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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGentle Julia - Chapter 15
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Gentle Julia - Chapter 15 Post by :ecdavis Category :Long Stories Author :Booth Tarkington Date :May 2012 Read :3406

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Gentle Julia - Chapter 15

CHAPTER FIFTEEN


By the end of October, with the dispersal of foliage that has served all summer long as a screen for whatever small privacy may exist between American neighbours, we begin to perceive the rise of our autumn high tides of gossip. At this season of the year, in our towns of moderate size and ambition, where apartment houses have not yet condensed and at the same time sequestered the population, one may look over back yard beyond back yard, both up and down the street; especially if one takes the trouble to sit for an hour or so daily, upon the top of a high fence at about the middle of a block.

Of course an adult who followed such a course would be thought peculiar, no doubt he would be subject to inimical comment; but boys are considered so inexplicable that they have gathered for themselves many privileges denied their parents and elders, and a boy can do such a thing as this to his full content, without anybody's thinking about it at all. So it was that Herbert Illingsworth Atwater, Jr., sat for a considerable time upon such a fence, after school hours, every afternoon of the last week in October; and only one person particularly observed him or was stimulated to any mental activity by his procedure. Even at that, this person was affected only because she was Herbert's relative, of an age sympathetic to his and of a sex antipathetic.

In spite of the fact that Herbert, thus seriously disporting himself on his father's back fence, attracted only an audience of one (and she hostile at a rather distant window) his behaviour might well have been thought piquant by anybody. After climbing to the top of the fence he would produce from interior pockets a small memorandum-book and a pencil. His expression was gravely alert, his manner more than businesslike; yet nobody could have failed to comprehend that he was enjoying himself, especially when his attitude became tenser, as it frequently did. Then he would rise, balancing himself at adroit ease, his feet one before the other on the inner rail, below the top of the boards, and with eyes dramatically shielded beneath a scoutish palm, he would gaze sternly in the direction of some object or movement that had attracted his attention and then, having satisfied himself of something or other, he would sit and decisively enter a note in his memorandum-book.

He was not always alone; sometimes he was joined by a friend, male, and, though shorter than Herbert, about as old; and this companion was inspired, it seemed, by motives precisely similar to those from which sprang Herbert's own actions. Like Herbert he would sit upon the top of the high fence; like Herbert he would rise at intervals, for the better study of something this side the horizon; then, also like Herbert, he would sit again and write firmly in a little notebook. And seldom in the history of the world have any such sessions been invested by the participants with so intentional an appearance of importance.

That was what most irritated their lone observer at the somewhat distant upstairs back window. The important importance of Herbert and his friend was so extreme as to be all too plainly visible across four intervening broad back yards; in fact, there was sometimes reason to suspect that the two performers were aware of their audience and even of her goaded condition; and that they deliberately increased the outrageousness of their importance on her account. And upon the Saturday of that week, when the notebook writers were upon the fence the greater part of the afternoon, Florence's fascinated indignation became vocal.

"Vile Things!" she said.

Her mother, sewing beside another window of the room, looked up inquiringly.

"What are, Florence?"

"Cousin Herbert and that nasty little Henry Rooter."

"Are you watching them again?" her mother asked.

"Yes, I am," said Florence; and added tartly, "Not because I care to, but merely to amuse myself at their expense."

Mrs. Atwater murmured, "Couldn't you find some other way to amuse yourself, Florence?"

"I don't call this amusement," the inconsistent girl responded, not without chagrin. "Think I'd spend all my days starin' at Herbert Illingsworth Atwater, Junior, and that nasty little Henry Rooter, and call it _amusement_?"

"Then why do you do it?"

"Why do I do _what_, mamma?" Florence inquired, as in despair of Mrs. Atwater's ever learning to put things clearly.

"Why do you 'spend all your days' watching them? You don't seem able to keep away from the window, and it appears to make you irritable. I should think if they wouldn't let you play with them you'd be too proud----"

"Oh, good heavens, mamma!"

"Don't use such expressions, Florence, please."

