The Green Mouse

Robert W. Chambers




In Which a Young Man Arrives at His Last Ditch 
and a Young Girl Jumps Over It

Utterly unequipped for anything except to ornament his environment, the crash in Steel stunned him. Dazed but polite, he remained a passive observer of the sale which followed and which apparently realized sufficient to satisfy every creditor, but not enough for an income to continue a harmlessly idle career which he had supposed was to continue indefinitely. 
      He had never earned a penny; he had not the vaguest idea of how people made money. To do something, however, was absolutely necessary. 
      He wasted some time in finding out just how much aid he might expect from his late father's friends, but when he understood the attitude of society toward a knocked-out gentleman he wisely ceased to annoy society, and turned to the business world. 
      Here he wasted some more time. Perhaps the time was not absolutely wasted, for during that period he learned that he could use nobody who could not use him; and as he appeared to be perfectly useless, except for ornament, and as a business house is not a kindergarten, and furthermore, as he had neither time nor money to attend any school where anybody could teach him anything, it occurred to him to take a day off for minute and thorough self-examination concerning his qualifications and even his right to occupy a few feet of space upon the earth's surface. 
      Four years at Harvard, two more in postgraduate courses, two more in Europe to perfect himself in electrical engineering, and a year at home attempting to invent a wireless apparatus for intercepting and transmitting psychical waves had left him pitifully unfit for wage earning. 
      There remained his accomplishments; but the market was overstocked with assorted time-killers. 
      His last asset was a trivial though unusual talent--a natural manual dexterity cultivated since childhood to amuse himself--something he never took seriously. This, and a curious control over animals, had, as the pleasant years flowed by, become an astonishing skill which was much more than sleight of hand; and he, always as good-humored as well-bred, had never refused to amuse the frivolous, of which he was also one, by picking silver dollars out of space and causing the proper card to fall fluttering from the ceiling. 
      Day by day, as the little money left him melted away, he continued his vigorous mental examination, until the alarming shrinkage in his funds left him staring fixedly at his last asset. Could he use it? Was it an asset, after all? How clever was he? Could he face an audience and perform the usual magician tricks without bungling? A slip by a careless, laughing, fashionable young amateur amusing his social equals at a house party is excusable; a bungle by a hired professional meant an end to hope in that direction. 
      So he rented a suite of two rooms on Central Park West, furnished them with what remained from better days, bought the necessary paraphernalia of his profession, and immured himself for practice before entering upon his contemplated invasion of Newport, Lenox, and Bar Harbor. And one very lovely afternoon in May, when the Park from his windows looked like a green forest, and puff on puff of perfumed air fluttered the curtains at his opened windows, he picked up his gloves and stick, put on his hat, and went out to walk in the Park; and when he had walked sufficiently he sat down on a bench in a flowery, bushy nook on the edge of a bridle path. 
      Few people disturbed the leafy privacy; a policeman sauntering southward noted him, perhaps for future identification. The spectacle of a well- built, well-groomed, and fashionable young man sitting moodily upon a park bench was certainly to be noted. It is not the fashion for fashionable people to sit on park benches unless they contemplate self, as well as social, destruction. 
      So the policeman lingered for a while in the vicinity, but not hearing any revolver shot, presently sauntered on, buck-skinned fist clasped behind his broad back, squinting at a distant social gathering composed entirely of the most exclusive nursemaids. 
      The young man looked up into the pleasant blue above, then his preoccupied gaze wandered from woodland to thicket, where the scarlet glow of Japanese quince mocked the colors of the fluttering scarlet tanagers; where orange-tinted orioles flashed amid tangles of golden Forsythia; and past the shrubbery to an azure corner of water, shimmering under the wooded slope below. 
      That sense of languor and unrest, of despondency threaded by hope which fair skies and sunshine and new leaves bring with the young year to the young, he felt. Yet there was no bitterness in his brooding, for he was a singularly generous young man, and there was no vindictiveness mixed with the memories of his failures among those whose cordial respect for his father had been balanced between that blameless gentleman's wealth and position. 
      A gray squirrel came crawling and nosing through the fresh grass; he caught its eyes, and, though the little animal was plainly bound elsewhere on important business, the young man soon had it curled up on his knee, asleep. 
      For a while he amused himself by using his curious power, alternately waking the squirrel and allowing it to bound off, tail twitching, and then calling it back, slowly but inexorably to climb his trousers and curl up on his knee and sleep an uncanny and deep sleep which might end only at the young man's pleasure. 
      He, too, began to feel the subtle stillness of the drowsing woodland; musing there, caressing his short, crisp mustache, he watched the purple grackle walking about in iridescent solitude, the sun spots waning and glowing on the grass; he heard the soft, garrulous whimper of waterfowl along the water's edge, the stir of leaves above. 
      He thought of various personal matters: his poverty, the low ebb of his balance at the bank, his present profession, his approaching début as an entertainer, the chances of his failure. He thought, too, of the astounding change in his life, the future, vacant of promise, devoid of meaning, a future so utterly new and blank that he could find in it nothing to speculate upon. He thought also, and perfectly impersonally, of a girl whom he had met now and then upon the stairs of the apartment house which he now inhabited. 
