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Parmelee’s “Spread” by Ralph Henry Barbour

 

The room was old-fashioned, a dark-walled parallelogram, the farthest end of which was seldom reached by the light which crept through the two small-paned windows. Overhead four huge rafters passed from side to side.

The ledges beneath the windows formed wide seats, which were upholstered in somber corduroy. The mantel above the large fireplace was narrow, high, a mere shelf, designed a century ago to hold the twin candlesticks and the snuffers on their silver tray.

The occupant had wisely confined the furnishings to old-style mahogany in quaint Chippendale forms. The green-shaded student-lamp on the desk under the heavy bronze chandelier gave almost the only modern touch. Yet with all its gloom, the apartment was singularly homelike and restful.

Perhaps this thought occurred to Parmelee, ’00, as he closed the door behind him, for his gaze swept slowly over the room, and he sighed once as he removed his cap and gown and laid them carefully aside. He crossed to one of the windows, and sank back dispiritedly against the cushions.

Parmelee’s face, seen in the warm light of a late June afternoon, lost something of its usual paleness, but the serious lines about the mouth and the pathos of the deep-set brown eyes were accentuated.

The face, on the whole, was strikingly handsome. The forehead under the dark hair was broad and high; the nose straight and fairly large; the mouth, despite its grave lines, seemed made for smiles; the chin was full and firm. Yet the expression now was one of weariness and melancholy.

Through the open windows came faintly the strains of a waltz from the band in the college yard. Over the top of a vividly green chestnut-tree the western sky was beginning to glow with the colors of sunset. Now and then a student in cap and gown, or the more brilliant attire appropriate to class-day, hurried past the house; but for the most the little street was deserted and still.

Parmelee had done his duty. He had conscientiously taken part in all the exercises of the day, excepting only those about the tree. When the procession that had marched about the yard and cheered the buildings had dissolved, he had hurried away to his room, lonesome and downhearted.

Every one seemed so disgustingly happy! Fellows with nice mothers and pretty sisters, cousins or sweethearts appeared to flaunt them before Parmelee’s eyes; fellows hurrying off to somebody’s spread thrust him unceremoniously out of the way with muttered apologies. He was so out of it all! He had no womenfolk to take care of, no friends to greet, no spreads to attend. He was simply a nonentity; merely “Parmelee, that hunchbacked fellow.”

That was Parmelee’s trouble. All his life he had been a “hunchback.” As a boy he had often taken flight before the merciless gibes of his companions, too sick at heart to follow his first impulse to stand and fight.

When he had entered the preparatory school he had enclosed himself in a shell of sensitiveness, and had missed many a friendship that might have been his. At college it had been the same. He believed his deformity to be repellent to others, and credited them with sentiments of distaste or pity, when, as was generally the case, the attractiveness of his countenance made them blind to his defect of form. Naturally fond of athletics, he believed himself barred from them. He made few acquaintances and no friends; no friends, that is, except one.

Philip Schuyler and he had met in their freshman year. Schuyler, refusing to be repelled, had won his way through Parmelee’s defenses, and the two had been inseparable until shortly before the last Christmas recess. Then they had quarreled.

The cause had been such a tiny thing that it is doubtful if either still remembered it. Pride had prevented the reconciliation which should have followed, and the two friends had drifted widely apart.

Parmelee sometimes told himself bitterly that Schuyler had made the quarrel an excuse for ending a companionship of which he was wearied. Schuyler had quickly found new friends; Parmelee simply retired more deeply than before into his shell. It meant more to him, that quarrel, than to Schuyler. He had lost the only real friend of his life. The wound was a deep one, and it refused to heal. On this day it ached more than it had for months.

Parmelee glanced at his watch, suddenly realizing that he was hungry. He had missed his lunch. It was yet far from the dinner-hour, he found.

Then he remembered that his boarding-house would be practically given over that evening to a spread. He shrank from the idea of facing the throng that would be present. The restaurants would be crowded. A solitary dinner in town was not attractive. The only alternative was to go dinnerless, or—yes, he could have something here in his room. He smiled a trifle bitterly.

“It will be Parmelee’s spread,” he said.

He went out and turned his steps toward the avenue. In the store he surprised the clerk by the magnitude of his order. The whimsical idea of having a spread of his own grew upon him. The expense meant nothing to him.

When he was ready to return, the bundle of his purchases was so large that for the moment he was dismayed. Then he took it in his arms and retraced his steps.

