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A Top-Floor Idyl

George Van Schaick




  Author of "Sweetapple Cove," "The Son of the Otter," "The Girl at BigLoon Post"

  Illustrated by Chase Emerson

  BostonSmall, Maynard & CompanyPublishers

  Copyright, 1917,By Small, Maynard & Company(Incorporated)

  PrintersS. J. Parkhill & Co., Boston, U.S.A.


  And always she was a friend, nothing but the dearfriend.]



























  And always she was a friend, nothing but the dear friend.

  No, she was only a woman, with a soul for harmony.

  Her lovely head was bent down towards the sleeping mite.




  I smiled at my friend Gordon, the distinguished painter, lifting up myglass and taking a sip of the _table d'hote_ claret, which the WidowCamus supplies with her famed sixty-five cent repast. It is, I mustacknowledge, a somewhat turbid beverage, faintly harsh to the palate,and yet it may serve as a begetter of pleasant illusions. While drinkingit, I can close my eyes, being of an imaginative nature, and permit itsflavor to bring back memories of ever-blessed _tonnelles_ by the Seine,redolent of fried gudgeons and mirific omelettes, and felicitous withgay laughter.

  "Well, you old stick-in-the-mud," said my companion, "what are youlooking so disgruntled about? I was under the impression that this feastwas to be a merry-making to celebrate your fortieth birthday. Somethinglike a grin just now passed over your otherwise uninteresting features,but it was at once succeeded by the mournful look that may well follow,but should not be permitted to accompany, riotous living."

  At this I smiled again.

  "Just a moment's wool-gathering, my dear fellow," I answered. "I wasthinking of our old feasts, and then I began to wonder whether the tuneplayed by that consumptive-looking young man at the piano might be awild requiem to solemnize that burial of two-score years, or a song oftriumphant achievement."

  "I think it's what they call a fox-trot," remarked Gordon, doubtfully."Your many sere and yellow years have brought you to a period in theworld's history when the joy of the would-be young lies chiefly in wildcontortion to the rhythm of barbaric tunes. I see that they are gettingready to clear away some of the tables and, since we are untrained insuch new arts and graces, they will gradually push us away towards thedoors. The bottle, I notice, is nearly half empty, which proves ourentire sobriety; had it been _Pommard_, we should have paid morerespectful attention to it. Give me a light, and let us make tracks."

  We rose and went out. A few couples were beginning to gyrate among thefumes of spaghetti and _vin ordinaire_. Gordon McGrath, unlike myself,lives in one of the more select quarters of the city, wherefore weproceeded towards Fifth Avenue. The partial solitude of WashingtonSquare enticed us, and we strolled towards it, sitting of common accordupon one of the benches, in the prelude of long silence resulting fromphilosophic bent and indulgence in rather tough veal. It was finallybroken by Gordon; being younger, speech is more necessary to him.

  "What about that sarcophagus you've lately selected for yourself?" heasked me.

  "They are pleasant diggings," I answered. "Being on the top floor, theyare remote as possible from hand-organs and the fragrance of Mrs.Milliken's kitchen. The room is quite large and possesses a bath. Itgives me ample space for my books and mother's old piano."

  "Wherefore a piano?" he asked, lighting another cigarette. "You can'teven play with one finger."

  "Well, my sister Jane took out nearly all the furniture, and theremainder went to a junkman, with the exception of the piano. Janecouldn't use it; no room for it in her Weehawken bungalow, besides whichshe already has a phonograph, purchased at the cost of much saving. Yousee, Gordon, that old Steinway was rather more intimately connected withmy mother, in my memory, than anything else she left. She played it forus when we were kiddies. You have no idea of what a smile that dearwoman had when she turned her head towards us and watched us trying todance! Later on, when she was a good deal alone, it was mostly 'Songswithout Words,' or improvisations such as suited her moods. Dear me! Shelooked beautiful when she played! So, of course, I took it, and itrequired more room, so that I moved. I've had it tuned; the man saidthat it was in very good condition yet."

  "You were always a silly dreamer, Dave."

  "I don't quite see," I began, "what----"

  "I'll enlighten your ignorance. Of course you don't. David, old man,you've had the old rattle-trap tuned because of the hope that riseseternal. Visions keep on coming to you of a woman, some indistinct,shadowy, composite creature of your imagination. You expect her to floatinto your room, in the dim future and in defiance of all propriety, andsit down before that ancient spinet.

