The Part of Caesar

The Part of Cæsar  (1907) 
by Arthur Stanwood Pier

Extracted from Scribner's, December 1907, pp. 641-650. Illustrations (by George Wright) omitted.


By Arthur Stanwood Pier

STANDING before his mirror, Horace Wetherbee adjusted his cap. It was of yellow cloth, shaped like a well-stuffed pie, and in front of it, at a rakish angle, was cocked a long black feather.

"I have quite a mediæval face," Horace thought.

Indeed the yellow cap set off effectively the young man's dark color, low, broad forehead, and brown eyes. He laughed, and then, because the costume was becoming, he took a second and more complacent survey. His white tunic, which reached a little way below his hips, bore a triangular breast-piece of black velvet; and round his neck was a collar of brass studded with blue stones. It satisfied him to observe that his yellow tights fitted his legs snugly—that there were no wrinkles.

In the hall outside his dressing-room, the elevator boy knocked and called, "Carriage for you, Mr. Wetherbee."

It was an unusually warm night for late October, and the sleeves of the tunic were voluminous; Horace decided that an overcoat would be both unnecessary and damaging. So, just as he was, he emerged from his bachelor quarters, and astonished the elevator boy.

In the cab, according to arrangement, he found his friend Walter Maxwell, also without an overcoat. Walter's costume was similar to his own except that the tunic was much longer and permitted no display of yellow tights. Walter was tall and very thin.

"Well," said Walter immediately, as they drove off, "when you telephoned me that you would go I was perfectly amazed. What possesses you to exhibit yourself six nights before election day as a German innkeeper of the Meistersinger period? Is it simply pride in your legs?"

"That," said Horace, "is the sort of jealous suspicion that would naturally suggest itself to one who chooses a tunic reaching to his heels. No, Walter; my motive in attending Barclay's costume dinner and after it your silly Artists' Festival is purely political. I succeeded yesterday in impressing Barclay with my devotion to the cause of free art. I impressed him also with the fact that Norton is a stand-patter of the most arid type, who would protect you artist fellows against the competition of Rembrandt and Velasquez with all the patriotic ardor of his soul. Consequently, Barclay, who, as you probably know, is the original monomaniac on the subject of free art, may perhaps—if I am pleasantly assiduous to-night—be humored into making a much needed contribution to my Congressional campaign fund."

"I should think, however," said Walter, "that at this particular stage in the campaign, with the fight so hot, you couldn't afford to take a night off——"

"I'm not taking a night off. I shall sit through the dinner and then accompany you people to the hall—for Barclay has some silly idea about making a grand entrance with all his party. Then I shall dash home, change my clothes, and start out in the automobile. I have to speak at the Moriarty Club in Ward 18, the Democratic Club in 24, and the West Brentford Citizens' Association."

"You would save time if you didn't change your clothes," suggested Walter—a frivolous speech to which Horace did not deign to respond.

"Deuce of a neighborhood," observed Walter some moments later; he peered out at the mean houses which they were passing. "Looks as if it might be one of your strongholds."

"It's not—though it ought to be," admitted Horace. "It may cost me the election."

"How so?"

"It's always been a strong Democratic ward, and Tim Mullane, the boss, used to be a good friend of mine. But last year in the State Senate I did n't heed his wishes quite as much as he expected; he became angry and rather insulting, and we quarrelled. He tried to prevent me from being nominated; and though he's keeping pretty quiet, I haven't much doubt that he's working now to elect Norton. I may gain enough in the other wards to offset the defection here. But I don't know."

"It is a neighborhood that I should think would not be much influenced by any plank for free art," said Walter. "I really don't see how Barclay can continue to inhabit his ancestral estate—shut off from the world by such slums."

The cab had been rolling along the car track; the driver swung his horse out abruptly to turn into a side street, there was a sharp explosive crash, and at once the body of the cab dropped with a jolt. Waiter and Horace were thrown sideways and burst through the door. They picked themselves up unhurt, but the cab was wrecked; the wheel that had cramped in the car track had entirely collapsed, and the door was torn from its hinges. From the cabman who had descended and was viewing the ruin proceeded a plaintive murmur of oaths. No other cab was in sight.

