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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPeter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 19
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Peter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 19 Post by :beetee Category :Long Stories Author :Francis Hopkinson Smith Date :May 2012 Read :849

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Peter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 19

CHAPTER XIX

When the pain in Jack's heart over Ruth became unbearable, there was always one refuge left--one balm which never failed to soothe, and that was Peter.

For though he held himself in readiness for her call, being seldom absent lest she might need his services, their constrained intercourse brought with it more pain than pleasure. It was then that he longed for the comfort which only his dear mentor could give.

On these occasions Mrs. McGuffey would take the lace cover off Miss Felicia's bureau, as a matter of precaution, provided that lady was away and the room available, and roll in a big tub for the young gentleman--"who do be washin' hisself all the time and he that sloppy that I'm afeared everything will be spi'lt for the mistress," and Jack would slip out of his working clothes (he would often come away in his flannel shirt and loose tie, especially when he was late in paying off) and shed his heavy boots with the red clay of Jersey still clinging to their soles, and get into his white linen and black clothes and dress shoes, and then the two chums would lock arms and saunter up Fifth Avenue to dine either at one of Peter's clubs or at some house where he and that "handsome young ward of yours, Mr. Grayson--do bring him again," were so welcome.

If Miss Felicia was in town and her room in use, there was never any change in the programme, Mrs. McGuffey rising to the emergency and discovering another and somewhat larger apartment in the next house but two--"for one of the finest gintlemen ye ever saw and that quiet," etc.--into which Jack would move and which the good woman would insist on taking full charge of herself.

It was on one of these blessed and always welcome nights, after the two had been dining at "a little crack in the wall," as Peter called a near-by Italian restaurant, that he and Jack stopped to speak to Isaac Cohen whom they found closing his shop for the night. Cohen invited them in and Jack, after following the little tailor through the deserted shop--all the work people had left-- found himself, to his great surprise, in a small room at the rear, which Isaac opened with a key taken from his vest pocket, and which even in the dim light of a single gas jet had more the appearance of the den of a scholar, or the workshop of a scientist, than the private office of a fashioner of clothes.

Peter only stayed a moment--long enough to borrow the second volume of one of Isaac's books, but the quaint interior and what it contained made a great impression on Jack,--so much so that when the two had said good-night and mounted the stairs to Peter's rooms, it was with increased interest that the boy listened to the old fellow who stopped on every landing to tell him some incident connected with the little tailor and his life: How after his wife's death some years before, and his only daughter's marriage-- "and a great affair it was, my boy, I was there and know,"--Cohen had moved down to his shop and fitted up the back room for a little shelter of his own, where he had lived with his books and his personal belongings and where he had met the queerest looking people--with big heads and bushy beards--foreigners, some of them --speaking all kinds of languages, as well as many highly educated men in town.

Once inside his own cosey rooms Peter bustled about, poking the fire into life, drawing the red curtains closer, moving a vase of roses so he could catch their fragrance from where he sat, wheeling two big, easy, all-embracing arm-chairs to the blaze, rolling a small table laden with various burnables and pourables within reach of their elbows, and otherwise disporting himself after the manner of the most cheery and lovable of hosts. This done, he again took up the thread of his discourse.

"Yes! He's a wonderful old fellow, this Isaac Cohen," he rattled on when the two were seated. "You had only a glimpse of that den of his, but you should see his books on costumes,--he's an authority, you know,--and his miniatures,--Oh, a Cosway, which he keeps in his safe, that is a wonder!--and his old manuscripts. Those are locked up too. And he's a gentleman, too, Jack; not once in all the years I have known him have I ever heard him mention the word money in an objectionable way, and he has plenty of it even if he does press off my coat with his own hands. Can you recall anybody you know, my boy--even in the houses where you and I have been lately, who doesn't let the word slip out in a dozen different ways before the evening is over? And best of all, he's sane,--one of the few men whom it is safe to let walk around loose."

"And you like him?"

"Immensely."

"And you never remember he is a Jew?" This was one of the things Jack had never understood.

"Never;--that's not his fault,--rather to his credit."

"Why?"

"Because the world is against both him and his race, and yet in all the years I have known him, nothing has ever soured his temper."

Jack struck a match, relit his cigar and settling himself more comfortably in his chair, said in a positive tone:

"Sour or sweet,--I don't like Jews,--never did."

