Not Margaret

She was sitting up when I got into her room in the hospital and she turned to look at me, surprised to see someone, and I walked up to her bed and it wasn’t her. It took a minute for me to realize it. She looked like herself, her face and her body in the bed, except for her expression when she saw me. It wasn’t the way she always looked at me. She looked at me and she smiled, politely. That was the first moment of something impossible.

I had stepped right up to her bed and gripped her hands in mine before I stopped to wonder at that odd smile. My voice came out thin and wavering, startled when I expected to be glad. “Margaret?”

She looked at me, serious and sad at once, and said, “What? No. No.” After a pause, she added, “Where am I? What happened? Who are you?”

Amnesia, I thought, it had to be. She couldn’t remember anything, couldn’t remember a thing, couldn’t remember me. That happens when people hit their heads. I’ve read about it, and seen a movie about a character who forgot his life and had to get it back. Sometimes they end up remembering, as they heal. I thought, I hoped, that Margaret had just left her mind for the time being and she was lurking in the crevices of her wounded brain, waiting to come back and recognize me. It didn’t occur to me that something else might have happened in her head, that somebody else might be there.

I gripped her hands tighter and I said, “It’s me, sweetheart. You don’t recognize me? You don’t remember? You had a bad accident but you’re okay. You’re going to be fine.” I think I went on for a minute or two longer trying to be reassuring, listening to the tremor in my own voice and the rasp of her breath against the stifling air.

She shook her head when my words trickled to a stop, and she winced with the movement. She said, “I’m sorry.” Her face was so calm when she looked at me, and that’s when I started thinking that something was so different that I didn’t recognize what was happening at all. I kept my fingers wrapped around hers. Margaret wasn’t calm. She snapped and sniped at every little thing. She complained about the people at work or my messiness, and her words were sharp. They made me laugh until she laughed too, reluctantly, but we always ended up either bickering or laughing. She was never calm or still like this.

She didn’t apologize, not even when she’d done something wrong. When she ate my leftover Chinese food or forgot to pay the electricity bill, the most I ever got out of her was a shrug. She didn’t say sorry and she didn’t expect me to. This version of Margaret was apologizing even though she was the one hit and pummeled and sleeping in a hospital bed alone for too long a time. There were lines pressed into her forehead — she looked worried about me.

My mind was racing, weaving over and under this thing that had happened until it was all wrapped up in confusion and fear. I kissed her on the forehead, like a child, before I turned away. I left the hospital that night just like I had the first night after the crash, with the collision still shattering my thoughts and anxiety in little sparkling shards that dug into me all night. The train ride back was painfully long and slow, like the train ride there had been. Then, though, I’d been so eager to see my Margaret, to see her eyes open. On the way home I kept seeing her face in my mind, in its innocent unknowing. I’d expected a gasp of relief and the electricity of excitement.

The next day, luckily, was Saturday. I woke up and went straight to the hospital, so hurried I forgot to brush my teeth and cursed my sour breath the whole way over. Margaret was sitting up, smiling at the nurse who was taking away breakfast. She turned her head, cringing a little, to smile at me just as she had done the day before. It was so strange that I stopped there, in the pastel doorway, and looked at this lover I didn’t know at all.

When I walked up to her, she seemed pleased to see me again. Her whole face was happy, her eyes bright. I’d never seen her look quite like that. I said, “Margaret,” in a kind of curious croak. She shook her head again, gentle this time, and her smile turned rueful. I said,

“Who then?”

She sighed, and there I saw a trace of my Margaret. That rhythm of breath was familiar to me. The inhale stretched the delicate lines of her throat and closed her eyes. The exhale seemed to take all the air from her body, and she had to gulp in more. When she sighed I felt my own chest burn as though my air were gone too. The cadence of her sigh was the same, and that linked my old Margaret to this new and strange one. Then she spoke and I noticed, for the first time, that her voice had changed. There was a new lilt to it. She said, “I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don’t know you, though, and I don’t know this place. The last thing I remember is going somewhere, to the market I think, with my brothers. I don’t understand what’s happening, and why my hands are so pale and my voice so high. I sound like a stranger to my ears.”

She sounded like a stranger to me too. Margaret didn’t have a brother, and this was not her voice, these were not her words. This woman pulled on her words in a way that my Margaret never did. She talked like somebody I’d never met. She was quiet, and careful with her speech, and she was terribly frightened. I sat by her bed, holding my hand over hers, and didn’t know what to say.

An hour later I said goodbye, and her face fell. There were familiar lines between her eyebrows, ones I recognized, snaking their way into her skin with worry. I clasped her hand, pressed too hard on her fingers, and I left. There was too much confusion gathered in my mind, a great spiky jumble of uncertainty that pricked and pulled at me the whole way home, and for most of the night too. The question that came to me, after a long while of tossing and turning and trying to get away from the anxiety that clung, seemed so obvious I was surprised at myself that it hadn’t occurred to me sooner. There was somebody else in Margaret. Presumably something like the crash had happened to this strange person from far away, with her voice that rose and fell like that. If she was here, in Margaret’s broken body, then where was Margaret?

The next night my anxiety wore all the way through me. My words bit at her with an edge I didn’t mean to put in them. “I don’t even know who you are, and I want my Margaret back. Why are you here? Who are you? God,” I said, standing and pacing, “I don’t even know if she’s still alive or anything. God.”

The fear came back to not-Margaret, her eyes wide and staring at me, but there was pity in them too. I think that’s what broke my heart a bit. That pity cracked me open. It’s the strangest thing that has ever happened to me, sitting at the bedside of the person I loved and missing her with a deep unending ache. I sat looking at her face and wishing she were there, watching some stranger look at me with pity through my lover’s eyes. Everything felt heavy then, and I thought my Margaret might just be gone. I put my head down on the squeaky mattress, closing my eyes against the glare and the linoleum. After a bit, not-Margaret traced timid fingers through my hair.

I stayed like that, feeling the warmth of her hand on my skull, until visiting hours were over.

Those quiet visits must have lasted for more than a week. I came and held not-Margaret’s hand and we looked at each other, lost in ourselves. Sometimes I played a song for her if it was stuck in my head, or brought her the paper or maybe a book. A couple of days I sat by her bed and flipped through the book I was reading or a newspaper, nudging her every once in a while to read something out loud. She would tell me which phrases struck her, and her voice would halt on some syllables as though words were unfamiliar. For that first week or so, we spoke in words that weren’t our own, and the words belonging to us stayed pushed down and silent. Then we had a true conversation.

She said, “Tell me a story about Margaret.” Her own name from her mouth, in her strange voice, hung like ice in my chest.

I drew in a breath and said, “Okay, let’s see. So Margaret’s best friend is named Jenny. She actually was a friend of mine in college, we almost dated for about two seconds, but we didn’t and then when I got together with Margaret I introduced them, and of course Margaret stole her completely.” Talking about her while looking at her face as if she were not there felt like something that happened in the dreams that slip into early mornings, half-dozing before you wake and realize that it makes no sense at all.

“We sometimes had Jenny over in the mornings on weekends, for breakfast. Margaret used to have breakfast with her mom, you know, after her dad died. I guess you don’t know, actually. Anyway, her dad died when she was 12 and her mom’s the distant type. They made French toast on Sundays though and they had kind of a ritual about it. So Jenny sometimes comes over and the three of us make French toast. I think Sundays are one of the few times Margaret is really content, peaceful, you know? She sort of lives in a state of perpetual stress but when Jenny is there it’s easier. She said, sometimes, that she was making her favorite meal with her favorite people.”

My throat hurt, talking about Margaret. I missed her, and missed seeing the way she shook when she laughed, as though she was trying to hold the mirth in and it burst out of her anyway. Jenny made Margaret laugh more than anybody else. I swallowed past the ache and kept talking.

“She and Jenny would play pranks on me, or make very complicated jokes that I didn’t get, or something. This one time they both, I guess, decided beforehand, and when Jenny came over they spoke French for the entire time. So they spent literally three hours, making breakfast and talking in French over my head and cracking up because they were being ridiculous and making up words and probably making fun of me while I understood about every tenth word they were saying.”

Not-Margaret laughed, and her laugh was not Margaret’s. It was lovely, though, one of those trills of sound that makes a person want to smile. It made me ache, deep and dull in my chest, for the unfamiliar beauty coming out of the person I loved.

I couldn’t pull out any more words, but not-Margaret saved me. She told me a little bit about her brothers, both older. She said, “They make me laugh the most, though they only let themselves joke about half the time with me. They could never make up their minds whether they wanted to tower over me and be scary or whether they wanted to be a big wall in front, making sure nobody else could get through to hurt me.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “I have a little sister and I switch between being annoyed and being protective, that’s just part of being siblings.”

Her mouth twisted then, half-amused and half-wistful. “Either way, they were always around me. I always felt small beside them, threatened or safe, I was always small. Even now my brothers — ” She stopped talking, her breath whisked away.

She set her jaw and blinked hard, like a child trying not to cry. “They’re still protective and scary. We were going to the market, I think, walking along and they’re still trying to keep me out of the road. There weren’t any cars the way we were going, I was dancing all around and they’re torn between laughing at me and yelling at me, trying to get me to walk in a straight line out of the way.”

We looked at each other then, and the silence stretched between us. Her eyes were steady on mine, and finally she spoke. “I guess it’s a good thing I’m here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” she said, “I mean, not that I’m in someone else, somewhere strange. You know that’s not what I mean. But if I had to be changed like this, however long it goes on, I guess it could be worse, right?”

“I guess,” I said. “Anyway. I should probably get going sometime soon.”

She shook her head, mouth tightening. “No, don’t. It’s early yet. Stay and talk to me a little while longer. Please.”

I stayed, her hand warm in mine and her voice lilting and laughing at me, until visiting hours ended and the nurse came around to kick me out.

Every once in a while, I forgot that she had been Margaret. The person looking at me from her eyes wasn’t Margaret. It got easier to think of them as her eyes, not Margaret’s eyes. They were the same color, they didn’t change, but they stopped looking like Margaret. They didn’t have Margaret’s glint of mischief, they just looked at me plainly. After a time, I looked at her without really seeing Margaret at all. I just saw her, for all that her eyes were a familiar shade of hazel and her face was written in lines I’d memorized over and over, shadows whose shapes were pressed in my mind in all their shifting patterns.

We got comfortable around each other. I stopped talking about Margaret, comparing them. It felt like we talked for ages. I visited every night, mostly until I had to leave, and it was a lot of nights. There was some complication with blood clots or something, and then they worried about something else. A bundle of health problems appeared. They all spread over Margaret like ink on a wet page from that one car crash that had blotted out her mind, staining her with somebody else’s bright colors. She stayed in that hospital bed another week, then another. It felt like a long time.

Once I walked into the hospital room to find Jenny sitting beside Margaret’s bed. They were talking quietly, and Jenny started when she saw me. She let go of Margaret’s hand and stumbled over her words for a minute, and then got out, “Good to see you, Margaret. I hope you feel better. I’ll just leave you two alone then.” She put her hand on my shoulder and left it there for a moment before she left. I wondered if I was imagining the hesitation that trembled on her fingers before she retreated and fled the hospital.

I sat by not-Margaret and asked her what they had talked about. She answered me, “Not so much, really. She asked me many times how I was feeling, how things were going, that sort. She talked a bit about her husband, her job, other friends I think. I told her many times that I was all right but still shaken, and that you’ve been wonderful and have visited me near every day.

“She looked a little confused at that, would Margaret not have said it?”

I shook my head. “I doubt it matters anyway in a situation like this, you can’t predict how people would act. Right? But you don’t think she could tell?”

Not-Margaret’s lips curled. I could see the laugh she was holding in her throat. “To tell the truth, I think she mostly talked so much she barely heard me. You were right, she is funny. And I tried to act tired, nothing else. Also, a nurse came by and said that they only needed to keep me here one, maybe two more nights.”

I sucked in my breath and sat quiet for a minute. Neither of us knew what would happen if — when — Margaret was released from the hospital. Not-Margaret had never been to our cramped apartment. She’d never sat swinging her legs from atop the tiny kitchen counter, or lain in our bed buried under the pillows and blankets overflowing to the floor. I think we were both afraid of what would happen then. There wasn’t anyplace else to go.

“Okay,” I said finally, letting my breath rush out in a gust. “I guess then we’ll go home.”

We looked at each other, wondering what that meant.

On Friday afternoon I took not-Margaret home, back to the apartment I’d shared with Margaret. I held her hand as we got on the train and she leaned against me. We jounced and jostled in the hard plastic seats and the curve of her forehead bumped closer into the crook of my neck with each toss of the train. It should have been familiar, but it sent tension arching in my bones and curling my fingers. When the train slowed at the first stop, I shifted a bit to put my arm around her. She started to withdraw as I moved, but settled back against me. The slap of footsteps and murmur of voices registered blurrily, at the edges of my mind. For that twenty-minute train ride, for every jerk and rattle that shivered us together and apart again, it seemed that my whole being was concentrated in my arm braced around her and her warmth nestled against the indent of my shoulder.

When the name of our stop crackled from the speakers, I stirred, and nodded at not-Margaret. She nodded back, her face pale and her lips pinched. I should have told her which stop we were.

Everything looked different now that she was here. The kitchen was small and dim, the sofa was nubby, and our bedroom was a hasty mess of sheets and laundry. The sun was sneaking away and left dingy light scattered across the floor. Not-Margaret wandered the apartment. She sat on the nubby sofa, and opened the drawers and cabinets. I cooked. She sat on the bed, cross-legged and patient. I waved her into the kitchen when the pasta was done, and we were quiet while we ate. Our eyes met over mouthfuls of spaghetti. It was somehow comfortable. We finished and talked for a while. She told me stories about her brothers and her friends. I laughed, and the bright loud sound surprised me.

Soon it was late, and the windows were black screens with bright pinpricks. I found old pajamas of Margaret’s. We brushed our teeth next to one another, our eyes darting in the mirror. We spat into the sink at the same time and both laughed a little. She got into the bed without hesitation. I slid under the blanket and arranged myself with care, trying not to bump into her. She shifted closer, laying an arm around my waist and fitting her head in the curve of my neck again. I debated, and then pressed a kiss into her hair and felt her smile against my chest. I lay awake listening to her breathing slow and steady, feeling the warm comfort of Margaret’s body against mine and the strange thrill of not-Margaret curling her fingers over my ribs. The tension held me stiff for a long time, and then it drained away and I relaxed into sleep.

It was late when I woke up, and Margaret was smiling in her sleep, her head on my shoulder. I eased her away and sat up, nudging her a bit. She blinked awake and I froze. Something was different, some new hardness in her eyes or a cautiousness to her waking expression. I panicked, thinking she had awoken in a strange place with me, a near-stranger, and was suddenly afraid. Her eyes lingered on mine and then she smiled. It was different, and I watched her for a moment, unsure. She said my name, and her voice didn’t lilt. I opened my mouth, but had no words. She drew in a deep shaking breath, and then she closed her eyes for a moment. She opened them and looked at me with a steady, new, familiar gaze.

I found my voice, and spoke over the ringing in my ears and the desperate gasp suppressed in my lungs. “Margaret?”

She nodded.

I held her for a long time and we both cried a little. Finally I moved, backed away from her enough to crane my neck down, and asked her if she wanted me to make breakfast. She nodded against my shoulder, so I tugged her into the kitchen. While I whisked and poured, she sat on the counter and watched me. It took me longer than usual because my hands were shaking. My arms jerked, I couldn’t hold them steady, and I spilled across the countertop. Margaret let out a tremulous laugh that startled me, and when my eyes jumped to hers she smiled.

We sat next to each other at the table, eating French toast from the same plate. Margaret nudged over to me, her arm against mine. The surprise and rush of emotion was still swelling in my chest, and it bewildered me. We distracted one another from breakfast. I kept kissing her lips, sticky with syrup. I couldn’t believe I had her back. I couldn’t believe she’d been gone at all.

Later, when we’d nearly fallen asleep piled against the arm of the couch, I knew we had to talk about it. I said, “Margaret, you were gone. I mean, you know what I mean, there was somebody else here and you weren’t here. Do you know where you were?”

She shrugged, looking down. She said that she had woken up in a crowded hospital with a bandage around her head and a broken arm. There were two strange men there she didn’t know who told her they were her brothers and tried very hard not to cry. They all said she had amnesia and she didn’t know how to tell them otherwise. She went home with her brothers and stayed in their house with their mother, who fussed over her and made her soup. She spent weeks curled in the tiny bedroom she shared with the stranger’s mother, trying not to show her bewilderment and her anger.

Margaret paused for a long time, and I pulled her over to me. Her body was tight, tension threaded through her. When I put my arms around her, she leaned her head against my neck very slowly but she was still frozen.

The family worried over her and her new sharpness, she told me, the knife-edges they thought the accident had thrust into her. Margaret wasn’t very clear what had happened, but she didn’t want to know the wounds inflicted on the body that was not her own.

I set myself to washing dishes. In the kitchen, the morning sunlight peeked in with golden curiosity. Everything looked the same as it always had. I cleaned up our breakfast and put the dishes away. It looked like nothing had ever changed.

The day passed quietly. We talked in low voices. When it grew late, she drew in a sigh and let it fall out of her, and then she told me that she wanted to sleep. We went into the bedroom and I pulled the covers over her, slid in behind her, and put a hand on her waist. She moved to me and held onto me, so I wrapped myself around her. Her breath wavered in and out, and I listened and wondered if she was sleeping.

The next morning, she woke up before me. I could smell the coffee waiting in the kitchen. She was sipping, reading the paper, as if we could be back to normal already. It’s possible that she was just getting back to normal, easing into our life again like an old sweater that still held her shape. I was the one startling at its touch on my skin, right when I had begun to learn to shrug out of it. I sat down anyway and picked up my section of the paper, drinking my lukewarm coffee.

Margaret got up then, unfolding her legs gingerly and stretching upward. Her voice startled me. “I might call Jenny in a bit.”

“Oh,” I said, nodding. “That’s a good idea. I bet she’d love to hear from you now that you’re back home.”

“Yes,” said Margaret, “Exactly.”

I heated myself some food and brought her a plate, then returned to the kitchen. The food was still too cold, but it didn’t matter. I ate without thinking, typing one-handed as I tried to catch up on work. Margaret didn’t eat at all. I heard her voice, peaks and valleys of muffled sound, from the living room. Once in a while the crack of Jenny’s laughter rang through the phone.

The day faded more quickly than it had promised in the bright harsh morning. Days went by like that, more than a week, and we moved around one another as though careful not to break.

“What was she like?” she said, once, into the silence. I only shrugged. I was in bed with a book and Margaret with her laptop, and I fell asleep while she was still working or reading. When I woke up, too early, she was drawn tight into a knot, her arm clenched over her body and her face turned away. I watched her for a while, wondering if she dreamed she was still trapped in a sleeping body that belonged to somebody else. I was startled when she woke and turned to me.

Margaret was half-lit in the dawn sun, with a familiar caress of shadow clinging to her face. She looked up at me and she said, “This feels weird. It’s all the same but so much has happened. Do you know what I mean? We’re not ourselves anymore.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said, too hasty, “who else would we be?”

She looked at me, a long solid gaze. “Somebody else,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say, so I let the silence grow stale between us.

Margaret curled up and turned away. My head ached. I sat on the edge of the bed, resting my hands on the crumple of sheets, and looked at Margaret as if she was a stranger huddled on my bed. I don’t remember lying down, just the surprising feeling of being awake unexpectedly from a sleep I hadn’t noticed taking me over.

The morning was warm and the sun coming in from the window was insistent as always.

Margaret must have already eaten, because the scent of maple syrup was hanging in the kitchen. I made cereal and ate while I read the paper, as usual. Margaret was busy with something in the bedroom. There were erratic shufflings and thuds, and I was afraid to investigate. When I had gotten to the Arts section she came into the kitchen. “Come in the living room, I want to talk to you.”

As I stood up my stomach dropped. In the living room we sat on the couch. Margaret handed me a piece of paper. I looked at her. “We haven’t talked that much about what happened,” she said, “and mostly I just don’t want to. It was too strange and too wrong. You got to know this other person, and I got to know her life. Now that I’m back, you know, it’s just not the same. It’s just not. I’m going to leave — ”

I tried to say something, though I don’t know what. Her words hit me and sound came out, an undignified shocked squawk. So simple a sentence meant so great a change.

Margaret’s mouth wavered. She might have tried to smile. “I know. But what else is there? I guess — no, listen, it’ll be okay. Really it will. We’ll both be who we are now, or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting this. I’ll be back later, somehow, for the rest of my stuff. Listen. I know some things about the other person, whose body, the one you met.” Her hand fell toward the paper I was holding before she pulled it back. “It’s her name, the address, anything else I remembered that I thought might be useful. Don’t open it until I leave, okay?”

I looked down at the folded slip of paper in my hand and Margaret bent to kiss my cheek as she went by. The door shut behind her, the same click as always, leaving me alone inside. I sat for a long time in my living room with the sunlight pooling at my feet, holding hope in my hand.

Featured image: Edvard Munch, Young Woman from the Latin Quarter, 1897, The Art Institute of Chicago, edited

“A Ring With Rubies At” by Oma Almona Davies

Oma Almona Davies was a regular contributor to The Saturday Evening Post throughout the 1920’s. For “A Ring With Rubies At”, we find her collaborating with the iconic post illustrator Tony Sarg to tell a story of romance, robbery, and danger, all centered around a magazine advertisement similar to those found in the Post at the time.

Published on May 10, 1924

 

Elisha Maice was on his way to kill the Hepple girl. His thoughts were as fiery as his hair, as deep as his blue, green-flecked eyes, as purposeful as the forward jut of his chin.

In amorphous hunch upon the seat of the top buggy, he pestered the horse’s rump with an ineffectual peach shoot while he passionately reviewed the previous half hour of his history. The galling thing was, of course, that he had been yanked upward by the neck scruff at the momentous instant in which he had decided his financial destiny.

For there he had been, a half hour before, with elbows taut upon the warm kitchen table, a 15-year-old man with twelve dollars and seventy-five cents banked in canvas bag upon his bosom, in travail as to whether he would become a cattle king or a hog baron. There had he been when he had rendered final decision in favor of the barony, the superior eagerness of the hog tribe to reproduce its own being the unanswerable argument in its favor. It had been at that climactic moment that Adam had leaped in, ox goad in fist, eyes wild.

“The bull’s outbusted the hind fence! You got to make me an errant. Make quick now!”

And as the potential baron, with hogs teeming by the thousand about him, had sat staring, he had been dragged from his chair, hoisted across the freezing ruts of the barnyard and dumped over the wheel into the top buggy.

Man and woman in a buggy trying to get a rampaging horse under control
Old Bess flipped backward an outraged ear and lunged into a resentful center. (Illustrated by Tony Sarg)

“You got to git my girl from Schindler’s to Hoopstetter’s! Make hurry quick! And you fix a dates fur me — you tell her I’m a-settin’ up Saturday night agin!”

Oh, Elisha had protested at mention of the Hepple girl of course! He had started to kick out of the buggy. But Adam had plastered his eighteen-year spread of hand against Elisha’s middle and had pasted him against the seat again.

“Dast you! And you take good care to my girl or I’ll — ” And then, because he was Adam, and Elisha’s mother as well as his brother, he had grinned, rammed a huge paw into his pocket and had flung a dime upon the buggy seat. Then he had run, gripping his ox goad and hallooing to their father, who was already lunging toward the far end of the field.

In the clear flame of his anger against Adam, the bull and the Hepple girl, Elisha saw the problem of his life distinctly. His problem was to put into word and into action the fact that he was a man. Never before had he objected to being Adam’s younger brother — being anything to Adam had been enough. But now that he was being dragged into entangling alliances with Adam’s sticky girls, the relationship, as such, must cease

Here he was on his way — on Adam’s way — to the Hepple girl. He had to get her from her Schindler uncle in the village to her Hoopstetter uncle in the country. Why couldn’t Adam have let Schindler get her to Hoopstetter? And, back of all that, what did she want to come visiting around Buthouse County for anyway? If she was in a factory in the city, why didn’t she stay factor-ing then?

A groan escaped him as he beheld the red top of the Schindler house above its fir hedge.

From Schindlers of assorted sizes and sexes who swarmed into the side yard emerged finally the Hepple girl. She was supported toward the vehicle by a slender male Schindler with thin damp-looking hair. Supported is a carelessly chosen word, however; the young man’s legs seemed scarcely adequate to support his own frame — they gave the impression of being just on the point of swaying from beneath him. He nested his twiglike fingers about the girl’s elbow and she sprang lightly into the seat beside Elisha.

“This here’s Adam’s brother, ain’t? This here’s Elijah Maice, Herbie.”

The Herbie young man flicked an eyelash toward Elisha.

“Elijah, huh? Well, don’t let his ravens get you anyway! And don’t go forgetting your little city cousin while you’re out there among the hog raisers!”

“Oh, ain’t you awful?” giggled the Hepple girl. “Gid dup!” shouted Elisha. “Ain’t he awful yet?” The Hepple girl was the twitchy kind. She twitched at her glove, at a magazine, at the laprobe. “We ain’t relationed together. He just plagues me. He’s Uncle Jacob’s nephew, and I’m Aunt Mat’s niece.”

Elisha spat.

“Course he’s high educated that way. He’s got a decree, or whatever, at the law. He’s the leading and only lawyer at Heitwille a’ready.”

From the corner of his eye Elisha appraised that she was thin enough to be bounced out by a sizable rut. Suppose he maneuvered the wheels at just the right angle — she wouldn’t land hard, there wasn’t enough to her. Even if he did finally go back for her — if he did — the breath might be jolted out of her so that she’d be quiet anyway. He could see her sitting there by the side of the road.

What he really did see at that moment was another appraising eye. Upon him! A gray eye with an astonishingly black pupil. A pupil astonishingly penetrating!

He raised the reins high and slapped them down mercilessly. Old Bess flipped backward an outrages ear and lunged into a resentful canter. The Hepple girl bounced forward, then back—and settled closer to Elisha.

“Ain’t it kind o’ crispy though, now the sun’s gettin’ ready to set on us?”

Elisha heaved violently to his own corner. He felt the black pupils again turning toward him.

“It wonders me still,” pursued the Hepple girl, and her voice was soft now in meditation; “I thought Adam was sayin’ where he had a little brother. And here you’re a man a’ready. That does now make a supprise fur me.”

“Huh?” Elisha snorted, and was immediately sorry. He had made an iron resolution to suffer in silence his three miles of humiliation.

“Yes, I would guess anyhow! But mebbe he was playin’ off a joke on me. Or else, was you, mebbe, his big brother?”

“He ain’t got but one,” grunted Elisha. He surreptitiously glanced down the length of his arm, flexed its muscles. His secret shame had always been that he was not huge, like Adam!

“Now me, I’m so runty that way,” sighed his companion.

“You are that,” muttered Elisha.

“Course a body can’t help fur their size. But I guess that’s why I always take to big men mebbe.” Elisha shuddered. “Well, and women too. Aunt Mat always says, ‘My, I wisht if I wasn’t more’n two hunert, so I could be stylish like you,’ she says. But I say back always, ‘Well, what does it fetch to be stylish? Look oncet at Cousin Herbie. He might be stylish, but he’s awful skinny. Them kind don’t make nothing with me. I like fur to see ‘em heartier and more, now, comfortable lookin’,’ I says. ‘Comfort yet is what makes with me,’ I says.”

Elisha looked down distrustfully at an extremely pointed shoe slanted upward from beneath the robe. His companion immediately gave a wrenlike nod.

“I know. It looks some squinchy. But it ain’t. I’m just natured to that shape a’ready.”

Elisha again went sharply in search of his breath. What was this he had in the buggy with him anyway? He had never seen such swift reaction, such uncanny divination. He had always thought you had to tell a girl anything twice over before she got it. And here, almost before he had a thought, she was expressing it for him! And that foot now — was it possible that a woman’s foot really did grow into a point? Could it be that a girl did quicken into some strange new thing somewhere along? That she wasn’t just a meager edition of a man, weaker in both mind and body?

He squared heavily about and looked full at the Hepple girl. She twitched lightly about and looked full at him. Her eyelashes rayed out, very black and very long; their tips seemed caught together by twos and threes — caught together — caught — He gasped; his foot jerked heavily upward as though from some entanglement. The jerk pried loose his eyes.

He wouldn’t look at her again. What was the matter with him? A rein dropped from his demoralized fingers. He swooped after it. And as he came up, something slowly pushed his head around so that he looked at her again. Her eyes were still upon him. Her very soft, very red lips parted slowly, slowly curved.

He definitely clutched at anger. He grabbed the peach shoot and sliced blindly. It broke over the dashboard, dangled. He hurled it away and hissed wrathfully after it.

“What you intrusted in?” Should he answer her? “Poland Chinas,” he grudged. “Me too! I do now take to them Oriental things till it is somepun supprising. My, ain’t you up-to-the-minute though?”

“Pigs!” shouted Elisha. “Hogs! Boars!” She was a dopple after all! Didn’t even know Poland Chinas!

She considered. Then she gazed at him, gently forgiving.

“To be sure, pigs. Polish Chinas. But they come from China first off. And if they come from China, they’re what you call it Oriental, ain’t not?”

Each hair upon Elisha’s head rose in fiery curiosity. “China, still? From acrost the oceans over?”

The Hepple girl nodded decisively. “In such ships oncet.”

Elisha pondered this revelation of porcine genealogy. The girl gave a little sigh.

“But, anyways, what does it make? This here is what makes with me: Fur to find somebody where has the same intrusts like what I have a’ready. I do, now, take to such little pigs. I can’t otherwise help fur it. And I would bet, now, you’ve decided to go into pigs!”

Breath-taking! Elisha leaned back somewhat weakly.

“Well, anyway,” he admitted, “I took the prize for Juniors at the Grange two months back a’ready. Twohunert-and-sixty-pound shoat. Ten dollars.”

“Ten dollars still!” gasped his companion. “Since I am born a’ready, I ain’t hearing of nothing so intrusting!” She snuggled closer.

Elisha tipped his cap rakishly. He tossed off, “That ain’t nothing. I’ll git mebbe twenty, twenty-five, more on her yet. Till it comes next week, pop will be loadin’ stock fur the market onto a box car, and I’ll be a-fetchin’ off my share alongside the other — the other men.”

Then said the Hepple girl an amazing thing. “Before ever you was turnin’ in at Schindler’s, I seen it at you. Yes I seen it at you where you was one of the money men of Buthouse County a’ready.”

And she wasn’t joking! He swung upon her quickly to catch her. She was gazing up at him as innocently as a babe, and as helplessly, as helplessly. Her lips were parted as in breathless adoration, her eyes upturned deep pools, into which one might slip — or plunge —

“Whoa!” yelled Elisha, and subdued his steed from a gentle trot to a walk. “Whoa, anyway! What do youse want to make such hurry fur?”

His left side was growing very warm; oh, very! The girl looked bony, but she wasn’t. She flanked him closely, softly, like such a hot- water bottle; or, no, hotter, hotter, like one them mustard plasters now. His heart thump-thumped, thump-thumped. She lay against his heart! He had a sudden conviction, all pain, all pleasure, that he could not move if he tried! He was terrified, he was paralyzed; he had never been so desperately happy in his life.

Illustration of the character, Mrs. Hoopstetter
Mrs. Hoopstetter, with hairpin antennae emerging from the black coil upon the top of her head. (Illustrated by Tony Sarg)

As though soft veils had been laid over his ears, he heard her voice coming up, coming up, as though from far below: “Yes, well. I guess I would up and give it away if I would ever get such a ten dollars. Yes, I guess I would go to work and make some such inwestment at friendship, like I read off somewheres. And that would be awful silly, ain’t?”

“Yes,” agreed Elisha hoarsely.

Elisha, in fact, was in mood to agree with everybody. A half hour later when Mrs. Hoopstetter swam into the periphery of his bedazzled vision, he agreed with her. Mrs. Hoopstetter, with hairpin antenna emerging from the black coil upon the top of her head, her rounding form incased in black calico with red polka dots, bore an unmistakable resemblance to a potato bug as she ambled toward them from her kitchen door.

“Well, was this, now, Cory Hepple? Ain’t you growed though, since you was a baby a’ready? And if this here ain’t Elisha a-fetchin’ you! Come insides and set along fur supper, Elisha. The Wieners is all made and the coffee’s on the boil.”

Still later he agreed with Cora Hepple when she indicated that he was to sit down beside her upon the settee and to devour with her the magazine which she had carried from the Schindlers’.The name of the publication as it was emblazoned above a polychrome pirate rampant upon its cover was Up to the Minute; and its date was the month previous.

That Miss Hepple was a devotee of literature might have been inferred from the general indication of wear and tear upon the publication; but she disclaimed any tendencies in this direction when Elisha cast a gloomy eye upon it and gloomily shook his head in answer to her question.

“Nor me neither,” she confessed promptly. “I ain’t addicted to readin’ off just one word and then another. That there’s a waste of time, ain’t? But I do sometimes go to work and read what it makes at the adwertisements. Now, fur instinc’, it wouldn’t wonder me none if we was to run into some such pigs over behind.”

Fascinating as were pigs, however, they were not so fascinating to Elisha at that moment as the fingers which were flying in search of them. The lamplight coruscated over the nails which tipped them like they were—well, like they were freshly shellacked, now. He drew his brows as he gazed from them to his own, dull and spatulate, and finally queried bluntly: “What is it at them? Warnish or whatever?”

She looked up at him inquiringly, then laughed softly, tipping up one shoulder, then the other.

“Oh, I’m just natured that way at the nails. It’s fierce, ain’t not?”

“Yes,” breathed Elisha. Pointed feet — shining nails. He slid from her. And why not? It is an awesome experience to discover a new creation.

She uttered a sharp exclamation, laid the magazine flat upon her knees and placed five of her amazing finger nails upon her heart.

“Och, my! That there makes me dizzy at the head! Why, it’s just what I been always dreaming about!”

Elisha looked down at the page. He saw nothing remarkable. “It ain’t nothing but a ring,” he said.

“A ring!” gasped Miss Cora. “A ring with rubies at!” She thrust the publication into his hands. “Read it oncet!”

Above, below and surrounding a particularly angry-looking ring from the stone of which fiery rays darted to the bounds of the column were the words:

STARTLING GEM OFFER

Our exclusive MILLENNIUM RING, known to satisfied thousands. Blue-white stone, perfect cut, set in elegant white-gold cup, surrounded by

CHOICE OF EMERALDS OR RUBIES CREDIT TO OUR FRIENDS This means you!

EXTRA SPECIAL

at $29.50Simply enclose $10.00. Balance $2.50 per week. Our investment in friendship. We take all chances

LIMITED SUPPLY ORDER NOW

Elisha shook his head darkly and handed back the magazine.

“Say, now,” he warned, gazing down at the innocent little creature curled up beside him, “don’t go fallin’ ower this here! It might be some such trick in it. Them city sharpers — ”

But look who it is a’ready! The Old Honest Goldsmith, H. Chadwick, Inc. I’ve knew about Mr. Inc since I was born a’ready. But what does it make to talk?” She spread her ten tiny empty fingers in a gesture of resignation over the piercing rays of the ring. “It ain’t nobody where would go makin’ such expensive inwestments at friendship just ower me! Eut och, my! If anybody up and got me such a ring with rubies at I wouldn’t have eyes for nobody else, it would go that silly with me. I have afraid anyway — ”

But she was not so smitten with fear at that moment as was Elisha. He sprang up, kneecap cracking. His body slanted tensely toward the closed kitchen door, through which a voice was thundering:

“What does he mean by somepun like this anyhow? Lettin’ the cow to milk fur me! It should give a good thrashing fur that one!”

“Your pop!” gasped the girl with lightning intuition.

Elisha did not pause to identify his parent verbally. He was already wresting open a door on the opposite side of the room. He whizzed through the chill dank of a parlor, wrangled a huge brass key at the ceremonial front door and zoomed out into the blackness of a porch.

“I got to go. It’s gittin’ late on me,” he clattered back over his shoulder.

But he had not counted upon the celerity of his hostess. She was there beside him. Even as he landed upon the top step she thrust something beneath his arm.

“Take it along with! We ain’t looked fur them China pigs!”

Elisha had no need to urge upon old Bess that time was the essence of their contract; she had not yet had her supper. She legged off the mile and a quarter between the two farms with such impatience that Elisha had fed her and had bedded both her and himself before he heard a door slammed in paternal wrath beneath him. He lay quivering in the bed beside the sleep-drenched Adam until he heard his father’s footsteps clanking off to their own room; then he nested down with a great sigh.

It was long before the boy Elisha really slept. And yet, was it the boy Elisha who lay taut between the blankets that night, his forward jut of chin thrusting upward into the crisp air, his deep eyes matching the depth of shadow in the room? Had not the boy Elisha gone to sleep, beyond recall, two, three hours before? It was a naked soul, an elemental, at grips for the first time with the most powerful of the powers of the air. For assuredly it was not a man, this skinny thing which had finally much ado to keep from blubbering, from clutching at the big warm Adam and blubbering that he hadn’t meant to do it, he hadn’t meant to take Adam’s sweetheart from him; but she just would have him, she just would!

Between his tossings, as he lay still-eyed, came again and again a memory seemingly detached from all he was thinking and all he was feeling: A long, long time ago when he was six and Adam was nine, the two of them, stumbling down the hill, behind their father, from the new grave under the beeches — Adam clutching his fingers until they hurt and whispering thinly: “You got me anyway! You got me anyway!”

And this was the Adam the was hurting! This was the Adam he was robbing!

He awoke, as usual, to the vigorous rattling of the stove in the room below. Adam did everything, not quickly, but vigorously. No brighter pans than Adam’s in any kitchen of Buthouse County; no straighter furrow in any field. No better corn cakes turned for any table; no cleaner garden patch behind any house. It always had been rather fun to keep house with Adam; it had seemed no woman’s task as Adam had carried it on, with slashing broom and swishing brush.

But today it was no fun. Elisha slunk about, with eyes down. Oh, he was heartbreakingly sorry for Adam!

And yet his heart beat with terrific triumph. Triumph that took him spasmodically by the legs and flipped him into a handspring. Triumph that took him by the wrist and made him shy a hatful of duck eggs, one by one, against the corncrib.

But there was no compromise in him. The jut of his chin was thrust definitely toward manhood — manhood symbolized, curiously enough, by that girl a mile and a quarter distant. A mile and a quarter? A world distant! And time — this was Friday — tomorrow Saturday. Well, Saturday night, then.

Upon his shoulder fell a heavy hand.

“Now, what about Saturday night?” demanded Adam. “Was you tellin’ her a’ready I am keepin’ comp’ny with her Saturday night?”

Like a bronze frog Elisha squatted, motionless. The hand twisted impatiently. Elisha slowly reached for a weed, slowly plucked it.

“It’s somebody else — settin’ up, keepin’ comp’ny — Saturday night,” he brought out. The hand jerked him, dangling slantwise, to his feet.”Somebody else?” roared Adam. “Who else, then? Answer me up now! That sleazy Schindler?”

“She — ain’t sayin’.”

“She better not be sayin’!” gritted the terrific Adam. When he knotted his fist like that the wrist tendons whipped out like live cords. “He’ll git the right to git his neck twisted off fur him.” He stalked away, kicking the clods.

Elisha oozed down upon the ground. He gazed after Adam, then he knotted his own fist and stared down upon his wrist; there were no cords there! Well, maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t interfere with Adam, Saturday night. But at that moment between his young ribs began to creep and whimper an alien thing, a spawn of distemper which was finally to strangle—and strangle—his love for Adam.

Hot of eye, hot of heart, he watched Adam on Saturday night as he bathed in the zinc tub behind the kitchen stove, as he covered his long clean muscles with splendid raiment, as he carefully parted the bronze glow of his hair and carefully curled up the lopside of it over his finger, as he donned his hat with slow deference to this same curl that it might follow the upward tilt of the felt. Adam never knew that when he closed the door upon his festive person, a man with the ache to kill shot to his feet with clenching fist and kicked murderously the leg of the table with the brass toeguard of his shoe.

But — he couldn’t endure it! He cast a quick glance upon his father mumbling over the livestock quotations, raped his hat and coat from their nail and let himself out of the door. Down the lane crisped Adam’s wheels upon the frozen ground; down the lane sped Elisha. He caught the tail of the buggy at last, jerked along agonizedly with it for a moment, then with a mighty heave landed in a clutching heap upon its narrow tail.

Ignominious, of course, jolting along back to back with Adam, the tailboard bruising into his flesh with every rut. But he was going, at any rate; he was getting there!

He got there, and he crouched like a the Hoopsetter wagonshed while Adam blanketed old Bess. Like a mouse scurried to the window of the living room.

There, there she was—upon the settee just as he had held her in memory! The light from the hanging lamp made a nimbus of her dark curling hair. Her little feet, those pointed feet, were tipping gently this way and that. And her eyes, those wide innocent eyes, were also turning, first this way, then that. Upon whom? Upon the male Schindler and upon Adam, upon a disgruntled Schindler and upon a glum Adam with arms upright like stanchions upon his knees. There they sat, the three of them; and outside, loving, hating, Elisha. Outside, feasting, starving, Elisha.

Outside, that was it. Shivering’ for a quarter of an hour, there, outside. With a hard gulp he swung from that window at last. He had determined what he would do. He would do that which he had told himself for two days that he could not do.

He could not do it fast enough now. He lunged into a run, the aroused Hoopstetter hounds in full yelp behind him. The whole universe seemed in clamor. He liked it. It seemed right, considering the momentous thing he was about to undertake.

The house was dark, as he had expected, but he paused for an alert moment inside the door, his ear cocked cannily upward toward his father’s bedroom. Then he tiptoed into the parlor and abstracted from the paternal stock of stationery between the leaves of the family Bible an envelope, a sheet of paper and a stamp. There was no need to withdraw from the lair beneath his own mattress the phrenetic pirate guarding the Startling Gem Offer of H. Chadwick, Inc. Did he not know by heart every syllable of the Old Honest Goldsmith?

Under slowly weaving tongue Elisha composed his first business letter, which for brevity has probably never been excelled in all the annals of financial correspondence:

Heitville Rural F D

Dear sir Mr Inc I send you still ten dollars. You send me Milennium Ring A3035 as per

stricly confidential. With rubies at.

yours truely

ELISHA MAICE

The letter was only the husk of renunciation, of course. He swallowed the bitter kernel when he gazed his last upon the ten-dollar bill which had lain so warmingly above his heart. It dimmed into twice, thrice its size as he bungled it into the narrow white casket of his hopes beside the letter to Mr. Inc.

Well, anyway, the little canvas bag was not empty; it still contained two dollars and seventy-five cents — no, eighty-five, with Adam’s dime. Two fifty for the first weekly payment, and something over. And within the week his father would be back from the stock market. It was all so safe, this investment in friendship in which Mr. Inc took all chances.

What really troubled him as he set out at once on a trot to the mail box at the crossroads — for had not Mr. Inc warned that he had but a Limited Supply? — what really troubled him on that half-mile trip was that he had not been able to accept the Old Honest Goldsmith’s Sacrifice to the Public as set forth upon another full page of the magazine: The Mammoth Complex Dinner Ring; a Constellation of Seven Large Diamonds: Only $49.50, $15.00 down, $5.00 weekly. But, anyway, she had said she liked rubies. He saw again her ten tiny empty fingers spread above the pictorial rays of his ring — her ring — their ring. How surprised she would be when she opened the Royal Purple Plush Gift Case!

He could keep his secret, Elisha could! But he kept it at fearful odds when he sat once more upon the settee and proffered the portentous magazine to its owner.

“And was you findin’ pigs at? Or, mebbe, somepun else intrusting?” she queried softly.

Elisha dug his heel into the carpet and shook his head. But she looked so concerned, so unutterably downcast that he found himself encouraging:

“Not anyways pigs. But I’m a-findin’ somepun else. I’m a-findin’ somepun else yet in that there book.”

She looked up at him quickly. Then she trilled into gratified laughter. “What, anyway?” she whispered. “Tell me oncet!” He could feel the little confiding heap of her against his elbow. He heaved chastely from her.

Entered Mr. Hoopstetter with rattling newspaper and clanking boot.

Dogs chasing Adam through the yard
He lunged into a run, the aroused hoopstetter hounds in full yelp behind him. (Illustrated by Tony Sarg)

“Is Maice a-loadin’ his hogs Monday, then?” he queried grossly as he turned up the wick of the lamp. It reads here where the market goes draggy at the soft pigs. I ain’t a-lettin’ mine till the price stiffens at them, that I give you.”

Ominous words over which Elisha might well have felt apprehension, considering that his own financial solvency depended upon the prompt conveyance of his shoat to market! But all he was feeling for the moment was an intense dislike of the Hoopstetters; for Mr. Hoopstetter, who scraped his chair noisily underneath the hanging lamp; for Mrs. Hoopstetter, who ambled in with gingham apron overflowing with woolen socks, a darning needle stilettoed into her bosom.

They were always there, the Hoopstetters. It seemed as though Miss Cora Hepple was the only person in the world who recognized that he was a man.

“You ain’t gittin’ stuck after Cory, ain’t you?” Thus Mr. Hoopstetter with ponderous playfulness during that first week of Elisha’s daily visits.

Oh, yes, sometime during the day or during the evening Elisha managed to cover that mile and a quarter between the two farms. Sometimes he had only the two Hoopstetters to contend with; sometimes he had Adam, sometimes the damp-haired Schindler; sometimes he, Adam and Schindler sat in a jagged semicircle of hate beneath the hanging lamp. But Elisha gritted his teeth and held his place; he was openly in the running; he was shamelessly sure of his position with the lady. He knew that she simply endured the others because she was too gentle to rid herself of them.

If he was sure of the eternal bond between them during the first five days of their acquaintance, he was doubly sure after that. For on the fifth day appeared beneath the rusty tin flag on the Maice mail box, the ring. Be it said in honor of Elisha’s rare restraint that he had it in his possession, in a hot lump, in a cold lump, in the canvas bag upon his chest for a full hour and a quarter before he delivered it. It came in the morning; he would wait until night. But night was an eternity distant; anything might happen; they might both be stricken dead! And with night might come Schindler or Adam or both. He dropped his ax at the woodpile, sauntered slowly under Adam’s eye to the barn and through it, then tore across fields.

Of course, though, somebody had to interfere! Elisha dodging from one door to another of the Hoopstetter domicile, buffed full into Mrs. Hoopstetter as she ambled around the corner of the house.

“Bei meiner seele!” she gasped, rocking tumultuously. “It’s Elisha oncet! But you look some pale, bubbie. Ain’t you anything so well? Did you got a pain at your stummick or wherever?”

Was ever swain in travail to present a love token interrogated as to the condition of his internal organs? Elisha groaned.

Appeared in the window behind him a pink sunbonnet. He cast upon it a glance of despair.

“I see a’ready where I have overstepped myself,” chuckled Mrs. Hoopstetter with obscene mirth. “He has got it at the heart still. Not anyways at the stummick.”

By lover’s guile Elisha abstracted his lady to a position behind the barn, and ensconced her upon a wagon tongue. His fingers, numb with ecstasy, fumbled forth the plush case. The sliding door crashed open behind them. Mr. Hoopstetter strode triumphantly forth, girt with a pitchfork, and bearing a large conical trap in which a small rodent squeaked frenzy.

Elisha rose in stiff-legged rage and retired his companion, squealing delicately, from the arena of slaughter. The animal in his trap could not have felt more baited than did Elisha as he cast a hunted eye about him. The landscape proffered no inviolable shelter; the fields, the flat garden patch behind the house, the family orchard with its leafless trees Toward the orchard strode Elisha with the pink sunbonnet in wake.

Arrived to the rear of these puny trunks, Elisha again brought forth the Royal Purple Plush Gift Case. For five days he had been framing verbal sentiments appropriate for the occasion, but the untoward circumstances of th’ hour and his own overwhelming emotions of the moment choked the words at the thither end of his Adam’s apple. He silently extended the box and leaned back pallidly against an apple tree.

The moment was more satisfying, much more, than he had even anticipated. She gave a little cry, then a gasp, then another little cry. She plucked the ring quickly from the box and slipped it upon her finger. “A ring — with rubies at!” she breathed; and kissed it!

She flung toward him and reached up her arms. Elisha backed blindly. He took one of her hands and shook it earnestly. She looked up at him, puzzled, a red curl swirling up into her cheeks. She laughed, as though uncertain what to do next; and stood, turning the ring this way and that.

“Ain’t it is wonderful? And such a supprise on me! Och, my! Since I am born a’ready, I ain’t seeing such a grandness!”

Elisha said nothing. He merely looked, his hand at his throat. It was his moment. Nothing would ever take it from him. He would see it always as he saw it then: The trees with their limbs naked in their sleep, and beneath them the girl, vivid, quivering, a slender lance of life, twisting this way and that upon her pointed toes, her bright glance flashing from him to the red stones upon her finger.

“My, ain’t you the swell feller though! And the good guesser yet! I was wishing long a’ready fur a ring with rubies at. It will git me proud to my head, I have afraid, anyway!”

When at last Elisha found himself treading the impalpable air toward the rear of the house, he halted her abruptly at the garden gate.

“Look here,” he panted, his greenflecked eyes upon her, “you leave me be your steady friend. Youse won’t be leavin’ them other two set up by you no more, ain’t not?”

The girl went slowly through the gate and faced him across the pickets. “Well, this here is how it goes with me. I am softhearted that much that I can’t, just to say, go sassing them off. Herbie he’s my cousin — from — marriages that way; and Adam he’s your brother, ain’t not?”

“No!” shouted Elisha, and added with dizzy penitence: “Anyways if he is, he ain’t no more.” He plucked at her sleeve as she turned from him. “But pass me your promise, anyways, where you ain’t travelin’ with him to the Ewangelical picnic. Nor with Schindler neither. Pass me your word you’re goin’ with me and not nobody else. Till it comes Saturday a week?”

“Saturday a week?” she mused, chewing the string of her sunbonnet. Then she laughed suddenly. “That I will oncet. I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with and I’ll come home with. I pass you my promise on that!” She glanced over her shoulder, twisted off the ring and clapped it into her pocket. “There’s Uncle Willie!” she whispered. “And this here’s our secert! Just us both two together! Ain’t not?”

For, of course, a Hoopstetter had to churn across that ineffable moment. Mr. Hoopstetter, angrily sideswiping at the ends of his mustache with his side teeth, crossed the back yard toward the tool house. He was carrying the large glass bowl of the hanging lamp.

“Such a wear on the coal oil!” he groaned loudly. “Sooner I git it filled, sooner it goes empty on me agin! I will give them mealymouths dare fur to pack their own oil along, that I will oncet!”

“Sh-h-h!” pierced Mrs. Hoopstetter from the kitchen door.

Scratching exultant ribs, Elisha hurdled homeward. She was going with him to the great social event of the year, the Evangelical Sunday-school picnic! Arm in arm they would parade all day, to the bitter envy of Adam, Schindler and other desolated suitors! And after that, there would be no question as to whom she belonged to; she would be sealed to him and to him only! As he vaulted the last fence he saw Adam swinging his discarded ax. After all, good old Adam! Poor old Adam!

Adam spoiled it all. Leaning upon the ax handle he smiled under frowning brows. “I’m a-goin’ to work and thrash you one if you don’t stop pesterin’ my girl. Now mind it! And here’s somepun else: You got to stop follerin’ me nights or I’ll give you a shamed face in front of her, for I’ll go to work and lay youse ower my knee yet. What do you conceit you are, anyhow, carrot-top? A man a’ready?” Elisha’s eyes darkened from blue to black. His shoulders drew stiffly upward; he lowered his fiery young head like a young bullock and dived straight for his brother’s middle. A second later he was being held at arm’s length like a helpless manikin. He saw haze. He hissed and drooled.

“Why!” gasped Adam. “Why!” He dropped Elisha. “Poor little brat!” He stared at him in amazed comprehension.

Poor! Little! Brat! Each one an insult. All three, a triple insult.

“I hate you!” stifled Elisha. “I — hate you!”

He did. From that moment he hated Adam as fiercely as he had loved him. And he hated most the things he had loved most — Adam’s strength, his good looks, his kindness.

The hate swelled within him as the slow hours of that day passed until it seemed that it was all of him, that there was room for nothing else. But there was. There was room for active apprehension. It was his father who introduced the new agony.

Maice Senior was a stern, silent man. Silent Silas, the county called him. His tongue muscles might have grown flabby had he not exercised them nightly over the newspaper. He invariably read aloud, mumbling the news, droning the quotations. He read even the quotations which did not financially concern him, such as Drugs and Dyes, Metals, Hides and Leather, Turpentine and Oils. He usually fell asleep midway of Turpentine and Oils, awoke strangling, blew his nose and went off to bed.

This night Elisha, somberly hunched over the stove with his back toward the others, would have been oblivious of anything unusual, had not Adam suddenly clanked down the tools with which he was half-soling Elisha’s shoes and inquired in a strange voice: “What was that now? Was the hogs fell agin?”

Mr. Maice droned again: “‘Slow, mostly 25 to 50 cents lower. Packer top $6.10. Shipper top $6.00. Packing sows, fairly active, $5.25. Few fat pigs, steady, around $5.25.’”

Adam did not take up his tools. After a moment he ventured: “Then you wouldn’t, mebbe, be a-loadin’ them — this week?”

Mr. Maice snorted grimly and shook his thick grizzled thatch. He adjusted his paper and started upon Hides and Leather.

Still Adam’s tools remained silent. Elisha turned startled, bloodshot eyes toward his father and shrilly challenged forth his one remark of the evening: “My shoat’s Packer Top, $6.10!”

“Wet Salted Markets Finn,’” intoned his father. “‘Skins Stronger. Tallow Markets Easier. Take off of. Butcher Pelts steady —’”

Elisha slept little that night, not at all in the early hours. How could he, with insolvency pressing upon him, blacker than the night about him? Soon, horribly soon, his first weekly payment would be due. He clutched at the canvas bag beneath his nightshirt and tried to imagine that it still contained two dollars and eighty-five cents. But it did not. It contained one dollar and sixty cents. Yet he could not regret the red tie and the red-striped socks which had so devastated his hoard. Had she not said she liked red? He could even, in that sorry pass, have laughed aloud at Adam. Adam had recently purchased a green tie and a hat with a green band. Oh, yes, he was hating Adam as he lay there! He lay on the edge of the bed; he would not have touched Adam’s body for the world; he had even considered sleeping in the barn. He started at a voice in the darkness: “Say, give me the lend of that there ten dollars, wouldn’t you? Just till pop goes comin’ back from the hogs?” Elisha lay taut. “No,” he finally brought forth. Adam tossed restlessly. “Aw, now, say!

Leave me git the lend of them ten dollars and I’ll put a dollar or whatever to it.” Silence. I’ll swaller back what I said about my girl, all, if that’s what’s eatin’ you. I give you dare fur to tag me to Hoopstetter’s ower.”

His girl! Tag him! Elisha projected his outraged self perilously over the edge of the bed. “Take another guess if you think it!” he sliced. “I guess youse couldn’t git nothing off a poor little brat’!”

He lay in tremble. For a few moments he heard nothing, felt nothing, tasted nothing, but his own bitter words. He was tense for Adam to speak again. Adam did not. That hurt.

He was surprised that Adam, also, was in financial straits. But it was easily accounted for. Adaam had purchased the top buggy a week after the girl had twinkled into Buthouse County upon her amazing little feet. Adam had gotten the buggy for the girl; and now he had gotten the girl from Adam. After all, poor old Adam! He began to hate hating. Loving, now, you just couldn’t help; it just came. But hating tore you. And yet you couldn’t stop.

There he was; and the fun was all gone during the days that followed. And yet he had never been so fiercely happy in his life. Fiercely, that was it, when he was with the girl.” I do now take to you that much! she would say; and Elisha would shiver hotly down his back. But away from her, that was different; away from her, fumbling at the limp bag and speculating as to how long the unknown Mr. Inc would be willing to take all chances; away from her, harking with smitten ears to the evening reports of a dropping hog market; away from her with a strange alienated Adam stumping glumly about house and field. Gone the martial slash of broom and shovel and brush and ax; gone the banter with which Adam the resourceful had imparted a tang to life. “It’s time fur to milk the milk!” he was used to yodel as he swung the pail from its high hook and tossed it to Elisha. Now Elisha reached for it in silence, in silence filled it and in silence slopped with it to the spring house.

Once he slanted his tormented forehead against the rough red pelt of the cow, bruised it there, as he thought that he would give anything, even the girl, if he could only tack back to the old happy days with Adam. But that was a black thought, treacherous to the girl; he knew it that night when she took the ring from her pocket, slipped it on and murmured: “My, I do now set awful store by this tony ring! And mebbe I ain’t settin’ store by youse, too, Elisha!” The rapture of the moment was chilled for Elisha by a curious defection of his eyesight. Glancing down upon the jewels he saw them as green instead of red.