Back in his room, the first difficulty that confronted him was the lack of a tablecloth, but this was presently solved by spreading two immense white bath-towels over the study table. Then he began the distribution of the viands.

The matter of table decoration was something of a problem, and in the solving of it he forgot his depression, and even whistled a tune while trying to decide whether to bank all the oranges together or to distribute them in a sort of border about the edge of the table.

A few plates would have been an aid, but it was possible to do without them. The olives occasioned much bother by refusing to emerge on the point of the knife-blade from the narrow neck of their tall bottle. This difficulty was at last obviated by pouring off the brine and emptying the olives upon a sheet of letter-paper. The canned meats and the glasses of jellies and the tins of crackers he arranged with geometrical precision, forming stars, circles and diamonds in outline. The oranges formed a pyramid in the center of the board, topped with a bunch of vivid radishes.

Parmelee stood off and viewed the result, at first critically, then with approval. Displacing the big armchair, he shoved the banquet-table up to one of the windows, and set a fiddle-backed mahogany chair before it. The effect was incongruous, and he chuckled aloud.

“You’re the loneliest-looking chair I ever saw!” he exclaimed. “Here, this is better.”

He seized another chair and placed it at the opposite side of the table.

“There, that balances. Besides, one should always make provision for the unexpected guest. Perchance, the president or the dean may drop in.”

He gave a final look at the repast and disappeared into the bedroom at the back. Presently the sound of splashing water told its own story.

At that moment the house door slammed, footsteps sounded in the hall, and there was a knock at Parmelee’s door. But Parmelee, rioting at the basin in the back room, heard nothing. After an interval the knocking was repeated. Then the knob turned and the door opened.

The visitor was a very erect, white-whiskered man of about fifty, possessing a degree of stoutness that set off to the best advantage his well-cut black coat, white waistcoat and gray trousers. His dark eyes gleamed with kindliness and humor.

He held his shining hat and his gloves in his hand, and looked questioningly about the room. Then the sound of Parmelee’s ablutions caught his ear, and he took a step forward.

“Is there any one at home?” he called.

Parmelee, in his shirt-sleeves, the water dripping from the end of his nose, came to the inner doorway, the towel clutched desperately in one hand, and stared with amazement.

“I beg your pardon, sir, for this intrusion,” the visitor said. “I knocked, and receiving no answer, took the liberty of entering unbidden. We old graduates lay claim to many privileges on class-day, you know; nothing is sacred to us.”

He paused. Parmelee grasped the towel more firmly, as if it were a weapon of defense to be used against the invader, and nodded silently. His gaze fell on the banquet, and amazement gave way to dismay.

“I escaped from my wife and daughter after much scheming,” continued the visitor, “in order to slip down here and have a look at this room. I haven’t seen it for—well, not since I graduated, and that was twenty-nine years ago this month.”

“Ah!” Parmelee had found his tongue. “You lived here while in college?”

“Four years. After I entered the law school I roomed in town. But don’t let me disturb you. I’ll just glance round a moment, if I may.”

Parmelee’s courtesy came to the surface again. The visitor’s designs were plainly above suspicion. It was very awkward, but——

“Certainly, sir; just make yourself at home. If you’ll pardon me for a moment, I’ll get my coat on.”

The visitor bowed deprecatingly, and Parmelee disappeared again. He reentered the study a moment later, to find that the visitor had laid aside his hat and gloves, and, with hands clasped behind him, was looking from a window across the vista of trees and roofs at the sunset sky. He turned as Parmelee approached, sighed, smiled apologetically, and waved a hand toward the view.

“I have just accomplished a wonderful feat,” he said. “I have wiped out a quarter of a century.”

Parmelee smiled politely. “I presume you find things much changed?” he asked.

“Yes, yes; but not here. That view is almost the same as it was when I sat in that window there, studying, reading, dreaming, just as we all will when we’re young; just as I dare say you have done many times.”

“But I fancy, sir, your dreams came true.”

“My boy, none of our dreams ever come true just as we dream them. They couldn’t; they are much too grand. I have nothing to complain of and much to be happy for, but”—he shook his head, smiling wistfully—“I’m not the hero of those dreams.”

“I suppose it’s idle work, picturing the future, dreaming of the great things we’re going to do,” answered Parmelee, soberly; “but—it’s hard not to.”

“No, no, don’t think that!” The visitor laid a hand for a moment on Parmelee’s shoulder, then darted a quick look of surprise at the place his fingers had touched. Parmelee saw it, and a wave of color dyed his face. But the other continued after a pause that was almost imperceptible. “Don’t think that, my boy. Life wouldn’t be half what it is without dreams. And who knows? Perhaps yours are destined to come true. I hope they will.”

