Common Sense and Life-Saving

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Common Sense and Life-Saving


I WISH to put to you a serious question: If you had a polar bear named Gerald, and if you were asking some friend to come home with you and see that bear, which way would you say it—would you say, "Come and see Gerald," or would it be, "Come and see my polar bear"?

The point may be rather a fine one, but the answer is obvious: you would think of him primarily as a polar bear, and only secondarily as Gerald. He would be first and foremost a member of a different species—namely, polar bears. The fact that he was also an individual being, named Gerald, would be subordinate.

Very good, then. Let me remind you of this: As with polar bears, so with women. Most people—or, rather, I should have said, most women—do not realize it, but they are practically as alien a genus to mankind as bears. Fond of them as we may be, they are women to us first, and individuals to us afterward. It is shown by the very way one speaks of them. I say, "I know a girl named Hattie"; never, "I know Hattie, a girl." Both forms, I may add, are partly lies. I know lots of things about Hattie, but I can't know all, because I am a man and she is something else. I know all I need to about her, you understand. The point simply is that as women are a different order of beings, there are limits to our knowledge. That is why we can find no way to correct some of their queer, impossible notions about how men should act. That is why, also, I cannot fully explain to you the part Hattie played, that time I became engaged to Angelica Perry.

When I was younger I was engaged to another girl, named Hilda, but that girl went to China. A missionary uncle of hers, whose sole ambition, it seems, was "reaching" Chinamen, invited her to join him, and in spite of all my warnings she felt she had better do it. I was sorry. Much as I hate sentimentality and much as I commend the unemotional attitude, it is a pretty discouraging business to lose a fiancée. I postponed all further search for a helpmate, and, indeed, if it hadn't been for Hattie, I might have continued indefinitely a bachelor. Hattie, however, really troubled me by trying to make me out a romantic figure. She talked everywhere about what she called my chivalrous loyalty to the memory of Hilda; and she talked so much and so often that the thing became by degrees a—became notorious. I acutely disliked it.

At last, one afternoon in the park, I met her out walking with this Angelica Perry, and she introduced us. "Angelica," she said, "let me introduce my handsome old friend and cousin, Niblo Sims, the one thoroughly faithful bachelor of my acquaintance." Angelica Perry gave me a brimming glance, I looked—a little intensely, perhaps—at her (she was an awfully pretty girl), and then, to my very considerable astonishment, we fell in love.

It was sudden, yes, but it wasn't as remarkable, after all, as one might think. In the first place, Angelica, having broken off her engagement to a wild young friend of hers named Minott Broderick, was in just the right mood to appreciate a somewhat more mature person like myself. In the second place, it wasn't a romantic love. As we looked at each other I merely got the impression that she was charming, that we were en rapport, and that she would be intelligently tractable. This roused, quite naturally, a feeling of fondness; but there was nothing hot or feverish about it. The phase of it that captivated me was simply her apparent combination of submission and intelligence—one so seldom finds just that in women.

When I say that all this was not romantic, I mean that I myself did not feel it to be so. Angelica felt differently. She had heard of my previous engagement, and she had liked me not only for being "loyal" to it, but for promptly discarding this supposed loyalty upon meeting with herself. That is the way romantic women reason. I did not discover until after we were formally engaged, however, that she was this kind, and that there was an eager, jump-down-your-throaty quality in her manner, very difficult for a thoughtful man to deal with. She would sit on the carpet with her head resting on my lap, until my knees were quite stiff, asking about what deeds of daring I had done when a boy, and how soon I had learned to walk when a baby. She gave me quick little hugs in the street, she kissed her hand to me from doorsteps. It was nice, yet—well—disconcerting. I went through a week of it, and then, finding that she was getting even more emotional rather than less, I decided that I would speak of it to Hattie.

