The Listener

WONDERFUL things had been happening to that old clockwork of a man, and for the second time in forty-two years he was late by more than an hour. Only this time he did not take his tardiness to heart, nor did he even realize his delinquency.

Humming a song, but in a tuneless fashion and grotesquely off the key, as any man with absolutely no sense of hearing might hum a song, he entered the Exchange Room, a sort of cave walled in on every hand by the ponderous bound volumes of the newspaper files. In this place of perpetual darkness, with its dry, acrid odor of dust, he sat all day at his desk, his bald head shining below the tin funnel of the drop-light, and always tilted at the same angle, his hands forever spreading newspapers open before him, and his black-rimmed eyeglasses perkily balanced at the tip of his nose.

As an office-boy he had nursed the ambition of some day being a reporter; as a reporter he had fed upon still higher hopes; but a difficulty with his hearing had choked the life from aspiration, until now he was tolerably laughed at, ridiculed for his fussy ways, and greeted with all sorts of nonsensical comments which his deafness would of course not permit him to hear.

His whole life was centred in looking over the newspapers, in tearing off wrappers, in sorting out the city and country dailies, and in marking articles with a blue pencil to call editorial attention to them. Years ago the president of the publishing company, in an effort to reward the old man for his long service, ordered that he be given a clerkship in the business office, at an increase of salary. The Exchange Editor could scarcely believe it; he was both astonished and hurt. What, take him away from his newspapers ? No, no, it would n’t be right.

Apparently he could think only of those duties of his. His coat might wear shiny, his trousers need patching, his celluloid collar and cuffs be cracked in a hundred places, without ever giving him a hint as to the shabbiness of his attire. Upon entering his lodging-place, with a corpulent bundle of newspapers under his arm, he would first try to recall whether he had eaten his dinner; if there were gravy spots on the front of his vest they would sometimes set his mind at ease, and he would rigorously set to work.

Unfailingly he went to bed at ten o’clock, well pleased with the day he had spent, and smiling complacently at the thought of the new influx of papers which would deluge the Exchange Room on the morrow.

Thus flowed the tranquil life of this quiet man who, despite his deafness and the endless monotony of his daily toil, remained forever placid. And thus his peaceful existence might have continued, had he not one day, while reading a newspaper, come upon the description of a new invention, some sort of electrical contrivance which was said to be a marvel. With the use of it, any one could hear.

Impossible, thought the old man, but he began ruminating about the invention. What, he asked himself, would it be like to go to church of a Sunday and actually hear something: a good sermon, perhaps, and perhaps beautiful music that should pulse all through him as it did in his younger days? How if he were really to hear, understand, enjoy everything ?

Suppose that such a machine would really do what was said of it?—But, no! nonsense! It was probably a fraud. Several months later the Exchange Editor was thoroughly convinced of that, for he knew the person who had obtained the agency for the acoustical instrument. Goulstein was the man, Levi Goulstein, dealer in jewelry, diamonds, microscopes, opera-glasses, and optical supplies. It was the same dealer from whom, years ago, the old man had purchased an ear-trumpet.

That instrument, to be sure, had served its purpose well enough, but it had been used only a little while, for one is usually sensitive about having attention called to his deafness, and in truth, the Exchange Editor did not like to have acquaintances notice him on the street; it made him uncomfortable to have them shout at him in such a way that people invariably stopped to see what was the matter.

All the same, he did like to hear the voices of his friends, and by reading of the new invention he was so invaded by an aching loneliness that he rummaged out his old ear-trumpet from the rubbish and cobwebs of the shelf over his bed. The battered brass of the bell, he noticed, was splotched with green stains of verdigris, and the small, ball-like tip of hard rubber which used to fit into the ear had been broken off.

Well, now, why not have the thing repaired ? The work, he concluded, while on his way to take the instrument to L. Goulstein, might be worth a dollar, or, at the outside, not more than a dollar and a half. Still considering this point, he entered the establishment where the proprietor, a bald, pudgy little man, with three folds of flesh at the back of his neck that squeezed out above his white collar, was taking down a green curtain used to protect the clock-shelves from the dust.

