Produced by Ginny Brewer and PG Distributed Proofreaders
FROM A BENCH IN OUR SQUARE
Samuel Hopkins Adams
_A Patroness of Art_
_The House of Silvery Voices_
_The Guardian of God’s Acre_
_For Mayme, Read Mary_
_Plooie of Our Square_
FROM A BENCH IN OUR SQUARE
A PATRONESS OF ART
Peter (flourish-in-red) Quick (flourish-in-green) Banta (period-in-blue) is the style whereby he is known to Our Square.
Summertimes he is a prop and ornament of Coney, that isle of the blest, whose sands he models into gracious forms and noble sentiments, in anticipation of the casual dime or the munificent quarter, wherewith, if you have low, Philistine tastes or a kind heart, you have perhaps aforetime rewarded him. In the off-season the thwarted passion of color possesses him; and upon the flagstones before Thornsen’s Elite Restaurant, which constitutes his canvas, he will limn you a full-rigged ship in two colors, a portrait of the heavyweight champion in three, or, if financially encouraged, the Statue of Liberty in four. These be, however, concessions to popular taste. His own predilection is for chaste floral designs of a symbolic character borne out and expounded by appropriate legends. Peter Quick Banta is a devotee of his art.
Giving full run to his loftier aspirations, he was engaged, one April day, upon a carefully represented lilac with a butterfly about to light on it, when he became cognizant of a ragged rogue of an urchin regarding him with a grin. Peter Quick Banta misinterpreted this sign of interest.
“What d’ye think of _that_?” he said triumphantly, as he sketched in a set of side-whiskers (presumably intended for antennae) upon the butterfly.
“Rotten,” was the prompt response.
“_What_!” said the astounded artist, rising from his knees.
Peter Quick Banta applied the higher criticism to the urchin’s nearest ear. It was now that connoisseur’s turn to be affronted. Picking himself out of the gutter, he placed his thumb to his nose, and wiggled his finger in active and reprehensible symbolism, whilst enlarging upon his original critique, in a series of shrill roars:
“Rotten! Punk! No good! Swash! Flubdub! Sacre tas de–de–piffle!” Already his vocabulary was rich and plenteous, though, in those days, tainted by his French origin.
He then, I regret to say, spat upon the purple whiskers of the butterfly and took refuge in flight. The long stride of Peter Quick Banta soon overtook him. Silently struggling he was haled back to the profaned temple of Art.
“Now, young feller,” said Peter Quick Banta. “Maybe you think you could do it better.” The world-old retort of the creative artist to his critic!
“Any fool could,” retorted the boy, which, in various forms, is almost as time-honored as the challenge.
Suspecting that only tactful intervention would forestall possible murder, I sauntered over from my bench. But the decorator of sidewalks had himself under control.
“Try it,” he said grimly.
The boy avidly seized the crayons extended to him.
“You want me to draw a picture? There?”
“If you don’t, I’ll break every bone in your body.”
The threat left its object quite unmoved. He pointed a crayon at Peter Quick Banta’s creation.
“What is that? A bool-rush?”
“It’s a laylock; that’s what it is.”
“And the little bird that goes to light–“
“That ain’t a bird and you know it.” Peter Quick Banta breathed hard. “That’s a butterfly.”
“I see. But the lie-lawc, it drop–so!” The gesture was inimitable. “And the butterfly, she do not come down, plop! She float–so!” The grimy hands fluttered and sank.
“They do, do they? Well, you put it down on the sidewalk.”
From that moment the outside world ceased to exist for the urchin. He fell to with concentrated fervor, while Peter Quick Banta and I diverted the traffic. Only once did he speak:
“Yellow,” he said, reaching, but not looking up.
Silently the elder artist put the desired crayon in his hand. When the last touches were done, the boy looked up at us, not boastfully, but with supreme confidence.
“There!” said he.
It was crude. It was ill-proportioned. The colors were raw. The arrangements were false.
_But_–the lilac bloomed. _And_–the butterfly hovered. The artist had spoken through his ordained medium and the presentment of life stood forth. I hardly dared look at Peter Quick Banta. But beneath his uncouth exterior there lay a great and magnanimous soul.
“Son,” said he, “you’re a wonder. Wanta keep them crayons?”
Unable to speak for the moment, the boy took off his ragged cap in one of the most gracious gestures I have ever witnessed, raising dog-like eyes of gratitude to his benefactor. Tactfully, Peter Quick Banta proceeded to expound for my benefit the technique of the drawing, giving the youngster time to recover before the inevitable questioning began.
“Where did you learn that?”
“Nowhere. Had a few drawing lessons at No. 19.”
“Would you like to work for me?”
Peter Quick Banta pointed to the sidewalk.
“That?” The boy laughed happily. “That ain’t work. That’s fun.”
So the partnership was begun, the boy, whose name was Julien Tennier (soon simplified into Tenney for local use), sharing Peter Quick Banta’s roomy garret. Success, modest but unfailing, attended it from the first appearance of the junior member of the firm at Coney Island, where, as the local cognoscenti still maintain, he revolutionized the art and practice of the “sand-dabs.” Out of the joint takings grew a bank account. Eventually Peter Quick Banta came to me about the boy’s education.
“He’s a swell,” said Peter Quick Banta. “Look at that face! I don’t care if he did crawl outa the gutter. I’m an artist and I reco’nize aristocracy when I see it. And I want him brung up accordin’.”
So I inducted the youngster into such modest groves of learning as an old, half-shelved pedagogue has access to, and when the Bonnie Lassie came to Our Square to make herself and us famous with her tiny bronzes (this was before she had captured, reformed, and married Cyrus the Gaunt), I took him to her and he fell boyishly and violently in love with her beauty and her genius alike, all of which was good for his developing soul. She arranged for his art training.
“But you know, Dominie,” she used to say, wagging her head like a profound and thoughtful bird; “this is all very foolish and shortsighted on my part. Five years from now that gutter-godling of yours will be doing work that will make people forget poor little me and my poor little figurines.”
To which I replied that even if it were true, instead of the veriest nonsense, about Julien Tenney or any one else ever eclipsing her, she would help him just the same!
But five years from then Julien had gone over to the Philistines.
Justly catalogued, Roberta Holland belonged to the idle rich. She would have objected to the latter classification, averring that, with the rising cost of furs and automobile upkeep, she had barely enough to keep her head above the high tide of Fifth Avenue prices. As to idleness, she scorned the charge. Had she not, throughout the war, performed prodigious feats of committee work, all of it meritorious and some of it useful? She had. It had left her with a dangerous and destructive appetite for doing good to people. Aside from this, Miss Roberta was a distracting young person. Few looked at her once without wanting to look again, and not a few looked again to their undoing.
Being-done-good-to is, I understand, much in vogue in the purlieus of Fifth Avenue where it is practiced with skill and persistence by a large and needy cult of grateful recipients. Our Square doesn’t take to it. As recipients we are, I fear, grudgingly grateful. So when Miss Holland transferred her enthusiasms and activities to our far-away corner of the world she met with a lack of response which might have discouraged one with a less new and superior sense of duty to the lower orders. She came to us through the Bonnie Lassie, guardian of the gateway from the upper strata to our humbler domain, who–Pagan that she is!–indiscriminately accepts all things beautiful simply for their beauty. Having arrived, Miss Holland proceeded to organize us with all the energy of high-blooded sweet-and-twenty and all the imperiousness of confident wealth and beauty. She organized an evening sewing-circle for women whose eyelids would not stay open after their long day’s work. She formed cultural improvement classes for such as Leon Coventry, the printer, who knows half the literatures of the world, and MacLachan, the tailor, to whom Carlyle is by way of being light reading. She delivered some edifying exhortations upon the subject of Americanism to Polyglot Elsa, of the Elite Restaurant (who had taken upon her sturdy young shoulders the support of an old mother and a paralytic sister, so that her two brothers might enlist for the war–a detail of patriotism which the dispenser of platitudes might have learned by judicious inquiry). And so forth and so on. Miss Roberta Holland meant well, but she had many things to learn and no master to teach her.
Yet when the flu epidemic returned upon us, she stood by, efficient, deft, and gallant, though still imperious, until the day when she clashed her lath-and-tinsel sword of theory against the tempered steel of the Little Red Doctor’s experience. Said the Little Red Doctor (who was pressed for time at the moment): “Take orders. Or get out. Which?”
She straightened like a soldier. “Tell me what you want done.”
At the end of the onset, when he gave her her release from volunteer service, she turned shining eyes upon him. “I’ve never been so treated in my life! You’re a bully and a brute.”
“You’re a brick,” retorted the Little Red Doctor. “I’ll send for you next time Our Square needs help.”
“I’ll come,” said she, and they shook hands solemnly.
Thereafter Our Square felt a little more lenient toward her ministrations, and even those of us who least approved her activities felt the stir of radiance and color which she brought with her.
On a day when the local philanthropy market was slack, and Miss Holland, seated in the Bonnie Lassie’s front window, was maturing some new and benign outrage upon our sensibilities, she called out to the sculptress at work on a group:
“There’s a queer man making queer marks on your sidewalk.”
