A Letter From the Queen

Sinclair Lewis

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The University of Adelaide Library
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A Letter from the Queen

Doctor Selig was an adventurer. He did not look it, certainly. He was an amiable young bachelor with thin hair. He was instructor in history and economics in Erasmus College, and he had to sit on a foolish little platform and try to coax some fifty young men and women, who were interested only in cuddling and four-door sedans, to become hysterical about the law of diminishing returns.

But at night, in his decorous boarding house, he sometimes smoked a pipe, which was viewed as obscene in the religious shades of Erasmus, and he was boldly writing a book which was to make him famous.

Of course everyone is writing a book. But Selig’s was different. It was profound. How good it was can be seen from the fact that with only three quarters of it done, it already had fifteen hundred footnotes — such lively comments as “Vid. J. A. S. H. S. VIII, 234 et seq.” A real book, nothing flippant or commercialized.

It was called The Influence of American Diplomacy on the Internal Policies of Paneuropa.

“Paneuropa,” Selig felt, was a nice and scholarly way of saying “Europe.”

It would really have been an interesting book if Doctor Selig had not believed that all literature is excellent in proportion as it is hard to read. He had touched a world romantic and little known. Hidden in old documents, like discovering in a desert an oasis where girls laugh and fountains chatter and the market place is noisy, he found the story of Franklin, who in his mousy fur cap was the Don Juan of Paris, of Adams fighting the British Government to prevent their recognizing the Confederacy, of Benjamin Thompson, the Massachusetts Yankee who in 1791 was chief counselor of Bavaria, with the title of Count Rumford.

Selig was moved by these men who made the young America more admired than she is today. And he was moved and, in a most unscholarly way, he became a little angry as he reviewed the story of Senator Ryder.

He knew, of course, that Lafayette Ryder had prevented war between England and America in the first reign of Grover Cleveland; he knew that Ryder had been Secretary of State, and Ambassador to France, courted by Paris for his wisdom, his manners, his wit; that as Senator he had fathered (and mothered and wet-nursed) the Ryder–Hanklin Bill, which had saved our wheat markets; and that his two books, Possibilities of Disarmament and The Anglo–American Empire, were not merely glib propaganda for peace, but such inspired documents as would have prevented the Boer War, the Spanish–American War, the Great War, if there had been in his Victorian world a dozen men with minds like his. This Selig knew, but he could not remember when Ryder had died.

Then he discovered with aghast astonishment that Senator Ryder was not dead, but still alive at ninety-two, forgotten by the country he had helped to build.

Yes, Selig felt bitterly, we honor our great men in America — sometimes for as much as two months after the particular act of greatness that tickles us. But this is a democracy. We mustn’t let anyone suppose that because we have given him an (undesired) parade up Broadway and a (furiously resented) soaking of publicity on March first, he may expect to be taken seriously on May second.

The Admiral Dewey whom the press for a week labeled as a combination of Nelson, Napoleon, and Chevalier Bayard, they later nagged to his grave. If a dramatist has a success one season, then may the gods help him, because for the rest of his life everyone will attend his plays only in the hope that he will fail.

But sometimes the great glad-hearted hordes of boosters do not drag down the idol in the hope of finding clay feet, but just forget him with the vast, contemptuous, heavy indifference of a hundred and twenty million people.

So felt Doctor Selig, angrily, and he planned for the end of his book a passionate resurrection of Senator Ryder. He had a shy hope that his book would appear before the Senator’s death, to make him happy.

Reading the Senator’s speeches, studying his pictures in magazine files, he felt that he knew him intimately. He could see, as though the Senator were in the room, that tall ease, the contrast of long thin nose, gay eyes, and vast globular brow that made Ryder seem a combination of Puritan, clown, and benevolent scholar.

Selig longed to write to him and ask — oh, a thousand things that only he could explain; the proposals of Lionel Sackville–West regarding Colombia; what Queen Victoria really had said in that famous but unpublished letter to President Harrison about the Newfoundland fisheries. Why couldn’t he write to him?

