The First Chapter and the Last
When I was in college, in that brief interval between the foot-ball and the rowing season in which my mind was turned to books, I had dreams, very faint and illusive, but still dreams, that some day, when the four-year eligibility rule barred me from further struggles on the gridiron and the river, I should fall to work and win fame. Even at that time I was famous. My picture was almost a daily feature of the metropolitan journals, and my weight, height, and chest-measure were solemnly recorded at regular intervals for the information and instruction of the hundreds of thousands of students of that greatest of modern educators—the newspaper.[Pg 2] It cannot be frankly said that I looked for anything finer than this, but I did want something more lasting. Young as I was, I realized that the great half-back of to-day is the coach of to-morrow, and the day after the clerk in a country store, or the garrulous bore who sits about the club and talks of games long since forgotten. So I cast about for fields where new laurels could be gathered. But how quickly laurels wither! How fine they are to the eye, yet as food how unsatisfying! So I opened a real-estate office.
I went into business after much deliberation. Had I been born rich, secure in the possession of a home with a full larder, a full wardrobe, and a full stable, I should have preferred to take up brain-work and to occupy myself in one of the learned professions, but I simply could not afford it, and lacked that spirit of self-sacrifice and family sacrifice which causes men to give up all for art and science, and to go down to their graves full of honors and degrees, but empty of all else. To use a metaphor, mixed, like[Pg 3] all expressive metaphors, the pen called to me, but when I thought of Homer, of Cervantes, of Goldsmith, of Johnson, of Poe, of scores of others, gentlemen all and men of art and learning, but frayed and shabby, the roll-top desk and the revolving chair seemed safer though less glorious. Fame is won easily with the pen, but to win money you must give more than words, however fraught with wisdom and beauty—you must give yards of cotton, boxes of buttons, and tons of pig-iron and pork. Occasionally a learned scientist discovers something that brings him riches, but, if he is a true scientist, that wealth is quickly dissipated in journeys to that murky, unreal bourne where the world’s genius wanders, groping, while the rest of mankind is eating grass with the animals. I wanted to wander, but was afraid. The thought of short rations held me back. Two roads were open, and I chose the easier, but the longing for the other way has never left me. Still, there is consolation, as there is consolation for everyone in this world, even to the Chris[Pg 4]tian Scientist with gout. In life it is a comfort to know that when you are gone your name is still to live, that your bust will adorn some hall of fame, and that women’s clubs will haggle over the meaning of what you have written. But to live in starvation and in ignorance of your own importance, to have the laurels placed upon a marble brow—that is different. To be in bronze in a public square is well enough, but it is better by far to have yourself in the flesh in one of the broad windows of the Ticktock Club. Fifty years of terrapin and champagne are better than two thousand of honored memory. Real estate offered me the fifty years. I chose it, and the wisdom of that choice becomes more apparent daily. I know now that it profits one more to have his name signed to a thirty-foot front on Fifth Avenue than to an idyllic poem or a masterpiece of prose.
Giving up all hope of fame and setting out to woo fortune, I elected to deal in lots and buildings because of the tremendous social opportunities that offered there. Fortune is[Pg 5] better than poverty, but fortune without fashion is little so. Fashion is ephemeral fame, and those thus famous treat the poor more kindly than they do the merely wealthy. So with fortune I demanded fashion, for I was ambitious and not given to half-way measures or rewards.
You see I am frank. When I saw what would be the cost of a life of usefulness, I boldly set out to be smart. Perhaps my friend, Mr. Mudison, puts it more tersely when he places the proposition in the reverse way: If you cannot be smart, be famous. I knew that I could be smart. From my little office with its map-covered wall, from my revolving chair by the roll-top desk, I viewed the charmed circle, still very far off. But I viewed it with calm confidence that some day I should be of it. For me it had no terrors, for its history was written in the history of the country’s industry, in the history of its railroads, of its mines, of its patent devices to make life worth living, and its patent medicines to make the living longer. Of[Pg 6] illusions I had none. I knew that life in the palace and life in the slum were of equal interest to him who observed, that they showed him the same humor and pathos, the same vices and virtues. Snobbery exists as much in Harlem, in Brooklyn, in Jamaica, on Grand Street or Houston as on Fifth Avenue. But if you are going to climb, it is well to reach that dizzy pinnacle where none can snub you. I climbed. Now I can drive a public coach, give a monkey dinner or a costume dance, and while the town jeers it envies, and those rail loudest on whom my door is tightest closed.
