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Chapter 3

A Memory that Worked Overtime


Minver’s brother took down from the top of the low bookshelf a
small painting on panel, which he first studied in the obverse, and then
turned and contemplated on the back with the same dreamy smile. “I
don’t see how that got here,” he said,
absently.

“Well,” Minver returned, “you don’t expect
me to tell you, except on the principle that any one would
naturally know more about anything of yours than you would.” He
took it from his brother and looked at the front of it. “It
isn’t bad. It’s pretty good!” He turned it round.
“Why, it’s one of old Blakey’s! How did you
come by it?”

“Stole it, probably,” Minver’s brother said, still
thoughtfully. Then with an effect of recollecting: “No, come to
think of it,” he added, “Blakey gave it to me.” The
Minvers played these little comedies together, quite as much to satisfy
their tenderness for each other as to give their friends pleasure.
“Think you’re the only painter that gets me to take his
truck as a gift? He gave it to me, let’s see, about ten years ago,
when he was trying to make a die of it, and failed; I thought he would
succeed. But it’s been in my wife’s room nearly ever since,
and what I can’t understand is what she’s doing with it down
here.”

“Probably to make trouble for you, somehow,” Minver
suggested.

“No, I don’t think it’s that,
quite,” his brother returned, with a false air of scrupulosity,
which was part of their game with each other. He looked some more at the
picture, and then he glanced from it at me. “There’s a very
curious story connected with that sketch.”

“Oh, well, tell it,” Minver said. “Tell it! I
suppose I can stand it again. Acton’s never heard it, I believe.
But you needn’t make a show of sparing him. I
couldn’t stand that.”

“I certainly haven’t heard the story,” I said,
“and if I had I would be too polite to own it.”

Minver’s brother looked towards the open door over his
shoulder, and Minver interpreted for him: “She’s not coming.
I’ll give you due warning.”

“It was before we were married, but not much before, and the
picture was a sort of wedding present for my wife, though Blakey made a
show of giving it to me. Said he had painted it for me, because he had a
prophetic soul, and felt in his bones that I was going to want a picture
of the place where I first met her. You see, it’s the little villa
her mother had taken that winter on the Viale Petrarca, just outside of
Florence. It was the first place I met her, but not the
last.”

“Don’t be obvious,” Minver ordered.

His brother did not mind him. “I thought it was mighty nice of
Blakey. He was barking away, all the time he was talking, and when he
wasn’t coughing he was so hoarse he could hardly speak above a
whisper; but he kept talking on, and wishing me happy, and fending off
my gratitude, while he was finding a piece of manila paper to wrap the
sketch in, and then hunting for a piece of string to tie it. When he
handed it to me at last, he gasped out: ‘I don’t mind her
knowing that I partly meant it as the place where she first met
you, too. I’m not ashamed of it as a bit of color.
Anyway, I sha’n’t live to do anything better.’

“‘Oh, yes, you will,’ I came back in that lying way
we think is kind with dying people. I suppose it is; anyway, it turned
out all right with Blakey, as he’ll testify if you look him up
when you go to Florence. By the way, he lives in that villa
now.”

“No?” I said. “How charming!”

Minver’s brother went on: “I made up my mind to be
awfully careful of that picture, and not let it out of my hand till I
left it with ‘her’ mother, to be put among the other wedding
presents that were accumulating at their house in Exeter Street. So I
held it on my lap going in by train from Lexington, where Blakey lived,
and when I got out at the old Lowell Depot—North Station,
now—and got into the little tinkle-tankle horse-car that took me
up to where I was to get the Back Bay car—Those were the
prehistoric times before trolleys, and there were odds in horse-cars. We
considered the blue-painted Back Bay cars very swell. You
remember them?” he asked Minver.

“Not when I can help it,” Minver answered. “When I
broke with Boston, and went to New York, I burnt my horse-cars behind
me, and never wanted to know what they looked like, one from
another.”

“Well, as I was saying,” Minver’s brother went on,
without regarding his impatriotism, “when I got into the horse-car
at the depot, I rushed for a corner seat, and I put the picture, with
its face next the car-end, between me and the wall, and kept my hand on
it; and when I changed to the Back Bay car, I did the same thing. There
was a florist’s just there, and I couldn’t resist some
Mayflowers in the window; I was in that condition, you know, when
flowers seemed to be made for her, and I had to take her own to her
wherever I found them. I put the bunch between my knees, and kept one
hand on it, while I kept my other hand on the picture at my side. I was
feeling first-rate, and when General Filbert got in after we started,
and stood before me hanging by a strap and talking down to me, I had the
decency to propose giving him my seat, as he was about ten years
older.”

“Sure?” Minver asked.

“Well, say fifteen. I don’t pretend to be a chicken, and
never did. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Said I had a bundle, and
winked at the bunch of Mayflowers. We had such a jolly talk that I let
the car carry me a block by and had to get out at Gloucester and run
back to Exeter. I rang, and, when the maid came to the door, there I
stood with nothing but the Mayflowers in my hand.”

