The Mouth of the
Gift Horse by Rupert Hughes
The town of Wakefield wasissuffering from growing painsfrom
ingrowing pains, according to its rival, Gatesville.
Wakefield has long been guilty of trying to add a cubit to its
stature by taking thought. Established, like thousands of other pools
left in the prairies by that tidal wave of humanity sweeping westward
in the middle of the last century, it passed its tenth thousand with a
rush; then something happened.
For decades the decennial census dismally tolled the same knell of
fifteen thousand in round numbers. The annual censuses but echoed the
reverberations. A few more cases of measles one year, and the
population lapsed a little below the mark; an easy winter, and it
slipped a little above. No mandragora of bad times or bad health ever
quite brought it so low as fourteen thousand. No fever of prosperity
ever sent the temperature quite so high as sixteen thousand.
The iteration got on people's nerves till a commercial association
was formed under the name of the Wide-a-Wakefield Club, with a motto of
Boom or Bust. Many individuals accomplished the latter, but the town
still failed of the former. The chief activity of the club was in the
line of decoying manufacturers over into Macedonia by various bribes.
Its first capture was a cutlery company in another city. Though
apparently prosperous, it had fallen foul of the times, and its
president adroitly allowed the Wide-a-Wakefield Club to learn that, if
a building of sufficient size were offered rent free for a term of
years, the cutlery company might be induced to move to Wakefield and
conduct its business there, employing at least a hundred laborers, year
in, year out.
There was not in all Wakefield a citizen too dull to see the
individual and collective advantage of this hundred increase. It meant
money in the pocket of every doctor, lawyer, merchant, clothier,
boarding-house-keeper, saloon-keeper, soda-water-venderwhom not?
Every establishment in town would profit, from the sanatorium to the
pantatoriumas the institution for the replenishment of trousers was
Commercial fervor rose to such heights in Wakefield that in no time
at all enough money was subscribed to build a convenient factory and to
purchase as many of the shares of cutlery stock as the amiable
president cared to print. In due season the manufacture of tableware
and penknives began, and the pride of the town was set aglow by the
trade-mark stamped on every article issued from the cutlery factory. It
was an ingenious emblema glorious Cupid in a sash marked Wakefield,
stabbing a miserable Cupid in a sash marked Sheffield.
It was Sheffield that survived. In fact, the stupid English city
probably never heard of the Wakefield Cutlery Company. Nor did
Wakefield hear of it long. For the emery dust soon ceased to glisten in
the air and the steel died of a distemper.
It was a very real shock to Wakefield, and many a boy that had been
meant for college went into his father's store instead, and many a girl
who had planned to go East to be polished stayed at home and polished
her mother's plates and pans, because the family funds had been
invested in the steel-engravings of the cutlery stock certificates.
They were very handsome engravings.
Hope languished in Wakefield until a company from Kenosha consented
to transport its entire industry thither if it could receive a building
rent free. It was proffered, and it accepted, the cutlery works. For a
season the neighboring streets were acrid with the aroma of the
passionate pickles that were bottled there. And then its briny deeps
ceased to swim with knobby condiments. A tin-foil company abode awhile,
and yet again a tamale-canning corporation, which in its turn sailed on
to the Sargasso Sea of missing industries.
Other factory buildings in Wakefield fared likewise. They were but
lodging-houses for transient failures. The population swung with the
tide, but always at anchor. The lift which the census received from an
artificial-flower company, employing seventy-five hands, was canceled
by the demise of a more redolent pork-packing concern of equal
pay-roll. People missed it when the wind blew from the west.
But Wakefield hoped on. One day the executive committee of the
Wide-a-Wakefield Club, having nothing else to do, met in executive
session. There were various propositions to consider. All of them were
written on letter-heads of the highest school of commercial art, and
all of them promised to endow Wakefield with some epoch-making
advantage, provided merely that Wakefield furnish a building rent free,
tax free, water free, and subscribe to a certain amount of stock.
The club regarded these glittering baits with that cold and clammy
gaze with which an aged trout of many-scarred gills peruses some
But if these letters were tabled with suspicion because they offered
too much for too little, what hospitality could be expected for a
letter which offered still more for still less? The chairman of the
committee was Ansel K. Pettibone, whose sign-board announced him as a
practical house-painter and paper-hanger. He read this letter,
head-lines and all:
MARK A. SHELBY JOHN R. SHELBY LUKE B. SHELBY
SHELBY PARADISE POWDER COMPANY
SPRINGFIELD, MASS., U. S. A.
MAKES WASHDAY WELCOME. SIDESTEP SUBSTITUTES. WIDE-A-WAKEFIELD CLUB,
DEAR SIRS,The undersigned was born in your city, and left
about twenty years ago to seek his fortune. I have finally
after many ups and downs. Us three brothers have jointly
and patented the famous Paradise Powder. It is generally
to be the grandest thing of its kind ever put on the market,
in the words of the motto, Makes Washday Welcome. Ladies who
used it agree that our statement is not excessive when we say,
Once tried, you will use no other.
