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The Mouth of the Gift Horse by Rupert Hughes

I

The town of Wakefield was—is—suffering from growing pains—from ingrowing pains, according to its rival, Gatesville.

Wakefield has long been guilty of trying to add a cubit to its stature by taking thought. Established, like thousands of other pools left in the prairies by that tidal wave of humanity sweeping westward in the middle of the last century, it passed its tenth thousand with a rush; then something happened.

For decades the decennial census dismally tolled the same knell of fifteen thousand in round numbers. The annual censuses but echoed the reverberations. A few more cases of measles one year, and the population lapsed a little below the mark; an easy winter, and it slipped a little above. No mandragora of bad times or bad health ever quite brought it so low as fourteen thousand. No fever of prosperity ever sent the temperature quite so high as sixteen thousand.

The iteration got on people's nerves till a commercial association was formed under the name of the Wide-a-Wakefield Club, with a motto of “Boom or Bust.” Many individuals accomplished the latter, but the town still failed of the former. The chief activity of the club was in the line of decoying manufacturers over into Macedonia by various bribes.

Its first capture was a cutlery company in another city. Though apparently prosperous, it had fallen foul of the times, and its president adroitly allowed the Wide-a-Wakefield Club to learn that, if a building of sufficient size were offered rent free for a term of years, the cutlery company might be induced to move to Wakefield and conduct its business there, employing at least a hundred laborers, year in, year out.

There was not in all Wakefield a citizen too dull to see the individual and collective advantage of this hundred increase. It meant money in the pocket of every doctor, lawyer, merchant, clothier, boarding-house-keeper, saloon-keeper, soda-water-vender—whom not?

Every establishment in town would profit, from the sanatorium to the “pantatorium”—as the institution for the replenishment of trousers was elegantly styled.

Commercial fervor rose to such heights in Wakefield that in no time at all enough money was subscribed to build a convenient factory and to purchase as many of the shares of cutlery stock as the amiable president cared to print. In due season the manufacture of tableware and penknives began, and the pride of the town was set aglow by the trade-mark stamped on every article issued from the cutlery factory. It was an ingenious emblem—a glorious Cupid in a sash marked “Wakefield,” stabbing a miserable Cupid in a sash marked “Sheffield.”

It was Sheffield that survived. In fact, the stupid English city probably never heard of the Wakefield Cutlery Company. Nor did Wakefield hear of it long. For the emery dust soon ceased to glisten in the air and the steel died of a distemper.

It was a very real shock to Wakefield, and many a boy that had been meant for college went into his father's store instead, and many a girl who had planned to go East to be polished stayed at home and polished her mother's plates and pans, because the family funds had been invested in the steel-engravings of the cutlery stock certificates. They were very handsome engravings.

Hope languished in Wakefield until a company from Kenosha consented to transport its entire industry thither if it could receive a building rent free. It was proffered, and it accepted, the cutlery works. For a season the neighboring streets were acrid with the aroma of the passionate pickles that were bottled there. And then its briny deeps ceased to swim with knobby condiments. A tin-foil company abode awhile, and yet again a tamale-canning corporation, which in its turn sailed on to the Sargasso Sea of missing industries.

Other factory buildings in Wakefield fared likewise. They were but lodging-houses for transient failures. The population swung with the tide, but always at anchor. The lift which the census received from an artificial-flower company, employing seventy-five hands, was canceled by the demise of a more redolent pork-packing concern of equal pay-roll. People missed it when the wind blew from the west.

But Wakefield hoped on. One day the executive committee of the Wide-a-Wakefield Club, having nothing else to do, met in executive session. There were various propositions to consider. All of them were written on letter-heads of the highest school of commercial art, and all of them promised to endow Wakefield with some epoch-making advantage, provided merely that Wakefield furnish a building rent free, tax free, water free, and subscribe to a certain amount of stock.

The club regarded these glittering baits with that cold and clammy gaze with which an aged trout of many-scarred gills peruses some newfangled spoon.

But if these letters were tabled with suspicion because they offered too much for too little, what hospitality could be expected for a letter which offered still more for still less? The chairman of the committee was Ansel K. Pettibone, whose sign-board announced him as a “practical house-painter and paper-hanger.” He read this letter, head-lines and all:

MARK A. SHELBY JOHN R. SHELBY LUKE B. SHELBY

SHELBY PARADISE POWDER COMPANY

SPRINGFIELD, MASS., U. S. A.

MAKES WASHDAY WELCOME. SIDESTEP SUBSTITUTES. WIDE-A-WAKEFIELD CLUB, Wakefield:

     DEAR SIRS,—The undersigned was born in your city, and left same
     about twenty years ago to seek his fortune. I have finally found it
     after many ups and downs. Us three brothers have jointly perfected
     and patented the famous Paradise Powder. It is generally conceded
     to be the grandest thing of its kind ever put on the market, and,
     in the words of the motto, “Makes Washday Welcome.” Ladies who have
     used it agree that our statement is not excessive when we say,
     “Once tried, you will use no other.”

