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The Cursory Light Post by :jsgodfrey Category :Short Stories Author :James Huneker Date :October 2011 Read :1530

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The Cursory Light

To this day Pinton could never explain why he looked out of that pantry window. He had reached his home in a hungry condition. He was tired and dead broke, so he had resolved to forage. He had listened for two or three, perhaps five, minutes in the hall of his boarding-house; then he went, soft-footed, to Mrs. Hallam's pantry on the second floor. He was sure that it was open, he was equally sure that it contained something edible on its hospitable shelves. Ah! who has not his bread at midnight stolen, ye heavenly powers, ye know him not!

Pinton, however, knew one thing, and that was a ravenous desire to sink his teeth into pie, custard, or even bread. He felt with large, eager hands along the wall on the pantry side. With feverish joy he touched the knob--a friendly knob, despite its cold, distant glaze--of the door he sought.

Pinton gave a tug, and then his heart stopped beating. The door was locked. Something like a curse, something like a prayer, rose to his lips, and his arms fell helplessly to his side.

Mrs. Hallam, realizing that it was Saturday night--the predatory night of the week--had secured her pastry, her confitures, her celebrated desserts; and so poor Pinton, all his sweet teeth furiously aching, his mouth watering, stood on the hither side of Paradise, a baffled peri in pantaloons!

After a pause, full of pain and troublous previsions of a restless, discontented night, Pinton grew angry and pulled at the knob of the door, thinking, perhaps, that it might abate a jot of its dignified resistance. It remained immovable, grimly antagonistic, until his fingers grew hot and cold as they touched a bit of cold metal.

The key in the lock! In a second it was turned, and the hungry one was within and restlessly searching and fumbling for food. He felt along the lower shelves and met apples, oranges, and sealed bottles containing ruined, otherwise miscalled preserved, fruit. He knelt on the dresser and explored the upper shelf. Ah, here was richness indeed! Pies, pies, cakes, pies, frosted cakes, cakes sweating golden, fruity promises, and cakes as icy as the hand of charity. Pinton was happy, glutton that he was, and he soon filled the pockets of his overcoat. What Mrs. Hallam might say in the morning he cared not. Let the galled jade wince, his breakfast appetite would be unwrung; and then he started violently, lost his balance, and almost fell to the floor.

Opposite him was the window of the pantry, which faced the wall of the next house. Pinton had never been in the pantry by daylight, so he was rudely shocked by the glance of a light--a cursory, moving light. It showed him a window in the other house and a pair of stairs. It flickered about an old baluster and a rusty carpet, it came from below, it mounted upward and was lost to view.

The burglar of pies, the ravisher of cakes, was almost shocked by this unexpected light. He watched it dancing fantastically on the discoloured wall of the house; he wondered--ill at ease--if it would flash in his face. His surmise was realized, for a streak of illumination reached the narrow chamber in which he cowered, and then he was certain some one was looking at him. He never budged, for he was too frightened. Suddenly the light vanished and a head was dimly silhouetted in the window opposite. It nodded to Pinton. Pinton stared stupidly, and the head disappeared. The hungry man, his appetite now gone, was numb and terrified.

What did it mean, who was the man? A detective, or a friend of Mrs. Hallam's in a coign from which the plunderers of her pantry could be noted? Beady repentance stood out on Pinton's forehead.

And the light came back. This time it was intelligible, for it was a lantern in the hand of a young man of about thirty. His face was open and smiling. He wore his hair rather long for an American, and it was blond and curling.

He surveyed Pinton for a moment, then he said, in a most agreeable voice:--

"What luck, old pal?"

Pinton dropped his pies, slammed the window, and got to his bedroom as fast as his nervous legs could carry him. He undressed in a nightmare, and did not sleep until the early summer sun shot hot shafts of heat into his chamber.

With a shamed Sabbath face he arose, dressed, and descended to his morning meal. Mrs. Hallam was sitting in orotund silence, but seemed in good humour. She asked him casually if he had enjoyed his Saturday evening, and quite as casually damned the wandering cats that had played havoc in her pantry. She remarked that leaving windows open was a poor practice, even if hospitable in appearance, and nervous Mr. Pinton drank his coffee in silent assent and then hurried off to the church where he trod the organ pedals for a small salary's sake.

The following Friday was rehearsal night, and the organist left his choir in a bad humour. His contralto had not attended, and as she was the only artiste and the only good-looking girl of the lot, Pinton took it into his head to become jealous. She had not paid the slightest attention to him, so he could not attribute her absence to a personal slight; but he felt aggrieved and vaguely irritated.

