O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1921
Part 2 out of 8
there--nothin' green or pretty in----"
"Pretty!" Tedge seemed to menace with his little shifty eyes. "I wish
all them lilies had one neck and I could twist it! Jest one head, and
me stompin' it! Yeh!--and all the damned flowers in the world with it!
Yeh! And me watchin' 'em die!"
The man from the dry lands smoked idly under the awning. His serenity
evoked all the savagery of Tedge's feud with the lilies. Pretty! A man
who dealt with cows seeing beauty in anything! Well, the girl did
it--that swamp angel this Rogers was going to visit. That Aurelie
Frenet who sang in the flower-starred river--that was it! Tedge
glowered on the Texan--he hated him, too, because this loveliness gave
him peace, while the master of the _Marie Louise_ must fume about his
wheelhouse, a perspiring madman.
It took an hour for the _Marie_ even to retreat and find steerage-way
easterly off across a shallow lake, mirroring the marsh shores in the
sunset. Across it the bayou boat wheezed and thumped drearily,
drowning the bellowing of the dying steers. Once the deckhand stirred
"Lilies, Cap'n--pourin' from all the swamps, and dead ahead there
Scowling, Tedge held to the starboard. Yes, there they were--a phalanx
of flowers in the dusk. He broke into wild curses at them, his boat,
the staggering cattle.
"I'll drive to the open gulf to get rid of 'em! Outside, to sea! Yeh!
Stranger, yeh'll see salt water, and lilies drownin' in it! I'll show
yeh 'em dead and dried on the sands like dead men's dried bones!
Yeh'll see yer pretty flowers a-dyin'!"
The lone cowman ignored the sneer. "You better get the animals to feed
and water. Another mornin' of heat and crowdin'--"
"Let 'em rot! Yer pretty flowers done it--pretty flowers--spit o'
hell! I knowed 'em--I fought 'em--I'll fight 'em to the death of 'em!"
His little red-rimmed eyes hardly veiled his contempt for Milt Rogers.
A cowman, sailing this dusky purple bay to see a girl! A girl who sang
in the lily drift--a-sailing on this dirty, reeking bumboat, with
cattle dying jammed in the pens! Suddenly Tedge realized a vast
malevolent pleasure--he couldn't hope to gain from his perishing
cargo; and he began to gloat at the agony spread below his wheelhouse
window, and the cattleman's futile pity for them.
"They'll rot on Point Au Fer! We'll heave the stink of them, dead and
alive, to the sharks of Au Fer Pass! Drownin' cows in dyin' lilies--"
And the small craft of his brain suddenly awakened coolly above his
heat. Why, yes! Why hadn't he thought of it? He swung the stubby nose
of the _Marie_ more easterly in the hot, windless dusk. After a while
the black deckhand looked questioningly up at the master.
"We're takin' round," Tedge grunted, "outside Au Fer!"
The black stretched on the cattle-pen frame. Tedge was a master-hand
among the reefs and shoals, even if the flappaddle _Marie_ had no
business outside. But the sea was nothing but a star-set velvet ribbon
on which she crawled like a dirty insect. And no man questioned
Only, an hour later, the engineman came up and forward to stare into
the faster-flowing water. Even now he pointed to a hyacinth clump.
"Yeh!" the master growled. "I'll show yeh, Rogers! Worlds o' flowers!
Out o' the swamps and the tide'll send 'em back again on the reefs.
I'll show yeh 'em--dead, dried white like men's bones." Then he began
to whisper huskily to his engineer: "It's time fer it. Five hundred
fer yeh, Crump--a hundred fer the nigger, or I knock his head in. She
brushes the bar, and yer oil tank goes--yeh understand?" He watched a
red star in the south.
Crump looked about. No sail or light or coast guard about Au Fer--at
low tide not even a skiff could find the passages. He nodded
"She's old and fire-fitten. Tedge, I knowed yer mind--I was always
waitin' fer the word. It's a place fer it--and yeh say yeh carry seven
hundred on them cows? Boat an' cargo--three thousand seven hundred--"
"They'll be that singed and washed in the sands off Au Fer that
nobody'll know what they died of!" retorted Tedge thickly. "Yeh, go
down, Crump, and lay yer waste and oil right. I trust yeh, Crump--the
nigger'll get his, too. She'll ride high and burn flat, hoggin' in the
"She's soaked with oil plumb for'ard to the pens now," grunted Crump.
"She's fitten to go like a match all along when she bumps--"
He vanished, and the master cunningly watched the ember star
He was holding above it now, to port and landward. The white, hard
sands must be shoaling fast under the cattle-freighted _Marie_. It
little mattered about the course now; she would grind her nose in the
quiet reef shortly.
Tedge merely stared, expectantly awaiting the blow. And when it came
he was malevolently disappointed. A mere slithering along over the
sand, a creak, a slight jar, and she lay dead in the flat, calm
sea--it was ridiculous that that smooth beaching would break an oil
tank, that the engine spark would flare the machine waste, leap to the
greasy beams and floors.
The wheezy exhaust coughed on; the belt flapped as the paddle wheel
kept on its dead shove of the _Marie's_ keel into the sand. Hogjaw had
shouted and run forward. He was staring into the phosphorescent water
circling about the bow when Crump raised his cry:
Tedge ran down the after-stairs. Sulphurously he began cursing at the
trickle of smoke under the motor frame. It was nothing--a child could
have put it out with a bucket of sand. But upon it fell Tedge and the
engineer, stamping, shouting, shoving oil-soaked waste upon it, and
covertly blocking off the astounded black deckman when he rushed to
"Water, Hogjaw!" roared the master. "She's gainin' on us--she's under
the bilge floor now!" He hurled a bucket viciously at his helper. And
as they pretended to fight the fire, Crump suddenly began laughing and
stood up. The deckman was grinning also. The master watched him
"Kick the stuff into the waste under the stairs," he grunted. "Hogjaw,
this here boat's goin'--yeh understand? We take the skiff and pull to
the shrimp camps, and she hogs down and burns--"
The black man was laughing. Then he stopped curiously. "The cows--"
"Damn the cows! I'll git my money back on 'em! Yeh go lower away on
the skiff davits. Yeh don't ask me nothin'--yeh don't know nothin'!"
"Sho', boss! I don't know nothin', or see nothin'!"
He swung out of the smoke already drifting greasily up from the foul
waist of the _Marie Louise_. A little glare of red was beginning to
reflect from the mirrored sea. The ripples of the beaching had
vanished; obscurely, undramatically as she had lived, the _Marie
Louise_ sat on the bar to choke in her own fetid fumes.
Tedge clambered to the upper deck and hurried to his bunk in the
wheelhouse. There were papers there he must save--the master's
license, the insurance policy, and a few other things. The smell of
burning wood and grease was thickening; and suddenly now, through it,
he saw the quiet, questioning face of the stranger.
He had forgotten him completely. Tedge's small brain had room but for
one idea at a time: first his rage at the lilies, and then the
wrecking of the _Marie_. And this man knew. He had been staring down
the after-companionway. He had seen and heard. He had seen the master
and crew laughing while the fire mounted.
Tedge came to him. "We're quittin' ship," he growled.
"Yes, but the cattle--" The other looked stupefiedly at him.
"We got to pull inside afore the sea comes up--"
"Well, break the pens, can't you? Give 'em a chance to swim for a bar.
I'm a cowman myself--I cain't let dumb brutes burn and not lift a
The fire in the waist was beginning to roar. A plume of smoke streamed
straight up in the starlight. The glare showed the younger man's
startled eyes. He shifted them to look over the foredeck rail down to
the cattle. Sparks were falling among them, the fire veered slightly
forward; and the survivors were crowding uneasily over the fallen
ones, catching that curious sense of danger which forewarns creatures
of the wild before the Northers, a burning forest, or creeping flood,
to move on.
"You cain't leave 'em so," muttered the stranger. "No; I seen you--"
He did not finish. Tedge had been setting himself for what he knew he
should do. The smaller man had his jaw turned as he stared at the
suffering brutes. And Tedge's mighty fist struck him full on the
temple. The master leaned over the low rail to watch quietly.
The man who wished to save the cattle was there among them. A little
flurry of sparks drove over the spot he fell upon, and then a maddened
surge of gaunt steers. Tedge wondered if he should go finish the job.
No; there was little use. He had crashed his fist into the face of a
shrimp-seine hauler once, and the fellow's neck had shifted on his
spine--and once he had maced a woman up-river in a shantyboat drinking
bout--Tedge had got away both times. Now and then, boasting about the
shrimp camps, he hinted mysteriously at his two killings, and showed
his freckled, hairy right hand.
"If they find anything of him--he got hurt in the wreck," the master
grinned. He couldn't see the body, for a black longhorn had fallen
upon his victim, it appeared. Anyhow, the cattle were milling
desperately around in the pen; the stranger who said his name was Milt
Rogers would be a lacerated lump of flesh in that mad stampede long
ere the fire reached him. Tedge got his tin document box and went aft.
Crump and Hogjaw were already in the flat-bottomed bayou skiff,
holding it off the _Marie Louise's_ port runway, and the master
stepped into it. The heat was singeing their faces by now.
"Pull off," grunted the skipper, "around east'ard. This bar sticks
clean out o' water off there, and you lay around it, Hogjaw. They
won't be no sea 'til the breeze lifts at sunup."
The big black heaved on the short oars. The skiff was a hundred yards
out on the glassy sea when Crump spoke cunningly, "I knowed
"Yeh?" Tedge turned from his bow seat to look past the oarsman's head
at the engineman. "Yeh knowed----"
"This Rogers, he was tryin' to get off the burnin' wreck and he fell,
"The oil tank blew, and a piece o' pipe took him," grunted Tedge. "I
tried to drag him out o' the fire--Gawd knows I did, didn't I, Crump?"
Crump nodded scaredly. The black oarsman's eyes narrowed and he
crouched dumbly as he rowed. Tedge was behind him--Tedge of the _Marie
Louise_ who could kill with his fists. No, Hogjaw knew nothing--he
never would know anything.
"I jest took him on out o' kindness," mumbled Tedge. "I got no license
fer passenger business. Jest a bum I took on to go and see his swamp
girl up Des Amoureaux. Well, it ain't no use sayin' anything, is it
A mile away the wreck of the _Marie Louise_ appeared as a yellow-red
rent in the curtain of night. Red, too, was the flat, calm sea, save
northerly where a sand ridge gleamed. Tedge turned to search for its
outlying point. There was a pass here beyond which the reefs began
once more and stretched on, a barrier to the shoal inside waters. When
the skiff had drawn about the sand spit, the reflecting waters around
the _Marie_ had vanished, and the fire appeared as a fallen meteor
burning on the flat, black belt of encircling reef.
