“No. It is not time yet.”
“Cicero’s so horrid to-night.”
“Don’t scatter your difficulties, as I’ve told you before. Gather them all together and have them ready to present to me at the proper time. I shall make the usual pause,” said Mr. Queed, “at nine sharp.”
Fifi, after all, had been selfish enough to take the little Doctor at his word. He had both given her the freedom of his dining-room and ordered her to bring her difficulties to him, instead of sitting there and noisily crying over them. And she had done his bidding, night after night. For his part he had stuck manfully by his moment of reckless generosity, no matter how much he may have regretted it. He helped Fifi, upon her request, without spoken protest or censure. But he insisted on doing it after an ironclad schedule: Absolute silence until nine o’clock; then an interlude for the solving of difficulties; absolute silence after that; then at 9.45 a second interlude for the solving of the last difficulties of the night. The old rule of the dining-room, the Silence sign, had been necessarily suspended, but the young man enforced his schedule of hours far more strictly than the average railroad.
“Nine o’clock,” he announced presently. “Bring me your difficulties.”
Fifi’s brain was at low ebb ton-night. She came around 115 with several books, and he jabbed his pencil at her open Cicero with some contempt.
“You have a fundamental lack of acquaintance with Latin grammar, Miss — Miss Fifi. You badly need — ”
“Why don’t you call me Fifi, Mr. Queed? That’s what all my friends call me.”
He stared at her startled; she thought his eyes looked almost terrified. “My dear young lady! I’m not your friend.”
A rare color sprang into Fifi’s pallid cheeks: “I — I thought you liked me — from your being so good about helping me with my lessons — and everything.”
Queed cleared his throat. “I do like you — in a way. Yes — in that way — I like you very well. I will call you F — Fifi, if you wish. But — friends! Oh, no! They take up more time than such a man as I can afford.”
“I don’t think I would take up one bit more time as your friend than I do now,” said Fifi, in a plaintive voice.
Queed, uncomfortably aware of the flying minutes, felt like saying that that was impossible.
“Oh, I know what I’m talking about, I assure you,” said the possessor of two friends in New York. “I have threshed the whole question out in a practical way.”
“Suppose,” said Fifi, “your book came out and you were very famous, but all alone in the world, without a friend. And you died and there was not one single person to cry and miss you — would you think that was a — a successful life?”
“Oh, I suppose so! Yes, yes!”
“But don’t — don’t you want to have people like you and be your friend?”
“My dear young lady, it is not a question of what I want. I was not put here in the world to frivol through a life of gross pleasure. I have serious work to do in the service of humankind, and I can do it only by rigid concentration and ruthless elimination of the unessential. Surely you can grasp that?”
“But — if you died to-morrow,” said Fifi, fearfully fasci116nated by this aspect of the young man’s majestic isolation, — “don’t you know of anybody who’d be really and truly sorry?”
“Really, I’ve never thought of it, but doubtless my two friends in New York would be sorry after their fashion. They, I believe, are all.”
“No, they are n’t! There’s somebody else!”
Queed supposed she was going to say God, but he dutifully inquired, “Who?”
Fifi looked decidedly disappointed. “I thought you knew,” she said, gazing at him with childlike directness. “Me.”
Queed’s eyes fell. There was a brief silence. The young man became aware of a curious sensation in his chest which he did not understand in the least, but which he was not prepared to describe as objectionable. To pass over it, and to bring the conversation to an immediate close, he rapped the open book austerely with his pencil.
“We must proceed with the difficulties. Let me hear you try the passage. Come! Quam ob rem, Quirites. . . . “
The nine o’clock difficulties proceeded with, and duly cleared up, Fifi did not stay for the second, or 9.45, interlude. She closed M. T. Ciceronis Orationes Selectae, gathered together her other paraphernalia, and then she said suddenly: —
“I may leave school next week, Mr. Queed. I — don’t think I’m going to graduate.”
He looked up, surprised and displeased. “Why on earth do you think that?”
“Well, you see, they don’t think I’m strong enough to keep up the work right now. The Doctor was here to-day, and that’s what he says. It’s silly, I think — I know I am.”
Queed was playing the devil’s tattoo with his pencil, scowling somewhat nervously. “Did you want to graduate particularly?”
