This is not the history of the bland Professor Tonson, but of a man who became flamboyantly ridiculous and then became human, and along the way learned something of love, the intensive culture of the string bean, and Mystic Powers; and in the end discovered that if he was not afraid of being completely unreasonable he could make life glorious.
Professor Tonson was not a professor of anything or at anywhere, but he made a specialty of knowing everything. His prize subjects were Hindu metaphysics, and the food value of the humble but earnest peanut, and the most expeditious methods of extracting fortunes from elderly ladies of high moral tendencies. He looked a good deal like an English major with a white horseshoe mustache and a weakness for mixing drinks. Whereas Mr. William Packard, of the Cape Realty Development Company, knew nothing at all about dietetics or theosophy — though he was one hundred percent efficient at the methods for getting elderly ladies’ fortunes back into circulation.
Mr. Packard was built like Mr. Jess Willard, the distinguished autobiographer and physical culturist, and wore his five-dollar hat at an impertinent angle on his mighty and baldish head.
He had symptoms of tobacco heart, coffee heart, motor heart, cocktail heart, poker heart and musical-comedy heart. He kept six different physicians expectant of his becoming violently ill with six or more ailments, though he always felt well after 10 a.m.
He met the professor when the latter pussy-footed into Packard’s real-estate office with a preposterous offer for two hundred acres on Cape Cod for the establishment of an enlarged plant of the Nature and Guidance Colony — Inc. The professor teetered and Packard pounded on the desk, and the scene looked stormily tragic; and then they quite amiably agreed on a price and went out to lunch together.
The professor took a Black and White Lunch — he called it that; the waiter called it a crime — consisting of asparagus without dressing, ripe olives, and a modicum of Bar-le-Due — he called it a modicum. Packard took a beefsteak and kidney pudding, a baked potato, plum pudding, two pots of coffee and a cigar. The professor gently, stickily tried to persuade Packard that he ought to give up meat, tobacco, coffee, and most of the other things for which that well-to-do bachelor lived.
“Yes,” said Packard; “but, canning all that back-to-Nature dope, what plans have you got for the erection of your buildings? I’m president of the Barnstable County Construction Company; I’ve put up most of the hotels and really classy houses that have gone up on the Cape in the last five years; and I’ll make you an attractive proposition.”
The professor took the attractive proposition; and five months later Packard motored up to Nauset Harbor to examine progress on the buildings of the Nature and Guidance Colony.
Though he made most of his money out of Cape Cod, Packard knew it only by motor car. He had never met a native who said “‘Twa’n’t!” and he had the simple-hearted rule of staying only at hotels whose rates were six dollars a day or more.
He did not know a sand dune from a Swampscott dory, unless he saw one in a blueprint. He regarded the shellbacks and the kindly summerites, together, as one vast bog of cranberries, which he plucked, but with which he did not associate.
Consequently he was bored when he entered a tract of barren uplands, the grass dried to wheat-gray and mulberry color, beyond which was a steel-blue inlet and a barricade of gray dunes. His car staggered on a sandy road and he beheld a line of cottages like bathhouses, without even a board walk and a shower bath in front of them.
Professor Tonson met him with bouncing enthusiasms. Every time he said “Wonnnnnderful!” or “Llll-Lovely!” it sounded like a hand drawn over the bottom of a whisk broom. The professor, who had worn a frock coat and a white waistcoat in the city, was neatly clad in a straight linen robe like the old-fashioned nightgowns that respectable gentlemen who parted their whiskers used to wear. He also had sandals and carried a book about the size of a tombstone. But Packard paid small attention to him, because in the professor’s wake was a girl of 24 or 25, like a little silver image, with bobbed hair of shining ash-blond. She wore a garment like a gunny sack; but she had the grace of a girlhood ivory-skinned, eternal.
The raising of Packard’s hat was a study in sprightly graciousness. It was a perfect thing, like Matty’s pitching or a Futurist cut-out puzzle by Matisse. He skipped from the car and was introduced to the professor’s lieutenant, Miss Beulah Atkinson.
While the professor returned to his class in Upstirrings Toward the Infinite, which had already begun in the half-finished Tabernacle — a wooden Greek temple of the First National Bank order of architecture — Packard was conducted about the grounds by Miss Beulah. Packard slid, in his nine-dollar tan oxfords, down the baking side of a dune; he kicked his way through long beach grass and thick cranberry patches; but he was oblivious of his martyrdom.
