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The Torrents of Spring Part 1 Chapter 5

Scripps O'Neil stood irresolutely before the barber shop. Inside there men were being shaved. Other men, no different, were having their hair cut. Other men sat against the wall in tall chairs and smoked, awaiting their turn in the barber chairs, admiring the paintings hung on the wall, or admiring their own reflections in the long mirror. Should he, Scripps, go in there? After all, he had four hundred and fifty dollars in his pocket. He could go where he wanted. He looked, once again, irresolutely. It was an inviting prospect, the society of men, the warm room, the white jackets of the barbers skillfully snipping away with their scissors or drawing their blades diagonally through the lather that covered the face of some man who was getting a shave. They could use their tools, these barbers. Somehow, it wasn't what he wanted. He wanted something different. He wanted to eat. Besides, there his bird to look after.

Scripps O'Neil turned his back on the barber shop and strode away up the street of the silently frozen Northern town. On his right, as he walked, the weeping birches, their branches bare of leaves, hung down to the ground, heavy with snow. To his ears came the sound of sleigh bells. Perhaps it was Christmas. In the South little children would be shooting off firecrackers and crying "Christmas Gift! Christmas Gift!" to one another. His father came from the South. He had been a soldier in the rebel army. 'Way back in the Civil War days. Sherman had burned their house down on his March to the Sea. "War is hell," Sherman had said. "But you see how it is, Mrs. O'Neil. I've got to do it." He had touched a match to the white-pillared old house.

"If General O'Neil were here, you dastard!" his mother had said, speaking in her broken English, "you'd never have touched a match to that house."

Smoke curled up from the old house. The fire was mounting. The white pillars were obscured in the rising smoke-wreaths. Scripps had held close to his mother's linsey-woolsey dress.

General Sherman climbed back onto his horse and made a low bow. "Mrs. O'Neil," he said, and Scripps's mother always said there were tears in his eyes, even if he was a damned Yank. The man had a heart, sir, even if he did follow its dictates. "Mrs. O'Neil, if the general were here, we could have it out as man to man. As it is, ma'am, war being what it is, I must burn your house."

He motioned to one of his soldiers, who ran forward and threw a bucket of kerosene on the flames. The flames rose and a great column of smoke went up in the still evening air.

"At least, General Sherman," Scripps's mother said triumphantly, "that column of smoke will warn the other loyal daughters of the Confederacy that you are coming."

Sherman bowed. "That is the risk we must take, ma'am." He clapped spurs to his horse and rode away, his long white hair floating on the wind. Neither Scripps nor his mother ever saw him again. Odd that he should think of that incident now. He looked up. Facing him was a sign:


He would go in and eat. This was what he wanted. He would go in and eat. That sign:


Ah, these big beanery owners were wise fellows. They knew how to get the customers. No ads in The Saturday Evening Post for them. The Best by Test. That was the stuff. He went in.

Inside the door of the beanery Scripps O'Neil looked around him. There was a long counter. There was a clock. There was a door led into the kitchen. There were a couple of tables. There were a pile of doughnuts under a glass cover. There were signs put about on the wall advertising things one might eat. Was this, after all, Brown's Beanery?

"I wonder," Scripps asked an elderly waitress who came in through the swinging door from the kitchen, "if you could tell me if this is Brown's Beanery?"

"Yes, sir," answered the waitress. "The best by test."

"Thank you," Scripps said. He sat down at the counter. "I would like to have some beans for myself and some for my bird here."

He opened his shirt and placed the bird on the counter. The bird ruffled his feathers and shook himself. He peeked inquiringly at the catsup bottle. The elderly waitress put out a hand and stroked him. "Isn't he a manly little fellow?" she remarked. "By the way," she asked, a little shamefacedly, "what was it you ordered, sir?"

"Beans," Scripps said, "for my bird and myself."

The waitress shoved up a little wicket that led into the kitchen. Scripps had a glimpse of a warm, steam-filled room, with big pots and kettles, and many shining cans on the wall.

