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Avunculus by Dorothy Canfield


The library of Middletown College had been founded, like the college itself, in 1818, and it was a firm article of undergraduate belief that the librarian, Mr. J.M. Atterworthy, had sat behind his battered desk from that date on to the present time. As a matter of fact, he was but just gliding down-hill from middle age, having behind him the same number of years as the active and high-spirited president of the college. And yet there was ground for the undergraduate conviction that “Old J.M.” as he was always called, was an institution whose beginnings dated back into the mists of antiquity, for of his sixty years he had spent forty-four in Middletown, and forty as librarian of the college.

He had come down, a shy, lanky freshman of sixteen, from a little village in the Green Mountains, and had found the only consolation for his homesick soul in the reading-room of the library. During his sophomore and junior years, there had sprung up in the bookish lad, shrinking from the rough fun of his fellows, the first shoots of that passionate attachment to the library which was later to bind him so irrevocably to the old building. In those early days there was no regular librarian, the professors taking turn and turn about in keeping the reading-room open for a few hours, three or four days a week. In his senior year, “J.M.” (even at that time his real name was sunk in the initials, the significance of which he jealously concealed) petitioned the faculty to be allowed to take charge of the reading-room. They gave a shrug of surprise at his eccentricity, investigated briefly his eminently sober-minded college career, and heaved a sigh of relief as they granted his extraordinary request.

On the evening of Commencement day, J.M. went to the president and made the following statement: He said that his father and his mother had both died during his senior year, leaving him entirely alone in the world, with a small inheritance yielding about fifty dollars a month. He had no leaning to any profession, he shrank with all his being from the savage struggles of the business world, and he could not bear to return to Woodville, to find himself lonely and bereaved in the spot where he had had such a cloudlessly happy childhood. In short, Middletown was the only place he knew and liked, except Woodville, which he loved too poignantly to live there with the soul gone out of things; and the library was the only home he now had. If the president could get the trustees, at their next meeting, to allow him the use of the three rooms in the library tower, and if they would vote him a small nominal salary, say thirty dollars a month, enough to make him a regular member of the college corps, he would like nothing better than to settle down and be the librarian of his alma mater for the rest of his life.

The president of that date was, like all the other presidents of Middletown College, a florid, hearty old gentleman with more red blood than he knew what to do with, in spite of his seventy years. He was vastly amused at the inexperienced young fellow's simple-minded notion, and, clapping him on the shoulder, said with his cheerfully Johnsonian rotundity: “Why, my dear young sir, your recent sad bereavement must have temporarily deranged your mental faculties, that at your age you can contemplate adopting such a desiccated mode of existence. Your proposition is, however, a highly advantageous one to your college, and I shall see that it is accepted. However, I am willing to lay a wager with you that a year will not be out before you are asking to be freed from your contract.”

J.M., trembling in suspense, took in nothing of the president's speech beyond the acceptance of his offer, and, pale with relief, he tried to stammer his thanks and his devotion to his chosen cause. He made no attempt to contradict the president's confident prophecies; he only made the greatest possible haste to the tower-rooms which were to be his home. His eyes filled with thankfulness at his lot as he paced about them, and, looking out of the windows upon the campus, he had a prophetic vision of his future, of the simple, harmless, innocent life which was to be his.

Of the two prophets he proved himself the truer. The head of his college and one generation after another of similar presidents laughed and joked him about the Wanderlust which would some day sweep him away from his old moorings, or the sensible girl who would some day get hold of him and make a man of him. He outlasted all these wiseacres, however, watching through mild, spectacled eyes the shifting changes of the college world, which always left him as immovable as the old elms before the library door. He never went away from Middletown, except on the most necessary trips to New York or Boston on business connected with book-buying for the library.

He explained this unheard-of stagnation by saying that the utter metamorphosis of the village after the college life stopped gave him change enough. Only once had he gone farther and, to one of the younger professors who had acquired an odd taste for old J.M.'s society, confessed hesitatingly that he did not go away because he had no place to which he could go, except to his childhood home. He said he couldn't bear to go there lest he find it so changed that the sight of it would rob him of his old memories, the dearest—in fact the only possessions of his heart. After a pause he had added to his young listener, who found the little old secular monk a tremendously pathetic figure: “Do you know, Layton, I sometimes feel that I have missed a great deal in life—and yet not at all what everybody thought I would miss, the stir of active life or the vulgar excitement of being in love. All that kind of thing seems as distasteful to me now as ever.”

