Brander Matthews ~ A Thanksgiving Day Dinner

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Thanksgiving Day had dawned clear and cold, an ideal day for the foot-ball game. Soon after breakfast the side-streets had been made hideous by small bands of boys, strangely disguised as girls some of them, or as Indians and as negroes, with improvised costumes and with staring masks; they blew fish-horns, and besought coppers. A little later in the day groups of fantasticals paraded on horseback or in carriages; and straggling target companies—some of them in the uniforms worn during the political campaign which had culminated in the election three weeks earlier—marched irregularly up the avenues under the elevated railroads, preceded by thin lines of pioneers, and by slim bands of music that played spasmodically before the many adjacent saloons, at the doors of which the companies came to a halt willingly.

The sun shone out and warmed one side of the street as people came from church; and the wind blew gently down the avenues, and fluttered the petals of the yellow chrysanthemums which expanded themselves in many button-holes. Little groups of young people passed, the girls with knots of blue at their throats or with mufflers of orange and black, the young men with college-buttons or with protruding handkerchiefs of the college colors. The fashionable dealers in men’s goods had arranged their windows with impartial regard for future custom—one with blue flannels and scarfs, shirts and socks, and the other all orange and black. Coaches began to go by, draped with one set of colors or the other, and filled with young men who split the air with explosive cheers, while waving blue pennants with white letters, or yellow pennants with black. The sun shone brightly, and the brisk breeze shivered the bare branches of the trees. It rippled the flags which projected from the vehicles gathering at Madison Square and streaming up the avenue in thick succession—coaches, private carriages, omnibuses, road-wagons of one kind or another.

Towards nightfall the tide turned and the coaches began to come back, the young men hoarse with incessant shouting of their staccato college cries. Some of them, wild with joy at the victory of their own team, had voice still for exulting yells. Others were saddened into silence by the defeat of their side. Most of those who had gone out to see the game belonged neither to the college of the blue nor to the college of the black and orange, but they were all stimulated by the struggle they had just seen—a struggle of strength and of skill, of gumption and of grit. The sun had gone down at last, and the bracing breeze of noon had now a touch of dampness which chilled the flesh. But the hearty young fellows paid no heed to it; they cheered and they sang and they cried aloud one to the other as though the season were spring, and they were alone on the sea-shore.

Robert White caught the fever like the rest, and as he walked down the avenue to the College Club he was conscious of an excitement he had not felt for years. He was alone in the city for a week, as it happened, his wife having taken the children into the country for a long-promised visit; and he had been spending his evenings at the College Club. So it was that he had joined in chartering a coach, and for the first time in a dozen years he had seen the foot-ball game. He had been made happy by the success of his own college, and by meeting classmates whom he had not laid eyes on since their Commencement in the heat of the Centennial summer. One of them was now the young governor of a new Western State, and another was likely to be a member of the new President’s cabinet.

On the way out to the game White had sat beside a third classmate, now a professor in the old college, and they had talked over their four years and their fellow-students. They recalled the young men of promise who had failed to sustain the hopes of the class; the steady, hard-working fellows, who were steady and hard-working still; the quiet, shy man who had known little Latin and less Greek, but was fond of science, and who was now developing into one of the foremost novelists of the country; the best base-ball player of the class, now the pastor of one of the leading churches of Chicago; and others who had done well for themselves in the different walks of life. They talked over the black sheep of the class—some dead, some worse than dead, some dropped out of sight.

“What has become of Johnny Carroll?” asked the professor.

“I have not seen him since class-day. There was some wretched scandal before Commencement, you know, and I doubt if Johnny ever got his degree,” White answered.

“I know he didn’t,” the professor returned. “He never dared to apply for it.”

“They managed to keep the trouble very quiet, whatever it was,” White went on. “I never knew just what the facts were.”

“I didn’t know then,” responded the professor; “I have been told since. But there is no need to go into that now. The girl is dead long ago, and Johnny too, for all I have heard.”

“Poor Johnny Carroll,” White said; “I can remember how handsome he looked that last night, the night of class-day. But he was always handsome and always well dressed. He was not very clever or very anything, was he? Yet we all liked him.” COMING FROM CHURCH
“I remember that he tried to get on the Freshman crew,” the professor remarked, after a pause, “but the temptations of high living were too much for him. He wouldn’t train.”

“Training was just what he needed most,” White added; “moral and mental as well as physical. Fact is, he always had more money than was good for him. His father was in Wall Street then, and making money hand over fist.”

“It wasn’t till the year after we were graduated that old Carroll committed suicide, was it?” the professor inquired. “Blew out his brains in the bath-tub, didn’t he?”

“And didn’t leave enough money to pay for his funeral,” White answered. “Johnny was in hard luck always: he had too much money at first, and none at all when he needed it most.”

“His great misfortune,” said the professor, “was that his father was ‘one of the boys.'”