  "You keep it ready for her; it awaits her coming. To tell you the truth,I'm glad you had it tuned. It shows that you still possess some humantraits. I'll come, some day, and we'll go over and capture Frieda Long.We will take her to dinner at Camus, and give her a benedictine and sixcups of black coffee. After that we'll get a derrick and hoist her toyour top floor, and she'll play Schubert, till the cows come home or thelandlady puts us out. She's a wonder!"

  "She's a great artist and a dear, lovable woman," I declared.

  "That's probably why she never had a love story," conjectured Gordon."Always had so much affection for the general that she could neverdescend to the particular. By the way, I went to her studio for a lookat her portrait of Professor Burberry."

  "It's good, isn't it?"

  "Man alive! It's so good, I should think the old fellow would beoffended. Through her big dabs of paint he's shown up to the life. Youcan see his complacency bursting out like a flaming sunflower. Upon hishomely mug are displayed all the platitudes of Marcus Aurelius. He isinstinct with ignorance that Horace was a drummer for Italian wines andan agent for rural residences, just a smart advertiser, a precursor ofthe fellows who write verse for the Road of Anthracite or canned soup,and Burberry has never found it out. He would buy splinters from thewooden horse of Troy, and only avoids gold bricks because they'remodern. It's a stunning picture!"

  That's one reason why I am so fond of Gordon. He's a great portraitist,and far more successful than Frieda, but he is genuine in his admirationof good work. He is rather too cynical, of course, but at the bottom ofit there usually lies good advice to his friends. I'm very proud hecontinues to stick to me.

  "I understand he was greatly pleased," I told him, "and I was awfullyglad that Frieda got the commission. She needed it."

  "Yes, I told her that she ought to go off for a rest in the country," heremarked, "but it seems
she has one of her other queer ideas that mustbe worked out at once. She itched to be at it, even while she waspainting Burberry. Mythological, I think, as usual, that latest notionof hers. Some demigod whispering soft nothings to a daughter of men.Showed me a dozen charcoal compositions for it, all deucedly clever. Andhow are the other animals in the menagerie you live in now?"

  That's a way Gordon has. From one subject he leaps to another like acanary hopping on the sticks of his cage; but there is method in hismadness. He swiftly exhausts the possibilities of a remark and goes toanother without losing time.

  "The animals," I answered, "are a rather dull and probably uninterestinglot. First, come two girls who live in a hall bedroom, together."

  "It shows on their part an admirable power of concentration."

  "I suppose so; their conversation is chiefly reminiscent and plentifullydotted with 'says I' and 'says she' and 'says he.' They are honest youngpersons and work in a large candy-shop. Hence they must be surfeitedwith sweets at a deplorably early age."

  "Not with all of them; they will find some hitherto untasted, but justas cloying in the end," remarked Gordon.

  "I hope not. There is also an elderly couple living on the bounty of ason who travels in collars and cuffs. Sells them, you know. Then I'veseen three men who work somewhere and occasionally comment upon whatthey see in the newspaper. Murders fill them with joy, and, to them,accidents are beer and skittles. I suspect that they esteem themselvesas what they are pleased to call 'wise guys,' but they are of refreshinginnocence and sterling honesty. One of them borrowed a dollar from me,the other day, to take the two girls to the movies. He returned it onnext pay day."

  "Look out, David, he may be trying to establish a credit," Gordon warnedme. "You are such an easy mark!"

  "I'll be careful," I assured him. "Then we have a poor relation of thelandlady. He looks out for the furnace in winter and is a night watchmanin a bank. An inoffensive creature who reads the papers the otherboarders throw away."

  "Altogether it makes up a beautiful and cheering totality of ineptitude,endowed with the souls of shuttles or cogwheels," opined Gordon.

  "Well, as Shylock says, if you prick them, they bleed," I protested. "Atany rate they must have some close affinity with the general scheme ofNature."

  "Nature, my dear Dave, is a dustbin in which a few ragmen succeed infinding an occasional crust of dry bread wherewith to help fill the potand make their hearts glad. It is a horribly wasteful organization bywhich a lady cod produces a million eggs that one fish may possiblyreach maturity and chowder. Four trees planted on a hill commonly die,but, if you stick in a few thousands, there may be a percentage ofsurvivals, besides nuts for the squirrels. Humanity represents a fewtall trees and a host of scrubs."

