the writing of my hostess, a rough, downright, plain fashion of script: "Reading from left to right—Mr. Ben Sutton, Popular Society Favourite of Nome, Alaska."
"Reading from left to right!" Here was the intent facetious. And Ma Pettengill is never idly facetious. Always, as the advertisements say, "There's a reason!" And now, also for the first time, I noticed some printed verses on a sheet of thickish yellow paper tacked to the wall close beside the photograph—so close that I somehow divined an intimate relationship between the two. With difficulty removing my gaze from the gentleman who should be read from left to right, I scanned these verses:
SONG OF THE OPEN ROAD
A child of the road—a gypsy I— My path o'er the land and sea; With the fire of youth I warm my nights And my days are wild and free. Then ho! for the wild, the open road! Afar from the haunts of men. The woods and the hills for my spirit untamed— I'm away to mountain and glen.
If ever I tried to leave my hills To abide in the cramped haunts of men, The urge of the wild to her wayward child Would drag me to freedom again.
I'm slave to the call of the open road; In your cities I'd stifle and die. I'm off to the hills in fancy I see— On the breast of old earth I'll lie.
WILFRED LENNOX, the Hobo Poet, On a Coast-to-Coast Walking Tour. These Cards for sale.
I briefly pondered the lyric. It told its own simple story and could at once have been dismissed but for its divined and puzzling relationship to the popular society favourite of Nome, Alaska. What could there be in this?
Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill bustled in upon my speculation, but as usual I was compelled to wait for the talk I wanted. For some moments she would be only the tired owner of the Arrowhead Ranch—in the tea gown of a debutante and with too much powder on one side of her nose—and she must have at least one cup of tea so corrosive that the Scotch whiskey she adds to it is but a merciful dilution. She now drank eagerly of the fearful brew, dulled the bite of it with smoke from a hurriedly built cigarette, and relaxed gratefully into one of those chairs which are all that most of us remember William Morris for. Even then she must first murmur of the day's annoyances, provided this time by officials of the United States Forest Reserve. In the beginning I must always allow her a little to have her own way.
"The annual spring rumpus with them rangers," she wearily boomed. "Every year they tell me just where to turn my cattle out on the Reserve, and every year I go ahead and turn 'em out where I want 'em turned out, which ain't the same place at all, and then I have to listen patiently to their kicks and politely answer all letters from the higher-ups and wait for the official permit, which always comes—and it's wearing on a body. Darn it! They'd ought to know by this time I always get my own way. If they wasn't such a decent bunch I'd have words with 'em, giving me the same trouble year after year, probably because I'm a weak, defenceless woman. However!"
The lady rested largely, inert save for the hand that raised the cigarette automatically to her lips. My moment had come.
"What did Wilfred Lennox, the hobo poet, have to do with Mr. Ben Sutton, of Nome, Alaska?" I gently inquired.
"More than he wanted," replied the lady. Her glance warmed with memories; she hovered musingly on the verge of recital. But the cigarette was half done and at its best. I allowed her another moment, a moment in which she laughed confidentially to herself, a little dry, throaty laugh. I knew that laugh. She would be marshalling certain events in their just and diverting order. But they seemed to be many and of confusing values.
"Some said he not only wasn't a hobo but wasn't even a poet," she presently murmured, and smoked again. Then: "That Ben Sutton, now, he's a case. Comes from Alaska and don't like fresh eggs for breakfast because he says they ain't got any kick to 'em like Alaska eggs have along in March, and he's got to have canned milk for his coffee. Say, I got a three-quarters Jersey down in Red Gap gives milk so rich that the cream just naturally trembles into butter if you speak sharply to it or even give it a cross look; not for Ben though. Had to send out for canned milk that morning. I drew the line at hunting up case eggs for him though. He had to put up with insipid fresh ones. And fat, that man! My lands! He travels a lot in the West when he does leave home, and he tells me it's the fear of his life he'll get wedged into one of them narrow-gauge Pullmans some time and have to be chopped out. Well, as I was saying—" She paused.
"But you haven't begun," I protested. I sharply tapped the printed verses and the photograph reading from left to right. Now she became animated, speaking as she expertly rolled a fresh cigarette.
"Say, did you ever think what aggravating minxes women are after they been married a few years—after the wedding ring gets worn a little bit thin?"
This was not only brutal; it seemed irrelevant.
"Wilfred Lennox—" I tried to insist, but she commandingly raised the new cigarette at me.
"Yes, sir! Ever know one of 'em married for as long as ten years that didn't in her secret heart have a sort of contempt for her life partner as being a stuffy, plodding truck horse? Of course they keep a certain dull respect for him as a provider, but they can't see him as dashing and romantic any more; he ain't daring and adventurous. All he ever does is go down and open up the store or push back the roll-top, and keep from getting run over on the street. One day's like another with him, never having any wild, lawless instincts or reckless moods that make a man fascinating—about the nearest he ever comes to adventure is when he opens the bills the first of the month. And she often seeing him without any collar on, and needing a shave mebbe, and cherishing her own secret romantic dreams, while like as not he's prosily figuring out how he's going to make the next payment on the endowment policy.
"It's a hard, tiresome life women lead, chained to these here plodders. That's why rich widows generally pick out the dashing young devils they do for their second, having buried the man that made it for 'em. Oh, they like him well enough, call him 'Father' real tenderly, and see that he changes to the heavy flannels on time, but he don't ever thrill them, and when they order three hundred and fifty dollars' worth of duds from the Boston Cash Emporium and dress up like a foreign countess, they don't do it for Father, they do it for the romantic guy in the magazine serial they're reading, the handsome, cynical adventurer that has such an awful power over women. They know darned well they won't ever meet him; still it's just as well to be ready in case he ever should make Red Gap—or wherever they live—and it's easy with the charge account there, and Father never fussing more than a little about the bills.
"Not that I blame 'em. We're all alike—innocent enough, with freaks here and there that ain't. Why, I remember about a thousand years ago I was reading a book called 'Lillian's Honour,' in which the rightful earl didn't act like an earl had ought to, but went travelling off over the moors with a passel of gypsies, with all the she-gypsies falling in love with him, and no wonder—he was that dashing. Well, I used to think what might happen if he should come along while Lysander John was out with the beef round-up or something. I was well-meaning, understand, but at that I'd ought to have been laid out with a pick-handle. Oh, the nicest of us got specks inside us—if ever we did cut loose the best one of us would make the worst man of you look like nothing worse than a naughty little boy cutting up in Sunday-school. What holds us, of course—we always dream of being took off our feet; of being carried off by main force against our wills while we snuggle up to the romantic brute and plead with him to spare us—and the most reckless of 'em don't often get their nerve up to that. Well, as I was saying—"
But she was not saying. The thing moved too slowly. And still the woman paltered with her poisoned tea and made cigarettes and muttered inconsequently, as when she now broke out after a glance at the photograph:
"That Ben Sutton certainly runs amuck when he buys his vests. He must have about fifty, and the quietest one in the lot would make a leopard skin look like a piker." Again her glance dreamed off to visions.
I seated myself before her with some emphasis and said firmly: "Now, then!" It worked.
"Wilfred Lennox," she began, "calling himself the hobo poet, gets into Red Gap one day and makes the rounds with that there piece of poetry you see; pushes into stores and offices and hands the piece out, and like as not they crowd a dime or two bits onto him and send him along. That's what I done. I was waiting in Dr. Percy Hailey Martingale's office for a little painless dentistry, and I took Wilfred's poem and passed him a two-bit piece, and Doc Martingale does the same, and Wilfred blew on to the next office. A dashing and romantic figure he was, though kind of fat and pasty for a man that was walking from coast to coast, but a smooth talker with beautiful features and about nine hundred dollars' worth of hair and a soft hat and one of these flowing neckties. Red it was.
"So I looked over his piece of poetry—about the open road for his untamed spirit and him being stifled in the cramped haunts of men—and of course I get his number. All right about the urge of the wild to her wayward child, but here he was spending a lot of time in the cramped haunts of men taking their small change away from 'em and not seeming to stifle one bit.
"Ain't this new style of tramp funny? Now instead of coming round to the back door and asking for a hand-out like any self-respecting tramp had ought to, they march up to the front door, and they're somebody with two or three names that's walking round the world on a wager they made with one of the Vanderbilt boys or John D. Rockefeller. They've walked thirty-eight hundred miles already and got the papers to prove it—a letter from the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the mayor of Davenport, Iowa, a picture post card of themselves on the courthouse steps at Denver, and they've bet forty thousand dollars they could start out without a cent and come back in twenty-two months with money in their pocket—and ain't it a good joke?—with everybody along the way entering into the spirit of it and passing them quarters and such, and thank you very much for your two bits for the picture post card—and they got another showing 'em in front of the Mormon Tabernacle at Salt Lake City, if you'd like that, too—and thank you again—and now they'll be off once more to the open road and the wild, free life. Not! Yes, two or three good firm Nots. Having milked the town they'll be right down to the dee-po with their silver changed to bills, waiting for No. 6 to come along, and ho! for the open railroad and another town that will skin pretty. I guess I've seen eight or ten of them boys in the last five years, with their letters from mayors.
"But this here Wilfred Lennox had a new graft. He was the first I'd give up to for mere poetry. He didn't have a single letter from a mayor, nor even a picture card of himself standing with his hat off in front of Pike's Peak—nothing but poetry. But, as I said, he was there with a talk about pining for the open road and despising the cramped haunts of men, and he had appealing eyes and all this flowing hair and necktie. So I says to myself: 'All right, Wilfred, you win!' and put my purse back in my bag and thought no more of it.
"Yet not so was it to be. Wilfred, working the best he could to make a living doing nothing, pretty soon got to the office of Alonzo Price, Choice Improved Real Estate and Price's Addition. Lon was out for the moment, but who should be there waiting for him but his wife, Mrs. Henrietta Templeton Price, recognized leader of our literary and artistic set. Or I think they call it a 'group' or a 'coterie' or something. Setting at Lon's desk she was, toying petulantly with horrid old pens and blotters, and probably bestowing glances of disrelish from time to time round the grimy office where her scrubby little husband toiled his days away in unromantic squalor.
