A Question Of Plumage by Christopher Morley

Story type: EssayKenneth Stockton was a man of letters, and correspondingly poor. He was the literary editor of a leading metropolitan daily; but this job only netted him …

Story type: Essay

Kenneth Stockton was a man of letters, and correspondingly poor. He was the literary editor of a leading metropolitan daily; but this job only netted him fifty dollars a week, and he was lucky to get that much. The owner of the paper was powerfully in favour of having the reviews done by the sporting editor, and confining them to the books of those publishers who bought advertising space. This simple and statesmanlike view the owner had frequently expressed in Mr. Stockton’s hearing, so the latter was never very sure how long his job would continue.

But Mr. Stockton had a house, a wife, and four children in New Utrecht, that very ingenious suburb of Brooklyn. He had worked the problem out to a nicety long ago. If he did not bring home, on the average, eighty dollars a week, his household would cease to revolve. It simply had to be done. The house was still being paid for on the installment plan. There were plumbers’ bills, servant’s wages, clothes and schooling for the children, clothes for the wife, two suits a year for himself, and the dues of the Sheepshead Golf Club–his only extravagance. A simple middle-class routine, but one that, once embarked upon, turns into a treadmill. As I say, eighty dollars a week would just cover expenses. To accumulate any savings, pay for life insurance, and entertain friends, Stockton had to rise above that minimum. If in any week he fell below that figure he could not lie abed at night and “snort his fill,” as the Elizabethan song naively puts it.

There you have the groundwork of many a domestic drama.

Mr. Stockton worked pretty hard at the newspaper office to earn his fifty dollars. He skimmed faithfully all the books that came in, wrote painstaking reviews, and took care to run cuts on his literary page on Saturdays “to give the stuff kick,” as the proprietor ordered. Though he did so with reluctance, he was forced now and then to approach the book publishers on the subject of advertising. He gave earnest and honest thought to his literary department, and was once praised by Mr. Howells in Harper’s Magazine for the honourable quality of his criticisms.

But Mr. Stockton, like most men, had only a certain fund of energy and enthusiasm at his disposal. His work on the paper used up the first fruits of his zeal and strength. After that came his article on current poetry, written (unsigned) for a leading imitation literary weekly. The preparation of this involved a careful perusal of at least fifty journals, both American and foreign, and I blush to say it brought him only fifteen dollars a week. He wrote a weekly “New York Letter” for a Chicago paper of bookish tendencies, in which he told with a flavour of intimacy the goings on of literary men in Manhattan whom he never had time or opportunity to meet. This article was paid for at space rates, which are less in Chicago than in New York. On this count he averaged about six dollars a week.

That brings us up to seventy-one dollars, and also pretty close to the limit of our friend’s endurance. The additional ten dollars or so needed for the stability of the Stockton exchequer he earned in various ways. Neighbours in New Utrecht would hear his weary typewriter clacking far into the night. He wrote short stories, of only fair merit; and he wrote “Sunday stories,” which is the lowest depth to which a self-respecting lover of literature can fall. Once in a while he gave a lecture on poetry, but he was a shy man, and he never was asked to lecture twice in the same place. By almost incredible exertions of courage and obstinacy he wrote a novel, which was published, and sold 2,580 copies the first year. His royalties on this amounted to $348.30–not one-third as much, he reflected sadly, as Irvin Cobb would receive for a single short story. He even did a little private tutoring at his home, giving the sons of some of his friends lessons in English literature.

It is to be seen that Mr. Stockton’s relatives, back in Indiana, were wrong when they wrote to him admiringly–as they did twice a year–asking for loans, and praising the bold and debonair life of a man of letters in the great city. They did not know that for ten years Mr. Stockton had refused the offers of his friends to put him up for membership at the literary club to which his fancy turned so fondly and so often. He could not afford it. When friends from out of town called on him, he took them to Peck’s for a French table d’hote, with an apologetic murmur.