There he stopped and poked the fire until the young professor, overcome with sympathetic curiosity, urged him to go on. He sighed at this, and said: “Why, fortune ought not to have made me an only child, although I can't say that I've ever longed for brothers or sisters.... But now I feel that I should like very much to have some nephews and nieces. I never could have stood having children of my own—I should have been crushed under the responsibility; but a nephew, now—a young creature with a brain and soul developing—to whom I could be a help ... I find as I get older that I have an empty feeling as the college year draws to a close. I have kept myself so remote from human life, for fear of being dragged into that feverish center of it which has always so repelled me, that now I do not touch it at all.” He ended with a gentle resignation, taking off his glasses and rubbing them sadly: “I suppose I do not deserve anything more, because I was not willing to bear the burdens of common life ... and yet it almost seems that there should be some place for such as I—?”

The heart of his young friend had melted within him at this revelation of the submissive isolation of the sweet-tempered, cool-blooded old scholar. Carelessly confident, like all the young, that any amount or variety of human affection could be his for the asking, he promised himself to make the dear old recluse a sharer in his own wealth; but the next year he married a handsome, ambitious girl who made him accept an advantageous offer in the commercial world. With his disappearance, the solitary door in the prison walls which kept J.M. remote from his fellows swung shut.

He looked so hopelessly dull and becalmed after this that the president was moved to force on him a little outing. Stopping one day with his touring-car at the door of the library, he fairly swept the sedentary little man off his feet and out to the machine. J.M. did not catch his breath during the swift flight to the president's summer home in a trim, green, elm-shaded village in the Berkshires. When he recovered a little he was startled by the resemblance of the place to his old recollections of Woodville. There were the same white houses with green shutters, and big white pillars to the porches, the same green lawns and clumps of peonies and carefully tended rose-gardens, and the same old-New-England air of distance from the hurry and smoky energy of modern commercial life.

He spoke of this to the president's wife and she explained that it was no wonder. The village was virtually owned by a summer colony of oldish people who had lived there in their youth and who devoted themselves to keeping the old place just as it had been. “We haven't any children to bother about any more,” she said, laughing, “so we take it out in putting knockers on the doors instead of bells and in keeping the grocery-stores out of sight so that the looks of the village green shan't be spoiled.”

After J.M. returned to deserted Middletown, he could not keep out of his mind the vision of the village he had just left, and the thought of the village like it which he had loved so well in his boyhood. It seemed to him that if Woodville kept its old aspect at all, he would find it a comfort to try to inspire the people now living there to preserve the old-timey look of it, as the president was doing for his old home. There was positively a thrill for J.M. in the thought of his possibly influencing other people, and before he knew it the plan had made itself the main interest of the interminably long, empty days of the summer vacation. His vague feeling of a lack in his life crystallized about a definite attempt at filling it. He was stirred from his inertia and, leaving word with the registrar of the college, a newcomer who was not at all surprised that the librarian should follow the example of all the rest of the faculty, J.M. made the three hours' journey which had separated him for so many years from the home of his youth.

As the train wound along the valley beside the river, and as the familiar outlines of the mountains rose up like the faces of dear, unforgotten friends, J.M. expanded and bloomed with delight in his new idea; but it was a very shriveled and dusty little old scholar who finally arrived at the farther end of the Main Street of Woodville and stood, in the hush of the noon hour, gazing back with a stricken face at the row of slovenly unlovely front yards separating the wretched old houses from the street.

He stood before the house that had been his home, and when he looked at it he turned very pale and sat down quickly as though his knees had failed him. Apparently the house had not been painted since his childhood, and certainly it had not been repaired. Broken, dangling shutters gave it a blear-eyed look which it made him sick to see, and swarms of untidily pin-feathered chickens wandered about over the hard-beaten earth of the yard, which was without a spear of grass, littered with old boxes and crates and unsightly rags, and hung with a flapping, many-legged wash. From the three rural mail-delivery boxes at the gate, he gathered that three families were crowded into the house which had seemed none too large for his father, his mother, and himself. He put on his glasses and read the names shudderingly—Jean-Baptiste Loyette, Patrick McCartey, and S. Petrofsky.

