O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924/Professor Boynton Rereads History

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



From Atlantic Monthly

AT TEN minutes before twelve, according to his daily custom, Professor Boynton got up from his study table, stretched his arms vigorously once or twice above his early gray head, and strolled out through the open door of his study to the veranda. At its farther end his daughter Helen was sitting between two of her high-school classmates, all three surrounded by a sea of books and notebooks and scattered papers.

“Why didn’t you ever have me learn any history when I was little, Father?” she reproached him, as he came up the porch. “When you used to teach it——

Boynton let himself down into the hammock behind her. “Probably that’s why. Whether you teach it or whether you write it, you find out how much of it isn’t so. What’s the examination this time?”

“She isn’t giving an examination; it’s a question we’re to write on for Monday. ‘In your opinion, what has Magna Carta given to West Brookins?’ She means, what’s lasted that we get out of it.”

“She’s chosen a good place to put the question,” Boynton commented. “Now if she were teaching in San Francisco, and trying to find what fragments they still had—— What are you deciding?”

“We haven’t finished yet, but there are three things—— What is it, Mother?”

Mrs. Boynton had been putting last touches on the lunch table inside. She came to the door now.

“Nothing. Only I wanted to tell your father something. Edward—Parker hasn’t done a thing toward getting that wall down. He came over to say Mrs. Parker was sick and he couldn’t. Mrs. Thornley says they were chasing each other around and screaming half the night, last night.”

“Where on earth do they get it?” Boynton wondered, briefly. “Sick” for the Parkers had a definite meaning. “I thought she was sent up for a cure of some kind last month?”

“I thought so, too, but she got off. But what I started to say was this: he went out through the back entry, and when I looked, your garden coat was gone. He was the only person here.”

“I’ll kill that old scoundrel one of these days,” Boynton threatened, more amused than angry. “I like that coat. I wonder if Thornley’d mind getting it back for me.”

He went in to the telephone and found the number.

“Thornley? This is Boynton speaking. Thornley, Parker stole a coat from me this morning. A brown one. . . . Yes. Yes, I knew they’d been at it again. Mrs. Thornley told us. If he’s over there working on your lawn, I wonder if you’d mind telling him to leave the coat there till I can get it? He can’t have had time to do anything with it yet. And you might mention to him, too, that if he sets foot on my place again, I’ll save expense and shoot him on sight. Last time it was my best trowel. . . . Oh, over in Brookins, I suppose. You know what law enforcement amounts to over there. . . . Yes, she’s worse than he is.”

He came back laughing to the porch.

“Now, there’s a question, Helen, that Magna Carta didn’t settle. When it comes to a town like this, 90 per cent. of it law-abiding, home-owning professionals, having to stagger along with neighbours like the Parkers—— You young people staying to lunch?”

They were near the end of the meal when Mrs. Boynton, who was facing the open door, motioned through it.

“Look, Edward! It’s both of them.”

Outside, the two Parkers, the official derelicts of West Brookins, were coming waveringly along the pavement, arm in arm. Three or four small boys derided safely from a distance.

It was the boys Boynton saw first. He got up instantly.

“Oh, come, we can’t have that! Why, he’s a man as old as I am! She’s going round to the back, Cara. You head her off and I’ll go down and speak to him.”

Parker bad turned in behind the hedge with which the Boyntons were replacing a partly torn down brick wall. Behind it, he was out of sight from the house, and remembering the three girls at the table, Boynton hurried, with the charitable purpose of saving him the embarrassment of an audience.

“Where’s that coat, Parker?” he demanded, as he came into hearing.

“What coat, Mr. Boynton?”

“Now, look here,” Boynton ordered, with exasperation, “you know what coat as well as I do. Haven’t you just come from Thornley’s? Didn’t he tell you I said I’d finish you if you came near this place again “without bringing it back? If you haven’t it——

“I don’t know about no coat, Mr. Boynton. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Mr. Thornley, he come out an’ said somethin’, but I didn’t know——

The sentence went unfinished. Boynton, facing the speaker from the other side of the pile of bricks, had turned his eyes away in a sort of vicarious shame at his protestations. As the words broke off, he was conscious of something, he hardly knew what—a kind of concussion, a sense of violent disturbance to which there was yet attached no movement. The man in front of him flung up his hands with a choking grunt and crumpled forward. Instinctively, Boynton caught at him as he fell, but he broke through his hold, a dead weight, and dropped across the bricks. On Boynton’s hands and his cuffs blood had flicked itself in sickening red blots. The still sunny lane, with its signs of peaceable labour, was suddenly a place of horror.