The contrast between the two girls was really interesting. Picture to yourself a blond, delicate creature, with snapping eyes, a petulant, wilful manner, a desire to pet and to be petted to the fullest, and there you have Angelica Perry. Picture an older and steadier woman quite the opposite of this, dark, still, firmly built, and with a large and you might perhaps say a stolid sort of face, and you have Hattie.

The minute I spoke confidentially to Hattie about Angelica's attitude and ways she became so frank that I was startled.

She said to me: "Niblo Sims, this engagement was a mistake. If you are beginning to find it out, so much the better; for you cannot go on this way, you know, forever. I am your cousin, and I do not like it. I feel that you are making our family ridiculous."

"May I ask," said I, "what you mean by this extraordinary statement?"

"What is extraordinary about it, Niblo?"

"Passing over the word 'ridiculous,'" I retorted, "which you are probably using for some womanish reason, or in some womanish sense that I need not investigate, it seems to me sufficiently extraordinary that you should speak of my 'going on in this way.' In what way are you talking about?"

"Getting engaged to girls whom there is no earthly probability of your really marrying."

I told her that I was the one to judge of the probabilities, not she, and inquired what she meant by "girls." Why the plural? She explained that she was thinking not only of my present engagement, but of my previous one to that other girl—the one named Hilda. She spoke of it as though that, too, had been a mistake.

"Why have you been praising me for being 'faithful' to it, then?" inquired I.

"I'd rather see you being loyal to a single blunder," she rejoined, "than constantly stumbling into others. If you are going to keep your eyes tight shut all your life, Niblo Sims, you had better stand just as still as you know how. Every step a man takes blindly—"

"What step have I taken blindly?" I demanded.

"Why, you've engaged yourself to a girl whose ways you object to."

"But that is no evidence of blindness," I quickly informed her. "Don't be so silly. These ways that I object to can be changed."

"How?" laughed Hattie.

"How?" shouted I. "How? Why, that is just what I came to see you about: that is exactly what I am asking you?"

She laughed again. Hattie does a good deal of laughing.

I had left Angelica down-stairs during this interview, and now, finding that I could get no satisfaction out of Hattie, I marched off to get her. Hattie lives in a cheap little room in the Hotel Van Boskirk, which has that famous florist's establishment in the lower story; and, as Angelica seemed to be fond of flowers, I had allowed her to wait for me down in the shop. It proved to have been a frightfully expensive arrangement. That conversation with Hattie cost me twenty-seven dollars. I couldn't say anything very well, because Angelica was so merry about it all, and so urgent that I should come over to see Hattie often and let her wait in the florist's. But I did tell her about not being too romantic; and she immediately promised me she never would, and pinned a red and conspicuous flower in my buttonhole. She seemed to be tractable enough in a way, but I saw she was flighty. No wonder young Minott Broderick couldn't control her.

On our way home we made a little détour to avoid some blasting, and in going through Ames Street we passed a pawnbroker's, where Angelica, peering in the window, spied a hero medal. She darted in at once.

"I wish to buy that medal, please," she informed the proprietor. "What is the price of it?"

"My dear girl—" I protested.

"Ah, Niblo," she urged, "do let me. Do not be jealous, dear. I want it for you, Niblo. You are my hero."

"I'll earn my own hero medals, thank you," said I. "Somebody else's certainly is no use to us. And I don't know what you mean by jealous, Angelica."

"I could keep it in my bureau drawer," she reflected.

The pawnbroker handed it over to her with a flourish. "Twenty dollars," he mumbled. He saw me glaring at him. "Twenty dollars," he continued, hurriedly, "is the price I'd ought to be getting for this beautiful object, but while business is dull this way, I could give it you for ten."

My fiancée was fingering the disk affectionately. "Oh, thank you," she said. "I'll take it. I am so sorry your business is dull to you. You ought to keep a bird-store instead: it would be much more cheery, and I know you would be kind to them. Will you pay the man ten dollars, please, Niblo?"

"I haven't the money," I said, handing her my pocketbook, the contents of which, after the purchase of those flowers, consisted of three one-dollar bills and a two.