Tedge's murderous little eyes watched easterly. They must find the
other side of the tidal pass and go up it to strike off for the
distant shrimp camps with their story of the end of the _Marie
Louise_--boat and cargo a total loss on Au Fer sands.
Upon the utter sea silence there came a sound--a faint bawling of
dying cattle, of trampled, choked cattle in the fume and flames. It
was very far off now; and to-morrow's tide and wind would find nothing
but a blackened timber, a swollen, floating carcass or two--nothing
But the black man could see the funeral pyre; the distant glare of it
was showing the whites of his eyes faintly to the master, when
suddenly he stopped rowing. A drag, the soft sibilance of a moving
thing, was on his oar blade. He jerked it free, staring.
"Lilies, boss--makin' out dis pass, too, lilies--"
"I see 'em--drop below 'em!" Tedge felt the glow of an unappeasable
anger mount to his temples. "Damn 'em--I see 'em!"
There they were, upright, tranquil, immense hyacinths--their
spear-points three feet above the water, their feathery streamers
drifting six feet below; the broad, waxy leaves floating above their
bulbous surface mats--they came on silently under the stars; they
vanished under the stars seaward to their death.
"Yeh!" roared Tedge. "Sun and sea to-morry--they'll be back on Au Fer
like dried bones o' dead men in the sand! Bear east'ard off of 'em!"
The oarsman struggled in the deeper pass water. The skiff bow suddenly
plunged into a wall of green-and-purple bloom. The points brushed
Tedge's cheek. He cursed and smote them, tore them from the low bow
and flung them. But the engineman stood up and peered into the
"Yeh'll not make it. Better keep up the port shore. I cain't see
nothin' but lilies east'ard--worlds o'flowers comin' with the
_crevasse_ water behind 'em." He dipped a finger to the water, tasted
of it, and grumbled on: "It ain't hardly salt, the big rivers are
pourin' such a flood out o' the swamps. Worlds o' flowers comin' out
"Damn the flowers!" Tedge arose, shaking his fist at them. "Back out
o' 'em! Pull up the Au Fer side, and we'll break through 'em in the
Against the ebb tide close along Au Fer reef, the oarsman toiled until
Crump, the lookout, grumbled again.
"The shoal's blocked wi' 'em! They're stranded on the ebb. Tedge,
yeh'll have to wait for more water to pass this bar inside 'em. Yeh
try to cross the pass, and the lilies 'll have us all to sea in this
crazy skiff when the wind lifts wi' the sun."
"I'm clean wore out," the black man muttered. "Yeh can wait fer day
and tide on the sand, boss."
"Well, drive her in, then!" raged the skipper. "The in-tide'll set
before daylight. We'll take it up the bay."
He rolled over the bow, knee-deep in the warm inlet water, and dragged
the skiff through the shoals. Crump jammed an oar in the sand; and
warping the headline to this, the three trudged on to the white dry
ridge. Tedge flung himself by the first stubby grass clump.
"Clean beat," he muttered. "By day we'll pass 'em. Damn 'em--and I'll
see 'em dyin' in the sun--lilies like dried, dead weeds on the
sand--that's what they'll be in a couple o' days--he said they was
pretty, that fello' back there--" Lying with his head on his arm, he
lifted a thumb to point over his shoulder. He couldn't see the distant
blotch of fire against the low stars--he didn't want to. He couldn't
mark the silent drift of the sea gardens in the pass, but he gloated
in the thought that they were riding to their death. The pitiless sun,
the salt tides drunk up to their spongy bulbs, and their glory
passed--they would be matted refuse on the shores and a man could
trample them. Yes, the sea was with Tedge, and the rivers, too; the
flood waters were lifting the lilies from their immemorable
strongholds and forcing them out to their last pageant of death.
The three castaways slept in the warm sand. It was an hour later that
some other living thing stirred at the far end of Au Fer reef. A
scorched and weakened steer came on through salt pools to stagger and
fall. Presently another, and then a slow line of them. They crossed
the higher ridge to huddle about a sink that might have made them
remember the dry drinking holes of their arid home plains. Tired,
gaunt cattle mooing lonesomely, when the man came about them to dig
with his bloody fingers in the sand.
He tried another place, and another--he didn't know--he was a man of
the short-grass country, not a coaster; perhaps a sandy sink might
mean fresh water. But after each effort the damp feeling on his hands
was from his gashed and battered head and not life-giving water. He
wiped the blood from his eyes and stood up in the starlight.
"Twenty-one of 'em--alive--and me," he muttered. "I got 'em off--they
trampled me and beat me down, but I got their pens open. Twenty-one
livin'--and me on the sands!"
He wondered stupidly how he had done it. The stern of the _Marie
Louise_ had burned off and sogged down in deep water, but her bow hung
to the reef, and in smoke and flame he had fought the cattle over it.
They clustered now in the false water-hole, silent, listless, as if
they knew the uselessness of the urge of life on Au Fer reef.
And after a while the man went on eastward. Where and how far the sand
ridge stretched he did not know. Vaguely he knew of the tides and sun
to-morrow. From the highest point he looked back. The wreck was a dull
red glow, the stars above it cleared now of smoke. The sea, too,
seemed to have gone back to its infinite peace, as if it had washed
itself daintily after this greasy morsel it must hide in its depths.
A half hour the man walked wearily, and then before him stretched
water again. He turned up past the tide flowing down the pass--perhaps
that was all of Au Fer. A narrow spit of white sand at high tide, and
even over that, the sea breeze freshening, the surf would curl?
"Ships never come in close, they said," he mused tiredly, "and miles
o' shoals to the land--and then just swamp for miles. Dumb brutes o'
cows, and me on this--and no water nor feed, nor shade from the sun."
He stumbled on through the shallows, noticing apathetically that the
water was running here. Nearly to his waist he waded, peering into the
starlight. He was a cowman and he couldn't swim; he had never seen
anything but the dry ranges until he said he would go find the girl he
had met once on the upper Brazos--a girl who told him of sea and
sunken forests, of islands of flowers drifting in lonely swamp
lakes--he had wanted to see that land, but mostly the Cajan girl of
Bayou Des Amoureaux.
He wouldn't see her now; he would die among dying cattle, but maybe it
was fit for a cattleman to go that way--a Texas man and Texas cows.
Then he saw a moving thing. It rode out of the dark and brushed him.
It touched him with soft fingers and he drew them to him. A water
hyacinth, and its purple spike topped his head as he stood waist-deep.
So cool its leaves, and the dripping bulbs that he pressed them to his
bloody cheek. He sank his teeth into them for that coolness on his
parched tongue. The spongy bulb was sweet; it exhaled odorous
moisture. He seized it ravenously. It carried sweet water, redolent of
green forest swamps!
He dragged at another floating lily, sought under the leaves for the
buoyant bulb. A drop or two of the fresh water a man could press from
Like a starving animal he moved in the shoals, seeing more drifting
garden clumps. And then a dark object that did not drift. He felt for
it slowly, and then straightened up, staring about.
A flat-bottomed bayou skiff, and in it the oars, a riverman's
blanket-roll of greasy clothes, and a tin box! He knew the box. On one
end, in faded gilt, was the name "B. Tedge." Rogers had seen it on the
grimy shelf in the pilothouse on the _Marie Louise_. He felt for the
rope; the skiff was barely scraping bottom. Yes, they had moored it
here--they must be camped on the sands of Au Fer, awaiting the dawn.
A boat? He didn't know what a Texas cowman could do with a boat on an
alien and unknown shore, but he slipped into it, raised an oar, and
shoved back from the sandy spit. At least he could drift off Au Fer's
waterless desolation. Tedge would kill him to-morrow when he found him
there; because he knew Tedge had fired the _Marie_ for the insurance.
So he poled slowly off. The skiff drifted now. Rogers tried to turn to
the oar athwart, and awkwardly he stumbled. The oar seemed like a roll
of thunder when it struck the gunwale.
And instantly a hoarse shout arose behind him. Tedge's voice--Tedge
had not slept well. The gaunt cattle burning or choking in the salt
tide, or perhaps the lilies of Bayou Boeuf--anyhow, he was up with a
cry and dashing for the skiff. In a moment Rogers saw him.
The Texas man began driving desperately on the oars. He heard the
heavy rush of the skipper's feet in the deepening water. Tedge's voice
became a bull-like roar as the depth began to check him. To his waist,
and the slow skiff was but ten yards away; to his great shoulders, and
the clumsy oarsman was but five.
And with a yell of triumph Tedge lunged out swimming. Whoever the
fugitive, he was hopeless with the oars. The skiff swung this way and
that, and a strong man at its stern could hurl it and its occupant
bottom-side up in Au Fer Pass. Tedge, swimming in Au Fer Pass, his
fingers to the throat of this unknown marauder! There'd be another one
go--and nothing but his hands--Bill Tedge's hands that the shrimp
Just hold him under--that was all. Tread water, and hold the throat
beneath until its throbbing ceased. Tedge could; he feared no man.
Another overhand stroke, and he just missed the wobbling stern of the
He saw the man start up and raise an oar as if to strike. Tedge
laughed triumphantly. Another plunge and his fingers touched the
gunwale. And then he dived; he would bring his back up against the
flat bottom and twist his enemy's footing from under him. Then in the
deep water Tedge lunged up for the flat keel, and slowly across his
brow an invisible hand seemed to caress him.
He opened his eyes to see a necklace of opalescent jewels gathering
about his neck; he tore at it and the phosphorescent water gleamed all
about him with feathery pendants. And when his head thrust above
water, the moment's respite had allowed the skiff to straggle beyond
Tedge shouted savagely and lunged again--and about his legs came the
soft clasp of the drifting hyacinth roots. Higher, firmer; and he
turned to kick free of them. He saw the man in the boat poling
uncertainly in the tide not six feet beyond him. And now, in open
water, Tedge plunged on in fierce exultance. One stroke--and the stars
beyond the boatman became obscured; the swimmer struck the soft,
yielding barrier of the floating islands. This time he did not lose
time in drawing from them; he raised his mighty arms and strove to
beat them down, flailing the broad leaves until the spiked blossoms
fell about him. A circlet of them caressed his cheek. He lowered his
head and swam bull-like into the drift; and when he knew the pressure
ahead was tightening slowly to rubbery bands, forcing him gently from
his victim, Tedge raised his voice in wild curses.
He fought and threshed the lilies, and they gave him cool, velvety
kisses in return. He dived and came up through them; and then, staring
upward, he saw the tall, purple spikes against the stars. And they
were drifting--they were sailing seaward to their death. He couldn't
see the boat now for the shadowy hosts; and for the first time fear
glutted his heart. It came as a paroxysm of new sensation--Tedge of
the _Marie Louise_ who had never feared.