"If you walk down two blocks to Third Street, I guess you'll find one," said the driver in response to Horace's agitated inquiry. He was too engrossed in his own misfortune to be sympathetic with another's. "What a disquieting situation!" Horace exclaimed, as they started towards Third Street. "You, a private citizen, in that long night-gown effect—it doesn't so much matter—but for a public man like myself to be patrolling a doubtful district in yellow tights—it's ruin politically—ruin."

Walter laughed unfeelingly. "Not with such legs, Horace—not with such legs."

Fortunately the shabby little street was dark and almost deserted; a man driving a dump cart passed them and jeered in a dialect they did not understand; a woman whom they met stood aside and gaped at them and turned to gaze with a puzzled grin; and then three small boys emerged from the shadow of a wall and came springing across the street. "Look-a-there, look-a-there!" one of them cried, pointing; and they all stopped and stared as Horace and Walter approached. Then one of the three broke away and started off at a run, shouting "John-nie! Sam-mie! Su-sie! Come quick! Come quick!"

The other two boys trotted along in the gutter beside the brilliant apparitions. "You're play actors, ain't you, Mister?" said one, with respect.

"Why, of course! What else could we be?" replied Horace. "I don't suppose you could get a cab for us?" he continued. "You see we're dressed for the stage and not for the street—our cab broke down; and if you could get another for us it would be worth a quarter."

From an alley issued an impetuous, eager band of little figures, urged on by the boy who had run up the street calling out his comrades. "See 'em! See 'em!" he cried; and they came crowding up, boys and girls of thirteen and less, staring and giggling and whispering.

"Don't shove 'em! Don't shove 'em!" commanded the imperious small boy who had assumed that they were play actors. He pushed an over-curious comrade into the gutter. "You all act like you'd never been to a theatre; they always dress like that."

"How about that cab?" Horace repeated.

"I'll get it for you," said the masterful small boy. "I'll get one from Tony Laffan's livery stable. Say, that's our house over across the street; if I get you the cab, would you mind goin' in and showin' yourselves to my brother? He's crippled and he never seen an actor."

"Why, of course we will," said Horace heartily. "We'll go in there and show ourselves to him, and we'll wait there till you bring the cab."

"That's great. Say, mister, come along." They crossed the street, and then at the door of a small two-story brick house the boy turned and hesitated. The other children crowded nearer. "Do you s'pose you could act some of a play for my brother?" he asked. "He can't never see one acted—and if you only would—! Say, he reads plays, and he's awful bright; he writes 'em, too. If you could just do a piece of a play for him—while I'm gettin' the cab—gee, but he'd like it."

"All right, sir; we'll do it," said Horace promptly. Walter glanced at Horace in some surprise.

"Say, mister—say, Dan—can we come in and see it?" A little girl in a red worsted cap made the timorous appeal, and it was seconded by eager mutterings.

"Yes, of course—if Dan says there's room." Horace looked inquiringly at the host.

"You can come in if you'll be still and not get in my brother Mike's way," said Dan. "Because Mike can't move about none to see—so you mustn't get in his way —and you must keep still. If you'll promise I'll let you in. Promise?"

"Yes, yes!" cried the children, and Dan turned to open the door.

"You're sure you can get a cab?" asked Walter.

Dan looked back over his shoulder. "Tony Laffan wouldn't dast not to send one if I ast for it," he replied importantly.

The two German innkeepers marvelled but did not question. The parlor into which they were ushered was a stuffy little room, cluttered with green and red plush chairs, with low easels bearing enlarged, highly colored photographs in heavy silver frames, and with a variety of rugs, laid at all angles and exhibiting flowery patterns of many raw hues. On the walls were pictures in confusion, a heedless medley of photographs and colored prints. A huge-bodied lamp, with fishes coursing about its blue sphere, was surmounted by an equally huge glass globe, whereon bright plumaged birds disported.

