Carl Van Vechten:
Paul compared his memory of the truckman, valiant, buoyant, steaming with wet, and yet apparently excited and happy, with the face on the open page before him, but he was not able to arrive at any conclusion.
The parlour-maid had returned with the logs sheltered neatly in the curve of her arm.
My God, why was everything so damned neat? Nothing dislocated, nothing tortured, just everlasting neatness! As symmetrical, his world, he surmised, as the two halves of a circle before Einstein.
I forgot to ask you, Jennie—he addressed the figure kneeling in front of the fireplace—what's the matter with the furnace?
She turned her pretty, smiling face in his direction—even she, he noted, was like a rubber-stamp, like a maid in a French farce or a girl on the cover of a magazine—as she replied,
The furnace is out of order, sir. I thought you knew.
Out of order! His spirits were soaring. If his luck continued he might be able to reconstruct a semblance of his quondam self. On second thought he recalled that Vera had announced this inconvenience earlier in the day. Now, however, it was evening.
But that was this morning, he objected aloud.
I know, sir. Jennie was engaged in expertly lay ing the fire.
The man is still down there. He's acting very strange, sir.
Strange! How strange?
Well, while she was eating lunch, Mrs. Moody asked me to go see how he was getting along, and I did. He was reading a book, sir!
Reading a book!
Yes, sir. I came back and told Mrs. Moody and she thought it might be a recipe-book for fixing furnaces.
Good God! Paul tossed the magazine in his hand across the room. Have you been down since?
Twice, sir. Jennie applied the match.
Was he still reading?
The girl rose and brushed out her apron.
No, sir, she replied. The first time, he spoke to me, sir.
What did he say?
I don't know, sir. Something in a foreign language, sir.
Something in a foreign language. And the second time?
He was standing on his head, sir.
I think, Paul remarked, that I shall be obliged to go down and look this fellow over for myself.
Traversing the long corridor which led to the rear of the house, he crossed the kitchen and descended the cellar-steps, pressing a button to brighten his way. Passing through the laundry, walled with Nile-green tiles, he opened the door leading to the furnace-room. Pausing for an instant on the threshold of this vast, vaulted basement, the ceiling of which was upheld by a forest of terra-cotta columns, he experienced the distinct impression that he was listening to far-away music. A line of pillars, casting great shadows across the path ahead of him, completely blocked his view of the furnace. After a little, he pressed forward, instinctively walking softly on his toes, until, as the ranks of columns fell behind him, in the circular clearing in the centre of which rose the furnace, he was confronted with an amazing spectacle. On the stone-flagged pavement a youth reclined on his belly, his chin sustained by his palms, his forearms supported by his elbows. The young man, who might have been twenty-two years old, was absorbed in the pages of a book spread flat before him.
Paul, utterly unbeheld as yet, rested immobile for a moment while he studied the picture. The attitude of the young man, and his appearance, save for the fact that he wore the overalls of his craft, would have fitted into a fantastic sylvan ballet ... His hair was black and sleek, like the coat of a seal just emerged from the ocean, his figure, slender, lithe, and taut, giving at once the impression of a distinguished grace and a superior strength. His hands were white and fragile, with long, delicate fingers.
For the time being Paul was unable to see his face. At last, but even so a little hesitantly, Paul moved forward and spoke.
Are you the chap who is supposed to be putting the furnace in order? he demanded.
Turning a leaf, rather than his head, the youth responded,
Paul adopted a more aggressive tone.
Then, why the devil don't you do it? The house is freezing.
This rougher method of approach was success ful in disturbing the workman's preoccupation. He lowered his right forearm and permitted his neck to pivot until his gaze met the eyes of the in truder.
Who are you? he questioned softly. The rich resonance of his voice, the complete poise of his manner, the refined beauty of his face, cut as cleanly as a Roman sculptor might have carved it from marble, and as white as marble, his eyes, lustrous and black, his magenta lips, all were sufficiently baffling in the circumstances.
Moody is my name, Paul replied. I had supposed you were engaged to put the furnace in order. I ...
The young man was on his feet at once and there was an implication of the miraculous even in the accomplishment of this movement which offered evidence of that co-ordinating control of the muscles which is the basis for all great dancing.
Still, there was an expression of regret on the youth's countenance, adumbrating that he had been awakened from some bright dream. Again Paul thought he caught the distant tinkle of ancient music.
I beg your pardon, the youth apologized. The furnace has been in running order for some hours. I forgot—he was, in his embarrassment, almost stammering now—to notify the servants, but I will do so at once.
The boy spoke, Paul noted, with a slightly foreign, though unidentifiable, inflection, but not with an accent.
You won't mind my saying, Paul, now completely disarmed, put forward, that you are a most extraordinary fellow. Would you, he continued, mind telling me what you are reading?
The youth lovingly fingered the book which he still clasped in one hand. The Alchemy of Happiness, by the Persian poetphilosopher, Al-Ghazzali, was his response.
Good God! What is it about?
Al-Ghazzali avers that the highest function of man's soul is the perception of truth.
Paul rested a moment, silent, not without awe. When he spoke, it was to ask, Will you come up stairs? I'd like to talk with you.
By way of reply the youth mock-ruefully surveyed his stained overalls which contrasted violently with his well-kept hands, the delicate carving of his fea tures.
Your clothes are all right. I don't want to talk with your clothes.
Then I'm with you.
The young man collected his scattered tools and packed them in a black hand-bag. The cherished volume by the Persian poet-philosopher he laid reverently on top. Now Paul led the way, the youth following, bag in hand, walking proudly, head erect, through the forest of terra-cotta columns and the greentiled laundry, up the cellar steps, on across the kitchen, past the scandalized cook and maids, down the long corridor, back into the little chamber he had quitted but a few moments before.
