The Trimming of Goosie
BY JAMES HOPPER Author of "Caybigan," "9009," etc.
NEW YORK MOFFAT, YARD AND COMPANY 1909
COPYRIGHT, 1909, BY CURTIS PUBLISHING COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1909, BY MOFFAT, YARD AND COMPANY
Published, September, 1909
THE QUINN & BODEN CO. PRESS RAHWAY, N.J.
THE TRIMMING OF GOOSIE
"Why, Goosie, what are you doing?"
Goosie, otherwise Mr. Charles-Norton Sims, dropped his arms hastily down his sides and stood very still, caged in the narrow space between porcelain tub and gleaming towel-rack. The mirror before which he had been performing his morning calisthenics faced him uncompromisingly; it showed him that he was blushing. The sight increased his embarrassment. For a moment panic went bounding and rebounding swiftly in painted contagion from Goosie to the mirror, from the mirror to Goosie; the blush, at first faint on Charles-Norton's brow, flamed, spread over his face, down his neck, fell in cascade along his broad shoulders, and then rippled down his satiny skin clear to the barrier of the swimming trunks tight about his waist. It was some time before he mustered the courage to turn his foolish face toward the door through which had sounded the cooing cry of his little wife.
The door was but a few inches a-jar; it let pass only the round little nose of the round little wife, between two wide-open blue-flowers of eyes. "What are you doing, Goosie?" she repeated in a tone slightly amused but rich with a large tolerance; "what are you doing, Goosie, eh?"
"Nothing, Dolly," he answered, his straight, athletic body a bit gawky with embarrassment; "nothing."
Then, as she peered, still doubtful, through the crack: "It's a new exercise I have—a dandy. See?"
And lamely he placed both his hands beneath his armpits and waved his elbows up and down three times.
"Oh," she said, as if satisfied.
But, as a matter of fact, this was not the accurate repetition of what she had seen. He had been standing before the mirror very straight, then, a-tip-toe, his chest bulging; his arms, bent with hands beneath the shoulders, had been beating up and down with a rapidity that made of them a mere white vibration, their tattoo upon his ribs like the beating of a drum; and suddenly, as if to some singular ecstasy, his head had gone back and out of his rounded mouth there had clarioned a clear cock-a-doo-del-doo-oo, much like that of chanticleer heralding the sun.
"It's fine—it's fine for the pectoral muscles," he went on, more firmly.
"Well," she said charitably, "jump into your bath, quick, dear. Breakfast is ready, and you'll be late at the office again if you don't hurry." She closed the door softly upon him.
It was seldom that she intruded thus upon the mystery of his morning hygienics. It was with a clothed Charles-Norton that she had first fallen in love; and like most women (who, being practical, realize that, since it is dressed, after all, that men go through the world, it is dressed that they must be judged) Dolly appreciated her handsome young husband best in his broad-shouldered sack-coat and well-creased trousers.
Charles-Norton, still rather abashed, dropped into the cold green tub, splashed, rubbed down, dressed, and sat down to breakfast. As he ate his waffles, though, out of the blue breakfast set which Dolly's charming, puzzle-browed economy had managed to extort from the recalcitrant family budget, his usual glowing loquacity of after-the-bath was lacking. His eyes wandered furtively about the little encumbered room; thoughts, visibly, rolled within his head which did not find his lips. And when he bade Dolly good-by, on the fifth-story landing, she missed in his kiss the usual warm linger.
When Charles-Norton reached the street, a narrow side-street in which like a glacier the ice of the whole winter was still heaped, a whiff of soft air, perfumed with a suspicion of spring, struck him gently in the face. He drew it in deep within his lungs, and exhaled it in a long sigh. And then he stopped abruptly, and was standing very still, listening; listening to this sigh, to the echo of it still within his consciousness, as if testing it. He shook his head disapprovingly. "Gee," he said; "hope I'm not getting discontented again!"
As if in response, another gentle gust came down the street; he caught it as it came and drew it deep within him. His chest swelled, his eyes brightened. And then suddenly he tensed; he rose a-tip-toe, heels close together, his head went back; his hands stole to his armpits, and his elbows began to wave up and down.
"Good Lord!" he ejaculated, catching himself up sharply; "here goes that darned flapping again!"
He looked up and down the street, assuming a negligent attitude. His forehead was red. "Nope," he said. No one had seen him. "She saw me this morning," he thought, and the red of his forehead came down to his cheeks. "It's getting worse; a regular habit. Let me see—two, three; it began three weeks ago——"
He shook his head perplexedly and resumed his way toward the Elevated station.
"It may have been all right when I was a boy," he said to himself as he swung along. "But now!
"Let me see. I was fourteen, the first time."
A picture rose before his eyes. It had happened in a far western land—a land that now remained in his memory as a pool of gold beneath a turquoise sky. He was lying there in the wild oats, upon his back, and above him in the sky a hawk circled free. He watched it long thus, relaxed in a sort of droning somnolence; then suddenly, to a particularly fine spiral of the bird in the air, something like a convulsion had shot through his body, and he had found himself erect, head back and chest forward, his arms flapping——
"'Twas the day before I ran away with the circus," he soliloquized in the midst of the throng milling up the Elevated station stairs. "And later, when I had come back from the circus, I took that long bum on brake-beams. And when I had come back from that, a little later I went off in the forecastle of the 'Tropic Bird' to Tahiti. And each time that flapping business came first. Every time I've done something wild and foolish, I've flapped first like this. First I'd flap, then I'd feel like doing something, I wouldn't know what, then I'd do it—and it would be something foolish——"
The train slid up to the platform; he boarded it and by some miracle found on the bench behind the door of the last car a narrow space in which he squeezed himself.
"I'll have to stop it," he said decisively.
He drew from his breast pocket a note-book and a pencil. Opening the book out across his knees, he bent over it and began to draw. He worked with concentration, but seemingly with little result, for he drew only detached lines. There were spirals, circles, ovals, parabolas; lines that curved upward, broke, and curved again downward, like gothic arches; lines that curved in gentle languor; lines that breathed like the undulations of a peaceful sea; and then just zipping, swift, straight lines that shot up to the upper end of the paper and seemed to continue invisibly toward an altitudinous nowhere. This is all he drew, and yet as he worked there was in his face the set of stubborn purpose, and in his eyes the glow of aspiration. He tried to make each line beautiful and firm and swift and pure. When he succeeded, he felt within him the bubbling of a sweet contentment. This would be followed by dissatisfaction, renewed yearning—and he would begin again.
"By Jove!" he muttered in sudden consternation, straightening away from the book.
And then, "They began at the same time."
And a moment later, "And they are the same."
It had struck him abruptly that the strange urge which made him draw lines was like that which at times convulsed his body into that mysterious manifestation which, for the want of a better word, he called his "flapping." The two things had begun together, and they were of the same essence. The impulse which possessed him as he tried for beauty with paper and pencil was the same which swelled his lungs and his heart, which made him rise a-tip-toe and wave his arms. It came from a feeling of subtle and inexplicable dissatisfaction; it was made of a vague and vast longing. It was the same which, when a boy, had sent him to the brake-beam, the circus, and the sea; it was to be distrusted.
He slammed the book shut and put it in his pocket. "No more of this," he said.
A certain confidence, though, came gradually into his eyes. "After all, these things do not mean much now," he thought. "I was a boy, then, and unhappy. I am a man, now, and happy."
His mind idled back over the two years since his marriage, over the warm coziness of the last two years. What a wife, this little Dolly! What a little swaddler! She wrapped up everything as in cotton—all the asperities of Life, and the asperities of Charles-Norton himself also. Gone for the two years had been the old uncertainties, the vague tumults, the blind surges. Yes, he was happy.
This word happy, for the second time on his tongue, set him a-dreaming. A picture came floating before his eyes. And curiously enough, it was not of Dolly, nor of the padded little flat——
It was of a boy, a boy in blue overalls and cotton shirt, lying on his back amid the wild oats of a golden land, his eyes to the sky, watching up there the free wide circle of a hawk——
"Soy, Mister, wot the deuce do you think you're doing?" shouted a husky and protesting voice in his ear.
And Charles-Norton came back precipitously to the present. By his side a pale youth was squirming indignantly. Charles-Norton's elbow was in the youth's ribs, and his elbow was still stirring with the last oscillation of the movement that had agitated it. "Soy," cried the youth in disgust; "d'yous think you's a chicken?"
"I beg your pardon," said Charles-Norton, in an agony of humility; "I beg your pardon."
But the youth refused to be mollified. Though he said nothing more, he kept upon Charles-Norton the snarl of his pale face and at regular intervals rubbed his ribs as though they pained him exceedingly. Charles-Norton was glad to reach his station.
That morning, in his glass cage, he muddled his columns several times. He was far from an admirable accountant at his best; but this day he was what he termed "the limit." Totals fled him like birds, with a whir of wings. A sun-gleam hypnotized him once, for he did not know how long; and his nose, a little later, followed for several gymnastic minutes the flutter of a white moth.
At lunch, in Konrad's Bakery, he found himself seated, by a singular chance, next to the very same youth whose ribs he had crushed on the Elevated a few hours before. The young man was in more amiable mood. He grinned. "Don't you flap again and spill me coffee, Mr. Chicken," he said, with delicate persiflage.
