Read CHAPTER IX of The House of Toys , free online book, by Henry Russell Miller, on ReadCentral.com.

A NEW HOUSE

Radbourne & Company was in a daze. And no wonder! For a week the “little boss” had not once beamed, the spirited hop had gone out of his walk, a new querulous note had come into his voice. When a matter went wrong which, it seemed, happened oftener than usual he reminded the delinquent of the fact, not gently, but sadly, as though deeply aweary of the frailty of men. Miss Brown confided to Esther that she was well on the way to “nervous prostration.” Esther was worried, and wondered what grave mischance could have worked out such a change in Jonathan. He seemed to avoid both her and David, and when they did meet his manner was constrained and awkward.

It was like chicken-pox and evil gossip and other contagious diseases. It spread. Gloom hung like a fog over office and shop. No one whistled or hummed at work. Good friends lost their heads and exchanged cutting words. And Hegner, the shop foreman, who had been sober for a year, lost his grip and got drunk. Because he was ashamed and hated himself, his temper was always at half-cock.

And Smith poor Smith, the ex-convict, to whom Jonathan’s kindness had been as water on a lame duck’s back had to bear the brunt of Hegner’s distemper. He stood it as long as he could; which was not very long.

One noon hour he presented himself, sullen and whining and bleeding at the nose, with a grievance for Jonathan’s ears. The latter looked up frowningly from the pile of letters he was signing; they were sadly misspelled, the agitated Miss Brown having been at her worst.

“Yes, Smith,” he said wearily. “What is it? A complaint, I suppose?”

“I wants to know,” began Smith in a whine, “why I can’t git a square deal here. The shop boss he ”

“Is Hegner mixed up in it? Then go bring him here and say what you have to say before him.”

Smith departed, to return a few minutes later, an apprehensive eye cast back at the trailing Hegner.

“Now, Smith,” said Jonathan, “what is your complaint?”

“The boss he keeps damnin’ me up an’ down all the time,” Smith explained. “An’ this morning he slugs me right here on the beak.” He laid a gentle finger on the corpus delicti.

“Hegner,” inquired Jonathan, “why do you keep damning him up and down all the time? And why did you slug him on the beak?”

“Because,” Hegner grinned sheepishly, “his beak was the place most convenient.”

“This isn’t a joking matter,” Jonathan reminded him sharply.

“So it ain’t.” Hegner turned a glance of contempt on Smith. “He’s a bum an’ a loafer, He won’t learn an’ he won’t try to work. Why, Braun, who’d ought to be in bed instead of at a lathe, turns out half as much again as him. How can I jack the other men up if I let him lag behind? An’ this morning I told him I’d had enough of his soldierin’ an’ what I thought he was good for. He hauled off with a steelson to crack me but I beat him to it. That’s all.” Hegner blew tenderly on his knuckles.

“Smith,” said the judge, “what have you to say to that?”

“‘Tain’t so. He’s only huntin’ an excuse to fire me an’ give some one else my lathe.”

“So I am,” Hegner put in grimly. “Some one who’ll work an’ who ain’t an ex ”

“Hegner, hold your tongue!” Jonathan turned to Smith. “I have to believe Hegner, because I’ve been watching you, Smith. I took you on here, as I told you at the time, not to do you a favor, but because I thought you were in earnest and would justify it. I was willing to be your friend. And you soldiered. You stole the time I paid you for, which is the same as stealing my money. And you stole something else my trust which is worth more to me than my money. But I suppose that is something you can’t understand.”

“I un’erstan’s when I ain’t wanted,” answered Smith, with an ugly laugh. “I’ll git my time an’ git out.”

Then Jonathan’s trouble found voice in a sharp querulous outburst.

“Yes, get your time. I’m tired keeping men who won’t help themselves.”

Smith vanished, and his surly ugly face was only the reflection of the ugliness just then in his heart.

“You, too, Hegner!” Jonathan turned blazing eyes on his foreman. “You’ve been drinking again, when you promised me ”

“You ain’t more disgusted than me.” Big Hegner, ashamed, looked down at his feet. “But I couldn’t help it. Honest, I couldn’t. Everything’s been goin’ wrong here for a week.”

Jonathan’s outburst ended as suddenly as it began. “I know,” he said wearily. “I know.”

An hour later David, seeking Jonathan on a matter that was only a pretext, found him idle, elbows on the desk and head propped in his hands. Jonathan looked up listlessly. The matter disposed of, David ventured, uncertainly, because he had learned the last week to remember that he was an employee as well as a friend.

