King of Sob
The story of "the sigh beneath the surface" and what happened to Archie when he was found out
W. BRUCE HUTCHISON
AT LAST Archie came to a great log ranch house sprawled upon the brown range beside a village of lurching barns and corrals. He got out of his roadster and walked up a little path, bordered by some red poppies, and crossed a creaky porch that was shaded with hop vines.
A girl opened the door—a girl in a yellow dress. Archie gasped a little for a moment, but his practised eye looked her up and down comprehensively, with a connoisseur’s appreciation.
Summoning the famous smile that glistened from page eighteen of The New York Star every evening, Archie said: “My name is Heythorp. Archie Heythorp. I seem to be a little lost out here in your wild West. And I’m starving to death.” '**
He knew what the girl would say. She would blush a little and say, as they always did: “Not the Archie Heythorp?” And he would sound a trifle confused and reply, with a disarming boyishness: “Yes, I guess you’ve caught me
red-handed, but I’m quite harmless really.”
The girl said: “We’ve finished lunch, but I guess we can rustle something for you.” She didn’t blush at all.
If Archie had been writing one of his sleek, overstuffed columns in The Star, he would have said that the girl in the yellow dress looked like a daffodil in a spring breeze. He would have said the wind-blown confusion of her hair, drawn to a little knot at the back, was the color of ripening wheat, even though Archie had never seen wheat ripening. I íe would have said that her eyes, an elusive shade between blue and green, were deep pools of mystery immemorial, but with a little flash of child’s laughter in them, a sparkle of morning sunshine. He would have said it was a face that you’d remember like the melody of an old love song.
“Come in,” the girl said. And that was all.
lie followed her through several crooked halls and
passages to the dining room. She disappeared into the kitchen and didn’t return.
In the cool cavernous room, filled with its massive old mahogany furniture, Archie felt suddenly very lonely. He wasn’t used to being alone, and these last ten days by himself had been a new and ghastly experience. He was used to an audience, to the unseen applause of the half million faithful readers who absorbed his column in The Star every evening, to being j>ointed out in night clubs, to seeing his long, pale face daily on page eighteen, to being one of New York’s established civic institutions before he was quite twenty-six.
The whole thing was old Barrow’s fault, of course—this wild goose chase, this idiotic notion that Archie needed solitude and complete change to recover his old writing touch.
“You’re written out, washed up,” old Barrow had said with the glazed, globular look that had made him known as The Codfish in every newspaper in town. “Go out West and take a look at yourself, and if you survive the shock, you may be able to write a column again that’s not as flat as last night’s beer.”
Archie wondered why he’d been crazy enough to pay any attention to The Codfish, Well, the thing had gone far enough. If The Codfish didn’t like his stuff, there were plenty of papers that would fall over themselves to get it. lie decided suddenly that as soon as he got some lunch he’d tum back and make New York by Saturday night. But he wondered where the girl in the yellow dress had gone.
Out of the kitchen lumt>ered a well-upholstered creature with red cheeks that wobbled like twin raspberry jellies. She carried a plate of cold beef and fried potatoes and a pot ol coffee, and set them down on the table with a clatter. Archie judged that, she was annoyed at his late arrival.
But after he had offered her a two-dollar bill and a cigarette, she answered his questions volubly, in a curious accent
which he took to be Cockney. Yes, she said, this was the Musgrave ranch—“old and run down at the eels it is, and that’s no lie, sir, not like the days when the master was alive”—and Miss Jean owned it now. Yes, she was the girl in the yellow dress. Her brother used to run the place, but he and his wife were both killed in an automobile accident in California two years ago and Miss Jean had come home from the East, where she was studying music, to look after things up here. Miss Jean had her brother’s two kids on her hands, too, “and wot with the price of beeve and the drought and the grass’oppers and only six cow ’ands to do it all, a sweet time she’s ’avin’ of it.”
Through the window Archie observed Miss Jean riding out oí the big barn on a black horse. She had changed to a white shirt and riding breeches. He decided that he had driven far enough that day and had better stay at the ranch all night. The cook said that would be quite all right.
Alter lunch he went into the little garden. It was cool there under some apple trees and a wide irrigation ditch gurgled happily in the shade. He lolled on the grass against a log and began to snooze.
“You got our log!”
He looked up to perceive a little girl standing beside him. She was extraordinarily round and brown and clad in a pair of red bathing trunks and some curls the color of rojx\ and nothing else. Beside her was a boy and his trunks were blue like his amazingly large and solemn eyes.
