Chapter XV. Early Adventures of a 'Prentice
 

Arthur, about to issue forth at a quarter to seven on Monday morning to begin work as a cooper's apprentice, felt as if he would find all Saint X lined up to watch him make the journey in working clothes. He had a bold front as he descended the lawn toward the gates; but at the risk of opening him to those with no sympathy for weaknesses other than their own, and for their own only in themselves, it must be set down that he seemed to himself to be shaking and skulking. He set his teeth together, gave himself a final savage cut with the lash of "What a damned coward I am!" and closed the gate behind him and was in the street--a workingman. He did not realize it, but he had shown his mettle; for, no man with any real cowardice anywhere in him would have passed through that gate and faced a world that loves to sneer.

From the other big houses of that prosperous neighborhood were coming, also in working clothes, the fathers, and occasionally the sons, of families he was accustomed to regard as "all right--for Saint X." At the corner of Cherry Lane, old Bolingbroke, many times a millionaire thanks to a thriving woolen factory, came up behind him and cried out, "Well, young man! This is something like." In his enthusiasm he put his arm through Arthur's. "As soon as I read your father's will, I made one myself," he continued as they hurried along at Bolingbroke's always furious speed. "I always did have my boys at work; I send 'em down half an hour before me every morning. But it occurred to me they might bury their enthusiasm in the cemetery along with me." He gave his crackling, snapping laugh that was strange and even startling in itself, but seemed the natural expression of his snapping eyes and tight-curling, wiry whiskers and hair. "So I fixed up my will. No pack of worthless heirs to make a mockery of my life and teachings after I'm gone. No, sir-ee!"

Arthur was more at ease. "Appearances" were no longer against him--distinctly the reverse. He wondered that his vanity could have made him overlook the fact that what he was about to do was as much the regular order in prosperous Saint X, throughout the West for that matter, as posing as a European gentleman was the regular order of the "upper classes" of New York and Boston--and that even there the European gentleman was a recent and rather rare importation. And Bolingbroke's hearty admiration, undeserved though Arthur felt it to be, put what he thought was nerve into him and stimulated what he then regarded as pride. "After all, I'm not really a common workman," reflected he. "It's like mother helping Mary." And he felt still better when, passing the little millinery shop of "Wilmot & Company" arm in arm with the great woolen manufacturer, he saw Estelle Wilmot--sweeping out. Estelle would have looked like a storybook princess about royal business, had she been down on her knees scrubbing a sidewalk. He was glad she didn't happen to see him, but he was gladder that he had seen her. Clearly, toil was beginning to take on the appearance of "good form."

He thought pretty well of himself all that day. Howells treated him like the proprietor's son; Pat Waugh, foreman of the cooperage, put "Mr. Arthur" or "Mr. Ranger" into every sentence; the workingmen addressed him as "sir," and seemed to appreciate his talking as affably with them as if he were unaware of the precipice of caste which stretched from him down to them. He was in a pleasant frame of mind as he went home and bathed and dressed for dinner. And, while he knew he had really been in the way at the cooperage and had earned nothing, yet--his ease about his social status permitting--he felt a sense of self-respect which was of an entirely new kind, and had the taste of the fresh air of a keen, clear winter day.

This, however, could not last. The estate was settled up; the fiction that he was of the proprietorship slowly yielded to the reality; the men, not only those over him but also those on whose level he was supposed to be, began to judge him as a man. "The boys say," growled Waugh to Howells, "that he acts like one of them damn spying dude sons proprietors sometimes puts in among the men to learn how to work 'em harder for less. He don't seem to catch on that he's got to get his money out of his own hands."

"Touch him up a bit," said Howells, who had worshiped Hiram Ranger and in a measure understood what had been in his mind when he dedicated his son to a life of labor. "If it becomes absolutely necessary I'll talk to him. But maybe you can do the trick."

Waugh, who had the useful man's disdain of deliberately useless men and the rough man's way of feeling it and showing it, was not slow to act on Howells's license. That very day he found Arthur unconsciously and even patronizingly shirking the tending of a planer so that his teacher, Bud Rollins, had to do double work. Waugh watched this until it had "riled" him sufficiently to loosen his temper and his language. "Hi, there, Ranger!" he shouted. "What the hell! You've been here goin' on six months now, and you're more in the way than you was the first day."

Arthur flushed, flashed, clenched his fists; but the planer was between him and Waugh, and that gave Waugh's tremendous shoulders and fists a chance to produce a subduing visual impression. A man, even a young man, who is nervous on the subject of his dignity, will, no matter how brave and physically competent, shrink from avoidable encounter that means doubtful battle. And dignity was a grave matter with young Ranger in those days.

