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

An Alliance, Offensive, Defensive, and Back-Fensive

Smith, petrified, looked blankly at the paw.

For a while he remained stupidly incapable of speech or movement, then, as though arousing from a bad dream: 

“What are you going to do, anyway?” he asked with an effort.  “This car is bound to stop sometime, I suppose, and ­and then what?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.  Whatever I do will be the thing that ought to happen to me, to that cat and to that girl ­that is the thing which is destined to happen.  That’s all I know about it.”

His friend passed an unsteady hand across his brow.

“This whole proceeding is becoming a nightmare,” he said unsteadily.  “Am I awake?  Is this Forty-second Street?  Hold up some fingers, Brown, and let me guess how many you hold up, and if I guess wrong I’m home in bed asleep and the whole thing is off.”

Beekman Brown patted his friend on the shoulder.

“You take a cab, Smithy, and go somewhere.  And if I don’t come go on alone to the Carringtons’....  You don’t mind going on and fixing things up with the Carringtons, do you?”

“Brown, do you believe that The Green Mouse Society has got hold of you? Do you?”

“I don’t know and don’t care....  Smith, I ask you plainly, did you ever before see such a perfectly beautiful girl as that one is?”

“Beekman, do you believe anything queer is going to result?  You don’t suppose she has anything to do with this extraordinary freak of yours?”

“Anything to do with it?  How?”

“I mean,” he sank his voice to hoarser depths, “how do you know but that this girl, who pretends to pay no attention to us, might be a ­a ­one of those clever, professional mesmerists who force you to follow ’em, and get you into their power, and exhibit you, and make you eat raw potatoes and tallow candles and tacks before an audience.”

He peeped furtively at Brown, who did not appear uneasy.

“All I’m afraid of,” added Smith, sullenly, “is that you’ll get yourself into vaudeville or the patrol wagon.”

He waited, but Brown made no reply.

“Oh, very well,” he said, coldly.  “I’ll take a cab back to the boat.”

No observation from Brown.

“So, good-by, old fellow” ­with some emotion.

“Good-by,” said Beekman Brown, absently.

In fact, he did not even notice when his thoroughly offended partner left the car, so intent was he in following the subtly thrilling train of thought which tantalized him, mocked him, led him nowhere, yet always lured him to fresh endeavor of memory. Where had all this occurred before?  When?  What was going to happen next ­happen inexorably, as it had once happened, or as it once should have happened, in some dim, bygone age when he and that basket and that cat and this same hauntingly lovely girl existed together on earth ­or perhaps upon some planet, swimming far out beyond the ken of men with telescopes?

He looked at the girl, strove to consider her impersonally, for her youthful beauty began to disturb him.  Then cold doubt crept in; something of the monstrosity of the proceeding chilled his enthusiasm for occult research.  Should he speak to her?

Certainly, it was a dreadful thing to do ­an offense the enormity of which was utterly inexcusable except under the stress of a purely impersonal and scientific necessity for investigating a mental phase of humanity which had always thrilled him with a curiosity most profound.

He folded his arms and began to review in cold blood the circumstances which had led to his present situation in a cross-town car.  Number one, and he held up one finger: 

As it comes, at times, to every normal human, the odd idea had come to him that what he was saying and doing as he emerged from the subway at Times Square was what he had, sometime, somewhere, said and done before under similar circumstances.  That was the beginning.

Number two, and he gravely held up a second finger: 

Always before when this idea had come to bother him it had faded after a moment or two, leaving him merely uneasy and dissatisfied.

This time it persisted ­intruding, annoying, exasperating him in his efforts to remember things which he could not recollect.

Number three, and he held up a third finger: 

He had begun to remember!  As soon as he or Smith said or did anything he recollected having said or done it sometime, somewhere, or recollected that he ought to have.

Number four ­four fingers in air, stiff, determined digits: 

He had not only, by a violent concentration of his memory, succeeded in recognizing the things said and done as having been said and done before, but suddenly he became aware that he was going to be able to foretell, vaguely, certain incidents that were yet to occur ­like the prophesied advent of the cherry-colored car and the hat, gown, and wicker basket.

He now had four fingers in the air; he examined them seriously, and then stuck up the fifth.

“Here I am,” he thought, “awake, perfectly sane, absolutely respectable.  Why should a foolish terror of convention prevent me from asking that girl whether she knows anything which might throw some light on this most interesting mental phenomenon?...  I’ll do it.”

