A soft heart, a hard chin, and the average pianist is nowhere
HARRIS BOOGE PEAVEY
IT WAS not the first time that Avery Patterson had walked eagerly down this tree-lined street, his destination the home of a girl who had no equal. It might have been the hundredth time. But it was the first time he was the bearer of such extraordinarily good news.
It had rained during the afternoon and the leaves dripped pleasantly into little pools. The street lamps shot their beams into checkered patterns on the flagstones and in each mirroring surface Avery saw reflected the face of the only girl in the world.
He played a merry game of hop, skip and jump as he smiled back at this ever-recurring face, and endeavored to keep the soles of his feet dry.
It was the sort of summer night wriien the hammock on Hazel’s porch was the ideal place to break to her his piece of wonderful news.
AVERY had had a raise. It was pay day, and in the envelope which he waited for impatiently each Friday at the bank, he had found an extra five dollar bill for hi3 week’s work. Perhaps its very unexpectedness had made it so encouraging. He had barely been able to refrain from calling Hazel on the telephone to share the news with her.
But he realized soon enough that that would have been bad technique. The hammock was the only place to convey such an important bit of information.
Instead, he had turned from the telephone booth in the drug store and purchased a truly majestic box of candy, which the clerk assured him was freshly made not twenty-four hours before. A considerable portion of that first extra five dollars had gone in this investment.
The time had seemed endless until he could set forth to call on Hazel. He had employed it in computations of a mathematical nature. Five dollars a week meant more than twenty a month; two hundred and sixty a year; in five years, the formidable sum of thirteen hundred dollars.
What could not be done with thirteen hundred dollars? Of course there would be the ring to buy, but what couldn’t you buy with thirteen hundred dollars? Grand pianos, rings—golly, it was an awful lot of money! So carried away was Avery with these reflections that it was with a great shock he realized that five dollars a week was only . . . five dollars a week; and thirteen hundred dollars a long five years away, provided he saved that weekly five, which thought was yet more depressing.
But a raise was a raise, and he had that anyway. It seemed to bring just so much nearer the possibility of matrimony with that wonderful girl. His depression was short-lived. He fairly sailed over the ground to the gate of Hazel’s house not many yards away.
The house was pleasantly lighted downstairs and he knew she waited for him in the living room. She must be at the piano, because sounds of music wafted themselves out on the night air.
He turned briskly in at the gate and lightly tripped up the steps of the porch. Yes, she was playing. She couldn’t have heard his footsteps, otherwise she would have come to open the door to him.
He cast a confidential glance at the hammock swaying invitingly in a dusky corner of the porch. His heart warmed to it again at the thought of the secret that was to be unfolded within its comforting depths.
He pressed the bell-button and waited expectantly. The strains from the piano continued; he pushed the button again, this time with the peculiar telegraphic ring which he had invented to advise this paragon of girls it w’as he who waited impatiently to greet her.
Arpeggios and cadenzas drifted to him through the open windows. Somehow they were unfamiliar. Was it possible Hazel had learned such proficiency at the keys and kept it a secret from him? If she had such talent as those rippling runs indicated, a grand piano was a necessity.
It seemed impolite to interrupt her in the middle of such a performance. He would be patient. If she had been strumming one of his favorite popular songs, he would not have hesitated to make his presence known. Hazel sang occasionally to her own accompaniment and Avery thought her voice excelled any he had ever heard over the radio.
But, with his secret still fresh, he was impatient to see her. He pressed the bell again, this time unmistakably; he held it for at least ten seconds; he heard it jangling somewhere in the back of the house.
Footsteps hurried to the door but the playing went on. A vague doubt assailed Avery. In such moments in his not so far distant childhood days, he had been accus-
tomed to wiggle his ears. He was conscious of their squirming now, but when the door opened and Hazel’s mother invited him in, cordially, he subdued the ears and stepped into the hall with as much dignity as he could muster.
“Come in, Avery,” Mrs. Adams said cheerily, “Hazel will be glad to see you.”
“Oh, then that was Hazel playing?” Avery hastened to inquire, the doubt that had been growing in him somewhat stilled. But his relief was of short duration.
