The Bystander

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THE BYSTANDER

A STORY OF ELECTION NIGHT IN NEW YORK

BY HARVEY O'HIGGINS

ILLUSTRATED BY F. X. CHAMBERLIN


HE had seen Broadway, that afternoon, for the first time; and now, at night, he did not recognize it. He had seen it thronged with men and women who had passed him—as they had passed one another—without so much as looking at him, without showing any of the natural curiosity about him which he had felt about them, with an indifference that did not even seem to acknowledge their common humanity. He had been reminded of the ants he used to watch as a boy, in the fields at home, hurrying past one another, scrambling over one another, without stopping for a moment to assist or direct, or in any way recognize one another as members of a community engaged in a common task.

And now, suddenly, they had dropped all that indifference as if it had been a pretense. When a young man passed a young woman, he tickled her chin with a bunch of feathers fastened to a small stick; and she replied by doing the same to him, by throwing in his face a handful of chopped paper, or by catching the feathers of his "tickler" and struggling to take it from him. It was as if they were intimate friends in some Christmas game that allowed them everything but the freedom of the mistletoe. They blew tin horns in one another's faces, or beat one another on the heads and shoulders with little bladders tied to the lashes of toy whips. Boys with cow-bells, with watchman's rattles, with calliope whistles, with military bugles, and automobile horns, fought their way through the crowds in rough squads. Men wore placards on their hats—"I told you so," "Now will you be good?"—and were as solemn-faced under these absurdities as a labor parade. Brass bands tooted and blared on hotel balconies; fireworks detonated in the public squares; red-lights on the street-corners cast the stage glare of a witches' orgy on the riot. From a distance it sounded like an uprising of the people and a battle in the streets.

It was the public larking of election night in New York; and Fasken walked through it as if he had intruded on a neighborhood "party" to which he had not been invited. When a girl thrust her feather tickler in his face, he nodded and blushed at her as she went by. He passed the men with an apologetic smile that was intended to be ingratiating without being too forward. He wanted to join in their pranks, but he did not quite dare; and he struggled against his own stiffness, self-consciously, afraid of looking like a fool, of smiling at some one who would stare him down, of taking a liberty that would be resented. He was not old enough to have acquired any heavy-waisted dignity, but the arid monotony of his clerical work in a railroad freight-office had somewhat dried up his youthfulness, forming upon him that exterior crust which grows in solitude like a shell on the spirit and a mask on the face.

A woman pelted him with confetti, and surprised him into a laugh. A trio of girls, who followed, had the faces of young bacchantes, their innocent eyes at once daring and timorous, giving the invitation to license only to flee from it. He eased the pinch of his stiff felt hat on his forehead, pushing it back from his brow.

Then a young woman, with a white automobile-veil thrown over her hat and loosely knotted under her chin, put her feather tickler in his eyes, and he caught at it and grasped her hand. She was crushed against him by the clogging of the opposing currents of movement on the sidewalk, and she laughed up at him, her cheeks flushed pink against the white chiffon.

"Please!" she said. "Please don't break it!"

She had an effect of wholesomeness and animation, of a certain slender sort of young beauty that associated itself in his mind with the tennis-court. A sudden onslaught of roughs in the throng behind her threw her into his arms, and he protected her as best he could while they were jostled together and forced aside. He was rigidly conscious of their bodily contact. She yielded to him softly, smiling with as little embarrassment as if she were enjoying her first waltz.

When the young hoodlums had shoved by and the pressure of the crowd had eased again, she was claimed by a man in an automobile-cap and a woman, who was apparently either French or Jewish. Fasken released her, still holding her hand. The current took her. She drifted away from him, smiling back over her shoulder until another feather tickler was thrust into his face and he lost sight of her.

And now he found himself as intoxicated as were all around him with the spirit of carnival. He wanted to follow the girl, to make love to her; to kiss her. He even made as if to turn back, but the impatience of those whose progress he opposed swept him away, and he went on, bewildered by his own agitation, his hands full of feathers that he had torn from a stick, catching at the girls who attacked him, and determined that if another were forced into his arms he would not let her go so easily.

It was in this condition that he came to the entrance steps of his hotel, where he could stand to have a view of the sheet of a cinematograph—with its moving pictures, cartoons, and announcements of "returns"—and still have the carnival streaming by on the sidewalk before him. He climbed upon the pedestal of a bronze electric lamp, that raised its great arms above his head like a seven-branched candlestick. He looked about him, his heart thumping, his hands trembling, in a shaken repression of the excitement that was hot in his eyes.

On the lowest step there were half a dozen young men with upturned faces, who pretended to be interested in the pictures on the sheet. As soon as any girl, in passing, dared to take advantage of their absorption and poke at their chins, they attacked her in a body, with a wild yell, dragged her from her escort, rushed her up the steps to the hotel doorway, and left her there, imprisoned by the others who were in the game—until her escort, having forced his way in after her, released her again. Fasken, as soon as he saw what was going on, joined in the fun, half-strangled with suppressed laughter, his face showing his state of mind only in the wrinkles of a hysteric grin.

