John Kendrick Bangs.

Coffee and Repartee online

. (page 1 of 5)
Online LibraryJohn Kendrick BangsCoffee and Repartee → online text (page 1 of 5)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Michael Ciesielski, Suzanne Shell and the
Online Distributed Proofreading Team at








Harper's "Black and White" Series.

Illustrated. 32mo, Cloth, 50 cents each.

In the Vestibule Limited. Lowell. By G. W. Curtis.
By Brander Matthews.
George William Curtis. By
This Picture and That. A John White Chadwick.
Comedy. By Brander Matthews.
Slavery and the Slave Trade
The Decision of the Court. in Africa. By Henry M.
A Comedy. By Brander Matthews. Stanley.

A Family Canoe Trip. By Whittier: Notes of His Life
Florence W. Snedeker. and of His Friendships. By
Annie Fields.
Three Weeks in Politics. By
John Kendrick Bangs. The Japanese Bride. By
Naomi Tamura.
Coffee and Repartee. By
John Kendrick Bangs. Giles Corey, Yeoman. By
Mary E. Wilkins.
Travels in America 100 Years
Ago. By Thomas Twining. Seen From the Saddle. By
Isa Carrington Cabell.
The Work of Washington
Irving. By Charles Dudley BY W. D. HOWELLS.
Farces: A Letter of Introduction. - The
Edwin Booth. By Laurence Albany Depot. - The Garroters. - Five
Hutton. O'Clock Tea. - The Mouse-trap. - A
Likely Story. - Evening Dress. - The
Phillips Brooks. By Rev. Unexpected Guests.
Arthur Brooks, D.D.
A Little Swiss Sojourn.
The Rivals. By François
Coppée. My Year in a Log Cabin.


Copyright, 1893, by Harper & Brothers.

_All rights reserved._

TO F. S. M.



"'Are you related to Governor McKinley?'" _Frontispiece_

"Alarmed the cook" 5

"'What are the first symptoms of insanity?'" 13

"'Reading Webster's Dictionary'" 17

"'I stuck to the pigs'" 23

The conspirators 25

"'Weren't your ears long enough?'" 33

"'The corks popped to some purpose last night'" 37

"'If you could spare so little as one flame'" 43

The school-master as a cooler 47

"'Reading the Sunday newspapers'" 51

Bobbo 55

Wooing the Muse 67

"'He gave up jokes'" 71

"'A little garden of my own, where I could raise an
occasional can of tomatoes'" 75

"'A hind-quarter of lamb gambolling about its native heath'" 77

"'The gladsome click of the lawn-mower'" 80

"'You don't mean to say that you write for the papers?'" 85

"'We wooed the self-same maid'" 87

Curing insomnia 91

"Holding his plate up to the light" 97

"'I believe you'd blow out the gas in your bed-room'" 101

"'His fairy stories were told him in words of ten syllables'" 105

"'I thought my father a mean-spirited assassin'" 109

"'Mrs. S. brought him to the point of proposing'" 115

"'Hoorah!' cried the Idiot, grasping Mr. Pedagog by the hand" 119

[Illustration: Coffee and Repartee]


The guests at Mrs. Smithers's high-class boarding-house for gentlemen
had assembled as usual for breakfast, and in a few moments Mary, the
dainty waitress, entered with the steaming coffee, the mush, and the

The School-master, who, by-the-way, was suspected by Mrs. Smithers of
having intentions, and who for that reason occupied the chair nearest
the lady's heart, folded up the morning paper, and placing it under him
so that no one else could get it, observed, quite genially for him, "It
was very wet yesterday."

"I didn't find it so," observed a young man seated half-way down the
table, who was by common consent called the Idiot, because of his
"views." "In fact, I was very dry. Curious thing, I'm always dry on
rainy days. I am one of the kind of men who know that it is the part of
wisdom to stay in when it rains, or to carry an umbrella when it is not
possible to stay at home, or, having no home, like ourselves, to remain
cooped up in stalls, or stalled up in coops, as you may prefer."

"You carried an umbrella, then?" queried the landlady, ignoring the
Idiot's shaft at the size of her "elegant and airy apartments" with an
ease born of experience.