“Good coup de théâtre,” Minver jeered.
“Curtain?”

His brother disdained reply, or was too much absorbed in his tale to
think of any. “When the girl opened the door and I discovered my
fix I burst out, ‘Good Lord!’ and I stuck the bunch of
flowers at her, and turned and ran. I suppose I must have had some
notion of overtaking the car with my picture in it. But the best I could
do was to let the next one overtake me several blocks down Marlborough
Street, and carry me to the little jumping-off station on Westchester
Park, as we used to call it in those days, at the end of the Back Bay
line.

“As I pushed into the railroad office, I bet myself that the
picture would not be there, and, sure enough, I won.”

“You were always a lucky dog,” Minver said.

“But the man in charge was very encouraging, and said it was
sure to be turned in; and he asked me what time the car had passed the
corner of Gloucester Street. I happened to know, and then he said, Oh
yes, that conductor was a substitute, and he wouldn’t be on again
till morning; then he would be certain to bring the picture with him. I
was not to worry, for it would be all right. Nothing left in the Back
Bay cars was ever lost; the character of the abutters was guarantee for
that, and they were practically the only passengers. The conductors and
the drivers were as honest as the passengers, and I could consider
myself in the hands of friends.

“He was so reassuring that I went away smiling at my fears, and
promising to be round bright and early, as soon, the official
suggested—the morrow being Sunday—as soon as the men and
horses had had their baked beans.

“Still, after dinner, I had a lurking anxiety, which I turned
into a friendly impulse to go and call on Mrs. Filbert, whom I really
owed a bread-and-butter visit, and who, I knew, would not mind my coming
in the evening. The general, she said, had been telling her of our
pleasant chat in the car, and would be glad to smoke his after-dinner
cigar with me, and why wouldn’t I come into the library?

“We were so very jolly together, all three, that I made light
of my misadventure about the picture. The general inquired about the
flowers first. He remembered the flowers perfectly, and hoped they were
acceptable; he thought he remembered the picture, too, now I mentioned
it; but he would not have noticed it so much, there by my side, with my
hand on it. I would be sure to get it. He gave several instances,
personal to him and his friends, of recoveries of lost articles; it was
really astonishing how careful the horse-car people were, especially on
the Back Bay line. I would find my picture all right at the Westchester
Park station in the morning; never fear.

“I feared so little that I slept well, and even overslept; and
I went to get my picture quite confidently, and I could hardly believe
it had not been turned in yet, though the station-master told me so. The
substitute conductor had not seen it, but more than likely it was at the
stables, where the cleaners would have found it in the car and turned it
in. He was as robustly cheerful about it as ever, and offered to send an
inquiry by the next car; but I said, Why shouldn’t I go myself;
and he said that was a good idea. So I went, and it was well I did, for
my picture was not there, and I had saved time by going. It was not
there, but the head man said I need not worry a mite about it; I was
certain to get it sooner or later; it would be turned in, to a dead
certainty. We became rather confidential, and I went so far as to
explain about wanting to make my inquiries very quietly on
Blakey’s account: he would be annoyed if he heard of its loss, and
it might react unfavorably on his health.

“The head man said that was so; and he would tell me what I
wanted to do: I wanted to go to the Company’s General Offices in
Milk Street, and tell them about it. That was where everything went as a
last resort, and he would bet any money that I would see my picture
there the first thing I got inside the door. I thanked him with the
fervor I thought he merited, and said I would go at once.

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘you don’t want to go
to-day, you know. The offices are not open Sunday. And to-morrow’s
a holiday. But you’re all right. You’ll find your picture
there, don’t you have any doubts about it.’

“That was my next to last Sunday supper with my wife, before
she became my wife, at her mother’s house, and I went to the feast
with as little gayety as I suppose any young man ever carried to a
supper of the kind. I was told, afterwards, that my behavior up to a
certain point was so suggestive either of secret crime or of secret
regret, that the only question was whether they should have in the
police or I should be given back my engagement ring and advised to go.
Luckily I ceased to bear my anguish just in time.

“The fact is, I could not stand it any longer, and as soon as I
was alone with her I made a clean breast of it; partially clean, that
is: I suppose a fellow never tells all to a girl, if he truly
loves her.” Minver’s brother glanced round at us and
gathered the harvest of our approving smiles. “I said to her,
‘I’ve been having a wedding present.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘you’ve come as near having no
use for a wedding present as anybody I know. Was having a
wedding present what made you so gloomy at supper? Who gave it to you,
anyway?’ ‘Old Blakey.’ ‘A painting?’
‘Yes—a sketch.’ ‘What of?’ This was where
I qualified. I said: ‘Oh, just one of those Sorrento things of
his.’ You see, if I told her that it was the villa where we first
met, and then said I had left it in the horse-car, she would take it as
proof positive that I did not really care anything about her or I never
could have forgotten it.”

“You were wise as far as you went,” Minver said.
“Go on.”