“Nants!” said the boy, eyeing Archie suspiciously.
“He means it’s the ants’ log.” said the girl.
“Nant!” said the boy again, and pointed down toward the bam. Archie perceived with interest that Miss Jean was just dismounting there from her horse, but she went into the kitchen without noticing them.
“He means.” said the girl, “that she’s our Aunt Jean, but she is not like the ants in the log. No. Oh, no. They’re smaller and blacker, you know. Yes.”
“Nants!” said the boy, and pulled with determination on Archie’s sleeve.
Archie raised himself on his elbow and looked at the end ol the log. He perceived that a swarm of black ants were working there, boring holes, carrying specks of wood from the rotten interior of the log and dumping them down into a little pile on the grass.
“They’re building a great big house in there,” said the girl. “Sometimes we go in with them—it’s just pretend, of course, but my brother is young and believes it, you know—and he says their house is all gold and shiny.”
“Is gold and shiny,” said the boy solemnly.
“What’s your name?” Archie said.
“Meg,” said the girl. She gave him a friendly, toothless grin and rattled on in one breath: “My brother, he’s Tad, not really because he’s Terry, but we call him Tad because he’s no bigger than a tadpole, much, but he’s just three and a half, you know, and only a boy and drinks his bathwater even, but I don’t because I’m nearly six and losted two tooths already—”
“Boats,” Tad shouted, and pointed with a fat. grimy finger at the irrigation ditch. He made Archie think of a disreputable cherub out of an old mural.
“lie means,” said Meg, “let’s make boats and ships and
sail them. Can you make boats and ships and sail them?” “No,” said Archie.
But it occurred to him that if he were going to get anywhere with Miss Jean he had better make up to the kids. So they carved a lot of ships out of little sticks and put masts on them, and Archie made sails out of a copy of The Star from his pocket, and Meg said her ship was going to sail to Zanzibar for spices and rubies, and Tad said his was a pirate ship with cannons, and they caught a tiny green frog and put him aboard a ship of his own, and after a while all the ships sailed away down the ditch.
JEAN HAD driven to a neighboring ranch on business, so Archie dined alone and wondered whether he wasn’t making a fool of himself to stay here. He was sitting in his own room upstairs, looking at the sunset and thinking oi the curious color of Jean’s eyes, the curve of her eyebrow, the line of her mouth, when the idea came to him. It came of a sudden, just like that, as his best ideas always did. He grabbed the top off his little typewriter and rolled a sheet of paper in.
The Codfish wanted a new line, something human, the light touch that had first lifted Archie off a rewrite desk and made him a celebrity overnight. Well, here it was, made to order—if he could only capture the feel of it. Four times he started the first paragraph and tore it up, but the fifth time he got it.
“This,” he wrote, “is the story of Meg’s voyage to Zanzibar for spices and rubies, and of Tad’s perilous journey into the far country of the Black Ants, and of Admiral Frog’s expedition down the Great Ditch—”
When he had finished it was Archie Heythorp at his best —a charming whimsy, a fairy tale of a little boy and girl who might be any reader’s own kids. That was his art, what made him different from anyone in the newspapers. He could write about anything, no matter how small, and make it sound important, exciting, quaint, make every reader feel that it was written for him alone. He could give it a living human touch, with a sly chuckle in every other line, but always with a little nostalgic sigh just below the surface.
It had been just such a little piece about Mrs. Emily Grubb and her red geraniums in a window-box on Twentyfifth Street that had first caught the eye of The Codfish. “You’ve got a low instinct for slush,” The Codfish said and sent him out to write what he liked about any obscure person who caught his fancy—the teeming human minutiae of New York. Within a month his reputation was made. The boys christened him the King of Sob—a grudging compliment, but a salary of $150 a week went with it. Everything was easy for Archie Heythorp after that.
When he read over the story about the kids, Archie knew it was smooth and sticky, just the kind of stuff The Codfish liked. That would show him whether Archie was through or not. Kids were always good copy. He kept a carbon duplicate and addressed the original to The Codfish.
Next morning, as he came down the massive stairs, he found Jean and the kids already at the dining-room table. Jean wore her yellow dress again.
“We’re going up the hill today,” Meg shouted over her porridge, “not the plain hill, but the special big hill.” “Dragons—green ones with fire,” said Tad, his blue eyes larger than ever.