“Good heavens!” he observed feebly to the vacant, dusty road beside him, and in answer a whistle from the big, barrack-like building at the other end of the street screamed so stridently that the heavy August air seemed to vibrate about him in hot waves.

At once, as if all the houses on the street were toy barometers, every door swung open and a stream of men and boys in dirty shirts and overalls flowed out through the squalid yards along the sidewalks toward the factory. From the house before which the librarian of Middletown College sat in a crushed heap of resentment came three men to correspond to the three mail-boxes: one short and red-haired; one dark, thick-set, and grizzle-bearded; and the third tall, clumsily built, with an impassive face and dark, smoldering eyes. They stared at the woebegone old stranger before their gate, but evidently had no time to lose, as their house was the last on the street, and hurried away toward the hideous, many-windowed factory.

J.M. gazed after them, shaking his head droopingly, until a second eruption from the house made him look back. The cause of the hard-beaten bare ground of the yard was apparent at once, even to his inexperienced eyes. The old house seemed to be exuding children from a thousand pores—children red-haired and black-haired, and tow-headed, boys and girls, little and big, and apparently yelling on a wager about who owned the loudest voice, all dirty-faced, barelegged, and scantily clothed. J.M. mechanically set himself to counting them, but when he got as high as seventeen, he thought he must have counted some of them twice, and left off.

A draggle-tailed woman stepped to a door and threw out a pan of dish-water. J.M. resolved to overcome his squeamish disgust and make a few inquiries before he fled back to the blessed cleanliness and quiet of Middletown Library. Picking his way gingerly through the chickens and puppies and cats and children, the last now smitten into astonished silence by his appearance, he knocked on the door. The woman who came to answer him was dressed in what had been a black and purple percale, wrapper, she had a baby on her arm, and was making vain attempts to fasten up a great coil of hair at the back of her head. No, she told him volubly, she couldn't remember the town when it was any different, though she and Pat had lived there ever since they were married and came over from Ireland, and that was the whole of sixteen years ago.

“Oh!” with a sudden gush of sympathy, “and so it was your old home! Isn't that interring now! You must come in and sit awhile. Pat, git a chair for the gentleman, and Molly, take the baby so I can talk better. Oh, won't you come in? You'd better, now, and have a bite to eat and a sup of tea. I've some ready made.” Of course, she went on, she knew the house didn't look so nice as in his day.... “It's all along of the children! Irish people can't kape so tidy, now, can they, with siven or eight, as Yankees can with one—” But it certainly was a grand house, she didn't wonder he came back to look at it. Wasn't it fairly like a palace, now, compared with anything her kin back in Ireland had, and such a fine big place for the children to play an' all.

J.M. broke in to ask a final question, which she answered, making vain attempts to button her buttonless collar about a fat white neck, and following him as he retreated toward the street, through a lively game of baseball among the older boys. No, so far as she knew there wasn't one of the Yankees left that had lived here in old times. They had gone away when the factory had come in, she'd heard said. J.M. had expected this answer, but when it came, he turned a little sick for an instant, and felt giddy with the heat of the sun and lack of food and a desolation in his heart sharper and more searching than any emotion he had known since his boyhood. Through a mist before his eyes, he saw his hostess make a wild warning gesture, and heard a yell of dismay from the crowd of boys, but before he could turn his head, something cruelly hard struck him in the side. In the instant before he fell, his clearest impression was utter amazement that anything in the world could cause him such incredible pain, but then his head struck heavily against a stone, and he lay quite still in a little crumpled heap under the old elm which had sheltered his boyhood.


For an instant after he opened his eyes again, all his life after leaving Woodville seemed to have melted away, for there at the foot of his bed was the little, many-paned window out of which he had watched the seasons change all through his boyhood, and close above him hung the familiar slanting roof of his own little, old room. However, when he stirred, it was not his mother but a rosy-faced Irish woman who stopped her sewing and asked him in a thick, sweet brogue if he needed anything. As he stared at her, recollecting but dimly having seen her glossy brown hair and fair, matronly face before, she exclaimed: “Ah, I'm Bridget McCartey, you know, an' you were hurted by the lads throwin' a baseball into your ribs. It's lyin' here a week sick you've been, and, savin' your pardon, the sooner you tell me where your folks live the better. They'll be fair wild about you.”

