At the beginning of the long twilight of a summer evening, Sam McPherson,a tall big-boned boy of thirteen, with brown hair, black eyes, and anamusing little habit of tilting his chin in the air as he walked, cameupon the station platform of the little corn-shipping town of Caxton inIowa. It was a board platform, and the boy walked cautiously, lifting hisbare feet and putting them down with extreme deliberateness on the hot,dry, cracked planks. Under one arm he carried a bundle of newspapers. Along black cigar was in his hand.
In front of the station he stopped; and Jerry Donlin, the baggage-man,seeing the cigar in his hand, laughed, and slowly drew the side of hisface up into a laboured wink.
"What is the game to-night, Sam?" he asked.
Sam stepped to the baggage-room door, handed him the cigar, and begangiving directions, pointing into the baggage-room, intent and businesslike in the face of the Irishman's laughter. Then, turning, he walkedacross the station platform to the main street of the town, his eyes benton the ends of his fingers on which he was making computations with histhumb. Jerry looked after him, grinning so that his red gums made a splashof colour on his bearded face. A gleam of paternal pride lit his eyes andhe shook his head and muttered admiringly. Then, lighting the cigar, hewent down the platform to where a wrapped bundle of newspapers lay againstthe building, under the window of the telegraph office, and taking it inhis arm disappeared, still grinning, into the baggage-room.
Sam McPherson walked down Main Street, past the shoe store, the bakery,and the candy store kept by Penny Hughes, toward a group lounging at thefront of Geiger's drug store. Before the door of the shoe store he pauseda moment, and taking a small note-book from his pocket ran his finger downthe pages, then shaking his head continued on his way, again absorbed indoing sums on his fingers.
Suddenly, from among the men by the drug store, a roaring song broke theevening quiet of the street, and a voice, huge and guttural, brought asmile to the boy's lips:
"He washed the windows and he swept the floor, And he polished up the handle of the big front door. He polished that handle so carefullee, That now he's the ruler of the queen's navee."
The singer, a short man with grotesquely wide shoulders, wore a longflowing moustache, and a black coat, covered with dust, that reached tohis knees. He held a smoking briar pipe in his hand, and with it beat timefor a row of men sitting on a long stone under the store window andpounding on the sidewalk with their heels to make a chorus for the song.Sam's smile broadened into a grin as he looked at the singer, FreedomSmith, a buyer of butter and eggs, and past him at John Telfer, theorator, the dandy, the only man in town, except Mike McCarthy, who kepthis trousers creased. Among all the men of Caxton, Sam most admired JohnTelfer and in his admiration had struck upon the town's high light. Telferloved good clothes and wore them with an air, and never allowed Caxton tosee him shabbily or indifferently dressed, laughingly declaring that itwas his mission in life to give tone to the town.
John Telfer had a small income left him by his father, once a banker inthe town, and in his youth he had gone to New York to study art, and laterto Paris; but lacking ability or industry to get on had come back toCaxton where he had married Eleanor Millis, a prosperous milliner. Theywere the most successful married pair in Caxton, and after years of lifetogether they were still in love; were never indifferent to each other,and never quarrelled; Telfer treated his wife with as much considerationand respect as though she were a sweetheart, or a guest in his house, andshe, unlike most of the wives in Caxton, never ventured to question hisgoings and comings, but left him free to live his own life in his own waywhile she attended to the millinery business.
At the age of forty-five John Telfer was a tall, slender, fine lookingman, with black hair and a little black pointed beard, and with somethinglazy and care-free in his every movement and impulse. Dressed in whiteflannels, with white shoes, a jaunty cap upon his head, eyeglasses hangingfrom a gold chain, and a cane lightly swinging from his hand, he made afigure that might have passed unnoticed on the promenade before somefashionable summer hotel, but that seemed a breach of the laws of naturewhen seen on the streets of a corn-shipping town in Iowa. And Telfer wasaware of the extraordinary figure he cut; it was a part of his programmeof life. Now as Sam approached he laid a hand on Freedom Smith's shoulderto check the song, and, with his eyes twinkling with good-humour, beganthrusting with his cane at the boy's feet.
