Supper over—and it was a mighty feast, with everybody waiting on everybody else, Kitty busiest of all, filling each cup herself—Digwell the undertaker, who had really been the life of the party, remarked in a voice loud enough to be heard half-way across the room that it was a pity there was no piano, as a party could not be a real party without a dance. At this Kling, who was having a mug with Codman, rose from his seat, stepped to the top of the stairs and, looking over the crowd, called for four strong men, "right avay, k'vick!" Codman, Pestler, Mike, and Digwell responded, and before anybody knew where they had gone, or what it was all about, up came an old-fashioned spinet, which Kling remembered had been hidden behind a Martha Washington bedstead on the floor below.
"All together, men!" shouted Codman, and it was picked up bodily, whirled into position, dusted off in a jiffy, and ready for use.
At this Pestler sprang to his feet, shouted he was coming back in a minute, rushed to the stairway, went down three steps at a time, bolted through the front door, across the street, up into his bedroom, and back again, all in one breath, waving his violin triumphantly over his head as he entered.
And then it was that the real fun began. And then it was that virtue had its own reward, for not a living soul in the room could play a note on the spinet except the tallest and spookiest and, to all appearances, the stupidest of the two young men, whom the Heffern girl had brought and who turned out to have once been the star pianist in some dance-hall on the Bowery. And the scribe remarks, parenthetically and in all seriousness, that the way that lank, pin-headed young man revived the soul of that old, worn-out harpischord, digging into its ribs, kicking at its knees with both feet, hand-massaging every one of the keys up, down, and crossways, until the ancient fossil fairly rattled itself loose with the joy of being alive once more, was altogether the most astounding miracle he has ever had to record. And Pestler with his violin was not far behind.
Everything had now broken loose.
At the first note, up jumped Kitty, caught John around the neck, and went whirling around the room. At the second note, up jumped Codman, made a dive for Polly, missed her in the mix-up and, grabbing Mrs. Digwell instead, went sailing down the room as if he had done nothing else all his life. At the third note, away went Sanderson and Bundleton, Heffern, everybody but the two castaways and Tim Kelsey, who beat juba on their knees, old Sam Dogger playing a tattoo all by himself with two knife-handles and a plate. Some danced with their own wives; some with anybody's wife or daughter or child—a grand hullabaloo, down the middle, across, back, and up again, until everybody was exhausted and fell in a heap into Felix's Spanish chairs, or on his Venetian wedding-chests, or wherever else they could find resting-places in which to catch their breaths.
And now comes the crowning touch of all—the last of the evening's surprises, and one remembered the longest because of its simplicity and its beauty!
When everybody was resting, out stepped Felix, the light of the overhead candles falling on his pale, thoughtful face, white shirt-front, and faultless suit of black which fitted his well-knit, handsome frame like a glove, and with him the Grande Duchesse Masie de Kling, the child bowing and smiling as she passed, the wide leghorn hat shading her face from the light of the lanterns above, her long train caught, woman-fashion, over her arm. Then, with a low word to the pin-headed young man, followed by a downward wave of his palm to denote the time, and the child's fingers firm in his own, Felix led her through an old-fashioned, stately minuet, telling her in an undertone just what steps to take.
It was Sunday morning before the merry party broke up and streamed out through Kling's lower shop, and so on into the street. Everybody had had the time of their lives. Such remarks as "Would ye have believed it of Otto?" or, "Wasn't Masie the sweetest thing ye ever saw?" or, "Just think of Mr. O'Day fixing up that old junk room the way he did—ye can't beat him nowheres!" or, "Oh, I tell ye, Otto struck it rich when he took him on!", were heard on all sides.
So loud were the laughter and chatter, the good nights and good-bys, that big Tom McGinniss moved over from the opposite curb.
"Halloo, John!" cried the policeman. "I thought I couldn't be mistaken. And Kitty, that you with your coffee-pot? I just come up from Lexington Avenue and heard the row, wondering what was up. Is it up-stairs ye were? WHAT! Dutchy givin' a ball? Oh, ye can't mean it! No, thank ye, Kitty, it will be too late for ye all—I'll drop in to-morrow night. Well, take care of yourselves," and he disappeared in the darkness.
Felix watched the throng disperse, bade Kitty and John good night, and, turning sharply, directed his steps toward Madison Square. Here he sank upon a bench, away from the glare of an overhead lamp. For some minutes he sat without moving, his mind wholly absorbed with the events of the preceding hours. The roar and crush of the room came back to him. He caught again the light in Masie's eyes as she followed his lead in the dance and the mob of happy faces crowding to her side, and then with a shudder he confronted the gaunt sorrow that had hourly dogged his steps. An overpowering sense of depression now took possession of him. Pushing back his hat as if to give himself more air, he was about to resume his walk when he became conscious that something had stirred at the far end of the seat.
Straightening his broad shoulders, his quick, alert manner returning, he moved nearer, his eyes searching the gloom. A newsboy, a little chap of seven or eight, his papers under him, lay fast asleep.
For an instant he watched the rise and fall of the boy's breath, adjusted the short, patched coat about the little fellow's knees, and then slid back to his end of the bench.
"Same old grind," he said to himself, "no home—no money—cold—maybe hungry. Never too young to suffer—never too old to eat your heart out. What a damnable world it is!"
Rising to his feet, he felt in his pocket for a coin, widened the pocket of the waif's jacket, and slipped it in. The boy stirred, tightened his grasp on his papers, and lay still.
Felix looked down at him for a moment, turned, and with lightened steps continued his walk.
"Well, thank God," he said as he neared "The Avenue," "Masie was happy one night in her life."
That the memories of Masie's birthday party should have been revived again and again, and that the several incidents should have been discussed for days thereafter—every eye growing the brighter in the telling—was to have been expected. Kitty could talk of nothing else. The beauty of the room; the charm of Masie's costume; Kling's generosity; and last, O'Day's bearing and appearance as he led the child through the stately dance, looking, as Kitty expressed it, "that fine and handsome you would have thought he was a lord mayor," were now her daily topics of conversation.
Masie was equally enthusiastic, rushing down-stairs the next morning to throw her arms around his neck with an "Oh, Uncle Felix, I never, NEVER, NEVER was so happy in all my life!"
Kling was still more jubilant. The success of Masie's banquet room had established him at once among bric-a-brac dealers as a competitor quite out of the ordinary. His old customers came in flocks, walking about with gasps of astonishment. Before the week was out, a masonic lodge had bought the throne, a seaside resort the big Chinese lantern, and two of the four Spanish chairs had found a home in a millionaire's library.
Moreover—and this was all the more remarkable in view of his early training—a certain deference became apparent in the Dutchman's manner not only toward Felix but toward his customers. He no longer received them in his shirt-sleeves. He bought some new clothes and sported a collar, necktie, and hat, duplicating those worn by Felix as near as his memory served.
Still more remarkable were the changes wrought among the neighbors in their attitude toward O'Day. Until then they had, in their independent fashion, treated him like any of the other men who came in and out their several stores, pleased with his interest in the business, but quickly forgetting him as they became reabsorbed in the affairs of the day. Now, as they told him what a good time they had had on the birthday, they raised their hats. Porterfield went so far as to tell the radiant Kitty that her boarder was a "Jim Dandy," and that if she should lay her hands on another to "trot him out."
Kitty of course had expected these triumphs, but that it was she who had made them possible, and that but for her own individual efforts Felix might still be wandering around the streets in search of bed and board, apparently never crossed her mind. He would have been just as splendid, she said to herself, and just as much of a man no matter who had helped and no matter where his feet had landed.
If O'Day were aware of the changes of public opinion going on around him, there was nothing in either his manner or in his speech to show it. When they complimented him on the way in which he had utilized Otto's old stock, producing so wonderful an interior, he would remark quietly that it was nothing to his credit. He had always loved such things; that it came natural to some people to put things to rights, and that any one could have done as much. It was only when some one alluded to Masie that his face would light up. "Yes, charming, was she not? Such a wonderful little lady, and so good!"
That which did please him—please him immensely—was the outcome of a visit made some days after the party by old Nat Ganger.
"Regular Aladdin lamp," Nat shouted, slamming Kling's door behind him. "One rub, bang goes the rubbish, and up comes an Oriental palace. Another rub and little devils swarm over the walls and ceilings and begin hanging up stuffs and lamps. Another rub, and before you can wink your eye, out steps a little princess, a million times prettier than any Cinderella that ever lived. Wonderful! WONDERFUL!
"Where is the darling child anyway. Can't I see her? I got away from Sam, telling him I was going to look up another frame for one of my pictures. Here it is. All a lie, every bit of it. It's Sam's picture. Not mine. I wrapped it up so he wouldn't know, but I came to see that darling child all the same, for I've got a surprise for her. But first I want you to see this picture. Here, wait until I untie this string. It's one of Sam's Hudson Rivery things. Palisades and a steamboat in the foreground, and an afternoon sky. Easy dodge, don't you see? Yellow sky and purple hill, and short streak for the steamboat and its wake, and a smear of white steam straggling behind. Sam does 'em as well as anybody. Sometimes he puts in a pile or two in the foreground for a broken dock and a rowboat with a lone fisherman squatting on the hind seat. Then he asks five dollars more. Always get more you know for figures in a landscape."
He had unwrapped the canvas by this time, and was holding it to the light of the window that Felix might see it better.
Felix studied it carefully, even to the cramped signature in the corner, "Samuel Dogger, A. N. A."; and with an appreciative smile said: "Very good, I should say. Yes, very good."