He had had a shock that turned all his briskness into exalted humbleness, for Miss Beulah’s light-swimming eyes were raised to the clouds with worshiping exaltation; her low voice was intense with the happiness of the Colony’s finding a place where they could be free and “real.” Her hands, smooth-finished as enamel, touched his arm to herald the sea vista of silver-and-blue water, edged with gold-green downs. He finally got it through his head that this girl, whom he took very seriously, actually believed in the Colony, which he had despised.
As suddenly as though the touch of her fingers were a charm, he found the Colony — peanuts and linen gowns and all — a highly important and interesting discovery. He had been quizzing her about the small meanness of the colonists’ cottages and the grandeur of the professor’s new home; he had cynically learned that the Colony members gave one-tenth of their fortunes to the Colony. But now he stopped, threw back his head, expanded his huge chest, and drew in all the exhilaration of the sea breeze, while he volunteered:
“Well, it really is a beautiful place here — by golly! I’m more used to Washington Street; but there is something
“Yuh! Wonderful! Sea and landscape — Say, is there any good fishing here?”
“I really don’t know; but — ” Miss Beulah flung out both her arms. Her baggy sleeves fell away and her arms shone bare and exquisite. “We are fishing for human souls!” she cried. “Don’t you know the city transforms people into machines — into machines for digesting meat and doing silly, useless work? We want to make them free.”
Packard trembled “Y-yes!” like an awed small boy. He wanted to kiss her hand. His regular rule for handling women customers — “Kid every chicken you meet” — seemed unutterably sordid in her presence. He stammered and drew in a full breath again.
“Don’t you feel tired and useless first thing in the morning?” she demanded.
“Why, yes; don’t you?”
“Wish you’d show me the trick.”
“Nature has shown you the trick. It has given us the sea and the air and the nourishing vegetables.”
“I wish it’d given me you to show me how.”
“Perhaps it has.”
“Would you show me the trick if I stayed down here?”
She flushed. Uneasily: “Why — why, if I could. But it’s — it’s Professor Tonson who shows us all.”
“Oh! Him! I’d rather have your version.”
“I’m only a silly child, compared with him. It’s he who has the Guidance, in Revelations that tell us what the Colony shall do — the Natural Food, and all.”
“Yes,” said Packard meekly — 206 pounds of meekness that moved its feet carefully and tried to look like a gentle lover of Natural Food who preferred a lunch of Brussels sprouts to roast beef any day.
They sat on a dune looking to sea. Sometimes she was a very mature person who awed him by scraps of knowledge about metaphysics. Sometimes she was an eager girl who whispered “Look! Oh, look!” when a plover ran along the shore. The wind blew her grotesque garment into delicate lines and her bobbed hair fluttered constantly. She cried:
“Have you a bathing suit? No? Wouldn’t you like a swim? It would give me an excuse! I’ll get the professor to lend you one.”
She herself changed to a coquettish garment of silk with a flounced skirt and a quite un-Natural bow of coral-hued satin. She led him plunging out into the surf, her white shoulder muscles flowing like ripples on an inland stream. As they breasted a breaker together he suddenly — and apropos of everything — knew that he was in love with her. And that love stood the test of her taking him to the professor’s last class for the day — a class in the Hydraulics of Natural Food — and to the Colony supper, an original combination of old string beans and new corn mush.
An hour afterward, as he sat down to an English mutton chop and other things not included in Natural Food, at the Santequisset Inn, he kept shaking his head and muttering: “Well, I’ll be darned!” And when his calm was so shaken that he was diverted from his fascinated interest in food and expectant of being darned during meals, then he was stirred indeed.
Mr. Packard, broker and constructor, builder of castles in Spain, in the air, on sand and on tidal flats, had ideals. They were mostly filed away under “I” in back files. covered with dust; but the thought of Beulah, his vision of the flame of life as it flickered in her eyes, represented to him those ideals. He saw her as a victim of the professor’s Revelations; but, for the first time in his years of selling shacks to people who wanted to get near to the primitive, he was willing to admit that there really might be something interesting in the life of barren shores — and more barren suppers.
