"Good-mornin', sir," said Elder Brown again, in his most dignified tones. "Is Mr. Thomas in?"
"Good-morning, sir," said the figure. "I'll wait on you in a minute." The minute passed, and four more joined it. Then the desk man turned.
"Well, sir, what can I do for you?"
The elder was not in the best of humor when he arrived, and his state of mind had not improved. He waited full a minute as he surveyed the man of business.
"I thought I mout be able to make some arrangements with you to git some money, but I reckon I was mistaken." The warehouse man came nearer.
"This is Mr. Brown, I believe. I did not recognize you at once. You are not in often to see us."
"No; my wife usually 'tends to the town bizness, while I run the church and farm. Got a fall from my donkey this morning," he said, noticing a quizzical, interrogating look upon the face before him, "and fell squar' on the hat." He made a pretense of smoothing it. The man of business had already lost interest.
"How much money will you want, Mr. Brown?"
"Well, about seven hundred dollars," said the elder, replacing his hat, and turning a furtive look upon the warehouse man. The other was tapping with his pencil upon the little shelf lying across the rail.
"I can get you five hundred."
"But I oughter have seven."
"Can't arrange for that amount. Wait till later in the season, and come again. Money is very tight now. How much cotton will you raise?"
"Well, I count on a hundr'd bales. An' you can't git the sev'n hundr'd dollars?"
"Like to oblige you, but can't right now; will fix it for you later on."
"Well," said the elder, slowly, "fix up the papers for five, an' I'll make it go as far as possible."
The papers were drawn. A note was made out for $552.50, for the interest was at one and a half per cent. for seven months, and a mortgage on ten mules belonging to the elder was drawn and signed. The elder then promised to send his cotton to the warehouse to be sold in the fall, and with a curt "Anything else?" and a "Thankee, that's all," the two parted.
Elder Brown now made an effort to recall the supplemental commissions shouted to him upon his departure, intending to execute them first, and then take his written list item by item. His mental resolves had just reached this point when a new thought made itself known. Passersby were puzzled to see the old man suddenly snatch his headpiece off and peer with an intent and awestruck air into its irregular caverns. Some of them were shocked when he suddenly and vigorously ejaculated:
"Hannah-Maria-Jemimy! goldarn an' blue blazes!"
He had suddenly remembered having placed his memoranda in that hat, and as he studied its empty depths his mind pictured the important scrap fluttering along the sandy scene of his early-morning tumble. It was this that caused him to graze an oath with less margin that he had allowed himself in twenty years. What would the old lady say?
Alas! Elder Brown knew too well. What she would not say was what puzzled him. But as he stood bareheaded in the sunlight a sense of utter desolation came and dwelt with him. His eye rested upon sleeping Balaam anchored to a post in the street, and so as he recalled the treachery that lay at the base of all his affliction, gloom was added to the desolation.
To turn back and search for the lost paper would have been worse than useless. Only one course was open to him, and at it went the leader of his people. He called at the grocery; he invaded the recesses of the dry-goods establishments; he ransacked the hardware stores; and wherever he went he made life a burden for the clerks, overhauling show-cases and pulling down whole shelves of stock. Occasionally an item of his memoranda would come to light, and thrusting his hand into his capacious pocket, where lay the proceeds of his check, he would pay for it upon the spot, and insist upon having it rolled up. To the suggestion of the slave whom he had in charge for the time being that the articles be laid aside until he had finished, he would not listen.
"Now you look here, sonny," he said, in the dry-goods store, "I'm conducting this revival, an' I don't need no help in my line. Just you tie them stockin's up an' lemme have 'em. Then I know I've got 'em." As each purchase was promptly paid for, and change had to be secured, the clerk earned his salary for that day at least.
So it was when, near the heat of the day, the good man arrived at the drugstore, the last and only unvisited division of trade, he made his appearance equipped with half a hundred packages, which nestled in his arms and bulged out about the sections of his clothing that boasted of pockets. As he deposited his deck-load upon the counter, great drops of perspiration rolled down his face and over his waterlogged collar to the floor.
There was something exquisitely refreshing in the great glasses of foaming soda that a spruce young man was drawing from a marble fountain, above which half a dozen polar bears in an ambitious print were disporting themselves. There came a break in the run of customers, and the spruce young man, having swept the foam from the marble, dexterously lifted a glass from the revolving rack which had rinsed it with a fierce little stream of water, and asked mechanically, as he caught the intense look of the perspiring elder, "What syrup, sir?"
Now it had not occurred to the elder to drink soda, but the suggestion, coming as it did in his exhausted state, was overpowering. He drew near awkwardly, put on his glasses, and examined the list of syrups with great care. The young man, being for the moment at leisure, surveyed critically the gaunt figure, the faded bandanna, the antique clawhammer coat, and the battered stove-pipe hat, with a gradually relaxing countenance. He even called the prescription clerk's attention by a cough and a quick jerk of the thumb. The prescription clerk smiled freely, and continued his assaults upon a piece of blue mass.
"I reckon," said the elder, resting his hands upon his knees and bending down to the list, "you may gimme sassprilla an' a little strawberry. Sassprilla's good for the blood this time er year, an' strawberry's good any time."
The spruce young man let the syrup stream into the glass as he smiled affably. Thinking, perhaps, to draw out the odd character, he ventured upon a jest himself, repeating a pun invented by the man who made the first soda fountain. With a sweep of his arm he cleared away the swarm of insects as he remarked, "People who like a fly in theirs are easily accommodated."
It was from sheer good-nature only that Elder Brown replied, with his usual broad, social smile, "Well, a fly now an' then don't hurt nobody."
Now if there is anybody in the world who prides himself on knowing a thing or two, it is the spruce young man who presides over a soda fountain. This particular young gentleman did not even deem a reply necessary. He vanished an instant, and when he returned a close observer might have seen that the mixture in the glass he bore had slightly changed color and increased in quantity. But the elder saw only the whizzing stream of water dart into its center, and the rosy foam rise and tremble on the glass's rim. The next instant he was holding his breath and sipping the cooling drink.
As Elder Brown paid his small score he was at peace with the world. I firmly believe that when he had finished his trading, and the little blue-stringed packages had been stored away, could the poor donkey have made his appearance at the door, and gazed with his meek, fawnlike eyes into his master's, he would have obtained full and free forgiveness.
Elder Brown paused at the door as he was about to leave. A rosy-cheeked school-girl was just lifting a creamy mixture to her lips before the fountain. It was a pretty picture, and he turned back, resolved to indulge in one more glass of the delightful beverage before beginning his long ride homeward.
"Fix it up again, sonny," he said, renewing his broad, confiding smile, as the spruce young man poised a glass inquiringly. The living automaton went through the same motions as before, and again Elder Brown quaffed the fatal mixture.
What a singular power is habit! Up to this time Elder Brown had been entirely innocent of transgression, but with the old alcoholic fire in his veins, twenty years dropped from his shoulders, and a feeling came over him familiar to every man who has been "in his cups." As a matter of fact, the elder would have been a confirmed drunkard twenty years before had his wife been less strong-minded. She took the reins into her own hands when she found that his business and strong drink did not mix well, worked him into the church, sustained his resolutions by making it difficult and dangerous for him to get to his toddy. She became the business head of the family, and he the spiritual. Only at rare intervals did he ever "backslide" during the twenty years of the new era, and Mrs. Brown herself used to say that the "sugar in his'n turned to gall before the backslide ended." People who knew her never doubted it.
But Elder Brown's sin during the remainder of the day contained an element of responsibility. As he moved majestically down toward where Balaam slept in the sunlight, he felt no fatigue. There was a glow upon his cheek-bones, and a faint tinge upon his prominent nose. He nodded familiarly to people as he met them, and saw not the look of amusement which succeeded astonishment upon the various faces. When he reached the neighborhood of Balaam it suddenly occurred to him that he might have forgotten some one of his numerous commissions, and he paused to think. Then a brilliant idea rose in his mind. He would forestall blame and disarm anger with kindness—he would purchase Hannah a bonnet.
What woman's heart ever failed to soften at sight of a new bonnet?
As I have stated, the elder was a man of action. He entered a store near at hand.
"Good-morning," said an affable gentleman with a Hebrew countenance, approaching.
"Good-mornin', good-mornin'," said the elder, piling his bundles on the counter. "I hope you are well?" Elder Brown extended his hand fervidly.
"Quite well, I thank you. What—"
"And the little wife?" said Elder Brown, affectionately retaining the Jew's hand.
"Quite well, sir."
"And the little ones—quite well, I hope, too?"
"Yes, sir; all well, thank you. Something I can do for you?"
The affable merchant was trying to recall his customer's name.
"Not now, not now, thankee. If you please to let my bundles stay untell I come back—"
"Can't I show you something? Hat, coat—"
"Not now. Be back bimeby."
Was it chance or fate that brought Elder Brown in front of a bar? The glasses shone bright upon the shelves as the swinging door flapped back to let out a coatless clerk, who passed him with a rush, chewing upon a farewell mouthful of brown bread and bologna. Elder Brown beheld for an instant the familiar scene within. The screws of his resolution had been loosened. At sight of the glistening bar the whole moral structure of twenty years came tumbling down. Mechanically he entered the saloon, and laid a silver quarter upon the bar as he said:
"A little whiskey an' sugar." The arms of the bartender worked like a faker's in a side show as he set out the glass with its little quota of "short sweetening" and a cut-glass decanter, and sent a half-tumbler of water spinning along from the upper end of the bar with a dime in change.
"Whiskey is higher'n used to be," said Elder Brown; but the bartender was taking another order, and did not hear him. Elder Brown stirred away the sugar, and let a steady stream of red liquid flow into the glass. He swallowed the drink as unconcernedly as though his morning tod had never been suspended, and pocketed the change. "But it ain't any better than it was," he concluded, as he passed out. He did not even seem to realize that he had done anything extraordinary.
There was a millinery store up the street, and thither with uncertain step he wended his way, feeling a little more elate, and altogether sociable. A pretty, black-eyed girl, struggling to keep down her mirth, came forward and faced him behind the counter. Elder Brown lifted his faded hat with the politeness, if not the grace, of a Castilian, and made a sweeping bow. Again he was in his element. But he did not speak. A shower of odds and ends, small packages, thread, needles, and buttons, released from their prison, rattled down about him.
