Part 5 out of 7
"Good-morning," said the registrar politely. "You've come to inquire
about your son."
"Why, as a matter of fact, my name's Button----" began Benjamin, but
Mr. Hart cut him off.
"I'm very glad to meet you, Mr. Button. I'm expecting your son here
"That's me!" burst out Benjamin. "I'm a freshman."
"I'm a freshman."
"Surely you're joking."
"Not at all."
The registrar frowned and glanced at a card before him. "Why, I have
Mr. Benjamin Button's age down here as eighteen."
"That's my age," asserted Benjamin, flushing slightly.
The registrar eyed him wearily. "Now surely, Mr. Button, you don't
expect me to believe that."
Benjamin smiled wearily. "I am eighteen," he repeated.
The registrar pointed sternly to the door. "Get out," he said. "Get
out of college and get out of town. You are a dangerous lunatic."
"I am eighteen."
Mr. Hart opened the door. "The idea!" he shouted. "A man of your age
trying to enter here as a freshman. Eighteen years old, are you? Well,
I'll give you eighteen minutes to get out of town."
Benjamin Button walked with dignity from the room, and half a dozen
undergraduates, who were waiting in the hall, followed him curiously
with their eyes. When he had gone a little way he turned around, faced
the infuriated registrar, who was still standing in the door-way, and
repeated in a firm voice: "I am eighteen years old."
To a chorus of titters which went up from the group of undergraduates,
Benjamin walked away.
But he was not fated to escape so easily. On his melancholy walk to
the railroad station he found that he was being followed by a group,
then by a swarm, and finally by a dense mass of undergraduates. The
word had gone around that a lunatic had passed the entrance
examinations for Yale and attempted to palm himself off as a youth of
eighteen. A fever of excitement permeated the college. Men ran hatless
out of classes, the football team abandoned its practice and joined
the mob, professors' wives with bonnets awry and bustles out of
position, ran shouting after the procession, from which proceeded a
continual succession of remarks aimed at the tender sensibilities of
"He must be the wandering Jew!"
"He ought to go to prep school at his age!"
"Look at the infant prodigy!" "He thought this was the old men's
"Go up to Harvard!"
Benjamin increased his gait, and soon he was running. He would show
them! He _would_ go to Harvard, and then they would regret these
Safely on board the train for Baltimore, he put his head from the
window. "You'll regret this!" he shouted.
"Ha-ha!" the undergraduates laughed. "Ha-ha-ha!" It was the biggest
mistake that Yale College had ever made....
In 1880 Benjamin Button was twenty years old, and he signalised his
birthday by going to work for his father in Roger Button & Co.,
Wholesale Hardware. It was in that same year that he began "going out
socially"--that is, his father insisted on taking him to several
fashionable dances. Roger Button was now fifty, and he and his son
were more and more companionable--in fact, since Benjamin had ceased
to dye his hair (which was still grayish) they appeared about the same
age, and could have passed for brothers.
One night in August they got into the phaeton attired in their
full-dress suits and drove out to a dance at the Shevlins' country
house, situated just outside of Baltimore. It was a gorgeous evening.
A full moon drenched the road to the lustreless colour of platinum,
and late-blooming harvest flowers breathed into the motionless air
aromas that were like low, half-heard laughter. The open country,
carpeted for rods around with bright wheat, was translucent as in the
day. It was almost impossible not to be affected by the sheer beauty
of the sky--almost.
"There's a great future in the dry-goods business," Roger Button was
saying. He was not a spiritual man--his aesthetic sense was
"Old fellows like me can't learn new tricks," he observed profoundly.
"It's you youngsters with energy and vitality that have the great
future before you."
Far up the road the lights of the Shevlins' country house drifted into
view, and presently there was a sighing sound that crept persistently
toward them--it might have been the fine plaint of violins or the
rustle of the silver wheat under the moon.
They pulled up behind a handsome brougham whose passengers were
disembarking at the door. A lady got out, then an elderly gentleman,
then another young lady, beautiful as sin. Benjamin started; an almost
chemical change seemed to dissolve and recompose the very elements of
his body. A rigour passed over him, blood rose into his cheeks, his
forehead, and there was a steady thumping in his ears. It was first
The girl was slender and frail, with hair that was ashen under the
moon and honey-coloured under the sputtering gas-lamps of the porch.
Over her shoulders was thrown a Spanish mantilla of softest yellow,
butterflied in black; her feet were glittering buttons at the hem of
her bustled dress.
Roger Button leaned over to his son. "That," he said, "is young
Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of General Moncrief."
Benjamin nodded coldly. "Pretty little thing," he said indifferently.
But when the negro boy had led the buggy away, he added: "Dad, you
might introduce me to her."
They approached a group, of which Miss Moncrief was the centre. Reared
in the old tradition, she curtsied low before Benjamin. Yes, he might
have a dance. He thanked her and walked away--staggered away.
The interval until the time for his turn should arrive dragged itself
out interminably. He stood close to the wall, silent, inscrutable,
watching with murderous eyes the young bloods of Baltimore as they
eddied around Hildegarde Moncrief, passionate admiration in their
faces. How obnoxious they seemed to Benjamin; how intolerably rosy!
Their curling brown whiskers aroused in him a feeling equivalent to
But when his own time came, and he drifted with her out upon the
changing floor to the music of the latest waltz from Paris, his
jealousies and anxieties melted from him like a mantle of snow. Blind
with enchantment, he felt that life was just beginning.
"You and your brother got here just as we did, didn't you?" asked
Hildegarde, looking up at him with eyes that were like bright blue
Benjamin hesitated. If she took him for his father's brother, would it
be best to enlighten her? He remembered his experience at Yale, so he
decided against it. It would be rude to contradict a lady; it would be
criminal to mar this exquisite occasion with the grotesque story of
his origin. Later, perhaps. So he nodded, smiled, listened, was happy.
"I like men of your age," Hildegarde told him. "Young boys are so
idiotic. They tell me how much champagne they drink at college, and
how much money they lose playing cards. Men of your age know how to
Benjamin felt himself on the verge of a proposal--with an effort he
choked back the impulse. "You're just the romantic age," she
continued--"fifty. Twenty-five is too wordly-wise; thirty is apt to be
pale from overwork; forty is the age of long stories that take a whole
cigar to tell; sixty is--oh, sixty is too near seventy; but fifty is
the mellow age. I love fifty."
Fifty seemed to Benjamin a glorious age. He longed passionately to be
"I've always said," went on Hildegarde, "that I'd rather marry a man
of fifty and be taken care of than many a man of thirty and take care
For Benjamin the rest of the evening was bathed in a honey-coloured
mist. Hildegarde gave him two more dances, and they discovered that
they were marvellously in accord on all the questions of the day. She
was to go driving with him on the following Sunday, and then they
would discuss all these questions further.
Going home in the phaeton just before the crack of dawn, when the
first bees were humming and the fading moon glimmered in the cool dew,
Benjamin knew vaguely that his father was discussing wholesale
".... And what do you think should merit our biggest attention after
hammers and nails?" the elder Button was saying.
"Love," replied Benjamin absent-mindedly.
"Lugs?" exclaimed Roger Button, "Why, I've just covered the question
Benjamin regarded him with dazed eyes just as the eastern sky was
suddenly cracked with light, and an oriole yawned piercingly in the
When, six months later, the engagement of Miss Hildegarde Moncrief to
Mr. Benjamin Button was made known (I say "made known," for General
Moncrief declared he would rather fall upon his sword than announce
it), the excitement in Baltimore society reached a feverish pitch. The
almost forgotten story of Benjamin's birth was remembered and sent out
upon the winds of scandal in picaresque and incredible forms. It was
said that Benjamin was really the father of Roger Button, that he was
his brother who had been in prison for forty years, that he was John
Wilkes Booth in disguise--and, finally, that he had two small conical
horns sprouting from his head.
The Sunday supplements of the New York papers played up the case with
fascinating sketches which showed the head of Benjamin Button attached
to a fish, to a snake, and, finally, to a body of solid brass. He
became known, journalistically, as the Mystery Man of Maryland. But
the true story, as is usually the case, had a very small circulation.
However, every one agreed with General Moncrief that it was "criminal"
for a lovely girl who could have married any beau in Baltimore to
throw herself into the arms of a man who was assuredly fifty. In vain
Mr. Roger Button published Us son's birth certificate in large type in
the Baltimore _Blaze_. No one believed it. You had only to look
at Benjamin and see.
On the part of the two people most concerned there was no wavering. So
many of the stories about her fiancé were false that Hildegarde
refused stubbornly to believe even the true one. In vain General
Moncrief pointed out to her the high mortality among men of fifty--or,
at least, among men who looked fifty; in vain he told her of the
instability of the wholesale hardware business. Hildegarde had chosen
to marry for mellowness, and marry she did....
In one particular, at least, the friends of Hildegarde Moncrief were
mistaken. The wholesale hardware business prospered amazingly. In the
fifteen years between Benjamin Button's marriage in 1880 and his
father's retirement in 1895, the family fortune was doubled--and this
was due largely to the younger member of the firm.
Needless to say, Baltimore eventually received the couple to its
bosom. Even old General Moncrief became reconciled to his son-in-law
when Benjamin gave him the money to bring out his _History of the
Civil War_ in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine
In Benjamin himself fifteen years had wrought many changes. It seemed
to him that the blood flowed with new vigour through his veins. It
began to be a pleasure to rise in the morning, to walk with an active
step along the busy, sunny street, to work untiringly with his
shipments of hammers and his cargoes of nails. It was in 1890 that he
executed his famous business coup: he brought up the suggestion that
_all nails used in nailing up the boxes in which nails are shipped
are the property of the shippee_, a proposal which became a
statute, was approved by Chief Justice Fossile, and saved Roger Button
and Company, Wholesale Hardware, more than _six hundred nails every
In addition, Benjamin discovered that he was becoming more and more
attracted by the gay side of life. It was typical of his growing
enthusiasm for pleasure that he was the first man in the city of
Baltimore to own and run an automobile. Meeting him on the street, his
contemporaries would stare enviously at the picture he made of health
"He seems to grow younger every year," they would remark. And if old
Roger Button, now sixty-five years old, had failed at first to give a
proper welcome to his son he atoned at last by bestowing on him what
amounted to adulation.
