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From a Bench in Our Square By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 26430

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Mayme Mccartney was a bad little good girl. She inspired (I trust) esteem for her goodness. But it was for her hardy and happy impudence, her bent for ingenious mischief, her broad and catholic disrespect for law, conventions, proprieties and persons, and the glint of the devil in her black eyes that we really loved her. Such is the perversity of human nature in Our Square. I am told that it is much the same elsewhere.

She first came into public notice by giving (unsolicited) a most scandalous and spirited imitation of old Madame Tallafferr, aforetime of the Southern aristocracy, in the act of rebuking her landlord, the insecticidal Boggs ("Boggs Kills Bugs" in his patent of nobility), for eating peanuts on his own front steps. She then (earnestly solicited by a growing audience) put on impromptu sketches of the Little Red Doctor diagnosing internal complications in a doodle-bug; of MacLachan (drunk) singing "The Cork Leg" and MacLachan (sober) repenting thereof; of Bartholomew Storrs offering samples of his mortuary poesy to a bereaved second-cousin; and, having decked out her chin in cotton-batten whiskers (limb of Satan!), of myself proffering sage counsel and pious admonitions to Our Square at large. Having concluded, she sat down on a bench and coughed. And the Little Red Doctor, who, from the shelter of a shrub had observed her presentation of his little idiosyncrasies, drew nearer and looked at her hard. For he disliked the sound of that cough. He suspected that his old friend and opponent, Death, with whom he fought an interminable campaign, was mocking him from ambush. It wasn't quite fair play, either, for the foe to use the particular weapon indicated by the cough on a mere child. With her lustrous hair loose and floating, and her small, eager, flushed face, she looked far short of the mature and self-reliant seventeen which was the tally of her experienced years.

"Hello," greeted the Little Red Doctor, speaking with the brusque informality of one assured of his place as a local celebrity. "I don't know you, do I?"

Mayme lifted her eyes. "If you don't," she drawled, "it ain't for lack of tryin'. Is your hat glued on?"

"Good Lord!" exclaimed the Little Red Doctor indignantly. "Do you think

I'm trying to flirt with you? Why, you're only a kid."

"Get up to date," advised Mayme. "I'm old enough to be your steady.

Only, I'm too lucky."

"That's a bad cough you've got," said the Little Red Doctor hastily.

"I've got a better one at home. Like to hear it some day?"

"Bring it over to my office and let's look at the thing," suggested the

Little Red Doctor, smiling.

As Mayme McCartney observed that smile with the shrewd judgment of men which comes early, in self-protection, to girls of her environment, the suspicion and impudence died out of her face, which became wistful.

"D'you think it means anything?" she asked.

"Any cough means something. I couldn't tell without examination."

"How much?" inquired the cautious Mayme.

The Little Red Doctor is a willing liar in a good cause. "No charge for first consultation. Come over to my office."

When the test was finished, the Little Red Doctor looked professionally non-committal. "Live with your parents?" he asked.

"No. With my aunt. 'Round in the Avenue."

"Where do you work?"

"The Emporium," answered the girl, naming the great and still fashionable downtown department store, half a mile to the westward.

"You ought to quit. As soon as possible."

"And spoil my delicate digestion?"

"Who said anything about your digestion?"

"I did. If I quit workin', I quit eatin'. And that's bad for me. I tried it once."

"I see," said the Little Red Doctor, recognizing a condition by no means unprecedented in local practice. "Couldn't you get a job in some better climate?"

"Where, for instance?"

"Well, if you knew any one in California."

"How's the walkin'?" asked Mayme.

"It's long," replied the Little Red Doctor, "seeing" again. "Anyway, you've got to have fresh air."

"They serve it fresh, every morning, right here in Our Square," Mayme pointed out.

"Good idea. Get up early and fill your lungs full of it for an hour every day." He gave some further instructions.

Mayme produced a dollar, and delicately placed it on the mantel.

