THE WHITE FEATHER
ELLIS PARKER BUTLER
The story of a meek man’s venture in audacity and its hilarious aftermath
WHEN the big furniture van backed up to the curb in front of the vacant house next door, Alpheus Timmer was trimming the hedge that grew between the two properties. Mr. Timmer always enjoyed a little outdoor work before breakfast. Now, as he watched the van, he held his hedge shears idle in one hand and stroked his chin with the other. He had not yet shaved, and as his lingers caressed the stubble on his chin he sighed, because he had always wanted to grow a beard and Mrs. Timmer refused to let him.
“I certainly shall not let you grow a beard, Alpheus," that large, square-chinned lady had said. "You l(x>k enough like a goat now; if you had a beard you'd be one.”
"Yes, my dear,” Mr. Timmer liad replied meekly.
For Mr. Timmer was more than meek—he was timid. He had the pugnacity of a rabbit even if he looked like a goat. He was one of those retiring little men who do their work well but are inconspicuous in crowds and try to be equally inconspicuous when not in crowds.
As Mr. Timmer looked at the furniture van a taxicab drew up at the curb beside it. The first to get out of it was a pretty girl —a remarkably pretty girl —of about eighteen years.
"Mother, it's lovely,” she said, looking at the vacant house.
The second to emerge from the taxicab was a man of Mr. Timmer’s own age perhaps forty-eight years and he turned to the driver of the cab.
” ’Ow much?” he asked,
"Two forty,” the taximan said.
"And wot do you mean by two forty?” demanded the man. He was heavy with a red neck, and as he asked the question his face purpled. "Wot’s two forty?”
“Two dollars and forty cents,” said the driver. “There it is on the meter if you want to see it.”
"Two dollars is wot 1 pay, blime you !” declared the man.
“Two dollars, abawt, you said ’twould be to bring us ’ere.”
"Say, look here,” said the taximan. “You can’t get away with that. 1 said about two dollars. You said Westcote; I didn’t know it was away out at the end of nowhere. You’ll pay me two dollars—”
The man, who was now quite purple in the face, reached out one of his strong muscular arms and yanked the taxi driver from his seat. He had drawn back a fist when the third passenger got out of the taxicab. She grasped her husband’s arm and swung him around.
“ ’Ennery!” she exclaimed. “Mind yourself. Wot are the neighbors going to think of us, carrying on like this?” And with that she pushed her husband aside and proceeded to pay the taximan out of her own purse. As she did so, she turned her side face to Mr. Timmer.
For an instant Mr. Timmer stared at the woman, his mouth open and panic in his eyes; then he dodged down behind the hedge and scurried along it until he could dart into his garage. He stood there a moment or two, out of sight of the street, and then dropped the hedge shears and scuttled sideways to the kitchen door. He was pale and breathing hard.
T-JTS breakfast was not ready, and he found a window where he could look out unseen. The taxicab had driven away, the red-necked Englishman was giving orders to the van men. On the porch of the vacant house the woman was standing while the pretty daughter struggled with a resisting key. Mr. Timmer had an excellent view of the woman and his worst fears were confirmed. She was undoubtedly the female he had slapped in London. Long after she had disappeared into the vacant house Mr. Timmer stood at the window watching her husband. I íe was unquestionably an irascible man; a big, strong, easily angered man.
"Alpheus, your breakfast is ready,” called Mrs. Timmer from the dining room.
Four sat down to breakfast. Mrs. Timmer sat behind the coffee pot, stern and masterful. Mr. Timmer sat at the far end of the table, pale and tremulous. At one side sat Mr. Timmer’s twelve-year-old daughter, Lucy, and across from her sat William, Mr. Timmer’s twenty-five-year-old son. He wore a small mustache not unlike that of Herr Hitler of Germany, and he had pre-empted the morning newspaper.
“Alpheus,” said Mrs. Timmer, “you did not shave this morning.”
“What’s the matter, papa?” asked Lucy. “Are you sick, papa? You look all white.”
“I don’t feel very well,” said Mr. Timmer. “It’s my stomach. I think it’s my stomach.”
"You look like a ghost,” said Mrs. Timmer. She w'as taking a bite of bacon and Mr. Timmer thought she said “goat,” but that is not important. “It was the kippered herring you ate last night. I told you not to eat it. Didn’t I?”
“Yes, my dear,” said Mr. Timmer.
“You look all in, dad,” William said, looking up from his paper. “Why don’t you stay home today? The office can spare you one day.”
“I’ll be all right,” said Mr. Timmer. "As soon as I drink my coffee I’ll be all right.”