“You come, too, Archie,” said Meg. “The dragons are only pretend ones, you know.”
“Are not,” said Tad. “Green. . . with fire.”
Archie hesitated with a look of shy diffidence. Jean said she had to look at some broken fences, and if he had the time to spare might like to see the view from the hill. Archie said he war more or less travelling for his health, and thought he had time to spare and would like to see the view.
So they walked up the hill behind the house, through woods of red-barked pine and squat, pungent juniper, until they came to a point of bare rock, high above everything. From here Archie could see that the ranch was on a great plateau, thrust up from the surrounding chaos of hills and valleys. Down below them, so far that it looked no wider than his hand, he could make out a river winding through the hills that were flat and streaked with shadow, as if someone had painted them on canvas. The river looked brown, thick and slow, like treacle, but it gleamed in places like molten metal.
They sat down on the edge of the precipice while Meg and Tad went off to investigate the caves where the dragons lived. The picture of Jean against the utterly blue sky, the curve of her throat, the lines of her body, the glint of the sun on her hair as it blew in the wind—well, if she had been the kind of girl he was used to, Archie would have known how to sweep her info his arms. But his sure instinct for women told him to go slowly here.
After a while he said, with just the right touch of shy hesitation: “You know, I have a sort of confession to make.
I mean, I write things, little odd bits, for the newspapers ... in New York. And I’ve written a piece about Meg and Tad. Kids, you know, are always good copy. Do you mind?”
He handed her the carbon copy. This advanced showing of his stuff never failed to flatter them, thaw them out. But when Jean had finished reading it, she only said: “Well, you are a clever young man, aren’t you?”
Before lie could say any more, Meg shouted from the woods that there were no dragons in the caves today, and Tad added the opinion that they probably were out to tea. And they both started to bellow: “Hello, Mr. Echo Man! Hello, Mr. Echo Man! Hello—”
“They’ve been trying to locate the man who makes the echoes for a long time.” Jean laughed. “Once they yelled so hard that an old fellow came out of the woods there and told them to keep quiet and give a body some peace. They’re convinced now that he was the original Echo Man, but they can't find him again.”
When they got home Archie wrote another charming whimsy. He told how Meg and Tad discovered the Echo Man, near the home of the Green Dragons. He built it up, elaborated it with imaginary incident, put quaint words into the kids’ mouths, inserted little laughs here and there, yet managed to leave the usual suggestion of a sob.
He kept a carton copy but didn’t show it to Jean. He would take his time with her. For he realized now that The Codfish had been right. He needed a change. A few weeks out in these new surroundings, with new material, especially these kids to work on, and his copy would be better than ever.
I íe told Jean he thought this high elevation would be good for his health and offered to pay $25 a week for board. She said $10 would be plenty and added, with a calm, level look, that he would have to amuse himself.
A RCHIE planned his campaign carefully. In the mornings he would ramble with Meg and Tad through the woods, or climb up in the loft, or visit the new calves, or herd the sheep, or help Sam, the stableman, feed the pigs. Usually he took a pencil and a bit of paper with him to make stealthy notes of the kids’ precise dialogue and keep the touch authentic. He was too wise to place them in any fixed setting, except the general background of a farm. They were to be the typical kids of America, so that any mother could recognize them as her own.
He needed only a tiny fragment of an idea to build up a complete story, with a thread of plot, some rollicking kids’ dialogue and always that little nostalgic feeling to make you remember when you were young. The Cockney cook, whom he christened Mrs. Nuggins, and Sam, the sad stableman, wandered in and out of the stories, and there were quaint bits about the animals, about the wall-eyed horse, the black sheep’s baby, the eagle family on the dead pine tree, and that bad fellow, the red bull.
When The Star arrived, Archie’s picture was back on page eighteen. The front page carried a box announcing that Archie Heythorp had returned “with a new and genial touch, with a series of unique sunshine stories of America’s plain people, of Meg and Tad and Mrs. Nuggins that will make you laugh and sigh and laugh again.”
Archie left a copy of the paper in the living room where Jean would be sure to see it, but she didn’t say anything about it. She was friendly enough, though. In the evenings they would sit about the great stone fireplace, for it was cool up here after sunset, and he would tell her about himself, about his beginnings as a cub reporter, about the actors and actresses he knew, the politicians, prize fighters and orches ra leaders, atout the time they sent him to Washington to write up a human story about Roosevelt, and how he’d interviewed the President with the White House correspondents but had remembered hardly anything except the big stuffed fish in a glass case and a model of a sailing ship. I Ic told her how he had learned to write differently from the rest of them, because he understood people, and how the toys on The Star had christened him the King of Sob.
