A Story of American Life
EDWARD NOYES WESTCOTT
New York D. Appleton and Company 1899 Copyright, 1898, By D. Appleton and Company.
The's as much human nature in some folks as th' is in others, if not more.—DAVID HARUM.
One of the most conspicuous characteristics of our contemporary native fiction is an increasing tendency to subordinate plot or story to the bold and realistic portrayal of some of the types of American life and manners. And the reason for this is not far to seek. The extraordinary mixing of races which has been going on here for more than a century has produced an enormously diversified human result; and the products of this "hybridization" have been still further differentiated by an environment that ranges from the Everglades of Florida to the glaciers of Alaska. The existence of these conditions, and the great literary opportunities which they contain, American writers long ago perceived; and, with a generally true appreciation of artistic values, they have created from them a gallery of brilliant genre pictures which to-day stand for the highest we have yet attained in the art of fiction.
Thus it is that we have (to mention but a few) studies of Louisiana and her people by Mr. Cable; of Virginia and Georgia by Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris; of New England by Miss Jewett and Miss Wilkins; of the Middle West by Miss French (Octave Thanet); of the great Northwest by Hamlin Garland; of Canada and the land of the habitans by Gilbert Parker; and finally, though really first in point of time, the Forty-niners and their successors by Bret Harte. This list might be indefinitely extended, for it is growing daily, but it is long enough as it stands to show that every section of our country has, or soon will have, its own painter and historian, whose works will live and become a permanent part of our literature in just the degree that they are artistically true. Some of these writers have already produced many books, while others have gained general recognition and even fame by the vividness and power of a single study, like Mr. Howe with The Story of a Country Town. But each one, it will be noticed, has chosen for his field of work that part of our country wherein he passed the early and formative years of his life; a natural selection that is, perhaps, an unconscious affirmation of David Harum's aphorism: "Ev'ry hoss c'n do a thing better 'n' spryer if he's ben broke to it as a colt."
In the case of the present volume the conditions are identical with those just mentioned. Most of the scenes are laid in central New York, where the author, Edward Noyes Westcott, was born, September 24, 1847, and where he died of consumption, March 31, 1898. Nearly all his life was passed in his native city of Syracuse, and although banking and not authorship was the occupation of his active years, yet his sensitive and impressionable temperament had become so saturated with the local atmosphere, and his retentive memory so charged with facts, that when at length he took up the pen he was able to create in David Harum a character so original, so true, and so strong, yet withal so delightfully quaint and humorous, that we are at once compelled to admit that here is a new and permanent addition to the long list of American literary portraits.
The book is a novel, and throughout it runs a love story which is characterized by sympathetic treatment and a constantly increasing interest; but the title role is taken by the old country banker, David Harum: dry, quaint, somewhat illiterate, no doubt, but possessing an amazing amount of knowledge not found in printed books, and holding fast to the cheerful belief that there is nothing wholly bad or useless in this world. Or, in his own words: "A reasonable amount of fleas is good for a dog—they keep him f'm broodin' on bein' a dog." This horse-trading country banker and reputed Shylock, but real philanthropist, is an accurate portrayal of a type that exists in the rural districts of central New York to-day. Variations of him may be seen daily, driving about in their road wagons or seated in their "bank parlors," shrewd, sharp-tongued, honest as the sunlight from most points of view, but in a horse trade much inclined to follow the rule laid down by Mr. Harum himself for such transactions: "Do unto the other feller the way he'd like to do unto you—an' do it fust."
The genial humor and sunny atmosphere which pervade these pages are in dramatic contrast with the circumstances under which they were written. The book was finished while the author lay upon his deathbed, but, happily for the reader, no trace of his sufferings appears here. It was not granted that he should live to see his work in its present completed form, a consummation he most earnestly desired; but it seems not unreasonable to hope that the result of his labors will be appreciated, and that David Harum will endure.
SYRACUSE, N.Y., August 20, 1898.
David poured half of his second cup of tea into his saucer to lower its temperature to the drinking point, and helped himself to a second cut of ham and a third egg. Whatever was on his mind to have kept him unusually silent during the evening meal, and to cause certain wrinkles in his forehead suggestive of perplexity or misgiving, had not impaired his appetite. David was what he called "a good feeder."
Mrs. Bixbee, known to most of those who enjoyed the privilege of her acquaintance as "Aunt Polly," though nieces and nephews of her blood there were none in Homeville, Freeland County, looked curiously at her brother, as, in fact, she had done at intervals during the repast; and concluding at last that further forbearance was uncalled for, relieved the pressure of her curiosity thus:
"Guess ye got somethin' on your mind, hain't ye? You hain't hardly said aye, yes, ner no sence you set down. Anythin' gone 'skew?"
David lifted his saucer, gave the contents a precautionary blow, and emptied it with sundry windy suspirations.
"No," he said, "nothin' hain't gone exac'ly wrong, 's ye might say—not yet; but I done that thing I was tellin' ye of to-day."
"Done what thing?" she asked perplexedly.
"I telegraphed to New York," he replied, "fer that young feller to come on—the young man General Wolsey wrote me about. I got a letter from him to-day, an' I made up my mind 'the sooner the quicker,' an' I telegraphed him to come 's soon 's he could."
"I forgit what you said his name was," said Aunt Polly.
"There's his letter," said David, handing it across the table. "Read it out 'loud."
"You read it," she said, passing it back after a search in her pocket; "I must 'a' left my specs in the settin'-room."
The letter was as follows:
"DEAR SIR: I take the liberty of addressing you at the instance of General Wolsey, who spoke to me of the matter of your communication to him, and was kind enough to say that he would write you in my behalf. My acquaintance with him has been in the nature of a social rather than a business one, and I fancy that he can only recommend me on general grounds. I will say, therefore, that I have had some experience with accounts, but not much practice in them for nearly three years. Nevertheless, unless the work you wish done is of an intricate nature, I think I shall be able to accomplish it with such posting at the outset as most strangers would require. General Wolsey told me that you wanted some one as soon as possible. I have nothing to prevent me from starting at once if you desire to have me. A telegram addressed to me at the office of the Trust Company will reach me promptly.
"Yours very truly,
"JOHN K. LENOX."
"Wa'al," said David, looking over his glasses at his sister, "what do you think on't?"
"The' ain't much brag in't," she replied thoughtfully.
"No," said David, putting his eyeglasses back in their case, "th' ain't no brag ner no promises; he don't even say he'll do his best, like most fellers would. He seems to have took it fer granted that I'll take it fer granted, an' that's what I like about it. Wa'al," he added, "the thing's done, an' I'll be lookin' fer him to-morrow mornin' or evenin' at latest."
Mrs. Bixbee sat for a moment with her large, light blue, and rather prominent eyes fixed on her brother's face, and then she said, with a slight undertone of anxiety, "Was you cal'latin' to have that young man from New York come here?"
"I hadn't no such idee," he replied, with a slight smile, aware of what was passing in her mind. "What put that in your head?"
"Wa'al," she answered, "you know the' ain't scarcely anybody in the village that takes boarders in the winter, an' I was wonderin' what he would do."
"I s'pose he'll go to the Eagle," said David. "I dunno where else, 'nless it's to the Lake House."
"The Eagil!" she exclaimed contemptuously. "Land sakes! Comin' here from New York! He won't stan' it there a week."
"Wa'al," replied David, "mebbe he will an' mebbe he won't, but I don't see what else the' is for it, an' I guess 'twon't kill him for a spell The fact is—" he was proceeding when Mrs. Bixbee interrupted him.
"I guess we'd better adjourn t' the settin'-room an' let Sairy clear off the tea-things," she said, rising and going into the kitchen.
"What was you sayin'?" she asked, as she presently found her brother in the apartment designated, and seated herself with her mending-basket in her lap.
"The fact is, I was sayin'," he resumed, sitting with hand and forearm resting on a round table, in the centre of which was a large kerosene lamp, "that my notion was, fust off, to have him come here, but when I come to think on't I changed my mind. In the fust place, except that he's well recommended, I don't know nothin' about him; an' in the second, you'n I are pretty well set in our ways, an' git along all right just as we be. I may want the young feller to stay, an' then agin I may not—we'll see. It's a good sight easier to git a fishhook in 'n 'tis to git it out. I expect he'll find it putty tough at first, but if he's a feller that c'n be drove out of bus'nis by a spell of the Eagle Tavern, he ain't the feller I'm lookin' fer—though I will allow," he added with a grimace, "that it'll be a putty hard test. But if I want to say to him, after tryin' him a spell, that I guess me an' him don't seem likely to hitch, we'll both take it easier if we ain't livin' in the same house. I guess I'll take a look at the Trybune," said David, unfolding that paper.
Mrs. Bixbee went on with her needlework, with an occasional side glance at her brother, who was immersed in the gospel of his politics. Twice or thrice she opened her lips as if to address him, but apparently some restraining thought interposed. Finally, the impulse to utter her mind culminated. "Dave," she said, "d' you know what Deakin Perkins is sayin' about ye?"
David opened his paper so as to hide his face, and the corners of his mouth twitched as he asked in return, "Wa'al, what's the deakin sayin' now?"
"He's sayin'," she replied, in a voice mixed of indignation and apprehension, "thet you sold him a balky horse, an' he's goin' to hev the law on ye." David's shoulders shook behind the sheltering page, and his mouth expanded in a grin.