The girl laughed. She could not help it. And the elder, leaning his hand on the counter, laughed, too, until several other girls came half-way to the front. Then they, hiding behind counters and suspended cloaks, laughed and snickered until they reconvulsed the elder's vis-a-vis, who had been making desperate efforts to resume her demure appearance.
"Let me help you, sir," she said, coming from behind the counter, upon seeing Elder Brown beginning to adjust his spectacles for a search. He waved her back majestically. "No, my dear, no; can't allow it. You mout sile them purty fingers. No, ma'am. No gen'l'man'll 'low er lady to do such a thing." The elder was gently forcing the girl back to her place. "Leave it to me. I've picked up bigger things 'n them. Picked myself up this mornin'. Balaam—you don't know Balaam; he's my donkey—he tumbled me over his head in the sand this mornin'." And Elder Brown had to resume an upright position until his paroxysm of laughter had passed. "You see this old hat?" extending it, half full of packages; "I fell clear inter it; jes' as clean inter it as them things thar fell out'n it." He laughed again, and so did the girls. "But, my dear, I whaled half the hide off'n him for it."
"Oh, sir! how could you? Indeed, sir. I think you did wrong. The poor brute did not know what he was doing, I dare say, and probably he has been a faithful friend." The girl cast her mischievous eyes towards her companions, who snickered again. The old man was not conscious of the sarcasm. He only saw reproach. His face straightened, and he regarded the girl soberly.
"Mebbe you're right, my dear; mebbe I oughtn't."
"I am sure of it," said the girl. "But now don't you want to buy a bonnet or a cloak to carry home to your wife?"
"Well, you're whistlin' now, birdie; that's my intention; set 'em all out." Again the elder's face shone with delight. "An' I don't want no one-hoss bonnet neither."
"Of course not. Now here is one; pink silk, with delicate pale blue feathers. Just the thing for the season. We have nothing more elegant in stock." Elder Brown held it out, upside down, at arm's-length.
"Well, now, that's suthin' like. Will it soot a sorter redheaded 'ooman?"
A perfectly sober man would have said the girl's corsets must have undergone a terrible strain, but the elder did not notice her dumb convulsion. She answered, heroically:
"Perfectly, sir. It is an exquisite match."
"I think you're whistlin' again. Nancy's head's red, red as a woodpeck's. Sorrel's only half-way to the color of her top-knot, an' it do seem like red oughter to soot red. Nancy's red an' the hat's red; like goes with like, an' birds of a feather flock together." The old man laughed until his cheeks were wet.
The girl, beginning to feel a little uneasy, and seeing a customer entering, rapidly fixed up the bonnet, took fifteen dollars out of a twenty-dollar bill, and calmly asked the elder if he wanted anything else. He thrust his change somewhere into his clothes, and beat a retreat. It had occurred to him that he was nearly drunk.
Elder Brown's step began to lose its buoyancy. He found himself utterly unable to walk straight. There was an uncertain straddle in his gait that carried him from one side of the walk to the other, and caused people whom he met to cheerfully yield him plenty of room.
Balaam saw him coming. Poor Balaam. He had made an early start that day, and for hours he stood in the sun awaiting relief. When he opened his sleepy eyes and raised his expressive ears to a position of attention, the old familiar coat and battered hat of the elder were before him. He lifted up his honest voice and cried aloud for joy.
The effect was electrical for one instant. Elder Brown surveyed the beast with horror, but again in his understanding there rang out the trumpet words.
"Drunk, drunk, drunk, drer-unc, -er-unc, -unc, -unc."
He stooped instinctively for a missile with which to smite his accuser, but brought up suddenly with a jerk and a handful of sand. Straightening himself up with a majestic dignity, he extended his right hand impressively.
"You're a goldarn liar, Balaam, and, blast your old buttons, you kin walk home by yourself, for I'm danged if you sh'll ride me er step."
Surely Coriolanus never turned his back upon Rome with a grander dignity than sat upon the old man's form as he faced about and left the brute to survey with anxious eyes the new departure of his master.
He saw the elder zigzag along the street, and beheld him about to turn a friendly corner. Once more he lifted up his mighty voice:
"Drunk, drunk, drunk, drer-unc, drer-unc, -erunc, -unc, -unc."
Once more the elder turned with lifted hand and shouted back:
"You're a liar, Balaam, goldarn you! You're er iffamous liar." Then he passed from view.
Mrs. Brown stood upon the steps anxiously awaiting the return of her liege lord. She knew he had with him a large sum of money, or should have, and she knew also that he was a man without business methods. She had long since repented of the decision which sent him to town. When the old battered hat and flour-covered coat loomed up in the gloaming and confronted her, she stared with terror. The next instant she had seized him.
"For the Lord sakes, Elder Brown, what ails you? As I live, if the man ain't drunk! Elder Brown! Elder Brown! for the life of me can't I make you hear? You crazy old hypocrite! you desavin' old sinner! you black-hearted wretch! where have you ben?"
The elder made an effort to wave her off.
"Woman," he said, with grand dignity, "you forgit yus-sef; shu know ware I've ben 'swell's I do. Ben to town, wife, an' see yer wat I've brought—the fines' hat, ole woman, I could git. Look't the color. Like goes 'ith like; it's red an' you're red, an' it's a dead match. What yer mean? Hey! hole on! ole woman!—you! Hannah!—you." She literally shook him into silence.
"You miserable wretch! you low-down drunken sot! what do you mean by coming home and insulting your wife?" Hannah ceased shaking him from pure exhaustion.
"Where is it, I say? where is it?"
By this time she was turning his pockets wrong side out. From one she got pills, from another change, from another packages.
"The Lord be praised, and this is better luck than I hoped! Oh, elder! elder! elder! what did you do it for? Why, man, where is Balaam?"
Thought of the beast choked off the threatened hysterics.
"Balaam? Balaam?" said the elder, groggily. "He's in town. The infernal ole fool 'sulted me, an' I lef' him to walk home."
His wife surveyed him. Really at that moment she did think his mind was gone; but the leer upon the old man's face enraged her beyond endurance.
"You did, did you? Well, now, I reckon you'll laugh for some cause, you will. Back you go, sir—straight back; an' don't you come home 'thout that donkey, or you'll rue it, sure as my name is Hannah Brown. Aleck!—you Aleck-k-k!"
A black boy darted round the corner, from behind which, with several others, he had beheld the brief but stirring scene.
"Put a saddle on er mule. The elder's gwine back to town. And don't you be long about it neither."
"Yessum." Aleck's ivories gleamed in the darkness as he disappeared.
Elder Brown was soberer at that moment than he had been for hours.
"Hannah, you don't mean it?"
"Yes, sir, I do. Back you go to town as sure as my name is Hannah Brown."
The elder was silent. He had never known his wife to relent on any occasion after she had affirmed her intention, supplemented with "as sure as my name is Hannah Brown." It was her way of swearing. No affidavit would have had half the claim upon her as that simple enunciation.
So back to town went Elder Brown, not in the order of the early morn, but silently, moodily, despairingly, surrounded by mental and actual gloom.
The old man had turned a last appealing glance upon the angry woman, as he mounted with Aleck's assistance, and sat in the light that streamed from out the kitchen window. She met the glance without a waver.
"She means it, as sure as my name is Elder Brown," he said, thickly. Then he rode on.
To say that Elder Brown suffered on this long journey back to Macon would only mildly outline his experience. His early morning's fall had begun to make itself felt. He was sore and uncomfortable. Besides, his stomach was empty, and called for two meals it had missed for the first time in years.
When, sore and weary, the elder entered the city, the electric lights shone above it like jewels in a crown. The city slept; that is, the better portion of it did. Here and there, however, the lower lights flashed out into the night. Moodily the elder pursued his journey, and as he rode, far off in the night there rose and quivered a plaintive cry. Elder Brown smiled wearily: it was Balaam's appeal, and he recognized it. The animal he rode also recognized it, and replied, until the silence of the city was destroyed. The odd clamor and confusion drew from a saloon near by a group of noisy youngsters, who had been making a night of it. They surrounded Elder Brown as he began to transfer himself to the hungry beast to whose motion he was more accustomed, and in the "hail fellow well met" style of the day began to bandy jests upon his appearance. Now Elder Brown was not in a jesting humor. Positively he was in the worst humor possible. The result was that before many minutes passed the old man was swinging several of the crowd by their collars, and breaking the peace of the city. A policeman approached, and but for the good-humored party, upon whom the elder's pluck had made a favorable impression, would have run the old man into the barracks. The crowd, however, drew him laughingly into the saloon and to the bar. The reaction was too much for his half-rallied senses. He yielded again. The reviving liquor passed his lips. Gloom vanished. He became one of the boys.
The company into which Elder Brown had fallen was what is known as "first-class." To such nothing is so captivating as an adventure out of the common run of accidents. The gaunt countryman, with his battered hat and claw-hammer coat, was a prize of an extraordinary nature. They drew him into a rear room, whose gilded frames and polished tables betrayed the character and purpose of the place, and plied him with wine until ten thousand lights danced about him. The fun increased. One youngster made a political speech from the top of the table; another impersonated Hamlet; and finally Elder Brown was lifted into a chair, and sang a camp-meeting song. This was rendered by him with startling effect. He stood upright, with his hat jauntily knocked to one side, and his coat tails ornamented with a couple of show-bills, kindly pinned on by his admirers. In his left hand he waved the stub of a cigar, and on his back was an admirable representation of Balaam's head, executed by some artist with billiard chalk.
As the elder sang his favorite hymn, "I'm glad salvation's free," his stentorian voice awoke the echoes. Most of the company rolled upon the floor in convulsions of laughter.
The exhibition came to a close by the chair overturning. Again Elder Brown fell into his beloved hat. He arose and shouted: "Whoa, Balaam!" Again he seized the nearest weapon, and sought satisfaction. The young gentleman with political sentiments was knocked under the table, and Hamlet only escaped injury by beating the infuriated elder into the street.
What next? Well, I hardly know. How the elder found Balaam is a mystery yet: not that Balaam was hard to find, but that the old man was in no condition to find anything. Still he did, and climbing laboriously into the saddle, he held on stupidly while the hungry beast struck out for home.