"Good! It's really very bad, and you know it. So do I. But you're too much of a gentleman to say so. Can't be worse, really, but 'puttying up' is down by the heels, and there hasn't been an old master from Flushing, Long Island, or Weehawken, New Jersey, lugged up our stairs for a month;—two months, really. We had one last week from a dealer down-town which turned out to be genuine after Sam had looked it over. And, of course, Sam wouldn't touch it and sent for the auctioneer and told him so. And the beggar made Sam hunt for the signature and Sam found it at the top of the canvas instead of at the bottom. One of the early Dutchmen Sam said it was. Some kind of a Beck or a Koven. And would you believe it, the very next day the fellow got a whacking price for it from a collector up in one of the side streets near the Park. So Sam has gone back to the early American school. This means that he's getting down to his last five-dollar bill, and I want to tell you that I'm not far from it myself. I'd have been dead broke if I hadn't sold two Fatimas. One in pink pants and the other a flying angel in summer clothes to fit an alcove in an up-town barroom over the cigar-stand.
"But my money isn't Sam's money," he went on without pausing, "and Sam won't touch a penny of it. Never does unless I fool him on the sly. And I've come up here to fool him now, and fool him bad. I want you to hold on to this bust—wait until I get it out of my pocket." Here he pulled out a small bronze, a head of Augustus, beautifully wrought.
"If you buy the picture, I'll throw in the ancient Roman," and he laid it on the counter.
"And I want you to write Sam a note, asking him if he can't look around for one of his masterpieces, something say ten by fourteen; wanted for a customer who only buys good things. That any little landscape with water in it will do. Remember, don't leave out the water. Then Sam will come thumping down-stairs with the note, and I'll be awfully astonished and we'll talk it over, and I'll pull this out from under a pile of stuff where I'll hide it as soon as I get home. Then I'll say: 'Well, I'm going up-town and have Mr. O'Day look at it, and maybe it will suit him, and that if it does, I'll make him pay fifty dollars for it.' How do you think that will work?"
Felix, who had been looking into the old fellow's eyes, reading his mind in their depths, seeing clear down into the heart beneath, now picked up the bronze and began passing his hand over it.
"Very lovely," he said at last, "and a marvellous paten. Where did you get it?"
"Spoken like a gentleman and a man of honor, and this time you tell the truth. It's just what you say—marvellous. I swapped a twenty by thirty for it. Will you take it?"
Felix shook his head, a smile playing about his lips.
"I would if I wanted to be unfair. Here, take your bronze and leave the picture. I will find a frame for it, and have one of the men give it a coat of varnish."
"And you'll write the note?"
"Is that necessary?"
"Of COURSE, it's necessary. You don't know Sam. He's as cunning as a weasel and can get away before you know it. Got to fool him. I always do. Told him more lies in one minute this morning than a horse can trot. Will you write the note?"
Felix laughed. "Yes, just as soon as you go."
"And you won't hold on to the bronze?"
"No, I won't hold on to the bronze."
"And you can get fifty dollars for this unexampled work of art? That, of course, is the ASKING price. Ten would do a whole lot of good."
"I cannot say positively, but I will try."
"All right. And now where's that darling child?"
A laugh rang out from the top of the stairs, the laugh of a child overjoyed at meeting some one she loves, followed by "do you mean me?"
"Of course, I mean you, Toddlekins. Come down here and let me give you a big hug. And I've got a message for you from that dried-up old fellow with the shaggy head. He sent you his love—every bit of it, he said. And he's found some more gewgaws he's going to bring up some day. Told me that, too."
Masie had reached the floor and was running toward him with her hands extended, Fudge springing in front.
The old painter caught her up in his arms, lifting her off her little feet, and as quickly setting her down, his eyes snapping, his whole face aglow. The joy bottled up in the child seemed to have swept through him like an electric current.
"And wasn't it a beautiful party?" she burst out when she found her breath. "And wasn't Uncle Felix good to make it all for me?" She had moved to O'Day's side and had slipped her hand in his.
"Yes, of course, it was," roared Ganger. "Why, old Sam Dogger was so excited when he went to bed, he didn't sleep a wink all night. He's thought of nothing else but parties ever since. He's getting up one for you. Told me so this morning."
The child's eyes dilated.
"What sort of a party?"
"Oh, a dandy party, but it's not going to be at night. It's going to be in the daytime. All out in the blessed sunshine and under the trees. And everybody is going to be invited—everybody who belongs."
The child's brow clouded. "Everybody who belongs? Why, can't Uncle Felix come?"
"Certainly, he can come. He 'belongs.'"
"What, that little devil of a dog? Yes, he can come, if he promises to behave himself," and he shook his head at the culprit. "And all the chippies can come. Lots of 'em, and perhaps a couple of robins, if they haven't gone away south. And there's a big Newfoundland dog, or was before he was stolen, that could have swallowed this gentleman down at one gulp, but he won't now. HE 'belonged' and always has. And, of course, you 'belong' and so does Sam and so do I. We go out every other week and sit under these very same trees. Sam paints the branches wiggling down in the water, and I do leaky boats. When I get the picture home, I put Jane Hoggson fishin' in the stern."
Masie rolled her eyes.
"And you don't take her with you?"
"'Cause she don't 'belong.' Great difference whether you belong or not. Jane Hoggson couldn't 'belong' if she was to be born all over again."
O'Day now joined in. He had been watching Masie, noting the lights and shadows which swept over her face as the old painter chattered away. He always welcomed any plan for giving her pleasure, and was blessing Ganger in his heart for providing the diversion.
"And where is all this to take place, Mr. Ganger?" Felix asked at last.
"Up on the Bronx. A place you know nothing of and wouldn't believe a word about if I should tell you—not 'til you see it yourself. It's as full of birds and butterflies as England along the Thames, or one of those ducky little streams out of Paris. And it only costs five cents to get there and five cents to get back. And you won't be more than a few hours away from your shop. Fine, I tell you, you'll never forget it."
Again Felix broke in.
"I have not a doubt of it, but when is all this to take place?"
Ganger gave a little start and grew suddenly grave.
"Well, as to that, you see the day is not yet fixed, not precisely. In a week maybe, or it may be two weeks. This is Sam's party, you know, and he hasn't completed all his arrangements—that is, he hadn't completed them when I left him this morning. And, of course, a lot has to be done to make everything ready"—here he nodded at Masie—"for little princesses and great ladies in plumes and satins. But it is certainly coming off. Old Sam told me so, and he means every word of it. And he was to let you know when. That's it, he was to LET YOU KNOW. That's another thing he told me to tell you."
The child's name was now called from the top of the stairs, and the Gossburger's head craned itself over the hand-rail. Fudge opened with a sharp bark, and Masie, with an air kiss to Ganger, raced up the steps, the dog at her heels, shouting as she ran: "Tell Mr. Dogger I send him a kiss, and I thank him ever so much, and won't he please come and see me very soon."
When she had disappeared, the old fellow leaned forward, gazed knowingly at Felix, and in soft-pedal tones said:
"You see, Sam couldn't say EXACTLY when the party was to take place because—well, because he hasn't heard a word about it, and won't until I get back. It is my party, not Sam's, and I've got to break it to him gently. And I've got to fool him about the party, make him think it's his party, or he'll think I'm holding it over him because I've got a little more money than he has, just as I intend to fool him about the picture. I couldn't say, when you asked me, when the day was to be fixed, because I've told lies enough to that dear child. But I know just what Sam will do when I tell him about his party; he'll stand on his head he'll be so happy. You see if, when I unwrapped the picture, you had talked ten dollars right out, why then I was going to make it next Saturday; that is, to-morrow. But you hemmed and hawed so, I had to make it 'some day soon.' Of course, I never expected the fifty; ten will be enough for car-fare all around and some beer and sandwiches, that's all we ever have. That's why I chucked in Augustus to make sure. Well, see what you can do, and don't forget to write the note and I'll do the rest of the lying." And chuckling to himself he hurried away.
As the door swung wide, a slim man bustled past him, and, spying Felix, moved briskly to where he stood. He had just ten minutes to spare, he announced, and was looking for a present for his wife; "something in the way of fans, old ones, and not over five dollars."
Felix, who had raised the lid of the case and was stowing Dogger's masterpiece inside to keep it out of harm's way, his mind wholly occupied with the two old painters and their tenderness toward each other, roused himself to answer:
"Yes, half a dozen. Not at your price, though, not old ones. Here are two fairly good specimens," and he handed them out and laid them on the glass before him.
The man leaned forward and peered into the case.
"That's a picture of the Palisades, isn't it?" He had ignored the fans.
"Yes, so I understand."
"Oh, I knew it first time I put my eyes on it. I'm in the real-estate business. I've got a lot of cottage sites along that top edge. Is it for sale?"
"It will be when it's cleaned and varnished and I have it framed."
"Belong to you?"
"No; it belongs to a man who has left it for sale. He went out as you came in."
"What does he want for it?"
"He would be satisfied with ten dollars, even less, because he needs the money. I want fifty."
"You want to make the rest?"
"No, it all goes to him."
"Well, what do you stick it on for?"
"Because if it isn't worth that, it isn't worth anything."
"Take it out and let me have a look at it. Yes, just the spot. That whitish streak and that little puff of steam is where they're breaking stone. Make a good advertisement, wouldn't it, hanging up in your office? You can show the owners just where the land lies, and you can show a customer just what he's going to own."
A brisk bargaining then followed, he determined to buy, and Felix to maintain his price. Before the ten minutes were out, the bustling man had forgotten all about the fan he was in search of for his wife and, having assured himself that it was all oil-paint, every square inch of it, had propped it up against an ancient clock, standing back to see the effect, had haggled on five, then ten, then twenty-five, and had finally surrendered by laying five ten-dollar bills on the glass case. After which he tucked the picture under his arm, and without a word of any kind disappeared through the street-door.
And that is why the note which Felix had promised to write Dogger was sent by messenger instead of by mail within five minutes after the picture and the buyer had disappeared. And that is why, too, all the preliminary subterfuges were omitted, and the substitute contained the announcement which follows:
"Dear Mr. Dogger:
"I have just sold your Palisade picture for fifty dollars. The amount is at your service whenever you call.
