A member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, John Peter Toohey also gave Harold Ross the idea to name his magazine The New Yorker, according to Dorothy Parker’s biography. Toohey wrote for magazines for much of his life before working as a theater publicist. His short story “The Water’s Fine,” about a theme park press agent who designs a publicity stunt for his ingénue crush, was later expanded into a novel called Fresh Every Hour. His thrilling, romantic short sets the scene by invoking the 1900s vaudeville hit “I Just Can’t Make My Eyes Behave” and concludes with a climactic chase on dirigible.
Published on November 8, 1919
Jimmy Martin’s heart persisted in acting like the well-known eyes of the young lady in the song. He just couldn’t make it behave. Up to the third week of his summer season as press agent at Jollyland, the big summer amusement park near New York, it had always been a fairly well-mannered and dependable organ, which performed its physiological functions with becoming regularity and which was not accustomed to respond to any external stimuli with anything beyond an occasional slight flutter. To be sure it had acted up a little three years back in connection with a certain dark-eyed beauty who presided over the destinies of the cigar counter up in the Grand Hotel in New Haven, but that had been only a slight attack and it had resumed the even tenor of its ways after a brief interval and had been unobtrusively going through its routine activities ever since.
A most prepossessing young person whose parents had inflicted upon her the name of Miss Lolita Murphy was directly responsible for the alarming symptoms already hinted at. From the precise moment that Lolita came within his ken Jimmy ceased to be a rational being in full control of his faculties; and his heart, in sympathetic accord with the agitated condition of its owner, began to put on an antic disposition and indulged in curious palpitations of a most annoying nature on the slightest pretext. The usual provocation at first was the sight of Lolita herself, but after a day or two even the thought of her produced a cardiac rataplan that would have done credit to the trap drummer of a jazz band.
Lolita, it may be mentioned in passing, lived up to all the implications of the somewhat picturesque cognomen given her by McClintock, the park manager, when Jimmy first pointed her out to his superior.
“She sure is Miss Lulu Looker,” McClintock had remarked emphatically.
Lolita was all of that and a little more. Jimmy was not a poet, and he was therefore unable properly to voice the feelings he had about her beauty. Had he been one he might have justly said that her cheeks seemed to have been kissed by the rosy flush of dawn; that in her sable eyes there lurked the eternal mystery of night beneath tropic skies; that her dark hair was as fragrant as the spices of Araby and that her lithe figure had all the gracile curves of a bounding antelope. As it was, he contented himself with the frequent repetition of the decidedly unpoetic expression “some gal,” but this represented to him all the ideas noted above and a liberal assortment of others equally glamorous.
Lolita hailed from a small city in Iowa, and ever since the memorable occasion when Maude Adams played Peter Pan in that city for one night only she had cherished a great and overwhelming ambition. Her father ran the drug store next door to the opera house and was a great crony of the manager’s. A number of boys and girls were picked up in each town to play the children in the Never Never Land scene and Lolita’s fond parent had inveigled the manager into selecting her as one of the group. It was a step that father was to regret vainly for many years, but on the night of her debut he was blissfully unconscious of the possibility of any bitter repining in the future and enjoyed the proceedings almost as much as Lolita did.
From that time on Lolita felt the call of the footlights and became convinced that, given the proper opportunities for the externalization of the emotional feelings that lay dormant within her, she was destined to become an international celebrity and the queen regnant of the English-speaking stage. Chauncey Olcott came to town a few weeks later and she persuaded father to work her in as one of the youngsters to whom he sang a lullaby in a high tenor voice down in the “glen,” which is always the setting for the third act of an Irish play.
After that there was no holding her. She became a student at Miss Amanda Holliday’s School of Dramatic Expression, which occupied three rooms on the second floor of the Turner Block on Main Street, and she participated in the semiannual entertainments given by the budding geniuses who were under the tutelage of that small-town preceptress of the arts. Versatility was her middle name. At one time she would play Ophelia in the mad scene from Hamlet, and appear later on the program in a Spanish dance with castanets, a lace mantilla and all the other necessary properties. Six months later she would combine the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with an imitation of an imitation of Eddie Foy she had heard given by a monologue artist at the Orpheum Theater.
At the age of nineteen she was the town wonder. The dramatic editor of the Democrat-Chronicle predicted that within a short time “this talented daughter of our esteemed fellow townsman, Henry P. Murphy, seems destined to occupy one of the stellar places in the front ranks of the worthwhile artists of our fair country.”
Lolita moved on to New York armed with a letter of commendation from Miss Amanda Holliday setting forth that she was “worthy of consideration for any role no matter what its importance” and urging theatrical managers “not to neglect this opportunity of obtaining the services of one who is a mistress of the mimetic art in all of its manifold manifestations.” She also carried a full set of clippings from the Democrat-Chronicle, one half of her male parent’s attenuated account in the First National Bank and an overabundant supply of cheery optimism.
The metropolitan managers’ office boys were decidedly cold to the advances of this gifted daughter of the Middle West. They treated her with that air of careless indifference so characteristic of their profession. With one accord all the big and little producers decided to take a big chance and neglect the opportunity which Fate was offering them. They were unmoved by the clippings from the Democrat-Chronicle with which Lolita bombarded them through the mails, and they were callous to the eulogistic outpourings of Miss Amanda Holliday, copies of which accompanied each written request for an interview. Lolita’s cash reserve grew perilously low and disaster threatened. Then on a morning when disillusionment and despair moved in and took lodgings in her soul she saw an advertisement in a newspaper which was like a life buoy tossed to a drowning man.
“Ambitious Young Women Wanted for Stage Work,” it read. “Opportunity Afforded Ambitious Amateurs to Perfect Themselves in Dramatic Technic — Apply Immediately at Manager’s Office, Jollyland.”
Lolita, filled with high hopes, took a trolley to the great playground by the sea. There, Destiny handed her one of those cold douches that are sometimes held in reserve for those whose ambitions o’erleap themselves. The dramatic opportunity promised in the advertisement proved to be what might be vulgarly termed a job.
A great free open-air spectacle was in process of preparation at Jollyland under the supervision of a famous moving-picture director who specialized in that form of animated art technically known as serials. He had personally conducted a gazelle-eyed cinema celebrity known as June Delight through four fifteen-reel affairs of this sort, in which she had been threatened with mayhem, aggravated assault and battery, felonious wounding, and total and complete annihilation at the hands of numerous bands of cutthroats, bandits, thieves and white slavers. In the course of these proceedings she had performed every breath-catching feat that the festive imagination of the director had been capable of conjuring up, and had succeeded by a miracle in keeping out of both the hospital and the obituary columns of the daily press.
Now it was proposed to let the public have a close-up view of this death-defying marvel in the flesh in the act of performing one of her most famous exploits “before your very eyes and for your attention,” as the circus announcer would put it. To permit of this the director had evolved something which he called a dramatic spectacle and had persuaded the management of Jollyland to arrange for its production in a huge, specially constructed open-air auditorium as a special added attraction intended to put a final quietus on the presumptuous efforts of a rival group of showmen who were endeavoring to rouse interest in a new park just opened that summer.
Lolita found herself in a long line of applicants, many of whom were pathetically peaked and undernourished looking, and when her turn came to meet the director she made up her mind to pocket her pride and accept whatever fate offered rather than run the risk of finding herself in like straits. Ambition still fired her soul and she was determined not to return to the little old home town until she could enter it in something at least closely akin to a spirit of triumph. To be sure the opportunity offered her was not particularly roseate. It did not hold forth much promise of either pecuniary reward or even of passing fame, but it meant that Lolita would not have to telegraph home for funds and there was a faint glimmer of hope in a remark made by the director.
“You can mingle in the front ranks of the crowd,” he said. “We’ll pay you eighteen a week. There’ll be only two shows a day.” Then he had looked at her critically. “You’re almost a ringer for Miss Delight,” he concluded. “Maybe if you’re a good little girl I might take a notion to try you out as understudy.”
So Lolita Murphy, the pride of her home city, became a small and almost infinitesimal part of the great outdoor spectacle entitled Secret Service Sally, which was the big sensation of the Jollyland season.
In the role of an agent of the United States Secret Service the charming and fascinating June Delight was swept through a series of thrilling adventures set against spectacular backgrounds depicting scenes in Berlin, Tokio, Rio de Janeiro and other world capitals, and as a culminating feature she was pursued to the roof of a building in London by a howling mob which suspected her of being a spy in the employ of the Central Powers. She was saved from its hands, in the proverbial nick of time, by her fiancé, dashing Lieut. Thurston Turner, commander of the United States Dirigible N-24, who happened to be cruising about the neighborhood at the moment and who effected a rescue by circling his ship round the roof and deftly lifting the young woman into the shelter of the gondola which hung from the great gas balloon just as she was about to be beaten to death by the crowd.
Inasmuch as the spectacle was given in the open air it was possible to use for the purposes of this scene a real dirigible, which was manned by a crew commanded by one Bobby Wilkins, a personable young gentleman from Chicago who had come back from France with a major’s commission, a reputation for dare-deviltry as an aviator surpassed by no other ace in the American service, and a collection of a half dozen assorted war medals bestowed by three grateful nations. Bobby had left a snug berth as assistant to the president of a big varnish company to go into the Army, the said president being a somewhat indulgent parent who had sanguine expectations concerning his son’s commercial and industrial future and who was even now sending him daily wires to the Ritz-Carlton urging him to “cut the cabarets and get down to a solid rock foundation.”
Father labored under the delusion that Bobby was simply vacationing in New York. Had he had an inkling of just what his son was doing he would have — to use the young major’s own expression — “tried for a new altitude record himself.” He couldn’t be expected to know that dictating fool business letters and checking up the new efficiency expert’s monthly report of economies effected at the Dayton plant wouldn’t exactly appeal any more to an adventuresome young man who had been skyhooting through the upper reaches of the atmosphere for nearly two years and dodging German machine-gun bullets.
Bobby had overheard the general who commanded the aviation camp at which he was demobilized remarking about a request made by the moving-picture director that he recommend some aviator for the task of piloting the dirigible which was to play such an important role in the spectacle, and he had offered himself for the sacrifice just as a lark. He found the experience rare sport and until something giving greater promise of adventure appeared in the offing he was determined to go on with it. Twice a day he reached down and plucked up the beautiful Miss Delight as lightly as if she were a fragile doll while the assembled thousands, on the qui vive with excitement, burst into rapturous applause. In order to insure the peace of mind of Robert Wilkins, Sr., Jimmy Martin had consented rather reluctantly, it must be admitted — to respect the wishes of the impersonator of Lieut. Thurston Turner, U.S.N., who had expressed a desire to remain incognito. Otherwise the consequences might have been lurid.
Jimmy itched to give out a story concerning the social and business connections of the young soldier, but he had given his word and, being an ex-newspaper man, that was sacred. He temporarily forgot about Bobby and devoted his spare moments to figuring out ways and means for the sensational exploitation of Lolita Murphy, to whose charms, as previously recorded, he had become a shackled slave from the moment he first glimpsed her at rehearsal.
Lolita, it may be mentioned in passing, was a trifle discouraged at the comparatively slight opportunities for uplifting and otherwise ennobling the American stage offered by her participation in Secret Service Sally. Her name wasn’t even mentioned on the program. She figured under an impersonal heading at the bottom, together with a couple of hundred other young women who were listed as “Berlin citizens, Japanese geisha girls, South Americans, Londoners, etc., etc.”
It needed all the soaring optimism of Jimmy to keep her from slipping into a nervous decline. The press agent had obtained an introduction through the stage director, and his sympathetic interest in her temporarily sidetracked ambitions had won him her esteem and high regard from the beginning. Jimmy was a rapid worker and within three days from the time of their first meeting he had vowed his ardent and palpitating devotion, and though Lolita had not completely committed herself to a reciprocal affirmation she had succeeded, nevertheless, by devious and subtle devices not unknown to her sex, in conveying the distinct impression that the star of hope was visible in the eastern sky.
There came a night when Lolita’s disappointment was past all bearing and when she sobbed out on Jimmy’s shoulders a bitter protest against the fate that had driven her into believing that she was destined to be a great actress. They were sitting on the beach in the moonlight after the show, and off in the murky distance the great Sandy Hook light was blinking like some monster firefly.
“Jimmy,” she said half chokingly, “I just don’t belong. I wish I was back in Iowa.”
“Gosh, that’s an awful wish, girlie,” responded the press agent with a foolish attempt at a pleasantry which he instantly regretted. Lolita drew away from him quickly and flared up.
“Iowa’s all right,” she retorted. “It’s better than this lonesome place.” She lapsed almost immediately into a wistful mood. “It’s just ten o’clock there now and the movies are letting out and there’s a crowd in dad’s store and the fellows are treating the girls to sundaes or just plain ice cream and dad is fussing round and yelling to poor Porky Brooks to get a move on and keep the orders filled, and like as not he’s helping out himself. I want to go back, Jimmy; I want to go back.”
Jimmy touched her gently on the hand and then squeezed it softly.
“Listen, girlie,” he said comfortingly. “I know just how you feel — the cards ain’t runnin’ right and you want to quit the game, but I’m goin’ to cut in with a clean deck and start a new deal. I’m goin’ to fix things so that when you do go back for a visit to the little old home town and the old folks the Peerless Silver Cornet Band is goin’ to be down at the station, and the Mayor is goin’ to speak a few well-chosen words of welcome in the presence of a cheering crowd of friends and wellwishers. Leave it to me.”
Lolita laughed a little in spite of her mood.
“You’re a great little jollier, Jimmy,” she said, “and I’d like to believe you, but somehow I can’t. I’m a nobody, a small-town nobody.”
“But you’re goin’ to be a little Miss Lolita Somebody of the well-known world,” he responded cheerily, “before I get through with you. I’m goin’ to drop you right into the direct center of the front page of every paper in the U.S.A. from the New York Gazette to the Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, Rocket. You’re goin’ to make all the rest of them look like shrinkin’ violets on a foggy afternoon when I finish up with you. You just wait and see.”
“How long have I got to wait, Jimmy?” ventured Lolita, who was adrift in the realms of fancy, carried thither by the soothing cadences of Jimmy’s voice.
“Only until some afternoon when this June Delight person fails to show up. I hear she’s talkin’ of layin’ off for a few days. If that doesn’t happen by the middle of next week, I’ll get to her chauffeur and frame it so that she misses the show. Then we’ll pull the big act. If you’ll promise not to talk about it even in your sleep I’ll hand you a little advance information on the subject.”
Only the silent stars and the discreet moon shared Jimmy’s confidence with Lolita. Its general tone and tenor lifted that despairing daughter of the plains out of the rut of hopeless striving into which she felt she had fallen and filled her with such anticipatory delight that when she said goodbye at the door of her boarding house she impulsively reached forward and kissed him full on the mouth.
“You’re a darling!” she murmured.
“I’ll take an encore on that, girlie,” he replied. And he did.
Miss June Delight summoned Manager McClintock to her dressing room just before the Saturday-night performance and successfully simulated the classic symptoms of impending nervous prostration while she sniffed at a vial of smelling salts and submitted to the ministrations of a tired maid who gently massaged her forehead with her fingertips. Miss Delight in a voice that was barely audible informed the manager that she could not possibly endure the trying ordeal of further performances after that evening without a brief period of rest and that she was leaving for a week’s stay at a sanitarium on the following morning.
McClintock gave voice to low moans and flew other signals of distress, but Miss Delight was obdurate to his more or less frenzied expostulations and remarked that though she was disturbed at having to disappoint her dear, lovely, friendly public she felt that her health was the prime consideration. The manager was in a surly mood when he left her to seek out the stage director.
“Who’s the understudy?” he inquired.
“She calls herself Lolita Murphy,” replied the director, “but I understand there’s a certain party connected with the publicity department who calls her even flossier names than that.”
“Jimmy’s gal, eh?” commented the manager. “Well, she’s there with the looks anyway. Has she had a rehearsal?”
“She’s been through the thing roughly with the rest of the understudies, but I can have the whole troupe called for tomorrow morning and we can run straight through. We’ll get out the dirigible and go through with the rescue stunt. We mustn’t fall down on that. The little lady seems to be there with the nerve, but I’d like to try it out.”
Jimmy was permitted to break the news to Lolita. He met her after the performance that night and imparted the glad tidings. When he left her he gave her a final word of caution.
“Keep the little old nerve up, girlie,” he said earnestly, “and we’ll wake up the whole country on Monday morning.”
“I’ll try, Jimmy,” she whispered. “You’re just the — well, just the dearest boy I’ve ever known.” On the following morning Lolita, athrill with excitement and a little nervous, assumed the title role in Secret Service Sally at a rehearsal, to the complete satisfaction of McClintock, the stage director, and Jimmy Martin. The latter watched her with adoring eyes and when she successfully essayed the sensational rescue scene he was moved to wild and clamorous applause, which sounded a bit startling in the great empty auditorium. Under Bobby Wilkins’ expert direction the big clumsy dirigible was maneuvered round the edge of the roof and Lolita was lifted into the car by the former ace with such adroit ease that the whole thing seemed to be simply part of a casual everyday occurrence. When it was over and Lolita had been safely landed back on earth and had received the congratulations of everyone concerned she drew Jimmy aside and clutched at his arm for support.
“I’m ready to faint,” she said weakly. “I believe I would have up on the roof when I saw that big thing coming toward me if that fellow hadn’t grabbed me off so quickly.”
“You need a little nap,” responded Jimmy soothingly. “The worst is over and the best is yet to come. Don’t forget that young Mr. Arthur H. Opportunity has a date with you this afternoon and that the big splash is due tomorrow morning. Now you go in and get a little sleep and I’ll have a talk with my friend the handsome lieutenant. I fixed things with him last night, but I’ve got to go over some details again.”
A few minutes later the press agent was closeted with Bobby Wilkins in the hangar in which the dirigible was housed. The park gates had just been opened for the day and crowds of holiday merrymakers were surging through them in quest of the fifty-seven varieties of feverish and hectic entertainment which Jollyland provided for those in search of diversion.
If anyone had called Jimmy Martin a psychotherapist he would promptly have denied the soft impeachment first and then asked for a dictionary and an explanatory blueprint. And yet as a direct result of a random idea which had bobbed into his active mind a few weeks before he was unconsciously serving in that capacity for a large and ever-increasing throng of metropolitan society women of varying ages who flocked to Jollyland in search of a new thrill which he had provided. The winding up of war-charity work which had followed close upon the return to these shores of the larger part of the American Army had turned many of these women back upon their own resources; and their innate restless activity, which had found such an altruistic outlet in new channels for several years, now imperiously demanded fresh excitement, and it was this that Jimmy offered them.
On the occasion in question Jimmy had overheard a coy young debutante who was watching a performance of Secret Service Sally remark to a group of friends who accompanied her that she’d just love to go up on the stage and mix with the crowd! That was enough for the press agent. Ten minutes later, during the intermission, he escorted the entire party behind the scenes, and under his guidance they participated in the London episode which concluded the show. They mingled with the crowd of supernumeraries and entered into the proceedings attendant upon the thrilling dirigible rescue with such gusto that the stage manager gave Jimmy carte blanche to encourage the idea.
It happened that in this particular party were several of the socially elect and the papers next morning carried extensive stories chronicling the event, coupled with the announcement that the park management would, throughout the season, be pleased to extend the privilege of participating in the entertainment to other groups who might wish to take advantage of the opportunity for this unusual form of entertainment. Society seized upon the idea voraciously and Jollyland parties gave a new fillip to the summer season at all the Long Island resorts. Elderly matrons of ample girth vied with the members of the younger set in setting the pace, and in many instances came again and again to become a part of the great spectacle. For the first time in its history Jollyland began to figure in the society columns of the daily press, and great was the prestige which Jimmy enjoyed in McClintock’s eyes as a result.
The particular luminary of the Long Island season at the moment and the prospective lion of the month of August at Newport was none other than the Hon. Betty Ashley, daughter of the second Lord Norbourne, and the most talked about young woman in English society for a period the beginnings of which antedated the war by several years. Before the great European conflagration, the Honorable Betty, though then still in her early twenties, was a European celebrity. Spirited, impulsive and headstrong by nature she had early rebelled against the ultraconservative traditions of her family and had so thoroughly flouted convention that her name was on the tip of the tongue of everyone in the tight little island. She began it by publicly slapping the face of a certain deposed kinglet who had sought refuge and a safe haven in England and whose sole offense had been a mild protestation of love, made at a fashionable garden party.