“ Good-morning. How goes it ? ” said the Exchange Editor; and spoke rather falteringly, for he had seen the fat hand of Mr. Goulstein try three separate times to unfasten one of the little curtain-rings from a hook, and as he was an excitable man, any annoyance might put him into such a humor that he would be likely to demand as much as two dollars for repairing the ear-trumpet.

The customer laid his parcel on the show-case, and removed the newspaper wrapping.

“ Here, now,” he said, “ a little work. A very good instrument. A new tip, that’s what it needs. Then if it is polished up a bit, the dents hammered out, and — Well, you see what is required.”

Goulstein looked at the ear-trumpet, wiped his florid face and afterward his large nose upon a white handkerchief with a lavender border, then took up the instrument, but raised it in the newspaper, as though it would be likely to contaminate those white, corpulent fingers of his. As he held the battered thing to the light, he shook his head over it in a way that made his puffy cheeks quiver like jelly; then he laid the ear-trumpet back on the show-case, and dusted his hands together.

Meanwhile there was a swallowing movement in the old man’s throat, as though he choked with discouragement.

“ Why, Mr. Goulstein, why can’t you ? ” he asked. “ Why not fix it up for me ? ”

The only answer the dealer made was to wrap up the ear-trumpet in the newspaper, and start to tie the string about it.

“ Never mind about the polishing; I can do that myself,” said the Exchange Editor. “ A tip, one of those little hard rubber tips — that’s all it wants,”

From an inside pocket of his coat the tradesman brought out an envelope, and with a pencil wrote on the back of it, —

“ They don’t make them any more.”

The Exchange Editor read the words, spat to one side, and then exclaimed, 舒

“ Goulstein, what is the use of lying ? ”

“ No, but it’s the truth, the God’s truth! I’m a Turk and a Dago if I lie to you! ” In the earnestness of his protestations the dealer stopped short, while suddenly his thick-lidded eyes brightened with inspiration. From his desk he produced a circular describing a new instrument which would permit the deaf to hear; and straightway,when the old man looked at the printed page through his black-rimmed eyeglasses, he grew dizzy, as if he had drunk three or four toddies, one after another.

“ You have them, those new machines ? ” he stammered. “ Well, but no matter. I could not have one. I have no money for that.”

On the envelope the dealer wrote, — “ They work splendid.”

“ A fake! I’ll bet it’s a swindle! ” the old man protested with unnatural calmness, but his face was a-quiver.

“ Vait till I get ’em in. You’ll see! ” Goulstein shouted, as the Exchange Editor bent forward, a hand scooped about his ear. Ordinarily the dealer could speak English very well, for his children at home kept correcting him, but sometimes, in a moment of excitement such as this, there was an occasional word which stubbornly refused to come right. “ Shust you vait till I get ’em in! ” he repeated.

Goulstein came out from behind the show-case, trundled forward with the labored jouncing of a wheelbarrow, went up to the old man, raised on his toes, and said in a loud voice, —

“ To introduce the goods I vouldt make it to you scheap. Guarantee it. They are on the road, were shipped by express last Wednesday. No satisfaction, no pay. Ven you not hear, den I get nudding. Hey?”

To get at the price of the contrivance, the old man cunningly exclaimed, —

“ But a machine like that — how much ? As much as ten dollars, what ? ” “ Ten dollars! Who said ten dollars? Not me. I never said that — nudding like it! No. sir, you don’t get one of dose machines for a hundred dollars. Look here: they list ’em at a hundred and fifty, but ven I knock off my commission — you being an old customer — ven I do that, then vot ? Vell, then you carry him home for a hundred and twenty. And vot do I make on it? Not a red damn cent. No, sir. It’s only to introduce the goods.”

“ A hundred and twenty dollars! ” the old man gasped.