But this was different, this soft and moving web of silence. No, not
quite silence, for past his ear the splendid hyacinths drifted with a
musical creaking, leaf on leaf, the buoyant bulbs brushing each other.
The islets joined and parted; once he saw open water and plunged for
it--and over his shoulders there surged a soft coverlet. He turned and
beat it; he churned his bed into a furious welter, and the silken
He shrank from it now, staring. The feathery roots matted across his
chest, the mass of them felt slimy like the hide of a drowned brute.
"Drownin' cows"--he muttered thickly--"comin' on a man driftin' and
drownin'--no, no! Lilies, jest lilies--damn 'em!"
The tall spiked flowers seemed nodding--yes, just lilies, drifting and
singing elfin music to the sea tide. Tedge roared once again his
hatred of them; he raised and battered his huge fists into their
beauty, and they seemed to smile in the starlight. Then, with a howl,
He would beat them--deep water was here in the pass, and he would swim
mightily far beneath the trailing roots--he would find the man with
the boat yet and hurl him to die in the hyacinth bloom.
He opened his eyes in the deep, clear water and exulted. He, Tedge,
had outwitted the bannered argosies. With bursting lungs he charged
off across the current, thinking swiftly, coolly, now of the escape.
And as he neared the surface he twisted to glance upward. It was light
there--a light brighter than the stars, but softer, evanescent. Mullet
and squib were darting about or clinging to a feathery forest that
hung straight down upon him. Far and near there came little darts of
pale fire, gleaming and expiring with each stir in the phosphorescent
And he had to rise; a man could not hold the torturing air in his
lungs for ever. Yes, he would tear a path to the stars again and
breathe. His arms flailed into the first tenuous streamers, which
parted in pearly lace before his eyes. He breasted higher, and they
were all about him now; his struggles evoked glowing bubble-jewels
which drifted upward to expire. He grasped the soft roots and twisted
and sought to raise himself. He had a hand to the surface bulbs, but a
silken mesh seemed tightening about him.
And it was drifting--everything was drifting in the deep pass of Au
Fer. He tried to howl in the hyacinth web, and choked--and then he
merely fought in his close-pressing cocoon, thrusting one hard fist to
grasp the broad leaves. He clung to them dumbly, his face so close to
the surface that the tall spiked flowers smiled down--but they drifted
inexorably with a faint, creaking music, leaf on leaf.
Tedge opened his eyes to a flicker of myriad lights. The sound was a
roaring now--like the surf on the reefs in the hurricane month; or the
thunder of maddened steers above him across this flowery sea meadow.
Perhaps the man he had killed rode with this stampede? Tedge shrank
under the lilies--perhaps they could protect him now? Even the last
stroke of his hands made luminous beauty of the under-running tide.
An outward-bound shrimp lugger saw the figures on Au Fer reef and came
to anchor beyond the shoals. The Cajan crew rowed up to where Milt
Rogers and Crump and the black deckhand were watching by a pool. The
shrimpers listened to the cowman, who had tied the sleeve of his shirt
about his bloody head.
"You can get a barge down from Morgan City and take the cows off
before the sea comes high," said Rogers quietly. "They're eating the
lilies--and they find sweet water in 'em. Worlds o' lilies driftin' to
sea with sweet water in the bulbs!" And he added, watching Crump and
the black man who seemed in terror of him: "I want to get off, too. I
want to see the swamp country where worlds o' flowers come from!"
He said no more. He did not even look in the pool where Crump pointed.
He was thinking of that girl of the swamps who had bid him come to
her. But all along the white surf line he could see the
green-and-purple plumes of the hyacinth warriors tossing in the
breeze--legion upon legion, coming to die gloriously on Au Fer's
But first they sent a herald; for in Tedge's hand, as he lay in the
pool, one waxen-leafed banner with a purple spear-point glittered in
By MARYLAND ALLEN
She is now a woman ageless because she is famous. She is surrounded by
a swarm of lovers and possesses a great many beautiful things. She has
more than one Ming jar in the library at her country place; yards upon
yards of point de Venise in her top bureau-drawer. She is able to
employ a very pleasant, wholesome woman, whose sole duty it is to keep
her clothes in order.
She wears superb clothes--the last word in richness and the elegance
of perfection--clothes that no man can declaim over, stimulating
himself the while with shot after shot of that most insidious of all
dope, self-pity. You see, she earns them all herself, along with the
Ming jars, the point de Venise, the country place, and countless other
things. She is the funniest woman in the world--not in her
press-agent's imagination, but in cold, sober fact. She can make
anybody laugh; she does make everybody.
Night after night in the huge public theatres of the common people; in
the small private ones of the commoner rich; in Greek amphitheatres
where the laughter rolls away in thunderous waves to be echoed back by
distant blue hills; in institutions for the blind; in convalescent
wards; everywhere, every time, she makes them laugh. The day labourer,
sodden and desperate from too much class legislation, the ego in his
cosmos and the struggle for existence; the statesman, fearful of
losing votes, rendered blue and depressed by the unruliness of nations
and all the vast multitude of horrors that lie in between--all of
these, all of them, she makes laugh. She is queen of the profession
she has chosen--unusual for one of her sex. She is the funniest woman
in the world.
When she is at home--which is seldom--she has many visitors and
strives, if possible, to see none of them.
"You know, I entertain so much," she pleads in that vivid, whimsical
way of hers that holds as much of sadness as mirth.
But this time, it being so early in the afternoon, she was caught
The girls--they were nothing but girls, three of them--found her out
upon the lawn, sitting on a seat where the velvety green turf fell
away in a steep hillside, and far beneath them they could see the
river moving whitely beyond the trees. They halted there before her,
happy but trembling, giggling but grave. They were gasping and
incoherent, full of apologies and absurd tremors. It had taken their
combined week's savings to bribe the gardener. And they only wanted to
know one thing: How had she achieved all this fame and splendour, by
what magic process had she become that rarest of all living creatures,
the funniest woman in the world?
It was an easy enough question to ask and, to them, hovering
twittering upon high heels a trifle worn to one side, a simple one for
her to answer. She looked at them in that humorous, kindly way of
hers, looked at their silly, excited, made-up faces with noses
sticking out stark, like handles, from a too-heavy application of
purplish-white powder. Then her glance travelled down the velvety
green slope to the bright river glancing and leaping beyond the shady
Did she think of that other girl? Sitting there with that strange
smile upon her face, the smile that is neither mirth nor sadness, but
a poignant, haunting compound of both, did she remember her and the
Urge that had always been upon her, racking her like actual pain,
driving her with a whip of scorpions, flaying her on and on with a far
more vivid sense of suffering than the actual beatings laid on by her
mother's heavy hand, the thing that found articulation in the words,
"I must be famous, I must!"
She belonged in the rear of a batch of a dozen, and had never been
properly named. The wind was blowing from the stockyards on the dark
hour when she arrived. It penetrated even to the small airless chamber
where she struggled for her first breath--one of a "flat" in the
poorest tenement in the worst slum in Chicago. Huddled in smelly rags
by a hastily summoned neighbour from the floor above, the newcomer
raised her untried voice in a frail, reedy cry. Perhaps she did not
like the smell that oozed in around the tightly closed window to
combat the foul odours of the airless room. Whatever it was, this
protest availed her nothing, for the neighbour hurriedly departed,
having been unwilling from the first, and the mother turned away and
lay close against the stained, discoloured wall, too apathetic, too
utterly resigned to the fate life had meted out to her to accord this
most unwelcome baby further attention. This first moment of her life
might easily serve as the history of her babyhood.
Her father was also indifferent. He brought home his money and gave it
to his wife--children were strictly none of his business. Her brothers
and sisters, each one busily and fiercely fending for himself, gave no
attention to her small affairs.
Tossed by the careless hand of Fate into the dark sea of life to swim
or perish, she awoke to consciousness with but one thought--food; one
ruling passion--to get enough. And since, in her habitual half-starved
state, all food looked superlatively good to her, cake was the first
word she learned to speak. It formed her whole vocabulary for a
surprisingly long time, and Cake was the only name she was ever known
by in her family circle and on the street that to her ran on and on
and on as narrow and dirty, as crowded and as cruel as where it passed
the great dilapidated old rookery that held the four dark rooms that
she called home.
Up to the age of ten her life was sketchy. A passionate scramble for
food, beatings, tears, slumber, a swift transition from one childish
ailment to another that kept her forever out of reach of the truant
She lay upon the floor in a little dark room, and through the window
in the airless air-shaft, high up in one corner, she could see a
three-cornered spot of light. At first she wondered what it was, since
she lived in a tenement, not under the sky. Then it resolved itself
into a ball, white and luminous, that floated remote in that high
place and seemed to draw her, and was somehow akin to the queer,
gnawing pain that developed about that time beneath her breastbone. It
was all inarticulate, queer and confused. She did not think, she did
not know how. She only felt that queer gnawing beneath her breastbone,
distinct from all her other pains, and which she ascribed to hunger,
and saw the lovely, trembling globe of light. At first she felt it
only when she was ill and lay on the tumbled floor bed and looked up
through the dark window; afterward always in her dreams.
After she passed her tenth birthday the confusion within her seemed to
settle as the queer pain increased, and she began to think, to wonder
what it could be.
A year or two later her father died, and as she was the only child
over whom her mother could exercise any control, the report of her
death was successfully impressed upon the truant officer, so that she
might be put to work unhindered to help the family in its desperate
scramble for food, a scramble in which she took part with vivid
earnestness. She was hired to Maverick's to wash dishes.
Maverick was a Greek and kept an open-all-night chop-house, a mean
hole in the wall two doors from the corner, where Cake's surpassing
thinness made her invaluable at the sink. Also the scraps she carried
home in her red, water-puckered hands helped out materially. Then her
mother took a boarder and rested in her endeavours, feeling she had
performed all things well.
This boarder was a man with a past. And he had left it pretty far
behind, else he had never rented a room and meals from the mother of
Cake. In this boarder drink and debauchery had completely beaten out
of shape what had once been a very noble figure of a man. His body was
shrunken and trembling; the old, ragged clothes he wore flapped about
him like the vestments of a scarecrow. His cheeks had the bruised
congested look of the habitual drinker, his nose seemed a toadstool on
his face, and his red eyes were almost vanished behind puffy, purple,
pillow-like lids. His voice was husky and whispering, except when he
raised it. Then it was surprisingly resonant and mellow, with
something haunting in it like the echo of an echo of a very moving
One night Cake, returning all weary and played-out from dish-washing
at Maverick's, heard him speaking in this loud voice of his, pushed
the door open a crack, and peeked in. He was standing in the middle of
the floor evidently speaking what the child called to herself "a
piece." Her big mouth crooked derisively in the beginning of what is
now her famous smile. The lodger went on speaking, being fairly well
stimulated at the time, and presently Cake pushed the door wider and
crept in to the dry-goods box, where her mother always kept a candle,
and sat down.