"Wa'al," he replied after a moment, lowering the paper and looking gravely at his companion over his glasses, "next to the deakin's religious experience, them of lawin' an' horse-tradin' air his strongest p'ints, an' he works the hull on 'em to once sometimes."
The evasiveness of this generality was not lost on Mrs. Bixbee, and she pressed the point with, "Did ye? an' will he?"
"Yes, an' no, an' mebbe, an' mebbe not," was the categorical reply.
"Wa'al," she answered with a snap, "mebbe you call that an answer. I s'pose if you don't want to let on you won't, but I do believe you've ben playin' some trick on the deakin, an' won't own up. I do wish," she added, "that if you hed to git rid of a balky horse onto somebody you'd hev picked out somebody else."
"When you got a balker to dispose of," said David gravely, "you can't alwus pick an' choose. Fust come, fust served." Then he went on more seriously: "Now I'll tell ye. Quite a while ago—in fact, not long after I come to enjoy the priv'lidge of the deakin's acquaintance—we hed a deal. I wasn't jest on my guard, knowin' him to be a deakin an' all that, an' he lied to me so splendid that I was took in, clean over my head, he done me so brown I was burnt in places, an' you c'd smell smoke 'round me fer some time."
"Was it a horse?" asked Mrs. Bixbee gratuitously.
"Wa'al," David replied, "mebbe it had ben some time, but at that partic'lar time the only thing to determine that fact was that it wa'n't nothin' else."
"Wa'al, I declare!" exclaimed Mrs. Bixbee, wondering not more at the deacon's turpitude than at the lapse in David's acuteness, of which she had an immense opinion, but commenting only on the former. "I'm 'mazed at the deakin."
"Yes'm," said David with a grin, "I'm quite a liar myself when it comes right down to the hoss bus'nis, but the deakin c'n give me both bowers ev'ry hand. He done it so slick that I had to laugh when I come to think it over—an' I had witnesses to the hull confab, too, that he didn't know of, an' I c'd 've showed him up in great shape if I'd had a mind to."
"Why didn't ye?" said Aunt Polly, whose feelings about the deacon were undergoing a revulsion.
"Wa'al, to tell ye the truth, I was so completely skunked that I hadn't a word to say. I got rid o' the thing fer what it was wuth fer hide an' taller, an' stid of squealin' 'round the way you say he's doin', like a stuck pig, I kep' my tongue between my teeth an' laid to git even some time."
"You ort to 've hed the law on him," declared Mrs. Bixbee, now fully converted. "The old scamp!"
"Wa'al," was the reply, "I gen'all prefer to settle out of court, an' in this partic'lar case, while I might 'a' ben willin' t' admit that I hed ben did up, I didn't feel much like swearin' to it. I reckoned the time 'd come when mebbe I'd git the laugh on the deakin, an' it did, an' we're putty well settled now in full."
"You mean this last pufformance?" asked Mrs. Bixbee. "I wish you'd quit beatin' about the bush, an' tell me the hull story."
"Wa'al, it's like this, then, if you will hev it. I was over to Whiteboro a while ago on a little matter of worldly bus'nis, an' I seen a couple of fellers halter-exercisin' a hoss in the tavern yard. I stood 'round a spell watchin' 'em, an' when he come to a standstill I went an' looked him over, an' I liked his looks fust rate.
"'Fer sale?' I says.
"'Wa'al,' says the chap that was leadin' him, 'I never see the hoss that wa'n't if the price was right.'
"'Your'n?' I says.
"'Mine an' his'n,' he says, noddin' his head at the other feller.
"'What ye askin' fer him?' I says.
"'One-fifty,' he says.
"I looked him all over agin putty careful, an' once or twice I kind o' shook my head 's if I didn't quite like what I seen, an' when I got through I sort o' half turned away without sayin' anythin', 's if I'd seen enough.
"'The' ain't a scratch ner a pimple on him,' says the feller, kind o' resentin' my looks. 'He's sound an' kind, an' 'll stand without hitchin', an' a lady c'n drive him 's well 's a man."'
"'I ain't got anythin' agin him,' I says, 'an' prob'ly that's all true, ev'ry word on't; but one-fifty's a consid'able price fer a hoss these days. I hain't no pressin' use fer another hoss, an', in fact,' I says, 'I've got one or two fer sale myself.'
"'He's wuth two hunderd jest as he stands,' the feller says. 'He hain't had no trainin', an' he c'n draw two men in a road-wagin better'n fifty.'
"Wa'al, the more I looked at him the better I liked him, but I only says, 'Jes' so, jes' so, he may be wuth the money, but jest as I'm fixed now he ain't wuth it to me, an' I hain't got that much money with me if he was,' I says. The other feller hadn't said nothin' up to that time, an' he broke in now. 'I s'pose you'd take him fer a gift, wouldn't ye?' he says, kind o' sneerin'.
"'Wa'al, yes,' I says, 'I dunno but I would if you'd throw in a pound of tea an' a halter.'
"He kind o' laughed an' says, 'Wa'al, this ain't no gift enterprise, an' I guess we ain't goin' to trade, but I'd like to know,' he says, 'jest as a matter of curios'ty, what you'd say he was wuth to ye?'
"'Wa'al,' I says, 'I come over this mornin' to see a feller that owed me a trifle o' money. Exceptin' of some loose change, what he paid me 's all I got with me,' I says, takin' out my wallet. 'That wad's got a hunderd an' twenty-five into it, an' if you'd sooner have your hoss an' halter than the wad,' I says, 'why, I'll bid ye good-day.'
"'You're offerin' one-twenty-five fer the hoss an' halter?' he says.
"'That's what I'm doin',' I says.
"'You've made a trade,' he says, puttin' out his hand fer the money an' handin' the halter over to me."
"An' didn't ye suspicion nuthin' when he took ye up like that?" asked Mrs. Bixbee.
"I did smell woolen some," said David, "but I had the hoss an' they had the money, an', as fur 's I c'd see, the critter was all right. Howsomever, I says to 'em: 'This here's all right, fur 's it's gone, but you've talked putty strong 'bout this hoss. I don't know who you fellers be, but I c'n find out,' I says. Then the fust feller that done the talkin' 'bout the hoss put in an' says, 'The' hain't ben one word said to you about this hoss that wa'n't gospel truth, not one word.' An' when I come to think on't afterward," said David with a half laugh, "it mebbe wa'n't gospel truth, but it was good enough jury truth. I guess this ain't over 'n' above interestin' to ye, is it?" he asked after a pause, looking doubtfully at his sister.
"Yes, 'tis," she asserted. "I'm lookin' forrered to where the deakin comes in, but you jest tell it your own way."
"I'll git there all in good time," said David, "but some of the point of the story'll be lost if I don't tell ye what come fust."
"I allow to stan' it 's long 's you can," she said encouragingly, "seein' what work I had gettin' ye started. Did ye find out anythin' 'bout them fellers?"
"I ast the barn man if he knowed who they was, an' he said he never seen 'em till the yestiddy before, an' didn't know 'em f'm Adam. They come along with a couple of hosses, one drivin' an' t'other leadin'—the one I bought. I ast him if they knowed who I was, an' he said one on 'em ast him, an' he told him. The feller said to him, seein' me drive up: 'That's a putty likely-lookin' hoss. Who's drivin' him?' An' he says to the feller: 'That's Dave Harum, f'm over to Homeville. He's a great feller fer hosses,' he says."
"Dave," said Mrs. Bixbee, "them chaps jest laid fer ye, didn't they?"
"I reckon they did," he admitted; "an' they was as slick a pair as was ever drawed to," which expression was lost upon his sister. David rubbed the fringe of yellowish-gray hair which encircled his bald pate for a moment.
"Wa'al," he resumed, "after the talk with the barn man, I smelt woolen stronger'n ever, but I didn't say nothin', an' had the mare hitched an' started back. Old Jinny drives with one hand, an' I c'd watch the new one all right, an' as we come along I begun to think I wa'n't stuck after all. I never see a hoss travel evener an' nicer, an' when we come to a good level place I sent the old mare along the best she knew, an' the new one never broke his gait, an' kep' right up 'ithout 'par'ntly half tryin'; an' Jinny don't take most folks' dust neither. I swan! 'fore I got home I reckoned I'd jest as good as made seventy-five anyway."
"Then the' wa'n't nothin' the matter with him, after all," commented Mrs. Bixbee in rather a disappointed tone.
"The meanest thing top of the earth was the matter with him," declared David, "but I didn't find it out till the next afternoon, an' then I found it out good. I hitched him to the open buggy an' went 'round by the East road, 'cause that ain't so much travelled. He went along all right till we got a mile or so out of the village, an' then I slowed him down to a walk. Wa'al, sir, scat my ——! He hadn't walked more'n a rod 'fore he come to a dead stan'still. I clucked an' git-app'd, an' finely took the gad to him a little; but he only jest kind o' humped up a little, an' stood like he'd took root."
"Wa'al, now!" exclaimed Mrs. Bixbee.
"Yes'm," said David; "I was stuck in ev'ry sense of the word."
"What d'ye do?"
"Wa'al, I tried all the tricks I knowed—an' I could lead him—but when I was in the buggy he wouldn't stir till he got good an' ready; 'n' then he'd start of his own accord an' go on a spell, an'—"
"Did he keep it up?" Mrs. Bixbee interrupted.
"Wa'al, I s'd say he did. I finely got home with the critter, but I thought one time I'd either hev to lead him or spend the night on the East road. He balked five sep'rate times, varyin' in length, an' it was dark when we struck the barn."
