Author: Adams, Samuel Hopkins, 1871-1958
New York (N.Y.) — Social life and customs — 20th century — Fiction
Our Square and the People in It
OUR SQUARE AND THE PEOPLE IN IT
By Samuel Hopkins Adams
Illustrated by Scott Williams
Boston and New York Houghton Mifflin Company
WALLED in by slums stands Our Square, a valiant green space, far on the flank of the Great City. Ours is an inglorious little world Sociologists have-not yet remarked and classified us. The Washington Square romancers who bold sentimental revel at the foot of Fifth Avenue reck nothing of their sister park, many blocks to the east. But we are patient of our obscurity. Close-knit, keeping our own counsel, jealous of our own concerns, and not without our own pride of place, we live our quiet lives, a community sufficient unto itself. So far as may be for mortals under the sway of death and love and fate, we maintain ourselves with little change amid the kaleidoscopic shiftings of the surrounding metropolis. Few come into Our Square except of necessity. Few go out but under the same stem impulsion. Some of us are held by tradition, some by poverty, some by affection, and some through loyalty to what once was and is no more. Here we live, and here hope to die, “the kind hearts, the true hearts that loved the place of old.” And of all, there is no truer heart or kinder than that of the gentle, shrewd, and neighborly old dominie through whose lips I tell these tales, the real historian of the folk whom I, too, have known and loved in Our Square.
THE CHAIR THAT WHISPERED
MACLACHAN OF OUR SQUARE
THE GREAT ‘PEACEMAKER
A TALE OF WHITE MAGIC IN OUR SQUARE
THE MEANEST MAN IN OUR SQUARE
PAULA OF THE HOUSETOP
THE LITTLE RED ‘DOCTOR OF OUR SQUARE
List of Illustrations
Whirled Her out of a Pit Of Darkness
Read from Left to Right
Her Hands Slipped to his Shoulder
What Do I Owe Ye But a Curse
We Have Successfully Terminated the Negotiation
I Puh-hut It in My Huh-huh-hair
Jogging Appreciatively Along Behind Schutz’s Mouse-hued Mare
OUR Square lies broad and green and busy, in the forgotten depths of the great city. By day it is bright with the laughter of children and shrill with the bickering of neighbors. By night the voice of the spellbinder is strident on its corners, but from the remoter benches float murmurs where the young couples sit, and sighs where the old folk relax their weariness. New York knows little of Our Square, submerged as we are in a circle of slums. Yet for us, as for more Elysian fields, the crocus springs in the happy grass, the flash and song of the birds stir our trees, and Romance fans us with the wind of its imperishable wing.
The first robin was singing in our one lone lilac when the Bonnie Lassie came out of the Somewhere Else into Our Square and possessed herself of the ground floor of our smallest house, the nestly little dwelling with the quaint old door and the broad, friendly vestibule, next but one to the Greek church. Before she had been there a month she had established eminent domain over all of us. Even MacLachan, the dour tailor on the corner, used to burst into song when she passed. It was he who dubbed her the Bonnie Lassie, and as it was the first decent word he’d spoken of living being within the memory of Our Square, the name stuck. Apart from that, it was eminently appropriate. She was a small girl who might have been perhaps twenty-three or twenty-four if she hadn’t (more probably) been twenty, and looked a good deal like a thoughtful kitten when she wasn’t twinkling at or with somebody. When she twinkled—and she did it with eyes, voice, heart, and soul all at once—the cart-peddlers stopped business to look and listen. You can’t go further than that, not in Our Square at least.
How long Cyrus the Gaunt had been there before she discovered him is a matter of conjecture. He slipped in from the Outer Darkness quite unobtrusively and sat about looking thoughtful and lonely. He was exaggeratedly long and loose and mussed-up and melancholy-looking, and first attracted local attention on a bench which several other people wanted more than he did. So he got up and gave it to them. Later, when the huskiest of them met him and explained, by way of putting him in his proper place, what would have happened to him if he hadn’t been so obliging, Cyrus absent-mindedly said, “Oh, yes,” threw the belligerent one into our fountain, held him under water quite as long as was safe, dragged him out, hauled him over to Schwartz’s, and bought him a drink. Thereafter Cyrus was still considered an outlander, but nobody actively objected to his sitting around Our Square, looking as melancholy and queer as he chose. Nobody, that is, until the Bonnie Lassie took him in hand.
Nothing could have been more correct than their first meeting, sanctioned as it was by the majesty of the law. Terry the Cop, who presides over the destinies of Our Square, led the Bonnie Lassie to Cyrus’s bench and said; “Miss, this is the young feller you asked me about. Make you two acquainted.”