No! The man was ninety-two, and Selig had too much reverence to disturb him, along with a wholesome suspicion that his letter would be kicked out by the man who had once told Gladstone to go to the devil.

So forgotten was the Senator that Selig could not, at first, find where he lived. Who’s Who gave no address. Selig’s superior, Professor Munk, who was believed to know everything in the world except the whereabouts of his last-season’s straw hat, bleated, “My dear chap, Ryder is dwelling in some cemetery! He passed beyond, if I remember, in 1901.”

The mild Doctor Selig almost did homicide upon a venerable midwestern historian.

At last, in a bulletin issued by the Anti–Prohibition League, Selig found among the list of directors: “Lafayette Ryder (form. U. S. Sen., Sec’y State), West Wickley, Vermont.” Though the Senator’s residence could make no difference to him, that night Selig was so excited that he smoked an extra pipe of tobacco.

He was planning his coming summer vacation, during which he hoped to finish his book. The presence of the Senator drew him toward Vermont, and in an educational magazine he found the advertisement: “Sky Peaks, near Wickley, Vt., woodland nook with peace and a library — congenial and intellectual company and writers — tennis, handball, riding — nightly Sing round Old-time Bonfire — fur. bung. low rates.”

That was what he wanted: a nook and a library and lots of low rates, along with nearness to his idol. He booked a fur. bung. for the summer, and he carried his suitcase to the station on the beautiful day when the young fiends who through the year had tormented him with unanswerable questions streaked off to all parts of the world and for three tremendous months permitted him to be a private human being.

When he reached Vermont, Selig found Sky Peaks an old farm, redecorated in a distressingly tea-roomy fashion. His single bungalow, formerly an honest corncrib, was now painted robin’s-egg blue with yellow trimmings and christened “Shelley.” But the camp was on an upland, and air sweet from hayfield and spruce grove healed his lungs, spotted with classroom dust.

At his first dinner at Sky Peaks, he demanded of the host, one Mr. Iddle, “Doesn’t Senator Ryder live somewhere near here?”

“Oh, yes, up on the mountain, about four miles south.”

“Hope I catch a glimpse of him some day.”

“I’ll run you over to see him any time you’d like.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that! Couldn’t intrude!”

“Nonsense! Of course he’s old, but he takes quite an interest in the countryside. Fact, I bought this place from him and — Don’t forget the Sing tonight.”

At eight that evening Iddle came to drag Selig from the security of his corncrib just as he was getting the relations of the Locarno Pact and the Versailles Treaty beautifully coordinated.

It was that kind of Sing. “The Long, Long Trail,” and “All God’s Chillun Got Shoes.” (God’s Chillun also possessed coats, pants, vests, flivvers, and watermelons, interminably.) Beside Selig at the campfire sat a young woman with eyes, a nose, a sweater, and an athletic skirt, none of them very good or particularly bad. He would not have noticed her, but she picked on him:

“They tell me you’re in Erasmus, Doctor Selig.”


“Real attention to character. And after all, what benefit is there in developing the intellect if the character isn’t developed to keep pace with it? You see, I’m in educational work myself — oh, of course nothing like being on a college faculty, but I teach history in the Lincoln High School at Schenectady — my name is Selma Swanson. We must have some good talks about teaching history, mustn’t we!”

“Um!” said Selig, and escaped, though it was not till he was safely in his corncrib that he said aloud, “We must NOT!”

For three months he was not going to be a teacher, or heed the horrors of character-building. He was going to be a great scholar. Even Senator Ryder might be excited to know how powerful an intellect was soothing itself to sleep in a corncrib four miles away!

He was grinding hard next afternoon when his host, Iddle, stormed in with: “I’ve got to run in to Wickley Center. Go right near old Ryder’s. Come on. I’ll introduce you to him.”

“Oh, no, honestly!”

“Don’t be silly: I imagine he’s lonely. Come on!”

