Stories by American Authors, Volume 8 online

. (page 5 of 12)
Online LibraryVariousStories by American Authors, Volume 8 → online text (page 5 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

before the bishop I'll see that you get the right send-off.' In short,
here I am! My uncle died two years after, when I was already in
orders, and I've been here ever since."

"I should think you would get lonely sometimes, and make a strike for
a city parish," I suggested.

"Why - no, I don't think I should care for ordinary parish work. The
beauty of my position here is its uniqueness. In winter I keep the
church open for the Aborigines till they get snowed up and stop
coming, and then I put down to New York for a month or two of work at
the Astor Library. Last winter I held service for two Sundays running
with one boy for congregation. Finally I announced to him that the
church would be closed until spring."

"What in the - - : well, what do you find to do all alone up here?"

"Oh, there's always plenty to do, if you'll only do it. I've been
cultivating some virtuosities, among other things. Remind me to show
you my etchings when we go in. Did you notice, perhaps, that little
head over the table, on the north wall? No? Then I smatter botany
some. I'll let you look over my _hortus siccus_ before you go. It has
some very rare ferns; one of them is a new species, and Fungus - who
exchanges with me - swore that he was going to have it named after me.
I sent the first specimen to have it described in his forthcoming
report. But doubtless all this sort of thing is a bore to you. Well,
lately I have been going into genealogy, and I find it more and more
absorbing. Those piles of blank-books and manuscripts on the floor at
the south end are all crammed with genealogical notes and material."

"I should think you would find it pretty dry fodder," I said.

"That is because you take an outside, unsympathetic view of it. Now,
to an amateur it's anything but dry. There is as much excitement in
hunting down a missing link in a pedigree that you have been on the
trail of for a long time, as there is in the chase of any other kind
of game."

"Do you ever get across the water? Travel, if I remember right, played
a large part in your scheme of life once."

"Yes; I've been over once, for a few months. But my income, though
very comfortable for the statics of existence, is rather short for the
dynamics, and so I mostly stay at home."

"Did you meet any interesting people over there? Any of the crowned
heads, famous wits, etc., whom you once proposed to cultivate?"

"No; nobody in particular. I went in a very quiet way. I had some good
letters to people in England, but I didn't present them. The idea of
introductions became a bore as I got nearer to it."

"And, of course, you didn't elope with the marquise?"

"Was that in my scheme? Well - no, I did not."

"You might have done worse, old man. You ought to have a wife, to keep
you from getting rusty up here. And, besides, a fellow that goes so
much into genealogy should take some interest in posterity. You ought
to cultivate the science practically."

"Oh, I'm past all danger of matrimony now," said Berkeley, with a
laugh. "There was a girl that I was rather sweet on a few years ago. I
was looking up a pedigree for her papa, and I found that I was related
to her myself, in eight different ways, though none of them very near.
I explained it to her one evening. It took me an hour to do it, and I
fancy she thought it a little slow. At all events, when I afterward
hinted that we might make the eight ways nine, she answered that our
relationship was so intricate already that she couldn't think of
complicating it any further. No, you may put me down as safe."

After this, we sat listening in silence to the distant beat of
paddle-wheels where a steamer was moving up river.

"The river is a deal of company," resumed my host. "Thirty-six
steamers pass here every twenty-four hours. That now is the _Mary

"Well," I said, answering not so much to his last remark as to the
whole trend of his autobiography, "I suppose you are happy in this
way of life, since you seem to prefer it. But it would be terribly
monotonous to me."

"Happy?" replied Berkeley, doubtfully. "I don't know. Happiness is a
subjective matter. You _are_ happy if you think yourself so. As for
me, I cultivate an obsolete mood - the old-fashioned humor of
melancholy. I don't suppose now that a light-hearted, French kind of
chap like you can understand, in the least, what those fine, crusty
old Elizabethans meant when they wrote,

'There's naught in this life sweet,
If man were wise to see't,
But only melancholy.'

This noisy generation has lost their secret. As for me, I am content
with the grays and drabs. I think the brighter colors would disturb my
mood. I know it's not a large life, but it is a safe one."

I did not at the moment remember that this had been Armstrong's very
saying fifteen years ago, but some unconscious association led me to
mention him.