“That’s Peter Quick Banta. He’s a fellow artist.”
“And another man, young, with a big, maney head like an amiable lion; quite a beautiful lion. He’s making more marks.”
“Let him make all he wants.”
“They’re waving their arms at each other. At least the queer man is. I think they’re going to fight.”
“They won’t. It’s only an academic discussion on technique.”
“Who is the young one?”
“He’s the ruin of what might have been a big artist.”
“No! Is he? What did it? Drink?”
“Does he look it?”
The window-gazer peered more intently at the debaters below. “It’s a peculiar face. Awfully interesting, though. He’s quite poorly dressed. Does he need money? Is that what’s wrong?”
“That’s it, Bobbie,” returned the Bonnie Lassie with a half-smile. “He needs the money.”
The rampant philanthropist stirred within Miss Roberta Holland’s fatally well-meaning soul. “Would it be a case where I could help? I’d love to put a real artist back on his feet. Are you sure he’s real?”
On the subject of Art, the Bonnie Lassie is never anything but sincere and direct, however much she may play her trickeries with lesser interests, such as life and love and human fate.
“No; I’m not. If he were, I doubt whether he’d have let himself go so wrong.”
“Perhaps it isn’t too late,” said the amateur missionary hopefully. “Is he a man to whom one could offer money?”
The Bonnie Lassie’s smile broadened without change in its subtle quality. “Julien Tenney isn’t exactly a pauper. He just thinks he can’t afford to do the kind of thing he wants and ought to.”
“What ought he to do?”
“Paint–paint–paint!” said the Bonnie Lassie vehemently. “Five years ago I believe he had the makings of a great painter in him. And now look what he’s doing!”
“Making marks on sidewalks, you mean?”
“Worse. Commercial art.”
“Designs and that sort of thing?”
“Do you ever look at the unearthly beautiful, graceful and gloriously dressed young super-Americans who appear in the advertisements, riding in super-cars or wearing super-clothes or brushing super-teeth with super-toothbrushes?”
“I suppose so,” said the girl vaguely.
“He draws those.”
“Is that what you call pot-boiling?”
“And I suppose it pays just a pittance.”
“Well,” replied the Bonnie Lassie evasively, “he sticks to it, so it must support him.”
“Then I’m going to help him.”
“‘To fulfill his destiny,’ is the accepted phrase,” said the Bonnie Lassie wickedly. “I’ll call him in for you to look over. But you’d best leave the arrangements for a later meeting.”
Being summoned, Julien Tenney entered the house as one quite at home despite his smeary garb of the working artist. His presentation to Miss Holland was as brief as it was formal, for she took her departure at once.
“Who is she?” asked Julien, staring after her.
“Bobbie Holland, a gilded butterfly from uptown.”
“What’s she doing here?”
“O Lord!” said he in pained tones. “Has she got a Cause?”
“There ain’t no sich a animile.”
“There is. She’s a patron of art.”
“Yes. She’s going to patronize you.”
“Not if I see her first. How do _I_ qualify as a subject?”
“She considered you a wasted life.”
“Where does she get that idea?”
The Bonnie Lassie removed a small, sharp implement from the left eye of a stoical figurine and pointed it at herself.
“Do you think that’s fair?” demanded the indignant youth.
The Bonnie Lassie reversed the implement and pointed it at him. “Do you or do you not,” she challenged, “invade our humble precincts in a five-thousand-dollar automobile?”
“It’s my only extravagance.”
“Do you or do you not maintain a luxurious apartment in Gramercy Park, when you are not down here posing in your attic as an honest working-man?”
“Oh, see here, Mrs. Staten, I won’t stand for that!” he expostulated. “You know perfectly well I keep my room here because it’s the only place I can work in quietly–“
“And because Peter Quick Banta would break his foolish old heart if you left him entirely,” supplemented the sculptress.
Julien flushed and stood looking like an awkward child. “Did you tell all this stuff to Miss Holland?” he asked.
“Oh, no! She thinks that your pot-boiling is a desperate and barely sufficient expedient to keep the wolf from the door. So she is planning to help you realize your destiny.”
“Which is?” he queried with lifted brows.
“To be a great painter.”
The other winced. “As you know, I’ve meant all along, as soon as I’ve saved enough–“
“Oh, yes; _I_ know,” broke in the Bonnie Lassie, who can be quite ruthless where Art is concerned, “and _you_ know; but time flies and hell is paved with good intentions, and if you want to be that kind of a pavement artist–well, I think Peter Quick Banta is a better.”
“Do you suppose she’d let me paint her?” he asked abruptly.
If statuettes could blink, the one upon which the Bonnie Lassie was busied would certainly have shrouded its vision against the dazzling radiance of her smile, for this was coming about as she had planned it from the moment when she had caught the flash of startled surprise and wonder in his eyes, as they first rested on Bobbie Holland. Here, she had guessed, might be the agency to bring Julien Tenney to his artistic senses; and even so it was now working out. But all she said was–and she said it with a sort of venomous blandness–“My dear boy, you can’t paint.”
“Can’t I! Just because I’m a little out of practice–“
“Two years, isn’t it, since you’ve touched a palette?”
“Give me a chance at such a model as she is! That’s all I ask.”
“Do you think her so pretty?” inquired the sculptress disparagingly.
“Pretty? She’s the loveliest thing that–” Catching his hostess’s smile he broke off. “You’ll admit it’s a well-modeled face,” he said professionally; “and–and–well, unusual.”
“Pooh! ‘Dangerous’ is the word. Remember it,” warned the Bonnie Lassie. “She’s a devastating whirlwind, that child, and she comes down here partly to get away from the wreckage. Now, if you play your part cleverly–“
“I’m not going to play any part.”
“Then it’s all up. How is a patroness of Art going to patronize you, unless you’re a poor and struggling young artist, living from hand to mouth by arduous pot-boiling? You won’t have to play a part as far as the pot-boiling goes,” added his monitress viciously. “Only, don’t let her know that the rewards of your shame run to high-powered cars and high-class apartments. Remember, you’re poor but honest. Perhaps she’ll give you money.”
“Perhaps she won’t,” retorted the youth explosively.
“Oh, it will be done tactfully; never fear. I’ll bring her around to see you and you’ll have to work the sittings yourself.”
As a setting for the abode of a struggling beginner, Julien’s attic needed no change. It was a whim of his to keep it bare and simple. He worked out his pictorial schemes of elegance best in an environment where there was nothing to distract the eye. One could see that Miss Roberta Holland, upon her initial visit, approved its stark and cleanly poverty. (Yes, I was there to see; the Bonnie Lassie had taken me along to make up that first party.) Having done the honors, Julien dropped into the background, and presently was curled up over a drawing-board, sketching eagerly while the Bonnie Lassie and I held the doer of good deeds in talk. Now the shrewd and able tribe of advertising managers do not pay to any but a master-draughtsman the prices which “J.T.”–with an arrow transfixing the initials–gets; and Julien was as deft and rapid as he was skillful. Soon appreciating what was in progress, the visitor graciously sat quite still. At the conclusion she held out her hand for the cardboard.
To be a patroness of Art does not necessarily imply that one is an adequate critic. Miss Holland contemplated what was a veritable little gem in black-and-white with cool approbation.
“Quite clever,” she was pleased to say. “Would you care to sell it?”
“I don’t think it would be exactly–” A stern glance from the Bonnie Lassie cut short the refusal. He swallowed the rest of the sentence.
“Would ten dollars be too little?” asked the visitor with bright beneficence.
“Too much,” he murmured. (The Bonnie Lassie says that with a little crayoning and retouching he could have sold it for at least fifty times that.)
The patroness delicately dropped a bill on the table.
“Could you some day find time to let me try you in oils?” he asked.
“Does that take long?” she said doubtfully. “I’m very busy.”
“You really should try it, Bobbie,” put in the crafty Bonnie Lassie. “It might give him the start he needs.”
What arguments she added later is a secret between the two women, but she had her way. The Bonnie Lassie always does. So the bare studio was from time to time irradiated with Bobbie Holland’s youthful loveliness and laughter. For there was much laughter between those two. Shrewdly foreseeing that this bird of paradise would return to the bare cage only if it were made amusing for her, Julien exerted himself to the utmost to keep her mind at play, and, as I can vouch who helped train him, there are few men of his age who can be as absorbing a companion as Julien when he chooses to exert his charm. All the time, he was working with a passionate intensity on the portrait; letting everything else go; tossing aside the most remunerative offers; leaving his mail unopened; throwing himself intensely, recklessly, into this one single enterprise. The fact is, he had long been starved for color and was now satiating his soul with it. Probably it was largely impersonal with him at first. The Bonnie Lassie, wise of heart that she is, thinks so. But that could not last. Men who are not otherwise safeguarded do not long retain a neutral attitude toward such creatures of grace and splendor as Bobbie Holland.