Before Selig could make up his mind to get out of Iddle’s tempestuous flivver and walk back, they were driving up a mountain road and past marble gateposts into an estate. Through a damp grove of birches and maples they came out on meadows dominated by an old brick house with a huge porch facing the checkered valley. They stopped with a dash at the porch, and on it Selig saw an old man sunk in a canvas deck chair and covered with a shawl. In the shadow the light seemed to concentrate on his bald head, like a sphere of polished vellum, and on long bloodless hands lying as in death on shawl-draped knees. In his eyes there was no life nor desire for it.

Iddle leaped out, bellowing, “Afternoon, Senator! Lovely day, isn’t it? I’ve brought a man to call on you. This is Mr. Selig of — uh — one of our colleges. I’ll be back in an hour.”

He seized Selig’s arm — he was abominably strong — and almost pulled him out of the car. Selig’s mind was one wretched puddle of confusion. Before he could dredge any definite thought out of it, Iddle had rattled away, and Selig stood below the porch, hypnotized by the stare of Senator Ryder — too old for hate or anger, but not too old for slow contempt.

Not one word Ryder said.

Selig cried, like a schoolboy unjustly accused:

“Honestly, Senator, the last thing I wanted to do was to intrude on you. I thought Iddle would just introduce us and take me away. I suppose he meant well. And perhaps subconsciously I did want to intrude! I know your Possibilities of Disarmament and Anglo–American Empire so well —”

The Senator stirred like an antediluvian owl awakening at twilight. His eyes came to life. One expected him to croak, like a cynical old bird, but his still voice was fastidious:

“I didn’t suppose anyone had looked into my books since 1910.” Painful yet gracious was the gesture with which he waved Selig to a chair. “You are a teacher?”

“Instructor in a small Ohio college. Economics and history. I’m writing a monograph on our diplomacy, and naturally — There are so many things that only you could explain!”

“Because I’m so old?”

“No! Because you’ve had so much knowledge and courage — perhaps they’re the same thing! Every day, literally, in working on my book I’ve wished I could consult you. For instance — Tell me, sir, didn’t Secretary of State Olney really want war with England over Venezuela? Wasn’t he trying to be a tin hero?”

“No!” The old man threw off his shawl. It was somehow a little shocking to find him not in an ancient robe laced with gold, but in a crisp linen summer suit with a smart bow tie. He sat up, alert, his voice harsher. “No! He was a patriot. Sturdy. Honest. Willing to be conciliatory but not flinching. Miss Tully!”

At the Senator’s cry, out of the wide fanlighted door of the house slid a trained nurse. Her uniform was so starched that it almost clattered, but she was a peony sort of young woman, the sort who would insist on brightly mothering any male, of any age, whether or not he desired to be mothered. She glared at the intruding Selig; she shook her finger at Senator Ryder, and simpered:

“Now I do hope you aren’t tiring yourself, else I shall have to be ever so stern and make you go to bed. The doctor said —”

“Damn the doctor! Tell Mrs. Tinkham to bring me down the file of letters from Richard Olney, Washington, for 1895 — O-l-n-e-y — and hustle it!”

Miss Tully gone, the Senator growled, “Got no more use for a nurse than a cat for two tails! It’s that mutton-headed doctor, the old fool! He’s seventy-five years old, and he hasn’t had a thought since 1888. Doctors!”

He delivered an address on the art of medicine with such vigorous blasphemy that Selig shrank in horrified admiration. And the Senator didn’t abate the blazing crimson of his oration at the entrance of his secretary, Mrs. Tinkham, a small, narrow, bleached, virginal widow.

Selig expected her to leap off the porch and commit suicide in terror. She didn’t. She waited, she yawned gently, she handed the Senator a manila envelope, and gently she vanished.

The Senator grinned. “She’ll pray at me tonight! She daren’t while you’re here. There! I feel better. Good cussing is a therapeutic agent that has been forgotten in these degenerate days. I could teach you more about cussing than about diplomacy — to which cussing is a most valuable aid. Now here is a letter that Secretary Olney wrote me about the significance of his correspondence with England.”

