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The Fairport Art Museum by Octave Thanet

The following is the complete text of Octave Thanet's The Fairport Art Museum. The various books, short stories and poems we offer are presented free of charge with absolutely no advertising as a public service from Internet Accuracy Project.

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The Fairport Art Museum by Octave Thanet (Alice French)


by Octave Thanet

After the war was over, the Middle West addressed itself to Culture. Perhaps the husbands and brothers and fathers might still be busy making money; but the women of the West, whose energies and emotions had been mightily roused, found life a little tame when there were no more sanitary commissions, no more great fairs or little fairs for the soldiers, no more intense emotions over printed sheets. Then it was that the Woman's Club lifted a modest finger at the passing car of progress, and unobtrusively boarded it.

Fairport was conservative, as always, but she had no mind to be left behind in the march of feminine fashion. She did not rush to extremes, but she had women's clubs in 1881. The chief of these were the Ladies' Literary Club and the Spinsters' Alliance. Both clubs tackled the same great themes of ethics and art, and allotted a winter to the literature of a nation, except in the case of Greek and Roman literatures, which were not considered able to occupy a whole winter apiece, so they were studied in company. The club possessed a proper complement of officers, and their meetings went from house to house. They were conducted with artless simplicity, in a pleasant, conversational manner, but with due regard to polite forms; and only at a moment of excitement was the chair addressed by her Christian name.

Naturally, the women's clubs were deeply stirred by the first great World's Fair in America. But the whole West was moved. It turned to art with a joyous ardor, the excited happiness of a child that finds a new beauty in the world. Why had we not thought of the artistic regeneration of our sordid life before? Never mind, we would make amends for lost time by spending more money! In very truth the years following the Centennial witnessed an extraordinary awakening of worship of beauty, almost religious in its fervor. Passionate pilgrims ransacked Europe and the Orient; a prodigal horde of their captives, objects of luxury and of art, surged into galleries and museums and households. No cold, critical taste weeded out these adorable aliens. The worst and the best conquered, together. Our architecture, our furniture, our household surroundings were metamorphosed as by enchantment. And the feature of mark in it all was the unparalleled diffusion of the new faith. Not the great cities only; the towns, the villages, the hamlets, caught fire.

Of course, Fairport went to Philadelphia; and Fairport was converted. It followed, at once that the women's clubs of the place should serve most zealously at the altar; and nothing could be more inevitable than that in course of time there should be a concrete manifestation of zeal. Hence the memorable Art Museum, the fame of which to this day will revive, when there is a meeting of the solid and gray-haired matrons who were the light-footed girls of the Alliance, and the talk falls on the old times.

The art collection would give its admirers shivers to-day, but it excited only happy complacency then. The mood of the hour was not critical. The homes of the Fairport gentry held innumerable oil copies of the great masters of different degrees of merit, which they loaned secure of welcome; with them came family treasures so long held in reverence that their artistic value (coldly considered) had been lost to comparison, and the gems of accomplished amateurs who painted flowers on china cups, or of rising young artists who had not as yet risen beyond the circle of trusting friends in town.

In general, the donors' expectation of gratitude was justified, but even so early as 1881 there were limits to artistic credulity; and some offerings drove the club president, Miss Claudia Loraine, and the club secretary, Miss Emma Hopkins, to "the coal hold." This was a wee closet under the stairs, where the coal scuttles were ranged, until they should fare forth to replenish the "base burners" which warmed the Museum home. In real life the name of the Museum's lodgings was Harness Block, and Mr. Harness had proffered the cause of art two empty stores, formerly a fish market and a grocery. As there was no private office (only a wire cage), when Miss Hopkins felt the need of frank speech she signaled Claudia to the coal hole.

