IT had been crowded out of memory by the fact that after all it might not matter whether I found work or not. I could live anyhow. All I had to do was to take a telephone list, call up Boyd Averill's number, say that I had changed my mind It was a temptation. For you to understand how fierce a temptation it was you would have to remember that for a month I had been insufficiently fed, and that for a week I had not really been fed at all. More over, I could see before me no hope of being fed in the immediate future. I was asking myself whether it would be common sense on the part of a drowning man to refuse a rope because a woman in whom there might be a whole confusion of complex motives had thrown it, when I suddenly found my passage along the pavement blocked.
It was blocked by what appeared to be a long cylindrical bar, some two or three feet in diameter. Covered with burlap it ran from a motor-truck, in which one end still rested, toward the entrance to that part of Creed and Creed’s establishment that lay slightly lower than the pavement. It was a wide entrance, after which came two or three broad, shallow steps, and then a cavern which was evidently a storehouse. Two men were tugging at the long object, the one big, dark, brawny, dad in overalls, and equal to the work, the other a little elf of an old man, nattily dressed for the street, wearing a high felt hat possibly in the hope of making himself look taller. A grey moustache that sprang outward in a semi-circle did not conceal a truculent mouth though it smothered his wrathful expletives. That he had once been agile I could easily guess, but now his poor old joints were stiff from age or disuse. It was also dear that he was lending a hand to an irksome task because of a shortage of labor.
While the younger man—he was about my age—could manage his end easily enough the old one tugged desperately at his, finally letting it drop.
If the thread of flame ever led me it was then. Without a minute’s hesitation I picked up the dropped end of the cylinder, with no explanation beyond the words, “Let me have a try,” and presently I was finding my way down the steps and into the cavern.
“Chuck it there, on top o’ thim," my companion ordered, and our cylinder lay as one of a pile of similar cylinders which I could see from the labels to have been shipped from India.
“There’s eight or tin more of thim things—" fellow was beginning.
“Is that the Floater?” I asked, in a hurried undertone, as the little man hobbled down the steps and made his way toward us in the semi-darkness.
“He sure is, and some damn light floater at that.”
Before I could analyze this reply the Floater himself stood in front of me.
“Who are you?” he demanded, sharply.
“Do you mean my name?”
“I don’t care a damn about your name. What business had you to pick up that rug—?”
“Only the business of wanting to help. I could see it wasn’t a gentleman’s job—and—and I—I thought you might take me on, if you had no one else."
He danced with indignation.
“Take you on? Take you on? What do you mean by that?”
“You see, sir, it was this way. I’ve just run up from the Intelligence where I heard a fellow gassing about—” I varied the story from that which I had heard at Miss Bryne’s—“about being kicked out of here—”
“Was he a gabby sort of a guy?” my big colleague inquired.
“That would describe him exactly: and so I thought that if I could reach here in time—before you’d had a chance to get anyone else—”
“Chance to get anyone else?” the little man snarled. “I can go out into the street and shovel ’em in by the cartload. Dirt, I call ’em—”
“Yes, sir; but you haven’t done it. That’s all I mean. I thought if I got here first—"
IT was easy to size him up as a vain little terrier, and my respectful manner softened him. He stood back for a minute to examine me.
“You don’t look like a fellow that’d be after this sort of a job, does he, Bridget?”
Bridget’s answer, though non-committal, was in my favor.
“Sure I’ve seen ivery kind o’ man lookin’ for a job at one time or another. It’s not his looks that’ll tell in handling rugs; it’s his boiceps.”
He tapped his own strong biceps to emphasize his observation, while I endeavored to explain.
“You’re quite right, sir. You’d see that, when lots of other men wouldn’t. As a matter of fact this job or any other job would be new to me. I had some money—but the war’s got me stone-broke. I lived in France till just lately—”
“If you lived in France why aint you fightin’?”
Not having the same dread of inventing a tale as with Boyd Averill I said, boldly:
“I did fight—till they discharged me. Got a blow on the head—and wasn’t any good after that. I was with the French army because my people lived over there. When I got out of it there was no provision made for me, of course—my father and mother had died—my father’s business had been smashed to pieces—”
“What was he?”
Luckily my imagination didn’t fail me. “An artist. He was just beginning to make a hit. I was to have been—” I sought for the most credible possibility—“an architect. I was to have studied at the Beaux Arts—that’s the big school for architects in Paris—but of course all that was knocked on the head when my father died, and so I sailed for New York.”
“Haven’t you got no relations here?”
I remembered that Lydia Blair thought she might have seen me in Salt Lake City, but was afraid of the Mormon association. “My family used to live in in California—but they’re all scattered and we’d been in Europe for so many years—”
“Amur'cans should live in God's country—”
“Yes, sir; so I’ve found out. If we had I shouldn’t be asking for a job in order to get a meal. I’m down to that,” I confessed, showing him the nickel and the dime.