It was a page of history. Selig handled it with more reverence than he had given to any material object in his life.

He exclaimed, “Oh, yes, you used — of course I’ve never seen the rest of this letter, and I can’t tell you, sir, how excited I am to see it. But didn’t you use this first paragraph — it must be about on page 276 of your Anglo–American Empire?”

“I believe I did. It’s not my favorite reading!”

“You know, of course, that it was reprinted from your book in the Journal of the American Society of Historical Sources last year?”

“Was it?” The old man seemed vastly pleased. He beamed at Selig as at a young but tested friend. He chuckled, “Well, I suppose I appreciate now how King Tut felt when they remembered him and dug him up. . . . Miss Tully! Hey! Miss Tully, will you be so good as to tell Martens to bring us whisky and soda, with two glasses? Eh? Now you look here, young woman; we’ll fight out the whole question of my senile viciousness after our guest has gone. Two glasses, I said! . . . Now about Secretary Olney. The fact of the case was . . .”

Two hours later, Senator Ryder was still talking and in that two hours he had given Selig such unrecorded information as the researcher could not have found in two years of study.

Selig had for two hours walked with presidents and ambassadors; he had the dinner conversation of foreign ministers, conversations so private, so world-affecting, that they never had been set down, even in letters. The Senator had revealed his friendship with King Edward, and the predictions about the future World War the King had made over a glass of mineral water.

The mild college instructor, who till this afternoon had never spoken to anyone more important than the president of a prairie college, was exalted with a feeling that he had become the confidant of kings and field marshals, of Anatole France and Lord Haldane, of Sarah Bernhardt and George Meredith.

He had always known but till now he had never understood that in private these great personages were plain human beings, like Doctor Wilbur Selig of Erasmus. It made him feel close to King Edward to hear (though the Senator may have exaggerated) that the King could not pronounce his own name without a German accent; it made him feel a man of the world to learn the details of a certain not very elevating party at which an English duke and a German prince and a Portuguese king, accompanied by questionable ladies, had in bibulous intimacy sung to Senator Ryder’s leadership the lyric, “How Dry I Am.”

During that two hours, there had been ten minutes when he had been entirely off in a Conan Doyle spirit world. His notion of prodigious alcoholic dissipation was a bottle of home-brewed beer once a month. He had tried to mix himself a light whisky and soda — he noted, with some anxiety about the proper drinking-manners in diplomatic society, that he took approximately one third as much whisky as the Senator.

But while the old man rolled his drink in his mouth and shook his bald head rapturously and showed no effect, Selig was suddenly lifted six million miles above the earth, through pink-gray clouds shot with lightning, and at that altitude he floated dizzily while below him the Senator discoursed on the relations of Cuban sugar to Colorado beets.

And once Iddle blatted into sight, in his dirty flivver, suggested taking him away, and was blessedly dismissed by the Senator’s curt, “Doctor Selig is staying here for dinner. I’ll send him back in my car.”

Dinner . . . Selig, though he rarely read fiction, had read in some novel about “candle-flames, stilled in the twilight and reflected in the long stretch of waxed mahogany as in a clouded mirror — candles and roses and old silver.” He had read, too, about stag horns and heraldic shields and the swords of old warriors.

Now, actually, the Senator’s dining room had neither stag horn nor heraldic shield nor sword, and if there were still candle-flames, there was no mahogany to reflect them, but instead a silver stretch of damask. It was a long room, simple, with old portraits against white panels. Yet Selig felt that he was transported into all the romance he had ever read.

The dinner was countrylike. By now, Selig expected peacocks’ tongues and caviar; he got steak and cantaloupe and corn pudding. But there were four glasses at each plate, and along with water, which was the familiar drink at Erasmus, he had, and timidly, tasted sherry, Burgundy, and champagne.

