Hicks Of Hackensack
By Porter Emerson Browne in Appleton’s Magazine
YOU doubtless never knew Hicks of Hackensack; which is your loss rather than his, for, while there are probably very many people who are much like you, there is but one Hicks.
When he was still of a tender age, his parents had been called to greener fields and, realizing that he would be about as capable of earning a livelihood as a canary would of playing Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song’’ on a comb, they had left him amply provided with this world’s goods and in such a way that he couldn’t unprovide himself, as he assuredly would have done if he had a chance.
From the time when ideas first began to coagulate in the cavity that Nature had intended for his brain (but which she had grown to abhor), he was always mounted on some ridiculous hobby or other and he could change ’em like a pony express rider. When the historical (or more properly hysterical) novel came in, Hicks climbed up on it, shoved his feet ’way through the stirrups, clutched his fingers in the mane, and began to lament that he hadn’t lived in those glorious days of old when, if a man said “Good Morrow, faire ladye” to another man’s fiancee, there was immediately something doing at the morgue; and it made no difference whether or not the man knew of the engagement at the time, and more often than not he wouldn’t even learn the reason of his premature demise until he sent back from the Other Side to inquire into it. Had Hicks lived in those days, it is my opinion that his light would have been sniffed so suddenly that he wouldn’t have had time to offer another gallant snuff.
But you couldn’t tell him so. He had conceived an ambition to be known as a devil of a fellow, and he used to come down to the club and descant upon the glorious lives led by those superheated old beggars who
would bet on whose mother-in-law would die first, and wager their money and that of their wives, and as much of their friends’ as they could get their hands on, as a side bet on the weather while shaking for drinks.
And he’d rave over elopements and affairs of honor and all such rot until one night Monty Fiske waxed aweary, i sooth, and told him that if he wanted a duel, he knew where he could get it; and he could have his choice of any weapon from disappearing guns to canned oysters ; and after that, Hicks confined his maunderings to other things.
When these latter-day writers, having wallowed all over the map, began to fake up new lands to conquer and to put all sorts of impossible heroes into all sorts of more impossible situations in all sorts of most impossible places, that was where Hicks lived. He positively itched to mire himself to the eyes in some intrigue or other, and whenever he thought of persecuted damsels he used to froth at the mouth in an impotent desire to find them and marry them out of their troubles even if he had to move to Utah to do it. And when he’d get to imagining that, in some unknown principality, there might be a beauteous princess whose kingly father was about to sacrifice her to Black Bill, the Troublesome Brother, in order that he might keep for himself a throne to sit down on when he was tired, Hicks would positively moan with longing and hopeless desire.
But he couldn’t find a princess, or even a duchess, or a maid of honor, you know ; so he took it out in seeking and in calling himself Hicks of Hackensack.
Hicks of Hackensack wasn’t very good, but it was the best he could do ; for Hackensack was the only place with which he had ever had any permanent connection, and Hicks was a long way better than Bildad, which
was the name that his parents, in a moment of meanness, had given him. I presume that they felt that they must get even in some way for having to leave their money to him.
He used to repine a good deal that his name wasn’t Rhinekopf, or Karl ; Karl of Carlsbad, he once mourned to me would sound so much better than Hicks of Hackensack. But he couldn’t go back and change history ; so Hicks of Hackensack it had to be.
This pose of Hicks was rendered all the more ridiculous because he was
built along the general lines of a clotheshorse. He was round-shouldered, nearsighted, anæmic, and wore spectacles, and he looked exactly like the pastor of a small, bucolic flock— one of that kind you know, that spends all its time making red-flannel lung protectors for a heathen that would swap three shiploads of ’em for two fingers of one-X corn whisky and a couple of stogies. And when he began to rip out those archaic cuss words, it surprised you as much as it
would if a yearling lamb should growl at you and show its fangs.
Although Hicks was so full of desire for the reputation of a rakeshell and a gay doggie that it bugged his eyes out even farther than Nature had set them, he couldn’t seem to make good. He had the ambition and the means, but he couldn’t apply them. He tried several times, but things didn’t turn out the way that they should according to the books.