The girl turned her head slightly; speech and the politely perfunctory smile froze on his lips.

She held up one finger; Brown’s heart leaped. Was that some cabalistic sign which he ought to recognize?  But she was merely signaling the conductor, who promptly pulled the bell and lifted her basket for her when she got off.

She thanked him; Brown heard her, and the crystalline voice began to ring in little bell-like echoes all through his ears, stirring endless little mysteries of memory.

Brown also got off; his legs struck up a walk of their own volition, carrying him across the street, hoisting him into a north-bound Lexington Avenue car, and landing him in a seat behind the one where she had installed herself and her wicker basket.

She seemed to be having some difficulty with the wicker basket; beseeching six-toed paws were thrust out persistently; soft meows pleaded for the right of liberty and pursuit of feline happiness.  Several passengers smiled.

Trouble increased as the car whizzed northward; the meows became wilder; mad scrambles agitated the basket; the lid bobbed and creaked; the girl turned a vivid pink and, bending close over the basket, attempted to soothe its enervated inmate.

In the forties she managed to control the situation; in the fifties a frantic rush from within burst a string that fastened the basket lid, but the girl held it down with energy.

In the sixties a tempest broke loose in the basket; harrowing yowls pierced the atmosphere; the girl, crimson with embarrassment and distress, signaled the conductor at Sixty-fourth Street and descended, clinging valiantly to a basket which apparently contained a pack of firecrackers in process of explosion.

A classical heroine in dire distress invariably exclaims aloud:  “Will no one aid me?” Brown, whose automatic legs had compelled him to follow, instinctively awaited some similar appeal.

It came unexpectedly; the kicking basket escaped from her arms, the lid burst open, and an extraordinarily large, healthy and indignant cat flew out, tail as big as a duster, and fled east on Sixty-fourth Street.

The girl in the summer gown and white straw hat ran after the cat.  Brown’s legs ran, too.

There was, and is, between the house on the northeast corner of Sixty-fourth Street and Lexington Avenue and the next house on Sixty-fourth, an open space guarded by an iron railing; through this the cat darted, fur on end, and, with a flying leap, took to the back fences.

“Oh!” gasped the girl.

Then Brown’s legs did an extraordinary thing ­they began to scramble and kick and shin up the iron railing, hoisting Brown over; and Brown’s voice, pleasant, calm, reassuring, was busy, too:  “If you will look out for my suitcase I think I can recover your cat....  It will give me great pleasure to recover your cat.  I shall be very glad to have, the opportunity of recovering ­puff ­puff ­your ­puff ­puff ­c-cat!” And he dropped inside the iron railing and paused to recover his breath.

The girl came up to the railing and gazed anxiously through at the corner of the only back fence she could perceive.

“What a perfectly dreadful thing to happen!” she said in a voice not very steady.  “It is exceedingly nice of you to help me catch Clarence.  He is quite beside himself, poor lamb!  You see, he has never before been in the city.  I ­I shall be distressed beyond m-measure if he is lost.”

“He went over those fences,” said Brown, breathing faster.  “I think I’d better go after him.”

“Oh ­would you mind?  I’d be so very grateful.  It seems so much to ask of you.”

“I’ll do it,” said Brown, firmly.  “Every boy in New York has climbed back fences, and I’m only thirty.”

“It is most kind of you; but ­but I don’t know whether you could possibly get him to come to you.  Clarence is timid with strangers.”

Brown had already clambered on to the wooden fence.  He balanced himself there, astride.  Whitewash liberally decorated coat and trousers.

“I see him,” he said.

“W-what is he doing?”

“Squatting on a trellis three back yards away.”  And Brown lifted a blandishing voice:  “Here, Clarence ­Clarence ­Clarence!  Here, kitty ­ kitty ­kitty!  Good pussy!  Nice Clarence!”

“Does he come?” inquired the girl, peering wistfully through the railing.

“He does not,” said Brown.  “Perhaps you had better call.”

“Here, puss ­puss ­puss ­puss!” she began gently in that fascinating, crystalline voice which seemed to set tiny silvery chimes ringing in Brown’s ears:  “Here, Clarence, darling ­Betty’s own little kitty-cat!”

“If he doesn’t come to that,” thought Brown, “he is a brute.”  And aloud:  “If you could only let him see you; he sits there blinking at me.”

“Do you think he’d come if he saw me?”

“Who wouldn’t?” thought Brown, and answered, calmly:  “I think so....  Of course, you couldn’t get up here.”