The lodger talked on and on while Cake sat rapt, the flickering candle
in her hands throwing strange lights and shadows upon her gaunt face.
How was she to know she was the last audience of one of the greatest
Shakespearian actors the world had ever seen?
It was a grave and wondering Cake that crept to her place to sleep
that night between her two older sisters. And while they ramped
against her and chewed and snorted in her ears, she listened all over
again to that wonderful voice and was awed by the colour and beauty of
the words that it had spoken. She slept, and saw before her the globe
of light, trembling and luminous, the one bright thing of beauty her
life had ever known, that seemed to draw her up from darkness slowly
and with great suffering. Trembling and weeping she awoke in the dawn,
and the strange pain that had tortured her so much and that she had
called hunger and sought to assuage with scraps from the plates that
came to the sink at Maverick's became articulate at last. With her
hands clasped hard against her breast she found relief in words.
"I gotta be somebody," sobbed the child. "I mus' be famous, I mus'!"
She arose to find life no longer a confused struggle for food, but a
battle and a march; a battle to get through one day to march on to the
next, and so on and on until, in that long line of days that stretched
out ahead of her like chambers waiting to be visited, she reached the
one where rested Fame, that trembling, luminous globe of beauty it was
so vitally necessary for her to achieve. "How come he c'n talk like
that?" she demanded of herself, musing on the lodger's wonderful
exhibition over the greasy dish-water at Maverick's.
And that night she asked him, prefacing her question with the offering
of an almost perfect lamb-chop. Only one piece had been cut from it
since the purchaser, at that moment apprised by Maverick himself that
the arrival of the police was imminent, had taken a hasty departure.
"Who learned you to talk that-a-way?" demanded Cake, licking a faint,
far-away flavour of the chop from her long, thin fingers.
The lodger, for a moment, had changed places with the candle. That is
to say, he sat upon the dry-goods box, the candle burned upon the
floor. And, having been most unfortunate that day, the lodger was
tragically sober. He bit into the chop voraciously, like a dog, with
his broken, discoloured teeth.
"A book 'learned' me," he said, "and practice and experience--and
something else." He broke off short. "They called it genius then," he
Cake took a short step forward. That thing beneath her prominent
breastbone pained her violently, forced her on to speak.
"You learn me," she said.
The lodger ceased to chew and stared, the chop bone uplifted in his
dirty hand. A pupil for him!
"You want to do this perhaps," he began. "Pray do not mock me; I am a
very foolish, fond old man----"
The disreputable, swollen-faced lodger with a nose like a poisoned
toadstool vanished. Cake saw an old white-haired man, crazy and
pitiful, yet bearing himself grandly. She gasped, the tears flew to
her eyes, blinding her. The lodger laughed disagreeably, he was
gnawing on the chop bone again.
"I suppose you think because you've found me here it is likely I'll
teach you--you! You starved alley cat!" he snarled.
Cake did not even blink. It is repetition that dulls, and she was
utterly familiar with abuse.
"And suppose I did--'learn' you," he sneered, "what would _you_ do
"I would be famous," cried Cake.
Then the lodger did laugh, looking at her with his head hanging down,
his swollen face all creased and purple, his hair sticking up rough
and unkempt. He laughed, sitting there a degraded, debauched ruin,
looking down from the height of his memories upon the gaunt, unlovely
child of the slums who was rendered even more unlovely by the very
courage that kept her waiting beside the broken door.
"So you think I could learn you to be famous, hey?" Even the words of
this gutter filth he sought to construe into something nattering to
Cake nodded. Really she had not thought of it that way at all. There
was no thinking connected with her decision. The dumb hours she had
spent staring up the air-shaft had resolved themselves with the
passing years into a strange, numb will to do. There was the light and
she must reach it. Indeed the Thing there behind the narrow walls of
her chest gave her no alternative. She did not think she wanted to be
an actress. It was a long time after that before she knew even what an
actress was. She did not know what the lodger had been. No.
Instinctively, groping and inarticulate, she recognized in him the
rags and shreds of greatness, knew him to be a one-time dweller in
that temple whither, willing or not, she was bound, to reach it or to
The lodger looked down at the naked chop bone in his hand. The juicy,
broiled meat was comforting to his outraged stomach. Meat. The word
stood out in his mind to be instantly followed by that other word
that, for him, had spelled ruin, made him a ragged panhandler, reduced
him to living among the poorest and most hopeless. Drink! He raised
his head and eyed Cake with crafty calculation.
"What will you pay me for such teaching?" he demanded, and looked down
again at the bone.
What he did in the end, Cake herself was satisfied came to him
afterward. At first he was actuated only by the desire to procure food
and drink--more especially the drink--at the cost of the least
possible effort to himself.
Cake saw the look, and she knew. She even smiled a little in the
greatness of her relief. She saw she had been right to bring the chop,
and appreciated that her progress along road to fame would be as slow
or fast as she could procure food for him in lesser or larger
"I'll bring you eats," she said cunningly. "From Maverick's," she
added. By which she meant the eats would be "has-is"--distinctly
second class, quite possibly third.
The lodger nodded. "And booze," he put in, watching her face.
"And booze," Cake assented.
So the bargain was struck in a way that worked the most cruel hardship
on the girl. Food she could steal and did, blithely enough, since she
had no monitor but the lure of brightness and that Thing within her
breast that hotly justified the theft and only urged her on. But booze
was a very different proposition. It was impossible to steal
booze--even a little. To secure booze she was forced to offer money.
Now what money Cake earned at Maverick's her mother snatched from her
hand before she was well within the door. If she held out even a dime,
she got a beating. And Cake's mother, in the later years of her life,
besides being a clever evader of the police and the truant officer,
developed into a beater of parts. Broken food the child offered in
abundance and piteous hope. But the lodger was brutally indifferent.
"Food," he scoffed. "Why, it says in the Bible--you never heard of the
Bible, hey?" Cake shook her tangled head.
"No? Well, it's quite a Book," commented the lodger. He had been
fortunate that day and was, for him, fairly intoxicated. "And it says
right in there--and some consider that Book an authority--man cannot
live by food alone. Drink--I drink when I have occasion, and sometimes
when I have no occasion--Don't you know what drink is, alley-cat? Very
well, then, wine is wont to show the mind of man, and you won't see
mine until you bring me booze. Get out!"
And Cake got out. Also, being well versed in a very horrid wisdom, she
took the food with her. This was hardly what the lodger had expected,
and I think what respect he was capable of sprouted for her then.
Behind a screen of barrels in the corner of the alley Cake ate the
broken meats herself, taking what comfort she could, and pondering the
while the awful problem of securing the booze, since she must be
taught, and since the lodger moved in her sphere as the only available
There was a rush up the alley past her hiding-place, a shout, and the
savage thud of blows. Very cautiously, as became one wise in the ways
of life in that place, Cake peered around a barrel. She saw Red Dan,
who sold papers in front of Jeer Dooley's place, thoroughly punishing
another and much larger boy. The bigger boy was crying.
"Anybody c'n sell pipers," shouted Red Dan, pounding the information
home bloodily. "You hear me?--anybody!"
Cake crept out of her hiding-place on the opposite side.
She did not care what happened to the bigger boy, though she respected
Red Dan the more. She knew where the money was going to come from to
buy the lodger's booze. It meant longer hours for her; it meant care
to work only out of school hours; it meant harder knocks than even she
had experienced; it meant a fatigue there were no words to describe
even among the beautiful, wonderful, colourful ones the lodger taught
her. But she sold the papers and she purchased the booze.
Her mother did not know where she spent this extra time. She did not
care since the money came in from Maverick's steadily each week.
Neither did the lodger care how the booze was procured; the big thing
to him was that it came.
At first these lessons were fun for him; the big, gawky, half-starved,
overworked child seeing so vividly in pictures all that he told her in
words. Full-fed on the scraps from Maverick's--he was no longer
fastidious--well stimulated by the drink she brought, he took an ugly
sort of degraded pleasure in posturing before her, acting as he alone
could act those most wonderful of all plays, watching with hateful,
sardonic amusement the light and shadow of emotion upon her dirty
face. Oh, he was a magician, no doubt at all of that! Past master in
the rare art of a true genius, that of producing illusion.
Then he would make Cake try, rave at her, curse her, strike her, kill
himself laughing, drink some more and put her at it again.
Night after night, almost comatose from the fatigue of a day that
began while it was still dark, she carried a heaped-up plate and a
full bottle to the lodger's room and sat down upon the dry-goods box
with the candle beside her on the floor. And, having thus secured her
welcome, night after night she walked with him among that greatest of
all throngs of soldiers and lovers, kings and cardinals, queens,
prostitutes and thieves.
If the liquor was short in the bottle a dime's worth, the lesson was
curtailed. At first Cake tried to coax him. "Aw, c'mon, yuh Romeo on
th' street in Mantua."
But the lodger was never so drunk that he made the slightest
"Yes, I'm Romeo all right--the lad's there, never fear, gutter-snipe.
But--the bottle is not full."
After that she never attempted to change his ruling. She was letter
perfect in the bitter lesson, and if the sale of papers did not bring
in enough to fill the bottle, she accepted the hard fact with the calm
of great determination and did not go near the lodger's room, but went
to bed instead.
Perhaps it was these rare occasions of rest that kept her alive.
After the lodger had been teaching her for several years her mother
died and was buried in the potters' field. Cake managed to keep two
rooms of the wretched flat, and no word of his landlady's demise
reached the lodger's drink-dulled ears. Otherwise Cake feared he might
depart, taking with him her one big chance to reach the light. You
see, she did not know the lodger. Things might have been different if
she had. But he was never a human being to her, even after she knew
the truth; only a symbol, a means to the great end.
Her brothers went away--to the penitentiary and other places. One by
one the flood of life caught her sisters and swept them out, she did
not know to what. She never even wondered. She had not been taught to
care. She had never been taught anything. The knowledge that she must
be famous danced through her dreams like a will-o'-the-wisp; had grown
within her in the shape of a great pain that never ceased; only eased
a little as she strove mightily toward the goal.
So she still sold papers, a homely, gawky, long-legged girl in ragged
clothes much too small for her, and slaved at Maverick's for the
lodger's nightly dole that he might teach her and she be famous.
At first he was keen on the meat and drink--more especially the drink.
Later, gradually, a change came over him. Only Cake did not notice
this change. She was too set on being taught so she could become
famous. At first the lodger was all oaths and blows with shouts of
fierce, derisive laughter intermingled.