"Take it away," said the Little Red Doctor. "Didn't I tell you-"

"Go-wan!" said Mayme. "Whadda you think you are; Bellevue Hospital? I pay as I go, Doc."

The Little Red Doctor frowned austerely.

"What's the matter? Face hurt you?" asked the solicitous Mayme.

"People don't call me 'Doc,'" began the offended practitioner in dignified tones.

"Oh, that's because they ain't on to you," she assured him. "I wouldn't call you 'Doc' myself if I didn't know you was a good sport back of your bluff."

The Little Red Doctor grinned, looking first at Mayme and then at the dollar. "You aren't such a bad sport yourself," he admitted. "Well, we'll call this a deal. But if I see you in the Square and give you a tip about yourself now and again, that doesn't count. That's on the side. Understand?"

She considered it gravely. "All right," she agreed at length. "Between pals, yes? Shake, Doc."

So began the quaint friendship between our hard-worked, bluff, knightly-hearted practitioner, and the impish and lovable little store-girl. Also another of the innumerable tilts between him and his old friend, Death.

"He's got the jump on me, Dominie," complained the Little Red Doctor to me. "But, at that, we're going to give him a fight. She's clear grit, that youngster is. She's got a philosophy of life, too. I don't know where she got it, or just what it is, but it's there. Oh, she's worth saving, Dominie."

"If I hadn't reason to think you safeguarded, my young friend," said I,

"I'd give you solemn warning."

"Why, she's an infant!" returned the Little Red Doctor scornfully. "A poor, little, monkey-faced child. Besides-" He stopped and sighed.

"Yes; I know," I assented. There was at that time a "Besides" in the Little Red Doctor's sorrowful heart which bulked too large to admit of any rivalry. "Nevertheless," I added, "you needn't be so scornful about the simian type in woman. It's a concentrated peril to mankind. I've seen trouble caused in this world by kitten faces, by pure, classic faces, by ox-eyed-Juno faces, by vivid blond faces, by dreamy, poetic faces, by passionate Southern faces, but for real power of catastrophe, for earthquake and eclipse, for red ruin and the breaking up of laws, commend me to the humanized, feminized monkey face. I'll wager that when Antony first set eyes on Cleopatra, he said, 'And which cocoa palm did she fall out of?' Phryne was of the beautified baboon cast of features, and as for Helen of Troy, the best authorities now lean to the belief that the face that launched a thousand ships and fired the topless towers of Ilium was a reversion to the arboreal. I tell you, man that is born of woman cannot resist it. Give little Mayme three more years-"

"I wish to God I could," said the Little Red Doctor.

"Can't you?" I asked, startled. "Is it as bad as that?"

"It isn't much better. How's your insomnia, Dominie?"

"Insomnia," said I, "is a scientific quibble for unlaid memories. I take mine out for the early morning air at times, if that's what you mean."

"It is. Keep an eye on the kid, and do what you can to prevent that busy little mind of hers from brooding."

In that way Mayme McCartney and I became early morning friends. She adopted for her special own a bench some rods from mine under the lilac near the fountain. After her walk, taken with her thin shoulders flung back and the chest filling with deep, slow breaths, she would pay me a call or await one from me and we would exchange theories and opinions and argue about this and other worlds. Seventy against seventeen. Fair exchange, for, if mine were the riper creed, hers was the more vivid and adventurous. Who shall say which was the sounder?

On the morning of the astonishing Trespass, I was late, being discouraged by a light rain. As she approached her bench, she found it occupied by an individual who appeared to be playing a contributory part in the general lamentation of nature. The interloper was young and quite exquisite of raiment, which alone would have marked him for an outlander. His elbows were propped on his knees, his fists supported his cheekbones, his whole figure was in a slump of misery. Scrutinizing him with surprise, Mayme was shocked to see a glistening drop, detached from his drooping countenance, fall to the pavement, followed by another. At the same time she heard an unmistakable and melancholic sound.

