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From a Bench in Our Square By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 6528

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Peter (flourish-in-red) Quick (flourish-in-green) Banta (period-in-blue) is the style whereby he is known to Our Square.

Summertimes he is a prop and ornament of Coney, that isle of the blest, whose sands he models into gracious forms and noble sentiments, in anticipation of the casual dime or the munificent quarter, wherewith, if you have low, Philistine tastes or a kind heart, you have perhaps aforetime rewarded him. In the off-season the thwarted passion of color possesses him; and upon the flagstones before Thornsen's élite Restaurant, which constitutes his canvas, he will limn you a full-rigged ship in two colors, a portrait of the heavyweight champion in three, or, if financially encouraged, the Statue of Liberty in four. These be, however, concessions to popular taste. His own predilection is for chaste floral designs of a symbolic character borne out and expounded by appropriate legends. Peter Quick Banta is a devotee of his art.

Giving full run to his loftier aspirations, he was engaged, one April day, upon a carefully represented lilac with a butterfly about to light on it, when he became cognizant of a ragged rogue of an urchin regarding him with a grin. Peter Quick Banta misinterpreted this sign of interest.

"What d'ye think of that?" he said triumphantly, as he sketched in a set of side-whiskers (presumably intended for antennae) upon the butterfly.

"Rotten," was the prompt response.

"What!" said the astounded artist, rising from his knees.

"Punk."

Peter Quick Banta applied the higher criticism to the urchin's nearest ear. It was now that connoisseur's turn to be affronted. Picking himself out of the gutter, he placed his thumb to his nose, and wiggled his finger in active and reprehensible symbolism, whilst enlarging upon his original critique, in a series of shrill roars:

"Rotten! Punk! No good! Swash! Flubdub! Sacré tas de-de-piffle!" Already his vocabulary was rich and plenteous, though, in those days, tainted by his French origin.

He then, I regret to say, spat upon the purple whiskers of the butterfly and took refuge in flight. The long stride of Peter Quick Banta soon overtook him. Silently struggling he was haled back to the profaned temple of Art.

"Now, young feller," said Peter Quick Banta. "Maybe you think you could do it better." The world-old retort of the creative artist to his critic!

"Any fool could," retorted the boy, which, in various forms, is almost as time-honored as the challenge.

Suspecting that only tactful intervention would forestall possible murder, I sauntered over from my bench. But the decorator of sidewalks had himself under control.

"Try it," he said grimly.

The boy avidly seized the crayons extended to him.

"You want me to draw a picture? There?"

"If you don't, I'll break every bone in your body."

The threat left its object quite unmoved. He pointed a crayon at Peter

Quick Banta's creation.

"What is that? A bool-rush?"

"It's a laylock; that's what it is."

"And the little bird that goes to light-"

"That ain't a bird and you know it." Peter Quick Banta breathed hard.

"That's a butterfly."

"I see. But the lie-lawc, it drop-so!" The gesture was inimitable. "And the butterfly, she do not come d

own, plop! She float-so!" The grimy hands fluttered and sank.

"They do, do they? Well, you put it down on the sidewalk."

From that moment the outside world ceased to exist for the urchin. He fell to with concentrated fervor, while Peter Quick Banta and I diverted the traffic. Only once did he speak:

"Yellow," he said, reaching, but not looking up.

Silently the elder artist put the desired crayon in his hand. When the last touches were done, the boy looked up at us, not boastfully, but with supreme confidence.

"There!" said he.

It was crude. It was ill-proportioned. The colors were raw. The arrangements were false.

But-the lilac bloomed. And-the butterfly hovered. The artist had spoken through his ordained medium and the presentment of life stood forth. I hardly dared look at Peter Quick Banta. But beneath his uncouth exterior there lay a great and magnanimous soul.

"Son," said he, "you're a wonder. Wanta keep them crayons?"

Unable to speak for the moment, the boy took off his ragged cap in one of the most gracious gestures I have ever witnessed, raising dog-like eyes of gratitude to his benefactor. Tactfully, Peter Quick Banta proceeded to expound for my benefit the technique of the drawing, giving the youngster time to recover before the inevitable questioning began.

"Where did you learn that?"

"Nowhere. Had a few drawing lessons at No. 19."

"Would you like to work for me?"

"How?"

Peter Quick Banta pointed to the sidewalk.

"That?" The boy laughed happily. "That ain't work. That's fun."

So the partnership was begun, the boy, whose name was Julien Tennier (soon simplified into Tenney for local use), sharing Peter Quick Banta's roomy garret. Success, modest but unfailing, attended it from the first appearance of the junior member of the firm at Coney Island, where, as the local cognoscenti still maintain, he revolutionized the art and practice of the "sand-dabs." Out of the joint takings grew a bank account. Eventually Peter Quick Banta came to me about the boy's education.

"He's a swell," said Peter Quick Banta. "Look at that face! I don't care if he did crawl outa the gutter. I'm an artist and I reco'nize aristocracy when I see it. And I want him brung up accordin'."

So I inducted the youngster into such modest groves of learning as an old, half-shelved pedagogue has access to, and when the Bonnie Lassie came to Our Square to make herself and us famous with her tiny bronzes (this was before she had captured, reformed, and married Cyrus the Gaunt), I took him to her and he fell boyishly and violently in love with her beauty and her genius alike, all of which was good for his developing soul. She arranged for his art training.

"But you know, Dominie," she used to say, wagging her head like a profound and thoughtful bird; "this is all very foolish and shortsighted on my part. Five years from now that gutter-godling of yours will be doing work that will make people forget poor little me and my poor little figurines."

To which I replied that even if it were true, instead of the veriest nonsense, about Julien Tenney or any one else ever eclipsing her, she would help him just the same!

But five years from then Julien had gone over to the Philistines.

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