Pinton's musicianship was not profound. He had begun life as an organ salesman. He manipulated the cabinet organ for impossible customers in Wisconsin, and he came to New York because he was offered a better chance.

The inevitable church position occurred. Then came Zundel voluntaries and hard pedal practice. At last Mendelssohn's organ sonatas were reached and with them a call--organists, like pastors, have calls--to a fashionable church. The salary was fair and Mr. Pinton grew side-whiskers.

He heard Paderewski play Chopin, and became a crazy lover of the piano. He hired a small upright and studied finger exercises. He consulted a thousand books on technic, and in the meantime could not play Czerny's velocity studies.

He grew thin, and sought the advice of many pianists. He soon found that pressing your foot on the swell and pulling couplers for tone colour were not the slightest use in piano playing. Subtle finger pressures, the unloosening of the muscles, the delicate art of nuance, the art unfelt by many organists, all were demanded of the pianist, and Pinton almost despaired.

He grew contemptuous of the king of instruments as he essayed the C major invention of Bach. He sneered at stops and pedals, and believed, in his foolish way, that all polyphony was bound within the boards of the Well-Tempered Clavichord. Then the new alto came to the choir, and Pinton--at being springtide, when the blood is in the joyful mood--thought that he was in love. He was really athirst.

This Friday evening he was genuinely disappointed and thirsty. He turned with a sinking heart and parched throat into Pop Pusch's dearly beloved resort. Earlier in his life he had often solaced himself with the free lunch that John, the melancholy waiter, had dispensed. Pinton's mind was a prey to many emotions as he entered the famous old place. He sat down before a brown table and clamoured for amber beer.

He was not alone at the table. As Pinton put the glass of Pilsner to his lips he met the gaze of two sardonic eyes. He could not finish his glass. He returned the look of the other man and then arose, with a nervous jerk that almost upset the table.

"Sit down, old pal; don't be crazy. I'll never say a word. Sit down, you fool; don't you see people are looking at you?"

The voice was low, kindly in intonation, but it went through Pinton like a saw biting its way into wood.

He sat down all in a heap. He knew the eyes; he knew the voice. It was the owner of the dark lantern--the mysterious man in the other house of that last Saturday night. Pinton felt as if he were about to become ill.

"Lord, but you are a nervous one!" said the other, most reassuringly. "Sit still and I'll order brandy. It will settle your stomach."

That brought Pinton to his senses at once.

"No, no, I'll be all right in a moment," he said rather huskily. "I never drink spirits. Thank you, all the same."

"Don't mention it," said the man, and he tossed off his Wuerzburger. Each man stealthily regarded the other. Pinton saw the stranger of the lantern and staircase. Close by he was handsome and engaging. His hair was worn like a violin virtuoso's, and his hands were white, delicate, and well cared for. He spoke first.

"How did you make out on that job?--I don't fancy there was much in it. Boarding-houses, you know!"

Pinton, every particle of colour leaving his flabby face, asked:--

"What job?"

The stranger looked at him keenly and went on rather ironically:--

"You are the most nervous duck I ever ran across. When I saw you last your pocket was full of the silver plate of that pantry, and I can thank you for a fright myself, for when I saw you, I was just getting ready to crack a neat little crib. Say! why didn't you flash your glim at me or make some friendly signal at least? You popped out of sight like a prairie rabbit when a coyote heaves in view."

Pinton felt the ground heave beneath him. What possible job could the man mean? What was a "glim," and what did the fellow suggest by silver plate? Then it struck him all of a sudden. Heavens! he was taken for a burglar by a burglar. His presence in the pie pantry had been misinterpreted by a cracksman; and he, the harmless organist of Dr. Bulgerly's church, was claimed as the associate of a dangerous, perhaps notorious, thief. Pinton's cup of woe overflowed.

He arose, put on his hat, and started to go. The young man grasped his arm, and said in a most conciliatory fashion:--

"Perhaps I have hurt your sensitive nature. It was far from my intention to do so. I saluted you at first in the coarse, conventional manner which is expected by members of our ancient and honourable craft, and if I have offended you, I humbly beg your pardon."

His accent was that of a cultivated gentleman. Pinton, somewhat assured, dropped back in his seat, and, John passing by just then, more beer was ordered.

"Hear me before you condemn me," said the odd young man. "My name is Blastion and I am a burglar by profession. When I saw you the other night, at work on the premises next door to me, I was struck by your refined face. I said to myself: 'At last the profession is being recruited by gentlemen, men of culture, men of refinement. At last a profitable, withal risky, pursuit is being dignified, nay, graced, by the proper sort of person.' And I saluted you in a happy, haphazard fashion, and then you flew the coop. Pardon my relapse into the vernacular."

