Marlitt’s Shoes by Robert W. Chambers

I

Through the open window the spring sunshine fell on Calvert’s broad back. Tennant faced the window, smoking reflectively.

“I should like to ask a favor,” he said; “may I?”

“Certainly you may,” replied Calvert; “everybody else asks favors three hundred and sixty-five times a year.”

Tennant, smoking peacefully, gazed at an open window across the narrow court-yard, where, in the sunshine, a young girl sat sewing.

“The favor,” he said, “is this: there is a vacancy on the staff, and I wish you’d give Marlitt another chance.”

“Marlitt!” exclaimed Calvert. “Why Marlitt?”

“Because,” said Tennant, “I understand that I am wearing Marlitt’s shoes—and the shoes pinch.”

“Marlitt’s shoes would certainly pinch you if you were wearing them,” said Calvert, grimly. “But you are not. Suppose you were? Better wear even Marlitt’s shoes than hop about the world barefoot. You are a singularly sensitive young man. I come up-town to offer you Warrington’s place, and your reply is a homily on Marlitt’s shoes!”

Calvert’s black eyes began to snap and his fat, pink face turned pinker.

“Mr. Tennant,” he said, “I am useful to those who are useful to me. I am a business man. I know of no man or syndicate of men wealthy enough to conduct a business for the sake of giving employment to the unsuccessful!”

Tennant smoked thoughtfully.

“Some incompetent,” continued Calvert, “is trying to make you uncomfortable. You asked us for a chance; we gave you the chance. You proved valuable to us, and we gave you Marlitt’s job. You need not worry: Marlitt was useless, and had to go anyway. Warrington left us to-day, and you’ve got to do his work.”

Tennant regarded him in silence; Calvert laid one pudgy hand on the door-knob. “You know what we think of your work. There is not a man in New York who has your chance. All I say is, we gave you the chance and you took it. Keep it; that’s what we ask!”

“That is what I ask,” said Tennant, with a troubled laugh. “I am sentimentalist enough to feel something like gratitude towards those who gave me my first opportunity.”

“Obligation’s mutual,” snapped Calvert. The hardness in his eyes, however, had died out. “You’d better finish that double page,” he added; “they want to start the color-work by Monday. You’ll hear from us if there’s any delay. Good-bye.”

“‘I WISH YOU’D GIVE MARLITT ANOTHER CHANCE’” “‘I WISH YOU’D GIVE MARLITT ANOTHER CHANCE’”

Tennant opened the door for him; Calvert, buttoning his gloves, stepped out into the hallway and rang for the elevator. Then he turned:

“Don’t let envy make things unpleasant for you, Mr. Tennant.”

“Nobody has shown me any envy,” said Tennant.

“I thought you said something about your friend Marlitt—”

“I never saw Marlitt; I only know his work.”

“Oh,” said Calvert, with a peculiar smile, “you only know his work!”

“That is all. Who is Marlitt?”

“The last of an old New York family; reduced circumstances, proud, incompetent, unsuccessful. Why does the artist who signs ‘Marlitt’ interest you?”

“This is why,” said Tennant, and drew a letter from his pocket. “Do you mind listening?”

“Go on,” said Calvert, with a wry face. And Tennant began:

“‘Dear Mr. Tennant,—Just a few words to express my keenest interest and delight in the work you are doing—not only the color work, but the pen-and-ink. You know that the public has made you their idol, but I thought you might care to know what the unsuccessful in your own profession think. You have already taught us so much; you are, week by week, raising the standard so high; and you are doing so much for me, that I venture to thank you and wish you still greater happiness and success. Marlitt.’”

Calvert looked up. “Is that all?”

“That is all. There is neither date nor address on the note. I wrote to Marlitt care of your office. Your office forwarded it, I see, but the post-office returned it to me to-day.… What has become of Marlitt?”

Calvert touched the elevator-bell again. “If I knew,” he said, “I’d find a place for—Marlitt.”

Tennant’s face lighted. Calvert, scowling, avoided his eyes.

“I want you to understand,” he said, peevishly, “that there is no sentiment in this matter.”

“I understand,” said Tennant.

