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AHA!” cried the Poet, briskly rubbing his hands together, and drawing a deep breath of satisfaction, “these be great days for people who are fond of the chase, who love the open, and who would commune with Nature in her most lovely mood. Just look out of that window, Mr. Idiot, and drink in the joyous sunshine. Egad! sir, even the asphalted pavement and the brick-and-mortar façade of the houses opposite, bathed in that golden light, seem glorified.”
“Thanks,” said the Idiot, wearily, “but I guess I won’t. I’m afraid that while I was drinking in those glorified flats opposite and digesting the golden-mellow asphalt, you would fasten that poetic grip of yours upon my share of the blossoming buckwheats. Furthermore, I’ve been enjoying the chase for two weeks now, and, to tell you the honest truth, I am long on it. There is such a thing as chasing too much, so if you don’t mind I’ll sublet my part of the contract for gazing out of the window at gilt-edged Nature as she appears in the city to you. Mary, move Mr. Poet’s chair over to the window so that he may drink in the sunshine comfortably, and pass his share of the sausages to me.”
“What have you been chasing, Mr. Idiot?” asked the Doctor. “Birds or the fast-flitting dollar?”
“Flats,” said the Idiot.
“I didn’t know you Wall Street people needed to hunt flats,” said the Bibliomaniac. “I thought they just walked into your offices and presented themselves for skinning.”
“I don’t mean the flats we live on,” explained the Idiot. “It’s the flats we live in that I have been after.”
The landlady looked up inquiringly. Mr. Idiot’s announcement sounded ominous.
“To my mind, flat-hunting,” the Idiot continued, “is one of the most interesting branches of sport. It involves quite as much uncertainty as the pursuit of the whirring partridge; your game is quite as difficult to lure as the speckled trout darting hither and yon in the grassy pool; it involves no shedding of innocent blood, as in the case of a ride across-country with a pack in full pursuit of the fox; and strikes me as possessing greater dignity than running forty miles through the cabbage-patches of Long Island in search of a bag of anise seed. When the sporting instinct arises in my soul and reaches that full-tide where nothing short of action will hold it in control, I never think of starting for Maine to shoot the festive moose, nor do I squander my limited resources on a foggy hunt for the elusive canvasback in the Maryland marshes. I just go to the nearest cab-stand, strike a bargain with Mr. Jehu for an afternoon’s use of his hansom, and go around the town hunting flats. It requires very little previous preparation; it involves no prolonged absences from home; you do not need rubber boots unless you propose to investigate the cellars or intend to go far afield into the suburban boroughs of this great city; and is in all ways pleasant, interesting, and, I may say, educational.”
“Educational, eh?” laughed the Bibliomaniac. “Some people have queer ideas of what is educational. I must say I fail to see anything particularly instructive in flat-hunting.”
“That’s because you never approached it in a proper spirit,” said the Idiot. “Anybody who is at all interested in sociology, however, cannot help but find instruction in a contemplation of how people are housed. You can’t get any idea of how the other halves live by reading the society news in the Sunday newspapers or peeping in at the second story of the tenement-houses as you go down-town on the elevated railroads. You’ve got to go out and investigate for yourself, and that’s where flat-hunting comes in as an educational diversion. Of course, all men are not interested in the same line of investigation. You, as a bibliomaniac, prefer to go hunting rare first editions; Dr. Pellet, armed to the teeth with capsules, lies in wait for a pot-shot at some new kind of human ailment, and rejoices as loudly over the discovery of a new disease as you do over finding a copy of the rare first edition of the Telephone Book for 1899; another man goes to Africa to investigate the condition of our gorillan cousin of the jungle; Lieutenant Peary goes and hides behind a snow-ball up North, so that his fellows of the Arctic Exploration Society may have something to look for every other summer; and I—I go hunting for flats. I don’t sneer at you and the others for liking the things you do. You shouldn’t sneer at me for liking the things I do. It is, after all, the diversity of our tastes that makes our human race interesting.”
“But the rest of us generally bag something,” said the Lawyer. “What the dickens do you get beyond sheer physical weariness for your pains?”
“The best of all the prizes of the hunt,” said the Idiot; “the spirit of content with my lot as a boarder. I’ve been through twenty-eight flats in the last three weeks, and I know whereof I speak. I have seen the gorgeous apartments of the Redmere, where you can get a Louis Quinze drawing-room, a Renaissance library, a superb Grecian dining-room, and a cold-storage box to keep your high-balls in for four thousand dollars per annum.”
“Weren’t there any bedrooms?” asked Mr. Whitechoker.
“Oh yes,” said the Idiot. “Three, automatically ventilated from holes in the ceiling leading to an air-shaft, size six by nine, and brilliantly lighted by electricity. There was also a small pigeon-hole in a corrugated iron shack on the roof for the cook; a laundry next to the coal-bin in the cellar; and a kitchen about four feet square connecting with the library.”