"I won't," said Charles-Norton. "I'll buy you another cup if I do."
"Got a dollar?" asked the youth, irrelevantly. His thin, pale nose quivered a bit.
"I don't know," said Charles-Norton, hesitatingly. Dollars were big in his budget. "Why?"
The youth drew from a pocket a yellow cardboard. "Got a lottery ticket I want to sell," he said easily. "Little Texas. Hundred Thousand first prize and lots of other prizes. Got to sell it to pay me lunch. Played the ponies yesterday."
Charles-Norton eyed the ticket doubtfully. Usually, he would not have considered the matter a moment. But somehow the incident of the morning had placed him at a disadvantage toward the pale youth. Vaguely he was moved by a wish to regain by some act the respect of this exacting person. He bought the ticket.
"Maybe this was the foolish act that all this flapping announced," he said to himself, once outside, in answer to a not uncertain prick of his marital conscience. "Buying this ticket is like buying a lightning-rod; it may draw off the lightning!"
But his singular malady, during the afternoon, did not disappear. It waxed, in fact; it passed the borders of the spiritual and assumed physical symptoms. "Dolly," he said, when he was again within the warmth of the little flat in the evening; "Dolly, would you mind looking at my shoulders after a while?"
"Why, of course, I'll look at them, Goosie," answered Dolly, immediately alert at the possibility of doing something for the big man; "what is the matter with your shoulders, Goosie?"
"I don't know," he said, sinking a bit wearily into the Morris chair. "They pain; just like rheumatism or growing pain. And they tickle too, Dolly; they tickle all the time." He crossed his arms, raising a hand to each shoulder, and rubbed them with a shiver of delight. "It's a nuisance," he said.
"Well, we'll see about it right away," said Dolly. "Right after supper." Her eyes grew big with concern. "You may have caught cold. Come on, dear," she said, brightening; "I've the dandiest, deliciousest soup, right out of the Ladies' Home Journal, for you!"
"Why, Goosie; I tell you the lumps are growing. They're great big now, Goosie. Oh, why don't you let me take you to the doctor! I know something is the matter!"
Dolly had tears in her eyes almost, and her voice was very dolorous. For the fourteenth time in two weeks, she was treating the singular shoulders of Charles-Norton. He was sitting beneath the glow of the evening lamp, his coat off, his shirt pulled down to his elbows; and she, standing behind the chair, was leaning solicitously over him. A wisp of her hair caressed his right ear, but somehow did not relax his temper. "Well, let them alone, Dolly," he growled; "let them alone. Good Lord, let them alone!"
For two weeks he had been getting more and more peevish. To be sure, for two weeks, daily, his shoulders had been washed and rubbed and massaged and lotioned and parboiled and anointed and fomented and capsicon-plastered, till his very soul was sensitive and a suspicion was agrowl within him—a bad, mean feeling that Dolly was finding a bit, just a bit, of something akin to pleasure in the ardor of her ministrations. Besides, he was fighting a moral fight of his own. Great bursts of dissatisfaction swept through him every day now; and it was only by a constant vigilance that he kept his vagrant elbows close to his ribs.
"Let them be for a while, Dolly," he repeated in gentler tone. "Besides—besides——"
But he left unsaid the thought following the "besides." "Now, dear," said Dolly, kindly, but with a certain firmness; "you've simply got to let me see what I can do. Why, Goosie, you can't go on in this way! You'd be getting humps on your back! No—no; we'll try a nice little ice-pack to-night."
"I don't want any ice-packs!" yelped Charles-Norton (what a bad-mannered young man he had become!); "I'm tired of fomentations and things! Besides"—and this time the besides did not pause, but burst out of him like a stream from a high-pressure hydrant—"besides, it isn't what I want——" And to an irresistible impulse his right hand reached out for a brush and, crossing over to his left shoulder, began rubbing it vigorously.
"Goosie, Goosie, my clothes-brush, my best clothes-brush!"
But the lament in Dolly's voice had little effect upon Charles-Norton. He was brushing himself with grave concentration. "Get the flesh-brush," he mumbled between set teeth, rubbing the while; "Gee, this feels good. Get the pack to-night."
Dolly ran into the bath-room and returned with the flesh-brush; Charles-Norton made an exchange without losing a stroke. "That's something like it," he murmured.
"But, Goosie," began Dolly. Her voice was low now; she stood withdrawn from him as if a bit afraid; her hands were clasped and her lips trembled. "Goosie, dear; don't do that. Oh, don't; you'll hurt yourself. It's getting all red, Goosie. You're rubbing the skin off, I tell you. Why, it's almost bleeding—Goosie, Goosie, stop it, stop it!"
"Feels lots better," he said unfeelingly. "Look at it." And transferring the brush to his left hand, he began to rub the right shoulder, raising his left for Dolly's inspection.
She approached timidly. "You've rubbed all the poor skin off," she announced. "It's bleeding." He felt the light touch of her fingers. "Why, Goosie—there's something—something. Why, Goosie!"
The last was almost a cry, and the silence that followed had an awe-stricken pulse. "What is it?" he asked, still busily brushing.
"Why, there's something"—again he felt the tender touch of her fingers—"there're a lot of little things—a lot of little things pricking right through the skin!"
"Let me rub it some more," he said, transferring the brush. "Now, look at it," he said, after several more vigorous minutes of his strange treatment.
This time it was a cry to stab the heart. He dropped the brush and looked up at her. She was pale, and her eyes were very big. "Well, what is the matter now," he asked impatiently.
She came near again, still pale, but with lips tight. "A-ouch!" he yelped.
For with a sudden sharp movement, she had plucked something out of his shoulder. A smart came into his eyes; it was as if a lock of hair had been pulled out by the roots. "Look at this, Goosie," she said with forced calmness, and placed something in his hand.
It was very small and very soft. He dropped his eyes upon it as it lay lightly in his palm. "Good lord!" he ejaculated, his bad humor gone suddenly into a genuine concern; "Good Lord!" he said, rising to his feet in consternation; "it's a; it's a——"
"It's a feather," said Dolly, with sepulchral finality; "it's a feather."
It was a feather—a soft, downy, white, baby feather. Charles-Norton looked at it long, as it lay, shivering slightly, there in his palm. He took it up and passed the luster of it slowly through his fingers. Something like a smile gradually came into his face. He raised the feather against the light of the lamp. His eyes brightened.
"Isn't it pretty, Dolly?" he said. "Isn't it pretty? just look at it. So white, and fresh, and new, and glistening. And see the curve, the slender curve of it—oh, Dolly, isn't it pretty and fine?"
But Dolly, collapsed in a chair, broke out a-crying. "Oh, Goosie, Goosie, what are we going to do now?" she wailed; "what are we to do? O—O——"
"Well," said Charles-Norton, the spirit of contradiction which for several days had been within him rising to his lips; "well, I don't see what there is to make so much fuss about. A few feathers are not going to hurt a man, are they? 'Tisn't as if I were insane, or had hydrophobia!"
"But, Goosie, Goosie, no one has feathers on his shoulders! No one ever had feathers on his shoulders! No other man in the world ever did that; none in the world ever had feathers on his shoulders that way! Oh, Goosie, Goosie, what shall we do!!!"
"Let them alone," said Charles-Norton, now quite vexed. "They're mine; they don't hurt you, do they? Let 'em alone!" He raised his arms and began to slip his shirt up again.
The tears ceased to drip from Dolly's eyes. "You can't do that," she said, a maternal firmness coming into her voice. "Why, Goosie, what would they think of you down at the office?"
"At the office? Why, they won't know it!"
"But you'll know it, Goosie. All the time, you'll know it. Goosie, you don't want to be different, do you? You want to be like other men, don't you? You don't want to be different?"
This argument had some effect on Charles-Norton. He stood very still, scratching his head pensively. "Well," he said finally, "maybe you're right. Maybe we had better keep them cut short."
"Oh, Goosie!" cried Dolly, joyously, and bounded from the room. She came running back with the scissors. "Come, quick!" she panted. "I'll cut them, short. 'Twon't be much trouble after all, will it? I'll cut them every day. It will be just like shaving—no more trouble than that!"
And she slid the scissors along Charles-Norton's skin with a cold, decisive little zip. He could see her head, cocked a bit side-ways with concentration, reflected in the glass panes of the side-board as she cut and cut, closer and closer. Her rosy nostrils were distended slightly; upon her tight lip the tip of a small white tooth gleamed. A light shiver passed along Charles-Norton's spine. "Gee, I didn't think she could look like this," he thought.
Following this little disturbance the Sims couple, lowering their heads, side by side, resolutely regained the smooth rut of their placid existence. Everything in this world is easier than is imagined. Much easier. In the case of the Sims' household, it was just a matter of adding each morning, to the daily shave of Charles-Norton, another operation quite as facile.
"Dolly," he would call, as soon as his hot towel had removed from his ruddy cheeks the last bubbles of lather.
