Bits of Glass
Bits of Glass
By JAMES OPPENHEIM
ILLUSTRATED BY LUCIUS W. HITCHCOCK
A CLEAN new moon followed me at the right—only twenty minutes before I had seen it dulling the black of the Hudson from above the Palisades—when I came down the lamp-spaced road of Van Cortlandt Park. Each lamp dimmed the moon and the stars, but there were stretches where the trees became alive, and curves that revealed, far away, the lights—the parallel lines, the rectangles of the night city, and once, perched on its hill, the electric park of Washington Heights hanging like a fairy world in the skies. These, and a certain starry excitation in the cool air, made me happy. But the swift plunge of automobiles, a blotch of light, a blur of black, and a red tail lamp marred the pleasure. ...
Two years of wandering had passed; and now New York called me again. Yet as I caught glimpses of her white night, I wondered. The country was at its best; orchards of blossoms, dogwood-lighted woods, and the silent marches of the sun gave me the busy content of the bees and the ants. I thought of Kipling's phrase, "The little street-bred people," and that other, "The man-stifled town." It seemed foolish to step into so artificial a world.
I HAD almost a mind to turn back when I met Henley. A policeman had stopped an automobile, and the man was in front lighting the lamp. As the blaze caught, his face shone suddenly, and despite the spectacles and the shaved appearance, I recognized him. I was amazed. I should have been less surprised to have seen Henley come running down the road clad only in tar and feathers, with a mob howling at his back, for he had always been one of those careless yet incisive people who plant mental dynamite wherever they go. In fact, he had been a wild and shabby young doctor: an experimental Don Juan, a joyous revolutionist, a lawbreaker, not through perversity but through his love for Utopia. And here he was spectacled and citified, hitched up to an automobile, with only his altercation with a policeman to remember his youth by.
I strolled up.
"Hello, Pony," I murmured.
He leaped up; he looked; he was a little uncertain.
"Not Thad Stevens?"
"Yes, Poindexter Henley," I replied. "But it's not I that have changed."
He made a grimace and looked down at himself.
"Yes," he muttered. "I'm tame. And you—you bad penny! Yes, officer, she's lit; now watch me break the four-mile-an-hour speed law; and," he laughed heartily, "catch me if you can!"
That was Henley all over; he was so stirred to see me again that he tried to pick a fight with the policeman. Next he had me by the arm and was piling me in with him next the driving seat.
"You're probably going the other way, but I've got you now. ... Sweet dreams, Officer McPherson!" And with that the still and throbbing machine bolted and we flowed into the night. I felt as if Henley and the car were one; the car merely a part of his body and his ardent power, releasing him with tremendous directness through space. He turned toward me, suddenly.
"I suppose, Thad," he said in his sharp, quick way, "that you're still a tramp, geographically unplaced. And you're wondering at my get-up and my plutocratic power. It looks bad, I admit. ... Well, my boy, I'm out of general practice; I'm a specialist, an eye specialist, upper West Side, and I'm putting windows in the populace. ... Not as rich as I look, either; in fact, I'm an honest doctor. But I've been absorbed by civilization, and I'm working for the great modern god Efficiency." And with that be put bis foot down on my shoe and stepped, so that I understood that his words were an attempt to conceal his vital joy in seeing me.
"Well, I'm dazed," I said truthfully. I remembered how, ten years before, he had gone around airing his radical views on marriage and property until his friends ostracized him and drove him out of the city: now here he was, tame and conforming, established and successful. "You've not turned conservative?" I asked.
"No," he laughed. "It's merely that the rest of the world has caught up with me. Time has made me quite the proper thing."
THAT didn't quite satisfy me. In fact, it merely fanned the flame of my growing curiosity. Why, why, I asked myself, had he allowed himself to be tamed? What was the secret of it? Had success clipped his wings?
"But what do you get out of it, Pony?" I demanded. "What's the adventure in glassing a lot of money-fat patients? What's the savage fun in being a glazier for human mansions? I'll bet you're married."
"Yes!" he said in his joyous way. "I got married and respectable five years ago."
"Oh! Any children?"
"No. Wasn't that a thrilling risk?"
