Read CHAPTER VI of The House of Toys , free online book, by Henry Russell Miller, on


A unwonted excitement pervaded the offices of Radbourne & Company on that Saturday morning, radiated no doubt from the head of the concern himself. He flitted about restlessly, tugged at his whiskers continually, and his voice, as he rattled off his correspondence to Miss Brown, had a happy boyish lilt. Occasionally, chancing to catch Miss Summers’ eye, he would nod with a sly knowing smile.

For the original program for Saturday had been enlarged. Miss Summers and David had been notified to be ready at mid-afternoon for an event as yet cloaked in secrecy.

Mid-afternoon arrived. Radbourne glanced out into the street, nodded with satisfaction, closed his desk with a bang greatly to the relief of Miss Brown, who would now have leisure to recopy the letters she had bungled and vanished into his cloak-room.

At the same moment David strolled into Miss Summers’ presence, watch in hand.

“The hour has struck,” he burlesqued. “What doth it hold?”

“Whatever it is,” she answered, “you must seem to be delighted.”

“I think I shall be.” David was actually smiling. “For the last hour I’ve been looking at my watch every five minutes. This excitement is infectious. He hasn’t grown up, has he?”

“But isn’t that his great charm?” Miss Summers seemed already delighted over something.

“Charm?” David looked doubtful. “I hadn’t thought of him as ”

But he did not finish. Quick staccato footsteps were heard. Then a strange vision burst upon them Jonathan Radbourne accoutered for motoring, in visored cap and duster, with a huge pair of shell-rimmed goggles that sat grotesquely athwart his beaming countenance. On one arm he carried a veil and another coat.

“Ready?” And to their astonished gaze he explained, “First we’re going for a little run if it is agreeable to you?”

They assured him, in italics, that it was.

“Then let us hurry.” He handed the coat and veil to Miss Summers. “I brought these along for you. They are my mother’s. I got them for her but she never would go out in a machine. She thinks it would be tempting Providence. I’m sorry,” this to David, “I had nothing to fit you. Can you do without?”

David put him at ease on that point, and Miss Summers retired.

In a few minutes, fewer than you might suppose, she returned. Radbourne clapped his hands in delight.

“Look, David!”

David obeyed.

And then he was sure that he had never done justice to the face peering up at him from under the veiled hat. He was bound to admit that it had, after all, certain elements of prettiness; he was astonished that he could have thought otherwise. But then he had never seen her when cheeks glowed shell-pink and eyes danced with that undefined but delicious sense of adventure.

As he looked he smiled. It was a very friendly smile and the shell-pink deepened.

A touch on his arm interrupted it seems there was something to interrupt.

“Have I taken a liberty? I called you David.”

David turned the remnant of the friendly smile upon Jonathan Radbourne.

“Of course not. I hope you will do that again.”

Jonathan beamed. “Thank you. And now, shall we start?”

An hour later they were bowling swiftly along, up hill and down dale, over a smooth country road. Fields of young corn sped by, stretches of yellowing grain that rippled and tossed under the sweep of the breeze, fragrant wood-lots whose shadow was a caress. The host of the occasion sat with the chauffeur, turning often to point out to his guests some beauty of landscape they already had seen, commenting tritely, obvious as always in his effort to be entertaining, happy in the belief that he was succeeding. And he was succeeding; such is the uplifting power of the spirit of true friendliness, even when dwelling in a dinky little man with whiskers absurdly swept by the rushing wind.

The guests were silent for the most part when his comments did not call for answer. In the girl she seemed very girlish that afternoon the sense of holiday and adventure continued, her eyes shone softly and the pretty color did not fade. This despite her seatmate’s evident wish to be left to his thoughts. She had no wish to break through his reserve. But she wondered, a bit gravely, what he was thinking, and she did wish she could make things brighter for him, the superior young man who for all his nice courtesy and friendly smiles held himself so aloof and was so evidently subject to the blues. She thought she knew what troubled him. She could understand that. She was not always so contented as her quiet cheery manner proclaimed; sometimes, in the middle of the night, she awoke crying for the gift that had been taken from her.