The sick man closed his eyes again. “I have no family at all,” he said. It was the first time in years that the thoroughgoing extent of that fact had been brought home to him.

His nurse was moved to sympathy over so awful a fate. “Sure an' don't I know how 'tis. Pat an' I left every one of our kith behind us, mostly, when we come away, and it's that hungry for thim that I get. I dare say it ill becomes me to say it, but the first thing I says to myself when I see you was how like you are to one of my father's brothers in County Kerry. It's been a real comfort to have you here sick, as though I had some of my own kin near. His name was Jerry. It's not possible, is't, that the J. on your handkerchief stands for Jerry, too?”

For the first time since he had left Woodville J.M. disclosed the grotesque secret of his initials. In the flaccid indifference of convalescence it flowed from him painlessly. “My name is Jeroboam Mordecai.”

“Exactly to a hair like Uncle Jerry's!” cried Mrs. McCartey, overjoyed by the coincidence. “Except that his J. stood for Jeremiah and his M. for Michael. If you will tell me your last name, too, I'll try and lambaste the children into callin' you proper. Not havin' sorra name to speak of you by, and hearin' me say to Pat how you favored my father's brother, haven't they taken to callin' you Uncle Jerry—more shame to them!”

The mention of the children awoke to life J.M.'s old punctilious habits. He tried to sit up. “But you have so little space for all your family—you should not have taken me in; where can the children sleep?”

Mrs. McCartey pushed him back on the pillow with an affectionate firmness born of “the bringin' up of sivin.” “Now lay still, Uncle Jerry, and kape yourself cool.” The name slipped out unnoticed in her hospitable fervor “Wasn't it the least we could do when 'twas our own Mike's ball that came near killin' you? An' the children—the boys, that is, that this is their room—isn't it out in the barn they're sleepin' on the hay? An' that pleased with it. Pat and I were thinkin' that now was a good chance to teach them to give up things—when you've no old folks about you, the children are so apt to grow up selfish-like—but they think the barn's better nor the house, bless them, so don't you worry.”

She pulled the bedclothes straight (J.M. noticed that they were quite clean), settled the pillow, and drew down the shade. “Now thin, you've talked enough,” she said. “Take a sup of sleep for a while.” And to J.M.'s feeble surprise he found himself doing exactly as he was told, dozing off with a curious weak-headed feeling of comfort.

He came to his strength slowly, the doctor forbidding him to think of taking a journey for a month at least. Indeed, J.M., thinking of his isolated tower-rooms in the deserted college town, was in no haste to leave Mrs. McCartey's kindly, dictatorial care. He had been very sick indeed, the doctor told him seriously, and he felt it in the trembling weakness of his first attempts at sitting up, and in the blank vacancy of his mind.

At first he could not seem to remember for more than an instant at a time how he came to be there, and later, as his capacity for thought came back, he found his surroundings grown insensibly familiar to him. He felt himself somehow to have slipped so completely into the inside of things that it was impossible to recover the remote, hostile point of view which had been his as he had looked over the gate a fortnight ago. For instance, knowing now, not only that the children's faces were scrubbed to a polished redness every morning, but being: cognizant through his window of most of the palpably unavoidable accidents of play which made them dirty half an hour later, he would have resented as unreasonable intolerance any undue emphasis on this phase of their appearance.

The first day that he was well enough to sit out on the porch was a great event. The children, who before had made only shy, fleeting visits to his room with “little handfuls of bokays,” as their mother said, were as excited and elated over his appearance as though it reflected some credit on themselves. Indeed, J.M. found that he was the subject of unaccountable pride to all the family, and one of the first of those decisions of his between McCartey and Loyette occurred that very morning. The Loyette children insisted on being included in the rejoicing over the convalescent's step forward, and soon Pierre, the oldest boy, was haled before J.M. himself to account for his having dared to use the McCartey name for the sick man.

“You're not his Uncle Jerry, are you?” demanded Mike McCartey.

J.M. thought that now was the time to repress the too exuberant McCartey familiarity. “I'm his Uncle Jerry just as much as I am yours!” he said severely.