“Why, what is it at them?” he stammered.

Miss Hepple giggled, thrust her fingers into her pocket, twisted from him, and a moment later the rubies flashed before him. “Was you blind or whatever?” she twitted him.

Mr. Inc did not keep him long in suspense — or did he only deepen his suspense? The Old Honest Goldsmith began to use stationery recklessly. Elisha, cannily meeting the mail carrier a full quarter mile from the house, had delivered into his prescient fingers once, twice, thrice, typewritten statements and letters from which emanated a chill formality lacking in the initial correspondence between them.

Stumbling homeward with the latest of these documents, Elisha read and reread the ominous statement: “If the obligation is not paid forthwith, we will take such other and further steps as may be necessary to protect our interests in the matter.” How long was “forthwith”? What would be the “steps”? Elisha sagged down under some sumacs to consider these momentous questions.

He was presently distracted for a moment. At a point where the mail man’s circling detour rejoined the main road Elisha saw Adam striding forth to meet the gig.

He was handed something; he went slowly up the road, head down. Was Adam, too, hailing the mail man surreptitiously?

Elisha returned home by way of the Hoopstetters’. His sojourn under the sumacs had yielded a single forlorn possibility. If it failed, ruin was upon him. But if he could get possession of the ring and return it in hasty loan to the importunate Mr. Inc, would not the jeweler be appeased until such time as he could redeem it? If he could.

But he couldn’t. He saw that at once when Miss Cora Hepple clapped her hand over her pocket and backed from him. “I’m that fond fur it, I would up and die if I was to lend it away!” she informed him.

“Just till it comes next week!” Elisha pleaded desperately. He shifted heavily from one foot to the other, then made terrific compromise with Fate: “Give me it oncet, and I’ll change it off fur the Mammoth Complex Dinner Ring. Seven large diamonds. Forty-nine fifty still.”

This gave Miss Hepple pause. Her red little mouth quirked, considering. “I tell you,” she confided, “I give you dare fur to borrow it at the picnic. Or was you, mebbe, fergittin’ to remember I was keepin’ cornp’ny with just only youse that day?

Was he forgetting? But — the picnic was still six days distant!

Under the barn rafters that afternoon, upon the haymow, he composed another frantic letter to his creditor. Adam’s voice came from below.

“Say, pop, market’s up a quarter cent. And the agent at the freight says we could git a empty box car off the siding. I could go drivin”em in this after; and youse could start behind daylight tomorrow. He says. Where he’ll go hookin’ the car at the freighter where pulls through at four of the A.M. The market might go to work and fall on us agin if we go waitin’.”

Elisha stiffened with his held breath. But he could hear only a discouraging mumble. Ordinarily in the Maice family that would have ended it. “But,” Adam’s voice whanged nervously, “we’re just throwin’ good corn into them! We’re a-losin’ at them day after day. We could git — ruined over them!” This last held the crack of hysteria. There was silence.

Even hating Adam as he did, Elisha could not forbear a grudging admiration. No one had ever stood up to his father like that. But — ruin! And Adam didn’t know, and his father didn’t know, how closely the ugly word was hovering over the peak of the haymow at that moment. It all depended upon the time in which Mr. Inc would take those portentous steps as to whether Elisha would be crushed beneath them or not.

And yet he did not recognize the steps when he finally heard them approaching. They approached, in fact, upon wheels. Three afternoons later when he was cleaning the stalls, he heard an increasing roar, then a series of dying bangs. He ran to the door.

The male Schindler throned in the barnyard in his small automobile. Adam stood rigid, shovel in hand.

The visitor was exaggeratedly slow as he unbuttoned his overcoat, unbuttoned his coat, felt in one inside pocket and then the other, and finally pulled forth a long envelope. No judge upon tribunal ever looked down upon the docks with more implacability than did Mr. Schindler as his gaze swept from Adam to Elisha.

“I have here a certain legal dokiment which authorizes me to replevy two certain properties described as follows and to wit in this here letter which I hold at the present minute in this here hand.”

He paused and again surveyed his quarry with judicial omnipotence.

Adam shook his shovel. “Git it through, then! But speak it in English!”

The visitor stiffened and scowled. “The H. Chadwick Company, Inc., has up and constituted me their attorney-at-law and as such I hereby make demands upon you and each of you for delivery of the possession of said two rings for which you have failured to comply with the contracts you have entered into with said company a’ready. And as aforesaid I now make demands for the conveyance to me of those two certain properties known and described in said letter as rings.”

“Rings!” roared Adam. “I ain’t never bought no two rings! If your bum comp’ny goes a-tryin’ to git any two rings off me, they’ll git their heads busted off fur ‘em. I went and bought a ring, yes, that much I give you. But I ain’t got it by me and I can’t git it, and that’s all to it.”

“There’s two defendants in this here action,” intoned Schindler imperturbably, “and they’re specified in this here interment as Elisha James Maice and Adam Charles Maice. And if you failure to yield up said rings into my possessions herewith, I will require you and each of you to pay me a large attorney’s fee all of which is provided for in said contracts — ”

He stopped, mouth open, and gazed upon his disrupted audience. At mention of their respective names, Adam had whirled toward the pallid Elisha.

“Look here!” he said hoarsely. “You ain’t up and bought no ring! Answer me up now! You ain’t bought no ring!”

Elisha wriggled futilely under his stout hand. “I guess I had dare to buy it if I wanted to,” he said stubbornly.

Adam took his breath on a hissing intake. “You little dopple! Give it up, then!” He shook him. “Give it up! He’s got the right to lawyer it off you!”

Elisha’s throat was beginning to hurt. “I can’t,” he choked. His agonized glance flew involuntarily toward the Hoopstetters’.

“It ain’t — there?” demanded Adam. “She — she ain’t took — a ring — off you?”

Elisha gulped.

Adam’s hand fell. He, too, gazed for a silent moment toward the Hoopstetters’; and in that moment faith, hope and even charity died from his face.

He walked slowly toward the machine. “We got the two rings all right,” he remarked heavily. “But we ain’t got ‘em by us. They’re ower by — Hoopstetter’s.”

Schindler yelling at a departing train.
He ran along by the side of the moving train, screaming incoherence. (Illustrated by Tony Sarg)

The papers crackling ostentatiously between the legal fingers lowered suddenly. The legal person himself metamorphosed before their eyes from the leading and only lawyer in Heitville to a Herbie young man with weak, very damp-looking hair.

“You don’t mean —Hoopstetters’? “he fumbled. His incredulous eyes wavered from Adam to Elisha. “Why, it ain’t true! I know it ain’t true! Why, she told me she ain’t got but one—and you never give her that!” He clutched at dignity, at authority. “Get in here!” he commanded. “We will see oncet!”

In the Hoopstetter lane Mrs. Hoopstetter was ambling about a small, freshly started bonfire, prodding it with the handle of a defunct broom. As the equipage with its freight of young masculinity ground to a stop beside her she chastely thrust further within the wreckage a pair of pink stays.

“Was you comin’ from seein’ her off, then?” she greeted them.

“Off?” squeaked Herbie. “Off?” bellowed Adam. Elisha merely formed the 0. Mrs. Hoopstetter reared back in amazement. “To be sure, off. Back on the trainroad to Stutz City. But ain’t she tellin’ youse? She had got only leave or what you call it fur two months. So, when her off was all, back she had got to go to the fact’ry agin. But, my souls” — her jovial gaze swept from one to the other of the stricken faces in the car —”don’t do it to go takin’ it so hard now! I ain’t a-crying none, nor neither is mister yet.” Mrs. Hoopstetter leaned like an oracle upon her staff and thus cryptically spake: “There’s comp’ny, that I give you; and then agin, there’s other comp’ny. Some such you cry somepun ower; and then agin, some such others you ain’t.” She turned and jabbed at a phrenetic pirate, who, though the flames were licking about him, still breathed polychrome defiance toward the faces above him.

“But — she can’t be gone!” gibbered the demoralized Herbie. “Why, she was going to the picnic with me!”

Adam leaped from his seat. “With you? I guess anyhow not!” He jerked, glowering, toward Mrs. Hoopstetter: “When did

she went, then?”

“Well,” calculated Mrs. Hoopstetter,

“I guess it was, mebbe, ten minutes back a’ready, or either eleven. The hired man packed her to the water tank where you make that way with the flag. Yes, mebbe you could ketch it, Herbie, if you make hurry plenty. But it does now wonder me terrible why she ain’t — ”

What she wondered was lost in the startled whir of the engine. But one remark was made during the journey. “She’s takin’ on water,” Schindler gritted as they whirled through a covered bridge and caught sight of the water tank, and at its base a huge dun caterpillar in three segments. Schindler was once more the stern exponent of the law; his fragile machine fairly careened under the weight of his Jovian frown.

Elisha numbly shunted his legs from the car and numbly followed the others around the end of the train. His middle went limp when he saw her. He knew she could explain; he had not lost faith in her for a momerit. She was leaning out of an open window; her head was turned from them; she was talking animatedly to the conductor.

“I should guess I ain’t from these here jaky parts! To see that, I guess it wouldn’t take no dummy. And, say, mebbe youre think I ain’t glad to git back where it makes more lively.” She saw them, then; at least she saw two of them; Elisha could not drive his wretched self forward. He saw her clap smitten fingers to her face. He saw Schindler grab his papers from his pocket and wave them before her. He saw her red lip curl back over her teeth—but it was not the smile he knew. And after moments he heard her—or did he hear her? — those strident tones!

“The law on me yet! I never heard the likeness! For just only takin’ such presents that way! Ain’t you the smarties, though? Well, I ain’t givin”em back, and that’s flat enough plenty!”

A red flag of defiance shot through her cheeks; but her eyes blinked with fright. They flew desperately toward the engine.

The conductor laughed. Others began to laugh. Heads appeared in windows, projected out from the platforms. Elisha could not bear it. He sprang forward.

“Don’t fault her none!” he choked. “I give it her fur keeps!”

Adam swept him back with a powerful arm.

If she saw him she gave no sign. Her trapped eyes swept him impersonally as they darted this way and that. Her knuckles clenched stubbornly against the window ledge. Then with one of her swift gestures she stripped.a ring set with rubies over a burnished nail, stripped a ring set with emeralds over another burnished nail, and dropped them like hot coals into Schindler’s upturned palm.

The antiquated engine gave a snort, ending in a long sigh. The train shuddered. The conductor with a cry of warning sprang upon the step.

“Here, you!” yelled Herbie Schindler. “That ain’t all! You give up that there other! My ring!”

He sprang toward the steps. The conductor sternly shouted him back. He ran along by the side of the moving train, screaming incoherence. From a window waved a hand with shining nails, and upon it a Mammoth Complex Dinner Ring. Schindler backed toward the tank, staring vacantly.

“Forty-nine fifty! In a lump! Forty-nine fifty yet!’

They all stared vacantly at the train as it puffed angrily from them. No one moved. No one spoke. They scarcely breathed. The tension grew, and grew terrific.

Emotions wound and tangled — tighter — tighter.

Schindler rasped in with a grinding swing of his heel and a scratchy laugh: “The little feist! I’ll fetch her yet and twist her that ring off! The skinny little devil!”

Elisha turned glassy eyes upon him. He slowly swelled; he slowly hunched. He lunged toward the legal ribs, striking out with both fists.

Schindler staggered; then with a backswipe of his long arm cut Elisha to the ground. With a roar Adam was upon him. They went down in tight crash.

They clenched and rolled there below the water tank. Elisha wound his arms tautly about his body and danced round and round them. He plucked at them, at Adam and at Schindler; he ached to be wedged between them, battering and being battered.

It was over in a minute, of course. Schindler was no match for Adam. Adam got up and stared down at the other.

Schindler waved his arms like feeble antenna and swayed to his feet. He felt of his nose, of his forehead. His fingers cruised his pockets. Adam whipped out a bandanna. “Here, the,” he said.

Schindler took it and mopped his forehead. He smiled, and looked down. Adam smiled, and looked down. Without another word they turned toward the machine.

But Elisha had had no relief. He made little whimpering sounds like a small animal in pain. He walked crookedly and he walked past the car.

Adam grabbed him and hoisted him into the tonneau. The fields seemed to tip up on either side and to make a dim funnel through which they rushed.

But it seemed to him afterward that Adam had reached out and had clutched his fingers until they hurt. It seemed to him he had heard him whisper thinly: “You got me anyway! You got me anyway!”

They got out. But the machine hesitated. The legal gentleman, with a red lump hoisting his damp hair in the exact middle of his forehead, hesitated. He looked down earnestly at Elisha.

“You know, there’s a proviso in those contracts. It says you can return the goods and select anything else from their catalogue. That’s fair enough. There’s watches and pens and things, I might, mebbe, hold onto them rings for a few days

Elisha walked on into the barn. He turned round and round in an empty stall and looked at it as though he had never seen it before.

Yodeled a voice behind him: “It’s time fur to milk the milk!”

Elisha for the first time failed to catch the pail as Adam tossed it to him. But it rolled with such grotesque purposefulness to his very feet that he smiled — crookedly.

The first page of the short story "A Ring with Rubies At" as it appeared in the Saturday Evening Post
Read “A Ring With Rubies At” by Oma Almona Davies from the May 10, 1924, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: “I have here a certain legal dokiment which authorizes me to replevy two certain properties.”

Illustrations by Tony Sarg

Wit’s End: 10 Ways to Keep the Spark Alive While Sheltering in Place 

With many American families temporarily confined to their homes, couples are suddenly spending more time together than ever before. As nerves fray and relationships are tested, here are a few modest suggestions to keep your pandemic romantic.

1. Spend time on your appearance, even though you never leave the house. This crisis may seem like the time to stop wearing undereye concealer or see if you can grow a beard down to your waist. Resist those urges. If you live with another person — or even a sensitive plant, like an orchid — strive to look reasonably attractive, causing your partner to think, “Wow! I’m pretty lucky.” Not, “This disgusting slob is using all my precious toilet paper.” 

2. Check in with each other often. Between working remotely, homeschooling, and watching the news, it’s easy to forget to ask your spouse, “So, what have you been up to in the 20 minutes since we saw each other?” The answer may surprise you — “I’ve been curled in a fetal position under my weighted blanket” or “I found an expired can of chili, so I ate it, out of the can” — and bring you closer.

3. Don’t overshare. Though you could announce every random thought to your domestic co-prisoner, this is not recommended. When asked a question, aim for the breezy summary, not the Russian novel. 

Compare: “How am I? I . . . I feel like the walls are closing in. The children’s voices are like nails on a chalkboard. I’m experiencing a strange compulsion to drop the cat out of a second-story window to see if it lands on its feet. What, we don’t have a cat? The dog then. Any animal, really.” 

With: “Pretty good. You?” 

4. Break the rules once in a while. Tap into your inner Rebel Couple, like the outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, and sneak out of the house on a non-urgent day trip. Park the car in an abandoned street and sit in it together, taking in the view. If a police car drives by, duck down in your seats: What you’re doing is now illegal in eight states! Enjoy the frisson of being “bad,” but do not get out of your car. (Seriously, please don’t.) Now drive home again. 

5. Serve your spouse a romantic dinner in the privacy of your walk-in closet while the kids watch Frozen 2. Then do whatever comes naturally, like (finally) tidying up the closet. After 1 hour and 43 minutes in there, the house will seem much bigger than before. 

6. Renew your wedding vows after updating them for 2020. In a ceremony broadcast to family and friends via Skype, hold hands in the living room and intone:

“I, Brad, promise to honor and cherish you, Melissa, without ever leaving our home because you will not let me go buy groceries, claiming I don’t ‘do it right.’ Please, Melissa, I need to get out of here once in a while. I’m a human being.” 

“I, Melissa, promise to stand by you, Brad, in sickness and in health, even if I’m half in the bag because I’ve been drinking wine all day out of sheer boredom. Can you go to Safeway and get more wine? Never mind, I’ll do it.” 

7. Cuddle up on the couch and watch movies together. It’s the perfect shelter-in-place date. What could go wrong? Just make sure your film choices aren’t subtly passive-aggressive, like House of Flying Daggers, Unforgiven, and 10 Things I Hate About You

8. Allow one spouse to move into the basement, where he can work remotely, read books, eat, and sleep without disruption. The remaining spouse can pretend her husband is away on a business trip when she is visited by a rugged stranger like Clint Eastwood, who woos her while photographing the bridges of Madison County. After their torrid affair, the mysterious stranger rambles out of town, i.e., returns to the basement for the next five to seven days. Repeat.

9. Read the bestselling self-help book, Mating in Captivity. Published in 2009 by therapist Esther Perel, this popular book offered a metaphor for the challenge of long-term monogamy. Now revised to account for actual captivity. 

10. Try to remember the big picture. Though it feels like you will be stuck at home forever, this too shall pass. And when it does, you may even miss it a little. Oh, you won’t miss your spouse’s insane competitiveness at board games or the loud sounds they make while chewing, but it may make you sad to hear, “I can’t open that pickle jar for you / sew on a button / make you a sandwich / give you a backrub / take the kids outside for twenty minutes. I’d like to help, but I’m back at the office, remember?”

Featured image: Shutterstock

The Lady with a Hundred Pockets

Doris and Mickey drove to the recreational complex in separate cars. They arranged to meet at the playground and cut through to the picnic area where the day-of-fun benefit for Cameron Ferderbar was taking place. Cameron, Doris’s neighbor, had fallen off a ladder when cleaning out his roof gutters, and now he was laid up in a rehab facility, which, let’s face it, was actually a nursing home that smelled like diapers. Bankruptcy was pawing at the family’s door, and the GoFundMe had come up short, so Cameron’s men’s club was putting on the benefit hoping to cover some of the healthcare bills.

Doris arrived at the playground wearing a CAPS Sugar sun visor, a red-and-white striped shirt, and white slacks. CAPS processed sugar, and Doris worked in inventory control. As she waited for Mickey, Doris noticed children crowding around a woman dressed in an enormous multicolored patchwork skirt covered in rows of pockets. Next to her was a sign on a chair that read, “The Lady with a Hundred Pockets. Fifty cents per chance.”

The woman smelled like a tropical fruit salad. She reminded Doris of a fertility goddess. She wore her hair in a massive braid, thick as a bicycle tire, that she fixed in a circle on top of her head like an Italian Easter bread, except there was no pink or blue dyed egg in it.

Children were begging their adults for change and darting over to the pocket lady. After she zipped their coins into her belt bag, she let them plunge their hands into her pockets. They came up with mini pinwheels, plastic knights, frogs, lions, junk jewelry, and tiny squirt guns. A few kids liked their loot, at least for a moment, but some did not. They wanted to put the junk back and try again. But the pocket lady tilted her head, shook her finger, and said, “For another chance, you must pay again.”  Most of the adults shelled out for two chances, but when the kids wanted more money, their adults escorted them to the play equipment, and, if they kept making a fuss, back to the car.

Mickey showed up twenty minutes late, but at least he showed up. It was a hot August afternoon, and he was mopping his brow. Doris offered him an air hug. Like Doris, Mickey was in his early sixties. They had met two months ago on a dating site for mature people. Age was just a number, that’s what everyone said. Like it was only about age.

Doris had been through one divorce, Mickey three. A solidly built man, he wore his thinning iron-gray hair in comb-over. Not a ridiculous comb-over, one of those trimmer comb-overs. He was a delivery driver for UPS.

“Who’s the gypsy?” he asked.

“That’s the Lady with a Hundred Pockets. For fifty cents, you get to pick one of her pockets. I’m going to try my luck.”

She meant this to sound playful, but Mickey mumbled something about her acting ridiculous and like a little kid and there being better ways to spend money. He stood with his hands in the side pockets of his plaid knee-length shorts while Doris gave the woman two quarters. The lady told her to go for it. Doris stuck her hand into a paisley pocket and pulled out a gold plastic ring with a big faceted plastic ruby in it.

She showed it to Mickey. “My lucky ring. Maybe it will grant me three wishes.”

Mickey gave her a whatever look. “Now I know something new about you. You believe in wishes and luck.” He mopped his brow again.

“I do happen to believe in wishes and luck,” she said, and Mickey gave her another whatever look. It would have been nice if he played along in the spirit of fun, but he evidently did not budge on his principles. She began to think of her wishes, but she kept them to herself. She wished for a caring guy with a sense of humor, speedy healing for Cameron, and a winning state lottery ticket for the Ferderbars. Maybe a winning lottery ticket for herself. What did she spend, maybe ten or twenty dollars a week on the state lottery?

“Why don’t you put that silly thing back and let a kid get it?”

This made Doris feel ashamed. She put the ring back in its paisley pocket. Maybe some little girl would pull it out and be delighted.

“You don’t have to put it back,” said the lady. Doris shrugged like it wasn’t a big deal. Then she saw the lady aim an evil eye at Mickey. It was like a laser locking onto a target. Maybe she had real gypsy powers. Doris hoped that things would improve during the day of fun.

She had paid for the beef and beer tickets, which was only right since this was her cause and the decision to go had been her idea. She wondered what it would be like, Mickey meeting so many of her friends all at once. Maybe he was skittish about that. So far, their dates had been one on one, your basic dinner-and-a-movie thing, and they always went halfsies. It would be nice if he treated her now and then.

The men’s club had produced a shindig. A sound system played country music. There was a dunk tank, horseshoes, drawings for gift baskets, bingo for prizes, and a bean bag game called cornhole. It cost extra for the games. There was a prayer station, too. No charge for that, of course. Connie Ferderbar sat in a lawn chair with a giant get-well card that everyone signed. The aroma of barbeque wafted through the air.

Doris and Mickey headed to the food table, Doris waving to acquaintances along the way. There must have been two hundred people there—neighbors, friends, people from the community.

“Didn’t Cameron have health insurance?” asked Mickey.

“Connie said he dropped their coverage as soon as the government lifted the no-insurance tax penalty. Not too swift, I know.”

“Talk about false economy. And they didn’t find him for three hours? He lay there for three hours? Working alone on a ladder, no spotter?”

“He took risks. But you can fall off a ladder even if you have a spotter,” remarked Doris.

“The guy’s an idiot,” said Mickey. “You take precautions. You carry coverage.” A yellow jacket flew up to Mickey, and he swatted it away.

“There’s good luck and bad luck.” Doris thought of all the times Cameron and Connie had been there for her both during her divorce and after. Cameron had helped her with a leaky faucet, a busted screen door. He’d helped her change lightbulbs she couldn’t reach. “Well, he’s my friend, and that’s the reason we’re here. Do you really have to call him an idiot?”

Mickey loaded his plate with a heap of barbequed beef, big mounds of macaroni salad and cole slaw, and stuck tortilla chips into the salads. He took a can of Pabst and headed to the picnic tables, which were under a pavilion. Worried that Mickey had taken more than his share, Doris took less than she wanted, then sat down next to Mickey.

The Chens, the Rothmans, and the DiPietros joined them. After the introductions, Frances Chen updated everyone on Cameron’s situation. He’d broken a leg and three ribs, screwed up a shoulder, suffered a concussion, and, worst of all, had a spinal cord injury. The spinal cord injury made it hard to predict if he would walk again. Plus, an infection had cropped up in the diaper-smelling rehab. Don’t even ask about the bills. Before the accident, Cameron had managed a restaurant.

“How do you guys know each other?” asked Rose Rothman inclining with interest toward Doris and Mickey.

Marrieds always asked. Singles also asked each other how they met. But that was different, everyone on the same playing field.

“Online dating,” replied Doris, not in a terse voice but in the kind of voice that said she wanted to move on from that topic.

Bea DiPietro said she’d heard quite a few stories about online dating, women meeting creeps and such. Sometimes nice guys too, countered Doris. Bea wanted to know what site she used, and Doris replied in a general way that it was one of the over-fifty sites. In truth, she couldn’t recall if it she’d met Mickey on SilverSingles, or OurTime, or one of the others. No law against having two or three accounts at once. It increased your possibility of finding Mr. Right or, at least, Mr. Available. Sometimes Doris saw the same guys overlapping on the sites. Maybe they noticed her overlapping, too.

“That’s how it’s done now,” said Mickey, rescuing Doris. He took a swig of beer. “You meet people online.”

“Mickey’s a pitcher in a softball league,” Doris piped up, and the husbands, clearly impressed, picked up on the sports theme.

After lunch, Doris and Mickey ambled over to the activities area. Doris bought some chances on gift certificates for local hair salons and restaurants. Mickey said she was wasting her money, why not just patronize the places directly? Doris stared at him.

“You do it to help them raise money,” she explained like he was some kind of dolt who didn’t get it. “The guy had an accident, and now everybody’s helping out.”

“Well, the guy didn’t play his cards right. So now everyone has to bail him out?”

“You think you always deal your own cards, Mickey?” Doris was surprised at her sharp tone.  “What about a flood or a hurricane? What about cancer?”

“You buy insurance for those things. You don’t buy a house in a flood plain. You manage your risks.”

Now he was acting ridiculous. And hard-hearted.

“You can’t always control what happens to you. What if you go to a festival and a shooter opens fire?”

“Do you know something I don’t?” he said, trying to be funny.

They walked past the horseshoes and the dunk tank to the bean bag toss with the weird name. Mickey wanted to show his pitching chops. The game was popular, and they took their place in line. Doris wondered if he would pay, since cornhole was his idea, or if, at least, they’d go halfsies. The fellow in charge explained the rules of the game, which were fairly involved with all sorts of scoring levels. You aimed to toss the bean bag into the hole, and the holes were on two slanted boards. One board had a sun, the other a moon.

“Hey, Sugar,” said a voice behind Doris. There stood Louella from work, also sporting a CAPS sun visor. She was with a fellow named John, whom Doris had dated in the past. They had met on OurTime. Or was it SilverSingles? Louella and John were holding hands.

The women made the introductions.

“How do you do?” said Doris, trying to act as if she were meeting John for the first time.

“Pleased to meet you, Doris,” returned John. They discovered that they were each there to support Cameron, who was a mutual friend. “A good time for a good cause, but a good cause for a sad reason.”

They decided to play teams. First girls against boys, then couples. John took out his wallet. Mickey left his wallet in his pants.

Doris’s bean bags kept landing on the grass. Louella had slightly better aim, but the boys won, Mickey landing all this throws right in the hole. Doris noticed that Louella wore a slender gold ring with a tiny red gemstone, a garnet or ruby, on her right ring finger. “A promise ring,” said Louella with a glint in her eye.

Doris took the singles prerogative and asked how they met.

“Online dating,” said Louella.

“What a coincidence. That’s how we met.” What had she missed in John? She had thought him boring and stodgy and let things trail off after two dates. What a gentleman he was and clearly in love with Louella.

They changed to couples teams. Louella and John tried impromptu rituals each time they prepared to throw their bean bags, touching an ankle for good luck, doing a few Charleston steps, each breathing on the promise ring. They racked up points, but again Mickey landed all four of his bags in the hole. He tried to help Doris improve her aim, advising her to shoot to the left since her tendency was to pitch to the right, but that did not help. She finally turned around and threw backwards. Shockingly, her last bean bag made the hole.

Mickey shook his head in amazement. “Gotta say, dumb luck won that time.”

Doris did a little happy dance.

After the game, Louella and John moseyed off in the direction of the food table, and Doris and Mickey headed to the dunk tank. There was a big crowd there too, and one of the neighbors sat on the platform of the dunk tank cage egging people on, “We want a pitcher, not a glass of water! We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher!” Everyone was missing the target. “You pays your money and you takes your chances,” yelled the guy collecting the money. It cost ten bucks for three tries.

“Sugar, I’d like a shot at that dunk tank. Bet I could sink the guy,” said Mickey.

“I bet you could,” said Doris. “Show ’em what you got.”

Mickey stood there with an expectant look. Then he rubbed his fingers together in a where’s-the-money gesture.

Doris blinked. “Pretty much, Mickey,” said Doris, “it’s your turn to pay for some of the entertainment. To be fair, I mean, looking at the whole afternoon.”

“The laid-up guy is your friend. It’s a conflict of interest for me. I don’t believe in paying the bills for people who got themselves into their messes. Ethically, you should pay.”

“Ethically? Ethically, there’s something called sharing and generosity.” She looked at him for a response. He looked at her. It was a standoff. “Come on, Mickey. Come on,” said Doris. “Don’t be cheap and childish. You’re acting like a little kid asking his mom for money. Like those kids with the pocket lady.”

Mickey blazed a look at Doris. She had called him on his behavior, maybe overdid it, and he more than didn’t like it. He looked ferocious, and it scared her.

He tore a ten-dollar bill from his wallet and thrust it at the carnival barker guy. People noticed his rapid movements. He was making a scene.

Maybe she should have paid the ten bucks and afterward called it quits between them. A one-time appeasement. But something in her made her say what she said and in the tone that she said it.

Everyone stepped back as Mickey wound up for the pitch. Doris knew his skill, but the others did not. They only saw his aggression, the hard set of his mouth, and Doris standing by with a crooked smile. She knew that in the privacy of a home, which they would never ever share, he would always be right, even if he were not right. She knew that type. The type that called disagreement starting a fight.

Mickey launched his meanest fastball and hit the bullseye hard. It was assault by proxy. She could feel it. He smiled a triumphant smile. Normally people would clap and laugh as the guy in the dunk tank dropped into the drink. Instead, silence settled over the crowd. “You really know how to spoil an afternoon,” he snapped loud enough for others to hear. “Don’t bother to call.” With that, Mickey stalked off in the direction of the playground.

Her face reddened with embarrassment, but it would have been worse if Louella and John had witnessed the drama. How lucky that she and Mickey had come in separate cars.

Abandoned, or was it liberated? Doris wandered around the grounds. “Old Town Road” played on the sound system. She looked at her cell phone and watched other people play bingo and lawn games. She joined Connie Ferderbar and chatted with her about the great turnout, the tasty barbeque, and the loving and supportive friends.

Frances Chen, Rose Rothman, and Bea DiPietro joined them. Had they observed the scene at the dunk tank?

“Where’s your friend?” asked Bea.

“He had to go somewhere,” replied Doris, trying to look stoic. The women nodded.

“I don’t know how anyone finds anyone in this world,” said Frances.

“It takes a miracle, but you have to believe in miracles,” said Rose.

Doris did not stick around for the prize drawings. She said her farewells and made her way toward the playground and the parking lot. She’d taken a chance on Mickey, and it wasn’t a winning chance. Or maybe she had chosen Mickey, and it turned out to be a bad choice. Her thoughts turned to poor Cameron, and she felt that her dating issues were just plain silly compared to other people’s problems.

The lady with a hundred pockets was packing up. She recognized Doris and waved to her. She didn’t smell like a tropical fruit salad anymore and her elaborate Easter bread hairdo was falling apart. She no longer wore the theatrical face of the seer.

“Where’s your man friend?”

“He couldn’t stay,” replied Doris. “He had to leave.”

“That dude was a jerk. You can do better. Here, have another try at a pocket. It’s on me.”

Doris found the same paisley pocket in which she’d found the ring. Lo and behold, the golden piece of junk, the trinket that Mickey had shamed her into giving back, was still there. She smiled and slid the clunky thing onto her finger. As Doris drove back home, she felt safe. She had never felt safer. And she thought of her wishes, which were pretty things and well worth wishing for, even though they might never come true.

 

Featured image by Furuya Korin, Shutterstock

“The Privileged Class” by George Bradshaw

George Bradshaw wrote romances and mysteries for the Post and other popular magazines during his career that spanned more than 40 years. His last short story for this magazine, “The Privileged Class,” follows a curious mix of guests at a remote Mexican Inn and a romantic triangle that exposes the harsh truth about class differences and love.

Published on December 3, 1966

 

Civilization at the Hacienda Lucknow depended upon a gasoline engine. The gasoline engine made electricity, the electricity made ice, and the ice chilled the drinks which the guests at the hacienda so seriously needed.

The gasoline came by boat from Guaymas, a hundred miles across the gulf, and Doña Lucia, dubious of the winds and tides, always kept an excess supply at hand in drums sunk in the ground. Oh, there were occasional rumors of ice in the town of Las Rosas, but that was ten back-breaking miles around Santa Rosa Bay, and the rumors usually proved unfounded. As for ice beyond that — well, a road supposedly went west over the mountains to join the highway to La Paz, but no one had ever been found who soberly, truthfully, would say he had driven it. “Have more ice,” Doña Lucia would say. “There is plenty of gasoline.” On your first day at the Hacienda Lucknow you were not accustomed yet to think of ice as a triumph. But such it was.

I found Doña Lucia’s hotel by chance. You are not likely to hear of it, for it has only nineteen rooms, is never advertised, and can be reached only by plane or boat. I was staying in Guaymas when somebody told me about it. A young Mexican, Luis something, who had a converted C-47 which he used as a tramp, was flying over in a couple of days, and he agreed to take me. If I liked it, I could stay; if not, he would bring me back.

The trip was comfortable. Luis had equipped his plane with two ancient, overstuffed velvet chairs behind the cockpit. I had one of them; a young American girl, Helen Adams, had the other.

Miss Adams knew where she was going and why. In the forty-five minutes it took us to fly the Gulf of California, I learned something about this pretty girl.

Her room was reserved at the Hacienda Lucknow. She would stay a month. “I’m on a field trip,” she said. “I’m with the Hedges Oceanographic Institute. I’m a conchologist.”

I told her that was interesting.

“Of course, all this coastline has been hunted for shells,” she said, “but I still may be able to come up with something wonderful.”

“A golden cowrie?” I said.

She smiled tolerantly. “Golden cowries,” she said, “are found only in the South Pacific.”

I must be careful what I say about Hellie Adams. I could easily make her sound unattractive. She was not; she was only young. We often forget how learned the young are — certainly when I was twenty-two I knew five times what I know now. Hellie was a sharp reminder that knowledge can be pure, and opinions unshakable, and that to answer yes-and-no is a sure sign of age.

I never resented her; it was touching, rather, to see someone who had such faith in facts. And she was so pretty. That first day she had on a dark gray silk dress, an elegant cowhide pouch hung over her shoulder, and she carried a pair of smart, pale-blue sunglasses. Everything was right for her dark-brown hair and golden face; the figure hid the conchologist perfectly. Only her manner was scientific.

She said to me. “What do you do?” and when I explained, she seemed disappointed.

“I hoped, if you wrote, that you did articles,” she said. “I only like articles.”

I said to her, “Articles deal in truth, and truth is so subject to fashion that I find it unrewarding.”

She said, “You’re quite wrong.”

Suddenly Santa Rosa Bay and Baja California were beneath us, and we circled in for a landing.

Doña Lucia was Lucille Corbin, once of Urbana, Illinois. Almost sixty now, she had been for thirty years a self-satisfied exile from the rainy north. She had come in the beginning, I suppose, as a tourist, but then, falling in love with the country and needing to make a living, she had become an innkeeper, first in Taxco, then Acapulco, then Jalisco, and now on the far and inconvenient shores of Santa Rosa Bay.

She is a familiar figure. If you tramp around the world, you will see her in Bermuda, in Peru, in Mexico — the elderly American Bohemian, white hair bobbed, endless cigarettes dangling from her lips, native jewelry clanking. She has a Midwest prejudice against dirt, a merry disposition, and a fluent and incompetent command of the native language. She could have stayed at home and run a tearoom, but that would not have satisfied her wandering urge; she wanted the tearoom, all right, but it must have a romantic view, and a little foreign music in the air.

Doña Lucia had tiny, pretty feet, and she showed them vainly as she padded, barefoot, around her hotel. The Hacienda had been built by a German more than fifty years ago — there were stories of funny business with submarines during World War I — but Doña Lucia had so altered it and added to it that probably very little remained of the original structure. Now it was a cool maze of patios and loggias and fountains and pleasant views; flowers and shiny leaves exerted themselves in any possible corner, and everywhere there was a comfortable place to sit down.

I meant to work, but it is hard to start right away when you arrive in a new place. So for several days I explored the coves and beaches of Santa Rosa.

I either started out with or met Hellie. She was always up early, for like everything in nature, shells are idiosyncratic — some like dawn, some like dusk, some sun, some shade — and Hellie aimed to please them all. She collected basketfuls of beautiful, foul-smelling creatures. She told me their bothersome Latin names, and taught me to distinguish one from the other.

So Hellie and I became friends, but I am afraid nothing more. I won’t say she tolerated me — that is too strong a word. Rather, she treated me with the kindness one might use toward a bright child. I believe that she divided people into two categories: those engaged in the holy rites of science, and others. “Others” were often acceptable, but fundamentally they were unimportant. Of course, I am exaggerating this attitude slightly, but it was nevertheless sometimes strong enough to nettle Doña Lucia.

The three of us had our meals together. (There were other guests at the hotel, but they were waiting for the marlin to show up, and they don’t come into this story.) One day at lunch Doña Lucia said, “And what will you do, my dear, when earth’s last shell is catalogued? Get married?”

Hellie said, “Before that, maybe.”

“Well, then,” Doña Lucia said, “find a placid man, with plenty of money.”

“The money won’t matter.”

“Oh, come,” Doña Lucia said, “be sensible.”

“Or the placid either. I’m afraid I’ll have to have a man with a brain I can respect.” She looked at me. “One who isn’t afraid of the truth.”

“Ouch,” I said.

“Men are in various ways useful,” Doña Lucia said, “but whether they have brains or not is unimportant.”

So we might have gone on talking for a month, except that just then a waiter called and pointed, and as we looked out through the long windows, we saw a yacht slowly coming in to anchor off the hotel.

“It’s Foxie Benham!” Doña Lucia said.

Yes, it was Foxie Benham. With her yacht, her captain, her guests. and her husband, in that order.

Let’s take Foxie. The first thing to remember about her is that she was rich. Not new rich. Old rich: rich with the accumulation of four generations; rich to the point of quixotic stinginess; even rich enough to be a public benefactor. She must certainly have been in her forties, but when you saw her — which was never before noon, after she had been pounded and scrubbed and brushed — she looked a good twenty-eight. Her pale shining hair, her small, tanned face, her miraculous figure — all stood the test of the brightest sun. She swam and danced and drank and ate and laughed endlessly. I think one of the things we are apt to forget about rich people is what a good time they have. They take advantage of their advantages and enjoy themselves. Foxie had an energy that may have been compulsive but was certainly real. She talked in a quick, surprising way that passed for wit, and she had the appearance of constantly being busy. She was not busy, of course; she was simply making sure that she wouldn’t be bored.

Her guests on the boat were two other couples of her world — not so rich as she, and the women not quite so handsome — but gay and pleasant people who made every show of having a good time.

It’s hard to know what to say about Jerry Benham, her husband. He was her third. He had been married to her for nine years, and it was clear that he was not going to last much longer.

Poor Jerry. If things had been different — if he had never met Foxie, that is — he might have been a successful second-rate actor. He had been a moderately successful one, and had been on his way to a small notoriety when Foxie picked him up. It was still obvious that he had been a good-looking fellow ten years ago, but the ten years of idleness and alcohol had taken their toll: Jerry, at thirty-five, looked done for.

He was not a drunk; in fact, he drank rather less than the average, but alcohol went to his tongue. He didn’t stutter; there was simply a lag in his speech. He had to force the words out. Talking to him, you found yourself helping him, finishing sentences, nodding violent agreement with half-finished ones. It was tiring to talk to him, but also unrewarding, for Jerry really had little more to talk about than ten-year-old movie news.

Possibly it is condescension on my part to say I felt sorry for Jerry. He had made his bargain in marrying Foxie, yet somehow I believed he had expected something more.

Foxie was carrying on with the captain.

Oh, the captain.

Hellie gave the best description of him at dinner that first night after they all arrived. “He’s a beautiful specimen,” she said, and gave a frantic little laugh.

Doña Lucia looked at her coldly. “No need for hysteria,” she said. “Men have been handsome before this.”

“Not like the captain,” Hellie said.

“I thought that you wanted a man with brains.”

“I do. But as an example of what the race can produce … ”

“Hands off, now,” Doña Lucia said, “if you know what’s good for you.”

“I’m a scientist. I can appreciate a specimen, can’t I?”

“If you keep a scientific view, yes. But let me tell you, Foxie has the teeth of a wolf.”

“You don’t understand.” Hellie said.

“Yes, I do,” Doña Lucia said.

He was actually a very nice fellow, Bill Daniels. The Navy had given him a good education, and he loved boats, so this present job was a perfect one. And if Foxie went with it, he wasn’t averse.

I have found that extraordinarily handsome people are usually quite nice. They have no reason not to be. Everyone likes them on sight, they go everywhere, they are either given money or given a chance to earn it easily, they have none of those problems of making a place in the world for themselves, which seem to beset the rest of us. Enjoying life, they make life enjoyable for those around them.

At least, that is what Bill Daniels did for Hellie. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that is what he did in the morning; for the rest of the day, and the night, he was a hired hand. Hellie accepted this as natural.

They met early one morning by chance in a cove where Bill was swimming and she had gone to hunt for shells. They talked and swam and looked for shells until noon, when he had to leave. But they met the next morning. Then the next, and the next. When, however, they met at other times, they only smiled and nodded. Hellie said one day, “Don’t be silly. Bill’s told me all about it. Foxie’s husband is around every minute, isn’t he? It’s just that Foxie treats everyone like a servant, especially servants. She wants Bill on call.”

“Oh,” I said, “so that’s it.”

“Yes.”

I’m sure it all started innocently enough. From Bill’s point of view, it was certainly more fun to go swimming with a pretty girl than not, and from Hellie’s — well, it was good to have a happy fellow dive to get shells for you.

Foxie either did not know about the meetings or had proof they meant nothing. Anyway, she took a liking to Hellie when she found out about her work.

“My word, shells,” she said one evening when all the yacht people were on shore for cocktails. “I know something about shells, you know. When I was a little girl my father used to bring me down here. He was very interested in the Hedges Institute. You know the collection there from Magdalena Bay?”

“Of course I do.” Hellie said. “They’re beautiful specimens.”

With a kind of childish pride, Foxie pointed to herself. “I collected a great many of them. They were my special thing.” She leaned toward Hellie, a string of sapphires rattling on her wrist. “Look here, you and I have a lot to talk about.”

And they did, for a good twenty minutes. “Oh,” Foxie said finally, “I’d love to go hunting again.”

“Why don’t you come?” Hellie said. “Some afternoon?”

“Tomorrow,” Foxie said. “I’ll do it.”

Jerry, who had been listening carefully to all this, looked at me and smiled. I smiled back at him and nodded wisely, hoping I told him I understood everything he was thinking.

I did not, of course. I did not know one thing Jerry was thinking. I spent too much time watching the situation as it developed.

For Hellie, despite all her talk and disclaimers, fell in love with Bill. It was one of those quick and awful things, groundless, and, so far as I could see, without hope, but hard and inescapable. It happens, I suppose, to everyone at least once in his life, and this was Hellie’s time.

In her eyes there was a new, distinguishable glow; she lost the thread of conversation, she walked differently, she seemed afraid that everyone was looking at her. I felt sorry for Hellie Adams.

For let’s be blunt about it: I could see, and I was also told quite plainly by one of Foxie’s guests, what was going on. Foxie had marked Bill for her next husband, and no sweet little girl who went around picking up seashells was going to upset the plan.

It was a recent thing with Foxie too, I was told. Bill had been hired as captain innocently enough — which would explain Jerry’s presence — and the change had taken place in the six weeks since the yacht had left Santa Barbara. As Hellie said, Bill Daniels was a healthy specimen.

There you have it — but with one thing to be added which might possibly be forgotten. I mean the intimacy of all concerned.

You remember what it was like in the old days when people traveled by ship instead of plane. At the end of six days going to Europe you felt that the people you had met the first day were old, old friends, that you had known them and everything about them for months or years. The same thing happened in the isolation of the Hacienda Lucknow. By the end of two weeks we had all been in each other’s pockets long enough to know the contents, and yet not be bored. We were all delighted new friends, in the happy way of a resort, which demands no responsibility. If some of us looked apprehensively at the spectacle of Foxie and Hellie and Captain Daniels, we were all very civilized, and did not talk about it — in public. We danced and drank and had suppers on the beach and swam in the moonlight. Everything was fine, and might have remained so.

But then the whales came. Of course, it is silly to suppose the whales had anything to do with it, but they marked the day.

Foxie had invited us all out fishing. We went in one of Doña Lucia’s powerful fishing boats. There had been rumors that marlin had been killed out of Guaymas, and since marlin were one of the main reasons Foxie was at Santa Rosa, off we went. By “we” I mean the yacht people and Hellie and me; Doña Lucia was invited, of course, but she had caught enough fish in her life.

It was one of those sharp blue days with an occasional flat-bottomed cloud to turn the pale water to ink. We went fast out into the Gulf and south. José, who ran the boat, was famous for knowing where fish liked to swim.

We had been gone three hours, the lines were out, and we were possibly twelve miles offshore when we saw the first whale. He was, José said, a couple of miles away when we saw him come up and blow.

I was standing next to José. He turned to me and shrugged. “There will be no marlin,” he said. “When the whales come, the marlin go.”

I said, “Whales don’t eat marlin?”

José made a face. “The marlin don’t take a chance.”

In a little while we saw another whale, or maybe it was the first one again. But then we saw three together.

There is no way to prepare yourself for the sight. Whales are monsters of an impossible size, awkwardly playful in a way that never seems quite under control. To me they are frightening. I watched dry-mouthed and helpless when one surfaced not two hundred yards from us, water streaming from his back; he eyed us incuriously, and dived again. José said they never attack small boats; but like the marlin. I did not want to take chances. I wanted to go home. We did, but it took us almost four hours. We saw twenty-one whales.

It was not a good day. Whatever spirits we had were sobered; for the most part, we watched silently. Foxie became irritable, and insisted to José he could drive the boat faster. We all had drinks, and left our lunch untouched.

I was sitting beside Jerry Benham. Poor Jerry, I think he hated the whales worse than any of us. At the time the nearest one surfaced, he let out a little strangled cry; the blood drained from his sunburned face and turned it yellow. His hand was like a claw clutching his whiskey and soda. When it was over, he said to me, in his halting way, “It’s the worst thing I ever saw. I-I — ”

“I know,” I said. Beside him I felt brave, and I was not brave. But Jerry was in pain.

I must add, here, that two of us were undisturbed: Bill and Hellie. They sat forward, over the cabin, fascinated, calling and pointing. Maybe they knew enough about whales to be confident. Anyway, they seemed to enjoy themselves. And it is just possible that it was their enjoyment, and not the speed of the boat, that made Foxie irritable.

Whales were not the only thing that happened that day. When we got home, tired and out of humor, Doña Lucia met us at the dock and said, “A tragedy has happened. The gasoline engine has broken. We have no ice.”

We had dinner on the yacht. We all had a swim first, and after it Foxie said, “Come have dinner with us. Maybe we can cheer up a little. We need to.” Doña Lucia came along, eagerly deserting her other guests. “Let them rough it,” she said.

On the rear deck of Foxie’s boat the chairs were long and low and comfortable. I sank into one and barely moved all evening. The wind was down and the sea was silent except for the occasional gentle slap of a wave against the hull. From somewhere, softly, came piano music on a phonograph. There was a sizable slice of moon, and the air was cool.

An ideal spot for a dinner, would you not think? — with the Mexican mountains rearing up gray and wild for a backdrop. Perhaps it was the drinks; everybody drank in the hope he would feel happy, but nobody did. Blame the whales, or the fear of them. It was an uneasy night.

Jerry drank too much — out of shame, maybe — and Hellie who wasn’t used to drinking at all, drank because her heart was broken.

For that was the night Foxie went out of her way to show whom Bill Daniels belonged to. It was no vulgar display, but by her tone, her requests, her intimacy, she left no doubt in Hellie’s mind about how things stood. Once — when Jerry was away for a moment, somewhere — Bill bent down to light her cigarette. She ran her hands through his hair and said, “O captain, my captain, you’re the most beautiful captain on the seven seas.” I will say for Bill that he seemed a little embarrassed, but also I will say he made no move to do anything that would displease Foxie.

I have no good way to describe the tension that mounted as the night went on. There was no overt act, but the whole atmosphere just turned nasty. Doña Lucia caught my eye once and made a face of disdain and disgust. I nodded. Rich people, I said to myself, are only good for poor people when they are happy. It seemed a bright thought at the time.

I saw Hellie get up and go forward, out of sight. I don’t know why she went — maybe because she couldn’t watch Foxie anymore, or maybe because she thought Bill would come to her. In any case, after a little while Jerry got up and went after her. It was about five minutes after that, I think, when I heard her scream.

It was a scream of rage, and it was followed by another, and then by some high, choked words we could not understand. Just as we turned our heads, Hellie came running along the deck to us. She was pulling at the shoulder of her dress with one hand, and running the other through her hair. “Doña Lucia,” she cried, “please get the boat. Please get me out of here.”

The old lady, shocked and I think frightened, half rose from her chair.

But Foxie said only, “What’s got into you?”

She had Bill sitting beside her, and one of her arms was draped over his bare shoulder.

“You know,” Hellie said, her breath coming almost as if she were crying. “You know very well what happened.”

“Relax,” Foxie said.

Hellie was holding her head with both hands now. “Relax!” she said. “Get me out of here!” And then she sobbed. “It was you!” she screamed at Foxie. “You put him up to it.”

“The girl’s drunk,” Foxie said, and leaned back. Hellie’s words were dangerous, for Jerry had come aft now and was standing listening.

“You belong under a microscope,” Hellie said. “You put your husband up to it to keep him quiet, to keep him satisfied while you and the captain … ”

Bill said, “Take it easy.”

Foxie said, “Shut up.”

“That’s what I said,” Hellie screamed, “while you and the captain … ”

Doña Lucia had her by one arm and I by the other, and together we got her down the side and into the little boat. She sobbed quietly all the way in to the dock. Doña Lucia led her to her room and put her to bed.

Later, when everyone else was asleep, the old lady and I had a rather shaky nightcap. We sat on the loggia looking out over the sea. The moon still shone too brightly; the water was motionless, and the night soundless, peaceful.

“The truth,” Doña Lucia said, “how dangerous it is. How it is to be avoided. Look at those people. Everyone knew the situation, but they managed to live together, and there could have been a solution. But not now. The truth has been said out loud. Now no one can look at anyone else.”

I said, “What morality!”

“No,” Doña Lucia said. “That’s not morality. Just a feeling for etiquette.”

When I finally got to bed that night, I slept like a rock till six, when Doña Lucia came into my room and shook me awake. “Get up, please,” she said. “Maybe you can help.”

In the night, Jerry Benham had got a gun, shot Foxie in the shoulder, Bill Daniels in the leg, and then, turning the gun on himself, had grazed an ear.

Poor, innocent Jerry. He had aimed for tragedy, but had only made a mess.

“A mess,” Doña Lucia said, sitting on my bed, and with trembling fingers, trying to light a cigarette. “A bloody mess.”

Luis’s plane. which brought the piece of machinery to repair the gasoline engine (which made the electricity which made the ice), took away Foxie and Jerry and, on a stretcher, Captain Bill Daniels. One of the men who had been Foxie’s guest went along. The other man and the two women flew off a couple of days later. The yacht stayed for a week, then somebody sent for it.

But the Hacienda Lucknow was, after all, a hotel. New people came, purposefully bent on enjoying themselves, unconcerned with the past. Some of them were quite amusing people, actually, whom I came to like very well. It wasn’t too long till nobody spoke of the yacht people and what happened to them.

I did not approve of this — this cutting off of a situation as with a pair of scissors. I like a little continuity to my days, even on vacation, but I didn’t see what I could do about it.

So you can imagine my pleasure when, three weeks after the Event, Hellie got a letter from Bill Daniels.

“This is more like it,” I said.

Doña Lucia was short with me. “You,” she said. “Always trying to dream up a happy ending.”

“What’s the matter with happy endings?”

“They only lead to trouble later.”

It was a newsy letter. Bill was out of the hospital, but had to walk with a cane. Foxie had fired him, and flown to New York — with Jerry, of all people. Finally, he hoped that when Hellie got back to Santa Barbara, she would let him know.

Hellie was bitter. “What kind of an insensitive creature can he be … ”

“Most unsuitable,” Doña Lucia said. “Most unsuitable.”

“Come off it,” I said. “Love isn’t suitable or unsuitable. Love is the curve of a neck or the sound of a step on the stairs.”

“God Almighty,” Doña Lucia said. She leaned back and closed her eyes. “You are an incorrigible nitwit.”

“Maybe,” I said, just to fill in the silence. I looked at Hellie. She was sitting quite still, with the letter in her hand, gazing out over the water. But she was not, it was plain, looking at that Mexican sea. Oh, no.

“Well,” I said, “let’s all keep in touch.”

Page from The Privileged Class
Read “The Privileged Class” by George Bradshaw from the December 3, 1966, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

 

Featured image: Illustrated by Neil Boyle. (©SEPS)

“The Enchanted Hour” by Sinclair Lewis

Editor George Horace Lorimer accepted Sinclair Lewis’s short story “Nature, Inc.” from The Saturday Evening Post’s “slush pile” of manuscripts in 1915 and began a prolific relationship between the satirical author and the magazine. Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) brought this kinship to a screeching halt due to its critique of business and the middle class. Lorimer wrote an unkind review of the book, and Lewis was left out of the Post for years to come.

Like “Nature, Inc.,” his 1919 story “The Enchanted Hour” features one of the author’s favorite settings for satire: a new-age commune of artists and farmers.

Content warning: This story contains language that might be unacceptable today but was commonly used at the time.

Published on August 9, 1919

 

Leyland had devoted his imagination to science, in college. To him the winter stars were not flowers in the black field of heaven. They were vaster suns, each with its planets of more splendid human races. As he looked up, his mind flying through ether from sun to eternal roaring sun, he expanded with worshiping awe. And a chunk of quartz was something more than a pretty arrangement of dead angles. It was the battleground of shooting, charging electrons; it had all the mystery and illimitable force of the stars themselves.

He regarded this daydreaming as a vice and a waste of the time that ought to be devoted to learning chemical formulas. But it led him to go adventuring after graduation.

He became assistant to Doctor Ballinger, who was experimenting on the Pacific Coast with iodine, soda and other products of kelp. That sounded sane and scientific. But Leyland guiltily knew that his real interest was not in analyzing the ashes of burned seaweeds, but in seeing mountains and Chinamen and in going upon the ocean in boats. He was reared in the Middle West; he had never seen a mountain nor any Chinaman save the one who ironed professors’ shirts till 1 a.m. So at nothing in particular a week he went to the place where — if your eyes are but good enough — you can glance across to junk sails and the palms of South Sea isles.

The experiments were conducted at Pasqual, a California fishing port. It was a dingy place, but there was a back street of old adobe; Portuguese fishermen with earrings babbled about the wharves; and Doctor Ballinger was a curly-headed, placid, pipe-smoking big brother. Leyland crept out of the awe of college blackboards and became human.

It was the perfect time, the rare sweet hour when youth is invincible and friends are kings. All morning he was out in the kelp-harvesting boat under a gallant and open sky. Ashore the foothills led the eye up cherry-red escarpments and gray-green slants to the mountains beyond. All afternoon he worked in the laboratory. And all evening he talked with the geniuses — with the members of the New Light Colony.

They were at least geniuses, those colonists. They intended within five or ten years — this was twenty years ago — to reform the distribution of wealth, the education of children, the interpretation of Ibsen and the iniquitous prices at the Pasqual grocery. They were mad and delightful.

Leyland was fascinated. They were so obviously impractical that it didn’t matter whether they were practical or not.

There were twenty-five or thirty of the colonists — half, young idealists; half, disillusioned dreamers who, after failure or weary success with schools or newspapers or reform leagues, had fled to the colony as to a white cloister for deliverance from having to make decisions. Each family had ten acres of land and grew figs or chickens or super-potatoes. They joined in a community eucalyptus grove which was to produce incredibly profitable semi-hardwood in an incredibly short time; in a community dining room and kitchen where they took turns at working; in a building that was reading room and theater and temple of whatever arts were fashionable at the moment; and in a nursery — whenever they happened to have a nurse, which never happened to be the present.

Their houses were brown bungalows with fireplaces, rows of latticed windows and low roofs; all very pleasant and gentle, inconspicuous among drowsy hillside pines. Beneath the slope, a wide bay was outflung toward a fantastic headland up which the waves climbed all day long, and for background there were low mountains, eternal and never the same, sliding into new shapes and colors in the play of light, in the eagerness of morning, noon serenity, contemplative dusk. The scent of the place was warm and good; not the gritty smell of cities, but the odor of pine needles, of poppies and the sea.

