The Owls and the Gladiator

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The Owls and the Gladiator


TIME: a cool November morning. Place: as usual, Central Park, New York—at the entrance nearest my house. Person present: Niblo Sims—that is, myself—on a bench. Atmosphere: distinctly one of annoyance.

I will begin by saying that I do not like queer people. Some of them are interesting in a way, and some may be comic, but I don't believe we feel really comfortable in their society. I think we all prefer people who behave in a sensible manner. I certainly should hate very much to be queer myself. Yet I—of all people—had just been asked by my wife to "do no more queer things."

She had reference to some little incident at the club, of which young Grillquist had given her a distorted account. I don't care to go into it. It's all past and gone. I will merely say concerning that incident that though it was queer, I wasn't. It makes all the difference in the world in such cases, which it is that's peculiar—the circumstances or the man. I cannot be held accountable for circumstances. I didn't make the world.

After my little vacation in the Adirondacks I might have forgotten the whole matter, if my wife hadn't chosen to bring up the disagreeable subject. I had really been feeling quite placid and fit till she spoke. I made up my mind to this, that Hattie would have to learn to be more reasonable and to understand me better. When a man instinctively dislikes all eccentric behavior, it's a little too ridiculous to beg him not to indulge in it.

Sitting there in the Park, absorbed in these restless reflections, I gradually became aware that two policemen were throwing stones at a tree. I assumed that they knew what they were about, and paid small attention to them. The loungers, however, and the idle women and children soon began gathering around and speculating on what the matter was. One of them, a forward young creature in a red hat and furs, presently stepped up and asked the policemen what they meant, throwing stones around that way. She said they might hit her baby.

"It's like this, lady," they courteously responded. "There's owls in that tree."

"Oh!" she cried, "will baby be able to see them? Why, I think that's too sweet!"

The policemen said nothing further, but began throwing stones again.

"Oh!" the girl said, "don't! Don't! You might hurt them!"

That was just what they wished to do, the policemen declared; and when she protested, they said there was nothing sweet about owls. They said she mightn't know it, but owls flew about and attacked people viciously at night. And when she asked in what way and what people, they said, crossly:

"They bite! They bite us. How would you like to go on duty here at night and get all tore up by a owl?"

They were evidently in earnest, very much so; but several of the women laughed provokingly at them, and the girl said, "Oh, nonsense!"

The policemen said, "Nonsense, is it?" and showed her their caps. "Is a hole like that nonsense?" one of them vindictively demanded. You could do very little to owls at night, he explained—it was too dark, and they swooped so. But he had spotted this tree as being one place where they came from, and he was just going to learn them to go biting policemen.

As I walked back to the house I reflected that every one has his troubles—troubles that other people couldn't imagine existed, and yet very real ones. It made me feel better about mine. And I thought how poor Hattie would have probably called this owl matter "queer," and how unjust it was of her or any one to use such a word just because a thing seemed a bit unusual or hard to understand.

When I reached home I found to my regret that my brother Talbot was present. It prevented me from speaking to Hattie as I had intended. I sat calm and silent throughout lunch, waiting till he should have gone, while he and Hattie talked, talked, talked, till my ears were tired listening. After lunch it got worse. The conversation turned upon clothes. With all the most important things in the world to discuss, is it worth while to chatter merely about what covers the body? I felt rather sorry and even a little ashamed of my family to see them sit there and dwell on that kind of a subject.

"Clothes are a nuisance," I said.

My wife gave a quick little laugh, and remarked, "Even hats?"

She had gone with me the day before to my hatter's, where I had bought a new derby, which I had needed very much. I had had some trouble getting what I required, and my wife had made fun of me.

"There's a general belief, Teapot," she said to Talbot (I wish she wouldn't call him Teapot), "that women waste hours and hours and hours buying hats, while a man simply says, 'Seven and an eighth,' and takes what he gets. But you know how little time I spend on them."