"Well," said Florence, "I got to use _some expression when you accuse me of wantin' to 'play' with those two vile things! My goodness mercy, mamma, I don't want to 'play' with 'em! I'm more than four years old, I guess; though you don't ever seem willing to give me credit for it. I don't haf to 'play' all the time, mamma: and anyway, Herbert and that nasty little Henry Rooter aren't playing, either."

"Aren't they?" Mrs. Atwater inquired. "I thought the other day you said you wanted them to let you play with them at being a newspaper reporter or editor or something like that, and they were rude and told you to go away. Wasn't that it?"

Florence sighed. "No, mamma, it cert'nly wasn't."

"They weren't rude to you?"

"Yes, they cert'nly were!"

"Well, then----"

"Mamma, _can't you understand?" Florence turned from the window to beseech Mrs. Atwater's concentration upon the matter. "It isn't '_playing_'! I didn't want to 'play' being a reporter; _they ain't 'playing'----"

"_Aren't playing, Florence."

"Yes'm. They're not. Herbert's got a real printing-press; Uncle Joseph gave it to him. It's a _real one, mamma, can't you understand?"

"I'll try," said Mrs. Atwater. "You mustn't get so excited about it, Florence."

"I'm not!" Florence returned vehemently. "I guess it'd take more than those two vile things and their old printing-press to get _me excited! _I don't care what they do; it's far less than nothing to me! All _I wish is they'd fall off the fence and break their vile ole necks!"

With this manifestation of impersonal calmness, she turned again to the window; but her mother protested. "Do quit watching those foolish boys; you mustn't let them upset you so by their playing."

Florence moaned. "They don't 'upset' me, mamma! They have no effects on me by the slightest degree! And I _told you, mamma, they're not 'playing'."

"Then what are they doing?"

"Well, they're having a newspaper. They got the printing-press and an office in Herbert's stable, and everything. They got somebody to give 'em some ole banisters and a railing from a house that was torn down somewheres, and then they got it stuck up in the stable loft, so it runs across with a kind of a gate in the middle of these banisters, and on one side is the printing-press and a desk from that nasty little Henry Rooter's mother's attic; and a table and some chairs, and a map on the wall; and that's their newspaper office. They go out and look for what's the news, and write it down in lead pencil; and then they go up to their office and write it in ink; and then they print it for their newspaper."

"But what do they do on the fence?"

"That's where they go to watch what the news is," Florence explained morosely. "They think they're so grand, sittin' up there, pokin' around! They go other places, too; and they ask people. That's all they said _I could be!" Here the lady's bitterness became strongly intensified. "They said maybe I could be one o' the ones they asked if I knew anything, sometimes, if they happened to think of it! I just respectf'ly told 'em I'd decline to wipe my oldest shoes on 'em to save their lives!"

Mrs. Atwater sighed. "You mustn't use such expressions, Florence."

"I don't see why not," the daughter promptly objected. "They're a lot more refined than the expressions they used on me!"

"Then I'm very glad you didn't play with them."

But at this, Florence once more gave way to filial despair. "Mamma, you just _can't see through anything! I've said anyhow fifty times they ain't--aren't--playing! They're getting up a _real newspaper, and have people _buy it and everything. They been all over this part of town and got every aunt and uncle they have besides their own fathers and mothers, and some people in the neighbourhood, and Kitty Silver and two or three other coloured people besides. They're going to charge twenty-five cents a year, collect-in-advance because they want the money first; and even papa gave 'em a quarter last night; he told me so."

"How often do they intend to publish their paper, Florence?" Mrs. Atwater inquired absently, having resumed her sewing.

"Every week; and they're goin' to have the first one a week from to-day."

"What do they call it?"

"The North End Daily Oriole. It's the silliest name I ever heard for a newspaper; and I told 'em so. I told 'em what _I thought of it, I guess!"

"Was that the reason?" Mrs. Atwater asked.

"Was it what reason, mamma?"

"Was it the reason they wouldn't let you be a reporter with them?"

"Poot!" Florence exclaimed airily. "_I didn't want anything to do with their ole paper. But anyway I didn't make fun o' their callin' it 'The North End Daily Oriole' till after they said I couldn't be in it. _Then I did, you bet!"

