E-text prepared by Al Haines
The Works of Eugene Field
The Writings in Prose and Verse of Eugene Field
An Episode in the Lives of Reuben Baker, Astronomer, and of His Wife Alice
[Frontispiece: The House. Drawn by E. H. Garrett.]
Charles Scribner's Sons New York 1911
Copyright, 1896, by Julia Sutherland Field.
The story that is told in this volume is as surely an autobiography as if that announcement were a part of the title: and it also has the peculiar and significant distinction of being in some sort the biography of every man and woman who enters seriously upon the business of life.
In its pages is to be found the history of the heart's desire of all who are disposed to take the partnership of man and woman seriously. The instinct—the desire—call it what you will—that is herein set forth with such gentle humor is as old as humanity, and all literature that contains germs of permanence teems with its influence. But never before has it had so painstaking a biographer—so deft and subtle an interpreter.
We are told, alas! that the story of Alice and Reuben Baker wanted but one chapter to complete it when Eugene Field died. That chapter was to have told how they reached the fulfilment of their heart's desire. But even here the unities are preserved. The chapter that is unwritten in the book is also unwritten in the lives of perhaps the great majority of men and women.
The story that Mr. Field has told portrays his genius and his humor in a new light. We have seen him scattering the germs of his wit broadcast in the newspapers—we have seen him putting on the cap and bells, as it were, to lead old Horace through some modern paces—we have heard him singing his tender lullabies to children—we have wept with him over "Little Boy Blue," and all the rest of those quaint songs—we have listened to his wonderful stories—but only in the story of "The House" do we find his humor so gently turned, so deftly put, and so ripe for the purpose of literary expression. It lies deep here, and those who desire to enjoy it as it should be enjoyed must place their ears close to the heart of human nature. The wit and the rollicking drollery that were but the surface indications of Mr. Field's genius have here given place to the ripe humor that lies as close to tears as to laughter—the humor that is a part and a large part of almost every piece of English literature that has outlived the hand that wrote it.
JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS.
The Chapters in this Book
I WE BUY A PLACE II OURSELVES AND OUR NEIGHBORS III WE MAKE OUR BARGAIN KNOWN IV THE FIRST PAYMENT V WE NEGOTIATE A MORTGAGE VI I AM BESOUGHT TO BUY THINGS VII OUR PLANS FOR IMPROVEMENTS VIII THE VANDALS BEGIN THEIR WORK IX NEIGHBOR MACLEOD'S THISTLE X COLONEL DOLLER'S GREAT IDEA XI I MAKE A STAND FOR MY RIGHTS XII I AM DECEIVED IN MR. WAX XIII EDITOR WOODSIT A TRUE FRIEND XIV THE VICTIM OF AN ORDINANCE XV THE QUESTION OF INSURANCE XVI NEIGHBOR ROBBINS' PLATYPUS XVII OUR DEVICES FOR ECONOMIZING XVIII I STATE MY VIEWS ON TAXATION XIX OTHER PEOPLE'S DOGS XX I ACQUIRE POISON AND EXPERIENCE XXI WITH PLUMBERS AND PAINTERS XXII THE BUTLER'S PANTRY XXIII ALICE'S NIGHT WATCHMAN XXIV DRIVEWAYS AND WALL PAPERS XXV AT LAST WE ENTER OUR HOUSE
WE BUY A PLACE
It was either Plato the Athenian, or Confucius the Chinese, or Andromachus the Cretan—or some other philosopher whose name I disremember—that remarked once upon a time, and the time was many centuries ago, that no woman was happy until she got herself a home. It really makes no difference who first uttered this truth, the truth itself is and always has been recognized as one possessing nearly all the virtues of an axiom.
I recall that one of the first wishes I heard Alice express during our honeymoon was that we should sometime be rich enough to be able to build a dear little house for ourselves. We were poor, of course; otherwise our air castle would not have been "a dear little house"; it would have been a palatial residence with a dance-hall at the top and a wine-cellar at the bottom thereof. I have always observed that when the money comes in the poetry flies out. Bread and cheese and kisses are all well enough for poverty-stricken romance, but as soon as a poor man receives a windfall his thoughts turn inevitably to a contemplation of the probability of terrapin and canvasbacks.
I encouraged Alice in her fond day-dreaming, and we decided between us that the dear little house should be a cottage, about which the roses and the honeysuckles should clamber in summer, and which in winter should be banked up with straw and leaves, for Alice and I were both of New England origin. I must confess that we had some reason for indulging these pleasing speculations, for at that time my Aunt Susan was living, and she was reputed as rich as mud (whatever that may mean), and this simile was by her neighbors coupled with another, which represented Aunt Susan as being as close as a clapboard on a house. Whatever her reputation was, I happened to be Aunt Susan's nearest of kin, and although I never so far lost my presence of mind as to intimate even indirectly that I had any expectations, I wrote regularly to Aunt Susan once a month, and every fall I sent her a box of game, which I told her I had shot in the woods near our boarding-house, but which actually I had bought of a commission merchant in South Water Street.
With the legacy which we were to receive from Aunt Susan, Alice and I had it all fixed up that we should build a cottage like one which Alice had seen one time at Sweet Springs while convalescing at that fashionable Missouri watering-place from an attack of the jaundice. This cottage was, as I was informed, an ingenious combination of Gothic decadence and Norman renaissance architecture. Being somewhat of an antiquarian by nature, I was gratified by the promise of archaism which Alice's picture of our future home presented. We picked out a corner lot in,—well, no matter where; that delectable dream, with its Gothic and Norman features, came to an untimely end all too soon. At its very height Aunt Susan up and died, and a fortnight later we learned that, after bequeathing the bulk of her property to foreign missions, she had left me, whom she had condescended to refer to as her "beloved nephew," nine hundred dollars in cash and her favorite flower-piece in wax, a hideous thing which for thirty years had occupied the corner of honor in the front spare chamber.
I do not know what Alice did with the wax-flowers. As for the nine hundred dollars, I appropriated it to laudable purposes. Some of it went for a new silk dress for Alice; the rest I spent for books, and I recall my thrill of delight when I saw ensconced upon my shelves a splendid copy of Audubon's "Birds" with its life-size pictures of turkeys, buzzards, and other fowl done in impossible colors.
After that experience "our house" simmered and shrivelled down from the Norman-Gothic to plain, everyday, fin-de-siecle architecture. We concluded that we could get along with five rooms (although six would be better), and we transferred our affections from that corner lot in the avenue which had engaged our attention during the decadent-renaissance phase of our enthusiasm to a modest point in Slocum's Addition, a locality originally known as Slocum's Slough, but now advertised and heralded by the press and rehabilitated in public opinion as Paradise Park. This pleasing mania lasted about two years. Then it was forever abated by the awful discovery that Paradise Park was the breeding spot of typhoid fever, and, furthermore, that old man Slocum's title to the property was defective in every essential particular.
Alice and I did not find it in our power either to overlook or to combat these trifling objections; with unabated optimism we cast our eyes elsewhere, and within a month we found another delectable biding place—this time some distance from the city—in fact, in one of the new and booming suburbs. Elmdale was then new to fame. I suppose they called it Elmdale because it had neither an elm nor a dale. It was fourteen miles from town, but its railroad transportation facilities were unique. The five-o'clock milk-train took passengers in to business every morning, and the eight-o'clock accommodation brought them home again every evening; moreover, the noon freight stopped at Elmdale to take up passengers every other Wednesday, and it was the practice of every other train to whistle and to slack up in speed to thirty miles an hour while passing through this promising suburb.
I did not care particularly for Elmdale, but Alice took a mighty fancy to it. Our twin boys (Galileo and Herschel, named after the astronomers of blessed memory!) were now three years old, and Alice insisted that they required the pure air and the wholesome freedom of rural life. Galileo had, in fact, never quite been himself since he swallowed the pincushion.
We did not go to Elmdale at once; we never went there. Elmdale was simply another one of those curious phases in which our dream of a home abounded. With the Elmdale phase "our house" underwent another change. But this was natural enough. You see that in none of our other plans had we contemplated the possibility of a growing family. Now we had two uproarious boys, and their coming had naturally put us into pleasing doubt as to what similar emergencies might transpire in the future. So our five-room cottage had acquired (in our minds) two more rooms—seven altogether—and numerous little changes in the plans and decorations of "our house" had gradually been evolved.
