There is a saying that no man has tasted the full flavour of life until he has known poverty, love and war. The justness of this reflection commends it to the lover of condensed philosophy. The three conditions embrace about all there is in life worth knowing. A surface thinker might deem that wealth should be added to the list. Not so. When a poor man finds a long-hidden quarter-dollar that has slipped through a rip into his vest lining, he sounds the pleasure of life with a deeper plummet than any millionaire can hope to cast.
It seems that the wise executive power that rules life has thought best to drill man in these three conditions; and none may escape all three. In rural places the terms do not mean so much. Poverty is less pinching; love is temperate; war shrinks to contests about boundary lines and the neighbors’ hens. It is in the cities that our epigram gains in truth and vigor; and it has remained for one John Hopkins to crowd the experience into a rather small space of time.
The Hopkins flat was like a thousand others. There was a rubber plant in one window; a flea-bitten terrier sat in the other, wondering when he was to have his day.
John Hopkins was like a thousand others. He worked at $20 per week in a nine-story, red-brick building at either Insurance, Buckle’s Hoisting Engines, Chiropody, Loans, Pulleys, Boas Renovated, Waltz Guaranteed in Five Lessons, or Artificial Limbs. It is not for us to wring Mr. Hopkins’s avocation from these outward signs that be.
Mrs. Hopkins was like a thousand others. The auriferous tooth, the sedentary disposition, the Sunday afternoon wanderlust, the draught upon the delicatessen store for home-made comforts, the furor for department store marked-down sales, the feeling of superiority to the lady in the third-floor front who wore genuine ostrich tips and had two names over her bell, the mucilaginous hours during which she remained glued to the window sill, the vigilant avoidance of the instalment man, the tireless patronage of the acoustics of the dumb-waiter shaft—all the attributes of the Gotham flat-dweller were hers.
One moment yet of sententiousness and the story moves.
In the Big City large and sudden things happen. You round a corner and thrust the rib of your umbrella into the eye of your old friend from Kootenai Falls. You stroll out to pluck a Sweet William in the park—and lo! bandits attack you—you are ambulanced to the hospital—you marry your nurse; are divorced—get squeezed while short on U. P. S. and D. O. W. N. S.—stand in the bread line—marry an heiress, take out your laundry and pay your club dues—seemingly all in the wink of an eye. You travel the streets, and a finger beckons to you, a handkerchief is dropped for you, a brick is dropped upon you, the elevator cable or your bank breaks, a table d’hôte or your wife disagrees with you, and Fate tosses you about like cork crumbs in wine opened by an un-feed waiter. The City is a sprightly youngster, and you are red paint upon its toy, and you get licked off.
John Hopkins sat, after a compressed dinner, in his glove-fitting straight-front flat. He sat upon a hornblende couch and gazed, with satiated eyes, at Art Brought Home to the People in the shape of “The Storm” tacked against the wall. Mrs. Hopkins discoursed droningly of the dinner smells from the flat across the hall. The flea-bitten terrier gave Hopkins a look of disgust, and showed a man-hating tooth.
Here was neither poverty, love, nor war; but upon such barren stems may be grafted those essentials of a complete life.
John Hopkins sought to inject a few raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existence. “Putting a new elevator in at the office,” he said, discarding the nominative noun, “and the boss has turned out his whiskers.”
“You don’t mean it!” commented Mrs. Hopkins.
“Mr. Whipples,” continued John, “wore his new spring suit down to-day. I liked it fine It’s a gray with—” He stopped, suddenly stricken by a need that made itself known to him. “I believe I’ll walk down to the corner and get a five-cent cigar,” he concluded.
John Hopkins took his hat and picked his way down the musty halls and stairs of the flat-house.
The evening air was mild, and the streets shrill with the careless cries of children playing games controlled by mysterious rhythms and phrases. Their elders held the doorways and steps with leisurely pipe and gossip. Paradoxically, the fire-escapes supported lovers in couples who made no attempt to fly the mounting conflagration they were there to fan.
The corner cigar store aimed at by John Hopkins was kept by a man named Freshmayer, who looked upon the earth as a sterile promontory.
Hopkins, unknown in the store, entered and called genially for his “bunch of spinach, car-fare grade.” This imputation deepened the pessimism of Freshmayer; but he set out a brand that came perilously near to filling the order. Hopkins bit off the roots of his purchase, and lighted up at the swinging gas jet. Feeling in his pockets to make payment, he found not a penny there.
“Say, my friend,” he explained, frankly, “I’ve come out without any change. Hand you that nickel first time I pass.”
Joy surged in Freshmayer’s heart. Here was corroboration of his belief that the world was rotten and man a peripatetic evil. Without a word he rounded the end of his counter and made earnest onslaught upon his customer. Hopkins was no man to serve as a punching-bag for a pessimistic tobacconist. He quickly bestowed upon Freshmayer a colorado-maduro eye in return for the ardent kick that he received from that dealer in goods for cash only.
The impetus of the enemy’s attack forced the Hopkins line back to the sidewalk. There the conflict raged; the pacific wooden Indian, with his carven smile, was overturned, and those of the street who delighted in carnage pressed round to view the zealous joust.