Hannah Brown did not sleep that night. Sleep would not come. Hour after hour passed, and her wrath refused to be quelled. She tried every conceivable method, but time hung heavily. It was not quite peep of day, however, when she laid her well-worn family Bible aside. It had been her mother's, and amid all the anxieties and tribulations incident to the life of a woman who had free negroes and a miserable husband to manage, it had been her mainstay and comfort. She had frequently read it in anger, page after page, without knowing what was contained in the lines. But eventually the words became intelligible and took meaning. She wrested consolation from it by mere force of will.
And so on this occasion when she closed the book the fierce anger was gone.
She was not a hard woman naturally. Fate had brought her conditions which covered up the woman heart within her, but though it lay deep, it was there still. As she sat with folded hands her eyes fell upon—what?
The pink bonnet with the blue plume!
It may appear strange to those who do not understand such natures, but to me her next action was perfectly natural. She burst into a convulsive laugh; then, seizing the queer object, bent her face upon it and sobbed hysterically. When the storm was over, very tenderly she laid the gift aside, and bare-headed passed out into the night.
For a half-hour she stood at the end of the lane, and then hungry Balaam and his master hove in sight. Reaching out her hand, she checked the beast.
"William," said she, very gently, "where is the mule?"
The elder had been asleep. He woke and gazed upon her blankly.
"What mule, Hannah?"
"The mule you rode to town."
For one full minute the elder studied her face. Then it burst from his lips:
"Well, bless me! if I didn't bring Balaam and forgit the mule!"
The woman laughed till her eyes ran water.
"William," said she, "you're drunk."
"Hannah," said he, meekly, "I know it. The truth is, Hannah, I—"
"Never mind, now, William," she said, gently. "You are tired and hungry. Come into the house, husband."
Leading Balaam, she disappeared down the lane; and when, a few minutes later, Hannah Brown and her husband entered through the light that streamed out of the open door her arms were around him, and her face upturned to his.
THE HOTEL EXPERIENCE OF MR. PINK FLUKER
BY RICHARD MALCOLM JOHNSTON (1822-1898)
[From The Century Magazine, June, 1886; copyright, 1886, by The Century Co.; republished in the volume, Mr. Absalom Billingslea, and Other Georgia Folk (1888), by Richard Malcolm Johnston (Harper & Brothers).]
Mr. Peterson Fluker, generally called Pink, for his fondness for as stylish dressing as he could afford, was one of that sort of men who habitually seem busy and efficient when they are not. He had the bustling activity often noticeable in men of his size, and in one way and another had made up, as he believed, for being so much smaller than most of his adult acquaintance of the male sex. Prominent among his achievements on that line was getting married to a woman who, among other excellent gifts, had that of being twice as big as her husband.
"Fool who?" on the day after his marriage he had asked, with a look at those who had often said that he was too little to have a wife.
They had a little property to begin with, a couple of hundreds of acres, and two or three negroes apiece. Yet, except in the natural increase of the latter, the accretions of worldly estate had been inconsiderable till now, when their oldest child, Marann, was some fifteen years old. These accretions had been saved and taken care of by Mrs. Fluker, who was as staid and silent as he was mobile and voluble.
Mr. Fluker often said that it puzzled him how it was that he made smaller crops than most of his neighbors, when, if not always convincing, he could generally put every one of them to silence in discussions upon agricultural topics. This puzzle had led him to not unfrequent ruminations in his mind as to whether or not his vocation might lie in something higher than the mere tilling of the ground. These ruminations had lately taken a definite direction, and it was after several conversations which he had held with his friend Matt Pike.
Mr. Matt Pike was a bachelor of some thirty summers, a foretime clerk consecutively in each of the two stores of the village, but latterly a trader on a limited scale in horses, wagons, cows, and similar objects of commerce, and at all times a politician. His hopes of holding office had been continually disappointed until Mr. John Sanks became sheriff, and rewarded with a deputyship some important special service rendered by him in the late very close canvass. Now was a chance to rise, Mr. Pike thought. All he wanted, he had often said, was a start. Politics, I would remark, however, had been regarded by Mr. Pike as a means rather than an end. It is doubtful if he hoped to become governor of the state, at least before an advanced period in his career. His main object now was to get money, and he believed that official position would promote him in the line of his ambition faster than was possible to any private station, by leading him into more extensive acquaintance with mankind, their needs, their desires, and their caprices. A deputy sheriff, provided that lawyers were not too indulgent in allowing acknowledgment of service of court processes, in postponing levies and sales, and in settlement of litigated cases, might pick up three hundred dollars, a good sum for those times, a fact which Mr. Pike had known and pondered long.
It happened just about then that the arrears of rent for the village hotel had so accumulated on Mr. Spouter, the last occupant, that the owner, an indulgent man, finally had said, what he had been expected for years and years to say, that he could not wait on Mr. Spouter forever and eternally. It was at this very nick, so to speak, that Mr. Pike made to Mr. Fluker the suggestion to quit a business so far beneath his powers, sell out, or rent out, or tenant out, or do something else with his farm, march into town, plant himself upon the ruins of Jacob Spouter, and begin his upward soar.
Now Mr. Fluker had many and many a time acknowledged that he had ambition; so one night he said to his wife:
"You see how it is here, Nervy. Farmin' somehow don't suit my talons. I need to be flung more 'mong people to fetch out what's in me. Then thar's Marann, which is gittin' to be nigh on to a growd-up woman; an' the child need the s'iety which you 'bleeged to acknowledge is sca'ce about here, six mile from town. Your brer Sam can stay here an' raise butter, chickens, eggs, pigs, an'—an'—an' so forth. Matt Pike say he jes' know they's money in it, an' special with a housekeeper keerful an' equinomical like you."
It is always curious the extent of influence that some men have upon wives who are their superiors. Mrs. Fluker, in spite of accidents, had ever set upon her husband a value that was not recognized outside of his family. In this respect there seems a surprising compensation in human life. But this remark I make only in passing. Mrs. Fluker, admitting in her heart that farming was not her husband's forte, hoped, like a true wife, that it might be found in the new field to which he aspired. Besides, she did not forget that her brother Sam had said to her several times privately that if his brer Pink wouldn't have so many notions and would let him alone in his management, they would all do better. She reflected for a day or two, and then said:
"Maybe it's best, Mr. Fluker. I'm willin' to try it for a year, anyhow. We can't lose much by that. As for Matt Pike, I hain't the confidence in him you has. Still, he bein' a boarder and deputy sheriff, he might accidentally do us some good. I'll try it for a year providin' you'll fetch me the money as it's paid in, for you know I know how to manage that better'n you do, and you know I'll try to manage it and all the rest of the business for the best."
To this provision Mr. Fluker gave consent, qualified by the claim that he was to retain a small margin for indispensable personal exigencies. For he contended, perhaps with justice, that no man in the responsible position he was about to take ought to be expected to go about, or sit about, or even lounge about, without even a continental red in his pocket.
The new house—I say new because tongue could not tell the amount of scouring, scalding, and whitewashing that that excellent housekeeper had done before a single stick of her furniture went into it—the new house, I repeat, opened with six eating boarders at ten dollars a month apiece, and two eating and sleeping at eleven, besides Mr. Pike, who made a special contract. Transient custom was hoped to hold its own, and that of the county people under the deputy's patronage and influence to be considerably enlarged.
In words and other encouragement Mr. Pike was pronounced. He could commend honestly, and he did so cordially.
"The thing to do, Pink, is to have your prices reg'lar, and make people pay up reg'lar. Ten dollars for eatin', jes' so; eleb'n for eatin' an' sleepin'; half a dollar for dinner, jes' so; quarter apiece for breakfast, supper, and bed, is what I call reason'ble bo'd. As for me, I sca'cely know how to rig'late, because, you know, I'm a' officer now, an' in course I natchel has to be away sometimes an' on expenses at 'tother places, an' it seem like some 'lowance ought by good rights to be made for that; don't you think so?"
"Why, matter o' course, Matt; what you think? I ain't so powerful good at figgers. Nervy is. S'posen you speak to her 'bout it."
"Oh, that's perfec' unuseless, Pink. I'm a' officer o' the law, Pink, an' the law consider women—well, I may say the law, she deal 'ith men, not women, an' she expect her officers to understan' figgers, an' if I hadn't o' understood figgers Mr. Sanks wouldn't or darsnt' to 'p'int me his dep'ty. Me 'n' you can fix them terms. Now see here, reg'lar bo'd—eatin' bo'd, I mean—is ten dollars, an' sleepin' and singuil meals is 'cordin' to the figgers you've sot for 'em. Ain't that so? Jes' so. Now, Pink, you an' me'll keep a runnin' account, you a-chargin' for reg'lar bo'd, an' I a'lowin' to myself credics for my absentees, accordin' to transion customers an' singuil mealers an' sleepers. Is that fa'r, er is it not fa'r?"
Mr. Fluker turned his head, and after making or thinking he had made a calculation, answered:
"That's—that seem fa'r, Matt."
"Cert'nly 'tis, Pink; I knowed you'd say so, an' you know I'd never wish to be nothin' but fa'r 'ith people I like, like I do you an' your wife. Let that be the understandin', then, betwix' us. An' Pink, let the understandin' be jes' betwix' us, for I've saw enough o' this world to find out that a man never makes nothin' by makin' a blowin' horn o' his business. You make the t'others pay up spuntial, monthly. You 'n' me can settle whensomever it's convenant, say three months from to-day. In course I shall talk up for the house whensomever and wharsomever I go or stay. You know that. An' as for my bed," said Mr. Pike finally, "whensomever I ain't here by bed-time, you welcome to put any transion person in it, an' also an' likewise, when transion custom is pressin', and you cramped for beddin', I'm willin' to give it up for the time bein'; an' rather'n you should be cramped too bad, I'll take my chances somewhars else, even if I has to take a pallet at the head o' the sta'r-steps."
"Nervy," said Mr. Fluker to his wife afterwards, "Matt Pike's a sensibler an' a friendlier an' a 'commodatiner feller'n I thought."
Then, without giving details of the contract, he mentioned merely the willingness of their boarder to resign his bed on occasions of pressing emergency.
