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Our Square and the People in It By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 17790

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Thus Cyrus the Gaunt became a toiler in, and by slow degrees a citizen of, Our Square. We are a doubtful people where strangers are concerned. The ritual of initiation for Cyrus was, at first, chance words and offhand nods, then an occasional bidding to sit in at Schwartz's, and finally consultations and confidences on matters of import, political, social, or private. Thus was Cyrus the Gaunt adopted as one of us. Quite from the outset of his job he became a notable pictorial asset of the place, standing out, lank and black, in the intermittent gleam of his own engine, as he rolled on his appointed course amidst firmamental thunderings. Acting as chauffeur to ten tons of ill-balanced metal, he promptly discovered, is an occupation to which the tyro must pay explicit heed if he would keep within the bounds of his precinct. About the time when he was beginning to feel at ease with his charger, he came to a stop, one misty night, directly opposite the window of a taxicab, and met a pair of eyes which straightway became fixed in a paralysis of amazed doubt.

"No; it isn't. It can't be," said the owner of the eyes presently.

"Yes, it is," contradicted Cyrus.

"Well, I'm jiggered!"

"That's all that the pious young Presbyterian boss of a fashionable church has a right to be."

"What are you doing up there?"

"Piloting a submarine under Governor's Island."

"So I see." The taxi-door opened, and some six feet of well-tailored manhood mounted nimbly to Cyrus's side. "What's the fare? And why? Is it a bet?"

Cyrus the Gaunt grinned amiably in the face of the Reverend Morris Cartwright, whose appearance in that quarter did not greatly surprise him. "How did you know? It's leaked out at the club, has it?"

"Not that I know of. I guessed it."

"Thought nothing short of a bet would account for such a reversal of form, eh? Keep it to yourself, and I'll tell you the rest."

"You've hired an ear," observed the young cleric.

"Maybe you heard that I had a nervous breakdown last spring. Kind of a mixture of things."

"Yes; I know the mixture. Three of gin to one of Italian."

"You know too much for a minister," growled the other. "Besides, it was only part that. I just sort of got sick of doing nothing and being nothing, and the sickness struck in, I expect. Well, one morning, after a night of bridge, I came out into the breakfast-room nine hundred plus to the good, and about ready to invest the whole in any kind of painless dope that would save me from being bored with this life any more. There sat Doc Gerritt, pink and smooth like a cherry-stone clam. I stuck out my hand, and it was shaking. I dare say my voice was shaking, too, for Gerry looked up pretty sharp, when I said, 'Doc, can you do anything for me?' 'No,' says he. 'Is it as bad as that?' I asked. 'It's worse,' says he. 'I'm a busy man with no time to waste on sure losses. Flat down, Cyrus, you aren't worth it.' 'This is all I've got of me,' I said. 'I'm worth it to myself.' 'Then do it for yourself,' he snapped. 'You're the only one that can.' 'Will you tell me how?' 'I will,' says he. 'But you won't do it. You aren't man enough.' 'Gerry,' I said, 'you may be a good doctor, but you're a damn liar.' 'Am I?' says he. 'Prove it. Cut the booze and go to work.' 'Work won't do me any good,' I said. 'I've tried it, and it bored me worse than the other thing. When I'm bored, I naturally reach for a drink.' (There's a great truth in that, you know, Carty, if the temperance people would only grab it: boredom and booze -cause and effect.) 'That's a hot line of advice, Doc,' I said. 'Maybe you'll think better of it when you get my bill for fifty,' says he. (I got it, too. I've still got it.) 'I don't mean Wall Street, Cyrus,' says he. 'I mean work. You've never tried work. You've just played at it. I'll bet you a thousand,' he went on (he was playing me up to this all the time, Carty), 'that you'd starve in six months if you tried to make your living where nobody knows you.' Well, Carty, you know how I am with a bet. It comes just as natural to me to say 'You're on,' as 'Here's how,' or 'Have another.' I said it, and here I am. I'll bet Doc Gerritt's laughing yet," he concluded with a wry face.

