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A Top-Floor Idyl, Page 2

George Van Schaick



  "Please help me!" cried the woman hoarsely. "My God! What shall I do?"

  It was, as I had surmised, the Murillo-faced occupant of the room on theother side of the landing. In my dismay the desperate thought came to methat a lonely bachelor was the last individual she should have soughtaid from. But her look of haggardness, the teeth pressed into her lips,the clenched hands, the chin carried forward in an expression ofagonized supplication rebuked my egotism.

  "I--I don't know," I confessed humbly.

  She turned half way around, seized the balustrade and stared at mevacantly.

  "Allow me to help you back to your room," I suggested shakily. "ThenI'll run downstairs and get Mrs. Milliken."

  She went with me, haltingly, and threw herself upon the decrepithorsehair sofa, as I abandoned her and ran downstairs, nearly breakingmy neck on account of my slovenly old slippers. At the landlady's doorI pounded till I chanced to remember she had informed me that sheexpected to spend the night at her married daughter's, in Fort Lee. Indespond I bethought myself of the young women who sold candy. No! Suchproblems were not of their solving. Of course there was the negro cook,hidden in some ancillary cavern of the basement, but cowardice preventedme from penetrating such darkness, and I ran out of the house, coatless.Half way down the block were two doctors' signs. One shining in thefreshness of new nickelling; the other an old thing of battered tin,with faded gold letters.

  "This," I decided, "is a case requiring the mature experience of age,"and I rang furiously, awaiting the appearance of the venerable owner ofthe ancient sign. A shock-headed and red-haired youth opened the door,clad in pajamas and rubbing his eyes.

  "Yes," he said pleasantly.

  "I need the doctor's services at once," I informed him. "Hustle him upimmediately, my good fellow. Please be quick, it may be a matter of lifeand death."

  "Oh! I'm the doctor," he said, "and I'll be with you in a few seconds.Sit right down."

  He left me in the darkness of the hallway and I sank down on a woodenseat, upon a palm leaf fan that crackled dismally beneath my slenderweight. Faintly, in the back, I discerned a ghostly folding bed andheard the swishing of garments flying across the room. In spite of myfeverish impatience the doctor came out again as fast as if he had beenclothed by some magic art.

  "What kind of a case?" he asked.

  "I believe you are wanted to help increase and multiply," I answered.

  "Should have told me at once. Got the wrong bag!" he reproved me,disappearing. At once he returned. I went out first, and he followed me,slamming the door with a sound that reverberated through the quietstreet, and we sprinted off. I used the key with a shaking hand.

  "Top floor," I informed him.

  "All my patients seem to live on top floors," he replied.

  At the woman's door I knocked.

  "I--I have brought you assistance," I told her. "This--this younggentleman knows all about such things; he's a doctor. I--I'll be in thenext room, if there's anything else I can do for you."

  "Is there no woman in the place?" inquired the young man.

  "No. Only some girls who know nothing save the price of caramels and theintricacies of tango. But I can find one inside of twenty minutes; I'llgo and get her."

  "That's good," he assented cheerfully, going to his patient, who lookedat him in some fear.

  But I reflected that the doctor seemed kindly, and by no meansoverwhelmed by the responsibility thrust upon him, so that I took thetime to slip on my boots, after which I ran to Eleventh Street, whereFrieda Long burrows in a small flat. Her studio, shared with anotherwoman, is farther uptown. Finally she opened the door, clad in a hoarydressing-gown and blinking, for she had not been able to find herspectacles.

  "Who is it?" she demanded placidly, as if being awakened at two fifteenin the morning had been a common incident of her life.

  "It's Dave, just Dave Cole," I answered. "I want you, Frieda--that is tosay, a woman wants you badly, at my house--taking her share of theprimal curse. Don't know who she is, but Mrs. Milliken's away. She'salone with a little half-hatched doctor, and--and----"

  "Come in. Sit there in the front room. Cigarettes on that table. I'llclose the door and be with you in five minutes," she assured metranquilly.

  I tried to smoke, but the thing tasted like Dead Sea fruit and I pitchedit out of the open window. An amazingly short time afterwards Frieda wasready, bespectacled and wearing an awful hat. I think she generallypicks them out of rag bags.

