Ainslee’s, September 1909
ARK you, I am not defending James Datchett. I think James should not have done it. I merely say that there were extenuating circumstances.
Let us review the matter calmly and judicially.
The fact was that James, who was assistant master at Mr. Blatherwick’s private school, at a small but sufficient salary, was also a poet. In his Harvard days he had contributed light verse to a college magazine; and for some months past now he had been endeavoring to do the same to the papers of New York, without success until that very morning.
I want you to follow me very closely here. As far as the excusing of James’ conduct is concerned, it is now or never. If I fail at this point to touch you, James is, if I may use the expression, definitely in the soup.
Let me marshal my facts.
It was a simply bully morning.
James had just found a set of verses of his in print in a monthly magazine.
This had never happened to him before.
He was twenty-two.
And, just as he rounded the angle of the house, he came upon Violet, taking the air like himself.
“Good morning, sir,” said Violet.
Violet was one of the housemaids, a trim, energetic little person with round blue eyes and a friendly smile. She smiled at James as she spoke. James halted.
From my list of contributory causes I find that I have omitted one item, viz., that there did not appear to be anybody else about. In another moment the deed was done. James stooped, and—in a purely brotherly manner—kissed Violet.
This, of course, was wrong. It was no part of James’ duties as assistant master at Harrow House to wander about kissing housemaids, even in a brotherly manner. On the other hand, there was no great harm done. In the circles in which Violet moved the kiss was equivalent to the handshake of loftier society. Everybody who came to the back door kissed Violet. The expressman did; so did the baker, the butcher, the grocer, the gardener, the postman, the policeman, and the fishmonger. They were men of widely differing views on most points. On religion, politics, and the prospects of the Giants in next Saturday’s ball game their opinions clashed. But in one respect they were unanimous. Whenever they came to the back door of Harrow House, they all kissed Violet.
James passed on; and Violet, having sniffed the morning air for a few more minutes with her tiptilted nose, went indoors to attend to her work. One would have said that the incident was closed.
But retribution was on James’ track. And the weapon she chose was Adolf.
One is forced to the conclusion that retribution must have been hard up for a weapon, for a more ignoble ally than Adolf it would have been hard to find.
He was one of that numerous band of Swiss and German youths who come to this country prepared to give their services ridiculously cheap in exchange for the opportunity of learning the English language. Mrs. Blatherwick, the masterful wife of the proprietor of Harrow House, had urged upon her husband the advantages of male servants over female as front door openers. Mrs. Blatherwick’s view was that the parents of prospective pupils would be impressed at the sight of a man in livery. She would have liked something a bit more imposing than Adolf, but he was the best that could be got for the money. So Adolf came to Harrow House.
Had he not done so, he could not, of course, have witnessed from an upper window, as he did, the brotherly behavior of James Datchett. As it was, he got a most excellent view of it, and retired, grinning like a gargoyle, to turn the thing over in his mind, and see what profit he might derive from the same.
James, meanwhile, ostensibly at his desk teaching a bored class the rudiments of Latin composition, was in spirit miles away from Harrow House. He was in the office of an important magazine, being warmly welcomed by the editor, whom he had consented to supply with light verse on the most advantageous terms.
The blow fell after tea, when, being off duty for an hour, he was smoking a pipe in his bedroom and trying to knock off a set of verses on a topical subject. Adolf’s entry just nipped in the bud a rather happy idea for the second stanza. He glared at the intruder.
“Well?” he growled. Poets are notoriously irritable.
“Anysing from ze fillage, sare?” said Adolf. The bulk of Adolf’s perquisites was derived from the tips he received for going to the village for tobacco, stamps, and so on.
“No. Get out,” said James.
He was surprised to find that Adolf, so far from getting out, came in and shut the door.
“ ’Zst!” said Adolf, with a finger on his lips.
“In ze garden zis morning, I did zee you giss Violed. Zo!”