"Armstrong and you have changed places in one respect, I should
think," said I. "He is keeping a boarding-school somewhere in
Connecticut. And instead of leading a Tulkinghorny existence in the
New York University building, as he firmly intended, he has married
and produced a numerous offspring, I hear."

"Yes, poor fellow!" said Berkeley; "I fancy that he is dreadfully
overrun and hard up. There always was something absurdly domestic
about Armstrong. They say he has grown red, fat, and bald. Think of a
man with Armstrong's education - and he had some talent, too - keeping a
sort of Dotheboys Hall! I haven't seen him for eight or nine years.
The last time was at Jersey City, and I had just time to shake hands
with him. He was with a lot of other pedagogues, all going up to a
teachers' convention, or some such dreary thing, at Albany."

I had an opportunity for verifying Berkeley's account of Armstrong a
few days after my conversation with the former. The Pestalozzian
Institute, in the pleasant little village of Thimbleville, was
situated, as its prospectus informed the public, on "one of the most
elegant residence streets, in one of the healthiest and most beautiful
rural towns of Eastern Connecticut." Over the entrance gate was a
Roman arch bearing the inscription "Pestalozzian Institute" in large
gilt letters. The temple of learning itself was a big, bare, white
house at some distance from the street, with an orchard and kitchen
garden on one side, and a roomy play-ground on the other. The latter
was in possession of some small boys, who were kicking a broken-winded
foot-ball about the field with an amount of noise greatly in excess of
its occasion. To my question where I could find Mr. Armstrong, they
answered eagerly: "Mr. Armstrong? Yes, sir. You go right into the
hall, and knock on the first door to the right, and he'll come - or
some one."

The door to the large square entry stood wide open, and through
another door opposite, which was ajar, I saw long tables, and heard
the clatter of dishes being removed, while a strong smell of dinner
filled the air. I knocked at the door on the right, but no one
appeared. Finally, a chubby girl of about ten summers came running
round the corner of the house and into the front door. She was eating
an apple, and gazed at me wonderingly.

"Is Mr. Armstrong in?" I asked.

"Yes, sir; he's about somewhere. Walk into the parlor, please, and sit
down, and I'll find him."

I entered the room on the right, which was a bleak and
official-looking apartment, - apparently the reception-room where
parents held interviews with the instructor of youth, or tore
themselves from the parting embraces of homesick sons at the beginning
of a new term. There is always something depressing about the parlor
of an "institution" of any kind, and I could not help feeling sorry
for Armstrong, as I waited for him, seated on a sofa covered with
faded rep. At length the door of an inner room opened, and the
principal of the Pestalozzian Institute waddled across the floor
with his hand held out, crying:

"Franky Polisson, how are you?"

He certainly had grown stout, and his light hair had retreated from
the forehead. He wore glasses and was dressed in a suit of rusty
black, with a high vest which gave him a ministerial look - a much more
ministerial look than Berkeley had. His pantaloons presented that
appearance which tailors describe as "kneeing out." He sat down and we
chatted for half an hour. The little girl had followed him into the
room, and behind her came another three or four years her junior. The
older one stood by his side, and he kept his arm around her, while he
held the younger on his knee. They were both pretty, healthy-looking
children, and kept their eyes fixed on "the man."

"Are those your own kids?" I inquired presently.

"Yes, two of them. I have six, you know," he answered, with a fond
sigh: "five girls and one boy. The lasses are rather in the majority."

"I heard you were quite a _paterfamilias_," I said. "Won't you come
and kiss me, little girl?"

To this proposal the elder answered by burying her head bashfully in
her father's shoulder, while the smaller one simply opened her eyes
wider and stared with more fixed intensity.

"Oh, by the way," exclaimed Armstrong, "of course you'll take tea with
us and spend the evening. I wish I could offer to sleep you here; but
the fact is, Mrs. Armstrong's sister is with us for a few days, and
the parents of one of my boys, who is sick, are also staying here; so
that my guest chambers are full."

"Don't mention it," I said. "I couldn't stay over night. I've got to
be in New York in the morning, and must take the nine-o'clock train.
But I'll stay to supper and much obliged, if you are sure I sha'n't
take up too much of your time."

"Not the least - not the least. This is a half holiday, and nothing in
particular to do." He bustled to the door and called out loudly,
"Mother! Mother!"

There was no response.