She was closeted with her thus on the morning of the second day. The subject of the conference was the last assault on the nerves of the committee, perpetrated by the Miller twins--not in person, but with their china. The china, itself, had the outward semblance of ordinary blue earthen ware of a cheap grade; but the Miller twins were convinced (on the testimony of their dear old minister, who never told a lie in his life, and who had heard the Millers' grandmother say--and everybody knows that she was a saint on earth, and she was ninety years old at the time, and would she be likely to lie almost on her dying bed?--you might call it her dying bed, averred Miss Miller, since she was bedridden for two years before her death, on that same old four-poster bedstead which belonged to her mother, and at last died on it) that the blue ware had been the property of George the Third, had been sold and was on board the ship with the tea which was rifled in Boston Harbor. They had insisted in pasting these royal claims upon the china in the blackest and neatest lettering. The awkward fact that earthenware does not usually grace a royal board, or that the saintly old grandmother mixed up dates and persons in a wonderful way during her latter days, made no difference to her loyal descendants. Each platter with the black chipping betraying plainly its lowly origin, each tea-cup mended with cement, bore the paper-claim pasted securely upon it.

"It took up a whole afternoon," said Miss Tina Miller, "but it's so precious and there might be other blue ware and it might get mixed--you'll insure it, Miss Hopkins? not that money could replace such things, but, at least"--Miss Tina Miller always left her sentences in the air, seemingly too diffident to complete them, once the auditors were assured of their import.

The Millers kept a tiny little house on a tiny little income; but gave of all they had to give, themselves, without stint. They were public-spirited women, if Fairport ever held any such. Although they had neither brothers nor cousins to go to the war, they had picked lint and made bandages and trudged with subscription papers and scrimped for weeks to have money to spend at the patriotic fairs. In consequence they were deeply respected, so respected that it was simply impossible to refuse their unselfish offering of their dearest god.

"I think it just noble of you," said Miss Tina. "Sister and I felt we must help; so we brought the King George china and a little pencil head our sister Euphrosyne did. The one who died, you know. I'm sorry all your--art things--aren't in yet. No, I can't come to-morrow; I shall be very busy--sister may come--thank you."

Both the keen young listeners knew why Miss Tina could not come; it was neither more nor less than the admission fee.

"But I'll take care of that," said Emma to Claudia in the coal hold. "Elly is going to give her and Miss Ally each a season ticket."

"Then we're in for the King George china!" groaned Claudia softly.

"We are," said Emma. "I've put it in a good but not too good a place, and Mr. Winslow is inspecting it now."

"And he knows about china; he's sent lovely things," mourned Claudia.

"Oh, well, he knows about the Miller girls, too," said Emma, smiling; "I think he'll forgive us."

"You'd better go explain," urged Claudia, "and throw in that landscape with the cow that seems to have five legs and belongs to Mr. Harness. Perhaps he'll forgive that, too."

Emma went,--she was an amiable girl. She was not pretty like her sister, Mrs. Raimund, who had married the great railway man and was a power in Chicago society; but there was something in the radiant neatness and good humor of the plain sister which made her pleasant to look upon.

Winslow's mouth and eyes relaxed at her greeting, and he smiled over her official quotation of the Millers' claims.

"King George's table? H'mn; which table, second or third?" His eyes twinkled at Emma, whose own eyes twinkled back.

"They're awfully good women," said she, in a kind of compunction.

"None better," said he.

As he passed on, with his little son at his side, she thought: "He isn't nearly so grim as I used to think."

Mrs. Winslow and Mrs. Winter were a few paces behind. They halted before the china, which Mrs. Winter examined; but Mrs. Winslow's weary eyes lingered hardly a moment before they found some other object on which to rest and leave as briefly.

"It is to be hoped this priceless relic won't be damaged in any way," said Mrs. Winter. "Still"--she bent confidentially toward Emma--"if such a calamity should occur, I know a shop in Chicago where you can get plenty for three dollars and ninety-nine cents."

"I hope nothing will happen to it," said Emma, with stolid reticence.

Mrs. Winslow had not listened, her listless face had been transformed; it was illumined now by the loveliest of smiles; she half put out her hand as a little boy snuggled up to her silken skirts, with a laugh.

"Papa letted me come," he said gaily, "and Peggy's here, too,--there!"

Peggy was attired with great care, her long red curls were shining and her eyes sparkled.