"He's talked mighty fine to me and Marann," answered Mrs. Fluker. "We'll see how he holds out. One thing I do not like of his doin', an' that's the talkin' 'bout Sim Marchman to Marann, an' makin' game o' his country ways, as he call 'em. Sech as that ain't right."
It may be as well to explain just here that Simeon Marchman, the person just named by Mrs. Fluker, a stout, industrious young farmer, residing with his parents in the country near by where the Flukers had dwelt before removing to town, had been eying Marann for a year or two, and waiting upon her fast-ripening womanhood with intentions that, he believed to be hidden in his own breast, though he had taken less pains to conceal them from Marann than from the rest of his acquaintance. Not that he had ever told her of them in so many words, but—Oh, I need not stop here in the midst of this narration to explain how such intentions become known, or at least strongly suspected by girls, even those less bright than Marann Fluker. Simeon had not cordially indorsed the movement into town, though, of course, knowing it was none of his business, he had never so much as hinted opposition. I would not be surprised, also, if he reflected that there might be some selfishness in his hostility, or at least that it was heightened by apprehensions personal to himself.
Considering the want of experience in the new tenants, matters went on remarkably well. Mrs. Fluker, accustomed to rise from her couch long before the lark, managed to the satisfaction of all,—regular boarders, single-meal takers, and transient people. Marann went to the village school, her mother dressing her, though with prudent economy, as neatly and almost as tastefully as any of her schoolmates; while, as to study, deportment, and general progress, there was not a girl in the whole school to beat her, I don't care who she was.
During a not inconsiderable period Mr. Fluker indulged the honorable conviction that at last he had found the vein in which his best talents lay, and he was happy in foresight of the prosperity and felicity which that discovery promised to himself and his family. His native activity found many more objects for its exertion than before. He rode out to the farm, not often, but sometimes, as a matter of duty, and was forced to acknowledge that Sam was managing better than could have been expected in the absence of his own continuous guidance. In town he walked about the hotel, entertained the guests, carved at the meals, hovered about the stores, the doctors' offices, the wagon and blacksmith shops, discussed mercantile, medical, mechanical questions with specialists in all these departments, throwing into them all more and more of politics as the intimacy between him and his patron and chief boarder increased.
Now as to that patron and chief boarder. The need of extending his acquaintance seemed to press upon Mr. Pike with ever-increasing weight. He was here and there, all over the county; at the county-seat, at the county villages, at justices' courts, at executors' and administrators' sales, at quarterly and protracted religious meetings, at barbecues of every dimension, on hunting excursions and fishing frolics, at social parties in all neighborhoods. It got to be said of Mr. Pike that a freer acceptor of hospitable invitations, or a better appreciator of hospitable intentions, was not and needed not to be found possibly in the whole state. Nor was this admirable deportment confined to the county in which he held so high official position. He attended, among other occasions less public, the spring sessions of the supreme and county courts in the four adjoining counties: the guest of acquaintance old and new over there. When starting upon such travels, he would sometimes breakfast with his traveling companion in the village, and, if somewhat belated in the return, sup with him also.
Yet, when at Flukers', no man could have been a more cheerful and otherwise satisfactory boarder than Mr. Matt Pike. He praised every dish set before him, bragged to their very faces of his host and hostess, and in spite of his absences was the oftenest to sit and chat with Marann when her mother would let her go into the parlor. Here and everywhere about the house, in the dining-room, in the passage, at the foot of the stairs, he would joke with Marann about her country beau, as he styled poor Sim Marchman, and he would talk as though he was rather ashamed of Sim, and wanted Marann to string her bow for higher game.
Brer Sam did manage well, not only the fields, but the yard. Every Saturday of the world he sent in something or other to his sister. I don't know whether I ought to tell it or not, but for the sake of what is due to pure veracity I will. On as many as three different occasions Sim Marchman, as if he had lost all self-respect, or had not a particle of tact, brought in himself, instead of sending by a negro, a bucket of butter and a coop of spring chickens as a free gift to Mrs. Fluker. I do think, on my soul, that Mr. Matt Pike was much amused by such degradation—however, he must say that they were all first-rate. As for Marann, she was very sorry for Sim, and wished he had not brought these good things at all.
Nobody knew how it came about; but when the Flukers had been in town somewhere between two and three months, Sim Marchman, who (to use his own words) had never bothered her a great deal with his visits, began to suspect that what few he made were received by Marann lately with less cordiality than before; and so one day, knowing no better, in his awkward, straightforward country manners, he wanted to know the reason why. Then Marann grew distant, and asked Sim the following question:
"You know where Mr. Pike's gone, Mr. Marchman?"
Now the fact was, and she knew it, that Marann Fluker had never before, not since she was born, addressed that boy as Mister.
The visitor's face reddened and reddened.
"No," he faltered in answer; "no—no—ma'am, I should say. I—I don't know where Mr. Pike's gone."
Then he looked around for his hat, discovered it in time, took it into his hands, turned it around two or three times, then, bidding good-bye without shaking hands, took himself off.
Mrs. Fluker liked all the Marchmans, and she was troubled somewhat when she heard of the quickness and manner of Sim's departure; for he had been fully expected by her to stay to dinner.
"Say he didn't even shake hands, Marann? What for? What you do to him?"
"Not one blessed thing, ma; only he wanted to know why I wasn't gladder to see him." Then Marann looked indignant.
"Say them words, Marann?"
"No, but he hinted 'em."
"What did you say then?"
"I just asked, a-meaning nothing in the wide world, ma—I asked him if he knew where Mr. Pike had gone."
"And that were answer enough to hurt his feelin's. What you want to know where Matt Pike's gone for, Marann?"
"I didn't care about knowing, ma, but I didn't like the way Sim talked."
"Look here, Marann. Look straight at me. You'll be mighty fur off your feet if you let Matt Pike put things in your head that hain't no business a-bein' there, and special if you find yourself a-wantin' to know where he's a-perambulatin' in his everlastin' meanderin's. Not a cent has he paid for his board, and which your pa say he have a' understandin' with him about allowin' for his absentees, which is all right enough, but which it's now goin' on to three mont's, and what is comin' to us I need and I want. He ought, your pa ought to let me bargain with Matt Pike, because he know he don't understan' figgers like Matt Pike. He don't know exactly what the bargain were; for I've asked him, and he always begins with a multiplyin' of words and never answers me."
On his next return from his travels Mr. Pike noticed a coldness in Mrs. Fluker's manner, and this enhanced his praise of the house. The last week of the third month came. Mr. Pike was often noticed, before and after meals, standing at the desk in the hotel office (called in those times the bar-room) engaged in making calculations. The day before the contract expired Mrs. Fluker, who had not indulged herself with a single holiday since they had been in town, left Marann in charge of the house, and rode forth, spending part of the day with Mrs. Marchman, Sim's mother. All were glad to see her, of course, and she returned smartly, freshened by the visit. That night she had a talk with Marann, and oh, how Marann did cry!
The very last day came. Like insurance policies, the contract was to expire at a certain hour. Sim Marchman came just before dinner, to which he was sent for by Mrs. Fluker, who had seen him as he rode into town.
"Hello, Sim," said Mr. Pike as he took his seat opposite him. "You here? What's the news in the country? How's your health? How's crops?"
"Jest mod'rate, Mr. Pike. Got little business with you after dinner, ef you can spare time."
"All right. Got a little matter with Pink here first. 'Twon't take long. See you arfter amejiant, Sim."
Never had the deputy been more gracious and witty. He talked and talked, outtalking even Mr. Fluker; he was the only man in town who could do that. He winked at Marann as he put questions to Sim, some of the words employed in which Sim had never heard before. Yet Sim held up as well as he could, and after dinner followed Marann with some little dignity into the parlor. They had not been there more than ten minutes when Mrs. Fluker was heard to walk rapidly along the passage leading from the dining-room, to enter her own chamber for only a moment, then to come out and rush to the parlor door with the gig-whip in her hand. Such uncommon conduct in a woman like Mrs. Pink Fluker of course needs explanation.
When all the other boarders had left the house, the deputy and Mr. Fluker having repaired to the bar-room, the former said:
"Now, Pink, for our settlement, as you say your wife think we better have one. I'd 'a' been willin' to let accounts keep on a-runnin', knowin' what a straightforrards sort o' man you was. Your count, ef I ain't mistakened, is jes' thirty-three dollars, even money. Is that so, or is it not?"
"That's it, to a dollar, Matt. Three times eleben make thirty-three, don't it?"
"It do, Pink, or eleben times three, jes' which you please. Now here's my count, on which you'll see, Pink, that not nary cent have I charged for infloonce. I has infloonced a consider'ble custom to this house, as you know, bo'din' and transion. But I done that out o' my respects of you an' Missis Fluker, an' your keepin' of a fa'r—I'll say, as I've said freckwent, a very fa'r house. I let them infloonces go to friendship, ef you'll take it so. Will you, Pink Fluker?"
"Cert'nly, Matt, an' I'm a thousand times obleeged to you, an'—"
"Say no more, Pink, on that p'int o' view. Ef I like a man, I know how to treat him. Now as to the p'ints o' absentees, my business as dep'ty sheriff has took me away from this inconsider'ble town freckwent, hain't it?"
"It have, Matt, er somethin' else, more'n I were a expectin', an'—"
"Jes' so. But a public officer, Pink, when jooty call on him to go, he got to go; in fack he got to goth, as the Scripture say, ain't that so?"
"I s'pose so, Matt, by good rights, a—a official speakin'."
Mr. Fluker felt that he was becoming a little confused.
"Jes' so. Now, Pink, I were to have credics for my absentees 'cordin' to transion an' single-meal bo'ders an' sleepers; ain't that so?"
"I—I—somethin' o' that sort, Matt," he answered vaguely.