Most of the colonists were not only agricultural but vaguely literary. They said of one another, “Oh, he writes,” though they did not say just what it was that he wrote or where it might be read. But in their talk they were tremendous and — let this be understood — perhaps a dozen times as merry and interesting as the chemists and businessmen Leyland had met. He had not known there were so many things to talk about: Duse’s technic, the value of alfalfa, single tax and the hypocrisy of rising when ladies came into the room. They talked before breakfast; they talked while they worked in the fields all day — some days; they talked before driftwood fires all night — every night. The question of how they got sleep was as puzzling as the question of how they made a living.

Leyland revered the unelected dean of the colony — Fischer, a gaunt, speculative, sonorous, somehow heroic man; a master with few and shabby disciples; a judge of culture whose verdicts the criminals never heard; a failure in all but faith; a novelist who was too busy studying music to write novels, too interested in photography to make music and too fascinated by spiritualism to develop his pictures. Not quite so well as Fischer, Leyland liked Miss Barge, who did not talk but who really did garden; Mr. and Mrs. Tiddenham, the artists and teachers of folk dancing and weaving; Soulier, the unfrocked clergyman, a jolly, friendly man, very grim in his attacks on churches; Miss Garver, who had been secretary of leagues for all the different kinds of reforms that have been invented since Plato; and young Max Toinans, once a newspaperman, now an unpublished author of novels in which the villains were usually moral parents and the heroines ladies of reputations only too certain.

The colonists spent much of their conversational vigor in denouncing public personages as mediocre and commercial. They stirred Leyland to understand how unceasingly he would have to fight against his every weakness. And when he was bothered by Fischer’s complaining, when it seemed to him that some of the colonists took doctrines — any doctrines — as frowzy men take drugs, he still admired their willingness to play.

For these modern conventuals remained children. They picnicked on the shore. They came early in a chattering parade, carrying baskets and wicker-covered demijohns of honey-colored native wine, trailing through the poppies — talking, laughing, talking. They ran barefoot out into the surf, chased one another with whips of seaweed, tiptoed about the little lovely gardens in pools at low tide to peep at sea anemones and the gravely absurd tiny crabs. At twilight they built a fire in a sand-paved corridor among the swart rocks, cooked clams and Hamburg steak, warmed tamales, made reeking delicious coffee. They washed the dishes in sand and curled by the fire, luxuriously talking, laughing, talking while the firelight beat on their exhilarated faces, slipped across the wet rocks, reached toward the breakers and made mysterious the void beyond.

In the afternoon — Leyland with them on holidays — they hunted quail in the still close manzanita thickets. They rode ancient and quite bad horses up climbing trails to canon heads. They gave plays; outdoor pageants or tricky flashes of flippancy in which they more cleverly made fun of themselves than could any outsider. Even the most querulous of them were excited over painting scenery or rehearsing tableaux of graceful, other-worldly figures against a background of silhouetted pines. They danced in costume, in loose peplums or Egyptian priestly robes. Shrieking, they hacked at tennis on a court like a washboard.

But their play merely pointed their eagerness to make a new world. They believed that each of them was a genius. And within a month, as soon as he had ceased to be uncomfortable at their habit of collecting statistics by guessing at them, Leyland was admitted as one of the geniuses.

They insisted that he must — he flutteringly promised that he would — devote his chemistry to revolution in daily life. He was immediately to create new fuels, new building materials, road surfacing that would be cheap, easily laid, smooth as a razor blade. Especially — this was rather stressed in a colony which had not been so successful in abolishing dishwashing as in abolishing religion — he was to emancipate housework by the invention of synthesized foods. He was to produce opalescent tablets that would be of more unctuous taste than mushrooms fried in butter — in much butter — and more satisfying than planked steak, yet enable the housekeeper to do her cooking by taking the tablets from a box and her dishwashing by chucking the box into a stove; or preferably into a fireplace — a fireplace with a beaten-copper motto.

He planned it as a young poet discovers songs. Behind the colonists’ volubility he found joy of life. Behind the joy he found ideals. And behind the ideals and in them and a tremulous light over them — he found Ilka.

For it was not Fischer nor the uncompromising Max Toinans who brought Leyland to the colony every evening, every afternoon off, but a girl of seventeen with bobbed hair flickering and little ankles bright as she raced up the long hill slopes. Ilka was the breathlessly disobedient ward of the Tiddenhams. She was the amateur of every art, precociously rebellious against proprieties, equally enthusiastic about sprawling on the soft brown earth and the ceremony of lighting a cigarette. She was a nuisance and a bomb — the wonder child Ilka; who drooped her young lips toward a man’s till he was mad to kiss her, then fled, and when the foolish sage lumbered after her was discovered primly sitting upon a rock and indignantly explaining that she had just meant to ask about the tariff.

The solemn young Leyland was five years her senior and when she set her scatterbrains earnestly to the task she could make him weep in five minutes.

But between bedevilments she was a comrade — a dear and adventurous and sunny chum. Her chestnut eyes steady and her lunatic feet calmed to plucky trudging, she panted with Leyland up dripping canyons; or they lay on their stomachs in the rough, waving, salt-scented grass on a cliff above the sea, gazing at the slaty line where the mystery of deep-blue ocean met the wonder of gold-blue sky; and talked of all they were gloriously going to do. He was to be lord of science — a Huxley, an Edison, a Pasteur. She was to dance in royal theaters, with exquisite gestures to create a spell in which adoring thousands would find anew the ache of beauty, and in painted barges with Cleopatra and slave girls of gilded limbs go floating to the tinkle of little music beneath the columns of grotesque temples, or with yogis in the silence of gray Himalayan uplands find all power and secrets.

As evening fog drove in and they were encircled by its walls, as the breakers pounded more menacingly below, they were caught by the fear of night and Nature, which is ancient as the sea. They ceased to jabber about their knowledge of electricity; they clasped hands as here upon this cliff, when it was a mountain spur leagues from the tide, barbaric youths and maidens of tribes that are gone without one trace clung to each other for protection from the god of loneliness. Without knowing it, they remembered the terrors of ancestors dead a thousand thousand years ago; and they became too solemn even for delightfully shuddering fear. Unspeaking, they moved closer; unsmiling, they crept over rocks and along the milky-misted beach to the ruddy lights and gossip of home.

And that same evening she would refuse to dance; ignore him while she tormented him by making butterfly love to the cynical Max Toinans.

Leyland could think of no phrases save “elfish” and “fascinatingly irregular” with which to describe Ilka’s face — the jolly, vulgar little nose, the precise chin, the impudent mouth, the childish brown cheeks, the clear golden brown of her loyal eyes. But he needed no incantations to summon her. He was singing to himself “I love her!” even while he was judiciously remarking to Captain Catty, the boisterous skipper of the kelp boat: “Yep, good idea; better swing to north’ard.”

Suddenly, ineloquently, between dances at Social Hall, he tried to express to Ilka his impressions regarding her lips and eyes and her value as inspiration to rising young men.

“Don’t be silly! You can’t support me. Besides, I’m never going to marry. I’m going to Russia to study dancing. Besides, I’m already engaged to a couple of boys in Oakland. Besides, Max Toinans is waiting for this dance, the sweet thing,” was her not altogether romantic answer.

Nor would she be more definite during any of his later proposals — at least during most of them. She did decide to marry him now and then, and once she kissed him distractingly and ran away. But always immediately after accepting him she sat up late to write him little notes on pink paper in which, with lofty and aged resignation, she unaccepted him.

Then the kelp experiments were over.

He had no salary; he needed a salary; and he took an offered teaching fellowship at Johns Hopkins.

The rest of the colony were affectionate at parting — Fischer, the Tiddenhams, Miss Barge, Miss Garver, Soulier, even Max Toinans. They begged him to come back as soon as he could. But Ilka was tenderly illusive. She said she didn’t know her own mind. Besides, she had an engagement at the dressmaker’s.

He wrote four postcards and a letter to her the first day on the eastward train; five postcards and two letters the second day; one postcard the third — when he gave her up forever; and three long letters the fourth — when he couldn’t live without her.

All of these and perhaps twenty later letters she answered in one post card which informed him that she had a cold and a chow pup.

For twenty years he never wrote to Ilka, never saw the Pasqual colony and never felt like a genius.

At forty-three he was the chief chemist of the great Galway Paint Corporation. He was a sound workman; his papers were heard with respect at association meetings; and during the war his experiments with American dyes won him a good many short inexact paragraphs in the newspapers.

His salary was sixteen thousand, his favorite car a Vance eight and — more or less incidentally — he had a round, comfortable, pretty, nice-voiced, pigeon-sleek, expensive wife named Adeline, two children, two rich brothers-in-law, a stucco suburban house and a reserve fund of friends who played auction and were faithful and prosperous and consistently dull.

His neighbors said of him: “Good practical man; no wild theories like some of these scientific sharks. Nice little wife and family too. Let’s have them for Sunday supper.”

Thus the successful Leyland at forty-three.

II

Sometimes it is the face of a woman known long ago; sometimes a high adventure, war or perilous voyaging undertaken in the day when youth was not made irritable by discomfort or anxious by danger; but always to every man there is one vision that is a nucleus for dreams. It abides in the holy place of his mind as the one pure and eternal thing; and ever at unexpected glimpses of beauty the symbol of perfect happiness returns and the man surprised into dreaming is lonely with the loss of his enchanted hour.

To Leyland it was the Pasqual colonists who represented that lost happiness and who rebuked him for not having worked miracles.

They were to him like shrouded gods standing aloof on cloudy peaks, watching his success and judging it failure. He had desired to create ambrosia — and he had produced a new kind of red barn paint.

He had never at any one moment given up his intention of being a magician, but — well, the factories had offered him good pay; and in a big house money did slip away, nobody quite knew how. He justified himself — and continued to feel guilty. He planned to do something startling — and remained a part of hard-walled laboratories in gray plants; a part of his wife’s social advancement.

Adeline was a good wife and rather amusing. She thought about her clothes; she shone like a Charleston doorplate at dances, at concerts; she liked Leyland and let him talk about his work without very often interrupting him to give orders to the cook. But the only chemical symbol she knew was that for water, and she knew it because all humorous persons use it when ordering highballs. And she would have been shocked to rudeness by the sight of the colonists in flannel shirts and bulbous spectacles talking about the individuality of Stirner while they hoed potatoes.

Leyland had come to see that the colonists weren’t really divine. But whenever his friends sneered at what they called short-haired women and long-haired men, Leyland was irritable. They were, he declared, the children of light, the makers of dreams; and their visionary ideas often came true. While his mind stood up like the Pharisee and thanked God that he was not eccentric, his heart mourned for the days of flying feet and time enough to sit looking at clouds over mountain peaks.

Perhaps once a week he thought of the colony. The scent of damp wood made him smell and see the ground covered with pine needles in the California rainy season. The curious taste of wood smoke in a cigarette smoked by a fireplace gave a quick illusion of being at the evening picnics, and he saw the shadows on Fischer’s face, heard the laughter, and the sound of ocean hung like a curtain behind the babble.

Sometimes it was the face of a girl in a street car, a face dismayingly young and innocent and credulous of romance. Always she was Ilka and for half a second he desperately had to flee to her.

Once he was addressing the state chemical association. He had with courteous viciousness proved that the head of the chemical department of the state university was an ass. He was pounding it home: “As a commercial proposition the manufacturers of gas engines, in neglecting the boosting of grain alcohol — ”

He realized that he was staring at a lean man, a man like Fischer, and while his own voice went on he heard the dean drawling: “My boy, it’s in your hands; you can be a faithful hired man or you can be an Oliver Lodge.”

And once at a painstakingly dull dinner party, when Leyland was staring at a pink celluloid bird in a green wicker cage and wondering whether it really was worthwhile to work all one’s life to support pink celluloid birds, his host put a sentimental record on the phonograph; and instantly Leyland was running through purple lupine with a girl and stopping on a hill crest to worship the Pacific and the red sun.

He knew that the colony was disappointed by — was it by his having failed to revolutionize the home or by his having succeeded in paying the rent? Once in a hotel lobby he had encountered Miss Garver, who was out lecturing on women in industry. It was a moment when Leyland felt important. He was rushing in to read the law to the board of directors. But he stopped, vaguely uneasy.

Woman talking to a man in his study.
“He was startled out of observance of the technic of domestic squabbling and actually said what he meant: “I want to get off by myself and think!” (Illustrated by James H. Crank)

She looked him over gravely and: “Oh, how do you do? I hear you are a person of consequence now. You made some dyes, didn’t you? I don’t suppose you waste time dreaming — now.” He was not amused but pleading: “But the dyes do help. They’ve freed us from German domination of our markets.”

“Yes? I thought you were going to free us from having any markets!”

He tried to be friendly. He puffed: “Is, uh — Often get back to the colony?”

“Of course.”

“What is Ilka doing?”

“Her dancing of course. She teaches, oh, so helpfully!”

“Is she married?”

“No. Well, it’s been pleasant to see you. I must hurry on.” It was Miss Garver who dismissed Leyland, not he who politely escaped. And she said nothing about seeing him again. He felt that it was the whole colony that had dismissed him. He wrote to Fischer next day.

To his rivals in the profession Leyland would have written with amused ease, but to this man Fischer, who did not know chemistry from morphology, he was humble, trying to defend himself from unspoken charges. The dean did not answer for three months; then briefly, his letter ending:

“I wonder that a busy practical man like you wastes time corresponding with a ne’er-do-well. We’re putting on a Dunsany play and starting a class in Freud — but you won’t be interested. If you care to write again, tell me about your new car — yr. newest one. Suppose you have two at least. Oh, well, I too am luxurious! I have a new oilcloth on my writing table.”

That hurt — the picture of the old man in his one-room hill shack.

He began to brood. Every evening he came home unhappy, to be comforted by his wife. Adeline listened to his latest tragedy and suggested lively things to do that evening, and assured him that he was the king of scientists, the pontiff of idealists and superior to Samuel Higsby Mink, chief chemist of the Calhoun Paint Works.

He was grateful to Adeline for enduring his worry. Yet sometimes, lying awake in the morning, he resented her very comforting. Didn’t she thus keep him content with petty tasks? Oh, he was little, he sighed! He who should have been a competitor with the great ones, with Remsen and Curie, was of the common people. The more he devoted himself to satisfying Adeline’s friends by choosing correct ties and smart adjectives, the more he betrayed himself as being at heart what the back country called “just folks.” And never, while the gods of the colony watched him, could he relax into happiness in his work, his wife, his children; never could he be satisfied with being common.

It would have been better, he felt, had he totally failed. He wouldn’t have been bound to his world of well-fed stupidity. He wouldn’t have been ridden by a suspicion that — without knowing it, without doing anything so picturesque as signing documents in blood — he had sold his soul to the devil of mediocrity.

Thus the fretting Leyland at forty-three.

III

All winter his task had been to find a more permanent varnish for motor cars and he sagged with the discouragement of not having found it. His ingenuity was worn out. He could think of no more methods, no more formulas. He watched himself grow nervous. The first sign that he noticed was his failure to react to the tumultuous coming of April. His step did not spring nor his chest expand to the good air. The sunshine was merely a bother to tired eyes as it glared on the papers on his desk.

Then he saw how much too much he was smoking. He took a cigarette without knowing that he was doing it; was astonished to find that he was smoking; furiously threw the thing away; resolved not to smoke again till after dinner — and ten minutes later found that another cigarette had sneaked out of his case, got itself lighted and insinuated itself into his fingers.

He realized that he was worrying about nothing in particular and everything in general; about going to the dentist, about the number of Victory Bonds to buy, about the duty of having a neglected acquaintance out to the house for dinner. Ten minutes after he had caught a train he discovered that he was worrying about not having time to catch it. He worried about not having mailed a letter that he knew he had mailed; and when he had laboriously satisfied himself he worried about not having addressed, stamped and signed it.

One-third of the time he was fleeing to Adeline for solace; one-third he was wondering whether her solace wasn’t a stupefying poison; and the rest of the time he gave to admitting that this was hard on her — which gave him a chance to worry about worrying her.

Desire for the colony was bothering him. He could be serene there — even in poverty. And was it too late for him to begin the vague big work? He smelled the ocean wind and hot hollows among the manzanita bushes. Silver-fretted mountains seemed to laugh at him for speculations about having mailed letters. He saw himself running to Fischer, Soulier, the Tiddenhams, Max Toinans. Through the spring rains, when his stodgy backyard was by an early morning mist turned from smugness to mystery, he looked down from the sleeping porch and fancied that garage and lawn and clothes posts were gone; that he was tramping the rough, waving, salt-scented grass above the ocean with a girl beside him.

Adeline knew that he was discontented; she babied him and gave him lamb chops with fresh peas. But she was not one of those exasperating superior people who are too stupid ever to lose their tempers. When on successive days he complained because they never went out in the evening and because they were going out this evening, she snapped: “You’re perfectly impossible! If you don’t wish to go — don’t. I’m going.”

She marched to the door and stood on the porch drawing on her gloves so that he would have a chance to catch her. Which of course he innocently did.

They talked it over when they returned, but as “it” was nothing more definite than his desire to be twenty-three at the age of forty-three they didn’t make any large decisions; and the next evening, feeling that this was an entirely new and interesting question, he complained because they never went out in the evening.

All the while he knew how absurd he was. It was because his wife was nearer to him than anyone else; because she was a part of him and he of her that he plagued his own self in her. Only, he whisperingly asked himself, if she had been Ilka, would he have had to plague her?

A small ludicrous thing made the break. Neighbors came in one evening. He was glad enough to see them, but he hadn’t finished the paper; he was in the midst of a delightful account of political graft; and while the talk labored through the first polite queries about the children, he picked up the paper — just to peep at the end of the story. Through the paper he could feel Adeline rustling with displeasure.

When the neighbors had gone she said: “You weren’t very polite.”

“What do you mean?” — knowing perfectly what she meant.

“Reading when they came in.”

“Well, they knew I was glad to see ’em without my shouting about it! And I didn’t want to see ’em anyway! Walshman is a bore and his wife is worse.”

“They are very good friends of mine and I won’t have you criticize them!”

“You criticize my friends enough! If I didn’t absolutely demand it you’d never be polite to poor old Bolton — heart of gold — ”

“Crude, jocular old — ”

“He isn’t a bit worse than Mrs. Walshman with her confounded coy — ”

After ten minutes of diplomatic incivilities regarding the Walshmans, the rector and the sales manager of the paint corporation, Leyland banged the ash receiver on the table and roared: “Then the way you called me down for wearing a cap last Sunday! I have something more important to think about than pleasing the Opendykes with my clothes!”

“You might tell me what it is!”

“I’m glad to have you admit that! You think my chemistry is about as important as bricklaying. You haven’t the faintest — ”

“Oh, I know, dear! I didn’t mean that. But really you irritate me so. What is it you want, anyway?”

She put it so directly that he was startled out of observance of the technic of domestic squabbling and actually said what he meant: “I want to get off by myself and think!”

Instantly he was frightened. She had always accompanied him on journeys. To suggest a vacation was like demanding a divorce.

“You want — You mean you want to go away without me?”

“Why — yes, I do!”

“Well, I think it would be a very good thing. We’re fond of each other, but we do need a rest. If you wouldn’t be lonely — ”

IV

The steady businessman who sat in the smoking compartment of the California Pullman and talked about the paint market seemed guiltless of desire for the luxury of martyrdom. But he was asking himself whether he was not going to give up his position and risk poverty for his family in order to work for an obscure and certainly ungrateful millennium. And he was excited with the adventure of it.

He had not told the Pasqual colony he was coming. He would surprise them.

He stayed for a day in San Francisco. The papers must have known something about his experiments in dyes, for a Banner reporter recognized his name on the register and came up to tell him what to say about America’s independence of German industries. The reporter was cordial. Leyland asked him if he knew any of the boys who had done newspaper work on the coast twenty years before.

Oh, yes! There was Max Toinans. He was back on the Advertiser as city editor. No, Max didn’t seem to have done much with writing fiction. And Mr. Leyland knew him? Well, well! He was going to have luncheon with Max and he’d tell him Leyland was in town. Probably Max would send a reporter round to see him.

Leyland always laughed at publicity, but it is a fact that he waited at his hotel till two o’clock to be interviewed by one of Max’s young men. That would be amusing — the supercilious Max, who had never taken him seriously at the colony, recognizing him as a personage, sending someone to ask his high opinions.

But Max didn’t send anyone to ask his high opinions.

At two Leyland strolled out, found the Advertiser office. He did not care to be interviewed. The thrill of that was gone. He wanted to see Max Toinans for himself. Good old Max, with his contempt of slatternly writing! He remembered how Mrs. Tiddenham, during the one week when she pursued palmistry as a life work, had previsioned Max in a London study with high ceilings and a bust of Beethoven, writing essays about art and George Moore.

He climbed paper-littered stairs to an airless room filled with typewriters, newspaper files and cigarette smoke. In a coop beyond he saw Max — gray now, with wrinkles like parentheses beside his mouth, yet somehow unchanged. Max was busy; did not look up. Leyland waited, sit- ting on the edge of a table, wriggling with the glad, boyish thought: “Won’t Max be excited when he sees me here!”

Max trotted out, glanced at Leyland, said in a manner neither angry nor interested: “Oh, hello, Leyland! Heard you were in town. Still teaching chemistry?”

“Yes, I’m still in chemistry. But not teaching. How goes the work?”

“You can see that I’m on it.”

“Well, I did want to have a glimpse of you, old man.”

“Yell! Glad you came in. Come in see us again.”

Leyland wanted to demand: “My dear sir, what has there been in your flaming welcome that’d make me ever want to see you again?” But he smiled idiotically, mumbled, shook hands with the ecstasy of insincerity and fled downstairs — down to the street of strangers.

V

The train reached Pasqual, the station for the colony, in early evening. Leyland had rarely recalled Pasqual itself and he looked indifferently at the familiar buildings — the dumpy restaurant where he had always breakfasted, the drug store where he had bought magazines, the pier from which the kelp boat had set out.

He started for the colony on foot. He passed adobe houses with sagging upper balconies and a dwarf Chinatown where black and vermilion posters were strange against the shuttered walls of prim wooden houses. Beside a garden wall topped with old Spanish tiles was a new cement and fire-brick garage. He left the roaring of the garage and swung into valley. In the twilight he climbed a dusty road between a grove of dark and priestly pines, guardian figures from an island of the dead, and an open field where the bronze-green foliage of scrub oaks was lost in downy shadows. From the summit he looked back across the reaching bay. Out of the wide dimness of it clean white lines flashed from the homeward rolling waves. The pounding of the breakers was lulled and even the hilltop breeze was gentle. Along the horizon slipped a flush of rose that deepened to carmine and vanished.

Peace descended on him from the colored dusk. He was smiling. He plunged into a remembered footpath that skirted groves and secret tiny pastures, in a dark fragrant world, silent save for the patter of rabbits, the fall of a pine cone. He walked quickly, proud of recalling the twists of this old shortcut.

He felt a wholesome weariness, an interested appetite. He came out of the gloom of gnarly cypresses and saw the lights of the colony — of home.

They would be so surprised, so glad!

He clattered up the steps of the community dining room, stopped, quieted himself, stepped into the room — after twenty years. He was safe. He had begun his life anew.

He saw the artistic Tiddenhams; Soulier, the agnostic; the gardening Miss Barge. Their faces were so wistfully and oft remembered that he found no changes in them, no grayness or sagging flesh, but only their unaltered selves.

But he realized that he knew no one else here; that the dean, good old Fischer, was absent; that most of these fervent gossipers were strangers to him. And he realized that Mr. Tiddenham was looking at him, nodding indifferently; that only Miss Barge, the unpoetic, was waving to him in greeting.

He started for her table. A minute ago he had thought less of her than of any other in the colony; now she was dearest to him.

He stopped to greet the Tiddenhams.

“Oh! Why, it’s Ross Leyland! This is so nice,” yawned Mrs. Tiddenham, while her husband grunted: “Oh, didn’t know you at first! Going to be here for some time?”

“I hadn’t planned — Say! Can’t we have a regular old-time picnic while I’m here?”

The Tiddenhams looked at each other as though nice people didn’t talk about picnics, and the husband said doubtfully: “Why, uh, why, we might think about having one!”

“Well, I’ll see you later.”

He came to Soulier, who stopped a gesticulatory discussion long enough to stare at Leyland and mutter: “Why, hello! Back in God’s country, eh? Drop into my cottage sometime.”

Neither the Tiddenhams nor Soulier had suggested his dining with them.

Abashed as an intruding freshman, Leyland stumbled to Miss Barge and in her found a lean comfort: “Welcome back, Ross! Glad to see you. Sit down and have supper. Where you bound for?”

Her friendliness was genuine, but she was not — like the others — a licensed dealer in optimism. She talked of mammoth onions and asked questions about dyes as though she regarded factories as respectable. Fischer — it was his inspiration Leyland needed! And Ilka!

“Where’s Fischer?” he asked.

“Probably home. He usually cooks for himself now.”

“I — don’t suppose Ilka is here?” He told himself not to be disappointed — and he was duly disappointed when Miss Barge chirped:

“No, she’s up in Oakland. Almost never comes down here anymore.”

And that was all they had to say. Miss Barge and he did trade words about coal-tar products and phosphates, but he was waiting for her to show that she was waiting for him to go; and when she tactfully tried to glance at her watch he leaped up, said nice things about being glad to see her, and fled.

He floundered up the path to Fischer’s bungalow. He stopped, breathed deep. Through the window he saw the dean’s worn head as he stooped over a book on the table, his fine long hand up at his temple. As the novice bursts into the abbot’s high-groined cell crying “Father, I have sinned,” so Leyland pushed open the door, his soul at his lips.

Fischer studied him.

“Well, this is a surprise, Ross.”

“Yes, it’s — Lord, I’m glad to see you again!”

“Out here for a trip? I suppose you’re doing all the millionaire stunts — golf at Del Monte and riding at Santa Barbara?”

“No, I am not! I’m not a millionaire and I’m not a tourist.” Leyland was trying to say “I have come here to save my soul!” He tried desperately, resentfully. He failed. He ended weakly: “Came out largely to have a glimpse of the good old bunch.”

“Um! Well, that’s very gratifying.”

“See here, dean!” Uninvited, Leyland dragged a chair from the wall. “I want you to stop making fun of me. I’m not a rich man, but — well, fact is, saved up a little money and thought I might plan to take sort of a little vacation from the grind and try to do some of the things we used to talk over. Food.”

“Food?”

“Yes. Don’t you remember? You used to say I ought to invent foods that would get rid of housework.”

“Did I? I’d forgotten.”

“Why, I’ve always thought of you as waiting — ”

“Tell you what you chemists should have done though. A chance for really inspired science, and all you fellows neglecting it! You ought to assist some art-theater director by finding dyes for costumes.”

“Why,” much disappointed, “dyes are my specialty!”

“Oh!” Fischer was equally disappointed. Then, brightening as he thought of a new criticism, he said that he was afraid — it sounded as though he meant that he hoped — that Leyland’s dyes were too commercial for use in the new theater arts. And that was all the attention he gave to the soul or the dyes of Leyland. The thought of commerce was the starting point for an attack on a remarkably catholic assortment of dramatists, new-thought healers and grand dukes. Leyland tried to defend the prosperous — and by implication himself. He mentioned famous inventors. But as the supreme judge exposed each of these criminals and left them trembling with shame before the entire world and the suburban spaces of the universe, Leyland stopped listening to him and looked about the room.

He saw that it was not picturesque as he had remembered, but plain dirty. On the pine table were stacks of food-gummed dishes and an exact circle of grease marked the place for plates. A frying pan was on the floor beside the rusty cannonball stove. The bedclothes in the bunk were writhing and gray and unwholesome. And as for the man himself — his hair was not quite so much leonine as in need of cutting.

Leyland snarled at himself for his sneers.

“That’s the result of Adeline’s eternal superiority to people in flannel shirts,” he explained, with the human male’s desire to blame all errors of Nature upon his wife. He tried to get back to harmony by turning Fischer to the subject of the colony.

“I hear Miss Barge is doing wonders with her farm,” he Piped.

Without a break Fischer started in on his associate geniuses. He said that Miss Barge was a materialist and not such a confoundedly good farmer either; that Mrs. Tiddenham was a censorious scandalmonger; that Tiddenham was erroneous in his evaluation of Veblen; and that Soulier lied — simply lied, that was all — when he claimed to have shot thirty rabbits in Deep Water Canyon. The new members of the colony were either immoral or too finicky about morals, and all of them were ridiculously wrong about the choice of the next play for the community theater. He did not rave — the shaggy old man; in the pleasure of whispering scandals about his only friends in the world he beamed on Leyland like a father.

It was then that Leyland escaped — a little sick, altogether confused. Only four facts emerged clearly: They had not, these years, awaited his creation of magic food; they had not asked him to stay overnight; he’d have to walk back to Pasqual; and his feet were as tired as his soul and much more noticeable.

As he crawled along the path recently so eagerly followed, as sneaking fog blurred the forest, a vision beset him and he saw that the shrouded and waiting gods were a myth and that their temples, across whose pillars slanted ever the smoke from attentive altars, were empty save for rags and echoes and the odor of death.

VI

He stayed late abed; he had breakfast fast at the musty hotel in Pasqual; he was clammy in addressing the waitress and half desirous of taking the next train out of town. But toward noon he crept back to the colony. Miss Barge gave him luncheon with the Tiddenhams, Soulier, Fischer and one outsider, young Dr. Solon Ebert, a university instructor, invited because he was a fellow scientist. In his nod the doctor did not show much fellowship. He was excited about the colony and, though Leyland tried to make Ebert understand that he himself had known these people for twenty years, the convert kept explaining what was a New Light colony — and where and why and how.

Fischer continued his complaint that Leyland had made money, and when they saw how meekly Leyland took it the Tiddenhams and Soulier awoke to interest in him. They demanded of him what sort of “People he knew; in what sort of a house he lived.”

They told him that he was respectable. He apologized.

They told him that he ought to have started a little theater in his home city. He admitted it. He didn’t believe it, but he admitted it.

They told him that he ought never to have left the colony. He agreed.

The loud voice of Dr. Solon Ebert took charge of the conversation. Doctor Ebert was a swollen-eyed, greasy-faced, self-satisfied young man, with the accent of an old-clothes dealer, the manner of a pig in a hurry, and no great cleanliness. Doctor Ebert did not think much of Mr. Leyland, who had received a doctor-of-philosophy degree eighteen years before but had forgotten it.

“So you admit you are not satisfied with your career, eh?” Ebert shied at him. “The trouble with you, my friend, is that you have commercialized your work. You ought to have stayed in a university laboratory.”

“I seem to have heard that word ‘commercialized’ before,” sighed Leyland.

“We’re getting somewhere with pure theory in the colleges, while you factory fellows expect the maiden science to scrub floors!”

Leyland stated distinctly: “No; when I look you over I fancy that the best thing the maiden science could do would be to scrub you!”

Miss Barge chuckled; Mrs. Tiddenham clamored “How vulgar!” while Solon Ebert wheezed, tried to look fierce and panted:

“You’ll apologize for that!”

Compact, erect, easy, Leyland reflected aloud: “I’m so glad I said that. It was vulgar, wasn’t it! Cheap! And how often we’ve all wanted to say things like that. I’ve tolerated the rest of you because I once loved you. But not from this — Oh, look at him! He does need scrubbing!”

Ebert made sounds of fattily degenerated belligerency, but Leyland blithely ignored him: “I’ve insulted him, but think how much worse it might have been! I wanted to insult all of you except Nan Barge. You can’t paint, you can’t write and you can’t grow very good cabbages. You’re failures. That’s why you stay on here in this hole —

“But you try to hide it by being contemptuous. I came to you with respect — wonderful chance for you! For the first time a grown-up person was willing to listen to you. All right. I was punished for going to professional idealists for ideals. But it’s cruel and unusual punishment to have to hear the kindergarten lessons of Solly Ebert!”

He was enjoying himself. He felt that he was a motion-picture hero facing bandits.

Miss Barge murmured: “You’re right, Ross. This Ebert boy is rather trying. But do you know, you were a lot like him when you were here as a boy. You were sweet and eager, but dreadfully condescending — especially to me.”

Gravely: “Then I was a fool indeed! I — Oh, what’s the use! What’s the use!”

All the cheap delight of easy defiance was gone. He was sick of the unpleasant scene. He rushed out of the room — toward Pasqual, toward the train, toward home and the tenderness of Adeline. He was rimmed round by a cup of jade and gold and living blue, of ancient hills and waves reborn each sparkling minute; but to him it was a painting of which he was weary.

He thought brokenly: “I want to see Ilka before I go East. I’d like to touch her hands. I’ll go up to Oakland and surprise her. No! She’d be like the others. I’ll leave that one illusion.”

He laughed.

“Was I like Ebert when I was a youngster? And all these years I’ve been remembering myself as a bloomin’ star-browed acolyte and wanting to go back and be — that noisy nuisance! Solving the complications and compromises of real life by ignoring them! I’m glad I’m Our Mr. Leyland of the Galway Paint Corporation! I’ll get the kids some curios in Chinatown and go back and — I’ll take Adeline a mandarin coat. Goodbye, Ilka! I’m glad I’m not going to see you. Because I want to go on remembering you!”

He was proud of himself for doing so well with renouncing all dreams forever and ever — till he looked back for the last sight of the mountains. Then it tediously started all over again and he was as anxious to go and be inspired by Fischer as if he had never thought of it before. And he was hungry. He had bolted in the middle of luncheon. He wished that without losing any of the pleasure of being vulgar and rude he might have postponed it till after luncheon. And the food at the Pasqual hotel was bad — very bad.

He sulkily turned in at the restaurant where he had boarded as a cub.

The spherical figure of Madame Luquin, the restaurant keeper, was familiar but uninteresting. He lounged to the lunch counter, drawled: “Coffee and small steak, please.”

Madame Luquin dropped her head as she stared at him; then shrieked: “Well, well, well! So you didn’t think I’d know who it was! You thought you could fool the old lady! Why, we was just talking of you the other day — saying there’d never been a livelier boy in town. And my! You knew so much! Pa! Come see who’s here! Pa!”

Her tuft-bearded little French husband popped out of the kitchen, peered, yelped: “Rows Leylant!” He shook Leyland’s hand while he yammered at an invisible assistant: “Pete! Run by the drug store! Bring Mr. Dohengy and Cap’n Catty. Tell them there’s an old friend here.”

The word “friend” seemed to Leyland the thing for which he had crossed half the continent. And he hadn’t even remembered their names! Along with the Luquins he had forgotten Mr. Dohengy, the druggist, and Cap’n Catty, skipper of the kelp boat. They had not forgotten him. They pounded his shoulder. They were sure that he had a bank account and a “fine wife and children who talked just like their daddy.” They hung about him, eager to smile at his jokes, triumphant in his success — which had suddenly become real success.

  1. Luquin snorted: “Mamma and I, we always say you make good. You are not like those silly chumps at the colony.”

Somehow Leyland did not defend his friends then — nor when Captain Catty added: “Those highbrows! Wouldn’t have one of ’em on any boat of mine. You were a pretty good seaman, Ross — for a farmer!”

Madame Luquin wailed: “Don’t let this boy run away from us again! Cap’n, ain’t you going to take him out for some abalones tomorrow?”

“I am so!” roared the captain. And he did.

Leyland stayed at Pasqual for three days without once returning to the colony. He told himself that these people loved him because he was of the common people; and that it was good to be common and to cease blaming himself for not being an archangel. He wasn’t going to Oakland to see Ilka. No! And on the third day, as he strode up from the wharves whistling, he came on Ilka in the dusty Pasqual street and stopped — shaken.

She was the same impulsive fairy child. A half block away he was conscious of her lips and eyes. He tried to be defiant; to look at her casually. He — would — not be — condescended — to!

She came swiftly. She raised a clear voice in: “Why! My dear! They said you’d gone!”

He was her slave! Twenty years vanished. She was the little tender moon of evening; she was all that was delicately bright and most precious and inalienably his. Adeline was an intruder and factory laboratories were absurd. Still he tried to save himself. He asserted that Ilka’s round face was pudgy and heavy now; that her brown cheeks had turned sallow and her firm neck became stringy. And it didn’t matter! She was Ilka! He was slipping his arm about her shoulder, which fitted contentedly into the curve of his elbow.

“You dear thing!” she whispered.

“Have you remembered me?”

“So often! But you’ve never thought of me!”

“Only about once a day!” he sighed.

“And you with a wife and children, they tell me.”

“Yes, but — And she’s a particularly nice wife. But you — you’re you, Ilka!”

“Am I? That’s consistent of me.”

“And you’ve never married?”

“No, but I think perhaps I’m going to be.”

“Oh!”

“Why don’t you accuse me of being faithless, Ross?”

“Stop mocking me, dear! Do you know that we two should have been married?”

A voice — perhaps not of conscience but of common sense, of the habit of being a member of working society — was shouting at him: “Stop it! You’ll be sorry! You love Adeline, and Ilka will be like the rest of the colony.”

But while he noted the voice he was demanding: “Isn’t it true? Don’t you get tired of dancing?”

“Dance? I? Heavens, I don’t dance! I just try to teach dancing. And I don’t even invent steps. I steal them from others. Yes, I’m a failure, like all of us at the colony — except you.”

They had, without planning it, wavered down the street to the long blank beach. They linked arms; they talked without embarrassment; when they glanced examiningly at each other it was with no peeping curiosity but with the quick smiles of reunited friends.

At her mention of the colony he edged into the story of his misadventures there and ended: “Was I a fool? Or were they beastly?”

She curled on the sand; he was at her feet rocking, his hands about his knees, while she mused:

“Neither! They demand perfection, so naturally they’re critical; and naturally they can’t live up to their own demand. You have no right to sneer at them because they can’t see much beauty in washing frying pans; but they have no right to sneer at you because you can stand washing ’em. They’re the voice of conscience and you’re the clever hands. You’re a real person and they’re fairy folk. And I — oh, I guess I belong with them!”

It was what he had found out for himself. He was common people, like Captain Catty and Madame Luquin — and Adeline! Very well, then. He’d better escape. Ilka would merely make him unhappy. She was the brown-breasted nymph in the brake and he the puffing mortal lover, following a path where lurked scummy pools and death. He’d say a nice brotherly farewell now and pack and catch the next train and –

“Let’s get some lunch and tramp off down the coast!” he cried.

“Yes! Let’s!”

Which was the end of sensible reflections. They raced to Luquin’s; bought sandwiches and a bottle of milk; tramped side by side down the beach, strained up a cliff, brushed through poppy stems thick among the heather; and — not quite so quickly as once — climbed the first of the gray dry foothills to the shade of a scrub oak solitary in a tilted field. They looked down to the purple-streaked ocean and the roofs of the colony bungalows like glistening plates of metal among the shaggy pines. They bustled about spreading the sandwiches on a sheet of newspaper. They laughed a good deal and he kissed her fingers and their puppylike dashes kept them from thinking. But when luncheon was done they sat staring, too conscious of each other for laughter.

“Why didn’t you answer my letters?” he quavered.

“Why didn’t you go on writing?”

“Why should I have?”

“Dear, it’s dangerous for two people like us to start the whys. Either we’ll quarrel or — ”

“I’ll kiss you.”

“Perhaps! And that Oh, it’s not that I’m puritanical! It’s just that we’ve learned to be quiet and to work. I’ve done some decent things with my pupils, even if I haven’t proved to be a creator. In that I’m like you; not like our frenzied friends. We may have sold our dreams, but it was a good and a sweet thing we bought — the chance to be quiet and work. And so — ”

“Ilka, not to interrupt you, but do you know that I love you?”

Suddenly, terribly, she mourned: “Don’t! I’ve wanted you so much! Wanted you back! Hoped you’d write! All this — Is it twenty years? It can’t be! I didn’t know what train you were going to take that day and I ran away; and when I came back you were gone. Ross! Don’t go back! Not right away! Stay with me a week or two! We’ll ride down the coast road and explore the back country. It won’t hurt — them. Your wife — I’m sure she’s very nice indeed; and my man, the one I’m engaged to up in the city, he’s comfy and he adores me. He’s one of the people you can always reach when you suddenly want to phone ’em. But they’re not we. They’re outsiders. Stay with Ilka!”

Then all the complications, the musings, the retreats of conscience were gone and it was fear that held Leyland. In fear they stared; their eyes confessed the shared and communicated fear.

He did not discuss it. He sprang up. He said hastily: “Yes, I’d like to. But I won’t! Quiet and work — that’s what we’ve bought. If we throw that away we still won’t have the dreams back: we’ll just have nothing. I’ll race you to the bottom of the hill. I know now what’s been weakening me all these years of half working — that’s kept me from contentment with being the decent common folks that I really am. I’ve been in love with you! And I thought it was ideals, the memory of Fischer and the colony and these hills! They! It was you! Now I’m safe, because I know what to fight.”

She reached up her hands, still small and childish and plump and soft; she kissed him and said: “Yes! I’m sorry! Come!”

They returned sedately, talking about how badly Tiddenham painted — for a good painter; they were commonplace and slightly dull. They parted with a handshake too firm to mean anything. In one hour he was on the train.

All through his packing he had been afraid that, once he was gone from Ilka, he would want to leave the train at the first stop and run back to her. But he found himself unable to picture her clearly. He was — without trying to — recalling Adeline and the children. And suddenly he was thinking of the formula for motor-car varnish. He was busily scratching down letters and figures. He was humming. He felt a new power. Youth was that day gone from him; youth and its enchantment of unreality. But in exchange for it he had the resoluteness and contented acceptance of fate that marked his first hour of maturity.

First page of the Sinclair Lewis story, "The Enchanted Hour"
Read “The Enchanted Hour” by Sinclair Lewis from the August 9, 1919, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

 

Featured image: illustrated by James H. Crank / SEPS.

“The Gift of Love” by Glen and Jane Sire

Published on December 20, 1958

 

Kathy began saving in July. She saved secretly — a quarter, a dime, a nickel at a time. She would slip out to the garage when Hank wasn’t home, dropping the coins into the pink china pig that sat half-hidden behind a pile of old magazines. The pig was named Alfred. Kathy and Hank had won him in a penny arcade the first week they were married and named him Alfred after an uncle of Hank’s. They put him on the bureau, from which he gazed down at them placidly with his cheerful, porcine smile. They had agreed to drop their extra change in Alfred and save, as Hank put it, for a trip to Bermuda, or any other little old thing they might happen to want. But it was their first year of marriage and Hank’s last year in medical school, and there hadn’t been any extra change.

After a while they had carted Alfred out to the garage with other useless things and forgotten him. Forgotten him, that is, until that day in July when Kathy had thought suddenly of Christmas and had begun her secret, furtive trips. As summer passed and the days grew colder, Alfred grew heavier until at last, on the day before Christmas, Kathy was quietly, prayerfully sure that he must hold at least forty dollars — maybe even more. And that was the day when she reached behind the stack of magazines and discovered that Alfred was gone.

At first she didn’t believe it. At first she just stood there, gazing in blank astonishment at the bare empty spot on the cold concrete where only yesterday, Alfred had been. Then, in a burst of something like frenzy, she searched every inch of the cluttered garage — behind cartons, beneath papers among tools.

Finally, when there was no place left to look and her heart was pounding with effort and despair, she sank down on an empty orange crate and simply sat. It wasn’t possible, but it was true. Alfred was gone, and the money was gone with him. All the pennies and dimes so painfully saved from grocery money and carfare and every fantastic small economy she could find.

I shouldn’t have left him out here in the garage, Kathy thought numbly. Anybody could get in here, any time, and take him. And somebody did. Merry Christmas! she thought, feeling her eyes fill suddenly with tears. Happy New Year! She thought of the watch in the window of Hime’s Jewelry Store, the beautiful man’s wrist watch before which she had lingered every day for weeks. Hank’s watch. There hadn’t been a time, in all these last weeks, when she had dropped a coin into Alfred without thinking of that watch, of the card she would write — To Hank, From Kathy, With Love — of the look on Hank’s face when he opened it.

They had agreed there was no money for Christmas. Hank would be expecting, at most, a token gift — a tie, a pair of socks. More than anything in her life, Kathy had wanted to surprise Hank, surprise him with something rare and rich and wonderful, a gift of love, so amazing and fine that it would erase the tired, tense lines that had appeared around his mouth these last few months. Something that would bring the lightness and the laughter back again, the way it had been in the beginning, before he had begun to worry about money. This Christmas was their first together — she had wanted it to be perfect, and now there wasn’t going to be any Christmas at all.

Slowly, Kathy stood up and went back into the house. She went into the living room and sat down on the edge of the couch, staring at the wide crack that ran down the plaster wall across the room. The one other piece of furniture to sit on in the room, an easy chair, was worn and shapeless. The cheap coffee table in front of the couch was scratched and stained. The Christmas tree that had looked so magical with its colored lights shining in the darkness the night before seemed suddenly only pathetic in the daylight. It was a small tree, and cheap.

For the first time since they had been married, for the first time since she had looked across a college classroom into Hank’s blue eyes and fallen in love, Kathy wondered, with a sudden coldness, if everyone else had been right. Everyone who had said they were crazy, she and Hank, to get married so young.

She had never wondered before. She had only felt faintly sorry for people so poor in the coins of love that they could care about such things. There had been only one thing. There had been only the small, growing pain of knowing that, somehow, Hank was not quite so happy as she. Somehow, to Hank, the money — or the lack of it — made a difference. He cared that the only house they could afford to rent was in this shabby, worn-out part of the city. And there had been the time, last summer, when he had finished going over the budget (Planned Poverty, they had named it) and had emerged looking grim and set.

“We can just make it,” he said, “if we don’t squander a lot of money on unnecessary items like food, clothing and shelter.” His voice tried for lightness, but didn’t quite succeed, and Kathy found herself recalling dark warnings about poverty coming in the door and love flying out the window. She got up and hurried across the room and kissed him.

“Listen,” she said, “don’t you know that I would gladly live in a cave, munching on roots and berries, just to be near you?”

Hank didn’t smile. “I know,” he said, “but I wish you didn’t have to. It isn’t fair to you, living like this.”

“But, Hank,” Kathy said, “next year you’ll have your degree. This is only temporary — ”

“So is life,” Hank said. He got up and began to stride up and down the room. “I ought to quit school and get a good job selling used cars,” he said. “It isn’t good never to have anything fine, anything extra. It shrivels the soul.” He looked at Kathy. “A girl like you should have a nice home, and — ”

“Sure, and emeralds,” Kathy said. She got up and padded behind him until he made a turn and nearly ran her down. She put her arms around his neck, and kissed him again. She took a long time doing it, and when she was finished some of the grimness had left his face. “Now I ask you,” she said softly, “is that the kiss of a shriveled soul?”

And Hank had laughed finally, and kissed her again, and everything had been all right, or almost all right. Except that they hadn’t joked so much about Planned Poverty any more. In fact, Hank hadn’t joked so much about anything any more. That’s why the gift, and Christmas, had been important. It was to have been a refutation of their poverty.

Sitting alone in the little living room, staring at the unlit tree, Kathy supposed she should call the police, but she thought of it with dread. She had been foolish to leave the money in the garage — only last week someone had stolen the hubcaps off their car. The police wouldn’t be able to get her money back. Nothing would do that. And if she called them, Hank would have to know, now, the moment he got home from his Christmas job at a downtown store. Now, on Christmas Eve. Oh, that would be great, she thought. That would be simply fine. As if things weren’t bleak enough already. She wouldn’t tell him until later, she decided, till after Christmas.

She got up, then, and looked in her purse. There were three dollar bills there and a handful of coins. Grimly, she put on a coat and went out. When she returned, she had a neat, Christmas-wrapped package under her arm. Inside were a tie and a pair of socks, matching. They were blue, and they were cheap, and they were practical (Hank needed socks — he needed everything). Carefully, she filled out the little card. To Hank, From Kathy, With Love, she wrote. She put the package under the tree. She crossed the room then, sat down again on the couch and waited, alone in the gray afternoon.

At three minutes of five Hank’s key turned in the lock. He was whistling noisily, and his arms were full of bundles.

“Hi,” Kathy said. She swallowed. “Merry Christmas,” she said. Hank seemed unaccountably cheerful, and somehow, that made everything seem worse than ever.

“You haven’t lighted the tree,” Hank said in an astonished voice. He went over and plugged in the cord, and the little tree sprang into light. “The trouble with you, kid,” he said, “is that you lack the true Christmas spirit. Must be some Scrooge blood in you, back somewhere.”

As he talked he was unloading bundles — potato chips, cold meat, little cartons from the delicatessen down the street, a bottle of wine. He opened the wine and poured it into two glasses, handing her one. Then he pulled something else from the shopping bag. “Come here,” he said, “something to show you.”

She went over to him, and to her surprise he grabbed her and kissed her thoroughly. When it was over she tilted back her head and looked at him suspiciously. “Hank,” she said, “have you been drinking?”

He laughed. “Mistletoe,” he said, waving the bit of greenery over her head. “Old Albanian custom. Old Albanians do it all the time.” He pinned the mistletoe over the doorway, still whistling. “No,” he added, “I have not been drinking. I am merely filled with the spirit of Christmas.”

He paused, and snapped his fingers. “Music!” he said. “We must have a little Christmas music!” He turned on the radio, and a popular holiday tune filled the room. “Kathy, I am disappointed in you. Without me, it pains me to think of your dank, mossy little life. You have as much Christmas spirit as a salmon. Here,” he commanded, “sit down.”

Baffled, Kathy complied. She hadn’t seen Hank like this in weeks — in months. He came toward her then, handing her the wine and a slice of rye bread with a slab of cold meat on top. “Knackwurst,” he commented, in an explanatory voice. “Traditional Christmas fare. Eat!”

Kathy ate. They drank the wine and ate the meat and cheese and bread and salad. The room grew dark, and the little tree glowed brightly. The radio had switched to carols now, the loveliest of all music, and Kathy thought wistfully of what a beautiful Christmas this could have been.

“Some people open their presents Christmas Eve,” Hank said suddenly. He pulled a small, brightly wrapped package from his coat pocket. “I mean, that’s legal, isn’t it?” he said.

“Why, yes,” Kathy said, “I  — ” She stopped. She glanced at her package for Hank, beneath the tree, and she thought again of the watch, the wonderful gift that might have been, and suddenly she thought, I will tell him. I’ve got to. It would be better for him to know, at least, that l wanted to give him something nice, that I tried. “Hank,” she said, “I want to tell you something, I have to explain — ”

But Hank wasn’t listening. He handed her a package. “Open it,” he said.

Kathy looked at the box. It was carefully wrapped, and there was a card. To Kathy, From Santa Claus. Slowly, she pulled off the paper and opened the box. Inside, rich and unbelievable on its red velvet cushion, lay a watch — a beautiful, fragile lady’s watch, edged in tiny diamonds. Amazed, Kathy looked up at her husband. “Hank,” she said, “I — don’t understand. It’s beautiful — it’s lovely, but — ”

“Here,” he interrupted impatiently. “Here, put it on.” He lifted it out of the box and carefully clasped it around her wrist. Lifting her hand, Kathy held it up to the light from the tree, and they both looked at it, the row of tiny diamonds catching the thousand-colored little lights.

“Hank,” Kathy said slowly, “where did you get the money?” But she knew, she thought, she knew — cigarette money, carfare money, lunch money — how painfully, how slowly saved. Oh, she knew. This watch was much finer, even, than the one she had hoped to get for him. But thinking of that — of what she had wanted to have for Hank, in this moment, and did not have — was unbearable now. Her eyes filled suddenly with tears.

“Hank,” she said, “Hank, it’s so lovely. I love it — I’ll wear it always, as long as I live. But, Hank, I’ve got to tell you — ”

Hank was grinning. “The last of the heavy spenders, kid, that’s me,” he said. He poured the rest of the wine from the bottle and gestured widely with the glass. “Play your cards right, baby,” he said, leering, “and I’ll take you out of this dump  — ” Abruptly, he dropped the pose and sat down at her feet. “I wanted to get you something nice. Just once, something nice. But I never thought,” he said, looking at the watch on her wrist in a kind of unbelieving pleasure — ”I never thought I’d be able to get you something like this.” He shook his head. “I was amazed,” he said, “when I cracked old Alfred on the head this morning, and — ”

“When you what!” Kathy said.

“You remember Alfred,” Hank said, “the pig we won at the — ”

“I remember,” Kathy said, in a voice that was suddenly weak with shock. Alfred, she thought, of course! Hank had been saving in Alfred too. And this morning, all unknowing, he had taken her savings, along with his own, and bought her a watch! Kathy suppressed a sudden wild, overwhelming desire to laugh. She could see Alfred’s bland, silent smile as first Hank, and then she, Kathy, made secret contributions. Alfred knew all along, she thought. Oh, this was funny; this was really very funny. And she was glad, because, now, she could tell Hank everything. The money hadn’t been lost at all.

That was when she looked at Hank again, and all her thinking stopped. Because, there it was — on his face, in his voice, in his eyes. Since the moment he had walked in tonight, the gift in his pocket, it had all been back again — the laughter, and the lightness, and the pride. She had wanted Hank to be happy this Christmas, she had wanted to give him something rare and rich and wonderful, and, she realized slowly, she had. Quite by accident, she had. She had helped him to give to her, to feel, now, in the very beginnings of their life together, the pride of the man who gives something fine to the woman he loves. For Hank, this moment was the most precious gift of all — and he would never know that she had helped to give it to him. Because to tell him that would be to spoil it — not much, perhaps, but a little. He would laugh with her at the joke, and he would understand, but it would not be quite the same; and this first Christmas, to remember, would be changed a little from this high moment, for both of them, changed only a little, but changed forever.

So, she would never tell him, she thought. It would be a lie, but a Christmas lie — like the wonderful lie of Saint Nicholas and reindeer on the roof.

Suddenly, Kathy felt light and happy. She reached beneath the tree and picked up the box containing the tie and socks. They were really a lovely shade of blue, she thought, exactly the color of Hank’s eyes. She held the package out to him. “Merry Christmas,” she said.

Hank took the box, but before he turned to open it, he looked once more at Kathy’s watch. He shook his head again. “It’s amazing,” he said. “You save a little every day, and it’s amazing how it mounts up!”

Kathy smiled. “Absolutely amazing,” she said.

Featured image: Illustration by Mike Ludlow for the December 20, 1958, issue of The Saturday Evening Post (©SEPS)

“Partisan” by Michael Shaara

A former boxer and policeman, Michael Shaara published his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels, in 1974. Shaara had published many science fiction stories in publications like Galaxy Magazine, but his work in The Saturday Evening Post appears to be his first foray into historical fiction. His story “Partisan” follows an American soldier revisiting Yugoslavia years after the country was devastated by World War II.

Published on May 26, 1962

 

He crossed over the border at Trieste. He was driving a white Mercedes registered in Italy, but he was an American. He stood under a great white concrete star while they checked his passport — the sight of the thing, monolithic, slope-shouldered, not at all like American stars, made him slightly uneasy.

He had never been in a Communist country before. The customs officers were silent and unsmiling, but polite. They did not check his car or his luggage. He saw other tourists come up to the gate, three Germans in a Volkswagen. One got out and wanted to take pictures, but the guard shook his head and became suddenly quietly uncivil, and their car was searched. It was still standing there when the American drove off. No one wished him a pleasant stay in Yugoslavia.

He drove south to Rijeka. It was a new asphalt road, and he made good time. The country was rocky, hilly, very poor. He began to see extensive ruins, the first he had seen in Europe. All along the road there were roofless stone houses, sometimes alone in gray, barren fields, sometimes in clusters of three and four. The American knew something about this; he had fought here during the war. There had been bitter partisan action in these hills, and the Germans had fought back with reprisals. And of course the Germans were always thorough. No one came back after the war to rebuild, because there was no one left. When the Germans suspected a house of partisan activity, they came and shot everyone in it and then satchel-charged the house. They did that sometimes to whole villages. When the roofs blew off, the gray walls still stood, and the American passed them now one after another — dumb, murdered ruins with bushes growing inside. In the cool, gray stillness of the day he felt a gathering chill. He was beginning to remember.

His name was Lawrence Bell. In that summer of 1960 he was forty years old. At the beginning of the war he had been twenty-one. He went into the first-formed paratroop division, served with some distinction, went on from there into the Rangers and finally was transferred to the OSS.

He had parachuted into Yugoslavia early in 1944 with a small knowledge of Croatian and some arms and explosives. He was there to teach partisan bands everything he knew about demolition. He stayed on through the summer and fought often with a small group based in the bare rock mountains above Godice, a few miles in from the Adriatic, near the great resort area of Split.

It had been a very bad time. The people in the villages had been caught between the two fires, the partisans and the Germans. Toward the end he had begun to feel that he was killing more Yugoslavs than Germans. But the group he fought with was very good, under the leadership of an intense, honest, murderous old man named Lalic, who resented him at first, not because he was young, but because he was a foreigner, yet who approved of him enough in the end to give wordless sanction when an affair developed between Bell and one of the Lalic women.