Immediately both children were immersed in the beauties of a collection of rejected models which had been obtained from the patent office, and which, surely, were the most diverting toys imaginable.

"Poor things, to them they are most valuable!" sighed Mrs. Winslow. She was making conversation about the Miller china; but Johnny-Ivan and Peggy not unreasonably conceived that she spoke of the beautiful churns and hayraking wagons and cars and wheeled chairs and the like marvels which Miss Hopkins was amiably explaining for them.

"The least chip would be irreparable, I suppose," continued Mrs. Winter, "thousands couldn't pay if one were broken!"

"Imagine the feelings of the custodian," said Emma. "I'm in a tremble all the time."

"I pity you," said Mrs. Winter, as the two ladies passed on to Mrs. Winter's great-grandmother's blue and white embroidered bedspread.

"Oh, Peggy, do be careful!" whispered Johnny-Ivan; Peggy was sending a velocipede in dizzy circles round the counter.

Now fate had ordered that at this critical instant the children should be unguarded. Miss Hopkins had stepped aside at the call of an agitated lady who had lost one of her art treasures in carriage; for the moment, there was no one near save a freckled boy in shabby overalls, who eyed the toys wistfully from afar. He was the same little boy whom Johnny-Ivan had bribed with a jack-knife to close the gate a few weeks before; and he was in the Museum to help his mother, the scrub-woman of the store.

Peggy grew more pleased with her play. The velocipede described wider and wider gyrations with accelerating speed; its keen buzz swelled on the air.

"It'll hit somepin!" warned Johnny-Ivan in an access of fear.

But Peggy's soul was dauntless to recklessness. "No, it won't," she flung back. Her shining head was between Johnny and the whirling wheels. He thought a most particularly beautiful little swinging gate in peril and tried to swerve the flying thing; how it happened, neither of the children knew; there was a smash, a crash, and gate and velocipede lay in splinters under a bronze bust. The glass of the show-case was etched with a sinister gray line.

"Now look what you've done!" exclaimed Peggy, with the natural irritation of disaster. "Oh, my!" squeaked the shabby little boy, "won't you catch it!" Peggy's anger was swallowed up in fright and sympathy; she pushed Johnny-Ivan ahead of her. "That Miss Hopkins is looking," cried she, "get behind these folks down the aisle!"

She propelled the little boy out of the immediate neighborhood of the calamity; she forced a wicked, deceitful smile (alas! guile comes easy to her sex) and pointed out things to him, whispering, "Look pleasant! Don't be so scared! They'll never know we did it." Already she was shouldering her share in crime, with a woman's willingness; she said "we" quite unconsciously; but she added (and this was of direct volition): "I did it more'n you; you were just trying to keep the nasty thing straight; I was a heap more to blame. Anyhow, I guess it ain't so awful bad. Just those wooden things."

Johnny-Ivan shook a tragic head; even his lips had gone bluish-white. "She said thousands wouldn't repair the damage," moaned he.

"You can't make me believe those mean little wooden tricks are worth any thousand dollars!" volleyed Peggy; nevertheless, her heart beat faster,--grown people are so queer. "Are you sure she meant them? Maybe it was those things in the next glass case; they're her own things! They're some kind of Chinese china and cost a heap." Peggy's sturdy womanly wits were rising from the shock.

"And the show-case is broked!" sniffed Johnny-Ivan, gulping down a sob.

"It ain't broke, it's only cracked; 'sides, it was cracked a right smart befo'!"

"But this was a new place--I know, 'cause I cut my finger on the other, scraping it over."

"Well, anyhow, I reckon it didn't be much value," Peggy insisted.

"I saw that young lady come back,"--Johnny-Ivan had switched on to a new track leading to grisly possibilities--"maybe she'll find it!"

"Well, we're gone, all right."

Peggy gave an unprincipled giggle; "Maybe she'll think it was him."

"Then we got to tell," moaned Johnny.

"No, we ain't. He'll run off and so she won't ask him questions."

"But she'll think it's him. It'll be mean."

"No it won't."

