ON a brisk October night in 1906 a meeting took place in the "shop" at the rear of the Malleson premises. This shop was the sanctum of the North Star Literary and Athletic Club, of which John Malleson was president, by virtue partly of the free suffrage of the members and partly by the prestige of ownership. There had been no vulgar stressing of this latter point at the time of the election, but John had been heard to observe casually that it was darn hard to heat the shanty in the back yard of Wink (his opponent), and that his father favored encouraging the literary activities of the Club during the cold winter months. The inevitable corollary was that the elder Malleson might be reasonably counted upon to furnish coal if certain conditions were complied with, but that if they were not, he, John, would not undertake to soften the prejudices of his father. He regretted that so sordid a factor should enter into the matter, but he supposed his father's law training and experience had made him callous in certain ways. . . John had polled a vote which lacked only one of being unanimous.
On the night in question, the shop was crowded to the doors---or more properly, the door---by a throng that included all the members, the parents of the members, and certain fortunate friends who had managed to trail along. The room, which could comfortably contain the twelve clubmen, together with their shabby davenport and the fat old stove, was ill equipped for handling this increase, especially as the experiment about to be performed required an open space down the middle. Not to mystify the matter further, John Malleson had become the possessor of a moving-picture machine which was not quite the real thing, and yet rather more than a toy. As this occurred at a time when the industry itself was on wabbly infant legs there existed the keenest speculation as to just what the contrivance might do when thrown into action.
"I only hope the boys know how to work it so that it won't explode," worried Wink's mother, a puffing little person who had been next-door neighbor to Mrs. Malleson since before their sons were born. The "boys" immediately concerned in this devout wish were John and his father. Mr. Malleson could by no means stand on the side lines when anything youthful and venturesome was going forward. His lean, humorous face showed as serious as John's as the two bent over the apparatus, studying the proper method of fitting together the lenses. Mrs. Malleson felt a tender little conviction, as she watched them, that her husband had not been entirely free from thought of self when he carried the big parcel home from Wyberg's toy department.
By this time a strong smell of heating metal pervaded the room, increasing the suspense of the spectators. Toad Dollivan, the smallest but toughest member of the Club, was heard to murmur his belief that the blasted thing was a fake and that he'd have sooner put his money into stink-bombs for Halloween. But suddenly John ejaculated, "There! All right, Dad---douse the lights."
The Club considered candles more in keeping with literary tradition than gas or electricity. When the half dozen that lighted the place were blown out, there followed a moment of expectant silence, a metallic click or two from the machine, then a chorus of Ah's as a dazzling disk appeared on the sheet rigged across the back wall. Although this phenomenon was acceptable in itself, and was regarded as a triumph by most of the audience, it did indubitably lack the element of action which advertisements of the show had given its patrons a fair right to expect. However only a contemptuous "Haw!" from Toad marred the effect of John's explanation that he had forgotten to put in the film. A few more moments of fumbling, numerous openings and shuttings of the little tin door, and an increasing violence of smell then with magic suddenness a triple-team of brightly colored fire horses sprang into view, moved a pace or so and stopped dead, receding into a senseless blur of browns and reds.
"What's the matter?" asked Mr. Malleson.
"Focus was rotten---I'm changing it,"
"It was all right for a moment, John," said his mother encouragingly, "why not let well enough alone?"
"I'll get it in a minute---give me a chance. There she is!" There she indubitably was. The horses leaped into frantic action, and in time with a mighty clicking as John turned the crank the steeds rushed again and again at the audience, increased to alarming size, and unaccountably disappeared, only to show up again in the distance and repeat their onslaught. After some moments of this rather inconclusive display of purpose, the older spectators, satisfied that they were in no imminent danger of being trampled under hoofs, began to chat quietly among themselves, keeping half an eye on the screen. The skeptical, hardheaded Toad summed up the impressions of the younger group:
"Either that's a gosh-a-mighty big fire and all the wagons in town are goin' or else that machine needs a new fillum."
The success of the show being now beyond all doubt, the adult members of the séance, perhaps feeling that an endless charging of fire horses might lose its charm if too persistently watched, unobtrusively edged out. Mr. Malleson alone remained with the Club, who were now permitted to examine the apparatus at closer range.
The unusually engrossing nature of the occupation, the excitement of the last half hour, and the complete darkness existing between the back of the machine and the entrance to the shop must he offered as explanation of what otherwise the Club could have regarded only as an unpardonable lowering of their guard. Even so, Wink afterwards stoutly maintained that he had heard noises like whispering beyond the closed door, and had discerned a white face pressed against the window. This window was in the same wall with the door, a little to the right as one looked out. Now it is safe to say that Wink had had his back to the window all evening, unless one accepts the untenable assumption that Wink, of all the Club---and not excluding Mr. Malleson himself---had reached so advanced a stage of sophistication that the display on the screen merely bored him. On the other hand, to grant the truth of his assertions would only convict Wink of criminal negligence in not instantly making known his suspicions.
At any rate the Club was entirely unconscious of danger, when the door burst open under terrific impact, and a dark mass, that seemed to be composed of various units having independent life but moving as one body, catapulted upon the unprotected backs of the members. At the same instant a hellish shouting and roaring filled the room. Above the sounds of incipient carnage rang John's battle-cry:
"The North End Gang! Up, kids, and at 'em!"
The picture machine went down in a tinny crash, leaving the scene in total darkness. The affair now became one of invisible forces that met each other at a miraculous number of points, but never ran parallel. Bodies, normally elongated or angular, became balls and rolled along the floor, bringing down similar bodies upon them. Others hurtled through the air and fell from unaccountable heights; some bored longitudinally through all opposition until stopped by the walls, which in their turn bulged and creaked. At times the separate units were caught in one centrifugal swirl and, revolving faster and faster, finally split into many parts at the circumference and flew in all directions; or again, converging from the margins, drew simultaneously and with great violence into a central area where something approximating coalescence took place. A remarkable feature of the performance was the diversity of noises that yet somehow blended into one infernal symphony. Certain utterances at times became distinguishable, such as Toad's staccato "Yip! Yip! Zowie !" or Wink's frenetic bellowing, but in the main the effect was that of the elements themselves joining voices to accompany some cataclysm of nature.
Gradually an inexplicable element began to make itself felt. It cannot be supposed that any of the participants, or all of them together, could figure out the exact amount of stress and strain that it was humanly possible to produce out of the given ingredients of the mêlée. Nevertheless both the Club and the North End Gang knew from past experiences something of their mutual prowess for offense and defense, calculated in the terms of sheer man-power. By considering the one variable factor, the nature of the battle field, they could arrive at a fair estimate of chances. But as the conflict progressed a suspicion settled and grew to certainty in the mind of each combatant that somewhere, moving in the darkness, a mightier agency than any they could claim was at work. This alien influence seemed impartial: North End kids and Club kids alike were lifted and dropped, torn from each other's clutches or hurled together without noticeable discrimination, and in general subjected to a buffeting whose intolerable violence cast panic into their hearts. To make the phenomenon more ghostly still, something like chuckling and occasional inappropriate laughter mingled with the sounds of rage and suffering. Then suddenly a candle was lighted, and through the thick air pierced the amazed cry of the North End leader:
"Ho-ly Jeezus! The old man! Beat it!"
Both sides had forgotten Mr. Malleson. As the flame of the candle steadied, he took his position by the now open door, and while the delighted Club stood by, swung an unerring foot as foeman after foeman made his flying leap for liberty.
"Good work, Dad," commented John briefly, "you've got the right action."
"Everybody out?" queried Mr. Malleson, his big foot swinging invitingly.
"All but one that I don't b'lieve is goin'---leastw'ys till I get off 'im," piped a cheerful voice from the most remote corner of the room. Toad was seen seated with uncompromising solidity across the middle of an inert figure whose short legs, extended passively, seemed to plead for mercy.
The Club could have profitably spent the next immediate minutes in doctoring wounds as various as they were honorable, but interest in the captive outweighed all else.
"Give the man a chance, Toad," admonished Mr. Malleson. "I think you can safely say he's down. Now let the rest of us have a look at him."
