The Return of Mr. Squem

‘A GOOD-LOOKER and a high hooker!’ This was the verdict of Mr. Squem upon Miss Cynthia Browne.

Professor William Emory Browne had been asked down to the countryhouse of his widower brother, on the ocean, to dine and stay the night, and his niece had written him to bring any one he liked.

The professor had at once thought of Mr. Squem, traveling representative of the Mercury Rubber-Tire Company, to whom he was indebted for services openhandedly rendered in a pinch — a railway accident. ’Just the way to recognize him,’ thought the professor, and was rather comfortable. Indeed, reflecting upon the opportunity thus opened to Mr. Squem, he almost glowed. Behind was the feeling — a bit zestful — that in this way he would be exhibiting to his brother’s household a unique and quite amusing person — providing the party with an experience. A singular blend of motives, which Mr. Squem could not possibly have understood.

Professor Browne’s brother had come into the world and lived in the world with just one object — to make a million dollars. This he had done, and there seemed nothing more to say. Yes, one thing more: he had fathered Cynthia, now a girl of twenty-two, with the ghost of a soul-starved mother — who, in common with everything else, had stood aside for the million dollars — looking out of her eyes. The brother, the brother’s daughter, and a Mr. Dudley Ledgerwood, were the people whom Professor Browne invited Mr. Squem to the country-house to meet — and to amuse.

Mr. Squem arrived in state, bearing a large suit-case and a hat-box, the latter’s maiden appearance, though it had been a treasured possession for five years. The house and its scale impressed him, and particularly a fountain — copy of Verrocchio’s Boy with the Dolphin — well placed before the main entrance; but he could not help feeling a certain bareness, not to say meagreness, in the room to which he was conducted by the very correct maid. True, Tony’s Seven Chair Sanitary Shaving Parlor was not more immaculate, and if he knew a good bed, there it was; but the room lacked in colorwarmth, — Mr. Squem thought of his own green carpet and red walls,— there were but three wall pictures, and they most unstriking, and the mantel was destitute of such decorative bric-àbrac, picked up at Atlantic City and elsewhere, as the guest loved. Mr. Squem noted these limitations, then adjured himself to ‘quit knocking,’ and proceeded to dress for dinner. He was the only one who did, the butler excepted, the three other gentlemen being in light summer clothes.

Miss Cynthia greeted him with frank cordiality; rarely had his ‘pleased to meet you ’ received so warming a comeback. She was a thoroughbred — her features, her carriage, her total, persuaded Mr. Squem of that. Yes, a thoroughbred — a good-looker and a high-hooker! Her father came out of his million-dollar grave long enough to assure the visitor that he was welcome, and then ceased to exist, and Mr. Dudley Ledgerwood bowed faintly, looking over Mr. Squem’s head.

This Mr. Ledgerwood was a lifeweary person of thirty-five, with the bored expression of one permanently waiting for a train. He seemed chronically tired, but not so tired as certain who encountered him. He had trained a really capable mind upon things which he was certain were affected by very few. He wrote — always from a quite Olympian standpoint — occasional reviews of books for magazines of limited circulation, and was suspected of having dark designs upon a Book of his own. He was bare of any convictions, their place being taken by a passion for being — different. So his life went in dissatisfiedly sniffing things. His thoughts were not intentionally other people’s thoughts, or his ways, where he could help it, their ways. A mysterious providence had given him considerable money.

The dinner struck Mr. Squem as an all-right thing and function, although simpler than at some hotels he knew, and he wondered a bit that there was no orchestra. They had scarcely finished the soup before Professor Browne, thinking it time for the entertainment to begin, remarked, —

‘Mr, Squem, though an active man of affairs, is no stranger to liberal culture. Perhaps he will tell you about his Universal History.’

‘No good,’ said Mr. Squem with decision, ‘no good! You see,'—he frankly took in the company, — ‘I only got as far as the sixth grade — and you know you feel that, when you begin to shuck the day coach for the Pullman and have your clothes built for you and hang out at four-per hotels. You sure do. Something is n’t there. I felt it after I got to giving sixty straight for a sack-suit, and after I got my car — some car, believe me! Well, I was telling the professor here how maybe I could put it there — the thing that was n’t — by chewing up a thirty-five dollar Universal History I bought—something elegant and classy. But it was no go — no go. I want to tell you I lit into that thing for fair — loaded up on the pyramids and the Monroe Doctrine and radium and a lot of other things. But it did n’t put over what was n’t there, — not one little bit, — and I kept on getting up against people who made me feel it. So I say it was no good, — relish an olive, Miss Browne?—I give it to the Home for the Friendless.’

‘Lamentable!’ said Mr. Ledgerwood. ‘Really’ —

A diversion came at this point, the punctilious butler for the first recorded time spilling something. It was mushroom sauce, and a very little trickled down the left and right arms of Mr. Squem and Mr. Ledgerwood, seated side by side. The latter bent upon the man a look which might have penetrated armor-plate. He was extremely irritated and let it be seen. Not so Mr. Squem.