It is selling at such a rate in the East that I have a personal
profit of two thousand dollars a week. We intend to push it in
West, and we were talking of where would be the best place to
locate a branch factory at. My brothers mentioned Chicago, St.
Louis, Omaha, Denver, and such places, but I said, I vote for
Wakefield. My brothers said I was cracked. I says maybe I am,
I'm going back to my old home town and spend the rest of my
there and my surplus money, too. I want to beautify Wakefield,
as near as I can remember there is room for improvement. It
be good business, but it is what I want to do. And also what I
to know is, can I rely on the co-operation of the
Club in doing its share to build up the old town into a
metropolis? Also, what would be the probable cost of a
site for the factory?
Hoping to receive a favorable reply from you at your earliest
LUKE B. SHELBY.
The chairman's grin had grown wider as he read and read. When he had
finished the letter he tossed it along the line. Every member read it
and shook with equal laughter.
I wonder what kind of green goods he sells? said Joel Spate, the
owner of the Bon-Ton Grocery.
My father used to say to me, said Forshay, of the One-Price
Emporium, whatever else you do, Jake, always suspicion the fellow that
offers you something for nothing. There's a nigger in the woodpile
That's so, said Soyer, the swell tailor, who was strong on second
He says he's goin' to set up a factory here, but he don't ask for
rent free, tax free, light freenothin' free, said the practical
What's the name again? said Spate.
ShelbyLuke B. Shelby, answered Pettibone. Says he used to live
here twenty years ago. Ever hear of him? I never did.
Spate's voice came from an ambush of spectacles and whiskers: I've
lived here all m' lifeI'm sixty-three next month. I don't remember
any such man or boy.
Me, neither, echoed Soyer, and I'm here going on thirty-five
The heads shook along the line as if a wind had passed over a row of
It's some new dodge for sellin' stock, suspicioned One-Price
Forshay, who had a large collection of cutlery certificates.
More likely it's just a scheme to get us talking about his Paradise
Powder. Seems to me I've had some of their circulars, said Bon-Ton
Pettibone, the practical chairman, silenced the gossip with a brisk,
What is the pleasure of the meeting as regards answering it?
I move we lay it on the table, said Eberhart of the Furniture
I move we lay it under the table, said Forshay, who had a keen
sense of humor.
Order, gentlemen! Order, rapped Pettibone, as the room rocked with
the laughter in which Forshay led.
When sobriety was restored it was moved, seconded, and passed that
the secretary be instructed to send Shelby a copy of the boom number of
the Wakefield Daily Eagle.
And in due time the homesick Ulysses, waiting a welcome from Ithaca,
received this answer to his letter:
LUKE B. SHELBY, Springfield, Mass.
SIR,Yours of sixteenth inst. rec'd and contents noted. In
to same, beg to state are sending last special number Daily
Eagle, giving full information about city and sites.
JOEL SPATE, Secy. Exec. Comm.
Shelby winced. The hand he had held out with pearls of price had
been brushed aside. His brothers laughed.
We said you were cracked. They don't want your old money or your
society. Go somewheres where they do.
But Luke B. Shelby had won his success by refusing to be denied, and
he had set his heart on refurbishing his old home town. The instinct of
place is stronger than any other instinct in some animals, and Shelby
was homesick for Wakefieldnot for anybody, any house, or any street
in particular there, but just for Wakefield.
Without further ado he packed his things and went.
There was no brass band to meet him. At the hotel the clerk read his
name without emotion. When he required the best two rooms in the hotel,
and a bath at that, the clerk looked suspicious:
Three trunks and a grip.
What line do you carry? Will you use the sample-room?
Don't carry any line. Don't want any sample-room.
He walked out to see the town. It had so much the same look that it
seemed to have been embalmed. Here were the old stores, the old signs,
apparently the same fly-specked wares in the windows.
He read Doctor Barnby's rusty shingle. Wasn't that the same
swaybacked horse dozing at the hitching-post?
Here was the rough hill road where he used to coast as a child.
There stood Mrs. Hooker on the lawn with a hose, sprinkling the street,
the trees, the grass, the oleander in its tub and the moon-flower on
the porch. He seemed to have left her twenty years ago in that attitude
with the same arch of water springing from the nozzle.
He paused before the same gap-toothed street-crossing of yore, and
he started across it as across the stepping-stones of a dry stream. A
raw-boned horse whirled around the corner, just avoiding his toes. It
was followed by a bouncing grocery-wagon on the side of whose seat
dangled a shirt-sleeved youth who might have been Shelby himself a
score of years ago.
