By Calista Halsey Patchin
The professor had been dead two months. He had left the world very
quietly, at that precise hour of the early evening when he was
accustomed to say that his "spirit friends" came to him. The hospital
nurse had noticed that there was always a time at twilight when the
patient had a good hour; when pain and restlessness seemed to be
charmed away, and he did not mind being left alone, and did not care
whether or not there was a light in the room. Then it was that those
who had gone came back to him with quiet, friendly ways and loving
touch. He said nothing of this to the nurse. It was an old friend who
told me that this had been his belief and solace for years.
When the professor had first come to town he had spoken of the wife
who would follow him shortly, from the East. He did not display her
picture, he did not talk about her enough so that the town, though it
made an honest effort, ever really visualized her. She would
come—without a doubt she would come—but not just yet. It was only
that the East still held her. Gradually, he spoke of her less and less
often, with a dignified reserve that brooked no inquiry, and finally
not at all.
The town forgot. It was only when his illness became so serious that
all felt someone should be written to, that it was discovered there
was no one. The professor, when he was appealed to, said so. Then
also, the hospital nurse noticed that at the twilight hour, when he
talked quietly to his unseen friends, there was always One who stayed
longer than the rest.
But he had been dead two months now, and the undertaker was pressing
his bill, and there were other expenses which had been cheerfully
borne by friends at the time, and indeed if there had been no other
reason, it remains that something must become of the personal
possessions of a man who leaves neither will nor known heirs. So the
professor's effects were appraised, and a brief local appeared in the
daily paper until it had made a dent in the memory of the public,
apprising them that his personal property would be offered at public
auction at two p.m. of a Thursday, in his rooms on the third floor of
the Eureka Block.
It was the merest thread of curiosity that drew me to this sale. I did
not want to buy anything. It was a sort of posthumous curiosity, and
it concerned itself solely with the individuality of the dead man. Not
having had the opportunity of knowing him well in life, and never
having known until I read his obituary what I had missed, I took this
last chance of trying to evolve the man from his belongings. All I did
know was that he was a teacher of music of the past generation in a
Western town which grew so fast that it made a man seem older than he
was. More than this, he was a composer, a music master, who took crude
young voices, shrill with the tension of the Western winds and the
electric air, and tamed and trained them till they fell in love with
harmony. When he heard a voice he knew it. One of his contraltos is
singing now in grand opera across the sea. A tenor that he discovered
has charmed the world with an "upper note."
All the same, the professor had grown old—a new generation had arisen
which knew not Joseph; he failed to advertise, and every young girl
who "gave lessons" crowded him closer to the wall. Now and then there
would appear in the daily paper—not the next morning, but a few days
after the presentation of some opera—a column of musical criticism,
keen, delicate, reminiscent—fragrant with the rosemary that is for
remembrance. When "Elijah" was given by home talent with soloists
imported from Chicago, it was the professor who kindly wrote,
beforehand this time, luminous articles full of sympathetic
interpretation of the great masters. And at rare intervals there would
appear a communication from him on the beauty of the woods and the
fields, the suburbs of the town and the country, as though he were
some simple prophet of nature who stood by the wayside. And this was
no affectation. Long, solitary walks were his recreation.
It was a good deal of a rookery, up the flights of narrow, dirty
stairs to the third floor of the Eureka Block. And here the professor
had lived and taught. Two rooms were made from one by the sort of
partition which does not reach to the ceiling—a ceiling which for
some inexplicable reason was higher in some places than in others.
The voice of the auctioneer came down that winding way in professional
cadences. There were in the room about as many people as might come to
a funeral where only friends of the family are invited. It was very
still. The auctioneer took an easy conversational tone. There was a
silent, forlorn sort of dignity about the five pianos standing in a
row that put professional banter and cheap little jokes out of the
question. The pianos went without much trouble—a big one of the best
make, an old-fashioned cottage piano, a piano with an iron frame. One
of the appraisers, himself a musician, became an assistant auctioneer,
and kindly played a little—judiciously very little—on each
instrument in turn.
Then came the bric-a-brac of personal effects—all the flotsam and
jetsam that had floated into these rooms for years. The walls were
pockmarked with pictures, big and little. There was no attempt at high
art; the professor had bought a picture as a child might buy
one—because he thought it was pretty. It was a curious showing of how
one artistic faculty may be dormant while another is cultivated to its
highest point. But no matter how cheap the picture, it was always
conscientiously framed. And this was a great help to the auctioneer.
Indeed, it was difficult to see how he could have cried the pictures
at all without the frames.
