Chapter 62




Galgenberg, Dec. 19th.

Oh, I can do nothing with you. You are bent, I'm afraid, on losing your friend. Don't write me such letters—don't, don't, don't! My heart sinks when I see you deliberately setting about strangling our friendship. Am I to lose it then, that too? Your last letters are like bad dreams, so strange and unreasonable, so without the least order or self-control. I read them with my fingers in my ears,—an instinctive foolish movement of protection against words I do not want to hear. Dear friend, do not take your friendship from me. Give yourself a shake; come out from those vain imaginings your soul has gone to dwell among. What shall I talk to you about this bright winter's morning? Yes, I will write you longer letters; you needn't beg so hard, as though the stars couldn't get along in their courses if I didn't. See, I am willing to do anything to keep my friend. You are my only one, the only person in the world to whom I tell the silly thoughts that come into my head and so get rid of them. You listen, and you are the only person in the world who does. You help me, and I in my turn want to be allowed to go on helping you. Do not put an end to what is precious,—believe me it will grow more and more precious with years. Do not, in the heat and impatience of youth, kill the poor goose who, if left alone, will lay the most beautiful golden eggs. What shall I talk to you about to turn your attention somewhere else, somewhere far removed from that unhappy bird? Shall I tell you about Papa's book, finally refused by every single publisher, come back battered and draggled to be galvanized by me into fresh life in an English translation? Shall I tell you how I sit for three hours daily doing it, pen in hand, ink on fingers, hair pushed back from an anxious brow, Papa hovering behind with a dictionary in which, full of distrust, he searches as I write to see if it contains the words I have used? Shall I tell you about Joey, whose first disgust at finding himself once more with us has given place by degrees that grow visibly wider to a rollicking enjoyment. Less and less does he come up here. More and more does he stay down there. He hurries through his lessons with a speed that leaves Papa speechless, and is off and hauling the sled up past our gate with Vicki walking demurely beside him and is whizzing down again past our gate with Vicki sitting demurely in front of him before Papa is well through the list of adjectives he applies to him once at least every day. I never see the sled now nearer than in the distance. Vicki wears her stiff shirts again, and her neat ties again, and the sporting belt that makes her waist look so very trim and tiny. If anything she is more aggressively starched and boyish than before. Her collars seem to grow higher and cleaner each time I see her. Her hat is tilted further forward. Her short skirts show the neatest little boots. She is extraordinarily demure. She never cries. Joey reads Samson Agonistes with us, and points out the jokes to Vicki. Vicki says why did I never tell her it was so funny? I stare first at one and then at the other, and feel a hundred years old.

'I say,' said Joey, coming into the kitchen just now.

'Well, what?' said I.

'I'm going to Berlin for a day.'

'Are you indeed?'

'Tell the old man, will you?'

'Tell the who?'

'The old man. I shan't be here for the lesson to-morrow, thank the Lord. I'm off by the first train.'

'Indeed,' said I.

There was a silence, during which Joey fidgeted about among the culinary objects scattered around him. I went on peeling apples. When he had fidgeted as much as he wanted to be lit a cigarette.

'No,' said I. 'Not in kitchens. A highly improper thing to do.'

He threw it into the dustbin. 'I say,' he said again.

'Well, what?' said I again.

'What do you think—what do you think—' He paused. I waited. As he didn't go on I thought he had done. 'What do I think?' I said. 'You'd be staggered if I told you, it's such a lot, and it's so terrific.'

'What do you think,' repeated Joey, taking no heed of me, but, with his hands in his pockets, kicking a fallen apple aimlessly about on the floor, 'what do you think the little girl'd like for Christmas and that, don't you know?'

I stopped peeling and gazed at him, knife and apple suspended in mid-air. 'The little girl?' I inquired. 'Do you mean Johanna?'

Joey stared. Then he grinned at me monstrously. 'You bet,' was his cryptic reply.

'What am I to bet?' I asked patiently.

Joey gave the fallen apple a kick. Looking down I observed that it was the biggest and the best, and stooped to rescue it. 'It's not pretty,' said I, rebuking him, 'to kick even an apple when it's down.'

'Oh, I say,' said Joey impatiently, 'do be sensible. There never was any gettin' much sense out of you I remember. And you're only pretendin'. You know I mean Vicki.'

'Vicki?'

He had the grace to blush. 'Well, Fräulein What's her name. You can't expect any one decent to get the hang of these names of yours. They ain't got any hang, so how's one to get it? What'd she like for Christmas? Don't you all kick up a mighty fuss here over Christmas? Trees, and presents, and that? Plummier plum-puddings than we have, and mincier mince-pies, what?'

'If you think you will get even one plum-pudding or mince-pie,' said I, thoughtfully peeling, 'you are gravely mistaken. The national dish is carp boiled in beer.'

Joey looked really revolted. 'What?' he cried, not liking to credit his senses.

'Carp boiled in beer,' I repeated distinctly. 'It is what I'm going to give you on Christmas Day.'

'No you're not,' he said hastily.

'Yes I am,' I insisted. 'And before it and after it you will be required, in accordance with German custom, to sing chorales.'

