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- Observations of a Retired Veteran - 10/11 -


remember me? I'm the fish that always used to be at the door as you went by." It was true, I could hardly remember him. He used to lie in state on a board on the sidewalk on hot days, half covered with ice, and his scales looking as bright as silver. Some mornings, I am afraid I used to catch a faint whiff of his breath, but of course this was not to be remembered against him in his great trouble now. His troubles had greatly changed him. From the aristocratic exclusiveness of the ice-board he had been reduced to being strung up by a string through his gills to a nail in the wall. The brightness of his scales was gone, and as far as rank went, he looked as ordinary as the bunch of humble hickory shad that hung near him. "What do you think of this way of treating a fish that has come three hundred miles from the coast to help you out in Lent? What sort of infidel authorities has this city got, to string up the friend of repentance and reform in this sort of way? Why, such a town as this ought to have nothing but herrings to keep Lent with, and they ought to be salt." It was no use trying to comfort my noble friend, but I could not help thinking that, fish that he was, he was human in finding his great trouble not so much in being strung up now, as in having seen better days and more distinction. And very human he was, too, in taking the ill-treatment of himself as an offence against Lent. We are so prone to take a grievance directed against ourselves as an affront to our politics, our church, or something else to which we bear about the same relation that a fish does to Lent.

* * * * *

The mature young woman who stood in front of the millinery store, and whom I have seen wear six different overcoats of various styles in one day, was among the victims of the new law. Her figure was one of the few that may correctly be termed wiry, but it was perfect. I may say that I have never seen a waist so slender, or a bust more perfect. But all of us have our defects; she had hers. In a fearful wind one day I made the discovery by her being blown over. She had no feet! I don't think she was the same woman after that terrible day, nor do I remember that the nose, that was turned awry by the fall, was ever straightened. When I spoke to her of the new law and her removal to a stand near the counter, she said it was a good thing. "No woman of proper feeling," she said with some asperity, "would have borne it as long as I did. I never wanted to stand there and be gazed at by men, it looked so bold. As for those women of brass that like it, it is all very well, but I couldn't stand it. Admiration can never compensate a right-minded woman for the staring of men. A woman must be very bold indeed to enjoy it. I like this retired corner much better than out on the walk. It has a home feeling about it, and the domestic sphere is always a true woman's choice." It was borne in upon me somehow, as I listened to her, that a woman with a broken nose and no feet will always think the woman with a pretty nose and two feet bold. There is a good deal in this saying if you will only ponder over it. Ponder it.

* * * * *

Ignominiously stowed away in a back yard I saw an old friend that always brought many reflections to my mind when exhibited on the sidewalk--a coop of chickens. The most humiliated of all my old acquaintances--a dominiquer rooster--had his head up through the slats to explain the situation. "Here's a pretty howdy do!" he remarked. "What sort of treatment is this? I can't see anything here except old whiskey barrels and clothes lines and dry goods boxes. I can hardly tell when it is daybreak in this miserable old yard. Why, this morning I commenced crowing two hours too soon, and a Chinaman over there raised the window and fired a tin can at my head. I can't attend to my business in a place like this; there is another rooster around the corner been crowing all day and I can't get at him. Look you, I'm no common rooster; I'm no chicken just raised for the Town Authorities to eat; I'm a warrior. Just look at these legs and these spurs--." And just as my friend was struggling to get his foot up through the slats, a washwoman in the second story emptied her soapsuds over the coop. He disappeared under the shower, amid the wild screaming of the hens. A moment later a bedraggled head, with one eye closed by suds, looked out through the side bars and remarked in a saddened voice--"I suppose the city authorities would be satisfied now--if they could see this." The sudden change in my old friend from a warrior to a bundle of wet feathers shocked me into graver thoughts.

Somehow, I have never seen a coop of chickens in all its glory on the sidewalk, that I did not think of the French Revolution and the Bastile. You have seen the picture--I cannot think of the painter's name now--of the members of the old regime in the prison amusing themselves, not knowing whose name was to be called next for the guillotine? To me there is a miniature human world in a chicken coop. All under sentence of death, and all eating and drinking, and clucking and crowing as if they were going to last forever. All scrambling and fighting over the grains of daily corn, even though the hand of the fatal purchaser is already descending into the mouth of the coop. Like their human brethren who do not wear feathers, the tallest and the strongest gets his head up through the slats and gets wider views of the world. He often mistakes the single street he can see for the Universe and crows out his discovery until he is picked out of the coop and hurried off to lose his head, an operation which teaches him that in fact he has discovered nothing. How like his brother, man!