Shelby paused to watch. The horse drew up at the home of Doctor
Stillwell, the dentist. Before the wagon was at rest the delivery-boy
was off and half-way around the side of the house. Mrs. Stillwell
opened the screen door to take in the carrots and soap and
washing-powder Shelby used to bring her. Shelby remembered that she
used washing-powder then. He wondered if she had heard of the
As he hung poised on a brink of memory the screen door flapped shut,
the grocery-boy was hurrying back, the horse was moving away, and the
boy leaped to his side-saddle seat on the wagon while it was in motion.
The delivery-wagons and their Jehus were the only things that moved
fast in Wakefield, now as then.
Shelby drifted back to the main street and found the Bon-Ton Grocery
where it had been when he deserted the wagon. The same old vegetables
seemed to be sprawling outside. The same flies were avid at the
strawberry-boxes, which, he felt sure, the grocer's wife had arranged
as always, with the biggest on top. He knew that some Mrs. Spate had so
distributed them, if it were not the same who had hectored him, for old
Spate had a habit of marrying again. His wives lasted hardly so long as
his hard-driven horses.
Shelby paused to price some of the vegetables, just to draw Spate
into conversation. The old man was all spectacles and whiskers, as he
had always been. Shelby thought he must have been born with spectacles
Joel Spate, never dreaming who Shelby was, was gracious to him for
the first time in history. He evidently looked upon Shelby as a
new-comer who might be pre-empted for a regular customer before Mrs. L.
Bowers, the rival grocer, got him. It somehow hurt Shelby's homesick
heart to be unrecognized, more than it pleased him to enjoy time's
topsy-turvy. Here he was, returned rich and powerful, to patronize the
taskmaster who had worked him hard and paid him harder in the old
years. Yet he dared not proclaim himself and take his revenge.
He ended the interview by buying a few of the grocer's horrible
cigars, which he gave away to the hotel porter later.
All round the town Shelby wandered, trying to be recognized. But age
and prosperity had altered him beyond recall, though he himself knew
almost every old negro whitewash man, almost every teamster, he met. He
was surer of the first names than of the last, for the first names had
been most used in his day, and it surprised him to find how clearly he
recalled these names and faces, though late acquaintances escaped his
memory with ease.
The women, too, he could generally place, though many who had been
short-skirted tomboys were now heavy-footed matrons of embonpoint with
children at their skirts, children as old as they themselves had been
when he knew them. Some of them, indeed, he recognized only by the
children that lagged alongside like early duplicates.
As he sauntered one street of homely homes redeemed by the opulence
of their foliage, he saw coming his way a woman whose outlines seemed
but the enlargement of some photograph in the gallery of remembrance.
Before she reached him he identified Phoebe Carew.
Her mother, he remembered, had been widowed early and had eked out a
meager income by making chocolate fudge, which the little girl peddled
about town on Saturday afternoons. And now the child, though she must
be thirty or thereabouts, had kept a certain grace of her youth, a
wistful prettiness, a girlish unmarriedness, that marked her as an old
maid by accident or choice, not by nature's decree.
He wondered if she, at least, would pay him the compliment of
recognition. She made no sign of it as she approached. As she passed he
lifted his hat.
Isn't this Miss Phoebe Carew?
Wakefield women were not in danger from strangers' advances; she
paused without alarm and answered with an inquiring smile:
You don't remember me?
She studied him. I seem to, and yet
I'm Luke Shelby.
Luke Shelby! Oh yes! Why, how do you do? She gave him her
beautiful hand, but she evidently lacked the faintest inkling of his
identity. Time had erased from recollection the boy who used to take
her sliding on his sled, the boy who used to put on her skates for her,
the boy who used to take her home on his grocery-wagon sometimes,
pretending that he was going her way, just for the benizon of her
radiant companionship, her shy laughter.
I used to live here, he said, ashamed to be so forgettable. My
mother wasmy stepfather was A. J. Stacom, who kept the
Oh yes, she said; they moved away some years ago, didn't they?
Yes; after mother died my stepfather went back to Council Bluffs,
where we came from in the first place. I used to go to school with you,
PhoebeerMiss Carew. Then I drove Spate's delivery-wagon for a while
before I went East.
Oh yes, she said; I think I remember you very well. I'm very glad
to see you again, Mr.Mr. Stacom.
Shelby, he said, and he was so heartsick that he merely lifted his
hat and added, I'm glad to see you looking so well.
You're looking well, too, she said, and smiled the gracious, empty
smile one visits on a polite stranger. Then she went her way. In his
lonely eyes she moved with a goddess-like grace that made clouds of the
uneven pavements where he stumbled as he walked with reverted gaze.
He went back to the hotel lonelier than before, in a greater
loneliness than Ulysses felt ending his Odyssey in Ithaca. For, at
least, Ulysses was remembered by an old dog that licked his hand.
Once in his room, Shelby sank into a patent rocker of most
uncomfortable plush. The inhospitable garishness of a small-town
hotel's luxury expelled him from the hateful place, and he resumed the
streets, taking, as always, determination from rebuff and vowing within
I'll make 'em remember me. I'll make the name of Shelby the biggest
name in town.
