A Thin Day
THIS is a true story. Grandfather says such stories are always happening to him; and, after this, when I look at his beautiful white face, with the light of some inner fire flashing over it, I shall aways believe him. That particular look of his when he says, ‘I see it so clearly, I believe I can throw a little light on it for thee,’ has reminded me for years of the heat lightning which plays over the serene late afternoon skies of the southwest in summer, and is a sort of covenant that there will be no storm during the night, and that the day to follow will be long and yellow with sunshine. And though all my life I have seen that light on his face, and have heard him tell us, as children at his knee, the miracle stories that happened to him, still, secretly, in my heart, I have said, ‘Dear grandfather, I do believe; help thou my unbelief.’
But now, since yesterday, I do believe, indeed; and for those years of doubting I shall go contritely before him as long as he lives — and afterward, too, of course; for I have not the slightest idea that his dear patient spirit will consider its obligation to us finished by the mere incident of death. I can fancy now his slow reassuring smile at such a notion.
And I have forgotten to tell perhaps the most determining thing of all — that grandfather is a Quaker. Having no preachers in his church, and so being unable to shuffle off the responsibility of being high and pure of thought on to the shoulders of some one paid for that purpose, grandfather had undertaken the task himself. It is very simple, he says. And I dare say myself that, if all churches distributed the responsibility for being good among the laymen, and made each member feel that at any moment the Spirit of the Lord might demand of them that they stand up and give an account of their own souls, instead of leaving it to the curate or his assistant, it would sharpen the spiritual senses of us all.
Or, —one can not say, — it may be that grandfather possesses a special gift, and that even in the more indolent congregations it would have developed. I do not profess to understand such things, but I can tell you what happened yesterday, and you can decide then for yourself whether grandfather was born a seer, or had it thrust upon him by the exigencies of Quakerism.
Yesterday was the first day of summer — not really the first either, but of those few before the first, which hold themselves up like a cup to be filled, and which intimate something coming, coming soon. And at breakfast grandfather said, in his high sweet solemn voice, ‘Evelyn, this is a thin day, so thin between us and other souls that even one so young as thee can feel it.’
And it was perfectly true, as I have said, that it was a day full of expectancy that even I had felt.
All day I was away at my work; but no matter how absorbed I became in the tasks before me, the thought of this being a ‘thin day’ kept coming up. I was glad when I could hurry home and see if, through grandfather’s smiling prophetic eyes, I could pierce further into that other world which did indeed seem very near; for if it had been a thin morning, it was a thinner evening.
Some way I kept expecting illogically to see the soft veiling of the alien dusk over Fifth Avenue break into the heat lightning of midsummer at home.
After dinner grandfather and I started for our walk in Central Park as usual, but he insisted on taking a trolley down town.
For myself, I was anxious to go out to the silent trees, and said so; but he persisted, and said, ‘To-night thee must keep thy sweetness in the midst of a crowd, for I feel drawn to do something for some one down town. ’
‘And for whom, grandfather?’ I inquired, turning reluctantly from the great shadowy Park to the blatant street car coming toward us.
‘This morning,’ he said, ‘I read in the paper that the traffic policeman at Forty-Second Street and Vanderbilt Avenue was sick.’
‘And what has thee to do with him? ’ I asked, a little impatient. ‘ Does thee know him?’
‘Yes, I know him,’ he said; then corrected himself quickly, with a shade of timidity_in those sweet blue eyes: ‘Not in the sense thee means, perhaps, Evelyn. I never saw him.’ And, correcting himself again in equal conscientiousness, ‘That is, I never saw him in the flesh. I can tell thee, though, what manner of man he is in appearance, for since thy great-grandfather’s clock in the hall struck ten this morning, he has been constantly before my face.’
‘How odd, grandfather!’
‘No, it is quite simple; it has been a thin day. I read at breakfast just after you left that Michael O’Halloran was sick, and I felt drawn to him and to his family.’
This was nothing strange, for grandfather felt drawn to every one who was in trouble; and I resigned myself to sitting through one of his calls upon the sick and the afflicted. I was a little tired after being ‘expectant’ all day and having nothing happen, so I said nothing, but half turned to see the slow procession of grandfather’s thoughts across his face.
But he talked on quite casually. ‘I felt more and more drawn to Michael O’Halloran, and somewhat hurried. But I could not get Harriet to press my coat for me until she had washed the dishes. I wish thee would speak to her about delaying me at times.’
I said I would do that, certainly, and he continued, ‘And then, when I was finally ready to leave the house, the old clock in the hall struck ten, and at the same time it seemed to me that I need not hurry any more, that perhaps I had better bide my time. And all day I have bided my time, knowing I would be told when to come, and what to do.'