"I do, Hattie," he said. "You give one look around and immediately say, 'Show me that one'; and the minute you get it on your head you start pinning it in place and telling the girl to charge it to Mrs. Niblo Sims—S, I, M, S, Sims—and you walk out of the shop. You always know your own mind."

"Well," said my wife, pensively, patting Talbot on the hand, "Niblo has a way with his derbies that's very, very different. I used to think derbies were all just alike before I married, but, dear me, I was mistaken. Some are too high for Niblo; some are too squat, or too broad; some aren't curved enough; some have the wrong kind of brim. And after he has chosen the least obnoxious out of the pile, it has to go down-stairs in a little derby elevator to be heated and entirely recast and shaped to his head; and they don't get it right, so it has to keep, going back down; and when it is lunch-time he says, discontentedly, 'Well, I'll try it that way for a while,' and walks home with me, feeling of it, and pulling it down on his head and complaining that it leaves a mark; and as soon as he gets home he telephones them to send for it and take the thing back. And he speaks so harshly to them over the telephone, and gets so wrought up about the hat's not fitting, that it sounds as though he never wanted to see a hat again in his life."

Talbot said yes, and that I'd been even worse about shirts. "I think Niblo's getting queer in some ways," he added, giving her a wink.

I rose and went to the door. "I am sorry," I said, "to hear you keep talking as though I were odd or eccentric. I pay what I think is a proper attention to having things right. But I also say clothes are a nuisance; and it's bad enough buying them, without discussing the difficulties afterward. I would far sooner go without clothes altogether than do that." And I went off and left them.

"I think I'll go with him," I heard Talbot saying to Hattie.

I hurried at once from the house and caught a 'bus at the corner. When I got to the street where my club is I got off, intending to go in; but it occurred to me Talbot might come there, and I was sick of the fellow. So I took another 'bus, an up-town one, and went up the west side.

As we went up Broadway I thought of those new studio buildings in West Sixty-seventh Street and decided I'd just drop in there and see what they were like. E. K. White, I knew, had moved in there. A crabbed sort of chap, but I wished to see some one; I needed to get my mind off of Hattie.

E. K.'s wife let me in. She said Mr. White was busy, he was behind with his work, but would I sit with her for a little? I saw she didn't wish it—she seemed vague and preoccupied, as though anxious to get back to something. But I sat down and stayed a long time with her nevertheless, because if I hadn't she would probably have thought me unfriendly. That's the way people are. I've made many a dreary call on persons who weren't glad to see me, just in order to be friendly. One has to be ready to take the bad with the good in this world. This call on Mrs. White, I may mention, was one of the dreariest. But at least it was better than having a row in my home.

After perhaps half an hour, White himself came to the door. "That dog of a gladiator hasn't shown up, Jane," he began; and then, seeing me, he stopped. "Humph!" he said. "It's Sims, eh? You must look out for this fellow, Jane. One hears wild tales about him, sometimes—from his brother and Grillquist. Maybe this is one of his quiet days, though. Will you come into the studio?"

That's the way White often talks; it's his notion of banter. Some people may like it; I don't. But Mrs. White was slipping off, and I didn't wish to leave there too soon. And, heavens!—White's harmless enough, even when he's offensive. So I went down the passageway with him, without saying anything.

His studio was the most disorderly room I had ever seen. Cigarette-butts, old clothes, tables covered with papers and tubes of paint, chairs filled with bundles, and over at the far end a stoutish but striking young woman. She was dressed rather oddly—some clinging white stuff and a wreath. Hair down. No shoes. But in spite of her irregular appearance, I could see she was nice. She was also good-looking. I bowed pleasantly. I like being affable, when possible, to all sorts of people.

"My model, Miss Yecker," said White. "She's posing as a wood-nymph; here's the picture. A classical scene, as you see. She's pleading to this Roman gladiator she's met in the forest."

Then Miss Yecker spoke up. She had a rather thin, piercing voice, considering her size; but, as I said, she was nice.