"Jes' so. Now look here," drawing from his pocket a paper. "Itom one. Twenty-eight dinners at half a dollar makes fourteen dollars, don't it? Jes' so. Twenty-five breakfasts at a quarter makes six an' a quarter, which make dinners an' breakfasts twenty an' a quarter. Foller me up, as I go up, Pink. Twenty-five suppers at a quarter makes six an' a quarter, an' which them added to the twenty an' a quarter makes them twenty-six an' a half. Foller, Pink, an' if you ketch me in any mistakes in the kyarin' an' addin', p'int it out. Twenty-two an' a half beds—an' I say half, Pink, because you 'member one night when them A'gusty lawyers got here 'bout midnight on their way to co't, rather'n have you too bad cramped, I ris to make way for two of 'em; yit as I had one good nap, I didn't think I ought to put that down but for half. Them makes five dollars half an' seb'n pence, an' which kyar'd on to the t'other twenty-six an' a half, fetches the whole cabool to jes' thirty-two dollars an' seb'n pence. But I made up my mind I'd fling out that seb'n pence, an' jes' call it a dollar even money, an' which here's the solid silver."
In spite of the rapidity with which this enumeration of counter-charges was made, Mr. Fluker commenced perspiring at the first item, and when the balance was announced his face was covered with huge drops.
It was at this juncture that Mrs. Fluker, who, well knowing her husband's unfamiliarity with complicated accounts, had felt her duty to be listening near the bar-room door, left, and quickly afterwards appeared before Marann and Sim as I have represented.
"You think Matt Pike ain't tryin' to settle with your pa with a dollar? I'm goin' to make him keep his dollar, an' I'm goin' to give him somethin' to go 'long with it."
"The good Lord have mercy upon us!" exclaimed Marann, springing up and catching hold of her mother's skirts, as she began her advance towards the bar-room. "Oh, ma! for the Lord's sake!—Sim, Sim, Sim, if you care anything for me in this wide world, don't let ma go into that room!"
"Missis Fluker," said Sim, rising instantly, "wait jest two minutes till I see Mr. Pike on some pressin' business; I won't keep you over two minutes a-waitin'."
He took her, set her down in a chair trembling, looked at her a moment as she began to weep, then, going out and closing the door, strode rapidly to the bar-room.
"Let me help you settle your board-bill, Mr. Pike, by payin' you a little one I owe you."
Doubling his fist, he struck out with a blow that felled the deputy to the floor. Then catching him by his heels, he dragged him out of the house into the street. Lifting his foot above his face, he said:
"You stir till I tell you, an' I'll stomp your nose down even with the balance of your mean face. 'Tain't exactly my business how you cheated Mr. Fluker, though, 'pon my soul, I never knowed a trifliner, lowdowner trick. But I owed you myself for your talkin' 'bout and your lyin' 'bout me, and now I've paid you; an' ef you only knowed it, I've saved you from a gig-whippin'. Now you may git up."
"Here's his dollar, Sim," said Mr. Fluker, throwing it out of the window. "Nervy say make him take it."
The vanquished, not daring to refuse, pocketed the coin, and slunk away amid the jeers of a score of villagers who had been drawn to the scene.
In all human probability the late omission of the shaking of Sim's and Marann's hands was compensated at their parting that afternoon. I am more confident on this point because at the end of the year those hands were joined inseparably by the preacher. But this was when they had all gone back to their old home; for if Mr. Fluker did not become fully convinced that his mathematical education was not advanced quite enough for all the exigencies of hotel-keeping, his wife declared that she had had enough of it, and that she and Marann were going home. Mr. Fluker may be said, therefore, to have followed, rather than led, his family on the return.
As for the deputy, finding that if he did not leave it voluntarily he would be drummed out of the village, he departed, whither I do not remember if anybody ever knew.
THE NICE PEOPLE
By Henry Cuyler Bunner (1855-1896)
[From Puck, July 30, 1890. Republished in the volume, Short Sixes: Stories to Be Read While the Candle Burns (1891), by Henry Cuyler Bunner; copyright, 1890, by Alice Larned Bunner; reprinted by permission of the publishers, Charles Scribner'a Sons.]
"They certainly are nice people," I assented to my wife's observation, using the colloquial phrase with a consciousness that it was anything but "nice" English, "and I'll bet that their three children are better brought up than most of——"
"Two children," corrected my wife.
"Three, he told me."
"My dear, she said there were two."
"He said three."
"You've simply forgotten. I'm sure she told me they had only two—a boy and a girl."
"Well, I didn't enter into particulars."
"No, dear, and you couldn't have understood him. Two children."
"All right," I said; but I did not think it was all right. As a near-sighted man learns by enforced observation to recognize persons at a distance when the face is not visible to the normal eye, so the man with a bad memory learns, almost unconsciously, to listen carefully and report accurately. My memory is bad; but I had not had time to forget that Mr. Brewster Brede had told me that afternoon that he had three children, at present left in the care of his mother-in-law, while he and Mrs. Brede took their summer vacation.
"Two children," repeated my wife; "and they are staying with his aunt Jenny."
"He told me with his mother-in-law," I put in. My wife looked at me with a serious expression. Men may not remember much of what they are told about children; but any man knows the difference between an aunt and a mother-in-law.
"But don't you think they're nice people?" asked my wife.
"Oh, certainly," I replied. "Only they seem to be a little mixed up about their children."
"That isn't a nice thing to say," returned my wife. I could not deny it.
* * * * *
And yet, the next morning, when the Bredes came down and seated themselves opposite us at table, beaming and smiling in their natural, pleasant, well-bred fashion, I knew, to a social certainty, that they were "nice" people. He was a fine-looking fellow in his neat tennis-flannels, slim, graceful, twenty-eight or thirty years old, with a Frenchy pointed beard. She was "nice" in all her pretty clothes, and she herself was pretty with that type of prettiness which outwears most other types—the prettiness that lies in a rounded figure, a dusky skin, plump, rosy cheeks, white teeth and black eyes. She might have been twenty-five; you guessed that she was prettier than she was at twenty, and that she would be prettier still at forty.
And nice people were all we wanted to make us happy in Mr. Jacobus's summer boarding-house on top of Orange Mountain. For a week we had come down to breakfast each morning, wondering why we wasted the precious days of idleness with the company gathered around the Jacobus board. What joy of human companionship was to be had out of Mrs. Tabb and Miss Hoogencamp, the two middle-aged gossips from Scranton, Pa.—out of Mr. and Mrs. Biggle, an indurated head-bookkeeper and his prim and censorious wife—out of old Major Halkit, a retired business man, who, having once sold a few shares on commission, wrote for circulars of every stock company that was started, and tried to induce every one to invest who would listen to him? We looked around at those dull faces, the truthful indices of mean and barren minds, and decided that we would leave that morning. Then we ate Mrs. Jacobus's biscuit, light as Aurora's cloudlets, drank her honest coffee, inhaled the perfume of the late azaleas with which she decked her table, and decided to postpone our departure one more day. And then we wandered out to take our morning glance at what we called "our view"; and it seemed to us as if Tabb and Hoogencamp and Halkit and the Biggleses could not drive us away in a year.
I was not surprised when, after breakfast, my wife invited the Bredes to walk with us to "our view." The Hoogencamp-Biggle-Tabb-Halkit contingent never stirred off Jacobus's veranda; but we both felt that the Bredes would not profane that sacred scene. We strolled slowly across the fields, passed through the little belt of woods and, as I heard Mrs. Brede's little cry of startled rapture, I motioned to Brede to look up.
"By Jove!" he cried, "heavenly!"
We looked off from the brow of the mountain over fifteen miles of billowing green, to where, far across a far stretch of pale blue lay a dim purple line that we knew was Staten Island. Towns and villages lay before us and under us; there were ridges and hills, uplands and lowlands, woods and plains, all massed and mingled in that great silent sea of sunlit green. For silent it was to us, standing in the silence of a high place—silent with a Sunday stillness that made us listen, without taking thought, for the sound of bells coming up from the spires that rose above the tree-tops—the tree-tops that lay as far beneath us as the light clouds were above us that dropped great shadows upon our heads and faint specks of shade upon the broad sweep of land at the mountain's foot.
"And so that is your view?" asked Mrs. Brede, after a moment; "you are very generous to make it ours, too."
Then we lay down on the grass, and Brede began to talk, in a gentle voice, as if he felt the influence of the place. He had paddled a canoe, in his earlier days, he said, and he knew every river and creek in that vast stretch of landscape. He found his landmarks, and pointed out to us where the Passaic and the Hackensack flowed, invisible to us, hidden behind great ridges that in our sight were but combings of the green waves upon which we looked down. And yet, on the further side of those broad ridges and rises were scores of villages—a little world of country life, lying unseen under our eyes.
"A good deal like looking at humanity," he said; "there is such a thing as getting so far above our fellow men that we see only one side of them."
Ah, how much better was this sort of talk than the chatter and gossip of the Tabb and the Hoogencamp—than the Major's dissertations upon his everlasting circulars! My wife and I exchanged glances.
"Now, when I went up the Matterhorn" Mr. Brede began.
"Why, dear," interrupted his wife, "I didn't know you ever went up the Matterhorn."
"It—it was five years ago," said Mr. Brede, hurriedly. "I—I didn't tell you—when I was on the other side, you know—it was rather dangerous—well, as I was saying—it looked—oh, it didn't look at all like this."
A cloud floated overhead, throwing its great shadow over the field where we lay. The shadow passed over the mountain's brow and reappeared far below, a rapidly decreasing blot, flying eastward over the golden green. My wife and I exchanged glances once more.
Somehow, the shadow lingered over us all. As we went home, the Bredes went side by side along the narrow path, and my wife and I walked together.
"Should you think," she asked me, "that a man would climb the Matterhorn the very first year he was married?"
"I don't know, my dear," I answered, evasively; "this isn't the first year I have been married, not by a good many, and I wouldn't climb it—for a farm."
"You know what I mean," she said.
* * * * *
When we reached the boarding-house, Mr. Jacobus took me aside.
"You know," he began his discourse, "my wife she uset to live in N' York!"
I didn't know, but I said "Yes."
"She says the numbers on the streets runs criss-cross-like. Thirty-four's on one side o' the street an' thirty-five on t'other. How's that?"
"That is the invariable rule, I believe."
"Then—I say—these here new folk that you 'n' your wife seem so mighty taken up with—d'ye know anything about 'em?"
"I know nothing about the character of your boarders, Mr. Jacobus," I replied, conscious of some irritability. "If I choose to associate with any of them——"
"Jess so—jess so!" broke in Jacobus. "I hain't nothin' to say ag'inst yer sosherbil'ty. But do ye know them?"
"Why, certainly not," I replied.
