The House - An Episode in the Lives of Reuben Baker, Astronomer, and of His Wife, Alice
by Eugene Field
Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Alice says that I am not practical enough to make a successful carpenter; she gets this unfair opinion of me from an incident in our early wedded life which she delights in recalling in the presence of people upon whom I am particularly desirous of making a favorable impression. It seems that when Galileo and Herschel were little tots I undertook to construct a playhouse for them in the back yard. This was at a time when I was exceptionally busied with my professional studies; Mars was rapidly approaching perihelion, and I had been commissioned by the Blue Island Society of the Arts and Sciences to prepare a chart of the bottle-neck seas. It would have been surprising indeed had I not been preoccupied—too absorbed in intellectual pursuits to cope successfully with any such worldly and prosaic thing as a playhouse in the back yard. Yet Alice insists that it is most amusing that I should have neglected to provide that structure with windows and a door, and that, as a natural consequence, I should have nailed myself up securely in that affair.

On another occasion I painted myself gradually into a corner while attempting to paint the floor of the spare chamber. Alice reproached me bitterly for this; she said she supposed everybody knew that a floor should always be painted toward, and not away from the door. Alice seems never to consider that few other people are gifted with such intuitions as she has, but are compelled to drag along through life learning by experience.

I do not wish to be understood as complaining or railing against fate because I am not skilled in mechanics; I recognize as a distinct boon the fact that I am awkward in the use of tools, and the further fact that I have no ambition in the direction of mechanical endeavor has doubtless saved me many a bruised thumb and a vast amount of hard labor. When I see my neighbors tinkering away at their storm windows and garbage boxes and grape vine trellises and dog kennels and window screens and front gates, I do not neglect to thank heaven that Alice has the best of reasons for not asking me to engage in similar odd jobs about our house.

Still, I am sure that, if I ever do engage in any avocation, it will be that of nailing lath, an employment requiring an exercise of patience, of intelligence, and of skill to the highest degree.

Until we bought the new place I had no idea that the expense of conducting an establishment of one's own was so large. It seems, however, that when one has once become a property-owner there is no end to the things one must have and cannot get along without. It is impossible to say how or where the venders of patent arrangements find out about you, but no sooner do you buy a place of your own than you are run to death by people who actually prove to you that you must have what they have to sell.

Alice and I are very happy in the confidence that we have secured a simple device which is going to reduce our coal bill by at least fifty per cent.; it is a fuel-saving machine which is to be attached to our new steam-heating apparatus, and if it accomplishes anything like what the agent said it would, why, it is worth five dollars ten times over! And we are expecting wonders, too, of the gas-saving apparatus for which we have paid three dollars and which is to be attached to the meter with such pleasing results that we shall have five times more light at a saving of at least sixty per cent in cost.

I find upon consulting my expense account for May that during that month alone Alice and I purchased no fewer than thirty devices of an economical character. We have three different kinds of smoke-consumers, an automatic carpet-sweeper, a bottle of lightning polish for plate-glass, a dish-washing machine, a knife-scourer, a potato-parer, two automatic lawn-hose reels, a sewer-gas consumer, a patent ashes-sifter, etc., etc. It has required a considerable outlay of money to get stocked up with these things, but we regard them as a very wise investment. It is wholly consistent with our policy of economy to provide ourselves with the means of making a marked reduction in our expenses. We flatter ourselves that before we have been in our house six months we shall have demonstrated that we are not upon earth for the purpose of enriching gas companies and other soulless corporations.

But I think the wisest investment we have made is the insurance policy which we have taken out on Alice's life. The incident came about so curiously that I feel inclined to tell it in detail. I was one evening sitting out in front of our house—the rented one, I mean—watching the stars gradually making their appearance in the cerulean vault, and I was marvelling at the endless wonders of the heavenly expanse, when I became aware that somebody was approaching. I saw that this somebody was my Sheridan Road friend and neighbor, Treese Smith. He was whistling softly to himself an air which I did not recognize, but which my daughter Fanny (who is a music connoisseur) identified as "My Pearl Is a Bowery Girl." Presuming that he was coming to pay me a neighborly call, I arose to meet him. Fancy my amazement when upon beholding me Mr. Smith burst into tears. I do not remember ever to have been more astounded than by this sudden transition from gayety to grief. I could hardly find words to ask my friend what trouble had befallen him.

"I was hoping to meet no one," he sobbed, "for I am in no condition of mind to associate with my fellow-beings."

"It is evident," I interposed, "that some great sorrow has come upon you; surely you would not hesitate to come to me for sympathy."

"You are right," said Mr. Smith, making a heroic effort to gather himself together. "It would be selfish of me not to give so dear a neighbor as you a chance to share my misery. Read this."

He handed me a bit of printed stuff which he had evidently cut from a newspaper. I stood under the street lamp and read it in this wise:

KANSAS CITY, May 23.—During the thunder-storm to-day Mrs. Bolivar Bowers, wife of the well-known scientist, was struck and destroyed by lightning. Deceased leaves a husband and five children; no insurance.

"Ah, I see," said I in my gentlest tone; "she was a dear friend—perhaps a relative of yours."

"No, not that," said Mr. Smith, still sobbing; "you misinterpret my grief. This party was in no way akin to me except under that common descent from the old Adam which makes all humanity brothers and sisters. I did not know deceased, nor did I ever see her."

"Then why," I asked, in some astonishment, "why are you so moved by the news of her death?"

"To one of my nature," exclaimed Mr. Smith, "the circumstances detailed in this item are most painful to contemplate. We find here recorded the sudden demise of the sole support of a husband and five children—a wife and mother snatched away by death, leaving a helpless family without any visible means of support."

"But why without any means of support?" I asked.

"It says so," answered Mr. Smith. "The husband is a scientist and is therefore by nature and by occupation disqualified for earning a livelihood."

"Surely enough," said I, "that is quite true."

"Can you picture a more distressing scene," continued Mr. Smith, still in tears, "than that of this helpless father and his five little ones standing above that lifeless lady and wondering where their food and raiment will come from now? It is sad, it is agonizing, it is awful! And yet it all might have been averted—all this solicitude about the future. Had Mrs. Bolivar Bowers taken out a policy in my company, the International Mutual Tontine Life Insurance Company of Paw Paw, Indiana, the aspect to-day would have been different, and Bolivar Bowers and his callow brood of little Bowerses would have reason to bless the rod that smote them. Ah, friend Baker, the International Mutual Tontine has done a glorious work toward mitigating the wrath of the grim destroyer; under the grace of its soothing balm bereavement becomes an actual pleasure, death loses its sting, and the grave its victory."

From this small, casual beginning followed that train of explanation and argument upon Mr. Smith's part which led to Alice's taking out a life policy in the Indiana company. Mr. Smith is a man of broad and deep human sympathies. Had he not happened upon that newspaper item, had his heart not gone out in passionate sympathy toward the bereaved Bolivar Bowers and his little ones, had he not wandered in an irresponsible paroxysm of grief in the direction of my house that evening, and had he not confided his sorrow to me—why, then we should not have known of the greatest of human benefactors, and Alice would not now be safe (so to speak) in the bosom of the International Mutual Tontine Life Insurance Company of Paw Paw.

I do not regard these things as accidental; they are special providences.



Of the many friends who hastened to congratulate us when they heard that we had acquired a home, none was more delighted than Gamlin Harland. I take it for granted that you have read Mr. Harland's numerous books, and that you know all about Mr. Harland himself. Not to know of him is to argue one's self unknown.

My first meeting with Mr. Harland was at a single-tax convention six years ago; he was a delegate to that convention from Wisconsin, and I was a delegate from Illinois. I was a delegate because the manager of the party, who lives in New York, could n't find anybody else to serve as the delegate from the congressional district in which I lived. I thought that rather than have that district unrepresented I ought to serve, and so I did. The acquaintance I then made with Gamlin Harland soon ripened into friendship, and this intimacy has lasted ever since. Mr. Harland insists that I am a single-tax man, and it may be that I am in theory, although I certainly am not in practice; for I never have paid any tax of any kind, be it single or double.

As soon as he heard of our purchase Mr. Harland came out to inspect the premises, and of course he was delighted.