And then the girl in the white veil, with whom he had had his first encounter, reappeared on the sidewalk, returning toward Madison Square; and with the same audacious demureness as before she whisked her stick of feathers into the faces of the five conspirators on the lowest step. Immediately they pounced upon her like a band of Indians. Fasken shouldered down into the scrimmage to help her. She was shot into his arms, her mouth open, her hands limp, helpless with laughter; and he was carried up the steps with her and pinned against the hotel door.

"Are you hurt? Are you hurt?" he whispered.

She had her hands up to her face, shaking.

"N-no," she answered, in a low voice invitingly.

She did not draw away from him. He looked down over the heads of the others, and saw the man in the automobile-cap fighting his way up the steps after her, in a temper. There were curses and laughter and angry cries. Fasken threw open the hotel door.

"Come in—inside!"

He almost carried her. As soon as they were under the brilliant lights of the main hall, she released herself and began hurriedly to retie her veil, which had been pulled down from her hat. Behind the muffling chiffon, she asked, under her breath, in a sort of daring aside:

"Is there a door—another door?"

"Yes, yes. This way. Over here!"

He spoke in the tense voice of an excitement at once hushed and hurried. She started forward, pinning her hat as she went. They crossed the tile-floored lobby hastily. When they had turned down a plush-carpeted hall, he steadied his tone to add:

"This will take us out on the other street."

She did not reply. In the deserted silence that had succeeded the uproar outdoors, he heard the swish of her skirts beside him, and a slow beating as if of a drum that kept time with their steps; and he did not recognize this last as the pulse of the blood in his ears. He did not look at her, although he noticed that she had dropped behind a pace to look at him.

He drew open the swinging glass door for her. As she passed in front of him she startled him with her smile—the smile of a girl who has surrendered to a bold impulse which she does not quite understand, and of which she is half afraid.

The street was dark. The noises from Broadway rang in it hollowly. She said:

"You see, I lost it—the feathers—after all," and showed him her empty hands.

There was something appealingly unarmed and unprotected in her gesture. It told him that she had recognized him and trusted herself to him again.

"You can get another," he said hoarsely.

"They were taking me home. I didn't want to go."

"Oh, was that it?"

His laugh was nervous and uncertain. It convinced her, evidently, that she need not fear him. She looked back through the glass doors.

"He'll follow us!" she cried, and catching Fasken's arm, she turned toward Fifth Avenue and began to hurry him along, almost at a run, with little inarticulate murmurs and bubbles of mirth, as if they were partners at some boarding-school dance innocently escaping from a chaperon.


II

Fifth Avenue was as dim and empty as behind the scenes of an opera stage—echoing distantly with music and voices, and catching glimpses, down the cross-streets, as of a massed chorus and calcium lights. The quick pace and the girl's high spirits had broken the last restraint of Fasken's awkwardness. He began to talk in a gay voice, with all the freedom that comes of anonymity.

He told her, first, of a memory that had been recalled to him by his meeting with her. As a boy, he and his school companions used to go to the railroad-station in the summer evenings, to see the New-York express "go through" his native town, to watch the travelers at the car-windows, and smile flirtatiously at the girls. One night, one of the latter—although she had not more than glanced at him before—just as the train pulled out, threw him a kiss.

"She looked like you, I think." he said breathlessly. "You reminded me of her, anyway."

She replied, with a sedateness that seemed to him all the more bold:

"Perhaps it was I, and they wouldn't let me speak to you. Where was it?"

He named the city. He still lived there; he had never been able to get away, although he had taken a position in the railroad offices in a vague desire to be at least in touch with travel.

"I'll have to go back in a few days," he said. "And watch the express trains again," he added.

"If I ever go past," she promised, "I'll watch at the window for you!"

He laughed as if it were a famous joke. He was almost handsome now that his natural boyishness had found expression in his face. He wore a new paddock overcoat, which he had bought ready made that morning, and he was simply conscious that he looked well. He found himself uplifted to the level of a romantic adventure, and he beamed on the girl.

"Will you, really?"

"If they let me."

"Who are 'they'?"

"Who are you?" she replied pertly; but her voice had already a tone of being bolder than her spirit, and he was aware that in the quiet of the avenue the carnival impulse that had carried her off with him had almost spent itself.

He tried to put her at her ease with him by making an open confession of his name, and of the fact that it was his first visit to New York. He told her that he had been lost in the crowds, and ignored, and lonely, and that the meeting with her had been doubly delightful because of all this. He did not foresee that his confidences might have the opposite effect from the one he had intended; that they stripped him of the anonymity which was half the romance of the situation; that they put him among the commonplaces of life as a provincial in no way distinguished—not even by being a part of the large gaieties of the night; that they might alarm her by so patently expecting a return from her in kind.

"I think I had better go back now," she said suddenly.

"Why?" he cried. "You don't have to. Can't you—"

She had turned.

"They'll be frightened."

"Can't you telephone? Tell them you're safe—that you'll join them later. The fun—on Broadway—has only just started."

"I can't. I don't know where they are."

"Telephone to your home—to your hotel."

She shook her head.