But it is not to be thought that Mr. Stockton was unhappy or discontented. Those who have experienced the excitements of the existence where one lives from hand to mouth and back to hand again, with rarely more than fifty cents of loose change in pocket, know that there is even a kind of pleasurable exhilaration in it. The characters in George Gissing’s Grub Street stories would have thought Stockton rich indeed with his fifty-dollar salary. But he was one of those estimable men who have sense enough to give all their money to their wives and keep none in their trousers. And though his life was arduous and perhaps dull to outward view, he was a passionate lover of books, and in his little box at the back of the newspaper office, smoking a corncob and thumping out his reviews, he was one of the happiest men in New York. His thirst for books was a positive bulimia; how joyful he was when he found time to do a little work on his growing sheaf of literary essays, which he intended to call “Casual Ablutions,” after the famous sign in the British Museum washroom.

It was Mr. Stockton’s custom to take a trolley as far as the Brooklyn bridge, and thence it was a pleasant walk to the office on Park Row. Generally he left home about ten o’clock, thus avoiding the rush of traffic in the earlier hours; and loitering a little along the way, as becomes a man of ideas, his article on poetry would jell in his mind, and he would be at his desk a little after eleven. There he would work until one o’clock with the happy concentration of those who enjoy their tasks. At that time he would go out for a bite of lunch, and would then be at his desk steadily from two until six. Dinner at home was at seven, and after that he worked persistently in his little den under the roof until past midnight.

One morning in spring he left New Utrecht in a mood of perplexity, for to-day his even routine was in danger of interruption. Halfway across the bridge Stockton paused in some confusion of spirit to look down on the shining river and consider his course.

A year or so before this time, in gathering copy for his poetry articles, he had first come across the name of Finsbury Verne in an English journal at the head of some exquisite verses. From time to time he found more of this writer’s lyrics in the English magazines, and at length he had ventured a graceful article of appreciation. It happened that he was the first in this country to recognize Verne’s talent, and to his great delight he had one day received a very charming letter from the poet himself, thanking him for his understanding criticism.

Stockton, though a shy and reticent man, had the friendliest nature in the world, and some underlying spirit of kinship in Verne’s letter prompted him to warm response. Thus began a correspondence which was a remarkable pleasure to the lonely reviewer, who knew no literary men, although his life was passed among books. Hardly dreaming that they would ever meet, he had insisted on a promise that if Verne should ever visit the States he would make New Utrecht his headquarters. And now, on this very morning, there had come a wireless message via Seagate, saying that Verne was on a ship which would dock that afternoon.

The dilemma may seem a trifling one, but to Stockton’s sensitive nature it was gross indeed. He and his wife knew that they could offer but little to make the poet’s visit charming. New Utrecht, on the way to Coney Island, is not a likely perching ground for poets; the house was small, shabby, and the spare room had long ago been made into a workshop for the two boys, where they built steam engines and pasted rotogravure pictures from the Sunday editions on the walls. The servant was an enormous coloured mammy, with a heart of ruddy gold, but in appearance she was pure Dahomey. The bathroom plumbing was out of order, the drawing-room rug was fifteen years old, even the little lawn in front of the house needed trimming, and the gardener would not be round for several days. And Verne had given them only a few hours’ notice. How like a poet!

In his letters Stockton had innocently boasted of the pleasant time they would have when the writer should come to visit. He had spoken of evenings beside the fire when they would talk for hours of the things that interest literary men. What would Verne think when he found the hearth only a gas log, and one that had a peculiarly offensive odour? This sickly sweetish smell had become in years of intimacy very dear to Stockton, but he could hardly expect a poet who lived in Well Walk, Hampstead (O Shades of Keats!), and wrote letters from a London literary club, to understand that sort of thing. Why, the man was a grandson of Jules Verne, and probably had been accustomed to refined surroundings all his life. And now he was doomed to plumb the sub-fuse depths of New Utrecht!

