Copyright
Jennette Barbour Perry Lee.

Mr. Achilles online

. (page 1 of 9)
Online LibraryJennette Barbour Perry LeeMr. Achilles → online text (page 1 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Dagny; John Bickers





MR. ACHILLES


By Jennette Lee


1912



To GERALD STANLEY LEE

"To keep the youth of souls who pitch
Their joy in this old heart of things;

Full lasting is the song, though he,
The singer, passes; lasting too,
For souls not lent in usury,
The rapture of the forward view."




MR. ACHILLES




I

ACHILLES GOES TO CHICAGO

Achilles Alexandrakis was arranging the fruit on his stall in front of
his little shop on Clark Street. It was a clear, breezy morning, cool
for October, but not cold enough to endanger the fruit that Achilles
handled so deftly in his dark, slender fingers. As he built the oranges
into their yellow pyramid and grouped about them figs and dates, melons
and pears, and grapes and pineapples, a look of content held his face.
This was the happiest moment of his day.

Already, half an hour ago Alcibiades and Yaxis had departed with their
pushcarts, one to the north and one to the south, calling antiphonally
as they went, in clear, high voices that came fainter and fainter to
Achilles among his fruit.

They would not return until night, and then they would come with empty
carts, and jingling in their pockets coppers and nickels and dimes. The
breath of a sigh escaped Achilles's lips as he stood back surveying the
stall. Something very like homesickness was in his heart. He had almost
fancied for a minute that he was back once more in Athens. He raised his
eyes and gave a quick, deep glance up and down the street - soot and
dirt and grime, frowning buildings and ugly lines, and overhead a meagre
strip of sky. Over Athens the sky hung glorious, a curve of light from
side to side. His soul flew wide to meet it. Once more he was swinging
along the "Street of the Winds," his face lifted to the Parthenon on
its Acropolis, his nostrils breathing the clear air. Chicago had
dropped from him like a garment, his soul rose and floated.... Athens
everywhere - column and cornice, and long, delicate lines, and colour of
marble and light. He drew a full, sweet breath.


Achilles moved with quick, gliding step, taking orders, filling bags,
making change - always with his dark eyes seeking, a little wistfully,
something that did not come to them.... It was all so different - this
new world. Achilles had been in Chicago six months now, but he had
not yet forgotten a dream that he had dreamed in Athens. Sometimes he
dreamed it still, and then he wondered whether this, about him, were
not all a dream - this pushing, scrambling, picking, hurrying, choosing
crowd, dropping pennies and dimes into his curving palm, swearing softly
at slow change, and flying fast from street to street. It was not thus
in his dream. He had seen a land of new faces, turned ever to the West,
with the light on them. He had known them, in his dream - eager faces,
full of question and quick response. His soul had gone out to them and,
musing in sunny Athens, he had made ready for them. Each morning when
he rose he had lifted his glance to the Parthenon, studying anew the
straight lines - that were yet not straight - the mysterious, dismantled
beauty, the mighty lift of its presence. When they should question him,
in this new land, he must not fail them. They would be hungry for the
beauty of the ancient world - they who had no ruins of their own. He
knew in his heart how it would be with them - the homesickness for the
East - all its wonder and its mystery. Yes, he would carry it to them.
He, Achilles Alexandrakis, should not be found wanting. This new
world was to give him money, wealth, better education for his boys, a
competent old age. But he, too, had something to give in exchange. He
must make himself ready against the great day when he should travel
down the long way of the Piraeus, for the last time, and set sail for
America.

He was in America now. He knew, when he stopped to think, that this was
not a dream. He had been here six months, in the little shop on Clark
Street, but no one had yet asked him of the Parthenon. Sometimes he
thought that they did not know that he was Greek. Perhaps if they knew
that he had been in Athens, had lived there all his life from a boy,
they would question him. The day that he first thought of this, he had
ordered a new sign painted. It bore his name in Greek characters, and
it was beautiful in line and colour. It caused his stand to become known
far and wide as the "Greek Shop," and within a month after it was put up
his trade had doubled - but no one had asked about the Parthenon.