"Don't hoist your dander up at me," said Waugh. "Get it up agin' yourself. Bud, next time he soldiers on you, send him to me."

"All right, sir," replied Bud, with a soothing grin. And when Waugh was gone, he said to Arthur, "Don't mind him. Just keep pegging along, and you'll learn all right."

Bud's was the tone a teacher uses to encourage a defective child. It stung Arthur more fiercely than had Waugh's. It flashed on him that the men--well, they certainly hadn't been looking up to him as he had been fondly imagining. He went at his work resolutely, but blunderingly; he spoiled a plank and all but clogged the machine. His temper got clean away from him, and he shook with a rage hard to restrain from venting itself against the inanimate objects whose possessing devils he could hear jeering at him through the roar of the machinery.

"Steady! Steady!" warned good-natured Rollins. "You'll drop a hand under that knife."

The words had just reached Arthur when he gave a sharp cry. With a cut as clean as the edge that made it, off came the little finger of his left hand, and he was staring at it as it lay upon the bed of the planer, twitching, seeming to breathe as its blood pulsed out, while the blood spurted from his maimed hand. In an instant Lorry Tague had the machine still.

"A bucket of clean water," he yelled to the man at the next planer.

He grabbed dazed Arthur's hand, and pressed hard with his powerful thumb and forefinger upon the edges of the wound.

"A doctor!" he shouted at the men crowding round.

Arthur did not realize what had happened until he found himself forced to his knees, his hand submerged in the ice-cold water, Lorry still holding shut the severed veins and arteries.

"Another bucket of water, you, Bill," cried Lorry.

When it came he had Bill Johnstone throw the severed finger into it. Bud Rollins, who had jumped through the window into the street in a dash for a physician, saw Doctor Schulze's buggy just turning out of High Street. He gave chase, had Schulze beside Arthur within two minutes. More water, both hot and cold, was brought, and a cleared work bench; with swift, sure fingers the doctor cleaned the stump, cleaned the severed finger, joined and sewed them, bandaged the hand.

"Now, I'll take you home," he said. "I guess you've distinguished yourself enough for the day."

Arthur followed him, silent and meek as a humbled dog. As they were driving along Schulze misread a mournful look which Arthur cast at his bandaged hand. "It's nothing--nothing at all," he said gruffly. "In a week or less you could be back at work." The accompanying sardonic grin said plain as print, "But this dainty dandy is done with work."

Weak and done though Arthur was, some blood came into his pale face and he bit his lip with anger.

Schulze saw these signs.

"Several men are killed every year in those works--and not through their carelessness, either," he went on in a milder, friendlier tone. "And forty or fifty are maimed--not like that little pin scratch of yours, my dear Mr. Ranger, but hands lost, legs lost--accidents that make cripples for life. That means tragedy--not the wolf at the door, but with his snout right in the platter."

"I've seen that," said Arthur. "But I never thought much about it--until now."

"Naturally," commented Schulze, with sarcasm. Then he added philosophically, "And it's just as well not to bother about it. Mankind found this world a hell, and is trying to make it over into a heaven. And a hell it still is, even more of a hell than at first, and it'll be still more of a hell--for these machines and these slave-driving capitalists with their luxury-crazy families are worse than wars and aristocrats. They make the men work, and the women and the children--make 'em all work as the Pharaohs never sweated the wretches they set at building the pyramids. The nearer the structure gets toward completion, the worse the driving and the madder the haste. Some day the world'll be worth living in--probably just about the time it's going to drop into the sun. Meanwhile, it's a hell of a place. We're a race of slaves, toiling for the benefit of the race of gods that'll some day be born into a habitable world and live happily ever afterwards. Science will give them happiness--and immortality, if they lose the taste for the adventure into the Beyond."

Arthur's brain heard clearly enough to remember afterwards; but Schulze's voice seemed to be coming through a thick wall. When they reached the Ranger house, Schulze had to lift him from the buggy and support his weight and guide his staggering steps. Out ran Mrs. Ranger, with the terror in her eyes.

"Don't lose your head, ma'am," said Schulze. "It's only a cut finger. The young fool forgot he was steering a machine, and had a sharp but slight reminder."

Schulze was heavily down on the "interesting-invalid" habit. He held that the world's supply of sympathy was so small that there wasn't enough to provide encouragement for those working hard and well; that those who fell into the traps of illness set in folly by themselves should get, at most, toleration in the misfortunes in which others were compelled to share. "The world discourages strength and encourages weakness," he used to declaim. "That injustice and cruelty must be reversed!"