"Florence, don't say----"

"Mamma, I got to say somep'n! Well, I told 'em I wouldn't be in their ole paper if they begged me on their bented knees; and I said if they begged me a thousand years I wouldn't be in any paper with such a crazy name and I wouldn't tell 'em any news if I knew the President of the United States had the scarlet fever! I just politely informed 'em they could say what they liked, if they was dying _I declined so much as wipe the oldest shoes I got on 'em!"

"But why _wouldn't they let you be on the paper?" her mother insisted.

Upon this Florence became analytical. "Just so's they could act so important." And she added, as a consequence, "They ought to be arrested!"

Mrs. Atwater murmured absently, but forbore to press her inquiry; and Florence was silent, in a brooding mood. The journalists upon the fence had disappeared from view, during her conversation with her mother; and presently she sighed, and quietly left the room. She went to her own apartment, where, at a small and rather battered little white desk, after a period of earnest reverie, she took up a pen, wet the point in purple ink, and without great effort or any critical delayings, produced a poem.

It was in a sense an original poem, though like the greater number of all literary projections, it was so strongly inspirational that the source of its inspiration might easily become manifest to a cold-blooded reader. Nevertheless, to the poetess herself, as she explained later in good faith, the words just seemed to _come to her;--doubtless with either genius or some form of miracle implied; for sources of inspiration are seldom recognized by inspired writers themselves. She had not long ago been party to a musical Sunday afternoon at her Great-Uncle Joseph's house, where Mr. Clairdyce sang some of his songs again and again, and her poem may have begun to coagulate within her then.

THE ORGANEST

BY FLORENCE ATWATER

The organest was seated at his organ in a church,
In some beautiful woods of maple and birch,
He was very weary while he played upon the keys,
But he was a great organest and always played with ease,
When the soul is weary,
And the wind is dreary,
I would like to be an organest seated all day at the organ,
Whether my name might be Fairchild or Morgan,
I would play music like a vast amen,
The way it sounds in a church of men.


Florence read her poem seven or eight times, the deepening pleasure of her expression being evidence that repetition failed to denature this work, but on the contrary, enhanced an appreciative surprise at its singular merit. Finally she folded the sheet of paper with a delicate carefulness unusual to her, and placed it in her skirt pocket; then she went downstairs and out into the back yard. Her next action was straightforward and anything but prudish; she climbed the high wooden fences, one after the other, until she came to a pause at the top of that whereon the two journalists had lately made themselves so odiously impressive.

Before her, if she had but taken note of them, were a lesson in history and the markings of a profound transition in human evolution. Beside the old frame stable was a little brick garage, obviously put to the daily use intended by its designer. Quite as obviously the stable was obsolete; anybody would have known from its outside that there was no horse within it. There, visible, was the end of the pastoral age.

All this was lost upon Florence. She sat upon the fence, her gaze unfavourably though wistfully fixed upon a sign of no special aesthetic merit above the stable door.


THE NORTH END DAILY ORIOLE
ATWATER & ROOTER OWNERS &
PROPREITORS SUBSCRIBE NOW 25 CENTS

The inconsistency of the word "daily" did not trouble Florence; moreover, she had found no fault with "Oriole" until the Owners & Propreitors had explained to her in the plainest terms known to their vocabularies that she was excluded from the enterprise. Then, indeed, she had been reciprocally explicit in regard not only to them and certain personal characteristics of theirs, which she pointed out as fundamental, but in regard to any newspaper which should deliberately call itself an "Oriole." The partners remained superior in manner, though unable to conceal a natural resentment; they had adopted "Oriole" not out of a sentiment for the city of Baltimore, nor, indeed, on account of any ornithologic interest of theirs, but as a relic left over from an abandoned club or secret society, which they had previously contemplated forming, its members to be called "The Orioles" for no reason whatever. The two friends had talked of this plan at many meetings throughout the summer, and when Mr. Joseph Atwater made his great-nephew the unexpected present of a printing-press, and a newspaper consequently took the place of the club, Herbert and Henry still entertained an affection for their former scheme and decided to perpetuate the name. They were the more sensitive to attack upon it by an ignorant outsider and girl like Florence, and her chance of ingratiating herself with them, if that could be now her intention, was not a promising one.