"Well—that was all I wuz askin' ye. Ye see, when he come here to take the rooms—you wasn't here then—he told my wife that he lived at number thirty-four in his street. An' yistiddy she told her that they lived at number thirty-five. He said he lived in an apartment-house. Now there can't be no apartment-house on two sides of the same street, kin they?"
"What street was it?" I inquired, wearily.
"Hundred 'n' twenty-first street."
"May be," I replied, still more wearily. "That's Harlem. Nobody knows what people will do in Harlem."
I went up to my wife's room.
"Don't you think it's queer?" she asked me.
"I think I'll have a talk with that young man to-night," I said, "and see if he can give some account of himself."
"But, my dear," my wife said, gravely, "she doesn't know whether they've had the measles or not."
"Why, Great Scott!" I exclaimed, "they must have had them when they were children."
"Please don't be stupid," said my wife. "I meant their children."
After dinner that night—or rather, after supper, for we had dinner in the middle of the day at Jacobus's—I walked down the long verandah to ask Brede, who was placidly smoking at the other end, to accompany me on a twilight stroll. Half way down I met Major Halkit.
"That friend of yours," he said, indicating the unconscious figure at the further end of the house, "seems to be a queer sort of a Dick. He told me that he was out of business, and just looking round for a chance to invest his capital. And I've been telling him what an everlasting big show he had to take stock in the Capitoline Trust Company—starts next month—four million capital—I told you all about it. 'Oh, well,' he says, 'let's wait and think about it.' 'Wait!' says I, 'the Capitoline Trust Company won't wait for you, my boy. This is letting you in on the ground floor,' says I, 'and it's now or never.' 'Oh, let it wait,' says he. I don't know what's in-to the man."
"I don't know how well he knows his own business, Major," I said as I started again for Brede's end of the veranda. But I was troubled none the less. The Major could not have influenced the sale of one share of stock in the Capitoline Company. But that stock was a great investment; a rare chance for a purchaser with a few thousand dollars. Perhaps it was no more remarkable that Brede should not invest than that I should not—and yet, it seemed to add one circumstance more to the other suspicious circumstances.
* * * * *
When I went upstairs that evening, I found my wife putting her hair to bed—I don't know how I can better describe an operation familiar to every married man. I waited until the last tress was coiled up, and then I spoke:
"I've talked with Brede," I said, "and I didn't have to catechize him. He seemed to feel that some sort of explanation was looked for, and he was very outspoken. You were right about the children—that is, I must have misunderstood him. There are only two. But the Matterhorn episode was simple enough. He didn't realize how dangerous it was until he had got so far into it that he couldn't back out; and he didn't tell her, because he'd left her here, you see, and under the circumstances——"
"Left her here!" cried my wife. "I've been sitting with her the whole afternoon, sewing, and she told me that he left her at Geneva, and came back and took her to Basle, and the baby was born there—now I'm sure, dear, because I asked her."
"Perhaps I was mistaken when I thought he said she was on this side of the water," I suggested, with bitter, biting irony.
"You poor dear, did I abuse you?" said my wife. "But, do you know, Mrs. Tabb said that she didn't know how many lumps of sugar he took in his coffee. Now that seems queer, doesn't it?"
It did. It was a small thing. But it looked queer, Very queer.
* * * * *
The next morning, it was clear that war was declared against the Bredes. They came down to breakfast somewhat late, and, as soon as they arrived, the Biggleses swooped up the last fragments that remained on their plates, and made a stately march out of the dining-room, Then Miss Hoogencamp arose and departed, leaving a whole fish-ball on her plate. Even as Atalanta might have dropped an apple behind her to tempt her pursuer to check his speed, so Miss Hoogencamp left that fish-ball behind her, and between her maiden self and contamination.
We had finished our breakfast, my wife and I, before the Bredes appeared. We talked it over, and agreed that we were glad that we had not been obliged to take sides upon such insufficient testimony.
After breakfast, it was the custom of the male half of the Jacobus household to go around the corner of the building and smoke their pipes and cigars where they would not annoy the ladies. We sat under a trellis covered with a grapevine that had borne no grapes in the memory of man. This vine, however, bore leaves, and these, on that pleasant summer morning, shielded from us two persons who were in earnest conversation in the straggling, half-dead flower-garden at the side of the house.
"I don't want," we heard Mr. Jacobus say, "to enter in no man's pry-vacy; but I do want to know who it may be, like, that I hev in my house. Now what I ask of you, and I don't want you to take it as in no ways personal, is—hev you your merridge-license with you?"
"No," we heard the voice of Mr. Brede reply. "Have you yours?"
I think it was a chance shot; but it told all the same. The Major (he was a widower) and Mr. Biggle and I looked at each other; and Mr. Jacobus, on the other side of the grape-trellis, looked at—I don't know what—and was as silent as we were.
Where is your marriage-license, married reader? Do you know? Four men, not including Mr. Brede, stood or sat on one side or the other of that grape-trellis, and not one of them knew where his marriage-license was. Each of us had had one—the Major had had three. But where were they? Where is yours? Tucked in your best-man's pocket; deposited in his desk—or washed to a pulp in his white waistcoat (if white waistcoats be the fashion of the hour), washed out of existence—can you tell where it is? Can you—unless you are one of those people who frame that interesting document and hang it upon their drawing-room walls?
Mr. Brede's voice arose, after an awful stillness of what seemed like five minutes, and was, probably, thirty seconds:
"Mr. Jacobus, will you make out your bill at once, and let me pay it? I shall leave by the six o'clock train. And will you also send the wagon for my trunks?"
"I hain't said I wanted to hev ye leave——" began Mr. Jacobus; but Brede cut him short.
"Bring me your bill."
"But," remonstrated Jacobus, "ef ye ain't——"
"Bring me your bill!" said Mr. Brede.
* * * * *
My wife and I went out for our morning's walk. But it seemed to us, when we looked at "our view," as if we could only see those invisible villages of which Brede had told us—that other side of the ridges and rises of which we catch no glimpse from lofty hills or from the heights of human self-esteem. We meant to stay out until the Bredes had taken their departure; but we returned just in time to see Pete, the Jacobus darkey, the blacker of boots, the brasher of coats, the general handy-man of the house, loading the Brede trunks on the Jacobus wagon.
And, as we stepped upon the verandah, down came Mrs. Brede, leaning on Mr. Brede's arm, as though she were ill; and it was clear that she had been crying. There were heavy rings about her pretty black eyes.
My wife took a step toward her.
"Look at that dress, dear," she whispered; "she never thought anything like this was going to happen when she put that on."
It was a pretty, delicate, dainty dress, a graceful, narrow-striped affair. Her hat was trimmed with a narrow-striped silk of the same colors—maroon and white—and in her hand she held a parasol that matched her dress.
"She's had a new dress on twice a day," said my wife, "but that's the prettiest yet. Oh, somehow—I'm awfully sorry they're going!"
But going they were. They moved toward the steps. Mrs. Brede looked toward my wife, and my wife moved toward Mrs. Brede. But the ostracized woman, as though she felt the deep humiliation of her position, turned sharply away, and opened her parasol to shield her eyes from the sun. A shower of rice—a half-pound shower of rice—fell down over her pretty hat and her pretty dress, and fell in a spattering circle on the floor, outlining her skirts—and there it lay in a broad, uneven band, bright in the morning sun.
Mrs. Brede was in my wife's arms, sobbing as if her young heart would break.
"Oh, you poor, dear, silly children!" my wife cried, as Mrs. Brede sobbed on her shoulder, "why didn't you tell us?"
"W-W-W-We didn't want to be t-t-taken for a b-b-b-b-bridal couple," sobbed Mrs. Brede; "and we d-d-didn't dream what awful lies we'd have to tell, and all the aw-awful mixed-up-ness of it. Oh, dear, dear, dear!"
* * * * *
"Pete!" commanded Mr. Jacobus, "put back them trunks. These folks stays here's long's they wants ter. Mr. Brede"—he held out a large, hard hand—"I'd orter've known better," he said. And my last doubt of Mr. Brede vanished as he shook that grimy hand in manly fashion.
The two women were walking off toward "our view," each with an arm about the other's waist—touched by a sudden sisterhood of sympathy.
"Gentlemen," said Mr. Brede, addressing Jacobus, Biggle, the Major and me, "there is a hostelry down the street where they sell honest New Jersey beer. I recognize the obligations of the situation."
We five men filed down the street. The two women went toward the pleasant slope where the sunlight gilded the forehead of the great hill. On Mr. Jacobus's veranda lay a spattered circle of shining grains of rice. Two of Mr. Jacobus's pigeons flew down and picked up the shining grains, making grateful noises far down in their throats.
THE BULLER-PODINGTON COMPACT
BY FRANK RICHARD STOCKTON (1834-1902)
[From Scribner's Magazine, August, 1897. Republished in Afield and Afloat, by Frank Richard Stockton; copyright, 1900, by Charles Scribner's Sons. Reprinted by permission of the publishers.]
"I tell you, William," said Thomas Buller to his friend Mr. Podington, "I am truly sorry about it, but I cannot arrange for it this year. Now, as to my invitation—that is very different."
"Of course it is different," was the reply, "but I am obliged to say, as I said before, that I really cannot accept it."
Remarks similar to these had been made by Thomas Buller and William Podington at least once a year for some five years. They were old friends; they had been schoolboys together and had been associated in business since they were young men. They had now reached a vigorous middle age; they were each married, and each had a house in the country in which he resided for a part of the year. They were warmly attached to each other, and each was the best friend which the other had in this world. But during all these years neither of them had visited the other in his country home.
The reason for this avoidance of each other at their respective rural residences may be briefly stated. Mr. Buller's country house was situated by the sea, and he was very fond of the water. He had a good cat-boat, which he sailed himself with much judgment and skill, and it was his greatest pleasure to take his friends and visitors upon little excursions on the bay. But Mr. Podington was desperately afraid of the water, and he was particularly afraid of any craft sailed by an amateur. If his friend Buller would have employed a professional mariner, of years and experience, to steer and manage his boat, Podington might have been willing to take an occasional sail; but as Buller always insisted upon sailing his own boat, and took it ill if any of his visitors doubted his ability to do so properly, Podington did not wish to wound the self-love of his friend, and he did not wish to be drowned. Consequently he could not bring himself to consent to go to Buller's house by the sea.
