Jimsie's Afternoon Off
Jimsie's Afternoon Off
By MARY HEATON VORSE
With Illustrations by David Robinson
IT was just about half past twelve on the last Saturday half holiday that Jimsie Bate entered the restaurant and sat down at one of the marble-topped tables and helped himself to a napkin in the middle. Next him sat a complaining-looking woman, middle aged, with a long nose; she was eating a wholesome lunch of pie, doughnuts and coffee. A man on his other side was gobbling beef stew in a hurry to get back to his job. Opposite Jimsie a pert miss with a blond pompadour and pink cheeks was, as Jimsie thought to himself disgustedly, "shoving buckwheat cakes into herself. "He noticed she had put sugar on top of the maple syrup.
Jimsie's glance at her had been as indefinite as a drifting leaf—if it had expressed anything, it had expressed disapproval; but the girl had been conscious that she had been looked at by a young man. She let her eyes—eyes as frank and unreserved as the windows of an apothecary's shop—rest on Jimsie. Jimsie was good to look at.
Jimsie scowled and looked at his plate. Experience had taught him that in another minute they'd be talking across the table.
The restaurant was filled with a mighty clash of dishes. Waitresses, pale with the heat of the long summer, ran about nimbly, carrying incredible piles of dishes. To the clangor of the dishes was added the whirr of the electric fans and the uproar of the elevated outside, and the bang-banging of cable cars. All around humanity fed itself. Men fed doggedly, expeditiously; fed mostly on meat. The women were more languid. No one could move without adding his quota of noise to the uproar. The floors of cement, the marble tables, the white-tiled walls, all sent their fraction of noise into the general din.
It was a hideous place to eat, thought Jimsie; and he was doing it for Louise. Well, what do girls care for sacrifices—what do women know of the world? There was Louise in her shady, cool home, while Jimsie—poor Jimsie—toiled on and on in the heat of a great city, giving his life to work, denying himself even the small luxury of a quiet place to eat for Louise's sake; saving—yes, actually saving, putting aside money—for the home that they would make together. He wanted no credit for that—he was glad to do it, of course—but when he asked for his last Saturday afternoon to be spent in quiet, alone with Louise somewhere, she had turned her eyes on him with sweet surprise and said:
"Why, Jimsie, you know we promised to go to the Morrisons Saturday afternoon. They're giving a garden party just because it is the last Saturday afternoon, you know, and all the boys can come."
"Have I got to sit around all afternoon in a garden," Jimsie had demanded, "and watch you talk to other people, Louise? What I want is to go off alone with you somewhere."
"But you said you'd go, Jimsie," Louise had said, with sweet reproach. Louise was unversed in the changes of the masculine mind.
That had been the beginning. The end had been something near a quarrel. Jimsie had asserted his manhood to the extent of saying that if Louise's idea of his character was that he was just a little dog to be led at the end of a string, she was mistaken. Louise had ignored this loftily, but had insisted that if Jimsie wanted to see her, it would be at the Morrisons. She had promised them they would go—not that her plans need, of course, affect Jimsie at all; if Jimsie didn't like to go to the Morrisons, of course he needn't. She, heaven knew, wasn't going to force him to do anything against his will. Why, she asked him, hadn't he told her in time if he didn't want to go? For some unaccountable reason this had enraged Jimsie still further, and they had parted with some coolness.
So that was why Jimsie, a man engaged to be married, was indulging in the emotions of a sixteen-year-old boy who has quarreled with his sweetheart. But a man cannot stay a boy forever, and Fate sometimes chooses a series of odd events to make a man of him.
Meantime here was Jimsie, at the beginning of his last Saturday afternoon of summer, eating alone in a restaurant hideous with noise. Where was the bunch? Jimsie wondered. He didn't know. After all, he considered, just because a fellow's engaged, his friends didn't need to shun him like he had the leprosy! He hadn't stopped to think about it much until now, but now that he did, he felt aggrieved. There was Edith Sessions—she had pretended to be such a good friend of his; since he was engaged, he practically hadn't seen her at all! Earlier in the day he had telephoned to her office to find out if they couldn't go somewhere together that afternoon, but she had replied that she was going somewhere with Darrow. Fat old Darrow was a very good fellow in his way; but when a girl is working on a newspaper, alone in a great city, she can't be too careful in her associates, Jimsie thought severely. He had once spent a great deal of time with Edith himself, and he couldn't but feel it was a comedown for her to take up with Darrow.
