THE BOSS OF LITTLE ARCADY
HARRY LEON WILSON
THE BOOK OF COLONEL POTTS
I. How the Boss won his Title
II. The Golden Day of Colonel Potts
III. The Perfect Lover
IV. Dreams and Wakings
V. A Mad Prank of the Gods
VI. A Matter of Personal Property
VII. "A World of Fine Fabling"
VIII. Adventure of Billy Durgin, Sleuth
IX. How the Boss saved Himself
X. A Lady of Powers
XI. How Little Arcady was Uplifted
XII. Troubled Waters are Stilled
THE BOOK OF MISS CAROLINE
XIII. A Catastrophe in Furniture
XIV. The Coming of Miss Caroline
XV. Little Arcady views a Parade
XVI. The Spectre of Scandal is Raised
XVII. The Truth about Shakspere at Last
XVIII. In which the Game was Played
XIX. A Worthless Black Hound
XX. In which Something must be Done
XXI. Little Arcady is grievously Shaken
THE BOOK OF LITTLE MISS
XXII. The Time of Dreams
XXIII. The Strain of Peavey
XXIV. The Loyalty of Jim
XXV. The Case of Fatty Budlow
XXVI. A Little Mystery is Solved
XXVII. How a Truce was Troublesome
XXVIII. The Abdication of the Boss
XXIX. In which All Rules are Broken
XXX. By Another Hand
"A chestin' out his chest lahk a ole ma'ash frawg"
"And yet I have been pestered by cheap flings at my personal bearing"
"We might get him to make a barrel of it for the Sunday-school picnic"
"That will do," I said severely. "Remember there is a gentleman present"
The Book of COLONEL POTTS
HOW THE BOSS WON HIS TITLE
Late last Thursday evening one Jonas Rodney Potts, better known to this community as "Upright" Potts, stumbled into the mill-race, where it had providentially been left open just north of Cady's mill. Everything was going along finely until two hopeless busybodies were attracted to the spot by his screams, and fished him out. It is feared that he will recover. We withhold the names of his rescuers, although under strong temptation to publish them broadcast.—Little Arcady Argus of May 21st.
Looking back to that time from a happier present, I am filled by a genuine awe of J. Rodney Potts. Reflecting upon those benign ends which the gods chose to make him serve, I can but marvel how lightly each of us may meet and scorn a casual Potts, unrecking his gracious and predestined office in the play of Fate.
Of the present—to me—supreme drama of the Little Country, I can only say that the gods had selected their agent with a cunning so flawless that suspicion of his portents could not well have been aroused in one lacking discernment like unto the gods' very own. So trivially, so utterly, so pitiably casual, to eyes of the flesh, was this Potts of Little Arcady, from his immortal soul to the least item of his inferior raiment!
Thus craftily are we fooled by the Lords of Destiny, whose caprice it is to affect remoteness from us and a lofty unconcern for our poor little doings.
There is bitterness in the lines of that Argus paragraph, and a flippant incivility might be read between them by the least discerning.
Arcady of the Little Country, however, knows there is neither bitterness nor real cynicism in Solon Denney, founder, editor, and proprietor of the Little Arcady Argus; motto, "Hew to the Line, Let the Chips Fall Where they May!" Indeed, we do know Solon. Often enough has the Argus hewn inexorably to the line, when that line led straight through the heart of its guiding genius and through the hearts of us all. One who had seen him, as I did, stand uncovered in the presence of his new Washington hand-press, the day that dynamo of Light was erected in the Argus office, could never suppose him to lack humanity or the just reverence demanded by his craft.
We may concede without disloyalty that Solon is peculiar unto himself. In his presence you are cursed with an unquiet suspicion that he may become frivolous with you at any moment,—may, indeed, be so at that moment, despite a due facial gravity and tones of weight,—for he will not infrequently seem to be both trivial and serious in the same breath. Again, he is amazingly sensitive for one not devoid of humor. In a pleasant sense he is acutely aware of himself, and he does not dislike to know that you feel his quality. Still again, he is bound to spice his writing. Were it his lot to report events on the Day of Judgment, I believe the Argus account would be thought too highly colored by many persons of good taste.
But Little Arcady knows that Solon is loyal to its welfare—knows that he is fit to wield the mightiest lever of Civilization in its behalf on Wednesday of each week.
We know now, moreover, that an undercurrent of circumstance existed which did not even ripple the surface of that apparently facetious brutality hurled at J. Rodney Potts.
The truth may not be told in a word. But it was in this affair that Solon Denney won his title of "Boss of Little Arcady," a title first rendered unto him somewhat in derision, I regret to say, by a number of our leading citizens, who sought, as it were, to make sport of him.
It began in a jest, as do all the choicest tragedies of the gods,—a few lines of idle badinage, meant to spice Solon's column of business locals with a readable sprightliness. The thing was printed, in fact, between "Let Harpin Cust shine your face with his new razors" and "See that line of clocks at Chislett's for sixty cents. They look like cuckoos and keep good time."
"Not much news this week," the item blithely ran, "so we hereby start the rumor that 'Upright' Potts is going to leave town. We would incite no community to lawless endeavor, but—may the Colonel encounter swiftly in his new environment that warm reception to which his qualities of mind, no less than his qualities of heart, so richly entitle him,—that reception, in short, which our own debilitated public spirit has timidly refused him. We claim the right to start any rumor of this sort that will cheer the souls of an admiring constituency. Now is the time to pay up that subscription."
The intention, of course, was openly playful—a not subtle sally meant to be read and forgotten. Yet—will it be credited?—more than one of us read it so hurriedly, perhaps with so passionate a longing to have it the truth, as not to perceive its satirical indirections. The rumor actually lived for a day that Potts was to disembarrass the town of his presence.
And then, from the fictitious stuff of this rumor was spawned a veritable inspiration. Several of our most public-spirited citizens seemed to father it simultaneously.
"Why should Potts not leave town—why should he not seek out a new field of effort?"
"Field of effort" was a rank bit of poesy, it being certain that Potts would never make an effort worthy of the name in any field whatsoever; but the sense of it was plain.
Increasingly with the years had plans been devised to alleviate the condition of Potts's residence among us. Some of these had required a too definite and artificial abruptness in the mechanics of his removal; others, like Eustace Eubanks's plot for having all our best people refuse to notice him, depended upon a sensitiveness in the person aimed at which he did not possess. Besides, there had been talk of disbarring him from the practice of his profession, and I, as a lawyer, had been urged to instigate that proceeding. Unquestionably there was ground for it.
But now this random pleasantry of Solon Denney's set our minds to working in another direction.
In the broad, pleasant window of the post-office, under the "NO LOAFING HERE!" sign, half a dozen of us discussed it while we waited for the noon mail. There seemed to be a half-formed belief that Potts might adroitly be made to perceive advantages in leaving us.
"It's a whole lot better to manipulate and be subtle in a case like this," suggested the editor of the Argus. "Threats of violence, forcible expulsion, disbarment proceedings—all crude—and besides they won't move Potts. Jonas Rodney may not be gifted with a giant intellect, but he is cunning."
"The cunning of a precocious boy," prompted Eustace Eubanks, who was one of us. "He is well aware that we would not dare attempt lawless violence."
"Exactly, Eustace," answered Solon. "I tell you, gentlemen, this thriving little town needs a canning factory, as we all know; but more than a canning factory it needs a Boss,—one of those strong characters that make tools of their fellow-men, who rule our cities with an iron hand but take care to keep the hand in a velvet glove,—a Boss that is diplomatic, yet an autocrat."
That careless use of the term "Boss" was afterward seen to be unfortunate for Solon. They remembered it against him.
"That's right," said Westley Keyts. "Let's be diplomatic with him."
"How would you begin, Westley, if you don't mind telling us?" Solon had already begun to shape a scheme of his own.
"Why," answered Westley, looking very earnest, "just go up to him in a quiet, refined manner—no blustering, understand—and say in a low tone, kind of off-hand but serious, 'Now, look a' here, Potts, old boy, let's talk this thing over like a couple of gentlemen had ought to.' 'Well, all right,' says Potts, 'that's fair—I couldn't refuse that as from one gentleman to another gentleman.' Well, then, say to him, 'Now, Potts, you know as well as any man in this town that you're an all-round no-good—you're a human Not—and a darn scalawag into the bargain. So what's the use? Will you go, or won't you?' Then if he'd begin to hem and haw and try to put it off with one thing or another, why, just hint in a roundabout way—perfectly genteel, you understand—that there'd be doings with a kittle of tar and feathers that same night at eight-thirty sharp, rain or shine, with a free ride right afterward to the town line and mebbe a bit beyond, without no cushions. Up about the Narrows would be a good place to say farewell," he concluded thoughtfully.
We had listened patiently enough, but this was too summary. Westley Keyts is our butcher, a good, honest, energetic, downright business man with a square forehead and a blunt jaw and red hair that bristles with challenges. But he seems compelled to say too nearly what he means to render him useful in negotiations requiring any considerable finesse.
"We were speaking, Westley, of the gentle functions of diplomacy," remarked Solon, cuttingly. "Of course, we could waylay Potts and kill him with one of your cleavers and have his noble head stuffed and mounted to hang up over Barney Skeyhan's bar, but it wouldn't be subtle—it would not be what the newspapers call 'a triumph of diplomacy'! And then, again, reports of it might be carried to other towns, and talk would be caused."