He had really ceased to hope for it now. He only dreamed the dream, a
little wistfully, as he went in and out, and his thought dwelt always on
Athens and her beauty. The images stamped so carefully on his sensitive
brain became his most precious treasures. Over and over he dwelt on
them. Ever in memory his feet climbed the steps to the Acropolis or
walked beneath stately orange-trees, beating a soft rhythm to the
sound of flute and viol. For Achilles was by nature one of the
lightest-hearted of children. In Athens his laugh had been quick to
rise, and fresh as the breath of rustling leaves. It was only here,
under the sooty sky of the narrow street, that his face had grown a
little sad.

At first the days had been full of hope, and the face of each newcomer
had been scanned with eager eyes. The fruit, sold so courteously and
freely, was hardly more than an excuse for the opening of swift talk.
But the talk had never come. There was the inevitable and never-varying,
"How much?" the passing of coin, and hurrying feet. Soon a chill had
crept into the heart of Achilles. They did not ask of Athens. They
did not know that he was Greek. They did not care that his name was
Achilles. They did not see him standing there with waiting eyes. He
might have been a banana on its stem, a fig-leaf against the wall,
the dirt that gritted beneath their feet, for all that their eyes took
note.... Yet they were not cruel or thoughtless. Sometimes there came a
belated response - half surprised, but cordial - to his gentle "good day."
Sometimes a stranger said, "The day is warm," or, "The breeze from the
Lake is cool to-day." Then the eyes of Achilles glowed like soft stars
in their places. Surely now they would speak. They would say, "Is it
thus in Greece?" But they never spoke. And the days hurried their swift
feet through the long, dirty streets.

A tall woman in spectacles was coming toward him, sniffing the air a
little as she moved. "Have you got any bananas?"

"Yes. They nice." He led the way into the shop and reached to the
swinging bunch. "You like some?" he said, encouragingly.

She sniffed a step nearer. "Too ripe," decisively.

"Yes-s. But here and here - " He twirled the bunch skilfully on its
string. "These - not ripe, and these." His sunny smile spread their
gracious acceptableness before her.

She wrinkled her forehead at them. "Well - you might as well cut me off
six."

"A pleasure, madame." He had seized the heavy knife.

"Give me that one." It was a large one near the centre; "and this one
here - and here."

When the six were selected and cut off they were the cream of the
bunch. She eyed him doubtfully, still scowling a little. "Yes. I'll take
these."

The Greek bowed gravely over the coin she dropped into his palm. "Thank
you, madame."

It was later now, and the crowd moved more slowly, with longer pauses
between the buyers.

A boy with a bag of books stopped for an apple. Two children with their
nurse halted a moment, looking at the glowing fruit. The eyes of the
children were full of light and question. Somewhere in their depths
Achilles caught a flitting shadow of the Parthenon. Then the nurse
hurried them on, and they, too, were gone.

He turned away with a little sigh, arranging the fruit in his slow
absent way. Something at the side of the stall caught his eye, a little
movement along the board, in and out through the colour and leaves. He
lifted a leaf to see. It was a green and black caterpillar, crawling
with stately hunch to the back of the stall. Achilles watched him
with gentle eyes. Then he leaned over the stall and reached out a long
finger. The caterpillar, poised in midair, remained swaying back and
forth above the dark obstruction. Slowly it descended and hunched itself
anew along the finger. It travelled up the motionless hand and reached
the sleeve. With a smile on his lips Achilles entered the shop. He
took down an empty fig-box and transferred the treasure to its depths,
dropping in after it one or two leaves and a bit of twig. He fitted the
lid to the box, leaving a little air, and taking the pen from his desk,
wrote across the side in clear Greek letters. Then he placed the box
on the shelf behind him, where the wet ink of the lettering glistened
faintly in the light. It was a bit of the heart of Athens prisoned
there; and many times, through the cold and snow and bitter sleet of
that winter, Achilles took down the fig-box and peered into its depths
at a silky bit of grey cradle swung from the side of the box by its
delicate bands.




II

A BUTTERFLY SPREADS ITS WINGS

It happened, on a Wednesday in May that Madame Lewandowska was ill.
So ill that when Betty Harris, with her demure music-roll in her hand,
tapped at the door of Madame Lewandowska's studio, she found no one
within.

On ordinary days this would not have mattered, for the governess, Miss
Stone, would have been with her, and they would have gone shopping or
sightseeing until the hour was up and James returned. But to-day Miss
Stone, too, was ill, James had departed with the carriage, and Betty
Harris found herself standing, music-roll in hand, at the door of Madame
Lewandowska's studio - alone in the heart of Chicago for the first time
in the twelve years of her life.