Between them developed a curious relation. It was hardly to be called friendship; he was not, to Bobbie’s recognition, a habitant of her world. Nor, certainly, was it anything more. Julien would as soon have renounced easel and canvas as have taken advantage of her coming to make love to her. In this waif of our gutters and ward of our sidewalk artist inhered a spirit of the most punctilious and rigid honor, the gift, perhaps, of some forgotten ancestry. More and more, as the intimacy grew, he deserted his uptown haunts and stuck to the attic studio above the rooms where, in the dawning days of prosperity, he had installed Peter Quick Banta in the effete and scandalous luxury of two rooms, a bath, and a gas stove. Yet the picture advanced slowly which is the more surprising in that the exotic Bobbie seemed to find plenty of time for sittings now. Between visits she took to going to the Metropolitan Museum and conscientiously studying pictures and catalogues with a view to helping her protege form sound artistic tastes. (When the Bonnie Lassie heard that, she all but choked.) As for Julien!
“This is all very well,” he said, one day in the sculptress’s studio; “but sooner or later she’s going to catch me at it.”
“What then?” asked the Bonnie Lassie, not looking up from her work.
“She’ll go away.”
“Let her go. Your portrait will be finished meantime, won’t it?”
“Oh, yes. That’ll be finished.”
This time the Bonnie Lassie did look up. Immediately she looked back again.
“In any case she’ll have to go away some day–won’t she?”
“I suppose so,” returned he in a gloomy growl.
“I warned you at the outset, ‘Dangerous,'” she pointed out.
They let it drop there. As for the effect upon the girl of Julien Tenny’s brilliant and unsettling personality, I could judge only as I saw them occasionally together, she lustrous and exotic as a budding orchid, he in the non-descript motley of his studio garb, serenely unconscious of any incongruity.
“Do you think,” I asked the Bonnie Lassie, who was sharing my bench one afternoon as Julien was taking the patroness of Art over to where her car waited, “that she is doing him as much good as she thinks she is, or ought to?”
“Malice ill becomes one of your age, Dominie,” said the Bonnie Lassie with dignity.
“I’m quite serious,” I protested.
“And very unjust. Bobbie is an adorable little person, when you know her.”
“Does Julien know her well enough to have discovered a self-evident fact?”
“Only,” pursued my companion, ignoring the question, “she is bored and a little spoiled.”
“So she comes down here to escape being bored and to get more spoiled.”
“Julien won’t spoil her.”
“He certainly doesn’t appear to bore her.”
“She’s having the tables turned on her without knowing it. Julien is doing her a lot of good. Already she’s far less beneficent and bountiful and all that sort of stuff.”
“Lassie,” said I, “what, if I may so express myself, is the big idea?”
“Slang is an execrable thing from a professed scholar,” she reproved. “However, the big idea is that Julien is really painting. And it’s _mine_, that big idea.”
“Mightn’t it be accompanied by a little idea to the effect that the experience is likely to cost him pretty dear? What will be left when Bobbie Holland goes?”
“Pooh! Don’t be an oracular sphinx,” was all that I got for my pains.
Nor did Miss Bobbie show any immediate symptoms of going. If the painting seemed at times in danger of stagnation, the same could not be said of the fellowship between painter and paintee. That nourished along, and one day a vagrant wind brought in the dangerous element of historical personalities. The wind, entering at the end of a session, displaced a hanging above the studio door, revealing in bold script upon the plastering Beranger’s famous line:
“Dans un grenier qu’on est bien a vingt ans!”
“Did you write that there?” asked the girl.
“Seven long years ago. And meant it, every word.”
“How did you come to know Beranger?”
“I’m French born.”
“‘In a garret how good is life at twenty,'” she translated freely. “I wouldn’t have thought”–she turned her softly brilliant regard upon him–“that life had been so good to you.”
“It has,” was the rejoinder. “But never so good as now.”
“I’ve often wondered–you seem to know so many things–where you got your education?”
“Here and there and everywhere. It’s only a patchwork sort of thing.” (Ungrateful young scoundrel, so to describe my two-hours-a-day of brain-hammering, and the free run of my library.)
“You’re a very puzzling person,” said she And when a woman says that to a man, deep has begun to call to deep. (The Bonnie Lassie, who knows everything, is my authority for the statement.)
To her went the patroness of Art, on leaving Julien’s “grenier” that day.
“Cecily,” she said, in the most casual manner she could contrive, “who _is_ Julien Tenney?”
“You know what I mean,” pleaded the girl. “_What_ is he?”
“A brand snatched from the pot-boiling,” returned the Bonnie Lassie, quite pleased with her next turn, which was more than her companion was.
“Please don’t be clever. Be nice and tell me–“
“‘Be nice, sweet maid, and let who will be clever,'” declaimed the Bonnie Lassie, who was feeling perverse that day. “You want me to define his social status for you and tell you whether you’d better invite him to dinner. You’d better not. He might swallow his knife.”
“You know he wouldn’t!” denied the girl in resentful tones. “I’ve never known any one with more instinctive good manners. He seems to go right naturally.”
“All due to my influence and training,” bragged the Bonnie Lassie. “I helped bring him up.”
“Then you must know something of his antecedents.”
“Ask the Dominie. He says that Julien crawled out of a gutter with the manners of a _preux chevalier_. Anyway, he never swallowed any of _my_ knives. Though he’s had plenty of opportunity.”
“It’s very puzzling,” lamented Bobbie.
“Why let it prey like a worm i’ the bud of your mind? You’re not going to adopt him, perhaps?”
For the moment Bobbie Holland’s eyes were dreamy and her tongue unguarded. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with him,” said she with a gesture as of one who despairingly gives over an insoluble problem.
“Umph!” said the Bonnie Lassie.
And continued sculpting.
As Julien had prophesied, it was only a question of time when he would be surprised by his patroness in his true garb and estate. The event occurred as he was stepping from his touring-car to get his golf-clubs from the hallway of his Gramercy Park apartment at the very moment when Bobbie Holland emerged from the house next door. Both her hands flew involuntarily to her cheeks, as she took in and wholly misinterpreted his costume, which is not to be wondered at when one considers the similarity of a golfing outfit to a chauffeur’s livery.
“Oh!” she cried out, as if something had hurt her.
Julien, for once startled out of his accustomed poise, uncovered and looked at her apprehensively.
Her voice quivered a little as she asked, very low, “Do you _have_ to do that?”
“Why–er–no,” began the puzzled Julien, who failed for the moment to perceive what of tragic portent inhered in a prospective afternoon of golf. Her next words enlightened him.
“I should think you might have let me help before taking a–servant’s position.”
“It’s an honest occupation,” he averred.
“Do you do this–regularly?” she pursued with an effort.
“Off and on. There’s good money in it.”
“Oh!” she mourned again. Then: “You’re doing this so that you can afford to buy paints and canvas and–and things to paint me,” she accused. “It isn’t fair!”
“I’d do worse than this for that,” he declared valiantly.
Less than a fortnight later she caught him doing worse. She had ceased to speak to him of his chauffeurdom because it seemed to cause him painful embarrassment. (It did, and should have!) There had been a big theater party, important enough to get itself detailed in the valuable columns which the papers devote to such matters, and afterward supper at the most expensive uptown restaurant, Miss Roberta Holland being one of the listed guests. As she took her place at the table, she caught a glimpse of an unmistakable figure disappearing through the waiter’s exit. And Julien Tenney, who had risen from his little supper party of four (stag) hastily but just too late, on catching sight of her, saw that he was recognized. Flight, instant and permanent, had been his original intent. Now it would not do. Bolder measures must be devised. He appealed to the head-waiter to help him carry out a joke, and that functionary, developing a sense of humor under the stimulus of a twenty-dollar bill, procured him on the spot an ill-fitting coat and a black string tie, and gave him certain simple directions. When the patroness of Art next observed the object of her patronage, he was performing the humble but useful duties of an omnibus.
Miss Holland suddenly lost a perfectly good and hitherto reliable appetite.
Nor was she the only member of the supper party to develop symptoms of shock. The gilded and stalwart youth on her left, following her glance, stared at the amateur servitor with protruding eyes, ceased to eat or drink, and fell into a state of semi-coma, muttering at intervals an expressive monosyllable.
“Why not swear out loud, Caspar?” asked Bobbie presently. “It’ll do you less harm.”
“D’you see that chap over yonder? The big, fine-looking one fixing the forks?”
“Yes,” said Bobbie faintly.
“Well, that’s–No, by thunder, it can’t be!–Yes, by the red-hot hinges, it _is!_”
“Do you think you know him?”
“Know him! I _know_ him? He bunked in with me for two weeks at Grandpre. He was captain of a machine-gun outfit sent down to help us clean out that little wasp’s nest. His name’s Tenney, and if ever there was a hellion in a fight! And see–what he’s come to! My God!”
“Well, don’t cry about it,” advised the girl, serenely, though it was hard for her to keep her voice steady. “There’s nothing to do about it, is there?”
“Isn’t there!” retorted the youth, rising purposefully. “I’m going to get him and find him a job that’s fit for him if I have to take him into partnership. Of all the dash-blanked-dod-blizzened–“
“Caspar! What are you going to do? Don’t. You’ll embarrass him frightfully.”
