BEYOND this point I had made no progress when we landed in New York. I still knew myself as Jasper Soames. Miss Blair still suspected that I was running away from justice. That I was running away from justice I suspected myself, since how could I do otherwise? All the way up the bay I waited for that tap on my shoulder which I could almost have welcomed for the reason that it would relieve me of some of my embarrassments.
Those embarrassments had grown more entangling throughout the last days of the voyage. The very good-will of the people about me increased the complications in which I was finding myself involved. Everyone asked a different set of questions, the answers I gave being not always compatible with each other. I didn’t exactly lie; I only replied wildly—trying to guard my secret till I could walk off the boat and disappear from the ken of these kindly folk, who did nothing but wish me well.
I accomplished this feat, I am bound to confess, with little credit; but credit was not my object. All I asked was the privilege of being by myself, with leisure to take stock of my small assets, and reckon up the possibilities before me. As it was incredible that a man such as I was could be lost on the threshold of his home I needed all the faculties that remained to me in order to think out the ways and means by which I could be found.
So alone I found myself, though not without resorting to ruses of which I was even then ashamed.
It was Miss Blair who scared me into them. Coming up to me on deck, during the last afternoon on board, she said, casually:
“Going to stay awhile in New York?”
It was a renewal of the everlasting catechism, so I said, curtly:
“I dare say.”
“Oh, don’t be huffy. Looking for a job?”
“Later, perhaps; not at once.”
In her smile, as her eye caught mine, there was a visible significance. “You’ll be a good kid, won’t you? You’ll—you’ll keep on the level?”
I made a big effort on my own part, so as to see how she would take it. “If I’m not nabbed going up the bay.”
“Oh, you won’t be. It can’t be as—as bad as all that Even if it was—” She left this sentiment for me to guess at while she went on: “Where do you expect to stay?”
I was about to name one of New York’s expensive hotels when it occurred to me that she would laugh at the announcement. She would take it as a joke. I realized then that it struck me also as a joke. It was incongruous not only with my appearance, but with my entire role throughout the trip. I ended by replying that I hadn’t made up my mind.
“Well, then, if you’re looking for a place—”
“I can’t say that I’m that.”
“Or if you should be, I’ve given Harry Drinkwater a very good address.”
IT was only a rooming-house, she explained to me, but for active people the more convenient for that, and with lots of good cafés in the neighborhood. She told me of one in particular—Alfonso was the name of the restaurateur—where one could get a very good dinner, with wine, for seventy-five cents, and an adequate breakfast for forty. Moreover, Miss Blair had long known the lady who kept the rooming-house in question, a friend of her mother’s she happened to be, and anyone whom she, Lydia Blair, sent with her recommendation would find the place O.K.
I was terrified. I didn’t mean to go to this well-situated dwelling, “rather far west” in Thirty-fifth Street; I only had visions of being wafted there against my will. So much had happened in which my will had not been consulted that I was afraid of the kindliest of intentions. When at dinner that evening Miss Mulberry apologized across the table for her coldness toward me during the trip, ascribing it to a peculiarity of hers in never making gentleman-friends till sure they were gentlemen, and offering me her permanent address, I resolved that after that meal none of the whole group should catch another glimpse of me.
For this reason I escaped to my cabin directly after dinner, packed my humble belongings, and went to bed. When toward eleven, Drinkwater came down putting the question, as he stumbled in: “Sleep, Jasper?” I replied with a faint snore. For the last two or three days he had been scattering Jaspers throughout his sentences, arid I only didn’t ask him to give up the practice because of knowing that with men of his class that kind of familiarity is a habit. Besides, it would be all over in a few days, so that I might as well take it patiently.
And yet I was sorry that it had to be so, for something had made me like him. During the days of the equinoctial bad weather it had fallen to me to steer him about the staggering ship, and one is naturally drawn to anything helpless. Then, too, of all the men to whom I ever lent a hand he was the most demonstrative. He had a boy’s way of pawing you, of sprawling over you, of giving your hand little twitches, of affectionate squeezes to your arm. There was no liberty he wouldn’t take; but when he took them they didn’t seem to be liberties. If I betrayed a hint of annoyance he would pat me on on any part of my person he happened to touch, with some such soothing words as:
“There, there, poor ’ittle Jasper! Let him come to his muvverums, and have his ’ittie cry.”
But I had to turn my back on him. There was no help for it. I understood, however, that people in his class were less sensitive to discourtesy than those in mine. They were used to it. True, he was blind; but then it was not to be expected that I should look after every blind man I happened to run against in travelling. Besides all this I had made up my mind what I meant to do, and refused to discuss it further even with myself.
He was hoisting himself to the upper bunk when he made a second attempt to draw me.
“You’ll have people to meet you to-morrow morning?”
“Oh, I suppose so,” I grunted, sleepily. “Some of ’em will be there.” A second or two having passed I felt it necessary to add: “Same with you, I suppose?”
He replied from overhead. “Sure! Two or three of the guys’ll be jazzing round the dock. There’ll be—a—Jack—and—a—Jim—and—a—well, a pile of ’em.” He was snuggling down into his pillow as he wound up with a hearty: “Say, Jasper, I’ll be—I’ll be all all right—I’ll be fine.”
DECIDING that I wouldn’t call this bluff I turned and went to sleep. With dawn I slipped out of the cabin before the blind man had stirred. Early rising got its reward in a morning of silver tissue. Silver tissue was flung over the bay, woven into the air, and formed all we could see of the sky. Taking my place as far toward the bow as I could get I watched till two straight lines, forming a right angle appeared against the mist, after which, magical, pearly, spiritual, white in whiteness, tower in cloud, the great city began to show itself through the haze, like something born of the Holy Ghost.
