The Second Generation
By David Graham Phillips
Public Domain Books
Chapter XIV - Simeon
A crisis does not create character, but is simply its test. The young man who entered the gates of No. 64 Jefferson Street at five that afternoon was in all respects he who left them at a quarter before four, though he seemed very different to himself. He went direct to his own room and did not descend until the supper bell sounded–that funny little old jangling bell he and Del had striven to have abolished in the interests of fashionable progress, until they learned that in many of the best English houses it is a custom as sacredly part of the ghostly British Constitution as the bathless bath of the basin, as the jokeless joke of the pun, as the entertainment that entertains not, as the ruler that rules not and the freedom that frees not. When he appeared in the dining-room door, his mother and Del were already seated. His mother, her white face a shade whiter, said: “I expect you’d better sit–there.” She neither pointed nor looked, but they understood that she meant Hiram’s place. It was her formal announcement of her forgiveness and of her recognition of the new head of the family. With that in his face that gave Adelaide a sense of the ending of a tension within her, he seated himself where his father had always sat.
It was a silent supper, each one absorbed in thoughts which could not have been uttered, no one able to find any subject that would not make overwhelming the awful sense of the one that was not there and never again would be. Mrs. Ranger spoke once. “How did you find Janet?” she said to Arthur.
His face grew red, with gray underneath. After a pause he answered: “Very well.” Another pause, then: “Our engagement is broken off.”
Mrs. Ranger winced and shrank. She knew how her question and the effort of that answer must have hurt the boy; but she did not make matters worse with words. Indeed, she would have been unable to say anything, for sympathy would have been hypocritical, and hypocrisy was with her impossible. She thought Arthur loved Janet; she realized, too, the savage wound to his pride in losing her just at this time. But she had never liked her, and now felt justified in that secret and, so she had often reproached herself, unreasonable dislike; and she proceeded to hate her, the first time she had ever hated anybody–to hate her as a mother can hate one who has made her child suffer.
After supper, Mrs. Ranger plunged into the household duties that were saving her from insanity. Adelaide and Arthur went to the side veranda. When Arthur had lighted a cigarette, he looked at it with a grim smile–it was astonishing how much stronger and manlier his face was, all in a few hours. “I’m on my last thousand of these,” said he. “After them, no more cigarettes.”
“Oh, it isn’t so bad as all that!” said Adelaide. “We’re still comfortable, and long before you could feel any change, you’ll be making plenty of money.”
“I’m going to work–next Monday–at the mills.”
Adelaide caught her breath, beamed on him. “I knew you would!” she exclaimed. “I knew you were brave.”
“Brave!” He laughed disagreeably. “Like the fellow that faces the fight because a bayonet’s pricking his back. I can’t go away somewhere and get a job, for there’s nothing I can do. I’ve got to stay right here. I’ve got to stare this town out of countenance. I’ve got to get it used to the idea of me as a common workingman with overalls and a dinner pail.”
She saw beneath his attempt to make light of the situation a deep and cruel humiliation. He was looking forward to the keenest torture to which a man trained in vanity to false ideals can be subjected; and the thing itself, so Adelaide was thinking, would be more cruel than his writhing anticipation of it.
“Still,” she insisted to him, “you are brave. You might have borrowed of mother and gone off to make one failure after another in gentlemanly attempts. You might have"–she was going to say, “tried to make a rich marriage,” but stopped herself in time. “Oh, I forgot,” she said, instead, “there’s the five thousand dollars. Why not spend it in studying law–or something?”
“I’ve lost my five thousand,” he replied. “I paid it for a lesson that was cheap at the price.” Then, thoughtfully, “I’ve dropped out of the class ’gentleman’ for good and all.”
“Or into it,” suggested she.
He disregarded this; he knew it was an insincerity–one of the many he and Del were now trying to make themselves believe against the almost hopeless handicap of the unbelief they had acquired as part of their “Eastern culture.” He went on: “There’s one redeeming feature of the–the situation.”
“And that for you,” he said. “At least, you’ve got a small income.”
“But I haven’t,” she replied. “Dory made me turn it over to mother.”
Arthur stared. “Dory!”
“Yes,” she answered, with a nod and a smile. It would have given Dory a surprise, a vastly different notion as to what she thought of him, had he seen her unawares just then.
“Made,” she repeated.
“And you did it?”
“I’ve promised I will.”
“I don’t just know,” was her slow reply.
“Because he was afraid it might make bad blood between you and me?”
“That was one of the reasons he urged,” she admitted. “But he thought, too, it would be bad for him and me.”
A long silence. Then Arthur: “Del, I almost think you’re not making such a mistake as I feared, in marrying him.”
“So do I–sometimes,” was his sister’s, to him, astonishing answer, in an absent, speculative tone.
Arthur withheld the question that was on his lips. He looked curiously at the small graceful head, barely visible in the deepening twilight. “She’s a strange one,” he reflected. “I don’t understand her–and I doubt if she understands herself.”
And that last was very near to the truth. Everyone has a reason for everything he does; but it by no means follows that he always knows that reason, or even could extricate it from the tangle of motives, real and reputed, behind any given act. This self-ignorance is less common among men than among women, with their deliberate training to self-consciousness and to duplicity; it is most common among those–men as well as women–who think about themselves chiefly. And Adelaide, having little to think about when all her thinking was hired out, had of necessity thought chiefly about herself.
“You guessed that Janet has thrown me over?” Arthur said, to open the way for relieving his mind.
Adelaide made a gallant effort, and her desire to console him conquered her vanity. “Just as Ross threw me over,” she replied, with a successful imitation of indifference.