It was pretty hard lines for a man all through! Your friends go back on you—they don't care a hang where you spend your last Saturday; the girl you're engaged to wants to go to a fool garden party, and doesn't care enough for you to give it up for your sake! But then, Jimsie thought magnanimously, young girls like amusement and gaiety—let Louise go and enjoy herself. Perhaps she'd miss Jimsie. This cheered him a little.
Meanwhile, he was saving money for Louise in the hot city. It was a man's lot——
The waitress slammed down his lunch before him, clattered the coffee on the marble, slopping some of its hot contents into the saucer. The girl across the table, with a promptness that would have led the wary to suspect she was waiting for this, here pushed the sugar to Jimsie.
"Thanks," he said, and looked up and met her frank, handsome eyes squarely.
"You're entirely welcome, " she replied, and smiled, a triumphant, gay sort of smile, that had any number of very white teeth in it.
The table had thinned out. The droopy lady with the long nose had left. The men on either side had finished feeding. Jimsie and the girl were alone but for one old man down at the other end of the line of chairs. The girl was seated opposite Jimsie. The departure of the others had thrown them together.
Jimsie looked up from his plate at the girl. She sat there eating tranquilly, leisurely, nerveless, composed. In her bearing was no more self-consciousness than there was timidity; either of them would have been as out of place in her as in a statue in a public park. People could come and go, stare at her, talk lo her, she would stare back at them, talk with them, give back joke for joke with the same indifferent friendliness with which she had smiled at Jimsie.
Her face, Jimsie noted, had a delicate bloom of tan. The short hair lower on her forehead showed out blond against it, lighter than her skin. It seemed like a barbarism to Jimsie that they should sit there with only the narrow strip of marble table between them, and not talk.
Then his own grievances enveloped him again, until the girl's second order of buckwheat cakes came, when Jimsie pushed back the sugar. They smiled at each other again; Jimsie had the sort of smile that wins the hearts of children.
"Keep it up," said the girl, "I like to see you look that way."
"What way?" asked Jimsie, with another grin.
"Looking pleasant," said the girl. "It's fierce sitting opposite a sorehead."
Any sympathy, even so vague as to come in the guise of a reproach, was enough to make Jimsie's bitterness overflow into speech.
"Perhaps you'd look like a sorehead, too," said he, "if you didn't know where to go your last half holiday."
"That's me," said the girl, "—but I don't look like I'd shaken the lemon tree, do I?"
"No," said Jimsie, "you look——"
"Ah, cut it out!" She shoved the impending compliment away with a practised hand. She could push aside a compliment as readily as she could make change.
"How do you happen to be alone?" Jimsie asked.
"You see, it was like this," the girl explained. "I was starting off for lunch with my gentleman friend, an' he begun gettin' sore. 'Look here,' says I, 'when I go out I go out for a good time—see!' But he went on blowing off hot air—how I'd given the glad eye to some one. 'Well,' I says to him, 'that's business, ain't it, in my job?' I'm cashier at Bleecker's. 'You've been doing the Pinkerton act too much,' I told him. So," she finished, "we just scrapped, an' I got off the car an' come in here to eat. He'll directly get over it," she added, with tolerant understanding of the cranky ways of men.
Just how it happened Jimsie didn't give himself a clear account. It might have been her suggestion; it might have been his. It may have come to them spontaneously. At the time it seemed as simple as adding two and two—the natural outcome of things, that they should go out together. Chance had given him this and companion for a day's outing—and why not?
Jimsie found himself feeling, as they started, that he was doing rather a noble act in making good the spoiled holiday of a girl who worked hard all the week—rather a citizen of the world, he felt, too, to have done it so neatly and expeditiously, without any bowing to false standards. Now, there was Louise—much as he loved Louise, he couldn't but admit that she wouldn't have understood this. The best of women have their limitations. Indeed, Louise had ebbed away from him in a strange fashion this day.