     It is selling at such a rate in the East that I have a personal
     profit of two thousand dollars a week. We intend to push it in the
     West, and we were talking of where would be the best place to
     locate a branch factory at. My brothers mentioned Chicago, St.
     Louis, Omaha, Denver, and such places, but I said, “I vote for
     Wakefield.” My brothers said I was cracked. I says maybe I am, but
     I'm going back to my old home town and spend the rest of my life
     there and my surplus money, too. I want to beautify Wakefield, and
     as near as I can remember there is room for improvement. It may not
     be good business, but it is what I want to do. And also what I want
     to know is, can I rely on the co-operation of the Wide-a-Wakefield
     Club in doing its share to build up the old town into a genuine
     metropolis? Also, what would be the probable cost of a desirable
     site for the factory?

     Hoping to receive a favorable reply from you at your earliest
     convenience,
                     Yours truly,
                     LUKE B. SHELBY.

The chairman's grin had grown wider as he read and read. When he had finished the letter he tossed it along the line. Every member read it and shook with equal laughter.

“I wonder what kind of green goods he sells?” said Joel Spate, the owner of the Bon-Ton Grocery.

“My father used to say to me,” said Forshay, of the One-Price Emporium, “whatever else you do, Jake, always suspicion the fellow that offers you something for nothing. There's a nigger in the woodpile some'eres.”

“That's so,” said Soyer, the swell tailor, who was strong on second thought.

“He says he's goin' to set up a factory here, but he don't ask for rent free, tax free, light free—nothin' free,” said the practical house-painter.

“What's the name again?” said Spate.

“Shelby—Luke B. Shelby,” answered Pettibone. “Says he used to live here twenty years ago. Ever hear of him? I never did.”

Spate's voice came from an ambush of spectacles and whiskers: “I've lived here all m' life—I'm sixty-three next month. I don't remember any such man or boy.”

“Me, neither,” echoed Soyer, “and I'm here going on thirty-five year.”

The heads shook along the line as if a wind had passed over a row of wheat.

“It's some new dodge for sellin' stock,” suspicioned One-Price Forshay, who had a large collection of cutlery certificates.

“More likely it's just a scheme to get us talking about his Paradise Powder. Seems to me I've had some of their circulars,” said Bon-Ton Spate.

Pettibone, the practical chairman, silenced the gossip with a brisk, “What is the pleasure of the meeting as regards answering it?”

“I move we lay it on the table,” said Eberhart of the Furniture Palace.

“I move we lay it under the table,” said Forshay, who had a keen sense of humor.

“Order, gentlemen! Order,” rapped Pettibone, as the room rocked with the laughter in which Forshay led.

When sobriety was restored it was moved, seconded, and passed that the secretary be instructed to send Shelby a copy of the boom number of the Wakefield Daily Eagle.

And in due time the homesick Ulysses, waiting a welcome from Ithaca, received this answer to his letter:

     LUKE B. SHELBY, Springfield, Mass.

     SIR,—Yours of sixteenth inst. rec'd and contents noted. In reply
     to same, beg to state are sending last special number Daily
     Eagle
, giving full information about city and sites.

                     Yours truly,

                     JOEL SPATE, Secy. Exec. Comm.

Shelby winced. The hand he had held out with pearls of price had been brushed aside. His brothers laughed.

“We said you were cracked. They don't want your old money or your society. Go somewheres where they do.”

But Luke B. Shelby had won his success by refusing to be denied, and he had set his heart on refurbishing his old home town. The instinct of place is stronger than any other instinct in some animals, and Shelby was homesick for Wakefield—not for anybody, any house, or any street in particular there, but just for Wakefield.

Without further ado he packed his things and went.

II

There was no brass band to meet him. At the hotel the clerk read his name without emotion. When he required the best two rooms in the hotel, and a bath at that, the clerk looked suspicious:

“Any baggage?”

“Three trunks and a grip.”

“What line do you carry? Will you use the sample-room?”

“Don't carry any line. Don't want any sample-room.”

He walked out to see the town. It had so much the same look that it seemed to have been embalmed. Here were the old stores, the old signs, apparently the same fly-specked wares in the windows.

He read Doctor Barnby's rusty shingle. Wasn't that the same swaybacked horse dozing at the hitching-post?

Here was the rough hill road where he used to coast as a child. There stood Mrs. Hooker on the lawn with a hose, sprinkling the street, the trees, the grass, the oleander in its tub and the moon-flower on the porch. He seemed to have left her twenty years ago in that attitude with the same arch of water springing from the nozzle.

He paused before the same gap-toothed street-crossing of yore, and he started across it as across the stepping-stones of a dry stream. A raw-boned horse whirled around the corner, just avoiding his toes. It was followed by a bouncing grocery-wagon on the side of whose seat dangled a shirt-sleeved youth who might have been Shelby himself a score of years ago.