His thoughts were less somber than from his long face she supposed. He, too, had his pleasurable sense of respite. For once, though idle, neither loneliness nor dejection oppressed him. It was good to lean back lazily in the chariot of the rich, dreamily watching the ever-shifting picture, soaking in the sunshine. It was good, too but in no-wise alarming to have beside him this pretty girl who knew when not to talk and in whose occasional smile was a new subtle flattery. It was even good to be with that odd fish Jonathan Radbourne, for whose company, in a more fortunate case, he would have had no desire. He was glad Radbourne had arranged this little party.

They came, at the end of a long climb, to a ridge lifted high above those they had crossed. On its crest, at a word from Radbourne, the chauffeur brought his machine to a stop.

Behind them lay the rough broken country of the foot-hills through which they had passed. And before the mountains! To them the eyes of the holiday-takers turned and clung.

Range after range they rose, like mighty billows, mounting higher until the tallest, dimly outlined in a thickening purplish haze, cut the sky, a rampart vision could not pierce. They seemed alive, those hills, the thick untouched growth stirring ceaselessly under the wind, a restless sea of sunlit green with flashes of white from laurel thickets and soft glintings where satiny oak-leaves caught and tossed back the slanting rays. And they sang.

“Listen!” Jonathan commanded, and the chauffeur shut off the panting motor.

They listened all but the chauffeur, that philistine, who opened the hood and gingerly felt of the heated engine. And the voice of the wind, wandering through the forest, came to them. David heard a long wondering sigh from the girl beside him.

Jonathan, too, heard and turned quickly.

“That is real music, isn’t it?”

She nodded.

“Is it worth the long ride?”

“The ride was good enough in itself, but this ! I never saw mountains before and I oh, there aren’t words for it.”

“I know,” Jonathan nodded, and the little twinkling eyes, even through the hideous goggles, seemed very tender as they rested on her. “’I will lift mine eyes unto the hills.’ The old fellow who sang that knew what he was talking about, didn’t he? If you’ve happened to mislay a faith anywhere, the mountains are a good place to look for it.”

“Even faith in one’s self?”

“The easiest to lose and the hardest to recover? Yes, even that. Particularly that. To any one needing it, I’d prescribe a month over yonder. I’ve never been able to do that, but often, when the world seems a little gray, I ride up here for an hour. It does me good.”

The philistine yawned and turned his passengers’ thoughts to a more interesting matter.

“See there.” He pointed to a thin low-lying cloud on the western horizon. “That’s the city. ’Most sixty miles. Done it in two hours, up-hill more’n half the way, too.”

“That’s very good time, isn’t it?” said Jonathan politely.

“Humph!” The philistine’s disdain was marked. “We’ll do better’n that goin’ back. That is,” he hinted, “if the dark don’t catch us.”

It seemed best, on such sound considerations as a waiting dinner, to take the hint. The big car panted once more, moved slowly along the ridge, then dipped sharply as it took the down grade. They coasted, gathering headway with each turn of the wheels. The girl, half turned, wistfully watched the mountains until the ridge rose to shut off the last crest from her sight. Then she settled back in the seat as though she were very tired.

David saw and on an impulse leaned toward her.

“Do you mean,” he asked in a voice so low that the others could not hear, “that you lose faith in yourself?”

“It’s the same thing, I suppose. I lose courage sometimes. I get tired of trying to like to do things I never really can like.”

“I understand,” he said gently. “Mr. Radbourne told me about you. Will you let me say, I am very sorry?”

She started, as if she had forgotten herself, and flushed deeply in her contrition.

“There! I’m perfectly nonsensical, letting myself be a cry-baby just when I’d intended It isn’t my habit at all. There’s nothing really to be sorry for. If you give any work your best and put your heart into it, you’ll get “,

“A great deal of happiness out of it,” David finished dryly. “Exactly! I recognize the formula. Also its author. I think you’re just whistling to keep up your courage now.”

“But that isn’t a bad thing at all to do. Why ” She turned to face him, with a little gasp for her daring. “Why don’t you try it?”

It was his turn to grow red. “You think I’d be more cheerful company?”

“I think,” she said, with a pretty gravity, “you make too much of being a lame duck. And I think that isn’t like you.”

“How do you know whether it’s like me or not?”

“That,” she laughed to cover her discomfiture, “is an embarrassing question. But I do think it.”

“At least, I’m not such a grouch as I sound. And I know how to be thankful when I find good friends?”

She nodded emphatically, and indicated their host. “Two of us.”