He took a minute or two to reflect on the situation, saying finally, with a little relenting in his tone;
“There’s nine more rugs out in that lorry. If you help this man to lug them in you’ll get fifty cents.”
IF it was not the miracle it was a sign and a wonder none the less. Fifty cents would tide me over the night. I should have sixty-five cents in all, and it would be my own. I should not have cadged it from a woman, whatever the motive of her generosity. It was that motive which made me tremble. If it was what it might have been—if I was not a mere fatuous fool—then there was no hole so deep that I had better not hide in it, no distance so great that I had better not put it between me and her. It would wound her if I did, but on every count that would be preferable....
The Floater went off to regions where I couldn’t follow him and Bridget spoke in a non-committal but not unkindly tone.
“Better take off that topcoat and hang it in Clancy’s locker—Clancy was the gabby chap you heard at Lizzie’s—that’s Lizzie Bryne—sure I moind her when her mother kep’ a little notion store down by Grime Street—and now the airs she gives herself!—Ah, well, there’s no law agin it!—Come awn now. We’ll get these other bits in, because Daly, that’s the driver, 'll have to be after goin’ back to the station for the Bokharas—”
“Will that be more to unload?” I asked, eagerly.
“Sure it’ll be more to unload. Dee ye think they’ll walk off the truck by theirselves?”
Vaguely afraid of something hostile or supercilious on Bridget’s part I was pleasantly surprised to find him not merely good-natured but helpful and patient, showing me the small tricks of unloading long burlap cylinders from a motor-lorry, which proved to be as much an art in its simple way as anything else, and enlivening the work by anecdote. All that he knew of Creed and Creed I learned in the course of that half hour, though it turned out to be little more than I knew myself, except as it concerned the minor personnel. Of the heads of the firm and the managers he could tell me only as much as the peasants in the vale of Olympus could have recounted of the gods on the mountain top. To Bridget they were celestial, shadowy beings, seen as they passed in and out of the office, or stopped to look at some new consignment from the Far East, but he barely knew their names.
The highest flight of his information was up to the Floater; beyond him he seemed to consider it useless to ascend. Of the gods on the summit the Floater was the high-priest, and in that capacity he alone was of moment to those on the lower plane. He administered the favors and meted out the punishments. “He’s It,” was Bridget’s laconic phrase, and in the sentence, as far as he was concerned, or I was concerned, or any salesman or porter was concerned, Creed and Creed’s was summed up.
Of the Floater’s anomalous position in the establishment the explanation commonly accepted by the porters—the “luggers” they called themselves—was that he was in possession of dark secrets which it would have been perilous to tempt him to divulge, concerning the firm’s prosperity. A mysterious blood relationship with “old man Creed,” who had founded the house some sixty years before, was also a current speculation. Certain it was that his connection with the business antedated that of anyone among either partners or employees, a fact that gave him an authority which no one disputed and all subordinates feared.
The job finished Bridget and I sat on the pile, while he shared his lunch with me, and I waited for the Floater to bring me my fifty cents.
When he appeared at last I stood to attention, though Bridget nonchalantly kept his seat. I learnt that if the little man was treated as an equal in the office he was also treated as an equal in the basement. This circumstance gave to my politeness, in standing up and saying sir, a value to which he was susceptible, though too crusty to admit it.
“There’s another load coming, sir, isn’t there?” I asked, humbly, after I had been paid.
“What’s it to you if there is?”
“Only that I might earn another fifty cents.”
“Earn another fifty cents! Why, fifty cents would pay you for two such jobs as the one you’ve done.”
“Then I’d like to work off what you’ve paid me by unloading the other lot for nothing.”
He lifted a warning finger as he turned to go upstairs. “See here, young feller! You beat it. If I find you here when I come down again—”
“You stay jist where y’are,” Bridget warned me. “They’re awful short-handed above, and customers cornin’ in by the shovelful. They’ve got to have four luggers to pull the stuff out for the salesmen to show, and there’s only six of us in all. When Clancy put the skids under hisself last night I could see how it’d be to-day. It was a godsend to the little ould man when you blew in; but he always wants ye to think he can beat the game right out of his own hand.”
Thus encouraged I stood my ground, and when the next load came I had the privilege of helping Bridget to handle it. By the end of the day I had not only earned a dollar and a half but had been ordered by the Floater to turn up again next morning.
“Ye’re all right now,” Bridget said, complacently. “Ye’ve got the job so long as ye can hould it down. I’ll give ye the dope about that, and wan thing is always to trate him the way ye’ve trated him to-day. It’s what he wants of us other guys, and we’ve not got the trick o’ handin’ it out. Men like us, that’s used to a free country, don’t pass up no soft talk to no one. What’s yer name?”
