English Literature

Coffee and Repartee by John Kendrick Bangs

Coffee and Repartee by John Kendrick Bangs

I

The guests at Mrs. Smithers’s high-class boarding-house for gentlemen had assembled as usual for breakfast, and in a few moments Mary, the dainty waitress, entered with the steaming coffee, the mush, and the rolls.

The School-master, who, by-the-way, was suspected by Mrs. Smithers of having intentions, and who for that reason occupied the chair nearest the lady’s heart, folded up the morning paper, and placing it under him so that no one else could get it, observed, quite genially for him, “It was very wet yesterday.”

“I didn’t find it so,” observed a young man seated half-way down the table, who was by common consent called the Idiot,because of his “views.” “In fact, I was very dry. Curious thing, I’m always dry on rainy days. I am one of the kind of men who know that it is the part of wisdom to stay in when it rains, or to carry an umbrella when it is not possible to stay at home, or, having no home, like ourselves, to remain cooped up in stalls, or stalled up in coops, as you may prefer.”

“You carried an umbrella, then?” queried the landlady, ignoring the Idiot’s shaft at the size of her “elegant and airy apartments” with an ease born of experience.

“Yes, madame,” returned the Idiot, quite unconscious of what was coming.

“Whose?” queried the lady, a sarcastic smile playing about her lips.

“That I cannot say, Mrs. Smithers,” replied the Idiot, serenely, “but it is the one you usually carry.”

“Your insinuation, sir,” said the School-master, coming to the landlady’s rescue, “is an unworthy one. The umbrella in question is mine. It has been in my possession for five years.”

“Then,” replied the Idiot, unabashed, “it is time you returned it. Don’t you think men’s morals are rather lax in this matter of umbrellas, Mr. Whitechoker?” he added, turning from the School-master, who began to show signs of irritation.

“Very,” said the Minister, running his finger about his neck to make the collar which had been sent home from the laundry by mistake set more easily—”very lax. At the last Conference I attended, some person, forgetting his high office as a minister in the Church, walked off with my umbrella without so much as a thank you; and it was embarrassing too, because the rain was coming down in bucketfuls.”

“What did you do?” asked the landlady, sympathetically. She liked Mr. Whitechoker’s sermons, and, beyond this, he was a more profitable boarder than any of the others, remaining home to luncheon every day and having to pay extra therefor.

“There was but one thing left for me to do. I took the bishop’s umbrella,” said Mr. Whitechoker, blushing slightly.

“But you returned it, of course?” said the Idiot.

“I intended to, but I left it on the train on my way back home the next day,” replied the clergyman, visibly embarrassed by the Idiot’s unexpected cross-examination.

“It’s the same way with books,” put in the Bibliomaniac, an unfortunate being whose love of rare first editions had brought him down from affluence to boarding. “Many a man who wouldn’t steal a dollar would run off with a book. I had a friend once who had a rare copy of Through Africa by Daylight. It was a beautiful book. Only twenty-five copies printed. The margins of the pages were four inches wide, and the title-page was rubricated; the frontispiece was colored by hand, and the seventeenth page had one of the most amusing typographical errors on it—”

“Was there any reading-matter in the book?” queried the Idiot, blowing softly on a hot potato that was nicely balanced on the end of his fork.

“Yes, a little; but it didn’t amount to much,” returned the Bibliomaniac. “But, you know, it isn’t as reading-matter that men like myself care for books. We have a higher notion than that. It is as a specimen of book-making that we admire a chaste bit of literature like Through Africa by Daylight. But, as I was saying, my friend had this book, and he’d extra-illustrated it. He had pictures from all parts of the world in it, and the book had grown from a volume of one hundred pages to four volumes of two hundred pages each.”

“And it was stolen by a highly honorable friend, I suppose?” queried the Idiot.

“Yes, it was stolen—and my friend never knew by whom,” said the Bibliomaniac.

“What?” asked the Idiot, in much surprise. “Did you never confess?”

It was very fortunate for the Idiot that the buckwheat cakes were brought on at this moment. Had there not been some diversion of that kind, it is certain that the Bibliomaniac would have assaulted him.

“It is very kind of Mrs. Smithers, I think,” said the School-master, “to provide us with such delightful cakes as these free of charge.”

“Yes,” said the Idiot, helping himself to six cakes. “Very kind indeed, although I must say they are extremely economical from an architectural point of view—which is to say, they are rather fuller of pores than of buckwheat. I wonder why it is,” he continued, possibly to avert the landlady’s retaliatory comments—”I wonder why it is that porous plasters and buckwheat cakes are so similar in appearance?”

“And so widely different in their respective effects on the system,” put in a genial old gentleman who occasionally imbibed, seated next to the Idiot.

“I fail to see the similarity between a buckwheat cake and a porous plaster,” said the School-master, resolved, if possible, to embarrass the Idiot.

“You don’t, eh?” replied the latter. “Then it is very plain, sir, that you have never eaten a porous plaster.”

To this the School-master could find no reasonable reply, and he took refuge in silence. Mr. Whitechoker tried to look severe; the gentleman who occasionally imbibed smiled all over; the Bibliomaniac ignored the remark entirely, not having as yet forgiven the Idiot for his gross insinuation regarding his friend’s édition de luxe of Through Africa by Daylight; Mary, the maid, who greatly admired the Idiot, not so much for his idiocy as for the aristocratic manner in which he carried himself, and the truly striking striped shirts he wore, left the room in a convulsion of laughter that so alarmed the cook below-stairs that the next platterful of cakes were more like tin plates than cakes; and as for Mrs. Smithers, that worthy woman was speechless with wrath. But she was not paralyzed apparently, for reaching down into her pocket she brought forth a small piece of paper, on which was written in detail the “account due” of the Idiot.

“I’d like to have this settled, sir,” she said, with some asperity.

“Certainly, my dear madame,” replied the Idiot, unabashed—”certainly. Can you change a check for a hundred?”

No, Mrs. Smithers could not.

“Then I shall have to put off paying the account until this evening,” said the Idiot. “But,” he added, with a glance at the amount of the bill, “are you related to Governor McKinley, Mrs. Smithers?”

“I am not,” she returned, sharply. “My mother was a Partington.”

“I only asked,” said the Idiot, apologetically, “because I am very much interested in the subject of heredity, and you may notknow it, but you and he have each a marked tendency towards high-tariff bills.”

And before Mrs. Smithers could think of anything to say, the Idiot was on his way down town to help his employer lose money on Wall Street.

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