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What does it mean to be popular? Is it a mark of good character, or merely a sign that you're well-regarded among an influential group of elites? The hero in Booth Tarkington's tale The conquest of Canaan has achieved a strange kind of popularity—he's seen as a prince among those who are down on their luck, but to the upper classes and the powerful, he might as well be invisible. Will Joe Loudon be able to channel his limited influence to make some much-needed changes in his community?
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The Conquest of Canaan
A dry snow had fallen steadily throughout the still night, so that when a cold, upper wind cleared the sky gloriously in the morning the incongruous Indiana town shone in a white harmony--roof, ledge, and earth as evenly covered as by moonlight. There was no thaw; only where the line of factories followed the big bend of the frozen river, their distant chimneys like exclamation points on a blank page, was there a first threat against the supreme whiteness. The wind passed quickly and on high; the shouting of the school-children had ceased at nine o'clock with pitiful suddenness; no sleigh-bells laughed out on the air; and the muffling of the thoroughfares wrought an unaccustomed peace like that of Sunday. This was the phenomenon which afforded the opening of the morning debate of the sages in the wide windows of the "National House."
Only such unfortunates as have so far failed to visit Canaan do not know that the "National House" is on the Main Street side of the Courthouse Square, and has the advantage of being within two minutes' walk of the railroad station, which is in plain sight of the windows--an inestimable benefit to the conversation of the aged men who occupied these windows on this white morning, even as they were wont in summer to hold against all comers the cane-seated chairs on the pavement outside. Thence, as trains came and went, they commanded the city gates, and, seeking motives and adding to the stock of history, narrowly observed and examined into all who entered or departed. Their habit was not singular. He who would foolishly tax the sages of Canaan with a bucolic light-mindedness must first walk in Piccadilly in early June, stroll down the Corso in Rome before Ash Wednesday, or regard those windows of Fifth Avenue whose curtains are withdrawn of a winter Sunday; for in each of these great streets, wherever the windows, not of trade, are widest, his eyes must behold wise men, like to those of Canaan, executing always their same purpose.
The difference is in favor of Canaan; the "National House" was the club, but the perusal of traveller or passer by was here only the spume blown before a stately ship of thought; and you might hear the sages comparing the Koran with the speeches of Robert J. Ingersoll.
In the days of board sidewalks, "mail-time" had meant a precise moment for Canaan, and even now, many years after the first postman, it remained somewhat definite to the aged men; for, out of deference to a pleasant, olden custom, and perhaps partly for an excuse to "get down to the hotel" (which was not altogether in favor with the elderly ladies), most of them retained their antique boxes in the post-office, happily in the next building.
In this connection it may be written that a subscription clerk in the office of the Chicago Daily Standard, having noted a single subscriber from Canaan, was, a fortnight later, pleased to receive, by one mail, nine subscriptions from that promising town. If one brought nine others in a fortnight, thought he, what would nine bring in a month? Amazingly, they brought nothing, and the rest was silence. Here was a matter of intricate diplomacy never to come within that youth his ken. The morning voyage to the post-office, long mocked as a fable and screen by the families of the sages, had grown so difficult to accomplish for one of them, Colonel Flitcroft (Colonel in the war with Mexico), that he had been put to it, indeed, to foot the firing-line against his wife (a lady of celebrated determination and hale-voiced at seventy), and to defend the rental of a box which had sheltered but three missives in four years. Desperation is often inspiration; the Colonel brilliantly subscribed for the Standard, forgetting to give his house address, and it took the others just thirteen days to wring his secret from him. Then the Standard served for all.
Mail-time had come to mean that bright hour when they all got their feet on the brass rod which protected the sills of the two big windows, with the steam-radiators sizzling like kettles against the side wall. Mr. Jonas Tabor, who had sold his hardware business magnificently (not magnificently for his nephew, the purchaser) some ten years before, was usually, in spite of the fact that he remained a bachelor at seventy-nine, the last to settle down with the others, though often the first to reach the hotel, which he always entered by a side door, because he did not believe in the treating system. And it was Mr. Eskew Arp, only seventy-five, but already a thoroughly capable cynic, who, almost invariably "opened the argument," and it was he who discovered the sinister intention behind the weather of this particular morning. Mr. Arp had not begun life so sourly: as a youth he had been proud of his given name, which had come to him through his mother's family, who had made it honorable, but many years of explanations that Eskew did not indicate his initials had lowered his opinion of the intelligence and morality of the race.
The malevolence of his voice and manner this morning, therefore, when he shook his finger at the town beyond the windows, and exclaimed, with a bitter laugh, "Look at it!" was no surprise to his companions. "Jest look at it! I tell you the devil is mighty smart. Ha, ha! Mighty smart!"
Through custom it was the duty of Squire Buckalew (Justice of the Peace in '59) to be the first to take up Mr. Arp. The others looked to him for it. Therefore, he asked, sharply:
"What's the devil got to do with snow?"
"Everything to do with it, sir," Mr. Arp retorted. "It's plain as day to anybody with eyes and sense."
"Then I wish you'd p'int it out," said Buckalew, "if you've got either."
"By the Almighty, Squire"--Mr. Arp turned in his chair with sudden heat--"if I'd lived as long as you--"
"You have," interrupted the other, stung. "Twelve years ago!"