“I could....  But I’d better not....  Besides, I live only a few houses away ­Number 161 ­and I could go through into the back yard.”

“But you’d better not attempt to climb the fence.  Have one of the servants do it; we’ll get the cat between us then and corner him.”

“There are no servants in the house.  It’s closed for the summer ­all boarded up!”

“Then how can you get in?”

“I have a key to the basement....  Shall I?”

“And climb up on the fence?”

“Yes ­if I must ­if it’s necessary to save Clarence....  Shall I?”

“Why can’t I shoo him into your yard.”

“He doesn’t know our yard.  He’s a country cat; he’s never stayed in town.  I was taking him with me to Oyster Bay....  I came down from a week-end at Stockbridge, where some relatives kept Clarence for us while we were abroad during the winter....  I meant to stop and get some things in the house on my way back to Oyster Bay....  Isn’t it a perfectly wretched situation?...  We ­the entire family ­adore Clarence ­and ­I-I’m so anxious ­”

Her fascinating underlip trembled, but she controlled it.

“I’ll get that cat if it takes a month!” said Brown.  Then he flushed; he had not meant to speak so warmly.

The girl flushed too.  I am so grateful....  But how ­”

“Wait,” said Brown; and, addressing Clarence in a softly alluring voice, he began cautiously to crawl along the fences toward that unresponsive animal.  Presently he desisted, partly on account of a conspiracy engaged in between his trousers and a rusty nail.  The girl was now beyond range of his vision around the corner.

“Miss ­ah ­Miss ­er ­er ­Betty!” he called.

“Yes!”

“Clarence has retreated over another back yard.”

“How horrid!”

“How far down do you live?”

She named the number of doors, anxiously adding:  “Is Clarence farther down the block?  Oh, please, be careful.  Please, don’t drive him past our yard.  If you will wait I ­I’ll let myself into the house and ­I’ll manage to get up on the fence.”

“You’ll ruin your gown.”

“I don’t care about my gown.”

“These fences are the limit!  Full of spikes and nails....  Will you be careful?”

“Yes, very.”

“The nails are rusty.  I ­I am h-horribly afraid of lockjaw.”

“Then don’t remain there an instant.”

“I mean ­I’m afraid of it for you.”

There was a silence; they couldn’t see each other.  Brown’s heart was beating fast.

“It is very generous of you to ­think of me,” came her voice, lower but very friendly.

“I ca-can’t avoid it,” he stammered, and wanted to kick himself for what he had blurted out.

Another pause ­longer this time.  And then: 

“I am going to enter my house and climb up on the fence....  Would you mind waiting a moment?”

“I will wait here,” said Beekman Brown, “until I see you.”  He added to himself:  “I’m going mad rapidly and I know it and don’t care.... What ­ a ­girl!”

While he waited, legs swinging, astride the back fence, he examined his injuries ­thoughtfully touched the triangular tear in his trousers, inspected minor sartorial and corporeal lacerations, set his hat firmly upon his head, and gazed across the monotony of the back-yard fences at Clarence.  The cat eyed him disrespectfully, paws tucked under, tail curled up against his well-fed flank ­disillusioned, disgusted, unapproachable.

Presently, through the palings of a back yard on Sixty-fifth Street, Brown saw a small boy, evidently the progeny of some caretaker, regarding him intently.

“Say, mister,” he began as soon as noticed, “you have tore your pants on a nail.”

“Thanks,” said Brown, coldly; “will you be good enough to mind your business?”

“I thought I’d tell you,” said the small boy, delightedly aware that the information displeased Brown.  “They’re tore awful, too.  That’s what you get for playin’ onto back fences.  Y’orter be ashamed.”

Brown feigned unconsciousness and folded his arms with dignity; but the next moment he straightened up, quivering.

“You young devil!” he said; “if you pull that slingshot again I’ll come over there and destroy you!”

At the same moment above the fence line down the block a white straw hat appeared; then a youthful face becomingly flushed; then two dainty, gloved hands grasping the top of the fence.

“I am here,” she called across to him.

The small boy, who had climbed to the top of his fence, immediately joined the conversation: 

“Your girl’s a winner, mister,” he observed, critically.

“Are you going to keep quiet?” demanded Brown, starting across the fence.

“Sure,” said the small boy, carelessly.

And, settling down on his lofty perch of observation, he began singing: 

"Lum’ me an’ the woild is mi-on.