To receive his good friend Buller at his own house in the beautiful upland region in which he lived would have been a great joy to Mr. Podington; but Buller could not be induced to visit him. Podington was very fond of horses and always drove himself, while Buller was more afraid of horses than he was of elephants or lions. To one or more horses driven by a coachman of years and experience he did not always object, but to a horse driven by Podington, who had much experience and knowledge regarding mercantile affairs, but was merely an amateur horseman, he most decidedly and strongly objected. He did not wish to hurt his friend's feelings by refusing to go out to drive with him, but he would not rack his own nervous system by accompanying him. Therefore it was that he had not yet visited the beautiful upland country residence of Mr. Podington.
At last this state of things grew awkward. Mrs. Buller and Mrs. Podington, often with their families, visited each other at their country houses, but the fact that on these occasions they were never accompanied by their husbands caused more and more gossip among their neighbors both in the upland country and by the sea.
One day in spring as the two sat in their city office, where Mr. Podington had just repeated his annual invitation, his friend replied to him thus:
"William, if I come to see you this summer, will you visit me? The thing is beginning to look a little ridiculous, and people are talking about it."
Mr. Podington put his hand to his brow and for a few moments closed his eyes. In his mind he saw a cat-boat upon its side, the sails spread out over the water, and two men, almost entirely immersed in the waves, making efforts to reach the side of the boat. One of these was getting on very well—that was Buller. The other seemed about to sink, his arms were uselessly waving in the air—that was himself. But he opened his eyes and looked bravely out of the window; it was time to conquer all this; it was indeed growing ridiculous. Buller had been sailing many years and had never been upset.
"Yes," said he; "I will do it; I am ready any time you name."
Mr. Buller rose and stretched out his hand.
"Good!" said he; "it is a compact!"
Buller was the first to make the promised country visit. He had not mentioned the subject of horses to his friend, but he knew through Mrs. Buller that Podington still continued to be his own driver. She had informed him, however, that at present he was accustomed to drive a big black horse which, in her opinion, was as gentle and reliable as these animals ever became, and she could not imagine how anybody could be afraid of him. So when, the next morning after his arrival, Mr. Buller was asked by his host if he would like to take a drive, he suppressed a certain rising emotion and said that it would please him very much.
When the good black horse had jogged along a pleasant road for half an hour Mr. Buller began to feel that, perhaps, for all these years he had been laboring under a misconception. It seemed to be possible that there were some horses to which surrounding circumstances in the shape of sights and sounds were so irrelevant that they were to a certain degree entirely safe, even when guided and controlled by an amateur hand. As they passed some meadow-land, somebody behind a hedge fired a gun; Mr. Buller was frightened, but the horse was not.
"William," said Buller, looking cheerfully around him,
"I had no idea that you lived in such a pretty country. In fact, I might almost call it beautiful. You have not any wide stretch of water, such as I like so much, but here is a pretty river, those rolling hills are very charming, and, beyond, you have the blue of the mountains."
"It is lovely," said his friend; "I never get tired of driving through this country. Of course the seaside is very fine, but here we have such a variety of scenery."
Mr. Buller could not help thinking that sometimes the seaside was a little monotonous, and that he had lost a great deal of pleasure by not varying his summers by going up to spend a week or two with Podington.
"William," said he, "how long have you had this horse?"
"About two years," said Mr. Podington; "before I got him, I used to drive a pair."
"Heavens!" thought Buller, "how lucky I was not to come two years ago!" And his regrets for not sooner visiting his friend greatly decreased.
Now they came to a place where the stream, by which the road ran, had been dammed for a mill and had widened into a beautiful pond.
"There now!" cried Mr. Buller. "That's what I like. William, you seem to have everything! This is really a very pretty sheet of water, and the reflections of the trees over there make a charming picture; you can't get that at the seaside, you know."
Mr. Podington was delighted; his face glowed; he was rejoiced at the pleasure of his friend. "I tell you, Thomas," said he, "that——"
"William!" exclaimed Buller, with a sudden squirm in his seat, "what is that I hear? Is that a train?"
"Yes," said Mr. Podington, "that is the ten-forty, up."
"Does it come near here?" asked Mr. Buller, nervously. "Does it go over that bridge?"
"Yes," said Podington, "but it can't hurt us, for our road goes under the bridge; we are perfectly safe; there is no risk of accident."
"But your horse! Your horse!" exclaimed Buller, as the train came nearer and nearer. "What will he do?"
"Do?" said Podington; "he'll do what he is doing now; he doesn't mind trains."
"But look here, William," exclaimed Buller, "it will get there just as we do; no horse could stand a roaring up in the air like that!"
Podington laughed. "He would not mind it in the least," said he.
"Come, come now," cried Buller. "Really, I can't stand this! Just stop a minute, William, and let me get out. It sets all my nerves quivering."
Mr. Podington smiled with a superior smile. "Oh, you needn't get out," said he; "there's not the least danger in the world. But I don't want to make you nervous, and I will turn around and drive the other way."
"But you can't!" screamed Buller. "This road is not wide enough, and that train is nearly here. Please stop!"
The imputation that the road was not wide enough for him to turn was too much for Mr. Podington to bear. He was very proud of his ability to turn a vehicle in a narrow place.
"Turn!" said he; "that's the easiest thing in the world. See; a little to the right, then a back, then a sweep to the left and we will be going the other way." And instantly he began the maneuver in which he was such an adept.
"Oh, Thomas!" cried Buller, half rising in his seat, "that train is almost here!"
"And we are almost——" Mr. Podington was about to say "turned around," but he stopped. Mr. Buller's exclamations had made him a little nervous, and, in his anxiety to turn quickly, he had pulled upon his horse's bit with more energy than was actually necessary, and his nervousness being communicated to the horse, that animal backed with such extraordinary vigor that the hind wheels of the wagon went over a bit of grass by the road and into the water. The sudden jolt gave a new impetus to Mr. Buller's fears.
"You'll upset!" he cried, and not thinking of what he was about, he laid hold of his friend's arm. The horse, startled by this sudden jerk upon his bit, which, combined with the thundering of the train, which was now on the bridge, made him think that something extraordinary was about to happen, gave a sudden and forcible start backward, so that not only the hind wheels of the light wagon, but the fore wheels and his own hind legs went into the water. As the bank at this spot sloped steeply, the wagon continued to go backward, despite the efforts of the agitated horse to find a footing on the crumbling edge of the bank.
"Whoa!" cried Mr. Buller.
"Get up!" exclaimed Mr. Podington, applying his whip upon the plunging beast.
But exclamations and castigations had no effect upon the horse. The original bed of the stream ran close to the road, and the bank was so steep and the earth so soft that it was impossible for the horse to advance or even maintain his footing. Back, back he went, until the whole equipage was in the water and the wagon was afloat.
This vehicle was a road wagon, without a top, and the joints of its box-body were tight enough to prevent the water from immediately entering it; so, somewhat deeply sunken, it rested upon the water. There was a current in this part of the pond and it turned the wagon downstream. The horse was now entirely immersed in the water, with the exception of his head and the upper part of his neck, and, unable to reach the bottom with his feet, he made vigorous efforts to swim.
Mr. Podington, the reins and whip in his hands, sat horrified and pale; the accident was so sudden, he was so startled and so frightened that, for a moment, he could not speak a word. Mr. Buller, on the other hand, was now lively and alert. The wagon had no sooner floated away from the shore than he felt himself at home. He was upon his favorite element; water had no fears for him. He saw that his friend was nearly frightened out of his wits, and that, figuratively speaking, he must step to the helm and take charge of the vessel. He stood up and gazed about him.
"Put her across stream!" he shouted; "she can't make headway against this current. Head her to that clump of trees on the other side; the bank is lower there, and we can beach her. Move a little the other way, we must trim boat. Now then, pull on your starboard rein."
Podington obeyed, and the horse slightly changed his direction.
"You see," said Buller, "it won't do to sail straight across, because the current would carry us down and land us below that spot."
Mr. Podington said not a word; he expected every moment to see the horse sink into a watery grave.
"It isn't so bad after all, is it, Podington? If we had a rudder and a bit of a sail it would be a great help to the horse. This wagon is not a bad boat."
The despairing Podington looked at his feet. "It's coming in," he said in a husky voice. "Thomas, the water is over my shoes!"
"That is so," said Buller. "I am so used to water I didn't notice it. She leaks. Do you carry anything to bail her out with?"
"Bail!" cried Podington, now finding his voice. "Oh, Thomas, we are sinking!"
"That's so," said Buller; "she leaks like a sieve."
The weight of the running-gear and of the two men was entirely too much for the buoyancy of the wagon body. The water rapidly rose toward the top of its sides.
"We are going to drown!" cried Podington, suddenly rising.
"Lick him! Lick him!" exclaimed Buller. "Make him swim faster!"
"There's nothing to lick," cried Podington, vainly lashing at the water, for he could not reach the horse's head. The poor man was dreadfully frightened; he had never even imagined it possible that he should be drowned in his own wagon.
"Whoop!" cried Buller, as the water rose over the sides. "Steady yourself, old boy, or you'll go overboard!" And the next moment the wagon body sunk out of sight.
But it did not go down very far. The deepest part of the channel of the stream had been passed, and with a bump the wheels struck the bottom.
"Heavens!" exclaimed Buller, "we are aground."
"Aground!" exclaimed Podington, "Heaven be praised!"
As the two men stood up in the submerged wagon the water was above their knees, and when Podington looked out over the surface of the pond, now so near his face, it seemed like a sheet of water he had never seen before. It was something horrible, threatening to rise and envelop him. He trembled so that he could scarcely keep his footing.
"William," said his companion, "you must sit down; if you don't, you'll tumble overboard and be drowned. There is nothing for you to hold to."
"Sit down," said Podington, gazing blankly at the water around him, "I can't do that!"
At this moment the horse made a slight movement. Having touched bottom after his efforts in swimming across the main bed of the stream, with a floating wagon in tow, he had stood for a few moments, his head and neck well above water, and his back barely visible beneath the surface. Having recovered his breath, he now thought it was time to move on.
At the first step of the horse Mr. Podington began to totter. Instinctively he clutched Buller.