Having nothing to carry but my bag and suitcase I was almost the first on shore. So too I must have been the first of the passengers ready to leave the dock. But two things detained me, just as I was going to take my departure.
The first was fear. It came without warning—a fear of solitude, of the city, of the danger of arrest, of the first steps to be taken. I was like a sick man who hasn’t realized how weak he is till getting out of bed. I had picked up my bags after the custom-house officer had passed them, to walk out of the pen under the letter S, when the thought of what I was facing suddenly appalled me. Dropping my load to the dusty floor I sank on the nearest trunk.
I have read in some English book of reminiscences the confession of dread on the part of a man released after fifteen years’ imprisonment on first going into the streets. The crowds, the horses, the drays, the motors, the clamor and clang, struck him as horrific. For joining the blatant, hideous procession already moving from the dock I was no more equipped than Minerva would have been on the day she sprang fully grown and fully armed from her father’s head.
Looking up the long line of pens I could see Miss Blair steering Drinkwater from the gangway toward the letter D. I noticed his movements as reluctant and terrified. The din I found appalling even with the faculty of sight must have been menacing to him in his darkness. He was still trying to take it with a laugh, but the merriment had become frozen.
Seizing my two bags again I ran up the line.
“Oh, you dear old kid!” Miss Blair exclaimed, as I came within speaking distance, “I’m sure glad to see you. I was afraid you’d been— ”
Knowing her suspicion I cut in on her fear. “No; it didn’t happen. I—got off the boat all right. I—I’ve just been looking after my things, and ran back to see if there was anything I could do—”
“Bless you! There’s everything you can do. Harry’s been crying for you like a baby for its nurse.”
“Where is he?”
The words were his. Confused by the hubbub he was clawing in the wrong direction, so that the grab with which he seized me was like that of a strayed child.
So in the end I was in a taxi-cab, bound for the rooming-house “rather far west” in Thirty-fifth Street, with my charge by my side.
“Say, isn’t this the grandest!”
The accent was so sincere that I laughed. We were out in the sunlight by this time, plowing our way through the squalor.
“What’s grand about it?”
“Oh, well, Miss Blair finding me that house to go to—and you going along with me—and the doctor coming to see me to-morrow to talk about a job—”
“Oh, some job. There’ll be one. You’ll see. I’ve got the darnedest good luck a guy was ever born with—all except my name.”
“What about the fellows you said would be jazzing round the dock to meet you?”
I was sorry for that bit of cruelty before it had got into words. It was one of the rare occasions on which l ever saw his honest pug-face fall.
“Say, you didn’t believe that, did you?”
“You said it.”
“Oh, well, I say lots of things. Have to.” We jolted on till a block in the traffic enabled him to continue without the difficulty of speaking against noise. “Look here! I’m going to tell you something. It’s—it’s a secret.”
“Then, for heaven’s sake, keep it.”
“I want you to know it. I don’t want to be your friend under false pretences.”
It seemed to me an opportunity to clarify the situation. We were on land. We were in New York. It was hardly fair to these good people to let them think that our association could continue on the same terms as at sea. Somewhere in the back of my strained mind was the fact that I had formerly classed myself as a snob, and had been proud of the appellation. That is, I had been fastidious as to whom I should know and whom I should not know. I had been an adept in the art of cutting those who had been forced, or had forced themselves, upon me, and had regarded this skill as an accomplishment. Finding myself on board ship, and in a peculiar situation, I had carried myself as a gentleman should, even toward Mr. Finnegan and Miss Mulberry.
That part had been relatively easy. It was more difficult to dispose of the kindly interest of the Averills. He had made more than one approach which I parried tactfully. Mrs. Averill had contented herself with disquieting looks from her almond eyes, though one day she had stopped me on deck with the condescending enquiries as to ny health that one puts to a friend’s butler. Miss Averiil had been more direct—sensible, solicitous, and rich in a shy sympathy. One day, on entering the saloon I found her examining some rugs which a Persian passenger was displaying in the interests of trade. Being called by her into counsel I helped her to choose between an Herati and a Sarouk, the very names of which she had never heard. My connoisseurship impressed her. After that she spoke to me frequently, and once recommended the employment bureau of her Settlement, in case I were looking for work.
All this I had struggled with, sometimes irritated, sometimes grimly amused, but always ill at ease. Now it was over. I should never see the Averills again, and Drinkwater must be given to understand that he too was an incident.
“My dear fellow, there are no pretences. We simply met on board ship, and because of your—your accident I’m seeing you to your door. That’s all. It doesn’t constitute friendship.”
“You bet it does,” was his unexpected rejoinder. “I’m not that kind at all. When a fellow’s white with me, he’s white. I’m not going to be ashamed of him. If you ever want anyone to hold the sponge for you, Jasper—”
I repeated, stupidly, “Hold the sponge?”
“Go bail for you—do anything. I couldn’t go bail for you on my own, of course; but I could hustle round and get someone to do it. Lydia Blair knows lots of people—and there’s the doctor. Say, Jasper, I’m your friend, and I’m going to stand by the contract.”
THE taxi lumbered on again, while I was debating with myself as to what to say next, or whether or not to say anything. One thing was clear, that no matter what fate awaited me I couldn’t have Drinkwater holding the sponge for me, nor could I appear in court, or anywhere else, with a man of his class as my backer.
We were lurching into Broadway when he grasped me suddenly by the arm, to say: “Look here, Jasper! To show what I think of you I’m going to make you listen to that secret. I—I wasn’t expecting anyone to meet me. There’s no one to meet me. Do you get that?”
I said that I got it, but found nothing peculiar in the situation.
