From The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman (University Press of Mississippi: 1992)
Originally published in The Golden Book Magazine Volume VII Number 42 (June 1928) The Review of Reviews Corporation
She lay on her day-bed, long, thin, exquisite, an old woman in fact, but always and forever while she drew mortal breath a thing of beauty.
She wore a dressing gown of heavy lavender satin, disposed in the most charming folds. Blue lights and rose lights were in the depths of those folds, and not one but Almira Clapp, with her eyes of fadeless radiance, saw with delight. She was a beauty-worshiper. Her pose was studied. One slender leg partly raised the knee, disturbing the level of the lavender satin; one slender milk-white arm lay along the satin, in a curve of utmost grace.
One side of Almira's face was superior to the other. That side was exposed, a profile of perfection in age, on a pillow of black satin. Her skin was unbelievably smooth and white, blue veins showing on her temples under the lace frill of her rose-coloured cap.
Almira's whole soul was always in revolt against her white hair, which was not in the least suited to her. Years ago she had given up mild colouring tonics in as much of a rage as she allowed herself. After that she darkened her pale eyebrows and shaded her eyelids, and displayed her white locks defiantly when obliged.
She affected as much as possible the frilled boudoir caps.
“Lucky these caps came in my day,” she often told her cousin Lois, who lived with her, subsisted on her bounty, and saved her immortal soul by patience with her lot in life.
Almira Clapp's bounty was so highly seasoned it would have choked a less patient, less proud stomach, for extreme patience is a synonym for extreme pride.
Almira never lost her temper, but she never lost her almost superhuman consciousness of self which made of her personality a weight for the smothering of all about her. Lois Hemingway, the cousin, was not subtle enough to understand her. All she dimly sensed was an effect of burden, vague, unexplainable, which at times almost smothered.
All the women who knew Almira, or rather did not know her, said: “She is so sweet.”
Lois herself said: “She is so sweet,” and never knew she lied to her own soul.
Almira was not in the least sweet, but she was that unusual thing, a consummate actress before an audience of self alone. She was in reality an unclassified genius.
She had perfect health, the health of youth in her old age; but except for her histrionic genius which never slept, even when her body slumbered, she was one of the idlest of mortals. That is, apparently. She would lie for hours perfectly still so far as her body was concerned, but her brain was a radium brain. It gave out wasteless energy, endless light. She was marvelous. She accounted for her son Jonathan, who was also marvelous, in an inverted way. It was said of Jonathan Clapp that it was quite wonderful how well he had turned out, considering all he had against him. This was the sort of praise that damns; but Jonathan, when he heard it, and he heard it often, it being the sort of compliment which people do not grudge handing on, laughed.
He had undoubtedly been handicapped from the start, and no matter how well a race is run, the wonder remains, what if there had been no handicap? What marvel of speed exceeding all records might not have been attained?
Jonathan's handicap was a vague thing. It existed, but indefinitely. After all, the boy and man was not crippled, deformed, or ill, either in mind or body. There was about his whole personality that curious quality termed insignificance. He was not unduly short nor tall. He was of good average height.
He was neither too stout nor too thin. He had not one noticeable bad feature, nor noticeably beautiful one, with the exception of his eyes. They were blue, and it is seldom that blue eyes achieve true beauty.
One blue is too cold, too much of the surface; or the blue jewel is too small. Jonathan's eyes were a blue of whatever emotion Jonathan wished.
Generally Jonathan wished humour. Humour was his long suit, his long trump suit of life. Instinctively he had known that when he was a mere lad.
Jonathan had his mother's histrionic genius. He had apparently inherited nothing whatever from his father, beyond his mere physical fact. The elder Clapp must have been as near nonentity as possible.
Nobody ever even mentioned him. He had died suddenly when Jonathan was a baby. Nothing remained of his existence except his name on the monument in the Clapp burial plot in the Fairlawn cemetery of Bloomfield.
When Jonathan was a child, he had always been taken by his beautiful mother on Memorial Day to the cemetery, where a queer, decorous sort of festival was held by the inhabitants of Bloomfield and their visiting friends and relatives.
People who had ever had any connection with Bloomfield made it a point to be present at the cemetery reunion on Memorial Day.