“I said it was Jasper Soames.”
“Sure that’s a hell of a name,” he commented, simply. “The byes’d never get round the like o’ that. Yer name ’ll be Brogan. Brogan was what we called the guy that was here before Clancy, and it done very well, All right, then, Brogan. Ye’ll have Clancy’s locker; and moind ye don’t punch the clock a minute later than siven in the mornin’ or that little ould divil’ll be dancin’ round to fire ye.”
So Brogan I was at Messrs. Creed and Creed’s all through the next two years.
NO lighter-hearted man than I trod the streets of New York that evening. I had breakfasted in the morning; I had shared Bridget’s cold meat and bread at mid-day; I could “blow myself in” to something to eat now, and then go happily to bed.
There was but one flaw in this bliss, and that was the thought of Mildred Averill. Whether she would be glad or sorry that for the minute I was landing on my feet I could not forecast. And yet when I called her up she pretended to be glad. I say she pretended only because in her very first words there was a note of disappointment, perhaps of dismay, though she recovered herself quickly.
“But I can be easy in my mind about you?” she asked, after I had declined to tell her what my new occupation
“Quite easy; only I want you to know how grateful I am—"
“Oh, please don’t. If I could have done more—”
“Fortunately that wasn’t needed.”
“But if it should be needed in the future—”
“I hope it won’t be.”
“But if it should be?”
“Oh, then we’d—we’d see.”
“So that for now it’s—” that note stole into her voice again, and with a wistful question in the intonation— “for now it’s—it’s good-bye?”
“Only for now.”
She seemed to grasp at something.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, just that—that the future—”
“I hate the future.”
It was one of her sudden outbursts—and the receiver was hung up.
AFTER all, this abrupt termination to an unsatisfactory mode of speech was the wisest method for us both. We couldn’t go on sparring, and there was nothing to do but spar. Knowing that I couldn’t speak plainly she had ceased to expect me to do so, and yet....
When I say that this was a relief to me you must understand it only in the sense that my situation was too difficult to allow of my inviting further complications. Had I been free—but I wasn’t free. The conviction that somewhere in the world I had permanent ties began to be as strong as the belief that at some time in my life love had been the dominating factor. There had been a woman. Lydia Blair had seen her. Her flaming eyes haunted me from a darkness in which they were the only thing living. The fact that I couldn’t construct the rest of the portrait no more permitted me to doubt the original than you can doubt the existence of an unseen plant after you have seen a leaf from it. The best I could hope for now was the privilege of living and working in some simple, elemental way that would give me the atmosphere in which to re-collect myself—recueillement, the French graphically name the process—and grow unconsciously back into the facts that effort would not restore to me.
For that simple, elemental work and life the opportunity came to me at last. I see now that it was opportunity, though I should not have said so at the time. At the time it was only hard necessity, though hard necessity with those products of shelter and food, which in themselves meant peace. I had peace, therefore, of a kind, and to it I am able now to attribute that growth and progress backward, if I may so express myself, which led to the miracle.
My work next day lay in peeling off the burlap from the newly arrived consignment, stripping the rolls of the sheepskins in which they were wrapped inside, spreading the rugs flat, and sweeping them with a stiff, strong broom. After that we laid them in assorted piles, preparatory to carrying them upstairs. They were Khorassans, Kirmanshahs, Bokharas, and Sarouks, with a superb lot of blue and gold Chinese reproduced on the company’s looms in India.
The good-natured Peter Bridget taking his turn upstairs, my colleague that day was an American of Finnish extraction, whose natural sunniness of disposition had been soured by the thwarting of a strong ambition to "get on.” Combining the broad features of the Lapp with the Scandinavian hair and complexion, his expression reminded you of a bright summer day over which a storm is beginning to lower. The son of one large family and the father of another he was at war with a world in which his earning capacity had come to have its limitations fixed at eighteen dollars a week.
He was not conversational; he only grunted remarks out of a slow-moving bitterness of spirit.
“What’s the good of always layin’ the pipe and never gettin’ no oil along it? That’s what I want to know. Went to work when I was fourteen, and now I’m forty-two, and in exactly the same spot.”
“You’re not in exactly the same spot,” I said, “because you’ve got your wife and children.”
“And the money I’ve spent on that woman and them kids—”
“But you’re fond of them, aren’t you?”
“No better wife no guy never had, and no nicer little fam’ly—”
"Well, then, that’s so much to the good. Those are assets, aren’t they? They’ll mean more to you than if you had money in the savings bank and didn’t have them—”
“I can’t eddicate ’em proper, or send ’em to high school, let alone college, or give ’em nothin’ like what they ought to have. All I can leave ’em when I die is what my father left me—the right not to be able to get nowhere—and yet you’ll hear a lot of gabbers jazzin’ away about this bein’ the best country for a workingman.”