“You think you do,” sneered Calvert, stepping into the elevator. The door slammed; the cage descended; the fat, pink countenance of Calvert, distorted into a furious sneer, slowly sank out of sight.

II

Tennant entered his studio and closed the door. In the mellow light the smile faded from his face. Perhaps he was thinking of the unsuccessful, from whose crowded ranks he had risen—comrades preordained to mediocrity, foredoomed to failure—industrious, hopeful, brave young fellows, who must live their lives to learn the most terrible of all lessons—that bravery alone wins no battles.

“What luck I have had!” he said, aloud, to himself, walking over to the table and seating himself before the drawing. For an hour he studied it; touched it here and there, caressing outlines, swinging masses into vigorous composition with a touch of point or a sweeping erasure. Strength, knowledge, command were his; he knew it, and he knew the pleasure of it.

Having finished the drawing, he unpinned the pencil studies, replacing each by its detail in color—charming studies executed with sober precision, yet sparkling with a gayety that no reticence and self-denial could dim. He dusted the drawing, tacked on tracing-paper, and began to transfer, whistling softly as he bent above his work.

Sunlight fell across the corner of the table, glittering among glasses, saucers of porcelain, crystal bowls in which brushes dipped in brilliant colors had been rinsed. To escape the sun he rolled the table back a little way, then continued, using the ivory-pointed tracing-stylus. He worked neither rapidly nor slowly; there was a leisurely precision in his progress; pencil, brush, tracer, eraser, did their errands surely, steadily. Yet already he had the reputation of being the most rapid worker in his craft.

During intervals when he leaned back to stretch his muscles and light a cigarette his eyes wandered towards a window just across the court, where sometimes a girl sat. She was there now, rocking in a dingy rocking-chair, stitching away by her open window. Once or twice she turned her head and glanced across at him. After an interval he laid his cigarette on the edge of a saucer and resumed his work. In the golden gloom of the studio the stillness was absolute, save for the delicate stir of a curtain rustling at his open window. A breeze moved the hair on his temples; his eyes wandered towards the window across the court. The window was so close that they could have conversed together had they known each other.

In the court new grass was growing; grimy shrubbery had freshened into green; a tree was already in full leaf. Here and there cats sprawled on sun-warmed roofs, sparrows chirked under eaves from whence wisps of litter trailed, betraying hidden nests.

Below his window, hanging in heavy twists, a wistaria twined, its long bunches of lilac-tinted blossoms alive with bees.

His eyes followed the flight of a shabby sparrow. “If I were a bird,” he said, aloud, “I’d not be idiot enough to live in a New York back yard.” And he resumed his work, whistling.

But the languor of spring was in his veins, and he bent forward again, sniffing the mild air. The witchery of spring had also drawn his neighbor to her window, where she leaned on the sill, cheeks in her hands, listlessly watching the flight of the sparrows.

The little creatures were nest-building; from moment to moment a bird fluttered up towards the eaves, bearing with it a bit of straw, a feather sometimes, sometimes a twisted end of string.

“It’s spring-fever,” he yawned, passing one hand over his eyes. “I feel like rolling on the grass—there’s a puppy in that yard doing it now—”

He washed a badger brush and dried it. Perfume from the wistaria filled his throat and lungs; his very breath, exhaling, seemed sweetened with the scent.

“There’s that girl across the way,” he said, aloud, as though making the discovery for the first time.

Sunshine now lay in dazzling white patches across his drawing. He blinked, washed another brush, and leaned back in his chair again, looking across at his neighbor. Youth is in itself attractive; and she was young—a white-skinned, dark-eyed girl, a trifle colorless, perhaps, like a healthy plant needing the sun.

“They grow like that in this town,” he reflected, drumming idly on the table with his pencil. “Who is she? I’ve seen her there for months, and I don’t know.”

The girl raised her dark eyes and gave him a serene stare.

“Oh yes,” he muttered, “I see your eyes, but they tell me nothing about you. You’re all alike when you look at us out of the windows called eyes. What’s behind those eyes? Nobody knows. Nobody knows.”