"Oh," cried Angelica, examining it. "I must ask you to sell it to me for five dollars, please, because that is all there is in this pocketbook."

The proprietor gave a series of gloomy coughs. "Well, ma'am," he began, but she interrupted to ask whether he had a box he could put it in, and went on to advise him further as to keeping birds. He commenced uneasily to wrap it up.

I put in my oar again: "We sha'n't be able to take tea at Fleuret's, Angelica, if we have no money left."

Angelica looked sympathetically at the proprietor. "Oh, see, we can't give you five dollars, after all," she explained, "because that would leave us nothing for tea at Fleuret's."

He knit his brows, laid the package on the counter, and exhaled a long breath. "Would you very kindly tell me, ma'am," he slowly inquired, "just exactly what you are offering me for this medal?"

"Why, I could give you three dollars, I think," she said. "That would leave us plenty for our tea."

The proprietor dazedly held out his hand for the money.

"No. I'll tell you," frowned Angelica, "I won't buy it at all to-day. We'll come in to-morrow and give you ten. I'm sure it is worth ten dollars, isn't it, Niblo?"

We turned to go. The pawnbroker spluttered out something about ladies being so changeable that he would really rather sell it to-day for three, "owing to business," but Angelica was firm, and we left.

"He doesn't understand, poor man!" she told me.

I intimated that it was she who didn't understand, and took her to task pretty sharply for her childishness. We argued about it all during tea-time, and the next day when I refused to take her back there, we almost quarreled.

"It's not a thing to buy," I kept explaining. "One doesn't buy hero medals, Angelica; one must deserve them."

"How soon could you deserve one for me, then, Niblo?" she asked; and finding that I did not go out at once and attend to it, she cried, and said that of course I would have done it for Hilda, and that she always knew I did not love her. I contended that I did. She cried still more. And in conversation with Hattie, a few days later, I learned that Angelica had been putting her any quantity of questions—such as why I never matched her (Angelica's) frocks with my neckties or handkerchiefs; why I didn't bring her flowers; why my face didn't "light up," as she put it, when I entered the room; why I signed all my letters "Yours truly." Well!—I am a reasonable man, I have no objection to humoring people in these unimportant little matters; but anybody who signs himself "Yours truly" a dozen times a day can't always remember to make it "Yours devotedly " when he is writing his betrothed; and as to wearing an incandescent face, why, I don't know how. I again had to beg Angelica to be more sensible.

She lived in the Windmere Apartments on the west side of the park, I upon the east. Between us in the center of this park was a reservoir which Angelica began to call the Hellespont, and across which she once told me I ought to swim. There was no earthly reason for swimming it, of course. It had an excellent path around its banks.

One afternoon in December, a little after sunset, I was walking along this path on my way to the Windmere, when I saw my fiancée some distance ahead of me, waving her arms and wildly calling me to hurry. I jogged along toward her.

"Oh, hurry, Niblo," she cried; "there's a woman here, drowning!"

I looked over the picket fence down the stone embankment. A dark object, which I presently realized was a woman's hat, was floating on the water. With Angelica's screams echoing in my ear I proceeded at once to jerk off one of my shoes. As soon as I put my stocking foot on the path, however, and felt the chill of it, I was reminded that it was December. I paused. That path was like ice.

I have been told that when people are in peril their lives pass in review before them in an instant; similarly, in my case, a whole train of considerations crossed my mind. I thought of how, for instance, a man could ever make his way down that steep embankment; of how, if he did, he could possibly get back up; of where I had better put my watch while I tried it; of how I had been walking briskly to get warm, was warm, and would now get chilled. These were all highly necessary thoughts, and while they were flashing through my consciousness I took another look at the water. It was absolutely still, I noticed. The hat was still, too. "That hat isn't moving," I told Angelica. "It's no use my going in, my dear. Either there's no woman there or she's drowned already. You wait while I fetch a policeman." And I put my shoe on again.