"I'll go up and tell my brother and get the room ready," said Dan. "There's nobody else in. I'll be only a minute. You kids can come up with me."

So the children all went shuffling upstairs.

"To dress for an Artists' Festival," murmured Walter, "and find oneself in such surroundings!"

"It's better than the street, isn't it?" said Horace sharply. "See here, we've got to put up some kind of a stunt for this hospitality. What can you do?"

Walter admitted entire incompetence.

"I once knew Mark Antony's funeral oration," said Horace. "I can pretty nearly remember it all now, I think. I used to practice oratory with it." His eyes fell on a small bokcase over which was draped a yellow lambrequin with tassels. " I don't suppose they have Shakespeare here—" he stepped quickly to the shelves. "Well, upon my word! Shakespeare—Dickens—Pilgrim's Progress—now what do you think of that! They have 'Ben Hur,' too, of course—but just the same, literary development seems ahead of æsthetic. Now let's see."

He took down one of the volumes of Shakespeare and became absorbed in it. Walter moved quietly about the room, inspecting, touching, scrutinizing, and now and then murmuring gently, in almost a tone of respect, "Affreux! Oh, incroyable! Quelle horreur!"

"I've got it," Horace said after a moment. "I remember it all. Pity there's not a part in it for you—so that we could have a little dialogue and action. But see here. Can't you take the part of the fourth Citizen—just to interject at the cues—for instance, after I say, 'And I must pause till it comes back to me,' you say, 'Now mark him; he begins again to speak.' We want to give the kids as good a show as we can."

"All right," said Walter, and he looked over Horace's shoulder and studied his part.

Dan came bounding down the stairs and stood in the doorway—an eager-eyed, excited, confident, red-haired little boy.

"Mike's all ready," he announced. "He's awful pleased. Say, can't you make it last so's I'll see some of it when I come back? Make it a good long one, won't you, please?"

"We'll try to make it last," said Horace. "But you cut and run for that cab now—and get back as quick as you can."

"Sure I will," and the boy turned and fled.

"Got it all?" asked Horace.

"Yes. The fourth Citizen was a loud, obstreperous, anarchistic cuss; you'll hear from him."

"Come on then," said Horace. "I'll be stage manager."

Up the stairs they went and into the room where the children were waiting. Horace entered first, and swept off his yellow hat with its black feather, and made a courtly bow. Then he went up to the bed, on which, propped among pillows, lay a pale, sick-looking little boy with red hair like Dan's, and with eager blue eyes. He smiled at the two strangers. Horace took the small hand lying listless on the counterpane.

"You've never seen any play acting before?"

"No, sir." The boy looked at Horace earnestly and said, "I've never seen any play actors dressed up before. What are you in those clothes?"

"Innkeepers of Nuremberg. We lived several centuries ago. I'm awfully sorry that we can't act the part for you, but you see—well, there isn't any Nuremberg scene that passes just between us two. So we'll have to give you something else, and you'll just have to pretend that these costumes are right."

"I don't mind pretending," said the boy. "I do it a good deal. It must be fine to wear clothes like that every night."

"My friend here likes it," said Horace. "I don't care much for it myself. They're not really so comfortable as ordinary street clothes. No buttons. And you have no idea how useful and convenient buttons are until you try to get along without them. You've never seen any play acting before, you say?"

"No, sir. But I've read some plays. I'd like to write plays—plays like Shakespeare's."

"So should I," said Horace. "Fond as I am of the stage, I believe I would give up acting if I could write plays like Shakespeare's. You read Shakespeare?"

"Oh, yes. And dad reads them to me. I like the tragedies."

"Do you! Now what should you say to our doing a bit out of Julius Cæsar?"

"Oh, would you!"

The boy looked at him so gratefully that Horace felt ashamed.

"It's a long time since I've done it, and I may even forget some of the lines—we actors have short memories—but I hope not."

"Were you Cæsar?"

"No—my part is Mark Antony."

"Oh. Was he Cæsar?"