"I got to tell you about Henrietta. She's one of them like I just said the harsh things about, with the secret cry in her heart for romance and adventure and other forbidden things and with a kindly contempt for peaceful Alonzo. She admits to being thirty-six, so you can figure it out for yourself. Of course she gets her husband wrong at that, as women so often do. Alonzo has probably the last pair of side whiskers outside of a steel engraving and stands five feet two, weighing a hundred and twenty-six pounds at the ring side, but he's game as a swordfish, and as for being romantic in the true sense of the word—well, no one that ever heard him sell a lot in Price's Addition—three miles and a half up on the mesa, with only the smoke of the canning factory to tell a body they was still near the busy haunts of men, that and a mile of concrete sidewalk leading a life of complete idleness—I say no one that ever listened to Lon sell a lot up there, pointing out on a blue print the proposed site of the Carnegie Library, would accuse him of not being romantic.
"But of course Henrietta never sees Lon's romance and he ain't always had the greatest patience with hers—like the time she got up the Art Loan Exhibit to get new books for the M.E. Sabbath-school library and got Spud Mulkins of the El Adobe to lend 'em the big gold-framed oil painting that hangs over his bar. Some of the other ladies objected to this—the picture was a big pink hussy lying down beside the ocean—but Henrietta says art for art's sake is pure to them that are pure, or something, and they're doing such things constantly in the East; and I'm darned if Spud didn't have his oil painting down and the mosquito netting ripped off it before Alonzo heard about it and put the Not-at-All on it. He wouldn't reason with Henrietta either. He just said his objection was that every man that saw it would put one foot up groping for the brass railing, which would be undignified for a Sabbath-school scheme, and that she'd better hunt out something with clothes on like Whistler's portrait of his mother, or, if she wanted the nude in art, to get the Horse Fair or something with animals.
"I tell you that to show you how they don't hit it off sometimes. Then Henrietta sulks. Kind of pinched and hungry looking she is, drapes her black hair down over one side of her high forehead, wears daring gowns—that's what she calls 'em anyway—and reads the most outrageous kinds of poetry out loud to them that will listen. Likes this Omar Something stuff about your path being beset with pitfalls and gin fizzes and getting soused out under a tree with your girl.
"I'm just telling you so you'll get Henrietta when Wilfred Lennox drips gracefully in with his piece of poetry in one hand. Of course she must have looked long and nervously at Wilfred, then read his poetry, then looked again. There before her was Romance against a background of Alonzo Price, who never had an adventurous or evil thought in his life, and wore rubbers! Oh, sure! He must have palsied her at once, this wild, free creature of the woods who couldn't stand the cramped haunts of men. And I have said that Wilfred was there with the wild, free words about himself, and the hat and tie and the waving brown hair that give him so much trouble. Shucks! I don't blame the woman. It's only a few years since we been let out from under lock and key. Give us a little time to get our bearings, say I. Wilfred was just one big red splash before her yearning eyes; he blinded her. And he stood there telling how this here life in the marts of trade would sure twist and blacken some of the very finest chords in his being. Something like that it must have been.
"Anyway, about a quarter to six a procession went up Fourth Street, consisting of Wilfred Lennox, Henrietta, and Alonzo. The latter was tripping along about three steps back of the other two and every once in a while he would stop for a minute and simply look puzzled. I saw him. It's really a great pity Lon insists on wearing a derby hat with his side whiskers. To my mind the two never seem meant for each other.
"The procession went to the Price mansion up on Ophir Avenue. And that evening Henrietta had in a few friends to listen to the poet recite his verses and tell anecdotes about himself. About five or six ladies in the parlour and their menfolks smoking out on the front porch. The men didn't seem to fall for Wilfred's open-road stuff the way the ladies did. Wilfred was a good reciter and held the ladies with his voice and his melting blue eyes with the long lashes, and Henrietta was envied for having nailed him. That is, the women envied her. The men sort of slouched off down to the front gate and then went down to the Temperance Billiard Parlour, where several of 'em got stewed. Most of 'em, like old Judge Ballard, who come to the country in '62, and Jeff Tuttle, who's always had more than he wanted of the open road, were very cold indeed to Wilfred's main proposition. It is probable that low mutterings might have been heard among 'em, especially after a travelling man that was playing pool said the hobo poet had come in on the Pullman of No. 6.
"But I must say that Alonzo didn't seem to mutter any, from all I could hear. Pathetic, the way that little man will believe right up to the bitter end. He said that for a hobo Wilfred wrote very good poetry, better than most hobos could write, he thought, and that Henrietta always knew what she was doing. So the evening come to a peaceful end, most of the men getting back for their wives and Alonzo showing up in fair shape and plumb eager for the comfort of his guest. It was Alonzo's notion that the guest would of course want to sleep out in the front yard on the breast of old earth where he could look up at the pretty stars and feel at home, and he was getting out a roll of blankets when the guest said he didn't want to make the least bit of trouble and for one night he'd manage to sleep inside four stifling walls in a regular bed, like common people do. So Lon bedded him down in the guest chamber, but opened up the four windows in it and propped the door wide open so the poor fellow could have a breeze and not smother. He told this downtown the next morning, and he was beginning to look right puzzled indeed. He said the wayward child of Nature had got up after about half an hour and shut all the windows and the door. Lon thought first he was intending to commit suicide, but he didn't like to interfere. He was telling Jeff Tuttle and me about it when we happened to pass his office.
"'And there's another funny thing,'" he says. 'This chap was telling us all the way up home last night that he never ate meat—simply fruits and nuts with a mug of spring water. He said eating the carcasses of murdered beasts was abhorrent to him. But when we got down to the table he consented to partake of the roast beef and he did so repeatedly. We usually have cold meat for lunch the day after a rib roast, but there will be something else to-day; and along with the meat he drank two bottles of beer, though with mutterings of disgust. He said spring water in the hills was pure, but that water out of pipes was full of typhoid germs. He admitted that there were times when the grosser appetites assailed him. And they assailed him this morning, too. He said he might bring himself to eat some chops, and he did it without scarcely a struggle. He ate six. He said living the nauseous artificial life even for one night brought back the hateful meat craving. I don't know. He is undeniably peculiar. And of course you've heard about Pettikin's affair for this evening?'
"We had. Just before leaving the house I had received Henrietta's card inviting me to the country club that evening 'to meet Mr. Wilfred Lennox, Poet and Nature Lover, who will recite his original verses and give a brief talk on "The World's Debt to Poetry."' And there you have the whole trouble. Henrietta should have known better. But I've let out what women really are. I told Alonzo I would sure be among those present, I said it sounded good. And then Alonzo pipes up about Ben Sutton coming to town on the eleven forty-two from the West. Ben makes a trip out of Alaska every summer and never fails to stop off a day or two with Lon, they having been partners up North in '98.
"'Good old Ben will enjoy it, too,' says Alonzo; 'and, furthermore, Ben will straighten out one or two little things that have puzzled me about this poet. He will understand his complex nature in a way that I confess I have been unequal to. What I mean is,' he says, 'there was talk when I left this morning of the poet consenting to take a class in poetry for several weeks in our thriving little city, and Henrietta was urging him to make our house his home. I have a sort of feeling that Ben will be able to make several suggestions of prime value. I have never known him to fail at making suggestions.'
"Funny, the way the little man tried to put it over on us, letting on he was just puzzled—not really bothered, as he plainly was. You knew Henrietta was still seeing the big red splash of Romance, behind which the figure of her husband was totally obscured. Jeff Tuttle saw the facts, and he up and spoke in a very common way about what would quickly happen to any tramp that tried to camp in his house, poet or no poet, but that's neither here nor there. We left Alonzo looking cheerily forward to Ben Sutton on the eleven forty-two, and I went on to do some errands.
"In the course of these I discovered that others besides Henrietta had fell hard for the poet of Nature. I met Mrs. Dr. Percy Hailey Martingale and she just bubbles about him, she having been at the Prices' the night before.
"'Isn't he a glorious thing!' she says; 'and how grateful we should be for the dazzling bit of colour he brings into our drab existence!' She is a good deal like that herself at times. And I met Beryl Mae Macomber, a well known young society girl of seventeen, and Beryl Mae says: 'He's awfully good looking, but do you think he's sincere?' And even Mrs. Judge Ballard comes along and says: 'What a stimulus he should be to us in our dull lives! How he shows us the big, vital bits!' and her at that very minute going into Bullitt & Fleishacker's to buy shoes for her nine year old twin grandsons! And the Reverend Mrs. Wiley Knapp in at the Racquet Store wanting to know if the poet didn't make me think of some wild, free creature of the woods—a deer or an antelope poised for instant flight while for one moment he timidly overlooked man in his hideous commercialism. But, of course, she was a minister's wife. I said he made me feel just like that. I said so to all of 'em. What else could I say? If I'd said what I thought there on the street I'd of been pinched. So I beat it home in self-protection. I was sympathizing good and hearty with Lon Price by that time and looking forward to Ben Sutton myself. I had a notion Ben would see the right of it where these poor dubs of husbands wouldn't—or wouldn't dast say it if they did.
"About five o'clock I took another run downtown for some things I'd forgot, with an eye out to see how Alonzo and Ben might be coming on. The fact is, seeing each other only once a year that way they're apt to kind of loosen up—if you know what I mean.
"No sign of 'em at first. Nothing but ladies young and old—even some of us older ranching set—making final purchases of ribbons and such for the sole benefit of Wilfred Lennox, and talking in a flushed manner about him whenever they met. Almost every darned one of 'em had made it a point to stroll past the Price mansion that afternoon where Wilfred was setting out on the lawn, in a wicker chair with some bottles of beer surveying Nature with a look of lofty approval and chatting with Henrietta about the real things of life.