The benches in Our Square have seen more life than most. They have cradled weariness of body and spirit; they have assuaged grief and given refuge to shaking terror, and been visited by Death. They have shivered to the passion of cursing men and weeping women. But never before had any of their ilk heard grown young manhood blubber. Neither had Mayme McCartney. It inspired her with mingled emotions, the most immediate of which was a desire to laugh.

Accordingly she laughed. The intruder lifted a woeful face, gave her one vague look, and reverted to his former posture. Mayme stopped laughing. She advanced and put a friendly hand on one of the humped shoulders.

"Cheer up, Buddy," she said. "It ain't as bad as you think it is."

"It's worse," gulped a choky voice. Then the head lifted again. "Who are you?" it demanded.

"I'm your big sister," said Mayme reassuringly. "Tell a feller about it."

The response was neither polite nor explanatory. "D--n sisters!" said the bencher.

"Oh, tutt-tutt and naughty-naughty!" rebuked Mayme. "Somebody's sister been puttin' somethin' over on poor little Willy?"

"My own sister has." He was in that state of semi-hysterical exhaustion in which revelation of one's intimate troubles to the first comer seems natural. "She's gone and got arrested," he wailed.

Mayme's face became grave and practical.

"That's different," said she. "What's her lay?"

"Lay? I don't know-"

"What's her line? What's she done to get pinched?"

"Shoplifting. At the special night sale of the Emporium."

"You're tellin' me! In the silks, huh?"

"What do you know about it? My God! Is it in the papers already?"

"Keep your hair on, Buddy. I work there, and I heard about that pinch. Swell young married lady. Say," she added, after a thoughtful pause: "has she got somethin' comin'?"

"Something coming? How? What?"

"Don't be dumb. A kid."

He stared. She was looking at him with unabashed frankness. Those who live in the close, rough intimacy of the slums do not cherish false shame about the major facts of life.

"Suppose she has?" queried the youth sulkily.

"Why, that'll be all right, you poor boob," returned the kindly Mayme.

"The judge'll let her off with a warning."

"How do you know?"

"They always do. Those cases are common. Dolan ought to be canned for makin' a pinch of a lady in the fam'ly way."

"What if they do let her off?" lamented the youth. "It'll be in all the papers and I'll be ruined. My life's spoiled. I might as well leave the city."

"Ah, don't do a mean trick like that to the old town!" besought the sardonic Mayme. "Where do you come in to get hurt?"

He burst into the hectic grievances of the pampered and spoiled child. His family was just getting a foothold in Society (with an almost holy emphasis on the word) and now they were disgraced. All was up. Their new, precariously held acquaintances would drop them. In his petulant grief he did an amazing thing; he produced a bunch of clippings from the local society columns, setting forth, in the printed company of the Shining Ones, the doings (mostly charitable) of Mrs. Samuel Berthelin, her daughter, Mrs. Harris, and her son, David, referred to glowingly as "the scion of the wealth and position of the late lamented financier."

Mayme was impressed. Like most shop-girls she was a fervent reader of society news. (If shop-girls did not read this fine flower of American democracy, nobody would, except those who wait eagerly and anxiously for their names to appear.) She perceived-not knowing that the advertising leverage of the Berthelin Loan Agency had forced those insecure portals of print for the entry of Mrs. Berthelin and her progeny-that she was in the presence of the Great. Capacity for awe was not in Mayme's independent soul. But she was interested and sympathetic. Here was a career worth saving!

"Let's go over to the station-house," said she. "I know some of the cops."