Stockton could not even put him up at a club, as he belonged to none but the golf club, which had no quarters for the entertainment of out-of-town guests. Every detail of his home life was of the shabby, makeshift sort which is so dear to one’s self but needs so much explaining to outsiders. He even thought with a pang of Lorna Doone, the fat, plebeian little mongrel terrier which had meals with the family and slept with the children at night. Verne was probably used to staghounds or Zeppelin hounds or something of the sort, he thought humorously. English poets wear an iris halo in the eyes of humble American reviewers. Those godlike creatures have walked on Fleet Street, have bought books on Paternoster Row, have drunk half-and-half and eaten pigeon pie at the Salutation and Cat, and have probably roared with laughter over some alehouse jest of Mr. Chesterton.

Stockton remembered the photograph Verne had sent him, showing a lean, bearded face with wistful dark eyes against a background of old folios. What would that Olympian creature think of the drudge of New Utrecht, a mere reviewer who sold his editorial copies to pay for shag tobacco!

Well, thought Stockton, as he crossed the bridge, rejoicing not at all in the splendid towers of Manhattan, candescent in the April sun, they had done all they could. He had left his wife telephoning frantically to grocers, cleaning women, and florists. He himself had stopped at the poultry market on his way to the trolley to order two plump fowls for dinner, and had pinched them with his nervous, ink-stained fingers, as ordered by Mrs. Stockton, to test their tenderness. They would send the three younger children to their grandmother, to be interned there until the storm had blown over; and Mrs. Stockton was going to do what she could to take down the rotogravure pictures from the walls of what the boys fondly called the Stockton Art Gallery. He knew that Verne had children of his own: perhaps he would be amused rather than dismayed by the incongruities of their dismantled guestroom. Presumably, the poet was aver here for a lecture tour–he would be entertained and feted everywhere by the cultured rich, for the appreciation which Stockton had started by his modest little essay had grown to the dimension of a fad.

He looked again at the telegram which had shattered the simple routine of his unassuming life. “On board Celtic dock this afternoon three o’clock hope see you. Verne.” He sneezed sharply, as was his unconscious habit when nervous. In desperation he stopped at a veterinary’s office on Frankfort Street, and left orders to have the doctor’s assistant call for Lorna Doone and take her away, to be kept until sent for. Then he called at a wine merchant’s and bought three bottles of claret of a moderate vintage. Verne had said something about claret in one of his playful letters. Unfortunately, the man’s grandfather was a Frenchman, and undoubtedly he knew all about wines.

Stockton sneezed so loudly and so often at his desk that morning that all his associates knew something was amiss. The Sunday editor, who had planned to borrow fifty cents from him at lunch time, refrained from doing so, in a spirit of pure Christian brotherhood. Even Bob Bolles, the hundred-and-fifty-dollar-a-week conductor of “The Electric Chair,” the paper’s humorous column, came in to see what was up. Bob’s “contribs” had been generous that morning, and he was in unusually good humour for a humourist.

“What’s the matter, Stock,” he inquired genially, “Got a cold? Or has George Moore sent in a new novel?”

Stockton looked up sadly from the proofs he was correcting. How could he confess his paltry problem to this debonair creature who wore life lightly, like a flower, and played at literature as he played tennis, with swerve and speed? Bolles was a bachelor, the author of a successful comedy, and a member of the smart literary club which was over the reviewer’s horizon, although in the great ocean of letters the humourist was no more than a surf bather. Stockton shook his head. No one but a married man and an unsuccessful author could understand his trouble.

“A touch of asthma,” he fibbed shyly. “I always have it at this time of year.”

“Come and have some lunch,” said the other. “We’ll go up to the club and have some ale. That’ll put you on your feet.”

“Thanks, ever so much,” said Stockton, “but I can’t do it to-day. Got to make up my page. I tell you what, though–“

He hesitated, and flushed a little.

“Say it,” said Bolles kindly.

“Verne is in town to-day; the English poet, you know. Grandson of old Jules Verne. I’m going to put him up at my house. I wish you’d take him around to the club for lunch some day while he’s here. He ought to meet some of the men there. I’ve been corresponding with him for a long time, and I–I’m afraid I rather promised to take him round there, as though I were a member, you know.”