“Drink it then,” said Mrs. Timmer. “Alpheus, stop! You’ve already put sugar in it.”
“Mother,” said Lucy, “the new neighbors have come, mother. They’re moving in, mother.”
“I saw them.” said Mrs. Timmer. “Quite nice looking people.”
Mr. Timmer’s face, as his wife said this, changed from white to red. He drew deep breaths and held on to the edge of the table with both hands as if to draw courage from the oak.
“Anything but nice looking people,” he said in a spurt of words. It was the first time in years that he had contradicted his wife, and she looked at him in amazement. “And I’ll tell you another thing—I don't want anyone in this family to have anything to do with them. Do you understand that? I won’t have it.”
“Why, Alpheus!” exclaimed Mrs. Timmer. “Why, Alpheus, what do you mean?”
“For once in my life,” said Mr. Timmer, getting up and throwing his napkin on the table, “I mean what I say. For once in my life I want some attention paid to my wishes. Keep away from those people next door. All of you.”
“But, Alpheus, dear,” said Mrs. Timmer, almost frightened by Mr. Timmer’s sudden outburst of courage, “what is wrong with them?”
Mr. Timmer was already well on his way to the door, leaving his coffee untasted and his breakfast uneaten.
“They’re--they're English,” he said, for that was all he could bring to mind at the moment. “And another thing. Maria, if I want to grow a beard I’ll grow one.”
With that bold declaration, Mr. Timmer fled. Lucy craned her neck to look out of the window.
“Why, mamma.” she said, “papa’s going the wrong way.” All three now craned their necks to look out of the window. Mr. Timmer was indeed going the wrong way. He was going up the street instead of down it, a course that would make the distance to the railway station two or three blocks longer but which would let him avoid passing the house which no longer was vacant.
“Dad’s on the rampage this morning.” said William, turning to the sports page of the newspaper.
“I think your father is sick,” said Mrs. Timmer. “I am afraid he is going to be ill. I'm sure he is going to be ill.”
THAT night Mr. Timmer did not resume trimming the hedge. He remained in the house reading a book, and the next morning he did not shave. He was testy, and snapped at Mrs. Timmer when she suggested that he see a doctor. He behaved not so much like a goat as like a small, cross dog.
“Aren’t you going to finish trimming the hedge, Alpheus?” Mrs. Timmer asked.
“No, I’m not,” snapped Mr. Timmer. “If you want the hedge trimmed, let William do it. Or get a man. I’m tired of doing all the work on this place.”
“Alpheus, what is the matter with you?”
“Nothing.” said Mr. Timmer. “Leave me alone.”
“At any rate, Alpheus, won’t you please shave? You look so untidy when you don’t shave.”
“Good heavens!” cried Mr. Timmer. “Even my face isn’t my own! No, I won’t shave. I’m going to grow a beard. Is that plain enough?”
With that he threw down his book. For a moment Mrs. Timmer thought he was going outdoors, but he went up to his room and slammed the door and did not come down again. A day or two later, before breakfast, Mrs. Timmer cornered Mr. Timmer upstairs.
“Alpheus,” she begged in a tone much more gentle than the one she customarily used, “won’t you tell me why you are acting so strangely? Is it money trouble? Is your business going to fail? Are we going to lose the house? Alpheus, you haven’t taken any money that don’t belong to you?”
“No, I haven’t,” declared Mr. Timmer. “I know what I’m doing. Just leave me alone.”
"Alpheus,” almost whispered Mrs. Timmer. “Is it a woman?”
Mrs. Timmer knew from the nervous little jerk that shook Alpheus that she was right.
“Oh, Alpheus!” she mourned. “And I always thought you were so true and faithful. I’ve trusted you so, Alpheus. I thought you were one husband who could be depended upon.”
To Mr. Timmer’s great surprise, his wife began to weep tempestuously. It was one of the most unexpected things that had ever happened. She never wept. Now she wept thoroughly, hugging Mr. Timmer violently and crying down his neck.
“Maria! Stop it!” begged Mr. Timmer.
“It’s not what you think. It’s the woman next door, but it is far, far from what you think. Maria, I slapped her.”
“You what?” cried Mrs. Timmer, ceasing her tears instantly and pushing Mr. Timmer back so that she could look at him.
“I slapped her,” repeated Mr. Timmer. “In London. I slapped her face in London.”
“Humph !” said Mrs. Timmer, remembering the size of the woman next door. “And what did she do to you then, Alpheus?”
“She didn’t do anything, Maria,” Mr.