Thereupon the young man got up and said, “How-d’ye-do?” wonderingly, and the young woman nodded and said, “How-d’ye-do?” non-committally, and the young policeman strolled away, serene in the consciousness of a social duty well performed.
The Bonnie Lassie regarded her new acquaintance with soft, studious eyes. There was something discomfortingly dehumanizing in that intent appraisal. He wriggled.
“Yes, I think you’ll do,” she ruminated slowly.
“Thanks,” murmured Cyrus, wondering for what.
“Suppose we sit down and talk it over,” said she.
Studying her unobtrusively from his characteristically drooping position, Cyrus wondered what this half-fairy, half-flower, with the decisive manner of a mistress of destiny, was doing in so grubby an environment.
On her part, she reflected that she had seldom encountered so homely a face, and speculated as to whether that was its sole claim to interest. Then he lifted his head; his eyes met hers, and she modified her estimate, substituting for “homely,” first “queer,” then “quaint,” and finally “unusual.” Also there was something impersonally but hauntingly reminiscent about him; something baffling and disconcerting, too. The face wasn’t right.
“Do you mind answering some questions?” she asked.
“Depends,” he replied guardedly. “Well, I’ll try. Do you live here?”
“Just around the corner.”
“What do you do?”
“How long have you been doing it?”
“Why don’t you stop?”
For the second time Cyrus the Gaunt lifted his long, thin face and looked her in the eye. “Beautiful Incognita,” he drawled with mild impertinence, “did you write the Shorter Catechism or are you merely plagiarizing?”
“Oh!” she said. Surprise and the slightest touch of dismay were in the monosyllable. “I’m afraid I’ve made a mistake. I thought—the policeman said you were a down-and-outer.”
“I’m the First Honorary Vice-President of the Life Branch of the Organization.”
He slumped back into his former attitude. Again she studied him. “No, I don’t understand,” she said slowly.
But the dehumanizing tone had gone from the soft voice. Cyrus began to rescue his personality from her impersonal ignoring of it. He also felt suddenly a livelier interest in life. Then, unexpectedly, she turned his flank.
“You lurk and stare at my house in the dark,” she accused.
“Which house?” he asked, startled.
“You know quite well. You shouldn’t stare at strange houses. It embarrasses them.”
“Is that the miniature mansion with the little bronzes of dancing street-children in the windows?”
“Why shouldn’t I stare? There’s a secret in that house!”
“A secret? What secret?”
“The secret of happiness. Those dancing kiddies have got it. I want it. I want to know what makes’em so happy.”
“I do,” said the girl promptly.
“Yes. I shouldn’t be surprised,” he assented, lifting his head to contemplate her with his direct and grave regard. “Do you live there with them?”
“They’re mine. I model them. I’m a sculptor.”
“Good Lord! You! But you’re a very good one, aren’t you?—if you did those.”
“I’ve been a very bad one. Now I’m trying to be a very good one.”
A gleam of comprehension lit his eye. “Oh, then it’s as a subject that you thought I’d do. You wanted to sculp me.”
“Yes, I do. For my collection. You see, I’ve adopted this Square.”
“And now you’re sculping it. I see.” He raised himself to peer across at the windows where the blithe figures danced, tiny mænads of the gutter, Bacchæ of the asphalt. “But I don’t see why on earth you want me. Do you think you could make me happy?”
“I shouldn’t try.”
“Hopeless job, you think? As a sculptor you ought to be a better judge of character. You ought to pierce through the externals and perceive with your artistic eye that beneath this austere mask I’m as merry a little cricket as ever had his chirp smothered by the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune.”
It was then that she twinkled at him, and the twinkle grew into a laugh, such golden laughter as brightened life to the limits of its farthest echo. Cyrus had the feeling that the gray April sky had momentarily opened up and sent down a sun-ray to illumine the proceedings.
“How wonderfully you mix them!” she cried. “Shall I sculp you in cap and bells?”
“Why should I let you sculp meat all?” She stopped laughing abruptly and looked up at him with wondering eyes and parted lips, drooping just the tiniest bit at the corners. “Everybody does,” she said.
At once he understood why everybody did that or anything else she wished. “All right,” he yielded. “What am I to sit for?”
“Fifty cents an hour.”
Then the Bonnie Lassie got her second surprise from him. His face changed abruptly. An almost animal eagerness shone in his eyes. “Fif-fif-fif—” he began, then recovered himself. “Pardon my performing like a deranged steam-whistle, but do I understand that you offer to pay me for sitting about doing nothing while you work? Did all those cheerful dancers in the window collect pay at that rate?”