A look of exquisite wistfulness swept the child’s face, and was gone. “Yes, I wanted to — lots. But I won’t mind so 117 much after I’ve had time to get used to it. You know the way people are.”
There was a silence, during which the young man wrestled with the sudden mad idea of offering to help Fifi with all her lessons each night — not merely with the difficulties — thus enabling her to keep up with her class with a minimum of work. Where such an impulse came from he could not conjecture. He put it down with a stern hand. Personally, he felt, he might be almost willing to make this splendid display of altruism; but for the sake of posterity and the common good, he could not dream of stealing so much time from the Magnum Opus.
“Well!” he said rather testily. “That is too bad.”
“I know you’ll be glad not to have me bothering you any more with my lessons, and all.”
“I will not say that.”
He looked at Fifi closely, examined her face in a searching, personal manner, which he had probably never before employed in reviewing a human countenance.
“You don’t look well — no, not in the least. You are not well. You are a sick girl, and you ought to be in bed at this moment.”
Fifi colored with pleasure. “No,” she said, “I am not well.”
Indeed Fifi was not well. Her cheek spoke of the three pounds she had lost since he had first helped her with her difficulties, and the eleven pounds before that. The hand upon the Turkey-cloth was of such transparent thinness that you were sure you could see the lamplight shining through. Her eyes were startling, they were so full of other-worldly sweetness and so ringed with shadows.
“And if I stopped coming down here to work nights,” queried Fifi shamelessly, “would you — miss me?”
“You would n’t — you would n’t! You’d only be glad not to have me around — ”
“I can truthfully say,” said the little Doctor, glancing at 118 his watch, “that I am sorry you are prevented from graduating.”
Fifi retired in a fit of coughing. She and her cough had played fast and loose with Queed’s great work that evening, and, moreover, it took him a minute and a half to get her out of his mind after she had gone. Not long afterwards, he discovered that the yellow sheet he wrote upon was the last of his pad. That meant that he must count out time to go upstairs and get another one.
Count out time! Why, that was what his whole life had come down to now! What was it but a steady counting out of ever more and more time?
The thirty days of hours ceded to Klinker were up, and instead of at once bringing the prodigal experiment to a close, Doctor Queed found himself terribly tempted to listen to his trainer’s entreaties and extend by fifty per centum the time allotted to the gymnasium and open-air pedestrianism. He could not avoid the knowledge that he felt decidedly better since he had begun the exercises, especially during these last few days. For a week “the” headache and he had been strangers. Much more important, he was conscious of bringing to his work, not indeed a livelier interest, for that would have been impossible, but an increasing vitality and an enlarged capacity. He kept the most careful sort of tabs on himself, and his records seemed to show, at least for the past week or two, that his net volume of work had not been seriously lowered by the hour per day wrung from the Schedule. The exercises, then, seemed to be paying their own freight. And besides all this, they were clearly little mile-stones on the path which led men to physical competency and the ability to protect their articles from public affront.
Still, an hour out was an hour out — three hundred and sixty-five hours a year — three months’ delay in finishing his book. Making allowance for increased productivity, a month and a half’s delay. And that was only a beginning. The Post — Klinker’s Exercises for All 119 Parts of the Body— Klinker himself, who called frequently — now Fifi (eighteen minutes this very evening) — who could say where the mad dissipation would end? On some uncharted isle in the far South Seas, perchance, a man might be let alone to do his work. But in this boarding-house, it was clear now, the effort was foredoomed and hopeless. Once make the smallest concession to the infernal ubiquity of the race, once let the topmost bar of your gate down never so little, and the whole accursed public descended with a whoop to romp all over the premises. What, oh, what was the use of trying? . . .
“Ah, Mr. Queed — well met! Won’t you stop in and see me a little while? You’re enormously busy, I know — but possibly I can find something to interest you in my poor little collection of books.”
Nicolovius, coming up the stairs, had met Queed coming down, pad in hand. The impertinence of the old professor’s invitation fitted superbly with the bitterness of the little Doctor’s humor. It pressed the martyr’s crown upon his brow till the perfectness of his grudge against a hateful world lacked nor jot nor tittle.
“Oh, certainly! Certainly!” he replied, with the utmost indignation.
Nicolovius, bowing courteously, pushed open the door.
