Read CHAPTER I of The Return of Peter Grimm Novelised From the Play , free online book, by David Belasco, on ReadCentral.com.

A MAN AND A MAID

The train drew to a halt at the Junction. There was a fine jolt that ran the length of the cars, followed by a clank of couplings and a half-intelligible call from the conductor.

The passengers, dusty, jaded, crossly annoyed at the need of changing cars, gathered up their luggage and filed out onto the bare, roofless station platform. There, after a look down the long converging rails in vain hope of sighting the train they were to take, they fell to glancing about the cheerless station environs.

Far away were rolling hills, upland fields of wind-swept wheat, cool, dark stretches of woodland. But around the station were areas of ill-kept lots, with here and there a jerry-built cottage, sadly in need of shoring, and bereft of paint. Across the road on one side stood the general store with its clump of porch-step loafers and its windows full of gaudy advertisements. To the side, and parallel with the tracks, sprawled a huge, weather-buffeted signboard that read:

Grimm’s Botanical Gardens and Nurseries.
1 Mile.

The passengers eyed the half-defaced lettering, pessimistically. But almost at once they received a far pleasanter reminder of the botanical gardens. A boy, flushed with running, and evidently distressed at being late, pattered up the road and onto the platform. From one of his fragile arms hung a great basket. The lid had fallen aside and showed the basket piled to the brim with fresh flowers.

Hurrying to the nearest passenger an obese travelling man who mopped a very red face, the boy timidly held a Gloire de Dijon rose up to him and recited with parrot-like glibness:

“With the compliments of Peter Grimm.”

The fat man half unconsciously took the rose from the little hand and stood looking as though in dire doubt what to do with it. The boy did not help him out. Already he had moved on to the next passenger, this time a man of clerical bearing and suspiciously vivid nose, and handed him a gleaming Madonna lily.

“With the compliments of Peter Grimm,” he announced, passing on to the next.

And so on down the bunched line of waiting men and women the lad made his way. In front of each, he paused, presented a flower taken at random from the basket, recited his droning formula, and passed on.

The fat travelling man stared stupidly at his rose. Then he looked about him, half shamefacedly and in wonder.

“What in blazes ?” he began.

“You must be a stranger in this part of the state,” volunteered a big young fellow, who had just come out of the waiting-room. “Did you never hear of the flower-giving at the Junction?”

“No. What’s the idea? Is it done on a bet? Or is it an ‘ad’ for the man on the sign over there?”

“Neither. It has been Peter Grimm’s custom for twenty years or more. Ever since I first knew him.”

“And it isn’t an ad?”

“No,” was the enigmatic answer as the big young man moved off in the wake of the lad. “It’s Peter Grimm.”

The boy meanwhile had reached the last of the passengers. She was middle-aged and motherly-looking. She peered down at him with more than common interest as he went through his pat little presentation formula. A psychologist would have gathered much from the lad’s tense, flushed face and in the oddly strained look of the big blue eyes. To this woman, he was only a thin, lonely looking youngster, whose face held an unconscious appeal that she answered without reading it.

“I am very much obliged to Mr. Peter Grimm for sending me this lovely flower,” she said, a little patronisingly, as she sniffed at the half-opened Killarney rose she held.

“You need not be,” answered the boy. “He didn’t really send it to you. In fact, I’m quite sure he never even heard of you. He just sent it because he is good and because ”

“Because he loves flowers,” suggested the woman as the boy hesitated.

“No,” corrected the boy, in his gentle, old-fashioned diction, wherein lurked the faintest trace of foreign accent, “I never heard him say anything about loving flowers. But I know the flowers love him.”

“What?”

“You see, they grow for him as they don’t grow for any one else. Much better I am sure,” he added a little bitterly, “than they will ever grow for Frederik. I don’t think flowers love Frederik.”

“What queer ideas you have!” she laughed, embarrassed at his quiet statement of facts that seemed to her absurd. “Are you Mr. Grimm’s son?”

“No, ma’am. He is not married. I don’t think he has any sons at all. I’m Anne Marie’s son.”

“Anne Marie? Anne Marie what?”

“Just Anne Marie. I’m Willem, you know.”

“William?”

“No, ma’am. Willem.”

“Willem Grimm?”

“No, ma’am. Anne Marie’s Willem. I Oh, Mr. Hartmann!” he broke off, catching sight of the big young man who drew near, “Mynheer Peter said you’d be on this train. Now I can have some one to walk back with.”

Slipping his hand into Hartmann’s, Willem turned his back on the platformful of perspiring beneficiaries and, together, the two struck off down the yellow, dusty road toward the double row of giant elms that marked the beginning of the village street.

Willem shuffled in high contentment alongside his big companion. And as he walked, he stole upward and sidelong glances of furtive hero worship at the tall, plainly clad figure. Jim Hartmann was of a build and aspect to rouse such worship in the frail little fellow. He had the shoulders, the chest girth, the stride of an athlete, tempered by the slight roundness of those same shoulders, the non-expansiveness of chest, and the heavy tread of the large man whose strength and physique have been acquired at manual labour instead of in athletics. A figure more common east of the Atlantic than in America.