Shelby paused to watch. The horse drew up at the home of Doctor Stillwell, the dentist. Before the wagon was at rest the delivery-boy was off and half-way around the side of the house. Mrs. Stillwell opened the screen door to take in the carrots and soap and washing-powder Shelby used to bring her. Shelby remembered that she used washing-powder then. He wondered if she had heard of the “Paradise.”

As he hung poised on a brink of memory the screen door flapped shut, the grocery-boy was hurrying back, the horse was moving away, and the boy leaped to his side-saddle seat on the wagon while it was in motion. The delivery-wagons and their Jehus were the only things that moved fast in Wakefield, now as then.

Shelby drifted back to the main street and found the Bon-Ton Grocery where it had been when he deserted the wagon. The same old vegetables seemed to be sprawling outside. The same flies were avid at the strawberry-boxes, which, he felt sure, the grocer's wife had arranged as always, with the biggest on top. He knew that some Mrs. Spate had so distributed them, if it were not the same who had hectored him, for old Spate had a habit of marrying again. His wives lasted hardly so long as his hard-driven horses.

Shelby paused to price some of the vegetables, just to draw Spate into conversation. The old man was all spectacles and whiskers, as he had always been. Shelby thought he must have been born with spectacles and whiskers.

Joel Spate, never dreaming who Shelby was, was gracious to him for the first time in history. He evidently looked upon Shelby as a new-comer who might be pre-empted for a regular customer before Mrs. L. Bowers, the rival grocer, got him. It somehow hurt Shelby's homesick heart to be unrecognized, more than it pleased him to enjoy time's topsy-turvy. Here he was, returned rich and powerful, to patronize the taskmaster who had worked him hard and paid him harder in the old years. Yet he dared not proclaim himself and take his revenge.

He ended the interview by buying a few of the grocer's horrible cigars, which he gave away to the hotel porter later.

All round the town Shelby wandered, trying to be recognized. But age and prosperity had altered him beyond recall, though he himself knew almost every old negro whitewash man, almost every teamster, he met. He was surer of the first names than of the last, for the first names had been most used in his day, and it surprised him to find how clearly he recalled these names and faces, though late acquaintances escaped his memory with ease.

The women, too, he could generally place, though many who had been short-skirted tomboys were now heavy-footed matrons of embonpoint with children at their skirts, children as old as they themselves had been when he knew them. Some of them, indeed, he recognized only by the children that lagged alongside like early duplicates.

As he sauntered one street of homely homes redeemed by the opulence of their foliage, he saw coming his way a woman whose outlines seemed but the enlargement of some photograph in the gallery of remembrance. Before she reached him he identified Phoebe Carew.

Her mother, he remembered, had been widowed early and had eked out a meager income by making chocolate fudge, which the little girl peddled about town on Saturday afternoons. And now the child, though she must be thirty or thereabouts, had kept a certain grace of her youth, a wistful prettiness, a girlish unmarriedness, that marked her as an old maid by accident or choice, not by nature's decree.

He wondered if she, at least, would pay him the compliment of recognition. She made no sign of it as she approached. As she passed he lifted his hat.

“Isn't this Miss Phoebe Carew?”

Wakefield women were not in danger from strangers' advances; she paused without alarm and answered with an inquiring smile:

“Yes.”

“You don't remember me?”

She studied him. “I seem to, and yet—”

“I'm Luke Shelby.”

“Luke Shelby! Oh yes! Why, how do you do?” She gave him her beautiful hand, but she evidently lacked the faintest inkling of his identity. Time had erased from recollection the boy who used to take her sliding on his sled, the boy who used to put on her skates for her, the boy who used to take her home on his grocery-wagon sometimes, pretending that he was going her way, just for the benizon of her radiant companionship, her shy laughter.

“I used to live here,” he said, ashamed to be so forgettable. “My mother was—my stepfather was A. J. Stacom, who kept the hardware-store.”

“Oh yes,” she said; “they moved away some years ago, didn't they?”

“Yes; after mother died my stepfather went back to Council Bluffs, where we came from in the first place. I used to go to school with you, Phoebe—er—Miss Carew. Then I drove Spate's delivery-wagon for a while before I went East.”

“Oh yes,” she said; “I think I remember you very well. I'm very glad to see you again, Mr.—Mr. Stacom.”

“Shelby,” he said, and he was so heartsick that he merely lifted his hat and added, “I'm glad to see you looking so well.”

“You're looking well, too,” she said, and smiled the gracious, empty smile one visits on a polite stranger. Then she went her way. In his lonely eyes she moved with a goddess-like grace that made clouds of the uneven pavements where he stumbled as he walked with reverted gaze.

He went back to the hotel lonelier than before, in a greater loneliness than Ulysses felt ending his Odyssey in Ithaca. For, at least, Ulysses was remembered by an old dog that licked his hand.