"If I'd lived as long as you," Mr. Arp repeated, unwincingly, in a louder voice, "and had follered Satan's trail as long as you have, and yet couldn't recognize it when I see it, I'd git converted and vote Prohibitionist."
"I don't see it," interjected Uncle Joe Davey, in his querulous voice. (He was the patriarch of them all.) "I can't find no cloven-hoof-prints in the snow."
"All over it, sir!" cried the cynic. "All over it! Old Satan loves tricks like this. Here's a town that's jest one squirmin' mass of lies and envy and vice and wickedness and corruption--"
"Hold on!" exclaimed Colonel Flitcroft. "That's a slander upon our hearths and our government. Why, when I was in the Council--"
"It wasn't a bit worse then," Mr. Arp returned, unreasonably. "Jest you look how the devil fools us. He drops down this here virgin mantle on Canaan and makes it look as good as you pretend you think it is: as good as the Sunday-school room of a country church--though THAT"--he went off on a tangent, venomously--"is generally only another whited sepulchre, and the superintendent's mighty apt to have a bottle of whiskey hid behind the organ, and--"
"Look here, Eskew," said Jonas Tabor, "that's got nothin' to do with--"
"Why ain't it? Answer me!" cried Mr. Arp, continuing, without pause: "Why ain't it? Can't you wait till I git through? You listen to me, and when I'm ready I'll listen to--"
"See here," began the Colonel, making himself heard over three others, "I want to ask you--"
"No, sir!" Mr. Arp pounded the floor irascibly with his hickory stick. "Don't you ask me anything! How can you tell that I'm not going to answer your question without your asking it, till I've got through? You listen first. I say, here's a town of nearly thirty thousand inhabitants, every last one of 'em--men, women, and children-- selfish and cowardly and sinful, if you could see their innermost natures; a town of the ugliest and worst built houses in the world, and governed by a lot of saloon-keepers--though I hope it 'll never git down to where the ministers can run it. And the devil comes along, and in one night--why, all you got to do is LOOK at it! You'd think we needn't ever trouble to make it better. That's what the devil wants us to do--wants us to rest easy about it, and paints it up to look like a heaven of peace and purity and sanctified spirits. Snowfall like this would of made Lot turn the angel out-of-doors and say that the old home was good enough for him. Gomorrah would of looked like a Puritan village--though I'll bet my last dollar that there was a lot, and a WHOLE lot, that's never been told about Puritan villages. A lot that--"
"WHAT never was?" interrupted Mr. Peter Bradbury, whose granddaughter had lately announced her discovery that the Bradburys were descended from Miles Standish. "What wasn't told about Puritan villages?"
"Can't you wait?" Mr. Arp's accents were those of pain. "Haven't I got ANY right to present my side of the case? Ain't we restrained enough to allow of free speech here? How can we ever git anywhere in an argument like this, unless we let one man talk at a time? How--"
"Go on with your statement," said Uncle Joe Davey, impatiently.
Mr. Arp's grievance was increased. "Now listen to YOU! How many more interruptions are comin'? I'll listen to the other side, but I've got to state mine first, haven't I? If I don't make my point clear, what's the use of the argument? Argumentation is only the comparison of two sides of a question, and you have to see what the first side IS before you can compare it with the other one, don't you? Are you all agreed to that?"
"Yes, yes," said the Colonel. "Go ahead. We won't interrupt until you're through."
"Very well," resumed Mr. Arp, with a fleeting expression of satisfaction, "as I said before, I wish to--as I said--" He paused, in some confusion. "As I said, argumentation is--that is, I say--" He stopped again, utterly at sea, having talked himself so far out of his course that he was unable to recall either his sailing port or his destination. Finally he said, feebly, to save the confession, "Well, go on with your side of it."
This generosity was for a moment disconcerting; however, the quietest of the party took up the opposition--Roger Tabor, a very thin, old man with a clean-shaven face, almost as white as his hair, and melancholy, gentle, gray eyes, very unlike those of his brother Jonas, which were dark and sharp and button-bright. (It was to Roger's son that Jonas had so magnificently sold the hardware business.) Roger was known in Canaan as "the artist"; there had never been another of his profession in the place, and the town knew not the word "painter," except in application to the useful artisan who is subject to lead-poisoning. There was no indication of his profession in the attire of Mr. Tabor, unless the too apparent age of his black felt hat and a neat patch at the elbow of his shiny, old brown overcoat might have been taken as symbols of the sacrifice to his muse which his life had been. He was not a constant attendant of the conclave, and when he came it was usually to listen; indeed, he spoke so seldom that at the sound of his voice they all turned to him with some surprise.
"I suppose," he began, "that Eskew means the devil is behind all beautiful things."
"Ugly ones, too," said Mr. Arp, with a start of recollection. "And I wish to state--"
"Not now!" Colonel Flitcroft turned upon him violently. "You've already stated it."
"Then, if he is behind the ugly things, too," said Roger, "we must take him either way, so let us be glad of the beauty for its own sake. Eskew says this is a wicked town. It may be--I don't know. He says it's badly built; perhaps it is; but it doesn't seem to me that it's ugly in itself. I don't know what its real self is, because it wears so many aspects. God keeps painting it all the time, and never shows me twice the same picture; not even two snowfalls are just alike, nor the days that follow them; no more than two misty sunsets are alike--for the color and even the form of the town you call ugly are a matter of the season of the year and of the time of day and of the light and air. The ugly town is like an endless gallery which you can walk through, from year-end to year-end, never seeing the same canvas twice, no matter how much you may want to--and there's the pathos of it. Isn't it the same with people with the characters of all of us, just as it is with our faces? No face remains the same for two successive days--"
"It don't?" Colonel Flitcroft interrupted, with an explosive and rueful incredulity. "Well, I'd like to--" Second thoughts came to him almost immediately, and, as much out of gallantry as through discretion, fearing that he might be taken as thinking of one at home, he relapsed into silence.