  Thus does Gordon always lay down the law, to which I generally listenwith some amusement. He is dogmatic and incredulous, though he lacksscepticism in regard to his own opinions.

  "Then all honor to the scrubs, my dear Gordon!" I interjected. "I admireand revere the courage and persistency with which they keep on growing,seeking a bit of sunlight here and there, airing their little passions,bearing their trials bravely. But I forgot to mention another inmate ofmy caravanserai. She's only there for a day or two, in a room oppositemine, hitherto vacant and only tenanted yesterday. I met her as she wascoming up the stairs. She walked heavily, poor thing. I could only seeher by the dim light of the gas-jet on the landing. It was a young face,deeply lined and unhappy. Downstairs I came across Mrs. Milliken, mylandlady, who explained that the person I had met expected to go nextday to a hospital. The Milliken woman had known her husband. He went offto the war, months ago, and the young wife's been teaching French andgiving piano lessons, till she couldn't work any longer. The Frenchgovernment allows her twenty-five or thirty cents a day."

  "I'm glad it keeps a paternal eye on the wives of its brave defenders,"remarked Gordon.

  "It does, to that extent, but it doesn't go very far in this country.She has a remarkable face; looks a good deal like that Madonna ofMurillo's in the Louvre."

  "That's a back number at this stage of the world's history. Most of usprefer snub noses. I notice that you said she plays the piano."

  "I don't see what----"

  "Well, you've just had yours tuned. Oh! I forgot you said she was goingoff to the hospital. Never mind, Dave, they come out again, so don'tworry. I've known you to be disturbed for a whole week over somebody'ssick dog and to go two blocks out of your way to steer a strayed andunpleasantly ragged blind man. What is it, appendicitis?"

  "Mrs. Milliken darkly hinted, I think, that it was an expected baby."

  "Oh! Well, I suppose a baby had to go with a Murillo; the picture wouldhave been incomplete. I'm glad that this particular case appears to be aperfectly safe one."

  "What do you know about it?" I asked.

  "I mean from your standpoint. I dare presume that the Milliken femalehas a holy horror of sprouting infants, like all landladies. She wouldnaturally foresee a notice to quit from the old couple, disturbed intheir slumbers, and extravagance in the use of hot water and linen wouldstare her in the face. You have made me sympathize with you for nothing,for your Murillo-woman will vanish into space and become the handmaidenof a scrub in the making. Henceforth, the case will only interest theBureau of Vital Statistics and the manufacturers of improvements onmother's milk. Give me another cigarette."

  I handed him the cardboard box, for, although I have a silver case, Inever know where it is. If I did, I wouldn't use it since I don'tbelieve in flaunting one's vices. He took a cigarette, tapped it on theback of his hand, and engaged in conversation the lonely policeman, whohad strolled over to see that we were not flouting the majesty of thelaw by dozing on the bench. He remarked that the night was fine butwarm, Gordon assenting. Then my friend suddenly asked him what kind ofboots he wore, and put down the address most carefully on his cuff,thanking him effusively, after which the guardian walked off,ponderously.

  "Will you kindly explain your object?" I asked Gordon, who has what theFrench call the _coquetterie du pied_ and asserts there's only one manin New York who can make boots, a delusion that costs him about fifteendollars a pair.

  "You're not lacking in sympathy," he instructed me, "but, on your part,the feeling is but an unintelligent instinct. Any idiot can feel sorryfor a cripple or a man compelled by poverty to smoke cheap tobacco. Inow call your attention to the fact that this old minion is ancient andcorpulent. He's on his feet during all working hours, and hiscogitations must often turn to his nether extremities. He carefullynurses them, while he raps those of lawless slumberers on these seats.Civilly, I spoke to him of the subject uppermost in his mind, and now hehas left us, happy in the thought that he has put a fellowman on theright road. That's what I call taking a sympathetic interest in adeserving old ass. You didn't suppose for a moment that I'd wear suchbeastly things, did you?"

  "You would rather go barefooted," I told him.

  "I would," he assented. "If Gordon McGrath appeared in the street, nakedas to his toes, the papers would mention the fact. The _Banner_ wouldsend me the famed Cordelia, who would insist on photographing my feetfor publication in a Sunday supplement, with a hint to the effect that Iam a rather well known painter. It would be an advertisement."