"This will make a new man of you," said he to me. "It will take your mind off your impracticable star-gazing and moonshining, and divert your attention into the channels of realism. These premises are so spacious as to admit of your engaging to a considerable extent in agriculture; you can now lay aside the telescope and the spectrum for the spade and the hoe; the field of speculation can be abandoned for this noble acre which I hope soon to see smiling into an abundant harvest."

"Yes," said I, "it is my purpose to engage largely in the cultivation of flowers."

"Pshaw!" cried Mr. Harland, "there you go again! Don't you know that flowers are wholly worthless except in so far as they pander to the gratification of a sensuous appetite? It would be a crime to surrender these opportunities to ignoble uses. You must raise vegetables here, or perhaps some of the small fruits would thrive better in this rich sandy soil."

Investigation satisfied Mr. Harland that blackberries were the particular kind of small fruit to which the soil seemed adapted. I was not surprised at this, for I knew that the blackberry was a favorite with Mr. Harland—in fact, Mr. Harland is the only author I know of who has written a novel whose plot hinges (so to speak) upon a blackberry. So passionately fond of this fruit is he that he devotes a part of the year to cultivating blackberries on his Wisconsin farm. There are invidious persons who intimate that his only reason for cultivating the blackberry is to be found in the fact that nothing else will grow on his farm, and presumably you have heard the epigram which the romanticists have perpetrated at Mr. Harland's expense, and which represents that ambitious and aggressive gentleman as raising blackberries in summer and —— in winter.

After getting me thoroughly inoculated with the blackberry idea, and having duly impressed me with his theory that true manhood consisted of making one's self unspeakably miserable and sweaty with a shovel and a hoe, Mr. Harland broached his favorite topic, and ventured the assertion that now that I was the possessor of taxable property I would become as rabid a single-tax advocate as Henry George himself. I answered that I already advocated a single-tax system, for the reason that if we could only once get a single-tax system in vogue we should then be but one remove from no taxation at all, and would have less difficulty in securing that desirable end ultimately.

The truth of the matter is, I object to taxation only in so far as it affects me. I have no objection to other folk being taxed, but I do not fancy being taxed myself. I agree with Brother Harland that there is palpable injustice in making an industrious and public-spirited man pay for the so-called privilege of building himself a home; he pays the carpenters and masons and painters for making that home, and he is then expected to pay the city and the State for having invested his hard earnings in a permanent enterprise which gives employment to the laborer, which beautifies the neighborhood, and which enhances the value of the adjacent property. The object of taxation (as Mr. Harland asserts and as I believe) is to enrich the office-holding class, a class of loose morality, utterly heartless and utterly conscienceless, and I agree with Mr. Harland in the opinion that the time is not far distant when the honest people of this country will arise as one man and subvert the corrupt hand of politics which is now grinding us under the iron heel of oppression.

It is seldom that I give expression to my views upon this subject, for the reason that I fear they may be misinterpreted. I have always had an apprehension that I would be mistaken for an anarchist, which I am not; I am an advocate of peace and of the laws; I do not believe in violence of any kind.

And now that I am speaking of violence, I am reminded of an incident which illustrates the thoughtless cruelty of too many of our youth. It was scarcely two weeks ago that I detected a boy (apparently about twelve years of age) climbing one of the willow trees in our old Schmittheimer place. I crept up on him unawares and speedily became satisfied that he was after the eggs in a bird's nest that nestled cozily in a crotch of the limbs. I shouted lustily at the young scapegrace, and his confusion convinced me that my suspicions were correct. I kept him in his uncomfortable position in the tree until I had lectured him severely for the cruelty he contemplated and until I had exacted from him a promise that he would forever thereafter abstain from the practice of robbing birds' nests. The tears which trickled down his face assured me no less than his solemn protests did that the lad was indeed penitent, but the fellow had no sooner descended from the tree and reached a point of safety the other side of the fence than he gave utterance to sentiments which wholly disabused my mind of all faith in his previous professions of reform.

I have never been able to understand what pleasure can accrue from the spoliation of the homes of birds, the beautiful musical creatures that contribute so largely toward making the world cheerful. One of the pleasantest recollections of my boyhood is that in all that active period I never once killed or wounded a bird or robbed its nest. And I think that the kindest act I ever did—at least the one which I recall with the most satisfaction—was my release of a caged bird. A careless, heedless neighbor had caught and caged a redbird, and the mournful twittering of the poor creature as he fluttered incessantly behind the bars of his prison pained and haunted me. The redbird can never be reconciled to confinement; he is of the forest; the wildness of his peculiar note indicates the restlessness of his nature. So for nearly a year the melancholy twittering and the fluttering of that caged bird haunted me.

One morning—it was in the gracious May time—I awoke early. The sun was just coming up and was kissing the tears from lovely Nature's face. The air was full of coolness and of sweet smells. Then, hearing the querulous note of the imprisoned bird upon the porch yonder, I determined to set the poor thing free. So I dressed myself and stole out into the graciousness of the early morning. To my last day I shall not forget the delight, the rapture, with which that released bird mounted from the doorway of his cage and sped away!

One of the most treasured relics I have is a poem which my father wrote when I was a little boy. My father was a native of Maine, but for all that he was a man of sentiment and he had much literary taste, and ability, too. The poem which he gave me, and which I have always treasured, will (if I am not grievously in error) touch a responsive chord in many a human heart, for all humanity looks back with tenderness to the time of youth.


A bird sat in the maple tree And this was the song he sang to me: "O little boy, awake, arise! The sun is high in the morning skies; The brook's a-play in the pasture lot And wondereth that the little boy It loveth dearly cometh not To share its turbulence and joy; The grass hath kisses cool and sweet For truant little brown bare feet— So come, O child, awake, arise! The sun is high in the morning skies!"

So from the yonder maple tree The bird kept singing unto me; But that was very long ago— I did not think—I did not know— Else would I not have longer slept And dreamt the precious hours away; Else would I from my bed have leapt To greet another happy day— A day, untouched of care and ruth, With sweet companionship of youth— The dear old friends which you and I Knew in the happy years gone by!

Still in the maple can be heard The music of the morning bird, And still the song is of the day That runneth o'er with childish play; Still of each pleasant old-time place And of the old-time friends I knew— The pool where hid the furtive dace, The lot the brook went scampering through; The mill, the lane, the bellflower tree That used to love to shelter me— And all those others I knew then, But which I cannot know again!

Alas! from yonder maple tree The morning bird sings not to me; Else would his ghostly voice prolong An evening, not a morning, song And he would tell of each dear spot I knew so well and cherished then, As all forgetting, not forgot By him who would be young again! O child, the voice from yonder tree Calleth to you, and not to me; So wake and know those friendships all I would to God I could recall!



When I discovered one morning that my young sunflowers and my tomato vines had been cut down during the night by some lawless depredator I was mightily incensed. I had not supposed that there was anybody so mean as to commit such a wanton destruction. The value of the property destroyed was not large; I had paid but five cents apiece for the twenty tomato vines, and the young sunflowers were a present from Fadda Pierce. The intrinsic value of these things was so small as to cut no figure in my mind, but having watched the graceful creatures wax large and comely from mere sprouts it was quite natural that I should have a strong sentimental attachment for them. For the fruit of the tomato vine I care nothing, but I had with much satisfaction pictured the enjoyment which Alice and the children would derive from the luscious tomatoes which I flattered myself were to ripen upon our own vines under the genial August sun.

Moreover, I had already made up a list of the names of city friends to whom I intended to send handsome specimens of these first fruits of my experiments in farming; the Reillys, the Lynches, the Chapins, the Maxwells, the Scotts, the Fayes, the Deweys, the Morrises, the Millards, the Larneds, the Fletchers, the Ways—these and other fortunate cronies were to be made recipients of my bounty in case the fruit held out. I will say nothing of the pleasing future I depicted for the sunflowers; the sunflower is a particular favorite of mine, presumably because it is one of the very few flowers I am capable of identifying.

My impulse, when beholding the tomato vines and sunflowers cut down in the innocence of youth, was to determine not to pursue gardening further. To this mood succeeded a fit of anger, and I was so outraged by the destruction I beheld that I would cheerfully have given any sum of money I could have borrowed of my neighbors for information leading to the apprehension of the perpetrator of this brutal wrong.