If Wilbur Selig of Iowa and Erasmus had known anything, it was that champagne was peculiarly wicked, associated with light ladies, lewd talk, and losses at roulette invariably terminating in suicide. Yet it was just as he was nibbling at his very first glass of champagne that Senator Ryder began to talk of his delight in the rise of Anglo–Catholicism.

No. It was none of it real.

If he was exhilarated that he had been kept for dinner, he was ecstatic when the Senator said, “Would you care to come for dinner again day after tomorrow? Good. I’ll send Martens for you at seven-thirty. Don’t dress.”

In a dream phantasmagoria he started home, driven by Martens, the Senator’s chauffeur-butler, with unnumbered things that had puzzled him in writing his book made clear.

When he arrived at the Sky Peaks camp, the guests were still sitting about the dull campfire.

“My!” said Miss Selma Swanson, teacher of history. “Mr. Iddle says you’ve spent the whole evening with Senator Ryder. Mr. Iddle says he’s a grand person — used to be a great politician.”

“Oh, he was kind enough to help me about some confused problems,” murmured Selig.

But as he went to bed — in a reformed corncrib — he exulted, “I bet I could become quite a good friend of the Senator! Wouldn’t that be wonderful!”

Lafayette Ryder, when his visitor — a man named Selig or Selim — was gone, sat at the long dining table with a cigarette and a distressingly empty cognac glass. He was meditating, “Nice eager young chap. Provincial. But mannerly. I wonder if there really are a few people who know that Lafe Ryder once existed?”

He rang, and the crisply coy Miss Tully, the nurse, waltzed into the dining room, bubbling, “So we’re all ready to go to bed now, Senator!”

“We are not! I didn’t ring for you; I rang for Martens.”

“He’s driving your guest.”

“Humph! Send in cook. I want some more brandy.”

“Oh, now, Daddy Ryder! You aren’t going to be naughty, are you?”

“I am! And who the deuce ever told you to call me ‘Daddy’? Daddy!”

“You did. Last year.”

“I don’t — this year. Bring me the brandy bottle.”

“If I do, will you go to bed then?”

“I will not!”

“But the doctor —”

“The doctor is a misbegotten hound with a face like a fish. And other things. I feel cheerful tonight. I shall sit up late. Till All Hours.”

They compromised on eleven-thirty instead of All Hours, and one glass of brandy instead of the bottle. But, vexed at having thus compromised — as so often, in ninety-odd years, he had been vexed at having compromised with Empires — the Senator was (said Miss Tully) very naughty in his bath.

“I swear,” said Miss Tully afterward, to Mrs. Tinkham, the secretary, “if he didn’t pay so well, I’d leave that horrid old man tomorrow. Just because he was a politician or something, once, to think he can sass a trained nurse!”

“You would not!” said Mrs. Tinkham. “But he IS naughty.”

And they did not know that, supposedly safe in his four-poster bed, the old man was lying awake, smoking a cigarette and reflecting:

“The gods have always been much better to me than I have deserved. Just when I thought I was submerged in a flood of women and doctors, along comes a man for companion, a young man who seems to be a potential scholar, and who might preserve for the world what I tried to do. Oh, stop pitying yourself, Lafe Ryder! . . . I wish I could sleep.”

Senator Ryder reflected, the next morning, that he had probably counted too much on young Selig. But when Selig came again for dinner, the Senator was gratified to see how quickly he was already fitting into a house probably more elaborate than any he had known. And quite easily he told of what the Senator accounted his uncivilized farm boyhood, his life in a state university.

“So much the better that he is naïve, not one of these third-secretary cubs who think they’re cosmopolitan because they went to Groton,” considered the Senator. “I must do something for him.”

Again he lay awake that night, and suddenly he had what seemed to him an inspired idea.

