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LARKIN

 

 

LARKIN

I

IT was after nightfall in that part of New York which is, to the rest of the city, the top story of the house—where the servants sleep. And now, when the business district of the lower town was as dark as a deserted basement, the lights were lit in all these shining windows; and behind the drawn blinds, clerks and bookkeepers, shop-girls and working-women laughed and chatted in their tiny cells and cubicles. Their rooms were piled up, in layer on layer, to form continuous blocks of houses; and these rose from the unbroken pavements with an appearance of standing ankle deep in a pool of frozen stone—as if an inundation of fluid rock had hardened evenly over the streets and buried every inequality of the green sod and brown soil of a suburb under a barren crust of asphalt and cement.

Up one of the bare gorges of brick and pavement, Larkin struggled against all the winds of December that fought and jostled him, beating down the flickering gas-lights until they gasped behind their rattling lamp-glasses, and puffing stiff blasts along the sidewalk to sweep the stones as clean as ice. Bending forward, with his chin in his collar and his shoulders hunched about his neck, he looked as if the violence of the wind had pounded his head into his body and crushed his stiff derby down on his ears. He had one hand thrust into the breast of his overcoat at the aperture of a missing button and his elbows were pressed in against his sides; so that he seemed to be hugging himself against the cold, shrunken in on himself in an unwilling and shivering discomfort.

Yet, when he stopped in the light of a hall-lamp to look up at the number on the door, a package showed in the crook of his elbow to explain his posture, and about the wrappings of that package there shone the gilt twine of the bonbon counter. His lips were contracted with the cold as if to the pucker of a whistle, and his simple face, glowing with the nip of the wind, was the sort from which an always cheerful melody might be expected continuously to pipe.

He came up the steps to pick out the name of "Connors" over an electric bell, and he pressed the button heavily with the flat of his thumb. The door-lock clicked. He wiped his feet on the mat for a moment of hesitation, and then blew apologetically into the thumb-crotch of a closed fist as he entered; but these were the only signs of any inward agitation at the prospect of making a social call, uninvited, on a girl who did not know his name, and who might possibly not even remember his face.

A little old woman in a shawl was waiting for him in a doorway on the second landing. He asked cautiously, from the top step: "'S Miss Connors live here?"

"She does." She peered out to see that he was a stranger. "I 'll tell her." She disappeared.

He prepared to wait at the door, but she came back at once, in a flutter, to invite him into the parlor. She asked him, with an apologetic warmth, to be seated. He nodded but he did not speak.

He put his box of candies on the center-table and covered it with his hat. There was a pink plush photograph album under his hand, with a scroll of gilt lettering on the cover, and he stood tracing out the design on it, with a fascinated forefinger, until he heard a swish of skirts and a patter of quick steps in the adjoining room. He looked up to see the girl stop short between the gaudy hangings of the doorway. Her lips—that had been ready in a little simper of welcome—parted in a gape of surprise; her hands—that had been smoothing the shoulders of her pink-beribboned dressing jacket—caught at the curtains; and she remained held there, as if she did not intend to enter until he had explained himself.

She was a small girl, with a head of coquettish black hair, and she wore one artful ringlet hanging down in the middle of her forehead with the air of a stage soubrette. He fastened his gaze on it while he spoke.

"We heard 't yuh were sick—from one o' the girls. I was—I was goin' past here, an' I thought I 'd drop in an' see how yuh were comin' on."

"Oh!" she said, with an affectation of recognizing him for the first time; "you 're Mr. Rattray's frien'?"

He nodded. "Pipp was astin' about yuh from the red-headed girl. We been goin' to your place at the lunch counter right along."

"Have yuh?" she laughed, dropping her hands.

He nodded. "We thought p'raps yuh 'd like some chocolates." He lifted his hat to uncover the candy box.

From the way he did it, it was plain how much he had counted on the effect. She laughed. "Oh—oh, thanks," she said, and came in to take the box from him. She had a kitchen pallor, but a spot of color began to blush out, like rouge, on either cheek-bone.

As soon as she had relieved him of the package, he backed away from her and took refuge in a chair, sitting down in his overcoat, with his hat in his hands.

"Won't yuh take off yer things?" she asked, in the voice of social politeness, from a flat palate, somewhat through the nose.

He shook his head. "I jus' dropped in to see how yuh were." He looked around the room in a manner of being very much at his ease.

"Oh, I 'm pretty well, I guess," she said, with a nervous laugh that was followed by a fit of coughing. She sat down with the box in her lap and began to open it.

He frowned at the cough. "That 's right," he said at last. Yuh don't want to go back too soon after the grip."

"I guess mine was nemmonia, too," she replied, with an air of pride in it. "The doctor says my lungs ain't strong."