"Yes, madame," returned the Idiot, quite unconscious of what was coming.

"Whose?" queried the lady, a sarcastic smile playing about her lips.

"That I cannot say, Mrs. Smithers," replied the Idiot, serenely, "but it
is the one you usually carry."

"Your insinuation, sir," said the School-master, coming to the
landlady's rescue, "is an unworthy one. The umbrella in question is
mine. It has been in my possession for five years."

"Then," replied the Idiot, unabashed, "it is time you returned it. Don't
you think men's morals are rather lax in this matter of umbrellas, Mr.
Whitechoker?" he added, turning from the School-master, who began to
show signs of irritation.

"Very," said the Minister, running his finger about his neck to make the
collar which had been sent home from the laundry by mistake set more
easily - "very lax. At the last Conference I attended, some person,
forgetting his high office as a minister in the Church, walked off with
my umbrella without so much as a thank you; and it was embarrassing too,
because the rain was coming down in bucketfuls."

"What did you do?" asked the landlady, sympathetically. She liked Mr.
Whitechoker's sermons, and, beyond this, he was a more profitable
boarder than any of the others, remaining home to luncheon every day and
having to pay extra therefor.

"There was but one thing left for me to do. I took the bishop's
umbrella," said Mr. Whitechoker, blushing slightly.

"But you returned it, of course?" said the Idiot.

"I intended to, but I left it on the train on my way back home the next
day," replied the clergyman, visibly embarrassed by the Idiot's
unexpected cross-examination.

"It's the same way with books," put in the Bibliomaniac, an unfortunate
being whose love of rare first editions had brought him down from
affluence to boarding. "Many a man who wouldn't steal a dollar would run
off with a book. I had a friend once who had a rare copy of _Through
Africa by Daylight_. It was a beautiful book. Only twenty-five copies
printed. The margins of the pages were four inches wide, and the
title-page was rubricated; the frontispiece was colored by hand, and the
seventeenth page had one of the most amusing typographical errors on
it - "

"Was there any reading-matter in the book?" queried the Idiot, blowing
softly on a hot potato that was nicely balanced on the end of his fork.

[Illustration: "ALARMED THE COOK"]

"Yes, a little; but it didn't amount to much," returned the
Bibliomaniac. "But, you know, it isn't as reading-matter that men like
myself care for books. We have a higher notion than that. It is as a
specimen of book-making that we admire a chaste bit of literature like
_Through Africa by Daylight_. But, as I was saying, my friend had this
book, and he'd extra-illustrated it. He had pictures from all parts of
the world in it, and the book had grown from a volume of one hundred
pages to four volumes of two hundred pages each."

"And it was stolen by a highly honorable friend, I suppose?" queried the

"Yes, it was stolen - and my friend never knew by whom," said the

"What?" asked the Idiot, in much surprise. "Did you never confess?"

It was very fortunate for the Idiot that the buckwheat cakes were
brought on at this moment. Had there not been some diversion of that
kind, it is certain that the Bibliomaniac would have assaulted him.

"It is very kind of Mrs. Smithers, I think," said the School-master, "to
provide us with such delightful cakes as these free of charge."

"Yes," said the Idiot, helping himself to six cakes. "Very kind indeed,
although I must say they are extremely economical from an architectural
point of view - which is to say, they are rather fuller of pores than of
buckwheat. I wonder why it is," he continued, possibly to avert the
landlady's retaliatory comments - "I wonder why it is that porous
plasters and buckwheat cakes are so similar in appearance?"

"And so widely different in their respective effects on the system," put
in a genial old gentleman who occasionally imbibed, seated next to the

"I fail to see the similarity between a buckwheat cake and a porous
plaster," said the School-master, resolved, if possible, to embarrass
the Idiot.

"You don't, eh?" replied the latter. "Then it is very plain, sir, that
you have never eaten a porous plaster."