As it was, I wrote out an offer of five dollars reward upon a sheet of letter paper and nailed it with four large wire nails to a maple tree in front of the place, where all passers-by could see and read it. Later in the day I went to tell Fadda Pierce of the trouble which had befallen me, and he consoled me with the assurance that the work of destruction had been wrought—not by a human being, as I had surmised, but by cutworms, a kind of reptile that plies its nefarious trade between two days for no other apparent purpose than that of making gentlemen farmers like myself miserable.

Fadda Pierce told me that Paris green was an effective antidote against these destructive worms, and I have ordered a barrel of it from the city. I intend to spread a layer of this Paris green over all our flower and vegetable beds; the contrast thus presented to the dull, sere brown of our lawn will be very pleasing to the eye. In fact, I am not sure that it would not be cheaper to color our whole lawn with Paris green than to attempt to revise it with water, which can be used with legal liberality only between the first of November and the first of May.

By way of illustrating what a mockery our national Department of Agriculture is, I will say that I wrote to Secretary Morton about the cutworms and asked that he suggest an antidote against the same. Although five weeks have elapsed since I dispatched that letter I have had no word of any kind from the Department of Agriculture. I feel the slight all the more keenly because I am a personal acquaintance of Secretary Morton's, having been introduced to and shaken hands with him at the quadrennial convention of the Western Academy of Science at Omaha in 1884. Prompt attention to my letter was due on the score of old friendship. The Secretary of Agriculture will recognize his error in offending me if ever he becomes a candidate for the presidency. Reuben Baker never forgets an affront.

But, though my sunflowers and my tomato vines suffered as I have narrated, my potatoes were doing finely. The potato patch is located in the back yard, near the poplar trees; it is in the shape of the Big Dipper, and I took the precaution to plant the potatoes in the new of the moon. The first planting never amounted to anything, for the reason that I peeled them and cut out the eyes before putting them in their hills. I learned subsequently that this was as fatal a course as it were possible to pursue. You must never peel potatoes or cut out their eyes if you want them to grow. I do not know why this is so, but it is. At any rate, the second crop I planted was a success. Every day I dug down into the hills to see how the potatoes were progressing, and I was thus enabled to keep track of the development of the tender fruit.

My young friend Budd Taylor provided me with a dozen ears of seed popcorn which I planted in a warm, bright spot and which soon bristled up in splendid style. I think it likely that, but for the birds, I should have had a crop of popcorn sufficient to supply the Chicago market, for I never before saw anything like that corn for luxuriance and thrift. How the birds ever found out about it will doubtless remain a mystery.

The birds I refer to proved to be blackbirds, although for a time I mistook them for young crows. One morning I detected about three dozen of the poaching rogues stalking through the grass in the direction of my corn-patch, and, almost before I knew it, the feathered rascals had played havoc with my promising crop of popcorn. Then I remembered that I had read and seen pictures in books of scarecrows; so I dressed up a figure and set it up near the corn patch. It was really a very good counterfeit of a man, as indeed it ought to have been, for the clothing I used was far from ragged, and Alice had been intending to send it to a poor relative of hers in Nebraska.

The night after I had set up this lay figure in the yard a policeman came along Clarendon Avenue for the first time in his professional career. He espied the figure in the yard and at once mistook it for a thief who had come to steal our lawn hose. With a gallantry and with a devotion to duty which cannot be too highly commended, the intrepid policeman opened fire with his revolver and put seven holes through the scarecrow before he discovered his mistake.

The cannonading awakened Major Ryson, one of the nearest neighbors, and that discreet gentleman immediately set his bull terrier loose. This sagacious but vindictive animal bore down upon the scene of action and treed the policeman the first thing. Having expended all his ammunition upon the lay figure, the policeman had no means of interchanging compliments with his assailant, and was therefore compelled to spend the night in a willow. Meanwhile the bull terrier encountered the scarecrow, and, mistaking it for a human being, soon tore that unfortunate object into ten thousand pieces. Next day our lawn was literally strewn with straw and buttons and remnants of what had once been a very decent suit of clothes.

This reference to Major Ryson's bull terrier reminds me of the visit which the Baylors' dog paid to our new premises. The Baylors' dog is a St. Bernard about a year old and weighing one hundred and seventy-five pounds. Most of the time this amiable leviathan is confined in the Baylors' back yard, a spot hardly large enough to admit of the leviathan's turning around in it. The evening to which I refer the Baylors made a pilgrimage to our new house for the purpose of ascertaining whether we had put in a copper kitchen sink or a galvanized iron one. I can't imagine what possessed them to do it, but they took the St. Bernard with them. The sense of freedom which this playful beast felt upon being let loose in our extensive yard proved wholly uncontrollable, and while the Baylors were investigating the sink question the amiable leviathan gallivanted about the premises with that elephantine exuberance which is to be expected of a St. Bernard one year old and weighing one hundred and seventy-five pounds. Adah (who has an eye to the beautiful) had planted a vast number of nasturtiums and red geraniums, and under one of the oak trees had trained numerous graceful, dainty vines, which, as I recall, are known to horticultural amateurs as 'cobies.

In the twinkling of an eye the Baylor leviathan swept these blossoming innocents out of existence, and in other twinklings he wrought desolation among the peonies, the pansies, and other floral objects upon which the women folk had lavished a wealth of patient care. A bull in a china-shop could hardly create the havoc which the Baylor pup, with his one hundred and seventy-five pounds of animal spirits, wrought in our lawn. Next morning the lawn looked as if it had been honored with a nocturnal visitation from Burr Robbins' galaxy of domesticated wild beasts.

Curiously enough, the Baylors thought it was very funny. I don't know why it is, but it can't be denied that it is a fact that those acts which in other people's pups strike us as strangely improper, become in our own pups the most natural and most mirth-provoking performances in the world. I recall the anger with which neighbor Baylor drove neighbor Macleod's mastiff off his porch one evening because that mastiff attempted to make his way through the screen door behind which the family cat was visible. In this instance the Macleod mastiff was simply following the predominating instinct of the canine kind, and neighbor Baylor hated the unreasonable beast for it. Yet I 'll warrant me that while his own lubberly pup was prancing around over our flowerbeds neighbor Baylor regarded the performance as the most cunning and most charming divertisement in the world.

It is much the same way with children. If I were put upon oath, I should have to admit that the very same antics which I regard as most seemly (not to say fascinating) in my own pretty little darlings I do not approve of at all when I see them attempted by the awkward, homely children of my neighbors.



There is no telling to what unparalleled extent I should have carried my agricultural work but for a happening which interrupted my career in that direction and temporarily invalidated me for the performance of all manual labor. To make short of a long and painful story, I will tell you at once that in the very midst of my agricultural triumphs I was rudely awakened to a realization of the fact that I had been badly poisoned by ivy. The luxuriant growth in one part of our lawn which in my innocence I had mistaken for infant oak trees and had nurtured with great assiduity proved to be the poison vine which is shunned alike of knowing man and beast.

The truth about this insiduous [Transcriber's note: insidious?] plant was not revealed to me until after the harm was done. I awoke one night to find my hands and wrists afflicted with so pestiferous an itching that it verily seemed to me as if the points of ten thousand thousand hot needles were being thrust into my cuticle. There are no words capable of expressing how torturesome this affliction is; to my physical suffering there was added a distinct mental disquietude arising from a sense of injustice that nature, supposed to be so benignant to her friends, should have punished me so grievously for having sought to cultivate and foster her arts.

I was shocked, too, to discover that my misfortune awakened no feeling of sympathy in others; nay, my neighbors seemed to regard it rather as a joke that I, a scientist of no mean ability (if I do say it myself), should have fallen victim to the commonest and most vicious of all destroyers of human happiness. The amount of badinage, sarcasm, and irony indulged in by these unfeeling folk at the expense of "Farmer" Baker (as they now jocosely dubbed me) would fill a royal octavo volume. I assure you that I regarded this species of humor as impertinent to the degree of atrocity.

