OUT of the open windows of his private office, — open that April morning for the first time, — Aubrey Cutler and I had been watching the passing crowd below, and he had been making comments. Though it was a Sunday and the air was full of spring, he had remarked that the manner of the crowd could never have reminded you of anything less prosaic than a breakfast at Child’s or a Jersey City ferry.
“The divorce of poetry from real life,” he concluded, with the defiant air of one who announced a startling discovery, “ that’s the shocking price of commercialism. The man who stops to look at blue sky is a public nuisance, — in New York.”
Because he seemed to expect it, I opposed him. “The fact is,” I said tritely, “he’s not contributive. Society gives your sentimentalist as much as he deserves.”
As he knocked the ashes out of his pipe, he studied me with a pained look through half-shut eyes: thus I have seen him scrutinize some monstrosity of modern architecture. I leaned back in my chair and waited. I would have waited indefinitely for Aubrey; it is fascinating to watch the shades of expression that keep crinkling about his eyelids and touching the corners of his lips. And no matter how dogmatically he may finally bring out his opinions, you more than half suspect that underneath he’s quietly laughing at himself all the time.
“You can’t help saying that,” he observed; “therefore you are not to be blamed. The whole race of sentimentalists has lately come into disrepute: and though it was n’t to them that I was referring, but to the real poet, I’ll take you up on your own statement. I maintain that the man of sentiment does a better quality of work than his pedestrian neighbor, because to him his work is as an art; he himself has one portion of the artist’s birthright.”
“I don’t quite see it,” I said.
“Of course not. I did n’t expect it of a newspaper man, — and of one who does not know my friend, Mr. Mudge. There you have a tonsorial artist, — mind you, artist, — and the misunderstanding world, including myself, was on the point of pinning him ruthlessly to the wall like a butterfly; only that crime was prevented at the last minute.”
“If you told me more of him, I might be converted,” I said, —not too eagerly, though, for he always suspects me when I grow eager.
Aubrey hesitated. With all the assurance of his theories, he is singularly backward in talking about himself and his own personal experiences. His reputation embarrasses him; he knows that people say, “Is n’t that just like Aubrey ?”
As a matter of fact he is the most humanistic person I ever knew, never so happy as when getting acquainted with some new side of human nature, or discovering some purely unconventional and spontaneous reaction; and as a consequence he possesses an extraordinary set of friends. — You may have seen that funny little crack-brained French marquis who wanders about Harmony Row, - that’s one of them; and then there’s a bell-boy at the Murray Hill, and a curate of the Paulist Fathers, and a Russian anarchist from Hester Street, — nobody but Aubrey himself knows the whole list; but he’s loyal to them all, and they love him, though they’d be at each other’s throats if they met.
Observing that he still hesitated, I ventured to begin the story for him. “It was a pleasant day in the park; the sky was translucent amethyst,” — I suggested, with the impudence of one who had written uncounted columns of Syndicate stuff, and who knew besides the manner in which Aubrey’s adventures in humanity were likely to originate.
“Please don’t make fun of me,” he begged, with an earnestness not wholly feigned. “If I pretended to be a raconteur, I might be ashamed of such a crudity; but my theory is that if the thing happened in the park, why, I should n’t be justified in transporting it to the conservatory.”
“Tell me of Mr. Mudge,” I urged seductively, in sudden fear that he might discuss the relation of sincerity to art. Aubrey’s theories, despite the characteristic language in which he expounds them, are sometimes wearisome.
“It was a warm afternoon early last November,” he said, “and I sat in the sun on one of the benches in Madison Square. There was a thin, almost a dreamy, haze in the air, which lent a peculiar suavity to the lines of the Garden tower; and on the summit of it the Diana gleamed and floated against pale clouds. And always in one’s ears was the ceaseless rumble of the city, vague, indistinguishable, pervasive. — You get the setting ? ”
“And Mr. Mudge?” I asked.
“All things in due course,” was his rejoinder. “You need the background, because otherwise Thomas may not compose properly: he demands the most delicate adjustment of high-lights and masses.”
As has been said, [he continued, after a moment’s silence] I was sitting there in the melancholy splendor of the autumnal sunshine, engrossed in a story of Tourgenieff’s, — Virgin Soil, I believe, — when I was startled by a sigh — a sigh so gentle, so diffident, yet so undeniably audible, that my attention was at once alert. I did not look at the person beside me, — not directly, I mean, — but from the periphery of my eye I observed his neat checked suit, small patent leathers, and mauve socks clocked in cerise, I noticed too that his newspaper was lying unregarded in his lap, and that he seemed to be gazing pensively through the bare branches of the trees in the direction of the Garden. It seemed a strange and baffling source for such a melancholy, and I had turned again to my book, when for a second time the sigh startled me, — a somewhat conscious and obvious sigh, I thought, that seemed — with great modesty — to be requesting audience.