It was known in the boarding-house that the remodeling of the Second Hall Back into a private bathroom for Nicolovius had been done at his own expense, and rumor had it that for his two rooms — his “suite,” as Mrs. Paynter called it — he paid down the sum of eighteen dollars weekly. The bed-sitting-room into which he now ushered his guest was the prettiest room ever seen by Mr. Queed, who had seen few pretty rooms in his life. Certainly it was a charming room of a usual enough type: lamplit and soft-carpeted; brass fittings about the fireplace where a coal fire glowed; a large red reading-table with the customary litter of books and periodicals; comfortable chairs to sit in; two uncommonly pretty mahogany bookcases with quaint 120 leaded windows. The crude central identity about all bedrooms that had hitherto come within Queed’s ken, to wit, the bed, seemed in this remarkable room to be wanting altogether. For how was he, with his practical inexperience, to know that the handsome leather lounge in the bay-window had its in’ards crammed full of sheets, and blankets, and hinges and collapsible legs?
The young man gravitated instinctively toward the bookcases. His expert eye swept over the titles, and his gloom lightened a little.
“You have some fair light reading here, I see,” he said, plucking out a richly bound volume of Lecky’s History of European Morals.
Nicolovius, who was observing him closely, smiled to himself. “Ah, yes. I’m the merest dilettante, without your happiness of being a specialist of authority.”
The old professor was a tall man, though somewhat stooped and shrunken, and his head was as bare of hair as the palm of your hand; which of course was why he wore the black silk skull cap about the house. On the contrary his mustaches were singularly long and luxuriant, they, and the short, smart goatee, being of a peculiar deep auburn shade. His eyes were dark, brilliant, and slightly sardonic; there were yellow pouches under them and deep transverse furrows on his forehead; his nose, once powerfully aquiline, appeared to have been broken cleanly across the middle. Taken all in all, he was a figure to be noticed in any company.
He came forward on his rubber heels and stood at his guest’s elbow.
“Your field is science, I believe? This Spencer was bound for me years ago, by a clever devil in Pittsburgh, of all places; Huxley, too. My Darwin is hit and miss. Mill is here; Hume; the American John Fiske. By chance I have The Wealth of Nations. Here is a fine old book, Sir Henry Maine’s Ancient Law. You know it, of course?”
“All — all! I know them all,” murmured the little 121 Doctor, standing with two books under his arm and plucking out a third. “I look back sometimes and stand amazed at the immensity of my reading. Benjamin Kidd — ha! He won’t be in so many libraries when I get through with him. You are rather strong on political economy, I see. Alfred Marshall does very well. Nothing much in philosophy. The Contrat Social — absurd.”
“Do you care for these?” asked Nicolovius, pointing to a row of well-worn works of Bible criticism. “Of course the Germans are far in the lead in this field, and I am unhappily compelled to rely on translations. Still I have — ”
“Here! Look here! I must have this! I must take this book from you!” interrupted Queed, rather excitedly dragging a fat blue volume from a lower shelf. “Crozier’s Civilization and Progress. What a find! I need it badly. I’ll just take it with me now, shall I not? Eh?”
“I shall be only too happy to have you take it,” said Nicolovius, blandly, “and as many others as you care for.”
“I’ll have another look and see,” said Queed. “My copy of Crozier disappeared some time before I left New York, and so far I have been unable to replace it. I am showing him up completely. . . . Why, this is singular — extraordinary! There’s not a history among all these books — not a volume!”
Nicolovius’s expression oddly changed; his whole face seemed to tighten. “No,” he said slowly, “I have some reason to dislike history.”
The young man straightened sharply, horrified. “Why don’t you say at once that you hate Life — Man — the Evolution of the Race — and be done with it?”
“Would that seem so dreadful to you?” The old man’s face wore a sad smile. “I might say even that, I fear. Try one of those chairs by the fire. I shall not mind telling you how I came by this feeling. You don’t smoke, I believe! You miss a good deal, but since you don’t know it, how does it matter?”
Nicolovius’s haughty aloofness, his rigid uncommunica122tiveness, his grand ducal bearing and the fact that he paid eighteen dollars a week for a suite had of course made him a man of mark and mystery in the boarding-house, and in the romancings of Miss Miller he had figured as nearly everything from a fugitive crown prince to a retired counterfeiter. However, Queed positively refused to be drawn away from the book-shelves to listen to his story, and the old professor was compelled to turn away from the fire and to talk, at that, to the back of the young man’s head.