"Now, say," retorted Westley, somewhat abashed, "I was thinking I answered all that by winding up the way like I did, asking him,—not mad-like, you understand,—'Now will you go or won't you?' just like that. All I can say is, if that ain't diplomacy, then I don't know what in Time diplomacy is!"
I think we conceded this, in silence, be it understood, for Westley is respected. But we looked to Solon for a more tenuous subtlety. Nor did he fail us. Two days later Potts upon the public street actually announced his early departure from Little Arcady.
To know how pleasing an excitement this created one should know more about Potts. It will have been inferred that he was objectionable. For the fact, he was objectionable in every way: as a human being, a man, a citizen, a member of the Slocum County bar, and a veteran of our late civil conflict. He was shiftless, untidy, a borrower, a pompous braggart, a trouble-maker, forever driving some poor devil into senseless litigation. Moreover, he was blithely unscrupulous in his dealings with the Court, his clients, his brother-attorneys, and his fellow-men at large. When I add that he was given to spells of hard drinking, during which he became obnoxious beyond the wildest possible dreams of that quality, it will be seen that we of Little Arcady were not without reason for wishing him away.
He had drifted casually in upon us after the war, accompanied somewhat elegantly by one John Randolph Clement Tuckerman, an ex-slave. He came with much talk of his regiment,—a fat-cheeked, florid man of forty-five or so, with shifty blue eyes and an address moderately insinuating. Very tall he was, and so erect that he seemed to lean a little backward. This physical trait, combining with a fancy for referring to himself freely as "an upright citizen of this reunited and glorious republic, sir!" had speedily made him known as "Upright" Potts. He was of a slender build and a bony frame, except in front. His long, single-breasted frock-coat hung loosely enough about his shoulders, yet buttoned tightly over a stomach that was so incongruous as to seem artificial. The sleeves of the coat were glossy from much desk rubbing, and its front advertised a rather inattentive behavior at table. The Colonel's dress was completed by drab overgaiters and poorly draped trousers of the same once-delicate hue. Upon his bald head, which was high and peaked, like Sir Walter Scott's, he carried a silk hat in an inferior state of preservation. When he began to drink it was his custom to repair at once to a barber and submit to having his side-whiskers trimmed fastidiously. Sober, he seemed to feel little pride of person, and his whiskers at such a time merely called attention somewhat unprettily to his lack of a chin. His other possessions were an ebony walking stick with a gold head and what he referred to in moments of expansion as his "library." This consisted of a copy of the Revised Statutes, a directory of Cincinnati, Ohio, for the year 1867, and two volumes of Patent Office reports.
At the time of which I speak the Colonel had long been sober, and the day that Solon Denney completed those mysterious negotiations with him he was as far from conventional standards of the beautiful as I remember to have seen him.
The guise of Solon's subtlety, the touch of his iron hand in a glove of softest velvet, had been in this wise: he had pointed out to the Colonel that there were richer fields of endeavor to the west of us; newer, larger towns, fitter abodes for a man of his parts; communities which had honors and emoluments to lavish upon the worthy,—prizes which it would doubtless never be in our poor power to bestow.
Potts was stirred by all this, but he was not blinded to certain disadvantages,—"a stranger in a strange land," etc., while in Little Arcady he had already "made himself known."
But, suggested Solon, with a ready wit, if the stranger were to go fortified with certificates of character from the leading citizens of his late home?
This was a thing to consider. Potts reflected more favorably; but still he hesitated. He was unable to believe that these certificates of his excellence might be obtained. The bar and the commercial element of Little Arcady had been cold, not to say suspicious, toward him. It was an unpleasant thing to mention, but a cabal had undeniably been formed.
Solon was politely incredulous. He pledged his word of honor as a gentleman to provide the letters,—a laudatory, an uplifting letter, from every citizen in town whose testimony would be of weight; also a half-column of fit praise in the next issue of the Argus, twelve copies of which Potts should freely carry off with him for judicious scattering about the fortunate town in which his journey should end.
Then Potts spoke openly of the expenses of travel. Solon, royally promising a purse of gold to take him on his way, clenched the winning of a neat and bloodless victory.
No one has ever denied that Denney must have employed a faultless, an incomparable tact, to bring J. Rodney Potts to this agreement. By tact alone had he achieved that which open sneers, covert insult, abuse, ridicule, contumely, and forthright threats had failed to consummate, and in the first flush of the news we all felt much as Westley Keyts said he did.
"Solon Denney is some subtler than me," said Westley, in a winning spirit of concession; "I can see that, now. He's the Boss of Little Arcady after this, all right, so far as I know."
Nevertheless, there was misgiving about the letters for Potts. Old Asa Bundy, our banker, wanted to know, somewhat peevishly, if it seemed quite honest to send Potts to another town with a satchel full of letters certifying to his rare values as a man and a citizen. What would that town think of us two or three days later?
"This is no time to split hairs, Bundy," said Solon; and I believe I added, "Don't be quixotic, Mr. Bundy!"
Hereupon Westley Keyts broke in brightly.
"Why, now, they'll see in a minute that the whole thing was meant as a joke. They'll see that the laugh is on them, and they'll have a lot of fun out of it, and then send the old cuss along to another town with some more funny letters to fool the next ones." "That's all very well, but it isn't high conduct," insisted Bundy.
Westley Keyts now achieved the nearest approach to diplomacy I have ever known of him.
"Oh, well, Asa, after all, this is a world of give and take. 'Live and let live' is my motto."
"We must use common sense in these matters, you know, Bundy," observed Solon, judicially.
And that sophistry prevailed, for we were weak unto faintness from our burden.
We gave letters setting forth that J. Rodney Potts was the ideal inhabitant of a city larger than our own. We glowed in describing the virtues of our departing townsman; his honesty of purpose, his integrity of character, his learning in the law, his wide range of achievement, civic and military,—all those attributes that fitted him to become a stately ornament and a tower of strength to any community larger in the least degree than our own modest town.
And there was the purse. Fifty dollars was suggested by Eustace Eubanks, but Asa Bundy said that this would not take Potts far enough. Eustace said that a man could travel an immense distance for fifty dollars. Bundy retorted that an ordinary man might perhaps go far enough on that sum, but not Potts.
"If we are to perpetrate this outrage at all," insisted Bundy, pulling in calculation at his little chin-whisker, "let us do it thoroughly. A hundred dollars can't take Potts any too far. We must see that he keeps going until he could never get back—" We all nodded to this.
"—and another thing, the farther away from this town those letters are read,—why, the better for our reputations."
A hundred dollars it was. Purse and letters were turned over to Solon Denney to deliver to Potts. The Argus came out with its promised eulogy, a thing so fulsome that any human being but J. Rodney Potts would have sickened to read it of himself.
But our little town was elated. One could observe that last day a subdued but confident gayety along its streets as citizens greeted one another.
On every hand were good fellowship and kind words, the light-hearted salute, the joyous mien. It was an occasion that came near to being festal, and Solon Denney was its hero. He sought to bear his honors with the modesty that is native to him, but in his heart he knew that we now spoke of him glibly as the Boss of Little Arcady, and the consciousness of it bubbled in his manner in spite of him.
When it was all over,—though I had not once raised my voice in protest, and had frankly connived with the others,—I confess that I felt shame for us and pity for the friendless man we were sending out into the world. Something childlike in his acceptance of the proposal, a few phrases of naive enthusiasm for his new prospects, repeated to me by Solon, touched me strangely. It was, therefore, with real embarrassment that I read the Argus notice. "With profound regret," it began, "we are obliged to announce to our readers the determination of our distinguished fellow-townsman, Colonel J. Rodney Potts, to shake the dust of Little Arcady from his feet. Deaf to entreaties from our leading citizens, the gallant Colonel has resolved that in simple justice to himself he must remove to some larger field of action, where his native genius, his flawless probity, and his profound learning in the law may secure for him those richer rewards which a man of his unusual caliber commendably craves and so abundantly merits."
There followed an overflowing half-column of warmest praise, embodying felicitations to the unnamed city so fortunate as to secure this "peerless pleader and Prince of Gentlemen." It ended with the assurance that Colonel Potts would take with him the cordial good-will of every member of a community to which he had endeared himself, no less by his sterling civic virtues than by his splendid qualities of mind and heart.
The thing filled me with an indignant pity. I tried in vain to sleep. In the darkness of night our plan came to seem like an atrocious outrage upon a guileless, defenceless ne'er-do-well. For my share of the guilt, I resolved to convey to Potts privately on the morrow a more than perfunctory promise of aid, should he find himself distressed at any time in what he would doubtless term his new field of endeavor.
THE GOLDEN DAY OF COLONEL POTTS
I awoke the next morning under most vivid portents of calamity. I believe I am neither notional, nor given to small, vulgar superstitions, but I have learned that this peculiar sensation is never without significance. I remember that I felt it the night our wagon bridge went out by high water. I tried to read the presentiment as I dressed. But not until I was shaving did it relate itself to the going out of Potts. Then the illumination came with a speed so electric that I gashed my chin under the shock of it. Instantly I seemed to know, as well as I know to-day, that the Potts affair had, in some manner, been botched.