"I didn't even know what a gladiator was when I began," she confided. She came and stood beside me, with a smile, as I looked at the painting. "But you see he's like a soldier, one of those soldiers they have in history-books. This is a cuirass he's got on, and here's his grooves—I mean greaves—and his helmet. And by rights he should be carrying a sword, spear, and shield, and a battle-ax; but Mr. White's left the ax out."

"She doesn't like this gladiator I've got for her," White said, going over to the window. He looked out, swore briefly, and fell to work scraping his palette. I sat down on the sofa. Miss Yecker said, impulsively, "I'm afraid I—there's not room, I'm afraid, is there?—you must excuse me if I don't sit down with you." She laid her hand on the pillows to straighten them, blushed, and drew back.

"He hasn't asked you, has he?" White said, coldly. His tone wasn't courteous. It wasn't at all the tone to employ toward a handsome young woman. I tried to make up for it by rising and offering the whole sofa to her, but this embarrassed her dreadfully; and it finally appeared that the only way to put her at her ease was for us to sit down together. This we did. I had certainly never sat on a sofa with a wood-nymph before!

I didn't quite know what to think of her. She seemed to be fresh and wholesome, and with a little training I thought she might be nice to know. Of course I am no trainer. But it was a pity—she seemed so warm and willing. And she was agreeable; she wished to be pleasing to people. I like that, in a woman. As we sat there she told me, between fits of shyness and trust, about some of her ideas, and especially about her work on this picture. She said the man who was posing as the gladiator was making things hard for her, always trying to be funny, and she had her living to earn. I sympathized with her—I loathe men who try to be funny. They remind me of Talbot. She said she wished that I'd be the gladiator.

"That's a good idea," said White, waking up. "You're such a wizened old bean-pole, my dear Sims, that it hadn't occurred to me. But at least you've got height. Will you pose a bit? My man model's late."

That's White's idea of the proper way of asking a favor. I declined to oblige him, though even then I half wished to try it. The armor was splendid. Miss Yecker got me to put on the helmet and led me off to a mirror. A helmet does set off the face of a man more than a derby. It dignifies manhood.

"Oh, you must, Mr. Sims!" said the wood-nymph....

Half an hour later I had taken off my clothes in the dressing-room, and was garbed as a gladiator, with Miss Yecker kneeling to me admiringly while E. K. White painted us. It was all right at first. I looked martial and grim in the mirror. But before very long my legs began to feel cold. And when I looked down at Miss Yecker I could see two gold teeth. This made the whole thing less romantic. Also, holding my pose made my arm stiff. I wondered if people got paralysis—or pneumonia—posing.

The pose itself was a tiresome one to maintain, in that it required Miss Yecker and myself to stare at each other; and as I thus examined her, fixedly, I grew to dislike her. A heaviness, both physical and mental, appeared in her face. She was vulgar. I doubtless betrayed my changed views of her by my expression, for she looked at first puzzled, then morose, then resentful and haughty. At least those were the sentiments I thought I discerned in her eyes. When two people stare long at each other their inside feelings show. It was rather uncomfortable to be conscious of this growing antagonism. I disliked White, too; he wasn't considerate. He stopped to let me rest now and then; but he was in a hurry. Miss Yecker said I ought to try harder to let Mr. White work. White grew very curt in the way he kept ordering me around.

I began to feel I was in a mess and had better go home. Then an anxious thought came to me. "You aren't painting in my face?" I asked. "I couldn't allow my likeness, of course, to appear in such—"

I had glanced at Miss Yecker, disapprovingly, I suppose, as I spoke.

"What!" she now said, indignantly. "'In such company'?" She got up off her knees.

I'd been going to say "such a costume," I nervously explained—"such surroundings." White wanted to know what the matter was with the surroundings. We all grew rather tense. I said I had come to his studio so as not to be fretted, and I'd have to ask him and Miss Yecker to take care how they spoke to me.

There had been a noise in the hall for some minutes—men calling to one another. We had given it no attention at first, but it now grew much louder; we heard people running, and somebody banged on the door.

"Come in!" White shouted, without giving one thought to my feelings and the way I was clad.