But he was already heading off his prey at the exit. Bobbie saw her painter’s face flame into welcome, then stiffen into dismay. The pair vanished beyond the watcher’s ken. On his return the gilded youth behaved strangely. From time to time he shook his head. From time to time he chuckled. And, while Bobbie was talking to her other neighbor, he shot curious and amused glances at her. He told her nothing. But his interest in his supper returned. Bobbie’s didn’t.
To discuss the social aspects of menial service with a practitioner of it who has been admitted to a certain implicit equality is a difficult and delicate matter for a girl brought up in Roberta Holland’s school. Several times after the restaurant encounter she essayed it; trying both the indirect approach and the method of extreme frankness. Neither answered. Julien responded to her advances by alternate moods of extreme gloom and slyly inexplicable amusement. Bobbie gave it up, concluding that he was in a very queer mood, anyway. She was right. He was.
The next episode of their progress took the form of a veritable unmasking which, perversely enough, only fixed the mask tighter upon Julien Tenney. By way of loosening up his wrist for the open season, Peter Quick Banta had taken advantage of an amiable day to sketch out a composite floral and faunal scheme on the flagging in front of Thornsen’s Elite Restaurant, when Miss Holland, in passing, paused to observe and wonder. At the same moment, Julien hurrying around the corner, all but ran her down. She nodded toward the decorator of sidewalks.
“Isn’t he the funny man that you were with the first time I saw you?”
“The very same,” responded Julien with twinkling eyes.
“What is he doing?”
“He’s one of the few remaining examples of the sidewalk or public-view school of art.”
“Yes, but what does he do it for?”
“Do people give him money for it? Do you think I might give him something?” she asked, looking uncertainly at the artist, who, on hands and knees and with tongue protruding, was putting a green head on a red bird, too absorbed even to notice the onlookers.
“I think he’d be tickled pink.”
She took a quarter from her purse, hesitated, then slipped it into her companion’s hand.
“_You_ give it to him. I think he’d like it better.”
“Oh, no; I don’t think he’d like it at all. In fact, I doubt if he’d take it from me.”
“Well, you see,” explained Julien blandly, “we’re rather intimately connected.” He raised his voice. “Hello, Dad!”
The decorator furled his tongue, lifted his head, changed his crayon, replied, “Hello, Lad,” and continued his work. “What d’ you think of _that_?” he added, after a moment, triumphantly pointing a yellow crayon at the green-headed red-bird.
“Some parrot!” enthused Julien.
“‘T ain’t a parrot. It’s a nightingale,” retorted the artist indignantly. “You black-and-white fellows never do understand color.”
“It’s a corker, anyway,” said Julien. “Dad here’s a–an art patron who wants to contribute to the cause.”
The girl, whose face had become flushed and almost frightened, held out her quarter.
“I–I–don’t know,” she began. “I was interested in your picture and I thought–Mr. Tenney said–“
Peter Quick Banta took the coin with perfect dignity. “Thank you,” said he. “There ain’t much appreciation of art just at this season. But if you’ll come down to Coney about June, I’ll show you some sand-modeling that _is_ sand-modeling–‘s much as five dollars a day I’ve taken in there.”
Miss Holland recovered her social poise.
“I’d like to very much,” she said cheerfully.
She and Julien walked on in silence. Suddenly he laughed, a little jarringly. “Well,” he said, “does that help you to place me?”
“I’m not trying to place you,” she answered.
“Is that quite true?” he mocked.
“No; it isn’t. It’s a downright lie,” said Bobbie finding courage to raise her eyes to his.
“And now, I suppose, I shall be ‘my good man’ or something like that, to you.”
“Do you think it likely?”
“You called MacLachan that, you know,” he reminded her.
“Long ago. When I was–when I didn’t understand Our Square.”
“And now, of course, our every feeling and thought is an open book to your penetrating vision.”
Her lip quivered. “I don’t know why you should want to be so hateful to me.”
For a flashing second his eyes answered that appeal with a look that thrilled and daunted her. “To keep from being something else that I’ve no right to be,” he muttered.
“How many more sittings do you think it will take to finish the picture?” she asked, striving to get on safer ground.
“Only one or two, I suppose,” he answered morosely.
Such was Julien’s condition of mind after the last sitting that he actually left the precious portrait unguarded by neglecting to lock the door of the studio on going out, and the Bonnie Lassie and I, happening in, beheld it in its fulfillment. A slow flush burned its way upward in the Bonnie Lassie’s face as she studied it.
“He’s done it!” she exclaimed. “Flower and flame! Why did I ever take to sculpture? One can’t get that in the metal.”
“He’s done it,” I echoed.
“Of course, technically, it’s rather a sloppy picture.”
“It’s a glorious picture!” I cried.
“Naturally that,” returned the exasperating critic. “It always will be–when you paint with your heart’s blood.”
“Do you think your friend Bobbie appreciates the medium in which she’s presented?”
“If she doesn’t–which she probably does,” said the Bonnie Lassie, “she will find out something to her advantage when she sees me to-morrow. I’m going home to ‘phone her.”
In answer to the summons, Bobbie came. She looked, I thought, as I saw her from my bench, troubled and perplexed and softened, and glowingly lovely. At the door of the Bonnie Lassie’s house she was met with the challenge direct.
“What have you been doing to my artistic ward?”
“Nothing,” replied Bobbie with unwonted meekness, and to prove it related the incidents of the touring-car, the supper at the Taverne Splendide, and the encounter with the paternal colorist.
“That isn’t Julien’s father,” said the sculptress. “He’s only an adoptive father. But Julien adores him, as he ought to. The real father, so I’ve heard, was a French gentleman–“
“I don’t care who his father was!” cried Bobbie. (The Bonnie Lassie’s face took on the expression of an exclamation point.) “I can’t bear to think of his having to do servant’s work. And I told him so yesterday.”
“Did you look like that while you were telling him?”
“Like what? I suppose so.”
“And what did he do?”
“Do? He didn’t do anything.”
“Then,” pronounced the Bonnie Lassie, “he’s a stick of wood–hardwood–with a knot-hole for a heart.”
“He isn’t! Well, perhaps he is. He was very horrid at the last.”
“About taking money.”
“I’m a prophetess! And you’re a patroness. Born in us, I suppose. You _did_ try to give him money.”
“Just to loan it. Enough so that he could go away to study and paint. He wouldn’t even let me do that; so I–I–I offered to buy the picture of me, and he said–he said–Cecily, do you think he’s sometimes a little queer in his head?”
“Not in the head, necessarily. _What_ did he say?”
“He said he’d bought it himself at the highest price ever paid. And he said it so obstinately that I saw it was no use, so I just told him that I hoped I’d see him when I came back–“
“Back from where? Are you going away?”
“Yes; didn’t I tell you? On a three months’ cruise.”
“Had you told him that?”
“Of course. That’s when I tried to get him to take the money. Cecily–” The girl’s voice shook a little. “You’ll tell him, won’t you, that he _must_ keep on painting?”
“Why? Doesn’t he intend to?”
“He said he’d painted himself out and he didn’t think he’d ever _look_ at color again.”
“He will,” said the Bonnie Lassie wisely and comfortably. “Grief is just as driving a taskmaster as lo–as other emotions.”
“Grief!” The girl’s color ebbed. “Cecily! You don’t think I’ve hurt him?”
The Bonnie Lassie caught her in a sudden hug.
“Bobbie, do you know what I’d do in your place?”
“I’d go right–straight–back to Julien Tenney’s studio.” She paused impressively.
“Yes?” said the other faintly.
“And I’d walk right–straight–up to Julien Tenney–” Another pause, even more impressive.
“I d-d-don’t think I’d–he’d–“
“And I’d say to him: ‘Julien, will you marry me?’ Like that.”
“Oh!” said Bobbie in outraged amazement.
“And maybe–” continued the Bonnie Lassie judicially: “maybe I’d kiss him. Yes. I think I would.”
Suddenly all the bright softness of Bobbie’s large eyes dissolved in tears. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” she sobbed.
“You won’t be ashamed of _yourself_,” prophesied the other, “if you do just as I say, quickly and naturally.”
“Oh, naturally,” retorted the girl in an indignant whimper. “I suppose you think that’s natural. Anyway, he probably doesn’t care about me at all that way.”
“Roberta,” said the sculptress sternly, “did you _see_ his portrait of you?”
“And you have the presumption to say that he doesn’t care? Why, that picture doesn’t simply tell his secret. It _yells_ it!”
“I don’t care,” said the hard-pressed Bobbie. “It hasn’t yelled it to me. _Nobody’s_ yelled it to me. And I c-c-can’t ask a m-m-man to–to–“
“Perhaps you can’t,” allowed her adviser magnanimously. “On second thought, it won’t be necessary. You just go back–after powdering your nose a little–and say that you’ve come to see the picture once more, or that it’s a fine day, or that competition is the life of trade, or that–oh, anything! And, if he doesn’t do the rest, I’ll kill and eat him.”
