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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Inside Of The Cup - Volume 4 - Chapter 14. A Saturday Afternoon
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The Inside Of The Cup - Volume 4 - Chapter 14. A Saturday Afternoon Post by :solidarity Category :Long Stories Author :Winston Churchill Date :May 2012 Read :1927

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The Inside Of The Cup - Volume 4 - Chapter 14. A Saturday Afternoon

VOLUME IV CHAPTER XIV. A SATURDAY AFTERNOON

I

The sight of a certain old gentleman as he walked along the shady side of Twenty-second Street about two o'clock on a broiling Saturday afternoon in midsummer was one not easily to be forgotten. A younger man, tall and vigorous, clad in a thin suit of blue serge, walked by his side. They were followed by a shouting troop of small boys who overran the pavements, and some of whom were armed with baseball bats. The big trolley car was hailed by a dozen dirty little hands.

Even the grumpy passengers were disarmed. The conductor took Mr. Bentley's bill deprecatingly, as much as to say that the newly organized Traction Company--just out of the receivers' hands--were the Moloch, not he, and rang off the fares under protest. And Mr. Bentley, as had been his custom for years, sat down and took off his hat, and smiled so benignly at those around him that they immediately began to talk, to him. It was always irresistible, this desire to talk to Mr. Bentley. If you had left your office irritated and out of sorts, your nerves worn to an edge by the uninterrupted heat, you invariably got off at your corner feeling better. It was Phil Goodrich who had said that Horace Bentley had only to get on a Tower Street car to turn it into a church. And if he had chosen to establish that 'dernier cri' of modern civilization where ladies go who have 'welt-schmerz' without knowing why,--a sanitarium, he might have gained back again all the money he had lost in giving his Grantham stock to Eldon Parr.

Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he could have emptied Dalton Street of its children. In the first place, there was the irresistible inducement to any boy to ride several miles on a trolley without having this right challenged by the irate guardian of the vehicle, without being summarily requested to alight at twenty-five miles an hour: in the second place, there was the soda water and sweet biscuit partaken of after the baseball game in that pavilion, more imposing in one's eyes than the Taj Mahal. Mr. Bentley would willingly have taken all Dalton Street. He had his own 'welt-schmerz', though he did not go to a sanitarium to cure it; he was forced to set an age limit of ten, and then establish a high court of appeal; for there were boys whose biographies, if they are ever written, will be as hazy as those of certain world-wide celebrities who might be mentioned concerning the date and exact spot of the entrance of their heroes into the light. The solemn protestations, the tears, the recrimination even, brought pangs to the old gentleman's heart, for with all the will in the world he had been forced in the nature of things, to set a limit.

This limit had recently been increased by the unlooked-for appearance on these excursions of the tall man in the blue serge suit, whose knowledge of the national game and of other matters of vital import to youth was gratifying if sometimes disconcerting; who towered, an unruffled Gulliver, over their Lilliputian controversies, in which bats were waved and fists brought into play and language used on the meaning of which the Century dictionary is silent. On one former occasion, indeed, Mr. Bentley had found moral suasion, affection, and veneration of no avail, and had had to invoke the friendly aid of a park policeman to quell one of these incipient riots. To Mr. Bentley baseball was as a sealed book. The tall man's justice, not always worthy of the traditions of Solomon, had in it an element of force. To be lifted off the ground by strong arms at the moment you are about to dust the home plate with your adversary is humiliating, but effective. It gradually became apparent that a decision was a decision. And one Saturday this inexplicable person carried in his hand a mysterious package which, when opened, revealed two pairs of diminutive boxing gloves. They instantly became popular.

By the time they had made the accidental and somewhat astounding discovery that he was a parson, they were willing to overlook it; in view, perhaps, of his compensating accomplishments. Instead of advising them to turn the other cheek, he taught them uppercuts, feints, and jabs, and on the proof of this unexpected acquaintance with a profession all of them openly admired, the last vestige of reserve disappeared. He was accepted without qualifications.

II

Although the field to which they resorted was not in the most frequented section of the park, pedestrians often passed that way, and sometimes lingered. Thus, towards the close of a certain Saturday in July, a young woman walked out of the wood path and stood awhile gazing intently at the active figure striding among the diminutive, darting forms. Presently, with an amused expression, she turned her head to discover Mr. Bentley, who sat on a green bench under a tree, his hat and stick on the grass beside him. She was unaware that he had been looking at her.