So apprehensive was I that I lingered an hour on my little riverside porch, dreading the events that I felt the day must unfold. Inevitably, however, I was drawn to the centre of things. Turning down Main Street at the City Hotel corner, on the way to my office, I had to pass the barber-shop of Harpin Cust, in front of which I found myself impelled to stop. Looking over the row of potted geraniums in the window, I beheld Colonel Potts in the chair, swathed to the chin in the barber's white cloth, a gaze of dignified admiration riveted upon his counterpart in the mirror. Seen thus, he was not without a similarity to pictures of the Matterhorn, his bare, rugged peak rising fearsomely above his snow-draped bulk. Harpin appeared to be putting the last snipping touches to the Colonel's too-long neglected side-whiskers. On the table lay his hat and gold-headed cane, and close at hand stood his bulging valise.
I walked hastily on. The thing was ominous. Yet, might it not merely denote that Potts wished to enter upon his new life well barbered? The bulging bag supported this possibility, and yet I was ill at ease.
Reaching my office, I sought to engage myself with the papers of an approaching suit, but it was impossible to ignore the darkling cloud of disaster which impended. I returned to the street anxiously.
On my way to the City Hotel, where I had resolved to await like a man what calamity there might be, I again passed the barber-shop.
Harpin Cust now leaned, gracefully attentive, on the back of the empty chair, absently swishing his little whisk broom. Before him was planted Potts, his left foot advanced, his head thrown back, reading to Harpin from a spread page of the Argus. I divined that he was reading Solon's comment upon himself, and I shuddered.
As I paused at the door of the hotel Potts emerged from the barber-shop. In one hand he carried his bag, in the other his cane and the Little Arcady Argus. His hat was a bit to one side, and it seemed to me that he was leaning back farther than usual. He had started briskly down the street in the opposite direction from me, but halted on meeting Eustace Eubanks. The Colonel put down his bag and they shook hands. Eustace seemed eager to pass on, but the Colonel detained him and began reading from the Argus. His voice carried well on the morning air, and various phrases, to which he gave the full meed of emphasis, floated to me on the gentle breeze. "That peerless pleader and Prince of Gentlemen," came crisply to my ears. Eustace appeared to be restive, but the Colonel, through caution, or, perhaps, mere friendliness, had moored him by a coat lapel.
The reading done, I saw that Eustace declined some urgent request of the Colonel's, drawing away the moment his coat was released. As they parted, my worst fears were confirmed, for I saw the Colonel progress flourishingly to the corner and turn in under the sign, "Barney Skeyhan; Choice Wines, Liquors, and Cigars."
"What did he say?" I asked of Eustace as he came up.
"It was exceedingly distasteful, Major." Eustace was not a little perturbed by the encounter. "He read every word of that disgusting article in the Argus and then he begged me to go into that Skeyhan's drinking-place with him and have a glass of liquor. I said very sharply, 'Colonel Potts, I have never known the taste of liquor in my whole life nor used tobacco in any form.' At that he looked at me in the utmost astonishment and said: 'Bless my soul! Really? Young man, don't you put it off another day—life is awful uncertain.' 'Why, Colonel,' I said, 'that isn't any way to talk,' but he simply tore down the street, saying that I was taking great chances."
"And now he is reading his piece to Barney Skeyhan!" I groaned.
"Rum is the scourge of our American civilization," remarked Eustace, warmly.
"Barney Skeyhan's rum would scourge anybody's civilization," I said.
"Of course I meant all civilization," suggested Eustace, in polite help to my lame understanding.
Precisely at nine o'clock Potts issued from Skeyhan's, bearing his bag, cane, and Argus as before. He looked up and down the quiet street interestedly, then crossed over to Hermann Hoffmuller's, another establishment in which our civilization was especially menaced. He was followed cordially by five of Little Arcady's lesser citizens, who had obviously sustained the relation of guests to him at Skeyhan's. In company with Westley Keyts and Eubanks, I watched this procession from the windows of the City Hotel. Solon Denney chanced to pass at the moment, and we hailed him.
"Oh, I'll soon fix that," said Solon, confidently. "Don't you worry!"
And forthwith he sent Billy Durgin, who works in the City Hotel, to Hoffmuller's. He was to remind Colonel Potts that his train left at eleven-eight.
Billy returned with news. Potts was reading the piece to Hoffmuller and a number of his patrons. Further, he had bought, and the crowd was then consuming, the two fly-specked bottles of champagne which Hoffmuller had kept back of his bar, one on either side of a stuffed owl, since the day he began business eleven years before.
Billy also brought two messages to Solon: one from Potts that he had been mistaken about the attitude of Little Arcady toward himself—that he was seeing this more clearly every minute. The other was from Hoffmuller. Solon Denney was to know that some people might be just as good as other people who thought themselves a lot better, and would he please not take some shingles off a man's roof?
Solon, ever the incorrigible optimist, said, "Of course I might have waited till he was on the train to give him the money; but don't worry, he'll be ready enough to go when the 'bus starts."
I felt unable to share his confidence. That presentiment had for the moment corrupted my natural hopefulness.
It was a few moments after ten when Potts next appeared to our group of anxious watchers. This time he had more friends. They swarmed respectfully but enthusiastically after him out of Hoffmuller's place, a dozen at least of our ne'er-do-wells. One of these, "Big Joe" Kestril, a genial lout of a section-hand, ostentatiously carried the bag and had an arm locked tenderly through one of the Colonel's. These two led the procession. It halted at the corner, where the Colonel began to read his Argus notice to Bela Bedford, our druggist, who had been on the point of entering his store. But the newspaper had suffered. It was damp from being laid on bars, and parts of it were in tatters. The reader paused, midway of the first paragraph, to piece a tear across the column, and Bedford escaped by dashing into his store. The Colonel, suddenly discovering that he could recite the thing from memory, did so with considerable dramatic effect, seeming not to notice the defection of Bedford. The crowd cheered madly when he had finished, and followed him across the street to the bar of the City Hotel.
We could now observe better. The bar of the City Hotel is next the office. A door is open between them with a wooden screen standing before it. Inside the carouse raged, while we, who had thought to set Potts at large, listened and wondered. The taller among us could overlook the screen. We beheld Potts, one elbow resting on the bar, his other hand with the cane in it waving forward his unreluctant train, while he loudly inquired if there were drink to be had suitable for a gentleman who was prepared to spend his money like a lord.
"None of that cooking whiskey, mind—nothing but the best bottled goods, if you please!" was the next suggestion.
Again the crowd cheered. New faces were constantly appearing. The news had gone out with an incredible rapidity. Honest men, inflamed by the report, were leaving their works and speeding to the front from as far north as the fair-grounds and as far south as the depot.
"Soon," said Potts, after the first drink, "ah, too soon, I shall be miles away from your thriving little hamlet,—as pretty a spot, by the way, as God ever made,—seeing none but strange faces, longing for the old hearty hand-clasps, seeking, perhaps, in vain, for one kindly look which—which is now to be observed on every hand. But, friends, Colonel J. Rodney will not forget you. I have rare prospects, but no matter. To this little spot, the fairest in all Nature,—here among your simple, heartfelt faces, where I first got my start,—here my feelings will ever and anon return; for—why should I conceal it?—it is you, my friends, who have made me the man I am."
Here Potts put an arm over the shoulder of Big Joe and urged pleadingly: "Another verse of that sweet old song, boys. I tell you that has the true heart-stuff in it—now—"
They roared out a verse of "Auld Lang Syne," with execrable attempts at part-singing, little Dan Lefferts, a dissolute house-painter, contributing a tenor that was simply maniacal.
Potts ordered more drinks. This done, he leaned heavily upon the bar and burst into tears. The varlets crowded about him with tender, soothing words, while we in the other room anxiously watched them and the clock.
He was overcome, it seemed, by the affection which it now transpired that Little Arcady bore for him. Presently he half dried his tears and drew from an inner pocket of his coat the package of our letters.
With eyes again streaming, in a sob-riven voice, he read them all to the pleased crowd. At the end, he regained control of himself.
"Gentlemen, believe it or not, nothing has touched me like this since I bade farewell to my regiment in '65. You are getting under the heart of Jonas Rodney this time—I can't deny that."
He began on the letters again, selecting the choicest, and not forgetting at intervals to rebuke the bar-tender for alleged inactivity.
At last the clock marked ten-forty, and we heard the welcome rumble of the 'bus wheels. There was a hurried consultation with Amos Deane, the driver. He was to enter the bar in a brisk, businesslike way, seize the bag, and hustle the Colonel out before he had time to reflect. We peered over the screen, knowing the fateful moment was come.
We saw the Colonel resist the attack on his bag and listen with marked astonishment to the assertion of Amos that there was just time to catch the train.
"Time was made for slaves," said Potts.
"That there train ain't goin' to wait a minute," reminded Amos, civilly. The Colonel turned upon him with a large sweetness of manner.
"Ah, yes, my friend, but trains will be passing through your pretty little hamlet for years—I hope for ages—yet. They pass every day, but you can't have Jonas Rodney Potts every day."
Here, with a gesture, he directed the crowd's attention to Amos.
"Look at him, gentlemen. Speak to him for me—for I cannot. I ask you to note the condition he's in." Here, again, the Colonel burst into tears. "And, oh, my God!" he sobbed, "could they ask me to trust myself to a drunken rowdy of a driver, even if I was going?" Amos was not only sober, he was a shrewd observer of events, a seasoned judge of men. He turned away without further parley. Big Joe told him he ought to be in better business than trying to break up a pleasant party.
As the 'bus started, the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" floated to us again, and we knew the day was lost.
"A hand of iron in a cunning little velvet glove," said Westley Keyts, in deep disgust as he left us. "It looks to me a darned sight more like a hand of mush in a glove of the same!"
