There is one day that is ours. There is one day when all we Americans who are not self-made go back to the old home to eat saleratus biscuits and marvel how much nearer to the porch the old pump looks than it used to. Bless the day. President Roosevelt gives it to us. We hear some talk of the Puritans, but don’t just remember who they were. Bet we can lick ’em, anyhow, if they try to land again. Plymouth Rocks? Well, that sounds more familiar. Lots of us have had to come down to hens since the Turkey Trust got its work in. But somebody in Washington is leaking out advance information to ’em about these Thanksgiving proclamations.
The big city east of the cranberry bogs has made Thanksgiving Day an institution. The last Thursday in November is the only day in the year on which it recognizes the part of America lying across the ferries. It is the one day that is purely American. Yes, a day of celebration, exclusively American.
And now for the story which is to prove to you that we have traditions on this side of the ocean that are becoming older at a much rapider rate than those of England are—thanks to our git-up and enterprise.
Stuffy Pete took his seat on the third bench to the right as you enter Union Square from the east, at the walk opposite the fountain. Every Thanksgiving Day for nine years he had taken his seat there promptly at 1 o’clock. For every time he had done so things had happened to him—Charles Dickensy things that swelled his waistcoat above his heart, and equally on the other side.
But to-day Stuffy Pete’s appearance at the annual trysting place seemed to have been rather the result of habit than of the yearly hunger which, as the philanthropists seem to think, afflicts the poor at such extended intervals.
Certainly Pete was not hungry. He had just come from a feast that had left him of his powers barely those of respiration and locomotion. His eyes were like two pale gooseberries firmly imbedded in a swollen and gravy-smeared mask of putty. His breath came in short wheezes; a senatorial roll of adipose tissue denied a fashionable set to his upturned coat collar. Buttons that had been sewed upon his clothes by kind Salvation fingers a week before flew like popcorn, strewing the earth around him. Ragged he was, with a split shirt front open to the wishbone; but the November breeze, carrying fine snowflakes, brought him only a grateful coolness. For Stuffy Pete was overcharged with the caloric produced by a super-bountiful dinner, beginning with oysters and ending with plum pudding, and including (it seemed to him) all the roast turkey and baked potatoes and chicken salad and squash pie and ice cream in the world. Wherefore he sat, gorged, and gazed upon the world with after-dinner contempt.
The meal had been an unexpected one. He was passing a red brick mansion near the beginning of Fifth avenue, in which lived two old ladies of ancient family and a reverence for traditions. They even denied the existence of New York, and believed that Thanksgiving Day was declared solely for Washington Square. One of their traditional habits was to station a servant at the postern gate with orders to admit the first hungry wayfarer that came along after the hour of noon had struck, and banquet him to a finish. Stuffy Pete happened to pass by on his way to the park, and the seneschals gathered him in and upheld the custom of the castle.
After Stuffy Pete had gazed straight before him for ten minutes he was conscious of a desire for a more varied field of vision. With a tremendous effort he moved his head slowly to the left. And then his eyes bulged out fearfully, and his breath ceased, and the rough-shod ends of his short legs wriggled and rustled on the gravel.
For the Old Gentleman was coming across Fourth avenue toward his bench.
Every Thanksgiving Day for nine years the Old Gentleman had come there and found Stuffy Pete on his bench. That was a thing that the Old Gentleman was trying to make a tradition of. Every Thanksgiving Day for nine years he had found Stuffy there, and had led him to a restaurant and watched him eat a big dinner. They do those things in England unconsciously. But this is a young country, and nine years is not so bad. The Old Gentleman was a staunch American patriot, and considered himself a pioneer in American tradition. In order to become picturesque we must keep on doing one thing for a long time without ever letting it get away from us. Something like collecting the weekly dimes in industrial insurance. Or cleaning the streets.
The Old Gentleman moved, straight and stately, toward the Institution that he was rearing. Truly, the annual feeding of Stuffy Pete was nothing national in its character, such as the Magna Charta or jam for breakfast was in England. But it was a step. It was almost feudal. It showed, at least, that a Custom was not impossible to New Y—ahem!—America.