"Aren't they having a good time!" she said, and the genuine thrill in her voice betrayed a rare and unmistakable pleasure.

"Ah," replied Mr. Bentley, smiling back at her, "you like to see them, too. Most persons do. Children are not meant for the city, my dear young lady, their natural home is in the woods and fields, and these little fellows are a proof of it. When they come out here, they run wild. You perceive," he added with a twinkle, as an expletive of unquestionable vigour was hurled across the diamond, "they are not always so polite as they might be."

The young woman smiled again, but the look she gave him was a puzzled one. And then, quite naturally, she sank, down on the grass, on the other side of Mr. Bentley's hat, watching the game for a while in silence.

"What a tyrant!" she exclaimed. Another uproar had been quelled, and two vigorously protesting runners sent back to their former bases.

"Oh, a benevolent tyrant," Mr. Bentley corrected her. "Mr. Hodder has the gift of managing boys,--he understands them. And they require a strong hand. His generation has had the training which mine lacked. In my day, at college, we worked off our surplus energy on the unfortunate professors, and we carried away chapel bells and fought with the townspeople."

It required some effort, she found, to imagine this benevolent looking old gentleman assaulting professors.

"Nowadays they play baseball and football, and box!" He pointed to the boxing gloves on the grass. "Mr. Hodder has taught them to settle their differences in that way; it is much more sensible."

She picked off the white clover-tops.

"So that is Mr. Hodder, of St. John's," she said.

"Ah, you know him, then?"

"I've met him," she answered quietly. "Are these children connected with his church?"

"They are little waifs from Dalton Street and that vicinity," said Mr. Bentley. "Very few of them, I should imagine, have ever been inside of a church."

She seemed surprised.

"But--is it his habit to bring them out here?" The old gentleman beamed on her, perhaps with the hint of a smile at her curiosity.

"He has found time for it, this summer. It is very good of him."

She refrained from comment on this remark, falling into reflection, leaning back, with one hand outstretched, on the grass. The game went on vociferously, the shrill lithe voices piercing the silence of the summer afternoon. Mr. Bentley's eyes continued to rest on her.

"Tell me," he inquired, after a while, "are you not Alison Parr?"

She glanced up at him, startled. "Yes."

"I thought so, although I have not seen you since you were a little girl. I knew your mother very well indeed, but it is too much to expect you to remember me, after all this time. No doubt you have forgotten my name. I am Mr. Bentley."

"Mr. Bentley!" she cried, sitting upright and gazing at him. "How stupid of me not to have known you! You couldn't have been any one else."

It was the old gentleman's turn to start. She rose impulsively and sat down on the bench beside him, and his hand trembled as he laid it in hers.

"Yes, my dear, I am still alive. But surely you cannot remember me, Alison?"

The old look of almost stubborn honesty he recalled in the child came into her eyes.

"I do--and I don't," she said, perplexed. "It seemed to me as if I ought to have recognized you when I came up, and yet I hadn't the slightest notion who you were. I knew you were somebody."

He shook his head, but did not speak.

"But you have always been a fact in my existence--that is what I want to say," she went on. "It must be possible to remember a person and not recognize him, that is what I feel. I can remember you coming to our house in Ransome Street, and how I looked forward to your visits. And you used to have little candy beans in your pockets," she cried. "Have you now?"

His eyes were a little dimmed as he reached, smilingly, into the skirts of a somewhat shiny but scrupulously brushed coat and produced a brightly colored handful. She took one, and put it in her mouth:

"Oh," she said, "how good they were--Isn't it strange how a taste brings back events? I can remember it all as if it were yesterday, and how I used to sit on your knee, and mother would tell me not to bother you."

"And now--you are grown," he said.

"Something more than grown," she smiled. "I was thirty-one in May. Tell me," she asked, choosing another of the beans which he still absently held, "do you get them for these?" And she nodded toward the Dalton Street waifs.

"Yes," he said, "they are children, too."

"I can remember," she said, after a pause, "I can remember my mother speaking of you to me the year she died. I was almost grown, then. It was after we had moved up to Park Street, and her health had already begun to fail. That made an impression on me, but I have forgotten what she said--it was apropos of some recollection. No--it was a photograph--she was going over some old things." Alison ceased speaking abruptly, for the pain in Mr. Bentley's remarkable grey eyes had not escaped her. What was it about him? Why could she not recall? Long-forgotten, shadowy episodes of the past tormented her, flitted provokingly through her mind--ungrasped: words dropped in her presence which had made their impression, but the gist of which was gone. Why had Mr. Bentley ceased coming to the house? So strongly did she feel his presence now that the thought occurred to her,--perhaps her mother had not wished her to forget him!