I remember one night when we were leaving the club, we saw a woman
struggling in the embraces of a large man who had been trying in a small way to corner the liquor market
Hicks ran to her succor, crying, “Unhand the fair lady, thou scurvy knave !” and caught the scurvy knave a feeble swing on a jaw that looked like a Belgian block.
The scurvy knave forthwith unhanded the fair lady and undertook to hand Hicks instead. And then the fair lady hit Hicks behind the ear with a bottle and asked him huskily what the
— eh —what he meant by interfering with man and wife who were engaging in a pleasant bit of repartee and strictly minding their own business, and told him that if he didn’t chase himself out o’ there, she’d knock his roof off. Hicks really didn’t want to stay, but just then he was busy and couldn’t get away; and thus the fair lady was almost as good as her word. Hicks was in bed only ten days.
The next time, Hicks was more careful. On his way home from the club one night, filled with the spirit of conflict, and other things, he stopped his cab in front of a delicatessen store, bought a bologna sausage, and with it sandbagged a poor, blind, crippled pencil vendor sitting under an arc light with a handful of leadless pencils and a tin cup.
The poor, blind, crippled pencilvendor chased Hicks seven blocks through dark alleys, caught him, carefully removed Hick’s spectacles (there’s a law against hitting a man with glasses on, you know), painstakingly blackened both his eyes, and then went back and did the job over again so as to be sure that it was done in a workmanlike way. Then he broke Hick’s spectacles on the curb, scuttled a couple of floating ribs, and told him that if ever he came fooling around him again he might get hurt. Then he put on his blue goggles again and went back to get ready for the morning rush.
These exploits somewhat cooled Hick’s desire for renown under the school of Rot of Rotterdam, and he subsided until motoring came in. Then he decided that at last his chance had come and he bought him a long, low, rakish-looking car with a French name that he couldn’t pronounce to save his life. It was painted drab and had more power than a Kentucky stock farm. There came with the car a small, bullet-headed mecanicien named Anatole. (French chauffeurs never have but one name, you know. The other is taken away from them by the custom house.)
Anatole taught Hicks for about six months and then Hicks thought that
he could run the car himself. He tried.
When he and Anatole got out of the hospital he tried again, slower. And after a while he became really expert. He could run over more dogs and chickens than anyone I ever saw and he averaged three arrests a week during all of last summer. He tried running on the other side, but gave it up in disgust and came back to America again. You can’t get arrested half as often over there, you know, for the judges actually turn the fines into the treasury and it makes them a lot more trouble. *
In spite of his many shortcomings, Hicks was not unpopular. He was a big-hearted boy, you know, and generous to a fault. Of course he was well bred and well educated and in the main very much of a gentleman, coming as he did from an old New Jersey family; and then, too, he had a sort of old-school air about him that, despite his obvious and intrusive egotism, made him very popular with many of the ladies, God bless ’em ; for the greater part of the sex can overlook much in a man if he will but give them that kiss-the-very-groundyou-walk-on, not-worthy-to-breathethe-same-air sort of devotion that went out shortly before men became able to sit down without endangering their trousers.
So, when a crowd of us went down to the Lispenards’ North Shore place for the first fortnight in September, we were not surprised to find Hicks there with his car and Anatole.
We had been there but a few days when there arrived a niece of Mrs. Lispenard. Her name was Hortense Stuyvesant-West and she was certainly good to look upon. Her father had for some years held a consular position in Bordeaux, where the wine comes from, and his daughter combined in appearance all that is best of two countries. She had the superb figure and lithe, graceful carriage of America, and its freedom from affectation and exaggeration. She had, too, the chic of France, both in manners and dress, though she didn’t tie her
hair up into all those ridiculous little quirks and curls and frizzles that Frenchwomen affect, but instead drew it back loosely from her white forehead and fastened it simply at the nape of a neck that made a man wish that he were twins so that he might stand in front of her and behind her at the same time.
She was prettier than anyone I have ever seen, or dreamed of, or imagined —so pretty that it made one wonder
how so much beauty could have foregathered in one place—just as you marvel at how a prestidigitateur can get all sorts of ribbons and flowers from a cornucopia hardly big enough to hold a bachelor’s button. I shan’t try to describe her. Just think of the most beautiful thing you can, multiply it by a million, square it, cube it, and add six and then you’ve got about as
near the answer as you can get without seeing Hortense.