Timmer said. “I slapped her on to an omnibus and it carried her away.”
“Alpheus,” said Mrs. Timmer severely. “I want you to tell me all about it, and I want you to tell me here and now.”
THE story that Mr. Timmer told his wife was nothing very remarkable. It might have happened to any man. During the first years of the World War Mr. Timmer was a
young man in an office. His son William was then a boy, but Lucy was not bom. In the office where Mr. Timmer then worked were four young men. and one day Mr. Ethering. the senior partner, called them into his office.
“Boys.” he said, "the firm needs some one to go to Whitehall. London, to complete this contract we are negotiating with the War Office, and one of you will have to go. It may be a dangerous job and I don’t deny it.”
“Exactly. That is the risk one of you must take, but I believe this contract will go far to help win the war. I’m not going to order one of you to go; I'm going to ask one of you to volunteer. Who will go?”
For a minute no one spoke. Mr. Ethering looked from one to another of the young men. and when his eyes alighted on Mr. Timmer they rested there and Mr. Timmer flushed. Perhaps it was because he was so timid and knew he was timid that Mr. Timmer spoke up.
“I will go. Mr. Ethering,” he said, and Mr. Ethering said “Good !” A short time thereafter Mr. Timmer found himself in London. He concluded the contract business in one day. No steamer was sailing until two days later, and Mr. Timmer decided to see something of London. He was feeling quite a hero. He had dared death on the ocean to help win the war.
Two young women stopped in front of him.
“ ’Ere’s another slacker, Marne.” one of them said. “ ’E’s one wot’s got no brassard on ’is arm. ’And ’im a white feather. Marne.”
One of the young women thrust out her hand with a white feather, and a flood of resentment rushed into Mr. Timmer’s brain. He swung his hand, meaning to knock the white feather aside, but the other girl dropped a feather and bent to retrieve it, and Mr. Timmer’s hand collided so violently with her cheek that she fell backward on to the steps of an omnibus that was going by.
Air. Timmer sawr her legs kicking the air and heard her scream, and saw the omnibus conductor grasp her and pull her to her feet. “An accident!” some one cried, and Mr. Timmer wiggled through the crowd on the w'alk and disappeared. He remained in his hotel room, trembling every time feet sounded in the corridor outside, until it was time to catch his steamer at Southampton. And now the woman he had slapped had moved in next door.
“Well!” exclaimed Mrs. Timmer. “Well! And that, Alpheus, is why you are growing a beard?”
“Yes, Maria,” said Mr. Timmer meekly.
“By what I have seen of that woman’s husband, Alpheus,” said Mrs. Timmer, “I think you are very wise to grow a beard. If you don’t want to be recognized, you will have to grow it much faster than you have been growing it.”
That evening when he returned home. Mr. Timmer had a good-sized parcel under his arm. It contained twelve varieties of tonics and pomades, all guaranteed to make hair grow rapidly and luxuriantly, and he set the jars and bottles on his dresser and immediately opened one and rubbed part
of its contents into his beard and face. He wondered whether it would be wise to use two varieties of beard grower at once say a liquid and a pomade -and he went to the window to read the directions on a jar of pomade. He looked out of the window.
Mr. Timmer’s first thought was that there had been an unseasonable snowstorm. His rear yard was covered with large white flakes. A second look showed him that what covered the grass was a million or more white feathers, and a sudden weakness attacked his knees. He sat on the edge of his bed. wondering whether the woman he had slapjxxl had thrown them there purposely as a warning that she had recognized him. Suddenly he began rubbing pomade into his incipient beard as violently as he could.
His beard was not doing as well as he had hoped. It did not grow with the rich luxuriance of a Newfoundland dog’s hair, but grew in tufts with bare spots between. Dinner was ready before Mr. Timmer had finished examining his face in the mirror.
said William before the family was all seated. I’ve got to ask you to excuse something I couldn’t very well help. You saw all those feathers in the backyard, didn’t you?”
“And, papa,” Lucy chimed in. “Elsie Higgins was changing a sofa pillow cover and that’s how the feathers got in our yard, because the wind blew and—”
“On their kitchen porch,” said William, “and if you ask me I think she’s a nice girl—a mighty swell little girl. I’ve kept away from her—”
“You keep on keeping away from her,” said Mr. Timmer. “Okay,” said William. “What you say goes with me, dad.”
“But he didn’t keep away from her, papa,” Lucy bubbled. “Less talk, child,” said William. “I was going to tell you, dad. Those feathers were all over our yard when I got home and this girl—this Elsie next door—called me to the hedge and apologized. I couldn’t turn my back on her, could I?” “And, papa,” Lucy cried eagerly. “She’s coming over after dinner to help William brush them up.”