More and more the decorative ladies who had cheered his city bachelor life seemed shoddy beside Beulah, after that day. He motored to the Colony once a week or oftener. The life there came to seem almost reasonable. He even felt satisfaction when the Colony membership grew to 30 — 30 lean gentlemen and agitated old ladies — and he did not protest so very violently when the professor broke Beulah’s heart by making her change her silk bathing suit for a garment that looked like a holland summer covering for a large chair. He had caught from Beulah her faith in the Colony.
She, the daughter of a dreamy New Thought clergyman, had all her life been accustomed to take cobwebby theories seriously, and on her father’s death had become the lieutenant of Professor Tonson. Emotions, enthusiasms, theories, trust, were to her real things. She never grinned when she read in New Thought magazines the advertisements of gentlemen who offer for an insignificant sum to cure baldness by Thought Power, or to initiate you into recently discovered mysteries of the Tibetans that will increase your bank account and keep your cook from leaving. She could not convert Mr. William Packard to her theories, but she did convert him to a belief in herself.
On an October day, when the line of silver poplars and cottonwoods that shouldered across the hills back of the Colony was high-colored, when the sea breeze had an entrancing nip, and ducks hurled across the sky, and the course tide roared on the bars of Gosnold’s Rip, Packard sat beside her on the dove-gray sands. His tie was as gay as of old, but he wore black sneakers and khaki trousers smeared in crosshatchings with motor-boat grease. His voice was not flippant, but quiet with friendship and a deep affection more genuine than any feeling he had known before in his bustling life. “Well,” he said, “I guess our party’s all over now. Buildings are done.”
“And I’ll have to go back to the city.”
“Well, Beulah, it’ll be kind of too bad to leave — ”
“Yes; when you are coming to understand our simplicity here — ”
“Yes; but I wish you could see Boston. Be fine! Art galleries and opera and music and stuff — and, say, it wouldn’t hurt you to be comfortable for a while! You’d enjoy it here all the more when you got back.”
“Yes; but the sea — ”
“Yes; but the streets — ”
“Yes; but — Oh, Bill, you aren’t going to go back and stay, and lose all the simplicity here, and lose — lose — ”
“Lose you?” He stopped fencing. “No, no; I won’t! Why, you absurd littleness, I could hold you in one hand and I could put one finger round your neck, and yet already you’ve become my boss. Will you marry me if I come here and live? I — ”
He picked her up and cradled her in his arms. For an instant their lips blurred together as the waves met and blurred with the sands. Holding him off, she said, lucidly and quaintly as a child talking to a beloved uncle:
“Come, then; we’ll get Professor Tonson to marry us this afternoon according to the rites, and then we’ll drive right down to Orleans and be married again — to make it legal.”
“T-this afternoon! Why, little girl, don’t you want to be engaged for a while? Why, gee, I’ve never heard — ”
“Oh, no, Billy. You see, I’ve had a course in Conversion of the Worldly-Minded to Higher Thought; and the professor taught us that when a man yields to the Natural Force of Love he’ll be willing to follow the Clearer Feminine Light of the Woman — at first. But then he’ll get old-minded, and want to go back to his worldly Spirit Habits and still try to keep his love; so he must be shown the way while there is yet light.”
“Well, gee, honey, I thought a business man would be able to put it all over this Higher Thought bunch; but you win.”
“Oh, yes, dear,” she said serenely. “I expect to manage you, as a humble aid to the professor, until you get trained in the Higher Life. Come, child!”
She sprang from his lap. Her spring was like the swallow’s darting flight along the sedge grass. She took his hand and led him toward the Colony… They crossed the long flat sickle of beach; they stumbled up through the loose sand and the tangled brown selvage of grass roots to a dunetop; they were outlined against the angry sky — her hair blowing out like the delicate filaments of mist that were flicked along with the storm clouds. They turned back to face the sea and his arm was about her, his chin was high. Then she took his hand again. He followed her like a meek but enormously overgrown boy and they disappeared beyond the dunes.
Two pearly-breasted terns, flying in from sea, preened themselves on the sand and watched the vanishing lovers.
“Haw!” laughed one raucously, hoarse-noted as the surf. “There go two fools! Doesn’t it make you landsick to see a 15-foot horse mackerel trying to play with a herring like that?”
“You’re a fool — and a young fool!” said the elder tern. “All you know yet is food. Don’t you understand that everyone laughs at lovers because a laugh is the tenderest thing in the world? Come on! The sperling are running.”