      Evidently there had been an ebb in her prosperity; the tumble of a New Yorker's fortune leads from the Avenue to the Eighties, from thence through Morristown, Staten Island, to the West Side. Besides, she painted pictures; he knew the aroma of fixitive, siccative, and burnt sienna; and her studio adjoined his sky drawing-room. 
      He thought of this girl quite impersonally; she resembled a youthful beauty he had known--might still know if he chose; for a man who can pay for his evening clothes need never deny himself the society he was bred to. 
      She certainly did resemble that girl--she had the same bluish violet eyes, the same white and deeply fringed lids, the same free grace of carriage, a trifle too boyish at times--the same firmly rounded, yet slender, figure. 
      "Now, as a matter of fact," he mused aloud, stroking the sleeping squirrel on his knee, "I could have fallen in love with either of those girls--before Copper blew up." 
      Pursuing his innocuous meditation he nodded to himself: "I rather like the poor one better than any girl I ever saw. Doubtless she paints portraits over solar prints. That's all right; she's doing more than I have done yet.... I approve of those eyes of hers; they're like the eyes of that waking Aphrodite in the Luxembourg. If she would only just look at me once instead of looking through me when we pass one another in the hall----" 
      The deadened gallop of a horse on the bridle path caught his ear. The horse was coming fast--almost too fast. He laid the sleeping squirrel on the bench, listened, then instinctively stood up and walked to the thicket's edge. 
      What happened was too quick for him to comprehend; he had a vision of a big black horse, mane and tail in the wind, tearing madly, straight at him--a glimpse of a white face, desperate and set, a flutter of loosened hair; then a storm of wind and sand roared in his ears; he was hurled, jerked, and flung forward, dragged, shaken, and left half senseless, hanging to nose and bit of a horse whose rider was picking herself out of a bush covered with white flowers. 
      Half senseless still, he tightened his grip on the bit, released the grasp on the creature's nose, and, laying his hand full on the forelock, brought it down twice and twice across the eyes, talking to the horse in halting, broken whispers. 
      When he had the trembling animal under control he looked around; the girl stood on the grass, dusty, dirty, disheveled, bleeding from a cut on the cheek bone; the most bewildered and astonished creature he had ever looked upon. 
      "It will be all right in a few minutes," he said, motioning her to the bench on the asphalt walk. She nodded, turned, picked up his hat, and, seating herself, began to smooth the furred nap with her sleeve, watching him intently all the while. That he already had the confidence of a horse that he had never before seen was perfectly apparent. Little by little the sweating, quivering limbs were stilled, the
tense muscles in the neck relaxed, the head sank, dusty velvet lips nibbled at his hand, his shoulder; the heaving, sunken flanks filled and grew quiet. 
      Bareheaded, his attire in disorder and covered with slaver and sand, the young man laid the bridle on the horse's neck, held out his hand, and, saying "Come," turned his back and walked down the bridle path. The horse stretched a sweating neck, sniffed, pricked forward both small ears, and slowly followed, turning as the man turned, up and down, crowding at heel like a trained dog, finally stopping on the edge of the walk. 
      The young man looped the bridle over a low maple limb, and leaving the horse standing sauntered over to the bench. 
      "That horse," he said pleasantly, "is all right now; but the question is, are you all right?" 
      She rose, handing him his hat, and began to twist up her bright hair. For a few moments' silence they were frankly occupied in restoring order to raiment, dusting off gravel and examining rents. 
      "I'm tremendously grateful," she said abruptly. 
      "I am, too," he said in that attractive manner which sets people of similar caste at ease with one another. 
      "Thank you; it's a generous compliment, considering your hat and clothing." 
      He looked up; she stood twisting her hair and doing her best with the few remaining hair pegs. 
      "I'm a sight for little fishes," she said, coloring. "Did that wretched beast bruise you?" 
      "Oh, no----" 
      "You limped!" 
      "Did I?" he said vaguely. "How do you feel?" 
      "There is," she said, "a curious, breathless flutter all over me; if that is fright, I suppose I'm frightened, but I don't mind mounting at once-- if you would put me up----" 
      "Better wait a bit," he said; "it would not do to have that horse feel a fluttering pulse, telegraphing along the snaffle. Tell me, are you spurred?" 
      She lifted the hem of her habit; two small spurs glittered on her polished boot heels. 
      "That's it, you see," he observed; "you probably have not ridden cross saddle very long. When your mount swerved you spurred, and he bolted, bit in teeth."
      "That's exactly it," she admitted, looking ruefully at her spurs. Then she dropped her skirt, glanced interrogatively at him, and, obeying his grave gesture, seated herself again upon the bench. 
      "Don't stand," she said civilly. He took the other end of the seat, lifting the still slumbering squirrel to his knee. 
      "I--I haven't said very much," she began; "I'm impulsive enough to be overgrateful and say too much. I hope you understand me; do you?" 
      "Of course; you're very good. It was nothing; you could have stopped your horse yourself. People do that sort of thing for one another as a matter of course." 
      "But not at the risk you took----" 
      "No risk at all," he said hastily. 
      She thought otherwise, and thought it so fervently that, afraid of emotion, she turned her cold, white profile to him and studied her horse, haughty lids adroop. The same insolent sweetness was in her eyes when they again reverted to him. He knew the look; he had encountered it often enough in the hallway and on the stairs. He knew, too, that she must recognize him; yet, under the circumstances, it was for her to speak first; and she did not, for she was at that age when horror of overdoing anything chokes back the scarcely extinguished childish instinct to say too much. In other words, she was eighteen and had had her first season the winter past--the winter when he had not been visible among the gatherings of his own kind. 

