Much Ado About Peter/Chapter 4

 

DIGNITY AND THE ELEPHANT

 

 

IV
DIGNITY AND THE ELEPHANT

COME in!"

Peter opened the library door and advanced with awkward hesitation. Behind his respectfully blank expression there was visible a touch of anxiety; he was not clear in his own mind as to the reason for this peremptory summons to the house. It might mean that he was to be rewarded for having saved Master Augustus's life and the contents of the waggon-shed; it might mean that he was to be censured for any one of a dozen innocent and unpremeditated faults. But Mr. Carter's expression as he turned from the writing table banished all doubt as to the meaning of the interview. His bearing contained no suggestion of honourable mention to come.

"Close the door," he said dryly.

Peter closed the door and stood at attention, grasping with nervous fingers the brim of his hat. Mr. Carter allowed a painful silence to follow while he sat frowning down at a newspaper spread on the table before him. Peter, having studied his master's face, lowered his troubled eyes to the headlines of the paper:


COMANCHE BRAVES ON THE WAR PATH

FIRE THREATENS DESTRUCTION

TO JEROME B. CARTER'S ESTATE


"This has been a very shocking affair," Mr. Carter began, in a tone of impressive emphasis. "The damage, fortunately, was slight, but the principle remains the same as if every building on the place had burned. The blame on the surface rests with the boys who started the fire; and," he added, with a touch of grimness, "they have been fittingly punished. But I find, upon looking into the matter, that the blame does not stop with them. I have here a copy of a New York evening paper of an—uh—sensational order, giving a grossly exaggerated account of the incident. There is one particular, however, in regard to which they do not exaggerate—exaggeration being impossible—and that is in their description of the outrageous apparel which my son and my nephews were wearing at the time."

Mr. Carter adjusted his glasses and picked up the paper, his frown darkening as he glanced rapidly down the column. A facetious young reporter had made the best of a good story.

"'Volunteer firemen—Gallant behaviour of Chief McDougal—Threatened tragedy—H'm——" His eye lighted on the offending paragraph, and he settled himself to read.

"'Conspicuous among those present were the authors of the conflagration, Master Robert Carter, twelve-year-old son of Jerome B. Carter, and his three cousins, sons of John D. Brainard, of Philadelphia. Whatever may be said of Philadelphians in general, there is nothing slow about the Brainard boys. In the character of Comanche braves the four were clothed in simple but effective costumes of black and red war-paint. The paint, we are informed, was composed of axle grease and brass polish, and had been artistically laid on by one Peter Malone, who occupies the position of head groom in the Carter stables. Young Malone has missed his calling. His talents point to the field of decorative art.'"

A fleeting grin swept over Peter's face. It struck him, for the hundredth time, that there was a singular absence of a sense of humour in the Carter family. But he quickly recomposed his features. Mr. Carter had laid the paper down again, and was waiting. Peter glanced dubiously about the room, and finally ventured in a tone of conciliation:

"It were n't so shockin' as the paper made out, sir. They was wearin' stri-ped bathin' trunks and a row o' chicken feathers in addition to the grease."

Mr. Carter waved the remark aside as irrelevant.

"That has nothing to do with the point. The question which I am discussing is the fact that you painted my son with axle grease. I am not only shocked, but astonished. I have always entertained the highest opinion of your sense of propriety and fitness. I should have believed this story a pure fabrication on the part of an unprincipled reporter, had I not heard it corroborated from Master Bobby's own lips. Before passing judgment it is only right that I hear your version of the affair. What have you to say?"

Peter shifted his weight uneasily. An invitation to tell a story rarely found him wanting, but he liked to feel that his audience was with him, and in the present instance Mr. Carter's manner was not surcharged with sympathy.

"Well, sir," he began, with an apologetic cough, "If ye 'll excuse me mentionin' it, them three Brainard boys is young limbs o' Satan, every one o' them. Their badness, so to speak, is catchin', an' Master Bobby's got it. 'Tis demoralizin', sir, to have them about; I'm losin' me own sense o' right an' wrong."