“Oh, but there is, though. I’ve got—I’ve got no friends—not so much as a father or a mother. I never did have. I was—I was left in a basket on a doorstep—twenty-three years ago—and brought up in an orphans’ home in Texas. There, you’ve got it straight! I’ve passed you up the one and only dope on Harry Drinkwater, and any guy that’s afraid he can’t be my friend without wearing a dress-suit to breakfast—”
It was so delicate a method of telling me that I was as good as he was that it seemed best to let the subject of our future relations drop. They would settle themselves when I had carried out the plan that had already begun to dawn on me.
MISS GOLDIE FLOWERDEW, for that was the name on our note of introduction, was at home, but kept us waiting in a room where I made my first study of a rooming-house. It was another indication of what I had not been in my past life that a rooming-house was new to me.
This particular room must in the sixties have been the parlor of some prim and prosperous family. It was long, narrow, dark, with dark carpets, and dark coverings to the chairs. Dark pictures hung on dark walls, and dark objets d’art adorned a terrifying chimney-piece in black marble. On a black walnut centre table the white of a newspaper was ghastly. Folding doors shut us off from a back room that was probably darker still; and through the interstices of the shrunken woodwork we could hear a vague rustling.
The rustling gave place to a measured step, which finally proceeded from the room and sounded along the hall, as if taken to the rhythm of a stone march like that in Don Giovanni, when the Statue of the Commander comes down from its pedestal. My companion and I instinctively stood up, divining the approach of a Presence.
The Presence was soon on the threshold, doing justice to the epithet. The Statue of the Commander dressed in the twentieth-century style of sweet-sixteen and crowned by a shock of bleached hair of tempestuous wave, would have looked like Miss Goldie Flowerdew as she stood before us majestically, fingering our note of introduction.
“So she’s not coming,” was her only observation, delivered in a voice so deep that, like Mrs. Siddons’ “Will it wash?” it startled.
“Did you expect her?” I ventured to ask.
The sepulchral voice spoke again. “Which is the blind one?”
Drinkwater moved forward. She too moved forward, coming into the room and scanning him face to face.
“You don’t look so awful blind.”
“No, but I am—for the present.”
“For the present? Does that mean that you expect to see again?”
“The doctors say that it may come back as suddenly as it went.”
“And suppose it don’t?”
“Oh, well; I’ve got along without it for the past six months, so I suppose I can do it for the next sixty years. I’ve given it a good try, and in some ways I like it."
“You do, do you?”
“Then,” she declared, in her tragic voice, “I like you.”
He flushed as a girl flushes, though his grin was his own speciality.
“Say,” he began, in confidential glee, “Miss Blair said you would—”
“Tell Lydia Blair that she’s at liberty to bestow her affections when and as she chooses; but beg her to be kind enough to allow me to dispose of mine. You’d like to see her room.”
She was turning to begin her stone march toward the stairs but Drinkwater held back.
“Say, lady; is it—is it her room?”
“Certainly; it’s the one she’s always had when she’s been with me, and which she reserved by letter four weeks ago. I was to expect her as soon as the steamer docked.”
“Oh, then—” the boy began to stammer.
“Nonsense, my good man. Don't be foolish. She’s gone elsewhere, and the room is to let. If she hadn’t sent me someone I would have charged her a week’s rent; but now that she’s got me a tenant she’s at liberty to go where she likes. She knows I'd rather have men than women at any time of day.”
“Oh, but if it’s her room, and she’s given it up to me—”
“It isn’t her room; it’s mine. I can let it to anyone I please. She knows of a dozen places in the city that she’ll like just as well as this, so don’t think she’ll be on the street. Come along; I’ve no time to waste.”
"Better go,” I whispered, taking him by the arm, so that the procession started.
THE hall was papered in deep crimson, against which a monumental black walnut hat-and-umbrella stand was visible chiefly because of the gleam of an inset mirror. The floors were painted in the darkest shade of brown, in keeping with the massive body of the staircase. Up the stairway, as along the hall, ran a strip of deep crimson carpet, exposing the warp on the edge of each step.
A hush of solemnity lay over everything. Clearly Miss Flowerdew’s roomers were off for the day, and the place left to her and the little colored maid who admitted us. Drinkwater and I made our way upward in a kind of awe, he clinging to my arm, frightened and yet adventurous.
The long, steep stairs curved toward the top to an upper hall darker than that below because the one window was in ground glass with a border of red and blue. Deep crimson was again the dominating color, broken only by the doors which may have been mahogany. All doors were closed except the one nearest to the top of the stairs, which stood ajar. Miss Flowerdew pushed it open, bidding us to follow her.
We were on the spot which above all others in the world Lydia Blair called home. When the exquisite bit of jewel-weed drifted past me on the deck of the Auvergne this haven was in the background of her memory.
Through the gloom two iron beds, covered with coarse white counterpanes, sagged in the outlines of their single mattresses as beds do after a great many people have slept in them. A low wicker armchair sagged in the seat as armchairs do after a great many people have sat in them. A great many people had passed through this room, wearing it down, wearing it out; and yet there was a woman in the world whose soul leaped toward it as the hearth of her affections. Because it was architecturally dark a paper of olive-green arabesques on an olive-green background had been glued on the walls to make it darker still; and because it was now as dark as it could be made the table, the chest-of-drawers, the wash-stand, like the doors, were all of the darkest brown. Miss Flowerdew pointed to their bare tops to say:
“Lydia has her own covers, and when she puts her photographs and knick-knacks round it makes a home for her.”
“Say, isn’t it grand!” Drinkwater cried, looking round with his sightless eyes.
“It’s grand for the money,” Miss Flowerdew corrected. “It’s not the Waldorf-Astoria, nor yet is it what I was used to when on the stage; but it’s clean—” which it was—“and only respectable people have roomed here. Come, young man, and I’ll show you how to find your way.”