It had been a very carefully guarded life, with nurses and servants
and instructors. No little princess was ever more sternly and
conscientiously reared than little Betty Harris, of Chicago. For her
tiny sake, herds of cattle were slaughtered every day; and all over
the land hoofs and hides and by-products and soap-factories lifted
themselves to heaven for Betty Harris. If anything were to happen to
her, the business of a dozen States would quiver to the core.

She tapped the marble floor softly with her foot and pondered. She might
sit here in the hall and wait for James - a whole hour. There was a bench
by the wall. She looked at it doubtfully.... It was not seemly that a
princess should sit waiting for a servant - not even in marble halls.
She glanced about her again. There was probably a telephone
somewhere - perhaps on the ground floor. She could telephone home and
they would send another carriage. Yes, that would be best. She rang the
elevator bell and descended in stately silence. When she stepped out of
the great door of the building she saw, straight before her, the sign
she sought - "Pay Station."

But then something happened to Betty Harris. The spirit of the spring
day caught her and lifted her out of herself. Men were hurrying by with
light step. Little children laughed as they ran. Betty skipped a few
steps and laughed softly with them.... She would walk home. It was not
far. She had often walked as far in the country, and she knew the way
quite well.... And when she looked up again, she stood in front of the
glowing fruit-stall, and Achilles Alexandrakis was regarding her with
deep, sad eyes.

Achilles had been dreaming down the street when the little figure came
in sight. His heart all day had been full of sadness - for the spring in
the air. And all day Athens had haunted his steps - the Athens of dreams.
Once when he had retired into the dark, cool shop, he brushed his sleeve
across his eyes, and then he had stood looking down in surprise at
something that glistened on its worn surface.

Betty Harris looked at him and smiled. She had been so carefully brought
up that she had not learned that some people were her inferiors and must
not be smiled at. She gave him the straight, sweet smile that those who
had cared for her all her life loved so well. Then she gave a little
nod. "I'm walking home," she said.

Achilles leaned forward a little, almost holding his breath lest she
float from him. It was the very spirit of Athens - democratic, cultured,
naive. He gave her the salute of his country. She smiled again. Then her
eye fell on the tray of pomegranates near the edge of the stall - round
and pink. She reached out a hand. "I have never seen these," she said,
slowly. "What are they?"

"Pomegranates - Yes - you like some? I give you."

He disappeared into the shop and Betty followed him, looking about with
clear, interested eyes. It was like no place she had ever seen - this
cool, dark room, with its tiers on tiers of fruit, and the fragrant,
spicy smell, and the man with the sad, kind face. Her quick eye
paused - arrested by the word printed on a box on the shelf to the
right.... Ah, that was it! She knew now quite well. He was a Greek man.
She knew the letters; She had studied Greek for six months; but she did
not know this word. She was still spelling it out when Achilles returned
with the small box of pomegranates in his hand.

She looked up slowly. "I can't quite make it out," she said.

"That?" Achilles's face was alight. "That is Greek."

She nodded. "I know. I study it; but what is it - the word?"

"The word! - Ah, yes, it is - How you say? You shall see."

He reached out a hand to the box. But the child stopped him. A quick
thought had come to her. "You have been in Athens, haven't you? I want
to ask you something, please."

The hand dropped from the box. The man turned about, waiting. If heaven
were to open to him now - !

"I've always wanted to see a Greek man," said the child, slowly, "a real
Greek man. I've wanted to ask him something he would know about.
Have you ever seen the Parthenon?" She put the question with quaint
seriousness.

A light came into the eyes of Achilles Alexandrakis. It flooded the
room.

"You ask me - the Parthenon?" he said, solemnly. "You wish me - tell
that?" It was wistful - almost a cry of longing.

Betty Harris nodded practically. "I've always wanted to know about
it - the Parthenon. They tell you how long it is, and how wide, and what
it is made of, and who began it, and who finished it, and who
destroyed it, but they never, never" - she raised her small hand
impressively - "they _never_ tell you how it looks!"

Achilles brought a chair and placed it near the open door. "Will
it - kindly - you sit?" he said, gravely.

She seated herself, folding her hands above the music-roll, and lifting
her eyes to the dark face looking down at her. "Thank you."

Achilles leaned back against the counter, thinking a little. He sighed
gently. "I tell you many things," he said at last.

"About the Parthenon, please," said Betty Harris.

