Out of the bathtub, rubicund and rotund, stepped Mr. Ambrose Pottle. He anointed his hair with sweet spirits of lilac and dusted his anatomy with crushed rosebud talcum. He donned a virgin union suit; a pair of socks, silk where it showed; ultra low shoes; white-flannel trousers, warm from the tailor's goose; a creamy silk shirt; an impeccable blue coat; a gala tie, perfect after five tyings; and then went forth into the spring-scented eventide to pay a call on Mrs. Blossom Gallup.
He approached her new-art bungalow as one might a shrine, with diffident steps and hesitant heart, but with delicious tinglings radiating from his spinal cord. Only the ballast of a three-pound box of Choc-O-late Nutties under his arm kept him on earth. He was in love.
To be in love for the first time at twenty is passably thrilling; but to be in love for the first time at thirty-six is exquisitely excruciating.
Mr. Pottle found Mrs. Gallup in her living room, a basket of undarned stockings on her lap. With a pretty show of confusion and many embarrassed murmurings she thrust them behind the piano, he protesting that this intimate domesticity delighted him.
She sank back with a little sigh into a gay-chintzed wicker chair, and the rosy light from a tall piano lamp fell gently on her high-piled golden hair, her surprised blue eyes, and the ripe, generous outlines of her figure. To Mr. Pottle she was a dream of loveliness, a poem, an idyl. He would have given worlds, solar systems to have been able to tell her so. But he couldn't. He couldn't find the words, for, like many another sterling character in the barbers' supply business, he was not eloquent; he did not speak with the fluent ease, the masterful flow that comes, one sees it often said, from twenty-one minutes a day of communion with the great minds of all time. His communings had been largely with boss barbers; with them he was cheery and chatty. But Mrs. Gallup and her intellectual interests were a world removed from things tonsorial; in her presence he was tongue-tied as an oyster.
Mr. Pottle's worshiping eye roved from the lady to her library, and his good-hearted face showed tiny furrows of despair; an array of fat crisp books in shiny new bindings stared at him: Twenty-one Minutes' Daily Communion With the Master Minds; Capsule Chats on Poets, Philosophers, Painters, Novelists, Interior Decorators; Culture for the Busy Man, six volumes, half calf; How to Build Up a Background; Talk Tips; YOU, Too, Can Be Interesting; Sixty Square Feet of Self-Culture--and a score more. "Culture"--always that wretched word!
"Are you fond of reading, Mr. Pottle?" asked Mrs. Gallup, popping a Choc-O-late Nuttie into her demure mouth with a daintiness almost ethereal.
"Love it," he answered promptly.
"Who is your favorite poet?"
"S-Shakspere," he ventured desperately.
"He's mine, too." Mr. Pottle breathed easier.
"But," she added, "I think Longfellow is sweet, don't you?"
"Very sweet," agreed Mr. Pottle.
She smiled at him with a sad, shy confidence.
"He did not understand," she said.
She nodded her blonde head toward an enlarged picture of the late Mr. Gallup, in the full regalia of Past Grand Master of the Beneficent Order of Beavers.
"Didn't he care for--er--literature?" asked Mr. Pottle.
"He despised it," she replied. "He was wrapped up in the hay-and-feed business. He began to talk about oats and chicken gravel on our honeymoon."
Mr. Pottle made a sympathetic noise.
"In our six years of married life," she went on, "he talked of nothing but duck fodder, carload lots, trade discounts, selling points, bran, turnover----"
How futile, how inadequate seem mere words in some situations. Mr. Pottle said nothing; timidly he took her hand in his; she did not draw it away.
"And he only shaved on Saturday nights," she said.
Mr. Pottle's free hand went to his own face, smooth as steel and art could make it.
"Blossom," he began huskily, "have you ever thought of marrying again?"
"I have," she answered, blushing--his hand on hers tightened--"and I haven't," she finished.
"Oh, Blossom----" he began once more.
"If I do marry again," she interrupted, "it will be a literary man."
"A literary man?" His tone was aghast. "A writing fella?"
"Oh, not necessarily a writer," she said. "They usually live in garrets, and I shouldn't like that. I mean a man who has read all sorts of books, and who can talk about all sorts of things."
"Blossom"--Mr. Pottle's voice was humble--"I'm not what you might call----"
There was a sound of clumping feet on the porch outside. Mrs. Gallup started up.
