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   Chapter 2 No.2

From a Bench in Our Square By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 19970

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Justly catalogued, Roberta Holland belonged to the idle rich. She would have objected to the latter classification, averring that, with the rising cost of furs and automobile upkeep, she had barely enough to keep her head above the high tide of Fifth Avenue prices. As to idleness, she scorned the charge. Had she not, throughout the war, performed prodigious feats of committee work, all of it meritorious and some of it useful? She had. It had left her with a dangerous and destructive appetite for doing good to people. Aside from this, Miss Roberta was a distracting young person. Few looked at her once without wanting to look again, and not a few looked again to their undoing.

Being-done-good-to is, I understand, much in vogue in the purlieus of Fifth Avenue where it is practiced with skill and persistence by a large and needy cult of grateful recipients. Our Square doesn't take to it. As recipients we are, I fear, grudgingly grateful. So when Miss Holland transferred her enthusiasms and activities to our far-away corner of the world she met with a lack of response which might have discouraged one with a less new and superior sense of duty to the lower orders. She came to us through the Bonnie Lassie, guardian of the gateway from the upper strata to our humbler domain, who-Pagan that she is!-indiscriminately accepts all things beautiful simply for their beauty. Having arrived, Miss Holland proceeded to organize us with all the energy of high-blooded sweet-and-twenty and all the imperiousness of confident wealth and beauty. She organized an evening sewing-circle for women whose eyelids would not stay open after their long day's work. She formed cultural improvement classes for such as Leon Coventry, the printer, who knows half the literatures of the world, and MacLachan, the tailor, to whom Carlyle is by way of being light reading. She delivered some edifying exhortations upon the subject of Americanism to Polyglot Elsa, of the élite Restaurant (who had taken upon her sturdy young shoulders the support of an old mother and a paralytic sister, so that her two brothers might enlist for the war-a detail of patriotism which the dispenser of platitudes might have learned by judicious inquiry). And so forth and so on. Miss Roberta Holland meant well, but she had many things to learn and no master to teach her.

Yet when the flu epidemic returned upon us, she stood by, efficient, deft, and gallant, though still imperious, until the day when she clashed her lath-and-tinsel sword of theory against the tempered steel of the Little Red Doctor's experience. Said the Little Red Doctor (who was pressed for time at the moment): "Take orders. Or get out. Which?"

She straightened like a soldier. "Tell me what you want done."

At the end of the onset, when he gave her her release from volunteer service, she turned shining eyes upon him. "I've never been so treated in my life! You're a bully and a brute."

"You're a brick," retorted the Little Red Doctor. "I'll send for you next time Our Square needs help."

"I'll come," said she, and they shook hands solemnly.

Thereafter Our Square felt a little more lenient toward her ministrations, and even those of us who least approved her activities felt the stir of radiance and color which she brought with her.

On a day when the local philanthropy market was slack, and Miss Holland, seated in the Bonnie Lassie's front window, was maturing some new and benign outrage upon our sensibilities, she called out to the sculptress at work on a group:

"There's a queer man making queer marks on your sidewalk."

"That's Peter Quick Banta. He's a fellow artist."

"And another man, young, with a big, maney head like an amiable lion; quite a beautiful lion. He's making more marks."

"Let him make all he wants."

"They're waving their arms at each other. At least the queer man is. I think they're going to fight."

"They won't. It's only an academic discussion on technique."

"Who is the young one?"

"He's the ruin of what might have been a big artist."

"No! Is he? What did it? Drink?"

"Does he look it?"

The window-gazer peered more intently at the debaters below. "It's a peculiar face. Awfully interesting, though. He's quite poorly dressed. Does he need money? Is that what's wrong?"

"That's it, Bobbie," returned the Bonnie Lassie with a half-smile. "He needs the money."

The rampant philanthropist stirred within Miss Roberta Holland's fatally well-meaning soul. "Would it be a case where I could help? I'd love to put a real artist back on his feet. Are you sure he's real?"

On the subject of Art, the Bonnie Lassie is never anything but sincere and direct, however much she may play her trickeries with lesser interests, such as life and love and human fate.

"No; I'm not. If he were, I doubt whether he'd have let himself go so wrong."

"Perhaps it isn't too late," said the amateur missionary hopefully. "Is he a man to whom one could offer money?"