"Doctor Schulze is right," Arthur was saying to his mother, with an attempt at a smile. But he was glad of the softness and ease of the big divan in the back parlor, of the sense of hovering and protecting love he got from his mother's and Adelaide's anxious faces. Sorer than the really trifling wound was the deep cut into his vanity. How his fellow-workmen were pitying him!--a poor blockhead of a bungler who had thus brought to a pitiful climax his failure to learn a simple trade. And how the whole town would talk and laugh! "Hiram Ranger, he begat a fool!"

Schulze, with proper equipment, redressed and rebandaged the wound, and left, after cautioning the young man not to move the sick arm. "You'll be all right to strum the guitar and sport a diamond ring in a fortnight at the outside," said he. At the door he lectured Adelaide: "For God's sake, Miss Ranger, don't let his mother coddle him. He's got the makings of a man like his father--not as big, perhaps, but still a lot of a man. Give him a chance! Give him a chance! If this had happened in a football game or a fox-hunt, nobody would have thought anything of it. But just because it was done at useful work, you've got yourself all fixed to make a fearful to-do."

How absurdly does practice limp along, far behind firm-striding theory! Schulze came twice that day, looked in twice the next day, and fussed like a disturbed setting-hen when his patient forestalled the next day's visit by appearing at his office for treatment. "I want to see if I can't heal that cut without a scar," was his explanation--but it was a mere excuse.

When Arthur called on the fifth day, Schulze's elder daughter, Madelene, opened the door. "Will you please tell the doctor," said he, "that the workman who cut his finger at the cooperage wishes to see him?"

Madelene's dark gray eyes twinkled. She was a tall and, so he thought, rather severe-looking young woman; her jet black hair was simply, yet not without a suspicion of coquetry, drawn back over her ears from a central part--or what would have been a part had her hair been less thick. She was studying medicine under her father. It was the first time he had seen her, it so happened, since she was in knee dresses at public school. As he looked he thought: "A splendid advertisement for the old man's business." Just why she seemed so much healthier than even the healthiest, he found it hard to understand. She was neither robust nor radiant. Perhaps it was the singular clearness of her dead-white skin and of the whites of her eyes; again it might have been the deep crimson of her lips and of the inside of her mouth--a wide mouth with two perfect rows of small, strong teeth of the kind that go with intense vitality.

"Just wait here," said she, in a businesslike tone, as she indicated the reception room.

"You don't remember me?" said Arthur, to detain her.

"No, I don't remember you," replied Madelene. "But I know who you are."

"Who I was," thought Arthur, his fall never far from the foreground of his mind. "You used to be very serious, and always perfect in your lessons," he continued aloud, "and--most superior."

Madelene laughed. "I was a silly little prig," said she. Then, not without a subtle hint of sarcasm, "But I suppose we all go through that period--some of us in childhood, others further along."

Arthur smiled, with embarrassment. So he had the reputation of being a prig.

Madelene was in the doorway. "Father will be free--presently," said she. "He has another patient with him. If you don't care to wait, perhaps I can look after the cut. Father said it was a trifle."

Arthur slipped his arm out of the sling.

"In here," said Madelene, opening the door of a small room to the left of her father's consultation room.

Arthur entered. "This is your office?" he asked, looking round curiously, admiringly. It certainly was an interesting room, as the habitat of an interesting personality is bound to be.

"Yes," she replied. "Sit here, please."

Arthur seated himself in the chair by the window and rested his arm on the table. He thought he had never seen fingers so long as hers, or so graceful. Evidently she had inherited from her father that sure, firm touch which is perhaps the highest talent of the surgeon. "It seems such an--an--such a hard profession for a woman," said he, to induce those fascinating lips of hers to move.

"It isn't soft," she replied. "But then father hasn't brought us up soft."

This was discouraging, but Arthur tried again. "You like it?"

"I love it," said she, and now her eyes were a delight. "It makes me hate to go to bed at night, and eager to get up in the morning. And that means really living, doesn't it?"

"A man like me must seem to you a petty sort of creature."

"Oh, I haven't any professional haughtiness," was her laughing reply. "One kind of work seems to me just as good as another. It's the spirit of the workman that makes the only differences."

"That's it," said Arthur, with a humility which he thought genuine and which was perhaps not wholly false. "I don't seem to be able to give my heart to my work."