You will notice that this chapter is entitled “The First and the Last.” It is the last, because it was written after I had recorded the adventures that follow, for when I had reached the climax of the story of my life and that of my friends, I found that it seemed to have no beginning. And there was a good reason for this slight omission. Setting out on my own career, I believed that there was a story in every man’s life, that the Italian[Pg 7] digging in the subway had as many hair-raising adventures as the hero of a historical novel; that the clubman who walked the avenue had as much romance in him as the sprightly fellows who step through Balzac’s pages. The idea grew. The future might be unfolding my own story. So one day, when wearied of rentals and repairs, of sales and loans, daily duties that seemed dull, commonplace, and futile, I turned to my pen for relief and began to set before me in black and white the history of the week. The result was not satisfactory, but I had not seen my friend Mrs. Radigan for months, and my days had been given to business and my evenings to economy. I persevered. Time passed. My weekly records offered little but dull accounts of real-estate transactions and the cynical reflections of discouraged youth. Then she came again, and with her an adventure. Dinners and dances, week-ends and weddings began to crowd themselves upon the pages that I scribbled off in this desultory fashion. I was right. A story did unfold.[Pg 8] And now I am putting first the chapter I have written last, partly to explain the rambling manner of the telling, partly to provide the missing beginning.
The beginning of the story was really that day when Mrs. Radigan entered my office, but I did not know it then, and made no full record of the event. My books tell me that it was in June, and my memory that the day was piping hot, a Friday, I think, for my partner had gone to Easthampton for a Sunday with the Van Rundouns, and I was left alone with the office-boy, cursing the fate that held me in town in such weather. I envied my partner then. Since, I have blessed the day, for it brought me Mrs. Radigan and life. He still visits the Van Rundouns.
She came in a hansom. Standing at the window, smoking a cigarette, I was listlessly watching the almost deserted street, when a two-wheeler bowled up to the curb, and the scene offering nothing better—only a few delivery wagons and antiquated traps full of families parkward bound—I noted every[Pg 9] movement of the horse, the vehicle, the cabby, and the fare. The horse went down on one leg, forward, resting easily and drooping his head to dodge the sun. As Mr. Howells or Mr. James would say in describing such an event, his right eyelid closed and his skin shivered as he shook from him an insistent fly. The jehu opened the roof-window and bawled something. A parasol, a white, filmy thing, shot out in front, opened, and came toward me with a woman appended. I could not see her face for the sunshade. I saw only her figure, a large figure clad in summery things, gauzy, fluffy, in colors bright and cheery, yet subdued and blending with the day, a paradox of some Parisian modiste. The clothes, the carriage, the delicate parasol spoke of means, and instinctively I tossed aside my cigarette and, to be frank, posed in my revolving chair, for I knew that this could not be for the tailor overhead or the music-college still a story higher.
“Scorching, isn’t it?” she said, when I had fetched a chair, and she sat fanning herself with a tiny handkerchief.
While she fanned, I observed. She was a large woman, not fat nor merely heavy, but strong and well-knit—masterful, I said at once when I saw her face and could consider all. There was health in that face, color and life, but not beauty as we judge it. The nose was too broad and tilted up, the mouth was too large, the chin inclined to corpulence; the eyes were small, but there was in them a twinkle of good-humor. Altogether I liked her immensely.
“Well,” she went on after a minute, “now that I have my breath again, I shall explain. I am Mrs. John Radigan.”
