McTeague

by Frank Norris


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Chapter 17


One day, about a fortnight after the coroner's inquest had been held, and when the excitement of the terrible affair was calming down and Polk Street beginning to resume its monotonous routine, Old Grannis sat in his clean, well-kept little room, in his cushioned armchair, his hands lying idly upon his knees. It was evening; not quite time to light the lamps. Old Grannis had drawn his chair close to the wall-- so close, in fact, that he could hear Miss Baker's grenadine brushing against the other side of the thin partition, at his very elbow, while she rocked gently back and forth, a cup of tea in her hands.

Old Grannis's occupation was gone. That morning the book- selling firm where he had bought his pamphlets had taken his little binding apparatus from him to use as a model. The transaction had been concluded. Old Grannis had received his check. It was large enough, to be sure, but when all was over, he returned to his room and sat there sad and unoccupied, looking at the pattern in the carpet and counting the heads of the tacks in the zinc guard that was fastened to the wall behind his little stove. By and by he heard Miss Baker moving about. It was five o'clock, the time when she was accustomed to make her cup of tea and "keep company" with him on her side of the partition. Old Grannis drew up his chair to the wall near where he knew she was sitting. The minutes passed; side by side, and separated by only a couple of inches of board, the two old people sat there together, while the afternoon grew darker.

But for Old Grannis all was different that evening. There was nothing for him to do. His hands lay idly in his lap. His table, with its pile of pamphlets, was in a far corner of the room, and, from time to time, stirred with an uncertain trouble, he turned his head and looked at it sadly, reflecting that he would never use it again. The absence of his accustomed work seemed to leave something out of his life. It did not appear to him that he could be the same to Miss Baker now; their little habits were disarranged, their customs broken up. He could no longer fancy himself so near to her. They would drift apart now, and she would no longer make herself a cup of tea and "keep company" with him when she knew that he would never again sit before his table binding uncut pamphlets. He had sold his happiness for money; he had bartered all his tardy romance for some miserable banknotes. He had not foreseen that it would be like this. A vast regret welled up within him. What was that on the back of his hand? He wiped it dry with his ancient silk handkerchief.

Old Grannis leant his face in his hands. Not only did an inexplicable regret stir within him, but a certain great tenderness came upon him. The tears that swam in his faded blue eyes were not altogether those of unhappiness. No, this long-delayed affection that had come upon him in his later years filled him with a joy for which tears seemed to be the natural expression. For thirty years his eyes had not been wet, but tonight he felt as if he were young again. He had never loved before, and there was still a part of him that was only twenty years of age. He could not tell whether he was profoundly sad or deeply happy; but he was not ashamed of the tears that brought the smart to his eyes and the ache to his throat. He did not hear the timid rapping on his door, and it was not until the door itself opened that he looked up quickly and saw the little retired dressmaker standing on the threshold, carrying a cup of tea on a tiny Japanese tray. She held it toward him.

"I was making some tea," she said, "and I thought you would like to have a cup."

Never after could the little dressmaker understand how she had brought herself to do this thing. One moment she had been sitting quietly on her side of the partition, stirring her cup of tea with one of her Gorham spoons. She was quiet, she was peaceful. The evening was closing down tranquilly. Her room was the picture of calmness and order. The geraniums blooming in the starch boxes in the window, the aged goldfish occasionally turning his iridescent flank to catch a sudden glow of the setting sun. The next moment she had been all trepidation. It seemed to her the most natural thing in the world to make a steaming cup of tea and carry it in to Old Grannis next door. It seemed to her that he was wanting her, that she ought to go to him. With the brusque resolve and intrepidity that sometimes seizes upon very timid people--the courage of the coward greater than all others--she had presented herself at the old Englishman's half-open door, and, when he had not heeded her knock, had pushed it open, and at last, after all these years, stood upon the threshold of his room. She had found courage enough to explain her intrusion.

"I was making some tea, and I thought you would like to have a cup."

Old Grannis dropped his hands upon either arm of his chair, and, leaning forward a little, looked at her blankly. He did not speak.

The retired dressmaker's courage had carried her thus far; now it deserted her as abruptly as it had come. Her cheeks became scarlet; her funny little false curls trembled with her agitation. What she had done seemed to her indecorous beyond expression. It was an enormity. Fancy, she had gone into his room, into his room--Mister Grannis's room. She had done this--she who could not pass him on the stairs without a qualm. What to do she did not know. She stood, a fixture, on the threshold of his room, without even resolution enough to beat a retreat. Helplessly, and with a little quaver in her voice, she repeated obstinately:

"I was making some tea, and I thought you would like to have a cup of tea." Her agitation betrayed itself in the repetition of the word. She felt that she could not hold the tray out another instant. Already she was trembling so that half the tea was spilled.

Old Grannis still kept silence, still bending forward, with wide eyes, his hands gripping the arms of his chair.