Jean would listen with that steady look, her eyes narrowed, one eyebrow raised with a kind of quizzical expression as if she were trying to decide how much she could believe. She didn’t say much, but Archie told himself there was plenty of time.
Sometimes, when he had learned to sit a horse, they would ride over the range in the evening when the air was cool and heavy with the smell of ripening alfalfa. Occasionally he would help her round up some steers, or drive her down to the railway for the mail. Once he sat up all night with her in the barn while she fed a sick colt out of a bottle because she wouldn’t trust Sam, the stableman, and as they smoked cigarettes and drank coffee out of a thermos bottle, she seemed to thaw out a bit.
Sitting on a bale of hay there in the light of a lantern, she told him of the old days when her grandfather first came here, looking for gold, and stayed to farm the plateau. She told him how the old man had built the house and bams out of logs with his own hands, how he’d shot two men in a fight over the irrigation water, how he used to get up before dawn and sit by the kitchen stove in the winter mornings, reading the Bible and Shakespeare. She showed Archie his saddle, still hanging in the bam. the one he had been killed in when his horse rolled.
“That.” she said casually, “ought to make something for a clever young man like you to write about.”
“Not my line, I guess,” he said.
“I suppose not,” she said quietly and didn’t say any more.
Best of all, Archie liked their midnight suppers in the great kitchen, where the innumerable copper pots glistened
in the lamp light, and lariats and chaps and old spurs hung from the walls. After their ride Jean would sit beside him on the huge table as they ate thick cold toef sandwiches, swinging her legs, her throat bare, her figure slim and exquisite in her mannish shirt and riding breeches.
One night he blurted out: “Jean, you don’t like me much, do you?”
She eyed him over her coffee cup with one eyebrow raised a little.
“What makes you think that. Archie?”
“Well, you don’t like my stuff in the papers anyway. Why not?”
“I never said that.”
“But you think it.”
“No. I just think you could write some real stuff, if you wanted to.”
COMEHOW as the days went by. it became*tremendously ^ important to show her that he could write. Nothing else, none of his old tricks of philandering that had always succeeded before would to any use here. He knew that. But by his writing he could show her.
He worked harder than ever, planning his stuff in advance, rewriting, polishing, turning out copy that no one could resist. But Jean never referred to it. though he found out from the cook that she read his column in the paper in her own room every day.
He couldn’t tell whether he was getting anywhere with her or not. Sometimes she seemed to like him. Sometimes she would almost ignore him in the endless work of the ranch for days together.
Yet he was feeling stnfngely well, as he had never felt before. His shaving mirror showed his face brown and lean. He found himself looking forward to every meal. He could ride fairly well now and had bought some cowboy toots and a broad-brimmed hat.
Sometimes he helloed Jean and the cowboys cock hay and pitch it into the bam. He learned to cinch up a saddle and open a horse’s mouth for the bit with his thumb and forefinger. He got to like the sharp smell ol the pine trees in the sun the sound of hoofs sloshing through the irrigation ditches, the creak of old leather. Most of all he got to like the kids, the touch of their hands in his, Meg’s odd whisp of a
smile, Tad’s solemn look. And they continued to to firstrate copy. But he knew when he was with Jean that it couldn’t go on like this much longer.
^ Before bringing the thing to a head, he waited until The Codfish forwarded a parcel of fan mail that had come to the paper from his readers, and copies of the huge flamboyant promotion sheets, a yard square, that The Star's syndicate had prepared, to sell his stuff to papers outside New York.
He showed them to Jean one evening as they sat on the edge of the canyon, looking down the trough of the rive., where the sunset sent long, straight shafts of pink haze between the peaks of the black hills.
She glanced at the promotion sheets. They showed a picture of Archie, almost life-size, and the black headlines fairly screamed: The Star presents the feature scoop that,
every editor in the country has been waiting for . . . the one touch of nature that makes the whole world kin . . . Mr. 1 leythorp ixers into the laughing heart of childhood. I Iuman ... sly chuckles . . . perhaps a little sigh beneath the surface ...”
“Well.” Jean said, “they recommend you pretty highly, don’t they? But the picture makes you look too fat.”
