The Orbit of Good Stories

— I used to know in Boston a remarkably clever barber, of some queer nation of eastern Europe, — evidently a Jew by race, but not by faith ; a wanderer from that indeterminate part of Europe where the people themselves scarcely know to what nation they belong ; a Galician, a Volhynian, a Podolian, or something of that sort, and less a stranger in a strange land than in his own; a man-up-atree us regards all of us who swear by country and creed. He was a little man, about forty years old when I first knew him; very black-eyed, swarthy-pallid, with a prominent and thin curving nose, a curiously protruding upper jaw, and a pointed retreating chin, which made him look oddly like the creatures that burrow with their noses,— the pocket-gophers and the marmots. He had a short, sparse, bristling mustache, which increased his resemblance to the marmot kind. Notwithstanding his outsidership to us, and a kind of mocking look and way, the man had a genial air, and plainly liked the world and its people, — if for nothing else, for the amusement they gave him.

I fancied he followed the barber’s craft because it gave him an opportunity to study mankind at close range, and without its crust of pretense and pulchritude; for a man flat on his back, with a lathered face and aprons and towels enveloping him, is in more than one sense at the mercy of him who stands above him with a blade. My barber, moreover, had a talent for conversation which his trade afforded an admirable chance to exercise. Nor was he altogether a “ monologist,” either; he always gave his client (you know the etymology : cliens, cluens, a hearer) a fair chance for himself. There are moments when it is inconvenient for a man who is under a barber’s razor to talk. For myself, I am far from condemning the race of talking barbers; whether or not one wants a barber to talk depends on the barber. This man generally had something to say which was worth listening to; and his English was marvelous, with a touch of something odd and foreign in it, but grammatical and a little bookish, — Talmudic, I fancied, though my acquaintance with the Talmud is inferior to my acquaintance with the Book of Mormon.

The barber had what my Yankee fellowcountrymen pleasantly call a faculty for telling stories ; and I may mention here that what I set out to tell about was the specialty which this man had of putting the most ancient stories, especially Bible ones, into such a guise that they passed for new stories with his patrons. We all know the trade. The period of the return of the story of the Prodigal Son or of King Lear is calculable, like that of a comet which has been around the sun several times; if we know the number of stories of all descriptions, long and short, that will be published in a year, I fancy we may compute to a nicety how many times the Prodigal will appear in the lot. It has one of the shortest orbits among familiar stories, and consequently a frequent return. The story of King Lear comes around almost as often; but David and Jonathan, Jacob and Esau, Haman and Mordecai, have somewhat longer and more eccentric orbits. Sometimes I think it would be an advantage, not to say a relief, if one of the people who retell these stories should, instead of somewhat superfluously relating them, devote the time to determining their periods. A table showing their comparative frequency of return would be of use to authors, who might be expected, with its evidence at hand, to choose the longer-orbited stories for treatment oftener than they do, to the greater credit of their reputation for inventiveness, and possibly to the measurable relief of the public, to whom even Lear and the Prodigal Son may grow tiresome at last. Or would such a calculation be likely to derange the fictional cosmogony, so to speak ? Would it be better to leave the familiar tales to their normal period, assuming that their orbits are providentially adjusted to the demands of human nature ; that, as it were, the appearance of a new adaptation of Cinderella and the Wonderful Slipper, from the house of Chatto & Windus, on the tenth day of last February, or a more recent modern variorum of the story of David and Bathsheba in ninety thousand words, from the Bibliothèque Charpentier, was as inevitable as the appearance of Encke’s comet once in three and three hundred and three ten-thousandths years, and that we should submit to them as unquestioningly as we do to a star-shower or a new outbreak of sunspots ?

However that may be, my Podolian friend was clever in establishing the normal balance between the demands of his bearers and the supply of his adaptations from ancient literature. He had also a neat gift of “localization.” The incidents which he related always took place in Cracow, Lemberg, or Kieff, or some such town, and the local color was always introduced, though I bad no means of judging of the accuracy of it. I once talked with him about the tendency of certain events to happen in a great many places. I had myself, as a result of going about in the country a good deal, heard a particular anecdote told as of actual occurrence in Boxford, Massachusetts ; Colchester, Connecticut. ; Topsham, Vermont; Limerick, Maine; and Cleveland, Ohio. In each telling the names of the people who figured in the story were given, and I was told exactly where and when they lived. Those who told me the story believed in every case that it was true, and that the participants really lived where they said they did. I am myself, in a small way, a dealer in anecdotes, and it has been occasionally a part of my business to separate genuine local happenings from these universal adaptations ; and this I have found extremely difficult. As for the particular story to which I have referred, my friend the barber said he knew it perfectly well, and that the circumstance really occurred in a small but very old village in Poland, the name of which he told me, and which I pronounced after him several times with great care, in order that I might hope to retain it, but I have now totally forgotten it.