"Very well," said Mr. Carter, impatiently, "what I want to hear about is this Indian business."

"Yes, sir, I'm comin' to it, sir. Yesterday mornin' I got an order early to drive Mrs. Carter to the country club, an' when I went into the carriage-house to see about hitchin' up, what should I find but them four little div——"

Peter caught Mr. Carter's eye, and hastily altered his sentence.

"I found the four young gentlemen, sir, dressed in stri-ped bathin' trunks, engaged in paintin' their skins with axle grease ready for the war-path. They'd got two cans on before I seen 'em, and all I done was Master Bobby's back an' Master Wallace's legs. I mistrusted it would n't come off, sir, and I told 'em as much; but they was already so nearly covered that it seemed a pity to spoil the sport. Ye see, I was mindin' what their mother said about takin' a sympathetic interest in their innocint divarsions."

"And this struck you as an innocent diversion?"

"Comparatively speakin', sir. None o' their divarsions strikes me as fittin' for a Sunday-school."

"Go on," said Mr. Carter, sharply.

Peter fumbled with his hat. He was finding his employer's mood a trifle difficult.

"It were n't my fault about the fire, sir. When I drove off they was playin' in the paddock as innocint as ye please. How should I know that as soon as me back was turned they'd be takin' it into their heads to burn Master Augustus at the stake? It ain't no ordinary intilligence, sir, that can keep up wid them. And as for the damage, there would n't 'a' been none, aside from losin' the waggon-shed, if it were n't for that meddlin' fire department. Ye see for yerself the mess they made."

He came to a sudden pause, and then added with an air of reviving cheerfulness:

"’Twas bad, sir, but it might have been worse. We saved the buckboard, an' we saved the garden tools, to say nothin' o' Master Augustus."

Mr. Carter grunted slightly, and a silence followed, during which Peter glanced tentatively toward the door; but as his companion gave no sign that the interview was at an end, he waited. Mr. Carter's eye had meanwhile travelled back to the paper, and his frown was gathering anew. He finally faced the groom with the deliberative air of a counsellor summing up a case.

"And you think it consonant with the dignity of my position that a New York paper should be able to print such a statement as that in regard to my son?"

Peter smiled dubiously and mopped his brow, but as no politic answer occurred to him, he continued silent.

"There is another matter which I wish to speak of," added Mr. Carter, with a fresh assumption of sternness. "I am informed that you called the boys, in their presence," he paused, as though it were painful for him to repeat such malodorous words—"damned little devils! Is that so?"

Peter sighed heavily.

"I don't know, sir. I might 'a' said it without thinkin'. I was excited when I see the roof a blazin' and I may have spoke me mind."

"Are you not aware, Peter, that such language should never, under any circumstances, be used in Master Bobby's presence?"

"Yes, sir, but if ye 'll pardon the liberty, sir, there's times when the Angel Gabriel himself would swear in Master Bobby's presence."

"That will do, Peter. I won't bandy words with you any further; but I wish this to be a warning. You are now head groom—I was even considering, as you know well, the advisability of advancing you still further. Whether or not I do so will depend upon yourself. I regret to say that this episode has shaken my confidence."

There was a sudden flaring of anger in Peter's eyes. He recalled the long years of honest service he had given Mr. Carter, a service in which his employer's interest had always been his own; and his Irish sense of justice rebelled. It was on his tongue to say: "I 've worked ten years at Willowbrook, and I 've always done my best. If my best is not good enough, you 'll have to look for another man. Good evening, sir."

But he caught the words before they were spoken. Since Annie had come to Willowbrook, Peter's outlook on life had changed. If a secret dream concerning himself and her and the coachman's cottage were ever to come true, he must swallow his pride and practise wisdom. His mouth took a straighter line, and he listened to the remainder of his master's homily with his eyes bent sulkily on the floor.

"Had it been one of the other grooms who was guilty of using such language before my son, and of committing such an—er—unpardonable breach of decorum as to paint him with axle grease, I should have discharged the man on the spot. Your past record has saved you, but I warn you that it will not save you a second time. In future, I shall expect you to set an example to the under stablemen. You never find me forgetting the dignity of my position; let me see that you remember the dignity of yours. You may go now."