He dropped his hand on the table and began tracing arabesques with his pencil-point. Then his capricious fancy blossomed into a sketch of his neighbor—a rapid idealization, which first amused, then enthralled him.

And while his pencil flew he murmured lazily to himself: “You don’t know what I’m doing, do you? I wonder what you’d do if you did know?… Thank you, ma belle, for sitting so still. Won’t you smile a little? No?… Who are you? What are you?—with your dimpled white hands framing your face.… I had no idea you were half so lovely! … or is it my fancy and my pencil which endow you with qualities that you do not possess?… There! you moved. Don’t let it occur again.”…

He passed a soft eraser over the sketch, dimming its outline; picked out a brush and began in color, rambling on in easy, listless self-communion: “I’ve asked you who you are and you haven’t told me. Pas chic, ça. There are thousands and thousands of dark-eyed little things like you in this city. Did you ever see the streets when the shops close? There are thousands and thousands like you in the throng;—some poor, some poorer; some good, some better; some young, some younger; all trotting across the world on eager feet. Where? Nobody knows. Why? Nobody knows. Heigh-ho! Your portrait is done, little neighbor.”

He hovered over the delicate sketch, silent a moment, under the spell of his own work. “If you were like this, a man might fall in love with you,” he muttered, raising his eyes.

The development of ideas is always remarkable, particularly on a sunny day in spring-time. Sunshine, blue sky, and the perfume of the wistaria were too much for Tennant.

“I’m going out!” he said, abruptly, and put on his hat. Then he drew on his gloves, lighted a cigarette, and glanced across at his neighbor.

“I wish you were going, too,” he said.

His neighbor had risen and was now standing by her window, hands clasped behind her, gazing dreamily out into the sunshine.

“Upon my word,” said Tennant, “you are really as pretty as my sketch! Now isn’t that curious? I had no idea—”

A rich tint crept into his neighbor’s face, staining the white skin with carmine.

“The sun is doing you good,” he said, approvingly. “You ought to put on your hat and go out.”

She turned, as though she had heard his words, and picked up a big, black straw hat, placing it daintily upon her head.

“Well!—if—that—isn’t—curious!” said Tennant, astonished, as she swung nonchalantly towards an invisible mirror and passed a long, gilded pin through the crown of her hat.

“It seems that I only have to suggest a thing—” He hesitated, watching her.

“Of course it was coincidence,” he said; “but—suppose it wasn’t? Suppose it was telepathy—thought transmitted?”

His neighbor was buttoning her gloves.

“I’m a beast to stand here staring,” he murmured, as she moved leisurely towards her window, apparently unconscious of him. “It’s a shame,” he added, “that we don’t know each other! I’m going to the Park; I wish you were—I want you to go—because it would do you good! You must go!”

Her left glove was now buttoned; the right gave her some difficulty, which she started to overcome with a hair-pin.

“If mental persuasion can do it, you and I are going to meet under the wistaria arbor in the Park,” he said, with emphasis.

To concentrate his thoughts he stood rigid, thinking as hard as a young man can think with a distractingly pretty girl fastening her glove opposite; and the effort produced a deep crease between his eyebrows.

“You—are—going—to—the—wistaria—arbor—in—the Park!” he repeated, solemnly.

She turned as though she had heard, and looked straight at him. Her face was bright with color; never had he seen such fresh beauty in a human face.

Her eyes wandered from him upward to the serene blue sky; then she stepped back, glanced into the mirror, touched her hair with the tips of her gloved fingers, and walked away, disappearing into the gloom of the room.

An astonishing sense of loneliness came over him—a perfectly unreasonable feeling, because every day for months he had seen her disappear from the window, always viewing the phenomenon with disinterested equanimity.

“Now I don’t for a moment suppose she’s going to the wistaria arbor,” he said, mournfully, walking towards his door.

But all the way down in the elevator and out on the street he was comforting himself with stories of strange coincidences; of how, sometimes, walking alone and thinking of a person he had not seen or thought of for years, raising his eyes he had met that person face to face. And a presentiment that he should meet his neighbor under the wistaria arbor grew stronger and stronger, until, as he turned into the broad, southeastern entrance to the Park, his heart began beating an uneasy, expectant tattoo under his starched white waist-coat.

