Richmond Read-along 99
Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today’s short story is from William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pseudonym O. Henry. An American short story writer, his vignettes were featured in magazines of the time as well as published in multiple volumes. Today’s story is from “Cabbages and Kings,” a novel told through a collection of related short stories. “Cabbages and Kings” is set in a fictional middle American country that draws on Porter’s time spent in Honduras. Porter fled to Honduras after being indicted for embezzlement in 1896; he returned to the States after his wife fell ill and was eventually given a light prison sentence, during which he wrote.
The title of “Cabbages and Kings” is taken from Lewis Carroll‘s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and other motifs from the poem are scattered throughout the book. Although designed to be read consecutively as a whole, the individual stories can also be read on their own.
Cupid’s Exile Number Two
The United States of America, after looking over its stock of consular timber, selected Mr. John De Graffenreid Atwood, of Dalesburg, Alabama, for a successor to Willard Geddie, resigned.
Without prejudice to Mr. Atwood, it will have to be acknowledged that, in this instance, it was the man who sought the office. As with the self-banished Geddie, it was nothing less than the artful smiles of lovely woman that had driven Johnny Atwood to the desperate expedient of accepting office under a despised Federal Government so that he might go far, far away and never see again the false, fair face that had wrecked his young life. The consulship at Coralio seemed to offer a retreat sufficiently removed and romantic enough to inject the necessary drama into the pastoral scenes of Dalesburg life.
It was while playing the part of Cupid’s exile that Johnny added his handiwork to the long list of casualties along the Spanish Main by his famous manipulation of the shoe market, and his unparalleled feat of elevating the most despised and useless weed in his own country from obscurity to be a valuable product in international commerce.
The trouble began, as trouble often begins instead of ending, with a romance. In Dalesburg there was a man named Elijah Hemstetter, who kept a general store. His family consisted of one daughter called Rosine, a name that atoned much for “Hemstetter.” This young woman was possessed of plentiful attractions, so that the young men of the community were agitated in their bosoms. Among the more agitated was Johnny, the son of Judge Atwood, who lived in the big colonial mansion on the edge of Dalesburg.
It would seem that the desirable Rosine should have been pleased to return the affection of an Atwood, a name honoured all over the state long before and since the war. It does seem that she should have gladly consented to have been led into that stately but rather empty colonial mansion. But not so. There was a cloud on the horizon, a threatening, cumulus cloud, in the shape of a lively and shrewd young farmer in the neighbourhood who dared to enter the lists as a rival to the high-born Atwood.
One night Johnny propounded to Rosine a question that is considered of much importance by the young of the human species. The accessories were all there—moonlight, oleanders, magnolias, the mock-bird’s song. Whether or no the shadow of Pinkney Dawson, the prosperous young farmer, came between them on that occasion is not known; but Rosine’s answer was unfavourable. Mr. John De Graffenreid Atwood bowed till his hat touched the lawn grass, and went away with his head high, but with a sore wound in his pedigree and heart. A Hemstetter refuse an Atwood! Zounds!
Among other accidents of that year was a Democratic president. Judge Atwood was a warhorse of Democracy. Johnny persuaded him to set the wheels moving for some foreign appointment. He would go away—away. Perhaps in years to come Rosine would think how true, how faithful his love had been, and would drop a tear—maybe in the cream she would be skimming for Pink Dawson’s breakfast.
The wheels of politics revolved; and Johnny was appointed consul to Coralio. Just before leaving he dropped in at Hemstetter’s to say good-bye. There was a queer, pinkish look about Rosine’s eyes; and had the two been alone, the United States might have had to cast about for another consul. But Pink Dawson was there, of course, talking about his 400-acre orchard, and the three-mile alfalfa tract, and the 200-acre pasture. So Johnny shook hands with Rosine as coolly as if he were only going to run up to Montgomery for a couple of days. They had the royal manner when they chose, those Atwoods.
“If you happen to strike anything in the way of a good investment down there, Johnny,” said Pink Dawson, “just let me know, will you? I reckon I could lay my hands on a few extra thousands ‘most any time for a profitable deal.”
“Certainly, Pink,” said Johnny, pleasantly. “If I strike anything of the sort I’ll let you in with pleasure.”
So Johnny went down to Mobile and took a fruit steamer for the coast of Anchuria.
When the new consul arrived in Coralio the strangeness of the scenes diverted him much. He was only twenty-two; and the grief of youth is not worn like a garment as it is by older men. It has its seasons when it reigns; and then it is unseated for a time by the assertion of the keen senses.
Billy Keogh and Johnny seemed to conceive a mutual friendship at once. Keogh took the new consul about town and presented him to the handful of Americans and the smaller number of French and Germans who made up the “foreign” contingent. And then, of course, he had to be more formally introduced to the native officials, and have his credentials transmitted through an interpreter.
There was something about the young Southerner that the sophisticated Keogh liked. His manner was simple almost to boyishness; but he possessed the cool carelessness of a man of far greater age and experience. Neither uniforms nor titles, red tape nor foreign languages, mountains nor sea weighed upon his spirits. He was heir to all the ages, an Atwood, of Dalesburg; and you might know every thought conceived in his bosom.