It was not only that his simple taste preferred a steak sprinkled with mushrooms to a tulip-bulb salad, but, furthermore, Packard considered it an insult that Professor Tonson should lecture him on the merits of the beans that he himself had raised. Oh, Packard — Brother Packard — had raised the beans, all right! For seven months now he had been a tremendously married member of the Nature and Guidance Colony, and he had brought those beans up by hand, according to the Montessori method.
He had fed them and watered them and called them religious-sounding pet names, and almost dandled them on his knee and taught them Chopsticks on the piano. He had weeded them daily — he knew nothing about botany and he could not have told you the Latin name of a single weed, but he had little names of his own for every one of them. There was the bunch of casual grass that stuck to the ground like your last stamp to a misdirected envelope. There was the flat, sneaky weed that sprawled like a fawning dog, with a lying and treacherous smile on its shiny leaves, and had to be yanked out by hand.
Clad in a straight linen robe and sandals, and a Peter the Hermit haircut, with his poor patient desk-trained back contorted to a stoop, his tender neck slowly broiling to one red smear of unhappiness, Packard had weeded, and weeded, and weeded — he, the immaculate, whose diagonally striped ties, and club-barber haircuts, and manicured nails, and suits with a faintly distinctive pattern, once had made him as sleek as a newly groomed race horse! Now he had actually got used to his incredible linen Colony robe, which flapped with a sneaky sheepishness about his plump ankles.
He had been so wistfully good. He had not made one sign of wanting to beat the professor; he had not quarreled with him — well, had scarcely quarreled with him at all. But now, when the professor came nickering round at Colony supper, suave among the workhouse-gray benches and bare tables; when he praised the succulent bean as though Packard had never even heard of a bean before, Packard growled: “Y’ ought to weed them!” And under the shelter of the table he bent a fork double. The professor merely smiled and flowed away.
After supper the colonists were instructed to retire to their cottages for Instructive Reading. Though he had not become particularly instructed, Packard had obediently read several pounds of books about Spirit Impulses and about sages who lived a long while ago and wore beards. The books all sounded so much alike that Packard would unintentionally skip from Yogi Trance, on page 223, to Navajo Concentration, on page 226, without knowing he had missed anything in between. And he had kept himself from smoking, though every 10 minutes during the evening a bright realization would come to him that he wanted something new and exciting, and wanted it right now — and that something new would always prove to be the same old thing, a smoke.
The women sat across from the men in the Hall. Packard hastened across to where Beulah’s silken hair and the lovely little curve of her chin were brilliant amid the discreet gray of earnest old women. As he approached her, as she looked up like a white verbena blossom tilted by a breeze, the resentment that he belonged to this ridiculous Colony left him, and his smile was radiant when he whispered:
“I’m going out to try and meditate on the dunes. Be right home.”
His whisper was a vocal caress; but he was lying, passionately, devotedly, for Packard was not as yet in such a state of Natural Grace that he really cared much for sitting on a damp dune and meditating about the ethics of the Bhagavad-Gita. He was not going to go out and try to get into any such state of grace, either. He was going to have a smoke. And he concealed his vile object from his wife partly because he did not want to hurt her feelings and partly because — oh, any married man will understand!
He carted his huge form out among the dark dunes as delicately as a lone lorn fern frond, lest he be discovered by chronic Meditators and be invited to join in a real Meditation bee. He stole into a clump of pines and laurel and scrub oak — and luxuriant poison ivy, which gratefully parted to make it easy for him to get right into the midst of it — and after cursory fumbling reached his new hiding place for a box of 1,000 cigarettes and 2,000 matches, his last thoughtful purchase before taking a year’s leave of Boston and his business. He felt in a nonexistent trousers pocket for a match safe he no longer carried. He took a match from the box, and as he scratched it on his shiny linen robe he mourned:
“This is a — of a pair of pants for a Pride’s Crossing Club man to wear! Gee, the prof might let us wear pyjamas, anyway!” He clumped toward the cubicle they called home, with its sparse furniture and the Futurist paintings that appealed to Colony taste. But he forgot his troubles when he found Beulah in the golden silk kimono which was her only remaining vanity; when they curled together in the armchair.
Everything has a symbol — at least if you live in a Nature and Guidance Colony. If beans were the symbol of the day that the historian has just chronicled, then of the following day twain were the symbols — fog and a cow rampant on a field slippery.
