By Gregory Clark, February 4, 1922.
Three generations in the city, and the wine of life becomes water.
The third generation born and bred in the city has lost its spring, its sparkle, its flavor. It does one of two things. It seeks artificial and erotic stimulation, and so becomes that type of sophisticated and effete waster common enough in cities. Or it succumbs to the enfeeblement it feels within its veins, and joins the lower ranks of those drab, mechanical tollers who are the chief inhabitants of cities, the fourth or tenth or fiftieth generation of dwellers in cities.
For there appears to be an energy in the soil that man must absorb. The city man goes away in summer for a two-week holiday close to the soil, and sucks enough of this mysterious energy out of the earth to revive him for a year. But presently there comes to town a young man born and raised close to the earth and abounding in this primitive energy. And he drives the city man to the wall; outlasts him, out-moves him, skins him, picks his bones.
But this new man’s grandson is in turn the victim of a newcomer, fresh from the soil. All about us are examples of the third urbane generation putting up its unconscious struggle against a soily Fate. In some of the wealthier families, so filled were the first generations with energy, as the wealth they accumulated bears witness, that the fourth generation is sometimes left still in the ring.
But we have made the pursuits of the soil so hard, unpleasant and unprofitable that the enfeebled generation finds it easier to slip back into the permanent category of the city’s damned than to return boldly to the soil to recuperate in a few generations the supply of vital energy.
There is a way out, nevertheless.
And J. Hubert Waterberry found it.
Hubert was the third generation in Toronto. His grandfather, son of an immigrant who fought with Mackenzie’s rebels in 1837, came to town and built up a great contracting and building business. Scores of houses still standing south of Carlton street were built by Hubert’s grandfather.
Hubert’s father, however, was sent to school and became a lawyer. A good lawyer, too. He had offices in Victoria street and developed a big practice. But he found professional life to be merely the service of business life, and he determined that his son Hubert should be a business man.
Hubert was twenty-one in the year 1900. He was a sophisticated, elegant young man, fresh from college. His father got him into a prosperous firm of insurance brokers.
When Hubert was thirty, he was a bachelor. He had been hectically in love with several girls, but all had rejected him, in an indifferent way, as if they had sensed a want of energy in him. At thirty, he was feeling that want of stamina. On his father’s death, he used up every atom of his energy in breaking away from the big insurance firm with another young member of it, and starting a business of their own with the old man’s money.
But after five years, Hubert’s partner became restless for some reason and left the partnership.
At forty, Hubert was not so much a bachelor as an old maid. His office was a dim, dusty mausoleum in that remote district behind the King Edward Hotel. His business was reduced to those old accounts which had not yet been won away from him by live competitors. Hubert lived in the same select boarding house on Sherbourne street which he had taken on his father’s death.
Hubert’s only employe was elderly Miss Murdagh, who had been middle-aged when Hubert brought her with him from the old company.
In the dim office, with its maps, calendars and directories, these two sat from nine a.m. to five p.m., writing letters, issuing renewals of policies, but rarely going out for new business.
He had no clubs, no recreations. He read his newspaper at night, sometimes he went to a theatre or a lecture. His only hobby was his health, which, finding its self an object of interest, became steadily more complex.
His hair grew thin and grey. At forty he looked fifty.
Then one day old Miss Murdagh failed to turn up at the office. Hubert phoned her boarding house and learned that she had died during the night, quite unexpectedly.
Hubert was badly upset. He could handle the work all right, but it meant hustling. And Hubert had not hustled in fifteen years. three weeks after Miss Murdagh’s funeral at which Hubert was the chief mourner, he struggled alone in his dusty office, but found a wave of untidiness, disorder and tangled business engulfing him. Several faithful old accounts phoned him impatiently. Each night he went home later and more distressed.
He decided he would have to get help. After writing and re-writing half a hundred ads., he went down at noon one day to the newspaper offices with this:
“Wanted a mature woman acquainted with insurance business and office work. Telephone Mr. Waterberry, Main –”
At three o’clock that afternoon, girls began phoning him and calling at his office. They had looked up his address in the phone book. Hubert got into a panic. Suppose he picked the wrong girl? He couldn’t tell what they, were like over the phone. All who called at the office were young, flippant girls with powdered faces–
At three forty-five, with the telephone ringing. Hubert breathlessly seized hat and coat, locked up his office and fled home.
As he sat in his room waiting till dinner time, Hubert was filled with alarm. What would he do? Doubtless, when he went down to his office in the morning, there would be a queue of girls a mile long. He’d have to pick one. And Hubert didn’t want to have to pick one. He had lost his nerve. He would perhaps pick some horrible, hustling, cocksure creature.
Hubert decided he would be ill, in bed tomorrow, and maybe the ad. would blow over.
Just before supper-time, there was a knock on his door, and the housemaid said:
“You’re wanted on the phone, sir!”
Hubert went down.
“Mr. Waterberry?” asked a pleasant feminine voice.
“Yes,” His heart sank.
“I am answering your ad. in the paper today,” said the voice. “I hunted you up in the directory, finding your office, closed. Am I too late?”
Hubert was reassured by the softness of the voice. He could picture another Miss Murdagh.
“No,” he said.