Instinctively I glanced across the street to a great plate-glass window bearing in golden letters the legend that within was the uptown office of Radigan & Co., Bankers and Brokers, of New York, London, Paris, and Chicago.[Pg 11] The name of Radigan was synonymous with wealth the world over. It had become so with the last bulge in the stock-market, and now hardly a Sunday passed without some paper covering a page with the story of this newest of our great fortunes, of its marvellous growth and its present lucky owner. From this I knew the story well. The elder Radigan went West in the early eighties with a tidy sum which he had accumulated as a book-maker. He had multiplied this a hundredfold by speculating in worthless mining properties, and had quadrupled that in real estate and wrecked railroads. At his death, a few years before, he had left an estate estimated by the popular writers at two hundred million dollars. Dividing this figure by four, as is necessary to get at the truth in such cases, we see that his only son inherited about fifty. But as well be on a desert island with such a sum as in Kansas City. The Radigans were wise as well as wealthy. Charming as was their home, they saw that it was no place for persons with millions.
Now you can come from Kansas City to New York to stay at a hotel or to exist. To come here to live, the way lies by London and Paris, Long Island and Newport. The dust of the plain is swept away by the Riviera breezes; London’s gloom reduces the fever of life; Paris beats down the rough edges of the voice and the manner, giving finish and form. The Radigans followed the rule, but they hurried. They toured abroad, did not live there, and the dust still clung.
“You see, we have just got back, from Paris,” said my visitor, impressively. “We had a villa at Cannes in April, you know, and met some very recherche people there. Our apartment in Paris was most delightful, and we should have liked to stay on, but we intend to make New York our permanent home, and thought it would be well to come over and get settled.”
“So you are looking for a house,” said I, pulling a bundle of papers from my desk.
“A temporary house,” said Mrs. Radigan. “I don’t see anything here that I should care[Pg 13] to live in continuously. We will have to build—positively have to—and Mr. Radigan is negotiating now for a block on Fifth Avenue. He managed to rent a little box on the hills near Westbury for the summer, but I am looking for something to exist in next winter while the new house is going up.”
“Here is just the thing you want.” The plans were unfolded before her. “It is situated on Seventy——”
“I know,” she interrupted. “That is why I came to you, seeing your name on the sign. A rather decent house on the north side, three doors from the avenue, with an American basement and——”
“French windows,” said I.
“And a Dutch roof—exactly,” she cried. “It is stunning.”
“One of the best in town,” I declared with emphasis. “Thirty feet front, six stories high. It was built last January by Mr. Bull when he had wheat cornered. Subsequently the receiver sold it to my client, who took it on speculation.”
“It is stunning, but small,” said Mrs. Radigan. “I should not care to live in it right along, but we can all squeeze into it for a few months, till the new one is done.”
“You have a large family?” I asked.
“Three,” she replied. “My husband, my sister Pearl, and myself. We shall keep our boy Jack in the country.”
“Why, you can have a floor apiece,” I declared cheerfully. “Just look at the elevation.”
Mrs. Radigan raised her lorgnette and looked, but seemed to see nothing, though her gaze was intense and her brow knitted.
“The entire fourth floor, you see, could be used by Miss Radigan,” I ventured softly, to arouse her from her mood of abstraction.
“Miss Ve-al,” said she, suddenly abandoning the lorgnette and getting down under bare eyes to solve the mystery of the blueprint. “Is that funny white line the design of the wall-paper?”
“It’s the stairs,” I explained. “As I suggested, Miss Veal——”
“Ve-al,” she corrected, looking up sharply. “V-e, ve—a-l, al—Ve-al. It’s French.”
“Pardon me,” said I abjectly. “Your sister, Miss Ve-al, could have——”
“Oh, don’t bother about the old plans,” she cried, gently pushing the paper from her. “It gives me a headache to try to make them out. I’m sure you had them upside down. But I’ll take your word for it that there’s plenty of room to live in. But how about entertaining? How can one entertain in a box like that?”
“There’s a ballroom, as you see,” said I, trying in vain to guide her eye to it. “Then, on the same floor, you see a large dining-room, a fair-size music-room, and a very fine salon.”
