By Una Howell (USA - 1876-1949)
Chapter 28 - An Experimenter
Copyright Scott Dunbar 2010
Father had no sooner built a new house than he decided that he needed better office quarters so he secured a suite of rooms in the Baker Block. Judge Backer’s skyscraper was four stories high and faced on an arcade at the northwest corner of the public square. It was the most modern office building in town and the only one that boasted an elevator. When Father was first installed in the new quarters I was so fascinated with the groaning steel cage that I called on him quite frequently in order to try out the classy lift. Also, I had heard Father refer to various lawyers who officed in the building and I enjoyed looking them over and observing their idiosyncrasies.
One day when the elevator was crowded, I was pushed back in a corner where I could not see. There was a big fat man in front of me; I was small, his vest was open, and on the tab of his bosomed shirt embroidered on a level with my eyes I read, ‘Babe.’ I could hardly wait to see Father at suppertime.
“Papa, is Mr. Babe Harrison fat and does he have black, curly hair?” I inquired.
“Yes, why Una?” he asked.
“Because I rode in the elevator with him today,” I said.
“What made you think it was he?” Father wanted to know.
“Because it said ‘Babe’ on his shirt,” I informed him. Father laughed heartily.
“You have bright eyes,” he said in a pleased voice, Father liked for us to be observant.
As a rule I didn’t like Father’s friends. His very best one, Mr. John A. Patterson, I hated because I thought he was mean to Father in court. Once I had been allowed to attend a trial where Father was the defense attorney and Mr. Patterson, the prosecuting attorney. He flayed Father with irony and I swelled with indignation. When court adjourned and we left the courtroom Father opened his cigar case and said, “Have a cigar, Patterson?”
My mouth fell open at such generosity.
“The mean old thing,” I thought, “smoking Father’s cigars after all he said!”
As I grew older my feeling grew less horny, I am happy to say.
Many Springfield lawyers wore silk hats and long-tailed Prince Albert coats morning, noon and night, regardless of suitability. Some of the most eloquent were far too frugal of fresh linen. Under these circumstances, the plug hat was supposed to serve as a glamorous aura to cover all deficiencies. Father resisted the lure of the stovepipe hat and through the years kept his love for sartorial correctness. In fact, I think that with time and his success his taste sort of blossomed out. When he bought a new suit he brought home sample swatches for the women to pass judgement on and he paid frequent calls on his tailor. His millinery too, was chosen after critical inspection before a mirror and his accessories were as carefully selected as Beau Brummel’s. After saturation with the tailor’s fashion talks he acquired the habit of proffering advice.
“Jim, you shouldn’t wear a suit cut in that style. It makes you look too fat.” he would say to a fellow barrister, or “Charlie, why don’t you wear a Fedora hat like mine. That shape might be all right out west but it won’t bring you any cases in Springfield.
“You know you ought to dress better, Joe. Let me pick out your clothes for you.” he might suggest at an odd moment.
Sometimes men who hadn’t asked his opinion were sore. The aptness of Father’s truthfully critical comments made them avid to get even and sometimes an irritated one would get an ironic crack in the newspaper just at a time when Father had won a case and was feeling elated. At the end of the report of court proceedings would be a postscript comment to the effect that: “Mr. Howell has grown three inches since Saturday. If the case of the State vs. John Doe is nollied [nullified], (and it probably will be) he will be a six-footer by persimmon time.”
Father knew practically all the professional men in town and the lawyers especially well. Those who held their profession in high esteem, he admired, but those who were smart and used their cleverness to trim a client, he held in contempt. One of our richest citizens, an Irishman, had acquired much of his property by foreclosing mortgages at the psychological moment.
“Robbing women and children of their patrimonies,” is what Father called it and in our house that man’s name was anathema.
Father’s offices were on the fourth floor, and on the north side of his front room stood a small stove that did its best to keep the rooms warm. In it he burned soft coal and sometimes the flue became clogged and belched smoke back into the room. It interfered so seriously with the heat that Father stopped in at the hardware store for advice.