DURING the lunch hour we drifted out into Fifth Avenue, joining the throng of those who for sixty minutes were like souls enjoying a respite from limbo. Limbo, I ask you to notice, is not hell; but it is far from paradise. The dictionary defines the word as a borderland, a place of restraint, and it was in both those senses, I think, that the shop and the factory struck the imaginations of these churning minds. The shop and the factory formed a borderland—neither one thing nor another—a nowhere—but a place of restraint none the less. More than the physical restraint involved in the necessity for working was implied by this; it was restraint of the spirit, restraint of the part of a man that soars, restraint of the impulse to seize the good things of life in a world where they seemed to be free.
Though I could understand little of the conversation around me—Yiddish, Polish, Armenian, Czech—I knew they were talking of jobs and bosses in relation to politics and the big things of life.
“What’s the matter with them guys at Albany and Washington that they don’t come across with laws—?”
That was the question and that was the complaint. It was one of the two main blends in the current of dissatisfaction. The other blend was the conviction that if those who had the power didn’t right self evident wrongs the wronged would somehow have to right themselves. There was no speech-making, no stump oratory, after the manner of a Celtic or Anglo-Saxon crowd; all was smothered, sullen, burning, secretive, and intense.
On our way back to the cavern the Finn remarked:
“No man doesn’t mind work. He’d rather work than loaf, even if he was paid for loafin’. What he can’t stick is not havin’ room to grow in, bein’ squeezed into undersize, like a Chinese woman’s foot."
After all, I reflected, this might be the real limbo not only of the working-man, but of all the dissatisfied in all ranks throughout the world—the denial of the liberty to expand. Mildred Averill was rebelling against it in her way as much as the Finn in his, as much as any Jew or Pole or Italian in all the crowd surging back at that minute to the dens from which they had come out. Discontent was not confined to any one class or to any one set of needs. Custom, convention, and greed had clamped our energies round and round as with iron hoops, till all but the few among us had lost the right to grow. It wasn’t a question of pay; it wasn’t primarily a question of money at all, though the question of money was involved in it. More than anything else it was one of a new orientation toward everything, with a shifting of basic principles. The first must become last and the last must become first—not in the detail of precedence but in that of the laws by which individuals live—before men as men could get out of the prison-houses into which civilization had thrust them to the broad, free air to which they were born. The struggle between labor and capital was a mere duel between blind men. It was bluff on the surface by those on both sides who were afraid to put the axe to the root of the tree. No symbol was so eloquent to me of the bondage into which the human elements in Church and State had chained the spirit of man, as the Finn’s comparison of the Chinese woman’s foot.
When the Floater paid me another dollar and a half that night he told me that if I worked like a dog, was as meek as a mouse, and “didn’t get no labor rot into my nut,” I could have Clancy’s job as a regular thing. But by this time I was beginning to understand him. I have already called him a terrier, and a terrier he was, with a terrier’s bark, but with a terrier’s fundamental friendliness. If you patted him he wagged his tail. True, he wagged it unwillingly, ungraciously, and with a fond belief that you didn’t know he was wagging it at all; but the fact that he did wag it was enough for me.
It was enough for us all. There was not a man among the “luggers” who didn’t understand him, nor among the salesmen either, as I came to understand.
“Dee ye know how to take that little scalpeen? He’s like wan of thim Graaks or Eytalians that’s got a quare talk of their own, hut you know you can put it into our talk and make it mane somethin’. Wance I was at a circus where a monkey what looked like a little ould man talked his kind o’ talk, and his kaper talked it all out into our talk, and it made sinse. Well, that’s like the Floater. He’s like the monkey what can’t talk nothin’ hut monkey-talk; but Glory be to God! he manes the same thing as a man. Don’t ye moind him, Brogan. When he talks his talk you talk it to yerself in yer own talk, and ye’ll kape yer timper and get everything straight.”
THIS kindly advice was given me by Denis Gallivan, the oldest of the porters, and a sort of dean of our corps. Small, wiry, as strong as a horse, with a weazened, leathery face that looked as if it had been dried and tanned in a hot sunshine, there was a yearning in his blue-black eyes like that which some of the old Italian masters put into the eyes of saints. Denis, Bridget, and the Finn composed what I may call the permanent staff, the two others, excluding myself, being invariably restless chaps who, like Clancy, came for a few weeks and went off again. With the three workers named I made a fourth, henceforth helping to carry the responsibility of the house on my shoulders.
It was a good place, with pleasant work. Two or three times I could have had promotion and a raise in pay, but I had reasons of my own for staying where I was.
