Chapter VI
 

Within a month after Truesdale Marshall's return home the understanding between himself and his father might fairly have been classified among the facts accomplished; and it was brought about, too, by those indefinite courses, those impalpable procedures through which, in actual life, so many understandings are really arrived at. Truesdale, therefore, never received word that his father "wished to see him in the library"--as in the story-books. Nor did the two ever draw their chairs together in the middle of the stage close to the footlights, and have it out--as at the theatre. When Truesdale spoke at all he spoke casually--with more or less of implication or insinuation--to his mother or his sisters. When he spoke not at all, he acted--and his actions spoke as loudly and effectually as actions are held commonly to do. His father, therefore, learned presently, and with enough distinctness to serve all purposes, that the filial back was no more ready now than ever before to submit to harness; that rules and regulations were sure to be resented; that dates and duties were fretful affairs at best; that engagements and responsibilities were far too irksome to be endured; and, above all, that anything like "hours" would be most emphatically beyond the pale of a moment's consideration. Truesdale professed to regard himself as having returned once more to the life of the frontier; and being thus placed, what could he be but a pioneer? Very well; he would be a pioneer--the pioneer of a leisure class.

He made, however, one concession to his father: he consented to a reduction in his allowance.

He had led himself to believe that now, at last, in the town of his birth the career of a man of leisure was completely practicable. During his long absence from home his family had sent him at intervals copies of the local newspapers--sheets whose utterances were triumphantly optimistic, even beyond their triumphant and optimistic wont. Furthermore, his courses over the Continent had brought him into contact with many travellers more lately from home than himself, whose strange and topping tales--carried, indeed, in a direction the reverse of that taken by most such reports--had told him much of contemporaneous achievement behind them, and had filled him with a half-belief that no expectations founded on such a base could be exorbitant. A great light had arisen; the city, notably a metropolis for many years already, had opened out into a cosmopolis; the poet had at last arrived, and the earth was now tolerable for the foot of man.

He visited on the South shore the great white shell from which the spirit had taken its formal leave but a week before, and he acknowledged the potency of the poet's spell. "It is good," he assented; "better than I could have thought--better than anybody over there could be made to believe. I might have tried to get home a fortnight sooner, perhaps."

He met half-way the universal expectation that the spirit of the White City was but just transferred to the body of the great Black City close at hand, over which it was to hover as an enlightenment--through which it might permeate as an informing force.

"Good!" he thought; "there's no place where it's needed more or where it might do more good." The great town, in fact, sprawled and coiled about him like a hideous monster--a piteous, floundering monster, too. It almost called for tears. Nowhere a more tireless activity, nowhere a more profuse expenditure, nowhere a more determined striving after the ornate, nowhere a more undaunted endeavor towards the monumental expression of success, yet nowhere a result so pitifully grotesque, grewsome, appalling. "So little taste," sighed Truesdale; "so little training, so little education, so total an absence of any collective sense of the fit and the proper! Who could believe, here, that there are cities elsewhere which fashioned themselves rightly almost by intuition--which took shape and reached harmony by an unreasoned instinct, as you might say?"

But let that pass; he must take the town as he found it. Between his own transplanted artistic interests on the one hand and his association with the great throng of artists that the Aufklaerung had doubtless brought and held, he should do well enough. He figured mornings given over to music and painting--his own; and afternoons of studio-rounds, when fellow-artists would turn him their unfinished canvasses to the light, or would pull away the clinging sheets from their shapes of dampened clay; and evenings when the room would thicken with smoke and tall glasses would make rings on the shining tops of tables, while a dozen agile wits had their own way with Monet and Bourget and Verlaine. For the rest, concerts, spectacles, bals; if need be, receptions; or, if pushed to it, five-o'clock tea--with the chance that one other man might be present. Thus the winter. As for the summer: "No canoeing, of course, on the Lahn and the Moselle; I must fall back upon the historic Illinois, with its immemorial towns and villages and crumbling cathedrals, and the long line of ancient and picturesque chateaux between Ottawa and Peoria. No more villeggiatura at Frascati or Fiesole; I shall have to flee from the summer heats to the wild ravines and gorges of DuPage County--and raise turnips and cabbages there with the rest of them."