On the main street he found one lone, bobtailed street-car waiting
at the end of its line, its horse dejected with the ennui of its
career, the driver dozing on the step.
Shelby decided to review the town from this seedy chariot; but the
driver, surly with sleep, opened one eye and one corner of his mouth
just enough to inform him that the next run was not due for fifteen
I'll change that, said Shelby. I'll give 'em a trolley, and open
cars in summer, too.
He dragged his discouraged feet back to the hotel and asked when
dinner would be served.
Supper's been ready sence six, said the clerk, whose agile
toothpick proclaimed that he himself had banqueted.
Shelby went into the dining-room. A haughty head waitress, zealously
chewing gum, ignored him for a time, then piloted him to a table where
he found a party of doleful drummers sparring in repartee with a damsel
of fearful and wonderful coiffure.
She detached herself reluctantly and eventually brought Shelby a
supper contained in a myriad of tiny barges with which she surrounded
his plate in a far-reaching flotilla.
When he complained that his steak was mostly gristle, and that he
did not want his pie yet, Hebe answered:
Don't get flip! Think you're at the Worldoff?
Poor Shelby's nerves were so rocked that he condescended to complain
to the clerk. For answer he got this:
Mamie's all right. If you don't like our ways, better build a hotel
of your own.
I guess I will, said Shelby.
He went to his room to read. The gas was no more than darkness made
visible. He vowed to change that, too.
He would telephone to the theater. The telephone-girl was forever in
answering, and then she was impudent. Besides, the theater was closed.
Shelby learned that there was a movin'-pitcher show going! He went,
and it moved him to the door.
The sidewalks were full of doleful loafers and loaferesses. Men
placed their chairs in the street and smoked heinous tobacco. Girls and
women dawdled and jostled to and from the ice-cream-soda fountains.
The streets that night were not lighted at all, for the moon was
abroad, and the board of aldermen believed in letting God do all He
could for the town. In fact, He did nearly all that the town could show
of charm. The trees were majestic, the grass was lavishly spread, the
sky was divinely blue by day and angelically bestarred at night.
Shelby compared his boyhood impressions with the feelings governing
his mind now that it was adult and traveled. He felt that he had grown,
but that the town had stuck in the mire. He felt an ambition to lift it
and enlighten it. Like the old builder who found Rome brick and left it
marble, Shelby determined that the Wakefield which he found of plank he
should leave at least of limestone. Everything he saw displeased him
and urged him to reform it altogether, and he said:
I'll change all this. And they'll love me for it.
And he did. But theydid they?
One day a greater than Shelby came to Wakefield, but not to stay. It
was no less than the President of these United States swinging around
the circle in an inspection of his realm, with possibly an eye to the
nearing moment when he should consent to re-election. As his special
train approached each new town the President studied up its statistics
so that he might make his speech enjoyable by telling the citizens the
things they already knew. He had learned that those are the things
people most like to hear.
His encyclopædia informed him that Wakefield had a population of
about fifteen thousand. He could not know how venerable an estimate
this was, for Wakefield was still fifteen thousandnow and forever,
fifteen thousand and insuperable.
The President had a mental picture of just what such a town of
fifteen thousand would look like, and he wished himself back in the
He was met at the train by the usual entertainment committee, which
in this case coincided with the executive committee of the
Wide-a-Wakefield Club. It had seemed just as well to these members to
elect themselves as anybody else.
Mr. Pettibone, the town's most important paper-hanger, was again
chairman after some lapses from office. Joel Spate, the Bon-Ton Grocer,
was once more secretary, after having been treasurer twice and
president once. The One-Price Emporium, however, was now represented by
the younger Forshay, son of the founder, who had gone to the inevitable
Greenwood at the early age of sixty-nine. Soyer, the swell tailor, had
yielded his place to the stateliest man in town, Amasa Harbury,
president of the Wakefield Building and Loan Association. And Eberhart,
of the Furniture Palace, had been supplanted by Gibson Shoals, the bank
To the President's surprise the railroad station proved to be,
instead of the doleful shed usual in those parts, a graceful edifice of
metropolitan architecture. He was to ride in an open carriage, of
course, drawn by the two spanking dapples which usually drew the hearse
when it was needed. But this was tactfully kept from the President.
There had been some bitterness over the choice of the President's
companions in the carriage, since it was manifestly impossible for the
entire committee of seven to pile into the space of four, though young
Forshay, who had inherited his father's gift of humor, volunteered to
ride on the President's lap or hold him on his.
The extra members were finally consoled by being granted the next
carriage, an equipage drawn by no less than the noble black geldings
usually attached to the chief mourners' carriage.
As the President was escorted to his place he remarked that a
trolley-car was waiting at the station.
I see that Wakefield boasts an electric line, he beamed.
