The Club of Old Stories


“ THERE is a thin coating of ice over the bricks this morning,” said old Charles Harcourt, walking into the hall, where his man servant stood waiting to engulf him in a sablelined coat. “ I shall need overshoes, Dinan.”

Dinan laid the coat on the oaken settle, and hurried away to find the overshoes. The moment his back was turned, Mr. Harcourt lifted the heavy coat, with much exertion, and struggled into it. Then he seized his hat, gloves, and stick, and, opening the door noiselessly, passed out. of the house as stealthily as a burglar.

In his effort to hasten down Beacon Hill, his feet slid along the icy sidewalk several inches in front of his pivot-acting stick, upon which he leaned heavily. As he drew near the house of Judge Langhorne, he saw his elderly friend standing at the library window, nodding his head and waving a newspaper at him.

Forgetful of the ice, Harcourt raised his stick and waved it merrily in reply. Down dropped the sable coat in a heap on the sidewalk, while the venerable silk hat rolled into a pool of sawdust water.

“ By George, sir! ” he cried to his friend, as, a moment later, assisted by the judge’s butler, he mounted the steps leading to the house, “ I was fresh when I started, but my antediluvian legs gave way at last.”

“ Never mind, Charles,” laughed the judge, putting his hand upon the other man’s shoulder and drawing him into the library. “We all know who ‘ stand in slippery places,’ eh ? But how does it happen you are walking without Dinan’s arm to lean on ? I have n’t seen you on the street alone for six months ! ”

“ George,” answered Harcourt solemnly, “ I have run away, and without my overshoes! What will my daughter Anna say to me when I am once again in my nursery on Beacon Hill ? I am trying my legs, sir, and I find that I can stand alone.”

As he spoke, he rose with an effort from the great leather chair into which he had feebly sunk a moment before, walked to the hearth, and stood with his back to the fire in a boyish attitude, feet wide apart and hands clasped behind him ; but his ancient knees trembled, and bis shoulders bad a weary stoop.

“ George,” he continued plaintively, “ life has not been a comedy with me these last few years. How is it with you, old fellow ? ”

The judge peered through his spectacles quizzically at his friend.

“ Are you suffering from an overdose of nurturing, too ? ” he asked, with a half-sad laugh.

“ Decidedly so,” replied the other, straightening his bent figure, which immediately relaxed into its customary stooping pose. “ I am treated like a modern baby. I am not allowed to walk alone. I can’t eat anything I wish, nor at the time I choose ; late dinner is forbidden. I take a nap in the morning, and one again in the afternoon. All my business is transacted by my son. Why, it is monstrous, sir, and it is unfair that I should obey all my life. When I was a child, you see, it was the fashion for children to obey their parents ; and when I became a man, it was then the fashion for parents to obey their children. Why should it be so ? ” he asked, half seriously, half jestingly.

The judge gave a dry laugh. “ My grandson accounted for it one day. I was trying to make him understand the advantages of a protective tariff, and he contested every point. Finally I asked him how it happened that he, who had lived so short a time, should know so much more than I about national affairs. And what do you think the young dog replied ? ‘ Oh, I began where you left off!’”

“ Confound his impertinence ! ” said Harcourt, but nevertheless he joined his friend in his delighted laugh at the “ impertinence ” of the “ young dog.”

As their laughter died away, a little echo of it came from the hall, followed by a clear young voice.

“ Oh, mamma,” it said, “just hear grandpa and that dear Mr. Harcourt laugh ! I suppose they are telling each other their century-old stories. I know them by heart myself. I can say, 'Really ?’ now in just the right places without listening. Poor old dears! They forget how often they have told them before.”

The front door closed on the reply, if one were made, and the carriage door banged. The judge listened to the click of the horses’ feet on the pavements till the sound became inaudible. Then he turned his eyes from their deep scrutiny of the fire, and again peered warily through his spectacles at Harcourt.

“ Charles,” he said suspiciously, “ have I ever told yon that remark of Richard’s before?”