As I now remember, it was about this time that Alice made up her mind that the reception-room should be treated in blue. Her birth had occurred in December, and therefore turquoise was her birth-stone and the blue thereof was her favorite color. I am not much of a believer in such things—in fact, I discredit all superstitions except such as involve black cats and the rabbit's foot, and these exceptions are wholly reasonable, for my family lived for many years in Salem, Mass. But I have always conceded that Alice has as good a right to her superstitions as I to mine. I bought her the prettiest turquoise ring I could afford, and I approved her determination to treat the reception-room in blue. I rather enjoyed the prospect of the luxury of a reception-room; it had ground the iron into my soul that, ever since we married and settled down, Alice and I had been compelled in winter months to entertain our callers in the same room where we ate our meals. In summer this humiliation did not afflict us, for then we always sat of an evening on the front porch.
The blue room met with a curious fate. One Christmas our beneficent friend, Colonel Mullaly, presented Alice and me with a beautiful and valuable lamp. Alice went to Burley's the next week and priced one (not half as handsome) and was told that it cost sixty dollars. It was a tall, shapely lamp, with an alabaster and Italian marble pedestal cunningly polished; a magnificent yellow silk shade served as the crowning glory to this superb creation.
For a week, perhaps, Alice was abstracted; then she told me that she had been thinking it all over and had about made up her mind that when we got our new house she would have the reception-room treated in a delicate canary shade.
"But why abandon the blue, my dear?" I asked. "I think it would be so pretty to have the decoration of the room match your turquoise ring."
"That 's just like a man!" said Alice. "Reuben, dear, could you possibly imagine anything else so perfectly horrid as a yellow lampshade in a blue room?"
"You are right, sweetheart," said I. "That is something I had never thought of before. You are right; canary color it shall be, and when we have moved in I 'll buy you a dear little canary bird in a lovely gold cage, and we 'll hang it in the front window right over the lamp, so that everybody can see our treasures from the street and envy our happiness!"
"You dear, sweet boy!" cried Alice, and she reached up and pulled my head down and kissed her dear, sweet boy on his bald spot. Alice is an angel!
I fear I am wearying you with the prolixity of my narrative. So let me pass rapidly over the ten years that succeeded to the yellow-lamp epoch. Ten hard but sweet years! Years full of struggle and hopes, touched with bereavement and sorrow, but precious years, for troubles, like those we have had, sanctify human lives. Children came to us, and of these priceless treasures we lost two. If I thought Alice would ever see these lines I should not say to you now that from the two great sorrows of those years my heart has never been and never shall be weaned. I would not have Alice know this, for it would open afresh the wounds her dear, tender mother-heart has suffered.
Galileo and Herschel are strapping fellows. They have survived their juvenile ambitions to be milkmen, policemen, lamp-lighters, butchers, grocerymen, etc., respectively. Both are now in the manual-training school. Fanny, Josephine and Erasmus—I have not mentioned them before,—these are the children that are left to us of those that have come in the later years. And, my! how they are growing! What changes have taken place in them and all about us! My affairs have prospered; if it had n't been for the depression that set in two years ago I should have had one thousand dollars in bank by this time. My salary has increased steadily year by year; it has now reached a sum that enables me to hope for speedy relief from those financial worries which encompass the head of a numerous household. By the practice of rigid economy in family expenses I have been able to accumulate a large number of black-letter books and a fine collection of curios, including some fifty pieces of mediaeval armor. We have lived in rented houses all these years, but at no time has Alice abandoned the hope and the ambition of having a home of her own. "Our house" has been the burthen of her song from one year's end to the other. I understand that this becomes a monomania with a woman who lives in a rented house.
And, gracious! what changes has "our house" undergone since first dear Alice pictured it as a possibility to me! It has passed through every character, form, and style of architecture conceivable. From five rooms it has grown to fourteen. The reception parlor, chameleon-like, has changed color eight times. There have duly loomed up bewildering visions of a library, a drawing-room, a butler's pantry, a nursery, a laundry—oh, it quite takes my breath away to recall and recount the possibilities which Alice's hopes and fancies conjured up.
But, just two months ago to-day Alice burst in upon me. I was in my study over the kitchen figuring upon the probable date of the conjunction of Venus and Saturn in the year 1963.
"Reuben, dear," cried Alice, "I 've done it! I 've bought a place!"
"Alice Fothergill Baker," says I, "what do you mean!"
She was all out of breath—so transported with delight was she that she could hardly speak. Yet presently she found breath to say: "You know the old Schmittheimer place—the house that sets back from the street and has lovely trees in the yard? You remember how often we 've gone by there and wished we had a home like it? Well, I 've bought it! Do you understand, Reuben dear? I 've bought it, and we 've got a home at last!"
"Have you paid for it, darling?" I asked.
"N-n-no, not yet," she answered, "but I 'm going to, and you 're going to help me, are n't you, Reuben?"
"Alice," says I, going to her and putting my arms about her, "I don't know what you 've done, but of course I 'll help you—yes, dearest, I 'll back you to the last breath of my life!"
Then she made me put on my boots and overcoat and hat and go with her to see her new purchase—"our house!"
OURSELVES AND OUR NEIGHBORS
Everybody's house is better made by his neighbors. This philosophical utterance occurs in one of those black-letter volumes which I purchased with the money left me by my Aunt Susan (of blessed memory!). Even if Alice and I had not fully made up our minds, after nineteen years of planning and figuring, what kind of a house we wanted, we could have referred the important matter to our neighbors in the confident assurance that these amiable folk were much more intimately acquainted with our needs and our desires than we ourselves were. The utter disinterestedness of a neighbor qualifies him to judge dispassionately of your requirements. When he tells you that you ought to do so and so or ought to have such and such a thing, his counsel should be heeded, because the probabilities are that he has made a careful study of you and he has unselfishly arrived at conclusions which intelligently contemplate your welfare. In planning for oneself one is too likely to be directed by narrow prejudices and selfish considerations.
Alice and I have always thought much of our neighbors. I suspect that my neighbors are my most salient weaknesses. I confess that I enjoy nothing else more than an informal call upon the Baylors, the Tiltmans, the Rushes, the Denslows and the other good people who constitute the best element in society in that part of the city where Alice and I and our interesting family have been living in rented quarters for the last six years. This informality of which I am so fond has often grieved and offended Alice. It is that gentle lady's opinion that a man at my time of life should have too much dignity to make a practice of "bolting into people's houses" (I quote her words exactly) when I know as well as I know anything that they are at dinner, and that a dessert in the shape of a rhubarb pie or a Strawberry shortcake is about to be served.
There was a time when Alice overlooked this idiosyncrasy upon my part; that was before I achieved what Alice terms a national reputation by my discovery of a satellite to the star Gamma in the tail of the constellation Leo. Alice does not stop to consider that our neighbors have never read the royal octavo volume I wrote upon the subject of that discovery; Alice herself has never read that book. Alice simply knows that I wrote that book and paid a printer one thousand one hundred dollars to print it; this is sufficient to give me a high and broad status in her opinion, bless her loyal little heart!
But what do our neighbors know or care about that book? What, for that matter, do they know or care about the constellation Leo, to say nothing of its tail and the satellites to the stellar component parts thereof? I thank God that my hospitable neighbor, Mrs. Baylor, has never suffered a passion for astronomical research to lead her into a neglect of the noble art of compounding rhubarb pies, and I am equally grateful that no similar passion has stood in the way of good Mrs. Rush's enthusiastic and artistic construction of the most delicious shortcake ever put into the human mouth.
The Denslows, the Baylors, the Rushes, the Tiltmans and the rest have taken a great interest in us, and they have shared the enthusiasm (I had almost said rapture) with which Alice and I discoursed of "the house" which we were going to have "sometime." They did not, however, agree with us, nor did they agree with one another, as to the kind of house this particular house of ours ought to be. Each one had a house for sale, and each one insisted that his or her house was particularly suited to our requirements. The merits of each of these houses were eloquently paraded by the owners thereof, and the demerits were as eloquently pointed out by others who had houses of their own to sell "on easy terms and at long time."
It was not long, as you can well suppose, before Alice and I were intimately acquainted with all the weak points in our neighbors' residences. We knew all about the Baylors' leaky roof, the Denslows' cracked plastering, the Tiltmans' back stairway, the Rushes' exposed water pipes, the Bollingers' defective chimney, the Dobells' rickety foundation, and a thousand other scandalous details which had been dinged into us and which we treasured up to serve as a warning to us when we came to have a house—"the house" which we had talked about so many years.
I can readily understand that there were those who regarded our talk and our planning simply as so much effervescence. We had harped upon the same old string so long—or at least Alice had—that, not unfrequently, even we smilingly asked ourselves whether it were likely that our day-dreaming would ever be realized. I dimly recall that upon several occasions I went so far as to indulge in amiable sarcasms upon Alice's exuberant mania. I do not remember just what these witticisms were, but I daresay they were bright enough, for I never yet have indulged in repartee without having bestowed much preliminary study and thought upon it.