That, too, is why Dogger was so overjoyed that he beat the messenger back to Kling's, skipping over the flag-stones most of the way till he reached the Dutchman's door, where, as befitted a painter whose genius had at last been recognized, he slowed down, entering the store with a steady gait, a little restrained in his manner, saying, as he tried to cram down his joy, that it was a mere sketch, you know, something that he had knocked off out-of-doors; that Nat had liked it and had, so he said, taken it up to have it framed. That, of course, he could not afford ever to repeat the sale price—not for a ten by fourteen of that quality, but that most of his rich patrons were still out of town, and so it came in very well.
And, oh, yes, he had almost forgotten! He and Nat were going up to Laguerre's, on the Bronx, to an old French cafe, where they often lunched and painted; that Nat had suggested just as he left the studio that it would be a good thing if Felix and that dear child Masie would go with them, and that they would go Saturday, which was to-morrow, if that would suit O'Day and Masie. And if that wouldn't suit, why then they'd go the very first day that did, say Sunday or Monday, the sooner the better.
To all of which Felix, reading every thought that lurked behind the moist eyes of the tender-hearted old fraud, had replied that, if he had the choosing, to-morrow, of all the days in the year, would be the very day he would select, and that he and Masie would be ready any hour that he and Mr. Ganger would be good enough to call for them.
At which the old painter took himself off in high glee.
And an altogether delightful and a very happy party it was. Sam, as host-in-chief, sparing no expense, his first act being to pre-empt a summer-house covered with vines, already tinged by the touches of autumn's fingers; and his second to insist in a loud voice on chairs and table-cloths, instead of a sandwich spread out on a bench, as had been their custom, followed by a demand for olives and a small bottle of red wine, to say nothing of a double brace of chops, and all with the air of a multimillionaire ordering a cold bottle and a hot bird at Delmonico's. And Nat, grown ten years younger—a mere boy in fact—showed Masie how to throw little leaden weights down the throat of a small cast-iron frog, and Felix mixed the salad and served it, Masie changing the dishes and running back to the house for fresh ones, while Fudge, in frenzied glee, scurried over the soft earth as if he had suddenly been seized with St. Vitus's dance. And then, when there was not a crumb of anything left even for the chippies, they all stretched themselves flat on the grass in the warm Indian summer weather, the two old fellows entertaining the child with all the stories they could think of, Felix looking on, replenishing his pipe from time to time, his own spirit soothed and comforted by the happiness around him.
Even Kitty noticed the new light in his eyes when they all came back, for Felix brought the two old painters into her sitting-room so that they might renew an acquaintance they had made on the night of the ball and "become better known to a woman of distinction," as he laughingly put it, which so delighted the dear soul that that night she said to her husband:
"He'll stop trampin' pretty soon, I think, John. Somethin's soaked into him in the last day or two. It's them old painters, I think, that's helpin' him. He come in a while ago with that child clingin' to him and them two mossbacks followin' behin', and his face was all ironed out, and I could see a song trembling on his lips all ready to burst out. Pray God it'll last!"
While it was true that Felix, since Masie's party, had gained the complete good-will of his neighbors, there were, strange as it may seem, certain individuals who, while they acknowledged the charm of his personality, resented his quiet reserve. What nettled them most was his not having told them at once who he was and why he had come to Kling's, and why he had stayed on wrapped in mystery. They considered themselves, so to speak, as defrauded of something which was their right and said so in plain terms.
"Well, I hope it won't be a pair of handcuffs they'll surprise him with some day"; or, "When that pal of his turns up, then you'll see fun," being some of the suggestions frequently made over counters, to be answered by his loyal adherents with a "Well, I don't care what ye say. I ain't never come across no man any better than Felix O'Day since I lived here, and that's no lie."
There were others, too, who refused to believe any good of the self-contained, reticent stranger. The nephew of somebody's brother-in-law, who lived in Lexington Avenue, was one. He had been promised, by the cousin of somebody else, the position of clerk with Otto Kling, and although Otto had never heard of it, he WOULD have heard of it and the nephew been duly installed but for "a galoot who SAID his name was O'Day."
And another thing. What was a fellow, who would work under a Dutchman like Kling, for only enough to pay his board, doing with a dress suit, anyhow? The fact was that O'Day was either here "on the quiet" to escape his creditors, while his friends were trying to patch things up for his return, or he was an English valet who had stolen his master's clothes.
A new rumor now filled the air. O'Day, was a spy sent by some foreign government to look after important interests, like that Russian who had been employed in a publishing house, where he wrote articles for an encyclopaedia, only to be recognized later, whereupon he had disappeared and was never seen again. Tim Kelsey had known him. In fact, he had visited often Tim's bookstore at night, just as O'Day was visiting it, and where a lot of other queer-looking people could be found if anybody would "take the trouble to knock at Kelsey's door and peer in through the tobacco smoke some night."
All this gossip rolled off Kitty's mind as rain from a tin roof. Only once did she rise up in anger with a "Get out of my place! I'll not have ye soiling the air with yer dirty talk. Get out, I say! Ye don't know a gentleman when ye see him, and ye never will."
It was when these rumors as to her lodger's identity were thickest and when Kitty's heart had begun to fear that his despondency was returning, his nightly prowls having been resumed, that a hansom cab stopped in front of her door.
It was one of her busy days, the sidewalk being blocked up with twenty or more trunks, parcels, cribs, and baby-carriages on their way, by the aid of Mike, the big white horse, and John, to the Ferry for shipment to Lakewood. Kitty was in charge of the quarter-deck, her head bare, her sleeves rolled above her elbows, showing her plump, ruddy arms, her cheeks and eyes aglow with the crisp air of the morning. October had set in, and one of those lung-filling, bracing days—the sky swept by dancing clouds, dragging their skirts in their flight—was making glad the great city.
Kitty loved its snap and tang. She loved, too, the excitement aroused by her duties, and was never so happy as when there were but so many minutes to catch a train—a fact she never ceased to impress upon everybody about her, she knowing all the time that she would so manage the loading as to have five minutes to spare.
"In with those hand-bags, Mike—in the front, where that Saratoga trunk won't smash 'em. Now that crib—no—not loose! Get that strap around it; do ye want to have to pick it up before ye get half-way to the tunnel? Hurry up, John, dear! Hold on—give me the other handle of that—look at it now, big as a chicken-coop! Them Fifth Avenue ladies will be livin' in these things if they keep on."
These orders and remarks, fired in rapid succession, were interrupted to her great annoyance by the driver of the hansom cab, who, impatient at the delay, had touched his horse lightly with the whip, bringing the big wheels to a stop in front of the huge trunk which Kitty was anathematizing.
"Go on wid ye! Drive on, I tell ye!" she cried, opening fire on the driver.
"Gentleman wants to—"
"Well, I don't care what the gentleman wants. This stuff's got to go aboard that wagon."
Here the passenger's head was thrust forward.
"Yes, of course I can, and glad to, no matter what it is—but not this minute. Don't ye see what I'm up against?"
The hansom was backed its full length, the passenger watching Kitty's movements with evident amusement.
Two strong hands, one Kitty's and the other John's—mostly John's—lifted the chicken-coop of a trunk bodily, rested it for an instant on the forward wheel, and with another "all together" jerk sent it rolling into the wagon. This completed the loading.
The passenger craned his head again.
"I am staying in Gramercy Park, and want—"
Kitty, who had been stretching her neck to its full length to catch his words, straightened up. "Ye'll have to get out. I'm no long-distance telephone, and the racket of them horse-cars is enough to set a body crazy."
The passenger laughed, stretched out a leg, gathered the other beside it, and stepped to the sidewalk. "You seem to understand your business, my good woman," he began, unbuttoning his overcoat to get at the inside pocket of his cutaway.
"Why shouldn't I? I been at it these twenty years."
She had taken him in now, from his polished silk hat, gray hair, and red cheeks down to his check trousers, white spats, and well-brushed shoes. Her own face was by this time wreathed in smiles; she saw the man was a gentleman who had intended only to be courteous. "Is that what ye came to tell me?" she cried.
"No, but I would have done so if I had ever watched you work. Oh, here it is," he continued, drawing out his pocketbook. "I want you to—" he stopped and looked at her from over the rims of his gold spectacles—"but I may not have hold of the right person. May I ask if you belong here?"
Her head went up with a toss, her eyes dancing. "Of course ye can ask anything ye please, but I'll tell ye right off I don't belong here. Every blessed thing here belongs to me and my man John."
The passenger broke into a laugh. He had evidently found a rara avis, and was enjoying the discovery to the full. American types always interested him; this sample of Irish-New York was a revelation.
"Go on," smiled Kitty, "I'm waitin'."
"Well, take this order to No. 3 Gramercy Park, and they will give you my two boxes, a shirt case, a roll of steamer-rugs, and some golf-sticks in a leather pouch, five pieces in all. Get them down to the Cunard dock by eleven, and my servant will be there to take charge of them. The steamer sails at twelve. Is that clear?"
She reached for the paper and began checking off the number of the apartment, number of pieces, dock, and hour. This was all that interested her.
"It is—clear as mud—and they'll be on time. And now, who's to pay?"
"I am, and—" He stopped suddenly, staring in blank amazement at Felix, who had just emerged from the side door and was stopping for a word with one of John's drivers. "My God!" he muttered in a low voice, as if talking to himself. "I can't be mistaken."
Felix nodded a good morning to Kitty and, with an alert, quick stride crossed the sidewalk diagonally, and bent his steps toward Kling's.
The Englishman followed him with his gaze, his open pocketbook still in his hands. "Is that gentleman a customer of yours?" Had he seen a dead man suddenly come to life he could not have been more astounded.
"He is, and pays his rent like one."
"Rent? For what?" The customer seemed completely at sea.
"For my up-stairs room. He's my lodger and I never had a better."