When Toad was finally dislodged, and the under dog encouraged to a sitting posture, the captors felt a certain disappointment in their catch. This prisoner lacked that proud and eagle-like defiance which war prisoners should have, and without which the conqueror is bound to feel a bit cheap, as if he had been putting forth his noblest efforts against a straw man. The captive was small, smaller even than Toad; his white, scared face was ludicrously smudged with dirt, and his nose was bleeding. He seemed afraid to make any move except now and then to raise a grimy hand in an effort to rub away the blood. There was something infinitely pathetic about that little futile hand; it symbolized so much helplessness, so much neglect, so much childish inadequacy, so much bewildered contending against vast and merciless odds. None of the members of the Club had the heart to gloat over their prize; even Toad's patronizing declaration had the flavor of pity:
"I know that kid. He's Dave Schnatzer that lives with the old washer-woman down by the bridge."
They all knew him, though not in the sense that most children are known in neighborhoods; that is, thrown into a sort of bas-relief against a background of parents and family. Dave had presumably had a father and a mother in the biological sense, but in the social sense he had been entirely autogenetic. Mrs. Schnatzer had discovered him one May morning on the rear door step, as she waddled forth with her basket of clothes for the lines. Being a person not easily sidetracked, she had proceeded to hang up the garments of some respectable patron in the early sunlight before turning to this more questionable manifestation of the cosmic scheme.
To this extent Dave's origin followed the best traditions of melodrama. But though he had been left in the proverbial basket on the proverbial doorstep, the procedure was the pitiful expedient of a worried girl, too distracted to be original, rather than the studied move of an adventuress who later turned out to be of noble birth. There was nothing particularly mysterious about the affair. Mrs. Schnatzer had no reason to doubt that Dave was the child of the pretty but too confiding young woman who had lived with her, half as servant, half as boarder, until within a few months of the levee on the doorstep. Mrs. Schnatzer did not regard the presence of the baby as a problem at all, but merely as another event in a world that nobody understood anyhow. So Dave was taken in, treated kindly but with the impersonality which his foster-mother brought to bear upon everything except washings, and allowed to make his own way in society. He had gone to school, of course, because all kids did, and because there were truant officers he had been accepted by his schoolmates with that large democracy of which grown-ups know so little. On the other hand Dave was such an insignificant, inoffensive little rat that he escaped vilification from even the most acid gossips of the neighborhood---surely something in his favor, because the neighborhood "down by the bridge" was vocal with that peculiarly fervent morality always audible where real decency is scarcest.
It was natural that he should become a camp-follower of the North End Gang and it was just as natural that he should remain only a camp follower. He was too young to be a real member; he was also too frail for the fighting that formed a large part of the purpose of that organization, and, finally, he had proved hopelessly insensitive to all brutalizing influences. He might have outgrown the first two handicaps but in the eyes of the leaders this third defect indicated some basic perversity which all their efforts were powerless to eradicate. So Dave was treated with tolerant contempt and permitted to tag along. It was not to be supposed that his fate, one way or the other, would be of the slightest concern to the North Enders.
Some tacit realization of this fact, together with the woebegone appearance of their captive, swayed the hearts of the Club from hostility to a sort of big-brotherly sympathy.
"I'll tell you what let's do, Dave," said Mr. Malleson briskly. "You pull yourself together and we'll go into the house and see what we can do to stop that nose-bleed. I've an idea Mother knows how."
He surrendered his charge to Mrs. Malleson at the door, and strolled round to the wide porch for a smoke before the chill of the night drove him in. The nocturnal cigar of Mr. Malleson's was an institution: neighbors watched its red spark through the summer twilights and far into the fall, doubtless speculating upon the thoughts of this man they liked so well and yet never really knew.
Mrs. Malleson had taken capable charge of affairs in the cheerful library. Dave's bleeding nose was brought to submission by the application of cold water to his forehead and the back of his neck. With the disappearance of the blood, much of his fright vanished also, though he cast furtive glances toward the adjoining room where Toad and the other members, except John, were in earnest consultation over the reprisals that must he taken for this latest outrage of the Gang, and especially for breaking the machine, which in its ill-starred début had showed possibilities that might have been exploited with lucrative results. John was helping his mother sponge the dirt from Dave's face and neck.
"You're very clean underneath, Dave," said Mrs. Malleson, with a hint of surprise in her tone, as she tenderly washed the accessible parts below Dave's ragged collar.
The remark touched some secret sorrow. For the first time since his capture the little fellow spoke. There was mingled hopelessness and grievance in his voice.
"I ought to be, all right. I get washed enough. Everytime she sees me she grabs me and washes me. Me and me clothes both."
"She" was, of course, Mrs. Schnatzer. Dave never referred to her by any other term, in spite of the rather intimate attitude the lady had apparently adopted toward him.
The ludicrous picture conjured up by Dave's outburst was too much for Mrs. Malleson's gravity. She envisaged Mrs. Schnatzer on the alert, like a huge spider, ready to seize any creature that came within her reach and plunge it into her tub in the effort to bring about that universal soap-and-water sanctification which for her constituted the only worthwhile attainment in life.
To the surprise of John and his mother, Dave burst into sobs. Mrs. Malleson instantly sensed the obscure reactions that were at work in that childish mind; recognized the tears of starved and terrifying loneliness that her own boy had never shed. She soothed Dave with motherly understanding, persuaded him to forget his troubles and put him to bed in the "spare" room across the hall from her own. When she descended to the library John was poring over a book. The other members of the Club had gone home.
"Dave wants to ask you something, John. He says nobody will miss him at home for the night, so he's willing to stay with us. Go up now before he drops off asleep. He's completely tuckered out."
When John entered the spare room Dave asked him point blank, "Can I join your gang?"
His first grin of the evening showed in answer to John's nod.
Mrs. Malleson carried the basin of stained water to the kitchen, picked John's cap from the dining room floor, straightened the blue cover on the table, and returned to the library. Her son was still upstairs with Dave. The book he had been reading lay open on the lounge---Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. He rarely carried school books home. The same quiet intensity which he brought to bear upon problems out of school enabled him to master his lessons quickly. He was allowed to read as he pleased in Mr. Malleson's heterogeneous library. This point had been settled once for all on one of the few occasions when his father's habitual unconcern had slipped aside, to reveal the settled will beneath. Mrs. Malleson had been urging John to read the "safe" books first; to stick to the things commonly supposed suitable for a boy in the seventh grade. Malleson slowly laid down his paper. At the time John could not understand the curtness of his words, and the hardness in his eyes as he spoke to the mother.
"Emma, stop that. Nothing in this library or any library will damage him as much as prescribing for him. What makes you believe you're wise enough?"
Startled by the brutality, Emma dropped the book. After a moment of silence she bent her graceful head. A queer little smile touched her lips but did not reach her eyes. John heard her murmur:
"I suppose because he's my son---but I shouldn't forget that he's yours also. And---I am not wise."
John looked to his father for the usual playful answer that would show he had been only joking No such answer came. Malleson's face was stern as he turned back to his newspaper.
For several days afterwards John puzzled over this piece of cruelty. He tried to show his sympathy for his mother by ostentatiously thumbing the pages of the books that she had recommended. But gradually and in spite of himself he began to question his mother's choice. After all, could she know just the right thing for him? Dearly though she loved him, could she see into his mind and tell him what it needed to work upon, and what it worked upon too much? He thought over the books she had wanted him to read. One after another they passed in review, and one after another were reluctantly condemned. It did not occur to him that possibly some of their insufficiency lay in their having been foisted upon him. One and all, they struck him as trifling, sentimental and unconvincing. Though the incident passed without immediate reverberations it moved the boy imperceptibly toward intellectual companionship with his father.
This unspoken, half-realized partisanship was one of those forces which can be either meaningless or significant, according to the affectional relationships they impinge upon. If these relations in the Malleson family had been blurred, as they are where love has grown stale, or intricately interdrawn, as they are where many children share the circle, there would hardly have been a maladjustment. But in the small community of father, mother and son, where affection existed in delicate and beautiful equilibrium, the slightest veering had the poignancy of a betrayal.