“You _would_ be a patroness of Art. Now I’ve given you something real to patronize. Don’t you dare fail me.” Suddenly the speaker gave herself over to an access of mirth. “Heaven help that young man when he comes to own up.”
“Own up to what?”
Having consumed a vain and repetitious half-hour in variations upon her query, Bobbie gave it up and decided to find out for herself. It was curiosity and curiosity alone (so she assured herself) that impelled her to return for the last time (she assured herself of that, also) to the attic.
A voice raised in vehement protest, echoing through the open door of the studio, checked her on the landing below as she mounted.
“And you’re actually going to let thirty-five thousand a year slip through your fingers, just to pursue a fad?”
To which Julien’s equable accents replied:
“That’s it, Merrill. I’m going to paint.”
The unseen Merrill left a blessing (of a sort) behind, slammed the door upon it, and materialized to the vision of the girl on the landing as an energetic and spruce-looking man of forty-odd, with a harassed expression. At need, Miss Holland could summon considerable decisiveness to her aid.
“Would you think me inexcusably rude,” she said softly, “if I asked who you are?”
The descending man snatched off his hat, stared, seemed on the point of whistling, then, recovering himself, said courteously: “I’m George Merrill, advertising manager for the Criterion Clothing Company.”
“And Mr. Tenney has been doing drawings for you?”
“He has. For several years.”
“So that,” said the girl, half to herself, “is his pot-boiling.”
“Not a very complimentary term,” commented Mr. Merrill, “for the best black-and-white work being done in New York to-day. Between my concern and two others he makes a railroad president’s income out of it.”
“Yes, I overheard what you said to him. Thank you so much.”
“In return, may I ask you something?”
“Will you not, for his own good, dissuade Mr. Tenney from throwing away his career?”
“Why should you suppose me to have any influence with Mr. Tenney?”
Mr. Merrill’s face was grave, as befitted the issue, but a twinkle appeared at the corner of his glasses. “I’ve seen the portrait,” he replied, and with a bow, went on his way.
Julien opened the door to her knock. She stepped inside, facing him with bright, inscrutable eyes.
“Why have you been fooling me about your circumstances?” she demanded.
“D—n Merrill!” said Julien with fervor.
“It’s true that your ‘pot-boiling’ brings you a big income?”
“Then why do you take employment as a chauffeur?”
“I don’t. That car belongs to me.”
“And your being a waiter? I don’t suppose the Taverne Splendide belongs to you?”
“An impromptu bit of acting,” confessed the abashed Julien.
“And this attic? Was that hired for the same comedy?”
“No. This is mine, really.”
“I don’t understand. Why have you done it all?”
“If you want to know the truth,” he said defiantly, “so that I could keep on seeing you.”
“That’s a very poor excuse,” she retorted.
“The best in the world. As a successful commercial artist, what possible interest would you have taken in me? You took me for a struggling young painter–that was the Bonnie Lassie’s fault, for I never lied to you about it–and after we’d started on that track I didn’t–well, I didn’t have the courage to risk losing you by quitting the masquerade.”
“How you must have laughed at me all the time!”
He flushed to his angry eyes. “Do you think that is fair?” he retorted. “Or kind? Or true?”
“I–I don’t know,” she faltered. “You let me offer you money. And you’ve probably got as much as I have.”
“I won’t have from now on, then. I’m going to paint. I thought, when you told me you were going away, that I couldn’t look at a canvas again. But now I know I was wrong. I’ve got to paint. You’ll have left me that, at least.”
“Mr. Merrill thinks you’re ruining your career. And if you do, it’ll be my fault. I’ll never, never, never,” said the patroness of Art desolately, “try to do any one good again!”
She turned toward the door.
“At least,” said Julien in a voice which threatened to get out of control, “you’ll know that it wasn’t all masquerade. You’ll know why I’ll always keep the picture, even if I never paint another.”
She stole a look at him over her shoulder and, with a thrill, saw the passion in his eyes and the pride that withheld him from speaking.
“Suppose,” she said, “I asked you to give it up.”
“You wouldn’t,” he retorted quickly.
“No, I wouldn’t. But–but–” Her glance, wandering away from him, fell on the joyous line of Beranger bold above the door.
“‘How good is life in an attic at twenty,'” she murmured. Then, turning to him, she held out her hands.
“I could find it good,” she said with a soft little falter in her voice, “even at twenty-two.”
Everything passes in review before my bench, sooner or later. The two, going by with transfigured faces, stopped.
“Let’s tell Dominie,” said Julien.
I waved a jaunty hand. “I know already,” said I, “even if it hadn’t been announced to a waiting world.”
“Wh-wh-why,” stammered Bobbie with a blush worth a man’s waiting a lifetime to see, “it–it only just happened.”
“Bless your dear, innocent hearts, both of you! It’s been happening for weeks. Come with me.”
I lead them to the sidewalk fronting Thornsen’s Elite Restaurant. There stood Peter Quick Banta, admiring his latest masterpiece of imaginative symbolism. It represented a love-bird of eagle size holding in its powerful beak a scroll with a wreath of forget-me-nots on one end and of orange-blossoms on the other, encircling respectively the initials. “J.T.” and “R.H.” Below, in no less than four colors, ran the legend, “Cupid’s Token.”
“O Lord! Dad!” cried the horrified Julien, scuffing it out with frantic feet. “How long has this been there?”
“What’re you doing? Leave it be!” cried the anguished artist. “It’s been there since noon.”
“Never mind,” put in Bobbie softly; “it’s very pretty and tasteful even though it is a little precipitate. But how”–she turned the lovely and puzzled inquiry of her eyes upon the symbolist–“how did you know?”
“Artistic intuition,” said Peter Quick Banta with profound complacency. “_I’m_ an artist.”
THE HOUSE OF SILVERY VOICES
Wayfarers on the far side of Our Square used to stop before Number 37 and wonder. The little house, it seemed, was making music at them. “Kleam, kleam, kleam, kleam,” it would pipe pleasantly.
“BHONG! BHONG! BHONG!” solemn and churchly, in rebuke of its own levity.
“Kung-_glang_! Kung-_glang_! Kung-_glang_! Kung-_glang_! Kung-_glang_!” That was a duet in the middle register.
Then from some far-off aerie would ring the tocsin of an elfin silversmith, fast, furious, and tiny:
We surmised that a retired Swiss bell-ringer had secluded himself in our remote backwater of the great city to mature fresh combinations of his art.
Before the Voices came, Number 37 was as quiet a house as any in the Square. Quieter than most, since it was vacant much of the time and the ceremonious sign of the Mordaunt Estate, “For Rental to Suitable Tenant,” invited inspection. “Suitable” is the catch in that innocent-appearing legend. For the Mordaunt Estate, which is no estate at all and never has been, but an ex-butcher of elegant proclivities named Wagboom, prefers to rent its properties on a basis of prejudice rather than profit, and is quite capable of rejecting an applicant as unsuitable on purely eclectic grounds, such as garlic for breakfast, or a glass eye.
How the new tenant had contrived to commend himself to Mr. Mordaunt-Wagboom is something of a mystery. Probably it was his name rather than his appearance, which was shiny, not to say seedy. He encountered the Estate when that incorporated gentleman was engaged in painting the front door, and, in a deprecating voice, inquired whether twenty-five dollars a month would be considered.
“Maybe,” returned the Estate, whereupon the stranger introduced himself, with a stiff little bow, as Mr. Winslow Merivale.
Mr. Wagboom was favorably impressed with this, as possessing aristocratic implications.
“The name,” he pronounced, “is satisfactory. The sum is satisfactory. It is, however, essential that the lessor should measure up in character and status to the standards of the Mordaunt Estate.” This he had adapted from the prospectus of a correspondence school, which had come to him through the mail, very genteelly worded. “Family man?” he added briskly.
“How many of you?”
“No, sir,” said the little man, very low.
“Son? Daughter? What age?”
“I have never been blessed with a child.”
“Willy Woolly would share the house with me, sir.”
For the first time the Mordaunt Estate noticed a small, fluffy poodle, with an important expression, seated behind the railing.
“I don’t like dogs,” said the Mordaunt Estate curtly.
“Willy Woolly”–Mr. Winslow Merivale addressed his companion–“this gentleman does not like dogs.”
The Mordaunt Estate felt suddenly convicted of social error. The feeling deepened when Willy Woolly advanced, reckoned him up with an appraising eye, and, without the slightest loss of dignity, raised himself on his hind legs, offering the gesture of supplication. He did not, however, droop his paws in the accepted canine style; he joined them, finger tip to finger tip, elegantly and piously, after the manner of the Maiden’s Prayer.
The Estate promptly capitulated.
“Some pup!” he exclaimed. “When did you want to move in?”
“At once, if you please.”