"Nelly," he commanded, "run and find your mamma, and tell her that Mr.
Polisson - from New Orleans - an old classmate of papa's, will be here
to tea. That's a good girl. Polisson, put on your hat and let's go
round the place. I want to show you what an establishment I've got

We accordingly made the tour of the premises, Armstrong doing the
cicerone impressively, and every now and then urging me with emphatic
hospitality to come and spend a week - a fortnight - longer, if I chose,
during the summer vacation.

"Bring Mrs. Polisson and the kids. Bring 'em all," he said. "It will
do them good; the air here is fine; eleven hundred feet above the sea.
No malaria - no typhoid. I laid out four hundred dollars last year on

It being a half holiday, most of the big boys had gone to a pond in
the neighborhood for a swim, under the conduct of the classical
master, - a Yale graduate, Armstrong explained, who had stood fourth
in his class, "and a very able fellow, - very able."

But while we sat at tea in Armstrong's family dining-room, which
adjoined the school commons, we were made aware of the return of the
swimming party by the constant shuffle and tramp of feet through the
hall and the noise of feeding in the next room. At our table were
present Mrs. Armstrong, her sister (who had a frightened air when
addressed and conversed in monosyllables), the parents of the sick
pupil, and Armstrong's two eldest children. I surmised that the
younger children had been in the habit of sharing in the social meal,
and had been crowded out on this occasion by the number of guests; for
I heard them _fremunt_ing _in carcere_ behind a door through which
the waitress passed out and in, bringing plates of waffles. The
remonstrances of the waitress were also audible, and, when the wailing
rose high, my hostess's face had a distrait expression, as of one
prepared at any moment for an irruption of infant Goths.

Mrs. Armstrong was a vivacious little woman, who, I conjectured, had
once been a village belle, with some pretensions to _espi├Ęglerie_ and
the fragile prettiness common among New England country girls. But the
bearing and rearing of a family of children, and the matronizing of a
houseful of hungry school-boys in such a way as to make ends meet, had
substituted a faded and worried look for her natural liveliness of
expression. She bore up bravely, however, against the embarrassments
of the occasion. In particular, it pleased her to take a facetious
view of college life.

"Oh, Mr. Polisson," she cried, "I am afraid that you and my husband
were very gay young men when you were at college together. Oh, don't
tell me; I know - I know. I've heard of some of your scrapes."

I protested feebly against this impeachment, but Armstrong winked at
me with the air of a sly dog, and said:

"It's no use, Polisson. You can't fool Mrs. A. Buckingham and one or
two of the fellows have been here to dinner occasionally, and I'm
afraid they've given us away."

"Yes," she affirmed, "Mr. Buckingham was one of you too, I guess,
though he _is_ the Rev. Mr. Buckingham now. Oh, he has told me."

"You remember old Buck?" put in Armstrong. "He is preaching near
here - settled over a church at Bobtown."

"Yes," I answered, "I remember there was such a man in the class, but
really I didn't know that he was - ah - such a character as you seem to
infer, Mrs. Armstrong."

"Oh, he has quieted down now, I assure you," said the lady. "He is as
prim and proper as a Methodist meeting-house. Why, he _has_ to be, you

This amusing fiction of the wildness of Armstrong's youth had
evidently become a family tradition, and even, by a familiar process,
an article of belief in his own mind. It reminded me grotesquely of
_Justice Shallow's_ reminiscences with _Sir John Falstaff_: "Ha,
Cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that, that this knight and I have
seen.... Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent!"

The resemblance became still stronger when, as we rose from the table,
the good fellow beckoned me into a closet which opened off the
dining-room, saying, in a hoarse whisper:

"Here, Polisson, come in here."

He was uncorking a large bottle half-filled with some red liquid, and
as he poured a portion of this into two glasses he explained:

"I don't have this sort of thing on the table, you understand, on
account of the children and my - ah - position. It would make talk.
But I tell you this is some of the real old stuff. How!" And he
held his glass up to the light, regarding it with the one eye of a
connoisseur, and then drank down its contents with a smack. I was
considerably astonished, on doing the same, to discover that this dark
beverage - which, from Armstrong's manner, I had been prepared to find
something at least as wicked as absinthe - was simply and solely
Bordeaux of a mild quality. After this Bacchanalian proceeding we went
out into the orchard, which was reserved for family use, and sat on a
bench under an apple-tree. Armstrong called his little boy who had
been at supper with us and gave him a whispered message, together
with some small change. The messenger disappeared, and after a short
absence returned with two very domestic cigars, transparently bought
for the nonce from some neighboring grocer. "Have a smoke," commanded
my host, and we solemnly kindled the rolls of yellow leaf, Armstrong
puffing away at his with the air of a man who, though intrusted by
destiny with the responsibility of molding the characters of youth,
has not forgotten how to be a man of the world on occasion.