"They say he's the best diagnostician going, in his own line." The young clergyman studied Cyrus out of the corner of his eye. "I wouldn't wonder if it were true. How do you like the prescription so far?"

"Interesting," said Cyrus the Gaunt. "I've been hungry, and I've been lonely, and I've been scared, and I've even been near-yellow, but I haven't been bored for a minute. You never get bored, Carty, when you have the probabilities of your next meal to speculate on, pro and con. Odd jobs have been my stay mostly, before I landed this. And when there wasn't anything in my own line, I kept up my nerve by catching 'em on the way down and shoving 'em into jobs on Jink Hereford's Canadian preserve."

"Good man!" approved the Reverend Morris Cartwright. "What'll you have?" he added.

"Frankfurters and a glass of milk, if it's an open order. But you'll have to fetch it to me from Schwartz's. I can't leave this here skittish little pet of mine."

Then and there some Sunday supplement missed a "throbbing human-interest story" in that no reporter was present to witness one of New York's fashionable young pastors emerging from an obscure saloon bearing food and drink to the grimy driver of an all-night thunder-wagon.

"And now," said Cyrus the Gaunt, handing down the empty glass, "if it isn't one of your disgraceful secrets, what are you doing in this galley? Heading off some poor unfortunate who wants to go to the devil peacefully, in his own way?"

"No, I leave that to the doctors," retorted the other mildly.

"Quite so," chuckled Cyrus. "Throw some water in my face and drag me to my corner, will you?"

"This is an errand of diplomacy," continued Cartwright. "I'm an envoy. Do you happen to know which house-" His ranging vision fell upon the row of figures joyously dancing in the window. "Never mind," he said, "I've found it." He disappeared between the portals of the old-fashioned, hospitable door.

Quite a considerable part of his week's wages would Cyrus the Gaunt have forfeited to interpret the visitor's expression when he came out, a long hour later. He looked at once harassed, regretful, and yet triumphant, as one might look who had achieved the object of a thankless errand.

The Bonnie Lassie came to the door with him and stood gazing out across the flaring lights and quivering shadows of Our Square. It seemed to Cyrus that the flower-face drooped a little.

And indeed the Bonnie Lassie was not feeling very happy. When one's adopted world goes well, the claims that draw one back become irksome ties. The messenger from the world which she had temporarily foregone was far from welcome. But at least she had claimed and won some months of respite and freedom for her work.

So engrossed did she become with that work that she saw little or nothing of Cyrus the Gaunt until Chance brought them together in the climatic fashion so dear to that Protean arbiter of destinies. Returning one evening from a call upon a small invalid friend in a tenement quite remote from Our Square, the Bonnie Lassie essayed a cross-cut which skirted the mouth of a blind alley. From within there sounded a woman's scream of pain and fear.

The Bonnie Lassie hesitated. It was a forbidding alley, and the scream was not inspiriting. It was repeated. Not for nothing is one undisputed empress of Our Square. The Bonnie Lassie had the courage of one who rules. She swooped into that black byway like a swallow entering a cave. Now the screams were muffled, with a grisly, choked sound. They led her flying feet toward a narrow side passage. But before she reached the turn, a towering bulk sped by her, almost filling the thin slit between the walls.

When she came within view, the matter was apparently settled. A swarthy, vividly clad woman cringed against one wall. Against the other Cyrus had pinned a swarthier man. The man, helpless, seemed to be wheedling and promising. With a final shake and a growl-the girl likened it in her mind to that of a great, magnanimous dog-the gaunt one released the Sicilian and stopped to pick up his hat, which had fallen in the struggle. Then the girl's heart leaped and clogged her throat with terror, for, as Cyrus turned, the pretense fell from the face of his opponent and it changed to a mask of murder. His hand darted to his breast and came forth clutching the thin, terrible, homemade stiletto of the rag-picking tribe, a file ground to a rounded needle-point. The girl strove to cry out. It seemed to her only the whisper of a nightmare. But it was enough.