And here we come to an unpleasant subject which it will be well to
pass over as quickly as possible. There was only one thing that
worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him.
At that time Hildegarde was a woman of thirty-five, with a son,
Roscoe, fourteen years old. In the early days of their marriage
Benjamin had worshipped her. But, as the years passed, her
honey-coloured hair became an unexciting brown, the blue enamel of her
eyes assumed the aspect of cheap crockery--moreover, and, most of all,
she had become too settled in her ways, too placid, too content, too
anaemic in her excitements, and too sober in her taste. As a bride it
been she who had "dragged" Benjamin to dances and dinners--now
conditions were reversed. She went out socially with him, but without
enthusiasm, devoured already by that eternal inertia which comes to
live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end.
Benjamin's discontent waxed stronger. At the outbreak of the
Spanish-American War in 1898 his home had for him so little charm that
he decided to join the army. With his business influence he obtained a
commission as captain, and proved so adaptable to the work that he was
made a major, and finally a lieutenant-colonel just in time to
participate in the celebrated charge up San Juan Hill. He was slightly
wounded, and received a medal.
Benjamin had become so attached to the activity and excitement of
array life that he regretted to give it up, but his business required
attention, so he resigned his commission and came home. He was met at
the station by a brass band and escorted to his house.
Hildegarde, waving a large silk flag, greeted him on the porch, and
even as he kissed her he felt with a sinking of the heart that these
three years had taken their toll. She was a woman of forty now, with a
faint skirmish line of gray hairs in her head. The sight depressed
Up in his room he saw his reflection in the familiar mirror--he went
closer and examined his own face with anxiety, comparing it after a
moment with a photograph of himself in uniform taken just before the
"Good Lord!" he said aloud. The process was continuing. There was no
doubt of it--he looked now like a man of thirty. Instead of being
delighted, he was uneasy--he was growing younger. He had hitherto
hoped that once he reached a bodily age equivalent to his age in
years, the grotesque phenomenon which had marked his birth would cease
to function. He shuddered. His destiny seemed to him awful,
When he came downstairs Hildegarde was waiting for him. She appeared
annoyed, and he wondered if she had at last discovered that there was
something amiss. It was with an effort to relieve the tension between
them that he broached the matter at dinner in what he considered a
"Well," he remarked lightly, "everybody says I look younger than
Hildegarde regarded him with scorn. She sniffed. "Do you think it's
anything to boast about?"
"I'm not boasting," he asserted uncomfortably. She sniffed again. "The
idea," she said, and after a moment: "I should think you'd have enough
pride to stop it."
"How can I?" he demanded.
"I'm not going to argue with you," she retorted. "But there's a right
way of doing things and a wrong way. If you've made up your mind to be
different from everybody else, I don't suppose I can stop you, but I
really don't think it's very considerate."
"But, Hildegarde, I can't help it."
"You can too. You're simply stubborn. You think you don't want to be
like any one else. You always have been that way, and you always will
be. But just think how it would be if every one else looked at things
as you do--what would the world be like?"
As this was an inane and unanswerable argument Benjamin made no reply,
and from that time on a chasm began to widen between them. He wondered
what possible fascination she had ever exercised over him.
To add to the breach, he found, as the new century gathered headway,
that his thirst for gaiety grew stronger. Never a party of any kind in
the city of Baltimore but he was there, dancing with the prettiest of
the young married women, chatting with the most popular of the
debutantes, and finding their company charming, while his wife, a
dowager of evil omen, sat among the chaperons, now in haughty
disapproval, and now following him with solemn, puzzled, and
"Look!" people would remark. "What a pity! A young fellow that age
tied to a woman of forty-five. He must be twenty years younger than
his wife." They had forgotten--as people inevitably forget--that back
in 1880 their mammas and papas had also remarked about this same
Benjamin's growing unhappiness at home was compensated for by his many
new interests. He took up golf and made a great success of it. He went
in for dancing: in 1906 he was an expert at "The Boston," and in 1908
he was considered proficient at the "Maxine," while in 1909 his
"Castle Walk" was the envy of every young man in town.
His social activities, of course, interfered to some extent with his
business, but then he had worked hard at wholesale hardware for
twenty-five years and felt that he could soon hand it on to his son,
Roscoe, who had recently graduated from Harvard.
He and his son were, in fact, often mistaken for each other. This
pleased Benjamin--he soon forgot the insidious fear which had come
over him on his return from the Spanish-American War, and grew to take
a naïve pleasure in his appearance. There was only one fly in the
delicious ointment--he hated to appear in public with his wife.
Hildegarde was almost fifty, and the sight of her made him feel
One September day in 1910--a few years after Roger Button & Co.,
Wholesale Hardware, had been handed over to young Roscoe Button--a
man, apparently about twenty years old, entered himself as a freshman
at Harvard University in Cambridge. He did not make the mistake of
announcing that he would never see fifty again, nor did he mention the
fact that his son had been graduated from the same institution ten
He was admitted, and almost immediately attained a prominent position
in the class, partly because he seemed a little older than the other
freshmen, whose average age was about eighteen.
But his success was largely due to the fact that in the football game
with Yale he played so brilliantly, with so much dash and with such a
cold, remorseless anger that he scored seven touchdowns and fourteen
field goals for Harvard, and caused one entire eleven of Yale men to
be carried singly from the field, unconscious. He was the most
celebrated man in college.
Strange to say, in his third or junior year he was scarcely able to
"make" the team. The coaches said that he had lost weight, and it
seemed to the more observant among them that he was not quite as tall
as before. He made no touchdowns--indeed, he was retained on the team
chiefly in hope that his enormous reputation would bring terror and
disorganisation to the Yale team.
In his senior year he did not make the team at all. He had grown so
slight and frail that one day he was taken by some sophomores for a
freshman, an incident which humiliated him terribly. He became known
as something of a prodigy--a senior who was surely no more than
sixteen--and he was often shocked at the worldliness of some of his
classmates. His studies seemed harder to him--he felt that they were
too advanced. He had heard his classmates speak of St. Midas's, the
famous preparatory school, at which so many of them had prepared for
college, and he determined after his graduation to enter himself at
St. Midas's, where the sheltered life among boys his own size would be
more congenial to him.
Upon his graduation in 1914 he went home to Baltimore with his Harvard
diploma in his pocket. Hildegarde was now residing in Italy, so
Benjamin went to live with his son, Roscoe. But though he was welcomed
in a general way there was obviously no heartiness in Roscoe's feeling
toward him--there was even perceptible a tendency on his son's part to
think that Benjamin, as he moped about the house in adolescent
mooniness, was somewhat in the way. Roscoe was married now and
prominent in Baltimore life, and he wanted no scandal to creep out in
connection with his family.
Benjamin, no longer _persona grata_ with the débutantes and
younger college set, found himself left much done, except for the
companionship of three or four fifteen-year-old boys in the
neighbourhood. His idea of going to St. Midas's school recurred to
"Say," he said to Roscoe one day, "I've told you over and over that I
want to go to prep, school."
"Well, go, then," replied Roscoe shortly. The matter was distasteful
to him, and he wished to avoid a discussion.
"I can't go alone," said Benjamin helplessly. "You'll have to enter me
and take me up there."
"I haven't got time," declared Roscoe abruptly. His eyes narrowed and
he looked uneasily at his father. "As a matter of fact," he added,
"you'd better not go on with this business much longer. You better
pull up short. You better--you better"--he paused and his face
crimsoned as he sought for words--"you better turn right around and
start back the other way. This has gone too far to be a joke. It isn't
funny any longer. You--you behave yourself!"
Benjamin looked at him, on the verge of tears.
"And another thing," continued Roscoe, "when visitors are in the house
I want you to call me 'Uncle'--not 'Roscoe,' but 'Uncle,' do you
understand? It looks absurd for a boy of fifteen to call me by my
first name. Perhaps you'd better call me 'Uncle' _all_ the time,
so you'll get used to it."
With a harsh look at his father, Roscoe turned away....
At the termination of this interview, Benjamin wandered dismally
upstairs and stared at himself in the mirror. He had not shaved for
three months, but he could find nothing on his face but a faint white
down with which it seemed unnecessary to meddle. When he had first
come home from Harvard, Roscoe had approached him with the proposition
that he should wear eye-glasses and imitation whiskers glued to his
cheeks, and it had seemed for a moment that the farce of his early
years was to be repeated. But whiskers had itched and made him
ashamed. He wept and Roscoe had reluctantly relented.
Benjamin opened a book of boys' stories, _The Boy Scouts in Bimini
Bay_, and began to read. But he found himself thinking persistently
about the war. America had joined the Allied cause during the
preceding month, and Benjamin wanted to enlist, but, alas, sixteen was
the minimum age, and he did not look that old. His true age, which was
fifty-seven, would have disqualified him, anyway.
There was a knock at his door, and the butler appeared with a letter
bearing a large official legend in the corner and addressed to Mr.
Benjamin Button. Benjamin tore it open eagerly, and read the enclosure
with delight. It informed him that many reserve officers who had
served in the Spanish-American War were being called back into service
with a higher rank, and it enclosed his commission as brigadier-general
in the United States army with orders to report immediately.
Benjamin jumped to his feet fairly quivering with enthusiasm. This was
what he had wanted. He seized his cap, and ten minutes later he had
entered a large tailoring establishment on Charles Street, and asked
in his uncertain treble to be measured for a uniform.
"Want to play soldier, sonny?" demanded a clerk casually.
Benjamin flushed. "Say! Never mind what I want!" he retorted angrily.
"My name's Button and I live on Mt. Vernon Place, so you know I'm good
"Well," admitted the clerk hesitantly, "if you're not, I guess your
daddy is, all right."
