By Arthur Train
"HARRY might have stopped!" thought Brown, as a stalwart young man strode briskly past with a short "Good evening." "I've not had a chance to speak to him for a month." He hesitated as if doubtful whether or not to follow and overtake the other, then turned in his original direction. His delight in the scene about him was too exquisite to be interrupted even for a talk with his friend. Dusk was just falling. For an instant a purple glow lingered upon the spires of the beautiful gray cathedral, whose chimes were softly echoing above the murmur of the city; then the light slipped upward and upward, until, touching the topmost point, it vanished into the darkening blue.
All about him jingled the sleigh-bells; long lines of equipages carrying gorgeously dressed women moved in continuous streams in each direction; hundreds of lamps began to gleam in the windows and along the Avenue; a kaleidoscopic electric sign, changing momentarily, flashed parti-colored showers of light across the house-tops; big automobiles, full of jolly parties of men and women in enormous fur coats and grotesque visors, buzzed and hissed along; newsboys shrilly called their items; warm, humid breaths of fragrance rolled out from the florists' shops; smells of confections, of sachet, of gasoline, of soft-coal smoke, together with that of roses and damp fur, hung on the keen air.
The greatest pleasure in Brown's life, next to his friendship for Harry Rogers, was his continuously fresh wonder at and appreciation for the complex, brilliant, palpitating life of the great city in which he, the taciturn New Englander, had come to live. The richness of his present experience glowed against the sombre background of his past, touching emotions hitherto dormant and unrecognized. He realized as yet only the mysterious charm, the overwhelming attraction of his new surroundings; and every sense, dwarfed by inheritance, chilled by the east wind, throbbed and tingled in response. So far as Brown knew happiness this was its consummation; and it was all due to Rogers. As Brown wandered along the crowded thoroughfare his mind dwelt fondly upon his friend. He recalled their chance introduction two years before at the Colonial Club in Cambridge, through Harry's friend Winthrop, and how his heart had instantly gone out to the courteous and responsive stranger. That meeting had been the first shimmer of light through the musty chrysalis of Brown's existence.
Shortly afterward he had given up his place in the English department at Harvard at the suggestion of one of the faculty and accepted a position at Columbia. The professor had hinted that he was too good a man to wait for the slow promotion incident to a scholastic career at Harvard, and had mentioned New York as offering immeasurably greater opportunities. The advice had appealed to Brown and he had acted upon it.
He remembered how lonely he had been the first few weeks after his arrival. In that hot and sultry September the city had seemed a prison. He had longed for the green elms, the hazy downs, the earthy dampness of his solitary evening walks. One broiling day he had encountered Rogers on the Elevated railroad. The latter had not recognized him at first, but presently had recalled their first meeting.
Brown in his enthusiasm had spoken familiarly of Winthrop, explaining in detail his own departure from Cambridge and his plans for the future. He was nevertheless rather surprised to receive within a week a note from Mrs. Rogers inviting him to spend a Sunday with them at their country place. What that had meant to him!
At college he had taken high rank and was graduated at the top of his class, but he had made no friends. He would have given ten years of his life for a single companion to throw an arm around his shoulder and call him by his Christian name. He had never been "old man" to anybody—only Mr. Brown. At night when he had heard the clinking of glasses and the bursts of laughter in the adjoining rooms as he sat by his kerosene lamp reading Milton, or Bacon or "The Idio-Psychological Theory of Ethics," he would sometimes drop his books, turn out the light and creep into the hall, listening to what he could not share. Then with the tears burning in his eyes he would stumble back to his lonely room and to bed.
When he had achieved the ambition of his college days and by heartbreaking and unremitted drudgery had secured a position upon the faculty, he had found his relations still unchanged. His shell had hardened. From Mr. Brown he had become merely "Old Brown."
And then how easily he had stepped into this other life! The Rogerses had received him with open arms; their house had become the only real home he had ever known; and his affection for his new friends had blossomed for him almost into a romance. Even when Harry was busy or away Brown would drop in on Mrs. Rogers of an evening and read aloud to her from his favorite authors. He tried to guide her reading and sent her books, and little Jack he loved with all his heart.
The friendship, beginning thus auspiciously, continued for many months: Rogers put him up at the club and introduced him to his friends, so that Brown slipped into a delightful circle of acquaintances, and found his horizon broadening unexpectedly. Life assumed an entirely fresh significance, and although, by reason of a constitutional bluntness of perception, he failed utterly to discriminate between superficial politeness on the part of others and genuine interest, the world in which he was now living seemed to overflow with the milk of human kindness.
Brown had been making afternoon calls. The friendly cup of tea was to him a delightful innovation, and he cultivated it assiduously. He paused in front of a large corner house and hopefully ascended the steps.
"Not at 'ome," intoned the butler in response to his inquiry.
He turned down a side street, but no better success awaited him. He had found no one "at home" that afternoon. Usually he had better luck. But it was getting late and almost time to dress for dinner, and, although Brown usually dined alone, he had become very particular about dressing for his evening meal. His heart was bursting with good nature as he sauntered along in the brisk evening air.
