Thomas Bailey Aldrich – Miss Mehetabel’s Son
A MAN with a passion for bric-à-brac is always stumbling over antique bronzes, intaglios, mosaics, and daggers of the time of Benvenuto Cellini; the bibliophile finds creamy vellum folios and rare Alduses and Elzevirs waiting for him at unsuspected bookstalls; the numismatist has but to stretch forth his palm to have priceless coins drop into it. My own weakness is odd people, and I am constantly 200encountering them. It was plain I had unearthed a couple of very queer specimens at Bayley’s Four Corners. I saw that a fortnight afforded me too brief an opportunity to develop the richness of both, and I resolved to devote my spare time to Mr. Jaffrey alone, instinctively recognising in him an unfamiliar species.
My professional work in the vicinity of Greenton left my evenings and occasionally an afternoon unoccupied; these intervals I purposed to employ in studying and classifying my fellow-boarder. It was necessary, as a preliminary step, to learn something of his previous history, and to this end I addressed myself to Mr. Sewell that same night.
“I do not want to seem inquisitive,” I said to the landlord, as he was fastening up the bar, which, by the way, was the salle à manger and general sitting-room. “I do not want to seem inquisitive, but your friend Mr. Jaffrey dropped a remark this morning at breakfast which—which was not altogether clear to me.”
“About Mehetabel?” asked Mr. Sewell uneasily.
“Well, I wish he wouldn’t!”
“He was friendly enough in the course of conversation to hint to me that he had not married the young woman, and seemed to regret it.”
“No, he didn’t marry Mehetabel.”
“May I inquire why he didn’t marry Mehetabel?”
“Never asked her. Might have married the girl forty times. Old Elkin’s daughter over at K——, she’d have had him quick enough. Seven years off and on, he kept company with Mehetabel, and then she died.”
“And he never asked her?”
“He shilly-shallied. Perhaps he didn’t think of it. When she was dead and gone, then Silas was struck all of a heap,—and that’s all about it.”
Obviously Mr. Sewell did not intend to tell me anything 201more, and obviously there was more to tell. The topic was plainly disagreeable to him for some reason or other, and that unknown reason of course piqued my curiosity.
As I had been absent from dinner and supper that day, I did not meet Mr. Jaffrey again until the following morning at breakfast. He had recovered his bird-like manner, and was full of a mysterious assassination that had just taken place in New York, all the thrilling details of which were at his fingers’ ends. It was at once comical and sad to see this harmless old gentleman, with his naïve, benevolent countenance, and his thin hair flaming up in a semicircle like the foot-lights at a theatre, revelling in the intricacies of the unmentionable deed.
“You come up to my room to-night,” he cried with horrid glee, “and I’ll give you my theory of the murder. I’ll make it as clear as day to you that it was the detective himself who fired the three pistol-shots.”
It was not so much the desire to have this point elucidated as to make a closer study of Mr. Jaffrey that led me to accept his invitation.
Mr. Jaffrey’s bedroom was in an L of the building, and was in no way noticeable except for the numerous files of newspapers neatly arranged against the blank spaces of the walls, and a huge pile of old magazines which stood in one corner, reaching nearly up to the ceiling, and threatening each instant to topple over like the Leaning Tower at Pisa. There were green paper shades at the windows, some faded chintz valances about the bed, and two or three easy-chairs covered with chintz. On a black walnut shelf between the windows lay a choice collection of meerschaum and brierwood pipes.
Filling one of the chocolate-coloured bowls for me, and another for himself, Mr. Jaffrey began prattling; but not about the murder, which appeared to have flown out of his 202mind. In fact, I do not remember that the topic was even touched upon, either then or afterwards.
“Cosy nest this,” said Mr. Jaffrey, glancing complacently over the apartment. “What is more cheerful, now, in the fall of the year, than an open wood-fire? Do you hear those little chirps and twitters coming out of that piece of apple-wood? Those are the ghosts of the robins and bluebirds that sang upon the bough when it was in blossom last spring. In summer whole flocks of them come fluttering about the fruit trees under the window; so I have singing birds all the year round. I take it very easy here, I can tell you, summer and winter. Not much society. Tobias is not, perhaps, what one would term a great intellectual force, but he means well. He’s a realist, believes in coming down to what he calls ‘the hard pan;’ but his heart is in the right place, and he’s very kind to me. The wisest thing I ever did in my life was to sell out my grain business over at K——, thirteen years ago, and settle down at the Corners. When a man has made a competency, what does he want more? Besides, at that time an event occurred which destroyed any ambition I may have had,—Mehetabel died.”
“The lady you were engaged to?”