  As we walked along, she entertained me with her latest idea for apicture. It would be a belted Orion pursuing the daughters of Pleione,who would be changing into stars. She explained some of the difficultiesand beauties of the subject, and her conception of it, while I looked ather in wonder. I must say that, from her stubby, capable fingers, thereflow pure poetry of thought and exquisiteness of coloring. Her form,reminding one of a pillow tied none too tightly in the middle, hertousled head containing a brain masculine in power and feminine intenderness, her deep contralto, might be appanages of someback-to-the-earth female with an uncomfortable mission. But she's simplythe best woman in the world.

  She panted to the top floor and, at my desire, followed me into my room,where I had left the door open and the gas burning. She gave a swiftglance around the place, and her eyes manifested disapproval.

  "I wonder how you can ever find anything on that desk," she reproved me,as I searched in a bureau drawer. To my utter terror she began to putsome papers in order.

  "Here's an unopened letter from _Paisley's Magazine_," she announced.

  I pounced upon it and tore it open, to discover a check for eightydollars.

  "Good!" I exclaimed. "I'd forgotten that story. It was called 'Cynthia'sMule'; I wonder what possessed me to write about a mule? Don't knowanything about them."

  "That's why it sold, most likely," said Frieda. "The public preferspoetry to truth in its prose. What are you wasting time for, fooling inthat drawer?"

  "I have it. It's a twenty-dollar bill," I told her. "I put it among mysocks so that I shouldn't spend it. Might be very handy, you know. Shemight need something, and you could go out and buy it."

  "Can you afford it, Dave?" she asked me.

  "Of course, and you forget the check I've just received. Mrs. Millikenwill cash it for me at her butcher's. He's very obliging."

  Just then we heard something. Frieda stuffed the bill in some part ofher ample bosom and ran away. I heard her knock at the door and go in.

  There was nothing for me to do but to look at the nearly finished pagethat was still in the embrace of my typewriter. For some silly reason mygorge rose at the idea of the virtuous dog, but I remembered, as I wasabout to pull out and lacerate the paper, that my mind sometimes playsme scurvy tricks. When I am interrupted in the beginning of a story, andlook over it again, it always seems deplorably bad. Another day I willlook at it more indulgently. Moreover, what was the use of thinkingabout such trivialities when the world's great problem was unfoldingitself, just seven steps away over the worn strip of Brussels on thelanding.

  So I settled down in my old Morris chair to ponder over the matter ofbabies coming to the just and the unjust, provided with silver spoons orlucky to be wrapped up in an ancient flannel petticoat. The mostbeautiful gift of a kindly Nature or its sorriest practical joke,welcome or otherwise, the arriving infant is entitled to respect andcommiseration. I wondered what might be the fate of this one. In a fewhours it will be frowned down upon by Mrs. Milliken, who will considerit as an insult to the genus landlady. The mother, naturally, will smileupon the poor little thing; she will dote upon it as women do on theordinarily useless articles they purchase with money or pain at thebargain counter of life. This wee white and pink mite, since its daddy'saway fighting and the mother is poor, must prove a tragedy, I am afraid.It will be a little vampire, pretending to feed on milk but reallygorging itself on a heart's blood.

  My cogitations were interrupted by
the rattle of a thousand milk cans,more or less, clattering through the street, on top of a huge, whitemotor truck. I took off my coat, instinctively thinking that it was timeto go to bed, and put it on again because my door was open and itbehooved me to keep awake, since I might be required to run othererrands. The question of sleep thus disposed of, I brought out mypercolator.

  For a wonder there was alcohol in the lamp, and I found the coffee in acan I discovered in my cardboard hat-box. Two months before, my sisterJane had told me that a silk hat was proper for the following of one'smother to the grave, and I obeyed her. Poor darling! It was the leastand last thing I could do for her.

  The lamp was alight and the steam coming, when the doctor came out,looking rather spectral in a white gown.

  "Thank goodness!" I exclaimed, dropping some pulverized bean on thefloor. "So it is all over!"

  "Not yet," he informed me, smiling, "but so far everything goes well.The big, fat Providence in gig-lamps is sitting by the patient.Sometimes three make poor company. The solid dame came in and called her'my dear' and rummaged things out of the trunk and fixed up the bed, andtears began to flow. It must be a wonderful thing for a woman, who feelsabandoned of God and man, to have such a big brave creature come in topound the pillows and make one feel that there is yet corn in Egypt. Ileft them with their heads together. The poor thing was crying a bit andbeginning to tell the story of her past life. Yes, thanks! I'll be gladof a cup, with three lumps of sugar. Great little machine, that! And soI thought I'd walk in here for a minute. Some things a woman tellsanother must be pretty sacred, don't you think?"