Nicolovius, so he told Queed, was not an American at all, but an Irishman, born at Roscommon, Connaught. His grandfather was a German, whence he got his name. But the lad grew up in the image of his mother’s people. He became an intense patriot even for Ireland, an extremist among extremists, a notorious firebrand in a land where no wood glows dully. Equipped with a good education and natural parts, he had become a passionate leader in the “Young Ireland” movement; was a storm-centre all during the Home Rule agitations; and suddenly outgrew Ireland overnight during the “Parnellism and Crime” era. He got away to the coast, disguised as a coster, and once had the pleasure of giving a lift in his cart to the search-party who wanted him, dead or alive. This was in the year 1882.
“You were mixed up in the Phœnix Park murders, I daresay?” interjected Queed, in his matter-of-fact way.
“You will excuse my preference for a certain indefiniteness,” said Nicolovius, with great sweetness.
On this side, he had drifted accidentally into school-teaching, as a means of livelihood, and stuck at it, in New York, St. Paul, and, for many years, in Chicago. The need of a warmer climate for his health’s sake, he said, had driven him South, and some three years before an appointment at Milner’s Collegiate School had brought him to the city which he and the young man now alike called their own.
Queed, still sacking the shelves for another find, asked it he had never revisited Ireland.
“Ah, no,” said Nicolovius, “there was no gracious par123don for my little peccadillo, no statute of limitations to run after me and pat me on the head. I love England best with the sea between us. You may fancy that a refugee Irishman has no fondness for reading history.”
He flicked the fire-ash from his cigar and looked at Queed. All the time he talked he had been watching the young man, studying him, conning him over. . . .
“My life ended when I was scarcely older than you. I have been dead while I was alive. . . . God pity you, young man, if you ever taste the bitter misery of that!”
Queed turned around surprised at the sudden fierceness of the other’s tone. Nicolovius instantly sprang up and went over to poke the fire; he came back directly, smiling easily and pulling at his long cigar.
“Ah, well! Forgive the saddening reminiscences of an old man — not a common weakness with me, I assure you. May I say, Mr. Queed, how much your intellect, your culture, your admirable — ah — poise — amazing they seem to me in so young a man — have appealed to me among a population of Brookes, Bylashes, and Klinkers? You are the first man in many a day that has inspired me with an impulse toward friendship and confidence. It would be a real kindness if you’d come in sometimes of an evening.”
At the word “friendship” the young man flinched uncontrollably. Was the whole diabolical world in league to spring out and make friends with him?
“Unfortunately,” he said, with his iciest bow, “my time is entirely engrossed by my work.”
But as his eye went round the pretty, dim-lit room, he could not help contrasting it with the bleak Scriptorium above, and he added with a change of tone and a sigh: — ”
“You appear wonderfully comfortable here.”
Nicolovius shrugged. “So-so,” he said indifferently. “However, I shall make a move before long.”
“I want more space and independence, more quiet — surcease from meeting fellow-boarders at every step. I 124 plan to move into an apartment, or perhaps a modest little house, if I can manage it. For I am not rich, unhappily, though I believe the boarders think I am, because I make Emma a present of a dollar each year at the anniversary of the birth of our Lord.”
Queed ignored his little pleasantry. He was struck with the fact that Nicolovius had described exactly the sort of living arrangement that he himself most earnestly desired.
“I should have made the move last year,” continued Nicolovius, pulling at his auburn mustaches, “except that — well, I am more sensitive to my loneliness as I grow older, and the fact was that I lacked a congenial companion to share a pleasanter home with.”
The eyes of the two men met, and they moved away from each other as by common consent. Apparently the same thought popped simultaneously into both their minds. Queed dallied with his thought, frankly and with the purest unaltruism.
Though this was the first time he had ever been in the old professor’s pretty room, it was the third or fourth time he had been invited there. Nothing could be clearer than that Nicolovius liked him enormously, — where on earth did he get his fatal gift for attracting people? — nothing than that he was exactly the sort of congenial companion the old man desired. Why should n’t he go and live with Nicolovius in his new home, the home of perfect quiet and immunity from boarders? And unbroken leisure, too, for of course Nicolovius would bear all expenses, and he himself would fly from all remunerative work as from the Black Death. Nay more, the old chap would very likely be willing to pay him a salary for his society, or at least, see that he was kept well supplied with everything he needed — books to demolish like this one under his arm, and . . .