At 5:30 a.m., the hour at which the well-to-do Mr. Packard, of Boston, had been wont to turn over in bed for three more hours of conscientious slumber, the Colony always rose and had a unanimous, though not necessarily enthusiastic, swim before breakfast — call it breakfast. This morning of fate a fog like a snowstorm hid the world, presaged vague dangers Out There, crept through clothing, and chilled the colonists until they shivered and moaned as they hesitated out of warm beds. A foghorn down on the Point moaned like an orphaned calf at such regular intervals that Packard kept listening for its recurrence as he put on his damply stiff robe instead of his bathing suit. The robe felt like a new towel used as a washcloth, but it was divinely preferable to a bathing suit this morning.
“Thank the Lord, we won’t have to go swimming anyway!” he sighed to the nose-tip of Beulah — the only part of her that had as yet dared to slip out of the pillow into which her head had snuggled.
“Yes!” she said devoutly, and burrowed again.
Packard went to stand on their doorstep. He wrapped a table covering about his shoulders. He felt like a man catching a 3 a.m. train for the first time in his life as he stared at the bleary fields and the blanket of mist. He wanted to smoke. He wanted to devour beefsteak and coffee. And, with a longing that passeth the understanding, he wanted to go back to bed.
A suspicion of abominations and treachery chilled him still more. Down the row of cottages came Professor Tonson in a bathing suit, his lanky shanks of a gristly bareness beyond any ordinary white and rounded nudity. And the colonists were falling in behind him. Packard tried to present an impersonation of an influential and cheery broker as he called:
“Guess it’s too foggy for a swim this morning — eh, professor?”
The professor retorted:
“Certainly not! I have a Revelation that, no matter what the weather is, we must not give up our communion with the strength of the sea. Quit ye like men; be strong! Into your bathing suit at once, brother!”
The stringy-necked men and women who followed the professor, like a string of broken-down horses with the springhalt, all sniffed at William Packard’s towering beef as though they did not really care so very much for quitting them like men, but, anyway, they were stronger than this lump. The flapping scarecrows disappeared into the fog like a fantastic chorus recruited from soggy November cornfields.
The fog hid the shore, hid even the dunes; but Packard could fairly feel the sea. He was sure that it had never been so wet as it was that morning. He turned back into his house, looking for sympathy from Beulah. He was going to encourage her to stay in her comfortable nest and defy the professor; but he found her already struggling with the canonical Colony bathing robe for women — her ivory shoulders, like those of a priceless statue, partly covered with snuff-colored denim.
“Why, Billy, you must hurry! Didn’t you hear the professor?” she said wonderingly.
Finally, his bathing suit had not dried properly overnight. It was probably the clammiest thing in the fog-swathed unhappy universe.
On the shore, gray, weary waves rolled from under the gloomy curtain of fog, and nearer now was the foghorn’s yawping warning that perils innumerous were lurking out there.
He plunged into the breakers like a whale and splashed a good deal to show that he was not afraid; but he was afraid, and when he came dripping out his heart was no longer God’s little garden, but weedy with resentment against Beulah and hatred for the professor.
It was as he sat at a breakfast of corn chips, milk of a faint lavender hue, oat cakes, and nice sugared hot water to take off the chill of the swim, that Packard realized he almost hated Beulah, too, as she absorbed the long droning observations on the Symbolism of Mist with which the professor made breakfast jolly and gay. Her devotion to the professor threatened to destroy the sacred tenderness and respect for her that was his religion. He had to get her away from here if love was to survive… And incidentally he wanted a breakfast table with a silver coffeepot and fatly sentimental buttery muffins, and a Beulah who, just risen, would praise her big brave boy for having dared to go out and swim in the fog.
Clearly though Packard saw the danger to their love, he forgot it in the early afternoon, during the affair of the cow.
He was sent out to fetch a cow, which had been grazing in an upland pasture. As he crossed the rolling moors; as he saw the colored hillsides with their patches of lichengreen and rose, and a yellow like the essence of sunlight; as he gazed over a sea that was clear of fog now and shone in dark blue waves, with a schooner on the far sky line — Packard was happy. He trotted uphill without a trace of the smoker’s feeble panting. He felt as strong as a locomotive; his blood ran gloriously; he laughed with well-being.
Then he realized that a curious itching between his fingers had been bothering him more and more all day. He stopped and spread his fingers wide, and his massive face puckered with childish discontent. He was poisoned with poison ivy.