"He will never be ruler of the queen's navee," he declared, laughing andfollowing the dancing boy about in a wide circle. "He is a little molethat works underground intent upon worms. The trick he has of tilting uphis nose is only his way of smelling out stray pennies. I have it fromBanker Walker that he brings a basket of them into the bank every day. Oneof these days he will buy the town and put it into his vest pocket."
Circling about on the stone sidewalk and dancing to escape the flyingcane, Sam dodged under the arm of Valmore, a huge old blacksmith withshaggy clumps of hair on the back of his hands, and sought refuge betweenhim and Freedom Smith. The blacksmith's hand stole out and lay upon theboy's shoulder. Telfer, his legs spread apart and the cane hooked upon hisarm, began rolling a cigarette; Geiger, a yellow skinned man with fatcheeks and with hands clasped over his round paunch, smoked a black cigar,and as he sent each puff into the air, grunted forth his satisfaction withlife. He was wishing that Telfer, Freedom Smith, and Valmore, instead ofmoving on to their nightly nest at the back of Wildman's grocery, wouldcome into his place for the evening. He thought he would like to have thethree of them there night after night discussing the doings of the world.
Quiet once more settled down upon the sleepy street. Over Sam's shoulder,Valmore and Freedom Smith talked of the coming corn crop and the growthand prosperity of the country.
"Times are getting better about here, but the wild things are almostgone," said Freedom, who in the winter bought hides and pelts.
The men sitting on the stone beneath the window watched with idle interestTelfer's labours with paper and tobacco. "Young Henry Kerns has gotmarried," observed one of them, striving to make talk. "He has married agirl from over Parkertown way. She gives lessons in painting--chinapainting--kind of an artist, you know."
An ejaculation of disgust broke from Telfer: his fingers trembled and thetobacco that was to have been the foundation of his evening smoke rainedon the sidewalk.
"An artist!" he exclaimed, his voice tense with excitement. "Who saidartist? Who called her that?" He glared fiercely about. "Let us have anend to this blatant misuse of fine old words. To say of one that he is anartist is to touch the peak of praise."
Throwing his cigarette paper after the scattered tobacco he thrust onehand into his trouser pocket. With the other he held the cane, emphasisinghis points by ringing taps upon the pavement. Geiger, taking the cigarbetween his fingers, listened with open mouth to the outburst thatfollowed. Valmore and Freedom Smith dropped their conversation and withbroad smiles upon their faces gave attention, and Sam McPherson, his eyesround with wonder and admiration, felt again the thrill that always ranthrough him under the drum beats of Telfer's eloquence.
"An artist is one who hungers and thirsts after perfection, not one whodabs flowers upon plates to choke the gullets of diners," declared Telfer,setting himself for one of the long speeches with which he loved toastonish the men of Caxton, and glaring down at those seated upon thestone. "It is the artist who, among all men, has the divine audacity. Doeshe not hurl himself into a battle in which is engaged against him all ofthe accumulative genius of the world?"
Pausing, he looked about for an opponent upon whom he might pour the floodof his eloquence, but on all sides smiles greeted him. Undaunted, herushed again to the charge.
"A business man--what is he?" he demanded. "He succeeds by outwitting thelittle minds with which he comes in contact. A scientist is of moreaccount--he pits his brains against the dull unresponsiveness of inanimatematter and a hundredweight of black iron he makes do the work of a hundredhousewives. But an artist tests his brains against the greatest brains ofall times; he stands upon the peak of life and hurls himself against theworld. A girl from Parkertown who paints flowers upon dishes to be calledan artist--ugh! Let me spew forth the thought! Let me cleanse my mouth! Aman should have a prayer upon his lips who utters the word artist!"
"Well, we can't all be artists and the woman can paint flowers upon dishesfor all I care," spoke up Valmore, laughing good naturedly. "We can't allpaint pictures and write books."
"We do not want to be artists--we do not dare to be," shouted Telfer,whirling and shaking his cane at Valmore. "You have a misunderstanding ofthe word."
He straightened his shoulders and threw out his chest and the boy standingbeside the blacksmith threw up his chin, unconsciously imitating theswagger of the man.
