A Problem in Arithmetical Progression
THE house was very still, and the little boy was all alone. His mother and uncle had gone downtown an hour ago, and the servant girl had taken advantage of their absence to slip out for a gossip in a neighboring kitchen. The blinds were closed to keep out the sun, and the scent of lilac blossoms stole into the darkened rooms through the open windows. The boy had been sitting on the lounge in the study, regarding attentively the frontispiece to Sturm’s Reflections for Every Day in the Year, which represented a gentleman and lady examining a vase of goldfishes. The author’s reflection appertinent to this plate was given upon page 234; but the boy was unable to profit by it, for the letterpress was beyond him as yet. Instead, he had reflections of his own upon the gentleman’s swallow-tailed coat and the bell-crowned hat which he politely held in his hand, — as the boy himself had been taught to do when indoors. The lady’s ringlets and very short-waisted gown also invited reflection ; and the goldfishes would lend themselves to decorative purposes, if only one had not mislaid the camel’s-hair brush belonging to the box of water-color paints upstairs.
There was no sound about the house except the sucking and flapping of a shade in one of the study windows, as it drew in and out in the soft spring air. But presently there blended with this something more insistent, more distinctly rhythmical, and suggestive of human agency. The boy listened. Yes, it was unmistakably the strains of a hand-organ, though very far away. He turned the pages of moral Sturm, and arrived at the engraving of a youth playing on the harp in a lofty, bare apartment, whose furniture consisted of a globe and a pair of compasses. These emblems were mysterious ; but the harp seemed to be subtly allusive to that other musical instrument, the sound of which, however, had now failed. Suddenly it started up again, and much nearer. The artist was in our own street.
The boy dropped his book, and ran to the front door. The door itself was open, but the blinds were shut, and he stood behind them, expectant, “ in the sunlight greenly sifted.” Before long the music stopped again, and soon the hand-organ man himself was seen approaching, with his melodious burden on his back. It was a quiet street of shady dooryards and houses inhabited by elderly people. Few children were there at any time, and now it was the middle of the long forenoon, and school was in.
So the minstrel’s progress along the lonely block was unattended, and he glanced wistfully from house to house, uncertain of a harvest.
Finally he arrives before the house of the boy. He pauses ; he regards the green door blinds. Moment big with fate ! Slowly he unslings his hurdy - gurdy. He is going to play here, — right here. Ours is the divinely selected mansion.
It would not have occurred to the little boy to do anything himself toward influencing the decision. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and the principle which governs a hand-organist in passing by one gate, and stopping before another, is inscrutable by human boys. Older people might have suspected that, in this instance, the row of small finger tips visible between the slats of the door blind had something to do with the choice.
A lover of soda water has assured me that in Germany he found only two flavors, — mit and ohne. Mit is red ; ohne is white. Even so, at a New England rural fair, an itinerant fizz-vender was wont to explain to his customers the distinction between his “ serrops.” “ Rawsberry ’n’ sars’p’rilla,” he would announce : “rawsberry’s red ; sars’p’rilla’s yaller.” Of hand-organs, also, the kinds are two: mit, with a monkey ; ohne, without. There used to be sometimes a third species, that had cardboard figures in the front, which danced to the music ; but this was so rare that it may be disregarded in the classification.
This hand-organ, of which I tellë you my tale, was of the ohne variety, and it was more fitting so. Among the respectable dwellers in this back street — what the policeman on the beat once called “ the nobility of the block ” — and in the still profundity of the mid-forenoon — what the Greeks called “ the deep of the morning ” — the antics of even the most melancholy monkey would have been little short of an outrage.
And now the instrument began to play. The first tune on its list was Old Dog Tray, a good, droning melody which might seem to have been composed expressly for hand-organs. Behind his screen the boy listened invisibly, until a click in the machinery announced that the tune was changed. When the Marseillaise struck up, he was emboldened to throw open the shutters and seat himself on the stone doorstep. He was having the performance all to himself. No neighbor came along the sidewalk; not even the baker’s cart passed. He was like the late King Ludwig of Bavaria, sitting alone in the vast, empty, brilliantly lighted theatre, while Wagner’s operas were played for his sole benefit.