And then at once the stillness was broken. Mrs. Parker rushed round the end of the hedge. She threw herself on the thing on the ground, howling and wailing, pulling at it, grotesque, unhuman. Mrs. Boynton had run out, too, and Helen and her friends, and two men from the street, and Boynton knew that he must have cried out, though he had not meant to do so.

The two men dragged Mrs. Parker up and bent over the body. They babbled together of a doctor, though all of them knew in advance that the thing on the ground was dead. Nothing living could have had that look. In the press and sudden confusion Mrs. Boynton was the only one who had a definite intention. She caught hold of Boynton’s sleeve.

‘Come into the house. They’ll look out for things. You have to get—to get this off you.”

She would have accompanied him into the bathroom, but he stopped her at the door. “I have to have a minute to pull myself together. I’ll be down directly. What on earth was it that happened to him!”

Inside, he turned on all the taps. It seemed to him he could never get water enough on his hands. When his hands were clean he pulled off his cuffs and let them drop on the floor, and scrubbed his fingers again after touching them. He could not bear to put the befouled things into the laundry hamper, but with his foot he pushed them out of sight behind the tub.

By the time he came downstairs, the knot of people in the lane had disappeared. Mrs. Boynton was sitting on the porch, and Helen, with scared, reddened eyes, was leaning against her knees. Boynton had recovered enough to be paternal and soothing. He sat on the steps for a few minutes, talking over the grotesque tragedy.

“Poor old soul, I wish I hadn’t harried him about that coat. He was always honest enough when we was sober. They’ve taken him to the morgue, I suppose?—— Well, we’d better get back to work, hadn’t we, little daughter? There’s no advantage to him in our spoiling an afternoon.”

Inside his study his mind refused to apply itself to work. In spite of him, it flashed back again and again to that minute in the lane. He got up and walked up and down the room, puzzling. “What happened to him? What on earth happened to him?” Toward the middle of the afternoon, when he heard a masculine voice answering Mrs. Boynton’s, he took advantage of hearing to stroll out from his seclusion. Their next-door neighbour, Judge Bolling—a judge long since retired—was filling one of the porch chairs. Boynton greeted him briefly.

“Oh, yes, I’m working, but I heard you out here, and I was wondering—Cara, I suppose somebody’s looking out for Mrs. Parker? She wouldn’t have many friends to fall back on.”

“They took her to the hospital.”

“That’s good. If you think one of us ought to go over——

“I don’t.” Mrs. Boynton flushed crimson as she spoke. “I’ve heard from her. Edward, she—she’s——

“Might as well say it, Cara,” the judge advised. He turned round, laughing.

“You ought to know, Boynton, you’re hovering on the edge of the gallows. I was telling Cara just before you came out. Mrs. Parker——

Mrs. Boynton cut in on the sentence. “She says she heard you say, ‘I told you I’d finish you if you came on my place,’ and then——

“Why, yes. Yes, that’s what I did say,” Boynton corroborated. He grasped the other part of the idea slowly. “Do you mean she has the effrontery—the—the assurance——

Their guest laughed again, more reassuringly than before. “She’s still two thirds over. Wait till we see what she says when she’s sober.—Funny thing is, what was the matter with him? Do you suppose one of those boys who were following——

“I haven’t the smallest idea. I’d think he had a fit and struck his head when he fell, only I saw the blood before that. I tried to catch him, and it was all over me.”

“If I were you, I’d forget about seeing it beforehand,” the ex-judge suggested, casually.

He had been gone an hour or two and it was nearly dinner time before the force of his suggestion struck home to Boynton’s mind. He commented on it indignantly to his wife and daughter while they ate.

“A man like Bolling, too! That’s the worst of having anything to do with the courts, even as far up as he was. I’ve never had to testify at an inquest, and naturally I’ve always kept clear of getting on juries or anything of that kind; but as to using any subterfuge to get out of testifying——

By the next morning, though, his attention had been diverted to newer reasons for indignation. Mrs. Parker was still too ill to leave her bed, and the inquest was being postponed for her, but her pre-inquest statements, as they seeped out by way of hospital attendants and doctors, were voluminous. She had heard the damning words, she had seen the brick picked up, the blow struck. She breathed out fire and threatenings between relapses into post-alcoholic grief. The news of her accusations was all over West Brookins. From early breakfast-time the Boynton telephone rang continually as prelude to messages satirical or humorous. Even families in Brookins, the town to which West Brookins was a remote and superior suburb, had heard and added their messages to the nearer ones. Boynton, going out to the box to mail a letter in the middle of the morning, found Mrs. Boynton waiting in the study for him when he came back.