Recently Emma had sought reassurance by ascribing her worries to the common lot of mothers. John could not be expected to cling to the vanished interests of babyhood. He was growing too fast for that. It was natural, she mused, that he should awake to the thronging experiences of school days spent away from her; proof of his development that he should keep steadily a step in advance of her expectations. But she could not learn to accept the successive revelations without surprise. It was as if each time she caught sight of her little toddler making off on unsteady legs toward some possible danger she must pursue, and, upon overtaking him, be shocked to find him not her baby at all, but a calm young person who knew exactly what he was about, and who rather resented her interference. Unbelief and humiliation would settle in her heart.
To-night as she waited for John to come downstairs she found herself yielding to a curious expectancy that grew more and more intense, until it possessed almost the nature of fear. As by infallible foresight she knew exactly what was to happen in the next half hour, visualized each trivial move, and drew from the picture a bitter and irrational meaning.
When John entered, Emma felt that her simple question must betray her.
"How's Dave getting along?"
He was brief and direct as always, and unsuspicious of subtleties.
"All right. Say, Mother, he wants to join the Club. I told him he could. Of course the fellows'll have to vote on it, but I guess they'll take him."
"Is he a nice boy, John? You don't know much about him, do you?"
"I know that he's not really a tough kid in spite of the gang he's been running with. I'm going to see if Wink and Smitty and maybe Sam Park'll chip in with me to pay his dues at first, because he says he has no money. He's planning to get a job delivering the Journal five nights a week. Then he can pay. I---I feel sort of sorry for Dave ...."
A hungry tenderness begged for utterance in the mother's throat. She waited, hoping desperately that John's next words would be, "What do you think of it, Mother?"
He said nothing, and she surrendered.
"It seems all right to me. But why don't you go out on the porch and talk to Father about it? He seems to like Dave."
"Guess I will." John left the room.
Through the big window Emma could see the back of her husband's head and his shoulders above the chair. To-night she felt for the first time clearly that this physical separation, which yet allowed her plain sight of her loved ones, was symbolic of a deeper separation which might come about, but which was so far merely the remote projection of her fancies.
She sat in the big rocker, motionless, her hands passive in her lap. Her eyes turned to the fire, which snapped and crackled and darted voracious little streamers of flame over the oily coal. The solid black lump that bore the aspect of impregnability suddenly split and sank under the attack, yielding itself to destruction. The strength drawn from ages of rest in the earth, the body tediously builded by patient faithful accretion to the dignity of rock crumbled in the onset of unfamiliar foes. Nimble foes, that touched and were gone, deft and fatal in their dancing . . . . In childish fascination Emma watched.
Her mind formed vague analogies, and in its humorous sanity played with them for a moment, then cast them out. Her dreams and troubles in the firelight! How naïve! How hackneyed and how inevitable!
How selfish too. Husband and son out there on the porch in the unredeemed murk of reality and she here in the red warmth, free to enjoy all manner of solitary persecution!
As her mood lightened she set for herself a childish game.
In self-tantalization she visualized the scene outside. Her husband would be tilting back in his squat white chair with his long legs stretched to the railing of the porch--his orthodox smoking position. In the light from the big window his shoulders and the back of his head would show plainly, and little swirls of smoke from his cigar would be creeping and disappearing along the gray stuff of his coat.
"Mustn't peek out---it would be cheating," she thought.
Probably his right foot, the one he pushed with to make the chair rock, would be visible against the railing; the broad black shoe would crinkle just below the laces as the soft leather bent with the pressure. Now and then his hand would appear, move for a second in front of his face and reappear, with the half-gone cigar held lightly between thumb and third finger. Here the hand would remain motionless for minutes, while the ash of the cigar whitened and grew dead at the tip. The wrist that protruded would appear corded and thin; no cuff showing. . . Always turned up; no protestations could alter this whim of her husband's.
"Even his dress-shirts---why will he do that . . . ?"
At this point Emma decided it would be fair play to steal a glance through the pane to see how faithfully she had pictured the reality. Accurately, save in one respect. Not the gray back but the strong profile of her husband's head received the light from the window. The smooth skin, tight drawn along the jaw and dipping into a little hollow in the cheek, had a look of youthfulness that vanished in the maturity of the mouth. Those thin, flexible lips were the truest index of the man, but an index that not even his wife could read with confidence. Habitually forming a straight line of composed and pleasant firmness, they might at any moment, but usually at the moment least obviously appropriate, harden in anger or relax in enigmatic sweetness or part in unholy mirth. Lawyers who contested cases with Mr. Malleson found their self-assurance intact so long as they gauged their position by the expression in his eyes, but once let them drop their gaze to his lips and a vague uneasiness possessed them. The man seemed to be irrationally amused or preternaturally serious. At such moments his opponents commonly desired nothing so much as an opportunity to postpone proceedings and check over their arguments. They could not escape the impression that in spite of all factual evidence to the contrary they had slipped into irrelevancy, and were ingenuously preparing their own doom.
Neither his bitterest enemies nor his dearest friends believed Malleson's inscrutability a pose. His wife, whose receptivities were perhaps most closely attuned to his own, had long since realized that it was fundamental; the result of an exquisitely adjusted mental and emotional mechanism upon which ideas played with indirect or tangential force. Different acquaintances characterized this trait in different ways. Malleson's former law partner used to say:
"He sees too damn far around a thing---he'll see five sides to a question that has only two, and he'll win the case on the fifth side."
Another said it was merely inborn perverseness; a third that it came from an outrageous and barbaric sense of humor. His wife found it at times disconcerting, sometimes irritating, but always attractive. She liked to believe the trait a sort of brilliant boyishness that might conceivably have its moments of disaster, when her own sound counsel must prevail.
In the early years of her marriage Emma, naïvely trusting to the clairvoyance of young love, had imagined herself at home in her husband's mind, familiar with every chamber and corridor, and able to romp with confident feet down every secret passageway. If the turnings grew loss obvious as time went on, the thrill of exploration grew correspondingly greater.
Then at the height of her assurance she came up against a wall that was impenetrable and final, marking her utmost advance along that particular way. What lay beyond she could only conjecture. And her guesses were postulated on her genius for reverence: they were full of worry and fright over a thing she had been trained to misunderstand ---an inviolable intellectual egoism, of which religious skepticism formed only one element. But to Emma it was the most shocking element; indeed the only one likely to obtrude between her husband and herself. All others smoothed themselves out under the passage of days, and in the warm atmosphere of love. Differences in habit, divergence in likes and dislikes, maladjustments in temperament or in passion ---all these decreased to inconsequence, leaving that one barrier.
She had found open conflict avoidable by the simple and time-worn strategy of retreat. Unchangeably imbued with the faith of her Presbyterian forbears, and too honest to deceive herself by minimizing the issue, she could yet turn back when she came to the wall. No challenge to battle was called for. Life could go on for her, and life could go on for her husband, and there need be no parting of the ways, because life was so much a matter of externals. Or so it had seemed until John was born.
Emma had given up her game, and was gazing thoughtfully into the fire again when she heard her husband's voice.
"Good evening, Max! How about that barrel of Winesaps you promised me in time for Halloween? Am I going to get them ?"
She knew he was calling to wizened little Max Lieber, her faithful market man, who had his store four blocks below, and who invariably pattered past the house on his way home at nine each evening.
The prosaic heartiness of Malleson's shout was like a rebuke to Emma's self-questionings. It had just the wholesome practicality necessary at the moment to send her spirits soaring.
Her own voice was gay as she called from the doorway:
"Come in, you two night owls You'll be dead of pneumonia before you get a chance at those apples. Hurry! No dallying!"
AT the next regular meeting of the Club Dave Schnatzer was proposed for membership, his character hit off in a few terse remarks by John Malleson, and his standing as a citizen reviewed. In all these respects he was adjudged competent, though Wink Snyder thought it only prudent to remind the members that though Dave's natal virtue might remain undisputed, he had recently been associating with the minions of vice consequently common sense demanded that the new member be kept under shrewd observation until such time should have elapsed as was necessary to sublimate all acquired impurity. Wink went further to specify the particular North End characteristic which he most earnestly hoped Dave had not picked up---a certain adhesiveness of palm which rendered it inadvisable for any one to leave articles of value too conspicuously displayed when the Gang was about.