"My God!" he would cry. "If Noyes could only see this--if he only
This Noyes, it appeared, was a man he furiously despised. When he was
in the third stage of drunkenness he would never teach Cake, but would
only abuse his enemies, and this Noyes invariably came in for a
fearful shower of epithets. It was he as Cake heard it, sitting
huddled on the old dry-goods box, the candle casting strange shadows
into her gaunt, unchildlike face, who was the cause of the lodger's
downfall. But for Noyes--with a blasting array of curses before the
name--he would now have what Cake so ardently strove for: Fame. But
for Noyes he would be acting in his own theatre, riding in his own
limousine, wearing his own diamonds, entertaining his own friends upon
his own gold plate.
When he was still too sober to take a really vital interest in the
teaching, he was a misanthrope, bitter and brutal, with an astonishing
command of the most terrible words. At these times he made the gravest
charges against Noyes; charges for which the man should be made
accountable, even to such a one as the lodger. One evening Cake sat
watching him, waiting for this mood to pass so that the teaching might
"If I was youse," she said at last, "and hated a guy like youse do
this Noyes, I'd fetch 'im a insult that'd get under his skin right.
I'd make evens wit' 'im, I would, not jes' talk about it."
"Oh, you would!" remarked the lodger. He took a long pull at the
bottle. "You be _Queen Kathrine_, you alley-cat."
So the nightly teaching began with the usual accompaniment of curses,
blows, and shouts of brutal laughter. But when it was over and the
lodger was sinking to the third stage that came inevitably with the
bottom of the bottle, he kept looking at his pupil queerly.
"Oh, you would! Oh, you would, would you?" He said it over and over
again. "Oh, you would, would you?"
And after that he was changed by the leaven of hate her suggestion had
started working in him. For one thing, he took a far greater interest
in the teaching for its own sake. Of that much the girl herself was
thankfully aware. And she thought, Cake did, that the dull husk of
self was wearing away from that part of her destined to be famous,
wearing away at last. The lodger's curses changed in tone as the
nights filed past, the blows diminished, the laughter became far more
Cake, as rapidly reaching the end of her girlhood as the lodger was
nearing the limits of his drink-sapped strength, redoubled her
efforts. It was very plain to her that he could not live much longer;
death in delirium tremens was inevitable. After that, she decided,
school would not keep, and she must try her fortune.
Then one night in the midst of the potion scene when she felt herself
_Juliet_, soft, passionate, and beautiful, far away in the land of
tragic romance, she heard the lodger crying:
"Stop--my God, stop! How do you get that way? Don't you know there's a
limit to human endurance, alley-cat?"
He was fairly toppling from the dry-goods box. His eyes were popping
from his head, and in the flickering candlelight his face looked
strained and queer. In after life she became very familiar with that
expression; she saw it on all types of faces. In fact, she came to
expect to see it there. But she did not know how to analyze it then.
She glimpsed it only as a tribute to her performance, so immense that
she had to be halted in the middle, and felt correspondingly elated.
She was exactly right in her deduction. But Cake and the lodger
advanced along very different lines of thought.
The next night he was shaky, came all too quickly to the teaching
period, and left it as speedily. Then he retired to the flock mattress
in the corner of the room and called Cake to bring the candle.
"I've an idea I'm going to leave you, gutter-snipe," he said, "and I
doubt if I ever see you again. The end of life cancels all bands. And
the one that bound you to me, alley-cat, was very material, very
material indeed. The kind that runs easily in and out of a black
bottle." He laughed.
"You Shakespearian actress!" He laughed again, longer this time. "But
I have not forgotten you," he resumed. "In addition to all that I have
taught you, I am going to leave you something. Here," he fumbled out a
square envelope and Cake took it between her hands. "Take that to the
address written on it," said the lodger, "and see what the gentleman
does." He began to laugh again.
"Noyes----" he cried and broke off to curse feebly but volubly. Cake
did not even glance in his direction. She went away out of the room,
too utterly stunned with fatigue to look at the letter in her dingy
The next morning the lodger was dead. He was buried in the potters'
field quite near his old landlady.
This second funeral, such as it was, closed the shelter that Cake, for
want of a more fitting name, had called home. She decided to put all
her years of bitterly acquired learning to the test. And as she best
knew what she had bought and paid for it she felt she could not fail.
She unfolded from a scrap of newspaper the envelope presented her by
the lodger and carefully studied the address.
Cake could both read and write, having acquired these arts from a
waiter at Maverick's, who also helped her steal the broken meats with
which she secured her artistic education. And, watching the steady
disappearance of the food, this waiter marvelled that she got no
fatter as she grew upward, hovering about in hope of becoming her
lover if she ever did. But even if that miracle had ever been
accomplished the helpful waiter would still have waited. Cake's
conception of a real lady was _Queen Katherine_; _Cleopatra_ her dream
of a dangerous, fascinating one. And what chance in the world for
either with a waiter?
Cake read the name and address upon the envelope freely as the hopeful
bread-caster had taught her: Arthur Payson Noyes, National Theatre.
With the simplicity and dispatch that characterized her, she went to
that place. To the man reposing somnolently in the broken old chair
beside the door she said she had a letter for Mr. Noyes. The
doorkeeper saw it was a large, swanking envelope with very polite
writing. He straightened up in the chair long enough to pass her in,
and then slumped down again.
Cake found herself in a queer, barnlike place, half room and half
hallway, feebly illumined by a single electric bulb suspended above
the door. Very composedly she looked about her. If Mr. Arthur Noyes
lived in this place, he was one of her own kind and there was no need
for any palpitation on her part. Anyway, she was looking solely for
her chance to become famous, and she brought to this second stage of
her search the same indifference to externals, the same calm,
unfaltering courage as she had to the first.
"Now, then," said a voice briskly. "Say what you want. We have not
advertised for any extra people. At least--not this year."
A short, stout man emerged from the shadows. He was very blond, with
his hair cut snapper, and his pale eyes popped perpetual astonishment.
She returned his look steadily and well. She knew she was born to be
famous, and fame has a certain beauty of dignity utterly lacking in
"I am not an extra person," she replied. "I have come to see Mr.
Noyes," and she displayed once more the large square envelope, her
legacy from the lodger, the knife with which she proposed to shuck
from its rough shell that oyster, the world.
The man looked even more astonished, if the thing could have been
accomplished, and regarded her keenly--stared.
"Come this way," he said.
Cake followed him along a narrow passage that turned off to the right,
down five steps, across a narrow entry, up three more steps--although
it seems quite silly, she never in her life forgot the odd number of
those worn steps--and halted before a closed door. On this the fat man
knocked once and opened immediately without waiting.
"Someone I think you'll see," he said, standing between Cake and the
interior. There came to her a murmur over his chunky shoulder.
"She has a letter from----" The fat man dropped his voice and mumbled.
"Positive," he said, aloud, after a pause broken only by the vague
murmur within the room. "I'd know his fist anywhere. Yes." Then he
pushed the door open wide, stood aside, and looked at Cake. "Walk in,"
She did so. Beautifully. Poems have been written about her walk. Two
The room she entered was square, with concrete floor and rough walls.
But Cake did not notice the room for three reasons: The rug on the
floor, four pictures on the walls, and the man who looked at her as
They gazed at each other, Cake and this man, with sudden, intense
concentration. He was a genius in his line, she as surely one in hers.
And, instinctively, to that strange, bright flame each rendered
instant homage. What he saw he described long afterward when a million
voices were vociferously raised in a million different descriptions.
What she saw she likened in her mind to a dark sheath from which a
sword flashed gloriously. That sword was his soul.
"He says your name is Plain Cake--is that true?" He referred to the
lodger's letter held open in his hand, and by that she knew he was
Arthur Noyes. And great. That last she had not needed any telling.
"Yes," she replied.
"He says you are the right Shakespearian actress for me," Noyes
referred to the letter again. "Do you know Shakespeare?"
"All the way," said Cake. It was not quite the answer _Queen
Katherine_ might have made, perhaps, but her manner was perfect.
"Come here"--he pointed to the centre of the rapturous rug--"and do
the potion scene for me." Cake stepped forward.
Perhaps you have been so fortunate as to see her. If so you know that
to step forward is her only preparation. She was poised, she was gone.
Then suddenly she heard the lodger's voice crying:
"Stop--my God, stop! How do you get that way? Don't you know there's a
limit to human endurance, alley-cat?"
She broke off, staring confusedly into space just the height of his
debauched old figure crouching on the dry-goods box. Then with swift
realization of her surroundings, her vision cleared. It was the fat
man in the checked suit she saw leaning helplessly against the closed
door. His jaw sagged, his eyes were frightfully popped, his face wore
the same strained, queer look she had come to see so often on the
lodger's, and he made weak little flapping gestures with his hands.
Cake looked then at Arthur Noyes. His face was white as the letter in
his hand, his dark eyes were dilated with a look of dreadful
suffering, the numb, unconscious reaction of one who has received a
"Come here, Crum," he cried as if there was no one else in the room.
And Crum fairly tottered forward.
"What do you make of this?" asked Noyes, while Cake stood and
"I--I--" stammered Crum exhaustedly. "My God," he groaned, "it's too
much for me. And training!"
"Oh, trained," Cake heard Noyes say. "Such training as only he could
give. Years of it, that's plain. And then to send her to me. A
Shakespearean actress for me! To insult me like that--"
"It's too much for me, Boss," said Crum again. "Still--Oh--oh, my!"
His back was turned, but Cake saw his whole body shake.
"Telephone Meier," exclaimed Noyes suddenly.
"Meier?" Crum became immediately composed, and Cake saw that he was
tremendously surprised. "You don't mean that you're going to--After
this? Why, she's in the know. Look at her. It's perfect!"
And they both turned and looked at Cake standing unconscious and
serene on the other side of the room. You who have seen her know just
how perfect the pose was.
"It _is_ perfect," Noyes said. "I'd be a pretty poor sport if I did
not acknowledge that." Then his voice dropped and Cake only caught
snatches here and there. "... such genius ... once in a century ...
get even with him in a way he least expects ... wipe off the slate
entirely ... no comeback to my play ... let him see that for himself.
Call Meier." Then he turned to Cake.
"Sit down, please," he said courteously. "I have sent for a man who
may give you an engagement."
She returned his gaze so quietly that he was puzzled. About her was
neither nervous anticipation nor flighty vivacity. The actions of her
audience of two left her in-curious and calm. You see, she was used to
the lodger. Also she had worked to be famous so long that all the
flowery borders of self were worn down to the keen edge of doing. Of
Plain Cake she thought not at all. But then, she never had. Only of
the light at the end of the passage that now loomed so bright to her
It seemed only a minute before Noyes spoke again: "This is Mr. Meier."
He regarded her shrewdly all the time.