My family physician, Dr. Hodges, prescribed several vials of pellets which bore a striking resemblance to one another, but whose virtues I was solemnly assured depended wholly upon my strict observance of the ordo of their administration internally, which ordo may have been simple and clear enough to Dr. Hodges, but was to me as intricate and complicated as a Bradshaw railway guide. Furthermore, having ascertained by artful inquiry what viands and beverages I particularly liked, Dr. Hodges strictly forbade my indulgence in them, and such articles of food and drink as I was particularly averse to be recommended for my diet. Meanwhile I was meeting constantly with people who had been afflicted with ivy poisoning, and these kind, cheery souls encouraged me with recitals of their experiences. I was told that it took seven years for ivy poison to get out of the system; that every year during the ivy season (whatever that may mean) there would be a recurrence of this pestiferous eruption, sometimes in one part of the body, sometimes in another, and not unfrequently upon the whole surface. There were, of course, numerous nostrums warranted to allay the fiery tingling and maddening stinging of the malady, and, as I cheerfully adopted every suggestion that came to my ears, I was presently stocked up with enough salves and solutions to fill an apothecary-shop, and my associates began to complain that I was as redolent of odors as a chemical laboratory. Naturally enough, therefore, I became morbid and despondent, and began to regard myself as a mercilessly afflicted and shunned thing.

But amid all this trouble there came to me one big, bright ray of satisfaction. I remembered that, when Alice took out a life policy with neighbor Treese Smith, I also took out an accident policy with the same gentleman in the Wabash Mutual Internecine Association of Indiana. There was, as you can well understand, a heap of consolation in the thought that no matter how little or how much or how long I suffered, the Wabash concern would have to pay for it. As I recollected, the insurance was fifty dollars a week during incapacity for work. If, therefore, the ivy poison remained in my system seven years, the amount of insurance due me would be—let me see:

Seven years—three hundred and sixty-four weeks.

Three hundred and sixty-four weeks at fifty dollars per week—eighteen thousand two hundred dollars.

This was, indeed, a considerable sum of money! I began to understand that, viewed from a purely business standpoint, my affliction might become financially profitable. It even occurred to me that in case the Wabash company paid promptly, and I got used to the tearing ebullitions of the ivy poison, I might contrive to get a renewal of the malady at the end of the first seven years. I wondered that, with this opportunity of getting rich cum otio et cum dignitate, there were so many poor people in the world; however, I mentally resolved not to discover my shrewd plan to anybody else.

When I called upon neighbor Treese Smith I was prudent enough to let him know that I probably had the worst case of ivy poisoning ever heard of, and with more than common pride I exhibited to him my hands and wrists in confirmation of my claims. Mr. Smith (whom you already know as a man of tender feelings and broad sympathies) expressed himself as being very sorry for me, and he asked me if I had tried certain remedies, which he named.

As it was another kind of remedy I was after, I adroitly led the conversation up to the proper point, and then I intimated that it would not harrow up my feelings if I were tendered a payment on account of my accident policy in the Wabash Mutual Internecine Association of Indiana. I liked Smith, and I felt that I ought to be candid with him. I told him that it was pretty generally agreed by the medical profession that when a person once got a dose of poison ivy it remained in his system for seven years, during which period it worked its baleful offices off and on with varying malignance. I recognized the fact that I had a valid claim on the Wabash company for fifty dollars a week for seven years; that the total amount of money due or paid me by said company at the end of the natural life of the ivy poison would be a trifle over eighteen thousand dollars. I told Mr. Smith that I was not disposed to take advantage of or to be too hard on the Wabash company, and that, being naturally of a conservative disposition, I was willing to compromise this matter for—say—well—ten thousand dollars, and cancel the policy.

Mr. Smith answered me in the tone and with the manner of one who is seeking to break bad news gradually and gently to another.

"It is painfully clear to me," said the kind, sympathetic man, "that you have not read the conditions upon which your accident policy is issued to you. I fear that when you come to examine it more carefully you will learn that in this case you have no claims upon our company—or, perhaps, I should say the company, since I am merely its agent and have nothing to do with the framing of its contracts."

"I have the instrument with me," said I, producing the policy. "I have read it carefully and understand it fully. It is a simple, short, straightforward document, and the type is so big and clear that even a child could read it."

"Alas," said Mr. Smith, with a sigh, "I fear you have not read the conditions; you will find them on the other side of the sheet, printed in small type."

I turned the page, and surely enough there were a number of paragraphs under the title of "The Conditions"; they were printed in small type and pale-blue ink.

"But what have 'conditions' to do with this case?" I asked. "I got insured in the Wabash Mutual Internecine company against accident, and here I 've had an accident! Ivy poison is as severe an accident as can happen to any animal, except, perhaps, an alligator or a rhinoceros, and I think I 'm entitled to my money."

"You are quite right from your standpoint," said Mr. Smith, "but it is not the correct standpoint. You are insured (as you will see by referring to your policy) as an A No. 1 risk. Turn to the conditions, and you will observe that our A No. 1 risks are insured against accident by lightning only. If, now, you had been struck by lightning instead of by ivy, and if the subtle electric fluid had impaired your physical economy, or imparted to your veins any noxious rheum or any venom wherefrom either temporary or permanent harm or disquietude accrued to you, then you would have a legal and just claim against our—I mean the company."

"But I supposed I was insured against every kind of accident," said I. "When it comes to getting pay for an accident, a dislocation of a toe is quite as desirable, in my opinion, as a broken neck."

"Ah, but insurance companies must differentiate," said Mr. Smith. "There are so many kinds of accidents that it is absolutely necessary to have grades and classes and differences and distinctions. You are insured against lightning: you belong to A No. 1. If you were insured against a broken leg you would be in X No. 2, or against a sprained wrist in H No. 3. My recollection is that our policies of insurance against poison ivy are written in Q No. 4, but I am not positive. If, however, you care to profit by this annoying experience and desire to insure against ivy poison, I will look the matter up the first thing to-morrow and write you out a policy at once. In your case the policy should be made out for a period of fourteen years, since your present dose of poison will not lose its efficacy for seven years, and that will render insurance taken after the fact inoperative."

There was a heavy thunder shower the next day, and I stood out in it all the time in the hope of getting a chance to claim remuneration from the Wabash Mutual Internecine Association. But the lightning dodged me as if I had been a sacred and charmed object. I made up my mind that it was folly to try to get even with the insurance concern, and since a farming career was now closed against me, I determined to devote my spare time to watching the progress of affairs inside our new house and to cooeperate with Alice and Adah and our feminine neighbors in their herculean task of "having things as they should be."



It did not take me long to find out that, in the treatment of the interior of the new house, Alice had fallen a victim to the influence of the Denslow-Baylor-Maria schools. I was not much surprised by this discovery, for I had known for some time that Alice regarded the Denslows and the Baylors as people of rare taste, and it was quite natural (as every unprejudiced person will allow) that, associating with Adah continually and being bound to her by ties of consanguinity, Alice should be susceptible to Adah's hortations, incitements, impulsations, and instigations.

At any rate, I found that our new house was to be a conspicuous intermingling and interblending of the Denslow, Baylor, and Maria styles of architecture. The big front room downstairs, the library, was distinctly Denslowish, and so was the big front room up-stairs, as well as the butler's pantry and the reception-room. The Baylor influence manifested itself in the spare bedroom and the dining-room, and the Maria influence (thanks to Adah) was clearly exhibited in the front and side porches, in my bedroom, and in the several hallways. Alice insisted that the house was to be strictly old colonial and also requested me to speak of it as such in the presence of visitors, particularly in the hearing of her relatives from the country when they came into the city next September to do their winter buying.

In my fancy I can already picture the dear girl putting on airs with those guileless rural folk who know no more about the architectural and the decorative arts than an unclouted Patagonian knows of the four houses of the Jesuitical order. Nor do I know much about those things, and I am glad that I do not, for if I had devoted my early years of study to plinths, architraves, columns, dados, friezes, pediments, sconces, wainscots, cornices, capitals, entablatures, and such like, how could I have originated my theory of star-drift and how would humanity have been enlightened upon the all-important subjects of the asteroids, the satellites of the star Gamma in Scorpio, the atmosphere on the other side of the moon, the depth of the Martian bottle-neck seas, the probability of the existence of natural gas wells in Jupiter, etc., etc.? If I had been a Linnaeus or a Buffon instead of Reuben Baker, I should have never suffered myself to fall an innocent victim to poison ivy—yes, that is true, but at the same time my now famous theory of double stars and my equally famous theory as to the several elements in comets' tails would have been denied to the world. No one man can combine within himself all human genius; in all modesty I declare myself satisfied with being simply Reuben Baker.