To this the School-master could find no reasonable reply, and he took
refuge in silence. Mr. Whitechoker tried to look severe; the gentleman
who occasionally imbibed smiled all over; the Bibliomaniac ignored the
remark entirely, not having as yet forgiven the Idiot for his gross
insinuation regarding his friend's _édition de luxe_ of _Through Africa
by Daylight_; Mary, the maid, who greatly admired the Idiot, not so much
for his idiocy as for the aristocratic manner in which he carried
himself, and the truly striking striped shirts he wore, left the room
in a convulsion of laughter that so alarmed the cook below-stairs that
the next platterful of cakes were more like tin plates than cakes; and
as for Mrs. Smithers, that worthy woman was speechless with wrath. But
she was not paralyzed apparently, for reaching down into her pocket she
brought forth a small piece of paper, on which was written in detail the
"account due" of the Idiot.

"I'd like to have this settled, sir," she said, with some asperity.

"Certainly, my dear madame," replied the Idiot, unabashed - "certainly.
Can you change a check for a hundred?"

No, Mrs. Smithers could not.

"Then I shall have to put off paying the account until this evening,"
said the Idiot. "But," he added, with a glance at the amount of the
bill, "are you related to Governor McKinley, Mrs. Smithers?"

"I am not," she returned, sharply. "My mother was a Partington."

"I only asked," said the Idiot, apologetically, "because I am very much
interested in the subject of heredity, and you may not know it, but you
and he have each a marked tendency towards high-tariff bills."

And before Mrs. Smithers could think of anything to say, the Idiot was
on his way down town to help his employer lose money on Wall Street.


"Do you know, I sometimes think - " began the Idiot, opening and shutting
the silver cover of his watch several times with a snap, with the
probable, and not altogether laudable, purpose of calling his landlady's
attention to the fact - of which she was already painfully aware - that
breakfast was fifteen minutes late.

"Do you, really?" interrupted the School-master, looking up from his
book with an air of mock surprise. "I am sure I never should have
suspected it."

"Indeed?" returned the Idiot, undisturbed by this reflection upon his
intellect. "I don't really know whether that is due to your generally
unsuspicious nature, or to your shortcomings as a mind-reader."

"There are some minds," put in the landlady at this point, "that are so
small that it would certainly ruin the eyes to read them."

"I have seen many such," observed the Idiot, suavely. "Even our friend
the Bibliomaniac at times has seemed to me to be very absent-minded. And
that reminds me, Doctor," he continued, addressing himself to the
medical boarder. "What is the cause of absent-mindedness?"

"That," returned the Doctor, ponderously, "is a very large question.
Absent-mindedness, generally speaking, is the result of the projection
of the intellect into surroundings other than those which for want of a
better term I might call the corporeally immediate."

"So I have understood," said the Idiot, approvingly. "And is
absent-mindedness acquired or inherent?"

Here the Idiot appropriated the roll of his neighbor.

"That depends largely upon the case," replied the Doctor, nervously.
"Some are born absent-minded, some achieve absent-mindedness, and some
have absent-mindedness thrust upon them."

"As illustrations of which we might take, for instance, I suppose," said
the Idiot, "the born idiot, the borrower, and the man who is knocked
silly by the pole of a truck on Broadway."

"Precisely," replied the Doctor, glad to get out of the discussion so
easily. He was a very young doctor, and not always sure of himself.

"Or," put in the School-master, "to condense our illustrations, if the
Idiot would kindly go out upon Broadway and encounter the truck, we
should find the three combined in him."

The landlady here laughed quite heartily, and handed the School-master
an extra strong cup of coffee.

"There is a great deal in what you say," said the Idiot, without a
tremor. "There are very few scientific phenomena that cannot be
demonstrated in one way or another by my poor self. It is the exception
always that proves the rule, and in my case you find a consistent
converse exemplification of all three branches of absent-mindedness."

"He talks well," said the Bibliomaniac, _sotto voce_, to the Minister.

"Yes, especially when he gets hold of large words. I really believe he
reads," replied Mr. Whitechoker.


"I know he does," said the School-master, who had overheard. "I saw him
reading Webster's Dictionary last night. I have noticed, however, that
generally his vocabulary is largely confined to words that come between
the letters A and F, which shows that as yet he has not dipped very
deeply into the book."

"What are you murmuring about?" queried the Idiot, noting the lowered
tone of those on the other side of the table.

