For a lucky glimpse of the great Talbot Potter, the girls who caught it may thank that conjunction of Olympian events which brings within the boundaries of one November week the Horse Show and the roaring climax of the football months and the more dulcet, yet vast, beginning of the opera season. Some throbbing of attendant multitudes coming to the ears of Talbot Potter, he obeyed an inward call to walk to rehearsal by way of Fifth Avenue, and turning out of Forty-fourth Street to become part of the people-sea of the southward current, felt the eyes of the northward beating upon his face like the pulsing successions of an exhilarating surf. His Fifth Avenue knew its Talbot Potter.
Strangers used to leisurely appraisals upon their own thoroughfares are apt to believe that Fifth Avenue notices nothing; but they are mistaken; it is New York that is preoccupied, not Fifth Avenue. The Fifth Avenue eye, like a policeman's, familiar with a variety of types, catalogues you and replaces you upon the shelf with such automatic rapidity that you are not aware you have been taken down. Fifth Avenue is secretly populous with observers who take note of everything.
Of course, among these peregrinate great numbers almost in a stupor so far as what is closest around them is concerned; and there are those, too, who are so completely busied with either the consciousness of being noticed, or the hope of being noticed, or the hatred of it, that they take note of nothing else. Fifth Avenue expressions are a filling meal for the prowling lonely joker; but what will most satisfy his cannibal appetite is the passage of the self-conscious men and women. For here, on a good day, he cannot fail to relish some extreme cases of their whimsical disease: fledgling young men making believe to be haughty to cover their dreadful symptoms, the mask itself thus revealing what it seeks to conceal; timid young ladies, likewise treacherously exposed by their defenses; and very different ladies, but in similar case, being retouched ladies, tinted ladies; and ladies who know that they are pretty at first sight, ladies who chat with some obscured companion only to offer the public a treat of graceful gestures; and poor ladies making believe to be rich ladies; and rich ladies making believe to be important ladies; and many other sorts of conscious ladies. And men—ah, pitiful!—pitiful the wretch whose hardihood has involved him in cruel and unusual great gloss and unsheltered tailed coat. Any man in his overcoat is wrapped in his castle; he fears nothing. But to this hunted creature, naked in his robin's tail, the whole panorama of the Avenue is merely a blurred audience, focusing upon him a vast glare of derision; he walks swiftly, as upon fire, pretends to careless sidelong interest in shop-windows as he goes, makes play with his unfamiliar cane only to be horror-stricken at the flourishings so evoked of his wild gloves; and at last, fairly crawling with the eyes he feels all over him, he must draw forth his handkerchief and shelter behind it, poor man, in the dishonourable affectation of a sneeze!
Piquant contrast to these obsessions, the well-known expression of Talbot Potter lifted him above the crowd to such high serenity his face might have been that of a young Pope, with a dash of Sydney Carton. His glance fixed itself, in its benign detachment, upon the misty top of the Flatiron, far down the street, and the more frequent the plainly visible recognitions among the north-bound people, the less he seemed aware of them. And yet, whenever the sieving current of pedestrians brought momentarily face to face with him a girl or woman, apparently civilized and in the mode, who obviously had never seen him before and seemed not to care if it should be her fate never to repeat the experience, Talbot Potter had a certain desire. If society had established a rule that all men must instantly obey and act upon every fleeting impulse, Talbot Potter would have taken that girl or woman by the shoulders and said to her: “What's the matter with you!”
At Forty-second Street he crossed over, proceeded to the middle of the block, and halted dreamily on the edge of the pavement, his back to the crowd. His face was toward the Library, with its two annoyed pet lions, typifying learning, and he appeared to study the great building. One or two of the passersby had seen him standing on that self-same spot before;—in fact, he always stopped there whenever he walked down the Avenue.
For a little time (not too long) he stood there; and thus absorbed he was, as they say, a Picture. Moreover, being such a popular one, he attracted much interest. People paused to observe him; and all unaware of their attention, he suddenly smiled charmingly, as at some gentle pleasantry in his own mind—something he had remembered from a book, no doubt. It was a wonderful smile, and vanished slowly, leaving a rapt look; evidently he was lost in musing upon architecture and sculpture and beautiful books. A girl whisking by in an automobile had time to guess, reverently, that the phrase in his mind was: “A Stately Home for Beautiful Books!” Dinner-tables would hear, that evening, how Talbot Potter stood there, oblivious of everything else, studying the Library!
This slight sketch of artistic reverie completed, he went on, proceeding a little more rapidly down the Avenue; presently turned over to the stage door of Wallack's, made his way through the ensuing passages, and appeared upon the vasty stage of the old theatre, where his company of actors awaited his coming to begin the rehearsal of a new play.