“I’ll give young Selig a lift. All this money and no one but hang-jawed relatives to give it to! Give him a year of freedom. Pay him — he probably earns twenty-five hundred a year; pay him five thousand and expenses to arrange my files. If he makes good, I’d let him publish my papers after I pass out. The letters from John Hay, from Blaine, from Choate! No set of unpublished documents like it in America! It would MAKE the boy!

“Mrs. Tinkham would object. Be jealous. She might quit. Splendid! Lafe, you arrant old coward, you’ve been trying to get rid of that woman without hurting her feelings for three years! At that, she’ll probably marry you on your dying bed!”

He chuckled, a wicked, low, delighted sound, the old man alone in darkness.

“Yes, and if he shows the quality I think he has, leave him a little money to carry on with while he edits the letters. Leave him — let’s see.”

It was supposed among Senator Ryder’s lip-licking relatives and necessitous hangers-on that he had left of the Ryder fortune perhaps two hundred thousand dollars. Only his broker and he knew that he had by secret investment increased it to a million, these ten years of dark, invalid life.

He lay planning a new will. The present one left half his fortune to his university, a quarter to the town of Wickley for a community center, the rest to nephews and nieces, with ten thousand each for the Tully, the Tinkham, Martens, and the much-badgered doctor, with a grave proviso that the doctor should never again dictate to any patient how much he should smoke.

Now to Doctor Selig, asleep and not even dream-warned in his absurd corncrib, was presented the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars, the blessings of an old man, and a store of historical documents which could not be priced in coin.

In the morning, with a headache, and very strong with Miss Tully about the taste of the aspirin — he suggested that she had dipped it in arsenic — the Senator reduced Selig to five thousand, but that night it went back to twenty-five.

How pleased the young man would be.

Doctor Wilbur Selig, on the first night when he had unexpectedly been bidden to stay for dinner with Senator Ryder, was as stirred as by — What WOULD most stir Doctor Wilbur Selig? A great play? A raise in salary? An Erasmus football victory?

At the second dinner, with the house and the hero less novel to him, he was calmly happy, and zealous about getting information. The third dinner, a week after, was agreeable enough, but he paid rather more attention to the squab in casserole than to the Senator’s revelations about the Baring panic, and he was a little annoyed that the Senator insisted (so selfishly) on his staying till midnight, instead of going home to bed at a reasonable hour like ten — with, perhaps, before retiring, a few minutes of chat with that awfully nice bright girl, Miss Selma Swanson.

And through that third dinner he found himself reluctantly critical of the Senator’s morals.

Hang it, here was a man of good family, who had had a chance to see all that was noblest and best in the world and why did he feel he had to use such bad language, why did he drink so much? Selig wasn’t (he proudly reminded himself) the least bit narrow-minded. But an old man like this ought to be thinking of making his peace; ought to be ashamed of cursing like a stableboy.

He reproved himself next morning, “He’s been mighty nice to me. He’s a good old coot — at heart. And of course a great statesman.”

But he snapped back to irritation when he had a telephone call from Martens, the chauffeur: “Senator Ryder would like you to come over for tea this afternoon. He has something to show you.”

“All right, I’ll be over.”

Selig was curt about it, and he raged, “Now, by thunder, of all the thoughtless, selfish old codgers! As if I didn’t have anything to do but dance attendance on him and amuse him! And here I’d planned to finish a chapter this afternoon! ‘Course he does give me some inside information, but still — as if I needed all the tittle-tattle of embassies for my book! Got all the stuff I need now. And how am I to get over there? The selfish old hound never thinks of that! Does he suppose I can afford a car to go over? I’ll have to walk! Got half a mind not to go!”

The sulkiness with which he came to tea softened when the Senator began to talk about the Queen Victoria letter.

Historians knew that during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, when there was hostility between America and Britain over the seizure by both sides of fishing boats, Queen Victoria had written in her own hand to President Harrison. It was believed that she deplored her royal inability to appeal directly to Parliament, and suggested his first taking the difficulty up with Congress. But precisely what was in this unofficial letter, apparently no one knew.

This afternoon Senator Ryder said placidly, “I happen to have the original of the letter in my possession.”