“I’ve been smoking too many cigarettes,” he muttered. “Things like that don’t happen. It would be too silly—”

And it was rather silly; but she was there. He saw her the moment he entered the wistaria arbor, seated in a rustic recess. It may be that she was reading the book she held so unsteadily in her small, gloved fingers, but the book was upside down. And when his footstep echoed on the asphalt, she raised a pair of thoroughly frightened eyes.

“HE SAW HER THE MOMENT HE ENTERED THE WISTARIA ARBOR” “HE SAW HER THE MOMENT HE ENTERED THE WISTARIA ARBOR”

His expression verged on the idiotic; they were a scared pair, and it was only when the bright flush of guilt flooded her face that he recovered his senses in a measure and took off his hat.

“I—I hadn’t the slightest notion that you would come,” he stammered. “This is the—the most amazing example of telepathy I ever heard of!”

“Telepathy?” she repeated, faintly.

“Telepathy! Thought persuasion! It’s incredible! It’s—it’s a—it was a dreadful thing to do. I don’t know what to say.”

“Is it necessary for you to say anything to—me?”

“Can you ever pardon me?”

“I don’t think I understand,” she said, slowly. “Are you asking pardon for your rudeness in speaking to me?”

“No,” he almost groaned; “I’ll do that later. There is something much worse—”

Her cool self-possession unnerved him. Composure is sometimes the culmination of fright; but he did not know that, because he did not know the subtler sex. His fluency left him; all he could repeat was, “I’m sorry I’m speaking to you—but there’s something much worse.”

“I cannot imagine anything worse,” she said.

“Won’t you grant me a moment to explain?” he urged.

“How can I?” she replied, calmly. “How can a woman permit a man to speak without shadow of excuse? You know perfectly well what convention requires.”

Hot, uncomfortable, he looked at her so appealingly that her eyes softened a little.

“I don’t suppose you mean to be impertinent to me,” she said, coldly.

He said that he didn’t with so much fervor that something perilously close to a smile touched her lips. He told her who he was, and the information appeared to surprise her, so it is safe to assume she knew it already. He pleaded in extenuation that they had been neighbors for a year; but she had not, apparently, been aware of this either; and the snub completed his discomfiture.

“I—I was so anxious to know you,” he said, miserably. “That was the beginning—”

“It is a perfectly horrid thing to say,” she said, indignantly. “Do you suppose, because you are a public character, you are privileged to speak to anybody?”

He attempted to say he didn’t, but she went on: “Of course that is not a palliation of your offence. It is a dreadful condition of affairs if a woman cannot go out alone—”

“Please don’t say that!” he cried.

“I must. It is a terrible comment on modern social conditions,” she repeated, shaking her pretty head. “A woman who permits it—especially a woman who is obliged to support herself—for if I were not poor I should be driving here in my brougham, and you know it!—oh, it is a hideously common thing for a girl to do!” Opening her book, she appeared to be deeply interested in it. But the book was upside down.

Glancing at him a moment later, she was apparently surprised to find him still standing beside her. However, he had noted two things in that moment of respite: she held the book upside down, and on the title-page was written a signature that he knew—“Marlitt.”

“Under the circumstances,” she said, coldly, “do you think it decent to continue this conversation?”

“Yes, I do,” he said. “I’m a decent sort of fellow, or you would have divined the contrary long ago; and there is a humiliating explanation that I owe you.”

“You owe me every explanation,” she said, “but I am generous enough to spare you the humiliation.”

“I know what you mean,” he admitted. “I hypnotized you into coming here, and you are aware of it.”

Pink to the ears with resentment and confusion, she sat up very straight and stared at him. From a pretty girl defiant, she became an angry beauty. And he quailed.

“Did you imagine that you hypnotized me?” she asked, incredulously.

“What was it, then?” he muttered. “You did everything I wished for—”

“What did you wish for?”

“I—I thought you needed the sun, and as soon as I said that you ought to go out, you—you put on that big, black hat. And then I wished I knew you—I wished you would come here to the wistaria arbor, and—you came.”

