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Chapter 16

XVI

Lemuel had to be up early in the morning to get the bills of fare, which Mrs. Harmon called the Meanyous, written in time for the seven o'clock breakfasters; and after opening the dining-room doors with fit ceremony, he had to run backward and forward to answer the rings at the elevator, and to pull out the chairs for the ladies at the table, and slip them back under them as they sat down. The ladies at the St. Albans expected to get their money's worth; but their exactions in most things were of use to Lemuel. He grew constantly nimbler of hand and foot under them, and he grew quicker-witted; he ceased to hulk in mind and body. He did not employ this new mental agility in devising excuses and delays; he left that to Mrs. Harmon, whose conscience was easy in it; but from seven o'clock in the morning till eleven at night, when the ladies came in from the theatre, he was so promptly, so comfortingly at their service, that they all said they did not see how they had ever got along without him.

His activities took the form of interruptions rather than constant occupation, and he found a good deal of broken-up time on his hands, which he passed in reading, and in reveries of Statira. At the hours when the elevator was mostly in use he kept a book in it with him, and at other times he had it in the office, as Mrs. Harmon called his little booth. He remained there reading every night after the house quieted down after dinner, until it was time to lock up for the night; and several times Mr. Evans stopped and looked in at him where he sat in the bad combustion of the gas that was taking the country tan out of his cheeks. One night when he came in late, and Lemuel put his book down to take him up in the elevator, he said, "Don't disturb yourself; I'm going to walk up," but he lingered at the door looking in with the queer smile that always roused the ladies' fears of tacit ridicule. "I suppose you don't find it necessary," he said finally, "to chase a horse-car now, when you want to find your way to a given point?"

Lemuel reddened and dropped his head; he had already recognised in Mr. Evans the gentleman from whose kindly curiosity he had turned, that first day, in the suspicion that he might be a beat. "No," he said, "I guess I can go pretty near everywhere in Boston now."

"Well," said Mr. Evans, "it was an ingenious system. How do you like
Boston?"

"I like it first-rate, but I've not seen many other places," answered Lemuel cautiously.

"Well, if you live here long enough you won't care to see any other places; you'll know they're not worth seeing." Lemuel looked up as if he did not understand exactly, and Mr. Evans stepped in and lifted the book he had been reading. It was one he had bought at second hand while he was with Miss Vane: a tough little epitome of the philosophies in all times, the crabbed English version of a dry German original. Mr. Evans turned its leaves over. "Do you find it a very exciting story?" he asked.

"Why, it isn't a story," said Lemuel, in simple surprise.

"No?" asked Mr. Evans. "I thought it must be. Most of the young gentlemen who run the elevators I travel in read stories. Do you like this kind of reading?"

Lemuel reflected, and then he said he thought you ought to find out about such things if you got a chance.

"Yes," said the editor musingly, "I suppose one oughtn't to throw any sort of chance away. But you're sure you don't prefer the novels? You'll excuse my asking you?"

"Oh, perfectly excusable," said Lemuel. He added that he liked a good novel too, when he could get hold of it.

"You must come to my room some day, and see if you can't get hold of one there. Or if you prefer metaphysics, I've got shelves full that you're welcome to. I suppose," he added, "you hadn't been in Boston a great while when I met you that day?"

"No," said Lemuel, dropping his head again, "I had just come."

As if he saw that something painful lurked under the remembrance of the time for Lemuel the editor desisted.

The next morning he stopped on his way to breakfast with some books which he handed to Lemuel. "Don't feel at all obliged to read them," he said, "because I lend them to you. They won't be of the least use to you, if you do so."

"I guess that anything you like will be worth reading," said Lemuel, flattered by the trouble so chief a boarder as Mr. Evans had taken with him.

"Not if they supplied a want you didn't feel. You seem to be fond of books, and after a while you'll be wanting to lend them yourself. I'll give you a little hint that I'm too old to profit by: remember that you can lend a person more books in a day than he can read in a week."

His laugh kept Lemuel shy of him still, in spite of a willingness that the editor showed for their better acquaintance. He seemed to wish to know about Lemuel, particularly since he had recognised the pursuer of the horse-car in him, and this made Lemuel close up the more. He would have liked to talk with him about the books Evans had lent him. But when the editor stopped at the office door, where Lemuel sat reading one of them, and asked him what he thought of it, the boy felt that somehow it was not exactly his opinion that Mr. Evans was getting at; and this sense of being inspected and arranged in another's mind, though he could not formulate the operation in his own, somehow wounded and repelled him. It was not that the editor ever said anything that was not kind and friendly; he was always doing kind and friendly things, and he appeared to take a real interest in Lemuel. At the end of the first week after Lemuel had added the head waitership to his other duties, Evans stopped in going out of the dining-room and put a dollar in his hand.

"What is it for?" asked Lemuel.

"For? Really, I don't know. It must be tribute-money," said the editor in surprise, but with a rising curiosity. "I never know what it's for."

Lemuel turned red, and handed it back. "I don't know as I want any money I haven't earned."

That night, after dinner, when Evans was passing the office door on his way out of the hotel, Lemuel stopped him and said with embarrassment, "Mr. Evans, I don't want you should think I didn't appreciate your kindness this morning."

"Ah, I'm not sure it was kindness," said Evans with immediate interest. "Why didn't you take the money?"

"Well, I told you why," said Lemuel, overcoming the obscure reluctance he felt at Evans's manner as best he could. "I've been thinking it over, and I guess I was right; but I didn't know whether I had expressed it the best way."

"The way couldn't be improved. But why did you think you hadn't earned my dollar?"