Mr. Carter dismissed him with a nod, and turned back to the desk.

Annie was waiting in the kitchen to hear the history of the interview. Peter stalked through the room without a word, his face set in ominous lines. She followed him to the back veranda, and caught him by the coat lapel.

"What's the matter, Petey? What are you mad at? Did n't he thank you for savin' the things?"

"Thank nothin'," Peter growled. "Do the Carters ever thank you? All the blame is fixed on me for the things them little divvels do—damn little divvels—that's what they are. 'An' is it fittin',' says he, 'that ye should use such language before Master Bobby?' Lor'! I wish he could hear the language Master Bobby used before me the time he fell into Trixy's manger. I'd like to meet Mr. Carter in the open once, as man to man. I'd knock him out in the first round with me right hand tied behind me."

Peter was clearly fighting mad.

"I'd like to get a whack at that reporter what wrote that paper. Young Malone has missed his callin', has he? I'd show him where young Malone's talents lie; I'd knock him into the middle o' next week. 'Gallant work o' Chief McDougal.' Bloomin' lobster in a rubber helmet. I'll teach him his dooty if I ever ketch him out alone. It was me as saved the buckboard an' all the tools, an' Master Augustus in the bargain—wish I'd let him burn, I do. 'An',' says Mr. Carter, 'do ye think it consonant wid the dignity o' me position,' he says, 'that me son should be painted with axle grease—me—the Honourable Jerome B. Carter, Esquire?' His dignity! Take away his money an' his dignity, an' there wouldn't be enough of him left to fill a half-pint measure. I 'll get it back at him; you see if I don't. I risks me life and I burns me best pants, an' that's all the thanks I get!"


A week had passed over Willowbrook. The charred ruins of the waggon-shed had been carted to the barnyard; the Comanche braves had become white again—though in the course of it they had lost a layer of skin—and the subject of axle grease and brass polish had been allowed to fade into the past. Mr. Carter, having once eased his mind, had banished all rancour from his thoughts. Being a lawyer, with influence in high places, he had received an unexpectedly adequate insurance, and he was beginning to regard the matter as a funny after-dinner story. But Peter persisted in being sulky. Though his blistered hands were healed, his wounded feelings were still sore. As he drove his employer to and from the train, he no longer permitted himself the usual friendly chatter; his answers to all queries were respectful but not cordial. Peter was steadfastly determined to keep Mr. Carter in his place. Meanwhile, he was looking longingly for the chance to "get it back." And suddenly the chance presented itself—fairly walked into his hands—a revenge of such thorough-going appropriateness that Peter would have held himself a fool to let it slip.

The yearly circus had arrived—the Nevin Brothers' Company of Trick Animals and Acrobats—and every billboard in the village was blazing with pictures of Rajah, the largest elephant in captivity. The Nevin Brothers confined themselves to one-night stands. On the day of the performance, Peter, having driven Mr. Carter to the station, stopped on his way home at Scanlan's to have the shoe tightened on Trixy's off hind foot. The shop was just around the corner from the vacant lot where the tents were going up, and while he was waiting, Peter strolled across to watch.

To his surprise and gratification he discovered that the elephant trainer was a boyhood friend. Arm in arm with this distinguished person, he passed by the curious crowd of onlookers into the animal tent for a private view of Rajah. Once inside, and out of sight, it transpired that his friend would be obliged if Peter could lend him a dollar. Peter fortunately had only fifty cents about him; but the friend accepted this, with the murmured apology that the boss was slow in forwarding their wages. He more than paid the debt, however, by presenting Peter with a pass for himself and "lady," and Peter drove home in a pleasant glow of pride and expectation.

He submitted the pass to Annie, and drove on to the stables, casually informing the groom who helped him unhitch that he had gone to school with Rajah's trainer, and wished he had a dollar for every time he'd licked him.