Then with the tea-tray still held straight before her, the little dressmaker exclaimed tearfully:

"Oh, I didn't mean--I didn't mean--I didn't know it would seem like this. I only meant to be kind and bring you some tea; and now it seems so improper. I--I--I'm so ashamed! I don't know what you will think of me. I--" she caught her breath--"improper"--she managed to exclaim, "unlady-like--you can never think well of me--I'll go. I'll go." She turned about.

"Stop," cried Old Grannis, finding his voice at last. Miss Baker paused, looking at him over her shoulder, her eyes very wide open, blinking through her tears, for all the world like a frightened child.

"Stop," exclaimed the old Englishman, rising to his feet. "I didn't know it was you at first. I hadn't dreamed--I couldn't believe you would be so good, so kind to me. Oh," he cried, with a sudden sharp breath, "oh, you are kind. I--I--you have--have made me very happy."

"No, no," exclaimed Miss Baker, ready to sob. "It was unlady-like. You will--you must think ill of me." She stood in the hall. The tears were running down her cheeks, and she had no free hand to dry them.

"Let me--I'll take the tray from you," cried Old Grannis, coming forward. A tremulous joy came upon him. Never in his life had he been so happy. At last it had come--come when he had least expected it. That which he had longed for and hoped for through so many years, behold, it was come to- night. He felt his awkwardness leaving him. He was almost certain that the little dressmaker loved him, and the thought gave him boldness. He came toward her and took the tray from her hands, and, turning back into the room with it, made as if to set it upon his table. But the piles of his pamphlets were in the way. Both of his hands were occupied with the tray; he could not make a place for it on the table. He stood for a moment uncertain, his embarrassment returning.

"Oh, won't you--won't you please--" He turned his head, looking appealingly at the little old dressmaker.

"Wait, I'll help you," she said. She came into the room, up to the table, and moved the pamphlets to one side.

"Thanks, thanks," murmured Old Grannis, setting down the tray.

"Now--now--now I will go back," she exclaimed, hurriedly.

"No--no," returned the old Englishman. "Don't go, don't go. I've been so lonely to-night--and last night too--all this year--all my life," he suddenly cried.

"I--I--I've forgotten the sugar."

"But I never take sugar in my tea."

"But it's rather cold, and I've spilled it--almost all of it."

"I'll drink it from the saucer." Old Grannis had drawn up his armchair for her.

"Oh, I shouldn't. This is--this is so--You must think ill of me." Suddenly she sat down, and resting her elbows on the table, hid her face in her hands.

"Think ill of you?" cried Old Grannis, "think ill of you? Why, you don't know--you have no idea--all these years--living so close to you, I--I--" he paused suddenly. It seemed to him as if the beating of his heart was choking him.

"I thought you were binding your books to-night," said Miss Baker, suddenly, "and you looked tired. I thought you looked tired when I last saw you, and a cup of tea, you know, it--that--that does you so much good when you're tired. But you weren't binding books."

"No, no," returned Old Grannis, drawing up a chair and sitting down. "No, I--the fact is, I've sold my apparatus; a firm of booksellers has bought the rights of it."

"And aren't you going to bind books any more?" exclaimed the little dressmaker, a shade of disappointment in her manner. "I thought you always did about four o'clock. I used to hear you when I was making tea."

It hardly seemed possible to Miss Baker that she was actually talking to Old Grannis, that the two were really chatting together, face to face, and without the dreadful embarrassment that used to overwhelm them both when they met on the stairs. She had often dreamed of this, but had always put it off to some far-distant day. It was to come gradually, little by little, instead of, as now, abruptly and with no preparation. That she should permit herself the indiscretion of actually intruding herself into his room had never so much as occurred to her. Yet here she was, in his room, and they were talking together, and little by little her embarrassment was wearing away.

"Yes, yes, I always heard you when you were making tea," returned the old Englishman; "I heard the tea things. Then I used to draw my chair and my work-table close to the wall on my side, and sit there and work while you drank your tea just on the other side; and I used to feel very near to you then. I used to pass the whole evening that way."

"And, yes--yes--I did too," she answered. "I used to make tea just at that time and sit there for a whole hour."

"And didn't you sit close to the partition on your side? Sometimes I was sure of it. I could even fancy that I could hear your dress brushing against the wall-paper close beside me. Didn't you sit close to the partition?"

"I--I don't know where I sat."

Old Grannis shyly put out his hand and took hers as it lay upon her lap.

"Didn't you sit close to the partition on your side?" he insisted.

"No--I don't know--perhaps--sometimes. Oh, yes," she exclaimed, with a little gasp, "Oh, yes, I often did."

Then Old Grannis put his arm about her, and kissed her faded cheek, that flushed to pink upon the instant.

After that they spoke but little. The day lapsed slowly into twilight, and the two old people sat there in the gray evening, quietly, quietly, their hands in each other's hands, "keeping company," but now with nothing to separate them. It had come at last. After all these years they were together; they understood each other. They stood at length in a little Elysium of their own creating. They walked hand in hand in a delicious garden where it was always autumn. Far from the world and together they entered upon the long retarded romance of their commonplace and uneventful lives.

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