Almira always had the lot carefully decorated. Young Jonathan assisted the night before. Laden with wreaths and flower-baskets, trailing with vines like a young Pan, he tagged his mother, herself laden with floral booty, and together they decorated the Clapp lot.
There were not many graves there. It had been a small family. Grandfather Eliphalet Clapp, of course, and his wife Marie, their graves long since sunken; the more recent grave of a spinster Clapp whom Jonathan could dimly remember; his father, Arthur Clapp's, and a tiny mound for a baby sister.
Jonathan's father's grave had always the best of the decorations. An urn blazing with geraniums, overflowing with graceful vines, stood before the headstone, the grave covered with pansies in a royal arabesque of colour.
Jonathan was so young, his mind became confused. He confessed in later years to hilarious friends, that he had been led to think of his defunct sire as a perpetually blooming, gigantic pansy.
He never told his mother of his impression. He had been a very quiet youngster. He thought a great deal. He recorded impressions upon his receptive mind. The only sign of emotion he evinced was a sudden humorous upward quirk of the upper lip, the right corner, and a twitch of his thin nostrils. His blue eyes remained as always, perfectly clear, beautiful and serene, betraying nothing.
His mother could not have understood him, else his silence might not have been so persistent. She had not the ability to recognize the glitter of the merest spark of humour. She laughed at times, of course. That was obligatory, to maintain her rôle, but her laugh was simply a facial affair: an upcurving of the lines of her mouth. Her eyes above the lines remained unmoved, even stupid, because of the contrast between her real mental attitude and her expression.
Jonathan never loved his mother, during his youth. He was never sure, upon later mature reflection, that he had loved any living thing except an absurd little mongrel dog, which had come yelping and tin-kettled to the kitchen door of the Clapp house.
Jonathan had displayed the first insistent mind of his own, regarding the keeping of that ridiculous dog. He named him Lazarus, and he made a face at his mother behind her back because she mocked at him.
“I will buy a really good dog, a thoroughbred for you,” she said.
But Jonathan clutched the mongrel with such fierceness that the dog, only a puppy then, yelped with alarm at the cruelty of love.
Lazarus remained. He was not even banished from Almira's presence in the living-room. She in time reconciled herself to him by fastening an enormous bow of orange ribbon on his collar. For some undefined reason, that enormous orange bow conferred the grotesque distinction of a gargoyle upon poor Lazarus. He, a composite of many breeds, became definite. He was hideous, but markedly so. Almira, who was clever artistically, immediately perceived that.
“I have made Lazarus possible with a bow of orange ribbon, and he may remain on the hearth on the black satin cushion,” she told Jonathan.
Jonathan nodded silently. Lazarus lay coiled on the black cushion, his orange bow a strange, unearthly colour in the firelight. His eyes gleamed like jets. There was a faint movement of his stumpy tail. There was not enough of it for an actual wag. If he had been a cat he would have purred.
Jonathan had happy hours watching Lazarus on the black cushion, warm and contented in the light of the hearth fire.
Two years before he went to college, Almira sent Jonathan to an inexpensive school. Her luxuries were costly, and her income was limited.
Jonathan had rather a brilliant record in college. However, that was more because, while there, he discovered what his real asset of power in life was, than because of exceptional mental ability.
While in college, during the latter part of his freshman year, Jonathan discovered that he had the rarest type of genius. He could make the world laugh. He did not even need to say anything funny. He could force laughter from embodied sorrow and despair, by a look, a motion.
Jonathan had Lazarus with him in his college rooms. He had always a feeling that the absurd dog had in some occult fashion revealed him to himself. The combination of Jonathan and mongrel dog became the inverted pride of the college.
Jonathan and Lazarus eclipsed in a subtle fashion everything else. They had their own honour, so strange that it commanded first attention.
Even the stroke oar and the football captain retired, if only for the time, into the background when Jonathan, his Lazarus at heel, appeared.
“Here comes Jonty, and the Beggar at the Gate,” the shout went up.
Everybody stared, and hilarity appeared like a rainbow. Even the faculty lost dignity.
There was no doubt that Jonathan and Lazarus were the high lights of the young man's last collegiate year.
Jonathan had no need of class honours on Commencement Day. It was enough to be himself when he graduated.
Honours conferred would have been like crowning the already crowned.