“Great snakes!” cried Bolles. “Verne? the author of ‘Candle Light’? And you’re going to put him up? You lucky devil. Why, the man’s bigger than Masefield. Take him to lunch–I should say I will; Why, I’ll put him in the colyum. Both of you come round there to-morrow and we’ll have an orgy. I’ll order larks’ tongues and convolvulus salad. I didn’t know you knew him.”

“I don’t–yet,” said Stockton. “I’m going down to meet his steamer this afternoon.”

“Well, that’s great news,” said the volatile humourist. And he ran downstairs to buy the book of which he had so often heard but had never read.

The sight of Bolles’ well-cut suit of tweeds had reminded Stockton that he was still wearing the threadbare serge that had done duty for three winters, and would hardly suffice for the honours to come. Hastily he blue-pencilled his proofs, threw them into the wire basket, and hurried outdoors to seek the nearest tailor. He stopped at the bank first, to draw out fifty dollars for emergencies. Then he entered the first clothier’s shop he encountered on Nassau Street.

Mr. Stockton was a nervous man, especially so in the crises when he was compelled to buy anything so important as a suit, for usually Mrs. Stockton supervised the selection. To-day his Unlucky star was in the zenith. His watch pointed to close on two o’clock, and he was afraid he might be late for the steamer, which docked far uptown. In his haste, and governed perhaps by some subconscious recollection of the humourist’s attractive shaggy tweeds, he allowed himself to be fitted with an ochre-coloured suit of some fleecy checked material grotesquely improper for his unassuming figure. It was the kind of cloth and cut that one sees only in the windows of Nassau Street. Happily he was unaware of the enormity of his offence against society, and rapidly transferring his belongings to the new pockets, he paid down the purchase price and fled to the subway.

When he reached the pier at the foot of Fourteenth Street he saw that the steamer was still in midstream and it would be several minutes before she warped in to the dock. He had no pass from the steamship office, but on showing his newspaperman’s card the official admitted him to the pier, and he took his stand at the first cabin gangway, trembling a little with nervousness, but with a pleasant feeling of excitement no less. He gazed at the others waiting for arriving travellers and wondered whether any of the peers of American letters had come to meet the poet. A stoutish, neatly dressed gentleman with a gray moustache looked like Mr. Howells, and he thrilled again. It was hardly possible that he, the obscure reviewer, was the only one who had been notified of Verne’s arrival. That tall, hawk-faced man whose limousine was purring outside must be a certain publisher he knew by sight.

What would these gentlemen say when they learned that the poet was to stay with Kenneth Stockton, in New Utrecht? He rolled up the mustard-coloured trousers one more round–they were much too long for him–and watched the great hull slide along the side of the pier with a peculiar tingling shudder that he had not felt since the day of his wedding.

He expected no difficulty in recognizing Finsbury Verne, for he was very familiar with his photograph. As the passengers poured down the slanting gangway, all bearing the unmistakable air and stamp of superiority that marks those who have just left the sacred soil of England, he scanned the faces with an eye of keen regard. To his surprise he saw the gentlemen he had marked respectively as Mr. Howells and the publisher greet people who had not the slightest resemblance to the poet, and go with them to the customs alcoves. Traveller after traveller hurried past him, followed by stewards carrying luggage; gradually the flow of people thinned, and then stopped altogether, save for one or two invalids who were being helped down the incline by nurses. And still no sign of Finsbury Verne.

Suddenly a thought struck him. Was it possible that–the second class? His eye brightened and he hurried to the gangway, fifty yards farther down the pier, where the second-cabin passengers were disembarking.

There were more of the latter, and the passageway was still thronged. Just as Stockton reached the foot of the plank a little man in green ulster and deerstalker cap, followed by a plump little woman and four children in single file, each holding fast to the one in front like Alpine climbers, came down the narrow bridge, taking almost ludicrous care not to slip on the cleated boards. To his amazement the reviewer recognized the dark beard and soulful eyes of the poet.