The Bonnie Lassie's smile broadened without change in its subtle quality. "Julien Tenney isn't exactly a pauper. He just thinks he can't afford to do the kind of thing he wants and ought to."

"What ought he to do?"

"Paint-paint-paint!" said the Bonnie Lassie vehemently. "Five years ago I believe he had the makings of a great painter in him. And now look what he's doing!"

"Making marks on sidewalks, you mean?"

"Worse. Commercial art."

"Designs and that sort of thing?"

"Do you ever look at the unearthly beautiful, graceful and gloriously dressed young super-Americans who appear in the advertisements, riding in super-cars or wearing super-clothes or brushing super-teeth with super-toothbrushes?"

"I suppose so," said the girl vaguely.

"He draws those."

"Is that what you call pot-boiling?"

"One kind."

"And I suppose it pays just a pittance."

"Well," replied the Bonnie Lassie evasively, "he sticks to it, so it must support him."

"Then I'm going to help him."

"'To fulfill his destiny,' is the accepted phrase," said the Bonnie Lassie wickedly. "I'll call him in for you to look over. But you'd best leave the arrangements for a later meeting."

Being summoned, Julien Tenney entered the house as one quite at home despite his smeary garb of the working artist. His presentation to Miss Holland was as brief as it was formal, for she took her departure at once.

"Who is she?" asked Julien, staring after her.

"Bobbie Holland, a gilded butterfly from uptown."

"What's she doing here?"

"Good."

"O Lord!" said he in pained tones. "Has she got a Cause?"

"Naturally."

"Philanthropist?"

"Worse."

"There ain't no sich a animile."

"There is. She's a patron of art."

"Wow!"

"Yes. She's going to patronize you."

"Not if I see her first. How do I qualify as a subject?"

"She considered you a wasted life."

"Where does she get that idea?"

The Bonnie Lassie removed a small, sharp implement from the left eye of a stoical figurine and pointed it at herself.

"Do you think that's fair?" demanded the indignant youth.

The Bonnie Lassie reversed the implement and pointed it at him. "Do you or do you not," she challenged, "invade our humble precincts in a five-thousand-dollar automobile?"

"It's my only extravagance."

"Do you or do you not maintain a luxurious apartment in Gramercy Park, when you are not down here posing in your attic as an honest working-man?"

"Oh, see here, Mrs. Staten, I won't stand for that!" he expostulated.

"You know perfectly well I keep my room here because it's the only place

I can work in quietly-"

"And because Peter Quick Banta would break his foolish old heart if you left him entirely," supplemented the sculptress.

Julien flushed and stood looking like an awkward child. "Did you tell all this stuff to Miss Holland?" he asked.

"Oh, no! She thinks that your pot-boiling is a desperate and barely sufficient expedient to keep the wolf from the door. So she is planning to help you realize your destiny."

"Which is?" he queried with lifted brows.

"To be a great painter."

The other winced. "As you know, I've meant all along, as soon as I've saved enough-"

"Oh, yes; I know," broke in the Bonnie Lassie, who can be quite ruthless where Art is concerned, "and you know; but time flies and hell is paved with good intentions, and if you want to be that kind of a pavement artist-well, I think Peter Quick Banta is a better."

"Do you suppose she'd let me paint her?" he asked abruptly.

If statuettes could blink, the one upon which the Bonnie Lassie was busied would certainly have shrouded its vision against the dazzling radiance of her smile, for this was coming about as she had planned it from the moment when she had caught the flash of startled surprise and wonder in his eyes, as they first rested on Bobbie Holland. Here, she had guessed, might be the agency to bring Julien Tenney to his artistic senses; and even so it was now working out. But all she said was-and she said it with a sort of venomous blandness-"My dear boy, you can't paint."

"Can't I! Just because I'm a little out of practice-"

"Two years, isn't it, since you've touched a palette?"

"Give me a chance at such a model as she is! That's all I ask."

"Do you think her so pretty?" inquired the sculptress disparagingly.

"Pretty? She's the loveliest thing that-" Catching his hostess's smile he broke off. "You'll admit it's a well-modeled face," he said professionally; "and-and-well, unusual."

"Pooh! 'Dangerous' is the word. Remember it," warned the Bonnie Lassie. "She's a devastating whirlwind, that child, and she comes down here partly to get away from the wreckage. Now, if you play your part cleverly-"

"I'm not going to play any part."