Cake bowed to Mr. Meier, a fat, gaudy gentleman with thick, hairy
hands. And Mr. Meier looked at Noyes and shook his head. She realized
they had already been talking together.
"Never before," Mr. Meier said.
"If you will repeat the potion scene," Arthur Noyes suggested. "This
time, I trust, you will not be interrupted," he added politely.
And Cake stepped once more into that rich orgy of emotion. This time,
though dimly aware of noise and a confusion of shouting, she carried
the scene through to the end. "Romeo, I come! This do I drink to
thee." She lay for a moment where she had fallen close to the heavenly
colours of the rug.
"Goo-hood Gaw-hud!" gasped Mr. Meier, and Cake sat up.
She saw he was rather collapsed upon a chair near which he had been
standing up when she began. His fat face was purple, and tears stood
in his eyes. But Arthur Noyes had not changed. White, with that look
of mortal hurt, he still stood straight and slim against the table.
"You cannot offer her less than two hundred a week to begin," he said
with the same air of being alone with Mr. Meier.
"No, oh, no, no, no, no!" sighed Mr. Meier, wiping his eyes.
He rose and bowed to Cake with the queerest respect, still wiping his
eyes with the back of his thick, hairy hands. It was a striking
commentary upon her years of training that both of these men,
successful from long and hard experience, paid her the compliment of
thinking her an old hand at the game.
"Mine is the Imperial Theatre, Miss," said Meier. "You should be there
to-night by seven o'clock. It ain't necessary we should rehearse. No,
oh, no, no, no, no! And now, perhaps"--he looked her up and down,
oddly--"perhaps I can take you to your--hotel?"
Cake looked him back, serene in her belief in what the lodger had
"I'll be there at seven," she said. "No, thank you." She walked out
and across into a small park where she sat until the appointed time.
Then she went to the stage entrance of the Imperial Theatre, presented
the card Mr. Meier had given her, and entered. Once inside she was
taken to a dressing room by a fat, comfortable, middle-aged woman who
seemed to be waiting for her. After a very short and, to Cake,
tranquil period, Mr. Meier bustled in.
"Of course, Miss, you know this is a Revue," he explained, rubbing his
hands with a deference that Cake shed utterly, because she did not
know it was there.
She nodded, accepting his statement. "We make 'em laugh here," said
Mr. Meier. Again Cake nodded; she knew exactly as much about the show
as she did before. "You close the second act; it's the best place for
you. Leafy, here, will help you dress."
Cake sat still while Leafy dressed her, very hushed and still. The
light blazed so near after all these hard, lean years of pursuit,
years in which the little affairs of life, like the business of
growing from a child to a woman, had simply passed her by. Of that
Urge to be famous she was even more burningly aware; herself she did
not know at all.
Mr. Meier came and took her by the hand. His fat face was pale and
sweating, he seemed almost awestruck by Cake's calm. He drew her out
of the dressing room and through a crowd of people, men and women with
painted faces, some beautifully, some extravagantly and strangely
dressed. They all stared. One woman shook her head. A man said:
"Search me! I never saw _her_ before."
Then Mr. Meier thrust her out in the face of a bright light. "Begin,"
he said hoarsely. "Walk over there and begin."
Quietly Cake obeyed. She had walked right into the bright light that
had drawn her so hard and so long. Of course it was time for her to
begin. And with this bright light in her face, which soon became to
her the candle in that dark room left so far behind, she fared away to
the magic land of beautiful make-believe.
And only when _Juliet_, that precocious child, sank down poisoned did
she become aware of the uproar about her. The shouts of the lodger,
"Stop--my God, stop! How do you get that way?" augmented a million
times. It was this she heard.
Slowly Cake lifted herself on her hands, dazedly she peered through
the heart of the great light that had caused her such suffering and
that she had followed faithfully so bitterly long. On the other side
she saw faces, rows and rows of them mounting up to the very roof.
Faces laughing; faces convulsed, streaming with tears; faces with eyes
fixed and wearing that same queer, strained look she had noticed
before; hundreds of faces topping each other in semicircular rows, all
different but all alike in that they were all laughing.
She rose to her knees and rested there on all fours--staring.
Laughter! A great clapping of hands rolled about her like thunder,
dying down and rising again to even greater volume. Cries of "Go on,"
assailed her ears, mingled with, "Stop, stop! I can't bear it!"
The curtain fell before her, blotting out the vision of those faces,
making the uproar slightly dimmer. Mr. Meier advanced and lifted her
to her feet. He moved weakly, exhausted with mirth.
"Even Noyes," he gasped. "He--he can't help it. Oh, my goo-hood
Cake looked away from him to the men and women that thronged about
her. The same faces that had turned to her such a short while ago; but
now, how different!
"Oh, don't criticise," one woman cried. "Hand it to her! She can't be
beat. She's the one that comes once in a century to show the rest of
us what really can be done."
"Meier," shouted a man. "Meier--she'll have to go back, Meier; she's
stopped the show."
Quiet and very still, Cake drew away.
It seemed to her only a moment later that Leafy touched her arm.
"Mr. Meier has taken a suite for you here in this hotel," she said.
"Can't you eat a little, Miss?"
Eat? She had never had enough to eat in her life. Her life? She had
spent her life securing food for the lodger that he might teach her to
be famous. Leafy lifted the spoon of hot soup to her lips and
immediately she drank--she who had never had enough to eat in her
life. Morsel by morsel from the bountifully filled table the kindly
dresser fed her. Obediently she ate, and the hot, rich food stimulated
her to swifter, more agonizing thought.
Then, for the first time, she saw Arthur Noyes standing with his back
against a closed door. She read pity in his eyes, comprehension, great
wonder, and what she did not know then was the love that came to a
rare perfection between them and has never faded--and has no place in
"Will you tell me," he said, "what your name is, where your home is,
and who are those that love you there?"
Then he broke off and shrank a little against the door. "Oh, don't,"
Yet she had only looked at him and smiled. But it came to her keenly
in her new awareness that his questions covered the whole of a woman's
life: Her name, her home, and the ones that loved her there. While
she--she had no name, she did not even know the lodger's name. She
looked down with strange astonishment at her grown-up figure, her
woman's hands. She saw herself a ragged, gaunt, bushy-headed child
moving on a tight rope above a dark abyss, intent only upon a luminous
globe floating just out of reach ahead of her, that she stretched out
for eagerly with both her hands. Suddenly the lovely bubble burst and
the child was a woman, falling and falling among rows of convulsed,
shining white faces to the sound of gargantuan laughter.
"You tell me," Arthur Noyes pleaded gently.
And she did so very simply and beautifully. She did know Shakespeare;
it was the only English that she had ever been taught. So Noyes heard
how she became an instrument in the hands of the man who hated him
mortally, and owed her debut and her terrible awakening to what he
considered the only sporting answer to that insult. While he listened
he pondered, awestruck, upon the fact that out of all this muck and
blackness, the degradation of hate by the lodger, the refinement of
hate by himself, had flowered that rarest of all human creatures--one
that could make the whole world laugh.
"He always hated me," he said. "I told him he had traded his genius
for drink, and he never forgave me. Where is he now?"
"Now?" Cake looked up at him in startled wonder. It came over her
suddenly that he counted upon the lodger's being in the Imperial
Theatre that night.
"Now?" she repeated. "Why, he is dead."
It took Noyes a minute to recover. "What will you do?" he asked her.
"Will you go on from this start, continue this--this sort of success?"
He felt it the basest cruelty, in the face of her story, to say it was
the only kind she was ever destined to make. He waited for her answer,
wondering, and a little awestruck. It seemed to him they had come to
the supreme test of her genius.
And she looked up at him with such sadness and such mirth--such
tragic, humorous appreciation of the darkness in which she had been
born, the toilsome way she had travelled to the Great Light and what
it actually revealed when she arrived.
"I will go on from this success," she said. Involuntarily she raised
her hand to her breast. "I must, since it is the only way for me. You
see," with a humour far more touching than the saddest tears, "I must
And she smiled that smile that hurt him, the smile the world loves and
will give anything to see.
The most famous funmaker of her time looked away from the bright river
fleeting beyond the trees to her giggling, half-terrified visitors.
"Fame," she said, "is a secret that cannot be told. It must be
discovered by the seeker. Let me offer you tea as a substitute."
By THOMAS BEER
From _Saturday Evening Post_
On Monday Mrs. Egg put her husband on the east-bound express with many
orders. He was not to annoy Adam by kissing him when they met, if they
met in public. He was to let Adam alone in the choice of civil dress,
if Adam wanted to change his naval costume in New York. He was not to
get lost in Brooklyn, as he had done before. He was to visit the
largest moving-picture theatres and report the best films on his
return. She made sure that Egg had her written list of lesser commands
safe in his wallet, then folded him to her bosom, sniffed, and patted
him up the steps of the coach.
A red-haired youth leaned through an open window and inquired, "Say,
lady, would you mind tellin' me just what you weigh?"
"I ain't been on the scales in years, bub," said Mrs. Egg equably;
"not since about when you was born. Does your mamma ever wash out your
mouth with soap?"
An immediate chorus of laughter broke from the platform loungers. The
train jerked forward. The youth pulled in his head. Mrs. Egg stood
puffing triumphantly with her hands on her hips.
"It's a shame," the baggage-master told her, "that a lady can't be
kind of--kind of----"
"Fat," said Mrs. Egg; "and bein' tall makes it worse. All the Packers
've always been tall. When we get fat we're holy shows. But if that
kid's mother's done her duty by him he'd keep his mouth shut."
The dean of the loungers put in, "Your papa was always skinny,
"I can't remember him much," Mrs. Egg panted, "but he looks skinny in
his pictures. Well, I got to get home. There's a gentleman coming over
from Ashland to look at a bull."
She trod the platform toward the motor at the hitching rails and
several loungers came along gallantly. Mrs. Egg cordially thanked them
as she sank into the driving seat, settled her black straw hat, and
Beholding two of her married daughters on the steps of the drug store,
she stopped the car and shouted: "Hey, girls, the fleet's gettin' in
to-morrow. Your papa's gone to meet Dammy. I just shoved him on the
train. By gee! I forgot to tell him he was to fetch home--no, I wrote
that down--well, you come out to supper Wednesday night."
"But can Dammy get discharged all in one day?" a daughter asked.
Mrs. Egg had no patience with such imbecility. She snapped, "Did you
think they'd discharge him a foot at a time, Susie?" and drove on up
the street, where horsechestnuts were ready to bloom, appropriately,
since Adam was fond of the blossoms. She stopped the car five times to
tell the boys that Adam would be discharged tomorrow, and made a sixth
stop at the candy shop, where a clerk brought out a chocolate ice
cream with walnut sauce. He did this mechanically. Mrs. Egg beamed at
him, although the fellow was a newcomer and didn't know Adam.