The "risk" was a belated truck in the lonely, lamplit spaces of upper Broadway. The curses of the driver followed us. And as Henley let out the speed, I felt again the correspondence between himself and the machine. This one-time rebel had become, like the machine, a civilized efficient: swift, dynamic, harmonized: yet something of wings surely. All the car's power, its life, gathered through every part of it and poured itself, machine and all, into space-annihilating speed. It was a specialist in speed. Henley, it struck me, had become similar: all his life and power probably pouring itself into one thing—eyes. Easily we curved into the river road, and in a few moments, darting down beside the one string of lights, we had the dark Hudson beside us. and a dusk of moonlight racing us down the waters. Other cars passed us, going up; and a few pairs of lovers strolled beside the pathway's wooden fence. The joy of speed almost made thought and speech a burden; but I had resolved to tear out the heart of the mystery.
Henley turned toward me with new interest—yes, with a boy's enthusiasm.
"Say, you," he cried vehemently, "I know what's the matter with you. It's eyes!"
"Of course, it's eyes," I laughed ruefully. "Everything's eyes to an eye specialist. What are you going to do? Talk me into feeling sick?"
HE did not notice me; he was quivering with his discovery.
"Thad," he said, "here's your case: You can't do indoor work, civilized work, for any length of time, You get restless, headachy, insomniac; you want to jump out of your skin; you're only happy and healthy out in the open, out where you've got distance all around you. So, after a few months of work, you get up and go. That's why you're a nomad, a tramp. Isn't that so?"
I felt powerless. "Well, what of it?" I asked roughly.
"Eyes. You're far-sighted."
I felt a lifetime of freedom in the balance; I roused myself.
"Well," I said, "so be it. The farther I can see, the better."
"Tut, man," he exclaimed, "you think it's love of nature, love of freedom. No such thing. You remember George Wright? He was just like you: kept Martha Hansel waiting years while he tried to make money ranching, prospecting, and flying over the face of the earth. Martha was turning into a dry old maid, and I said to her: 'Next time George comes to New York make him come up, if you have to break your engagement to do it.' And he came; and one eye was five times as farsighted as the other. I gave him glasses; now he's in insurance, is married, has two children, and lives happily ever after."
"Where did I read that ad?" I asked, forcing a laugh; for nothing shakes and makes human faith more than this before-and-after business.
"Go and see George and ask him," he challenged. "That's how I tamed myself. I was astigmatic; half an hour of near work made me jumping crazy and turned me into a revolutionist. Don't you see: evolution made the eye for rough and far work; civilization, cities, impose near work; and just as civilization demands wheels for our feet"—he gave the car extra speed to emphasize this—"so it demands glasses for our eyes."
I SAW my happy gypsy future fading away. It was cruel.
"I suppose you're for glassing the whole human race?"
"Not all," he said absently, "but nearly all."
"Well," I said, "I'm against it. What, take all the spirit out of the people? Make them efficient, calm, judicial? Kill out revolt?"
"Tut," he laughed, "if I could fit New York with five million spectacles I'd make it the first city of the world. And crime? Do you know that a lot of crime comes from eye strain? You put a bad-eyed boy in school: near work makes him crazy, gives him headaches, turns his stomach. He becomes a truant; a truant falls in with idlers; idlers thieve. You send him to the reformatory: there near work is inescapable. He comes out sullen and savage. I've reformed men after three terms in prison."
"Pony," I said calmly, "you're like all the specialists: I wouldn't trust you with the eyes of a cat." He laughed joyously. Then suddenly we shot into Broadway and went spinning through the brilliant, crowded city. The night tides flowed up and down in the glow of the shop windows and the theatres.
"So," I cried, "you're in the business of taming humanity! Well, you'll never get glasses on me. Glasses! Cages! And so that's how our mad, wild Henley has become a domesticated city man; and, having spoiled yourself, you're for spoiling me. Well," I concluded, "if it's eye strain that makes me a tramp, I thank the fates for bad eyes!I"
"Oh, do you?" he queried in a voice that held ulterior meanings. "Well," he swung the car round a corner and stopped before a handsome apartment house, "here we are. See the sign?"
It was in the ground-floor window: "Dr. Poindexter Henley."
"It's too respectable," I murmured.
He ran the car into a near by garage, and I followed him back to the house. ...
"Thad," he said earnestly, grasping my arm and showing me by his lighted face his wondrous joy in seeing me, "you had no special place to go to to-night?"