"Beryl Mae Macomber had traipsed past four times, changing her clothes twice with a different shade of ribbon across her forehead and all her college pins on, and at last she'd simply walked right in and asked if she hadn't left her tennis racquet there last Tuesday. She says to Mrs. Judge Ballard and Mrs. Martingale and me in the Cut-Rate Pharmacy, she says: 'Oh, he's just awfully magnetic—but do you really think he's sincere?' Then she bought an ounce of Breath of Orient perfume and kind of two-stepped out. These other ladies spoke very sharply about the freedom Beryl Mae's aunt allowed her. Mrs. Martingale said the poet, it was true, had a compelling personality, but what was our young girls coming to? And if that child was hers—
"So I left these two lady highbinders and went on into the retail side of the Family Liquor Store to order up some cooking sherry, and there over the partition from the bar side what do I hear but Alonzo Price and Ben Sutton! Right off I could tell they'd been pinning a few on. In fact, Alonzo was calling the bartender Mister. You don't know about Lon, but when he calls the bartender Mister the ship has sailed. Ten minutes after that he'll be crying over his operation. So I thought quick, remembering that we had now established a grillroom at the country club, consisting of a bar and three tables with bells on them, and a Chinaman, and that if Alonzo and Ben Sutton come there at all they had better come right—at least to start with. When I'd given my order I sent Louis Meyer in to tell the two gentlemen a lady wished to speak to them outside.
"In a minute Ben comes out alone. He was awful glad to see me and I said how well he looked, and he did look well, sort of cordial and bulging—his forehead bulges and his eyes bulge and his moustache and his chin, and he has cushions on his face. He beamed on me in a wide and hearty manner and explained that Alonzo refused to come out to meet a lady until he knew who she was, because you got to be careful in a small town like this where every one talks. 'And besides,' says Ben, 'he's just broke down and begun to cry about his appendicitis that was three years ago. He's leaning his head on his arms down by the end of the bar and sobbing bitterly over it. He seems to grieve about it as a personal loss. I've tried to cheer him up and told him it was probably all for the best, but he says when it comes over him this way he simply can't stand it. And what shall I do?'
"Well, of course I seen the worst had happened with Alonzo. So I says to Ben: 'You know there's a party to-night and if that man ain't seen to he will certainly sink the ship. Now you get him out of that swamp and I'll think of something.' 'I'll do it,' says Ben, turning sideways so he could go through the doorway again. 'I'll do it,' he says, 'if I have to use force on the little scoundrel.'
"And sure enough, in a minute he edged out again with Alonzo firmly fastened to him in some way. Lon hadn't wanted to come and didn't want to stay now, but he simply couldn't move. Say, that Ben Sutton would make an awful grand anchor for a captive balloon. Alonzo wiped his eyes until he could see who I was. Then I rebuked him, reminding him of his sacred duties as a prominent citizen, a husband, and the secretary of the Red Gap Chamber of Commerce. 'Of course it's all right to take a drink now and then,' I says.
"Alonzo brightened at this. 'Good!' says he; 'now it's now and pretty soon it will be then. Let's go into a saloon or something like that!'
"'You'll come with me,' I says firmly. And I marched 'em down to the United States Grill, where I ordered tea and toast for 'em. Ben was sensible enough, but Alonzo was horrified at the thought of tea. 'It's tea or nice cold water for yours,' I says, and that set him off again. 'Water!' he sobs. 'Water! Water! Maybe you don't know that some dear cousins of mine have just lost their all in the Dayton flood—twenty years' gathering went in a minute, just like that!' and he tried to snap his fingers. All the same I got some hot tea into him and sent for Eddie Pierce to be out in front with his hack. While we was waiting for Eddie it occurs to Alonzo to telephone his wife. He come back very solemn and says: 'I told her I wouldn't be home to dinner because I was hungry and there probably wouldn't be enough meat, what with a vegetarian poet in the house. I told her I should sink to the level of a brute in the night life of our gay little city. I said I was a wayward child of Nature myself if you come right down to it.'
"'Good for you,' I says, having got word that Eddie is outside with his hack. 'And now for the open road!' 'Fine!' says Alonzo. 'My spirit is certainly feeling very untamed, like some poet's!' So I hustled 'em out and into the four wheeler. Then I give Eddie Pierce private instructions. 'Get 'em out into the hills about four miles,' I says, 'out past the Catholic burying ground, then make an excuse that your hack has broke down, and as soon as they set foot to the ground have them skates of yours run away. Pay no attention whatever to their pleadings or their profane threats, only yelling to 'em that you'll be back as soon as possible. But don't go back. They'll wait an hour or so, then walk. And they need to walk.'
"'You said something there,' says Eddie, glancing back at 'em. Ben Sutton was trying to cheer Alonzo up by reminding him of the Christmas night they went to sleep in the steam room of the Turkish bath at Nome, and the man forgot 'em and shut off the steam and they froze to the benches and had to be chiselled off. And Eddie trotted off with his load. You'd ought to seen the way the hack sagged down on Ben's side. And I felt that I had done a good work, so I hurried home to get a bite to eat and dress and make the party, which I still felt would be a good party even if the husband of our hostess was among the killed or missing.
"I reached the clubhouse at eight o'clock of that beautiful June evening, to find the party already well assembled on the piazza and the front steps or strolling about the lawn, about eight or ten of our prominent society matrons and near as many husbands. And mebbe those dames hadn't lingered before their mirrors for final touches! Mrs. Martingale had on all her rings and the jade bracelet and the art-craft necklace with amethysts, and Mrs. Judge Ballard had done her hair a new way, and Beryl Mae Macomber, there with her aunt, not only had a new scarf with silver stars over her frail young shoulders and a band of cherry coloured velvet across her forehead, but she was wearing the first ankle watch ever seen in Red Gap. I couldn't begin to tell you the fussy improvements them ladies had made in themselves—and all, mind you, for the passing child of Nature who had never paid a bill for 'em in his life.
"Oh, it was a gay, careless throng with the mad light of pleasure in its eyes, and all of 'em milling round Wilfred Lennox, who was eating it up. Some bantered him roguishly and some spoke in chest tones of what was the real inner meaning of life after all. Henrietta Templeton Price hovered near with the glad light of capture in her eyes. Silent but proud Henrietta was, careless but superior, reminding me of the hunter that has his picture taken over in Africa with one negligent foot on the head of a two-horned rhinoceros he's just killed.
"But again the husbands was kind of lurking in the background, bunched up together. They seemed abashed by this strange frenzy of their womenfolks. How'd they know, the poor dubs, that a poet wasn't something a business man had ought to be polite and grovelling to? They affected an easy manner, but it was poor work. Even Judge Ballard, who seems nine feet tall in his Prince Albert, and usually looks quite dignified and hostile with his long dark face and his moustache and goatee—even the good old judge was rattled after a brief and unhappy effort to hold a bit of converse with the guest of honour. Him and Jeff Tuttle went to the grillroom twice in ten minutes. The judge always takes his with a dash of pepper sauce in it, but now it only seemed to make him more gloomy.
"Well, I was listening along, feeling elated that I'd put Alonzo and Ben Sutton out of the way and wondering when the show would begin—Beryl Mae in her high, innocent voice had just said to the poet: 'But seriously now, are you sincere?' and I was getting some plenty of that, when up the road in the dusk I seen Bush Jones driving a dray-load of furniture. I wondered where in time any family could be moving out that way. I didn't know any houses beyond the club and I was pondering about this, idly as you might say, when Bush Jones pulls his team up right in front of the clubhouse, and there on the load is the two I had tried to lose. In a big armchair beside a varnished centre table sits Ben Sutton reading something that I recognized as the yellow card with Wilfred's verses on it. And across the dray from him on a red-plush sofa is Alonzo Price singing 'My Wild Irish Rose' in a very noisy tenor.
"Well, sir, I could have basted that fool Bush Jones with one of his own dray stakes. That man's got an intellect just powerful enough to take furniture from one house to another if the new address ain't too hard for him to commit to memory. That's Bush Jones all right! He has the machinery for thinking, but it all glitters as new as the day it was put in. So he'd come a mile out of his way with these two riots—and people off somewhere wondering where that last load of things was!
"The ladies all affected to ignore this disgraceful spectacle, with Henrietta sinking her nails into her bloodless palms, but the men broke out and cheered a little in a half-scared manner and some of 'em went down to help the newcomers climb out. Then Ben had words with Bush Jones because he wanted him to wait there and take 'em back to town when the party was over and Bush refused to wait. After suffering about twenty seconds in the throes of mental effort I reckon he discovered that he had business to attend to or was hungry or something. Anyway, Ben paid him some money finally and he drove off after calling out 'Good-night, all!' just as if nothing had happened.
"Alonzo and Ben Sutton joined the party without further formality. They didn't look so bad, either, so I saw my crooked work had done some good. Lon quit singing almost at once and walked good and his eyes didn't wabble, and he looked kind of desperate and respectable, and Ben was first-class, except he was slightly oratorical and his collar had melted the way fat men's do. And it was funny to see how every husband there bucked up when Ben came forward, as if all they had wanted was some one to make medicine for 'em before they begun the war dance. They mooched right up round Ben when he trampled a way into the flushed group about Wilfred.
"'At last the well-known stranger!' says Ben cordially, seizing one of Wilfred's pale, beautiful hands. 'I've been hearing so much of you, wayward child of the open road that you are, and I've just been reading your wonderful verses as I sat in my library. The woods and the hills for your spirit untamed and the fire of youth to warm your nights—that's the talk.' He paused and waved Wilfred's verses in a fat, freckled hand. Then he looked at him hard and peculiar and says: 'When you going to pull some of it for us?'
"Wilfred had looked slightly rattled from the beginning. Now he smiled, but only with his lips—he made it seem like a mere Swedish exercise or something, and the next second his face looked as if it had been sewed up for the winter.