Not a woman, really; she was only a girl, only seventeen. It was a long time ago, so long he could not remember her face, but only the size of her — firm, tall, so very young. He remembered not the things they said, but the yellow light of the afternoon, the fear he felt of the coming dark while he held to her on the grass behind gray rocks. All he could really remember was one warm afternoon alone with her in the mountains. They walked hand in hand and ate blackberries until her lips were blue, and he remembered kissing the blue lips. Her name was Melitta. He remembered that he had called her “Mel,” and it made her laugh, but he still could not see her face.

He had never been in love with her. He needed her desperately at the time, but he knew even then that he was not in love with her, not a Slav peasant, not him. He did not believe either that she really loved him. She was too young to know about love. He was beginning to be very fond of her, and then one night he was wounded in a raid on the naval base at Ploce. He was hit in the legs and stomach and he knew enough about wounds to know that he would probably die.

They got him back a little way into the mountains, and the old man, Lalic, used the radio and called for help. It was a risky thing; the Germans were all around and getting closer, but Lalic and the men carried him down through the night, and a seaplane came in on the Adriatic and picked him up. He did not remember much of that night — he was in considerable pain — but as the plane took off, he was sure he heard shooting. He never remembered saying goodbye to Melitta.

He was taken back to Africa, and the medical people pulled him through. He was in a hospital all that winter and he heard nothing of the group at Godice. He was told by headquarters that radio contact with Lalic had been lost. For a long time he hoped that Lalic had lost only the radio, and, it occurred to him finally with a shock that he was very fond of that brutal old man. He would lie awake in the night thinking of them all back there in the hills, thinking of Melitta.

But the Army nurses were very nice and very pretty, and he was a long time in hospitals and he thought less of them all when he was sent back to the States. He did try to find them when the war ended. He wrote several letters to the old village, Godice, to all the names he could think of. But then the country went Communist, and he never got an answer.

The years went by; he met a wealthy girl from New Jersey; he got married. He was not a man to talk about what had happened in the war and he never told his wife about Melitta. After a few years he no longer thought about her, although he sometimes wondered, whenever Yugoslavia was in the news, if any of the old group had survived. They had been good men. When he had been with them, he had been a pretty good man himself. He stayed married for ten years. He had one child, a son, to whom he was very close. His wife divorced him in 1958. He never clearly understood why that happened; but after ten years, there was nothing left to live with, and he was not even sure if anyone was really to blame. She left him, she said, “while there was still time.” He did not mind her loss so much as the loss of his son. There was no time now for another son, another family. He had mellowed a great deal over the years; he had become gentler and more thoughtful. There seemed to him to be something strongly indecent about having more children, by another woman. He did not know why. But he knew it was all done — he would not marry again. He had nothing much to do then but his work, which was now no longer important. When he came to his fortieth birthday, he had become a silent man, no longer an optimist.

In the summer of 1960 he suddenly took a long vacation. He went to Europe and then on to Yugoslavia, moving instinctively, not so much out of curiosity as because he really had nowhere else to go. Coming down through the windy rock, past the roofless houses, he felt for the first time in years the old emotion slowly stir. He wondered if any of them were alive. He wondered if she was still alive.

He stopped for the night in Zadar. For the first time he was truly aware that he was in a Communist country. The town was bleak, grim, without store fronts, cluttered with rubble. The few cars he saw on the streets belonged to German tourists; he began to see that German tourists were everywhere. There was a grave irony in that — the wealthy Germans strolling once more among the rocky ruins.

Dark people, poorly dressed, stared silently at him as he passed. Children waved, grinning. He guessed that only important people drove cars in this country — commissars and the like, or tourists. He saw several policemen, large clean men in white shirts and blue trousers. He saw them always alone, standing withdrawn and cold, with a hard, watchful indifference. He was to realize later that the entire time that he was in Yugoslavia he never saw anyone speak to a policeman.

In the hotel the desk clerk spoke to him first in German, but when he pulled out the American passport, the man’s face cracked into a startlingly unexpected grin. The clerk, short, thick, heavily mustached, was obviously delighted to see an American. He pumped Bell’s hand and led him personally to his room, helping him carry his luggage. They went down a long dark hall beautifully laid out in smooth stone and marble, lighted in the latest, softest, most indirect fashion. There was a deep red carpet on the floor, but it was surprisingly dirty. There was all over the hotel a confusing mixture of opulence and neglect — a beautifully designed patio, filthy tablecloths. potted plants in great urns, dying. The clerk shook his hand energetically when leaving; Bell sensed no need for a tip. “Dobar America,” the clerk said happily, and it was a moment before Bell remembered the word: “Dobar” — “good.” Good America. At this bit of unexpected warmth he suddenly felt very good. There had certainly been little warmth at the border. But when he lay awake that night, he did not think about it. He was remembering Melitta.

The next morning when he came down to leave, there was a small crowd gathered around his car, old people and many children and several men from the hotel. They were all smiling: an old man came up and took his hand. “You American, you stay long here Yugoslavia. Too many Germans. You stay, swim, have good time. I live San Francisco,” he prodded himself joyfully, “long year, many time.” Bell thanked him. He shook hands all around, trying to remember some Croatian, but all he could remember was “falla,” “thank you.” He left feeling very good. It was a rare thing to be liked just because you were an American. He could not understand it. He knew that they were a loyal people, a stubborn people, and he guessed that was it — the war; they were still fond of their allies. And then, he thought, considering the many armies that have come this way, I guess we’re the only people they know of that never did them any harm.

He went out of Zadar and down the lovely Dalmatian coast. That was another thing he had long forgotten — how beautiful it was. The road was pretty bad, but on his right the Adriatic gleamed a magnificent blue-green, and great rock islands lay long and gray across the sea. When he came down close to the water, he could see people wading, swimming — and he remembered with an abrupt, explosive shock one day with Melitta down in the sea, a day in August toward the end, very bright, very hot, and Melitta standing to her waist in the cool fragrant water and gazing up at him with a shattering look of devotion, hands on hips, her long hair washed sleekly down over the bare brown shoulders, the wide, the lovely smile, and he could see it all so clearly he felt a physical thrust into his stomach.

The vision vanished. He was alone again on the long, dusty road. He looked up from the sea toward the gray mountains inland, saw clouds clustered as if snagged on the sharp rock peaks. He began to feel a deep edge of excitement.

He made Split that evening. He drove past the great stone columns of the Palace of Diocletian, went by just at sunset, saw the ragged children of the People’s Republic playing in the rubble below the vast Roman stones.

Young woman dressed in a World War II-era Yugoslav uniform, and holding a rifle.
(Illustrated by John Falter / SEPS)

This was beginning to be his country; from here on in he would recognize the land. But here also the coast was crowded with tourists, still mostly German, thronging the streets so thickly he had trouble driving through. He checked into another hotel, and it was the same as the first, beautifully designed, badly neglected, and the clerk again was delighted to see an American. He spoke fairly good English, welcomed Bell to the hotel. There were three men lounging sleepily behind the desk. They all waked at the same time and smiled at him. He felt a broad grin break over his own face. He could not get over how pleased they were to see an American.

He went down that evening to sit in the restaurant out near the sea. Tourists still moved down the wide street, empty of cars. Many of them were Yugoslav, strong brown people, many quite tall, most of them poorly dressed. He noticed that many of the men were unshaven, but the girls were invariably neat and clean. He was lightly surprised to look down the street and see a bright neon sign — Hotel Bellevue.

Late in the evening the crowd had begun to thin, the tables near him were empty. He sat drinking small glasses of slivovitz — Yugoslav plum brandy — and listening to the quiet sea. A tall, thin waiter in a shabby white jacket came over and regarded him fondly.

“You first time Yugoslavia?”

“No. I was here in the war.”

“The war. You here?”

“Yes. At Godice.”

“Godice?” The man stared at him. “You at Godice. Partisan?”

Bell nodded.

“But — you young man.”

“Yes,” Bell said. The man went on staring at him with gathering awe. Then he excused himself suddenly and dashed off and got another waiter and talked excitedly to him for a moment, and they both came back grinning. Bell asked them to sit down. They shook hands all around, and Bell caught the thin one’s name; it was Evo. They sat across from him, staring at him with delight.

They chattered for a moment in sputtering English, and then Evo dashed off again. “We drink to partisan!” he shouted and returned with more slivovitz and a short stubby man from the hotel desk. Bell began to feel very good. The stubby man sat down and asked with somber authority about the partisans, and Bell told him briefly. Bell asked if they’d ever heard of the Lalic group.

“No,” the stubby man said and shook his head apologetically. “Is not possible. We work in hotel, you see? And go to state school. We learn little English, French, German. Sometime learn Russian.” He chuckled. “But no more.” Everyone grinned. Evo poured more slivovitz. “But is no man here from Godice. I from Zagreb. Where you from?”

“Florida.”

That meant nothing. He mentioned Miami. There were slow dawns of awed recognition. “Florida? Meeahmee? Many millionaires!” They knew about Miami from American movies. From then on they regarded him as an immensely wealthy man, but it seemed to make no difference. It was not until much later that he realized how truly wealthy, in comparison to them, he was. Most of what they knew about America had come from the movies. They kidded him about the movies, the cowboys, the gangsters, but it was not all light fun.

“America very beautiful,” Evo said suddenly. A quiet came over the group. “America.” A deeply wistful look came over the gaunt face. He paused, held out his hands gravely. “America,” he said again softly. He shook his head. Bell was moved. The stubby man grunted.

“Your country has much luck,” the stubby man said. “Here” — he gestured toward the mountains and grimaced — “here is very poor. Too many wars. The people — but we build. We be better soon.” He said this almost defiantly, looking not at Bell but at the two waiters. They sat staring into the table.

“I like the mountains,” Bell said. “We have no mountains in Florida.”

“You grow no food in mountains,” the stubby man said gloomily. “In rock you grow nothing. Here is nothing.” He leaned suddenly, earnestly across the table. “I want explain you. No Communist your country. But you understand, please. Here is nothing. Is no electric, no power, no roads, no factories. If no electric, then is no cold, no — icebox. Food not keep, is no good, spoil. Is no machines like in your country. Is much rock. People all poor. How we get roads if state not do it? How we get electric if state not do it? No money here, Yugoslavia. We must build new, but no money. So must take from people, from Yugoslavs, or must ask from America. Everything — very hard. With no roads, can ship nothing. With no electric, no can raise many chickens, milk many cows. But is cost money; and America help, and that is very good. You understand?”

He was in deadly earnest. He wanted desperately for Bell to understand.

“For Yugoslav this only way — Communist. Not for you; you no need. King no good, no want schools for people, want keep them down. But government help now, you see? But no war. Too many wars. Someday we have all — factories, electric, food. People eat, be happy. Then no more war. Why be war if people eat? You see? We do this.”

Bell nodded. The two waiters sat silently, still staring at the table. After a moment, the stubby man excused himself, saying he had to get back to the desk. Bell poured more slivovitz. The two waiters brightened.

Evo raised a glass. “Hai hai uzhivai!” he cried suddenly. “Toast!” Bell repeated it after him, grinning. They drank. Evo fixed Bell with a fond, approving smile, then gestured with distaste at people sitting at other tables, who had looked over at him when he called the toast.

“Germans,” he said. “Too many Germans.” He spat. “I fight. I no forget.” He leaned forward, grinning. “But we take their money.” He chuckled. “For Germans Yugoslavia is cheap; so we let them come and we take their money. Everywhere for Germans prices go up.” He chortled, then grew suddenly grave. “You make sure, you, where you go, they know you not German.”

Bell said he would. Evo suggested he get an American flag and put it on his car. They considered this and drank. Evo glanced around, saw the stubby man nowhere about, leaned forward again.

“In America,” he asked, “all waiters have cars?”

Surprised, Bell nodded.

All waiters?”

“Most,” Bell said. He explained about waiters’ salaries, and it came to him suddenly that in this country Evo was really an important waiter. He served in one of the largest hotels in one of the most important tourist areas in the country. His equivalent would be a topflight waiter in New York or Miami. In America, Evo would be making very good money, and Bell tried to explain this diplomatically and also to explain unions, which interested both waiters profoundly.

After a moment, Evo smiled. He explained his salary to Bell. It amounted to about eight hundred dollars a year. He said it would take him twenty years to save enough money for a car, any car. He said he had a wife and two children. He picked up the bottle. “Hai hai uzhivai,” he said, and they had another round.

They sat silently for a while, and then Evo roused himself. He looked round again cautiously, then said, “You know one thing? Is Communist now here” — he struggled for the words — “is Communist from here, Yugoslavia, all the way there, all the way — ” He motioned east. “From here to Pacific Ocean,” he said quietly, “is Communist.”

It was a chilling thing. Bell nodded.

Evo grinned faintly. “All those people … very hungry. If you fight Russians … all gone. Everything die. But” — he paused and smiled grimly — “if you fight Russians, make long war. Make four, five year. You eat, yes, but they no eat. They have no … system. They starve, have other revolution. Here we say win war with food, not guns.”

He regarded Bell thoughtfully, hopefully. “They not ahead of you, Russians? They not really ahead?”

Bell shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I hope not.”

“I no think so either.” Evo smiled. “You have engineers, but all work television.” He grinned widely. “Russians … I have one friend once, from Osterreich, Austria … come here after war. Was Communist in Austria, all in war Communists. Love Russians. Love Russian like woman. Then war end, and Russians come his little town. Rape all women, all little girls, old women, rape everybody. Rape his family. He come here then.” Evo grinned. “Russians — ” He looked up and saw the stubby man coming. He was silent.

The stubby man sat down and went off again explaining Communism. He did this by right, as if anything they were talking about before he came was without consequence. Bell sat politely, but he was beginning to understand. He had a stark sense of tragedy. These starved and grave and battered people had been overrun with enemies for centuries.

At the next table there were suddenly two very pretty, well-dressed blondes. They sat looking around for a waiter, but neither man at Bell’s table moved. The blondes became annoyed. Bell was uncomfortable but said nothing. Eventually Evo rose, yawning, and started toward the table. He winked at Bell.

“Germans,” he said and shrugged. The stubby man excused himself again and left. The last waiter sighed and drained one more glass of slivovitz. He looked up at Bell, holding the glass, and smiled.

“The brewery changes,” he said softly, “but the wine remains the same.”

He left. While Evo was gone, one of the blondes looked over at Bell and smiled.

“You are American?” she said. She had a really lovely smile. He was surprised to have her pick him for an American so quickly. “Isn’t the service here terrible?” she said.

Bell shook his head. “I — they’ve been very nice to me.”

“These people,” the girl said and shrugged. “Would you care to join us?” She smiled again. Her English was very good, with strong traces of British. He did not want to join her, but he could not politely refuse. He sat at their table. Evo came back and stood watching him, a knowing grin on his face. Bell felt at first that he had in some way betrayed him, but Evo winked broadly, and Bell realized that he was wishing him well. Anyway, there was no doubt about the attitude of the one girl. She was bored, and he looked as if he might be interesting. Her name was Ursula. She went on talking about the terrible service she and her friend had seen all over Yugoslavia.

Bell replied that he hadn’t found it bad, but then he was an American, and perhaps the Yugoslavs had no fondness for Germans. He didn’t know why he said that, but he said it. The girl was astonished, did not understand him. He blinked, wondered what she could possibly have thought of all the ruins along the road. He explained that, of course, the war — but she was annoyed, quite annoyed. She said, “That is foolish, really. There is no reason for people to dwell on the war. That is all done. That is no good for world peace.”

Bell shrugged.

“And of course,” the girl said quietly, “we have our ruins too.”

That you do, Bell thought, that you do. He was confused, he did not want to talk about it. He was also very tired. He excused himself; she gave him another very warm smile.

“You will be here tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow evening, yes.”

“We will see you then? Perhaps you will go with us to the Palace of Diocletian.”

Of course, Bell said. The girl smiled with promise. Bell left, passed Evo standing by a stone column.

“You get the German girl,” Evo chuckled. Then he said, “You go tomorrow to Godice?”

“Yes.”

“You come back, yes? We talk about America.”

“Yes,” Bell said.

In the morning he passed through a cleft in which the partisans had once ambushed a German convoy. He stopped and looked and smelled the silent air. There were no traces. The day came back vividly; layers of his memory peeled away. There it was — blood pools in the gray rock, bodies, brains, flecks of red flesh stuck to bright, hot metal, cartridge cases gleaming in the sun. He remembered an old man dying, a gray-haired partisan, such a little man — what was his name? Crying. And then a young German, very young, and the look on his face when Lalic came up and pointed the gun down to finish him. Usually he was not this good at memory; he could remember feelings better than sights, he could remember the sense of loss, the smell of fear. Sometimes he thought that was a bad thing, to remember the feeling and not the face, to remember the smell of his lost wife and not what they had done together.

But here he could remember everything. Veils were falling. He felt increasingly alive. He remembered that same night after the fight, back in the hills with Melitta, how hungry he was.

Up above that site was a small village. It was empty; all the roofs were gone. Along the roadside he passed a white concrete monument bearing the names of the dead — KILLED BY THE FASCIST TERROR. On top of the monument was a white star. The Communists were very good at that, at monuments to the dead.

He drove on, feeling oddly cold. He could remember some of the names now — Ivan Maras, Marko Seveli. Some of them must still be alive. And Melitta. It began to be as if no time had passed at all. It was as if he were going back to them, and they were waiting, and there might still be Germans around the next bend.

He passed through small towns, and strong faces turned to stare at him. Children waved. He looked at the girls especially as he passed, and there were many to remind him of her — the long sturdy legs, the square, proud, lovely faces. He remembered what the Germans had done to the girls in some of these towns. He thought of Evo. What had happened to Evo’s women?

But the land was so poor. It was worse even than he had remembered. They had nothing, not even soil. There were no green fields, only small square plots every few miles, tiny hoards of topsoil painfully scraped together, bounded with rock walls to keep the wind and rain from carrying it away. Here grew straggly plants he did not recognize. There were a few places where the government had planted trees, tiny pines, in hope of bringing back the soil, of holding on to what was left. But to recover this area would take forty years.

He thought again, how many armies have passed this way. The Romans, the Germans. In the history of every family, killing, rape. We knew damned little rape in America, thank God, he thought. The grave faces watched him. He wished they could know he was an American. At last he came into Godice.

He turned off the main road, began climbing the mountain. Children watched him go by. A small boy ran alongside screaming, “Bonbon! Bonbon!” He went up the road with his mind a blank, looking for the house, Lalic’s house. It was alone just over the first rise, out of sight of the small town. He knew everything here now clearly, each small rise, each cleft in the rocks. But there had been more trees, many more trees. He followed the road until it gave out. That’s all right, he thought, it was only a path anyway. And he’d be an old man now, very old, seventy anyway. But there should be a path.

There was no path. There were bare rock and thornbushes. It was very hot, very dry. He left the car and began the walk up through the brush. He still did not think; he had an unreasoning hope. He made it over the top of the rise and looked down on the house.

There was no roof. The windows stared back at him like the eyes of a skull. All around him was still. A slight breeze came up from the sea. He took a deep breath and walked down to the house.

There was nothing inside, no trace of pan or bone. A thornbush grew where the stove had been, a pile of crushed stone littered half the dirt floor. He stared across the one big room, the room of the table and wine bottles and long talks in the night; the room of her hand held tightly when no one could see. He could not see them all anymore; they were all gone from his memory; there was no vision left, but only the feeling, only the loss. He looked out through the windows down to the bright green sea. He felt the soft wind, heard the deep silence.

Afterward he went up to the hill above and found the blackberry bush. It was August, the berries had fallen. He sat and looked down to the sea.

He stayed up there most of the afternoon. He had not realized it would hit him this hard; he had an ungovernable feeling of despair. The Yugoslavs — they had fought all that time and the ones that survived had nothing. They had got rid of the king and then the Germans and now they had the Communists. And beyond him to the Pacific — he looked off to the east and remembered Evo’s words — from here to the Pacific, the Communists. He had a terrible feeling of disaster. Where does it end, all the hate? Centuries pass, and it never ends. And they all died, and what does it matter? But what did they accomplish? What does it mean?

He went down to Godice. He thought of the German girl waiting in Split, the bright smile, and he felt nothing. We have our ruins too. Ruins all over the world.

When he came out onto the road, there was a crowd waiting. He got into the car, staring at the faces, the stony faces, but he did not recognize anyone. He was very tired. He tried to smile and pointed to himself and said, “American,” and people began to smile. Then a small, bearded man pushed up through the crowd and stared at him, wild-eyed. The man came closer. The man remembered him.

The man reached out and clutched his hand and said his name. He did not remember the man, but he held the hand and listened while the little man swung to the crowd and told them who he was, and, My gosh, Bell thought, he’s crying!

He was. Bell felt a tremor in his own throat. He got out of the car and began to shake hands. He was walked over to the shade of the trees, and someone brought him a cold beer. From the looks on all their faces he realized suddenly that in this town he had been remembered; here he would be a hero. One man could speak a little English, he was the owner of a small bar and he insisted on explaining to Bell over and over again that his place was “privat,” was not run by the government. They went down together to the bar, in the center of the town, the crowd growing every minute, the little man still sobbing and holding his hand. Bell asked for Lalic and asked what had happened. The little man tugged him wordlessly along to another white monument.

Bell saw all the names. Eight of the Lalics — dead of the fascist terror. In the sudden quiet he bowed his head.

When he looked again, he realized that the name of Melitta was not on the stone. He asked for her — Melitta Lalic.

The little man understood and brightened and waved down the road. The tavern owner smiled and turned him around. “She come. She come now soon, please. She know you here. OK?” Then he smiled and pointed.

Bell looked down the dirt street, straight into the afternoon sun. After a moment he made her out, the woman’s figure with the bright blaze behind it coming toward him in the dust.

“Larry?” the voice said. She stopped. He looked into her face, had to shield his eyes from the sun. She ran to him suddenly and put her arms around him, and he held her very close while all around him the crowd began laughing and cheering.

He stepped back and looked at her, holding both her hands. “Hello,” he said. He just looked at her — the same strong lovely face, the matchless smile, tears in the gentle eyes, small gleams of silver in the temples, an old faded dress, very clean, heavier, warmer, a stranger but not a stranger, something he had missed, something he had lost.

“How are you?” he said.

She nodded, tried to flick the tears from her face. “I cannot think of the English.”

“I am very happy to see you,” Bell said.

She came in to him again and held him. “I never think you come back,” she said. The crowd surged around him and began to push them back to the shade of the trees. He walked with his arm around her, feeling shaken all the way down in him, looking down at the few gray hairs, and she looked up at his face.

“I learned some English in school,” she said. “I hope if you come back.”

“I wrote to you,” Bell said. “I wrote to Lalic. Nobody ever answered.”

“No,” she said. “No letters.” She held him suddenly very tightly, and they sat on a wooden bench under the trees. There were now many bottles of beer, and a young boy came out with an accordion and began to play wild, rolling Slavic songs. Bell sat looking into her face. She had been seventeen then; she was nearly twice that now. She was beautiful.

“Thank God they never got you,” he said. She looked back at him, searching his eyes. “I went up to Lalic’s,” he said. “I thought … everyone was dead. But thank God they never got you.”

She went on looking at him. She bit her lip suddenly and looked away. He didn’t understand. Now beer was being pressed into his hands; he had to begin drinking toasts. At that moment a small boy, very blond, dusty, barefoot, pushed through the crowd and clutched worriedly at her legs. She smiled at Bell and leaned down and folded the boy in. She told him who Bell was, and the boy stared back in open awe.

“My son,” she said proudly. She put her arm around the tiny shoulders. Bell reached out and shook the child’s hand.

“I have a son too,” Bell said.

She smiled. She pressed his hand. She had again begun to cry. She looked up at him once more and she said, “I would have waited, Larry. But you never ask.”

“I know,” Bell said. “I never asked.”

He sat silently with the beer in his hand. After a moment he said, “Well, thank God anyway; thank God you’re all right.”

Her face was turned away from him. But he saw the corner of her eyes and the look there, the sudden spasm, silent and unseeing. She twisted around again to look at him, and the eyes were still unseeing, dim, but the mouth somehow smiled, there was in her now a strange mute softness — and he understood.

Of course he understood. She had not got away. He stared down at her with growing shock. They hadn’t killed her; much too pretty. She had finished the war in a German brothel.

He put a hand to his face and looked down into the dirt. He was aware finally of the little boy’s curious face, bent down in front of him, staring up into his eyes. He had to smile and reach out and touch the boy’s cheek. He looked up again at Melitta. He took another long drink from the bottle of beer.

She knew he understood. He knew she would never mention it. She sat holding his hand warmly, smiling down at her son, once again gentle and patient, once more warm and serene.

They sat together under the trees. The sun had begun to set behind a gray island. She told him of her husband, a good man, a farmer. She said she was very happy. She hoped that one day soon there would be electricity in her home and her boy would read more. He asked her if there was anything he might send her from America. She said no. Then she said, “Just a letter sometimes, for me, for my son.” But he knew he would send her many things.

He sat in the midst of the gathering darkness, the music. They all began to sing; she sang with the rest. She threw back her head and sang with warmth and great sweetness, still holding his hand. He knew now what he had missed. But he knew also that it was still there, still alive in the world, and he could find it again, even if he had to look a long time. He listened, he watched, he breathed deep and felt whole. He gazed around him at the people of the cruel earth, the people who had known so much — war and rape and Communists and kings. He sang with them all that night.

Read “Partisan” by Michael Shaara from the May 26, 1962, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

 

Featured image: Illustrated by John Falter / SEPS.

“Breakup” by Frances Ensign Greene

Frances Ensign Greene wrote several short stories for Redbook and The Saturday Evening Post. His short story Breakup reflects the life of a young woman who makes countless sacrifices for her family and career.

Published on October 27, 1956. Want even more classic fiction? Subscribe to the magazine for access to our complete archives, including fiction, cartoons, art, inspiring stories, humor, and in-depth reporting.

Although this is the story of a successful and happy woman, it has a strange ending, one that disturbs and delights me by turns. Actually, of course, nobody’s story can be over until his life is over, and Mary Jordan, by her own admission, is just thirty-four. I never heard of anybody doing just what she did, and probably that’s what disturbs me, but there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing someone slip out of the neat little pattern of expected behavior in order to be true to himself, and that’s what delights me. But I’d like to know what you think of the debt she incurred, and the rare way she paid it.

I first met Mary Jordan at a cocktail party, one of those deadly ones from five to seven where people come at eight and stay until eleven, milling around with drinks in their hands and being veddy, veddy smart and a little hysterical.

There was the usual count, who asked to be called Gigi because, after all, this was a democratic country; the wife of a very great actor and her mother; an overblown torch singer fast making a fool of herself; a couple of television writers and several producers; a portrait painter of great charm. And there were about twenty others, all of whom were somebody too.

There was also a very beautiful woman sitting on a couch talking to the painter. I recognized her at once — so would you have. She is as far up as she can go in her profession, which may account for the little shadow around her eyes; unless you remain static when you get to the top the only possible movement is down. But her beauty is legendary, and she has probably made a fortune, so there was no occasion for sympathy.

She had on a black-and-white creation that made her look like a gorgeous, gentle Cossack. I went over and spoke to the painter, who introduced us and then went in search of another drink, so I sat down beside the beautiful Mary Jordan and we began to talk, and it was as simple as that. I liked her suddenly — you know how it is. You meet someone you have never seen before, realize that you are in tune with each other, and a fully matured liking springs from you like Minerva from Jupiter’s head. Other people came and went, but doggedly we kept on.

After a bit, she said, “Straight ginger ale on an empty stomach is beginning to get me. I could do with some food, couldn’t you?”

We found our hostess, and there was something of a struggle with words — she’d wanted Mary Jordan to sing for the people, but while Miss Jordan was charming about it, she was definite. My heart warmed to her.

There was a restaurant just around the corner, and we went in and ordered scrambled eggs. I sat there beaming; it was fun being with someone who was as easily recognized as a movie star. As a matter of fact, she’s made several pictures, been in television for the last five years, and, heaven knows, her photographs have been in the papers often enough. People nudged one another and stared, but she seemed unconscious of it.

She leaned forward, her gray eyes slanting. “You have amazing bits of information,” she said. “I read something of yours once in which you said the best maple sap came from trees that had a layer of slate under them. How did you know that?”

“Oh, I probably heard it years ago and dragged it out of my subconscious. Just a whiff of a thought.” I was almost shocked that she remembered careless words I’d written and had forgotten myself.

“I see. You assimilate things and file them away for future use — everything you hear and see. But that’s such a load. Aren’t you awfully tired?”

I smiled at her. “Thanks for understanding that. But it’s not a conscious tiredness. It’s just a cageful of mice scurrying about in the noodle. I know smatterings about a lot of things, and I can’t add up a column of figures — and why did you remember that about the maple trees?”

“Because I came from Vermont. We had a stand of maples with slate under it, just as you said in your story. I always helped in the bush during the sugaring, along with the rest of the family. If you’ve never dipped a ladle into boiling syrup in the sugar bush, poured some onto fresh snow and popped it into your mouth while it was still warm and waxy — then, my friend, you haven’t lived.”

I’d about exhausted my own sketchy knowledge of the maple industry, SO I said, “I’d supposed you were a velvet child who wintered at Cap d’Antibes. That voice must have been mellowed by Mediterranean warmth, surely. And now you tell me Vermont, of all places. Deep snow, stags bounding on the hillsides, wood-burning stoves and grim, hard-bitten people — ”

A curious change came over her face, and it stopped me. “You do know smatterings, don’t you? The thumb-nail sketch was hardly accurate. For example, the least hard-bitten person I’ve ever known still lives there, the woman I love in a very special way, and the one I’ve tried to repay — and not just with money, but with — Will you let me tell you about it sometime? I need to talk to someone.” And in that moment I realized that Mary Jordan was lonely.

Two weeks later I called her and she asked me to come to see her. She had a smart apartment in the Sixties — all the things you’d expect, gray walls, a fireplace, good paintings, low squatty chairs, and a grand piano. We sat down opposite each other, and after a little while Mary Jordan began to tell me the story that she knew I had come for.

Mabel Kelsey was a large, handsome woman who rarely sat down from sunup to sundown, except on Sundays. Righteous and proudly God-fearing, she had married Carl Kelsey to reform him, so she said. She seemed to have succeeded in her project, for Carl Kelsey turned into a morose man who seldom talked. They produced two sons, Matt and Joel, two years apart, and then in her fortieth year, Mabel gave birth to a girl child — a feat of which she was always slightly ashamed.

The boys, then ten and twelve, were given the privilege of naming the infant, and they called her Ramona, after the sword swallower they’d seen at the county fair. Ramona Kelsey.

All through her childhood, the boys kept up their proprietary interest in Mona, teasing her, loving and coddling her, and disciplining her by turns, so that she was in a perpetual state of confusion. She loved her brothers more than anything else on earth. The silent Carl and the indifferent Mabel were dim shadows on the screen of her youthful development. Only the boys were real. She loved the smell of their room up under the eaves, the wild gaminess of it, the ghost of forbidden smoke, old corduroy and water-soaked leather that had dried there. Often she’d go into their room on Sunday mornings when they were allowed to sleep a little longer, and crawl into bed between them.

Joel would open one blue eye and look fierce. “Hey you, Matt. That thing got in again. What’ll we do with it?” “Heave it outside.”

So they’d get up, and one would take her feet and the other her arms, and they’d swing her, and just as they seemed bent on pitching her through the open window, one of them would stop to scratch his ankle, and she’d light into them, punching into their rock-ribbed stomachs, knowing she could never hurt them, and they’d all capsize on the floor in a laughing, crazy heap. They were a wonderful pair of brothers for a little girl to own.

And then, when she was nine, the tragedy had happened. The boys had gone up the mountain after a marauding bear, and Joel slipped and fell from a rock ledge, a drop of forty feet. He said he wasn’t hurt, and they believed him, but the next morning when Mona got into bed with them, Joel’s eyes were already open and he was cold against her body. She was never to forget Matt’s scream when she woke him, or the dreadful contortions of his face. Matt was never quite the same after Joel’s death or, for that matter, neither was Mona.

Matt worked the farm alone, studying his agriculture bulletins under the hanging kerosene lamp, going up to his lonely room at night to remember Joel’s laughter. The household was silent, sullen. It worked and ate and slept, and that was all. But it was about this time that Mona, alone and under the open sky, began to sing as a protest against the weighing hush that surrounded her.

One autumn day Matt went into St. Johnsbury and brought home a bride. His mother met them at the door, her eyes blazing at Matt and ignoring the girl. Only the anger leaped between them in place of words, for Matt had nothing to say, either, no explanations and no apologies. His wife was a little thing, frail and ash blond, with blue eyes and beautiful narrow hands, and a sweetness in her face. Mona’s heart opened wide with that first beseeching smile. She wanted to protect her, and, more importantly, she wanted to do something to make her happy. That desire never left her.

The next day Mabel Kelsey cornered Matt in the kitchen. “Well, now, this is a pretty thing you’ve done,” she said tauntingly. “If you had to bring a woman here, why didn’t you pick a fit one to help in the house and bear you some children? Look at you! Six foot two and shoulders on you like an ox! Why, a young’un of yours’d kill this scrawny whiffet you’ve drug in!”

A flush spread over his face as he laid down his fork. “I love her, ma. If you can’t be decent to her, don’t talk.”

“You leave her alone, ma.” Mona was standing with her feet planted wide apart, defying her mother for the first time in her life. “She don’t have to help in the house — I’ll do it for her. We’ll take care of her, Matt and me!”

Rosalie spoke from the doorway before they knew she was there, and she smiled in quiet friendship at the little girl. “Thank you, Mona. As long as I have you and Matt, I won’t care about anything else — too much.”

And then she crossed the room and sat down in her rightful place beside her husband at the kitchen table. From that time on, she and Mabel never spoke directly to each other. For twelve years they lived in the same house and never found the need for words together until a grave wonder united them.

Mabel’s prophecy came true; there were no children. Once it seemed as if there might be, but Rosalie caught her foot in the torn drugget and fell down the steep stairs that led from the room up under the eaves. Sure enough, Matt’s child almost killed her, and there followed a long period of invalidism, with Mona waiting on her, and Mona alone hearing the heartbroken weeping when the doctor told her there would never be a child now. She had wanted a baby more than anything else in the world.

By this time the ineffectual Carl Kelsey was dead, making little difference in the lives of any of them. Mona was fourteen, a strong, straight girl blooming into sudden beauty. Rosalie taught her many things, but most of all she gave her an appreciation of herself. It was Rosalie who made her sing a song over and over again until the tightness went out of her throat and the clear rich soprano came free and sweet, and it was also Rosalie who told her that her singing was a very special gift which might become an art if she worked at it.

As the years went by, Mona Kelsey grew locally famous. Folks said something ought to be done about that beautiful voice, but they didn’t suggest what — or how.

On a Sunday afternoon in May when the apple orchard was deep in bloom, the girls sat under one of the flowering trees with Matt sprawled beside them. That was the time when Rosalie chose to speak to her husband about the dream she and Mona had shared. “There’s a man in Dorset,” she told him, “who will see to it that Mona gets a scholarship to a fine music school in New York City if we can manage the rest of it, Matt. He says she has a remarkable voice and it ought to be trained.”

Matt looked off to the green hills in the distance. Then he asked heavily, “How much would it cost?”

“The way we figure, she ought to have twenty-five dollars a week. I could make some clothes for her this summer, but she’d need other things, and carfare and stamp money and odds and ends — ”

“Honey, you might as well ask for the moon. That’s plain crazy, and you know it. Twenty-five dollars — holy Hannah!”

Mona stiffened. “Ma’s got that thirty- acre piece that’s just lying there, and the Sandersons want it. Couldn’t she sell it and give me the money? I’d pay it back. I’m not asking this just for myself, but this man who comes to Dorset summers, this Mr. Caldwell, says God gave me my voice, and I’ve got a debt to Him!”

“God or no God, ma wouldn’t give up her thirty acres to educate any girl, and I don’t know as I’d blame her. You’d get married, and the money spent on you’d be just wasted.”

“I wouldn’t either get married! Not for years, not till I’d done what the Lord intended me to do. Matt, I’ve got to amount to something! I can’t just stay here and — Rosy, you tell him.”

“The money would never be wasted, Matt. She’d feel her obligation.”

“Obligation, hell. What woman thinks of obligation when she meets some fellow she wants to tie up with? Look at you. Your folks scrimped to send you to normal school, and what good did it do you? You married me and buried yourself alive.” Then Matt, the kind and gentle man, said the cruel thing out of his deep shame and frustration. “It might have been different if we’d had kids — being educated, you’d know how to tend them better, teach them things. But as it is, you’re just wasted, Rosy. Your life don’t mean a thing.”

Rosalie turned as white as the dress she wore, as white as the snow that had lain over her heart since she lost her child.

When she could speak again, she said softly, “I suppose you’re right. But there’s a way to change that.”

After she had gone to the house, Mona looked full at her brother. She was too young to find the words that would have smashed him and shamed him. They were all in her eyes, and her eyes only bewildered him.

He said, “Well, I’ll speak to ma, anyway. It won’t do any harm, I guess.”

“You’ve done the harm. There isn’t any more to do.”

He was a male creature, and to him the ways of females would be forever mysterious, so he was never to know that his crudeness marked the turning point in the lives of two women.

Mona received the scholarship in July, and in the middle of August, Rosalie went to work in the post office. Already the clothes Mona would need had been made, and twenty of the twenty-five dollars had been assured. Rosalie was a woman fired now by a high purpose, and her fading face showed it.

Mabel Kelsey had nothing but scorn. What Mona did about her fool singing was no concern of hers, and if a dim- witted woman wanted to walk two miles to a job and back again, and waste her money to boot, let her. But Matt pledged ten dollars to add to his wife’s twenty, and so Mona was cared for.

It was a year before Mona came home again, but in the meantime there were the letters that meant so much to Rosalie. Vicariously, this was her own training, since she was in a measure responsible for it, and she followed the pruning of Mona’s voice through her letters. Her vocal coach was Gerald Chapman, and he told her that she showed more promise than any student he’d had in the last five years. “Think of that, Rosy! I wouldn’t tell you, except that you’re the only one in the world who cares, and I think maybe you’ll be a little bit proud.”

The tales that Mona wrote home were not precisely true. She was doing well in all her studies, and her voice was growing more facile by the day, but there were times when even Chapman’s pat of approbation couldn’t lift the fog she groped in. She was homesick for the hills she knew, for Rosalie and Matt; she was lonely to the point of illness and she was afraid.

That first year she ate her Christmas dinner at a midtown restaurant with a young artist named Philip Garfield, who was just getting over a bout with pneumonia and seemed as homeless as she was. Though he was strangely attractive, he was unlike any man she had ever known, and so she resented him; he seemed to her the embodiment of all her griefs and frustrations of the moment.

Two years later she had married him with no thought of her obligation to Rosalie or her own ambitions. She had married him because she couldn’t do anything else.

It was a magic thing that had burgeoned within her when spring came that year. Constantly she sang of love, and she was surrounded by the foreign coaches who spoke lustily and warmly. By that time, she was studying with the famous old diva, Maria Campagni, and madame often told her, “You will not really be a singer, my little pet, until you live a little, love very much, and suffer some because you love. You need a man to take you in his arms and make you forget that cold Vair-mont you come from.”

And Mona, thinking of the little man who had enriched madame’s emotions and had thus been responsible for her glorious years at La Scala, would giggle. But they weren’t all like little bandy-legged Luigi Campagni. She began to wonder how it would be to have Philip Garfield make love to her. She was young, and he was so very much in love with her, and this new, strange thing she couldn’t understand was flowering within her.

Philip was a painter, and a good one, his friends told her. He would have real significance someday, if he got the breaks.

Sometimes madame would rap sharply before she could get Mona’s attention. Finally, a light broke over the huge face. “Aa-hanh! Now I know. You are in love. At last it has happened to my little frozen chicken, and she is thawing and it is very painful, no? It is, of course, the beautiful young man who paints? Oh, I am not so glad about anything in years! Now you will sing!”

“Will I, madame?” That seemed of small importance to her at the moment. “But what will I do about Philip?”

Madame cast her eyes up to the ceiling. “The child asks me what she should do! You will marry him, of course. You will have the wedding right here in this room, as soon as this law they have allow you.”

So that was the way it happened. She was married in madame’s living room, with madame sobbing all through the ceremony in huge abandon. Philip had been living in a state of shock since the night she had told him she’d marry him, and now his nerves were telling; he was almost ill. The welling tenderness rose in her and she knew that he was her whole world. Nothing else mattered. She was a woman grandly in love, and the wonder of it stripped her of logic.

More than a week passed before she wrote to Matt and Rosalie, but the letter, laced through as it was with guilt, seemed inadequate and she tore it up. She told herself that it was better to wait until she saw them. Besides, she still needed the money they sent. Philip made very little from the occasional sale of a picture, and he was as poor as she was. Oh, but someday it would all be different. In the meantime, her mail could still come to madame.

The weeks slipped by, the happiest she had ever known. Then gradually Philip began to talk of Taos, in New Mexico, where the air was clear and dry and the sunlight intense. It was a mecca for people like him, he said, and New York was a mess, all noise and polluted air. He wanted to live close to the earth, do his work and bake in the sun.

She laughed, playing with him as she supposed he was playing with her. “And what am I doing in this Utopia?”

“You can sing there as well as here.”

“Of course, darling. I could even give a weekly concert to the Indians and they could pay me with beads.”

He talked more and more of Taos, however, and at last she was forced to realize that he was serious. “But I have a career to follow, too; I have a destiny! Maybe my voice isn’t important to you, but it is to me and a few others who have invested in me. I can’t just chuck the whole business and go off with you to gratify a whim.”

But it was no use, and steadily but surely the precious thing they’d shared was leaving them. Sometimes she’d wake in the night and see him standing by the window, breathing heavily, and she’d know that he was wanting to be gone, if not with her, then without her. She had no choice but to go with him, and yet fighting to hold him, she hated him a little too.

He met her at the train when she came home from Vermont, and she thought he looked stricken, as though he had somehow been with her in spirit. Her words were almost unnecessary. “My mother sat there and laughed her head off. And Matt stared at me as if he hated me. And Rosalie — Rosy was stunned. She kept saying it was all right, she wanted me to be happy, but there she sat with her empty hands and her empty life, her faded face, and her shoulders stooping a little now from working for me. And then Matt told me how she’d walked four miles a day, sometimes through the snow when he couldn’t get the truck out, how she’d worked to send every cent to me as if it were a holy duty, and oh, heaven, Phil — ”

“I see,” he said gently. “So you’re not going.”

“No. I have a debt to pay.”

That was the end of their life together, because he left her and went alone, as she had known he would. For a time, she moved through a period of indifference to his leaving, since his act of selfishness numbed the love she had for him.

She went to madame and finally found the relief of tears on that capacious bosom.

“The peeg!” madame snarled. “Oh, if I could get these two hands upon him! But look — I tell you. Your heart is now broken; it is sometimes good for a woman who is an artiste to have a broken heart. Loving Philippe has done you no harm, even though he was a bad one.”

“Hasn’t done me any harm? Madame, I’m going to have a baby!”

The big woman’s reaction was one of horror, quickly followed by rich delight. “Then you will be complete at last! Then you will sing as you never sang before. Ah, Madonna, what a miracle this is! It is what I have prayed for!” Her eyes narrowed speculatively. “Does he know, that Philippe?”

“No. I didn’t want to keep him that way.”

“Aa-hahh. Then we still do not tell him. You are to remain with me, with the little Luigino and me, and we will go on with the lessons, and when the baby is born — ”

When the baby was born in December, it was a fine boy — the most beautiful baby in the world, according to madame. To Mona, the little face bore no resemblance to its father, but in its infant newness, the mark of its appearance in years to come, it was a miniature of the beloved lost brother.

She went home in February when the snow lay white on the mountains. The family was at early supper in the lamplight. She came in quietly, so as not to break the old silence in the house.

They looked at her as if she were an apparition. Matt jumped up and his chair fell over with a great crash, breaking the spell that bound them. He came over to her and lifted back the blanket that covered the baby’s face. They saw his own face whiten as he looked down upon the child’s, and they all heard him breathe, “Oh, my God!”

“I know,” Mona said gently. “That’s why I’ve named him Joel.”

She put her son into his arms, and suddenly the big man began to shake, hiding his face in the blanket, straining the child to him, and his sobs were all around them, filling the room. Rosalie, in her great compassion, went to him and touched his bent head, and then she, too, looked down into the baby’s face. She hadn’t known Joel, but she hadn’t needed to — this was a baby, a thing to be tended and served and loved. She took it from Matt with hungry arms.

In spite of the grief that was in her heart, and the new beauty, too, Mona said, “He’s yours, Rosalie. Yours and Matt’s. I’ve brought him to you, and I’ll never take him away, I promise you.”

Then Rosalie, with her face transfigured, did the beautiful thing that they were to remember all their lives. She took the baby and laid it in the old woman’s lap, passing the first words with her in more than twelve years. “Here, ma. Here’s your grandson. They say he looks like your boy, Joel.”

Mary Jordan was to know many exalted moments in her life, but there was never one to equal that. Anything was possible for her, remembering it. Alone now, she went back to Campagni, who told her that at last she was ready. Her voice was as perfect as one of her years could expect. But she must change her name. The sound, said madame, had to be right on the ears.

At first there were small engagements at clubs, then at hotels and the better night spots. People began to notice her for more than her voice. She dressed well and cultivated a reserve that was deadly in its effectiveness. Her beauty ripened; her figure was svelte, disciplined. In the third year, she had the lead in a Broadway musical, then went into radio. She made two pictures in Hollywood, both of them rather lavish and corny, to her way of thinking; then came back to radio as star on an oil company’s program that paid her a fantastic salary. Now Mary Jordan found her special medium in television. The combination of her face, figure, voice and personality had succeeded in crystallizing her dream; and the work, the sacrifice and the heartbreak had all been worth it. She was where she wanted to be. She was at the top.

Often she went home to see her family and young Joel, to be called Mona again, to find a deeper peace. The boy had made over the lives of the three lonely people, and he himself was happy. Happier and stronger than she could have made him, with a succession of nurses and boarding schools. If you could see them all — Matt following Joel with his eyes so proudly, teaching him to milk the cows and tap the maple trees, to hunt and to fish with him; Rosalie forever smiling now, stooping to drop a light kiss on the tanned young forehead; her mother softened, laughing over some nonsense of the boy who looked and acted so much like her own son — then you’d know she had done the right thing in giving up her child, no matter what the cost. It was a debt she’d had to pay.

I came to with a start, realizing that for some time I had been lost in a painting on the opposite wall; I had a sense of having been in it. It was a wonderful thing — a pueblo, with the twilight streaking the sand, and one giant cactus standing lonely and strong in the foreground.

I said, “So Philip Garfield was your husband. And that, I am sure, must be one of his best.”

“I bought it at the Ducheyne Galleries two years ago. I’m glad you like it. You see, it’s all I have of him.”

That was it. That was the part in her story that hadn’t satisfied me. “You never divorced him, so that must mean that you never wanted to marry anyone else. And I’ve heard, somewhere, that he doesn’t come East, even for his exhibitions. He never leaves the desert.” Had I really heard that or was I just imagining it? With all the talk that goes on, a person hears so many things that he stores away.

“I really don’t know. He hasn’t tried to contact me in all these years.” Mary Jordan’s beautiful mouth was suddenly vulnerable. “But even though he left me as he did, I couldn’t stop being his wife. I loved him, and I always shall.”

“But there’s no sunlight in the picture!” She turned her startled eyes upon me. “I — don’t understand.”

“You thought he left you to paint sunlight, but this is twilight and evening shadows. Look at the deepened purple on that butte in the distance. Where is the sun in this or a dozen others? I’m sure you’ve seen them.”

She was sitting up straighter now, following my thought. “I go to the Galleries. Please go on.”

“Mary — Mona, didn’t you ever wonder why a man like Philip Garfield would leave the woman he’d loved for four years and chase after a will-o’-the-wisp of sunlight in order to paint it? He could have painted anywhere — sunlight falls on city streets — city streets

“New Mexico. You know what I think, Mona? I think Philip Garfield had to leave you. I think he was a sick man. You said he’d had pneumonia; you spoke about his heavy breathing — ”

“Oh, but that was emotional, when he was distressed or nervous — at least I thought that was it. He wasn’t ill — was he?”

“Probably. He said he wanted to go where the air was hot and dry, to bake in the sun; and to him, the atmosphere here was ‘polluted.’ Not to you and me, but to him. I think he had some respiratory weakness or an allergy to smoke and gases, and he knew it, and knew that it was getting him. Maybe some doctor had even told him that he wouldn’t live very long unless he went to the desert.”

“Oh, no!” She gave a little cry that had pain somewhere in it. “He knew I’d have gone with him if that had been it — anywhere — oh, anywhere on earth! I’d have given up everything!”

“Exactly. I’m beginning to like your Philip more and more. He understood you better than you think he did, Mona Kelsey — but he knew about Mary Jordan too. In ten years you’ve accomplished a lot, and it’s all turned out just as it was meant to. God had a pretty wonderful plan laid out for you, Mona. But now that you’ve taken care of your special debt to Him and to Rosalie, I think there’s one more He expects you to pay.”

“If I can,” she said. “If I still can — and I must find out.”

At the door, she took my hand and her lovely gray eyes were misted. “Whether you’re right or wrong,” she said, “God bless you. How — do you know so much?”

“I don’t. I only know smatterings, as I said. And people have to be in character. I think people are the most wonderful things there are.”

I left for the Coast the next day, so I didn’t see Mary Jordan again, and when 1 got back, it was too late. By that time, I was slapped by the backwash of all the rumors that had been spread about her dropping out of sight at the peak of her career. She’d had her contracts canceled because she was an alcoholic, a heroin addict, in trouble with the Government, her nerves had snapped and her voice had cracked. The last report was that she was in a mental institution up in Connecticut somewhere. I still think people are remarkable.

My heart leaped when I saw the card, because sometimes smatterings aren’t enough; there are occasions when you ought to know what you’re talking about. It was a colored picture of two little Navajos holding hands and squinting in the sun. On the back was a single message. “My life is just beginning — ”

It wasn’t signed. It didn’t have to be.

First page of the short story “Breakup” by Frances Ensign Greene. This links to the full story.
Read “Breakup” by Frances Ensign Greene from the October 27, 1956, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Illustration by Coby Whitmore, © SEPS

“Misfortune’s Isle” by Richard Matthews Hallet

Richard Matthews Hallet is best known for his sea stories, no doubt inspired from his life growing up on the Atlantic Ocean in Maine. His life of writing ocean adventures was nearly an impossibility — until his story “The Black Squad” was picked up by the Post in the early 1900s, saving his career. After his first story was published, he continued to write adventure stories for the Post, one of the best being “Misfortune’s Isle” which has since been adapted into several radio and film programs using Hallet’s Island as the location for their eerie tales.

Published on November 9, 1929

 

C’aptain Arad’s first glimpse of the Doha Delfina Crispo showed him a soul imprisoned. The rebellious eye, the rich mouth shadowed by black hair, the very pose of her slim body in the open carriage, were all eloquent of her captivity. She was the wife of Don Narciso Crispo, captain general of Zamboanga, but now resident in Manila — a little monkey of a man, yellow as a faded sunflower from jaundice, and with a limp acquired from a drunken fall into a tiger pit outside of Singapore. Ambitious and romantic, Doha Delfina had nothing to do but rise at eleven in the morning, take chocolate, hold her soul firm, and through a broken oyster shell in the oyster-shell window of her balcony watch the black soldiers, the cigar makers and ship captains filing past.

Half-breed women — those mestizas with the magnificent hair and the hint of China in their eye corners — could vary the monotony by leaning out occasionally to spit at a mark with betel-nut juice — say, for choice, the sombrero of a passing caballero. Dona Delfina, a woman of rank, had to content herself with French and Spanish novels, and an occasional cigar. She remained in advanced dishabille until four in the afternoon, usually. When an earthquake had moved the upper walls of the house on its beams — they stuck out four or five feet, so as to give what Arad called margin enough to veer and haul on — she had been perhaps the only woman in Manila who had not rushed into the streets beating her breast and crying, “Misericordia! Don Jorge, misericordia!” Her heart, no doubt, had stopped in her bosom, but she had only bowed her head and prayed to be engulfed, snatched bodily away from such a hateful destiny.

The satirical earthquake had contented itself with putting a queer kink into the cathedral roof, overthrowing the bull-ring parapets, and bringing down one of the eight arches of the iron bridge over the River Pasig. After that, everything was as before. The cathedral bells tolled at stated times, the clack of stone hammers beating out tobacco leaf was resumed in the tobacco factory, and at four o’clock, when the sea breeze revived, carriages in an endless chain began to revolve on the Calzada — the boulevard just outside the walls on the bay side of the town.

These carriages were called the shoes of the country — in fact, no woman of rank could walk so much as a hundred paces — and Doha Delfina’s shoe was drawn by two gray Manila ponies, one bestridden by a postilion in shiny black leggings, a spur on his left heel, tight shorts, a spicy jacket, and a hat as hard and black as a japanned-iron coal scuttle. Doha Delfina would usually be looking past this individual’s ears at the shipping in the bay. Certainly every size and shape and intention of ship was there, a quaint intermingling of chain, hemp, grass rope, coir and bamboo cables; and among these Arad’s ship, the Water Witch of Salem, was not the least conspicuous, with her black hull and painted ports, her rigging freshly tarred and rattled down, and the house flag flying at her peak.

“They tell me these Spanish women wear no stockings,” Arad’s friend, Captain Michael O’Cain, was muttering in his ear.

Arad replied somberly, “How is a man going to tell? You shouldn’t lean so hard on hearsay, Michael.”

Orderlies in powder-blue uniforms, cocked hats and jack boots, with heavy carbines on their shoulders and long steel swords jangling at their sides, were riding up and down madly, keeping order. The sun was sinking now, and one of these orderlies blew a blast on a trumpet. As if by a flourish of magic, the line of carriages, headed by the captain general and the archbishop of Manila, stopped; the military band of black soldiers was hushed; and by common consent, all — gentlemen, orderlies, soldiers and servants — took off their hats gracefully to repeat a silent vesper prayer. Captain Arad saw that Doha Delfina still sat erect, unmollified. She was bareheaded, her shoulders narrowed under her black mantilla, the last gleam of the sun’s upper limb reflected in her eyes. The fierce warrior’s head of Jamboo, the interpreter, was just beyond her, fixed in an attitude of attentive worship, but his divinity was nearer, evidently, than the flaming skies.

Now the prayer was over and the slow movement of dished wheels on the yellow road was resumed. Doha Delfina passed Captain Arad so close that she might have touched him with that fan showing a picture of a fallen bullfighter; instead she masked her mouth with it, but her eyes smiled. Don Narciso was half asleep at her side. If that little yellow man should die, Captain Arad thought, Delfina, unlike the Fiji Island women, would not be found imploring his relatives to strangle her, so that she might follow him into the beyond.

By a queer chance, that very night Don Narciso was all but throttled in his bed by robbers, or more likely pirates, who had succeeded in swarming over the city walls. He was rescued just in time by the big halberdier stationed outside his door; but the pirates were in sufficient force to escape without loss of any of their number. In the morning the bay was peaceful, but the scandal of pirates actually attacking a town of these dimensions while it slept was being discussed on every corner. Captain Arad waited in person on Don Narciso, sat with him beard to beard — as Narciso himself said — in the sala of his stone house.

“I am glad,” the trader began, “to see that these rascals after all have done you no great damage, Excellency.”

Don Narciso, sitting in a white nightcap, felt of his throat.

“A man who is afraid to die never truly lives,” he muttered, with a miserable attempt at boldness, but he could not keep a tear from trickling over the lacquered surface of that famous glass eye, blown and colored and inserted for him by the celebrated Doctor Pablo.

“True,” the Yankee shipmaster agreed. “But even if these pirates are run to earth, opportunities for dying will be plentiful enough for any man placed as Your Excellency is. If you let them run wild, in the end there’s nothing they won’t attempt. Here you are, for example, in a modern city, protected by a wall and ditch, drawbridges, gates, sally ports, soldiers, with a watch set every night; yet the beggars break in and all but choke the life out of you personally.”

“Maledictions and fatalities,” Don Narciso breathed.

“Fatalities. Exactly. A broadside of my thirty-two pounders in the middle of them will furnish fatalities enough.”

“But they have escaped.”

“Not without leaving a clue. My kind friend Jamboo, Yang-Po’s interpreter, picked up one of their muskets on the shore this morning. An English musket with the Tower stamped on the lock. By a private mark I know it for a musket I traded myself to a pirate — Seriff Sahibe. I know his nest. It’s a river mouth on the coast of Borneo. You’ll know it by an island there with a queer Malay name, but the English of it is Misfortune’s Isle.