Yes, said Pettibone, that's some of Shelby's foolishness.
A look from Spate silenced him, but the President had not caught the
The procession formed behind the town band, whose symphony suffered
somewhat from the effort of the musicians to keep one eye on the music
and throw the other eye backward at the great visitor.
What a magnificent building! said the President as the parade
turned a corner. Nobody said anything, and the President read the name
aloud. The Shelby House. A fine hotel! he exclaimed, as he lifted his
hat to the cheers from the white-capped chambermaids and the
black-coated waiters in the windows. They were male waiters.
And the streets are lighted by electricity! And paved with brick!
the President said. Splendid! Splendid! There must be very
enterprising citizens in GatesvilleI mean Wakefield. He had visited
so many towns!
That's a handsome office-building, was his next remark. It's
quite metropolitan. The committee vouchsafed no reply, but they could
see that he was reading the sign:
THE SHELBY BLOCK: SHELBY INDEPENDENT TELEPHONE COMPANY SHELBY'S
PARADISE POWDER COMPANY SHELBY ARTESIAN WELL COMPANY SHELBY PASTIME
PARK COMPANY SHELBY OPERA HOUSE COMPANY SHELBY STREET RAILWAY COMPANY
The committee was not used to chatting with Presidents, and even the
practical Pettibone, who had voted against him, had an awe of him in
the flesh. He decided to vote for him next time; it would be comforting
to be able to say, Oh yes, I know the President well; I used to take
long drives with himonce.
There were heartaches in the carriage as the President, who
commented on so many things, failed to comment on the banner of welcome
over Pettibone's shop, painted by Pettibone's own practical hand; or
the gaily bedighted Bon-Ton Grocery with the wonderful arrangement of
tomato-cans into the words, Welcome to Wakefield. The Building and
Loan Association had stretched a streamer across the street, too, and
the President never noticed it. His eyes and tongue were caught away by
the ornate structure of the opera-house.
Shelby Opera House. So many things named after Mr. Shelby. Is he
the founder of the city oror
No, just one of the citizens, said Pettibone.
I should be delighted to meet him.
Three votes fell from the Presidential tree with a thud.
Had the committee been able to imagine in advance how Shelbyisms
would obtrude everywhere upon the roving eye of the visitor, whose one
aim was a polite desire to exclaim upon everything exclaimable, they
might have laid out the line of march otherwise.
But it was too late to change now, and they grew grimmer and grimmer
as the way led to the stately pleasure-dome which Shelby Khan had
decreed and which imported architects and landscape-gardeners had
Here were close-razored lawns and terraces, a lake with spouting
fountains, statues of twisty nymphs, glaring, many-antlered stags and
couchant lions, all among cedar-trees and flower-beds whose perfumes
saluted the Presidential nostril like a gentle hurrah.
Emerging through the trees were the roofs, the cupola and
ivy-bowered windows of the home of Shelby, most homeless at home. For,
after all his munificence, Wakefield did not like him. The only tribute
the people had paid him was to boost the prices of everything he
bought, from land to labor, from wall-paper to cabbages. And now on the
town's great day he had not been included in any of the committees of
welcome. He had been left to brood alone in his mansion like a prince
in ill favor exiled to his palace.
He did not know that his palace had delighted even the jaded eye of
the far-traveled First Citizen. He only knew that his fellow-townsmen
sneered at it with dislike.
Shelby was never told by the discreet committeemen in the carriage
that the President had exclaimed on seeing his home:
Why, this is magnificent! This is an estate! I never dreamed
thaterWakefield was a city of such importance and such wealth. And
whose home is this?
Somebody groaned, Shelby's.
Ah yes; Shelby's, of course. So many things here are Shelby's. You
must be very proud of Mr. Shelby. Is he there, perhaps?
That's him, standing on the upper porch there, waving his hat,
The President waved his hat at Shelby.
And the handsome lady is his wife, perhaps?
Yes, that's Mrs. Shelby, mumbled Spate. She was Miss Carew. Used
to teach school here.
Phoebe Shelby was clinging to her husband's side. There were tears
in her eyes and her hands squeezed mute messages upon his arm, for she
knew that his many-wounded heart was now more bitterly hurt than in all
his knowledge of Wakefield. He was a prisoner in disgrace gazing
through the bars at a festival.
He never knew that the President suggested stopping a moment to
congratulate him, and that it was his own old taskmaster Spate who
ventured to say that the President could meet him later. Spate could
rise to an emergency; the other committeemen thanked him with their
As the carriage left the border of the Shelby place the President
turned his head to stare, for it was beautiful, ambitiously beautiful.
And something in the silent attitude of the owner and his wife struck a
deeper note in the noisy, gaudy welcome of the other citizens.
Tell me about this Mr. Shelby, said the President.
Looks were exchanged among the committee. All disliked the task, but
finally Spate broke the silence.