I have often been brought to realize that the latent nobility in our human nature is never so effectually aroused as at the second stage of alcoholic dementia. The victim sustains a shock of illumination hardly less than divine. On a sudden he is vividly cognizant of his overwhelming spiritual worth. Dazed in the first moment of this flooding consciousness, he is presently to be heard recalling instances of his noble conduct under difficulty, of righteous fortitude under strain. Especially does he find himself endowed with the antique virtues—with courage and a rugged fidelity, a stainless purity of motive, a fond and measureless generosity.
To this stage the libations of Potts had now brought him. He began to refresh the crowd with comments upon his own worth, interspersed with kindly but hurt appreciations of the great world's lack of discernment. He besought and defied each gentleman present to recall an occasion, however trivial, when his conduct had fallen short of the loftiest standards. Especially were they begged to cite an instance when he had deviated in the least degree from a line of strictest loyalty to any friend. Big Joe Kestril was overcome at this. He broke down and wept out upon the shoulder of Potts his hopeless inability to comply with that outrageous request. The entire crowd became emotional, and a dozen lighted matches were thrust forward toward an apparently incombustible cigar with which Potts had long striven.
Recovering from these first ravages of his self-analysis, the Colonel became just a bit critical.
"But you see, boys, a man of my attributes is hampered and kept down in a one-horse place like this. Remarks have been passed about me here that I should blush to repeat. I say it in confidence, but I have again and again been made the sport of a wayward and wanton ridicule. I say, gentlemen, I have always conducted myself as only a Potts knows how to conduct himself—and yet I have been pestered by cheap flings at my personal bearing. Is this courtesy, is it common fairness, is it the boasted civilization of our nineteenth century?"
Hoarse expressions of incredulity, of execration, of disgust, came from the crowd as it raised glasses once more. The Colonel glared down the sloppy length of the bar, then gazed aloft into the smoky heights. The crowd waited for him to say something.
"This is a beautiful day, gentlemen. A fine, balmy spring day. Let us be out and away to mossy dells. Why stay in this low drinking-place when all Nature beckons? Come on back to Hoffmuller's. Besides,"—he cast a reproachful look at the bar-tender,—"the hospitality of this place is not what an upright citizen of this great republic has a right to expect when he's throwing his good money right and left."
He marched out in hurt dignity, followed by his train, many of whom, in loyalty to their host, sneered openly at the bar-tender as they passed.
Outside the Colonel poised himself in gala attitude, and benignantly surveyed our quiet little Main Street in both directions. Across the way in the door of the First National Bank stood Asa Bundy, a look of interest on his face.
The Colonel's sweeping glance halted upon Bundy. With a glad cry he started across to him, but Bundy, beholding the move, fled actively inside. The Colonel reached the door of the bank and tried the knob, but the key had been turned in the lock, and the next moment the curtains of the door were swiftly drawn. "Bank Closed" was printed upon them in large gold letters.
Potts stepped aside to look into the window, and the curtain of that descended relentlessly. The bank had suddenly taken on an aspect of Sabbath blankness. Once more the Colonel rattled the knob, then he turned to his gathering followers.
"Gentlemen, I came here to press the hand of one of Nature's noblemen, my tried friend, the Honorable Asa Bundy, whom we have just seen retreating to his precincts, as I might say, with a modesty that is rarely beautiful. But no matter." Here the Colonel mounted the top step and glowed out upon his faithful and ever enlarging band.
"Instead, my friends, allow me to read you this splendid tribute from Bundy, and I trust that after this I shall never hear one of you utter a word in his disparagement."
Rapidly fluttering the packet of letters, he drew out one bearing the imprint of the First National Bank of Little Arcady. The crowd, pressing closer, was cheerfully animated. From down the street on both sides anxious looks were bent upon the scene by many of our leading citizens.
"'To Whom it May Concern,'" began the Colonel, in a voice that carried to the confines of our business centre; "'The determination of our esteemed citizen, Colonel J. Rodney Potts, to remove from our town makes it fitting that I record my high appreciation of his character as a man and his unusual attainments as a lawyer. His going will be a grievous loss to our community, atoned for only by the knowledge that he will better himself in a field of richer opportunities. He has proved himself to possess in full measure those qualities which go to the making of the best American citizenship, and these, as exercised in our behalf during his all too-short sojourn among us, entitle him to be cordially commended as worthy of all trust in any position to which he may aspire. Very sincerely, A. Bundy, President.'"
Again and again the crowd cheered, and there were encouraging calls for Bundy; but the First National Bank stolidly preserved its Sabbath front.
A moment later the Colonel was leading his steadfast cohort across the street again. Marvin Chislett had unwarily peeped from inside the door of his mercantile establishment. There was but time to turn the key and draw the curtains before the procession halted. Such behavior may have perplexed Potts, but daunt him it could not. From Chislett's top step he read Chislett's letter to the delighted throng, a letter in which Potts was said to bear an unblemished reputation, and to be a gentleman and a scholar, amply meriting any trust that might be reposed in him.
From Chislett's they moved on to the foot of the stairs leading to the Argus office. Potts sent Big Joe up for twenty-five copies of the latest number, and, standing on the coal box, he gallantly distributed these to the crowd as it filed before him, intoning from memory, meantime, snatches of the eulogy, while the crowd flourished the papers and gurgled noisily.
A brief plunge into the lethal flood at Skeyhan's, and they came once more abroad, this time closing the Boston Cash Store most expeditiously. Potts, enthroned upon a big box in front, among bolts of muslin, straw hats, and bunches of innocent early lettuce, read the splendid tribute of the store's proprietor to his capacity as an expert in jurisprudence and his fitness for a seat of judicial honor. The bank and Chislett's being still closed, the little street, except in the near vicinity of Potts, began to sleep in a strange calm.
There were other doors to conquer, however, and Potts, at the head of his Argus-waving crowd of degenerates, vanquished them all.
Up and down he wandered busily, doors closing and curtains falling swiftly at his approach. Then would he turn majestically, and say, with a hand raised, "My friends, a moment's silence, while I read you this magnificent tribute from one who is unfortunately not among us."
He was so impressive with this that at last the crowd would remove hats at each reading, to the Colonel's manifest approval. The doffed hat and the clutched Argus became the mark of his drink-bought serfs. By four o'clock the only hospitable doorways on the street were those of the three saloons. Our leading business men were departing from their establishments by back doors and the secrecy of gracious alleys.
From Skeyhan's to Hoffmuller's, from Hoffmuller's to the City Hotel, the crowd sang and shouted its irregular progress, the air being "Auld Lang Syne."
It was about this time that the Colonel unhappily caught a glimpse of myself through the window of the hotel. A glad light came into his eyes, and at once he searched among the letters, crying, meanwhile: "My brother in arms! A younger brother, but a gallant officer, none the less—"
I knew that he sought my letter. Egress from the City Hotel may be achieved, when desirable, by a side door, and I saw no more of Potts that day. I believe my letter spoke of him as an able and graceful pleader, meriting judicial honors, or something of that sort. I had forgotten its exact words, but I did not wish to hear Potts read them. So I fled to spend the remainder of that eventful day quietly among rosebushes and tender, budding hyacinths, unspotted of the world, receiving, however, occasional bulletins of the orgy from passers-by. From these and sundry narratives gleaned the following day, I was able to trace the later hours of this scandalous saturnalia.
By six o'clock Potts had spent all his money. By six-fifteen this fact could no longer be concealed, and such of his following as had not already fallen by the wayside crept, one by one, to rest. They left the Colonel dreamily, murmurously happy in a chair at the end of the City Hotel bar.
Here, he was discovered about six-thirty by Eustace Eubanks, who had incautiously thought to rebuke him.
"For shame, Colonel Potts!" began Eustace, seeking to fix the uncertain eyes with his finger of scorn. "For shame to have squandered all that money for rum. Don't you know, sir, that a hundred and sixty thousand men die yearly in our land from the effects of rum?"
"Hundred sixty thousand!" mused the Colonel, in polite amazement. "Well, well, figures can't lie! What of it?"
"You have dishonestly spent that money given to you in sacred trust."
This seemed to arouse Potts, and he surveyed Eubanks with more curiosity than delight. He arose, buttoned his coat, fixed his hat firmly upon his head, and took up his stick and bag. He put upon Eustace a glance of dignified urbanity, as he spoke.
"I don't know who you are, sir,—never saw you before in my life,—but I have done what every good citizen should do. I have spent my money at home. This is a cheap place, full of cheap men. What the town needs, sir, is capital—capital to develop its attributes and industries. It needs more men with the public spirit of J. Rodney, sir. I bid you good evening! Ah, this has been indeed a beautiful day!"
He walked out. Those who watched him until he turned out of Main Street into Fourth, and so toward the river, aver—marvelling duly at his powers of resistance—that the head of Potts was erect, his gaze bent aloft, and his gait one of perfect directness save that he stepped a little high.
I like to think of him in that last walk. I like to bring up as nearly as I can his intense exaltation. It had been a beautiful day. And now, as he looked aloft, walking with an automatic precision, his eyes must have beheld glorious vistas, in which he rode a chariot of triumph at the head of a splendid procession, while his ears rang with chaste tributes to his worth trumpeted by outriding heralds. And the good earth was firm beneath his tread, stretching broadly off for him to walk upon and behold his apotheosis.