Before the Estate had finished his artistic improvements on the front door, the new tenant had begun the transfer of his simple lares and penates in a big hand-propelled pushcart. The initial load consisted in the usual implements of eating, sitting, and sleeping. But the burden of the half-dozen succeeding trips was homogeneous. Clocks. Big clocks, little clocks, old clocks, new clocks, fat clocks, lean clocks, solemn clocks, fussy clocks, clocks of red, of green, of brown, of pink, of white, of orange, of blue, clocks that sang, and clocks that rang, clocks that whistled, and blared, and piped, and drummed. One by one, the owner established them in their new domicile, adjusted them, dusted them, and wound them, and, as they set themselves once more to their meticulous busy-ness, that place which had for so long been muffled in quiet and deadened with dust, gave forth the tiny bustle of unresting mechanism and the pleasant chime of the hours. Number 37 became the House of Silvery Voices.
* * * * *
Thus came to Our Square, to be one of us, for better or for worse, Mr. Winslow Merivale, promptly rechristened Stepfather Time. The Bonnie Lassie gave him the name. She said that only a stepfather could bring up his charges so badly. For his clocks were both independent and irresponsible, though through no fault of their own. When they were wound they went. When they were unwound they rested. Seldom were more than half of them simultaneously busy, and their differences of opinion as to the hour were radical and irreconcilable. The big, emphatic eight-day, opposite the front door, might proclaim that it was eleven, only to be at once contradicted by the little tinkler on the parlor mantel, which announced that it was six, thereby starting up the cathedral case on the stairway and the Grandfather in the dining-room, who held out respectively for eight and two, while all the time it was really half-past one. Thence arose in the early days painful misunderstandings on the part of Our Square, for we are a simple people and deem it the duty of a timepiece to keep time. In particular we were befooled by Grandfather, the solemn-voiced Ananias of a clock with a long-range stroke and a most convincing manner. So that Schepstein, the note-shaver, on his way to a profitable appointment at 11 A.M., heard the hour strike (thirty-five minutes in advance of the best professional opinion) from the House of Silvery Voices, and was impelled to the recklessness of hiring a passing taxi, thereby reaching his destination with half an hour to spare and half a dollar to lack, for which latter he threatened to sue the Mordaunt Estate’s tenant. To the credit side of the house’s account it must be set down that MacLachan, the tailor, having started one of his disastrous drunks within the precincts of his Home of Fashion, was on his way to finish it in the gutter via the zigzag route from corner saloon to corner saloon, when the Twelve Apostles clock in the basement window lifted up its voice and (presumably through the influence of Peter) thrice denied the hour, which was actually a quarter before midnight. “Losh!” said MacLachan, who invariably reacted in tongue to the stimulus of Scotch whiskey, “they’ll a’ be closed. Hame an’ to bed wi’ ye, waster of the priceless hours!” And back he staggered to sleep it off.
Then there was the disastrous case of the Little Red Doctor, who set out to attend a highly interesting consultation at 4 P.M. and, hearing Grandfather Ananias strike three, erroneously concluded that he had spare time to stop in for a peek at Madame Tallafferr’s gout (which was really vanity in the guise of tight shoes), and reached the hospital, only to find it all over and the patient dead.
“It’s an outrage,” declared the Little Red Doctor fiercely, “that an old lunatic can move in here from God-knows-where in a pushcart and play merry hell with a hard-working practitioner’s professional duties. And you’re the one to tell him so, Dominie. You’re the diplomat of the Square.”
He even inveigled the Bonnie Lassie into backing him up in this preposterous proposal. She had her own grievance against the House of Silvery Voices.
“It isn’t the way it plays tricks on time alone,” said she. “There’s one clock in there that’s worse than conscience.”
And she brought her indictment against a raucous timepiece which was wont to lead up to its striking with a long, preliminary clack-and-whirr, alleging that twice, when she had quit her sculping early because the clay was obdurate and wouldn’t come right, and had gone for a walk to clear her vision, the clock had accosted her in these unjustifiable terms:
“Clacketty-whirr-rr-rr! Back-to-yer-worr-rr-rrk! Yerr-rr-rr-rr _wrong! wrong! wrong! wrong!”_
“Wherefore,” said the Bonnie Lassie, “your appellant prays that you be a dear, good, stern, forbidding Dominie and go over to Number 37 and ask him what he means by it, anyway, and tell him he’s got to stop it.”
Now, the Bonnie Lassie holds the power of the high, the middle, and the low justice over all Our Square by the divine right of loveliness and kindliness. So that evening I went while the Little Red Doctor, as a self-constituted Committee in Waiting, sat on my bench. Stepfather Time himself opened the door to me.
“What might they call you, sir, if I may ask?” he inquired with timid courtesy.
“They might call me the Dominie hereabouts. And they do.”
“I have heard of you.” He motioned me to a seat in the bare little room, alive with tickings and clickings. “You have lived long here, sir?”
From some interminable distance a voice of time mocked me with a subtle and solemn mockery: “_Long. Long. Long_.”
My host waited for the clock to finish before he spoke again. As I afterward discovered, this was his invariable custom.
“I, too, am an old man,” he murmured.
“A hardy sixty, I should guess.”
“A long life. Might I ask you a question, sir,’ as to the folk in this Square?” He hesitated a moment after I had nodded. “Are they, as one might say, friendly? Neighborly?”
I was a little taken aback. “We are not an intrusive people.”
“No one,” he said, “has been to see my clocks.”
I began to perceive that this was a sad little man, and to mislike my errand. “You live here quite alone?” I asked.
“Oh, no!” said he quickly. “You see, I have Willy Woolly. Pardon me. I have not yet presented him.”
At his call the fluffy poodle ambled over to me, sniffed at my extended hand, and, rearing, set his paws on my knee.
“He greets you as a friend,” said my new acquaintance in a tone which indicated that I had been signally honored. “I trust that we shall see you here often, Mr. Dominie. Would you like to inspect my collection now?”
Here was my opening. “The fact is–” I began, and stopped from sheer cowardice. The job was too distasteful. To wound that gentle pride in his possessions which was obviously the life of the singular being before me–I couldn’t do it. “The fact is,” I repeated, “I–I have a friend outside waiting for me. The Little Red Doctor–er–Dr. Smith, you know.”
“A physician?” he said eagerly. “Would he come in, do you think? Willy Woolly has been quite feverish to-day.”
“I’ll ask him,” I replied, and escaped with that excuse.
When I broke it to the Little Red Doctor, the mildest thing he said to me was to ask me why I should take him for a dash-binged vet!
Appeals to his curiosity finally overpersuaded him, and now it was my turn to wait on the bench while he invaded the realm of the Voices. Happily for me the weather was amiable; it was nearly two hours before my substitute reappeared. He then tried to sneak away without seeing me. Balked in this cowardly endeavor, he put on a vague professional expression and observed that it was an obscure case.
“For a man of sixty,” I began, “Mr. Merivale–“
“_Who_?” interrupted the Little Red Doctor; “I’m speaking of the dog.”
“Have you, then,” I inquired in insinuating accents, “become a dash-binged vet?”
“A man can’t be a brute, can he!” he retorted angrily. “When that animated mop put up his paws and stuck his tongue out like a child–“
“I know,” I said. “You took on a new patient. Probably gratis,” I added, with malice, for this was one of the Little Red Doctor’s notoriously weak points.
“Just the same, he’s a fool dog.”
“On the contrary, he is a person of commanding intellect and nice social discrimination,” I asserted, recalling Willy Woolly’s flattering acceptance of myself.
“A faker,” asseverated my friend. “He pretends to see things.”
I sat up straight on my bench. “Things? What kind of things?”
“Things that aren’t there,” returned the Little Red Doctor, and fell to musing. “They couldn’t be,” he added presently and argumentatively.
Receiving no encouragement when I sought further details, I asked whether he had called the new resident to account for the delinquencies of his clocks. He shook his head.
“I didn’t have time,” said he doggedly.
“Time? Why, there’s nothing but time in that house.”
The Little Red Doctor chose to take my feeble joke at par. “No time at all. None of the clocks keep it.”
“How does he manage his life, then?”
“Willy Woolly does that for him. Barks him up in the morning. Jogs his elbow at mealtimes. Tucks him in bed at night, for all I know.”
Thus abortively ended Our Square’s protest against Stepfather Time and his House of Silvery Voices. The Little Red Doctor’s obscure suggestion stuck in my mind, and a few nights later I made a second call. Curiosity rather than neighborliness was the inciting cause. Therefore I ought to have been embarrassed at the quiet warmth of my reception by both of the tenants. Interrupting himself in the work of adjusting a new acquisition’s mechanism, Stepfather Time settled me into the most comfortable chair and immediately began to talk of clocks.
Good talk, it was; quaint and flavorous and erudite. But my attention kept wandering to Willy Woolly, who, after politely kissing my hand, had settled down behind his master’s chair. Willy Woolly was seeing things. No pretense about it. His mournful eyes yearned hither and thither, following some entity that moved in the room, dimmer than darkness, more ethereal than shadow. His ears quivered. A muffled, measured thumping sounded, dull and indeterminate like spirit rapping; it took me an appreciable time to identify it as the noise of the poodle’s tail, beating the floor. Once he whined, a quick, quivering, eager note. And still the amateur of clocks murmured his placid lore. It was rather more than old nerves could stand.