My duties being simple I enjoyed the sheer physical exertion I was obliged to make. Arriving about seven in the morning, helped to sweep the floors, with a special sweeping of the rugs, druggets, and mattings that had lain out overnight. If there was anything to be carried from the basement to the upper floor I helped in that. Then, having “cleaned” myself, as the phrase went, I took my place in the shop, ready to pull out the goods which the salesmen wanted to display to customers and to put them back again.
For this there were always four of us in the spacious, well-lighted shop, which must have been sixty feet long by thirty wide, and I liked the dignity and quiet of all the regulation tasks. As a rule we were on the floor by nine, though it was generally after ten before we saw a customer. During that hour of spare time we porters hung together at the further end. exchanging in low tones the gossip of the day, confiding personal experiences, or discussing the war and the reconstruction or society. Now and then one of the four of five salesmen would condescendingly join with us, but for the most part the salesmen kept to themselves, treating the same topics from a higher point of view. The gods of Olympus did little more than enter by the main door from Fifth Avenue, cross to their offices, after which we saw little of them. Only the Floater moved at will between us and them, with a little dog’s freedom to be equally at home in the stable and the drawing-room.
A flicker of interest always woke with the arrival of customers. Nine times out of ten they consisted of a lady and gentleman, or two ladies. It was rarely that a man came by himself, and I cannot say that I ever saw two men together.
They entered with diffidence, confused by the subdued brilliance of the Persian and Chinese colors hanging on our walls, by the wide empty spaces, their own ignorance of what they came in search of.
“There’s not tin women in New York’ll know the difference betwane a Kirmanshah and an Anatolia,” Denis said to me one day, “and it’d make ye sorry for thim when they come to furnishin’. Glory be to God, they’ll walk in here knowin’ no more than that they want rugs, and it’s all wan to thim what ye puts before thim so long as it’s the color they like and it lays on the ground. If this wasn’t the honestest house that the Lord ever made there’d he chatin’ till we was all in danger o’ hell fire.”
But in spite of this ignorance we received our visitors courteously, a salesman going forward to meet all newcomers and conduct them to the row of reproduced Louis Seize cane-bottomed chairs placed for their use. Then it would be, “Bridget, bring that Khorassan—3246—you know—that fine specimen—” and Bridget would know and call the Finn to help him lay it out. Or it would be, “Brogan, can you find the Meshed that came in yesterday— 2947—I think madam would like to see it.” On this Denis and I would haul out the big carpet, stretch it at the lady’s feet, listen to comments which, as Denis put it, had the value of a milliner’s criticism of the make of a “floyin’-machine,” and eventually carry it back to the pile whence we had taken it. I may say here that for customers we had little respect, except from the point of view of their purchasing-power.
“Did ye ever see wan o’ thim that could tell a Sehna knot from a Giordes?” Denis asked, scornfully. “Did ye ever see wan o’ thim that knowed which rug had a woolen warp and which a cotton, or which rug’d wear, or which’d all go up in flock? If a woman was to boy a shimmy that’ll be in rags before it’s been six toimes to the wash with as little sinse as she’ll boy a rug that ought to last her for a hundred years her husband’d be in jail for dit.”
BUT for me customers had one predominant interest. Among them there might be someone I could recognize, or someone who would recognize me. As to the last, I had one fear and many hopes. My one fear was that Mildred Averill or Lulu Averill might one day wander in; but as time went on and they didn’t I ceased to dread the mischance. As it also proved in the end it was the same way with my hopes. No one turned up whom I could hail as an acquaintance; no one ever glanced at me with an old friend’s curiosity.
So I settled down to the routine which, though I didn’t know it then, was the mental rest that, according to Dr. Scattlethwaite, was essential to my recovery. The days were so much alike that I could no more differentiate between them than can a man in prison. On eighteen dollars a week I contrived to live with that humble satisfaction of humble needs which I learnt to be all that a man requires. Little by little I accommodated myself to the outlook of my surroundings, and if I never thought exactly like my companions I found myself able to listen to their views complacently. With all three of my more important colleagues, Denis, Bridget, and the Finn, my relations were cordial, a fact due largely to their courteous respect for my private history, into which none of them ever pried. Like Lydia, Drinkwater, and everyone else they took it for granted that there was something I wanted to hide, and allowed me to hide it.
In this way I passed the end of the year 1916, the whole of 1917, and all of 1918 up to the beginning of December. Though the country had in the meantime gone to war it made little difference to us. Denis was too old to be drafted; Bridget and the Finn were exempted as fathers of large families; I was examined, and for reasons I do not yet understand, rejected. I should have made a tolerable fighting man; but I think I was looked upon as of weak or uncertain mentality.