To the white building with the green lanterns they went. The shoplifting case, it appeared, had already been bailed out. Furthermore, everything would be all right and there was little fear of publicity; the store itself would see to that. Vastly relieved and refreshed in spirit, David Berthelin began to take stock of his companion with growing interest. She was decidedly not pretty. Just as decidedly she was quaint and piquant and quite new to his jejune but also somewhat bored experience. From

the opening passage of their first conversation he deduced, lacking the insight to discriminate between honest frankness and immodesty, that she was a "fly kid." On that theory he invited her to breakfast with him. Mayme accepted. They went to Thomson's élite Restaurant, on the corner, where David roused mingled awe and misgivings in the breast of Polyglot Elsa, the cashier, by ordering champagne, and Mayme reassured her by declining it.

Thus began an acquaintanceship which swiftly ripened into a queer sort of intimacy, more than a little disturbing to us of Our Square who were interested in Mayme. Young Berthelin's over-ornate roadster lingered in our quiet precincts more often than appeared to us suitable or safe, and black-eyed Mayme, looking demure and a little exalted, was whirled away to unknown worlds, always returning, however, at respectable hours. When the Little Red Doctor remonstrated with her ostensibly on the score of her health, she reminded him in one breath that he hadn't been invited to censor her behavior which was entirely her own affair, and in the next-with his hand caught between hers and her voice low and caressing-declared that he was the best little old Doc in the world and there was nothing to worry about, either as to health or conduct. Indeed, her condition seemed to be improving. I dare say young Mr. Berthelin's expensive food was one of the things she needed. Furthermore, she ceased to be the raggle-taggle, hoydenishly clad Mayme of the cash department, and, having been promoted to saleswoman, quite went in for dress. On this point she sought the advice of the Bonnie Lassie. The result went far to justify my prophecy that Mayme's queer little face might yet make its share of trouble in an impressionable world. But the Bonnie Lassie shook her bonnie head privately and said that the fine-feathers development was a bad sign, and that if young Berthelin would obligingly run his seventeen-jeweled roadster off the Williamsburgh Bridge, with himself in it, much trouble might be saved for all concerned.

If little Mayme were headed for trouble, she went to meet it with a smiling face. Never had she seemed so joyous, so filled with the desire of life. This much was to be counted on the credit side, the Little Red Doctor said. On the debit side-well, to me was deputed the unwelcome task of conveying the solemn, and, as it were, official protest and warning of Our Square. Of course I did it at the worst possible moment. It was early one morning, when Mayme, on her bench, was looking a little hollow-eyed and disillusioned. I essayed the light and jocular approach to the subject:

"Well, Mayme; how is the ardent swain?"

She turned to me with the old flash in her big, shadowed eyes: "Did you say swain or swine, Dominie?"

"Ah!" said I. "Has he changed his r?le?"

"He's given himself away, if that's what you mean."

"I thought that would come."

"He-he wanted me to take a trip to Boston with him."

I considered this bit of information, which was not as surprising or unexpected as Mayme appeared to deem it. "Have you told the Little Red Doctor?"

"Doc'd kill him," said Mayme simply.

"What better reason for telling?"

"Oh, the poor kid: he don't know any better."

"Doesn't he? In any case I trust that you know better, after this, than to have anything more to do with him."

"Yep. I've cut him out," replied Mayme listlessly. "I figured you and Doc were right, Dominie. It's no good, his kind of game. Not for girls like me." She looked up at me with limpid eyes, in which there was courage and determination and suffering.

"My dear," I murmured, "I hope it isn't going to be too hard."

"He's so pretty," said Mayme McCartney wistfully.

So he was, now that I came to think of it. With his clear, dark color, his wavy hair, his languishing brown eyes, his almost girlishly graceful figure, and his beautiful clothes, he was pretty enough to fascinate any inexperienced imagination. But I cannot say that he looked pretty when, a few days later, he invaded Our Square in search of a Mayme who had vanished beyond his ken (she had kept her tenement domicile a secret from him), and, addressing me as "you white-whiskered old goat," accused me of having come between him and the girl upon whom he had deigned to bestow his lordly favor. Unfortunately for him, the Little Red Doctor chanced along just then and inquired, none too deferentially, what the Scion of Wealth and Position was doing in that quarter.