Miss Flowerdew may have been on the stage, but she ought to have been a nurse. Not even Lydia Blair could take hold of a helpless man with such tenderness of strength. Holding Drinkwater by the hand she showed him how to find the conveniences of this nest, pointing out the fact that the bathroom was the first door on the right as you went into the hall, and only a step away.
“I hope I shan’t give you any more trouble, lady, after this,” the blind boy breathed, gratefully.
“Trouble! Of course you’ll give me trouble! The man who doesn’t give a woman trouble is not a man. I’ve had male roomers so neat and natty you’d have sworn they were female ones—and I got rid of ’em. When a man doesn’t know whether to put his boots on the mantelpiece or in the wash-basin when he takes them off, I can see I’ve got something to take care of. I guess I may as well cart these away.”
The reference was to two photographs that stood on the ledges of the huge black walnut mirror.
“I put ’em out to give Lydia a home feeling as soon as she arrived. That’s her father, Byron Blair,” she continued, handing me the picture of an extremely good-looking, weak-faced man of the Dundreary type, “and that’s her mother, Tillie Lightwood, as she was when she and I starred in The Wages of Sin." I examined the charming head, with profile overweighted by a chignon, while Miss Flowerdew continued her reminiscences. “I played Lady Somberley to Tillie’s Lettie Gwynne for nearly three years on end, first here, on Broadway, and then on the road. Don’t do you any good, playing the same part so long. Easy work and money, but you get the mannerisms fixed on you. I was a good utility woman up to that time; but when I came back to Broadway I was Lady Somberley. I never could get rid of her, and so.... I’ll show you some of my notices and photographs—no, not to-day; but when you come round to see your friend—that is—” She looked enquiringly—“that is, if you don’t mean to use the other bed.”
THIS being the hint I needed I took it. With the briefest of farewells I was out on the pavements with my bags in my hands, walking eastward without a goal.
Once more I had to stifle my concern as to Drinkwater. I saw him, when Miss Flowerdew would have gone downstairs, sitting alone in his darkness, with nothing to do. His trunk, the unpacking of which would give him some occupation, would not arrive till evening; and in the meantime he would have no one but himself for company. He couldn’t go out; it would be all he could do to feel his way to the bathroom and back, though even that small excursion would be a break in his monotony.....
But I took these thoughts and choked them. It was preposterous that I should hold myself responsible for the comfort of a boy met by chance on a steamer. Had I taken him in charge from affection or philanthropy it would have been all very well; but I had no philanthropic promptings, and while I liked him I was far from taking this wavering sympathy as affection. I was sorry for him, of course; but others must take care of him. I should have all I could do in taking care of myself.
So I wandered on, hardly noticing at first the way I took, and then consciously looking for a hotel. As to that I had definitely made up my mind not to go to any of those better known, though the names of several remained in my memory, till I had properly clothed myself. Though in a measure I had grown used to my appearance I caught the occasional turning of a head to look at me, and once the eyebrows of a passer-by went up in amused surprise.
I discovered quickly enough that I knew New York, and that I knew it tolerably well; and almost as quickly I learned that I knew it not as a resident but from the point of view of the visitor. Now that I was there I could see myself always coming, and always going. From what direction I had come, and in what direction I turned in leaving still were mysteries. But the conviction of having no abiding tie with this city was as strong as that of the spectator in a theatre of having no permanent connection with the play.
Coming on a modest hotel at last I made bold to go in, finding myself in a lobby of imitation onyx and an atmosphere heavy with tobacco. I crossed to the desk, under the eyes of some three or four colored boys who didn’t offer to assist me with my bags, and applied for a room. A courteous young man of Slavic or Semitic nationality regretted that they were “full up.” I marched out again.
Repeating this experience at another and another, I was saved from doing it at a fourth by a uniformed darky porter who, as I was about to go up the steps, shook his head, at the same time sketching in the air an oval which I took to be a zero. I didn’t go in, but I was oddly disconcerted. It had never occurred to me till then that hotels had a choice in guests, just as guests had a choice in hotels. I had always supposed that a man who could pay could demand a welcome anywhere; but here I was, with nearly four hundred dollars in my pocket, unable to find a lodging because something strange in my clothes, or my eyes, or my general demeanor, or in all together, stamped me as unusual. “Who’s that freak?” I heard one bellboy ask another, and the term seemed to brand me.
THE day was muggy. After the keen sea air it was breathless. When I could walk no longer I staggered into a humble eating-house that seemed to be half underground. There was no one there but two waitresses, one of whom, wearing her hair à la madone, came forward as I closed the door. She did not, however, come forward so quickly but that I heard her say to her companion: “Well, of all the nuts—!” The observation, though breathlessly suspended there, made me shy about ordering my repast.
And when it came I couldn’t eat. It was good enough doubtless, but coarse and ill-served. I think the young lady who found me a nut was sorry for me when it came to close quarters, for she did her best to coax my appetite with other kind suggestions. All I could do in response was to flourish the roll of notes into which I had changed my French money on board, and give her an amazing tip.
But a new decision had come to me while I strove to eat, and on making my way up to daylight again I set out to put it into operation. Reaching Broadway I drifted southward till I came to one of the large establishments for ready-to-wear clothing which I knew were to be found in the neighborhood. On entering the vast emporium I adopted a new manner. No longer shrinking as I had shrunk since waking up to the fact of my misfortune I walked briskly up to the first man whom I saw at a distance eyeing me haughtily.
‘‘See here,” I said, in a good-mixer voice, “I’ve just got back from France, and look at the way they’ve rigged me out. Was in hospital there, after I’d got all kinds of shock, and this is the best I could do without coming back to God’s country in a French uniform. Now I want to see the best you can do, and how pretty you can make me look.”