On the question of Dave's financial embarrassment a gentlemen's agreement was arranged, by which John, Wink, Sam Park and Rusty Sellers contracted to pay the necessary dues until Dave's job of delivering papers began to show returns. At the last moment Toad Dollivan proffered himself as a fifth member of this trust, much to the surprise of all, until it devolved that Toad expected from this altruism recompense in the way of a disproportionate share in the ceremony of Dave's initiation. John for a time withheld consent, in view of Toad's blood-thirsty nature, but suddenly withdrew his opposition. It was not until some days later that Toad realized how he had been outmatched in diplomacy.
Parenthetically, it should be said that Toad (formerly Tip) Dollivan's merciless nature was the normal growth of early persecution. His membership in the Club dated from about the time when he was first sent forth breeched and clearly articulate, but honor came only when he had learned to defend himself.
The members of the Club had discovered that huge amusement could be extracted from a sort of berserk frenzy into which Tip would fall when sufficiently badgered, whether by plucking, tickling, or cross-lot chasing. At such moments logic seemed to forsake his body, leaving it an eccentric machine for whose actions neither he nor any one else could speak with confidence. To this automatism he owed his self-respect, his nickname, and his reputation as a first-class fighting man.
One day, when cornered, and winded by a long chase, he had picked an object from the long grass and hurled it with true aim at Rusty Sellers, the first of his pursuers. A cry of horror went up from the pack, and in an instant they were in headlong retreat. That night nine small boys reported to their shuddering parents that Tip Dollivan had hit Rusty Sellers in the eye with a toad; and one small boy---Rusty---had declared that he found the experience noticeably devoid of charm.
From that day Dollivan was a made man. True, his defense needed perfecting, since his supply of missiles depended too much upon luck. But when God was with him and he could find a toad, he was invincible. No other kid had the hardihood to adopt the same tactics, for not only was the act unnatural in itself, but it involved the peril of warts. Pressing his advantage to the utmost, Dollivan collected and domesticated a supply of toads, which he located at a spot in his customary path of flight. He then either did carry with him, or was credibly reputed to carry, as much ammunition as he judged necessary to hold off the enemy, while he retreated in order to his base, where he could, if necessary, have withstood all Christendom. However, by the time he had brought his campaign to this stage he no longer had anything to fear. He had become "Toad" Dollivan, and was looked upon with superstitious and horrified admiration.
But to return to the question of Dave's initiation. As usual, John had thought out a scheme without calling upon the other members until he was ready to present it in every excellence of detail.
"Fellows, it's only a week till Halloween. Now if we waste a lot of time getting the shop ready for an initiation and thinking up new stunts, we'll lose out on the Halloween preparations. My idea is this. Let's combine the initiation and the party. You'll all be at our house anyway, and we can put Dave through the mill before the eats come on. We'll need lots of the same machinery anyhow."
After a moment of silence Toad objected.
"Your mother and father'll be there and it'll be in the house. We can't be wild enough."
John turned on him with withering scorn.
"Did you ever know my family to stop a party in our house because it was too wild? Say, did you? Remember the knife-throwing contest in the dining room? Or how about the night I smashed Dad's plug hat when the bed-leg came through the ceiling and knocked the plaster down on it
"Yep-and you remember what he said?"
"He said, 'Well I'll be God damned'---but he laughed afterward."
Toad was silenced before this indisputable evidence of Mr. Malleson's magnanimity, and John went on outlining the scheme. All went smoothly until the last, when he found it impossible longer to conceal the information that there would he girls at the party. This news was received with varying degrees of tolerance or complacency by all except Wink, whose genius ran entirely to mechanical invention and who held all social amenities in loathing.
"Wimmen !" he grunted disgustedly. "Wot do we want a lot of wimmen there for, cluttering up the place?"
In vain John tried to win Wink over by pointing out that nobody had to talk to the girls, and, that in view of the expected attack by the North Enders, an element of romance would be injected into the situation by the presence of beauty in the midst of peril. This argument was ill advised, and only aroused Wink further.
"Fine stuff! We'll probably be sittin' round spoonin' when the Gang makes for our punkin-devils on the porch, and then what'll happen? Fine stuff! I say to hell with the wimmen !"
This was going too far. Catching a wink from John, Rusty Sellers, the Marshal of the Club, began bellowing "Order! Order! Order!" with such insufferable violence that Wink's offense instantly became innocuous by comparison. However, this latest voice, though painful to the nerves, was free from the taint of unchivalry, and was, moreover, the voice of authority. Wink's case was lost.
From experience the Club had learned that nothing was to be gained by deserting the Malleson premises on Halloween to indulge in marauding expeditions into neighboring yards, though they had done so upon occasion with marked success. Tick-tacks, water-pistols, stink-bombs, concealed ropes attached to tin cans; displacement of gates, uprooting of trees, introduction of goats, swine and other fauna into parlors---with all these they were perfectly familiar. One year John and Wink had scored a signal triumph by spreading a special preparation of soft soap and pumpkin entrails on the Riggs' front porch, with the result that the elder Riggs, a corpulent man, answering an urgent ring of the doorbell had been observed to describe a parabola some feet in the air and descend with a crash hardly to be anticipated. Mr. Riggs was a doctor, which added piquancy to the fact that upon meeting the floor he had broken his left clavicle.
But the Club had passed beyond all this. They now regarded such enterprises as coarse. It was not cowardice that kept them on the Malleson preserve, but conviction that a more exotic pleasure could be extracted from the discomfiture of an arrogant enemy suddenly thrown into bewilderment at the very moment of apparent triumph.
The strategy called for a system of seduction and tantalization. The most obvious part of the arrangement was to be a solid line of pumpkin-devils ranged along the railing of the porch, with their bland, idiotic countenances beaming out toward the street. No kid, let alone the North Enders, would, it was thought, possess the superhuman restraint necessary to passing these decoys without attack. Once the assault was launched, the members of the Club, from concealed points of vantage, would loose the horrors of war.
For several days before Halloween John and his valiants labored. As on previous occasions, there were the two dozen pumpkins to be disemboweled, the contents carefully to be compounded with certain nauseous ingredients, and the resulting mash to be enclosed in stout Manila sacks, which were tied tightly at the top. There was the half-bushel of hard tomatoes to be gone over one by one, and their surfaces thickly stuccoed with oats, the grains of which were so arranged that the resulting product resembled a small, inert hedgehog, with only enough smooth area left to afford a finger-hold for hurling. To supplement these missiles a supply of "hedge-oranges" was provided. These were heavy, green, rough-skinned objects which did not bounce easily off human craniums, but spread soddenly in such a way is to increase the area of concussion. A half dozen hempen lariats and a few small bombs made of waxed paper and containing sneeze-and-itch powder constituted a combination weapon of rare efficiency. At first blink the logical connection between lariats and bombs may seem vague, but the Club conceived that they might work well together if manipulated from the roof of the porch, directly above the line of pumpkin-devils.
John supervised the Halloween preparations with his usual care, but as they progressed he felt a faint falling off in his enthusiasm. "Stunts" that a year ago were looked forward to with aching anticipation now seemed a trifle shoddy; he found himself at times compelled to cook up an expectancy that he knew to be spurious. In some obscure depths of his being a sort of undefined mistrust was stirring.
The night before Halloween he tossed about restlessly in his bed, hearing the chimes in the parlor sound the hours and half-hours. The air was crisp, and pungent with the odor of burnt leaves. Through the open window he could see the top branches of the maples in the side yard, moving stiffly, with little petulant snappings, and shaking off reluctant crinkled leaves. A diffused milky glow from the arc-light on the corner cast the bare twigs into silhouette. At intervals seconds of darkness would intervene, as the light sputtered and threw out dull blue flashes. About eleven o'clock a crowd of people from the Orpheum Vaudeville Theater a block below trailed past, chattering and laughing; then more scattered groups; a young fellow loudly proclaiming to a silent companion that the Notre Dame football team had "plenty of beef in the line but---" The voice dwindled out. A little later some heavy-footed Germans passed, conversing earnestly in their guttural tones, which at a distance overran each other and made a low booming.
As time drew on towards midnight silence settled over the place, save for the passing of occasional belated citizens whose footsteps rang sharply from the concrete pavement along Michigan Street.
