O. Henry.

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gay-papered wall were those pictures that pursue the homeless one from
house to house - The Huguenot Lovers, The First Quarrel, The Wedding
Breakfast, Psyche at the Fountain. The mantel's chastely severe
outline was ingloriously veiled behind some pert drapery drawn
rakishly askew like the sashes of the Amazonian ballet. Upon it was
some desolate flotsam cast aside by the room's marooned when a lucky
sail had borne them to a fresh port - a trifling vase or two, pictures
of actresses, a medicine bottle, some stray cards out of a deck.

One by one, as the characters of a cryptograph become explicit, the
little signs left by the furnished room's procession of guests developed
a significance. The threadbare space in the rug in front of the dresser
told that lovely woman had marched in the throng. Tiny finger prints on
the wall spoke of little prisoners trying to feel their way to sun and
air. A splattered stain, raying like the shadow of a bursting bomb,
witnessed where a hurled glass or bottle had splintered with its
contents against the wall. Across the pier glass had been scrawled with
a diamond in staggering letters the name "Marie." It seemed that the
succession of dwellers in the furnished room had turned in fury - perhaps
tempted beyond forbearance by its garish coldness - and wreaked upon
it their passions. The furniture was chipped and bruised; the couch,
distorted by bursting springs, seemed a horrible monster that had been
slain during the stress of some grotesque convulsion. Some more potent
upheaval had cloven a great slice from the marble mantel. Each plank in
the floor owned its particular cant and shriek as from a separate and
individual agony. It seemed incredible that all this malice and injury
had been wrought upon the room by those who had called it for a time
their home; and yet it may have been the cheated home instinct surviving
blindly, the resentful rage at false household gods that had kindled
their wrath. A hut that is our own we can sweep and adorn and cherish.

The young tenant in the chair allowed these thoughts to file, soft-shod,
through his mind, while there drifted into the room furnished sounds
and furnished scents. He heard in one room a tittering and incontinent,
slack laughter; in others the monologue of a scold, the rattling of
dice, a lullaby, and one crying dully; above him a banjo tinkled
with spirit. Doors banged somewhere; the elevated trains roared
intermittently; a cat yowled miserably upon a back fence. And he
breathed the breath of the house - a dank savour rather than a smell - a
cold, musty effluvium as from underground vaults mingled with the
reeking exhalations of linoleum and mildewed and rotten woodwork.

Then, suddenly, as he rested there, the room was filled with the strong,
sweet odour of mignonette. It came as upon a single buffet of wind with
such sureness and fragrance and emphasis that it almost seemed a living
visitant. And the man cried aloud: "What, dear?" as if he had been
called, and sprang up and faced about. The rich odour clung to him and
wrapped him around. He reached out his arms for it, all his senses for
the time confused and commingled. How could one be peremptorily called
by an odour? Surely it must have been a sound. But, was it not the sound
that had touched, that had caressed him?

"She has been in this room," he cried, and he sprang to wrest from
it a token, for he knew he would recognize the smallest thing that
had belonged to her or that she had touched. This enveloping scent of
mignonette, the odour that she had loved and made her own - whence came
it?

The room had been but carelessly set in order. Scattered upon the
flimsy dresser scarf were half a dozen hairpins - those discreet,
indistinguishable friends of womankind, feminine of gender, infinite of
mood and uncommunicative of tense. These he ignored, conscious of their
triumphant lack of identity. Ransacking the drawers of the dresser he
came upon a discarded, tiny, ragged handkerchief. He pressed it to his
face. It was racy and insolent with heliotrope; he hurled it to the
floor. In another drawer he found odd buttons, a theatre programme, a
pawnbroker's card, two lost marshmallows, a book on the divination of
dreams. In the last was a woman's black satin hair bow, which halted
him, poised between ice and fire. But the black satin hair-bow also is
femininity's demure, impersonal, common ornament, and tells no tales.

And then he traversed the room like a hound on the scent, skimming the
walls, considering the corners of the bulging matting on his hands and
knees, rummaging mantel and tables, the curtains and hangings, the
drunken cabinet in the corner, for a visible sign, unable to perceive
that she was there beside, around, against, within, above him, clinging
to him, wooing him, calling him so poignantly through the finer senses
that even his grosser ones became cognisant of the call. Once again he
answered loudly: "Yes, dear!" and turned, wild-eyed, to gaze on vacancy,
for he could not yet discern form and colour and love and outstretched
arms in the odour of mignonette. Oh, God! whence that odour, and since
when have odours had a voice to call? Thus he groped.

He burrowed in crevices and corners, and found corks and cigarettes.
These he passed in passive contempt. But once he found in a fold of the
matting a half-smoked cigar, and this he ground beneath his heel with a
green and trenchant oath. He sifted the room from end to end. He found
dreary and ignoble small records of many a peripatetic tenant; but of
her whom he sought, and who may have lodged there, and whose spirit
seemed to hover there, he found no trace.