On emerging I was, therefore, passable to glance at, and after a haircut and a shave I was no longer afraid to see my reflection in a glass. I had, too, another inspiration. It occurred to me that I might startle myself into finding the way home. Calling a taxi I drove boldly with my bags to the Grand Central Station, trusting to the inner voice to tell me the place for which to buy my ticket. With half the instinct of a horse my feet might take the road to the stable of their own accord.
I recognized the station and all its ways—the red-capped colored men, the white-capped white ones, the subterranean shops, the gaunt marble spaces. I recognized the windows at which I must have taken tickets hundreds of times, and played my comedy by walking up first to one and then to another, waiting for the inner voice to give me a tip. I found nothing but blank silence. The world was all before me where to choose—only Providence was not my guide. Or if Providence was my guide His thread of flame was not visible.
I suppose that in that station that afternoon I was like any other man intending to take a train. At least I could say that. So pleased was I with myself that more than once during the two hours of my test I went into the station lavatory just for the sake of seeing myself in the glass. It was a long glass, capable of reflecting some dozen men at a time, and I was as like the rest as one elephant is like another. Oh, that relief! Oh, that joy! Not to be a freak or a nut made up for the moment for my sense of homelessness.
When tired of listening for a call that didn’t come I went into the waiting-room and sat down. Again I was like all the other people doing the same thing. Propped up by a bag on each side I might have been waiting for a train to any of the suburbs. I might have had a family expecting me to supper. The obvious reflection came to me. To all whose glances happened to fall on me I was no more than an unstoried human spot; and yet behind me was a history that would have startled any one of them. So they were unstoried human spots to me; and yet behind each of them there lay a drama of which I could read no more than I could see of the world of light beyond the speck I called a star. Was there a Providence for me, or them, or any other strayed homeless dog? As I glanced at the faces before me, faces of tired women, faces of despondent men, young faces hardened, old faces stupefied, all faces stamp with the agelong soddenness of man, I asked if anywhere in the universe love could be holding up the lamps to us?
Like millions of others who have asked this question I felt that I had my trouble for my pains; but I got another inspiration. As it was now the middle of the afternoon the folly of expecting help from the inner voice became apparent. I must resort to some ether expedient, and the new suggestion was a simple one.
CHECKING my bags in the parcel-office I made for the nearest great hotel. The hall with its colossal furnishings was familiar from the moment of my entry. The same ever-so-slightly over-dressed ladies might have been mincing up and down as on the occasion of my last visit there; the same knots of men might have begun to gather; the same orchestra might have been jigging the same tunes; if only the same men were at the office desk I might find my ingenuity rewarded.
“I wonder if there are any letters for me here? I’m not staying in the house; but I thought—”
No one said, as I hoped: “I’ll see, Mr. Smith,” or, “I’ll find out, Mr. Jones,” so often happens when a man has been a well-known guest.
Nevertheless, it was a spot where strangers from other places congregated, and I knew that in the lobbies of hotels one open met old friends. I might meet one of mine. Better still, one of mine might meet me. At any minute I might feel a clap on the shoulder, while someone shouted, “Hello, old Brown!” or, “Why, here’s Billy Robinson! What’ll we have to drink?” These had been familiar salutations, and might become so again.
So I walked up and down. I was sorry I had neither stick nor gloves, but promised to supply the lack at once. In the meantime I could thrust my hands into my pockets and look like a gentleman at ease because he is at home. Having enjoyed this sport for an hour or more I went out to make my purchases.
Fortified with these I repeated my comedy in another hotel, and presently in a third. In each I began with the same formula of asking for letters; and in each I got the same response. “Name?” In each I receded with a polite, “Never mind. I don’t think there can be any after all.” In each I paraded up and down and in and out, courting the glances of head-waiters, bell-hops, and lift-men, always in the hope of a recognition and a “How-do, Mr. So-and-so?” that never came.
BUT by six o’clock the game had played itself out for the day and I was not only tired, but depressed. I was not discouraged, for the reason that New York was full of big hotels, and I meant to begin my tramp on the morrow. There were clubs, too, into which on one pretext or another I could force my way, and there were also the great thoroughfares. Some hundreds of people in New York at that moment would probably have recognized me at a glance—if I could only come face to face with them. All my efforts for the next few weeks must be bent on doing that.
But in the meantime I was tired and lonely. There were two or three things I might do, each of which I had promised to myself with some anticipation. I could go to a good restaurant and order a good feed; I could go to a good hotel and sleep in a good bed; I could buy the evening papers and find out what kind of world I was living in.
As to carrying out this programme I had but one prudential misgiving. It might cost more money than, it would be wise for me to spend. My visit to the purveyor of clothing in the afternoon had not only lightened my purse but considerably opened my eyes. Where I had had nearly four hundred dollars I had now nearly three. With very slight extravagance, according to the standards of New York, it would come down to nearly two, and then to nearly one, and then to.... But I shuddered at that, and stopped thinking.
Having stopped thinking along one set of lines I presently found myself off on another. I saw Harry Drinkwater sitting in the dark as I was sitting in the hall of a hotel. That is, he was idle, and I was idle. He was eating his heart out, as I was eating out mine.
It occurred to me that I might go back to Thirty-fifth Street and take him out to dinner. Alfonso, recommended by Miss Blair, might be no more successful as a host than the lady with tressing à la madone who had given me my lunch; but we could try. At any rate the boy wouldn’t be alone on the first evening in New York, and would feel that someone cared for him.
And then something else in me revolted. No! No! A thousand times, No! I had cut loose from these people and should stay loose. On saying goodbye to Drinkwater that morning I had disappeared without a trace. For anyone who tried to follow me now I should be the needle in a haystack. What good could come of my going back on my own accord, and putting myself on a level to which I did not belong?
