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White Muscats of Alexandria by Gouverneur Morris

 

My wife, said the Pole, was a long time recovering from the birth of our second child. She was a normal and healthy woman, but Nature has a way in these matters of introducing the unnatural; science, too, mistook the ABCs of the case for the XYZs; and our rooms were for many, many weary weeks like a cage in which the bird has ceased to sing. I did what I could. She was not without books, magazines, and delicacies; but I had to attend to my business; so that time hung about her much like a millstone, and she would say: "All's well with me, Michael, but I am bored—bored—bored."

Our baby was put out to nurse and our older boy, Casimir, who was seven, began, for lack of his mother's care, to come and go as he pleased. The assurance and cheek of street boys began to develop in him. He startled me by his knowledge and his naïveté. But at the same time he was a natural innocent—a little dreamer. In the matters of street life that arise among children he had, as a rule, the worst of it. He was a born believer of all that might be told him. Such children develop into artists or ne'er-do-wells. It was too soon to worry about him. But I was easiest in mind when I saw that he was fashioning anatomies with mud or drawing with chalk upon the sidewalk. "Wait a little," I would say to my wife, "and he will be old enough to go to school."

The happiest times were when it was dark and I had closed the store and could sit by my wife's bed with Casimir on my knee. Then we would talk over pleasant experiences, or I would tell them, who were both American-born, stories of Poland, of fairies, and sieges; or hum for them the tunes to which I had danced in my early youth. But oftenest my wife and I talked, for the child's benefit, of the wonderful city in whose slums we lived—upper central New York with its sables and its palaces. During our courtship and honeymoon we had made many excursions into those quarters of the city and the memory of them was dear. But if I remembered well and with happiness, my wife remembered photographically and with a kind of hectic eagerness in which, I fear, may have been bedded the roots of dissatisfaction. Details of wealth and luxury, and manners that had escaped me, even at the time, were as facile to her as terms of endearment to a lover. "And, oh—do you remember," she would say, "the ruby that the Fifth Avenue bride had at her throat, and how for many, many blocks we thought we could still hear the organ going? That was fun, Michael, wasn't it, when we stood in front of Sherry's and counted how many real sables went in and how many fakes, and noticed that the fake sables were as proudly carried as the real?"

One night she would not eat her supper. "Oh, Michael," she said, "I'm so bored with the same old soup—soup—soup, and the same old porridge—porridge—porridge, and I hate oranges, and apples, and please don't spend any more money on silly, silly, silly me."

"But you must eat," I said. "What would you like? Think of something. Think of something that tempts your appetite. You seem better to-night—almost well. Your cheeks are like cherries and you keep stirring restlessly as if you wanted to get up instead of lying still—still like a woman that has been drowned, all but her great, dear eyes…. Now, make some decision, and were it ambrosia I will get it for you if it is to be had in the city…. Else what are savings-banks for, and thrift, and a knowledge of furs?"

She answered me indirectly.

"Do you remember, Michael," she said, "the butcher shops uptown, the groceries, and the fruit stores, where the commonest articles, the chops, the preserved strawberries, the apples were perfect and beautiful, like works of art? In one window there was a great olive branch in a glass jar—do you remember? And in that fruit store near the Grand Central—do you remember?—we stood in the damp snow and looked in at great clean spaces flooded with white light—and there were baskets of strawberries—right there in January—and wonderful golden and red fruits that we did not know the names of, and many of the fruits peeped out from the bright-green leaves among which they had actually grown—"

"I remember the two prize bunches of grapes," I said.

And my wife said:

"I was coming to those … they must have been eighteen inches long, every grape great and perfect. I remember you said that such grapes looked immortal. It was impossible to believe they could ever rot—there was a kind of joyous frostiness—we went in and asked a little man what kind of grapes they were, and he answered like a phonograph, without looking or showing politeness: 'Black Hamburgs and White Muscats of Alexandria'—your old Sienkiewicz never said anything as beautiful as that, 'White Muscats of Alexandria—'"

"Dear little heart," I said. "Childkin, is it the memory of those white grapes that tempts your appetite?"

"Oh, Michael," she exclaimed, clasping her hands over those disappointed breasts into which the milk had not come in sufficiency. "Oh, Michael—they were two dollars and a half a pound—"

"Heart of my heart," I said, "Stag Eyes, it is now late, and there are no such grapes to be had in our part of the city—only the tasteless white grapes that are packed with sawdust into barrels—but in the morning I will go uptown and you shall have your White Muscats of Alexandria."

She put her arms about my neck with a sudden spasm of fervor, and drew my head, that was already gray, down to hers. I remember that in that moment I thought not of passion but of old age, parting, and the grave.

