We all have our ambitions. Mine is to sit in a rocking-chair on the sidewalk at the corner of Clark and Randolph Streets, and watch the crowds go by. South Clark Street is one of the most interesting and cosmopolitan thoroughfares in the world (New Yorkers please sniff). If you are from Paris, France, or Paris, Illinois, and should chance to be in that neighborhood, you will stop at Tony's news stand to buy your home-town paper. Don't mistake the nature of this story. There is nothing of the shivering-newsboy-waif about Tony. He has the voice of a fog-horn, the purple-striped shirt of a sport, the diamond scarf-pin of a racetrack tout, and the savoir faire of the gutter-bred. You'd never pick him for a newsboy if it weren't for his chapped hands and the eternal cold-sore on the upper left corner of his mouth.
It is a fascinating thing, Tony's stand. A high wooden structure rising tier on tier, containing papers from every corner of the world. I'll defy you to name a paper that Tony doesn't handle, from Timbuctoo to Tarrytown, from South Bend to South Africa. A paper marked Christiania, Norway, nestles next to a sheet from Kalamazoo, Michigan. You can get the War Cry, or Le Figaro. With one hand, Tony will give you the Berlin Tageblatt, and with the other the Times from Neenah, Wisconsin. Take your choice between the Bulletin from Sydney, Australia, or the Bee from Omaha.
But perhaps you know South Clark Street. It is honeycombed with good copy--man-size stuff. South Clark Street reminds one of a slatternly woman, brave in silks and velvets on the surface, but ragged, and rumpled and none too clean as to nether garments. It begins with a tenement so vile, so filthy, so repulsive, that the municipal authorities deny its very existence. It ends with a brand-new hotel, all red brick, and white tiling, and Louise Quinze furniture, and sour-cream colored marble lobby, and oriental rugs lavishly scattered under the feet of the unappreciative guest from Kansas City. It is a street of signs, is South Clark. They vary all the way from "Banca Italiana" done in fat, fly-specked letters of gold, to "Sang Yuen" scrawled in Chinese red and black. Spaghetti and chop suey and dairy lunches nestle side by side. Here an electric sign blazons forth the tempting announcement of lunch. Just across the way, delicately suggesting a means of availing one's self of the invitation, is another which announces "Loans." South Clark Street can transform a winter overcoat into hamburger and onions so quickly that the eye can't follow the hand.
Do you gather from this that you are being taken slumming? Not at all. For the passer-by on Clark Street varies as to color, nationality, raiment, finger-nails, and hair-cut according to the locality in which you find him.
At the tenement end the feminine passer-by is apt to be shawled, swarthy, down-at-the-heel, and dragging a dark-eyed, fretting baby in her wake. At the hotel end you will find her blonde of hair, velvet of boot, plumed of head-gear, and prone to have at her heels a white, woolly, pink-eyed dog.
The masculine Clark Streeter? I throw up my hands. Pray remember that South Clark Street embraces the dime lodging house, pawnshop, hotel, theater, chop-suey and railway office district, all within a few blocks. From the sidewalk in front of his groggery, "Bath House John" can see the City Hall. The trim, khaki-garbed enlistment officer rubs elbows with the lodging house bum. The masculine Clark Streeter may be of the kind that begs a dime for a bed, or he may loll in manicured luxury at the marble-lined hotel. South Clark Street is so splendidly indifferent.
Copy-hunting, I approached Tony with hope in my heart, a smile on my lips, and a nickel in my hand.
"Philadelphia--er--Inquirer?" I asked, those being the city and paper which fire my imagination least.
Tony whipped it out, dexterously.
I looked at his keen blue eye, his lean brown face, and his punishing jaw, and I knew that no airy persiflage would deceive him. Boldly I waded in.
"I write for the magazines," said I.
"Do they know it?" grinned Tony.
"Just beginning to be faintly aware. Your stand looks like a story to me. Tell me, does one ever come your way? For instance, don't they come here asking for their home-town paper--sobs in their voice--grasp the sheet with trembling hands--type swims in a misty haze before their eyes--turn aside to brush away a tear--all that kind of stuff, you know?"
Tony's grin threatened his cold-sore. You can't stand on the corner of Clark and Randolph all those years without getting wise to everything there is.
"I'm on," said he, "but I'm afraid I can't accommodate, girlie. I guess my ear ain't attuned to that sob stuff. What's that? Yessir. Nossir, fifteen cents. Well, I can't help that; fifteen's the reg'lar price of foreign papers. Thanks. There, did you see that? I bet that gink give up fifteen of his last two bits to get that paper. O, well, sometimes they look happy, and then again sometimes they--Yes'm. Mississippi? Five cents. Los Vegas Optic right here. Heh there! You're forgettin' your change!--an' then again sometimes they look all to the doleful. Say, stick around. Maybe somebody'll start something. You can't never tell."