“Then, I’ve had experience in insurance office work, not in Toronto, but in a small town in western Ontario,” said the woman. “I am very anxious to get any work, so whatever you regard as a fair salary I am willing to take.”
“Yes. All right,” said Hubert.
“Shall I call at nine or earlier?”
Hubert had an inspiration.
“Yes. And – and would you mind – I’m not very well – perhaps if you would take charge of the office for the morning and deal with the other applicants?”
“Why, yes!” said the woman. “The key?”
“Could you call here at my boarding house to-night? I’ll leave it with the housekeeper,” said Hubert.
And Hubert, leaving the office key in an envelope, fled out and had dinner at a restaurant and spent a most enjoyable evening at Shea’s1.
The following morning Hubert went down town before lunch. He couldn’t help walking past his office, just to see–. There was no line-up of painted girls. He entered the building and paused outside his office door to listen.
There was a strenuous sound as of someone house-cleaning.
Hubert could scarcely eat his lunch, he was so excited. What if this woman he had engaged turned out to be one of those energetic, aggressive, chirpy women? What if she were young and bouncy? And Hubert spent a few minutes in prayerful remembrance of quiet, stodgy old Miss Murdagh.
Bracing himself, at two o’clock Hubert shoved himself down the back streets to his office. With leaden feet he climbed the old wooden stairs. He rapped nervously on his own office door and entered.
At the typewriter sat a big, splendid, brown-haired girl in a blue skirt and white waist.
She rose quietly and came over to Hubert, who had removed his hat and was looking at her dumbly. She smiled at him.
“Yes?” she said.
“I-I-ah!” said Hubert.
He looked expectantly at her. “Are – are you-?” he began.
“I’m in charge of the office. Mr. Waterberry is not in yet? Is there anything I can do?” said the pleasant young lady.
“Well,” said Hubert, immensely confused, and laying his hat down on a desk with an attempt at the proprietorial air. “I’m – ah – that is to say you see, I am –!”
“Ah, you’d care to wait?” said the girl, pulling out a chair.
And nodding pleasantly to him, she returned to the typewriter.
Hubert sat down weakly. He gazed around the office, noting its tidiness and order. “I – ah” he began.
The girl swung on her chair.
“You see,” said Hubert, “I’m Mr. Waterberry!”
What happened afterwards was a golden memory all his life to Hubert. The girl leaped up and helped him out of his coat. She escorted him over to his swivel chair. She was blushing furiously.
“Why – when you knocked,” she was saying, “you see, I was expecting Mr. Waterberry – but when you knocked, I thought you were a client. And then, when you stood there, with your hat in your hand –“
Her eyes were glimmering with laughter. Hubert looked sheepishly up at her and smiled. Then out came the laughter, boiling and bubbling. And Hubert suddenly joined in. He leaned back and laughed till he wept. They looked at each other and laughed again. It was years since Hubert had laughed with anybody. Years and years. It was a wonderful sensation. He hated to stop laughing. So he confessed about his fear, and how he ran away from the office yesterday -and – and –
So they chuckled and laughed. They exchanged confidences. Hubert how he detested these modern office girls. The girl, how she had come to move to Toronto. The minutes passed. Then an hour. Still they were talking. Hubert was zestfully explaining to her her work, the various accounts.
It was a long time since Hubert had been intimate with anyone.
When dusk caught them in the dim office. Hubert regretfully closed the discussion. He bade her a most cheery good night and went home feeling better than he ever remembered feeling in his life.
It was a new world for Hubert. It was a pleasure to go to the office. He felt infinitely younger, boundlessly young. The girl talked before a week was out, quite boldly about the need of new business. She discovered openings for it in old accounts. Hubert went and got it.
At the end of a year, the business and Hubert were so changed that Miss Pigeon – that was her name -found it necessary to hire another girl, and a little later, a young man.
She won Hubert over to joining a golf club. On business grounds.
Hubert and she still kept sacred their regular daily laugh and exchange of confidences. It was found necessary, after a while, to go to lunch together in order to complete these conversations. And finally, it came to theatres and movies.
Naturally, the whole thing had but one end. Hubert felt himself drawing the very breath of life through this vigorous, splendid girl. He depended on her more and more, in countless little ways, and in big ways.
Finally, she helped him select a new overcoat and hat.
He looked in the mirror of the hat store and beheld a mere lad of forty – a swagger, upstanding fellow–
And when they closed up the office that evening, the juniors having gone, Hubert helped Miss Pigeon with her ulster2. As he did so, something that had been smoldering in him all afternoon, broke loose. He felt as if an electric current were flowing from her to him, a magnetic, swirling current. And he released his hold on the collar of her ulster only to seize her shoulders, turn her around to face him and stare breathlessly and foolishly at her, and then enfold her in a vast, stupid hug.
Romance: thou art as sly of foot in Wellington street as in the castled fastnesses of Rosedale.
They were married in no time. They live in a bungalow out beyond High Park, in an atmosphere of the most absurd happiness, forty-four and twenty-five.
“You’ve made a new man of me,” says Hubert, at least once every twenty-four hours.
But while Hubert is aware of it, he doesn’t give proper value to the fact that his pigeon was born and raised on the farm.