"I should hev thought you'd a wanted to kill him," said Mrs. Bixbee; "an' the fellers that sold him to ye, too."
"The' was times," David replied, with a nod of his head, "when if he'd a fell down dead I wouldn't hev figgered on puttin' a band on my hat, but it don't never pay to git mad with a hoss; an' as fur 's the feller I bought him of, when I remembered how he told me he'd stand without hitchin', I swan! I had to laugh. I did, fer a fact. 'Stand without hitchin'!' He, he, he!"
"I guess you wouldn't think it was so awful funny if you hadn't gone an' stuck that horse onto Deakin Perkins—an' I don't see how you done it."
"Mebbe that is part of the joke," David allowed, "an' I'll tell ye th' rest on't. Th' next day I hitched the new one to th' dem'crat wagin an' put in a lot of straps an' rope, an' started off fer the East road agin. He went fust rate till we come to about the place where we had the fust trouble, an', sure enough, he balked agin. I leaned over an' hit him a smart cut on the off shoulder, but he only humped a little, an' never lifted a foot. I hit him another lick, with the selfsame result. Then I got down an' I strapped that animal so't he couldn't move nothin' but his head an' tail, an' got back into the buggy. Wa'al, bom-by, it may 'a' ben ten minutes, or it may 'a' ben more or less—it's slow work settin' still behind a balkin' hoss—he was ready to go on his own account, but he couldn't budge. He kind o' looked around, much as to say, 'What on earth's the matter?' an' then he tried another move, an' then another, but no go. Then I got down an' took the hopples off an' then climbed back into the buggy, an' says 'Cluck, to him, an' off he stepped as chipper as could be, an' we went joggin' along all right mebbe two mile, an' when I slowed up, up he come agin. I gin him another clip in the same place on the shoulder, an' I got down an' tied him up agin, an' the same thing happened as before, on'y it didn't take him quite so long to make up his mind about startin', an' we went some further without a hitch. But I had to go through the pufformance the third time before he got it into his head that if he didn't go when I wanted he couldn't go when he wanted, an' that didn't suit him; an' when he felt the whip on his shoulder it meant bus'nis."
"Was that the end of his balkin'?" asked Mrs. Bixbee.
"I had to give him one more go-round," said David, "an' after that I didn't have no more trouble with him. He showed symptoms at times, but a touch of the whip on the shoulder alwus fetched him. I alwus carried them straps, though, till the last two or three times."
"Wa'al, what's the deakin kickin' about, then?" asked Aunt Polly. "You're jest sayin' you broke him of balkin'."
"Wa'al," said David slowly, "some hosses will balk with some folks an' not with others. You can't most alwus gen'ally tell."
"Didn't the deakin have a chance to try him?"
"He had all the chance he ast fer," replied David. "Fact is, he done most of the sellin', as well 's the buyin', himself."
"Wa'al," said David, "it come about like this: After I'd got the hoss where I c'd handle him I begun to think I'd had some int'restin' an' valu'ble experience, an' it wa'n't scurcely fair to keep it all to myself. I didn't want no patent on't, an' I was willin' to let some other feller git a piece. So one mornin', week before last—let's see, week ago Tuesday it was, an' a mighty nice mornin' it was, too—one o' them days that kind o' lib'ral up your mind—I allowed to hitch an' drive up past the deakin's an' back, an' mebbe git somethin' to strengthen my faith, et cetery, in case I run acrost him. Wa'al, 's I come along I seen the deakin putterin' 'round, an' I waved my hand to him an' went by a-kitin'. I went up the road a ways an' killed a little time, an' when I come back there was the deakin, as I expected. He was leanin' over the fence, an' as I jogged up he hailed me, an' I pulled up.
"'Mornin', Mr. Harum,' he says.
"'Mornin', deakin,' I says. 'How are ye? an' how's Mis' Perkins these days?'
"'I'm fair,' he says; 'fair to middlin', but Mis' Perkins is ailin' some—as usyul' he says."
"They do say," put in Mrs. Bixbee, "thet Mis' Perkins don't hev much of a time herself."
"Guess she hez all the time the' is," answered David. "Wa'al," he went on, "we passed the time o' day, an' talked a spell about the weather an' all that, an' finely I straightened up the lines as if I was goin' on, an' then I says: 'Oh, by the way,' I says, 'I jest thought on't. I heard Dominie White was lookin' fer a hoss that 'd suit him.' 'I hain't heard,' he says; but I see in a minute he had—an' it really was a fact—an' I says: 'I've got a roan colt risin' five, that I took on a debt a spell ago, that I'll sell reasonable, that's as likely an' nice ev'ry way a young hoss as ever I owned. I don't need him,' I says, 'an' didn't want to take him, but it was that or nothin' at the time an' glad to git it, an' I'll sell him a barg'in. Now what I want to say to you, deakin, is this: That hoss 'd suit the dominie to a tee in my opinion, but the dominie won't come to me. Now if you was to say to him—bein' in his church an' all thet,' I says, 'that you c'd get him the right kind of a hoss, he'd believe you, an' you an' me 'd be doin' a little stroke of bus'nis, an' a favor to the dominie into the bargain. The dominie's well off,' I says, 'an' c'n afford to drive a good hoss.'"
"What did the deakin say?" asked Aunt Polly as David stopped for breath.
"I didn't expect him to jump down my throat," he answered; "but I seen him prick up his ears, an' all the time I was talkin' I noticed him lookin' my hoss over, head an' foot. 'Now I 'member,' he says, 'hearin' sunthin' 'bout Mr. White's lookin' fer a hoss, though when you fust spoke on't it had slipped my mind. Of course,' he says, 'the' ain't any real reason why Mr. White shouldn't deal with you direct, an' yit mebbe I could do more with him 'n you could. But,' he says, 'I wa'n't cal'latin' to go t' the village this mornin', an' I sent my hired man off with my drivin' hoss. Mebbe I'll drop 'round in a day or two,' he says, 'an' look at the roan.'
"'You mightn't ketch me,' I says, 'an' I want to show him myself; an' more'n that,' I says, 'Dug Robinson's after the dominie. I'll tell ye,' I says, 'you jest git in 'ith me an' go down an' look at him, an' I'll send ye back or drive ye back, an' if you've got anythin' special on hand you needn't be gone three quarters of an hour,' I says."
"He come, did he?" inquired Mrs. Bixbee.
"He done so," said David sententiously. "Jest as I knowed he would, after he'd hem'd an' haw'd about so much, an' he rode a mile an' a half livelier 'n he done in a good while, I reckon. He had to pull that old broad-brim of his'n down to his ears, an' don't you fergit it. He, he, he, he! The road was jest full o' hosses. Wa'al, we drove into the yard, an' I told the hired man to unhitch the bay hoss an' fetch out the roan, an' while he was bein' unhitched the deakin stood 'round an' never took his eyes off'n him, an' I knowed I wouldn't sell the deakin no roan hoss that day, even if I wanted to. But when he come out I begun to crack him up, an' I talked hoss fer all I was wuth. The deakin looked him over in a don't-care kind of a way, an' didn't 'parently give much heed to what I was sayin'. Finely I says, 'Wa'al, what do you think of him?' 'Wa'al,' he says, 'he seems to be a likely enough critter, but I don't believe he'd suit Mr. White—'fraid not,' he says. 'What you askin' fer him?' he says. 'One-fifty,' I says, 'an' he's a cheap hoss at the money'; but," added the speaker with a laugh, "I knowed I might 's well of said a thousan'. The deakin wa'n't buyin' no roan colts that mornin'."
"What did he say?" asked Mrs. Bixbee.
"'Wa'al,' he says, 'wa'al, I guess you ought to git that much fer him, but I'm 'fraid he ain't what Mr. White wants.' An' then, 'That's quite a hoss we come down with,' he says. 'Had him long?' 'Jest long 'nough to git 'quainted with him,' I says. 'Don't you want the roan fer your own use?' I says. 'Mebbe we c'd shade the price a little.' 'No,' he says, 'I guess not. I don't need another hoss jest now.' An' then, after a minute he says: 'Say, mebbe the bay hoss we drove 'd come nearer the mark fer White, if he's all right. Jest as soon I'd look at him?' he says. 'Wa'al, I hain't no objections, but I guess he's more of a hoss than the dominie 'd care for, but I'll go an' fetch him out,' I says. So I brought him out, an' the deakin looked him all over. I see it was a case of love at fust sight, as the story-books says. 'Looks all right,' he says. 'I'll tell ye,' I says, 'what the feller I bought him of told me.' 'What's that?' says the deakin. 'He said to me,' I says, '"that hoss hain't got a scratch ner a pimple on him. He's sound an' kind, an' 'll stand without hitchin', an' a lady c'd drive him as well 's a man."'
"'That's what he said to me,' I says, 'an' it's every word on't true. You've seen whether or not he c'n travel,' I says, 'an', so fur 's I've seen, he ain't 'fraid of nothin'.' 'D'ye want to sell him?' the deakin says. 'Wa'al,' I says, 'I ain't offerin' him fer sale. You'll go a good ways,' I says, ''fore you'll strike such another; but, of course, he ain't the only hoss in the world, an' I never had anythin' in the hoss line I wouldn't sell at some price.' 'Wa'al,' he says, 'what d' ye ask fer him?' 'Wa'al,' I says, 'if my own brother was to ask me that question I'd say to him two hunderd dollars, cash down, an' I wouldn't hold the offer open an hour,' I says."