He looked up and found the sardonic Italian eyes of the old professor fixed on him with a most curious expression. . . . No, no! Better even Mrs. Paynter’s than solitude 125 shared with this stagey old man, with his repellent face and his purring voice which his eyes so belied.
“I must be going,” said Queed hastily.
His host came forward with suave expressions of regret, “However, I feel complimented that you came at all. Pray honor me again very soon — ”
“I’ll return this book sometime,” continued the young man, already at the door. “You won’t mind if I mark it, of course?”
“My dear sir— most certainly not. Indeed I hoped that you would consent to accept it for your own, as a — ”
“No, I’ll return it. I daresay you will find,” he added with a faint smile, but his grossest one, “that my notes have not lessened its value exactly!”
In the hall Queed looked at his watch; ten minutes to ten. Twenty-five minutes to his visit upon the old professor!
However, let us be calm and just about it. The twenty-five minutes was not a flat loss: he had got Crozier by it. Crozier was worth twenty-five minutes; thirty-five, if it came to that — fifty! . . . But how to fit such a thing as this into the Schedule— and Klinker’s visits — and the time he had given to Fifi to-night and very likely would have to give through an endless chain of to-morrows? Here was the burning crux. Was it endurable that the Schedule must be corrupted yet again?
So far as little Fifi was concerned, it turned out that these agonies were superfluous; he had helped her with her lessons for the last time. She did not appear in the dining-room the next night, or the next, or the next. Inquiries from the boarders drew from Mrs. Paynter the information that the child’s cough had pulled her down so that she had been remanded to bed for a day or two to rest up. But resting up appeared not to prove so simple a process as had been anticipated, and the day or two was soon running into weeks.
Halcyon nights Queed enjoyed in the dining-room in Fifi’s absence, yet faintly marred in a most singular way 126 by the very absence which alone made them halcyon. It is a fact that you cannot give to any person fifteen minutes of valuable time every night, and not have your consciousness somewhat involved in that person’s abrupt disappearance from your horizon. Messages from Fifi on matters of most trivial import came to Queed occasionally, and these served to keep alive his subtle awareness of her absence. But he never took any notice of the messages, not even of the one which said that he could look in and see her some afternoon if he wanted to.
The office of the Department was a ship-shape place, with its two desks, a big one and a little one; the typewriter table; the rows and rows of letter-files on shelves; a sectional bookcase containing Charities reports from other states, with two shelves reserved for authoritative books by such writers as Willoughby, Smathers, and Conant. Here, doubtless, would some day stand the colossal work of Queed. At the big desk sat the Rev. Mr. Dayne, a practical idealist of no 128 common sort, a kind-faced man with a crisp brown mustache. At the typewriter-table sat Sharlee Weyland, writing firm letters to thirty-one county almshouse keepers. It was hard upon noon. Sharlee looked tired and sad about the eyes. She had not been to supper at Mrs. Paynter’s for months but she went there nearly every afternoon from the office to see Fifi, who had been in bed for four weeks.
The Department door opened, with no premonitory knock, and in walked, of all people, Mr. Queed.
Sharlee came forward very cordially to greet the visitor, and at once presented him to the Secretary. However Queed dismissed Mr. Dayne very easily, and gazing at Sharlee sharply through his spectacles, said:
“I should like to speak to you in private a moment.”
“Certainly,” said Sharlee.
“I’ll step into the hall,” said kind-faced Mr. Dayne.
“No, no. Indeed you must n’t. We will.”
Sharlee faced the young man in the sunlit hall with sympathetic expectancy and some curiosity in her eyes.
“There is,” he began without preliminaries, “a girl at the house where I board, who has been confined to her bed with sickness for some weeks. It appears that she has grown thin and weak, so that they will not permit her to graduate at her school. This involves a considerable disappointment to her.”
“You are speaking of Fifi,” said Sharlee, gently.
“That is the girl’s name, if it is of any interest to you — ”
“You know she is my first cousin.”