Once in his room, Shelby sank into a patent rocker of most uncomfortable plush. The inhospitable garishness of a small-town hotel's luxury expelled him from the hateful place, and he resumed the streets, taking, as always, determination from rebuff and vowing within himself:

“I'll make 'em remember me. I'll make the name of Shelby the biggest name in town.”

On the main street he found one lone, bobtailed street-car waiting at the end of its line, its horse dejected with the ennui of its career, the driver dozing on the step.

Shelby decided to review the town from this seedy chariot; but the driver, surly with sleep, opened one eye and one corner of his mouth just enough to inform him that the next “run” was not due for fifteen minutes.

“I'll change that,” said Shelby. “I'll give 'em a trolley, and open cars in summer, too.”

He dragged his discouraged feet back to the hotel and asked when dinner would be served.

“Supper's been ready sence six,” said the clerk, whose agile toothpick proclaimed that he himself had banqueted.

Shelby went into the dining-room. A haughty head waitress, zealously chewing gum, ignored him for a time, then piloted him to a table where he found a party of doleful drummers sparring in repartee with a damsel of fearful and wonderful coiffure.

She detached herself reluctantly and eventually brought Shelby a supper contained in a myriad of tiny barges with which she surrounded his plate in a far-reaching flotilla.

When he complained that his steak was mostly gristle, and that he did not want his pie yet, Hebe answered:

“Don't get flip! Think you're at the Worldoff?”

Poor Shelby's nerves were so rocked that he condescended to complain to the clerk. For answer he got this:

“Mamie's all right. If you don't like our ways, better build a hotel of your own.”

“I guess I will,” said Shelby.

He went to his room to read. The gas was no more than darkness made visible. He vowed to change that, too.

He would telephone to the theater. The telephone-girl was forever in answering, and then she was impudent. Besides, the theater was closed. Shelby learned that there was “a movin'-pitcher show going”! He went, and it moved him to the door.

The sidewalks were full of doleful loafers and loaferesses. Men placed their chairs in the street and smoked heinous tobacco. Girls and women dawdled and jostled to and from the ice-cream-soda fountains.

The streets that night were not lighted at all, for the moon was abroad, and the board of aldermen believed in letting God do all He could for the town. In fact, He did nearly all that the town could show of charm. The trees were majestic, the grass was lavishly spread, the sky was divinely blue by day and angelically bestarred at night.

Shelby compared his boyhood impressions with the feelings governing his mind now that it was adult and traveled. He felt that he had grown, but that the town had stuck in the mire. He felt an ambition to lift it and enlighten it. Like the old builder who found Rome brick and left it marble, Shelby determined that the Wakefield which he found of plank he should leave at least of limestone. Everything he saw displeased him and urged him to reform it altogether, and he said:

“I'll change all this. And they'll love me for it.”

And he did. But they—did they?

III

One day a greater than Shelby came to Wakefield, but not to stay. It was no less than the President of these United States swinging around the circle in an inspection of his realm, with possibly an eye to the nearing moment when he should consent to re-election. As his special train approached each new town the President studied up its statistics so that he might make his speech enjoyable by telling the citizens the things they already knew. He had learned that those are the things people most like to hear.

His encyclopædia informed him that Wakefield had a population of about fifteen thousand. He could not know how venerable an estimate this was, for Wakefield was still fifteen thousand—now and forever, fifteen thousand and insuperable.

The President had a mental picture of just what such a town of fifteen thousand would look like, and he wished himself back in the White House.

He was met at the train by the usual entertainment committee, which in this case coincided with the executive committee of the Wide-a-Wakefield Club. It had seemed just as well to these members to elect themselves as anybody else.

Mr. Pettibone, the town's most important paper-hanger, was again chairman after some lapses from office. Joel Spate, the Bon-Ton Grocer, was once more secretary, after having been treasurer twice and president once. The One-Price Emporium, however, was now represented by the younger Forshay, son of the founder, who had gone to the inevitable Greenwood at the early age of sixty-nine. Soyer, the swell tailor, had yielded his place to the stateliest man in town, Amasa Harbury, president of the Wakefield Building and Loan Association. And Eberhart, of the Furniture Palace, had been supplanted by Gibson Shoals, the bank cashier.

To the President's surprise the railroad station proved to be, instead of the doleful shed usual in those parts, a graceful edifice of metropolitan architecture. He was to ride in an open carriage, of course, drawn by the two spanking dapples which usually drew the hearse when it was needed. But this was tactfully kept from the President.

There had been some bitterness over the choice of the President's companions in the carriage, since it was manifestly impossible for the entire committee of seven to pile into the space of four, though young Forshay, who had inherited his father's gift of humor, volunteered to ride on the President's lap or hold him on his.

The extra members were finally consoled by being granted the next carriage, an equipage drawn by no less than the noble black geldings usually attached to the chief mourners' carriage.