"You like Athens?" He said it like a child.

"I should like it - if they would tell me real things. I don't seem to
make them understand. But when they say how beautiful it is - I feel it
here." She laid her small hand to her side.

The smile of Achilles held the glory in its depths. "I tell you," he
said.

The clear face reflected the smile. A breath of waiting held the lips.
"Yes."

Achilles leaned again upon his counter. His face was rapt, and he spread
his finger-tips a little, as if something within them stirred to be
free.

"It stands so high and lifts itself" - Achilles raised his dark
hands - "ruined there - so great - and far beneath, the city lies, drawing
near and near, and yet it cannot reach... And all around is light - and
light - and light. Here it is a cellar" - his hands closed in with
crushing touch - "but there - !" He flung the words from him like a chant
of music, and a sky stretched about them from side to side, blue as
sapphire and shedding radiant light upon the city in its midst - a city
of fluted column and curving cornice and temple and arch and tomb. The
words rolled on, fierce and eager. It was a song of triumph, with war
and sorrow and mystery running beneath the sound of joy. And the child,
listening with grave, clear eyes, smiled a little, holding her breath.
"I see it - I see it!" She half whispered the words.

Achilles barely looked at her. "You see - ah, yes - you see. But I - I have
not words!" It was almost a cry.... "The air, so clear - like wine - and
the pillars straight and high and big - but light - light - reaching...."
His soul was among them, soaring high. Then it returned to earth and he
remembered the child.

"And there is an olive-tree," he said, kindly, "and a well where
Poseidon - "

"I've heard about the well and the olive-tree," said the child; "I don't
care so much about them. But all the rest - " She drew a quick breath.
"It is very beautiful. I knew it would be. I knew it would be!"

There was silence in the room.

"Thank you for telling me," said Betty Harris. "Now I must go." She
slipped from the chair with a little sigh. She stood looking about the
dim shop. "Now I must go," she repeated, wistfully.

Achilles moved a step toward the shelf. "Yes - but wait - I will show
you." He reached up to the box and took it down lightly. "I show you."
He was removing the cover.

The child leaned forward with shining eyes.

A smile came into the dark, grave face looking into the box. "Ah, he has
blossomed - for you." He held it out to her.

She took it in shy fingers, bending to it. "It is beautiful," she said,
softly. "Yes - beautiful!"

The dark wings, with shadings of gold and tender blue, lifted themselves
a little, waiting.

The child looked up. "May I touch it?" she asked.

"Yes - But why not?"

The dark head was bent close to hers, watching the wonderful wings.

Slowly Betty Harris put out a finger and stroked the wings.

They fluttered a little - opened wide and rose - in their first flutter of
light.

"Oh!" It was a cry of delight from the child.

The great creature had settled on the bunch of bananas and hung swaying.
The gold and blue wings opened and closed slowly.

Achilles drew near and put out a finger.

The butterfly was on it.

He held it toward her, smiling gently, and she reached up, her very
breath on tiptoe. A little smile curved her lips, quick and wondering,
as the transfer was made, thread by thread, till the gorgeous thing
rested on her own palm.

She looked up. "What shall I do with it?" It was a shining whisper.

Achilles's eyes sought the door.

They moved toward it slowly, light as breath.

In the open doorway they paused. Above the tall buildings the grey rim
of sky lifted itself. The child looked up to it. Her eyes returned to
Achilles.

He nodded gravely.

She raised her hand with a little "p-f-f" - it was half a quick laugh and
half a sigh.

The wings fluttered free, and rose and faltered, and rose again - high
and higher, between the dark walls - up to the sky, into the grey - and
through.

The eyes that had followed it came back to earth. They looked at each
other and smiled gravely - two children who had seen a happy thing.

The child stood still with half-lifted hand.... A carriage drove quickly
into the street. The little hand was lifted higher. It was a regal
gesture - the return of the princess to earth.

James touched his hat - a look of dismay and relief battling in his face
as he turned the horses sharply to the right. They paused in front of
the stall, their hoofs beating dainty time to the coursing of their
blood.

Achilles eyed them lovingly. The spirit of Athens dwelt in their arching
necks.

He opened the door for the child with the quiet face and shining eyes.
Gravely he salaamed as she entered the carriage.

Through the open window she held out a tiny hand. "I hope you will come
and see me," she said.

"Yes, I come," said Achilles, simply. "I like to come."