There had followed her sensational and entirely unarranged presentation of a petition for woman’s suffrage to England’s monarch himself at a formal court reception — an incident which sent her dignified father to his bed for two weeks; her arrest on suspicion of being implicated in a militant attempt to set fire to the House of Parliament and her subsequent acquittal after she had refused to make any defense against a damaging array of circumstantial evidence; her jilting of the Earl of Maidsley in an explanatory and derisive letter to the Times; her winning of the amateur tennis championship; and a host of other incidents of an unconventional nature.
Then the war had come and she had gone over to France in the first months as a motor driver and had still managed to keep in the public eye for five years despite the somewhat considerable amount of attention devoted in the newspapers to the great struggle. She had, for one thing, won a D.S.O. for bravery under fire in the First Battle of Ypres; and she had, for another, been reprimanded in orders for organizing a ball at a certain château occupied by the staff of a certain corps during the absence of the commanding general at a conference at G.H.Q.
Now she had come to the United States for the first time and had materially assisted in putting zest and punch into a round of festive house parties on Long Island given by prominent members of the swiftest-moving coterie of the so-called smart set. Small wonder that when she heard of the expeditions to Jollyland which were enjoying such a vogue she should elect to organize one herself.
“I’m not entirely a rank amateur, my dear,” she confided to her hostess when the party was preparing to depart. “I went on for two nights running in the chorus at the Alhambra last winter on a five-pound wager and I’d have stuck it out for a whole week for the fun of it if the pater’s blood pressure hadn’t been running abnormally high. The old dear would have gone all to smash if he had found out, and he might have if I’d kept on.”
The Honorable Betty, her dark beauty set off by a rose-pink silk sweater and a tam-o’-shanter to match, was in the first car of the string of six which disgorged a laughing crowd of merrymakers in front of Jollyland on Sunday afternoon. They made for the big arena immediately, as it was within a few minutes of the advertised time for the ringing up of the curtain on the great spectacle. The Honorable Betty let it be known to an usher, who was duly impressed by her air of authority, that she craved an immediate interview with the manager. McClintock, still disturbed at the defection of the capricious Miss Delight, responded grudgingly; was apprised of the identity and mission of the distinguished visitor, and sought out Jimmy Martin in great excitement. He found the press agent back on the stage.
“Say, young fellow,” he said enthusiastically, “I’ve got a Monday-morning story for you all ready-made and ready to try on! This Betty Ashley who’s been grabbing off space all over the world for a long time and who’s the big noise with the real folks over here this summer is out in front with a crowd right out of the Social Register and she wants to go on in the London scene. I told her she could. Get busy now and prepare for a general assault on the press.”
Jimmy received this intelligence with a glumness that rather annoyed McClintock.
“What did she want to pick out today for?” he inquired uneasily.
“What’s the matter with today? It’s the best day possible for a good break for us. The papers are always glad of anything that makes a noise like a story on Sunday. What’s the matter?”
“Oh, nothin’,” replied Jimmy absentmindedly; “only I wish she’d waited until the middle of the week. I was kinda figurin’ on — Oh, nevermind; it’ll be all right.”
An acute observer would have detected signs of suppressed excitement in the general demeanor of Jimmy Martin during the progress of the early scenes of the great spectacle in which Lolita Murphy was essaying the leading role for the first time on any stage. He had exchanged his customary cigarette for the solace of a particularly formidable-looking cigar, which he puffed at nervously as he sat in the manager’s box with his cap pulled down over his eyes. His whole body was tense and rigid, and though there was a look of adoration in his eyes there was something more — a vague something that seemed to spell apprehension.
Justice compels the admission that Lolita was doing herself proud. She moved through the thrilling situations of Secret Service Sally with the ease and calm assurance of a veteran and more than merited the applause which the vast holiday audience showered on her. When the curtain rose on the final scene — the one depicting the streets of London — the audience, keyed up to expectant excitement by the gaudy promises of the program, held its collective breath and Jimmy sank his teeth viciously into what remained of his cigar. McClintock slid into the seat alongside of him.
“That gal of yours is sure making good!” he remarked good-naturedly. “If she goes through to the finish as nicely she’ll find a surprise in her envelope on Saturday night. There’s that English society dame and her party strolling along just as if they were back in dear old Lunnon. I had Lawrence, the assistant stage manager, go on with ’em to put ’em wise to all the business.”
The mimic street on the stage was thronged with a motley crowd of supernumeraries who were supposed to represent the populace of the British metropolis out for an airing on a bank holiday. The rose-pink sweater of the Hon. Betty Ashley was the most conspicuous object in view. That patrician lady bobbed in and out among the others, apparently having the time of her life and urging her friends, with violent pantomime, to enter into the festivities with something akin to her own enthusiasm.
Presently the audience heard a murmur pass through the crowd on the stage and Jimmy’s acute ear detected the muffled purr of the motor on the dirigible, which was at that moment maneuvering for position and awaiting its cue two hundred feet in the air just behind the backs of the last row of spectators. The press agent grabbed the railing in front of him and leaned eagerly forward. He was watching the right side of the stage.
A motor car shot out of the wings through a lane in the crowd. In it sat Lolita Murphy in the role of queen of the American Secret Service. It was plain that she was simulating great anxiety and that she was being followed. She looked apprehensively over her shoulder and the audience could catch excited shouts of “Stop her! Stop her!” A gigantic bobby stepped directly in the path ahead of the car and drew his revolver. The chauffeur pulled a lever and the car stopped abruptly. A man on a motorcycle came dashing up.
“Arrest her!” he shouted and he sprang from the saddle. “She’s a German spy from the Wilhelmstrasse.”
Lolita looked about furtively, poised herself for just a moment and then leaped out of the car, overturning an athletic super and making for a doorway as the crowd broke into frenzied cries of “Kill her! Kill her!” The incident had been rehearsed with the utmost regard for actuality, and as the mob surged after the suspected spy the vast throng of spectators swayed with excitement like a field of tall grass in a breeze. Lolita reached the safety of the doorway by almost the fraction of an inch and disappeared. The crowd poured in after her and McClintock caught Jimmy’s arm as he caught sight of a vanishing flash of rose-pink.
“Damned if that English dame isn’t right in at the death!” he said excitedly. “She’s going up on the roof.”
Jimmy didn’t reply. He was watching the roof of the make-believe building with eyes that were strained and staring. As Lolita emerged from the hatchway and plunged forward with a fine gesture of despair, he looked back over his shoulder for a moment and noted that the N-24 was slowly swinging forward and that the alert and eager face of Bobby Wilkins was visible over the edge of the car which hung from the rear of the big balloon.
Lolita held out appealing hands and gave voice to cries for assistance. The crowd, in the vanguard of which was a lady in a rose-pink sweater, with cheeks that were flaming and with eyes that were dancing, swarmed up through the opening and surrounded the suspected spy. The supernumeraries’ voices became a blended babble of inarticulate cries and 3,467 spectators watched the developments in a tense silence.
Nearer and nearer swung the great dirigible. Lolita was now in the hands of the mob, with which she struggled fiercely. As the N-24 swung round the corner of the roof she turned as per instructions, but Jimmy noticed with a gasp of concern that she had turned in the wrong direction and that she was making her way to the wrong side. She was evidently bewildered. Bobby Wilkins was leaning out of the car with his arms outstretched and was beseeching her to run toward the other side of the roof. In another five seconds the dirigible would have passed on and the spectacular finish of the big show would be ruined. McClintock swore softly. Jimmy sat as one entranced.
Some of the supers were pushing Lolita to the other side, but she seemed to be in a panic and struggled with them as if still acting the earlier scene. At this juncture Jimmy noticed that a lady in a rose-pink sweater had run to the edge of the roof, just above which the dirigible was moving, and that she was holding up her arms. His cigar dropped from his mouth a second later when he saw Bobby Wilkins grab her outstretched hands, swing her clear of the roof and pull her into the car as the great dirigible finally cleared the scenery building and in quick response to the hand of the pilot in the front car nosed her way upward at a higher rate of speed. The curtain fell and the repressed excitement of the great audience found vent in tumultuous applause. The thing had happened so quickly that there were apparently few who had noticed that the wrong young woman had been saved from death by the timely arrival of Lieut. Thurston Turner, U.S.N.
“What a whale of a story!” chortled McClintock, gripping Jimmy’s arm so fiercely that the press agent winced with pain.
“Yes, isn’t it?” responded Jimmy dreamily as he watched the N-24 winging her way over the park and out toward the sea. The spectators had risen from their seats and were applauding again as a big American flag was unfurled from the rear car of the dirigible.
The balloon kept on its way toward the ocean, and as McClintock noticed that it didn’t make the turn it usually did when it reached the giant roller coaster that ran along the shore a puzzled expression came over his face. If he had looked at Jimmy sharply just then he would have observed the first beginnings of a pleased smile tilting the corners of the press agent’s mouth. A minute passed and the great yellow gas bag receded farther and farther in the distance. McClintock stepped down and borrowed a field glass from a spectator. He glued his eyes to it for a few moments and then dropped his arms. His face had gone pale.
“His motor’s dead,” he said weakly, “and he’s drifting out to sea. The propeller’s stopped and he’s being carried out by this land breeze. We’ve got to do something — we’ve got to get help of some kind.”
The manager was plainly worried. He pressed the glass on Jimmy, who had followed him out of the box, and the latter watched the clumsy balloon, now at the mercy of the stiff breeze which had blown up, slowly but surely disappearing in the opalescent haze which hung above the line where sky and ocean seemed to meet. The owner of the glasses had overheard McClintock’s remark and had passed the word on to his neighbor. In two minutes the news had spread through the great crowd, and thousands of eyes were focused on the drifting speck, which presently vanished. McClintock pushing Jimmy before him started for the main office and found himself surrounded by an excited group of men and women. An upstanding chap in a British major’s uniform who wore a cap on which was the red-velvet band of a staff officer stepped forward.
“We’re Miss Ashley’s friends,” he said with a touch of feeling in his voice; “and we’ll do everything we can to assist you. She’s a bit untamed, sir, and she shouldn’t have done that wild foolish thing, but she’s the best woman alive for all that, and now that she’s in danger we’re going to help you see her out of it. Has that dirigible got a wireless on board?”
“No,” replied the manager. “There wasn’t any need for one. Since it’s been here it’s never been more than a mile or two away from the hangar before.”
“That’s bad — damned bad,” responded the officer. “Of course maybe they’ll be able to fix the engine, but we can’t take chances on that. If you’ll let me use your telephone I’ll call up our embassy in Washington and get them to get in touch with the Navy Department. We’ll have all the ships in range of the Arlington station on the lookout in an hour.”
The thoroughly sobered group of pleasure seekers who had accompanied the Honorable Betty to Jollyland two hours before followed McClintock and Jimmy Martin into the offices in the administration building and talked in low voices while the major began to fuss in the telephone booth with the long-distance operator. Some of the women were weeping.
In the seclusion of his private office Jimmy telephoned a press syndicate, the police and the nearest United States lifesaving station, in the order named, while McClintock, who was plainly tremendously worried, paced restlessly up and down the floor, pausing occasionally to glance out of the window at the broad expanse of sky and sea, in the vain hope that some sight of the lost dirigible might greet his eye. Just as Jimmy began calling up the metropolitan newspaper offices in a fine frenzy of excitement both men heard the office door slam violently. They turned in unison and found themselves confronted by Lolita Murphy. Gone were the shy manner, the demure smile and the air of coy ingenuousness. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were blazing, and her whole manner indicated that she was in what is generally referred to as a “state of mind.”
“Hello, girlie,” Jimmy called out pleasantly. “What’s the matter?”
“Don’t you dare girlie me, Mr. James T. Martin!” retorted Lolita in a voice that she was palpably trying, with a great effort, to keep at an even and menacing tone. “Don’t you dare to speak to me again! I came in to tell you that and to let you know that even if I do come from a small town I can’t be fooled by any New York — by any New York — bunko man!”
Her voice broke on the last word and tears came into her eyes despite the struggle she was making to hold herself in hand. Jimmy came toward her, but she waved him off hysterically. McClintock watched the proceedings in amazement.
“What’s the idea, Lolita?” began the press agent beseechingly. “I don’t get you. I don’t understand.”
“Don’t try to tell me that,” ran on Lolita, who was now half sobbing. “Don’t try to tell me that you didn’t turn me down when that English girl came into the park with all those society people and that you didn’t get together with that Wilkins fellow to have me left there so you could get a better story out of it with her. You fixed it all up and you can’t tell me that you didn’t because I just know, that’s all. I have a sweater on under my dress so’s I wouldn’t catch cold and I had milk chocolate in my pocket and I’d written home to mother about its going to happen and telling her not to worry about anything she might read in the papers the first day, and now nothing’s happened at all to me and I’ve been made a fool of and it’s all your fault and if you ever try to come near me again or speak to me I’ll slap your face, Mr. James T. Martin, I’ll slap your face. Do you hear me, Mr. James T. Martin, I’ll slap your fresh little face!”
She was gone before Jimmy could remonstrate. The door closed behind her with a more reverberating bang than the one which had heralded her entrance. Jimmy dropped into the nearest chair and gazed vacantly into space. McClintock shook him roughly by the shoulder.
“Say,” he shouted, “what in the name of glory is this all about?”
“She handed me the mitt, Mac — she’s handed me the mitt, and she wouldn’t even let me explain,” responded Jimmy brokenly. “It’s the real heart-throb stuff this time, Mac, the real heart-throb stuff. I had everything framed up for her, and this English jane just drops in like a joker tannin’ wild and wins the hand.”
“You had what framed?”
“Why, this drifting-out-to-sea stunt,” replied Jimmy in a dead voice.
“This drifting out to sea — You don’t — you can’t mean that this thing is a plant!” gasped the manager incredulously.
“Of course it is!” returned the press agent with something of the old note of self-assertiveness in his voice. “I had it all fixed up for Lolita, and now this society dame is goin’ to get away with all the headlines. When I saw Wilkins pull her into the car I didn’t think he’d go all the way through, but it looks as if he’s decided to. There’s no use worryin’ about it. Every little thing is comin’ out all right — and, say — don’t forget to remember that it’s goin’ to be some story now — some story!”
“Just let me get this big idea through my head,” persisted McClintock. “What happens next?”
“Of course his motor hasn’t really gone dead,” replied Jimmy. “He’s just ordered his engineer to shut it off so they can drift with the wind. That was all framed up between us. He’ll probably turn on the gas again and cruise round out of sight of land for a couple of hours and shut off his engine every time he sees a ship comin’ in sight. That’ll be an alibi for the story. When the little old sun starts to sink in the west he’ll turn that big bag toward the Jersey coast and he’ll make a landing just before dark at a place we picked out yesterday morning. He’s going to lay under cover there, and we’ll keep the country guessin’ all day tomorrow.”
“But someone will see him land,” criticized the manager.
“I don’t think there’s a chance of that,” replied Jimmy jauntily. “We picked out a spot that’s as lonesome lookin’ as an iceberg. There isn’t a house within two miles and there’s nothin’ but marshland all round. There’s one little place right in the center that’s high and dry. That’s where he lands. Wilkins has got his car planted a couple of miles away and his chauffeur is goin’ to be right on the job in a rowboat — you see there’s a little creek that runs through the swamp — and the girl is goin’ to be taken away in the boat and slipped away to a hotel — that is, Lolita was goin’ to be slipped away and was goin’ to keep dark until she got the signal to appear again. Maybe this society queen’ll be game enough to go through with it just for the fun of the thing.
“We were goin’ to keep the agony up until tomorrow night at the earliest, and maybe until the day after tomorrow. Then Wilkins was goin’ to telephone that he’d just landed after bein’ tossed about in the air and all that, and Lolita was goin’ to have a nervous collapse and be interviewed in bed by a flock of reporters with a couple of trained nurses and three doctors hovering round in the offing. You can fill in the other details yourself. Anyhow, it’s a grand little notion for a story, even if this Betty Ashley person doesn’t come through. We’ll know about that tonight.”
“Why, the chauffeur has instructions to telephone me the minute he gets to the hotel. That ought to be not later than nine-thirty.”
“Why didn’t you tell me all about this beforehand?”
Jimmy smiled a bit guiltily before replying.
“I had a hunch that maybe you’d put the kibosh on the whole scheme because I was featurin’ a certain party too much,” he responded. He grew serious again for a minute and a far-away look crept into his eyes. “Say, Mac,” he went on, “I had a number that called for the grand prize and I’ve lost the ticket. It’s rotten luck. From the way she spoke a few minutes ago I’ll bet I don’t ever get out again, not even on probation.”
“That’ll be all right,” consoled McClintock. “I’ll fix that part of it for you. It’s a great story even if the Hon. Betty Ashley doesn’t go through, and if she does — why, if she does it’ll be the biggest thing ever pulled off in this country. Think of that for a little while.”
The press syndicate and the metropolitan newspapers were inclined to be a bit skeptical of the facts which Jimmy telephoned them at the outset, but outside confirmation was forthcoming promptly and within two hours after Maj. Bobby Wilkins and the Hon. Betty Ashley had disappeared in the general direction of the open sea the story was the sensation of the summer in journalistic circles.
A squad of picked feature writers invaded Jollyland in quest of detailed particulars concerning the events leading up to the beginnings of the ill-fated balloon trip; seven sob sisters motored to the palatial home at which the Honorable Betty was a house guest and interviewed a weeping and distraught maiden aunt of that lady, who had been acting as a submissive chaperon and who was certain that when “dear Ned, her father, hears the news he’ll froth at the mouth and have a stroke”; cables were frantically dispatched to London instructing correspondents to break the news to dear Ned and watch the results; city editors pawed over assortments of photographs of the beautiful heroine and conferred with art-department heads as to the most suitable ones to use for decorative layouts; dozens of leg men were sent out to points along the Jersey and Long Island coasts with directions to watch for any possible news of the return of the balloon and to keep on the lookout for any pleasure-yacht owner who might have seen the dirigible after she passed out of sight of land; the Washington offices were instructed to post a man in the Navy Department all night long to watch for any wireless news that might come flashing back from the torpedo-boat destroyers which at the urgent solicitation of the British Ambassador were to be sent out to scour the sea in search of the missing airship, and it was unanimously decided at editorial councils in every office to let the story lead the paper the following morning unless some great unforeseen national or international calamity transpired in the meantime.
Jimmy Martin became the focus point of more importunate news gatherers than he had ever fancied in his wildest dreams would assail him for information, and when a delegation of correspondents from a half dozen London papers looked in on him at eight o’clock and told him that they had been instructed to rush as much stuff as the cables would carry he almost passed into a trance.
“Mac,” he confided to the manager when the English correspondents had gone, “I feel like the fellow who looked at the giraffe and said, ‘There ain’t no such animal.’ There ain’t no such story. It’s a dream.”
“Well, I’ve left instructions that we’re not to be called,” returned McClintock. “Let’s dream a little more.”
In the star dressing room on the big stage of the open-air auditorium Lolita Murphy was getting ready for the evening performance of Secret Service Sally and was making a brave effort to control herself. She was as forgotten as yesterday’s newspaper, and the realization of it sent great tears of bitter disappointment coursing down her rouged cheeks into the make-up box on the little table in front of which she sat.
It was nearly midnight when Bobby Wilkins’ chauffeur reported over the telephone to Jimmy Martin and McClintock, who had been keeping anxious vigil in the office all night.
“There ain’t a sign of him,” he said hurriedly. “I waited right where you told me to wait and if he’d been anywhere within a couple of miles I could have seen him after it got dark. The moon has been shining bright for a long time and I had a pair of glasses with me. I’m afraid it’s all up with him if he hasn’t landed someplace else along the coast. It’s tough for all of us if anything’s gone wrong, ain’t it?”
The chauffeur was instructed to make another trip to the selected landing place and to stay there until dawn, when relief was promised. Jimmy was pale and overwrought when he hung up the telephone receiver and turned to McClintock.
“If he had landed any place else,” he remarked, “he’d have made every effort to get to a phone. He’d know we’d be worried. Gee, Mac, supposin’ somethin’s happened to ’em. If there has, little old Robert B. Remorse’ll be my side partner for life. He told me he’d be prepared for all emergencies and he’s there with the nerve, but maybe they ran into a squall or something. Why’d I ever think of this stunt? I’ve got too much imagination, Mac. I’ve got to teach it to lie down and behave.”