“They never have,” said Parmelee, bitterly.

The older man smiled. “But there’s time yet.” He turned and walked slowly about the apartment, nodding his head now and then, viewing the dark rafters as he might have viewed old friends, and putting his head in the bedroom door, but declining Parmelee’s invitation to enter.

Reminiscences came to his mind, and he told them lightly, entertainingly. He stood for several moments in front of the empty fireplace, and sighed again as he turned away.

He moved toward where he had laid his hat and gloves. “I left word with my wife to tell my son to come here for me, but I don’t see him.” He picked up his hat and looked out into the street. “He took part in the tree exercises; he would have to change his clothes afterward, and that would take some time. I dare say if I walk up the street I shall meet him.”

Parmelee struggled in silence with his reserve; then he said:

“I—I wish you’d wait here for him, sir. You see, it’s just possible that you might miss him if you went.”

“But you’re certain I sha’n’t be in the way? Your guests will not arrive for a while?”

“I’m not expecting any one, sir.”

“Indeed!” The visitor glanced at the banquet and looked puzzled. “Pardon me; I thought you were giving a small spread. I shall be very glad to remain if I’m not in your way.”

He laid aside his hat and took a seat. Parmelee retired to the window and frowned at the banquet. Of course he had not been asked to explain it, but no other course seemed possible; the situation was ridiculous. He would make a clean breast of it. Somehow it did not seem difficult to tell things to the kind-faced stranger.

“I dare say you think I’m crazy,” he said, “with all that stuff spread out there and—and nobody coming, but—” And then he explained things, although not very lucidly, for he was disturbed by a realization of the absurdity of the affair. But the visitor seemed to understand, and when Parmelee had ended, he exclaimed, with concern:

“Why, then I’ve been keeping you from your supper! And no lunch, you say? I’d no idea, I assure you—” He seized his hat again. Parmelee sprang to his feet.

“No, no, I’m not in the least hungry! That is, I’m in no hurry.”

The older man hesitated.

“But if you’ve had no lunch, you must be starved! Indeed, I’m sure you must be! I can appreciate your condition in a measure, for my own lunch was a sorry affair, although I did get a few bites. Don’t let me keep you a moment longer.”

“But—but—” exclaimed Parmelee. The visitor paused with his hand on the door-knob. “Perhaps—you must be hungry yourself, and—if you wouldn’t mind the lack of knives and forks—and plates—I’d be awfully glad——”

“Well, really now, I’ve half a mind to accept,” laughed the other. “The truth is, I’m as hungry as a bear. These boarding-houses on class-day—” He shook his head expressively. “You are sure I’m not taking some one else’s place?”

“No, indeed,” answered Parmelee. “The fact is, I set that chair there for you half an hour ago.”

“For me?” inquired the visitor.

“Well, for the unexpected guest. You see, sir, the one chair looked so lonely. Have you room enough? Shall I move the desk out a bit? It’s awkward having no plates—or forks—or anything. If you will take this penknife, sir? And—wait a moment! The very thing!”

Parmelee excitedly seized two old blue plates from over the mantel, dusted them on a corner of the nearest bath-towel, and presented one to the guest.

“Queer I didn’t think of these, isn’t it? I think you’ll find that sliced chicken very fair. Do you eat olives? I’ve never tried cold Saratoga chips myself, but they look rather good.”

He proffered one article after another in a very fever of hospitality. In his eagerness he distributed the olives impartially over the whole board and brought the pièce de résistance, the pyramid of oranges, tumbling into ruins.

The guest laid down his pocket-knife and looked gravely across at his host.

“Is—is anything the matter?” faltered Parmelee.

“I must refuse to go on until I see you eating something.”

“Oh!” Parmelee blushed and seized a tin of potted turkey at random. After that the banquet progressed finely. The unexpected guest did full justice to the repast, and the unaccustomed host remembered his own hunger and satisfied it. More than that, he forgot his shyness and was radiantly happy. And after a while, when the last of the strawberries had disappeared, he suddenly found himself telling, in the most natural way in the world, things that he had never told any one before, except, perhaps, Philip Schuyler. He stopped short in the middle of a sentence in sudden embarrassment.

“And so your deformity, such a little thing as it is, has worked all this—this misery?” mused the guest. “Dear, dear, such a pity, my boy, so unnecessary!”

“Unnecessary?” faltered Parmelee.