"We were conversing - ahem! about - " began the Minister, with a
despairing glance at the Bibliomaniac.

"Let me say it," interrupted the Bibliomaniac. "You aren't used to
prevarication, and that is what is demanded at this time. We were
talking about - ah - about - er - "

"Tut! tut!" ejaculated the School-master. "We were only saying we
thought the - er - the - that the - "

"What _are_ the first symptoms of insanity, Doctor?" observed the Idiot,
with a look of wonder at the three shuffling boarders opposite him, and
turning anxiously to the physician.

"I wish you wouldn't talk shop," retorted the Doctor, angrily. Insanity
was one of his weak points.

"It's a beastly habit," said the School-master, much relieved at this
turn of the conversation.

"Well, perhaps you are right," returned the Idiot. "People do, as a
rule, prefer to talk of things they know something about, and I don't
blame you, Doctor, for wanting to keep out of a medical discussion. I
only asked my last question because the behavior of the Bibliomaniac and
Mr. Whitechoker and the School-master for some time past has worried me,
and I didn't know but what you might work up a nice little practice
among us. It might not pay, but you'd find the experience valuable, and
I think unique."

"It is a fine thing to have a doctor right in the house," said Mr.
Whitechoker, kindly, fearing that the Doctor's manifest indignation
might get the better of him.

"That," returned the Idiot, "is an assertion, Mr. Whitechoker, that is
both true and untrue. There are times when a physician is an ornament to
a boarding-house; times when he is not. For instance, on Wednesday
morning if it had not been for the surgical skill of our friend here,
our good landlady could never have managed properly to distribute the
late autumn chicken we found upon the menu. Tally one for the
affirmative. On the other hand, I must confess to considerable loss of
appetite when I see the Doctor rolling his bread up into little pills,
or measuring the vinegar he puts on his salad by means of a glass
dropper, and taking the temperature of his coffee with his pocket
thermometer. Nor do I like - and I should not have mentioned it save by
way of illustrating my position in regard to Mr. Whitechoker's
assertion - nor do I like the cold, eager glitter in the Doctor's eyes as
he watches me consuming, with some difficulty, I admit, the cold pastry
we have served up to us on Saturday mornings under the wholly
transparent _alias_ of 'Hot Bread.' I may have very bad taste, but, in
my humble opinion, the man who talks shop is preferable to the one who
suggests it in his eyes. Some more iced potatoes, Mary," he added,


"Madame," said the Doctor, turning angrily to the landlady, "this is
insufferable. You may make out my bill this morning. I shall have to
seek a home elsewhere."

"Oh, now, Doctor!" began the landlady, in her most pleading tone.

"Jove!" ejaculated the Idiot. "That's a good idea, Doctor. I think I'll
go with you; I'm not altogether satisfied here myself, but to desert so
charming a company as we have here had never occurred to me. Together,
however, we can go forth, and perhaps find happiness. Shall we put on
our hunting togs and chase the fiery, untamed hall-room to the death
this morning, or shall we put it off until some pleasanter day?"

"Put it off," observed the School-master, persuasively. "The Idiot was
only indulging in persiflage, Doctor. That's all. When you have known
him longer you will understand him better. Views are as necessary to him
as sunlight to the flowers; and I truly think that in an asylum he would
prove a delightful companion."

"There, Doctor," said the Idiot; "that's handsome of the School-master.
He couldn't make more of an apology if he tried. I'll forgive him if you
will. What say you?"

And strange to say, the Doctor, in spite of the indignation which still
left a red tinge on his cheek, laughed aloud and was reconciled.

As for the School-master, he wanted to be angry, but he did not feel
that he could afford his wrath, and for the first time in some months
the guests went their several ways at peace with each other and the


There was a conspiracy in hand to embarrass the Idiot. The School-master
and the Bibliomaniac had combined forces to give him a taste of his own
medicine. The time had not yet arrived which showed the Idiot at a
disadvantage; and the two boarders, the one proud of his learning, and
the other not wholly unconscious of a bookish life, were distinctly
tired of the triumphant manner in which the Idiot always left the
breakfast-table to their invariable discomfiture.