The two sat up all night, smoking incessantly and discussing the variety of fates which they fancied might have overtaken the adventuresome Bobby Wilkins and his distinguished fellow passenger. Jimmy called up one of the newspaper offices every fifteen minutes for news, but there wasn’t any worth mentioning. The dirigible had not been sighted by any ship with which the navy wireless had been able to get into communication and the half dozen destroyers sent out to search for it were reported to be without definite information.
The entire country seethed with the story in the morning. The press syndicate had carried fifteen hundred words into every newspaper office in every city of importance from coast to coast, and the big dailies in Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston had three and four column stories from their metropolitan correspondents, liberally illustrated with pictures of the Honorable Betty, who was one of the most photographed women of her time. McClintock, who had no knowledge of Jimmy’s promise to keep Bobby Wilkins’ real name out of print, had blurted it out to a group of reporters in the evening, and the salient facts concerning the modest wearer of six war medals were incorporated in all of the accounts. Robert Wilkins, Sr., forgot that he was a mere business machine, wiped a few tears out of the corners of his eyes, looked tenderly at a picture of a curly-headed boy he always kept in one of the drawers of his desk, and started East on a special train.
The total haul in the New York morning papers was seventy-six columns of solid reading matter and thirty-eight photographic illustrations. Every angle of the story was covered in great detail and in addition to the main narrative there were extended biographical sketches of the Honorable Betty and of Bobby Wilkins. There were cabled stories from London concerning the festive career of the former which contained an expression of deep concern from the British premier. There were also cabled eulogies of the one-time ace from personages no less important than the American commander in chief in France and the generalissimo of the Allied Armies. All in all, it was the most spectacular feature story in years and the greatest achievement in the history of American press agentry. McClintock admitted that much when the first editions came in.
“Jimmy,” he said, “it’s a dog-goned shame that you’ve got to lie low and never get any credit for this. Still, you’ve got company. I was reading in the paper the other day that there’s a well-defined rumor that the more or less celebrated covenant of the well-known League of Nations was finally framed up by a clerk in the British Foreign Office. You can drop over later on and take a little drink with him and cry it all out on each other’s shoulders.”
Jimmy’s only response was a mournful attempt at a smile. He lit another cigarette, jerked out of his chair and began to swear softly as he walked up and down the room. He made a vicious lunge with his foot at a wastebasket and kicked it through the door into the next office. Then he took off his soft hat, rolled it into a lump and slammed it down on the floor with a wide sweeping gesture.
“I don’t mind that so much,” he said testily. “After landin’ a smear like that, though, I’d kinda like to have a good time with myself for a few minutes. I’d kinda like to throw a few assorted flowers up in the air and let ’em drop on me, but I’m so gosh-darned worried about what’s actually happened that I can’t have even that much fun.”
His anxiety increased as the day wore on and the early editions of the evening papers, which played up the story even more extensively than the mornings, failed to buoy him up. There was still no word of the N-24 and Navy Department officials in Washington were reported to be gravely alarmed at the possibilities.
At noon the British Embassy gave out the announcement that a “distinguished person” had cabled for detailed information and had begged to be kept in hourly touch with the developments. Flaming headlines carried the legend: King Anxious About Lost Dirigibles. Upon reading this, three rival publicity promoters, who had suspected the presence of the fine Italian hand of Jimmy Martin in the proceedings from the beginning and who had forgathered for lunch in their favorite club, simultaneously started out on a joint jamboree that was to become a memorable minor historical incident in the turgid annals of the White Way. It offered the only means of escaping from the tragic feeling of profound and passionate envy that surged up from the very depths of their beings.
At three o’clock as Jimmy, red-eyed and haggard, nodded at his desk between telephone calls, a messenger boy dropped a cablegram in front of him. He tore it open and gazed at this cryptic message:
“JAMES T. MARTIN,
“Coney Island, N. Y.
“Come on in — the water’s fine — give my regards to Lolita but can’t say I’m sorry it happened as yet.
Jimmy gave a second look at the heading and rushed into the next office, where McClintock was snoring sonorously on a sofa. He shook the manager savagely and waved the cablegram in front of his eyes.
“All’s right with the world, Mac!” he shouted joyously. “They’ve landed in Bermuda. Can you beat that fresh son of a gun doin’ a thing like that? What’s the big idea, I wonder?”
McClintock grabbed the message and read it hurriedly.
“I guess maybe he’s mailing the answer,” he remarked. “It beats me. You’d better get a wire off to him asking for particulars.”
The shrill summons of the telephone brought Jimmy back into his own office the next moment. The voice of his friend, Lindsay, the day desk man of the press syndicate, came over the wire in crisp staccato sentences.
“Got some news for you,” he said. “It’s going to make this morning’s headlines look sick. Here’s the way our first bulletin reads:
“WASHINGTON, D. C., July 7 — The British Ambassador has just given out the following cablegram received from the Governor-General of the Bermuda Islands: ‘Please announce to press the marriage this morning in St. John’s Chapel, Hamilton, of the Hon. Elizabeth Ardsley Ashley, eldest daughter of the Earl of Norburne, of London, England, to Robert Benjamin, Jr., only son of Robert Benjamin Wilkins, Sr., of Chicago, Ill., U. S. A. The ceremony was entirely informal.’
“I’m ordering three thousand words from our Bermuda correspondent,” went on Lindsay, “and I’m having London break the news gently to dear old dad. I suppose if I come down on Sunday with the wife and the kiddies you could slip us into a few of your side shows?”
“Say,” responded Jimmy exultingly, “you’re goin’ to get a life pass good for each and every attraction within the big inclosure. Excuse me, won’t you? I’ve got to write out a request for an armistice to a certain party. You see I’ve just figured out what the bridegroom meant in a wire I got five minutes ago.”
As he hung up the telephone and swung round in his swivel chair the door leading into the hall opened ever so gently and the pale and tear-stained face of Lolita Murphy peered through the opening. Jimmy gazed at her, open-eyed, as she came slowly into the room. He noticed that she had a crumpled bit of paper in her hand.
“Jimmy,” she said timidly as she held out her arms in appealing suppliance, “I’m just a — just a foolish small-town kid. I didn’t understand, I didn’t understand.”
Jimmy in a daze took the paper which she held toward him. It was another cablegram. He smoothed it out, and the peace that passeth understanding settled down upon him as he read these words:
“Coney Island, N. Y.
“Won’t it ease your disappointment a little to know that the mad impulsive thing I did yesterday and the rash act I have just committed in the chapel have transformed me into quite the happiest woman alive? Bobby has told me all about everything and he fears that you may think your friend Mr. Martin had a finger in the pie. He had nothing to do with it, my dear — it was just fate. Bobby is wiring some advice to Mr. Martin. See that he heeds it. Our best regards to you both.
“ELIZABETH ASHLEY WILKINS.”
McClintock coming into the room just then tiptoed out again and closed the door softly behind him, thus proving himself to be a gentleman of singular tact and discretion.
Featured image: Illustrated by James H. Clark / SEPS
Statesmen, soldiers, and civilians alike anticipated the official end of the Great War. Since the armistice of November 1918, Allied forces had occupied the Rhineland, and negotiations about what to do with Germany were ongoing. The war had stopped, but it threatened to resume at any time if a peace treaty wasn’t signed. Some Germans even insisted they’d make a comeback.
One of the The Saturday Evening Post’s war correspondents, Elizabeth Frazer, reported on the combat in France and Germany for years, and she was situated in Versailles to witness the climactic moment: the signing of the peace treaty. Only, it wasn’t climactic. In fact, Frazer described the 45-minute affair as “an historic moment without a thrill.”
Her story, “The Signature,” was published 100 years ago in this magazine, and it is one of the most detailed personal accounts of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
Frazer’s report resounds not because it gives a play-by-play of the famous meeting of world powers in 1919 — although it does. Her story’s significance shines through in its depiction of the complex nature of peace after years of life in wartime. After reporting on the front lines at Château-Thierry and witnessing an American flag flying from the Ehrenbreitstein fortress, Frazer found herself let down by the ceremony that ended all of the excitement: “I was shocked, surprised, angry at myself for not rising to the occasion; angry at the occasion for not rising to itself. What is a big moment for, anyway, if it can’t be inspiring, dignified, noble? And this particular big moment, the biggest certainly in many a generation in its influence on events, was neither inspiring nor dignified nor noble.”
When she entered the Galerie des Glaces in Versailles, the air was “heavy, turgid, overcharged” and the room was filled with the manic energy of a restless and lawless crowd. Even as French Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau gave a short speech and the signing began (first the Germans, then Wilson, Great Britain, etc.), Frazer claims the chatter in the room never completely quieted. “The final signatures were affixed, Clémenceau pronounced the séance at the end, the Germans slipped out quietly, and the other delegates with laughter and congratulations filed out into the garden,” she writes.
The most historically significant part of Frazer’s report is, perhaps, after she left Versailles to go back to her apartment — and her “aide-de-camp” — in Paris. A working-class Parisienne named Friant assisted the journalist with travel, accommodations, and translation. The woman had lost two sons to the war and was awaiting the return of her third when Frazer returned to give her the news of peace. Frazer requested Friant’s company at dinner and for the entire serving staff to join them to hear the events of the day: “François, tell the waiters on the floor to slip in when they have a moment, and I’ll tell them all about the ceremony today at Versailles before it is out in the papers. This was your war. Every one of you fought in it. Most of you were wounded. And now this is your peace.”
As they dined on a dove of peace (pigeonneau en cocotte) and Chambertin wine, Frazer heard from the waitstaff their own experiences during the war, and assured Friant — once again — that perhaps her long-lost son would be found. “They discussed France, the future, their fears. For they were all afraid. They were afraid of the power of Germany, her determination to wipe them out. This League of Nations — how, literally, would it protect them?” Why had the ceremony been so dead, she wondered, and the French workers assured her that it was because the signing of peace only held gravity so much as the world leaders involved could hold to their word.
It was “because there was no romance,” said Friant, “bald-headed elderly civilians in black coats and hats for the chief actors.” Or, according to Jean, a socialist server, “because the real people were not there. They were sweeping out mademoiselle’s room and smoking a secret cigarette on the stair.” As Frazer’s time as a correspondent in the country came to an end, she found the meat of the Great War’s politics and consequences in a humble flat surrounded by an array of Parisian proletariat instead of under the ornate, gilded ceiling of the gallery in Versailles.
Featured image: Versailles. Réunion du comité interalliés, Helen Johns Kirtland, 1919, Library of Congress.
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.
In his story “Things,” Lewis writes about a Minnesota family’s ascent to great wealth and their resulting materialistic tendencies. The world of drawing rooms, social homicide, and needless china is on full display in this tale of love-or-money during World War I.
Published on February 22, 1919
This is not the story of Theodora Duke and Stacy Lindstrom, but of a traveling bag with silver fittings, a collection of cloisonné, a pile of ratty schoolbooks, and a fireless cooker that did not cook.
Long before these things were acquired, when Theo was a girl and her father, Lyman Duke, was a so-so dealer in cut-over lands, there was a feeling of adventure in the family. They lived in a small brown house which predicated children and rabbits in the backyard, and a father invariably home for supper. But Mr. Duke was always catching trains to look at pine tracts in Northern Minnesota. Often his wife went along, and, in the wilds, way and beyond Grand Marais and the steely shore of Lake Superior, she heard wolves howl and was unafraid. The Dukes laughed much those years, and were eager to see mountains and new kinds of shade trees.
Theo found her own freedom in exploring jungles of five-foot mullen weeds with Stacy Lindstrom. That pale, stolid little Norwegian she chose from her playmates because he was always ready to try new games.
The city of Vernon was newer then — in 1900. There were no country clubs, no fixed sets. The pioneers from Maine and York State who had appropriated lumber and flour were richer than the newly come Buckeyes and Hoosiers and Scandinavians, but they were friendly. As they drove their smart trotters the leading citizens shouted “Hello, Heinie,” or “Evenin’, Knute,” without a feeling of condescension. In preferring Stacy Lindstrom to Eddie Barnes, who had a hundred-dollar bicycle and had spent a year in a private school, Theo did not consider herself virtuously democratic. Neither did Stacy!
The brown-haired, bright-legged, dark-cheeked, glowing girl was a gorgeous colt, while he was a fuzzy lamb. Theo’s father had an office, Stacy’s father a job in a planing mill. Yet Stacy was the leader. He read books, and he could do things with his hands. He invented Privateers, which is a much better game than Pirates. For his gallant company of one privateers he rigged a forsaken dump cart, in the shaggy woods on the Mississippi bluffs, with sackcloth sails, barrel-hoop cutlasses, and a plank for victims to walk. Upon the request of the victims, who were Theo, he added to the plank a convenient handrail.
But anyone could play Ship — even Eddie Barnes. From a territorial pioneer Stacy learned of the Red River carts which, with the earthquaking squawk of ungreased wheels and the glare of scarlet sashes on the buckskin shirts of drivers, used to come plodding all the redskin-haunted way from the outposts of the Free Trappers, bearing marten and silver fox for the throats of princesses. Stacy changed the privateers’ brigantine into a Red River cart. Sometimes it was seven or ten carts, and a barricade. Behind it Stacy and Theo kept off hordes of Dakotas.
After voyaging with Stacy, Theo merely ya-ah’d at Eddie Barnes when he wanted her to go skating. Eddie considered a figure eight, performed on the ice of a safe creek, the final accomplishment of imaginative sport, while Stacy could from immemorial caverns call the wizard Merlin as servitor to a little playing girl. Besides, he could jump on ski! And mend a bike! Eddie had to take even a dirty sprocket to the repair shop.
The city, and Theo, had grown less simple-hearted when she went to Central High School. Twenty-five hundred boys and girls gathered in those tall gloomy rooms, which smelled of water pails and chalk and worn floors. There were a glee club, a school paper, a debating society and dress-up parties. The school was brisk and sensible, but it was too large for the intimacy of the grade buildings. Eddie Barnes was conspicuous now, with his energy in managing the athletic association, his beautifully combed hair and his real gold watch. Stacy Lindstrom was lost in the mass.
It was Eddie who saw Theo home from parties. He was a man of the world. He went to Chicago as calmly as you or I would go out to the St. Croix River to spear pickerel.
Stacy rarely went to parties. Theo invited him to her own, and the girls were polite to him. Actually he danced rather better than Eddie. But he couldn’t talk about Chicago. He couldn’t talk at all. Nor did he sing or go out for sports. His father was dead. He worked Saturdays and three nights a week in an upholstery shop — a dingy, lint-blurred loft, where two old Swedes kept up as a permanent institution a debate on the Lutheran Church versus the Swedish Adventist.
“Why don’t you get a good live job?” Eddie patronizingly asked Stacy at recess, and Theo echoed the question; but neither of them had any suggestions about specific good live jobs.
Stacy stood from first to fifth in every class. But what, Eddie demanded, was the use of studying unless you were going to be a schoolteacher? Which he certainly was not! He was going to college. He was eloquent and frequent on this topic. It wasn’t the darned old books, but the association with the fellows, that educated you, he pointed out. Friendships. Fraternities. Helped a fellow like the dickens, both in society and business, when he got out of college.
“Yes, I suppose so,” sighed Theo.
Eddie said that Stacy was a longitudinal, latitudinous, isothermic, geologic, catawampaboid Scandahoofian. Everybody admired the way Eddie could make up long words. Theo’s older sister, Janet, who had cold, level eyes, said that Theo was a fool to let a shabby, drabby nobody like that Stacy Lindstrom carry her books home from school. Theo defended Stacy whenever he was mentioned. There is nothing which so cools young affection as having to defend people.
After high school Eddie went East to college, Stacy was a clerk in the tax commissioner’s department of the railroad — and the Dukes became rich, and immediately ceased to be adventurous.
Iron had been found under Mr. Duke’s holdings in Northern Minnesota. He refused to sell. He leased the land to the iron-mining company, and every time a scoop brought up a mass of brown earth in the open pit the company ran very fast and dropped twenty-five cents in Mr. Duke’s pocket. He felt heavy with silver and importance; he bought the P.J. Broom mansion and became the abject servant of possessions.
The Broom mansion had four drawing rooms, a heraldic limestone fireplace and a tower and a half. The half tower was merely an octagonal shingle structure with a bulbous Moorish top; but the full tower, which was of stone on a base of brick, had cathedral windows, a weather vane, and a metal roof down which dripped decorative blobs like copper tears. While the mansion was being redecorated the Dukes senior took the grand tour from Miami to Port Said, and brought home a carload of treasures. There was a ready-made collection of cloisonné, which an English baron had spent five years in gathering in Japan, and five hours in losing at Monte Carlo. There was a London traveling bag, real seal, too crammed with silver fittings to admit much of anything else, and too heavy for anyone save a piano mover to lift. There were rugs, and books, and hand-painted pictures, and a glass window from Nuremberg, and ushabti figures from Egypt, and a pierced brass lamp in the shape of a mosque.
All these symbols of respectability the Dukes installed in the renovated Broom mansion, and settled down to watch them.
Lyman Duke was a kindly man, and shrewd, but the pride of ownership was a germ, and he was a sick man. Who, he meditated, had such a lamp? Could even the Honorable Gerard Randall point to such glowing rods of book backs?
Mrs. Duke organized personally conducted excursions to view the Axminster rug in the library. Janet forgot that she had ever stood brushing her hair before a pine bureau. Now she sat before a dressing table displaying candlesticks, an eyelash pencil, and a powder-puff box of gold lace over old rose. Janet moved graciously, and invited little sister Theo to be cordially unpleasant to their grubby friends of grammar school days.
The accumulation of things to make other people envious is nothing beside their accumulation because it’s the thing to do. Janet discovered that life would be unendurable without an evening cloak. At least three evening cloaks were known to exist within a block of the Broom mansion. True, nobody wore them. There aren’t any balls or plays except in winter, and during a Vernon winter you don’t wear a satin cloak — you wear a fur coat and a muffler and a sweater and arctics, and you brush the frozen breath from your collar, and dig out of your wraps like a rabbit emerging from a brush pile. But if everybody had them Janet was not going to be marked for life as one ignorant of the niceties. She used the word “niceties” frequently and without quailing.
She got an evening cloak. Also a pair of fifteen-dollar gun-metal pumps, which she discarded for patent leathers as soon as she found that everybody wore those — everybody being a girl in the next block, whose house wasn’t anywhere near as nice as “ours.”
Theo was only half glad of their grandeur. Oh, undoubtedly she was excited about the house at first, and mentioned it to other girls rather often, and rang for maids she didn’t need. But she had a little pain in the conscience. She felt that she hadn’t kept up defending Stacy Lindstrom very pluckily.
She was never allowed to forget Stacy’s first call at the mansion. The family were settled in the house. They were anxious for witnesses of their nobility. The bell rang at eight one Saturday evening when they were finishing dinner. It was hard to be finishing dinner at eight. They had been used to starting at six-thirty-one and ending the last lap, neck and neck, at six-fifty-two. But by starting at seven, and having a salad, and letting father smoke his cigar at the table, they had stretched out the ceremony to a reasonable decency.
At the sound of the buzz in the butler’s pantry Janet squeaked: “Oh, maybe it’s the Garlands! Or even the Randalls!” She ran into the hall.
“Janet! Jan-et! The maid will open the door!” Mrs. Duke wailed.
“I know, but I want to see who it is!”
Janet returned snapping: “Good heavens, it’s only that Stacy Lindstrom! Coming at this early hour! And he’s bought a new suit, just to go calling. It looks like sheet iron.”
Theo pretended she had not heard. She fled to the distant library. She was in a panic. She was ashamed of herself, but she didn’t trust Stacy to make enough impression. So it was Mr. Duke who had the first chance at the audience:
“Ah, Stacy, glad to see you, my boy. The girls are round some place. Theo!”
“Lyman! Don’t shout so! I’ll send a maid to find her,” remonstrated Mrs. Duke.
“Oh, she’ll come a-running. Trust these girls to know when a boy’s round!” boomed Mr. Duke.
Janet had joined Theo in the library. She veritably hissed as she protested: “Boys-s-s-s-s! We come running for a commonplace railway clerk!”
Theo made her handkerchief into a damp, tight little ball in her lap, smoothed it out, and very carefully began to tear off its border.