Benjamin was measured, and a week later his uniform was completed. He
had difficulty in obtaining the proper general's insignia because the
dealer kept insisting to Benjamin that a nice V.W.C.A. badge would
look just as well and be much more fun to play with.
Saying nothing to Roscoe, he left the house one night and proceeded by
train to Camp Mosby, in South Carolina, where he was to command an
infantry brigade. On a sultry April day he approached the entrance to
the camp, paid off the taxicab which had brought him from the station,
and turned to the sentry on guard.
"Get some one to handle my luggage!" he said briskly.
The sentry eyed him reproachfully. "Say," he remarked, "where you
goin' with the general's duds, sonny?"
Benjamin, veteran of the Spanish-American War, whirled upon him with
fire in his eye, but with, alas, a changing treble voice.
"Come to attention!" he tried to thunder; he paused for breath--then
suddenly he saw the sentry snap his heels together and bring his rifle
to the present. Benjamin concealed a smile of gratification, but when
he glanced around his smile faded. It was not he who had inspired
obedience, but an imposing artillery colonel who was approaching on
"Colonel!" called Benjamin shrilly.
The colonel came up, drew rein, and looked coolly down at him with a
twinkle in his eyes. "Whose little boy are you?" he demanded kindly.
"I'll soon darn well show you whose little boy I am!" retorted
Benjamin in a ferocious voice. "Get down off that horse!"
The colonel roared with laughter.
"You want him, eh, general?"
"Here!" cried Benjamin desperately. "Read this." And he thrust his
commission toward the colonel. The colonel read it, his eyes popping
from their sockets. "Where'd you get this?" he demanded, slipping the
document into his own pocket. "I got it from the Government, as you'll
soon find out!" "You come along with me," said the colonel with a
peculiar look. "We'll go up to headquarters and talk this over. Come
along." The colonel turned and began walking his horse in the
direction of headquarters. There was nothing for Benjamin to do but
follow with as much dignity as possible--meanwhile promising himself a
stern revenge. But this revenge did not materialise. Two days later,
however, his son Roscoe materialised from Baltimore, hot and cross
from a hasty trip, and escorted the weeping general, _sans_
uniform, back to his home.
In 1920 Roscoe Button's first child was born. During the attendant
festivities, however, no one thought it "the thing" to mention, that
the little grubby boy, apparently about ten years of age who played
around the house with lead soldiers and a miniature circus, was the
new baby's own grandfather.
No one disliked the little boy whose fresh, cheerful face was crossed
with just a hint of sadness, but to Roscoe Button his presence was a
source of torment. In the idiom of his generation Roscoe did not
consider the matter "efficient." It seemed to him that his father, in
refusing to look sixty, had not behaved like a "red-blooded
he-man"--this was Roscoe's favourite expression--but in a curious and
perverse manner. Indeed, to think about the matter for as much as a
half an hour drove him to the edge of insanity. Roscoe believed that
"live wires" should keep young, but carrying it out on such a scale
was--was--was inefficient. And there Roscoe rested.
Five years later Roscoe's little boy had grown old enough to play
childish games with little Benjamin under the supervision of the same
nurse. Roscoe took them both to kindergarten on the same day, and
Benjamin found that playing with little strips of coloured paper,
making mats and chains and curious and beautiful designs, was the most
fascinating game in the world. Once he was bad and had to stand in the
corner--then he cried--but for the most part there were gay hours in
the cheerful room, with the sunlight coming in the windows and Miss
Bailey's kind hand resting for a moment now and then in his tousled
Roscoe's son moved up into the first grade after a year, but Benjamin
stayed on in the kindergarten. He was very happy. Sometimes when other
tots talked about what they would do when they grew up a shadow would
cross his little face as if in a dim, childish way he realised that
those were things in which he was never to share.
The days flowed on in monotonous content. He went back a third year to
the kindergarten, but he was too little now to understand what the
bright shining strips of paper were for. He cried because the other
boys were bigger than he, and he was afraid of them. The teacher
talked to him, but though he tried to understand he could not
understand at all.
He was taken from the kindergarten. His nurse, Nana, in her starched
gingham dress, became the centre of his tiny world. On bright days
they walked in the park; Nana would point at a great gray monster and
say "elephant," and Benjamin would say it after her, and when he was
being undressed for bed that night he would say it over and over aloud
to her: "Elyphant, elyphant, elyphant." Sometimes Nana let him jump on
the bed, which was fun, because if you sat down exactly right it would
bounce you up on your feet again, and if you said "Ah" for a long time
while you jumped you got a very pleasing broken vocal effect.
He loved to take a big cane from the hat-rack and go around hitting
chairs and tables with it and saying: "Fight, fight, fight." When
there were people there the old ladies would cluck at him, which
interested him, and the young ladies would try to kiss him, which he
submitted to with mild boredom. And when the long day was done at five
o'clock he would go upstairs with Nana and be fed on oatmeal and nice
soft mushy foods with a spoon.
There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep; no token
came to him of his brave days at college, of the glittering years when
he flustered the hearts of many girls. There were only the white, safe
walls of his crib and Nana and a man who came to see him sometimes,
and a great big orange ball that Nana pointed at just before his
twilight bed hour and called "sun." When the sun went his eyes were
sleepy--there were no dreams, no dreams to haunt him.
The past--the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the
first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk
down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days
before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old
Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather-all these had faded
like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been.
He did not remember.
He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his
last feeding or how the days passed--there was only his crib and
Nana's familiar presence. And then he remembered nothing. When he was
hungry he cried--that was all. Through the noons and nights he
breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he
scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and
Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved
above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether
from his mind.
TARQUIN OF CHEAPSIDE
Running footsteps--light, soft-soled shoes made of curious leathery
cloth brought from Ceylon setting the pace; thick flowing boots, two
pairs, dark blue and gilt, reflecting the moonlight in blunt gleams
and splotches, following a stone's throw behind.
Soft Shoes flashes through a patch of moonlight, then darts into a
blind labyrinth of alleys and becomes only an intermittent scuffle
ahead somewhere in the enfolding darkness. In go Flowing Boots, with
short swords lurching and long plumes awry, finding a breath to curse
God and the black lanes of London.
Soft Shoes leaps a shadowy gate and crackles through a hedgerow.
Flowing Boots leap the gate and crackles through the hedgerow--and
there, startlingly, is the watch ahead--two murderous pikemen of
ferocious cast of mouth acquired in Holland and the Spanish marches.
But there is no cry for help. The pursued does not fall panting at the
feet of the watch, clutching a purse; neither do the pursuers raise a
hue and cry. Soft Shoes goes by in a rush of swift air. The watch
curse and hesitate, glance after the fugitive, and then spread their
pikes grimly across the road and wait for Flowing Boots. Darkness,
like a great hand, cuts off the even flow the moon.
The hand moves off the moon whose pale caress finds again the eaves
and lintels, and the watch, wounded and tumbled in the dust. Up the
street one of Flowing Boots leaves a black trail of spots until he
binds himself, clumsily as he runs, with fine lace caught from his
It was no affair for the watch: Satan was at large tonight and Satan
seemed to be he who appeared dimly in front, heel over gate, knee over
fence. Moreover, the adversary was obviously travelling near home or
at least in that section of London consecrated to his coarser whims,
for the street narrowed like a road in a picture and the houses bent
over further and further, cooping in natural ambushes suitable for
murder and its histrionic sister, sudden death.
Down long and sinuous lanes twisted the hunted and the harriers,
always in and out of the moon in a perpetual queen's move over a
checker-board of glints and patches. Ahead, the quarry, minus his
leather jerkin now and half blinded by drips of sweat, had taken to
scanning his ground desperately on both sides. As a result he suddenly
slowed short, and retracing his steps a bit scooted up an alley so
dark that it seemed that here sun and moon had been in eclipse since
the last glacier slipped roaring over the earth. Two hundred yards
down he stopped and crammed himself into a niche in the wall where he
huddled and panted silently, a grotesque god without bulk or outline
in the gloom.
Flowing Boots, two pairs, drew near, came up, went by, halted twenty
yards beyond him, and spoke in deep-lunged, scanty whispers:
"I was attune to that scuffle; it stopped."
"Within twenty paces."
"Stay together now and we'll cut him up."
The voice faded into a low crunch of a boot, nor did Soft Shoes wait
to hear more--he sprang in three leaps across the alley, where he
bounded up, flapped for a moment on the top of the wall like a huge
bird, and disappeared, gulped down by the hungry night at a mouthful.
"He read at wine, he read in bed,
He read aloud, had he the breath,
His every thought was with the dead,
And so he read himself to death."
Any visitor to the old James the First graveyard near Peat's Hill may
spell out this bit of doggerel, undoubtedly one of the worst recorded
of an Elizabethan, on the tomb of Wessel Caster.
This death of his, says the antiquary, occurred when he was
thirty-seven, but as this story is concerned with the night of a
certain chase through darkness, we find him still alive, still
reading. His eyes were somewhat dim, his stomach somewhat obvious-he
was a mis-built man and indolent--oh, Heavens! But an era is an era,
and in the reign of Elizabeth, by the grace of Luther, Queen of
England, no man could help but catch the spirit of enthusiasm. Every
loft in Cheapside published its _Magnum Folium_ (or magazine)--of
its new blank verse; the Cheapside Players would produce anything on
sight as long as it "got away from those reactionary miracle plays,"
and the English Bible had run through seven "very large" printings in,
as many months.
So Wessel Caxter (who in his youth had gone to sea) was now a reader
of all on which he could lay his hands--he read manuscripts In holy
friendship; he dined rotten poets; he loitered about the shops where
the _Magna Folia_ were printed, and he listened tolerantly while
the young playwrights wrangled and bickered among them-selves, and
behind each other's backs made bitter and malicious charges of
plagiarism or anything else they could think of.
To-night he had a book, a piece of work which, though inordinately
versed, contained, he thought, some rather excellent political satire.
"The Faerie Queene" by Edmund Spenser lay before him under the
tremulous candle-light. He had ploughed through a canto; he was
THE LEGEND OF BRITOMARTIS OR OF CHASTITY
_It falls me here to write of Chastity.