Well, Mr. President, Shelby is a kind of eccentric man. Some folks
say he's cracked. Used to drive a delivery-wagon for me. Ran away and
tried his hand at nearly everything. Finally, him and his two brothers
invented a kind of washing-powder. It was like a lot of others, but
they knew how to push it. Borrowed money to advertise it big. Got it
started till they couldn't have stopped it if they'd tried. Shelby
decided to come back here and establish a branch factory. That tall
chimney is it. No smoke comin' out of it to-day. He gave all the hands
a holiday in your honor, Mr. President.
The President said: Well, that's mighty nice of him. So he's come
back to beautify his old home, eh? That's splendida fine spirit. Too
many of us, I'm afraid, forget the old places when ambition carries us
away into new scenes. Mr. Shelby must be very popular here.
There was a silence. Mr. Pettibone was too honest, or too something,
to let the matter pass.
Well, I can't say as to that, Mr. President. Shelby's queer. He's
very pushing. You can't drive people more 'n so fast. Shelby is awful
fussy. Now, that trolley linehe put that in, but we didn't need it.
Not but what Wakefield is enterprising, Spate added, anxiously.
Pettibone nodded and went on: People used to think the old
bobtailed horse-carexcuse my languagewasn't much, but the
trolley-cars are a long way from perfect. Service ain't so very good.
People don't ride on 'em much, because they don't run often enough.
The President started to say, Perhaps they can't run oftener
because people don't ride on 'em enough, but something counseled him
to silence, and Pettibone continued:
Same way with the electric light. People that had gas hated to
change. He made it cheap, but it's a long way from perfect. He put in
an independent telephone. The old one wasn't much good and it was
expensive. Now we can have telephones at half the old price. But result
is, you've got to have two, or you might just as well not have one.
Everybody you want to talk to is always on the other line.
The President nodded. He understood the ancient war between the
simple life and the strenuous. He wished he had left the subject
unopened, but Pettibone had warmed to the theme.
Shelby built an opery-house and brought some first-class troupes
here. But this is a religious town, and people don't go much to shows.
In the first place, we don't believe in 'em; in the second place, we've
been bit by bad shows so often. So his opery-house costs more 'n it
Then he laid out the Pastime Parktried to get up games and
things; but the vacant lots always were good enough for baseball. He
tried to get people to go out in the country and play golf, too; but it
was too much like following the plow. Folks here like to sit on their
porches when they're tired.
He brought an automobile to townscared most of the horses to
death. Our women folks got afraid to drive because the most reliable
old nags tried to climb trees whenever Shelby came honking along. He
built two or three monuments to famous citizens, but that made the
families of other famous citizens jealous.
He built that big home of his, but it only makes our wives envious.
It's so far out that the society ladies can't call much. Besides, they
feel uneasy with all that glory.
Mrs. Shelby has a man in a dress-suit to open the door. The rest of
usour wives answer the door-bell themselves. Our folks are kind of
afraid to invite Mr. and Mrs. Shelby to their parties for fear they'll
criticize; so Mrs. Shelby feels as if she was deserted.
She thinks her husband is mistreated, too; butwell, Shelby's
eccentric. He says we're ungrateful. Maybe we are, but we like to do
things our own way. Shelby tried to get us to help boost the town, as
he calls it. He offered us stock in his ventures, but we've got taken
in so often thatwell, once bit is twice shy, you know, Mr. President.
So Wakefield stands just about where she did before Shelby came here.
Not but what Wakefield is enterprising, Mr. Spate repeated.
The President's curiosity overcame his policy. He asked one more
But if you citizens didn't help Mr. Shelby, how did he manage all
theseimprovements, if I may use the word?
Did it all by his lonesome, Mr. President. His income was immense.
But he cut into it something terrible. His brothers in the East began
to row at the way he poured it out. When he began to draw in advance
they were goin' to have him declared incompetent. Even his brothers say
he's cracked. Recently they've drawn in on him. Won't let him spend his
A gruesome tone came from among Spate's spectacles and whiskers:
He won't last long. Health's giving out. His wife told my wife, the
other day, he don't sleep nights. That's a bad sign. His pride is set
on keepin' everything going, though, and nothing can hold him. He wants
the street-cars to run regular, and the telephone to answer quick, even
if the town don't support 'em. He's crackedthere's nothing to it.
Amasa Harbury, of the Building and Loan Association, leaned close
and spoke in a confidential voice:
He's got mortgages on 'most everything, Mr. President. He's
borrowed on all his securities up to the hilt. Only yesterday I had to
refuse him a second mortgage on his house. He stormed around about how
much he'd put into it. I told him it didn't count how much you put into
a hole, it was how much you could get out. You can imagine how much
that palace of his would bring in this town on a foreclosure
saleabout as much as a white elephant in a china-shop.
Not but what Wakefield is enterprising, insisted Spate.