He was the real delight of the whole affair: of the weary grind at useless mental tasks, of the enthusiastic games, of the rebellions against authority. He was sheer delight, the promoter of innocent mirth. They could better have given up electric lights in the college buildings, than Jonathan.
But with all this, nobody loved the boy, except as they loved themselves. When they laughed with joy, there was not the slightest love in their hearts for him. They would have lamented had Jonathan been taken away; they would have grieved; but not because they loved him, because they loved themselves and their own joy of life which he, and he alone, had the power to awaken in them. Jonathan was perfectly well aware of that. He did not admit to himself the slightest repining because of it. He told himself gallantly and gayly, that it was a great feat for any man: to like to make his fellow beings laugh and forget sorrow, and have them ready to forget him, as they would any spectacle of amusement.
“I am a sort of jumping-jack for the gods and men,” he said to a man once, a man who was the nearest to a friend he had found.
The other looked at him, startled for a minute. Was there, or did he imagine it, a faint inflection of sadness and bitterness in Jonathan's tone?
But Jonathan laughed: a long ringing laugh. “Tell you what it is, Sam,” he said. “When you are a joke on yourself, you are the biggest joke in existence.”
Sam looked doubtful, then he also laughed.
“See here, old man,” he said. “It isn't altogether because you are so damned funny that I like you.”
The sweetest smile curved Jonathan's mouth. Then he laughed again. “But,” he returned, “you might as well own up, if I hadn't made you laugh you would just have gone your way, just gone past without even noticing me.”
Sam, who was the brightest scholar of his class, the one out of the whole college destined to live in the history of his country, was honest. His honesty was, in fact, his asset of success.
“Of course, you are right about that, I suppose,” he admitted; “but now —.”
“Now, you wouldn't turn your back on me, if I failed to make you laugh at all,” Jonathan said, and looked with love in his eyes (love for the passing second, he allowed himself no more: the aftertaste was too bitter), at his friend. “Well,” he added, “you are not likely to be put to the test. I shall make everybody, myself included, laugh till I die, and then I reckon I shall contrive to be somewhat ludicrous in a ghastly fashion. It is a component part of my personality; I am proud of it, old man. If I didn't have that, what on earth would I have to be proud of?”
Sam regarded him thoughtfully. “After all, it is a rare gift,” he said hesitatingly, for suddenly the savour of terrible pathos was strong in his nostrils. “You are the one man here who has it,” he added.
“To waken laughter in this world is better than to waken love,” Jonathan said, a bit cryptically. “I think the memory of love is shorter than the memory of a laugh,” he continued. “Most people remember a good joke. It has immortal youth; but whose sweetheart has? Not a man-jack but will pass the lass to whom he swore eternal devotion, without even recognizing her, twenty years later; but never will he pass a good joke twenty years later, without feeling his heart warm.”
“Dare say you are right,” Sam returned, but he looked puzzled.
When Jonathan was alone in his room, he stood before his mirror. Every line in his face was downward. His whole face was a mask.
“Needs this sort of thing for a jest foundation,” Jonathan said, quite aloud. “Well, I must have something out of life, and this is better than nothing at all.”
Jonathan's mother, old and exquisite in her triumphant age, was rather proud of her son's unique talent. She laughed with the rest. When Jonathan was at home, not a word or pose but was for the sake of his mother's laughter when he was with her. And this although he was well aware that her laughter was only perfunctory, the only laughter possible to a woman of her type.
However, that left the boy unmoved. He did not in the least love his mother. He saw no reason for gratitude that she, presumably not considering his welfare at all, had brought him into the world. It did not seem to him reasonable to be grateful for anything like that — for a life such as his.
He admired her only coldly and impersonally. When he had aroused her vain laughter, he felt that he had been purely filial.
“Mother is so proud because she thinks she has a sense of humour,” he told himself.
Once the old cousin Lois waylaid him. She put her hand on his shoulder. “You poor boy!” she said.
The meek, involuntary butt had grasped the situation. She had steeled her heart against affection. It was too costly a commodity for her, but she had grasped the situation. He looked at her astonished. A tear was rolling down each withered cheek, although she kept her patient face immobile.
Jonathan had never seen love for himself enough to know it; in reality, he had not seen more of pity, but he did recognize that.
