In Lieu of Leap Year
BY MILO HASTINGS
A steed from the stable of Cupid that will not stand without hitching may accomplish more lasting though perhaps less visible destruction than an unromantic undertaker's horse from an unromantic livery stable dashing homeward to an unromantic supper of oats and hay.
FICTION is based on life.
That is the unconscious, obvious, profitable, inevitable shop-rule of a few score of literal and literary grubbers who say their prayers on Manhattan Island when the crimson light in the belfry of the Metropolitan tower winks ten P. M. But the masses it concerns not; where the spindles spin, and the reapers reap, and the sheep baa, the rule is—unconsciously perhaps—reversed, and—
Life is based on fiction. Phidias T. Quisenberry was a unit in the masses. Phidias T. lived with his mother, dealt in real estate, and was a serious, retiring, exemplary, bashful, well-read young man.
For twelve or fifteen years, Phidias had been secretly contemplating marriage, but he didn't know how to go about it. The town where he resided and thrived had a population of about three thousand souls. All these human beings Phidias could recognize by their walk and call by both Christian and heathen names. How could a man fall in love with a woman with whom he had played cross-tag or held on his knee while her mother punched up the pillow in the baby carriage. It was unnatural, non-fictional and impossible.
Phidias read the magazines faithfully and memorized all the ways in which heroes meet their affinities. One dark night he tripped over a lady's purse. The purse contained a card. He took it to a lamp post and read the name of his cousin Betty. He began buying the eggs for his mother. The third year he found a name
and address written on one of the thin calcareous shells. It was the name of a girl who had been in his Sunday-school class since 1897.
After Phidias had shifted the deeds of all the transferable real estate in his home town, and some of it four or five times, he began to dream of larger worlds to buy and sell and conquer. Over in the next county was the growing city of Rugglesville with a coal mine, a butter-tub factory, a street-car track, two daily papers and a population of twenty-five thousand. Phidias journeyed thither and rented an office and bought a cottage.
The former owner of the cottage agreed to vacate October first, and Mrs. Quisenberry and her son moved in on October second.
Phidias knew a score of men and one married woman in the city. But there were several thousand women on whom the dim light of strangership shed halos of romantic uncertainty. Still, he was a business man with character to lose and a reputation to gain—and married women's kerchiefs will fall by the wayside as well as those of the "single blessings." Churches seemed a safer prospect, and Phidias decided to look over the choirs in turn, which would take till Christmas. Impatience ne'er won a bride without the help of Fate, and Fate—how did one enlist Fate in one's behalf?
Better to refresh his memory on the working plans of this unseen mistress of Destiny, Phidias sat one evening on the steps of his cottage reading his favorite weekly magazine, while his mother was in the dining-room unpacking a ninety-six piece set of china and placing it on shelves covered with fresh newspapers.
The hero of Phidias' story was an aviator whose petrol tank had exploded above a cloud. The brave pilot was falling by inches and adjectives through the nasty wet cloud right into the castle yard where his unseen, unknown, imprisoned, bride-to-be was taking Delsartian exercises, with the ramrod of a Waterlooan musket.
Phidias dropped the helpless aviator on the stone step, and saw upon the walk before him a maltese cat. "Behold,'" said Phidias, "I address mc to one of the steeds on whicli Dan Cupid oft doth ride."
"Milk, please, or chicken with gravy," said the cat in readily translatable feline vernacular.
"But where," asked Phidias, "is the sleigh-bell on your neck with the Rajah's favorite pearl for a bell-clapper—or the lady's card?"
The cat merely repeated his order.
"Draw one," shouted the willing waiter, as he rushed into the hall, "and a squab in a castle role." Then he went into the kitchen to hurry the order.
Returning to the board walk, Phidias served his guest with the best the house could offer.
Mrs. Quisenberry hastily removed her kitchen apron and came out to be presented to the visitor. "It is a distinguished looking cat," she commented admiringly.
Phidias was rubbing the fur the wrong way but found neither fleas nor brands; the cat's ears were unfrozen and unpunched; his whiskers unsinged and his eyes undimmed. .
"Son," remarked Mrs. Quisenberry. "the cat has six toes."
"By crickets!" exclaimed Phidias; "so he has. I knew he was a cat with a message or a deformity—or something."