I have mentioned our youngest son, Erasmus; he was born to us while we were members of Plymouth Church, and we gave him that name in consideration of the wishes of our beloved pastor, who was deeply learned in and a profound admirer of the philosophical works of Erasmus the original. Both Alice and I hoped that our son would incline to follow in the footsteps of the mighty genius whose name he bore. But from his very infancy he developed traits widely different from those of the stern philosopher whom we had set up before him as the paragon of human excellence. I have always suspected that little Erasmus inherited his frivolous disposition from his uncle (his mother's brother), Lemuel Fothergill, who at the early age of nineteen ran away from the farm in Maine to travel with a thrashing machine, and who subsequently achieved somewhat of a local reputation as a singer of comic songs in the Barnabee Concert Troupe on the Connecticut river circuit.
Erasmus' sense of humor is hampered by no sentiment of reverence. For the last five years he has caused his mother and me much humiliation by his ribald treatment of the subject that is nearest and dearest to our hearts. In fact, we have come to be ashamed of speaking of "the house" in Erasmus' hearing, for that would give the child a chance to indulge in humor at the expense of a matter which he seems to regard as visionary as the merest fairy tale. Now Galileo and Herschel are very different boys; they are making famous progress at the manual training school. Galileo has already invented a churn of exceptional merit, and Herschel is so deft at carpentering that I have determined to let him build the observatory which I am going to have on the roof of the new house one of these days. Galileo and Herschel are unusually proper, steady boys. And our daughters—ah! that reminds me.
Fanny is our oldest girl. She is going on fifteen now. She favors the Bakers in appearance, but her character is more like her mother's side of the family. If I do say it myself, Fanny is a beautiful girl. If I could have my way Fanny would be less given to the social amenities of life, but the truth is that the dear creature naturally loves gayety and is bound to have it at all times and under all conditions. Her merry disposition makes her a favorite with all, and particularly with her schoolmates.
Now that I think of it, Willie Sears has been to see Fanny every evening for the last week. I wonder whether Alice has noticed it; I think I shall have to speak to her about it. Yet the probability is that Alice will resent the suggestion which my mention of the matter will convey. Alice has been saying all along that one particular reason why our new house should be a large one is that there would then be a room where Fanny could receive her company without being mortified almost to death by Erasmus' horrid intrusion and still more horrid remarks. At such times I forgive and adore Erasmus. It seems only yesterday that I bought her a bisque doll at the World's Fair, a bisque doll with pink eyes and blue hair, and now—oh, Fanny, are you no longer our little girl?
Still, we have Josephine, and I am sure she will honor us; for she was born six years ago under the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, and while Mars was at perihelion. Moreover, she is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, and there are those who believe that there is especial virtue in that. I named her after the French empress, not because I am a particular admirer of that remarkable but unfortunate woman's character, but for the reason that upon one occasion she secured a pension of eight hundred francs for the astronomer LeBanc, who had already added to the sum of human happiness by locating an asteroid near the left limb of the sun, and who subsequently discovered a greenish yellow spot on the outer ring of the planet Saturn. I never hear my dear little girl's voice or see her sweet face that I do not think of the planet Saturn; and never in the solemn stillness of night do I contemplate the scintillating glories of the ringed orb without being reminded of the fair, innocent babe asleep in her little white iron bedstead downstairs.
This sentimental association of objects widely separated in space has served to convince me that there is nothing, either in the heavens above or in the earth beneath, that has not its use, both profitable and pleasant.
WE MAKE OUR BARGAIN KNOWN
The Schmittheimer place has occasioned Alice and me many heartburnings of envy the last three years. I recall that the first time we passed it Alice exclaimed: "There, Reuben, is just the place for us!" I agreed entirely with this proposition. The house stood back a goodly distance from the street upon a prominence that gave it an extended survey of the landscape, and afforded an exceptionally noble opportunity for an unobstructed view of the heavens upon cloudless nights. Alice particularly admired the lawn, for already she pictured to herself the pleasing sight of little Josephine and little Erasmus at play in the cool grass under the umbrageous trees.
And now, having yearned and pined for this particular abiding-place a many days, it was really ours! Alice told me about it—how she had comprehended the bargain (for it was indeed a bargain!)—as we proceeded together to inspect our new home. It seems that that very morning, worn out with waiting and inflamed by a determination to do Now or to perish in the attempt, Alice had sallied forth in quest of the precious game. She had gone directly to the owner, had subtly ingratiated herself in the confidence of Mrs. Schmittheimer, and, in less than fifteen minutes' time, had made terms with that amiable woman. And such terms! My head fairly swims when I think of it.
Mrs. Schmittheimer is a widow. Since her husband's demise two years ago come next September, she has lived in comparative solitude in the old home. She was not wholly alone, for with characteristic Teutonic thrift she had rented the lower part of the house to a small family, consisting of a mechanic, his wife, their baby, and a small dog. Mrs. Schmittheimer herself lived and moved and had her being in the second story, doing her own cooking and other housework, her only companion being her faithful omnipresent cat, the sex of which (I state this for a reason which will hereinafter transpire) was feminine. Although the good Mrs. Schmittheimer was not unfrequently visited by female compatriots who condoled with her and drank her coffee and ate her kuchen, after the fashion of sympathetic, suffering womanhood, she wearied of this loneliness; she was, in fact, as anxious to get away from the old place as Alice and I were to get into it.
So Alice and Mrs. Schmittheimer had little trouble in coming to an understanding mutually agreeable. The late Mr. Schmittheimer had always demanded the round sum of ten thousand dollars for the property under discussion, but the prevalence of hard times and the persuasive eloquence of my dear diplomatic Alice induced the late Mr. Schmittheimer's relict to consent to a reduction of the price to nine thousand five hundred dollars, "one thousand dollars in cash and the balance in five years at six per cent. interest, payable semi-annually."
"You see," said Alice to me, "that we practically get the place for five years by simply paying rent. We pay one thousand dollars down and fifty dollars a month interest. In five years there are sixty months. and in that time we shall have paid for this place four thousand dollars, which is but four hundred dollars more than we should have to pay if we remained in the house we are now living in at sixty dollars a month rental! You see, I have figured it all out, and figures can't lie!"
You will agree with me when I tell you right here that my wife Alice is a superior woman.
"Now we must be very careful," said Alice, "not to breathe a word about this to anybody until all the papers have been signed and the property has been transferred."
I suggested that in so serious a proceeding it might be wise to have the counsel of the more intimate of our neighbors; the Baylors, the Rushes and the Tiltmans had had experience in such matters, and might be of important service to us in this particular undertaking.
"No," said Alice, "we must guard against every possibility of failure. Our plan might leak out and reach the ears of the real-estate dealers, and then we should be hopelessly lost. Our neighbors mean well, but they are human. No, the only people I shall consult are the Denslows."
I saw at once the wisdom of this determination. The Denslows are most estimable folk and I admire and love them. Mrs. Denslow is of an exceptionally warm, generous, and liberal nature, while, upon the other hand, Mr. Denslow has the reputation of being the most cautious business man in our city; the consequence is that in the administration of affairs in the Denslow household you meet with that conservative happy medium which is beautiful to contemplate. Alice was right; our precious secret would be secure with the Denslows. In fact the Denslows would be of distinct help to us in the vast enterprise in which we had embarked. Mrs. Denslow would be prepared at all times to provide sympathy and enthusiasm, and Mr. Denslow would be constituted at once absolute engineer and watchdog of the business details of the affair.
But—I make the confession amid blushes—I cannot prevaricate, neither can I dissemble. Alice knew the guilelessness and singleness of my nature, and she should not have imposed that dreadful oath of secrecy upon me. I would not for all the wealth of the Indies live over again the awful four hours which followed my solemn promise to Alice not to reveal the blissful tidings that we had bought the old Schmittheimer place! I felt as if I had committed a crime; I was as a haunted man must be. I dared not look my neighbors in the face lest they should read the sweet truth in my honest eyes.
Finally I broke completely down, for I could not stand it any longer. I actually believe that if I had kept silent another hour the dreadful consciousness of guilt would have swelled within me to such a bulk as to have burst me into fragments, which would now be travelling around aimlessly in space, like the lost Pleiad, or like the dismembered and stray tail of a comet. So I called my next neighbor, Rush, out behind his barn, and, under oath of secrecy, revealed the good news to him, and then I did likewise by neighbor Tiltman, and so on, in seemly progression, by all the other neighbors, until at last my confidence had been securely reposed in every one.