Occasionally scratching one hand with the other, he trudged up the next hill. In his eyes the ocean now shone no more than a pile of musty hay. His trusting heart had been deceived again. So he came like sulky Achilles to where the cow grazed; and, flourishing a rope halter, he growled at the animal:
“Come here, you son of a mush-faced rabbit!”
The cow turned and slumped gently away. It seemed to suppose that it was a colt in a pasture. It stopped now and then, and with its ludicrous hoofs coyly patted the earth before humping itself on again. Packard was too much engaged in paddling after it, in shaking his big red fist and bellowing illimitable curses, to see a silent-running motor car stop on the State Road, at the farther side of the field.
His name was called. He stopped. In the car were two brokers he had known in Boston. They were smoking large cigars; they were wearing hats like chorus men in a Palm Beach musical comedy; they looked insultingly well-fed; and they were accompanied by two girls of the sort who had always sighed “Oh, Mr. Packard!” at him.
He turned away in dignity. He paid no attention to their shouts. He — William Packard, who had stalked down Tremont Street looking every man in the face — hid in a patch of weeds until the motor car had driven away. And for hours he fancied he could still smell the incense of those large Olympian cigars, still catch some aroma of the biggest steak in the world, simply wallowing in onions.
And he still had a cow to catch; in fact, any time during the next half hour it might truthfully have been noted that he still had a cow to catch.
When he reached home, expecting Beulah to comfort him, she was in tears… A female neighbor, a lady of more ideals than bosom, had complained to Professor Tonson that Beulah’s pet vice, the silken robe she wore for Packard, was a Stumblingblock; and the professor had had a Revelation that Beulah must give it to be sold for the Nature Gospel Fund.
“Why, the rotten old scoundrel! I’ll make him give back your pretty. I’ll make him eat — ”
Beulah interrupted in a manner of horror:
“Bill! You are sacrilegious!”
He went to sit on the miserable pine doorstep and brood of a future in which his beloved would drive him away by her childish faith in Predigested Nature. The fog was again creeping over dune and sea.
It was an hour before their supper, and it was Thursday. Thursday supper always consisted of lentil chops, chicory salad and lukewarm coffee substitute, a repast that could scarcely be trusted to make him to leap like the young roe or the dancing doe, with Optimism Invincible, or any of the other standard brands of optimism in which the professor dealt.
He could not stand it, he felt. And he would not stand it! But the awe of love was on him; he was afraid to kick Beulah’s idol. He would never be able to revolt if he hesitated for one single minute. He made himself lumber up from the step like a great brown bear unwillingly rising from a blueberry bush. He trotted through the sneaking fog, his linen robe rustling against his legs.
As he ran he had a joyous vision of finding Professor Tonson secretly enjoying a steak or a smoke; of exposing him; of breaking up the Nature Colony; of returning to Boston with Beulah; of eating all the chops between Brockton and Portland in one enormous gorge, during which he would laugh at the professor — but he found the professor beautifully meditative and reading Bergson’s Creative Evolution. His mustache shone with silver. He was a saintly sight. His poise was so perfect that Packard felt like an iceman.
“Say, I want to see you!” he said.
“And you do, brother,” beamed the professor.
“Say, you! Look here! Whatyuhmean by — ”
“Ah! The little matter of Sister Beulah’s vain gauds?”
“I don’t know anything about her gods, and don’t spring that mystic dope on me again. D’yuh hear?”
The professor and Packard were equally aghast at the snarl with which the last words came out. It was as though the old Bill Packard, the unredeemed, had come stamping in, seized the conversation and shaken it by its ratty neck. Packard expected to be answered with a flood of the professor’s contempt. He would bluff it out. He tried to remember how much stronger than the professor he was. He stood big and red and fist-clenched — feeling like a fool.
But the professor answered timidly:
“Very well; I’ll r-r-r-return the robe at once, B-Brother Packard.”
“Oh, you will, eh? Say, do you know what you’re going to do next? You’re going to have a Revelation that Beulah and me are to return to Boston and eat meat and smoke our — smoke my head off! You’re going to have one of the overpoweringest Revelations you ever had that what Beulah needs is — oh, music and all that highbrow stuff — or darn near anything else that she can’t find outside the city. Get me, Tonson? If you don’t feel symptoms of that Revelation coming on pretty quick sudden, I’m going to beat you till your right ear and left foot change places!”
