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- In the Sweet Dry and Dry - 2/17 -
"It's a warm evening," remarked another, with seeming irrelevance.
The face of Virgil Quimbleton, the man in gray, relaxed again at these marks of honest appreciation. He waved an encouraging arm over the crystals. "With the compliments of the Corporation," he repeated.
Bleak and the city editor looked again at the card, and at each other. They scanned the face of their mysterious benefactor. Bleak's hand went out to the nearest glass. He raised it to his lips. An almost-forgotten formula recurred to him. "Down the rat- hole!" he cried, and tilted his arm. The others followed suit, and the associate director watched them with a glow of perfect altruism.
The glasses were still in air when the cartoonist emerged from his room. "Holy cat!" he cried in amazement. "What's going on?" He seized one of the empty vessels and sniffed it.
"Treason!" he exclaimed. "Who's been robbing the mint?"
"Maybe you can have one too," said Bleak, and turned to where Quimbleton had been standing. But the mysterious visitor had leff the room.
"You're too late, Bill," said the city editor genially. "There was a kind of Messiah here, but he's gone. Tough luck."
"Say, boss," suggested one of the reporters. "There's a story in this. May I interview that guy?"
Bleak picked up the card and put it in his pocket. A heavenly warmth pervaded his mental fabric. "A story?" he said. "Forget it! This is no story. It's a legend of the dear dead past. I'll cover this assignment myself."
He borrowed a match and lit his pipe. Then he put on his coat and hat and left the office.
It was remarked by faithful readers of the Balloon that the next day's cartoon was one of the least successful in the history of that brilliant newspaper.
THE HOUSE ON CARAWAY STREET
After telephoning to his wife that he would not be home for supper, Bleak set out for Caraway Street. He was in that exuberant mood discernible in commuters unexpectedly spending an evening in town. Instead of hurrying out to the suburbs on the 6:17 train, to mow the lawn and admire the fireflies, here he was watching the more dazzling fireflies of the city--the electric signs which were already bulbed wanly against the rich orange of the falling sun. He puffed his pipe lustily and with a jaunty condescension watched the crowds thronging the drugstores for their dram of ice-cream soda. In his bosom the secret julep tingled radiantly. At that hour of the evening the shining bustle of the central streets was drawing the life of the city to itself. In the residential by-ways through which his route took him the pavements were nearly deserted. A delicious sense of extravagant adventure possessed him. As a newspaper man, he did not feel at all sure that he was on the threshold of a printable "story"; but as a connoisseur of juleps he felt that very possibly he was on the threshold of another drink. Passing a line of billboards, he noticed a brightly colored poster advertising a brand of collars. In sheer light- heartedness he drew a soft pencil from his waistcoat and adorned the comely young man on the collar poster with a heavy mustache.
Caraway Street, with which he had not previously been familiar, proved to be a quaint little channel of old brick houses, leading into the bonfire of the summer sunset. There was nothing to distinguish number 1316 from its neighbors. He rang the bell, and there ensued a rapid clicking in the lock, indicating that the latch had been released by some one within. He pushed the door open, and entered.
He had a curious sensation of having stepped into an old Flemish painting. The hall in which he stood was cool and rather dark, though a bright refraction of light tossed from some upper window upon a tall mirror filled the shadow with broken spangles. Through an open doorway at the rear was the green glimmer of a garden. In front of him was a mahogany sideboard. On its polished top lay two books, a box of cigars, and a cut glass decanter surrounded by several glasses. In the decanter was a pale yellow fluid which held a beam of light. The house was completely silent.
Somewhat abashed, he removed his hat and stood irresolute, expecting some greeting. But nothing happened. On a rack against the wall he saw a gray uniform coat like that which Mr. Quimbleton had worn in the Balloon office, and a similar gray cap with the silver monogram. He glanced at the books. One was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the other was a Bible, open at the second chapter of John. He was looking curiously at the decanter when a voice startled him.