“Mr. Radbourne, are you ill?”

“No.”

“I’m afraid something’s wrong.”

“Something’s wrong, David.”

“I hope it is something that can be easily mended.”

“I’m afraid it can’t.” Jonathan looked at him queerly. “I’m afraid the damage has been done. Will you please go to the shop and see if Smith is anywhere around?”

David departed, to return with the word that Smith was gone.

“Ah! I’m sorry. I owe him an apology and some amends. A little while ago I lost my temper and did him an injustice, when he needed to be helped. I had no excuse. But it hurts to be disappointed in a man.” Jonathan looked queerly at David again. “In any one, David.”

“I have found that out,” answered David.

Jonathan picked up some papers. “If you will excuse me now I have some work ”

David took the hint promptly, with the feeling that somehow he had been the one to disappoint his friend. That hurt as deeply as it puzzled.

That afternoon Jonathan went out for two hours. When he returned he summoned Esther to his office.

“Miss Summers,” he began abruptly, “how is the voice?”

“I’m afraid ”

“You must be afraid of nothing,” he interrupted.

“I’m afraid,” she repeated quietly, “I have come to a standstill. Some days I feel as if I could sing forever, then the very next day one easy little song will seem too much. And if I am in a draft for a minute or get caught in a shower, my throat gets sore and hoarse at once. It doesn’t seem to get any stronger.”

“Probably it won’t until you do the right thing. I took the liberty of talking to Doctor Jenkins. He says the trouble is all with your general health. You’ll have to build it up. So so you must get away from this office, that takes up your time and strength, and live as much as possible outdoors and grow strong.”

“But I can’t do that. I can’t afford it and I can’t impose on my aunt.”

“Could you afford it if you had a good church position?”

“Yes. But I’m not ready for that. I couldn’t fill it. No church would want me, with a voice so uncertain ”

“The Second Presbyterian is looking for a new contralto. I have asked them to give you a trial. Will you sing for them?”

“When?”

“At the vespers service next Sunday afternoon.”

“But I can’t do that. It’s too soon. It wouldn’t be fair to them, even if I should sing well at the trial. I I’m afraid I’ve been letting you expect too much ” Her face had grown whiter than usual.

“But you can.” Jonathan was very earnest. “You must believe you must believe you can. You must make up your mind to sing your very best next Sunday. If they hear you at your best, they’ll be glad to have you, even if your voice is a little uncertain at first. And you must get away from this office.”

“You mean my work here isn’t good enough that you want to get rid of me?”

“Not that!” Jonathan almost gasped. He looked down at his desk and nervously ruffled his whiskers. “Oh, not that! I shall miss you very much. And if you ever want to come back, there’s a place waiting for you. But I want you to have your career everything that is best for you. And” he raised his eyes to her again and they joined his tongue in the plea “won’t you try it for for my sake?”

She looked away quickly, a sudden catch in her throat. And though her heart was filled with dread for herself, it was aching, too, for the little man not so absurd to her just then part of whose secret she had seen.

“I will try it,” she said. . . .

Of course she told David that evening. (How easily and naturally, now that his work on the plans was done, they had drifted into those little evening chats!) He had a moment of grave doubt. His face showed it.

“Do you think I can’t make it?”

Doubt vanished on swift wings. “I think nothing of the sort. And you mustn’t think of it, either. You must believe you can. It is half the battle. Hear me preach!” he laughed.

“That’s what he Mr. Radbourne said.”

“He was right, as always. This is very exciting. Do you know, I’ve a feeling you’re going to knock ’em galley-west. And that,” he nodded gaily down at her, “and that would be the finest thing that could happen.”

“You forget your church,” she smiled back.

“So I did! But now I remember it, I have nothing whatever to take back.”

The witch chuckled as only witches can and sent her broomstick steed prancing madly across the sky. . . .

He saw Esther and her aunt away that Sabbath afternoon with a jest an extravagant salute and an “Up, lass, an’ at ’em!” to which she made answer with a determined smile. When they had been perhaps five minutes gone, he put on his hat and followed.

He found a seat in the rear of the church and waited, nerves strung taut as if the ordeal were his, wishing the services would begin and yet dreading it. His eyes swept the gathering worshipers idly until they happened upon a familiar face across the church, a homely face set sternly rigid toward the choir loft.

“He would be here, of course,” David mused. “In a way, if ever she makes good, her success will be his. It will be because he has given it to her.”

A nameless little regret followed that. But before he could give it a name the organ burst into the prelude and the choir filed into the loft.