"I don't do anything but open the doors, and show people to their places; I don't call that anything."

"But if you were a waiter and served at table?"

"I wouldn't be one," said Lemuel, with a touch of indignation; "and I shouldn't take presents, anyway."

Evans leaned against the door-jamb.

"Have you heard of the college students who wait at the mountain hotels in vacation? They all take fees. Do you think yourself better than they are?"

"Yes, I do!" cried Lemuel.

"Well, I don't know but you are," said the editor thoughtfully. "But I think I should distinguish. Perhaps there's no shame in waiting at table, but there is in taking fees."

"Yes; that's what I meant," said Lemuel, a little sorry for his heat. "I shouldn't be ashamed to do any kind of work, and to take my pay for it; but I shouldn't want to have folks giving me money over and above, as if I was a beggar."

The editor stood looking him absently in the face. After a moment he asked, "What part of New England did you come from, Mr. Barker?"

"I came from the middle part of the State—from Willoughby
Pastures."

"Do those ideas—those principles—of yours prevail there?"

"I don't know whether they do or not," said Lemuel.

"If you were sure they did, I should like to engage board there for next summer," said the editor, going out.

It was Monday night, a leisure time with him, and he was going out to see a friend, a minister, with whom Monday night was also leisure time.

After he was gone, some of the other boarders began to drop in from the lectures and concerts which they frequented in the evening. The ladies had all some favour to ask of Lemuel, some real or fancied need of his help; in return for his promise or performance, they each gave him advice. What they expressed collectively was that they should think that he would put his eyes out reading by that gas, and that he had better look out, or he would ruin his health anyway, reading so much. They asked him how much time he got for sleep; and they said that from twelve till six was not enough, and that he was just killing himself. They had all offered to lend him books; the least literary among them had a sort of house pride in his fondness for books; their sympathy with this taste of his amused their husbands, who tolerated it, but in their hearts regarded it as a womanish weakness, indicating a want of fibre in Lemuel. Mrs. Harmon as a business woman, and therefore occupying a middle ground between the sexes, did not exactly know herself what to make of her clerk's studiousness; all that she could say was that he kept up with his work. She assumed that before Lemuel's coming she had been the sole motive power of the house; but it was really a sort of democracy, and was managed by the majority of its inmates. An element of demagoguery tampered with the Irish vote in the person of Jerry, nominally porter, but actually factotum, who had hitherto, pending the strikes of the different functionaries, filled the offices now united in Lemuel. He had never been clerk, because his literature went no further than the ability to write his name, and to read a passage of the constitution in qualifying for the suffrage. He did not like the new order of things, but he was without a party, and helpless to do more than neglect the gong-bell when he had reason to think Lemuel had sounded it.

About eleven o'clock the law-student came in with the two girl art- students, fresh from the outside air, and gay from the opera they had been hearing. The young man told Lemuel he ought to go to see it. After the girls had opened their door, one of them came running back to the elevator, and called down to Lemuel that there was no ice-water, and would he please send some up.

Lemuel brought it up himself, and when he knocked at the door, the same girl opened it and made a pretty outcry over the trouble she had given him. "I supposed, of course, Jerry would bring it," she said contritely; and as if for some atonement, she added, "Won't you come in, Mr. Barker, and see my picture?"

Lemuel stood in the gush of the gas-light hesitating, and the law- student called out to him, jollily, "Come in, Mr. Barker, and help me play art-critic." He was standing before the picture, with his overcoat on and his hat in his hand. "First appearance on any stage," he added; and as Lemuel entered, "If I were you," he said, "I'd fire that porter out of the hotel. He's outlived his usefulness."

"It's a shame, your having to bring the water," said Miss Swan; she was the girl who had spoken before.

The other one came forward and said, "Won't you sit down?"

She spoke to Lemuel; the law-student answered, "Thank you; I don't care if I do."

Lemuel did not know whether to stay, nor what to say of Miss Swan's picture, and he thanked the young lady and remained standing.

"O Jessie, Jessie, Jessie!" cried Miss Swan.

The other went to her, tranquilly, as if used to such vehement appeals.

"Just see how my poor cow looks since I painted out that grass! She hasn't got a leg to stand on!"

The law-student did nothing but make jokes about the picture. "I think she looks pretty well for a cow that you must have had to study from a milk-can—nearest you could come to a cow in Boston."

Miss Carver, the other young lady, ignored his joking, and after some criticisms on the picture, left him and Miss Swan to talk it over. She talked to Lemuel, and asked him if he had read a book he glanced at on the table, and seemed willing to make him feel at ease. But she did not. He thought she was very proud, and he believed she wanted him to go, but he did not know how to go. Her eyes were so still and pure; but they dwelt very coldly upon him. Her voice was like that look put into sound; it was rather high- pitched but very sweet and pure, and cold. He hardly knew what he said; he felt hot, and he waited for some chance to get away.

At last he heard Miss Swan saying, "Must you go, Mr. Berry? So soon!" and saw her giving the student her hand, with a bow of burlesque desolation.

Lemuel prepared to go too. All his rusticity came back upon him, and he said, "Well, I wish you good evening."

It seemed to him that Miss Carver's still eyes looked a sort of starry scorn after him. He found that he had brought away the book they had been talking about, and he was a long time in question whether he had better take it back at once, or give it to her when she came to breakfast.

He went to bed in the same trouble of mind. Every night he had fallen asleep with Statira in his thoughts, but now it was Miss Carver that he thought of, and more and more uncomfortably. He asked himself what she would say if she saw his mother in the bloomers. She was herself not dressed so fashionably as Statira, but very nicely.

William Dean Howells