“The dog,” I broke in upon the stream of erudition. “Surely, Mr. Merivale–“
“Willy Woolly?” He looked down, and the faithful one withdrew himself from his vision long enough to lick the master hand. “Does he disturb you?”
“Oh, no,” I answered, a little confused. “I only thought–it seemed that he is uneasy about something.”
“There are finer sensibilities than we poor humans have,” said my host gravely.
“Then you have noticed how he watches and follows?”
“He is always like that. Always, since.”
His “since” was one of the strangest syllables that ever came to my ears. It implied nothing to follow. It was finality’s self.
“It is”–I sought a word–“interesting and curious,” I concluded lamely, feeling how insufficient the word was.
“She comes back to him,” said my host simply.
No need to ask of whom he spoke. The pronoun was as final and definitive as his “since.” Never have I heard such tenderness as he gave to its utterance. Nor such desolation as dimmed his voice when he added:
“She never comes back to me.”
That evening he spoke no more of her. Yet I felt that I had been admitted to an intimacy. And, as the habit grew upon me thereafter of dropping in to listen to the remote, restful, unworldly quaintnesses of his philosophy, fragments, dropped here and there, built up the outline of the tragedy which had left him stranded in our little backwater of quiet. She whom he had cherished since they were boy and girl together, had died in the previous winter. She had formed the whole circle of his existence within which he moved, attended by Willy Woolly, happily gathering his troves. Her death had left him not so much alone as alien in the world. He was without companionship except that of Willy Woolly, without interest except that of his timepieces, and without hope except that of rejoining her. Once he emerged from a long spell of musing, to say in a tone of indescribable conviction:
“I suppose I was the happiest man in the world.”
Any chance incident or remark might turn his thought and speech, unconscious of the transition, from his favorite technicalities back to the past. Some comment of mine upon a specimen of that dismal songster, the cuckoo clock, which stood on his mantel, had started him into one of his learned expositions.
“The first cuckoo clock, as you are doubtless aware, sir”–he was always scrupulous to assume knowledge on the part of his hearer, no matter how abstruse or technical the subject; it was a phase of his inherent courtesy–“was intended to represent not the cuckoo, but the blackbird. It had a double pipe for the hours, ‘Pit-weep! Pit-weep!’ and a single–“
His voice trailed into silence as the mechanical bird of his own collection popped forth and piped its wooden lay. Willy Woolly pattered over, sat down before it, and, gazing through and beyond the meaningless face with eyes of adoration whose purport there was no mistaking, whined lovingly.
“When the cuckoo sounded,” continued the collector without the slightest change of intonation, “she used to imitate it to puzzle Willy Woolly. A merry heart! … All was so still after it stopped beating. The clocks forgot to strike.”
The poodle, turning his absorbed regard from the Presence that moves beyond time and its perishing voices, trotted to his master and nuzzled the frail hand.
The hand fondled him. “Yes, little dog,” murmured the man. His eyes, sad as those of the animal, quested the dimness.
“Why does she come to him and not to me? He loved her dearly, didn’t you, little dog? But not as I did.” There was a quivering note of jealousy in his voice. “Why is my vision blinded to what he sees?”
“You have said yourself that there are finer sensibilities than ours,” I suggested.
He shook his head. “It lies deeper than that. I think he is drawing near her. He used to have a little bark that he kept for her alone. In the dead of night I have heard him give that bark–since. And I knew that she was speaking to him. I think that he will go first. Perhaps he will tell her that I am coming…. But I should be very lonely.”
“Willy’s a stout young thing,” I asserted, “with years of life before him.”
“Perhaps,” he returned doubtfully. A gleam of rare fun lit up his pale, vague eyes. “Can’t you see him dodging past Saint Peter through the pearly gates” (“I was brought up a Methodist,” he added in apologetic explanation), “trotting along the alabaster streets sniffing about for her among all the Shining Ones, listening for her voice amid the sound of the harps, and when he finds her, hallelujahing with that little bark that was for her alone: ‘Here I am, mistress! Here I am! And _he’s_ coming soon, mistress. Your Old Boy is coming soon.'”
When I retailed that conversation to the Little Red Doctor, he snorted and said that Stepfather Time was one degree crazier than Willy Woolly and that I wasn’t much better than a higher moron myself. Well, if I’ve got to be called a fool by my best friends, I’d rather be called it in Greek than in English. It’s more euphonious.
* * * * *
The pair in Number 37 soon settled down to a routine life. Every morning Stepfather Time got out his big pushcart and set forth in search of treasure, accompanied by Willy Woolly. Sometimes the dog trotted beneath the cart; sometimes he rode in it. He was always on the job. Never did he indulge in those divagations so dear to the normal canine heart. Other dogs and their ways interested him not. Cats simply did not exist in his circumscribed life. Even to the shining mark of a boy on a bicycle he was indifferent, and when a dog has reached that stage one may safely say of him that he has renounced the world and all its vanities. Willy Woolly’s one concern in life was his master and their joint business.
Soon they became accepted familiars of Our Square. Despite the general conviction that they were slightly touched, we even became proud of them. They lent distinction to the locality by getting written up in a Sunday supplement, Willy Woolly being specially photographed therefor, a gleam of transient glory, which, however it may have gratified our local pride, left both of the subjects quite indifferent. Stepfather Time might have paid more heed to it had he not, at the time, been wholly preoccupied in a difficult quest.
In a basement window, far over on Avenue D, stood an old and battered timepiece of which Stepfather Time had heard the voice but never seen the face. Each of three attempts to investigate with a view to negotiations had been frustrated by a crabbed and violent-looking man with a repellent club. Nevertheless, the voice alone had ensnared the connoisseur; it was, by the test of the pipe which he carried on all his quests, D in alt, and would thus complete the major chord of a chime which he had long been building up. (She had loved, best of all, harmonic combinations of the clock bells.) Every day he would halt in front of the place and wait to hear it strike, and its owner would peer out from behind it and shake a wasted fist and curse him with strange, hoarse foreign oaths, while Willy Woolly tugged at his trouser leg and urged him to pass on from that unchancy spot. All that he could learn about the basement dweller was that his name was Lukisch and he owed for his rent.
Mr. Lukisch had nothing special against the queer old party who made sheep’s eyes at his clock every day. He hated him quite impartially, as he hated everybody. Mr. Lukisch had a bad heart in more senses than one, and a grudge against the world which he blamed for the badness of his heart. Also he had definite ideas of reprisal, which were focused by a dispossess notice, and directed particularly upon the person and property of his landlord. The clock he needed as the instrument of his vengeance; therefore he would not have sold it at any price to the sheep-eyed old lunatic of the pushcart, who now, on the eve of his eviction, stood gazing in with wistful contemplation. Presently he passed on and Mr. Lukisch resumed his tinkering with the clock’s insides. He was very delicate and careful about it, for these were the final touches, preparatory to his leaving the timepiece as a memento when he should quietly depart that evening, shortly before nine. What might happen after nine, or, rather, on the stroke of nine, was no worry of his, though it might be and probably would be of the landlord’s, provided that heartless extortioner survived it.
Having completed his operations, Mr. Lukisch sat down in a rickety chair and gazed at the clock, face to face, with contemplative satisfaction. Stepfather Time would have been interested in the contrast between those two physiognomies. The clock’s face, benign and bland, would have deceived him. But, innocent though he was in the ways of evil, the man’s face might have warned him.
Something within the clock’s mechanism clicked and checked and went on again. The sound, quite unexpected, gave Mr. Lukisch a bad start. Could something have gone wrong with the combination? Suppose a premature release…. At that panic thought something within Mr. Lukisch’s bad heart clicked and checked and did not go on again. The fear in his eyes faded and was succeeded by an expression of surprise and inquiry. Whether the inquiry was answered, nobody could have guessed from the still, unwinking regard on the face of the victim of heart failure.
By and by a crowd gathered on the sidewalk, drawn by that mysterious instinct for sensation which attracts the casual and the idle. Two bold spirits entered the door and stood, hesitant, just inside, awed because the clock seemed so startlingly alive in that place. Some one sent upstairs for the landlord, who arrived to bemoan the unjust fates which had not only mulcted him of two months’ rent with nothing to show for it but a rickety clock, but had also saddled him with a wholly superfluous corpse. He abused both indiscriminately, but chiefly the clock because it gave the effect of being sentient. So fervently did he curse it that Stepfather Time, repassing with Willy Woolly, heard him and entered.
“And who”–the landlord addressed high Heaven with a gesture at once pious and pessimistic–“is to pay me fourteen dollars back rent this dirty beggar owes?”
“The man,” said Stepfather Time gently, “is dead.”
“He is.” The landlord confirmed the unwelcome fact with objurgations. “Now must come the po-liss, the coroner, trouble, and expense. And what have I who run my property honest and respectable got to pay for it? Some rags and a bum clock.”
Willy Woolly sniffed at one protruding foot and growled. Dead or alive, this was not Willy Woolly’s kind of man. “Now, now, Willy Woolly!” reproved his master. “Who are we that we should judge him?”