Putting aside for the present all thought of the coming summer, Truesdale set himself to the formation of a circle. He had gone away as a boy and had come back as a young man. He had grown beyond his old acquaintances, he thought, and apart from them--of which last there could be no doubt on either side; and it struck him that the easiest and simplest thing to do would be to drop them all and to start afresh. To drop everybody and to start afresh was something he was completely habituated to. He did it through the year at intervals of from three to six months; during the busy summer season among the Swiss pensions he had done it once every fortnight, or oftener. His nature was full of adaptability, receptivity, fluidity; he made friends everywhere he went, and snatched up acquaintances at every corner.

Among the first in his new batch were Theodore Brower and Arthur Paston. They were both older than he, but he declared, net, that his non-travelled compatriots of his own age were impossible. These two new acquaintances he appeared to like equally well; and Jane, whose kindling ambition had devoted her brother to a brilliant social career, and whose forenoon with Mrs. Bates had done little enough to quench the mounting flame, wondered how such an augury was to be read; for Brower was wholly out of society, while Paston was understood to be (save for some slight but inevitable business entanglements) wholly in it. She decided, finally, that, as Truesdale had met Brower in their own house--involuntarily, as it were--while he had met Paston outside (as a result, inferentially, of his own endeavors and advances), the brilliant future of her brother was in no danger of being compromised. Then she restored the just balance between the two by the thought that Truesdale had taken very kindly to Theod--to Mr. Brower, after all; much more so than Rosy, whose sauciness (she could think of no other word) Jane found herself unable to forgive.

Theodore Brower was some ten years older than Truesdale. His hair was beginning to retreat before his advancing forehead, and about his eyes were coming to appear those lines proper to the man who is in business for himself and pretty largely absorbed in it. He had a pair of shrewd but kindly brown eyes and a straightforward and serious manner. He held his hand more or less on the pulsing actualities of the town, and at one time or another he took Truesdale to most of his clubs--the Crepuscular, the Consolation, the Simplicity, the Universe. At most of these they dined moderately and discussed immoderately, except at the Simplicity, whose avowed object was to free Man from the tyranny of Things. There they discussed and did not dine at all.

Brower called at the Marshall house at discreet intervals; now and then, provided there was a plausible pretext for business, the interval was shortened. He looked after all of old Mr. Marshall's insurance interests, and the alterations in the business premises of Marshall & Belden seemed to furnish him with such a pretext. The various policies required various permits from various companies, and numerous changes to correspond with the changes in the building itself. True, Brower might have sent one of his young men to the store; but he preferred to come himself to the house.

His presence there, under this ruse, was attended by various phenomena. It was then that Jane would pant over the banister and palpitate in doorways, and start and hesitate and advance and retreat, and presently go gliding along the hall, and finally look in through the open door to say, with affected surprise and disappointment:

"Why, dear me, it's only Mr. Brower, after all!"

Then the humiliation which she joyfully supposed him to suffer through the infliction of such an indignity would be cancelled by a fifteen-minute talk which, as regarded Jane's intention at least, would be quite gracious and brilliant. Brower went through this ordeal serenely enough, and never hesitated to expose himself again.

To Rosamund these subterfuges were too obvious for comment; this she reserved for those other occasions when Brower's attentions were not made to assume the mask of business. She objected that he came generally in a sack-coat, that he sometimes presented himself too early, that he dispensed with the mediatory services of a card, that he asked at the door for "Miss Jane," and that she herself was always treated by him as a child.

"Doesn't he know," protested Rosy, "that Jane is 'Miss Marshall'? And does he think that I shall let him go on calling me by a mere nickname?"

She appeared to feel instinctively the point and the justness of these her various exceptions, though where she collected her data it might have been difficult definitely to say. She was served by intuition, perhaps; or by a sixth sense--the social sense--which was now rapidly developing from some recess hidden and hitherto all unsuspected.