The girl’s cheeks became pinker; she looked at the small boy appealingly.

“Little boy,” she said, “if you’ll run away somewhere I’ll give you ten cents.”

“No,” said the terror, “I want to see him an’ you catch that cat.”

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” suggested Brown, inspired.  “I’ll give you a dollar if you’ll help us catch the cat.”

“You’re on!” said the boy, briskly.  “What’ll I do?  Touch her up with this bean-shooter?”

“No; put that thing into your pocket!” exclaimed Brown, sharply.  “Now climb across to Sixty-fourth Street and stand by that iron railing so that the cat can’t bolt out into the street, and,” he added, wrapping a dollar bill around a rusty nail and tossing it across the fence, “here’s what’s coming to you.”

The small boy scrambled over nimbly, ran squirrel-like across the transverse fence, dipped, swarmed over the iron railing and stood on guard.

“Say, mister,” he said, “if the cat starts this way you and your girl start a hollerin’ like ­”

“All right,” interrupted Brown, and turned toward the vision of loveliness and distress which was now standing on the top of her own back fence holding fast to a wistaria trellis and flattering Clarence with low and honeyed appeals.

The cat, however, was either too stupid or too confused to respond; he gazed blankly at his mistress, and when Brown began furtively edging his way toward him Clarence arose, stood a second in alert indecision, then began to back away.

“We’ve got him between us!” called out Brown.  “If you’ll stand ready to seize him when I drive him ­”

There was a wild scurry, a rush, a leap, frantic clawing for foothold.

“Now, Miss Betty!  Quick!” cried Brown.  “Don’t let him pass you.”

She spread her skirts, but the shameless Clarence rushed headlong between the most delicately ornamental pair of ankles in Manhattan.

“Oh-h!” cried the girl in soft despair, and made a futile clutch; but she could not arrest the flight of Clarence, she merely upset him, turning him for an instant into a furry pinwheel, whirling through mid-air, landing in her yard, rebounding like a rubber ball, and disappearing, with one flying leap, into a narrow opening in the basement masonry.

“Where is he?” asked Brown, precariously balanced on the next fence.

“Do you know,” she said, “this is becoming positively ghastly.  He’s bolted into our cellar.”

“Why, that’s all right, isn’t it?” asked Brown.  “All you have to do is to go inside, descend to the cellar, and light the gas.”

“There’s no gas.”

“You have electric light?”

“Yes, but it’s turned off at the main office.  The house is closed for the summer, you know.”

Brown, balancing cautiously, walked the intervening fence like an amateur on a tightrope.

Her pretty hat was a trifle on one side; her cheeks brilliant with excitement and anxiety.  Utterly oblivious of herself and of appearances in her increasing solicitude for the adored Clarence, she sat the fence, cross saddle, balancing with one hand and pointing with the other to the barred ventilator into which Clarence had darted.

A wisp of sunny hair blew across her crimson cheek; slender, active, excitedly unconscious of self, she seemed like some eager, adorable little gamin perched there, intent on mischief.

“If you’ll drop into our yard,” she said, “and place that soap box against the ventilator, Clarence can’t get out that way!”

It was done before she finished the request.  She disengaged herself from the fencetop, swung over, hung an instant, and dropped into a soft flower bed.

Breathing fast, disheveled, they confronted one another on the grass.  His blue suit of serge was smeared with whitewash; her gown was a sight.  She felt for her hat instinctively, repinned it at hazard, looked at her gloves, and began to realize what she had done.

“I ­I couldn’t help it,” she faltered; “I couldn’t leave Clarence in a city of five m-million strangers ­all alone ­terrified out of his senses ­ could I?  I had rather ­rather be thought ­anything than be c-cruel to a helpless animal.”

Brown dared not trust himself to answer.  She was too beautiful and his emotion was too deep.  So he bent over and attempted to dust his garments with the flat of his hand.

“I am so sorry,” she said in a low voice.  “Are your clothes quite ruined?”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” he protested happily, “I really don’t mind a bit.  If you’ll only let me help you corner that infern ­that unfortunate cat I shall be perfectly happy.”

She said, with heightened color:  “It is exceedingly nice of you to say so....  I ­I don’t quite know ­what do you think we had better do?”

“Suppose,” he said, “you go into the basement, unlock the cellar door and call.  He can’t bolt this way.”

She nodded and entered the house.  A few moments later he heard her calling, so persuasively that it was all he could do not to run to her, and why on earth that cat didn’t he never could understand.