Cyrus spun around and leaped back. His arm went out stiff as a bar. At the end of it was a formidable

something which flashed with an ugly glint of metal in the Sicilian's face. Whether or not she heard a report, the terror-stricken onlooker could not have said. But the would-be murderer screamed, tottered, withered. His weapon tinkled upon the coping. Then an arm of inordinate size and strength encircled the Bonnie Lassie, whirled her up out of a pit of blackness, and supported her through a reeling world. At her ear a quietly urgent voice kept insisting that she must walk-walk-walk, and not let herself lapse. A shock jolted her brain. It was the smell of ammonia. The darkness dissipated, became an almost intolerable light, and she found herself seated opposite Cyrus the Gaunt at a polished metal table in an ice cream parlor.

* * *

"Don't let go of my hand," she whispered faintly.

His big, reassuring clasp tightened. "We got away before the crowd came," he said. "You have wonderful nerve. I thought you were gone."

"Don't speak of it," she shuddered. "I can't stand it."

Not until, after a slow, silent walk, they were seated on a bench in Our Square could she gather her resolution for the dreadful question. "Did you kill him?"

"Good Lord, no!"

Whirled her up out of a pit of blackness, and supported her through a reeling world.

"But-but-you shot him!"

"Yes, with this." He thrust his hand in his pocket, and again, as she closed her eyes against the sight, she caught faintly the pungent stimulus that had revived her.

"What is it?"

"Ammonia-pop. Model of my own." Her eyes flew open, the color flooded into her cheeks, but receded again. "He might have killed you!" she exclaimed. "I thought when you turned away and I saw the dagger that- Oh, how could you take such a desperate chance?"

"Just fool-in-the-head, I guess. I supposed he was through. Don't know that breed, you see. But for you, he'd have got me."

"But for you," she retorted, "I don't know what might have happened to me. How came you to be down in that slum?"

"Oh," said he carelessly, "I prowl."

"As far away as that?" She looked at him, sidelong.

"All around. I know that neighborhood like a book."

"What's the name of that alley?"

"Alley? Er-what alley?"

"Mr. Cyrus Murphy, how long have you been following me about?"

He turned an unpicturesque, dull red. "Well, that's no place for a girl alone," he growled.

"You know, one evening I thought I saw you, down near Avenue C, but I couldn't be sure. Was it?"

"It might have been," he grudged. "Avenue C is a public thoroughfare."

"And you've been guarding me," she murmured.

Her eyes brooded on him, and the color was rising in her face to match his. But, while Cyrus blushed like a brick, the Bonnie Lassie blushed like the hue of flying clouds after sunset.

"Why don't you take a policeman?" he blurted out. "If anything should happen to you-It isn't safe," he concluded lamely.

"Not even when I'm chaperoned with an ammonia popgun?" she smiled. "Why do you carry that?"

"For dogs. Dogs don't always like me. It's my clothes, I suppose."

"Any dog who wouldn't like and trust you on sight," she pronounced with intense conviction, "is an imbecile."

He smiled his acknowledgment. At that her face altered.

"There you go, smiling once more," she said fretfully. "You do it very seldom, but-"

"I'm always smiling, deep inside me, at you," he said quietly.

"But when you smile outside, it makes you so different. And I find I've done you all wrong."

"Are you still sculping me?" he asked in surprise.

"I-I have been, but I stopped." She paused, trying again to think of him as merely a model, and found, to her discomfiture, that it caused a queer, inexplicable little pang deep inside her heart. Nevertheless, the artist rose overpoweringly within her at his next question.

"Do you want me to sit for you again?"

"Oh, would you? Now?"

He glanced at the church clock. "I've forty-seven minutes," he said.

Much may be accomplished in forty-seven minutes. In the studio she sprang to her work with a sort of contained fury. And as the eager, intent eyes regarded him with an ever-increasing impersonality, a pain was born in his heart and grew and burned, because to this woman who had clung to him in the abandonment of mortal weakness but an hour before, whose pulses had leaped and fluttered for his peril, he had become only a subject for exploitation, something to further her talent, wax to her deft hand.

Perhaps he had been that since the first. Well, what right had he to expect anything more?