Afar Mr. Duke was shouting: “Come see my new collection while we’re waiting.”
“I hate you!” Theo snarled at Janet, and ran into the last of the series of drawing rooms. From its darkness she could see her father and Stacy. She felt that she was protecting this, her brother, from danger; from the greatest of dangers — being awkward in the presence of the stranger, Janet. She was aware of Janet slithering in beside her.
“Now what do you think of that, eh?” Mr. Duke was demanding. He had unlocked a walnut cabinet, taken out an enameled plate.
Stacy was radiant. “Oh, yes. I know what that stuff is. I’ve read about it. It’s cloysoan.” He had pronounced it to rime with moan.
“Well, not precisely! Cloysonnay, most folks would call it. Or culwasonnay, if you want to be real highbrow. But cloysoan, that’s pretty good! Mamma! Janet! The lad says this is cloysoan! Ha, ha! Well, never mind, my boy. Better folks than you and I have made that kind of a mistake.”
Janet was tittering. The poisonous stream of it trickled through all the rooms. Stacy must have heard. He looked about uneasily.
Suddenly Theo saw him as a lout, in his new suit, that hung like wood. He was twisting a button and trying to smile back at Mr. Duke.
The cloisonné plate was given to Stacy to admire. What he saw was a flare of many-colored enamels in tiny compartments. In the center a dragon writhed its tongue in a field of stars, and on the rim were buds on clouds of snow, a flying bird, and amusing symbols among willow leaves.
But Mr. Duke was lecturing on what he ought to have seen:
“This is a sara, and a very fine specimen. Authorities differ, but it belonged either to the Shi sinwo or the Mon-zeki — princely monks, in the monastery of Nin-na-ji. Note the extreme thinness of the cloisons, and the pastes are very evenly vitrified. The colors are remarkable. You’ll notice there’s slate blue, sage green, chrome yellow, and — uh — well there’s several other colors. You see the ground shows the kara kusa. That bird there is a ho-ito in flight above the branches of the kiri tree.”
Stacy had a healthy suspicion that a few months before Mr. Duke had known no more about Oriental art than Stacy Lindstrom. But he had no Japanese words for repartee, and he could only rest his weight on the other foot and croak “Well, well!”
Mr. Duke was beatifically going on: “Now this chatsubo, you’ll notice, is not cloisonné at all, but champlevé. Very important point in studying shippo ware. Note the unusually fine kiku crest on this chawan.”
“I see. Uh — I see,” said Stacy.
“Just a goat, that’s all he is, just a giddy goat,” Janet whispered to Theo in the dark room beyond, and pranced away.
It was five minutes before Theo got up courage to rescue Stacy. When she edged into the room he was sitting in a large leather chair and fidgeting. He was fidgeting in twenty different but equally irritating ways. He kept recrossing his legs, and every time he crossed them the stiff trousers bagged out in more hideous folds. Between times he tapped his feet. His fingers drummed on the chair. He looked up at the ceiling, licking his lips, and hastily looked down, with an artificial smile in acknowledgment of Mr. Duke’s reminiscences of travel.
Theo swooped on Stacy with hands clapping in welcome, with a flutter of white muslin skirts about young ankles.
“Isn’t the house comfy? When we get a pig we can keep him under that piano! Come on, I’ll show you all the hidey holes,” she crowed.
She skipped off, dragging him by the hand — but she realized that she was doing altogether too much dragging. Stacy, who had always been too intent on their games to be self-conscious, was self-conscious enough now. What could she say to him?
She besought: “I hope you’ll come often. We’ll have lots of fun out of — ”
“Oh, you won’t know me anymore, with a swell place like this,” he mumbled.
As women do she tried to bandage this raw, bruised moment. She snapped on the lights in the third drawing room, and called his attention to the late Mr. P.J. Broom’s coat of arms carved on the hulking stone fireplace. “I got the decorator to puzzle it out for me, and as far as he could make out, if Pat Broom was right he was descended from an English duke, a German general and a Serbian undertaker. He didn’t miss a trick except — ”
“Well, it’s a pretty fine fireplace,” Stacy interrupted. He looked away, his eyes roving but dull, and dully he added: “Too fine for me, I guess.”
Not once could she get him to share her joy in the house. He seemed proud of the virtue of being poor. Like a boast sounded his repeated “Too darn fine for me — don’t belong in with all these doo-dads.” She worked hard. She showed him not only the company rooms but the delightful secret passage of the clothes chute which led from an upstairs bedroom to the laundry; the closet drawers which moved on rollers and could be drawn out by the little finger; the built-in clock with both Trinity and Westminster chimes; the mysterious spaces of the basement, with the gas drier for wet wash, and the wine cellar which — as it so far contained only a case of beer and seven bottles of ginger ale — was chiefly interesting to the sense of make-believe.
Obediently he looked where she pointed; politely he repeated that everything was “pretty fine”; and not once was he her comrade. The spirit of divine trust was dead, horribly mangled and dead, she panted, while she caroled in the best nice-young-woman tone she could summon: “See, Stace. Isn’t this cun-ning?”
It is by certain mystics fabled that the most malignant ghosts are souls that in life have been the most kindly and beloved. Dead though this ancient friendship seemed, it had yet one phase of horror to manifest. After having implied that he was a plain honest fellow and glad of it, Stacy descended to actual boasting. They sat uneasily in the smallest of the drawing rooms, their eyes fencing. Theo warned herself that he was merely embarrassed. She wanted to be sorry for him. But she was tired — tired of defending him to others, tired of fighting to hold his affection.
“I certainly am eating the work in the tax commissioner’s office. I’m studying accounting systems and banking methods evenings, and you want to watch your Uncle Stacy. I’ll make some of these rich fellows sit up! I know the cashier at the Lumber National pretty well now, and he as much as said I could have a job there, at better money, any time I wanted to.”
He did not say what he wished to put into the railroad and the bank — only what he wished to get out of them. He had no plans, apparently, to build up great institutions for Vernon, but he did have plans to build up a large salary for Stacy Lindstrom.
And one by one, as flustered youth does, he dragged in the names of all the important men he had met. The conversation had to be bent distressingly to get them all in.
He took half an hour in trying to make an impressive exit.
“I hate him! He expects me to be snobbish! He made it so hard for me to apologize for being rich. He — Oh, I hate him!” Theo sobbed by her bed.
Not for a week did she want to see the boy again; and not for a month did he call. By that time she was used to doing without him. Before long she was used to doing without most people. She was left lonely. Janet had gone East to a college that wasn’t a college at all, but a manicurist’s buffer of a school, all chamois, celluloid and pink powder — a school all roses and purring and saddle horses and pleasant reading of little manuals about art. Theo had admired her older sister. She had been eager when Janet had let her wash gloves and run ribbons. She missed the joy of service. She missed too the conveniences of the old brown house — the straw-smelling dog house in the back yard, with the filthy, agreeable, gentlemanly old setter who had resided there; and the tree up which a young woman with secret sorrows could shin resentfully.
Not only Janet and Eddie Barnes but most of Theo’s friends had escaped domestic bliss and gone off to school. Theo wanted to follow them, but Mrs. Duke objected. “I wouldn’t like to have both my little daughters desert me at once.” At the age halfway between child and independent woman Theo was alone. She missed playing; she missed the achievements of housework.
In the old days on the hired girl’s night out Theo had not minded splashing in rainbow-bubbled suds and polishing the water glasses to shininess. But now there was no hired girl’s night out; and no hired girls. There were maids instead, three of them, with a man who took care of the furnace and garden and put on storm windows. The eldest of the maids was the housekeeper-cook, and she was a straight-mouthed, carp-eyed person named Lizzie. Lizzie had been in the best houses. She saw to it that neither the other servants nor the Dukes grew slack. She would have fainted at the sight of Sunday supper in the kitchen or of Theo washing dishes.
Mr. Duke pretended to be glad that they had a furnace man; that he no longer had to put on overalls and black leather gloves to tend the furnace and sift the ashes. That had been his before supper game at the shabby brown house. As a real-estate man he had been mediocre. As a furnace man he had been a surgeon, an artist. He had operated on the furnace delicately, giving lectures on his technic to a clinic of admiring young. You mustn’t, he had exhorted, shake for one second after the slivers of hot coal tumble through the grate. You must turn off the draft at exactly the moment when the rose and saffron flames quiver above the sullen mound of coal.
His wife now maintained that he had been dreadfully bored and put upon by chores. He didn’t contradict. He was proud that he no longer had to perch on a ladder holding a storm window or mightily whirling the screw driver as the screws sunk sweetly home. But it was to be noticed that with nothing to do but to look at the furnace man, to hold his pockets open for the quarters from the iron-mining company, and to gaze at his collections of jugs and bugs and rugs — he became slow of step and foggy of eye, and sometimes, about nothing in particular, he sighed.
Whenever they had guests for dinner he solemnly showed the cloisonné, and solemnly the guests said “Oh,” and “Really?” and “Is it?” They didn’t want to see the cloisonné, and Mr. Duke didn’t want to show it, and of his half-dozen words of Japanese he was exceeding weary. But if one is a celebrated collector one must keep on collecting and showing the collections.
These dinners and private exhibits were part of a social system in which the Dukes were entangled. It wasn’t an easy-fitting system. It was too new. If we ever have professional gentlemen in this country we may learn to do nothing and do it beautifully. But so far we want to do things. Vernon society went out for businesslike activities. There was much motoring, golf and the discussion of golf, and country club dances at which the men’s costumes ran from full evening dress through dinner coats to gray suits with tan shoes.
Most of the men enjoyed these activities honestly. They danced and motored and golfed because they liked to; because it rested them after the day in the office. But there was a small exclusive set in Vernon that had to spend all its time in getting recognized as a small exclusive set. It was social solitaire. By living in a district composed of a particular three blocks on the Boulevard of the Lakes Mr. Duke had been pushed into that exclusive set — Mrs. Duke giving a hand in the pushing.
Sometimes he rebelled. He wanted to be back at work. He had engaged a dismayingly competent manager for his real-estate office, and even by the most ingenious efforts to find something wrong with the books or the correspondence he couldn’t keep occupied at the office for more than two hours a day. He longed to discharge the manager, but Mrs. Duke would not have it. She enjoyed the ownership of a leisure-class husband.
For rich women the social system in Vernon does provide more games than for men. The poor we have always with us, and the purpose of the Lord in providing the poor is to enable us of the better classes to amuse ourselves by investigating them and uplifting them and at dinners telling how charitable we are. The poor don’t like it much. They have no gratitude. They would rather be uplifters themselves. But if they are taken firmly in hand they can be kept reasonably dependent and interesting for years.
The remnants of the energy that had once taken Mrs. Duke into the woods beyond the end of steel now drove her into poor-baiting. She was a committeewoman five deep. She had pigeonholes of mysteriously important correspondence, and she hustled about in the limousine. When her husband wanted to go back and do real work she was oratorical:
“That’s the trouble with the American man. He really likes his sordid office. No, dearie, you just enjoy your leisure for a while yet. As soon as we finish the campaign for censoring music you and I will run away and take a good trip — San Francisco and Honolulu.”
But whenever she actually was almost ready to go even he saw objections. How ridiculous to desert their adorable house, the beds soft as whipped cream, the mushrooms and wild rice that only Lizzie could cook, for the discomforts of trains and hotels! And was it safe to leave the priceless collections? There had been a burglar scare — there always has just been a burglar scare in all cities. The Dukes didn’t explain how their presence would keep burglars away, but they gallantly gave up their lives to guarding the cloisonné, while they talked about getting a caretaker, and never tried to get him.
Thus at last was Lyman Duke become a prison guard shackled to the things he owned, and the longest journey of the man who had once desired new peaks and softer air was a slow walk down to the Commercial Club for lunch.
When Janet and Eddie Barnes and the rest of Theo’s friends came back from college; when the sons went into their fathers’ wholesale offices and clubs, and the daughters joined their mothers’ lecture courses and societies, and there was an inheriting Younger Set and many family plans for marriages — then Theo ceased to be lonely, and remembered how to play. She had gone to desultory dances during their absence, but only with people too old or too young. Now she had a group of her own. She danced with a hot passion for music and movement; her questioning about life disappeared in laughter as she rose to the rushing of people and the flashing of gowns.
Stacy Lindstrom was out of existence in this colored world. Stacy was now chief clerk in the railroad tax commissioner’s office, and spoken of as future assistant cashier in the Lumber National Bank. But he was quite insignificant. He was thin — not slim. He was silent — not reserved. His clothes were plain — not cleverly inconspicuous. He wore eyeglasses with a gold chain attached to a hoop over one ear; and he totally failed to insist that he was bored by the vaudeville which everybody attended and everybody sneered at. Oh, he was ordinary, through and through.
Thus with boarding-school wisdom Janet dissected the unfortunate social problem known as Stacy Lindstrom. Theo didn’t protest much. It was not possible for youth to keep on for five years very ardently defending anybody who changed as little as Stacy. And Theo was busy.
Not only to dances did Janet lead her, but into the delights of being artistic. Janet had been gapingly impressed by the Broom mansion when the family had acquired it, but now, after vacation visits to Eastern friends, she saw that the large brown velvet chairs were stuffy, and the table with the inlaid chessboard of mother-of-pearl a horror. What Janet saw she also expressed, in words as cold and sharp as swords at chilly dawn.
In one of the manuals the girls had been tenderly encouraged to glance through at Janet’s college it was courageously stated that simplicity was the keynote in decoration. At breakfast, dinner, and even at suppers personally abstracted from the ice box at two a.m., Janet clamored that their ratty old palace ought to be refurnished. Her parents paid no attention. That was just as well.
Otherwise Janet would have lost the chance to get into her portable pulpit and admonish: “When I have a house it will be absolutely simple. Just a few exquisite vases, and not one chair that doesn’t melt into the environment. Things — things — things — they are so dreadful! I shan’t have a thing I can’t use. Use is the test of beauty.”
Theo knew that the admirable Janet expressed something which she had been feeling like a dull unplaced pain. She became a member of an informal art association consisting of herself, Janet, Eddie Barnes and Harry McPherson, Janet’s chief suitor. It is true that the art association gave most of its attention to sitting together in corners at dances and giggling at other people’s clothes, but Janet did lead them to an exhibit at the Vernon Art Institute, and afterward they had tea and felt intellectual and peculiar and proud.
Eddie Barnes was showing new depths. He had attended a great seaboard university whose principal distinction, besides its athletics, was its skill in instructing select young gentlemen to discuss any topic in the world without having any knowledge of it whatever. During Janet’s pogrom against the Dukes’ mosque-shaped brass lamp Eddie was heard to say a number of terribly good things about the social value of knowing wall sconces.
When Janet and Harry McPherson were married Eddie was best man, Theo bridesmaid.
Janet had furnished her new house. When Theo had accompanied Janet on the first shopping flight she had wanted to know just what sort of chairs would perform the miracle of melting into the environment. She wondered whether they could be found in department stores or only in magic shops. But Janet led her to a place only too familiar — Ye Crafts League Shoppe, where Mrs. Duke always bought candle shades and small almond dishes.
Janet instantly purchased a hand-tooled leather box for playing cards, and a desk set which included a locked diary in a morocco cover and an ingenious case containing scissors, magnifying glass, pencil sharpener, paper cutter, steel ink eraser, silver penknife. This tool kit was a delightful toy, and it cost thirty-seven dollars. The clerk explained that it was especially marked down from forty-five dollars, though he did not explain why it should be especially marked down.
Theo wailed: “But those aren’t necessary! That last thingumajig has four different kinds of knives, where you only need one. It’s at least as useless as papa’s cloisonné.”
“I know, but it’s so amusing. And it’s entirely different from papa’s old stuff. It’s the newest thing out!” Janet explained.
Before she had bought a single environment-melting chair Janet added to her simple and useful furnishings a collection of glass fruit for table centerpiece, a set of Venetian glass bottles, a traveling clock with a case of gold and platinum, and works of tin. For her sensible desk she acquired a complicated engine consisting of a tiny marble pedestal, on which was an onyx ball, on which was a cerise and turquoise china parrot, from whose back, for no very clear anatomical reason, issued a candlestick. But not a stick for candles. It was wired for electricity.
As she accepted each treasure Janet rippled that it was so amusing. The clerk added “So quaint,” as though it rimed with amusing. While Theo listened uncomfortably they two sang a chorus of disparagement of Mid-Victorian bric-a-brac, and praise of modern clever bits.
When Janet got time for the miraculous chairs —
She had decided to furnish her dining room in friendly, graceful Sheraton, but the clerk spoke confidentially of French lacquer, and Theo watched Janet pledge her troth to a frail red-lacquered dining-room set of brazen angles. The clerk also spoke of distinguished entrance halls, and wished upon Janet an enormous Spanish chair of stamped leather upholstery and dropsical gilded legs, with a mirror that cost a hundred and twenty dollars, and a chest in which Janet didn’t intend to keep anything.
Theo went home feeling that she was carrying on her shoulders a burden of gilded oak; that she would never again run free.
When Janet’s house was done it looked like a sale in a seaside gift shop. Even her telephone was covered with a brocade and china doll. Theo saw Janet spending her days vaguely endeavoring to telephone to living life through brocade dolls.
After Janet’s marriage Theo realized that she was tired of going to parties with the same group; of hearing the same Eddie tell the same stories about the cousin of the Vanderbilts who had almost invited him to go yachting. She was tired of Vernon’s one rich middle-aged bachelor; of the bouncing girl twins who always roughhoused at dances. She was peculiarly weary of the same salads and ices, which all Vernon hostesses always got from the same caterer. There was one kind of cake with rosettes of nuts which Theo met four times in two weeks — and expected to meet till the caterer passed beyond. She could tell beforehand how any given festivity would turn out. She knew at just what moment after a luncheon the conversation about babies would turn into uneasy yawns, and the hostess would, inevitably, propose bridge. Theo desired to assassinate the entire court of face cards.
Stacy Lindstrom had about once a year indicated a shy desire to have her meet his own set. He told her that they went skiing in winter and picnicking in summer; he hinted how simply and frankly they talked at dinners. Theo went gladly with him to several parties of young married people, and a few unmarried sisters and cousins. For three times she enjoyed the change in personnel. As she saw the bright new flats, with the glassed-in porches, the wicker furniture, the colored prints and the davenports; as she heard the people chaff one another; as she accompanied them to a public skating rink and sang to the blaring band — she felt that she had come out of the stupidity of stilted social sets and returned to the naturalness of the old brown house.
But after three parties she knew all the jokes of the husbands about their wives, and with unnecessary thoroughness she knew the opinions of each person upon movies, Chicago, prohibition, the I.W.W., Mrs. Sam Jenkins’ chronic party gown, and Stacy’s new job in the Lumber National. She tried to enliven the parties. She worked harder than any of her hostesses. She proposed charades, music. She failed. She gave them one gorgeous dance, and disappeared from their group forever. She did go with Stacy on a tramp through the snow, and enjoyed it — till he began to hint that he, too, might have a great house and many drawing rooms someday. He had very little to say about what he hoped to do for the Lumber National Bank in return.
Then did Theo feel utterly deserted. She blamed herself. Was something wrong with her that she alone found these amusements so agonizingly unamusing? And feeling thus why didn’t she do something about it? She went on helping her mother in the gigantic task of asking Lizzie what orders Lizzie wanted them to give her. She went on planning that someday she would read large books and know all about world problems, and she went on forgetting to buy the books. She was twenty-six, and there was no man to marry except the chattering Eddie Barnes. Certainly she could not think romantically about that Stacy Lindstrom whose ambition seemed to be to get enough money to become an imitation chattering Eddie Barnes.
Then America entered the war.
Eddie Barnes went to the first officers’ training camp, and presently was a highly decorative first lieutenant in a hundred-dollar uniform. Stacy Lindstrom made his savings over to his mother, and enlisted. While Eddie was still stationed at a cantonment as instructor Stacy was writing Theo ten-word messages from France. He had become a sergeant, and French agriculture was interesting, he wrote.
Stacy’s farewell had been undistinguished. He called — a slight, commonplace figure in a badly fitted private’s uniform. He sat on the piano stool and mouthed: “Well, I have a furlough; then we get shipped across. Well — don’t forget me, Theo.”
At the door Stacy kissed her hand so sharply that his teeth bruised her skin, and ran down the steps, silent.