John was lonely and uncomfortable. His thought passed over the schemes prepared for the next night's celebration, lingered for a time upon the initiation, then concentrated in a focus upon Dave himself. Dave, the small, the inept, the pathetic. In the few days that had elapsed since he had been snatched from the influence of the North Enders, the little fellow had followed John about like a puppy that had had a bad scare, and now wanted only a master who would protect him. Somewhere in John's make-up existed a store of contempt for the weak, but a capacity for pity was there also. How exciting it would be to see Dave slip from the hands of persecution and confound his enemies! How impossible! But how fascinating the thought!
Without crystallizing into any such complex conceptions, John's reflections nevertheless took this identical trend, but by a simpler route, which ended in the question---"Shall I let 'em go ahead with the initiation to-morrow night?" Instantly he felt his treachery to the Club. Things must go on. Why, he himself had displayed the greatest inventiveness of all in planning the "works"! Shutting off all debate with himself on this point, he finally fell asleep.
At breakfast he seemed preoccupied, but disinclined to reveal the reason. During the morning images of Dave kept recurring to him; Dave frightened out of his wits, Dave humiliated by ridicule, Dave looking at him reproachfully. Darn the little rat! Why didn't he buck up and be a man!
At noon John caught up with his father as Malleson was striding off to the office, walked half a block with him and got no solution but instead a bit of typical philosophy, that braced him like a dash of cold water.
"Son, what have I told you about the two kinds of advice one fellow can give another? You want me to decide something I've no business to decide."
"Yes, but, Dad---"
"When it's a question of knowledge it's all right for me to pour a little into you, because I've lived longer and am supposed to be fuller of it. But when it's a question of---er---moral conduct, let's say, you're your own man. You've got to stand on your own feet. Shall you go back on the Club or shall you make a fool of Dave? That's the problem. It's up to you to decide." Mr. Malleson looked quizzically at his son's sober face. John nodded slowly, and turned back to the house.
By seven-thirty that evening the house was full of guests. Wink counted nine girls. Of these, three came as close to being bearable as he supposed girls ever could: the others he could not bring himself to look at. Not on the grounds of beauty did he make the distinction, but merely because Mattie Joyce, Evelyn Johnson and Sylvia Hammond had come to be regarded as a sort of ladies' annex to the Club. They had attained the honor gradually. All three lived within a block of the Clubhouse; all were schoolmates of the members, and---a relationship which infallibly revealed true quality---all had been in the first dancing-class which most of the "Malleson gang" had been forced to attend. From time to time since then there had been various parties, dances, and sleigh-rides, which by their very nature demanded the presence of women. And reluctant though he was to admit it, Wink was obliged to credit Mattie, Evelyn and Sylvia with an integrity of character almost masculine. Sylvia he approved of most, probably because she seemed to enjoy her nickname of "Silly" and never made fun of a fellow without including herself in the teasing. Moreover she had spent days sewing sails for Wink's miniature sloops that had won the regatta on the Clay Hole pond one summer, and had yelled loudest of the crowd as the boats crossed the finish-line. Evelyn won Wink's tolerance because she was a good athlete; Mattie he did not understand at all; he simply knew that she had a lovely, low voice, and that she must be all right because John was fond of her.
From seven-thirty till eight the guests sat stiffly, making preposterous conversation. At eight-five sounded a sodden, sickening thump, and a chorus of women's screams from in front of the house. A heavy body had fallen on the walk directly in the path of the passers-by. The girls showed some trepidation, but the boys sat back in studied unconcern. They knew it was only a pair of Mr. Malleson's pajamas stuffed to a majestic portliness with pillows, and hurled by appointed agents from the porch roof. The Club could not overlook the potentialities inherent in suicide.
A lull followed, while the guests ate apples and popcorn, and to a degree broke the strict alignment that at first had populated one side of the room with males and the other with females. Members of the Club moved about mysteriously, attending to sentinel duty. All were business-like and calm, except Dave, who was tottering with excitement, and possibly with a sort of autointoxication brought on by his excessively "dressed up" condition. It was his first appearance in high society.
John, standing by Mattie's side munching an apple, watched his protégé gravely. He was tempted to tell her the subtleties of Dave's case that had been bothering him. Her viewpoint was, always worth knowing. But he remembered his father's dictum about a fellow's decisions on "moral conduct." Besides he had made up his mind.
At nine o'clock the North End Gang attacked, frontally and on the left flank; that is, by a rush of warriors, armed with laths, across the front lawn to the porch, and by a raking fire of rotten tomatoes from the darkness of the side yard.
"To your posts !" shouted John.
The defense of the Club moved like clockwork. Fire was withheld until the Gang were just outside the railing, viciously slashing the grinning lanterns. At the moment when the aggressors were bunched closely, a dozen or so quarts of the specially prepared mixture descended upon them, together with a hail of oat-studded tomatoes. When this combination had produced the requisite blind confusion, three lariats snaked their way gracefully from the porch roof.
"Drop bombs!" rang the command along the roof.
It was the mandate of the fiend decreeing chaos; the superheating of hell for wretches already lost. The itch-and-sneeze powder fell, and under that fearful baptism the North End Gang relinquished corporate existence and became crawling, scratching, cursing shapes of woe, which after a brief interval melted into the shadows and ceased to disturb the beauty of the night.
After a whispered conference among the members of the Club Rusty Sellers was pushed forward to deliver an announcement:
"The 'nitiations of this Club are always sequirt, but it's been decided that to-night the members'll be delighted ' have the ladies stay an' watch, 'cause they're already here, an' it's Halloween. But we must ask them w'ile watchin' the sufferin' of the victim to not get hysterical. Thank yuh."
The amenities having been attended to, Rusty's unnatural courtesy vanished and he became the proper inquisitor.
"Dave Schnatzer---step out fer the Ordeal of Light!"
White-faced and trembling, Dave was led to the center of the room and made to stand, countenance slightly uptilted, directly in the glare from the electric cluster, while his silent persecutors stared like basilisks. The perspiration of terror glistened on the little fellow's forehead and his knees shook, but he weathered the awful period without collapse.
Again Rusty stepped forward:
"The members of the Club are satisfied that the candidate, Vile he ain't perfeck, is worthy to take the next step, w'ich is the Ordeal of Darkness . . . . Dave Schnatzer---git into the Rat Closet!"
The Rat Closet was a pitch-black recess under the back stairs which ordinarily served the prosaic purpose of broom and mop storage. It owed its name to the discovery there, once upon a time, of two very dead rats, which circumstantial evidence indicated had been undone by poison, but which the members of the Club preferred to believe had died of fright.
When the door of the dungeon had closed behind the candidate, the sinister dignity of the torturers relaxed. It was understood by all but Dave that these ordeals of publicity and sequestration were mere preliminaries, calculated to produce the degree of dementia proper for the success of the true torments to follow. But the Club might better have enjoyed itself while it could. For a miracle happened. Dave "went through the mill" like a Stoic, manifesting neither terror nor contempt, but a matter-of-fact calm. And immediately the official conception of the neophyte was reversed.
"The kid's there!" Toad was forced to acknowledge.
'He's got the old nerve."
They could not know that when Dave was immured in the Rat Closet an invisible mentor had spoken to him words at revelation.
'When you feel the hot poker, don't be afraid---that's only a sharp piece of ice. And the rattling won't be a snake ---it's my electric shockin' machine being turned. It'll feel like a snake you're holding, but the tingling won't be poison from a bite---it's just the current." From these and other hints Dave drew his courage.
Nor did the Club ever know of a little drama that took place as the two, John and Dave, were getting ready for bed. The new member was again to spend the night at the Malleson home. As he sleepily arranged his shoes and stockings by the foot of the dresser he was startled by a sharp utterance from John. An unboyish intensity rang in the voice.
"Look here! You don't know why I let you in on the secrets to-night. Well---I can't tell, exactly But Dad says a fellow has to make his own decisions. Everybody thought you'd be scared to death. Then I decided you wouldn't. That's all. Now you'll have to keep it up. There'll be other times when you'll need nerve."
After a long, unblinking and humble stare, the little fellow slowly nodded. Ten minutes later they were both asleep.
FOR John that winter went by with magnificent dash and glamor, bearing him on the crest of a tide that shouted in his ears and flung flamboyant colors before his eager eyes. Caught in the tumultuous current of life he woke to the ecstasy of the senses, discerned new and miraculous meanings, unthought-of loyalties, capricious desires. He threw himself into the multiform activities of school and society, while his mother, in anxious pride, watched his boyhood ebbing away and shed secret tears when, at Christmas time, he put on his first long trousers.