“Well, I told her the whole story circumstantially: how I had
kept the sketch religiously in my lap in the train, and then held it
down with my hand all the while beside me in the first horse-car, and
did the same thing in the Back Bay car I changed to; and felt of it the
whole time I was talking with General Filbert, and then left it there
when I got out to leave the flowers at her door, when the awful fact
came over me like a flash. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘Norah
said you poked the flowers at her without a word, and she had to guess
they were for me.’

“I had got my story pretty glib by this time; I had reeled it
off with increasing particulars to the Westchester Park station-master,
and the head man at the stables, and General Filbert, and I was so
letter-perfect that I had a vision of the whole thing, especially of my
talking with the general while I kept my hand on the picture—and
then all was dark.

“At the end she said we must advertise for the picture. I said
it would kill Blakey if he saw it; and she said: No matter, let
it kill him; it would show him that we valued his gift, and were moving
heaven and earth to find it; and, at any rate, it would kill me
if I kept myself in suspense. I said I should not care for that; but
with her sympathy I guessed I could live through the night, and I was
sure I should find the thing at the Milk Street office in the
morning.

“‘Why,’ said she, ‘to-morrow it’ll be
shut!’ and then I didn’t really know what to say, and I
agreed to drawing up an advertisement then and there, so as not to lose
an instant’s time after I had been at the Milk Street office on
Tuesday and found the picture had not been turned in. She said I could
dictate the advertisement and she would write it down, and she asked:
‘Which one of his Sorrento things was it? You must describe it
exactly, you know.’ That made me feel awfully, and I said I was
not going to have my next-to-last Sunday evening with her spoiled by
writing advertisements; and I got away, somehow, with all sorts of
comforting reassurances from her. I could see that she was feigning them
to encourage me.

“The next morning, I simply could not keep away from the Milk
Street office, and my unreasonable impatience was rewarded by finding it
at least ajar, if not open. There was the nicest kind of a young fellow
there, and he said he was not officially present; but what could he do
for me? Then I told him the whole story, with details I had not thought
of before; and he was just as enthusiastic about my getting my picture
as the Westchester Park station-master or the head man of the stables.
It was morally certain to be turned in, the first thing in the morning;
but he would take a description of it, and send out inquiries to all the
conductors and drivers and car-cleaners, and make a special thing of it.
He entered into the spirit of the affair, and I felt that I had such a
friend in him that I confided a little more and hinted at the double
interest I had in the picture. I didn’t pretend that it was one of
Blakey’s Sorrento things, but I gave him a full and true
description of it, with its length, breadth, and thickness, in exact
measure.”

Here Minver’s brother stopped and lost himself in contemplation
of the sketch, as he held it at arm’s-length.

“Well, did you get your picture?” I prompted, after a
moment.

“Oh yes,” he said, with a quick turn towards me.
“This is it. A District Messenger brought it round the first thing
Tuesday morning. He brought it,” Minver’s brother added,
with a certain effectiveness, “from the florist’s, where I
had stopped to get those Mayflowers. I had left it there.”

“You’ve told it very well, this time, Joe,” Minver
said. “But Acton here is waiting for the psychology. Poor old
Wanhope ought to be here,” he added to me. He looked about for a
match to light his pipe, and his brother jerked his head in the
direction of the chimney.

“Box on the mantel. Yes,” he sighed, “that was
really something very curious. You see, I had invented the whole history
of the case from the time I got into the Back Bay car with my flowers.
Absolutely nothing had happened of all I had remembered till I got out
of the car. I did not put the picture beside me at the end of the car; I
did not keep my hand on it while I talked with General Filbert; I did
not leave it behind me when I left the car. Nothing of the kind
happened. I had already left it at the florist’s, and that whole
passage of experience which was so vividly and circumstantially stamped
in my memory that I related it four or five times over, and would have
made oath to every detail of it, was pure invention, or, rather, it was
something less positive: the reflex of the first half of my horse-car
experience, when I really did put the picture in the corner next me, and
did keep my hand on it.”

“Very strange,” I was beginning, but just then the door
opened and Mrs. Minver came in, and I was presented.

She gave me a distracted hand, as she said to her husband:
“Have you been telling the story about that picture again?”
He was still holding it. “Silly!”

She was a mighty pretty woman, but full of vim and fun and sense.

“It’s one of the most curious freaks of memory I ever
heard of, Mrs. Minver,” I said.

Then she showed that she was proud of it, though she had called him
silly. “Have you told,” she demanded of her husband,
“how oddly your memory behaved about the subject of the picture,
too?”

“I have again eaten that particular piece of humble-pie,”
Minver’s brother replied.

“Well,” she said to me, “I think he was
simply so possessed with the awfulness of having lost the picture that
all the rest took place prophetically, but unconsciously.”

“By a species of inverted presentiment?” I suggested.

“Yes,” she assented, slowly, as if the formulation were
new to her, but not unacceptable. “Something of that kind. I never
heard of anybody else having it.”

Minver had got his pipe alight, and was enjoying it.
I think Joe was simply off his nut, for the time
being.”


William Dean Howells

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