Instead of being astonished at the news, Arthur was astonished at his not having guessed it. His first sensation was the very human one of pleasure–the feeling that he had companionship in humiliation. He moved closer to her. Then came an instinct, perhaps true, perhaps false, that she was suffering, that Ross had wounded her cruelly, that she was not so calm as her slim, erect figure seemed in the deep dusk. He burst out in quiet, intense fury: “Del, I’ll make those two wish to God they hadn’t!”
“You can’t do it, Artie,” she replied. “The only power on earth that can do them up is themselves.” She paused to vent the laugh that was as natural in the circumstances as it was unpleasant to hear. “And I think they’ll do it,” she went on, “without any effort on your part–or mine.”
“You do not hate them as I do,” said he.
“I’m afraid I’m not a good hater,” she answered. “I admit I’ve got a sore spot where he–struck me. But as far as he’s concerned, I honestly believe I’m already feeling a little bit obliged to him.”
“Naturally,” said he in a tone that solicited confidences. “Haven’t you got what you really wanted?”
But his sister made no reply.
“Look here, Del,” he said after waiting in vain, “if you don’t want to marry, there’s no reason why you should. You’ll soon see I’m not as good-for-nothing as some people imagine.”
“What makes you think I don’t want to marry?” asked Adelaide, her face completely hid by the darkness, her voice betraying nothing.
“Why, what you’ve been saying–or, rather, what you’ve not been saying.”
A very long silence, then out of the darkness came Adelaide’s voice, even, but puzzling. “Well, Artie, I’ve made up my mind to marry. I’ve got to do something, and Dory’ll give me something to do. If I sat about waiting, waiting, and thinking, thinking, I should do–something desperate. I’ve got to get away from myself. I’ve got to forget myself. I’ve got to get a new self.”
“Just as I have,” said Arthur.
Presently he sat on the arm of her chair and reached out for her hand which was seeking his.
When Hiram was first stricken, Adelaide’s Simeon had installed himself as attendant-in-chief. The others took turns at nursing; Simeon was on duty every hour of every twenty-four. He lost all interest in Adelaide, in everything except the sick man. Most of the time he sat quietly, gazing at the huge, helpless object of his admiration as if fascinated. Whenever Hiram deigned to look at him, he chattered softly, timidly approached, retreated, went through all his tricks, watching the while for some sign of approval. The first week or so, Hiram simply tolerated the pathetic remembrancer to human humility because he did not wish to chagrin his daughter. But it is not in nature to resist a suit so meek, so persistent, and so unasking as Simeon’s. Soon Hiram liked to have his adorer on his knee, on the arm of his chair, on the table beside him; occasionally he moved his unsteady hand slowly to Simeon’s head to give it a pat. And in the long night hours of wakefulness there came to be a soothing companionship in the sound of Simeon’s gentle breathing in the little bed at the head of his bed; for Simeon would sleep nowhere else.
The shy races of mankind, those that hide their affections and rarely give them expression, are fondest of domestic animals, because to them they can show themselves without fear of being laughed at or repulsed. But it happened that Hiram had never formed a friendship with a dog. In his sickness and loneliness, he was soon accepting and returning Simeon’s fondness in kind. And at the time when a man must re-value everything in life and put a proper estimate upon it, this unselfish, incessant, wholly disinterested love of poor Simeon’s gave him keen pleasure and content. After the stroke that entombed him, some subtle instinct seemed to guide Simeon when to sit and sympathize at a distance, when to approach and give a gentle caress, with tears running from his eyes. But the death Simeon did not understand at all. Those who came to make the last arrangements excited him to fury. Adelaide had to lock him in her dressing room until the funeral was over. When she released him, he flew to the room where he had been accustomed to sit with his great and good friend. No Hiram! He ran from room to room, chattering wildly, made the tour of gardens and outbuildings, returned to the room in which his quest had started. He seemed dumb with despair. He had always looked ludicrously old and shriveled; his appearance now became tragic. He would start up from hours of trancelike motionlessness, would make a tour of house and grounds; scrambling and shambling from place to place; chattering at doors he could not open, then pausing to listen; racing to the front fence and leaping to its top to crane up and down the street; always back in the old room in a few minutes, to resume his watch and wait. He would let no one but Adelaide touch him, and he merely endured her; good and loving though she seemed to be, he felt that she was somehow responsible for the mysterious vanishing of his god while she had him shut away.
Sometimes in the dead of night, Adelaide or Arthur or Mrs. Ranger, waking, would hear him hurrying softly, like a ghost, along the halls or up and down the stairs. They, with the crowding interests that compel the mind, no matter how fiercely the bereaved heart may fight against intrusion, would forget for an hour now and then the cause of the black shadow over them and all the house and all the world; and as the weeks passed their grief softened and their memories of the dead man began to give them that consoling illusion of his real presence. But not Simeon; he could think only that his friend had been there and was gone.
At last the truth in some form must have come to him. For he gave up the search and the hope, and lay down to die. Food he would not touch; he neither moved nor made a sound. When Adelaide took him up, he lifted dim tragic eyes to her for an instant, then sank back as if asleep. One morning, they found him in Hiram’s great arm chair, huddled in its depths, his head upon his knees, his hairy hands stiff against his cheeks. They buried him in the clump of lilac bushes of which Hiram had been especially fond.
Stronger than any other one influence for good upon Adelaide and Arthur at that critical time, was this object lesson Simeon gave–Simeon with his single-hearted sorrow and single-minded love.