I cannot wonder that he stepped high, nor can I find it in my heart to begrudge him his day. Cunningly had he clutched a few golden moments from the hoard that Fate, the niggard, guards from us so jealously. To myself I acclaimed him as one to be envied.
I have always liked to believe that the splendors of that last walk endured to the end—that there was no uncertainty, no hesitation, above all, no vulgar stumbling; but that the last high step, which plunged him into the chill waters of the race, was lifted in the same exulting serenity as the first.
I stood in my garden that evening, charmed by the wild, sweet, gusty-gentle music of the spring night.
Northward, in the gathering dusk, came a solitary figure walking rapidly—a slight, nervous figure, a soft hat drawn well over the face, the skirts of its coat streaming to the breeze. As it passed me, I recognized Solon Denney. He was gesticulating with some violence, and I could see his expressive face work as if he uttered words to himself. I thought it possible that he might be composing a piece for his newspaper. Instantly there came to my mind that rather coarse paraphrase of Westley Keyts—"A hand of mush in a glove of the same!"
I did not intrude upon my friend as he passed.
THE PERFECT LOVER
To the crime of being Potts the wretched Colonel had now added malversation of a trust fund. But I crave surcease, while it may be mine, from the immediately troubling waters of Potts. Let me turn more broadly to our town and its good people for that needed recreation which they never fail to afford me.
"Arcady of the Little Country," we often say. On maps it is Little Arcady, county seat of Slocum County, an isle and haven in the dreary land sea that flattens away from it on every side,—north to the big woods, south to the swamp counties, and east and west, one might almost say, a thousand miles to the mountains. Our point is one from which to say either "back East" or "out West." It is neither, of itself, though it touches both.
We are so ancient that plenty of us remember the stone fireplace in the log-cabin, with its dusters for the hearth of buffalo tail and wild-turkey wing, with iron pot hung by a chain from the chimney hook, with pewter or wooden plates from which to eat with horn-handled knives and iron spoons. But yet are we so modern that we have fine new houses with bay windows, ornamental cupolas, and porches raving woodenly in that frettish fever which the infamous scroll-saw put upon fifty years of our land's domestic architecture. And these houses are furnished with splendid modern furniture, even with black walnut, gold touched and upholstered in blue plush and maroon, fresh from the best factories. Our fairly old people remember when they hunted deer and were hunted by the red Indian on our town site, while their grandchildren have only the memories of the town-born, of the cottage-organ, the novel railroad, and the two-story brick block with ornamental false front. In short, we round an epoch within ourselves, historically and socially.
The country, however, keeps its first purity of charm, a country of little hills and little valleys lined with little quick rivers. These beauties, indeed, have not gone unsung. Years ago a woman poet eased her heart of ecstasies about this Little Country.
"Here swells the river in its boldest course," she wrote, "interspersed by halcyon isles on which Nature has lavished all her prodigality in tree, vine, and flower, banked by noble bluffs three hundred feet high, their sharp ridges as exquisitely definite as the edge of a shell; their summits adorned with those same beautiful trees and with buttresses of rich rock, crested with old hemlocks that wear a touching and antique grace amid the softer and more luxuriant vegetation."
Not spectacular, this—not sensational—not even unusual. Common enough little hills, as the world goes, with the usual ragged-edged village between them and the river, peopled by human beings entirely usual both in their outer and inner lives. It seems to be, indeed, not a place in which events could occur with any romantic fitness.
Perhaps I have grown to love this Little Country because I am a usual man. Perhaps I would have felt as much for it even had I not been held to it by a memory that would bind me to any spot howsoever unlovely. But I rejoiced always in its beauty, and more than ever when it made easier for me the only life it once appeared that I should live. I quote again from our visiting poet: "The aspect of this country was to me enchanting beyond any I have ever seen, from its fulness of expression, its bold and impassioned sweetness. Here the flood has passed over and marked everywhere its course by a smile. The fragments of rock touch it with a mildness and liberality which give just the needed relief. I should never be tired here, though I have elsewhere seen country of more secret and alluring charms, better calculated to stimulate and suggest. Here the eye and heart are filled."
Here, too, my eye and heart were filled—emptied—and wondrously filled yet again, for which last I hold Potts to be curiously—but I wander.
Enough to say that I stored a harvest of memories in a secret place here years ago. And I went to this on days when I was downhearted. Your boy of fifteen, I think, is the only perfect lover—giving all, demanding nothing, save, indeed, the right to his secret cherishings.
Tremors, born within me that day when old gray, bristling Leggett, our Principal, opened the schoolroom door upon Lucy Tait, are as poignant, as sweetly terrible, now as in that far time when the light of her wondrous presence first fell upon me.
An instant she hesitated timidly in the sombre frame of the doorway, looking far over our heads. Then old Leggett came in front of her. There was a word of presentation to Miss Berham, our teacher, the vision was escorted to a seat at my left front, and I was bade to continue the reading lesson if I ever expected to learn anything. As a matter of truth I did not expect to learn anything more. I thought I must suddenly have learned all there is to know. The page of the ancient reader over which I then mumbled is now before me. "A Good Investment" was the title of the day's lesson, and I had been called upon to render the first paragraph. With lightness, unrecking the great moment so perilously at hand, I had begun: "'Will you lend me two thousand dollars to establish myself in a small retail business?' inquired a young man, not yet out of his teens of a middle-aged gentleman who was poring over his ledger in the counting room of one of the largest establishments in Boston."
The iron latch rattled, the door swung fatefully back, our heads were raised, our eyes bored her through and through.
Then swung a new world for me out of primeval chaos, and for aeons of centuries I dizzied myself gazing upon the pyrotechnic marvel.
"Continue, Calvin!—if you ever expect to learn anything."
The fabric of my vision crumbled. Awake, I glared upon a page where the words ran crazily about like a disrupted colony of ants. I stammered at the thing, feeling my cheeks blaze, but no two words would stay still long enough to be related. I glanced a piteous appeal to authority, while old Leggett, still standing by, crumpled his shaven upper lip into a professional sneer that I did not like.
"That will do, Calvin. Sit down! Solon Denney, you may go on."
With careless confidence, brushing the long brown lock from his fair brow, came Solon Denney to his feet. With flawless self-possession he read, and I, disgraced, cowering in my seat, heard words that burned little inconsequential brands forever into my memory. Well do I recall that the middle-aged gentleman regarded the young man with a look of surprise, and inquired, "What security can you give me?" to which the latter answered, "Nothing but my note."
"'Which I fear would be below par in the market,' replied the merchant, smiling.
"'Perhaps so,' said the young man, 'but, Mr. Barton, remember that the boy is not the man; the time may come when Hiram Strosser's note will be as readily accepted as that of any other man.'
"'True, very true,' replied Mr. Barton, thoughtfully, 'but you know business men seldom lend money without adequate security; otherwise they might soon be reduced to penury.'"
"Benny Jeliffe, you may go on!"
During this break I stole my second look at her. The small head was sweetly bent with an air of studious absorption—a head with two long plaits of braided gold, a scarlet satin bow at the end of each.
It seems to me now that these bows were like the touch of frosted woodbine in a yellowing elm, though at the moment I must have been unequal to this fancy. I saw, too, the tiny chain that clasped her fair throat, her dress of pale blue, and, most wonderful of all, two tassels that danced from the tops of her trim little boots. The air was indeed too heavy with beauty. But the reading lesson continued.
The years that stretch between that time and this have not bereaved me of the knowledge that Mr. Barton graciously accommodated Hiram Strosser, after vainly seeking to induce "Mr. Hawley, a wealthy merchant of Milk Street," to share half the risk.
At this point a row of stars on the page indicated a lapse of ten years. Mr. Barton, "pale and agitated," examines with deepening despair, "page after page of his ponderous ledger." At last he exclaims, "I am ruined, utterly ruined!" "How so?" inquires Hiram Strosser, who enters the room just in time to hear the cry. Mr. Barton explains,—the failure of Perleg, Jackson & Co. of London—news brought on last steamer—creditors pressing him.
"'What amount would tide you over this crisis?' asks Hiram Strosser, respectfully.
"'Seventy-five thousand dollars!'
"'Then, sir, you shall have it,' replied Hiram, and stepping to the desk he drew a check for the full amount."
Nor can I ever forget the stroke of poetic justice with which the anecdote concluded. Mr. Hawley of Milk Street was also embarrassed by the failure of Perleg, Jackson & Co., but, for want of a trustful friend in funds, was thrown into bankruptcy. Mr. Barton had the chastened pleasure of telling Mr. Hawley about Hiram's loan, and of reminding him that he had neglected a fair opportunity to become a co-benefactor of that upright and open-handed youth; whereupon the ruined Hawley—deservedly ruined, the tale implied—"moved on, dejected and sad, while Mr. Barton returned to his establishment cheered and animated."
The gross, the immoral romanticism of this tale was not then, of course, apparent to me. Children are so defenceless! Child that I was, I believed it would be entirely practicable for a lad in his teens to borrow two thousand dollars from a Boston merchant, by reminding him that the boy is not the man. So readily is the young mind poisoned. During the latter part of the lesson, between looks stolen fearfully at her profile, I was mentally engaged in borrowing two thousand dollars from a convenient Mr. Barton with which to establish myself in a small retail business—preferably a candy store with an ice-cream parlor in the rear. Then I took her to wife, not forgetting to reward Mr. Barton handsomely in the day of his ruin. Dimly, in the background of this hasty dramatization, the distrustful Mr. Hawley, who refused to share the loan with Mr. Barton, figured as a rival for my love's hand; and lived to hear her say that she hated, loathed, and despised him.