“Possibly so,” he replied, as though to say that no one had the smallest right to hold him responsible for that. “In this connection, a small point has arisen upon which advice is required, the advice of a woman. You happen to be the only other girl I know. This,” said Queed, “is why I have called.”
Sharlee felt flattered. “You are most welcome to my advice, Mr. Queed.”
He frowned at her through glasses that looked as big and 129 as round as butter-saucers, with an expression in which impatience contended with faint embarrassment.
“As her fellow-lodger,” he resumed, precisely, “I have been in the habit of assisting this girl with her studies and have thus come to take an interest in her — a small interest. During her sickness, it seems, many of the boarders have been in to call upon her. In a similar way, she has sent me several messages inviting me to call, but I have not been in position to accept any of these invitations. It does not follow that, because I gave some of my time in the past to assisting her with her lessons, I can afford to give more of it now for purposes of — of mere sociability. I make the situation clear to you?”
Sharlee, to whom Fifi had long since made the situation clear, puckered her brow like one carefully rehearsing the several facts. “Yes, I believe that is all perfectly clear, Mr. Queed.”
He hesitated visibly; then his lips tightened and, gazing at her with a touch of something like defiance, he said: “On the other hand, I do not wish this girl to think that I bear her ill-will for the time I have given her in the past. I — ahem— have therefore concluded to make her a present, a small gift.”
Sharlee stood looking at him without a reply.
“Well?” said he, annoyed. “I am not certain what form this small gift had best take.”
She turned away from him and walked to the end of the hall, where the window was. To Queed’s great perplexity, she stood there looking out for sometime, her back toward him. Soon it came into his mind that she meant to indicate that their interview was over, and this attitude seemed extremely strange to him. He could not understand it at all.
“I fear that you have failed to follow me, after all,” he called after her, presently. “This was the point — as to what form the gift should take — upon which I wanted a woman’s advice.”
“I understand.” She came back to him slowly, with 130 bright eyes. “I know it would please Fifi very much to have a gift from you. Had you thought at all, yourself, what you would like to give?”
“Yes,” he said, frowning vaguely, “I examined the shop windows as I came down and pretty well decided on something. Then at the last minute I was not altogether sure.”
“Yes? Tell me what.”
“I thought I would give her a pair of silk mitts.”
Sharlee’s eyes never left his, and her face was very sweet and grave.
“White silk ones,” said he — “or black either, for that matter, for the price is the same.”
“Well,” said she, “why did you select mitts, specially?”
“What first attracted me to them,” he said simply, “was that they came to precisely the sum I had planned to spend: seventy-five cents.”
The little corrugation in Sharlee’s brow showed how carefully she was thinking over the young man’s suggestion from all possible points of view. You could easily follow her thought by her speaking sequence of expressions. Clearly it ran like this: “Mitts —splendid! Just the gift for a girl who’s sick in bed. The one point to consider is, could any other gift possibly be better? No, surely none. . . . Wait a minute, though! Let’s take this thing slowly and be absolutely sure we’re right before we go ahead. . . . Run over carefully all the things that are ever used as gifts. Anything there that is better than mitts? Perhaps, after all . . . Mitts . . . Why, look here, is n’t there one small objection, one trifling want of the fulness of perfection to be raised against the gift of mitts?”
“There’s this point against mitts,” said Sharlee slowly. “Fifi’s in bed now, and I’m afraid she’s likely to be there for some time. Of course she could not wear the mitts in bed. She would have to tuck them away in a drawer somewhere. Don’t you think it might be a good idea to give her something that she could enjoy at once — something that 131 would give her pleasure now and so help to lighten these tedious hours while she must be in her room?”
The mitts were the child of Queed’s own brain. Unconsciously he had set his heart on them; but his clock-like mind at once grasped the logic of this argument, and he met it generously.
“Your point is well taken. It proves the wisdom of getting the advice of a woman on such a matter. Now I had thought also of a book — ”
“I’ll tell you!” cried Sharlee, nearly bowled over by a brilliant inspiration. “A great many men that I know make it a rule to send flowers to girls that are sick, and — ”
“It does seem foolish — such a waste, does n’t it? — but really you’ve no idea how mad girls are about flowers, or how much real joy they can bring into a sick-room. And, by changing the water often, and — so on, they last a long time, really an incredible time — ”
“You recommend flowers, then? Very well,” he said resolutely — “that is settled then. Now as to the kind. I have only a botanical knowledge of flowers — shall we say something in asters, perhaps, chrysanthemums, or dahlias? What is your advice as to that?”