“Look here, old lady,” he said. “Tears make me own failure. No tears. Lord, life is one immense joke. Look here, life is your joke as well as mine. If one has nothing else, there is always the joke. Laugh, for God's sake, laugh, old lady!”
Lois, ancient, bent, weazened, her black silk gown crinkled on her flat chest as with a grotesque mirth of fabric, laughed.
“You are the funniest boy that ever lived,” she chuckled, and dashed a little wrinkled hand across the streaming tears.
“And isn't that distinction for one boy?” Jonathan laughed back. “Laughter is good for the souls of men. It makes them glad, and as yet the Government has nothing to say against it. Laugh, old lady, laugh, for God's sake!”
And for inexplicable reasons, old Lois laughed, until tears of mirth instead of pity drenched her cheeks.
Jonathan laughed too, but not to tears.
Almira, in her lilac satin, heard, although her door was closed, and laughed also.
“What were you and Jonathan laughing at?” she asked Lois when she entered.
“I don't know,” Lois said, still laughing helplessly. “Just Jonathan.”
“I have never seen any human being with such inexhaustible spirits,” Almira said complacently.
“He would laugh at that,” Lois said.
“At what?” Almira stared.
“Inexhaustible spirits — just now — you know.”
“I do not understand,” Almira said. “For goodness sake, don't you try to be funny, Lois. Leave that to Jonathan. He has a perfect genius for it. As I remember perfectly, he was always laughing when he was a mere baby.”
“He needs to,” Lois replied with unexpected force. She looked at the other, beautiful, prosperous woman, defiantly.
“What do you mean?”
“He has always had to laugh to keep from crying,” Lois said.
“There you are, trying to be funny again, and you are simply stupid. Leave it to Jonathan,” Almira said.
She lay on her chaise lounge, reflecting. “On the whole, Jonathan is turning out much better than I expected,” she murmured. “Of course he is handicapped. I am his mother, but I have always faced the truth that he is handicapped.”
“Not as long as he can laugh,” Lois said again with her unusual defiance. “A man who can laugh can take all the fences of life.”
“There you go again, trying to be funny. You can't. It is not in our family. Jonathan is a throwback.”
“Perhaps he is a throwback to a jester of some old king.”
Almira stared at Lois icily. “Your hair is growing grayer very fast,” said she, “and the lines on your face are deeper. I will give you some of my skin tonic.”
“Thank you,” said Lois.
Jonathan, after he had transformed his old cousin's tears to laughter, went out to the garage. There was one car there: an old model of a good make, in perfect order. The man who worked about the place for his mother was rubbing its glittering sides.
He looked up and saw Jonathan and began to laugh, without a word being said. It was not the least of Jonathan's genius that he could arouse paroxysms of laughter, and do absolutely nothing except present himself to view. In the face of the fact that no mortal could specify one distinctly humorous feature of his, it was almost uncanny. Jonathan did not even need to change a muscle. He was as a god of hilarity commanding laughter with no perceptible action.
“What in the name of common sense are you laughing at now?” Jonathan inquired. And the man bent over double with mirth. He glanced up at Jonathan's unmoved face, and was off again, fairly choking. Jonathan stood by with absolutely unmoved face. However, although unmoved as to muscle, his features wore an expression of gravity, even sternness, before the other man's laughter, which in some strange paradoxical fashion was the extreme of comedy, at least for an untrained mind.
The man sat down on the running-board of the car; he was fairly weak with his unrestrained mirth.
Jonathan, without a word, got into the car, and took the wheel.
Dickson, the man, slid off the running-board, and stood out of the way. The last thing Jonathan heard as he drove off was the echo of his silly laughter. Then he frowned. “Lord, if there only was something funny,” he said. He put on more speed. A girl crossing the street gave a quick, graceful leap to the sidewalk. Jonathan saw her looking back over her silken shoulder, and an old twinge of pain to which he was accustomed, shot over him. It seemed to completely fill his whole consciousness of body, soul and mind.
Years before, when in fact he was very young, Jonathan had taken his fixed attitude of life toward girls and women, and what they could mean to him, or rather what he could mean to them.