I cannot tell you what sweet relief I found in this proceeding. To my killing consciousness of guilt succeeded a peace which passeth all human understanding. There was a world of satisfaction, too, in being assured by each of those dear neighbors that we (Alice and I) had got the greatest bargain ever heard of, that we were the luckiest couple on earth, that the old Schmittheimer place was just exactly what we wanted, that the property would enhance double in value in less than a year, etc., etc., etc. Oh, it is good to have such neighbors as ours are!
The Denslows were quite as glad as the others were to hear of our bargain. Mrs. Denslow (bless her kind heart) began at once to picture the veritable paradise into which it were possible to transform the front lawn. In the exuberance of her fancy she portrayed winding gravel walks among rose bushes and beds of gay flowers; rustic bowers over which honeysuckle and ivy clambered; picturesque miniature Swiss cottages in the trees for birds to nest in; an artificial lake well stocked with goldfishes, and upon whose tranquil bosom a swan or two would glide majestically through the mist of the fountain that perennially would shower down its tinkling grace.
It was very pleasing to hear Mrs. Denslow and Alice talk about these things with that enthusiasm peculiar to their sex. Until "our house" became a probability I did not really know with what rapidity it were possible for women-folk to discuss and to decide even the most insignificant details of the subject matter of their enthusiasm. As I recall, in less than fifteen minutes' time after Alice had confided our secret to Mrs. Denslow those two amiable and superior women had it definitely settled what the color of the window shades was to be and just how many brass-headed tacks would be required to fasten down the new Japanese rug with which it was proposed to adorn the hardwood floor of the library in the first story of "the addition" which had already been determined upon. But Mrs. Denslow was no more prolific of lovely suggestions than was Alice's widowed sister Adah, who has made her home with us for the last two years. Adah's one o'ermastering ambition in life has been to build a house. In the autumn of 1881 she saw in a copy of "The National Architect" the picture and plans of a villa owned by a plutocrat at Narragansett Pier. She preserved this paper as sacredly as if it were one of the family archives, and upon the slightest pretext she brought it forth and exhibited it and dilated in extenso upon the surpassing advantages and beauties of the plutocratic villa.
When Adah learned that Alice and I had actually bought a place at last she fairly wept for joy, and she excitedly produced her creased and worn copy of "The National Architect" and besought us to remodel the old Schmittheimer "rookery"—that is what she dared to call it—into a villa! And when she was made to understand by means of numerous long and earnest representations that a villa could not even be dreamed of by poor folk, Adah was prepared to compromise the affair upon a basis involving our promise to build a colonial house like Maria's house in St. Jo.
This Maria, whose name is forever upon Adah's tongue, had been Adah's schoolmate back in St. Joseph, Missouri. Their friendship extended through the blissful years of their early wedded life. And at the present time they are as dear to each other as of yore. Adah presupposes that everybody else knows who Maria is, and so everybody is regaled perennially with Adah's loyal tributes to Maria's transcendent virtues. Occasionally Alice (who is without doubt the sweetest-natured creature in all the world) rebels against the example of Maria which Adah continually holds forth.
I have an instance just at hand. It could not have been more than half an hour ago that I heard Adah say: "Alice, do you know I 've been thinking about it all the morning, and I don't see how you 're going to get along without a closet in that little east room up-stairs."
"But," said Alice, "there seems to be no way of putting a closet into that room."
"Well, I think I 've hit on a plan," said Adah, and she produced a Mme. Demorest pattern of a sleeve, upon which, with infinite pains, she had traced certain lines with the wreck of a pencil which little Josephine had tried to sharpen with the scissors.
"Yes, I see," said Alice, amiably; "but that would cut in upon the hall."
"Well, Maria had to do the same thing when she made her house over," said Adah, "and you 've no idea how nice it is."
"I don't care what Maria did," said Alice, bridling up. "This is my house, and I 'm not going to spoil a good hall by building any skimpy little closets! That room will do for Erasmus, and he does n't need any closet. So that is settled, once and forever!"
I heard all this, myself, from the next room. I did not interfere at all, for I make it a rule never to interpose in other people's disagreements. I will admit, however, that it rather wounded me to hear Alice call it "my house" instead of our house.
THE FIRST PAYMENT
As for Mr. Denslow, he agreed with other friends and neighbors that in our new old house we had secured a genuine bargain. But, as I have already indicated, Mr. Denslow was no day-dreamer; he had a way of viewing things that was severe in its practicality.
Now, I am in no sense a business man; you may already have suspected this truth. I am very far from being a fool, as those who have read my numerous treatises (particularly my "Essay to Prove the Probability of the Existence of an Atmosphere on the Other Side of the Moon") will testify; but, having had little to do with the operations and methods of trade and commerce, I am not (I admit it freely) an expert in what in this great, bustling city of Chicago are termed affairs of the world.
Mr. Denslow, upon the other hand, is keenly in touch with these affairs; brought hourly during the day into contact and competition with scheming—and not always scrupulous—men, he has acquired an extensive knowledge of human nature of the rapacious type, and this knowledge has made him wary, alert, prudent, and reserved. It is perhaps this wide difference in our natures and our pursuits that has attracted Mr. Denslow and me to each other; at any rate our friendship has been profitable to both. Mr. Denslow's counsel upon several important occasions has been of vast value to me, and I flatter myself that upon one occasion at least I served Mr. Denslow to excellent purpose. This was two years ago, when, as perhaps you remember, my sun-spot theory was widely discussed by the newspaper press. I then told Mr. Denslow that the recurrence of the sun spots would surely induce a drought upon this planet, thereby causing a shortage in the crops; whereupon Mr. Denslow "cornered the wheat market" (as the saying is) and realized a handsome sum of money.
Alice has long recognized Mr. Denslow's merits as a man of business; she, too, has what, in lieu of a better term, our New England people call faculty. So it was natural that after having drunk deep (so to speak) at the fountain of Mrs. Denslow's enthusiasm, we should turn for serious advice and practical counsel to Mr. Denslow.
"This opportunity," said Mr. Denslow, "is one that comes only once in a lifetime. You must not let it escape you. We should go at once to Mrs. Schmittheimer and get her to sign an agreement to part with the property upon the terms specified. In order to bind the agreement we should pay her a small sum of money—oh, say one hundred dollars. The receipt, in the form of an agreement or contract signed by her, will bind the bargain in the contemplation of the law."
"But it is after dark already," said Alice. "Wouldn't it seem rather burglarious to make a descent upon the old lady at this hour?"
"And what is more to the point," said I, "the detail (trifling as it may appear) of planking down one hundred dollars is one which I happen just at this moment to be unprepared to provide for."
"The matter should be closed at once," said Mr. Denslow. "In a deal of this kind delay is too often disastrous. As for the one hundred dollars, I will lend you that amount, for a small cash payment is really necessary to bind the bargain."
My heart went out in gratitude to this noble gentleman. Never before had I felt more keenly the value of neighborly friendship.
"As this business is to be transacted in Mrs. Baker's name," said Mr. Denslow to me, "it would be better for you not to go with us to see Mrs. Schmittheimer. The presence of too many strangers might make the old lady shy of doing what we want her to do. See?"
Yes, I comprehended the intent of the suggestion, and I approved it. While it was far from my desire to take any advantage of the Widow Schmittheimer or of anybody else, I recognized the propriety of conserving our own interests to the extent of suffering no rights of our own to be either lost or jeoparded. So while Mr. Denslow and Alice went upon their business mission I remained with Mrs. Denslow and her interesting children and elucidated my theory of the ice-caps of the planet Mars. In less than an hour Mr. Denslow and Alice returned and exhibited with delight a receipt signed by Katherine Elizabeth Schmittheimer, which receipt, I was glad to see, was practically a contract to sell the property upon the terms specified in her original talk with Alice.
"The terms are certainly exceptionally advantageous!" said Mr. Denslow. "It will take some time—perhaps a week or ten days—to investigate the title; when this detail is satisfactorily disposed of you can pay down your one thousand dollars and take possession of the premises."
Pay down one thousand dollars? Ah, I had quite forgotten about that. In my enthusiasm over the prospect of a home of our own, and in the delirium induced by the delightful chatter about the paradise into which that front lawn and that old rookery (as Adah called it) were to be transformed, I had suffered all thought of the essential and inevitable first payment of one thousand dollars to slip quite out of my mind. Now this awful consideration, from which there could be no escape, took complete and exclusive possession of me. Where in the wide, wide world was I to get the one thousand dollars?