“I’ll hold you to that. And,” he continued, “you make me a little ashamed. I should like to say that you, being with you, is very good medicine for lame ducks.”

Another flush not of contrition this time nor yet of displeasure deepened the pretty color. He pursed his lips and whistled, as well as he could against the rushing wind, a bar or two of the latest popular melody. They found humor in this and laughed, so merrily that their host turned and beamed approvingly upon them.

It was a good car and the chauffeur was as good as his word. The miles stretched out behind them, at a pace that forbade conversation. The exhilaration of speed was upon David; and a deeper joy, born of a friendship found in a waste of loneliness.

The late June sun was just sinking to rest when they entered the outskirts of the city and drew up before a rambling white house set well back on a velvety lawn. Two great elms stood in the front of the yard and rhododendrons bloomed against the wide porch, their fragrance lingering on the evening air.

“That,” said Jonathan, “was a very spirited ride. But I hope,” this to David, “you aren’t sorry it’s ended, because this is my home, where we want you to come very often. Miss Summers,” he added, “already knows her welcome is sure.”

He got to the pavement and helped Miss Summers to alight, as deferentially as if she had been the finest lady in the land. And, despite red whiskers and cap and goggles, to David the manner did not seem absurd. . . .

A little later David descended from the room where he had removed the traces of their ride. At the parlor door he stopped, looking uncertainly at the sole occupant of that cozy room. She was reclining, eyes closed and hands folded, on a pillowed settee, where the glow of a shaded lamp fell softly upon her, and David thought her the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. A very wisp of a woman she was; he could have held her in his arms and scarcely felt the weight. But he would have taken her very tenderly, so fragile she seemed. Under a filmy lace cap her hair, still fine and plentiful, shone silvery. The face, though the face of age and white and thin almost to transparency, was strangely unlined. She wore a black silk dress with many folds and flounces and fine ruching at neck and wrists.

He thought she was taking one of those naps which are the prerogative of age at any hour, and began to tiptoe away. But she started and sat upright, her face turned toward him.

“Who is it?” she asked. “But I know. You are Mr. Quentin, of course. I am Jonathan’s mother.” She smiled.

But something was wrong with that smile. It seemed incomplete.

“You may come in.”

She held out a hand. David advanced and took it. She caught his in both of hers, in a soft lingering clasp.

She smiled again. “It is a good strong hand. You are quite tall, aren’t you?”

“Almost six feet.”

“And broad, too?”

“Rather, I believe.”

He tried to speak lightly, but a hard lump was gathering in his throat. For he knew what was wrong with that smile. She was blind.

“I am glad of that.” She nodded brightly. “I am very fond of large men. It has been my cross that Jonathan took his size from me and not from his father. I could walk under his arm and not even graze his sleeve.”

She drew him down beside her.

“Do you mind if I touch your face?”

“It isn’t much of a face, you know.” But that lump was very stubborn.

She reached up and passed both hands over his face, a light caressing touch he scarcely felt.

“Now,” she smiled, “I see you. You are quite mistaken. It is a good true face and I like it very much. Ah!” She had touched his lashes. “You are feeling sorry for me. But you must not,” she chided gently. “I don’t like people to be sorry for me.”

To that David had no answer. But on an impulse or it may have been an inspiration as the little hands left his face, he brushed one lightly with his lips.

She beamed always with that pathetic lack just as Jonathan did when something pleased him.

“That was very pretty.” She nodded again. “I see I am to like Jonathan’s new friend very much. You know, you have quite won him. He talks of you all the time. You like him, do you not?” The smile had become quite wistful.

“Better all the time,” David answered promptly and with truth.

“I am glad of that. And it is good of you to come here. We have so few visitors I suppose,” she sighed, “because we aren’t very interesting. I am afraid Jonathan gets very lonely sometimes, having to spend most of his evenings here with no one but me. Not,” she made haste to add, “that he isn’t always good to me.”

“I think he is good to every one.”

“You have found that out? It is because he had a great disappointment once, I think.”

“One would never guess that.”

“No. Of course, when one has had a disappointment or been made to suffer, one makes up for that by trying to make the world brighter for others.”

“It seems,” said David, “that some people do that.”