"I fancy you'll give it attention hereafter," suggested Madelene. She had dressed the almost healed finger and was dexterously rebandaging it. She was necessarily very near to him, and from her skin there seemed to issue a perfumed energy that stimulated his nerves. Their eyes met. Both smiled and flushed.

"That wasn't very kind--that remark," said he.

"What's all this?" broke in the sharp voice of the doctor.

Arthur started guiltily, but Madelene, without lifting her eyes from her task, answered: "Mr. Ranger didn't want to be kept waiting."

"She's trying to steal my practice away from me!" cried Schulze. He looked utterly unlike his daughter at first glance, but on closer inspection there was an intimate resemblance, like that between the nut and its rough, needle-armored shell. "Well, I guess she hasn't botched it." This in a pleased voice, after an admiring inspection of the workmanlike bandage. "Come again to-morrow, young man."

Arthur bowed to Madelene and somehow got out into the street. He was astonished at himself and at the world. He had gone drearily into that office out of a dreary world; he had issued forth light of heart and delighted with the fresh, smiling, interesting look of the shaded streets and the green hedges and lawns and flower beds. "A fine old town," he said to himself. "Nice, friendly people--and the really right sort. As soon as I'm done with the rough stretch I've got just ahead of me, I'm going to like it. Let me see--one of those girls was named Walpurga and one was named--Madelene--this one, I'm sure--Yes!" And he could hear the teacher calling the roll, could hear the alto voice from the serious face answer to "Madelene Schulze," could hear the light voice from the face that was always ready to burst into smiles answer to "Walpurga Schulze."

But though it was quite unnecessary he, with a quite unnecessary show of carelessness, asked Del which was which. "The black one is Madelene," replied she, and her ability to speak in such an indifferent tone of such an important person surprised him. "The blonde is Walpurga. I used to detest Madelene. She always treated me as if I hadn't any sense."

"Well, you can't blame her for that, Del," said Arthur. "You've been a great deal of a fool in your day--before you blossomed out. Do you remember the time Dory called you down for learning things to show off, and how furious you got?"

Adelaide looked suddenly warm, though she laughed too. "Why did you ask about Dr. Schulze's daughters?" she asked.

"I saw one of them this morning--a beauty, a tip-topper. And no nonsense about her. As she's 'black,' I suppose her name is Madelene."

"Oh, I remember now!" exclaimed Adelaide. "Madelene is going to be a doctor. They say she's got nerves of iron--can cut and slash like her father."

Arthur was furious, just why he didn't know. No doubt what Del said was true, but there were ways and ways of saying things. "I suppose there is some sneering at her," said he, "among the girls who couldn't do anything if they tried. It seems to me, if there is any profession a woman could follow without losing her womanliness, it is that of doctor. Every woman ought to be a doctor, whether she ever tries to make a living out of it or not."

Adelaide was not a little astonished by this outburst.

"You'll be coming round to Dory's views of women, if you aren't careful," said she.

"There's a lot of sense in what Dory says about a lot of things," replied Arthur.

Del sheered off. "How did the doctor say your hand is?"

"Oh--all right," said Arthur. "I'm going to work on Monday."

"Did he say you could?"

"No, but I'm tired of doing nothing. I've got to 'get busy' if I'm to pull out of this mess."

His look, his tone made his words sound revolutionary. And, in fact, his mood was revolutionary. He was puzzled at his own change of attitude. His sky had cleared of black clouds; the air was no longer heavy and oppressive. He wanted to work; he felt that by working he could accomplish something, could deserve and win the approval of people who were worthwhile--people like Madelene Schulze, for instance.

Next day he lurked round the corner below the doctor's house until he saw him drive away; then he went up and rang the bell. This time it was the "blonde" that answered--small and sweet, pink and white, with tawny hair. This was disconcerting. "I couldn't get here earlier," he explained. "I saw the doctor just driving away. But, as these bandages feel uncomfortable, I thought perhaps his daughter--your sister, is she not?--might--might fix them."

Walpurga looked doubtful. "I think she's busy," she said. "I don't like to disturb her."

Just then Madelene crossed the hall. Her masses of black hair were rolled into a huge knot on top of her head; she was wearing a white work slip and her arms were bare to the elbows--the finest arms he had ever seen, Arthur thought. She seemed in a hurry and her face was flushed--she would have looked no differently if she had heard his voice and had come forth to prevent his getting away without having seen him. "Meg!" called her sister. "Can you--"

Madelene apparently saw her sister and Arthur for the first time. "Good morning, Mr. Ranger. You've come too late. Father's out."