“Goodness no, Avery; Hazel can’t play as well as that. That is Mr. Plummer.”
A DREADFUL depression seemed to fill the hallway and clutch Avery about his throat. A caller! And with that secret still pressed to his heart. He’d have to wait until this stranger went, to tell her.
Mrs. Adams preceded him into the living room where the sight that met his eyes was yet more depressing. A man sat before the piano keys, playing music of apparent intricacy. His back was toward the room and he paid not the least attention to Avery’s entrance.
And what attention Hazel paid him veas not the sort Avery desired. She leaned raptly at the side of the piano, and when she saw who it was her mother ushered into the room, her lips pursed in a round 0, her eyebrows lifted warningly, and she held one finger to her mouth to insure silence.
Avery’s spirits fell a distressing distance and he dropped unhappily into a chair, still clinging to the gorgeous box of candy. This man, this interloping stranger, was young. Avery could see that, even from his back.
Crashing chords filled the room. Hazel held her breath in admiration. Even Avery, unfamiliar as he was with music of this sort, had to admit that it must be good. He was sure this man was no amateur; there was something too certain about his playing for that. He must be a professional.
The piece swept on to a thunderous end. Hazel clasped her hands and with misty eyes thanked the player.
“Oh, that was lovely,” she said. She seemed completely to have forgotten the existence of Avery.
The man pivoted toward the room on his bench, blinked uncertainly at Avery, and turned again to Hazel standing absorbed at his side. Avery noticed, with a
sinking of his heart, that he was stylishly attired, that he was offensively good looking.
“Oh, Mr. Plummer, I forgot,” cried Hazel, coming out of her abstraction. “May I present my friend, Ivory Patterson?”
The hated twisting of his name struck Avery with unusual force. It was a taunting nickname, invented in those not so far distant childhood days, which never failed to shame and infuriate him. Hazel knew he hated it.
Mr. Plummer rose with a mature dignity to grasp Avery’s hand. Avery himself stumbled to his feet, but still clung to the candy box.
“I am glad to meet your friend, Ivory Patterson, Miss Adams,” he said, with a maddening smile of comprehension.
Avery mumbled, and then to save his confusion, pushed the box of candy into Hazel’s hands, a delicate blush suffusing his countenance.
“Oh, Ivory, how nice,” she thanked him, and undid the bow of ribbon. She offered the candy first to Mr. Piummer.
It was now apparent to Avery that this was no family friend, but a man, like himself, drawn to this house solely by the charms of Hazel. It was equally apparent that he found favor in Hazel’s eyes.
“What strong arms you must have, Mr. Plummer, to be able to play such pieces.”
“It does take strength,” Plummer admitted modestly, and gripped the sleeve of his coat to show them the rolling muscle as he crooked his arm.
“My, that is muscle,” cried Hazel, admiringly. “Ivory, you ought to take up the piano.”
Avery had no answer to this, nor would it have been heard, because she turned immediately to Plummer and begged him to play again, which he did with'manifest pleasure.
Avery sat alone. Mrs. Adams, it is true, rocked at his side, but Avery might as well have been at home in his own room for all it mattered to Hazel.
Ivory! How could she have used that name?
He supposed it did take muscular strength to play the piano the way that man was doing it. He felt furtively of his own biceps and found as he expected that they were not in evidence. He must take up some exercise to harden those upper arms.
But his resolve was without enthusiasm. His hopes had fallen about his head. To have come here this evening with the most pretentious gift he had ever been able to offer, and with the tremendous news of his raise tucked inside his bosom, and find HazeTerrtirely absorbed in another man, well, it was heartbreaking. He could not keep the disappointment out of his eyes, but it didn’t matter; no one noticed. Not even Mrs. Adams, she was enjoying the music.
Avery concluded that he hated music, at least music of that sort, high brow. What he liked was a good, sensible, popular song, with Hazel playing the tune and .singing in her incomparable voice words which always went directly to his heart. He liked the gulp in his throat which invariably came when he heard Jher sing.