Not so with the others. It was as if a firecracker had been dropped into a sleeping poultry- yard. Least of all could Mr. Arp contain himself. At the top of his voice, necessarily, he agreed with Roger that faces changed, not only from day to day, and not only because of light and air and such things, but from hour to hour, and from minute to minute, through the hideous stimulus of hypocrisy.
The "argument" grew heated; half a dozen tidy quarrels arose; all the sages went at it fiercely, except Roger Tabor, who stole quietly away. The aged men were enjoying themselves thoroughly, especially those who quarrelled. Naturally, the frail bark of the topic which had been launched was whirled about by too many side-currents to remain long in sight, and soon became derelict, while the intellectual dolphins dove and tumbled in the depths. At the end of twenty minutes Mr. Arp emerged upon the surface, and in his mouth was this:
"Tell me, why ain't the Church--why ain't the Church and the rest of the believers in a future life lookin' for immortality at the other end of life, too? If we're immortal, we always have been; then why don't they ever speculate on what we were before we were born? It's because they're too blame selfish--don't care a flapdoodle about what WAS, all they want is to go on livin' forever."
Mr. Arp's voice had risen to an acrid triumphancy, when it suddenly faltered, relapsed to a murmur, and then to a stricken silence, as a tall, fat man of overpowering aspect threw open the outer door near by and crossed the lobby to the clerk's desk. An awe fell upon the sages with this advent. They were hushed, and after a movement in their chairs, with a strange effect of huddling, sat disconcerted and attentive, like school-boys at the entrance of the master.
The personage had a big, fat, pink face and a heavily undershot jaw, what whitish beard he wore following his double chin somewhat after the manner displayed in the portraits of Henry the Eighth. His eyes, very bright under puffed upper lids, were intolerant and insultingly penetrating despite their small size. Their irritability held a kind of hotness, and yet the personage exuded frost, not of the weather, all about him. You could not imagine man or angel daring to greet this being genially--sooner throw a kiss to Mount Pilatus!
"Mr. Brown," he said, with ponderous hostility, in a bull bass, to the clerk--the kind of voice which would have made an express train leave the track and go round the other way--"do you hear me?"
"Oh yes, Judge," the clerk replied, swiftly, in tones as unlike those which he used for strange transients as a collector's voice in his ladylove's ear is unlike that which he propels at delinquents.
"Do you see that snow?" asked the personage, threateningly.
"Yes, Judge." Mr. Brown essayed a placating smile. "Yes, indeed, Judge Pike."
"Has your employer, the manager of this hotel, seen that snow?" pursued the personage, with a gesture of unspeakable solemn menace.
"Yes, sir. I think so. Yes, sir."
"Do you think he fully understands that I am the proprietor of this building?"
"Certainly, Judge, cer--"
"You will inform him that I do not intend to be discommoded by his negligence as I pass to my offices. Tell him from me that unless he keeps the sidewalks in front of this hotel clear of snow I will cancel his lease. Their present condition is outrageous. Do you understand me? Outrageous! Do you hear?"
"Yes, Judge, I do so," answered the clerk, hoarse with respect. "I'll see to it this minute, Judge Pike."
"You had better." The personage turned himself about and began a grim progress towards the door by which he had entered, his eyes fixing themselves angrily upon the conclave at the windows.
Colonel Flitcroft essayed a smile, a faltering one.
"Fine weather, Judge Pike," he said, hopefully.
There was no response of any kind; the undershot jaw became more intolerant. The personage made his opinion of the group disconcertingly plain, and the old boys understood that he knew them for a worthless lot of senile loafers, as great a nuisance in his building as was the snow without; and much too evident was his unspoken threat to see that the manager cleared them out of there before long.
He nodded curtly to the only man of substance among them, Jonas Tabor, and shut the door behind him with majestic insult. He was Canaan's millionaire.
He was one of those dynamic creatures who leave the haunting impression of their wills behind them, like the tails of Bo-Peep's sheep, like the evil dead men have done; he left his intolerant image in the ether for a long time after he had gone, to confront and confound the aged men and hold them in deferential and humiliated silence. Each of them was mysteriously lowered in his own estimation, and knew that he had been made to seem futile and foolish in the eyes of his fellows. They were all conscious, too, that the clerk had been acutely receptive of Judge Pike's reading of them; that he was reviving from his own squelchedness through the later snubbing of the colonel; also that he might further seek to recover his poise by an attack on them for cluttering up the office.
Naturally, Jonas Tabor was the first to speak. "Judge Pike's lookin' mighty well," he said, admiringly.
"Yes, he is," ventured Squire Buckalew, with deference; "mighty well."
"Yes, sir," echoed Peter Bradbury; "mighty well."
"He's a great man," wheezed Uncle Joe Davey; "a great man, Judge Martin Pike; a great man!"
"I expect he has considerable on his mind," said the Colonel, who had grown very red. "I noticed that he hardly seemed to see us."