He "made" the Eighth Grade baseball team in the spring, and pitched his outfit near to victory over the high school freshmen. He went in for debating, and on one occasion proved that the commission form of government, if adopted, would rid the city of its present corrupt administration, a result which delighted his father, who was City Attorney, and who had helped him prepare the argument. He led a rebellion against "Johnny" Gates, the Principal, to force that official to give up shakings as a form of punishment. This attempt failed, because Mr. Gates, who had only one arm, would have sooner resigned his office than relinquish the sole method by which he proved his prowess equal to that of the unmaimed. He entered class politics, manuvered himself into a position where the presidency was his for the asking and then suddenly sidestepped, to become the brains of a "click" which delighted in instituting ambitious social enterprises, such as all-school sleigh rides and masquerade dances. He was the first to challenge the doctrine that a marked intellectual and athletic discrepancy existed between high school freshmen and his own Eighth Graders; and he made his argument good at least on the score of athletics.
Yet these were only the outward effervescence of the inner ferment that was taking place, making life fascinating, disturbing and contradictory. Without realizing that a similar stirring must be at work in his classmates all about him, he looked forth upon the world through the veiled eyes of wonder. How blind he had been not to perceive the significance and beauty of people and things! Friendship, for instance. How fine! What a satisfaction it gave one to sacrifice unostentatiously for a friend---especially a girl friend---and to know that one's reticent nobility would somehow come to the light of day. How comforting to know that an inexorable rule governs society in the interests of virtue, so that a man need only follow his conscience. And how patient a fellow had to be with the mistakes of others whose consciences didn't seem to work. Not bad people; only groping in the dark. Infinite patience---and understanding! Yes, that was it---understanding.
Above all, how valuable was the dictum of his father---"Rely only upon yourself; you can't get any help." Sometimes when repeating these words to himself John would feel an uneasiness stealing over him, cooling the glow of his exhilaration. Another voice, gentle and low, with none of the laconic finality of his father's, but rich with trust, would speak to him old familiar words that he had known since babyhood, and that he still tried faithfully to repeat each night before he went to sleep. They were words that he heard in church each Sunday, words beseeching instead of proclaiming, words that his father never mocked but never explained.
One of the most insistent problems of his emancipation was the mystery of girls. What attitude should one maintain toward them? An attitude was necessary, because girls were everywhere. During the days of his life up to this time he had looked upon them with an equanimity that knew only two classifications---"pretty" or "not pretty." To his surprise he found that this would no longer suffice. Sometimes the girls who were not pretty were the most attractive; sometimes those who were the prettiest mingled with their beauty an inexplicable blemish; or again, became positively dangerous through some trifling mannerism. Furthermore, the old affection for the girl who was just "a good sport" sometimes strayed scandalously, to light upon ladies given to languorous ease and disdainful of games. This kind of girl John was especially wary of, because he couldn't sanctify his liking with trust. Of all the girls he knew, Mattie Joyce was dearest and best.
Mattie got between him and his books, played hob with arithmetic and the exact sciences but blended beautifully into all the nuances and movements of poetry. Now she sang to him from a ballad, sobbed heart-brokenly in a lyric, or stung him to a white heat of chivalry through the strains of some heroic marching song. He rushed to her defense in waste and outlawed places; for her he stabbed dragons in the wilderness, or thundered down the lists in tournament, spear flashing and armor spangled with lilies. At times he bowed humbly before a capricious and haughty Mattie who misunderstood her knight; at others he granted sad forgiveness to the kneeling maiden whose perilous loveliness all but unmanned him. Or again the vogue of Arthur passed, and Mattie moved less augustly but just as tenderly through the sentimental verses and jazz of the day, starring notably in a piece he picked up somewhere---
The girl you could want for a sister.
The girl with the chin-tilting laughter---
who somehow by a process not quite clear to the unheated mind was able to "shackle the world to her throne."
Mattie for the most part had no suspicion of the thrilling rôles she played. Outwardly all was matter-of-fact. Of course John occasionally read poetry to her, but with strict impersonality. Once when he in a sense boiled over and fixed importunate eyes upon her with the solemn admonition
|And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made one---
Turn down an empty glass---
they were both thrown into some such embarrassed consternation as must have beset Paolo and Francesca.
It was of Mattie that John was thinking this May evening as he tugged a blue-and-white tie into place under a rather high collar. Of course the thinking was by symbols. The late sunshine pouring through the western window glinted back from the mirror over the articles on the dresser. A brown ball-glove on the far corner-that had no business there, of course. Still, it offset the big box of carnation talcum-powder. Carnation was a bit strong; not suitable for girls certainly, but a man could get by with it if he used only a little. Nowadays a man had to be well-groomed. Well-groomed! Why didn't some one think of a better word. Well-groomed sounded like horses. Yet there was grace and speed in it . . . "Out of the desert I come to thee. . . "---great lines, those---"stallion shod with fire" . . . Those were the days! . . . Now for the military brushes and that darn cow-lick on the left side . . . "Don't plaster your hair down," Mattie had said, "it makes you look foolish like Wink . . . ." Wonder if Wink would be round to-night, crabbing to go to the Orpheum . . . . Hope not . . . no night to sit in a stuffy theater. Gee, what a moon there'll be after while! Great for a hayride to Mosquito Glen! Arrange one for Friday night . . . . Must be sure to ask Mattie before any one else gets wind of it . . . "Any one" meant, specifically, Harry Cameron, who somehow managed to be devilishly good-looking and still a good fellow,
"Hello, Romeo!" was the elder Malleson's greeting as his son emerged upon the porch and sat down on the step, carefully pulling up his peg-top trousers. John flushed a little, but made no reply. Rather cheap stuff, that wit of his father's. Why couldn't a fellow ever get into a blue serge suit without being spotted instantly as bound for a call on a girl?
Emma laid down the Journal she had been scanning. In the dusk her face looked small, and her shoulders thin and girlish under the light shawl. Her chair was drawn close to her husband's as if for protection. She reached out to smooth Romeo's unruly brown hair,
"Don't you mind, dear. Only don't forget that your mother'll be your best girl for a long time yet . . . . Look, there's little Mr. Reynolds paddling home."
"The man floats, I tell you," mused Malleson. "Watch him round that corner. Now he's on the straightaway. Those legs don't bear that body, they just propel it."
The description was accurate. Mr. Reynolds, who lived across the street, was shaped like a bulb, with short legs set far back, so that when in motion he resembled a small dark balloon moving steadily in a plane some two feet from the ground. His tiny feet seemed merely to pat the pavement, imparting a gentle progress to the globe above. Besides being editorial writer for the Journal, he was valuable as a chronometer. On the stroke of eight in the morning he floated along the half-block of Madison Street that paralleled the Malleson yard, floated round the corner into Michigan Street and slowly out of sight, his feet twinkling. At seven-thirty each night he floated home again.
John was restless, but determined not to show it. From the shadow he stole furtive glances at his contented parents and wondered if they ever had short exciting thoughts like his, that tumbled over each other, and couldn't possibly be put into words. Probably not. That perpetual calmness of his father was too real; things must be very clear to him. And his mother too---though come to think of it, she did seem worried or flustered once in a while. But his father, never. Maybe it was only will-power. If so, that was even more wonderful. People often told him he was like his father. He certainly hoped so.
Suddenly he broke into a chuckle. There went Wink, towed by his family, en route to the Orpheum, where they would sit till eleven o'clock watching "acts" which would certainly include bicycle acrobats, educated dogs and a fellow who played an accordion with an impossible number of glittering keys. After the show they would lap up sodas at the Greek's Palace of Sweets. What a way to spend a glorious evening! They'd not even notice the stars and the little breeze that smelled so sweet. Not for him!
People were trailing past in the other direction, many of them couples on their way to Leeper Park. Most of them seemed very happy. Occasionally a black arm would hastily drop from about a white waist as the pair emerged into the glare of the street light, and steal back again before they were completely in the shadow again.
The chimes in the parlor struck eight. John waited a few minutes more, then rose, stretched luxuriously, and with a casualness that was a bit overdone, remarked:
"Guess I'll stroll up the street a piece."