"Then it's all up. How is a patroness of Art going to patronize you, unless you're a poor and struggling young artist, living from hand to mouth by arduous pot-boiling? You won

't have to play a part as far as the pot-boiling goes," added his monitress viciously. "Only, don't let her know that the rewards of your shame run to high-powered cars and high-class apartments. Remember, you're poor but honest. Perhaps she'll give you money."

"Perhaps she won't," retorted the youth explosively.

"Oh, it will be done tactfully; never fear. I'll bring her around to see you and you'll have to work the sittings yourself."

As a setting for the abode of a struggling beginner, Julien's attic needed no change. It was a whim of his to keep it bare and simple. He worked out his pictorial schemes of elegance best in an environment where there was nothing to distract the eye. One could see that Miss Roberta Holland, upon her initial visit, approved its stark and cleanly poverty. (Yes, I was there to see; the Bonnie Lassie had taken me along to make up that first party.) Having done the honors, Julien dropped into the background, and presently was curled up over a drawing-board, sketching eagerly while the Bonnie Lassie and I held the doer of good deeds in talk. Now the shrewd and able tribe of advertising managers do not pay to any but a master-draughtsman the prices which "J.T."-with an arrow transfixing the initials-gets; and Julien was as deft and rapid as he was skillful. Soon appreciating what was in progress, the visitor graciously sat quite still. At the conclusion she held out her hand for the cardboard.

To be a patroness of Art does not necessarily imply that one is an adequate critic. Miss Holland contemplated what was a veritable little gem in black-and-white with cool approbation.

"Quite clever," she was pleased to say. "Would you care to sell it?"

"I don't think it would be exactly-" A stern glance from the Bonnie

Lassie cut short the refusal. He swallowed the rest of the sentence.

"Would ten dollars be too little?" asked the visitor with bright beneficence.

"Too much," he murmured. (The Bonnie Lassie says that with a little crayoning and retouching he could have sold it for at least fifty times that.)

The patroness delicately dropped a bill on the table.

"Could you some day find time to let me try you in oils?" he asked.

"Does that take long?" she said doubtfully. "I'm very busy."

"You really should try it, Bobbie," put in the crafty Bonnie Lassie. "It might give him the start he needs."

What arguments she added later is a secret between the two women, but she had her way. The Bonnie Lassie always does. So the bare studio was from time to time irradiated with Bobbie Holland's youthful loveliness and laughter. For there was much laughter between those two. Shrewdly foreseeing that this bird of paradise would return to the bare cage only if it were made amusing for her, Julien exerted himself to the utmost to keep her mind at play, and, as I can vouch who helped train him, there are few men of his age who can be as absorbing a companion as Julien when he chooses to exert his charm. All the time, he was working with a passionate intensity on the portrait; letting everything else go; tossing aside the most remunerative offers; leaving his mail unopened; throwing himself intensely, recklessly, into this one single enterprise. The fact is, he had long been starved for color and was now satiating his soul with it. Probably it was largely impersonal with him at first. The Bonnie Lassie, wise of heart that she is, thinks so. But that could not last. Men who are not otherwise safeguarded do not long retain a neutral attitude toward such creatures of grace and splendor as Bobbie Holland.

Between them developed a curious relation. It was hardly to be called friendship; he was not, to Bobbie's recognition, a habitant of her world. Nor, certainly, was it anything more. Julien would as soon have renounced easel and canvas as have taken advantage of her coming to make love to her. In this waif of our gutters and ward of our sidewalk artist inhered a spirit of the most punctilious and rigid honor, the gift, perhaps, of some forgotten ancestry. More and more, as the intimacy grew, he deserted his uptown haunts and stuck to the attic studio above the rooms where, in the dawning days of prosperity, he had installed Peter Quick Banta in the effete and scandalous luxury of two rooms, a bath, and a gas stove. Yet the picture advanced slowly which is the more surprising in that the exotic Bobbie seemed to find plenty of time for sittings now. Between visits she took to going to the Metropolitan Museum and conscientiously studying pictures and catalogues with a view to helping her protégé form sound artistic tastes. (When the Bonnie Lassie heard that, she all but choked.) As for Julien!

"This is all very well," he said, one day in the sculptress's studio; "but sooner or later she's going to catch me at it."

"What then?" asked the Bonnie Lassie, not looking up from her work.

"She'll go away."

"Let her go. Your portrait will be finished meantime, won't it?"

"Oh, yes. That'll be finished."