And Dolly, her hungry little scissors agleam in her hand, trotted in alacriously. She sat Charles-Norton on the edge of the tub and bent over him her happy, humming head. Zip-zip-zip, went the scissors, zip-zip—and a soft white fluff that looked like the stuffing of a pillow (an A-one pillow; not the kind upon which Charles-Norton and Dolly laid their modest heads) eddied slowly to Charles-Norton's feet while he shivered slightly to the coldness of the steel. (Dolly cut very close.)
Then, "All right; all done," she sang, dropping the scissors into the round pocket of her crackling apron; "now to breakfast, quick! And here's a kiss for the good boy."
Placing her red lips upon his, she whisked off to the kitchenette; and Charles-Norton, emerging all dressed a little later, found the cheerful blue ware on the table, and his waffles upon his plate, hot beneath his napkin. After which, stuffing the morning paper into his pocket, he departed with another kiss on the landing, and strode forth for the L. Life was just as before.
And yet, not quite. Because, to tell the truth, Charles-Norton was not absolutely happy.
He could not have told what was the matter. Mostly, it was an emptiness. An emptiness is hard to analyze. He knew that there was much of which he should be content. With the careful repression of the vagaries of his shoulders, there had come to him a new attentiveness at his work. His nose, now, never wandered after passing butterflies, and his salary had been raised to twenty-two dollars a week. Also, the ridiculous flapping had gone, and the impulse to draw fool lines upon a card.
But with these—and that was the trouble—other things had vanished. That deep filling of his lungs with spring, for instance. And the longing that went with it. That was it—the longing. He longed for the longing—if that is comprehensible. He longed vaguely for a longing that had been his, and which was gone. He never saw, now, a land that was as a golden pool beneath a turquoise dome; nor a boy in the wild oats watching a circling hawk.
And there was something else, something more definite. He felt that Dolly—yes, Dolly took too much pleasure, altogether too much pleasure in that clipping business. Of course, the clipping had to be. He knew that. A respectable man can't have feathers on his shoulders. It was necessary. But somehow he would have felt that necessity more, if Dolly had felt it—less. He would have liked a chance to voice it himself. If Dolly, now, only would, some fine morning, say, "Oh, Goosie, let them be to-day; they are so pretty," then he could have answered, very firmly, "No, clip away!" But she never gave him that chance. She was always so radiantly ready! As he watched her head in the mirror, bent upon the busy scissors with an expression of tight determination, a distinct irritation seized him sometimes.
Charles-Norton, in short, was accumulating, drop by drop, a masculine grouch. A grouch deeper than he realized, till that morning.
That morning Dolly, in the midst of the daily operation, paused with scissors in air, a sudden inspiration upon her brow.
"Oh, Goosie," she exclaimed; "How would it be to cauterize them?"
Charles-Norton gave a jump. "Cauterize!" he cried; "cauterize what?"
"Why, the little feathers. Supposing we burned the place, you know, with nitrate of silver, or something like that. They do it to people who have moles—or when they have been bitten by a mad dog. Maybe—maybe it would stop it—altogether."
Charles-Norton looked up at her. Her cheeks were rosy, her eyes were bright; she was excited and pleased with her ingenious idea. A cold wave rose about Charles-Norton and closed over his head. "Say,'" he bawled ungraciously; "what do you take me for! Think I'm made of asbestos?"
Discreet Dolly immediately dropped the subject; though somehow Charles-Norton had the distinct impression that it was only discreetly that she did so, that, in fact, she was not dropping the idea, but merely tucking it away somewhere within the secret hiding-places of her being, for further use. He could still see it, in fact, graven there upon the whiteness of her voluntary little forehead.
He brooded black over it all day. He brooded on other things, too—insignificant things that had happened in the past, that had not mattered one whit then, but which now, beneath his fostering care, began to grow into big, flapping boog-a-boos. And when he returned that night, he was a very mean Charles-Norton. He spoke hardly a word at dinner, pretended he did not like the vanilla custard over which Dolly had toiled all day, her soul aglow with creative delight, sipped but half of his demi-tasse (as though the coffee were bitter, which it wasn't), and went off to bed early with a good-night so frigid that Dolly's little nose tingled for several minutes afterward.
And the next morning, when Dolly, astonished at the delay, finally peeped into the bath-room, scissors in hand, she found Charles-Norton fully dressed, his coat on.
"Why, Goosie," she said in surprise; "I haven't clipped you yet!"
"No?" he growled enigmatically.
"Take off your coat, dearie," she went on.
"And you're not going to," said Charles-Norton, finishing his statement with complete disregard of hers.
Dolly stood there a moment, looking at him with head slightly cocked to one side. "All right, Goosie," she said cheerily. "Only, don't get mad at poor little me. Come on to breakfast, you big, shaggy bear, you!"
"I don't want any breakfast," growled Charles-Norton between closed teeth (as a matter of fact, he did, and a fragrance of waffles from the kitchen was at the moment profoundly agitating the pit of his being). "I don't want any breakfast—where's my hat—quick, I'm in a hurry—good-by."
And tossing the hat bellicosely upon his head, he pulled to himself the hall door, swaggered through, and let it slam back on his departing heels, right before the astonished nose of his little wife.
She remained there before this rude door, examining its blank surface with a sort of objective curiosity. At the same time she was listening to the sound of steps gradually diminishing down the five flights. She shook her head; "the bad, bad boy!" she said.
She pivoted with a shrug of the shoulders and went back to the kitchen and sat down at the table, all set for breakfast. She took up her fork and cut off a bit of waffle. She placed it in her mouth. Her eyes went off far away.
It took it a long time, this little piece of waffle, to go down. Lordie, what a tough, resilient, flannelly, bit of waffle this was! Suddenly her head went forward. It lit upon the table, in her hands. A cup of the precious blue ware, dislodged, balanced itself a moment on the edge of the table, then, as if giving up hope, let go and crashed to the floor at her feet in many pieces. She gave it no heed. Her head was in her hands, her hands were on the table, her hair lay like a golden delta among plates and saucers; and the table trembled.
Meanwhile Charles-Norton was not having such a good time either. Starting off swaggeringly, he had halted three times on his way to the station, and three times had taken at least two steps back toward the flat which he felt desolate behind him. And now in his glass cage, a weight was at his stomach, a constant weight like an indigestible plum-pudding. At regular intervals, as he bent over his books, he felt his heart descend swiftly to the soles of his feet; he paled at the sight of a telegraph messenger, at the sound of the telephone bell. He had visions of hospitals—of a white cot to which he was brought, a white cot about which grave men stood hopelessly, and on the pillow of which spread a cascade of golden hair. Too imaginative, this Charles-Norton, too imaginative altogether!
He did not know that after a while Dolly had risen, and a bit wearily, with heavy sighs, had washed the dishes; that after this she had put the little flat in order; that during this operation, in spite of her best efforts, she had felt her woe slowly oozing from her; that the provisioning tour in the street and stores gay with gossipy, bargaining young matrons, had almost completed this process; and that a providential peep in a milliner's window, which had suddenly solved for her the harassing problem of the spring hat (she had seen one she liked and with a flash of inspiration had seen how she could make one just like it out of her old straw and some feathers long at the bottom of her trunk) had sent her bounding back up her five flights of stairs with a song purring in her heart.
So that when, returning in the evening, Charles-Norton opened the door with bated breath, to find Dolly humming happily in the kitchen, he was struck by something like disappointment. "She's shallow," he thought; "doesn't feel." He did not mean by this, of course, that he wished she had in despair done something catastrophic. He meant merely—well, he did not know what he meant. He was disillusioned, that was all. This was but a prosy world after all. Few Heroics here!
And immediately a warning knocked at his consciousness. He must be careful if he were to hold what advantage he had gained in the day. He turned from the kitchen threshold and silently slunk back into the room which was both dining and sitting-room, and isolated himself behind the spread pages of the evening paper. He was curt and cold the entire evening. And in the morning he again left with calculated violence—breakfastless and unsheared.
This time, Dolly did not weep. She sat long on the edge of her bed, thinking silently; then a silver rocket of sound broke the sepulchral quiet of the flat. Dolly had had a vision of what must inevitably happen; and Dolly was laughing.
It took just ten days to happen—ten days which were rather disagreeable, of course, but which Dolly, sure of the trumps in her little hands, bore with jolly fortitude. All that time, Charles-Norton glowered constantly. He was monosyllabic and ostentatiously unhappy. This more than was necessary, and very deliberate. It had to be deliberate; for, as a matter of fact, on the outside Charles was not having at all a bad time.
The exaltation of the ante-clipping days had returned—returned heightened, and was still growing day by day. A constant joyous babbling, as of some inexhaustible spring, lay at the bottom of his soul. His senses were singularly acute. He thrilled to a leaf, to a bud, to a patch of blue sky; and the thrill remained long, a profound satisfaction within him, after the stimulant had gone. With the resolution of a roue plunging back into his vice after an enforced vacation, he had brought a large sketch book; and he passed much time drawing lines into it—rapid beauty streaks that gave him a sensation of birds. He saw often, now, a land which was as a pool of gold beneath a turquoise sky; and a boy in the wild oats watching a circling hawk. At such times his lungs filled deep with the spring, and his arms were apt to beat at his sides in rapid tattoo. This, in fact made up solely his morning exercises now. Standing with legs close together, a-tip-toe, head back and chest forward, placing his hands beneath his shoulders he waved his arms up and down in a beat that rose in fervid crescendo, till his eyes closed and there went through him a soaring ecstasy that threatened at times to lift him from the floor.