Pinton felt that it was time to speak.

"Pardon me, if I interrupt you, Mr. Blastion; but I fear we are not meeting on equal ground. You take me for a--for a man of your profession. Indeed, sir, you are mistaken. When you discovered me last Saturday night I was in the pantry of Mrs. Hallam, my boarding-house keeper, searching for pie. I am not a burglar--pardon my harsh expression; I am, instead, an organist by profession."

The pallor of the burglar's countenance testified to the gravity of his feeling. He stared and blushed, looked apprehensively at the various groups of domino players in the back room, then, pulling himself together, he beckoned to melancholy John, and said:--

"Johann, two more beers, please. Yes?"

Pinton became interested. There was something appealing in the signal the man flashed from his eyes when he realized that he had unbosomed himself to a perfect stranger, and not to a member of his beloved guild. The organist put his hand on the man's arm and said--faint memories of flatulent discourses from the Reverend Bulgerly coming to his aid: "Be not alarmed, my friend. I will not betray you. I am a musician, but I respect art ever, even when it reveals itself in manifold guises."

Pinton felt that he was a man of address, a fellow of some wit; his confidential and rather patronizing pose moved his companion, who slyly grimaced.

"So you are an organist and not a member of the noble Knights of the Centrebit and Jimmy?" he asked rather sarcastically.

"Yes," admitted Pinton, "I am an organist, and an organist who would fain become a pianist." The other started.

"I am a pianist myself, and yet I cannot say that I would like to play the organ."

"You are a pianist?" said Pinton, in a puzzled voice.

"Well, why not? I studied in Paris, and I suppose my piano technic stood me in good stead in my newer profession. Just look at my hands if you doubt my word."

Aghast, the organist examined the shapely hands before him. Without peradventure of a doubt they were those of a pianist, an expert pianist, and one who had studied assiduously. He was stupefied. A burglar and a pianist! What next?

Mr. Blastion continued his edifying remarks: "Yes, I studied very hard. I was born in the Southwest, and went to Paris quite young. I had good fingers and was deft at sleight-of-hand tricks. I could steal a handkerchief from a rabbi--which is saying volumes--and I played all the Chopin etudes before I was fifteen. At twenty-one I knew twenty-five concertos from memory, and my great piece was the Don Juan Fantasy. Oh, I was a wonder! When Liszt paid his last visit to Paris I played before him at the warerooms of the Pleyels.

"Monsieur Theodore Ritter was anxious for his old master to hear such a pupil. I assure you there must be some congenital twist of evil in me, for I couldn't for the life of me forbear picking the old fellow's pockets and lifting his watch. Now don't look scandalized, Mr. ---- eh? Oh! thank you very much, Mr. Pinton. If you are born that way, all the punishments and preachments--excuse the alliteration--will not stand in your way as a warning. I have done time--I mean I have served several terms of imprisonment, but luckily not for a long period. I suffered most by my incarceration in not having a piano. Not even a dumb keyboard was allowed, and I practised the Jackson finger exercises in the air and thus kept my fingers limber. On Saturdays the warden allowed me, as a special favour, to practise on the cabinet organ--an odious instrument--so as to enable me to play on Sundays in chapel. Of course no practice was needed for the wretched music we poor devils howled once a week, but I gained one afternoon in seven for study by my ruse.

"Oh, the joy of feeling the ivory--or bone--under my expectant fingers! I played all the Chopin, Henselt, and Liszt etudes on the miserable keyboard of the organ. Yes, of course, without wind. It was, I assure you, a truly spiritual consolation. You can readily imagine if a man has been in the habit of practising all day, even if he does 'burgle' at night, that to be suddenly deprived of all instrumental resources is a bitter blow."

Pinton stuttered out an affirmative response. Then both arose after paying their checks, and the organist shook the burglar's hand at the corner, after first exacting a promise that Blastion should play for him some morning.

"With pleasure, my boy. You're a gentleman and an artist, and I trust you absolutely." And he walked away, whistling with rare skill the D flat valse of Chopin.

"You can trust me, I swear!" Pinton called after him, and then went unsteadily homeward, full of generous resolves and pianistic ambitions. As he intermittently undressed he discovered, to his rage and amazement, that both his purse and watch had disappeared. The one was well filled; the other, gold. Blastion's technic had proved unimpeachable.

(The end)
James Huneker's short story: Cursory Light

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