  "If I went without boots, benevolent old ladies would stop me and handout copper pennies," I remarked, without jealousy.

  "You just wait till the 'Land o' Love' is out, old man," he told me,"and the same old dames will write for your autograph."

  Gordon is quite daffy over the book I sent to my publishers last week.He has read the first, one middle and the last chapter, and predictsgreat things for it. Of course, I know better, for it will be just likethe others. From four to six thousand copies sold, a few flatteringnotices, mostly in journals unheard of, and swift oblivion after somemonths. But I care nothing that I may be a scrub among writers, for theoccupation suits me. I am not ambitious, and I can rise late in themorning, pound the keys of my o
ld machine for an hour before lunch,waste a good part of the afternoon in one of the libraries, and go towork again after the hand-organs and knife-grinders have been abed somehours. Then, some time before sunrise, the rattle of milk-carts remindme of Mrs. Milliken's bedspring and mattress, and I go to bed. I am notdoing so badly, and sell one or two short stories every month. Last yearI opened an account in the savings bank. The time may come when I shallbe classed among the malefactors of great wealth.

  "But one reader ever wrote to me," I finally answered. "It was a youngperson anxious to know whether I could recommend the 'City's Wrath' as abirthday present to a Baptist aunt. I advised against it, thus cheatingmyself out of ten per cent. royalty on a dollar thirty-five."

  "Oh! She'd have sent a second-hand copy," he answered consolingly, andshifted to a discussion of the ultimate blackening of vermilions, whichseemed to give him some concern.

  After this he looked at his watch and declared he had just twenty-fiveminutes to get to the Lambs Club. That's just like him; he will loll andsprawl around for hours with you, looking like a man without aresponsibility in the world, and suddenly arise and sprint away to farregions, always arriving in the nick of time. My way is to prepare farin advance to meet my rare engagements, to think of them persistently,and, usually, to arrive ten minutes late.

  I walked over to the subway with him, at such a breathless pace that Iwondered if the friendly policeman would change his mind about us,should we meet him in crossing the square. Gordon left me at theentrance, with a wave of one hand, the other searching for a nickel, andI was permitted to return leisurely to my domicile, in a profuseperspiration. I felt my wilted collar, knowing that Gordon wouldunquestionably reach the club, looking spick and span. That's also oneof his traits.

  As I crossed the square again, I saw a belated tramp leading anemaciated yellow dog by a string. The man looked hungrier than the dog,and I broke all precepts of political economy by handing him a dime. Hewas blameworthy, for he should have looked out for himself, and not haveassumed foolish responsibilities. He was entirely wrong. What businesshad he to seek affection, to require the faithfulness of a rust-coloredmongrel? How dared he ask charity that should have gone to the widow andorphan, wherewith to feed a useless quadruped? I sat down again, for itwas only midnight, and thought pleasantly upon the vagaries of humannature. Suddenly, a splendid story suggested itself to me about a dogand tramp. It would be good for about four thousand words, and I hurriedaway to Mrs. Milliken's lest the inspiration might vanish on the way. Iwould have a dog all but human, a tramp all but dog, and the animalwould sacrifice itself for a master redeemed at last by the spectacle ofcanine virtue. I knew just what magazine might accept it. A few minuteslater I reached the house, which, like the Milliken woman, has seenbetter days. The frittering brownstone and discolored brick suit me asnaturally as a hole in the sand befits a prairie dog. I let myself in,softly, with due regard to the slumbers of people compelled by thetragedy of life to go to bed at the behest of a clock, and trod thecreaking stairs in utter darkness, guided by a friendly but shakybalustrade. Then I reached my landing, opened my door, turned on thelight, put on my slippers and fired my coat on the bed. As soon as I haddropped my collar and tie on the floor, I was ready for work and satdown to my machine. Thank goodness, the inspiration had remained;clearly and cogently the sentences flowed; after I had finished thefirst page, I was already weeping in spirit for my noble dog. Then,suddenly, came a rap at my door, hurried, eager, impatient.

  "Great Heavens!" I thought at once. "I am to be interrupted because thatblessed woman objects to loud typewriting at one a.m. I'm glad she'sgoing away to the hospital."

  I went to the door, assuming my most austere mien, and opened it.