"Oh," I said weakly, "I was thinking of Johnny McMann, whose saloon is over on Third Avenue. It's not so respectable over there."
"You let McMann go; is it eight years or ten since we saw each other? Come on; I'm hungry to hear the 'portance in your travels' history."
I hesitated, and he shrewdly guessed my trouble.
"I swear, Thad," he cried, "that I won't look at your eyes—unless you want me to."
We laughed then, and in I went. But I had my misgivings. In some way it seemed more perilous to go into Henley's office than into a den of murderers. Must I lose my life for the sake of civilizing my eyes? It appeared to me that the power of the modern doctor is as dogmatic and tyrannic as that of the medieval church. What chances has the layman when he gets into the clutches of these priests of the body?
But in I went; and not until a voice from the far darkness pierced our reminiscences at 2 a. m. with a "Po, you come to bed!" did we stretch ourselves. We had quite forgotten that disturbing element in a man's world—woman.
He looked a bit guilty. "Pony," I said, "I'm not sure that it was glasses. It may have been woman."
HE AIRED the room to clean it of any detestable pipe smoke, and then handed me two pamphlets. One was, necessarily, "Eye Strain," but the other was, "The Injurious Effects of Tobacco."
"No, you don't!" I cried in revolt. "You skunk, aren't you satisfied with my eyes? Must I give you my pipe, too?"
"It won't hurt you to read it, will it?" he said blithely. "If you had time I'd give you another on nose-stoppage; I notice you breathe through your mouth every third or fourth time. Then, too, I've one on psychoanalysis."
"A breach of hospitality!" I exclaimed.
He ignored me and began looking into his appointment book.
"You must see some of the work in the morning. Nine o'clock, Sam Podkin. ...Lord, don't miss Sam. A boy of seven, blind—"
"Blind?" Then I sneered: "I suppose you'll make him see—"
He looked at me, troubled.
"I wish I could, poor kid! But it's a thousand—no, a million—to one shot. There are limitations," he sighed.
"Not to your enthusiasm," I added.
"No," he said in a stirring voice, "I just love this work!"
He showed me in to my little back room then, and, sitting on my bed, I couldn't resist the tobacco pamphlet. It held me like the Ancient Mariner's Eye (which, I presume, must have been astigmatic, too). And then, to my joy, I learned that all my symptoms could be traced to smoking.
"Oh, these specialists!" I chortled. "And I presume the nose man would have traced it all to my nose; and the psycho man to my psycho. Abjure doctors; enjoy life."
I went to bed more like my old self; but my curiosity about Henley increased. What, after all, had tamed him? Not a childless marriage, not his twisted theories on eyes, not his money-stupefied patients, not mere success? What then? The man had always been an adventurer, a fighter, a visionary; how had he allowed himself to be trimmed, clipped, spectacled, and leveled down to the city average? I determined to risk my eyes, even my pipe, and stay on, and see.
WE breakfasted out at a little restaurant, such was the easy, servantless come-and-go of his home; I did not even see his wife. And at breakfast he told me a little more about the first case of the morning.
"You see, every now and then, I remember my youth, and go out and round up some kids who can't afford an eye doctor. Sam comes from a big public school in the Bronx; the principal is sending him down in a sort of hopeless Charge-of-the-Four-Hundred spirit." He laughed. "I think I'll have to put up a sign over my door: 'The Last Resort.' ... Well, Sam was in school for a month before they really spotted him. Poor kid sat there willing his blind eyes, amazingly stupid. So they sent him to the blind school—tried to put eyes in his fingers. No use; his mother is an ignorant Russian, his father tubercular; they don't cooperate. So now it's up to me."
"Ever seen him?"
"No—and he's never seen me, and I'm afraid he never will."
We went back to the office. The place had changed miraculously. Three assistants, all, of course, spectacled, were at work on lenses, the telephone, and at the card index. Henley, like a charging bull, with nostrils dilated, was on the edge of swinging into action. I held his attention a moment.
"Does your wife wear glasses, too?"
"Yes," he murmured innocently.
"Oh!" I exclaimed joyously—and then he was lost to me. He leaped, as it were, into the morning mail and tore out its vitals. His stenographer had to sweat to keep up with him. I went into the waiting room.