"Yes, sir," Mr. Bradbury corroborated, with an attempt at an amused laugh. "I noticed it, too. Of course a man with all his cares and interests must git absent-minded now and then."
"Of course he does," said the colonel. "A man with all his responsibilities--"
"Yes, that's so," came a chorus of the brethren, finding comfort and reassurance as their voices and spirits began to recover from the blight.
"There's a party at the Judge's to-night," said Mr. Bradbury--"kind of a ball Mamie Pike's givin' for the young folks. Quite a doin's, I hear."
"That's another thing that's ruining Canaan," Mr. Arp declared, morosely. "These entertainments they have nowadays. Spend all the money out of town--band from Indianapolis, chicken salad and darkey waiters from Chicago! And what I want to know is, What's this town goin' to do about the nigger question?"
"What about it?" asked Mr. Davey, belligerently.
"What about it?" Mr. Arp mocked, fiercely. "You better say, `What about it?' "
"Well, what?" maintained Mr. Davey, steadfastly.
"I'll bet there ain't any less than four thousand niggers in Canaan to-day!" Mr. Arp hammered the floor with his stick. "Every last one of 'em criminals, and more comin' on every train."
"No such a thing," said Squire Buckalew, living up to his bounden duty. "You look down the street. There's the ten-forty-five comin' in now. I'll bet you a straight five-cent Peek-a-Boo cigar there ain't ary nigger on the whole train, except the sleepin'-car porters."
"What kind of a way to argue is that?" demanded Mr. Arp, hotly. "Bettin' ain't proof, is it? Besides, that's the through express from the East. I meant trains from the South."
"You didn't say so," retorted Buckalew, triumphantly. "Stick to your bet, Eskew, stick to your bet."
"My bet!" cried the outraged Eskew. "Who offered to bet?"
"You did," replied the Squire, with perfect assurance and sincerity. The others supported him in the heartiest spirit of on-with-the-dance, and war and joy were unconfined.
A decrepit hack or two, a couple of old-fashioned surreys, and a few "cut-unders" drove by, bearing the newly arrived and their valises, the hotel omnibus depositing several commercial travellers at the door. A solitary figure came from the station on foot, and when it appeared within fair range of the window, Uncle Joe Davey, who had but hovered on the flanks of the combat, first removed his spectacles and wiped them, as though distrusting the vision they offered him, then, replacing them, scanned anew the approaching figure and uttered a smothered cry.
"My Lord A'mighty!" he gasped. "What's this? Look there!"
They looked. A truce came involuntarily, and they sat in paralytic silence as the figure made its stately and sensational progress along Main Street.
Not only the aged men were smitten. Men shovelling snow from the pavements stopped suddenly in their labors; two women, talking busily on a doorstep, were stilled and remained in frozen attitudes as it passed; a grocer's clerk, crossing the pavement, carrying a heavily laden basket to his delivery wagon, halted half-way as the figure came near, and then, making a pivot of his heels as it went by, behaved towards it as does the magnetic needle to the pole.
It was that of a tall gentleman, cheerfully, though somewhat with ennui, enduring his nineteenth winter. His long and slender face he wore smiling, beneath an accurately cut plaster of dark hair cornicing his forehead, a fashion followed by many youths of that year. This perfect bang was shown under a round black hat whose rim was so small as almost not to be there at all; and the head was supported by a waxy-white sea-wall of collar, rising three inches above the blue billows of a puffed cravat, upon which floated a large, hollow pearl. His ulster, sporting a big cape at the shoulders, and a tasselled hood over the cape, was of a rough Scotch cloth, patterned in faint, gray-and-white squares the size of baggage-checks, and it was so long that the skirts trailed in the snow. His legs were lost in the accurately creased, voluminous garments that were the tailors' canny reaction from the tight trousers with which the 'Eighties had begun: they were, in color, a palish russet, broadly striped with gray, and, in size, surpassed the milder spirit of fashion so far as they permitted a liberal knee action to take place almost without superficial effect. Upon his feet glistened long shoes, shaped, save for the heels, like sharp racing-shells; these were partially protected by tan-colored low gaiters with flat, shiny, brown buttons. In one hand the youth swung a bone-handled walking- stick, perhaps an inch and a half in diameter, the other carried a yellow leather banjo-case, upon the outer side of which glittered the embossed-silver initials, "E. B." He was smoking, but walked with his head up, making use, however, of a gait at that time new to Canaan, a seeming superbly irresponsible lounge, engendering much motion of the shoulders, producing an effect of carelessness combined with independence--an effect which the innocent have been known to hail as an unconscious one.
He looked about him as he came, smilingly, with an expression of princely amusement--as an elderly cabinet minister, say, strolling about a village where he had spent some months in his youth, a hamlet which he had then thought large and imposing, but which, being revisited after years of cosmopolitan glory, appeals to his whimsy and his pity. The youth's glance at the court-house unmistakably said: "Ah, I recall that odd little box. I thought it quite large in the days before I became what I am now, and I dare say the good townsfolk still think it an imposing structure!" With everything in sight he deigned to be amused, especially with the old faces in the "National House" windows. To these he waved his stick with airy graciousness.
"My soul!" said Mr. Davey. "It seems to know some of us!"
"Yes," agreed Mr. Arp, his voice recovered, "and I know IT."
"You do?" exclaimed the Colonel.
"I do, and so do you. It's Fanny Louden's boy, 'Gene, come home for his Christmas holidays."