The music came to an end. Hazel and Mr. Plummer seated themselves on a sofa, the selfsame sofa, Avery remarked, that had held himself and Hazel on many occasions. He felt a proprietary interest in that sofa. And now it was being violated by a rival.
He cast an appraising glance at that rival’s sleeves, flexing to the rippling muscles as he moved his arms. He must be able to hold up his own in a fight pretty well, thought Avery.
How very much out of it he was. He mumbled a word or so to Hazel’s mother hoping to make the
conversation general, but that lady did not hear him, because at that moment Hazel clapped her hands.
“Oh, Mamma, Mr. Plummer is giving a concert next Monday, and he has invited me. Won’t that be lovely?”
Her mother agreed and joined Hazel in urging Plummer to play for them once more.
Hazel followed to stand at his side; the piece ran its course and then to the accompaniment of his improvisations, the two at the piano talked in low tones. Avery might have been in China for all Hazel seemed to care.
But her mother noticed his woebegone lonesomeness, and, finding a basket of photographs under the centre table, she drew her chair to his and began showing him the family pictures.
This was an entertainment for which Avery had little enthusiasm, but there were pictures of Hazel, and he did pay a sad-faced attention to these, bestowing on them looks of hopeless despair, as he noticed that the heads at the piano came closer and closer together.
“Here is a lovely one of Hazel,” Mrs. Adams laughed, and handed to him a picture of a baby. Hazel sat chubbily on a pillow, and her soft little body was entirely nude, the little fingers outspread on the pillow cover. It was the sort of picture that rises like a nightmare before the eyes of a young lady, a shameful thing that parents in moments of unthinkable indecency perpetrate on their innocent offspring.
But to Avery it was nothing of the kind. He saw in it only the adorable baby that Hazel had been. A solemn tender feeling filled him. He wondered if Hazel would ever have a baby of her own like that, and at that thought he jerked his head up sharply and was rewarded with a sight that maddened him. Hazel was whispering closely into the ear of the despised Plummer. Avery would have given his raise to know what she was saying.
But what she said remained a mystery. They drew apart, and the man sent his fingers rambling over the keys again. Hazel looked up and caught Avery’s eyes on her, and saw the basket of pictures in her mother’s lap.
Avery tenderly glanced again at the incriminating picture of the only girl in the world, the girl who now seemed to be slipping away from him.
“I wish you would let me have this picture, Mrs. Adams. I would like to keep it, in remembrance.”
Mrs. Adams smiled sympathetically.
“Why, of course, you may have it, Avery.”
It was just then that Hazel came around back of Avery’s chair, and beheld what had so captured his fancy. She saw it at the precise moment when he was about to tuck it in his inside pocket.
“Avery,” she cried, “you give me back that picture. You can’t have that.”
Her face was crimson, but it was with anger. What shame she felt for the disgraceful likeness of herself was
lost in her furious hatred of her mother for letting Avery see it.
“Why I gave that to Avery because he said he liked it,” her mother interposed.
“You know how I hate that picture, mamma. You give that back to me this instant, Avery Patterson.”
“No.” Avery shook his head mournfully. “I want something to remember you by,” he added.
But at this moment Mr. Plummer finished his playing and came toward them. Hazel was obliged to sweep the anger out of her face and draw his attention from the basket of pictures. But her mother held out to him certain photographs and Hazel snatched the basket out of her mother’s hands and carried it away to the sofa where she invited Mr. Plummer to sit beside her, and where she could censor such of the pictures as he might see.
Avery and Mrs. Adams were left to their own devices. The basket of pictures had been stolen from them; the box of candy reposed by Hazel’s side; Hazel and Mr. Plummer excluded the others from sharing in their conversation. There was nothing for Avery and Mrs. Adams to do but sit and watch the two on the sofa.
This quickly became unendurable to Avery. He pleaded that he must be gone and was sped on his way by Hazel with cordial alacrity.
His was no merry hop, skip and jump as he shuffled back along the street toward his home, a barren place now, he thought. He deliberately splashed in water and stepped in mud. Nothing could make him more miserable than he felt just then.