“I don’t know whether you’ll like it, Edward; I’ve just had a ‘phone from Charlie.”

“If I don’t like it, I suppose you won’t have had it. What does Charlie have to say? Offer to defend me?”

‘Something like that. He said he was coming down as soon as he could get out of court, and—and to keep you from talking.”

“To keep me from it?”

“That’s what it sounded like. The ‘phone wasn’t working very well.”

“That’s probably what it was,” Boynton agreed. ‘It has the ring of Charlie’s advice. Well, run along, dear, and I’ll get back to writing. Let me know if he favours us with any more suggestions.”

Inwardly, though, he was pleased. Charlie was his younger brother and in a mild way the black sheep of the family. That is, he had given up an irreproachable law practice in Los Angeles for the sake of criminal practice in San Francisco, and had added to that the extra offence of taking a somewhat holier-than-thou attitude over the change.

“It’ll be good for him,” Boynton mused, while he glanced over the notes on his desk. “To come racing down and find us all going about our business—— It’s what I’ve tried to tell him about those clients of his he gets so excited over. If a man lives in a decent place and leads a decent life, he’s out of reach of accidents. Now with me——

He let his mind go, house by house, down the street. There were people he disliked in some of the houses, people no doubt who disliked him; but there was not one house of them all— he knew it perfectly—in which the ravings of Mrs. Parker could meet with any reception except indignant incredulity.

It was pleasant, though, all the same, that the telephone kept up its friendly clamour, that Mrs. Boynton on the porch was holding what amounted to an impromptu reception. Two or three times Boynton strolled out to add his greetings to his wife’s.

“To let you see the villain of the piece,” he explained his coming. He was good-humouredly qualified in his comments on Mrs. Parker. “Poor old wreck! In her condition no telling what she would see! No, I don’t blame her; the people I do blame are the town authorities. A little more sense of responsibility on their part——

Charlie arrived just before dinner, a smaller man than his brother—hawk-nosed, black-haired. Through the meal they kept chiefly to family topics. Even in the study afterward the newcomer fended off discussion until Mrs. Boynton, leaning forward in her chair, taxed him directly:

“Is it Helen and I that are the difficulty, Charlie? Would you rather talk to Edward by himself?”

He gave her his first unqualified smile. “Could I? It’s a sort of a professional prejudice of mine. You don’t mind?”

He got up to open the door for her and came back from it to the fireplace, where he stood staring down at the logs.

“Well, what do you think, Sherlock?” Boynton challenged him.

“I think you’re in a hole.”

“Did you actually take it seriously enough to come down from San Francisco on account of this?”

“I did.”

“Now that,” Boynton commented, “is what criminal practice does for the mind. I might be in a hole if I were a tramp picked up on Pacific Street—I admit that; but here in West Brookins——

“It’s exactly that ‘here in West Brookins’ that worries me. Did you really tell the fellow you’d kill him?”

“Why, as far as that goes——

“Did you or didn’t you?”

Boynton got up, too. ‘Look here, I’m not on the witness stand. If you’ve come down with any idea of cross examining me——

“Oh, tell it your own way, Ed,” the younger brother agreed, resignedly, and Boynton ran rapidly through the narrative of Parker’s death. When he had finished, Charlie came back to his chair and sat down in the circle of light from the lamp, leaning his arms on the table.

‘And you still don’t think you’re in a hole—after telling me all that?”

“I know I’m not.”

“You said you’d kill him and said it in the presence of witnesses and repeated it over the telephone. Then you were alone with him when he dropped dead; his blood was all over you, and the widow——

“Well, do you believe I did it?”

“That’s not the question.”

“It’s exactly the question. I tell you, Charlie, you couldn’t get any intelligent man in West Brookins—no, nor in Brookins, either, though it’s not a place I’m fond of—to believe a thing like that. Not any more than you’d believe it yourself. The evidence wouldn’t matter; they’d know it wasn’t true.”

“You couldn’t get a change of venue?”