"My!" ejaculated Aunt Polly. "Did he take you up?"
"'That's more'n I give fer a hoss 'n a good while,' he says, shakin' his head, 'an' more'n I c'n afford, I'm 'fraid.' 'All right,' I says; 'I c'n afford to keep him'; but I knew I had the deakin same as the woodchuck had Skip. 'Hitch up the roan,' I says to Mike; 'the deakin wants to be took up to his house.' 'Is that your last word?' he says. 'That's what it is,' I says. 'Two hunderd, cash down.'"
"Didn't ye dast to trust the deakin?" asked Mrs. Bixbee.
"Polly," said David, "the's a number of holes in a ten-foot ladder." Mrs. Bixbee seemed to understand this rather ambiguous rejoinder.
"He must 'a' squirmed some," she remarked. David laughed.
"The deakin ain't much used to payin' the other feller's price," he said, "an' it was like pullin' teeth; but he wanted that hoss more'n a cow wants a calf, an' after a little more squimmidgin' he hauled out his wallet an' forked over. Mike come out with the roan, an' off the deakin went, leadin' the bay hoss."
"I don't see," said Mrs. Bixbee, looking up at her brother, "thet after all the' was anythin' you said to the deakin thet he could ketch holt on."
"The' wa'n't nothin'," he replied. "The only thing he c'n complain about's what I didn't say to him."
"Hain't he said anythin' to ye?" Mrs. Bixbee inquired.
"He, he, he, he! He hain't but once, an' the' wa'n't but little of it then."
"Wa'al, the day but one after the deakin sold himself Mr. Stickin'-Plaster I had an arrant three four mile or so up past his place, an' when I was comin' back, along 'bout four or half past, it come on to rain like all possessed. I had my old umbrel'—though it didn't hender me f'm gettin' more or less wet—an' I sent the old mare along fer all she knew. As I come along to within a mile f'm the deakin's house I seen somebody in the road, an' when I come up closter I see it was the deakin himself, in trouble, an' I kind o' slowed up to see what was goin' on. There he was, settin' all humped up with his ole broad-brim hat slopin' down his back, a-sheddin' water like a roof. Then I seen him lean over an' larrup the hoss with the ends of the lines fer all he was wuth. It appeared he hadn't no whip, an' it wouldn't done him no good if he'd had. Wa'al, sir, rain or no rain, I jest pulled up to watch him. He'd larrup a spell, an' then he'd set back; an' then he'd lean over an' try it agin, harder'n ever. Scat my ——! I thought I'd die a-laughin'. I couldn't hardly cluck to the mare when I got ready to move on. I drove alongside an' pulled up. 'Hullo, deakin,' I says, 'what's the matter?' He looked up at me, an' I won't say he was the maddest man I ever see, but he was long ways the maddest-lookin' man, an' he shook his fist at me jest like one o' the unregen'rit. 'Consarn ye, Dave Harum!' he says, 'I'll hev the law on ye fer this.' 'What fer?' I says. 'I didn't make it come on to rain, did I?' I says. 'You know mighty well what fer,' he says. 'You sold me this damned beast,' he says, 'an' he's balked with me nine times this afternoon, an' I'll fix ye for 't,' he says. 'Wa'al, deakin,' I says, 'I'm 'fraid the squire's office 'll be shut up 'fore you git there, but I'll take any word you'd like to send. You know I told ye,' I says, 'that he'd stand 'ithout hitchin'.' An' at that he only jest kind o' choked an' sputtered. He was so mad he couldn't say nothin', an' on I drove, an' when I got about forty rod or so I looked back, an' there was the deakin a-comin' along the road with as much of his shoulders as he could git under his hat an' leadin' his new hoss. He, he, he, he! Oh, my stars an' garters! Say, Polly, it paid me fer bein' born into this vale o' tears. It did, I declare for't!" Aunt Polly wiped her eyes on her apron.
"But, Dave," she said, "did the deakin really say—that word?"
"Wa'al," he replied, "if 'twa'n't that it was the puttiest imitation on't that ever I heard."
"David," she continued, "don't you think it putty mean to badger the deakin so't he swore, an' then laugh 'bout it? An' I s'pose you've told the story all over."
"Mis' Bixbee," said David emphatically, "if I'd paid good money to see a funny show I'd be a blamed fool if I didn't laugh, wouldn't I? That specticle of the deakin cost me consid'able, but it was more'n wuth it. But," he added, "I guess, the way the thing stands now, I ain't so much out on the hull."
Mrs. Bixbee looked at him inquiringly.
"Of course, you know Dick Larrabee?" he asked.
"Wa'al, three four days after the shower, an' the story 'd got aroun' some—as you say, the deakin is consid'able of a talker—I got holt of Dick—I've done him some favors an' he natur'ly expects more—an' I says to him: 'Dick,' I says, 'I hear 't Deakin Perkins has got a hoss that don't jest suit him—hain't got knee-action enough at times,' I says, 'an' mebbe he'll sell him reasonable.' 'I've heerd somethin' about it,' says Dick, laughin'. 'One of them kind o' hosses 't you don't like to git ketched out in the rain with,' he says. 'Jes' so,' I says. 'Now,' I says, 'I've got a notion 't I'd like to own that hoss at a price, an' that mebbe I c'd git him home even if it did rain. Here's a hunderd an' ten,' I says, 'an' I want you to see how fur it'll go to buyin' him. If you git me the hoss you needn't bring none on't back. Want to try?' I says. 'All right,' he says, an' took the money. 'But,' he says, 'won't the deakin suspicion that it comes from you?' 'Wa'al,' I says, 'my portrit ain't on none o' the bills, an' I reckon you won't tell him so, out an' out,' an' off he went. Yistidy he come in, an' I says, 'Wa'al, done anythin'?' 'The hoss is in your barn,' he says. 'Good fer you!' I says. 'Did you make anythin'?' 'I'm satisfied,' he says. 'I made a ten-dollar note.' An' that's the net results on't," concluded David, "that I've got the hoss, an' he's cost me jest thirty-five dollars."
Master Jacky Carling was a very nice boy, but not at that time in his career the safest person to whom to intrust a missive in case its sure and speedy delivery were a matter of importance. But he protested with so much earnestness and good will that it should be put into the very first post-box he came to on his way to school, and that nothing could induce him to forget it, that Mary Blake, his aunt, confidante and not unfrequently counsel and advocate, gave it him to post, and dismissed the matter from her mind. Unfortunately the weather, which had been very frosty, had changed in the night to a summer-like mildness. As Jacky opened the door, three or four of his school-fellows were passing. He felt the softness of the spring morning, and to their injunction to "Hurry up and come along!" replied with an entreaty to "Wait a minute till he left his overcoat" (all boys hate an overcoat), and plunged back into the house.
If John Lenox (John Knox Lenox) had received Miss Blake's note of condolence and sympathy, written in reply to his own, wherein, besides speaking of his bereavement, he had made allusion to some changes in his prospects and some necessary alterations in his ways for a time, he might perhaps have read between the lines something more than merely a kind expression of her sorrow for the trouble which had come upon him, and the reminder that he had friends who, if they could not do more to lessen his grief, would give him their truest sympathy. And if some days later he had received a second note, saying that she and her people were about to go away for some months, and asking him to come and see them before their departure, it is possible that very many things set forth in this narrative would not have happened.
* * * * *
Life had always been made easy for John Lenox, and his was not the temperament to interpose obstacles to the process. A course at Andover had been followed by two years at Princeton; but at the end of the second year it had occurred to him that practical life ought to begin for him, and he had thought it rather fine of himself to undertake a clerkship in the office of Rush & Co., where in the ensuing year and a half or so, though he took his work in moderation, he got a fair knowledge of accounts and the ways and methods of "the Street." But that period of it was enough. He found himself not only regretting the abandonment of his college career, but feeling that the thing for which he had given it up had been rather a waste of time. He came to the conclusion that, though he had entered college later than most, even now a further acquaintance with text-books and professors was more to be desired than with ledgers and brokers. His father (somewhat to his wonderment, and possibly a little to his chagrin) seemed rather to welcome the suggestion that he spend a couple of years in Europe, taking some lectures at Heidelberg or elsewhere, and traveling; and in the course of that time he acquired a pretty fair working acquaintance with German, brought his knowledge of French up to about the same point, and came back at the end of two years with a fine and discriminating taste in beer, and a scar over his left eyebrow which could be seen if attention were called to it.
He started upon his return without any definite intentions or for any special reason, except that he had gone away for two years and that the two years were up. He had carried on a desultory correspondence with his father, who had replied occasionally, rather briefly, but on the whole affectionately. He had noticed that during the latter part of his stay abroad the replies had been more than usually irregular, but had attributed no special significance to the fact. It was not until afterward that it occurred to him that in all their correspondence his father had never alluded in any way to his return.
On the passenger list of the Altruria John came upon the names of Mr. and Mrs. Julius Carling and Miss Blake.
"Blake, Blake," he said to himself. "Carling—I seem to remember to have known that name at some time. It must be little Mary Blake whom I knew as a small girl years ago, and, yes, Carling was the name of the man her sister married. Well, well, I wonder what she is like. Of course, I shouldn't know her from Eve now, or she me from Adam. All I can remember seems to be a pair of very slim and active legs, a lot of flying hair, a pair of brownish-gray or grayish-brown eyes, and that I thought her a very nice girl, as girls went. But it doesn't in the least follow that I might think so now, and shipboard is pretty close quarters for seven or eight days."