"By George! you're right," cried Flitcroft; "I recognize him now."
"But what's the matter with him?" asked Mr. Bradbury, eagerly. "Has he joined some patent- medicine troupe?"
"Not a bit," replied Eskew. "He went East to college last fall."
"Do they MAKE the boys wear them clothes?" persisted Bradbury. "Is it some kind of uniform?"
"I don't care what it is," said Jonas Tabor. "If I was Henry Louden I wouldn't let him wear 'em around here."
"Oh, you wouldn't, wouldn't you, Jonas?" Mr. Arp employed the accents of sarcasm. "I'd like to see Henry Louden try to interfere with 'Gene Bantry. Fanny'd lock the old fool up in the cellar."
The lofty vision lurched out of view.
"I reckon," said the Colonel, leaning forward to see the last of it--"I reckon Henry Louden's about the saddest case of abused step-father I ever saw."
"It's his own fault," said Mr. Arp--"twice not havin' sense enough not to marry. Him with a son of his own, too!"
"Yes," assented the Colonel, "marryin' a widow with a son of her own, and that widow Fanny!"
"Wasn't it just the same with her first husband --Bantry?" Mr. Davey asked, not for information, as he immediately answered himself. "You bet it was! Didn't she always rule the roost? Yes, she did. She made a god of 'Gene from the day he was born. Bantry's house was run for him, like Louden's is now."
"And look," exclaimed Mr. Arp, with satisfaction, "at the way he's turned out!"
"He ain't turned out at all yet; he's too young," said Buckalew. "Besides, clothes don't make the man."
"Wasn't he smokin' a cigareet!" cried Eskew, triumphantly. This was final.
"It's a pity Henry Louden can't do something for his own son," said Mr. Bradbury. "Why don't he send him away to college?"
"Fanny won't let him," chuckled Mr. Arp, malevolently. "Takes all their spare change to keep 'Gene there in style. I don't blame her. 'Gene certainly acts the fool, but that Joe Louden is the orneriest boy I ever saw in an ornery world- full."
"He always was kind of misCHEEvous," admitted Buckalew. "I don't think he's mean, though, and it does seem kind of not just right that Joe's father's money--Bantry didn't leave anything to speak of--has to go to keepin' 'Gene on the fat of the land, with Joe gittin' up at half-past four to carry papers, and him goin' on nineteen years old."
"It's all he's fit for!" exclaimed Eskew. "He's low down, I tell ye. Ain't it only last week Judge Pike caught him shootin' craps with Pike's nigger driver and some other nigger hired-men in the alley back of Pike's barn."
Mr. Schindlinger, the retired grocer, one of the silent members, corroborated Eskew's information. "I heert dot, too," he gave forth, in his fat voice. "He blays dominoes pooty often in der room back off Louie Farbach's tsaloon. I see him myself. Pooty often. Blayin' fer a leedle money--mit loafers! Loafers!"
"Pretty outlook for the Loudens!" said Eskew Arp, much pleased. "One boy a plum fool and dressed like it, the other gone to the dogs already!"
"What could you expect Joe to be?" retorted Squire Buckalew. "What chance has he ever had? Long as I can remember Fanny's made him fetch and carry for 'Gene. 'Gene's had everything --all the fancy clothes, all the pocket-money, and now college!"
"You ever hear that boy Joe talk politics?" asked Uncle Joe Davey, crossing a cough with a chuckle. "His head's so full of schemes fer running this town, and state, too, it's a wonder it don't bust. Henry Louden told me he's see Joe set around and study by the hour how to save three million dollars for the state in two years."
"And the best he can do for himself," added Eskew, "is deliverin' the Daily Tocsin on a second- hand Star bicycle and gamblin' with niggers and riff-raff! None of the nice young folks invite him to their doin's any more."
"That's because he's got so shabby he's quit goin' with em," said Buckalew.
"No, it ain't," snapped Mr. Arp. "It's because he's so low down. He's no more 'n a town outcast. There ain't ary one of the girls 'll have a thing to do with him, except that rip-rarin' tom- boy next door to Louden's; and the others don't have much to do with HER, neither, I can tell ye. That Arie Tabor--"
Colonel Flitcroft caught him surreptitiously by the arm. "SH, Eskew!" he whispered. "Look out what you're sayin'!"
"You needn't mind me," Jonas Tabor spoke up, crisply. "I washed my hands of all responsibility for Roger's branch of the family long ago. Never was one of 'em had the energy or brains to make a decent livin', beginning with Roger; not one worth his salt! I set Roger's son up in business, and all the return he ever made me was to go into bankruptcy and take to drink, till he died a sot, like his wife did of shame. I done all I could when I handed him over my store, and I never expect to lift a finger for 'em again. Ariel Tabor's my grandniece, but she didn't act like it, and you can say anything you like about her, for what I care. The last time I spoke to her was a year and a half ago, and I don't reckon I'll ever trouble to again."
"How was that, Jonas?" quickly inquired Mr. Davey, who, being the eldest of the party, was the most curious. "What happened?"
"She was out in the street, up on that high bicycle of Joe Louden's. He was teachin' her to ride, and she was sittin' on it like a man does. I stopped and told her she wasn't respectable. Sixteen years old, goin' on seventeen!"
"What did she say?"
"Laughed," said Jonas, his voice becoming louder as the recital of his wrongs renewed their sting in his soul. "Laughed!"