"My boy'll be home Wednesday," she said, giving the dish back.
"Been in the Navy three-four years, ain't he?"
Mrs. Egg sighed. "April 14, 1917. He was twenty-one las' week, so he
gets discharged soon as the fleet hits New York. My gee, think of
Dammy being twenty-one!"
She drove on, marvelling at time, and made her seventh stop at the
moving-picture theatre. The posters of the new feature film looked
dull. The heavily typed list of the current-events weekly took her
sharp eye. She read, "Rome Celebrates Anniversary--Fleet Sails from
Guantanamo," and chuckled. She must drive in to see the picture of the
fleet. She hadn't time to stop now, as lunch would be ready.
Anyhow, night was the time for movies. She drove on, and the brick
business buildings gave out into a dribble of small frame cottages,
mostly shabby. Edith Webb was coming out of her father's gate.
Mrs. Egg made an eighth halt and yelled, "Hey, Edie, Dammy'll be home
Wednesday night," for the pleasure of seeing the pretty girl flush.
Adam had taken Edith to several dances at Christmas. Mrs. Egg chuckled
as the favoured virgin went red, fingering the top of the gatepost.
Edith would do. In fact, Edith was suitable, entirely.
"Well, I'm glad," the girl said. "Oh, say, was it our house or the
next one you used to live in? Papa was wondering last night."
"It was yours," Mrs. Egg declared; "and thank your stars you've got a
better father than I had, Edie. Yes, right here's where I lived when I
was your age and helped Mamma do sewin', and sometimes didn't get
enough to eat. I wonder if that's why--well, anyhow, it's a
solid-built house. I expect Dammy'll call you up Wednesday night." She
chuckled immensely and drove on again.
From the edge of town she passed steadily a quarter of a mile between
her husband's fields. His cows were grazing in the pastures. His apple
trees were looking well. The red paint of his monstrous water tanks
soothed her by their brilliance. A farmhand helped her out of the car
and she took the shallow veranda steps one at a time, a little moody,
wishing that her mother was still alive to see Adam's glory. However,
there were six photographs of Adam about the green sitting room in
various uniforms, and these cheered her moment of sorrow. They weren't
altogether satisfactory. His hard size didn't show in single poses. He
looked merely beautiful. Mrs. Egg sniffled happily, patting the view
of Adam in white duck. The enlarged snapshot portrayed him sitting
astride a turret gun. It was the best of the lot, although he looked
taller in wrestling tights, but that picture worried her. She had
always been afraid that he might kill someone in a wrestling match.
She took the white-duck photograph to lunch and propped it against the
pitcher of iced milk.
"It'll be awful gettin' him clothes," she told the cook; "except
shoes. Thank God, his feet ain't as big as the rest of him! Say,
remind me to make a coconut cake in the morning in the big pan. He
likes 'em better when they're two three days old so the icin's kind of
spread into the cake. I'd of sent a cake on with his papa, but Mr. Egg
always drops things so much. It does seem----" The doorbell rang. Mrs.
Egg wiped her mouth and complained, "Prob'ly that gentleman from
Ashland to look at that bull calf. It does seem a shame folks drop in
at mealtimes. Well, go let him in Sadie."
The cook went out through the sitting room and down the hall. Mrs. Egg
patted her black hair, sighed at her third chop and got up. The cook's
voice mingled with a drawling man's tone. Mrs. Egg drank some milk and
waited an announcement. The cook came back into the dining room and
Mrs. Egg set down the milk glass swiftly, saying, "Why, Sadie!"
"He--he says he's your father, Mis' Egg."
After a moment Mrs. Egg said, "Stuff and rubbidge! My father ain't
been seen since 1882. What's the fool look like?"
"Awful tall--kinda skinny--bald----"
A tremor went down Mrs. Egg's back. She walked through the sitting
room and into the sunny hall. The front door was open. Against the
apple boughs appeared a black length, topped by a gleam. The sun
sparkled on the old man's baldness. A shivering memory recalled that
her father's hair had been thin. His dark face slid into a mass of
twisting furrows as Mrs. Egg approached him.
He whispered, "I asked for Myrtle Packer down round the station. An
old feller said she was married to John Egg. You ain't Myrtle?"
"I'm her," said Mrs. Egg.
Terrible cold invaded her bulk. She laced her fingers across her
breast and gazed at the twisting face.
The whisper continued: "They tell me your mamma's in the cem'tery,
Myrtle. I've come home to lay alongside of her. I'm grain for the grim
reaper's sickle. In death we sha'n't be divided; and I've walked half
the way from Texas. Don't expect you'd want to kiss me. You look awful
like her, Myrtle."
Tears rolled out of his eyes down his hollowed cheeks, which seemed
almost black between the high bones. His pointed chin quivered. He
made a wavering gesture of both hands and sat down on the floor.
Behind Mrs. Egg the cook sobbed aloud. A farmhand stood on the grass
by the outer steps, looking in. Mrs. Egg shivered. The old man was
sobbing gently. His head oscillated and its polish repelled her. He
had abandoned her mother in 1882.
"Mamma died back in 1910," she said. "I dunno--well----"
The sobbing was thin and weak, like an ailing baby's murmur. It
pounded her breast.
She stared at the ancient dusty suitcase on the porch and said, "Come
up from Texas, have you?"
"There's no jobs lef for a man seventy-six years of age, Myrtle,
except dyin.' I run a saloon in San Antonio by the Plaza. Walked from
Greenville, Mississippi, to Little Rock. An old lady give me carfare,
there, when I told her I was goin' home to my wife that I'd treated so
bad. There's plenty Christians in Arkansaw. And they've pulled down
the old Presbyterian church your mamma and I was married in."
"Yes; last year. Sadie, take Mr. Packer's bag up to the spare room.
Stop cryin', Papa."
She spoke against her will. She could not let him sit on the floor
sobbing any longer. His gleaming head afflicted her. She had a queer
emotion. This seemed most unreal. The gray hall wavered like a
flashing view in a film.
"The barn'd be a fitter place for me, daughter. I've been a----"
"That's all right, Papa. You better go up and lie down, and Sadie'll
fetch you up some lunch."
His hand was warm and lax. Mrs. Egg fumbled with it for a moment and
let it fall. He passed up the stairs, drooping his head. Mrs. Egg
heard the cook's sympathy explode above and leaned on the wall and
thought of Adam coming home Wednesday night. She had told him a
thousand times that he mustn't gamble or mistreat women or chew
tobacco "like your Grandfather Packer did." And here was Grandfather
Packer, ready to welcome Adam home!
The farmhand strolled off, outside, taking the seed of this news. It
would be in town directly.
"Oh, Dammy," she said, "and I wanted everything nice for you!"
In the still hall her one sob sounded like a shout. Mrs. Egg marched
back to the dining room and drank a full glass of milk to calm
"Says he can't eat nothin', Mis' Egg," the cook reported, "but he'd
like a cup of tea. It's real pitiful. He's sayin' the Twenty-third
Psalm to himself. Wasted to a shadder. Asked if Mr. Egg was as
Christian an' forbearin' as you. Mebbe he could eat some buttered
"Try and see, Sadie; and don't bother me. I got to think."
She thought steadily, eating cold rice with cream and apple jelly. Her
memory of Packer was slim. He had spanked her for spilling ink on his
diary. He had been a carpenter. His brothers were all dead. He had run
off with a handsome Swedish servant girl in 1882, leaving her mother
to sew for a living. What would the county say? Mrs. Egg writhed and
recoiled from duty. Perhaps she would get used to the glittering bald
head and the thin voice. It was all most unreal. Her mother had so
seldom talked of the runaway that Mrs. Egg had forgotten him as
possibly alive. And here he was! What did one do with a prodigal
father? With a jolt she remembered that there would be roast veal for
At four, while she was showing the Ashland dairyman the bull calf,
child of Red Rover VII and Buttercup IV, Mrs. Egg saw her oldest
daughter's motor sliding across the lane from the turnpike. It held
all three of her female offspring. Mrs. Egg groaned, drawling
commonplaces to her visitor, but he stayed a full hour, admiring the
new milk shed and the cider press. When she waved him good-bye from
the veranda she found her daughters in a stalwart group by the
sitting-room fireplace, pink eyed and comfortably emotional. They
wanted to kiss her. Mrs. Egg dropped into her particular mission chair
and grunted, batting off embraces.
"I suppose it's all over town? It'd travel fast. Well, what d'you
think of your grandpapa, girls?"
"Don't talk so loud, Mamma," one daughter urged.
Another said, "He's so tired he went off asleep while he was telling
us how he nearly got hung for shooting a man in San Antonio."
Mrs. Egg reached for the glass urn full of chocolate wafers on the
table and put one in her mouth. She remarked, "I can see you've been
having a swell time, girls. A sinner that repenteth----"
"Listen," said Mrs. Egg; "if there's going to be any forgiving done
around here, it's me that'll do it. You girls was raised with all the
comforts of home and then some. You never helped anybody do plain
sewin' at fifteen cents a hour nor had to borrow money to get a decent
dress to be married in. This thing of hearin' how he shot folks and
kept a saloon in Texas is good as a movie to you. It don't set so easy
on me. I'm old and tough. And I'll thank you to keep your mouths shut.
Here's Dammy comin' home Wednesday out of the Navy, and all this piled
up on me. I don't want every lazyjake in the country pilin' in here to
hear what a bad man he's been, and dirty the carpets up. Dammy likes
things clean. I'm a better Christian than a lot of folks I can think
of, but this looks to me like a good deal of a bread-and-butter
repentance. Been devourin' his substance in Texas and come home
"Oh, Mamma, your own papa!"
"That's as may be. My own mamma busted her eyesight and got heart
trouble for fifteen mortal years until your papa married me and gave
her a home for her old age, and never a whimper out of her, neither.
She's where she can't tell me what she thinks of him and I dunno what
to think. But I'll do my own thinkin' until Dammy and your papa gets
back and tell me what they think. This is your papa's place--and
Dammy's. It ain't a boardin' house for----"
"And it's time for my nap."
Susan, the oldest daughter, made a tremulous protest. "He's
seventy-six years old, Mamma, and whatever he's done----"
"For a young woman that talked pretty loud of leavin' her husband when
he came home kind of lit up from a club meetin'----" Mrs. Egg broke
in. Susan collapsed and drew her gloves on hastily. Mrs. Egg ate
another chocolate wafer and resumed: "This here's my business--and
your papa's and Dammy's. I've got it in my head that that movie weekly
picture they had of Buttercup Four with her price wrote out must have
been shown in San Antonio. And you'll recollect that your papa and me
stood alongside her while that fresh cameraman took the picture. If I
was needin' a meal and saw I'd got a well-off son-in-law----"
"Mamma," said Susan, "you're perfectly cynical."