How different everything seemed now! The fire blazed fiercely, but it was not the fire which made the difference.
Sit down, Paul invited.
If you will permit me, I should like to wash my hands.
I beg your pardon. Paul made the carrying out of this reasonable request possible. Then he at tended the youth's return. Presently the workman came back into the room and accepted Paul's interrupted invitation. The rain continued to beat against the resounding panes, the fi recrackled, but for a time neither of the men spoke. It became evident to Paul, at last, that a person with so much poise would never speak unless he had something to say and some good reason for saying it.
Will you have a little drink? Paul suggested.
Thank you, I don't drink, the young man replied, his gaze directed towards the cheer of the fire.
Smoke? Paul offered him the contents of a crystal box.
Not that either. The young man smiled.
Suddenly Paul broke out: See here ... Then: How the devil does it happen that you're a furnace-man?
I'm not. At any rate, after tonight I'm not. I've done that. You appear to possess an excellent library.
It's not mine, at least most of it isn't. These—Paul swept his arm towards the full cases which lined the walls—are bindings, not books. I doubt if you'd find anything to read, there.
I'm not so sure.
What do you like to read?
Instead of replying to this question, the young man asseverated solemnly, What you lack is balance.
Plumbing, the young man announced, and the allied artisanships serve their purposes. He rose, and with the utmost nonchalance stooped to toss a log on the waning blaze in the fireplace. Max Beerbohm's dictum that you should never poke a friend's fire unless the friendship dates back at least seven years invaded Paul's mind, and yet he did not feel resentful.
For a few moments the only sounds audible in the chamber were the crackling of the fire and the wailing of the wind smiting the chimney. Then the young man spoke again.
Have you ever thought of the meaning of life? he inquired.
I don't ever think of anything else! I've been thinking about it all the afternoon.
Well, what conclusion did you reach? Does it lie in service? or delight? or the approach to non-existence?
I had about decided to give up the search ... I had come to the conclusion that it had no meaning ... until ... What is it? What does it mean?
You see I'm not a preacher, the young man appeared to be apologizing.
Not a preacher!
I have had, perhaps, a vision, a glimpse of some thing, but why try to explain it?
But if I'm interested.
Paul actually quivered as the word passed his lips.
I'll tell you what, he went on, and then, interrupting himself with a Wait a minute, he rang the bell.
Jennie, he demanded when the maid appeared, what's Mrs. Moody doing?
She's dining out, sir.
O, yes, I remember ... Mr. eh ... Benson is dining with me.
You might serve dinner in this room.
Yes, sir. Jennie looked as if she were about to give notice.
And wait a minute. Tell Albert to build a fire in the furnace.
I'm sure it will be most pleasant, the youth avowed. You should have good food. Persons without balance ... O, hell! What's the formula, the password, the keynote?
What is it, this balance?
It's a pity, the stranger remarked abruptly, that Hell's Kitchen, Battle Row, and Corcoran's Roost have been cleaned up. They were gone before I arrived in America. I long for a battle with the Hudson Duster Gang. I burn for an encounter with Mike the Mauler and the Bad Wop. I crave an introduction to Big Jack Zelig, Kid Twist, and Louie the Lump. I regret the obsequies of Kid Dropper. Where are Tanner Smith, Big Jim Redmond and Rubber Shaw? Where is the Gas House Gang?
Damned if I know! Would you really like to meet them?
Would I! Not in this rain, not in the taxi that will carry me away from here, but some time, some night, I'd like to, and now they're gone.
Paul scrutinized the countenance of the youth whose brow seemed knitted with despair. He was losing patience.
See here, he exclaimed. Give it to me ... what you've got.
It's what I need. It's what I hoped there would be! This complete and fascinating dislocation!
Jennie was pulling out the supports of a gate legged table.
It isn't mine any more than it's yours. I can't give it to you.
I'm not a preacher, the youth said for the second time.
Who are you?
I'm the boiler-mender you met in the cellar and invited to dine with you.
Can you really stand on your head?
Do you doubt it?
I think I'm standing on my head at this moment.
From the time the soup appeared, on through the salad, the young man ate ravenously. Until he explained that he had forgotten to eat any lunch, Paul fancied that he must have been hungry for days. And while the youth devoured his food he largely refrained from speech. Paul, whose stomach suffered no pangs, regarded the fellow with esurient eyes, the eyes of an avid curiosity. What was it the chap had, and why wouldn't he tell?
Did you, the stranger queried at last, ever hear of Hippias?
Never, Paul replied, and then eagerly demanded, Tell me about him.
Of course, I've heard of him. You mean The Last Supper guy.
Yes. The young man stared at Paul, and his stare at even a low rate of intensity had almost the devastating force of a gimlet. I think, he went on, that I'd like to tell you about Darwin's profligate bees.
Yes. It seems that some colonial or other carried a hive of thrifty English bees over to the West Indies. After the first year they ceased to save up their honey, as they found no occasion to use it. The weather was so splendid, the flowers so plentiful, that the bees sloughed off their serious business like habits, became profligate and debauched, devoured their capital, determined to labour no longer, and entertained themselves by flying about the islands and stinging the Negroes.
Jennie chose this inopportune moment to announce that Mrs. Moody was calling on the telephone.
What the devil! Paul exclaimed, and then, Excuse me, just a moment.
When, after a longer absence than he had foretold—Vera had kept him for an interminable period—he returned, he found the room empty. Instinct informed him that something else had disappeared along with the fantastic boiler-mender and presently, running his eye over the late Mr. Whittaker's bookshelves, he discovered a gap in the otherwise uninterrupted phalanx of volumes.