Dinner is by all odds the chief event of the day on board ship to those who are able to dine, and they will leave all other attractions, even the surpassingly interesting things which go on in the smoking-room, at once on the sound of the gong of promise. On this first night of the voyage the ship was still in smooth water at dinner time, and many a place was occupied which would know its occupant for the first, and very possibly for the last, time. The passenger list was fairly large, but not full. John had assigned to him a seat at a side table. He was hungry, having had no luncheon but a couple of biscuits and a glass of "bitter," and was taking his first mouthful of Perrier-Jouet, after the soup, and scanning the dinner card when the people at his table came in. The man of the trio was obviously an invalid of the nervous variety, and the most decided type. The small, dark woman who took the corner seat at his left was undoubtedly, from the solicitous way in which she adjusted a small shawl about his shoulders—to his querulous uneasiness—his wife. There was a good deal of white in the dark hair, brushed smoothly back from her face.
A tall girl, with a mass of brown hair under a felt traveling hat, took the corner seat at the man's right. That was all the detail of her appearance which the brief glance that John allowed himself revealed to him at the moment, notwithstanding the justifiable curiosity which he had with regard to the people with whom he was likely to come more or less in contact for a number of days. But though their faces, so far as he had seen them, were unfamiliar to him, their identity was made plain to him by the first words which caught his ear. There were two soups on the menu, and the man's mind instantly poised itself between them.
"Which soup shall I take?" he asked, turning with a frown of uncertainty to his wife.
"I should say the consomme, Julius," was the reply.
"I thought I should like the broth better," he objected.
"I don't think it will disagree with you," she said.
"Perhaps I had better have the consomme," he argued, looking with appeal to his wife and then to the girl at his right. "Which would you take, Mary?"
"I?" said the young woman; "I should take both in my present state of appetite.—Steward, bring both soups.—What wine shall I order for you, Julius? I want some champagne, and I prescribe it for you. After your mental struggle over the soup question you need a quick stimulant."
"Don't you think a red wine would be better for me?" he asked; "or perhaps some sauterne? I'm afraid that I sha'n't go to sleep if I drink champagne. In fact, I don't think I had better take any wine at all. Perhaps some ginger ale or Apollinaris water."
"No," she said decisively, "whatever you decide upon, you know that you'll think whatever I have better for you, and I shall want more than one glass, and Alice wants some, too. Oh, yes, you do, and I shall order a quart of champagne.—Steward"—giving her order—"please be as quick as you can."
John had by this fully identified his neighbors, and the talk which ensued between them, consisting mostly of controversies between the invalid and his family over the items of the bill of fare, every course being discussed as to its probable effect upon his stomach or his nerves—the question being usually settled with a whimsical high-handedness by the young woman—gave him a pretty good notion of their relations and the state of affairs in general. Notwithstanding Miss Blake's benevolent despotism, the invalid was still wrangling feebly over some last dish when John rose and went to the smoking room for his coffee and cigarette.
When he stumbled out in search of his bath the next morning the steamer was well out, and rolling and pitching in a way calculated to disturb the gastric functions of the hardiest. But, after a shower of sea water and a rub down, he found himself with a feeling for bacon and eggs that made him proud of himself, and he went in to breakfast to find, rather to his, surprise, that Miss Blake was before him, looking as fresh—well, as fresh as a handsome girl of nineteen or twenty and in perfect health could look. She acknowledged his perfunctory bow as he took his seat with a stiff little bend of the head; but later on, when the steward was absent on some order, he elicited a "Thank you!" by handing her something which he saw she wanted, and, one thing leading to another, as things have a way of doing where young and attractive people are concerned, they were presently engaged in an interchange of small talk, but before John was moved to the point of disclosing himself on the warrant of a former acquaintance she had finished her breakfast.
The weather continued very stormy for two days, and during that time Miss Blake did not appear at table. At any rate, if she breakfasted there it was either before or after his appearance, and he learned afterward that she had taken luncheon and dinner in her sister's room.
The morning of the third day broke bright and clear. There was a long swell upon the sea, but the motion of the boat was even and endurable to all but the most susceptible. As the morning advanced the deck began to fill with promenaders, and to be lined with chairs, holding wrapped-up figures, showing faces of all shades of green and gray.
John, walking for exercise, and at a wholly unnecessary pace, turning at a sharp angle around the deck house, fairly ran into the girl about whom he had been wondering for the last two days. She received his somewhat incoherent apologies, regrets, and self-accusations in such a spirit of forgiveness that before long they were supplementing their first conversation with something more personal and satisfactory; and when he came to the point of saying that half by accident he had found out her name, and begged to be allowed to tell her his own, she looked at him with a smile of frank amusement and said: "It is quite unnecessary, Mr. Lenox. I knew you instantly when I saw you at table the first night; but," she added mischievously, "I am afraid your memory for people you have known is not so good as mine."
"Well," said John, "you will admit, I think, that the change from a little girl in short frocks to a tall young woman in a tailor-made gown might be more disguising than what might happen with a boy of fifteen or so. I saw your name in the passenger list with Mr. and Mrs. Carling, and wondered if it could be the Mary Blake whom I really did remember, and the first night at dinner, when I heard your sister call Mr. Carling 'Julius,' and heard him call you 'Mary,' I was sure of you. But I hardly got a fair look at your face, and, indeed, I confess that if I had had no clew at all I might not have recognized you."
"I think you would have been quite excusable," she replied, "and whether you would or would not have known me is 'one of those things that no fellow can find out,' and isn't of supreme importance anyway. We each know who the other is now, at all events."
"Yes," said John, "I am happy to think that we have come to a conclusion on that point. But how does it happen that I have heard nothing of you all these years, or you of me, as I suppose?"
"For the reason, I fancy," she replied, "that during that period of short frocks with me my sister married Mr. Carling and took me with her to Chicago, where Mr. Carling was in business. We have been back in New York only for the last two or three years."
"It might have been on the cards that I should come across you in Europe," said John. "The beaten track is not very broad. How long have you been over?"
"Only about six months," she replied. "We have been at one or another of the German Spas most of the time, as we went abroad for Mr. Carling's health, and we are on our way home on about such an impulse as that which started us off—he thinks now that he will be better off there."
"I am afraid you have not derived much pleasure from your European experiences," said John.
"Pleasure!" she exclaimed. "If ever you saw a young woman who was glad and thankful to turn her face toward home, I am that person. I think that one of the heaviest crosses humanity has to bear is to have constantly to decide between two or more absolutely trivial conclusions in one's own affairs; but when one is called upon to multiply one's useless perplexities by, say, ten, life is really a burden.
"I suppose," she added after a pause, "you couldn't help hearing our discussions at dinner the other night, and I have wondered a little what you must have thought."
"Yes," he said, "I did hear it. Is it the regular thing, if I may ask?"
"Oh, yes," she replied, with a tone of sadness; "it has grown to be."
"It must be very trying at times," John remarked.
"It is, indeed," she said, "and would often be unendurable to me if it were not for my sense of humor, as it would be to my sister if it were not for her love, for Julius is really a very lovable man, and I, too, am very fond of him. But I must laugh sometimes, though my better nature should rather, I suppose, impel me to sighs.'"
"'A little laughter is much more worth,'" he quoted.
They were leaning upon the rail at the stern of the ship, which was going with what little wind there was, and a following sea, with which, as it plunged down the long slopes of the waves, the vessel seemed to be running a victorious race. The sea was a deep sapphire, and in the wake the sunlight turned the broken water to vivid emerald. The air was of a caressing softness, and altogether it was a day and scene of indescribable beauty and inspiration. For a while there was silence between them, which John broke at last.
"I suppose," he said, "that one would best show his appreciation of all this by refraining from the comment which must needs be comparatively commonplace, but really this is so superb that I must express some of my emotion even at the risk of lowering your opinion of my good taste, provided, of course, that you have one."
"Well," she said, laughing, "it may relieve your mind, if you care, to know that had you kept silent an instant longer I should have taken the risk of lowering your opinion of my good taste, provided, of course, that you have one, by remarking that this was perfectly magnificent."
"I should think that this would be the sort of day to get Mr. Carling on deck. This air and sun would brace him up," said John.
She turned to him with a laugh, and said: "That is the general opinion, or was two hours ago; but I'm afraid it's out of the question now, unless we can manage it after luncheon."
"What do you mean?" he asked with a puzzled smile at the mixture of annoyance and amusement visible in her face. "Same old story?"
"Yes," she replied, "same old story. When I went to my breakfast I called at my sister's room and said, '"Come, boys and girls, come out to play, the sun doth shine as bright as day," and when I've had my breakfast I'm coming to lug you both on deck. It's a perfectly glorious morning, and it will do you both no end of good after being shut up so long.' 'All right,' my sister answered, 'Julius has quite made up his mind to go up as soon as he is dressed. You call for us in half an hour, and we will be ready.'"
"And wouldn't he come?" John asked; "and why not?"
"Oh," she exclaimed with a laugh and a shrug of her shoulders, "shoes."
"Shoes!" said John. "What do you mean?"
"Just what I say," was the rejoinder. "When I went back to the room I found my brother-in-law sitting on the edge of the lounge, or what you call it, all dressed but his coat, rubbing his chin between his finger and thumb, and gazing with despairing perplexity at his feet. It seems that my sister had got past all the other dilemmas, but in a moment of inadvertence had left the shoe question to him, with the result that he had put on one russet shoe and one black one, and had laced them up before discovering the discrepancy."