With all his success at adaptation and modernization, my barber was once found wanting in nice discrimination as to what he could safely give his audience, of this sort. One Saturday evening I looked into the shop, and finding that the place was full and the barber discoursing, I went in and sat down. There came in just after me a certain smooth-faced young Irish lawyer with political ambitions and popular sympathies. The barber ended the matter he had under consideration, and asked the lawyer what was the news ; whereupon the young man launched into a voluble criticism of a decision which had that day been handed down in the Superior Court. He questioned the wisdom of judges generally. This stirred up a sharp-nosed man whom I knew to be a shoe dealer of Tremont Row ; he defended the tribunals warmly. The barber listened for a time, and then, when the conversation bade fair to become wearisome to the other customers, he told a story about a lawsuit that took place in Podolia when he was a boy. A Russian woman had come into court and sworn that, four years before, she had given another Russian woman, a peasant, her baby to nurse and take care of until it was three years old. She had no documentary evidence of the arrangement, aud all the witnesses to the circumstance were dead. The child was now a fine, healthy fellow, and the woman had demanded his return ; but the foster-mother, taking advantage of the death of the witnesses, had made the astonishing assertion that the child was her own, and had refused to give him up. The judge, who was really anxious to find out whose child it was, exhausted the ordinary means of ascertaining without satisfying his own mind. Then all at once he asked, “ Has this child been vaccinated ? ” The official physician was called in, and declared that it had never been vaccinated. Now, all Russian Podolians of the lower class, the barber asserted, are so violently opposed to vaccination that they will fight the soldiers to resist it, and the authorities frequently have to yield to their prejudice against it in order to prevent bloodshed and save scandal abroad. But in this ease the judge affected great indignation. “ You have dared to bring here an unvaccinated child!” he exclaimed. “Let it be vaccinated at once! ” Both women showed signs of the greatest terror ; they believed that the operation meant death for the child, or worse. “Ah, well,” said the judge, observing their woe, and appearing to relent, “ I will order that the child shall not only escape vaccination now, but shall never be vaccinated, if you women will compose your difference. If, however, you persist in this suit, it shall be vaccinated instantly here in the court.” Then the woman who had brought the suit, turning very pale, said, “Maria Ivanovna shall keep the child!” This convinced the judge that the child was hers, and he ordered that it be delivered to her.

The company in the barber-shop were much interested in this story, and did not appear to recognize it at all as the story of the judgment of Solomon. It stirred up a discussion, which threatened to be endless, between the young lawyer and the boot-audshoe man on the subject of vaccination. The boot-and-shoe man turned out to be an anti-vaccinationist. He expressed admiration not only for the spirit of the Russians in this matter, but for their bravery and skill in warfare.

Upon this the barber declared that the Russians had been greatly overestimated as fighters. They had often been beaten in most ridiculous ways. For instance, when the Cossacks of the Don were once making war against the Kalmuck Tartars, they had in their ranks a famous Cossack of immense size, said to be the biggest man in all Russia. He made his boast that he could whip a hundred ordinary men. One day the Cossacks met a large war party of Tartars, and this big Russian stepped out and proposed that the war should be settled by single combat, he to fight any Tartar who should be sent against him. The Kalmucks, having no such giant on their side, were demurring against this method of warfare, when a young fellow, scarcely more than sixteen years old and small of his age, stepped out from their ranks. He had in his hand an implement that looked very much like the pea-shooters that the boys at the North End use with which to “ fire ” beans at strangers in Salem Street. He had no other arms, but —

The Irish lawyer here extended his right arm in a gesture of extreme displeasure. “ Get out ! ” he exclaimed. “ That’s too much. You ’re giving us the story of David and Goliath ! ”

There was a groan from the chairs and the waiting-bench, and then a loud laugh at the barber’s expense. He was silent, and wore a somewhat sneering expression, but his face was scarlet. He had been found out. His case seems to prove that there may be such a thing as introducing too often the ancient stories into current fiction.