"'Little starry-eyed gypsy, I say, when are you going to pull some of that open-road stuff?' says Ben again, all cordial and sinister.
"Wilfred gulped and tried to be jaunty. 'Oh, as to that, I'm here to-day and there to-morrow,' he murmurs, and nervously fixes his necktie.
"'Oh, my, and isn't that nice!' says Ben heartily—'the urge of the wild to her wayward child'—I know you're a slave to it. And now you're going to tell us all about the open road, and then you and I are going to have an intimate chat and I'll tell you about it—about some of the dearest little open roads you ever saw, right round in these parts. I've just counted nine, all leading out of town to the cunningest mountains and glens that would make you write poetry hours at a time, with Nature's glad fruits and nuts and a mug of spring water and some bottled beer and a ham and some rump steak—'
"The stillness of that group had become darned painful, I want to tell you. There was a horrid fear that Ben Sutton might go too far, even for a country club. Every woman was shuddering and smiling in a painful manner, and the men regarding Ben with glistening eyes. And Ben felt it himself all at once. So he says: 'But I fear I am detaining you,' and let go of the end of Wilfred's tie that he had been toying with in a somewhat firm manner. 'Let us be on with your part of the evening's entertainment,' he says, 'but don't forget, gypsy wilding that you are, that you and I must have a chat about open roads the moment you have finished. I know we are cramping you. By that time you will be feeling the old, restless urge and you might take a road that wasn't open if I didn't direct you.'
"He patted Wilfred loudly on the back a couple of times and Wilfred ducked the third pat and got out of the group, and the ladies all began to flurry their voices about the lovely June evening but wouldn't it be pleasanter inside, and Henrietta tragically called from the doorway to come at once, for God's sake, so they all went at once, with the men only half trailing, and inside we could hear 'em fixing chairs round and putting out a table for the poet to stand by, and so forth.
"Alonzo, however, had not trailed. He was over on the steps holding Beryl Mae Macomber by her new scarf and telling her how flowerlike her beauty was. And old Judge Ballard was holding about half the men, including Ben Sutton, while he made a speech. I hung back to listen. 'Sir,' he was saying to Ben, 'Secretary Seward some years since purchased your territory from Russia for seven million dollars despite the protests of a clamorous and purblind opposition. How niggardly seems that purchase price at this moment! For Alaska has perfected you, sir, if it did not produce you. Gentlemen, I feel that we dealt unfairly by Russia. But that is in the dead past. It is not too late, however, to tiptoe to the grillroom and offer a toast to our young sister of the snows.'
"There was subdued cheers and they tiptoed. Ben Sutton was telling the judge that he felt highly complimented, but it was a mistake to ring in that snow stuff on Alaska. She'd suffered from it too long. He was going on to paint Alaska as something like Alabama—cooler nights, of course, but bracing. Alonzo still had Beryl Mae by the scarf, telling her how flowerlike her beauty was.
"I went into the big room, picking a chair over by the door so I could keep tabs on that grillroom. Only three or four of the meekest husbands had come with us. And Wilfred started. I'll do him the justice to say he was game. The ladies thought anything bordering on roughness was all over, but Wilfred didn't. When he'd try to get a far-away look in his eyes while he was reciting his poetry he couldn't get it any farther away than the grillroom door. He was nervous but determined, for there had been notice given of a silver offering for him. He recited the verses on the card and the ladies all thrilled up at once, including Beryl Mae, who'd come in without her scarf. They just clenched their hands and hung on Wilfred's wild, free words.
"And after the poetry he kind of lectured about how man had ought to break away from the vile cities and seek the solace of great Mother Nature, where his bruised spirit could be healed and the veneer of civilization cast aside and the soul come into its own, and things like that. And he went on to say that out in the open the perspective of life is broadened and one is a laughing philosopher as long as the blue sky is overhead and the green grass underfoot. 'To lie,' says he, 'with relaxed muscles on the carpet of pine needles and look up through the gently swaying branches of majestic trees at the fleecy white clouds, dreaming away the hours far from the sordid activities of the market place, is one of the best nerve tonics in all the world.' It was an unfortunate phrase for Wilfred, because some of the husbands had tiptoed out of the grillroom to listen, and there was a hearty cheer at this, led by Jeff Tuttle. 'Sure! Some nerve tonic!' they called out, and laughed coarsely. Then they rushed back to the grillroom without tiptoeing.
"The disgraceful interruption was tactfully covered by Wilfred and his audience. He took a sip from the glass of water and went on to talk about the world's debt to poetry. Then I sneaked out to the grillroom myself. By this time the Chinaman had got tangled up with the orders and was putting out drinks every which way. And they was being taken willingly. Judge Ballard and Ben Sutton was now planting cotton in Alaska and getting good crops every year, and Ben was also promising to send the judge a lovely spotted fawnskin vest that an Indian had made for him, but made too small—not having more than six or eight fawns, I judged. And Alonzo had got a second start. Still he wasn't so bad yet, with Beryl Mae's scarf over his arm, and talking of the unparalleled beauties of Price's Addition to Red Gap, which he said he wouldn't trade even for the whole of Alaska if it was offered to him to-morrow—not that Ben Sutton wasn't the whitest soul God ever made and he'd like to hear some one say different—and so on.
"I mixed in with 'em and took a friendly drink myself, with the aim of smoothing things down, but I saw it would be delicate work. About all I could do was keep 'em reminded there was ladies present and it wasn't a barroom where anything could be rightly started. Doc Martingale's feelings was running high, too, account, I suppose, of certain full-hearted things his wife had blurted out to him about the hypnotic eyes of this here Nature lover. He was quiet enough, but vicious, acting like he'd love to do some dental work on the poet that might or might not be painless for all he cared a hoot. He was taking his own drinks all alone, like clockwork—moody but systematic.
"Then we hear chairs pushed round in the other room and the chink of silver to be offered to the poet, and Henrietta come out to give word for the refreshments to be served. She found Alonzo in the hallway telling Beryl Mae how flowerlike her beauty was and giving her the elk's tooth charm off his watch chain. Beryl Mae was giggling heartily until she caught Henrietta's eye—like a cobra's.
"The refreshments was handed round peaceful enough, with the ladies pressing sardine sandwiches and chocolate cake and cups of coffee on to Wilfred and asking him interesting questions about his adventurous life in the open. And the plans was all made for his class in poetry to be held at Henrietta's house, where the lady subscribers for a few weeks could come into contact with the higher realities of life, at eight dollars for the course, and Wilfred was beginning to cheer up again, though still subject to dismay when one of the husbands would glare in at him from the hall, and especially when Ben Sutton would look in with his bulging and expressive eyes and kind of bark at him.
"Then Ben Sutton come and stood in the doorway till he caught Wilfred's eye and beckoned to him. Wilfred pretended not to notice the first time, but Ben beckoned a little harder, so Wilfred excused himself to the six or eight ladies and went out. It seemed to me he first looked quick round him to make sure there wasn't any other way out. I was standing in the hall when Ben led him tenderly into the grillroom with two fingers.
"'Here is our well-known poet and bon vivant,' says Ben to Alonzo, who had followed 'em in. So Alonzo bristles up to Wilfred and glares at him and says: 'All joking aside, is that one of my new shirts you're wearing or is it not?'
"Wilfred gasped a couple times and says: 'Why, as to that, you see, the madam insisted—'
"Alonzo shut him off. 'How dare you drag a lady's name into a barroom brawl?' says he.
"'Don't shoot in here,' says Ben. 'You'd scare the ladies.'
"Wilfred went pasty, indeed, thinking his host was going to gun him.
"'Oh, very well, I won't then,' says Alonzo. 'I guess I can be a gentleman when necessary. But all joking aside, I want to ask him this: Does he consider poetry to be an accomplishment or a vice?'
"'I was going to put something like that to him myself, only I couldn't think of it,' says Doc Martingale, edging up and looking quite restrained and nervous in the arms. I was afraid of the doc. I was afraid he was going to blemish Wilfred a couple of times right there.
"'An accomplishment or a vice? Answer yes or no!' orders the judge in a hard voice.
"The poet looks round at 'em and attempts to laugh merrily, but he only does it from the teeth out.
"'Laugh on, my proud beauty!' says Ben Button. Then he turns to the bunch. 'What we really ought to do,' he says, 'we ought to make a believer of him right here and now.'
"Even then, mind you, the husbands would have lost their nerve if Ben hadn't took the lead. Ben didn't have to live with their wives so what cared he? Wilfred Lennox sort of shuffled his feet and smiled a smile of pure anxiety. He knew some way that this was nothing to cheer about.
"'I got it,' says Jeff Tuttle with the air of a thinker. 'We're cramping the poor cuss here. What he wants is the open road.'
"'What he really wants,' says Alonzo, 'is about six bottles of my pure, sparkling beer, but maybe he'll take the open road if we show him a good one.'
"'He wants the open road—show him a good one!' yells the other husbands in chorus. It was kind of like a song.
"'I had meant to be on my way,' says Wilfred very cold and lofty.
"'You're here to-day and there to-morrow,' says Ben; 'but how can you be there to-morrow if you don't start from here now?—for the way is long and lonely.'
"'I was about to start,' says Wilfred, getting in a couple of steps toward the door.
"''Tis better so,' says Ben. 'This is no place for a county recorder's son, and there's a bully road out here open at both ends.'
"They made way for the poet, and a sickening silence reigned. Even the women gathered about the door of the other room was silent. They knew the thing had got out of their hands. The men closed in after Wilfred as he reached the steps. He there took his soft hat out from under his coat where he'd cached it. He went cautiously down the steps. Beryl Mae broke the silence.
"'Oh, Mr. Price,' says she, catching Alonzo by the sleeve, 'do you think he's really sincere?'
"'He is at this moment,' says Alonzo. 'He's behaving as sincerely as ever I saw a man behave.' And just then at the foot of the steps Wilfred made a tactical error. He started to run. The husbands and Ben Sutton gave the long yell and went in pursuit. Wilfred would have left them all if he hadn't run into the tennis net. He come down like a sack of meal.