“N-o, not precisely engaged. I think it was quite understood between us, though nothing had been said on the subject. Typhoid,” added Mr. Jaffrey, in a low tone.
For several minutes he smoked in silence, a vague, troubled look playing over his countenance. Presently this passed away, and he fixed his grey eyes speculatively upon my face.
“If I had married Mehetabel,” said Mr. Jaffrey, slowly, and then he hesitated.
I blew a ring of smoke into the air, and, resting my pipe on my knee, dropped into an attitude of attention.
“If I had married Mehetabel, you know, we should have had—ahem!—a family.”
“Very likely,” I assented, vastly amused at this unexpected turn.
“A boy!” exclaimed Mr. Jaffrey, explosively.
“By all means, certainly, a son.”
“Great trouble about naming the boy. Mehetabel’s family want him named Elkanah Elkins, after her grandfather; I want him named Andrew Jackson. We compromise by christening him Elkanah Elkins Andrew Jackson Jaffrey. Rather a long name for such a short little fellow,” said Mr. Jaffrey, musingly.
“Andy isn’t a bad nickname,” I suggested.
“Not at all. We call him Andy in the family. Somewhat fractious at first,—colic and things. I suppose it is right, or it wouldn’t be so; but the usefulness of measles, mumps, croup, whooping-cough, scarlatina, and fits is not visible to the naked eye. I wish Andy would be a model infant, and dodge the whole lot.”
This supposititious child, born within the last few minutes, was clearly assuming the proportions of a reality to Mr. Jaffrey. I began to feel a little uncomfortable. I am, as I have said, a civil engineer, and it is not strictly in my line to assist at the births of infants, imaginary or otherwise. I pulled away vigorously at the pipe and said nothing.
“What large blue eyes he has,” resumed Mr. Jaffrey, after a pause; “just like Hetty’s; and the fair hair, too, like hers. How oddly certain distinctive features are handed down in families! sometimes a mouth, sometimes a turn of the eyebrow. Wicked little boys, over at K——, have now and then derisively advised me to follow my nose. It would be an interesting thing to do. I should find my nose flying about the world, turning up unexpectedly here and there, dodging this branch of the family and reappearing 204in that, now jumping over one great-grandchild to fasten itself upon another, and never losing its individuality. Look at Andy. There’s Elkanah Elkin’s chin to the life. Andy’s chin is probably older than the Pyramids. Poor little thing,” he cried, with a sudden, indescribable tenderness, “to lose his mother so early!”
And Mr. Jaffrey’s head sunk upon his breast, and his shoulders slanted forward, as if he were actually bending over the cradle of the child.
The whole gesture and attitude was so natural that it startled me. The pipe slipped from my fingers and fell to the floor.
“Hush!” whispered Mr. Jaffrey, with a deprecating motion of his hand. “Andy’s asleep!”
He rose softly from the chair, and, walking across the room on tiptoe, drew down the shade at the window through which the moonlight was streaming. Then he returned to his seat, and remained gazing with half-closed eyes into the drooping embers.
I refilled my pipe and smoked in profound silence, wondering what would come next. But nothing came next. Mr. Jaffrey had fallen into so brown a study, that, a quarter of an hour afterwards, when I wished him good-night and withdrew, I do not think he noticed my departure. I am not what is called a man of imagination; it is my habit to exclude most things not capable of mathematical demonstration; but I am not without a certain psychological insight, and I think I understood Mr. Jaffrey’s case.
I could easily understand how a man with an unhealthy, sensitive nature, overwhelmed by sudden calamity, might take refuge in some forlorn place like this old tavern, and dream his life away. To such a man—brooding for ever on what might have been, and dwelling only in the realm of his fancies—the actual world might indeed become as a dream, and nothing seem real but his illusions.
205I daresay that thirteen years of Bayley’s Four Corners would have its effect upon me; though instead of conjuring up golden-haired children of the Madonna, I should probably see gnomes and kobolds and goblins engaged in hoisting false signals and misplacing switches for midnight express trains.
“No doubt,” I said to myself that night, as I lay in bed, thinking over the matter, “this once possible but now impossible child is a great comfort to the old gentleman,—a greater comfort, perhaps, than a real son would be. Maybe Andy will vanish with the shades and mists of night, he’s such an unsubstantial infant; but if he doesn’t, and Mr. Jaffrey finds pleasure in talking to me about his son, I shall humour the old fellow. It wouldn’t be a Christian act to knock over his harmless fancy.”