“Well, yes,” said William. “She offered to. She said it was all her fault. I ask you, father, what could I do about it? I said ‘No, don’t bother,’ and she said ‘But I must—’ ” “And they talked and talked,” said Lucy, giggling. “I know—William’s in love with her, papa.”
“That’s all bunk,” said William, but he hurried through the meal and declined dessert in order to get out in the yard. Elsie Higgins must have been waiting to see him appear, for she came over immediately. So did Mr. Higgins. He came with one of those Japanese bamboo lawn brooms, and began raking feathers in a slow but efficient manner as does a man who has a job to do and means to get it done. William and Elsie did not rake many feathers; they stood under the lone apple tree and talked, and when Mr. Higgins drew near, then he stopped.
“This is William Timmer, father,” Elsie said, and Mr. Timmer shook hands with William.
"Feathers blow abawt a bit,” he said. “I’ve Ix'en telling Elsie to be more careful 'ereafter. I don’t sec your father much; ’e ain’t sick by any chance?”
“No,” said William. “No. The fact ' is, Mr. Higgins, father is growing a Ixxard and he don’t look any too handsome-half and half, you know. He’s rather hiding, I think, until it gets to be something.”
“Mrs. ’Iggins was saying she does not see much of your mother,” suggested Mr. Higgins, and again William had to invent.
"Well, mother has been pretty busy; just now is her busy time of year— clubs and one thing and another. You know how it is.”
“My wife was saying it would do no harm for folk to be more neighborly like,” said Mr. Higgins. “ ‘P’raps they don’t like the looks of us,’ she says.” “But that’s nonsense,” said William heartily. "Waiting until you got settled pv /£■' / in and all that, I dare say.”
ƒ/ “In England,” began Mr. Higgins.
but Elsie said "Now don’t begin talking ffl \\ England, father,” and Mr. Higgins
1 * ' ' went on with his feather sweeping.
“I ought to be helping him,” Elsie said, “I spilled them,” but William said "He’s about through now,” and they continued to talk. It was dark when William returned to the house, after having seen Elsie through the hedge into her own yard.
“William!” called Mr. Timmer. “Just going up, dad.” William replied. “Be down in a minute,” but lie came down no more that night. When Mr. Timmer had waited for William an hour or so, he got out of his chair and began walking up and down the room nervously. He did not at all like the way matters were shaping. The Higgins family seemed to be creeping in upon him— first Elsie Higgins and now Mr. Higgins— and his beard was not doing at all well. Next, on some excuse, Mrs. Higgins would be coming.
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Continued from page 17
“Do sit down, Alpheus,” begged Mrs. Timmer. “You make me nervous.”
“I’m nervous myself,” said Mr. Timmer. “I am a very nervous man, Maria. You don’t know how nervous I am.”
He went upstairs and nibbed hair-grower into his beard, and came down again. He went out into the black night and stood under the apple tree. He went in and up to bed. He tossed there and could not sleep.
THE next morning when he went to his train he met Mrs. Higgins face to face. She entered the car at one end and walked back looking for a seat, and Mr. Timmer entered at the other end and walked forward looking for a seat, and they met in the middle of the car. As they passed, Mrs. Higgins half halted and stared at Mr. Timmer. Her look of amazement may have been because of Mr. Timmer’s remarkable growth of face hair, for his beard had now reached the point where it was enough to amaze any one,
He was greatly disturbed. Had the woman recognized him or had she not?
“She knew me,” Mr. Timmer concluded, “but she did not quite know me. She was not quite sure. Now she will never rest until she sees me again and is sure. I’ll take my vacation now. I’ll take a month and go to the mountains and grow my beard. That’s what I’ll do. Or south—I’ll go south; beards grow faster in hot weather.”
“Father,” said William, entering the living room that evening after dinner, “I want to have a serious talk with you. You will admit I am not a child; I am twenty-five and I’m not a fool. I have been a good son and I have always obeyed you.”
“Yes, you have, William,” admitted Mr. Timmer. “You have.”
“Well and good,” said William. “I’m willing to obey your orders as long as I live in your house—”
“Why, William!” exclaimed Mrs. Timmer. “What do you mean by that? As long as you live in this house?”
“Mother, I’m trying to talk to father. What I mean is that I cannot understand why we are forbidden to talk to the Higgins family. If there is any real reason for giving them the cold shoulder I want to know it.