“Misfortune’s Isle. But that is the island — the island — ”

“Of the upas tree, you are going to say. Exactly. What harm? The stories about that tree are nonsense. It will neither singe the hair nor numb the faculties of those who lie under it. The Dyaks extract a poison from it, I admit, to tip their arrows with, and they worship the tree, naturally; but these other stories are pure invention.”

“But I am told that the river’s mouth is stockaded,” Narciso objected.

“We can get round that. Lash whaleboats to the piles at low tide, and as the tide rises the buoyancy of the boats will pluck the piles out like so many radishes.”

“But our arms. The weapons of my soldiers. Half the time our guns miss fire; the percussion caps are abominable. The least moisture, a squall or a fall of dew, and we are helpless. We are forced to make our own powder, since the government of Spain forbids the importation of powder into Manila.”

“That reminds me of my friend Billy Sturgis,” Arad laughed. “His owner furnished him with nothing but quakers — wooden guns, Excellency, painted black — but he smuggled aboard four actual cannon, with ball and powder answerable; and with these he beat off pirates in the China Sea and saved ship and cargo. His owner made him pay freight on the cannon both ways, when he heard of it.”

“You jest.”

“I am as much in earnest as those eight thirty-two pounders aboard my ship. I tell you, I have guns and powder enough to blast Misfortune’s Isle out of the water, upas tree and all; but — I am only a trader. Ugly stories of tyranny could easily get afloat if I effected this without official cooperation. My owners wouldn’t like it. They would argue that I had gone out of my way to unlatch those guns. I should be worse off than Billy Sturgis. Now, if I can say that you, señor, commandeered my services, I am on better ground.”

“Who are these pirates?”

“A league of three forces, principally. There are Malays headed by Seriff Sahibe; there are Dyaks — head-hunters — under Gapoor; and there is that misplaced band of Chinamen — convicts — who seized the junk in which they were being transported from Hong-Kong to Singapore. Jamboo tells me they are all members of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Heaven and Earth. Our friend Yang-Po — the Captain China — is the head of that organization, it so happens. He tells me it was founded by him to set crooked things straight. Yang-Po owes his life to me. His junk is in the bay, and he agrees to pilot us into the shadow of Misfortune’s Isle. My friend O’Cain, if you consent, follows us in my ship, the Water Witch.”

“And do not forget, Don Narciso!” Doila Delfina cried — she had suddenly come on the scene, exquisitely girlish in flowered English muslin with a gardenia blossom in her hair. “We heard only yesterday that Spain will make any man count of Manila who will rid these waters of pirates.”

“But suppose Yang-Po cannot persuade these Chinamen,” Narciso faltered.

“Well, what are a few Chinamen more or less? Knock ‘em down; they’re only tea and rice. Set me ashore at that stockade with two loaded pistols,” the trader said sternly, and with cunning grandiloquence suited to the Spaniard’s needs, “have I not still an advantage? Do I not stake my one life against two others?”

Ah, Dios,” Delfina murmured in a tone of worship, “quel hombre!”

What a man. This murmur turned the edge of all Narciso’s arguments. He was in the miserably equivocal position of an arrant coward with a widespread reputation for courage and an ambition to maintain it. His restless wife had three times already, on the coast of Chile, goaded him into lucky undertakings. As he sat now, he was Knight of the Grand Cross of the Military Order of Saint Hermenegildo, and of the Military Order of San Fernando, and decorated with seven more crosses of merit for war services — once removed — in the campaigns of both hemispheres.

“But you, señor captain — what have you to gain?” he finally demanded.

“Trade. I don’t want to conceal anything. This river is full of gold and antimony ore, and the limestone cliffs of the island, I am told, contain edible birds’ nests. My friend Houqua at Canton loves bird’s nest soup. He will give me a shipload of raw silk and broken silver in exchange.”

Don Narciso got up hastily and said he would consider the proposition further. Flanked by huge halberdiers and standing at the head of a broad damp flight of stone stairs in his earthquake proof house, he shouted down to the retreating Arad the various honors imparted, the signal obligations conferred by Arad’s presence, by the mere shadow of his shadow, on this house and on the family of which he, Don Narciso, was the least considerable member. Dona Delfina stood darkly, ravishingly limned against a lime-washed wall. Captain Arad was stirred; he felt a wash of subtle emotion in his blood. It was as if he had glimpsed under a flying moon the wings and heels of a superb China trader, going with the strength of the monsoon, and suddenly sliding up onto a coral shoal and sticking fast, so that no press of canvas could snatch her off into the deeper water.

“Adiosito,” her lips had fashioned noiselessly — a little farewell. A farewell with the ghost of a return in it. At Felipe Bustamente’s noisy boarding house, when O’Cain roared “Does the lady wear stockings or not?” Arad said somberly, “No matter for that. She has a soul, Mike.”

When he found, after the expedition had started, that Dofia Delfina had stowed herself away aboard Yang-Po’s venerable junk, Captain Arad wished he had not thought so much about the lady’s soul. This piece of folly on her part was a threat to trade. If Don Narciso knew she was aboard, he would be quite capable of turning the ship’s head for Manila. As it was, he had almost beat a retreat when they had lost sight of the Water Witch in a squall.

It was on the night following that Dofia Delfina, barefooted, in the half-breed’s costume of blue-and-white-striped pantaloons and a straw-colored pills shirt, put herself in Captain Arad’s way. This was in the waist of the ship, near the big pole mast, and in the shadow of one of those enormous bell-mouthed cannon. She hungrily filched a cheroot from the pocket of his coat. She had, she whispered, got herself brought aboard as a sack of feathers. Was he surprised? But she would contrive to make herself useful, she assured him. She would stay concealed until Don Narciso’s knees showed signs of buckling under him, and then Captain Arad would see how she could stiffen him. One way or another, she had been present at all his campaigns, and always with good effect.

“Is his nerve still good, after last night’s squall?” she inquired.

“Not too good. He fell and bruised his hip.”

“If it had not been for those feathers in which I came,” Delfina said, “I should be nothing but bruises now. It was worse than the earthquake — this squall of yours. Then, when I heard the cannon fired, I thought the pirates had attacked us.”

“We fired that shot to shatter a waterspout.”

“And you succeeded?”

“Yes. At least we got the contents of the spout, but in the form of heavy rain, instead of solid water. But the plague of it is, the rain got through the decks into-the powder tubs. Our powder is useless — all except that in the firecrackers. But there’s no going back. We haven’t water enough left. And everybody got so excited over the waterspout that nobody thought of catching water when it fell — or nobody but me, and I prefer river water.”

“You would.”

“Keep in this bag of feathers one more night, and I will make you a grandee of Spain,” Arad muttered. “Condesa.”

“Ah, condesa. That is good.”

“But now I must get up where I can watch Yang-Po’s piloting.”

Buenas noches,” Delfina whispered, and blew smoke deliberately into his ear. “How well this title would become you, señor — el conde. The great count with his black hair, and this mouth which it is certain you have inherited from your mother. It is so very sweet. Ah, adiosito.”

The foot of the bamboo ladder he ascended had pasted on it a red label in the Chinese, reading, “May the going up be peaceful,” but with Delfina’s smoke — her fire — hot in his ear, he couldn’t at once recompose himself.

Yang-Po, the Captain China, had been smoking opium, and now, to keep himself awake, had knotted his pigtail to the rigging above his head. He swayed like a hanged man with each motion of the junk, but each time they swam past one of these black headlands, the helmsman sent Jamboo, the interpreter, to touch the Captain’s shoulder. Whereupon the Captain would look at his chart and order a cock sacrificed to the Queen of Heaven. The chart, unrolled at his feet, was on peach-colored rice paper, and showed the one proper courses straight track — with serpents and dragons writhing out of the deep on every hand. Arad, glancing over Yang-Po’s shoulder, went a little cold to see that on this chart Siberia was jammed up close against Africa, with disastrous effect on the two or three surrounding oceans. Still, it was likely that Yang-Po knew his ship’s footing in these waters.

But Don Narciso appeared to have his doubts.

“You are sure this man knows where he is going?”

“He cannot fail,” Arad said. “I know him of old. I met him first when he was a student at Canton, a literary graduate of the third degree. That, of course, is a guarantee that he has learning enough to fill five carts. Later he was one of the keepers of the temple of the Silver Moon off Lin Tin, and he used to come out and beg rice of us when we were bound down the China Sea.”

“Beg? Beg, you say?”

“This rascal was born begging. Whenever we smoked the rats out of the ship he was at hand to catch them when we threw them overboard. A forehanded man, Excellency. Later he was foolish enough to sell us, out of the Number One Temple at Honan, the sacred hog that was being kept to die of its own fat. We bought it for opium, and that came to the emperor’s ears. Our man wasn’t judged fit for strangulation after that. They crammed the wooden collar over his ears instead; that thing was four feet across any way you measured it. Yang-Po couldn’t lie down, he couldn’t feed himself, and the penalty is strangulation for feeding anybody in the collar, as you know. I found him in a ditch, took him aboard the Witch, got the ship’s carpenter to saw the collar off, and gave him rum and salt horse. You see whether he is obligated to me.”

“It was after that that he joined the Brotherhood of Heaven and Earth?”

“Yes. He and this fellow Jamboo joined forces, got a fast sampan, and preyed on the Chinese market boats and petty traders coming into Batavia — those fellows who do smuggling business with the Dutch monopolists. Our friends got some pretty rich hauls. Molucca spices, coffee and pepper from Sumatra, gold dust, camphor, slaves and rattan from Borneo, tin from Banca, tortoise shell and dye woods from Timor. You can imagine they weren’t long in getting to be pretty respectable citizens, Excellency. Jamboo was busy learning all those languages; and, in fact, I believe the fellow knows the very language of the birds; he will tell you what the trees are whispering in these plaguy rivers.”

“You say they are pirates themselves?” Don Narciso said, aghast.

“Not any more.” Arad laughed. “Not since they got hold of this junk. No, they are traders, like myself. This very voyage, for example, the junk is full of — sacks of feathers,” he dropped out with a grim twist of his mouth and a look over his shoulder at the crooked pole mast of ironwood with the bark only half scraped off. “You will find, Excellency,” he went on, quoting Byron, a favorite of his, “that this Captain China is as mild a man as ever cut a throat.”

Don Narciso brought out, with a quaver, that they ought not to close with these pirates before sighting the Water Witch, lost sight of in last night’s squall. “Our powder is useless, remember,” the captain general of Zamboanga said.

“That may be a providence. These gun barrels are cracked, and wound with nothing but bolt silk. The touch holes are as big as the muzzles. Two men were injured destroying that spout last night. Better, in any case, trust to stabbing knives.”

The fierce Jamboo, in his quilted fighting clothes, came direct from the helmsman to say that Misfortune’s Isle was now in sight. Yang-Po untied his pigtail, picked up from the chart his supper of salt, dried vegetables and rice in a coconut shell, and lifted the canopy of red cloth over the compass. The little whirligig of a man there, carved out of sapan wood and fixed to the huge needle, kept on pointing his finger north. The limestone cliffs of Misfortune’s Isle were close enough for them to see the broken coral belt at its foot, gleaming in wicked white patches against a black background of mangrove jungle on shore.

“Do we attack tonight?” Jamboo inquired, grounding his spear on the deck. His bronze head with its cluster of godlike curls moved closer. Arad, remembering the look of worship he had cast at Delfina on the Calzada, thought it would be just as well if Jamboo, as well as Don Narciso, remained in ignorance of her presence on board. Jamboo was a waif, he did not know his own father or so much as the place and hour of his birth; but to an imaginative man, this may have advantages. These slumberous watches, when he had had nothing to do but shake awake that stuffed figure of the hanging Yang-Po, it had been easy for Jamboo to imagine himself the son of a king, or perhaps a pirate by descent, as he was one already by taste. What if he were the son of Serif Sahibe himself, and so in his own person the inheritor of these resplendent gardens of the sun and master of fierce lives? Yet, in fact, he was only an interpreter.

“Attack? There is no hurry,” the Captain China yawned. “The coiling Peach Tree of the Royal Lady of the West was three thousand years before it had a blossom, and another three thousand before it bore fruit. Who knows whether it will be necessary to attack, venerable elder brother?”

“But if we do not attack the tiger in his den, how shall we have his cubs?” Jamboo insisted.

“I have been dancing with women in the palace of the moon. I cannot answer questions,” the Captain China said. “Sacrifice a cock,” he ordered, “to the Queen of Heaven.”

In the storm just passed, the Queen of Heaven, sitting in her apartment aft, cross legged in a ribbed and gilded shell, had toppled, and would have fallen if some of the sailors had not, with their profane hands, held her in her place.

“She is weak!” Jamboo had cried.

“She is angry, perhaps,” the Captain China had suggested. On either hypothesis, it would do no harm to shore her up.

The other omens were not too auspicious. The waterspout was nothing in itself, but the bursting gun had made the cannoneers timid about serving the other guns. Moreover, Don Narciso’s black soldiers had been wretchedly seasick the whole time, and some had filed the sights off their guns because of a tendency to catch in the clothing in rough weather. Again there were signs that the typhoon was not yet done with them — as, the sinking of pale phosphorescent moons through the water at night, a spotty haze following a red sunset, the haze alternating with clear patches in which the summits of the hills showed black, and finally an irregular swell across the oily face of the waters. If that Bully of the North meant to resume his antics, it would be well to have an anchorage, the Captain China said.

The upshot was, they put the junk fairly into the shadow of Misfortune’s Isle. When the limestone cliffs seemed ready to fall on the decks, Yang-Po made a motion of his hand, and there followed the splash of the junk’s huge, wooden, single-fluked anchor, weighted with stones. This was echoed by a single ominous note from a gong hidden at the heart of a banyan tree on the right bank of the river. Yang-Po answered with three peals on a gong of his own, and all was quiet.

Morning showed the two yellow tablelands of Misfortune’s Isle not a biscuit’s toss away. In the cleft or notch between them was set a pinnacle rock shaped like a ninepin, and reeling as if for a fall. At the foot of Ninepin Rock stood the upas tree, a mighty tan-colored trunk rising sixty feet without a branch, and crowned with a thick tuft of glossy dark green foliage. Even by morning light, the great poison tree, with its clustering legends, had something eerie, ominous, about it. It stood solitary on its blasted island. Not another tree, not so much as a shrub or spear of grass, was visible there, from the sinister circular halls high on the table-lands, where the Dyaks hung and smoke-dried heads, down to the beach of black volcanic sand at the foot of the upas tree.

Even Arad, getting into the lowered whaleboat with Jamboo and the Captain China, was glad to turn his eyes away from that tree and toward the river’s mouth, where morning was breaking in a hot golden haze back of the stockade closing the channel to anything larger than a proa. The lookout banyan tree on the right bank was full of bamboo ladders, and red monkeys hung chattering from the rungs of these. The tree was deserted, except for the Hue flash of the day-flying moth and the flit of leaf-green pigeons with blood-red eyes and feet. The whaleboat passed so close that Arad, standing in the stern sheets, could see the gleam of scarlet figs with honey drops at their tips; and in a few more strokes, they were in the shadow of Seriff Sahibe’s house.

The proa called the Singh Rajah, its brass swivels shining in the sun, was moored abreast of this house and was crowded with men. But nobody opposed Yang-Po’s going on into Seriff Sahibe’s house. This house, perched thirty feet over the water on slender legs, they entered by a ladder of notched logs leading to a hole in the floor. An alligator basking on a stone shelf half in and half out of water slid into the mud like something rolled on casters.

Seriff Sahibe himself was in an antique tunic of chain mail and a helmet decorated with bird-of-paradise feathers, but his legs were bare. He was sick, and lay on a bamboo platform raised a foot or more off the floor, since before now Dyak slaves and others had been known to circumvent the guardian alligator and thrust the tips of poisoned spears through the bamboo flooring, with its flimsy snaking of rattan, and into the bodies of unsuspecting sleepers.

Gapoor, the Dyak chief, was also here. His huge brass earrings he had turned up and toggled against his skull by a tiger tooth thrust through the upper part of the ear itself. This would prevent a sword from shearing the ear from his head, and was a warlike sign, which Jamboo and the Captain China recognized by merely squatting on the floor instead of sitting cross-legged. Both had previously eased their sarongs up over the handles of their stabbing knives.

Gapoor’s Sulu wife, in yellow clothes, and fair as an Italian, with her forehead shaved to match the narrow double arch of hair-line brows, offered betel-nut juice out of a silver mortar. All but Yang-Po drank, and nothing broke the decorum of Jamboo’s harangue except now and then the alligator’s rubbing his scales against the bark of the house posts, or once suddenly snapping to his jaws, which might have been wide open for ten or fifteen minutes through sheer laziness or inattention.

More insidious was the occasional creak in the rafters, a subtle swaying of the whole house on its attenuated legs; due, Arad found, to the weaving and looping, in the dark overhead, of Serif Sahibe’s pet anaconda, whose body was as thick through as a strong man’s upper leg. There was apparently no end to him. He did nothing worse, actually, than dislodge a couple of centipedes from the thatch; but once or twice Arad knew, by a sickening odor and an arrested expression on the handsome face of the Sulu wife, that the seeking head of this pet was within a foot of his own. If the conversation, through any blundering of Jamboo’s or through Gapoor’s misinterpreting the most innocent words, took a wrong turn, who could answer for the disposition of those giant black folds?

But so far Jamboo was doing very well. He explained to Seriff Sahibe that the white shipmaster had come to trade, and would pluck the riches of the limestone caverns of Misfortune’s Isle to gratify his Chinese friend Houqua’s palate for bird’s-nest soup.

Seriff Sahibe played with his toes and asked why the shipmaster had not come in his own ship? That was pertinent, and Jamboo replied glibly that the shipmaster’s ship was refitting at Manila, and that the Captain China was his friend and knew these waters. Seriff Sahibe fluttered his lids. Perhaps he thought it more likely that the Captain China had been retained to detect frauds. The Captain had a gift that way, as was known. If the Dutch at Amboyna hung their clove bags over water to increase their weight by absorption, Yang-Po would know it by squeezing the cloves in his fist. Again, if the Hong merchants at Canton offered, as tea, chopped elm and willow leaves dyed with Prussian blue, or if the traders at Bombay adulterated opium with pounded poppy leaves and camels’ dung, Yang-Po’s counsel was invaluable. He knew, too — this literary graduate, with his five cartloads of knowledge — how to test the purity of camphor; and he could tell gold from brass filings by simply picking up the stuff on his wet finger ends.

Whatever his thoughts, Serif Sahibe listened politely. The Captain China seemed innocence itself. He accompanied Jamboo’s remarks with lifts of the brow, shrugs, head slants and polite hissings, but the pirate knew that members of the Brotherhood of Heaven and Earth had to be watched for small signs. Fatalities might result from not knowing the difference between Yang-Po’s twirling his cue from left to right and from right to left. But only men born to set crooked things straight would know how to interpret it if a silver cup containing betel-nut juice should be lifted with three fingers instead of two, or set down untasted on the flat of a war drum. Certainly the Captain China had not drunk his liquor, which was a breach of etiquette, and he had not sat cross-legged in the presence, which was a worse breach.

When the conference broke up, everyone was as wise as when it started, but the whaleboat returned safely to the junk. That night Jamboo deserted, and despite peril from ranjows — sharpened bamboo stakes concealed in the ground, with poison at their tips — made his way, it was known later, to the Malay camp.

“Ten thousand bushels of sorrow, how could I suppose this?” the Captain China asked Don Narciso.

“Pick up the anchor and make sail,” the captain general urged. “This man will tell them the truth about us.”

“There is one truth torture cannot wring from him, because he does not know it,” the Captain China said sleepily. “That is, that we are, aground here, on stiff green mud. There is no moving.”

“No moving?” Don Narciso gasped.

“No moving. It is best to retire and take opium.”

Don Narciso fell back a step, fetched up on the point of his sword, and muttered, “Perdido” — lost. Standing in hot sunshine, which struck also those cliff faces of Misfortune’s Isle, and the snake-green leaves of the ghastly upas, Don Narciso cast a horror-stricken look about him. Nature perhaps had joined man’s conspiracy against his life. He put a hand to his throat. This air was next to impossible to breathe. It might be nothing but a distillation of those venomous leaves, dropped into a man’s blood stream.

“Some kinds of trouble can be avoided by fleeing with a bag of dogwood tied to your arm and drinking chrysanthemum flower wine as you run, but this is not that kind of trouble,” the Captain China informed Don Narciso. “Excuse me, august one, if I spend a part of this evening dancing with the women in the palace of the moon.”

This was the same as smoking opium; and the helmsman brought him his pipe. Narciso shut himself into his cabin, and Captain Arad was able to seek out Delfina, who lay in the shadow of the giant mat sail, crumpled across its two horses.

“The Witch is not in sight?” she whispered.

“No. But there is worse news. Jamboo, the interpreter, has betrayed us.”

“Never.”

“He has gone ashore.”

“That is perhaps to spy. I must tell you my secret. It was Jamboo who brought me aboard personally on his shoulders in that bag of feathers. He is my slave; he has no thoughts except what I put into his head. ‘It was I who got him to put into your head the very idea of this expedition, senor. Confess, he was the first to approach you on the subject.”

The first. This was true. It had been Jamboo who brought him that English musket and suggested the availability of Yang-Po’s junk. Delfina’s mirthful eyes gleamed very near.

“You say that you —”

“I. Yes. I was bored to the whites of my eyes in that sleepy Manila. I prayed for anything — pirates, a change of husbands. Then Jamboo came with that musket, and I had sent him to you before I thought twice.”

“Well?”

“You see. He worships me,” Delfina explained with a confident motion of her lips.

“Worse and worse. He must think his chances of acquiring you outright, without let or hindrance, are better from the other side. It’s probable now he has bartered away what information he has for the promise of you. No doubt he will go right on worshiping you after he has taken you up into his bamboo house and set you to pounding betel nut,” Arad went on a little ferociously. “They worship white women here traditionally. The story is that they have got one penned up in this cursed tree hanging over our heads, but I don’t know.”

“You frighten me!” Delfina cried. “You think, señor”

“I frighten you too late. And I don’t know what I think. I think the earthquake should have swallowed you. I think I ought to let these Dyaks have you. They know how to treat infidelity.”

“Infidelity? Señor — señor!”

“Isn’t that the name for it, when a wife tries to get rid of her husband by taking advantage of his weakness for titles? These Dyaks, for a less offense, would bury you to the waist and stone you with medium sized stones. That’s the penalty in their code. Well, is Jamboo’s worship worth this? I suppose you return it. No doubt you two will live together happily, once Don Narciso’s brains have been eaten and his head hung in the smokehouse.”

“You are beside yourself,” Delfina cried faintly. “How can you doubt that it is you I worship? From the very instant of my vesper prayer, senor

“Chut.”

Doha Delfina was as silent as if he had closed his hand about her throat. There was a sound of guitars forward in the hands of the Indian chamber band, playing to keep Don Narciso’s spirits up. This gust of music died, and there was nothing but a spluttering of firecrackers, a creaking of the bamboo quarter galleries under the tread of yellow feet, a bubbling of oil in the cook room. They were boiling it in three cast-off whalers’ try-pots, to pour down on the heads of pirates. Captain Arad, looking down at Delfina’s dark slenderness, saw her shoulders move. She was sobbing quietly. He felt like a warrior whose best weapon has been struck out of his hand in the very hour of battle.

“Come,” he said softly. “I must get you out of this ship before the attack.”

It was dark enough on the table land over the upas tree, but Arad went fast, scarcely waiting for Delfina to get her breath. She was sopping wet in her striped silk pantaloons and piña shirt; but she had swum away from the ship’s side with her head well out of water, unwilling to get her hair wet; and now, withdrawing thorn hairpins, she let the dry hair down round her modestly.

Captain Arad had a coil of rattan rope on his arm and a canvas bag in his fist, with food, torches and water. The climb here by that series of notched logs hung against the face of the cliff had not been easy. The notches in the logs were far apart, forcing him to bring his knee practically to his chin for each step; and most of the way he had carried Delfina, lashed bodily against his back with a few turns of the rattan.

“Here’s the mouth of that cave I spoke of,” he said, barring her way with his arm. “It’s crammed full of birds’ nests, and there may be a bat or two, but nothing to frighten you. You’ll have food and water, and rope to help you down when the time comes. I’ve told you that we are as good as dead men on the junk. Jamboo, your friend, has told those beggars that our powder is worthless; and they outnumber us ten to one. But there’s still a chance to save O’Cain’s skin and yours. I don’t know what’s delaying him. He may have struck on a shoal; he may have foundered. Well, say he has; say he’s sitting in an open boat now with the salt stinging him and only a pillow case of moldy bread between his knees, he’s still making for the island.”

Delfina didn’t answer, and Arad, prodded by the mention of O’Cain, asked out of a clear sky, “Do you wear stockings in Manila?”

Delfina had seemingly not heard one syllable of this. She murmured, her lips stiff with horror, “I cannot be left here. Señor, no, no. I had rather the poison of the upas killed me. . . How near it is. It is not twenty feet down to Ninepin Rock, and from there I could easily jump into the top of the tree. . . Señor captain, I am growing numb already. I cannot feel my toes; my hands are cold. Do you not feel yourself a dreamy something here, as if — as if our souls had slid out of our bodies?”

“No. The soul is the grain, the body is the sack containing it, Yang-Po says. When the grain — the soul — is out, the sack loses its shape. But you are evidently still in possession of your soul, señora. You will be able to give O’Cain his signal.”

“His signal?”

“These torches.”

“I had forgotten. . . They say there are no fish in the waters round this island, and that birds flying over it drop dead.”

“Birds are mortal. They must drop dead somewhere.”

“Still, nothing is growing here. Not so much as a shrub.”

“I don’t deny this tree has poison. Its sap is a kind of yellow froth, and Dyaks put it in a hollow reed with ten folds of linen round it. But it’s nonsense to say it poisons the air or withers the soul.”

“Still, the manchineel —”

“I know. But a drop of dew from the manchineel must actually fall on your skin to blister it. There’s another tree — I forget its name, but it shakes like a reed if you touch it, and it will wrestle you down if you pick it up by the roots. For that matter, I’ve seen fire coming from the camphor tree in Houqua’s gardens at Canton, but it’s a queer kind of fire that won’t even singe the hair.”

Yang-Po’s junk, hung all round with scarlet lanterns, gleamed in the blue abyss under their heels, and in the shadow of the upas tree.

“At least, do not leave me for a moment,” Delfina murmured pathetically. She tiptoed dangerously near the edge of the cliff, and Arad, with a restraining arm around her, felt her hair like the brushing of black flame against the back of his hand. “You say a woman is supposed to be imprisoned in this tree?”

“A white woman, the story is. She had sinned. The bitterness of her tears mingling with the sap is what gives the poison strength. Her imprisonment is her power.”

“Her power for evil!” Delfina cried, shuddering closer.

“Well, anyway, as long as she’s nipped here, just so long these fellows go on getting a first-class poison for their blow pipes. But it’s on the cards, they all admit, that sooner or later she’ll escape. And that, if I’m any judge, will knock them cold as a gun. . . I must get back,” he muttered, without, however, stirring hand or foot.

“No, señor,” Delfina said in a very small voice.

There must certainly be some subtle poison in this tree — or was it the poison of Delfina’s iron little will? It was the sort of poison that forces a man to ply himself with arguments. Why, after all, should he return to the junk? Why stir himself to save the life of that opium-fogged literary graduate or the still less useful captain general of Zamboanga? It was better looking down from this safe aerie, with Delfina’s head ever so lightly posed against his shoulder. . . But where could she have learned that habit of the Dyak women of binding up flowers in the hair at night, so as to impart a fragrance to the strands? . . . He breathed deep.

“I will not have you killed before my eyes,” Delfina faltered, and grew heavy in his arms.

“If I am killed, my thousand pieces of gold,” Arad whispered, using the words of the Malay warrior to his principal wife on parting, “wind about me this yellow sash from your waist, strew my body with petals from your hair, let my sightless eyes feel your salt tears, and may my ears hear the whisper of your faithful soul, borne to me on the winds of the eternal.”

“You tear me in pieces. . . Señor, they are doomed. Let them die, and let us die here by ourselves, apart, in a day or two — under God’s frown. Or possibly, if God wills —”

“You are a worse poison than the upas!” Captain Arad shouted. He thrust her away from him into the cave’s narrow mouth. Before the drumming of the swallows’ wings had died, he was over the cliff’s edge and halfway down that dangerous log ladder.

The Captain China, very somber in his mulberry-colored jacket, had with difficulty brought himself back from the arms of those women in the palace of the moon. What he saw on board the junk inclined him to return forthwith to that celestial employment, which had no moral reckoning. The cannoneers were piling up lumpy cannon balls of malleable iron between the guns; the largest of which, cracked from end to end of its barrel, but tightly wrapped with many windings of a good quality of silk, had a red label on the breech which read, The Solitary Idea. But the solitary idea of this gun was to frighten the enemy by posing in the mere likeness of a gun, as Yang-Po well knew.

Brass oil cups with floating cotton wicks burning in the bottoms of buckets threw a weird light into the sweating yellow faces of the stone carriers, who were piling huge boulders and red lacquered stinkpots in the quarter galleries; and the black soldiers of Don Narciso were aiding with noisy prayers.

Don Narciso himself, the fierce gleam of his undaunted glass eye within a foot of the Captain China’s face, cried out, “Are no measures to be taken?”

The Captain China said, “Ter-Haar, thou son of a burnt mother, hand here the rice spoon.”

A cosmopolitan spirit, he believed that superstitions, like religions, had their grain of truth. Ter-Haar, a Malay seaman, brought a huge wooden spoon to which lumps of rice still clung; and the Captain China muttered an incantation which would have dropped the arms of Dyak rowers at their sides if it could have been brought to their attention. But in the very midst of it the Captain China’s head fell forward, he lapsed for whole heartbeats into that favorite world of his, more vast and inconclusive, whose parapets swarmed with women of the moon. Their eyes were like sloes and their fingers twined in his pigtail. Still the earth would not let him go.

“If our enemies prevail after all these exertions, it is just. It is because we have maltreated them in a former life,” he muttered sleepily. Arad shook him savagely.

“This ship is bedlam!” the Salem master cried. “What are those devils yelling for down there?”

“They are giving orders,” the Captain China said, as if already asleep and answering some question put to him in a dream. “They are all commanders in their own right.”

He sank to his knees. Arad, seizing his pigtail, took a hitch with it to a piece of ratline stuff overhead. Yang-Po, his heels off the deck, smiled beatifically, and remained hanging, with his head fallen forward and his arms folded on his chest, in the customary attitude of a pilot.

“Your kindness to me,” he said faintly, “is like the touch of spring on a dying tree.”

“Hist! They are coming!” Don Narciso cried to Arad. There was a moment of comparative quiet, but even so, the rolling of a Malay oar in its rattan grommet could hardly have been distinguished from the sound of a fish jumping for a moth. The dazzle of lights necessary to the Chinese in battle made it impossible to see a dozen feet away from the junk’s side.

“These fools,” Arad muttered, “will probably dump all those stones into the water at the first rattle of an oar.”

“What — what tortures do these tribes use with prisoners of war?” Don Narciso asked thickly.

“They have no invention, really,” Arad answered, staring toward the mangrove jungle. “Ordinarily they bind a man face down to a bamboo platform with a hole in it just at the fifth rib; and a sharpened palm shoot just under the hole grows into the victim’s heart. Nature is swift here. The palm shoot kills in from twelve to twenty hours. If they have a little more time they smear a man’s naked body with wild honey and hold him crushed down against an ant’s nest. That is more artistic.”

Don Narciso pulled at the ends of his mustache in quick succession with the same hand.

“The thing is, not to be caught. And let me warn you now, Excellency, against those long poles of theirs ending in flesh hooks. When they get close enough, they shove these things over the rail and drag you overboard, like spearing eels. Keep in the middle of the deck until the stinkpots have been thrown.”

The gong in the distant banyan struck once. Captain Arad ran down three or four bamboo ladders and came to the guns. The gunners stood waiting in white clothes, with crimson symbols for victory and happiness scrawled on their backs, and matches smoking in their hands. The powder tubs were uncovered, but since the powder was hopelessly bad, there was no harm in that. Through an open sea door, Arad could see the Queen of Heaven, with countless cups of cold tea untasted at her knees. Centuries ago, a virgin, she had saved her brother, who was on the point of drowning, and had been deified. This accounted for these prostrations, thumpings, decapitations of fowls, and the knocking of already flattened noses on the teakwood deck.

A voice cried in Arad’s ear, “Do you not hear, my officer, that wailing cry of a night bird? That will guide them. If it is in front of them, they retreat; but if it is behind them, they advance.”

A heart-stopping yell all ‘round the junk, with a mad outburst of gong music, showed how the pirates had taken advantage of that bird’s advice. Jamboo was known to be able to interpret cleverly the language of birds, and he would naturally favor an attack. The Chinese ship comrades yelled “Hi-yi-yi!” and began to roll their boulders overboard. They also rushed up to the galleries giant ladles of boiling oil, slopping over at the edges. And they threw thousands of firecrackers. But they could see nothing — not so much as the shapes of those murderous proas — and they were in too much of a hurry to be rid of their boulders. It was unlikely that Seriff Sahibe had risked more than a handful of his proas to draw this clumsy fire of stones. Even now a splash and roll of oars showed that he was in retreat.

“We have beaten them off!” Don Narciso cried, running to the ship’s side.

“It took the whole of our artillery to do it,” Arad reminded him. “They have simply drawn our fang. They’ll be back before we have time to boil more oil.”

“Where shall I take my stand?” Don Narciso asked fearfully.

“Ask the Queen of Heaven,” Arad answered.

The proas were closing with the junk again; and out of nowhere, at the end of a shining bamboo pole sliding along the rail over the cold, stiff-necked cannon, a hideously pronged flesh hook appeared. It drifted straight for Don Narciso. The unlucky captain general was paralyzed with horror. It was plain that he was not going to be able to exert himself to dodge this hook, and Arad got a hand in his collar and yanked him to his knees. The hook passed over their heads; and staring up at it, those two looked straight into an unexpected burst of yellow fire, coming from the limestone cliffs of Misfortune’s Isle.

“It’s the upas tree!” Arad shouted.

In fact, it was the upas tree that had mysteriously broken into flame. It was a giant torch, a deadly wand, flourished over their heads, destroying the secrecy of the attack and touching the hearts of warriors cold in the very heat of battle ardor. The blood-shot eyes of those followers of Seriff Sahibe rolled in their heads; for they had seen a sight which filled them with despair and terror. There was a recoiling clash of oars, spears and muskets, an indescribable banging of gongs. When the Chinese up the river had tried to frighten away a plague of locusts by beating on gongs, and again, when they had tried to banish an eclipse of the moon by the same means, the Dyaks had sneered; but they had reason now to call on all their gongs. For not even Arad’s phlegmatic western eyes had failed to see, rising as if out of the heart of the flame itself, and drifting fast, with wide-flung arms and streaming hair, a woman shape vanishing against the limestone cliffs.

And not even Arad was certain, for that second, that this was not the upas prisoner, the very soul of poison, escaping, and in a mood to call down tardy vengeance from the black skies.

Captain Arad and Captain Michael O’Cain sat with the old Hong merchant, Houqua, in his gardens at Canton. Houqua’s house was like a string of Pompeiian villas, delicately carved and gilded, hung with horn lanterns ending in red silk tassels. Priceless silk paintings adorned the walls, and here and there was scrawled in thick brush strokes the symbol of happiness.

A heart-stopping yell all around the junk, with a mad outburst of gong music, showed how the pirates had taken advantage of that Bird’s advice (Anton Otto Fischer)

The three friends sat outdoors by night at a black lacquered table under an ancient camphor tree. This terrace was paved with polished granite, and granite blocks of high luster edged the fish pond, where lotus leaves floated and where a company of eight ducks were performing figures to the music of a bamboo flute. This flute was in the hands of an entertainer — one of the Disciples of the Pear Garden — in an opposite pavilion. Arad got up restlessly and strolled to the water’s edge.

Lanterns were everywhere. They hung from the ivory balustrade of the steep little bridge over the fish pond, from the eaves of the house, from the lower branches of the camphor tree and from the two stone towers on the river’s bank. The bank itself was paved, but with rough granite, the blocks dogged one to another with iron dogs, and sloping gradually under water.

“Pulo Chalacca — that was the name of it,” O’Cain muttered to Houqua. “Misfortune’s Isle. ‘Tis well named. Jamboo, I hear, was stoned to death with medium sized stones — no one of them, mind you, big enough to kill him outright; but in the end they wore him down. Those pirates ran away so fast they left Seriff Sahibe’s pet anaconda behind them, and took the women and children in the old proas. Yang-Po is nothing now but a chambermaid for the birds’-nests caves; he goes around burning sulphur in them and making inducements to the birds to build again. ‘Take little and give much’ — that’s his motto now.”

“And Doha Delfina?” Houqua inquired.

“Well, she got back her little man with the glass eye, it’s true, but still and all, there she is in Manila, and goes out at four o’clock, when the sea breeze springs up, and the little postilion ahead of her in his shiny hat on the gray horse’s back. Maybe once a week she can watch the half breed women, with their hair down, waltzing with their chins on their partners’ shoulders — but what does that avail?

“And there’s Arad, here, Houqua. I’ve had Chinese doctors to him; they’ve taken his pulse in both arms from the wrists to the shoulders. There’s some out about him, and they don’t know what. Misfortune’s Isle — that’s the long and short of it. Maybe I was well out of it. Still, I would have given a shipload of broken silver for a sight of that prisoner in the tree, breaking loose in her glory and flying free at the end of that rope tied to Ninepin Rock. Whatever the custom in Manila, Houqua, she wore no stockings there. It was necessary to the scheme to have her looking like an immortal. And haven’t I heard you say yourself we shall have no clothes in heaven, because, although bodies have souls, it’s not likely that clothes have souls to match? Or if they do, who’s to guarantee that the clothes will die with the body, and not sooner or later?”

“There are no soulful garments,” Houqua agreed, tracing a symbol of happiness in the air with his pipe stem.

“Right. So there was I, a week late in the Witch, what with her grounding and ourselves dropping her guns over the side and buoying them, and rolling all the provisions and water casks aft to work her off, and then fishing up the guns again. All I got was hearsay. Narciso Crispo’s expedition, when I got there, would have been just a collection of heads hanging in the head halls with tufts of grass in the ears and orange cowries for eyes, if Dona Delfina hadn’t put that upas to the torch. Well, it’s certain the king will send them out a patent of nobility. They’re grandees of Spain this minute; Narciso is as good as Count of Zamboanga. And why not? Oughtn’t a man to be ennobled for seeing his wife float head-first out of a burning tree on a desert isle, and he with not the first suspicion of her being there? It was enough to blind him in his glass eye, and I told him so.”

It was strange, Houqua said. Yes, certainly it was Number One curio pigeon. Strange business. He had heard tell of the upas poison.

“You have an art with trees yourself,” O’Cain said, pointing at a maidenhair with fan-shaped leaves. This tree had been tortured into the likeness of a pagoda by confining its roots in stone crocks, and by other means. Here and there on the terrace were other trees, trimmed in the images of fish, camels and elephants. “You can all but make trees weep with the torture, as you do your women; but you do not know how to confine a woman in a tree. It’s a wonderful poison results, they say, when it’s quickened with lime juice. It works with a sharp burning in the head, and death. Its criminals condemned to die, they tell me, that are sent to tap the poison; and they give them leather hoods to put over their heads, and tell them to go toward the tree with the wind at their backs; and even so, only one in ten returns.

“Well, is Captain Arad poisoned then? He’s still about on his feet. Here he is with every reason to feel satisfied — a saving voyage, with the brotherhood digging antimony ore for him at Pulo Chalacca, and he with birds’ nests worth their weight in silver. . . Hist, here he is.”

“Birds’ nests,” Arad repeated, stepping out of the shadow of the camphor tree, which had a play of silver sparks out of its twigs and leaves. “We had better stick to birds’ nests, Mike. The raw nest, after the bird has flown, but before the egg has been laid. And I can sell you nests, Houqua, as big as a quarter orange, some of them, at forty Spanish dollars the pound.”

Houqua blinked his eyes. Across the fish pond one of the Disciples of the Pear Garden cracked his whip, and the performing ducks turned as one duck and swam toward him like mad.

“The last duck gets a taste of the whip!” O’Cain chortled.

“Why? There has to be a last duck,” Arad muttered darkly.

“Which proves the necessity of punishment on this earth!” O’Cain roared.

Bird’s-nest soup was put before them in three blue bowls. Arad dipped a spoon into this fabled soup. It would, Houqua assured him, put fat around the ribs, make old men young and young men able, and perform other marvels, such as making pirates homeless and filling the coffers of Salem merchant princes on the other side of the world. Yet it seemed to Arad that, considering how hard it was to get, the soup was rather tasteless. His thoughts were far away. He asked himself how these two could agree so glibly that garments — say, the flowered muslin or the striped pantaloons of the valiant Delfina — had no soul. As well say there had been no soul in that out breathed “Adiosito” from the cave’s mouth — farewell for a little, with that wraith of a promise of return in it. And as if he had been himself the last duck, the trader felt across his own shoulders the crack of the whip, and was aware that the upas poison, in some form, was in his veins, only not quickened; and that it had a power to tarnish the most gilded triumph.

First page of the short story “Misfortune’s Isle” by Richard Matthews Hallet as it appeared in the Saturday Evening Post
Read “Misfortune’s Isle” by Richard Matthews Hallet from the November 9, 1929, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Anton Otto Fischer

“Birthday” by Mildred Cram

American writer Mildred Cram was nominated for an Oscar for her part in writing the film Love Affair in 1939, and her 1920 story “Stranger Things” was a finalist for the O. Henry Award. Cram’s short story “Birthday,” published in 1928, captures a widow’s struggle to live it up on her fiftieth birthday.

Published on September 15, 1928

 

Bessie had never enjoyed her birthdays, but after Henry’s death she tried not to notice them. “Good Lord! It’s the twenty-third!” Mrs. Struthers, on the eleventh floor, reached sideways and snatched the telephone from the bed table. “Bessie? It’s the twenty-third — you’re fifty! Many happy returns.”

Bessie, on the ninth, tried to grin into the mouthpiece. “Sweet of you, dear, to call me.” Henry, at least, had made of this day a ceremony. He had never forgotten to send her flowers or a box of candy, and, toward the end, rubies. “Sweet of you to call me.”

“How does it feel to be fifty?”

Well, how did it feel to be fifty? Bessie Lovering lay for a long time in bed, trying to detect any differences in herself. She felt exactly as she had felt yesterday or a year ago — in fact, she was practically certain that no change had taken place in her for thirty years. At twenty she had crossed a line. She had married Henry Lovering. “I, Henry, take thee, Elizabeth.” The veil. The blossoms. The importance of being Mrs. Lovering. She was still Mrs. Lovering. Being a widow only made marriage more important.

She lifted the phone again. “Service? Please send breakfast to 969.”

“Yes, madame. The usual?”

“Have you any corn muffins?”

“Yes, madame… Very good, madame.”

“Plenty of cream for the coffee, George. Yesterday I had to send for more.”

“Certainly, madame. Anything else?”

“That’s all.”

She stretched herself, throwing back the soft coverlet, to disclose her body clad in crêpe de chine, with insets of real lace and knots of baby-blue ribbon. She had pretty feet and she had always taken care of them. She wiggled her toes and lifted one leg.

“I must exercise.”

One leg up! The other leg up! Deep breath! Relax! She sank again into the deep mattress. Funny how sleepy she was, how tired, when she never did anything to tire herself. She had not been tired in the days of Henry’s poverty, when she rose at six o’clock to get breakfast for him and the boys. She closed her eyes and recalled the alarm clock crashing into her dreams, shattering them, and the cold dark room, and Henry, in his bare feet, sitting on the edge of the bed, groaning “Gosh, mother, I hate to get up!” until she shook him awake.

Was Henry still objecting to getting up, wherever he was? Where was Henry? She must ask the swami. He seemed to have that faculty, apparently granted only to dark Hindu gentlemen in satin, turbans, of knowing what no one else even pretended to know. You had only to ask a Hindu “What is death?” and he had an answer — an authoritative if cryptic answer, smug, ready-made and patronizing. It had always puzzled Bessie that these matters — immortality, ghosts, transmigration, healing — were not written down somewhere so that all the sick, suffering, questioning world might read and understand. Why must they be kept secret or imparted in parables by contemptuous Hindu gentlemen to eager American ladies with more money than wisdom?

Like everything else in life, it was slightly, vaguely disturbing. Better not think about it. When the time came to die she would probably take an express elevator to heaven and step out on a sort of roof garden overlooking the universe. Henry would be there, smoking and chatting with a lot of traveling men, and he would throw away his cigar to come toward her with his old line: “Well, Bessie, you’re ten minutes late.”

Ten years late, already! She wondered whether he would have forgotten her. There must be a lot of pretty women in heaven, and ten years is a long time. “I must exercise!” She was getting fat. Her legs were still good, but she had thickened through the middle. Her arms above the elbow were heavy. Pound by pound, ounce by ounce, through the greedy years she had filled out the lovely slim flanks of her and had surrendered her flexible waist to a certain rigidity, a look of being fixed within her stays. She no longer walked quite erect. Her garters pulled her forward a trifle and she had acquired the habit of looking down as once upon a time she had looked up, letting her pretty feet carry her where they would.

Nowadays she could not trust her feet, because they were much too small to bear her weight. She wore beautiful shoes, sheer hose, silk to the top, and it pleased her to watch their reflection in store windows or chance mirrors — her young legs.

“Breakfast, madame?”

“Oh, wait a minute! Wait a minute!” She struggled into a kimono. “All right, come in.”

As usual, she had her breakfast served on a table near the window. The hotel faced the bay. She could look out across the roofs of the city toward the ferry lanes, the fleet anchorage, and across the glittering water, to Berkeley and the hills. Straight down, nine stories, people walked in the square and strings of taxis moved up before the porte-cochère of the hotel. It was all very busy and purposeful and young. San Francisco was young. It was not a place to be old. It was a city for flappers and boys, roadsters, laughter, dancing, insouciant dreams and promises. Not a place for idleness like hers. And yet she loved it.

The very activity of the ferries delighted her — great shuttles crisscrossing back and forth, carrying people on endless, hopeful journeys across the bright water, in sunlight, beneath gay skies. She liked the fogs. She liked the steep, audacious streets, plunging down and leaping up, the screech of brakes, the patter of high-heeled slippers on asphalt set at acute angles. She liked the Orientals, the sailors, the flower venders. She was not a part of it, yet it animated her, kept her alive, made her aware of herself — her potential self that had never existed for Henry, that had been engulfed in poverty and postponement. Now, at fifty, she was rich and she was alone. Strange desires stirred in her — to be, for once, the Bessie who had never been.

“Nice day, madame.”

“It certainly is, George.”

“I brought madame a grapefruit.”

“Thanks…Oh, wait a second, George, till I get some change.”

“Yes, madame. Merci, madame.”

Mrs. Lovering spread the napkin across her knees and lifted covers, sniffing. Hot cakes, bacon, corn muffins. “I didn’t exercise. Well, tomorrow ­­ —­­ ”

II

As she dressed she regarded herself with critical eyes. A fine skin. Henry had always said so. “A finer skin than yours,” he had said — “I’d like to see it. Show me Lillian Russell! Can’t hold a candle to you!”

She had always been told that she might be Lillian Russell’s twin sister. The resemblance flattered Bessie into pearls and a marcelled pompadour.

She saw now that her long, fine, silky yellow hair was old-fashioned. With a sudden breathlessness, as if she had plunged into cold water, she called the beauty parlor on the eleventh floor.

“Yes, please. . . A bob, a shampoo, a wave and a manicure. . . Mrs. Lovering. . . Ninth.”

There, in a gray-and-violet dressing room, beneath a shaded light and facing a mirror, she surrendered herself to a facile young man in a smock who held poised above her head the long scissors, the shears. She covered her face with her hands and a hot painful flush stained her cheeks.

“I don’t know!” she wailed. “Maybe I’m foolish. Maybe I’ll look a sight. Maybe I’m too old.”

Yvonne herself, in black satin, parted the curtains to look in upon the sacrifice.

“Too old, madame? One is never too old for the bob. Why, only yesterday I cut the hair of a great-grandmother! She said afterwards ‘Why didn’t I do it sooner?’ Honestly, Mrs. Lovering, you won’t regret it. Will she, Mr. Shaughnessy?”

“Positively not.”

The young man in the smock looked at Bessie in the mirror. His narrow, nervous fingers caught at the graying cascade of blond hair and lifted it, letting it fall again in a thin shower. He looked at her and yet did not look at her. There was an immense indifference in his eyes, an immeasurable weariness. It was the jaded disillusionment of the court barber, the initiated panderer to frivolity. Bessie would have preferred a Frenchman, a waxed flatterer who would have had at least the technic of deception. This young Irishman was too honest. He made her feel like a fool.

“Do her a short bob, Mr. Shaughnessy. Lift it here — so. Over the ears and back — so. A swirl. Just a little bang — ”

“Oh, no, not a bang! I look ridiculous in a bang.”

“Well, just a little spit curl. Madame’s forehead is high. You will see. You must have a permanent.”

“Not a permanent! My hair’s always been naturally curly.”

“To cut the hair reduces the curl. I will give you a permanent that will delight you–a big, soft, natural wave. Very fashionable just now in Paris — so — a swirl. So — Go ahead, Mr. Shaughnessy. I’ll come back.”

Yvonne was the last hold on sanity, on safety. The bright cold shears fell through Bessie’s hair — Bessie’s precious blond curls. Away. Away. Snip. Snip. A petal here, a petal there, as one strips a flower. There emerged the tearstained small face, the queer, round, denuded head of a stranger, the head of a blond rat.

“You ain’t crying? Say, that’s foolish. Crying won’t do any good.”

Mr. Shaughnessy pushed her head forward with strong fingers and attacked the nape of her neck. She felt the cold steel nipping there, biting off the little curls that Henry had called her love locks.

Man and woman dancing.
“Sing Hallelujah! Hallelujah! She felt Bellardi’s smooth hard cheek against her own.” (Illustrated by Harley Ennis Stivers)

“What would the boys say?” she gasped.

“You got children, have you?” the barber asked.

“Two sons. They’re in Oregon, in the lumber business.”

“They got any kids of their own?”

“No,” she said. Thank God, she wasn’t a grandmother, shorn like this!”

“Say, I got a kid of my own!” Suddenly the scissors moved faster, with a furious industry and enthusiasm. “Born this morning at six o’clock. They let me see him. Say, maybe I didn’t run out to the hospital as soon as they phoned! The doctor was just leaving. He said everything was fine. So I went in and the nurse showed me the baby. Say! A girl! Not red, like most of them, but white, like — like a white rose. Not crying or anything. The prettiest mouth — ”

“Aren’t you getting it a little too short?”

“Eh?”

“My hair.”

“Say, maybe I am. You don’t have a baby every day in the week, do you? It’s no wonder I’m nervous. My wife’s only eighteen. Molly her name is. She was just over from the old country when I met her — didn’t know a thing. Now she’s the best little American you could hope to find… Turn your head a little. Did you want this wind-blown?”

“Wind-blown?”

“Say! Yvonne!”

Yvonne’s black satin presence, her absent-minded enthusiasm, again dominated the mirror.

It was at the coiffeuse and not at herself that Bessie looked for confirmation of her fear. She saw the sly, amused and cruel smile she dreaded, an instant before it was erased, supplanted by flattery.

“You look ten years younger! Doesn’t she? Marie, come here! Joyce, come here at once! I want you to see Mrs. Lovering’s new haircut. Isn’t it charming?”

“Yes, awfully becoming, Mrs. Lovering.”

“Isn’t it youthful?”

Yvonne seized a comb and raked at the shorn locks deftly, combing them violently forward, then aside and back, curling with little pats and subtle twistings.

“You look like your own granddaughter. Look at yourself! Here, Joyce, give me a mirror. Now look! When you’re waved you won’t know yourself. Silly girl, you’ve been crying. Marie, Mrs. Lovering’s been crying! And she’s so sweet and pretty! Why, honestly, you look like Lillian Gish with this cut. Such small features. Here, I’ll wave you myself.”

Out of her great mercy, Yvonne wielded the irons. There emerged a series of neat undulations placed with such skill that Bessie’s blond hair resembled, in its perfection, a wig. She gazed upon herself at first with horror, as at an intimate stranger in a nightmare; then, slowly, she caught the fever of the place — it burned within her. The three young women, laboring with whispered words of encouragement, evoked a new image. She began to like this reflection. A facial, the stinging application of tonics, ice, lotions, more ice, removed the traces of her cowardly tears and gave to her flesh a glow and a firmness of youth. Her hands, buffed and tinted by an anemic child with shadowed eyes and scarlet, petulant mouth, had the luster and pointed elegance of the waxen hands of a show window dummy. Her rubies caught the fire and struck a sullen, dark envy in the shadowed eyes of the manicurist.

“You have pretty hands, madame. Nice cuticle. You ought to use our Pond Lily Cuticle Cream. It’s very nice.”

At last Bessie rose. Yvonne said: “You must come for a reset on Tuesday. Let me see — the total — just twenty-seven-fifty… Thank you…Good morning. You look wonderful!”

III

She lunched with Mrs. Struthers and Callie Frisbuth in the Green Room.

“Bessie Lovering, don’t tell me your hair’s bobbed!”

“It certainly is. And I wish I’d done it ten years ago.”

Mrs. Struthers was like a black rabbit nibbling at invisible lettuce leaves. In her quick dark eyes there was always the look of an impending criticism; she seemed, even when most affable, prepared to pounce. She implied now, by an ostentatious silence and the flicker of a smile at Callie Frisbuth, that she thought Bessie’s haircut ridiculous.

Callie Frisbuth said: “I think older women are more dignified with long hair. And after forty, goodness knows, there’s nothing much except dignity left for us women. It’s terrible, disgusting, the way youth rules the world.” She sighed. “I feel so out of it.”

“Well, I don’t,” Bessie said, flashing her rubies over the bread and butter plate. “I feel younger than ever. I’d like to go to the football game in Berke this afternoon, instead of playing bridge with a lot of old women.”

“Well, I must say we’re flattered!”

“I mean it. I’d like to dance. I’d like to sit up all night. Old lady? Pooh! I’m just beginning.”

“Maybe you’ll marry again,” Callie Frisbuth, who was not married, said, tightening her lips.

“Maybe I will.”

“I think,” Callie Frisbuth said, “a woman with children — grown children like yours — is happier a widow. Second husbands are seldom a success. I mean as stepfathers.”

“But I never see my children! They’re too busy and too ambitious to need me. They’ll be marrying soon and starting lives of their own — children of their own!”

“I thought you cared a great deal for Mr. Lovering,” Mrs. Struthers said.

“I did — I do. But   Well, sometimes I’m lonely. Evenings — ”

“A lot of us are lonely evenings,” Mrs. Struthers snapped. “You’d better keep your head, Bessie. Just because you’re bobbed, you aren’t any younger. At fifty you’ve got to see things as they are.”

Things as they are!

Something had happened to Bessie Lovering. The bridge tables in Mrs. Taylor Smith’s house on Russian Hill seemed to be too close together; the rattle of women’s voices, excited, angry, hysterical, anxious, beat on the eardrums like a savage tom-tom. So many ample bosoms; so much navy-blue crêpe de chine; so many pearl earrings and chokers and fox neck pieces. Rich women, idle women; women in the forties, the fifties, the sixties.

Suddenly Bessie wanted to be away. She did not wait for tea. The prizes — embroidered squares never to be used as chair backs — were distributed. Little heart shaped caviar sandwiches, ovals of lettuce, elliptical cakes and mounds of quartered toast. Coffee in thin, cream-colored cups. Pistachio ice cream. “But I’m reducing!” “Just one!” “If you count your calories religiously, my dear — ” Whipped cream, cherry tarts, cheese straws, salted nuts. “I won’t eat a bite of dinner.” Chopped olives. Shortcake. “M-m-m — good — Now don’t you look! I’m going to take just a little piece.”

From the windows, Bessie could see the bay and the ferries. Suddenly, passionately, she wanted to be in the bright, crowded stadium, to see youth heaped up in great yelling pyramids — youth riotous, joyous, unaware. She wanted to plunge herself in sunlight and color and noise.

“I guess I’ll buy a dress.” She slipped out and into a taxi. Her cheeks were flushed. Her neck, where the fur piece fell away, seemed naked, stripped. She said “Downtown.” And putting up her hand, felt the unaccustomed shortness above her ears, the brittle, singed, clipped curls against her cheeks.

