THE PASSING OF THE GRATCHER; AND ANOTHER
From year to year the perfect father
came to Edom to be a week with his children.
And though from visit to visit there were external
variations in him, his genial and refreshing spirit
was changeless. When his garments were appreciably
less regal, even to the kind eye of his younger son;
when his hat was not all one might wish; the boots
less than excellent; the priceless watch-chain absent,
or moored to a mere bunch of aimless keys, though
the bounty from his pockets was an irregular and minute
trickle of copper exclusively, the little boy strutted
as proudly by his side, worshipping him as loyally,
as when these outer affairs were quite the reverse.
Yet he could not avoid being sensible of the fluctuations.
One year the parent would come with
the long hair of one who, having been brother to the
red Indian for years, has wormed from his medicine
man the choicest secret of his mysterious pharmacopaeia,
and who would out of love for suffering humanity place
this within the reach of all for a nominal consideration.
Another year he would be shorn of
the sweeping moustache and much of the tawny hair,
and the little boy would understand that he had travelled
extensively with a Mr. Haverly, singing his songs each
evening in large cities, and being spoken of as “the
phenomenal California baritone.” His admiring
son envied the fortunate people of those cities.
Again he would be touring the world
of cities with some simple article of household use
which, from his luxurious barouche, he was merely
introducing for the manufacturers perhaps
a rare cleaning-fluid, a silver-polish, or that ingenious
tool which will sharpen knives and cut glass, this
being, indeed, one of his prized staples. It appeared so
the little boy heard him tell Milo Barrus that
few men could resist buying a tool with which he actually
cut a pane of glass into strips before their eyes;
that one beholding the sea of hands waving frantically
up to him with quarters in them, after his demonstration,
would have reason to believe that all men had occasion
to slice off a strip of glass every day or so.
Instead of this, as an observer of domestic and professional
life, he believed that out of the thousands to whom
he had sold this tool, not ten had ever needed to
cut glass, nor ever would.
There was another who continued indifferent
to the personal estate of this father. This was
Grandfather Delcher, who had never seen him since that
bleak day when he had tried to bury the memory of his
daughter. When the perfect father came to Edom
the grandfather went to his room and kept there so
closely that neither ever beheld the other. The
little boy was much puzzled by this apparently intentional
avoidance of each other by two men of such rare distinction,
and during the early visits of his father he was fruitful
of suggestion for bringing them together. But
when he came to understand that they remained apart
by wish of the elder man, he was troubled. He
ceased then all efforts to arrange a meeting to which
he had looked forward with pride in his office of
exhibiting each personage to the other. But he
was grieved toward his grandfather, becoming sharp
and even disdainful to the queer, silent old man,
at those times when the father was in the village.
He could have no love and but little friendliness
for one who slighted his dear father. And so a
breach widened between them from year to year, as
the child grew stouter fibre into his sentiments of
loyalty and justice.
Meantime, age crept upon the little
boy, relentlessly depriving him of this or that beloved
idol, yet not unkindly leaving with him the pliant
vitality that could fashion others to be still more
With Nancy, on afternoons when cool
shadows lay across the lawn between their houses,
he often discussed these matters of life. Nancy
herself had not been spared the common fate.
Being now a mere graceless rudiment of humanity, all
spindling arms and legs, save for a puckered, freckled
face, she was past the witless time of expecting to
pick up a bird with a broken wing and find it a fairy
godmother who would give her three wishes. It
was more plausible now that a prince, “all dressed
up in shiny Prince Clothes,” would come riding
up on a creamy white horse, lift her to the saddle
in front of him and gallop off, calling her “My
beautiful darling!” while Madmasel, her uncle,
and Betsy, the cook, danced up and down on the front
piazza impotently shouting “Help!” She
suspected then, when it was too late, that certain
people would bitterly wish they had acted in a different
manner. If this did not happen soon, she meant
to go into a convent where she would not be forever
told things for her own good by those arrogantly pretending
to know better, and where she could devote a quiet
life to the bringing up of her children.
The little boy sympathised with her.
He knew what it was to be disappointed in one’s
family. The family he would have chosen for his
own was that of which two excellent views were given
on the circus bills. In one picture they stood
in line, maddeningly beautiful in their pink tights,
ranging from the tall father and mother down through
four children to a small boy that always looked much
like himself. In the other picture these meritorious
persons were flying dizzily through the air at the
very top of the great tent, from trapeze to trapeze,
with the littlest boy happily in the greatest danger,
midway in the air between the two proud parents, who
were hurling him back and forth.
It was absurd to think of anything
like this in connection with a family of which only
one member had either courage or ambition. One
had only to study Clytie or Grandfather Delcher a
few moments to see how hopeless it all was.
