"I am sick of all this," said the Great Author, sweeping his hand over the silver-laden dinner-table. He seemed to include in his gesture the whole house and the broad estate surrounding it. "It bores me, and I don't believe it can be right."
His wife, at the other end of the table, shining in her low-necked dress with diamonds on her breast and in her hair, leaned forward anxiously, knowing her husband's temperament.
"But, Nicholas," she said, "what do you mean? You have earned all this by your work as a writer. You are the greatest man in the country. You are entitled to a fine house and a large estate."
He gravely nodded his big head with its flamboyant locks, and lit a fresh cigarette.
"Quite right, my dear," said he, "you are always right on practical affairs. But, you see, this is an artistic affair. My books are realistic and radical. They teach the doctrine of the universal level, that no man can be above other men. They have made poverty, perhaps not exactly popular, but at least romantic. My villains are always rich and my heroes poor. The people like this; but it is rather a strain to believe it and keep on believing it. If my work is to hold the public it must have illustrations--moving pictures, you know! Something in character! Nobody else can do that as well as I can. It will be better than many advertisements. I am going to become a virtuous peasant, a son of the soil, a primitive."
His wife laughed, with a slight nervous tremor in her voice. She knew her husband's temperament, to be sure, but she never knew just how far it would carry him.
"I think you must be a little crazy, Nicholas," she said.
"Thank you, Alexandra," he answered, "thank you for the temperate flattery. Evidently you have heard the old proverb about genius and madness. But why not make the compliment complete and say 'absolutely crazy'?"
"Well," she replied, "because I do not understand just what you propose to do. Are you going to impoverish yourself and the whole family? Are you thinking of turning over your farms to these stupid peasants who will let them go to rack and ruin? Will you give your property to the village council who will drink it up in a month? You know how much money Peter needs; he is a member of twelve first-class clubs. And Olga's husband is not earning much. Are you going to starve your children and grandchildren for the sake of an idea of consistency in art?"
The Great Author was now standing in front of the fireplace, warming himself and filling a pipe. The flames behind him made an aureole in his extravagant white hair and beard. He smiled and puffed slowly at his pipe. At last he answered.
"My dear, you go too fast and too far. You know I am enthusiastic, but have you ever known me to be silly? It would be wrong to make you and the children suffer. I have no right to do that."
[Illustration: I am going to become a virtuous peasant, a son of the soil, a primitive]
She nodded her head emphatically, and a look of comprehension spread over her face. "Suppose," he continued, "suppose that I should make over the real estate and farms to you--you are an excellent manager. And suppose that I should put the personal estate, including copyrights, into a trust, the income to be paid to you and the children. You would take care of me while I became a primitive, wouldn't you?"
"I would," she answered, "you know I would. But think how uncomfortable it will be for you. While we are living in luxury, you--"
"Don't worry about that," he interrupted with a laugh. "I shall have all the luxury I want: flannel shirts, loose around the neck, instead of these infernal stiff collars; velveteen trousers and jacket instead of this waiter's uniform; and I shall go barefoot when the weather is suitable--do you understand? Barefoot in the summer grass--it will be immense."
"But your food," she asked, "how will you manage that on a primitive basis?"
"You will manage it," he replied, "you know I have always preferred beefsteak and onions to any French dish. Champagne does not agree with me. I'd rather have a glass of the straight stuff, without any gas in it."
"But your sleeping arrangements," she murmured, "are you going to leave the house? Our bedroom is not exactly primitive."
"No fear of it," he answered. "There is a little room beyond your bathroom. Put an iron cot in there, with a soft mattress, linen sheets, and light blankets. I'll do my morning wash at the pump in the yard, for the sake of the picture. When I want a bath you'll leave the door of the room open if you are not actually in the tub."
"Nicholas," she said, with a Mona Lisa smile, "for an author you have a very clever way of putting things. But suppose we have guests at the house, you can't come to dinner in dirty clothes and with bare feet."
"Certainly not," he answered. "I shall put on clean flannels, clean velveteens, and sandals."
"Sandals," she murmured, "sandals for dinner are simply wonderful. Do you think I could--"
"Not at all, my dear," said the Great Author firmly. "Your present style of dress becomes you amazingly. I am the only one who has to do the primitive."
So the arrangements were completed. The interviewers who came to the house described the Great Author in his loose flannels and velveteens, with bare feet, returning from labor in the fields. The moving pictures were full of him. But the sandals did not appear. There were no flash-lights permitted at the part-primitive dinner-table.
Return to the Henry van Dyke library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Return Of The Charm