"I did not suspect," she heard him saying, "that you would go out into the world and create the beautiful gardens of which I have heard. But you had no lack of spirit in those days, too."

"I was a most disagreeable child, perverse,--cantankerous--I can hear my mother saying it! As for the gardens--they have given me something to do, they have kept me out of mischief. I suppose I ought to be thankful, but I still have the rebellious streak when I see what others have done, what others are doing, and I sometimes wonder what right I ever had to think that I might create something worth while."

He glanced at her quickly as she sat with bent head.

"Others put a higher value on what you have done."

"Oh, they don't know--" she exclaimed.

If something were revealed to him by her tone, he did not betray it, but went on cheerfully.

"You have been away a long time, Alison. It must interest you to come back, and see the changes in our Western civilization. We are moving very rapidly--in certain directions," he corrected himself.

She appraised his qualification.

"In certain directions,--yes. But they are little better in the East. I have scarcely been back," she added, "since I went to Paris to study. I have often thought I should like to return and stay awhile, only--I never seemed to get time. Now I am going over a garden for my father which was one of my first efforts, and which has always reproached me."

"And you do not mind the heat?" he asked. "Those who go East to live return to find our summers oppressive."

"Oh, I'm a salamander, I think," Alison laughed.

Thus they sat chatting, interrupted once or twice by urchins too small to join in the game, who came running to Mr. Bentley and stood staring at Alison as at a being beyond the borders of experience: and she would smile at them quite as shyly,--children being beyond her own. Her imagination was as keen, as unspoiled as a child's, and was stimulated by a sense of adventure, of the mystery which hung about this fine old gentleman who betrayed such sentiment for a mother whom she had loved and admired and still secretly mourned. Here, if there had been no other, was a compelling bond of sympathy....

The shadows grew longer, the game broke up. And Hodder, surrounded by an argumentative group keeping pace with him, came toward them from the field; Alison watched him curiously as he turned this way and that to answer the insistent questions with which he was pelted, and once she saw him stride rapidly after a dodging delinquent and seize him by the collar amidst piercing yells of approval, and derision for the rebel.

"It's remarkable how he gets along with them," said Mr. Bentley, smiling at the scene. "Most of them have never known what discipline is."

The chorus approached. And Hodder, recognizing her, dropped the collar he held: A young woman conversing with Mr. Bentley--was no unusual sight,--he had made no speculations as to this one's identity. He left the boys, and drew near.

"You know Miss Parr, I believe," the old gentleman said.

Hodder took her hand. He had often tried to imagine his feelings if he should meet her again: what he should do and say,--what would be their footing. And now he had no time to prepare....

"It is so strange," she said, with that note of wonder at life in her voice which he recalled so well, "that I should have come across Mr. Bentley here after so many years. How many years, Mr. Bentley?"

"Ah, my dear," he protested, "my measurements would not be yours."

"It is better for both of us not to say, Alison declared, laughingly.

"You knew Mr. Bentley?" asked Hodder, astonished.

"He was a very dear friend of my mother's, although I used to appropriate him when he came to our house. It was when we lived in Ransome Street, ages ago. But I don't think Mr. Bentley has grown a bit older."

"He is one of the few who have found the secret of youth," said the rector.

But the old gentleman had moved off into the path, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he was carried off by the swarm which clustered around him, two smaller ones tugging at his hand, and all intent upon arriving at the soda-water pavilion near the entrance. They had followed him with their eyes, and they saw him turn around and smile at them, helplessly. Alison presented a perplexed face to Hodder.

"Does he bring them here,--or you?" she asked.

"I--" he hesitated. "Mr. Bentley has done this every Saturday afternoon for years," he said, "I am merely one of them."

She looked at him quickly. They had started to follow, in the cool path beneath the forest trees. Restraint fell upon them, brought about by the memory of the intimacy of their former meeting, further complicated on Hodder's part by his new attitude toward her father, and his finding her in the company, of all persons, of Mr. Bentley. Unuttered queries pressed on the minds of both.