His dark suit was neat and fitted honestly well. But it was palpably not the suit of a man whose father had worn custom-made clothes or whose own earlier youth had been blessed with such garments. Yet there was a breezy, staunch outdoorness about the whole man that reminded one of a breath of mountain air in a close room and left half unnoticed the details of costume and bearing.

“Weren’t you glad to get away from New York City?” queried the boy as they came into the elm shade of Grimm Manor’s one real street. “A week is an awful long time to be away from here.”

“You bet it is. You’re a lucky chap to be able to stay at Grimm Manor all the time instead of being sent here, there, and everywhere on business.”

“I shouldn’t like that,” assented the boy; “I think people would be very liable of losing their way. I wonder if Mynheer Peter will send me ‘here, there, and everywhere on business’ when I’m older.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Hartmann, catching the slight note of wistfulness in Willem’s voice. “You’re beginning the way I began. It wasn’t more than a week after my father got his gardening job with Mr. Grimm that I used to be sent up to meet the trains with a basket of flowers and ’the compliments of Peter Grimm.’ It seems more like yesterday than eighteen years ago.”

“I’m glad you’re back from New York City,” said the boy, circling back to the conversation’s starting-point. “It’s been rather lonely. Mynheer Peter has been so busy. And Frederik ”

“Well,” queried Jim as the boy checked himself and looked nervously behind him, “what about Frederik? And why do you always look like that when you speak of him?”

“Like what?”

“As if you were afraid some one would slap you. Is Frederik ever unkind to you?”

“No,” denied the boy, in scared haste. “No, he never is. He he doesn’t notice me at all. That’s what I was going to say. He doesn’t seem to care to. But he likes to be with Kathrien, I think. Yes, I’m sure he does. I think Kathrien missed you, too, Mr. Hartmann.”

The big man grew of a sudden vaguely embarrassed. He cast back along the trail of the talk for some divergent path, and found one.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s good to be back from New York. The city always seems to cramp me and make it hard for me to breathe. The pavements hurt my feet and I have a silly feeling as though the skyscrapers were going to topple inward.”

He was talking to himself rather than to the boy. But Willem rejoined sympathetically:

“I don’t like New York City either.”

“You, why you surely can’t remember when you used to live there?”

The boy’s fair brow creased in an effort of memory.

“Sometimes,” he hesitated, “I can. And sometimes I don’t seem able to. But I remember Anne Marie. She cried.”

“How is Mynheer Peter?” demanded Hartmann with galvanic suddenness. “And how are that last lot of Madonna lilies coming on? They ought to be ”

“Sometimes,” went on the boy, still following his own line of thought and oblivious of the interruption, “sometimes I wonder why she cried. Sometimes for a minute or two mostly at night, when I’m nearly asleep I seem to remember why. But I always forget. Mr. Hartmann, did you see Anne Marie when you were in New York City?”

“No, of course not. How are Lad and Rex and Paddy? And do they still dig for moles in the flower-beds? Or did the dose of red pepper my father scattered over the beds cure them of digging?”

“I wonder,” observed Willem, “why everybody always talks about everything else when I want to talk about Anne Marie. And if other fellows’ mothers come to see them and live with them, why doesn’t Anne Marie come and live with me? I asked Oom Peter once and he said ”

“I’ve got to leave you now and hurry over to Mynheer Grimm’s office with my report,” broke in Hartmann. “My train was a little late anyhow and you know how he hates to be kept waiting.”

They had entered a wide gateway and had come from suburban America, at a step, into rural Holland. The prim gravelled drive led between acres of prosaically regular flower-beds, flanked on one side by a domed green house and on the other by a creaking Dutch windmill with weather-browned sails.

Straight ahead and absurdly near the road for a country house that boasted so much land about it, was the stone and yellow stucco cottage that for centuries had sheltered successive generations of Grimms. Painfully neat, unpicturesquely ugly, the house stood among its great oaks. It did not nestle among them. It stood. As well expect a breadth of starched brown holland to nestle. To deprive the abode of any lingering taint of picturesqueness, a blue and white signboard, thirty feet long, stretching between it and the main street, flashed to all the passing world the news that this was the headquarters of the celebrated “Grimm’s Botanical Gardens and Nurseries.”

The interior of the house was as delightful as its outside was hideous. Here, neatness raised to the nth power chanced to strike the keynote of a certain beauty. The big living-room, with its stairway leading to the bedroom gallery above, was a repository of curios that would have set an antiquary mad. From the ancient clock to the priceless old blue china, three-fourths of the room’s appointments might have served to deck a Holland museum. The remaining fourth contained such articles as a glaringly modern telephone on a nondescript desk, and a compromise between old and new in the shape of a square piano in the bay window, an ancient table. And several patently twentieth century articles helped still further to rob the place of any harmony or unison in effect.