'I'd like to see myself doin' it. You'll have to sing 'em alone. I'm invited to feed down there.'

And he jerked his head toward that portion of the kitchen wall beyond which, if you passed through it and the intervening coal-hole and garden and orchard, you would come to the dwelling of the Lindebergs.

'Oh,' said I; and looked at him thoughtfully.

'Yes,' said he, trying to meet my look with an equal calm, but conspicuously failing. 'That bein' so,' he went on hurriedly, 'and my droppin', so to speak, into the middle of somebody's Christmas tree and that, it seems to me only decent to give the little girl somethin'. What shall I get her? Somethin' to put on, I suppose. A brooch, or a pin, what?'

'Or a ring,' said I, thoughtfully peeling.

'A ring? What, can one—oh I say, don't let's waste time rottin'—'

And glancing up through cautious eyelashes I saw he was very red.

'It'd be easy enough if it was you,' he said revengefully.

'What would?'

'Hittin' on what you'd like.'

'Would it?'

'All you'd want to do the trick would be a dictionary.'

'Now Mr. Collins that's unkind,' said I, laying down my knife.

He began to grin again. 'It's true,' he insisted.

'It suggests such an immeasurable stuffiness,' I complained.

'It isn't my fault,' said he grinning.

'But perhaps I deserve it because I mentioned a ring. Let me tell you, as man to man, that you must buy no brooches for Vicki.'

'A pin, then?'

'No pins.'

'A necklace, then?'

'Nothing of the sort. What would her parents say? Give her chocolates, a bunch of roses, perhaps a book—but nothing more. If you do you'll get into a nice scrape.'

Joey looked at me. 'What sort of scrape?' he asked curiously.

'Gracious heavens, don't you see? Are you such a supreme goose? My poor young man, the parents would immediately ask you your intentions.'

'Oh would they,' said Joey, in his turn becoming thoughtful; and after a moment he said again, 'Oh would they.'

'It's as certain as anything I know,' said I.

'Oh is it,' said Joey, still thoughtful.

'It's a catastrophe young men very properly dread,' said I.

'Oh do they,' said Joey, sunk in thought.

'Well, if you're not listening—' And I shrugged my shoulders, and went on with my peeling.

He pulled his cap out of the pocket into which it had been stuffed, and began to put it on, tugging it first over one ear and then over the other in a deep abstraction.

'You're in my kitchen,' I observed.

'Sorry,' he said, snatching it off. 'I forgot. You always make me feel as if I were out of doors.'

'How very odd,' said I, interested and slightly flattered.

'Ain't it. East wind, you know—decidedly breezy, not to say nippin'. Well, I must be goin'.'

'I think so too,' said I coldly.

'Don't be dull while I'm away,' said Joey; and departed with a nod.

But he put in his head again the next moment. 'I say, Miss Schmidt—'

'Well, what?'

'You think I ought to stick to chocolates, then?' 'If you don't there'll be extraordinary complications,' said I.

'You're sure of that?'

'Positive.'

'You'd swear it?'

I threw down my knife and apple. 'Now what's the matter with the boy!' I exclaimed impatiently. 'Do I ever swear?'

'But if you did you would?'

'Swear what?'

'That a bit of jewelry would bring the complications about?'

'Oh—dense, dense, dense! Of course it would. You'd be surprised at the number and size of them. You can't be too careful. Give her a hymn-book.

Joey gave a loud whoop.

'Well, it's safe,' said I severely, 'and it appeals to parents.'

'You bet,' said Joey, screwing his face into a limitlessly audacious wink.

'I wish,' said I, very plaintively, 'that I knew exactly what it is I am to bet. You constantly tell me to do so, but never add the necessary directions.'

'Oh, I'm goin',' was Joey's irrelevant reply; and his head popped out as suddenly as it had popped in.

Or shall I tell you—I am anxious to make this letter long enough to please you—about Frau von Lindeberg, who spent two days elaborately cutting Joey, the two first days of his appearance in their house as lodger, persuaded, I suppose, that no one even remotely and by business connected with the Schmidts could be anything but undesirable, and how, meeting him in the passage, or on his way through the garden to us, the iciest stare was all she felt justified in giving him in return for his friendly grin, and how on the third day she suddenly melted, and stopped and spoke pleasantly to the poor solitary, commiserating with his situation as a stranger in a foreign country, and suggesting the alleviation to his loneliness of frequent visits to them? No one knows the first cause of this melting. I think she must have heard through her servant of the number and texture of those pink and blue silk handkerchiefs, of his amazing piles of new and costly shirts, of the obvious solidity of the silver on everything of his that has a back or a stopper or a handle or a knob. Anyhow on that third morning she came up and called on us, asking particularly for Papa. 'I particularly wished,' she said to me, spreading herself out as she did the last time on the sofa, 'to see your good father on a matter of some importance.'

'I'll go and call him,' said I, concealing my conviction that though I might call he would not come.

And he would not. 'What, interrupt my work?' he cried. 'Is the woman mad?'

I went back and made excuses. They were very lame ones, and Frau von Lindeberg instantly brushed them aside. 'I will go to him,' she said, getting up. 'Your excellent father will not refuse me, I am sure.'