She craved the satisfaction of spending money. An evening dress — something to dance in. She danced well. Like most heavy blond women, she was light on her feet. She wondered whether Henry had learned the fox trot and the Charleston in heaven. Henry could one-step with the best of them. Once, to her amazement, he had mastered the bunny hug. Funny old Henry! Henry, whose money made it possible for her to be comfortable all the rest of her days — comfortable, safe and alone!

“Oh, Mrs. Lovering, I have the most lovely new model! Just made for you. I said, the minute it came in, There’s Mrs. Lovering’s dress!”

This shop catered to the hypothetical superiority of its clients — walnut and brown velvet, rose brocade and shaded lights, but no show cases, no price tags, no obvious barter.

The saleswoman, clad in fluttering ends of chiffon, slim, even, frankly, emaciated, trod the sacred velvet with the mincing, impeded grace imparted to the female gait by undernourishment and spike heels. She was pale; her gray eyes held a gentleness and a sad frustration. She was elegant and meticulously grammatical. Her manners, even at five o’clock of a confined and distressing day, were without flaw or strain.

Bessie said, “I want an evening dress and a wrap.”

“Ah, yes, at once. I have just the thing. Something simple but important. Miss Adams, will you model the little white gown for Mrs. Lovering?”

Bessie sighed and waited. She was conscious of a curious sense of defeat, perhaps a reaction from the excitement of the morning.

“You look tired, Miss Peters,” she said.

The saleswoman leaned against the mirrored wall; she put her hands against her back; she drooped. “I am. I’m awfully tired — awfully tired.”

“Why don’t you sit down?”

“We’re not allowed. But sometimes my back aches so — ” She smiled. “Life isn’t easy, is it?”

“How old are you?” Bessie said.

“Twenty-two. But I feel fifty.”

“Why don’t you get married?”

Miss Peters caught her breath. “I’d like to, but my fellow’s out of a job. He’s a newspaperman. He’s broke. And I got poppa to do for… Sometimes — I get so tired just waiting, Mrs. Lovering — ”

“I know.”

“Waiting for happiness, waiting for a home, waiting for children of my own.”

“But you’re young.”

“What good’s youth?” The pale girl flung her head back, straining her throat until the muscles showed, taut and tortured. “What good’s youth to any of us? We’re throwing it away, making slaves of ourselves.” She caught her breath. A look of terror, of extreme deprecation, came into her eyes.

“Oh, Mrs. Lovering, forgive me! I forgot myself… Ah, Miss Adams, the little white dress! Very chic. Very new. A model. So youthful. So distinguished. The little wrap too. Together, the price is — let me see — five hundred and sixty-three — reasonable, don’t you think?”

IV

Bessie shook her head. “It’s too much, Miss Peters. But I’ll take it. I have a very special — a very special engagement tonight.”

She imagined herself going to a dance. The idea, conceived out of her great need, assumed an astonishing reality. She plunged into an orgy of buying — underwear, stockings, a little beaded bag, a frothy handkerchief, a necklace of crystal, a flower of transparent gauze, exotic and perishable.

Miss Peters ran back and forth on stilted heels. The party, Bessie’s very special engagement, animated the pale girl. She imaged a beautiful ballroom, people moving across a polished floor, music, flowers, happiness. Her cheeks flamed with excitement. She spread the flimsy lengths of chiffon and lace for Bessie’s inspection, but, in her heart, she herself was going to wear them. She saw herself in the arms of her lover, whirling gracefully, slowly, to the languid measures of a waltz, her cheek close to his, his dark head bent to hers, whispering, “I love you. I love you.” Their feet reflected in the polished floor. Chandeliers ablaze with light. Mirrors. Laughter. Roses. The fullness of heart that is realization.

Bessie, too, saw herself arrayed for happiness. Yet, by a curious reversal, she wore in the confusion of dream and fact the gown of another period — she saw herself in the full satin skirt, the tight bodice, the great, flaring sleeves of yesterday, pompadour, a sheaf of American Beauties, long kid gloves, a train; and Henry, baggy, shining, gentle, waiting at the foot of the stairs.

“Well, Bessie, ten minutes late!”

“Ten years late!”

“Beg pardon, madame?”

“I was thinking out loud.”

She stuffed herself and her packages into a taxicab. Already the streets were dark. The shops were closing. Cable cars were incrusted with people.

The lobby, when she crossed it in the wake of a laden bell boy, was animated, crowded. The victorious collegians swept through in a wave of color and laughter to the dining rooms. Girls and girls and girls. Slim silk-clad legs, like the legs of colts. Hats worn on the back of the head, revealing bland foreheads and wide, brilliant eyes. White teeth. Smooth round chins. Fur jackets and brilliant silk handkerchiefs. The laughter of girls. The hope of girls. The inestimable, precious illusion of girls — thousands of girls…

The bell boy preceded Bessie down the carpeted corridor to her door. He bristled with boxes and packages. He whistled softly. He was a nice boy, a polite boy, and Bessie fumbled in her bag for a tip.

“Put the bundles on the bed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He obeyed with a flourish. “Shall I light the lights?”

“If you please.”

Already the loneliness, the silence of the room, made itself felt. Bessie turned with a shudder from the proofs of her extravagant folly.

“Going to the dance, Mrs. Lovering?”

“What dance?”

“The Stanford crowd’s here tonight. It’ll be a riot.”

“No,” she said, “I’m not going. I haven’t anyone to go with. I’m alone.”

The bell boy accepted her tip and pocketed it. Yet he hesitated.

“Say, Mrs. Lovering, if you’re alone — it’s like this: I’ve got a friend — a nice fellow, see? An Italian. His name’s Bellardi. He dances like a million dollars. He’d take you out, anywhere you’d like to go.”

“You mean I’d have to pay him?”

“Sure! It’s his business. He’s a good guy. Well-behaved, see? And a swell dancer. He knows the ropes. I could get him for you.”

Bessie’s hands trembled. “How much does he ask?”

“Twenty-five for the evening, and expenses.”

“He speaks English?”

“Sure! He was born in the Napa Valley. His father has a ranch out there. They’re wops. But you’d like him. No use your being alone Saturday night. Gee, it’s awful up here! What you need is a little life, see? I wouldn’t mention it, only I guess you’re lonely — I’ve noticed it. I said to myself often, Bellardi’d ought to take Mrs. Lovering out and show her the sights.’”

“He’s — he’s young?”

“Not too young — thirty. He’s a good guy and a grand dancer. You wait and see.”

Bessie glanced again at the parcels. Her flesh yearned toward adornment — to wear the white gown and the wrap and the flower!

“Very well,” she said briefly, “send him up at 8:30.”

The boy smiled. It was impossible to interpret the smile. Bessie was both disturbed and curiously gratified. She was partner in a conspiracy. She was, actually, engaged in a questionable undertaking. She was about to do an outrageous thing. She had stepped out of the impeding four walls of her respectability. The bell boy shared her secret. He smiled. She grew hot all over.

“I’ll be ready,” she said. She stopped him on the threshold. “And please don’t mention this to anyone. You understand?”

She turned to the boxes. She emptied them with hands that shook.

Seven o’clock! She ran into the formal stuffy sitting room and put it in order. Fresh flowers, thank heaven — Callie Frisbuth’s carnations and Mrs. Struthers’ roses. “On our dear Bessie’s fiftieth birthday, from her pals and fellow ancients, Callie and Evangeline.”

Back to the bedroom. A bath. Crystals. The pungent, aromatic sweetness of lavender and cologne. Her nice feet and legs. Her white flesh. Clouds of powder. Silk and lace. Tight satin stays. Cream. Lotion. Ice. Ouch! Cold! Powder. Rouge. Maybe a little eye pencil. Her funny hair.

She was going to a party! What would Henry say? She could take care of herself. Henry would say, “Go ahead and have a good time. You deserve it. You’ve been a good woman.”

She rang for the maid, but for some reason — perhaps the influx of victorious collegians — there was a delay. While she waited she scrutinized herself. She was almost beautiful. Something had come back into her face that had not been there for ten years — a look of expectancy.

“Yes, madame?”

“Will you help me with my dress?”

“Certainly, madame.”

This was a veritable wisp of a maid, a child in the uniform of servitude.

“I suppose you’re very busy tonight.”

“Yes, madame. I have the night duty. I’m on until two o’clock.”

Bessie ducked her shorn head and received the glittering white shift. It fell along her body like ice, clung heavily. The maid’s fingers touched the crystals lovingly; she fastened them about Bessie’s throat.

“Oh, lovely, madame!”

“Yes, aren’t they pretty?”

“And the flower?”

“Here on the shoulder.”

“You look very nice, madame.”

“Thank you. Will you powder my back and arms?”

“You have very nice skin, madame, for a woman of your age.”

Why did the girl have to say that? It wasn’t kind. She was cruel because she was young.

“Thank you, madame… Good night. I hope you have a very nice time.”

Bessie faced the mirror. She could not believe that this glittering creature was herself. When the telephone rang she shivered all over and her lips stiffened, grew momentarily cold.

“Mr. Bellardi to see Mrs. Lovering.”

“Send him up.”

She waited, fingering Mrs. Struthers’ roses. Her heart beat furiously. She thought: “I’m a fool. I’m a coward. I’m lost. What shall I say to him? How shall I pay him? Perhaps I’d better send him away.” She was frightened and exalted.

When the knock came at the door she could scarcely say “Come in!”

V

He proved to be not the dark overdressed dressed Italian she had fancied, but, rather, a neat, well-brushed young man, a sober young man. There was nothing racially characteristic about him save his black hair and eyes. He had the short straight nose, the quick smile of an Irishman.

“How do you do?” she said.

“Mrs. Lovering? My name is Bellardi. My friend Charlie sent me” He paused.

“I know. What arrangement — I mean, how do I pay you? Now or when we return?”

He smiled. “Well, it might be better now, if you don’t mind. I haven’t a cent.”

“Would fifty dollars — ”

He stepped brightly into the room. “That depends,” he said, “on what you want to do. Dinner? Theater? Some nice dance club? And then to the beach? Wine? Cabs? I should say seventy-five at least.”

“Very well, we’ll do everything. I’m in your hands.” She fumbled in the new beaded bag for the crisp price of her enjoyment. “My sons,” she said, “would be grateful — ” She could not go on.

“Sure. I’ll take good care of you. I never go where there’s anything rough. You trust me… Thanks.”

He pocketed the bills without glancing at them. He was neatly dressed; but he had no overcoat, and the gray informal hat he carried was old and faded. The bell boy had said that he was thirty years old; he looked younger. He had the fresh color, the strong white teeth of a boy of twenty.

“Your wrap?”

The formalities over, he became all at once the cavalier. With a flourish he placed the wrap upon Bessie’s shoulders. In the gesture there were both homage and grace without a trace of insincerity. He said nothing, but in his glance, as he held the door for her, there was admiration, a look personal and appraising and strangely pleasant. It had been ten years since anyone had noticed Bessie Lovering herself. The last thing Henry had said to her was her last unsolicited compliment: “You’re a handsome woman, Bessie. When I’m gone don’t wear black. You look better in colors.”

The elevator, already crowded, paused for them, and Bessie squeezed in beside Evangeline Struthers and Callie Frisbuth. Their startled eyes flew from Bessie’s magnificence to the dark sleek head of her tall escort.

“Mrs. Struthers, Miss Frisbuth — Mr. Bellardi.”

“How d’you do?” they said.

Mrs. Struthers pinched Bessie’s arm. “Who is he? Who is he, Bessie?”

“We’re going to the opera,” Callie offered. “Martinelli in Aida. We have a box.”

“Won’t you come, Bessie? Won’t you and Mr. — and Mr. — I didn’t catch the name — won’t you join us?”

Bellardi gazed politely into Bessie’s eyes. He seemed to suggest that he preferred to be alone with her.

“No, thank you, darling,” Bessie’s voice lifted. “We’re going to dance.”

The door opened and she swept out, Bellardi at her elbow. Now for the first time she was a part of the animated crowd in the lobby, as if, by the simple alchemy of short hair and an escort, all the lonely years had been erased. She no longer envied the gazelle-like girls of the lobby; she loved them. She was one of them. She was going to dance. She was going to dance!

Well-dressed man and woman attending a ball.
“She was one of them. She was going to dance. She was going to dance!” (Illustrated by Harley Ennis Stivers)

A cab slid along the curb, but Bellardi rejected it for a rakish machine whose driver signaled to them with the smirk of a self-conscious wrongdoer.

One of Bessie’s crisp bills changed hands and she found herself upon the velvet cushions of someone’s town car, gazing upon the city through immaculate plate glass. A transformed city — a city marvelously gay, mysterious, promising. All the faces glimpsed in passing wore the masks of revelry. The crowds dissolved and clustered, lively figures in a pageant, and the leap of traffic between lanes of light was strangely exciting, exhilarating, like a race in a carnival. Bessie glanced down at her frivolous silver feet, at her tinted hands, her rubies, never so darkly bright as now. She had forgotten Bellardi. It had seemed for a moment as if Henry rode beside her.

“May I smoke?”

“Of course.”

The young Italian produced a battered package of cheap cigarettes. He offered Bessie one.

“No, thanks, not now.”

Promptly he quenched his own.

“Where are we going?”

“To the opera. No? Martinelli in Aida. We will show your friends that we, too, can sit in a box.”

“But I haven’t had dinner!”

“We will have coffee there, and later dine properly. Leave all to me.”

She found herself upon the inadequate chair offered to patrons of the opera. Bellardi removed her wrap. He drew his chair forward to the rail, gazed down at the orchestra pit, where, in the sudden darkness, a twitter of sound arose. The opera had begun.

Bessie did not like music. It was apparent that Bellardi did. He put his chin in his clenched hands and remained immovable, entranced, hypnotized until the end. Save for a brief promenade, when he offered her a cup of weak coffee in a thick cup, he did not speak to Bessie.

“I like Verdi,” he said. “I am Italian. It is in my blood. I am starved for music. This is food for me. Beefsteak? Not when I can hear Martinelli sing! A big voice — that fellow. My father knew him, long ago, in Venice.”

When they left the opera house he seized Bessie’s arm. “I tell you what! In honor of Martinelli, we dine and dance at the Casa Veneziana. What do you say?”

The Casa Veneziana was a long way downtown. Another motor, commandeered at the point of a ten-dollar bill, swept through the tunnel, followed a strange boulevard, climbed a dizzy cobbled hill and left them before a doorway flanked by gilded barber poles. They entered upon a wave of sound, a frantic confusion of voices, music, whistles, laughter and the rattle of crockery. The head waiter, clad in white duck and tightly girdled, wore upon his glistening bald head a tasseled fisherman’s cap.

Bessie’s white sequins turned blue in the light of many purple arcs. For this was a Venetian grotto. A semicircle of tables surrounded a dance floor flooded with artificial moonlight. Gondoliers of many nationalities threaded the maze with trays and glasses. Spaghetti, borne aloft upon perspiring palms, left a trail of appetizing odor. Coffee splashed from kitchen to table. Minestrone. Ravioli. Fritto misto. Thick slices of dark bread. Romanello. Bessie felt faint with hunger.

She thought, following Bellardi through the noisy crowd, “This is life. I ought to like it. At least I’m not alone.”

She would have preferred a hotel, the discreet dance floor and shaded lights of some Rose Room or Crystal Hall.

She found herself at a table close to the stage, where an orchestra, seated within a vast funereal gondola, played Hallelujah.

“Shall we dance?”

Bellardi placed his hat upon the table — by way of identification perhaps. He said, “Keep your wrap. It isn’t safe to leave it.” And embracing her, he drew her out on the floor. Perhaps Aida had gone to his head. His eyes were bright. His mouth smiled. He had the look of a faun. And he could dance. He seemed to float across the floor, insinuating his way, surely, carelessly, expertly, between the jazzing couples. Bessie’s head had no idea what her feet were doing. She felt the pressure of his hand upon her back; he guided her with a gentle, firm touch, a command, a whole book of instructions. He moved without effort, holding his head high, smiling his smile of a faun — or was it the smile of a little boy who has just eaten a lollipop?

Colored lights swept the dance floor in rotation. Purple. Blue. Yellow. Green. Red. Purple. Blue. Faces, grinning or absorbed or ecstatic,appeared now blanched, now flushed, now a sickly green. Bodies pressed close. A kaleidoscopic whirl of people danced in Bessie’s eyes. Her feet were scuffed upon. Table after table was deserted for this mad revivalist music. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Helps to shoo th’ blues away! Satan lies a-waitin’ and creatin’ sin and woe, woe, woe! Sing Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

She felt Bellardi’s smooth hard cheek against her own. He paused, hummed, swayed, began the intricate swishing steps of the Charleston. Bessie’s heart felt funny. “Either I’m hungry or I’m old.” The wheeling faces blurred, grew dim. “Please,” she said, “stop! I’m going to faint.”

VI

Bellardi fanned her with the menu card. “You’re hungry, that’s all. Have some water. The waiter’ll be here in a minute with some onion soup. Food’s what you need.”

“I haven’t danced for ten years.”

“You don’t say! You dance well too. You dance like a young girl. For a heavy woman, you’re light on your feet.”

“And you,” she said — “you dance like a professional.”

“I’m not,” he said quickly. “I’m a newspaperman out of a job.” Suddenly he leaned across the table, smiling a queer, crooked sort of smile. “The truth is, Mrs. Lovering, I’ve never done this before.”

“Done — what?”

“I’m not a hired dancing man — the sort of fellow they call a gigolo. Charlie put me up to this. He knew I was broke. When he sent for me I said no. I couldn’t picture myself hauling an old woman around and being paid for it. But he said you were different. He said you were a nice woman — just lonely. And I don’t blame you. Gosh! I understand. It must get terrible up in that hotel room, with nothing to do and nowhere to go.”

“It does,” she said.

Her heart was still now; it seemed not to beat at all. Only the nerves on the surface of her body quivered and jumped and the roof of her mouth was cold. There was pain behind her eyes. Too many people! Too much noise! Balloons popped and wooden sticks whacked. Paper streamers zinged and tangled. Shrieks of laughter collided with the shrill blasts of tin whistles. Three men in velvet jackets entered the spotlight and sang — Santa Lucia. No one listened. Soup. Cheese. Coffee. Smoke, stinging, acrid. A policeman, leaning against a barber pole, watched the crowd.

“I’m sorry,” Bessie said.

“I’m not.” Bellardi again offered her a cigarette from the tattered package. She shook her head. And again he quenched his own, as if rebuffed by her refusal. “I’m not. I’ve enjoyed it. Maybe, tomorrow, I’ll feel better… Aida! Say, that music cut clean into my heart and scooped out a lot of self-disgust! Maybe tomorrow I’ll get a job. And believe me I need it. I’m broke. I hate to take your money for this, but I’m hungry. That’s a fact. I won’t go to my father. He wants me to be a farmer. He thinks writers are sissies.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m twenty-three.”

“Twenty-three! I’ve got a son twenty-eight!”

He glanced at her with a quick dark look of sympathy. “It’s a shame you don’t live with him,” he said.

“He’s going to be married.”

“So am I. . . . Say, Mrs. Lovering, she’s a peach. You ought to see her. And bright? She’s a whiz. Only twenty-two, and already she’s the crack saleswoman at Magnow’s French Shop. Going to be a buyer. Takes care of her dad and a kid sister. Her name’s Peters — Lila Peters.”

Two and two were making four in Bessie’s mind. She said “Give me a cigarette, please.”

“Sure!”

He leaped, the match glowed. For the first time she tasted the thick bitter smoke. Tobacco flakes clung to her dry lips. But she persisted, because, in her mercy, she sensed this boy’s need and his hunger. Smoke poured through his nostrils. He tipped his head back, opened his mouth and let the fumes curl along his tongue.

“She and I ought to be doing this — dancing and hearing music. We’re wasting our youth. We’re missing everything.” Gosh! It doesn’t seem fair.” He leaned forward again, clasping his hands, the cigarette balanced between his lips. “You understand, don’t you? You’re a mother. I guess you loved your husband. Sometimes I think I’ll go crazy. Lying alone in my room, thinking about her lying alone in hers — and my heart crying out loud!” He grinned. “I sound like a Dago, don’t I? Well, I am. It’s in my blood. When I love, I love hard. Lila too. She’s getting thin. She can’t sleep. And if she knew I was doing this — ”

Bessie put out her hand and laid it briefly, firmly on his. “You’re my guest. I know Miss Peters. She sold me this dress. I paid eight hundred dollars for what I’ve got on.”

“Your guest?”

“I’m old enough to be your mother. I’m heart-hungry myself. And I’m not a Dago. I’m Boston Irish. My name was Bessie Calahan.”

She ground the cigarette out in a glass dish, forgetting to flash her rubies.

“Listen! Evangeline Struthers’ grandfather owned the first newspaper ever published in San Francisco. Her father owned two more. Her husband owned a whole chain of them, from Seattle to Mexico. I guess she can find a job for you if you want one.”

Before the look in his eyes — a stark look, somehow blinded and confused — she blinked and rose. “I want to go home, please — quick. Pay the waiter and don’t wait for change. I’m tired.”

VII

She left him in the lobby and took the elevator to the ninth, alone. The carpeted halls were dimly lighted and silent. Only the black skirt of the little maid flitted around a corner and disappeared.

“I’m tired — tired.”

She closed the door of her bedroom softly, as if upon a sleeping dream — a dream not to be awakened, a dream that must not be disturbed.

She kicked off the tight silver slippers, dragged the heavy dress over her head, rubbed at her cheeks with a towel. Water — lots of it. Soap. Clean — clean. That’s better. A comb through the brittle blonde curls. Henry would say: “Well, now you’ve done it, let ’em grow again. I like you best with it long. Lillian Russell — that’s your style.”

Henry! Henry! Where are you?

The maid had turned back the corners of the bedclothes and had placed with dramatic effect the crêpe de chine nightgown, that fragile, extravagant bit of fluff, hemstitched, pin tucked, girdled with knotted strands of baby-blue ribbon. Beneath it, pigeon-toed, a pair of blue satin mules. On the pillow, a cap of crocheted silk to put over her hair.

Bessie gathered these things up and threw them on the sofa. She went to the bureau and found, neatly folded, slightly yellowed and crumpled, a nainsook nightgown with sleeves. It was trimmed with Cluny lace. It was ample and soft and clean. She put it on.

There were slippers, too — comfies with silk pompons on the toes. Arrayed thus, with her hair slicked back and a soaped, shining countenance, she felt somehow protected. She pulled the blinds against the lighted city and knelt by the bed.

First page of the short story, "Birthday", by Mildred Cram
Read “Birthday” by Mildred Cram from the September 15, 1928 issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

“The Lily Pond” by Thomas Beer

A Saturday Evening Post regular and writer of more than 100 short stories in the early twentieth century, Thomas Beer was best known for his biography of Stephen Crane as well as his novel The Mauve Decade. Beer’s fiction contained evocative metaphors and complex characters that preceded work along the same vein from writers like William Faulkner. In “The Lily Pond,” a sunken boat gives way to a chance meeting for a widowed man and a reclusive girl.

Published on April 16, 1921

 

“I can climb that,” said Justin.

He stared up at the face of the bluff where long patches of sandy clay showed among the massed wild bay that glittered metallic against the eastern sun. His father shook his head, studying the angle and rubbing his twisted ankle. “Pretty steep, Justy.”

“I can try though. I shan’t break my neck. You sit still.”

Kane grinned. “I’m not likely to go far. Well, try it, son. Here, better take my shoes.”

“Rubbish,” Justin laughed, “I don’t need ’em. I’ll yell down from the top if I can see a town or something.”

He trotted up the sloping hot sand and into a belt of rattling dry beach grass that flicked his bare insteps. There were hummocks of loose soil covered with mealyberry trailer before the ground rose sharply and his climb began. The bay and wild-rose brush caught his soaked trousers and presently he tore the sleeve of his jersey on a scrub-oak bough. Small pebbles rolled down about his toes and a green-and-gold garter snake slid away in a delicate rippling. The sun heated his back, and dust from this baked soil made him cough. But the bluff wasn’t really steep, now that he moved on its face. He glanced over a shoulder and saw Kane sitting, a composed gray figure on the white sand. The shallow water showed belts of ruddy drifting weed. The mast of the catboat wabbled still in view, a quarter mile from shore. It had sunk rapidly. Justin sighed hungrily and climbed on. Soon sweat filled his eyes. He was wonderfully thirsty. When he struggled over the lip of the bluff he sat for a moment panting and blind in this upper sunshine. Then he stood up and gazed down an endless olive landscape, a cup of dimpled moors splotched broadly with dark brush and flaked by lavender shadows from the clouds that fled above on the scented wind. Remotely, on the farther rim of this lovely peace, he saw a spire glitter. Here and there were the cream fronds of early flowering clethra and before him the meadow was stippled by scarlet lilies. Only one house showed, in a hollow that partly hid its silver shingle and the faded red paint of a little barn. Justin cupped his hands and yelled down to his father, “There’s a house,” but his voice croaked. Kane waved an arm, though, as if he heard, and Justin ran from the edge of the bluff.

At Princeton he ran cross country. Now he fled expertly, dodging the larger clumps of brushwood and sparing his feet. But bands of meshed vine and low growths made him stumble. When he noticed a sandy crooked path, it was interrupted with more vine. The scrub oak rose shoulder high and hid the house so entirely that he grunted his surprise, coming suddenly to a cleared pasture where two cows didn’t look up and an ambling dun horse raised its head to snort. Beyond, there was a trim garden where a man in blue overalls was weeding a tomato bed. This person looked at Justin’s waving arms intently, his own hands on his hips, and came a cautious yard to meet him, scratching his black beard.

“Look here,” Justin coughed, “our boat sank — off — back there

Qu’est-ce qu’il ya?” said the man.

Justin reeled and hunted for French, licking his lips. “Mon pere et moi, nous sommes naufragesnotre cat-boat — Oh, hell! Notre bateau est — c’est — it — ”

Tiens,” the man said. He scratched his beard again. Justin wagged an arm toward the bluff, despairing of his vocabulary. What on earth was a French farmer doing in this New England desert anyhow? But the man had gathered words: “You say your boat has sanked?”

“Yes. And dad’s busted his ankle or something, and for Lord’s sake give me a drink!”

A red-haired woman in white came up the garden path as he brought this out. She spoke from a little distance, excitedly, shading her eyes with a palm: “You’re in trouble? I could see you running down.”

Justin coughed and pulled himself to civilized speech. “Our catboat. It sunk — sank. I think the auxiliary was too heavy. It just sank in about five minutes and we had to swim in. But dad’s hurt his ankle. He’s down on the beach there. Is there some way of getting a wagon sent down? He can’t possibly walk.”

“Yes, I’ll send our man, here. Marcel.” She turned a rapid flood of words on the dullard, who nodded and lumbered off to catch the dun horse. “There’s a road down, about half a mile from here. It’ll take some time. You chose a bad place to sink,” she smiled.

Justin chuckled, fingering his ripped sleeve. He croaked: “We were anchored all night. Wasn’t any wind yesterday and we had the engine goin’ all afternoon. Just had it put in and it’s an old boat. I suppose the engine jarred the seams loose. Could I get a drink of water at the house?”

“Of course,” she said, and added: “You poor child!”

He couldn’t resent this. People seldom took him for twenty and he must look deplorable. Also, the slim lady wasn’t young. She might be all of thirty. He tramped after her white skirts across a grassy dooryard to the small porch, where an exclaiming fat Frenchwoman brought his water in a queerly ornate goblet, fragile and green. In the doorway an old man stood, leaning on a thin black stick. Justin sat down cross-legged to hide his aching feet and explained: “We live at Watch Hill, summers. We were goin’ to my aunt’s at Gloucester. I thought it’d be fun to go in the tub — the boat. Dad had this auxiliary dingus — engine — put in. I think it sunk us. We were cookin’ breakfast on the oil stove in the cabin and the water began coming up through the floor. Dad twisted his ankle gettin’ out. Of course it’s so shallow that we didn’t have any trouble getting in, but — ”

“But you haven’t had breakfast?” the lady smiled.

“Well, that’s the least of our troubles.” Justin grinned and jumped up. A buggy rattled through the dooryard, the dun horse attached. “I’d better go along. Dad — ”

“I think Marcel can find your father. And you must have some breakfast. Father, this is Mr. — ”

“Kane,” said Justin. He watched the lady pass down an interior hall, brightly papered. Her hair was the shade of his own, deeply red. The old man’s hair was white and curled still thickly above the breadth of a blank pale forehead. He spoke, motionless on the sill.

“You’re very lucky to get out of this so easily, my boy.”

“Yes, I think we are, sir,” Justin said.

He felt foolish, with all his excuses, at the sound of this slow, vibrant voice that echoed under the porch, smooth and deep. Justin shifted his bare feet, which tingled and itched as he looked down at their profuse scratches, then up at the pointed pale face set with black prodigious eyes.

“Funny! I changed the name of the boat. Had her painted in June. The fellow that painted her said it’d be bad luck. And it was.”

“What did you call her?”

“Egypt.” The name seemed amazingly silly. Justin defended it. “Dad’s been there — Egypt — a lot. He’s an engineer, y’know. Thought he’d like it.”

“Ah, whither hast thou led me, Egypt?” said the old man. He came stiffly into the porch on his polished slippers and looked after the buggy, a vague spot in a whirl of gold dust on the ribbon of road to the south. “You’d like to wash? There’s a bathroom at the head of the stairs.”

Justin climbed the narrow treads of the stair. This must be a converted, ancient farmhouse, made luxurious with gay papers and many prints or framed photographs. Beside the bathroom door there was a framed lady in frills and an extraordinary hat shaped like a flower pot. Across her skirt was splashed a signature: “Merry Christmas from Matilda Heron.” Justin tried to remember something about Matilda Heron while he sponged his salty hair and face. She was, he thought, a dead novelist or a singer — she had something to do with the arts anyhow. He hunted for iodine on the shelves and found a bottle of disinfectant to dabble on his feet. The styptic sting made him swear and he limped down to the porch again but was guided to the dining room and saw scrambled eggs smoking on the sheen of a round table. He wished his jersey had a collar as the old man examined him, sitting opposite, a cigarette poised in one hand.

“Father,” said the lady, “you’re embarrassing Mr. Kane.”

The old man started. “Mr. Kane reminds me of Maurice — of an old friend of mine. I got to staring. When you’re seventy, Mr. Kane, all the people you meet won’t be themselves but someone you knew.”

“Father’s getting like that,” said Justin. His father was only forty-four and Justin didn’t encourage the habit; thought it grisly. He went on: “His ankle’s rather weak. He got it mussed up in a motor smash — in France — year before last. He was an inspector. What’s the town over there?”

The lady looked through the window across the olive downs. “Stallford,” she said. “Oh, we’ve a telephone. You’ll want to wire your mother.”

“No,” Justin told her, “mother’s dead. Is there a shop? I can’t go to Gloucester in these rags.”

“Too bad it’s Sunday,” she laughed. “Yes, Stallford’s quite large, these days. Summer people. You can get some clothes. Give Mr. Kane a cigarette, father.”

Justin was talking about Watch Hill and rubbing either ankle with the other sole when the Frenchman led his father in and he grinned. Kane’s unconquerable neatness always charmed Justin. The gray flannel suit had dried somehow. Kane’s curling black hair never needed brushing and he’d wiped the salt from his brown humorless face.

“No, the ankle’s all right. I was walking round when your man found me.”

He stood, considering the lady with his solemn hazel eyes. The old man made a level gesture with both white hands. His rich voice filled the square room.

“My daughter’s been a nurse. You’d best look at it, Sarah.”

“Not necessary,” said Kane, then spoke to the daughter huskily: “You were at Bordeaux? One of the hospitals. I remember. Might I have some water?”

Justin leaned back in his chair and smoked three cigarettes, viciously rubbing his feet, hidden from this courteous group. It was singular, after a spring of track work and the summer swimming, that his skin should behave so badly. Miss Hammond — the old man named himself soon — talked evenly about Bordeaux, the rainy weather there and the hospitals. The wind tossed the cigarette smoke high to the ceiling now and then. Mr. Hammond seemed to drowse in his wicker chair, rigid and remote, turning a large seal ring on a finger.

“What wonderful air this is,” Kane said. “Wild rose and — are there pond lilies somewhere?

“There’s a pond. On the road to town. Yes, it’s pleasant here.” Miss Hammond didn’t let the subject change though. She continued:

“But Bordeaux wouldn’t he bad under peace conditions, do you think?”

The Frenchwoman came to clear the table. Miss Hammond suggested their removal to the porch, and there a collie came to lure Justin away into the dooryard. It was a friendly beast, anxious to have sticks thrown; but Justin sat under a lilac bush presently and studied his feet with passion. They looked bigger than usual and the drying scratches had margins of white. The smell of pond lilies grew cloying. Justin wished his father would telephone for a car and get to a hotel where he could bathe and find iodine. He scrambled up as Kane strolled over the grass.

“Funny you’d remember Miss Hammond, sir.”

Woman on a bridge stares in shock as a hand reaches out of the water.
“I was fishing for one off the bridge with a stick. I nearly swallowed the whole concern!” (Illustrated by J.E. Allen)

“No. She was having dinner with some nurses in the Montre at Bordeaux. There wasn’t anything else worth looking at.” Kane smiled a little and nodded. “Come along, son. Lunch seems to be ready.”

“She’s not bad looking,” Justin murmured, and limped along to luncheon.

Halfway through the meal he stopped eating and began to stare at a great steel engraving over the sideboard. It seemed to be Cleopatra dying, the asp on her breast, but it wavered, through his nausea. The nerves of his feet must be affecting his stomach. He lurched when the others rose, and the old man spoke with a real rapidity:

“The lad’s ill. Sarah — ”

“My feet,” said Justin.

The room commenced to whirl grandly, like a merry-go-round. He reached for his father’s arm. In this fluctuation he heard Miss Hammond’s clear voice pronouncing “Poison ivy! Oh, you poor thing!” and the collie whined dolorously as Justin was guided, chewing his lips, up the stairs. There followed a feverish afternoon. He reclined in an unbelievable garment of silk, which was the first nightshirt of his life, on a four-post bed. Miss Hammond smeared his ankles with some ointment and a chirping Yankee doctor bustled in who called Miss Hammond “Sary” and Justin “bud,” for which Justin wanted to kick him. His father wandered pathetically about and wouldn’t smile, though Justin tried to indicate the humor of this childish accident. Jokes came to a silent death on his father’s solemnity. The excellent man hadn’t been gay even when his wife laughed. He met sallies with a puzzled civility, never offended, apparently anxious to smile. Justin was glad they had fallen, here, among grave folk; Miss Hammond and her old father were plainly serious. People who wanted amusement wouldn’t pick out this windy, lonesome headland. He mentioned this when Kane brought up his dinner tray and lit three candles, which showed the gilt-edged engravings in the pleasant room.

“Yes, it’s a lonely place. Very nice people, aren’t they? I’ve phoned a telegram to have Murphy bring the car up, and some clothes. You won’t be able to walk for a day or two, son. How do your feet feel?”

“Fierce,” Justin said cordially, and regretted it at once, as Kane winced. “But they’re lots better, of course.”

“I ought to have made you take my shoes this morning.” Kane sighed and went downstairs.

At times, the majestic inescapable voice rolled up from below. Mr. Hammond spoke so distinctly that Justin caught whole phrases. He seemed to be talking Egypt. “Pyramids, I was rather disappointed,” and “We had a dragoman named — ” Dinner lasted a long time. The Frenchman came to take Justin’s tray and to bring a silver box filled with cigarettes. These were marked P.H. and had lengthy gilt tips, which Justin abominated as a vanity. But the blended tobacco was soothing. He lay and blinked at the candles, heard someone play the piano below, and jumped as Mr. Hammond came in.

“Three candles going,” said the amazing voice. “That’ll never do.” He lit a fourth on the dresser and sat by the bed in a pompous velvet chair, on which his thin person doubled stiffly yet with an exact grace. He smiled and spoke: “Your father’s most interesting, my boy. I hope your poor feet are — ”

“They’re doing very well, sir. Hadn’t been near any ivy for so long I’d forgotten I poisoned.”

“When I was a boy,” said Mr. Hammond, “I was with Booth. I forget who she was — a very pretty girl. She played Ophelia to his Hamlet. We were somewhere in Pennsylvania, as I recall it, and the trunks were lost. We were opening in Hamlet. Well, we scratched up some sort of clothes — there was a costumer — but there weren’t any flowers for Ophelia. Booth sent one of the men out in a buggy and this idiot brought back an armful of wild flowers. The poor girl! She didn’t know poison ivy when she saw it. She twisted a lot of the stuff round her head in the mad scene — the poor girl!”

His melodious pity boomed and filled the room. Justin sat up and examined an actor at short range. This was most fantastic, incredible. Justin found himself wearing the nightshirt of a man who had played with Edwin Booth, and now listening to a string of stately yarns about the tragedian.

“Oh, was Matilda Heron an actress, sir?”

“The best Camille of all time, my dear boy. Clara Morris?” He shrugged Clara Morris into nothingness. “Bernhardt? Not bad. She did the last act well. Oh, any competent actress can do Camille passably. Duse — I never saw her. Nellie Terry didn’t like the part — ” His voice declined into a murmur. He stared at the floor, then checked a yawn with the pale fragility of his fingers. “I’d like to see Maurice’s little girl play. Well, this is my bedtime. Good night to you.”

He made a stiff and graceful exit. Justin grinned, shivered mentally; this old man was a bit of history. Kane remembered Edwin Booth hazily. It must be an anguish to look back so far. Justin flexed his arms and wished Miss Hammond would play something recent. But a passage of Lohengrin was the most modern of her offerings, and ragtime had no place in this still, lost house. Moonlight covered the moor and brought a sparkle from some pool not far away, before Kane came up, reflective and silent after his prompt question about the feet. In another of the appalling nightshirts he looked like an overgrown choir boy, and strolled about smoking a last cigarette. Justin chuckled.

“Seems the old gentleman was an actor, dad.”

“Your mother and I saw him play — Richelieu, I think — in San Francisco on our honeymoon, in 1899. Justy, your mother’s been dead twelve years?” This seemed to be a question. Justin nodded soberly. Kane threw the cigarette out of the window and drew the shade over the upper pane. He blew the candles out methodically but paused over the last to smile without the hint of any humor. “Hammer me if I start snoring, son.”

He didn’t snore but slept stolidly, stretched on an edge of the bed, and was gone when Justin woke, sneezing, in bright morning. The pond lilies must be open. Their scent crushed down all the other intermingling odors of the brush and, sitting up, Justin could see, a quarter mile off, the shimmering of this pond, oval in a hemming rim of scrub oak. A white gown stood by the end of a bridge that crossed it, and soon a gray male figure joined this whiteness. Kane and Miss Hammond wandered up the road together.

“Great Caesar’s immortal spirit!” Justin muttered.

The gilt clock on the dresser struck seven. What on earth was his father doing abroad at such a preposterous hour? It had the look of an appointment. He considered Kane when the man brought his breakfast up, and surveyed Miss Hammond when she came to change the bandages on his miserable feet. He could approve of Miss Hammond, he thought, quite heartily. She was certainly enough, if handsome not precisely young.

“Your father doesn’t act anymore? I go to the theater a lot. I’d have seen him.”

“He — retired in 1903,” she said. “It’s quite odd. Your father saw him on his last tour, in San Francisco. That too tight?”

“No; fine. I suppose you go to the theater a lot, winters?”

She raised her head and looked at Justin with her bronze eyes, smiling sadly.

“There isn’t any theater in Stallford,” she said.

“My — my word! You don’t live here the year round?”

“Yes. I haven’t been away since I got back from France,” she stated, and left Justin gaping.

Old man with cane stands outside his front door.
“You’re very lucky to get out of this so easily, my boy!” (Illustrated by J.E. Allen)

The fact bit his brain whenever he looked at the olive moor thereafter. It was ten miles to Stallford, a town — in winter, when only the natives filled it — of a thousand people. On Thursday, when he limped down in loose slippers to the motor, he shook hands zealously with Miss Hammond. “A great pleasure to have had you with us, my dear boy,” said the old man, smiling against the sun. “I’m afraid I’ve bored you with my old tales. Sarah’s very patient with me. I prose along. Goodbye.”

Justin stared back and waved, as the driver let the car go gently out of the grassy yard. Old Hammond lifted his black stick and there was a delicate commotion in the cloud of cigarette smoke about him. The daughter did not stir on the steps.

“Lord,” Justin said, “I should think she’d go crazy! And if I had to listen to him talkin’ all the time, I’d kill him.”

“Awful,” Kane assented; “like a church organ.”

The car passed with a mild rumble between the rails of the bridge over the lily pond, where dragon flies swirled like odd blooms freed from the glittering surface and the perfume choked Justin to a cough.

“Too sweet,” Kane agreed. “Your mother hated them.”

The gray shingles of the lonesome house effaced themselves on the olive slope of the headland. Justin looked at the dull shady streets of Stallford eagerly. Here, after five days spent among aged, settled characters, he saw youth perambulating the tennis courts of a small hotel, and more youth in bath suits motoring down to the beach. In Gloucester his cousins chuckled over his feet instead of sighing, and he forgot about Miss Hammond for six days, then asked Kane how old he thought she might be.

“She’s thirty-one, son,” said his father slowly.

“Did she tell you, dad?”

“Yes. And she’s lived there ever since 1903. She was only in France six months. It’s — disgusting,” said Kane, and walked heavily down the veranda, his head sagging. He came back to Justin’s hammock with a frown. “I want to send her some novels. Go tell Murphy to bring the car. You’ll have to help me pick ’em out, Justy.”

Justin picked out half a dozen novels, was afterward consulted about chocolates and thus was prepared for a question by his aunt. “Your father seems awfully preoccupied, Justy. What on earth’s the matter with him?”

“He’s preoccupied,” said Justin obscurely.

His aunt oozed sympathy over anything loverly. He didn’t care to loose her on his father, and went off to play tennis. If his father had fallen in love with Miss Hammond it was only fair to let him enjoy that condition without scrutiny. Justin had often wondered if women had any meaning to Kane. It was thrilling to find that they had. He wasn’t surprised when Kane suggested a return to Watch Hill; less so that, below Boston, his father ordered the motor to head for Stallford, where rooms seemed to be ready at the hotel and many females observed their first meal in the dining room. Then Kane vanished and Justin spent an afternoon of speculation on a pier by the shallow bay. However, before sunset he met a classmate coming in from a sail and, shortly after, the classmate’s three sisters. By ten o’clock he found that all three liked red hair and two of them liked gray eyes.

It was midnight when he heard Kane enter the adjoining room. The man moved to and fro, undressing. Justin grinned in his darkness. But after a moment he had to chuckle; his father was whistling, though badly enough, a waltz of the incredible days before Justin’s birth.

In the morning the good man looked penitent. He sat on the edge of Justin’s bed and patted one of the still tender ankles, shuffled his feet and fooled with the frogs of his pajama jacket.

“Hope you found someone to talk to last night, son.”

“Of course I did. I know a lot of people here. How was she?”

“I shouldn’t have stayed so late,” Kane muttered, “but he goes to bed at nine and — you don’t mind staying here a while? “

“Not a bit, sir. And she’s awfully nice.”

Kane said swiftly: “Makes me think of your mother, Justy,” and went off to shave. He came back with his eyes anxious above the mask of white lather and went on: “Of course I — I’ve never cared about anyone the way I did for your mother, Justy. Couldn’t.” Then he appeared with half the lather erased, to mumble: “Mighty lonesome when you’re off at college, son.” There Justin laughed, and the shaven tract of his father’s face colored. He chuckled timidly.

“Thought I’d better let you know, son.”

“I’m mighty glad,” Justin assured him, and often mused on his father’s happiness for the rest of the week.

It was impossible that Miss Hammond would refuse this fine man, and she deserved a reward for her isolation on the headland. None of the summer colonists knew the Hammonds, but several ladies told Justin that Miss Hammond drove to town occasionally.

“She’s very handsome,” one said. “The old man’s neurotic, you know. He has one of those phobias. He can’t stand meeting people. They live there all the year. It’s really quite pathetic.”

“Must have been jolly for him when she went to France,” Justin pondered.

“Oh,” said the lady, “they said it was dreadful! I heard about it. He was so anxious to have her go. Then, their doctor says, he almost went insane. He used to walk up and down the road by the house and talk to his wife — she’s dead — and it frightened his servants. The French are so superstitious, aren’t they? They say his wife was very pretty.”

Justin thought these eccentricities rather childish. But Mr. Hammond was old and so excusable. Kane didn’t propose that Justin come calling, and Justin was busy. Stallford was undermanned. Girls even suggested that he get his father to fill out clambakes and motorboat parties. They flattered him on Kane’s youthful charms and there was a loud alarmed chorus when the engineer came, rumpled and wet, from the motor one evening.

“I fell in that beastly lily pond,” he grunted to Justin over the edge of the bathtub. “Sarah wanted some lilies — the old gentleman likes ’em — and I was fishing for one off the bridge with a stick. By George, I nearly swallowed the whole concern! The stems, you know? They got tangled all round my legs. You came pretty near being an orphan. That somebody knocking?”

Justin went to the bedroom door and brought back a telegram. Kane read this and gave a long sigh, almost comic in its woe. “I’ll have to go to New York. Man from Denver. Take a week, pretty near. You’ll go out and see h — ’em, though?”

“Of course I shall,” Justin promised, and remembered that he must do so one morning three days later, when their mothers had dragged most of his associates to church.

The chauffeur was amiably occupied with a native beauty on a bench before the hotel. Justin drove himself over the moors, wondering if his father had kissed Miss Hammond yet, and blushed when he found her on the pond bridge, fishing for lilies with a long stick.

“Father’s fond of them,” she said in her serious brisk voice. “Such a thick sort of perfume, though, isn’t it?”

“Lots too thick; bad as ether almost. Had a note from dad. He’ll be back Thursday morning.”

She didn’t answer but went on prodding a polished lily pad with the stick. As the color came up her face Justin saw that she could look like his mother. He slid out of the car and perched on the solid rail of the bridge close to her moving arm in its thin white sleeve. The dragon flies dipped and hissed in long circles among the bowl-shaped glistening flowers and the high sun beat a path for Justin’s eyes into the dull water so that he could guess at serpentine stems trailing down to some black depth.

“Justin,” said Miss Hammond, “I can’t marry your father. I must write and tell him so. Or — would you tell him? I — I’m so sorry.”

“Better marry him,” Justin advised.

“I can’t.”

She threw the stick into the pond and began to cry, motionless, the tears rippling on her upturned pallor. The muscles of Justin’s throat contracted. It was worse since she made no sound.

“Father’s the finest kind of man,” he mumbled, chewing his lips.

“I know. But I can’t go away. You see? He’s so old. Over seventy. It’d kill him.”

“Look here,” Justin said soon. “We’ve got an awfully big house. It’s at Irvington — up the Hudson. Lots of ground all round. He wouldn’t have to see anyone. He could have my grandfather’s rooms. He could be just as — as lonesome as he liked.”

She did not seem to hear. She said, “My mother was much younger. He was playing Antony with Fanny Davenport when they met. She wasn’t kind to him. She flirted with other men. I can remember. He was always kind to her. She wasn’t a good actress, but he had her for a leading lady in his company. Her name was Eugenie Watson. She ran away with someone. He never spoke unkindly of her — never. He was playing in San Francisco when the news came that she’d died. She killed herself. Then he couldn’t act as well. And then he stopped. I look very like her. Sometimes he calls me Eugenie. He can’t live any place but here. He tried to live in Stallford when he made me go to France. It didn’t work. He — he needs me. He’s happy. I can’t do it. When I was away he used to walk up and down the road here and talk to her — just as though she could hear him. Won’t you write your father?”

Justin twisted on the rail and shook his head.

“No, I won’t. Mr. Hammond can come and live in Irvington. He needn’t miss seein’ you at all. Dad likes him a lot. It’ll work out. You’ll see.” He brightened with speech. “And dad takes all summer off anyhow. He’s got three partners. You can come here.”

Presently she put her face in her hands and leaned on the rail. She did not look up when Justin turned the car and drove away, soaked in a queer anger. The old man seemed a monstrous selfish shadow flung across the world suddenly. Justin raged, not hopelessly, but with a sick vexation. He could imagine Kane stroking the red luster of her hair and arranging all this gravely. It was utterly stupid that his father should be held off so. Justin smoked a pipe and got the lily smell out of his throat by lunch time, but anxiety stayed strongly in him. Kane was probably a timid lover. He might take fright in these perplexities, let himself be sacrificed. Justin thought of Hammond with a large impatience until thinking made his head ache and the crowd of cheerful young persons on the tennis courts afflicted him. He found that company wasn’t good for a brain congested with worries.

On Wednesday the chatter of the girls watching a game of clock golf was peculiarly burdensome and Justin fancied he could learn to loathe women. He was scowling over a stroke when the chatter waned and someone whispered his name, deeply. Justin stared up at old Hammond, close to him, the spectral hands still on the gold crook of his cane, the face rigidly frowning under the sweep of a wide hat. At this vision the youngsters round about were glaring, amazed and lost to manners. Justin handed his putter to a friend and followed the stiff legs away from the herd.

“That game,” Hammond said, “looks as imbecile as croquet, my dear boy. Is there some quiet place? I — ”

His mouth flickered in a curious spasm and his long face twitched. Justin guided him across the sunny turf to a summerhouse, happily empty,

“My dear lad,” the old man murmured, “this is very awkward. I had Marcel drive me in. I hate the telephone. We fossils are prejudiced, you know! Well my poor Sarah seems to have lost her senses.” He laughed, richly and smoothly, on an organ note. “I hope you haven’t written your good father that — ”

“No, I didn’t, sir,” said Justin. “He’ll be here tomorrow morning and — ”

“I’m glad you didn’t disturb him.”

Hammond took his hat off and lit a cigarette. He seemed lightly amused and beamed at Justin gayly.

“Sarah’s too sensitive on my account. She fancies things. I’ve been watching her very closely. Last night she broke down while she was playing the piano for me. I had to bully her — absurd — until she told me. Of course this is preposterous. I’ve always looked forward to her marriage. Oh, not as cheerfully as I should — one gets selfish. I’m sure you’ll find me a very kind stepgrandfather-in-law.”

“Sure I shall,” Justin said. “I was telling S-Sarah, sir, that you’d be awfully comfortable in our place at Irvington. There’s a set of rooms where my grandfather — ”

“It sounds most inviting.”

Hammond stretched his legs and crossed his small feet jauntily, blew a smoke ring and waved it aside. His mouth twitched a little.

“My nerves went to pieces badly, in my last season. I was really ill for some years and I got used to living out here. ‘Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time.’ What a wretched part Orlando is, to be sure! Do you ever wrestle? I had a silly mishap when I was playing Orlando in London in ’86.” He told, with many gestures and at great length, how he had dislocated a shoulder in the wrestling scene of As You Like It, then came back to their business. “But I’m anxious your good father should understand that this is merely — ah — overanxiety on Eugenie’s — on my daughter’s part. What time does he get here tomorrow?”

“About eleven, sir.”

The old man ground out his cigarette with the tip of the black cane.

“I’m sure he’ll make my girl an excellent husband. And you’ll make her a good stepson or I’ll come back and haunt you, my lad. I’ve had a deal of experience haunting. I played along nicely. Good day to you.”

As the buggy went off he spoke to the driver in French, and that fluid speed of music remained with Justin as he trotted down to the beach. The old fellow was artifice itself. He had played this scene like a bit from a play, airily and gracefully, tactfully. And it was really a noble act, Justin thought. He was much pleased, and exploded sociably in his relief, took a carful of youth on a drive under the failing August moon and came home to his bedroom at midnight. The clack of the rusty telephone bell startled him, half undressed, and the gracious roll of Hammond’s voice was diminished in the buzz of the wire.

“Come out early in the morning, my dear boy. I mean, before you go to meet your father. Sarah will want to talk to you.”

“About when, sir?”

“Would eight be too early?”

“I’ll be there.”

“Please don’t fail Sarah. Good night.”

Justin left a call for seven and, when it rang, remembered the reason. It was most important to be prompt in his father’s behalf. No doubt Miss Hammond was going to give in and wanted to explain this. He dressed, whistling, got the car from the hotel shed and set off, hungrily hoping that there would be coffee for him at the house, which did not show through a faint sunsmitten mist that rolled on the moors, frosting the brush and hiding the gulls that yelled above. The farther pads of the lily pond were obscured in the gray flow as the car passed the bridge, and some lads in faded country clothes stared at Justin mutely. The collie capered down the dooryard to welcome him as he stopped inside the gates. The Frenchman was talking to an elderly farmer by the porch and Justin went into the hall unannounced, then whistled. Miss Hammond came out of a room behind him and put her arms about his neck, silently, though she was weeping. Justin patted her hair cordially.

“All right,” he said. “That’s all right.”

“Oh, where’s your father, Justin? Some boys found him. They’d come out to get lilies. They sell them in town. And he was so happy last night. I played the Mikado for him. I went to bed early.” She leaned on Justin’s shoulder, sobbing slowly. “My mother drowned herself too. Oh, Justin, where’s your father? Why doesn’t he come?”

The first page of the short story "The Lily Pond" by Thomas Beer
Read “The Lily Pond” by Thomas Beer, published April 16, 1921. Become a subscriber to gain access to all of the issues of The Saturday Evening Post dating back to 1821.

Featured image illustration by J.E. Allen

What Should I Write in My Valentine’s Day Card?

Roses are red, but violets aren’t blue, and if you use this erroneous cliché in a card to your sweetheart they might just dump you.

Is your holiday missive missing something? You needn’t be a brilliant bard to impress your Valentine with some heartfelt verse. Steal it from us instead! Here are some clever and romantic quotations taken straight from obscurity to grace your letter to your beloved.

“Said a Lover” by Katharine Scott (July 12, 1930)

I envy him Love first did give

The idea for the adjective,

Who first did find for passioned state

The barren noun inadequate,

And, leaning to his mistress’ ear,

Made the small words of “sweet” and “dear.”

 

If I had lived when Love was young,

Before a thousand years of song

Made “lovely” worn and tarnished stand,

And “beautiful” so secondhand;

When “fair” was fresh, and “charming” new,

Perhaps I should have words for you!

 

From “Song of a Contented Heart” by Dorothy Parker (February 24, 1923)

All sullen blares the wintry blast;

Beneath gray ice the waters sleep.

Thick are the dizzying flakes and fast;

The edged air cuts cruel deep.

The stricken trees gaunt limbs extend

Like whining beggars, shrill with woe;

The cynic heavens do but send,

In bitter answer, darts of snow.

Stark lies the earth, in misery,

Beneath grim winter’s dreaded spell—

But I have you, and you have me,

So what the hell, love, what the hell!

 

“Any Lover to His Love” by Mary Dixon Thayer (June 13, 1925)

Where you have been the lilies blow

More thickly, and the grass is sweet

Where you have touched it with your feet.

 

Where you have been, and where you go

The world is fair — so fair!

Your laughter trembles in the air.

 

Where you have been I wander, and

The lilies and the grass

Utter your beauty as I pass.

 

Even the blind clouds understand

What loveliness by all is seen

Who walk where you are, or have been.

 

“Juliet on the Balcony” by Howard Glyndon (January 12, 1878)

O lips that are so lonely

For want of his caress;

O heart that art too faithful

To ever love hint less;

O eyes that find no sweetness

For hunger of his face;

O hands that long to feel him

Always, in every place.

 

My spirit leans and listens,

But only hears his name,

And thought to thought leaps onward

As flame leaps unto flame;

And all kin to each other

As any brood of flowers,

Or these sweet winds of night, love.

That fan the fainting hours!

 

My spirit leans and listens,

My heart stands up and cries,

And only one sweet vision

Comes ever to my eyes.

So near and yet so far love,

So dear yet out of reach,

So like some distant star, love,

Unnamed in human speech!

 

My spirit leans and listens,

My heart goes out to him,

Through all the long night watches,

Until the dawning dim;

My spirit leans and listens,

What if, across the night

His strong heart send a message

To flood me with delight?

 

“A Question of Terminology” by Robert Zacks (February 16, 1946)

How absurd a heart can be!

When it’s bound, it feels most free.

When it’s free, it wanders round

Seeking, so it can be bound.

All this simply means to me

Words do not say as they sound;

Freedom’s not till love is found.

 

From “Love Song” by Charles Gavan Duffy (June 21, 1856)

The face of my Love has the changeful light

That gladdens the sparkling sky of spring;

The voice of my Love is a strange delight,

As when birds in the May-time sing.

Oh, hope of my heart! Oh, light of my life!

Oh, come to me, darling, with peace and rest!

Oh, come like the summer my own sweet wife,

To your home in my longing breast!