“There isn’t any question of ‘venue.’ You talk as though I’d been held——

His audience seemed not to hear. “I never lived in this particular town, of course, but most of them—— How big a place is it?”

“Three thousand, I believe—West Brookins, that is. Brookins is larger.”

“That’s about what I thought. See here; I knew exactly how you’d treat the thing—that’s why I came down; but we’ve got to take it seriously. It is serious! Any lawyer’d tell you so. This business of being a valued old resident that you seem to be depending on to keep you out of trouble——

“And that will!”

“Sure of it?”

“Of course I’m sure of it.”

The questioner drew in a deep breath. “Well—maybe! But where do you get it, Ed?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“That ‘first-citizen’ stuff? Oh, I’m not trying to hurt your feelings. I’m trying to find out. What do you do in Brookins—I don’t mean the United States; I mean right here in West Brookins—to keep them all so certain about you? Vote once in a while?”

“I always vote.”

“I know you do—for President. Vote in the last town election?”

“I don’t remember——

“I remember all right—even if I wasn’t here. You meant to and you thought you would and you didn’t know anything about either of the candidates, and it looked like rain, and you sat right here and let ’em elect anybody they good and pleased; and now you’ll get tried for murder by those same good and pleased parties.”

Boynton laughed. It was an effort to do it, for he was angry, but he made the effort.

“It’s a beautiful peroration, Charlie. It’s a pity it’s wasted. Even an ex-professor knows that town officials don’t try for murder.”

“Any idea who binds you over to the superior court? Oh, I don’t say a police judge could help it on the evidence, but I do say he won’t break his heart over it—not with one of the little high-and-mighties from West Brookins. If you think the cheapest skate there is likes being elected and run by the scum of a town—— Know any of the police judges?”

“I’ve never had occasion to.”

“Or the town marshal? Or the coroner, for that matter? Then you don’t know the kind of men you’re up against. If you want my advice——

“I seem to be getting it.”

“You’re going to get it. You won’t take it, but you’re going to get it, all right. If I were where you are, I’d do one of two things: either I’d get a theory about that killing and I’d work it for all it was worth, or else I’d get out. Nobody’d look very far for you.”

“You mean—go into hiding?”

“It don’t matter what you call it. Go on a visit if you want to. Just get out of the way for a while till there’s time to look around. And do it now while you’ve the chance to do it.”

“If your other clients——

“I’m not helping you as a client; I’m helping you as a brother. I’m scared, Ed. That’s the truth. If anything I can say can get you away——

“It can’t.”

“I knew it,” Charlie acknowledged, regretfully. ‘I hand it to you as far as that goes. That French-Revolution-Charles-the-First stunt is the one you first citizens always pull when you get into trouble. All right, that’s ended—though I still hope you change your mind before morning. What about the widow? Young? Pretty? Well, I don’t know which is worse—that, or old and feeble, prop of her declining years removed. You needn’t laugh. If you’d had as much experience as I have——

“You’ve had entirely too much, Charlie,” Boynton agreed. This time his laughter was sincere. “You’re trying the case down on Kearney Street. What you overlook is that, even if there should be some preliminary unpleasantness—I don’t believe there will be—still, I have a safe resort. Nothing can go very far without being passed on by a jury. I know enough law for that.”

“It’s the jury you’re depending on?”

“It’s precisely that.”

“You think if the widow took the stand and swore to what she’d heard you say, and cried and had hysterics——

“I think it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. I’ve lived here twelve years; any jury you could get, any dozen men picked at random——

His brother repeated the words thoughtfully after him. ‘Any jury picked at random?’ All right—we’ll pick ’em; enough to show what I mean. Got a telephone book? It won’t be a perfectly fair sample, but it’ll give us an idea. Here, I’ll read the names off.”

He turned to the A’s under West Brookins. “Abrams, Adams, Adamson——

“There’s a good place to stop,” Boynton interrupted the reading. He spoke good-naturedly with an obvious desire not to insist on his triumph. “Any one of those three or all of them. Adams and I have played chess together for years. And Abrams——

“Abrams the one that ‘writes the law textbooks?”

“Yes. He was at the State University when I was, and ever since——

“Ever serve on a jury yourself?”

“I’m exempt. As a teacher——

“It’s ten or twelve years since you did any teaching.”

“Teaching is my profession, though, and naturally——” He saw the application of the question and was silent.

“What does Adams do?”

“He’s a doctor.”

“That exempts him. Adamson?”

