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The Saturday Evening Post

by Willa Sibert Cather

From The Saturday Evening Post, 173 (March 30, 1901):  4-5; 25.
Drawing of a little boy in "soldier clothes" sitting beside a bed.


I AM quite unable to say just why we were all so fond of him, or how he came to mean so much in our lives. He was just a little boy of six, a trifle girlish in his ways, and, as a rule, I do not like effeminate boys. Moreover, he was precocious, and precocious children are almost invariably disagreeable.

Certainly he was handsome, and he carried himself with a spritelike grace and his little suit of "soldier clothes" fitted him like a sheath. But his chiefest charm lay in his eyes, big, tender, gray eyes, that used to make me think of that old song, Thine Eyes so Blue and Tender; they were soft as the color on a dove's breast, and they looked down into your soul's secrets and made you remember things you had not thought of for years. Yet I do not see why we should have loved him for that; there were things in my own life I had no desire to remember, and there must have been many things in the life of the Woman Nobody Called On that she preferred to forget. And as for the Professor—oh, well! he didn't care to remember anything at all but Sanskrit roots and the metres of difficult Greek choruses, and he grudged the space that anything else took up in his brain. I fancy, generally speaking, that none of the folk who lived in Windsor Terrace were fond of memories. People who live in terraces are not usually those who have made the most brilliant success in life.

We were not prepared to give Jack-a-Boy a very cordial welcome when his parents moved into Number 324. It put us all in an ugly humor when we saw a hobby-horse lifted out of the moving van. Of course there would be children, we said; we might have known that. Other people's children are one of the most objectionable features attendant upon living in terraces—and such children! We had more than enough of them already, and we resented a single addition. When he came we all eyed him sourly enough, and if looks could kill, the florist would have been sending white roses up to Number 324.

The day after Jack-a-Boy's arrival I went up to the Professor's room to borrow a book and found him in a great state of nervous agitation.

"More children!" he cried, throwing down his pen; "and these partitions are so thin I can hear him laughing. I suppose he will have all the other children in the street in there, romping all day long; and I am just in the middle of a chapter on Vowels of Variable Quantity. Decidedly, I shall have to move!"

My friend, the Professor, was writing a work on Greek prosody, which he believed would be invaluable to English scholars. He had been writing it ever since I had first met him, and I don't care to say just how long ago that was. He was a thin, frail man, angular and much bent, who seemed to have put all his blood into his grammars, and to have only thousands of tiny Greek accent marks and smooth and rough breathings where the red corpuscles should be. His nerves were none of the best, and he worked through two pairs of powerful spectacles, and the strain of his labor was so heavy that I was sorry that he should be subjected to the annoyance of having a boisterous child next door.

The next day the Professor had another visitor, no less a person than the enfant terrible himself. The good man was seated at his desk, scratching away furiously, his door slightly ajar. When he got up to go to the case for a book, he saw a little boy dressed in a gray cadet suit standing outside his door, cap in hand. He ground his teeth and sat down and began writing again. Presently he looked up and saw that little gray figure still at his door.

"Well, what is it?" he asked sharply.

"Oh, I was just waiting until you were through. I came to call for a minute. I've been calling on almost everyone in the Terrace, but I saw you were busy, so I thought I'd wait."

"Well, as my occupation is likely to last for some years yet, you may as well come in," said the Professor, rather gruffly. It was impossible to answer that clear little treble voice very savagely.

Jack-a-Boy was accustomed to taking people at their word, so in he went.

"My, what a lot of books you have!" he gasped, looking about. "Are there any with pictures in?"

"Pictures? Um-m, let me see." The Professor got up and turned the revolving bookcase and took out a big book that looked like a portfolio, and smiled grimly as he gave it to the boy.

"Now, you go on with your work, and I'll just sit here and look at these, and I won't bother you. I never bother Papa when he writes."

Jack-a-Boy curled himself up on the soft, woolly hearth rug, his chin propped on his hands and the book open before him, and the Professor went back to his desk and forgot Jack-a-Boy's existence.