Packard banged his fist on the professor’s light reading table as once he had banged it on desks and things in offices. The table split in twain. The professor put his hand to his breast. Again Packard roared: “I’ve been getting into very decent ringside shape, and if — you — don’t — have — that — Revelation — ”
“But if I do?” piped the professor with the voice of a much smaller and less dignified man than himself.
“It’ll be worth five hundred dollars to you!”
“I’ll take you!” said the professor. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble for you to make out just a little memo. of that agreement? Of course, my dear friend, if the Revelation isn’t granted to me the agreement’s off; but if it does come — ”
“D’you find you feel any Telepathic Premonitions of its coming, heh?”
“Why, seriously, I think I do,” said the professor with quiet gravity.
Packard scribbled the agreement and handed it over with a curt:
“Thanks! . . . Say, Packard, what the devil made you take so long in coming down to business?”
“D’you mean to say I could have bought out Beulah and me any time?”
The two men grinned at each other.
“Have a cigar?” said the professor.
As they both lighted up the professor continued:
“By the way, of course I know you’re planning to do me out of the five hundred dollars you’ve agreed to, and probably you could do it. And I’ll tear it up if you’ll put three thousand dollars into stock in my plant here. Paid 18 percent last year. See the books if you want to.”
“You’re on!” said Packard. “Give you a check any time — after the Revelation. Say, make the Revelation so it won’t hurt Beulah’s feelings, you know — so’s the poor kid’ll really be glad to go to Boston, you know.”
“Say, prof, when you come up to town, how about a little dinner, eh? Like dinner at the Victorian?”
“A’ right! Glad to. And I’m due in town pretty soon, Packard. I’m about at my limit on vegetables.”
“Say, old hoss, I got a hunch! Wouldn’t we make a little on the side if we opened a sort of summer Chautauqua here?”
“Not a bad idea,” blandly considered the professor. “Be willing to go in on it?”
“We’ll talk it over. Anything I can do for you after I get the Revelation?”
“Yes, by gum, there is! You can give me a pair of pants.”
When he first returned to Boston Packard started to make up for lost time in all his pet ways of poisoning himself. He slept until nine and he had two cocktails for lunch, and the only exercise he took was lighting cigarettes. He wore yellow chamois gloves, and could not have been pushed into the vicinity of a cold bath by anything less powerful than a hydrostatic press.
He delighted in all the aspects of business, from files to telephone calls. He managed to get so much pleasure out of worrying about office details which, from the distant Colony, had seemed negligible that his work was as much of a poison as his dissipations.
But he no longer telephoned to ornate young ladies and he no longer ran races with himself to see how late he could stay up nights. He was always tenderly conscious of Beulah; eager to blunder out with her to concerts, picture exhibitions, lectures; considerably more eager to take her to the restaurants where the head waiters knew his sleek portliness; content just to stay home and listen to her enthusiasms — though the enthusiasms grew vaguer and vaguer, now that she was no longer under Guidance.
For a month the excitement of resuming his old life continued. Then it seemed to him as though he had never been away, as though he had always, without break, been going along Washington Street to the Imperial Grill for his heavy lunches.
Within two weeks after his return he was again accustomed to waking with a taste like quinine in his mouth. Within three weeks he had to have a cigarette before he got the energy to dress in the morning. And by the time he was quite accustomed to being back he was beginning to feel dissatisfied with everything except Beulah.
His greatest tenderness for her played about the fact that she was still under the sway of Professor Tonson. Though she had no more communications from him, no Revelations, she was to be found unhappily reading his books — books in black covers, apparently printed by the office boy and bound by the porter; books with titles like Soul-Breathing, and The Occultism of Optimism. Packard was so pitiful toward her unchanged faith that it became horrible to him that he should be in partnership with the professor to make money out of the virtue of fools. He broke off the partnership abruptly in a short dictated letter.
Tonson came up to Boston to protest. Packard told him — you know, of course, where the simple-hearted Packard told him to go; and he said:
“I’m going to have my hands as clean as I can, now, Tonson. And don’t smile that hyena smile of yours, or it’ll cost me a 10-dollar police-court fine — and money’s tight just now.”
Packard went home and told Beulah the full truth about Tonson and himself.
