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

Showing the Value of a Helping Hand When It Is White and Slender

This time he went leisurely to the door and opened it; a girl stood there, saying, “I beg your pardon for disturbing you ­” It was high time she admitted it, for her eyes had been disturbing him day and night since the first time he passed her in the hall.

She appeared to be a trifle frightened, too, and, scarcely waiting for his invitation, she stepped inside with a hurried glance behind her, and walked to the center of the room holding her skirts carefully as though stepping through wet grass.

“I ­I am annoyed,” she said in a voice not perfectly under command.  “If you please, would you tell me whether there is such a thing as a pea-green mouse?”

Then he did a mean thing; he could have cleared up that matter with a word, a smile, and ­he didn’t.

“A green mouse?” he repeated gently, almost pitifully.

She nodded, then paled; he drew a big chair toward her, for her knees trembled a little; and she sat down with an appealing glance that ought to have made him ashamed of himself.

“What has frightened you?” inquired that meanest of men.

“I was in my studio ­and I must first explain to you that for weeks and weeks I ­I have imagined I heard sounds ­” She looked carefully around her; nothing animate was visible.  “Sounds,” she repeated, swallowing a little lump in her white throat, “like the faint squealing and squeaking and sniffing and scratching of ­of live things.  I asked the janitor, and he said the house was not very well built and that the beams and wainscoting were shrinking.”

“Did he say that?” inquired the young man, thinking of the bribes.

“Yes, and I tried to believe him.  And one day I thought I heard about one hundred canaries singing, and I know I did, but that idiot janitor said they were the sparrows under the eaves.  Then one day when your door was open, and I was coming up the stairway, and it was dark in the entry, something big and soft flopped across the carpet, and ­it being exceedingly common to scream ­I didn’t, but managed to get past it, and” ­ her violet eyes widened with horror ­“do you know what that soft, floppy thing was?  It was an owl!”

He was aware of it; he had managed to secure the escaped bird before her electric summons could arouse the janitor.

“I called the janitor,” she said, “and he came and we searched the entry; but there was no owl.”

He appeared to be greatly impressed; she recognized the sympathy in his brown eyes.

“That wretched janitor declared I had seen a cat,” she resumed; “and I could not persuade him otherwise.  For a week I scarcely dared set foot on the stairs, but I had to ­you see, I live at home and only come to my studio to paint.”

“I thought you lived here,” he said, surprised.

“Oh, no.  I have my studio ­” she hesitated, then smiled.  “Everybody makes fun of me, and I suppose they’ll laugh me out of it, but I detest conventions, and I did hope I had talent for something besides frivolity.”

Her gaze wandered around his room; then suddenly the possible significance of her unconventional situation brought her to her feet, serious but self-possessed.

“I beg your pardon again,” she said, “but I was really driven out of my studio ­quite frightened, I confess.”

“What drove you out?” he asked guiltily.

“Something ­you can scarcely credit it ­and I dare not tell the janitor for fear he will think me ­queer.”  She raised her distressed and lovely eyes again:  “Oh, please believe that I did see a bright green mouse!”

“I do believe it,” he said, wincing.

“Thank you.  I ­I know perfectly well how it sounds ­and I know that horrid people see things like that, but” ­she spoke piteously ­“I had only one glass of claret at luncheon, and I am perfectly healthy in body and mind.  How could I see such a thing if it was not there?”

“It was there,” he declared.

“Do you really think so?  A green ­bright green mouse?”

“Haven’t a doubt of it,” he assured her; “saw one myself the other day.”

“Where?”

“On the floor ­” he made a vague gesture.  “There’s probably a crack between your studio and my wall, and the little rascal crept into your place.”

She stood looking at him uncertainly:  “Are there really such things as green mice?”

“Well,” he explained, “I fancy this one was originally white.  Somebody probably dyed it green.”

“But who on earth would be silly enough to do such a thing?”

His ears grew red ­he felt them doing it.

