There is a secondary reason why the spirit of Lew Wee has not long since been disembodied by able hands: His static Gorgon face stays the first murderous impulse; then his genial kitchen aroma overpowers their higher natures and the deed of high justice is weakly postponed. This genial kitchen aroma is warm, and composed cunningly from steaming coffee and frying ham or beef, together with eggs and hot cakes almost as large as the enamelled iron plates from which they are eaten. It is no contemptible combination on a frosty morning. No wonder strong men forget the simple act of manslaughter they come there to achieve and sit sullenly down to be pandered to by him who was erst their torturer.
On a morning in late May, when I had been invited to fare abroad with my hostess, Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill—who would breakfast in her own apartment—I joined this assemblage of thwarted murderers as they doggedly ate. It is a grim business, that ranch breakfast. Two paling lamps struggle with the dawn, now edging in, and the half light is held low in tone by smoke from the cake griddle, so that no man may see another too plainly. But no man wishes to see another. He stares dully into his own plate and eats with stern aversion. We might be so many strangers in a strange place, aloof, suspicious, bitter, not to say truculent.
No quip or jest will lighten the gloom. Necessary requests for the sugar or the milk or the stewed apples are phrased with a curtly formal civility. We shall be other men at noon or at night, vastly other, sunnier men, with abundance of quip and jest and playful sally with the acid personal tang. But from warm beds of repose! We avoid each other’s eyes, and one’s subdued “please pass that sirup pitcher!” is but tolerated like some boorish profanation of a church service.
The simple truth, of course, is that this is the one hour of the day when we are face to face with the evil visage of life unmasked; our little rosy illusions of yestereve are stale and crumpled. Not until we are well out in the sun, with the second cigarette going good, shall we again become credulous about life and safe to address. It is no meal to linger over. We grimly rise from the wrecked table and clatter out.
Only one of us—that matchless optimist, Sandy Sawtelle—sounds a flat note in the symphony of disillusion. His humanness rebounds more quickly than ours, who will not fawn upon life for twenty minutes yet. Sandy comes back to the table from the hook whence he had lifted his hat. He holds aloft a solitary hot cake and addresses Lew Wee in his best Anglo-Chinese, and with humorous intent:
“I think take-um hot cake, nail over big knot hole in bunk-house—last damn long time better than sheet iron!”
Swiftly departing pessimists accord no praise or attention to this ill-timed sketch; least of all Lew Wee, who it is meant to insult. His face retains the sad impassivity of a granite cliff as yet beyond the dawn.