During all those months I courted the obscurity so easy to find. Between Creed and Creed’s and my squint-eyed room with the fungi on the mantel-piece I went by what you might call the back ways, in order to risk no meeting with Mildred Averill or her family. Since they frequented the neighboring bookstore, one of the best known in New York, they might at some time see me going in or out, and so I kept to the direction of Sixth Avenue. Though I often drifted out into the midday throng of which I have spoken already there was little danger in that, because I was swallowed in the crowd. In company for the most part with Sam Pelly I took my meals in places so modest that Lydia Blair was unlikely to run across me, and I had no one else to be afraid of.
Peace therefore stole into my racked soul, though it was the peace of death. While I had recurrences of the hope that my lost sense of identity would one day be restored to me I dropped into the habit of not thinking much about it. I ate and drank; I had shelter and clothes. The narrow margin on which other working-people lived came to seem enough for me. Toward the great accidents of life, illness or incapacity, I learnt to take the same philosophic attitude as they, trusting to luck, or to something too subtle and spiritual to put easily into words, to take care of me. If I developed any deep, strong principle of living it was along the lines of the wish that on a snowy December afternoon had led me to Meeting House Green. I knew that the universe was filled, with a great Will, and tried to let myself glide along on it, in simplicity and harmony.
ON the morning of the eleventh of December, 1918, I had been in the basement helping to unpack a consignment just come in from India, as I had first done two years before. I had, therefore, not known what passed on the floor above during the forenoon, and should have been little interested had I been there. What I needed to know the Floater told me when I appeared after lunch to take my shift on the main floor with Bridget and the Finn.
“You’re to go with the two lads downstairs—” the two of our six porters who were always transient—“to this number in East Seventy-Sixth Street, and show the big Chinee antique—4792—and the modern Chinee—3628—to a lady that’s stayin’ there, and explain to her the difference between them. She’ll take the new one if she thinks it’s just as good, and you’re to show her that it isn’t. She’s not the lady of the house. Her name is Mrs. Mountney, and she comes from Boston. She saw them both this morning, but said she couldn’t judge till she’d viewed ’em private.”
It was not an unusual expedition, though it was new to me. For special customers, or in cases of big bits of business, we sent out rugs on approval or for private view, though I had never before been entrusted with the mission. I didn’t wholly like the job, but we were accustomed to take both things we didn’t like and things we did as all in the day’s work.
At the house in East Seventy-Sixth Street we found ourselves expected, the footman explaining that we were to carry our wares to the music-room and lay them out. The ladies were resting after lunch, but Mrs. Mountney would come to us as soon as she left her room. With the pleasant freemasonry of caste he confided to me, as with our burdens we made our way into the hall, that Mrs. Mountney was a nice little bit of fluff, though not so toney as he had looked for in an old girl out of Boston. When it came to class the lady of the house, whom I thought he spoke of as Lulie, could hang it all over her.
It was so long since I had been in a house of the kind that I took notes more acutely than was my habit, though my habit was always to be observant. What struck me chiefly was its resemblance on a larger scale to the last of its type I had visited. Perhaps the name Lulie had turned my thoughts backward; but there was certainly the same square hall, containing a few monumental bits of furniture because they were monumental, the same dining-room opening out of it, full of high-backed Italian chairs because they were high-backed and Italian.... And then across a corridor that ran to some region behind the dining-room I thought I saw a stocky figure grope its way with the kind of movement I had not seen since the last time I had met Drinkwater. A door opened and closed somewhere, and before we reached the music-room I heard the distant click of a typewriter.
That I was nervous goes without saying, but there were so many chances of my fear being groundless that I did my best to dismiss it. The music-room was simple, spacious, white-and-gold, admirably adapted not only to the purpose it served but to that which had brought us there. When our carpets were spread they made a magnificent gold spot in the centre of a sumptuous emptiness.
A FEW minutes later the nice little bit of fluff tripped in, justifying the description. She was one of those instances, of which we saw a good many among our customers, where a merciful Providence had given a great deal of money to someone who would have been quite too insignificant without it. A worn fairness of complexion was supplemented by cosmetics, and an inadequate stock of very blonde hair arranged in artistic disarray in order to make the most of it. To offset the laces and pearls of an elaborate negligee by a “democratic” manner, and so put poor working-men at their ease, she nodded to us in a friendly, off-hand way, saying briskly:
“Now then! Let’s see! Which is the modern one and which is the antique? I can’t tell: can you?” Looking at me archly she changed her tone to the chaffing one which the French describe as blagueur. “But of course you’ll say you can, because that’s your business. You’ve got them marked with some sort of secret sign, like a conjurer with coins, so as to tell one from the other, without my knowing it.”