“That’s what you think.” Archie said gaily, “but look at what the world thinks!”
I íe showed her a great sheaf of fan letters. She thumbed them over thoughtfully.
“These, I suppose,” she said, “are awfully important?”
"My bread and butter. So long as they come in. the pajxr knows my stuff is pulling. When they drop out, 1 drop out, that’s all.”
He didn’t tell her how nearly he had come to dropping out.
She looked down the valley where they could still catch the copper glint of the sun on the river.
"And all these people who write to the paper about you.” she said quietly, “they don’t know the real Archie I leythorp at all. do they?"
"And I suppose you do?”
“Maybe 1 do.”
They sat for a long time, saying nothing, until it was dark and the mountains were soft patches of deeper blackness almost within reach, and the lights of the Indian village seemed straight below them. The sound of a cowbell came up clearly from the old rancherie down there and the river
Continued on page 57
King of Sob
Continued, from page 9—Starts on page 7
mumbled faintly far off. As the moon came up they could see a single pine tree on a hill etched black against it.
Archie continued to sulk, but when he looked at Jean again, the moonlight playing on her face and throat, the shadows of the trees moving on her white flesh, he took her suddenly in his arms and pressed his lips to hers.
She lay still for a long moment, then pushed him away. He was surprised to find how strong she was.
"If you’re quite finished,” she said quietly, “maybe we’d better be going home. This form of entertainment bores me a little.”
“Listen, Jean.” he said, “don’t you understand? I’m crazy about you. I want you to marry me.”
And the strange thing was that he knew he meant it, the first time he had ever really meant it.
• “And no doubt you’ll put that in your next column,” she said and brushed back her tousled hair with her hand. “I suppose that will be your one touch of nature for tomorrow.”
“Listen to me, Jean. I’ve loved you ever since the first day I saw you. That’s why I stayed here.”
“You love me!”
He heard a little laugh, but he couldn’t see her face clearly in the shadows.
. “So you love me! This must be the first time you’ve said that to anybody for a month. Why, you’ve never loved anybody or anything . . . except Archie Heythorp. Archie Heythorp who peers into the laughing heart of childhood! Archie Heythorp who puts that sigh beneath the surface! Archie Heythorp, the King of Sob!”
“Please, Jean, listen to me—”
“I saw at the start what you were like.” she said, her voice still low. “But I thought up here the cheap glitter might rub off, after you’d had time to look at yourself for a while. I thought maybe there’d be something else underneath. Why, I even read your column in the papers to see if you were waking up. But you weren’t.”
“This is getting a little funny,” he managed to say.
She ignored that. “Can’t you see that what you’ve been writing isn’t real, isn’t true, isn’t Meg and Tad. isn’t this country? All they are is good copy to you. That’s all anything is to you—good copy, free to be taken when you want it, and twisted and coated with sugar and sold to a lot of cheap people who don’t know any more than you do. Now you expect to have me just as easily—just another scoop for the great Archie Heythorp!”
“What’s my writing got to do with it?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter that your writing is smart and cheap and—and spurious. I didn’t care about that. It’s that your writing is you. You’ve lived so long with all this make-believe that you can’t tell it from real things. You’ve got smart and cheap and spurious, too.”
“How wf 11 you put it,” he said, trying to laugh.
“The troui.'e with you, Archie, is that you’ve never seen or felt anything real. But you’ll get your bump some day. Then you’ll know.”
She got up and walked toward her horse. He heard hoofs pounding up the hard clay road.
That night Archie packed his grips, left a hundred-dcllar bill on his bureau and drove down the hill.
HIS RETURN to Broadvay was the triumph he had expected. The gang gave him a big blow-out at the apa. tment of a girl named Doro, and everybody was there and got pretty tight, and they presented him with a pair of absurd dolls labelled “Meg” and “Tad.” and crowned him His Majes, v, King of Sob, with a cardboard crown. The Star gave him a new office high up in its tower and Archie stood the two dolls on bis
desk. His salary, including his share of the syndicate returns, was $350 a week, but he found he spent most of it as he went along. The Codfish blinked with almost a human look and said Archie was really beginning to learn how to write, but could he keep it up?
Archie laughed at that. There was no trouble keeping it up. He went straight ahead with the same line of stuff. He invented a romance between Mrs. Nuggins and Sam, the sad stableman. He kept the animals in it. too, and those little touches of nature, those bits of whimsy.