The Old Gentleman was thin and tall and sixty. He was dressed all in black, and wore the old-fashioned kind of glasses that won’t stay on your nose. His hair was whiter and thinner than it had been last year, and he seemed to make more use of his big, knobby cane with the crooked handle.
As his established benefactor came up Stuffy wheezed and shuddered like some woman’s over-fat pug when a street dog bristles up at him. He would have flown, but all the skill of Santos-Dumont could not have separated him from his bench. Well had the myrmidons of the two old ladies done their work.
“Good morning,” said the Old Gentleman. “I am glad to perceive that the vicissitudes of another year have spared you to move in health about the beautiful world. For that blessing alone this day of thanksgiving is well proclaimed to each of us. If you will come with me, my man, I will provide you with a dinner that should make your physical being accord with the mental.”
That is what the old Gentleman said every time. Every Thanksgiving Day for nine years. The words themselves almost formed an Institution. Nothing could be compared with them except the Declaration of Independence. Always before they had been music in Stuffy’s ears. But now he looked up at the Old Gentleman’s face with tearful agony in his own. The fine snow almost sizzled when it fell upon his perspiring brow. But the Old Gentleman shivered a little and turned his back to the wind.
Stuffy had always wondered why the Old Gentleman spoke his speech rather sadly. He did not know that it was because he was wishing every time that he had a son to succeed him. A son who would come there after he was gone—a son who would stand proud and strong before some subsequent Stuffy, and say: “In memory of my father.” Then it would be an Institution.
But the Old Gentleman had no relatives. He lived in rented rooms in one of the decayed old family brownstone mansions in one of the quiet streets east of the park. In the winter he raised fuchsias in a little conservatory the size of a steamer trunk. In the spring he walked in the Easter parade. In the summer he lived at a farmhouse in the New Jersey hills, and sat in a wicker armchair, speaking of a butterfly, the ornithoptera amphrisius, that he hoped to find some day. In the autumn he fed Stuffy a dinner. These were the Old Gentleman’s occupations.
Stuffy Pete looked up at him for a half minute, stewing and helpless in his own self-pity. The Old Gentleman’s eyes were bright with the giving-pleasure. His face was getting more lined each year, but his little black necktie was in as jaunty a bow as ever, and the linen was beautiful and white, and his gray mustache was curled carefully at the ends. And then Stuffy made a noise that sounded like peas bubbling in a pot. Speech was intended; and as the Old Gentleman had heard the sounds nine times before, he rightly construed them into Stuffy’s old formula of acceptance.
“Thankee, sir. I’ll go with ye, and much obliged. I’m very hungry, sir.”
The coma of repletion had not prevented from entering Stuffy’s mind the conviction that he was the basis of an Institution. His Thanksgiving appetite was not his own; it belonged by all the sacred rights of established custom, if not, by the actual Statute of Limitations, to this kind old gentleman who bad preempted it. True, America is free; but in order to establish tradition some one must be a repetend—a repeating decimal. The heroes are not all heroes of steel and gold. See one here that wielded only weapons of iron, badly silvered, and tin.
The Old Gentleman led his annual protégé southward to the restaurant, and to the table where the feast had always occurred. They were recognized.
“Here comes de old guy,” said a waiter, “dat blows dat same bum to a meal every Thanksgiving.”
The Old Gentleman sat across the table glowing like a smoked pearl at his corner-stone of future ancient Tradition. The waiters heaped the table with holiday food—and Stuffy, with a sigh that was mistaken for hunger’s expression, raised knife and fork and carved for himself a crown of imperishable bay.
No more valiant hero ever fought his way through the ranks of an enemy. Turkey, chops, soups, vegetables, pies, disappeared before him as fast as they could be served. Gorged nearly to the uttermost when he entered the restaurant, the smell of food had almost caused him to lose his honor as a gentleman, but he rallied like a true knight. He saw the look of beneficent happiness on the Old Gentleman’s face—a happier look than even the fuchsias and the ornithoptera amphrisius had ever brought to it—and he had not the heart to see it wane.