As the President was escorted to his place he remarked that a trolley-car was waiting at the station.

“I see that Wakefield boasts an electric line,” he beamed.

“Yes,” said Pettibone, “that's some of Shelby's foolishness.”

A look from Spate silenced him, but the President had not caught the slip.

The procession formed behind the town band, whose symphony suffered somewhat from the effort of the musicians to keep one eye on the music and throw the other eye backward at the great visitor.

“What a magnificent building!” said the President as the parade turned a corner. Nobody said anything, and the President read the name aloud. “The Shelby House. A fine hotel!” he exclaimed, as he lifted his hat to the cheers from the white-capped chambermaids and the black-coated waiters in the windows. They were male waiters.

“And the streets are lighted by electricity! And paved with brick!” the President said. “Splendid! Splendid! There must be very enterprising citizens in Gatesville—I mean Wakefield.” He had visited so many towns!

“That's a handsome office-building,” was his next remark. “It's quite metropolitan.” The committee vouchsafed no reply, but they could see that he was reading the sign:

THE SHELBY BLOCK: SHELBY INDEPENDENT TELEPHONE COMPANY SHELBY'S PARADISE POWDER COMPANY SHELBY ARTESIAN WELL COMPANY SHELBY PASTIME PARK COMPANY SHELBY OPERA HOUSE COMPANY SHELBY STREET RAILWAY COMPANY

The committee was not used to chatting with Presidents, and even the practical Pettibone, who had voted against him, had an awe of him in the flesh. He decided to vote for him next time; it would be comforting to be able to say, “Oh yes, I know the President well; I used to take long drives with him—once.”

There were heartaches in the carriage as the President, who commented on so many things, failed to comment on the banner of welcome over Pettibone's shop, painted by Pettibone's own practical hand; or the gaily bedighted Bon-Ton Grocery with the wonderful arrangement of tomato-cans into the words, “Welcome to Wakefield.” The Building and Loan Association had stretched a streamer across the street, too, and the President never noticed it. His eyes and tongue were caught away by the ornate structure of the opera-house.

“Shelby Opera House. So many things named after Mr. Shelby. Is he the founder of the city or—or—”

“No, just one of the citizens,” said Pettibone.

“I should be delighted to meet him.”

Three votes fell from the Presidential tree with a thud.

Had the committee been able to imagine in advance how Shelbyisms would obtrude everywhere upon the roving eye of the visitor, whose one aim was a polite desire to exclaim upon everything exclaimable, they might have laid out the line of march otherwise.

But it was too late to change now, and they grew grimmer and grimmer as the way led to the stately pleasure-dome which Shelby Khan had decreed and which imported architects and landscape-gardeners had established.

Here were close-razored lawns and terraces, a lake with spouting fountains, statues of twisty nymphs, glaring, many-antlered stags and couchant lions, all among cedar-trees and flower-beds whose perfumes saluted the Presidential nostril like a gentle hurrah.

Emerging through the trees were the roofs, the cupola and ivy-bowered windows of the home of Shelby, most homeless at home. For, after all his munificence, Wakefield did not like him. The only tribute the people had paid him was to boost the prices of everything he bought, from land to labor, from wall-paper to cabbages. And now on the town's great day he had not been included in any of the committees of welcome. He had been left to brood alone in his mansion like a prince in ill favor exiled to his palace.

He did not know that his palace had delighted even the jaded eye of the far-traveled First Citizen. He only knew that his fellow-townsmen sneered at it with dislike.

Shelby was never told by the discreet committeemen in the carriage that the President had exclaimed on seeing his home:

“Why, this is magnificent! This is an estate! I never dreamed that—er—Wakefield was a city of such importance and such wealth. And whose home is this?”

Somebody groaned, “Shelby's.”

“Ah yes; Shelby's, of course. So many things here are Shelby's. You must be very proud of Mr. Shelby. Is he there, perhaps?”

“That's him, standing on the upper porch there, waving his hat,” Pettibone mumbled.

The President waved his hat at Shelby.

“And the handsome lady is his wife, perhaps?”

“Yes, that's Mrs. Shelby,” mumbled Spate. “She was Miss Carew. Used to teach school here.”

Phoebe Shelby was clinging to her husband's side. There were tears in her eyes and her hands squeezed mute messages upon his arm, for she knew that his many-wounded heart was now more bitterly hurt than in all his knowledge of Wakefield. He was a prisoner in disgrace gazing through the bars at a festival.

He never knew that the President suggested stopping a moment to congratulate him, and that it was his own old taskmaster Spate who ventured to say that the President could meet him later. Spate could rise to an emergency; the other committeemen thanked him with their eyes.

As the carriage left the border of the Shelby place the President turned his head to stare, for it was beautiful, ambitiously beautiful. And something in the silent attitude of the owner and his wife struck a deeper note in the noisy, gaudy welcome of the other citizens.