It took him a whole day to understand the jubilant triumph of the French-Canadians and to realize that he had apparently not only upheld the McCarteys in their preposterous nickname, but that he had added all the black-eyed Loyettes to his new family. Mrs. McCartey said to him that evening, with an innocent misconception of the situation, “Sure an' mustn't it sound fine to you, that name, when you've no kith of your own.” J.M. realized that that speech broke down the last bridge of retreat into his forsaken dignity. It is worthy of note that as he lay in bed that evening, meditating upon it, he suddenly broke into a little laugh of utter amusement, such as the assistants at Middletown Library had never heard from his lips.

The rapidity with which he was fitted into the routine of the place took his breath away. At first when he sat on the porch, which was the common ground of all the families, either Mrs. McCartey or Mrs. Loyette sewed near him to keep an eye on the children, but, as his strength came back, they made him, with a sigh of relief, their substitute, and disappeared into the house about neglected housework. “Oh, ain't it lovely now!” cried Mrs. McCartey to Mrs. Loyette, “to have an old person of your own about the place that you can leave the children with a half-minute, while you snatch the wash-boiler off the fire or keep the baby from cuttin' her throat with the butcher-knife.”

Mrs. Loyette agreed, shaking her sleek black head a great many times in emphasis. “Zose pipple,” she added, “zose lucky pipple who have all zere old pipple wiz zem, they can not know how hard is eet to be a mozzer, wizout a one grand'mere, or oncle.”

So J.M. at the end of his first fortnight in Woodville found himself undisputed umpire in all the games, discussions, quarrels, and undertakings of seven young, Irish-Americans and more French-Canadian-Americans than he could count. He never did find out exactly how many Loyettes there were. The untidy front yard, littered with boxes and barrels, assumed a strangely different aspect to him as he learned its infinite possibilities, for games and buildings and imaginations generally. Sometimes it was a village with a box as house for each child, ranged in streets and lanes, and then Uncle Jerry was the mayor and had to make the laws. Sometimes the yard foamed and heaved in salt waves as, embarked in caravels, the expedition for the discovery of America (out of the older children's history-books) dashed over the Atlantic. It is needless to state that Uncle Jerry was Christopher Columbus.

Both the grateful mothers whom he was relieving cried out that never had there been such peace as since he came, not only because the children could appeal to him for decisions instead of running to their mothers, but because, the spectacular character in every game belonging to him as “company,” there were no more quarrels between Mike and Pierre about the leadership. J.M. could not seem to find his old formal personality for weeks after Mike's baseball had knocked it out of him, and in the meantime he submitted, meekly at first and later with an absurd readiness, to being an Indian chieftain, and the head of the fire department, and the principal of a big public school, and the colonel of a regiment, and the owner of a cotton factory, and the leader of Arctic expeditions, and all the other characters which the fertile minds inhabiting the front yard forced upon him. He realized that he was a changed soul when he found himself rejoicing as the boys came tugging yet another big crate, obtained from the factory, to add to the collection before him. They needed it for the car for the elephant as the circus they were then performing moved from one end of the yard to the other.

He was often very, very tired when night came, but he surprised himself by never having a touch of his old enemy, insomnia. At first he went to bed when the children did, but as he progressed out of convalescence, he sat out on the porch with Pat and Bridget, as they insisted he should call them. It was very quiet then, when the cool summer dusk had hushed all the young life which made each day such an absorbing series of unexpected events. The puppies and kittens slept in their boxes, the hens had gathered the chickens under their wings, the children were sound asleep, and the great elms cast kindly shadows on the porch where the older people sat. The Loyettes often came out and joined them, and J.M. listened with an interest which surprised him as they told stories about hard times in their old homes, rejoiced in their present prosperity, and made humbly aspiring plans for their children.

For the first time in his life J.M. felt himself to be a person of almost unlimited resources, both of knowledge and wealth, as the pitiful meagerness of his hosts supply of these commodities was revealed to him in these talks, more intimate than any he had known, more vitally human than any he had ever heard. The acquisition of rare first edition, perhaps the most stirring event in his life in Middletown, had never aroused him to anything like the eagerness with which he heard the Loyettes helplessly bemoaning their inability to do anything for their oldest child, Rosalie, a slim girl of seventeen. Her drawing-teacher at school had said that the child had an unusual gift for designing, and a manufacturer of wallpaper, who had seen some of her work on a visit to the Woodville factory, had confirmed this judgment and said that “something ought to be done for her.”