I thought for a moment during this recital that perhaps he was not quite well; but he looked perfectly so, and I called to mind countless similar tales he had told me from infancy up. But never before had he offered to share such a story with me in its actual making. Perhaps he had trusted to the thin day to make me see eye to eye with him at last; and half-reverently, curiously, half-vexed, I determined to follow this tale to its conclusion. I hated to do it, too, in a way, for I had never been quite sure that I disbelieved in his stories, and unconsciously I had been rather careful not to analyze them to the last bare shred, to leave them instead to a hazy probability. But here I was now, right in the middle of one; and I must either go right on, whether or no, or bolt in a cowardly way.
While I was going through these mental peregrinations, grandfather was peering out at the window, trying to locate the street we were passing.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘we will get off at the next corner. The little bookshop is there, which is open evenings.’
‘But I thought we were going to see Michael O’Halloran, grandfather,’ I said, wondering if it were possible that his mind had wandered from his mission at the thought of his old crony of the bookshop. If so, it was the first time, so far as I knew, that his mind had ever forsaken its stately progression for man, book, street-crossing, or anything else.
‘So we are,’ he said; ‘but Michael O’Halloran touched me on the sleeve a moment ago and told me to bring him a book.’
This was really going too far, and my mouth was all pursed up to protest, when he turned and put the question squarely up to me: ‘Would thee have me pay him no heed?’
Thus confronted, I faltered, and was certain, foolish or no, that I was far from being one to say that he should disobey the behest; and so I said, a little brusquely, ‘By all means, let us get the book.’
When we had walked the block to the bookshop, we found it cozily lighted and the friendly gray head of the old book-lover buried in a great tome. At grandfather’s entrance he hopped nimbly forward, and they hobnobbed more by nods and becks and chuckles than by mere words such as I could understand.
Then grandfather said he had come to get a book for Michael O’Halloran, the policeman at Forty-Second Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, who was sick and had sent him for it.
I was shocked at this bald statement; but I was more shocked, to be sure, when grandfather — grandfather, stately, white, beautiful — walked straight up to a stack of books bound in scarlet leather, took the top one off, handed it unhesitatingly to the shopkeeper, and serenely said, ‘This is the book he sent me to get.’
I could not swear it, but I do not believe that he glanced at the title.
‘What — what is it, grandfather?’ I murmured, aghast.
‘The Second Epistle of John to the Apostles,’ he answered unperturbed; and I looked to the shopkeeper for a denial, but none came.
I sidled over to the stack of books and glanced slantwise. Yes, the title was ‘ The Second Epistle of John to the Apostles,’ done in tiny gold lettering that I was sure grandfather could not have deciphered without his glasses.
‘I — I never saw it bound in red before,’ I said weakly.
‘Nor I,’ he answered sweetly, ‘but I like it, does n’t thee?’
Then the gray-haired old book-man brought pen and ink, and in his fine, high, old-fashioned hand, grandfather wrote on the fly leaf, ‘ From Michael O’Halloran to a True Friend.’
I glanced over grandfather’s shoulder then, and exclaimed. I called his attention to the wrong placing of the ‘From,’ and the ‘to.’ It should have read, ‘To Michael O’Halloran from a True Friend,’ and as it was, it read just the opposite.
Grandfather looked at it dubiously and said, ‘Well, well, thee has a quick eye, and I an old one. But what a pity to spoil the page by crossing out the words. Does thee believe Michael O’Halloran will mind if we leave it so? I can explain to him.’
The book was really an expensive one, and I hesitated to suggest that he buy another; so there we three stood nonplussed, the book-man, grandfather, and I. Grandfather settled it by slipping the volume, unwrapped, into his pocket. ‘There, there,’ he said, ‘I do not believe that Michael O’Halloran will mind at all.’
And so we left the matter.
Grandfather had got Michael O’Halloran’s address from the police station that morning, while he was waiting for Harriet to press his coat, and we went straight to the unfamiliar locality without swerving. He has a wonderful sense of place and direction. I went around the world with him once, and we never missed an address, a boat, a train, or anything. To him truly, ‘nothing falls early or too late’; and as we nosed along a dark uncertain block down south of Washington Square, all my feeling was gone that his stories might not be true, and I looked forward with eagerness and confidence to the unfolding of this one.
And not because I doubted, but because I did not doubt, I carefully arranged a little test.
‘Grandfather,’ I began, ‘thee said thee had never seen Michael O’Halloran, but that thee knew how he looked; well, how does he look?’
‘He is tall and spare. It would seem to me he has not looked quite well for a long time. His skin is smooth and clean-shaven, with a little white scar under his left eye. His hair is glossy black, and his eyes — his eyes — are closed — ’
I heard his voice trail off, as we went up the steps of the house before us.
A low red light suffused all the windows, with the houses on each side dark. I reached out to ring the bell, and my hand touched something unexpectedly soft, and folded. Involuntarily I drew back, and grandfather put out his hand where mine had been, and laid it gently on the flowing black crape.
‘Well, child,’ he said, ‘is death so strange to thee?’