“Well, I advise roses.”
“Roses — good. I had forgotten them for the moment. White roses?”
A little shiver ran through her. “No, no! Let them be the reddest you can find.”
“Next, as to the cost of red roses.”
“Oh, there’ll be no trouble about that. Simply tell the florist that you want seventy-five cents’ worth, and he will give you a fine bunch of them. By the way, I’d better put his name and address down on a piece of paper for you. Be sure to go to this one because I know him, and he’s extremely reliable.”
He took the slip from her, thanked her, bowed gravely, and turned to go. A question had risen involuntarily to 132 the tip of her tongue; it hung there for a breath, its fate in the balance; and then she released it, casually, when another second would have been too late.
“How is your work on the Post going?”
He wheeled as though she had struck him, and looked at her with a sudden odd hardening of the lower part of his face.
“The Post discharged me this morning.”
“Oh — ”
It was all that she could say, for she knew it very well. She had had it from Colonel Cowles two days before it happened, which was three days after the April meeting of the directors. Charles Gardiner West, who was to have raised his voice in behalf of Mr. Queed on that occasion, happened not to be present at all. Having effected the dissolution of Semple and West, he had gone to the country for a month’s rest, in preparation for that mapping out of collegiate plans which was to precede his tour of Europe. Hence the directors, hearing no protests from intercessors, unanimously bestowed discretion upon the Colonel to replace the transcendental scientist with a juicier assistant at a larger salary.
“At least,” the young man qualified, with a curious mixture of aggressiveness and intense mortification, “the Post will discharge me on the 15th day of May unless I show a marked improvement. I believe that improvement was exactly the word the estimable Colonel employed.”
“I’m awfully sorry,” said Sharlee — “awfully! But after all, you want only some routine hack-work — any routine hack-work — to establish a little income. It will not be very hard to find something else, as good or even better.”
“You do not appear to grasp the fact that, apart from any considerations of that sort, this is an unpleasant, a most offensive thing to have happen— ”
“Oh, but that is just what it is n’t, Mr. Queed,” said Sharlee, who quite failed to appreciate his morbid tenderness for even the least of his intellectual offspring. “You have taken no pride in the newspaper work; you look down 133 on it as altogether beneath you. You cannot mind this in any personal way — ”
“I mind it,” said he, “like the devil.”
The word fell comically from his lips, but Sharlee, leaning against the shut door, looked at him with grave sympathy in her eyes.
“Mr. Queed, if you had tried to write nursery rhymes and — failed, would you have taken it to heart?”
“Never mind arguing it. In fact, I don’t know that I could explain it to you in a thoroughly logical and convincing way. The central fact, the concrete thing, is that I do object most decidedly. I have spent too much time in equipping myself to express valuable ideas in discriminating language to be kicked out of a second-rate newspaper office like an incompetent office-boy. Of course I shall not submit to it.”
“Do you care to tell me what you mean to do?”
“Do!” He hit the door-post a sudden blow with an unexpectedly large hand. “I shall have myself elected editor of the Post.”
“But — but — but — ” said the girl, taken aback by the largeness of this order — “But you don’t expect to oust Colonel Cowles?”
“We are not necessarily speaking of to-morrow or next day. An actuary will tell you that I am likely to outlive Colonel Cowles. I mean, first, to have my dismissal recalled, and, second, to be made regular assistant editor at three times my present salary. That is my immediate reply to the directors of the Post. I am willing to let the editorship wait till old Cowles dies.”
“Tell me,” said Sharlee, “would you personally like to be editor of the Post?”
“Like it! I’ll resign the day after they elect me. Call it sheer wounded vanity — anything you like! The name makes no difference. I know only that I will have the editorship for a day — and all for the worthless pleasure of pitching it in their faces.” He looked past her out of the window, and his light gray eyes filled with an indescribable bitterness. 134“And to have the editorship,” he thought out loud, “I must unlearn everything that I know about writing, and deliberately learn to write like a demagogic ass.”
