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Chapter 4


Campbell: "Distinguished public character. Well, we're out of that, Roberts. I had to crowd the truth a little for you, but I fetched the belligerent McIlheny. What are you going in for next?"

Roberts: "I—upon my word, I haven't the least idea. I think I shall give up trying to identify the cook. Agnes must do it herself when she comes here."

Campbell: "Oh no! That won't do, old fellow. The cook may come here and give you the slip before Agnes gets back."

Roberts: "What would you do?"

Campbell: "Well, I don't know; I don't like to advise, exactly; but it seems to me you've got to keep trying. You've got to keep your eye out for respectable butter-balls, and not let them slip through your fingers."

Roberts: "You mean, go up and speak to them? I couldn't do that again."

Campbell: "Well, of course you didn't make a howling success with Mrs. McIlheny; but it wasn't a dead-failure either. But you must use a little more diplomacy—lead up to the subject gently. Don't go and ask a woman if she's a cook, or had an appointment to meet a gentleman here. That won't do. I'll tell you! You might introduce the business by asking if she had happened to see a lady coming in or going out; and then describe Agnes, and say you had expected to meet her here. And she'll say she hadn't seen her here, but such a lady had just engaged her as a cook. And then you'll say you're the lady's husband, and you're sure she'll be in in a moment. And there you are! That's the way you ought to have worked it with Mrs. McIlheny. Then it would have come out all right."

Roberts, pessimistically: "I don't see how it would have made her the cook."

Campbell: "It couldn't have done that, of course; but it would have done everything short of that. But we're well enough out of it, anyway. It was mighty lucky I came in with my little amendment just when I did. There's all the difference in the world between asking a lady whether she is a cook and whether she's seen a cook. That difference just saved the self-respect of the McIlhenys, and saved your life. It gave the truth a slight twist in the right direction. You can't be too careful about the truth, Roberts. You can't offer it to people in the crude state; it's got to be prepared. If you'd carried it through the way I wanted you to, the night you and old Bemis garroted each other, you'd have come out perfectly triumphant. What you want is not the real truth, but the ideal truth; not what you did, but what you ought to have done. Heigh? Now, you see, those McIlhenys have gone off with their susceptibilities in perfect repair, simply because I substituted a for for an if, and made you inquire for a cook instead of if she was a cook. Perhaps you did ask for instead of ask if?"

Roberts: "No, no. I asked her if she was a cook."

Campbell: "Well, I'm glad the McIlhenys had too much sense to believe that. They're happy, anyway. They're enjoying the hobble that you and Agnes are in, with lofty compassion. They—hello! here's that fellow coming back again!"

Roberts: "Who? Which? Where?" He starts nervously about, and confronts Mr. McIlheny bearing down upon him with a countenance of provisional severity.

McIlheny: "Just wan word more wid you, sor. Mrs. McIlheny has been thinkun' it oover, and she says you didn't ask her if she was after seeun a cuke, but whether she was after beun' a cuke? Now, sor, which wahs ut? Out wfd ut! Don't be thinkun' ye can throw dust in our eyes because we're Irishmen!" A threatening tone prevails in Mr. McIlheny's address at the mounting confusion and hesitation in Roberts. "Come! are ye deef, mahn?"

Roberts, in spite of Campbell's dumb-show inciting him to fiction: "I—I—if you will kindly step apart here, I can explain. I was very confused when I spoke to Mrs. McIlheny."

McIlheny, following him and Willis into the corner: "Fwhat made ye take my wife for a cuke? Did she luke anny more like a cuke than yer own wife? Her family is the best in County Mayo. Her father kept six cows, and she never put her hands in wather. And ye come up to her in a public place like this, where ye're afraid to spake aboove yer own breath, and ask her if she's after beun' the cuke yer wife's engaged. Fwhat do ye mane by ut?"

Roberts: "My dear sir, I know—I can understand how it seems offensive; but I can assure you that I had no intention—no—no—" he falters, with an imploring glance at Campbell, who takes the word.

Campbell: "Look here, Mr. McIlheny, you can appreciate the feelings of a gentleman situated as my friend was here. He had to meet a lady whom he had never seen before, and didn't know by sight; and we decided—Mrs. McIlheny was so pleasant and kindly looking—that he should go and ask her if she had seen a lady of the description he was looking for, and—"

McIlheny: "Yessor! I can appreciate ahl that. But fwhy did he ask her if she was the lady? Fwhy did he ask her if she was a cuke? That's what I wannt to know!"

Campbell: "Well, now, I'm sure you can understand that. He was naturally a good deal embarrassed at having to address a strange lady; his mind was full of his wife's cook, and instead of asking her if she'd seen a cook, he bungled and he blundered, and asked her—I suppose—if she was a cook. Can't you see that? how it would happen?"

McIlheny, with conviction: "Yessor, I can. And I'll feel it an hannor if you gintlemen will join me in a glass of wine on the carner, across the way—"

Campbell: "But your train?"

McIlheny: "Oh, domn the thrain! But I'll just stip aboord and tell Mrs. McIlheny I've met a frind, an' I'll be out by the next thrain, an' I'll be back wid you in a jiffy." He runs out, and Campbell turns to Roberts.