“Tell me about this Mr. Shelby,” said the President.

Looks were exchanged among the committee. All disliked the task, but finally Spate broke the silence.

“Well, Mr. President, Shelby is a kind of eccentric man. Some folks say he's cracked. Used to drive a delivery-wagon for me. Ran away and tried his hand at nearly everything. Finally, him and his two brothers invented a kind of washing-powder. It was like a lot of others, but they knew how to push it. Borrowed money to advertise it big. Got it started till they couldn't have stopped it if they'd tried. Shelby decided to come back here and establish a branch factory. That tall chimney is it. No smoke comin' out of it to-day. He gave all the hands a holiday in your honor, Mr. President.”

The President said: “Well, that's mighty nice of him. So he's come back to beautify his old home, eh? That's splendid—a fine spirit. Too many of us, I'm afraid, forget the old places when ambition carries us away into new scenes. Mr. Shelby must be very popular here.”

There was a silence. Mr. Pettibone was too honest, or too something, to let the matter pass.

“Well, I can't say as to that, Mr. President. Shelby's queer. He's very pushing. You can't drive people more 'n so fast. Shelby is awful fussy. Now, that trolley line—he put that in, but we didn't need it.”

“Not but what Wakefield is enterprising,” Spate added, anxiously.

Pettibone nodded and went on: “People used to think the old bobtailed horse-car—excuse my language—wasn't much, but the trolley-cars are a long way from perfect. Service ain't so very good. People don't ride on 'em much, because they don't run often enough.”

The President started to say, “Perhaps they can't run oftener because people don't ride on 'em enough,” but something counseled him to silence, and Pettibone continued:

“Same way with the electric light. People that had gas hated to change. He made it cheap, but it's a long way from perfect. He put in an independent telephone. The old one wasn't much good and it was expensive. Now we can have telephones at half the old price. But result is, you've got to have two, or you might just as well not have one. Everybody you want to talk to is always on the other line.”

The President nodded. He understood the ancient war between the simple life and the strenuous. He wished he had left the subject unopened, but Pettibone had warmed to the theme.

“Shelby built an opery-house and brought some first-class troupes here. But this is a religious town, and people don't go much to shows. In the first place, we don't believe in 'em; in the second place, we've been bit by bad shows so often. So his opery-house costs more 'n it takes in.

“Then he laid out the Pastime Park—tried to get up games and things; but the vacant lots always were good enough for baseball. He tried to get people to go out in the country and play golf, too; but it was too much like following the plow. Folks here like to sit on their porches when they're tired.

“He brought an automobile to town—scared most of the horses to death. Our women folks got afraid to drive because the most reliable old nags tried to climb trees whenever Shelby came honking along. He built two or three monuments to famous citizens, but that made the families of other famous citizens jealous.

“He built that big home of his, but it only makes our wives envious. It's so far out that the society ladies can't call much. Besides, they feel uneasy with all that glory.

“Mrs. Shelby has a man in a dress-suit to open the door. The rest of us—our wives answer the door-bell themselves. Our folks are kind of afraid to invite Mr. and Mrs. Shelby to their parties for fear they'll criticize; so Mrs. Shelby feels as if she was deserted.

“She thinks her husband is mistreated, too; but—well, Shelby's eccentric. He says we're ungrateful. Maybe we are, but we like to do things our own way. Shelby tried to get us to help boost the town, as he calls it. He offered us stock in his ventures, but we've got taken in so often that—well, once bit is twice shy, you know, Mr. President. So Wakefield stands just about where she did before Shelby came here.”

“Not but what Wakefield is enterprising,” Mr. Spate repeated.

The President's curiosity overcame his policy. He asked one more question:

“But if you citizens didn't help Mr. Shelby, how did he manage all these—improvements, if I may use the word?”

“Did it all by his lonesome, Mr. President. His income was immense. But he cut into it something terrible. His brothers in the East began to row at the way he poured it out. When he began to draw in advance they were goin' to have him declared incompetent. Even his brothers say he's cracked. Recently they've drawn in on him. Won't let him spend his own money.”

A gruesome tone came from among Spate's spectacles and whiskers:

“He won't last long. Health's giving out. His wife told my wife, the other day, he don't sleep nights. That's a bad sign. His pride is set on keepin' everything going, though, and nothing can hold him. He wants the street-cars to run regular, and the telephone to answer quick, even if the town don't support 'em. He's cracked—there's nothing to it.”

Amasa Harbury, of the Building and Loan Association, leaned close and spoke in a confidential voice:

“He's got mortgages on 'most everything, Mr. President. He's borrowed on all his securities up to the hilt. Only yesterday I had to refuse him a second mortgage on his house. He stormed around about how much he'd put into it. I told him it didn't count how much you put into a hole, it was how much you could get out. You can imagine how much that palace of his would bring in this town on a foreclosure sale—about as much as a white elephant in a china-shop.”