"I don't see anything very difficult in that situation," remarked John.
"Don't you?" she said scornfully. "No, I suppose not, but it was quite enough for Julius, and more than enough for my sister and me. His first notion was to take off both shoes and begin all over again, and perhaps if he had been allowed to carry it out he would have been all right; but Alice was silly enough to suggest the obvious thing to him—to take off one, and put on the mate to the other—and then the trouble began. First he was in favor of the black shoes as being thicker in the sole, and then he reflected that they hadn't been blackened since coming on board. It seemed to him that the russets were more appropriate anyway, but the blacks were easier to lace. Had I noticed whether the men on board were wearing russet or black as a rule, and did Alice remember whether it was one of the russets or one of the blacks that he was saying the other day pinched his toe? He didn't quite like the looks of a russet shoe with dark trousers, and called us to witness that those he had on were dark; but he thought he remembered that it was the black shoe which pinched him. He supposed he could change his trousers—and so on, and so on, al fine, de capo, ad lib., sticking out first one foot and then the other, lifting them alternately to his knee for scrutiny, appealing now to Alice and now to me, and getting more hopelessly bewildered all the time. It went on that way for, it seemed to me, at least half an hour, and at last I said, 'Oh, come now, Julius, take off the brown shoe—it's too thin, and doesn't go with your dark trousers, and pinches your toe, and none of the men are wearing them—and just put on the other black one, and come along. We're all suffocating for some fresh air, and if you don't get started pretty soon we sha'n't get on deck to-day.' 'Get on deck!' he said, looking up at me with a puzzled expression, and holding fast to the brown shoe on his knee with both hands, as if he were afraid I would take it away from him by main strength—'get on deck! Why—why—I believe I'd better not go out this morning, don't you?'"
"And then?" said John after a pause.
"Oh," she replied, "I looked at Alice, and she shook her head as much to say, 'It's no use for the present,' and I fled the place."
"M'm!" muttered John. "He must have been a nice traveling companion. Has it been like that all the time?"
"Most of it," she said, "but not quite all, and this morning was rather an exaggeration of the regular thing. But getting started on a journey was usually pretty awful. Once we quite missed our train because he couldn't make up his mind whether to put on a light overcoat or a heavy one. I finally settled the question for him, but we were just too late."
"You must be a very amiable person," remarked John.
"Indeed, I am not," she declared, "but Julius is, and it's almost impossible to be really put out with him, particularly in his condition. I have come to believe that he can not help it, and he submits to my bullying with such sweetness that even my impatience gives way."
"Have you three people been alone together all the time?" John asked.
"Yes," she replied, "except for four or five weeks. We visited some American friends in Berlin, the Nollises, for a fortnight, and after our visit to them they traveled with us for three weeks through South Germany and Switzerland. We parted with them at Metz only about three weeks since."
"How did Mr. Carling seem while you were all together?" asked John, looking keenly at her.
"Oh," she replied, "he was more like himself than I have seen him for a long time—since he began to break down, in fact."
He turned his eyes from her face as she looked up at him, and as he did not speak she said suggestively, "You are thinking something you don't quite like to say, but I think I know pretty nearly what it is."
"Yes?" said John, with a query.
"You think he has had too much feminine companionship, or had it too exclusively. Is that it? You need not be afraid to say so."
"Well," said John, "if you put it 'too exclusively,' I will admit that there was something of the sort in my mind, and," he added, "if you will let me say so, it must at times have been rather hard for him to be interested or amused—that it must have—that is to say—"
"Oh, say it!" she exclaimed. "It must have been very dull for him. Is that it?"
"'Father,'" said John with a grimace, "'I can not tell a lie!'"
"Oh," she said, laughing, "your hatchet isn't very sharp. I forgive you. But really," she added, "I know it has been. You will laugh when I tell you the one particular resource we fell back upon."
"Bid me to laugh, and I will laugh," said John.
"Euchre!" she said, looking at him defiantly. "Two-handed euchre! We have played, as nearly as I can estimate, fifteen hundred games, in which he has held both bowers and the ace of trumps—or something equally victorious—I should say fourteen hundred times. Oh!" she cried, with an expression of loathing, "may I never, never, never see a card again as long as I live!" John laughed without restraint, and after a petulant little moue she joined him.
"May I light up my pipe?" he said. "I will get to leeward."
"I shall not mind in the least," she assented.
"By the way," he asked, "does Mr. Carling smoke?"
"He used to," she replied, "and while we were with the Nollises he smoked every day, but after we left them he fell back into the notion that it was bad for him."
John filled and lighted his pipe in silence, and after a satisfactory puff or two said: "Will Mr. Carling go in to dinner to-night?"
"Yes," she replied, "I think he will if it is no rougher than at present."
"It will probably be smoother," said John. "You must introduce me to him—"
"Oh," she interrupted, "of course, but it will hardly be necessary, as Alice and I have spoken so often to him of you—"
"I was going to say," John resumed, "that he may possibly let me take him off your hands a little, and after dinner will be the best time. I think if I can get him into the smoking room that a cigar and—and—something hot with a bit of lemon peel and so forth later on may induce him to visit with me for a while, and pass the evening, or part of it."
"You want to be an angel!" she exclaimed. "Oh, I—we—shall be so obliged. I know it's just what he wants—some man to take him in hand."
"I'm in no hurry to be an angel," said John, laughing, and, with a bow, "It's better sometimes to be near the rose than to be the rose, and you are proposing to overpay me quite. I shall enjoy doing what I proposed, if it be possible."
Their talk then drifted off into various channels as topics suggested themselves until the ship's bell sounded the luncheon hour. Miss Blake went to join her sister and brother-in-law, but John had some bread and cheese and beer in the smoking room. It appeared that the ladies had better success than in the morning, for he saw them later on in their steamer chairs with Mr. Carling, who was huddled in many wraps, with the flaps of his cap down over his ears. All the chairs were full—his own included (as happens to easy-tempered men)—and he had only a brief colloquy with the party. He noticed, however, that Mr. Carling had on the russet shoes, and wondered if they pinched him. In fact, though he couldn't have said exactly why, he rather hoped that they did. He had just that sympathy for the nerves of two-and-fifty which is to be expected from those of five-and-twenty—that is, very little.
When he went in to dinner the Carlings and Miss Blake had been at table some minutes. There had been the usual controversy about what Mr. Carling would drink with his dinner, and he had decided upon Apollinaris water. But Miss Blake, with an idea of her own, had given an order for champagne, and was exhibiting some consternation, real or assumed, at the fact of having a whole bottle brought in with the cork extracted—a customary trick at sea.
"I hope you will help me out," she said to John as he bowed and seated himself. "'Some one has blundered,' and here is a whole bottle of champagne which must be drunk to save it. Are you prepared to help turn my, or somebody's, blunder into hospitality?"
"I am prepared to make any sacrifice," said John, laughing, "in the sacred cause."
"No less than I expected of you," she said. "Noblesse oblige! Please fill your glass."
"Thanks," said John. "Permit me," and he filled her own as well.
As the meal proceeded there was some desultory talk about the weather, the ship's run, and so on; but Mrs. Carling was almost silent, and her husband said but little more. Even Miss Blake seemed to have something on her mind, and contributed but little to the conversation. Presently Mr. Carling said, "Mary, do you think a mouthful of wine would hurt me?"
"Certainly not," was the reply. "It will do you good," reaching over for his glass and pouring the wine.
"That's enough, that's enough!" he protested as the foam came up to the rim of the glass. She proceeded to fill it up to the brim and put it beside him, and later, as she had opportunity, kept it replenished.
As the dinner concluded, John said to Mr. Carling: "Won't you go up to the smoking room with me for coffee? I like a bit of tobacco with mine, and I have some really good cigars and some cigarettes—if you prefer them—that I can vouch for."
As usual, when the unexpected was presented to his mind, Mr. Carling passed the perplexity on to his women-folk. At this time, however, his dinner and the two glasses of wine which Miss Blake had contrived that he should swallow had braced him up, and John's suggestion was so warmly seconded by the ladies that, after some feeble protests and misgivings, he yielded, and John carried him off.
"I hope it won't upset Julius," said Mrs. Carling doubtfully.
"It won't do anything of the sort," her sister replied. "He will get through the evening without worrying himself and you into fits, and, if Mr. Lenox succeeds, you won't see anything of him till ten o'clock or after, and not then, I hope. Mind, you're to be sound asleep when he comes in—snore a little if necessary—and let him get to bed without any talk at all."
"Why do you say 'if Mr. Lenox succeeds'?" asked Mrs. Carling.
"It was his suggestion," Miss Blake answered. "We had been talking about Julius, and he finally told me he thought he would be the better of an occasional interval of masculine society, and I quite agreed with him. You know how much he enjoyed being with George Nollis, and how much like himself he appeared."
"That is true," said Mrs. Carling.
"And you know that just as soon as he got alone again with us two women he began backing and filling as badly as ever. I believe Mr. Lenox is right, and that Julius is just petticoated to death between us."
"Did Mr. Lenox say that?" asked Mrs. Carling incredulously.
"No," said her sister, laughing, "he didn't make use of precisely that figure, but that was what he thought plainly enough."
"What do you think of Mr. Lenox?" said Mrs. Carling irrelevantly. "Do you like him? I thought that he looked at you very admiringly once or twice to-night," she added, with her eyes on her sister's face.