"I will not allow it!" I cried, getting back of a screen.

The door was flung open. A wave of smoke swirled hotly in. The uproar now was deafening. "Fire! Fire!" the man screamed. "Get out, you! You ain't got a minute!" Frantic bells began clanging.

We stared—shook—and rushed for the door, while White yelled for his wife. Then swiftly I thought of my clothes, and ran back to the dressing-room. I heard a loud crash in the hall, frightful roars, women's shrieks. I snatched up the things on the chair and dashed out into the hall. I don't know how I got down the stairs. I fell flat once or twice. In the street a huge crowd was collecting. They jeered horribly at me. I saw an old horse-cab and ran for it—it was down near the car-tracks. As I jumped in and slammed the door after me, some one tugged at the handle. I pulled down the shade with one hand, held the door with the other.

I heard squealing. "Home, driver!" I called.

The squealing continued, and it sounded peculiarly wrathful. I wondered why any one should come and squeal peculiarly at me when I wished to go home. A sudden and much stronger tug pulled the door partly open, and in the crack I saw a great, mottled face with a sodden mustache.

"Stop your squealing," I ordered. "Who are you?"

"I ain't done no squealing," the fellow said, in a deep voice. "I'm the driver; and this lady here, she says to let her right into the cab."

"I refuse," I declared. "Go away! Can't you see I'm not dressed?"

Some one shook the door violently.

"She says you got her clothes," said the driver.

I let go the door, felt of my bundle; and there, sure enough, lying on top of my own things, were some of a woman's. I plucked off a boa, two long gloves—held them dazedly out. There stood the wood-nymph.

"You brute!" she was saying. She rejected with violence her boa. There was a crowd in the street. "Put this thing on and go!" I said, sharply. I wished to be off.

Miss Yecker just burst into tears and climbed into the cab.

"But you mustn't," I cried, poking and pushing her. She felt like a pudding.

Miss Yecker scratched bitterly at my face, forcing me to draw back. "Get out of here, driver!" I heard a policeman call loudly. "Can't block up this street. You get back there!" he ordered the crowd, on all sides of the cab. They got back; the horse started forward. We turned down the avenue.

I was naturally furious. I steadied my helmet, which the cab was half jolting from my head, and commandingly said to her, "Now, madam, this is my cab!"

"I'll show you whose cab it is!" she wept; "I'm not goin'-a-be insulted."

We immediately fell into a most strangely intimate quarrel. She said very personal things; I did, too. We both said them at once. We reproached each other warmly and bitterly, just as though we were married. I could never have dreamed of a man's having such an experience. All this time she kept snatching bits of clothing from my little pile, and shaking them accusingly at me—and I found all were hers. I had brought the wrong chairful and left my own garments behind.

Our chief cause of difference was that we each wanted the cab. I had seen the cab first and engaged it, and I now had to have it, of course, having no street apparel. On the other hand, she persistently refused to leave, as I urged, until I should get out and give her a chance to put all her things on.

She was dressed quite enough as it was, I repeatedly told her. Her robe as a wood-nymph was the amplest a nymph ever wore. It was positively bunchy—she was like some old Eskimo wood-nymph. It was a bit odd perhaps, but who notices when a woman wears odd things? They dress so preposterously, anyhow. She could perfectly well have gone home on the top of a 'bus.

Her plan was, however, for us to drive into the Park and find some quiet place where I could get out while she dressed. Then, she said, she would give me the cab. My own cab, mind! However, I agreed to do this, if I could first get an overcoat to put on while I waited. I couldn't wait around in the Park with a cold, tin cuirass on.

I wasn't going to go up my own stoop dressed like a dashed lunatic. She said, let the driver go in, then, and bring out the overcoat; but that would have brought Hattie; and each time I looked at Miss Yecker I knew that wouldn't do. We finally decided to drive down to Talbot's apartment. I figured that he would be out and that we could have the man at the door send up word to his Jap that Mr. Sims wanted his overcoat—devilish quick.