As for Hicks, the moment he got his spectacles focused on her, it was all up with him. He forgot whether he was Hicks of Hackensack or Garry of Gowanus, and, furthermore, he didn’t seem to care. You never in all your life saw such a change in a man. In an instant he had fallen off his pedestal with a bump and had become just a mere human being and
even less. It was positively pitiful to see him, the very essence of concentrated adoration, squinting at her humbly, meekly, dazedly, through his thick windows, like a man gazing at the sun.
He was so pitiful that we all felt sorry for him and began to try to cheer him up, and get him interested, even if we had to ring in the
anachronistic actions and adventures of Fritz of Fahrenheit to do it.
Still, we didn’t devote any too much of our time to Hicks, for the rest of us weren’t much better off. Of course there was only one thing that could happen, and we men got down on our praying carpets and began to worship her and hate each other so conscientiously that one night, when she dropped her fan and we all jumped to get it for her at the same time, a riot was narrowly averted.
No man was willing to be away from her any more than he could possibly help, and the consequence was that she was always surrounded three deep by a circle of adoring swains devoted to the point of manslaughter. The situation was what might be termed tense.
And then, suddenly, Hicks brightened up most amazingly and became his old, jaunty, debonair, devilish self again.
At first we were as surprised as our tenseness would permit ; but after consideration we decided that the change in Hicks was due to the fact that his convolutions were so shallow that nothing, not even the glorious Hortens, could for long find resting place therein.
Several times, individually and collectively, we undertook to tell him what we thought of him ; but he would reply merely by cocking his head airily, winking knowingly and superciliously, and then leaving us, humming in tones like those of a wistful crow.
Stuyvescent-West (Hortense’s father, you know) came one evening about eight o’clock, a few days later. He was a little man with an overabundance of whiskers, an underabundance of patience, and an air of self-esteem that fitted him as oppressively as a fur-lined coat on a hot day.
Most of us happened to be on deck when he arrived and we watched him descend from the trap and cast a watery gaze over the assembled multitude.
“Where’s Hortense?” he demanded.
“Why, isn’t she here?” cried Mrs. Lispenard, in surprise.
“If she is, she isn’t visible to the naked eye,” returned StuyvescentWest amiably.
It was quite clear that Hortense had inherited little from her father.
Mrs. Lispenard looked about her anxiously and we all helped. Hortense was not of the group ; and it was noticed, too, that Hicks was absent.
An inquiry was instituted and at length one of the grooms was found who said that only a few moments before he had seen Hortense and Hick’s buzzing along the back road to the Crossing in Hick’s unpronounceable racer ; and almost at the same time, old Miss Baxter came in and announced that Hicks had told her that there would be an elopment at no distant date and opined that this was it.
We all gasped. Then we all looked at each other in speechless amazement. Then, as soon as we could get enough wind with which to do it, we all gasped again.
So this was the answer ! So this was what accounted for the change in Hicks ! So this was why he had ascended from the cellar of despondency to the roof garden of joy! So this— But Hortense ! How coul she have done it ! How could she have chosen Hicks when she had Monty Fiske and myself and all the others to select from ! How could she have nailed the booby prize when she might have taken any of the others ! How, oh, how . . . ! ! !
But Stuyvescent-West at last had awakened from the condition of comatose bewilderment that enveloped us all. He hopped up right into the air and when he lit he ordered everyone to do something; and then not to do it; and then to do it or not, just as he wanted them to do, or didn’t want them to do. He demanded that we all start in pursuit and ordered out all kind of vehicles, from balloons to submarines. Then he undertook to express himself as the matter seemed to demand and his remarks were such that old Miss Baxter went upstairs,
screaming, with her hands over her ears and the pins falling out of her waterfall like autumn leaves in a gale.
Somebody said that there was a minister at the Crossing and that they had probably gone there. So Anatole was dragged away from the door of the wine cellar and told to bring out the Daim-Vite car and get us over to the Crossing, immediately, and as much sooner as possible. Stuyvescent-West was by this, time in a state of incipient apoplexy, and the rest were busy trying to keep him from getting in all over; so Monty
Fiske and I, being deemed the least valuable to the world at large, hence the best qualified to ride with Anatole, were the only ones to go, which we were glad to do for the double purpose of being in at the finish and of gaining an opportunity to tell each other what we thought of things.