Having said this she began to march round the two great gold-colored oblongs with the movement of a prowling little animal. Keeping my eye on the main doorway I pointed out that while the modern piece would please the ordinary eye only the antique would satisfy the elect. There was no question but that the Indian reproduction was good. Anyone who took it would more than get his money’s worth, since it would tone down with years, while the hard-wool of which it was woven would make it stand comparatively rough usage. But—didn’t madam see?—the antique, made on the old Chinese looms, was of the softer, richer sheen imparted by the softer, richer wool; and wasn’t the heavenly turquoise-blue of the ornaments and border of a beauty which the modern dyes had not begun to reproduce?
As I explained this and some other characteristics of rugs I was more or less talking against time. The suspicion that had seized me on entering the house began to deepen without my knowing why.
“Y-yes; y-yes,” the little lady agreed, “it is lovely, isn’t it? And I suppose that if you’re buying a good thing it’s better to get the—”
SHE paused, looking out through the great doorway into the hall. I too looked out, to see Mrs. Averill in a teagown, gazing in at us distraitly.
“Oh, Lulu, do come here. This man—this gentleman—has just been telling me the most interesting things—”
She trailed into the music-room with the same graceful languor with which she had trailed into the drawing-room on the occasion when we had last met. The two other porters and myself being negligible figures in the room her almond eyes rested listlessly on the rugs, which she studied without remark.
“Lulu,” Mrs. Mountney began again, with animation, “did you know that in Persian rugs the designs are outlined in rows of knots, and in Chinese by clipping with the scissors?—cisele, this man—this gentleman—calls it—and you can feel a little line—Do put your hand down—”
“Oh, I’m too tired,” Mrs. Averill protested, in her sweet drawling voice, “and this room’s so stuffy. Mildred said she’d have it aired; but I don't know what she’s mooning over half her time. She’s so dreamy. I often think she ought to be in a convent, or something like that.”
The little bit of fluff was more interested in rugs than in Mildred.
“Do tell Mrs. Averill—I’m staying with her—what you’ve just been saying about the wool. Did you know, Lulu, that Indian wool is hard and Chinese soft?” She looked again toward the hallway where a second figure had come into view. “Mildred, do come here. There’s the most interesting things—I’m so glad I went to that place this morning—and they’ve sent me the most interesting man—Lulu’s like ice—but you’re artistic—”
Miss Averill too advanced into the room, but though I was in full view she paid me and my comrades no particular attention. It was the easier for me not to speak, or to draw anyone’s glance to myself, for the reason that Mrs. Mountney chattered on, repeating for Mildred’s benefit the facts I had just been giving her.
“Just think of having the patience to clip with the scissors round all these designs—and it’s the same in the modern rug as in the antique—Do stoop down, Mildred, and let your fingers run along the ciselling—that’s what this—this gentleman calls it—”
AS the girl stooped to satisfy Mrs. Mountney I ventured to look at her more closely. She was perhaps not older than when I had last seen her two years before, but her face had undergone a change. It made you think of faces chastened, possibly purified, by suffering. Where there had been chiefly a sympathetic common sense there was now the beauty that comes of elevation.
Luckily for me Mrs. Mountney ran on, while we three men, with the lack of individuality of employees before customers, remained indistinguishable objects in the background.
“That’s the modern and that's the antique, and I’m sure no one but a rugman could tell the difference between them. This man—this gentleman—says they can, but that’s only business. Hundreds of dollars difference in the price—almost as much as between a pair of real pearl ear-rings and imitation ones. What do you say, Mildred? Would anybody ever notice—?”
“I suppose you’d be buying the best because it’s the best, and not because anyone would notice—”
“I should be buying it for what everyone would see. What’s the good of having a thing if it doesn’t show what it is? I hate the way some people have of calling your attention to every fine thing they’ve got in the house, as if you weren’t used to fine things of your own. If I’ve got to tell everyone that that’s a genuine old Chinese masterpiece before they notice it—well, it isn’t worth it. But at the same time the effect is richer—and some people do know—and talk about it to other people who know—there’s that to consider—"
By this time I was conscious of something else.
HAVING got through so many minutes without recognition I was beginning to hope that by blotting myself out, as it were, between my fellow-workmen I might finally escape detection. No one had as yet dissociated any of us from another, the very absence of personality on our part reducing us to the place of mere machines. As a mere machine Mrs. Averill and Mildred might continue to overlook me, passing out of the room as unobservant as they had come in.
But Lulu had begun a curious movement round the square of the carpets. She seemed to be studying them; though with the long slits of her Mongolian eyes her glance might be travelling anywhere. Having had the opportunity to look me in the face she moved to where she got me in profile, afterwards passing behind me and returning to her original standpoint beside her sister and her friend. Without further reference to Mrs. Mountney she slipped her arm through Mildred’s, leading her toward the grand piano against which they leaned.