James’ heart missed a beat. His present situation was not lavishly remunerated, but it was all that he had; and he knew the difficulty of obtaining posts in the scholastic world. If this worm were to give him away to Mr. Blatherwick, he would be lost. Mr. Blatherwick was an austere man. He would not overlook such a crime. And, in the very improbable event of his doing so, Mrs. Blatherwick would not. James gulped. If he got dismissed from Harrow House, he would have to go and live at home until he found another post; and he remembered without pleasure his father’s views, expressed nightly after dinner, on Young Men Who Ought To Be Earning Their Own Livings Instead Of Idling At Home. James had not the slightest desire to return to the ranks of the Y. M. W. O. T. B. E. T. O. L. I. O. I. A. H.
“What do you mean?” he said hoarsely.
“In ze garten. You und Violed! Zo!” And Adolf, in the worst taste, gave a realistic imitation of the scene, himself sustaining the rôle of James.
“Well?” said James. There seemed nothing else to say.
“Lizzun! Berhaps I dell Herr Blatherwig. Berhaps I do nod. It all tepend.”
James appealed to his chivalry.
“I don’t care about myself,” he said, “but, say, you don’t want to lose the poor girl her job. They’d be bound to throw her down, too.”
Adolf’s eyes gleamed.
“Zo! Lissun! When I do first gom here, I to Violed do say, ‘I would giss you, Violed,’ and my arm I put round her waisdt—zo. But she do push ze zide of my face, und my lof is turned to hate.”
James listened attentively to this tabloid tragedy, but made no comment. There was silence for a moment.
“Anysing from ze fillage, sare?” Adolf’s voice was meaning. James produced a quarter.
“Here you are, then. Get me a two-cent stamp, and keep the change.”
“A doo-zent stdamp, sare? Yes, sare, I vill vly at vunce.”
James’ last impression of the departing one was a vast and greasy grin, stretching most of the way across his face.
Adolf, as blackmailer, in which rôle he now showed himself, differed in some respects from the conventional blackmailer of fiction. It may be that he was doubtful as to how much James would stand for, or it may be that his soul as a general rule was above money. At any rate, in actual specie he took very little from James. He seemed to wish to be sent to the village oftener than before, but that was all. A dollar a week would have covered James’ financial loss.
But he asserted himself in another way. In his most light-hearted moments Adolf never forgot the reason which had brought him to America. He had come to the country to learn the language, and he meant to do it. The difficulty which had always handicapped him hitherto, namely, the poverty of the vocabularies of the servants’ quarters, was now removed. He appointed James tutor-in-chief of the English language to himself, and saw that he entered upon his duties at once.
The first time that he accosted James in the passage outside the classroom, and desired him to explain certain difficult words in a leading article of yesterday’s paper, James was pleased. Adolf, he thought, regarded the painful episode as closed. He had accepted the quarter as the full price of silence, and was now endeavoring to be friendly in order to make amends.
This right-minded conduct gratified James. He felt genially disposed toward Adolf. He read the leading article, and proceeded to give a full and kindly explanation of the hard words. He took trouble over it. He went into the derivations of the words. He touched on certain rather tricky sub-meanings of the same. Adolf went away with any doubts he might have had of James’ capabilities as a teacher of English definitely scattered. He felt that he had got hold of the right man.
There was a shade less geniality in James’ manner when the same thing happened on the following morning. But he did not refuse to help the untutored foreigner. The lecture was less exhaustive than that of the previous morning; but we must suppose that it satisfied Adolf, for he came again next day, his faith in his teacher undiminished.
James was polishing a set of verses. He turned on the student.
“Get out!” he howled. “And take that beastly paper away. Can’t you see I’m busy? Do you think I can spend all my time teaching you to read? Get out!”
“Dere vos some hard words,” said Adolf patiently, “of which I gannot the meaning——”
James briefly cursed the hard words.
“But,” proceeded Adolf, “of one word, of der word ‘giss,’ I der meaning know. Zo!”
James looked at him. Adolf’s face was wooden.
Two minutes later the English lesson was in full swing.
One may say bitter things about Fate; but it must be admitted that she frequently contrives to make amends after doing us a bad turn. It happened so in the case of James Datchett. Whether James deserved it is a matter for the private opinion of the reader.
The instrument in this case was Mr. Blatherwick.
Mr. Blatherwick was a long, grave man, one of the last to hold out against the anti-whisker crusade. He had expressionless blue eyes, and a general air of being present in body but absent in the spirit. Parents who visited the school put his vagueness down to activity of mind. “That busy brain,” they thought, “is never at rest. Even while he is talking to us some abstruse mathematical problem or some obscure passage in the classics is occupying him.”