In an hour Stuffy leaned back with a battle won. “Thankee kindly, sir,” he puffed like a leaky steam pipe; “thankee kindly for a hearty meal.” Then he arose heavily with glazed eyes and started toward the kitchen. A waiter turned him about like a top, and pointed him toward the door. The Old Gentleman carefully counted out $1.30 in silver change, leaving three nickels for the waiter.
They parted as they did each year at the door, the Old Gentleman going south, Stuffy north.
Around the first corner Stuffy turned, and stood for one minute. Then he seemed to puff out his rags as an owl puffs out his feathers, and fell to the sidewalk like a sunstricken horse.
When the ambulance came the young surgeon and the driver cursed softly at his weight. There was no smell of whiskey to justify a transfer to the patrol wagon, so Stuffy and his two dinners went to the hospital. There they stretched him on a bed and began to test him for strange diseases, with the hope of getting a chance at some problem with the bare steel.
And lo! an hour later another ambulance brought the Old Gentleman. And they laid him on another bed and spoke of appendicitis, for he looked good for the bill.
But pretty soon one of the young doctors met one of the young nurses whose eyes he liked, and stopped to chat with her about the cases.
“That nice old gentleman over there, now,” he said, “you wouldn’t think that was a case of almost starvation. Proud old family, I guess. He told me he hadn’t eaten a thing for three days.”
THE ASSESSOR OF SUCCESS
Hastings Beauchamp Morley sauntered across Union Square with a pitying look at the hundreds that lolled upon the park benches. They were a motley lot, he thought; the men with stolid, animal, unshaven faces; the women wriggling and self-conscious, twining and untwining their feet that hung four inches above the gravelled walks.
Were I Mr. Carnegie or Mr. Rockefeller I would put a few millions in my inside pocket and make an appointment with all the Park Commissioners (around the corner, if necessary), and arrange for benches in all the parks of the world low enough for women to sit upon, and rest their feet upon the ground. After that I might furnish libraries to towns that would pay for ’em, or build sanitariums for crank professors, and call ’em colleges, if I wanted to.
Women’s rights societies have been laboring for many years after equality with man. With what result? When they sit on a bench they must twist their ankles together and uncomfortably swing their highest French heels clear of earthly support. Begin at the bottom, ladies. Get your feet on the ground, and then rise to theories of mental equality.
Hastings Beauchamp Morley was carefully and neatly dressed. That was the result of an instinct due to his birth and breeding. It is denied us to look further into a man’s bosom than the starch on his shirt front; so it is left to us only to recount his walks and conversation.
Morley had not a cent in his pockets; but he smiled pityingly at a hundred grimy, unfortunate ones who had no more, and who would have no more when the sun’s first rays yellowed the tall paper-cutter building on the west side of the square. But Morley would have enough by then. Sundown had seen his pockets empty before; but sunrise had always seen them lined.
First he went to the house of a clergyman off Madison avenue and presented a forged letter of introduction that holily purported to issue from a pastorate in Indiana. This netted him $5 when backed up by a realistic romance of a delayed remittance.
On the sidewalk, twenty steps from the clergyman’s door, a pale-faced, fat man huskily enveloped him with a raised, red fist and the voice of a bell buoy, demanding payment of an old score.
“Why, Bergman, man,” sang Morley, dulcetly, “is this you? I was just on my way up to your place to settle up. That remittance from my aunt arrived only this morning. Wrong address was the trouble. Come up to the corner and I’ll square up. Glad to see you. Saves me a walk.”
Four drinks placated the emotional Bergman. There was an air about Morley when he was backed by money in hand that would have stayed off a call loan at Rothschilds’. When he was penniless his bluff was pitched half a tone lower, but few are competent to detect the difference in the notes.
“You gum to mine blace and bay me to-morrow, Mr. Morley,” said Bergman. “Oxcuse me dat I dun you on der street. But I haf not seen you in dree mont’. Pros’t!”
Morley walked away with a crooked smile on his pale, smooth face. The credulous, drink-softened German amused him. He would have to avoid Twenty-ninth street in the future. He had not been aware that Bergman ever went home by that route.
At the door of a darkened house two squares to the north Morley knocked with a peculiar sequence of raps. The door opened to the length of a six-inch chain, and the pompous, important black face of an African guardian imposed itself in the opening. Morley was admitted.
