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THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS SKIN
Clark Shellcross, striding fiercely up the steps of the charming little white-painted cottage at 242 Flower Street, wondered what in heaven’s name he was going to say to this lovely being inside who had given him the ultimatum of ultimatums!
“Maybe—maybe,” he said, worriedly, as he reached the portico-covered front stoop, “the arguments will come to me—as I try to turn her off of her stand. Only—for every argument I bring—what will she bring? Ow! Yes, what?”
He was reaching up now to jerk on the burnished bronze pull-bell on the front door. Which reflected almost dazzlingly into his eyes a stray beam of the early-April 9 o’clock morning sunlight that had somehow bored its way through the slight mist that hung just now over Boston. But paused—hand in mid air.
“But do I look right now like a million dollars?” he queried himself sagely. “Or like some kind of a—a woebegone—hangdog? Maybe I’d better check—on that!”
And hastily withdrawing his hand, he raised the brown tweed overcoat that shrouded him, thanks to the preternaturally cool wave that had been sweeping in off the sea during last night and this early morning, enough to grope in his right hip pocket and bring up one pocket mirror plus—of all things!—the perfumed note containing that ultimatum of all ultimatums.
Removing his widebrimmed soft brown felt hat as though he were facing the Queen of England instead of a simple white-painted door, and passing the perfumed folded note tenderly to the fingers of the left hand clutching that hat, he surveyed himself critically in the handglass held in his now free remaining hand. Saw therein a young man of 27 or so, with decidedly blond hair, and the bluest of blue eyes, gazing out from regular features which had once been declared to be, by a professor of anthropology, more Anglo-Saxon than Britain and Saxony combined! Whatever inner habiliments were under the face were not in the glass for the simple reason that the brown tweed overcoat was buttoned to the neck. Satisfied now, however, that no hangdog stood at the threshold of 242 Flower Street, Boston, Massachusetts, Clark popped the handmirror into his side coat pocket, thrust his brown felt hat back atop his blond locks, the perfumed note into his lefthand coat pocket, and again raised his right hand toward the pull-bell.
Again, however, he held it aloft.
“Wait!” he said, though of course to nobody but himself. “Maybe—maybe I’d better glance over Vernice’s note once more—so’s to see where my 24-karat arguments—if any!—lie.”
And flopping down onto a small white-painted bench at the edge of the porticoed stoop, he drew out again that delicately perfumed note he’d received only yesterday, with its handwriting in pale green ink, dainty and small. Including one brief newspaper clipping pasted to it just beyond its opening lines. And signed just “Vernice”. And gloomily, morosely, he read it again. Minus any date on it whatsoever, it ran:
Is it true that you have been called to England to solve the mystery of the clock which—
At least, a certain mutual friend of yours and mine says that you have been, because of your being a “specialist” in—but I won’t go into all that. Anyway, when he told me, he gave me this newspaper story from day before yesterday’s paper—which I hadn’t seen:
Old Royal Death Clock
Is Once More on Time! *
Hampton Court, England (Trans-Oceanic Press Service): Hampton Court Palace, one-time residence of British royalty, contains an ancient time-piece known as the “death clock.”
Tradition says it has stopped whenever the death has occurred of any one resident in the palace for any long period. (News Editor’s Note: Our files of this very old paper contain various newsstories along this very line.)
Those who believe in this strange legend are now confirmed in their faith. Lady MacDonald, widow of Gen. Sir Charles Roger MacDonald, died recently in a London hospital. She had occupied a suite in Hampton Court Palace for forty years. The clock stopped at the time of her death.
The clock, which was built in 1540, is said to have stopped the first time the night of March 2, 1619, on the death at the palace of Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I.
But quite aside from the point of whether or not you have really been called to England, Clark, because of being “one of the best-informed persons in America on things and affairs English”—from “Enigmas to Coronations”!—I’m quoting now a one-time friend of yours, and not the person who gave me the clipping—quite aside from that mere point, Clark, I do want to say that I appreciate awfully much your offer of marriage of last night. And which I said I’d think about.
But, Clark, I just can’t marry a man who’s tied—at least for one full year at a time—to one spot. That you should be a mere instructor in English History at Knickerbocker Academy for Boys, I do not hold against you. I mean, Clark, that if, by lifelong study of things and affairs English, you have made yourself able to understand and even teach their weird history, that is your affair. I realize that when you were left alone in the world, when your mother and father died, after at least getting you through upper school—died without leaving you a relative in the world, close or distant,—or a penny either—it just was a sort of floundering toss-up to you to really know exactly what line to try to follow. So willy-nilly, I suppose, you followed that line. Liked it even, I presume. And must have carved yourself out some reputation for English “enigmas” if you really have been called over there about that clock.