Angelica couldn't seem to understand me: amazement, anger, and disgust passed speechlessly over her face, and then returned in a body, as it were, and fought for utterance. I resented it. I thought to myself that it was all very well for her to feel that way, but how would she have been feeling if she had been me? A woman's idea is that a man is "supposed" to behave in a certain manner, and therefore he should. I don't accept any such therefore. I say that a man should do the intelligent thing—he should use his common sense. I promptly started off upon the run.

"Niblo," she called, "come back this instant! O Niblo! For shame!"

For shame, eh? The pin-headed girl! What good could I possibly accomplish by spilling myself down that embankment and then groping about in a large, ice-cold reservoir? If there was anybody in there, she would almost certainly be dead, even if I did succeed in finding her. If there wasn't, what an ass I'd have been to jump in at the sight of a hat! The sensible thing was to give the alarm, to get help. I ran faster than ever.

The reservoir was soon left behind. Angelica's cries grew faint and then inaudible as I sped on, and yet I did not meet a single passer-by, let alone a policeman. The park seemed deserted. I decided to try the driveway—surely a policeman would be there. On a path beside the drive I saw something move behind a bush, and rushed toward it. It fled me with shrill squeaks—it was only a woman. "Like some infernal nightmare, all this," I thought, bitterly; "why should I be mixed up in it? What a fuss to make about a hat in the water!"

Just then I spied a policeman on a bench ahead of me, with his grizzled old head hanging forward on his chest and his two hands folded peacefully over his stomach. "Officer!" I cried. "Hey, officer! There is a woman drowning in the reservoir!" I ran up in front of him.

He got up from the bench, pulled his hat over his eyes, and blinked stupidly at me.

"Run, man," I shouted, "run! Come quickly!" He never budged.

"I can't go to that reservoir, friend; it's off my post."

I seized him by the arm. "Never mind your post, hang it!" I told him.

"Get the reservoir policeman to help you," he said, roughly. "My duty's right here."

His hesitation made me furious. I shook him by the shoulder.

"You leggo my shoulder," he commanded.

"You come to that reservoir," I yelled, "or I'll report you."

A dull anger spread slowly over his face. "Where is it, then?" he inquired, shortly.

"I'll show you," I rapped out, and started off once more upon the run, the policeman following.

He was a stoutish type, like most of the park squad. What an absurd practice it is to button up a lot of tired old men in blue uniforms and label them police! This one was in no condition whatever to do much running, and he kept losing wind quite unnecessarily besides, by uttering a long string of things under his breath. Things about how he couldn't run so fast, and why didn't those guys rescue the party themselves, and his duty was to stay on his own post, like he had been ordered. "Why didn't you rescue her yourself?" he shouted, finally. A pretty way for an officer to talk! Did he think visitors were under any obligation to keep leaping into reservoirs? Against park rules, too? I pretended not to hear.

His breathing was getting more and more distressed, and his feet were thudding along that path like the hoofs of a moose. "Is it much farther?" I heard him gasp.

"I don't believe so," I answered—and then began to slow up, with a sudden suspicion dawning in my mind. This wasn't the way. "Dear me," I exclaimed, "we have come the wrong side of the reservoir."

He stopped dead in his tracks, his legs trembling, his shoulders slumping forward. He didn't look at me at all.

"The wrong side," he said, thickly, and rolled his eyes skyward.

"Don't waste time," I admonished him; "we've got to hurry." I detached his clinging fingers from the fence.

It was in the worst possible of humors on each side that we retraced our steps. I sha'n't repeat the remarks the fellow made. He was as surly as a ticket-seller; he refused point-blank to do any further running; and a£ we neared what I saw to be the place, he first began arguing that he could never climb the fence, anyhow, and, when I pooh-poohed this, insisted that at least he must have a bench to help him over. We arrived accordingly, marching single file, with the bench between us.