“He wanted to play the violin professionally. He had studied hard and his teachers said that he had talent. But his father forbade it. He said it wasn’t a man’s work to fiddle in public. My husband,” she sighed, “was a very firm man and wanted Jonathan to learn the business. So Jonathan went to the technical school here and studied engineering. Jonathan,” she added proudly, “had been well brought up and knew that his parents were wiser than he.”

“I see,” said David.

“But I think,” the little lady went on, after a pause, “we didn’t know how hard it was for him. I understand better now. Sometimes, though he doesn’t suspect, I hear it in his playing. Then I wonder if we were wiser than he and if I was selfish. Of course, the music would have taken him away so much and it would have been very lonely for me and very dark. Sometimes I wonder if that wasn’t his real reason for giving up his music.”

David was silent.

“You say nothing.” Even without eyes to give meaning, her smile was wistful as a child’s. “Are you thinking he would have been happier or better off in the work he wanted than in taking care of me?”

“I think,” said David, “he is happy because he stayed with you.”

“He has said so himself.” She sighed. “I wonder I wonder!”

For a little they said nothing, David thinking very hard.

“And now,” she said at last, “you may tell me what you think of Miss Summers.”

“Why,” he answered, “she seems very attractive.”

“Jonathan has led me to believe so. And a gentlewoman, should you say?”

“I think so,” said David, who had not thought of it at all. “Oh, yes, undoubtedly.”

“That is my opinion. And she sings very nicely.” Jonathan’s mother sighed again.

There was a dinner that included creations not found in cheap boarding-houses: fried chicken, for example, tender and flaky and brown, and crisp waffles with honey, and sweet potatoes in the southern style. It was cooked and served by a white-haired old negress whose round eyes popped with pride at the destruction David wrought. She listened shamelessly, fat bosom aquiver, to her radiant master’s quips, commenting, “Mistuh Jon’than, chuckle ef yo’ ain’ chuckle de beatenes’ evuh!” and warned David in a stage whisper to save room for a miracle of a pudding to come. Mrs. Radbourne opened the casket of her memory to display several well polished anecdotes of a day when the world must have been very bright indeed, full of light and color; chiefest jewel of which concerned a meeting with the elder Booth, from which occasion her husband that very firm man had emerged with credit. If, as some wise man has said, wit is all a matter of the right audience, then David must have been very witty indeed. And across the table from him sat a pair of slate-gray eyes, still aglow with that sense of adventure.

Then there were cigars, mild and very good, smoked on the porch; both ladies protesting that they liked the fragrance of tobacco. And then the host, with the air of having come to the real business of the meeting, rose and said:

“Shall we have some music now?”

“Oh, by all means!” said David politely, wondering how much credence he ought to place in the advance notices.

They went into the parlor, where Jonathan turned to Miss Summers, “Do you feel like singing this evening?”

“Yes,” she said, and went at once to the piano.

She played a few chords softly. And then her voice rose in a low crooning note that went straight to David’s heart.

For she sang as the thrush sings because God had put music in her heart and shaped her throat to give forth pure rich liquid sounds and meant her to be revealed through song. And that evening, in the simple little slumber song she sang first, there was no faltering or roughened note to tell that part of her gift had been taken from her. While she sang, there was nothing in the world but melody and the rest of which she sang . . . and the singer.

She ended. But over at least one of her audience the spell of her voice lingered. For a long moment David sat motionless, lips parted, staring wonderingly at her, even after she had swung around to face them.

“Why ” he stammered foolishly. “Why I didn’t think ”

The rose pink in her cheeks became rose madder and it was easy to see that she was happy over something. “Oh,” she said, “it just happens to be one of my good days. Sometimes my voice leaves me in the middle of a note and lets me down flat.” She laughed, as though there were humor in that.

David did not laugh. He saw no humor in that. He could not believe that it had ever happened. . . .

And so she became the iris girl. But he did not suspect that yet. He was not looking for iris girls; it is much to his credit.

They did not notice the excitement glistening in Jonathan’s eyes.

“You have been practising again,” he declared.

“Just a little. And only for the fun of it. Not in earnest of course. It’s your turn now.”

He said no more about her practise but got out his violin, tuned it carefully, opened a book of music before her and waited for her to play the prelude. Then, tucking the violin under his chin with an eager caressing gesture, he began to play.