And then he thought of the housekeeper.

He ran from the haunted room downstairs and to a door that showed a
crack of light. She came out to his knock. He smothered his excitement
as best he could.

"Will you tell me, madam," he besought her, "who occupied the room I
have before I came?"

"Yes, sir. I can tell you again. 'Twas Sprowls and Mooney, as I said.
Miss B'retta Sprowls it was in the theatres, but Missis Mooney she was.
My house is well known for respectability. The marriage certificate
hung, framed, on a nail over - "

"What kind of a lady was Miss Sprowls - in looks, I mean?"

"Why, black-haired, sir, short, and stout, with a comical face. They left
a week ago Tuesday."

"And before they occupied it?"

"Why, there was a single gentleman connected with the draying business.
He left owing me a week. Before him was Missis Crowder and her two
children, that stayed four months; and back of them was old Mr. Doyle,
whose sons paid for him. He kept the room six months. That goes back a
year, sir, and further I do not remember."

He thanked her and crept back to his room. The room was dead. The
essence that had vivified it was gone. The perfume of mignonette
had departed. In its place was the old, stale odour of mouldy house
furniture, of atmosphere in storage.

The ebbing of his hope drained his faith. He sat staring at the yellow,
singing gaslight. Soon he walked to the bed and began to tear the sheets
into strips. With the blade of his knife he drove them tightly into
every crevice around windows and door. When all was snug and taut he
turned out the light, turned the gas full on again and laid himself
gratefully upon the bed.


* * * * * *


It was Mrs. McCool's night to go with the can for beer. So she fetched
it and sat with Mrs. Purdy in one of those subterranean retreats where
house-keepers foregather and the worm dieth seldom.

"I rented out my third floor, back, this evening," said Mrs. Purdy,
across a fine circle of foam. "A young man took it. He went up to bed
two hours ago."

"Now, did ye, Mrs. Purdy, ma'am?" said Mrs. McCool, with intense
admiration. "You do be a wonder for rentin' rooms of that kind. And
did ye tell him, then?" she concluded in a husky whisper, laden with
mystery.

"Rooms," said Mrs. Purdy, in her furriest tones, "are furnished for to
rent. I did not tell him, Mrs. McCool."

"'Tis right ye are, ma'am; 'tis by renting rooms we kape alive. Ye have
the rale sense for business, ma'am. There be many people will rayjict
the rentin' of a room if they be tould a suicide has been after dyin'
in the bed of it."

"As you say, we has our living to be making," remarked Mrs. Purdy.

"Yis, ma'am; 'tis true. 'Tis just one wake ago this day I helped ye lay
out the third floor, back. A pretty slip of a colleen she was to be
killin' herself wid the gas - a swate little face she had, Mrs. Purdy,
ma'am."

"She'd a-been called handsome, as you say," said Mrs. Purdy, assenting
but critical, "but for that mole she had a-growin' by her left eyebrow.
Do fill up your glass again, Mrs. McCool."





THE BRIEF DÉBUT OF TILDY


If you do not know Bogle's Chop House and Family Restaurant it is your
loss. For if you are one of the fortunate ones who dine expensively you
should be interested to know how the other half consumes provisions. And
if you belong to the half to whom waiters' checks are things of moment,
you should know Bogle's, for there you get your money's worth - in
quantity, at least.

Bogle's is situated in that highway of _bourgeoisie_, that boulevard of
Brown-Jones-and-Robinson, Eighth Avenue. There are two rows of tables in
the room, six in each row. On each table is a caster-stand, containing
cruets of condiments and seasons. From the pepper cruet you may shake a
cloud of something tasteless and melancholy, like volcanic dust. From
the salt cruet you may expect nothing. Though a man should extract a
sanguinary stream from the pallid turnip, yet will his prowess be balked
when he comes to wrest salt from Bogle's cruets. Also upon each table
stands the counterfeit of that benign sauce made "from the recipe of a
nobleman in India."

At the cashier's desk sits Bogle, cold, sordid, slow, smouldering, and
takes your money. Behind a mountain of toothpicks he makes your change,
files your check, and ejects at you, like a toad, a word about the
weather. Beyond a corroboration of his meteorological statement you
would better not venture. You are not Bogle's friend; you are a fed,
transient customer, and you and he may not meet again until the blowing
of Gabriel's dinner horn. So take your change and go - to the devil if
you like. There you have Bogle's sentiments.

The needs of Bogle's customers were supplied by two waitresses and a
Voice. One of the waitresses was named Aileen. She was tall, beautiful,
lively, gracious and learned in persiflage. Her other name? There
was no more necessity for another name at Bogle's than there was for
finger-bowls.