This New York was a great place! There rose before him the vision of his little room in the Appian Way in Cambridge. Had he remained he would be just about going over to "Memorial" for his supper at the ill-assorted and uncongenial "graduates" table" to which he had belonged. Jaggers would have been there, and the Botany man, and that "fresh" chap, who ran the business end of The Crimson, and was always chaffing him about society. He smiled as he thought of the quiet corner of the club, and of the little table with its snowy linen by the window, which he had appropriated.
In Cambridge he had passed long months without experiencing anything more stimulating than a Sunday afternoon call on a professor's daughter or an occasional trip into Boston for the theatre, supplemented by a solitary Welsh rabbit at Billy Park's. Other men in the department had belonged to the Tavern Club, in Boston, or the Cambridge Dramatic Society, but he had never been asked to join anything, nor had he possessed the entrée even to the modest society of Cambridge. He was obliged to acknowledge—and it was in a measure gratifying to him to do so, since it threw his success into the higher relief—that judged by present standards his old life had been an absolute failure. No matter how genial he had tried to be, he had elicited little or no response. The days had been one dull round of tramping from his meals to lectures, and from lectures to the library. Although he had had no friends among his classmates, he had at least known their faces, but after graduation he had found himself, as it were, alone among strangers. As time went on he had become desperately unhappy and his work had suffered in consequence.
Then he had come to New York. As if sent by Fate, Rogers had appeared, sought his companionship, made much of him. He began to think that perhaps he had misinterpreted the attitude of his quondam associates—they were such a quiet, prosaic, hard-working lot—so different from these debonair New Yorkers. And was not the cane they had presented to him on his departure a good evidence of their esteem? He swung it proudly. How well he recalled the moment when old Curtis had placed the treasure of gold and mahogany in his hands and, in the presence of his colleagues, had made his little speech, expressing their regret at losing him and wishing him all success. Then the others had clapped and cheered and he had stammered out his thanks. The presentation had been a tremendous surprise. Well, they were a good sort; a little dull, perhaps, but a good sort!
Then, too, he felt himself a better man for his association with Rogers and his friends. It was such a new sensation to be appreciated and made something of that he had grown spiritually broader and taller. It had been very hard in Cambridge, where he had felt himself neglected and passed over, not to be selfish and spiteful. His standards had imperceptibly lowered. He had "looked at mean things in a mean way." Here it was different. With genial, broad-minded associates he had become warm-hearted and liberal. His drooping ideals had reared their heads. He felt new confidence in and respect for himself. Now he looked the world squarely in the eye. His work was improving, and the faculty at Columbia had expressed their appreciation of it. Life had never been so worth living. No one, he resolved, should ever suspect how small and narrow he had been before. He would always be the cheerful, generous, kindly chap for whom everybody seemed to take him. He had become a new man by reason of a little human sympathy.
"How busy people are!" he thought. "I guess I'll have another try at Rogers." He crossed the Avenue, found the house, and rang the bell. The bay-window of the drawing-room was on a level with where he stood, and he caught a glimpse of Mrs. Rogers sitting beside a cozy tea table, and of little Jack playing by the fire. The maid, slipping aside the silk curtain before opening the door, inspected the visitor.
"Mrs. Rogers is not at home."
Brown was paralyzed at such open prevarication.
"I—I beg your pardon. But I think Mrs. Rogers is in."
"Mrs. Rogers is not receiving," curtly replied the maid.
Brown, vanquished but unconvinced, turned down the steps. At the bottom he stopped with a quick breath and glanced back at the house. Then he gave his trousers leg a cut with his gold-headed cane, and with a courageous whistle started up the Avenue again.
He was a bit puzzled. He was sure he could have done nothing to displease his friends. It was probably just a mistake; they had visitors, perhaps, or the child was not well. He would call up Rogers on the telephone next day and inquire.
He walked to the boarding-house and in the little hall bedroom he called "his rooms" put on the dinner coat of which he was so proud. It had cost sixty dollars at Rogers's tailor. He had never owned anything of the sort before. When he had been invited out to tea in Cambridge, which had been but rarely, he had always worn a "cutaway."
He found Stebbins, the club bore, in the coat-room, invited him to dinner, and insisted on ordering a bottle of fine old claret. Stebbins, in his opinion, was most clever and entertaining.
After the meal his companion hurried away to an engagement, and Brown, lighting a cigar, strolled into the common-room, drew an armchair into the embrasure of a window, and sat there dreaming, at peace with all the world. The kindly faces of Rogers, his wife and little Jack mingled together in a drowsy picture above the fragrant smoke wreaths. The bitterness of his past was all forgotten. The poverty and loneliness of his college days, the torture of his isolation in Cambridge, the regret for youth's lost opportunities faded from his mind, and in their place he felt the warm breath of love and friendship, of kindness and appreciation, and the tiny clasp of the hand of little Jack.