Mrs. Egg pronounced, "I'm forty-five years of age," and got up.
The daughters withdrew. Mrs. Egg covered the chocolate urn with a
click and went into the kitchen. Two elderly farmhands went out of the
porch door as she entered.
Mrs. Egg told the cook: "Least said, soon'st mended, Sadie. Give me
the new cream. I guess I might's well make some spice cookies. Be
pretty busy Wednesday. Dammy likes 'em a little stale."
"Mis' Egg," said the cook, "if this was Dammy that'd kind of strayed
off and come home sick in his old age----"
"Give me the cream," Mrs. Egg commanded, and was surprised by the
fierceness of her own voice. "I don't need any help seein' my duty,
At six o'clock her duty became highly involved. A friend telephoned
from town that the current-events weekly at the moving-picture theatre
showed Adam in the view of the dreadnoughts at Guantanamo.
"Get out," said Adam's mother. "You're jokin'! ... Honest? Well, it's
about time! What's he doin'? ... Wrestlin'? My! Say, call up the
theatre and tell Mr. Rubenstein to save me a box for the evenin'
"I hear your father's come home," the friend insinuated.
"Yes," Mrs. Egg drawled, "and ain't feelin' well and don't need
comp'ny. Be obliged if you'd tell folks that. He's kind of sickly. So
they've got Dammy in a picture. It's about time!" The tremor ran down
her back. She said "Good-night, dearie," and rang off.
The old man was standing in the hall doorway, his head a vermilion
ball in the crossed light of the red sunset.
"Feel better, Papa?"
"As good as I'm likely to feel in this world again. You look real like
your mother settin' there, Myrtle." The whisper seemed likely to ripen
as a sob.
Mrs. Egg answered, "Mamma had yellow hair and never weighed more'n a
hundred and fifty pounds to the day of her death. What'd you like for
He walked slowly along the room, his knees sagging, twitching from end
to end. She had forgotten how tall he was. His face constantly
wrinkled. It was hard to see his eyes under their long lashes. Mrs.
Egg felt the pity of all this in a cold way.
She said, when he paused: "That's Adam, there, on the mantelpiece,
Papa. Six feet four and a half he is. It don't show in a picture."
"The Navy's rough kind of life, Myrtle. I hope he ain't picked up bad
habits. The world's full of pitfalls."
"Sure," said Mrs. Egg, shearing the whisper. "Only Dammy ain't got any
sense about cards. I tried to teach him pinochle, but he never could
remember none of it, and the hired men always clean him out shakin'
dice. He can't even beat his papa at checkers. And that's an awful
thing to say of a bright boy!"
The old man stared at the photograph and his forehead smoothed for a
breath. Then he sighed and drooped his chin.
"If I'd stayed by right principles when I was young----"
"D'you still keep a diary, Papa?"
"I did used to keep a diary, didn't I? I'd forgotten that. When you
come to my age, Myrtle, you'll find yourself forgettin' easy. If I
could remember any good things I ever did----"
The tears dripped from his jaw to the limp breast of his coat. Mrs.
Egg felt that he must be horrible, naked, like a doll carved of
coconut bark Adam had sent home from Havana. He was darker than Adam
even. In the twilight the hollows of his face were sheer black. The
room was gray. Mrs. Egg wished that the film would hurry and show
something brightly lit.
The dreary whisper mourned, "Grain for the grim reaper's sickle,
that's what I am. Tares mostly. When I'm gone you lay me alongside
your mamma and----"
"Supper's ready, Mis' Egg," said the cook.
Supper was odious. He sat crumbling bits of toast into a bowl of hot
milk and whispering feeble questions about dead folk or the business
of the vast dairy farm. The girls had been too kind, he said.
"I couldn't help but feel that if they knew all about me----"
"They're nice sociable girls," Mrs. Egg panted, dizzy with dislike of
her veal. She went on: "And they like a good cry, never havin' had
nothin' to cry for."
His eyes opened wide in the lamplight, gray brilliance sparkled. Mrs.
Egg stiffened in her chair, meeting the look.
He wailed, "I gave you plenty to cry for, daughter." The tears hurt
her, of course.
"There's a picture of Dammy in the movies," she gasped. "I'm goin' in
to see it. You better come. It'll cheer you, Papa."
She wanted to recall the offer too late. In the car she felt chilly.
He sank into a corner of the tonneau like a thrown laprobe. Mrs. Egg
talked loudly about Adam all the way to town and shouted directions to
the driving farmhand in order that the whisper might not start. The
manager of the theatre had saved a box for her and came to usher her
to its discomfort. But all her usual pleasure was gone. She nodded
miserably over the silver-gilt rail at friends. She knew that people
were craning from far seats. Her bulk and her shadow effaced the man
beside her. He seemed to cower a little. At eight the show began, and
Mrs. Egg felt darkness as a blessing, although the shimmer from the
screen ran like phosphorus over the bald head, and a flash of white
between two parts of the advertisement showed the dark wrinkles of his
"Like the pictures, Papa?"
"I don't see well enough to take much pleasure in 'em, Myrtle."
A whirling globe announced the beginning of the weekly. Mrs. Egg
forgot her burdens. She was going to see Adam. She took a peppermint
from the bag in her hand and set her teeth in its softness, applauded
a view of the President and the arrival of an ambassador in New York.
Then the greenish letters declared: "The fleet leaves Guantanamo
training ground," and her eyes hurt with staring. The familiar lines
of anchored battleships appeared with a motion of men in white on the
gray decks. The screen showed a race of boats which melted without
warning to a mass of white uniforms packed about the raised square of
a roped-in Platform below guns and a turret clouded with men. Two
tanned giants in wrestling tights scrambled under the ropes. There was
a flutter of caps.
"Oh!" said Mrs. Egg. "Oh!"
She stood up. The view enlarged. Adam was plain as possible. He
grinned, too; straight from the screen at her. The audience murmured.
Applause broke out, Adam jerked his black head to his opponent--and
the view flicked off in some stupid business of admirals. Mrs. Egg sat
down and sobbed.
"Was that Adam, daughter? The--the big feller with black hair?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Egg; "yes." She was hot with rage against the makers
of pictures who'd taken him from her. It was a shame. She crammed four
peppermints into her mouth and groaned about them, "As if people
wouldn't rather look at some good wrestlin' than a lot of captains and
"How long's the boy been in the Navy, Myrtle?"
"April 14, 1917."
The whisper restored her. Mrs. Egg yawned for an hour of nonsense
about a millionaire and his wife who was far too thin. Her father did
not speak, although he moved now and then. The show concluded. Mrs.
Egg lumbered wearily out to her car in the dull street and vaguely
listened to the whisper of old age. She couldn't pay attention. She
was going home to write the film company at length. This abuse of Adam
was intolerable. She told the driver so. The driver agreed.
He reported, "I was settin' next to Miss Webb."
"That's Dammy's girl, Papa. Go on, Sam. What did Edie say?"
"Well," said the driver, "she liked seein' the kid. She cried,
Mrs. Egg was charmed by the girl's good sense. The moon looked like a
quartered orange over the orchard.
She sighed, "Well, he'll be home Wednesday night, anyhow. Edie ain't
old enough to get married yet. Hey, what's the house all lit up for?
Sadie ought to know better."
She prepared a lecture for the cook. The motor shot up the drive into
a babble and halted at the steps. Someone immense rose from a chair
and leaped down the space in one stride.
Adam said, "H'lo, Mamma," and opened the car door.
Mrs. Egg squealed. The giant lifted her out of her seat and carried
her into the sitting room. The amazing muscles rose in the flat of his
back. She thought his overshirt ripped. The room spun. Adam fanned her
with his cap and grinned.
"Worst of radiograms," he observed; "the boys say Papa went on to meet
me. Well, it'll give him a trip. Quit cryin', Mamma."
"Oh, Dammy, and there ain't nothin' fit to eat in the house!"
Adam grinned again. The farmhands dispersed at his nod. Mrs. Egg beat
down her sobs with both hands and decried the radio service that could
turn Sunday into Tuesday. Here was Adam, though, silently grinning,
his hands available, willing to eat anything she had in the pantry.
Mrs. Egg crowed her rapture in a dozen bursts.
The whispering voice crept into a pause with, "You'll be wantin' to
talk to your boy, daughter. I'll go to bed, I guess."
"Dammy," said Mrs. Egg, "this is----"
Adam stopped rolling a cigarette and nodded to the shadow by the hall
door. He said, "How you? The boys told me you'd got here," and licked
the cigarette shut with a flash of his red tongue. He struck a match
on the blue coating of one lean thigh and lit the cigarette, then
stared at the shadow. Mrs. Egg hated the old man against reason as the
tears slid down the dark face.
"Grain for the grim reaper's sickle, daughter. You'll be wantin' to
talk to your boy. I guess I'll say good-night." He faded into the
"Well, come, let's see what there is to eat, Mamma," said Adam, and
pulled Mrs. Egg from her chair.
He sat on the low ice chest in the pantry and ate chocolate cake. Mrs.
Egg uncorked pear cider and reached, panting, among apple-jelly
glasses. Adam seldom spoke. She didn't expect talk from him. He was
sufficient. He nodded and ate. The tanned surface of his throat
dimpled when he swallowed things. His small nose wrinkled when he
Mrs. Egg chattered confusedly. Adam grinned when she patted his smooth
hair and once said "Get out!" when she paused between two kisses to
assure him he was handsome. He had his father's doubts on the point
perhaps. He was not, she admitted, exactly beautiful. He was Adam,
perfect and hard as an oak trunk under his blue clothes. He finished
the chocolate cake and began to eat bread and apple jelly.
He ate six slices and drank a mug of pear cider, then crossed his legs
and drawled, "Was a fellow on the _Nevada_ they called Frisco Cooley."
"What about him, Dammy?"
"Nothin'. He was as tall as me. Skinny, though. Used to imitate actors
in shows. Got discharged in 1919."
"Was he a nice boy, Dammy?"
"No," said Adam, and reached for the pear-cider bottle. He fell into
his usual calm and drank another mug of cider. Mrs. Egg talked of Edie
Webb. Adam grinned and kept his black eyes on the pantry ceiling. The
clock struck eleven. He said, "They called him Frisco Cooley 'cause he
came from San Francisco. He could wrinkle his face up like a monkey.
He worked in a gamblin' joint in San Francisco. That's him." Adam
jerked a thumb at the ceiling.
"That's him," said Adam. "It took me a time to think of him, but
Mrs. Egg fell back against the ice chest and squeaked: "You mean you
"Hush up, Mamma!"
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