All this, of course, was not without its disadvantage. Vaguely he felt that in some subtle way he was gaining the disapproval of his fellows. Men were apt to look at him askance, half doubtful, half-indignant. They tread on his toes in the Elevated. His work, too, was going to pot; he could not stick to his figures. His chief, an old fragile-necked book-keeper, had spoken to him once.
"Mr. Sims," he had said, after a preliminary little cough; "Mr. Sims, you ought to take care of your health. You are not well."
"Oh, yes I am," answered Charles-Norton, absent-mindedly. His eyes were on the ceiling, where a fly was buzzing. "I'm all right!"
"You should—er—you should consult—a specialist, Mr. Sims. Don't you know—your shoulders, your back—you should consult a spine-specialist, Mr. Sims."
"Oh, that's all right," said Charles-Norton, easily. "Don't worry." And thus he had sent back the old gentleman baffled to his high stool.
And then came Dolly's day.
"Dolly! Dolly! Dolly!"
It was morning, before breakfast. Charles-Norton was in the bedroom; Dolly was setting the table in the living-room. She paused, and stood very still, while a little knowing smile parted her lips.
"Dolly! Dolly! Dolly!" Again came the call, unmistakable, music to Dolly's ear. She tip-toed to the door. From within sounded a threshing noise, as of a whale caught in shallows. "Yes. What is it?" she called back melodiously, mastering her desire to rush in.
"Come here, Dolly," said the male voice. "Come here."
"I'm coming," said Dolly, and went in with a slightly bored expression.
"Help me, Dolly," said the perspiring and be-ruffled gentleman within. "I can't—can't—get my coat on."
"Why, Goosie; of course I'll help you."
But the help, although almost sincere, was powerless. The coat would not go on. The sleeves rose to the elbows smoothly, half way to the shoulders with more effort—but here they stuck, refusing to slide over the top of the shoulders. On each side of the spine, almost cracking the shirt, a protuberance bulged which the coat could not leap.
He stood there puffing, his hair mussed up, his eyes wrathful. "Well," he growled at length; "why don't you go get your scissors."
"Shall I?" she said doubtfully—and at the same time bounced out like a little rabbit. "Take off your shirt, Goosie," she said, returning with the gleaming instruments, now symbolical of her superior common-sense.
She aided him. She took off his collar and tie, unfastened the buttons, and then she was tugging at the shirt. It slid down, uncovering the shoulders. There was a dry, crackling sound, as of a fan stretched open—and Dolly sat down on the floor. "Oh-oh-oh," she cried, "Go-oo-oo-ssie-ie!"
He stood there, looking out of the corner of his eye at his reflection in the mirror, red-faced and very much abashed. For with the slipping of the shirt, on his shoulders there had sprung, with the movement of a released jack-in-the-box, two vibrant white things.
Two gleaming, lustrous, white things that were——
"They're wings," said Dolly, still on the floor. "They are wings," she repeated, in the tone of one saying, He is dead. "Now, Goosie, you have done it!"
But a change had come in Charles-Norton. The blush had left his brow, the foolish expression his face; he was pivoting before the mirror like a woman with a new bonnet.
"I like them," he said.
And then, "Just look at them, Dolly. Just look at the curve of them. Isn't it a beautiful curve! And the whiteness of them, Dolly—like a baby's soul. And how downy—soft like you, Dolly. Look at them gleam. And they move, Dolly, they move! Dolly, oh, look!"
The wings were gently breathing; their slender tips struck his waist at each oscillation. The movement quickened, became a beat, a rapid palpitation. A soft whirring sound filled the room; the newspaper on the bed, dislodged, eddied to the floor; the wings were a mere white blur. Suddenly Charles-Norton's feet left the floor, and he rose slowly into the air. "Look, look, Dolly," he cried, as he went up, hovering above her up-tilted nose and her wide eyes, as she sat there, paralyzed, upon the ground; "Dolly, look!"
The humming sound took a higher note; a picture crashed down; the room was a small cyclone. "Dolly, watch me; look!"
And with a sudden leap, Charles-Norton slanted up toward the ceiling and lit, seated, on the edge of the shelf that went along the four walls. "Look," he said with triumph, balancing smilingly on his perch.
But immediately his expression changed to one of concern, and he sprang down quickly and quietly. Dolly was now stretched full-length along the carpet; her face was in her arms. He turned it to the light. Her eyes were closed.
Dolly had fainted.
A husband who has a wife that faints is in the grasp of the great It.
Full of fear, pity, remorse, and self-hatred, Charles-Norton danced about helplessly for several minutes, sprinkling water upon Dolly's brow (much of it went down her neck); trying to pour bad whiskey between her pearly teeth; calling himself names; chafing her hands, promising to be good, to do always what she wanted; loosening her garments; proclaiming the fact that he was a brute, she an angel—while the wings, loose down his back, flapped after him in long, mournful gestures. And when finally, from the couch upon which he had drawn her, Dolly opened upon him her blue eyes, humid as twin stars at dawn, he placed her little scissors in her hand, and with head bowed low, in an ecstatic agony of self-renunciation bade her do her duty. The little scissors could not do it this time, though. It took the shears.
After which there were a mingling of tears, murmurings, embraces, and Dolly said that the bad, bad times were all over now, and he agreed that they could never come again; and she said they would be happy ever afterward, and he agreed they should be happy always. Then Dolly, still a bit languid, in a voice still a bit doleful, drove him off to the office.
Where he arrived very late, and had to pass the gauntlet of his chiefs frigid ignoring of the dereliction.
When Charles-Norton had gone, Dolly suddenly sat up with a click of small heels upon the floor. She remained thus some time, a frown between her eyes. She was not triumphant, she was worried. She seemed to recognize danger; her transparent nostrils dilated to the smell of powder; and plainly, you could see her steel her being. After a while she nodded to herself, curtly and very decidedly, and went on about her work.
She met Charles-Norton at the door when he returned in the evening. He was somewhat limp after a day of mea culpas! and she, a quarter of an hour before the time for his reappearance, had powdered her nose—which, she knew, gave her an expression half amusing, half piteous, just like that of the clown who is playing his tricks at the circus while his little daughter is dying at home. "Hello, Goosie," she said breathlessly (also she had rubbed a trace of rouge under her eyes); "hello, just in time for dinner! Made a fine chocolate cake. Poor dear, you look so tired!"
And after supper, which in spite of Dolly's very ostensible effort at exuberance, was rather silent, for Charles-Norton, with a man's detestation of "scenes," still felt somewhat embarrassed at the happenings of the morning, she drew up the Morris chair to the lamp, sat Charles-Norton in it, and filled his pipe for him. When thus "fixed up comfy," he felt a soft breath upon his neck, and two little hands at his neck-tie. Off came tie and collar, and then the coat, and then the shirt, and then—zip-zip.
"Say, Dolly," he remonstrated mildly; "couldn't you wait till morning?"
"There," she said; "it's almost all done. Just a wee bit more here. There! Now here is a kiss! It didn't hurt, Goosie, did it?"
And Charles-Norton had to concede that it did not hurt. How could he have explained the subtle feeling within him, that sort of swooping descent of his inwards that came with, and the dullness of all things which followed always his shearings?
"No, it didn't hurt," he repeated. But a vague dissatisfaction like a yeast stirred within him, and a flicker,—beaten down immediately, it is true, trampled, smothered,—of revolt.
Calmly, coolly, efficiently, though, Dolly had taken the upper hand. The next morning she sent him sheared to the office; she sent him sheared the same night to bed.
And thus day after day for many days. Every morning Charles-Norton went out to his work full of emptiness (if that phrase is permissible), empty of heart, empty of mind, without a desire, without an anger. The warm June days had come; he had changed his underwear. He felt the season only as a discomfort. The emerald explosions visible at the end of each street as the L train passed along Central Park did not stir him; the tepid airs drifting lazily from the sea, the fragrant whiffs from the depths of the germinating land, passed over him as though he were made of asbestos. An insulation was about him, removing him from all things that thrill, all things that distend; there was no color, no vibration in the world; iridescences had ceased; the chamber of his soul had been painted a dull drab.
He had regained, though, the esteem of his fellows. The subtle and unerring instinct which had made them suspicious in the days of his—misfortune, now in the same inexplicable way told them that he was normal again. They looked at him no longer askance. In fact, they did not look at him at all. They accepted him without question in crush of street and L; gave him his rightful space (nine and a half inches in diameter); trod on his feet only when forced to (by the impulse to obtain a more comfortable position); poked their elbows into his stomach only when necessary (that is, when they had to get out or in ahead of him); and on the whole surrounded him with that indifference which at the bottom is a sort of regard, which means that one conforms, that one's derby, sack-suits, socks and shoes, habits, ideas, morals and religion are just exactly like the derbies, sack-suits, socks and shoes, habits, ideas, morals and religion of everyone else, and hence right. At the office he had regained the appreciation of his chiefs; his salary had been raised to twenty-two dollars and a half a week and his working hours from eight to nine hours. His home life was the standard ideal one. That is, he got up at the same time every morning, left punctually at the same hour, took the L, arrived at the office on the minute, worked with his nose close to the ruled pages, steadily, without a distraction, till 12.30, had his macaroon tart and cup of coffee at Konrad's Bakery, smoked his five-cent cigar in the nearby square till 1.30, worked again till 5.30, returned home on the L, pressed tight like a lamb on the way to the packing-house, had a cozy little dinner upon which Dolly had spent all her ingenuity, smoked his pipe in the Morris chair, and then read the paper till the sudden contact of his chin with his chest and Dolly's amused warning sent him off to bed. A very moral, regular, exemplary existence. Dolly was very happy.
