The Old Gentleman Opposite

BEFORE I knew my friend and neighbor’s name, I used to call him ‘The Old Gentleman Opposite.’ This title is appropriate enough. He is obviously old; he is quite as obviously a gentleman; and he lives, with a sister still older than himself, in a little old brown box of a house with a porch and a trumpet vine, a remaining reminder of earlier days, just across our modern street.

I look over and down upon his goings and comings from the tenth floor of an apartment house.

A fitting designation, it seemed, for want of a better; yet, long after I knew his threefold name, — which braids together several historic American associations, and is written handsomely, with a Washingtonian flow and flourish, — I discovered that the nickname did not altogether please him. When he overheard it being applied to him by a dweller on my side of the street, he flushed brightly above his little red-roan beard, in the ashes of which still live their wonted fires.

T wonder,’ he said, after a minute of silent thought, ‘at exactly what age a man ceases to feel a certain surprise at being called an old gentleman. I remember passing through a phase when I spoke of myself as old, with the secret sense of a gallant jest. And I recall a distinct shock when for the first time I noticed that my hearers did not smile at all.

‘But that particular combination of words, “The Old Gentleman Opposite,” makes a picture in my mind which I don’t recognize as looking like myself.

’I hardly suppose you still read The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table? Indeed! Then perhaps you know a certain illustration in an early edition representing The Old Gentleman Opposite.

‘When I was a little boy with a paintbox, I colored the illustrations in that edition, — perhaps, Heaven forgive me, it was the first! — the book having been entrusted to my hands by incautious elders. I operated in what was then the manner of little boys; I understand they are taught better now. We laid on the color very thick, applying the wet brush directly to the cake of paint; sometimes there were moments of impulse when the moist end of the cake was itself used, without the intermediary brush — a rich enjoyment, that!

‘In this manner I pigmented The Old Gentleman Opposite. He looked not unlike a miniature of my greatgreat-grandfather, which I still have; but that is more restrained in its coloring. I don’t think I resemble either picture.

‘Later, of course, I came really to know this typical character. You remember how he “slid away the carving-knife, as it were carelessly,” when the Autocrat was talking about the six personalities of John and Thomas? You remember his foolish white hat, and the pink paper with two little birds and a dale, which he carried in his watchcase — that very sweet bit of sentimentality? And the white cashmere shawl he gave to the schoolmistress as a wedding present? I am not conscious of exhibiting any such phenomena as those.

‘And yet,’ he continued musingly, ‘I suppose there is a sense in which I am truly The Old Gentleman Opposite. When I was young I used to observe, and to blame in my heart, the conservatism of age; its inability to understand new developments, its lack of sympathy with them, its disposition to criticize. These are horrid traits. And I now detect all of them, to a marked degree, in myself.'

He nodded his head, as accepting his own reproof. But his sherry-colored eyes sparkled behind his glasses — not eyeglasses with a black ribbon, nor yet owlish reading glasses with tortoiseshell rims, but plain rimless spectacles with a convenient hook over the ear; bifocals, I think. ‘ I am in reality The Old Gentleman Opposite — opposite,’ said he, ‘to most tendencies of this age.'

I did not altogether believe this; for I discovered that his roati hair and beard had a sort of symbolic significance, typifying a blend, as it were, of encroaching age and strangely surviving youth. As a matter of fact, the sense of sport which I feel in talking with him springs from my uncertainty as to which of his tendencies will, in a given situation, come uppermost; for in him ‘red spirits and gray’ mingle, as in that song found in Middleton’s Witch.

‘You are not a perfectly satisfactory specimen of a cross old person,’ I remarked.

‘Oh, I flatter myself that I keep fairly good-humored,’ said he; ‘nevertheless make no mistake. I’m really a member of the opposition. In what respects? Well, there are many. Perhaps the verses 1 ’ve been writing will give you some notion.’

He took out of his breast pocket a folded paper, and began to read aloud.


’Hail, Goddess robed in glorious red,
Rich as a royal tulip bed!
The beaten track I will not tread
Of dull convention:
To follow thee across the waste
(Although without unseemly haste),
Shouting my individual taste,
Is my intention.’

(‘Wait a minute,’ said I. ‘Is n’t this by that grandnephew of yours who lives in Greenwich Village? The sentiment seems to be his — but the style — ’

‘Both style and sentiment,’ said the Old Gentleman proudly, ‘are quite my own. You shall hear.’)

‘I swear I will not be induced
To trace through tortuous works of Proust
Queer sins of which I never used
To know the labels;
Nor praise the Modern Art that props
Those wry-necked dolls in fronts of shops,
And still-lifes sliding off the tops
Of crazy tables.
‘At exhibitions I shall frown
On works that might hang upside down,
Though such receive the laurel crown
From expert judges;
Stout studies one would wish to hide,
And portraits painfully skew-eyed,
Inexplicably uglified
With grimy smudges.
‘I won’t pretend I’m not annoyed
By all this prate of Jung and Freud;
I will not say that I’ve enjoyed
That large collection
Of New Biography that tries
Subtly to psychoanalyze
Dead greatness, which from these strange flies
Has no protection.
‘ I can’t, without a sense of shame,
Decapitate a proper name,
Though many do so without blame,
Following the fashion:
The leading letter of a line
To lower case I won’t consign.
The games of Joyce and Gertrude Stein
Arouse my passion.
‘Then, Goddess, lead — or come along,
Skirling a shrill rebellious song.
From the broad road that lures the throng
Our way’s divergent.
As when the century began,
I am a proud unmastered man,
A fierce free-necked Victorian,
A Heart Insurgent! ’

‘When you were a little boy,’ I asked, ‘did you ever play with those small figures made of pith —’

‘Pith witches!’ he exclaimed. ‘How well I remember them! Whenever you put them down, they would stand on their heads, which were loaded with a bit of lead.’

‘It seems to me,’ said I, ‘that your Goddess of Revolt is a pith witch.’

‘Hm — yes,’ said he; ‘but I can explain my position even better than that.

‘Do you remember the chapter in Treasure Island in which Jim Hawkins returns from his adventures, and slips into the stockade where he left the respectable persons of the story, and finds that safe enclosure occupied by the pirates? Well, the former forces of revolt have now occupied the stockade. As what used to be called a sound conservative, I am now outside the fence.

‘But,’ he concluded, folding up his ode, ‘I will tell you more of this another time.’