And then this happened.
A man approached Tony's news stand from the north, and a woman approached Tony's news stand from the south. They brought my story with them.
The woman reeked of the city. I hope you know what I mean. She bore the stamp, and seal, and imprint of it. It had ground its heel down on her face. At the front of her coat she wore a huge bunch of violets, with a fleshly tuberose rising from its center. Her furs were voluminous. Her hat was hidden beneath the cascades of a green willow plume. A green willow plume would make Edna May look sophisticated. She walked with that humping hip movement which city women acquire. She carried a jangling handful of useless gold trinkets. Her heels were too high, and her hair too yellow, and her lips too red, and her nose too white, and her cheeks too pink. Everything about her was "too," from the black stitching on her white gloves to the buckle of brilliants in her hat. The city had her, body and soul, and had fashioned her in its metallic cast. You would have sworn that she had never seen flowers growing in a field.
Said she to Tony:
"Got a Kewaskum Courier?"
As she said it the man stopped at the stand and put his question. To present this thing properly I ought to be able to describe them both at the same time, like a juggler keeping two balls in the air at once. Kindly carry the lady in your mind's eye. The man was tall and rawboned, with very white teeth, very blue eyes and an open-faced collar that allowed full play to an objectionably apparent Adam's apple. His hair and mustache were sandy, his gait loping. His manner, clothes, and complexion breathed of Waco, Texas (or is it Arizona?)
Said he to Tony:
"Let me have the London Times."
Well, there you are. I turned an accusing eye on Tony.
"And you said no stories came your way," I murmured, reproachfully.
"Help yourself," said Tony.
The blonde lady grasped the Kewaskum Courier. Her green plume appeared to be unduly agitated as she searched its columns. The sheet rattled. There was no breeze. The hands in the too-black stitched gloves were trembling.
I turned from her to the man just in time to see the Adam's apple leaping about unpleasantly and convulsively. Whereupon I jumped to two conclusions.
Conclusion one: Any woman whose hands can tremble over the Kewaskum Courier is homesick.
Conclusion two: Any man, any part of whose anatomy can become convulsed over the London Times is homesick.
She looked up from her Courier. He glanced away from his Times. As the novelists have it, their eyes met. And there, in each pair of eyes there swam that misty haze about which I had so earnestly consulted Tony. The Green Plume took an involuntary step forward. The Adam's Apple did the same. They spoke simultaneously.
"They're going to pave Main Street," said the Green Plume, "and Mrs. Wilcox, that was Jeri Meyers, has got another baby girl, and the ladies of the First M. E. made seven dollars and sixty-nine cents on their needle-work bazaar and missionary tea. I ain't been home in eleven years."
"Hallem is trying for Parliament in Westchester and the King is back at Windsor. My mother wears a lace cap down to breakfast, and the place is famous for its tapestries and yew trees and family ghost. I haven't been home in twelve years."
The great, soft light of fellow feeling and sympathy glowed in the eyes of each. The Green Plume took still another step forward and laid her hand on his arm (as is the way of Green Plumes the world over).
"Why don't you go, kid?" she inquired, softly.
Adam's Apple gnawed at his mustache end. "I'm the black sheep. Why don't you?"
The blonde lady looked down at her glove tips. Her lower lip was caught between her teeth.
"What's the feminine for black sheep? I'm that. Anyway, I'd be afraid to go home for fear it would be too much of a shock for them when they saw my hair. They wasn't in on the intermediate stages when it was chestnut, auburn, Titian, gold, and orange colored. I want to spare their feelings. The last time they saw me it was just plain brown. Where I come from a woman who dyes her hair when it is beginning to turn gray is considered as good as lost. Funny, ain't it? And yet I remember the minister's wife used to wear false teeth--the kind that clicks. But hair is different."
"Dear lady," said the blue-eyed man, "it would make no difference to your own people. I know they would be happy to see you, hair and all. One's own people----"
"My folks? That's just it. If the Prodigal Son had been a daughter they'd probably have handed her one of her sister's mother hubbards, and put her to work washing dishes in the kitchen. You see, after Ma died my brother married, and I went to live with him and Lil. I was an ugly little mug, and it looked all to the Cinderella for me, with the coach, and four, and prince left out. Lil was the village beauty when my brother married her, and she kind of got into the habit of leaving the heavy role to me, and confining herself to thinking parts. One day I took twenty dollars and came to the city. Oh, I paid it back long ago, but I've never been home since. But say, do you know every time I get near a news stand like this I grab the home-town paper. I'll bet I've kept track every time my sister-in-law's sewing circle has met for the last ten years, and the spring the paper said they built a new porch I was just dying to write and ask'em what they did with the Virginia creeper that used to cover the whole front and sides of the old porch."