The lust for gossip had been aroused and Pettibone threw discretion
to the winds.
Shelby was hopping mad because we left him off the committee of
welcome, but we thought we'd better stick to our own crowd of
represent'ive citizens. Shelby don't really belong to Wakefield,
anyway. Still, if you want to meet him, it can be arranged.
Oh no, said the President. Don't trouble.
And he was politicor politicianenough to avoid the subject
thenceforward. But he could not get Shelby out of his mind that night
as his car whizzed on its way. To be called crazy and eccentric and to
be suspected, feared, resisted by the very people he longed to
leadPresidents are not unaware of that ache of unrequited affection.
The same evening Shelby and Phoebe Shelby looked out on their park.
The crowds that had used it as a vantage-ground for the pageant had all
vanished, leaving behind a litter of rubbish, firecrackers, cigar
stubs, broken shrubs, gouged terraces. Not one of them had asked
permission, had murmured an apology or a word of thanks.
For the first time Phoebe Shelby noted that her husband did not take
new determination from rebuff. His resolution no longer made a
springboard of resistance. He seemed to lean on her a little.
The perennially empty cutlery-works gave the Wide-a-Wakefield Club
no rest. Year after year the anxiously awaited census renewed the old
note of fifteen thousand and denied the eloquent argument of increased
population. The committee in its letters continued to refer to
Wakefield as thriving rather than as growing. Its ingeniously
evasive circulars finally roused a curiosity in Wilmer Barstow, a
manufacturer of refrigerators, dissatisfied with the taxes and freight
rates of the city of Clayton.
Barstow was the more willing to leave Clayton because he had
suffered there from that reward which is more unkind than the winter
wind. He loved a woman and paid court to her, sending her flowers at
every possible excuse and besetting her with gifts.
She was not much of a womanher very lover could see that; but he
loved her in his own and her despite. She was unworthy of his jewels as
of his infatuation, yet she gave him no courtesy for his gifts. She
behaved as if they bored her; yet he knew no other way to win her. The
more indifference she showed the more he tried to dazzle her.
At last he found that she was paying court herself to a younger
mana selfish good-for-naught who made fun of her as well as of
Barstow, and who borrowed money from her as well as from Barstow.
When Barstow fully realized that the woman had made him not only her
own booby, but the town joke as well, he could not endure her or the
place longer. He cast about for an escape. But he found his factory no
trifling baggage to move.
It was on such fertile soil that one of the Wide-a-Wakefield
It chimed so well with Barstow's mood that he decided at least to
look the town over.
He came unannounced to make his own observations, like the spies
sent into Canaan. The trolley-car that met his train was rusty,
paintless, forlorn, untenanted. He took a ramshackle hack to the best
hotel. Its sign-board bore this legend: The Palace, formerly Shelby
Houseentirely new management.
He saw his baggage bestowed and went out to inspect the factory
building described to him. The cutlery-works proved smaller than his
needs, and it had a weary look. Not far away he found a far larger
factory, idle, empty, closed. The sign declared it to be the Wakefield
Branch of the Shelby Paradise Powder Company. He knew the prosperity of
that firm and wondered why this branch had been abandoned.
In the course of time the trolley-car overtook him, and he boarded
it as a sole passenger.
The lonely motorman was loquacious and welcomed Barstow as the
Ancient Mariner welcomed the wedding guest. He explained that he made
but few trips a day and passengers were fewer than trips. The company
kept it going to hold the franchise, for some day Wakefield would reach
sixteen thousand and lift the hoodoo.
The car passed an opera-house, with grass aspiring through the
chinks of the stone steps leading to the boarded-up doors.
The car passed the Shelby Block; the legend, For Rent, apply to
Amasa Harbury, hid the list of Shelby enterprises.
The car grumbled through shabby streets to the outskirts of the
town, where it sizzled along a singing wire past the drooping fences,
the sagging bleachers, and the weedy riot of what had been a
pleasure-ground. A few dim lines in the grass marked the ghost of a
baseball diamond, a circular track, and foregone tennis-courts.
Barstow could read on what remained of the tottering fence:
HELBY'S PAST ARK
When the car had reached the end of the line Barstow decided to walk
back to escape the garrulity of the motorman, who lived a lonely life,
though he was of a sociable disposition.
Barstow's way led him shortly to the edge of a curious demesne, or
rather the débris of an estate. A chaos of grass and weeds thrust even
through the rust of the high iron fence about the place. Shrubs that
had once been shapely grew raggedly up and swept down into the tall and
ragged grass. A few evergreen trees lifted flowering cones like funeral
candles in sconces. What had been a lake with fountains was a great,
cracked basin of concrete tarnished with scabious pools thick with the
dead leaves of many an autumn.