Geddie came down to the consulate to explain the duties and workings of the office. He and Keogh tried to interest the new consul in their description of the work that his government expected him to perform.
“It’s all right,” said Johnny from the hammock that he had set up as the official reclining place. “If anything turns up that has to be done I’ll let you fellows do it. You can’t expect a Democrat to work during his first term of holding office.”
“You might look over these headings,” suggested Geddie, “of the different lines of exports you will have to keep account of. The fruit is classified; and there are the valuable woods, coffee, rubber—”
“That last account sounds all right,” interrupted Mr. Atwood. “Sounds as if it could be stretched. I want to buy a new flag, a monkey, a guitar and a barrel of pineapples. Will that rubber account stretch over ’em?”
“That’s merely statistics,” said Geddie, smiling. “The expense account is what you want. It is supposed to have a slight elasticity. The ‘stationery’ items are sometimes carelessly audited by the State Department.”
“We’re wasting our time,” said Keogh. “This man was born to hold office. He penetrates to the root of the art at one step of his eagle eye. The true genius of government shows its hand in every word of his speech.”
“I didn’t take this job with any intention of working,” explained Johnny, lazily. “I wanted to go somewhere in the world where they didn’t talk about farms. There are none here, are there?”
“Not the kind you are acquainted with,” answered the ex-consul. “There is no such art here as agriculture. There never was a plow or a reaper within the boundaries of Anchuria.”
“This is the country for me,” murmured the consul, and immediately he fell asleep.
The cheerful tin typist pursued his intimacy with Johnny in spite of open charges that he did so to obtain a preëmption on a seat in that coveted spot, the rear gallery of the consulate. But whether his designs were selfish or purely friendly, Keogh achieved that desirable privilege. Few were the nights on which the two could not be found reposing there in the sea breeze, with their heels on the railing, and the cigars and brandy conveniently near.
One evening they sat thus, mainly silent, for their talk had dwindled before the stilling influence of an unusual night.
There was a great, full moon; and the sea was mother-of-pearl. Almost every sound was hushed, for the air was but faintly stirring; and the town lay panting, waiting for the night to cool. Offshore lay the fruit steamer Andador, of the Vesuvius line, full-laden and scheduled to sail at six in the morning. There were no loiterers on the beach. So bright was the moonlight that the two men could see the small pebbles shining on the beach where the gentle surf wetted them.
Then down the coast, tacking close to shore, slowly swam a little sloop, white-winged like some snowy sea fowl. Its course lay within twenty points of the wind’s eye; so it veered in and out again in long, slow strokes like the movements of a graceful skater.
Again the tactics of its crew brought it close in shore, this time nearly opposite the consulate; and then there blew from the sloop clear and surprising notes as if from a horn of elfland. A fairy bugle it might have been, sweet and silvery and unexpected, playing with spirit the familiar air of “Home, Sweet Home.”
It was a scene set for the land of the lotus. The authority of the sea and the tropics, the mystery that attends unknown sails, and the prestige of drifting music on moonlit waters gave it an anodynous charm. Johnny Atwood felt it, and thought of Dalesburg; but as soon as Keogh’s mind had arrived at a theory concerning the peripatetic solo he sprang to the railing, and his ear-rending yawp fractured the silence of Coralio like a cannon shot.
The sloop was now on its outward tack; but from it came a clear, answering hail:
“Good-bye, Billy … go-ing home—bye!”
The Andador was the sloop’s destination. No doubt some passenger with a sailing permit from some up-the-coast point had come down in this sloop to catch the regular fruit steamer on its return trip. Like a coquettish pigeon the little boat tacked on its eccentric way until at last its white sail was lost to sight against the larger bulk of the fruiter’s side.
“That’s old H. P. Mellinger,” explained Keogh, dropping back into his chair. “He’s going back to New York. He was private secretary of the late hot-foot president of this grocery and fruit stand that they call a country. His job’s over now; and I guess old Mellinger is glad.”
“Why does he disappear to music, like Zo-zo, the magic queen?” asked Johnny. “Just to show ’em that he doesn’t care?”
“That noise you heard is a phonograph,” said Keogh. “I sold him that. Mellinger had a graft in this country that was the only thing of its kind in the world. The tooting machine saved it for him once, and he always carried it around with him afterward.”
“Tell me about it,” demanded Johnny, betraying interest.
“I’m no disseminator of narratives,” said Keogh. “I can use language for purposes of speech; but when I attempt a discourse the words come out as they will, and they may make sense when they strike the atmosphere, or they may not.”
“I want to hear about that graft,” persisted Johnny. “You’ve got no right to refuse. I’ve told you all about every man, woman and hitching post in Dalesburg.”
“You shall hear it,” said Keogh. “I said my instincts of narrative were perplexed. Don’t you believe it. It’s an art I’ve acquired along with many other of the graces and sciences.”
Join us tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!