After a moment she said:  “I am glad you told me that you, too, saw this unspeakable mouse.  I have decided to write to the owners of the house and request an immediate investigation.  Would ­would it be too much to ask you to write also?”

“Are you ­you going to write?” he asked, appalled.

“Certainly.  Either some dreadful creature here keeps a bird store and brings home things that escape, or the house is infested.  I don’t care what the janitor says; I did hear squeals and whines and whimpers!”

“Suppose ­suppose we wait,” he began lamely; but at that moment her blue eyes widened; she caught him convulsively by the arm, pointing, one snowy finger outstretched.

“Oh-h!” she said hysterically, and the next instant was standing upon a chair, pale as a ghost.  It was a wonder she had not mounted the dresser, too, for there, issuing in creepy single file from the wainscoting, came mice ­mice of various tints.  A red one led the grewsome rank, a black and white one came next, then in decorous procession followed the guilty green one, a yellow one, a blue one, and finally ­horror of horrors! ­a red-white-and-blue mouse, carrying a tiny American flag.

He turned a miserable face toward her; she, eyes dilated, frozen to a statue, saw him advance, hold out a white wand ­saw the uncanny procession of mice mount the stick and form into a row, tails hanging down ­saw him carry the creatures to a box and dump them in.

He was trying to speak now.  She heard him stammer something about the escape of the mice; she heard him asking her pardon.  Dazed, she laid her hand in his as he aided her to descend to the floor; nerveless, speechless, she sank into the big chair, horror still dilating her eyes.

“It’s all up with me,” he said slowly, “if you write to the owners.  I’ve bribed the janitor to say nothing.  I’m dreadfully mortified that these things have happened to annoy you.”

The color came back into her face; amazement dominated her anger.  “But why ­why do you keep such creatures?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.  “It is my profession.”

“Your ­what?”

“My profession,” he repeated doggedly.

“Oh,” she said, revolted, “that is not true!  You are a gentleman ­I know who you are perfectly well!”

“Who am I?”

She called him by name, almost angrily.

“Well,” he said sullenly, “what of it?  If you have investigated my record you must know I am as poor as these miserable mice.”

“I ­I know it.  But you are a gentleman ­”

“I am a mountebank,” he said; “I mean a mountebank in its original interpretation.  There’s neither sense nor necessity for me to deny it.”

“I ­I don’t understand you,” she whispered, shocked.

“Why, I do monkey tricks to entertain people,” he replied, forcing a laugh, “or rather, I hope to do a few ­and be paid for them.  I fancy every man finds his own level; I’ve found mine, apparently.”

Her face was inscrutable; she lay back in the great chair, watching him.

“I have a little money left,” he said; “enough to last a day or two.  Then I am to be paid for entertaining some people at Seabright; and,” he added with that very attractive smile of his from which all bitterness had departed, “and that will be the first money I ever earned in all my life.”

She was young enough to be fascinated, child enough to feel the little lump in her throat rising.  She knew he was poor; her sisters had told her that; but she had supposed it to be only comparative poverty ­just as her cousins, for instance, had scarcely enough to keep more than two horses in town and only one motor.  But want ­actual need ­she had never dreamed of in his case ­she could scarcely understand it even now ­he was so well groomed, so attractive, fairly radiating good breeding and the easy financial atmosphere she was accustomed to.

“So you see,” he continued gayly, “if you complain to the owners about green mice, why, I shall have to leave, and, as a matter of fact, I haven’t enough money to go anywhere except ­” he laughed.

“Where?” she managed to say.

“The Park.  I was joking, of course,” he hastened to add, for she had turned rather white.

“No,” she said, “you were not joking.”  And as he made no reply:  “Of course, I shall not write ­now.  I had rather my studio were overrun with multicolored mice ­” She stopped with something almost like a sob.  He smiled, thinking she was laughing.