I was very impatient to see if Mr. Jaffrey’s illusion would stand the test of daylight. It did. Elkanah Elkins Andrew Jackson Jaffrey was, so to speak, alive and kicking the next morning. On taking his seat at the breakfast-table, Mr. Jaffrey whispered to me that Andy had had a comfortable night.
206“Silas!” said Mr. Sewell, sharply, “what are you whispering about?”
Mr. Sewell was in an ill humour; perhaps he was jealous because I had passed the evening in Mr. Jaffrey’s room; but surely Mr. Sewell could not expect his boarders to go to bed at eight o’clock every night, as he did. From time to time during the meal Mr. Sewell regarded me unkindly out of the corner of his eye, and in helping me to the parsnips he poniarded them with quite a suggestive air. All this, however, did not prevent me from repairing to the door of Mr. Jaffrey’s snuggery when night came.
“Well, Mr. Jaffrey, how’s Andy this evening?”
“Got a tooth!” cried Mr. Jaffrey, vivaciously.
“Yes, he has! Just through. Gave the nurse a silver dollar. Standing reward for first tooth.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to express surprise that an infant a day old should cut a tooth, when I suddenly recollected that Richard III. was born with teeth.
Feeling myself to be on unfamiliar ground, I suppressed my criticism. It was well I did so, for in the next breath I was advised that half a year had elapsed since the previous evening.
“Andy’s had a hard six months of it,” said Mr. Jaffrey, with the well-known narrative air of fathers. “We’ve brought him up by hand. His grandfather, by the way, was brought up by the bottle”—and brought down by it, too, I added mentally, recalling Mr. Sewell’s account of the old gentleman’s tragic end.
Mr. Jaffrey then went on to give me a history of Andy’s first six months, omitting no detail however insignificant or irrelevant. This history I would in turn inflict upon the reader, if I were only certain that he is one of those dreadful parents who, under the ægis of friendship, bore you at a 207street-corner with that remarkable thing which Freddy said the other day, and insist on singing to you at an evening party the Iliad of Tommy’s woes.
But to inflict this enfantillage upon the unmarried reader would be an act of wanton cruelty. So I pass over that part of Andy’s biography, and, for the same reason, make no record of the next four or five interviews I had with Mr. Jaffrey. It will be sufficient to state that Andy glided from extreme infancy to early youth with astonishing celerity,—at the rate of one year per night, if I remember correctly; and—must I confess it?—before the week came to an end, this invisible hobgoblin of a boy was only little less of a reality to me than to Mr. Jaffrey.
At first I had lent myself to the old dreamer’s whim with a keen perception of the humour of the thing; but by-and-by I found I was talking and thinking of Miss Mehetabel’s son as though he were a veritable personage. Mr. Jaffrey spoke of the child with such an air of conviction!—as if Andy were playing among his toys in the next room, or making mud-pies down in the yard. In these conversations, it should be observed, the child was never supposed to be present, except on that single occasion when Mr. Jaffrey leaned over the cradle. After one of our séances I would lie awake until the small hours, thinking of the boy, and then fall asleep only to have indigestible dreams about him. Through the day, and sometimes in the midst of complicated calculations, I would catch myself wondering what Andy was up to now! There was no shaking him off; he became an inseparable nightmare to me; and I felt that if I remained much longer at Bayley’s Four Corners I should turn into just such another bald-headed, mild-eyed visionary as Silas Jaffrey.
Then the tavern was a gruesome old shell anyway, full of unaccountable noises after dark,—rustlings of garments along unfrequented passages, and stealthy footfalls in 208unoccupied chambers overhead. I never knew of an old house without these mysterious noises.
Next to my bedroom was a musty, dismantled apartment, in one corner of which, leaning against the wainscot, was a crippled mangle, with its iron crank tilted in the air like the elbow of the late Mr. Clem Jaffrey. Sometimes,
“In the dead vast and middle of the night,” I used to hear sounds as if some one were turning that rusty crank on the sly. This occurred only on particularly cold nights, and I conceived the uncomfortable idea that it was the thin family ghosts, from the neglected graveyard in the cornfield, keeping themselves warm by running each other through the mangle. There was a haunted air about the whole place that made it easy for me to believe in the existence of a phantasm like Miss Mehetabel’s son, who, after all, was less unearthly than Mr. Jaffrey himself, and seemed more properly an inhabitant of this globe than the toothless ogre who kept the inn, not to mention the silent witch of Endor that cooked our meals for us over the bar-room fire.
In spite of the scowls and winks bestowed upon me by Mr. Sewell, who let slip no opportunity to testify his disapprobation of the intimacy, Mr. Jaffrey and I spent all our evenings together—those long autumnal evenings, through the length of which he talked about the boy, laying out his path in life, and hedging the path with roses. He should be sent to the High School at Portsmouth, and then to college; he should be educated like a gentleman, Andy.