About a fortnight after James’ appointment to the post of English tutor to Adolf, the proprietor of Harrow House was seated in his study, brooding on the hardships of life and the iniquities of parents. A certain type of parent, he thought with some bitterness, seemed to think that he kept a school from purely philanthropic motives. They appeared to be reluctant to risk offending him by mailing him a check, even though he had given them a lead, as it were, by forwarding his half-yearly bill. Young Puckey’s father, for instance. All behindhand, as usual. He would pay up some time, no doubt, but to Mr. Blatherwick’s mind there was no time like the present. He had had several heavy bills to meet, and a check would be extremely welcome. Why, he asked himself morosely, should he be harassed by this Puckey? It was not that Puckey had not the money. On the contrary, he was doing extremely well in the jute business. No, it was pure carelessness, and lack of consideration. Who was Puckey that he——
At this point in his meditations Violet entered with the after-dinner coffee and the last post.
Mr. Blatherwick took his letters listlessly. There were two of them; and one, he saw with a faint stir of hope, was in the handwriting of the man Puckey. He tore it open. The letter was a long one, and, as he gathered from a glance at the opening lines, one of apology. This was good, as showing that the pursuit of jute had not wholly robbed Puckey of the finer feelings. What was better was that there was a substantial check inside.
He opened the second letter. It was short, but full of the finest, noblest sentiments; to wit, that the writer, Charles J. Pickersgill, having heard the school so highly spoken of by his friend, Mr. Arthur Puckey, would be glad if Mr. Blatherwick could take in his three sons, aged seven, nine, and eleven respectively, at the earliest convenient date.
Mr. Blatherwick’s first feeling was one of remorse, that even in thought he should have been harsh to the golden-hearted Puckey. His next was one of elation.
Violet, meanwhile, stood patiently in the doorway with the coffee. Mr. Blatherwick helped himself. His eye fell on Violet.
Violet was a friendly, warm-hearted little thing. She saw that Mr. Blatherwick had had good news; and, as the bearer of the letters which had contained it, she felt almost responsible. She smiled kindly up at Mr. Blatherwick.
The major portion of Mr. Blatherwick’s mind was far away in the future, dealing with visions of a school grown to colossal proportions and patronized by millionaires who paid on the nail. The section of it which still worked in the present was just large enough to enable him to understand that he felt kindly, and even almost grateful to Violet. But it was too small to make him see how wrong it was to kiss her in a vague, fatherly way across the coffee tray just as James Datchett strolled into the room.
James, who, as was his habit, had come for coffee after seeing the boys into bed, paused. Mr. Blatherwick’s mind came back into the present with a rush. An embarrassing situation was saved by Violet, who, remaining absolutely unmoved, supplied James with coffee and bustled out of the room. She left behind her a somewhat massive silence.
James broke it.
“Er, is the evening paper anywhere?” he said.
“No. Ah—no. Ah, yes, it is on the table.”
“I just wanted to look at the sporting page.”
Sport did not appeal to Mr. Blatherwick. He made no reply.
James had been reading for a moment, when his employer coughed.
James looked up.
“I—er—feel that perhaps——” He paused.
“Yes?” said James.
“That—er—that—perhaps you would care to read the leader. It is very thoughtfully expressed.”
James proceeded to do so. Another cough interrupted him.
James waited expectantly, but nothing more was forthcoming. Those were the last words that Mr. Blatherwick addressed to him that night.
It was some time after breakfast next day that Adolf trotted up for his English lesson.
“Zere are to-day some beyond-gombarison hard words which I do not onderstand. For eggsample——”
It was at this point that James kicked him.
“Er—Datchett,” said Mr. Blatherwick that night. “Er—Adolf came to me this afternoon with a malicious—er—story respecting yourself. I will not—er—particularize.”
“I have, of course—er—dismissed Adolf. I cannot,” proceeded Mr. Blatherwick firmly, “overlook such slanderous conduct on the part of any domestic servant in this house. I—er—it would be impossible.”
After a slight pause, James said that it looked as if there might be rain to-morrow.