THE FAIRPORT ART MUSEUM
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"It ain't broke, it's only cracked; 'sides, it was cracked a right
"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
"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
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
"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
"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 show-case is broked, too," said Johnny-Ivan in a woeful, small
"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 ~~~~~~~