We broke speed ordinances that night so that you couldn’t have found a segment with a fine tooth comb ; and it couldn’t have been more than eight minutes before we sighted the minister’s abode which we at once recognized because we saw the headlight of
Hick’s car in the street in front of the gate.
Before the Daim-Vite came to a stop, we had hopped out and charged toward the front gate. But just as we reached it, the door of the house opened and out came Hortense, leaning on the arm of a tall, broad-shouldered fellow whom I immediately recognized as Hastings, ’02. I knew him on the instant, for hadn’t I played football on the same eleven, rowed on the same crew, and cut the same lectures with him for three years? A fine-looking chap he is and one of the best fellows I ever knew.
But what was he doing there ? And where was Hicks ?
It was one of those situations that make a man feel as though his intellect had been put in an atomizer and sprinkled all over him. While I was trying to scrape mine together and get it into a heap where it would work, Monty Fiske grabbed me by the arm.
“Look !” he whispered, pointing ahead. And there, in the light of our lamps, I saw Hicks sitting on the curb. His expression—but he had none—not a bit in the world, and he was trying to scratch a cigarette on his trousers with the evident idea of lighting the match which he held in his mouth.
Fiske and I stood like two bumps on a log. Hastings and Hortense hadn’t seen us at all; and he led her toward a rattly old depot carriage that was standing a bit farther down the street.
Suddenly they almost fell over Hicks, who was still absently and dejectedly trying to light the cigarette on his trousers.
When Hortense (now Mrs. John Stanwood Hastings, of Brookline) saw Hicks, she stopped short and, leaning over him, cried impulsively :
“I haven’t half thanked you for all you did for me, nor can I ever. Your car was really the only way in which we could have been sure that pursuit would have been unavailing, vou know. Jack and I are ever and ever so grateful to you, and always will be. Won’t we, Jack?” and she smiled up
at Hastings in a way that made Monty and I groan and green with envy.
But poor Hicks seemed beyond human aid. He looked up at her with blinking, sheeplike eyes and blurted out :
“But I thought you were going to marry me !”
Mrs. John Stanwood Hastings looked completely kerflummuxed (if anyone as beautiful as she can look like that).
“You said that we were going to elope and asked me if I would have the car ready at half-past seven,” continued Hicks in the tone and manner of a man who has been awakened from a beautiful and roseate dream by having the bed give away.
Hortense looked down on him, comprehending, and there was a soft light in her dark eyes. (We could see quite distinctly because they were standing right under an arc light, you know).
“I’m so sorry,” she cried softly, “so sorry! When I said ‘we’ I meant, of of course, Jack and myself. I didn’t explain very fully, perhaps, for I was hurried and nervous and then, too, I didn’t for a moment imagine that you would think that I meant you—I didn’t think that you had ever thought of such a thing, or desired it.”
Hortense, with the soft light in her eyes glowing yet more softly, looked up into her husband’s face ; and it was quite plain that he understood just how Hicks felt. I know I did ; and Fiske did, too.
“Do you mind, dear?” she asked softly.
He shook his head gently.
And then his wife leaned down and kissed Hicks right over the spectacles, and when she again stood erect there were tears in her eyes.
“Lucky dog,” muttered Monty feelingly. “Lucky dogs,” I agreed just as feelingly.
And we both stood silently watching the rattly old depot wagon-carriage disappear into the darkness of the quiet, spasmodically lighted street. Then Monty sighed. Then I sighed. Then we both sighed together. And we meant ’em, too.
We tried to adduce some comfort from the fact that there was but one Hortense, and two of us; so some one was bound to get left anyway. But we derived from this about as much consolation as the man whose legs were cut off got from the fact that his arms still remained ; so, sighing again, we went to where Hick’s was still sitting and, taking the match from his mouth and the cigarette from his hand, shook him a couple of times.
“Eh—what?” He gazed up at us with lack-luster eyes in which at length began to appear a faint gleam of almost human intelligence. And, as we bundled his lank frame into his lank car, he murmured helplessly, wondering :
“And to think that she took him when she might have had me !”
And-oh, but what’s the use.