The fayrest vertue, far above the rest_....
A sudden rush of feet on the stairs, a rusty swing-open of the thin
door, and a man thrust himself into the room, a man without a jerkin,
panting, sobbing, on the verge of collapse.
"Wessel," words choked him, "stick me away somewhere, love of Our
Caxter rose, carefully closing his book, and bolted the door in some
"I'm pursued," cried out Soft Shoes. "I vow there's two short-witted
blades trying to make me into mincemeat and near succeeding. They saw
me hop the back wall!"
"It would need," said Wessel, looking at him curiously, "several
battalions armed with blunderbusses, and two or three Armadas, to keep
you reasonably secure from the revenges of the world."
Soft Shoes smiled with satisfaction. His sobbing gasps were giving way
to quick, precise breathing; his hunted air had faded to a faintly
"I feel little surprise," continued Wessel.
"They were two such dreary apes."
"Making a total of three."
"Only two unless you stick me away. Man, man, come alive, they'll be
on the stairs in a spark's age."
Wessel took a dismantled pike-staff from the corner, and raising it to
the high ceiling, dislodged a rough trap-door opening into a garret
"There's no ladder."
He moved a bench under the trap, upon which Soft Shoes mounted,
crouched, hesitated, crouched again, and then leaped amazingly upward.
He caught at the edge of the aperture and swung back and forth, for a
moment, shifting his hold; finally doubled up and disappeared into the
darkness above. There was a scurry, a migration of rats, as the
trap-door was replaced;... silence.
Wessel returned to his reading-table, opened to the Legend of
Britomartis or of Chastity--and waited. Almost a minute later there
was a scramble on the stairs and an intolerable hammering at the door.
Wessel sighed and, picking up his candle, rose.
"Open the door!"
An aching blow frightened the frail wood, splintered it around the
edge. Wessel opened it a scarce three inches, and held the candle
high. His was to play the timorous, the super-respectable citizen,
"One small hour of the night for rest. Is that too much to ask from
every brawler and---"
"Quiet, gossip! Have you seen a perspiring fellow?"
The shadows of two gallants fell in immense wavering outlines over the
narrow stairs; by the light Wessel scrutinized them closely.
Gentlemen, they were, hastily but richly dressed--one of them wounded
severely in the hand, both radiating a sort of furious horror. Waving
aside Wessel's ready miscomprehension, they pushed by him into the
room and with their swords went through the business of poking
carefully into all suspected dark spots in the room, further extending
their search to Wessel's bedchamber.
"Is he hid here?" demanded the wounded man fiercely.
"Is who here?"
"Any man but you."
"Only two others that I know of."
For a second Wessel feared that he had been too damned funny, for the
gallants made as though to prick him through.
"I heard a man on the stairs," he said hastily, "full five minutes
ago, it was. He most certainly failed to come up."
He went on to explain his absorption in "The Faerie Queene" but, for
the moment at least, his visitors, like the great saints, were
anaesthetic to culture.
"What's been done?" inquired Wessel.
"Violence!" said the man with the wounded hand. Wessel noticed that
his eyes were quite wild. "My own sister. Oh, Christ in heaven, give
us this man!"
"Who is the man?"
"God's word! We know not even that. What's that trap up there?" he
"It's nailed down. It's not been used for years." He thought of the
pole in the corner and quailed in his belly, but the utter despair of
the two men dulled their astuteness.
"It would take a ladder for any one not a tumbler," said the wounded
His companion broke into hysterical laughter.
"A tumbler. Oh, a tumbler. Oh---"
Wessel stared at them in wonder.
"That appeals to my most tragic humor," cried the man, "that no
one--oh, no one--could get up there but a tumbler."
The gallant with the wounded hand snapped his good fingers
"We must go next door--and then on--"
Helplessly they went as two walking under a dark and storm-swept sky.
Wessel closed and bolted the door and stood a moment by it, frowning
A low-breathed "Ha!" made him look up. Soft Shoes had already raised
the trap and was looking down into the room, his rather elfish face
squeezed into a grimace, half of distaste, half of sardonic amusement.
"They take off their heads with their helmets," he remarked in a
whisper, "but as for you and me, Wessel, we are two cunning men."
"Now you be cursed," cried Wessel vehemently. "I knew you for a dog,
but when I hear even the half of a tale like this, I know you for such
a dirty cur that I am minded to club your skull."
Soft Shoes stared at him, blinking.
"At all events," he replied finally, "I find dignity impossible in
With this he let his body through the trap, hung for an instant, and
dropped the seven feet to the floor.
"There was a rat considered my ear with the air of a gourmet," he
continued, dusting his hands on his breeches. "I told him in the rat's
peculiar idiom that I was deadly poison, so he took himself off."
"Let's hear of this night's lechery!" insisted Wessel angrily.
Soft Shoes touched his thumb to his nose and wiggled the fingers
derisively at Wessel.
"Street gamin!" muttered Wessel.
"Have you any paper?" demanded Soft Shoes irrelevantly, and then
rudely added, "or can you write?"
"Why should I give you paper?"
"You wanted to hear of the night's entertainment. So you shall, an you
give me pen, ink, a sheaf of paper, and a room to myself."
"Get out!" he said finally.
"As you will. Yet you have missed a most intriguing story."
Wessel wavered--he was soft as taffy, that man--gave in. Soft Shoes
went into the adjoining room with the begrudged writing materials and
precisely closed the door. Wessel grunted and returned to "The Faerie
Queene"; so silence came once more upon the house.
Three o'clock went into four. The room paled, the dark outside was
shot through with damp and chill, and Wessel, cupping his brain in his
hands, bent low over his table, tracing through the pattern of knights
and fairies and the harrowing distresses of many girls. There were
dragons chortling along the narrow street outside; when the sleepy
armorer's boy began his work at half-past five the heavy clink and
clank of plate and linked mail swelled to the echo of a marching
A fog shut down at the first flare of dawn, and the room was grayish
yellow at six when Wessel tiptoed to his cupboard bedchamber and
pulled open the door. His guest turned on him a face pale as parchment
in which two distraught eyes burned like great red letters. He had
drawn a chair close to Wessel's _prie-dieu_ which he was using as
a desk; and on it was an amazing stack of closely written pages. With
a long sigh Wessel withdrew and returned to his siren, calling himself
fool for not claiming his bed here at dawn.
The dump of boots outside, the croaking of old beldames from attic to
attic, the dull murmur of morning, unnerved him, and, dozing, he
slumped in his chair, his brain, overladen with sound and color,
working intolerably over the imagery that stacked it. In this restless
dream of his he was one of a thousand groaning bodies crushed near the
sun, a helpless bridge for the strong-eyed Apollo. The dream tore at
him, scraped along his mind like a ragged knife. When a hot hand
touched his shoulder, he awoke with what was nearly a scream to find
the fog thick in the room and his guest, a gray ghost of misty stuff,
beside him with a pile of paper in his hand.
"It should be a most intriguing tale, I believe, though it requires
some going over. May I ask you to lock it away, and in God's name let
He waited for no answer, but thrust the pile at Wessel, and literally
poured himself like stuff from a suddenly inverted bottle upon a couch
in the corner, slept, with his breathing regular, but his brow
wrinkled in a curious and somewhat uncanny manner.
Wessel yawned sleepily and, glancing at the scrawled, uncertain first
page, he began reading aloud very softly:
_The Rape of Lucrece
"From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathing Tarquin leaves the Roman host--"_
"O RUSSET WITCH!"
Merlin Grainger was employed by the Moonlight Quill Bookshop, which
you may have visited, just around the corner from the Ritz-Carlton on
Forty-seventh Street. The Moonlight Quill is, or rather was, a very
romantic little store, considered radical and admitted dark. It was
spotted interiorly with red and orange posters of breathless exotic
intent, and lit no less by the shiny reflecting bindings of special
editions than by the great squat lamp of crimson satin that, lighted
through all the day, swung overhead. It was truly a mellow bookshop.
The words "Moonlight Quill" were worked over the door in a sort of
serpentine embroidery. The windows seemed always full of something
that had passed the literary censors with little to spare; volumes
with covers of deep orange which offer their titles on little white
paper squares. And over all there was the smell of the musk, which the
clever, inscrutable Mr. Moonlight Quill ordered to be sprinkled
about-the smell half of a curiosity shop in Dickens' London and half
of a coffee-house on the warm shores of the Bosphorus.
From nine until five-thirty Merlin Grainger asked bored old ladies in
black and young men with dark circles under their eyes if they "cared
for this fellow" or were interested in first editions. Did they buy
novels with Arabs on the cover, or books which gave Shakespeare's
newest sonnets as dictated psychically to Miss Sutton of South Dakota?
he sniffed. As a matter of fact, his own taste ran to these latter,
but as an employee at the Moonlight Quill he assumed for the working
day the attitude of a disillusioned connoisseur.
After he had crawled over the window display to pull down the front
shade at five-thirty every afternoon, and said good-bye to the
mysterious Mr. Moonlight Quill and the lady clerk, Miss McCracken, and
the lady stenographer, Miss Masters, he went home to the girl,
Caroline. He did not eat supper with Caroline. It is unbelievable that
Caroline would have considered eating off his bureau with the collar
buttons dangerously near the cottage cheese, and the ends of Merlin's
necktie just missing his glass of milk--he had never asked her to eat
with him. He ate alone. He went into Braegdort's delicatessen on Sixth
Avenue and bought a box of crackers, a tube of anchovy paste, and some
oranges, or else a little jar of sausages and some potato salad and a
bottled soft drink, and with these in a brown package he went to his
room at Fifty-something West Fifty-eighth Street and ate his supper
and saw Caroline.
Caroline was a very young and gay person who lived with some older
lady and was possibly nineteen. She was like a ghost in that she never
existed until evening. She sprang into life when the lights went on in
her apartment at about six, and she disappeared, at the latest, about
midnight. Her apartment was a nice one, in a nice building with a
white stone front, opposite the south side of Central Park. The back
of her apartment faced the single window of the single room occupied
by the single Mr. Grainger.