Roberts: "Good heavens, Willis! what are we going to do? Surely, we can't go out and drink with this man?"

Campbell: "I'm afraid we sha'n't have the pleasure. I'm afraid Mrs. McIlheny is of a suspicious nature; and when Mr. Mac comes back, it'll be to offer renewed hostility instead of renewed hospitality. I don't see anything for us but flight, Roberts. Or, you can't fly, you poor old fellow! You've got to stay and look out for that cook. I'd be glad to stay for you, but, you see, I should not know her."

Roberts: "I don't know her either, Willis. I was just thinking whether you couldn't manage this wretched man rather better alone. I—I'm afraid I confuse you; and he gets things out of me—admissions, you know—"

Campbell: "No, no! Your moral support is everything. That lie of mine is getting whittled away to nothing; we shall soon be down to the bare truth. If it hadn't been for these last admissions of yours, I don't know what I should have done. They were a perfect inspiration. I'll tell you what, Roberts! I believe you can manage this business twice as well without me. But you must keep your eye out for the cook! You mustn't let any respectable butter-ball leave the room without asking her if she's the one. You'll know how to put it more delicately now. And I won't complicate you with McIlheny any more. I'll just step out here—"

Roberts: "No, no, no! You mustn't go, Willis. You mustn't indeed! I shouldn't know what to do with that tipsy nuisance. Ah, here he comes again!"

Campbell, cheerily, to the approaching McIlheny: "I hope you didn't lose your train, Mr. McIlheny!"

McIlheny, darkly: "Never moind my thrain, sor! My wife says it was a put-up jahb between ye. She says ye were afther laughun', and lukun' and winkun' at her before this mahn slipped up to spake to her. Now what do ye make of that?"

Campbell: "We were laughing, of course. I had been laughing at my friend's predicament, in being left to meet a lady he'd never seen before. You laughed at it yourself."

McIlheny: "I did, sor."

Roberts, basely truckling to him: "It was certainly a ludicrous position."

Campbell: "And when we explained it, it amused your good lady too. She laughed as much as yourself—"

McIlheny: "She did, sor. Ye're right. Sure it would make a cow laugh. Well, gintlemen, ye must excuse me. Mrs. McIlheny says I mustn't stop for the next thrain, and I'll have to ask you to join me in that glass of wine some other toime."

Campbell: "Oh, it's all right, Mr. McIlheny. You've only got about half a minute." He glances at the clock, and McIlheny runs out, profusely waving his hand in adieu.

Roberts, taking out his handkerchief and wiping his forehead: "Well, thank Heaven! we're rid of him at last."

Campbell: "I'm not so sure of that. He'll probably miss the train. You may be sure Mrs. McIlheny is waiting for him outside of it, and then we shall have them both on our hands indefinitely. We shall have to explain and explain. Fiction has entirely failed us, and I feel that the truth is giving way under our feet. I'll tell you what, Roberts!"

Roberts, in despair: "What?"

Campbell: "Why, if McIlheny should happen to come back alone, we mustn't wait for him to renew his invitation to drink; we must take him out ourselves, and get him drunk; so drunk he can't remember anything; stone drunk; dead drunk. Or, that is, you must. I haven't got anything to do with him. I wash my hands of the whole affair."

Roberts: "You mustn't, Willis! You know I can't manage without you. And you know I can't take the man out and get him drunk. I couldn't. I shouldn't feel that it was right."

Campbell: "Yes, I know. You'd have to drink with him; and you've got no head at all. You'd probably get drunk first, and I don't know what I should say to Agnes."

Roberts: "That isn't the point, Willis. I couldn't ask the man to drink; I should consider it immoral. Besides, what should you do if the cook came while I was away? You wouldn't know her."

Campbell: "Well, neither would you, if you stayed."

Roberts: "That's true. There doesn't seem to be any end of it, or any way out of it. I must just stay and bear it."

Campbell: "Of course you must stay. And when McIlheny comes back, you'd better ask him out to look upon the wine when it is red."

Roberts: "No; that's impossible, quite. I shouldn't mind the association—though it isn't very pleasant; but to offer drink to a man already—Do you suppose it would do to ask him out for a glass of soda? Plain soda would be good for him. Or I could order claret in it, if the worst came to the worst."

Campbell: "Claret! What Mr. McIlheny requires is forty-rod whiskey in a solution of sulphuric acid. You must take that, or fourth-proof brandy straight, with him."

Roberts, miserably: "I couldn't; you know I couldn't."

Campbell: "What are you going to do, then?"

Roberts: "I don't know; I don't know. I—I'll give him in charge to a policeman."

Campbell: "And make a scandal here?"

Roberts: "Of course it can't be done!"

Campbell: "Of course it can't. Give a councilman in charge? The policeman will be Irish too, and then what'll you do? You're more likely to be carried off yourself, when the facts are explained. They'll have an ugly look in the police report."

Roberts: "Oh, it can't be done! Nothing can be done! I wish Agnes would come!"

The Colored Man who calls the Trains: "Cars ready for South Framingham, Whitneys, East Holliston, Holliston, Metcalf's, Braggville, and Milford. Express to Framingham. Milford Branch. Track No. 3."

William Dean Howells

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