Toward seven o'clock that evening, as Peter was happily changing from plum-coloured livery into checked town clothes, a telephone call came out from the house, ordering the waggonette and the runabout. "Yes, sir, in fifteen minutes, sir," said Peter into the mouthpiece, but what he added to the stable boy would scarcely have been fit for Master Bobby's presence. He tumbled back into his official clothes, and hurried to the kitchen to break the news to Annie.

"It's all up with us," said Peter gloomily. "They 've ordered out the two rigs, and both Billy an' me has to go—if it had only been ten minutes earlier they'd uv caught Joe before he got off."

"’Tis a pity, it is, an' you with the lovely pass!" she mourned.

"Why the dickens should they take it into their heads to go drivin' around the country at this time o' night?" he growled.

"They 're goin' to the circus themselves!" said Annie. "Miss Ethel's after havin' a dinner party; I was helpin' Simpkins pass the things, and I heard them plannin' it. The whole crowd's goin'—all but Mrs. Carter; she don't like the smell o' the animals. But Mr. Carter's goin' and all four boys—Master Augustus was in bed an' they got him up an' dressed him. They 're laughin' an' carryin' on till you'd think they was crazy. Mr. Harry Jasper pretended he was a polar bear, an' was eatin' Master Augustus up."

"Mr. Carter's goin'?" asked Peter, with a show of incredulity. "An' does he think it consonant wid the dignity o' his position to be attendin' circuses? I would n't 'a' believed it of him!"

"He's goin' to help chaperon 'em."

"I'm glad it ain't for pleasure. I'd hate to think o' the Honourable Jerome B. Carter descendin' so low."

"I'm to serve supper to 'em when they come home, an' I 'll have somethin' waitin' for you on the back stoop, Pete," she called after him as he turned away.

Peter and Billy deposited their passengers at the entrance of the main tent, and withdrew to hitch the horses to the fence railing. A number of miscellaneous vehicles were drawn up around them—mud-spattered farmers' waggons, livery "buggies"—but private carriages with liveried coachmen were conspicuously lacking. Peter could not, accordingly, while away the tedium of waiting with the usual pleasant gossip; as for opening a conversation with Billy, he would as soon have thought of opening one with the nearest hitching-post. Billy's ideas were on a par with Billy's sparring, and in either case it was a waste of breath to bother with him.

Peter sat for a time watching the crowd push about the entrance, the pass burning in his pocket. Then he climbed down, examined the harness, patted the horses, and glanced wistfully toward the flaming torches at either side of the door.

"Say, Bill," he remarked in an offhand tone, "you stay here and watch these horses till I come back. I'm just goin' to step in an' see me friend the elephant trainer a minute. Sit on the lap robes, and keep yer eye on the whips; there's likely to be a lot o' sneak thieves around." He started off, and then paused to add, "If ye leaves them horses, I 'll come back an' give ye the worst tannin' ye ever had in yer life."

He presented his pass and was admitted. The show had not begun. A couple of clowns were throwing sawdust at each other in the ring, but this was palpably a mere overture to keep the audience in a pleasant frame of mind until the grand opening march of all the animals and all the players—advertised to take place promptly at eight, but already twenty minutes overdue. Peter, aware that it would not be wise to let his master see him, made himself as inconspicuous as possible. Hidden behind the broad back of a German saloon-keeper, he drifted with the crowd into the side tent, where the animals were kept.

Here, vociferous showmen were urging a hesitating public to enter the side-shows, containing the cream of the exhibit, and only ten cents extra. Vendors of peanuts and popcorn and all-day-suckers were adding to the babel, while the chatter of monkeys and the surly grumbling of a big lion formed an intoxicating undertone.