Barstow entered a fallen gate and walked along paths where his feet
slashed through barbaric tangles clutching at him like fingers. As he
prowled, wondering what splendor this could have been which was so
misplaced in so dull a town and drooping into so early a neglect, birds
took alarm and went crying through the branches. There were lithe
escapes through the grass, and from the rim of the lake ugly toads
plounced into the pool and set the water-spiders scurrying on their
Two bronze stags towered knee-deep in verdure; one had a single
antler, the other none. A pair of toothless lions brooded over their
lost dignity. Between their disconsolate sentry, mounted flight on
flight of marble steps to the house of the manor. It lay like an old
frigate storm-shattered and flung aground to rot. The hospitable doors
were planked shut, the windows, too; the floors of the verandas were
broken and the roof was everywhere sunken and insecure.
At the portal had stood two nymphs, now almost classic with decay.
One of them, toppling helplessly, quenched her bronze torch in weeds.
Her sister stood erect in grief like a daughter of Niobe wept into
The scene somehow reminded Barstow of one of Poe's landscapes. It
was the corpse of a home. Eventually he noticed a tall woman in black,
seated on a bench and gazing down the terraces across the dead lake.
Barstow was tempted to ask her whose place this had been and what its
history was, but her mien and her crêpe daunted him.
He made his way out of the region, looking back as he went. When he
approached the most neighboring house a grocery-wagon came flying down
the road. Before it stopped the slanted driver was off the seat and
half-way across the yard. In a moment he was back again. Barstow called
Whose place is that?
Did he move away?
But the horse was already in motion, and the youth had darted after,
leaping to the side of the seat and calling back something which
Barstow could not hear.
Shelby, who had given the town everything he could, had even endowed
it with a ruins.
When Barstow had reached the hotel again he went in to his supper. A
head waitress, chewing gum, took him to a table where a wildly coiffed
damsel brought him a bewildering array of most undesirable foods in a
flotilla of small dishes.
After supper Barstow, following the suit of the other guests, took a
chair on the sidewalk, for a little breeze loafed along the hot street.
Barstow's name had been seen upon the hotel register and the executive
committee of the Wide-a-Wakefield Club waited upon him in an august
Mr. Pettibone introduced himself and the others. They took chairs
and hitched them close to Barstow, while they poured out in alternate
strains the advantages of Wakefield. Barstow listened politely, but the
empty factory and the dismantled home of Shelby haunted him and made a
dismal background to their advertisements.
It was of the factory that he spoke first:
The building you wrote me about and offered me rent-free looks a
little small and out of date for our plant. I saw Shelby's factory
empty. Could I rent that at a reasonable figure, do you suppose?
The committee leaped at the idea with enthusiasm. Spate laughed
through his beard:
Lord, I reckon the company would rent it to you for almost the
price of the taxes.
Then he realized that this was saying just a trifle too much. They
began to crawfish their way out. But Barstow said, with unconviction:
There's only one thing that worries me. Why did Shelby close up his
Paradise Powder factory and move away?
Pettibone urged the reason hastily: His brothers closed it up for
him. They wouldn't stand any more of his extravagant nonsense. They
shut down the factory and then shut down on him, too.
So he gave up his house and moved away? said Barstow.
He gave up his house because he couldn't keep it up, said Amasa
Harbury. Taxes were pretty steep and nobody would rent it, of course.
It don't belong in a town like Wakefield. Neither did Shelby.
So he moved away?
Moved away, nothin', sneered Spate. He went to a boardin'-house
and died there. Left his wife a lot of stock in a broken-down
street-car line, and a no-good electric-light company, and an
independent telephone system that the regulars gobbled up. She's gone
back to teachin' school again. We used our influence to get her old job
back. We didn't think we ought to blame her for the faults of Shelby.
And what had Shelby done?
They told him in their own waytreading on one another's toes in
their anxiety; shutting one another up; hunching their chairs together
in a tangle as if their slanders were wares they were trying to sell.
But about all that Barstow could make of the matter was that Shelby
had been in much such case as his own. He had been hungry for human
gratitude, and had not realized that it is won rather by accepting than
by bestowing gifts.
Barstow sat and smoked glumly while the committee clattered. He
hardly heard what they were at such pains to emphasize. He was musing
upon a philosophy of his father's:
There's an old saying, 'Never look a gift horse in the mouth.' But
sayings and doings are far apart. If you can manage to sell a man a
horse he'll make the best of the worst bargain; he'll nurse the nag and
feed him and drive him easy and brag about his faults. He'll overlook
everything from spavin to bots; he'll learn to think that a hamstrung
hind leg is the poetry of motion. But a gift horseLord love you! If
you give a man a horse he'll look him in the mouth and everywhere else.
The whole family will take turns with a microscope. They'll kick
because he isn't run by electricity, and if he's an Arabian they'll
roast him because he holds his tail so high. If you want folks to
appreciate anything don't give it to 'em; make 'em work for it and pay
for itdouble if you can.
* * * * *
Shelby had mixed poetry with business, had given something for
nothing; had paid the penalty.