Miss Yecker prepared to tell the doorman all this through the window, by putting her hat on and a light-green three-quarter-length wrap. I couldn't show myself, naturally; but she granted that she could. She could fix up enough, she admitted, to look out of the window.

It might have worked perfectly, but the man who came out to the cab was a spying old snake who caught sight of me when he should have been listening to Miss Yecker, and went off looking over his shoulder with his face puckered up. She, too, was to blame for not fitting herself right in the window, so she would have filled it. The whole thing was bungled. And, to add to the failure, the man brought word that Talbot was there, and had said that he'd not give the lady so much as a cuff-button. Thinking he might come down, I at once had the cabman drive off.

After some further argument we moodily returned to the Park, and drove up that small hill where they've put General Bolivar's statue. You may know the place; it's just off the west drive, and no one goes up it because all there is to see is this statue. Its advantage to me now was that there are lots of trees all around. It's quite hidden. I gingerly got out there to let that poor foolish woman dress.

It was really quite cold. I stood back of the cab and close to it, to be out of the wind. Also to be out of sight of the cabman, whom I was very sick of. I haven't mentioned it, in passing, but he'd stopped several times and explained that his horse was "wore out," and had twice got down and come round to the door for his money, and said he "must go back"—in short, he had been a nuisance. He began all his speeches by saying, "I ain't saying nothing," and then going on to explain, "It's like this, Mr. Sims." He had got my name from Miss Yecker, and he seemed to be fascinated by my armor—couldn't keep his eyes off me.

Miss Yecker took so long that, after jumping up and down and slapping myself for a while, I angrily went to the window and said I was perishing. I demanded the light-green wrap, anyhow, on account of my legs. She handed me instead an old lap-robe she'd found under the seat, and shrilly abused me for not treating her like a lady. The next moment the cabman whipped up and drove rapidly off with her.

I was going to shout, but I suddenly saw why he'd done it. A gardener had started up the hill through the trees in the rear, to investigate the cause, I suppose, of Miss Yecker's shrill anger. My own anger was very deep at this brutal betrayal. I skipped nimbly around the pedestal of General Bolivar's statue, drew the lap-robe around me, and felt of my silly tin sword.

After crouching there patiently awhile, I saw the gardener wasn't coming. He had seen the cab go, I suppose, and had given it up. I naturally expected Miss Yecker to come back and get me, but time went on and it grew dark, and she never returned. I think I could have killed her. I know I could have killed that gross cabman. When night finally came, grim and cold, I descended the hill.

The immoderate difficulty I had in traversing that Park—the quick runs, the dodging; the hiding in small, cruel bushes that pricked me most sharply; the narrow escape from a group of coarse, roistering hoodlums who had no more decency than to treat me like some hunted hare—these things I cannot speak of. I ended my journey near the place where I'd sat down that morning, close to that eastern entrance which is nearest the street I reside in.

There, though, I was blocked. I could not cross Fifth Avenue. There was nothing for it but to wait on till the streets were deserted. I spread my lap-robe on the ground in between several trees, sat on it, and drew it up over me. It had a strong, circusy smell; most repugnant I found it. And I'd no string to tie it with. I had to hold all the four corners up close to my neck, and my arms got so stiff that my hands lost all feeling whatsoever.

A full hour must have passed when a man appeared walking on the grass directly toward my trees. In the lamplight I saw he was one of those policemen who had been throwing stones in the morning. I wasn't surprised to see him, for, of course, this was his beat; but why couldn't he stick to the paths? Why snoop and sneak through the bushes? The way our police prowl around is most gruesome, I think. It's a mighty poor system; it lowers men so, to be prowlers.

Not daring to wait his approach, I annoyedly withdrew. My trouble was this: there seemed to be no place to withdraw to. I saw just one spot, a small summer-house covered with lattice-work, which I had avoided before because people might go there. I hid softly in that.

The policeman came on past my trees and walked toward my new place. I felt cold and anxious. Then he stopped, faced about, and drew something out of his pocket. I thought it was a pipe, but presently he moved to one side, in the light from a lamp-post, and I saw that it was a slung-shot. I surmised that he was planning to have another bout with his owls.