  I poured out the coffee appreciatively.

  "The person whom you call the solid dame," I told him, "is no less awoman than Frieda Long, the poet in pigments."

  "Keeps a Beauty Shop?" he inquired.

  "If you mean to ask whether she shampoos and manicures females andsupplies them with hair," I answered, "your guess is utterly wrong. Shepaints women, and men too, on canvas, and any ordinary individual, suchas you and I, ought to grovel before her."

  "Just say the word," he answered, "and I'll make a start. She's the bestold girl I've come across in many a long day."

  "Frieda Long is hardly thirty-eight," I told him, "and, to change thesubject for a moment, I will acknowledge that I deemed such cases bestattended by the sere and ancient. I rang you up because your signsuggested long experience."

  "Not half bad, is it?" he replied. "I aged it by setting it up in thebackyard and firing brickbats at it. Old Cummerly, next door to me, hadhis replated."

  He swallowed his coffee, without winking, though I thought it wasboiling hot, and left me hurriedly again. I took greater leisure in myown beverage and leaned back in my chair. This young fellow appealed tome. The man of tact is born, not made. What serves him for a soulpossesses refinement to dictate his leaving, for a few minutes, whileone woman poured out her heart to another. I think he is considerate andkindly; he is probably destined to make many friends and little money.

  I rose and looked out of the window. The dawn was beginning and promisedanother stifling, red-hot day. A very _decollete_ baker had come out ofa cave beneath the bread and cake shop, opposite, and sponged off hisforehead with the back of his hand. An Italian woman, clad in violentcolors, passed with a hundredweight or so of broken laths poised on herhead. At the corner the policeman was conversing with a low-browedindividual, issued from the saloon with a mop. New York was awakening,and I decided I might as well shave, to pass away the time. Taking mystrop and razor I sat down to give the latter a thorough overhauling. Isuppose I fell asleep during the process.

  "Contemplating suicide?" I heard Frieda ask suddenly.

  I jumped up, startled, with the weapon in my hand.

  "Put that thing down," she ordered me. "It makes me nervous. She'ssleeping quietly, and the doctor's gone. An awfully nice fellow. It's aboy with brown hair."

  "Not the doctor," I objected, somewhat dazed.

  "No, the baby, you silly! The doctor is very nice. I am going out to getmy washerwoman's sister to come and stay with Madame Dupont--might aswell say Mrs. Dupont. Her husband's French, but she comes from RhodeIsland. You can go with me. Never mind about shaving now, you can stopat a barber's later on. Your hair needs cutting. Put on a clean collar.After I get that woman, we'll stop at the flat; the milk will be thereand I'll give you some breakfast. Come along!"

  Frieda is a woman of the compelling kind, but it's a joy to obey her.After I had adjusted my collar and tie we started, but when we reachedthe door opposite she opened it, very quietly, while I waited, andtiptoed in.

  "She's awake," she said, again opening the door. "She says she wouldlike to thank you for your kindness. She knows she would have died, ifyou had not sought help for her."

  "Stuff and nonsense," I said, quite low. "You don't expect me to go inthere, do you?"

  "I certainly do, because she wishes it. Don't be stupid!"

  So I entered, rather embarrassed, thinking to see the face of a womancrucified. But her smile was the sweetest thing I had ever beheld, I'mvery sure. I could hardly recognize her after that memory of haggard andtortured features. She put out her hand to me, weakly.

  "I--I want to thank you--ever so much," she said. "It was so awfullykind of you, and--and you sent me an angel."

  "Oh, yes," said Frieda, grinning. "I see myself with wings sproutingfrom my shoulder-blades. Good-by for a short time, my dear. You'll onlybe alone for a few minutes. Yes, the baby will be all right; don't youworry. No, he won't be hungry for a long time, the doctor said, and youare to let him sleep and do the same yourself. Now come along, David."

  I was delighted to have Frieda's escort, as I scented danger below. Hersupport gave me boundless joy when, at the foot of the stairs, I sawMrs. Milliken, returned on some frightfully early ferryboat. She lookedat us with amazement and suspicion.