“ Not a bit of it,” replied his friend stoutly. “ Or if you have, I have forgotten it. That’s the benefit of mingling with your contemporaries, George, and not with two generations later. Our memories keep pace with each other. If you forget that you have told the stories, I forget that I have heard them.”

“ And that puts in my mind again an idea I had some months ago,” said the judge thoughtfully. “ What do you say to forming a club of our classmates, to meet fortnightly, and dine and wine together ? There are enough of us 183men left. Eight would do for a beginning. Hire a sunny little house, put into it as much old college furniture as we can find, and make a bold strike for independence. What is the Somerset Club now ? Composed of striplings who ought to be at school. Not half a dozen men over seventy. We will have no nurses or attendants allowed in the house, and we will dine together there every Friday fortnight, and tell all our pet anecdotes.”

“ And laugh over them, by George, as we used to do ! ” put in Harcourt enthusiastically. “ That is a capital idea. We will anticipate criticism by calling it the Club of Old Stories. Now whom shall we have ? Dalton for one ? ”

“ Dalton, of course. It would be like dinner without wine to have the club without Jack Dalton.”

“ Do you remember the night in Holworthy,” said Harcourt, with a sudden laugh, “ when we were making that racket with Browne’s drum ? The proctor hammered at the door, and we all hid except Jack. He was left to open it; and how neatly he stepped behind it when he did so, and slid into the hall without being seen, and heaved a pillow at the candles, so that every one but the proctor got away ! ”

“ Do I! ” chuckled the judge. “ And how he made the freshmen hold up the Waverly coach, thinking it was part of the initiation.”

“ And how he smashed the chapel window ! ” added Harcourt. “ But gad, sir,” he broke off, interrupting himself, “ if we continue our reminiscences of Jack Dalton, we shall never get any further with the club. What do you say to Langdon and Richardson ?

“ That makes five,” was the response. “ And then there’s Jim Green, poor old boy! Ever since Andersonville he has had his ups and downs, but on his well days he will come, I know, and — What do you think of Bennet ? ”

“ Oh,” groaned Harcourt, “he is so deaf, so unnecessarily deaf ! I know he must put it on.”

“ Yes,” assented the judge, “ Jack Dalton said of him the other day, ‘There’s none so deaf as those who can’t hear.’ But think, Charles, what Bennet did for us at college. We should never have won our sheepskins if he had n’t drummed mathematics into our heads and labored with us over our Greek and Latin.”

Harcourt relented. “ Well, we will have him, then. Now we need only one more. Who shall it be ? ”

There was a long silence. “ Charles,” said the judge at last in an awed voice, “ is it possible there are only seven of us who have not — gone ? ”

“ Never mind,” said his friend hastily. “ Seven is a good number. It’s an odd number. There is luck in it. We don’t want but seven. Now, George, I will make you secretary of the club. You write to the boys. I would do it myself, but I have to buy some new glasses ; mine don’t fit my eyes. Miserable opticians they have in these days.

I will constitute myself president, and will look up a house for us. We will arrange the first meeting for Friday fortnight. Open it with a dinner. Now I must be off. I have that long hill to climb, and I must take it slowly.”

“ Wait a moment and have a glass of sherry,” responded the judge, touching a bell. “ It will halve the distance and double the view, Charles,” he added, laughing.

The president of the newly formed club — or rather, the president’s daughter— had no difficulty in finding the sunny little house which was desired. In its rooms each delighted old fellow deposited the relics of his college days, — books, tables, chairs, desks, and pictures which had been buried in attics and cellars for over half a century, — and they thanked Heaven for the sentiment which had saved these antiquated pieces from auctions for this happier fate.

Old Charles Harcourt and the judge walked arm in arm through the rooms, the night of the opening of the clubhouse, and surveyed its fittings with great satisfaction.