The name of the other waitress was Tildy. Why do you suggest Matilda?
Please listen this time - Tildy - Tildy. Tildy was dumpy, plain-faced, and
too anxious to please to please. Repeat the last clause to yourself once
or twice, and make the acquaintance of the duplicate infinite.

The Voice at Bogle's was invisible. It came from the kitchen, and
did not shine in the way of originality. It was a heathen Voice, and
contented itself with vain repetitions of exclamations emitted by the
waitresses concerning food.

Will it tire you to be told again that Aileen was beautiful? Had she
donned a few hundred dollars' worth of clothes and joined the Easter
parade, and had you seen her, you would have hastened to say so
yourself.

The customers at Bogle's were her slaves. Six tables full she could wait
upon at once. They who were in a hurry restrained their impatience for
the joy of merely gazing upon her swiftly moving, graceful figure. They
who had finished eating ate more that they might continue in the light
of her smiles. Every man there - and they were mostly men - tried to make
his impression upon her.

Aileen could successfully exchange repartee against a dozen at once. And
every smile that she sent forth lodged, like pellets from a scatter-gun,
in as many hearts. And all this while she would be performing
astounding feats with orders of pork and beans, pot roasts, ham-and,
sausage-and-the-wheats, and any quantity of things on the iron and in
the pan and straight up and on the side. With all this feasting and
flirting and merry exchange of wit Bogle's came mighty near being a
salon, with Aileen for its Madame Récamier.

If the transients were entranced by the fascinating Aileen, the
regulars were her adorers. There was much rivalry among many of the
steady customers. Aileen could have had an engagement every evening.
At least twice a week some one took her to a theatre or to a dance.
One stout gentleman whom she and Tildy had privately christened "The
Hog" presented her with a turquoise ring. Another one known as
"Freshy," who rode on the Traction Company's repair wagon, was going
to give her a poodle as soon as his brother got the hauling contract
in the Ninth. And the man who always ate spareribs and spinach and
said he was a stock broker asked her to go to "Parsifal" with him.

"I don't know where this place is," said Aileen while talking it over
with Tildy, "but the wedding-ring's got to be on before I put a
stitch into a travelling dress - ain't that right? Well, I guess!"

But, Tildy!

In steaming, chattering, cabbage-scented Bogle's there was almost a
heart tragedy. Tildy with the blunt nose, the hay-coloured hair, the
freckled skin, the bag-o'-meal figure, had never had an admirer. Not
a man followed her with his eyes when she went to and fro in the
restaurant save now and then when they glared with the beast-hunger
for food. None of them bantered her gaily to coquettish interchanges
of wit. None of them loudly "jollied" her of mornings as they did
Aileen, accusing her, when the eggs were slow in coming, of late
hours in the company of envied swains. No one had ever given her a
turquoise ring or invited her upon a voyage to mysterious, distant
"Parsifal."

Tildy was a good waitress, and the men tolerated her. They who sat
at her tables spoke to her briefly with quotations from the bill of
fare; and then raised their voices in honeyed and otherwise-flavoured
accents, eloquently addressed to the fair Aileen. They writhed in
their chairs to gaze around and over the impending form of Tildy,
that Aileen's pulchritude might season and make ambrosia of their
bacon and eggs.

And Tildy was content to be the unwooed drudge if Aileen could
receive the flattery and the homage. The blunt nose was loyal to the
short Grecian. She was Aileen's friend; and she was glad to see her
rule hearts and wean the attention of men from smoking pot-pie and
lemon meringue. But deep below our freckles and hay-coloured hair
the unhandsomest of us dream of a prince or a princess, not
vicarious, but coming to us alone.

There was a morning when Aileen tripped in to work with a slightly
bruised eye; and Tildy's solicitude was almost enough to heal any
optic.

"Fresh guy," explained Aileen, "last night as I was going home at
Twenty-third and Sixth. Sashayed up, so he did, and made a break.
I turned him down, cold, and he made a sneak; but followed me down to
Eighteenth, and tried his hot air again. Gee! but I slapped him a
good one, side of the face. Then he give me that eye. Does it look
real awful, Til? I should hate that Mr. Nicholson should see it when
he comes in for his tea and toast at ten."

Tildy listened to the adventure with breathless admiration. No man
had ever tried to follow her. She was safe abroad at any hour of the
twenty-four. What bliss it must have been to have had a man follow
one and black one's eye for love!

Among the customers at Bogle's was a young man named Seeders, who
worked in a laundry office. Mr. Seeders was thin and had light hair,
and appeared to have been recently rough-dried and starched. He was
too diffident to aspire to Aileen's notice; so he usually sat at one
of Tildy's tables, where he devoted himself to silence and boiled
weakfish.