I can think of no place where a child's presence—that is, an ordinary child's presence—could be more incongruous than in the Professor's room. It is a very large room, or would be for an ordinary tenant who furnished it in an ordinary manner. But under the Professor's occupancy it looked as though an effort had been made to crowd into it the entire contents of the British Museum. There were detail maps of every dead and forgotten city in which antiquarians had ever burrowed; dusty plaster casts of all the Grecian philosophers marshaled in rows above the bookshelves; bronzes of several of the later Roman emperors; terra-cotta models of the Acropolis and Parthenon and several other edifices whose very names I have forgotten, if I ever knew them; even an Egyptian mummy was wedged in between the lavatory and chiffonier. As for the books, they had overflowed all the cases long ago, and there was not a niche left for another shelf. The Professor's shoe box had been removed to make room for the last bookcase, and he kept his shoes under his bed. So the tomes were packed in under his desk, piled in the corners and on the chairs, on his table and on his bed. They were particularly in evidence on his little iron bed, and almost crowded him out entirely. The housemaid often told me that when she went to make his bed in the morning she found dozens of books piled up on the side next the wall, and a narrow indentation at the outer edge was the only indication that the Professor had gone to bed at all. I believe at one time he had another room in which to sleep, but he caught so many colds trapesing into his study in his pajamas at all hours of the night when some grammatical perplexity awoke him, that he had decided to abolish the last slight barrier between his books and himself and lived with them in good earnest. His room was on the third floor, where the doings of his landlady could not disturb him and where his windows commanded a magnificent view of the harbor, lying far away across the housetops. Not that the Professor spent much time looking out of his windows; when he first moved into the Terrace he had thought he would, but on his way to the window he always caught sight of some book or other and would pick it up and go back to his desk with it. All his life his excursions from his desk had ended just so. Very often, as he was starting out for his dinner, he would stop, hat in hand, for a look into Autenrieth or the Griechische Formenlehre, and the dinner hour would steal by and he would light his pipe and console himself with the thought that he worked more when he ate little, and on the whole was very glad that he had gained an hour.

As I say, the Professor had quite forgotten that he had a visitor when he heard a clear little voice asking politely:

"Would you please tell me what these pictures are about? They are not like the ones in my picture books. I think these must be knights, 'cause they have helmets on!"

The Professor started, and looked at him over his spectacles. The book he had given the child was a volume of Flaxman's immortal illustrations to Homer. Going over to the hearth rug, he sat down by the boy, and before he knew what he was about he had launched into an abbreviated and expurgated version of the Trojan War. For the Professor's heart was not really dead after all, you see, only buried beneath an accumulation of Sanskrit forms and Greek idioms.

After that, Jack-a-Boy went often to see the Professor. One evening, when I went in to borrow a book from my learned friend, I found a scarlet and gold Harlequin all hung with silver bells perched on a volume of Friedrich Nietzsche. I took no pains to conceal my amusement, and the Professor looked up very sheepishly, muttering: "That rascal left the thing here this afternoon."

He made friends with everyone in the Terrace in just the same way, and seemed personally interested in all our miserable little doings. Even the crabbed old spinster in Number 326, whose lodgers stood in absolute fear of her, was soon known to be one of his conquests. She made him a little toy dog that was stiff and hard and gray like herself. It was solidly stuffed with sawdust, and had four corn-cob legs of uneven lengths, and it was an awkward and uncomfortable thing to hold in your arms. But Jack-a-Boy carried it about with him religiously for days, "For I wouldn't like to hurt her feelings," he said. He did not care much for toys, but he was very proud of anything that was given to him. I believe if any one had given Jack-a-Boy the most unsightly of love tokens, he, who was so fond of pretty things, would have received it joyfully and treasured it.

Soon after he came he asked if he might sit in my music-room while I was giving lessons, and when the piano was not in use he used to sit down and pick out the most charming little airs for himself, simple minor melodies, indefinitely sad, like the verses of young poets, but so graceful and individual that they made those hours sweet to remember. Music came as easily and naturally to him as speech, and the sense of harmonies was strangely developed in him, though he was such a nervous child we never dared let him practice much. I fell into a habit of playing to him in the twilight, after the long, dull days were over, and when be was not with the Professor, hearing about Grecian heroes, he was usually with me at that hour. I used to fancy that Jack-a-Boy would make music of his own some day, perhaps quite as beautiful as any that I played for him, and I used to wonder what form of expression the beautiful little soul of his would choose.