"A pig and the noisy ones," the waitress called in a matter-of-fact voice into the open wicket. "One for a bird!"

"On the fire!" a voice answered from the kitchen.

"How old is your bird?" the elderly waitress asked.

"I don't know," Scripps said. "I never saw him before last night. I was walking on the railroad track from Mancelona. My wife left me."

"Poor little chap," the waitress said. She poured a little catsup on her finger and the bird pecked at it gratefully.

"My wife left me," Scripps said. "We'd been out drinking on the railroad track. We used to go out evenings and watch the trains pass. I write stores. I had a story in The Post and two in The Dial. Mencken's trying to get ahold of me. I'm too wise for that sort of thing. No politzei for mine. They give me the katzenjammers."

What was he saying? He was talking wildly. This would never do. He must pull himself together.

"Scofield Thayer was my best man," he said. "I'm a Harvard man. All I want is for them to give me and my bird a square deal. No more weltpolitik. Take Dr. Coolidge away."

His mind was wandering. He knew what it was. He was faint with hunger. This Northern air was too sharp, too keen for him.

"I say," he said. "Could you let me have just a few of those beans. I don't like to rush things. I know when to let well enough alone."

The wicket came up, and a large plate of beans and a small plate of beans, both steaming, appeared.

"Here they are," the waitress said.

Scripps fell to on the large plate of beans. There was a little pork, too. The bird was eating happily, raising its head after each swallow to let the beans go down.

"He does that to thank God for those beans," the elderly waitress explained.

"They're mighty fine beans, too," Scripps agreed. Under the influence of the beans his head was clearing. What was this rot he had been talking about that man Henry Mencken? Was Mencken really after him? It wasn't a pretty prospect to face. He had four hundred and fifty dollars in his pocket. When that was gone he could always put an end to things. If they pressed him too far they would get a big surprise. He wasn't the man to be taken alive. Just let them try it.

After eating his beans the bird had fallen asleep. He was sleeping on one leg, the other tucked up into his feathers.

"When he gets tired of sleeping on that leg he will change legs and rest," the waitress remarked. "We had an old osprey at home that was like that."

"Where was your home?" Scripps asked.

"In England. In the Lake District." The waitress smiled a bit wistfully. "Wordsworth's country, you know."

Ah, these English. They travelled all over the face of the globe. They were not content to remain in their little island. Strange Nordics, obsessed with their dream of empire.

"I was not always a waitress," the elderly waitress remarked.

"I'm sure you weren't."

"Not half," the waitress went on. "It's rather a strange story. Perhaps it would bore you?"

"Not at all," Scripps said. "You wouldn't mind if I used the story sometime?"

"Not if you find it interesting," the waitress smiled. "You wouldn't use my name, of course."

"Not if you'd rather not," Scripps said. "By the way, could I have another order of beans?"

"Best by test," the waitress smiled. Her face was lined and gray. She looks a little like that actress that died in Pittsburgh. What was her name? Lenore Ulric. In Peter Pan. That was it. They say she always went about veiled, Scripps thought. There was an interesting woman. Was it Lenore Ulric? Perhaps not. No matter.

"You really want some more beans?" asked the waitress.

"Yes," Scripps answered simply.

"Once again on the loud ones," the waitress called into the wicket. "Lay off the bird."

"On the fire," came the response.

"Please go on with your story," Scripps said kindly.

"It was the year of the Paris Exposition," she began. "I was a young girl at the time, a jeune fille, and I came over from England with my mother. We were going to be present at the opening of the exposition. On our way from the Gare du Nord to the hotel in the Place Vendôme where we lodged, we stopped at a coiffeur's shop and made some trifling purchase. My mother, as I recall, purchased an additional bottle of 'smelling salts,' as you call them here in America."

She smiled.

"Yes, go on. Smelling salts," Scripps said.

"We registered, as is customary, in the hotel, and were given the adjoining rooms we had reserved. My mother felt a bit done in by the trip, and we dined in our rooms. I was full of excitement about seeing the exposition on the morrow. But I was tired after the journey—we had had a rather nasty crossing—and slept soundly. In the morning I awoke and called for my mother. There was no answer, and I went into the room to waken Mummy. Instead of Mummy there was a French general in the bed."