There are tides in the affairs of the year that ebb and flow; and it was distinctly low tide with Jimsie. Bare, empty places, stretches of sand flats diversified by pools of shallow and stagnant water, are not as pleasant a spectacle as tide at flood, with the waves pounding gallantly on the shore. Jimsie distinctly preferred the high-water mark of the emotions, and he blamed Louise for the arid places in his life that were laid bare before him. Still, he was glad he could fill in this time with good works.
It was with such cheering reflections that he took the Coney Island boat, his companion close beside him. There was something about her sweet good temper, as smiling and as heart-cheering as a sunny day, that caused jimsie to expand into confidences. By the time they were half through their journey, Jimsie had told her, with artless veracity, about his engagement with Louise, about their misunderstanding, and his grouch at the "bunch" for having deserted him.
"Ain't you like a man," was Miss Sanders' comment at the end of this narrative, "making a fuss about what's your own fault!" She laughed good-humoredly over it, a laugh that implied flatteringly that the perversities of man pleased her.
Jimsie took up her guying tone with:
"You think you know a lot about men, don't you?"
"You bet I do!" she replied with promptness. "That ain't no dream. All kinds of men—every sort."
"Don't you come up against some pretty tough ones sometimes?" said Jimsie, by way of drawing her out.
"My, no!" she replied with good-humored scorn. "I know that kind as far oft as I can see 'em. They don't trouble me none. I don't mean there ain't jays that don't try to give me the fresh jolly; but I don't mind 'em."
Indeed, it was evident that Miss Sanders had a gift for "not minding" things. Jimsie was silent. His mind drifted to Louise. He tried to imagine her filling Miss Sanders' job—and failed in the attempt. He had a twinge of acute affection for—poor little Louise, who needed a strong arm to protect her and a strong hand to guide her.
"I don't mean I don't make mistakes," pursued Miss Sanders. "Now, there's you. When I first saw you, I thought, 'There's a stuck-up gazabe!'—you had such a funny look on when you first looked at me. But then I thought right away, 'There ain't nothing wrong with that kid, take him the right way.' That's all most men needs, is to be took the right way. What makes men fierce is that girls is fools. No, I saw right away you're the kind that wouldn't harm a fly."
Someway, Jimsie wasn't as flattered in his vanity as he might have been. The little stream of her talk was rapidly washing away his self-conceit. He didn't feel nearly as much the philanthropist who was bringing happiness into the life of an honest girl as he had half an hour before. Rather, his good-tempered companion seemed to be handing him out a good conduct prize for being a good little boy.
"Say," she asked suddenly, "has all the sandwiches in the world died?"
Jimsie procured some of the bad sandwiches that are found on the Coney Island boats.
"Ain't the water a lovely place to eat?" Miss Sanders murmured dreamily, disposing of the sandwiches. "You know, working like I do in a restaurant, I ain't got any use for restaurant food. What I like's things like you get down to Coney, where we're going. Do you know what one of the girls I know calls me? 'Lunch Cart Mag!' I'm awful queer; but honest, I'd rather eat stuff off'n a lunch cart than eat at Sherry's. The simple life for muh, all right. It's queer, ain't it?"
She was lost in naïve admiration of her own eccentricities.
When they arrived at last at Coney Island, "Do you swim?" she asked Jimsie.
"Sure," Jimsie answered. "Do you want lo go in for a dip?"
"You guessed right!" she affirmed cordially.
As they strolled along in the direction of the bath establishment preferred by Miss Sanders——
"I think I'll have a soft-shell sandwich, "she announced.
Imagine a boy of eight turned loose in the cake shop, without a restraining elder at hand. Imagine your joy when young to have been allowed to eat just as much as you wanted to of anything, and there you have Margaret Sanders' attitude to the food of the lunch cart. In the presence of her favorite food, she became as a little child again. Without fear and without reproach she wandered from soft-shell crab to "red dog," thence to peanuts, onto popcorn brittle, thence to the candy-made-on-the-spot, and back to soft-shell crab again. Sophisticated as she was, a shrewd judge of men, brought up in no greater privacy apparently than that afforded by an elevated train, still she could wander in and out among the sandwiches with the artless joy of a child in a field of flowers.
It was a touching sight. Jimsie felt no more desire to laugh than he would have at a child, Her high-hearted appetite was a thing to bless the gods for having seen.