He did not play much with the other boys of the street. "They are such rough boys," he whispered confidentially to me. The gentle ways of the girls suited him better, and deep down in my heart I was afraid that, in spite of his soldier clothes and his love for the Grecian heroes, Jack-a-Boy was a coward. But one morning as I was sitting on the piazza, watching Jack-a-Boy play with one of the little girls of the Terrace, I saw another boy come up and maliciously stick a pin in the little girl's balloon. Jack-a-Boy flew at him like a wildcat, fists, teeth, feet and all the rest of him. I never saw such anger in a child. It was the frenzied, impotent revolt of a high and delicate nature against brutality and coarseness and baseness, like those outbursts of Stevenson's youth. The boy's comrades flew to his rescue, and in a moment our boy was down under four of them. I ran screaming to the edge of the porch, but an angular form darted past me. It was the Professor, hatless and coatless, with both pairs of spectacles on his nose. In a moment he came back carrying what was left of Jack-a-Boy, with the little girl wailing at his heels.

"Take good care of that little chap, madam," said the Professor as he gave him to his mother; "he carries the heart of more than one of us buttoned under his soldier clothes."

Of all Jack-a-Boy's friends, the Woman Nobody Called On was certainly the strangest. She lived in Number 328 and no one ever went to see her. We knew very little of her, except that she was very handsome, with that large, blond, opulent sort of beauty that is seldom seen off the stage and that one somehow distrusts on sight. Her beauty was a little faded on close inspection, too. She lived well, for her alimony was said to be generous. Some people used to wonder that Jack-a-Boy's mother allowed him to go to see her, but I think she was proud of her little son's elasticity and charm and his power of bringing gladness into people's lives. At any rate, Jack-a-Boy went often to see the woman in Number 328, and, as I passed, I used to see her watching for him at the window. Of all the people she had waited for in days gone by, I doubt if there was one for whom she had ever waited with such eagerness as she did for Jack-a-Boy. She always kept a supply of his favorite bonbons and was very careful to see that he did not eat too many. She knew so well what comes of having too much of what one likes, that Woman Nobody Called on.

One chilly April day, as Jack-a-Boy stretched himself out on the big Persian rug before her fire, he remarked:

"My! What pretty rooms you have; they are the nicest in the Terrace, I think. It's a pity you haven't got any little boys; they'd have such a good time here."

The Woman Nobody Called On looked at him queerly.

"Should you like me for a mother, Jack-a-Boy? "

"Why, yes, of course I would, you are so beautiful. After my own mother, I think I would rather have you than any lady I know. I believe I would like to have a great many mothers, kind of second-best ones, you know. Sometimes on the street cars I see ladies I would like to have for mothers, and then there are others I wouldn't. There is Miss Mellon now, who gave me the dog; she is a very nice lady, but I wouldn't like to have her for a mother!" Jack-a-Boy wondered why the woman laughed and hugged him so.

Jack-a-Boy's great fête that year was his May-basket hanging. I think it meant even more to him than Christmas, because it was his nature to enjoy giving. He began to prepare for it about the middle of April. He got a large supply of tissue paper of many colors, and the old maid in Number 326 gave him a number of wooden baskets in which she bought her butter, and the Woman Nobody Called On gave him bonbon boxes of all shapes and sizes. I think there was no one in the Terrace who was not consulted about the construction of those baskets, but he made them all alone in his nursery, and never weakened into showing any one of us the basket intended for our neighbor. He used to come out from his work with an eager face and sticky fingers, and he confided to me that his mother was making him some paper flowers because the real ones were so expensive, and asked me if I didn't think paper flowers would do pretty well with real leaves to make them look "realer." On the afternoon of the first of May, Jack-a-Boy and I went for a walk, and we got a few dandelions, and I persuaded him to let me add some violets to his collection. I knew that at heart he loathed the paper flowers. The Professor had been selected for the honor of hanging the baskets with him, and when I saw the old gentleman slipping out that night at dusk with a big market basket covered with rustling tissue paper on his arm, and that joyous, shapely little figure skipping beside him, I did not try to conceal my jealousy. I felt rather lonely and ill-used, and I opened my window and sat down beside it in the darkness. There was just a pallid ghost of a new moon in the sky, a faint silver crescent curve, like Artemis' bow, with a shred of gauzy cloud caught on its horn. The violet heavens were nebulous with the spring mistiness. Below, in the dusky street, I heard every little while the ring of a door-bell and the hurry of swift little feet down the steps and up the pavement, and sometimes a clear, silvery little peal of laughter, suddenly muffled. Once, on the other side of the street, I saw Jack-a-Boy scudding down the pavement like a gleeful young elf, with the Professor in the rôle of a decrepit Old Man of the Mountain shuffling after him.