By this time the rooms were fuller of people. There were ladies who
had come in quietly, just to get some little thing for a remembrance
of their old friend and teacher. These mostly went directly over to
the corner where the music lay and began looking for something of
"his." If it were manuscript music so much the better. But there was
little of this. It appeared that with the professor, as with most of
us, early and middle manhood had been his most productive time, and
that was long enough ago for everything to have been duly published in
sheet and book form—long enough, indeed, for the books themselves to
have gone out of date.
There they were—long, green notebooks, bearing the familiar names of
well known publishers, and with such a hydra-head of title as "The
Celestina, or New Sacred Minstrel; a Repository of Music adapted to
every variety of taste and grade of capacity, from the million to the
amateur or professor."
There were four or five of these. There was sheet music by the pile.
There was an opera, "Joseph," the production of which had been a
Presently the auctioneer came that way. He had just sold a large
oleograph, framed, one of those gorgeous historical pictures which are
an apotheosis of good clothes. He approached an engraving of an
old-fashioned lady in voluminous muslin draperies, with her hair
looped away from her face in a "Book of Beauty" style.
"He liked that," murmured a lady.
"What do I hear!" cries the auctioneer, softly. "Oh, such a little bid
as that—I can't see it at all in this dark corner. Suppose we throw
these peaches in—awfully pretty thing for dining room—and this
flower piece—shall we group these three?—now, how much for all? Ah,
there they go!"
"Here, ladies and gentlemen, is a gold-headed cane which was presented
to the deceased by his admiring friends. It is pure gold—you
know they would not give him anything else. How much for this?
How much? No—his name is not engraved on it—so much the
better—what do I hear?"
"Look at this telescope, gentlemen—a good one—you know the professor
was quite an astronomer in his way—and this telescope is all
right—sound and in good condition"—the auctioneer had officiated at
a stock sale the day before. "You can look right into futurity through
this tube. Five dollars' worth of futurity? Five—five and a half?
Case and all complete."
There was a pocketful of odds and ends; gold pens, lead pencils, some
odd pocket knives; these inconsiderable trifles brought more in
proportion than articles of greater intrinsic value. Evidently this
was an auction of memories, of emotion, of sentiment.
There was a bit of the beam of the barn that was burned down when the
cow kicked over the historic lamp that inaugurated the Chicago
fire—no less than three persons were ready to testify to their belief
in the genuineness of the relic, had anyone been disposed to question
it. But no one was. Nearly all the people in the room were the dead
music teacher's personal friends; they had heard the story of all
these things; they knew who had sent him the stuffed brown prairie
chicken that perched like a raven above the door—the little
old-fashioned decanter and wine glasses of gilded glass—the
artificial begonias—that clever imitation that goes far toward making
one forswear begonias forevermore. There were lamps of various shapes
and sizes, there was a kit of burglarious looking tools for piano
tuning, there was a little globe—"Who wants the earth?" said the
auctioneer. "You all want it."
There was a metronome, which, set to go, began to count time in a
metallic whisper for some invisible pupil. Over in the corner just
beyond the music were the professor's books. Now we shall find him
out, for what a man reads he is, or wishes to be. There was a good
deal of spiritualistic literature of the better sort. There was a
"History of Christianity and Paganism by the Roman Emperor Julian," a
copy of "She," a long shelf full of North American Reviews, a
dozen or so of almanacs, a copy of Bluebeard. There were none of the
"popular" magazines, and if there had been newspapers—those vagrants
of literature—they had gone their way. There was a manuscript play
for parlor presentation, with each part written out in legible script,
entitled, "The Winning Card."
All these and many more things which only the patient appraisers can
fully know were sold or set aside as unsalable, until all was done.
And then those who had known and loved him and those who had not known
or cared for him came down the stairs together.
Fate stood on the landing. As always, Fate ran true to form. She was a
woman; a little tired, as a woman might well be who had come a
thousand miles; a little out of breath from the two flights of stairs.
Her old-fashioned draperies clung about her; her hair was looped away
from her face in a "Book of Beauty" style. The man who stood aside to
let her pass was talking. "Of course," he was saying, "he was a
side-tracked man. But I believe he stands the biggest chance of being
remembered of any man in Iowa."
Swift protest at his first words clouded her face; sheer gratitude for
his last words illumined it. She bent forward a little and went on up
the stairs alone.
She faltered in the doorway, her hand fumbling at her throat. One of
the men who had been talking below hastened to her side.
"It's all over," he said, then added, at the dumb misery that grayed
her face: "—the auction."
"I—I—didn't come for that," the apathy in her voice holding it
steady. "I—I am his wife. His last letter—he sent for me." A sob
broke her speech. "It came last week—two months too late."