“But what?” her parents wondered with an utter ignorance of the world outside of Woodville which astonished J.M.

“Why don't you send her to a school of design?” he asked.

“Vat is zat?” asked Papa Loyette blankly, and “We have no money,” sighed Maman.

J.M. stirred himself, wrote to the director of a school of design in Albany, consulted the priest of the parish, sent some of Rosalie's work, and asked about scholarships. When a favorable answer came, he hurried to explain the matter to the Loyettes and offered to provide the four dollars a week necessary for her board at the Catholic Home for Working Girls, of which the priest had told him. He went to bed that night with his heart beating faster from the reflection of their agitated joy than it had done for years. He could not get to sleep for a long time, such a thrill of emotion did he get from each recollection of Maman Loyette's broad face bathed in tears of gratitude.

After this they fell into the way of asking him about all their problems, from the management of difficult children to what to do about an unjust foreman and whether to join the union. The childless, unpractical, academic old bachelor, forced to meditate on these new subjects, gave utterance to advice whose sagacity amazed himself. He had not known it was in him to have such sensible ideas about how to interest a growing boy in athletics to keep him from drinking; and as for the question of unions, he boiled at the memory of some of the half-baked, pedantic theories he had heard promulgated by the professor of political economy in Middletown.

On the other hand, he stood in wonder at the unconscious but profound wisdom which these ignorant people showed as to the fundamentals of life.

“No, we're not much for clothes!” said Mrs. McCartey, comfortably tucking up her worn and faded sleeves. “Haven't we all of us enough good clothes to go to Mass in, and that's a'plenty! The rest of Pat's money goes to gettin' lots of good food for the children, bless their red faces and fat little bellies! and laying by a dollar or so a week against the rainy day. Children can play better, anyhow, with only overalls and shirts. The best times for kids is the cheapest!”

J.M. thought of the heavy-eyed, harassed professors of his acquaintance, working nights and Sundays at hack work to satisfy the nervous ambitions of their wives to keep up appearances, and gave a sudden swift embrace to the ragged child on his lap, little Molly, who had developed an especial cult for him, following him everywhere with great pansy eyes of adoring admiration.

On his first expedition out of the yard since his illness, he was touched by the enthusiastic interest which all Main Street took in his progress. Women with babies came down to nearly every gate to pass the time of day with Rosalie, on whose arm he leaned, and to say in their varying foreign accents that they were glad to see the sick gentleman able to be out. Since J.M. had had a chance at first-hand observation of the variety of occupation forced upon the mother of seven, he was not surprised that they wore more or less dilapidated wrappers and did not Marcel-wave their hair. Now he noticed the motherly look in their eyes, and the exuberant health of the children laughing and swarming about them. When he returned to the house he sat down on the porch to consider a number of new ideas which were springing up in his mind, beginning to return to its old vigor. Mrs. McCartey came out to see how he had stood the fatigue and said: “Sure you look smarter than before you went! It inter_est_ed you now, didn't it, to have a chance really to see the old place?”

“Yes,” said J.M., “it did, very much.”

Mrs. McCartey went on: “I've been thinkin' so many times since you come how much luckier you are than most Yankees that come back to their old homes. It must seem so good to you to see the houses just swarmin' with young life and to know that the trees and yards and rocks and brooks that give you such a good time when you was a boy, are goin' on givin' good times to a string of other boys.”

J.M. looked at her with attentive, surprised eyes. “Why, do you know,” he cried, “it does seem good, to be sure!”

The other did not notice the oddness of his accent as she ended meditatively: “You can never get me to believe that it don't make old Yankees feel low in their minds to go back to their old homes and find just a few white-headed rheumatickers potterin' around, an' the grass growing over everything as though it was a molderin' graveyard that nobody iver walked in, and sorra sign of life anyway you look up and down the street.”

J.M.'s mind flew back to the summer home of the president of Middletown. “Good gracious,” he exclaimed, “you're right!”

