The young man opened the door with a latch-key and went in, followed by another young fellow who awkwardly took off his cap. He did not know what to do with it and was stuffing it into his coat-pocket, when the other took it from him. The act was done quietly and naturally, and the awkward young fellow appreciated it. “He understands,” was his thought.
He walked at his companion’s heels. The wide rooms seemed too narrow for his rolling gait, and he was in terror lest his broad shoulders should collide with the doorways. He watched the easy walk of the young man in front of him, and for the first time realized that his walk was different from that of other men. He experienced a momentary pang of shame that he should walk so uncouthly. The sweat burst through the skin of his forehead in tiny beads, and he paused and mopped his bronzed face with his handkerchief.
His companion tried to reassure him. “You mustn’t be frightened at us,” he said. “We’re just homely people. Hello, there’s a letter for me!”
He stepped back to a table piled with books and began to read his letter giving the stranger an opportunity to recover himself. And the stranger understood and appreciated. He glanced about him with a controlled face, though in the eyes there was an expression such as wild animals betray when they fear the trap. He was surrounded by the unknown, ignorant of what he should do, aware that he walked and bore himself awkwardly. He cursed himself for having come, and at the same time resolved that, happen what would, having come, he would carry it through. He looked about more unconcernedly, every detail of the pretty interior registering itself on his brain. He was responsive to beauty, and here was cause to respond.
An oil-painting caught and held him. There was beauty, it drew him irresistibly. He forgot his awkward walk and came closer to the painting – very close. The beauty faded out of the canvas. His face expressed his astonishment. He stared at what seemed a careless daub of paint, then stepped away. Immediately all the beauty flashed back into the canvas. “A trick picture,” was his thought. He did not know painting. He had been brought up on chromos and lithographs that were always definite and sharp, near or far. He had seen oil-paintings, it was true, in the show-windows of shops, but the glass of the windows had prevented his eager eyes from approaching too near.
He glanced around at his friend reading the letter, and saw the books on the table. He looked at them as a starving man would look at food. Approaching the table he glanced at the titles of the books and the authors’ names, read fragments of text, caressing the volumes with his eyes and hands. He took up a volume of poetry and began reading steadily, forgetful of where he was, his face glowing. He did not notice that a young woman had entered the room. The first he knew was when he heard Arthur’s voice saying:
“Ruth, this is Mr. Eden.”
The book was closed on his forefinger, and before he turned he was thrilling to the new impression, which was not of the girl, but of her brother’s words. “Mister Eden” was what he had thrilled to – he who had been called “Eden,” or “Martin Eden,” or just “Martin,” all his life.
And then he turned and saw the girl. She was a pale, ethereal creature, with wide, spiritual blue eyes, and golden hair. He did not know how she was dressed, except that the dress was as wonderful as she. He compared her to a pale gold flower upon a slender stem. No, she was a spirit, a divinity, a goddess; such beauty was not of the earth. Or perhaps the books were right, and there were many such as she in the upper walks of life.
“Won’t you sit down, Mr. Eden?” the girl said. “I have been looking forward to meeting you ever since Arthur told us. It was brave of you —”
He muttered that it was nothing at all what he had done, and that any fellow would have done it. She noticed that his hands were covered with fresh abrasions in the process of healing. Also, with quick, critical eyes, she noticed a scar on his cheek and another on his neck. Likewise her feminine eye took in the cheap clothes he wore. He sat down gingerly on the edge of the chair, greatly worried by his hands. They were in the way wherever he put them. Arthur was leaving the room, and Martin Eden felt lost, alone there in the room with that pale girl.
“You have such a scar on your neck, Mr. Eden,” the girl was saying. “How did it happen? I am sure it must have been some adventure.”
“A Mexican with a knife, miss,” he answered, moistening his parched lips and clearing his throat. “It was just a fight. After I got the knife away, he tried to bite off my nose.”
“Oh!” the girl said in a faint far voice, and he noticed the shock in her sensitive face.
He felt a shock himself, and a blush of embarrassment shone faintly on his sunburned cheeks. People in the books, in her walks of life, did not talk about such things – perhaps they did not know about them either.
There was a brief pause in the conversation they were trying to get started, then she asked about the scar on his cheek.
“It was just an accident,” he said, putting his hand to his cheek.
“Oh!” she said, this time with an accent of comprehension.