He called her Caroline because there was a picture that looked like
her on the jacket of a book of that name down at the Moonlight Quill.
Now, Merlin Grainger was a thin young man of twenty-five, with dark
hair and no mustache or beard or anything like that, but Caroline was
dazzling and light, with a shimmering morass of russet waves to take
the place of hair, and the sort of features that remind you of
kisses--the sort of features you thought belonged to your first love,
but know, when you come across an old picture, didn't. She dressed in
pink or blue usually, but of late she had sometimes put on a slender
black gown that was evidently her especial pride, for whenever she
wore it she would stand regarding a certain place on the wall, which
Merlin thought most be a mirror. She sat usually in the profile chair
near the window, but sometimes honored the _chaise longue_ by the
lamp, and often she leaned 'way back and smoked a cigarette with
posturings of her arms and hands that Merlin considered very graceful.
At another time she had come to the window and stood in it
magnificently, and looked out because the moon had lost its way and
was dripping the strangest and most transforming brilliance into the
areaway between, turning the motif of ash-cans and clothes-lines into
a vivid impressionism of silver casks and gigantic gossamer cobwebs.
Merlin was sitting in plain sight, eating cottage cheese with sugar
and milk on it; and so quickly did he reach out for the window cord
that he tipped the cottage cheese into his lap with his free hand--and
the milk was cold and the sugar made spots on his trousers, and he was
sure that she had seen him after all.
Sometimes there were callers--men in dinner coats, who stood and
bowed, hat in hand and coat on arm, as they talked to Caroline; then
bowed some more and followed her out of the light, obviously bound for
a play or for a dance. Other young men came and sat and smoked
cigarettes, and seemed trying to tell Caroline something--she sitting
either in the profile chair and watching them with eager intentness or
else in the _chaise longue_ by the lamp, looking very lovely and
youthfully inscrutable indeed.
Merlin enjoyed these calls. Of some of the men he approved. Others won
only his grudging toleration, one or two he loathed--especially the
most frequent caller, a man with black hair and a black goatee and a
pitch-dark soul, who seemed to Merlin vaguely familiar, but whom he
was never quite able to recognize.
Now, Merlin's whole life was not "bound up with this romance he had
constructed"; it was not "the happiest hour of his day." He never
arrived in time to rescue Caroline from "clutches"; nor did he even
marry her. A much stranger thing happened than any of these, and it is
this strange thing that will presently be set down here. It began one
October afternoon when she walked briskly into the mellow interior of
the Moonlight Quill.
It was a dark afternoon, threatening rain and the end of the world,
and done in that particularly gloomy gray in which only New York
afternoons indulge. A breeze was crying down the streets, whisking
along battered newspapers and pieces of things, and little lights were
pricking out all the windows--it was so desolate that one was sorry
for the tops of sky-scrapers lost up there in the dark green and gray
heaven, and felt that now surely the farce was to close, and presently
all the buildings would collapse like card houses, and pile up in a
dusty, sardonic heap upon all the millions who presumed to wind in and
out of them.
At least these were the sort of musings that lay heavily upon the soul
of Merlin Grainger, as he stood by the window putting a dozen books
back in a row after a cyclonic visit by a lady with ermine trimmings.
He looked out of the window full of the most distressing thoughts--of
the early novels of H. G. Wells, of the boot of Genesis, of how Thomas
Edison had said that in thirty years there would be no dwelling-houses
upon the island, but only a vast and turbulent bazaar; and then he set
the last book right side up, turned--and Caroline walked coolly into
She was dressed in a jaunty but conventional walking costume--he
remembered this when he thought about it later. Her skirt was plaid,
pleated like a concertina; her jacket was a soft but brisk tan; her
shoes and spats were brown and her hat, small and trim, completed her
like the top of a very expensive and beautifully filled candy box.
Merlin, breathless and startled, advanced nervously toward her.
"Good-afternoon--" he said, and then stopped--why, he did not know,
except that it came to him that something very portentous in his life
was about to occur, and that it would need no furbishing but silence,
and the proper amount of expectant attention. And in that minute
before the thing began to happen he had the sense of a breathless
second hanging suspended in time: he saw through the glass partition
that bounded off the little office the malevolent conical head of his
employer, Mr. Moonlight Quill, bent over his correspondence. He saw
Miss McCracken and Miss Masters as two patches of hair drooping over
piles of paper; he saw the crimson lamp overhead, and noticed with a
touch of pleasure how really pleasant and romantic it made the
Then the thing happened, or rather it began to happen. Caroline picked
up a volume of poems lying loose upon a pile, fingered it absently
with her slender white hand, and suddenly, with an easy gesture,
tossed it upward toward the ceiling where it disappeared in the
crimson lamp and lodged there, seen through the illuminated silk as a
dark, bulging rectangle. This pleased her--she broke into young,
contagious laughter, in which Merlin found himself presently joining.
"It stayed up!" she cried merrily. "It stayed up, didn't it?" To both
of them this seemed the height of brilliant absurdity. Their laughter
mingled, filled the bookshop, and Merlin was glad to find that her
voice was rich and full of sorcery.
"Try another," he found himself suggesting--"try a red one."
At this her laughter increased, and she had to rest her hands upon the
stack to steady herself.
"Try another," she managed to articulate between spasms of mirth. "Oh,
golly, try another!"
"Yes, try two. Oh, I'll choke if I don't stop laughing. Here it goes."
Suiting her action to the word, she picked up a red book and sent it
in a gentle hyperbola toward the ceiling, where it sank into the lamp
beside the first. It was a few minutes before either of them could do
more than rock back and forth in helpless glee; but then by mutual
agreement they took up the sport anew, this time in unison. Merlin
seized a large, specially bound French classic and whirled it upward.
Applauding his own accuracy, he took a best-seller in one hand and a
book on barnacles in the other, and waited breathlessly while she made
her shot. Then the business waxed fast and furious--sometimes they
alternated, and, watching, he found how supple she was in every
movement; sometimes one of them made shot after shot, picking up the
nearest book, sending it off, merely taking time to follow it with a
glance before reaching for another. Within three minutes they had
cleared a little place on the table, and the lamp of crimson satin was
so bulging with books that it was near breaking.
"Silly game, basket-ball," she cried scornfully as a book left her
hand. "High-school girls play it in hideous bloomers."
"Idiotic," he agreed.
She paused in the act of tossing a book, and replaced it suddenly in
its position on the table.
"I think we've got room to sit down now," she said gravely.
They had; they had cleared an ample space for two. With a faint touch
of nervousness Merlin glanced toward Mr. Moonlight Quill's glass
partition, but the three heads were still bent earnestly over their
work, and it was evident that they had not seen what had gone on in
the shop. So when Caroline put her hands on the table and hoisted
herself up Merlin calmly imitated her, and they sat side by side
looking very earnestly at each other.
"I had to see you," she began, with a rather pathetic expression in
her brown eyes.
"It was that last time," she continued, her voice trembling a little,
though she tried to keep it steady. "I was frightened. I don't like
you to eat off the dresser. I'm so afraid you'll--you'll swallow a
"I did once--almost," he confessed reluctantly, "but it's not so easy,
you know. I mean you can swallow the flat part easy enough or else the
other part--that is, separately--but for a whole collar button you'd
have to have a specially made throat." He was astonishing himself by
the debonnaire appropriateness of his remarks. Words seemed for the
first time in his life to ran at him shrieking to be used, gathering
themselves into carefully arranged squads and platoons, and being
presented to him by punctilious adjutants of paragraphs.
"That's what scared me," she said. "I knew you had to have a specially
made throat--and I knew, at least I felt sure, that you didn't have
He nodded frankly.
"I haven't. It costs money to have one--more money unfortunately than
He felt no shame in saying this--rather a delight in making the
admission--he knew that nothing he could say or do would be beyond her
comprehension; least of all his poverty, and the practical
impossibility of ever extricating himself from it.
Caroline looked down at her wrist watch, and with a little cry slid
from the table to her feet.
"It's after five," she cried. "I didn't realize. I have to be at the
Ritz at five-thirty. Let's hurry and get this done. I've got a bet on
With one accord they set to work. Caroline began the matter by seizing
a book on insects and sending it whizzing, and finally crashing
through the glass partition that housed Mr. Moonlight Quill. The
proprietor glanced up with a wild look, brushed a few pieces of glass
from his desk, and went on with his letters. Miss McCracken gave no
sign of having heard--only Miss Masters started and gave a little
frightened scream before she bent to her task again.
But to Merlin and Caroline it didn't matter. In a perfect orgy of
energy they were hurling book after book in all directions until
sometimes three or four were in the air at once, smashing against
shelves, cracking the glass of pictures on the walls, falling in
bruised and torn heaps upon the floor. It was fortunate that no
customers happened to come in, for it is certain they would never have
come in again--the noise was too tremendous, a noise of smashing and
ripping and tearing, mixed now and then with the tinkling of glass,
the quick breathing of the two throwers, and the intermittent
outbursts of laughter to which both of them periodically surrendered.
At five-thirty Caroline tossed a last book at the lamp, and gave the
final impetus to the load it carried. The weakened silk tore and
dropped its cargo in one vast splattering of white and color to the
already littered floor. Then with a sigh of relief she turned to
Merlin and held out her hand.
"Good-by," she said simply.
"Are you going?" He knew she was. His question was simply a lingering
wile to detain her and extract for another moment that dazzling
essence of light he drew from her presence, to continue his enormous
satisfaction in her features, which were like kisses and, he thought,
like the features of a girl he had known back in 1910. For a minute he
pressed the softness of her hand--then she smiled and withdrew it and,
before he could spring to open the door, she had done it herself and
was gone out into the turbid and ominous twilight that brooded
narrowly over Forty-seventh Street.
I would like to tell you how Merlin, having seen how beauty regards
the wisdom of the years, walked into the little partition of Mr.
Moonlight Quill and gave up his job then and there; thence issuing out
into the street a much finer and nobler and increasingly ironic man.