While I devoted my attention to out-of-door affairs—by which I mean care of the lawn, of the flower-beds, and of the vegetable patches—I had a comparatively tranquil existence. Having transferred the base of my operations (or perhaps I should say my observations) indoors, I found numerous disagreements and misunderstandings to distract me. I was not long in finding out that there were two factions (so to speak) in charge of the department of the interior. Parties of the first part were Alice and all our feminine neighbors; party of the second part was Uncle Si.

You see, there had never been anything more explicit than a verbal understanding between Uncle Si and Alice; the two had talked the matter all over at the start, and they agreed upon every theory so nicely that I do not wonder they decided that a written contract was not necessary. Uncle Si did some figuring which resulted in his saying that he would reconstruct the old house and build an addition for the even sum of two thousand dollars. Very few specifications were made, but there was a pretty clear verbal understanding reached, and the consequence was as distinct a misunderstanding as the work progressed. Most of the trouble was over the detail of hardwood. Alice was sure that Uncle Si had agreed to put in hardwood floors and trimmings throughout; Uncle Si expostulated that he had never thought of so preposterous a project, since it would have bankrupted him as sure as his name was Silas Plum.

The result was that Alice never went near the new house that she did not groan and moan and declare that Georgia pine was simply the horridest wood in all the world, while, upon the other hand, Uncle Si speedily came to regard Alice as an arch enemy who was seeking to trick and impoverish him. The neighbors sided with Alice, of course. They freely expressed the conviction that Uncle Si and all other contractors would bear constant watching. It is perhaps needless for me to add that Uncle Si regarded all neighbors as impertinent and mischievous intermeddlers.

I will confess that of all the workmen about the place the plumbers interested me most. They came late and quit early, and much of the intervening time was spent in asking one another questions and in ordering one another about. No tool was at hand when it was required. If the pliers were needed the whole gang of plumbers stopped work to hunt for the missing instrument, which was sometimes found in one remote spot and sometimes in another—never where it should have been. I have a theory that for reasons best known to themselves plumbers make a practice of mislaying and losing their tools.

I supposed that having once begun their work these plumbers would push it to completion. I never undertake anything that I do not keep at it until it is done and finished, and I think that this rule obtains among most of the professions and trades. Plumbers seem, however, to be a privileged class. They come to your premises and spend an hour or two examining what is to be done; then they go away. When they get ready to come back they return—this time with a miniature furnace and whatever tools they do not require. Then they go away to bring the tools they need, leaving the tools they do not require for a pretext for another trip. Then they take turns at suggesting how the proposed work should be done, and one after another they get down upon their knees and peer into closets and holes and under floors and into dark places, after which some of them go back to the "shop," for more things, while the others either sit around doing nothing or busy themselves at losing and mislaying the tools they have already at hand.

Uncle Si, who is an authority on the subject, says that there never was a plumber who died of overwork or in the poorhouse. He tells me that he once knew of a plumber named Bilkins who fell dead of heart disease one day when he discovered that he had worked four minutes overtime.

The boss painter was another individual who excited my astonishment. I never knew another man so fertile in the art of prevarication. Mr. Krome would rather lie than eat—at any rate, he would rather lie than paint. He never neglected to come over twice a day and take a long and careful survey of the house.

"I reckon you 're about ready for us, eh?" he 'd ask.

"We 're waiting on you," Uncle Si would say.

"Then I 'll have to put my gang at work in the mornin'," he would answer. This performance was repeated again and again, but the "gang" we looked for did not come. I remonstrated against this seeming neglect, but Mr. Krome blandly assured me that when his men did once get to work they would push the job with incredible speed. I knew he was a liar, yet I always believed the fellow.

We gave him the glazing to do. We even accommodated him to the extent of sending the window frames to his shop instead of making him haul them himself. We did this out of no special regard for Mr. Krome, for, aside from pure selfish considerations, Mr. Krome is no more to us than we are to Hecuba; but we desired to facilitate him in the work he had engaged to do for us.

After the window frames had been at the fellow's shop a fortnight, I began to suggest that their return would gratify me to the degree of rapture. Mr. Krome put us off with one excuse and another (all equally plausible) and presently a month had rolled by. Like the man in the fable who tried brickbats when kind words were no longer of avail, I threatened to turn the work of glazing over to another glazier who was not so busy with his lying as to prevent him from attending to the duties of his legitimate trade. This served as a mild remedy, for the window frames presently began to arrive one at a time, and I actually felt like calling upon our pastor for a special service of praise and thanksgiving when finally those windows were all in place.

The one thing that Alice, the neighbors, Uncle Si, and I were amicably agreed upon was the opinion that Mr. Krome, for a boss painter, was not worth the powder to blow him off the face of the earth. I felt tempted to tell him so, but he was at all times so amiable and so chatty that I really could not find the heart to mention a matter likely to interrupt the flow of his good nature. The chances are that Mr. Krome entertained much the same opinion of Uncle Si that Uncle Si had of Mr. Krome. My somewhat intimate association with workingmen for the last three months enables me to say that, so far as I have been able to observe, workingmen often have a precious poor opinion of one another. The plumbers talk of the carpenters as lazy and shiftless, the painters speak ill of the plumbers, the carpenters regard the tinners with derision, and so it goes through the whole category.

Now that I come to think of it, I am compelled to admit that this practice of setting a low estimate upon the endeavors and responsibilities of others is not restricted to the workingman's class. I blush to recall how often I myself have envied the apparent ease with which Belville Rock and Bobbett Doller stem the tide of human affairs while I labor on and on, barely eking out a subsistence. So far as I can see, they toil not, neither do they spin.

The chances are, on the other hand, that both Belville Rock and Colonel Doller regard me as the luckiest of lazy dogs, who has but to lie on his back and look at sun, moon, and stars to earn both fame and fortune. The farmer's candid conviction is that the city man is a fellow who does nothing and gets rich at it; the urban resident is quite as positive that the farmer habitually loafs around and lets God do the rest. The truth of this whole matter is that all humanity is prone to discontentment of that kind which not only denies happiness to oneself but also begrudges others the happiness they achieve.

But of this frailty I shall speak no further; indeed, I do not understand how I happened to be led into this line of discourse, for it is quite at a tangent with the subject I had in mind—namely, the butler's pantry.



In the good old days, which were, of course, the days when you and I were boys and girls together at Biddeford, Me., our civilization knew nothing of that miserable invention which is now foisted upon the modern house under the name of butler's pantry. In those good old days we used to have pantries and china closets and butteries and all that sort of thing, and people were contented.

At the present time, however, civilization is so curiously possessed of a desire to ape the customs of European society that every kind of innovation is seized upon with enthusiasm and without any apparent regard for the derision and contempt to which it renders us liable. In my opinion (which is sustained by such an eminent authority as Lawyer Miles) the butler's pantry without the butler is as absurd a contrivance as a carriage without a horse or a purse without gold or silver to put therein. Yet there is not, I presume to say, a tenement house in all this city that has not its butler's pantry; without this adjunct no home is considered complete, and it makes no difference whether "the lady of the house" does her own work or is able to employ female servants, the butler's pantry is a sine qua non.

I told Alice that I regarded a butler's pantry much in the light of a last year's bird's nest, and I added that since we were going to have a butler's pantry minus the butler I supposed the next move would be in the direction of a wine cellar minus the wine. But my humor is wholly lost upon Alice; since she began training with other householders that superior woman has exhibited a strange indifference to my suggestions and counsel.