And then, just as this couple could see the track clear ahead, stretching smooth and nickel-plated to infinity, an ugly complication began to worm itself into the serenity of their lives.
This complication arose from the fact that the suppressed wings of Charles-Norton began to grow faster. Each day, now, Charles-Norton, returning home, brought with him to Dolly a task more serious and considerable. She had long ago discarded the little scissors and used special shears made to cut heavy cardboard; and she finished off with a safety razor.
The result of this increase in the rate of winged growth was that, whereas Charles-Norton every morning left home placid and docile, his character gradually changed during the day. Starting at his work in the spirit of a blind horse at the mill, by ten o'clock he was apt to find himself, pen-holder in mouth, nose up in the air, following the evolutions of a buzzing flylet. By eleven o'clock, the cage had become very stuffy; spasmodic intakes swelled his chest, ghost longings stirred within him. When he got out at 12.30 the sun seemed to pour right through his skin, into the drab chamber of his soul, gilding it. He hurried over his macaroon tart and cup of coffee, and then had three-quarters of an hour left to idle in the square.
He prepared for this gravely, as for a ceremony; first by buying a Pippin. A slender, light-brown Pippin, scientifically sprinkled with golden freckles, for five cents. (A daily Pippin was a recognized item of the family budget; at one time Charles Norton had carried his pipe with him, but Dolly, noticing the doubtful fragrance given by said pipe to the clothes of Charles-Norton, had insisted upon the extravagance of the daily Pippin). Having bought the Pippin, Charles-Norton did not light it right away. Oh, no. He ambled first to the square. He selected his bench carefully—one upon which the sun shone, but shone with a light filtered by the leaves of a low-branching elm. He sat down; he stretched his legs straight before him. Then slowly, with deliberation of movement, he scratched a match. He brought the spluttering end near his nose. The Pippin began to send forth effluvia, an exquisite vapor, faintly-blue. Charles-Norton half closed his eyes; his soul began to purr.
Before him a fountain plashed; about the fountain were red blossoms; the elms rustled gently against the blue sky; through the delicate lace of their leaves the sun eddied down like a very light pollen; and all this, through the Pippin's exquisite atmosphere, was enveloped and smoothed and glazed into a picture—a slightly hazy dream-picture. Charles-Norton stretched his legs still more; his shoulders rose along the sides of his head. He was as at the bottom of the sea—a warm and quiet summer sea. Down through its golden-dusty waters, a streak of sun, polished like a rapier, diagonaled, striking him on the breast; and to its vivifying burn he felt within him his heart expand, as though it would bloom, like the red flowers about the fountain.
Upon the other benches sprawled some of the city's derelicts. The sun was upon them also; they stirred uneasily to its caress, with sighs and groans, their warped bodies, petrified with the winter's long cold, distending slowly in pain. Pale children in their buggies slept with mouths open, gasping like little fish; some played upon the asphalt.
Charles-Norton, by this time, was apt to be far away; far in another land. He lay upon his back and watched a hawk on high.
The sparrows usually brought him back. They played about his feet; they chirped, hopped, and tattled; they peered side-ways at him and gave him jerky nods of greeting. At times one of them, to a sudden inspiration, sprang into the air; with a whir he flashed up to the top of a tree. To the movement, something within Charles-Norton leaped to his throat.
Across the park, gaunt behind the trees, rose the tall steel frame of a new building; and away up at the top of it (which was higher every day) a workingman, on a girder, ate his lunch. Charles-Norton liked this man; a current of comradeship always ran from him to the little figure silhouetted up against the blue. He should have liked to eat his lunch up there, side by side with this man, his legs swinging next to his, with the void beneath. And then, he thought, after lunching, he would like to stand erect, away up there, at the tip edge of one of the projecting beams; to stand there a bit, and then spring off; spring off lightly, and whiz down; down, down, down with outspread arms.
Which was a very foolish thought for a man that worked in a cage to dream. Very foolish, even if the cage were of glass. Just about that time the Pippin went out in a black smolder, and from a nearby church, hidden between great sky-scrapers, a big ding-dong bell said resonantly that it was half-past one.
He returned to the office. Every afternoon, now, was a tingling trial. He worked with head down, sweating with repression. An obsession tormented him. He wanted to walk out of his glass cage. Out, not through the door, but through the glass. Not gently, like Alice going into Wonderland, but with ostentation and violence, with a heralding crash of shattered panes, scandalously. Out of his cage, into the next; out of that, into the next; from one end of the big room, in fact, to the other, crashingly, through cage after cage—and then out upon the street through the plate front. Half-past five finally freed him; and taking his place in a packed herring-box on wheels, he was rolled back to Dolly—and the shearing.
Thus for a while did the young people live securely on a clown's tissue-paper hoop. Then one evening, just as Charles-Norton, after successfully resisting all day his anarchistic glass-smashing impulse, was watching the hands of the clock approach the minute that was to free him, his chief, raising his bald head at the end of his long, thin neck, said casually, "We work all night, to-night, you know, Mr. Sims."
"We work all night to-night, Mr. Sims." It is always with just such a sentence, quiet, drab, and seemingly insignificant, that Mr. Catastrophe introduces himself.
"Yes?" said Charles-Norton, adjusting his neck-tie and looking at the calendar.
He was not surprised, for this happened twice a year. Twice a year, on a day in December and a day in June, a part of the force worked all night to prepare a statistical table for the benefit of the stockholders.
He telephoned to Dolly. Her voice came to him over the wire in a scared little squeak. "Oh, Goosie," she pleaded; "come up before starting in again. I'll let you go off right away. But please come up, please do!"
"Can't," shouted Charles-Norton. "We're allowed only an hour for dinner, and it would take more than that just to go up and back."
"They won't care if you are a little late," suggested Dolly.
"No, can't come up," said Charles-Norton, astonished at his own firmness (it is much easier to be firm over a telephone, anyway). "There's too much to do. I'll be up in the morning, maybe."
"Nope. Can't. Good-by, dearie," said Charles-Norton, and hung up the receiver, and with a bad conscience and a soaring heart, went off to dinner. No shearing to-night—gee! He ordered a dinner which made the red-headed waitress gasp. "Must have got a raise, eh?" she diagnosed.
"No, not a raise, not a raise," hummed Charles-Norton; "skip now; I'm hungry."
The night was a long and toilsome one, but an inexhaustible bubble was at the pit of Charles-Norton's being; gradually through the night he felt, beneath his coat, his shoulders deliciously swelling. And when in the morning he stepped out upon the sidewalk, a cry left his lips.
It had showered during the night, and to the rising sun the whole city was glowing as with a golden dew. The air was fresh; Charles-Norton gulped it down. He felt as though a broad river were streaming through him—a clear, cool river. Suddenly, his heels snapped together, his head went back; his hands rose to his armpits and his arms began to vibrate up and down. A policeman came running across the street. "Say, wot de 'ell are you doing?" he bellowed, red-faced and outraged.
"I'm going to breakfast," answered Charles-Norton, cockily.
He went into the bakery, his hat a-tilt, with the air of a conqueror. For he had decided not to go up to the flat, but to breakfast right here and to spend an hour in the square before going back to the glass cage at nine. His chest pouted; his eyes glistened; wine ran in his veins. He ordered ham-and-eggs and hot-cakes. An orgy!
He was eating fast, in a hurry for the Pippin and the loll on the bench, when he felt someone sit down by him. There was a pause; then, "hello, chicken!" piped a thin voice in his ear.
"Hello, Pinny," answered Charles-Norton, even before looking. He had recognized the voice of the pale youth whom he had elbowed on the L a few weeks before, and whom later he had placated here in the bakery.
"S'pose you're a millionaire by this time, chicken," said the youth, jocularly.
"Sure, Pinny," answered Charles-Norton.
"But really, honest, did yuh win anything?" went on Pinny, more seriously.
"Win?" Suddenly Charles-Norton remembered the lottery ticket that he had bought. He had forgotten it completely. "The drawings was three days ago," Pinny was saying; "got 'em here," and out of his pocket he drew a soiled newspaper clipping.
Charles-Norton also was searching his pockets with much contortion; and it was some time before his hand flashed out triumphantly with a piece of dog-eared, yellow cardboard. "Wot's your number?" asked Pinny.
"Nineteen thousand, eight hundred and ninety-seven," Charles-Norton read.
Pinny was perusing the clipping in his hand. "Wot did you say," he piped suddenly; "wot's the number?"