But the truth is much more commonplace. Merlin Grainger stood up and
surveyed the wreck of the bookshop, the ruined volumes, the torn silk
remnants of the once beautiful crimson lamp, the crystalline
sprinkling of broken glass which lay in iridescent dust over the whole
interior--and then he went to a corner where a broom was kept and
began cleaning up and rearranging and, as far as he was able,
restoring the shop to its former condition. He found that, though some
few of the books were uninjured, most of them had suffered in varying
extents. The backs were off some, the pages were torn from others,
still others were just slightly cracked in the front, which, as all
careless book returners know, makes a book unsalable, and therefore
Nevertheless by six o'clock he had done much to repair the damage. He
had returned the books to their original places, swept the floor, and
put new lights in the sockets overhead. The red shade itself was
ruined beyond redemption, and Merlin thought in some trepidation that
the money to replace it might have to come out of his salary. At six,
therefore, having done the best he could, he crawled over the front
window display to pull down the blind. As he was treading delicately
back, he saw Mr. Moonlight Quill rise from his desk, put on his
overcoat and hat, and emerge into the shop. He nodded mysteriously at
Merlin and went toward the door. With his hand on the knob he paused,
turned around, and in a voice curiously compounded of ferocity and
uncertainty, he said:
"If that girl comes in here again, you tell her to behave."
With that he opened the door, drowning Merlin's meek "Yessir" in its
creak, and went out.
Merlin stood there for a moment, deciding wisely not to worry about
what was for the present only a possible futurity, and then he went
into the back of the shop and invited Miss Masters to have supper with
him at Pulpat's French Restaurant, where one could still obtain red
wine at dinner, despite the Great Federal Government. Miss Masters
"Wine makes me feel all tingly," she said.
Merlin laughed inwardly as he compared her to Caroline, or rather as
he didn't compare her. There was no comparison.
Mr. Moonlight Quill, mysterious, exotic, and oriental in temperament
was, nevertheless, a man of decision. And it was with decision that he
approached the problem of his wrecked shop. Unless he should make an
outlay equal to the original cost of his entire stock--a step which
for certain private reasons he did not wish to take--it would be
impossible for him to continue in business with the Moonlight Quill as
before. There was but one thing to do. He promptly turned his
establishment from an up-to-the-minute book-store into a second-hand
bookshop. The damaged books were marked down from twenty-five to fifty
per cent, the name over the door whose serpentine embroidery had once
shone so insolently bright, was allowed to grow dim and take on the
indescribably vague color of old paint, and, having a strong penchant
for ceremonial, the proprietor even went so far as to buy two
skull-caps of shoddy red felt, one for himself and one for his clerk,
Merlin Grainger. Moreover, he let his goatee grow until it resembled
the tail-feathers of an ancient sparrow and substituted for a once
dapper business suit a reverence-inspiring affair of shiny alpaca.
In fact, within a year after Caroline's catastrophic visit to the
bookshop the only thing in it that preserved any semblance of being up
to date was Miss Masters. Miss McCracken had followed in the footsteps
of Mr. Moonlight Quill and become an intolerable dowd.
For Merlin too, from a feeling compounded of loyalty and listlessness,
had let his exterior take on the semblance of a deserted garden. He
accepted the red felt skull-cap as a symbol of his decay. Always a
young man known, as a "pusher," he had been, since the day of his
graduation from the manual training department of a New York High
School, an inveterate brusher of clothes, hair, teeth, and even
eyebrows, and had learned the value of laying all his clean socks toe
upon toe and heel upon heel in a certain drawer of his bureau, which
would be known as the sock drawer.
These things, he felt, had won him his place in the greatest splendor
of the Moonlight Quill. It was due to them that he was not still
making "chests useful for keeping things," as he was taught with
breathless practicality in High School, and selling them to whoever
had use of such chests--possibly undertakers. Nevertheless when the
progressive Moonlight Quill became the retrogressive Moonlight Quill
he preferred to sink with it, and so took to letting his suits gather
undisturbed the wispy burdens of the air and to throwing his socks
indiscriminately into the shirt drawer, the underwear drawer, and even
into no drawer at all. It was not uncommon in his new carelessness to
let many of his clean clothes go directly back to the laundry without
having ever been worn, a common eccentricity of impoverished
bachelors. And this in the face of his favorite magazines, which at
that time were fairly staggering with articles by successful authors
against the frightful impudence of the condemned poor, such as the
buying of wearable shirts and nice cuts of meat, and the fact that
they preferred good investments in personal jewelry to respectable
ones in four per cent saving-banks.
It was indeed a strange state of affairs and a sorry one for many
worthy and God-fearing men. For the first time in the history of the
Republic almost any negro north of Georgia could change a one-dollar
bill. But as at that time the cent was rapidly approaching the
purchasing power of the Chinese ubu and was only a thing you got back
occasionally after paying for a soft drink, and could use merely in
getting your correct weight, this was perhaps not so strange a
phenomenon as it at first seems. It was too curious a state of things,
however, for Merlin Grainger to take the step that he did take--the
hazardous, almost involuntary step of proposing to Miss Masters.
Stranger still that she accepted him,
It was at Pulpat's on Saturday night and over a $1.75 bottle of water
diluted with _vin ordinaire_ that the proposal occurred.
"Wine makes me feel all tingly, doesn't it you?" chattered Miss
"Yes," answered Merlin absently; and then, after a long and pregnant
pause: "Miss Masters--Olive--I want to say something to you if you'll
listen to me."
The tingliness of Miss Masters (who knew what was coming) increased
until it seemed that she would shortly be electrocuted by her own
nervous reactions. But her "Yes, Merlin," came without a sign or
flicker of interior disturbance. Merlin swallowed a stray bit of air
that he found in his mouth.
"I have no fortune," he said with the manner of making an
announcement. "I have no fortune at all."
Their eyes met, locked, became wistful, and dreamy and beautiful.
"Olive," he told her, "I love you."
"I love you too, Merlin," she answered simply. "Shall we have another
bottle of wine?"
"Yes," he cried, his heart beating at a great rate. "Do you mean--"
"To drink to our engagement," she interrupted bravely. "May it be a
"No!" he almost shouted, bringing his fist fiercely down upon the
table. "May it last forever!"
"I mean--oh, I see what you mean. You're right. May it be a short
one." He laughed and added, "My error."
After the wine arrived they discussed the matter thoroughly.
"We'll have to take a small apartment at first," he said, "and I
believe, yes, by golly, I know there's a small one in the house where
I live, a big room and a sort of a dressing-room-kitchenette and the
use of a bath on the same floor."
She clapped her hands happily, and he thought how pretty she was
really, that is, the upper part of her face--from the bridge of the
nose down she was somewhat out of true. She continued enthusiastically:
"And as soon as we can afford it we'll take a real swell apartment,
with an elevator and a telephone girl."
"And after that a place in the country--and a car."
"I can't imagine nothing more fun. Can you?"
Merlin fell silent a moment. He was thinking that he would have to
give up his room, the fourth floor rear. Yet it mattered very little
now. During the past year and a half--in fact, from the very date of
Caroline's visit to the Moonlight Quill--he had never seen her. For a
week after that visit her lights had failed to go on--darkness brooded
out into the areaway, seemed to grope blindly in at his expectant,
uncurtained window. Then the lights had appeared at last, and instead
of Caroline and her callers they stowed a stodgy family--a little man
with a bristly mustache and a full-bosomed woman who spent her
evenings patting her hips and rearranging bric-à-brac. After two days
of them Merlin had callously pulled down his shade.
No, Merlin could think of nothing more fun than rising in the world
with Olive. There would be a cottage in a suburb, a cottage painted
blue, just one class below the sort of cottages that are of white
stucco with a green roof. In the grass around the cottage would be
rusty trowels and a broken green bench and a baby-carriage with a
wicker body that sagged to the left. And around the grass and the
baby-carriage and the cottage itself, around his whole world there
would be the arms of Olive, a little stouter, the arms of her
neo-Olivian period, when, as she walked, her cheeks would tremble up
and down ever so slightly from too much face-massaging. He could hear
her voice now, two spoons' length away:
"I knew you were going to say this to-night, Merlin. I could see--"
She could see. Ah--suddenly he wondered how much she could see. Could
she see that the girl who had come in with a party of three men and
sat down at the next table was Caroline? Ah, could she see that? Could
she see that the men brought with them liquor far more potent than
Pulpat's red ink condensed threefold?...
Merlin stared breathlessly, half-hearing through an auditory ether
Olive's low, soft monologue, as like a persistent honey-bee she sucked
sweetness from her memorable hour. Merlin was listening to the
clinking of ice and the fine laughter of all four at some
pleasantry--and that laughter of Caroline's that he knew so well
stirred him, lifted him, called his heart imperiously over to her
table, whither it obediently went. He could see her quite plainly, and
he fancied that in the last year and a half she had changed, if ever
so slightly. Was it the light or were her cheeks a little thinner and
her eyes less fresh, if more liquid, than of old? Yet the shadows were
still purple in her russet hair; her mouth hinted yet of kisses, as
did the profile that came sometimes between his eyes and a row of
books, when it was twilight in the bookshop where the crimson lamp
presided no more.
And she had been drinking. The threefold flush in her cheeks was
compounded of youth and wine and fine cosmetic--that he could tell.
She was making great amusement for the young man on her left and the
portly person on her right, and even for the old fellow opposite her,
for the latter from time to time uttered the shocked and mildly
reproachful cackles of another generation. Merlin caught the words of
a song she was intermittently singing--
_"Just snap your fingers at care,
Don't cross the bridge 'til you're there--"_
The portly person filled her glass with chill amber. A waiter after
several trips about the table, and many helpless glances at Caroline,
who was maintaining a cheerful, futile questionnaire as to the
succulence of this dish or that, managed to obtain the semblance of an
order and hurried away....
Olive was speaking to Merlin--
"When, then?" she asked, her voice faintly shaded with disappointment.
He realized that he had just answered no to some question she had
A rather pathetic poignancy in her question brought his eyes back to
"As soon as possible, dear," he replied with surprising tenderness.
