In an art exhibition the other day I saw a painting that had been sold for $5,000. The painter was a young scrub out of the West named Kraft, who had a favourite food and a pet theory. His pabulum was an unquenchable belief in the Unerring Artistic Adjustment of Nature. His theory was fixed around corned-beef hash with poached egg. There was a story behind the picture, so I went home and let it drip out of a fountain-pen. The idea of Kraft—but that is not the beginning of the story.
Three years ago Kraft, Bill Judkins (a poet), and I took our meals at Cypher’s, on Eighth Avenue. I say “took.” When we had money, Cypher got it “off of” us, as he expressed it. We had no credit; we went in, called for food and ate it. We paid or we did not pay. We had confidence in Cypher’s sullenness and smouldering ferocity. Deep down in his sunless soul he was either a prince, a fool or an artist. He sat at a worm-eaten desk, covered with files of waiters’ checks so old that I was sure the bottomest one was for clams that Hendrik Hudson had eaten and paid for. Cypher had the power, in common with Napoleon III. and the goggle-eyed perch, of throwing a film over his eyes, rendering opaque the windows of his soul. Once when we left him unpaid, with egregious excuses, I looked back and saw him shaking with inaudible laughter behind his film. Now and then we paid up back scores.
But the chief thing at Cypher’s was Milly. Milly was a waitress. She was a grand example of Kraft’s theory of the artistic adjustment of nature. She belonged, largely, to waiting, as Minerva did to the art of scrapping, or Venus to the science of serious flirtation. Pedestalled and in bronze she might have stood with the noblest of her heroic sisters as “Liver-and-Bacon Enlivening the World.” She belonged to Cypher’s. You expected to see her colossal figure loom through that reeking blue cloud of smoke from frying fat just as you expect the Palisades to appear through a drifting Hudson River fog. There amid the steam of vegetables and the vapours of acres of “ham and,” the crash of crockery, the clatter of steel, the screaming of “short orders,” the cries of the hungering and all the horrid tumult of feeding man, surrounded by swarms of the buzzing winged beasts bequeathed us by Pharaoh, Milly steered her magnificent way like some great liner cleaving among the canoes of howling savages.
Our Goddess of Grub was built on lines so majestic that they could be followed only with awe. Her sleeves were always rolled above her elbows. She could have taken us three musketeers in her two hands and dropped us out of the window. She had seen fewer years than any of us, but she was of such superb Evehood and simplicity that she mothered us from the beginning. Cypher’s store of eatables she poured out upon us with royal indifference to price and quantity, as from a cornucopia that knew no exhaustion. Her voice rang like a great silver bell; her smile was many-toothed and frequent; she seemed like a yellow sunrise on mountain tops. I never saw her but I thought of the Yosemite. And yet, somehow, I could never think of her as existing outside of Cypher’s. There nature had placed her, and she had taken root and grown mightily. She seemed happy, and took her few poor dollars on Saturday nights with the flushed pleasure of a child that receives an unexpected donation.
It was Kraft who first voiced the fear that each of us must have held latently. It came up apropos, of course, of certain questions of art at which we were hammering. One of us compared the harmony existing between a Haydn symphony and pistache ice cream to the exquisite congruity between Milly and Cypher’s.
“There is a certain fate hanging over Milly,” said Kraft, “and if it overtakes her she is lost to Cypher’s and to us.”
“She will grow fat?” asked Judkins, fearsomely.
“She will go to night school and become refined?” I ventured anxiously.
“It is this,” said Kraft, punctuating in a puddle of spilled coffee with a stiff forefinger. “Caesar had his Brutus—the cotton has its bollworm, the chorus girl has her Pittsburger, the summer boarder has his poison ivy, the hero has his Carnegie medal, art has its Morgan, the rose has its—”
“Speak,” I interrupted, much perturbed. “You do not think that Milly will begin to lace?”
“One day,” concluded Kraft, solemnly, “there will come to Cypher’s for a plate of beans a millionaire lumberman from Wisconsin, and he will marry Milly.”
“Never!” exclaimed Judkins and I, in horror.
“A lumberman,” repeated Kraft, hoarsely.
“And a millionaire lumberman!” I sighed, despairingly.
“From Wisconsin!” groaned Judkins.
We agreed that the awful fate seemed to menace her. Few things were less improbable. Milly, like some vast virgin stretch of pine woods, was made to catch the lumberman’s eye. And well we knew the habits of the Badgers, once fortune smiled upon them. Straight to New York they hie, and lay their goods at the feet of the girl who serves them beans in a beanery. Why, the alphabet itself connives. The Sunday newspaper’s headliner’s work is cut for him.
“Winsome Waitress Wins Wealthy Wisconsin Woodsman.”
For a while we felt that Milly was on the verge of being lost to us.