In a third-story room, in an atmosphere opaque with smoke, he hung for ten minutes above a roulette wheel. Then downstairs he crept, and was out-sped by the important negro, jingling in his pocket the 40 cents in silver that remained to him of his five-dollar capital. At the corner he lingered, undecided.
Across the street was a drug store, well lighted, sending forth gleams from the German silver and crystal of its soda fountain and glasses. Along came a youngster of five, headed for the dispensary, stepping high with the consequence of a big errand, possibly one to which his advancing age had earned him promotion. In his hand he clutched something tightly, publicly, proudly, conspicuously.
Morley stopped him with his winning smile and soft speech.
“Me?” said the youngster. “I’m doin’ to the drug ’tore for mamma. She dave me a dollar to buy a bottle of med’cin.”
“Now, now, now!” said Morley. “Such a big man you are to be doing errands for mamma. I must go along with my little man to see that the cars don’t run over him. And on the way we’ll have some chocolates. Or would he rather have lemon drops?”
Morley entered the drug store leading the child by the hand. He presented the prescription that had been wrapped around the money.
On his face was a smile, predatory, parental, politic, profound.
“Aqua pura, one pint,” said he to the druggist. “Sodium chloride, ten grains. Fiat solution. And don’t try to skin me, because I know all about the number of gallons of H2O in the Croton reservoir, and I always use the other ingredient on my potatoes.”
“Fifteen cents,” said the druggist, with a wink after he had compounded the order. “I see you understand pharmacy. A dollar is the regular price.”
“To gulls,” said Morley, smilingly.
He settled the wrapped bottle carefully in the child’s arms and escorted him to the corner. In his own pocket he dropped the 85 cents accruing to him by virtue of his chemical knowledge.
“Look out for the cars, sonny,” he said, cheerfully, to his small victim.
Two street cars suddenly swooped in opposite directions upon the youngster. Morley dashed between them and pinned the infantile messenger by the neck, holding him in safety. Then from the corner of his street he sent him on his way, swindled, happy, and sticky with vile, cheap candy from the Italian’s fruit stand.
Morley went to a restaurant and ordered a sirloin and a pint of inexpensive Chateau Breuille. He laughed noiselessly, but so genuinely that the waiter ventured to premise that good news had come his way.
“Why, no,” said Morley, who seldom held conversation with any one. “It is not that. It is something else that amuses me. Do you know what three divisions of people are easiest to over-reach in transactions of all kinds?”
“Sure,” said the waiter, calculating the size of the tip promised by the careful knot of Morley’s tie; “there’s the buyers from the dry goods stores in the South during August, and honeymooners from Staten Island, and”—
“Wrong!” said Morley, chuckling happily. “The answer is just—men, women and children. The world—well, say New York and as far as summer boarders can swim out from Long Island—is full of greenhorns. Two minutes longer on the broiler would have made this steak fit to be eaten by a gentleman, Francois.”
“If yez t’inks it’s on de bum,” said the waiter, “Oi’ll”—
Morley lifted his hand in protest—slightly martyred protest.
“It will do,” he said, magnanimously. “And now, green Chartreuse, frappe and a demi-tasse.”
Morley went out leisurely and stood on a corner where two tradeful arteries of the city cross. With a solitary dime in his pocket, he stood on the curb watching with confident, cynical, smiling eyes the tides of people that flowed past him. Into that stream he must cast his net and draw fish for his further sustenance and need. Good Izaak Walton had not the half of his self-reliance and bait-lore.
A joyful party of four—two women and two men—fell upon him with cries of delight. There was a dinner party on—where had he been for a fortnight past?—what luck to thus run upon him! They surrounded and engulfed him—he must join them—tra la la—and the rest.
One with a white hat plume curving to the shoulder touched his sleeve, and cast at the others a triumphant look that said: “See what I can do with him?” and added her queen’s command to the invitations.
“I leave you to imagine,” said Morley, pathetically, “how it desolates me to forego the pleasure. But my friend Carruthers, of the New York Yacht Club, is to pick me up here in his motor car at 8.”
The white plume tossed, and the quartet danced like midges around an arc light down the frolicsome way.