Then noticing the book he had been reading she began to talk quickly and easily upon the subject of poetry. He felt better, and settled back slightly from the edge of the chair, holding tightly to its arms with his hands. He listened to her thinking: here was intellectual life and here was beauty, warm and wonderful, as he had never dreamed it could be. He forgot himself and stared at her with hungry eyes. Here was something to live for, to win, to fight for and die for. The books were true. There were such women in the world. She was one of them. But he could not express what he felt. Well, he decided, it was up to him to get acquainted in this new world. It was time for him to want to learn to talk the things that were inside of him, so that she could understand.
“Now, Longfellow…” she was saying.
“Yes, I’ve read ’m,” he interrupted, wishing to show her that he was not wholly a stupid clod. “The Psalm of Life, Excelsior, an’… I guess that’s all.”
She nodded and smiled, and he felt somehow that her smile was tolerant – pitifully tolerant.
“Excuse me, miss, I guess the real fact is that I don’t know nothin’ much about such things. How did you learn all this you’ve ben talkin’?”
“By going to school, I fancy, and by studying,” she answered.
“I went to school when I was a kid,” he began.
“Yes; but I mean high school, and lectures, and the University.”
“You’ve gone to the University?” he demanded, in frank amazement. He felt that she had become remoter from him by at least a million miles.
“I’m going there now. I’m taking special courses in English.”
“How long would I have to study before I could go to the University?” he asked.
“That depends upon how much studying you have already done,” she answered. “You have never attended high school? Of course not. But did you finish grammar-school?”
“I had two years to run when I left,” he answered. “But I was always honourably promoted at school.”
The next moment he felt angry with himself for the boast. At the same moment he became aware that a woman was entering the room. He saw the girl leave her chair and trip swiftly across the floor to the new-comer. That must be her mother, he thought. She was a tall, blonde woman, slender, and stately, and beautiful. He knew that he must stand up to be introduced, and he struggled painfully to his feet, his face set hard for the impending ordeal.
In the dining-room he was seated alongside of Her.
He glanced around the table. Opposite him was Arthur, and Arthur’s brother, Norman. They were her brothers, he reminded himself and his heart warmed toward them. How they loved each other, the members of this family! He had starved for love all his life. His nature craved love. It was an organic demand of his being.
He was glad that Mr. Morse was not there. It was difficult enough getting acquainted with her and her mother, and her brother Norman. Arthur he already knew somewhat. The father would have been too much for him, he felt sure. It seemed to him that he had never worked so hard in his life. He had to eat as he had never eaten before, to glance about and learn just what knife or fork was to be used in any particular occasion. Then he had to talk, to hear what was said to him, to answer, when it was necessary.
During the first part of the dinner he was very quiet. He kept himself in the background, listening, observing, replying in reticent monosyllables, saying, “Yes, miss,” and “No, miss,” to her; and “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am,” to her mother. He curbed the impulse to say, “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” to her brother. He felt that it would be a confession of inferiority on his part.
“By God!” he cried to himself once, “I’m just as good as they are, and if they do know many things that I don’t, I could teach them a few myself, all the same!” And the next moment, when she or her mother addressed him as “Mr. Eden,” his aggressive pride was forgotten. He was a civilized man, shoulder to shoulder, at dinner, with people he had read about in books.
“It was brave of you to help Arthur the way you did – and you a stranger,” Ruth said tactfully, aware of his discomfiture.
“It wasn’t nothin’ at all,” he said. “Any guy ’ud do it for another.” He paused, and Arthur took up the tale,for the twentieth time, of his adventure with the drunken hoodlums on the ferry-boat, and of how Martin Eden had rushed in and rescued him.
Later, at the piano, Ruth played for him. He did not understand the music she played. It was different from the dance-hall pianobanging bands he had heard, but he was remarkably susceptible to music.
Glancing at him across her shoulder Ruth saw that his face was a transfigured face, with great shining eyes that gazed beyond the veil of sound. She was startled. The raw, stumbling lout was gone. The ill-fitting clothes, battered hands, and sunburned face remained; but these seemed to be prison bars through which she saw a great soul looking forth.
Later he was saying good-bye to her.
“The greatest time of my life. You see, I ain’t used to things…” He looked about him helplessly. “To people and houses like this. It’s all new to me, and I like it.”
“I hope you’ll call again,” she said, as he was saying good night to her brothers.
He pulled on his cap, pushed clumsily through the doorway, and was gone.