She descended from the fence with pronounced inelegance, and, approaching the old double doors of the "carriage-house," which were open, paused to listen. Sounds from above assured her that the editors were editing--or at least that they could be found at their place of business. Therefore, she ascended the cobwebby stairway, emerged from it into the former hay loft, and thus made her appearance in the printing-room of _The North End Daily Oriole_.

Herbert, frowning with the burden of composition, sat at a table beyond the official railing, and his partner was engaged at the press, earnestly setting type. This latter person (whom Florence so seldom named otherwise than as "that nasty little Henry Rooter") was of a pure, smooth, fair-haired appearance, and strangely clean for his age and occupation. His profile was of a symmetry he had not yet himself begun to appreciate; his dress was scrupulous and modish; and though he was short, nothing outward about him confirmed the more sinister of Florence's two adjectives. Nevertheless, her poor opinion of him was plain in her expression as she made her present intrusion upon his working hours. He seemed to reciprocate.

"Listen! Didn't I and Herbert tell you to keep out o' here?" he said. "Look at her, Herbert! She's back again!"

"You get out o' here, Florence," said Herbert, abandoning his task with a look of pain. "How often we got to tell you we don't want you around here when we're in our office like this?"

"For Heaven's sake!" Henry Rooter thought fit to add. "Can't you quit runnin' up and down our office stairs once in a while, long enough for us to get our newspaper work done? Can't you give us a little _peace_?"

The pinkiness of Florence's altering complexion was justified; she had not been within a thousand miles of their old office for four days. With some heat she stated this to be the fact, adding, "And I only came then because I knew somebody ought to see that this stable isn't ruined. It's my own uncle and aunt's stable, I guess, isn't it? Answer me that, if you'll kindly please to do so!"

"It's my father and mother's stable," Herbert asserted. "Haven't I got a right to say who's allowed in my own father and mother's stable?"

"You have not," the prompt Florence replied. "It's my own uncle and aunt's stable, and I got as much right here as anybody."

"You have not!" Henry Rooter protested hotly. "This isn't either your ole aunt and uncle's stable."

"_It isn't_?"

"No, it is not! This isn't anybody's stable. It's my and Herbert's Newspaper Building, and I guess you haven't got the face to stand there and claim you got a right to go in a Newspaper Building and say you got a right there when everybody tells you to stay outside of it, I guess!"

"Oh, haven't I?"

"No, you 'haven't--I'!" Mr. Rooter maintained bitterly. "You just walk down town and go in any Newspaper Buildings down there and tell 'em you got a right to stay there all day long when they tell you to get out o' there! Just try it! That's all I ask!"

Florence uttered a cry of derision. "And pray, whoever told you I was bound to do everything you ask me to, Mister Henry Rooter?" And she concluded by reverting to that hostile impulse, so ancient, which, in despair of touching an antagonist effectively, reflects upon his ancestors. "If you got anything you want to ask, you go ask your grandmother!"

"Here!" Herbert sprang to his feet. "You try and behave like a lady!"

"Who'll make me?" she inquired.

"You got to behave like a lady as long as you're in our Newspaper Building, anyway," Herbert said ominously. "If you expect to come up here after you been told five dozen times to keep out----"

"For Heaven's sakes!" his partner interposed. "When we goin' to get our newspaper _work done? She's _your cousin; I should think you could get her out!"

"Well, I'm goin' to, ain't I?" Herbert protested plaintively. "I expect to get her out, don't I?"

"Oh, do you?" Miss Atwater inquired, with severe mockery. "Pray, how would you expect to accomplish it, pray?"

Herbert looked desperate, but was unable to form a reply consistent with a few new rules of etiquette and gallantry that he had begun to observe during the past year or so. "Now, see here, Florence," he said. "You're old enough to know when people tell you to keep out of a place, why, it means they want you to stay away from there."

Florence remained cold to this reasoning. "Oh, Poot!" she said.