"Nineteen thousand, eight hundred and ninety-seven," repeated Charles-Norton.
The pale youth seemed to collapse. His chin went forward on his green tie, his back slid down the back of his chair, his hands dropped limp upon the table. "Well, I'll be eternally dod-gum-good-blasted," he said weakly.
"You've done it," he continued, solemnly; "you've gone and done it." He looked at his clipping again. "Lemme see your ticket," he said. He placed the ticket and the clipping side by side; his stubby, black-fringed finger slid from one to the other.
"You've done it, partner," he repeated, with the same funereal intoning. "Nineteen thousand, eight hundred and ninety-seven! And I've held that ticket in my hands, right in these hands! Eight hundred dollars.—Nineteen thousand, eight hundred and ninety-seven wins eight hundred dollars"—his tongue lingered, as if it tasted it, upon each opulent number—"Eight hundred dollars; that's what you win. And all owing to me, too."
Charles-Norton had forgotten his ham-and-eggs. He took the ticket and the clipping from Pinny's nerveless fingers and compared them. 19897! That was right. He had won eight hundred dollars. "Where do you cash in?" he exclaimed with a sudden ferocity.
"I'll take you to it," murmured Pinny, still in a daze. "Gee—and I had that ticket in this here pair of hands. I'll take yuh to it. It's down town. No trouble getting the money. You'll treat on it, eh? You'll treat, won't yuh?"
His sharp face was almost beneath Charles-Norton's chin; his pale eyes rolled upward wistfully. A sudden gust of pity went through Charles-Norton. "Surely," he said. "Better than that; we'll share." He paused, coughed. A wave of prudence was modifying his impulse—the prudence that inevitably comes with wealth. "I'll give you—I'll give you twenty-five dollars!" he announced.
"Come on!" said Pinny; "come on—we're losing time, eating in this joint. Say, you'll have all you want to eat now, won't yuh—oysters and wine and grape-fruit and everything. And girls, eh? Autos and wine and girls—Gee!" And his eyes remained fixed on the vision of splendor, of the splendor of Charles-Norton, missed so narrowly by himself.
Together they went down to the offices of the Little Texas, where after having been warmly congratulated by an oily man with a diamond stud, and after signing seven feet of documents and testimonials, Charles-Norton was given a long yellow check, which was forthwith photographed, as was also Charles-Norton. Then the fat, oily man, the clerk who had prepared the documents, Pinny, and Charles-Norton went downstairs and, standing up against a polished walnut counter, drank to the long life of the Little Texas and to the success of Charles-Norton. After which the courteous oily man introduced Charles-Norton to the cashier of a bank, where Charles-Norton deposited his check, receiving in return a little yellow deposit-book, and a long green check-book.
With Pinny, Charles-Norton rode back toward the office. They stopped at the square, and stood a while watching the fountain, each a bit uncertain. Finally Pinny put out his hand. "Well, so long, old man," he said; "so long."
"So long," said Charles-Norton, indecisively.
But Pinny still stood there, abashed and uncertain. "You was going to—but you've changed yer mind, I suppose; I suppose you've changed yer mind—You was going to——" His eyes were on the ground; he shuffled one foot gently. "You was going to——"
"Oh, of course!" cried Charles-Norton. "I was going to give you a share of the swag—of course, of course, of course!"
They sat on a bench. Charles-Norton took out of his pocket the long check-book and opened it out, with a little crackling sound, on its first clean page. He took out his fountain pen. "No. 1," he wrote down with great decision. He paused, looking about him for a moment, in enjoyment of this new occupation. "June 19," he wrote on, slowly, languorously. "Pay to the order of," the page said next. "Of Frank Theodore Pinny," wrote Charles-Norton. "Dollars," the check said next, at the end of a blank line. Charles-Norton paused, pen poised above paper.
"Twenty-five," he thought. That is what he had promised. "T-w-e-n-t-y," he wrote. The pen stopped again, hovering hesitatingly above the paper. "Twenty-five is a whole lot," he thought. "Just for selling a ticket. Just for selling a piece of cardboard!" And eight hundred dollars was not so much, either. An hour before, eight hundred dollars had seemed an immense sum. Now it seemed a modest amount, a very modest amount. And twenty-five, twenty-five to give away—that seemed quite big. "Pay to the order of Frank Theodore Pinny," he re-read, "twenty——"
The pen made a sudden descent. "And no-hundredths," it wrote swiftly.
Charles-Norton signed the check, tore it from the book, folded it, and presented it to Pinny, a bit patronizingly. Pinny stuck it into a side pocket without looking at it. He was standing on one leg and seemed in a hurry to get away. Charles-Norton, suddenly, had the same feeling. The sense of comradeship which had been with them for the last hour had abruptly flown with this passing of money. Each man was embarrassed, as before a stranger. "So long," said Pinny; "so long," said Charles-Norton. Pinny, with averted head, turned and walked away.
Charles-Norton pivoted on his heel, and started for the office, worried suddenly by the thought that he was late. He took three long steps, collided with a sodden old gentleman who was just arising from a bench—and then was standing very still, looking about him as in a daze, unconscious of the mutter of apology which, together with an odor of stale beer, was fermenting beneath his nose. The old gentleman, pursuing a ray of sun, slipped on to a farther bench. But Charles-Norton still stood there, gazing about him in a sort of mild astonishment, as if, while he was not looking, the scene about him had been transformed like so much cardboard scenery.
To the shock of the collision, as to the stroke of a finger upon a chemical beaker the reluctant crystallization abruptly takes place, there had come to Charles-Norton the realization that he did not have to go to the office.
He did not have to go to the office! Here, against his heart, represented by three black figures within a little yellow book, was eight hundred dollars, practically eight months' salary, the assurance of eight months almost of independence, of freedom!
You will think, perhaps, that Charles-Norton was seized by an ardent desire immediately to run to Dolly, spring up the five flights of stairs, push open the door, catch her by the waist and, seating her on his knees, to pantingly tell her of the wondrous news? You are mistaken.
For with the vision of Dolly, the thought that irresistibly came to Charles-Norton was——
That he didn't have to go to Dolly.
He didn't have to go to Dolly and be clipped. He didn't have to go to the glass cage, and he didn't have to go to Dolly. The scissors of Dolly.
Charles-Norton, very pale, his long, strong legs trembling beneath him, sank upon the nearest bench, and tried to catch hold of the world again, of the reality of the world. His hands, unconsciously expressing his mental attitude, held the bench's rim tight with white knuckles.
Eight hundred dollars was not so much. Besides, it was only seven hundred and eighty now. And Dolly was a good little wife. A good, faithful, loving little wife. In a few months the money would all be gone if he stopped working. If he went back to the office and worked, the eight hundred (minus twenty) could be kept in the savings bank as a precious resource against ill-luck. And some of it could be used to buy things—furs for Dolly, for instance, brave little Dolly. Her household allowance could be increased a bit—brave, cheerful, careful, economical, busy, loving little Dolly!
In the silence of his cogitation, Charles-Norton suddenly heard with great distinctness a furtive creaking within the shoulders of his coat.
"Dear Little Dolly!" he exclaimed ostentatiously, making a brave effort to keep his eyes upon his beacon.
But right from between his feet a sparrow, like a firecracker exploding, sprang and went whirring up in the sky. Charles-Norton followed it with his eyes as it went winging, winging up in a series of lines, each of which ended in a droop, toward the high sky-scraper. And when his eyes reached, with the bird, the top of the building, they lit upon a cloud, a great white galleon of a cloud which, with all sails set, flanks opulently agleam with the swell of impalpable freights, went sliding by with streaming pennons, toward the West.
And Charles-Norton felt as though he were going to die. A great, sad yearning seemed to split his breast. He rose to his feet, his eyes upon the cloud. A turbulence now churned within him; his shoulders palpitated within their cloth prison (you see, they had not been sheared for a full twenty-four hours); a wave of madness, of daring, of revolt, rose into the head of Charles-Norton. "No, no, no," he growled. "No more, no more, I can't, I can't, no more, no, no!"
The last no was as a trumpet note—a defiant negative hurled at the Force of the Universe. And Charles-Norton began to race around the fountain, striking with his right fist his left hand, muttering unintelligible and tremendous protests. You see, his wings had grown altogether too long. He could feel their ligatures reaching like roots to his soul. When, at the end of the third lap, he came to his bench again, his mind was made up. Only details remained to be determined.
And when he rose for the last time from the bench, these were fixed. His appearance was one of great calmness tense above a suppressed ebullition. Before him his programme stretched like a broad, clear road. He followed it.
Firstly he went to the bank and drew out three hundred dollars in cash.
With the roll in his breast-pocket, he walked up Broadway till he came to a Cook's Tourist agency; entering, after a short discussion aided by the perusal of a map, he exchanged part of his roll for a long, green, accordeon-pleated ticket.
Then he went out and bought himself a tawny, creaky suit-case, and then, successively, going from store to store:
A safety razor.
A little can of tooth-powder.
A shaving brush and a cake of soap.
A pair of much abbreviated swimming trunks.
All of which he placed in his new suit-case.
Then after a moment of frowning consideration, he purchased two thick woolen double-blankets which he rolled up and strapped.