Though Brower was out of Society, Truesdale did not find him on this account any the more in Bohemia; he merely occupied the firm and definite middle-ground of business. But Paston, on the other hand, while firmly set in the flowery field of society, was quite capable of lifting a foot now and then to put it within the borders of another and a different area. Truesdale first met him in a sculptor's studio, at the top of one of the great down-town office buildings; the young Briton was escorting a pair of young women of his own circle who seemed disposed to encourage art to the extent of seeing how the thing was done, and whose interest was largely exhausted with an understanding of certain mechanical processes. He and Truesdale subsequently grazed against each other at places where young women, again, were present, whose interest in matters aesthetic was in varying proportions, and whose social foothold was in the lower strata--or substrata, as the case might be. Paston handled life with the easy freedom of a man who, after all, was away from home; and Truesdale was not far behind. Home, with him, was everywhere--or, rather, nowhere; he had a great capacity for gypsy-like jauntings and an immense abhorrence of superfluous luggage, and among the most superfluous of all luggage he included scruples first and foremost. As soon expect a swallow to carry a portmanteau.

During his first year abroad he had dabbled a good deal in French fiction; this was at Geneva, before his long and intimate sojourn in Paris. His taste had been formed, in the first instance, by the more frivolous productions of the Romantic school--by "Mademoiselle de Maupin," in part; by the "Vie de Boheme," more largely; and this taste had taken a confirmed set through the perusal of other works of a like trend--more contemporaneous and therefore still more deleterious. At Geneva he had permitted himself various fond imaginings of Mimi and Musette as they might disclose themselves in Paris--it was useless, all, to expect the encounter in this strenuous little stronghold of Calvinism; but Mimi and Musette, the actual, the contemporaneous, once met at short range, were far, far from the gracieuse and mignonne creations of Murger and of 1830. And if disappointing in Paris, how much more so in Chicago?--where impropriety was still wholly incapable of presenting itself in a guise that could enlist the sympathies of the fastidious. Truesdale, whether or no, found himself restricted within reasonable bounds by his own good taste. Nor was Paston permitted much greater latitude; whatever his taste, the condition of his finances would alone have checked him from straying too widely outside the beaten path.

Paston was less reticent about the worldly status of himself and his family than might have been expected; he treated the subject in a broad, free fashion, with a great pretense to openness. Few apprehended the general and essential cautiousness of his disclosures; most people fell easily enough into the notion that so much frank jocularity had no other object than to entertain them; the young man was doubtless exaggerating, possibly inventing.

"Absurd situation, isn't it?" he would set forth in his large and genial way. "Poor father! six girls to see married off; and five boys to start in life--quite as bad. One in the Army, one in the Navy, one in the Church, one in the Civil Service, and one--in America. No other way; somebody had to come to America--the youngest, naturally. And here he is."

"Fancy that, Bessie! Imagine that, Allie!" his hearers would cry. Then they would ask him about the fox-hunting in Bucks, and tease him for further particulars about his sister Edith, who had married Lord Such-a-one.

The subject of America he treated with some tact--with some forbearance, he himself may have thought. If asked point-blank whether he liked it, he would reply that his preference, naturally, must be for England. If asked further whether he liked Chicago--an inquiry which courtesy might well have withheld--he would answer promptly and plainly, No. And there the matter would end: he never gave detailed explanations. He was prepared, it came to be understood, to put the best face on a bad matter. He remained, however, a loyal subject of the Queen, and prayed for as speedy a sight of Boxton Park, Witham, Essex, as fortune would permit. And in the meantime he enjoyed such makeshift pleasures as came his way.

Among these was that of leaving his card at several good houses--the card of Arthur Gerald Scodd-Paston. People met him at functions as Mr. Scodd-Paston, but most of them found his name rather a large mouthful; after they had used it enough times to show that they had caught it and were not unable to wield it, they would dispense with the forepart and use the Paston alone. This usage received the approval of a certain few who had had the privilege of addressing royalty--or subroyalty--and who remembered that, after they had used the expression "Your Royal Highness" a few times, they were entitled to an occasional lapse into the simpler "you." At the office, where he was by no means a royal highness, he was always Paston, and Paston merely.

His father was a general in the British army, but lately retired. He never referred to this dignitary, as such, save twice. These early references, pointed but discreet he held to suffice; he estimated, properly enough, that his father's fame, once started, might be trusted to spread of itself; and it did--along with the son's modesty.