Morley stood, turning over and over the dime in his pocket and laughing gleefully to himself. “‘Front,’” he chanted under his breath; “‘front’ does it. It is trumps in the game. How they take it in! Men, women and children—forgeries, water-and-salt lies—how they all take it in!”
An old man with an ill-fitting suit, a straggling gray beard and a corpulent umbrella hopped from the conglomeration of cabs and street cars to the sidewalk at Morley’s side.
“Stranger,” said he, “excuse me for troubling you, but do you know anybody in this here town named Solomon Smothers? He’s my son, and I’ve come down from Ellenville to visit him. Be darned if I know what I done with his street and number.”
“I do not, sir,” said Morley, half closing his eyes to veil the joy in them. “You had better apply to the police.”
“The police!” said the old man. “I ain’t done nothin’ to call in the police about. I just come down to see Ben. He lives in a five-story house, he writes me. If you know anybody by that name and could”—
“I told you I did not,” said Morley, coldly. “I know no one by the name of Smithers, and I advise you to”—
“Smothers not Smithers,” interrupted the old man hopefully. “A heavy-set man, sandy complected, about twenty-nine, two front teeth out, about five foot”—
“Oh, ‘Smothers!’” exclaimed Morley. “Sol Smothers? Why, he lives in the next house to me. I thought you said ‘Smithers.’”
Morley looked at his watch. You must have a watch. You can do it for a dollar. Better go hungry than forego a gunmetal or the ninety-eight-cent one that the railroads—according to these watchmakers—are run by.
“The Bishop of Long Island,” said Morley, “was to meet me here at 8 to dine with me at the Kingfishers’ Club. But I can’t leave the father of my friend Sol Smothers alone on the street. By St. Swithin, Mr. Smothers, we Wall street men have to work! Tired is no name for it! I was about to step across to the other corner and have a glass of ginger ale with a dash of sherry when you approached me. You must let me take you to Sol’s house, Mr. Smothers. But, before we take the car I hope you will join me in”—
An hour later Morley seated himself on the end of a quiet bench in Madison Square, with a twenty-five-cent cigar between his lips and $140 in deeply creased bills in his inside pocket. Content, light-hearted, ironical, keenly philosophic, he watched the moon drifting in and out amidst a maze of flying clouds. An old, ragged man with a low-bowed head sat at the other end of the bench.
Presently the old man stirred and looked at his bench companion. In Morley’s appearance he seemed to recognize something superior to the usual nightly occupants of the benches.
“Kind sir,” he whined, “if you could spare a dime or even a few pennies to one who”—
Morley cut short his stereotyped appeal by throwing him a dollar.
“God bless you!” said the old man. “I’ve been trying to find work for”—
“Work!” echoed Morley with his ringing laugh. “You are a fool, my friend. The world is a rock to you, no doubt; but you must be an Aaron and smite it with your rod. Then things better than water will gush out of it for you. That is what the world is for. It gives to me whatever I want from it.”
“God has blessed you,” said the old man. “It is only work that I have known. And now I can get no more.”
“I must go home,” said Morley, rising and buttoning his coat. “I stopped here only for a smoke. I hope you may find work.”
“May your kindness be rewarded this night,” said the old man.
“Oh,” said Morley, “you have your wish already. I am satisfied. I think good luck follows me like a dog. I am for yonder bright hotel across the square for the night. And what a moon that is lighting up the city to-night. I think no one enjoys the moonlight and such little things as I do. Well, a good-night to you.”
Morley walked to the corner where he would cross to his hotel. He blew slow streams of smoke from his cigar heavenward. A policeman passing saluted to his benign nod. What a fine moon it was.
The clock struck nine as a girl just entering womanhood stopped on the corner waiting for the approaching car. She was hurrying as if homeward from employment or delay. Her eyes were clear and pure, she was dressed in simple white, she looked eagerly for the car and neither to the right nor the left.
Morley knew her. Eight years before he had sat on the same bench with her at school. There had been no sentiment between them—nothing but the friendship of innocent days.
But he turned down the side street to a quiet spot and laid his suddenly burning face against the cool iron of a lamp-post, and said dully:
“God! I wish I could die.”