"No." Walter being designated, spoke for himself, and Horace hastened to add in an undertone for the small boy's private ear, "He only plays unimportant parts; he isn't really a star actor. But he and I are great friends and go round together a good deal. If he isn't much of an actor, he's a first-rate fellow."

While this confidence proceeded, Walter stood enviously looking on—envious and uncomfortable. He was never so ill at ease as in the presence of children; and he found nothing to say to these unkempt little creatures who gazed at him so unblinkingly, so silently. He derived a new respect for the graces of the politician as he saw Horace winning the audience and felt himself so incompetent; the refined disdainfulness of the artist disappeared—as it so often did with Walter—in a human humility of soul. He waited, awkward and silent, to be assigned to his part.

"How many of you children know the story of Julius Cæsar?" asked Horace, turning to the group.

They all looked blank.

"You're the only one, I guess," said Horace to the sick boy. "Well now, listen. Julius Cæsar was a great Roman warrior who had made himself so powerful that certain other Romans feared he was going to take possession of the State. And as they didn't want this to happen, they plotted together to kill him. Some of the conspirators, especially one named Brutus, were friends of Cesar's and went into the plot reluctantly, and just because they thought it was the only patriotic thing to do. One day in the Senate House they fell on Cæsar and stabbed him to death. The people were a good deal excited, and Brutus went out to calm the crowd. He was quite an orator, and he had the crowd pretty well satisfied, when along came Mark Antony, who was Cæsar's dearest friend. Now Cæsar lay just there in that corner—covered with a cloak—no, that won't do; we'll pretend that Mike here in bed is Cæsar. And off here in this corner of the room, there's a speaker's stand, from which Brutus made his speech. You fellows off at that side of the room, you and Mr. Maxwell, are the crowd that are hanging round talking it over. Then on comes Mark Antony—I'm Antony, remember—on he comes like this, and stops for a moment to look at Cæsar, his dead friend. Then on to the speaker's stand—you've got to iimagine that—and then—

'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Cæsar, not to praise him.'"

Solemnly he began, and soon Walter as well as the children was listening with admiration. In the inappropriate costume there was dignity; and Horace had the orotund voice befitting Antony It was more than a bit of declamation well remembered; he had the art of the actor, the movement and expressiveness; and when after making his appeal,

'Bear with me,
My heart is in the coffin there with Cæsar,
And I must pause till it come back to me,'

he stood with arms folded and downcast head, no one stirred; the children looked on, rapt and subdued. Then, after a moment, Walter threw up his hand and turned:

"'Now mark him,' " he warned them, "'he begins again to speak.'"

Antony was producing from his sleeve Cæsar's will—a rolled up sheet of paper with which he had provided himself downstairs—when Dan slipped in at the door. The audience, hushed, intent, gave Dan hardly a glance; he stood quietly where he had entered.

At the proper time Walter clamored for the reading of the will. Antony's reluctance was overcome.

'Then make a ring about the corpse of Csesar,
And let me show you him that made the will.
Shall I descend? And will you give me leave?'

'"Come down!'" cried Walter.

Slowly Antony advanced across the room and stood by the boy's bedside. The children pressed forward in unconscious intentness. Mike looked up with eager, excited eyes; his thin face was flushed.

'If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle.

And at that moment, as Antony held up a corner of the counterpane and turned to display it, the door opened and admitted a short, heavy man, with a red face and a big chin. He stopped with a subdued exclamation; then his eyes fell on Horace, his eyes sharpened, and he took a forward step, with anger and determination in his look. But Dan grasped his arm and cried, "Sh, daddy, sh! They're play actors doin' a play for Mike, and it's great. Sh—sh! Don't butt in."

The man hesitated, for a moment uncertain, glancing from the boy on the bed to the man in yellow who stood by; and meanwhile Horace gazed calmly at his enemy, Tim Mullane. And then, before Mullane had spoken, Horace turned swiftly to the children and continued,

'I remember
The first time Cæsar ever put it on;
'Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent;
That day he overcame the Nervii:—
Look! in this place ran Cassius' dagger through:
See, what a rent the envious Casca made!
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabbed——'

and as each time he gathered up a fold of the counterpane the children leaned forward believingly, and Mike, lying beneath it, was flushed with excitement and pride.