Meantime I had noticed a group of people out in the street coming toward the Park—pleasant men in top-hats, women in gay cloaks and bright slippers. They made me feel grimy. One man was carrying some shoes, but I didn't stop to realize at the moment how peculiar this was. My one thought was that they were heading for the path that led into the summer-house. As noiselessly as possible I climbed onto the lattice-work roof.

The policeman faced around. He had heard me. He walked up to the summer-house, looked in, and, seeing no one inside, stared up at the roof. I was just in the shadow of a tree, and kept as still as I could, but my sword handle was sticking into me, and unfortunately I twitched. The policeman lifted his club. Knowing he couldn't see clearly, if at all, I hoped he might think that the noise had been made by an owl. It was my only chance. On the impulse of the moment I nervously sang out, "Tu-whoo!"

That is the sound all books tell you that owls make, isn't it? It should have convinced that policeman. Instead of that, he jumped up on a bench and began yelling threats. "That's enough of that now," he kept saying. "Come on down or I'll soak you!"

I was mortified and desperate. Still hoping to persuade him I was an owl, I pulled out my sword and poked down at him smartly in the dark, on the top of his head—so it would feel like a bite. I also cried "Tu-whoo!" again, only louder, in case he hadn't understood. He swore very horribly at this and began climbing the roof.

He wasn't, however, a good climber, and the roof wasn't strong—the edge of it gave way with him the minute he attempted to mount. And as he stood, feeling for a new place, that group of people came up the path, and I saw I was saved.

Saved, but at what a cost! I recognized their voices before the lamplight had revealed them. Talbot came first with a pair of my shoes and some coats. With him was the cabman. My wife coolly came next with a waistcoat of mine in her hand, talking to our friend, Mr. Levellier, who was carrying the trousers. Then came Mrs. Levellier, and Angelica Broderick, her niece, with my new derby hat. And all of them talking about me and my ways.

Ihe cabman's voice rang out loudest. I gathered that Miss Yecker had dismissed him without paying his fare, and that after he'd rested he'd gone to my brother's apartment. "No, sir," he was saying, "I never see anything like it; just some old bits of brass on, though now, o' course, he's got my lap-robe. But, take it from me, sir, he must be some'eres in this Park, and I kin show you or anybody the identical place where I left him."

"Hey, stand back there!" called the policeman, stopping the party. "Don't go through this summer-house—you hear? Take that other path round.

"Why, what's the man talking about?" said Hattie. "I always go this way.

I began climbing down.

"There he is! There he is!" roared the cabman. "I'd know them legs anywhere."

"Is that you, Niblo?" my wife said, severely. "What on earth are you doing?"

The policeman swung around and at once tried to grab at my legs; but my brother caught hold of him, and I had the pleasure of giving each of them a kick in the neck.

"Now, officer," said Levellier, "stand aside, please, or I shall report you. Don't interfere further. You must let respectable citizens alone."

"You call that a respectable citizen?" demanded the officer. "Crawling around high and mighty without any clothes on, and that vicious he's bitten a chunk out the top of my head!"

"As to clothes," Talbot told him, trying desperately to explain the best he could, "this gentleman's idea has long been that clothes are a nuisance."

"And how long has his idea been that he was an owl?" said the officer. "Do you let him come out here and screech this hoo-hoo stuff all night?"

"An owl, eh? Why, I never knew he—er—" Talbot began.

They all looked at me inquiringly. Hattie whispered to Talbot that she thought they'd better send for Dr. Grillquist.

"Come, come," I said, climbing down. "That's enough talking now. I'm going home."

"The gentleman will explain on some other occasion why he wishes to be an owl," Talbot earnestly assured the policeman, and I noticed Levellier was quietly making signs to the man. I got into my coat.

"Oh, Niblo!" my wife said in anguish, as we walked swiftly off. "After promising me only this morning that you'd stop being queer!"

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.