“Mercy!” cried Mrs. Pedagog. “Do they expect children to live in such a place as that?”
“No,” said the Idiot. “You have to give bonds as security against children of any kind at the Redmere. If you happen to have any, you are required by the terms of your lease to send them to boarding-school; and if you haven’t any, the lease requires that you shall promise to have none during your tenancy. The owners of such properties have a lot of heart about them, and they take good care to protect the children against the apartments they put up.”
“And what kind of people, pray, live in such places as that?” demanded the Bibliomaniac.
“Very nice people,” said the Idiot. “People, for the most part, who spend their winters at Palm Beach, their springs in London, their summers at Newport or on the Continent, and their autumns in the Berkshires.”
“I don’t see why they need a home at all if that’s the way they do,” said Mrs. Pedagog.
“It’s very simple,” said the Idiot. “You’ve got to have an address to get your name in the Social Register.”
“Four thousand dollars is pretty steep for an address,” commented the Bibliomaniac.
“It would be for me,” said the Idiot. “But it is cheap for them. Moreover, in the case of the Redmere it’s the swellest address in town. Three of the most important divorces of the last social season took place at the Redmere. Social position comes high, Mr. Bib, but there are people who must have it. It is to them what baked beans are to the Bostonian’s Sunday breakfast—a sine qua non.”
“May I ask whatever induced you to look for a four-thousand-dollar apartment?” asked Mr. Pedagog. “You have frequently stated that your income barely equalled twenty-four hundred dollars a year.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” asked the Idiot. “It doesn’t cost any more to look for a four-thousand-dollar apartment than it does to go chasing after a two-dollar-a-week hall-bedroom, and it impresses the cab-driver with a sense of responsibility. But bagging these gorgeous apartments does not constitute the real joy of flat-hunting. For solid satisfaction and real sport the chase for a fifteen-hundred-dollar apartment in a decent neighborhood bears away the palm. You can get plenty of roomy suites in the neighborhood of a boiler-factory, or next door to a distillery, or back of a fire-engine house, at reasonable rents, and along the elevated railway lines much that is impressive is to be found by those who can sleep with trains running alongside of their pillows all night; but when you get away from these, the real thing at that figure is elusive. Over by the Park you can get two pigeon-holes and a bath, with a southern exposure, for nineteen hundred dollars a year; if you are willing to dispense with the southern exposure you can get three Black Holes of Calcutta and a butler’s pantry, in the same neighborhood, for sixteen hundred dollars, but you have to provide your own air. Farther down-town you will occasionally find the thing you want with a few extras in the shape of cornet-players, pianola-bangers, and peroxide sopranos on either side of you, and an osteopathic veterinary surgeon on the ground floor thrown in. Then there are paper flats that can be had for twelve hundred dollars, but you can’t have any pictures in them, because the walls won’t stand the weight, and any nail of reasonable length would stick through into the next apartment. A friend of mine lived in one of these affairs once, and when he inadvertently leaned against the wall one night he fell through into his neighbor’s bath-tub. Of course, that sort of thing promotes sociability; but for a home most people want just a little privacy. And so the list runs on. You would really be astonished at the great variety of discomfortable dwelling-places that people build. Such high-art decorations as you encounter—purple friezes surmounting yellow dadoes; dragons peeping out of fruit-baskets; idealized tomatoes in full bloom chasing one another all around the bedroom walls. Then the architectural inconveniences they present with their best bedrooms opening into the kitchen; their parlors with marble wash-stands with running water in the corner; their libraries fitted up with marvellous steam-radiators and china-closets, and their kitchens so small that the fire in the range scorches the wall opposite, and over which nothing but an asbestos cook, with a figure like a third rail, could preside. And, best of all, there are the janitors! Why, Mr. Bib, the study of the janitor and his habits alone is worthy of the life-long attention of the best entomologist that ever lived—and yet you say there is nothing educational in flat-hunting.”
“Oh, well,” said the Bibliomaniac, “I meant for me. There are a lot of things that would be educational to you that I should regard as symptomatic of profound ignorance. Everything is relative in this world.”
“That is true,” said the Idiot; “and that is why every April 1st I go out and gloat over the miseries of the flat-dwellers. As long as I can do that I am happy in my little cubby-hole under Mrs. Pedagog’s hospitable roof.”
“Ah! I am glad to hear you say that,” said Mrs. Pedagog. “I was a bit fearful, Mr. Idiot, that you had it in mind to move away from us.”
“No indeed, Mrs. Pedagog,” replied the Idiot, rising from the table. “You need have no fear of that. You couldn’t get me out of here with a crow-bar. If I did not have entire confidence in your lovely house and yourself, you don’t suppose I would permit myself to get three months behind in my board, do you?”
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