To my surprise Angelica was not there. I knew the spot, however, because it was just around a little bend in the path, near a clump of beech-trees.

"This is the place," I informed the policeman. "I left a lady here, but she seems to be gone": and I looked over the railing to see where the hat was.

"Gone?" he echoed. "You might have known it. 'Seems to be gone'? Well, say! Did you expect her to put off drowning while you was fetching me?"

"I was referring to my fiancée," I absently explained, still looking over the railing. I couldn't see the hat anywhere.

The policeman sat heavily down upon the bench and stared at me with a sort of admiring horror. "Well, you're a cool one," he said. "This was your feeonsay as was drowning, was it? That must be quite a inconvenience to you. But never mind; everything seems to go wrong some days. Probably you got out of bed this morning left foot foremost."

I paid no attention to him. My mind was busy with conjectures about that hat. It might have sunk, of course—did hats sink for the third time? I fantastically speculated—or somebody else might have come and saved the woman. I wondered how somebody else had managed to scale the embankment. It occurred to me for one unpleasant moment that Angelica herself might have performed a rescue, and thus have put me in a very unwelcome and even a grotesque position. This was not at all probable, but the feeling that she would have liked to do it if she could, made me angry.

The policeman was still talking away. I became conscious that he was asking for my name and address.

"What do you want my name for?" I inquired, suspiciously.

"You made me leave my post, didn't you? And I've got to turn in my report, haven't I? Well, then, the names and addresses of all parties has to be took down in that report, or it's not legal, that's why. I want name and address of yourself and feeonsay for my report."

I was preparing to debate this point with the fellow, when another policeman appeared behind us, and asked my companion what he was doing off post. We started to explain, and I was just telling him about seeing the hat, when he interrupted. That was all right, he said; the reservoir watchman had fished the hat out ten minutes ago and restored it to its owner. Nobody drowned. Lady's hat blew off, lady hunted up watchman, watchman fished out hat. Lady and one or two bystanders had then gone toward the gate.

So I had had my run for nothing. There had been no one in the reservoir, no danger of any kind, nothing but an attack of romantic hysteria on the part of Angelica. Was it wise for me to marry a girl like that? I gave my name to the old policeman, who was saying quite a good deal about what a run he, too, had had for nothing; and I left the park determined to have another and fuller talk with Hattie that very moment.

When I got there, I found that Angelica had preceded me and was marching up and down the flat, rolling her eyes and twitching at her collar. "And I tell you plainly, Hattie," she cried, when I came in, "that I never could marry him, never. He just won't be a hero. I am going to marry Minott Broderick."

I felt glad and sorry. Glad to be rid of Angelica, who, I now saw, had had only a very superficial appreciation of my character and no real understanding of it whatever. Sorry, because I was again without a fiancée.

"I am going to marry Minott," Angelica repeated.

"And whom is my common-sense cousin going to marry?" asked Hattie, giving me a look, and trying in what I thought a rather forced manner to make us all comfortable again.

Angelica observed that it would be better if a man like me remained a bachelor.

"And kept on getting engaged in this way all his life?" protested Hattie. "No, Angelica, the family would prefer to see Niblo married to some one."

I suddenly experienced a dislike for the whole wretched business. Here was I—rich, social, good-humored, not unattractive—involved in a most undesirable situation and not getting anywhere. I knew plenty of women; but either they kept me at arm's-length, or they went to China, like Hilda, or they turned foolish on my hands, like this Angelica. There was no understanding them. They were as remote as polar bears. The only one I could talk in the least freely with was Hattie herself. I came to a decision.

"Hattie," I said, "I think I had better marry you."

"I think so too," smiled Hattie, tapping her fingers quietly together.

"What?" squealed Angelica. "Oh, Hattie! Don't let Niblo Sims make you his wife!"

Hattie's face wore a curious expression. "I'll put it this way," she said, thoughtfully: "my intention is to let Niblo Sims be my husband."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1935, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.