That was a night of wonders to David. He was transported from a world of failures and disappointments into a delectable land where a dinky little man, armed with nothing but a horsehair bow and his own nimble fingers, compelled a gut-strung box to sing songs of love and throb with pain and dark passions and splendid triumphs. That is always magic, though some call it genius. And the magic did not cease there. It touched the player, transformed him. The homely manikin, a bit ridiculous with his mannerisms and whiskers, a trifle too obvious in his good will to others, disappeared. Where he had been stood a man strong but fine and gentle in his strength, proud and passionate, as strong men are apt to be, but brave enough to turn willingly from his chosen path because another way seemed best. David, watching the player’s swaying body and transfigured face, understood, as even the blind little mother could never understand, how much her son had given to her.

“If only he could be playing always!”

Jonathan’s mother slept. But for two hours the man who was no longer manikin and the girl who in real life was only a frail little bookkeeper played to David: a brilliant polonaise, a nocturne that was moonlight and shadow set to music, a concerto that only the masters attempt, a few noble old classics. Between them she sang thrice, songs chosen by Jonathan, each a little more taxing than the one before. Not once did she falter and only once, in the last song where her contralto voice had to take b-flat above middle c, was there a hint of strain.

More than rare harmonies and melodies and rhythms were coming to David. Player and singer, though they did not know it, were giving themselves to him. This was the man, and that the girl, whom rather patronizingly, as though he were conferring a favor he had let proffer their simple unaffected friendship! “He gave up his work of his own accord for that poor old woman who can’t even guess at what it cost him. She was forced out of hers when success was in sight. I don’t know which is worse. And they don’t make gloomy grandeur out of it.”

The last song, to which Jonathan improvised an obbligato, ended the music. Esther for that was her name pointed in dismay, toward the clock and the sleeping hostess.

“Thank you,” said David from his heart. He was thanking them for more than the music.

Mrs. Radbourne stirred, yawning daintily. “Are you stopping so soon? My dear, you sang very prettily. Jonathan, you surpassed yourself. Particularly in the Largo. I remember Olé Bull, in ’sixty-seven. . . .”

When that anecdote was concluded, the guests rose to leave. Because it was very late, Mrs. Radbourne prevailed upon Esther to stay overnight. David would not be persuaded. So they gathered around him at the door. And, having shaken hands, he said again:

“Thank you. And I should like to say ”

A sudden awkward lump jumped into his throat. He began anew, “I should like to say ”

But what he would like to say would not be said. “Good night,” he forced out abruptly and hurried into the night.

Jonathan Radbourne stood before the cold fireplace, tugging with both hands at his whiskers.

“Miss Summers,” he said, “that young man grows nicer all the time.”

“Yes,” she said.

“I wish I could make things brighter for him.”

“You are, I think.”

“No more than he has earned from me. He’s a very faithful worker, you know. I must look up some of his professional work. And I have an idea that concerns you, young lady. There’s a new throat specialist I’ve just heard of. You’re to call on him on Monday.”

David walked home. When that absurd lump had been conquered he began to whistle determinedly, as became a young man who was no longer to make gloomy grandeur out of his failure. He kept it up until he reached the apartment and its chill loneliness smote him.

“Oh, Shirley,” he cried, “if only you were ” And that was another saying he did not complete, because it might have been lacking in loyalty. . . .

A new tenant for the apartment had been found. The next Saturday David turned the key for the last time on a scene of defeat. He was not sorry to leave. That night he took a train for an over-Sunday visit with Shirley. She had been urging him to come.

“I know it’s an extravagance,” she wrote. “All the nice things are. But Davy Junior and I are so homesick for you.” David’s heart cut no capers at that, even before he read what followed. “I’m afraid people will think it queer, your not coming, and of course, I can’t tell them it’s because we are poor.”

It was an unsuccessful trip from the beginning, though Shirley, all smiles and exclamations, met him at the station and hugged him so hard that she wrinkled his collar. She took him to Aunt Clara’s in that lady’s new car, saying, “Home, Charles,” as if she had been born to automobiles and chauffeurs. There the day was taken up by many guests including the resplendent Sam Hardy, in cutaway and silk waistcoat, New York made, that made David feel shabbier than he looked come to inspect Shirley’s husband. The only real “aside” he had was with Aunt Clara, who quizzed him concerning the state of his debts.