Like many other Americans, I was no believer in the equality of men. For men as a whole I had no respect, and in none but the smallest group had I any confidence. Looking at the faces as they passed me in the hall I saw only those of brutes—and these were mostly people who had had what we call advantages. As for those who had not had advantages I disliked them in contact and distrusted them in principle. I described myself not only as a snob but as an aristocrat. I had worked it out that to be well educated and well-to-do was the normal. To be poor and ill-educated was abnormal. Those who suffered from lack of means or refinement did so because of some flaw in themselves or their inheritance. They were the plague of the world. They created all the world’s problems, and bred most of its diseases. From the beginning of time they had been a source of disturbance to better men, and would be to the end of it.
It was the ironies of ironies, then, that I should have become a member of a group that included a lady’s maid, a chauffeur, and two stenographers, and have been hailed as one of them. The lady’s maid and the chauffeur I could, of course, dismiss from my mind; but the two stenographers had seemingly sworn such a friendship for me that nothing but force would cut me free from it. Very well, then; I should use force if it was needed; but it wouldn’t be needed. All I had to do was to refrain from going to take Drinkwater out to dinner, and they would never know where I was.
AND yet, if you would believe it, I went. Within half an hour I was knocking at his bedroom door, and hearing his cheery, “Come in.”
Why I did this I cannot tell you. It was neither from loneliness, nor kindheartedness, nor a sense of duty. The feet that wouldn’t take the horse to the stable took him back to that crimson rooming-house, and that, is all I can say.
Drinkwater was sitting in the dark, which was no darker to him than daylight; but when I switched on the light his pug-grin gave an added illumination to the room.
“Say, that’s the darnedest! I knew you’d come in spite of the old lady swearing you wouldn’t. I’d given you half an hour yet; and here you are, twenty-five minutes ahead of time.”
The reception annoyed me. It was bad enough to have come; but it was worse to have been expected.
“How have you been getting on?” I asked, in order to relieve my first anxiety.
“Haven’t you been—dull?”
“What have you had to do?”
“Oh, enjoy myself—feeling my way about the house. I can go all round the room, and out into the hall, and up and down stairs just as easy as you can. It’s a cinch.”
“Have you heard anything of Miss Blair?”
“Sure! Called up about an hour ago to say she’d found the swellest place—in Forty-first Street. But, say, Jasper, what do you think of a girl who gives up a room she’s reserved for a month and more, just to—?”
I broke in on this to ask where he had bis lunch.
“Oh, the old girl made me go down and have it with her. She’s not half a bad sort, when you come to know her. I’ve asked her to come out to dinner with me at Alfonso’s—Lydia Blair says it’s a dandy place—and now you can join the party.”
“No; I’ve come to take you out,”
“Say, Jasper! Do you think I’m always going to pass the buck, just because—you and little Goldie are coming to dinner with me.”
Not to dispute the point I yielded it, asking only:
“What made you think I was coming this evening?—because, you know, I didn’t mean to.”
“Oh, I dunno. Like you to do it. You’re the sort. That’s all.”
So within another half hour I found myself at Alfonso’s, on Drinkwater’s left, with little Goldie opposite. Little Goldie seemed somehow the right name for the Statue of the Commander, now that she wore a lingerie hat and a blouse of the kind which I believe is called peek-a-boo. She was well known at Alfonso’s, however, her authority securing us a table in a corner, with special attentions from head and subordinate waitresses.
How shall I tell you of Alfonso’s? Like the rooming-house it was for me a new social manifestation. It was what you might call the home of the homeless, and the homeless were numerous and noisy. They were very noisy, they were very hot. The odor of food struck upon the nostrils like the smell of a whole-burnt-sacrifice when they offered up an ox. The perfume of wine swam on top of that of food, and over and above both the smell of a healthy, promiscuous, perspiring humanity, washed and unwashed, in a festive hurtling together, hilarious and hungry.
The food was excellent; the wine as good as any vin ordinaire in France; the service rapid; and the whole a masterpiece of organization. I had eaten many a dinner for which I paid ten times as much which wouldn’t have compared with it.
DURING the progress of the meal it was natural that Miss Flowerdew, whose eye commended the change in my appearance, should ask me what I had been doing through the day. I didn’t, as you will understand, find it necessary to go into details, but I told her of my unsuccessful attempts to find a room.
“Did you try the Hotel Barcelona, in Fourth Avenue?”
I told her I had not.
“Then do so.” Fumbling in her bag she found a card and a pencil. “Take that,” she commanded, when she had finished scribbling, “and ask for Mr. Jewsbury. If he isn’t in, show it to the roomclerk, but keep it for Mr. Jewsbury to-morrow. I’ve told them you must have a room and bath, not over two-fifty a day—and clean. Tell them I said so.”
“Is Mr. Jewsbury a friend of yours?” I asked inanely, after I had thanked her.
“He used to be my husband—the one before Mr. Crockett. I could be Mrs. Jewsbury again, if I so chose; but I do not so choose.”
With this astonishing hint of the possibilities in Miss Goldie Flowerdew’s biography I saw the value of discretion, and as soon as courtesy permitted took my leave to visit the Hotel Barcelona.
AFTER a delicious night I woke in a room which gave the same shock to my fastidiousness as the first glimpse of my cabin on board ship. I woke cheerfully, however, knowing that I was in New York, and that not many days could pass before some happy chance encounter would give me the clue of which I was in search. Cheerfully I dressed and breakfasted; cheerfully I sat down in the dingy hall to scan the morning’s news.
It was the first paper I had opened since landing. It was the first I had looked at since....
I had no recollection of when I had read a newspaper last. It must have been long ago; so long ago that the history of my immediate time had lapsed into formlessness, like that of the ancient world. I knew there was a world; I knew there were countries and governments; I knew, as I have said, that there was a war. Of the causes of that war I retained about the same degree of information as of the origin of the Wars of the Roses.