The Englishman caught his breath. "Do you know who he is?" he asked cautiously.
"Of course I do! Do you happen to know him?" John had moved up now and stood listening.
"Not personally, but, unless I am very much mistaken, that is Sir Felix O'Day."
"Ye ain't mistaken, you're dead right—all but the 'Sir.' That's somethin' new to me. It's MR. Felix O'Day around here, and there ain't a finer nor a better. What do ye know about him?" Her voice had softened and a slight shade of anxiety had crept into it. John craned his head to hear the better.
"Nothing to his discredit. He has had a lot of trouble—terrible trouble—more than anybody I know. I heard he had gone to Australia. I see now that he came to New York. Well, upon my soul, Sir Felix living over an express office!"
He handed her a bill, waited until John had fished up the change from the trousers pocket, repeated, in an absent-minded way: "Sir Felix living here! Good God! What next?" and, beckoning to the driver, stepped inside the hansom and drove off.
Kitty looked at her husband, her color coming and going. "What did I tell ye, John, dear? And ye wouldn't believe a word of it."
John returned Kitty's look. He, too, was trying to grasp the full meaning of the announcement. "Are ye going to tell him ye know, Kitty?" Neither of them had the slightest doubt of its truth.
"No, I ain't," she flashed back. "Not a word—nor nobody else. When Mr. Felix O'Day gits ready to tell us, he will."
"Will ye tell Father Cruse?" he persisted.
"I don't know that I will. I'll have to think it over. And now, John, remember!—not a word of this to any livin' soul. Do ye promise?"
"I do." He hesitated, another question struggling to his lips, and then added: "What's up wid him, do ye think, Kitty?"
"I don't know, John, dear. I wish I did, but whatever it is, its breakin' his heart."
The discovery of her lodger's title made but little difference to Kitty, nor did it raise him a whit in her estimation. At best, it only confirmed her first impression of his being a gentleman—every inch of him. She may have studied the more closely her lodger's habits, noting his constant care of his person, the way in which he used his knife and fork, the softness and cleanliness of his hands—all object-lessons to her, for she broke out on her husband the day after her talk with the Englishman in the hansom cab with:
"I want to tell ye that ye'll have to stop spatterin' yer soup around after this, John, dear. I'm going to have a clean table-cloth on every day, and a clean napkin for him, and as I'm doin' the washing myself ye've got to help an' not muss things. First thing ye know he'll sour on what we are giving him and be goin' off worse than ever, trampin' the streets till all hours of the night." At which John had stretched his big frame and with a prolonged yawn, his arms over his head, had remarked: "All right, Kitty, you're boss. Sir or no sir, he's got no frills about him—just plain man like the rest of us."
Neither would his title, had they known it, have made the slightest difference to any one of the habitues who gathered in Tim Kelsey's book-shop.
Who Felix was, or what he had done, or what he was about to do, were questions never considered, either by Kelsey or by his friends. That he was part of the driftwood left stranded and unrecognized on the intellectual shore was enough. All that any of them asked for was brains, and Felix, even before the first evening had ended, had uncovered a stock so varied, and of such unusual proportions, and of so brilliant a character that he was always accorded the right of way whenever he took charge of the talk.
And a queer lot they were who listened, and a queer lot they had to be, to enjoy Kelsey's confidence. "Men are like books," he would often say to Felix. "It is their insides I care for, no matter how badly they are bound. The half-calf or all-morocco sort never appeal to me. Shelf fellows seldom handled, I call them, and a man who is not handled and rubbed up against, with a corner worn off here and there, is like a book kept under glass. Nobody cares anything about it except as an ornament, and I have no room for ornaments."
That is why the door was kept shut at night, when some half-calf rapped and Tim would get a look at his binding through the shutter and tiptoe back, closing the door of the inner room behind him.
Among Kelsey's collection was old Silas Murford, the custom-house clerk—a fat, stupid-looking old fellow whose chin rested on his shirt-front and whose middle rested on his knees, the whole of him, when seated, filling Tim's biggest chair. Tim prized this volume most, for when Silas began to talk, the sheepish look would fade out of his placid face, his little pig eyes would vanish, and the listener would discover to his astonishment that not only was this lethargic lump of flesh a delightful conversationalist but that he had spent every hour he could spare from his custom-house in a study of the American system of immigration—and had at his tongue's end a mass of statistics about which few men knew anything.
Crackburn, an authority on the earlier printers, then in charge of the prints in the Astor Library, and who, for diversion, ground lenses on the sly, was another prize document. And so was Lockwood, the lapidary, famous as a designer of medals and seals; and many more such oddities. "Fine old copies," Kelsey would say of them, "hand-printed, all of them; one or two, like old Silas, extremely rare."
That he considered Felix entitled to a place in his private collection had been decided at their first meeting. "Met a mask with a man behind it," he had announced to his intimates that same night. "Got a fine nose for what's worth having. Located that chant book as soon as he laid his hands on it. I didn't get any farther than the skin of his face and you won't, either. He has promised to come over, and when you have rubbed up against him for half an hour, as I did this morning, you will think as I do."
Since that time, Felix had spent many comforting hours in Kelsey's little back room. Sometimes he would drop in about nine and remain until half past ten; at other times, it would be nearer midnight before he would turn the knob.
As for the shop itself, nothing up and down "The Avenue" was quite as odd, quite as ramshackly, or quite as picturesque. What the public saw, on either side of the down-two-steps entrance, was a bench with slanting shelves, holding a double row of books and two patched glass windows, protecting disordered heaps of prints, stained engravings, and old etchings, the whole embedded in dust.
What the owner's intimates saw, once they got inside and continued to the end of the building, was a low-ceiled room warmed by an old-fashioned Franklin stove and lighted by a drop covered by a green shade. All about were easy chairs, a table or two, a sideboard, some long shelves loaded down with books, and an iron safe which held some precious manuscripts and one or two early editions.
When the room was shut the shop was open, and when the shop was shut, the shutters fastened, and the two benches with their books lifted bodily and brought inside, the little back room, smoke-dried as an old ham, and as savory and inviting, once you got its flavor, was ready for his guests.
On one of these rare nights when the room was full, it happened that the same fifteenth-century chant book, which had brought Tim and Felix together, was lying on the table. The discussion which followed easily drifted into the influence of the Roman Catholic church on the art of the period; Felix maintaining that but for the impetus it gave, neither the art of illumination nor any of the other arts would at the time have reached the heights they attained.
"This missal is but an example of it," he continued, drawing the battered, yellow-stained book toward him. "Whatever these old monks, with their religious fervor, touched they enriched and glorified, whether it were an initial letter, as you see here, or an altar-piece; and more than that, many of them painted wonderfully well."
"And a narrow-minded, bigoted lot they were," broke in Crackburn. "If they'd had their way there would not have been a printing-press in existence. If you are going to canonize anybody, begin with Aldus Minutius."
"Only a difference in patrons," chimed in Lockwood, "the difference between a pope and a doge."
"And it's the same to-day," echoed Kelsey, taking the book from O'Day's hand, to keep the leaves from buckling. "Only it's neither pope nor doge, but the money king who's the patron. We should all starve to death but for him. I've been waiting for Mr. O'Day to hunt one down and make him buy this," he added, closing the book carefully. "Nobody else around here appreciates its rarity or would give a five-dollar bill for it."
"Go slow," puffed old Silas, hunched up in his chair. "Money kings are good in their way, and so perhaps were popes and doges, but give me a plain priest every time. You wonder, Mr. O'Day, what those great masters in art could have done without the protection of the church. I wonder what the poor of to-day would do without their priests. Go up to 28th Street and look in at St. Barnabas's. Its doors are open from before sunrise until near midnight. When you are in trouble, either hungry or hunted, and most of the poor are both, walk in and see what will happen. You'll find that a priest in New York is everything from a policeman to a hospital nurse, and he is always on his job. When nobody else listens, he listens; when nobody else helps, he holds out a hand. I haven't lived here sixty years for nothing."
"When you say 'listen,'" asked Felix, whose attention to the conversation had never wavered, "do you refer to the confessional?"
"I do not. That's the least part of it. So are the mass and the candles and choir-boys and the rest of the outfit, all very well in their way, for Sundays and fast-days, but just so much stage scenery to me, though its heaven to the poor devils who get color and music and restful quiet in contrast to their barren homes. But praying before the altar is only one-quarter of what these priests are doing every hour of the day and night. It's part of my business to follow them around, and I know. Hand me a light, Tim, my pipe's out."
Felix, being nearest the box, struck a match and held it close to Silas's bowl, a cloud of smoke rising between them. When it had cleared, O'Day remarked quietly: "Don't stop, Mr. Murford; go on, I am listening. You have, as you said, only told us one-quarter of what these priests are doing. Where do the other three-quarters come in?"
Silas rapped the bowl against the arm of his chair to clear it the better, and, twisting his great bulk toward O'Day, said slowly: "If I tell you, will you listen and keep on listening until I get through?"
Felix bowed his head in acquiescence. The others, knowing what a story from Silas meant, craned their necks in his direction.
"Well! One night last winter—over on Avenue A, snow on the ground, mind you, and cold as Greenland—a row broke out on the third floor of a tenement house. In the snow on the sidewalk shivered a half-naked girl. She was sobbing. Her father had come in from his night shift at the gas house, crazy drunk, a piece of lead pipe in his hand.
"Two or three people had stopped, gazed at the girl, and passed her by. Tenement-house rows are too common in some districts to be bothered over. A policeman crossed the street, peered up the stairway, listened to the screams inside, looked the sobbing girl over, and kept on his way, swinging his club. A priest came along—one I know, a well-set-up man, who can take care of himself, no matter where. He touched the girl's arm and drew her inside the doorway, his head bent to hear her story. Then he went up—in jumps—two steps at a time—stumbling in the dark, picking himself up again, catching at the rail to help him mount the quicker, the screams overhead increasing at every step. When he reached the door, it was bolted on the inside. He let drive with his shoulder and in it went. The girl's mother was crouching in the far corner of the room, behind a heavy sofa. The drunken husband stood over her, trying to get at her skull with the piece of lead pipe.