I could resist its appeal no longer. I shut my book and stretched myself a little. “ It’s a queer world,” I announced finally. There’s nothing like a piece of banality like that, you know, to establish an entente cordiale: it’s a token of our common humanity.
My neighbor must have been pleased, for after a courteous lapse of time he replied, “It is that, sir. As I was just turnin’ over in my mind, amongst other things.”
“I hope I did n’t interrupt,” I murmured.
There was an urbanity almost professional in his tone. “It was a pleasure I’m sure, sir. There is things, sir, as ye may know, that brings queer feelin’s to a man when he turns ’em over in his mind, — exceptionable queer.”
I regarded him in deferential silence. He was a proper little man, as impeccable as the most scrupulous clothier’s dummy on Broadway. More than clothes too, for his mustache was done with the same finished art, and there was a similar bloom of spring on his cheeks. His eyes, however, were not glassy. I wish you could have seen them—responsive, limpid, mellow —little lakes, one might say, of gentleness and innocence. It touched me.
Then he resumed: “And so as I sits here, kind o’ broodin’-like on things in general, it come to me as how that there lady on the tower dancin’ and skippin’ so airy in the sun, she has a cinch, ain’t she, — - nothin’ to trouble or annoy and stir up her feelin’s, — and all us people down here worriting our bloomin’ heads off. ... I suppose that’s rot!”
At this strange anti-climax I sat up with a start. “ What ? ” I ejaculated.
He looked at me a little sheepishly and let out a small, nervous giggle. “Most of what I say is rot,” he explained meekly. “ It’s the way I’m made. I would n’t care so much, only . . . there is things . . . any man knows what they be . . . and they don’t always make you feel very funny.”
I passed him a cigarette; but he declined it. “Thank you kindly,” he said. “It’s her, sir, — the one I’m tellin’ you about. — She don’t like me to.”
I thought I scented the drift. “She’s a bit fussy, perhaps,” I hazarded. “ Lots of them are.”
He turned his eyes full upon me, reproachful, wondering, like the eyes of a spaniel maltreated. “No, she ain’t fussy,” he said. “She’s only particular. You see, bein’ a graduate of a Commercial College, she’s got her ideas. I ain’t objectin’, sir. An’ she plays the piano, too; it’s — it’s nice, I can tell you. A pianola ain’t in it.” His face beamed with pride and joy.
“You’re engaged,” I ventured amiably.
The smile faded. His whole personality drooped like the leaf of a sensitive plant too rudely handled. “No,” he said, with sudden reticence. “We ain’t engaged.”
There was something so pathetic in this alteration, that I felt almost as if I had been gross, and sat silently for a time, wondering how I might make amends. He had not been offended, however.
In a minute he lifted his head and looked furtively around, as if to make sure that only sympathetic ears should hear his Confessio Amantis. “The truth is, sir,” he said, in a dramatic whisper, “ I ain’t worthy of her.”
He waited to observe the effect of his words; but I did not speak: I could not think of anything to say.
“I suppose that sounds sort of funny to you,” he explained, allowing his glance (almost imperceptibly) to make a hasty summary of his personal attributes (I noticed anew the cerise embroiderings on his socks), — “leastways when you think o’ the bloomin’ little shop I got, with four chairs and all the up-to-date fixin’s — Parisian massage, electric shampoo, and all them; but Isobel, well, she’s different to other girls. ‘Thomas,’ says she,— just that way, sir, pleasant-like and yet severe,—‘Thomas,’ says she, ‘You’re such a fool! That’s the only thing I’ve got against you.’ ”
His candid eyes met mine. “ Well,” he concluded. “That’s it, sir; I be.”
His self-knowledge struck me as so encyclopædic that it would have been an impertinence to contradict him. “How do you mean,” I asked, — “a fool? ”
“Well, you see I always was kind o’ that way, a little moonshiny. What’s the use, says I to myself, of eatin’ your grub an’ doin’ your work an’ goin’ to bed day after day as long as you live if there ain’t nothin’ else to it ? You might just as well be a - a animile if that’s all. I ’ve got to be thinkin’ about things. Where’s the good o’ bein’ in love if you can’t get no enjoyment in it?”