 

“The Sum Total” by Patience Eden (November 15, 1930)

In casting up some old accounts

Of psychological amounts,

I find, my dear, you have a way

Of being far more good than gay:

 

And when I think you’re most alive,

You’re merely bland instead of blithe,

You have a cool and classic mind,

Less brave than bright, more keen than kind;

 

The values of your character

Merge in a grand, majestic blur

Of awesome traits — and yet, my dear,

It’s what you’re NOT which seems most clear.

 

“Contentment” by Philip I. Blakesly (March 16, 1940)

When an ocean is least,

Or a world or a star,

Who cares what is most?

When the cup is full,

When the heart overflows,

There is only that —

There can be no more.

And a cup will suffice for a grander measure;

When the mind’s at rest, what more is a treasure?

“Bwah-Wahdi-Dough” by Henry Anton Steig

Bronx-born Henry Anton Steig was a textbook Renaissance man. As a saxophonist, painter, cartoonist, writer, astronomer, and jeweler, the man of many talents was sewn into much of 20th-Century iconography without ever becoming a household name. His fiction appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and Collier’s, he worked with songwriter Johnny Mercer in Hollywood, and his Manhattan jewelry shop even played the background of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic subway grate scene in The Seven Year Itch. His story “Bwah-Wahdi-Dough” is a swinging New Year’s Eve affair with a complicated love triangle bursting with colorful city dialect.

Published on January 9, 1937

 

In the hallway of the apartment house, Harry Tack looked himself over carefully, brushed a bit of lint off the velvet collar of his form-fitting topcoat, and then rang the bell marked “Smith.” The door was opened by one who, he had decided, was a very cute number; not much over five feet tall — just about right for his own five-six — slimly and gracefully curved in a very special way, and with large dark eyes and amber-colored hair.

“Hello, Harry,” she said.

“Hi, Sue.” Harry followed her into the apartment.

Susan introduced him to her parents. They were in the kitchen, Mr. Smith reading, and Mrs. Smith knitting, and Harry was thankful that they remained there when Susan took him into the living room. He sat down in an easy chair, carefully putting some slack in his trousers first, and Susan sat opposite him on a couch.

“Must be nice having a night off from the trumpet,” she said.

“Oh, I never get tired of the piston,” Harry said. “I wouldn’t mind playin’ it every night ’na week, except when I got sumpm extra out of the ordinary on, like tanight.”

“Do you like clubbing better than steady work?” Susan asked, having acknowledged the compliment with a smile.

“Yeah, fra while, anyhow. Bill Devoe’s band’s got a pretty big rep, and Miller’s a good agent, so we’re kept on the go. It’s nice woik and we get it; fun playin’ to a different crowd every time. And with the Honeybunny hour twice a week and groovin’ plates for the Phonodisk Company, everybody’s happy far as dough’s concerned. How about you? Hodda you like clubbin’?”

“I’ve given up the idea of becoming an opera star,” Susan said regretfully, “so I have to like it. Trouble is, clubbing’s not very dependable.”

“I wouldn’t worry if I was you. Miller likes your woik, and you got a good contact with our band. It was just last week he started bookin’ you, wasn’t it? And you played two dates with us awready. That ain’t bad. ‘Fcourse, not everybody wantsa pay for extra entertainment outside of the band, but I wouldn’ be surprised if you knock off three dates a week on the average. And after a while maybe you’ll catch a wire too.”

“Radio would help a lot. Do you really think there’s a chance?”

“Well, there’s lotsa woiss singers than you on the air.”

That didn’t sound at all complimentary, and it made Susan involuntarily lift her eyebrows. Being informed, after some years of study, that her voice wasn’t big enough for opera or for the concert stage had made her somewhat unsure of herself. Looks, she knew, counted in this new work she was doing; she was not unaware of her attractiveness and of the obvious possibility that it colored people’s opinion of her as an artist. She wanted to be rated solely on ability. She had met Harry only twice, when she had worked with the band, and had talked to him for but a few minutes each time. When he had asked, simply, if he might come to see her, she had acquiesced, because she had immediately been attracted by his earnest manner and his frank, boyish smile, and because it was refreshing not to be subjected to the overture of wisecracks which she had come to believe to be a fixed Broadway custom. Harry seemed to be the sort who would be honest with her. She was a bit apprehensive of what his opinion might be, but, nevertheless, she took the plunge.

“Harry,” she said, “you’re an experienced dance musician, you’ve heard lots of singers of popular songs and you ought to know a lot about it. Tell me, do you like the way I put my songs over?”

“Well, look, kid,” Harry began, deliberatingly. “Do you want the oil or the real lowdown?”

“I want you to say what you really think, of course!”

Harry lit a cigarette, realizing that he had already committed himself to some sort of criticism. Well, Susan seemed really to want to know the truth, and he decided that it would be kinder to give her a good steer rather than the meaningless raves to which she was probably accustomed.

“Awright,” he said, “the lowdown. Here it is: You got a nice sweet paira pipes. And the voice does sumpm to the customers; otherwise, even though you are a cute package, Miller wouldn’ keep on bookin’ you. But there’s a million dames with good looks and nice straight voices. Some of ‘em even get inta the big dough. So what?”

“I’m listening.”

“Well, the point is you’re woikin’ with a swing outfit. Whyncha try to loin sumpm about swing?”

“But I’m not a trumpeter or a saxophonist. I’m a singer.”

“Whatsa difference?”

“Why, there’s lots of difference.”

“But there shouldn’ oughta be! A singer oughta think of ’erself like one of the instruments, specially when she’s woikin’ with a band. Why do singers hafta be corny? Odduv every thousand there’s maybe one — like Connie Boswell — who’s got the real mmph — you know what I mean — the real bounce, the real shake. The rest of ’m, well, insteada puttin’ a riff in where it belongs, they shake their elbows or their hips, or they say ‘hi-dee-hi,’ as if it was the woids insteada the notes that counts. ’Fcourse, the old poissonality hasta be there, and it’s much more important with a dame who’s singin’ than with a musician. But it gets me sore the way they fool the customers. Spose, when I had a solo, I jumped up and began wigglin’ around and playin’ icky — would that make me a ride man? Not by a long shot. Then why do they call a singer hot when all she’s got is a figger and maybe a cute way of flashin’ ’er lamps?”

“What would you want me to do — imitate Connie Boswell?”

“You could do woiss. Butcha don’t hafta imitate ’er. Study ’er stuff and get the feelin’ for it. And then you can start puttin’ your own stuff in. You don’t hear me imitatin’ anybody, do you? Inna beginning, I got all my stuff from Red Nichols and Louie Armstrong and a coupla others, and then, when I got kinda soaked in it — it got all mixed up, sorta, inside of me — it began comin’ out more and more different and original alla time.” Harry was getting excited. He looked hopefully at Susan, but sensed that there wasn’t much rapport between them on the subject. “I don’t know if I’m puttin’ myself across, kid. It’s hard to say what I mean, except on the horn.”

“I think I understand,” Susan said doubtfully.

“You hafta wanna give,” Harry said. “You hafta wanna get off on it, like Cab Calloway or the Mills Brothers.”

Susan stared at him perplexedly. The swing temperament, to her, was unfathomable. Swing musicians, as a group, were all very queer. They laughed at the strangest things; always seemed to be enjoying among themselves a joke the point of which outsiders couldn’t get at all. They belonged to a distinctive sect and appeared to be aware of it. Perhaps their attitude of lightheartedness was due, in. part, to the fact that they didn’t know what work — in the sense that her father, for example, pushing a plane and a saw all day, understood it — really meant. Their work was the happiest kind of play. No wonder they couldn’t be serious about anything. Perhaps Harry was different from the others in that respect. But she doubted that any subject — no matter how important — but swing music could inspire in him the intense enthusiasm, the almost religious fervor with which he had been talking.

“Look, Sue,” Harry said in desperation. “I can see I didn’t make it click yet. Forget about everything I told you and come over here to the piano.” He sat down at the baby grand. Susan stood at the upper end of the keyboard, facing him. “Now, I ain’t got much of a voice,” he said, “but I know how it oughta be done and I got enough control to give you some samples. Foist we’ll take one of the fundamental get-offs. In the old days it was ‘doo-wackadoo.’ Now it’s ‘bwah-wandi-dough,’ with a hotter swing. Get me?” Harry struck some simple chords. “Now sing. Bwah-wahdi-dough.”

Susan felt very silly. She blushed, swallowed a few times, and then sang the syllables.

“Again,” Harry said.

She sang them again and several more times.

“You don’t get the accent right,” said Harry. “Step on the ‘di,’ but cut it short.”

He demonstrated once more. Susan repeated it, but it still lacked fire.

“Well, I can see that don’t click either,” Harry said. “But maybe it will if I give you a longer phrase to hang on to. Here: Bwah-wahdi-dough. Mbee-mbah-mboodi … No, no. When you get to the sounds beginning with b, make your lips spring open — blow ’em open — it should be like a series of liddle explosions, and the mm’s tie ’em together.”

Susan, though anxious to learn, still didn’t get it. She stood there, doing things with her lips like a silly goldfish — but a very beautiful goldfish — until Harry began to forget about the lesson. He was debating whether to do to those lips what seemed, at the moment, had to be done, but just as he leaned toward her, there was a “Grmph” from the doorway. Mr. Smith was standing there.

“Pardon me,” he said, “but is there something wrong? Mrs. Smith was worried. Asked me to find out what those strange noises were. And I must admit I was a bit alarmed too.”

Harry and Susan looked at each other and burst into laughter.

“We’re laughing at ourselves, dad,” Susan explained. “Harry is just trying to teach me something about shake music.”

“Oh, I see,” said Mr. Smith, as he withdrew. But it was quite plain that he didn’t “see” at all.

“Try those b sounds again,” Harry said, standing up and facing Susan. This time he didn’t care in the least whether she did it right or not. As soon as she had pursed up her round, ripe, cherry-red lips, he pounced at them with his own. She drew back, but not quickly enough to make the frown which followed appear consistent.

“Gee, Sue, I hope you don’t think the whole thing was just a gag,” Harry said. “That wasn’t part of the lesson. I just couldn’t help it. Honest, I couldn’t. Are you angry?”

He was so palpably contrite, Sue’s frown vanished.

“Of course, I’m angry,” she said. And then she smiled, because she had to admit to herself that it wasn’t true.

Harry went home with two previously formed opinions strongly confirmed. First, that Susan was a knockout. But second, that, as far as swing was concerned, she just didn’t have what it takes. It was difficult to explain that to her. Everybody was talking about swing, but very few knew what it meant. There had been a time when it annoyed him that people insisted on thinking they did know. But not now anymore. He had learned that the most one could hope for was a few sincere appreciators. There were always the members of the band, of course, and once in a long, long while, an outsider. You could easily tell, looking over a crowd of dancers, which ones you were really reaching. The rhythm got all of them — that was fundamental — but it was just one or two couples who usually kept near the bandstand while they danced, straining their ears for the pretty little subtleties of swing music, who really “felt” it. You could see them respond — with a grin, a jerk of the head, a sudden quick step — to that funny scream on the clarinet, the bubbly gliss on the trombone, the metallic hiss of muted cymbals in a cleverly inserted beat between embellishments of the solo instruments. And when the dance was over and the dancers stood, panting and applauding, on the floor, you caught the eye of one of them, perhaps, and it was like a precious secret between you. The others would never know, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. One either had the gift for appreciation — it seemed as rare, almost, as the gift for creating hot music — or one had not. Susan happened to be one of those who had not. Perhaps it would have been better not to have started it at all — this business of singing hot. She had been getting along nicely without it. Why get her all upset and dissatisfied with herself about it? And who was he to try to meddle with the intangibles of personality and temperament? Better to leave things as they had been. She was a wonderful kid and he was in love with her. When that and the promise in her smile after the stolen kiss were considered, swing seemed of very little importance.

But Harry’s decision not to meddle further with Susan’s singing technique had been reached without consulting Susan. Her interest aroused, she begged for further coaching. Harry would have liked to take her places, but she wanted to stay at home and practice singing, and he had to consent. So the coaching went on, without any sign of improvement in Susan’s style. Until one night, Harry, made irritable by her insistence on singing when he wanted to hold her in his arms and talk about the future, lost patience.

“Oh, what’s the use, Sue?” he said, after a half hour’s repetition of some simple hot phrases which Susan made sound very chilly. “You ain’t got it and you never will get it. Sorry I ever brought it up.”

“But I thought I was doing pretty well,” Susan said, very disappointed.

“That’s the hell of it,” Harry tried to explain. “It’s like a trumpet I once knew. He was a good paper man — went as far as anyone could, just readin’ the spots — but there wasn’t a real hot note in his whole getup. He should’a’ known it, but, like you, he didn’t. All of a sudden he got the notion that he was a sender, and he began tryin’ to play gut-bucket. Bought ’imself all kindsa tricky mutes, wasted a lot of rough tone, and it didn’t mean a thing. He thought he was a second Bix Beiderbecke and nobody could tell ’im anything different. It was awright when he played straight — there’s a place for straight men in this racket — but his sposed-to-be hot stuff was so sad that it took the bounce out of every band he woiked with. He got to be such a pain that none of the leaders would give ’im a job. And still he wasn’ convinced — thought the whole world had it in for ’im. Well, now he’s with a long-underwear gang, all cornfeds, like him; sorta hypnotized theirselves inta thinkin’ they know the way to town. He gets along somehow, but would you wanna be like that? Havin’ people who really know what’s what laughin’ at you? Take my advice and forget what I tried to teach you and go back to the straight stuff.”

Susan had tried so hard! She recalled the last time she had sung with the band. After one of her numbers, she had looked to Harry for encouragement, but all she got was a sad smile, sympathetic, but one which told her plainly that she was as far as ever from attaining what he had tried to teach her. Now she felt hurt, humiliated, and angry.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “I always thought it was vulgar, anyway. All that noise and blah — cheap!”

Harry didn’t like having the art form to which he was devoting himself spoken of in that way.

“If that’s the way you feel about it — noise and blah, cheap and vulgar — why dincha stick to grand opera in the foist place?” he said. “You should be at the Metropolitan at least.”

Susan was very touchy about her former aspirations. “Cheap and vulgar,” she spitefully repeated. “That’s what it is — and lowbrow!”

“Galli-Curci speaking!” Harry scoffed.

That was too much for Susan.

“Good night, Mr. Tack!” Susan said stiffly.

Harry stood up, straightening out all of his sixty-six inches. “Foist, sour grapes, and now a crack at my name. That ain’t cheap, I spose! Well, lemme tell you, there’s been some tremendous shots in the Tack family. That name’s got class. It ain’t corny — like ‘Smith,’ f’rinstance!”

Susan began to splutter, but that didn’t stop Harry from grabbing up his hat and coat and stamping out of the house.

The next time Susan sang with the band, she completely ignored him, and at the end of the evening she went home with Bill Devoe, the leader. Harry told himself that she was only trying to make him jealous, punish him. They’d make up, somehow. They had to — why, he had been on the point of proposing to her! Surely she knew how much he cared for her, in spite of the stupid quarrel they’d had. But Susan continued to let Bill take her home, night after night, and Harry began to upbraid himself for having lost his temper. He should have remained cool and polite, and then she would have had no justification for her coldness toward him. He wanted to talk to her, to apologize — if only she would meet him part way, so that he wouldn’t have to feel that he was forcing himself upon her — but she continued, stubbornly, to ignore him. Well, he wouldn’t try anymore, he decided. She’d have to be the first to talk now. He could be just as stubborn as she.

One night after a job, while the boys were packing their instruments, he caught Archie Wallenhoffer, the pianist, staring at Susan as she went out of the hall, arm in arm, as usual, with Bill Devoe. Archie was a big pudgy mopy fellow whom, it seemed, nothing could stir up except a hot tune. Harry somehow had never imagined Archie in love, but he realized now that the state of his own heart had not increased his awareness of what was going on around him. How could any man help falling for Sue?

“You too?” he said to Archie.

Archie sadly nodded. “How about a good old bender?”

Harry thought that a good suggestion, so they went downtown to a certain little place they knew and got thoroughly cockeyed.

“What chance do we stand,” Archie asked, “when Bill’s nuts about ’er?”

Harry, in a more sober state, might have considered the “we” presumptuous. Even now it seemed a bit too familiar. But as one who had been rejected, he couldn’t protest, even though it did make the whole affair something less than exclusive.

“Bill’s got everything a dame wants,” Archie went on. “Looks, dough and fame. And we’re just a coupla musicians — a dime a dozen.”

“Guess there’s only one thing for us to do,” Harry said. “You keep slappin’ the keys and I’ll keep ridin’ the piston, and we’ll both try to forget about ’er.”

This newly adopted philosophy of resignation, however, helped neither of them. Because it would have been difficult to forget a girl like Susan without seeing her two or three times a week. The one way out seemed to be to quit the band and seek a berth elsewhere. It was a hard thing to do. Harry had known the boys for a long time and they were the best friends he had. But Archie liked the idea, and it seemed easier to carry out when there were two of them. They decided to wait until New Year’s Eve, which was only a few days off. The band had an important engagement that night. For Harry and Archie it would be a sort of farewell party.

Early in the clear cold evening of the thirty-first of December there stood on a midtown corner a small built-to-order bus which had lettered on its sleek shiny outside, “Bill Devoe and His Club Orchestra.” The boys frequently played at homes and clubs in the suburbs, and the agent had decided that, musicians generally not being the most reliable people in the world, a private conveyance would save him a lot of last-minute headaches. Of course, there was no assurance that none of them would never miss the bus, but it was much more certain than having them travel as they pleased. Besides, the bus was a good advertisement.

Inside it were all the members of the band but the leader.

“I hope Bill gets here pretty quick with that broad,” said Al, one of the saxophonists. “It’s cold sittin’ still like this.”

Archie gave Al a dirty look. “Someday,” the pianist slowly said, “you’ll gedda good paste on the puss and maybe you’ll loin that not all dames is ‘broads.’”

“Why, Archie boy, is she got you sunk too?” Al asked.

The others all laughed, and Archie thought it best not to carry the subject any further. Harry didn’t say a word. He understood Archie’s chivalrous gesture and sympathized with it, but he was also inwardly amused by it. Another bus carrying a load of entertainers pulled up at the curb behind them. Then Bill and Susan arrived, and both buses started off uptown.

“Never too soon,” Al said, taking a flask out of his pocket.

But Bill stopped him. “Put that away! We got a job to do, New Year’s Eve or no New Year’s Eve. There’ll be enough of that later on. I want you boys to be able to toe the mark — at least until the customers don’t know the difference anymore.”

“Kinda dumb, anyhow, bringin’ your own along,” one of the men pointed out to Al. “Don’tcha think the Burgess crowd’ll take care of that?”

The Burgess home, a million-dollar estate, was forty miles out of town, in the hills. Old Man Burgess, it was said, owned most of the hills too.

The bus rolled steadily along, its chained wheels, echoed by those of the bus following it, clicking against the cleared strip of concrete between endless snow banks. Harry and Archie were slumped down in a rear seat, their knees against the back of the seat in front of them, their hats pushed forward over their noses. They tried not to stare too much at Susan, who sat in the front part of the bus, talking with Bill and the others near her. Frequently her laughter tinkled through the car. She seemed to be enjoying herself.

Al unpacked his clarinet.

“How ’bout you, Harry?” he asked. “C’mon, take out the plumbing.”

Al and Harry, it was conceded, were the best swingsters in the band. But Harry wasn’t swinging now.

“Sorry,” he said. “But I ain’t in the mood. Don’t expect anything but corn outa me tanight.”

“Corn, on New Year’s Eve? Wanna break my heart? Say it ain’t so!” Al pleaded, and he blew a high run on his clarinet.

Harry saw Susan turn around and glance at him; it seemed, from her thoughtful expression, that she was going to say something to him, but she quickly turned away. It gave him hope, but only for a moment. “Probably accidental,” he thought. “She didn’t mean to look at me at all.”

The trombonist and the guitarist took out their instruments and joined Al. The three of them played and the others sang, laughed and joked. All but Harry and Archie.

“Don’tchoo guys realize it’s New Year’s Eve?” Al said. He got up and went to the back of the bus and blew his clarinet at them. “Smadda with you two boids, anyhow?”

“Lay off!” Archie angrily whispered. “‘Beat it!”

Taken aback by the fierce tone — it wasn’t like Archie to get sore at anybody — Al shrugged his shoulders and rejoined the merrymakers at the front of the car.

The evening was still young when the buses pulled into the driveway of the Burgess estate, but several young people, obviously intent on a good time and as much of it as possible, met them at the entrance to the huge house and gave them a wild loud welcome. They were ushered into a ballroom whose size and splendor made them think for a moment that they were in a swanky hotel. Soon they had unpacked, arranged themselves on the platform at one end of the room, and started a dance number.

By ten o’clock, the ballroom was pretty well filled. It was a gay crowd, the holiday spirit was contagious, and Harry gradually lost himself in the music and began doing justice to his trumpet. Archie, too, couldn’t help swinging in good style. At eleven, the entertainers took part in a previously rehearsed floor show, night-club fashion. There was a chorus of dancers, some comedians, a quartet, and some solo numbers. After that their work was done and the entertainers mixed with the crowd. It was as much their party as the guests’. Susan, though, continued working with the band, singing a chorus or two, now and then.

At midnight there was a tremendous din. The guests blew whistles and horns, rang bells, cheered, shouted, yelled and generally conducted themselves as was considered seemly for the first few minutes of the new year. The band played Auld Lang Syne, everybody got a bit maudlin, and then, with the help of servants who were constantly making the rounds with loaded trays for those who were too lazy to help themselves from the side tables, things began gradually to disintegrate.

At about 2:30, the additive effect of the many little sips between dances were beginning to tell on Harry. He sat in a corner near the bandstand with a glass in his hand, wondering whether he had had enough to drink. More, he decided, couldn’t make him any more miserable than he already was. He contemplated the color of the liquid in the glass, preparatory to tossing it off — just like Susan’s hair it was when the light caught it — and then Bill tapped him on the shoulder. Bill had been drinking too.

“Snap odduvit, Harry,” he said unsteadily. “We ain’t played a number in about a half hour. And we can’t find Archie. C’mon, help me find Archie.”

All the men in the band engaged in a search, and finally Archie was discovered where no one had thought to look for him — on the bandstand under the piano, asleep. Bill angrily reprimanded him.

“Whaddaya mean, bawlin’ me out?” Archie complained as they got him to his feet. “Wasn’ I here alla time, ready for woik? ’At’s me, Johnny onna spot!”

When the band was ready to begin, Harry suddenly got a bad chill and began to shiver.

“Hold it a minute, fellas,” he said, getting up and going into the anteroom. When he returned, he was dressed in overcoat, muffler, hat, spats and gloves.

“O.K. Now we can start,” he said, and flopped into his chair.

“Quit clownin’,” Bill said, angrily. “You’re spoilin’ the looks of the band. Whaddaya think we’re wearin’ monkey suits for?”

“But I got a chill, I tellya. Want me to catch cold and die?”

“We don’t start till you take those extra duds off!”

“Suits me!” Harry put his trumpet in his lap, folded his arms, leaned back and closed his eyes.

“You’re fired!” Bill said in a rage.

Harry opened his eyes, looked at Bill and began to guffaw. He turned to Archie. “Hear that, Arch? I’m fired!” and he laughed more loudly than ever, Archie joining in.

“Awright, wise guy; you’re fired too!” Bill said to Archie. “You’re both through after tanight.”

Now both Harry and Archie laughed quite insanely. But meanwhile people were demanding music, and Bill had to surrender to Harry’s whim. He raised his baton, brought it down and the band began to play, but he lost his balance and almost fell off the platform. Someone gave him a chair. He led sitting down for the rest of the dance.

Susan, standing on the bandstand while she waited for the beginning of a chorus she was to sing, looked around her in distress. She had seen some gay parties, but none before nearly so bacchanalian in spirit as this one. Only a dozen couples of the, hundred or so present were dancing. The others were gathered in noisy groups about the ballroom and in the corridors and on the glass-enclosed terrace which encircled the house. In the center of the ballroom floor, some men were trying to find out how many chairs could be placed one on the other without toppling, and three or four girls in the group were excitedly shrieking, in anticipation of a crash. The behavior of some of the other girls could hardly have been considered decorous. Susan felt very lonesome.

At the end of the dance, Bill remained in the chair from which he had conducted the band. His face was on his chest and his arms hung limply at his sides. The baton had slipped out of his fingers. His bow tie was undone. Susan stood studying Bill with her chin in her hand. She saw Harry, out of the corner of her eye, wander away from the bandstand, out on to the terrace. She looked at Bill again. Not very attractive when he was drunk. And what a nasty disposition — firing two of his men! Harry was drunk too. But they said a man’s true nature showed itself when he was drunk, and Harry hadn’t been mean, like Bill, at all. Just childish. And perhaps she was partly to blame. She had seen that sad pleading look in his eyes more than once, during the last week or two, when she had been sure that he didn’t know she was looking at him. And on the bus — she had wanted to say something then, just a few words, anything, to let him know she wanted to talk to him. But with Bill there, and the others, she hadn’t been able to. And all this evening he had seemed unapproachable. But what else could she expect, the way she had treated him? And now, Harry, poor boy, was ill. She felt she was to blame for that.

Harry found a comfortable divan between some potted shrubs in a quiet corner of the terrace toward the back of the house, and stretched himself out in it. He was sobering up, but he felt dizzy, weak and extremely-depressed. “Nobody loves me,” he hummed sadly. He sat there, staring out from under the brim of his hat into the cold blue hills for what seemed a long time, and then he heard footsteps.

“Harry?” a soft feminine voice came from behind the shrubs.

“Harry?” he heard again, as if in a dream, and Susan stood before him. She seemed worried and embarrassed.

Harry’s chill left him. He hastily removed his hat, muffler and gloves.

“We hafta play again?” he stammered, not knowing what else to say.

“No. It’s after four and the crowd’s thinning out. Mrs. Burgess is putting us up for the rest of the night. There’s plenty of room, and the girls thought it safer to wait here.”

“That’s interesting. But I think I’ll stay right here and watch the sun come up.”

It would be a beautiful sunrise over those snow-covered hills, Susan thought. And how nice it would be to watch it with Harry. He was looking questioningly at her.

“Well?” he said.

The light was dim, but Harry thought he saw her face flush.

“Why did you laugh like that when Bill said you were fired?” she blurted out.

“Really wanna know? Well, you see, Archie and I were gawna tell Bill, before the night was over, that we’re quittin’. Somehow we never got around to it, though, and when he told us we were fired, it struck us funny, ’specially because we were both kinda high, I spose. Now we don’t hafta tell ’im.”

“But Bill was high too. He didn’t mean it. And by tomorrow he’ll forget all about it. He’d never let you and Archie go if he could help it. You’re both too good.”

“Nice of you to say so. But I was gawna quit anyhow, don’tcha see?”

“Why?”

“Oh, there’s reasons. But look, Babe; does it make any difference?”

Susan pouted and looked at the floor. Harry tried to stand up, groaned and fell back on to the divan. Susan quickly bent over him.

“What’s the matter, Harry? Are you ill? I — I’ll bring you some hot coffee.”

“Naw, I don’ want any coffee, thanks. Sit down here and tell me what this is all about.”

Susan sat down next to Harry. Then Archie appeared.

“I thought so, pal. Seems like our deal is off,” Archie said, looking at them tragically. “But, well, I can’t blame you. Trumpets always was lucky stiffs. But pianists — ” He sadly shook his head. Then he smiled, as if something funny had suddenly occurred to him. “Well, pardon me for bargin’ in. Guess I’ll go find Bill and laugh some more at ’im. A good long laugh. He must be comin’ to by now.” Giggling in anticipation, Archie hurried away.

“Didja know Archie was groggy aboutcha?” Harry said.

“I wondered what he meant! No, I didn’t suspect it at all. He never said a word.”

“Tough on ’im. They don’t come any better than Archie. But let’s get back to us. Foist of all, what about Bill?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. I thought I liked him. But going with him didn’t mean anything. Really it didn’t.”

“And where do I come in? Why the sudden thaw?”

Susan played with a decoration on her gown, avoiding Harry’s eyes. She didn’t know what to say. Couldn’t begin to put into words what she felt. Didn’t Harry realize that she had been fond of him all along? He wasn’t being helpful in the least, silently sitting there, waiting for an answer to his last question.

From inside the ballroom came the sound of blue, yet-not-unhappy piano music. Subconsciously, Harry began tapping his foot. Susan found herself tapping hers too. Then Harry reached for her hand and held it. That made it easier. “Fond,” she suddenly decided, was a very weak word. A deliciously ecstatic warmth crept over her, and all at once she knew what to do. She sang:

Bwah-wahdi-dough. Mbee-mbah-mboodi.” This time it was very, very hot, and she went on from there with some stuff — it seemed to come out by itself — that even Harry had never heard before. He must have understood what she was trying to tell him because he didn’t let her sing much more, but interrupted with an invitation to a clinch which she accepted willingly — even eagerly, it might be said.

It turned out to be quite a sunrise.

“Very Insignificant” by Sophie Kerr

Sophie Kerr was a prolific author of short fiction for the Post, publishing several stories in the magazine each year through the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Her fiction focused on cultural divides between urban and rural communities as well as those separating men and women. The Sophie Kerr Prize is now the largest undergraduate literary scholarship in the country. Her story from 1932 follows an eligible bachelorette’s complicated romantic decision through the lens of cuisine, proving that “human felicity is made up of many ingredients, each of which may be shown to be very insignificant.”

Published on February 13, 1932

 

Miss Mabel Arden stood before her mirror and purred as she looked at herself in her new black velvet dress and the little black velvet hat cocked over her right eye. Slender! Sylphlike! A proper indentation at the waistline instead of a mean little bulge! It was really wonderful what exercise, and an iron horse of a masseuse, and going without sweets like a martyr, had done for her. She could easily pass for thirty or less, and not in the dusk with a light behind her, either, but in the full stare of unshaded electric lights, or a harsh white sunbeam. And Mabel had been born just on the wrong side of 1890.

Savilla came in at this moment. She held a square white box in her hand. “Mist’ Simms come,” said Savilla. “He brought his reg’lars.”

Mr. Simms’ reg’lars was a cluster of gardenias, flowers as white and sweet as the flesh at the point of the v neck of Mabel’s new frock. Mabel pinned on the flowers carefully, still regarding herself with intense pleasure and appreciation.

“Get my gloves and my short black fur coat, please, Savilla,” she said. “And my little black-and-gold bag.”

Savilla obeyed. “You look manifisum!” she commented. “Slickes’ gownd you evah had. Gonta knock Mist’ Simms a loop, y’are, Miss Mabel.” In her expression there was a certain speculative quality. Mabel knew that Savilla was wondering how soon that dress would descend to her, and whether she could get into it.

“I won’t put on the coat,” said Mabel. “Leave it in the hall with my gloves, and bring the shaker and glasses and ice into the living room right away.” She turned slowly from the mirror and went in to meet Edward Simms and knock him for a loop, though she knew it wasn’t necessary. She could knock Edward Simms for a loop in the oldest, dowdiest rag she possessed. He was like that. He was, in fact, so devoted, and had been so devoted for so many years, that he might be said to be permanently looped by Mabel.

Still, it was nice to see his face as she entered in her black velvet magnificence. It changed from his ordinary welcoming smile to a look of admiration that was downright abject. “My Lord, Mabel!” he exclaimed. “How do you do it? Every time I see you you’re younger and more beautiful!”

“It’s my new frock.”

“It is not! It’s you. Gosh, but you’re lovely! I’m getting to be a fat old man, but you’re receding into your teens.”

Savilla appeared with a tray on which were a small silver shaker, a bowl of ice, two glasses, and a plate bearing four tiny canapés. Mabel unlocked the dignified mahogany bookcase — it had held her great-grandfather’s law library once upon a time — and took from behind its doors of brass-wire mesh and pleated green silk two interesting liquid containers, one square and one round. These she handed to Edward Simms, who received them carefully and proceeded to measure, with deft exactness, two portions from the square container and one portion from the round.

He looked up inquiringly. “No absinth tonight?” he said.

“I forgot,” said Mabel. She produced another container, and with a solicitude bordering on reverence, Edward doled out eight drops. Then was heard the tringle-trangle of ice against silver, and then the two glasses were filled with a cold, pale yellow fluid, teasingly aromatic, tempting the eyes, the nose, the palate.

“To the most beautiful woman in the world,” said Edward. He sipped critically. “It’s perfect, like you,” he said. “It’s just right.”

He went on talking. Edward Simms always talked a good bit.

“I know nothing more restful and agreeable,” he said, “after a hard day’s work than to come into a room like this, and look at a wonderful creature like you, Mabel, and taste a drink like this, all as a preface to a very good dinner at Rovi’s. Call me a sensuous pig if you like, call me a hedonist or a materialist or what not, but that’s the way I feel, and I glory in my shame. I only wish I could look forward to the same delight every night of the world. Why won’t you marry me, Mabel? I’ve dangled so long.”

“Are you going to begin that all over?”

“Begin it over? When did I ever end it? We’re so congenial, Mabel. And I’m not a bad sort; you know it. And I’m so crazy about you, always have been, always will be.” He paused, shrugged. “You’re going to laugh at me and turn me down again. All right, but I shan’t lose hope until I see you married to someone else. And even then there’s Reno.”

“If you’ve finished your nonsense, let’s go,” said Mabel.

Edward’s car was waiting, a trim sedan with extra cushions. It had been raining and the streets were polished gray steel, barred and spangled with gold from the lights, and the air was fresh and cold. Mabel leaned back and relaxed. There was something she wanted to tell Edward Simms, but it wasn’t kind to spoil this hour. She looked at his profile as he sat beside her driving. Kind, good, congenial, funny, and fairly handsome, though a little too fat. “He eats too much,” thought Mabel. “Nobody can feel romantic about a fat man. He talks about eating and drinking, and then proposes to me. He ought to see how impossible he makes it.” She gave a sigh for Edward Simms’ impossibility. He would feel it when she told him her piece of news. Far better wait until after dinner.

At Rovi’s they were received with acclaim, Signor Rovi himself ushering them to their table, the best in the house, properly lighted, shielded from drafts, removed from the path of passing waiters and far from any service table. There was no music at Rovi’s, no entertainers. People came there to eat well, and were never disappointed.

“Have you ordered?” asked Mabel, her interest quickening. She had lunched on a lean chop and a sliced tomato, and the delicious savory odors all about made her feel like a lean chop herself. Besides, no sane woman could feel anything but interest in a dinner ordered by Edward Simms.

“Yes, I’ve ordered. I hope you’ll like it.”

“I know I’ll like it,” said Mabel truthfully. “Nobody orders a dinner as you do, Edward. You know a great deal about it.”

“You know just as much. Think of the dinners we have at your apartment. Savilla’s a marvelous cook, but you’ve trained her.”

The waiter was serving caviar — true caviar, richly gray black, clinging to the spoon. Squares of hot toast and halves of fresh-cut lemon and grated mild onion and egg came with it. Also a pepper shaker containing cayenne. At this, Mabel looked surprised. “Try just a grain, Mabel,” urged Edward. “It’s not orthodox, I suppose, but it’s exciting.”

It was exciting. It was stimulating. “You’re right, Edward, as usual,” Mabel granted.

After the caviar there were cups of consommé Bellevue, the essence of clam and chicken, the spoonful of rich cream, all perfectly blended as a major chord of music. Ripe olives, supersize, shining, juicy, and titbits of celery heart accompanied the soup.

“But no toast or crackers or bread,” said Edward firmly. “People who eat bread with soup are all wrong, in my opinion.”

“I’m willing to forgo the bread, but I don’t entirely agree with you. Take an old-fashioned vegetable soup, for instance — ”

“But that is not a soup, Mabel. Old-fashioned vegetable soup is a meat-and-vegetable stew, and bread goes with it perfectly. And of course there are soups which contain toast or crusts as part of their ingredients, and that’s all right. But don’t muss up a consommé like this with anything starchy.”

“It’s true. And of course a purée is enough in itself; any bread just makes it stodgy. Oh, dear, this is so good. You make it very hard for me to stay thin, Edward. Do tell me what’s coming next?”

Her question was answered by the waiter, who approached, bearing a covered copper dish. He opened it and held it for her inspection. There, each on its own toasted pedestal spread with giblets chopped to paste, were two plump partridges, wrapped in vine leaves and the thinnest, most wafer-like slices of salt pork, done to a turn in their own juicy steam.

“And they’re just right,” said Edward, sniffing. “Not too high. People who eat very high game are simply scavengers! Pardon me, Mabel, for using the expression.”

Brown toy balloons of soufflé potatoes and a spoonful of tart grape jelly were the partridges’ companions. Mabel could not help eating everything, picking her bird to the bones, its supporting canapé to the last crumb. Edward Simms was likewise omnivorous. They ate leisurely, taking the full value of each delicious morsel. But if Mabel was silent, she was thinking, and her thoughts were divided. It was going to be harder than she had expected to tell Edward what she must tell him, and she was glad that she had not done it as they drove down town. It would have been a crime to bring to this meal any emotion but enjoyment.

After the partridges came a green vegetable, young, tender, green string beans, cut into slivers and cooked only the magical few moments to bring out all their infantile delicacy, then touched with melted sweet butter, and served piping hot on hot plates.

“I hesitated between these and a salad,” said Edward, “but they had nothing very distinguished in the way of salad greens, so I thought these would be better.”

“These are just right,” said Mabel.

“I’ve ordered no dessert,” he went on, “but there’s a marvelous poached pear with almonds and lemon Rovi bragged about, or frozen fresh pineapple.”

“What are you going to have?”

“The pineapple, I think, and we’ll make the coffee at the table. I’ve told Rovi not to grind it until we are ready for it.”

“Edward,” said Mabel gravely, “these little matters of grinding coffee and choosing a dessert and working out a menu are very important to you, aren’t they?”

Edward met her gravity with an impish twinkle.

“My dear Mabel, I like to dine as well as I can. So, I am safe in saying, do you. I don’t think it reprehensible to make all my meals as interesting and enjoyable as possible. Let me remind you that we mortals spend approximately one-eighth of our waking hours at table, supplying our bodies with their needed fuel. And if we do not supply our bodies with their needed fuel they balk or stop on us, and we — well, we’re done for. Taste is one of our five senses. My palate likes a good meal as much as my hand enjoys touching an agreeable surface, or my nose smelling those gardenias, or my ears hearing your very charmingly modulated voice, or my eyes resting on your most attractive face. I see no harm in good eating, as long as I make it a means to life, and not an end. Forgive me — you brought it on yourself by that scolding look in your eyes.”

The coffee machine was placed on the table and Edward watched the waiter measure the water and light the flame. Then he went on: “You’re the only woman I know, Mabel, with really civilized ideas about and appreciation of good food. You’re the only woman I know I’d trust to order my meals. We have many other small, livable tastes in common. And I don’t see why you won’t marry me. It isn’t only that I love you — ” He paused, and for an instant Mabel saw Edward Simms strangely changed from the man she knew into a wistful, imploring boy. And in that instant she realized she hadn’t the nerve to tell him what she must tell him — not tonight, at least. That boy she had seen would be too easily, too much hurt. She must contrive some way to let him find out for himself; he would bear it better if she didn’t put it into words.

“What d’you think about going to a movie, or to see the last half of the hockey at the Garden? You’re really much too elegant for either, but any show we’d go to would be half over,” said Edward as they finished their coffee: The wistful boy was gone. Edward the middle-aged was selecting a cigar with absorbed inspection.

Mabel sighed. Life, even when one is slim and dressed in new and successful black velvet, can present complications. “I’d like a movie,” she said. “A harrowing one, where I could cry.”

“And hold my hand?”

“If it’s sufficiently harrowing,” said Mabel. It wasn’t any use trying to be serious with Edward. She might as well enjoy herself and give him a good time. It would, she thought, probably be their last.

In the theater she could not keep her mind on the picture. Edward had wangled the best seats in the house — he always managed to do that, no matter how big the crowd was — and he had brought her through the mob without letting her be pushed or hustled. It was a Dietrich picture, and Mabel was crazy about Marlene; indeed, it was envy of Marlene’s thin and shapely legs which had helped her through this last hard two weeks of reducing. But now she regarded Marlene and her legs with indifference. How — how was she ever going to break it to Edward that Dean Kennedy was coming back!

Dean Kennedy, after fifteen years of absence! Dean Kennedy, her one great romance, her dream, her ideal! Dean Kennedy, so tall, so dark, so thrilling, black hair flung back wildly — not brushed flat like Edward Simms’ thinning locks — brown eyes that laughed and teased and mocked and drew her heart helplessly to him. Dean Kennedy was coming back, and what was more to the point, he was coming back a widower, for that silly moon-faced Cara Mai Kennedy, who had simply tricked him into marrying her when he was a mere twenty-five, not old enough to know his own mind — Cara Mai had, according to the letter Dean Kennedy had written Mabel, “passed on into the beyond” more than twelve months ago. So he was coming back to see all his old friends, and, again quoting the memorable letter, “most of all, I want to see you.”

It was this letter and the two which had followed it that had sent Mabel to the rowing machine and the masseuse, had kept her steadfast on chops and sliced tomatoes, and finally, as the moment of Dean’s coming drew near, had caused the purchase of the velvet dress. In all these fifteen years she had not seen him or heard from him. Dean and his Cara Mai had dwelt in Chicago and had not been very well off, Mabel imagined, nor had Dean been very successful; but that, of course, was Cara Mai’s fault; she was not the sort to inspire a man to his best efforts. Mabel tried to think kindly of Cara Mai when she thought of her at all, but she suspected that she had been a drag and a burden.

Ah, well, it didn’t matter. Mabel had a nice little patrimony, and that would ease things for Dean at first. Afterward, he would naturally make great strides toward success, for she would aid and encourage him. She would understand him. Look at Edward Simms — how well he had done. Why, Edward was positively a rich man, and if Edward Simms could be successful, how much more successful Dean Kennedy could be! All their crowd had looked to Dean Kennedy to do great things; they knew he had it in him; and if he hadn’t done them, circumstances or influences or a certain person must have prevented him.

Having thus brought her thoughts back to Edward Simms, she began to remember how devoted he had been during all these far-away, silent Chicago years of Dean Kennedy; how truly devoted in every way, not obtrusively but steadily and firmly. No matter what happened, Edward was always there, taking her places, bringing her flowers, advising her investments, and helping her make out her income tax; in every way surrounding her with attention and solicitude. Everyone they knew asked them to parties together, and took it for granted that it was a permanent attachment, if not an actual engagement. Mabel had a guilty feeling that she had accepted far too much from Edward, but she tried to abate this by reminding herself that he had offered much more. Certainly their companionship had been delightful. Edward knew his way about. He knew how to do things.

It came to her in a flash of divination — the way to reveal Dean Kennedy to Edward. She would give a dinner — a dinner for six, which was the best number for Savilla to manage — and ask both men, a married couple — perhaps her Cousin Rufus Arden and his wife — and another woman — that nice blond Mrs. Tree who did bookbinding. She would plan a truly wonderful dinner as a farewell tribute to Edward, but there and then she would make her feeling for Dean Kennedy unmistakably clear. Edward was not an insensitive or stupid man. He would take the hint. He would bow himself out of the picture without any painful explanations, arguments or emotional farewells, and he would, she felt, thank her for having spared him.

Caution prompted Mabel at this point and reminded her that in case Dean Kennedy was not coming on with serious intentions and should go away without asking her to marry him, this course made it possible for her to continue on with Edward as before, since nothing would have been said. She therefore clinched it in her own mind that she must know Dean’s feelings accurately before she arranged to dispense with Edward. No matter how much she glowed and thrilled over Dean Kennedy, she owed it to herself to learn if he was glowing and thrilling in return, before she opened her door and deliberately set Edward and his kindness on the cold steps outside. It occurred to her that in all probability nice blond Mrs. Tree would like to make a grab for Edward if she found him available. She rather hoped this wouldn’t happen. Edward would never be happy in a bookbinding studio; he would hate the smell of glue and leather.

People at dinner

It was all thought out by the time Marlene had given her lovely legs their final extended showing, and Mabel was so pleased with her neat swept-and-garnished state of mind that she was particularly agreeable to Edward all the way home. She would almost have liked to kiss him good night, she felt so sorry for him, and so sympathetic, but since he didn’t make any motion toward kissing, she couldn’t very well do it; and besides, he might have misunderstood and not known it was sorrow and sympathy which prompted her demonstration. When she entered her own hallway she was glad she hadn’t kissed Edward, for there, on the table, lay a telegram from Dean Kennedy:

ARRIVING TOMORROW SIX PM STOP YOU MUST HAVE DINNER WITH ME STOP WILL PHONE AS SOON AS I GET TO TOWN

Only by resolutely counting several zillion sheep did Mabel get any slumber that night, and she couldn’t have counted so many had she not pictured herself haggard and dull-eyed for meeting Dean Kennedy the next day. Once asleep, however, she dreamed blissfully of orange blossoms and wedding bells until so late in the morning that Savilla came in to see what was the matter. And over her cup of coffee without cream and sugar, her one meager bit of whole-wheat toast and her six unsweetened prunes, Mabel continued to dream. Savilla noticed it.

“You mighty swimmy this mawnin’,” she said — “mighty swimmy an’ smily. Wisht I felt so good. Wisht I hadn’t played de numbahs yestady. Los’ fo’ dollahs, quicker’n scat.”

“I’ll give you four dollars, Savilla,” promised Mabel, “and that blue crêpe dress of mine with the rhinestone buttons.”

“An’ de blue hat too?” asked Savilla cagily.

“Yes. And the blue bag, and the blue-and-white-striped scarf.”

“You musta come into love er money, Miss Mabel. That blue dress pret’ near new. Lawd knows I need clo’es, but they ain’t no need for you to divest yourself to nothing thisaway,” remarked Savilla, meanwhile making haste to remove the blue dress and hat from the closet.

“Take it along. I hope it brings you luck.”

“Yas’m, hope it does. Now, what you goin’ to have for your dinner?”

“I’m going out for dinner, Savilla.” She almost trilled the words, she was so happy.

“Yas’m. Want a li’l’ sumpin serve’ befo’hand, as usual?”

“Yes. No. No, I think not. Or, I’ll tell you. Fix the tray and leave it in the ice box, and if I want it I’ll serve it myself. And you can go out.” She didn’t want anyone, not even Savilla, near for that first moment.

By telephone she ruthlessly called off all the day’s engagements. There was a meeting of a hospital committee, and another of the executive board of the Working Girls’ Club, a bridge luncheon and a tea at which she had promised to help receive. Mabel listened unmoved to the reproaches of fellow workers and hostesses, disposed of them without a qualm. This being done, she proceeded to devote the time before Dean Kennedy’s coming to a prolonged, restful beautifying. A swim and massage, a manicure, her hair shampooed and dressed, a pedicure, vibration for shoulders and arms, oil rub for elbows, mud pack for her face — Mabel did everything on the list and returned home about half past five to dress. She had told Savilla to give the apartment an extra cleaning and put roses and white narcissi on the piano and the desk — not too many, just enough to look charming and homelike. Everything being ready, she again put on the black velvet dress and sat down to wait.

The telephone rang at half past six and she flew to answer it. It was Dean Kennedy. His voice sounded just the same; she could hardly control her own to reply. He would, he said, just dash over to the hotel and clean up, and then he’d be right along. He wouldn’t be ten minutes. Mabel put down the receiver with trembling hands. In ten minutes — ten minutes — after fifteen years! Now that he was so near, she could not believe it. She ran her dryest, most indelible lipstick over her lips, powdered her nose, smoothed her eyebrows, put a dot of her most treasured perfume on each ear lobe and one on her bosom, regarded her hair at every possible angle and questioned herself in the mirror. Was she pale? Did she look too excited, too expectant? She didn’t know; she couldn’t tell. She walked about, breathless with anticipation, but at the sound of the doorbell she pulled herself together. “Be your age, Mabel,” she whispered. “Be your age. Have some dignity.”

She walked slowly to the door and opened it. “Why, Dean,” she heard herself exclaiming in a flat, conventional voice, “how quick you were! You said ten minutes, but I didn’t believe you. Come in.”

He was just as tall, just as handsome as ever, his black hair still waved tumultuously, he was still laughing and gay and impulsive.

“Gosh, Mabel,” he said, “it’s good to see you! We’ve both changed a lot, of course, but you’re awfully good-looking yet, even if you’re not the girl you used to be. And what a pretty little apartment you’ve got here.”

“Y-yes, it’s very comfortable.”

“And we’re going out to dinner, just the way we used to do.” He laughed. “And I can’t afford to take you to a better place than I did then. Hope you don’t mind. I never was much of a money-maker, Mabel. We’ll have to go to some cheapish joint, my dear, and you looking like a million dollars too. Shall we push off? I’m starving.”

He had always been like that, she thought fondly — frank, open as the day. How sweet of him to remember and allude to the few times he had taken her out in the long ago. When she went to put on her coat she discarded the velvet jacket and took a plain, long, black cloth, and she laid the velvet hat aside and pulled on a green felt that had seen much service. It wouldn’t do to embarrass him with her finery. Query: Would it embarrass him? She didn’t know, but she wouldn’t take the chance.

“Now,” he said when they were on the street, “we’ll walk to the corner and get a downtown car. Funny, the city’s changed so much I don’t know my way around, but there used to be a lot of table-d’hotes in the Forties and Fifties. I suppose there are some left. Or look” — he pointed up the avenue — “what about that place? It looks all right.”

Mabel opened her lips to say that it was an awful dump and she didn’t believe there was a thing fit to eat ever to be had there, but she closed them again without speaking. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but that Dean Kennedy was beside her, his hand on her arm. So she went along with him into the noisy restaurant, glaring with lights, reeking with stale food odors, unmistakably what he had said he could afford: a cheapish joint — a very cheapish joint.

“This is fine,” said Dean, and took a table nearest the pantry door, so that every waiter passing in and out must graze them. He picked up the scarred menu as an unshaven bandit with spotted apron and shirt front came for the order.

“The table-d’hôte is only sixty cents here,” said Dean beamingly. “Vegetable soup or fruit cocktail, choice of baked bluefish, roast pork, pot roast with noodles, or corned beef. Boiled potatoes, cabbage and succotash, salad, and for dessert, apple or squash pie, rice pudding and mixed ice cream. Coffee, tea or milk. I’ll have the soup, the roast pork and vegetables, and apple pie and a glass of milk. What are you going to have, Mabel?”

“I think I’ll have the fruit cocktail and — and the — the pot roast — and salad — and no dessert,” said Mabel, trying not to shudder. “Just black coffee.”

“O.K., chief,” said Dean; then to the waiter: “Rush the stuff right along, boy.” He tossed the menu card aside, put his elbows on the table and smiled at Mabel. “A nice cheery little place,” he said. “But after all, we didn’t come here just to eat. Let me look at you, Mabel. What have you been doing with yourself all this time? You wrote me that you were on committees and things! Not much of a life, that, I should think. But you haven’t lost weight on it. . . . Ah, here’s food, and my soup has the waiter’s thumb in it. I always did like waiters’ thumbs.”

“Send it back,” said Mabel faintly. It made her sick to look at the greasy, tepid fluid.

“What for? It’s all right. Quite a good thumb, in fact.”

The bandit grinned at Dean knowingly. He banged down before Mabel a small glass dish containing a sliver of peach and a sliver of pear, a segment of pineapple and half a lurid aniline-red cherry. Then he brought a basket containing three broken gressini and a twist of grayish bread, slashed twice for breaking, served two pieces of doubtful butter, filled their glasses and retired.

Dean seized the bread and broke off a hunk and began on the soup. Gingerly Mabel lifted a spoon to attack the alleged fruit cocktail, then changed her mind and wiped it hard on her napkin.

“Dean,” she said, “what have you been doing all these years? That’s what I’m interested to hear.” She thought, “If he talks, I won’t see him eating soup off the point of his spoon.” But it was not much better when he began to talk. He hadn’t, it seemed, had a very good time of it. Not that he hadn’t worked; he’d simply slaved, he’d worn himself out in devoted loyal service to one employer after another, but he never seemed to get on. He didn’t care, he assured her. There were so many good things in life besides money. He’d always had friends — good, kind, devoted friends. Every time he had lost a job he had the satisfaction of knowing that he left behind him associates who sided with him and felt he’d been unjustly treated or unappreciated.

As he talked, Mabel felt herself warm with sympathy and understanding. How terrible that he should have been so treated — how terrible, how wicked! She would have liked to take his unworthy employers and push them into the river! She listened avidly to every detail; she murmured and clucked with indignation. She said “ohs” of horror and “ahs” of pity. She was his partisan, his defender. And when a mean, little, irrepressible imp of observation within her asked her if he had always taken such huge bites and chewed with his mouth open, she shoved that imp aside and forgot him.

She herself could not eat. The pot roast had been poor meat to begin with, and cooking had worsened its estate. The vegetables were watery and heavy. The coffee, to put it concisely, was vile. Dean sat there lapping up everything, though his order of pork looked more deadly than the pot roast, and the apple pie was a truly fearsome pastry. She could have wept for him. Poor dear, to have his taste so vitiated, so depraved. But never mind, there was her dinner party to come, and she would show him what a dinner should be. With his naturally fine instincts, he would instantly grasp the message she intended to convey.

“Do you mind,” asked Dean, “if I take your butter? They’d probably charge for an extra portion.”

She passed him the butter and did not tell him that it was not butter at all but a substitute, and sadly watched him eat it. “Let’s go back to my apartment,” she said. “I’ll make some coffee for you.”

“What’s the matter with yours? Isn’t it all right?” he asked with surprise.

“Oh, quite, but I believe I can make better,” she assured him brightly. “I have a maid who’s a very good cook, but I do a bit myself sometimes. I enjoy it.”

This remark turned Dean’s mind to Cara Mai. All the way back to the apartment he told Mabel what a wonderful little woman Cara Mai had been, how domestic in her tastes, what a good cook, how well she had managed on his limited income. Mabel listened to this also, but not with the same interest she had given to the saga of his business career. She was glad to escape to her kitchen and start the promised coffee.

While she was doing this she discovered that she was very hungry, and she opened the ice box, where she saw the cocktail tray and the anchovy canapés she had told Savilla to prepare and then had forgotten. Mabel ate them all and was glad to get them. They strengthened her. When she carried in the steaming, bubbling coffee she felt equal to hearing more about Cara Mai.

“Now,” she said, “we’ll be quite cozy. Perhaps you’ll have a drop of liqueur with your coffee. I have some Marc de Bourgogne — the real thing, and very old — and if you’d rather have something sweet, I’ll give you either Strega or green chartreuse.”

“No, thanks,” said Dean. “I don’t care for anything. And give me only half a cup of coffee, Mabel. The darned stuff keeps me awake.”

“Half of these tiny cups won’t keep you awake; besides, this is fresh made. It’s coffee that has stood too long that keeps people awake.”

But he would not be persuaded, and he took only a swallow of the half cup she gave him, after it had become tepid. It spoiled Mabel’s enjoyment of her delicious brew to see him. Still, it was Dean Kennedy, and he was here in her own apartment with her, after the long, long time of separation. She reminded herself that this alone ought to make her madly happy.

He had gone back to telling of his various jobs and how they had disappointed him. Mabel was no fool, and she recognized a familiar note. In her social-service work she had met many men and women who, with the best intentions, were never able to cooperate, who objected to everything proposed and argued endlessly about the smallest of points, who could not submit to the elastic give and take which measures the success of any group of human beings associated for one purpose. She did not want Dean Kennedy to seem one of these troublesome beings, but common sense forced her to acknowledge that in a business organization, where certain authority must be respected and obeyed, Dean might, he inevitably must be, difficult to handle.

But now he turned to telling Mabel what she most wanted to hear. “You must know why I’ve come on here,” he said. “It was to see you. I’ve always thought of you a lot, Mabel, but in a nice way. Not in the least derogatory to Cara Mai, you understand, nothing to which she could have taken exception, even if she had been able to read my mind. As a matter of fact, Cara Mai used to speak of you every now and then.”

“Did she? What did she say?”

“Well, it sounds rather conceited, I suppose, but you mustn’t take it that way. Cara Mai was a good bit of a tease and she always maintained that you liked me a good bit.” He laughed his engaging, boyish laugh. “I hope it’s true, Mabel. You do like me, don’t you? I’m counting on you liking me.”

Mabel struggled between annoyance with Cara Mai and gratification. “I do like you, Dean,” she said at last, generously. “Cara Mai was right. I like you very much.”

Dean reached over and took her hand.

“That’s sweet of you, Mabel. I hope it means to you what it means to me. You understand me, don’t you?”

“Y-yes,” said Mabel. Was this commonplace phrase a proposal of marriage? It must be. It couldn’t be anything else.