Bewilderment was my first reaction no ; the second was amazement. Reading the papers with no preparation from the day before, or from the day before that—with no preparation at all but a vague memory of horrors from which my mind retreated the minute they were suggested—reading the papers thus the world seemed to me to have been turned upside down. Hindoos were in France, Canadians in Belgium, the French in the Dobrudja, the Australians in Turkey, the British and Germans in East Africa, and New Zealanders on the defensive in the peninsula of Sinai. What madness was this? How had the race of men got into such a tragic-comic topsy-turveydom? A long, crooked line slashed all across Europe showed the main body of the opponents locked in a mutual death-embrace.
I had hardly grasped the meaning of it when looking up I saw a figure of light standing in the lobby before me. It was all in white serge, with a green sash about the waist, and the head wreathed in a white motor-veil.
The husky, comic, Third Avenue laugh was Lydia Blair’s. I had just time to rehearse the series of irritations I knew I should feel at being tracked down and to regret my folly for having gone back to Drinkwater on the previous evening. Then I saw the heavenly eyes surveying me with an air of approval. “Well, you look like a nice tailor’s dummy at last. Takes me back to Seattle or Boston or Salt Lake City—and the lady.” As she rattled on a pair of dark eyes began to flash on me from the air. “We haven’t got her to-day, but there’s someone else who perhaps will fill the bill. Come on out.”
Wondering what she could mean, and whether or not the longed-for clue might not be at hand, I suffered myself to be led by the arm to the door of the hotel.
At first I saw nothing but a large and handsome touring-car drawn up against the curb. Then I saw Drinkwater snuggled in a corner—and then a brown veil.
I couldn’t help crossing the pavement since Lydia did the same, and the brown veil seemed to expect me.
“Miss Blair thought you might like a drive, Mr. Soames, so we came round to see if we could find you.”
“Come on in, Jasper,” Drinkwater urged, “the water’s fine.”
“Come on. Don’t be silly,” Miss Blair insisted, as I began to make excuses.
BEFORE I knew what I was doing I had stumbled into the seat opposite Miss Averill. She sat in the right hand comer; Drinkwater in the left; Miss Blair between the two. I occupied one of the small folding armchairs, going backwards. In another minute we were on our way through one of the cross streets to Fifth Avenue.
Having grasped the situation I was annoyed. Miss Averill was taking the less fortunate of her acquaintance for an airing. Though I could do justice to her kindliness I resented being forced again into a position from which I was trying to struggle out.
Then I saw something that diverted my attention even from my wrongs. The pavements in Fifth Avenue were thronged with a slowly moving crowd of men and women, but mostly of men, that made progress up or down impossible. Looking closely I saw that they were all of the nations which people like myself are apt to consider most alien to the average American. Of true Caucasian blood there was hardly a streak among them. Dark, stunted, oddly hatted, oddly dressed, abject and yet eager, submissive and yet hostile, they poured up and up and up from all the side streets, as runlets from a mountain-side into a great stream. For the pedestrian, the shopper, the flâneur, there was not an inch of foot-room. These surging multitudes monopolized everything. From Fourteenth Street to Forty-second Street, a distance of more than a mile along the most extravagantly showy thoroughfare in the world, these two dense lines of humanity took absolute possession, driving clerks back into their shops and customers from trade by the sheer weight of numbers.
“Good heavens! What’s up?” I cried, in amazement.
Miss Averill, who was doubtless used to the phenomenon, looked mildly surprised.
“Why, it’s always this way,” she smiled. “It’s their lunch hour. They come from the shops and the workshops in the side-streets to see the sights and get the air.”
“But is it like this every day?”
“Sure it is!” laughed Miss Blair. “Did you never see the Avenue before?”
“I’ve never seen this before. “I’m sure they didn’t do it a few years ago.”
Miss Averill agreed to this. It was a new manifestation, due to the changes this part of New York had undergone in recent years.
“But how do the people get in and out of the shops?”
Miss Blair explained that they couldn’t, which was the reason why so many businesses were being driven up town. There was an hour in the day when everything was at a standstill.
“And if during that hour this inflammable stuff were to be set ablaze—”
Miss Averill’s comment did not make the situation better. “Oh, the same thing goes on in every city in the country, only you don’t see it. New York is unfortunate in having only one street. Any other street is just a by-way. Here the whole city, for every purpose of its life, has to pour itself into Fifth Avenue, so that if anything is going on you get it there.”
WE did not continue the subject, for none of us really wanted to talk of it. In its way it went beyond whatever we were prepared to say. It was disquieting; it might be menacing. We preferred to watch, to study, to wonder, as, in the press of vehicles, we slowly made our way between these banks of outlandish faces, every one of which was like a slumbering fire. If our American civilization were ever to be blown violently from one basis to another, as I had sometimes thought might happen, the social TNT was concentrated here.
But we were soon in the Park. Soon after that we were running along the river bank. Soon after that we came to an inn by a stream in a dimple of a dell, and here Miss Averill had ordered lunch by telephone. It was a nice little lunch, in a sort of rude pavilion that simulated eating in the open air. I noticed that all the arrangements had been made with as much foresight as if we had been people of distinction.
So I began to examine my hostess with more attention than I had ever given her, coming to the conclusion that she belonged to the new variety of rich American, whom I had somewhere had occasion to observe.
Sensible and sympathetic were the first words you applied to her, and you could see she was of the type to seek nothing for herself. Brown was her color, as it so often is that of self-renouncing characters—the brown of woodland brooks in her eyes, the brown of nuts in her hair, and all about her an air of conscientiousness that left no place for coquetry.