But presently he bethought himself that it was customary to give pennies or other coin to organ grinders. He had seen the thing done repeatedly, and this grinder would doubtless expect it. He knew where his uncle kept his money, and he went to the study to get it. There was a desk, in whose upper compartments were writing materials and other articles : a tray of quill pens ; a perforated receptacle for sand, — black, glittering sand, with which the uncle would pepper a freshly written sheet, to dry the ink, and which it was fun to scrape off afterwards with the paper folder, when it rustled fascinatingly against the paper ; a box of varicolored wafers, nice to wet with the tongue — flavored, as they were, with wintergreen — and stick in patterns upon the closet door ; sticks of red, green, and yellow sealing wax, with a seal which stamped a monogram on the wax when melted ; a shoehorn, simulating a scimiter; and a lamp pick, which, withdrawn from its spool-like sheath, made an excellent dagger to stab enemy Turks.
But in the drawer of the desk there was treasure : rolls of bright red new copper cents, done up in paper, gummed at the ends, twenty in a roll; better still and more easy to come at, a chamois-skin bag containing silver of all denominations, from the tiny pieces that Ki Graham, the cook’s nephew, called “ thripenny bits ” up to big round dollars.
Arrived with all this wealth at the front door, the boy sat down upon the mat, untied the string which fastened the mouth of the bag, emptied the silver coins on the broad top landing of the doorsteps, and proceeded to arrange them in glittering rows, beginning with the three-cent pieces, — mere thin wafers of white metal, — and running up through an ascending series of halfdimes, dimes, quarters, half-dollars, and dollars. It was his plan to give a coin after each tune, commencing with the smallest, and when they were all gone rising to the next higher denomination. He had an imperfect understanding of money values, but he argued, from the analogy of candies and other possessions, that the biggest must be the best; and he calculated that, in this way, not only would he get music as long as the money held out, but the constantly increasing size of the reward would stimulate the hand-organ man to higher exertions.
The Italian’s black eyes glistened, but he did not swoop down upon the treasure, gather it in, and march off. Perhaps he was a good hand-organ man ; perhaps he thought the risk too great. He did not even glance up and down the street to see if any one was coming, but, with eyes fixed lovingly upon this potentiality of wealth, and with a grin about his bearded lips, he entered heartily into the spirit of the thing, and ground away with steady rapidity. The Marseillaise had been followed by Pop Goes the Weasel, Rosalie the Prairie Flower, and a number of national airs, and the row of threepenny bits was sensibly diminishing.
At my door the Hundredth Psalm,
Till thou ultimately findest
Pence in thine unwashen palm,”
exhibited no greater patience and forbearance than did this favorite of fortune, as he saw the beginning of the halfdime row approaching. Ohne Hast, ohne Rast, he wielded his crank. He had played clear through his repertory of tunes, and now commenced on them again. But repetition did not pall upon his audience. So have I seen school children, — reinforced with a luncheon of cookies and chocolate caramels,— after a long forenoon at a “ continuous performance,” when the programme began its round again, greet each familiar feature of the show with unimpaired eagerness.
It was in the midst of a spirited execution of Dandy Jim of Caroline that the shuffle of feet and the rap of a cane made themselves heard along the sidewalk. A gentleman and lady stopped at the gate. At the same moment footsteps sounded along the entry, and the servant girl arrived upon the scene, R. U. E. and pat as the conclusion of an old comedy. There was a momentary tableau, and then the lady pounced upon the boy, and smothered him with kisses and laughter; the maid, with a shriek, threw herself upon the silver, and swept it into the bag ; the gentleman lifted his hat ironically to the musician, who touched his own grimy headpiece in answer, with a sympathetic grin, and then, shouldering his organ, strolled pensively down the street; while the boy was borne into the penetralia of the house, struggling and protesting that the concert was only just begun.
Henry A. Beers.