But all that’s not the point, even. The point is that I, Clark, just cannot—and will not!—marry a man who will be tied to one spot. I just am woven of other cloth, I guess, that’s all. I’ve had to stick in one spot, yes, during all the years I grew up—and had Daddy and Mama—but, they being gone now for 3 years, I no longer have to do it. Nor will. Maybe I am a gypsy—though heaven knows, Clark, I couldn’t live like such—so far as comforts and luxuries go. I’d have to always have nice, clean, comfortable living, and—But I do wish to live my life a week here—a week there—a week elsewhere—and ever and ever thus—ever meeting new scenes, and new people, and new—but no teacher of English history can ever make that possible. Either from point of view of being able to keep on the move—or finances.
Of course, Clark, if you want to change your profession—”
“Ow!” groaned Clark, letter in hand. “After perfecting myself in a subject till I know it backward—can spout it in my sleep—can turn it into actual shekels—I’m ‘inwited’ to toss it airy-fairily over my shoulder—ah-woo! Drive on, MacDuff,” he told himself. “Drive—”
It was the collision, against the door, off a short way from him, of a rolled-up morning paper being delivered, plainly a couple of hours late. Probably by a boy who’d overslept. Indeed, with eyes lowered to letter, he caught a glimpse, from under his right eyelid, of a boy disappearing up the sidewalk—caught also a glimpse, from above lower eyelid of the other, of the paper itself, unrolled out flat from its impact with the door, and carrying headlines that, upended for him, were screaming forth some sort of futile news—headlines which, being upside down, he didn’t even try to read. Went on dourly with the closing part of the letter in his hands.
Of course, Clark, if you want to change your profession—though lucratively, of course—in short, with equal or better remuneration—
But what profession is there where you can roam the world and live excitingly a week here, a week there, a week in another place?
Well, first and foremost, precisely such a life is open—and to his wife!—to anybody who has an act he can present. Good acts are always good for a week showing, in any city you come to. That would be delightful. For me, I mean. To mingle with the people—of the theatre.
But actor—and performer—you are not!
Nearest to that would be advance-agent for a theatrical company. One who makes hotel arrangements, and fixes billing, and all, though working ever one city on beyond the troupe. Not so gay for one’s wife.
That you could do, I know—though have no experience.
Next is salesman of some kind. One who doesn’t flit into a city and out—but remains a full week or so, to show goods to dealers.
But I guess you have the idea now, Clark.
And so, to answer your question: when, Clark, you have given up this English-History thing, and have a connection which gives you a chance to be ever on the move—a week here, and a week there—with ever new sights, new experiences, new people for you and your wife, I’ll become—Mrs. Shellcross. After that is, you put the l’il old diamond ’gagement ring on my finger, to sort of take the place of the engagement we won’t have. Then only, Clark, will I marry you.
This is the way it has to be, Clark. I can’t—positively won’t—rusticate in one spot, when there are hundreds of fascinating spots in America—and England, too—to visit.
Clark, coming to the letter’s end again, folded it up, scowling. Spoke again to himself.
“Awful!” was all he said. “Here’s me—with a fine and profitable teaching connection at Knickerbocker Academy for Boys—chance to really use my special knowledge of English History that I’ve spent years digging up and out—and woo!—Vernice demands I toss it all away—right over shoulder—demands—”
He had risen, more or less unseeingly. Turned now again to the door he’d left. Folded the note to, and thrust it stoutly back into his left coat pocket. And now raised his hand once more toward the pull-bell.
“All right, here goes!” he said sepulchrally. “Here’s where the instruct-or in English History becomes—so help me!—a lawyer. A lawyer—with tongue of gold. A—” He pulled fiercely on the lever of the bronze fixture. “Yep, here goes for a ticklish interview with the sweetest and loveliest and prettiest girl in all Boston. Certainly, at least,” he qualified, “in this year of our lord, 1855!”
* Author’s Note to Editor Only: This is a bonafide verbatim newsstory appearing in many papers, including the Chicago Tribune, with only the two mentioned names altered. Author.
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