“I don’t quite follow,” I remarked.
“ Well, like this,” he elucidated: “Says I to a lady, ‘will ye marry me, ma’m ?’ — ‘Yes, sure I will,’ says she, or ‘No, not I,’ says she; and there you be! You ain’t got nothin’ to think about in that. It might as well not o’ happened accordin’ to me. I wants to figgur things out and ’ave ’em happen right — one way or another —and then you’ve got something nice to remember in after days.”
His eyes began to glow reminiscently as he reverted to his own tender past.
“Why, sir, before I ever got the dip to Isobel, I used to see her trottin’ by the winder on her way to work, airy as a little butterfly; and I ’d be lookin’ out for her and lookin’ out for her, an’ gett’n’ that worked up — there’s many a customer, sir, as don’t know how near he come to havin’ his ear chopped off by mistake. But she ain’t that kind. ’Shut up, Thomas,’ says she; ‘You’re such a awful fool!’ says she.”
I began to feel as if I had known Thomas Mudge all my life. Indeed it grew hard to realize that he was only a very small man sitting beside me on a Park bench; for in him my awakened imagination saw the type and perfect flower of all the Thomas Mudges, mute, inglorious, and obscure, that had sighed since the world was.
He was evidently glad to have discovered so appreciative a listener. And though, as he told me of himself and of Isobel, the mere facts were commonplace and familiar enough, they did not in the least give me that impression: each came touched and glorified by the same delicate aura of sentiment; of every bone was coral made. And I learned how for a year now he had been pressing his suit, and how she always let him give her flowers and candy, and take her to the Third Avenue to see “ The Child Slaves of New York,” or “A Crown of Thorns,” — and twice last summer they had gone to Coney ; - but how once when he had told her that she was like a violet only ten times more so, she had made up a face and said people who knew anything did n’t talk that way nowadays.
“It’s funny,” he concluded confidentially,— “this ’ere business o’ bein’ thrown down by a girl. You ’d think it would cut you up awful, and it do in one way, an’ then in another, — well, put it like this: every mornin’ when it comes time for her to pass, I’m a speculatin’ on whether she’ll give me one of her looks; an’ suppose she goes by never turnin’ of her head, I says to myself, ‘Thomas, my boy, there goes a lady you ain’t good enough for, — you ain’t worthy of her,’ I says. An’ then I goes to work again, — say it’s a man I’m shavin’, — and acts as if I did n’t care, so’s no one will see as I ’m sufferin’ like that inside. But I guess it’s leaked out: one can’t hide them things, can they?”
I made a sympathetic exclamation, which he took in good part.
“You may well believe, sir, as I’ve got plenty of things to think about when I comes out here like this into the square for a little spell. And then to-day, I thought she might be goin’ by on her way home from work; but it’s gettin’ too late for her now.”
“Tell me,” I resumed, “how long is this going to keep up? It can’t last always.”
“I’m turnin’that over in my mind,” he replied. “Somebody seen her with another fellow, and the last time I went to her house her mother said, ‘Isobel was called away unexpected to-night,’ — but I know there was somebody gigglin’ around the corner. I did n’t say nothin’. I wisht I had: I thought o’ lots o’ things since.”
“What if she should marry him?” I asked with brutal directness. My motive was not mere curiosity, however. It was plain to me that someone ought to open Thomas’s eyes.
He gazed pensively at the Diana glimmering through the soft curtain of haze. “Well,” he said with a sigh, “it would make a pretty sad endin’, would n’t it ?”
Thereupon he drew forth a fresh dotted lawn handkerchief, from which I caught a faint seductive scent of heliotrope, and flecked a bit of dust from his shoe. It had all the effect of bringing that chapter of our conversation to a perfectly-rounded period.
I got up to go. “I’ll be walkin’ along with you a little piece,” said Thomas, “if it would be any pleasure to you. I ain’t got to go back to the shop quite yet.”
We walked through the Square together, speaking only of commonplaces, — of how quickly the winter was coming on; - it was getting a little lonesome in the park, he said, now that the leaves were all gone and the flowerbeds empty; he hardly liked to go there any more because it made him think of how bright and sociable-like it had been in summer.
The full tide of the early afternoon traffic was flowing down Broadway, and in our attempts to make a safe crossing we were separated. For a moment I thought I had lost him; — then I spied him once more, leaning back limply against the rail of a show window, his mouth half open, and a look of consternation not yet gone out of his eyes. I made my way to him.
“Oh, oh,” he blurted out faintly. “There she is, — and him!”
I followed the direction of his glance, and beyond the column of passing vehicles I caught a glimpse of Isobel and her escort just starting diagonally across the Square. I knew at once it was she: there was a tell-tale consciousness in her manner as she tossed her head archly at her companion — who, to judge by his shoulders, might have been a bookkeeper — and with one hand nervously fingered her back hair. A moment later they were lost to sight.
“I almost bumped into ’em crossing the street,” gasped Thomas weakly, “and she never give me a look. And she was laughin’ fit to kill.”
He recollected himself; gave a tasteful twitch to the creases of his trousers; and together we turned into a side street. We had not gone far when he nudged my elbow politely and looked up into my face. “Do you mind, sir, if I makes bold to ask your advice ? ”
In the midst of the hurrying crowd we seemed for the moment curiously alone, — I face to face with my responsibility. His confidence in me was a trust, I felt, to which I must not be disloyal, and I could see but one way of answering.
“Thomas,” I said, “my advice may not please you, but I think I ought to be frank. It’s clear to me that you will have to give her up sometime: I counsel you to do it now, once and for all. It’ll be the best thing in the end.”
A look of gentle horror fled across his features. “O dear, but I could n’t,” he ejaculated weakly, — “not for ever,— and all to wunst.”
“Well, a month to begin with,” I qualified.
“For two weeks, — if I can,” he consented despairingly. “I knowed already I’d ought to make up my mind that way. But you won’t leave me do it all alone, will you?” he added, putting a detaining hand on my arm.
I took his card. “No,” I said. “I’ll drop in and see you.”
I did. His shop was only a couple of blocks from my own office, and I used to run in for a shave every two or three days. Having involved myself so far in the affair, it was plainly my duty to stand by my protégé. And he needed support. It was really rather pitiful. The sacrifice cost him so much more than I could have predicted — out of my ignorance. I observed that he was looking old and worn; certainly the roses were fading from his cheeks, and there were blue channels under his eyes. He told me — with a certain dismal relish — that he was losin’ his appetite, that nothin’ tasted the same to him nowadays, that he could n’t seem to get no enjoyment in things at all.
And as he shaved me (I cannot describe those shaves: every detail was touched with an artistic embellishment; it was an æsthetic privilege to submit one’s self to his attentions), he insisted upon recalling in a reminiscent undertone various experiences out of his happier past, before the shadow of disillusion had fallen upon him.
“I wrote her,” he explained, “that I guessed I was too busy to come round any more. I said me and you was very good friends, sir, — I thought that would make her feel funny, because she always told me my friends was a queer lot.”
Thus Thomas would recount his heart’s autobiography; and all the time I supposed I was doing my duty: — that I was acting for his best good. Which only goes to show how fallible and materialistic all our theorizing is when it pits itself against that illogical and primitive thing which has made the world go round since before Eden. With the best intentions conceivable I was weeding a flower bed with a steam cultivator. It makes me shudder now to think of the harm I might have done, — ploughing around like that, reckless and insolent, among asphodels, bleeding-hearts, and love-in-a-mist! . . .
Aubrey shuddered dramatically, crossed his legs the other way, and relighted his pipe. I watched him with anxiety.
“Please go on with the story,” I suggested, after a long and very inconclusive silence.
Aubrey looked annoyed. “I was n’t telling you a story,” he retorted. “I was trying to give you some insight into a significant type of character. It’s disappointing to find that you’re just like the rest of the world: — ‘A story! Tell us a story!’ — as if that mattered.”
“What I am really asking for,” I explained diplomatically, “is further insight. It’s a mere matter of terms. Did he finally succeed in forgetting her?”
“I don’t know what he would have done if he’d been left alone. But that was n’t her idea. You see she was in love with him.”
“Oh yes, — madly, passionately, and all that. I found it out in due time. . . .
Something more than a week had passed, [he resumed], — nine days, to be precise, — since I had so solemnly pointed out the way of salvation to Thomas. I was sitting in my office dictating a bunch of letters, when the doorboy brought word to me that a young lady wanted to talk with me personally. “Something very important,” she had said, and she would n’t send in her name.
“Show her in,” I said, though there was a sudden presentiment of ill about my heart. An instant later she entered. I recognized her by the small green hat with a bunch of wings at the side.
A glance at her tight-shut lips was enough. I sent out my stenographer and pointed Isobel to a seat, which she took stiffly, as if under protest. The silence in the room was like that in which one watches a fuse.
“ I - have — come —” she began, at last, biting off each of her words nervously, — and then she stopped. I was sorry for her but had to wait.
“I have come,” she resumed, and I noticed a certain shrillness in her voice, “to ask if you would be so kind and polite as to explain to me why”— She broke off again, leaned forward, and clutched the edge of the desk with both hands. — “What have you been saying to Thomas, — that’s what I want to know! He’s my — I’m Isobel Higgins, and I’ve made up my mind to find out, so there!”
She rose to her feet with blazing eyes. Her tongue was loosened, it appeared. “I don’t know what business you have talking about me anyway or meddling in my affairs,” she proceeded headlong, - “ but I wanted to tell you that I just would n’t stand it, that’s all; and you’ve got to explain.”
It was clear that I must act quickly. Isobel had taken hold of one of the arms of the hat-tree, and I could see all the hats and canes on it trembling with sympathetic emotion.
“Miss Higgins,” I said, attempting to assume a calmness which was far from being mine, “there’s a mistake somewhere, I’m sure. Thomas said that you did n’t have any use for him. He was all broken up about it. He thought there was n’t any hope.”
“He did!” — she looked at me with one of those strange, luminous flashes of comprehension which women sometimes have. Then she suddenly loosened her hold on the hat-tree and sat down. “Oh, is n’t Thomas a fool!” It would be hard to decide whether she was crying or laughing.
“He said you had refused him,” I hastened to add, feeling that somehow my own reputation and not his was now at stake.
“Well, I did,” she granted, without the slightest hesitation.
“And that you were going around with another man.”
“ I was,” she said.
“And that you did n’t recognize him.”
“Well, what could one help inferring from that?” I asked, in a voice which did not sound so triumphant as I wanted it to.
She gazed at me with eyes in which pity and scorn were curiously blended. “I guess you ain’t much on girls,” she commented dryly.
I felt myself withering under that look; and that same full-rout shame seized me which one occasionally experiences in dreams, caught half-clad on a public thoroughfare.
“Excuse me just a minute,” I blurted out, and fled from the place. It was not wholly cowardice. In the midst of my inner turmoil, an inspiration had come to me.
I gave a message to the boy.... “It’s very important,” I added. “Don’t delay a minute, and be sure to bring him back with you.”
Then I took a long breath and returned to Isobel.
I said, “I feel, Miss Higgins, as if I owed you an apology and an explanation. If you will be a little patient with me, I will tell you about my acquaintance with Mr. Mudge, and I think that will make some things clearer.”
I told her, — not exactly what I have told you: — it was a sort of revised edition with a series of special marginalia, — you understand. She listened almost without comment; indeed I don’t think she was more than half paying attention to what I said. It was clear that I might exonerate myself of perfidy, but never of stupidity.
I was just telling her how terribly to heart Thomas had taken his renunciation, how cast down and depressed he had been ever since, when I was interrupted by the long-expected knock at the door.
“Mr. Mudge, sir,” said the boy, and disappeared.
Thomas entered, a little dazed still by the suddenness and obscurity of his summons; but his look changed to one almost of panic as he saw the lady in the chair.
Everything now depended on Isobel; but she was equal to the occasion: being, I may add, a woman, and very feminine, instinct and tact both came to her aid. She sprang to her feet and flung herself upon Thomas with a deliberate and thrilling abandon which his fondest dreams could hardly have given credence to.
“Thomas William,” she cried, “you old dear!" and then they kissed each other and said a number of rather foolish things, as young lovers will. I stood a little at one side, silent and slightly embarrassed, but agreeably conscious that all things were working together for good; and if I add that Thomas looked at me two or three times over her shoulder to make sure that I appreciated the situ ation, you will not charge that unkindly against him.
An instant later Isobel drew herself hastily away. “Thomas,” she said, and her face was very much flushed, “are n’t you the biggest, ninny that ever lived?”
“I suppose I be,” said Thomas, with modest pride.
Isobel turned to me, quite herself again. “But we must n’t keep you any longer,” she said, and after a good deal of handshaking and so forth, they left the room.
But Thomas had forgotten something, and came back. Leaning over the desk he spoke almost in a whisper. “You would n’t of thought that day we was sett’n’ together in the park that it was goin’ to have such a pleasant endin’ as this, would you ?" . . .
It has its compensations, you know, this business of being patron-saint to two young things like that, even if your charges do go off and leave you alone with your hands still extended. And besides, Thomas has not forgotten me: I have the life privilege of being shaved at his shop without, charge, — the only man, I dare say, in New York, who possesses so distinctive an honor.