"Oh, that must be him now!" she cried.
"Why, Mr. Deeley."
"Who's he?" queried Mr. Pottle.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you! He said he might call to-night. Such a nice man! I met him over in Xenia last week. Such a brilliant conversationalist. I know you'll like each other."
She hastened to answer the doorbell; Mr. Pottle sat moodily in his chair, not at all sure he'd like Mr. Deeley.
The brilliant conversationalist burst into the room breezily, confidently. He was slightly smaller than a load of hay in his belted suit of ecru pongee; he wore a satisfied air and a pleased mustache.
"Meet Mr. Pottle," said Mrs. Gallup.
"What name?" asked Mr. Deeley. His voice was high, sweet and loud; his handshake was a knuckle pulverizer.
"Pottle," said the owner of that name.
"I beg pardon?" said Mr. Deeley.
"Pottle," said Mr. Pottle more loudly.
"Sorry," said Mr. Deeley affably, "but it sounds just like 'Pottle' to me."
"That's what it is," said Mr. Pottle with dignity.
Mr. Deeley laughed a loud tittering laugh.
"Oh, well," he remarked genially, "you can't help that. We're born with our names, but"--he bestowed a dazzling smile on Mrs. Gallup--"we pick our own teeth."
"Oh, Mr. Deeley," she cried, "you do say the most ridiculously witty things!"
Mr. Pottle felt a concrete lump forming in his bosom.
Mr. Deeley addressed him tolerantly. "What line are you in, Mr. Bottle?" he asked.
"Barbers' supplies," admitted Mr. Pottle.
"Ah, yes. Barbers' supplies. How interesting," said Mr. Deeley. "Climbing the lather of success, eh?"
Mr. Pottle did not join in the merriment.
"What line are you in?" he asked. He prayed that Mr. Deeley would say "Shoes," for by a happy inspiration he was prepared to counter with, "Ah, starting at the bottom," and thus split honors with the Xenian.
But Mr. Deeley did not say "Shoes." He said "Literature." Mrs. Gallup beamed.
"Oh, are you, Mr. Deeley? How perfectly thrilling!" she said rapturously. "I didn't know that."
"Oh, yes indeed," said Mr. Deeley. He changed the subject by turning to Mr. Pottle. "By the way, Mr. Poodle, are you interested in Abyssinia?" he inquired.
"Why, no--that is, not particularly," confessed Mr. Pottle. He looked toward her who had quickened his pulse, but her eyes were fastened on Mr. Deeley.
"I'm surprised to hear you say that," said Mr. Deeley. "A most interesting place, Abyssinia--rather a specialty of mine."
He threw one plump leg over the other and leaned back comfortably.
"Abyssinia," he went on in his high voice, "is an inland country situated by the Red Sea between 5° and 15° north latitude, and 35° and 42° east longitude. Its area is 351,019 square miles. Its population is 4,501,477. It includes Shoa, Kaffa, Gallaland and Central Somaliland. Its towns include Adis-Ababa, Adowa, Adigrat, Aliu-Amber, Debra-Derhan and Bonger. It produces coffee, salt and gold. The inhabitants are morally very lax. Indeed, polygamy is a common practice, and----"
"Polly Gammy?" cried Mrs. Gallup in imitation of Mr. Deeley's pronunciation. "Oh, what is that?"
Mr. Deeley smiled blandly.
"I think," he said, "that it is hardly the sort of thing I care to discuss in--er--mixed company."
He helped himself to three of the Choc-O-late Nutties.
"That reminds me," he said, "of abbreviations."
"Abbreviations?" Mrs. Gallup looked her interest.
"The world," observed Mr. Deeley, "is full of them. For example, Mr. Puttle, do you know what R. W. D. G. M. stands for?"
"No," answered Mr. Pottle glumly.
"It stands for Right Worshipful Deputy Grand Master," informed Mr. Deeley. "Do you know what N. U. T. stands for?"
"I know what it spells," said Mr. Pottle pointedly.
"You ought to," said Mr. Deeley, letting off his laugh. "But we were discussing abbreviations. Since you don't seem very well informed on this point"--he shot a smile at Mrs. Gallup--"I'll tell you that N. U. T. stands for National Union of Teachers, just as M. F. H. stands for Master of Fox Hounds, and M. I. C. E. stands for Member of Institute of Civil Engineers, and A. O. H. stands for----"
"Oh, Mr. Deeley, how perfectly thrilling!" Mrs. Gallup spoke; Mr. Pottle writhed; Mr. Deeley smiled complacently, and went on.