He nodded at a crayon portrait of Mrs. Connors on the far wall. "That 's what they tol' us."

There was an awkward pause in the conversation until she said "They 're fi-i-ne!" bending over the candies. "Won't yuh try one?"

She held out the box to him and he reached across the intervening space to take a chocolate drop. He put it whole into his mouth, and rolled it over into the pouch of his cheek in a way which made it plain to her that he had not eaten candies since the days when he had sucked "penny lasters."

She nibbled a chocolate with a superlative daintiness and watched him.

He was staring solemnly at the wall. "I 'm over in Bowler's," he said. "Pipp 's in the Pennsylvania offices."

"Oh?"

"We ust to go to school together up home. I came down to N' York with him."

"Did yuh?"

"Yep." He nodded, sucking on the bulge in his cheek. "We sort o' ran away. I 've known Pipp ever since he was about so high." He held his hat out on a level with his shoulder and smiled askew, around the chocolate.

"Where 'd yuh ust to live?" she asked politely.

He named the little town up state. He had driven his father's bakery wagon after school hours there, and "Pipp," who was the doctor's son, had ridden with him "for the fun of it."

There was a look in his eyes which she did not understand. It came with the memory of those sleepy afternoons in the wagon—the smell of fresh bread always sweet on its worn shelves that were as clean and as warm as a baker's oven—the sun beating down on its heat-cracked top, and the yellowish-white nag, that knew its round of customers as well as he did, tacking from side to side of the road, unguided.

His whole manner puzzled her; and it was not to be the last time he was to leave her at a loss. He had one of those minds that seem to make stolid night marches and to arrive unexpectedly at the strangest conclusions without at all sharing the surprise they cause.

He groped in his overcoat pocket to draw out a yellowed photograph of his father's bake-shop, taken by some traveling photographer who made a specialty of "commercial business." In the doorway, Larkin was posed between his parents, in a pair of knickerbockers that came to the calves of his legs; and he had an air of acknowledging that though his father was the original owner of the trousers, his mother had made them over for him.

Miss Connors did not smile when he explained that his mother looked sleepy because she always sat up until the small hours of the morning to call the bakers to their work.

He had also a tintype of "Pipp" and himself, grinning self-consciously in the gummy smile of youth. "He 's pretty smart—Pipp," he said admiringly. "We ust to be in the same class at school, but he got away ahead of me."

"He 's a jollier, ain't he?" she said, in the same tone.

"Sure," he laughed. "He was jollyin' the red-headed girl to-day. He 's more fun 'n enough."

She straightened back from the photograph with a change of face.

"I don't see such a much of him now," he went on innocently; "'cept at twelve. He 's mighty pop'lar, I guess. He has to go out 'bout ev'ry night."

He turned the tintype over in his hand and sat looking at the blank back of it. She was studying him.

"D' yuh board together?" she asked suddenly.

He shook his head. "Pipp 's moved downtown." He put the pictures back in his pocket and sat leaning forward with his forearms on his knees, looking down at his hat on the floor. "N' York 's a big place," he said.

She smiled the smile of understanding. "It 's pretty lonely, too, ain't it? Won't yuh take off yer coat?"

He rose. "I guess I better be goin'," he said. "I—I jus' dropped in—to see how yuh were." He evaded her eyes by looking into his hat, and while she was still stammering an attempt to put him at his ease again, he edged to the door and slipped out. She followed him. "I hope yuh 'll come up again, Mr.—"

He did not give her his name. He stumbled down the stairs.

"Well, good-night," she said reproachfully.

"Good-night, good-night," he answered from the lower landing.

She went back into the room and took a candy from the box and smiled as she crunched it. When her mother came in she bent down hastily to pick up the paper and gilt twine from the floor.

"Who was it?" Mrs. Connors asked.

"Oh, jus' a frien' of a fellah in the Pennsylvania offices," she said. "He sent me up some candy."


II

The following day she spent sitting at the closed window, wrapped in a shawl, the curl on her forehead done up in a twist of paper, watching what was doing in the street below her.

"I 'm awful busy," she said to her mother, as she hurried back to her post of observation after dinner. "I 'm movin' in across the road."

She nibbled chocolates. She sat and frowned or sat and smiled. Once, her mother, who was working over the laundry tubs, heard her singing and peeped in, to see her dusting the room. And when night fell she dressed in her black lace gown that had no collar, and put a huge butterfly bow of black velvet in her hair.

"I 'll bet no one 'll come, now I 'm ready for them," she said humorously. "They 'd sooner catch me when I 'm lookin' a sight."

Larkin, however, came on the stroke of eight, and was so cordially received that he forgot, for the moment, to explain the parcel he had brought under his arm.