“In other words,” she said, disdainfully, “you deliberately planned to control my mind and induce me to meet you in a clandestine and horrid manner.”

“I never looked at it in that way. I only knew I admired you a lot, and—and you were tremendously charming—more so than my sketch—”

What sketch?”

“I—you see, I made a little sketch,” he admitted—“a little picture of you—”

Her silence scared him.

“Do you mind?” he ventured.

“Of course you will send that portrait to me at once!” she said.

“Oh yes, of course I will; I had meant to send it anyway—”

“That,” she observed, “would have been the very height of impertinence.”

Opening her book again, she indulged him with a view of the most exquisite profile he had ever dreamed of.

She despised him; there seemed to be no doubt about that. He despised himself; his offence, stripped by her of all extenuation, appeared to him in its own naked hideousness; and it appalled him.

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “there’s nothing criminal in me. I never imagined that a man could appear to such disadvantage as I appear. I’ll go. There’s no use in hoping for pardon. I’ll go.”

Studying her book, she said, without raising her eyes, “I am offended—deeply hurt—but—”

He waited anxiously.

“But I am sorry to say that I am not as deeply offended as I ought to be.”

“That is very, very kind of you,” he said, warmly.

“It is very depraved of me,” she retorted, turning a page.

After a silence, he said, “Then I suppose I must go.”

It is possible she did not hear him; she seemed engrossed, bending a little closer over the book on her knee, for the shadows of blossom and foliage above had crept across the printed page.

All the silence was in tremulous vibration with the hum of bees; the perfume of the flowers grew sweeter as the sun sank towards the west, flinging long, blue shadows over the grass and asphalt.

A gray squirrel came hopping along, tail twitching, and deliberately climbed up the seat where she was sitting, squatting beside her, paws drooping in dumb appeal.

“You dear little thing!” said the girl, impulsively. “I wish I had a bonbon for you! Have you anything in the world to give this half-starved squirrel, Mr. Tennant?”

“Nothing but a cigarette,” muttered Tennant. “I’ll go out to the gate if you—” He hesitated. “They generally sell peanuts out there,” he added, vaguely.

“Squirrels adore peanuts,” she murmured, caressing the squirrel, who had begun fearlessly snooping into her lap.

Tennant, enchanted at the tacit commission, started off at a pace that brought him to the gate and back again before he could arrange his own disordered thoughts.

She was reading when he returned, and she cooled his enthusiasm with a stare of surprise.

“The squirrel? Oh, I’m sure I don’t know where that squirrel has gone. Did you really go all the way to the gate for peanuts to stuff that overfed squirrel?”

He looked at the four paper bags, opened one of them, and stirred the nuts with his hand.

“What shall I do with them?” he asked.

Then, and neither ever knew exactly why, she began to laugh. The first laugh was brief; an oppressive silence followed—then she laughed again; and as he grew redder and redder, she laughed the most deliciously fresh peal of laughter he had ever heard.

“This is dreadful!” she said. “I should never have come alone to the Park! You should never have dared to speak to me. All we need to do now is to eat those peanuts, and you have all the material for a picture of courtship below-stairs! Oh, dear, and the worst part of it all is that I laugh!”

“If you’d let me sit down,” he said, “I’d complete the picture and eat peanuts.”

“You dare not!”

He seated himself, opened a paper bag, and deliberately cracked and ate a nut.

“Horrors! and disillusion! The idol of the public—munching peanuts!”

“You ought to try one,” he said.

She stood it for a while; but the saving grace of humour warned her of her peril, and she ate a peanut.

“To save my face,” she explained. “But I didn’t suppose you were capable of it.”

“As a matter of fact,” he said, tranquilly, “a man can do anything in this world if he only does it thoroughly and appears to enjoy himself. I’ve seen the Prince Regent of Boznovia sitting at the window of the Crown Regiment barracks arrayed in his shirt-sleeves and absorbing beer and pretzels.”

“But he was the Prince Regent!”

“And I’m Tennant.”

“According to that philosophy you are at liberty to eat fish with your knife.”

“But I don’t want to.”

“But suppose you did want to?”

