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Randolph took the stairs to the second floor, and presently his footfalls were heard on the bare treads that led from the second to the third. At the top landing he paused and looked in through the open door of the picture- gallery.
Over the varnished oak floor of this roomy apartment a middle-aged man who wore a green shade above his eyes was propelling himself in a wheeled chair. Thus did Joseph Foster cover the space where the younger and more fortunate sometimes danced, and thus did he move among works of art which, even on the brightest days, he could barely see.
He knew the step. "Brought anything?" he asked.
He depended on Randolph for the latest brief doings in current fiction; and usually in the background--and often long in abeyance--was something in the way of memoirs or biography, many-volumed, which could fill the empty hours either through retrospect or anticipation.
"Only myself," replied the other, stepping in. Foster dextrously manoeuvred his chair toward the entrance and reached out his hand.
"Well, yourself is enough. It's good to have a man about the place once in a while. Once in a while, I said. It gets tiresome, hearing all those girls slithering and chattering through the halls." He put his bony hands back on the rims of his wheels. "Where have you been all this time?"
"Oh, you know I come when I can." Randolph ran his eye over the walls of the big empty room. The pictures were all in place--landscapes, figure- pieces, what not; everything as familiar as the form of words he had just employed to meet an oft repeated query implying indifference and neglect.
"How is it outside? I haven't been down on the street for a month."
"Oh, things are bright and pleasant enough." Through the wide window there appeared, half a mile away, the square twin towers of the University library, reminiscent of Oxford and Ely. Round them lesser towers and gables, scholastic in their gray stone, rose above the trees of the campus. Beyond all these a level line of watery blue ran for miles and provided an eventless horizon. A bright and pleasant enough sight indeed, but nothing for Joe Foster.
"Well, let me by," he said, "and we'll get along to my own room." The resonant bigness of the "gallery" was far removed from the intimate and the sociable.
To the side of this bare place, with its canvases which had become rather demode--or at least had long ceased to interest--lay two bed-chambers: Foster's own, and one adjoining, which was classed as a spare room. It was sometimes given over to visiting luminaries of lesser magnitudes. Real celebrities--those of national or international fame--were entertained in a sumptuous suite on the floor below. Casual young bachelors, who sometimes happened along, were lodged above and were expected to adjust themselves, as regarded the bathroom, to the use and wont of the occupant adjoining.
Foster's own room was a cramped omnium gatherum, cluttered with the paraphernalia of daily living. It was somewhat disordered and untidy--the chamber of a man who could never see clearly how things were, or be completely sure just what he was about.
"There's Pepys up there," he said, pointing to his bookshelf, as he worked out of his chair and tried to dispose himself comfortably on a couch. "I hope we're going to get along a little farther with him, some time."
"As to that, I have been getting along a little farther;--I've been to the Library, looking somewhat ahead in the completer edition. I find that 'Will,' who flung his cloak over his shoulder, 'like a ruffian,' and got his ears boxed for it, was no mere temporary serving-man, but lived on with Pepys for years and became the most intimate and trusted of his friends. And 'Gosnell,' who lasted three days, you remember, as Mrs. Pepys' maid, turns up a year or two later as an actress at 'the Duke's house.' and 'Deb,' that other maid whose name we have noted farther along--well, there's a deal more about her than exactly tends to edification...."
"Good. I hope we shall have some more of it pretty soon."
"Not exactly to-day. I've got some other things to think about."
"Well, I expect you're going to be invited here to dinner pretty soon?"
"So? I've been invited here to dinner before this."
"But another day has come. A new light has risen. I haven't seen it, but I've heard it. I've heard it sing."
"A light singing? Aren't you getting mixed?"
"Oh, I don't know. There was Viollet-le-Duc and the rose-window of Notre Dame. They took him there as a child for a choral service, and he thought it was the rose itself that sang. And there was Petrarch, and the young Milton--both talking about 'melodious tears'--and something of the same sort in 'The Blessed Damosel.' And----"
"A psychological catch for which there ought to be a name. Perhaps there is a name."
"Well, as I say, the light rose, shone, and sang. I didn't see it--I never see anybody. But his voice came up here quite distinctly. It seemed good to have a man in the house. Those everlasting girls--I hope he wasn't bothering to sing for them."
"He probably was. How did it go?"
"Very well indeed."
"What kind of voice?"
"Oh, baritone, I suppose you'd call it."
"And he sang sentimental rubbish?"
"Not at all. Really good things."
"Well, hardly. With cool correctness. An icicle on Diana's temple--that would be my guess."
"An icicle? No wonder the young ladies don't quite fancy him."
"I understand he took them all in a lump--so far as he took them at all. Treated them all exactly alike; Hortense was quite scornful when she brought up my lunch-tray. Of course that's no way for a man to do."
"On the contrary. For certain purposes it might be a very good way."
"'On the contrary,' if you like; since frost may perform the effects of fire. Medora herself is beginning to see him as a tall, white candle, burning in some niche or at some shrine. Sir Galahad--or something of that sort."
Randolph grimaced at this.
"Oh, misery! I hope she hasn't mentioned her impression to him! Imagine whether a man would enjoy being told a thing like that. I hope, I'm sure, that no 'Belle Dame sans Merci' will get on his tracks!"