"I could go on indefinitely; abbreviations are rather a specialty of mine."
It developed that Mr. Deeley had many specialties.
"Are you aware," he asked, focusing his gaze on Mr. Pottle, "that there is acid in this cherry?" He held aloft a candied cherry which he had deftly exhumed from a Choc-O-late Nuttie.
"My goodness!" cried Mrs. Gallup. "Will it poison us? I've eaten six."
"My dear lady"--there was a world of tender reassurance in Mr. Deeley's tone--"only the uninformed regard all acids as poisonous. There are acids and acids. I've taken a rather special interest in them. Let's see--there are many kinds--acetic, benzoic, citric, gallic, lactic, malic, oxalic, palmitic, picric--but why go on?"
"Yes," said Mr. Pottle; "why?"
"Do not interrupt, Mr. Pottle, if you please," said Mrs. Gallup severely. "I'm sure what Mr. Deeley says interests me immensely. Go on, Mr. Deeley."
"Thank you, Mrs. Gallup; thank you," said the brilliant conversationalist. "But don't you think alligators are more interesting than acids?"
"You know about so many interesting things," she smiled. Mr. Pottle's very soul began to curdle.
"Alligators are rather a specialty of mine," remarked Mr. Deeley. "Fascinating little brutes, I think. You know alligators, Mrs. Gallup?"
"Stuffed," said the lady.
"Ah, to be sure," he said. "Perhaps, then, you do not realize that the alligator is of the family Crocodilidoe and the order Eusuchia."
"No? You don't tell me?" Mrs. Gallup's tone was almost reverent.
"Yes," continued Mr. Deeley, in the voice of a lecturer, "there are two kinds of alligators--the lucius, found in the Mississippi; and the sinensis, in the Yang-tse-Kiang. It differs from the caiman by having a bony septum between its nostrils, and its ventral scutes are thinly, if at all, ossified. It is carnivorous and piscivorous----"
"How fascinating!" Mrs. Gallup had edged her chair nearer the speaker. "What does that mean?"
"It means," said Mr. Deeley, "that they eat corn and pigs."
"The strong tail of the alligator," he flowed on easily, "by a lashing movement assists it in swimming, during which exercise it emits a loud bellowing."
"Do alligators bellow?" asked Mr. Pottle with open skepticism.
"I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard them bellow," answered Mr. Deeley pugnaciously. "Apparently, Mr. Puddle, you are not familiar with the works of Ahn."
Mr. Pottle maintained a blank black silence.
"Oh, who was he?" put in Mrs. Gallup.
"Johann Franz Ahn, born 1796, died 1865, was an educationalist," said Mr. Deeley in the voice of authority. "His chief work, of which I am very fond, is a volume entitled, 'Praktischer Lehrgang zur Schnellen und Leichten Erlergung der Französischen Sprache.' You've read it, perhaps, Mr. Pobble?"
"No," said Mr. Pottle miserably. "I can't say I ever have." He felt that his case grew worse with every minute. He rose. "I guess I'd better be going," he said. Mrs. Gallup made no attempt to detain him.
As he left her presence with slow steps and a heart of lead he heard the high voice of Mr. Deeley saying, "Now, take alcohol: That's rather a specialty of mine. Alcohol is a term applied to a group of organic substances, including methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl, amyl----"
Back in his bachelor home the heartsick Mr. Pottle flung his new tie into a corner, slammed his ultra shoes on the floor, and tossed his trousers, heedless of rumpling, at a chair, sat down, head in hand, and thought of a watery grave.
For that he could not hope to compete conversationally or otherwise with the literary Deeley of Xenia was all too apparent. Mrs. Gallup--he had called her Blossom but a few brief hours ago--said she wanted a literary man, and here was one literary to his manicured finger tips.
He would not give up. Pottles are made of stern stuff. Reason told him his cause was hopeless, but his heart told him to fight to the last. He obeyed his heart.
Arraying himself in his finest, three nights later he went to call on Mrs. Gallup, a five-pound box of Choc-O-late Nutties hugged nervously to his silk-shirted bosom.