Nothing of this reached the absorbed worker. She was intent upon her model's mouth and chin, whereon she had caught the sense of significant changes. Had she but once come forth from her absorption to see and interpret the man's eyes, she might have known. For only in the eyes does a brave man's suffering show; the rest of his face he may control beyond betrayal. Something happily restrained her from offering payment as usual, when she finally threw the cloth over the unfinished sketch.

"You spoke of dogs not liking your clothes," she said lightly. "Do you always sleep in them?"

"Oh, no. They sleep on the floor at the foot of my bed and keep watch. May I have them pressed?"

"It would be an interesting change. But why ask my permission?"

"Because you told me once to come as is.'"

"So I did," she laughed. "But that was before you were an honest workingman. Go and get pressed out."

"No more use for me as a model?"

"Oh, I don't say that."

"But I'm to see you sometimes?" he persisted.

"How could it be otherwise, with you doing patrol duty in front of my door?" she twinkled.

With unnecessary emphasis she shut the door upon the retiring form of Cyrus the Gaunt. But his double, already inalienable, returned to the studio with her and formed a severely accusative third party to her dual self-communion. Said the woman within her, woefully: "I mustn't see him again. I mustn't! I mustn't!" Said the sculptor within her, exultingly: "I've got him. I've got what I wanted. It's there and I've fixed it forever." Which was a mistake of the sculptor's, however nearly right or wrong the woman may have been.

Thenceforward, it appeared to Cyrus the Gaunt, the Bonnie Lassie exhibited an increasing tendency toward invisibility. When he did see her, there were sure to be other people about, and she seemed subdued and distrait. Presently the suspicion dawned upon Cyrus that she was avoiding him. Being a simple, direct person, he laid his theory before her. She denied it with unnecessary heat; but that didn't go far toward rehabilitating the old cheerful and friendly status. Cyrus the Gaunt, despite a wage which assured three excellent meals per day, began to grow gaunter. Our Square commented upon it with concern.

There came a time when, for ten consecutive days, Cyrus the Gaunt never set eyes upon the Bonnie Lassie, nor did his ear so much as catch a single lilt of her laughter. At the end of that period, strolling moodily past his now flavorless job full two hours early, he beheld mounting the steps of the funny little mansion a heavy male figure, clad from head to foot in what had a grisly suggestion of professional black. The sight sent a chill to Cyrus's heart. The chill froze solid when on a nearer approach to the house he heard the sound of voices within, joined in a slow chant. Half-blind and shaking, he made his way to the rail and clung there. Slowly the words took form and meaning, and this was their solemn message:-

The Good Man,

When-he-falleth-in-Love

And-getteth-Snubbed,

Breaketh Forth In-to Tears:

But-the-Ungawdly Careth Notta Damn!

For Woman,

She-is-but-Vanity

Ay, Verily, and False-Curls.

And-the-Wooing Thereof Is Bitterness.

For-he-Wasteth-his-Substance-Upon-Her,

Taking-her-Pic-nics and Balls.

And she Danceth with some

Other Feller.

Oh-hh SLUSH!!!

A window-shade floated sideways, revealing to the peerer's gaze a gnome with blue ears beating out the tempo with the fire-tongs for a quartette, consisting of an aeroplane, a Salvation Army captain, a white rabbit, and an Apache, while a motley crowd circulated around them. In the intensity of his relief, Cyrus the Gaunt took a great resolve: "Invited or not invited, I'm going to that party."

MacLachan's "Home of Fashion" on the corner was long since dark, but Cyrus's pedal fantasia on the panels brought forth the indignant proprietor.

"What have you got for me to go to a fancy party in, Mac?" demanded his disturber.

"Turnverein or Pansy Social Circle?" inquired the practical tailor.

"Neither. A dead swell party."

"Go as ye are-rr, ye fule!" said the Scot, and slammed the door.

"Perfectly simple," said Cyrus the Gaunt. "I'll do it."

He hastened around to Schwartz's to wash his hands and smut his face artistically.

* * *

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