Concerning the Young Man in the Ditch
and His Attempts to Get Out of It
he was not vindictive, he did not care to owe anything to anybody
who might be inclined to give him a hearing on account of former
obligations or his social position. Everybody knew he had gone to
smash; everybody, he very soon discovered, was naturally afraid
of being bothered by him. The dread of the overfed that an underfed
member of the community may request a seat at the table he now understood
perfectly. He was learning.
So he solicited aid
from nobody whom he had known in former days; neither from those
who had aided him when he needed no aid, nor those who owed their
comfortable position to the generosity of his father--a gentleman
notorious for making fortunes for his friends.
Therefore he wrote
to strangers on a purely business basis--to amazing types lately
emerged from the submerged, bulging with coal money, steel money,
copper money, wheat money, stockyard money--types that galloped
for Fifth Avenue to build town houses; that shook their long cars
and frisked into the country and built "cottages." And this was
how he put it:
In case you desire to entertain guests with the professional services
of a magician it would give me pleasure to place my very unusual
accomplishments at your disposal."
And signed his name.
It was a dreadful drain
on his bank account to send several thousand engraved cards about
town and fashionable resorts. No replies came. Day after day, exhausted
with the practice drill of his profession, he walked to the Park
and took his seat on the bench by the bridle path. Sometimes he
saw her cantering past; she always acknowledged his salute, but
never drew bridle. At times, too, he passed her in the hall; her
colorless "Good morning" never varied except when she said "Good
evening." And all this time he never inquired her name from the
hall servant; he was that sort of man--decent through instinct;
for even breeding sometimes permits sentiment to snoop.
For a week he had been
airily dispensing with more than one meal a day; to keep clothing
and boots immaculate required a sacrifice of breakfast and luncheon--besides,
he had various small pensioners to feed, white rabbits with foolish
pink eyes, canary birds, cats, albino mice, goldfish, and other
collaborateurs in his profession. He was obliged to bribe the janitor,
too, because the laws of the house permitted neither animals nor
babies within its precincts. This extra honorarium deprived him
of tobacco, and he became a pessimist.
Besides, doubts as
to his own ability arose within him; it was all very well to practice
his magic there alone, but he had not yet tried it on anybody except
the janitor; and when he had begun by discovering several red-eyed
rabbits in the janitor's pockets that intemperate functionary fled
with a despondent yell that brought a policeman to the area gate
with a threat to pull the place.
At length, however,
a letter came engaging him for one evening. He was quite incredulous
at first, then modestly scared, perplexed, exultant and depressed
by turns. Here was an opening--the first. And because it was the
first its success or failure meant future engagements or consignments
to the street, perhaps as a white-wing. There must be no faltering
now, no bungling, no mistakes, no amateurish hesitation. It is the
empty- headed who most strenuously demand intelligence in others.
One yawn from such an audience meant his professional damnation--he
knew that; every second must break like froth in a wine glass; an
instant's perplexity, a slackening of the tension, and those flaccid
intellects would relax into native inertia. Incapable of self-amusement,
depending utterly upon superior
minds for a respite from ennui, their caprice controlled
his fate; and he knew it.
Sitting there by the
sunny window with a pair of magnificent white Persian cats purring
on either knee, he read and reread the letter summoning him on the
morrow to Seabright. He knew who his hostess was--a large lady lately
emerged from a corner in lard, dragging with her some assorted relatives
of atrophied intellects and a husband whose only mental pleasure
depended upon the speed attained by his racing car--the most exacting
audience he could dare to confront.
Like the White Knight
he had had plenty of practice, but he feared that warrior's fate;
and as he sat there he picked up a bunch of silver hoops, tossed
them up separately so that they descended linked in a glittering
chain, looped them and unlooped them, and, tiring, thoughtfully
tossed them toward the ceiling again, where they vanished one by
one in mid-air.
The cats purred; he
picked up one, molded her carefully in his handsome hands; and presently,
under the agreeable massage, her purring increased while she dwindled
and dwindled to the size of a small, fluffy kitten, then vanished
entirely, leaving in his hand a tiny white mouse. This mouse he
tossed into the air, where it became no mouse at all but a white
butterfly that fluttered 'round and 'round, alighting at last on
the window curtain and hung there, opening and closing its snowy
"That's all very well,"
he reflected, gloomily, as, at a pass of his hand, the air was filled
with canary birds; "that's all very well, but suppose I should slip
up? What I need is to rehearse to somebody before I face two or
three hundred people."
He thought he heard
a knocking on his door, and listened a moment. But as there was
an electric bell there he concluded he had been mistaken; and picking
up the other white cat, he began a gentle massage that stimulated
her purring, apparently at the expense of her color and size, for
in a few moments she also dwindled until she became a very small,
coal-black kitten, changing in a twinkling to a blackbird, when
he cast her carelessly toward the ceiling. It was well done; in
all India no magician could have done it more cleverly, more casually.
Leaning forward in
his chair he reproduced the two white cats from behind him, put
the kittens back in their box, caught the blackbird and caged it,
and was carefully winding up the hairspring in the white butterfly,
when again he fancied that somebody was knocking.