But Eddie, who came up from the cantonment at least once a month, at least that often gave a long, brave farewell to Theo. Handsome, slim, erect — he invariably paced the smallest drawing room, stopped, trembled, and said in a military tone, tenor but resolute: “Well, old honey, this may be the last time I see you. I may get overseas service anytime now. Theo dear, do you know how much I care? I shall take a picture of you in my heart, and it may be the last thing I ever think of. I’m no hero, but I know I shall do my duty. And, Theo, if I don’t come back — ”
The first two times Theo flared into weeping at this point, and Eddie’s arm was about her, and she kissed him. But the third, fourth and fifth times he said goodbye forever, she chuckled “Cheer up, old boy.” It was hard for her to feel tragic about Eddie’s being in the service, because she was in the service herself.
At last there was work that needed her. She had started with three afternoons a week at Red Cross; chatty afternoons, with her mother beside her, and familiar neighbors stopping in the making of surgical dressings to gurgle: “Oh, did you hear about how angry George Bangs was when Nellie bought a case of toilet soap at a dollar a cake? Think of it. A dollar! When you can get a very nice imported soap at twenty-five cents.”
Theo felt that there was too much lint on the conversation and too little on their hands. She found herself one with a dozen girls who had been wrens and wanted to be eagles. Two of them learned motor repairing and got across to France. Theo wanted to go, but her mother refused. After a dignified protest from Mrs. Duke, Theo became telephone girl at Red Cross headquarters, till she had learned shorthand and typing, and was able to serve the head of the state Red Cross as secretary. She envied the motor-corps women in their uniforms, but she exulted in power — in being able to give quick, accurate information to the distressed women who came fluttering to headquarters.
Mrs. Duke felt that typing was low. Theo was protected by her father.
“Good thing for the girl to have business training,” he kept insisting, till the commanding officer of the house impatiently consented.
It was the American Library Association collection which turned Theo from a dim uneasiness about the tyranny of possessions to active war. She bounced into the largest drawing room one dinner time, ten minutes late, crying: “Let’s go over all our books tonight and weed out a dandy bunch for the soldiers!”
Mrs. Duke ruled: “Really, my dear, if you would only try to be on time for your meals! It’s hard enough on Lizzie and myself to keep the house running — ”
“Come, come, come! Get your hat off and comb your hair and get ready for dinner. I’m almost starved!” grumbled Mr. Duke.
Theo repeated the demand as soon as she was seated. The soldiers, she began, needed —
“We occasionally read the newspapers ourselves! Of course we shall be very glad to give what books we can spare. But there doesn’t seem to be any necessity of going at things in this — this — hit-or-a-miss! Besides, I have some letters to write this evening,” stated Mrs. Duke.
“Well, I’m going over them anyway!”
“I wish to see any books before you send them away!”
With Theo visualizing herself carrying off a carload of books the Dukes ambled to the library after finishing dinner — and finishing coffee, a cigar and chocolate peppermints, and a discussion of the proper chintz for the shabby chairs in the guest room. Theo realized as she looked at the lofty, benign and carefully locked bookcases that she hadn’t touched one of the books for a year; that for six months she hadn’t seen anyone enter the room for any purpose other than sweeping.
After fifteen minutes spent in studying every illustration in a three-volume history Mrs. Duke announced: “Here’s something I think we might give away, Lym. Nobody has ever read it. A good many of the pages are uncut.”
Mr. Duke protested: “Give that away? No, sir! I been meaning to get at that for a long time. Why, that’s a valuable history. Tells all about modern Europe. Man ought to read it to get an idea of the sources of the war.”
“But you never will read it, papa,” begged Theo.
“Now, Theo,” her mother remonstrated in the D.A.R. manner, “if your father wishes to keep it that’s all there is to be said, and we will make no more words about it.” She returned the three volumes to the shelf.
“I’ll turn it over to you just as soon as I’ve read it,” her father obliged. Theo reflected that if any soldiers in the current conflict were to see the history they would have to prolong the war till 1960.
But she tried to look grateful while her father went on: “Tell you what I was thinking, though, mother. Here’s these two shelves of novels — none of ’em standard authors — all just moonshine or blood and thunder. Let’s clear out the whole bunch.”
“But those books are just the thing for a rainy day — nice light reading. And for guests. But now this — this old book on saddlery. When we had horses you used to look at it, but now, with motors and all — ”
“I know, but I still like to browse in it now and then.”
Theo fled. She remembered piles of shabby books in the attic. While the Dukes were discovering that after all there wasn’t one of the four hundred volumes in the library which they weren’t going to read right away Theo heaped the dining room table with attic waifs. She called her parents. The first thing Mrs. Duke spied was a Tennyson, printed in 1890 in a type doubtless suitable to ants, small sand-colored ants, but illegible to the human eye. Mrs. Duke shrieked: “Oh! You weren’t thinking of giving that handsome Tennyson away! Why, it’s a very handsome edition. Besides, it’s one of the first books your father and I ever had. It was given to us by your Aunt Gracie.”
“But moth-er dear! You haven’t even seen the book for years!”
“Well, I’ve thought of it often.”
“How about all these Christmas books?”
“Now, Theodora, if you wouldn’t be so impatient, but kindly give your father and me time to look them over — ”
Two hours and seventeen minutes after dinner Mr. and Mrs. Duke had almost resignedly agreed to present the following literary treasures to the soldiers of these United States for their edification and entertainment:
One sixth-grade geography. One Wild Flowers of Northern Wisconsin. Two duplicate copies of Little Women. The Congressional Record for part of 1902. One black, depressed, religious volume entitled The Dragon’s Fight With the Woman for 1260 Prophetic Days; from which the last seven hundred days were missing, leaving the issue of the combat in serious doubt. Four novels, all by women, severally called Griselda of the Red Hand, Bramleigh of British Columbia, Lady Tip-Tippet, and Billikins’ Lonely Christmas.
Theo looked at them. She laughed. Then she was sitting by the table, her head down, sobbing. Her parents glanced at each other in hurt amazement.
“I can’t understand the girl. After all the pains we took to try to help her!” sighed Mrs. Duke later, when they were undressing.
“O-o-o-oh,” yawned Mr. Duke as he removed his collar from the back button — with the slight invariable twinge in his rheumatic shoulder blades. “Oh, she’s nervous and tired from her work down at that Red Cross place. I’m in favor of her having a little experience, but at the same time there’s no need of overdoing. Plenty of other people to help out.”
He intended to state this paternal wisdom to Theo at breakfast, but Theo at breakfast was not one to whom to state things paternally. Her normally broad shining lips were sucked in. She merely nodded to her parents, then attended with strictness to her oatmeal, and departed — after privily instructing Lizzie to give the smaller pile of books in the dining room to the junk collector.
Three novels from the pile she did take to the public library for the A.L.A. To these she added twenty books, mostly trigonometries, bought with her own pocket money. Consequently, she had no lunch save a glass of milk for twenty days. But as the Dukes didn’t know that, everybody was happy. The battle of the books led to other sanguinary skirmishes.
Theo was responsive to her father’s kindliness. She knew that in her mother’s perpetual committees there was as much desire to make a cleaner world as there was desire to have notoriety. But she believed that in this time of flaming worlds no one was exempt. She ceased to take daily things as a matter of course.
There was the fireless cooker.
It was an early, homemade fireless cooker, constructed in the days when anything in the shape of one box inside another, with any spare scraps of sawdust between, was regarded as a valuable domestic machine. Aside from the fact that it didn’t cook, the Dukes’ cooker took up room in the kitchen, gathered a film of grease which caught a swamp of dust, and regularly banged Lizzie’s shins. For six years the Dukes had talked about having it fixed. They had run through the historical, scientific and financial aspects of cookers at least once a season.
“I’ve wondered sometimes if we couldn’t just have the furnace man take out the sawdust and put in something else or Theo, wouldn’t you like to run into Whaley & Baumgarten’s one of these days, and price all of the new fireless cookers?” beamed Mrs. Duke.
In a grieved, spacious manner Mrs. Duke reproved: “Well, my dear, I certainly am too busy, what with the party for the new rector and his bride — ”
“Call up the store. Tell ’em to send up a good cooker on trial,” said Theo.
“But these things have to be done with care and thought — ”
Theo was stalking away as she retorted: “Not by me, they don’t!”
She was sorry for her rudeness afterward, and that evening she was gay and young as she played ballads for her father and did her mother’s hair. After that, when she was going to bed, and very tired, and horribly confused in her thinking, she was sorry because she had been sorry because she had been rude.
The furnace went wrong, and its dissipations were discussed by Mr. Duke, Mrs. Duke, Mrs. Harry McPherson nee Duke, Lizzie, the furnace man and the plumber — till Theo ran up to her room and bit the pillow to keep from screaming. She begged her father to install a new furnace: “The old one will set the house afire — it’s a terrible old animal.”
“Nonsense. Take a chance on fire,” said he. “House and everything well insured anyway. If the house did burn down there’d be one good thing — wouldn’t have to worry any more about getting that twelve tons of coal we’re still shy.”
When Mr. Duke was summoned to Duluth by the iron-mining company Mrs. Duke sobbingly called Theo home from the midst of tearing work.
Theo arrived in terror. “What is it? What’s happened to papa?”
“Happened? Why, nothing. But he didn’t have a chance to take a single thing to Duluth, and he simply won’t know what to do without his traveling bag — the one he got in London — all the fittings and everything that he’s used to so he could put his hand on a toothbrush right in the dark — ”
“But mother dear, I’m sure bathrooms in Duluth have electric lights, so he won’t need to put his hand on toothbrushes in the dark. And he can get nice new lovely brushes at almost any drug store and not have to fuss — ”
“Fuss? Fuss? It’s you who are doing the fussing. He just won’t know what to do without his traveling bag.”
While she helped her mother and Lizzie drag the ponderous bag down from the attic; while her mother, merely thinking aloud, discussed whether “Your father” would want the madras pyjamas or the flannelette; while, upon almost tearful maternal request, Theo hunted all through the house for the missing cut-glass soap case — she was holding herself in. She disliked herself for being so unsympathetic. She remembered how touched she had been by exactly the same domestic comedy two years before. But unsympathetic she was, even two days later, when her mother triumphantly showed Mr. Duke’s note: “I can’t tell you how glad I was to see good old bag showing up here at hotel; felt lost without it.”
“Just the same, my absence that afternoon cost the Red Cross at least fifty dollars, and for a lot less than that he could have gone out and bought twice as good a bag — lighter, more convenient. Things! Poor dad is the servant of that cursed pig-iron bag,” she meditated.
She believed that she was being very subtle about her rebellion, but it must have been obvious, for after Mr. Duke’s return her mother suddenly attacked her at dinner.
“So far as I can make out from the way you’re pouting and sulking and carrying on, you must have some sort of a socialistic idea that possessions are unimportant. Now you ought — ”
“Anarchist, do you mean, mother dear?”
“Kindly do not interrupt me! As I was saying: It’s things that have made the world advance from barbarism. Motor cars, clothes you can wash, razors that enable a man to look neat, canned foods, printing presses, steamers, bathrooms — those are what have gotten men beyond living in skins in horrid damp caves.”
“Of course. And that’s why I object to people fussing so about certain things, and keeping themselves from getting full use of bigger things. If you’re always so busy arranging the flowers in the vase in a limousine that you never have time to go riding, then the vase has spoiled the motor for — ”
“I don’t get your logic at all. I certainly pay very little attention to the flowers in our car. Lizzie arranges them for me!” triumphed Mrs. Duke.
Theo was charging on. She was trying to get her own ideas straight. “And if a man spends valuable time in tinkering with a worn-out razor when he could buy a new one, then he’s keeping himself in the damp cave and the bearskin undies. That isn’t thrift. It’s waste.”
“I fancy that people in caves, in prehistoric times, did not use razors at all, did they, Lyman?” her mother majestically corrected.
“Now you always worry about papa’s bag. It was nice once, and worth caring for, but it’s just a bother now. On your principle a factory would stop running for half the year to patch up or lace up the belting, or whatever it is they do, instead of getting new belting and thus — Oh, can’t you see? Buy things. Use ’em. But throw ’em away if they’re more bother than good. If a bag keeps you from enjoying traveling — chuck it in the river! If a man makes a tennis court and finds he really doesn’t like tennis, let the court get weedy rather than spend glorious free October afternoons in mowing and raking — ”
“Well, I suppose you mean rolling it,” said her mother domestically. “And I don’t know what tennis has to do with the subject. I’m sure I haven’t mentioned tennis. And I trust you’ll admit that your knowledge of factories and belting is not authoritative. No. The trouble is, this Red Cross work is getting you so you can’t think straight. Of course with this war and all, it may be permissible to waste a lot of good time and money making dressings and things for a lot of green nurses to waste, but you girls must learn the great principle of thrift.”
“We have! I’m practicing it. It means — oh, so much, now. Thrift is doing without things you don’t need, and taking care of things as long as they’re useful. It distinctly isn’t wasting time and spiritual devotion over things you can’t use — just because you happen to be so unfortunate as to own ’em. Like our eternal fussing over that clock in the upper hall that no one ever looks at — ”
Not listening her mother was placidly rolling on: “You seem to think this house needs too much attention. You’d like it, wouldn’t you, if we moved to a couple of rooms in the Dakota Lodging House!”
Theo gave it up.
Two days later she forgot it.
Creeping into her snug life, wailing for her help, came a yellow-faced apparition whose eyes were not for seeing but mere gashes to show the suffering within. It was — it had been — one Stacy Lindstrom, a sergeant of the A.E.F.
Stacy had lain with a shattered shoulder in a shell pit for three days. He had had pneumonia. Four distinct times all of him had died, quite definitely died — all but the desire to see Theo.
His little, timid, vehemently respectable mother sent for Theo on the night when he was brought home, and despite Mrs. Duke’s panicky protest Theo went to him, at eleven in the evening.
“Not going to die for little while. Terribly weak, but all here. Pull through — if you want me to. Not asking you to like me. All I want — want you to want me to live. Made ’em send me home. Old doc — the major himself — I told him I’d die on him if didn’t ship me home. Was all right on the sea. But weak. Got touch of typhoid in New York. Didn’t show up till on the train. But all right and cheerful Oh! I hurt so. Just hurt, hurt, hurt, every inch of me. Never mind. Well, seen you again. Can die now. Guess I will.”
Thus in panting words he muttered, while she knelt by him and could not tell whether she loved him or hated him; whether she shrank from this skinny claw outstretched from the grave or was drawn to him by a longing to nurse his soul back to a desire for life. But this she knew: Even Red Cross efficiency was nothing in the presence of her first contact with raw living life — most rawly living when crawling out from the slime of death.
She overruled Mrs. Lindstrom; got a nurse and Doctor Rollin — Rollin, the interior medicine specialist.
“Boy’s all right. Hasn’t got strength enough to fight very hard. Better cheer him up,” said Doctor Rollin. “Bill? My bill? He’s a soldier, isn’t he? Don’t you suppose I wanted to go into the army too? Chance to see beautiful cases for once. Yes. Admit it. Like to have fool salutes too. Got to stay home, nurse lot of damn-fool women. Charge a soldier? Don’t bother me,” he grumbled, while he was folding up his stethoscope, and closing his bag, and trying to find his hat, which Mrs. Lindstrom had politely concealed.
Every day after her work Theo trudged to the Lindstrom house — a scrubbed and tidied cottage, in whose living room was a bureau with a lace cover, a gilded shell, and two photographs of stiff relatives in Norway. She watched Stacy grow back into life. His hands, which had been yellow and drawn as the talons of a starved Chinaman, became pink and solid. The big knuckles, which had been lumpy under the crackly skin, were padded again.
She had been surprised into hot pity for him. She was saved equally by his amusement over his own weakness, and by his irritableness. Though he had called for her, during the first week he seemed to dislike her and all other human beings save his nurse. In the depths of lead-colored pain nothing mattered to him save his own comfort. The coolness of his glass of water was more to him than the war. Even when he became human again, and eager at her coming, there was nothing very personal in their talk. When he was able to do more than gasp out a few words she encouraged in him the ambition to pile up money which she detested.
Uncomfortably she looked at him, thin against a plump pillow, and her voice was artificially cheery as she declared: “You’ll be back in the bank soon. I’m sure they’ll raise you. No reason why you shouldn’t be president of it someday.”
He had closed his pale eyelids. She thought he was discouraged. Noisily she reassured, “Honestly! I’m sure you’ll make money — lots of it.”
His eyes were open, blazing. “Money! Yes! Wonderful thing!”
“Buys tanks and shells, and food for homeless babies. But for me — I just want a living. There isn’t any Stacy Lindstrom any more. He was absorbed in that bigger thing over there, in that Nirvana — a fighting Nirvana! I’ve got ambitions, big ’uns, but not to see myself in a morning coat and new gloves on Sunday!”
He said nothing more. A week after he was sitting up in bed, reading, in a Lindstromy nightgown of white cotton edged with red. She wondered at the book. It was Colloquial French.
“You aren’t planning to go back?” she asked casually.
“Yes. I’ve got it straight now.” He leaned back, pulled the bedclothes carefully up about his neck and said quietly, “I’m going back, to fight. But not just for the duration of the war. Now I know what I was meant for. I can do things with my hands, and I get along with plain folks. I’m going back on reconstruction work. We’re going to rebuild France. I’m studying — French, cottage architecture, cabbages. I’m a pretty good farmer — ’member how I used to work on the farm, vacations? If they’ll let me I’m going to be the servant of the peasants. That’s a big ambition — to be a servant — to be intrusted with lives, with food and babies. What do you think?”
“I think it’s wonderful!”
She meant it. She saw that all self-consciousness was gone from him. He was again the Stacy Lindstrom who had been lord of the Red River carts. Her haunted years of nervousness about life disappeared, and suddenly she was again too fond of her boy companion to waste time considering whether she was fond of him. They were making plans, laughing the quick curt laughs of intimates.
A week later Mrs. Lindstrom took her aside.
Mrs. Lindstrom had always, after admitting Theo and nodding without the slightest expression in her anaemic face, vanished through the kitchen doorway. Tonight as Theo was sailing out Mrs. Lindstrom hastened after her through the living room.
“Miss! Miss Duke! Yoost a minute. Could you speak wit’ me?”
“Dis — Ay — Da boy get along pretty gude, eh? He seem werry gude, today. Ay vish you should — ” The little woman’s face was hard. “Ay don’t know how to say it elegant, but if you ever — I know he ain’t your fella, but he always got that picture of you, and maybe now he ban pretty brave soldier, maybe you could like him better, but I know I yoost ban Old Country woman. If you and him marry — I keep away, not bother you. Your folks is rich and — Oh, I gif, I gif him to you — if you vant him.”
Mrs. Lindstrom’s sulky eyes seemed to expand, grow misty. Her Puritanical chest was terribly heaving. She sobbed: “He always talk about you ever since he ban little fella. Please, excuse me I spoke, if you don’t vant him, but I vanted you should know, I do anyt’ing for him. And you.”
She fled, and Theo could hear the scouring of a pot in the kitchen. Theo fled the other way.
It was that same evening, at dinner, that Mrs. Duke delicately attempted social homicide.
“My dear, aren’t you going to see this Lindstrom boy rather oftener than you need to? From what you say he must be convalescing. I hope that your pity for him won’t lead you into any foolish notions and sentiment about him.”
Theo laughed. “No time to be sentimental about anything, these days. I’ve canned the word — ”
“‘Canned’! Oh, Theo!”
“ — ‘sentiment’ entirely. But if I hadn’t, Stace wouldn’t be a bad one to write little poems about. He used to be my buddy when — ”
“Please — do — not — be — so — vulgar! And Theo, however you may regard Stacy, kindly do stop and think how Mrs. Lindstrom would look in this house!”
The cheerful, gustatory manner died in Theo. She rose. She said with an intense, a religious solemnity: “This house! Damn this house!”
The Lindstroms were not mentioned again. There was no need. Mrs. Duke’s eyebrows adequately repeated her opinions when Theo came racing in at night, buoyant with work and talking and fighting over Stacy’s plans.