"Now, look here!" her cousin remonstrated, and went on with his argument. "We got our newspaper work to do, and you ought to have sense enough to know newspaper work like this newspaper work we got on _our hands here isn't--well, it ain't any child's play."

His partner appeared to approve of the expression, for he nodded severely and then used it himself. "No, you _bet it isn't any child's play!" he said.

"No, sir," Herbert continued. "This newspaper work we got on our hands here isn't any child's play."

"No, sir," Henry Rooter again agreed. "Newspaper work like this isn't any child's play at _all_!"

"It isn't any child's play, Florence," said Herbert. "It ain't any child's play at all, Florence. If it was just child's play or something like that, why, it wouldn't matter so much your always pokin' up here, and----"

"Well," his partner interrupted judicially;--"we wouldn't want her around, even if it _was child's play."

"No, we wouldn't; that's so," Herbert agreed. "We wouldn't want you around, anyhow, Florence." Here his tone became more plaintive. "So, for mercy's sakes can't you go on home and give us a little rest? What you want, anyhow?"

"Well, I guess it's about time you was askin' me that," she said, not unreasonably. "If you'd asked me that in the first place, instead of actin' like you'd never been taught anything, and was only fit to associate with hoodlums, perhaps my time is of _some value, myself!"

Here the lack of rhetorical cohesion was largely counteracted by the strong expressiveness of her tone and manner, which made clear her position as a person of worth, dealing with the lowest of her inferiors. She went on, not pausing:

"I thought being as I was related to you, and all the family and everybody else is goin' to haf to read your ole newspaper, anyway it'd be a good thing if what was printed in it wasn't _all a disgrace to the family, because the name of our family's got mixed up with this newspaper;--so here!"

Thus speaking, she took the poem from her pocket and with dignity held it forth to her cousin.

"What's that?" Herbert inquired, not moving a hand. He was but an amateur, yet already enough of an editor to be suspicious.

"It's a poem," Florence said. "I don't know whether I exackly ought to have it in your ole newspaper or not, but on account of the family's sake I guess I better. Here, take it."

Herbert at once withdrew a few steps, placing his hands behind him. "Listen here," he said;--"you think we got time to read a lot o' nothin' in your ole hand-writin' that nobody can read anyhow, and then go and toil and moil to print it on our printin'-press? I guess we got work enough printin' what we write for our newspaper our own selves! My goodness, Florence, I _told you this isn't any child's play!"

For the moment, Florence appeared to be somewhat baffled. "Well," she said. "Well, you better put this poem in your ole newspaper if you want to have anyhow one thing in it that won't make everybody sick that reads it."

"_I won't do it!" Herbert said decisively.

"What you take us for?" his partner added.

"All right, then," Florence responded. "I'll go and tell Uncle Joseph and he'll take this printing-press back."

"He will not take it back. I already did tell him how you kept pokin' around, tryin' to _run everything, and how we just worried our lives out tryin' to keep you away. He said he bet it was a hard job; that's what Uncle Joseph said! So go on, tell him anything you want to. You don't get your ole poem in _our newspaper!"

"Not if she lived to be two hunderd years old!" Henry Rooter added. Then he had an afterthought. "Not unless she pays for it."

"How do you mean?" Herbert asked, puzzled by this codicil.

Now Henry's brow had become corrugated with no little professional impressiveness. "You know what we were talkin' about this morning?" he said. "How the right way to run our newspaper, we ought to have some advertisements in it and everything? Well, we want money, don't we? We could put this poem in our newspaper like an advertisement;--that is, if Florence has got any money, we could."

Herbert frowned. "If her ole poem isn't too long I guess we could. Here, let's see it, Florence." And, taking the sheet of paper in his hand, he studied the dimensions of the poem, without paining himself to read it. "Well, I guess, maybe we can do it," he said. "How much ought we to charge her?"

This question sent Henry Rooter into a state of calculation, while Florence observed him with veiled anxiety; but after a time he looked up, his brow showing continued strain. "Do you keep a bank, Florence--for nickels and dimes and maybe quarters, you know?" he inquired.

It was her cousin who impulsively replied for her. "No, she don't," he said.