THERE was nothing to do but read a pamphlet on psychoanalysis that convinced me that I was suffering from a wander obsession which could be extirpated, like pus from a wound, by tapping my subliminal mind. In the midst of my delight, however, little Sam Podkin arrived, in charge of his mother and the school nurse. His mother had him by the hand—an undersized, pale little woman, whose cheaply clad body was a mere soft bundle, the body of the tenement drudge and child bearer. Her fear was palpable; she did not know what they were going to do with her boy.
As for Sam—well, the stenographer stopped at her machine and turned and looked at him until she almost wept. He was a thin, whitish waif, patient and mild, but with his eyeballs never still. He tilted his head upward, and stepped as if with an invisible stick, the eyes darting and rolling whitely with incredible swiftness. I could not help thinking of the eyes of a rat.
"Yes," said the nurse to me, "just like a rat. But he's the dearest little fellow. ... Sam!"
He turned toward her, smiling very sweetly, and she put her arms about him.
"Is he stone blind?" I asked.
"Not exactly," she replied. "He sort of sees black-shadows—he lives really in a mist, a blackish mist, and when it grows blacker he knows something is in the way; but he can't even see that much without tilting his head and rolling his eyes all around."
"But how in the world could he go to school?"
"How? Oh, when children see him in the street they rush up to him and take him by the hand. Everyone tries to help him."
"So he doesn't know what anything in the world looks like?"
"Well," she answered, "he knows in a way—by touch, faces, flowers, toys. But it's pitiful. Once a parade of soldiers went by, and, just like the other children, he rushed to the window; and there he stood, excited, rolling his eyes and hearing the shouts and laughter of the others. Nothing's worse in this world to me than a blind child. Nothing's lonelier; he lives by himself all the while; it's too dangerous to do anything."
I sat the sightless boy on my lap.
"Sam," I said, "how much do you love your mother?"
"Too much," he said in a thin whisper. His complaisant timidity was heartrending; he was simply a little flicker of life lost in universal shadow, the vast way uncharted and unknown, a very symbol of human life, I began to have a respect for my eyes that shook my self-satisfaction. "For to behold this world so wide!" What else is there that has much joy in it?
Henley came in then.
"So this is little Sam!" he said in a rich, sympathetic voice. And he seized the boy by both arms and lifted him. "Come on," he exclaimed, and we followed him into the office.
"Now, Sam," he went on, "you're not going to be afraid of me, are you? You're going to let me try to help you? You're going to do whatever I say?"
"Yes," whispered Sam.
SO HE sat the waif on a chair in a corner of the room; and the nurse pulled down the shades until the large office was in a soft twilight. The three assistants, attracted by the unusual qualities in the case, had entered also, and we all stood around in silence. All at once the moment acquired strange and deep significance; something thrilled us all; and we stood tense and expectant, hopeful in spite of our common sense. Henley pressed a brass plate on the floor, and an electric bulb above Sam's head lit up. Then Henley, seated opposite Sam, placed the little retinoscope to his eye, and the mirror caught the ray of light and doubled it back into the right eye of the boy. I was standing behind Henley, and I saw the whole interior of the eye glowing red.
"What's that?" I asked.
"The blood vessels in back of the eye," he murmured. His whole soul seemed to concentrate and pour itself through the hole of the retinoscope. "Well," he muttered, in an odd voice, "he hasn't any iris; it's all pupil. See? Instead of round, it's big and loaf-shaped, just as big as the iris ought to be. ... Let's see, let's see!"
The room was utterly still; we heard a taxicab throbbing out at the curb; we heard a Broadway trolley car going dully by; and I began to understand that this business of glassing human eyes had an element of terrific adventure in it. Dimly I began to understand Henley's mystery. For myself, my heart tortured me with suspense; my breath came painfully; and I prayed for miracles. Besides, the mother, somewhere back in the darkness, was breathing hoarsely like an animal. The twilight oppressed me, relieved as it was by a few teasing sunbeams in the far part of the room, in whose light I beheld a pot of ferns on a pedestal, a bit of the polished hardwood floor, and the back of a chair.
"I'm not hurting you?" asked Henley.
"No," whispered Sam.
Henley now held a lens with one hand and passed the reflected light from the retinoscope through it, up and down.