"'There!' says Ben Sutton. 'Now he's done it—broke his neck or something. That's the way with some men—they'll try anything to get a laugh.'
"They went and picked the poet up. He was all right, only dazed.
"'But that's one of the roads that ain't open,' says Ben. 'And besides, you was going right toward the nasty old railroad that runs into the cramped haunts of men. You must have got turned round. Here'—he pointed out over the golf links—'it's off that way that Mother Nature awaits her wayward child. Miles and miles of her—all open. Doesn't your gypsy soul hear the call? This way for the hills and glens, thou star-eyed woodling!' and he gently led Wilfred off over the links, the rest of the men trailing after and making some word racket, believe me. They was all good conversationalists at the moment. Doc Martingale was wanting the poet to run into the tennis net again, just for fun, and Jeff Tuttle says make him climb a tree like the monkeys do in their native glades, but Ben says just keep him away from the railroad, that's all. Good Mother Nature will attend to the rest.
"The wives by now was huddled round the side of the clubhouse, too scared to talk much, just muttering incoherently and wringing their hands, and Beryl Mae pipes up and says: 'Oh, perhaps I wronged him after all; perhaps deep down in his heart he was sincere.'
"The moon had come up now and we could see the mob with its victim starting off toward the Canadian Rockies. Then all at once they began to run, and I knew Wilfred had made another dash for liberty. Pretty soon they scattered out and seemed to be beating up the shrubbery down by the creek. And after a bit some of 'em straggled back. They paid no attention to us ladies, but made for the grillroom.
"'We lost him in that brush beyond the fifth hole,' says Alonzo. 'None of us is any match for him on level ground, but we got some good trackers and we're guarding the line to keep him headed off from the railroad and into his beloved hills.'
"'We should hurry back with refreshment for the faithful watchers,' says Judge Ballard. 'The fellow will surely try to double back to the railroad.'
"'Got to keep him away from the cramped haunts of business men,' says Alonzo brightly.
"'I wish Clay, my faithful old hound, were still alive,' says the judge wistfully.
"'Say, I got a peach of a terrier down to the house right now,' says Jeff Tuttle, 'but he's only trained for bear—I never tried him on poets.'
"'He might tree him at that,' says Doc Martingale.
"'Percy,' cries his wife, 'have you forgotten your manhood?'
"'Yes,' says Percy.
"'Darling,' calls Henrietta, 'will you listen to reason a moment?'
"'No,' says Alonzo.
"'It's that creature from Alaska leading them on,' says Mrs. Judge Ballard—'that overdressed drunken rowdy!'
"Ben Sutton looked right hurt at this. He buttoned his coat over his checked vest and says: 'I take that unkindly, madam—calling me overdressed. I selected this suiting with great care. It ain't nice to call me overdressed. I feel it deeply.'
"But they was off again before one thing could lead to another, taking bottles of hard liquor they had uncorked. 'The open road! The open road!' they yelled as they went.
"Well, that's about all. Some of the wives begun to straggle off home, mostly in tears, and some hung round till later. I was one of these, not wishing to miss anything of an absorbing character. Edgar Tomlinson went early, too. Edgar writes 'The Lounger in the Lobby' column for the Recorder, and he'd come out to report the entertainment; but at one o'clock he said it was a case for the sporting editor and he'd try to get him out before the kill.
"At different times one or two of the hunters would straggle back for more drink. They said the quarry was making a long detour round their left flank, trying his darndest to get to the railroad, but they had hopes. And they scattered out. Ever and anon you would hear the long howl of some lone drunkard that had got lost from the pack.
"About sunup they all found themselves at the railroad track about a mile beyond the clubhouse, just at the head of Stender's grade. There they was voting to picket the track for a mile each way when along come the four-thirty-two way freight. It had slowed up some making the grade, and while they watched it what should dart out from a bunch of scrub oak but the active figure of Wilfred Lennox. He made one of them iron ladders all right and was on top of a car when the train come by, but none of 'em dast jump it because it had picked up speed again.
"They said Wilfred stood up and shook both fists at 'em and called 'em every name he could lay his tongue to—using language so coarse you'd never think it could have come from a poet's lips. They could see his handsome face working violently long after they couldn't hear him. Just my luck! I'm always missing something.
"So they come grouching back to the clubhouse and I took 'em home to breakfast. When we got down to the table old Judge Ballard says: 'What might have been an evening of rare enjoyment was converted into a detestable failure by that cur. I saw from the very beginning that he was determined to spoil our fun.'
"'The joke is sure on us,' says Ben Sutton, 'but I bear him no grudge. In fact, I did him an injustice I knew he wasn't a poet, but I didn't believe he was even a hobo till he jumped that freight.'
"Alonzo was out in the hall telephoning Henrietta. We could hear his cheerful voice: 'No, Pettikins, no! It doesn't ache a bit. What's that? Of course I still do! You are the only woman that ever meant anything to me. What? What's that? Oh, I may have errant fancies now and again, like the best of men—you know yourself how sensitive I am to a certain type of flowerlike beauty—but it never touches my deeper nature. Yes, certainly, I shall be right up the very minute good old Ben leaves—to-morrow or next day. What's that? Now, now! Don't do that! Just the minute he leaves—G'—by.'
"And the little brute hung up on her!"
MA PETTENGILL AND THE SONG OF SONGS
The hammock between the two jack pines at the back of the Arrowhead ranch house had lured me to mid—afternoon slumber. The day was hot and the morning had been toilsome—four miles of trout stream, rocky, difficult miles. And my hostess, Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill, had ridden off after luncheon to some remote fastness of her domain, leaving me and the place somnolent.
In the shadowed coolness, aching gratefully in many joints, I had plunged into the hammock's Lethe, swooning shamelessly to a benign oblivion. Dreamless it must long have been, for the shadows of ranch house, stable, hay barn, corral, and bunk house were long to the east when next I observed them. But I fought to this wakefulness through one of those dreams of a monstrous futility that sometimes madden us from sleep. Through a fearsome gorge a stream wound and in it I hunted one certain giant trout. Savagely it took the fly, but always the line broke when I struck; rather, it dissolved; there would be no resistance. And the giant fish mocked me each time, jeered and flouted me, came brazenly to the surface and derided me with antics weirdly human.
Then, as I persisted, it surprisingly became a musical trout. It whistled, it played a guitar, it sang. How pathetic our mildly amazed acceptance of these miracles in dreams! I was only the more determined to snare a fish that could whistle and sing simultaneously, and accompany itself on a stringed instrument, and was six feet in length. It was that by now and ever growing. It seemed only an attractive novelty and I still believed a brown hackle would suffice. But then I became aware that this trout, to its stringed accompaniment, ever whistled and sang one song with a desperate intentness. That song was "The Rosary." The fish had presumed too far. "This," I shrewdly told myself, "is almost certainly a dream." The soundless words were magic. Gorge and stream vanished, the versatile fish faded to blue sky showing through the green needles of a jack pine. It was a sane world again and still, I thought, with the shadows of ranch house, stable, hay barn, corral, and bunk house going long to the east. I stretched in the hammock, I tingled with a lazy well-being. The world was still; but was it—quite?
On a bench over by the corral gate crouched Buck Devine, doing something needful to a saddle. And as he wrought he whistled. He whistled "The Rosary" shrilly and with much feeling. Nor was the world still but for this. From the bunk house came the mellow throbbing of a stringed instrument, the guitar of Sandy Sawtelle, star rider of the Arrowhead, temporarily withdrawn from a career of sprightly endeavour by a sprained ankle and solacing his retirement with music. He was playing "The Rosary"—very badly indeed, but one knew only too well what he meant. The two performers were distant enough to be no affront to each other. The hammock, less happily, was midway between them.
I sat up with groans. I hated to leave the hammock.
"The trout also sang it," I reminded myself. Followed the voice, a voice from the stable, the cracked, whining tenor of a very aged vassal of the Arrowhead, one Jimmie Time. Jimmie, I gathered, was currying a horse as he sang, for each bar of the ballad was measured by the double thud of a currycomb against the side of a stall. Whistle, guitar, and voice now attacked the thing in differing keys and at varying points. Jimmie might be said to prevail. There was a fatuous tenderness in his attack and the thudding currycomb gave it spirit. Nor did he slur any of the affecting words; they clave the air with an unctuous precision:
The ow-wurs I spu-hend with thu-hee, dee-yur heart, (The currycomb: Thud, thud!) Are as a stru-hing of pur-rulls tuh me-e-e, (The currycomb: Thud, thud!)
Came a dramatic and equally soulful interpolation: "Whoa, dang you! You would, would you? Whoa-a-a, now!"
Again the melody:
I count them o-vurr, ev-ry one apar-rut, (Thud, thud!) My ro-sah-ree—my ro-sah-ree! (Thud, thud!)
Buck Devine still mouthed his woful whistle and Sandy Sawtelle valiantly strove for the true and just accord of his six strings. It was no place for a passive soul. I parted swiftly from the hammock and made over the sun-scorched turf for the ranch house. There was shelter and surcease; doors and windows might be closed. The unctuous whine of Jimmie Time pursued me:
Each ow-wur a pur-rull, each pur-rull a prayer, (Thud, thud!) Tuh stu-hill a heart in absence wru-hung, (Thud, thud!)
As I reached the hospitable door of the living-room I observed Lew Wee, Chinese chef of the Arrowhead, engaged in cranking one of those devices with a musical intention which I have somewhere seen advertised. It is an important-looking device in a polished mahogany case, and I recall in the advertisement I saw it was surrounded by a numerous enthralled-looking family in a costly drawing-room, while the ghost of Beethoven simpered above it in ineffable benignancy. Something now told me the worst, even as Lew Wee adjusted the needle to the revolving disk. I waited for no more than the opening orchestral strains. It is a leisurely rhythmed cacophony, and I had time to be almost beyond range ere the voice took up a tale I was hearing too often in one day. Even so I distantly perceived it to be a fruity contralto voice with an expert sob.