He did not remember it until after he was sitting down. "I thought I 'd better run up with it t'-night," he explained then. "She 's got to have it back Saturday—a girl at the house. She said she liked it. My name 's Larkin."

It proved to be a circulating library novel, "Wedded and Won," which he had borrowed from some one in his boarding-house.

"Oh!—oh, thanks!" she said. "I 'm awful fond of readin', ain't you?"

He laughed unexpectedly. "Well, I ain't such a much. I saw some books over on Third Avenuh 't we ust to read in the barn, one day, an' got two o' them, but I did n't get through the first."

"Did n't yuh?" She smiled at his sudden volubility.

"No. We ust to have great times in the hay loft. They cost five cents each—about Jesse James an' the Indians. We ust to borr' an' lend them—until Buttony Clark joined the Y. M. C. A. He borr'd them all without tellin' us he was burnin' them. What sort d' you like?"

"Oh, any sort," she said gaily, "as long 's it 's a love story. I guess you men don't read love stories much." He shook his head uncertainly and then he smiled a broad grin. She turned the pages of the book. "Except when yuh want to jolly us along," she added.

He hitched up his shoulder and looked troubled.

"I don't know but what yuh look up a few pointers then," she said, and glanced up archly at him.

He shifted uneasily. "Pipp?" he began; "he—"

"Oh, him," she stopped him. "I guess he don't do all the jollyin'. That 's a game fer two." She leaned back and laughed rather harshly. "I guess you have n't been readin' any of them lately, anyways."

"No—o," he said.

She bent down over the book again so that he could not see her face. "P'raps if yuh 'd ever been in love, yuh would."

He was not so stupid that he could not see she was laughing at him. He did not answer.

"Have n't yuh never been? Because," she went on, without looking up, "I want to know if they do it right in the books."

He rose slowly. "She wants it back Saturday," he said. "I had better come fer it on—"

She dropped the book. "Yuh 're not goin'?" she cried.

He started towards the door. She sprang up and got in front of him. "Now, you go away back there an' sit down," she ordered. "I ain't said anythin' to fly off the handle at like that. Go on, now. I won't let yuh go. Go on back an' sit down."

He did so.

"Great sakes," she said; "you 're as touchy as anythin'."

He had been looking at her feet. He raised his eyes to hers now, humbly and apologetically, but with another expression too—as dumb as the look of a dog—that struck her pale. It was a glance that did not last a second. It was followed by a long silence, during which she sat, breathing quickly, the blood burning in her cheeks, her eyes fixed on him in a stare that slowly changed from an expression of surprise that was almost stupefaction to one of wonder and compassion that was not unmixed with shame.

"I guess it 's kind o' cold out, ain't it?" she said at last. "I wish 't 'd hurry up an' get warm again."

He replied that he did not mind the cold; and the rest of the evening passed in a constrained conversation, chiefly about his work in the wholesale house and hers at the "lunch counter." When he rose to leave her she did not meet his eyes.

She hurried off to bed on the plea that she was tired. Her mother heard her coughing wakefully far into the night.

On the following evening, it was almost nine o'clock before Larkin arrived; and he was received by Mrs. Connors with a suspicious manner that thawed as soon as she saw how he took to heart the news that Maggie had been worse all day and had gone to bed.

"Ain't she gettin' better?" he whispered.

Her under lip trembled; her little sunken eyes filled. She shook her head.

He took a bag of peanuts from his pocket and laid them on the table. "Ain't she any better?"

"Not a bit," she said, under her voice. "Not a bit. An' I 've had the doctor ev'ry blessed day, an' drugs, an' dainties that 's eat up the little bit I 'd put by for us—ev'ry cent of it. I 'm at my wits' ends. I am that."

She began to pour out all the anxieties that she had been restraining for months. He listened, blinking at the bag of peanuts.

"Thank God, I got my own health, but I 'm gettin' old. I 'm not good fer much. Our frien's 's all got troubles of their own. Heavens knows—poor souls. It 's a bad way we 'll be in if Maggie 's never to get strong again. A bad way." She sat down and knotted her hard old hands together in her lap. "An' her such a bright girl—poor child."

She sighed and shook her head. He turned his hat over in his hands and studied it. There was a miserable silence.

"How d' yuh do, Mr. Larkin," a voice chirruped from the door. He started at the sight of her peeping around the hanging at him. She laughed. "Yuh 're gettin' so fash'nable, I thought yuh were n't comin'."

"I was huntin' fer some peanuts," he confessed. "I could n't find a peddler."

"Peanuts!" she cried. "Wait 'll I get my wrapper on."

He turned to smile at Mrs. Connors.