"He doesn't belong to either of our neighbors." said the mother, "for both of them have called and reported nothing but dogs and children."
That night Phidias locked the portentous visitor in the woodshed, and thereafter nourished him and watched over him with solicitous care.
Phidias had attended four churches; he had been elected on the Boost Committee, and had sold a plot of ground to a new factory crowd who were going to make vegetable ivory out of the casein of skimmilk. Business prospects and speaking lists alike were growing; the mists of romance were disappearing before the sunshine of acquaintance—and the six-toed cat still slept in the woodshed.
Phidias sat in the dining room waiting for supper. He was penciling remnants of geometry on the margin of a newspaper. Suddenly he became agitated. "Mother," he called, "from whence came this paper?"
Mrs. Quisenberry looked up from the stove. "It must be one I took off the shelves when I put the new oilcloth on."
"Listen to this—
Lost, strayed or stolen—a maltese cat with six toes on each of its- front feet. Finder will please return to Miss Estelle Burlingame, 220 Fowler Street, and receive suitable reward."
"I recall," said Mrs. Quisenberry, "I was unpacking the china that night when you found the cat. It is too bad; I am afraid he has become used to our place by now; cats, you know, become attached to places, not people. But come, son, supper is ready."
Phidias crumbed his bread in the soup, thinned the pudding with milk and washed down the cake with tea. "I must take the cat right home," he said; "she must have missed him, he is such an intelligent cat."
The mother rose from her half-eaten supper and fetched a covered basket. "Better put him in this," she said; "he might get away from you on the street."
Basket on arm, Phidias punched the bell at 220 Fowler Street. The young lady who opened the door was not so very young—but still she wasn't old.
"Good evening." said Phidias, "you are Miss Burlingame, I believe."
"Yes, and you are Mr. Quisenberry; you were at our church Sunday. Won't you come in?"
Phidias followed Miss Burlingame into a parlor containing a piano, a "Reading from Homer," the Three Fates done in plaster relief, and Ingall's "Opportunity" burnt on sheepskin. He set his basket down beside his chair.
"How do you like our city?" asked Miss Estelie.
"About as usual," said Phidias, fidgeting. "You live in Rugglesville, I presume?"
Estelie smiled indulgently. "One might call it that. I teach the B Grammar in the First Ward school."
Phidias glanced uneasily at his basket; he was playing for time, and feared the cat would call his hand.
"Have you been marketing?" asked his calm-mannered hostess.
"No, not exactly—I—eh—I was just going— Phidias was plainly flustered. "It looks like snow, doesn't it?" he asked abruptly, then he remembered that it was only November third and very clear and warm, and a mortified red suffused his homely features.
"Perhaps it does—that is, I hope it will next month; I like a white Christmas."
The basket tumbled over on its side. Phidias glanced at it in dismay; but the contents readjusted itself to the changed environment and began to purr.
"That reminds me," said Phidias, "that I called to—did you ever lose a cat?"
"Why, yes, I did once; it was some time ago; I fear the dogs killed it."
"I have a cat in the basket," said Phidias.
"So it seems," said Estelie. "What are you going to do with it?"
"I am going to give it to you."
"Do you think it is mine?"
"I know it is."
Estelie wondered why he didn't let the cat out, then a flash of inspiration crossed her mind and she said: "Perhaps we oughtn't to let it out in here; he might he angry and—scratch the piano. Shall I take him out to the kitchen?"
"I expect you had better," said Phidias.
Miss Burlingame returned with the empty basket. "I put him to sleep under the stove," she said.
Phidias rose to take the basket "Whit is your cat's name?" he asked, with sudden brilliancy.
"Nebby; it's short for Nebuchadnezzar."
"I hope Nebby is glad to get home," said Phidias, as he reached for his hat.
"I hope so, too."
"Good-night. I am glad you called."
Catless, churchless, magazineless, Phidias perambulated through a joyless week. Friday night at supper his mother said: "Son, you will have to take Miss Burlingame's cat home again; he came back today."
"Ah-ah!" said Phidias, as he walked down the street with his six-toed ally upon his arm. "So we forgot something. didn't we? Thought we had to do it at one session like a common purse finder or a drowning girl saver. But now we can take our time, eh? That's why the cat came back; how about it old sport?"
