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Aubrey Walks Part Way Home — and Rides The Rest of the Way
It is to be feared that Aubrey would have badly flunked any quizzing on the chapters of Somebody's Luggage which the bookseller had read aloud. His mind was swimming rapidly in the agreeable, unfettered fashion of a stream rippling downhill. As O. Henry puts it in one of his most delightful stories: "He was outwardly decent and managed to preserve his aquarium, but inside he was impromptu and full of unexpectedness." To say that he was thinking of Miss Chapman would imply too much power of ratiocination and abstract scrutiny on his part. He was not thinking: he was being thought. Down the accustomed channels of his intellect he felt his mind ebbing with the irresistible movement of tides drawn by the blandishing moon. And across these shimmering estuaries of impulse his will, a lost and naked athlete, was painfully attempting to swim, but making much leeway and already almost resigned to being carried out to sea.
He stopped a moment at Weintraub's drug store, on the corner of Gissing Street and Wordsworth Avenue, to buy some cigarettes, unfailing solace of an agitated bosom.
It was the usual old-fashioned pharmacy of those parts of Brooklyn: tall red, green, and blue vases of liquid in the windows threw blotches of coloured light onto the pavement; on the panes was affixed white china lettering: H. WE TRAUB, DEUT CHE APOTHEKER. Inside, the customary shelves of labelled jars, glass cases holding cigars, nostrums and toilet knick-knacks, and in one corner an ancient revolving bookcase deposited long ago by the Tabard Inn Library. The shop was empty, but as he opened the door a bell buzzed sharply. In a back chamber he could hear voices. As he waited idly for the druggist to appear, Aubrey cast a tolerant eye over the dusty volumes in the twirling case. There were the usual copies of Harold MacGrath's The Man on the Box, A Girl of the Limberlost, and The Houseboat on the Styx. The Divine Fire, much grimed, leaned against Joe Chapple's Heart Throbs. Those familiar with the Tabard Inn bookcases still to be found in outlying drug-shops know that the stock has not been "turned" for many a year. Aubrey was the more surprised, on spinning the the case round, to find wedged in between two other volumes the empty cover of a book that had been torn loose from the pages to which it belonged. He glanced at the lettering on the back. It ran thus:
Mr. Weintraub entered the shop, a solid Teutonic person with discoloured pouches under his eyes and a face that was a potent argument for prohibition. His manner, however, was that of one anxious to please. Aubrey indicated the brand of cigarettes he wanted. Having himself coined the advertising catchword for them — They're mild — but they satisfy — he felt a certain loyal compulsion always to smoke this kind. The druggist held out the packet, and Aubrey noticed that his fingers were stained a deep saffron colour.
"I see you're a cigarette smoker, too," said Aubrey pleasantly, as he opened the packet and lit one of the paper tubes at a little alcohol flame burning in a globe of blue glass on the counter.
"Me? I never smoke," said Mr. Weintraub, with a smile which somehow did not seem to fit his surly face. "I must have steady nerves in my profession. Apothecaries who smoke make up bad prescriptions."
"Well, how do you get your hands stained that way?"
Mr. Weintraub removed his hands from the counter.
"Chemicals," he grunted. "Prescriptions — all that sort of thing."
"Well," said Aubrey, "smoking's a bad habit. I guess I do too much of it." He could not resist the impression that someone was listening to their talk. The doorway at the back of the shop was veiled by a portiere of beads and thin bamboo sections threaded on strings. He heard them clicking as though they had been momentarily pulled aside. Turning, just as he opened the door to leave, he noticed the bamboo curtain swaying.
"Well, good-night," he said, and stepped out onto the street.
As he walked down Wordsworth Avenue, under the thunder of the L, past lighted lunchrooms, oyster saloons, and pawnshops, Miss Chapman resumed her sway. With the delightful velocity of thought his mind whirled in a narrowing spiral round the experience of the evening. The small book-crammed sitting room of the Mifflins, the sparkling fire, the lively chirrup of the bookseller reading aloud — and there, in the old easy chair whose horsehair stuffing was bulging out, that blue-eyed vision of careless girlhood! Happily he had been so seated that he could study her without seeming to do so. The line of her ankle where the firelight danced upon it put Coles Phillips to shame, he averred. Extraordinary, how these creatures are made to torment us with their intolerable comeliness! Against the background of dusky bindings her head shone with a soft haze of gold. Her face, that had an air of naive and provoking independence, made him angry with its unnecessary surplus of enchantment. An unaccountable gust of rage drove him rapidly along the frozen street. "Damn it," he cried, "what right has any girl to be as pretty as that? Why — why, I'd like to beat her!" he muttered, amazed at himself. "What the devil right has a girl got to look so innocently adorable?"
It would be unseemly to follow poor Aubrey in his vacillations of rage and worship as he thrashed along Wordsworth Avenue, hearing and seeing no more than was necessary for the preservation of his life at street crossings. Half-smoked cigarette stubs glowed in his wake;1 his burly bosom echoed with incoherent oratory. In the darker stretches of Fulton Street that lead up to the Brooklyn Bridge he fiercely exclaimed: "By God, it's not such a bad world." As he ascended the slope of that vast airy span, a black midget against a froth of stars, he was gravely planning such vehemence of exploit in the advertising profession as would make it seem less absurd to approach the President of the Daintybits Corporation with a question for which no progenitor of loveliness is ever quite prepared.