It might have been a faint chuckle Mr. Malleson emitted, or perhaps only a sound unavoidable in puffing a cigar back to life.
"Don't stay too late, John," said his mother. "Remember we're all going to church to-morrow." A certain brave emphasis ran in Emma's words, not meant entirely for her son.
Malleson added his admonishment.
"Get that, son? To church-every last one of us."
"Sure! I'll be in soon enough."
Romeo vaulted the porch railing and cut briskly across the front lawn.
Mattie lived half a block north of the Mallesons, in a green and white house like a doll's home, absurdly small, standing with a dainty independence under the eaves of larger dwellings that flanked it on either side. These mansions dwarfed the Joyce cot but did not throw it out of notice. A self-sufficing courage showed in the aspect of the little house, perhaps an aura from the women who inhabited it. Mattie and her mother had done without Mr. Joyce since the day, twelve years ago, when he had confused his employer's bank balance with his own. Though Mr. Joyce swore the inadvertence would have been but temporary, it required powerful persuasion, exercised on the employer by John's father, to keep the embezzler out of jail. The matter passed quietly; Joyce, essentially a renegade, was glad to move on, leaving his wife with a heart-break, and a daughter who was to be her consolation. They were poor but managed to stretch their tiny income over all the requirements of a society that loved them for themselves alone. If Mattie went to fewer parties and entertained less frequently than her friends, the neighbors remembered that she had always been a "quiet girl."
John knew the story of Mattie's father and loved her the more for it. It was in his nature to prize misfortune in women. Besides, his own father had once said:
"Here's a thing to remember. If a man's a scoundrel, his children have a much better chance of being angels than if he's good. Scoundrels make bad husbands but excellent fathers. Sooner or later society makes examples of them---and there's nothing like having a bad example in your own family."
John had never spoken to Mattie of the family skeleton. But his knowledge of it, in the light of her growing dearness, had of late invested her with an ineffable tragic appeal. More than ever, this spring, he felt that she needed him to understand her. He sometimes conjured up delicious visions of the girl in tears, sobbing out her troubles on his breast.
To-night she and her mother were in the porch swing when he appeared. He repeated the usual password:
"Hello! Good evening, Mrs. Joyce. Care if I come in and sit with you awhile?"
The swing easily held three. Mother slipped to one end, daughter to the other, giving the central place to the guest. John liked to read a significance in the gracious act; it was as if they communed thus in symbol:
"We love each other, but here is a man come to separate us. It is inevitable; he is like Fate, but he will protect us both."
Whether this bitter-sweet thought actually occurred to the two women is a matter open to conjecture.
After a prudent interval Mrs. Joyce remembered that she had the week's accounts to make out, and was forced to leave the pair, who up to this moment had not uttered a word.
Michigan Street is the main artery of trade and pleasure, stretching through the town north and south. At this hour of the evening its upper reaches, through the residential districts, were searched by the glare of automobile headlights skimming like great white eyes, in avid pursuit of something that lay always somewhere ahead in the receding shadows.
"I've been counting the cars that pass," mused Mattie. "They must be going round and round."
"Wish we had one---say a roadster, eh Mattie? Wouldn't we go to the ends of the earth! Would you like it?"
"Sure. But I guess I'll be here on this porch all my life. I don't mind. Girls can't do much. It's different with a man."
"Aw, I'm not so sure, these days. Everything's so---so arranged. You know just what's right and just what's wrong, and there's no excitement. Wars, for instance. Holy Smoke, how I'd like to go to a war!"
Mattie moved an inch or so closer. Her frock glimmered like a fragile white cloud in the dimness and her voice was full of little throaty cadences that affected John like music, unleashing his imagination and encouraging him to talk.
"Not a war just for the fighting. I hate fighting as much as any one. All my family do, though Dad is a lawyer. But he says nothing but the fear of death makes a man really test himself, and so people go on without knowing themselves all their lives."
"What does your mother say?" asked the girl quietly.
"What? Oh, she says it's not necessary to worry about knowing yourself---you just behave yourself and you'll be all right."
Mattie broke into a little laugh, which John joined.
"Well, that's sensible, isn't it?"
For a time they sat in silence. She had lighted an incense taper to ward off mosquitoes. Its musky smoke crept about them; its red point performed intricate gyrations as Mattie waved it about in the dark. The cabalistic fire-tracings were not more futile and evanescent than the spark-play of these young minds against the vast obscurity of the future.
It was the girl's habit to be listener. But this time she had begun to wonder if John had fallen asleep, when he broke his long silence abruptly:
"Mattie, do you believe in God?"
"Why, of Course." Intense surprise was in her low voice. "How can you ask such a question, John? Don't you?"
"Mmm-well-oh, let's change the subject!"
Though his method followed common practice in countering this question, John had not acquired finesse. He was a bit too cavalier in brushing aside the claims of deity. Mattie was aroused.
"No---listen! Why do you ask such questions if you're not ready to answer them too? Say---why do you?" Her strong little hand clutched his wrist and her breath brushed his cheek.
It was a situation to be prolonged at all odds, even if it called for sophistry and a mingling of temporal with eternal things. For the next minute and a half, John was the perfect agnostic. But Mattie was shaking him and he had to decide. If he said No the conversation would concern God all evening, and he had made other plans. If he said Yes Mattie would remove her hand, but he might be able to recover it later, with its hostility diminished. Like many another, John got down from the fence on the safe side.
"Yes, I guess I do. At least---I believe in some sort of a God." This last had a cryptic implication not wholly satisfactory to his questioner, but she let it stand. After all, she too realized that the evening was beautiful, and passing swiftly.
They forgot the riddles of the universe, and became only boy and girl lingering in that blurred and mystic borderland where the compulsion of the years is felt but slightly, and childhood still murmurs in diminishing echoes. The rustle of the moon-flooded maples became one symphony with the softened sounds of the street and the drowsy creak of the old swing. Fragrance of the May night crept from the grass and rose about them, blending with the sweetness of Mattie's hair. John's arm lay gently about her shoulders. They talked in whispers with long silences between, heard and heard again the precious old assurances. When the time came to go, he leaned low over the small face, white and timid in the shadows, to press a hesitant kiss on lips that quivered and grew warm.
JOHN awoke the next morning in a frame of mind inappropriate to Sunday. The idea of church was unusually distasteful. He had a pagan longing to don the easy clothes of freedom and set out for the river, to follow its deliberate windings past glinting ripples and into the woody hollows where willows drooped over suave and treacherous pools.
He felt a guilty hope that the non-appearance of Dave this morning might delay matters so that his mother would give up the church-going. Dave had made it a habit, upon Emma's urging, to accompany the family each Sunday. Promptly at the hour he would appear, uncomfortable and shining, ready to sit rigidly through the service, his eyes fixed with a desperate solemnity on pulpit and choir. But though his pose resembled that of a sinner about to be stricken, the little fellow was not unhappy. It sufficed that he was pleasing Mrs. Malleson, upon whom he had concentrated all the love that his motherless heart had to give. He could not know with what muted tenderness Emma watched his faith, and with what sad misgivings she turned to the others of her flock. Her husband's face was like a polite mask, with expression carefully arranged. John was passively noncommittal. Neither ever missed a service. Sometimes Emma felt that their scrupulousness was wicked.
They waited ten minutes for Dave, who failed to appear.
When the Malleson trio entered the church, Dr. Thompson was announcing the second hymn. The organ boomed, gowns rustled, hat-feathers bobbed; the choir, a beat ahead of the congregation, swung through the ponderous measures. John held the hymnal for his mother, absently listened to her clear soprano, with its undernote of passion, and on the other side heard his father mumbling experimentally.
The sermon followed. Dr. Thompson, who looked like a burly baby, with a face expressive of internal anguish, thundered and wheezed, slid distractingly over an occasional series of ah-ah-ahs, slipped into poetry as into oases of the desert, and terminated with a personal parable beginning "I stood under the skies of Naples---" Dr. Thompson invariably stood under the skies somewhere in the course of his harangue. If the sermon happened to be geographically discursive he was careful to stand under the skies of each place visited, so that his congregation might first get their mundane bearings and suffer no confusion when he led them aloft into spiritual realms.