All his speculations, all his telescopic philosophies, all his discoveries, find plausible support until he stumbles on an open grave. There, man and chickens are dumb. Somehow, those who write and talk about the future never impress me so much with how much they know, as with how little. How absolutely nothing they can tell. How echoless is the Awful Silence into which they toss their petty pebbles of theories and hopes and speculations. It seems to me that if it were not for that sensitive disc, the Conscience, which conveys to us the 'still small voice,' from a country far beyond the reach of our petty theories, the Silence that envelops this planet would be intolerable. It is unbroken even by the second great event of Life--Death. It must be a strange sight viewed from elsewhere--this terrestrial chicken coop of ours, so small that if each of its inhabitants were to touch hands they would make a ring around it, sailing through the unbroken silence of Space. A thin crust over a molten centre whirling at a thousand miles an hour. A collision, a jar, just enough to move it out of its orbit would wreck it--its surface covered with ignorant human chickens, knowing neither where they came from nor where they are going to, scratching, fighting, crowing, clucking, smoothing their feathers in vanity, and cocking their telescopes at the firmament in hungry curiosity! It is a sight that must make the Angels weep.

OBSERVATIONS OF A RETIRED VETERAN XIII

Ah, here you are again! What; you don't remember me? Why, I remember you. It was last Christmas, don't you know, in this store? You were buying a mustache-cup--there now, don't blush; perhaps it was slippers, or a smoking-cap. Anyhow, it was for him. Ah; so you do remember me. But why do you call him Mr. Smith, now? It was Jack, then. You never regarded him as anything but a friend? Of course not; but, my dear, when young people begin to look upon each other as friends--you see I accent it right--it is very apt to be the overture to a very difficult opera which is as likely to end with the curtain descending to the strains of slow music as any other way. I like to see the young interchanging gifts at holiday times, but I might be allowed to suggest, as the result of the observation of an old man, be careful of what you write in sending them. You have seen pictures of Cupid--so healthful, so chubby and rosy, and such promise of long life. It is a mistake; I know of no greater invalid--none of the gods whose health is so frail. I have known a cold word to give him a fatal chill. I have seen him fly, never to return, from a mere scent--a cigarette breath. I have known him taken incurably ill at the bad fit of a Jersey or the set of an overcoat. And I have seen him lie down and die without a word and nobody ever knew the reason why; even if he knew it himself, which I very much doubt. So, you see, it will be a very wise precaution in dealing with such an uncertain god to be prepared for everything. And one preparation is to be careful of what you put on paper. Many a young girl and many a young man, in an effort to write their little notes, sending or receiving holiday presents, often overstep the mark in trying to strike the proper elevated key. Don't abound in literary gush, no matter what are your sentiments in giving or receiving; if you write at all, write a plain, brief, dignified note which you can read five years after with perfect satisfaction. Notes are often misunderstood, sometimes we don't exactly understand ourselves when we write them, and so it is always safer to be on the conservative side. It will often save a good deal of vain regret and many wishes to goodness that you had taken this advice.

* * * * *

And you here too! Going to surprise your husband with a present again? A copy of the Revised Version this time? Ah, that will give him a chance to give you a surprise next Christmas--by reading it. Ah, you should know Mrs. Boyzy, if you wish to know how to please your husband at Christmas. For now thirty years that estimable woman has opened her annual Christmas campaign on me as early as the month of October. With affectionate strategy I am lured into book stores, and variety stores, and china stores--last year she tolled me into a drug store--to discover by artful references to this thing and that, what I fancy. Now, as a matter of fact, having her, I fancy nothing else (I take it that the newest married man could get off nothing prettier than that), but I have become so used to the campaign, and also so unprincipled in my advices to shorten it, that I profess the liveliest admiration over about the second thing we come to. The result is that I often get presents of a novel character. Last year I got a hand-painted coal scuttle, and but a couple of Christmases before that, I had gotten a gaudily framed picture of some retired saint, who had been martyred and for all I know deservedly so. But the fashion of drug stores keeping holiday presents, once came near exposing my whole plan of self defence. My intense admiration of a handsomely ornamented cut glass bottle of Unfailing Lotion for Neuralgia, which I thought she was pointing out--when in fact she was trying to make me see a gorgeous dressing case--excited a suspicion even in her unsuspecting mind. But if I jest about this matter, it is not that I underestimate the sweetness of the practice of married people remembering each other at Christmas. I am not so sure that of all other gifts--not even excepting those to children--these are not the most disinterested and spring from the truest affection. It is no easy feat to have lived with a man for ten, fifteen, twenty years; to know his weakness thoroughly; to measure the wide distance from the heroic stature for which we took him, and the size into which thorough knowledge shrinks him; to have borne with all his eccentricities, his fault finding, his natural selfishness; to have discovered and to have known for years that he is after all like the rest of us only human, and yet at every recurring Christmas to send our affections back to the beginning and with a fresh and unimpaired love give him the mystic password of our hearts in a gift. If I sometimes laugh at the devices of my wife to find out what it is I want, I do not have the faintest smile at the patient and loving heart that inspires them. I do not know that I ever saw an angel, but, though her hair is tinged with gray, and youth has long since left her face, I never hear my wife, with her bright smile on Christmas morning, asking the old, girlish question, "What do you think I've got for you," that I don't see in it that sort of absolution for the past and benediction for the future which it is said only angels bring.


Observations of a Retired Veteran - 10/11

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