‘Whoa, George!’—he beamed reassuringly upon the unhappy butler. ‘ I ’m no Lillian Russell. No milk-baths for me!’

Miss Cynthia instantly covered up.

‘So sorry,’ she said, ‘so very sorry!’ And then hurriedly; ‘Oh, I do so thank you, Mr. Ledgerwood, for the picture

— my note was the poorest thing. Will you try to know what a satisfaction it is, and what a prize to own? I’m going to have it brought — my uncle must see it. You ’ll envy me,’ she added to Professor Browne.

Then there was borne in, and placed for all to see, such a painting as Mr. Squem had never in all his days, outside a junk-shop, beheld; a copy of the Recanati Annunciation of Lorenzo Lotto; exceedingly old and dingy, and with blisters here and there —a fearful wreck, in a woefully tarnished frame! Why was it there?

‘ Well enough,’ said Mr. Ledgerwood with languor, as candles were shifted here and there before the canvas, ‘and by way of being early — fairly early. Of course it’s been “comforted” a bit. The vehicle is reasonably clear, with something of the original’s subtle qualities of tint.’ (He had cribbed this phrasing from Mr. I Berenson.) ‘The lights and shadows, too, are treated with — ah, genuine science, as there. Does the cat here at all suggest the lion of the Hamburg St. Jerome, Professor Browne?’

Professor Browne was — as Mr. Ledgerwood devoutly hoped would be the case — unable to say, and further conversation permitted a display of impressive connoisseurship — worth giving a picture for any day. At length the professor turned to the silent and still astonished Mr. Squem.

‘What do you think of the picture?’ he asked. ‘ How does it appeal to you ? ’

What Mr. Squem really thought, and what he had for some moments been affirming to himself, was that the whole thing was enough to make a man swallow his tonsils. What he said, surveying the cat affrighted at the angel, was, —

‘Some scared pussy!’

A silence followed, which at length pricked him to a sense of his guest’s duty. ‘Just been out to Denver,’ he said, ‘over the Q. First time in years. It’s a spry burg, and no shrinking violet, either. Something happened to me there once.’

‘Tell us about it,’ urged Professor Browne with ringmaster’s readiness.

‘Well, you see it was this way — no spinach for me, thanks. I was on my first long trip. Had n’t been west of Pittsburg before, and I never hope for a ride like that again. Gee! those brushballs rolling over the prairie — hundreds and hundreds of ’em rolling and rolling! Spookish things. And the wooden-toothpick fence-posts — miles and miles of them. Then old Pike’s looming up, not twenty minutes off, you’d bet; near enough to spit on, you ’d say, but staying there, just staying there, for hours! A Denver man in the seat ahead says, “ I thought it would make your jaw drop on your wishbone ” — and he was right. It was great!’

Hæc olim,’ volunteered Mr. Ledgerwood, with a touch of chill.

‘We didn’t stop at that place,’ said Mr. Squem. ‘It was an express. Well, I went into the diner an hour this side of Denver, — anything I can reach you, Mr. Browne? — and when I’d squared for my meal, do you know, I had just sixty-seven cents left? Sixty-seven cents, — and I did n’t know a soul in Colorado, — not a soul! Figured I’d be about three days too soon to find a draft from the house, and my only baggage was one of these birdsize grips. Well, I took a hack at the station for White’s Palace Hotel, — it hurt me fifty cents, — and I stood up at the green-marble counter and hancocked the register and asked for my mail. Nothing doing, as I supposed. No mail. So there I was, a right smart from home, as they say in Baltimore, with nothing I could put up for my board and nobody in the state I could strike for a dollar. They’d had an awful pest of hotel dead-beats, too, with smooth stories, just before — and me there, with seventeen cents!’

‘What a situation!’ said Miss Browne. ‘But surely there was the telegraph.’

‘Nobody was taking any chances on collect-wires East,’ said Mr. Squem. ‘They’d as soon set up mileage to Chicago. That would have meant a swift kick. As I said, others had been there before me, and some of them were doing time right then.'

‘What did you do?’ Miss Cynthia was keen with the question.

‘I went and bought a shave,’said Mr. Squem. ‘I needed it. While the mahogany brother was mowing me, — it was a tonsorial parlor I was in, not a shop, — he says, “You need a haircut,” and I says, “I need the price” — and told him all about it. “Why,” he says, “you look good to me. Have the hair-cut, and this shave, too, on the place, till you get your letter. Sure, that’s all right.”'

Mr. Squem fingered his demi-tasse a moment, then said slowly, —

‘That coon was sure an answer to prayer; I was up against it. He’ll never know what he did for me, but I’ve never forgot him. I’ve been giving twenty-five a year to Shiloh Baptist Church ever since. Well, I had the hair-cut, and a sea-foam, too, and got out of the chair and let him chalk it up. I wanted to celebrate some way, for my nerve was back, so I went to the bar and got a grown person’s drink. It was fifteen cents, and I had two cents left. Then I leaned down by the bar and dropped the two cents in a spittoon and went broke.'