As she crunched the claw of the last soft-shell crab——
"Gee!" she announced, with genial satisfaction, "I'm doing the Lunch Cart Mag act for fair to-day!" Her face blossomed into friendly, sunny smiles. "Now we'll have a swim," she said.
They emerged from their bath-houses at about the same time. At sight of his companion ready for her dip, Jimsie gave a little whistle of surprise. Involuntarily there came to his mind a little colored girl's observation to one of his aunts:
"Mis' Sadie, de Lo'd ain't slighted yo', not in de leastest particular."
More than ever Miss Sanders gave the impression, both in her beauty and in her unconsciousness of the people who noticed it, of some statue placed in a crowded thoroughfare. Youth Triumphant was what she seemed; Youth, that neither work in a city or summer heat can tarnish; Youth, for which numberless sandwiches before swimming have no terrors.
Without hesitating, she made for the water and plunged in, without preliminary screams or hesitations, and made her way expertly beyond the line of surf and struck out. Jimsie followed. Together they worked out, now down in the hollow of an incoming wave, now rising buoyantly on its crest. The life-boat man kept his eyes on them. She waved her hand with a good-humored, "Hello, Captain!"
After a time they came in again, stopping in the surf to play with the big waves as they came in one after another. On the beach, the girl took down her shining hair and spread it out about her to dry. They lay flat in the warm sand, sunning themselves. Jimsie took in long breaths of the warm air. A sense of freedom enveloped him. He was enjoying himself—enjoying himself hugely. He felt as if he'd found himself after a long absence. It was good, he reflected, for a man to take an afternoon off once in a while even from such a delectable thing as being engaged to Louise. He wondered if, after all, his wasn't too free a nature for marriage.
Venders of various things came along, the popcorn man, the peanut man, the sandwich man, and each one of them Miss Sanders stopped, that she might eat from the contents of his basket. After a time:
"Say, let's get into our clothes and go up to the dancing pavilion. Do you dance?"
"Sure," Jimsie replied.
"Did you ever dance after you'd had a swim like this?" she asked him. "It's great!"
"No," Jimsie confessed, "I never have."
"Well, say, you ain't never danced, then," Miss Sanders informed him. "There ain't no dancing at any other time that's thirty cents to it."
They made their way to the dancing pavilion. Ever and anon Miss Sanders stopped to partake of what she termed "lunch cart grub," and all along their progress down the crowded street she waved greetings to this person and that. Her acquaintance was apparently enormous, and all of her friends seemed to be at Coney Island.
Then for half an hour they danced—danced as Jimsie never had danced before. Miss Sanders danced with the full-blooded joy of life—danced for the sake of dancing, danced as if her heart would break. She didn't look at Jimsie while she danced, nor talk to him, except for a brief word or two. She gave herself up to the joy of motion whole-heartedly. At the end of a dance she disposed herself in a chair to rest, her breath coming a little short with the sheer joy of living.
Two girls she knew came in, accompanied by a nice-looking young fellow, and to these she introduced Jimsie. Little by little, under the warming sun of her enjoyment of things, Jimsie's philanthropic mood had returned to him. He was pleased with himself—almost pharisaically pleased. Almost was he at the point of thanking God that he was not as others were; that he could appreciate the frank fellowship of this fine girl; that he had known enough to go along and have a good time with her, instead of moping; contrasting himself with many a man he knew who, situated as he was, would have been too hide-bound to have ventured.
Then something happened.
The incident, so slight in itself, upset Jimsie's self-conceit as quickly as a child can overset a pitcher of cream.
It was the appearance for a moment of two men at the door of the pavilion. They stood there, well dressed and tranquil, looked around a moment and wandered on; the men were Boothby, who had once been a suitor of Louise's, and Louise's brother.
Boothby—of all men in the world, Boothby! Never would Boothby have taken a stray girl, picked up in a restaurant, for a day's outing, Boothby was fastidious, scholarly, very much of a gentleman, and removed by a hundred years of training from the possibility of a small irregularity like this coming into his decent, well-ordered life.
Miss Sanders had followed Jimsie's gaze.
"I know that kid," she announced. "He takes lunch in our restaurant pretty often. You looked as if you knew him, too," she added, her frank eyes questioning Jimsie.
"Oh, I know him all right!" groaned Jimsie. "He's the brother of the girl I'm engaged to. I know the other man too—he's an old friend of hers. "
Miss Sanders took in the situation instantly.