A hundred yards in front of the ranch house all was holy peace, peace in the stilled air, peace dreaming along the neighbouring hills and lying like a benediction over the wide river-flat below me, through which the stream wove a shining course. I exulted in it, from the dangers passed. Then appeared Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill from the fringe of cottonwoods, jolting a tired horse toward me over the flat.
"Come have some tea," she cordially boomed as she passed. I returned uncertainly. Tea? Yes. But—However, the door would be shut and the Asiatic probably diverted.
As I came again to the rear of the ranch house Mrs. Pettengill, in khaki riding breeches, flannel shirt, and the hat of her trade, towered bulkily as an admirable figure of wrath, one hand on her hip, one poising a quirt viciously aloft. By the corral gate Buck Devine drooped cravenly above his damaged saddle; at the door of the bunk house Sandy Sawtelle tottered precariously on one foot, his guitar under his arm, a look of guilty horror on his set face. By the stable door stood the incredibly withered Jimmie Time, shrinking a vast dismay.
"You hear me!" exploded the infuriated chatelaine, and I knew she was repeating the phrase.
"Ain't I got to mend this latigo?" protested Buck Devine piteously.
"You'll go up the gulch and beyond the dry fork and mend it, if you whistle that tune again!"
Sandy Sawtelle rumpled his pink hair to further disorder and found a few weak words for his conscious guilt.
"Now, I wasn't aiming to harm anybody, what with with my game laig and shet up here like I am—"
"Well, my Lord! Can't you play a sensible tune then?"
Jimmie Time hereupon behaved craftily. He lifted his head, showing the face of a boy who had somehow got to be seventy years old without ever getting to be more than a boy, and began to whistle softly and innocently—an air of which hardly anything could be definitely said except that it was not "The Rosary." It was very flagrantly not "The Rosary." His craft availed him not.
"Yes, and you, too!" thundered the lady. "You was the worst—you was singing. Didn't I hear you? How many times I got to tell you? First thing you know, you little reprobate—"
Jimmie Time cowered again. Visibly he took on unbelievable years.
"Yes, ma'am," he whispered.
"Yes, ma'am," meekly echoed the tottering instrumentalist.
"Yes, ma'am," muttered Buck Devine, "not knowing you was anywheres near—"
"Makes no difference where I be—you hear me!"
Although her back was toward me I felt her glare. The wretches winced. She came a dozen steps toward me, then turned swiftly to glare again. They shuddered, even though she spoke no word. Then she came on, muttering hotly, and together we approached the ranch house. A dozen feet from the door she bounded ahead of me with a cry of baffled rage. I saw why. Lew Wee, unrecking her approach, was cold-bloodedly committing an encore. She sped through the doorway, and I heard Lew Wee's frightened squeal as he sped through another. When I stood in the room she was putting violent hands to the throat of the thing.
"The hours I spend with th—" The throttled note expired in a very dreadful squawk of agony. It was as if foul murder had been done, and done swiftly. The maddened woman faced me with the potentially evil disk clutched in her hands. In a voice that is a notable loss to our revivals of Greek tragedy she declaimed:
"Ain't it the limit?—and the last thing I done was to hide out that record up behind the clock where he couldn't find it!"
In a sudden new alarm and with three long steps she reached the door of the kitchen and flung it open. Through a window thus exposed we beheld the offender. One so seldom thinks of the Chinese as athletes! Lew Wee was well down the flat toward the cottonwoods and still going strong.
"Ain't it the limit?" again demanded his employer. "Gosh all—excuse me, but they got me into such a state. Here I am panting like a tuckered hound. And now I got to make the tea myself. He won't dare come back before suppertime."
It seemed to be not yet an occasion for words from me. I tried for a look of intelligent sympathy. In the kitchen I heard her noisily fill a teakettle with water. She was not herself yet. She still muttered hotly. I moved to the magazine—littered table and affected to be taken with the portrait of a smug—looking prize Holstein on the first page of the Stock Breeder's Gazette.
The volcano presently seethed through the room and entered its own apartment.
Ten minutes later my hostess emerged with recovered aplomb. She had donned a skirt and a flowered blouse, and dusted powder upon and about her sunburned and rather blobby nose. Her crinkly gray hair had been drawn to a knot at the back of her grenadier's head. Her widely set eyes gleamed with the smile of her broad and competent mouth.
"Tea in one minute," she promised more than audibly as she bustled into the kitchen. It really came in five, and beside the tray she pleasantly relaxed. The cups were filled and a breach was made upon the cake she had brought. The tea was advertising a sufficient strength, yet she now raised the dynamics of her own portion.
"I'll just spill a hooker of this here Scotch into mine," she said, and then, as she did even so: "My lands! Ain't I the cynical old Kate! And silly! Letting them boys upset me that way with that there fool song." She decanted a saucerful of the re-enforced tea and raised it to her pursed lips. "Looking at you!" she murmured cavernously and drank deep. She put the saucer back where nice persons leave theirs at all times. "Say, it was hot over on that bench to-day. I was getting out that bunch of bull calves, and all the time here was old Safety First mumbling round—"
This was rather promising, but I had resolved differently.
"That song," I insinuated. "Of course there are people—"
"You bet there are! I'm one of 'em, too! What that song's done to me—and to other innocent bystanders in the last couple weeks—"
She sighed hugely, drank more of the fortified brew—nicely from the cup this time—and fashioned a cigarette from materials at her hand.
In the flame of a lighted match Mrs. Pettengill's eyes sparkled with a kind of savage retrospection. She shrugged it off impatiently.
"I guess you thought I spoke a mite short when you asked about Nettie's wedding yesterday."
It was true. She had turned the friendly inquiry with a rather mystifying abruptness. I murmured politely. She blew twin jets of smoke from the widely separated corners of her generous mouth and then shrewdly narrowed her gaze to some distant point of narration.
"Yes, sir, I says to her, 'Woman's place is the home.' And what you think she come back with? That she was going to be a leader of the New Dawn. Yes, sir, just like that. Five feet one, a hundred and eight pounds in her winter clothes, a confirmed pickle eater—pretty enough, even if she is kind of peaked and spiritual looking—and going to lead the New Dawn.
"Where'd she catch it? My fault, of course, sending her back East to school and letting her visit the W.B. Hemingways, Mrs. H. being the well-known clubwoman like the newspapers always print under her photo in evening dress. That's how she caught it all right.
"I hadn't realized it when she first got back, except she was pale and far-away in the eyes and et pickles heavily at every meal—oh, mustard, dill, sour, sweet, anything that was pickles—and not enough meat and regular victuals. Gaunted she was, but I didn't suspect her mind was contaminated none till I sprung Chester Timmins on her as a good marrying bet. You know Chet, son of old Dave that has the Lazy Eight Ranch over on Pipe Stone—a good, clean boy that'll have the ranch to himself as soon as old Dave dies of meanness, and that can't be long now. It was then she come out delirious about not being the pampered toy of any male—male, mind you! It seems when these hussies want to knock man nowadays they call him a male. And she rippled on about the freedom of her soul and her downtrod sisters and this here New Dawn.
"Well, sir, a baby could have pushed me flat with one finger. At first I didn' know no better'n to argue with her, I was that affrighted. 'Why, Nettie Hosford,' I says, 'to think I've lived to hear my only sister's only child talking in shrieks like that! To think I should have to tell one of my own kin that women's place is the home. Look at me,' I says—we was down in Red Gap at the time—'pretty soon I'll go up to the ranch and what'll I do there?" I says.
"'Well, listen,' I says, 'to a few of the things I'll be doing: I'll be marking, branding, and vaccinating the calves, I'll be classing and turning out the strong cattle on the range. I'll be having the colts rid, breaking mules for haying, oiling and mending the team harness, cutting and hauling posts, tattooing the ears and registering the thoroughbred calves, putting in dams, cleaning ditches, irrigating the flats, setting out the vegetable garden, building fence, swinging new gates, overhauling the haying tools, receiving, marking, and branding the new two—year—old bulls, plowing and seeding grain for our work stock and hogs, breaking in new cooks and blacksmiths'—I was so mad I went on till I was winded. 'And that ain't half of it,' I says. 'Women's work is never done; her place is in the home and she finds so much to do right there that she ain't getting any time to lead a New Dawn. I'll start you easy,' I says; 'learn you to bake a batch of bread or do a tub of washing—something simple—and there's Chet Timmins, waiting to give you a glorious future as wife and mother and helpmeet.'
"She just give me one look as cold as all arctics and says, 'It's repellent'—that's all, just 'repellent.' I see I was up against it. No good talking. Sometimes it comes over me like a flash when not to talk. It does to some women. So I affected a light manner and pretended to laugh it off, just as if I didn't see scandal threatening—think of having it talked about that a niece of my own raising was a leader of the New Dawn!
"'All right,' I says, 'only, of course, Chet Timmins is a good friend and neighbour of mine, even if he is a male, so I hope you won't mind his dropping in now and again from time to time, just to say howdy and eat a meal.' And she flusters me again with her coolness.
"'No,' she says, 'I won't mind, but I know what you're counting on, and it won't do either of you any good. I'm above the appeal of a man's mere presence,' she says, 'for I've thrown off the age—long subjection; but I won't mind his coming. I shall delight to study him. They're all alike, and one specimen is as good as another for that. But neither of you need expect anything,' she says, 'for the wrongs of my sisters have armoured me against the grossness of mere sex appeal.' Excuse me for getting off such things, but I'm telling you how she talked.
"'Oh, shucks!' I says to myself profanely, for all at once I saw she wasn't talking her own real thoughts but stuff she'd picked up from the well-known lady friends of Mrs. W.B. Hemingway. I was mad all right; but the minute I get plumb sure mad I get wily. 'I was just trying you out,' I says. 'Of course you are right!' 'Of course I am,' says she, 'though I hardly expected you to see it, you being so hardened a product of the ancient ideal of slave marriage.'