I mentioned Lawyer Miles a moment ago. This gives me the opportunity of saying that my sympathies have gone out with enthusiasm toward that gifted man ever since I heard him remark, not very long ago, that he liked to have things cluttered up in his house. I am not able to define the compound "cluttered-up," but it conveys to my mind a meaning that is perfectly clear, and it suggests conditions which are pleasing to me. I, too, like to have things cluttered up. The most dreadful day in the week is, to my thinking, Friday—not because we invariably have fried fish upon that day, but because it is upon Friday that a vandal hired girl appears in my study and, under the direction of my wife, proceeds to "put things in shape." Alice insists that I am not orderly or methodical, yet amid all the so-called disorder of my study I can at any moment lay my hands upon any chart or map or book or paper I require, provided everything is left just where I drop it.

My doctrine about such things is that books and charts and papers were made for use and are therefore of the greatest utility when most available. When I am at work I like my tools around me; if they are not handy, my work is interrupted, and an interruption often breaks the train of thought and renders impotent or at least mediocre an endeavor which elsewise would be excellent. In their ambition to "put things in shape," and to give me an object lesson in order and method, Alice and her vandal hired girl hide my tools of trade, disposing of my books, papers, and pens, and even of my slippers, in such ingenious wise as to keep me busy for hours finding these necessities and replacing them where they will be available.

I thought that Alice and her mercenary were the only women in the world addicted to this weekly practice, but from what Lawyer Miles and other married men tell me I gather that there are other wives in the world quite as possessed of the seven devils of order and method as Alice is.

To return to that other matter: Alice has hinted to me that she intends to store a great deal of my own porcelain and pottery away in the butler's pantry. I had hoped that when we got into the new house we should have plenty of space for displaying the platters, plates, bowls, teapots, etc., etc., to which age has added a special charm, and the collection of which has involved the expenditure of much time and money upon my part.

I am convinced, however, that Alice intends to hide all these beautiful old specimens away; the butler's pantry is evidently for this purpose. I have not questioned Alice about it, but (to use Uncle Si's favorite expression) "it's dollars to doughnuts" that Alice is figuring on displaying her sixty-dollar set of new porcelain in the new glass cabinet in the dining-room, while my rare antiques—among them the blue platter, which was sent me from New Orleans, and which belonged originally to the pirate Lafitte—are relegated to the dim mysterious shelves of the butler's pantry, where dust will obscure them and spiders make them their favorite romping grounds. I intend to ask Lawyer Miles what he would do under like circumstances.

There is a sink in the butler's pantry, but it is wholly superfluous. I am told that this adjunct is useful in washing such dishes and glassware as are too precious to be sent to the kitchen. All this sounds very fine, but the practice is to whew the tableware of all kinds into the kitchen, whether there be a sink in the butler's pantry or not. My grandmother (and my mother, too) never suffered a servant to wash the fine porcelain or the cut glass; that responsible task was always reserved for the housewife herself, and the result was that no porcelain was chipped and no cut glass cracked. They sent me an old willow teapot from Biddeford, and it had n't been with us three weeks before our Celtic cook marred its symmetry by chipping off its venerable nozzle.

The only reason why so many charming bits of china have come down to us from the last century is that our grandmothers and our mothers cared for these things and protected them from rough usage. But, bless your soul! do you suppose Alice could be induced to bare her arms and apply herself to the task of washing a stack of antique porcelain or a row of cut-glass tumblers? No, not for the entire wealth of Wedgewood or the combined output of Dresden and of Sevres!

Mrs. Baylor tells me that I am doing the butler's pantry a grave injustice; that the servants will use it, and that it will prove a great convenience. I do not wish to appear unreasonable and I am willing to concede that the servants will utilize the pantry and its death-dealing sink. It is very probable that under their auspices the slaughter of china and of glassware will be continued; it moots not to the average hired-girl whether the sink be in the kitchen or the butler's pantry, upon the housetop or in the bowels of the earth; the work of destruction goes on at four dollars a week and every Thursday out.

It was during the pantry agitation that Mr. Patrick Devoe came into our lives. He approached us one sweltering afternoon and introduced himself with all the urbanity of a native of Glanmire, County Cork. He praised our house and our premises and my wife and our children. We wondered what he was driving at, but he didn't keep us in suspense very long, for he was, as he assured us, a business man from the word "go." He was, it appeared, the proprietor of a street-sprinkling cart, and the object of his call upon us was to crave the boon of sprinkling Clarendon Avenue in front of our place at the merely nominal price of ten cents a day.

Mr. Devoe could hardly have called at a time more favorable to his interests. The day was, as I have already intimated, oppressively hot: there was a stiff wind from the south and the dust rolled up the avenue in clouds. Mr. Devoe represented to us that the other people in the neighborhood had contracted for his services and our reputation belied us if we were unwilling to secure at a paltry financial outlay what would contribute to our comfort and health. This persuasive gentleman assured us that, under the benign influence of his sprinkling cart, Clarendon Avenue would presently become one of the most popular of suburban driveways. Hither would equipages come from every quarter, and the thoroughfare eventually would be famed as the coolest, shadiest, and most fashionable in Chicago.

Furthermore Mr. Devoe represented that the trees, shrubbery, and grass of our premises would be directly benefited by his sprinkling cart; the gracious flood of water, distributed twice a day by his itinerant cart, would not only lay the dust of the highway, but also permeate and circulate through the contiguous soil, bearing refreshment and health to tree, plant, and flower alike. The vigor of vegetation meant much to humanity; by this means an abundance of ozone would be supplied to the circumambient atmosphere, insuring healthful sleep and general reinvigoration to man, woman, and child.

Mr. Devoe's presentation of the facts and possibilities was so convincing that both Alice and I recognized the propriety of securing his services. The sum of ten cents per diem seemed very trifling; it was not until after Mr. Devoe had departed with our contract in his pocket that we began to realize that, however insignificant ten cents per diem might be, seventy cents per week was not to be sneezed at, while twenty-one dollars for the season was simply a gross extravagance. I was in favor of recalling and annulling our contract with Mr. Devoe, but Alice insisted that we should keep strictly in line with the other neighbors, doing nothing likely to stigmatize us either as mean or as unfashionable.

A day or two after this incident a ruffianly looking fellow called on us to "make arrangements," as he said, about hauling away our garbage when we got moved into our new house. I told the fellow that the city sent a garbage wagon around every week to remove the garbage free of cost. To this the fellow replied that the city did its work carelessly, that the wagon was invariably overloaded, and that no reliance could be placed upon the garbage boxes being emptied if that responsible duty were intrusted to the city employes.

The fellow seemed to know what he was talking about, and his representations were so fair that finally I agreed to pay him twenty-five cents a week for hauling the garbage away. That evening I heard from Mr. Baylor that the scheme was a vulgar bit of blackmail; that the fellow was driver for one of the city wagons and made a practice of extorting fees from householders for doing work which he was already paid to do. I felt grievously outraged and I threatened to report this infamy to the municipal authorities. But Mr. Baylor and other friends assured me that these infamous practices of blackmail were encouraged at the City Hall, and that I would simply be laughed at if I ventured to complain.

It was about this time, too, that I paid a man four dollars to clean out the catch basin in the rear of our premises. The man told me that the catch basin was "reeking with the germs of disease." I did n't see how that could well be, since the sewer had not been laid six weeks. However, the man insisted, and he talked so portentously of bacteria and bacilli and morbiferous microbes that finally in a terror of apprehension I gave him four dollars and bade him do his saving work and do it quickly.

When the neighbors heard of this incident they unanimously pronounced me a fool, accompanying that opprobrious stigmatization with an epithet which my religious convictions prohibit me from recording.



From what I have already told you it is likely that you have gathered that Alice and I had good reason to conclude that being a householder was by no means as cheap an enjoyment as could be conceived of. We recalled the words of the sagacious and prudent Mr. Denslow. "When you get a place of your own," said that wise man, "you will find that there will be a thousand annoying little demands for your money where now there is one." Our other friend, Mr. Black, had expressed the same idea when he told us that "a house-owner never gets through paying out." If Alice and I had had any thought upon the matter at all it was to the effect that when we had a home of our own we got rid forever of the monstrous bugaboo of house-rent at sixty dollars a month. We supposed that all our spare time could be devoted to counting the money we were going to save by getting out of a grasping, avaricious landlord's clutches. Experience is a severe teacher; Alice and I have found out a great many things since we began to have direct dealings with builders, masons, plumbers, painters et id omne genus, as well as with sprinklers, day laborers, landscape gardeners, fruit-tree peddlers, lightning-rod agents, and others of that ilk.