James dropped a waiting eye.

"Home, James."

The horses sprang away. Achilles Alexandrakis, bareheaded in the spring
sunshine, watched the carriage till it was out of sight. Then he turned
once more to the stall and rearranged the fruit. The swift fingers
laughed a little as they worked, and the eyes of Achilles were filled
with light.




III

BETTY'S MOTHER HEARS A STORY

"Mother-dear!" It was the voice of Betty Harris - eager, triumphant, with
a little laugh running through it. "Mother-dear!"

"Yes - Betty - " The woman seated at the dark mahogany desk looked up,
a little line between her eyes. "You have come, child?" It was half a
caress. She put out an absent hand, drawing the child toward her while
she finished her note.

The child stood by gravely, looking with shining eyes at the face
bending above the paper. It was a handsome face with clear, hard
lines - the reddish hair brushed up conventionally from the temples, and
the skin a little pallid under its careful massage and skilfully touched
surface.

To Betty Harris her mother was the most beautiful woman in the
world - more beautiful than the marble Venus at the head of the long
staircase, or the queenly lady in the next room, forever stepping down
from her gilded frame into the midst of tapestry and leather in the
library. It may have been that Betty's mother was quite as much a work
of art in her way as these other treasures that had come from the Old
World. But to Betty Harris, who had slight knowledge of art values, her
mother was beautiful, because her eyes had little points of light in
them that danced when she laughed, and her lips curved prettily, like a
bow, if she smiled.

They curved now as she looked up from her note. "Well, daughter?" She
had sealed the note and laid it one side. "Was it a good lesson?" She
leaned back in her chair, stroking the child's hand softly, while her
eyes travelled over the quaint, dignified little figure. The child was
a Velasquez - people had often remarked it, and the mother had taken the
note that gave to her clothes the regal air touched with simplicity. "So
it was a good lesson, was it?" she repeated, absently, as she stroked
the small dark hand - her own figure graciously outlined as she leaned
back enjoying the lifted face and straight, clear eyes.

"Mother-dear!" The child's voice vibrated with the intensity behind it.
"I have seen a man - a very _good_ man!"

"Yes?" There was a little laugh in the word. She was accustomed to the
child's enthusiasms. Yet they were always new to her - even the old ones
were. "Who was he, daughter - this very good man?"

"He is a Greek, mother - with a long, beautiful name - I don't think I can
tell it to you. But he is most wonderful - !" The child spread her hands
and drew a deep breath.

"More wonderful than father?" It was an idle, laughing question - while
she studied the lifted-up face.

"More wonderful than father - yes - " The child nodded gravely. "I can't
quite tell you, mother-dear, how it feels - " She laid a tiny hand on
her chest. Her eyes were full of thought. "He speaks like music, and he
loves things - oh, very much!"

"I see - And did Madame Lewandowska introduce you to him?"

"Oh, it was not there." The child's face cleared with swift thought. "I
didn't tell you - Madame was ill - "

The reclining figure straightened a little in its place, but the face
was still smiling. "So you and Miss Stone - "

"But Miss Stone is ill, mother-dear. Did you forget her toothache?" The
tone was politely reproachful.

The woman was very erect now - her small eyes, grown wide, gazing at the
child, devouring her. "Betty! Where have you been?" It was more a cry
than a question - a cry of dismay, running swiftly toward terror. It was
the haunting fear of her life that Betty would some day be kidnapped, as
the child next door had been.... The fingers resting on the arm of the
chair were held tense.

"I don't think I did wrong, mother." The child was looking at her very
straight, as if answering a challenge. "You see, I walked home - "

"Where was James?" The woman's tone was sharp, and her hand reached
toward the bell; but the child's hand moved softly toward it.

"I'd like to tell you about it myself, please, mother. James never waits
for the lessons. I don't think he was to blame."

The woman's eyes were veiled with sudden mist. She drew the child close.
"Tell mother about it."

Betty Harris looked down, stroking her mother's sleeve. A little smile
of memory held her lips. "He was a beautiful man!" she said.

The mother waited, breathless.

"I was walking home, and I came to his shop - "

"To his shop!"

She nodded reassuringly. "His fruit-shop - and - oh, I forgot - " She
reached into the little bag at her side, tugging at something. "He gave


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Online LibraryJennette Barbour Perry LeeMr. Achilles → online text (page 1 of 9)