And Nebby snuggled his nose into the black sateen lining of Phidias' best coat and seemed very well pleased with his work.
The next Friday night it was Phidias who spoke at supper: "Mother, did Nebby come back today?"
Mrs. Quisenberry shook her head sadly.
But after supper Phidias got his hat and coat, and laughingly told his mother that he guessed he could get along now without Nebby's assistance.
At about eleven that night, when Phidias returned home, he found Nebby sitting on his front porch.
This time, Phidias called up on the 'phone to ask Miss Burlingame when he should return the perfidious Nebuchadnezzar.
"Come over Tuesday evening," said Estelie, "but never mind about Nebby; let him stay—that is, if your mother likes him; you see, it is pretty lonesome for him here, as my sister and I are away all day."
The steeds that bear Dan Cupid are not beasts of burden to be put on regular runs like mail-carriers and mine-mules. Nebby had done his work and would have been allowed to sit under the stove all day unmolested if Phidias' mother had not lain sick of a fever and passed to her reward. But death and love are mixed in life, and life is mixed in fiction, and fiction is made from life, and round and round it goes, and it caught poor Nebby on a prong of circumstance and dragged him forth again into the spotlight of human utility.
It was the night after Christmas, and in the Burlingame house Phidias T. Quisenberry was wishing that Nebby would walk in and help him start something; or that one of the plaster Fates would step down and—but there was Ingalls' "Opportunity" thundering at him from the burnt leather: "Once at every gate... .before I turn away...." And Phidias, knowing that his hour had come, screwed his courage to the speaking point:
"Estelle, don't you suppose it is pretty lonesome for Nebby there alone all day since mother left?"
"Why, I hadn't thought of that. You may bring him back here, you know."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Phidias miserably.
The Fate with the water jug winked a plaster-of-paris eye at her neighbor on the right.
"But he wouldn't stay," said Phidias, when the next wave of courage struck him; "had you thought of that?"
Time was fleeting, the Fates were fretting, and the burnt leather Ingalls was droning—"Reach every state mortals desire—but they who doubt or hesitate—" And Estelle replied:
"It may be rather lonesome here, too. You know my sister is to be married New Year's day."
And Phidias said— But why hurry the man, he had all evening and we have only half a column. Suffice us to know that the B Grammar had romance too—a new teacher in the middle of the term. And that would be all there is to tell if it wasn't for Nebby's growing fondness for the spotlight, and that pestiferous and peripatetic nuisance known as a red-headed boy.
It was Sunday afternoon, and Phidias T. was sitting on the front steps reading the inevitable magazine. Nebby was at his side watching approvingly some newly married and inexperienced sparrows who were starting a nest out on a wobbly limb where the June storms would spill out the young birds for Nebby's edification. Mrs. Phidias T. had gone to a ladies' missionary meeting and would not be back for two hours. And so, with the stage all set, the redheaded trouble-maker arrived. Scraping the tacks in his heels on the cement sidewalk, he came and hung over the front gate.
"Say Mister, that's our cat," he piped.
"I guess not," said Phidias, arising to defend the symbol and representative of his hearthstone.
"Oh, yes it is,' said the boy, coming up the walk. "When we moved from this house last fall, we took him along to Rock Center, but he wouldn't stay. I ain't never been back here till now, or I would have called for him sooner."
"I think I can prove that you are mistaken," replied Phidias, picking up Nebby. "This is a very unusual cat; he has six toes on each of his front feet."
"Sure," said the lad with the rouged hair.
"Well," snapped Phidias, "there couldn't be another cat like that, could there?"
"Sure; there was two like that in the litter; I gave the other one to the teacher, but this'n is ours—hers had a white hind foot."
Phidias dropped Nebby and thrust his hand into his pocket. "Here's a dollar for your cat."
The boy stowed away the dollar and turned to leave. Phidias called him back. "Here's five more dollars," he said; "the first is for the cat and the five is to pay you to promise never to speak to a living soul about cats again; you are to forget that you ever had a cat; all the cats you had had five toes—understand?"
"Now, ain't he the easy guy," grinned the boy, as he turned up the street; "six dollars for a cat and Bull would have eaten him hair and all if I'd taken him home."