“Lem, the stove in my office is giving me a lot of trouble. I can’t seem to heat the room. I think the chimney must be stopped up. What do you find is the best way to repair a smoky flue?” Father said to the repairman in the store.
“What kind of stove have you got?” Lem inquired.
“Just an ordinary drum heater. Nothing fancy, and up to now it’s been perfectly satisfactory,” Father ruminated.
“I’ll tell you what to do,” Lem suggested, “I haven’t the time to look at your stove but what we find most satisfactory is gunpowder. A little of it will blow a chimney as clean as a whistle. Just close up your stove good and tight so the dirt will go up the chimney.”
“All right, Lem, fix me up some and I’ll stop by on my way back from dinner and pick it up,” Father said.
That afternoon he turned in at the hardware store, put the packet of trouble in his pocket and repaired to his office. He had a lot of work ahead and he had no mind to do it in a cold room. Lem hadn’t given explicit directions and Father had to guess at the amount of powder to use. He began to wonder what would keep it from blowing up the stove and finally decided to give it the minimum dose.
His room was on the top floor so he knew the chimney was close to the roof. He closed all the openings as Lem had advised, picked up the dose of gunpowder and gingerly placed it in the heater and slammed the door to await the result. It came quickly, a shot like a cannon. Father opened the stove door cautiously. The stove was empty as a well.
On the floor underneath his office, a spirited, red-haired lawyer had his quarters. Father knew him intimately and they were on cordial terms. Father was still standing by the stove weighing the evidence when his door opened and in stalked Mr. Bussey, his face and clothes smeared with soot. Obviously Father had ‘done him dirt.’ Mr. Bussey looked as if he were half made up as a black-faced minstrel. Father didn’t address him as ‘Mr. Bones.’ He was listening instead to the tirade of picturesque abuse Mr. Bussey had unloosed against him. Legal documents fairly crackled with the fires of his condemnation, and vitriolic waves quivered the ether about Father’s head, as he surveyed his visitor in stunned silence.
“I’ll be glad to foot the bill for your suit, Bill,” he blurted with appropriate humility. “I’m terribly chagrinned.”
Mr. Bussey was a magician when it came to juggling profanity and feeling the occasion worthy had invoked his most pungent vocabulary. His mind (if not his wardrobe) was cleansed by the oral catharsis and he accepted Father’s apologies.
For days Father offered explanations to everybody and from then on the other lawyers called him the “Experimenter,” not in any particular burst of admiration.
Cymric Strain, by Una Howell (USA - 1876-1949)
Chapter 1 - Introduction
Chapter 2 - Father
Chapter 3 - Dartmouth
Chapter 4 - Killolog
Chapter 5 - America
Chapter 6 - Arrival
Chapter 7 - Gracious Living
Chapter 8 - I Am Born
Chapter 9 - My Name
Chapter 10 - Neighbors
Chapter 11 - The Cyclone
Chapter 12 - The Old cemetery
Chapter 13 - Music
Chapter 14 - Religion
Chapter 15 - The Circuit
Chapter 16 - Hero No. 1
Chapter 17 - Pageantry
Chapter 18 - Mommy
Chapter 19 - Mental Quirks
Chapter 20 - Decoration
Chapter 21 - Domestic Animals
Chapter 22 - Episode
Chapter 23 - Barn Life
Chapter 24 - Vanities
Chapter 25 - Happy Hollow
Chapter 26 - New Horizons
Chapter 27 - Disciplines
Chapter 28 - An Experimenter
Chapter 29 - Health
Chapter 30 - Murder
Chapter 31 - Misunderstandings
Chapter 32 - Charm
Chapter 33 - Problems
Chapter 34 -Coming Events, Etc.
Chapter 35 - The Wedding
Chapter 36 - At Home
Chapter 37 - Cross Currents
Chapter 38 - A Baby
Chapter 39 - Dr. Winston
Chapter 40 - The Visitor
Chapter 41 - Buffetings
Chapter 42 - Agenda
Chapter 43 - David
Chapter 44 - Exit