Read CHAPTER II - THE IDLER of The Green Mouse, free online book, by Robert W. Chambers, on ReadCentral.com.

Concerning the Young Man in the Ditch and His Attempts to Get Out of It

Although he was not vindictive, he did not care to owe anything to anybody who might be inclined to give him a hearing on account of former obligations or his social position.  Everybody knew he had gone to smash; everybody, he very soon discovered, was naturally afraid of being bothered by him.  The dread of the overfed that an underfed member of the community may request a seat at the table he now understood perfectly.  He was learning.

So he solicited aid from nobody whom he had known in former days; neither from those who had aided him when he needed no aid, nor those who owed their comfortable position to the generosity of his father ­a gentleman notorious for making fortunes for his friends.

Therefore he wrote to strangers on a purely business basis ­to amazing types lately emerged from the submerged, bulging with coal money, steel money, copper money, wheat money, stockyard money ­types that galloped for Fifth Avenue to build town houses; that shook their long cars and frisked into the country and built “cottages.”  And this was how he put it: 

Madam: In case you desire to entertain guests with the professional services of a magician it would give me pleasure to place my very unusual accomplishments at your disposal.”

And signed his name.

It was a dreadful drain on his bank account to send several thousand engraved cards about town and fashionable resorts.  No replies came.  Day after day, exhausted with the practice drill of his profession, he walked to the Park and took his seat on the bench by the bridle path.  Sometimes he saw her cantering past; she always acknowledged his salute, but never drew bridle.  At times, too, he passed her in the hall; her colorless “Good morning” never varied except when she said “Good evening.”  And all this time he never inquired her name from the hall servant; he was that sort of man ­decent through instinct; for even breeding sometimes permits sentiment to snoop.

For a week he had been airily dispensing with more than one meal a day; to keep clothing and boots immaculate required a sacrifice of breakfast and luncheon ­besides, he had various small pensioners to feed, white rabbits with foolish pink eyes, canary birds, cats, albino mice, goldfish, and other collaborateurs in his profession.  He was obliged to bribe the janitor, too, because the laws of the house permitted neither animals nor babies within its precincts.  This extra honorarium deprived him of tobacco, and he became a pessimist.

Besides, doubts as to his own ability arose within him; it was all very well to practice his magic there alone, but he had not yet tried it on anybody except the janitor; and when he had begun by discovering several red-eyed rabbits in the janitor’s pockets that intemperate functionary fled with a despondent yell that brought a policeman to the area gate with a threat to pull the place.

At length, however, a letter came engaging him for one evening.  He was quite incredulous at first, then modestly scared, perplexed, exultant and depressed by turns.  Here was an opening ­the first.  And because it was the first its success or failure meant future engagements or consignments to the street, perhaps as a white-wing.  There must be no faltering now, no bungling, no mistakes, no amateurish hesitation.  It is the empty-headed who most strenuously demand intelligence in others.  One yawn from such an audience meant his professional damnation ­he knew that; every second must break like froth in a wine glass; an instant’s perplexity, a slackening of the tension, and those flaccid intellects would relax into native inertia.  Incapable of self-amusement, depending utterly upon superior minds for a respite from ennui, their caprice controlled his fate; and he knew it.

Sitting there by the sunny window with a pair of magnificent white Persian cats purring on either knee, he read and reread the letter summoning him on the morrow to Seabright.  He knew who his hostess was ­a large lady lately emerged from a corner in lard, dragging with her some assorted relatives of atrophied intellects and a husband whose only mental pleasure depended upon the speed attained by his racing car ­the most exacting audience he could dare to confront.

Like the White Knight he had had plenty of practice, but he feared that warrior’s fate; and as he sat there he picked up a bunch of silver hoops, tossed them up separately so that they descended linked in a glittering chain, looped them and unlooped them, and, tiring, thoughtfully tossed them toward the ceiling again, where they vanished one by one in mid-air.

The cats purred; he picked up one, molded her carefully in his handsome hands; and presently, under the agreeable massage, her purring increased while she dwindled and dwindled to the size of a small, fluffy kitten, then vanished entirely, leaving in his hand a tiny white mouse.  This mouse he tossed into the air, where it became no mouse at all but a white butterfly that fluttered ’round and ’round, alighting at last on the window curtain and hung there, opening and closing its snowy wings.

“That’s all very well,” he reflected, gloomily, as, at a pass of his hand, the air was filled with canary birds; “that’s all very well, but suppose I should slip up?  What I need is to rehearse to somebody before I face two or three hundred people.”

He thought he heard a knocking on his door, and listened a moment.  But as there was an electric bell there he concluded he had been mistaken; and picking up the other white cat, he began a gentle massage that stimulated her purring, apparently at the expense of her color and size, for in a few moments she also dwindled until she became a very small, coal-black kitten, changing in a twinkling to a blackbird, when he cast her carelessly toward the ceiling.  It was well done; in all India no magician could have done it more cleverly, more casually.

Leaning forward in his chair he reproduced the two white cats from behind him, put the kittens back in their box, caught the blackbird and caged it, and was carefully winding up the hairspring in the white butterfly, when again he fancied that somebody was knocking.