"What did you do?"
"I went up to her and told her she wasn't a decent girl, and shook the wheel." Mr. Tabor illustrated by seizing the lapels of Joe Davey and shaking him. "I told her if her grandfather had any spunk she'd git an old-fashioned hidin' for behavin' that way. And I shook the wheel again." Here Mr. Tabor, forgetting in the wrath incited by the recollection that he had not to do with an inanimate object, swung the gasping and helpless Mr. Davey rapidly back and forth in his chair. "I shook it good and hard!"
"What did she do then?" asked Peter Bradbury.
"Fell off on me," replied Jonas, violently. "On purpose!"
"I wisht she'd killed ye," said Mr. Davey, in a choking voice, as, released, he sank back in his chair.
"On purpose!" repeated Jonas. "And smashed a straw hat I hadn't had three months! All to pieces! So it couldn't be fixed!"
"And what then?" pursued Bradbury.
"SHE ran," replied Jonas, bitterly--" ran! And Joe Louden--Joe Louden--" He paused and gulped.
"What did he do?" Peter leaned forward in his chair eagerly.
The narrator of the outrage gulped again, and opened and shut his mouth before responding.
"He said if I didn't pay for a broken spoke on his wheel he'd have to sue me!"
No one inquired if Jonas had paid, and Jonas said no more. The recollection of his wrongs, together with the illustrative violence offered to Mr. Davey, had been too much for him. He sank back, panting, in his chair, his hands fluttering nervously over his heart, and closed his eyes.
"I wonder why," ruminated Mr. Bradbury--"I wonder why 'Gene Bantry walked up from the deepo. Don't seem much like his style. Should think he'd of rode up in a hack."
"Sho!" said Uncle Joe Davey, his breath recovered. "He wanted to walk up past Judge Pike's, to see if there wasn't a show of Mamie's bein' at the window, and give her a chance to look at that college uniform and banjo-box and new walk of his."
Mr. Arp began to show signs of uneasiness.
"I'd like mighty well to know," he said, shifting round in his chair, "if there's anybody here that's been able to answer the question I PUT, yesterday, just before we went home. You all tried to, but I didn't hear anything I could consider anyways near even a fair argument."
"Who tried to?" asked Buckalew, sharply, sitting up straight. "What question?"
"What proof can you bring me," began Mr. Arp, deliberately, "that we folks, modernly, ain't more degenerate than the ancient Romans?"
Main Street, already muffled by the snow, added to its quietude a frozen hush where the wonder-bearing youth pursued his course along its white, straight way. None was there in whom impertinence overmastered astonishment, or who recovered from the sight in time to jeer with effect; no "Trab's boy" gathered courage to enact in the thoroughfare a scene of mockery and of joy. Leaving business at a temporary stand-still behind him, Mr. Bantry swept his long coat steadily over the snow and soon emerged upon that part of the street where the mart gave way to the home. The comfortable houses stood pleasantly back from the street, with plenty of lawn and shrubbery about them; and often, along the picket-fences, the laden branches of small cedars, bending low with their burden, showered the young man's swinging shoulders glitteringly as he brushed by.
And now that expression he wore--the indulgent amusement of a man of the world--began to disintegrate and show signs of change. It became finely grave, as of a high conventionality, lofty, assured, and mannered, as he approached the Pike mansion. (The remotest stranger must at once perceive that the Canaan papers could not have called it otherwise without pain.)
It was a big, smooth-stone-faced house, product of the 'Seventies, frowning under an outrageously insistent mansard, capped by a cupola, and staring out of long windows overtopped with "ornamental" slabs. Two cast-iron deer, painted death-gray, twins of the same mould, stood on opposite sides of the front walk, their backs towards it and each other, their bodies in profile to the street, their necks bent, however, so that they gazed upon the passer-by--yet gazed without emotion. Two large, calm dogs guarded the top of the steps leading to the front-door; they also were twins and of the same interesting metal, though honored beyond the deer by coats of black paint and shellac. It was to be remarked that these dogs were of no distinguishable species or breed, yet they were unmistakably dogs; the dullest must have recognized them as such at a glance, which was, perhaps, enough. It was a hideous house, important-looking, cold, yet harshly aggressive, a house whose exterior provoked a shuddering guess of the brass lambrequins and plush fringes within; a solid house, obviously-- nay, blatantly--the residence of the principal citizen, whom it had grown to resemble, as is the impish habit of houses; and it sat in the middle of its flat acre of snowy lawn like a rich, fat man enraged and sitting straight up in bed to swear.
And yet there was one charming thing about this ugly house. Some workmen were enclosing a large side porch with heavy canvas, evidently for festal purposes. Looking out from between two strips of the canvas was the rosy and delicate face of a pretty girl, smiling upon Eugene Bantry as he passed. It was an obviously pretty face, all the youth and prettiness there for your very first glance; elaborately pretty, like the splendid profusion of hair about and above it--amber-colored hair, upon which so much time had been spent that a circle of large, round curls rose above the mass of it like golden bubbles tipping a coronet.
The girl's fingers were pressed thoughtfully against her chin as Eugene strode into view; immediately her eyes widened and brightened. He swung along the fence with the handsomest appearance of unconsciousness, until he reached a point nearly opposite her. Then he turned his head, as if haphazardly, and met her eyes. At once she threw out her hand towards him, waving him a greeting--a gesture which, as her fingers had been near her lips, was a little like throwing a kiss. He crooked an elbow and with a one-two-three military movement removed his small-brimmed hat, extended it to full arm's-length at the shoulder-level, returned it to his head with Life-Guard precision. This was also new to Canaan. He was letting Mamie Pike have it all at once.