But oh, the blow for her!  In her youthful enthusiasm she had always, from the first time they had encountered one another, been sensitively aware of this tall, clean-cut, attractive young fellow.  And by and by she learned his name and asked her sisters about him, and when she heard of his recent ruin and withdrawal from the gatherings of his kind her youth flushed to its romantic roots, warming all within her toward this splendid and radiant young man who lived so nobly, so proudly aloof.  And then ­miracle of Manhattan! ­he had proved his courage before her dazed eyes ­rising suddenly out of the very earth to save her from a fate which her eager desire painted blacker every time she embellished the incident.  And she decorated the memory of it every day.

And now!  Here, beside her, was this prince among men, her champion, beaten to his ornamental knees by Fate, and contemplating a miserable, uncertain career to keep his godlike body from actual starvation.  And she ­she with more money than even she knew what to do with, powerless to aid him, prevented from flinging open her check book and bidding him to write and write till he could write no more.

A memory ­a thought crept in.  Where had she heard his name connected with her father’s name?  In Ophir Steel?  Certainly; and was it not this young man’s father who had laid the foundation for her father’s fortune?  She had heard some such thing, somewhere.

He said:  “I had no idea of boring anybody ­you least of all ­with my woes.  Indeed, I haven’t any sorrows now, because to-day I received my first encouragement; and no doubt I’ll be a huge success.  Only ­I thought it best to make it clear why it would do me considerable damage just now if you should write.”

“Tell me,” she said tremulously, “is there anything ­anything I can do to ­to balance the deep debt of gratitude I owe you ­”

“What debt?” he asked, astonished.  “Oh! that?  Why, that is no debt ­ except that I was happy ­perfectly and serenely happy to have had that chance to ­to hear your voice ­”

“You were brave,” she said hastily.  “You may make as light of it as you please, but I know.”

“So do I,” he laughed, enchanted with the rising color in her cheeks.

“No, you don’t; you don’t know how I felt ­how afraid I was to show how deeply ­deeply I felt.  I felt it so deeply that I did not even tell my sisters,” she added naively.

“Your sisters?”

“Yes; you know them.”  And as he remained silent she said:  “Do you not know who I am?  Do you not even know my name?”

He shook his head, laughing.

“I’d have given all I had to know; but, of course, I could not ask the servants!”

Surprise, disappointment, hurt pride that he had had no desire to know gave quick place to a comprehension that set a little thrill tingling her from head to foot.  His restraint was the nicest homage ever rendered her; she saw that instantly; and the straight look she gave him out of her clear eyes took his breath away for a second.

“Do you remember Sacharissa?” she asked.

“I do ­certainly!  I always thought ­”

“What?” she said, smiling.

He muttered something about eyes and white skin and a trick of the heavy lids.

She was perfectly at ease now; she leaned back in her chair, studying him calmly.

“Suppose,” she said, “people could see me here now.”

“It would end your artistic career,” he replied, laughing; “and fancy!  I took you for the sort that painted for a bare existence!”

“And I ­I took you for ­”

“Something very different than what I am.”

“In one way ­not in others.”

“Oh!  I look the mountebank?”

“I shall not explain what I mean,” she said with heightened color, and rose from her chair.  “As there are no more green mice to peep out at me from behind my easel,” she added, “I can have no excuse from abandoning art any longer.  Can I?”

The trailing sweetness of the inquiry was scarcely a challenge, yet he dared take it up.

“You asked me,” he said, “whether you could do anything for me.”

“Can I?” she exclaimed.

“Yes.”

“I will ­I am glad ­tell me what to do?”

“Why, it’s only this.  I’ve got to go before an audience of two hundred people and do things.  I’ve had practice here by myself, but ­but if you don’t mind I should like to try it before somebody ­you.  Do you mind?”

She stood there, slim, blue-eyed, reflecting; then innocently:  “If I’ve compromised myself the damage was done long ago, wasn’t it?  They’re going to take away my studio anyhow, so I might as well have as much pleasure as I can.”

And she sat down, gracefully, linking her white fingers over her knees.