"At them words it was pretty hard for me to keep on being wily, but I kept all right. I kept beautifully. I just laughed and said we'd have Chet Timmins up for supper, and she laughed and said it would be amusing.
"And it was, or it would have been if it hadn't been so sad and disgusting. Chet, you see, had plumb crumpled the first time he ever set eyes on her, and he's never been able to uncrumple. He always choked up the minute she'd come into the room, and that night he choked worse'n ever because the little devil started in to lead him on—aiming to show me how she could study a male, I reckon. He couldn't even ask for some more of the creamed potatoes without choking up—with her all the time using her eyes on him, and telling him how a great rough man like him scared 'poor little me.' Chet's tan bleaches out a mite by the end of winter, but she kept his face exactly the shade of that new mahogany sideboard I got, and she told him several times that he ought to go see a throat specialist right off about that choking of his.
"And after supper I'm darned if she didn't lure him out onto the porch in the moonlight, and stand there sad looking and helpless, simply egging him on, mind you, her in one of them little squashy white dresses that she managed to brush against him—all in the way of cold study, mind you. Say, ain't we the lovely tame rattlesnakes when we want to be! And this big husky lummox of a Chester Timmins—him she'd called a male—what does he do but stand safely at a distance of four feet in the grand romantic light of the full moon, and tell her vivaciously all about the new saddle he's having made in Spokane. And even then he not only chokes but he giggles. They do say a strong man in tears is a terrible sight. But a husky man giggling is worse—take it from one who has suffered. And all the time I knew his heart was furnishing enough actual power to run a feed chopper. So did she!
"'The creature is so typical,' she says when the poor cuss had finally stumbled down the front steps. 'He's a real type.' Only she called it 'teep,' having studied the French language among other things. 'He is a teep indeed!' she says.
"I had to admit myself that Chester wasn't any self-starter. I saw he'd have to be cranked by an outsider if he was going to win a place of his own in the New Dawn. And I kept thinking wily, and the next P.M. when Nettie and I was downtown I got my hunch. You know that music store on Fourth Street across from the Boston Cash Emporium. It's kept by C. Wilbur Todd, and out in front in a glass case he had a mechanical banjo that was playing 'The Rosary' with variations when we come by. We stopped a minute to watch the machinery picking the strings and in a flash I says to myself, 'I got it! Eureka, California!' I says, 'it's come to me!'
"Of course that piece don't sound so awful tender when it's done on a banjo with variations, but I'd heard it done right and swell one time and so I says, 'There's the song of songs to bring foolish males and females to their just mating sense.'"
The speaker paused to drain her cup and to fashion another cigarette, her eyes dreaming upon far vistas.
"Ain't it fierce what music does to persons," she resumed. "Right off I remembered the first time I'd heard that piece—in New York City four years ago, in a restaurant after the theatre one night, where I'd gone with Mrs. W.B. Hemingway and her husband. A grand, gay place it was, with an orchestra. I picked at some untimely food and sipped a highball—they wouldn't let a lady smoke there—and what interested me was the folks that come in. Folks always do interest me something amazing. Strange ones like that, I mean, where you set and try to figure out all about 'em, what kind of homes they got, and how they act when they ain't in a swell restaurant, and everything. Pretty soon comes a couple to the table next us and, say, they was just plain Mr. and Mrs. Mad. Both of 'em stall-fed. He was a large, shiny lad, with pink jowls barbered to death and wicked looking, like a well-known clubman or villain. The lady was spectacular and cynical, with a cold, thin nose and eyes like a couple of glass marbles. Her hair was several shades off a legal yellow and she was dressed! She would have made handsome loot, believe me—aigrette, bracelets, rings, dog collar, gold-mesh bag, vanity case—Oh, you could see at a glance that she was one of them Broadway social favourites you read about. And both grouchy, like I said. He scowled till you knew he'd just love to beat a crippled step-child to death, and she—well, her work wasn't so coarse; she kept her mad down better. She set there as nice and sweet as a pet scorpion.
"'A scrap,' I says to myself, 'and they've only half finished. She's threatened to quit and he, the cowardly dog, has dared her to.' Plain enough. The waiter knew it soon as I did when he come to take their order. Wouldn't speak to each other. Talked through him; fought it out to something different for each one. Couldn't even agree on the same kind of cocktail. Both slamming the waiter—before they fought the order to a finish each had wanted to call the head waiter, only the other one stopped it.
"So I rubbered awhile, trying to figure out why such folks want to finish up their fights in a restaurant, and then I forgot 'em, looking at some other persons that come in. Then the orchestra started this song and I seen a lady was getting up in front to sing it. I admit the piece got me. It got me good. Really, ain't it the gooey mess of heart-throbs when you come right down to it? This lady singer was a good-looking sad-faced contralto in a low-cut black dress—and how she did get the tears out of them low notes! Oh, I quit looking at people while her chest was oozing out that music. And it got others, too. I noticed lots of 'em had stopped eating when I looked round, and there was so much clapping she had to get up and do it all over again. And what you think? In the middle of the second time I look over to these fighters, and darned if they ain't holding hands across the table; and more, she's got a kind of pitiful, crying smile on and he's crying right out—crying into his cold asparagus, plain as day.
"What more would you want to know about the powers of this here piece of music? They both spoke like human beings to the scared waiter when he come back, and the lad left a five-spot on the tray when he paid his check. Some song, yes?
"And all this flashed back on me when Nettie and I stood there watching this cute little banjo. So I says to myself, 'Here, my morbid vestal, is where I put you sane; here's where I hurl an asphyxiating bomb into the trenches of the New Dawn.' Out loud I only says, 'Let's go in and see if Wilbur has got some new records.'
"'Wilbur?' says she, and we went in. Nettie had not met Wilbur.
"I may as well tell you here and now that C. Wilbur Todd is a shrimp. Shrimp I have said and shrimp I always will say. He talks real brightly in his way—he will speak words like an actor or something—but for brains! Say, he always reminds me of the dumb friend of the great detective in the magazine stories, the one that goes along to the scene of the crime to ask silly questions and make fool guesses about the guilty one, and never even suspects who done the murder, till the detective tells on the last page when they're all together in the library.
"Sure, that's Wilbur. It would be an ideal position for him. Instead of which he runs this here music store, sells these jitney pianos and phonographs and truck like that. And serious! Honestly, if you seen him coming down the street you'd say, 'There comes one of these here musicians.' Wears long hair and a low collar and a flowing necktie and talks about his technique. Yes, sir, about the technique of working a machinery piano. Gives free recitals in the store every second Saturday afternoon, and to see him set down and pump with his feet, and push levers and pull handles, weaving himself back and forth, tossing his long, silken locks back and looking dreamily off into the distance, you'd think he was a Paderewski. As a matter of fact, I've seen Paderewski play and he don't make a tenth of the fuss Wilbur does. And after this recital I was at one Saturday he comes up to some of us ladies, mopping his pale brow, and he says, 'It does take it out of one! I'm always a nervous wreck after these little affairs of mine.' Would that get you, or would it not?
"So we go in the store and Wilbur looks up from a table he's setting at in the back end.
"'You find me studying some new manuscripts,' he says, pushing back the raven locks from his brow. Say, it was a weary gesture he done it with—sort of languid and world-weary. And what you reckon he meant by studying manuscripts? Why, he had one of these rolls of paper with the music punched into it in holes, and he was studying that line that tells you when to play hard or soft and all like that. Honest, that was it!
"'I always study these manuscripts of the masters conscientiously before I play them,' says he.
"Such is Wilbur. Such he will ever be. So I introduced him to Nettie and asked if he had this here song on a phonograph record. He had. He had it on two records. 'One by a barytone gentleman, and one by a mezzo-soprano,' says Wilbur. I set myself back for both. He also had it with variations on one of these punched rolls. He played that for us. It took him three minutes to get set right at the piano and to dust his fingers with a white silk handkerchief which he wore up his sleeve. And he played with great expression and agony and bending exercises, ever and anon tossing back his rebellious locks and fixing us with a look of pained ecstasy. Of course it sounded better than the banjo, but you got to have the voice with that song if you're meaning to do any crooked work. Nettie was much taken with it even so, and Wilbur played it another way. What he said was that it was another school of interpretation. It seemed to have its points with him, though he favoured the first school, he said, because of a certain almost rugged fidelity. He said the other school was marked by a tendency to idealism, and he pulled some of the handles to show how it was done. I'm merely telling you how Wilbur talked.
"Nettie listened very serious. There was a new look in her eyes. 'That song has got to her even on a machinery piano,' I says, 'but wait till we get the voice, with she and Chester out in the mischievous moonlight.' Wasn't I the wily old hound! Nettie sort of lingered to hear Wilbur, who was going good by this time. 'One must be the soul behind the wood and wire,' he says; 'one rather feels just that, or one remains merely a brutal mechanic.'
"'I understand,' says Nettie. 'How you must have studied!'
"'Oh, studied!' says Wilbur, and tossed his mane back and laughed in a lofty and suffering manner. Studied! He'd gone one year to a business college in Seattle after he got out of high school!
"'I understand,' says Nettie, looking all reverent and buffaloed.
"'It is the price one must pay for technique,' says Wilbur. 'And to-day you found me in the mood. I am not always in the mood.'
"'I understand,' says Nettie.
"I'm just giving you an idea, understand. Then Wilbur says, 'I will bring these records up this evening if I may. The mezzo-soprano requires a radically different adjustment from the barytone.' 'My God!' thinks I, 'has he got technique on the phonograph, too!' But I says he must come by all means, thinking he could tend the machine while Nettie and Chester is out on the porch getting wise to each other.
"'There's another teep for you,' I says to Nettie when we got out of the place. 'He certainly is marked by tendencies,' I says. I meant it for a nasty slam at Wilbur's painful deficiencies as a human being, but she took it as serious as Wilbur took himself—which is some!