"It's mean to have somebody else take your blame or your punishment; mamma said so."

The small casuist was too discreet to attack Johnny's oracle; she only pouted her pretty lips and quibbled:

"'Tain't mean if the people who get blamed are mean themselves--like him. I don't care how blamed he gets; I wouldn't care if he got licked."

But Johnny's conscience was not so elastic. "I don't care, either," he protested. "I--I wouldn't care if he was deaded"--anxious to propitiate--"but it would be mean just the same. I got to tell papa, Peggy, I truly have."

Peggy grew very cross. "You are just the foolest, obsternatest little boy I ever did see," she grumbled; "you're a plumb idiot! I'd like to slap you! Your papa'll be awful mad."

Johnny-Ivan essayed an indifferent mien, but his eyes were miserable.

"Say, Jo'nivan,"--her voice sank to a whisper that curdled his blood--"were you ever spanked?"

"Only Hilma sorter kinder--not really spanking, you know," confessed Johnny with a toss of his head. "I just made faces at her; I didn't cry!" he bragged.

"Never your mamma or your papa?"

"Course not," said Johnny with a haughty air; "but, Peggy," he said very low, "were you--did--"

"Oh, my, yes! Mammy did when I was little. I'm too big now."

"I'm too big, too, now, ain't I?"

"I don't know," said Peggy. "Wulf Greiner was licked by teacher, and he's thirteen. It's whether it's mighty bad, you know."

Johnny-Ivan caught his breath and his legs shook under him; the horror of his father's "licking" him came over him cold; it was not the pain; he had never minded Hilma's sturdy blows and he had let Michael cut a splinter out of his thumb with a pocket-knife, and never whimpered; it was the ignominy, the unknown terror of his father's wrath that looked awful to him. As he looked down the crowded room and suddenly beheld Winslow's face bent gravely over Miss Hopkins, who was talking earnestly, he could hardly move his feet. Yet he had no thought of wavering. "I got to tell," he said, and walked as fast as he could, with his white face, straight to the group.

Winslow looked down and saw the two children; and one could discover the signals of calamity in their faces: Peggy's a fine scarlet and Johnny-Ivan's grayish-white.

"What's the matter, Johnny?" asked Winslow.

Johnny's eyelids were glued tight--just as they were when he pulled Peggy's tooth--he blurted everything out breathlessly: "I've done something awful, papa! It'll cost thousands of dollars."

Emma Hopkins had considered Winslow an unattractive man, of a harsh visage, but now, as he looked at his little son, she changed her mind.

"What did you do, son?" said he quietly; his hand found Johnny's brown curls and lay on them a second.

"He didn't do it, really; it was me," Peggy broke in, too agitated for grammar. "I was playing with the little tricks on the table, the models, sah, and I was making the v'losipid run round and he was 'fraid I'd break it; but I did it, really, sah."

"And the model fell on to something valuable? I see."

"But he wasn't playing with it, he was only trying to keep me from breaking--"

"Well, young lady, you two are evidently in the same boat; but you aren't a bit sneaky, either of you. Let's see the wreckage; I suppose you got into trouble because you wanted to see how things worked, and Johnny, as usual, couldn't keep out of other folks' hot water. Where's the ruin?"

"The show-case is broked, too," said Johnny-Ivan in a woeful, small voice.

"But it was cracked before," interjected Peggy.

Winslow looked at her with a little twist. "That's a comfort," said he, "and you have horse sense, my little Southerner. I guess you didn't either of you mean any harm--"

"Indeed, no, sah, and Johnny was just as good; never touched a thing--"

"But you see your intentions didn't protect you. Distrust good intentions, my dears; look out for the possible consequences. However, I think there is one person to blame you haven't mentioned, and that is one Josiah C. Winslow, who let two such giddy young persons explore by themselves. Contributory negligence is proved; and said Winslow will pay the bill and not kick."

So saying, he took Peggy's warm, chubby little fingers in one of his big white hands and Johnny-Ivan's cold little palm in the other, and nodded a farewell to Emma.

~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~

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