It was the School-master's suggestion to put their tormentor into the
pit he had heretofore digged for them. The worthy instructor of youth
had of late come to see that while he was still a prime favorite with
his landlady, he had, nevertheless, suffered somewhat in her estimation
because of the apparent ease with which the Idiot had got the better of
him on all points. It was necessary, he thought, to rehabilitate
himself, and a deep-laid plot, to which the Bibliomaniac readily lent
ear, was the result of his reflections. They twain were to indulge in a
discussion of the great story of _Robert Elsmere_, which both were
confident the Idiot had not read, and concerning which they felt assured
he could not have an intelligent opinion if he had read it.

So it happened upon this bright Sunday morning that as the boarders sat
them down to partake of the usual "restful breakfast," as the Idiot
termed it, the Bibliomaniac observed:

"I have just finished reading _Robert Elsmere_."

"Have you, indeed?" returned the School-master, with apparent interest.
"I trust you profited by it?"

"On the contrary," observed the Bibliomaniac. "My views are much
unsettled by it."

"I prefer the breast of the chicken, Mrs. Smithers," observed the Idiot,
sending his plate back to the presiding genius of the table. "The neck
of a chicken is graceful, but not too full of sustenance."

"He fights shy," whispered the Bibliomaniac, gleefully.

"Never mind," returned the School-master, confidently; "we'll land him
yet." Then he added, aloud: "Unsettled by it? I fail to see how any man
with beliefs that are at all the result of mature convictions can be
unsettled by the story of _Elsmere_. For my part I believe, and I have
always said - "

"I never could understand why the neck of a chicken should be allowed on
a respectable table anyhow," continued the Idiot, ignoring the
controversy in which his neighbors were engaged, "unless for the purpose
of showing that the deceased fowl met with an accidental rather than a
natural death."

"In what way does the neck demonstrate that point?" queried the
Bibliomaniac, forgetting the conspiracy for a moment.

"By its twist or by its length, of course," returned the Idiot. "A
chicken that dies a natural death does not have its neck wrung; nor when
the head is removed by the use of a hatchet, is it likely that it will
be cut off so close behind the ears that those who eat the chicken are
confronted with four inches of neck."

[Illustration: "'I STUCK TO THE PIGS'"]

"Very entertaining indeed," interposed the School-master; "but we are
wandering from the point the Bibliomaniac and I were discussing. Is or
is not the story of _Robert Elsmere_ unsettling to one's beliefs?
Perhaps you can help us to decide that question."

"Perhaps I can," returned the Idiot; "and perhaps not. It did not
unsettle my beliefs."

"But don't you think," observed the Bibliomaniac, "that to certain minds
the book is more or less unsettling?"

"To that I can confidently say no. The certain mind knows no
uncertainty," replied the Idiot, calmly.

"Very pretty indeed," said the School-master, coldly. "But what was your
opinion of Mrs. Ward's handling of the subject? Do you think she was
sufficiently realistic? And if so, and Elsmere weakened under the stress
of circumstances, do you think - or don't you think - the production of
such a book harmful, because - being real - it must of necessity be
unsettling to some minds?"

[Illustration: THE CONSPIRATORS]

"I prefer not to express an opinion on that subject," returned the
Idiot, "because I never read _Robert Els_ - "

"Never read it?" ejaculated the School-master, a look of triumph in his

"Why, everybody has read _Elsmere_ that pretends to have read anything,"
asserted the Bibliomaniac.

"Of course," put in the landlady, with a scornful laugh.

"Well, I didn't," said the Idiot, nonchalantly. "The same ground was
gone over two years before in Burrows's great story, _Is It, or Is It
Not?_ and anybody who ever read Clink's books on the _Non-Existent as
Opposed to What Is_, knows where Burrows got his points. Burrows's story
was a perfect marvel. I don't know how many editions it went through in
England, and when it was translated into French by Madame Tournay, it
simply set the French wild."

"Great Scott!" whispered the Bibliomaniac, desperately, "I'm afraid
we've been barking up the wrong tree."

"You've read Clink, I suppose?" asked the Idiot, turning to the

1 3 4 5

Online LibraryJohn Kendrick BangsCoffee and Repartee → online text (page 1 of 5)