"Dandelion wine!" it said. "Will you have a glass?"
He turned and saw an old gentleman with profuse white hair and beard tottering into the hall.
"Glad to see you, Mr. Bleak," said the latter. "I was expecting you."
"You are very kind," said the editor. "I fear you have the advantage of me--I was told that Walt Whitman died in 1892--"
"Nonsense!" wheezed the other with a senile chuckle. He straightened, ripped off his silver fringes, and appeared as the stalwart Quimbleton himself.
"Forgive my precautions," he said. "I am surrounded by spies. I have to be careful. Should some of my enemies learn that old Mr. Monkbones of Caraway Street is the same as Virgil Quimbleton of the Happiness Corporation, my life wouldn't be worth--well, a glass of gooseberry brandy. Speaking of that, Have a little of the dandelion wine." He pointed to the decanter.
Bleak poured himself a glass, and watched his host carefully resume the hoary wig and whiskers. They passed into the garden, a quiet green enclosure surrounded by brick walls and bright with hollyhocks and other flowers. It was overlooked by a quaint jumble of rear gables, tall chimneys and white-shuttered dormer windows.
"Do you play croquet?" asked Quimbleton, showing a neat pattern of white hoops fixed in the shaven turf. "If so, we must have a game after supper. It's very agreeable as a quiet relaxation."
Mr. Bleak was still trying to get his bearings. To see this robust creature gravely counterfeiting the posture of extreme old age was almost too much for his gravity. There was a bizarre absurdity in the solemn way Quimbleton beamed out from his frosty and fraudulent shrubbery. Something in the air of the garden, also, seemed to push Bleak toward laughter. He had that sensation which we have all experienced--an unaccountable desire to roar with mirth, for no very definite cause. He bit his lip, and sought rigorously for decorum.
"Upon my soul," he said, "This is the most fragrant garden I ever smelt. What is that delicious odor in the air, that faint perfume--?"
"That subtle sweetness?" said Quimbleton, with unexpected drollery.
"Exactly," said Bleak. "That abounding and pervasive aroma--"
"That delicate bouquet--?"
"Quite so, that breath of myrrh--"
"That balmy exhalation--?"
Bleak wondered if this was a game. He tried valiantly to continue. "Precisely," he said, "That quintessence of--"
He could coerce himself no longer, and burst into a yell of laughter.
"Hush!" said Quimbleton, nervously. "Some one may be watching us. But the fragrance of the garden is something I am rather proud of. You see, I water the flowers with champagne."
"With champagne!" echoed Bleak. "Good heavens, man, you'll get penal servitude."
"Nonsense!" said Quimbleton. "The Eighteenth Amendment says that intoxicating liquors may not be manufactured, sold or transported FOR BEVERAGE PURPOSES. Nothing is said about using them to irrigate the garden. I have a friend who makes this champagne himself and gives me some of it for my rose-beds. If you spray the flowers with it, and then walk round and inhale them, you get quite a genial reaction. I do it principally to annoy Bishop Chuff. You see, he lives next door."
"Bishop Chuff of the Pan-Antis?"
"Yes," said Quimbleton--"but don't shout! His garden adjoins this. He has a periscope that overlooks my quarters. That's why I have to wear this disguise in the garden. I think he's getting a bit suspicious. I manage to cause him a good deal of suffering with the fizz fumes from my garden. Jolly idea, isn't it?"
Bleak was aghast at the temerity of the man. Bishop Chuff, the fanatical leader of the Anti-Everything League--jocosely known as the Pan-Antis--was the most feared man in America. It was he whose untiring organization had forced prohibition through the legislatures of forty States--had closed the golf links on Sundays--had made it a misdemeanor to be found laughing in public. And here was this daring Quimbleton, living at the very sill of the lion's den.
"By means of my disguise," whispered Quimbleton, "I was able to make a pleasant impression on the Bishop. One evening I went to call on him. I took the precaution to eat a green persimmon
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