* * * * *

But she would not eat the grapes in my presence. There was to be an orgy, she said, a bacchanalian affair—she was going to place the grapes where she could look at them, and look at them until she could stand the sight no more, when she would fall on them like a wolf on the fold and devour them. She talked morbidly of the grapes—almost neurotically. But, though her fancies did not please my sense of fitness, I only laughed at her, or smiled—for she had been ill a long time.

"But, at least, eat one now," I said, "so that I may see you enjoy it."

"Not even one," she said. "The bunch must be perfect for me to look at until—until I can resist no more. Hang them there, on the foot of the bed by the crook of the stem—is it strong enough to hold them? and then—aren't you going to be very late to your business? And, Michael, I feel better—I do. I shouldn't wonder if you found me up and dressed when you come back."

In your telling American phrase, "there was nothing doing" in my business that morning. It was one of those peaceful, sunny days in January, not cold and no wind stirring. The cheap furs displayed in the window of my shop attracted no attention from the young women of the neighborhood. The young are shallow-minded, especially the women. If a warm day falls in winter they do not stop to think that the next may be cold. Only hats interest them all the year round, and men.

So I got out one of my Cicero books and, placing my chair in a pool of sunshine in the front of the shop, I began to read, for the hundredth time, his comfortable generalities upon old age. But it seemed to me, for the first time, that he was all wrong—that old age is only dreadful, only a shade better than death itself. And this, I suppose, was because I, myself, during those long months of my wife's illness, had turned the corner. The sudden passions of youth had retreated like dragons into their dens. It took more, now, than the worse end of a bargain or the touch of my wife's lips to bring them flaming forth. On our wedding day we had been of an age. Now, after nine years, my heart had changed from a lover's into a father's, while she remained, as it were, a bride. There remained to me, perhaps, many useful years of business, of managing and of saving—enjoyable years. But life—life as I count life—I had lived out. One moment must pass as the next. There could be no more halting—no more moments of bliss so exquisite as to resemble pain. I had reached that point in life when it is the sun alone that matters, and no more the moon.

A shadow fell upon my pool of sunshine and, looking up, I perceived a handsome, flashy young man of the clever, almost Satanic type that is so common below Fourteenth Street; and he stood looking cynically over the cheap furs in my window and working his thin jaws. Then I saw him take, with his right hand, from a bunch that he carried in his left, a great white grape and thrust it into his mouth. They were my grapes, those which I had gone uptown to fetch for my wife. By the fact that there were none such to be had in our neighborhood I might have known them. But the sure proof was a peculiar crook in the stem which I had noticed when I had hung them for my wife at the foot of her bed.

I rose and went quietly out of the shop.

"Happy to show you anything," I said, smiling.

"Don't need anything in the fur line to-day," said he; "much obliged."

"What fine grapes those are," I commented.

"Um," said he, "they call 'em white muskets of Alexander"; and he grimaced.

"Where are such to be had?" I asked.

"Well," he said, "I got these just round the corner; but you'd have to visit some uptown fruit emporium and pay the price."

"So you bought the last bunch?"

"Bought nothin'," he said, and he smiled in a knowing and leering way.

"They were given to me," he said, "by a married woman. I happened to drop in and she happened to have sent her husband uptown to fetch these grapes for her because she's playing sick and works him in more ways than one—but she said the grapes sickened her conscience, and she made me take 'em away."

"So she has a conscience?" I said.

"They all have," said the young man. "Have one?"

I took one of the grapes with a hand that shook, and ate it, and felt the red blood in my veins turn into acid.

There happened to be a man in the neighborhood who had been nibbling after my business for some time. I went to him now and made him a cheap sale for cash. This I deposited with my savings, keeping out a hundred dollars for myself, and put the whole in trust for my wife and children. Then I went away and, after many hardships, established myself in a new place. And, as is often the case with men who have nothing whatsoever to live for and who are sad, I prospered. God was ever presenting me with opportunities and the better ends of bargains.

When fifteen years had passed I returned once more to New York. I had reached a time of life when the possibility of death must be as steadily reckoned with as the processes of digestion. And I wished, before I lay down in the narrow house, to revisit the scenes of my former happiness. I took the same furnished lodging to which we had gone after our wedding. I lay all night, but did not sleep, in our nuptial bed. Alone, but rather in reverence and revery than sadness, I made all those little excursions upon which we had been so happy during the days of our honey-moon. I made a point of feeding the animals in the park, of dining at Claremont—I even stood for a long time before the fruit shop that is near the Grand Central. But I was too old to feel much. So it seemed.

One day I sat on the steps of the lodging-house in the sun. I had been for a long walk and I was very tired, very sick of my mortal coil, very sure that I did not care if the end were to be sleep or life everlasting. Then came, slowly around the corner of the shabby street and toward me, a hansom cab. Its occupant, an alert, very young, eager man, kept glancing here and there as if he were looking for something or some one; for the old East Side street had still its old look, as if all the inhabitants of its houses had rushed out to watch an eclipse of the sun or the approach of a procession—and were patiently and idly awaiting the event.