"Gee!" she exclaimed. "That's fierce! D'you know what you'd better do? You'd better beat it."
"Beat it?" Jimsie questioned.
"Sure," Miss Sanders responded cheerfully. "I c'n get back alone all right." She was as frank and sincere-minded in this proposition as she had been in accepting Jimsie as the companion of an afternoon.
"Well, I guess not!" Jimsie replied.
"See here," Miss Sanders argued, "I know just the kind of cloth that other chap's cut off'n. I know him just like I'd been raised in the same house with him. Why, there's a dozen of him eats at our place every day. 'Good morning, Miss Sanders; beginning to feel like fall, isn't it?'"—she mimicked Boothby's supposed manner. "That's all; eat there a thousand years and that'd be all. And that kind's the meanest minded when it comes up against something it doesn't understand. Look here, she said, "if they see you, do you know what you'll get from your girl—the frozen mitt, that's what—the throwdown, see?"
There it was; and Jimsie knew it was true. All al once he saw his afternoon out from their point of view. Even if they took it in the most charitable light, trifling and unreliable was what he would seem—indeed, was what he was. That he and Miss Sanders had gone on this excursion as two men might have gone, and that their brief friendship all through had been as frank as that of two boys, made no difference; for, after all. Miss Sanders wasn't a boy—she was an extremely good-looking girl.
Any one of a hundred people might have seen them who knew them both—might now be going around with the news: "Jimsie Bate—he fellow that's engaged to Louise Kittredge—is down at Coney I&land with the pretty cashier of Bleecker's." By doing what he had done with such light-hearted ease, he had brought Louise's name into it. He had put the man engaged to Louise in a position to be gossiped about.
He had done worse than that; he had run the chance of getting from Louise what Miss Sanders described as "the frozen mitt" and "the throwdown." In other words, there was the possibility of his happiness and Louise's being at stake—it was a remote possibility, but it was there just the same. And he had been ready to risk this—and for nothing at all! He had been willing to risk it because he had acted like a grouchy kid.
For the first time he realized that from now on everything that concerned him concerned Louise: that his life was part of hers. And it touched him profoundly that this should be so. The tide of affection now came in fast. He wanted more than anything else to go straight to Louise as fast as boats and trains could take him. But this was precisely what Jimsie couldn't do.
Miss Sanders now, however, rose briskly, consulting her watch.
"We'll have just time," she announced, "to catch the next boat—the girls are going home now; we'll all go along together."
Jimsie threw her a glance in which gratitude was written large.
During the walk to the boat, Jimsie was oppressed by one of the most ignominious emotions that man is heir to—the fear of being seen. In spite of himself, his eyes roved in the crowd, watching for a sight of Boothby's well-groomed back and for the red head of his future brother-in-law. He tried blustering to himself about it—that, after all, he hadn't done anyone any harm. He even tried to put a little of the blame on Louise. Hang it, now that he thought of it, she was some to blame, anyhow, turning him adrift that way!
But all that wouldn't go now. Jimsie had been growing up too fast in the past half hour. With his longing for Louise growing stronger every minute, he couldn't fool himself into blaming her, nor could he check his cowardly wish to conceal himself in the crowd.
They got on the boat—and there, straight in front of him, was that for which Jimsie had been searching with dread, there was Boothby's back, as immaculate as Jimsie had pictured it, and the hot red of young Kittredge's hair shining out from beneath his straw hat. Their backs were turned. Miss Sanders saw them too; and leading the way, her head up and her broad shoulders well squared, she drew Jimsie to the other side of the boat.
"Look here, " she said to Jimsie, separating him a little from the others. "You make me tired, that's what you make me! You think you're doing a pretty fine thing sticking around, don't you? I know men—I know just how you feel!" Again her smiling eyes denied her definite tone. It was as if she said, "I know men, the darned fools, bless 'em!"
"All you think about's yourself," she pursued. "You don't think about me none. How do you suppose I'll feel, going off knowing that I've got you into a mess? Why, I like you a lot—there's nothing the matter with you, except that you're daffy with the heat. After I've come out with you like this, you might do what I tell you for once!"
She ignored with large tranquillity that he had been doing as she said all day long.
"What do you want me to do?" asked Jimsie.