"Why that?" I asked.
"The shadow test," he replied. "I watch the shadow inside the eyeball. If it goes up when the ray goes down, the eye needs a convex lens; if it follows the ray down, then a concave. So I'll keep trying lenses until the shadow stands still."
MY LAY mind balked: but I could now follow the process. Lens after lens he tried and put aside: it looked as if he must exhaust his whole boxful. We became restive, and the air seemed full of pain. The mother was almost panting with suspense and fright.
Then suddenly Henley cried: "There!" I stooped over his shoulder. "Do you see?" he asked me. "No matter how I jiggle the light, the shadow stands still. Do you see?"
I didn't, of course, but I was impatient. "Yes," I murmured.
He put the retinoscope away.
"You can pull up the shades, Miss Perkins," he said in an unsteady voice. "Now for the test. But don't expect anything," he warned us.
The room was flooded with brilliance; we could see the people passing out on the street. Then we all drew closer to Henley. He picked up the big, crude test spectacles and set them on the boy's eyes and ears.
"Now, Sam," he murmured softly, taking the boy's hands, "I'm going to try something, and you must tell me if anything happens. And you're not afraid, are you? You like me, don't you?"
"Yes," whispered Sam. He sat there, head tilted up, worlds away from us all.
A large moment had come; we leaned close, our hearts bolting from our breasts. Then deliberately Henley picked up three lenses and slid them into the apertures of the spectacles. He sat back weakly.
All at once, the sound stabbing to the very center of our hearts, Sam began laughing. He leaped up, dancing. He laughed hysterically, loudly.
"Sam," cried the doctor, "what is it?"
He pointed to the pot of fern.
"Oh, the flowers!" he shouted in a loud voice, "the lovely flowers!"
We were crying great tears. Henley himself was unnerved and sobbed aloud. And the mother: the cry that rose was almost a scream.
And Sam had scurried across the room and was fingering the ferns with both hands and looking at the delicate vines one way and another. "Oh," he shouted again, "the lovely flowers!"
He turned; he saw us; he studied us with amazement, the human race revealed to him, as a race of Martians or angels might be revealed to us. And the Russian woman was advancing strangely toward him. He gazed at her—he gazed and gazed. This was the supreme revelation.
"Oh, lovely mother!" he cried out. "Lovely mother! Beautiful mother!"
She clutched him in her arms.
"And Sam," I murmured to Henley, "is the only person in the world who knows what vision is."
IT was indeed so. After we had wept clean our suffocated hearts, our happiness was wonderful.
"We learn in school," said Sam, when we questioned him, "that there's flowers grow in a pot."
We showed him a picture in the paper, upside down. He set it right.
"Nobody stands on her head," he remarked.
Every bit of color, every shape, every form, the electric lights, the lenses, the whole world, was, by the lifting of his optic curtain, flashed before him in its true light. He knew, he knew what miracles we move among; he alone, in that moment, had eyes.
I took Henley aside after Sam left.
"I know the secret now," I said. "I know what has tamed you."
He smiled on me.
"So," he said, "I'm not so crazy after all."
It was, of course, that he had put aside lesser adventures for a greater one, a more modern one: the social adventure, the creation of the higher humanity. His conformity was merely open and external, his radicalism deeper than ever. He was still trembling when he held up the two lenses that had given the world to Sam.
"Talk about your miracles!" he cried. "Look at these—these two bits of glass. Glass man; not religion, not heaven opening with trumpet-lipped angels; but just ground glass. What do you think about my job now?"
"Test my eyes," I said weakly.
HIS assistant kept dropping homatropine and cocaine between my lids for an hour; then Henley found me—confound his accuracy!—just farsighted enough to make me a criminal, an exponent of sabotage, a tramp and a loafer.
Three days later the glasses would be ready, and I would put aside my wander years and become civilized. But that second night I was in Central Park. A larger moon looked down on lovers, and the ashen night was full of the splash of little waters.
I decided to write Henley a little note; for at midnight I leaned over McCann's bar on Third Avenue.
"Make it dark," I said, "and give me your biggest black cigar. And, Johnny, if I squint, know that homatropine is in my eyes and sabotage is in my heart. To-morrow for fresh fields and pastures new!"
After all, there are enough finished products.