One day when Mr. Seeders came in to dinner he had been drinking beer.
There were only two or three customers in the restaurant. When Mr.
Seeders had finished his weakfish he got up, put his arm around
Tildy's waist, kissed her loudly and impudently, walked out upon the
street, snapped his fingers in the direction of the laundry, and hied
himself to play pennies in the slot machines at the Amusement Arcade.

For a few moments Tildy stood petrified. Then she was aware of
Aileen shaking at her an arch forefinger, and saying:

"Why, Til, you naughty girl! Ain't you getting to be awful, Miss
Slyboots! First thing I know you'll be stealing some of my fellows.
I must keep an eye on you, my lady."

Another thing dawned upon Tildy's recovering wits. In a moment she
had advanced from a hopeless, lowly admirer to be an Eve-sister of
the potent Aileen. She herself was now a man-charmer, a mark for
Cupid, a Sabine who must be coy when the Romans were at their banquet
boards. Man had found her waist achievable and her lips desirable.
The sudden and amatory Seeders had, as it were, performed for her a
miraculous piece of one-day laundry work. He had taken the sackcloth
of her uncomeliness, had washed, dried, starched and ironed it, and
returned it to her sheer embroidered lawn - the robe of Venus herself.

The freckles on Tildy's cheeks merged into a rosy flush. Now both
Circe and Psyche peeped from her brightened eyes. Not even Aileen
herself had been publicly embraced and kissed in the restaurant.

Tildy could not keep the delightful secret. When trade was slack she
went and stood at Bogle's desk. Her eyes were shining; she tried not
to let her words sound proud and boastful.

"A gentleman insulted me to-day," she said. "He hugged me around the
waist and kissed me."

"That so?" said Bogle, cracking open his business armour. "After
this week you get a dollar a week more."

At the next regular meal when Tildy set food before customers with
whom she had acquaintance she said to each of them modestly, as one
whose merit needed no bolstering:

"A gentleman insulted me to-day in the restaurant. He put his arm
around my waist and kissed me."

The diners accepted the revelation in various ways - some
incredulously, some with congratulations; others turned upon her the
stream of badinage that had hitherto been directed at Aileen alone.
And Tildy's heart swelled in her bosom, for she saw at last the
towers of Romance rise above the horizon of the grey plain in which
she had for so long travelled.

For two days Mr. Seeders came not again. During that time Tildy
established herself firmly as a woman to be wooed. She bought
ribbons, and arranged her hair like Aileen's, and tightened her waist
two inches. She had a thrilling but delightful fear that Mr. Seeders
would rush in suddenly and shoot her with a pistol. He must have
loved her desperately; and impulsive lovers are always blindly
jealous.

Even Aileen had not been shot at with a pistol. And then Tildy
rather hoped that he would not shoot at her, for she was always loyal
to Aileen; and she did not want to overshadow her friend.

At 4 o'clock on the afternoon of the third day Mr. Seeders came in.
There were no customers at the tables. At the back end of the
restaurant Tildy was refilling the mustard pots and Aileen was
quartering pies. Mr. Seeders walked back to where they stood.

Tildy looked up and saw him, gasped, and pressed the mustard spoon
against her heart. A red hair-bow was in her hair; she wore Venus's
Eighth Avenue badge, the blue bead necklace with the swinging silver
symbolic heart.

Mr. Seeders was flushed and embarrassed. He plunged one hand into
his hip pocket and the other into a fresh pumpkin pie.

"Miss Tildy," said he, "I want to apologise for what I done the other
evenin'. Tell you the truth, I was pretty well tanked up or I
wouldn't of done it. I wouldn't do no lady that a-way when I was
sober. So I hope, Miss Tildy, you'll accept my 'pology, and believe
that I wouldn't of done it if I'd known what I was doin' and hadn't
of been drunk."

With this handsome plea Mr. Seeders backed away, and departed,
feeling that reparation had been made.

But behind the convenient screen Tildy had thrown herself flat upon
a table among the butter chips and the coffee cups, and was sobbing
her heart out - out and back again to the grey plain wherein travel
they with blunt noses and hay-coloured hair. From her knot she had
torn the red hair-bow and cast it upon the floor. Seeders she
despised utterly; she had but taken his kiss as that of a pioneer and
prophetic prince who might have set the clocks going and the pages to
running in fairyland. But the kiss had been maudlin and unmeant; the
court had not stirred at the false alarm; she must forevermore remain
the Sleeping Beauty.

Yet not all was lost. Aileen's arm was around her; and Tildy's red
hand groped among the butter chips till it found the warm clasp of
her friend's.

"Don't you fret, Til," said Aileen, who did not understand entirely.
"That turnip-faced little clothespin of a Seeders ain't worth it. He
ain't anything of a gentleman or he wouldn't ever of apologised."



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Online LibraryO. HenryThe Four Million → online text (page 12 of 12)