Across the tent, gathered in a laughing group about the elephant, Peter caught sight of the Willowbrook party—the ladies in fluffy, light gowns and opera coats, the gentlemen in immaculate evening clothes. They were conspicuously out of their element, but were having a very good time. The bystanders had left them in a group apart, and were granting them as much attention as Rajah himself. The elephant, in scarlet and gold trappings, with a canopied platform on his back, was accepting popcorn balls from Master Augustus's hand, and Master Augustus was squealing his delight. Above the other noises Peter could hear his former schoolmate declaiming in impressive tones:

"Fourteen years old, and the largest elephant in captivity. Weighs over eight thousand pounds, and eats five tons of hay a month. He measures nine feet to the shoulders, and ain't got his full growth yet. Step up the ladder, ladies and gentlemen, and get a bird's-eye view from the top. Don't be bashful; there's not the slightest danger."

Mr. Harry Jasper and Master Bobby accepted the invitation. They mounted the somewhat shaky flight of steps, sat for a moment on the red velvet seat, and with a debonair bow to the laughing onlookers, descended safely to the ground. They then urged Mr. Carter up, but he emphatically refused; his dignity, it was clear, could not stand the strain.

"Step up, sir," the showman insisted. "You can't get any idea of his size from the ground. There's not the slightest danger. He's as playful as a kitten when he's feeling well."

Miss Ethel and one of the young men pushed Mr. Carter forward; and finally, with a fatuous smile of condescension, he gave his overcoat to Master Bobby to hold, his walking-stick to Master Augustus, and having settled his silk hat firmly on his head, he began climbing with careful deliberation.

Peter, hidden in the crowd, fingering in his pocket the dollar he had intended to spend, suddenly had an infernal prompting. His revenge spread itself before him in tempting array. For one sane moment he struggled with the thought, but his unconquerable sense of humour overthrew all hesitation. He slipped around behind Rajah and beckoned to the trainer. All eyes were fixed upon Mr. Carter's shining hat as it slowly rose above the level of the crowd. The two men held a hurried consultation in a whisper; the bill inconspicuously changed hands, and Peter, unobserved, sank into the crowd again. The trainer issued a brief order to one of the bandmen and resumed his position at Rajah's head.

Mr. Carter had by this time gained the top, and with one foot on the platform and the other on the upper round of the ladder was approvingly taking his bird's-eye view, with murmured exclamations to those below.

"Stupendous! He must measure six feet across—and not reached his full growth! A wonderful specimen—really wonderful."

Rajah suddenly transferred his weight from one side to the other, and the ladder shook unsteadily. Mr. Carter, with an apprehensive glance at the ground, prepared to descend; but the keeper shouted in a tone of evident alarm:

"Take your foot off the ladder, sir! Sit down. For heaven's sake, sit down!"

The ladder wavered under his feet, and Mr. Carter waited for no explanations. With a frenzied grasp at the red and gold trappings he sat down, and the ladder fell with a thud, leaving him marooned on Rajah's back. On the instant the band struck into "Yankee Doodle," and Rajah, with a toss of his head and an excited shake of his whole frame, fell into a ponderous two-step.

"Stop him! Hold him! The ladder—bring the ladder!" shouted Mr. Carter. His voice was drowned in the blare of trumpets.

Without giving ear to further orders, the elephant plunged toward the opening between the two tents and danced into the ring at the head of a long line of gilded waggons and gaudy floats. The grand opening march of all the players and all the animals had begun.

Peter looked at the Willowbrook party. They were leaning on each other's shoulders, weak with laughter. He took one glance into the ring, where Mr. Carter's aristocratic profile was rising and falling in jerky harmony with the music. And in the shadow of the lion cage Peter collapsed; he rocked back and forth, hugging himself in an ecstasy of mirth. "Gee! Oh, gee!" he gasped. "Will ye look at the dignity of his position now?" In one perfect, soul-satisfying moment past slights were blotted out, and those booked for the future were forgiven.

Rajah completed the circuit and two-stepped back into the animal tent drunk with glory. Half a dozen hands held the ladder while Mr. Carter, white with rage, descended to the ground. The language which he used to the keepers, Peter noted with concern, should never have been spoken in Master Bobby's presence.

The elephant trainer waited patiently until the gentleman stopped for breath, then he took off his hat and suggested in a tone of deprecation:

"Beg your pardon, sir, but the price for leading the grand march is fifty cents at the evening performance."