“He’s retired now. He was formerly counsel——

“Exempt, then.”

He read off three more names. At the end of the next three he got up and moved his chair over to his brother’s.

“It’ll be quicker to run down the page and check the exceptions. Know Agnew?—Allen, A. R.?—Allen, R. N.?—Alliger?”

“Alliger? I don’t know any Alliger—— Oh, yes, he does odd jobs. He brought me some fertilizer once.”

“And you probably objected to the price and he’s had it in for you ever since. He’ll be eligible—Alsberg?”

They had turned one page and were halfway down the second before Boynton raised his head from above the book.

“I think we needn’t go any farther. I think I see your point.”

“Let’s see what we’ve got, then: one odd-jobs man; one truck farmer—he may get off, it’s just a chance if we get him; one garbage man’s helper; one you don’t know; one delivery-wagon driver—— What’d you say about him? I’ve got him checked twice.”

“I said I’d asked Breck to discharge him because of the way he got orders mixed. If he isn’t feeble-minded——

“He won’t be too feeble-minded to remember that—you can bank on his having that much mind; nor too feeble-minded to get accepted, either, so long as he’s outside an institution. You see what it comes down to. That’s what brought me down as fast as I could travel. I didn’t know anything about this town, but I knew what towns full of retired lawyers and bankers and professors and cultured classes generally, are always like. Look at Boston! Rottenest city government—— You wouldn’t think now of what I said a while ago about going off for a visit for a while? It’s just till we’d have time to get our hands on some clues and get in first with them. When you’re up against a combination like this——

Professor Boynton got to his feet. His face was suddenly as old as his gray hair. He swallowed hard before he spoke.

“No,” he said. He stood looking down into the fire. “It’s Helen I’m thinking of, of course. She’s just at that age—— But no! Whatever I’ve done——

“But it’s what you haven’t done! Good God, Ed, if you’d done anything to him——

“I don’t mean that,” Boynton said. For a little while he resumed his contemplation of the fire. “What I mean is this: all my life I’ve prided myself on being a good citizen. If I haven’t been——” He paused. “Since I haven’t been, to take the consequences of not being——

“But you couldn’t have turned the thing—not single-handed.”

“I could have helped. In a place as small as this, if I’’d set the example——” He stopped: the telephone, which had been quiet longer than at any other time in the day, was ringing again. “Cara’s gone upstairs, I think. Ill answer it.”

I’ll answer it! The less you talk, the better. If it’s anybody trying to get a statement out of you——” He went out to the instrument. Inside the study, his brother could hear the quick bark of his responses.

“Hello. . . . Yes. . . . Yes. . . . No, he can’t come just now. This is his brother. . . . Yes. . . Yes. What! . . . What’s that? . . . Yes, I got you!”

There was a long listening silence. Then the receiver crashed down on the hook and Charlie came back into the study. His face was queerly mottled with red and his teeth ate at his unsteady lower lip.

“God’s good to you, Ed! The widow got up when they weren’t watching her and got hold of something she thought was whiskey. She’s just made a statement in expectation of death. She threw the brick herself—came round from behind you. He’d been chasing her with a knife the night before and that was her answer. It was a Judge Somebody telephoned. He said he and some of your other friends were coming over.”

He stopped, waiting for his brother to answer, but Boynton said nothing.

“I think I’ll duck out before they come. I’ve a meeting in town I oughtn’t to cut if I can help it. . . . But I’m glad! You know that. I’m tickled to death. I could sit down and cry, just out of plain relief. You’ll say good-bye to Cara for me, won’t you? And the next time you get accused of murder or arson or kidnapping——

But Professor Boynton, though he held his brother’s hand longer than was usual with him, did not respond to the joking. When he was alone, he went to one of the bookcases and took down from it a little shabby brown-bound volume and turned its familiar leaves. The passage he turned to he could have repeated as well without the book as with it:

“No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed; nor will we go upon him, nor send upon him, except by the legal judgment of his peers. . . .

The telephone book was still open on the desk. His eyes went from the page in front of him to the checked names on its list—to the names of the garbage man and the odd-jobs man and the driver of the delivery wagon.

‘His peers!” Boynton quoted under his breath. ‘By legal judgment of [my] peers.” The colour flooded his face, even to his rim of gray hair. “My superiors! The men I’ve left alone at Runnymede!”

He was still holding the book between his fingers when the doorbell sounded and he went out to let in his other peers—the recreant barons of West Brookins.