Arthur repeated his doleful tale, convincingly now, for his hand did feel queer--as what hand would not, remembering such a touch as Madelene's, and longing to experience it again?

"Certainly," said Madelene. "I'll do the best I can. Come in."

And once more he was in her office, with her bending over him. And presently her hair came unrolled, came showering down on his arm, on his face; and he shook like a leaf and felt as if he were going to faint, into such an ecstasy did the soft rain of these tresses throw him. As for Madelene, she was almost hysterical in her confusion. She darted from the room.

When she returned she seemed calm, but that was because she did not lift those tell-tale gray eyes. Neither spoke as she finished her work. If Arthur had opened his lips it would have been to say words which he thought she would resent, and he repent. Not until his last chance had almost ebbed did he get himself sufficiently in hand to speak. "It wasn't true--what I said," he began. "I waited until your father was gone. Then I came--to see you. As you probably know, I'm only a workman, hardly even that, at the cooperage, but--I want to come to see you. May I?"

She hesitated.

"I know the people in this town have a very poor opinion of me," he went on, "and I deserve it, no doubt. You see, the bottom dropped out of my life not long ago, and I haven't found myself yet. But you did more for me in ten minutes the other day than everything and everybody, including myself, have been able to do since my father died."

"I don't remember that I said anything," she murmured.

"I didn't say that what you said helped me. I said what you did--and looked. And--I'd like to come."

"We never have any callers," she explained. "You see, father's--our--views--People don't understand us. And, too, we've found ourselves very congenial and sufficient unto one another. So--I--I--don't know what to say."

He looked so cast down that she hastened on: "Yes--come whenever you like. We're always at home. But we work all day."

"So do I," said Arthur. "Thank you. I'll come--some evening next week."

Suddenly he felt peculiarly at ease with her, as if he had always known her, as if she and he understood each other perfectly. "I'm afraid you'll find me stupid," he went on. "I don't know much about any of the things you're interested in."

"Perhaps I'm interested in more things than you imagine," said she. "My sister says I'm a fraud--that I really have a frivolous mind and that my serious look is a hollow pretense."

And so they talked on, not getting better acquainted but enjoying the realization of how extremely well acquainted they were. When he was gone, Madelene found that her father had been in for some time. "Didn't he ask for me?" she said to Walpurga.

"Yes," answered Walpurga. "And I told him you were flirting with Arthur Ranger."

Madelene colored violently. "I never heard that word in this house before," she said stiffly.

"Nor I," replied Walpurga, the pink and white. "And I think it's high time--with you nearly twenty-two and me nearly twenty."

At dinner her father said: "Well, Lena, so you've got a beau at last. I'd given up hope."

"For Heaven's sake don't scare him away, father!" cried Walpurga.

"A pretty poor excuse," pursued the doctor. "I doubt if Arthur Ranger can make enough to pay his own board in a River Street lodging house."

"It took courage--real courage--to go to work as he did," replied Madelene, her color high.

"Yes," admitted her father, "if he sticks to it."

"He will stick to it," affirmed Madelene.

"I think so," assented her father, dropping his teasing pretense and coming out frankly for Arthur. "When a man shows that he has the courage to cross the Rubicon, there's no need to worry about whether he'll go on or turn back."

"You mustn't let him know he's the only beau you've ever had, Meg," cautioned her sister.

"And why not?" demanded Madelene. "If I ever did care especially for a man, I'd not care for him because other women had. And I shouldn't want a man to be so weak and vain as to feel that way about me."

It was a temptation to that aloof and isolated, yet anything but lonely or lonesome, household to discuss this new and strange phenomenon--the intrusion of an outsider, and he a young man. But the earnestness in Madelene's voice made her father and her sister feel that to tease her further would be impertinent.

Arthur had said he would not call until the next week because then he would be at work again. He went once more to Dr. Schulze's, but was careful to go in office hours. He did not see Madelene--though she, behind the white sash curtains of her own office, saw him come, watched him go until he was out of sight far down the street. On Monday he went to work, really to work. No more shame; no more shirking or shrinking; no more lingering on the irrevocable. He squarely faced the future, and, with his will like his father's, set dogged and unconquerable energy to battering at the obstacles before him. "All a man needs," said he to himself, at the end of the first day of real work, "is a purpose. He never knows where he's at until he gets one. And once he gets it, he can't rest till he has accomplished it."

What was his purpose? He didn't know--beyond a feeling that he must lift himself from his present position of being an object of pity to all Saint X and the sort of man that hasn't the right to ask any woman to be his wife.