“Some of them did. Others are my friends.”
“Ah, you draw social distinctions, I perceive.”
“I think we needn’t fence,” said the girl spiritedly. “When I came to you I thought you were of Our Square. If you will tell me just what variety of masquerader you are, we shall get on faster.”
“Do you think I don’t belong quite as much to Our Square as you do?”
“Oh, I! This is my workshop. This is my life. But you—I should have suspected you from the first word you spoke. What are you? Don’t tell me that you are here Settlementing or Sociologizing or Improving the Condition of Somebody Else! Because I really do need your face,” she concluded with convincing earnestness. “It’s yours at fifty cents an hour.”
“And you’re not an Improver?”
“Absolutely not. Do I look as if I’d improved myself?”
“You wouldn’t do at all for my present purpose, improved,” she observed. “Please don’t forget that. When can you come to me?”
“Haven’t you anything else to do?”
“Nothing but look out for odd jobs. That’s why I’m so grateful for regular employment.”
“But this isn’t regular employment.” His face fell. “It’s most irregular, and there’s very little of it.”
“Oh, well, it’s fifty cents an hour. And that’s more than I’ve ever earned in my life, Miss Sculptor.”
“I am Miss Willard.”.
“Then, Miss Willard, you’re employing Cyrus Murphy. Do you think I’ll sculp up like a Murphy?”
“I don’t think you’ll sculp up like a Murphy at all, and I’ve too many friends who are Murphys to believe that you are one. In fact, I could do you much better if I knew what you are.”
“That’s quite simple. I’m a suicide. I walked right spang over the edge of life and disappeared. Splash! Bubble-bubble! There goes nothing. The only difference between me and a real suicide is that I have to eat. At times it’s difficult.”
“Haven’t you any trade? Can’t you do anything?” With a sweep of her little hand she indicated the bustling activities with which the outer streets whirred. “Isn’t there any place for you in all this?”
He contemplated the world’s work as exemplified around Our Square. His gaze came to rest upon a steam-roller, ponderously clanking over a railed-off portion of the street. “I suppose I could run that.”
“Could you? That’s a man’s job at least. Have you ever run one?”
“No, but I know I could. Any kind of machinery just eats out of my hand.”
“Well, that’s something. It’s better than being a model. Be at my house tomorrow at nine please.”
For an hour thereafter Cyrus the Gaunt sat on the bench musing upon a small, flower-like, almost absurdly efficient young person who had contracted, as he viewed it, to inject light and color into life at fifty cents an hour, and who had plainly intimated that, in her view, he was not a man. It was that precise opinion expressed by another and a very unlike person which was responsible for his being where he was. At that time it had made him furious. Now it made him thoughtful.
Presently he went through his pockets, reckoned his assets, rose up from the bench, and made a trip to MacLachan’s “Home of Fashion,” where he left his clothes to be pressed overnight. In the morning he reappeared again, shaved to the closest limit of human endurance, and thus addressed the Scot:—
“Have you got my clothes pressed?”
“Aye,” said the tailor.
“Well, unpress ’em again.”
“Eh?” said the tailor.
“Unpress’em. Sit on’em. Roll’em on the floor. Muss’em up. Put all the wrinkles back, just as they were.”
“Mon, ye shud leave the whiskey be,” advised the tailor.
Thereupon Cyrus caught up his neatly creased suit and proceeded to play football with it, after which he put it on and viewed himself with satisfaction.
“And I almost forgot that she wouldn’t have any use for me, improved,” he muttered as he wended his way to the little, old friendly house. “Lord, I might have lost my job!”
Any expectation of social diversion at fifty cents an hour which Cyrus the Gaunt may have cherished was promptly quashed on his arrival. It was a very businesslike little sculptor who took him in hand.
“Sit here, please—the right knee farther forward—let the chin drop a little—” and all that sort of thing.
He might not even watch the soft, strong little hands as they patted and kneaded, nor the vivid face as plastic as the material from which the hands worked their wonders, for when he attempted it:—
“I don’t wish you to look at me. I wish you to look at nothing, as you do when you sit on the bench. Make your eyes tired again.”