“Perhaps some day I’ll give you a glimpse of it. I think I have the right to let you quote it.”

Selig was electrified. It would be a sensation — HE would be a sensation! He could see his book, and himself, on the front pages. But the Senator passed on to a trivial, quite improper anecdote about a certain Brazilian ambassador and a Washington milliner, and Selig was irritable again. Darn it, it was indecent for a man of over ninety to think of such things! And why the deuce was he so skittish and secretive about his old letter? If he was going to show it, why not do it?

So perhaps Doctor Selig of Erasmus was not quite so gracious as a Doctor Selig of Erasmus should have been when, at parting, the old man drew from under his shawl a worn blue-gray pamphlet, and piped:

“I’m going to give you this, if you’d like it. There’s only six copies left in the world, I believe. It’s the third one of my books — privately printed and not ordinarily listed with the others. It has, I imagine, a few things in it the historians don’t know; the real story of the Paris commune.”

“Oh, thanks,” Selig said brusquely and, to himself, in the Senator’s car, he pointed out that it showed what an egotistic old codger Ryder was to suppose that just because he’d written something, it must be a blooming treasure!

He glanced into the book. It seemed to have information. But he wasn’t stirred, for it was out of line with what he had decided were the subjects of value to Doctor Selig and, therefore, of general interest.

After tea, now, it was too late for work before dinner and he had Ryder’s chauffeur set him down at Tredwell’s General Store, which had become for members of the Sky Peaks camp a combination of department store, post office and café, where they drank wild toasts in lemon pop.

Miss Selma Swanson was there, and Selig laughingly treated her to chewing gum, Attaboy Peanut Candy Rolls, and seven fishhooks. They had such a lively time discussing that funny Miss Elkington up at the camp.

When he started off, with Miss Swanson, he left the Senator’s book behind him in the store. He did not miss it till he had gone to bed.

Two days afterward, the Senator’s chauffeur again telephoned an invitation to tea for that afternoon, but this time Selig snapped, “Sorry! Tell the Senator I unfortunately shan’t be able to come!”

“Just a moment, please,” said the chauffeur. “The Senator wishes to know if you care to come to dinner tomorrow evening — eight — he’ll send for you.”

“Well — Yes, tell him I’ll be glad to come.”

After all, dinner here at Sky Peaks was pretty bad, and he’d get away early in the evening.

He rejoiced in having his afternoon free for work. But the confounded insistence of the Senator had so bothered him that he banged a book on his table and strolled outside.

The members of the camp were playing One Old Cat, with Selma Swanson, very jolly in knickerbockers, as cheer leader. They yelped at Selig to join them and, after a stately refusal or two, he did. He had a good time. Afterward he pretended to wrestle with Miss Swanson — she had the supplest waist and, seen close up, the moistest eyes. So he was glad that he had not wasted his afternoon listening to that old bore.

The next afternoon, at six, a splendid chapter done, he went off for a climb up Mount Poverty with Miss Swanson. The late sun was so rich on pasture, pine clumps, and distant meadows, and Miss Swanson was so lively in tweed skirt and brogues — but the stockings were silk — that he regretted having promised to be at the Senator’s at eight.

“But of course I always keep my promises,” he reflected proudly.

They sat on a flat rock perched above the valley, and he observed in rather a classroom tone, “How remarkable that light is — the way it picks out that farmhouse roof, and then the shadow of those maples on the grass. Did you ever realize that it’s less the shape of things than the light that gives a landscape beauty?”

“No, I don’t think I ever did. That’s so. It’s the light! My, how observant you are!”

“Oh, no, I’m not. I’m afraid I’m just a bookworm.”

“Oh, you are not! Of course you’re tremendously scholarly — my, I’ve learned so much about study from you — but then, you’re so active — you were just a circus playing One Old Cat yesterday. I do admire an all-round man.”