When the Professor came in he stopped at my door.

"Miss Harris, I must beg your assistance in a little matter to-night," he said.

"Why, certainly, Professor, but surely you have forgotten that I am neither a lexicon nor an authority on Greek metres," I said.

He smiled quaintly. "I am not working at prosody tonight," he replied.

I followed him to his room, and there, on a relief map of the Peloponnesus, was a creation of blue paper and ribbons and flowers.

"I have made it at night, after that chap is in bed, for I am never safe in the daytime," explained the Professor proudly, "but I got the flowers only this afternoon and I doubt if they are very well arranged."

They certainly were not, but they were very pretty ones; yellow jonquils and big English violets.

"How did you happen to select these in particular?" I asked.

The Professor looked off at the bust of Aristotle above his desk and smiled absently over his glasses:

"Oh, they seemed to suit him. The yellow ones are gay, like him, and—and I think the violets are rather like his eyes." This last was said rather timidly. I suppose the Professor had never said that of a woman's eyes, so the comparison was quite fresh and unhackneyed to him.

"Now," I said encouragingly, massing the jonquils together to disguise their stiffness, "that is really a very pretty basket."

"Oh, it must be, if it is for him," chuckled the Professor. "He has taste, the rascal! Ugly things hurt him. He knows the Narcissus story, too. Did you ever notice what a singularly fine head that boy has? And that delicate face with its big violet eyes and arching brows? I tell you, it's a poet's face. There is a boy picture of Keats that looks like that. He has the mind that goes with it, too; all gossamer and phantasy and melody. I want to live to see him grow up."

The summer that year was a cruel one, and Jack-a-Boy's parents were not able to take him out of town. Matters must have gone ill with them just then, for Jack-a-Boy's young, blond papa looked worried and walked slowly with his shoulders bent, and wore his gray business suit on Sundays. I even fancied that Jack-a-Boy's white duck suits were not so many or so resplendent as in the summer when he first came to Windsor Terrace. We all took turns taking him to the park and off for little boat rides on the bay. But the heat was merciless; it withered the foliage in the parks and Drawing of a little boy starting to grab another boy and a litle girl standing and looking frightened in the background Jack-a-Boy flew at him like a wildcat scorched the little grass plots before our doors, which were barely kept alive by continual spraying. The sultry nights took the fibre out of us all, and left us little courage to begin another day. Jack-a-Boy grew paler and his eyes grew larger and darker under their long black lashes, until we looked at one another over his head with questioning fear.

One burning, dusty day in early September I was returning to town after a week's stay in the country, when the Professor met me in front of the Terrace to tell me that Jack-a-Boy had the scarlet fever, that he was very ill and had been asking for me. I hurried off my travel-stained garments and went over to help Jack-a-Boy's mother in whatever way I could. The Woman Nobody Called On was there, and I helped her sponge off his little burning body. Then I knew that the Professor had been the wisest of us, and that this was not a human child, but one of the immortal children of Greek fable made flesh for a little while. Such little bodies have I seen among the marble children of the Borghese Gallery, never otherwhere. He was delirious at moments, but he knew me and said he was glad to see me, and asked if I had brought the cat-tails and acorns I had promised him. He had seen only pictures of them, and I had promised to bring him some real ones, and had forgotten. I have been forgetting things all my useless life, but I would have given anything in the world, anything, for a few acorns and rushes just then. It was so little that he ever wanted, and it was always such a pleasure to gratify those strange, fanciful, delicate desires of his. But where in the heart of the city could one go for acorns and cat-tails? As well start upon the quest of the Culprit Fay at once.