“ That’s it — the wholesale price, and if you get the large attachment, it will mount up to a hundred and sixty.”

“ Don’t — I beg of you, please ! ” The words came with husky faltering, and the Exchange Editor moistened his dry lips to add, “ A very good instrument this ear-trumpet. You sold it to me. Nothing much wrong with it. A new tip — that’s the main thing. The dents don’t matter. I will polish it up myself.”

Goulstein said no more. He merely tied the string about the parcel on the showcase, and with the ear-trumpet under his arm, the old man took his departure.

All that day the Exchange Editor could not get done thinking about the new machine. The circular, with half-tone engravings to illustrate what the instrument was like, he had brought with him from the dealer’s, and he read it several times on his way to the newspaper office; often he looked at it during his working hours, and the last thing he read before retiring for the night was again that description, every detail of which was as clearly in mind as though he himself had been the one who had written it.

During the two months that followed, the new invention was much in the old man’s consideration; but one day, with the ear-trumpet under his arm, he again visited Goulstein’s establishment, in the hope that the youth who did watch-andclock repairing might be in charge of the shop; for who knows ? — it might be possible to talk reason with that young man. A hasty inspection of the establishment revealing that the proprietor was conveniently absent, the Exchange Editor briskly dodged in, but as he was untying the string of his parcel, his courage suddenly failed. Through a rear door Goulstein had appeared.

Plunged thus abruptly into confusion, the old man felt ashamed, guilty, as though he had been caught in some mean trick; and before he knew it he was inviting the dealer across the street to the Duxedo Bar, where they drank together, a toddy for the Exchange Editor, a gin fizz for Mr. Goulstein. Afterward the jeweler thumped the old man’s parcel, striking it with his fat middle finger which seemed to be inflated with gas; but the thick nail made the brass under the paper ring with a dull metallic clink, as Goulstein exclaimed with solemn finality, “ It can’t be fixed! ” Officiously ordering a second toddy, he stood on his toes, stretched his fleshy neck, and in a loud voice said to the Exchange Editor, “ Come now, I am going to fit you out with one of those new instruments.”

But the old man abruptly tore himself away, alarmed at the thought of such a great expenditure, and afraid of the temptation, which seemed to grow ever more alluring. Better never to see one of those machines! Better to forget all about it! But that, the Exchange Editor came to understand, was impossible, utterly impossible, and all peace of mind went out of him, since he had grown so sick at heart through his yearning to hear again.

Then he began to save more rigorously than he had ever saved, and for that reason he was much chagrined when his landlady raised his room-rent. Yet he considered that it would scarcely be treating her right to move out, for he was gratefully mindful of the times she had patched his trousers for him and also of the time, during a spell of illness, when she had made him gruel and prepared a mustard-plaster. And besides, she was a good woman, a widow with seven children, and with so noisy a house that, if she were to keep any lodger very long at a time, he would surely have to be deaf.

There was still another consideration which reconciled the old man to the deplorable rise in his room-rent: it was that the woman had been struggling hard to keep her eldest son in college. A good boy, Charley Holland! The Exchange Editor had a real fondness for him and was proud to think how the lad was working diligently to get an education.

No, everything considered, it would not be right to move out, and the old man was resolved to try, in other ways, to accumulate money. This could be done by not riding on the street car even in bad weather, by breakfasting on ten instead of fifteen cents, and by burning less coal. Of evenings, if he were to take his work into his landlady’s sittingroom, even though the children liked to climb over him and pull his white fringe of hair, he would not have to light a fire in his own room.

It was hard, a little bit hard, to get used to this way of living, but then, after all, what had been the use of pampering himself? And besides, he was still a little extravagant; every other week, on Sunday, he took a cup of coffee at breakfast.

As often as once a month, and sometimes twice a month, the Exchange Editor talked with the dealer about the instrument. Would n’t those machines come down in price, he inquired, if one were to wait a year or two? Who had been buying them ? Were they all right ? Did they give perfect satisfaction?

After every conference of this kind the old man was greatly pleased and also a little troubled, almost wishing that he had given himself the pleasure of testing the instrument; and that he never did test it was because he wanted to treasure up the joy until he should actually have the money to pay for the machine. The day of all days it was to be, and he must not do anything to cheapen or lessen the mighty effect of it.

The time for making the purchase was gradually drawing near, and he was greatly rejoiced to consider that now only four more months remained, four additional months of pinching and saving. It made him quite dizzy to think how rapidly and how easily he had been amassing his funds, for at the beginning he had thought it was going to be very, very hard to accomplish; but see, now, it had not been so very difficult!

How the time came at last for him to buy the instrument; how he hastened to Goulstein’s shop as soon as he received his pay-check at the end of the week; how he saw a sign posted on the door. “ Closed on account of Jewish holiday,” and how the establishment would not open again until Monday — all this he told the men at the newspaper office; and it was hard, so hard on him to be kept waiting that on the great morning when he awoke, his temples throbbed with a wretched headache. “ This will soon pass off,” he declared, for he did not like to admit his threatening state of health; and yet he was painfully conscious that he had been unable to sleep much, that his fevered mouth was as dry as a crust, and that he felt heavy, stiff, enfeebled all through and through. As he got out of bed a shuddering fear invaded him, a fear that, after all, he might not get the instrument. “ Perhaps.” he told himself, “ it was never intended for me; perhaps I have been too covetous of it.”

Even though he was long in getting dressed and in walking downtown, he arrived at Goulstein’s shop before it had opened; and leaning against an iron trolley-post, he waited a while before deciding that it might help to pass the time if he were to go to a restaurant for something to eat. This morning he ordered a cup of coffee, and every minute, while at breakfast, he kept fumbling inside the breast of his waistcoat to feel the roll of paper money pinned fast to his pocket.

He was determined to be very cautious in parting with that sum, and in short, the first thing he said to Goulstein, when the dealer was using a fresh, lavenderbordered handkerchief to wipe the different parts of the acoustical instrument, was this: —

“ It may be all right, but will it stay all right ? ”

With a fat smile that displayed the gold fillings of his teeth, the dealer shouted: —

“ Shust vait; you’ll see! ”

To the breast of the old man’s coat he fastened a black disc, a transmitter to which an electric battery was attached, and a cup-like thing, with green cords like the receiver of a telephone, was pressed to the customer’s ear. Then, immediately, the old man began to roll his eyes. He heard something; yes, truly, he heard music, but it was a frying and a sneezing panic of music — the noise of a phonograph with a bad record and running much too fast.

“My stars! Good heavens!” he gasped. “ What a row! ” He jerked away, peered all about the room and then out into the street, but nowhere could he see any disturbance; and the dealer, although momentarily nonplussed, was quick to stop the rasping suffocation of noise.

“ Can you hear me distinctly ?” Goulstein questioned, and holding up his watch, he added, “ Hear it ?”

Silent, engrossed, spell-bound, the Exchange Editor did not move, for the room had suddenly become vocal with a score of voices: the rapid pulsation of the watch, the metallic galloping of alarm clocks, the confused respiration of time’s machinery, tickings vague and distinct, leisurely and fast, dignified and clownish, an immense chorus of palpitating seconds as sung by a variety of movements.

“ It will have to be fitted,” said the dealer, “ shust as glasses are fitted to the eye. Maybe everything is too loud, maybe not loud enough. I vill find out about that.”

He spoke pompously, giving himself airs like a street-corner salesman, and he did not fail to mention that only through friendship and because he wanted to introduce the goods, was he reducing the price to a hundred and twenty dollars. But the old man had decided to take precautions.

“ I must see how it works,” he said. “ Let me have it on approval, and then, you understand, if it gives satisfaction — ”

Goulstein looked discouraged.

“ If you would pay something down,” he suggested.

“ To-morrow, yes,” the old man replied, “ that is, if it works right.”

Convinced that the machine would prove indispensable, Goulstein reluctantly permitted it to be taken on trial; and with the black little cup-thing fitted and held in place like an ear-muff, the Exchange Editor, upon leaving the shop, began to walk he knew not whither.

It was a spring morning, one of those fine days almost like June, and the sunlight, the air, the clean, sweet freshness of the sky, all, everything was new; surely it had never before been like that, never, never, since the world began! It was as though the hour had been made for him, and it was as though a young girl whom he passed on the street had been made for the hour. She was all in white, with a red parasol over her head; but it was less her daintiness and youth than it was the crispy whisper of her gown that filled him with an unaccountable joyousness. It seemed to him that he, too, was still young and that now, at last, he was going to live, perhaps have a romantic adventure of some sort, and in the end have a home of his own with children in it. And then — only think: if a little boy were to call him father, he would be able to hear that sweet word; yes, actually, he would be able to hear it!

The mere thought of such a thing delighted him so much that he laughed aloud; and afterward, while stepping gayly along in this exultation of spirit, he presently halted, for some little maple trees, beside the curb in front of the Lloyd Hotel, were very interesting to him. In point of fact, they were puny, city trees of the most discouraged sort, each one protected against horses’ teeth by a circular casing of iron rods; and although there could be no charm in such absurd and struggling greenery as that, the old man stood there in amazement, his face upturned, his hands clasped, and reverence in his eyes, as a playful whiff of breeze set the meagre foliage to lisping and whispering. So affected he was that he could scarcely keep from calling out to every passer-by, “ Little trees, yes, but what sounds! Good heavens, what a rippling loveliness! ” It was as sweet to him as rain upon the roof, one of those gentle April showers that used to fall, years and years ago, when he was a little boy in his father’s house.

He went on one side of the trees, then on the other, drew away, came nearer, and listened, and listened, yet could not get his fill of listening. To him there was something anxious and timorous and loving in those quiet voices, as though they were trying to tell him beautiful secrets which nobody but he, nobody in all this world but he, would ever be allowed to understand.

After many delays he finally reached the newspaper office, more than an hour late for the second time in forty-two years. But, unconscious of his tardiness and tunelessly humming a song, he entered the Exchange Room, with a feeling that all the staff, from managing editor to office-boy, must have learned of his great affair. The men did indeed come in to see him, to offer congratulations, and to listen — some of them quite patiently — to his exhaustive explanations about the acoustical instrument. And the pleasantries he heard, all those jocular comments, filled him with confusion, caused him to stammer, and made him blush to the top of his bald head.

In the circumstances it was hard for him to keep on babbling, he was too happy for that; and yet he tried to think of something clever to say, in order that these friends of his might see what a vast difference it makes in a body’s life to be able to hear.

Well, taken all in all, these were the most glorious hours of his life, his cup was running over, and at night, when he reached home, he was still inwardly aglow with pride and satisfaction. But before he went to bed the old man lit his oil lamp that he might compare the acoustical instrument with the pictures of the circular which he had been treasuring through all these months of deprivation.

Yes, here it was, this little machine, exactly as he had known it was going to be! He brought out his old battered eartrumpet, and contrasted the two contrivances, putting them side by side on the bed; then he laughed aloud, so great was the difference, so much more modest and unassuming did the new instrument appear ! It gave him such a desire to brag, to tell afresh the wonderful things he had been telling all day long, that he adjusted the contrivance to his ear, and went downstairs to call on his landlady.

Twice he knocked at the sitting-room door, and when, after a long interval of waiting, it creaked wearily open, he saw by the face of the woman that something woeful must have been happening to her.

“ I have here,” he began, but paused in the belief that she was in no mood to be appreciative. “ Better to come here at some other time,” he thought; yet even in the presence of her trouble he plucked up spirit to say, “ Everything — I can hear everything. A little machine — I can hear very well, but it has not been fitted yet. They fit them, exactly as they fit glasses to the eye. Maybe this one is too strong, or maybe not strong enough, but it appears that —I think it is going to be all right.”

“ Come in,” said the woman, with a show of interest in her voice, but she had turned her face away from the lamplight that he might not see those tear-swollen eyes of hers.

“ Have you hurt yourself? ” the Exchange Editor sympathetically inquired, as he noticed that her right hand was bound up in a white cloth.

“ Oh, that ! ” she exclaimed rather contemptuously, and added with a shrug of vexation, “ Burned it with hot lard.”

It was plain that a hurt more serious was troubling her. But what ? The old man noticed that the room, commonly so neat, was now in great disorder, and something, it seemed to him, must have gone out of it. Where, he wondered, was the sofa ? And what had become of the rug with the blue dog woven into it, and the other rug with the two red and green bull-fighters ?

“ The installment men! What? ” the Exchange Editor suddenly exclaimed.

“ They have been here, yes,” the woman admitted. “ I got too far behind in my payments.”

After this brief statement of fact, spoken without bitterness, she asked her visitor to be seated, and he took his old place at the centre table, beside the lamp, where he had spent so many evenings to save the burning of coal in his own room. Only this time, instead of looking over a pile of newspapers, he gazed curiously at the woman, being conscious how frail and little she had grown, and how tired and old, although he was certain she could barely have reached middle age.

“ With my hand like this,” she presently observed, “ I can’t hold a pen very soon, and I want a letter written, a letter to my son.” Three boys she had, but the eldest, he who was away at college, was the only one she ever referred to as “ son.’

“ Why, yes — certainly,” said the Exchange Editor, and with pen poised above the paper, his black-rimmed eyeglasses astride the end of his nose, he added, “ Well, now, how shall we begin? ”

With her left hand the woman began to pluck ravelingsfrom the frayed edge of the bandage, and it was long before she spoke again: but at last she said, pausing thoughtfully between the phrases, —

“ I don’t want to ask you to come home, Charley; you know that, but I just have to ask you. Things are in such a state; the furniture for the front bedroom is gone. A lodger engaged the room yesterday, but to-day the installment folks cleaned it out. All the rooms but one are vacant. I can’t earn enough at washing and ironing. I am not strong any more. I am afraid you will have to come home and help us out.”

Toward the close of the letter the old man wrote slowly, as though it had become very hard work for him to use the pen; for he had taken a deep interest in that boy at college, and was fond of imagining how it might have turned out if he himself could have gone to school, learned more, and been better prepared for newspaper work.

Before the Exchange Editor had finished the letter his pen stopped short, and he wiped his face with his handkerchief, knocked off his eyeglasses, stared at the sheet of paper, got up, walked about, then paused, raised the written page, and nervously tore it into small bits.

“ No,” he said, “ no, Mrs. Holland, we won’t write that letter.” He cleared his voice several times, but could not succeed in getting all the huskiness out of it, and as he passed slowly behind the woman’s chair he gently laid his hand on her shoulder. “ I want you to do me a favor,” he went on. “ I have here a little money. I — I don’t need it. I want you to borrow from me. In the summer Charley will work. He will pay it back. Good-night.”

No time was given the woman to protest. Into her lap dropped the roll of bank bills, and the old man quickly strode away, hurried upstairs to his room, and locked the door.

Once there, safely inside his own four walls, he breathed deep, and smiled as he took up the battered ear-trumpet from the bed; he even tried to laugh at it again, but this time he could not, and he gently put it back in its old place on the shelf — gently, for there had been a time when it had helped him to hear a little.

The new instrument he lovingly put down on the table, and over it he spread a snowy handkerchief, as if it were the face of some dear friend who had died.

The old man soon went to sleep that night, and he slept well. A time of rest and quiet breathing had come to him, as though he might be lost in some fragile dream woven of such pretty sounds as the rain makes, or perhaps a timorous whispering of leaves, or else the jolly voices of those men at the office who had been kind to him.