      "Those squirrels are very tame," she observed calmly. 
      "Not always," he said. "Try to hold this one, for example." 
      She raised her pretty eyebrows, then accepted the lump of fluffy fur from his hands. Instantly an electric shock seemed to set the squirrel frantic, there was a struggle, a streak of gray and white, and the squirrel leaped from her lap and fairly flew down the asphalt path. 
      "Gracious!" she exclaimed faintly; "what was the matter?" 
      "Some squirrels are very wild," he said innocently. 
      "I know--but you held him--he was asleep on your knee. Why didn't he stay with me?" 
      "Oh, perhaps because I have a way with animals." 
      "With horses, too," she added gayly. And the smile breaking from her violet eyes silenced him in the magic of a beauty he had never dreamed of. At first she mistook his silence for modesty; then--because even as young a maid as she is quick to divine and fine of instinct--she too fell silent and serious, the while the shuttles of her reason flew like lightning, weaving the picture of him she had conceived--a gentleman, a man of her own sort, rather splendid and wise and bewildering. The portrait completed, there was no room for the hint of presumption she had half sensed in the brown eyes' glance that had set her alert; and she looked up at him again, frankly, a trifle curiously. 
      "I am going to thank you once more," she said, "and ask you to put me up. There is not a flutter of fear in my pulse now." 
      "Are you quite sure?" 
      They arose; he untied the horse and beckoned it to the walk's edge. 
      "I forgot," she said, laughing, "that I am riding cross saddle. I can mount without troubling you--" She set her toe to the stirrup which he held, and swung herself up into the saddle with a breezy "Thanks, awfully," and sat there gathering her bridle. 
      Had she said enough? How coldly her own thanks rang in her ears--for perhaps he had saved her neck--and perhaps not. Busy with curb and snaffle reins, head bent, into her oval face a tint of color crept. Did he think she treated lightly, flippantly, the courage which became him so? Or was he already bored by her acknowledgment of it? Sensitive, dreading to expose youth and inexperience to the amused smile of this attractive young man of the world, she sat fumbling with her bridle, conscious that he stood beside her, hat in hand, looking up at her. She could delay no longer; the bridle had been shifted and reshifted to the last second of procrastination. She must say something or go. 
      Meeting his eyes, she smiled and leaned a little forward in her saddle as though to speak, but his brown eyes troubled her, and all she could say was "Thank you--good-by," and galloped off down the vista through dim, leafy depths heavy with the incense of lilac and syringa. 



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