It was doubtless to his father's personal influence that he was indebted for his connection with a great mortgage and investment company, which extended, in a chain of many links, all the way from London to Colorado, and a foothold in whose Chicago office he had been fortunate enough to secure. The salary connected with the place was but so-so; yet the place itself, as agreed to among the Englishry of Chicago, was in no degree unsuited to a young man of good family, fair education, small resources, and limited prospects, and a desire to make a decorous and self-respecting figure in society--such society as Western conditions offered. They said the position was as good--socially--as any in one of the branch Canadian banks; some of the more intensely English (the Canadians themselves) were fain to acknowledge that it was even better.

So Paston did his "office work" of whatever kind during the day, and distributed his cards through the evening hours, and dined out with a good-will whenever occasion offered. This was often enough; he soon became known as one of the most persistent diners-out in town, and one of the most accomplished. His animal spirits were overflowing; his plump and ruddy person seemed to be at once grace, appetizer, and benediction; his fund of stories and anecdotes (constantly replenished from the most approved sources) was inexhaustible; he carried everything through almost single-handed, by reason of his abounding vitality and never-ending good-nature. Everybody wanted him who could get him; his presence lessened by half the rigors of entertaining. He therefore lodged quietly in a retired little house in the edge of a good neighborhood; they gave him his breakfast there, and warded off those who came to spy out the leanness of the land. He was thus seldom called upon to take thought for the morrow--having once passed, that is to say, the crucial hour of lunch.

He led germans and promoted other social industries. His vacations he could have spent six times over at all manner of desirable places. On Sundays, through the summer, he was possessed briefly of the freedom of the scattered suburban settlements along the North shore. He always got a hundred cents out of every dollar, and in many instances he got the hundred cents and kept the dollar too.

Truesdale was slow in making up his mind to introduce Paston into his own household. But Paston presently made his entree there under other auspices; and within a month from that day Rosamund Marshall was studying Debrett and was taking hurdles at a riding-academy.

For a third new acquaintance Truesdale was indebted to his aunt Lydia; he had felt certain, all along, that some such indebtedness would befall. His aunt lived two or three miles due south from his father's, near the last brace of big hotels. Her house had a rather imposing but impassive front of gray-stone, with many neighbors, more or less varying the same type, to the right and to the left and over the way. The house had never the absolute effect of extending hospitality; but he understood the possibilities of the interior, and knew that a cup of tea late on a November afternoon was among them.

As he drew near he found this house and the other houses combined in a conspiracy of silence against the musical addresses of a swarthy foreigner who had a foothold a yard beyond the curbstone, and who was turning the crank of his instrument with all the rapid regularity of the thorough mechanician. The whole street rang. "'Ah, perche non posso odiarti!'" hummed Truesdale in unison with the organ, as the performer, after an intricate cadenza, returned to the original theme. "That's the only recognizable thing I've heard these fellows play since I came over. I wonder who puts together all the shocking stuff they are loaded up with nowadays."

The melody, so plaintive and cloying as a vocal performance, leaped forward briskly enough under the rapid lashings to and fro of the crank; the elbow of the organist moved with a swift rhythm as his searching eye tried vainly to wring a penny or two from some one of all these opulent facades. "Good Heaven!" cried Truesdale; "how little feeling, how little expression! Here," he said to the man in Italian; "take this half lira and let me have a chance. Bellini was never meant to go like that."

The man, with a cheerful grin, yielded up his instrument to this engaging youth who was able to address him so pointedly in his own language, and Truesdale, with his eye on his aunt's upper windows, proceeded to indulge himself in a realization of his ideal. His aunt was vastly susceptible to music, and he would heap upon her (in the absence of any other) all those passionate reproaches for cruelty and faithlessness proper to the role--welling crescendos and plaintive diminuendos and long, slow rallentandos, followed quickly by panting and impassioned accelerandos. In other words, he would show this music-cobbler the possibilities of his instrument and the emotional capacity of the human soul. Incidentally, he should earn his cup of tea.

"Why, oh why do I strive in vain to h-a-te thee,
Cruel creature, as deeply as I would?"

began Truesdale, blithely, with his eye on the one window whose shade was not completely lowered. But at the third or fourth measure he paused disconcerted. He had adopted a varying rhythm to express each last fine shade of the text, and the air was already littered with abrupt and disjointed phrases which began with a quick snarl or with a prolonged nasal wail, leaving a sudden hiatus here, and giving there a long, lingering scream on some mere passing note.