'Look you here;
Here is himself, marred, as you see, with traitors.'

And Antony laid his hand gently on the boy's red hair.

"'O traitors, villains!'" cried Walter, passionately, flinging up his arms as he turned and appealed to the children.

But Antony put out his hand.

'Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.'

He turned, as if unconsciously, and addressed the man who stood by the door scowling.

'They that have done this deed are honourable:
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not——'

and so on to the end of the speech—appealingly, yet with a dignity and fervor which broke at last into the sudden incendiary, passionate outburst.

And then he looked down and said quietly to the sick boy, "And that's the place to stop."

"Oh," sighed the boy. "I wish you could do the whole play!"

Horace laughed. "Ah, but that takes a big company. And a lot of room. And there are only two of us here to-night."

"Yes," said the boy faintly. He closed his eyes. "Yes," he repeated—and it was as if he was dropping off to sleep. Horace watched him with a pitying sympathy; but Tim Mullane stepped up to the bed and seated himself upon it and put his hand on the boy's forehead anxiously. The boy opened his eyes.

"Daddy," he said, "I've seen a play actor—wasn't it fine? Mark Antony—I wish you could have heard it all, Daddy. And—and I was Julius Cæsar.'"

There was a wistful elation in the voice; the father showed for one moment a faint, unhappy smile before he stooped to murmur in the boy's ear and so hid his face.

"Come here, boys and girls," said Horace. "I want to say good-by to you all."

Silently and with awe they gathered round him; he shook hands with each one, with a word for each, while Walter stood by and wished he had the politician's art—or—he phrased it to himself interrogatively— or was it perhaps the politician's heart? And last of all Horace stepped over to the bed and touched the boy's hair. The father moved and made room for him.

"Good-by, my boy," said Horace. "Now you keep on; you keep on making up plays—and see that you make them just as good as Shakespeare's.—Good-by."

The small fingers tightened on his hand. Then he straightened up, looked into Tim Mullane's eyes, and said, "Good-by, sir." And followed by Walter he went from the room.

Dan pattered behind them down the stairs. "Tony Laffan sent the carriage right round," he said. "It was great, mister—wish I'd heard it all."

"Dan!" The boy's father spoke sharply from the top of the stairs. "Come back. I want to speak to the gentlemen a moment—alone."

So, while Dan retreated and Tim Mullane descended, Horace and Walter waited below in the narrow hall. Mullane came down and stood with his back to the door. In the flickering dim gaslight, his face, which had looked smooth and hard upstairs, seemed shadowed and lined.

"Senator," he said, "how did it happen?"

"We were on our way to a costume party," Horace answered. "Our cab broke down, and turned us out into the street. The children gathered—they asked us if we were play actors—and it seemed the simplest thing to say yes. Then your boy Dan told us about his crippled brother and asked if we couldn't entertain him while he got us a cab. Well—we tried to see the thing through—put up the best stunt we could. But I confess—when I found how matters stood—how serious a thing it was to the little lad—I was sorry to be deceiving him."

"No need to be." Mullane spoke brusquely. "Got any children of your own?"

"No. Bachelor."

"You'd ought to have. You'd make a good daddy." He hesitated; then in a constrained voice he added, "The poor little fellow can never leave that bed. I thank ye."

He opened the door for them and, as they passed out, silently shook hands with each. Then he followed down the steps to the carriage.

"Where to, Senator?" he asked.

Horace gave the address; Mullane repeated it to the driver. "They want to get there quick, too," he warned the man in the imperious voice that Dan had caught. And then, before closing the carriage door, he put his head inside and said:

"Senator—my coat is off and my sleeves are rolled up. Don't worry about this ward."

He closed the door; the carriage drove away.

"After all," said Walter, "it's not always the arguments that convince, is it?"

"No," said Horace. "Once in a while it's the emotions—thank God."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1966, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.