The children, and even many of the older people, mocked at the young man in the hansom and flung him good-natured insults. But he knew the language of the East Side and returned better than he received. My old heart warmed a little to his young, brightly colored face, his quick, flashing eyes, and his ready repartees. And it seemed to me a pity that, like all the pleasant moments I had known, he, too, must pass and be over.

But his great eyes flashed suddenly upon my face and rested; then he signalled to the driver to stop and, springing out, a big sketch-book under his arm, came toward me with long, frank strides.

"I know it's cheeky as the devil," he began in a quick, cheerful voice, while he had yet some distance to come, "but I can't help it. I've been looking for you for weeks, and—"

"What is it that I can do for you?" I asked pleasantly.

"You can give me your head." He said it with an appealing and delighted smile. "I'm a sort of artist—" he explained.

"Show me," I said, and held out my hands for the sketch-book.

"Nothing but notes in it," he said, but I looked, not swiftly, through all the pages and—for we Poles have an instinct in such matters—saw that the work was good.

"Do you wish to draw me, Master?" I said.

He perceived that I meant the term, and he looked troubled and pleased.

"Will you sit for me?" he asked. "I will—"

But I shook my head to keep him from mentioning money.

"Very cheerfully," I said. "It is easy for the old to sit—especially when, by the mere act of sitting, it is possible for them to become immortal. I have a room two flights up—where you will not be disturbed."

"Splendid!" he said. "You are splendid! Everything's splendid!"

When he had placed me as he wished, I asked him why my head suited him more than another's.

"How do I know?" he said. "Instinct—you seem a cheerful man and yet I have never seen a head and face that stood so clearly for—for—please take me as I am, I don't ever mean to offend—steadiness in sorrow…. I am planning a picture in which there is to be an ol—a man of your age who looks as—as late October would look if it had a face…."

Then he began to sketch me, and, as he worked, he chattered about this and that.

"Funny thing," he said, "I had a knife when I started and it's disappeared."

"Things have that habit," I said.

"Yes," said he, "things and people, and often people disappear as suddenly and completely as things—chin quarter of an inch lower—just so—thank you forever—"

"And what experience have you had with people disappearing?" I asked.
"And you so young and masterful."

"I?" he said. "Why, a very near and dear experience. When I was quite a little boy my own father went to his place of business and was never heard of again from that day to this. But he must have done it on purpose, because it was found that he had put all his affairs into the most regular and explicit order—"

I felt a little shiver, as if I had taken cold.

"And, do you know," here the young man dawdled with his pencil and presently ceased working for the moment, "I've always felt as if I had had a hand in it—though I was only seven. I'd done something so naughty and wrong that I looked forward all day to my father's home-coming as a sinner looks forward to going to hell. My father had never punished me. But he would this time, I knew—and I was terribly afraid and—sometimes I have thought that, perhaps, I prayed to God that my father might never come home. I'm not sure I prayed that—but I have a sneaking suspicion that I did. Anyway, he never came, and, Great Grief! what a time there was. My mother nearly went insane—"

"What had you done?" I asked, forcing a smile, "to merit such terrible punishment?"

The young man blushed.

"Why," he said, "my mother had been quite sick for a long time, and, to tempt her appetite, my father had journeyed 'way uptown and at vast expense bought her a bunch of wonderful white hot-house grapes. I remember she wouldn't eat them at first—just wanted to look at them—and my father hung them for her over the foot of the bed. Well, soon after he'd gone to business she fell asleep, leaving the grapes untouched. They tempted me, and I fell. I wanted to show off, I suppose, before my young friends in the street—there was a girl, Minnie Hopflekoppf, I think her name was, who'd passed me up for an Italian butcher's son. I wanted to show her. I'm sure I didn't mean to eat the things. I'm sure I meant to return with them and hang them back at the foot of the bed."

"Please go on," I managed to say. "This is such a very human page—I'm really excited to know what happened."

"Well, one of those flashy Bowery dudes came loafing along and said: 'Hi, Johnny, let's have a look at the grapes,' I let him take them, in my pride and innocence, and he wouldn't give them back. He only laughed and began to eat them before my eyes. I begged for them, and wept, and told him how my mother was sick and my father had gone 'way uptown to get the grapes for her because there were none such to be had in our neighborhood. And, please, he must give them back because they were White Muscats of Alexandria, very precious, and my father would kill me. But the young man only laughed until I began to make a real uproar. Then he said sharply to shut up, called me a young thief, and said if I said another word he'd turn me over to the police. Then he flung me a fifty-cent piece and went away, munching the grapes. And," the young man finished, "the fifty-cent piece was lead."

Then he looked up from his sketch and, seeing the expression of my face, gave a little cry of delight.

"Great Grief, man!" he cried, "stay as you are—only hold that expression for two minutes!"

But I have held it from that day to this.