"Look here," said the man, very abruptly, "if it's money you need, why----"
"Me! Do I look like a touch? Now you----"
"Finest stock farm and ranch in seven counties. I come to Chicago once a year to sell. I've got just thirteen thousand nestling next to my left floating rib this minute."
The eyes of the woman with the green plume narrowed down to two glittering slits. A new look came into her face--a look that matched her hat, and heels and gloves and complexion and hair.
"Thirteen thousand! Thirteen thous---- Say, isn't it chilly on this corner, h'm? I know a kind of a restaurant just around the corner where----"
"It's no use," said the sandy-haired man, gently. "And I wouldn't have said that, if I were you. I was going back to-day on the 5:25, but I'm sick of it all. So are you, or you wouldn't have said what you just said. Listen. Let's go back home, you and I. The sight of a Navajo blanket nauseates me. The thought of those prairies makes my eyes ache. I know that if I have to eat one more meal cooked by that Chink of mine I'll hang him by his own pigtail. Those rangy western ponies aren't horseflesh, fit for a man to ride. Why, back home our stables were-- Look here. I want to see a silver tea-service, with a coat-of-arms on it. I want to dress for dinner, and take in a girl with a white gown and smooth white shoulders. My sister clips roses in the morning, before breakfast, in a pink ruffled dress and garden gloves. Would you believe that, here, on Clark Street, with a whiskey sign overhead, and the stock-yard smells undernose? O, hell! I'm going home."
"Home?" repeated the blonde lady. "Home?" The sagging lines about her flaccid chin took on a new look of firmness and resolve. The light of determination glowed in her eyes.
"I'll beat you to it," she said. "I'm going home, too. I'll be there to-morrow. I'm dead sick of this. Who cares whether I live or die? It's just one darned round of grease paint, and sky blue tights, and new boarding houses and humping over to the theater every night, going on, and humping back to the room again. I want to wash up some supper dishes with egg on 'em, and set some yeast for bread, and pop a dishpan full of corn, and put a shawl over my head and run over to Millie Krause's to get her kimono sleeve pattern. I'm sour on this dirt and noise. I want to spend the rest of my life in a place so that when I die they'll put a column in the paper, with a verse at the top, and all the neighbors'll come in and help bake up. Here--why, here I'd just be two lines on the want ad page, with fifty cents extra for `Kewaskum paper please copy.'"
The man held out his hand. "Good-bye," he said, "and please excuse me if I say God bless you. I've never really wanted to say it before, so it's quite extraordinary. My name's Guy Peel."
The white glove, with its too-conspicuous black stitching, disappeared within his palm.
"Mine's Mercedes Meron, late of the Morning Glory Burlesquers, but from now on Sadie Hayes, of Kewaskum, Wisconsin. Good-bye and--well--God bless you, too. Say, I hope you don't think I'm in the habit of talking to strange gents like this."
"I am quite sure you are not," said Guy Peel, very gravely, and bowed slightly before he went south on Clark Street, and she went north.
Dear Reader, will you take my hand while I assist you to make a one year's leap. Whoop-la! There you are.
A man and a woman approached Tony's news stand. You are quite right. But her willow plume was purple this time. A purple willow plume would make Mario Doro look sophisticated. The man was sandy-haired, raw-boned, with a loping gait, very blue eyes, very white teeth, and an objectionably apparent Adam's apple. He came from the north, and she from the south.
In story books, and on the stage, when two people meet unexpectedly after a long separation they always stop short, bring one hand up to their breast, and say: "You!" Sometimes, especially in the case where the heroine chances on the villain, they say, simultaneously: "You! Here!" I have seen people reunited under surprising circumstances, but they never said, "You!" They said something quite unmelodramatic, and commonplace, such as: "Well, look who's here!" or, "My land! If it ain't Ed! How's Ed?"
So it was that the Purple Willow Plume and the Adam's Apple stopped, shook hands, and viewed one another while the Plume said, "I kind of thought I'd bump into you. Felt it in my bones." And the Adam's Apple said:
"Then you're not living in Kewaskum--er--Wisconsin?"
"Not any," responded she, briskly. "How do you happen to be straying away from the tapestries, and the yew trees and the ghost, and the pink roses, and the garden gloves, and the silver tea-service with the coat-of-arms on it?"
A slow, grim smile overspread the features of the man. "You tell yours first," he said.
"Well," began she, "in the first place, my name's Mercedes Meron, of the Morning Glory Burlesquers, formerly Sadie Hayes of Kewaskum, Wisconsin. I went home next day, like I said I would. Say, Mr. Peel (you said Peel, didn't you? Guy Peel. Nice, neat name), to this day, when I eat lobster late at night, and have dreams, it's always about that visit home."