"If he goes in too much for 'palely loitering' he may be snatched."
"Poor fellow! They'd better leave him to his studies and his students. He has his own way to make, I presume, and will need all his energies to get ahead. For, as some one has said, 'There are no tea-houses on the road to Parnassus.' Neither do tea-fights boost a man toward the Porch or Academe."
"He's going in for teas?"
"I won't say that. But it was at a tea that I met him. A trigonometry tea at little Mrs. Ryder's."
"You've seen him then. You have the advantage of me. What's he like?"
"Oh, he has points in his favor. He has looks; a trim figure, even if spare; well-squared shoulders; and manners with a breezy, original tang. The kind of young fellow that people are likely enough to like."
"What kind of manners did he have for you?"
"Well, there you rather get me. He called me 'sir,' with a touch of deference; yet somehow I felt as if I were standing too close to an electric fan."
"Yes, even when they indulge a show of deference, they contrive to blow our gray hairs about our wrinkled temples."
"Don't talk about gray hairs. You have none; and mine are not always seen at first glance."
"Medora begins to tax me with a few. Don't you see any?"
"Not one. I concentrate on my own. Tush, you're only forty-seven."
"Or fifty-seven, or sixty-seven, or seventy-seven...." Foster adjusted his green shade and attempted an easier disposition of his twisted limbs on the couch. "Well, forty-seven, as you suggest,--as you insist. How old is this young fellow?"
"Twenty-four or twenty-five."
"Well, they can make us seem either younger or older. That rests with ourselves. It's all in how we take them, I expect."
"Better take them so as to make ourselves younger."
"Then the other question."
"How they take us?"
"Yes. We're lucky, in this day and generation, if they take us at all."
"You may be right," assented Randolph ruefully. "Yet there are gleams of hope. The more thoughtful among them have a kind of condescending pity to bestow----"
"And the thoughtless?"
"They can find uses for us. One of the faculty was telling me how he tried to give two or three of his juniors an outing at his cottage over in Michigan. Everything he gave they took for granted. And if anything was lacking they took--exceptions. Monopolized the boats; ignored the dinner- hour.... Sometimes I think that even the thoughtless are thoughtful in their own way and use us, if we happen to have lands and substance, purely as practical conveniences. I've been almost glad to think that I possess none myself."
"Don't stay here and talk like that. This is one of my blue days."
"I wish I had brought a novelette. Sure you don't want to hear a little more about the Countess of Castlemaine and the rascalities of the Navy Office?"
"No; some other time, when I feel a bit more robust. It isn't every day that the mind can digest such a period with comfort."
"Are we two old fogies beginning to wear on each other?"
"I hope not. But when you go down, stop for Medora a minute and see if she hasn't got something to say."
Medora--when he finally got down stairs--had.
She laid some knitting on the drawing-room table and came out into the hall.
"No reading this afternoon, I judge. What I heard, or seemed to hear, was a broken flow of talk."
"No reading. Restless."
"So I was afraid. I'd rather have one good steady voice purring along for him, and then I know he's all right. Carolyn has been too busy lately. What seems to have unsettled him?"
"Oh, I don't know. Young life, possibly."
"Well, I've asked and asked the girls not to be quite so gay and chattery in the upper halls."
"You can't keep girls quiet."
"I don't want to--not everywhere and at all times."
"I have an idea that a given number of girls make more noise in a house than the same number of young fellows. I know that they do in boarding- houses and rooming-houses, and I believe it's so as between sororities and fraternities. Put a noise-gauge in the main hall of the Alpha-Alpha house and another in the main hall of the Beta-Beta house, and the girls would run the score above the boys every time. If ever I build a sorority house, it will be for the Delta-Iota-Nus, and a statue of the great goddess DIN herself shall stand just within the entrance."
"You discourage me. I was going to give a dinner."
"Go ahead. A few remarks from me won't stop the course of your hospitality. Neither would a few orations. Neither would a few deliberative bodies assembled for a month of sessions, with every member talking from nine till six."
"You think I indulge in too many?"
"Too many what? Festivals? Puns?"
Medora paused, a bit puzzled.
"Puns? Why, I never, never----Oh, I see!"
"Too many dinners? No. Who could?"
"This one was to be a young people's dinner. I was going to invite you."
"Thanks. Thanks. Thanks."
"Still, if you think my girls are noisy...."
"I was speaking of girls in numbers."
"Well, Bertram Cope didn't find them so."
"Why not, indeed? They collected in a silent little group behind my sofa...."
"Fudge! Well, save Thursday."
"Is he coming?"
"I trust so."
"Then they do need a constabulary to keep them quiet?"
"How many are you expecting to have? You know I don't enjoy large parties."
"Could you stand ten?"
"I think so."
"Thursday, then," she said, with a definitive hand on the knob of the door.
Randolph went down the front walk with a slight stir of elation--a feeling that had come to be an infrequent visitor enough. He hoped that the company would be not only predominantly youthful, but exclusively so--aside from the hostess and himself. And even she often had her young days and her young spots. It would doubtless be clamorous; yet clamor, understood and prepared for, might be met with composure.
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