A maid admitted him. He heard in the living room a familiar high masculine voice that made his fists double up. It was saying, "Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, was born at Stagira in 384 B. C. and----"
Mr. Deeley paused to greet Mr. Pottle casually; Mrs. Gallup took the candy with only conventional words of appreciation, and turned at once to listen, disciple-like, to the discourses of the sage from Xenia, who for the rest of the evening held the center of the stage, absorbed every beam of the calcium, and dispensed fact and fancy about a wide variety of things. He was a man with many and curious specialties. Mrs. Gallup was a willing, Mr. Pottle a most unwilling listener.
At eleven Mr. Pottle went home, having uttered but two words all evening, and those monosyllables. He left Mr. Deeley holding forth in detail on the science of astronomy, with side glances at astrology and ancestor-worship.
Mr. Pottle's heart was too full for sleep. Indeed, as he walked in the moonlight through Eastman Park, it was with the partially formed intent of flinging himself in among the swans that slept on the artificial lake.
His mind went back to the conversation of Mr. Deeley in Mrs. Gallup's salon. She had been Blossom to him once, but now--this loudly learned stranger! Mr. Pottle stopped suddenly and sat down sharply on a park bench. The topics on which Mr. Deeley had conversed so fluently passed in an orderly array before his mind: Apes, acoustics, angels, Apollo, adders, albumen, auks, Alexander the Great, anarchy, adenoids----He had it! A light, bright as the sun at noon, dawned on Mr. Pottle.
Next morning when the public library opened, Mr. Pottle was waiting at the door.
A feverish week rushed by in Mr. Pottle's life.
"We'll be having to charge that little man with the bashful grin, rent or storage or something," said Miss Merk, the seventh assistant librarian, to Miss Heaslip, the ninth assistant librarian.
Sunday night firm determined steps took Mr. Pottle to the bungalow of Mrs. Gallup. He heard Mr. Deeley's sweet resonant voice in the living room. He smiled grimly.
"I was just telling Blossom about a curious little animal I take rather a special interest in," began the man from Xenia, with a condescending nod to Mr. Pottle.
Mr. Pottle checked the frown that had started to gather at "Blossom," and asked politely, "And what is the beast's name?"
"The aard-vark," replied Mr. Deeley. "He is----"
"The Cape ant bear," finished Mr. Pottle, "or earth pig. He lives on ants, burrows rapidly, and can be easily killed by a smart blow on his sensitive snout."
Mr. Deeley stared; Mrs. Gallup stared; Mr. Pottle sailed on serenely.
"A very interesting beast, the aard-vark. But to my mind not so interesting as the long-nosed bandicoot. You know the long-nosed bandicoot, I presume, Mr. Deeley?"
"Well, not under that name," retorted the Xenia sage. "You don't mean antelope?"
"By no means," said Mr. Pottle with a superior smile. "I said bandicoot--B-a-n-d-i-coot. He is a Peramelidoe of the Marsupial family, meaning he carries his young in a pouch like a kangaroo."
"How cute!" murmured Mrs. Gallup.
"There are bandicoots and bandicoots," pursued Mr. Pottle; "the Peragale, or rabbit bandicoot; the Nasuta, or long-nosed bandicoot; the Mysouros, or saddle-backed bandicoot; the Choeropus, or pig-footed bandicoot; and----"
"Speaking of antelopes----" Mr. Deeley interrupted loudly.
"By all means!" said Mr. Pottle still more loudly. "I've always taken a special interest in antelopes. Let's see now--the antelope family includes the gnus, elands, hartebeests, addax, klipspringers, chamois, gazelles, chirus, pallas, saigas, nilgais, koodoos--pretty name that, isn't it, Blossom--the blessboks, duikerboks, boneboks, gemsboks, steinboks----"
He saw that the bright blue eyes of the lady of his dreams were fastened on him. He turned toward Mr. Deeley.
"You're familiar with Bambara, aren't you?" he asked.
"I beg pardon?" The brilliant conversationalist seemed a little confused. "Did you say Arabia? I should say I do know Arabia. Population 5,078,441; area----"
"One million, two hundred and twenty-two thousand square miles," finished Mr. Pottle. "No, I did not say Arabia; I said Bambara. B-a-m-b-a-r-a."
"Oh, Bambara," said Mr. Deeley feebly; his assurance seemed to crumple.