"Thompson and his skies!" ejaculated Malleson, when they had filed out. "I may suffer damnation for lack of his doctrine, but he has at least taught me something of the grandeur of man. Can't you just see that little chub, buttoned up in his tight frock-coat, standing alone under Italian skies, honestly trying to determine whether he or the heavens matter the more! August and awful!"
When the Mallesons reached home, Dave was sitting on the porch step. His thin body drooped disconsolately, yet an air of importance modified his dejection; he appeared as one singled out for special attention by the impartial forces of existence. As usual on Sundays, he was carefully dressed, but the pallor of his face halted Emma's customary compliment upon his appearance.
"What is it, Dave?" she asked quietly.
"She's dead," he responded, in a choked voice. "She told me to give this letter to you."
The pink envelope contained a pitiful scrawl:
"I'll be dead afore you get this but Dave has allus bin a good kid and I wisht youd tak kare of him he likes you bettern ennyone. Sum fokes wudent pay no atenshun to him akount of him not havin a father hes got sixty dolers ($60) wich I savd fer him.
"Misus Molly Schnatzer."
Dave had been crying, but that was past now. Without emotion he told the primitive story of the old woman's death:
"She got sick in the middle of the night, and kept gettin' worse till mornin', groanin' something awful. But she wouldn't let me get a doctor because she said her time had come. And she wouldn't let me in her room for fear it'd scare me. So I sat out in the hall, by her door. Early in the morning she had me bring that paper and a pencil, and she wrote the note for you. Then when I was once in the room, she wouldn't let me out---kept beggin' me to stay by her. I sat by her bed, and must have got pretty sleepy, because I don't remember what happened just before she died. But all at once she let out an awful scream and a lot of blood came out of her mouth and she fell back on the bed. It scared me and I ran and brought Dr. Murray. He said she was dead. And---that's all---Her nightgown and the bed were horrible---and she always kept everything so clean."
"Is there any one there now, Dave?" asked Malleson.
"Yes, sir. I waited downstairs till some of the neighbors came in. The doctor told them."
The little fellow's face was haggard and old with weariness and fright. He submissively followed Emma into the library, where she arranged a place for him on the couch, and drew the blinds.
"You lie down and take a nap, Dave, while Mr. Malleson and I go to see if we can help any help any. John'll stay with you."
"You bet I will, Dave, old man," spoke up John in a voice meant to be hearty. "You go on, Mother. Dave and I'll be all right."
"We'll be back soon. Oh, yes---run to the kitchen and tell Mary that Tourners are to send a quart of ice-cream at one o'clock. Eat some if you want to." Emma hurried alter her husband who was already half a block away.
Left alone with Dave, John found himself embarrassed and without words. For the first time he could not look upon the younger boy as "just a kid." The dignity of having sat with death, of having watched in its reality this fabled ultimate act, invested the little fellow with a temporary maturity that compelled respect.
When Dave had fallen asleep John wandered about the place, examined with proprietorial eye the state of the new-sown grass and paused to speculate upon the opulent buds of the pear trees in the back yard. The stillness of a Sunday noonday possessed the world; that peculiar hush that comes on spring Sabbaths, when the pulse of affairs slackens and all movement is halted in drowsy abeyance. The sun dropped vertical rays that seemed to fall with physical weight, numbing the senses to a pleasant indolence.
In a shady corner under the arch of the grape-arbor he sprawled in the long grass, his ear close to the earth. A cool little ground-breeze fanned his eyelids. The delicate tendrils of the grape-vines vibrated above him, and the broad leaves moved gently, displaying alternately their emerald fronts and the yellow-green of their undersides. The amber world of sunlight gradually yielded its spell of silence to a tumult going on beneath. Tiny voices of the grass cheeped and hummed and chuckled, whispering the gossip of new-born things; deep, responsible voices of the adult rocks and the ancient soil murmured far beneath, in perennial council of fecundity and decay; the deliberate rhythm of irresistible creation and irresistible departure spread and rolled its sad exuberance.
Through his half-doze the boy felt the pull of mighty forces, but for him they became personalized, sharply subjective, the intimate themes of love and death. Across the hideous picture of the old, dying woman Mattie moved, a lovely, thoughtful sprite. The thrill of her kiss lingered like precious pain, setting him in rebellion against all that would wound or efface. He was cruel, selfish and triumphant in his well-being. Mattie and he would live forever. What harm could touch them? Then, nursed a little by his sense of the dramatic, the doubt would creep into his philosophy. Why must people grow old and die?
When Mrs. Schnatzer, occupied with the business of dying, had written her letter to Emma, she had probably composed it in a spirit of intense practicality. In the cold light of her last dawn the old woman had steered her mind through a maze of preoccupations, horrors of death, recollections of many washings faithfully done, to a point where she could look beyond the grave to do a service for her foundling. Unquestionably in asking Emma to care for Dave Mrs. Schnatzer was thinking of a roof and clothes and food, and, beyond these, only of the vague advantages she felt must accrue to any young animal that has the shelter of a home.
Perhaps part of the curse of enlightenment consists in an inability to handle single-heartedly the material simplicities of existence. To Emma Dave represented not only an organism with a mind and a digestive apparatus, but an incarnation upon which her own hopes might bear, and in which her own disappointments might find a certain solace.
She no longer kept from herself the realization that her son belonged, in all essentials, to her husband, and that her share of him was not likely to increase with the passage of time. The unreality of such feeling in a mother sometimes impressed her; momentarily she would reason herself out of it, but the certainty returned. Too sanely constructed to become neurasthenic over the matter, she occasionally extracted a hard and saving amusement from the conception of herself as handmaid to a couple of arrogant males who, for all anybody knew to the contrary, were riding to a fall. In her worst moments pride came to her rescue, and the kind of love that must have possessed the mothers of the race as they watched their brawny children atilt among rising and falling gods, while they, the home-makers, gathered the faggots and swept the hearthstones.
Nevertheless disappointment remained, how keen and how embedded Emma had not realized until she was confronted with the opportunity to try her faith on another son. Sorry though the experiment might be, this reaching for the fruits of second choice, still to teach Dave what she could not teach John would provide years of spiritual employment. She had no fear of losing the second disciple; Dave possessed the genius for belief, and the constitutional need of guidance. Furthermore, Emma knew that here would be no duel with her husband. Malleson had never actively interfered with her efforts to train John in the gospel of Christ. He had simply stood aloof, and his indifference had become an insurmountable negation only because of the inexorable sympathy that existed between him and his son.
With all these considerations beneath her words, Emma discussed with her husband the problem of guardianship. Viewed in the light of reality, it must have been a droll conversation, like burlesque sword-play.
"Let's feed him and house him and clothe him, and help him attain the sublimity of a good citizen, but not adopt him. Eh, Emma?" suggested Malleson.
"Why not adopt him?" asked Emma rhetorically.
"Unfair to the boy. As things stand, he's blessedly free of parents. He has the unique advantage of a personal start. Unless you consider that Mrs. Schnatzer impressed her character upon him."
"Be serious!" exclaimed his wife. "We must either undertake to do our best by him or not take him at all. He's just at the age when things become dangerous, and if he's not looked after he stands an even chance of going to the dogs. There's not a soul in the world---at least that we could find---who could be trusted to help him. Besides, don't you feel that the last wish of that poor old woman ought to be respected ?"
"Seriously, then, I do; especially as I like the little beggar. But legal adoption is a useless form that we needn't bother with. After all," slyly, "the question is a practical one. We're not rich, you know. Do you feel ready to undergo the trouble of bringing up another youngster?"
"He's only five years younger than John."
They were really arguing on the same side, and both knew it. The colloquy had nothing at stake, but furnished an occasion for one of those pseudo-solemn councils of policy often so enjoyed by husband and wife. Malleson sprawled on the bed in his old dressing-gown, while Emma combed her dark, heavy hair, and plaited it into strands. She could see him in the mirror; the familiar, boyish gesture of his long, thin hands, and the incorrigible fun that played about his lips. She had strong doubts that she was hiding from him her real interest in Dave's fate.
It was decided that the little fellow should be taken in, and the matter of adoption held in abeyance, because, as Malleson dryly remarked, the boy might conceivably be interested in it himself, and ought to know what threatened him.
"And then, Emma, my dear," concluded Malleson, patting her hand, ''John and I'll continue on our way to hell, while you and Dave make for heaven.''