But then came the inevitable cop and imminent inconvenience for both the attacker and attacked. John Hopkins was a peaceful citizen, who worked at rebuses of nights in a flat, but he was not without the fundamental spirit of resistance that comes with the battle-rage. He knocked the policeman into a grocer’s sidewalk display of goods and gave Freshmayer a punch that caused him temporarily to regret that he had not made it a rule to extend a five-cent line of credit to certain customers. Then Hopkins took spiritedly to his heels down the sidewalk, closely followed by the cigar-dealer and the policeman, whose uniform testified to the reason in the grocer’s sign that read: “Eggs cheaper than anywhere else in the city.”
As Hopkins ran he became aware of a big, low, red, racing automobile that kept abreast of him in the street. This auto steered in to the side of the sidewalk, and the man guiding it motioned to Hopkins to jump into it. He did so without slackening his speed, and fell into the turkey-red upholstered seat beside the chauffeur. The big machine, with a diminuendo cough, flew away like an albatross down the avenue into which the street emptied.
The driver of the auto sped his machine without a word. He was masked beyond guess in the goggles and diabolic garb of the chauffeur.
“Much obliged, old man,” called Hopkins, gratefully. “I guess you’ve got sporting blood in you, all right, and don’t admire the sight of two men trying to soak one. Little more and I’d have been pinched.”
The chauffeur made no sign that he had heard. Hopkins shrugged a shoulder and chewed at his cigar, to which his teeth had clung grimly throughout the mêlée.
Ten minutes and the auto turned into the open carriage entrance of a noble mansion of brown stone, and stood still. The chauffeur leaped out, and said:
“Come quick. The lady, she will explain. It is the great honor you will have, monsieur. Ah, that milady could call upon Armand to do this thing! But, no, I am only one chauffeur.”
With vehement gestures the chauffeur conducted Hopkins into the house. He was ushered into a small but luxurious reception chamber. A lady, young, and possessing the beauty of visions, rose from a chair. In her eyes smouldered a becoming anger. Her high-arched, threadlike brows were ruffled into a delicious frown.
“Milady,” said the chauffeur, bowing low, “I have the honor to relate to you that I went to the house of Monsieur Long and found him to be not at home. As I came back I see this gentleman in combat against—how you say—greatest odds. He is fighting with five—ten—thirty men—gendarmes, aussi. Yes, milady, he what you call ‘swat’ one—three—eight policemans. If that Monsieur Long is out I say to myself this gentleman he will serve milady so well, and I bring him here.”
“Very well, Armand,” said the lady, “you may go.” She turned to Hopkins.
“I sent my chauffeur,” she said, “to bring my cousin, Walter Long. There is a man in this house who has treated me with insult and abuse. I have complained to my aunt, and she laughs at me. Armand says you are brave. In these prosaic days men who are both brave and chivalrous are few. May I count upon your assistance?”
John Hopkins thrust the remains of his cigar into his coat pocket. He looked upon this winning creature and felt his first thrill of romance. It was a knightly love, and contained no disloyalty to the flat with the flea-bitten terrier and the lady of his choice. He had married her after a picnic of the Lady Label Stickers’ Union, Lodge No. 2, on a dare and a bet of new hats and chowder all around with his friend, Billy McManus. This angel who was begging him to come to her rescue was something too heavenly for chowder, and as for hats—golden, jewelled crowns for her!
“Say,” said John Hopkins, “just show me the guy that you’ve got the grouch at. I’ve neglected my talents as a scrapper heretofore, but this is my busy night.”
“He is in there,” said the lady, pointing to a closed door. “Come. Are you sure that you do not falter or fear?”
“Me?” said John Hopkins. “Just give me one of those roses in the bunch you are wearing, will you?”
The lady gave him a red, red rose. John Hopkins kissed it, stuffed it into his vest pocket, opened the door and walked into the room. It was a handsome library, softly but brightly lighted. A young man was there, reading.
“Books on etiquette is what you want to study,” said John Hopkins, abruptly. “Get up here, and I’ll give you some lessors. Be rude to a lady, will you?”
The young man looked mildly surprised. Then he arose languidly, dextrously caught the arms of John Hopkins and conducted him irresistibly to the front door of the house.
“Beware, Ralph Branscombe,” cried the lady, who had followed, “what you do to the gallant man who has tried to protect me.”
The young man shoved John Hopkins gently out the door and then closed it.
“Bess,” he said calmly, “I wish you would quit reading historical novels. How in the world did that fellow get in here?”
“Armand brought him,” said the young lady. “I think you are awfully mean not to let me have that St. Bernard. I sent Armand for Walter. I was so angry with you.”
“Be sensible, Bess,” said the young man, taking her arm. “That dog isn’t safe. He has bitten two or three people around the kennels. Come now, let’s go tell auntie we are in good humor again.”
Arm in arm, they moved away.
John Hopkins walked to his flat. The janitor’s five-year-old daughter was playing on the steps. Hopkins gave her a nice, red rose and walked upstairs.
Mrs. Hopkins was philandering with curl-papers.
“Get your cigar?” she asked, disinterestedly.
“Sure,” said Hopkins, “and I knocked around a while outside. It’s a nice night.”
He sat upon the hornblende sofa, took out the stump of his cigar, lighted it, and gazed at the graceful figures in “The Storm” on the opposite wall.
“I was telling you,” said he, “about Mr. Whipple’s suit. It’s a gray, with an invisible check, and it looks fine.”