I have a right to know what that reason is.
I think Elsie Higgins is a fine girl—a remarkably sweet girl.”
“William is in love with her,” Lucy giggled. “You’re sweet on her, aren’t you, William?”
“You keep still,” said William, glaring at her. “What is your reason, father?”
Mr. Timmer moved uneasily in his chair. He opened his mouth and closed it again but what he would have said will never be known because the doorbell jingled. Lucy ran to the window to see who was ringing the bell.
“Oo!” she cried with impish glee. “It’s Mr. Higgins. And Mrs. Higgins. I’ll go.”
LUCY !” exclaimed Mrs. Timmer sharply, “Stay here.”
“Is Elsie with them?” William asked eagerly.
“No,” said Lucy, still peeking through the curtains.
Mr. Timmer scrambled out of his chair and made for the stairs.
“I’m sick,” he said. “I’m upstairs lying down and I can’t be disturbed.”
“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. Timmer. “I suppose I’ll have to go to the door. I can’t let them stand there and ring.”
“I’ll go, mother,” said William, and he had no more than said it before he had
opened the door. Mr. Higgins stood outside, and Mrs. Higgins stood at the bottom of the porch steps. She looked toward the street as if meaning “I’m here but you need not see me.”
“Why, good evening, Mr. Higgins,” William exclaimed as if quite surprised.
“Good evening,” said Mr. Higgins gravely, and he added, “William.”
“Come in.” William said again. “And that is Mrs. Higgins, isn’t it? Won’t you come in, Mrs. Higgins?”
The lady turned and looked up at William doubtfully.
“Wot do you think, James?” she asked. “We ought to be called hupon before we call.”
“That’s all nonsense,” William laughed. “Mother, here’s Mrs. Higgins won’t come in. Come and talk to her.”
“P’raps we might as well not,” said Mr. Higgins doubtfully. “We were just passing by, as you might say, on our way to the cinema, and hi thought p’raps your father would like this.”
He thrust a small jar into William’s hand, “’iggins’ Own ’air-Grower,” he said. “Hi make it myself and know wot it is. Grows ’air marvellous, that does, face or ’ead. Bald as a bat, I was, nearly, and look at the ’ead of ’air hi grew. You saying your father ’as trouble growing ’is beard, and Mrs. ’iggins telling me wot ’is beard looks like, made me think.”
“Why, that’s fine!” William cried. “Father will be mighty pleased.”
“Come along, James,” said Mrs. Higgins. “We’ll be late for the pictures.” But Mr. Higgins was on an interesting topic.
“Cousin of mine as was a chemist fellow,” he explained, “’e got up the formula. In Liverpool before the war, that was, where we all lived, before the war and after.”
Mrs. Timmer pushed to William’s side. “Good evening, Mr. Higgins,” she said. “From Liverpool, you said you came? But Mrs. Higgins, too? Good evening, Mrs. Higgins.”
“’Ow d’you do,” said Mrs. Higgins in a stately manner.
“Mr. Higgins was just saying you were from Liverpool, but didn’t some one say you were in London duriiïg the war?”
“I’ve never been in London in my life, nor want to be,” said Mrs. Higgins.
“But you mustn’t stand out there,” said Mrs. Timmer with sudden friendliness. “Do come in. Just for a minute, if you can’t stay longer. Please.”
Mrs. Higgins slowly mounted the porch steps.
“And I say,” said William. “I suppose you left Miss Lucy at home? I think I’ll just run over for a minute or two.”
“I’ll just run up and tell Alpheus you are here,” said Mrs. Timmer.
She told Alpheus three times that Mrs. Higgins had never been in London, and then Mr. Timmer came down to thank Mr. Higgins for the jar of Higgins’ Own Hair-Grower. An hour later, Mr. Timmer was deep in talk with Mr. Higgins.
“And I can put in a little,” he said. “Not much, you know, but I think I can interest capital to put in the rest. What we need is a hair-grower that will grow hair fast.”
“There’s nothing can beat ’iggins’ Own,” declared Mr. Higgins. “You try it. Now, that beard of yours—”
“I’m going to shave it off,” declared Mr. Timmer. “I’m going to shave it off tonight.”
“Do,” advised Mr. Higgins. “You take my advice and shave it off, and start all over again.”
“And them white feathers,” came Mrs. Higgins’ voice. “Remind me wot some fool girls did during the war. Ever ’ear of ’ow they 'anded white feathers to the lads that did not volunteer?”
“No,” said Mrs. Timmer blandly. “How was that? Tell me, Mrs. Higgins.”