And Broadway was cosy, friendly, understanding. So was Doro—and dark and tall and slim and stimulating, like a glass of champagne. He spent a lot of time with Doro. She understood him, that was it, and Jean couldn't. Too bad for Jean. As a sort of nonchalant gesture, just to show her he didn’t care he had The Star sent out to the ranch every day.
One morning he found a brown paper package lying on his desk. When he looked at it he knew right away that it had come from the ranch. The address had been written with the absurd old typewriter that he had often seen Jean pounding on with two fingers in her cubbyhole of an office behind the kitchen, where she wrote the business letters of the ranch. There was no mistaking the large, old-fashioned type of the machine, the way the letters sprawled at odd angles.
He looked at the parcel for several moments before opening it. If there were a letter inside, if Jean wanted to apologize . . . He broke the string and tore open the paper. There was nothing inside but two of his shirts, neatly laundered, that he had left at the ranch.
With the brown paper still in his hand, he stood looking out the window, across the island and the river to the smoke of the Jersey shore. Out past there the sun would be beating down on the plateau, but inside the great log house it would be cool, with the smell of flowers and old wood, and in the garden Meg and Tad would be paddling in the irrigation ditch, and Jean would be there with her huge, floppy sun hat—“I thought maybe there’d be something else underneath . . . you’ve never seen or felt anything real . . . you’ll get your bump someday. Then you’ll know . . . ”
He threw the brown paper into his basket and rang up Doro and asked her to think of a place for dinner where there was a good orchestra and some decent wine.
After a while it wasn’t so easy for Archie to keep it up.
He began to notice first that ideas didn’t come to him suddenly just like that. He had to wring them out, worry them, fight them, lie in wait for them. Sometimes he would have to get them by listening to people about the town, as he used to do, and then dress them up with a rustic background, make Meg and Tad fit into them, make Mrs. Nuggins say something he had heard from the Swedish woman who swept his office.
The great trouble was that when he tried to imagine how Meg and Tad would say things for the purpose of his stories, he always came back to the ranch, and that made him think of Jean. He didn’t want to think of Jean, and yet he was always thinking of her. He fought it off and tried to forget the ranch and the kids altogether.
Soon the Meg and Tad he wrote about were no longer the real Meg and Tad. They had become names, convenient abstractions, lav figures that he hung his ideas on—no more real than those two ridiculous dolls on his desk. He knew by now that he wasn’t getting the old touch into his stuff, only an imitation of it, which survived through long habit, by a sort of physical knack. But the oublie didn’t suspect and that was all that mattered.
Then one day he found a note on his desk
from The Codfish: “What’s happened to
Your Majesty? I haven’t seen a sob in your stuff for a week?”
He sat down, looking out the window, over the smoke of Jersey. After a while he opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out an envelope of snapshots. He had taken them on the ranch, but hadn’t looked at them since coming back to town. Idly he thumbed them through until he came to a blurred picture of the old log bam.
It was in the big bam that he and Jean had sat on bales of hay that night with the sick colt. The memory of it swept back upon him in a sudden hot surge—the smell of the new hay, the sound of the horses munching in the darkness, the feel of the colt’s soft, moist nose; the huge, eerie shadows from the lantern. And Jean sitting beside him— Jean talking to him of the old days, of her grandfather who had built the bams with his own hands, out ol logs from the forest.
“That ought to make something for a clever young man like you to write about,” Jean had said, but he hadn’t undersLxxl her, then. Now, all at once for the first time, he understood. It was all there somehow in the logs and beams and shadows of the barn— the logs that were weathered by long winters when the ranch was lost in the snow, by hot summers when the wheat grew. For the first time he saw the toil and struggle and loneliness that had gone into all this, the lives begun and lived out in the old log house. He saw what kind of people had bred Jean and Meg and Tad. Not his kind. A cleaner, stronger kind.
Yes, for the first time he saw what he was himself beside these people, beside Jean. Cheap and spurious, she’d said. His face burned at the memory of that night on the hillside. He understood now what she had meant.
Slowly he got up and locked the door and sat down before his typewriter. This time he didn’t try to be clever. This time he told what he had really seen and felt—the story of the barns, told simply, plainly, without any of his old writing tricks. He told of the old settler who had cut the great pine logs and skinned them in the spring when the pungent sap was running, and dovetailed them at the comers to make the walls. He told of the first crops from the plateau, how they had sprung up from the barren soil when the irrigation water was poured upon ! it, how they had been stored beneath this roof. He told of the innumerable horses that had first seen the light here, of the countless j generations of swallows that had built their ! round mud nests in the eaves, of the old I saddles whose owners were gone now, of the little colt that was fed out of a bottle in the old way.