"At the bursting in of the door the brute wheeled and, with an oath, made straight for the priest, the weapon in his fist.
"The priest stepped clear of the door-jamb, moved under the single gas-jet, drew out his crucifix, and held it up.
"The drunkard stood staring.
"The priest advanced step by step. The brute cowered, staggered back, and fell in a heap on the floor."
"Magnificent," broke out Lockwood. "Superb! And well told. You would make a great actor, Murford."
"Perhaps," answered Silas with a reproving look, "but don't forget that it HAPPENED."
"I haven't a doubt of it," exclaimed Felix quietly, "but please go on, Mr. Murford. To me your story has only begun. What happened next?"
Silas's eyes glistened. Lockwood's criticism had gone over his head; he was accustomed to that sort of thing. What pleased him was the interest O'Day had shown in his pet subject—the sufferings of the poor being one of his lifelong topics of thought and conversation.
"The confessional happened next," replied Silas. "Then a sober husband, a sober wife, and a girl at work—and they are still at it—for I got the man a job as night-watchman in the custom-house, at Father Cruse's request."
Felix started forward. "You surely don't mean Father Cruse of St. Barnabas's?" he exclaimed eagerly.
"Was it he who burst in that door?"
"It was, and there isn't a tramp or a stranded girl within half a mile of where we sit that he doesn't know and take care of. So I say you can have your money kings and your popes and your doges; as for me, I'll take Father Cruse every time, and there's dozens just like him."
Felix pushed back his chair, reached for his hat, said good night in his usual civil tone, and left the shop, Murford merely nodding at him over the bowl of his pipe, the others taking no notice of his departure. It was the way they did things at Kelsey's. There were no great welcomings when they arrived and no good-bys when they parted. They would meet again the next night, perhaps the next morning—and more extended courtesies were considered unnecessary.
All the way back to Kitty's the erect figure of Father Cruse, holding the emblem of his faith in that dimly lighted room stood out clear. He wondered why he had not seen more of the man whose courage and faith he himself had dimly recognized at their first meeting, and determined to cultivate his acquaintance at once. Long ago he had promised Kitty to do so. He would keep that promise by timing his visit so as to reach St. Barnabas's when the service was over. The balance of the evening could then be spent with the father.
He glanced at his watch and a glow of satisfaction spread over his face as he noted the hour. Kitty would be up, and he would have the opportunity of delighting her with the details of the tribute Murford had paid her beloved priest. The more he pictured the effect upon her, the lighter grew his heart.
He began before the knob of the sitting-room had left his hand and had gone as far as: "Oh I heard something about a friend of yours who—" when she checked him by rising to her feet and exclaiming:
"Hold on a minute and listen to me first. I have something that belongs to ye. I found it after ye'd gone out, and ran after ye. I thought ye'd miss it and come back. I wonder ye didn't. Ye see I was tidyin' up yer room, and yer brush dropped down behind the bureau; and when I pushed it out from the wall I found this under the edge of the carpet. Ye better keep these little things in the drawer." Her hand was in the capacious pocket of her apron as she spoke, her plump fingers feeling about its depths. "Oh, here it is," she cried. "I was gettin' nigh scared ter death fer fear I'd lost it. Here, give me your cuff and I'll put it in fer ye."
"What is it? A cuff button?" he asked, controlling his disappointment but biding his time.
"Yes, and a good one."
"I'm sorry, Mistress Kitty, but it cannot be mine," he returned with a smile. "I have but one pair, and both buttons are in place, as you can see," and he held out his cuffs.
"Well, then, who can this one belong to? Take a look at it. It's got arms on one button and two letters mixed up together on the other," and she dropped it into his hand.
Felix held the sleeve-links to the light, smothered a cry and, with a quick movement of his hands, steadied himself by the table.
"Where did you get this?" he breathed rather than spoke.
"I just told ye. Down behind the bureau where ye dropped it, along with your hair-brush."
Felix tightened his fingers, straining the muscles of his arms, striving with all his might to keep his body from shaking. He had his back to her, his face toward the lamp, and had thus escaped her scrutiny. "I haven't lost it," he faltered, prolonging the examination to gain time and speaking with great deliberation.
"Ye haven't! Oh, I am that disappointed! And ye didn't drop it? Well, then, who did drop it?" she cried, looking over his shoulder. She had been thinking all the evening how pleased he would be when she returned it, and in her chagrin had not noticed the mental storm he was trying to master.
"And ye're sure ye didn't drop it?" she reiterated.
"Quite sure," he answered slowly, his face still in the shadow, the link still in his hand.
"Well, that's the strangest thing I ever heard! We don't have nobody—we ain't never had nobody up in that room with things on 'em like that. The fellow that John and I fired didn't have no sleeve-buttons."
"Perhaps somebody else may have dropped it," he answered, sinking into a chair. He was devouring her face, trying to read behind her eyes, praying she would go on, yet fearing to prolong the inquiry lest she should discover his agitation.
"No, there ain't nobody," she said at last, "and if there was there wouldn't—Stop! Hold on a minute, I got it! You've bin here six months or more, ain't ye?"
Felix nodded, his eyes still fastened on her own. A nod was better than the spoken word until his voice obeyed him the better.
"An' ye ain't had a soul in that room but yerself since ye've been here? Is that true?"
Again Felix nodded.
"Of course it's true, whether ye say it or not. What a fool I was to ask ye! I got it now. That sleeve-link belongs to a poor creature who slept in that room three or four days before ye come and skipped the next morning."
Felix's fingers tightened on the arm of the chair. For the moment it seemed to him as if he were swaying with the room. "Some one you were kind to, I suppose," he said, lifting a hand to shade his face, the words coming one at a time, every muscle in his body taut.
"What else could we do? Leave the poor thing out in the cold and wet?"
"It was, then, some one you picked up, was it not?" The room had stopped swaying and he was beginning to breathe evenly again. He saw that he had not betrayed himself. Her calm proved it; and so did the infinite pity that crept into her tones as she related the incident.
"No, some one Tom McGinniss picked up on his beat, or would have picked up hadn't John and I come along. And that wet she was, and everything streamin' puddles, an' she, poor dear, draggled like a dog in the gutter."
Felix's sheltering hand sagged suddenly, exposing for a moment his strained face and wide-open eyes.
"I didn't understand it was a woman," he stammered, turning his head still farther from the light of the lamp.
"Yes, of course, it was a woman, and a lady, too. That's what I've been a-tellin' ye. Here, take my seat if that light gets into your eyes. I see it's botherin' ye. It's that red shade that does it. It sets John half crazy sometimes. I'll turn it down. Well, that's better. Yes, a lady. An' she wet as a rat an' all the heart out of her. An' that link ye got in yer hand is hers and nobody else's. John and I had been to evening service at St. Barnabas's, an' we hung on behind till everybody had gone so as to have a word with Father Cruse, after he had taken off his vestments. We bid him good night, come out of the 29th Street door, and kept on toward Lexington Avenue. We hadn't gone but a little way from the church, when John, who was walking ahead, come up agin Tom McGinniss. He was stooping over a woman huddled up on them big front steps before you get to the corner.
"'What are you doin', Tom?' says John.
"'It's a drunk,' he says, 'an I'll run her in an' she'll sleep it off and be all the better in the mornin'.'
"'Let me take a look at her, Tom,' says I; an' I got close to her breath and there was no more liquor inside her than there is in me this minute.
"'You'll do nothin' of the kind, Tom McGinniss,' says I. 'This poor thing is beat out with cold and hunger. Give her to me. I'll take her home. Get hold of her, John, an' lift her up.'
"If ye'd 'a' seen her, Mr. O'Day, it would have torn ye all to pieces. The life and spirit was all out of her. She was like a child half asleep, that would go anywhere you took her. If I'd said, 'Come along, I'm goin' to drown ye,' she'd 'a' come just the same. Not one word fell out of her mouth. Just went along between us, John an' I helpin' her over the curbs and gutters until she got to this kitchen, an' I sat her down in that chair, close by the stove, and began to dry her out, for her dress was all soaked in the mud and streamin' with water. I got some hot coffee into her, an' found a pair of John's old shoes, an' put 'em on her feet till I had dried her own, an' when she got so she could speak—not drunk, mind ye, nor doped; just dazed like as if she had been hunted and had given up all hope. She said like a sick child speakin': 'You've been very kind, and I'm very grateful. I'll go now.'
"'No, ye won't,' I says; 'ye'll stay where ye are. Ye don't leave this place to-night. Ye'll go up-stairs and git into my bed.' She looked at me kind o' scared-like; then she looked at John an' our big man Mike who had come in while I was dryin' her out, but I stopped that right away. 'No, ye needn't worry,' I said, 'an' ye won't. Ye're just as safe here as ye would be in your mother's arms. Ye ain't the first one my man John an' I have taken care of, an' ye won't be the last. Take another sip o' that hot coffee, an' come with me.'
"Well, we got her up-stairs, an' I helped her undress, an' when I unhooked her skirt an' it fell to the floor, I saw what I was up aginst. She had the finest pair of silk stockings on her feet ye ever seen in your life, and her petticoat was frills up to her knees. She said nothin' an' I said nothin'. 'Git in,' I said, an' I turned down the cover and come out. The next mornin' the boys had to get over to Hoboken, an' I was up before daylight and then back to bed again. At seven o'clock I went to her room and pushed in the door. She was gone, an' I've never seen her since. That cuff-link's hers. Take it up-stairs with ye an' put it in the wash-stand drawer. I'll lose it if I keep it down here, an' she's bound to come back for it some day. What time is it? Twelve o'clock, if I'm alive! Well, then, I'm goin' to bed, and you're goin', too. John's got his key, and there's his coffee, but he won't be long now."