"What business is it of yours, Red-Head?" countered the offended visitor.

He then listened with distaste, but perforce (for what else could he do in the grasp of a man of twice his power?), to a brilliant and convincing summary of his character, terminating in a withering sketch of his personal and sartorial appearance.

"I didn't mean the kid any harm," argued the Scion suavely. "I-I came back to apologize."

"Let me catch you snooping around here again and I'll break every bone in your body," the Little Red Doctor answered him.

"I guess this Square's free to everybody. I guess you don't own it," said the youth, retreating to his car.

Notwithstanding the unimpeachable exactitude of this surmise, he was seen no more in that locality. Judge, then, of our dismay, locally, at learning, not a fortnight later, from a fellow employee of Mayme's, that she had been met at closing time by a swell young guy in a cherry-colored rattler, who took her away to dine with him. Catechized upon the point, later on, by a self-appointed committee of two consisting of the Little Red Doctor and myself, Mayme said vaguely that it was all right; we didn't understand. This is, I believe, the usual formula. The last half of it at least, was true.

About that time we, in common with the rest of the Nation, took that upon our minds which was even more important than Mayme McCartney's love affair. War loomed imminently before us. It was only a question of the fitting time to strike; and Our Square was feverishly reckoning up its military capacity. The great day of the declaration came. The Nation had drawn the sword. In the week following, Our Square was invaded.

She descended upon us from the somber sumptuousness of a gigantic limousine, the majestic, the imposing, the formidable, the authoritative Mrs. S. Berthelin. We knew at once who she was, because she led, by the ear, as it were, her hopeful progeny, young David. I do not mean that she had an actual auricular grip on him, but the effect upon his woe-begone and brow-beaten person was the same. He suggested vividly a spoiled and pretty lapdog being sternly conveyed to a detested bath. She suggested a vivified bouquet of artificial flowers. We hastily rallied our forces to meet her; the Little Red Doctor, the Bonnie Lassie, and myself. Mrs. Berthelin opened her exordium in a tone of high philippic, not even awaiting the formalities of introduction. But when I insisted upon these, and she learned that the Bonnie Lassie was Mrs. Cyrus Staten, she cringed. Despite a desire to keep out of the society columns quite as genuine as that of Mrs. Berthelin's to get in, the Cyrus Statens frequently figure among the Shining Ones, a fact almost painfully appreciated by our visitor. After that it was easy to get her into the Bonnie Lassie's house, where her eloquence could not draw a crowd. To get young David there was not quite so easy. He made one well-timed and almost successful effort to bolt, and even evinced signs of balking on the steps.

His punishment was awaiting him. No sooner were we all settled in the Bonnie Lassie's studio than the mother proceeded to regale us with a history and forecast of his career, beginning with his precocious infant lispings and terminating with his projected, though wholly indefinite, marriage into the Highest Social Circles. To do David justice, he squirmed.

"Have you got him a job as a general in the army yet, ma'am?" inquired the Little Red Doctor suavely.

It was quite lost upon Mrs. Berthelin. She informed us that a commission as Captain in the Quartermaster's Department was arranged for, and she expected to have the young officer assigned to New York so that he could live at home in the comfort and luxury suitable to his wealth and condition. And what she wanted us to understand clearly was that no designing little gutter-snipe was to be allowed to compromise David's future. She concluded with an imaginative and most unflattering estimate of Mayme McCartney's character, manners, and morals, in the midst of which I heard a gasp.

It came from Mayme, standing, wide-eyed and white, in the doorway. The front door had been left ajar, and, seeing the Berthelins' monogrammed car outside, she had come in. The oratress turned and stared.

"That's a lie," said Mayme McCartney steadily. "I'm as straight a girl as your own daughter. Ask him."

She pointed to the stricken David. Pointing may not be ladylike, but it can be extremely effective. David's head dropped into his hands.

"Oh, Ma!" he groaned.