Papa was sitting in his slippers before the stove, doing nothing, so far as I could see, except very comfortably read the new book about Goethe.

'I am sorry to disturb so busy a man,' said Frau von Lindeberg, bearing down with smiles on this picture of peace.

Papa sprang up, and seeing there was no escape pretended to be quite pleased to see her. He offered her his chair, he prayed for indulgence toward his slippers, and sitting down facing her inquired in what way he could be of service.

'I want to know something about the young Englishman who occupies a room in our house,' said Frau von Lindeberg, without losing time. 'You understand that it is not only natural but incumbent on a parent to wish for information in regard to a person dwelling under the same roof.'

'I can give every information,' said Papa readily. 'His name in English is Collins. In German it is Esel.'

'Oh really,' said Frau von Lindeberg, taken aback.

'It is, madam,' said Papa, looking very pleasant, as became a man in his own house confronted by a female visitor. 'We have re-christened him. And no array of words with which I am acquainted will express the exactness of his resemblance to that useful but unintelligent beast.'

'Oh really,' said Frau von Lindeberg, not yet recovered.

'The ass, madam, is conspicuous for the narrowness of its understanding. So is Mr. Collins. The ass is exasperating to persons of normal brains. So is Mr. Collins. The ass is lazy in regard to work, and obstinate. So is Mr. Collins. The ass is totally indifferent to study. So is Mr. Collins. The ass has never heard of Goethe. Neither has Mr. Collins. The ass is useful to the poor. So is Mr. Collins. The ass, indeed, is the poor man's most precious possession. So, emphatically, is Mr. Collins.'

'Oh really,' said Frau von Lindeberg again.

'Is there anything more you wish to know?' Papa inquired politely, for she seemed unable immediately to go on.

She cleared her throat. 'In what way—in what way is he useful?' she asked.

'Madam, he pays.'

'Yes—of course, of course. You cannot—' she smiled—'be expected to teach him German for nothing.'

'Far from doing that I teach him German for a great deal.'

'Is he—do you know anything about his relations? You understand,' she added, 'that it is not altogether pleasant for a private family like ours to have a strange young man living under the same roof.'

'Understand?' cried Papa. 'I understand it so thoroughly that I most positively refused to have him under this one.'

'Ah—yes,' said Frau von Lindeberg, a Dammerlitz expression coming into her face. 'The cases are not—are not quite—pray tell me, who and what is his father?'

'A respectable man, madam, I should judge.'

'Respectable? And besides respectable?'

'Eminently worthy, I should say from his letters.'

'Ah yes. And—and anything else?'

'Honorable too, I fancy. Indeed, I have not a doubt.'

'Is he of any family?'

'He is of his own family, madam.'

'Ah yes. And did you—did you say he was well off?'

'He is apparently revoltingly rich.'

An electric shock seemed to make Frau von Lindeberg catch her breath. 'Oh really,' she then said evenly. 'Did he inherit his wealth?'

'Made it, madam. He is an ironmonger.'

Another electric shock made Frau von Lindeberg catch her breath again. Then she again said, 'Oh really.'

There was a pause.

'England,' she said after a moment, 'is different from Germany.'

'I believe it is,' admitted Papa.

'And ironmongers there may be different from ironmongers here.'

'It is at least conceivable.'

'Tell me, what status has an ironmonger in England?'

'What status?'

'In society.'

'Ah, that I know not. I went over there seven and twenty years ago for the purpose of marrying, and I met no ironmongers. Not consciously, that is.'

'Would they—would they be above the set in which you then found yourself, or would they—' she tried to conceal a shiver—'be below it.'

'I know not. I know nothing of society either there or here. But I do know that money, there as here, is very mighty. It is, I should say, merely a question of having enough.'

'And has he enough?'

'The man, madam, is I believe perilously near becoming that miserable and isolated creature a millionaire. God help the unfortunate Joey.'

'But why? Why should God help him? Why is he unfortunate? Does not he get any share?'

'Any share? He gets it all. He is the only child. Now I put it to you, what chance is there for an unhappy youth with no brains-'

'Oh, I must really go. I have taken up an unwarrantable amount of your time. Thank you so very much, dear Herr Schmidt—no, no, do not disturb yourself I beg—your daughter will show me the way—'

'But,' cried Papa, vainly trying to detain this determinedly retreating figure, 'about his character, his morals—we have not yet touched—'

'Ah yes—so kind—I will not keep you now. Another time perhaps—'

And Frau von Lindeberg got herself out of the room and out of the house. Scarcely did she say good-by to me, in so great and sudden a fever was she to be gone; but she did turn on the doorstep and give me a curiously intense look. It began at my eyes, travelled upward to my hair, down across my face, and from there over my whole body to my toes. It was a very odd look. It was the most burningly critical look that has ever shrivelled my flesh.

Now what do you think of this enormous long letter? It has made me quite cheerful just writing it, and I was not very cheerful when I began. I hope the reading of it will do you as much good. Good-by. Write and tell me you are happy.

Yours sincerely,

ROSE-MARIE SCHMIDT.

Do, do try to be happy!






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