We duly became aware that we were losing a good deal at the hands of nocturnal depredators. Our flower beds were despoiled with amazing regularity; the broken lath and old lumber which had been piled up in the back yard, and which Alice intended to use eventually for kindling, disappeared mysteriously, and the carpenters reported finding evidences every morning that some person or persons had been tramping through the house the night before.

We were all at once possessed of the paralyzing fear that this nocturnal trespasser, or these nocturnal trespassers, might set our house on fire. The floors were strewn with shavings; a spark would precipitate a conflagration, and the old Schmittheimer place would burn like so much tinder. I read over the fire-insurance policies which we had taken out with our genial friends, Doller, Jeems, and Teddy, and I found out that the companies represented by those gentlemen were not responsible for losses upon unoccupied premises, or for losses resulting from incendiarism. It occurred to me that it would be wise to invite the police to keep an eye on the place at night, but this plan seemed impracticable for the reason that I wanted to keep the lawn-sprinklers running all night in defiance of the ordinance, and this could not be done if the police were to be mousing about the premises.

While I was still worrying over this distressing problem one of the carpenters came to me with a harrowing tale about a tramp whom he had caught sleeping in the barn. This tramp had gained access to the barn by means of a window. He quietly removed the sash, after breaking the panes of glass, and crawled in. The carpenter caught the impudent rogue early next morning in flagrante delicto—that is to say, found him snoozing upon a mattress which Alice had stored away in the barn for safe-keeping. An argument ensued, but the tramp finally beat a retreat.

Upon the evening of that same day the carpenter remained after working hours to see whether the tramp would come back for another night's lodging in the nice, warm barn on that nice, clean mattress. Surely enough, as evening shadows fell the tramp made his reappearance and sought to effect an entrance to the barn. Thereupon the belligerent carpenter emerged from his hiding and bade the trespasser be gone. The tramp complied with this demand, but not until he had signified his intention of returning later at night for the purpose of squaring accounts with the carpenter.

This dark threat filled the carpenter with gloomy forebodings and he hastened to Alice and me for advice. Of course we assured him that we would support him in any line of action he would take, and we promised to pay him one dollar if he would stay and guard the premises that night. The carpenter was not insensible to the soothing influences of lucre, and he consented to watch and defend our property, provided we furnished him with a weapon of one kind or another, for he had a conviction that the tramp fully intended to come back that very night to cut his heart out.

My acquaintance with weapons is limited to that circle which includes my collection of antique armor and several old flintlocks picked up at different times in New England and in the South. I confessed to the carpenter that I had in the house nothing suited to his bellicose purposes, unless he was willing to put up with a mediaeval battle axe or a Queen Anne musket. The carpenter seemed disinclined to place any reliance upon these means of defence, and he suggested that perhaps I might borrow a pistol of some one of the neighbors. I had not thought of that before; the idea impressed me favorably, and I proceeded to act upon it. It was no easy task, however, finding what I wanted. At the Denslows an axe was the only weapon to be had, and at the Baylors', the Crowes', the Sissons', and the Ewings' I found that the spears had been beaten into plowshares and the swords into pruning-hooks. I felt that it would be folly to apply at the Tiltmans', for Jack Tiltman is the mildest man in seven States, and he is descended from a line of Quakers religiously opposed to war and strife. However, meeting with Tiltman, I ventured to confide to him the dilemma I was in, and I was surprised when he told me that he could provide me with any kind or size of revolver I wanted. Presently he brought out of his house a machine which, had he not assured me to the contrary, I should at first sight have mistaken for a one-inch aperture telescope.

"Is it loaded?" I asked.

"Yes, seven times," said he.

"And will it go off seven times all at once?" said I.

"Once will be enough," said he; and then he added that the bore was so large that if the bullet once struck a man it would let daylight clean through him, even in the night time.

You can well understand that, by the time the carpenter was equipped for defensive operations, the whole neighborhood was worked up to a condition of great excitement. The children were enthusiastic over the prospect of bloodshed, and from the chatter that was indulged in by these innocents you might have supposed that a murderous tramp lurked at every corner. Alice and I walked over to the Schmittheimer place with the carpenter, and we were accompanied by several of our neighbors and their offspring. The evening was now advanced to the degree of darkness, and our heated fancies transformed every shadow into a living creature. Little Annie Ewing was on the verge of hysterics and declared she saw things behind every tree and stump, and Mr. Denslow contributed to the general excitement by recalling that he had read that very day of several mysterious murders down in a remote corner of Arizona by unknown tramps.

I admit that I, too, was much perturbed. I contemplated with indignation the lawless impudence of the fellow who had broken into our barn, and who had subsequently threatened violence to the carpenter for expostulating against this act of trespass. At the same time I could not stifle a feeling of pity for the homeless being who doubtless found the bed upon our barn floor as grateful as the downy couch of a Persian potentate. Nor could I stifle the conviction that it was a piece of miserable greediness on my part to deny this friendless and penniless wanderer the humble shelter he craved.

In fact I presently became so ashamed of the part I was taking in these proceedings that but for my regard for Alice's feelings I would have packed the carpenter off home and left the barn open to the tramp and all his kind. As it was my conscience gave me no rest until I had induced neighbor Tiltman to extract the cartridges from the pistol, which service he did so cleverly that the carpenter knew nothing about it, and continued to bluster and bloviate like a dragoon on dress parade.

The tramp did not return that night, and I was glad he did not, for it would have spoiled our new premises for me had any act of violence been committed thereupon. The experience, however, alarmed Alice to such an extent that she determined to employ a private watchman to guard the premises by night until we occupied them. She told me at supper the next evening that for this purpose she had secured the services of a poor but honest man who had called that day seeking employment.

"You don't mean to tell me, my dear," said I, "that you have intrusted this responsible duty to a person who is in the habit of travelling from house to house, asking alms!"

"I guess I know an honest man when I see him," said Alice, "and I know this man is honest, if there is such a thing as an honest man."

Alice went on to say that her protege was an old soldier; that he had wept when he told of his unrequited services for his country, and of the ingratitude which he had experienced when his application for a pension was denied by the unfeeling authorities at Washington. Alice said she had never met with a more civil-spoken person, and he must indeed have impressed her most favorably, for she advanced him fifty cents on account.

We slept securely that night, for Alice's assurances made me confident that under the new watchman's sleepless vigilance all would be safe on the Schmittheimer premises. But about seven o'clock next morning there was a rude outcry, and there came a terrible banging at our front door. Looking out into the street we saw the carpenter with a very sorry specimen of manhood in custody. The carpenter was flourishing neighbor Tiltman's unloaded pistol and threatening to blow his prisoner's brains out.

"I caught him asleep in the barn!" cried the carpenter, excitedly.

"Stop! Stop!" shrieked Alice. "Don't shoot him! Don't harm a hair of his head! He is the night watchman I hired to guard the place!"

"He 's the tramp!" insisted the carpenter. "He 's the very tramp who broke into the barn and slept there once before. I 've caught him now and I won't let him go!"

The prisoner protested that the carpenter was mistaken, that he was, indeed, the night watchman, and that he was entitled to "the kind lady's protection."

The fellow's voice sounded familiar and I recognized his form and face. Yes, there could be no mistake; I had seen and dealt with this person before.

"My friends," said I, addressing Alice and her carpenter and the crowd of neighbors that had assembled, "you are right, and yet you are wrong. I know this man, and I identify him as the base ingrate who stole my new wheelbarrow and my garden utensils. Your name, sir," I continued, sternly, transfixing the quaking wretch with a glance of commingled anger and scorn, "your name is Percival Wax!"



Had we been so disposed we could have given the wretched Percival Wax a great deal of trouble. Lawyer Miles was anxious to prosecute the fellow, and I dare say he felt that he had missed the greatest opportunity of his life when Alice and I concluded to let the matter drop. We were moved to this decision by the consideration that, while we owed Percival Wax only our resentment and vengeance, a prosecution of him for his numerous misdemeanors would put us to no end of trouble. The exposure and punishment of vice would doubtless prove much more popular among the virtuous, did not these proceedings involve so great an expenditure both of time and of labor. Alice and I were not long in making up our minds that we had plenty of other unavoidable troubles to engage our attention; so we let the tramp go, but not, however, until I had lectured him seriously upon the propriety of his abandoning his evil ways and until Alice had given him a clean shirt and an old pair of shoes with which to start out afresh upon the pathway of reform, which he solemnly promised to follow.