Theo fancied that her father looked at her more sympathetically. She ceased to take Mr. Duke as a matter of course, as one more fixed than the radiators. She realized that he spent these autumn evenings in staring at the fire. When he looked up he smiled, but his eyes were scary. Theo noticed that he had given up making wistful suggestions to Mrs. Duke that he be permitted to go back to real work, or that they get a farm, or go traveling. Once they had a week’s excursion to New York, but Mrs. Duke had to hasten back for her committees. She was ever firmer with her husband; more ready with reminders that it was hard to get away from a big house like this; that men oughtn’t to be so selfish and just expect Lizzie and her —
Mr. Duke no longer argued. He rarely went to his office. He was becoming a slippered old man.
Eddie Barnes was back in Vernon on the sixth of his positively last, final, ultimate farewells.
Theo yelled in joy when he called. She was positively blowzy with healthy vulgarity. She had won an argument with Stacy about teaching the French to plant corn, and had walked home almost at a trot.
“Fine to see you! Saying an eternal farewell again?” she brutally asked Eddie.
For one of the young samurai Eddie was rather sheepish. He stalked about the largest drawing-room. His putties shone. Eddie really had very nice legs, the modern young woman reflected.
“Gosh, I am an awful fareweller. Nope, I’m not going to do a single weep. Because this time I’ve got my orders. I’ll be in France in three weeks. So I just thought — I just thought — maybe — I’d ask you if you could conveniently — Ouch, that tooth still aches; have to get this bridge finished tomorrow sure. Could you marry me?”
“Ungh!” Theo flopped into a chair.
“You’ve queered all my poetic tactics by your rude merry mirth. So just got to talk naturally.”
“Glad you did. Now let me think. Do I want to marry you?”
“We get along bully. Listen — wait till I get back from France, and we’ll have some celebration. Oh, boy! I’ll stand for the cooties and the mud till the job’s done, but when I get back and put the Croix de Guerre into the safe-deposit I’m going to have a drink of champagne four quarts deep! And you and I — we’ll have one time! Guess you’ll be pretty sick of Red Cross by — ”
“No. Now I know. Dear, you are a good playmate. But I know a man who thinks that when the war is over, then the real work begins.”
Eddie was grave, steady, more mature than he had ever seemed. “Yes. Stacy Lindstrom. See here, honey; he has big advantages over me. I’m not picturesque. I never had to work for my bread and butter, and I was brought up to try to be amusing, not noble. Nothing more touching than high ideals and poverty. But if I try to be touching, you laugh at me. I’m — I may get killed, and I’ll be just as dead in my expensible first lieut’s pants as any self-sacrificing private.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. Of course. You have disadvantages. Comfort isn’t dramatic. But still — It’s the champagne and the big time. I’ve — ”
“See here, honey, you’d be dreadfully bored by poverty. You do like nice things.”
“That’s it. Things! That’s what I’m afraid of. I’m interested in tractors for France, but not in the exact shade of hock glasses. And beauty — It’s the soul of things, but it’s got to be inherent, not just painted on. Nice things! Ugh! And — If I married you what would be your plans for me? How would I get through twenty-four hours a day?”
“Why — uh — why, how does anybody get through ’em? You’d have a good time — dances, and playin’ round, and maybe children, and we’d run down to Palm Beach — ”
“Yes. You’d permit me to go on doing what I always did till the war came. Nope. It isn’t good enough. I want to work. You wouldn’t let me, even in the house. There’d be maids, nurses. It’s not that I want a career. I don’t want to be an actress or a congresswoman. Perfectly willing to be assistant to some man. Providing he can really use me in useful work. No. You pre-war boys are going to have a frightful time with us post-war women.”
“But you’ll get tired — ”
“Oh, I know, I know! You and father and mother will wear me out. You all may win. You and this house, this horrible sleek warm house that Mrs. — that she isn’t fit to come into! She that gave him — ”
Her voice was rising, hysterical. She was bent in the big chair, curiously twisted, as though she had been wounded.
Eddie stroked her hair, then abruptly stalked out.
Theo sat marveling. “Did I really send Eddie away? Poor Eddie. And he’ll lead his company — Oh, I’ll write him. He’s right. Nice to think of brave maiden defiantly marrying poor hero. But they never do. Not in this house.”
The deep courthouse bell, awakening Theo to bewildered staring at the speckled darkness — a factory whistle fantastically tooting, then beating against her ears in long steady waves of sound — the triumphant yelping of a small boy and the quacking of a toy horn — a motor starting next door, a cold motor that bucked and snorted before it began to sing, but at last roared away with the horn blaring — finally the distant “Extra! Extra!”
Her sleepy body protestingly curled tighter in a downy ball in her bed on the upper porch, but her mind was frantically awake as the clamor thickened. “Is it really peace this time? The armistice really signed?” she exulted.
In pleasant reasonable phrases the warm body objected to the cold outside the silk comforter. “Remember how you were fooled on Thursday. Oo-oo! Bed feels so luxurious!” it insisted.
She was a practical heroine. She threw off the covers. The indolent body had to awaken, in self-defense. She merely squeaked “Ouch!” as her feet groped for their slippers on the cold floor. She flung downstairs, into rubbers and a fur coat, and she was out on the walk in time to stop a bellowing newsboy.
Yes. It was true. Official report from Washington. War over.
“Hurray!” said the ragged newsboy, proud of being out adventuring by night; and “Hurray!” she answered him. She felt that she was one with awakening crowds all over the country, from the T Wharf to the Embarcadero. She wanted to make great noises.
The news had reached the almost Western city of Vernon at three. It was only four, but as she stood on the porch a crush of motor cars swept by, headed for downtown. Bumping behind them they dragged lard cans, saucepans, frying pans. One man standing on a running board played Mr. Zip on a cornet. Another dashing for a trolley had on his chest a board with an insistent electric bell. He saw her on the porch and shouted, “Come on, sister! Downtown! All celebrate! Some carnival!”
She waved to him. She wanted to get out the electric and drive down. There would be noise — singing.
Four strange girls ran by and shrieked to her, “Come on and dance!”
Suddenly she was asking herself: “But do they know what it means? It isn’t just a carnival. It’s sacred.” Sharply: “But do I know all it means, either? Worldwide. History, here, now!” Leaning against the door, cold but not conscious that she was cold, she found herself praying.
As she marched back upstairs she was startled. She fancied she saw a gray figure fleeing down the upper hall. She stopped. No sound.
“Heavens; I’m so wrought up! All jumpy. Shall I give papa the paper? Oh, I’m too trembly to talk to anyone.”
While the city went noise-mad it was a very solemn white small figure that crawled into bed. The emotion that for four years had been gathering burst into sobbing. She snuggled close, but she did not sleep. Presently: “My Red Cross work will be over soon. What can I do then? Come back to packing papa’s bag?”
She noticed a glow on the windows of the room beside the sleeping porch. “They’re lighting up the whole city. Wonder if I oughtn’t to go down and see the fun? Wonder if papa would like to go down? No, mother wouldn’t let him! Windows all shining. House might almost be afire.” Out of a nap she awoke sharply. “Oh, I wish the house were afire! I want the little old brown shack. Where Stacy could come and play. Mother used to give him cookies then.
“I wish I had the nerve to set the place afire. If I were a big fighting soul I would. But I’m a worm. Am I being bad to think this way? Guess so — committed mental arson, but hadn’t the nerve — My God, the house is afire!”
She was too frightened to move. She could smell smoke, hear a noise like the folding of stiff wrapping paper. Instantly, apparently without ever having got out of bed, she was running by a bedroom into which flames were licking from the clothes chute that led to the basement. “That dratted old furnace!” she could hear herself saying aloud. She was bursting into her parents’ room, hysterically shaking her mother.
“Get up! Get up!”
With a drowsy dignity her mother was saying, “Yes — I know — peace — get paper morning — let me sleep.”
“It’s fire! Fire! The house afire!”
Her mother sat up, a thick gray lock bobbing in front of one eye, and said indignantly, “How perfectly preposterous!”
Already Mr. Duke was out of bed, in smoke-prickly darkness, flapping his hands in the air. “Never could find that globe. Ought to have bedside light. Come, mother, jump up! Theo, have you got on a warm bathrobe?” He was cool. His voice trembled, but only with nervousness.
He charged down the back hall, Theo just behind. Mrs. Duke remained at the head of the front stairs, lamenting, “Don’t leave me!”
The flames were darting hissing heads into the hall. As Theo looked they caught a box couch and ran over an old chest of drawers. The heat seemed to slap her face.
“Can’t do anything. Get out of this. Wake the servants. You take your mother down,” bled Mr. Duke.
Theo had her mother into a loose gown, shoes and a huge fleecy couch cover, and down on the front porch, by the time Mr. Duke appeared driving the maids — Lizzie a gorgon in curl papers.
“Huh! Back stairs all afire,” he grunted, rubbing his chin. His fingers, rubbing then stopping, showed that for a split second he was thinking, “I need a shave.”
“Theo! Run down to the corner. Turn in alarm. I’ll try to phone. Then save things,” he commanded.
Moved by his coolness to a new passion of love Theo flung her arm, bare as the sleeve of her bathrobe fell from it, about his seamed neck, beseeching: “Don’t save anything but the cloisonné. Let ‘em burn. Won’t have you go in there, risk your life for things. Here — let me phone!”
Unreasoning she slammed the front door, bolted him out. She shouted their address and “Fire — hustle alarm!” at the telephone operator. In the largest drawing room she snatched bit after bit of cloisonné from the cabinet and dumped them into a wastebasket. Now the lower hall, at her back, was boiling with flame-tortured smoke. The noise expanded from crackling to a roar.
The window on the porch was smashed. Her father’s arm was reaching up to the catch, unlocking the window. He was crawling in. As the smoke encircled him he puffed like a man blowing out water after a dive.
Theo ran to him. “I didn’t want you here! I have the cloisonné — ”
As calmly as though he were arguing a point at cards he mumbled, “Yes, yes, yes! Don’t bother me. You forgot the two big saras in the wall safe.”
While the paint on the balusters in the hall bubbled and charred, and the heat was a pang in her lungs, he twirled the knob of the safe behind the big picture and drew out two cloisonné plates. Flames curled round the doorjamb of the room like fingers closing on a stick.
“We’re shut off!” Theo cried.
“Yep. Better get out. Here. Drop that basket!”
Mr. Duke snatched the cloisonné from her, dropped it, hurled away his two plates, shoved her to the window he had opened, helped her out on the porch. He himself was still in the burning room. She gripped his arm when he tried to dart back. The cloisonné was already hidden from them by puffs of smoke.
Mr. Duke glanced back. He eluded her; pulled his arm free; disappeared in the smoke. He came back with a cheap china vase that for a thing so small was monumentally ugly. As he swung out of the window he said, “Your mother always thought a lot of that vase.” Theo saw through eyes stinging with smoke that his hair had been scorched.
Fire engines were importantly unloading at the corner, firemen running up. A neighbor came to herd the Dukes into her house, and into more clothes.
Alone, from the room given to her by the neighbor, Theo watched her home burn. The flames were leering out of all the windows on the ground floor. Her father would never read the three-volume history that was too valuable for soldiers. Now the attic was glaring. Gone the elephant of a London traveling bag. Woolly smoke curled out of the kitchen windows as a fireman smashed them. Gone the fireless cooker that would not cook. She laughed. “It’s nicely cooked itself! Oh, I’m beastly. Poor mother. All her beautiful marked linen — ”
But she did not lose a sensation of running ungirdled, of breathing Maytime air.
Her father came in, dressed in the neighbor-host’s corduroy hunting coat, a pair of black dress trousers and red slippers. His hair was conscientiously combed, but his fingers still querulously examined the state of his unshaven chin.
She begged: “Daddy dear, it’s pretty bad, but don’t worry. We have plenty of money. We’ll make arrangements — ”
He took her arms from about his neck, walked to the window. The broken skeleton of their home was tombed in darkness as the firemen controlled the flames. He looked at Theo in a puzzled way.
He said hesitatingly: “No, I won’t worry. I guess it’s all right. You see — I set the house afire.”
She was silent, but her trembling fingers sought her lips as he went on: “Shoveled hot coals from the furnace into kindling bin in the basement. Huh! Yes. Used to be good furnace tender when I was a real man. Peace bells had woke me up. Wanted to be free. Hate destruction, but — no other way. Your mother wouldn’t let me sell the house. I was going mad, sticking there, waiting — waiting for death. Now your mother will be willing to come. Get a farm. Travel., And I been watching you. You couldn’t have had Stacy Lindstrom, long as that house bossed us. You almost caught me, in the hall, coming back from the basement. It was kind of hard, with house afire, to lie there in bed, quiet, so’s your mother wouldn’t ever know — waiting for you to come wake us up. You almost didn’t, in time. Would have had to confess. Uh, let’s go comfort your mother. She’s crying.”
Theo had moved away from him. “But it’s criminal! We’re stealing — robbing the insurance company.”
The wrinkles beside his eyes opened with laughter.
“No. Watched out for that. I was careful to be careless, and let all the insurance run out last month. Huh! Maybe I won’t catch it from your mother for that, though! Girl! Look! It’s dawn!”
Noble Prize winner John Galsworthy was an English novelist and playwright who wrote stories about social grievances of both the upper and lower class. In his short story “The Black Coat,” published in 1926, A Russian general of the Great War reminisces on a past with simpler times. A problem arises when he misplaces his most prized possession.
Published September 11, 1926
The old general, emigre and member of the old time Russian nobility, who had commanded a division in the Great War, sat on a crazy chair before a feeble fire in his garret in the city of Prague. His thin, high shouldered form was crouched forward and his bluish hands extended to what there was of flame, for he was seventy, and his blood thin and cold. It had rained on his way back from the Russian friends whom every Sunday evening he went to see, and his coat was carefully spread out to dry, over the back of his one other crazy chair, before the poor conflagration in the grate.
It was the general’s custom to light a fire on Sunday evenings when it was at all financially possible; the ceremony prolonged, with its apology for warmth, the three hours a week during which he wore the clothes of a gentleman, in the society of gentlefolk. And he would sit before it in his one suit — very old now and white about the seams, but still modish in essence — smoking what of tobacco he had brought away with him and thinking of the past.
The present he never thought of at such times; it did not hear the process, for his present, day by day, consisted in walking before a dustman’s cart, ringing a hell to announce its coming to the inhabitants of the street; and for this he received so little that he was compelled also, to keep soul within body, to wash omnibuses in a garage nearby. These avocations provided him with the rent of his garret and two meals a day; and while engaged in them he wore dingy overalls which had once been blue, and took his two meals at a workman’s café.
On Sundays he stayed in bed till six o’clock, when he would rise, wash and shave himself with slow and meticulous care; then, donning his old black coat and carefully creased trousers, would go forth and walk the two miles to the flat of his friends, where he was sure of a meal and a little wine or vodka, and could talk of the old Russia.
This is what he had been doing for fifty-two weeks in the year during the past five years, and what he counted on doing for the rest of his natural life.
How he gained his living was perfectly well known to his friends, but since it was never spoken of by him, none of them would have considered it decent to mention it. Indeed, on those Sunday evenings there was a tacit agreement not to speak of one’s misfortunes. Old Russia, politics and the spirit of man held the field, together with such other topics as were suitable to a black coat. And not infrequently there would rise, above the ground bass droning through the lives of emigres, the gallantry of laughter. His friends themselves, and all their guests, had the dark cupboards of the outcast and the fallen and gleaming skeletons within them; and so it was essential that neither by word, by manner nor by dress should the existence of an evil fate be admitted.
You might talk of restoration, of redress, of revenge, but of daily need and pressure—no! And in truth there was not much talk of the three R’s; rather did conversation ape normality. And none was so normal as the old general. His was a single mind, a simple face intensely stamped with wrinkles, like the wrigglings in the texture of old pale leather which is stained here and there a little darker by chance misusage. He had folds in the lids over his rimmed brown eyes, a gray mustache clung close round the corners of his bloodless lips, and gray hair grew fairly low still on his square forehead. High-shouldered, he would stand with his head politely inclined, taking in the talk, just as now, before his meager fire, he seemed taking in the purr and flutter of the flames.
After such evenings of talk, indeed, his memory would step with a sort of busy idleness into the past, as might a person in a garden of familiar flowers and trees; and, with the saving instinct of memory, would choose the grateful experiences of a life which, like most soldiers’ lives, had marked a great deal of time and been feverishly active in the intervals. The Czar’s stamp was on his soul; for, after a certain age, no matter what the cataclysm, there can be no real change in the souls of men.
The general might ring his dustman’s bell and wash his casual omnibuses and eat the fare of workmen, but all such daily efforts were as a dream of dismal quality. Only in his black coat, as it were, was he awake. It could be said with truth that all the life he now lived was passed on Sunday evenings between the hours of six and midnight.
And now, with the smoke of his friend’s cigar — for he always brought one away with him; no great shakes, but still a cigar — to lull reality and awaken the past, he smiled faintly, as might some old cat reflecting on a night out, and with all the Russian soul of him savored the moment so paradoxically severed from the present. To go to his lean bed on Sunday nights was ever the last thing he wished to do, and he would put it off and off until the fire was black, and often fall asleep there and wake up in the small hours, shivering.
He had so much that was pleasant in the past to think of every Sunday evening, after those hours spent in his black coat among his own kind had enlivened the soul within him, it was no wonder that he prolonged that séance to the last gasp of warmth.
Tonight he was particularly absent from the present, for a young girl had talked to him who reminded him of an affair he had had in 1880, when he was in garrison in the Don Cossack country. Her name he had forgotten, but not the kisses she had given him in return for nothing but his own; nor the soft, quizzical and confiding expression on her rose-leaf-colored, rather flat-nosed face, nor her eyes like forget-me-nots.
The night his regiment got its orders and he left her — what a night! The fruit trees white with blossom, someone singing, and the moon hanging low on the far side of the wide river. IIeh-heh! The Russian land — the wide, the calm sweet-scented Russian land! And the history that centered round that river, of the Zaporogians — he used to know it well, with his passion for military history, like that of most young men. A scent of nettles, of burdock, of the leaves on young birch trees, seemed mysteriously, conveyed to him in his garret, and he could see lilacs — lilacs and acacias, flowering in front of flat low houses; and the green cupolas of churches, away in the dips of the plain, and the turned earth black. Holy Russia! Ah, and that mare he had of the hook-nosed gypsy at Yekaterinoslaff — he had never seen the equal of her black shining coat — what a jewel of a mare!
The cigar burned his lips and he threw the tiny stump into the ashes. That fire was going out — damp wood. But he had a little petrol from the garage in an old medicine bottle. He would cheer the wood up. His coat wasn’t dry yet — a heavy rain tonight. He got the bottle and sparingly dripped its contents on the smoldering wood; his hand shook nowadays, and he spilled a little. Then he sat down again, and the Burg clock struck twelve. Little flames were creeping out now, little memories creeping to him from them. How those Japanese had fought! And how his men went over the ridge the day he got his cross. A wall — a Russian wall — great fellows! “Lead us, little father, we will take the wood!” And he had led them. Two bullets through his thigh that day, and a wipe on the left shoulder — that was a life!
The crazy chair creaked and he sidled back in it; if one leaned forward, the old chair might break, and that wouldn’t do. No chair to sit on then. A cat’s weight would break down that on which his coat was spread. And he was drowsy now. He would dream nicely, with that fine blaze. A great evening… The young girl had talked — talked — a pretty little hand to kiss! God bless all warmth! … And the general, in his crazy chair, slept, while the fire crept forward on the trickled petrol. From the streets below, too narrow for any car, came up no sound, and through the un-curtained window the stars were bright. Rain must have ceased, frost must be coming. And there was silence in the room, for the general could not snore; his chin was pressed too hard against his chest. He slept like a traveler who has made a long journey. And in the Elysian fields of his past he still walked in his dreams, and saw the flowering, and the flow of waters, the birds and the maidens and the beasts inhabiting.
Two hours passed and he woke up with a sneeze. Something was tickling his nose. Save for starshine it was dark — the fire out. He rose and groped for his matches and a bit of candle. He must be up in time to ring his bell before the dust cart; and, neatly folding his precious trousers, he crept under his two blankets, wrinkling his nose, full of a nasty bitter smell.