"Tell me about Mr. Bentley," she said.

Hodder hesitated.

"I scarcely know where to begin," he replied, yet smiling at the characteristic abruptness of her question. The modulations of her voice revealed again the searching, inquisitive spirit within her, and his responded to the intensity of the interest in Mr. Bentley.

"Begin anywhere."

"Anywhere?" he repeated, seeking to gain time.

"Yes--anywhere," she said impatiently.

"Well, he lives in Dalton Street, if you recall what kind of a place that is" (she nodded), "and he is known from one end of it to the other."

"I see what he is--he is the most extraordinary person I have ever known. Just to talk to him gives one such a queer feeling of--of dissatisfaction with one's self, and seeing him once more seems to have half revived in me a whole series of dead memories. And I have been trying to think, but it is all so tantalizing. There is some mystery about him," she insisted. "He disappeared suddenly, and my mother never mentioned him but once afterward, but other persons have spoken of him since--I forget who. He was so well known, and he used to go to St. John's."

"Yes, he used to go to St. John's."

"What happened to him--do you know? The reason he stopped coming to our house was some misunderstanding with my father, of course. I am positive my mother never changed her feelings toward him."

"I can only tell you what he has told me, which is all I know--authoritatively," Hodder replied. How could he say to her that her father had ruined Mr. Bentley? Indeed, with a woman of her fearlessness and honesty--and above all, her intuition,--he felt the cruelty of his position keenly. Hodder did not relish half truths; and he felt that, however scant his intercourse in the future might be with Alison Parr, he would have liked to have kept it on that basis of frankness in which it had begun. But the exact stage of disillusionment she had reached in regard to Eldon Parr was unknown to him, and he feared that a further revelation might possibly sever the already precarious tie between father and daughter.

He recounted, therefore, that Mr. Bentley had failed; and how he had before that given much of his estate away in charity, how he had been unable to keep his pew in St. John's, and had retired to the house in Dalton Street.

For some moments after he had finished Alison did not reply.

"What is his number in Dalton Street?" she asked.

Hodder informed her.

He could not read in her face whether she suspected that he could have told her more. And in spite of an inordinate, human joy in being again in her presence, his desire to hide from her that which had taken place within him, and the inability he felt to read his future, were instinctive: the more so because of the very spontaneity they had achieved at their first meeting. As a man, he shrank from confessing to her, however indirectly, the fact that she herself was so vital an element in his disillusionment. For the conversation in the garden had been the immediate cause of the inner ferment ending in his resolution to go away, and had directed him, by logical steps, to the encounter in the church with Mrs. Garvin.

"You have not yet finished the garden?" he asked. "I imagined you back in the East by this time."

"Oh, I am procrastinating," she replied. "It is a fit of sheer laziness. I ought to be elsewhere, but I was born without a conscience. If I had one I should try to quiet it by reminding it that I am fulfilling a long-delayed promise--I am making a garden for Mrs. Larrabbee. You know her, of course, since she is a member of your congregation."

"Yes, I know her," he assented. And his mind was suddenly filled with vivid colour,--cobalt seas, and arsenic-green spruces with purple cones, cardinal-striped awnings that rattled in the salt breeze, and he saw once more the panorama of the life which had passed from him and the woman in the midst of it. And his overwhelming thought was of relief that he had somehow escaped. In spite of his unhappiness now, he would not have gone back. He realized for the first time that he had been nearer annihilation then than to-day.

"Grace isn't here to bother me with the ideas she has picked up in Europe and catalogued," Alison continued.

"Catalogued!" Hodder exclaimed, struck by the pertinency of the word.

"Yes. Did you ever know anybody who had succeeded half so well in piecing together and absorbing into a harmonized whole all the divergent, artificial elements that enter into the conventional world to-day? Her character might be called a triumph of synthesis. For she has actually achieved an individuality--that is what always surprises me when I think of her. She has put the puzzle picture together, she has become a person."

He remembered, with a start, that this was the exact word Mrs. Larrabbee had used about Alison Parr. If he had searched the world, he could not have found a greater contrast than that between these two women. And when she spoke again, he was to be further struck by her power of logical insight.