“When the old man dies,” said Mr. Jaffrey, rubbing his hands gleefully, as if it were a great joke, “Andy will find that the old man has left him a pretty plum.”
“What do you think of having Andy enter West Point when he’s old enough?” said Mr. Jaffrey, on another 209occasion. “He needn’t necessarily go into the army when he graduates; he can become a civil engineer.”
This was a stroke of flattery so delicate and indirect, that I could accept it without immodesty.
There had lately sprung up on the corner of Mr. Jaffrey’s bureau a small tin house, Gothic in architecture, and pink in colour, with a slit in the roof, and the word “Bank” painted on one façade. Several times in the course of an evening Mr. Jaffrey would rise from his chair, without interrupting the conversation, and gravely drop a nickel through the scuttle of the bank. It was pleasant to observe the solemnity of his countenance as he approached the edifice, and the air of triumph with which he resumed his seat by the fireplace. One night I missed the tin bank. It had disappeared, deposits and all. Evidently there had been a defalcation on rather a large scale. I strongly suspected that Mr. Sewell was at the bottom of it; but my suspicion was not shared by Mr. Jaffrey, who, remarking my glance at the bureau, became suddenly depressed. “I’m afraid,” he said, “that I have failed to instil into Andrew those principles of integrity—which—which——” And the old gentleman quite broke down.
Andy was now eight or nine years old, and for some time past, if the truth must be told, had given Mr. Jaffrey no inconsiderable trouble. What with his impishness and his illnesses, the boy led the pair of us a lively dance. I shall not soon forget the anxiety of Mr. Jaffrey the night Andy had the scarlet fever,—an anxiety which so affected me that I actually returned to the tavern the following afternoon earlier than usual, dreading to hear the little spectre was dead, and greatly relieved on meeting Mr. Jaffrey on the door-step with his face wreathed in smiles. When I spoke to him of Andy, I was made aware that I was inquiring into a case of scarlet fever that had occurred the year before!
210It was at this time, towards the end of my second week at Greenton, that I noticed what was probably not a new trait,—Mr. Jaffrey’s curious sensitiveness to atmospherical changes. He was as sensitive as a barometer. The approach of a storm sent his mercury down instantly. When the weather was fair he was hopeful and sunny, and Andy’s prospects were brilliant. When the weather was overcast and threatening he grew restless and despondent, and was afraid the boy wasn’t going to turn out well.
On the Saturday previous to my departure, which had been fixed for Monday, it had rained heavily all the afternoon, and that night Mr. Jaffrey was in an unusually excitable and unhappy frame of mind. His mercury was very low indeed.
“That boy is going to the dogs just as fast as he can go,” said Mr. Jaffrey, with a woful face. “I can’t do anything with him.”
“He’ll come out all right, Mr. Jaffrey. Boys will be boys. I wouldn’t give a snap for a lad without animal spirits.”
“But animal spirits,” said Mr. Jaffrey, sententiously, “shouldn’t saw off the legs of the piano in Tobias’s best parlour. I don’t know what Tobias will say when he finds it out.”
“What, has Andy sawed off the legs of the old spinet?” I returned, laughing.
“Worse than that.”
“Played upon it, then?”
“No, sir. He has lied to me!”
“I can’t believe that of Andy.”
“Lied to me, sir,” repeated Mr. Jaffrey, severely. “He pledged me his word of honour that he would give over his climbing. The way that boy climbs sends a chill down my spine. This morning, notwithstanding his solemn promise, he shinned up the lightning-rod attached to the extension, 211and sat astride the ridge-pole. I saw him, and he denied it! When a boy you have caressed and indulged and lavished pocket-money on lies to you, and will climb, then there’s nothing more to be said. He’s a lost child.”
“You take too dark a view of it, Mr. Jaffrey. Training and education are bound to tell in the end, and he has been well brought up.”
“But I didn’t bring him up on a lightning-rod, did I? If he is ever going to know how to behave, he ought to know now. To-morrow he will be eleven years old.”
The reflection came to me that if Andy had not been brought up by the rod, he had certainly been brought up by the lightning. He was eleven years old in two weeks!
I essayed to tranquillise Mr. Jaffrey’s mind, and to give him some practical hints on the management of youth, with that perspicacious wisdom which seems to be the peculiar property of bachelors and elderly maiden ladies.
“Spank him,” I suggested, at length.
“I will!” said the old gentleman.