"God bless them all!" He closed his eyes. It seemed as though the boy were lying in his arms, the little head pressed against his shoulder. He held him tight and kissed the curly hair; his own head dropped lower; the cigar fell from his hand; behind the curtain Brown fell fast asleep.
Half an hour later into his dream floated the voices of Rogers and Winthrop. A slight draught of air flowed beneath the curtain. Someone struck a bell and ordered coffee and cigars close by, and the cracking of six or seven matches marked the number of those who had sat down together beside the window. He listened vaguely, too comfortably happy to disclose himself.
"You've got a lot of college men, I hear, in the district attorney's office," remarked one of the group, evidently to Rogers. "How do you like the work down there?"
"Oh, well enough," came the reply. "Trying cases is always interesting, you know. By the way, Win, speaking of college men, exactly who is your friend Brown?"
The dreamer behind the curtain smiled to himself. "Rogers might well ask that," he thought.
"Brown?" return Winthrop. "You wrote me he was in New York, didn't you? Why, you must have known him in Cambridge. He was the great light of my class—don't you remember?—president of the 'Pudding,' stroked the 'Varsity, and took a commencement part besides. A kind of 'Admirable Crichton.' I'm glad you've seen something of him here."
There was silence for a moment or two.
Obviously, thought Brown, Winthrop was confusing him with someone else.
"No, no," exclaimed Rogers impatiently, "you mean Nelson Brown; but he's on a tobacco plantation down in Cuba. The man I speak of is a little chap with a big head and protruding ears. You introduced me to him at the Colonial Club a year ago last spring."
"Oh, well, I may have done so," answered Winthrop. "I don't recall it. I think there was a fellow named Brown who used to hang around there—but he's no friend of mine. Who said he was?"
"Hang it! You did yourself, in your letter to me," came Rogers's retort.
"Nonsense! I was writing about Nelson!"
Rogers smothered an ejaculation more forcible than elegant, but his annoyance seemed presently to give way to amusement, and he laughed heartily.
"Look here, boys, what do you think of this? Two years ago I run on to Cambridge, and while there happen to meet a chap named Brown. A year later he turns up on the Elevated and greets me like a long-lost brother. I mention the incident in a letter to Win. He replies that Brown is the finest thing that ever came down the pike. He refers to Nelson Brown. I suppose he means my Brown. Thereupon I take this unknown person to my bosom and place my home at his disposal. He promptly squats on the premises, drives my wife nearly frantic, bores all my friends to death, and in a short time makes himself an unmitigated nuisance. Fortunately, he hasn't asked me for money. Now, who the devil is he?"
"Don't know him from Adam!" said Winthrop.
"I know who he is," interjected one of the others. "Took a course of his on the 'Philology of Psychology' or the 'Psychology of Philology' or something. He's just an ass—a surly beggar—a sort of—of—curmudgeon!"
The window curtain trembled slightly, but no one noticed it.
"I can tell you rather a good story about Brown," spoke up a voice that had hitherto been silent. "You know I taught for a time in the English department last year. Brown meant well enough, I guess, but he was an odd creature. His great ambition evidently was to get into society. Every Sunday he would put on his togs and call on all the unfortunate people he knew. Finally everybody showed him the door. He got to be so intolerable that the department fired him, to our intense relief. No one cared what became of him—so long as he only went. But Curtis—you remember old Curtis with the white hair and mustache?—he felt sorry for Brown and thought we ought at least to make a pretense of regret at having him leave. He suggested various things, but his ideas didn't arouse any sympathy, and we thought that was going to end the matter. Not a bit of it. Curtis went into town, all alone, and, although he is rather hard up himself, bought a gold-headed mahogany cane for forty-five dollars, and next day, when we were all at a department meeting, presented it to Brown, from the crowd, and got off a whole lot of stuff intended to cheer our departing friend. Of course we had to be decent enough to see the thing through, and Brown took it all in and almost wept when he thanked us. A few days afterward Curtis came around and wanted us all to contribute to pay for the cane."
"Well!" responded Rogers. "Even my little boy knew there was something wrong with him the first time they met—children are like dogs, you know, in that way. Jack whispered to his mother while Brown was grimacing at him, 'Mama, is that a gentleman?' Thought Brown was a gas-man or a window-cleaner, you know."
"Poor brute!" commented Winthrop. "Anyhow, Harry, your mistake has probably given him a lot of pleasure. No wonder he seized the opportunity. You can drop him by degrees so that, perhaps, he'll never suspect. Still, if he's as thick as you say he may give you trouble yet! Hello, it's a quarter-past eight already! We shall have to run if we expect to see the first act. Come on, fellows!"
Half hidden behind the curtain in the window, Brown sat staring out into the night.
Hour after hour passed; the servants looked into the deserted room, observed him, apparently asleep, and departed noiselessly. One o'clock came, and Peter, the doorman, crossed over and touched him gently on the shoulder, saying that it was time to close the club. Brown mechanically arose, followed Peter to the coat-room, and then, with eyes still fixed vacantly before him, silently passed out.
"You've left your cane, sir!" Peter called after him.
But Brown paid no heed.