It was strange that, without any actual deformity or physical fault, a man could have been so physically repellent toward women; but he was. Jonathan, when he first fully realized it, had felt heartbroken. He was, after all, in spite of his strange gift, as other men. He had his dreams. A youth without dreams would be a spiritual and physical monster. Jonathan had loved his dreams. He had not only to relinquish all hope of happiness, — that natural food for the starved yearning of his kind, — but he had to smother his dreams.
Then he gained greater power in his one talent; but while the laughter swelled louder around him, he knew for the first time the terrible loneliness of his own heart. He knew it must exist while he walked the earth. He would be alone as long as he lived. Sometimes the boy wondered if it would not be better to be alone with openly confessed sadness, than with roaring mirth.
He knew only gradually the dreadful under-note of the born jesters of the world — that compelling endurance of despair which alone makes possible their superhuman mirth and power of awakening mirth.
He was fully fledged in his knowledge, in his development of what is fortunately a rare gift, as he drove down the principal street of his native town.
He had graduated the year before. He was studying with a lawyer who was an old sweetheart of his mother's. Who was in a way her sweetheart still. Peter Saunders had survived his love's marriage with another. He had not attempted, when death had freed her, to renew their old relations and marry her.
Still he clung to the old romance, and Almira was a faithful obbligato.
Both of them enjoyed the situation. Almira did not wish to marry again. She was rather a clever woman. She understood perfectly that with years she had lost her power of creating illusion, when in close daily communion. Not always could she maintain her lovely poses, her charming acceptance of situations with a husband. No mortal woman could at her age.
She knew also that, while it would not have mattered in the least to some men, it would seriously matter with her old lover.
The romantic strain which more properly had belonged to a woman, when she was a girl, had made her turn from him as a husband.
She recognized his perfection as a lover, but she recognized her own inability to keep it green, and his inability to maintain the married pace without actual dislike for her. She had married a man to whom romance meant nothing, but whom she could hold, and did hold until death did them part.
Then, although she was not inconsolable, she was not of that caliber; she had no desire to marry again; and she did regard the return of Peter upon his old footing, as adorer, as perpetual lover, with gratitude and pride.
She thought of him secretly as another Petrarch, although out of his romance he could weave no songs, and of herself as another Laura.
She was aware that this perpetual homage kept her young beyond her years.
She dressed for Peter, she cold-creamed for Peter, she kept her hair wonderful for Peter, and secretly, in the recesses of her terribly feminine mind, knew him for what he really was: a tonic for the preservation of her youth.
There was never any scandal, never any gossip as to their possible marriage. It was the most graceful, properly conducted elderly love-story possible, and was considered very charming.
Peter was the faithful lover, she the accepter of love, holding it to her soul like a sacred chalice. Occasionally she intimated to some other woman that she could not dream of ever marrying again, because of her son.
That absurdity was credited to her account of womanly perfection. Jonathan never heard of it. He would have laughed the most genuine laugh of his life if he had.
He accepted Peter as he accepted the best easy chair in the library, one covered with red leather and worn to ultimate intimacy with the weary curves of the human anatomy. It was there Peter sat, while he paid his calls of faithful and poetic love.
Strangely enough, considering this side of his character, Peter was a lawyer, and rather an astute one. He had inherited wealth, and his legal energy must presumably have been for some motive other than acquisition.
When Jonathan had completed his college course, he naturally studied law with the man who might have been his father. It seemed really all in the family.
Strangely too, as strangely for Jonathan as for the older man, he also promised from the first to be rather more than a moderate success in his profession.
As time went on, he won more than one case by his rare natural gift, instead of his acquired knowledge of the law.
It was as good as known what the verdict would be when the jury went out shaking with suppressed laughter. Jonathan successfully defended one ghastly murder case with that queer power of his. He could make the dreadful swing over the crossbar into the irresistibly funny.
It was against all reason, and the press criticized, but he succeeded.
Jonathan had been practicing law two years, and Peter had gradually played his part of perpetual lover to the usurpation of his business, drinking tea every afternoon, and smoking as his old sweetheart graciously allowed. Peter was a handsome man, fastidious about his dress, peculiarly fastidious, for a man, with regard to coming in contact with the unclean and unkempt.
A distaste for the close fetidness of court rooms had increased with him, as had also an actual loathing which dangerously disposed him to unfairness toward a client whose status in society was below his own.