He let go of her hand and rose. “Then that’s all right, my dear. Now I’ve got to run down to Philadelphia for a couple of days — I’m looking into a proposition there — but I’ll be back on — let me see — on Friday, and I’ll call you up as soon as I get in. Couldn’t we have dinner together that night?”

“I’d like to have a little dinner party here, Dean, for you — some of your old friends. I thought of Rufus Arden, my cousin — you remember him and his wife Polly, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. I’d love to see them.”

“And — and Edward Simms. You remember him?”

“I should say so! How is he, anyway? He was always such a stodgy old slowpoke — sort of dumb, but a good sort in spite of it. He’s married, I suppose.”

“No, Edward isn’t married.” She didn’t want to expatiate on that. “Then I’ll ask another woman. If I can find anybody of the old crowd I’ll get her, but if not, I know a sweet little Mrs. Tree; she does bookbinding — ”

“That’s odd,” interrupted Dean. “Cara Mai was so interested in bookbinding.”

“We’ll have dinner at quarter of eight.”

“Isn’t that awfully late?”

“Oh, no! Most people dine at eight unless they’re going on to the theater.”

“I like dinner at half-past six, or seven at the latest. However, for once it doesn’t matter. Goodnight, my dear.” Before she knew it, he had swept her into his arms and kissed her twice. And he was gone before she could say a word.

As Mabel looked back over the evening, she became conscious of the fact that she was not rapt in the ecstasy she had anticipated. She knew she ought to be rapt in ecstasy. Dean loved her, he had asked her to marry him, or had fully implied it, and he had kissed her. Why — why wasn’t she satisfied; why wasn’t she putting vine leaves in her hair and waving banners and dancing and caroling supreme joy? She was forced to realize that the most likely reason for her dereliction was an attack of acute indigestion, and as she dosed herself with hot water, bicarb and peppermint, with just a drop of spirits of ammonia, she kept going farther and farther down from the proper pinnacle of happiness, and thinking of the vile dinner she had eaten, and the viler one she had watched Dean eat. It also occurred to her that never in all the times she had dined with Edward Simms had she been afflicted with indigestion of any kind. As she filled the hot-water bag to lay it upon her aching stomach, she was horrified to find that she was contrasting Edward’s entertainment of the night before with what Dean had offered this evening, and finding the first vastly superior.

“But with the dawn,” as says the popular song, “a new day is born,” and Mabel rose blithely, without indigestion and without those treasonable criticisms of Dean which had bothered her. She could see clearly now that Dean’s unfortunate tastes and habits would vanish away as soon as she demonstrated better ones to him. So, telephone in hand, she summoned the desired guests for her dinner on Friday night, and then proceeded to collogue with Savilla on the menu. This had assumed a double importance, for not only must it be a fitting vale to the advanced gourmetism of Edward Simms, but it must also be an ave to higher and better ideas of dinners for Dean Kennedy; an introduction to proper eating which would inevitably lead him into permanent acquaintance with it.

The two days before Dean’s return passed like two minutes to Mabel. There was her own new status of an engaged woman — practically engaged, that is — and the coming true of the one sentimental dream which had kept her from marriage until this time. She thought a great deal about her future with Dean, and she was surprised to feel numerous small doubts and uncertainties about it. She didn’t, somehow, seem well-acquainted with anything but his appearance. He looked just as he used to, but when he talked he was a stranger, and not a particularly endearing stranger at that. Assailed by such notions, Mabel decided that it was far wiser to concentrate on planning her dinner. So she filled up her time with scurrying about markets and delicacy shops, talking to Savilla, trying out various effects in table setting, arrangement, and choosing which of her four evening gowns she would better wear. The newest of the lot, a sapphire-blue velvet, was too exhilarating in color and too formal in style for a small home dinner. This left one of those black-lace standbys such as every woman keeps for rainy evenings and dull parties, an orchid crêpe, out-of-date, but very becoming, and an eggshell satin which had been her best last year and was still in style and good condition. Finally she selected the orchid crêpe; its delicate tone would be regretful for Edward and hopeful for Dean, and it wasn’t short enough to be quite passé. “Now that I am slimmer it will be longer,” thought Mabel; “hips do take up skirts so dreadfully!”

So, on the night of the dinner she put on the crêpe and a twisted string of fine amethyst beads caught with a gold flower. She covered her table with a fine filet cloth and set it with creamy old queen’s ware service plates and thin, pinky, amethyst glass. Pale pink lilies in a Lowestoft bowl for centerpiece, and her four Old Chelsea figurine candlesticks with tall cream candles gave a note of naïve gayety. But not too gay; all the color was low key; it did not hit the eyes, but had to be looked for; yet when observed, it was gratifying. Mabel felt satisfied with her table.

Her living room looked very well, too, for Edward Simms had sent her a quantity of roses and she had put them into deep tumbler-like vases of yellow Spanish glass. He had also sent a spray of orchids for her to wear — two perfect mauve blooms, just as if he had known what a harmony they would make with her dress. It made her sad to think these were the last flowers she would ever receive from Edward; he always chose flowers so charmingly. Poor Edward — would he, she wondered, be very much cut up when he knew? She wondered so much about it she forgot to be disappointed that there were no flowers from Dean; though on such an occasion he might very well, even though poor, have managed a small tribute.

Cousin Rufus Arden and Polly were the first to arrive, and then came Mrs. Tree, looking young and innocent in bright baby blue, which only a fresh complexion can stand. Polly Arden was in exotic scarlet. Between the two Mabel’s mauve was just a bit washed out. It wasn’t auspicious to have her two women guests fade her away, but she tried not to mind. Edward and Dean came in together; they had met, it seemed, at the entrance downstairs and were so jovially renewing old acquaintance that they didn’t pay the attention to their hostess which the occasion merited — at least Dean didn’t. Edward, naturally, didn’t yet know what the occasion was.

When Savilla’s sister, Pearlie, waitress by the hour, brought in the tray, Dean waved the glasses away. “Never touch the stuff,” he explained. “Not principles, merely stomach. The very smell of it makes me sick.”

“You’re an unfortunate man,” said Edward. “I sympathize with you, but I will gladly drink your share, provided there are no other claimants.”

“There are other claimants,” said Rufus Arden. “If I miss a drop of anything as good as this I’d deserve punishment.”

“And what about us women?” put in Polly. “Ladies first is my motto — first in everything.”

“There’s too much of this cursed feminism about,” said Rufus gloomily. “Take it, Polly. I don’t want to be nagged for a week. Besides, I know Mabel will make it up to me. Won’t you, Mabel?”

Mabel allowed as how there was plenty for all. She took one herself and drank it hastily. She felt she needed it after Dean’s refusal. When it was down, she began to recover, but her first glowing, anticipatory mood was dimmed, and with its dimming she looked a little coolly at Dean, thinking that anyone who could eat pork and soggy potatoes as he had eaten them the other night ought not to have any stomach at all. Also she became aware that his dinner clothes were a sloppy misfit, contrasting painfully with Rufus Arden’s and Edward Simms’ super-tailoring. She was glad when Pearlie announced dinner. Here, at least, she was sure of results. Dean Kennedy could not eat the dinner she had provided without experiencing such a revelation in taste as would make him into another man, gastronomically speaking. And more and more Mabel was realizing that she wanted him to be another man, and not himself.

In the little ceremony of seating her guests, her confidence returned more fully. Dean had had no chance to know good food, and he hadn’t money enough to buy good dinner clothes. He’d had a thin time, a bad break. She gave him a tender glance, marveling that all he’d been through hadn’t broken his spirit or altered his most undeniable good looks. With these to go on with, she could soon help him to all that he should have; she would supply the lacking elements of care and taste. It was her mission and her great joy.

As these ideas raced through her mind Pearlie began serving the first course, and a shout arose simultaneously from Cousin Rufus and Edward Simms.

“Blini!” they chorused. “Blini, blini, blini!”

They were the most perfect blini — little, melting, hot, thick pancakes, each proudly upholding a burden of fresh caviar and a high hat of sour cream! “What have I ever done to deserve this?” moaned Edward Simms as he took the first bite. “This is food for gods, not mere mortals.”

“I really should have had something lighter,” said Mabel, beaming, “but I know how you feel about caviar, Edward. . . . What’s the matter, Dean? Don’t you like them?”

Dean put on a conscientiously polite manner. “I’m sure they’re very nice, but somehow the flavor is so queer — ” He laid aside his fork. “I’ll just wait for the next course, if I may.”

“Good Lord!” snorted Rufus Arden. “Any man who can’t eat blini, and such blini — Ouch!” Polly had kicked him in the shin with strength and accuracy. He subsided. The blini of all the guests but Dean were eaten in an aching silence. At last Mrs. Tree had presence of mind to say soothingly, “Of course it’s an acquired taste,” but Rufus muttered, “Acquired me eye,” and gave Dean a hard and mean look; so Mrs. Tree’s tact was lost.

Pearlie now brought in the soup, a clear green turtle laced with dry sherry, a few morsels of the luscious, translucent flesh swimming languorously in the soothing tide. Tiniest, crisp, toasted sandwiches of highpowered cheese touched magically with cayenne and a drop of Worcestershire came with the soup, served piping hot from a covered dish. The dying conversation revived under this stimulus. Dean, Mabel was thankful to see, ate the most of his soup, and Cousin Rufus and Edward began to talk of the historic green turtle served at Birch’s in London, and to contrast it unfavorably with their present portion.

In this conversation. Dean took no part, for he was now chatting absorbedly with little Mrs. Tree on the subject of bookbinding; at least he was holding forth and she was listening as if, thought Mabel with annoyance, she was hearing nothing less than a divine revelation. Cara Mai’s name entered into Dean’s monologue and Mrs. Tree looked sweetly condolent. “Just who,” Mabel asked herself bitterly — “just who does Dean belong to, anyway?” She wondered if he himself knew.

After the soup came her chief dish, and she watched to see what effect that would have on him. The plumpest of milk-fed chickens had been carefully boned — Mabel had stood over the butcher and harangued him to do his best work — then stuffed with a bland, insidious mixture, mostly bread crumbs and sweet butter, with a mere whisper of herbs and a merer flicker of minced fried onion and minced broiled bacon; then the filled birds had been roasted to a rhapsody in browns, from palest beige to darkest gamboge; and being roasted, were served one to each person. Mango chutney chopped and jellied and cut into slices; sweet-potato pone bread in soft, flavorsome squares; and for piquancy and contrast, tiny fleurets of cauliflower steamed and masked in a sharply lemony hollandaise, were the good companions of the chicken.

“I was wondering what vegetable you’d have,” said Edward Simms. “This is absolutely right. And that sweet-potato pone’s a triumph.”

At least someone appreciated her efforts, thought Mabel. Dean said nothing. He did not touch his chutney after one taste, and he put more salt on the chicken. Mabel hoped that Pearlie did not see this treasonable act, for if it were reported to Savilla there would be lightning in the air. Rufus Arden and Polly were eating and exclaiming, and as for Edward, he redoubled his appreciation. But even when this course was finished and the salad was coming on, Dean still said nothing about the dinner.

Mabel always mixed her own salads at table. It was a rite. Pearlie brought in a tray with a bowl of snowy-white endive hearts and sprigs of emerald cress; another large bowl, empty, and a small one; crystal flasks of oil and vinegar, small open holders of various seasonings, and on a separate dish a crust of bread and a clove of garlic.

“The question is,” she said, indicating this last: “Shall we, or shan’t we? I put it to vote.”

“Aye,” said Rufus, Polly and Edward Simms instantly.

“Just as the others say. I dote on it,” offered little Mrs. Tree.

“What are you all talking about?” asked Dean Kennedy blankly. “I don’t get you.”

Mabel explained that they could have garlic in the salad or not, just as they desired. She began to pour measured oil and wine vinegar into the small bowl, and to add the salt and fresh-ground pepper and the grain of mustard, but her hand shook; it made her so nervous to have to point out the obvious.

“Salad?” asked Dean even more blankly. “Call that a salad?”

“Why, yes, Dean,” said Mabel, almost spilling the oil. “Of course it’s a salad.”

Dean smiled indulgently. “But, my dear girl, I — well, I don’t want to be rude, but I hardly call that stuff a salad.”

“What do you call a salad?” asked Edward Simms. “I’d be interested to hear.”

“My idea of a salad — the only kind of salad that’s worth eating — is a nice fruit salad — all kinds of fruit and nuts chopped up, you know, and a nice thick mayonnaise all over it.”

“But not for dinner!” gasped Mabel. “Surely not for dinner, Dean.”

“Certainly for dinner. Cara Mai and I used to have it almost every night because I’m so fond of it. She used to put every sort of fruit into it, and sometimes pieces of marshmallow, and then the mayonnaise — a lot — all over everything. Most delicious thing imaginable. I do wish you’d asked your cook to make one tonight, Mabel. It’s very simple, you know; just some nice canned or fresh fruit and a bottle of mayonnaise, and there you are. There’s nothing in the world I enjoy so much.”

A long silence followed this speech, at last broken by Edward Simms. “I think we might as well have the garlic,” he said gently.

“Yes, I think so too,” said Rufus. Both men avoided looking at Mabel, but their shock and horror dwelt upon their faces.

“You’ll really love it when you try it,” chirped Mrs. Tree to Dean.

Mabel said nothing. There was, she discovered, nothing to say. She rubbed the cut garlic lightly on the crust of bread and dropped it into the bowl with the endive and cress. Then she poured in the dressing and, taking her wooden fork and spoon, began lightly to lift and shift the salad with deft, delicate touch, so as not to bruise it, but to cover each leaf and stem with shining savory film, complementary to its chilled freshness and greenness. All the time she was doing it — and it was not a short process — something in her head was repeating over and over: “You cannot marry a man who eats fruit salad with mayonnaise every night for dinner. You cannot marry a man who eats fruit salad with mayonnaise every night for dinner. He is irreclaimable. He is lost. He is gone. Make up your mind to part with him forever, here and now. It is better so.”

Then, as Pearlie brought the cool plates, each already bearing a whorl of Virginia ham baked to meltingness, sliced paper-thin and cunningly curled to resemble a generous rosebud; then, as Mabel served the salad she heard her voice, as one far away, saying to Dean, “Do you care to try it, Dean, even if it isn’t” — she shuddered — “fruit salad with mayonnaise?”

No, he thought he wouldn’t. “It looks rather anemic to me,” he said jokingly. “Not the thing for a real man, all that grass. I don’t believe in trying strange foods, as a matter of fact. There’s too much attention given to food anyway; too much importance laid on it. A good plain meal, meat and potatoes and bread — ”

“And fruit salad,” said Edward Simms, “with mayonnaise. Don’t forget that.”

“Exactly — fruit salad with mayonnaise. There’s a meal that’s worthwhile. You can get it anywhere, any time. This business of fussing about with a lot of queer things, just to eat! It’s silly. It’s insignificant.”

“My dear Dean,” said Edward Simms, “a very wise and learned man — no less a person than the great Doctor Johnson — once said that human felicity is made up of many ingredients, each of which may be shown to be very insignificant. I count a dinner like this one a part of my felicity, and I heartily congratulate the exceptional taste which planned it and directed its preparation.”

“And I agree with you,” said Polly Arden. “I only wish I were as clever as Mabel.”

The last of the salad plates disappeared at this moment and the dessert was served. It was Savilla’s masterpiece, an evanescent apricot soufflé, light and hot as a July breeze, sweet as young love, filled with the essence of the most exquisite and subtle fruit that grows. Following it came a custard sauce, fluffed with whipped cream, strengthened cunningly with nothing less than old apricot brandy.

Edward Simms spoke with his mouth full; he could not wait: “Call this insignificant?” he said to Dean Kennedy. “Prefer fruit salad with mayonnaise to this, would you?”

“Oh, don’t scold him,” said Mabel. “Everyone knows what he likes best.” She said it almost gayly. She had made her decision. There was — she knew it now — a weight off her heart. She wasn’t going to marry Dean Kennedy. No, she definitely wasn’t going to marry Dean Kennedy. She couldn’t do it. The old romance had died a quick and permanent death; smothered, she thought merrily, suffocated and drowned, indeed, in fruit salad with mayonnaise for dinner. It had been on its way to perish before that. Reason had triumphed over sentimentality. The years since their youth had changed them too much; he wasn’t what she remembered or what she wanted except in externals. Perhaps, if she had started out with him long ago, in place of Cara Mai, there might have been adjustments, harmony; but it was too late. She couldn’t see herself any longer in the role of helper, comforter, inspiration and guide to — she looked at Dean, and chose the words deliberately — to a disgruntled, troublemaking, conceited man with an obstinate, confirmed lack of taste for the things she liked and knew about. Edward Simms was perfectly right; it was the small, livable tastes in common which made marriage possible. Edward Simms. . . . Edward Simms. . . . What about Edward Simms’ years of thoughtful devotion, his generous care, his watching out for her, his easy, amusing companionship? Why, Edward was the real romantic. And here he sat beside her, smiling at her over the soufflé, the same kind, tender, knowledgeable person he had always been. She felt her relieved heart go out to him yearningly as to her true mate.

“This is a great occasion, Mabel,” he said as he met her glance.

“You have no idea how true that is,” replied Mabel happily. “Now, shall we go in for coffee? It’s the kind you like, Edward. And, Dean, please take care of Mrs. Tree.”

“The Toad” by Henry Milner Rideout

The Maine-native and Harvard-educated Henry Milner Rideout wrote fiction for The Saturday Evening Post in the early 20th century. His elegant, detailed prose depicts the wilderness of his home state or the foreign lands he traveled with a mastery that drew praise from Rideout’s literary peers. Most of his novels and short stories, however, have fallen through the cracks over the years. In “The Toad,” a cosmopolitan traveler becomes infatuated with a farmgirl while staying with her rural clan. His egotistical worldliness is enchanting, but it proves incongruous with their wild life.

Published on June 19, 1920

 

Alward found the way long, hot and tiresome. For a late summer afternoon it was indeed hot, even in these northern woods; but some men could have forgotten discomfort here, where dusk lay thick among the trees or, being pierced now and again by a shaft of sunlight, absorbed it in greater depths of golden brown and green. Ralph, limping on a blistered foot, did not even bother himself to look round. He had grown weary of his walking tour, as he grew weary of most things which, in the proof, failed to meet expectation thoroughly at once. Just now he was peevish.

“The silliest game I ever undertook!” he fumed. “And the dullest country to waste my time in! Damn that foot!”

To be just, it was the boot — a golfer’s bearded brogue adorned with curlicues and scrollwork — that called for reprobation, being too narrow. But Alward had no great passion for justice. The brogues were truly handsome; so were his jacket and breeches, a trim piece of tailoring; and so, for that matter, was he. Dark, sleek, high-colored, he possessed very good looks, which did not suffer from lack of care.

“That last bit,” he thought, “was enough to give one the blues for life.”

He had crossed a few miles of burnt ground, where skeleton trees, leaning or sprawling, entangled with their bleached spines a waste of granite and sickly pink fireweed. The view and the glaring heat had depressed but also angered him, like a fraud. It was not what he had come so far to see. Now, therefore, he went limping on in bad humor.

The road wound here among cedars, old but dwarfed, that rose unequal from hollows and mounds all tawny carpeted, and with twisting trunks made a low, contorted puzzle where hints of movement, nameless changes, appeared to dodge, turn, stay hidden and baffle the eye. Shadows in this grove had an impish life, its Robin Hood colors of green and russet a blending trickery, as of spies flitting half seen from depth to depth alongside. Or so a traveler, alone, might fancy. Even Ralph, though not fanciful, caught while he walked a vague uneasiness. Pausing, he glanced to right and left. The illusion halted with him. Nothing remained on either hand but old cedars, badly stunted.

“Odd, rather. It looked familiar at first,” he thought. “Like a place where something happened to me.”

A young man overlooks a field on a hilltopp
“Then he reached the hilltop, and at once forgot all troubles.” (Illustrated by W.H.D. Koerner)

He dismissed the notion, went forward, and soon became duller than before. His foot ached. He did not know where to find lodging that night. The road wandered on without variety under a low roof of dusk. To Ralph, who was no real walker by habit or disposition, variety outdoors meant a rush through long distances, with his mind brooding on machinery and the surface of the road, or now and then outstripping these details to catch the next view ahead. Plain walking had lost, for him, the name of action. He seldom regarded the wayside as he had done just now. To halt and turn for a scene left behind was one affectation of which he was never guilty. In short, young Mr. Alward held a simple philosophy of nature, called “Something doing every minute.” This present tour, novel as a whim for the first day, was turning, on the fourth, deadly stupid.

As he began to climb a long hill, where the cedars fell below and thick walls of Christmas fir trees closed in still darker, Ralph was laying the blame for his disappointment on the weather, the few natives he had met, the food, the unbroken silence — everything but his own company.

Then he reached the hilltop, and at once forgot all troubles.

To a sweep of glorious calm sunshine the woods ended abruptly, checked right and left by a rail fence against which the youngest fat firs pressed like children at a crowded barrier. Their ranks overlooked a barnyard with a vast barn, a neat old gray house under an elm, and beyond these a hollow field crinkled with shadows and sloping “down to a meadow brimful with sunset light. Along the bottom of this farm, this vale in the woods, brook alders traced a wavering dark line, intermitted where the brook itself sparkled among open grass, round some cape of lawn.

These things, no doubt, took Ralph aback by their splendor when, stepping out as from a dark room, he stood above them first; perhaps at another glance their abiding golden peace might have entered his head; but meantime, even while emerging, he had spied the figure of a girl not far away.

She stood under the elm before the house — a young creature dressed in dull blue, repeating some graceful movement and laughing. What the movement intended he could not see; it recalled the large free gesture of the Sower of France, but was girlish and merry.

“Clear out, you little gawks! Get away!” she cried in high good humor.

Ralph was a favorite with ladies, his genius throve among them; so that is why the landscape brightened for him, and why, forgetting his lameness, he went cheerfully downhill toward the farmhouse.

The girl was feeding Plymouth Rock chickens in the road, throwing their supper broadcast from a yellow earthenware bowl, and pausing to drive away half a dozen young turkeys that ravaged among them.

“They are the comicalest!” she began, and turned to share her delight. Then she started backward in dismay from an unknown. “Oh! Who’s this? I thought it was Goosewings.”

The laughter went out of her face. Clasping the yellow bowl in both arms, as though he had come to rob, she stood encircled by her flock.

Ralph bowed and laughed. Their encounter pleased him. The girl’s hair shone in great ruddy-bronze masses, a dark fire; her eyes, red brown and at the moment widely open, seemed also to contain this living color, reflected; but what caught his approval more than all was the outdoor brightness of her face — neither pale nor tanned — and the clean curve of her neck and throat. She wore an old dress rough as canvas, a faded kind of dungaree blue, which, like the bowl in her arms, became her as if chosen for adornment.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said; then answered her question. “My name’s Ralph Alward. I was only walking through here, from Leslabay’s Road, I believe they call it.”

Young woman looking over her shoulder while feeding hens.
“They are the comicalest” she began, and turned to share her delight. (Illustrated by W.H.D. Koerner)

As for her, she saw a handsome young man, erect and slender, who had a winning smile and wore raiment the like of which she had never known except in pictures. He might have dropped from the sky, rather than the woods above the barnyard.

“Whose farm is this, please?” he was asking. “I’m a stranger, you know.”

His voice had an agreeable sound. It was friendly. Yet his fashion of speaking — not downright like a man’s, but easy and roundabout — seemed so odd that she could not forbear smiling.

“Why, father’s,” she replied. “It’s Loveday’s Farm. Noah Loveday’s.”

He must be a great stranger, not to know.

Ralph took all the smile to himself and determined that Loveday’s Farm should provide his lodging for the night.

“How far is it,” said he, “to the next — er — village? Or settlement? I’ve walked all day, and I’m rather lame, you see.”

He made a few steps, limping hard, back and forth past the chickens and turkeys, which huddled there forgotten.

“My boots weren’t the right kind, I dare say,” he explained with a rueful smile.

“Well, no, I guess likely!” cried the girl, staring at those noble filigreed brogues. “You poor thing! Why, you can’t go on like that! You come sit you on the doorstep. Wait.”

She laid her yellow dish in the road, left it to be filled with squabbling fowls, and ran off past the elm into the open door of the house. Her running was light, her ankles flew. Ralph, admiring, followed slowly and practiced the limp to good effect.

He sat down as bidden on her doorstep, a flat granite rock. The elm overhung house and road like a fountain of leaves; under its fringe the meadow swam in a bright haze; but disregarding these objects he turned to look inside the house, where in darkness at the end of a passageway he could hear her busy with something.

“There now.” She came bringing a pair of brown moccasins. “You change into them. They’ll ease your feet for you. Scow bo’ts.”

She laughed, and so did he, for the moccasins were huge old panniers of moosehide.

“Father and him are coming home now, so I’ll go get supper.” She slipped out past him to the road. Once more Ralph admired that clean, light-foot running, and the sweep of her bare arms as she drove away chickens and turkeys in dodging confusion behind the house, out of sight. Presently returning, she waited on the grass plot while he tied his moccasin thongs.

“Feel better, I guess, maybe?”

Ralph smiled and nodded.

“Much, thank you.”

A heavy tread resounded within the house, as if giants were entering at the back door.

Alward rose. He was thinking that he had never before seen dark-red eyes or such a glowing crown of dark-red hair. What with them and his clumsy footgear he stumbled.

“Did you hurt you?” she cried, and caught him by the hand. So, as in old tales they say evil must come if at all, she helped him over the threshold.

II

Through a long low room the sun poured, slanting upward. A stove, a cupboard, and a sink with a green-painted pump, marked off the far end as kitchen; the near end kept higher estate as living room, with oval braided rugs, a fireplace containing dog irons, a mantel holding two gold-luster jugs full of mallows, on the wall a Zulu gun among some tails of ruffed grouse displayed fanwise, and near the front window a table surrounded by chairs.

Here the girl made Ralph sit down again, and sped to her oven. All the room shone clean and tidy in that sunset brightness, but on her way she stooped and brushed the hearth with a turkey’s wing.

“Well, Zenoby, here we come a-tagglin’, like the last run o’ pigweed.”

Two persons entered at the kitchen door. Their footsteps had thundered so in the back passage that Ralph was now astonished to see no giants, but a pair of thin, almost frail-looking men. Their boots had made all the noise — heavy hoots on tired feet. He who spoke first was gray haired, gray bearded, stooped like an invalid, and gazed about with rather vacant blue eyes. His follower, young and ungainly, seemed a narrow bundle of shanks, all height and no width. Each was struggling into a jacket.

“Evenin’, M-mother B-bunch,” stammered Longshanks, with an embarrassed grin.

“Why, Goosewings,” the girl, kneeling by the oven door, replied in a tone of banter, “I don’t s’pose you want anything to eat.”

“Haw, haw!” roared Goosewings in one great burst of laughter, strangely abrupt. His freckled face gleamed with enjoyment. “Us fleshy fellers comes a-runnin’ to supper f-f-full chisel!”

Then he caught sight of Ralph across the room, and at once became sad as a mourner.

“Father,” said the girl, glancing up, “here’s a man walked from the Crossing, and went lame. I routed him out your moggasins, and he — ”

Ralph rose and made himself and his desires known.

“Why, sartain.” The stooping man responded mildly, with a vague look at his guest. “‘Course ye can stop here, sir. All is, take the house as ye find it. We hain’t over ‘n’ above jauntified.”

The supper, when brought to table, confirmed this saying of Mr. Loveday’s. It was exceedingly plain food — hot biscuits, tea, a finnan haddie, blueberries, and hermits — which, though assembled all in one course, appeared to Ralph anything but bountiful. He began, however, to talk cheerfully about it, feigning great pleasure. His companions made no reply. The girl Zenobia turned down her sleeves, buttoned her wristbands, and took the chair opposite him.

“Fresh air and appetite,” he was rattling on, “and a good cook — ”

The sight of three bowed heads cut short his disquisition. He had forgotten such a custom held in places out of the way. With some confusion but more amusement he followed it, and sat looking down, waiting, and after a time wondering why the old man, or his daughter, or this young lout beside him did not begin and utter their formula. No one spoke. As moments passed a wild thought crept into his mind: How if they were expecting him to say it? In a kind of terror he glanced up. The three others, calm and thoughtful, were attending his convenience.

“If you’re ready, sir,” said old Noah mildly, “pass me your plate for a helpin’.”

It was Ralph’s first knowledge of silent grace. A bit of old-fashioned comedy worth remembering, he thought; given a few touches here and there it would make an anecdote for use.

During supper Loveday spoke once or twice.

“We ain’t heavy eaters, this household. Zenoby, guess you better go cook the young man a mess of aigs to make out with.”

Ralph declined this offer. The meal went on in silence. Goosewings the lanky ate with stern purpose and an economy of movement which kept his freckled face near his plate. From knife to shoulder blades the man seemed all edge and angle. At last, thought Ralph, he knew what it meant to be sharp-set. Meanwhile, across the table, he caught from time to time the dark red-brown eyes of Zenobia watching him secretly, with a kind but anxious light in them.

When blueberries and hermits had vanished an odd thing happened. Old Loveday and his daughter turned toward their servant Goosewings, as if they expected him to perform some ritual after meat. He sat far down in his chair, humped and brooding.

“Were they good?” inquired Zenobia shyly.

Goosewings woke, jerked his body upright, grinned slowly round the board, then drawing his face blanker than an idiot’s he looked cross-eyed, waggled his great outstanding ears, and made his crop of colorless hair dart forward and backward, the whole scalp playing loose.

“Good vittles!” he said. “Haw, haw!”

Shoving his chair free of the table he relapsed into melancholy, as though cowed by the presence of a stranger.

“We always do that,” explained the girl. “He’s kind of a wit.”

Goosewings looked at Ralph askance.

“I’m a wi-wit and a wa-wag and a wa-wanton with a wi-wig,” he declared, “when ye t-treat me right.”

The room had grown dark. Zenobia rose, went to her kitchen cupboard, and lighting a glass hand lamp set it on a shelf. That end of the house became bright, and by contrast the three men sat in deeper gloom, while she came and went, removing the supper dishes.

Ralph would have helped her.

“Keep ye settin’,” said Noah Loveday. “Better leave women’s work alon’.” He stroked his beard with aimless fingers and winked at the lamp. “I un’stand ye come paiggin’ it all the ways here f’m the Crossin’? Well, that’s a real long hard spell a-hoofin’.”

Ralph took these words, rightly, as an invitation to unfold himself. He was a good talker, and on that evening talked well.

The history of his last few days he reviewed quickly, for he had walked through the country seeing little and inquiring less; but no sooner could he hark back to the world of cities and get his mind going on its native pavement than he told wonders. Old Noah, listening, now and then murmured some polite ejaculation:

“Sho! Don’t say! … Guess ye run acrost lots of grand doin’s like them, sir, to occupy the mind up there … Well, now, hear that! Jest think, and you make no more bon’s of it than’s if ‘twas everyday!”

A young couple walking in a field
“You haven’t heard what I came after. Today’s the only chance I get all summer.” (Illustrated by W.H.D. Koerner)

Even the silent Goosewings was moved at last. He twined his long legs, cracked his knuckles and tried to break in as a rival.

“To Pembroke Fair,” said he, “I seen a cu-cunjrer oncet, chewed glass and et up p-poison, afore your face and eyes. ‘Twan’t rale poison, somebody lets on. ‘Hain’t it?’ says the cu-cunjrer, and chucked out a two-ouncet fial full ‘mongst the crowd. ‘Per-perfessor,’ s’e, ‘you settle it. Is she rale p-poison, or is she not?’ Appears they was a per-perfessor standin’ there to look on. He didn’ haf to take but one sniff the bottle. ‘Yis, deadly,’ s’e, right off like that. ‘She’d kill a w’ale, fust drop.’ The cu-cunjrer m-muckled on to her again and swigged her one g-gullup, and laughed, and went ‘bout his business, givin away shirt studs and leniment f-for prizes ‘s if his g-guts was so much s-s-so’ luther. I watched him clos’ too. He downed her.”

This bit of table talk Goosewings contributed earnestly, wagging his hatchet face up and down, as though to chop the Gordian knots of speech. “

Guess they was a ketch in it somewheres,” said Noah. “Sleyth of hand maybe. He made some pass and deceived ye.”

“Never d-done no such thing!” cried the other, with heat. “Right in the open air, and me standin’ under him so’s I could see int’ the roof of his mouth!”

During their argument, which moved slowly and lasted long, Zenobia bent over Ralph’s shoulder to get some dish from the table. He looked up, and caught in her eyes a secret light, a gleam of suppressed laughter. For a moment, at that close range, he seemed to share with her a droll understanding; then she was gone across the room to her work; but the brightness of her look and the touch of her arm that had brushed him he still felt with a quick intimacy. The spirit of youth and fun had breathed on him in passing.

It went to his head. Capping Goosewings’ yarn with a better, or at least a more polished, he talked on gayly. Old Noah sat in judgment, but from time to time gave a chuckle; the young rustic, though he hung his face down, could not keep from appearing sourly entertained; and Ralph himself knew that he was in great form as a prince of good company.

His recompense came at bedtime, after Loveday had said:

“You show him his room, Zenoby. I hope you pitch in a good sleep, sir, for you must be tuckered after all that welkin’. Good night, sir.”

Upstairs in a narrow passageway Zenobia left him before a closed door.

“You’ll find your things inside.” She gave him the little brass lamp with which she had lighted the way. “Afraid it ain’t any too comf’table.”

Ralph, watching her face over the lamp, thought her the prettiest thing he had ever seen. She was all life and color, smiling with a kind of frightened mischief, made bold by admiration.

“Well, there! This evening — I don’t know when we had so much fun!”

She spoke hurriedly and low, almost whispering. Then she turned and fled down the passage, down the stairs.

His room had two black bearskins on the floor, a patchwork quilt on the bed, and a painted chest of drawers, where he found his knapsack. The offending brogues peeped from below the bed. Ralph cared nothing for all this, but got rid of his lamp, to stand upright under the slanting roof, stare about him, and draw a long breath.

As if dazzled, he saw her pictured on the darkness. “Humph!” At last he woke and grinned. “Don’t believe my foot will get well for some days now!”

He looked at the borrowed moccasins and remained still, thinking.

III

He came down early for breakfast, prepared to make this day begin as well as the last had ended, or better. Plans of enjoyment filled his head. He entered the room with a smiling morning face.

It went for nothing, wasted; no one was there, and though by his place at table a meal lay waiting he saw that the rest of the household had eaten and gone.

“What ungodly hours!” thought Ralph. The sun had not cleared the firs on the hill; without a cloud the upper air shone wonderfully bright, while yet a brownish haze, earth’s long-drawn shadow, clung to the valley and the alder brook in low contours of twilight. A crow cawed, welcoming warmth among his treetops. In the open barn door, hitched right and left by rope to the jambs, a tall white horse drowsed as if expecting to be curried, and pawed with a shaggy forefoot.

“Ungodly victuals too.” Returning from the window Ralph sat down and eyed his breakfast with scorn — tea, bread and pickings of salt codfish. “I can’t eat them.”

The things were hot, he found; but in his disgust he did not draw the plain conclusion that somebody had watched or listened for him and set them forth accordingly in time. Pains taken by anyone else meant little to Ralph, nothing when the outcome proved, as now, so meager.

“How do people work and keep alive,” he wondered, “on such fearful chow?”

It was enough to spoil a man’s day. He sat glooming over it, but at last had to eat and drink.

“That or go hungry.”

While trying to feed he heard sounds of life overhead, footsteps, the creak of boards, voices that rumbled once or twice, and the steady whisking of a brush on cloth. The Lovedays, then, were still indoors. This fact surprised him. He had thought farmers — the old kind, lingering round the edge of woods — went out as soon as awake to plow or tend cattle or do something rural under the morning star. But now time passed, the sun had risen, daylight flooded the valley, and here these mysterious people lurked in their bed chambers.

An hour or more dragged by. Then came a sound of doors opening and feet, heavy and slow, on the stairway. Another surprise greeted him when his hosts appeared in the door.

“Good morning!”

“Mornin’, sir.”

They were all strangely transfigured: old Noah and his helper by black clothes of a formal cut, so ample and loose hung that both men seemed to have shrunk overnight; the girl Zenobia by a tight black dress and a grandmotherly hat. Ralph wondered what blight had fallen on them, what darkness. Perhaps they were going to a funeral.

Father and daughter came into the room. Goosewings with a friendly grin turned and disappeared down the passage.

“Well, sir” — Loveday looked nowhere and spoke as to himself — “can ye manage, and hold the fort alon’? We kind o’ guessed, maybe, you wouldn’t feel eagle to going with us so fur.”

“Going? Oh,” ventured Ralph, “I hope — I hope it’s not bad news that calls you away?”

They both regarded him oddly, as if puzzled. The girl’s face, so young and bright with the play of thought, made a very droll contrast to her middle-aged garments.

“Why,” she said, “today’s Sunday!”

Had her father not been there, it seemed, she would have laughed.

“I — I probably lost count,” replied Ralph.

Noah’s gaze traveled about the room.

“It hain’t never bad news,” he mumbled, “that draws folks, to meetin’, don’t seem’s ‘ough.”

Ralph thought to clear his character; besides, he felt this girl’s way of looking, the mirth hidden in her great red-brown eyes, as a kind of challenge; and seeing her now he remembered their good night in the corridor upstairs, and determined that wherever she were going she could not leave him behind.

“May I come too?” He suddenly remembered also that he was lame, and shuffled a few steps. “If you think it’s all right for me to appear in these things.”

He pointed at the moosehide moccasins.

“Wore ‘em there my own self,” declared Loveday, “many’s the time.” His daughter said nothing. With a quick but careful motion she took Ralph’s dishes from the table and, carrying them so as not to touch her black dress, crossed the room.

“Then I will, Mr. Loveday.” She was busy in the sunlight by the windows, her back turned; but somehow Ralph caught an impression that his words pleased her.

“Feet ain’t what has to pass muster,” said Noah. The stooping little graybeard who looked and talked at nobody, might be a philosopher or fool; Ralph could not tell which. “They ‘low the Lord taketh no pleasure in the laigs of a man, and likely it applies clean on down him. Tomah Nicholas the Injun made them snow pacs five years ago, and made ‘em good. But no ones goin’ to be conscious of ‘em, sir, least not after the parson gits warm and lets out.”

Things moved without haste on Loveday’s Farm, for another hour passed before Goosewings led round to the front door a horse and wagon. It was the tall white horse; his hairy fetlocks, like old paintbrushes, bore an incurable yellow stain, but his coat shone from the currycomb, and his harness — a good stout collar-and-hames affair — glistened with blacking. Goosewings put his lank legs over a wheel and dropped into the rear seat beside Ralph, while father and daughter mounted the front.

“Stir your stumps, Danamite,” said Noah in a tone of gentle advice; and the horse, taking his own gait, lumbered away with them.

A long, slow journey it was, but one in which Ralph soon found unexpected pleasure. They went down a steep grass-ribbed lane, swept underneath alders in a lowland where every leaf and fern and grass blade, wet with dew that had been all but frost, gleamed silver-white in patterns of elfin beauty. They bumped over corduroy road — sunken logs coated with moss. Fording a brown pool of the brook, they scared minnows helter-skelter, and made the black-petaled shadows of water beetles that wavered, each with central dots of prismatic light, vanish from the sandy bottom. Then uphill, solemnly deliberate, Noah’s horse drew them into fir woods, green shade that breathed balsam and the scent of hidden flowers. Once, in the road ahead, a covey of young grouse left their early sun bath and went from sight like so many brown yarn balls trundling under the leaves together. And once the girl Zenobia jumped up and squealed.

“He’s run over!” She turned to look behind, kneeling on the seat, hugging herself in apprehension, with hands clutched. Then she laughed. “No, he’s all right! A mole crossing the ro’d.”

Her distress, her joy at the mole’s escape, were slight passing things and left her facing Ralph for the moment as if ashamed. In these dark woods, as in the dark corridor last night, she seemed the brightest creature alive; her face, with its change and color, adorable; and her young body — even when she had sat down again, so prim in old-womanish clothes — a figure gayly dressed for masquerade.

Someone else, Ralph discovered, was sharing his admiration; for Goosewings beside him gave a shy grin and a wag of the head, declaring plainly that Zenobia was good to look upon.

“I al’ays do like g-g-goin’ to meetin’,” said Goosewings, continuing yet changing the subject. “Best part the week, hain’t it?” He wrung his lean freckled hands till the joints creaked, as if by so doing he wound up some mechanism of talk.

“You’ll see a raft o’ people there.” His eyes regarded the back of Zenobia’s neck, but his words were to Ralph. “Our p-parson draws ‘em, I tell you; p-pulls ‘em out their holes thick as rain does angly-worms, might say. He hain’t no ways a d-devil dodger, parson; he ketches holt and wrastles good. Yis, sir! Can take the t-toughest old stubb’n text in the Book, and d-drive it ‘fore him like chasin’ a squerril up a t-tree.”

Noah, nodding to himself, agreed.

“He does so. The man’s a driver!” Inspired by this word, Mr. Loveday threatened a slap of the reins, which fell dangling harmless on the rump bones of his horse. “He kin so clod the texts at ye, both hands to one time.”

Jogging along, while the sun grew higher and the pointed shadows left the road, they discoursed thus at random of many things. Ralph would have thought it all stupid but for the presence of this girl before him. She spoke little, seldom glanced behind; yet she was listening, for once or twice when he laughed at some feeble joke a spark from the corner of her eyes encouraged him.

At last, on a hill, firs gave way to open sky. Crossing the ridge and rattling down its farther slope, the travelers entered a green pastoral country of hollow fields, bounded by dark promontories powerfully blue in the distance. Close underneath shone a lake dotted with fat little islands, mounds of leaves floating on their reflection. The road bent round one end of this lake, in which as they passed Ralph saw with astonishment long seaweed drifting and a snowy gull that swam near a border of meadow grass.

“I thought I’d left the sea away behind.”

“She runs up in amongst us unbeknown everywhere,” said Noah. “She fooled ye. Salt water. That plank bridge we crossed was made out the wrack of the Salva Y Hermanos, West Injies. We git plenty o’ fog, too, f’m the bellerin’ old fog fact’ry out beyond. W’oa, Danger!”

They had suddenly arrived. Under rowan trees full of yellowish-red berries other wagons, empty, stood in line, their horses tied to a rail fence or anchored with hitching weights. Above, on a granite hillock scarred by glaciers long ago, where nothing grew but mullein and bull thistles, a white wooden building sat alone. It seemed forlorn, pinched and barren like the foundation rock. Some men in black who moved as though depressed were going upstairs through the open door.

The Lovedays and their guest followed.

Soon afterward, between Zenobia and her father, in a bleak room full of sad-looking people, Ralph heard the promised wonders. A worn little elderly man with a grim face rose on his platform before them and seized the pulpit firmly, right and left.

“‘Benny-Eyer, the son of Jeho-Ida,’” he chanted with a good round voice, “‘went down and sloo a lion in a pit in a snowy day.’” The preacher paused and eyed them all as if ready to quell objections. “First Chronicles, eleventh chapter, twenty-second verse. ‘Benny-Eyer, the son of Jeho-Ida, went down and sloo a lion in a pit in a snowy day!’”

What merit the exposition had which followed Ralph could not judge. Ferocity of lions, and all that David Livingstone had to say about them; rarity of snow in Palestine, where “folks would take a flurry harder than what we do”; disadvantages of fighting in a pit, “without elbowroom to swing your weapon full heft, let alon’ you had anything more in hand than a bowarrow, those days” — were put forward in a homely style that was all too entertaining. Noah had spoken truth, for moccasins meant nothing when the preacher warmed to his work.

“Mark this: The accum’lation of diff’culties don’t signify, not a York shillin’, as father used to say. Diff’culty, sorrer, trouble, the gurry of the soul — they compass us about, friends, from our cradle to our grave. One long battle in a snowfall so thick you can’t see front of your face. The enemy faints not nor faileth, but fur from losing heart, it keeps our interest up. Benny-Eyer, the son of Jeho-Ida, warn’t content with overcoming common lions in the way, path lions, ro’d lions, turnpike lions; he walked out of his course to find ‘em, scrabbled down into holes after ‘em, killed ‘em there at odds, and red his neighborhood of the pesky things. And he took first chance come for it, not fine weather, but a snowy day!”

Later, outdoors again, while Noah and his man lingered talking with friends on the granite mound, Zenobia turned to Ralph for confirmation of this doctrine. They stood under the rowan trees, unhitching the horse together; a task that required only one pair of hands, yet their fingers met on the rope.

“How’d you like the sermon?”

Between them drooped the long white nose of the horse. Ralph craned over it, and saw her smiling.

“Great sport,” he answered. His own good humor in coming to such a show pleased him greatly. He knew it had pleased her. “Funniest talk I ever heard.”

The half-ripe berries of the rowan made a tantalizing background for her face. “Was it?” she said. “I guess it was, you’re so bright about things. I’d never have thought of that part.” Her smile changed and faded.

IV

The week after that Sunday seemed to him a reckless golden age. The days flowed like a river, all sunshine and peace, but with a dark undercurrent quickening toward the plunge. What he had taken at first for another mood, another whim, became a mastering force that carried him along without resistance, or even the desire to resist. He went to sleep thinking “Tomorrow I shall see her again”; woke thinking “I shall see her today”: and when these thoughts came true could hardly bear to lose her a moment from sight. He lived like a man in a dream, bewitched.

This fact grew evident to others; for early one morning as he awaited her in the front passage Ralph heard voices without.

“Do? That’s it. He d-don’t do a hand’s turn,” complained one. “Hankers round her and looks mum — looks mum — looks meltin’.”

“Why, maybe so,” replied the other. “But the fella’s a well-intendin’ young runagate. Flighty, yis. And as you let on, kind of putty headed, times.”

They were passing out of earshot.

“Alon’ so long — n-neither right nor wu-wise.”

“Sho, boy! Don’t you fret. Zenoby’s able to fend for herself … Wholesome and sturdy all round as a yaller birch. She’s the clear thing — ”

The listener stepped quietly to the door and looked out. Twilight clung beneath the elm, but now grew pale. The birds had let their chorus dwindle to a few scattered songs, and begun their visits, dropping from tree to tree. Noah Loveday and his long-limbed companion, with scythes curved over their backs like Father Time and son, were moving toward a black gap in the eastern woods. Ralph knew they were bound for a distant flowage to cut meadow hay, some crop neglected overlong. Noah said so last night. They would not come home till after dark.

This might be a holiday. He turned and called: “Zenobia!”

She answered from the long room.

“Oh, it’s ready! Another of you roaring round after his breakfast!”

He entered to find, as before, the table set for him. Zenobia was busy near the kitchen windows. He made for her straightway.

“You go sit down and eat! Can’t I call a minute my own?” Her strange deep-colored eyes frowned at him, but her lips were laughing. “You’re worse’n the others. Get away!”

She slipped out at the back door, shut it and ran so quickly that he could not find a trace of her. Hunting was of no use, he learned. She might have a dozen old childhood hiding places on that farm. All morning she avoided him; at noon appeared and vanished, putting his talk aside with jokes; not till three long hours past noon did she come within range, and then only as he happened to catch her passing down toward the meadow.

“Let me go too,” said Ralph.

She made a mock of him.

“How’s your lame foot?”

He waived the question and fell into step beside her.

“Why do you always run away from me now?”

“I don’t,” replied Zenobia. “You seem able to come if you want to.”

“Then you mean I’m not welcome?” He pulled a long face, for melancholy, he knew, was becoming to him. “You don’t like me? Very few people do.”

“Oh,” she cried, “let’s talk about something else besides our own selves. I like you best then. I mean, like to hear you.”

He obeyed. They crossed a shallow of the alder brook, climbed together a long western slope of sunny turf and, leaving the meadow far below, entered a road that wound between old gray fences broken and moldering under raspberry vines, yarrow and spiraea. Ralph was busy telling her, as usual, the marvels of his world. She heard him gladly. They seemed to have drawn closer today than ever before. Now, he thought, was the time; or now, in this white-birch grove; yet for some reason he dared not venture on what he had planned and fully determined.

Thus they went on, three or four miles.

At last Zenobia paused. The road lost itself, narrowing to a lane the banks of which hung down, smothered with early goldenrod.

“Here’s the best place. You can help me pick and lug them.”

For half an hour they scrambled and waded among greenish-golden tufts. When they slid down again into the grass-grown way the sun poured level over them and their shining, armfuls. Her face and throat were gilded with light, as if she embosomed and radiated all the clear outdoor flame of those young flowers.

“Listen to me!”

She laughed, shook her head and grew serious.

“No. Wait. You haven’t heard what I came after. Today’s the only chance I got all summer. It’s a shame. I ought to have.”

She led him rapidly back along the way they had come. In the white-birch grove she turned, took a path upon the right which he had not seen, and passed through a gap among brambles into a clearing.

“I must try to get here oftener,” said Zenobia.

The place was an old burying ground. Surrounded by the white pillars and flickering leaves of birch a few headstones caught the sunset. She halted by a marble slab. Little gray-and-black lichens growing in the letters chiseled upon it rendered them dark and plain.

ZENOBIA BORNE

BELOVED WIFE OF NOAH LOVEDAY

1873-1901

Noah’s daughter began to lay her goldenrod before this carefully.

“Mother died the same year and month as the old Queen of England. I can just remember her. Father says she was awful young and pretty. He was an older man.”

Ralph thought it best to leave her for the moment. He threw down his goldenrod and walked off to look elsewhere. This kind of thing always bored him. On some of the older stones — weather-worn slate carved with queer cherubs’ heads — he found a few amusing epitaphs to while the time away:

AFTER AN INOFFENSIVE LIFE THOUGH TOWARDS YE CLOSE MUCH PERPLEXT

JOEL BORNE, ESQRE,

A GENTLEMAN OF PLEASING & AFFABLE MANNERS

DYED 1752 TRUSTING IN YE LORD WHO KNOWETH OUR FRAME & REMEMBERETH YT WE’RE DUST

A smaller and later memorial reasoned thus in verse:

WHY WAS THE SHEPHEARD SO UNKIND TO CALL OUR LITTLE BION?

OF COARSE HE DONE IT FOR THE BEST IN FOLDING HIM TO REST.

When the girl had disposed her offering and risen the sun was leaving the grass, prolonging the rounded shadows of sweet fern, and departing through the birches in a light that faded from tree to tree until the nearer trunks glimmered pale and ghostly, while those deeper within kept only a tinge of lilac. Zenobia, waiting in the gap, still carried a great cluster of goldenrod.

“I always bring some home for my live folks too,” she said as Ralph took them from her. “We must hurry. I didn’t sense how late ‘twas getting to be.”

He felt no need of haste.

“They won’t come back from their flowage for a long time yet.”

Something in his voice made her look at him quickly. There was a trace of alarm, he thought, in those large red-brown eyes.

“We must hurry,” she repeated, and set out walking at a pace that seemed almost like flight.

He had hard work to keep alongside her. They brushed rapidly down the road, where the overhanging leaves now caught and held masses of dusk. Downhill, in the lower turns and hollows, the air became that of nightfall, changeable, now cool, now warm and fragrant with the breath of the wayside.

Stars hung above the meadow, which lay shimmering as though turned to frosty vapor, a formless haunted ground at the bottom of the night. Loveday’s Brook tinkled in lowermost darkness.

They were leaving it behind, when a meteor fell across the sky, trailing soft sparks of golden fire, quenched in a long curve. As if this gave the signal Ralph tossed away his flowers and made a swoop.

“Zenobia, dear! I must tell you what a wonder you — ”

It was his best voice. For one instant he felt her trembling, thought her captured and frightened; but quicker than his thought she was free, standing there firmly, a shadow, inaccessible.

“You must come away with me!” he cried. “I can’t leave you behind. I can’t! This awful life of yours, here in a corner among louts and blockheads, when you were made to shine before the whole world, and be worshiped! You can’t let me go without you! You shan’t!”

He found himself pouring out wild words, broken but powerful. Probably at the time he was quite honest and meant them all. He did not know that anything could so move him; for now it was he who trembled and stood afraid.

“No one ever talked to me like that before.” Zenobia, wrapped round with the mystery of starlight, spoke quietly. “No; don’t touch me again. I got to think.”

She moved away, so that he lost the shadow of her head against a many-pointed blackness of firs. He ran after her.

“You go pick up your goldenrod,” she said. “I ought to feel happy. It’s a great — great honor, they say. I ought to.”

Suddenly he guessed that she was crying.

“You know I — I — Oh, we did get on so well! Don’t spoil the day anymore.”

V

After this he played his part skillfully, right through in a rush. He knew now that Zenoby was a different kind of girl from the others. That she was a motherless girl, by the way, signified nothing to him, if indeed the fact ever crossed his mind. He played very skillfully, and soon had his reward.

It was a strange morning when he became sure of triumph. A thick mist, luminous but impenetrable, hid the country. The sea had flooded these woods with clinging fog, in which the nearest bough, two paces ahead, seemed to drift like a billow of dark smoke, while distant sounds came clear yet magnified and altered so that no man could tell what they were.

Zenobia raised her head to listen, then walked on, studying the ground. Her face in this gray vapor showed pale.

“Come, don’t mope,” said Ralph lightly. “Think what a lark we’ll have!”

She shook her head.

“It’s the leaving father. We did wrong not to tell him. I mean I did wrong, promising you not to tell.”

From what could be seen of trees they were passing through the cedar grove, where Ralph, on his way to this business, had felt a presentiment. All was right now, he thought. A few hours on foot would bring them to the Crossing; there he had a wagon and pair of horses waiting; and thence to seaport or railway it was a short affair.

“Your father? Why, he’ll laugh when we come back and tell him we’re — we’re man and wife.”

He had no intention to make any part of this true. He uttered the lie handsomely, with a smile that always took effect.

“It’s wrong, though,” said Zenobia.

“Dear girl, you must — ” He swung toward her.

“No!”

She drew back so quickly that a wreath of fog whirled between them, marking the draft of her motion. Truly she was different from the others: here she came, persuaded, brave enough to follow him to the world’s end, yet since the other night she would not so much as join hands.

“Zenobia, forget what’s behind!” he cried. “Remember what’s ahead of us!”

His gift of words being still upon him he unrolled once more a prospect of enchanted lands and cities — Vita pieta sensualis, the pride of the eye and fullness of life, many-colored, thrilling, beyond this fog.

“Back here, honestly, what is there? Goosewings wagging his ears after supper! You don’t know how paltry it all is because you’ve never seen!” He wanted to express great pity for her. “My dear child, you’re not to drag out your days doing cook and housemaid work, then go to your grave like that poor old noddy up there in the birches — what was his name? ‘After an Inoffensive Life’! Let’s have no more of this.”

He heard voices as of men drawing near — some trick of the fog; they ceased.

“Let’s go on and be happy.”

She heard him out, almost to the end, with a sidelong, full-orbed, steady glance. It was exactly the look, he thought, of the lovely Miss Linley in her portrait, the beauty of Bath long ago. This child must have good blood in her somewhere. Meanwhile she had clenched her fist; a funny and charming little fist.

“You to’d!” said Zenobia.

With a force he never expected or forgot she hit him straight in the face.

“You mis’rable to’d!”

Words and blow caught him off his balance. He staggered, fell, and sat in the road, his head ringing.

“You just make fun of everything — my church, my father! You don’t care! Not a mite, good or bad.” Her, face, no longer pale, blazed hot with shame. “There, I’m sorry. But when you made fun of our dead folks, you opened my eyes.”

They remained open, wide. Their light was the last he saw of Zenobia Loveday as she backed away toward home and vanished in smoke. He sat where he had fallen.

This obscurity, smelling of arbor vita and the salt sea, contained illusion mixed with hard truth. The voices he thought imaginary proved real; men had been close at hand, perhaps hearing him; for suddenly there walked past without word or sign the bent figure of Noah, going patiently home. The fog lifted and rolled in the man’s wake, as though he took it with him. A moment afterward Goosewings the joker went gangling by, his long legs preceding him with a sag of the knees at every stride. He spied Ralph, took to the ditch, embarrassed, and made a circuit to avoid whatever might be unseemly.

Ralph watched him go.

The cedars grew visible roundabout. He knew them again. It was a place where something happened to him; the touch of Ithuriel’s spear, reversed, had turned an archangel to a toad. Falsehood saw its own likeness.

“Oh, damn it all anyway!” said Ralph.

Bravado would not serve. His head still rang. And from the dwarf cedars, hump-backed, mossy, full of shadows that wriggled and mist that stole through, a hundred secret watchers in the woods, very old, peeped out and were laughing at him.

 

First page of the short story, "The Toad"
Read “The Toad” by Henry Milner Rideout from the June 19, 1920, issue of the Post. Become a subscriber to gain access to all of the issues of The Saturday Evening Post dating back to 1821.