At recess the others crowded about her, girls at the centre, within a straggling circumference of young males, who dissembled their gallantry under a pretence of being mere brutal marauders.
But I, solitary, moped and gloomed in a far grassy corner of the school yard. I could not be of that crowd, and it was then I perceived for the first time that the world was too densely populated. I saw how much better it would be if every one but she and I were dead. Thereupon, in a breath, I dispeopled the earth of all but us two, and with the courage gained of this solitude, I saw myself approach her there at the corner of the old brick schoolhouse, greeting her with assurances that everything was all right,—and then, after she understood what I had done, and how fine it was, we came into our own. Alas, how bitter the crude truth! Instead of this, those wondrous tassels now danced from her boot tops as she gave chase to Solon Denney, who had pulled one of the scarlet bows from its yellow braid. Grimly I was aware that he should be the first to go out of the world, and I called upon a just heaven to slay him as he fled with his trophy. But nothing sweet and fitting happened. He went unblasted.
She came back to the group of girls, flushed and lovely beyond compare, holding up the ravished end of that golden braid with a comic dismay, while her despoiler laughed coarsely from a distance and pinned the trophy to his coat lapel. I now saw that blasting was too merciful. He should be removed by a slower process if the thing could as easily be arranged.
That was a bitter recess, even though I learned her wonderful name and the enchanted state "back East" from which she had come. A still more bitter experience awaited me when we were again in the schoolroom. Miss Berham, fastening a steely gaze upon Solon Denney, launched heaven upon him from tightly drawn lips, without in the least meaning to do so.
"Solon Denney, you may return that ribbon at once to its owner!"
With a conscious smirk, amid the titters of the room and the sharp raps of the ruler on Miss Berham's desk, Solon swaggered offensively to the seat that enshrined my idol, and flung down the scarlet treasure before her. She merely pushed the thing away, bending her head lower above her book—pushed it away with a blind little hand, and with undiminished bravado her despoiler returned, scathless of heaven's vengeance, to his seat.
"And you may remain half an hour after school. The A-class, ready for geography!"
Thus, lightly did our ruler turn from tragedy to comedy. For tragedy, there was the look my queen lavished upon Solon when she heard his sentence; a look of blushing merriment, with a maddening dash of pity in it,—he was to suffer because of her.
"'Twas your beauty that made me do it," he might have quoted, with the old result. How I longed for the jaunty lightness that would have let me do a thing like that, tossing me fairly to the pinnacle of a public association with her! But I, instead, moped alone, knowing well that the gifts of graceful brigandage were not mine. Had I snatched that ribbon, there would have been tears and a mad outcry at my brutal roughness.
Now came the lesson in geography. I had known it, had studied it faithfully that morning. It treated of the state from which she had so lately come. But, now, all knowledge of it fled me, save that on the map it was a large, clumsy state, though yellow, the color of her hair. Was it to be bounded like any cheaper state? Did it have principal products, like Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and other ordinary states? Its color was rightly golden; had it not produced her? But other products,—iron, coal, wheat,—these were stuffs too base to fellow in the same mind with her. Had it principal industries, like any red, or green, or blue state on that pedantic map? I could no longer recall them. Formally confronted with this problem, I muttered shamefully again that day in the valley of Humiliation. There was, I knew, a picture at the top of the page in which strong, rugged men toiled at various tasks; but the natures of these had escaped me. Were they mining coal or building ships, catching fish or ploughing furrows in God's green earth? Out of my darkness I stammered, "Principal industries, agriculture and fish-building—"
"That will do, Calvin! You may remain after school to-night." I had never less liked the way she said this, as if it were a boon at which I would snatch, instead of a penalty imposed.
Solon Denney followed me, glibly enumerating the industries of a great and busy state. But I could not listen. Phantom-like in my poor mind floated a wordless conviction that, however it might once have been, the state would immediately abandon its industries now that she had come away from it. I beheld its considerable area desolated, the forges cold, the hammers stilled, the fields overgrown, the ships rotting at their docks, the stalwart mechanics drooping idly above their unfinished tasks. It was not possible to suppose that any one could feel, in a state which she had left, that interest which good work demands.
My disgrace brought me respite for fresh adventure. I was let alone. The world could still be peopled; even Solon Denney might survive a little time, for another picture in the same geography now reproduced itself in my inflamed mind—the picture of a South Sea island, a sandy beach with a few indolent natives lolling, negligent of tasks, in the shade of cocoanut palms. Here, on the outer reef, I wrecked an excellent steamship. Over the rail sprang a stalwart lad, not out of his teens, with a lovely golden-haired girl in his arms. With strong, swift strokes, he struck out for the beach, notwithstanding his burden. The other passengers, a hazy and quite uninteresting lot, quickly went down; all save one, a coarse, swaggering youth with too much self-possession whom I need not name. He, too, sprang over the rail, but, nearing the beach, a justly enraged providence intervened and he was bitten neatly in two by a famished and adroit shark.
With some interest I watched his blood stain the lucid green waters, but it was soon over. Then I bore my fainting burden to the dry sands and revived her with cocoanut milk and breadfruit, while the natives crowded respectfully about and made us their king and queen on the spot. We lived there forever. How flat of sound were it to say that we lived happily!
And yet I doubt if Solon Denney ever suspected me of aspiring to be his rival. She, I think, knew it full well, in the way her sex knows matters not communicated by act or word of mouth. And once, on the afternoon of that day, a Friday, when we spoke pieces, I feared that Solon had found me out. He was a fiery orator, and I felt on this occasion that he delivered himself straight at me, with a very poorly veiled malignance. Surely, it must be I that he meant, literally, when he thundered out, "Sir, you are much mistaken if you think your talents have been as great as your life has been reprehensible!" Fall upon me and upon me alone seemed to flash his gaze.
"After a rank and clamorous opposition you became—all of a sudden—silent; you were silent for seven years; you were silent on the greatest questions—and you were silent for money!"
There could be no doubt, I thought, that he singled me from the multitude of his auditors. It was I who had supported the unparalleled profusion and jobbing of Lord Harcourt's scandalous ministry; I who had manufactured stage thunder against Mr. Eden for his anti-American principles—"You, sir, whom it pleases to chant a hymn to the immortal Hampden—you, sir, approved of the tyranny exercised against America, and you, sir, voted four thousand Irish troops to cut the throats of the Americans."
Under the burden of this imputed ignominy, was it remarkable that I faltered in my own piece immediately following?
"The Warrior bowed his crested head, and tamed his heart of fire, And sued the haughty King to free his long imprisoned sire."
Not more foully was the blameless Don Sancho done to death than I upon this Friday murdered the ballad that recounts his fate. And she, who had hung breathless on Solon's denunciations of me, whispered chattily with Eva McIntyre during my rendition of "Bernardo del Carpio."
Later events, however, convinced me that I swam never in Solon's ken as a rival for her smiles. His own triumph was too easy, too widely heralded. In the second week of her coming, was there not a rhyme shouted on the playground, full in the hearing of both?
"First the post and then the gate, Solon Denney and Lucy Tait."
Was not this followed by one more subtle, more pointed, more ribald?
"Solon's mad and I'm glad, and I know what will please him; a bottle of wine to make him shine and Lucy Tait to tease him!"
I thought there was an inhuman, devilish deftness in the rhymes. The mighty mechanism of English verse had been employed to proclaim my remoteness from my love.
And yet the gods were once graciously good to me. One wondrous evening before hope died utterly I survived the ordeal of walking home with her from church.
She came with her aunt, uncle, and I present by the god's permission, surmised that she might leave them and go to her own home alone when church was out. Through that service I worshipped her golden braids and the pink roses on her leghorn hat. And when they sang, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow!" my voice soared fervently in the words, for I had satisfied myself by much craning of the neck that Solon Denney was not present. Even now the Doxology revives within me that mixed emotion of relief at his absence and apprehension for the approaching encounter with her.
She passed me at the portals of the house of a double worship, said good night to aunt and uncle—and I was at her side.
"May I have the pleasure of seeing you home?"
She managed a timid "Certainly." her hand fluttered within my arm, and my heart bounded forward like a freed race-horse. We walked!
Now it had been my occupation at quiet moments to devise conversation against the time of this precise miracle. I had dreamt that it might come to pass, even as it did, and I knew that talk for it should be stored safely away. This talk had been the coinage of my leisure. As we walked I would say, lightly,—"Do you like it here as well as you did back East?"—or, still better, as sounding more chatty,—"How do you like it here?"—an easy, masterful pause—"as well as you did back East?" A thousand times had I rehearsed the inflections until they were perfect. And now the time was come.
Whether I spoke at all or not until we reached her gate I have never known. Dimly in my memory is a suggestion that when we passed Uncle Jerry Honeycutt, I confided to her that he sent to Chicago for his ear-trumpet and that it cost twelve dollars. If I did this, she must have made a suitable response, though I retain nothing of it.
I only know that the sky was full of flaming meteors, that golden star dust rained upon us from an applauding heaven, that the earth rocked gently as we trod upon it.
Down the wonderful street we went, a strange street shimmering in mystic light—and then I was opening her gate. I, afterward, decided that surely at this moment, with the gate between us, I would have remembered—superbly would I have said, "How do you like it here?—as well as you did back East?"