“And you’d better do it at once!” I added, as it flashed upon me that in six months Andy would be a hundred and forty-three years old!—an age at which parental discipline would have to be relaxed.
The next morning, Sunday, the rain came down as if determined to drive the quicksilver entirely out of my poor friend. Mr. Jaffrey sat bolt upright at the breakfast-table, looking as woe-begone as a bust of Dante, and retired to his chamber the moment the meal was finished. As the day advanced, the wind veered round to the north-east, and settled itself down to work. It was not pleasant to think, and I tried not to think, what Mr. Jaffrey’s condition would be if the weather did not mend its manners by noon; but so far from clearing off at noon, the storm increased in violence, and as night set in the wind whistled in a spiteful falsetto key, and the rain lashed the old tavern as if it were 212a balky horse that refused to move on. The windows rattled in the worm-eaten frames, and the doors of remote rooms, where nobody ever went, slammed-to in the maddest way. Now and then the tornado, sweeping down the side of Mount Agamenticus, bowled across the open country and struck the ancient hostelry point-blank.
Mr. Jaffrey did not appear at supper. I knew he was expecting me to come to his room as usual, and I turned over in my mind a dozen plans to evade seeing him that night.
The landlord sat at the opposite side of the chimney-place, with his eye upon me. I fancy he was aware of the effect of this storm on his other boarder; for at intervals, as the wind hurled itself against the exposed gable, threatening to burst in the windows, Mr. Sewell tipped me an atrocious wink, and displayed his gums in a way he had not done since the morning after my arrival at Greenton. I wondered if he suspected anything about Andy. There had been odd times during the past week when I felt convinced that the existence of Miss Mehetabel’s son was no secret to Mr. Sewell.
In deference to the gale, the landlord sat up half-an-hour later than was his custom. At half-past eight he went to bed, remarking that he thought the old pile would stand till morning.
He had been absent only a few minutes when I heard a rustling at the door. I looked up and beheld Mr. Jaffrey standing on the threshold, with his dress in disorder, his scant hair flying, and the wildest expression on his face.
“He’s gone!” cried Mr. Jaffrey.
“Who? Sewell! Yes, he just went to bed.”
“No, not Tobias,—the boy!”
“What, run away?”
“No,—he is dead! He has fallen off a step-ladder in the red chamber and broken his neck!”
214Mr. Jaffrey threw up his hands with a gesture of despair and disappeared. I followed him through the hall, saw him go into his own apartment, and heard the bolt of the door drawn to. Then I returned to the bar-room and sat for an hour or two in the ruddy glow of the fire, brooding over the strange experience of the last fortnight.
On my way to bed I paused at Mr. Jaffrey’s door, and, in a lull of the storm, the measured respiration within told me that the old gentleman was sleeping peacefully.
Slumber was coy with me that night. I lay listening to the soughing of the wind and thinking of Mr. Jaffrey’s illusion. It had amused me at first with its grotesqueness; but now the poor little phantom was dead. I was conscious that there had been something pathetic in it all along. Shortly after midnight the wind sunk down, coming and going fainter and fainter, floating around the eaves of the tavern with a gentle, murmurous sound, as if it were turning itself into soft wings to bear away the spirit of a little child.
Perhaps nothing that happened during my stay at Bayley’s Four Corners took me so completely by surprise as Mr. Jaffrey’s radiant countenance the next morning. The morning itself was not fresher or sunnier. His round face literally shone with geniality and happiness. His eyes twinkled like diamonds, and the magnetic light of his hair was turned on full. He came into my room while I was packing my valise. He chirped and prattled and carolled, and was sorry I was going away,—but never a word about Andy. However, the boy had probably been dead several years then!
The open waggon that was to carry me to the station stood at the door; Mr. Sewell was placing my case of instruments under the seat, and Mr. Jaffrey had gone up to his room to get me a certain newspaper containing an account 215of a remarkable shipwreck on the Auckland Islands. I took the opportunity to thank Mr. Sewell for his courtesies to me, and to express my regret at leaving him and Mr. Jaffrey.
“I have become very much attached to Mr. Jaffrey,” I said; “he is a most interesting person; but that hypothetical boy of his, that son of Miss Mehetabel’s——”
“Yes, I know!” interrupted Mr. Sewell, testily, “fell off a step-ladder and broke his dratted neck. Eleven year old, wasn’t he? Always does, jest at that point. Next week Silas will begin the whole thing over again if he can get anybody to listen to him.”
“I see; our amiable friend is a little queer on that subject.”
Mr. Sewell glanced cautiously over his shoulder, and, tapping himself significantly on the forehead, said in a low voice—
“Room to let. Unfurnished!”