Mrs. McCartey did not take in to the full this compliment, her mind being suddenly diverted by the appearance of a tall figure at the door of the farther wing of the house. “Say, Uncle Jerry,” she said, lowering her voice, “Stefan Petrofsky asked me the other day if I thought you would let him talk to you about Ivan some evening?”

“Why, who are they, anyhow?” asked J.M. “I've often wondered why they kept themselves so separate from the rest of us.” As he spoke he noticed the turn of his phrase and almost laughed aloud.

“Petrofsky's wife, poor thing, died since they come here, and now there's only Stefan, he's the father, and Ivan, he's the boy. He's awful smart they say, and Stefan, he's about kilt himself to get the boy through the high school. He graduated this spring and now Stefan he says he wants him to get some more education. He says their family, back in Russia, was real gentry and he wants Ivan to learn a lot so that he can help the poor Roosians who come here to do the right thing by the government—”

“ What?” asked J.M. “I don't seem to catch his idea.”

“Well, no more do I, sorra bit,” confessed Mrs. McCartey serenely. “Not a breath of what he meant got to me, but what he said was that Ivan's schoolin' had put queer ideas in his head to be an anarchist or somethin' and he thought that maybe more schoolin' would drive out thim ideas and put in other ones yet. Hasn't it a foolish sound, now?” She appealed to J .M. for a sympathy she did not get.

“It sounds like the most interesting case I ever heard of,” he cried, with a generous looseness of superlative new to him. “Is Ivan that tall, shy, sad-looking boy who goes with his father to work?”

“That's him. An' plays the fiddle fit to tear the heart out of your body, and reads big books till God knows what hour in the mornin'. His father, he says he don't know what to do with him ... There's a big, bad devil of a Polack down to the works that wants him to join the anarchists in the fall and go to——”

J.M. rose to his feet and hurried down the porch toward the Petrofsky wing of the house, addressing himself to the tall, grave-faced figure in the doorway. “Oh, Mr. Petrofsky, may I have a few minutes' talk with you about your son?” he said.


The registrar of Middletown College, being a newcomer, saw nothing unusual in the fact that the librarian came to his office on matriculation day to enroll as a freshman a shy, dark-eyed lad with a foreign name; but the president and older professors were petrified into speechlessness by the news that old J.M. had returned from parts unknown with a queer-looking boy, who called the old man uncle. Their amazement rose to positive incredulity when they heard that the fastidious, finical old bachelor had actually installed a raw freshman in one of his precious tower-rooms, always before inexorably guarded from the mildest and most passing intrusion on their hallowed quiet.

The president made all haste to call on J.M. and see the phenomenon with his own eyes. As discreetly as his raging curiosity would allow him, he fell to questioning the former recluse. When he learned that J.M. had spent six weeks in Woodville, no more explanation seemed needed. “Oh, of course, your old home?”

“Yes,” said J.M., “my old home.”

“And you had a warm welcome there, I dare say?”

“Yes, indeed,” said J.M.

“Found the old town in good condition?”

“Excellent!” this with emphasis.

The president saw it all, explaining it competently to himself. “Yes, yes, I see it from here—vacation spent in renewing your youth playing with the children—promised to go back at Christmas, I suppose.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” said J.M.

“Children cried when you came away, and gave you dotty little things they'd made themselves?”

“Just like that,” with a reminiscent smile.

“Well, well,” the president got to his feet. “Of course, most natural thing in the world to take an interest in your brothers' and sisters' children.”

J.M. did not contradict the president. He never contradicted the presidents. He outlasted them so consistently that it was not necessary. This time he took off his glasses and rubbed them on an awkwardly fashioned chamois spectacle-wiper made for him by little Molly McCartey. He noticed the pattern of the silk in his visitor's necktie and it made him think of one of Rosalie Loyette's designs. He smiled a little.

The president regarded this smiling silence with suspicion. He cocked his eye penetratingly upon his librarian. “But it is very queer, J.M., that as long as I have known you, I never heard that you had any family at all.”

J.M. put his clean and polished spectacles back on his nose and looked through them into the next room, where Ivan Petrofsky sat devouring his first lesson in political economy. Then he turned, beaming like an amiable sphinx upon his interrogator. “Do you know—I never realized it myself until just lately,” he said.


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