But, two staring boys passed us, and one of them spoke thus:—
"There's Horsehead Blake—hello, Horsehead!"
"That ain't old Horsehead," said the other.
"'Tis, too—ain't that you, Horsehead?"
"How do you do, boys!" I answered loftily, and they passed on appeased.
"Do they call you Horsehead?" she asked.
"Oh, yes!" I replied brightly. "It's a funny name, isn't it?" and I laughed murderously.
"Yes, it's very funny."
"Well, I'll have to be going now. Good night!"
And she left me staring after her, the whole big world and its starry heavens crying madly within me to be said to her.
DREAMS AND WAKINGS
The incomparable Lucy Tait was still but a star to be adored in her distant heaven when I went away from Little Arcady to learn some things not taught in the faded brick schoolhouse. It was six years before I came back; six years that I lived in a crowded place where people had no easy ways nor front yards with geranium beds, nor knew enough of their neighbors either to love or to hate them.
I came back to the Little Country a mannish being, learned in the law, and with the right sort of laugh in my heart for the old school days, for the simplicity of my boy's love.
But, there and then, with her old sweet want of pity, did she smite me again. Through and through she smote the man as she had smitten the boy. Treacherously it was, within my own citadel, at the very moment of my coming. Gayly up the remembered path I went, under the flowering horse-chestnut, to the little house standing back from the street, only to find that, as of old, she blocked my way. She stood where the pink-blossomed climber streamed up the columns of the little porch, and her arm was twined among the strands to draw them to her face. She was leaving,—but she had stayed too long; not the child with yellow braids, humorously preserved in my memory, but a blossomed, a fruiting Eve, with whilom braids massed high in a coronet, their gold a little tarnished. Later it came to me to think that she was Spring, and had filched a crown from Autumn. In that first glance, however, I could only wonder instinctively if the tassels yet danced from her boot tops. I saw at once that this might not any longer be known. One could only surmise pleasantly. But straightway was I Atlas, stooping a little, rounding my shoulders under the earth she deigned to walk upon.
And the disconcerting strangeness of it was in this: that though she was no longer the woman child, yet with one flash of her gold-curtained eyes had she reduced me to my ancient schoolboy clumsiness. She was a woman, but, I was again an awkward, stammering boy, rebelliously declining to believe that a state she had come away from could retain any significance, industrial or otherwise. Nor, in the little time left to us, did I ever achieve a condition higher than this.
Consciously I was a prince of lofty origin in her presence, but ever unable to make known my excellencies of rank. It was as in a dream when we must see evil approach without power to raise an averting hand.
She was Spring with a stolen crown of Autumn; and again, she was a sherbet—sweet, fragrant, cold, and about to melt—but not for me. I knew that.
I heard presently that she spoke well of me. She spoke of my having a kind face—even the kindest face in the world.
"The kindest, plainest face in the world," was her fashion of putting it. And of course that made it hopeless, since, surely, no woman has ever loved the kindest face she knew.
Only a fool would have hoped after this—and at least I never gave her ground to call me that. Not even did I commit the folly of revealing my need. She alone ever knew it, and she only in the way that the child had known the schoolboy to gloom and rage afar in his passion for her. She had no word of mine for it then, nor had she now, and I believe she felt rather certain there never would be any. She seemed to be grateful for this and doubly kind, with only now and then the flash of a knowing look, or the trifle of a deep, swiftly questioning glance, born, I dare say, of that curiosity which the devil contrives to kindle in God's most angelic women.
Doubtless she had a little speech of refusal patted into kindliness for me. Perhaps she would not have been wholly anguished to have me hear this—to be able to assure me tenderly, graciously, of the depth and pureness of her friendship for me. Who knows? I am older now, and things once hidden are revealed. Sometimes I think that a certain new respect for me grew within her as the days tried the metal of my silence—a respect, but nothing more. Her appreciation of my face was too palpably without those reservations that so often cry louder than words.
So we sealed our secret, she and I, in an unspoken pledge, and not even Solon Denney, so keen of scent for rivals, ever divined it.
He called me out with the old boyish whistle the day he confided to me the tremendous news of his engagement. He laughed, foolish with joy as he told it, and I felt tingling in my arms that old boyish, brute impulse to slay him for the wretched ease of his victory. But we were men, so I thrust one of those rebellious arms in among the strands of the creeper, where her own arm had once been, and laid the other on his shoulder in all friendliness. This, while he rambled on of the bigness of life, the great future before Arcady of the Little Country, the importance of the Argus, which he had just founded, and the supreme excellence of that splendid mechanism, the new Washington hand-press, installed the week before.
His life was builded of these many interests, of her and himself and his country and his town. In the fulness of his heart he even brought out the latest Argus and read parts from his obituary of Douglas, while I stood stupidly striving to realize what I had long known must be true.
"A great man has fallen," he read, declaiming a little, as in our school days. "Stephen A. Douglas is dead. The voice that so lately and eloquently appealed to his countrymen is hushed in—"
How long he read is uncertain. But from moment to moment his tones would call me back from visions, and I would vaguely hear that one was gone who had warned his fellows against the pitfalls of political jealousy, and bade all who loved their country band against those who would seek to pluck a laurel from the wreath of our glorious confederacy.
But under visions I had made my resolve. Douglas was dead, but others were living.
Two months before in a gray dawn, the walls of a fort in Charleston Harbor had crumbled under fire from a score of rebel batteries. Now the shots echoed in my ears with a new volume.
"Good luck, Solon—and good-by—I'm going 'on to Richmond.'"
"Oh, that!" said he, easily, "that will be over before you can get to the front."
But I went, forthwith, and, triumphant lover though he was, the editor of the Little Arcady Argus was less than a prophet.
I went to the "little" war; and of her I carried, as I marched, an ambrotype in a closed case, which I had obtained deviously. She smiled in it, a little questioning, inciting smile, that seemed to lurk back in her eyes rather than along her lips. It was the smile that had availed to keep me firm in my vows of silence.
It was another picture I brought back five years later—the picture of a young girl, not smiling but grave, even fearful, as if she had faced the camera full of apprehension. But I knew her not; the thing had come to me by chance, and I threw it aside to be forgotten.
It is best to tell quickly that those years were swift and full. Early in the second a letter from Solon, read at a random camp-fire, told me of my namesake's coming. For the other years I pleased myself prodigiously by remembering that she must speak my name openly to her first-born. And I lusted for battle, then. I was an early Norseman, and I would escape the prosaic bed-death, since, for those dying thus, Held waited in her chill prison-house below, with hunger her dish, starvation her knife, care her bed, and anguish her curtains. To survive for easy death, long deferred, perhaps, I should have my empty dish and bed of care at once. Lacking the battle death, I could at least mimic it, as they did of old, that Odin's choosers of the slain might lead me to Valhalla. There should I forever fight at dawn and be healed at noon, if wounded, to be ready for the feast and song. The world was not big enough for us two if we must stay apart. Life was not to be lived in a beggarly and ignoble compromise. War was its business, bravery its duty, and cowardice its greatest crime—above all, that ultimate, puling cowardice of accepting life empty for its own barren sake.
At the last I lay on a cot in a field hospital, entertained for the moment by the novelty of that vacant, spacious feeling on my left side—wondering if I could shave now with one arm—without another hand to pull my face into hard little hummocks for the razor.
I heard the soft quick tread of a hospital steward, and standing before me, he took from its envelope the letter Solon Denney had sent me to say that she was dead. I handed it back, told him to burn it, and I shut my eyes to the sickening shapes of life. My fever came up again, and in the night I felt inch by inch over ground wet with blood for a picture I had relinquished in a Quixotic moment. I must have been troublesome, for they gave me the drug of dreams and I awakened peacefully. I watched the field surgeons gather about a young line officer brought in with a shot through his neck. For the better probing of the wound they removed his head and gave it to me to hold. Seeing that it was Solon Denney's head, I was seized with a mood of jest—I would hide it and make Solon search. I advanced craftily down an endless corridor, but came to the edge of a wood, where there was a wicked spitting of shots. I cried out again, and once more they gave me the drug. Then I dreamed more quietly. I saw that the soul of my dead arm searched for her soul—that it would soon be drawn to her and offer itself to comfort her and never, never leave her. It would say, "At least take the arm, since you may have it without the face." It seemed that my other arm should go to her, too. This side of her there could be nothing for either to close upon. It appeared to me that I fell asleep on this fancy and dreamt that I awoke painfully to a poor, one-sided life, effortless, barren, forbidding.
A year later I went back to the Little Country to be counsellor at law to its people in time of need, and a father to Solon Denney and his two children. Solon could direct large affairs acceptably, but he and his babes were as thistle-down in a prairie wind.
He brought the children to visit me the first day that I came home—to a home where I was now to live alone.
I sat on the little porch above the river bank, by the wall of blossoming creeper whose tendrils she had once embraced, bringing her cheek intrepidly against the blossoms of that year, and saw him come slowly up the path. He seemed so sadly alone because of the two little creatures that followed him.
I placed a chair for Solon and was confronted by my namesake.
"Did they shoot your arm off in the war?" he asked.
"Yes, in the war."
He patted the empty sleeve, and his eyes beamed with discovery.
"What did you have your sleeve rolled up for when your arm was shot?"
I made plain to him the mystery of the whole sleeve.
"She often spoke of you," said Solon. "She seemed to think you would like to be a help to us if you could."
I turned to greet the woman child, but she had strayed into the house. I heard her shouts from my bedroom. Then she came running to us, cooing in helpless joy.
