THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
EVEN when he first appeared, intoxicated, in the prayer-meeting which my father was conducting, he was both witty and polite. He bowed ceremoniously when he entered; he remarked aloud, as he realized that he held his hymn-book by the wrong end, that it was a great accomplishment to be able to read upside down; he bowed politely again as he was escorted to the door by two elders. There he thanked them. He was tall and dignified and fairly well dressed, and he spoke like a gentleman. The subject of the prayer-meeting lesson was temperance, and Father, who enjoys coincidences, found in him an appropriate illustration.
In the morning, he called at our side door. He was out of work, he wished a trifling loan; it was a humiliating errand, but he trusted the kind heart of a clergyman to understand his necessity. He was helped, not with money, but with food, warm underwear, a hat that was better than his, and with advice. Father likes to set things straight, whether it be a crooked road or a crooked character, and his advice, which is sensible and tactful, is often taken.
‘I, intoxicated in the house of God!’ The stranger was overwhelmed. ‘ I, disturb a religious service! I was brought up to know better than that, sir. I hope you will apologize for me to your people. Ah, sir,’ and here the stranger sighed, deeply and profoundly, ‘the bird with the broken pinion never soars so high again!’
Thus did he name himself, and thus did we call him among ourselves throughout the two years during which he came regularly to see us. Once every two or three weeks he appeared, had a meal in the kitchen or on the back porch, talked for an hour or two, and departed. He was always polite, always entertaining, always willing to listen and to talk. We valued his remarks, his comments upon life, his extraordinary and mysterious knowledge. Where he acquired it, where he came from, where he went to, we do not know to this day.
To our father he discoursed about predestination, of him he made polite and interested inquiry about the tenets of our own faith — which does not include the above astonishing belief! — with him he argued — to mention only a few of the subjects to which he gave his thought — about the destiny of man, the existence of angels, and the sad and strange difference between the individual and corporate conscience of the citizens of our ancient, proud, and somewhat mismanaged State of Pennsylvania.
To my mother, when he came upon her in the garden, he held forth about rare flowers; to the oldest of my brothers he talked about Europe, whither he claimed to have been, and about football and cricket and airships; for the youngest of us he spread down a magic carpet upon which the two sped forth to the ends of the earth. Some times I eavesdropped, — indeed, there was almost always one of us eavesdropping, — and I recognized many of the familiar doings of Sind bad and Don Quixote and even of the glorious Greek.
With me, the bird of the broken pinion ventured upon distinctly literary topics. Somewhere he had come across a st ory signed by my name, and he had read it with flattering attention. He even suggested an improvement. Occasionally he presented me with newspaper clippings, giving incidents which he thought would make ‘copy.’ Several of them I have used to advantage. He had read widely; his slips in grammar and rhetoric made his acquaintance with Arnold and Stevenson all the more mysterious. What was he: a wandering son of some English manse, — his education seemed to have been English, — a scholar gypsy, not ‘pensive and tongue-tied,’ but cheerful and loquacious; not free, but fettered by his own weakness?
For two years he came, for two years he asked and was given alms, for two years he was advised and exhorted. He always expressed great interest in the welfare of his soul.
‘I do try, I will try,’ he would say, humbly, the smell of liquor strongly upon him. ‘I am sure, sir, I am grateful to you.’
Never until the end — and Father calculated afterwards that during the two years of his visitations he had been advised at least forty times — never until the end did he show any impatience, any resentment. He never reminded the head of our household that though his pinions may have suffered, he was no longer a fledgeling, and that his character was formed beyond hope of change. He listened politely even when little Bobby admonished him. And even at the end he was polite.
It was one summer evening at supper-time that he appeared on the porch opening from the dining-room. Father had finished his supper and went out to speak to him, and the rest of us sat still, ant icipating the pleasure that his conversation always gave us. The day had been intensely warm, and Father was uncomfortable. So, also, may have been our friend. Father did not wait until his unfailing charity had opened the way for advice; he began immediately on the man, who was for once unshaven, out at elbows, and disreputable.
‘Well,’ said Father with sharpness unlike him, ‘have you been keeping straight? ’
The man rose, he spoke jauntily, as one perfectly self-sufficient, perfectly satisfied with life: a stateof mind which is, on a hot day, at least, most enviable.
‘Doctor,’ he said, ‘I saw a clipping some time ago that I thought would interest you.’
He opened the old wallet from which he used to take clippings for me, and handed a little paper to Father, and then went down the steps and out the walk. We heard the gate click behind him. Father made an incoherent noise in his throat, then he called to our friend, who did not come back. He has never come back.
I suppose he could endure us no longer — our curiosity, our Pharisaism, our reforming zeal. He had amused us, entertained us, for two years, and we had never forgotten that he was a tramp. And he had done us good, not only with the example of his good temper, but with his reproof. If he still reads the Atlantic Monthly, will he accept this as an apology from us all and a confession of our own bad manners?
For the title of the clipping — Father brought it in and read it aloud and joined in the rueful laugh which greeted it—the title of the clipping was, ‘On the Excellent Virtue of Minding One’s Own Business’!