“Yes,” White agreed, “that is pretty rough on a fellow. I wonder where Johnny is, if he is alive? Out West, perhaps, prospecting on a grub stake, or else stoker on an ocean steamer, or perhaps he’s a member of the Broadway squad, earning a living by elbowing ladies over the crossing.”

“I hope he has as good a berth as that,” the professor answered; “but I don’t believe that Johnny Carroll would stay on the force long, even if he got the appointment. Do you remember how well he sang ‘The Son of a Gamboleer’?”

It was this question of the professor’s which Robert White remembered after he had got off the coach and was walking towards Madison Square. Three young fellows, mere boys two of them, were staggering on just in front of him. They were arm in arm, in hope of a triplicate stability quite unattainable without more ballast than they carried, and they were singing the song Johnny Carroll had made his own in college. The wind was still sharpening, and the wooden signs which projected across the sidewalk here and there swung heavily as they felt its force. There were knots of eager young men and boys going to and fro before the brilliantly lighted porticos of the hotels.

As White stepped aside to get out of the way of one of these groups, rather more hilarious than the others, he knocked into a man who was standing up against the glaring window of a restaurant. The man was thin and pinched; his face was clean-shaven and blue; his clothes were threadbare; his attitude was as though he were pressing close to the glass in the hope of a reflected warmth.

“I beg your pardon,” cried White.

The man turned stiffly. “It’s of no con—” he began, then he saw White’s face in the bright light which streamed across the sidewalk. He stopped, hesitated for a moment, and then turned away.

The moment had been enough for White to recognize him. “Johnny Carroll!” he called.

The man continued to move away.

White overtook him in two strides, and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Johnny!” he said again.

The man faced about and answered doubtfully, “Well, what do you want?”

“Is this really you, Johnny Carroll?” asked White, as he held out his hand.

“Oh yes,” said the other, “it’s Johnny Carroll—and you are Bob White.”

White’s hand was still extended. After a long pause his classmate took it. White was shocked at the chill of Carroll’s fingers. “Why, man,” he cried, “you are cold.”

“Well,” the other answered, simply, “why not? It isn’t the first time.” Then, after a swift glance at White’s face, he turned his own away and said, “I’m hungry, too, if you want to know.”

“So am I,” said White, cordially. “I was going to have my Thanksgiving dinner alone. Will you join me, Johnny?”

“Do you mean it?” asked the other.

“Why shouldn’t we dine together?” White responded, setting off briskly and putting his arm through his classmate’s. “Our team has won to-day, you know—eighteen to nothing; we’ll celebrate the victory.”

“Where are you taking me?” inquired Johnny, uneasily.

“To the College Club, of course,” answered White. “We’ll—”

“I mustn’t go there,” said Johnny, stopping short. “I couldn’t face them now. I—oh, I couldn’t!”

“Very well, then,” White agreed. “Where shall we go? What do you say to Delmonico’s?”

Again Johnny asked: “Do you mean it? Honest?”

“Of course I mean it, Johnny,” he replied.

“I haven’t been in Delmonico’s for ten years and more,” said the other. “I’d like to have just another dinner there. But you can’t take me there. Look at me!”

White looked at him. The thin coat was buttoned tight; it was very worn, and yet it was not ragged; it was in better condition than the hat or the boots.

As the two men stood there facing each other on the corner of the street there was a foretaste of winter in the wind which smote them and ate into their marrow.

White linked his arm again in his classmate’s. “I’ve seen you look sweller, Johnny, I confess,” he said; “but I haven’t dressed for dinner myself to-night.”

“So it’s Delmonico’s?” Johnny asked.

“It’s Delmonico’s,” White responded.

“Then take me into the café,” said the other. “I can stand the men, I think, but I’m not in shape to go into the restaurant where the women are.”

“Very well,” agreed White. “We’ll try the café.”

When they entered the café it was crowded with young men. There was already a blue haze of smoke over the heads of the noisy throng. Boys drinking champagne at adjacent tables were calling across to each other with boisterous merriment.

White was able to secure a small table near the corner on the Broadway side. As he walked over to it he nodded to half a score of acquaintances, some of whom looked askant at his companion, and exchanged whispered comments after he had passed.

Apparently Johnny neither saw the looks nor heard the whispers. He followed White as if in a dream; and White had noticed that when they had entered the heated room Carroll had drawn a long breath as though to warm himself.

“I don’t need an overcoat in here,” he said, as he took the chair opposite White’s with the little marble-topped table between them.

When the waiter had deftly laid the cloth, Johnny fingered its fair softness, as with a cat-like enjoyment of its cleanness.

“Now, what shall we have?” asked White, as the waiter handed him the bill of fare in its narrow frame. “What would you like?”

“I?” the guest responded; “oh, anything—whatever you want—some roast beef.”

“Then your taste has changed since you left college,” White declared. “I asked you what you would like.”

“What I’d like?” echoed Johnny. “Do you mean it? Honest?”

White smiled as the old college phrase dropped again from the lips of his classmate.

“Of course I mean it,” he said; “honest. There’s the bill of fare. Order what you please. And remember that it is Thanksgiving, and that I’m hungry, and that I want a good dinner.”