Conscientiousness was her aura, and among the shades of conscientiousness that in spending money easily came first. I was sure she had studied the whole question of financial inequality from books, and as much as she could from observation. Zeal to make the best use of her income had probably held her back from marriage, and dictated her occupations. It had drawn her to working girls like Lydia Blair, to struggling men like Harry Drinkwater, and now indirectly to me. It had suggested the drive of this morning, and had bidden, her gather us round her at table as if we were her equals. She knew we were not her equals, but she was doing her best to forget the fact and to have us forget it too. With Harry and Lydia I think she was successful. But with me....
She herself knew she was not successful with me, and when, after the coffee, the working girl had taken the blind man and strayed with him for a few hundred yards into the woods, Miss Averill grew embarrassed. The more she tried to keep me from seeing it—the more she betrayed it—not in words, or glances, or any trick of color, but in inner hesitations which only mind-reading could detect.
As we still sat at the table, but each a little away from it, she gathered all her resources together to be the lady in authority.
“I’m glad of a word alone with you because—” Apparently she could get no further in this direction, and so took another line—“I think you said your business was with carpets, didn’t you?”
“Somebody may have said it for me—especially after our little talk about the rug—but it didn’t come from me.”
Her hazel eyes rested on me frankly. “And you’re not?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Oh, then—” Her tone was slightly that of disappointment.
“Did you want me to be?” I smiled.
“It isn’t that; but my brother thought you were—”
“I’m sure I don’t know why—except for the rug. But one can know about rugs and not have to sell them, can’t one?”
“It’s not a usual branch of knowledge, except among connoisseurs and artists—"
“So my brother thought if you were in that kind of work he’d give you a note to a friend of his—at the head of one of the big carpet establishments in New York—”
“It’s awfully kind of him,” I broke in, as she drew a letter from the bag she carried, “and if I needed it I’d take it; but—but I don’t need it. It—it wouldn’t be any good to me. I thank him none the less sincerely—and you too, Miss Averill—”
She looked at the ground, long black lashes resting on her cheek.
“I must seem to you very officious, but—”
“Not in the slightest. I'm extremely grateful. If I required help there’s nobody—”
“You don’t live in New York?”
“I’m going to stay here for—for the present.”
“But not—not to work?”
‘‘That I shall have to see.”
“I suppose you’re a—a writer—or one of those things.”
“No, I’m not any of those things,” I said, gravely; and at that we laughed.
WE got back to New York in time for me to begin the parade of the hotels. Taking this task seriously I selected the biggest, and made myself conspicuous by keeping on my feet.
For three days nothing happened except within myself. This focussing of men and women into vast assemblies from four to seven every afternoon began to strike me as the counterpart of the gatherings I was watching every day between twelve and one on the pavements of Fifth Avenue. Though the activities were different the same obscure set of motives seemed to lie behind both. In both there was the impulse to crowd densely together, as if promiscuity was a source of excitement. In both there was a vacuity that was not purposeless. In both there was a suggestion of the sleeping wild beast. While in the one case the accompaniment was the inchoate uproar of the streets, in the other it was an orchestra that jazzed with the monotonous incitement of Oriental tom-toms, nagging, teasing, tormenting the wild beast to get up and show his wildness. Across tea-rooms or between arcades one could see couples dancing in a languorous semi-paralysis of which the fascination lay in a hint of barbaric shamelessness. Barbaric shamelessness marked the huge shaven faces of most of the men and the kilts of the women. I mention these details only to point out that to me, after my mysterious absence, they indicated a socially new America.
It was the fourth afternoon when, drifting with the crowd through a corridor lined with tables at which small parties were having tea, I felt the long expected tap on my shoulder.
In the interval too brief to reckon before turning round two possibilities were clear in my mind. The unknown crime from which I was running away might have found me out—or some friend had come to my deliverance. Either event would be welcome, for even if it were arrest I should learn my name and history.
“Hello, old chap! Come and have some tea.”
I WAS disappointed. It was only Boyd Averill. Behind him his wife and sister were seated at one of the little tables. It was the sort of invitation one couldn’t refuse, especially as they saw I was strolling without purpose.
It was Mrs. Averill who talked, in the bored voix traînante of one who has everything the world can give, except what she wants most. I had seen before that she was a beautiful woman, but never so plainly as now—a woman all softness and dimpling curves, with the same suggestions of the honeyed and melting and fatigued in her glances that you got from the inflection of her sentences.
She explained that they had come from a song-recital in the great hall upstairs. It was given at this unusual time of year by a well-known singer who was passing through New York on her way to Australia. With this interruption she continued the criticism she had been making when I sat down, and which dealt with certain phrases in a song—Goethe's Ueber allen Gipfeln.
“The Schubert setting?” I asked, after informing Miss Averill as to how I should have my tea.
“No, the Hugo Wolff.”
I began to hum in an undertone: ‘Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruk; in allem Wipfeln hörest du kaum einen Hauch.' Is that the one?”
The ladies exchanged glances; Averill kept his eyes on my face.
“Yes, that’s the one," Mrs. Averill said as if nothing unusual had happened. “So you sing.”
“No; I—I just know the song. I’ve—I’ve heard a good deal of music at one time and another.”
“Where especially here?”
“Oh, New York—Boston—Chicago—different places.” I did my best to be vague.
I noticed for the first time then a shade of wistfulness in Mildred Averill’s brown eyes, as she said:
“You seem to have moved about a good deal.”
“Oh, yes. I wanted—I wanted to see what was happening.”
“And you saw it?”
Averill asked me that, his gaze still fixed on me thoughtfully.
“Enough—for the present.”
There was a pause of some seconds during which I could hear the unuttered question of all three: “Why don’t you tell us who you are?” It was a kindly question, with nothing but sympathy behind it. It was in fact a tacit offer of friendship, if I could only take it up. More plainly than they could have expressed themselves in words it said: “We like you. We are ready to be your friends. Only give us the least little bit of encouragement. Link yourself up with something we know. Don’t be such a mystery, because mystery breeds suspicion.”
To Be Continued