“Not but what Wakefield is enterprising,” insisted Spate.

The lust for gossip had been aroused and Pettibone threw discretion to the winds.

“Shelby was hopping mad because we left him off the committee of welcome, but we thought we'd better stick to our own crowd of represent'ive citizens. Shelby don't really belong to Wakefield, anyway. Still, if you want to meet him, it can be arranged.”

“Oh no,” said the President. “Don't trouble.”

And he was politic—or politician—enough to avoid the subject thenceforward. But he could not get Shelby out of his mind that night as his car whizzed on its way. To be called crazy and eccentric and to be suspected, feared, resisted by the very people he longed to lead—Presidents are not unaware of that ache of unrequited affection.

The same evening Shelby and Phoebe Shelby looked out on their park. The crowds that had used it as a vantage-ground for the pageant had all vanished, leaving behind a litter of rubbish, firecrackers, cigar stubs, broken shrubs, gouged terraces. Not one of them had asked permission, had murmured an apology or a word of thanks.

For the first time Phoebe Shelby noted that her husband did not take new determination from rebuff. His resolution no longer made a springboard of resistance. He seemed to lean on her a little.

IV

The perennially empty cutlery-works gave the Wide-a-Wakefield Club no rest. Year after year the anxiously awaited census renewed the old note of fifteen thousand and denied the eloquent argument of increased population. The committee in its letters continued to refer to Wakefield as “thriving” rather than as “growing.” Its ingeniously evasive circulars finally roused a curiosity in Wilmer Barstow, a manufacturer of refrigerators, dissatisfied with the taxes and freight rates of the city of Clayton.

Barstow was the more willing to leave Clayton because he had suffered there from that reward which is more unkind than the winter wind. He loved a woman and paid court to her, sending her flowers at every possible excuse and besetting her with gifts.

She was not much of a woman—her very lover could see that; but he loved her in his own and her despite. She was unworthy of his jewels as of his infatuation, yet she gave him no courtesy for his gifts. She behaved as if they bored her; yet he knew no other way to win her. The more indifference she showed the more he tried to dazzle her.

At last he found that she was paying court herself to a younger man—a selfish good-for-naught who made fun of her as well as of Barstow, and who borrowed money from her as well as from Barstow.

When Barstow fully realized that the woman had made him not only her own booby, but the town joke as well, he could not endure her or the place longer. He cast about for an escape. But he found his factory no trifling baggage to move.

It was on such fertile soil that one of the Wide-a-Wakefield circulars fell.

It chimed so well with Barstow's mood that he decided at least to look the town over.

He came unannounced to make his own observations, like the spies sent into Canaan. The trolley-car that met his train was rusty, paintless, forlorn, untenanted. He took a ramshackle hack to the best hotel. Its sign-board bore this legend: “The Palace, formerly Shelby House—entirely new management.”

He saw his baggage bestowed and went out to inspect the factory building described to him. The cutlery-works proved smaller than his needs, and it had a weary look. Not far away he found a far larger factory, idle, empty, closed. The sign declared it to be the Wakefield Branch of the Shelby Paradise Powder Company. He knew the prosperity of that firm and wondered why this branch had been abandoned.

In the course of time the trolley-car overtook him, and he boarded it as a sole passenger.

The lonely motorman was loquacious and welcomed Barstow as the Ancient Mariner welcomed the wedding guest. He explained that he made but few trips a day and passengers were fewer than trips. The company kept it going to hold the franchise, for some day Wakefield would reach sixteen thousand and lift the hoodoo.

The car passed an opera-house, with grass aspiring through the chinks of the stone steps leading to the boarded-up doors.

The car passed the Shelby Block; the legend, “For Rent, apply to Amasa Harbury,” hid the list of Shelby enterprises.

The car grumbled through shabby streets to the outskirts of the town, where it sizzled along a singing wire past the drooping fences, the sagging bleachers, and the weedy riot of what had been a pleasure-ground. A few dim lines in the grass marked the ghost of a baseball diamond, a circular track, and foregone tennis-courts.

Barstow could read on what remained of the tottering fence:

HELBY'S PAST ARK

When the car had reached the end of the line Barstow decided to walk back to escape the garrulity of the motorman, who lived a lonely life, though he was of a sociable disposition.

Barstow's way led him shortly to the edge of a curious demesne, or rather the débris of an estate. A chaos of grass and weeds thrust even through the rust of the high iron fence about the place. Shrubs that had once been shapely grew raggedly up and swept down into the tall and ragged grass. A few evergreen trees lifted flowering cones like funeral candles in sconces. What had been a lake with fountains was a great, cracked basin of concrete tarnished with scabious pools thick with the dead leaves of many an autumn.