It was our love of the Unerring Artistic Adjustment of Nature that inspired us. We could not give her over to a lumberman, doubly accursed by wealth and provincialism. We shuddered to think of Milly, with her voice modulated and her elbows covered, pouring tea in the marble teepee of a tree murderer. No! In Cypher’s she belonged—in the bacon smoke, the cabbage perfume, the grand, Wagnerian chorus of hurled ironstone china and rattling casters.
Our fears must have been prophetic, for on that same evening the wildwood discharged upon us Milly’s preordained confiscator—our fee to adjustment and order. But Alaska and not Wisconsin bore the burden of the visitation.
We were at our supper of beef stew and dried apples when he trotted in as if on the heels of a dog team, and made one of the mess at our table. With the freedom of the camps he assaulted our ears and claimed the fellowship of men lost in the wilds of a hash house. We embraced him as a specimen, and in three minutes we had all but died for one another as friends.
He was rugged and bearded and wind-dried. He had just come off the “trail,” he said, at one of the North River ferries. I fancied I could see the snow dust of Chilcoot yet powdering his shoulders. And then he strewed the table with the nuggets, stuffed ptarmigans, bead work and seal pelts of the returned Klondiker, and began to prate to us of his millions.
“Bank drafts for two millions,” was his summing up, “and a thousand a day piling up from my claims. And now I want some beef stew and canned peaches. I never got off the train since I mushed out of Seattle, and I’m hungry. The stuff the niggers feed you on Pullmans don’t count. You gentlemen order what you want.”
And then Milly loomed up with a thousand dishes on her bare arm—loomed up big and white and pink and awful as Mount Saint Elias—with a smile like day breaking in a gulch. And the Klondiker threw down his pelts and nuggets as dross, and let his jaw fall half-way, and stared at her. You could almost see the diamond tiaras on Milly’s brow and the hand-embroidered silk Paris gowns that he meant to buy for her.
At last the bollworm had attacked the cotton—the poison ivy was reaching out its tendrils to entwine the summer boarder—the millionaire lumberman, thinly disguised as the Alaskan miner, was about to engulf our Milly and upset Nature’s adjustment.
Kraft was the first to act. He leaped up and pounded the Klondiker’s back. “Come out and drink,” he shouted. “Drink first and eat afterward.” Judkins seized one arm and I the other. Gaily, roaringly, irresistibly, in jolly-good-fellow style, we dragged him from the restaurant to a café, stuffing his pockets with his embalmed birds and indigestible nuggets.
There he rumbled a roughly good-humoured protest. “That’s the girl for my money,” he declared. “She can eat out of my skillet the rest of her life. Why, I never see such a fine girl. I’m going back there and ask her to marry me. I guess she won’t want to sling hash any more when she sees the pile of dust I’ve got.”
“You’ll take another whiskey and milk now,” Kraft persuaded, with Satan’s smile. “I thought you up-country fellows were better sports.”
Kraft spent his puny store of coin at the bar and then gave Judkins and me such an appealing look that we went down to the last dime we had in toasting our guest.
Then, when our ammunition was gone and the Klondiker, still somewhat sober, began to babble again of Milly, Kraft whispered into his ear such a polite, barbed insult relating to people who were miserly with their funds, that the miner crashed down handful after handful of silver and notes, calling for all the fluids in the world to drown the imputation.
Thus the work was accomplished. With his own guns we drove him from the field. And then we had him carted to a distant small hotel and put to bed with his nuggets and baby seal-skins stuffed around him.
“He will never find Cypher’s again,” said Kraft. “He will propose to the first white apron he sees in a dairy restaurant to-morrow. And Milly—I mean the Natural Adjustment—is saved!”
And back to Cypher’s went we three, and, finding customers scarce, we joined hands and did an Indian dance with Milly in the centre.
This, I say, happened three years ago. And about that time a little luck descended upon us three, and we were enabled to buy costlier and less wholesome food than Cypher’s. Our paths separated, and I saw Kraft no more and Judkins seldom.
But, as I said, I saw a painting the other day that was sold for $5,000. The title was “Boadicea,” and the figure seemed to fill all out-of-doors. But of all the picture’s admirers who stood before it, I believe I was the only one who longed for Boadicea to stalk from her frame, bringing me corned-beef hash with poached egg.
I hurried away to see Kraft. His satanic eyes were the same, his hair was worse tangled, but his clothes had been made by a tailor.
“I didn’t know,” I said to him.
“We’ve bought a cottage in the Bronx with the money,” said he. “Any evening at 7.”
“Then,” said I, “when you led us against the lumberman—the—Klondiker—it wasn’t altogether on account of the Unerring Artistic Adjustment of Nature?”
“Well, not altogether,” said Kraft, with a grin.