TLTE LABORED up the stairs to his room and flung his
-*• clothes carelessly about, a thing which was quite significant, because he was generally most careful to place them tidily on their hangers in his closet. But he did pick up the coat from the seat of a chair where he had thrown it, and draw from the pocket the picture which apparently was all that was left to him now of Hazel.
He bore it with reverent hands and placed it against the mirror on his bureau, as though it were something sacred. As indeed it was, to him. Denied the sight of Hazel herself, the sound of her sweet voice, he yet could solace himself with worshipful contemplation of this likeness of her in the privacy of his own room.
His night was a troubled one. He was ridden by nightmares in which athletic young men pummelled him and bore away from his yearning arms a not unwilling young lady who resembled Hazel Adams.
He kept his eyes glued on her picture as he knotted an untidy tie before his mirror the next morning, and prayed for help in his dilemma. He toyed with his breakfast, a
look of despair on his face, and absentmindedly shook salt in his cereal, which aroused comment on the part of his parents. His admission of a slight headache did not seem to be an adequate explanation.
He plodded through his morning’s work at the bank, the raise which had uplifted him to such heights the day before, now hanging heavy on his heart. Dim visions of wedding rings and parlor suites dissolved before his eyes.
He wandered per plexedly out of his
lunchroom at noon under a pall of melancholy. And then somebody jostled roughly against him and grabbed his arm. It was the man in all the world for whom he felt most hatred. It was Plummer.
“Let go of me,” he cried, wincing in spite of himself.
“I've been looking for you,” said Plummer, as he
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tightened his grip on Avery’s arm. “Miss Adams told me what you did last night. She wants that picture back, and I’m going to see that she gets it.”
Avery tried to draw away, but Plummer held him tightly.
“I haven’t got it with me.”
“Where is it?”
“In my room at home.”
“All right. You see that she has it before to-night. If not, I’ll make you give it to me, and if you don’t do it willingly, I’ll thrash you. I can thrash you,” he added, “and you know it.”
He was off. Avery caught his breath. He walked slowly back to the bank with an additional burden to his load of sorrow. It was bad enough to see your girl falling away from you. It was bad enough to have left of her only a baby picture. But
to be beaten up in the bargain was a little too much.
The conviction grew on him during those afternoon hours that Plummer could carry out his threat. He had seen those muscles; he had heard the thunderous response of the piano to those mighty arms.
Avery had to confess to himself that he didn’t like the prospect.
He didn’t think he was a coward, he considered his aversion to being mauled by a capable antagonist simply natural.
He had many problems. Hazel was angry because he had taken the picture. He didn’t want Hazel to be angry . . . at him. He didn't wantLer to be unhappy in any way. He didn’t want her to share his misery; he was too much in love with
her for that, and he knew now what misery was.
It seemed to him that parting with that picture would be the one thing that would break his heart, now so badly injured, into little pieces.
Involuntarily cringing at the imagined impact of Plummer’s fist on his chin, backed by those elastic muscles, Avery tasted the depths of dejection.
He found himself, somewhat to his surprise, in his room before dinner. His brain had been so racked with hopelessness that he had been unaware of his journey home.
The sweet picture of Hazel smiled at him from his bureau. He was very much afraid that honor compelled him to restore it. Not because he was threatened with a licking; no, he knew it was not that. It was only because Hazel herself desired it. Plummer had nothing to do with it.
AVERY knew now that the emotion 44 he felt for Hazel was true love. That noble passion balked at nothing. He would sacrifice anything for Hazel, even the picture, yes, his own body, if need be. But Hazel must have her picture. The only hitch that he could see was that Plummer would think he had scared him into returning it. And how could he convince either of them that that was not the truth?
He wondered how it felt to be hit a smashing blow on the chin. Did it hurt very much, or did you go to sleep painlessly? He wished he had had experience with a knockout. He seemed to recall reading of a would-be pugilist who had died from the effects of one. A slight shiver shook his frame at that recollection. Well, death might be sweet, at that.