The difficulty was that his eyes, tired so long with that weariness which lies at the very roots of being, didn’t feel tired at all in the little studio. For one thing, there was an absurd, fluffed-up whirlwind of a kitten who performed miracles of obstacle-racing all over the place. Then, in the most unexpected crannies and corners lurked tiny bronzes, instinct with life: a wistful dog submitting an injured paw to a boy hardly as large as himself; “Androcles” this one was labeled. Then there was “Mystery,” a young, ill-clad girl, looking down at a dead butterfly; “Remnants,” a withered and bent old woman, staggering under her load of builders’ refuse; “The Knight,” a small boy astride across the body of his drunken father, brandishing a cudgel against a circle of unseen tormentors; and many others, all vivid with that feeling for the human struggle which alone can make metal live.
“Recess!” cried the worker presently. “You’re doing quite well!”
Thus encouraged, Cyrus ventured a question:—
“Where are the dancers?”
“They’re all in the window.”
“But this in here is quite as big work, isn’t it? Why isn’t some of it on display?”
“It’s for outsiders. It isn’t for my people.” She put a world of protectiveness in the two final words.
“I can’t see why not.”
“Because the people of Our Square don’t need to be told of the tragedy of life. Joy and play and laughter is what they need. So I give it to them.”
A light came into his tired, old-young eyes. “Do you know, I begin to think you’re a very wonderful person.”
“Time to work again,” said she. Whereby, being an understanding young man, he perceived that there would be no safe divergence from the strict relations of employer and employed, for the present at least. Half a dozen times he sat for her, sometimes collecting a dollar, sometimes only fifty cents, the money being invariably handed over with a demure and determined air of business procedure, and duly entered in a tiny book, which was a never-failing source of suppressed amusement to him. Then one day the basis abruptly changed, for a reason he did not learn about until long after.
It had to do with a process which I must regretfully term eavesdropping, on the part of the little sculptor. The subjects were two-on-a-bench, in Our Square. One was Cyrus the Gaunt; the other an inconsiderable and hopeless lounger, grim and wan.
Silver passed between them, and something else, less tangible, something which lighted a sudden flame of hope in the hopeless face.
“A real job?” the lurking sculptor overheard him say, hoarsely.
Cyrus nodded. “Nine o’clock to-morrow morning, here,” said he.
Slipping quietly away, the girl almost ran into the grim and wan lounger, no longer so grim and several degrees less wan, as he rounded the opposite curve of the circle and passed out on the street in front of her. The next instant Cyrus shot by her at a long-legged gallop and caught the man by the shoulder.
“Here! Wait! Not nine o’clock,” he cried breathlessly. “I forgot. I’ve got an engagement, a—very important business engagement.”
The other’s jaw dropped. “What the—” he began, when there appeared before them both a trim and twinkling vision of femininity.
“I’m glad I saw you,” said the vision to Cyrus, “because I shan’t want you until ten-thirty to-morrow.” Then she passed on, so deep in thought that she hardly responded to the greetings which accosted her on all sides. “I don’t understand it at all” she murmured.
Promptly upon the morrow’s hour Cyrus appeared at the studio, rumpled and mussed as usual. “How do you do?” the artist greeted him. “Before we go to work I want you to meet Fluff.”
Cyrus glanced at the kitten, who was chasing a phantom mouse up the swaying curtain. “I already know Fluff,” said he.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” she corrected gently. “That is, Fluff doesn’t know you. She doesn’t know that you are alive. Fluff is a person of fine distinctions. Come here, Mischief.” The kitten gave over the chase, after one last lightning swipe, and trotted across the room. “Fluff,” said her mistress, “this is our friend, Cyrus.” The kitten purred and nosed Cyrus’s foot.
“Thank you,” said the young man gratefully. “I also am not wholly insensible to fine distinctions. Fluff, do you know how those ancient barbarian parties looked and acted when they were called ‘friend of the state of Rome’? Well, regard me.”
His employer twinkled at him with her eyes. “I’ve sold you,” she remarked.
“At a good price?”
“Yes. You were really very good.”
“It would have been kind to let me see myself before you bartered me away into eternal captivity.”
“You mean I shouldn’t have liked your idea of me?”
“Didn’t I say that it was good?” she returned with composed pride. “My idea of you wouldn’t be good, as modeling. This is the real you, the man underneath.”
“That’s worse. You think I oughtn’t to like myself as I am.”
She looked up at him with intimate and sympathetic friendliness. “Well, do you?” was all she said.
“Whether I do or not, it’s pretty evident what you think of me.”
“It ought to be. I’ve introduced you to Fluff. One can’t be too careful as to whom one introduces to one’s young and guileless daughter.”
“Thank you.” For the first time in their acquaintance he smiled. The smile changed his face luminously.
She tossed the tiny iron with which she was working into the far corner of the studio. “That settles it,” she said. “I’m through.”
“For the day?”
“Wrong! All wrong!” she c