"'Ah, yes, the artist teep,' says she,'the most complex, the most baffling of all.'
"That was a kind of a sickish jolt to me—the idea that something as low in the animal kingdom as Wilbur could baffle anyone—but I thinks, 'Shucks! Wait till he lines up alongside of a regular human man like Chet Timmins!'
"I had Chet up to supper again. He still choked on words of one syllable if Nettie so much as glanced at him, and turned all sorts of painful colours like a cheap rug. But I keep thinking the piece will fix that all right.
"At eight o'clock Wilbur sifted in with his records and something else flat and thin, done up in paper that I didn't notice much at the time. My dear heart, how serious he was! As serious as—well, I chanced to be present at the house of mourning when the barber come to shave old Judge Armstead after he'd passed away—you know what I mean—kind of like him Wilbur was, talking subdued and cat-footing round very solemn and professional. I thought he'd never get that machine going. He cleaned it, and he oiled it, and he had great trouble picking out the right fibre needle, holding six or eight of 'em up to the light, doing secret things to the machine's inwards, looking at us sharp as if we oughtn't to be talking even then, and when she did move off I'm darned if he didn't hang in a strained manner over that box, like he was the one that was doing it all and it wouldn't get the notes right if he took his attention off.
"It was a first-class record, I'll say that. It was the male barytone—one of them pleading voices that get all into you. It wasn't half over before I seen Nettie was strongly moved, as they say, only she was staring at Wilbur, who by now was leading the orchestra with one graceful arm and looking absorbed and sodden, like he done it unconsciously. Chester just set there with his mouth open, like something you see at one of these here aquariums.
"We moved round some when it was over, while Wilbur was picking out just the right needle for the other record, and so I managed to cut that lump of a Chester out of the bunch and hold him on the porch till I got Nettie out, too. Then I said 'Sh-h-h!' so they wouldn't move when Wilbur let the mezzo-soprano start. And they had to stay out there in the golden moonlight with love's young dream and everything. The lady singer was good, too. No use in talking, that song must have done a lot of heart work right among our very best families. It had me going again so I plumb forgot my couple outside. I even forgot Wilbur, standing by the box showing the lady how to sing.
"It come to the last—you know how it ends—'To kiss the cross, sweetheart, to kiss the cross!' There was a rich and silent moment and I says, 'If that Chet Timmins hasn't shown himself to be a regular male teep by this time—' And here come Chet's voice, choking as usual, 'Yes, paw switched to Durhams and Herefords over ten years ago—you see Holsteins was too light; they don't carry the meat—' Honest! I'm telling you what I heard. And yet when they come in I could see that Chester had had tears in his eyes from that song, so still I didn't give in, especially as Nettie herself looked very exalted, like she wasn't at that minute giving two whoops in the bad place for the New Dawn.
"Nettie made for Wilbur, who was pushing back his hair with a weak but graceful sweep of the arm—it had got down before his face like a portiere—and I took Chet into a corner and tried to get some of the just wrath of God into his heart; but, my lands! You'd have said he didn't know there was such a thing as a girl in the whole Kulanche Valley. He didn't seem to hear me. He talked other matters.
"'Paw thinks,' he says, 'that he might manage to take them hundred and fifty bull calves off your hands.' 'Oh, indeed!' I says. 'And does he think of buying 'em—as is often done in the cattle business—or is he merely aiming to do me a favour?' I was that mad at the poor worm, but he never knew. 'Why, now, paw says "You tell Maw Pettengill I might be willing to take 'em off her hands at fifty dollars a head,"' he says. 'I should think he might be,' I says, 'but they ain't bothering my hands the least little mite. I like to have 'em on my hands at anything less than sixty a head,' I says. 'Your pa,' I went on, 'is the man that started this here safety-first cry. Others may claim the honour, but it belongs solely to him.' 'He never said anything about that,' says poor Chester. 'He just said you was going to be short of range this summer.' 'Be that all too true, as it may be,' I says, 'but I still got my business faculties—' And I was going on some more, but just then I seen Nettie and Wilbur was awful thick over something he'd unwrapped from the other package he'd brought. It was neither more nor less than a big photo of C. Wilbur Todd. Yes, sir, he'd brought her one.
"'I think the artist has caught a bit of the real just there, if you know what I mean,' says Wilbur, laying a pale thumb across the upper part of the horrible thing.
"'I understand,' says Nettie, 'the real you was expressing itself.'
"'Perhaps,' concedes Wilbur kind of nobly. 'I dare say he caught me in one of my rarer moods. You don't think it too idealized?'
"'Don't jest,' says she, very pretty and severe. And they both gazed spellbound.
"'Chester,' I says in low but venomous tones, 'you been hanging round that girl worse than Grant hung round Richmond, but you got to remember that Grant was more than a hanger. He made moves, Chester, moves! Do you get me?'
"'About them calves,' says Chester, 'pa told me it's his honest opinion—'
"Well, that was enough for once. I busted up that party sudden and firm.
"'It has meant much to me,' says Wilbur at parting.
"'I understand,' says Nettie.
"'When you come up to the ranch, Miss Nettie,' says Chester, 'you want to ride over to the Lazy Eight, and see that there tame coyote I got. It licks your hand like a dog.'
"But what could I do, more than what I had done? Nettie was looking at the photograph when I shut the door on 'em. 'The soul behind the wood and wire,' she murmurs. I looked closer then and what do you reckon it was? Just as true as I set here, it was Wilbur, leaning forward all negligent and patronizing on a twelve-hundred-dollar grand piano, his hair well forward and his eyes masterful, like that there noble instrument was his bond slave. But wait! And underneath he'd writ a bar of music with notes running up and down, and signed his name to it—not plain, mind you, though he can write a good business hand if he wants to, but all scrawly like some one important, so you couldn't tell if it was meant for Dutch or English. Could you beat that for nerve—in a day, in a million years?
"'What's Wilbur writing that kind of music for?' I asks in a cold voice. 'He don't know that kind. What he had ought to of written is a bunch of them hollow slats and squares like they punch in the only kind of music he plays,' I says.
"'Hush!' says Nettie. 'It's that last divine phrase, "To kiss the cross!"'
"I choked up myself then. And I went to bed and thought. And this is what I thought: When you think you got the winning hand, keep on raising. To call is to admit you got no faith in your judgment. Better lay down than call. So I resolve not to say another word to the girl about Chester, but simply to press the song in on her. Already it had made her act like a human person. Of course I didn't worry none about Wilbur. The wisdom of the ages couldn't have done that. But I seen I had got to have a real first-class human voice in that song, like the one I had heard in New York City. They'll just have to clench, I think, when they hear a good A-number-one voice in it.
"Next day I look in on Wilbur and say, 'What about this concert and musical entertainment the North Side set is talking about giving for the starving Belgians?'
"'The plans are maturing,' he says, 'but I'm getting up a Brahms concerto that I have promised to play—you know how terrifically difficult Brahms is—so the date hasn't been set yet.'
"'Well, set it and let's get to work,' I says. 'There'll be you, and the North Side Ladies' String Quartet, and Ed Bughalter with a bass solo, and Mrs. Dr. Percy Hailey Martingale with the "Jewel Song" from Faust, and I been thinking,' I says, 'that we had ought to get a good professional lady concert singer down from Spokane.'
"'I'm afraid the expenses would go over our receipts,' says Wilbur, and I can see him figuring that this concert will cost the Belgians money instead of helping 'em; so right off I says, 'If you can get a good-looking, sad-faced contralto, with a low-cut black dress, that can sing "The Rosary" like it had ought to be sung, why, you can touch me for that part of the evening's entertainment.'
"Wilbur says I'm too good, not suspicioning I'm just being wily, so he says he'll write up and fix it. And a couple days later he says the lady professional is engaged, and it'll cost me fifty, and he shows me her picture and the dress is all right, and she had a sad, powerful face, and the date is set and everything.
"Meantime, I keep them two records het up for the benefit of my reluctant couple: daytime for Nettie—she standing dreamy-eyed while it was doing, showing she was coming more and more human, understand—and evenings for both of 'em, when Chester Timmins would call. And Chet himself about the third night begins to get a new look in his eyes, kind of absent and desperate, so I thinks this here lady professional will simply goad him to a frenzy. Oh, we had some sad musical week before that concert! That was when this crazy Chink of mine got took by the song. He don't know yet what it means, but it took him all right; he got regular besotted with it, keeping the kitchen door open all the time, so he wouldn't miss a single turn. It took his mind off his work, too. Talk about the Yellow Peril! He got so locoed with that song one day, what does he do but peel and cook up twelve dollars' worth of the Piedmont Queen dahlia bulbs I'd ordered for the front yard. Sure! Served 'em with cream sauce, and we et 'em, thinking they was some kind of a Chinese vegetable.
"But I was saying about this new look in Chester's eyes, kind of far-off and criminal, when that song was playing. And then something give me a pause, as they say. Chet showed up one evening with his nails all manicured; yes, sir, polished till you needed smoked glasses to look at 'em. I knew all right where he'd been. I may as well tell you that Henry Lehman was giving Red Gap a flash of form with his new barber shop—tiled floor, plate-glass front, exposed plumbing, and a manicure girl from Seattle; yes, sir, just like in the great wicked cities. It had already turned some of our very best homes into domestic hells, and no wonder! Decent, God-fearing men, who'd led regular lives and had whiskers and grown children, setting down to a little spindle-legged table with this creature, dipping their clumsy old hands into a pink saucedish of suds and then going brazenly back to their innocent families with their nails glittering like piano keys. Oh, that young dame was bound to be a social pet among the ladies of the town, yes—no? She was pretty and neat figured, with very careful hair, though its colour had been tampered with unsuccessfully, and she wore little, blue-striped shirtwaists that fitted very close—you know—with low collars. It was said that she was a good conversationalist and would talk in low, eager tones to them whose fingers she tooled.