  "My dear Mrs. Milliken," I began, in my most ingratiating tones, "a newboarder has arrived during the night. I can assure you the young manwould not have intruded had he possessed greater experience of life. Wewill have to forgive him on account of his tender youth."

  "They must be packed off at once," cried the woman. "How could you?"

  "I beg to observe that it was not my tender heart but yours that gaveher shelter," I said. "My own responsibility is extremely limited, andmy part in the affair a most subsidiary one."

  "And besides, Mrs. Milliken," put in Frieda, "no one but David Colelives on that floor. If he makes no complaint, no others are very likelyto, and then it would be inhuman to put the poor thing out now. In a fewdays she will be able to move. I am going to send a woman immediately,and you won't have the slightest trouble."

  "For any little matter of extra expense, Mrs. Milliken, I will see thatyou are properly compensated," I added.

  Had I been alone, Mrs. Milliken would probably have argued the matterfor an hour, at the end of which I should have retired in defeat. But Ithink Frieda's size overawed her. She only stammered rather weakly thatshe knew it would all end badly.

  "Don't mind her, David," said my friend, as we went out. "You can'texpect the keeper of a cheap boarding-house to be an optimist. Herprediction may or not come true, but no one thinks that the bit ofhumanity upstairs can turn the world topsy-turvy for some time."

  I felt greatly relieved and followed her towards the river, where, justwest of Ninth Avenue, we found a tenement on the fourth floor of whichthere was a sort of rabbit-hutch where dwelt two women and a bevy ofinfants. I remained on the landing, while Frieda went in. Some of thechildren came out and contemplated me, all with fingers in their mouths.Remembering that I had changed a nickel on the previous evening, whilewaiting for Gordon, in order to obtain a cent's worth of assortedmisinformation from my favorite paper, I pulled out the four remainingpennies and distributed them. By the infants my action was accepted asgentlemanly and urbane, I think, for they no longer considered me as asuspicious character and the gravity of their expressions changed into alook of unstinted

  "It's all right," said Frieda, coming out in a cloud of soapy steam."She'll go at once. Putting her hat on now. Come along. I'm hungry as ahyena."

  So I breakfasted with her at her flat. She had certainly worked muchharder than I, during the night, and taken a great deal more out ofherself, but she insisted on my sitting down while she juggled with agas-stove and bacon and eggs and a pot of jam. Her coffee, I thought,was better than mine. At eight o'clock we parted at the corner of thestreet.

  "I must hurry along," she said. "I have an appointment with a man whocan pose as Orion."

  I had time but for a few words of heartfelt thanks before she was in themiddle of the avenue, waving a hand to the motorman of her car. Shescrambled aboard, smiling at me cheerfully from the step, and I wasalone, wondering at the luck of a chap who could pose as Orion forFrieda. I would rather have her think well of me than any one I know of,I am very sure, and I regretted that my lank form and ill-thatched headwere so unsuited to the make-up of a Greek demigod. Never mind, I knowthat when my next book comes out she will send for me, hurriedly, andmake me feel for some minutes as if I were really worthy of tying herbig, ugly, sensible shoes. She has read every one of my stories andpossesses all the books I ever perpetrated, bless her soul! It is goodindeed for a man to be able to look up to a woman, to know in his heartof hearts that she deserves it, and that she doesn't want to marry him,and he doesn't want to marry her. It is fine to think they are a pair ofgreat friends just because they're capable of friendship, a much rareraccomplishment than most people are aware of.

  So I returned to the scene of the night's invasion and climbed up thestairs, rather wearily. I had the morning paper, three circulars and afresh box of cigarettes. Upon my landing I met a large female with amoustache and decided it must be the washerwoman's sister. She smiledpleasantly at me and I returned the courtesy.

  In such words as I remembered from my erstwhile residence in Paris Iasked how the mother and child were doing.

  The lady, she informed me, was doing ever so well. As for the infant, ithad beautiful eyes and was a cherished little cabbage.

  Wondering upon the philosophy of endearments as attained by foreignnations I entered my room, closing the door carefully, and looked overthose pages about the virtuous dog. They were promising, I thought.After putting them down, I took up my razor, for I hate a barber'sscraping, and indulged in the luxury of a shave.

  The instrument, I thought, possessed a splendid edge. Who knows, someday I might bequeath it to a cherished cabbage.