She heard him out dumbly, her eyes averted. Then, “Thank you for telling me,” was all she said; and she went to her room… For the first time since, as a child, she had begun to potter about theories with her pervasively credulous father, she had no prophet. And she was convinced of Tonson’s frauds. She was keen enough, once she had the clew.
Packard’s life with her had been easy enough hitherto. He had merely to agree with her enthusiasms. Now she had no enthusiasms and he could not create them for her. While she patiently and changelessly smiled, he tried to interest her in motoring, in the theater of the Tired Business Men. Sometimes she seemed aroused by his suggestions. Then he was happy. Betweenwhiles he hammered at his office work. There, at least, he could get results.
But when spring came even this last comfort departed. Packard constantly pictured the shore line and the dunes at the Nature Colony; he imagined the stimulus of a plunge in the surf; he hated the stale air of the city.
So at last, though he still wore the uniform of Mr. William Packard, captain of business, he envied the ridiculous Brother Packard and almost cried like a small boy for the impossible return of the happy days of the Colony.
And his humble attitude toward Beulah changed. A small thing began it — though for weeks he had been saying: “I’ve got to do something for the little girl.”
When he came home to their apartment on an April evening with a smell of spring creeping through the musty city as a lavender bag scents a bureau drawer, he found Beulah at a closed window, pressing her temples with both hands.
“Why, honey bird,” he said, “why don’t you open the window? You that are so crazy about fresh air! And shure an’ a foine large avening it is!”
“Oh!… So much bother,” she said.
“But, gee, don’t you care for fresh air now?”
“Oh!… Yes… I must go dress now.”
“No; but straight! Don’t you?”
“Oh, yes, yes; I suppose so. I was too lazy — just looking out — dusk.” She sighed as she trailed away.
At dinner he insisted again, with the boyish whining of a man hungry for simpler and surer love:
“But say — about that window: I was just thinking — Don’t you really like outdoor sports and all that, like you used to?”
“No — yes — oh! I don’t know. . .. Oh, don’t worry about me, you old angel! I’m tired tonight.”
Nothing more — but all the evening, while they played at cooncan, which they detested and kept returning to, and all the next day, while part of his brain was busy in the office, he was absorbed in thinking: “The kiddy. needs to go back to plain grub and cold swims, and a belief in somebody.” As he was going home he meditated: “Why, by golly, that’s what I need too! Think of Bill Packard wanting to do the primitive, like a 50-dollar-a-season renter on the Cape!… Gee! Wonder if Beulah will want to go back now! Well, I guess I’ll have to make her.”
When he entered the apartment she was again standing listlessly by the window. He blurted:
“Honey, we’re going back to the Cape; and we’re going to live in a shack, and swim, and eat every dern thing that’s good for us — except maybe beans… We’ll stay there four or five months, and then we may turn farmers and stay for good. How does that sound to you? Pretty good, eh? Pretty fine?”
“Oh, I — Oh, I don’t know! . . . I don’t think I care to go back now.”
“Sure you do, old honey! You’ll feel fine after you’ve got a little tan on. Come on; let’s start to plan our packing. Where’s my big old trunk? In the basement?”
“No, no; really, Billy! I’m sorry, but I couldn’t go now. I hate the city, but I’d hate the shore or the country worse. I — I haven’t any prophet now that’ll guide me. Perhaps you don’t understand what I mean, though.”
“Yump; I understand. I’m going to be our household prophet from now on, and I’m giving a lecture on How to Take Life Easy this evening. Come on; we’ll look up that trunk.” He picked her up from the chair and replied to her indignant “Well, really!” with a kiss.
When sundown turned the low-tide flats into plates of polished copper two children in scanty bathing suits — two brown, deep-breathing, bright-eyed children — dug for clams and skipped across the flats — Tack and and Beulah.
“We’ll have that chicken tonight,” he said. “I’m hungry.”
“Gee!” she said, quite unself-consciously. “So’m I.”
“Now sit down on a nice soft pool and we’ll have my evening lecture. No; let’s have naturalization examination for your second papers, first: Who’s the greatest living naturist?”
“Professor Bill Packard,” she said meekly.
“And who’s going to teach Professor Bill Packard to become a farmer next spring?”
“Mrs. Beulah Foolish Packard.”
“And who’s going to be Professor Bill Packard’s successor as head of the Packard Nature Colony, Incorporated and darn Limited?”
She answered shyly, as she always did at this point in their game: “Billy Packard, Junior — unless Billy turns out to be Beulah.”