"Candy—candy—Uncle Maje—lovely candy—all pink and dusty."
Well over a face set with the mother's eyes was spilled that which she had clutched and eaten of,—a thing pink and dusty, in truth, but which was not candy.
"She does those things constantly," said the dejected father. "I don't see what I can do to her."
I saw, however, and did it, first wiping the tooth-powder from her face. She had called me Uncle Maje.
"She's a regular baddix," announced my namesake, gravely judicial. Then, as if with intention to indicate delicately that the family afforded striking contrasts, he added, "I ain't a baddix—I can nearly sing."
The children fribbled about us while we talked away the afternoon. The woman child at last put me to thinking—to thinking that perhaps butterflies are not meant to be happily caught. With many shouts she had clumsily enough imprisoned one—a fairy thing of green and bronze—in a hand so plump that it seemed to have been quilted. A moment she held it, then set it free, perhaps for its lack of spirit. It crawled and fluttered up the vine, trailing a crumpled wing most sadly, and I took it for my lesson. Assuredly they were not to be caught with any profit—at least not brutally in an eager hand. Brush them ever so lightly and the bloom is off the wings. They are to be watched in their pretty flitting, loved only in their freedom and from afar, with no clumsy reachings. That was a good thing to know in any world.
The Argus announced my home-coming with a fine flourish of my title in Solon's best style. It said that I had come back to take up the practice of the law. Not even Solon knew that I had come back to the memory of her.
This is how it befell that I was presently engrossed to outward seeming with the affairs of Little Arcady—even to the extent of a casual Potts, and those blessed contingencies that were later to unfold from him. Thus I took my allotted place and the years began.
A MAD PRANK OF THE GODS
A week after the publication of that blithe bit of acrimony which opens this tale, Colonel J. Rodney Potts, recreated and natty in a new summer suit of alpaca, his hat freshly ironed, sued the town of Little Arcady for ten thousand dollar damages to his person and announced his candidacy at the ensuing election for the honorable office of Judge of Slocum County. He did this at the earnest solicitation of his many friends, in whose hands he had placed himself,—at least so read his card of announcement in the Banner, our other paper. He did not name these solicitous friends; but it was an easy suspicion that they were the Democratic leaders, who thought by this means to draw votes from the Republican candidate to the advantage of their own, who, otherwise, was conceded to have no hope of election in a county overwhelmingly Republican.
It may be told with adequate confidence that Westley Keyts was not of their number. As to the damage suit, Westley found it unthinkable that Potts could deteriorate ten thousand dollars worth and still walk the earth. Indeed, he believed, and uttered a few rough words to express it, that ten dollars would be an excessive valuation even if Potts were utterly destroyed.
Being an earnest soul, Westley had taken the Potts affair very seriously. He made it a point to encounter the Colonel on an early day and to address him on Main Street in tones that lacked the least affectation of suavity or diplomatic guile. He had seen diplomacy tried and found wretchedly wanting. He would have no more of it ever. Like the straightaway man he was, he went to the meat of the matter.
"You squandered that hundred dollars we give you to git out of town on," he burst forth to Potts, breathing with an ominous difficulty.
"You just wait till you hear the worst of it," answered Potts, as he confidingly dusted the shoulder of Westley's coat. "The worst of it is I had over twelve dollars of my own money that I'd saved up—you know how hard it is to save money in these little towns—well, that went, too, every cent of it!"
It was admitted by witnesses competent to form an opinion that Westley's contorted face, his troubled breathing, his manner of stepping back, and the curious writhing of his stout arms, all encouraged a supposition that he might be contemplating immediate violence upon the person of Potts. At all events, this view was taken by the aggrieved and puzzled Colonel, who fled through the Boston Cash Store and, by means of a rear exit from that emporium, gained the office of Truman Baird, Justice of the Peace, where he swore to a legal document which averred that "the said Jonas R. Potts" was "in fear of immediate and great bodily harm, which he has reasonable cause to believe will be inflicted upon him by the said Westley Keyts."
The majesty of the law being thus invoked, Westley was put under a good and sufficient bond to refrain from "in any manner of attacking or molesting the said Potts, against the statutes therein made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the State of Illinois."
A proceeding so official somewhat dampened the fires of Mr. Keyts. He was a citizen, law-abiding by intention, with a patriot's esteem for government. It had merely not occurred to him that the summary extinction of Potts could be a performance at all incompatible with the peace and dignity of the great commonwealth to which he was at heart loyal. Being convinced otherwise, he abode grimly by the statutes therein made and provided. Nevertheless he returned to his shop and proceeded to cut up a quarter of beef with an energy of concentration and a ruthlessness of fury that caused Potts to shudder as he passed the door sometime later. By such demeanor, also, were the bondsmen of Westley—the first flush of their righteous enthusiasm faded—greatly disturbed. They agreed that he ought to be watched closely by day, and they even debated the wisdom of sitting up nights with him for a time, turn by turn. But their charge dissuaded them from this precaution. He expended his first vicious fury usefully upon his stock in trade, with knife and saw and cleaver, and thereafter he was but petulant or sarcastic.
"I had the right of it," he insisted. "The only way to do with a person like him was to git your feathers and your kittle of tar cooked up all nice and gooey and git Potts on the ground and make a believer of him right there and then!" This he followed by his pointed reflection upon the administrative talents of Solon Denney—"A hand of mush in a glove of the same!" When listeners were not by, he would mutter it to himself in sinister gutturals.
Nor was he alone in this spirit of dissatisfaction with Solon. The too-trustful editor of the Argus was frankly derided. He was a Boss at whom they laughed openly. They waited, however, with interest for the subsequent issues of this paper.
The Banner that week contained the following bit of news:—
DASTARDLY ASSAULT IN BROAD DAYLIGHT
Early last Thursday evening, as Colonel J. Rodney Potts, dean of the Slocum County bar, was enjoying a quiet stroll along our beautiful river bank near Cady's mill, he was set upon by a gang of ruffians and would have been foully dealt with but for his vigorous resistance. Being a man of splendid proportions and a giant's strength, the Colonel was making gallant headway against the cowardly miscreants when his foot slipped and he was precipitated into the chilling waters of the mill-race at a point where the city fathers have allowed it to remain uncovered. Seeing their victim plunged into a watery grave, as they thought, the thugs took to their heels. The Colonel extricated himself from his perilous plight, by dint of herculean strength, and started to pursue them, but they had disappeared from sight in the vicinity of Crowder & Fancett's lumber yard. Things have come to a pretty pass, we must say, if such a dastardly outrage as this should be allowed to go unpunished. Now that Colonel Potts has brought suit against the city we suppose the council will have that mill-race covered. We have repeatedly warned them about this. We wonder if they ever heard a well-known saying about "locking the stable door after horse is stolen," etc.
The card of Colonel Potts, printed elsewhere in this issue, is a sufficient refutation of the malicious gossip that has been handed back and forth lately that he had planned to leave Little Arcady. It looks now like certain busybodies in this community had over-stepped themselves and been hoisted up by their own petard. The Colonel is a fine man for County Judge, and we bespeak for him the suffrages of every voter who wants an honest judiciary.
Westley Keyts, reading this, wanted to know what a petard was. Inquiry disclosed that he hoped it might be something that could be used upon Potts to the advantage of almost every one concerned. But in the minds of others of us an agonized suspicion now took form. Had the letters been upon Potts when he went down? Had they been saved? Were they legible? And would he use them?
It was decided that Solon Denney should try to illuminate this point before taking the candidacy of Potts seriously. In the next issue of the Argus, therefore, was this paragraph, meant to be provocative:—
God's providence has been said to watch over fools and drunkards. We guess this is so; and that the pretensions of a certain individual in our midst to its watchfulness in the double capacity indicated can no longer be in doubt.
These lines did their work. The next Banner spoke of a foul conspiracy whose nefarious end it was to blacken the sterling character of a good man, of that Nestor of the Slocum County Bar, Colonel J. Rodney Potts. As testimony that the best citizens of the town were not involved with this infamous ring, it had extorted from Colonel Potts his consent to print certain letters from these gentlemen setting forth the Colonel's surpassing virtues in no uncertain terms—letters which his innate modesty had shrunk from making public, until goaded to desperation by the hell-hounds of a corrupt and subsidized opposition.
The letters followed in a terrific sequence—a series of laudations which the Chevalier Bayard need not have scorned to evoke.
Then we waited for Solon, but he was rather disappointing. Said the next Argus:—
We have heretofore considered J.R. Potts to possess the anti-social instincts of a parasite without its moderate spirit of enterprise. But we were wrong. We now concede the spirit of enterprise. As for this candidacy of Potts, Horace Greeley once said, commenting, we think, on some action of Weed's, "I like cool things, of ordinary dimensions—an iceberg or a glacier; but this arctic circle of coagulation appalls credulity and paralyzes indignation. Hence my numbness!" Hence, also, our own numbness. But, though Speech lieth prone on a paralytic's couch, ACTION is hearty and stalketh willingly abroad. In this campaign it will speak louder than words. Yea! it will be heard high above Noah Webster's entire assemblage of such of them as are decent. That is all! J.R.P., take notice!
It was jaunty enough, but Potts had unquestionably gained a following. Indeed he had ably cemented the foundations of one by his magnificent hospitality on that day of days. His whilom serfs were men not easily offended by faults of taste, and they were voters. To a man they came out strongly for Potts.