Felix sat still. Only when she had finished busying herself about the room making ready to close the place for the night did he rouse himself. So still was he, and so absorbed that she thought he had fallen asleep, until she became aware of a flash from under the overhanging brows and heard him say, as if speaking to himself: "It was very good of you. Yes, very good—of you—to do it, and—I suppose she never came back?"
"She never did," returned Kitty, drawing a chair away from the heat of the stove, "and I'm that sorry she didn't. I'll fix the lights when ye've gone up. Good night to ye."
"Good night, Mrs. Cleary," and he left the room.
In the same absorbed way he mounted the stairs, opened his own door and, without turning up the gas, sank heavily into a chair, the link still held fast in his hand. A moment later he sprang from his seat, stepped quickly to the gas-jet, turned up the light, and held one of the small buttons to the flame, as if to reassure himself of the initials; then with a smothered cry fell across the narrow bed, his face hidden in the quilt.
For an hour he lay motionless, his mind a seething caldron, above which writhed distorted shapes who hid their faces as they mounted upward. When these vanished and a certain calm fell upon him, two figures detached themselves and stood clear: a woman cowering on a door-step, her skirts befouled with the slime of the streets, and a priest with hand upraised, his only weapon the symbol of his God.
The morning brought him little relief. He drank his coffee in comparative silence and crossed the street to his work with only a slight bend of his head toward Kitty, who was helping Mike tag some baggage. She noticed then how pale he was and the wan smile that swept over his face as she waved her hand at him in answer, but she was too busy over the trunks to give the subject further thought.
Masie was waiting for him in the back part of the shop, which, by the same old process of moving things around, had been fitted up into a sort of private office for Kling, two high-back settles serving for one wall, three bureaus for another, while some Spanish chairs, a hair-cloth sofa studded with brass nails, an inlaid table, and a Daghestan rug helped to make it secluded and attractive. Kling liked the new arrangement because he could keep one eye on his books and the other on the front door, thus killing two birds with one stone. Masie loved it because when Felix had so many customers that he could neither talk nor play with her, it served her as a temporary refuge—as would a shelter until the rain was over—and Felix delighted in it because it kept Kling out of the way, the good-natured Dutchman having often spoiled a sale by what Felix called "inopportune remarks at opportune moments."
Although Masie's business on this particular morning was nothing more important than merely saying good-by to her "Uncle Felix" before she went to school, her wee stub of a nose had, until she saw him cross the street, been flattened against the glass of her father's front door, her two eager, anxious eyes fixed on Kitty's sidewalk. Felix was over an hour late, something which had never happened before and something which could not have happened now unless he had either overslept himself—an unbelievable fact, or was ill—a calamity which could not be thought of for a moment.
While a nod and a faint smile had done for Kitty, and a "No, I was not very well last night," had sufficed for Kling, whose eyebrows made the inquiry—he never finding fault with O'Day for lapses of any kind—the case was far different when it came to Masie. The little lady had to be coaxed into one of the easy chairs in the improvised office and comforted with an arm around her shoulder, to say nothing of having her hair smoothed back from her face, followed by a kiss on her white forehead, before her overwrought anxieties were allayed.
That he was not himself was apparent to every one. Masie was still sure of it when she bade him good-by, and Kling became convinced of it long before the day was over. As the afternoon wore on, however, he grew calmer. His indomitable will began to reassert itself. His manner became more alert, and his glance clearer.
When he found himself able to think, he determined that his first move must be to find Carlin, and that very night. It had been some weeks since he had visited the ship-chandler. He had tried the latch several times, and would have repeated his visits had not a bystander told him that Carlin was in the country fitting out a yacht for one of his customers and would not be back for a month. The time was now up.
And yet, when he thought it all over, could he, in view of this new phase of the case, seek Carlin's help and advice? What might be better—and his heart gave a bound—would be to see Father Cruse. The woman whom Kitty had picked up might be one of his waifs, who, overcome by fatigue or illness after leaving the church, had fallen on the door-step where the policeman had found her.
At six o'clock he left the shop with a formal good night to Kling, a hasty, almost abrupt good-by to Masie, and, without a word of any kind to Kitty, whose quiet scrutiny he dreaded, bent his steps to a small eating-room in the basement of one of the old-time private houses in Lexington Avenue, where he sometimes took his meals. At seven o'clock he was threading his way through the crowds in Third Avenue, searching the face of every one he met. At eight o'clock, his impatience growing, he turned into 28th Street and mounted the short flight of steps in front of St. Barnabas's. The tones of the organ, as well as the illumined stained-glass windows and the groups of people around the swinging doors of the vestibule, showed that a service was being held. These, however, were the only evidences that a body of people had met to pray inside, both pavements outside being filled with hurrying throngs, as were the barrooms opposite, crowded with loud-talking men lining the bars, with here and there a woman at a table.
Passing through the vestibule doors, he entered the church and found a seat near the entrance. Father Cruse, in full vestments, was officiating. He was before the altar at the moment, his back to the congregation. Most of them were working people who had only their evenings free, and for whom these services were held: girls from the department stores, servants with an evening out, trainmen from the Elevated, off duty for an hour or two, small storekeepers whose places closed early, with their wives and children beside them, all under the spell of the hushed interior. Some prayed without moving, their heads bowed; others kept their eyes fixed on the priest. One or two had their faces turned toward the choir-loft, completely absorbed in the full, deep tones that rolled now and then through the responses.
Nothing of all this impressed Felix at first. He had always regarded the Roman Catholic church as embodying a religion adapted only to the ignorant and the superstitious. But, as he looked about on the rapt body of worshippers, he suddenly wondered if there were not something in its beliefs, forms, and ceremonies that he had hitherto missed.
The wonder grew upon him as he watched the worshippers, his eyes resting now on a figure of a woman on her knees before the small altar at his left, her half-naked baby flat on its back beside her; and again that of an unkempt gray-haired man, his clothes old and ragged, his body bent, his lips trembling in supplication. All at once, and for the first time in his life, he began to realize the existence of a something all-powerful, to which these people appealed, a something beneficent which swept their faces free of care, as a light drives out darkness, and sent them home with new hope and courage. Religion had played no part in his life. From his boyhood he had made his fight without it. Had they tried and failed and, disheartened in their failure, sought at last for higher help, realizing that no one man was strong enough to make the fight of life alone?
As he asked himself these questions, the personality of the priest began to exert its influence over him. He followed his movements, the dignity and solemnity with which he exercised his functions, the reverential tones of his voice, the adoration shown in his every act and gesture. And as he watched there arose another question—one he had often debated within himself: Were these people about him calmed and rested by the magnetic personality of the big-chested, strong-armed man; were they aided by the seductions of music, incense, and color, including the very vestments that hung from his broad shoulders; or did the calm and rest and aid proceed from a source infinitely higher, more powerful, more compelling, as had been shown in the case of the would-be murderer cowed by the sight of a sacred emblem? And if there were two personalities, two influences, two dominant powers, one of man and the other of God, which one had he, Felix O'Day, come here to invoke?
At this mental question, the more practical side of his nature came to the fore.
"Neither of them," he said firmly to himself, "neither God nor priest." What he had come for had nothing to do with religion or with its forms. A woman had been found lying on a door-step near this church, who might have attended the same evening service. If so, Father Cruse might have seen her—no doubt knew her, in fact, must have both seen and recognized her. She was the kind of woman whom Murford said Father Cruse helped. What he was here for was to ask the priest a simple, straightforward question. This over, he would continue on his way.
Then a sudden check arose. How was he to describe this woman? He had not dared probe Kitty for any further details than those she had given him. To waste therefore, the valuable time of Father Cruse with no more information than he at present possessed would be as inconsiderate as it was foolish.
With this new view of the difficulty confronting him, he reached for his hat, so as to be ready at the first break in the service to tiptoe noiselessly out. He would then go back to Kitty and, without exciting her suspicions, learn something more of the outward appearance of the object of her tender sympathy.
As he was about to leave the pew, the tones of a tiny bell were heard through the aisles. Instantly a deep, almost breathless, silence fell upon the church. The penitents, who were on their knees beneath the clusters of candles lighting the side chapels, remained motionless; those in the seats bowed their heads, their foreheads resting on the backs of the pews.
As he listened with lowered head, a dull, scuffling sound was heard near the swinging doors of the vestibule, as if some one were being roughly handled. Then an angry voice, "she shan't go in!" followed by high-pitched, defiant tones: "Get out of my way. I shan't go in, shan't I? I'd like to see you or anybody else keep me out! This place is free, and so am I. Jim hasn't showed up, and I'm going to wait for him here. I've got a date."
She was abreast of Felix now, a girl of twenty, maudlin drunk, her hat awry, her hair in a frowse, her dress open at the neck.
She steadied herself for a moment, and became conscious of Felix, who had risen, horror-stricken, from his seat.
"Jim ain't showed up. He is all right, and don't you forget it. Them guys wanted to give me the grand bounce, but I got a date, see?"
She reeled on up the aisle until she reached the steps of the altar. There she stood, swaying before the lights, repeating her cry: "They dassen't touch me. I got a date, I tell you!"
Father Cruse, without turning, continued his ministrations with the same composure he would have maintained at a baptism had its solemnity been disturbed by the cry of a child. By this time, several women, appalled by the sacrilege, left their seats and moved toward her, begging, then commanding, her to stop talking, all fearing to add to the noise yet not daring to let it continue, until they gently but firmly pushed her through the door at the end of the church and so on into the street.