This time the Bonnie Lassie did look up. Immediately she looked back again.

"In any case she'll have to go away some day-won't she?"

"I suppose so," returned he in a gloomy growl.

"I warned you at the outset, 'Dangerous,'" she pointed out.

They let it drop there. As for the effect upon the girl of Julien Tenny's brilliant and unsettling personality, I could judge only as I saw them occasionally together, she lustrous and exotic as a budding orchid, he in the non-descript motley of his studio garb, serenely unconscious of any incongruity.

"Do you think," I asked the Bonnie Lassie, who was sharing my bench one afternoon as Julien was taking the patroness of Art over to where her car waited, "that she is doing him as much good as she thinks she is, or ought to?"

"Malice ill becomes one of your age, Dominie," said the Bonnie Lassie with dignity.

"I'm quite serious," I protested.

"And very unjust. Bobbie is an adorable little person, when you know her."

"Does Julien know her well enough to have discovered a self-evident fact?"

"Only," pursued my companion, ignoring the question, "she is bored and a little spoiled."

"So she comes down here to escape being bored and to get more spoiled."

"Julien won't spoil her."

"He certainly doesn't appear to bore her."

"She's having the tables turned on her without knowing it. Julien is doing her a lot of good. Already she's far less beneficent and bountiful and all that sort of stuff."

"Lassie," said I, "what, if I may so express myself, is the big idea?"

"Slang is an execrable thing from a professed scholar," she reproved. "However, the big idea is that Julien is really painting. And it's mine, that big idea."

"Mightn't it be accompanied by a little idea to the effect that the experience is likely to cost him pretty dear? What will be left when Bobbie Holland goes?"

"Pooh! Don't be an oracular sphinx," was all that I got for my pains.

Nor did Miss Bobbie show any immediate symptoms of going. If the painting seemed at times in danger of stagnation, the same could not be said of the fellowship between painter and paintee. That nourished along, and one day a vagrant wind brought in the dangerous element of historical personalities. The wind, entering at the end of a session, displaced a hanging above the studio door, revealing in bold script upon the plastering Béranger's famous line:

"Dans un grenier qu'on est bien á vingt ans!"

"Did you write that there?" asked the girl.

"Seven long years ago. And meant it, every word."

"How did you come to know Béranger?"

"I'm French born."

"'In a garret how good is life at twenty,'" she translated freely. "I wouldn't have thought"-she turned her softly brilliant regard upon him-"that life had been so good to you."

"It has," was the rejoinder. "But never so good as now."

"I've often wondered-you seem to know so many things-where you got your education?"

"Here and there and everywhere. It's only a patchwork sort of thing." (Ungrateful young scoundrel, so to describe my two-hours-a-day of brain-hammering, and the free run of my library.)

"You're a very puzzling person," said she And when a woman says that to a man, deep has begun to call to deep. (The Bonnie Lassie, who knows everything, is my authority for the statement.)

To her went the patroness of Art, on leaving Julien's "grenier" that day.

"Cecily," she said, in the most casual manner she could contrive, "who is Julien Tenney?"

"Nobody."

"You know what I mean," pleaded the girl. "What is he?"

"A brand snatched from the pot-boiling," returned the Bonnie Lassie, quite pleased with her next turn, which was more than her companion was.

"Please don't be clever. Be nice and tell me-"

"'Be nice, sweet maid, and let who will be clever,'" declaimed the Bonnie Lassie, who was feeling perverse that day. "You want me to define his social status for you and tell you whether you'd better invite him to dinner. You'd better not. He might swallow his knife."

"You know he wouldn't!" denied the girl in resentful tones. "I've never known any one with more instinctive good manners. He seems to go right naturally."

"All due to my influence and training," bragged the Bonnie Lassie. "I helped bring him up."

"Then you must know something of his antecedents."

"Ask the Dominie. He says that Julien crawled out of a gutter with the manners of a preux chevalier. Anyway, he never swallowed any of my knives. Though he's had plenty of opportunity."

"It's very puzzling," lamented Bobbie.

"Why let it prey like a worm i' the bud of your mind? You're not going to adopt him, perhaps?"

For the moment Bobbie Holland's eyes were dreamy and her tongue unguarded. "I don't know what I'm going to do with him," said she with a gesture as of one who despairingly gives over an insoluble problem.

"Umph!" said the Bonnie Lassie.

And continued sculpting.

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