The impression was as large as he could have desired. She remained at the opening in the canvas and watched him until he wagged his shoulders round the next corner and disappeared into a cross street. As for Eugene, he was calm with a great calm, and very red.
He had not covered a great distance, however, before his gravity was replaced by his former smiling look of the landed gentleman amused by the innocent pastimes of the peasants, though there was no one in sight except a woman sweeping some snow from the front steps of a cottage, and she, not perceiving him, retired in-doors without knowing her loss. He had come to a thinly built part of the town, the perfect quiet of which made the sound he heard as he opened the picket gate of his own home all the more startling. It was a scream--loud, frantic, and terror-stricken.
Eugene stopped, with the gate half open.
Out of the winter skeleton of a grape-arbor at one side of the four-square brick house a brown- faced girl of seventeen precipitated herself through the air in the midst of a shower of torn card-board which she threw before her as she leaped. She lit upon her toes and headed for the gate at top speed, pursued by a pale young man whose thin arms strove spasmodically to reach her. Scattering snow behind them, hair flying, the pair sped on like two tattered branches before a high wind; for, as they came nearer Eugene (of whom, in the tensity of their flight, they took no note), it was to be seen that both were so shabbily dressed as to be almost ragged. There was a brown patch upon the girl's faded skirt at the knee; the shortness of the garment indicating its age to be something over three years, as well as permitting the knowledge to become more general than befitting that her cotton stockings had been clumsily darned in several places. Her pursuer was in as evil case; his trousers displayed a tendency to fringedness at pocket and heel; his coat, blowing open as he ran, threw pennants of torn lining to the breeze, and made it too plain that there were but three buttons on his waistcoat.
The girl ran beautifully, but a fleeter foot was behind her, and though she dodged and evaded like a creature of the woods, the reaching hand fell upon the loose sleeve of her red blouse, nor fell lightly. She gave a wrench of frenzy; the antique fabric refused the strain; parted at the shoulder seam so thoroughly that the whole sleeve came away--but not to its owner's release, for she had been brought round by the jerk, so that, agile as she had shown herself, the pursuer threw an arm about her neck, before she could twist away, and held her.
There was a sharp struggle, as short as it was fierce. Neither of these extraordinary wrestlers spoke. They fought. Victory hung in the balance for perhaps four seconds; then the girl was thrown heavily upon her back, in such a turmoil of snow that she seemed to be the mere nucleus of a white comet. She struggled to get up, plying knee and elbow with a very anguish of determination; but her opponent held her, pinioned both her wrists with one hand, and with the other rubbed great handfuls of snow into her face, sparing neither mouth nor eyes.
"You will!" he cried. "You will tear up my pictures! A dirty trick, and you get washed for it!"
Half suffocated, choking, gasping, she still fought on, squirming and kicking with such spirit that the pair of them appeared to the beholder like figures of mist writhing in a fountain of snow.
More violence was to mar the peace of morning. Unexpectedly attacked from the rear, the conqueror was seized by the nape of the neck and one wrist, and jerked to his feet, simultaneously receiving a succession of kicks from his assailant. Prompted by an entirely natural curiosity, he essayed to turn his head to see who this might be, but a twist of his forearm and the pressure of strong fingers under his ear constrained him to remain as he was; therefore, abandoning resistance, and, oddly enough, accepting without comment the indication that his captor desired to remain for the moment incognito, he resorted calmly to explanations.
"She tore up a picture of mine," he said, receiving the punishment without apparent emotion. "She seemed to think because she'd drawn it herself she had a right to."
There was a slight whimsical droop at the corner of his mouth as he spoke, which might have been thought characteristic of him. He was an odd- looking boy, not ill-made, though very thin and not tall. His pallor was clear and even, as though constitutional; the features were delicate, almost childlike, but they were very slightly distorted, through nervous habit, to an expression at once wistful and humorous; one eyebrow was a shade higher than the other, one side of the mouth slightly drawn down; the eyelids twitched a little, habitually; the fine, blue eyes themselves were almost comically reproachful--the look of a puppy who thinks you would not have beaten him if you had known what was in his heart. All of this was in the quality of his voice, too, as he said to his invisible captor, with an air of detachment from any personal feeling:
"What peculiar shoes you wear! I don't think I ever felt any so pointed before."
The rescuing knight took no thought of offering to help the persecuted damsel to arise; instead, he tightened his grip upon the prisoner's neck until, perforce, water--not tears--started from the latter's eyes.
"You miserable little muff," said the conqueror, "what the devil do you mean, making this scene on our front lawn?"
"Why, it's Eugene!" exclaimed the helpless one. "They didn't expect you till to-night. When did you get in?"
"Just in time to give you a lesson, my buck," replied Bantry, grimly. "In GOOD time for that, my playful step-brother."
He began to twist the other's wrist--a treatment of bone and ligament in the application of which school-boys and even freshmen are often adept. Eugene made the torture acute, and was apparently enjoying the work, when suddenly--without any manner of warning--he received an astounding blow upon the left ear, which half stunned him for the moment, and sent his hat flying and himself reeling, so great was the surprise and shock of it. It was not a slap, not an open-handed push, nothing like it, but a fierce, well-delivered blow from a clinched fist with the shoulder behind it, and it was the girl who had given it.