For me there was nothing to do but to stand still. A word, a sign, might easily betray me, if I had not been betrayed already. As the conversation went on Mildred kept her back to me, but Mrs. Averill stood sidewise so as to be able to throw me an occasional appraising glance. Apparently she was in some doubt, my position and my clothes rendering absolute certainty difficult.
But Mildred turned away from the piano at last, and without examining me directly came slowly down the long room. Entirely mistress of herself she walked with sedateness and composure. The shyness and brusqueness which had given her a kind of aura in my thoughts during the past two years seemed to have been overcome by experience. In this self-command more than in any other detail I observed a change in her.
Not till she reached the corner of the long carpet did she give me the first clear, straightforward look. That recognition did not come instantly told me that I too must have changed. Laborious work and a rough way of living had doubtless aged and probably hardened me. I was dressed, too, like any other working-man, though with the tidiness which our position on the selling-floor exacted. A working-man in his Sunday clothes would perhaps have described me, while my features must have adapted themselves to altered inward conditions with the facility which features possess.
“Is it really you?”
SHE was standing in front of me now, singling me out from the two boys who had fallen a little back. She didn’t offer to shake hands; perhaps she wasn’t sure enough of my identity; but that the circumstances in which she found me made no difference to her was the one fact apparent. Any emotion she may have felt was expressed in the quiver of a faint smile.
“I hoped you wouldn’t recognize me,” was all I found to say.
"Oh, for all the reasons that—that almost anybody would see at a glance."
"Perhaps I'm not—not almost any body—"
"No; you're not—"
“Have you been doing this ever since—?"
I nodded. “It’s the job I told you I might get. I did get it; and so—”
“Have you liked it?”
“Is that true, or is it just—?”
“No; it’s true. I could have had better jobs. They offered two or three times to make me a salesman—you may remember that I knew a good deal about rugs already—but I preferred to stay where I am.”
“For what reason?”
“I hardly know that I can tell you, unless it was to—to—”
“To find your soul?”
“And have you found it?”
“I’ve found—something. I’m not sure whether it’s my soul or not.”
ALL this was said within the space of perhaps two minutes, during which I watched Mrs. Averill and Mrs. Mountney, toward whom Mildred turned her back, putting their heads together in a whispered conversation. That it was about me I could have gathered from their glances; but a little crow on the part of Mrs. Mountney left me no doubt about it.
“Jasper Soames! Why that’s the name—"
It was all I caught, but it was enough to put even Mildred Averill on a secondary plane.
“If you’ve found your soul—” she was saying.
“Oh, I’m not sure of that. I only feel that I’ve found—something. I mean that something has come—or gone—I’m not sure of which—only that—”
Mrs. Mountney wheeled suddenly from the piano, trotting back to the edge of the carpet across which she spoke to me.
“Did you ever hear of Copley’s great portrait of Jasper Soames—?”
I nodded, speechlessly. I had heard of it. In my mind’s eye I saw it—at the head of a great staircase, a full-length figure, wearing knee-breeches of bottle-green satin, a gold-embroidered waistcoat, and a long coat of ruby velvet, with a Russian sable collar falling back almost to the shoulders. A plate let into the foot of the frame bore the name Jasper Soames, with the dates of a birth and a death. Somewhere in my life the picture had been a familiar object.
I had no time to follow up this discovery before Mrs. Mountney began again.
“Are you one of his descendants—?”
“No; but my wife is.”
The reply came out before I realized its significance. I hardly knew what I had said till I heard Lulu Averill exclaim with as much indignation as her indolent tones could carry.
“But you told my husband that you wore not a married man! Didn’t he, Mildred?”
The situation was so unexpected that I felt myself like a bird swinging in a cage. Nothing was steady; everything around me seemed to whirl. Then I heard Mildred speaking as if her voice reached me though a poor connection on a telephone.
“Oh, that didn’t matter. I knew he was married all along—at least I was pretty sure of it. What difference could it make to us?”
“It made the difference,” Mrs. Averill drawled, peevishly, “that we believed him—"
But Mrs. Mountney intervened, waving the others aside with a motion of the arm.
“Wait!” She looked at me again across the carpet. “If you married a descendant of Jasper Soames then it was Violet Torrance.”
The mist that had hitherto enshrined two flaming eyes seemed to part as if torn by lightning. The figure disclosed was not static like that of Jasper Soames but alive as the sky is alive in a storm. It was that of my wife as I had last seen her. My mind resumed its action at the point where its memory of Vio had been shut off.
“And,” Mrs. Mountney went on, pressing her facts, “you’re Billy Harrowby.”
I could only bend my head in assent.
“That’s my name.”
To be continued