"Sit down!" cried the latter, "or you'll have us both overboard." There was no help for it; down sat Mr. Podington; and, as with a great splash he came heavily upon the seat, the water rose to his waist.
"Ough!" said he. "Thomas, shout for help."
"No use doing that," replied Buller, still standing on his nautical legs; "I don't see anybody, and I don't see any boat. We'll get out all right. Just you stick tight to the thwart."
"The what?" feebly asked the other.
"Oh, the seat, I mean. We can get to the shore all right if you steer the horse straight. Head him more across the pond."
"I can't head him," cried Podington. "I have dropped the reins!"
"Good gracious!" cried Mr. Buller, "that's bad. Can't you steer him by shouting 'Gee' and 'Haw'?"
"No," said Podington, "he isn't an ox; but perhaps I can stop him." And with as much voice as he could summon, he called out: "Whoa!" and the horse stopped.
"If you can't steer him any other way," said Buller, "we must get the reins. Lend me your whip."
"I have dropped that too," said Podington; "there it floats."
"Oh, dear," said Buller, "I guess I'll have to dive for them; if he were to run away, we should be in an awful fix."
"Don't get out! Don't get out!" exclaimed Podington. "You can reach over the dashboard."
"As that's under water," said Buller, "it will be the same thing as diving; but it's got to be done, and I'll try it. Don't you move now; I am more used to water than you are."
Mr. Buller took off his hat and asked his friend to hold it. He thought of his watch and other contents of his pockets, but there was no place to put them, so he gave them no more consideration. Then bravely getting on his knees in the water, he leaned over the dashboard, almost disappearing from sight. With his disengaged hand Mr. Podington grasped the submerged coat-tails of his friend.
In a few seconds the upper part of Mr. Buller rose from the water. He was dripping and puffing, and Mr. Podington could not but think what a difference it made in the appearance of his friend to have his hair plastered close to his head.
"I got hold of one of them," said the sputtering Buller, "but it was fast to something and I couldn't get it loose."
"Was it thick and wide?" asked Podington.
"Yes," was the answer; "it did seem so."
"Oh, that was a trace," said Podington; "I don't want that; the reins are thinner and lighter."
"Now I remember they are," said Buller. "I'll go down again."
Again Mr. Buller leaned over the dashboard, and this time he remained down longer, and when he came up he puffed and sputtered more than before.
"Is this it?" said he, holding up a strip of wet leather.
"Yes," said Podington, "you've got the reins."
"Well, take them, and steer. I would have found them sooner if his tail had not got into my eyes. That long tail's floating down there and spreading itself out like a fan; it tangled itself all around my head. It would have been much easier if he had been a bob-tailed horse."
"Now then," said Podington, "take your hat, Thomas, and I'll try to drive."
Mr. Buller put on his hat, which was the only dry thing about him, and the nervous Podington started the horse so suddenly that even the sea-legs of Buller were surprised, and he came very near going backward into the water; but recovering himself, he sat down.
"I don't wonder you did not like to do this, William," said he. "Wet as I am, it's ghastly!"
Encouraged by his master's voice, and by the feeling of the familiar hand upon his bit, the horse moved bravely on.
But the bottom was very rough and uneven. Sometimes the wheels struck a large stone, terrifying Mr. Buller, who thought they were going to upset; and sometimes they sank into soft mud, horrifying Mr. Podington, who thought they were going to drown.
Thus proceeding, they presented a strange sight. At first Mr. Podington held his hands above the water as he drove, but he soon found this awkward, and dropped them to their usual position, so that nothing was visible above the water but the head and neck of a horse and the heads and shoulders of two men.
Now the submarine equipage came to a low place in the bottom, and even Mr. Buller shuddered as the water rose to his chin. Podington gave a howl of horror, and the horse, with high, uplifted head, was obliged to swim. At this moment a boy with a gun came strolling along the road, and hearing Mr. Podington's cry, he cast his eyes over the water. Instinctively he raised his weapon to his shoulder, and then, in an instant, perceiving that the objects he beheld were not aquatic birds, he dropped his gun and ran yelling down the road toward the mill.
But the hollow in the bottom was a narrow one, and when it was passed the depth of the water gradually decreased. The back of the horse came into view, the dashboard became visible, and the bodies and the spirits of the two men rapidly rose. Now there was vigorous splashing and tugging, and then a jet black horse, shining as if he had been newly varnished, pulled a dripping wagon containing two well-soaked men upon a shelving shore.
"Oh, I am chilled to the bones!" said Podington.
"I should think so," replied his friend; "if you have got to be wet, it is a great deal pleasanter under the water."
There was a field-road on this side of the pond which Podington well knew, and proceeding along this they came to the bridge and got into the main road.
"Now we must get home as fast as we can," cried Podington, "or we shall both take cold. I wish I hadn't lost my whip. Hi now! Get along!"
Podington was now full of life and energy, his wheels were on the hard road, and he was himself again.
When he found his head was turned toward his home, the horse set off at a great rate.
"Hi there!" cried Podington. "I am so sorry I lost my whip."
"Whip!" said Buller, holding fast to the side of the seat; "surely you don't want him to go any faster than this. And look here, William," he added, "it seems to me we are much more likely to take cold in our wet clothes if we rush through the air in this way. Really, it seems to me that horse is running away."
"Not a bit of it," cried Podington. "He wants to get home, and he wants his dinner. Isn't he a fine horse? Look how he steps out!"
"Steps out!" said Buller, "I think I'd like to step out myself. Don't you think it would be wiser for me to walk home, William? That will warm me up."
"It will take you an hour," said his friend. "Stay where you are, and I'll have you in a dry suit of clothes in less than fifteen minutes."
"I tell you, William," said Mr. Buller, as the two sat smoking after dinner, "what you ought to do; you should never go out driving without a life-preserver and a pair of oars; I always take them. It would make you feel safer."
Mr. Buller went home the next day, because Mr. Podington's clothes did not fit him, and his own outdoor suit was so shrunken as to be uncomfortable. Besides, there was another reason, connected with the desire of horses to reach their homes, which prompted his return. But he had not forgotten his compact with his friend, and in the course of a week he wrote to Podington, inviting him to spend some days with him. Mr. Podington was a man of honor, and in spite of his recent unfortunate water experience he would not break his word. He went to Mr. Buller's seaside home at the time appointed.
Early on the morning after his arrival, before the family were up, Mr. Podington went out and strolled down to the edge of the bay. He went to look at Buller's boat. He was well aware that he would be asked to take a sail, and as Buller had driven with him, it would be impossible for him to decline sailing with Buller; but he must see the boat. There was a train for his home at a quarter past seven; if he were not on the premises he could not be asked to sail. If Buller's boat were a little, flimsy thing, he would take that train—but he would wait and see.
There was only one small boat anchored near the beach, and a man—apparently a fisherman—informed Mr. Podington that it belonged to Mr. Buller. Podington looked at it eagerly; it was not very small and not flimsy.
"Do you consider that a safe boat?" he asked the fisherman.
"Safe?" replied the man. "You could not upset her if you tried. Look at her breadth of beam! You could go anywhere in that boat! Are you thinking of buying her?"
The idea that he would think of buying a boat made Mr. Podington laugh. The information that it would be impossible to upset the little vessel had greatly cheered him, and he could laugh.
Shortly after breakfast Mr. Buller, like a nurse with a dose of medicine, came to Mr. Podington with the expected invitation to take a sail.
"Now, William," said his host, "I understand perfectly your feeling about boats, and what I wish to prove to you is that it is a feeling without any foundation. I don't want to shock you or make you nervous, so I am not going to take you out today on the bay in my boat. You are as safe on the bay as you would be on land—a little safer, perhaps, under certain circumstances, to which we will not allude—but still it is sometimes a little rough, and this, at first, might cause you some uneasiness, and so I am going to let you begin your education in the sailing line on perfectly smooth water. About three miles back of us there is a very pretty lake several miles long. It is part of the canal system which connects the town with the railroad. I have sent my boat to the town, and we can walk up there and go by the canal to the lake; it is only about three miles."
If he had to sail at all, this kind of sailing suited Mr. Podington. A canal, a quiet lake, and a boat which could not be upset. When they reached the town the boat was in the canal, ready for them.
"Now," said Mr. Buller, "you get in and make yourself comfortable. My idea is to hitch on to a canal-boat and be towed to the lake. The boats generally start about this time in the morning, and I will go and see about it."
Mr. Podington, under the direction of his friend, took a seat in the stern of the sailboat, and then he remarked:
"Thomas, have you a life-preserver on board? You know I am not used to any kind of vessel, and I am clumsy. Nothing might happen to the boat, but I might trip and fall overboard, and I can't swim."
"All right," said Buller; "here's a life-preserver, and you can put it on. I want you to feel perfectly safe. Now I will go and see about the tow."
But Mr. Buller found that the canal-boats would not start at their usual time; the loading of one of them was not finished, and he was informed that he might have to wait for an hour or more. This did not suit Mr. Buller at all, and he did not hesitate to show his annoyance.
"I tell you, sir, what you can do," said one of the men in charge of the boats; "if you don't want to wait till we are ready to start, we'll let you have a boy and a horse to tow you up to the lake. That won't cost you much, and they'll be back before we want 'em."
The bargain was made, and Mr. Buller joyfully returned to his boat with the intelligence that they were not to wait for the canal-boats. A long rope, with a horse attached to the other end of it, was speedily made fast to the boat, and with a boy at the head of the horse, they started up the canal.
"Now this is the kind of sailing I like," said Mr. Podington. "If I lived near a canal I believe I would buy a boat and train my horse to tow. I could have a long pair of rope-lines and drive him myself; then when the roads were rough and bad the canal would always be smooth."
"This is all very nice," replied Mr. Buller, who sat by the tiller to keep the boat away from the bank, "and I am glad to see you in a boat under any circumstances. Do you know, William, that although I did not plan it, there could not have been a better way to begin your sailing education. Here we glide along, slowly and gently, with no possible thought of danger, for if the boat should suddenly spring a leak, as if it were the body of a wagon, all we would have to do would be to step on shore, and by the time you get to the end of the canal you will like this gentle motion so much that you will be perfectly ready to begin the second stage of your nautical education."