"I do not paint pictures; I do not write books; yet am I an artist,"declared Telfer, proudly. "I am an artist practising the most difficult ofall arts--the art of living. Here in this western village I stand andfling my challenge to the world. 'On the lip of not the greatest of you,'I cry, 'has life been more sweet.'"
He turned from Valmore to the men upon the stone.
"Make a study of my life," he commanded. "It will be a revelation to you.With a smile I greet the morning; I swagger in the noontime; and in theevening, like Socrates of old, I gather a little group of you benightedvillagers about me and toss wisdom into your teeth, striving to teach youjudgment in the use of great words."
"You talk an almighty lot about yourself, John," grumbled Freedom Smith,taking his pipe from his mouth.
"The subject is complex, it is varied, it is full of charm," Telferanswered, laughing.
Taking a fresh supply of tobacco and paper from his pocket, he rolled andlighted a cigarette. His fingers no longer trembled. Flourishing his canehe threw back his head and blew smoke into the air. He thought that inspite of the roar of laughter that had greeted Freedom Smith's comment, hehad vindicated the honour of art and the thought made him happy.
To the newsboy, who had been leaning against the storefront lost inadmiration, it seemed that he had caught in Telfer's talk an echo of thekind of talk that must go on among men in the big outside world. Had notthis Telfer travelled far? Had he not lived in New York and Paris? Withoutunderstanding the sense of what had been said, Sam felt that it must besomething big and conclusive. When from the distance there came the shriekof a locomotive, he stood unmoved, trying to comprehend the meaning ofTelfer's outburst over the lounger's simple statement.
"There's the seven forty-five," cried Telfer, sharply. "Is the war betweenyou and Fatty at an end? Are we going to lose our evening's diversion? HasFatty bluffed you out or are you growing rich and lazy like Papa Geigerhere?"
Springing from his place beside the blacksmith and grasping the bundle ofnewspapers, Sam ran down the street, Telfer, Valmore, Freedom Smith andthe loungers following more slowly.
When the evening train from Des Moines stopped at Caxton, a blue-coatedtrain news merchant leaped hurriedly to the platform and began lookinganxiously about.
"Hurry, Fatty," rang out Freedom Smith's huge voice, "Sam's already halfthrough one car."
The young man called "Fatty" ran up and down the station platform. "Whereis that bundle of Omaha papers, you Irish loafer?" he shouted, shaking hisfist at Jerry Donlin who stood upon a truck at the front of the train, upending trunks into the baggage car.
Jerry paused with a trunk dangling in mid-air. "In the baggage-room, ofcourse. Hurry, man. Do you want the kid to work the whole train?"
An air of something impending hung over the idlers upon the platform, thetrain crew, and even the travelling men who began climbing off the train.The engineer thrust his head out of the cab; the conductor, a dignifiedlooking man with a grey moustache, threw back his head and shook withmirth; a young man with a suit-case in his hand and a long pipe in hismouth ran to the door of the baggage-room, calling, "Hurry! Hurry, Fatty!The kid is working the entire train. You won't be able to sell a paper."
The fat young man ran from the baggage-room to the platform and shoutedagain to Jerry Donlin, who was now slowly pushing the empty truck alongthe platform. From the train came a clear voice calling, "Latest Omahapapers! Have your change ready! Fatty, the train newsboy, has fallen downa well! Have your change ready, gentlemen!"
Jerry Donlin, followed by Fatty, again disappeared from sight. Theconductor, waving his hand, jumped upon the steps of the train. Theengineer pulled in his head and the train began to move.
The fat young man emerged from the baggage-room, swearing revenge upon thehead of Jerry Donlin. "There was no need to put it under a mail sack!" heshouted, shaking his fist. "I'll be even with you for this."
Followed by the shouts of the travelling men and the laughter of theidlers upon the platform he climbed upon the moving train and beganrunning from car to car. Off the last car dropped Sam McPherson, a smileupon his lips, the bundle of newspapers gone, his pocket jingling withcoins. The evening's entertainment for the town of Caxton was at an end.
John Telfer, standing by the side of Valmore, waved his cane in the airand began talking.
"Beat him again, by Gad!" he exclaimed. "Bully for Sam! Who says thespirit of the old buccaneers is dead? That boy didn't understand what Isaid about art, but he is an artist just the same!"