“That is neither philosophy nor logic,” he insisted; “that is speculation. May I offer you a stick of old-fashioned circus candy flavored with wintergreen?”

“You may,” she said, accepting it. “If there is any lower depth I may attain, I’m sure you will suggest it.”

“I’ll try,” he said. Their eyes met for an instant; then hers were lowered.

Squirrels came in troops; she fed the little, fat scamps to repletion, and the green lawn was dotted with squirrels all busily burying peanuts for future consumption. A brilliant peacock appeared, picking his way towards them, followed by a covey of imbecile peafowl. She fed them until their crops protruded.

The sun glittered on the upper windows of the clubs and hotels along Fifth Avenue; the west turned gold, then pink. Clouds of tiny moths came hovering among the wistaria blossoms; and high in the sky the metallic note of a nighthawk rang, repeating in querulous cadence the cries of water-fowl on the lake, where mallard and widgeon were restlessly preparing for an evening flight.

“You know,” she said, gravely, “a woman who over-steps convention always suffers; a man, never. I have done something I never expected to do—never supposed was in me to do. And now that I have gone so far, it is perhaps better for me to go farther.” She looked at him steadily. “Your studio is a perfect sounding-board. You have an astonishingly frank habit of talking to yourself; and every word is perfectly audible to me when my window is raised. When you chose to apostrophize me as a ‘white-faced, dark-eyed little thing,’ and when you remarked to yourself that there were ‘thousands like me in New York,’ I was perfectly indignant.”

He sat staring at her, utterly incapable of uttering a sound.

“It costs a great deal for me to say this,” she went on. “But I am obliged to because it is not fair to let you go on communing aloud with yourself—and I cannot close my window in warm weather. It costs more than you know for me to say this; for it is an admission that I heard you say that you were coming to the wistaria arbor—”

She bent her crimsoned face; the silence of evening fell over the arbor.

“I don’t know why I came,” she said—“whether with a vague idea of giving you the chance to speak, and so seizing the opportunity to warn you that your soliloquies were audible to me—whether to tempt you to speak and make it plain to you that I am not one of the thousand shop-girls you have observed after the shops close—”

“Don’t,” he said, hoarsely. “I’m miserable enough.”

“I don’t wish you to feel miserable,” she said. “I have a very exalted idea of you. I—I understand artists.”

“They’re fools,” he said. “Say anything you like before I go. I had—hoped for—perhaps for your friendship. But a woman can’t respect a fool.”

He rose in his humiliation.

“I can ask no privileges,” he said, “but I must say one thing before I go. You have a book there which bears the signature of an artist named Marlitt. I am very anxious for his address; I think I have important news for him—good news. That is why I ask it.”

The girl looked at him quietly.

“What news have you for him?”

“I suppose you have a right to ask,” he said, “or you would not ask. I do not know Marlitt. I liked his work. Mr. Calvert suggested that Marlitt should return to resume work—”

“No,” said the girl, “you suggested it.”

He was staggered. “Did you even hear that!” he gasped.

“You were standing by your window,” she said. “Mr. Tennant, I think that was the real reason why I came to the wistaria arbor—to thank you for what you have done. You see—you see, I am Marlitt.”

He sank down on the seat opposite.

“Everything has gone wrong,” she said. “I came to thank you—and everything turned out so differently—and I was dreadfully rude to you—”

She covered her face with her hands.

“Then you wrote me that letter,” he said, slowly. In the silence of the gathering dusk the electric lamps snapped alight, flooding the arbor with silvery radiance. He said:

“If a man had written me that letter I should have desired his friendship and offered mine.”

She dropped her hands and looked at him. “Thank you for speaking to Calvert,” she said, rising hastily; “I have been desperately in need of work. My pride is quite dead, you see—one or the other of us had to die.”

She looked down with a gay little smile. “If it wouldn’t spoil you I should tell you what I think of you. Meanwhile, as servitude becomes man, you may tie my shoe for me—Marlitt’s shoe that pinched you.… Tie it tightly, so that I shall not lose it again.… Thank you.”

As he rose, their eyes met once more; and the perilous sweetness in hers fascinated him.

She drew a deep, unsteady breath. “Will you take me home?” she asked.