Felix had followed every movement of the girl with an intensity that almost paralyzed his senses. He had looked into her bloodshot eyes, noted the hard lines drawn around the corners of her mouth, the coarse, painted lips, dry hair, and sunken cheeks. He had heard her harsh laugh and caught the glint of her drunken leer. A cold shiver swept through him. It was as if he had stepped on a flat stone covering a grave which had tilted beneath his feet, revealing a corpse but a few months buried. Had he been anywhere else he would have sunk to the floor—not to pray, but to rest his knees, which seemed giving out under him.
When service was over, he made his way down the aisle, waited until the last of the worshippers had had their final word with their priest, and, with a respectful bend of the head in recognition, followed Father Cruse into the sacristy.
"You remember me?" he said in a hoarse, constrained voice when the priest turned and faced him.
"Yes, you are Mr. O'Day—Kitty Cleary's friend, and I need not tell you how glad I am to see you," and he held out a cordial hand.
"I have come as I promised you I would. Can you give me half an hour?"
"With the greatest pleasure. My duties are over just as soon as I put these vestments away. But I am sorry you came to-night, for you have witnessed a most distressing sight."
Felix looked at him steadily. "Do such things happen often?" he asked, his voice breaking.
"Everything happens here, Mr. O'Day," replied the priest gravely; "incredible things. We once found a baby a month old in the gallery. We baptized him and he is now one of our choir-boys. But, forgive me," he added with a smile, "such sights are best forgotten and may not interest you." He was studying his visitor as a doctor does a patient, trying to discover the seat of the disease. That Felix was not the same man he had met the night at Kitty's was apparent; then he had been merely a man with a sorrow, now he seemed laboring under a weight too heavy to bear.
Felix drew back his shoulders as if to brace himself the better and said: "Can we talk here?"
"Yes, and with absolute privacy and freedom. Take this chair; I will sit beside you." It was the voice of the father confessor now, encouraging the unburdening of a soul.
Felix glanced first around the simple room, with its quiet and seclusion, then stepped back and closed the sacristy door, saying, as he took his seat: "There is no need, I suppose, of locking it?"
"Not the slightest."
For a moment he sat with head bowed, one hand pressed to his forehead. The priest waited, saying nothing.
"I have come to you, Father Cruse, because I need a man's help—not a priest's—a MAN'S. If I have made no mistake, you are one."
The fine white fingers of the priest were rising and falling ever so slightly on the velvet arm of the chair on which his hand rested, a compound gesture showing that both his brain and his hand were at his listener's service.
"Go on," he said gently and firmly. "As priest or man, Mr. O'Day, I am ready."
Felix paused; the priest bent his head in closer attention. He was accustomed to halting confessions, and ready with a prompting word if the sinner faltered.
"It is about my wife."
The words seemed to choke him, as if the grip of a long-held silence had not yet quite relaxed its hold.
"Not ill, I hope?"
"No, she is not ill."
The priest leaned forward, a startled look on his face. "You surely don't mean she is dead?"
O'Day did not answer.
Father Cruse settled back into the depths of his chair. "She has left you, then," he said in a conclusive tone.
"Yes—a year ago."
He stopped, started to speak, and, with a baffled gesture, said: "No, you might better have it all. It is the only way you will understand; I will begin at the beginning."
The priest laid his hand soothingly on O'Day's wrist. "Take your time. I have nothing else to do except to listen and—help you if I can."
The touch of the priest had steadied him. "Thank you, Father," he said simply, and went on.
"A year ago, as I have said, my wife left me and went off with a man named Dalton. Later I learned she was here, and I came over to see what I could do to help her."
Father Cruse raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
"Yes, just that—to help her when she needed help, for I knew she would need it sooner or later. She was not a bad woman when she left me, and she is not now, unless he has made her so. She is only an easily persuaded, pleasure-loving woman, and when my father was forced into bankruptcy and we all suffered together, she blamed me for giving up what money I had in trying to straighten out his affairs; and then our infant daughter died, and that so upset her mind that when Dalton came along she let everything go. That is one solution of it—the one which her friends give out. I will tell you the truth. It is that I was twenty years older than she, that she loved me as a young girl loves an older man who had been brought up almost in her own family, for our properties adjoined, and that when she woke up, it was to find out that I was not the man she would have married had she been given a few more years' time in which to make up her mind.
"When she ran away I lost my bearings. I used to sit in my room in the club for hours at a time, staring at the morning paper, never seeing the print; thinking only of my wife and our life together—all of it, from the day we were married. I recalled her childish nature, her fits of sudden temper always ending in tears, and her wilfulness. Then my own responsibility loomed up. To let this child go to the devil would be a crime. When this idea became firmly set in my mind, I determined to follow her no matter what she had done or where she had gone.
"I had meant to go to Australia and look after sheep—I knew something about them—but I changed my plans when I overheard a conversation at my club and concluded that Dalton had brought her here—although the conversation itself was only the repetition of a rumor. Since then I have found out that they are both here, or were some six months ago.
"You can understand, now, why I am living at Mrs. Cleary's and working in Mr. Kling's store. I had but a few pounds left after paying my passage and there was no one from whom I could borrow, even if I had been so disposed; so work of some kind was necessary. It may be just as well for me to tell you, too, that nobody at home knows where I am, and that but two persons in New York know me at all. One is a man named Carlin, who served on one of my father-in-law's vessels, and the other is his sister Martha, who was a nurse in my wife's family.
"Dalton, so I understood, had considerable money when he left, enough to last him some months, and until yesterday I have hunted for them where I thought he would be sure to spend it, in the richer cafes and restaurants, outside the opera-houses and the fashionable theatres—places where two strangers in the city would naturally spend their evenings, and a woman loving light and color as she did would want to go.
"All these theories were upset last night when Mrs. Cleary gave me some details of a woman she had picked up near your church. She found her, it seems, some months ago—last April, in fact—on the steps of a private house near your church—here on 29th Street—took her home and made her spend the night there. In the morning she disappeared without any one seeing her. Yesterday, while moving the bureau in my room, Mrs. Cleary found a sleeve-link on the carpet; she thought it was one I had dropped. I have it in my trunk. It is one of a pair my wife gave me on my birthday, the year we were married. I missed it from my jewel case after she left, and thought somebody had stolen it. Now I know that my wife must have taken it, and then dropped it at Mrs. Cleary's. So I came here tonight hoping against hope—it was so many months ago—to get some further information regarding her. Then I remembered that I had not asked Mrs. Cleary what the woman looked like, and I was about to return home, when that poor girl staggered in, and I got a look at her face. I lost my hold on myself then and—"
He sprang to his feet and began striding across the room, his eyes blazing, one clinched fist upraised: "By God! Father Cruse, I know something of Dalton's earlier life and of what he is capable. And I tell you right here, that if he has brought my wife to that, I shall kill him the moment I set my eyes on him. To take a child of a woman, foolish and vain as she was—stupid if you will—and—" he halted, covered his face in his hands, and broke into sobs.
During the long recital Father Cruse had neither spoken nor moved. He was accustomed to such outbursts, but it had been many years since he had seen so strong a man weep as bitterly. Better let the storm pass—he would master himself the sooner.
A full minute elapsed, and then, with a groan that seemed to come from the depths of his being, O'Day lifted his head, brushed the hot tears from his eyes, and continued:
"You must forgive me, for I am utterly broken up. But I can't go on any longer this way! I have got to let go—I have got to talk to somebody. That dear woman with whom I live is kindness itself and would do anything she could for me, but somehow I cannot tell her about these things. I may be wrong about it—but I was born that way. You know black from white—you live here right in the midst of it—you see it every day. Mr. Silas Murford told me the other night at Kelsey's that you knew everybody in this neighborhood, and so I came to you. Help me find my wife!"
Father Cruse drew his chair closer and laid his hand soothingly on O'Day's knee.
"It is unnecessary for me to tell you I will help you," he answered in his low, smooth voice: "And now let us get to work systematically and see what can be done. I will begin by asking you a few questions. What sort of a looking woman is your wife?"
Felix straightened himself in his chair, felt in his inside pocket, and took from it a colored photograph. "As you see, she is rather small, with fair hair, blue eyes, and a slight figure—the usual English type. She has very beautiful teeth—very white—teeth you would never forget once you saw them; and she has quite small ears and, although the picture does not show this, small hands and feet."
"And how would she dress now? This evidently was taken some years ago. I mean, what was her habit of dress? Would it be such as an Englishwoman would wear?"
Felix pondered. "Well, when Lady Barbara left she had—"
An expression of surprise on the priest's face cut short the sentence. O'Day looked at him in a startled way; then he recalled his words.
"Pardon me, but it is only fair that you should know that Lady Barbara is the daughter of Lord Carnavon, and that since my father's death they call me Sir Felix. I have never used the title here and may never use it anywhere. I would have assumed some other name when I arrived here, except that I could not bring myself to give up my own and my father's—he never did anything to disgrace it. He was caught in a trap, that is all, and I signed away everything I could to help him out. He stood by me when I was in India, and when he had a shilling he gave me half. I would rather have died, much as my wife blamed me, than not to have done what I did.
"And I would do it all over again, although I did not realize how big the load was until settling-day came. Dalton was at the bottom of it all. He floated the company. There was a story going around the clubs that he had got me into squaring it all up, knowing that I would be done for, and he could get away with her easier, but I never believed it. He has come into his own, if this wretched, suffering woman that Mrs. Cleary picked up is my wife; and I will come into mine"—here his eyes flashed—"if he has dragged her down and—"
Father Cruse again laid his quieting fingers this time on Felix's wrist.
"He has not dragged her down, Mr. O'Day. Of that you may be sure. A woman of her class doesn't go to pieces in a year. When she reaches the end of her means she will either seek work or she will go to one of the institutions to wait until she can hear from her people at home. I have known—"
Felix shook his head with an impatient movement. "You don't know her," he exclaimed excitedly, "nor do you know her family. Her father has shut his door against her, and would step across her body if he found it on the sidewalk rather than recognize her. Nor would she ask him for a penny, nor let him or me or any one else know of her misery."