"You don't like him because you don't know him. That's your fault, not his. But you would like him, let me tell you, if you could hear him talk. And now I think of it, I am determined you shall know him, and right away. Not that he cares--Cohen's friends are among the best men in London, especially the better grade of theatrical people, whose clothes he has made and whose purses he has kept full--yes--and whom he sometimes had to bury to keep them out of Potter's field; and those he knows here--his kind of people, I mean, not yours."

"All in his line of business, Uncle Peter," Jack laughed. "How much interest did they pay,--cent per cent?"

"I am ashamed of you, Jack. Not a penny. Don't let your mind get clogged up, my boy, with such prejudices,--keep the slate of your judgment sponged clean."

"But you believe everybody is clean, Uncle Peter."

"And so must you, until you prove them dirty. Now, will you do me a very great kindness and yourself one as well? Please go downstairs, rap three times at Mr. Cohen's shutters--hard, so that he can hear you--that's my signal--present my compliments and ask him to be kind enough to come up and have a cigar with us."

Jack leaned forward in his seat, his face showing his astonishment.

"You don't mean it?"

"I do."

"All right."

The boy was out of his chair and clattering down-stairs before Peter could add another word to his message. If he had asked him to crawl out on the roof and drop himself into the third-story window of the next house, he would have obeyed him with the same alacrity.

Peter wheeled up another chair; added some small and large glasses to the collection on the tray and awaited Jack's return. The experience was not new. The stupid, illogical prejudice was not confined to inexperienced lads.

He had had the same thing to contend with dozens of times before. Even Holker had once said: "Peter, what the devil do you find in that little shrimp of a Hebrew to interest you? Is he cold that you warm him, or hungry that you feed him,--or lonely that--"

"Stop right there, Holker! You've said it,--lonely--that's it-- LONELY! That's what made me bring him up the first time he was ever here. It seemed such a wicked thing to me to have him at one end of the house--the bottom end, too--crooning over a fire, and I at the top end crooning over another, when one blaze could warm us both. So up he came, Holker, and now it is I who am lonely when a week passes and Isaac does not tap at my door, or I tap at his."

The distinguished architect understood it all a week later when the new uptown synagogue was being talked of and he was invited to meet the board, and found to his astonishment that the wise little man with the big gold spectacles, occupying the chair was none other than Peter's tailor.

"Our mutual friend Mr. Grayson, of the Exeter Bank, spoke to me about you, Mr. Morris," said the little man without a trace of foreign accent and with all the composure of a great banker making a government loan; rising at the same time, with great dignity introducing Morris to his brother trustees and then placing him in the empty seat next his own. After that, and on more than one occasion, there were three chairs around Peter's blaze, with Morris in one of them.

All these thoughts coursed through Peter's head as Jack and Cohen were mounting the three flights of stairs.

"Ah, Isaac," he cried at first sight of his friend, "I just wanted you to know my boy, Jack Breen, better, and as his legs are younger than mine, I sent him down instead of going myself--you don't mind, do you?"

"Mind!--of course I do not mind,--but I do know Mr. Breen. I first met him many months ago--when your sister was here--and then I see him going in and out all the time--and--"

"Stop your nonsense, Isaac;--that's not the way to know a man; that's the way not to know him, but what's more to the point is, I want Jack to know you. These young fellows have very peculiar ideas about a good many things,--and this boy is like all the rest--some of which ought to be knocked out of his head,--your race, for one thing. He thinks that because you are a Jew that you--"

Jack uttered a smothered, "Oh, Uncle Peter!" but the old fellow who now had the tailor in one of his big chairs and was filling a thin wineglass with a brown liquid (ten years in the wood)--Holker sent it--kept straight on. "Jack's all right inside, or I wouldn't love him, but there are a good many things he has got to learn, and you happen to be one of them."

Cohen lay back in his chair and laughed heartily.

"Do not mind him, Mr. Breen,--do not mind a word he says. He mortifies me that same way. And now--" here he turned his head to Peter--"what does he think of my race?"

"Oh! He thinks you are a lot of money-getters and pawnbrokers, gouging the poor and squeezing the rich."

Jack broke out into a cold perspiration: "Really, Uncle Peter! Now, Mr. Cohen, won't you please believe that I never said one word of it," exclaimed Jack in pleading tones, his face expressing his embarrassment.