"Oh, never mind," he said when he saw that I was troubled. "Maybe it wouldn't be much fun unless I saw them grow. I'm so glad you're back. I like to have all my friends home at night."

His fever ran very high at dusk, and he was much excited and half-delirious and wanted the Professor to come and tell him stories. "I want to know," he said quite distinctly, "about the white horses of Rhêsos; I have forgotten who stole them."

The Professor was not far to seek. He sat down in the shadow; the screen was before the drop-light to shield Jack-a-Boy's fever-blind eyes, and holding that hot little hand in his, the man of learning told that old, old story of Achilles' wrath. Ordinarily the Professor's voice is hard and didactic, like that of all men who have lectured in classrooms all their lives. But he spoke so softly that night, I thought a certain musical quality crept into it. I could never have believed him capable of the sweetness and directness with which be told that wonderful story, his phrases taking on a certain metrical cadence of their own.

"And now about Achilles shouting at the wall," urged the boy.

But before the Professor had finished with Patroclus' death and his friend's sorrow Jack-a-Boy was wandering again, and talking about what he wanted for Christmas, and the reindeer of Santa Claus and the white horses of Rhêsos. He tossed painfully in his little brass bed, and complained that it was hard and that the sheets were burning him. The Woman Nobody Called On took him up in her fine, strong arms and he seemed to rest comfortably there. Presently he looked up and said:

"Are you very tired holding me?"

"No, dear; would you rather lie down?"

"Oh, no! Not unless you're tired. I like to have you hold me, 'cause I can just feel you love me out of your arms," he murmured drowsily.

She held him so all night, while his mother got a little rest, until the dull, gray light of the dawn blanched the lamp-light in the room, that hour so common for the passage of souls, when "the glowworm shows the matin to be near."

Then I felt a sense of relief, and there came a change in the oppressive air of the room; it became cooler, and just a faint breeze came in at the open windows, and I seemed to detect above the odors of medicine a fresh, wet smell of violets and of autumn woods and green, mossy places by the mountain streams, and I remembered that it was the time when the spirits of the dead, that have been wandering up and down the world through the night, hurry back to spirit land. I think, as they flitted by our windows, Jack-a-Boy must have recognized some joyous spirit with whom he had played long ago in Arcady, for he left us. Perhaps some wood-nymph, tall and fair, came in and laid her cool fingers on his brow and bore him off with the happy children of Pan.

The long, bad dream of the flowers and the casket and the dismal hymns, so cruelly inappropriate for such a glad and beautiful little life, and the little white hearse, and the abandoned grief of us all, is merely a blur to me now. I try to forget all that, and to remember only that Jack-a-Boy heard the pipes of Pan as the old wood-gods trooped by in the gray morning, and that he could not stay.

The night after it was all over I went to the Professor's room. He was sitting alone in the darkness, before his desk, with his head resting on his hand. The student-lamp, that had burned every night for so many years and had lit the scholar's way through so many miles of patient research, was dark. He lay so heavily back in his old reading chair that for the first time I realized that he was an old man, was growing older, and was not just old by nature, like the casts and leather-bound folios about him. I bade him good-evening, but he did not lift his head.

"I knew from the first it would be fatal," he said; "I always knew we could not keep him long. Sometimes I fancied he would tarry long enough to sing a little like Keats, or to draw like Beardsley, or to make music like Schubert, and confound the wiseacres and pedants of the world, like those other immortal boys from Parnassus, who were sent to us by mistake. But he had too little to hold him back; less, even, than Keats. The meshes of the clay were too coarse to hold him. He rose from them, beautiful and still a child, like Cupid out of Psyche's arms. They could not spare him up yonder. There are not many such, even on Parnassus."

"I don't care about what he could have done or been," I answered rebelliously. "I don't think it matters so much about children's souls. If only we had his dear little body with us, it would be enough. It was the little human boy that I loved."