After which he boldly strode into the Waldorf-Astoria.
Such affluence, by this time, did his person emanate that four brass-buttoned boys simultaneously sprang to their feet and came running up to him. He waved them aside with a commanding gesture and went into the writing-room.
He opened his check-book. "3," he wrote firmly in the right hand corner. "Pay to the order of," he read; "Dolly Margaret Sims," he wrote, "Four hundred and eighty and no-hundredths dollars."
He signed the check, tore it off, and let the now looted check-book drop negligently to the floor. He placed the folded check in an envelope, wrote a little letter and placed it by the check, sealed the envelope, and wrote upon it,
MRS. CHARLES NORTON SIMS 267 West 129th St. New York
and rang for a messenger boy, to whom he gave the letter.
Then calling for a taxi-cab, he whizzed away to the Grand Central station.
Ten minutes later, amid a ding-donging of bells and a roaring of steam, a big, luxurious train began to strain at its couplings on its way overland. As it slid slowly out beneath the resonant cupola, Charles-Norton emerged from the rear door and stepped out upon the observation platform.
And there, upon this wide, large platform, which was much like a miniature stage, Charles-Norton appeared for a moment in undignified pantomime. Leaning over the shining rail, chin thrust out, he shook both fists at the receding city, and spit into its face.
Charles-Norton's letter came to Dolly in the evening, after a day full of worry. It read:
"DEAR DOLLY:—Enclosed is $480. It's for you. I'm going away. I simply can't stand it, that's all. I think I still love you, Dolly, but I can't stand the life. I can't, that's all. I must have, I must have—well, I can't stand that clipping business any longer.
"Please don't grieve. Some day you'll meet a man who is real fond of you and who will make you happy—one that hasn't any wings. There are lots of them.
"Yours always (in thought), "CHARLES-NORTON."
"P.S.—Please don't feel too bad about this.
At the reading of this tactful epistle, Dolly, of course, immediately burst out into hysterics. These shall remain undescribed here. There is something mysterious about hysteria which paralyzes the pen. Not the least mysterious thing about it is the fact that the word, pronounced in an assembly of men and women, will simultaneously call up haggard lines on the faces of the men and cooing sniggles in the throats of the ladies.
Anyway, poor little Dolly had it bad all that night, and all the next day, and all the next night. By the morning of the second day, it had passed to a lamentable wandering to and fro within the cage-like apartment, with disordered garments and unkempt hair, through which eyes shone with a glint of madness. By the afternoon of the same day, it was taking some interest in its reflection as it passed the several mirrors in its ceaseless pacing. The reflection reminded of Ophelia. Finally, when in the evening it caught itself nibbling cracker and cheese in the upset kitchen, it realized that it needed new stimulus. It telegraphed for Dolly's Boston aunt.
The calculation proved correct. When, twelve hours later, the Boston aunt pressed the button at the landing, she found herself almost immediately tackled around the neck, while a shriek pierced her right ear. This was followed by a palpitant hugging, from the folds of which emerged vague, bubbling sounds. The aunt bore the demonstration with stoicism and with a certain reservation of self. She was very much unlike Dolly—tall and spare, with bushy brows, beneath the deep arcade of which glowed two limpid gray eyes. These eyes, during Dolly's little performance, remained somehow outside of the enveloping flutter. They peered over Dolly's shoulder in an alert examination of the disorder evident within the flat, and in their serene depths a slight will-o'-the-wisp seemed discreetly dancing. When finally Dolly's outburst had moderated, the old lady spoke. "Where is the bath-room?" she said.
Dolly dropped her convulsive hold and drew back a step. "The bath-room!" she exclaimed, her eyes very big; "you want to know where the bath-room is!"
"Yes, the bath," repeated Auntie, as though astonished at the astonishment.
Dolly showed it to her. A calmness had come over her, a calmness of indignation. Auntie gave the bottom of the tub a hurried cleaning, adjusted the faucet to a tepid flow, dropped in the stopper, and sat down on the edge of the porcelain as the water rose within. "I'm going to give you a bath," she announced to Dolly, who stood there petrified with hurt amazement.
And when the tub was full, she rose lightly to her feet and began to take off Dolly's soiled kimono. Dolly, in a daze, felt the garment slip from her, and then slid into the warm, green pool, which closed softly about her neck. "You lie there a while," said Auntie; "I'll come back and give you a shampoo."
And Dolly remained alone in the steaming room. Little by little, to the persistent caress of the warm water, she felt her body relax; she shut her eyes; from beneath the closed lids tears exuded softly; they came freely, without a pang. After a while, even these ceased. From the bedroom came the sound of a bed being rolled, a flapping of sheets, a whirring of blinds. Auntie returned. "Now," she said alacriously.
Dolly's head was being rubbed; a snow-white bubbly mountain was rising upon it, a mountain like an island—that is to say, like that confection known as a floating island; she could feel on her scalp the wise, soothing fingers of her aunt breaking down the resistance of her nerves; her eyes, shut at first merely to keep out the soap, remained closed in semi-ecstasy.
"Now, out you go!" suddenly boomed a voice, as a patter of water descended upon her head; and Dolly stepped out into the vigorous embrace of a turkish towel. It was passing over her body with a firm, rotary motion as of machinery; she swayed within it like a palm in a tempest. It slid up into her hair and finally twisted itself about it in a turban. A fresh night-dress descended about her; "to bed, now," said the voice.
The room was gray and cool within the lowered blinds; passively, Dolly slipped in between the fresh white sheets; her head sank into the crackling pillow. A little sob rose in her throat. "O, Auntie," she said, "O-o-o."
"Not a word now!" the capable lady immediately broke in. "I know all about it. You can tell it to me when you wake up. Go to sleep now."
It was a pleasant sort of violence; as a harness of flowers the obedience of Dolly's childhood slipped again about her. She shut her eyes, then like a puppy-dog snuggling to its mother, turned and dug her round little nose into the pillow. A snifflet of a sigh sounded—and as it sounded became the first long breath of sleep.
The Boston aunt stood some time by the bed, tall and straight like a grenadier on watch. Suddenly she stooped down and placed a kiss upon the curve of cheek emerging from the folds of the pillow. Immediately she was erect again. "Poor darned little girl!" she said.
She paused again, out in the dining-room, her eyes far away. "He tried that once on me," she said reminiscently. A gleam of humor lit up her gray eyes. "I fixed him," she said decidedly. And then, with some tenderness: "Poor great big things," she said; "what chance have they against us!"
Upon which she went into the kitchen where lay a pile of viscous dishes, eloquent of the home's demoralization.
When Dolly emerged from her room some twenty-four hours later, her face was pale and her little nose was red, and she seemed a bit dazed.
"Hello, Dolly," said the Boston aunt, looking up and giving the sofa-cushion she was arranging a final thump; "hello, Dolly; come into the kitchen and have some breakfast."
Upon the gas stove she toasted bread and poached two eggs, which she laid before Dolly like two triumphant suns glowing through a fragrant haze of coffee. Dolly successively suppressed the joyous acclaim which instinctively rose from her whole being at the sight; but she ate. Rather mincingly, of course; but still, on the whole, efficiently. At times she closed her eyes, and then from beneath the lowered lids a few tears came gliding without friction. "Now," said the aunt, after the last crumb of toast had disappeared; "let's go into the other room and hear about it."
She led the way into that little room, which was fairly encumbered with coziness. She took one of the rocking-chairs. Dolly sank into the other. By keeping the same rhythm, there was space for both to swing at the same time. Dolly swayed back and forth three times, and then burst into tears. "He has left me, Auntie; Goosie is gone; ooh-ooh!" The aunt's chair ceased rocking with an abruptness that made their knees bump. Dolly's chair stopped; she looked at her aunt in astonishment. Aunt Hester was sitting up very straight. "Do you mean to say," she began, and then paused as though unable to believe the evidence; "do you mean to say," she went on, "do you mean to say, Dolly Sims, that you made me come down all the way from Boston just because Charles-Norton is gone?"
"Why, yes," answered Dolly, petrified. "Why, yes. Isn't that enough; isn't it enough? My life is ruined! Ruined! Oo-oo-ooh"—and her eyes, ablaze for an instant, became veiled by a filmy cascade.
"Pooh," said Aunt Hester, decidedly; "pooh. Charles-Norton is gone; well, he'll come back."
"He's not coming back," wailed Dolly, indignantly; "he's not! He has dee-s-s-er-ted me!"
"Deserted," jeered Aunt Hester. "Charles-Norton! A fine chance Charles-Norton has to desert you, Dolly! First of all, he couldn't make himself want to, no matter how much he tried. And if he did want to, he couldn't. You wouldn't let him, Dolly!"
"Wouldn't let him! Oh! Do you think, Auntie, that I am so low, so base, so devoid of pride, as to keep a man who——"
"Toot-toot," said Aunt Hester; "toot-toot—you can't help it. Have you ever read that fellow Darwin, Dolly?"
"Darwin," said Dolly, rather astonished at the turn taken by the conversation; "Darwin—did he write 'When Knighthood was in Flower'?"