"I never said you did, Jack," rejoined Peter with mock solemnity in his voice. "I said you THOUGHT so. And now here he is,--look at him. Does he look like Scrooge or Shylock or some old skinflint who--" here he faced Cohen, his eyes brimming with merriment-- "What are we going to do with this blasphemer, Isaac? Shall we boil him in oil as they did that old sixteenth-century saint you were telling me about the other night, or shall we--?"

The little tailor threw out his hands--each finger an exclamation point--and laughed heartily, cutting short Peter's tirade.

"No--no--we do none of these dreadful things to Mr. Breen; he is too good to be a saint," and he patted Jack's knees--"and then again it is only the truth. Mr. Breen is quite right; we are a race of money-getters, and we are also the world's pawnbrokers and will always be. Sometimes we make a loan on a watch or a wedding ring to keep some poor soul from starving; sometimes it is a railroad to give a millionaire a yacht, or help buy his wife a string of pearls. It is quite the same, only over one shop we hang three gilt balls: on the other we nail a sign which reads: 'Financial Agents.' And it is the same Jew, remember, who stands behind both counters. The first Jew is overhauled almost every day by the police; the second Jew is regarded as our public-spirited citizen. So you see, my young friend, that it is only a question of the amount of money you have got whether you loan on rings or railroads."

"And whether the Christian lifts his hat or his boot," laughed Peter.

Cohen leaned his elbows on his plump knees and went on, the slender glass still in his hand, from which now and then he took a sip. Peter sat buried in his chair, his cigar between his fingers. Jack held his peace; it was not for him to air his opinions in the presence of the two older men, and then again the tailor had suddenly become a savant.

"Of course, there are many things I wish were different," the tailor continued in a more thoughtful tone. "Many of my people forget their birthright and force themselves on the Christian, trying to break down the fence which has always divided us, and which is really our best protection. As long as we keep to ourselves we are a power. Persecution,--and sometimes it amounts to that--is better than amalgamation; it brings out our better fighting qualities and makes us rely on ourselves. This is the view of our best thinkers, and they are right. Just hear me run on! Why talk about these things? They are for graybeards, not young fellows with the world before them." Cohen straightened up-- laid his glass on the small table, waved his hand in denial to Peter who started to refill it, and continued, turning to Jack: "And now let me hear something about your own work, Mr. Breen," he said in his kindest and most interested voice. "Mr. Grayson tells me you are cutting a great tunnel. Under a mountain, is it not? Ah!--that is something worth doing. And here is this old uncle of yours with his fine clothes and his old wine, who does nothing but pore over his musty bank-books, and here am I in the cellar below, who can only sew on buttons, and yet we have the impudence to criticise you. Really, I never heard of such conceit!"

"Oh!--but it isn't my tunnel," Jack eagerly protested, greatly amused at the Jew's talk; "I am just an assistant, Mr. Cohen." Somehow he had grown suddenly smaller since the little man had been talking.

"Yes,--of course, we are all assistants; Mr. Grayson assists at the bank, and I assist my man, Jacob, who makes such funny mistakes in the cut of his trousers. Oh, yes, that is quite the way life is made up. But about this tunnel? It is part of this new branch, is it not? Some of my friends have told me about it. And it is going straight through the mountain."

And then before Jack or Peter could reply the speaker branched out into an account of the financing of the great Mt. Cenis tunnel, and why the founder of the house of Rothschild, who had "assisted" in its construction, got so many decorations from foreign governments; the talk finally switching off to the enamelled and jewelled snuff boxes of Baron James Rothschild, whose collection had been the largest in Europe; and what had become of it; and then by one of those illogical jumps--often indulged in by well- informed men discussing any subject that absorbs them--brought up at Voltaire and Taine and the earlier days of the Revolution in which one of the little tailor's ancestors had suffered spoliation and death.

Jack sat silent--he had long since found himself out of his depth --drinking in every word of the talk, his wonderment increasing every moment, not only over Cohen, but over Peter as well, whom he had never before heard so eloquent or so learned, or so entertaining. When at last the little man rose to go, the boy, with one of those spontaneous impulses which was part of his nature, sprang from his seat, found the tailor's hat himself, and conducting him to the door, wished him good-night with all the grace and well-meant courtesy he would show a prince of the blood, should he ever be fortunate enough to meet one.

Peter was standing on the mat, his back to the fire, when the boy returned.