"Yes," said Mrs. Gallup. "Do tell us about Bambara; such an intriguing name."
"It is a country in Western Africa," Mr. Pottle tossed off grandly, "with a population of 2,004,737, made up of Negroes, Mandingoes and Foulahs. Its principal products are rice, maize, cotton, millet, yams, pistachio nuts, French beans, watermelons, onions, tobacco, indigo, tamarinds, lotuses, sheep, horses, alligators, pelicans, turtles, egrets, teals and Barbary ducks."
"Oh, how interesting! Do go on, Mr. Pottle." It was the voice of Mrs. Gallup; to Mr. Pottle it seemed that there was a tender note in it.
"Bambara reminds me of baboons," he went on loudly and rapidly, checking an incipient remark from Mr. Deeley. "Baboons, you know, are Cynocephali or dog-headed monkeys; the species includes drills, mandrills, sphinx, chacma and hamadryas. Most baboons have ischial callosities----"
"Oh, what do they do with them?" cried wide-eyed Mrs. Gallup.
"They--er--sit on them," answered Mr. Pottle.
"I don't believe it," Mr. Deeley challenged.
Mr. Pottle froze him with a look. "Evidently," he said, "you, Mr. Deeley, are not familiar with the works of Dr. Oskar Baumann, author of 'Afrikanische Skizzen.' Are you?"
"I've glanced through it," said Mr. Deeley.
"Then you don't remember what he says on Page 489?"
"Can't say that I do," mumbled Mr. Deeley.
"And you appear unfamiliar with the works of Hosea Ballou."
"I doubt if there is such a person," said Mr. Deeley stiffly. He did not appear to be enjoying himself.
"Oh, you do, do you?" retorted Mr. Pottle. "Suppose you look him up in your encyclopedia--if," he added with crushing emphasis--"if you have one. You'll find that Hosea Ballou was born in 1771, founded the Trumpet Magazine, the Universalist Expositor, the Universalist Quarterly Review, and wrote Notes on the Parables."
"What has that to do with baboons?" demanded Mr. Deeley.
"A lot more than you think," was Mr. Pottle's cryptic answer. He turned from the Xenian with a shrug of dismissal, and smiled upon Mrs. Gallup.
"Don't you think, Blossom," he said, "that Babylonia is a fascinating country?"
"Oh, very," she smiled back at him. "I dote on Babylonia."
"Perhaps," suggested Mr. Pottle, "Mr. Deeley will be good enough to tell us all about it."
Mr. Deeley looked extremely uncomfortable.
"Babylonia--let's see now--well, it just happens that Babylonia is not one of my specialties."
"Well, tell us about Baluchistan, then," suggested Mr. Pottle.
"Yes, do!" echoed Mrs. Gallup.
"I've forgotten about it," answered the brilliant conversationalist sullenly.
"Well, tell us about Beethoven, then," pursued Mr. Pottle relentlessly.
"I never was there," growled Mr. Deeley. "Say, when does the next trolley leave for Xenia?"
"In seven minutes," answered Mrs. Gallup coldly. "You've just got time to catch it."
The bungalow's front door snapped at the heels of the departing sage from Xenia.
Mr. Pottle hitched his chair close to the sofa where Mrs. Gallup sat.
"Oh, Mr. Pottle," she said softly, "do talk some more! I just love to hear you. You surprised me. I didn't realize you were such a well-read man."
Mr. Pottle looked into her wide blue eyes.
"I'm not," he said. "I was bluffing."
"Yes," he said; "and so was your friend from Xenia. He's no more in the literary line than I am. His job is selling a book called 'Hog Culture.'"
"But he talks so well----" began Mrs. Gallup.
"Only about things that begin with 'A,'" said Mr. Pottle. "He memorized everything in the encyclopedia under 'A.' I simply went him one better. I memorized all of 'A,' and all of 'B' too."
"Oh, the deceitful wretch!"
"I'm sorry, Blossom. Can you forgive me?" he pleaded. "I did it because----"
She interrupted him gently.
"I know," she said, smiling. "You did it for me. I wasn't calling you a wretch, Ambrose."
He found himself on the sofa beside her, his arm about her.
"What I really want," she confessed with a happy sigh, "is a good strong man to take care of me."
"We'll go through the rest of the encyclopedia together, dearest," said Mr. Pottle.