Mr. Verne clutched in rigid arms, not a roll of manuscripts, but a wriggling French poodle, whose tufted tail waved under the poet’s chin. The lady behind him, evidently his wife, as she clung steadfastly to the skirt of his ulster, held tightly in the other hand a large glass jar in which two agitated goldfish were swimming, while the four children watched their parents with anxious eyes for the safety of their pets. “Daddy, look out for Ink!” shrilled one of them, as the struggles of the poodle very nearly sent him into the water under the ship’s side. Two smiling stewards with mountainous portmanteaux followed the party. “Mother, are Castor and Pollux all right?” cried the smallest child, and promptly fell on his nose on the gangway, disrupting the file.

Stockton, with characteristic delicacy, refrained from making himself known until the Vernes had recovered from the embarrassments of leaving the ship. He followed them at a distance to the “V” section where they waited for the customs examination. With mingled feelings he saw that Finsbury Verne was no cloud-walking deity, but one even as himself, indifferently clad, shy and perplexed of eye, worried with the comic cares of a family man. All his heart warmed toward the poet, who stood in his bulging greatcoat, perspiring and aghast at the uproar around him. He shrank from imagining what might happen when he appeared at home with the whole family, but without hesitation he approached and introduced himself.

Verne’s eyes shone with unaffected pleasure at the meeting, and he presented the reviewer to his wife and the children, two boys and two girls. The two boys, aged about ten and eight, immediately uttered cryptic remarks which Stockton judged were addressed to him.

“Castorian!” cried the larger boy, looking at the yellow suit.

“Polluxite!” piped the other in the same breath.

Mrs. Verne, in some embarrassment, explained that the boys were in the throes of a new game they had invented on the voyage. They had created two imaginary countries, named in honour of the goldfish, and it was now their whim to claim for their respective countries any person or thing that struck their fancy. “Castoria was first,” said Mrs. Verne, “so you must consider yourself a citizen of that nation.”

Somewhat shamefaced at this sudden honour, Mr. Stockton turned to the poet. “You’re all coming home with me, aren’t you?” he said. “I got your telegram this morning. We’d be delighted to have you.”

“It’s awfully good of you,” said the poet, “but as a matter of fact we’re going straight on to the country to-morrow morning. My wife has some relatives in Yonkers, wherever they are, and she and the children are going to stay with them. I’ve got to go up to Harvard to give some lectures.”

A rush of cool, sweet relief bathed Stockton’s brow.

“Why, I’m disappointed you’re going right on,” he stammered. “Mrs. Stockton and I were hoping–“

“My dear fellow, we could never impose such a party on your hospitality,” said Verne. “Perhaps you can recommend us to some quiet hotel where we can stay the night.”

Like all New Yorkers, Stockton could hardly think of the name of any hotel when asked suddenly. At first he said the Astor House, and then remembered that it had been demolished years before. At last he recollected that a brother of his from Indiana had once stayed at the Obelisk.

After the customs formalities were over–not without embarrassment, as Mr. Verne’s valise when opened displayed several pairs of bright red union suits and a half-empty bottle of brandy–Stockton convoyed them to a taxi. Noticing the frayed sleeve of the poet’s ulster he felt quite ashamed of the aggressive newness of his clothes. And when the visitors whirled away, after renewed promises for a meeting a little later in the spring, he stood for a moment in a kind of daze. Then he hurried toward the nearest telephone booth.

As the Vernes sat at dinner that night in the Abyssinian Room of the Obelisk Hotel, the poet said to his wife: “It would have been delightful to spend a few days with the Stocktons.”

“My dear,” said she, “I wouldn’t have these wealthy Americans see how shabby we are for anything. The children are positively in rags, and your clothes–well, I don’t know what they’ll think at Harvard. You know if this lecture trip doesn’t turn out well we shall be simply bankrupt.”

The poet sighed. “I believe Stockton has quite a charming place in the country near New York,” he said.

“That may be so,” said Mrs. Verne. “But did you ever see such clothes? He looked like a canary.”

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