"I 'll have you arrested—I 'll swear out an injunction and stop the whole show!" thundered Mr. Carter, as he stalked toward the entrance.

Peter, coming to a sudden appreciation of his own peril, slipped out behind him. He ran smack into Billy who was hovering about the door.

"So I caught ye," hissed Peter. "Get back to them horses as fast as ye can," and he started on a run, shoving Billy before him. Mr. Carter, fortunately not knowing where to find the carriages, was blundering around on the other side.

"What's yer hurry?" gasped Billy.

"Get up and shut up," said Peter sententiously, as he shot him toward the waggonette. "An' ye can thank the saints for a whole skin. We ain't neither of us left our seats to-night—d'ye hear?"

To Billy's amazement, Peter jumped into the runabout, and fell asleep. A second later Mr. Carter loomed beside them.

"Peter? William?"

His tone brought them to attention with a jerk. Peter straightened his hat and blinked.

"What, sir? Yes, sir! Beg pardon, sir; I must 'a' been asleep."

Mr. Carter leaped to the seat beside him.

"Drive to the police station," he ordered, in a tone that sent apprehensive chills chasing up Billy's back.

"Yes, sir. Whoa, Trixy! Back, b-a-c-k. Get up!" he cut her with the whip, and they rolled from the circle of flaring torches into the outer darkness.

"She's a trifle skittish, sir," said Peter, in his old-time conversational tone. "The noise o' the clappin' was somethin' awful; it frightened the horses, sir."

Mr. Carter grunted by way of response, and Peter in the darkness hugged himself and smiled. He was once more brimming with cordial good-will toward all the world. Mr. Carter, however, was too angry to keep still, and he presently burst into a denunciation of the whole race of showmen, employing a breadth of vocabulary that Peter had never dreamed him capable of.

"Yes, sir," the groom affably agreed, "It's true what ye say. They 're fakes, every one of them, an' this show to-night, sir, is the biggest fake of all. The way they do people is somethin' awful. Fifty cents they charges to get in, an' twenty-five more for reserved seats. Extra for each of the side shows, an' there ain't nothin' in them, sir. Peanuts is ten cents a pint when ye can buy them at any stand for five, an' their popcorn balls is stale. I 've quit goin' to shows meself. I spent a dollar in five minutes at the last one, sir. I had a good time and I ain't regrettin' the money, but 'tis expensive for a poor man."

Mr. Carter grunted.

"The worst sell I ever heard of, though," Peter added genially, "is chargin' fifty cents to ride the elephant in the openin' grand march. Ye would n't think it possible that anybody'd want to do it, but they tells me that never a night goes by but somebody turns up so forgettin' of his dignity——"

Mr. Carter glanced at Peter with a look of quick suspicion. The groom leaned forward, and with innocent solicitude examined Trixy's gait.

"Whoa, steady, ole girl! She's limpin' again in her off hind foot. They never shoe her right at Scanlan's, sir. Don't ye think I'd better take her down to Gafney's in the mornin'?"

They were approaching the station house. Peter glanced sideways at his companion, and picked up the conversation with a deprecatory cough.

"Yes, sir, the show's a fake, sir, an' no mistake. But if I was you, sir, I would n't be too hard on 'em. 'Twould n't be a popular move. If ye 're thinkin' of runnin' for judge," Peter broke off and started anew. "If ye 'll excuse me tellin' it, sir, I heard 'em sayin' in Callahan's saloon the other day that they guessed ye was a better man than Judge Benedict all right, but that ye was too stuck up. They did n't care about votin' for a man who thought he was too good to mix with them. An' so, sir, you 're appearin' at the circus so familiar like was a politic move—meanin' no offence. I know ye did n't do it on purpose, sir, but it 'll bring ye votes."

He drew up before the station house in a wide curve, and cramped the wheels and waited.

Mr. Carter appeared lost in thought. Finally he roused himself to say:

"Well, after all, perhaps there is n't any use. You may drive back and pick up the others. I 've changed my mind."