Jonathan had no such scruples. In fact, he liked very well to have his senior seated metaphorically at his charming mother's feet, drinking tea, and playing with the shadows of a past love.
Privately, he considered Peter better fitted for that than for the law.
“No man has a right to be where he is apt to see a horrible mess any minute, if his stomach is so damned delicate,” he told himself.
He was not unhappy, although he had foresworn, or rather been forbidden by fate, the sweets of life which hung too high over the wall of situation for him. He was proudly conscious of never endeavouring to reach for them, and of seeing them grasped and swallowed by others, with a kindly jest upon his own part.
That day when Laura Wayne made her swift graceful leap out of the danger which he had created for her, was destined to mark an epoch in his life.
Two days later Jonathan met her at a little dinner.
Jonathan's home town, although not large, was rather unusually smart at aping city fashions. Except in rare instances, it betrayed no provincialism.
Jonathan was a popular guest at dinners. He could eat his dinner and scarcely speak, and be credited with the social success of the whole affair. Jonathan grinningly admitted to himself that a man might be worse off than being perfectly able to eat a very good dinner, and not pay for it with a single word, and yet receive the credit.
However, it happened this time that he was to take out Miss Laura Wayne.
She was a beauty, although in a subtle fashion which sometimes flung doubt upon the fact. She was very tall, almost too tall, taller by an inch at least than Jonathan; but somehow she contrived to make little of her height, as some women contrive to make much of their lack of it. The subtlety of her beauty consisted mainly in the fact that men in a great majority recognized it, women in a small minority.
Women generally admitted that Laura Wayne had a good complexion and good features, but as for beauty, or the indefinable combination which makes for that, they failed to see it.
Men saw it.
Jonathan could scarcely command himself sufficiently to look squarely in her face when he offered her his arm to lead her to the dining-room — Jonathan, one of whose chief assets of popularity was his entire lack of self-consciousness.
As they sat at table, Jonathan for the most part addressed remarks to the smooth cold curve of her bare shoulder, surmounted by a silver strap which held her black velvet dinner gown in place.
Jonathan had not the slightest idea what the beauty wore. He had a confused perception of soft dark depths of fabric, confining her tall slenderness like a sheath. He could not have told if the shoulder straps were of gold or silver. He was, however, aware of a long platinum chain, from which swung a diamond cross. The thing glittered obtrusively.
He felt curiously confounded before it. Sometimes, when he essayed to make a remark to the girl, the dazzle of the cross seemed to make him stop dumb, to lose entirely the thread of his contemplated speech.
Once Laura laughed. “What is the trouble, Mr. Clapp?” she asked.
“Yes, you seemed about to say something, but then you checked yourself so abruptly. Was it something shocking?”
“I quite forget. I beg your pardon,” Jonathan said. He felt himself a burning crimson. His lower lip almost dropped.
Laura laughed again. The girl's laugh, at once mocking and caressing, rang in the man's ears all night long. He could not sleep. Such love had entered his soul that he was too alive for sleep. Every nerve in his body was like a thread of fire. The whole man flamed with the utmost divinity of love, that which gives and does not ask.
Poor Jonathan never dreamed of asking. He never dreamed of the possibility of his love being returned. It is doubtful if he could have done that and loved. Love in its fullest sense means, for a rare soul, giving only, never receiving, and the man had a rare soul. His love was worth more, a minute of it, than another man's love of a life.
Jealousy was not in Jonathan. Laura's name was coupled with that of another man: a handsome, graceful fellow, with wealth and charm. Jonathan even thought of him with a queer sort of affection tinctured with doubt. He wondered was he worthy. He sought his company, he studied him. Finally he took the purest delight in finding him of rather exceptional merit.
Jonathan, convinced of that, thought of the girl as already married, placed beyond his honourable reach. He realized no suffering because of that. He had not even wanted her for himself in the sense that the other did. She was his butterfly wing of existence. He could scarcely venture to touch her with the antennæ of his thought. Possessed by him, she would have lost her value for him.
No man could ever possess her, as he already did for time and eternity, not even himself.
In those days Jonathan came near losing his insignificance. He appeared taller, almost imposing. Sometimes Laura looked at him with dawning wonder, but he did not realize it. He realized nothing except the rapture of utterly selfless love which ennobled him past his own understanding.