"Grace wants me because she thinks I have become the fashion--for the same reason that Charlotte Plimpton wants me. Only there is this difference--Grace will know the exact value of what I shall have done. Not that she thinks me a Le Notre"--Alison laughed--"What I mean is, she sees behind, she sees why it is fashionable to have a garden, since she has worked out the values of that existence. But there!" Alison added, with a provocative touch that did not escape him, "I am picking your parishioners to pieces again."

"You have more right than I," he replied, "they have been your friends since childhood."

"I thought you had gone away," she said.

"Why?" he demanded. Had she been to church again?

"My father told me before he left that you were to take a cruise with him on the yacht he has chartered."

"He wrote me from New York--I was unable to go," Hodder said slowly.

He felt her gaze upon him, but resolutely refused to meet it.... They walked on in silence until they came to the more open spaces near the edge of the Park, thronged that Saturday evening by crowds which had sought the city's breathing space. Perfect trees cast long, fantastic shadows across the lawns, fountains flung up rainbows from the midst of lakes; children of the tenements darted hither and thither, rolled and romped on the grass; family parties picnicked everywhere, and a very babel of tongues greeted the ear--the languages of Europe from Sweden to Italy.

Suddenly an exclamation from her aroused and thrilled him.

"Isn't it wonderful how happy they are, and with what simple pleasures they are satisfied! I often come over here on Saturdays and Sundays, just to talk to them."

"Talk to them!" he echoed stupidly. "In their own languages?"

"Oh, I know a little German and Italian, though I can't lay claim to Czech," she answered gayly. "Why are you so surprised that I should possess such modest accomplishments?"

"It's not the accomplishments." He hesitated.

"No. You are surprised that I should be interested in humanity." She stood facing him. "Well, I am," she said, half humorously, half defiantly. "I believe I am more interested in human beings than in anything else in the world--when they are natural, as these people are and when they will tell one their joys and their troubles and their opinions."

"Enthusiasm, self-assertion, had as usual, transformed her, and he saw the colour glowing under her olive skin. Was she accusing him of a lack of frankness?

"And why," he asked, collecting himself, "did you think--" he got no further.

"It's because you have an idea that I'm a selfish Epicurean, if that isn't tautology--because I'm interested in a form of art, the rest of the world can go hang. You have a prejudice against artists. I wish I really were one, but I'm not."

This speech contained so many surprises for him that he scarcely knew how to answer it.

"Give me a little time," he begged, "and perhaps I'll get over my prejudices. The worst of them, at any rate. You are helping me to do so." He tried to speak lightly, but his tone was more serious in the next sentence. "It seems to me personally that you have proved your concern for your fellow-creatures."

Her colour grew deeper, her manner changed.

"That gives me the opportunity to say something I have hoped to say, ever since I saw you. I hoped I should see you again."

"You are not going away soon?" he exclaimed.

The words were spoken before he grasped their significance.

"Not at once. I don't know how long I shall stay," she answered hurriedly, intent upon what was in her mind. "I have thought a great deal about what I said to you that afternoon, and I find it more than ever difficult to excuse myself. I shan't attempt to. I merely mean to ask you to forgive me."

"There is nothing to forgive," he assured her, under the influence of the feeling she had aroused.

"It's nice of you to say so, and to take it as you did--nicer than I can express. I am afraid I shall never learn to appreciate that there may be other points of view toward life than my own. And I should have realized and sympathized with the difficulties of your position, and that you were doing the best under the circumstances."

"No," he exclaimed, "don't say that! Your other instinct was the truer one, if indeed you have really changed it--I don't believe you have." He smiled at her again. "You didn't hurt my feelings, you did me a service. I told you so at the time, and I meant it. And, more than that, I understood."

"You understood--?"

"You were not criticizing me, you were--what shall I say?--merely trying to iron out some of the inconsistencies of life. Well, you helped me to iron out some of the inconsistencies of my own. I am profoundly grateful."

She gazed at him, puzzled. But he did not, he could not enlighten her. Some day she would discover what he meant.

"If so, I am glad," she said, in a low voice.

They were standing in the midst of the crowd that thronged around the pavilion. An urchin caught hold of the rector's coat.

"Here he is! Say, Mr. Hodder, ain't you going to have any sody?"

"Certainly we are," he replied, returning Alison's faint smile.... In the confusion that followed he caught a glimpse of her talking to Mr. Bentley; and later, after he had taken her hand, his eyes followed her figure wending its way in the evening light through the groups toward Park Street, and he saw above the tree-tops the red tiled roof of the great house in which she was living, alone.

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