A soldier’s habit of waking when he would rang its silent alarm at seven o’clock. Cold! A film of ice had gathered on the water in his cracked ewer. But to precede a dust cart one need not wash too carefully. He had finished and was ready to go forth, when he remembered his black coat. One must fold and put it away with the camphor and dried lavender in the old trunk. He took it hastily from the back of the crazy chair, and his heart stood still. What was this? A great piece of it in the middle of the back, just where the tails were set on, crumbled in his hands — scorched — scorched to tinder! The wreck dangled in his grip like a corpse from a gibbet. His coat his old black coat! Ruined past repair. He stood there quite motionless. It meant — what did it mean? And suddenly, down the leathery yellow of his cheeks, two tears rolled slowly. His old coat, his one coat! In all the weeks of all these years he had never been able to buy a garment, never been able to put by a single stiver. And, dropping the ruined coat, as one might drop the hand of a friend who has played one a dirty trick, he staggered from the room and down the stairs. The smell — that bitter smell! The smell of scorching gone stale!
In front of the dust cart, in his dingy jeans, ringing his bell, he walked through the streets of the old city like a man in a bad dream. In the café he ate his bit of bread and sausage, drank his poor coffee, smoked his one cigarette. His mind refused to dwell on his misfortune. Only when washing an omnibus that evening in the garage he stopped suddenly, as if choked. The smell of the petrol had caught him by the throat — petrol, that had been the ruin of his coat.
So passed that week, and Sunday came. He did not get up at all, but turned his face to the wall instead. He tried his best, but the past would not come to him. It needed the better food, the warming of the little wine, the talk, the scent of tobacco, the sight of friendly faces. And, holding his gray head tight in his hands, he ground his teeth. For only then he realized that he was no longer alive; that all his soul had been in those few Sunday-evening hours, when, within the shelter of his black coat, he refuged in the past. Another, and another week! His friends were all so poor. A soldier of old Russia — a general — wellborn — he made no sign to them; he could not beg and he did not complain. But he had ceased to live, and he knew it, having no longer any past to live for. And something Russian in his soul — something uncompromising and extreme, something which refused to blink fact and went with hand outstretched to meet fate — hardened and grew within him.
The rest is a paragraph from a journal:
The body of an old gray-haired man was taken from the river this morning. The indications point to suicide, and the cast of features would suggest that another Russian émigré has taken fate into his own hands. The body was clothed in trousers, shirt and waistcoat of worn but decent quality; it had no coat.
American novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Newton Booth Tarkington has been heralded as one of the best authors of the 20th century. His work explored middle America and often romanticized the life of Midwesterners. In his story “Captain Schlotterwerz” published in 1918, two German-Americans living in Cincinnati venture to Mexico to escape the tense political environment in the U.S..
Published January 26, 1918
Miss Bertha Hitzel, of Cincinnati, reached the age of twenty-two upon the eleventh of May, 1915; and it was upon the afternoon of her birthday that for the first time in her life she saw her father pace the floor. Never before had she seen any agitation of his expressed so vividly; on the contrary, until the preceding year she had seldom known him to express emotion at all, and in her youthfulness she had sometimes doubted his capacity for much feeling. She could recall no hour of family stress that had caused him to weep, to become gesticulative or to lift his voice unusually. Even at the time of her mother’s death he had been quiet to the degree of apparent lethargy.
Characteristically a silent man, he was almost notorious for his silence. Everybody in Cincinnati knew old Fred Hitzel; at least there was a time when all the older business men either knew him or knew who he was. “Sleepy old Dutchman,” they said of him tolerantly, meaning that he was a sleepy old German. “Funny old cuss,” they said. “Never says anything he doesn’t just plain haf to — but he saws wood, just the same! Put away a good many dollars before he quit the wholesale grocery business — must be worth seven or eight hundred thousand, maybe a million. Always minded his own business, and square as a dollar. You’d think he was stingy, he’s so close with his talk; but he isn’t. Any good charity can get all it wants out of old Fred, and he’s always right there with a subscription for any public movement. A mighty good hearted old Dutchman he is; and a mighty good citizen too. Wish we had a lot more just like him!”
His daughter was his only child and they had a queer companionship. He had no children by his first wife; Bertha was by his second, whom he married when he was fifty-one; and the second Mrs. Hitzel died during the daughter’s fourteenth year, just as Bertha was beginning to develop into that kind of blond charmfulness which shows forth both delicate and robust; a high colored damsel whose color could always become instantly still higher. Her tendency was to be lively; and her father humored her sprightliness as she grew up by keeping out of the way so artfully that to her friends who came to the house he seemed to be merely a mythical propriety of Bertha’s.
But father and daughter were nevertheless closely sympathetic and devoted, and the daughter found nothing indifferent to herself in his habitual seeming to be a man half asleep. He would sit all of an evening, his long upper eyelids drooping so far that only a diamond chip of lamplight reflection beneath them showed that his eyes were really open — for him — and he would puff at the cigar, protruding between his mandarin’s mustache and his shovel beard, not more than twice in a quarter of an hour, yet never letting the light go out completely; and all the while he would speak not a word, though Bertha chattered gayly to him or read the newspaper aloud. Sometimes, at long intervals, he might make a faint hissing sound for comment or, when the news of the day was stirring, as at election times, he might grunt a little, not ungenially. Bertha would be pleased then to think that her reading had brought him to such a pitch of vociferation.
The change in old Fred Hitzel began to be apparent early in August, 1914; and its first symptoms surprised his daughter rather pleasantly; next, she was astonished without the pleasure; then she became troubled and increasingly apprehensive. He came home from his German club on the afternoon when it was known that the last of the forts at Liege had fallen and he dragged a chair to an open window, where he established himself, perspiring and breathing heavily under his fat. But Bertha came and closed the window.
“You’ll catch cold, papa,” she said. “Your face is all red in spots, and you better cool off with a fan before you sit in a draft. Here!” And she placed a palm leaf fan in his hand. “oughtn’t to have walked home in the sun.”
“I didn’t walked,”said Mr. Hitzel. “It was a trolley. You heert some noose?”
She nodded. “I bought an extra; there’re plenty extras these days!”
Her father put the fan down upon his lap and rubbed his hands; he was in great spirits. “Dose big guns!” he said. “By Cheemuny, dose big guns make a hole big as a couple houses! Badoom! Nutting in the worlt can stop dose big guns of the Cherman Army. Badoom! She goes off. Efer’ting got to fall down! By Cheemuny, I would like to hear dose big guns once yet!”
Bertha gave a little cry of protest and pretended to stop her ears. “I wouldn’t! I don’t care to be deaf for life, thank you! I don’t think you really would, either, papa.” She laughed. “You didn’t take an extra glass of Rhine wine down at the club, did you, papa?”
“One cless,” he said. “As utsual. Alwiss one cless. Takes me one hour. Chust. Why?”
“Because” — she laughed again — ”it just seemed to me I never saw you so excited.”
“It must be hearing about those big German guns, I guess. Look! You’re all flushed up, and don’t cool off at all.”
Old Fred’s flush deepened, in fact; and his drooping eyelids twitched as with the effort to curtain less of his vision. “Litsen, Bairta,” he said. “Putty soon, when the war gits finished, we should go to New York and hop on dat big Vaterland steamship and git off in Antvorp; maybe Calais. We rent us a ottomobile and go visit all dose battlevielts in Belchun; we go to Liege — all ofer — and we look and see for ourselfs what dose fine big guns of the Cherman Army done. I want to see dose big holes. I want to see it most in the work. Badoom! Such a — such a power!”
“Well, I declare!” his daughter cried.
“I declare, I don’t think I ever heard you talk so much before in my whole life!”
Old Fred chuckled. “Badoom!” he said. “I guess dat’s some talkin’, ain’t it? Dose big guns knows how to talk! Badoom! Hoopee!”
And this talkativeness of his, though coming so late in his life, proved to be not a mood but a vein. Almost every day he talked, and usually a little more than he had talked the day before — but not always with so much gusto as he had displayed concerning the great guns that reduced Liege. One afternoon he was indignant when Bertha quoted friends of hers who said that the German Army had no rightful business in Belgium.
“English lovers!” he said. “Look at a map once, what tellss you in miles. It ain’t no longer across Belchun from dat French Frontier to Chermany except about from here to Dayton. How can Chermany take such a chance once, and leaf such a place all open? Subbose dey done it: English Army and French Army can easy walk straight to Aix and Essen, and Chermany could git her heart stab, like in two minutes! Ach-o! Cherman Army knows too much for such a foolishness. What for you want to listen to talkings from Chonny Bulls?”
“No; they weren’t English lovers, papa,” Bertha said. “They were Americans, just as much as I am. It was over at the Thompson girls’, and there were some other people there too. They were all talking the same way, and I could hardly stand it; but I didn’t know what to say.”
“What to say!” he echoed. “I guess you could called ‘em a pile o’ Chonny Bulls, couldn’t you once? Stickin’ up for Queen Wictoria and turn-up pants legs because it’s raining in London!”
“No,” she said, thoughtful and troubled. “I don’t think they care anything particularly about the English, papa. At least, they didn’t seem to.”
“So? Well, what for they got to go talkin’ so big on the English site, please answer once!”
Bertha faltered. “Well, it was — most of it was about Louvain.”
“Louvain! I hear you!” he said. “Listen, Bairta! Who haf you got in Chermany?”
She did not understand. “You mean what do I know about Germany?”
“No!” he answered emphatically. “You don’t know nutting about Chermany. You can’t speak it, efen; not so good as six years olt you could once. I mean: Who belongs to you in Chermany? I mean relations. Name of ‘em is all you know: Ludwig, Gustave, Albrecht, Kurz. But your cousins chust de ramie — first cousins — my own sister Minna’s boys. Well, you seen her letters; you know what kind of chilten she’s got. Fine boys! Our own blut — closest kin we got. Peoble same as the best finest young men here in Cincinneti. Well, Albert and Gustave and Kurz is efer’one in the Cherman Army, and Louie is offizier, Cherman Navy. My own nephews, ain’t it? Well, we don’t know where each one keeps now, yet; maybe fightin’ dose Russishens; maybe marchin’ into Paris; maybe some of ‘em is at Louvain!
“Subbose it was Louvain — subbose Gustave or Kurz is one of dose Chermans of Louvain. You subbose one of dose boys do somet’ing wrong? No! If he hat to shoot and burn, it’s because he hat to, ain’t it? Well, whatefer Chermans was at Louvain, they are the same good boys as Minna’s boys, ain’t it? You hear Chonny Bull site of it, I tell you. You bedder wait and git your noose from Chermany, Bairta. From Chermany we git what is honest. From Chonny Bull all lies!”
But Bertha’s trouble was not altogether alleviated. “People talk just dreadfully,” she sighed. “Sometimes — why, sometimes you’d think, to hear them, it was almost a disgrace to be a German!”
“Keeb owt from ‘em!” her father returned testily. “Quit goin’ near ‘em. Me? I make no attention!”
Yet as the days went by he did make some attention. The criticisms of Germany that he heard indignantly repeated at his club worried him so much that he talked about them at considerable length after he got home; and there were times, as Bertha read the Enquirer to him, when he would angrily bid her throw the paper away. Finally, he stopped his subscription and got his news entirely from a paper printed in the German language. Nevertheless, he could not choose but hear and see a great deal that displeased and irritated him. There were a few members of his club — citizens of German descent — who sometimes expressed uneasiness concerning the right of Germany to be in Belgium; others repeated what was said about town and in various editorials about the Germans; and Bertha not infrequently was so distressed by what she heard among her friends that she appealed to him for substantiation of defenses she had made.
“Why, papa, you’d think I’d said something wrong!” she told him one evening. “And sometimes I almost get to thinking that they don’t like me anymore. Mary Thompson said she thought I ought to be in jail, just because I said the Kaiser always tried to do whatever he thought was right.”
Hitzel nodded. “Anyway, while Chermany is at war I guess we stick up for him. Kaisers I don’t care; my fotter was a shtrong Kaiser hater, and so am I. Nobody hates Kaisers worse — until the big war come. I don’t want no Kaisers nor Junkers — I am putty shtrong ratical, Bairta — but the Kaiser, he’s right for once yet, anyhow. Subbose he didn’t make no war when Chermany was attackdut; Chermany would been swallowed straight up by Cossacks and French. For once he’s right, yes. You subbose the Cherman peoble let him sit in his house and say nutting while Cossacks and French chasseurs go killing peoble all ofer Chermany? If Chermany is attackdut, Kaiser’s got to declare war; Kaiser’s got to fight, don’t he?”
“Mary Thompson said it was Germany that did the attacking, papa. She said the Kaiser — ”
But her father interrupted her with a short and sour laugh. “Fawty yearss peace,”he said. “Fawty yearss peace in Europe! Cherman peoble is peaceful peoble more as any peoble — but you got to let ‘em lif! Kaiser’s got no more to do makin’ war as anybody else in Chermany. You keep away from dose Mary Thompsons!”
But keeping away from the Mary Thompsons availed little; Bertha was not an ostrich, and if she had been one closing eyes and ears could not have kept her from the consciousness of what distressed her. The growing and intensifying disapproval of Germany was like a thickening of the very air, and the pressure of it grew heavier upon both daughter and father, so that old Hitzel began to lose flesh a little and Bertha worried about him. And when, upon the afternoon of her birthday — the eleventh of May, 1915 — he actually paced the floor, she was frightened.
“But, papa, you mustn’t let yourself get so excited. she begged him. “Let’s quit talking about all this killing and killing and killing. Oh, I get so tired of thinking about fighting! I want to think about this lovely wrist watch you gave me for my birthday. Come on; let’s talk about that, and don’t get so excited!”
“Don’t git so excidut!” he mocked her bitterly. “No! Chust sit down and smoke, and trink cless Rhine wine, maybe! Who’s goin’ to stop eckting some excidut, I guess not, efter I litsen by Otto Schultze sit in a clob and squeal he’s scairt to say how gled he is Lusitania got blowed up, because it would be goin’ to inchur his bissnuss I He wants whole clob to eckt a hippsicrit; p’tent we don’t feel no gladness about blowin’ up Lusitania!”
“I’m not glad, papa,” Bertha said. “It may be wrong, but I can’t be. All those poor people in the water — ”
“Chonny Bulls!” he cried. “Sittin’ on a million bullets for killin’ Cherman solchers! Chonny Bulls!”
“Oh, no! That’s the worst of it! There were over a hundred Americans, papa.”
“Americans!” he bitterly jibed. “You call dose people Americans? Chonny Bulls, I tell you; Chonny Bulls and English lovers! Where was it Lusitania is goin’ at? England! What bissnuss Americans got in Eng land? On a ship filt up to his neck all gunpowder and bullets to kill Chermans! Well, it seems to me if it’s any American bissnuss to cuss Chermans because Chermans blow up such a murder ship I must be goin’ gracy! Look here once, Bairta! i Your own cousin Louie — ain’t he in the Cherman Navy? He’s a submarine offizier, I don’t know. Subbose he should be, maybe he’s the feller blows up Lusitania! You t’ink it should be Louie who does somet’ing wrong? He’s a mudderer if it’s him, yes? I guess not!”
“Whoever it was, of course he only obeyed orders,” Bertha said gloomily.
“Well, whoefer gif him dose orders,” Hitzel cried, “ain’t he got right? By golly, I belief United States is all gracy except peoble descendut from Chermans. Chust litsen to ‘em! Look at hetlines in noosepapers; look at bulletin boarts! A feller can’t go nowhere; he can’t git away from it. Damn Chermans! Damn Chermans! Damn Chermans! You can’t git away from it nowhere! Chermansis mudderers! Chermans kills leetle bebbies! Chermans kills woman! coocify humanity! Nowhere you go you git away from all such English lies! Peoble chanche faces when they heppen to look at you, because maybe you got a Chermanlookin’ face! Bairta, I yoos to love my country, but by Gott I feel sometimes we can’t stay here no longer! It’s too much!”
She had begun to weep a little. “Papa, let’s do talk about something else! Can’t we talk about something else?” He paid no attention, but continued to waddle up and down the room at the best pace of which he was capable. “It’s too much!” he said, over and over.
The long “crisis” that followed the Lusitania’s anguish abated Mr. Hitzel’s agitations not at all; and having learned how to pace a floor he paced it more than once. He paced that floor whenever the newspapers gave evidence of one of those recurrent out bunts of American anger and disgust caused by the Germans’ of poison gas and liquid fire or by Zeppelin murders of noncombatants.
He paced it after the Germans in Belgium killed Edith Cavell; and he paced it when Bryce reports were published; and the accounts of the deportations into slavery were confessed by the Germans to be true; and he paced it when the Arabic was torpedoed; he walked more than two hours on that day when the President’s first Sussex note was published.
“Now,” he demanded of Bertha, “you tell me what your Mary Thompsons says now? Mary Thompsons want Wilson to git in a war, pickin’ on Chermany alwiss? You ask ‘em: What your Mary Thompsons says the United States should make a war because bullet factories don’t git quick rich enough, is it? What she says? “I don’t see her anymore,” Bertha told him, her sensitive color deepening. “For one thing — Well, I guess you heard about Francis; that’s Mary’s brother.”
Mr. Hitzel frowned. “Francis? It’s the tall feller our hired girls says they alwiss hat to be letting in the front door? Sendut all so much flowers and tee-a-ters? Him?” Bertha had grown pink indeed. “Yes,” she said. “I don’t see any of that crowd any more, papa, except just to speak to on the street sometimes; and we just barely speak, at that. I couldn’t go to their houses and listen to what they said — or else they’d all stop what they had been saying whenever I came round. I couldn’t stand it. Francis — Mary’s brother that we just spoke of — he’s gone to France, driving an ambulance. It kind of seems to me now as if probably they never, any of that crowd, did like me — not much, anyway; I guess maybe just because I was from Germans.”
“Hah!” Old Fred uttered a loud and bitter exclamation. “Yes; now you see it! Ain’t it so? Whoefer is from Chermans now is bat peoble, all dose Mary Thompsons says. Yoos to be comicks peoble, Chermans. Look in all olt comicks pabers — alwiss you see Chermans is jeckesses! Dummhets! Cherman fools was the choke part in funny shows! Alwiss make fun of Chermans; make fun of how Chermans speak English lengwitch; make fun of Cherman lengwitch; make fun of Cherman face and body; Chermans ain’t got no mannerss; ain’t got no sense; ain’t got nutting but stomachs! Alwiss the Chermans was nutting in this country but to laugh at ‘em! Why should it be, if ain’t because they chust disspise us? By Gott, they say, Chermans is clowns! Clowns; it’s what they yoos to call us! Now we are mudderers! It’s too much, I tell you! It’s too much! I am goin’ to git out of the country. It’s too much! It’s too much! It’s too much!”
“I guess you’re right,” Bertha said with quiet bitterness. “I never thought about it before the war, but it does look now as though they never liked anybody that was from Germans. I used to think they did — until the war; and they still do seem to like some people with German names and that take the English side. That crowd I went with, they always seemed to think the English and French side was the American side. Well, I don’t care what they think.”
“Look here, Bairta,” said old Fred sharply. “You litsen! When Mitster Francis Thompsons gits home again from French em’ulances, you don’t allow him in our house, you be careful. He don’t git to come here no more, you litsen!”
“No,” she said. “You needn’t be afraid about that, papa. We got into an argument, and he was through coming long before he left, anyway.”
“Well, he won’t git no chance to argue at you when he gits beck,”said her father. “I reckon we ain’t in the U. S. putty soon. It’s too much!”
Bertha was not troubled by his talk of departure from the country; she heard it too often to believe in it, and she told Evaline, their darky cook — who sometimes overheard things and grew nervous about her place — that this threat of Mr. Hitzel’s was just letting off steam. Bertha was entirely unable to imagine her father out of Cincinnati.
But in March of 1917 he became so definite in preparation as to have two excellent new trunks sent to the house; also he placed before Bertha the results of some correspondence which he had been conducting; whereupon Bertha, excited and distressed, went to consult her mother’s cousin, Robert Konig, in the “office” of his prosperous “Hardware Products Corporation.”
“Well, Bertha, it’s like this way with me,” said Mr. Konig. “I am for Germany when it’s a case of England fighting against Germany, and I wish our country would keep out of it. But it don’t look like that way now; I think we are going sure to fight Germany. And when it comes to that I ain’t on no German side, you bet! My two boys, they’ll enlist the first day it’s declared, both of ‘em; and if the United States Government wants me to go, too, I’ll say Yes’ quick. But your papa, now, it’s different. After never saying anything at all for seventy odd years, he’s got started to be a talker, and he’s talked pretty loud, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he wouldn’t know how to keep his mouth shut any more. He talks too much, these days. Of course all his talk don’t amount to so much hot air, and it wouldn’t ever get two cents’ worth of influence, but people maybe wouldn’t think about that. It might be ugly times ahead, and he could easy get into trouble. After all, I wouldn’t worry, Bertha; it’s nice in the wintertime to take a trip south.”