Again the priest sat silent. He did not attempt to defend his theory—some better way of calming his visitor must be found. He merely said, as if entirely convinced by O'Day's denial: "Oh, well, we will let that go, perhaps you know best"; and then added, his voice softening, "and now one word more, before we go into the details of our search, so that no complications may arise in the future. You, of course, are hunting for Lady Barbara to reinstate her as your wife if—"
O'Day sprang from his chair and stood over the priest. The suggestion had come as a blow.
"I will take her back!"
The priest looked up in astonishment. "Yes, is it not so?"
The answer came between closed teeth. "I did not expect that of you, Father Cruse, I thought you were bigger—MUCH bigger. Can't you understand how a man may want to stand by a woman for herself alone without dragging in his own selfishness and—No, I forgot—you cannot understand—you never held a woman in your arms—you do not realize her many weaknesses, her childishness, her whims, her helplessness. But take her back? NEVER! That chapter in my life is dosed. My hunt for her all these months has been to save her from herself and from the scoundrel who has ruined her. When that is done I shall pick up my life as best I can, but not with her."
For some seconds the priest did not speak. Then he said gently, again avoiding any disagreement. "Let us hope that so happy an ending to all your sufferings is not far off, my dear Mr. O'Day. And now another question before we part for the night, one I perhaps ought to have asked you before. Are you quite positive that Kitty's visitor was your wife?"
He had reserved this hopeful suggestion—one he himself believed in—for the last. It would help lift the dead weight of bitter anxiety which was sure to overwhelm his visitor in the wakeful hours of the night.
Felix moved impatiently, like one combating a physician's cheering words. "It must have been she, who else could have dropped the sleeve-link?"
"Several people. Excuse me if I talk along different lines, but I have had a good deal of experience in tracing out just such things as this, and I have always found it safest to be sure of my facts before deducing theories. It is not all clear to me that Kitty's woman dropped the links. And even if she did, the fact is no proof that the woman is your wife."
"But the links are mine. There is no question of it—my initials and arms are cut into them." The impatience was gone and a certain curiosity was manifesting itself.
"Quite true, and yet you once thought the links were stolen. So let us presume for the present that they were stolen and that this woman either bought them, or was given them, or found them."
Felix began pacing the floor, a gleam of hope illumining the dark corners of his heart. The interview, too, had calmed him—as do all confessions.
The priest settled back in his seat. He saw that the crisis had passed. There might be another outburst in the future, but it would not have the intensity of the one he had just witnessed. He waited until Felix was opposite his chair and then asked, in a low voice: "Well, may I not be right, Mr. O'Day?"
Felix paused in his walk and gazed down at the priest. "I don't know," he answered slowly. "My head is not clear enough to think it out. Mrs. Cleary might help unravel it. She saw her and will remember. Shall I sound her when I go home—not to excite her suspicions, of course, but so as to find out whether her visitor were large or small—details like that?"
"No, I will ask her, and in a way not to make her suspect. She will think I am hunting for one of my own people. It is wiser that she should not know yet what you have told me. I would rather wait for the time when this poor creature, whoever she is, needs a sister's tenderness. She will get it there, for no finer woman lives than Kitty Cleary."
A sigh of intense relief escaped Felix. "And now tell me where you will begin your hunt?" he asked, one of his old search-light glances flashing from beneath his brows.
"Nowhere in particular. On the East Side, perhaps, where I have means of knowing what strangers come and go. Then among my own people here. I shall know within twenty-four hours whether she has been in the habit of attending evening service—that is, within the last six months. A woman of the poorer class would be difficult to locate, but there should not be the slightest trouble in picking out one who, less than a year ago, occupied your wife's social position—no matter how badly she were dressed."
Felix stood musing. He had reached the limit of the help he had come for.
"And what can I do to assist?"
"Nothing. Go home, and when I need you I will send word. Good night."
Had Felix continued his visits to Stephen Carlin's shop, he might have escaped many sleepless hours and saved himself many weary steps.
Fate had doubtless dealt him one of those unlucky cards which we so often find in our hands when the game of life is being played. If, for instance, the book to the right, holding the lost will, had been opened instead of the book to the left; or if we had caught the wrecked train by a minute or less; or had our penny come up heads instead of coming up tails: how many of the ills of life would have been avoided? And so I say that had Felix continued his visits to Stephen as he should have done, he would, one December afternoon, have found the ship-chandler standing in the door, spectacles on his nose, checking off a wagon-load of manila rope which had just been discharged on his pavement, stopping only to nod to the postman who had brought him a letter. The delay in breaking the seal was due entirely to the fact that a coil of light cordage, used aboard the yachts he was accustomed to fit out, had just been reported as missing, and so the unopened letter was tossed on top a barrel of sperm-oil to await his convenience. But it was when Stephen caught sight of the small cramped writing scrawled over the cheap yellow envelope, the stamp askew, his own name and address crowded in the lower left-hand corner, that the supreme moment really arrived, for at that instant—had Felix been there—he would have seen Carlin slit the covering with his thumb-nail, lay aside his invoice, and drop on the first seat within reach, to steady himself.
Indeed, had Felix on this same December afternoon surprised him even an hour later, say at six o'clock, which he could very well have done, for Carlin did not close his shop until seven, he would have come upon him with the same letter in his hand, his whole mind absorbed in its contents, especially the last paragraph: "Be here at seven o'clock, sharp; don't ring the bell below, just rap twice and I shall know it is you. I have to be very careful who I let in."
It had been several weeks since Carlin had heard from his sister. She had called at the store on her return from Canada, where she had spent the summer, and he had helped her find a small suite of rooms on a side street off St. Mark's Place, which she subsequently occupied, but since then she had never crossed his threshold. At first she had kept him advised of her nursing engagements—the days when her work carried her out of town, or the addresses of those who needed her in the city. These brief communications having entirely ceased, he had decided in his anxiety to look her up and, strange to say, on that very night. That his hand trembled and his rough, weather-browned face became tinged with color as he read her letter to the end, turning the page and reading the whole a second time, would have surprised anybody who knew the stern, silent old sailor. His clerk, a thin, long-necked young man wearing a paper collar and green necktie, noticed his agitation and guessed wrong—Carlin being a confirmed old bachelor. And so did the driver of the wagon, who had to wait for his receipt and who, wondering at Stephen's emotion, would have asked what the letter was all about had not the ship-chandler, after consulting his watch, crammed the envelope into his side pocket, jumped to his feet, and shouted to the Paper Collar to "roll the stuff off that sidewalk and get everything stowed away, as he was going up to St. Mark's Place."
Here and there in the whir of the great city a restful breathing-spot is found, its stretch of grass dotted with moss-covered tombs grouped around a low-pitched church. At certain hours the sound of bells is heard and the low rhythm of the organ throbbing through the aisles. Then lines of quietly dressed worshippers stroll along the bordered walks, the children's hands fast in their mothers' the arched vestibule-door closing upon them.
Most of these oases, like Trinity, St. Paul's, and St. Mark's, differ but little—the same low-pitched church, the same slender spire, the same stretch of green with its scattered gravestones. And, outside, the same old demon of hurry, defied and hurled back by a lifted hand armed with the cross.
Of these three breathing-spaces, St. Mark's is, perhaps, a little greener in the early spring, less dusty in the summer heat, less bare and uninviting in the winter snow. It is more restful, too, than the others, a place in which to sit and muse—even to read. Out from its shade and sunshine run queer side streets, with still queerer houses, rising two stories and an attic, each with a dormer and huge chimney. Dried-up old aristocrats, these, living on the smallest of pensions, taking toll of notaries public, shyster lawyers, peddlers of steel pens, die-cutters, and dismal real-estate agents in dismal offices boasting a desk, two chairs, and a map.
Stephen's course lay in the direction of one of these relics of better days—a wide-eyed house with a pieced-out roof, flattened like an old woman's wig over a sloping forehead, the eyebrows of eaves shading two blinking windows. A most respectable old dowager of a building, no doubt, in its time, with the best of Madeira and the choicest of cuts going down two steps into its welcoming basement. That was before the iron railings were covered with rust and before the three brownstone steps leading to the front door were worn into scoops by heavy shoes; before the polished mahogany doors were replaced by pine and painted a dull, dirty green; before the banisters with their mahogany rail were as full of cavities as a garden fence with half its palings gone; and before—long before—some vulgar Paul Pry had cut a skylight in the hipped roof, through which he could peer, taking note of whatever went on inside the gloomy interior: each of these several calamities but so much additional testimony to its once grand estate, and every one of them but so many steps in its downward career.
For it had become anything but a happy house—this old dowager dwelling of the long ago. Indeed, it was a very mournful and most depressing house, and so were its tenants. In the basement was a barber who spent half his time lounging about inside the small door, without his white jacket, waiting for customers. On the first-floor-back there was a music-teacher whose pupils were so few and far between that only the shortest of lessons at the longest of intervals were recited on her piano; on the second-floor-front was a wood-engraver who took to photography to pay his rent. On the second-floor-back was a dressmaker who could not collect her bills; while in the rear was a laundress who washed for the tenants. Lastly, there was Mrs. Martha Munger, Stephen Carlin's sister, who occupied the third floor both front and back, over the laundress's quarters, the one chimney serving them both.
While the evil eye of the skylight, despite its dishonorable calling, might have been put to some good use during the day, it can be safely said that it was of no earthly, and for that matter of no heavenly, use during the night. Nor did anything else in the way of illumination take its place. My Lady Dowager's patrons were too poor or too stingy to furnish even a single burner up and down the three flights. The excuse was that the rays of the arc-light, blazing away on the opposite side of the street, were not only powerful enough to shine through the weather-beaten hall door covering the entrance but, still further, to illuminate the rickety staircase—the very staircase up which Stephen Carlin was now groping in answer to Martha's letter.