"Father doesn't know I'm out. I'll go back down Broadway with you, but I must go back."

She turned into a cross street, walking quickly in her long tan coat.

"And I'll never see you again," he said helplessly.

"You forget the car-window!"

And that reply put him into revolt against the attitude of life which it implied—the attitude of the bystander—an attitude that had been forced upon him all his days. He had had his mother and sisters to support; and while his school friends had enjoyed the adventures of love and marriage or of seeking new fortunes and seeing the world, he had been made a drudge to family duty, and held down to his desk. Life bad gone past him with glimpses of smiling travelers, who paused for a moment to watch him where he stood. Love had thrown him a kiss that he could not follow. He had seen a hundred inviting opportunities dwindling like express trains down the tracks.

This present trip to New York was his first real holiday, and it had been made possible by the wedding of the last of his unmarried sisters. He was free. Here was an opportunity that might carry him anywhere.

"Don't go," he said. "Please don't go! This is the first fun I've had in years. Or, let me see you again here. I'll be in town. I'll stay. I'll be all alone. I'm—why did you come with me at all if you were going to turn back in five minutes?"

She shook her head, as if in denial of his plea; but he saw that she was smiling.

"Every one seemed to be having such a good time," she said. "I wanted to join it. I can't stay away any longer, or perhaps I would."

"But to-morrow?"

"They wouldn't let me. I had to coax Frances to let me come with her to-night."

"Is she your sister?"

"She's the maid."

"You live in New York?" he ventured, undiscouraged.

"Sometimes. I was here at school."

"A boarding-school?"

"I'm not there now. I'm a graduate."

She laughed; and he felt that he was playing blindman's buff and she eluding him.

"All right," he said bitterly, and ignored her in a silence that was sulky.

They were approaching the roar of Broadway.

"I'm sorry," she said, but he did not reply; her manner belied her words.

They forced their way into the downward stream of celebrants, and she took his arm to save herself from being separated from him. He received a blow on the top of his hat with a bladder; they were showered with confetti, like a bride and groom. A man reached across him to brush her face with a tickler. Fasken snatched at the stick, got it away from its owner with a sudden turn of the wrist, and gave it to her. She could not make herself heard above the noise, but she thanked him with a pressure on his arm and with an intimate, bright smile when he looked down at her.

It goaded him to a new determination. He did not see that she was too girlishly young and irresponsible to be bound to any serious issue of her escapade; but he saw that if he lost her now he would not be able to conceal it from himself any longer that he had always been less the victim of fate than of his own futility.

They turned from Broadwav into the cross street on which the side door of the hotel opened. They did not speak. She stopped him on the steps and held out her feather tickler to him as if it were a flower.

"Good-by." she said. "Don't come in with me! I'll find them."

"You know my name," he broke out. "I'm in the freight-office there. Won't you write—just to let me know?"

"I haven't told you." she said gently. "We can't. I can't."

He had her hand in both of his.

"It's the first time I ever asked any one." he pleaded. "It isn't much to ask. Oh, please."

Her face softened to a temptation.

"Do you like me?"

He nodded, choked, looking up at her as if clinging to her with dumb eyes. Her whole expression was transfused with a girlish emotion, at once yielding and triumphant.

"Will you always remember me?" she said.

"Yes, yes—always!"

She stooped down to him. He caught and held her.

"Good-by, then," she whispered. "You're nice, too. I like you. If you'll promise not to follow me—"

She was blushing hotly. He understood that she was going to kiss him.

"I promise!"

She wavered, her lips trembling. He waited as if he had been pinioned, as weak as a condemned man whose emotions have left him numb; and while he was still waiting—she slipped out of his grasp and turned. The door was thrown open and the man in the automobile-cap appeared.

"Where—" he began.

She pushed him back violently into the hall; the door thudded shut against its weather-stripping; and she was gone.

Fasken remained a long time, silent, standing in the shadow, with her tickler in his hand. Suddenly, he stepped into the light, raised the stick of feathers above his head—in a convulsive despair of himself and his lot in life—flung it on the sidewalk before him, and ground it into the stones with a murderous heel.


III

The morning came to Broadway like daylight to the room of an all-night debauch; and Fasken descended the front steps of his hotel, with a cheap, yellow suit-case in his hand, dusty to the knees, his bat jammed down on his eyebrows, as dull-faced as the day. He walked to the corner slowly, and saw the confetti blown with the dust into the gutters; the pavements strewn with papers and feathers, with broken horns, torn banners, and the wreck of a stuffed effigy scattered in rags. The early workers, hurrying to the Elevated Railroad, passed him without a glance. Three girls, coming around the corner, brushed against him and forced him aside. A policeman looked him over, incuriously, and yawned. Life had resumed its mask of civilization, its conventional indifference, its public disavowal even of his common humanity.

He turned into the cross street, came to the side door of the hotel, hesitated at the sight of her feather tickler hanging broken over the curbstone—its feathers waving feebly in the wind—and then passed on, with the blank face of a bankrupt who sees his last penny still lying where he had flung it in the mud.

He was going home.


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


The author died in 1929, 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.