"Jack, you delight me!" the old fellow cried. "Your father couldn't have played host better. Really, I am beginning to believe I won't have to lock you up in an asylum. You're getting wonderfully sane, my boy,--real human. Jack, do you know that if you keep on this way I shall really begin to love you!"

"But what an extraordinary man," exclaimed Jack, ignoring Peter's compliment and badinage. "Is there anything he does not know?"

"Yes,--many things. Oh! a great many things. He doesn't know how to be rude, or ill bred, or purse-proud. He doesn't know how to snub people who are poorer than he is, or to push himself in where he isn't wanted; or to talk behind people's backs after he has accepted their hospitality. Just plain gentleman journeyman tailor, Jack. And now, my boy, be honest. Isn't he a relief after some of the people you and I meet every day?"

Jack settled again in his chair. His mind was not at all easy.

"Yes, he is, and that makes me afraid I was rude. I didn't mean to be."

"No,--you acted just right. I wanted to draw him out so you could hear, and you must say that he was charming. And the best of it is that he could have talked equally well on a dozen other subjects."

For some time Jack did not answer. Despite Peter's good opinion of him, he still felt that he had either said or done something he should be ashamed of. He knew it was his snap judgment about Cohen that had been the cause of the object lesson he had just received. Peter had not said so in so many words--it was always with a jest or a laugh that he corrected his faults, but he felt their truth all the same.

For some minutes he leaned back in his chair, his eyes on the ceiling; then he said in a tone of conviction:

"I WAS wrong about Mr. Cohen, Uncle Peter. I am always putting my foot in it. He is an extraordinary man. He certainly is, to listen to, whatever he is in his business."

"No, Jack, my boy--you were only honest," Peter rejoined, passing over the covert allusion to the financial side of the tailor. "You didn't like his race and you said so. Act first. Then you found out you were wrong and you said so. Act second. Then you discovered you owed him an ample apology and you bowed him out as if he had been a duke. Act third. And now comes the epilogue-- Better be kind and human than be king! Eh, Jack?" and the old gentleman threw back his head and laughed heartily.

Jack made no reply. He was through with Cohen;--something else was on his mind of far more importance than the likes and dislikes of all the Jews in Christendom. Something he had intended to lay before Peter at the very moment the old fellow had sent him for Isaac--something he had come all the way to New York to discuss with him; something that had worried him for days. There was but half an hour left; then he must get his bag and say good-night and good-by for another week or more.

Peter noticed the boy's mood and laid his hand on his wrist. Somehow this was not the same Jack.

"I haven't hurt you, my son, have I?" he asked with a note of tenderness in his voice.

"Hurt me! You couldn't hurt me, Uncle Peter!" There was no question of his sincerity as he spoke. It sprang straight from his heart.

"Well, then, what's the matter?--out with it. No secrets from blundering old Peter," he rejoined in a satisfied tone.

Jack laughed gently: "Well, sir, it's about the work." It wasn't; but it might lead to it later on,

"Work!--what's the matter with the work! Anything wrong?" There was a note of alarm now that made Jack reply hastily:

"No, it will be finished next month: we are lining up the arches this week and the railroad people have already begun to dump their cross ties along the road bed. It's about another job. Mr. MacFarlane, I am afraid, hasn't made much money on the fill and tunnel, but he has some other work offered him up in Western Maryland, which he may take, and which, if he does, may pay handsomely. He wants me to go with him. It means a shanty and a negro cook, as near as I can figure it, but I shall get used to that, I suppose. What do you think about it?"

"Well," chuckled Peter--it was not news; MacFarlane had told him all about it the week before at the Century--"if you can keep the shanty tight and the cook sober you may weather it. It must be great fun living in a shanty. I never tried it, but I would like to."

"Yes, perhaps it is,--but it has its drawbacks. I can't come to see you for one thing, and then the home will be broken up. Miss Ruth will go back to her grandmother's for a while, she says, and later on she will visit the Fosters at Newport and perhaps spend a month with Aunt Felicia." He called her so now.

Jack paused for some further expression of opinion from his always ready adviser, but Peter's eyes were still fixed on the slow, dying fire.

"It will be rather a rough job from what I saw of it," Jack went on. "We are to run a horizontal shaft into some ore deposits. Mr. MacFarlane and I have been studying the plans for some time; we went over the ground together last month. That's why I didn't come to you last week."