Miss Cynthia’s eyes snapped. ‘Then,’ continued Mr. Squem, ‘I walked straight up to the hotel desk, as independent as a hog on ice, — excuse me, Miss Browne, — and says to tire lady-cashier, “Ten dollars, please, and charge to Room 17.”’

‘Aplomb!’ interjected Mr. Ledgerwood.

‘No, not a plum,’ said Mr. Squem,

‘ a peach. She was a peach. She pushed the ten right across. Seemed kind of sorry I had n’t made it ten more. I did, two days later, and it came just as easy. She sensed the confidence in me, see — the ginger that barber put there. I never could have done it without him. On the fourth day my draft came and I was on Easy Street.'

Mr. Ledgerwood had not enjoyed this narrative in the least, and the less because Miss Cynthia evidently had. She was not merely amused: she was positively — it seemed to him almost admiringly — interested. Said he, with an access of sourness, —

Chacun à son goût. Traveling about in that happy-go-lucky way— with insufficient funds— smells of the canaille. It has a suggestion of vagrancy.'

‘You mean I was going too short?’ inquired Mr.Squem innocently. ‘Well, just that morning I’d had a twentydollar yellow-back pinned to my undershirt, — excuse me, Miss Browne, — but I met a man on the train, — selling on commission he was, and business had been bum, — who’d been wired to come home to a mighty sick kid, and he had n’t the money to get there. His mileage was out and he was going to be put off. So I had to unpin the twenty.’ Miss Cynthia leaned forward. ‘That was dear of you! ’ she said impulsively.

Mr. Squem looked puzzled. ‘Had to do it, of course,’ he said. ‘Anybody would.'

As the party rose from the table, he left a silver dollar at his place. He thought it might be helpful to the other man in evening clothes.

There were two hours on the porch in the summer-night quiet, to the accompaniment of some excellent cigars of Mr. Squem’s providing. He had brought them along and insisted that they be tried. ‘Yours are no good,’ he jocularly informed the host. Professor Browne made some further effort to display his protégé, but Mr. Squem had noticed that the master of the house was treated as a sort of necessary furniture, and to the astonishment of the other two men actually succeeded in thawing him out and getting him alive. It was a great surprise, and infinitely warming to Professor Browne’s brother; and to Miss Cynthia it seemed a kind of beautiful miracle. She could not remember when she had seen her father’s eyes light up or heard him laugh, and it made a catch in her throat.

As the evening wore on, she sat down at the piano in the open-doored room and began to play, Mr. Ledgerwood and Professor Browne continued an earnest discussion of some problem connected with Renaissance Art, but Mr. Squem fell silent before the music stealing to the porch from within. It was of a type unfamiliar to him, and he was sure it would not whistle. Under other conditions, it is doubtful if he could have held it music at all; but there was something in it, as things were, which strangely moved him, and there was an effect and a concord within, which, as it was not maimed by any attempted expression, made the spindling spiritual experience of Dudley Ledgerwood show as mockery indeed.

Mr. Squem sat on the edge of his bed in the twelve-dollar silk pajamas which he had bought expressly for this occasion, and, as he preluded sleep with a cigarette, thought about the stage of the evening and the persons of the play.

‘Some swell shack,’ he soliloquized. ‘That big hall, — and the kid in the front yard squeezing the mackerel, — such things cost real money. But then, no dress-suits; and that ratty old picture— of all the cold gravy! — That man with the cocoanut whiskers,’ —thus he recalled Mr. Ledgerwood, — ‘he’s some sour brother, but then he’s sick. That’s easy; he’s a sick man. Professor Browne is the best ever. Let me do all the talking and hugged the wall; took a back-seat himself. George, I got to do more of that! That brother of his, poor duffer! All he needs is somebody to fuss over him and wake him up. Miss Cynthia!’ — he hesitated, unwilling now to apply the complimentary phrase of some hours before. ‘All to the good,’ he sighed, and the music that would n’t whistle was back with him. He surveyed himself at full length in a mirror door. ‘It isn’t there,’ he said, ‘not there!’ And then again, ‘All to the good!’

In another part of the house the butler showed a maid the silver dollar, which some way seemed to him more than money — seemed to have properties lacking in money.

‘He is n’t a gentleman,’ he said; ‘of course, not at all a gentleman. But he’s all right — all right!’

In the drawing-room Miss Cynthia addressed Mr. Ledgerwood. ‘Oh, I know,’ she said, ‘any one would say I was impossible if I were put in a story — or else that I’m one of the kind who run away with the chauffeur. But I ’ve met a gentleman at last, — I don’t, care what you say, — a gentleman at last. You remember in The Flight of the Duchess, —

So all that the old Dukes had been without knowing it,

This Duke would fain know that he was, without being it.

I’ve been thinking of that all the evening. Don’t you see, — can’t you see, Air. Ledgerwood, — that we’ve had something real here to-night — that one of the old Dukes has been here?’

And then —

‘No one can be a gentleman and feel being so. I’ve known the kind who feel being so. Mr. Squem doesn’t, — and he’s a gentleman!’