If you have ever passed the old Schmittheimer place—and doubtless you have, for it is the pride and ornament of a most aristocratic section—you must have noticed the roadway that leads from the street to the residence that looms up majestically two hundred feet back from the street. Perhaps you have wondered why grounds in other respects so attractive should be defaced by a feature so unsightly and so impracticable as this identical roadway.

And yet, as I told Alice, this roadway was actually the most natural feature of the place; there was absolutely no touch of artificiality about it; it was originally a stretch of sand, and such it had remained from time immemorial, by which I mean from that remote date—presumably eighteen centuries ago—when the receding waters of Lake Michigan left the spot subsequently to be known as the old Schmittheimer place high and dry in section 5, range 16, township 3. The genius of man had wrought wondrous and beautiful changes elsewhere, converting marshes into boulevards and transforming sandy wastes into blooming gardens; but never had it expended a touch or a thought upon that bald prehistoric streak which served as a driveway for all vehicles that dared invade the old Schmittheimer place.

How many vehicles had in the lapse of years been hopelessly maimed or totally wrecked while trying to traverse that roadway I shall not presume to say, for as a man of science I glory in exactness and I eschew surmise. This much I know, for I have seen it time and again during the last four months: nothing that moves on wheels has ventured upon that roadway that it did not sink slowly but surely up to the hubs of its wheels in the unresisting sand. The Pusheck grocery cart broke a spring the first time it drove in, and the wagon that hauled the steam fixtures was stalled for three hours in one of those treacherous depressions in which the roadway abounds, depressions which, as I am told, are known to dwellers in hilly country places as "thank-ye-marms."

Until I became acquainted with this particular roadway I never fully comprehended the nicety and the force of the phrase "to drive in." I had heard people say that they had driven into such and such places, and I had wondered why they employed this figure of speech when, it seemed to me, it would have been more exact to say that they entered upon or drove over. But I know now that it is no figure of speech when one says that he drives into the old Schmittheimer place. No other phrase could more exactly express an actuality.

If we were going to retain the driveway in all its unhampered prehistoric simplicity, just as the glacial period found and left it, it would really be the proper thing for us to found and to maintain a rescue station in its vicinity, for we have been called upon to hasten to the relief of every vehicle that has "driven into" the premises since we took possession. And a very serious theological aspect of this matter is had in a consideration of the fact that this prehistoric driveway not only breaks spokes and tires and hubs and springs, but also incites human beings to break the third commandment. I have overheard the young man who drives Pusheck's grocery cart indulging in expletives which I am sure he never learned as a member of Alice's Bible class.

So, taking one consideration with another, Alice and I determined to have a new road. Undoubtedly this was a wise determination; if we had gone ahead from that wise beginning and built the road as we had planned, all would have been well. The serious error we made was in seeking the counsel of our neighbors—the very same error we have made and kept on making over and over again ever since we entered upon this scheme of the new house.

I take it for granted that you know as well as I do that when it comes to roads, there are as many different kinds of roads as there are planetoids in the solar system. Furthermore, paradoxical as it may appear, each of these different kinds is better than any of these others, for each possesses not only all the advantages of the others, but also certain distinct and paramount advantages of its own. Alice and I had decided upon a dirt road, because we believed that a dirt road would conform in appearance to the other rustic and farmlike features of the place, and because we fancied that a dirt road could be constructed cheaply.

I use the term "dirt road" under protest. I am aware that what is called a dirt road is, properly speaking, an earth road. Dirt is filth, but earth is not; so when we call an earth road a dirt road we commit a vulgar error by employing a wrong epithet. All this I know, and yet, conforming to a custom, because it is a custom followed by all except a smattering of purists, I humiliate my sense of integrity, and I prostitute the virtue of my native speech.

In an unguarded moment, as I have intimated, we confided to our neighbors the precious secret that the stretch of sand from our front gate to our backyard was to make way for a modern, safe, and comfortable driveway. Immediately we were overwhelmed with suggestions and advice as to the particular kind of driveway we really ought to have. You may have noticed that whenever a friend (a dear, good friend) advises, he or she invariably tells you what you really ought to have—putting much emphasis on the "ought." This clinches and rivets the advice. When one says to you that you really ought to have such or such a thing, he means, of course, that you would have it if you were not either too poor or too stupid (or both) to get it. Alice and I are poor in purse, but I deny that we are idiots.

Not to consume your time with further discourse upon this subject (although I will concede that it has its fascinations and its importance), I will say that the primitive roadway (illustrative of the pre-glacial period) still winds its Saharan course through our premises. For Alice and I are undetermined whether to follow our own instincts and have a dirt road (there it is again!) or whether to concede to neighborly influence in the matter of this driveway, just as we have conceded upon nearly every other detail that has come up for consideration within the last four months. I dare say we shall eventually come back to our original plan, for it is already as clear as the noonday sun that if we adopt the suggestion of any one neighbor we shall have all the rest of our neighbors down on us for the rest of our lives.

We had an unpleasant experience of this character in the matter of wall-paper. It seems that Alice and Adah consulted all the women-folks in their acquaintance, and after much agitation made such selections of wall-paper as they believed would serve as a felicitous compromise between all parties consulted and all tastes expressed. The result is that nobody is suited—nobody but me. As for me, I am too much of a philosopher and too busy with my philosophy to spend any time worrying about the color or the pattern of the paper on the walls. If the paper is not so prepossessing as it might be, I should be glad that it is upon my walls rather than upon the walls of those whom it would vex much more than it does me.

I do not mind telling you that my favorite color in wall-paper (as well as in everything else) is red, and it was a delicate concession upon Alice's part to cover the walls of my study over the kitchen with paper of undeniably red hue, upon which appear tracings of yellowish white in a pattern particularly pleasing to my uneducated eye. Little Josephine's room (which is shared by Alice's sister Adah) is decorated with wall-paper in which red is also the predominant color. The pattern is of bunches of roses in full bloom, and these counterfeit presentments are so true to the life that when little Josephine first entered the apartment she reached out her tiny hands in rapture and sought to pluck the beautiful flowers. Adah, too, is delighted with this floral design; the rose is her favorite flower, and by a charming coincidence it happens to be also the favorite flower of Adah's friend Maria—of course you remember Maria; married Johnnie Richardson, and lives at St. Joe, Missouri. So, you see, there are several tender sentiments attaching Adah to that rose-bedecked apartment.

And yet (will you believe it?) there are those who do not at all approve of the wall-paper in which I and little Josephine and Adah (to say nothing of Maria) take so great delight. Some of these people have been ill-mannered enough to laugh aloud and long when they beheld the impassioned hue of the covering of the walls in my study! There was one person (I forbear mention of her name) who seriously said she thought we 'd be afraid to let little Josephine sleep in that rose-garlanded room; that the glaring colors would be likely to give the dear child the "willies." I do not know what the "willies" are, but I do know that little Josephine sleeps well, eats well, and is happy, and this is all that we could hope for in one of her tender years.

Now while I cannot do otherwise than defend the choices in wall-papers which Alice and Adah have made, I distinctly recognize and I regret two very unpleasant facts: first, that by not complying with their advice upon the subject we have grievously offended a number of our neighbors, and, second, that Alice and Adah are prepared to set down in the list of their active and malignant foes every woman who presumes to disparage either by word or by look the wall-paper they have picked out as most pleasing to their tastes.



The detail of hardware fixtures did not enter into our original calculations. This was very stupid of us, so everybody else said—everybody, of course, who had been through the ordeal of building a house. It is surprising how soon one who has had this experience forgets that before he had that experience he was as ignorant and as unsuspecting a body as could be imagined.

I suspect that after all it is a good thing for humanity that all people do not have to go through with what Alice and I have experienced the last four months. Otherwise the world would be filled with distrust, for I can conceive of nothing else so likely to sow the seeds of rancor and of suspicion in one's bosom as an experience at building a house.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse