THE typical old bachelor — crusty, irritable, solitary — seems to be passing away, if indeed he is not already extinct. Nowadays there is every encouragement for Bachelordom, until it has developed from a single state to a United Kingdom with royal palaces in all great cities.
There was a time when the typical bachelor was pictured seated alone in a sadly neglected room, pushing a reluctant needle through unyielding cloth, as he strove awkwardly to sew a button on his coat, using the side wall of his room for a thimble. That is all done away with now, when the Universal Valet Company, Unlimited, sends its motor to the door of the Bachelor A partments, and carries away the garments of Benedick, returning them at nightfall, every button reinforced, every spot and stain effaced. And in what careless comfort does Benedick live ! Unhampered by feminine niceties, he sets down his pipe where he will, and swings about his room in easy half-dress, shouting the Stein Song at the top of his voice without let or hindrance.
Over his head lives Sonntag, musical director at the Varieties. Friends supping with him in his rooms at midnight have argued vociferously the pros and cons of Wagner’s music till Sonntag, weary of ineffectual argument, has silenced it by rushing to the piano and pouring out the music of Tristan and Isolde. The instrument has fairly trembled under Sonntag’s mighty hands!
When he reached the culmination of the love-song in the second act, have not Sonntag and his friends made the very walls echo their approval? Yet no protests from wakeful womankind,in quavering soprano tones, have followed this untimely outburst.
Of all the dwellers here, only Dobson on the eighth floor approximates the typical old bachelor. What hair he has, long since ceased to require the shears; yet Dobson invariably pays a monthly visit to Tony’s, where a farcical clipping is performed, There is a rotundity in Dobson’s figure which goes well with the twinkle that may, at times, be found in his brown eyes. But there is a hesitancy about his footfalls which speaks eloquently of punchloving ancestors and hereditary gout. If one is inclined to resent Dobson’s occasional bursts of ill-temper, let him remember this inheritance, and deal gently with the legatee.
Many a cosy supper have I had with Dobson. As we have many tastes in common, he often invites my company; and as I can never resist an opportunity to poreover his books, I seldom decline. More than once I have neglected, to the burning point, the toast I was supposed to be making, being lured away by some favorite author, — perhaps Florio’s Montaigne. The mellow old essayist is always associated in my mind with Dobson’s copy in red buckram, with bold, beautiful letters on a faintly yellow page.
Dobson entertains so seldom, and a feast means so much to him, that he surrounds it with symbols and sentiment. We were going off for a tramp, one Sunday, over the Orange mountains. He magnified the trip into an Alpine expedition, and planned what he called a Swiss breakfast before we started. The rolls came from a Swiss baker whom Dobson had discovered in his roamings, for he loves to ferret in odd corners of the city. Doubtless the goat’s milk was merely bovine. The honey, I know, came from Jersey, but better was never pilfered from the bees in the valleys about Monte Rosa.
As we sat and enjoyed the good fare, Dobson’s talk was all of mountain-climbing and Alpine adventures, of perils encountered in crossing crevasse and glacier. Alas, the only really dangerous crossings we made in our subsequent trip were over barbed wire!
One June day, we tramped the Wheatley hills and returned to the city in the moist summer twilight, warm and wearied. Dobson’s room was cool and quiet, and here we enjoyed the Feast of Strawberries. His sister had recently sent him some china from England,— Wedgewood it was, quaint in shape, cream-tinted, and bordered with tiny strawberry vines and pendent fruit. I hulled the berries while Dobson read in a low musical voice translations which he had made from the Sicilian poets, exquisite idyls which even in prose version were vibrant with life and passion. Over the heaped-up berries we poured purple Chianti, frosted them with sugar, and sat feasting in silence, watching the twinkling lights in the city below us — and dreaming —dreaming —
At Christmastide, Dobson had a distinctive feast. Madame Rampolli, who lives around the corner and keeps a queer grocer’s shop full of wonderful things, grassini, marrons glacés, and the like, baked at his request a loaf called by her pantoni. Of airy lightness it was, and toothsome! As you ate, occasional tid-bits scattered through, nuts, citron, and kindred delights, gave your appetite an unexpected fillip. Long after it was stale, we toasted it into crispness and crunched it delicately. But at Christmastide its freshness needed no toasting,and we ate it gratefully, washing it down with Dobson’s favorite Chianti, while he sat and told me a tale which never wearied in the repetition, — how he had spent Christmas once, in a hamlet in North Italy. On the eve of the Nativity, he joined the simple peasants of the countryside in the little church. Here mass was sung, and at the hour of midnight, a shepherd came in from the hills, bearing in his arms, nestled against his shaggy coat, a little lamb, which he gave into the hands of the waiting priest, while the people fell upon their knees amid murmured blessings and prayers.
From this feast, so full of Christian ideals, it seems a far cry to a banquet savoring of heathendom. When he is in a chatty frame of mind, Dobson telephones me, and I join him on my way uptown for a mingled dish of tea and gossip. Two quaint cooksoom of Royal Medallion china with glittering brass bases stand in state upon his table, near the copper kettle bubbling over the blue flame. We brew the tea, a simple operation when done in true Chinese fashion by pouring the boiling water over the fragrant green leaves in the cooksoom. Dobson learned the art from the Celestials in Mott Street. Watch him lift the dish in those deft fingers, and with Oriental expedition pour the amber brew into his cup, tipping the cover sufficiently to permit a generous flow, yet retaining the floating leaves imprisoned in the coohsoom. In Dobson’s presence, you dare not ask for sugar, lemon, or cream, those superfluities of the feminine mind, or arrack, that masculine adulteration. He who drinks with Dobson, drinks as do the squint-eyed wearers of the pig-tail in Chinatown.
Do the ogling belles of the Flowery Kingdom who ornament the Royal Medallion ware and who exchange confidences thereon, affect our conversation? Or is it the result of the gentle beverage, so intimately associated with the fair sex? I have observed that at this ceremony Dobson’s talk is of a personal, gossipy nature. It is at such times that my host refers, however slightly, to the lady whose portrait hangs over his mantel, the flower of a long line of seafaring New Englanders, they who brought these cooksoom overseas. She sleeps now in a quiet churchyard, within sound of the ocean her people loved and labored upon. It is in memory of her that Dobson, who was surely intended to be the head of some happy household, lives alone in Bachelordom.
The blue flame under the kettle flickers and dies. The light of the late afternoon grows fainter and fainter. Shadows creep out of the corners of the room. Our talk becomes intermittent, and ceases at last. Who is this that, with a rustle of silken draperies, glides softly out of the shadows? Surely it is the lady whose portrait hangs yonder! You recognize her by the tortoise-shell comb in the quaintly dressed hair, and by the shawl of china crêpe falling over her sloping shoulders. She steals about the room, banishing its untidiness. Books are straightened on the table, curtains which swung awry fall into graceful folds, flowers smile upon the mantel-shelf. There is an unexpected orderliness and comfort about the place.
Listen! She is singing under her breath. She pauses and looks up. Now you, too, may catch the sound which arrested her attention. It is the prattle and laughter of children who seem to be coming toward her.
You glance at Dobson in his chair, — is he nodding? The lady pauses at his side, her hand on his shoulder, her eyes turned toward the children in the shadows. She is about to bend over and kiss the bowed head, and with a feeling of guilty intrusion, I pick up my hat, tiptoe across the room, and slip noiselessly through the doorway, out of Bachelordom!