This was the question I put to Alice on the way home from the Denslows' that memorable evening. Alice knew as well as I did that my salary was sufficient only to cover the current expenses of the family. She knew as well as I did that the royalties from my books the last year were as follows:
"The Star Gamma in Leo and Its Satellite" . . . . . $1.60 "Mars and Its Ice-Caps" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .75 "Probable Depth of the Bottle-Neck Seas as Indicated by the Spectroscope" . . . . . . . . . .30 "Logarithms for the Nursery" . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.15 "Alphabetical Catalogue of Binary Stars" . . . . . . .65 ——- Total $4.45
Alice knew, too, as well as I did, that the whole amount of money I received from my lectures before the West Side Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge did not exceed seventy dollars last year. She knew all these things, and I told her so, and then I asked her where or how she fancied we were going to raise the one thousand dollars for the first payment on "our house." To my surprise, Alice was prepared—or at least she seemed to be prepared for this question.
"Reuben," said she, "I remember having heard Mr. Black say one day during his visit to us last summer that we ought to have a home, and that if we ever decided to buy one he would try his best to help us."
Now that Alice spoke of it I, too, recalled that friendly remark of Mr. Black's. A man who is drowning will catch at a straw. A man who has bought a house with nothing to pay for it is also predisposed to clutch. Our old friend Mr. Black now loomed up as my only sure salvation.
Mr. Black is upward of seventy years of age. He and my father went to school together in Maine, and subsequently they lived near each other in Cincinnati. Mr. Black had been a merchant; he had retired from business rich. After my father's death, while I was still a boy, this kind old friend was good to me, taking an interest in my work and my welfare. He had no children of his own, and, if he did not regard me almost as a son, I certainly grew to regard him almost as a father. Mr. Black knew the value of money and respected it. He gave freely, but only where he was assured it was deserved and would do actual good. A prudent, careful, economical man himself, he encouraged prudence and thrift in others. He never quite condoned what he regarded as extravagance upon my part in buying my fifty pieces of mediaeval armor, although it is to his munificence that I am indebted for the six-foot telescope with which I am wont to scan the face of the heavens.
The upshot of talks with Alice and Adah and the Denslows—to say nothing of other neighbors with whom I confidentially consulted—the upshot of these talks was that I determined to go to Cincinnati to confer with Mr. Black upon the propriety of his advancing to me the money wherewith Alice should make the first payment upon her—I mean our house. To make short of a long story (for if there is one thing that I despise above all others it is prolixity), I went to Cincinnati and unfolded my business to my aged friend. Mr. Black appeared to be in no indecent haste to satiate my craving. He is not, and never was, a man of exuberant enthusiasms. I was rather pained when, upon learning of the unparalleled bargain we had secured in the Schmittheimer place, he did not go into raptures as did Mrs. Denslow, and Mrs. Baylor, and Mrs. Tiltman and the rest of our neighbors at home. So far from being carried away by any whirlwind of enthusiasm, Mr. Black maintained a placidity of demeanor amounting to stoicism; he plied me with questions about "titles," and "abstracts," and "indentures," and "mortgages," and "liens," and "incumbrances," and other things that I actually knew no more about than the veriest Bushman knows about the theory of Nebulae.
To add to my embarrassment he solicited explicit information about the Schmittheimer place, in what subdivision it was located, and in what township. Had I been a veritable human encyclopaedia I could hardly have satisfied that man's greed for information touching that particular spot. What knew I of tracts, of townships, of quarter sections or of subdivisions? Were I filled with a knowledge of these humdrum commonplaces, should I know aught of that enthusiasm which thrills the being who, after many and long years of weary hoping and waiting, sees the object of his desires just within his grasp? Should Moses just in sight of the promised land be expected to give the dimensions of that delectable spot, and to locate it and bound it and map it off with the accuracy of a Rand & McNally township guide?
I suppose that this conservatism is natural with some people—this lack of fervor, this absence of enthusiasm. Still I will admit Mr. Black's tranquillity—nay, his glacial composure—under the circumstances surprised and grieved me. I did not understand why the prospect and the promise of "our house" did not set Mr. Black—and, for that matter, all the rest of humanity—into the selfsame transports of delight which I experienced. Mind you, now, I am not complaining of nor am I finding fault with Mr. Black. I am simply chronicling happenings and observations. Mr. Black is a benevolent and beneficent man. He said to me at last: "Well, you can tell Alice that I will send her a draft for the money she needs, and within a fortnight I shall run up to take a look at your purchase."
I was in Cincinnati three days. I should have been there but two. A curious happening detained me. As I was going to the railway station from Mr. Black's house the evening of the second day I saw a man with a reflector telescope selling views of the moon at five cents apiece. The night was so auspicious for this diversion that I could not resist the temptation. Thus seduced, the time sped so quickly and the intoxication of the enjoyment was so complete that two hours slipped away before I awakened to a realization of my folly, which cost me somewhat over a dollar and a half, and compelled me to postpone my departure for home to the next day.
WE NEGOTIATE A MORTGAGE
Alice and I supposed that as soon as we made that first payment upon the old Schmittheimer place we should take possession of it. We had hastened negotiations because naturally enough we were anxious to share the delights of the Eden which was to be ours. It transpired all too early in the proceedings, however, that the processes of the law are exceedingly exacting and provokingly tedious. With the one thousand dollars which Mr. Black gave us we fancied that we should be able to say to the widow Schmittheimer: "Here is your money; now let us move in."
It seems that the business is not done in that business-like way. As soon as the widow Schmittheimer contracted to part with her property at a stated price and upon stated terms she awoke to a realization of the fact that she ought to have the cooeperation and counsel of a lawyer—although for the life of me I cannot see what there was left for a lawyer to do. With a magnanimity and generosity which bespoke the largeness of his nature, Mr. Denslow volunteered his services as counsellor to the wary widow, and I confess that I should have interposed no objection to having this versatile friend serve in this capacity. But the widow chose to decline the gratuitous services of Mr. Denslow, and to pay fifty dollars for the professional advice of a certain Lawyer Meisterbaum, not a bad fellow, but one of those carping, superficial people who pretend to a conscientiousness and a prudence and a zeal which they actually do not possess.
After repeated meetings and the most annoying delays, Alice plainly told this Lawyer Meisterbaum that he had more than earned his fee by his puerile interferences with a prompt and amicable adjustment of the affair. Alice and Mr. Denslow and I agreed that, if we had been left to ourselves, we could have settled the business with the widow Schmittheimer in half a day. However, I suppose that the lawyers must have a chance to make a living, and I can readily understand how a really conscientious lawyer might have the lingering remnant or suggestion of a desire to impress his client with the suspicion that he was earning his fee.
For fully a fortnight after my return from Cincinnati we were harassed by the delays of the law, or, more exactly speaking, by the exasperating crochets of the lawyer. Meanwhile there came letters of anxious inquiry from our munificent friend Mr. Black, for that estimable person, being aware of my predilection for ancient armor and other curios, found it difficult to disabuse his mind of the suspicion that his one thousand dollars might have been diverted from its original purpose, and misappropriated to what he esteemed the uses of folly. So it was with a feeling of great relief that finally I apprised our generous friend by telegraph that the transaction had been closed.
This end had not been reached, however, until Alice had put her signature and her seal to a curiously-phrased document which served (as I was told) as security to the widow Schmittheimer in case of "default in payment of interest or principal." This instrument is called, as I remember, a deed of trust, which seems to be another and a more polite name for a mortgage.
I protested against Alice's putting her signature to this document, which I still recognize as a covert foe to our happiness and prosperity. But Mr. Denslow assured us that the proceeding was wholly proper and businesslike, and Alice paid no heed to my expostulations. Never before had I had any experience in matters or with instruments of this kind, and I will admit that I have not even now any idea of what the purport of the document in question is, further than a distinct intuition that its involved syntax and complex and cloudy phraseology bode no good.
As soon as the transaction was closed the widow Schmittheimer burst into tears and loudly bewailed having parted with her home. I then learned that for the last ten days she had been almost constantly besieged by old friends of hers—the same who had been wont to consume her coffee and her kuchen and who now regaled her (in compensation, as it were, for her past hospitality) with reproachful assurances that she had been virtually swindled out of her beautiful property. The grief of this lonely and amiable woman touched me to the core, and I sought to assuage her melancholy by telling her that we should expect her to visit us, to which she replied amid tears and seeming gratitude that she would be sure to call every September and March, these being the months (as I afterward learned) in which the semi-annual interest, so called, fell due.
As you may suppose, while Alice and I, under the direction of Mr. Denslow, were worrying ourselves nearly to death over the miserable details of "closing" this transaction, our neighbors and Adah (Alice's sister) busied themselves with planning improvements in and for our new home. It was during this period that Adah met with one of those sorrows which benumb the sensitive feminine heart. In a moment of vandalism ever to be deprecated, little Erasmus discovered and took possession of that copy of "The National Architect" which contained the picture of the plutocratic villa at Narragansett Pier. This precious relic was put by the heedless boy to the base use of serving as a tail to a kite, and during one of the high winds the kite blew away, and there was an end to Adah's most precious possession! Thus perished the link that united Adah to the sweetest dream of her maturer years.
However, this mishap did not wholly abate Adah's interest in our affairs. In answer to Adah's solicitation a long letter had come from Maria, bearing the blissful promise that a carefully made plan of Maria's house of St. Joe (drawn by Maria herself upon a fly leaf excerpted from Maria's favorite volume, "The Life of Mary Lyon") would soon be forwarded for our enlightenment and delectation. Maria felt kindly toward us, and her sympathies had been awakened to their very depths by a tender souvenir Adah had sent her—a leaf plucked from one of the lilac bushes on the old Schmittheimer place. Both Adah and Maria belong to that old-school class of proper feminine folk who never pick but always pluck flowers.
Well, Adah and the neighbors kept as busy as a bee in a bottle planning changes that they deemed necessary in our house. When we got through with that dilly-dallying, shilly-shallying Lawyer Meisterbaum, Alice and I found out that Adah and the neighbors had left little for us to do except to approve their plans and pay for the execution thereof.
There had been a kind of tacit understanding all along that such changes as we made in the Schmittheimer house should be superintended by an architect-carpenter who was cordially recommended by Mrs. Denslow. This important person's name was Silas Plum, and he had a shop in Osgood Avenue, opposite one of our most fashionable and most prosperous cemeteries. Mrs. Denslow always called him Uncle Si, and this circumstance rather prejudiced me in favor of him. The facts, too, that Uncle Si was not overcrowded with business, that he was considerate in his charges, and that he was of so great versatility that he could boss the plumbing as well as the carpentering—these facts confirmed us in the opinion that Uncle Si was just the man for our needs.
I went with Mrs. Denslow to call upon this gifted and honest son of toil. His modest place of business was indicated to the passer-by by this insinuating sign:
SILAS PLUM, CARPENTER & BUILDER. COFFIN BOXES A SPECIALITY.
I am not a superstitious person. I think I have already told you so. Still I have instincts and intuitions; and you, who are not wholly dead to the subtle influences of the more delicate sentiments, will probably sympathize with me when I admit that Mr. Plum's sign did not inspire me with that enthusiasm which is at least comforting to the possessor. The reference to Mr. Plum's "speciality" was what cast a temporary gloom over me, but Mrs. Denslow was not one of those who suffer a detail so insignificant as this to stand in her way; so I was bounced into Uncle Si's shop and presented to Uncle Si in propria persona.
Uncle Si impressed me as being a very trustworthy man. He looked not unlike myself; his gaunt, sinewy frame betokened severe practicability, and his calm blue eyes and large straight mouth combined to give his face an unmistakable and convincing expression of candor. Of speech he was monosyllabic, and this peculiarity pleased me, for I have always admired and always cultivated directness and terseness, there being nothing else more distasteful to me than the prolixity, diffuseness, pleonasm, amplification, redundance, and copia verborum of some people. I told Uncle Si all about the new purchase we had made, and I drew upon a pine board a fairly correct plan of the Schmittheimer house as it now stood. I gave him to understand that numerous and important changes were required, and that I desired to secure from him an estimate as to the cost of those changes.
"I can't tell how much it will be till I know what you want," said Uncle Si.
I recognized the justness of this remark, yet at the same time I felt bitter toward Uncle Si for not knowing without being told. To tell the truth, I didn't know. I had heard Alice and Adah talking in a general way about "closets" and a "new hall," and "hardwood floors" and—and—and things of that kind; I remembered having heard some discussion of a prospective "addition," and—yes—I now recalled that the front porch would have to be rebuilt. Hoping to conceal my utter ignorance, I told Uncle Si that we wanted "lots of changes," but this would not satisfy the exasperating man; he insisted upon particulars, upon "specifications," as he termed them.
Of course I was unable to give them; so was Mrs. Denslow. The only really distinct idea Mrs. Denslow had of the transformation contemplated by Alice was one concerning the front lawn, and involving gravel walks between flower beds and under umbrageous trees; exotics perennially in bloom; Swiss tree boxes, from which the lark carolled by day and the nightingale warbled at night; an artificial lake, in which goldfishes swam and upon whose translucent bosom majestic swans glided gracefully—I assure you that Mrs. Denslow has the soul of a poet!
But these delightful fancies did not interest Uncle Si, because they did not concern him or his trade. So we compromised the matter by appointing an hour that evening for Uncle Si to call and talk it all over with Alice. This was, seemingly, the only way out of the dilemma. All I knew was what I didn't want, or, rather, what we didn't want. Our many and long and earnest conversations with the neighbors had determined numerous important points. We didn't want a roof like the Baylors' roof; nor water-pipes like the Rushes'; nor backstairs like the Tiltmans'; nor plastering like the Denslows'; nor dormer-windows like the Carters'; nor a kitchen sink like the Plunkers'; nor smoky chimneys like the Bollingers'; nor a skimpy little conservatory like the Mayhews'—in fact, there were so many things we didn't want that it seemed to me that if Uncle Si had been moderately ingenious or had given his imagination full rein, he might have guessed what we did want, and so have gone ahead without fear of incurring our displeasure.
It was perhaps better, however, that, before undertaking his task, Uncle Si should require some hint or intimation of what would be expected of him. I am the last man in the world to discourage what is ordinarily regarded and accepted as reasonable precaution against embarrassment and adversity.
I AM BESOUGHT TO BUY THINGS
Alice had her talk with Uncle Si and issued therefrom with the conviction that Uncle Si was a paragon of integrity and carpentering skill. As for Uncle Si, he must have gathered together a pretty fair general idea of what Alice wanted, for he promised to return the next day with plans and details and with an estimate of what the contemplated improvements would cost.
Meanwhile another complication had arisen. The people to whom the widow Schmittheimer had rented the lower part of the house declined to vacate the premises unless we paid them a bonus of fifteen dollars. Alice indignantly protested that we had no fifteen dollars to throw away, and I recognized the truth of this proposition. Still, a visit to the recalcitrant tenants convinced me that they were poor folk and could ill afford to bear the expense of moving. Another circumstance that made me feel rather kindly toward these people was that their name was Mitchell, and, although they made no such claim, it pleased me to fancy that they were of kin to that distinguished family which has contributed so largely to the glory of native astronomical research.
Actuated, therefore, by the most honorable impulses, I gave these people fifteen dollars which I borrowed for that purpose from my most estimable neighbor, Mrs. Tiltman, upon the understanding that I should pay it back when I heard from "The Sidereal Torch," to which publication I had sent a carefully prepared essay on Encke's comet. In this wise a matter which might have caused us much delay and vexation was quickly and amicably disposed of. I did not tell Alice of what I had done, for although Alice is (as I have already assured you) the most amiable of her sex, she cannot brook what she regards as an imposition, and this inclination to resent seeming overbearance in others has not unfrequently put us to expense and involved us in embarrassment.
Another episode which is still fresh in my memory I cannot forbear relating. Alice came to me one day not long ago—it was perhaps three weeks since—and insisted that I should attend to having the correct name of the avenue in which we were to live put upon the lamp-posts at the corners of that avenue. I could not guess what Alice meant until she informed me that, although the name of that thoroughfare had by ordinance of the City Council been changed from Mush Street to Clarendon Avenue, the old name of Mush Street had (by a singular inadvertence) been suffered to remain upon the lamp-posts along that highway.
"The idea!" cried Alice, indignantly. "Do you suppose I would live upon Mush Street? Do you suppose I ever would have bought that house and lot if I had suspected even for a moment that they were not in Clarendon Avenue? Mush Street is just horrid—everybody else thinks so, and I know it! I won't have it Mush Street; it's Clarendon Avenue, and I 'm going to have Clarendon Avenue engraved on my cards! Reuben, you must see at once that the lamp-posts are changed."
I confess that so far as I myself am concerned it matters not whether my abiding place be in Mush Street or in Clarendon Avenue so long as I am comfortably bedded and fed and my family are well provided for. Names are, at best, arbitrary things. Moreover, I was well aware (and you will see for yourself if you consult a map of our city) that that thoroughfare which has been renamed Clarendon Avenue is actually Mush Street, or, at any rate, a continuation of Mush Street. However, I had a regard for that sense of feminine pride which made Alice revolt against Mush Street. I am aware that the conspicuous characteristics of Mush Street for many miles are goats and fortune-tellers and coal yards and rumshops and midwiveries; these glaring features are by no means such as the elite of our society care to affect. Conceding that my indifference to these idiosyncrasies should not be suffered to stand in the way of the natural current of Alice's womanly pride, I promised to do my best toward effecting what Alice required, and I am now engaged upon a memorial to the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen praying that the lamp-posts in Clarendon Avenue be purged of that lettering which suggests the commonplace antecedents of that thoroughfare.
I find that Alice is not alone in her wretchedness. It appears that our friends Lawyer Miles and Mr. Redleigh and their families are at present engaged in the momentous task of getting the name of the street in which they live changed from Cemetery Avenue to Sportland Place. And our other friends two blocks west of us are greatly agitated just now because the name of their aristocratic thoroughfare has, by a whim of the municipal authorities, been changed from Alexander Avenue to Osgood Street. I have mentioned these facts to Alice, but no sense of that sympathy which is said to arise from the companionship of misery seems to reconcile my dear wife to the plebeian association which the mere mention of Mush Street suggests.
The Sunday morning after we had actually bought the Schmittheimer place the city newspapers made a record of the event in their "society column," and added that it was "understood that in their beautiful new home Prof. and Mrs. Baker would entertain lavishly." I was inclined to take exception to this item, which I regarded as a vulgar parade of our private affairs; moreover, the innuendo was wholly untruthful. Alice and I did not intend to "entertain" at all; we could not afford to "entertain." What would Mr. Black say if by chance he were to get hold of a copy of any of those Sunday morning newspapers and read that mendacious paragraph? He would not only lament the one thousand dollars which he had just advanced; worse than that, he would forever shut down on those other acts of similar generosity which, I am free to say, Alice and I counted among the pleasing probabilities of the near future.
I repeat that this untruthful notoriety through the medium of the "society column" displeased me, and I am sure I should have spoken my mind very freely about it if I had not heard Alice reading the item with evident gusto to her sister Adah. My amazement was increased when Alice asked me to secure a dozen extra papers for her, as she wished to send marked copies to certain fashionable society acquaintances and to several other relatives in Maine! I can picture the rural astonishment with which Cousin Jabez Fothergill of Biddeford Pool and the Strattons of North Moosehead will read of our good fortune. I more than half suspect that in a moment of triumphant revenge and in a spirit of cruel malice Alice sent a copy of the paper to Miss Mears at Pocatapaug. Miss Mears is little to me now, but once I called her Hepsival, and even after these many years of separation I would fain undo any act of spite which her successful rival, Alice, might attempt.
The Monday following the publication of this strangely malevolent item was an unusually busy day with me. I seemed suddenly to have become the target of every man who had anything to sell. I was waited upon by fruit-tree venders, lightning-rod agents, fire underwriters, plumbers, gas-fitters, painters, and an innumerable army of persons having horses, cows, pigs, chickens, shade trees, patent hitching posts, smoke-consumers, Pasteur filters, shrubbery, lawn statuary, fancy poultry, garden utensils, and patent paving to dispose of. I really cannot realize how I got rid of them all, for a more affable and persuasive lot of gentlemen I never before had met with. Come to think of it, I have not got rid of them. They continue to cultivate my acquaintance and on account of their attentions (polite but persistent) I have been compelled to lay aside temporarily my investigation into the character of the atmosphere around Aldebaran, a most delicate work upon which I am hoping to rear the superstructure of my fame.
I admit that these attentions rather flatter me; it is possible that after a time—say a year or two—I may weary of the courteous gentleman who is now seeking to sell me a dozen apple-trees, one-third cash, balance in ten years. I may, in the lapse of time, become indifferent to the blandishments of him who daily for the last two months has been trying to convince me that I cannot reach the summum bonum of human happiness until I have invested four dollars in Perkins' patent automatic garden rake and step-ladder combination. The gentleman who has the smoke-consumer, the gentleman who deals in shrubbery, the gentleman who advocates lightning rods, and the other gentlemen who represent the tantamount interests of lawn statuary, fancy poultry, patent paving, etc., etc., etc.—I may, in the flight of years, become insensible to their charms, for there is no change that is not rendered possible by the capricious offices of Time. But at present I can hardly realize how these people can ever be other than they now are—near to me, as I know, and dear to me, as I feel.
I did not suspect, before I became a householder, that the mere possession of property was capable of making a man an object of such unflagging interest to his fellow creatures. I find it very pleasing—the solicitude with which these newly-made acquaintances (the venders, agents, and other polite gentlemen) regard me, and attend upon me, and seek to gain my approval. It is sweet to be beloved.
In the very height of this enjoyment, however, there are considerations which serve to cause me feelings of disquietude. My conscience constantly reproves me for the deception which I am practising upon these people. It occurred to me several weeks ago that I had no right to pose as the proprietor of our new house. The new house and its circumadjacent real estate belong not to me, but to Alice and to her heirs and assigns forever. I have no proprietary rights in that house or upon that expansive lawn; If I am there, it is simply as a piece of furniture, like the stove, or the clock, or the centre-table. I am simply tolerated, perhaps as an object of ornament, perhaps as an object of use. This is a humiliating confession; the thought that it is actually true pains me poignantly.
I never supposed I was a moral coward, but I must be; otherwise I would weeks ago have called an open-air mass-meeting of the apple-tree agents, the fire-underwriters, the patent pavers and the others, and confessed to them that their attentions were misdirected, and that I was not in fact the fortunate being whose lot they sought to better.
A strangely craven consideration withheld me from this manly course. I suspected that as soon as I divulged the truth I would be forsaken by this troupe—this retinue of unctuous courtiers. In my imaginings I beheld myself deserted and alone, while the vast army of my quondam attendants and flatterers tagged after and surrounded and fawned upon Alice, the real purchaser and actual owner of our new place!
I make a candid exposition of these things, not more for the purpose of relieving my conscience of its long pent-up misery than for the purpose of disclosing that which may happily serve as a warning to my fellow-beings. I long ago discovered that one of the compensations of human folly is the example which that folly affords for the discreet guidance of others.
OUR PLANS FOR IMPROVEMENTS
The result of the numerous conferences between Alice and Uncle Si was rather surprising to me. It involved the expenditure of somewhat more than three thousand dollars. However, a letter had been received from our beneficent friend, Mr. Black, in which that estimable gentleman expressed the conviction that we ought not to try to live in a house that did not have the ordinary conveniences of a modern city home, and that we should add whatever improvements we deemed necessary to our comfort; these pleasing expressions of opinion were supplemented by the still more pleasing intimation that Mr. Black would advance us whatever sum was necessary to the provision of the changes and innovations we deemed expedient. It was evident that Mr. Black was most kindly disposed toward us; at the same time our munificent patron took occasion to caution us against extravagance and to impress upon us a sense of the necessity of constant and rigorous economy—"especially and particularly in the direction of those vanities which simply gratify an individual whim, and are of no practical value whatsoever."
Alice read this last sentence aloud to me several times, for it expressed exactly her opinion of my fondness for mediaeval armor. I am making no complaint of the sly satisfaction which Alice seemingly takes in twitting me with my weakness. I expect to have a glorious revenge by and by when we move into our new house, and when Alice discovers how very appropriate and ornamental my mediaeval armor will be, set up against the walls and in the corners of the front hall.
Fortified by the letter from Mr. Black, we had little difficulty in planning the most charming improvements. I make use of the plural personal pronoun, although if I were testifying upon oath I should feel compelled to admit that I myself had precious little to do with the planning. It grieved me considerably to observe that while the neighbors generally, and Mrs. Denslow particularly, were diligently consulted as to every detail of the new house, an expression of my wishes, views, and advice was not only not solicited, but, when volunteered, seemed to be regarded as an impertinence. It occurred to me at such times that prosperity by no means improved Alice's temper, but I should perhaps have taken into consideration the circumstance that this particular period was one of exceptional excitement, and that had the same sense of responsibility which burdened Alice been put upon me, I, too, should have exhibited an irritability wholly foreign to my nature under normal conditions and environments.
It was determined to reconstruct certain parts of the old Schmittheimer residence and to build an addition of two stories, the first-floor room to be devoted to the purposes of a library or living room, and the room in the second story to be Alice's bed-chamber. A vast number of closets were contemplated, for, as you are presumably aware, woman-kind are passionately fond of closets, and happy, thrice happy, is the husband who is accorded the inestimable boon of suspending his Sunday suit from a nail therein. As for myself, I have always regarded the average closet as an ingenious device of the evil one for the propagation and encouragement of moths.
Among other contemplated innovations were a butler's pantry and a conservatory. I approved of the latter, but not of the former. I foresaw in that butler's pantry a pretext, if not a reason, for the purchase of china, crockery, and glassware, to be used only when we had company and to be hidden away at other times until broken by careless servants.
A conservatory had for years been one of my most pleasing desires. Although I know little of them, I am fond of flowers, particularly of those which others care for and which do not breed or abound in creeping things. But the use to which I was ambitious to put my—or our—conservatory was that of an aviary. I love all pet birds, and one of my sweetest day dreams has been that which possessed me of a large glass room or bower well stocked with canaries, linnets, bullfinches, robins, wrens, Java sparrows, love birds, and paroquets. I have often pictured to myself the delight I should experience in entering into this heaven of song and in caressing these feathered pets, in feeding them and in teaching them pretty tricks and games. I recall those pleasant boyhood days when a pet crow, and a flock of pigeons, and two baby hawks afforded me rapture and solicitude combined. Then followed an experience with a matronly hen and her brood of chicks.
I am not ashamed to say that I loved these friends of my youth and that I still reverence their memories. Nor am I ashamed to tell you that for several years after I reached maturity a particular object of my affections was a wee canary bird that sang sweet songs to me and played daintily with my finger whenever I thrust it into the little rascal's cage. Alice insists that I actually cried when that silly little creature died; may be I did, for I am a very, very foolish fellow.
One of the things I have never been able to understand is why Alice, with all her gentleness and tenderness, has so violent an antipathy to bird and brute pets. Alice actually seems to dislike birds and dogs with the same zeal with which I love them. At times—you will hardly believe it—Alice has exhibited Neronian cruelty and hardness of heart. I remember that on one occasion she caught a harmless, innocent little blue mouse in the pantry. She fully intended to drown the helpless creature—as if this world were not big enough for mice and men to live and be happy in! I had great difficulty in rescuing the tiny rodent from his captor, and I remember the satisfaction I had in giving him his liberty under the kitchen porch of neighbor Rush's house next door.
At first Alice was kindly disposed toward the conservatory scheme, but in an unguarded moment one day I chanced to breathe a suggestion that a combination conservatory-bird cage would do very nicely, and that settled the fate of my pleasant dreamings forever.
But I seldom argue these things with Alice. The conservatory is now a shattered dream, and the butler's pantry is inevitable. The graceful alcove, which was to have been the conservatory (with aviary features), is to be provided with a permanent, stationary seat which Adah is to upholster in a pattern which Maria has promised to send from St. Joe. Whenever I think of it there rise up before my mind's eye visions of stolen meetings in that alcove, and whispered interviews, in which I fancy I see our daughter Fanny figuring as an active participant, and then I devoutly pray that little Erasmus' vigilance may be increased a thousand-fold.
I was informed in good time that the library was to be virtually the living-room for the family. It was here that casual callers were to be received and entertained; here the errand boys who delivered packages from the downtown shops were to leave their goods and get their receipts; here the laundryman was to wait every Monday morning while Adah gathered up my hebdomadal bundle of linen for the wash; here were the children to gather for a frolic every evening after the humble vesper meal.
I am wondering whether Alice and Adah and the neighbors will approve of my dearly cherished plan to have one of the tall clocks stationed in one corner, and my very old Suffolk oak table in another corner, and in still another the curious old sofa which Aunt 'Gusty has promised to send me from Darien, Georgia. I am painfully aware that Alice and Adah and the neighbors regard the beautiful furniture in which I delight as "old trumpery."
When we first looked at the Schmittheimer place Alice exclaimed, upon being ushered into one of the rooms: "Now this is just the room for Reuben and his old trumpery!" It is twenty-two feet long and eighteen feet wide, and there are windows to the north, west, and south. Curiously enough, the chimney runs up through the middle of this room, presenting an appearance at once novel and grotesque. Alice assures me that this will prove a unique and charming feature, for she intends to put innumerable shelves around the chimney, and place thereon the interesting and valuable curios, the purchase of which has kept me involved in financial embarrassment for the last twenty years.
Alice has settled it in her own mind just where in my new room each bit of my beloved furniture shall be located—the mahogany chest of drawers, the old secretary, the four-post bedstead, the haircloth trunk, the oak book-case, the corn-husk rocker, the cuckoo clock, the Dutch cabinet—yes, each blessed piece has already had its place assigned to it, even to the old red cricket which Miss Anna Rice sent me from her Connecticut home twelve years ago. I am indeed the most fortunate of men; for who but my Alice could be so sweet and self-abnegatory as to take upon her own dear little shoulders the burden of responsibilities that elsewise would weigh upon her husband?
THE VANDALS BEGIN THEIR WORK
At the regular April meeting of the Lake Shore Society of Antiquarians I met my old and valued friend, Belville Rock, and told him of the important venture which Alice had made. He seemed greatly pleased at the prospect of our having a home of our own, and after making careful inquiries into the extent and character of the improvements we contemplated he bade me tell Alice that he wanted to pay the bill for the painting of the exterior of the house. "I desire to do somewhat toward beautifying your premises," said he, "and I don't know that I can do better than to paint the house. You understand, of course, that my long and intimate acquaintance with you and Alice warrants me in proposing as a friendly act what elsewise might be regarded as an impertinence."
I hastened to assure Mr. Rock that both Alice and I knew him to be utterly incapable of any word or deed that could by any means be misconstrued into an impertinence. We had known this amiable gentleman for the period of twenty years. It was he who proposed me for membership of the Lake Shore Society of Antiquarians, and it was he who provided the means wherewith I published my first book, entitled "A Critical View of the Causes of Eclamptic and Traumatic Idiocy."
This was at the time in my career when I supposed I had good reason to believe that all human mental and physical ills are directly traceable to the influence of the moon, which theory was suggested to me by the discovery that cabbages thrive when planted in the first quarter of the moon and invariably pine when planted in the full of the moon. I am still more or less of a believer in this theory, and it is my purpose to renew my investigations and experiments in this direction, particularly so far as cabbages are involved, for I mean to have a kitchen garden (with Alice's permission) as soon as we move into our new place in Mush Street—pardon me, I mean Clarendon Avenue.
Belville Rock has always exhibited a friendly interest in me and my welfare. He is president of a savings bank and is concerned in numerous mercantile and speculative enterprises. He belongs to many clubs and social organizations, and is president of the Sons of Vermont, the Sons of New York, the Sons of Rhode Island, the Sons of Michigan, and the other Sons who have effected formal organizations in this city. He is treasurer of most of the current enterprises and he is recognized as a leader of distinct influence in the several political parties which control public affairs locally.
Mr. Rock commands the happy faculty of divorcing himself wholly from business during those hours which he has dedicated to sociability. He declines to discuss monetary matters outside his room at the bank. I recall how, upon several occasions when I have approached him upon the delicate subject of negotiating a trifling temporary loan, he has dismissed the matter by reminding me that he had certain days which he set apart for business of this character, and that at other times he devoted himself exclusively to the consideration of other things.
I recall, too, that after persistent inquiry (having, possibly, selfish ends in view), I learned from Cashier Bolton, who is Mr. Rock's marble-hearted alter ego, that Mr. Rock's hours for the consideration of all applications for personal accommodations were from 7.55 to 8 a.m., every other Thursday. This may strike the average person as a unique singularity, but I find it easy to understand how a man so numerously interested in affairs as Mr. Rock is should find it imperative to regulate his business and social conduct with the most methodical and most exacting system.
You can depend upon it that I lost no time in apprising Alice and Adah and our neighbors of Mr. Rock's munificent proposition, and I hardly need assure you that by all Mr. Rock's generosity was warmly applauded. The incident gave rise to a new phase in the sequence of events, for immediately a discussion arose as to the color which we ought to paint our new house, and this discussion continued with increasing vigor for several days. Adah was characteristically earnest in her advocacy of a soft cream yellow, that being the shade adopted by Maria when she repainted her St. Joe domicile—a soft cream yellow, with the blinds in a delicate brown, that was Adah's choice as inspired by her memory of Maria's habitation. The Baylors suggested a poetic grayish tint, which they insisted would look specially pretty through the foliage of the fine old trees in the front yard. The Tiltmans preferred a light brown, and the Rushes a bright yellow. As for Mrs. Denslow, she raised her voice in favor of "white, with green blinds," for, as she wisely argued, it was not possible to find a more appropriate combination for a house that had been a farmhouse and that would retain (even after we had rehabilitated it) the most salient characteristics of a farmhouse.