“But I don’t _like_ him,” declared Willy Woolly in unequivocal dog language.
“I think from his face that he has suffered much,” said the gentle collector, wise in human pain.
“Me; I suppose I don’t suffer!” pointed out the landlord vehemently. “Fourteen dollars out. Two months’ rent. A bum clock.”
He kicked the shabby case which whizzed and birred and struck five. The voice of its bell, measured and mellow and pure, was unquestionably D in alt.
“My dear sir,” said Stepfather Time urbanely, but quivering underneath his calm manner with the hot eagerness of the chase, “I will buy your clock.”
A gust of rough laughter passed through the crowd. The injurious word “nut” floated in the air, and was followed by “Verrichter.” The landlord took thought and hope.
“It is a very fine clock,” he declared.
“It is a bum clock,” Stepfather Time reminded him mildly.
“Stepnadel, the auctioneer, would pay me much money for it.”
“I will pay you much money for it.”
“Seven dollars. That is one month’s rent that he owed.”
“Two months’ rent I must have.”
“One,” said Stepfather Time firmly.
“Two,” said the landlord insistently.
“Urff! Grr–rr–rr–rrff!” said Willy Woolly in emphatic dissuasion.
Stepfather Time was scandalized. Expert opinion was quite outside of Willy Woolly’s province. Only once in the course of their years together had he interfered in a purchase. Justice compelled Stepfather Time to recall that the subject of Willy’s protests on that occasion had subsequently turned out to be far less antique than the worm holes in the woodwork (artificially blown in with powder) would have led the unsuspecting to suppose. But about the present legacy there could be no such question. It was genuine. It was old. It was valuable. It possessed a seraphic note pitched true to the long-desired chord.
Extracting a ten-dollar note from his wallet, Stepfather Time waved it beneath the landlord’s wrinkled and covetous nose. The landlord capitulated. Willy Woolly, sniffing at the clock with fur abristle, lifted up his voice and wailed. Perhaps his delicate nose had already detected the faint, unhallowed odor of the chemicals within. He stubbornly refused to ride back in the cart with the new acquisition, and was accused of being sulky and childish.
* * * * *
The relic of the late unlamented Lukisch was temporarily installed in a high chair before the open window giving on the areaway of Number 37. There it briefly beamed upon the busy life of Our Square with its bland and hypocritical face, and there, thrice and no more, it sounded the passing of the hours with its sweet and false voice, biding the stroke of nine. Meantime Willy Woolly settled down to keep watch on it and could not be moved from that duty. Every time it struck the half he growled. At the hour he barked and raged. When Stepfather Time sought to draw him away to dinner he committed the unpardonable sin of dog-dom, he snarled at his master. Turning this strange manifestation over in his troubled mind, the collector decided that Willy Woolly must be ill, and therefore that evening went to seek the Little Red Doctor and his wisdom.
Together they came across the park space opposite the House of Silvery Voices in time to witness the final scene.
The new clock struck the half after eight as they reached the turn in the path. A long, quavering howl, mingled of rage and desperation, answered in Willy Woolly’s voice.
“You hear?” said Stepfather Time anxiously to the Little Red Doctor. “The dog is not himself.”
They saw him rear up against the clock case. He seemed to be trying to tear it open with his teeth.
“Willy!” cried his master in a tone such as, I suppose, the well-loved companion had not heard twice before in his life. “Down, Willy!”
The dog drooped back. But it was not in obedience. For once he disregarded the master’s command. Perhaps he did not even hear it in the absorption of his dread and rage. Step by step he withdrew, then rushed and launched himself straight at the timepiece. Slight though his bulk was, the impetus of the charge did the work. The clock reeled, toppled, and fell outward through the window; then–
From the House of Silvery Voices rose a roar that smote the heavens. A roar and a belch of flame and a spreading, poisonous stench that struck the two men in the park to earth. When they struggled to their feet again, the smoke had parted and the House of Silvery Voices gaped open, its front wall stripped bodily away. But within, the sound of the busy industry of time went on uninterrupted.
Weaving and wobbling on his feet, Stepfather Time staggered toward the pot calling on the name of Willy Woolly. At the gate he stopped, put forth his hand, and lifted from the railing a wopsy, woolly fragment, no bigger than a sheet of note paper. It was red and warm and wet.
“He’s gone,” said Stepfather Time.
The Clock of Conscience took up the tale. “Gone. Gone. Gone,” it pealed.
As the collector would not leave the shattered house, they sent for me to stay the night with him. A strange vigil! For now it was the man who followed with intent, unworldly eyes that which I, with my lesser vision, could not discern. And the Unseen moved swiftly about the desolate room, low to the floor, and seemed finally to stop, motionless beneath a caressing hand. I thought to hear that dull, measured thumping of a grateful tail, but it was only the Twelve Apostles getting ready to strike.
Only once that night did Stepfather Time speak, and then not to me.
“Tell her,” he said in an assured murmur, “that I shan’t be long.”
“Not-long. Not-long. Not-long. Not-long. Not-long,” confirmed Grandfather from his stance on the stairway.
In that assurance Stepfather Time fell asleep. He did not go out again with his pushcart, but sat in the rear room while the Mordaunt Estate in person superintended the job of putting a new front on the house.
The night after it was finished I received an urgent telephone call to come there at once. At the entrance I met the Little Red Doctor coming out.
“The clocks have stopped,” said he gently.
So I turned to cross the park with him.
“I shall certify,” said he, “heart disease.”
“You may certify what you please,” said I. “But what do you believe?”
The Little Red Doctor, who prides himself on being a hard-bitted materialist, glared at me as injuriously as if my innocent question had been an insult.
“I don’t believe it!” he averred violently. “Do you take me for a sentimental idiot that I should pin silly labels on my old friend, Death?” His expression underwent a curious change. “But I never saw such joy on any living face,” he muttered under his breath.
* * * * *
The House of Silvery Voices is silent now. But its echo still lives and makes music in Our Square. For, with the proceeds of Stepfather Time’s clocks, an astounding total, we have built a miniature clock tower facing Number 37, with a silvery voice of its own, for memory. The Bonnie Lassie designed the tower, and because there is love and understanding in all that the Bonnie Lassie sets her wonder-working hand to, it is as beautiful as it is simple. Among ourselves we call it the Tower of the Two Faithful Hearts.
The silvery voice within it is the product of a paragon among timepieces, a most superior instrument, of unimpeachable construction and great cost. But it has one invincible peculiarity, the despair of the best consulting experts who have been called in to remedy it and, one and all, have failed for reasons which they cannot fathom. How should they!
It never keeps time.
Long ago I made an important discovery. It comes under the general head of statics and is this: by occupying an invariable bench in Our Square, looking venerable and contemplative and indigenous, as if you had grown up in that selfsame spot, you will draw people to come to you for information, and they will frequently give more than they get of it. Such, I am informed, is the method whereby the flytrap orchid achieves a satisfying meal. Not that I seek to claim for myself the colorful splendors of the Cypripedium, being only a tired old pedagogue with a taste for the sunlight and for observing the human bubbles that float and bob on the current in our remote eddy of life. Nevertheless, I can follow a worthy example, even though the exemplar be only a carnivorous bloom. And, I may confess, on the afternoon of October 1st, I was in a receptive mood for such flies of information as might come to me concerning two large invading vans which had rumbled into our quiet precincts and, after a pause for inquiry, stopped before the Mordaunt Estate’s newly repaired property at Number 37.
The Mordaunt Estate in person was painting the front wall. The design which he practiced was based less upon any previsioned concept of art than upon the purchase, at a price, of a rainbow-end job lot of colors.
The vanners descended, bent on negotiations. Progress was obviously unsatisfactory, the artist, after brief and chill consideration, reverting to his toil. Now, tact and discretion are essential in approaching the Mordaunt Estate, for he is a prickly institution. I was sure that the newcomers had taken the wrong tack with him.
Discomfiture was in their mien as they withdrew in my direction. I mused upon my bench, with a metaphysical expression which I have found useful in such cases. They conferred. They approached. They begged my pardon. With an effort which can hardly have failed to be effective, I dragged myself back to the world of actualities and opened languid eyes upon them. It is possible that I opened them somewhat wider than the normal, for they fell at once upon the nearer and smaller of the pair, a butterfly of the most vivid and delightful appearance.
“Is the house with the ‘To Let’ sign on it really to let, do you know, sir?” she inquired, adding music to color with her voice.
“So I understand,” said I, rising.
“And the party with the yellow nose, who is desecrating the front,” put in the butterfly’s companion. “Is he a lunatic or a designer of barber poles?”
“He is a proud and reserved ex-butcher, named Wagboom, now doing a limited but high-class business in rentals as the Mordaunt Estate.”
“He may be the butcher, but he talks more like the pig. All we could get out of him was a series of grunts when we addressed him by name.”
“Ah, but you used the wrong name. For all business purposes he should be addressed as the Mordaunt Estate, his duly incorporated title. Wagboom is an irritant to a haughty property-owner’s soul.”
“Shall we go back and try a counter-irritant?” asked the young man of his companion.