“Well,” she returned musingly, “as we don’t know a soul in town as yet, I suppose it will hold all our friends for a while, but when we get in——”
“The new house will be done by the time you get in,” I declared with considerable emphasis.
“Certainly,” said she pleasantly, not comprehending the hidden meaning. “Tell me, is that old Mrs. Plumstone’s house next door?”
“On the right,” I replied. “The Hegerton Hummings are across the way, and the Jack Twitters have the French château on the corner.”
“But some common people called Gallegher are on the other side,” said she.
“My dear Mrs. Radigan,” I argued, “some of the smartest people in town live on that block.”
“But the Galleghers might call,” she ventured after a moment of hesitation.
“Do not worry,” was my retort. “This is not Kansas City. New Yorkers never call on their neighbors.”
“Wouldn’t old Mrs. Plumstone?” she demanded, a touch of disappointment being evident in her tone.
“Well, that explains it,” she said with a sigh.
“Explains what?” I asked.
“Not a soul around Westbury has been to see me,” she answered. “Do tell me, how do people get to know you in New York?”
“They don’t,” said I. “The question is, how do you get to know them?”
“It’s very simple,” I explained. “When you are buying your property, see as many real-estate firms uptown as you can, for they have some very nice young men connected with them. All the cotillon leaders are in real estate or architecture, as dancing is a branch of their business. Then there are the brokers. Some of the smartest men in town are two-dollar brokers, and surely a great house like Radigan & Co. can make it worth their while to be polite. Why, there are dozens of ways you can collect acquaintances in New York. It is easy if you know how.”
“But I did not,” said Mrs. Radigan rather sadly. “It has worried me dreadfully, too. Sometimes, since we have been at Westbury,[Pg 18]it has seemed as though we must be dead. Of course, one or two people there have been very nice, but they were not the kind we care to know. Evidently, you have made a study of society.”
“Not at all,” I protested. “It just happens that I have had a number of clients from Pittsburg.”
“Oh, I see!” she exclaimed, brightening, and, rising, she took my hand effusively. “You are certainly awfully kind, and I consider myself in luck to find you. You can count on us taking the house, and I hope we can count on your being there often.”
It seemed as though she was wasting no time about taking my advice, but there was no necessity of my enlightening her as to my own humble place. It would be delightful, charming, splendid, I averred, as we moved toward the door together. Simply social hyperbole, I thought at that moment. Truth, real truth, I vowed to myself at the next, when I happened to glance to the street, and there in the cab, gazing up at the office-[Pg 19]window with a frown of impatience, saw a girl’s face.
“I will see you to your hansom, Mrs. Radigan,” I said gallantly.
“Oh, don’t bother,” said she.
So I seized my hat, and a moment later we stood together at the curb.
“To Thirty-fourth Street ferry,” she called to the cabby.
“The Long Island Railroad,” I shouted at the jehu, wanting to be of service of some kind, and give reason for my presence.
The girl leaned out of the cab.
“I thought you were never coming, Sally,” she said petulantly.
“This is my sister, Miss Pearl Veal,” said Mrs. Radigan, not heeding her, but turning to me.
I took the tips of the proffered fingers in mine, let them drop, and bowed. I stammered something—something inane, I suppose, but the girl gave me a lustrous smile just the same.
“Warmish day,” I ventured, more courageously.
“Indeed,” said she quietly, but still sweetly smiling.
“Good-by,” said Mrs. Radigan, holding out her hand. “You can count on me.”
“You can count on me,” said I firmly.
And the cab rattled away.
For months I did not see that splendid pair. They were often in my thoughts, but as a clerk from the banking office carried through the rental of the house, I seemed to be forgotten. My summer scribblings were no less dull, but more cynical than ever. A Sunday with the Van Rundouns and a two-days’ stay in Morristown made the sum of my social successes. The future seemed to offer little better. But November came. The horse-show bugle called the Radigans to town, and with them brought me adventures, adventures in numbers and often strange. The records of these, made at the time when their impression on my mind was sharp and clear, are set forth in the succeeding chapters.
Categories: English Literature