"In two months--in June."
"So soon?" Her delightful excitement quite took her breath away.
"Oh, yes, I think we'd better say June. No use waiting."
Olive began to pretend that two months was really too short a time for
her to make preparations. Wasn't he a bad boy! Wasn't he impatient,
though! Well, she'd show him he mustn't be too quick with _her_.
Indeed he was so sudden she didn't exactly know whether she ought to
marry him at all.
"June," he repeated sternly.
Olive sighed and smiled and drank her coffee, her little finger lifted
high above the others in true refined fashion. A stray thought came to
Merlin that he would like to buy five rings and throw at it.
"By gosh!" he exclaimed aloud. Soon he _would_ be putting rings
on one of her fingers.
His eyes swung sharply to the right. The party of four had become so
riotous that the head-waiter had approached and spoken to them.
Caroline was arguing with this head-waiter in a raised voice, a voice
so clear and young that it seemed as though the whole restaurant would
listen--the whole restaurant except Olive Masters, self-absorbed in
her new secret.
"How do you do?" Caroline was saying. "Probably the handsomest
head-waiter in captivity. Too much noise? Very unfortunate.
Something'll have to be done about it. Gerald"--she addressed the man
on her right--"the head-waiter says there's too much noise. Appeals to
us to have it stopped. What'll I say?"
"Sh!" remonstrated Gerald, with laughter. "Sh!" and Merlin heard him
add in an undertone: "All the bourgeoisie will be aroused. This is
where the floorwalkers learn French."
Caroline sat up straight in sudden alertness.
"Where's a floorwalker?" she cried. "Show me a floorwalker." This
seemed to amuse the party, for they all, including Caroline, burst
into renewed laughter. The head-waiter, after a last conscientious but
despairing admonition, became Gallic with his shoulders and retired
into the background.
Pulpat's, as every one knows, has the unvarying respectability of the
table d'hôte. It is not a gay place in the conventional sense. One
comes, drinks the red wine, talks perhaps a little more and a little
louder than usual under the low, smoky ceilings, and then goes home.
It closes up at nine-thirty, tight as a drum; the policeman is paid
off and given an extra bottle of wine for the missis, the coat-room
girl hands her tips to the collector, and then darkness crushes the
little round tables out of sight and life. But excitement was prepared
for Pulpat's this evening--excitement of no mean variety. A girl with
russet, purple-shadowed hair mounted to her table-top and began to
"_Sacré nom de Dieu!_ Come down off there!" cried the
head-waiter. "Stop that music!"
But the musicians were already playing so loud that they could pretend
not to hear his order; having once been young, they played louder and
gayer than ever, and Caroline danced with grace and vivacity, her
pink, filmy dress swirling about her, her agile arms playing in
supple, tenuous gestures along the smoky air.
A group of Frenchmen at a table near by broke into cries of applause,
in which other parties joined--in a moment the room was full of
clapping and shouting; half the diners were on their feet, crowding
up, and on the outskirts the hastily summoned proprietor was giving
indistinct vocal evidences of his desire to put an end to this thing
as quickly as possible.
"... Merlin!" cried Olive, awake, aroused at last; "she's such a
wicked girl! Let's get out--now!"
The fascinated Merlin protested feebly that the check was not paid.
"It's all right. Lay five dollars on the table. I despise that girl. I
can't _bear_ to look at her." She was on her feet now, tagging at
Helplessly, listlessly, and then with what amounted to downright
unwillingness, Merlin rose, followed Olive dumbly as she picked her
way through the delirious clamor, now approaching its height and
threatening to become a wild and memorable riot. Submissively he took
his coat and stumbled up half a dozen steps into the moist April air
outside, his ears still ringing with the sound of light feet on the
table and of laughter all about and over the little world of the cafe.
In silence they walked along toward Fifth Avenue and a bus,
It was not until next day that she told him about the wedding--how she
had moved the date forward: it was much better that they should be
married on the first of May.
And married they were, in a somewhat stuffy manner, under the
chandelier of the flat where Olive lived with her mother. After
marriage came elation, and then, gradually, the growth of weariness.
Responsibility descended upon Merlin, the responsibility of making his
thirty dollars a week and her twenty suffice to keep them respectably
fat and to hide with decent garments the evidence that they were.
It was decided after several weeks of disastrous and well-nigh
humiliating experiments with restaurants that they would join the
great army of the delicatessen-fed, so he took up his old way of life
again, in that he stopped every evening at Braegdort's delicatessen
and bought potatoes in salad, ham in slices, and sometimes even
stuffed tomatoes in bursts of extravagance.
Then he would trudge homeward, enter the dark hallway, and climb three
rickety flights of stairs covered by an ancient carpet of long
obliterated design. The hall had an ancient smell--of the vegetables
of 1880, of the furniture polish in vogue when "Adam-and Eve" Bryan
ran against William McKinley, of portieres an ounce heavier with dust,
from worn-out shoes, and lint from dresses turned long since into
patch-work quilts. This smell would pursue him up the stairs,
revivified and made poignant at each landing by the aura of
contemporary cooking, then, as he began the next flight, diminishing
into the odor of the dead routine of dead generations.
Eventually would occur the door of his room, which slipped open with
indecent willingness and closed with almost a sniff upon his "Hello,
dear! Got a treat for you to-night."
Olive, who always rode home on the bus to "get a morsel of air," would
be making the bed and hanging up things. At his call she would come up
to him and give him a quick kiss with wide-open eyes, while be held
her upright like a ladder, his hands on her two arms, as though she
were a thing without equilibrium, and would, once he relinquished
hold, fall stiffly backward to the floor. This is the kiss that comes
in with the second year of marriage, succeeding the bridegroom kiss
(which is rather stagey at best, say those who know about such things,
and apt to be copied from passionate movies).
Then came supper, and after that they went out for a walk, up two
blocks and through Central Park, or sometimes to a moving picture,
which taught them patiently that they were the sort of people for whom
life was ordered, and that something very grand and brave and
beautiful would soon happen to them if they were docile and obedient
to their rightful superiors and kept away from pleasure.
Such was their day for three years. Then change came into their lives:
Olive had a baby, and as a result Merlin had a new influx of material
resources. In the third week of Olive's confinement, after an hour of
nervous rehearsing, he went into the office of Mr. Moonlight Quill and
demanded an enormous increase in salary.
"I've been here ten years," he said; "since I was nineteen. I've
always tried to do my best in the interests of the business."
Mr. Moonlight Quill said that he would think it over. Next morning he
announced, to Merlin's great delight, that he was going to put into
effect a project long premeditated--he was going to retire from active
work in the bookshop, confining himself to periodic visits and leaving
Merlin as manager with a salary of fifty dollars a week and a
one-tenth interest in the business. When the old man finished,
Merlin's cheeks were glowing and his eyes full of tears. He seized his
employer's hand and shook it violently, saying over and over again:
"It's very nice of you, sir. It's very white of you. It's very, very
nice of you."
So after ten years of faithful work in the store he had won out at
last. Looking back, he saw his own progress toward this hill of
elation no longer as a sometimes sordid and always gray decade of
worry and failing enthusiasm and failing dreams, years when the
moonlight had grown duller in the areaway and the youth had faded out
of Olive's face, but as a glorious and triumphant climb over obstacles
which he had determinedly surmounted by unconquerable will-power. The
optimistic self-delusion that had kept him from misery was seen now in
the golden garments of stern resolution. Half a dozen times he had
taken steps to leave the Moonlight Quill and soar upward, but through
sheer faintheartedness he had stayed on. Strangely enough he now
thought that those were times when he had exerted tremendous
persistence and had "determined" to fight it out where he was.
At any rate, let us not for this moment begrudge Merlin his new and
magnificent view of himself. He had arrived. At thirty he had reached
a post of importance. He left the shop that evening fairly radiant,
invested every penny in his pocket in the most tremendous feast that
Braegdort's delicatessen offered, and staggered homeward with the
great news and four gigantic paper bags. The fact that Olive was too
sick to eat, that he made himself faintly but unmistakably ill by a
struggle with four stuffed tomatoes, and that most of the food
deteriorated rapidly in an iceless ice-box: all next day did not mar
the occasion. For the first time since the week of his marriage Merlin
Grainger lived under a sky of unclouded tranquillity.
The baby boy was christened Arthur, and life became dignified,
significant, and, at length, centered. Merlin and Olive resigned
themselves to a somewhat secondary place in their own cosmos; but what
they lost in personality they regained in a sort of primordial pride.
The country house did not come, but a month in an Asbury Park
boarding-house each summer filled the gap; and during Merlin's two
weeks' holiday this excursion assumed the air of a really merry
jaunt--especially when, with the baby asleep in a wide room opening
technically on the sea, Merlin strolled with Olive along the thronged
board-walk puffing at his cigar and trying to look like twenty
thousand a year.
With some alarm at the slowing up of the days and the accelerating of
the years, Merlin became thirty-one, thirty-two--then almost with a
rush arrived at that age which, with all its washing and panning, can
only muster a bare handful of the precious stuff of youth: he became
thirty-five. And one day on Fifth Avenue he saw Caroline.
It was Sunday, a radiant, flowerful Easter morning and the avenue was
a pageant of lilies and cutaways and happy April-colored bonnets.
Twelve o'clock: the great churches were letting out their people--St.
Simon's, St. Hilda's, the Church of the Epistles, opened their doors
like wide mouths until the people pouring forth surely resembled happy
laughter as they met and strolled and chattered, or else waved white
bouquets at waiting chauffeurs.
In front of the Church of the Epistles stood its twelve vestrymen,
carrying out the time-honored custom of giving away Easter eggs full
of face-powder to the church-going debutantes of the year. Around them
delightedly danced the two thousand miraculously groomed children of
the very rich, correctly cute and curled, shining like sparkling
little jewels upon their mothers' fingers. Speaks the sentimentalist
for the children of the poor? Ah, but the children of the rich,
laundered, sweet-smelling, complexioned of the country, and, above
all, with soft, in-door voices.