In the reading-room they paused before a bookcase, through whose newly polished surface faintly appeared countless carved “J. D.’s,” and Harcourt drew from a shelf a musty volume of Tom Jones, and squinted over its yellow pages to find dimly remembered witticisms of Fielding.

They passed from the library into the dining-room. A servant was lighting the seven candles which stood in oldfashioned silver sticks in a circle about the table.

“ It must be nearly time the boys were here,” observed Harcourt cheerfully, as he watched the man. “What do you say, George, to betting on the first arrival ? Do you recollect how we always bet on every imaginable incident, and what a zest it gave to life ? ”

“ Beg pardon, sir, here are some letters I found on the desk in the library,” said the servant, who had left the dining-room; a moment before, and now reappeared for an instant to deliver the notes.

There were four letters in all, and they were addressed to the secretary of the club. The judge tore open the first one and scanned it with troubled eyes. “ Well, well,” he remarked, laying it on the table with a sigh, and tearing open the next. “This is melancholy. Here is Langdon ill with the gout. No dining and wining for him to-night. And Bill Richardson is in bed with rheumatism. Deuce take the man ! Serves him right for being so imprudent. Actually went sleighriding yesterday, Charles. And this one — let me see. It’s from Bennet, I should say. Yes, Bennet has pleurisy, poor old boy ! And here Letitia Green tells us in this note that her grandfather is in the clutches of the grippe. Dear me ! I call this ‘ hospital ’-ity.” He gave a forced laugh at his feeble joke. “ But we have n’t heard a word from Jack Dalton,” he continued more cheerfully. “ He never failed us yet, thank Heaven ! We shall have a lively evening with him, at any rate, Charles.”

“ He ought to be here any moment,” said Harcourt listlessly. “ He had a bad cold a week ago, and so I sent Dinan out in my carriage for him. It is too long a drive from Chestnut Hill in a drafty hired cab. He should be here by this time,” he said again, looking anxiously at his watch.

A carriage drove hastily down the street, and stopped at the club - house door.

“ This must be he,” said the judge, brightening visibly. “There will be three of us here to-night, and there is luck in odd numbers, as you said, — eh, Charles ? ”

At the sound of heavy footsteps in the hall, both men started eagerly forward from their chairs ; but when a rap came at the door, and Dinan entered the room alone, they sank back tremblingly and looked at him with anxious eyes.

“ ’Ave a bit of sherry, sir,” said the old man servant, taking a decanter from the table and pouring wine into two glasses. “ It’s cold in this room. Better ’ave it. It ’ll warm you up, sir.”

“ Yes, yes, so it will,” quavered Harcourt. He lifted the tiny glass unsteadily and put it to his trembling lips. When he set it down, empty, he looked inquiringly up at Dinan, but the servant’s face remained stolid until the judge’s wineglass was emptied, also, and placed beside the other. Then he said quietly, “ I found Mr. Dalton ill, sir.”

“ Very ill ? ” faltered Mr. Harcourt.

Very ill, sir.”

Dead ? ” breathed his master almost inaudibly.

“ Yes, sir,” answered Dinan. “ And ’ere’s a letter from ’is wife, sir.” He handed it to him, and then left the room.

Harcourt slowly drew the note from the envelope. The sheet fluttered in his fingers, and his voice failed him when he tried to read aloud the sad words it held. So the two men, with silent accord, drew their chairs to the gayly decorated table, spread the letter out before their dim eyes, and together read the widow’s piteous words.

They finished it. Still neither spoke nor changed his position. Their eyes wandered about the table till they rested on the chair designed for Dalton, on the dinner-card which bore his name and a merry old college squib. Then Charles Harcourt rose weakly from his chair, leaned over the table, and took from the centre vase a great bunch of Maréchal Niel roses.

“ Shall we take them to her ? ” he said simply.

The judge bowed his head reverently in assent.

When they opened the door to leave the room, a blast of wintry air rushed by them and blew fiercely about the table. The light from the candles in the seven massive silver sticks flickered, and finally yielded to the lusty breath, and died out.