"Not since I was about seven years old!" And Florence added sharply, though with dignity: "Do you still make mud pies in your back yard, pray?"

"Now, see here!" Henry objected. "Try and be a lady anyway for a few minutes, can't you? I got to figure out how much we got to charge you for your ole poem, don't I?"

"Well, then," Florence returned, "you better ask _me somep'n about that, hadn't you?"

"Well," said Henry Rooter, "have you got any money at home?"

"No, I haven't."

"Have you got any money with you?"

"Yes, I have."

"How much is it?"

"I won't tell you."

Henry frowned. "I guess we ought to make her pay about two dollars and a half," he said, turning to his partner.

Herbert became deferential; it seemed to him that he had formed a business association with a genius, and for a moment he was dazzled; then he remembered Florence's financial capacities, always well known to him, and he looked depressed. Florence, herself, looked indignant.

"Two dollars and a half!" she cried. "Why, I could buy this whole place for two dollars and a half, printing-press, railing, and all--yes, and you thrown in, Mister Henry Rooter!"

"See here, Florence," Henry said earnestly. "Haven't you got two dollars and a half?"

"Of course she hasn't!" his partner assured him. "She never had two dollars and a half in her life!"

"Well, then," said Henry gloomily, "what we goin' to do about it? How much _you think we ought to charge her?"

Herbert's expression became noncommittal. "Just let me think a minute," he said, and with his hand to his brow he stepped behind the unsuspicious Florence.

"I got to think," he murmured; then with the straightforwardness of his age, he suddenly seized his damsel cousin from the rear and held her in a tight but far from affectionate embrace, pinioning her arms. She shrieked, "Murder!" and "Let me go!" and "Help! Hay-yulp!"

"Look in her pocket," Herbert shouted. "She keeps her money in her skirt pocket when she's got any. It's on the left side of her. Don't let her kick you! Look out!"

"I got it!" said the dexterous Henry, retreating and exhibiting coins. "It's one dime and two nickels--twenty cents. Has she got any more pockets?"

"No, I haven't!" Florence fiercely informed him, as Herbert released her. "And I guess you better hand that money back if you don't want to be arrested for stealing!"

But Henry was unmoved. "Twenty cents," he said calculatingly. "Well, all right; it isn't much, but you can have your poem in our newspaper for twenty cents, Florence. If you don't want to pay that much, why, take your ole twenty cents and go on away."

"Yes," said Herbert. "That's as cheap as we'll do it, Florence. Take it or leave it."

"Take it or leave it," Henry Rooter agreed. "That's the way to talk to her; take it or leave it, Florence. If you don't take it you got to leave it."

Florence was indignant, but she decided to take it. "All right," she said coldly. "I wouldn't pay another cent if I died for it."

"Well, you haven't got another cent, so that's all right," Mr. Rooter remarked; and he honourably extended an open palm toward his partner. "Here, Herbert; you can have the dime, or the two nickels, whichever you rather. It makes no difference to me; I'd as soon have one as the other."

Herbert took the two nickels, and turned to Florence. "See here, Florence," he said, in a tone of strong complaint. "This business is all done and paid for now. What you want to hang around here any _more for?"

"Yes, Florence," his partner faithfully seconded him, at once. "We haven't got any more time to waste around here to-day, and so what you want to stand around in the way and everything for? You ought to know yourself we don't want you."

"I'm not in the way," said Florence hotly. "Whose way am I in?"

"Well, anyhow, if you don't go," Herbert informed her, "we'll carry you downstairs and lock you out."

"I'd just like to see you!" she returned, her eyes flashing. "Just you dare to lay a finger on me again!" And she added, "Anyway, if you did, those ole doors haven't got any lock on 'em: I'll come right back in and walk right straight up the stairs again!"

Herbert advanced toward her. "Now you pay attention, to me," he said. "You've paid for your ole poem, and we got to have some peace around here. I'm goin' straight over to your mother and ask her to come and get you."

Florence gave up. "What difference would _that make, Mister Taddletale?" she inquired mockingly. "_I wouldn't be here when she came, would I? I'll thank you to notice there's some value to my time, myself; and I'll just politely ask you to excuse me, pray!"

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