"Mon Dieu!" Scripps said.

"I was terribly frightened," the waitress went on, "and rang the bell for the management. The concierge came up, and I demanded to know where my mother was.

"'But, mademoiselle,' the concierge explained, 'we know nothing about your mother. You came here with General So-and-so'—I cannot remember the general's name."

"Call him General Joffre," Scripps suggested.

"It was a name very like that," the waitress said. "I was fearfully frightened and sent for the police, and demanded to see the guest-register. 'You'll find there that I am registered with my mother,' I said. The police came and the concierge brought up the register. 'See, madame,' he said. 'You are registered with the general with whom you came to our hotel last night.'

"I was desperate. Finally, I remembered where the coiffeur's shop was. The police sent for the coiffeur. An agent of police brought him in.

"'I stopped at your shop with my mother,' I said to the coiffeur, 'and my mother bought a bottle of aromatic salts.'

"'I remember mademoiselle perfectly,' the coiffeur said. 'But you were not with your mother. You were with an elderly French general. He purchased, I believe, a pair of mustache tongs. My books, at any rate, will show the purchase.'

"I was in despair. In the meantime the police had brought in the cab driver who had brought us from the gare to the hotel. He swore that I had never been with my mother. Tell me, does this story bore you?"

"Go on," said Scripps. "If you had ever been as hard up for plots as I have been!"

"Well," the waitress said. "That's all there is to the tale. I never saw my mother again. I communicated with the embassy, but they could do nothing. It was finally established by them that I had crossed the channel with my mother, but they could do nothing beyond that." Tears came into the elderly waitress's eyes. "I never saw Mummy again. Never again. Not even once."

"What about the general?"

"He finally loaned me one hundred francs—not a great sum even in those days—and I came to America and became a waitress. That's all there is to the story."

"There's more than that," Scripps said. "I'd stake my life there's more than that."

"Sometimes, you know, I feel there is," the waitress said. "I feel there must be more than that. Somewhere, somehow, there must be an explanation. I don't know what brought the subject into my mind this morning."

"It was a good thing to get it off your mind," Scripps said.

"Yes," the waitress smiled, the lines in her face not quite so deep now. "I feel better now."

"Tell me," Scripps asked the waitress. "Is there any work in this town for me and my bird?"

"Honest work?" asked the waitress. "I only know of honest work."

"Yes, honest work," Scripps said.

"They do say they're hiring hands at the new pump-factory," the waitress said. Why shouldn't he work with his hands? Rodin had done it. Cézanne had been a butcher. Renoir a carpenter. Picasso had worked in a cigarette-factory in his boyhood. Gilbert Stuart, who painted those famous portraits of Washington that are reproduced all over this America of ours and hang in every schoolroom—Gilbert Stuart had been a blacksmith. There there was Emerson. Emerson had been a hod-carrier. James Russell Lowell had been, he had heard, a telegraph operator in youth. Like that chap down at the station. Perhaps even now that telegrapher at the station was working on his "Thanatopsis" or his "To a Waterfowl." Why shouldn't he, Scripps O'Neil, work in a pump-factory?

"You'll come back again?" the waitress asked.

"If I may," Scripps said.

"And bring your bird."

"Yes," Scripps said. "The little chap's rather tired now. After all, it was a hard night for him."

"I should say it was," agreed the waitress.

Scripps went out again into the town. He felt clearheaded and ready to face life. A pump-factory would be interesting. Pumps were big things now. Fortunes were made and lost in pumps every day in New York in Wall Street. He knew of a chap who'd cleaned up a cool half-million on pumps in less than half an hour. They knew what they were about, these big Wall Street operators.

Outside on the street he look up at the sign. Best by Test, he read. They had the dope all right, he said. Was it true, though, that there had been a Negro cook? Just once, just for one moment, when the wicket went up, he thought he had caught a glimpse of something black. Perhaps the chap was only sooty from the stove.