An altogether charming Dutch maiden was dusting, and occasionally stopping to restore some slightly disarranged article to its mathematically neat position. In her blue Dutch cap, her blue delft gown, and white kerchief, she seemed to have danced down out of the past to strike the one note of vivid life in all that sombre-furnished place.

She paused in the sweep of sunshine that poured through the muslin-curtained bay window. A step had sounded in the passage leading from the rear of the house; a step she evidently knew. For the full young lips broke into an involuntary smile of expectancy, while the big eyes grew all at once eager and happy. Jim Hartmann, a pen behind his ear, a bundle of mail in his hand, came into the room. He had reached the desk and deposited his packet there before he caught sight of her. Then, wide-eyed, silent, tense, he halted, gazing at the sunshine-bathed figure in the window embrasure. For an instant neither of them spoke. It was the girl who broke the silence, her voice charged with a strange shyness.

“Good-morning, James,” she said primly.

“Good-morning, Miss Katie,” he answered mechanically, his eyes still wide with the loveliness of the sun-kissed face that so suddenly broke in upon his workaday routine.

“I wondered if you’d gotten back yet,” she continued, seeming to hunt industriously for a phrase of sufficiently meaningless decorum.

“I got back ten minutes ago. I reported to Mr. Grimm and brought the morning mail in here to look over for him. It seems strange to find the day so far advanced at this hour,” he went on, talking at random. “After a week in New York, where no one thinks of doing business before nine in the morning, it’s like coming into another world to be back here where the day’s work begins at five.”

He sat down, pleasantly regardless of the fact that she was still standing, and began to open and sort the letters before him. The girl noticed that his big hands fumbled at the unfamiliar task. But she noticed far more keenly the strength and massive shapeliness of the hands themselves.

“Do you like being secretary?” she queried.

“Yes, in a way. I’ve walked ‘outside’ in the gardens and nurseries so many years, it seems queer to be penned up indoors and have to scribble letters and open mail. But I’d sooner shovel dirt than not be here at all. I couldn’t last a month at a job where there wasn’t gardening going on all around me and where I couldn’t sneak off once in a while and do a bit of it myself.”

“That’s the way I feel,” she said simply, “though I never thought to put it in words before. I must live where things are growing. Where, every time I look out of the window, I can see orchards and shrubs and hothouses. Oh, it’s all so beautiful! And, James, our orchids this season but I forgot. You don’t care for orchids.”

“They’re pretty enough, I suppose,” vouchsafed Hartmann. “But the big men in the business are doing wonderful things with potatoes these days. And look at what Father Burbank’s done in creating an edible cactus! Sometimes it makes me feel bitter when I think what I might have done with vegetables if I hadn’t squandered so much God-given time studying Greek.”

“But ”

“Oh, yes. It made a hit with father to have me study a lot of things that would only help a college professor. He’s worked in the dirt, in overalls, all his life. And like most people who never had one, he sets a crazy value on so-called ‘education.’ But all this can’t interest you,” he finished ruefully.

“It does interest me. You know it does. But there’s something I’d like to say to you if you won’t be angry.”

“At you? Why ”

“It’s this: I want you so much to get on. Why won’t you try harder to to please Uncle Peter?”

“I do try. I’m square with him. That’s the trouble. That’s why I don’t make more of a hit. He asks me my ‘honest opinion’ about something or other. I give it. Then he blows up.”

“But if you’d try to be more tactful ”

“You said that once before to me, Miss Katie. I asked you what ‘tactful’ meant. And when you told me ”

“When I told you, you said it was ’just a fancy name for being hypocritical.’ But it isn’t, a bit. Can’t you try not to be quite so so ?”

“Cranky?”

“No, blunt. It will smooth things over so much with Uncle Peter. He’s really the gentlest, dearest ”

“I’ve noticed it,” said Hartmann drily. “But I’ll try if you want me to. I promise.”

“Thank you,” she answered.

And, perhaps to seal the pledge, their hands met. The sealing of a pledge is not a matter to slur over with careless haste, but requires due time. And it was but natural that the handclasp should be symbolic of that deliberation. Indeed, it is hard to say just how long his big hand and her little one might have remained clasped together had inclination been allowed to prevail. But, as usual in Hartmann’s life, inclination was not consulted. The door behind them opened sharply, and the clasped hands parted as if at a signal. Hartmann slipped back into his chair at the desk, while the girl busied herself with a new and commendable activity in her task of setting the immaculate room to rights.

Both seemed to realise without turning around that one more of their too brief interviews had been unceremoniously cut short.

The man whose advent caused the curtailment of the promise’s sealing was as foreign looking as the room itself. Dapper, dressed in a sort of elaborate carelessness, his figure alone carried with it an air of assurance that Hartmann always found almost as irritating as the man’s gracefully exaggerated manner and speech. His blonde hair was brushed back from a high, narrow forehead. A turned-up moustache and a close-trimmed and pointed Van Dyke beard added to the foreign aspect.

The newcomer took in the scene with a glance that apparently grasped none of its details. He nodded curtly to Hartmann, then crossed to where the girl was dusting.