The next best life to be aspired to
was that of a house-painter, who could climb about
unchided on the frailest of high scaffolds, swing from
the dizziest cupola, or sway jauntily at the top of
the longest ladder always without the least
concern whether he spilled paint on his clothes or
Then, all in a half-hour, one afternoon,
both he and Nancy seemed to cross a chasm of growth
so wide that one thrilled to look back to the farther
side where all objects showed little and all interests
were juvenile. And this phenomenon, signalised
by the passing of the Gratcher, came in this wise.
As they rested from play this being a time
when the Gratcher was most likely to be seen approaching
by him of the Gratcher-eye, the usual alarm was given,
followed by the usual unbreathing silence. The
little boy fixedly bent his magic eye around the corner
of the house, the little girl scrambling to him over
the grass to clutch one of his arms, to listen fearfully
for the setting of the monster’s crutches at
the end of each stride, to feel if the earth trembled,
as it often distinctly did, under his awful tread.
Wider grew the eyes of both at each
“Now he’s nearer still!” of the little
boy, until at last the girl must hide her head lest
she see that awful face leering past the corner.
For, once the Gratcher’s eye met yours fairly,
he caught you in an instant and worked his will.
This was to pick you up and look at you on all sides
at once with the eyes in his finger-ends, which tickled
you so that you lost your mind.
But now, at the shrillest and tensest
report of progress from the gifted watcher, all in
a wondrous second of realisation, they turned to look
into each other’s eyes and their
ecstasy of terror was gone in the quick little self-conscious
laughs they gave. It was all at once as if two
grown-ups had in a flash divined that they had been
playing at a childish game under some spell.
The moment was not without embarrassment, because
of their having caught themselves in the very act and
frenzy of showing terror of this clumsy fiction.
Foolishly they averted their glances, after that first
little laugh of sudden realisation; but again their
eyes met, and this time they laughed loud and long
with a joy that took away not only all fears of the
Gratcher forever, but their first embarrassment of
themselves. Then, with no word of the matter whatsoever,
each knowing that the other understood, they began
to talk of life again, feeling older and wiser, which
truly they were.
For, though many in time wax brave
to beard their Gratcher even in his lair, only the
very wise learn this that the best way to
be rid of him is to laugh him away that
no Gratcher ever fashioned by the ingenuity of terror-loving
humans can keep his evil power over one to whom he
has become funny.
The passing of the Gratcher had left
no pedestal crying for another idol. In its stead,
for his own chastening and with all reverence, the
little boy erected the spirit of that God which the
Bible tells of, who is all-wise and loving, yet no
sentimentalist, as witness his sudden devastations
among the first-born of all things, from white rabbits
But an idol next went down that not
only left a wretched vacancy in the boy’s pantheon,
but fell against his heart and made an ugly wound.
It was as if he had become suddenly clear-seeing on
that day when the Gratcher shrivelled in the blast
of his laugh.
A little later came the father on
his annual visit, and the dire thing was done.
The most ancient and honoured of all the idols fell
with a crash. A perfect father was lost in some
common, swaggering, loud-voiced, street-mannered creature,
grotesquely self-satisfied, of a cheap, shabby smartness,
who came flaunting those things he should not have
flaunted, and proclaiming in every turn of his showy
head his lack of those things without which the little
boy now saw no one could be a gentleman.
He cried in his bed that night, after
futile efforts to believe that some fearful change
had been wrought in his father. But his memory
of former visits was scrupulously photographic phonographic
even. He recalled from the past certain effects
once keenly joyed in that now made his cheeks burn.
The things rioted brutally before him, until it seemed
that something inside of him strove to suppress them as
if a shamed hand reached out from his heart to brush
the whole offense into decent hiding with one quick
This time he took care that Nancy
should not meet his father. Yet he walked the
streets with him as before walking defiantly
and with shame those streets through which he had
once led the perfect father in festal parade, to receive
the applause of a respectful populace. Now he
went forth awkwardly, doggedly, keen for signs that
others saw what he did, and quick to burn with bitter,
unreasoning resentment, when he detected that they
did so. Once his father rallied him upon his “grumpiness”;
then he grew sullen though trying to smile thinking
with mortification of his grandfather. He understood
the old man now.
He was glad when the week came to
an end. Bruised, bewildered, shamed, but loyal
still and resentful toward others who might see as
he did, he was glad when his father went this
time as Professor Alfiretti, doing a twenty-minute
turn of hypnotism and mind-reading with the Gus Levy
All-Star Shamrock Vaudeville, playing the “ten-twenty-thirties,”
whatever they were!