"Well, Charley," I began, after a few preliminary draughts, "you seem
to have a good thing of it. Your school is prosperous, I understand;
the work suits you; you have a mighty pretty family of children
growing up, and your health appears to be perfect."

"Yes," he admitted; "I suppose I ought to be thankful. I certainly
enjoy great mercies. It's a warm, crowded kind of life; plenty of
affection, - plenty of anxiety too, to be sure. I like to have the boys
around me; it keeps one's heart fresh, though in a way it's sometimes
wearing to the nerves. Yes, I like the young rascals - I like them.
But, of course, it has its drawbacks. Most careers have," he added, in
a burst of commonplace.

"It is not exactly the career that you had cut out for yourself," I
suggested, "when we talked our plans over, you remember, that last
evening at New Haven."

"No, it's not," he acknowledged; "but perhaps it is a better one. What
was it I said then? I really don't recall it. Something very silly,
no doubt."

"Oh, you said, in a general way, that you were going in for money and
celibacy and selfishness, - just as you have _not_ done."

"Yes, yes; I know, I remember now," he said, laughing. "Boys are great
fools with their brag of what they are going to do and be. Life knocks
it out of them fast enough; they learn to do what they must."

"Do you ever write any poetry nowadays?"

"No, no; not I. The muse has given me the go-by completely. Except for
some occasional verses for a school festival or something of the kind,
which I grind out now and then, I've sunk my rhyming dictionary deeper
than ever plummet sounded. The chief disadvantage of running a big
school like this," he continued, with a sigh, "is the want of leisure
and retirement to enable a man to keep up his studies. Sometimes I
actually ache for solitude - for a few weeks or months of absolute
loneliness and silence. Mrs. Armstrong has fixed me up a nice little
private study, - remind me to take you in there before you go, - where I
keep my books, etc. But the children will find their way in, and then
I'm seldom undisturbed anywhere for more than an hour at a time;
there's always some call on me, - something wanted that no one else can
see to."

"You ought to swap places with Berkeley for awhile. He's got more
leisure than he knows what to do with."

"Berkeley! Well, what's he up to now? Philately? Arboriculture? What's
his last fad? You've seen him lately, you said. I met him for a minute
in New York, a few years ago, and he told me he was going to an old
book auction."

"He's got genealogy at present," I explained.

"Genealogy! What hay! What sawdust! Aren't there enough live people to
take an interest in, without grubbing up dead ones from tombstones
and town clerks' records? Berkeley must be a regular old bachelor
antiquary by this time, with all human sympathy dried out of him. No,
I wouldn't change with _him_. Would we, fatty?" he said, appealing to
a small offspring of uncertain sex which had just toddled out the door
and across the gangway to kiss its papa good-night.

I took leave of Armstrong and his interesting family with a sense of
increased liking. His worldliness, good nature, and simple little
enthusiasms and self-satisfactions had somehow kept him young, and he
seemed quite the old Armstrong of college days. I afterward learned
that the excellent fellow had just finished his law studies, and was
preparing to enter upon practice, when his father's health failed,
forcing him to give up his parish, and leaving a number of younger
brothers and sisters partly dependent on Armstrong. He had accordingly
taken the first situation that promised a fair salary, and, having got
started upon the work of teaching, had been unable to let go until it
was too late; had, indeed, got deeper and deeper in, by falling in
love and impulsively marrying at the first opportunity, and finally
setting up for himself at the Pestalozzian Institute. Poor fellow!
Good fellow! _Amico mio, non della fortuna._

My next call was upon Clay, who had rooms in the Babel building in New
York, and was reported to be something of a Bohemian. He received me
in a smoking jacket and slippers. He had grown a full beard which hid
his finely cut features. His black eyes had the old fire, but his
skin was sallower, and I thought that his manner had a touch of
listlessness mingled with irritability and defiance. He was glad to
see me; but inclined to be at first, not precisely distant, yet by
no means confidential. After awhile, however, he thawed out and
became more like the Clay whom I remembered - our college genius, the
brilliant, the admired, in those days of eager hero-worship. I told
him of my visits to Berkeley and Armstrong.