“Very well, then,” said Johnny, as he took the bill of fare. He was already warmer, and now he seemed to expand a little with the unwonted luxury of the occasion.

He looked over the bill of fare carefully.

“Blue Points on the half-shell, of course,” he began, adding to the waiter, “be sure that they are on the deep shell. Green turtle soup—the green turtle here used to be very good fifteen years ago. Filet de sole, à la Mornay—the sole is flounder, I suppose, but à la Mornay a man could eat a Hebrew manuscript. Then a canvas-back apiece—two canvas-back, you understand, real canvas-back, not red-head or mallard—with samp, of course, and a mayonnaise of celery. Then a bit of Chedder cheese and a cup of coffee. How will that suit you, White?”

“That will suit me,” White responded. “And now what wine?”

“Wine, too?” Johnny queried.

White smiled and nodded.

“Well, I’ll go you,” the guest went on. “I might as well see the thing through, if you are bound to do it in style.” He turned over the bill of fare and scanned the wine list on the under side. “Yquem ’74 with the oysters; and they tell me there is a Silver Seal Special ’84 brut that is better than anything one has tasted before. Give us a quart of that with the duck. And let us have it as soon as you can.”

He handed the bill of fare to the waiter, and then, for the first time, he ventured to glance about the room.

The oysters were brought very soon, and when Johnny had eaten them and part of a roll, and when he had drunk two glasses of the Yquem, White said to him: “Tell me something about yourself. What have you been doing all these years?”

Johnny’s face fell a little. “I’ve done pretty nearly everything,” he answered, “from driving a Fifth Avenue stage to keeping books for a Third Avenue pawnbroker. I’ve been a waiter at a Coney Island chowder saloon. Two summers ago I waited on the man who has just taken our order—I waited on him more than once. I’ve dealt faro, too.”

The waiter brought the soup and served them.

When he left them alone again, White asked: “Can’t some of your old friends help you out of this—give you a start and set you up again?”

“It’s no good trying,” Johnny replied. “You can’t pull me up now. It’s too late. I guess it was too late from the start.”

“Why don’t you drop this place?” White queried, “and go out West, and—”

“What’s the use of talking about that?” Johnny interrupted. “I can’t live away from New York. If I got out of sight of that tower over there I’d die.”

“You will die here soon enough at this rate,” White answered.

“That’s so, too,” admitted Johnny; “but it can’t be helped now.” He was eating steadily, sturdily, but not ravenously.

After the waiter had served the fish, White asked again, “What can we do for you?”

“Nothing,” Johnny answered—”nothing at all. Yes, you can give me a five, if you like, or a ten; but don’t give me your address, or the first time I’m down again I’d look you up and strike you for ten more.”

A band of undergraduates, twenty of them or more, four abreast, arm in arm, went tramping down Broadway, yelling forth the chorus of a college song.

“You used to sing that song, Johnny,” said White.

“I used to do lots of things,” he answered, as the waiter opened the champagne.

“I never heard anybody get as much out of ‘The Son of a Gamboleer’ as you did,” White continued.

“I joined a negro-minstrel troupe as second tenor twelve years ago, but we got stranded in Hartford, and I had to walk home. I’ve tried to do a song and dance in the Bowery dime museums since then, more than once. But it’s no use.”

When they had made an end of the canvas-backs and the brut ’84, Johnny sat back in his chair and smiled, and said, “Well, this was worth while.”

Then the coffee came, and White said, “You forgot to order the liqueur, Johnny.”

“You see what it is to be out of practice,” he replied. “I’d like some orange curaçoa.”

“And I will take a little green mint,” said White to the waiter. “And bring some cigars—Henry Clays.”

“That’s right,” Johnny declared. “My father was always a Henry Clay man, and I suppose that’s why I like those cigars.”

After the cigars were lighted White looked his companion square in the face. “Are you sure,” he asked, “that we can do nothing for you?”

“Dead sure,” was the answer.

“Nothing?”

“You have given me a good dinner,” said Johnny. “That’s enough. That’s more than most of my old friends would give me. And there’s nothing more to be done.”

White held his peace for the moment.

Johnny took a long sip of his coffee, and drew three or four times at his cigar. “That’s a first-rate cigar,” he said. “I haven’t smoked a Henry Clay for nearly two years, and then I picked up one a man had lighted, between the acts, outside of Daly’s.”

He puffed at it again with voluptuous appreciation, and then leaned across the table to White and remarked, confidentially, “Do you know, Bob, ‘most everything I’ve cared for in this world has been immoral, or expensive, or indigestible.”

“Yes,” White admitted; “I suppose that’s the cause of your bad luck.”

“I’ve had lots of luck in my life,” was the response, “good and bad—better than I deserved, most of it—this dinner, for example; I should remember it even without to-morrow’s dyspepsia. But what’s the use of anticipating evil? I’ll let the next day take care of itself, and make the best of this one. There are several hours of it left—where shall we go now?”

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