"They 'll do her no hurt anyways," she conceded. "I wish 't was port wine, poor girl."

It was port wine, the next time he appeared; it was also calves' foot jelly. And though Miss Connors made merry over them, her mother was visibly won. She relieved him of his hat and made him take off his overcoat. And having intervened to save him from her daughter's teasings several times throughout the evening, she parted from him with reluctance at half-past ten and scolded the girl to bed.

"There 's not many boys in Noo York like him," she said; "more 's the pity. He 's—"

"He 's as slow as mud."

"What of it?" she cried. "It 's the mud that sticks to yeh. He 's no fly-away, anyways. He 's a good boy. He is now. Y' ought to take shame to yerself to be baitin' him so. Yer own father was as like him as ever was, an' he made as steady a man as any girl 'd want. Mind yeh that."

"All right, 'mither,'" she laughed. "Let me go to sleep. I 'll marry him in the mornin'."

"You might do worse."

"I might do better."


III

Thereafter, if Larkin made no great progress with Miss Connors, he received every encouragement from her mother. She sent him one night to get a prescription filled at the drug store, and even allowed him to pay for the medicine when he insisted that he should—without letting "Maggie" know. Once having obtained that privilege, he made it a permanent one; and from this beginning he insinuated his aid into the payment of some of the other household expenses, brought Mrs. Connors presents of tea and sugar, and finally slipped a part of his pay-day riches into her hand—when she was bidding him good night in the hall—"fer the doctor's bill."

"God Hess yeh, boy," she whispered tearfully. "Don't mind Maggie now. It 's the way with the girls. She 'll marry yeh when the time comes. Don't doubt it."

He fled down the stairs in such haste that he almost fell on the landing, but when he reached the sidewalk he stopped to turn up the collar of his overcoat and solemnly shook his head before he went on again.

Though he came every night—and even accepted an invitation to supper Sunday evening—he never had much to say for himself. Mrs. Connors received him at the door, maternally, and made herself busy about him, and followed him down the hall to the kitchen. Her daughter, propped up among the pillows in an arm-chair by the stove, greeted him with a flippant "Hello, Mike!" although she knew his name was Tom. He would grin and reply, respectfully: "How 're yuh feelin'?"

"Oh, great!" she would say sarcastically. "Don't I look it?"

She was, in fact, pathetically thin and faded.

"That 's right," he would insist. "I guess we 'll have 't warm pretty soon now."

He would sit down at the opposite side of the room and smile and listen and watch her. She had given up teasing him about coming; she accepted him as one of the family and chatted with her mother about their neighbors and their household affairs without making any change of topic when he came in.

When she was too weak to leave her room she called out "Hello, Mike!" as he passed her door. And when she was at last steadily confined to her bed, she had the cot moved into the kitchen to be in the warmest room in the flat, and she received him there with a smile, even when her voice was too faint to raise her greeting above a whisper. She had apparently accepted their sturdy assurance that she would get well with the warmer weather, and their evenings were as pleasant together as if they all believed that the impossible could happen and were resolved not to worry meanwhile.

He had been given her keys to the flat, so that he might not disturb her by ringing the bell if she were sleeping when he came of an evening. One Saturday night when he arrived he found the parlor door unlatched and the room filled with women, talking in subdued tones. None of them knew him and they all stared when he looked in. Some one was sobbing in the next room. Through the hangings he saw a priest.

He shut the door again, tiptoed heavily downstairs to the street, and stood on the front steps until a policeman, who was watching him, came up to speak to him. He wandered off aimlessly without answering.

He passed and repassed the door several times in the night. At daybreak he saw the black streamer on the door- jamb and turned home, and as he went slowly around the corner, in the silence of the Sunday morning, an undertaker's wagon came drumming hollowly over the paving-stones.

"Ah, don't lea' me, lad," Mrs. Connors pleaded. "Sure, if Maggie 'd lived yeh 'd 'a' been my son, Tom, 'Tell 'm I 'd 'a' married him,' she said, 'Say good-by to Mike,' she said, callin' yeh Mike that way. 'An' tell 'm I 'd 'a' married him,' she said."

Larkin shook his head. He knew better.

However, he did not go back to his boarding-house. He sat in his old place in the kitchen until she made up a bed for him in the room that was now to spare. And when Mrs. Connors had gone plaintively to bed, he dampered the stove, tried the lock of the window that opened on the fire-escape, and took up the oil lamp which she used to save gas in the kitchen.

He stood a long time gazing at the light in his hand, swaying a little, his lips twitching. He went up the hall to the door of the room and stood there, hanging his head. He blew out the light. In the darkness, he tapped on the panel and whispered—hoarsely, apologetically:

"Maggie?"


THE END