At seven-thirty, holding her firm hand, he was saying, “But really, there’s so much that I lack that — But you do think I’m right about it’s being so much manlier not to drink like that old man? By the way, we must start back.”

At a quarter to eight, after he had kissed her and apologized and kissed her, he remarked, “Still, he can wait a while — won’t make any difference.”

At eight: “Golly, it’s so late! Had no idea. Well, I better not go at all now. I’ll just phone him this evening and say I got balled up on the date. Look! Let’s go down to the lake and dine on the wharf at the boathouse, just you and I.”

“Oh, that would be grand!” said Miss Selma Swanson.

Lafayette Ryder sat on the porch that, along with his dining room and bedroom, had become his entire world, and waited for the kind young friend who was giving back to him the world he had once known. His lawyer was coming from New York in three days, and there was the matter of the codicil to his will. But — the Senator stirred impatiently — this money matter was grubby; he had for Selig something rarer than money — a gift for a scholar.

He looked at it and smiled. It was a double sheet of thick bond, with “Windsor Castle” engraved at the top. Above this address was written in a thin hand: “To my friend L. Ryder, to use if he ever sees fit. Benj. Harrison.”

The letter began, “To His Excellency, the President,” and it was signed, “Victoria R.” In a few lines between inscription and signature there was a new history of the great Victoria and of the Nineteenth Century. . . . Dynamite does not come in large packages.

The old man tucked the letter into a pocket down beneath the rosy shawl that reached up to his gray face.

Miss Tully rustled out, to beg, “Daddy, you won’t take more than one cocktail tonight? The doctor says it’s so bad for you!”

“Heh! Maybe I will and maybe I won’t! What time is it?”

“A quarter to eight.”

“Doctor Selig will be here at eight. If Martens doesn’t have the cocktails out on the porch three minutes after he gets back, I’ll skin him. And you needn’t go looking for the cigarettes in my room, either! I’ve hidden them in a brand-new place, and I’ll probably sit up and smoke till dawn. Fact; doubt if I shall go to bed at all. Doubt if I’ll take my bath.”

He chuckled as Miss Tully wailed, “You’re so naughty!”

The Senator need not have asked the time. He had groped down under the shawl and looked at his watch every five minutes since seven. He inwardly glared at himself for his foolishness in anticipating his young friend, but — all the old ones were gone.

That was the devilishness of living so many years. Gone, so long. People wrote idiotic letters to him, still, begging for his autograph, for money, but who save this fine young Selig had come to him? . . . So long now!

At eight, he stirred, not this time like a drowsy old owl, but like an eagle, its lean head thrusting forth from its pile of hunched feathers, ready to soar. He listened for the car.

At ten minutes past, he swore, competently. Confound that Martens!

At twenty past, the car swept up the driveway. Out of it stepped only Martens, touching his cap, murmuring, “Very sorry, sir. Mr. Selig was not at the camp.”

“Then why the devil didn’t you wait?”

“I did, sir, as long as I dared.”

“Poor fellow! He may have been lost on the mountain. We must start a search!”

“Very sorry, sir, but if I may say so, as I was driving back past the foot of the Mount Poverty trail, I saw Mr. Selig with a young woman, sir, and they were talking and laughing and going away from the camp, sir. I’m afraid —”

“Very well. That will do.”

“I’ll serve dinner at once, sir. Do you wish your cocktail out here?”

“I won’t have one. Send Miss Tully.”

When the nurse had fluttered to him, she cried out with alarm. Senator Ryder was sunk down into his shawl. She bent over him to hear his whisper:

“If it doesn’t keep you from your dinner, my dear, I think I’d like to be helped up to bed. I don’t care for anything to eat. I feel tired.”

While she was anxiously stripping the shawl from him he looked long, as one seeing it for the last time, at the darkening valley. But as she helped him up, he suddenly became active. He snatched from his pocket a stiff double sheet of paper and tore it into fragments which he fiercely scattered over the porch with one sweep of his long arm.

Then he collapsed over her shoulder.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005