"Well," said Mary, with a petulant toss of the head, "except that I've had about an hour's talk with him, and that I knew him when we were children—at least when I was a child—he is a perfect stranger to me, and I do wish," she added in a tone of annoyance, "that you would give up that fad of yours, that every man who comes along is going to—to—be a nuisance."
"He seems very pleasant," said Mrs. Carling, meekly ignoring her sister's reproach.
"Oh, yes," she replied indifferently, "he's pleasant enough. Let us go up and have a walk on deck. I want you to be sound asleep when Julius comes in."
John found his humane experiment pleasanter than he expected. Mr. Carling, as was to be anticipated, demurred a little at the coffee, and still more at the cigarette; but having his appetite for tobacco aroused, and finding that no alarming symptoms ensued, he followed it with a cigar and later on was induced to go the length of "Scotch and soda," under the pleasant effect of which—and John's sympathetic efforts—he was for the time transformed, the younger man being surprised to find him a man of interesting experience, considerable reading, and, what was most surprising, a jolly sense of humor and a fund of anecdotes which he related extremely well. The evening was a decided success, perhaps the best evidence of it coming at the last, when, at John's suggestion that they supplement their modest potations with a "night-cap," Mr. Carling cheerfully assented upon the condition that they should "have it with him"; and as he went along the deck after saying "Good night," John was positive that he heard a whistled tune.
The next day was equally fine, but during the night the ship had run into the swell of a storm, and in the morning there was more motion than the weaker ones could relish. The sea grew quieter as the day advanced. John was early, and finished his breakfast before Miss Blake came in. He found her on deck about ten o'clock. She gave him her hand as they said good morning, and he turned and walked by her side.
"How is your brother-in-law this morning?" he inquired.
"Oh," she said, laughing, "he's in a mixture of feeling very well and feeling that he ought not to feel so, but, as they are coming up pretty soon, it would appear that the misgivings are not overwhelming. He came in last night, and retired without saying a word. My sister pretended to be asleep. She says he went to sleep at once, and that she was awake at intervals and knows that he slept like a top. He won't make any very sweeping admissions, however, but has gone so far as to concede that he had a very pleasant evening—which is going a long way for him—and to say that you are a very agreeable young man. There! I didn't intend to tell you that, but you have been so good that perhaps so much as a second-hand compliment is no more than your due."
"Thank you very much," said John. "Mr. Carling is evidently a very discriminating person. Really it wasn't good of me at all. I was quite the gainer, for he entertained me more than I did him. We had a very pleasant evening, and I hope we shall have more of them, I do, indeed. I got an entirely different impression of him," he added.
"Yes," she said, "I can imagine that you did. He can be very agreeable, and he is really a man of a great deal of character when he is himself. He has been goodness itself to me, and has managed my affairs for years. Even to-day his judgment in business matters is wonderfully sound. If it had not been for him," she continued, "I don't know but I should have been a pauper. My father left a large estate, but he died very suddenly, and his affairs were very much spread out and involved and had to be carried along. Julius put himself into the breach, and not only saved our fortunes, but has considerably increased them. Of course, Alice is his wife, but I feel very grateful to him on my own account. I did not altogether appreciate it at the time, but now I shudder to think that I might have had either to 'fend for myself' or be dependent."
"I don't think that dependence would have suited your book," was John's comment as he took in the lines of her clear-cut face.
"No," she replied, "and I thank heaven that I have not had to endure it. I am not," she added, "so impressed with what money procures for people as what it saves them from."
"Yes," said John, "I think your distinction is just. To possess it is to be free from some of the most disagreeable apprehensions certainly, but I confess, whether to my credit or my shame I don't know, I have never thought much about it. I certainly am not rich positively, and I haven't the faintest notion whether I may or not be prospectively. I have always had as much as I really needed, and perhaps more, but I know absolutely nothing about the future." They were leaning over the rail on the port side.
"I should think," she said after a moment, looking at him thoughtfully, "that it was, if you will not think me presuming, a matter about which you might have some justifiable curiosity."
"Oh, not at all," he assured her, stepping to leeward and producing a cigar. "I have had some stirrings of late. And please don't think me an incorrigible idler. I spent nearly two years in a down-town office and earned—well, say half my salary. In fact, my business instincts were so strong that I left college after my second year for that purpose, but seeing no special chance of advancement in the race for wealth, and as my father seemed rather to welcome the idea, I broke off and went over to Germany. I haven't been quite idle, though I should be puzzled, I admit, to find a market for what I have to offer to the world. Would you be interested in a schedule of my accomplishments."
"Oh," she said, "I should be charmed, but as I am every moment expecting the advent of my family, and as I am relied upon to locate them and tuck them up, I'm afraid I shall not have time to hear it."
"No," he said, laughing, "it's quite too long."
She was silent for some moments, gazing down into the water, apparently debating something in her mind, and quite unconscious of John's scrutiny. Finally she turned to him with a little laugh. "You might begin on your list, and if I am called away you can finish it at another time."
"I hope you didn't think I was speaking in earnest," he said.
"No," she replied, "I did not think you really intended to unpack your wares, but, speaking seriously—and at the risk, I fear, that you may think me rather 'cheeky,' if I may be allowed that expression—I know a good many men in America, and I think that without an exception they are professional men or business men, or, being neither—and I know but few such—have a competence or more; and I was wondering just now after what you told me what a man like you would or could do if he were thrown upon his own resources. I'm afraid that is rather frank for the acquaintance of a day, isn't it?" she asked with a slight flush, "but it really is not so personal as it may sound to you."
"My dear Miss Blake," he replied, "our acquaintance goes back at least ten years. Please let that fact count for something in your mind. The truth is, I have done some wondering along that same line myself without coming to any satisfactory conclusion. I devoutly hope I may not be so thrown absolutely, for the truth is I haven't a marketable commodity. 'A little Latin, and less Greek,' German and French enough to read and understand and talk—on the surface of things—and what mathematics, history, et cetera, I have not forgotten. I know the piano well enough to read and play an accompaniment after a fashion, and I have had some good teaching for the voice, and some experience in singing, at home and abroad. In fact, I come nearer to a market there, I think, than in any other direction perhaps. I have given some time to fencing in various schools, and before I left home Billy Williams would sometimes speak encouragingly of my progress with the gloves. There! That is my list, and not a dollar in it from beginning to end, I'm afraid."
"Who is Billy Williams?" she asked.
"Billy," said John, "is the very mild-mannered and gentlemanlike 'bouncer' at the Altman House, an ex-prize-fighter, and about the most accomplished member of his profession of his day and weight, who is employed to keep order and, if necessary, to thrust out the riotous who would disturb the contemplations of the lovers of art that frequent the bar of that hotel." It was to be seen that Miss Blake was not particularly impressed by this description of Billy and his functions, upon which she made no comment.
"You have not included in your list," she remarked, "what you acquired in the down-town office you told me of."
"No, upon my word I had forgotten that, and it's about the only thing of use in the whole category," he answered. "If I were put to it, and could find a place, I think I might earn fifty dollars a month as a clerk or messenger, or something. Hullo! here are your people."
He went forward with his companion and greeted Mrs. Carling and her husband, who returned his "Good morning" with a feeble smile, and submitted to his ministrations in the matter of chair and rugs with an air of unresisting invalidism, which was almost too obvious, he thought. But after luncheon John managed to induce him to walk for a while, to smoke a cigarette, and finally to brave the perils of a sherry and bitters before dinner. The ladies had the afternoon to themselves. John had no chance of a further visit with Mary during the day, a loss only partially made good to him by a very approving smile and a remark which she made to him at dinner, that he must be a lineal descendant of the Samaritan. Mr. Carling submitted himself to him for the evening. Indeed, it came about that for the rest of the voyage he had rather more of the company of that gentleman, who fairly attached himself to him, than, under all the circumstances, he cared for; but the gratitude of the ladies was so cordial that he felt paid for some sacrifices of his inclinations. And there was an hour or so every morning—for the fine weather lasted through—which he spent with Mary Blake, with increasing interest and pleasure, and he found himself inwardly rejoicing over a mishap to the engine which, though of no very great magnitude, would retard the passage by a couple of days.
There can hardly be any conditions more favorable to the forming of acquaintanceships, friendships, and even more tender relations than are afforded by the life on board ship. There is opportunity, propinquity, and the community of interest which breaks down the barriers of ordinary reserve. These relations, to be sure, are not always of the most lasting character, and not infrequently are practically ended before the parties thereto are out of the custom-house officer's hands and fade into nameless oblivion, unless one happens to run across the passenger list among one's souvenirs. But there are exceptions. If at this time the question had been asked our friend, even by himself, whether, to put it plainly, he were in love with Mary Blake, he would, no doubt, have strenuously denied it; but it is certain that if any one had said or intimated that any feature or characteristic of hers was faulty or susceptible of any change for the better, he would have secretly disliked that person, and entertained the meanest opinion of that person's mental and moral attributes. He would have liked the voyage prolonged indefinitely, or, at any rate, as long as the provisions held out.
It has been remarked by some one that all mundane things come to an end sooner or later, and, so far as my experience goes, it bears out that statement. The engines were successfully repaired, and the ship eventually came to anchor outside the harbor about eleven o'clock on the night of the last day. Mary and John were standing together at the forward rail. There had been but little talk between them, and only of a desultory and impersonal character. As the anchor chains rattled in the hawse-pipes, John said, "Well, that ends it."
"What ends what?" she asked.