Feeling his chin tentatively, he was surprised to find that it was rather hard. He doubled up his fist and punched himself in the chin gently. It only jarred him the least bit. Perhaps he could get the effect of it by putting some real strength in the blow.
He looked about the floor and decided that if he did succeed in knocking himself out, it would offer a rather disagreeable place to fall. Besides it would arouse his parents, and explanations would be odious.
His glance rested on his bed. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? He stood firmly at its side, with his back to it, so that if he fell, he would crash, not on the hard floor, but on a soft mattress.
His doubled up fist looked to him like a sledge hammer as he held it before him. But love gave him courage.
Avery let go. His fist met the point of his outstretched chin with surprising force. He did fall back on the bed, but it was not a knockout. No, he retained his senses. He found himself admiring the strength behind that blow; he imagined he actually had seen stars. His head ached dully; his chin upon investigation was undamaged, but the backs of his fingers showed slight abrasions. If a fellow gave another a real knockout, his hand could certainly suffer, if he wasn’t used to it. Avery derived a dubious consolation from that thought. If Plummer hit him cold, he would pay for it with an injured hand.
Avery ate his dinner with dignified preoccupation. He was aware his demeanor mystified his parents.
He started out for Hazel’s house with the picture in his pocket, feeling as he imagined a knight of old might have done
when he was going to battle for the honor of his lady, perhaps without his armor.
His footsteps toward the house to-night were impelled not by elation, but by grim determination. He held his chin well forward.
A pedestrian approached him as he drew near to Hazel’s gate. With rapid strides they came together. It was Plummer.
“So you’re bringing the picture back. It’s a lucky thing for you, you did,’’ he accosted him.
“Well, I’m not bringing it back,” Avery lied to him.
“You remember what I told you I’d do to you if you didn’t?” Plummer demanded, menacingly.
“I think you said you’d try to lick me,” said Avery, with a fine show of trying to recall the details.
“I didn’t say I’d try; I said I’d thrash you. And here goes.”
Avery thrust his chin out to its fullest length, and made no effort to avoid the blow. Out of the corner of his eyes, as Plummer’s arm shot out toward its goal, he saw Hazel at the top of the porch steps. Too bad she had to witness this gory encounter.
Now this was a knockout. Lights flashed up about Avery’s head, noises thundered in his ears, and then everything went black.
A great peace descended upon him; he was dimly conscious of being rocked gently. His eyes opened flutteringly. Who was it who cradled him in her arms? In whose lap was his head resting? Whose face leaned close to his; whose sweet voice crooned soothingly to him?
It was none other than Hazel herself. She was tenderly wiping his face with her diminutive handkerchief.
And then the scene became clear and distinct to Avery. Leaning against the fence was Plummer, twisting one leg against the other, in evident pain. Unmistakeable sounds of anguish proceeded from his lips. He was nursing the fingers of his right hand.
“You great big coward,” Hazel accused him angrily. “To hit my poor Avery like that,” and pressed Avery’s head tighter against her bosom.
“Oh, my hand,” moaned Plummer.
“I hope it hurts for weeks and weeks,” Hazel cried, spitefully.
“Oh, my hand,” wailed Plummer. “And my concert only two days away. I’ll have to call it off. I never thought that boy had such a hard chin.”
“Good enough for you,” said Hazel “Avery, my dear, does it hurt so much now?”
Hurt? Was this beng hurt, to lie in the lap of his love, with her tender words falling about his ears like a benediction? Avery willingly would be knocked out again for just such bliss.
He groped for her hand. Plummer was ambling off down the street, still holding his hand and moaning.
“Sorry, Hazel, sorry he hurt his hand,” Avery gasped. “You can have the picture back. I was bringing it to you anyway, but I wouldn’t let him have the satisfaction of thinking he scared me into it. I only let him hit me so that he would hurt his hand and couldn’t hit me again for a week or so. Then I’d have a chance of seeing you. Because I’ve got something I want to tell you. I’ve got a raise. I forgot about his concert. Honest, I'm sorry about that.”
And right there, on the sidewalk, Hazel leaned down and kissed Avery full on the lips.