The true hero cannot escape his pedestal. Worship raises, as by some divine lever, the soul above itself. Peter Saunders noticed the change in him, but it assumed in his estimation a perfectly natural advance along the lines of the young man's rare gift.
Jonathan was more successful than ever in his profession. More and more he compelled the adoration of laughter, and won his way through all obstacles.
His mother was proud of him because he was her son. Her laughter at his jests had a ring of genuine fondness in it.
Jonathan was mentioned as a possible factor in politics. A high position was hinted at as not being beyond his reach.
“A man who can hold an audience like that can hold the reins of power,” it was said.
When Laura heard that she looked reflective. Still, Jonathan's possible elevation did not move her. She had not thought of him as a lover; she did not then. That came later.
There was a benefit play to be held in the town for a new hall. A celebrated stock company with a Broadway success was engaged.
Strangely enough, the play had for one of its cast a queen's jester, and the jester died suddenly just before the date of the performance.
He had been in reality the star of the cast, although the playwright had not so intended.
The man had gained, almost without his own connivance, undue prominence. The jester made the play.
When he died there was consternation, for there was nobody among the professionals to take his part and not let the whole play down.
Then Jonathan suddenly came into his own.
He was besieged, first by his fellow-townsmen, then by the manager.
He did not hesitate long. The thing appealed to him. It was, and he instinctively knew it, the right footing after many days. The peg was to be fitted to its own niche.
Laura was out of town. She returned the night of the performance. She was amazed when Jonathan appeared in the traditional cap and bells.
“Why, that is Jonathan Clapp!” she whispered to a woman beside her.
“Yes, didn't you know? The professional dropped dead, and Jonathan Clapp is taking his part.” As she spoke, the woman's face was creased with mirth.
The audience went mad with delight over their own jester. Every movement, every word was applauded, and the laughter rose and fell like waves of the sea.
Until the last.
Then the poor jester, on his knees before the queen, confessed his love. Suddenly a silence like a shock was over everything. The people sat still and held their breaths. This was something new. They had not expected it.
The tremendous pathos which alone can make great comedy, was before them, made known to them.
When the curtain went down the house rose with one accord. Something almost like hysteria swept them. Jonathan appeared again and again.
The next day it was known he had refused the most flattering offers to continue with the company. They said he was greater than the dead comedian had been — that a career was open to him.
That evening Jonathan went to a dinner in his honour. He was made a hero. Laura, who was there, did not approach him with the rest.
After dinner she beckoned him into a little conservatory off the drawing-room. She stood half-concealed behind the tall palms and motioned to him.
He shook his head slightly. That simple motion awakened laughter among all who saw and did not understand.
She was insistent. He saw a flash of emeralds on her finger.
After a time he stole away and joined her.
The girl did not hesitate. She was bold, out of herself.
“Jonathan,” she whispered. “Jonathan.”
He knew that she understood herself as being in the place of the queen in the play. He knew that he had betrayed himself. He knew that at last it was possible for him to take as well as give, but the taking had no savour for his soul. He knew that if he took, love would go, both from his own soul and hers.
What had moved her was the jester in the consummate climax of all jest. Not even for her could he accept as his own the sad underlying fact. He could not all his life play a part not his own birthright.
When she whispered again and laid a hand on his arm, he only laughed.
He flung back to the people in the drawing-room. “Another bouquet for the fool,” he called out gaily.
There was a roar of laughter. The girl's face blazed, then went white. Then she too laughed of her brave spirit.
Nobody could have said those five words as Jonathan said them.
Nobody could have made them so unaccountably funny.
When Jonathan got home that night, the lights were on. The perpetual lover had not gone, and old Lois was waiting for Jonathan in the little room near the door. The servants had gone out. She let him in before he could take out his latch-key.
Old Lois pulled him gently into the little room gleaming with light. “Jonathan,” she said in very much the same manner that the girl had.
“Well, old lady.”
“I know,” said old Lois.
“Then you know why I laugh,” Jonathan replied.
She gazed up in his face, tears streaming over her cheeks, her mouth twitching.
“Laugh, old lady, Life can be met by you as by me, only with a laugh — or we shall both go down under it. Laugh, old lady.”
Lois laughed. Jonathan's laugh rang out. “It is a duet,” he cried gaily, and they laughed again.