"No," said the Professor, shaking his head, "no, it was the soul. Why have we never loved any of the other children who have lived in this Terrace? There have been enough of them. They were little animals of our common clay. But sometimes the old divinities reveal themselves in children. In this case it was inexplicable, as it always is. His people are common enough. Why should he have liked Flaxman's drawings better than his picture books? Why should he have liked the story of Theseus' boyhood in the Centaur's cave better than Jack the Giant Killer? Why should he tell me that the two stars that peeped down into his crib between the white curtains were like the eyes of the Golden Helen? That counter-jumper of a father of his never heard of the Golden Helen. No, he simply had that divinity in him, that holiness of beauty which the hardest and basest of us must love when we see it. He was of that antique world, and he would have lived in it always, like Keats. In my Homer over there there is a little, sticky thumb-mark on the margin of the picture of the parting of Hector and Andromache. He liked that picture best of all, because, he said, 'it was so kind of Hector to take off his gleaming helmet not to frighten his little boy.' He always said 'gleaming helmet;' he loved the sound of the words. Sometimes I used to fancy that if I should speak the Greek words he would recognize them. At any rate, the Greek spirit was his. I have taught Homer all my life, and I know. He used to lie here on the rug by the hour with that book open before him, and I would have to speak to him again and again to get his (Concluded on Page 25) Drawing of a little boy lying on a rug on the floor and reading a book in a book-filled room while an old man in the background looks over at him. Jack-a-Boy curled himself up on the soft, woolly hearth rug, his chin propped on his hands Jack-a-Boy
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attention. Perhaps he was remembering more about it all than the rest of us will ever know."

The Professor got up and wandered aimlessly over to the revolving bookcase by the window, and took up his Homer, turned a few pages, though it was too dark to see anything, then threw it down resentfully.

"Do you know, I had set my heart on teaching him the fine old tongue some day—that boy in knickerbockers?" he said.

Then I told him of the strange fancy I had of the wood-gods coming on the night that Jack-a-Boy died. "Perhaps," murmured the old gentleman, "perhaps. We believe things less probable every day."

In the course of time the Professor settled down to Greek prosody again, and I to the giving of music lessons. We saw less of each other and our neighbors than formerly, for the bond which had drawn us all together was broken. Jack-a-Boy's people moved away and left the city, and we did not speak of him any more. For his own sake I almost hoped that the Professor had forgotten. Christmas time came, when every one was buying presents for the little children they loved, but we bought no presents in Windsor Terrace, and we did not even know whether they kept Christmas in Jack-a-Boy's country. I saw the Professor's light burning far into the night on Christmas Eve, and the next day we avoided each other. But on the night of the first of May the Professor came to my room with a box of flowers in his hand and asked me to go with him to hang a May basket for Jack-a-Boy. When we reached the quiet little spot under the lilac bushes in the cemetery we saw a woman's figure alone by the white stone, and her flowers lay on the green turf. It was the Woman Nobody Called On, and she explained that since Jack-a-Boy's people were so far away she had feared he would not be remembered, and she had come out to him alone. We returned to the city together, talking of him in low tones, as though we had always known each other. When we left her at her door I resolved then and there that I would call. When we reached our own number we sat down a moment on the porch, in the faint May starlight, and the moon was as it had been the year before—pale and wan, and curved like Artemis' bow. The air of the spring night was alluringly soft and warm, and it seemed to revive the withered sentiments in one, and to replenish the well-heads long gone dry. The mocking-bird owned by the old maid in Number 324 must have dreamed a Southern dream; a dream full of cypress swamps and live-oak boughs and sultry August nights on the bayou, for it broke out into a melody fit only for a tropical forest, a florid, colorature number, full of brilliant cadenzas and trills and highly colored passages, entirely out of atmosphere in the grim, gray parlors of Number 324.

"We are three very different people, you, and that lonely woman down there, and I," the Professor was saying, "yet we seemed rather alike to-night. Perhaps Pater was right, and it is the revelation of beauty which is to be our redemption, after all. Whenever it comes, as many as see it, choose it, just as you and she and I chose him."

But I was thinking how the revelation of the greatest Revealer drew men together. How the fishermen left their nets, without questioning, to follow Him; and how Nicodemus, who thought himself learned, came to Him secretly by night, and Mary, of Magdala, at the public feast, wiped His feet with her hair.