Aunt Hester opened her mouth like a fish suddenly whisked out of water. She closed it again. By the time she spoke, she had suppressed something. "No, no, Dolly," she said. "Darwin, the—well, it doesn't matter. We've been reading him lately, anyway, at the Cooking Club. That chap knows things, Dolly. He didn't tell me anything I didn't know ahead myself; but he explained lots of things I had found out. You should read him."
"I'll read him, Auntie," said Dolly, with dolorous voice. "I suppose I'll have to read now, or paint china, or do something like that, now that Charles, that Charles, that Charles——"
"Oh, Charles, Charles, Charles," echoed Aunt Hester, but in much different tone; "you'll get your Charles back. Charles-Norton! He has as much chance to escape you—as the earth has to stop whirling around. You baby! Why, you've got all Nature on your side, plotting and scheming for you. His dice are loaded; he can't win!"
"Aunty, what are you talking about! Here I am, un-unhappy, and needing, needing, needing friendship, and you sit and talk—I don't know what."
"For, what is Charles-Norton?" continued the Boston lady, as though she had not heard Dolly. "What is Charles-Norton? A man. Hence, a clung-to."
"A clung-to!" exclaimed Dolly, a dreadful suspicion beginning to add itself to her greater trouble.
"Just so—a clung-to. And the direct heir of hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of clung-tos. For of the men since the beginning of the world, Dolly, it's only the clung-tos that survived, or rather that had babies that survived——"
"Auntie!" admonished Dolly.
"Certainly," went on Aunt Hester, seemingly misinterpreting Dolly's interruption. "They alone had babies that survived. The babies of the others—well, they starved, or fell into the fire, or were massacred in the wars. So that now there are no others. There are only descendants of clung-tos, and hence clung-tos. Charles-Norton, Dolly, is a clung-to!"
"But, Auntie," protested Dolly, "he isn't any horrid such thing. And he's gone, he's gone—and I certainly won't force him to——"
"And you, Dolly," pursued Aunt Hester, unruffled, as though a professor addressing a group of freshmen. "And you, Dolly, what are you? A woman. Hence a cling-to."
"A cling-to!" screamed Dolly.
"Certainly. A cling-to. The end of a line of thousands and thousands of cling-tos. For of the women since the beginning of the world, Dolly, which survived? The cling-tos. They alone were able to live, and to have baby-girls who survived—if cling-tos. The others, and the babies of the others, they starved; that's all, Dolly, they starved. No mastodon steak for them, Dolly; no nice wing-bone of ictiosaurus—they starved. So that there are now no others—or mighty few. You, Dolly, being alive and well and a woman, are inevitably a cling-to."
"Auntie! Auntie!" murmured Dolly, puzzled and horrified.
"To recapitulate," Aunt Hester swept on. "To recapitulate: Charles-Norton is a clung-to; you are a cling-to. Neither of you can help him or herself. For it is the very essence of the being of the one to hold, of the other to be held."
"How horrible!" said Dolly, with a shudder.
"In other words, my dears," went on the aunt; "in other words, you are dreadfully in love with each other and can't keep apart."
"Love!" moaned Dolly.
"Love," the aunt repeated firmly.
Dolly rocked for a time; tears again were dropping fast from the end of her eye-lashes. "But he doesn't love me," she wailed at length. "And he isn't a, a—that horrid Chinesy word you call him, and he is gone, gone!"
"Oh, my dear, of course," said Aunt Hester; "of course, things are not quite as simple as I have been describing them. A woman has to use some sense about it these days. This clinging business has become more complicated with civilization. You may have erred in the details. Now, tell me what has happened, all that has happened."
And Dolly, in a rush of words, told the lamentable story of her domestic woe, of her struggle with the wings of Charles-Norton.
Aunt Hester was silent for a time; then she nodded her head affirmatively. "Yes, that's it, my dear," she said. "It is as I suspected. You have been clinging with your eyes shut. And in these perilous times it is necessary to cling with eyes open. You——"
But Dolly had risen to her feet, vibrant. "Do you mean to say," she began, and her voice was very low and tense; "do you mean to say that I should be subjected to living with a man—with a man"—her voice rose—"with a man, Auntie, who has Wings?"
"Oh, my dear!" exclaimed Aunt Hester, hastily, "you mistake me. Of course, I am not asking that of you. But that is not necessary either. The essential—it is to let Charles-Norton believe that he has his wings, not that he should have them. And then, my dear, to be frank, to be just, I must say that this seems to me a case for compromise. Yes, dear, you should allow Charles-Norton part of his wings; oh yes, you should really let him have a bit of these wings. And that bit, Dolly, if you are the wise and capable little girl I think you can be, you should turn to the advantage, to the preservation, to the prosperity—hem—of the home!"
Dolly sat down, weak and trembling. She was silent for a long time. When she spoke again, it was in a tired voice. "Auntie," she said, "you mean well. I know that you are trying to help me and am very thankful to you. But we have differing views of Life. I am willing to do much for Charles-Norton—Oh, so much! I am willing to meet him half-way, three-quarters of the way, the whole way, on ever so many things, and I have done so. But when it comes to a question, Auntie, of self-respect, of morality, of Decency, then, Auntie, never! On that, there can be no compromise. Charles-Norton cannot have wings."
"Oh, very well," said Aunt Hester, plainly nettled; "very well, very well. Then, what are you going to do?"
"Nothing," said Dolly, decidedly. "I will give him up," she said very firmly. "I will give him up," she repeated grandiloquently. "I will give him up," she said a third time—and broke out weeping.
"That," said Aunt Hester, "is what is known as the grand stunt, and is rather popular these days. I've seen many try it, and mighty few achieve it. And you, Dolly"—she rose and stood with a hand upon the shaking shoulders beneath her—"and you, you little soft Dolly, why, you are about the last——"
"I shall not lift a finger," interrupted Dolly. "If he, he, he does not love me, I, I shall, not stoop to hold him!"
"Well," said Aunt Hester, briskly, "I am going now. I——"
"Going!" cried Dolly, desolately.
"I am going," repeated Aunt Hester, firmly. "There is nothing I can do here. And there're Earl's socks to be looked after (he is just entering Cambridge, you know), and Ethel's frocks (she's at the High School), and then there is your uncle—suppose he gets it into his head to sprout feathers! No, no—I'm going home. I'm willing to be what Nature said I had to be. I don't take any chances with those new-fangled grand-stunts. Besides, if you are just going to do nothing, why, then, you can do that without me."
And setting her bonnet upon her nice gray hair, Aunt Hester picked up her grip and marched out into the hall.
"Auntie! Auntie!" cried Dolly, running after her.
Aunt Hester stopped at the opened door and turned. She confronted Dolly, and the will-o'-the-wisp was dancing in the profundities of her deep-set eyes. A tenderness came into them; she dropped her grip, seized Dolly, and drew her close.
"Dear little Dolly," she whispered; "you'll do it, don't you fear. You'll bring back your Charles-Norton, you soft little woman, you; you'll get him! And now, kiss me good-by. Write to me—when you decide."
The door closed, and leaning against it, Dolly wept a long time. Then she went within and in a more comfortable position, wept more. She wept for a whole week. And then, suddenly, one afternoon, she stood up in the center of the room and began stamping her foot.
"I won't," she said, with each stamp of the little foot. "I won't, I won't, I won't!"
And saying "I won't," she did. She sat down at the table and on her pale blue letter paper, wrote:
"DEAR AUNTIE:—Yes, you were right, I guess. I am a cling-to. I want him. I don't care: he's mine and I won't give him up. Tell me how to do it, Auntie, oh, tell me how! Quick, Auntie, quick!"
The answer was not long in coming. "Dearest Little Dolly," wrote Aunt Hester; "of course, I knew you would, and I am glad. As to telling you how—well, that is very simple. Just go to him, Dolly. Go to him (not too soon; wait a while) and just stick around. Your instincts will tell you the rest. Rely on your instincts, Dolly," went on this incorrigible Darwinian. "They are better than your reason, for they are the reason of your mother and grandmother, and all the line of mothers that came before you. They had to be right, Dolly, or they wouldn't have been, and then you wouldn't be. Go to him, and stick around, and do as you feel like doing. In all probability you'll be nice, and humble, and snuggledy, and warm. And then, make—your arrangements. He can't help himself. Nature is on your side. His dice are loaded. Cling, Dolly, cling."
Dolly blushed. "Auntie is horrid," she said. And then, after a while, "But right," she said.
Meanwhile, unaware of this discussion and of this decision, Charles-Norton, inflated with fancied freedom, captain of his soul and master of his Fate, was having a beautiful time.
A meadow by a lake, on the western slope of a high Sierra.
Below, and far to the west, lies a great plain, liquid with distance as though it were a sea of gold. From its nearer edge, the land comes leaping up in wide smooth waves of serried pines, to the meadow. There the pines stop abruptly, in the leaning immobility of a man who has almost trodden upon a flower. From their feet the meadow spreads, fresh and lush, susurrant with the hidden flow of a brook, and jeweled here and there with flowers that are like butterflies. It stops, in its turn, before a chute of smooth granite in the form of a bowl. In the curve of the bowl lies a lake—a silvery lake in the depths of which dark blue hues pulse, and over the face of which light zephyrs pass, like painted shivers.