"How long did you stay?"
"I'm coming to that. Or maybe you can figure it out yourself when I tell you I've been back eleven months. I wired the folks I was coming, and then I came before they had a chance to answer. When the train reached Kewaskum I stepped off into the arms of a dowd in a home-made-made-over-year-before-last suit, and a hat that would have been funny if it hadn't been so pathetic. I grabbed her by the shoulders, and I held her off, and looked--looked at the wrinkles, and the sallow complexion, and the coat with the sleeves in wrong, and the mashed hat (I told you Lil used to be the village peach, didn't I?) and I says:
"`For Gawd's sakes, Lil, does your husband beat you?'
"`Steve!' she shrieks, `beat me! You must be crazy!'
"`Well, if he don't, he ought to. Those clothes are grounds for divorce,' I says.
"Mr. Guy Peel, it took me just four weeks to get wise to the fact that the way to cure homesickness is to go home. I spent those four weeks trying to revolutionize my sister-in-law's house, dress, kids, husband, wall paper and parlor carpet. I took all the doilies from under the ornaments and spoke my mind on the subject of the hand-painted lamp, and Lil hates me for it yet, and will to her dying day. I fitted three dresses for her, and made her get some corsets that she'll never wear. They have roast pork for dinner on Sundays, and they never go to the theater, and they like bread pudding, and they're happy. I wasn't. They treated me fine, and it was home, all right, but not my home. It was the same, but I was different. Eleven years away from anything makes it shrink, if you know what I mean. I guess maybe you do. I remember that I used to think that the Grand View Hotel was a regular little oriental palace that was almost too luxurious to be respectable, and that the traveling men who stopped there were gods, and just to prance past the hotel after supper had the Atlantic City board walk looking like a back alley on a rainy night. Well, everything had sort of shriveled up just like that. The popcorn gave me indigestion, and I burned the skin off my nose popping it. Kneading bread gave me the backache, and the blamed stuff wouldn't raise right. I got so I was crazy to hear the roar of an L train, and the sound of a crossing policeman's whistle. I got to thinking how Michigan Avenue looks, downtown, with the lights shining down on the asphalt, and all those people eating in the swell hotels, and the autos, and the theater crowds and the windows, and--well, I'm back. Glad I went? You said it. Because it made me so darned glad to get back. I've found out one thing, and it's a great little lesson when you get it learned. Most of us are where we are because we belong there, and if we didn't, we wouldn't be. Say, that does sound mixed, don't it? But it's straight. Now you tell yours."
"I think you've said it all," began Guy Peel. "It's queer, isn't it, how twelve years of America will spoil one for afternoon tea, and yew trees, and tapestries, and lace caps, and roses. The mater was glad to see me, but she said I smelled woolly. They think a Navajo blanket is a thing the Indians wear on the war path, and they don't know whether Texas is a state, or a mineral water. It was slow--slow. About the time they were taking afternoon tea, I'd be reckoning how the boys would be rounding up the cattle for the night, and about the time we'd sit down to dinner something seemed to whisk the dinner table, and the flowers, and the men and women in evening clothes right out of sight, like magic, and I could see the boys stretched out in front of the bunk house after their supper of bacon, and beans, and biscuit, and coffee. They'd be smoking their pipes that smelled to Heaven, and further, and Wing would be squealing one of his creepy old Chink songs out in the kitchen, and the sky would be--say, Miss Meron, did you ever see the night sky, out West? Purple, you know, and soft as soap- suds, and so near that you want to reach up and touch it with your hand. Toward the end my mother used to take me off in a corner and tell me that I hadn't spoken a word to the little girl that I had taken in to dinner, and that if I couldn't forget my uncouth western ways for an hour or two, at least, perhaps I'd better not try to mingle with civilized people. I discovered that home isn't always the place where you were born and bred. Home is the place where your everyday clothes are, and where somebody, or something needs you. They didn't need me over there in England. Lord no! I was sick for the sight of a Navajo blanket. My shack's glowing with them. And my books needed me, and the boys, and the critters, and Kate."
"Kate?" repeated Miss Meron, quickly.
"Kate's my horse. I'm going back on the 5:25 to-night. This is my regular trip, you know. I came around here to buy a paper, because it has become a habit. And then, too, I sort of felt--well, something told me that you----"
"You're a nice boy," said Miss Meron. "By the way, did I tell you that I married the manager of the show the week after I got back? We go to Bloomington to-night, and then we jump to St. Paul. I came around here just as usual, because--well--because----"
Tony's gift for remembering faces and facts amounts to genius.
With two deft movements he whisked two papers from among the many in the rack, and held them out.
"Kewaskum Courier?" he suggested.
"Nix," said Mercedes Meron, "I'll take a Chicago Scream."
"London Times?" said Tony.