In the exact centre of the bridge something diluted his mood; he halted, leaning against the railing, to consider the splendour of the scene. The hour was late — moving on toward midnight — but in the tall black precipices of Manhattan scattered lights gleamed, in an odd, irregular pattern like the sparse punctures on the raffle-board — "take a chance on a Milk-Fed Turkey" — the East Indian elevator-boy presents to apartment-house tenants about Hallowe'en. A fume of golden light eddied over uptown merriment: he could see the ruby beacon on the Metropolitan Tower signal three quarters. Underneath the airy decking of the bridge a tug went puffing by, her port and starboard lamps trailing red and green threads over the tideway. Some great argosy of the Staten Island fleet swept serenely down to St. George, past Liberty in her soft robe of light, carrying theatred commuters, dazed with weariness and blinking at the raw fury of the electric bulbs. Overhead the night was a superb arch of clear frost, sifted with stars. Blue sparks crackled stickily along the trolley wires as the cars groaned over the bridge.
Aubrey surveyed all this splendid scene without exact observation. He was of a philosophic turn, and was attempting to console his discomfiture in the overwhelming lustre of Miss Titania by the thought that she was, after all, the creature and offspring of the science he worshipped — that of Advertising. Was not the fragrance of her presence, the soft compulsion of her gaze, even the delirious frill of muslin at her wrist, to be set down to the credit of his chosen art? Had he not, pondering obscurely upon "attention-compelling" copy and lay-out and type-face, in a corner of the Grey-Matter office, contributed to the triumphant prosperity and grace of this unconscious beneficiary? Indeed she seemed to him, fiercely tormenting himself with her loveliness, a symbol of the mysterious and subtle power of publicity. It was Advertising that had done this — that had enabled Mr. Chapman, a shy and droll little person, to surround this girl with all the fructifying glories of civilization — to foster and cherish her until she shone upon the earth like a morning star! Advertising had clothed her, Advertising had fed her, schooled, roofed, and sheltered her. In a sense she was the crowning advertisement of her father's career, and her innocent perfection taunted him just as much as the bright sky-sign he knew was flashing the words CHAPMAN PRUNES above the teeming pavements of Times Square. He groaned to think that he himself, by his conscientious labours, had helped to put this girl in such a position that he could hardly dare approach her.
He would never have approached her again, on any pretext, if the intensity of his thoughts had not caused him, unconsciously, to grip the railing of the bridge with strong and angry hands. For at that moment a sack was thrown over his head from behind and he was violently seized by the legs, with the obvious intent of hoisting him over the parapet. His unexpected grip on the railing delayed this attempt just long enough to save him. Swept off his feet by the fury of the assault, he fell sideways against the barrier and had the good fortune to seize his enemy by the leg. Muffled in the sacking, it was vain to cry out; but he held furiously to the limb he had grasped and he and his attacker rolled together on the footway. Aubrey was a powerful man, and even despite the surprise could probably have got the better of the situation; but as he wrestled desperately and tried to rid himself of his hood, a crashing blow fell upon his head, half stunning him. He lay sprawled out, momentarily incapable of struggle, yet conscious enough to expect, rather curiously, the dizzying sensation of a drop through insupportable air into the icy water of the East River. Hands seized him — and then, passively, he heard a shout, the sound of footsteps running on the planks, and other footsteps hurrying away at top speed. In a moment the sacking was torn from his head and a friendly pedestrian was kneeling beside him.
"Say, are you all right?" said the latter anxiously. "Gee, those guys nearly got you."
Aubrey was too faint and dizzy to speak for a moment. His head was numb and he felt certain that several inches of it had been caved in. Putting up his hand, feebly, he was surprised to find the contours of his skull much the same as usual. The stranger propped him against his knee and wiped away a trickle of blood with his handkerchief.
"Say, old man, I thought you was a goner," he said sympathetically. "I seen those fellows jump you. Too bad they got away. Dirty work, I'll say so."
Aubrey gulped the night air, and sat up. The bridge rocked under him; against the star-speckled sky he could see the Woolworth Building bending and jazzing like a poplar tree in a gale. He felt very sick.
"Ever so much obliged to you," he stammered. "I'll be all right in a minute."
"D'you want me to go and ring up a nambulance?" said his assistant.
"No, no," said Aubrey; "I'll be all right." He staggered to his feet and clung to the rail of the bridge, trying to collect his wits. One phrase ran over and over in his mind with damnable iteration — "Mild, but they satisfy!"
"Where were you going?" said the other, supporting him.
"Madison Avenue and Thirty-Second — "
"Maybe I can flag a jitney for you. Here," he cried, as another citizen approached afoot, "Give this fellow a hand. Someone beat him over the bean with a club. I'm going to get him a lift."
The newcomer readily undertook the friendly task, and tied Aubrey's handkerchief round his head, which was bleeding freely. After a few moments the first Samaritan succeeded in stopping a touring car which was speeding over from Brooklyn. The driver willingly agreed to take Aubrey home, and the other two helped him in. Barring a nasty gash on his scalp he was none the worse.
"A fellow needs a tin hat if he's going to wander round Long Island at night," said the motorist genially. "Two fellows tried to hold me up coming in from Rockville Centre the other evening. Maybe they were the same two that picked on you. Did you get a look at them?"
"No," said Aubrey. "That piece of sacking might have helped me trace them, but I forgot it."
"Want to run back for it?"
"Never mind," said Aubrey. "I've got a hunch about this."
"Think you know who it is? Maybe you're in politics, hey?"
The car ran swiftly up the dark channel of the Bowery, into Fourth Avenue, and turned off at Thirty-Second Street to deposit Aubrey in front of his boarding house. He thanked his convoy heartily, and refused further assistance. After several false shots he got his latch key in the lock, climbed four creaking flights, and stumbled into his room. Groping his way to the wash-basin, he bathed his throbbing head, tied a towel round it, and fell into bed.
1 NOTE WHILE PROOFREADING: Surely this phrase was unconsciously lifted from R. L. S. But where does the original occur? C. D. M.