“Surely. You’ve been so mistaken when you have credited all kinds of unpleasant sentiments to people. They can’t care any the less for you because your back is not as straight as theirs. The fault has been yours, my boy; you haven’t given people a chance to get near to you. You’ve held them off at arm’s length all your life. Take my advice. After this go out among them; forget your suspicions, and see for yourself if I’m not right. When God put a hump between your shoulders he made up for it in some other way, you may depend upon that. And although I’ve known you but an hour, I think I know wherein the Lord has made it up to you. But I’m not going to tell you; it might make you vain.”

Parmelee raised his own eyes to the smiling ones across the table.

“I don’t think you need have any apprehensions on that score, sir,” he said, a trifle unsteadily.

“Well, perhaps not. I dare say you need a little more vanity. But think over what I’ve said, and if you can, act on it.”

“I will,” answered the other, earnestly. “And I’m—I’m very grateful. I don’t think I ever—looked at it quite that way, you see.”

“I’m certain you never have. And another thing; I wouldn’t be too quick to bring in a verdict in the case of that friend you’ve told me of. I think when you learn the truth you’ll find you’ve done him an injustice. And forgive me if I hurt you, my boy, but I think you’ve been more to blame than he has. It seems to me that you were the one to take the first step toward reconciliation. Well, I really must be going to hunt up my family. They’ll think I’m lost. I don’t know what’s happened to Philip, I’m sure.”

“Philip?” asked Parmelee, quickly.

“My son,” answered the visitor, proudly. “He graduates this spring. Philip Schuyler. Perhaps you’ve met him?”

“I——”

There was a knock at the door. Parmelee drew himself up very straight, perhaps to give the lie to the pallor of his face.

“Come in!” he called, and the door swung open.

The youth who confronted them looked with white, set face from one to the other. There was an instant of awkward silence. Then, “Father!” he exclaimed, in a low voice.

“Why, Philip, what’s the matter?” Parmelee’s guest moved quickly to the door. “Did you think I was lost?”

The son laughed uneasily.

“I didn’t know you were coming here; I only learned it from mother a few minutes ago.” It sounded like an apology, and the older man looked apprehensively from his son to his host.

“But was there—any reason why I shouldn’t have come here, Phil?”

Philip Schuyler glanced from his father to Parmelee’s set face, then dropped his eyes.

“Of course not, sir,” he replied. “It was only that I didn’t know but I’d miss you. Such a crowd in town!” he muttered.

“That’s all right, then,” said his father. “And now I want to make you acquainted with a friend of mine. I’ve only had the honor of calling him such for an hour or so; but two persons can become pretty well acquainted in that time, especially over the table,” he added, smiling. “Phil, this is—but, dear me, I don’t know your name!”

“John Parmelee,” answered his host.

“Ah, Phil, this is Mr. Parmelee, who has been exceedingly kind and has ministered to my wants, outward and inward. I want you to know him. Somehow I have an idea you two youngsters will get on together. Mr. Parmelee, this is my son, Philip.”

Philip bowed without moving from his place at the door. Parmelee gave a gulp and strode forward, his hand outstretched.

“We—we’re not new acquaintances, Mr. Schuyler,” he said.

“Ah!” The older man watched while the two shook hands constrainedly. “Ah!” he repeated. It was a very expressive word as he uttered it, and Parmelee, glancing at his face, saw that he understood the situation. The two unclasped their hands, and for a moment viewed each other doubtfully.

“If you know each other, that makes simpler the request I was about to make,” said Parmelee’s guest. “I want Mr. Parmelee to come and make us a visit for a week or so, Phil. I think the North Shore sunshine will take some of that white out of his face. Just see if you can’t persuade him, won’t you?” He turned away toward the window. The two at the doorway looked at each other for an instant in silence. Then Philip Schuyler put out his hand, and Parmelee grasped it.

“You’ll come?” asked Philip, softly. Parmelee nodded.

“If you want me.”

“Of course I do! And, I say, Jack, it’s—it’s all right now, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Phil; it was never anything else,” answered Parmelee, a trifle huskily. The two gripped hands silently, smilingly, and turned to Mr. Schuyler.

“Are you ready, dad?”

“Eh? Oh, yes. And, Mr. Parmelee, perhaps you wouldn’t mind joining us? I’d like you to meet Phil’s mother and sister. It—it might be a good chance to test the value of my advice, eh?” Parmelee hesitated for a moment, then took up his gown.

“Thank you, sir, I think it might,” he said.