“Take a trip south!” Bertha echoed. “Florida, yes! But Mexico — it’s horrible!”
“Oh, well, not all Mexico, probably,” her cousin said consolingly. “He wouldn’t take you where it’s in a bad condition. Where does he want to go? “It’s a little place, he says. I never heard of it; it’s called Lupos, and he’s been writing to a Mr. Helmholz that keeps the hotel there and says everything’s fine, he’s got rooms for us; and we should come down there.”
“Helmholz,” Mr. Konig repeated. “Yes; that should be Jake Helmholz that lived here once when he was a young man; he went to Mexico. He was Hilda’s nephew — your papa’s first wife’s nephew, Bertha.”
“Yes, that’s who it is, papa said.” Mr. Konig became reassuring.
“Oh, well, then, you see, I expect you’ll find everything nice then, down there, Bertha. You’ll be among relatives — almost the same — if your papa’s fixed it up to go and stay at a hotel Jake Helmholz runs. I guess I shouldn’t make any more objections if it’s goin’ to be like that, Bertha. You won’t be near any revolutions, and I expect it’ll be a good thing for your papa. He’s too excited. Down there he can cuss Wilson as much as he pleases. Let him go and get it out of his system; he better cool off a little.”
Bertha happened to remember the form of this final bit of advice a month later as she unpacked her trunk in Jacob Helmholz’s hotel in Lupos; and she laughed ruefully. Lupos, physically, was no place wherein to cool off in mid-April. The squat town, seen through the square windows of her room, wavered in a white heat. Over the top of a long chalky wall she could see a mule’s ears slowly ambulating in a fog of bluish dust, and she made out a great peaked hat accompanying these ears through the dust; but nothing else alive seemed to move in the Luposine world except an unseen rooster’s throat which, as if wound up by the heat, sent at almost symmetrical intervals a long cock-a-doodle into the still furnace of the air; the hottest sound, Bertha thought, that she had ever heard — hotter even than the sound of August locusts in Cincinnati trees.
She found the exertion of unpacking difficult, yet did not regret that she had declined the help of a chambermaid. “I’m sure she’s an Indian!” she explained to her father. “It scared me just to look at her, and I wouldn’t be able to stand an Indian waiting on me — never!”
He laughed and told her she must get used to the customs of the place. “Besites,” he said, “it ain’t so much we might see a couple Injuns around the house, maybe; it don’t interfere, not so’s a person got to notice. What makes me notice, it’s how Jake Helmholz has got putty near a Cherman hotel out here so fur away. It beats efer’ t’ing! Pilsner on ice! From an ice plant like a little steamship’s got. Cherman mottas downstairs on walls: Wer liebt nicht Wein, Weib and — He’s got a lot of ‘em! He fixes us efening dinner in a putty garden he’s got. It’s maybe hot now, but bineby she coolss off fine. Jake, he says we’d be supp’iced; got to sleep under blankets after dark, she cools off so fine!”
Old Fred was more cheerful than his daughter had known him to be for a long, long time; and though her timid heart was oppressed by the strange place and by strange thoughts concerning it, she felt a moment’s gladness that they had come.
“Jake Helmholz is a cholly feller,”Mr. Hitzel went on, chuckling. “He gits along good down here. Says Villa ain’t nefer come in hundert and finfty miles. He ain’t afrait of Villa, besites. He seen him once; he shook hants nice, he said. Dinnertime, Jake Helmholz he’s got a fine supp’ice to show us, he says.”
“You mean something he’s having cooked for us for dinner as a surprise, papa?”
“No; he gits us a Cherman dinner, he says; but it ain’t a supp’ice to eat. He says You chust wait,” he says to me. “You’ll git a supp’ice for dinner. It’s goin’ to be the supp’ice of your life, he says; “but it ain’t nutting to eat,’ he says. “It’s goin’ to be a supp’ice for Miss Bairta, too, Jake says. “She’ll like it nice, too,” he says.” But Bertha did not care for surprises; she looked anxious. “I wish he wouldn’t have a surprise for us,” she said. “I’m afraid of finding one every minute anyhow, in the washbowl or somewhere. I know I’ll go crazy the first time I see a tarantula! “Oh, it ain’t goin’ to be no bug,” her father assured her. “Jake says it’s too fine a climate for much bugs; he ain’t nefer worry none about bugs. He says it’s a supp’ice we like so much it tickles us putty near dead!”
Bertha frowned involuntarily, wishing that her father had not used the word dead just then; she felt Mexico ominous round her, and even that intermittent cockcrow failed to reassure her as a homely and familiar sound. Mexico itself was surprising enough for her; even the appearance of her semirelative, the landlord Helmholz, had been a surprise to her, and she wished that he had not prepared anything additional. Her definite fear was that his idea might prove to be something barbaric and improper in the way of native dances; and she had a bad afternoon, not needing to go outside of her room to find it. But a little while after the sharp sunset the husk colored chambermaid brought in a lamp, and Mr. Hitzel followed, shouting wheezily. He had discovered the surprise.
“Hoopee!”he cried. “Come look! Bairta, come down! It’s here! Come down, see who!” He seized her wrist, hauling her with him, Bertha timorous and reluctant. “Come look! It’s here, settin’ at our dinner table; it’s all fixed in the garten waitin’. Hoopee! Hoopee!”
And having thus partly urged and partly led her down the stairs he halted her in the trellised entrance of Mr. Helmholz’ incongruous garden, a walled enclosure with a roof of black night. Half a dozen oil lamps left indeterminate yet definitely unfamiliar the shaping’s of foliage, scrawled in gargoyle shadows against the patched stucco walls; but one of the lamps stood upon a small table which had been set for three people to dine, and the light twinkled there reassuringly enough upon commonplace metal and china, and glossed amber streaks brightly up and down slender long bottles. It made too — not quite so reassuringly — a Rembrandt sketch of the two men who stood waiting there — little, ragged faced, burnt dry Helmholz, and a biggish young man in brown linen clothes with a sturdy figure under them. His face was large, yet made of shining and ruddy features rather small than large; he was ample yet compact; bulkily yet tightly muscular everywhere, suggesting nothing whatever of grace, nevertheless leaving to a stranger’s first glance no possibility to doubt his capacity for immense activity and resistance. Most of all he produced an impression of the stiffest sort of thickness; thickness seemed to be profoundly his great power. This strong young man was Mr. Helmholz’ surprise for Bertha and her father.
The latter could not get over it. “Supp’ice!” he cried, laughing loudly in his great pleasure. “I got a supp’ice for you and Miss Bairta,” he tells me. “Comes efening dinnertime you git a supp’ice,” Jake says. “Look, Bairta, what for a supp’ice he makes us! You nefer seen him before. Guess who it is. It’s Louie!”
“Louie?” she repeated vacantly.
“Louie Schlotterwerz!” her father shouted. “Your own cousin! Minna’s Ludwig! Y’efer see such a fine young feller? It’s Louie!”
Vociferating, he pulled her forward; but the new cousin met them halfway and kissed Bertha’s hand with an abrupt gallantry altogether matter of fact with him, but obviously confusing to Bertha. She found nothing better to do than to stare at her hand, thus saluted, and to put it behind her immediately after its release, whereupon there was more hilarity from her father.
“Look!” he cried. “She don’t know what to do! She don’t seen such manners from young fellers in Cincinneti; I should took her to Chermany long ago. Sit down! Sit down! We eat some, drink class Rhine wine and git acquainted.”
“Yes,” said Helmholz. “Eat good. You’ll find there’s worse places than Mexico to come for German dishes; it’ll surprise you. Canned United States soup you git, maybe, but afterworts is Wiener Schnitzel and all else German. And if you got obyeckshuns to the way my waiters look out for you, why, chust hit ‘em in the nose once, and send for me!”
He departed as the husk colored servitress and another like her set soup before his guests. Schlotterwerz had not yet spoken distinguishably, though he had murmured over Bertha’s hand and laughed heartily with his uncle. But his expression was amiable, and Bertha after glancing at him timidly began: “Do you — ” Then blushing even more than before she turned to her father. “Does he — does Cousin Ludwig speak English?”
Mr. Hitzel’s high good humor increased all the time, and having bestowed upon his nephew a buffet of approval across the little table — “Speak English?” he exclaimed. “Speaks it as good as me and you! He was four years in England, different times. Speaks English, French, Mexican — Spanish, you call it, I guess — I heert him speak it to Jakie Helmholz. Speaks all lengwitches. Cherman, Louie speaks it too fest.” Schlotterwerz laughed. “I’m afraid Uncle Fritz is rather vain, Cousin Bertha,” he said; and she was astonished to hear no detectable accent in his speech, though she said afterward that his English reminded her more of a Boston professor who had been one of her teachers in school than of anything else she could think of. “Your papa and I had a little talk before dinner, in German,” Schlotterwerz went on. “At least, we attempted it. Your papa had to stop frequently to think of words he had forgotten, and sometimes he found it necessary to ask me the meaning of an idiom which I introduced into our conversation. He assured me that you spoke German with difficulty, Cousin Bertha; but, if you permit me to say it, I think he finds himself more comfortable in the English tongue.”
Mr. Hitzel chuckled, not abashed; then he groaned. “No, I ain’t! A feller can’t remember half what his olt lengwitch is; yet all the same time he like to speak it, and maybe he gits so’s he can’t speak neither one if he don’t look out! Feller can hear plenty Cherman in Cincinneti.” His expression clouded with a reminiscence of pain. “Well, I tell you, Louie, I am gled to git away from there. I couldn’t stood the U. S. no longer. It’s too much! I couldn’t swaller it no longer!”
“I should think not,”Louie agreed sympathetically.
“Many others are like you, Uncle Fritz; they’re crossing the frontier every day. That’s part of my business here, as I mentioned.”
Old Fred nodded. “Louie tellss me he comes here about copper mines,” he said to Bertha; “for after the war bissnuss. Cherman gufment takes him off the navy a while once, and he’s come also to see if Chermans from the U. S. which comes in Mexico could git back home to fight for the olt country. Louie’s got plenty on his hants. You can see he’s a smart feller Bairta!”
“Yes, papa,” she said meekly; but her cousin laughed and changed the subject.
“How are things in your part of the States?” he asked. “Pretty bad?”
“So tough I couldn’t stood ‘em, ain’t I tolt you?” Mr. Hitzel responded with sudden vehemence. “It’s too much! I tell you I hat to hate to walk on the streets my own city! I tell you, the United States iss English lovers! I don’t want to go back in the U. S. long as I am a lifin’ man! The U. S. hates you if you are from Chermans. Yes, it’s so! If the U. S. is goin’ to hate me because I am from Chermans, well, by Gott, I can hate the U. S.!”
Bertha interposed: “Oh, no! Papa, you mustn’t say that.”
The old man set down the wineglass he was tremulously lifting to his lips and turned to her. “Why? Why I shouldn’t say it? Look once: Why did the U. S. commence from the beginning pickin’ on Chermany? And now why is it war against Chermany? Ammunitions! So Wall Street don’t git soaked for English bonds! So bullet makers keep on gittin’ quick rich. Why don’t I hate the U. S. because it kills million Chermans from U. S. bullets, when it was against the law all time to send bullets for the English to kill Chermans?”
“Ain’t it so, Louie?”
But the young man shook his head. He seemed a little amused by his uncle’s violent earnestness, and probably he was amused too by the old fellow’s interpretation of international law. “No, Uncle Fritz,” he said. “I think we may admit — between ourselves at least, and in Mexico — we may admit that the Yankees can hardly be blamed for selling munitions to anybody who can buy them.”
Mr. Hitzel sat dumfounded. “You don’t blame ‘em?” he cried. “You are Cherman offizier, and you don’t — ”
“Not at all,” said Schlotterwerz. “It’s what we should do ourselves under the same circumstances. We always have done so, in fact. Of course we take the opposite point of view diplomatically, but we have no real quarrel with the States upon the matter of munitions. All that is propaganda for the proletariat.” He laughed indulgently. “The proletariat takes enormous meals of propaganda; supplying the fodder is a great and expensive industry!”
Mr. Hitzel’s expression was that of a person altogether nonplused; he stared at this cool nephew of his, and said nothing. But Bertha had begun to feel less embarrassed than she had been at first, and she spoke with some assurance.
“What a beautiful thing it would be if nobody at all made bullets,” she said. “If there wasn’t any ammunition — why, then — ”
“Why, then,” said the foreign cousin, smiling, “we should again have to fight with clubs and axes.”
“Oh, no!” she said quickly. “I mean if there wouldn’t be any fighting at all.”
He interrupted her, laughing. “When is that state of the universe to arrive?”
“Oh, it could!” she protested earnestly.
“The people don’t really want to fight each other.”
“No; that is so, perhaps,” he assented. “Well, then, why couldn’t it happen that there wouldn’t ever be any more fighting?”
“Because,” said Schlotterwerz, “because though peoples might not fight, nations always will. Peoples must be kept nations, for one reason, so that they will fight.”
“Oh!” Bertha cried.
“Yes!” said her cousin emphatically;
He had grown serious. “If war dies, progress dies. War is the health of nations.”
“You mean war is good?” Bertha said incredulously.
“War is the best good!”
“You mean war when you have to fight to defend your country?’
“I mean war.”
She looked at him with wide eyes that comprehended only the simplest matters and comprehended the simplest with the most literal simplicity.
“But the corpses,” she said faintly. “Is it good for them?”
“What?” said her cousin, staring now in turn.
Bertha answered him. “War is killing people. Well, if you knew where the spirits went — the spirits that were in the corpses that get killed — if you knew for certain that they all went to heaven, and war would only be sending them to a good place — why, then perhaps you could say war is good. You can’t say it till you are certain that it is good for all the corpses.”
“Colossal!” the young officer exclaimed, vaguely annoyed. “Really, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m afraid it sounds like some nonsense you caught from Yankeedollarland. We must forget all that now, when you are going to be a good German. Myself, I speak of humanity. War is necessary for the progress of humanity. There can be no advance for humanity unless the most advanced nation leads it. To lead it the most advanced nation must conquer the others. To conquer them it must make war.”
“But the Germans!” Bertha cried.
“The Germans say they are the most advanced, but they claim they didn’t make the war. Papa had letters and letters from Germany, and they all said they were attacked. That’s what so much talk was about at home in Cincinnati. Up to the Lusitania the biggest question of all was about which side made the war.”
“They all made it,” said Schlotterwerz. “War was inevitable, and that nation was the cleverest which chose its own time for it and struck first.”
Bertha was dismayed. “But we always — always — ” She faltered. “We claimed that the war was forced on Germany by the English.”
“It was inevitable,” her cousin repeated. “It was coming. Those who did not know it were stupid. War is always going to come; and the most advanced nation will always be prepared for it. By such means it will first conquer, then rule all the others. Already we are preparing for the next war. Indeed, we are fighting this one, I may say, with a view to the next, and the peace we make will really be what one now calls ‘jockeying for position’ for the next war.
“Let us put aside all this talk of ‘Who began the war,’ and accusations and defenses in journalism and oratory; all this nonsense about international law, which doesn’t exist, and all the absurdities about mercy. Nature has no mercy; neither has the upward striving in man. Let us speak like adult people, frankly. We are three blood relations, in perfect sympathy. You have fled from the cowardly hypocrisy of the Yankees, and I am a German officer. Let us look only at the truth. What do we see? That life is war and war is the glory of life, and peace is part of war. In peace we work. It is work behind the lines, and though the guns may be quiet for the time, our frontiers are always our front lines. Look at the network of railways we had built in peace up to the Belgian, frontier. We were ready, you see. That is why we are winning. We shall be ready again and win again when the time comes, and again after that. The glorious future belongs all to Germany.”
Bertha had not much more than touched the food before her, though she had been hungry when they sat down; and now she stopped eating altogether, letting her hands drop into her lap; where they did not rest, however, for her fingers were clutched and unclutched nervously as she listened. Her father continued to eat, but not heartily; he drank more than he ate; he said nothing; and during momenta of silence his heavy breathing became audible. The young German was unaware that his talk produced any change in the emotional condition of his new found relatives; he talked on, eating almost vastly, himself, but drinking temperately.
He abandoned the great subject for a time, and told them of his mother and brothers, all in war work except Gustave, who, as the Hitzel’s knew, had been killed at the Somme. Finally, when Cousin Louie had eaten as much as he could he lit a cigar taken from an embroidered silk case which he carried, and offered one to his uncle. Old Fred did not lift his eyes; he shook his head and fumbled in one of his waistcoat pockets.
“No,” he said in a husky voice. “I smoke my own I brought from Cincinneti.”
“As you like,” Schlotterwerz returned.
“Mine come from Havana.” He laughed and added, “By secret express!”
“You ain’t tell us,” Mr. Hitzel said, his voice still husky — “you ain’t tell us yet how long you been in Mexico.”
“About fourteen months, looking out for the commercial future and doing my share to make the border interesting at the present time for those Yankees you hate so properly, Uncle Fritz.”
Hitzel seemed to ruminate feebly. “You know,” he said, “you know I didn’t heert from Minna since Feb’wary; she ain’t wrote me a letter. Say once, how do the Cherman people feel towards us that is from Chermans in the U. S. — the Cherman Americans.”
His nephew grunted. “What would you expect?” he inquired. “You, of course, are exempt; you have left the country in disgust, because you are a true German. But the people at home will never forgive the German Americans. It is felt that they could have kept America out of this war if they had been really loyal. It was expected of them; but they were cowardly, and they will lose by it when the test comes.”
“Test?” old Fred repeated vacantly. The nephew made a slight gesture with his right hand, to aid him in expressing the obviousness of what he said. “Call it the German test of the Monroe Doctrine. Freedom of the seas will give Germany control of the seas, of course. The Panama Canal will be internationalized, and the States will be weakened by their approaching war with Japan, which is inevitable. Then will come the test of the Monroe Doctrine! We have often approached it, but it will be a much better time when England is out of the way and the States have been exhausted by war with Japan.”
Bertha interposed: “Would England want to help the United States?”
“Not out of generosity,” Schlotterwerz laughed. “For her own interest — Canada.” He became jocularly condescending and employed a phrase which Bertha vaguely felt to be somewhat cumbersome and unnatural. “My fair cousin,” he said, “listen to some truth, my fair cousin. No nation ever acts with generosity. Every government encourages the proletariat to claim such virtues, but it has never been done and never will be done. See what the Yankees are claiming: They go to war ‘to make the world safe for democracy. One must laugh! They enter the war not for democracy; not to save France nor to save England; not to save international law! Neither is it to save Wall Street millionaires — though all that is excellent for the proletariat and brings splendid results. No, my fair cousin, the Yankees never did anything generous in their whole history; it isn’t in the blood. You are right to hate them, because they are selfish not from a glorious policy, like the great among the Germans, but out of the meanness of their crawling hearts. They went to war with us because they were afraid for their own precious skins, later!”
“I don’t believe it!” Bertha’s voice was suddenly sharp and loud, and the timid blushes had gone from her cheeks. She was pale, but brighter eyed than her father had ever seen her — brighter eyed than anybody had ever seen her. “I don’t believe it! We went to war because all that you’ve been saying has to be fought till it’s out of the world; I just now understand. “Oh!” she cried, “I just now understand why our American boys went to drive the ambulances in France, but not in Germany!”
Captain Schlotterwerz sat amazed, staring at her in an astonishment too great to permit his taking the cigar from his mouth for better enunciation. “We,” he echoed. “Now she says we’!” His gaze moved to her father. “She is a Yankee, she means. You hear what she says?” “Yes, I heert her,” said his uncle thickly. “Well, what — ”
Old Fred Hitzel rose to his feet and with a shaking hand pointed in what he believed to be the direction of the Atlantic Ocean. “What you subbose, you flubdubber?” he shouted. “Git back to Chermany! Git back to Chermany if you got any way to take you! Git back and try some more how long you can fool the Cherman people till you git ‘em to heng you up to a lemp post! Tomorrow me and Bairta starts home again for our own country. It’s Cincinneti, you bet you! We heert you! It’s too much! It’s too much! It’s too much!”