"What I want you to do is not to be more of a fool than the Lord made you," she responded promptly. "You go and find them friends of yours and stick with 'em. Go and find them anyway—don't let 'em see you're hidin' on 'em."
Jimsie was no quitter; he had brought Miss Sanders out and intended to stick by her to the last, and told her so; at which she merely said, with a tolerant humor with which one treats an obstinate child of ten:
"Ah, cut it out!" and turned on him her broad and efficient back.
Jimsie sulked away, and ran into Kittredge and Boothby half-way down the boat.
"Why!" Kittredge exclaimed, "what are you doing here? Didn't you get Louise's telegram? I sent it myself. She told me you didn't want to go to Morrison's, and said that somebody's got to give in in things, and she guessed she'd better. That's the way Louise is, you know—for a girl she's mighty reasonable."
This was the last straw for Jimsie's self-conceit. What little of it remained tumbled to earth. Poor little Louise! She'd given in; and there he'd gone gallivanting around in Coney Island with strange women! There wasn't any punishment too black for him.
Then Fate, once having begun her work, finished it with a fine climax. Miss Sanders, accompanied by her friends, came strolling down the deck.
"How d'you do," she greeted him. "How d'you do,"—she bowed to Kittredge. She embraced them both in a wide, impersonal smile. Both of them were patrons in the restaurant she worked for, Jimsie as well as Kittredge, one of the miscellaneous horde of customers for whom her deft fingers made change. Slipping her arm through that of one of the girls, she strolled on again, with a casual nod to both of them.
The episode was closed, was what her nod said, closed and done with. Jimsie might want to make a fool of himself, but in this case it would take two to let him do that, and she for one would see that he didn't.
Jimsie hated a lie. Small deceits were the especial sort of lax morality that he detested most, and he had an unreasoning desire to shout to the world at large that he and Miss Sanders had been spending the day together at Coney Island—to put it exactly to Kittredge and to Boothby, and let them do what they wanted to. And that he couldn't do this made him rage.
But there was one person in the world that he could tell—and that was Louise. At the ferry he shook his two companions and started for New Rochelle. His fault loomed before him in gigantic proportions. It blotted out everything else. He saw himself a traitor to all the finer instincts of man; he saw himself an outcast, not worthy to touch the hem of Louise's skirt. The time that separated him from her, and from his confession, stretched out incredibly long. He wanted to confess, and receive his sentence. He wanted to tell Louise that she was in love with an irresponsible idiot, who did unaccountable things that in his chastened mood Jimsie saw that no man ought to do. If Louise cast him out, it would serve him right. He would spend the remainder of his days in trying to be worthy of her whom he might have married.
She was waiting for him on the piazza. She had absolved him for not coming before he came.
"I knew you hadn't got my telegram," she cried. She put herself in the wrong for everything, wanting to save him the pain of any apology he might now be ready to make.
Her instinct told her at once that there was something wrong with him—that something had gone very far awry in his world. She waited, a little breathless, for him to tell her what it was.
His remorse was now at its height. No New England gentlewoman, raised in all the traditions of her punctilious life, could view Jimsie's performance with more severity than Jimsie himself now did. Solemnly he told Louise that he had a confession to make—that he had done something for which she might not forgive him. She waited with strained attention, her head thrown back with its little arrogant tilt that Jimsie loved so much.
And he told her everything, all at once, mixing up the sequence of events, bungling the telling incredibly; then waited for his sentence, his death sentence, ht felt it might be—although as he told it, it seemed very much less than it had on the train coming out. After all, it was not a thing to throw a man into the outer darkness for; still, one couldn't expect girls brought up like Louise to understand. Jimsie hadn't learned yet that affection will give a woman a clairvoyance as to the state of things that no limitations of up-bringing can affect.
He finished, and stood waiting humbly before Louise for her judgment of him to come. She let him wait a moment. He looked up, and saw the stiffness with which she had received his first words gone.
"Well," he finished tragically, "what are you going to do about it, Louise?"
And the sentence fell
"Do about it?" said Louise. "What do you suppose I'm going to do about it?" In her tone there was a hint of Miss Sanders's wide tolerance of the weakness of men.
Then she put out an impulsive hand to him with a little laugh.
"Oh, Jimsie," she said, "what an awful kid you are!"