"Berkeley I see now and then in town," said Clay. "It was rather queer
of him to turn parson, but I guess he doesn't let his theology bother
him much. He has a really superior collection of etchings, I am told.
Armstrong I haven't seen for years. I knew he was a pedagogue
somewhere in Connecticut."

"Don't you ever go to the class reunions?" I asked.

"Class reunions? Well, hardly."

"I should think you would; you are so near New Haven."

"How charmingly provincial you are - you Southern chaps! Don't you know
that, to a man who lives in New York, nothing is near? Besides, as to
my classmates at old Yale and all that, I would go round a corner to
avoid meeting most of them."

I expressed myself as duly shocked by this sentiment, and presently I

"Well, Clay, how are you getting on, anyway?"

"That's a d - - general question. How do you want me to answer it?"

"Oh, not at all, if you don't like."

"Well, don't get miffed. Suppose I answer, 'Pretty well, I thank you,
sir.' How will that do?"

"Are you writing anything now?"

"I'm always scribbling something or other. At present, I've got the
position of dramatic critic on the 'Daily Boreas,' which is not a very
bad bore, and keeps the pot boiling. And I do more or less work of a
hack kind for the magazines and cyclopedias, etc."

"I thought you were on the 'Weekly Prig.' Berkeley or somebody told me

"So I was at one time, but I got out of it. The work was drying me
up too fast. The concern is run by a lot of cusses who have failed
in various branches of literature themselves, and undertake, in
consequence, to make it unpleasant for every one else who tries to
write anything. I got so that I could sling as cynical a quill as the
rest of them. But the trick is an easy one and hardly worth learning.
It's a great fraud, this business of reviewing. Here's a man of
learning, for instance, who has spent years of research on a
particular work. He has collected a large library, perhaps, on his
subject; knows more about it than any one else living. Then along
comes some insolent little whipper-snapper, - like me, - whose sole
knowledge of the matter in hand is drawn from the very book that he
pretends to criticise, and patronizes the learned author in a book
notice. No, I got out of it; I hadn't the cheek."

"I bought your book,"[A] said I, "as soon as it came out."

[Footnote A: Dialogues and Romances. By E. Clay. New York: Pater &
Sons, 1874.]

"That's more than the public did."

"Yes, and I read it, too."

"No! Did you, now? That's true friendship. Well, how did you like it?
Did you get your money's worth?"

I hesitated a moment and then answered:

"It was clever, of course. Anything that you write would be sure to be
that. But it didn't appear to get down to hard-pan or to take a firm
grip on life - did it?"

"Ah, that's what the critics said, - only they've got a set of phrases
for expressing it. They said it was amateurish, that it was in a
falsetto key, etc."

"Well, how does it strike you, yourself? You know that it didn't come
out of the deep places of your nature, don't you? You feel that you've
got better behind?"

"Oh, I don't know. A man does what he can. I rather think it's the
best I can do at present."

"Why don't you go at some more serious work; some _magnum opus_ that
would bring your whole strength into play?"

"A _magnum opus_, my dear fellow!" replied Clay, with a shade of
irritation in his voice. "You talk as if a _magnum opus_ could be done
for the wishing. Why don't _you_ do a _magnum opus_, then?"

"Why don't _I_? Oh, I'm not a literary fellow - never professed to be.
What a question!"

"Well, no more am I, perhaps. I don't think any better of the stuff
that I scribble than you do. It's all an experiment with me. I'm
trying my brushes - trying my brushes. Perhaps I may be able to do
something stronger some day, and perhaps not. But at all events I
sha'n't force my mood. I shall wait for my inspiration. One thing I've
noticed, that as a man grows older he loses his spontaneity and gets
more critical with himself. I could do more, no doubt, if I would only
let myself go. But I'm like this meerschaum here, - a hard piece and
slow in coloring."

"Well, meanwhile you might do something in the line of scholarship, a
history or a volume of critical essays - 'Hours with the Poets,' or
something of that kind, that would bring in the results of your
reading. Have you seen Brainard's book? It seemed to me work that was

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryVariousStories by American Authors, Volume 8 → online text (page 5 of 12)