Little Arthur was five, child of the middle class. Undistinguished,
unnoticed, with a nose that forever marred what Grecian yearnings his
features might have had, he held tightly to his mother's warm, sticky
hand, and, with Merlin on his other side, moved, upon the home-coming
throng. At Fifty-third Street, where there were two churches, the
congestion was at its thickest, its richest. Their progress was of
necessity retarded to such an extent that even little Arthur had not
the slightest difficulty in keeping up. Then it was that Merlin
perceived an open landaulet of deepest crimson, with handsome nickel
trimmings, glide slowly up to the curb and come to a stop. In it sat
She was dressed in black, a tight-fitting gown trimmed with lavender,
flowered at the waist with a corsage of orchids. Merlin started and
then gazed at her fearfully. For the first time in the eight years
since his marriage he was encountering the girl again. But a girl no
longer. Her figure was slim as ever--or perhaps not quite, for a
certain boyish swagger, a sort of insolent adolescence, had gone the
way of the first blooming of her cheeks. But she was beautiful;
dignity was there now, and the charming lines of a fortuitous
nine-and-twenty; and she sat in the car with such perfect
appropriateness and self-possession that it made him breathless to
Suddenly she smiled--the smile of old, bright as that very Easter and
its flowers, mellower than ever--yet somehow with not quite the
radiance and infinite promise of that first smile back there in the
bookshop nine years before. It was a steelier smile, disillusioned and
But it was soft enough and smile enough to make a pair of young men in
cutaway coats hurry over, to pull their high hats off their wetted,
iridescent hair; to bring them, flustered and bowing, to the edge of
her landaulet, where her lavender gloves gently touched their gray
ones. And these two were presently joined by another, and then two
more, until there was a rapidly swelling crowd around the landaulet.
Merlin would hear a young man beside him say to his perhaps
"If you'll just pardon me a moment, there's some one I _have_ to
speak to. Walk right ahead. I'll catch up."
Within three minutes every inch of the landaulet, front, back, and
side, was occupied by a man--a man trying to construct a sentence
clever enough to find its way to Caroline through the stream of
conversation. Luckily for Merlin a portion of little Arthur's clothing
had chosen the opportunity to threaten a collapse, and Olive had
hurriedly rushed him over against a building for some extemporaneous
repair work, so Merlin was able to watch, unhindered, the salon in the
The crowd swelled. A row formed in back of the first,
two more behind that. In the midst, an orchid rising from a black
bouquet, sat Caroline enthroned in her obliterated car, nodding and
crying salutations and smiling with such true happiness that, of a
sudden, a new relay of gentlemen had left their wives and consorts and
were striding toward her.
The crowd, now phalanx deep, began to be augmented by the merely
curious; men of all ages who could not possibly have known Caroline
jostled over and melted into the circle of ever-increasing diameter,
until the lady in lavender was the centre of a vast impromptu
All about her were faces--clean-shaven, bewhiskered, old, young,
ageless, and now, here and there, a woman. The mass was rapidly
spreading to the opposite curb, and, as St. Anthony's around the
corner let out its box-holders, it overflowed to the sidewalk and
crushed up against the iron picket-fence of a millionaire across the
street. The motors speeding along the avenue were compelled to stop,
and in a jiffy were piled three, five, and six deep at the edge of the
crowd; auto-busses, top-heavy turtles of traffic, plunged into the
jam, their passengers crowding to the edges of the roofs in wild
excitement and peering down into the centre of the mass, which
presently could hardly be seen from the mass's edge.
The crush had become terrific. No fashionable audience at a
Yale-Princeton football game, no damp mob at a world's series, could
be compared with the panoply that talked, stared, laughed, and honked
about the lady in black and lavender. It was stupendous; it was
terrible. A quarter mile down the block a half-frantic policeman
called his precinct; on the same corner a frightened civilian crashed
in the glass of a fire-alarm and sent in a wild paean for all the
fire-engines of the city; up in an apartment high in one of the tall
buildings a hysterical old maid telephoned in turn for the prohibition
enforcement agent; the special deputies on Bolshevism, and the
maternity ward of Bellevue Hospital.
The noise increased. The first fire-engine arrived, filling the Sunday
air with smoke, clanging and crying a brazen, metallic message down
the high, resounding walls. In the notion that some terrible calamity
had overtaken the city, two excited deacons ordered special services
immediately and set tolling the great bells of St. Hilda's and St.
Anthony's, presently joined by the jealous gongs of St. Simon's and
the Church of the Epistles. Even far off in the Hudson and the East
River the sounds of the commotion were heard, and the ferry-boats and
tugs and ocean liners set up sirens and whistles that sailed in
melancholy cadence, now varied, now reiterated, across the whole
diagonal width of the city from Riverside Drive to the gray
water-fronts of the lower East Side....
In the centre of her landaulet sat the lady in black and lavender,
chatting pleasantly first with one, then with another of that
fortunate few in cutaways who had found their way to speaking distance
in the first rush. After a while she glanced around her and beside her
with a look of growing annoyance.
She yawned and asked the man nearest her if he couldn't run in
somewhere and get her a glass of water. The man apologized in some
embarrassment. He could not have moved hand or foot. He could not have
scratched his own ear....
As the first blast of the river sirens keened along the air, Olive
fastened the last safety-pin in little Arthur's rompers and looked up.
Merlin saw her start, stiffen slowly like hardening stucco, and then
give a little gasp of surprise and disapproval.
"That woman," she cried suddenly. "Oh!"
She flashed a glance at Merlin that mingled reproach and pain, and
without another word gathered up little Arthur with one hand, grasped
her husband by the other, and darted amazingly in a winding, bumping
canter through the crowd. Somehow people gave way before her; somehow
she managed to-retain her grasp on her son and husband; somehow she
managed to emerge two blocks up, battered and dishevelled, into an
open space, and, without slowing up her pace, darted down a
side-street. Then at last, when uproar had died away into a dim and
distant clamor, did she come to a walk and set little Arthur upon his
"And on Sunday, too! Hasn't she disgraced herself enough?" This was
her only comment. She said it to Arthur, as she seemed to address her
remarks to Arthur throughout the remainder of the day. For some
curious and esoteric reason she had never once looked at her husband
during the entire retreat.
The years between thirty-five and sixty-five revolve before the
passive mind as one unexplained, confusing merry-go-round. True, they
are a merry-go-round of ill-gaited and wind-broken horses, painted
first in pastel colors, then in dull grays and browns, but perplexing
and intolerably dizzy the thing is, as never were the merry-go-rounds
of childhood or adolescence; as never, surely, were the
certain-coursed, dynamic roller-coasters of youth. For most men and
women these thirty years are taken up with a gradual withdrawal from
life, a retreat first from a front with many shelters, those myriad
amusements and curiosities of youth, to a line with less, when we peel
down our ambitions to one ambition, our recreations to one recreation,
our friends to a few to whom we are anaesthetic; ending up at last in
a solitary, desolate strong point that is not strong, where the shells
now whistle abominably, now are but half-heard as, by turns frightened
and tired, we sit waiting for death.
At forty, then, Merlin was no different from himself at thirty-five; a
larger paunch, a gray twinkling near his ears, a more certain lack of
vivacity in his walk. His forty-five differed from his forty by a like
margin, unless one mention a slight deafness in his left ear. But at
fifty-five the process had become a chemical change of immense
rapidity. Yearly he was more and more an "old man" to his
family--senile almost, so far as his wife was concerned. He was by
this time complete owner of the bookshop. The mysterious Mr. Moonlight
Quill, dead some five years and not survived by his wife, had deeded
the whole stock and store to him, and there he still spent his days,
conversant now by name with almost all that man has recorded for three
thousand years, a human catalogue, an authority upon tooling and
binding, upon folios and first editions, an accurate inventory of a
thousand authors whom he could never have understood and had certainly
At sixty-five he distinctly doddered. He had assumed the melancholy
habits of the aged so often portrayed by the second old man in
standard Victorian comedies. He consumed vast warehouses of time
searching for mislaid spectacles. He "nagged" his wife and was nagged
in turn. He told the same jokes three or four times a year at the
family table, and gave his son weird, impossible directions as to his
conduct in life. Mentally and materially he was so entirely different
from the Merlin Grainger of twenty-five that it seemed incongruous
that he should bear the same name.
He worked still In the bookshop with the assistance of a youth, whom,
of course, he considered very idle, indeed, and a new young woman,
Miss Gaffney. Miss McCracken, ancient and unvenerable as himself,
still kept the accounts. Young Arthur was gone into Wall Street to
sell bonds, as all the young men seemed to be doing in that day. This,
of course, was as it should be. Let old Merlin get what magic he could
from his books--the place of young King Arthur was in the
One afternoon at four when he had slipped noiselessly up to the front
of the store on his soft-soled slippers, led by a newly formed habit,
of which, to be fair, he was rather ashamed, of spying upon the young
man clerk, he looked casually out of the front window, straining his
faded eyesight to reach the street. A limousine, large, portentous,
impressive, had drawn to the curb, and the chauffeur, after
dismounting and holding some sort of conversation with persons in the
interior of the car, turned about and advanced in a bewildered fashion
toward the entrance of the Moonlight Quill. He opened the door,
shuffled in, and, glancing uncertainly at the old man in the
skull-cap, addressed him in a thick, murky voice, as though his words
came through a fog.
"Do you--do you sell additions?"
"The arithmetic books are in the back of the store."
The chauffeur took off his cap and scratched a close-cropped, fuzzy
"Oh, naw. This I want's a detecatif story." He jerked a thumb back
toward the limousine. "She seen it in the paper. Firs' addition."
Merlin's interest quickened. Here was possibly a big sale.
"Oh, editions. Yes, we've advertised some firsts, but-detective
stories, I-don't-believe-What was the title?"
"I forget. About a crime."
"About a crime. I have-well, I have 'The Crimes of the Borgias'-full
morocco, London 1769, beautifully--"
"Naw," interrupted the chauffeur, "this was one fella did this crime.
She seen you had it for sale in the paper." He rejected several