Then he tried the door without ringing the bell. The knob turned and I followed him through the narrow hall and into the room at the right.
Often I have heard that death is beautiful, but I had never seen it so simple before, and so, so beautiful. The family were there alone, — two little girls, and a tiny boy, and the mother, — and no one seemed surprised when we came in. Grandfather laid his thin white hand on each little shiny head in turn, like a benediction, I thought, and then stood silently before the mother, his soft black hat held across his breast, his head bowed a little, his thick white hair silvered in the light from the candles at the head and at the foot.
And, fascinated, I drew nearer, nearer, until I could see the glossy black hair, the smooth skin, the little white scar — and the closed eyes.
‘Yes, it was then, this mornin’, he went,’ I heard the widow say; and lifted my eyes just in time to see her incline her head toward the clock on the mantel. The hands had been stopped at ten o’clock. And it was then that grandfather had known to bide his time.
It was quite a walk to the Eighth Avenue car which would take us home, and we went silently. Grandfather told me afterward that he had entirely forgotten the book bound in scarlet leather until he felt drawn to talk to the ill-tempered conductor later. But I was thinking of it all the time, and wondering what part it had to play; for I remembered poignantly that in the miracle stories grandfather had told us year on year, there had never been any threads let lie, every incident had fitted like clockwork, and I felt certain now that the red leather book would fall into its place to complete the mosaic of the picture.
But, as I have said, grandfather was not thinking of the book; he said afterward that he was thinking of the heavy fragrance of the flowers that lay on Michael O’Halloran’s breast, of the slim little daughter who had let us out of the house, and of the candles at the head and at the foot.
We waited a long time for the car, and when it came there was a straggling group of passengers to get on. The conductor jerked a bellicose head out to urge us in our ascent. We were the last ones to get on, and grandfather took his own time.
As he made change for us, the conductor growled ‘Step lively now,’ and grandfather answered: ‘Friend, when thee is as old as I, thee will appreciate more patience from thy younger companions.’
Then for the first time the conductor looked up squarely at us, and there was a certain rough softening of his eye. He even went so far as to move aside and make it easier for grandfather to enter the car.
It is a long ride from below Washington Square to Central Park, and as the passengers came in and went out at the transfer stations, always new faces, the huge shoulders and surly face of the conductor got to be familiar, like an old friend — welcome in a way, though disagreeable.
And then there came a space when we were the only passengers on the car. A misty wind had blown up with nightfall, and the conductor came well into the car, where it was warmer. Just then grandfather, putting his hand into his pocket, touched the book he had bought for Michael O’Halloran. He took it out, unwrapped, and held it absently, decorously, in his neatly gloved hand — a strange scarlet foil for black clothes like his, and his silver hair.
Even the car conductor noticed it. And that was the strangest thing about it all, perhaps. Had the book been black, or blue, or any color that grandfather would have been carrying under ordinary circumstances, the conductor would never have noticed it at all, and the book would never have been delivered, and Michael O’Halloran’s message would have gone astray.
But in the stories that happen to grandfather nothing goes astray, and so there the book was, red and beckoning, and grandfather saw the conductor looking at it. I felt then that he was going to give it to the conductor, and I did not want him to. Perhaps I wanted the book myself as a remembrance of the evening, with Michael O’Halloran’s name done on the flyleaf in grandfather’s steep handwriting, and with its odd ‘From Michael O’Halloran to a True Friend,’ instead of ‘ To Michael O’Halloran from a True Friend.’ Or perhaps it was the incongruity of presenting a street-car conductor suddenly with the Second Epistle of John to the Apostles, bound in red leather, that made me wish to protest.
At any rate, I had no choice in the matter.
Grandfather moved down closer to the door where the conductor stood, and I could hear pieces of questions about family and work. Then, after a good bit of conversation that I could not hear at all, grandfather leaned forward and held out the book to the conductor.
I could see that he was pleased to get it. He turned it over in his hands, looking admiringly at the shiny svelte binding; then opened it at the fly-leaf.
At first I thought he could not read, he stood so still, looking at the name written so tall and plain.
Then I heard him saying half in a whisper, ‘From Mike O’Halloran to a True Friend. An thin yez knows Mike? ’ he asked, bending toward grandfather, the book hanging half-open from his hand, like a red lip. ‘Does yez know Mike whot I done bad — Mike O’Halloran?’
‘Yes, I know him,’ grandfather said; ‘he sent you the book. He died to-day.’
And then they talked on in words I could not get the drift of, until we came to our corner. As we got out, I heard the conductor say, as though he had repeated it over and over, ‘An’, sir, I ain’t seen Mike in fifteen year — not since we wuz young fellers back in old St. Jo.’
He had a sort of cloudy reminiscent look in his eyes, and as I looked back over my shoulder as we reached the curb, I could see him still, half-way down the block, standing on the carplatform, the book, closed now, in both hands, and his gaze far off into the great still shadows of the Park.