"Don't you dare to touch Joe!" she cried, passionately. "Don't you lay a finger on him."
Furious and red, he staggered round to look at her.
"You wretched little wild-cat, what do you mean by that?" he broke out.
"Don't you touch Joe!" she panted. "Don't you--" Her breath caught and there was a break in her voice as she faced him. She could not finish the repetition of that cry, "Don't you touch Joe!"
But there was no break in the spirit, that passion of protection which had dealt the blow. Both boys looked at her, something aghast.
She stood before them, trembling with rage and shivering with cold in the sudden wind which had come up. Her hair had fallen and blew across her streaming face in brown witch-wisps; one of the ill-darned stockings had come down and hung about her shoe in folds full of snow; the arm which had lost its sleeve was bare and wet; thin as the arm of a growing boy, it shook convulsively, and was red from shoulder to clinched fist. She was covered with snow. Mists of white drift blew across her, mercifully half veiling her.
Eugene recovered himself. He swung round upon his heel, restored his hat to his head with precision, picked up his stick and touched his banjo-case with it.
"Carry that into the house," he said, indifferently, to his step-brother.
"Don't you do it!" said the girl, hotly, between her chattering teeth.
Eugene turned towards her, wearing the sharp edge of a smile. Not removing his eyes from her face, he produced with deliberation a flat silver box from a pocket, took therefrom a cigarette, replaced the box, extracted a smaller silver box from another pocket, shook out of it a fusee, slowly lit the cigarette--this in a splendid silence, which he finally broke to say, languidly, but with particular distinctness:
"Ariel Tabor, go home!"
The girl's teeth stopped chattering, her lips remaining parted; she shook the hair out of her eyes and stared at him as if she did not understand, but Joe Louden, who had picked up the banjo-case obediently, burst into cheerful laughter.
"That's it, 'Gene," he cried, gayly. "That's the way to talk to her!"
"Stow it, you young cub," replied Eugene, not turning to him. "Do you think I'm trying to be amusing?"
"I don't know what you mean by `stow it,' " Joe began, "but if--"
"I mean," interrupted the other, not relaxing his faintly smiling stare at the girl--"I mean that Ariel Tabor is to go home. Really, we can't have this kind of thing occurring upon our front lawn!"
The flush upon her wet cheeks deepened and became dark; even her arm grew redder as she gazed back at him. In his eyes was patent his complete realization of the figure she cut, of this bare arm, of the strewn hair, of the fallen stocking, of the ragged shoulder of her blouse, of her patched short skirt, of the whole dishevelled little figure. He was the master of the house, and he was sending her home as ill-behaved children are sent home by neighbors.
The immobile, amused superiority of this proprietor of silver boxes, this wearer of strange and brilliant garments, became slightly intensified as he pointed to the fallen sleeve, a rag of red and snow, lying near her feet.
"You might take that with you?" he said, interrogatively.
Her gaze had not wavered in meeting his, but at this her eyelashes began to wink uncontrollably, her chin to tremble. She bent over the sleeve and picked it up, before Joe Louden, who had started towards her, could do it for her. Then turning, her head still bent so that her face was hidden from both of them, she ran out of the gate.
"DO go!" Joe called after her, vehemently. "Go! Just to show what a fool you are to think 'Gene's in earnest."
He would have followed, but his step-brother caught him by the arm. "Don't stop her," said Eugene. "Can't you tell when I AM in earnest, you bally muff!"
"I know you are," returned the other, in a low voice. "I didn't want her to think so for your sake."
"Thousands of thanks," said Eugene, airily. "You are a wise young judge. She couldn't stay-- in THAT state, could she? I sent her for her own good."
"She could have gone in the house and your mother might have loaned her a jacket," returned Joe, swallowing. "You had no business to make her go out in the street like that."
Eugene laughed. "There isn't a soul in sight --and there, she's all right now. She's home."
Ariel had run along the fence until she came to the next gate, which opened upon a walk leading to a shabby, meandering old house of one story, with a very long, low porch, once painted white, running the full length of the front. Ariel sprang upon the porch and disappeared within the house.
Joe stood looking after her, his eyelashes winking as had hers. "You oughtn't to have treated her that way," he said, huskily.
Eugene laughed again. "How were YOU treating her when I came up? You bully her all you want to yourself, but nobody else must say even a fatherly word to her!"
"That wasn't bullying," explained Joe. "We fight all the time."
"Mais oui!" assented Eugene. "I fancy!"
"What?" said the other, blankly.
"Pick up that banjo-case again and come on," commanded Mr. Bantry, tartly. "Where's the mater?"
Joe stared at him. "Where's what?"
"The mater!" was the frowning reply.
"Oh yes, I know!" said Joe, looking at his step- brother curiously. "I've seen it in stories. She's up-stairs. You'll be a surprise. You're wearing lots of clothes, 'Gene."
"I suppose it will seem so to Canaan," returned the other, weariedly. "Governor feeling fit?"
"I never saw him," Joe replied; then caught himself. "Oh, I see what you mean! Yes, he's all right."
They had come into the hall, and Eugene was removing the long coat, while his step-brother looked at him thoughtfully.
"'Gene," asked the latter, in a softened voice, "have you seen Mamie Pike yet?"
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