Peter twisted his head: "What's the name of the nearest town?" MacFarlane had told him but he had forgotten.

"Morfordsburg. I was there once with my father when I was a boy. He had some ore lands near where these are;--those he left me. The Cumberland property we always called it. I told you about it once. It will never amount to anything,--except by expensive boring. That is also what hurts the value of this new property the Maryland Mining Company owns. That's what they want Mr. MacFarlane for. Now, what would you do if you were me?"

"What sort of a town is Morfordsburg?" inquired Peter, ignoring Jack's question, his head still buried between his shoulders.

"Oh, like all other country villages, away from railroad connection."

"Any good houses,--any to rent?"

"Yes,--I saw two."

"And you want my advice, do you, Jack?" he burst out, rising erect in his seat.

"Yes."

"Well, I'd stick to MacFarlane and take Ruth with me."

Jack broke out into a forced laugh. Peter had arrived by a short cut! Now he knew, he was a mind reader.

"She won't go," he answered in a voice that showed he was open to conviction. Peter, perhaps, had something up his sleeve.

"Have you asked her?" The old fellow's eyes were upon him now.

"No,--not in so many words."

"Well, try it. She has always gone with her father; she loves the outdoor life and it loves her. I never saw her look as pretty as she is now, and she has her horse too. Try asking her yourself, beg her to come along and keep house and make a home for the three of you."

Jack leaned back in his seat, his face a tangle of hopes and fears. What was Uncle Peter driving at, anyhow?

"I have tried other things, and she would not listen," he said in a more positive tone. Again the two interviews he had had with Ruth came into his mind; the last one as if it had been yesterday.

"Try until she DOES listen," continued Peter. "Tell her you will be very lonely if she doesn't go, and that she is the one and only thing in Corklesville that interests you outside of your work--and be sure you mention the dear girl first and the work last--and that you won't have another happy hour if she leaves you in the--"

"Oh!--Uncle Peter!"

"And why not? It's a fact, isn't it? You were honest about Isaac; why not be honest with Ruth?"

"I am."

"No, you're not,--you only tell her half what's in your heart. Tell her all of it! The poor child has been very much depressed of late, so Felicia tells me, over something that troubles her, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if you were at the bottom of it. Give yourself an overhauling and find out what you have said or done to hurt her. She will never forget you for pulling her father out of that hole, nor will he."

Jack bristled up: "I don't want her to think of me in that way!"

"Oh, you don't! don't you? Oh, of course not! You want her to think of you as a great and glorious young knight who goes prancing about the world doing good from habit, and yet you are so high and mighty that--Jack, you rascal, do you know you are the stupidest thing that breathes? You're like a turkey, my boy, trying to get over the top rail of a pen with its head in the air, when all it has to do is to stoop a little and march out on its toes."

Jack rose from his seat and walked toward the fire, where he stood with one hand on the mantel. He knew Peter had a purpose in all his raillery and yet he dared not voice the words that trembled on his lips; he could tell the old fellow everything in his life except his love for Ruth and her refusal to listen to him. This was the bitterest of all his failures, and this he would not and could not pour into Peter's ears. Neither did he want Ruth to have Peter's help, nor Miss Felicia's; nor MacFarlane's; not anybody's help where her heart was concerned. If Ruth loved him that was enough, but he wouldn't have anybody persuade her to love him, or advise with her about loving him. How much Peter knew he could not say. Perhaps!--perhaps Ruth told him something!--something he was keeping to himself!

As this last thought forced itself into his brain a great surge of joy swept over him. For a brief moment he stood irresolute. One of Peter's phrases now rang clear: "Stoop a little!" Stoop?--hadn't he done everything a man could do to win a woman, and had he not found the bars always facing him?

With this his heart sank again. No, there was no use of thinking anything more about it, nor would he tell him. There were some things that even Peter couldn't understand,--and no wonder, when you think how many years had gone by since he loved any woman.

The chime of the little clock rang out.

Jack turned quickly: "Eleven o'clock, Uncle Peter, and I must go; time's up. I hate to leave you."

"And what about the shanty and the cook?" said Peter, his eyes searching Jack's.

"I'll go,--I intended to go all the time if you approved."

"And what about Ruth?"

"Don't ask me, Uncle Peter, not now." And he hurried off to pack his bag.

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