"The voyage, and the holiday, and the episode, and lots of things," he replied. "We have come to anchor."
"Yes," she said, "the voyage is over, that is true; but, for my part, if the last six months can be called a holiday, its end is welcome, and I should think you might be glad that your holiday is over, too. But I don't quite understand what you mean by 'the episode and lots of things.'"
There was an undertone in her utterance which her companion did not quite comprehend, though it was obvious to him.
"The episode of—of—our friendship, if I may call it so," he replied.
"I call it so," she said decisively. "You have certainly been a friend to all of us. This episode is over to be sure, but is there any more than that?"
"Somebody says that 'friendship is largely a matter of streets,'" said John gloomily. "To-morrow you will go your way and I shall go mine."
"Yes," she replied, rather sharply, "that is true enough; but if that cynical quotation of yours has anything in it, it's equally true, isn't it, that friendship is a matter of cabs, and street cars, and the elevated road? Of course, we can hardly be expected to look you up, but Sixty-ninth Street isn't exactly in California, and the whole question lies with yourself. I don't know if you care to be told so, but Julius and my sister like you very much, and will welcome you heartily always."
"Thanks, very much!" said John, staring straight out in front of him, and forming a determination that Sixty-ninth Street would see but precious little of him. She gave a side glance at him as he did not speak further. There was light enough to see the expression of his mouth, and she read his thought almost in words. She had thought that she had detected a suggestion of sentimentality on his part which she intended to keep strictly in abeyance, but in her intention not to seem to respond to it she had taken an attitude of coolness and a tone which was almost sarcastic, and now perceived that, so far as results were apparent, she had carried matters somewhat further than she intended. Her heart smote her a little, too, to think that he was hurt. She really liked him very much, and contritely recalled how kind and thoughtful and unselfish he had been, and how helpful, and she knew that it had been almost wholly for her. Yes, she was willing—and glad—to think so. But while she wished that she had taken a different line at the outset, she hated desperately to make any concession, and the seconds of their silence grew into minutes. She stole another glance at his face. It was plain that negotiations for harmony would have to begin with her. Finally she said in a quiet voice:
"'Thanks, very much,' is an entirely polite expression, but it isn't very responsive."
"I thought it met your cordiality quite half way," was the rejoinder. "Of course, I am glad to be assured of Mr. and Mrs. Carling's regard, and that they would be glad to see me, but I think I might have been justified in hoping that you would go a little further, don't you think?"
He looked at her as he asked the question, but she did not turn her head. Presently she said in a low voice, and slowly, as if weighing her words:
"Will it be enough if I say that I shall be very sorry if you do not come?" He put his left hand upon her right, which was resting on the rail, and for two seconds she let it stay.
"Yes," he said, "thanks—very—much!"
"I must go now," she said, turning toward him, and for a moment she looked searchingly in his face. "Good night," she said, giving him her hand, and John looked after her as she walked down the deck, and he knew how it was with him.
John saw Miss Blake the next morning in the saloon among the passengers in line for the customs official. It was an easy conjecture that Mr. Carling's nerves were not up to committing himself to a "declaration" of any sort, and that Miss Blake was undertaking the duty for the party. He did not see her again until he had had his luggage passed and turned it over to an expressman. As he was on his way to leave the wharf he came across the group, and stopped to greet them and ask if he could be of service, and was told that their houseman had everything in charge, and that they were just going to their carriage, which was waiting. "And," said Miss Blake, "if you are going up town, we can offer you a seat."
"Sha'n't I discommode you?" he asked. "If you are sure I shall not, I shall be glad to be taken as far as Madison Avenue and Thirty-third Street, for I suppose that will be your route."
"Quite sure," she replied, seconded by the Carlings, and so it happened that John went directly home instead of going first to his father's office. The weather was a chilly drizzle, and he was glad to be spared the discomfort of going about in it with hand-bag, overcoat, and umbrella, and felt a certain justification in concluding that, after two years, a few hours more or less under the circumstances would make but little difference. And then, too, the prospect of half or three-quarters of an hour in Miss Blake's company, the Carlings notwithstanding, was a temptation to be welcomed. But if he had hoped or expected, as perhaps would have been not unnatural, to discover in that young woman's air any hint or trace of the feeling she had exhibited, or, perhaps it should be said, to a degree permitted to show itself, disappointment was his portion. Her manner was as much in contrast with that of the last days of their voyage together as the handsome street dress and hat in which she was attired bore to the dress and headgear of her steamer costume, and it almost seemed to him as if the contrasts bore some relation to each other. After the question of the carriage windows—whether they should be up or down, either or both, and how much—had been settled, and, as usual in such dilemmas, by Miss Blake, the drive up town was comparatively a silent one. John's mind was occupied with sundry reflections and speculations, of many of which his companion was the subject, and to some extent in noting the changes in the streets and buildings which an absence of two years made noticeable to him.
Mary looked steadily out of window, lost in her own thoughts save for an occasional brief response to some casual comment or remark of John's. Mr. Carling had muffled himself past all talking, and his wife preserved the silence which was characteristic of her when unurged.
John was set down at Thirty-third Street, and, as he made his adieus, Mrs. Carling said, "Do come and see us as soon as you can, Mr. Lenox"; but Miss Blake simply said "Good-by" as she gave him her hand for an instant, and he went on to his father's house.
He let himself in with the latch-key which he had carried through all his absence, but was at once encountered by Jeffrey, who, with his wife, had for years constituted the domestic staff of the Lenox household.
"Well, Jeff," said John, as he shook hands heartily with the old servant, "how are you? and how is Ann? You don't look a day older, and the climate seems to agree with you, eh?"
"You're welcome home, Mr. John," replied Jeffrey, "and thank you, sir. Me and Ann is very well, sir. It's a pleasure to see you again and home. It is, indeed."
"Thank you, Jeff," said John. "It's rather nice to be back. Is my room ready?"
"Yes, sir," said Jeffrey, "I think it's all right, though we thought that maybe it 'd be later in the day when you got here, sir. We thought maybe you'd go to Mr. Lenox's office first."
"I did intend to," said John, mounting the stairs, followed by Jeffrey with his bag, "but I had a chance to drive up with some friends, and the day is so beastly that I took advantage of it. How is my father?" he asked after entering the chamber, which struck him as being so strangely familiar and so familiarly strange.
"Well, sir," said Jeffrey, "he's much about the same most ways, and then again he's different, too. Seeing him every day, perhaps I wouldn't notice so much; but if I was to say that he's kind of quieter, perhaps that'd be what I mean, sir."
"Well," said John, smiling, "my father was about the quietest person I ever knew, and if he's grown more so—what do you mean?"
"Well, sir," replied the man, "I notice at table, sir, for one thing. We've been alone here off and on a good bit, sir, and he used always to have a pleasant word or two to say to me, and may be to ask me questions and that, sir; but for a long time lately he hardly seems to notice me. Of course, there ain't any need of his saying anything, because I know all he wants, seeing I've waited on him so long, but it's different in a way, sir."
"Does he go out in the evening to his club?" asked John.
"Very rarely, sir," said Jeffrey. "He mostly goes to his room after dinner, an' oftentimes I hear him walking up an' down, up an' down, and, sir," he added, "you know he often used to have some of his friends to dine with him, and that ain't happened in, I should guess, for a year."
"Have things gone wrong with him in any way?" said John, a sudden anxiety overcoming some reluctance to question a servant on such a subject.
"You mean about business, and such like?" replied Jeffrey. "No, sir, not so far as I know. You know, Mr. John, sir, that I pay all the house accounts, and there hasn't never been no—no shortness, as I might say, but we're living a bit simpler than we used to—in the matter of wine and such like—and, as I told you, we don't have comp'ny no more."
"Is that all?" asked John, with some relief.
"Well, sir," was the reply, "perhaps it's because Mr. Lenox is getting older and don't care so much about such things, but I have noticed that he hasn't had anything new from the tailor in a long time, and really, sir, though perhaps I oughtn't to say it, his things is getting a bit shabby, sir, and he used to be always so partic'lar."
John got up and walked over to the window which looked out at the rear of the house. The words of the old servant disquieted him, notwithstanding that there was nothing so far that could not be accounted for without alarm. Jeffrey waited for a moment and then asked:
"Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. John? Will you be having luncheon here, sir?"
"No, thank you, Jeff," said John; "nothing more now, and I will lunch here. I'll come down and see Ann presently."
"Thank you, sir," said Jeffrey, and withdrew.
The view from the back windows of most city houses is not calculated to arouse enthusiasm at the best of times, and the day was singularly dispiriting: a sky of lead and a drizzling rain, which emphasized the squalor of the back yards in view. It was all very depressing. Jeffrey's talk, though inconclusive, had stirred in John's mind an uneasiness which was near to apprehension. He turned and walked about the familiar room, recognizing the well-known furniture, his mother's picture over the mantel, the bookshelves filled with his boyhood's accumulations, the well-remembered pattern of the carpet, and the wall-paper—nothing was changed. It was all as he had left it two years ago, and for the time it seemed as if he had merely dreamed the life and experiences of those years. Indeed, it was with difficulty that he recalled any of them for the moment. And then suddenly there came into his mind the thought that he was at the beginning of a new epoch—that on this day his boyhood ended, for up to then he had been but a boy. The thought was very vivid. It had come, the time when he must take upon himself the responsibilities of his own life, and make it for himself; the time which he had looked forward to as to come some day, but not hitherto at any particular moment, and so not to be very seriously considered.