“You are doing quite well,” she was pleased to approve. “I begin to believe there’s something in you, after all.”

“Thank you,” David murmured, as politely as the case allowed.

“Now don’t get huffy with me, young man,” she said. “That’s saying a great deal, from me to you. You can’t expect me to fall on your neck.”

“Not exactly,” said David.

“Humph!” she sniffed. “Sounds much like ‘God forbid!’ Which isn’t grateful. You’ve much to thank me for, if you only knew it. Shirley’s better off here and you’re much better off having her here than back there pinching pennies with you. There are some things Shirley never could understand.”

David answered nothing, but a little voice within was piping, “It is true! It is true!”

Aunt Clara looked at him sharply, then suddenly to her own great surprise blew a trumpet blast from her long nose and said:

“Tut! tut! Don’t mind my impertinent old tongue. I like you better than I sound. You may never set the river afire, but you have a pretty patience I never had. And I could be a fool over you, if I let myself. Do you want me to send her back home? I will, if you say the word.”

David hesitated a moment.

“Do you want her to go?”

“No,” said Aunt Clara. “Shirley can be good company when things go to her taste.”

“Does she want to go?”

“If she does,” said Aunt Clara, quite herself once more, “she’s bearing up under the disappointment remarkably well for Shirley. I take it my question is answered.”

Shirley and David went to the station as they had gone from it, alone in Aunt Clara’s car. All the way he was trying to tell her of the new resolve he had taken when Jonathan and Esther Summers made music for him. It was strangely hard to tell. Not until they were in the station, with but a few minutes left, did he find words for the essay.

“Shirley, I’m afraid you thought I was pretty babyish about giving up my profession. I I was babyish. I’d like you to know I’ve got my nerve back.”

Shirley was very sweet about it. “I did think you were a little foolish to take it so hard, dear, when the old architecture never brought us anything but disappointments. I always knew you would come to look at it sensibly.”

And she dismissed the subject with the carelessness it may have deserved. “When do you think Mr. Radbourne will raise your salary?”

“Probably before I have earned it.”

“David, do you think we’ll ever be rich?”

“I suppose not. There seems little chance of it.”

She sighed.

“There is nothing in the world but money, is there?”

Tears of self-pity were coming into her eyes. “It’s terrible, having to look forward to being poor forever.”

The train announcer made loud noises through a megaphone. David rose and looked down in a sudden daze at the pretty young woman who was his wife to whom he had become but a disappointing means to an end, to whom his heart, though he might thrust it naked and quivering before her eyes, would ever be a sealed book inspiring no interest. His pretty house of love was swaying, falling, and he could not support it.

“And I begin to think,” he said queerly, “that we’ll always be hopelessly, miserably poor.”

Even Shirley could perceive a cryptic quality in that speech.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing that need disturb you. I have no reason,” he added grimly, “to believe that it will disturb you.”

She eyed him reproachfully and gave a sigh of patience sorely taxed.

“David, I wonder if you never realize that in some of your moods you are very hard to understand.”

“Too temperamental, I suppose? Right as always, my dear.” He laughed. Men sometimes laugh because they can not weep. But Shirley did not know that. “But I think I can promise you no more temperament. I’m learning a cure for that. And now I’d better turn you over to Charles. I think that noise means my train is ready.”

He took her to the car, kissed her and helped her into the seat and watched her ride away. Then he went back into the station just in time to catch the train.

Shirley found herself perturbed and close to tears; she hardly knew why.

“I wonder what he meant by that about temperament?” She sighed again. “Sometimes I think the worry and everything are turning David’s temper sour. I wish I wish he were like other men. He doesn’t realize how trying he is sometimes.”

And Shirley being Shirley, she bade Charles drive faster and tried to put David’s unlikeness to other men out of her mind.

David being David, he sat up all night, submitting to his cure for temperament. He was facing the truth from which he had been hiding ever since Shirley went away. His heavy sense of loss had been defined.

A little imp with a nasty sneering voice that jabbed like a hot needle perched itself on his shoulder and kept dinning into his ears:

“The truth is, you had nothing to lose but a fancy. Shirley never really loved you. You were only one of her toys, one sort of a good time, and not worth the price. You didn’t really love Shirley, only what you thought she was, what you see now she is not. Therefore . . .”