Barstow entered a fallen gate and walked along paths where his feet slashed through barbaric tangles clutching at him like fingers. As he prowled, wondering what splendor this could have been which was so misplaced in so dull a town and drooping into so early a neglect, birds took alarm and went crying through the branches. There were lithe escapes through the grass, and from the rim of the lake ugly toads plounced into the pool and set the water-spiders scurrying on their frail catamarans.

Two bronze stags towered knee-deep in verdure; one had a single antler, the other none. A pair of toothless lions brooded over their lost dignity. Between their disconsolate sentry, mounted flight on flight of marble steps to the house of the manor. It lay like an old frigate storm-shattered and flung aground to rot. The hospitable doors were planked shut, the windows, too; the floors of the verandas were broken and the roof was everywhere sunken and insecure.

At the portal had stood two nymphs, now almost classic with decay. One of them, toppling helplessly, quenched her bronze torch in weeds. Her sister stood erect in grief like a daughter of Niobe wept into stone.

The scene somehow reminded Barstow of one of Poe's landscapes. It was the corpse of a home. Eventually he noticed a tall woman in black, seated on a bench and gazing down the terraces across the dead lake. Barstow was tempted to ask her whose place this had been and what its history was, but her mien and her crêpe daunted him.

He made his way out of the region, looking back as he went. When he approached the most neighboring house a grocery-wagon came flying down the road. Before it stopped the slanted driver was off the seat and half-way across the yard. In a moment he was back again. Barstow called out:

“Whose place is that?”

“Shelby's.”

“Did he move away?”

But the horse was already in motion, and the youth had darted after, leaping to the side of the seat and calling back something which Barstow could not hear.

Shelby, who had given the town everything he could, had even endowed it with a ruins.

When Barstow had reached the hotel again he went in to his supper. A head waitress, chewing gum, took him to a table where a wildly coiffed damsel brought him a bewildering array of most undesirable foods in a flotilla of small dishes.

After supper Barstow, following the suit of the other guests, took a chair on the sidewalk, for a little breeze loafed along the hot street. Barstow's name had been seen upon the hotel register and the executive committee of the Wide-a-Wakefield Club waited upon him in an august body.

Mr. Pettibone introduced himself and the others. They took chairs and hitched them close to Barstow, while they poured out in alternate strains the advantages of Wakefield. Barstow listened politely, but the empty factory and the dismantled home of Shelby haunted him and made a dismal background to their advertisements.

It was of the factory that he spoke first:

“The building you wrote me about and offered me rent-free looks a little small and out of date for our plant. I saw Shelby's factory empty. Could I rent that at a reasonable figure, do you suppose?”

The committee leaped at the idea with enthusiasm. Spate laughed through his beard:

“Lord, I reckon the company would rent it to you for almost the price of the taxes.”

Then he realized that this was saying just a trifle too much. They began to crawfish their way out. But Barstow said, with unconviction:

“There's only one thing that worries me. Why did Shelby close up his Paradise Powder factory and move away?”

Pettibone urged the reason hastily: “His brothers closed it up for him. They wouldn't stand any more of his extravagant nonsense. They shut down the factory and then shut down on him, too.”

“So he gave up his house and moved away?” said Barstow.

“He gave up his house because he couldn't keep it up,” said Amasa Harbury. “Taxes were pretty steep and nobody would rent it, of course. It don't belong in a town like Wakefield. Neither did Shelby.”

“So he moved away?”

“Moved away, nothin',” sneered Spate. “He went to a boardin'-house and died there. Left his wife a lot of stock in a broken-down street-car line, and a no-good electric-light company, and an independent telephone system that the regulars gobbled up. She's gone back to teachin' school again. We used our influence to get her old job back. We didn't think we ought to blame her for the faults of Shelby.”

“And what had Shelby done?”

They told him in their own way—treading on one another's toes in their anxiety; shutting one another up; hunching their chairs together in a tangle as if their slanders were wares they were trying to sell.

But about all that Barstow could make of the matter was that Shelby had been in much such case as his own. He had been hungry for human gratitude, and had not realized that it is won rather by accepting than by bestowing gifts.

Barstow sat and smoked glumly while the committee clattered. He hardly heard what they were at such pains to emphasize. He was musing upon a philosophy of his father's:

“There's an old saying, 'Never look a gift horse in the mouth.' But sayings and doings are far apart. If you can manage to sell a man a horse he'll make the best of the worst bargain; he'll nurse the nag and feed him and drive him easy and brag about his faults. He'll overlook everything from spavin to bots; he'll learn to think that a hamstrung hind leg is the poetry of motion. But a gift horse—Lord love you! If you give a man a horse he'll look him in the mouth and everywhere else. The whole family will take turns with a microscope. They'll kick because he isn't run by electricity, and if he's an Arabian they'll roast him because he holds his tail so high. If you want folks to appreciate anything don't give it to 'em; make 'em work for it and pay for it—double if you can.”

       * * * * *

Shelby had mixed poetry with business, had given something for nothing; had paid the penalty.

 
 
 

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