"Dear me!" exclaimed Truesdale, "this won't do at all. Here, signor organista, just set that thing back, will you, and we'll start again."

"Why, oh why do I strive in vain to hate thee?"

More notes shattered themselves on the stone walls about him--singly, in bunches, in long, detached wails. The organ yelped and snarled as Truesdale, time routed and accent annihilated, abandoned himself to the expression and the phrasing of the true Italian school. Two or three passing children paused on the pavement; a park policeman, stationed on the next corner, walked his sedate iron-gray slowly along to the point of disturbance.

Presently the object of all this attention showed herself. Mrs. Rhodes appeared at the window with that expression of indignant protest which forecasts an appeal to the authorities. When she saw the offending cause her indignation did not greatly diminish; she refused to smile even when Truesdale extended his hat for the usual tribute. He saw her lips move, however, with a quick exclamation which brought a second person to the window. Then both immediately withdrew.

"Another niece, I swear!" said Truesdale; "and I've walked right into it." He gave the man a second dime. "I guess you understand it better than I do, after all," he said, magnanimously.

"What was your idea in making me ridiculous that way?" his aunt asked in severe reproach, as she advanced to meet him in the reception-hall. "Do you want to set me up as a laughingstock for all my friends and neighbors? After all I've told Bertie about your music, too! I don't know whether I shall let you know her or not."

"It was pretty rocky, wasn't it?" Truesdale admitted, with a cheery impartiality. "I'm afraid it takes more practice than I've ever had a chance to give it. And perhaps I don't understand the genius of the instrument. Where do you suppose they learn to do it? How long a course is necessary, do you fancy, to get a complete grip on the technique?"

His aunt's protest had been purely personal. With a broader outlook and a better understanding she might have protested on behalf of a slighted neighborhood, or, indeed, of a misprized town. A finer vision might have seen in Truesdale's prank a good-natured, half-contemptuous indifference alike to place and people. "I don't know what the Warners over the way will think," she emitted, as if that were all.

She presently relented as to the new inmate of her household. "Come, Bertie!" she called; "step up, like a good girl. This is my nephew Truesdale--you've heard all about him; Miss Bertie Patterson, of Madison."

Miss Patterson of Madison was a shy, brown-eyed little girl who, at a guess, had been in long dresses but a year or two; as she faced Truesdale she seemed to be wondering if she might venture to smile. She had never before been south of the Wisconsin State line; but Mrs. Rhodes, having exhausted the ranks of her own nieces, was now giving a tardy recognition to the nieces of her late husband. Bertie Patterson had come for the winter, and she was finding a great deal of pleasure and interest (slightly tinctured with awe) in a town which for some years she had favored with a highly idealistic anticipation.

"Nice little thing," admitted Truesdale, inwardly; "but Aunt Lydia has got to leave me alone."

Mrs. Rhodes took him into the drawing-room, and had Bertie Patterson make him his tea. She did this very nicely; she helped rather than hindered the effect by her hesitancy and lack of complete confidence. She had never poured tea many times before for a young man--never at all for just such a young man as this.

"Now," said his aunt, presently. She emitted this monosyllable with a falling inflection, and followed it by a full stop. She took his teacup from him. "You know what little Tommy Tucker did." She placed her thumb on one of the upper black notes of the piano and waved her fingers over the remainder of the keyboard. "'Just a song at twilight,'" She quoted, with a coaxing smile.

"All right," said Truesdale, promptly. "Thanks for this chance to redeem myself. I'll show you now how it really ought to go."

And he did. At Milan he had seen reflected in his looking-glass not only Fernando, but Elvino, too, besides Edgardo and Manrico, and that whole romantic brotherhood. He resuscitated them all, with as much sentiment, romance, passion, drama, as each individual case required, while Bertie Patterson sat in the fading light behind the great three-cornered screen of the up-tilted cover and clasped her hands and brought her generous idealizing faculty into its fullest play.

Then he sang a few German lieder of a more contemporaneous cast. Then his aunt asked him for that last sweet little thing of his own. "I don't believe Bertie has ever heard a composer sing one of his own songs."

As he concluded, his aunt gave a long and appreciative sigh. "There!" she breathed. Then: "Why do you act like a crazy, when you can be so nice if you only will?"