In the first anthem her voice was heard only with the others. The second was a trio in which she did not sing. The offertory solo was hers.

So, while the organ softly played the theme, she rose and faced her ordeal. The late afternoon sun was streaming through the tall west window. One amber shaft reached out and enfolded her caressingly, vivifying the white girlish face: a picture he has to this day.

“By the waters of Babylon. . . .”

For a breath fear clutched at his heart. In those first few notes was a weak quaver, a huskiness that ought not to have been there. His whole body grew tense with effort as mind and heart sent winging to her a silent message. “You must not fear! You must believe!” Another was sending her the same word. But David had forgotten him.

One of those messages must have reached its mark, for of a sudden her voice grew true and steady and clear, shaken only by the poignant grief of her song. Then there was no more ordeal, only a frail wisp of a girl singing as he had never heard it the exile’s plaint. David did not quite know her. Up there in the loft, bathed in the mellow radiance that had singled her out as if in prophecy, letting out to the full, as she could not in the little parlor, a voice of power and passion to thrill multitudes, she did not seem the girl who had made music for him, who had offered him friendship in his loneliness. She had grown as the occasion of her song had grown; she had become one of the custodians of great talents, set apart to keep alive and reveal the harmonies that men through centuries had been hearing and recording. Quivering with joy in her triumph, he was abashed as well. He had too easily accepted the friendship, so naively tendered. He had not appraised it justly. . . . And then there was only the song. He was a captive in a strange land and the ache of the exiled was in his heart.

“. . . By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.”

He realized at last that she had ended. The ordeal was over; she had passed through unscathed. He leaned back and smiled at the imprints of nails in his palms. His eyes grew wet, but not with the exile’s tears. . . . When they had cleared, without his bidding they turned to where Jonathan sat, whiskers crushed upon his breast.

It was a wonderful world through which David walked homeward that Sabbath evening. He went by a roundabout way, that he might miss none of it. He thrilled with a sense of victory, a song of thanksgiving was in his heart. And from that he should have known what had happened to him. But he was to have that hour perfect.

She was sitting on the porch when he came in sight of the house. She may have been waiting for him. He quickened his pace.

He stood before her, smiling down into her shining eyes.

“A question of identity is disturbing me. I’m still hearing a certain song I think I can never forget it. Are you by any chance the singer?”

“As it happens, I sang a little this afternoon.”

“Then the finest thing in the world has happened.”

“Did I do pretty well?”

“Pretty well? Hmmm!” he considered the matter judicially. “Yes, I think I may safely say that.”

She laughed as though he had been very witty, then quickly became grave.

“Were you thinking hard for me at the first, when I almost fizzled?”

“The hardest I knew how. I was afraid you were losing your nerve.”

“I was. I never was so scared in my life. It came over me all at once that the next few minutes would probably decide everything for me, and I could see only strangers critical strangers who wouldn’t care. Then I saw you sitting back there and and then I could sing. Thank you for coming.”

“You’re quite welcome, I’m sure.” He laughed at her thanks. “Did you think for a minute that I could stay away? And are you aware that we have never shaken hands? It is really high time. Would you mind?”

Her smile was sunshine itself. “With all my heart.” She put out her hand. He took it and held it.

And he dropped it and stood looking strangely at his own hand. For it was tingling deliciously. And at her touch and the look that went with it his heart had burst into a sudden mad singing a song not of exile or thanksgiving, but of a longing to which he might never give tongue.

The hand fell slowly to his side. With an effort he lifted his glance to her questioning, startled eyes. He tried to make his voice easy and natural, but it was heavy and stiff.

“I I congratulate you. I hope I know to-day is only the beginning of many fine things for you.”

Then he turned quickly and left her.

In his room, when the first daze had cleared a little, he set himself sternly to face this new thing. For he knew now why the old sense of loss of the dream woman shrunk to a wife to whom love was only a bauble to be worn in fair weather and why the failure of love had ceased to trouble, why Shirley had drifted so quickly, so easily into the shadowy background of his life. He saw what had helped him to win his new brave philosophy, had builded the walls of his sanctuary. His poor sanctuary! What refuge could it offer now? Another house of his building lay about him, a grim hopeless ruin.

“Oh, Esther!” he whispered to the girl he might not have. “Oh, Esther!”

He sat there, trying to see what he must do. Darkness fell. But he wanted no light. He did not stir until late in the evening chords from the piano reached him.

He rose and opened the door and a voice, athrob with pain, floated up to him.

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept. . . .”