Around the bams he built up the old, unchanging story of the plateau, of the people who had broken this earth and cultivated it, of the hardness and loneliness and cleanness of it under the sky. And for the first time he | could feel and believe every word he wrote.
When he had finished his column and slumped back in his chair, it was dark and he was utterly tired. But he knew now that if he were back there again, with Jean, with Meg and Tad, out there on the range, in the wind and sunshine, he could write like that, better than that, something really good, something clean and honest, as Jean had said. But he knew he could never write the old, cheap, sugar-coated stuff about the ranch and the kids again.
As he stood up wearily to get his coat he glanced at the two silly, grinning dolls on his desk, and for a moment he remembered Meg’s queer whisp of a smile, Tad’s solemn blue eyes. He threw the dolls into the waste-paper basket, and went out and got thoroughly drunk.
After that he stopped writing about the kids and returned to his old line, his stories ! of New York. The Codfish stood them for a | week, but the syndicate insisted that he ! must stick to his outdoor stuff, to the rustic ! atmosphere, particularly to Meg and Tad.
That was what the public demanded of | Archie Heythorp.
He tried again, grinding it out, refusing to think of Jean and the kids and the ranch, yet always thinking of them. And he knew his stuff, now that he had lost all belief in it, was pitiful.
When The Codfish fired him in the middle of September, he wasn’t surprised—only relieved, as if an intolerable weight had been lifted from his back.
A FTER that Archie disappeared. Where -*A |ie went or what he did in the next month he never quite knew, but at the end of it he found himself in a back room in a tenth rate hotel, with a headache, some dirty laundry and $10.82.
I íe sat on a park bench near the Museum most of the day and when he’d thought the whole thing out, he went back toTheCodfish to ask him for a job—reading copy, leg work, a suburban police beat—anything to start over again. Work, that was what he needed if he were going to forget things.
The Codfish looked Archie up and down with his glazed, globular look and said he guessed he could find something for him to do.
“Here’s some fan mail,” The Codfish added, pulling a little bundle of letters out of his desk. “It came after you left and we didn’t know where to send it. Hang around and I’ll think up something for you.”
“Thanks,” Archie said and strolled into the city room to see the boys. Lolling in a corner, he thumbed through the letters, but he didn’t bother to open them. He knew what they were like—the usual gushes from grandmothers and maiden aunts, the same old blurbs about his charm and human understanding.
He looked across at the Jersey shore, where the smoke lay thick and muggy against the sky. Out past there the sun would be shining on the plateau and the autumn air would be crisp and clean . . .
One of the letters in his hand caught his eye and he started. Yes, the address on it had been written in crazy lopsided letters like those of the old ranch typewriter. He tore it open.
There was nothing inside but a clipping from The. Star, his column about the bams. And written in pencil on the margin, “It’s taken you a long time, but you’ve found what I meant at last.” It was Jean’s writing.
Archie burst into The Codfish’s office and had borrowed a hundred dollars from him before The Codfish realized what he was doing.
It was just about breakfast time, still only half light on that November morning, w'hen Archie drove up the long hill with old Sam Kenney in his flivver. For the first time since he’d left New York it occurred to him. as they stopped in front of the ranch house, that he wras acting like a lunatic. After all, she had only scravJed a note on the margin of a newspaper . . .
While he hesitated at the garden gate, Meg and Tad came running out of the kitchen, each clutching a piece of toast, each little round face red with jam.
“Archie!” Meg screamed.
“Orchie !” shouted Tad. “Orchie’s back !”
They rushed into his arms, bore him dow-n until he was kneeling on the garden path, among the fallen poplar leaves that looked like little gold coins on the ground. He hugged the kids tight, tight, felt their soft cheeks against his, tasted some of the jam on his lips.
Jean came out on the porch. She was wearing that yellow dress.
Absurdly, he thought, “I wonder if she sees that I’ve come on my knees after all ...”
He wanted to tell her everything. He wanted to tell her what had happened to him. how he’d found himself out, how he needed her. But as she came down the path toward him, smiling in a wray he hadn’t seen before, he knew he didn’t have to tell her anything.