"Don't call me 'Ma,'" snapped the goaded Mrs. Berthelin. "And this is the girl?" She looked Mayme up and down. Mayme did the same by her and did it better.

"I could give you a lorny-yette and beat you at the frozen-stare trick," said the irrepressible Mayme at the conclusion of the duel which ended in her favor.

The Little Red Doctor gurgled. I saw the Bonnie Lassie's eyelids quiver, but her face was cold and impassive as she turned to the visitor.

"Mrs. Berthelin," said she, "you have made some very damaging statements, before witnesses, about Miss McCartney's character. What proof have you?"

"Why, he wants to marry her!" almost yelled the mother. "She's trapped him."

"That's another lie," said Mayme.

"He told me himself that he was going to marry you."

"Did he? Then he's wrong. I wouldn't marry him with a brass ring," asserted Mayme.

"You wouldn't mar-You wouldn't what?" demanded the mother, outraged and incredulous.

"You heard me. He knows it, too. I don't like the family-what I've seen of them," observed Mayme judicially. "Besides, he's yellow."

David's shamed face emerged into view. "I'm not," he gulped. "She-she made me."

"Captain!" said Mayme with a searing scorn in her voice. "Quartermaster's Department! Safety first! When half the little fifteen-per tape-snippers in the Emporium are breakin' their fourteen-inch necks volunteerin' early and often to get where the fightin' is."

David Berthelin stood on his feet, and his pretty face wore an ugly expression.

"Let me out of here," he growled.

"David!" said his mother. "Where are you going?"

"To enlist."

"Davey!" It was a shriek. "You shan't."

"I will."

"I won't let you."

"You can go to-"

"Buddy!" Mayme's voice, magically softened, broke in. "Cut out the rough stuff. You better go home and think it over. Bein' a private is no pink-silk picnic."

"I'd rather see a son of mine dead than a common soldier!" cried Mrs.

Berthelin.

The Bonnie Lassie, very white, rose. "You must leave this house," she said. "At once. Think yourself fortunate that I cannot bring myself to betray a guest. Otherwise I should report you to the authorities."

Young David addressed Mayme in the words and tone of a misunderstood and aggrieved pet. "You think I'm no good. I'll show you, Mayme. Wait till I come back-if I ever do come back-and you'll be sorry."

"Hero stuff," commented the Little Red Doctor. "It'll all have oozed out of his fingertips this time to-morrow."

"Will you show me a place to enlist?" challenged the boy. "And," he added with a malicious grin, "will you enlist with me?"

"Sure!" said the Little Red Doctor. "I'll show you. But they won't take me." He bestowed a bitter glance on his twisted foot. "Come along."

They went off together, while Mrs. Berthelin scandalized Our Square by an exhibition of hysterics involving language not at all in accord with the rich respectability of her apparel and her limousine.

We waited at the Bonnie Lassie's for the Little Red Doctor's return. He came back alone. I thought that I detected a pathetic little gleam of disappointment in Mayme's deep eyes.

"He's done it," said the Little Red Doctor. And I was sorry for him, so much was there of tragic envy in his face.

"Did you give him your blessing?" I asked.

"I did. He shook hands like a man. There's maybe something in that boy, if it weren't for the old hell-cat of a mother. However, she won't have much chance. He's off to-morrow."

"Will he write?" said Mayme in a curious, strained voice.

"He will. He'll report to me from time to time."

"Didn't he-wasn't there any message?"

"Just good-bye and good luck," answered the Little Red Doctor, censoring ruthlessly.

The Bonnie Lassie went over and put her arms around Mayme McCartney.

"My dear," she said softly. "It wouldn't do. It really wouldn't. He isn't worth it. You're going to forget him."

"All right." Suddenly Mayme looked like a very helpless and sorrowful little girl. "Only, it-it isn't goin' to be as easy as you think. He was so pretty," said Mayme McCartney wistfully.

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