Sharlee tapped the calcimine with her pointed fingernails. He spoke, as ever, with overweening confidence, but she knew that he would never win any editorship in this spirit. He was going at the quest with a new burst of intellectual contempt, though it was this very intellectual contempt that had led to his downfall.
“But your own private work?”
“Don’t speak of it, I beg!” He flinched uncontrollably; but of his own accord he added, in carefully repressed tones; “To qualify for the editorship of course means — a terrible interruption and delay. It means that I must side-track My Book for two months or even longer!”
Two months! It would take him five years and probably he would not be qualified then.
Sharlee hesitated. “Have you fully made up your mind to — to be editor?”
He turned upon her vehemently. “May I ask you never to waste my time with questions of that sort. I never —- never — say anything until I have fully made up my mind about it. Good-morning.”
“No, no, no! don’t go yet! Please — I want to speak to you a minute.”
He stopped and turned, but did not retrace the three steps he had taken. Sharlee leaned against the door and looked away from him, out into the park.
The little Doctor was badly in need of a surgical operation. Somebody must perform it for him, or his whole life was a dusty waste. That he still had glimmerings, he had shown this very hour, in wanting to make a gift to his sick little fellow-lodger. His resentment over his dismissal from the Post, too, was an unexpectedly human touch in him. But in the same breath with these things the young man had showed himself at his worst: the glimmerings were so overlaid with an incredible snobbery of the mind, so en135crusted with the rankest and grossest egotism, that soon they must flutter and die out, leaving him stone-blind against the sunshine and the morning. No scratch could penetrate that Achilles-armor of self-sufficiency. There must be a shock to break it apart, or a vicious stabbing to cut through it to such spark as was still alive.
Somebody must administer that shock or do that stabbing. Why not she? He would hate the sight of her forevermore, but …
“Mr. Queed,” said Sharlee, turning toward him, “you let me see, from what you are doing this morning, that you think of Fifi as your friend. I’d like to ask if you think of me in that way, too.”
O Lord, Lord! Here was another one!
“No,” he said positively. “Think of you as I do of Fifi? No, no! No, I do not.”
“I don’t mean to ask if you think of me as you do of Fifi. Of course I am sure you don’t. I only mean — let me put it this way: Do you believe that I have your — interests at heart, and would like to do anything I could to help you?”
He thought this over warily. Doubtless doomed Smathers would have smiled to note the slowness with which his great rival’s mind threshed out such a question as this.
“If you state your proposition in that way, I reply, tentatively, yes.”
“Then can you spare me half an hour to-night after supper?”
“For what purpose?”
“For you and me,” she smiled. “I’d like you to come and see me, at my house, where we could really have a little talk. You see, I know Colonel Cowles very well indeed, and I have read the Post for oh, many, many years! In this way I know something about the kind of articles people here like to read, and about — what is needed to write such articles. I think I might make a suggestion or two that — would help. Will you come?”
After somewhat too obvious a consideration, Queed consented. Sharlee thanked him.
“I’ll put my address down on the back of that paper, shall I? And I think I’ll put my name, too, for I don’t believe you have the faintest idea what it is.”
“Oh, yes. The name is Miss Charlie Weyland. It appears that you were named after a boy?”
“Oh, it’s only a silly nickname. Here’s your little directory back. I’ll be very glad to see you — at half-past eight, shall we say? But, Mr. Queed — don’t come unless you feel sure that I really want to help. For I’m afraid I’ll have to say a good deal that will make you very mad.”
He bowed and walked away. Sharlee went to the telephone and called Bartlett’s, the florist. She told Mr. Bartlett that a young man would come in there in a few minutes — full description of the young man — asking for seventy-five cents’ worth of red roses; Mr. Bartlett would please give him two dozen roses, and charge the difference to her, Miss Weyland; the entire transaction to be kept discreetly quiet.
However the transaction was not kept entirely quiet. The roses were delivered promptly, and became the chief topic of conversation at Mrs. Paynter’s dinner-table. Through an enforced remark of Mr. Queed’s, and the later discursive gossip of the boarders, it became disseminated over the town that Bartlett’s was selling American Beauties at thirty-seven and a half cents a dozen, and the poor man had to buy ten inches, double column, in the Post next morning to get himself straightened out and reëstablish Bartlett’s familiar quotations.