In a little district west of Washington Square the streets
have run crazy and broken themselves into small strips
called “places.” These “places” make strange angles and
curves. One street crosses itself a time or two. An artist once
discovered a valuable possibility in this street. Suppose a
collector with a bill for paints, paper and canvas should, in
traversing this route, suddenly meet himself coming back,
without a cent having been paid on account!
So, to quaint old Greenwich Village the art people soon
came prowling, hunting for north windows and eighteenthcentury
gables and Dutch attics and low rents. Then they
imported some pewter mugs and a chafing dish or two from
Sixth avenue, and became a “colony.”
At the top of a squatty, three-story brick Sue and Johnsy had
their studio. “Johnsy” was familiar for Joanna. One was
from Maine; the other from California. They had met at the
table d’hote of an Eighth street “Delmonico’s,” and found
their tastes in art, chicory salad and bishop sleeves so
congenial that the joint studio resulted.
That was in May. In November a cold, unseen stranger,
whom the doctors called Pneumonia, stalked about the
colony, touching one here and there with his icy fingers.
Over on the east side this ravager strode boldly, smiting his
victims by scores, but his feet trod slowly through the maze
of the narrow and moss-grown “places.”
Mr. Pneumonia was not what you would call a chivalric old
gentleman. A mite of a little woman with blood thinned by
California zephyrs was hardly fair game for the red-fisted,
short-breathed old duffer. But Johnsy he smote; and she lay,
scarcely moving, on her painted iron bedstead, looking
through the small Dutch window-panes at the blank side of
the next brick house.
One morning the busy doctor invited Sue into the hallway
with a shaggy, gray eyebrow.
“She has one chance in–let us say, ten,” he said, as he shook
down the mercury in his clinical thermometer. “And that
chance is for her to want to live. This way people have of
lining-up on the side of the undertaker makes the entire
pharmacopeia look silly. Your little lady has made up her
mind that she’s not going to get well. Has she anything on
her mind?”
“She–she wanted to paint the Bay of Naples some day,”
said Sue.
“Paint?–bosh! Has she anything on her mind worth thinking
about twice–a man, for instance?”
“A man?” said Sue, with a jew’s-harp twang in her voice. “Is
a man worth–but, no, doctor; there is nothing of the kind.”
“Well, it is the weakness, then,” said the doctor. “I will do
all that science, so far as it may filter through my efforts,
can accomplish. But whenever my patient begins to count
the carriages in her funeral procession I subtract 50 per cent.
from the curative power of medicines. If you will get her to
ask one question about the new winter styles in cloak
sleeves I will promise you a one-in-five chance for her,
instead of one in ten.”
After the doctor had gone Sue went into the workroom and
cried a Japanese napkin to a pulp. Then she swaggered into
Johnsy’s room with her drawing board, whistling ragtime.
Johnsy lay, scarcely making a ripple under the bedclothes,
with her face toward the window. Sue stopped whistling,
thinking she was asleep.
She arranged her board and began a pen-and-ink drawing to
illustrate a magazine story. Young artists must pave their
way to Art by drawing pictures for magazine stories that
young authors write to pave their way to Literature.
As Sue was sketching a pair of elegant horseshow riding
trousers and a monocle on the figure of the hero, an Idaho
cowboy, she heard a low sound, several times repeated. She
went quickly to the bedside.
Johnsy’s eyes were open wide. She was looking out the
window and counting–counting backward.
“Twelve,” she said, and a little later “eleven;” and then
“ten,” and “nine;” and then “eight” and “seven,” almost
together.
Sue looked solicitously out the window. What was there to
count? There was only a bare, dreary yard to be seen, and
the blank side of the brick house twenty feet away. An old,
old ivy vine, gnarled and decayed at the roots, climbed half
way up the brick wall. The cold breath of autumn had
stricken its leaves from the vine until its skeleton branches
clung, almost bare, to the crumbling bricks.
“What is it, dear?” asked Sue.
“Six,” said Johnsy, in almost a whisper. “They’re falling
faster now. Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It
made my head ache to count them. But now it’s easy. There
goes another one. There are only five left now.”
“Five what, dear. Tell your Sudie.”
“Leaves. On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go,
too. I’ve known that for three days. Didn’t the doctor tell
you?”
“Oh, I never heard of such nonsense,” complained Sue, with
magnificent scorn. “What have old ivy leaves to do with
your getting well? And you used to love that vine so, you
naughty girl. Don’t be a goosey. Why, the doctor told me
this morning that your chances for getting well real soon
were–let’s see exactly what he said–he said the chances
were ten to one! Why, that’s almost as good a chance as
we have in New York when we ride on the street cars or
walk past a new building. Try to take some broth now, and
let Sudie go back to her drawing, so she can sell the editor
man with it, and buy port wine for her sick child, and pork
chops for her greedy self.”
“You needn’t get any more wine,” said Johnsy, keeping her
eyes fixed out the window. “There goes another. No, I don’t
want any broth. That leaves just four. I want to see the last
one fall before it gets dark. Then I’ll go, too.”
“Johnsy, dear,” said Sue, bending over her, “will you
promise me to keep your eyes closed, and not look out the
window until I am done working? I must hand those
drawings in by to-morrow. I need the light, or I would draw
the shade down.”
“Couldn’t you draw in the other room?” asked Johnsy,
coldly.
“I’d rather be here by you,” said Sue. “Besides I don’t want
you to keep looking at those silly ivy leaves.”
“Tell me as soon as you have finished,” said Johnsy, closing
her eyes, and lying white and still as a fallen statue,
“because I want to see the last one fall. I’m tired of waiting.
I’m tired of thinking. I went to turn loose my hold on
everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of
those poor, tired leaves.”
“Try to sleep,” said Sue. “I must call Behrman up to be my
model for the old hermit miner. I’ll not be gone a minute.
Don’t try to move ’till I come back.”
Old Behrman was a painter who lived on the ground floor
beneath them. He was past sixty and had a Michael Angelo’s
Moses beard curling down from the head of a satyr along
the body of an imp. Behrman was a failure in art. Forty
years he had wielded the brush without getting near enough
to touch the hem of his Mistress’s robe. He had been always
about to paint a masterpiece, but had never yet begun it. For
several years he had painted nothing except now and then a
daub in the line of commerce or advertising. He earned a
little by serving as a model to those young artists in the
colony who could not pay the price of a professional. He
drank gin to excess, and still talked of his coming
masterpiece. For the rest he was a fierce little old man, who
scoffed terribly at softness in any one, and who regarded
himself as especial mastiff-in-waiting to protect the two
young artists in the studio above.
Sue found Behrman smelling strongly of juniper berries in
his dimly lighted den below. In one corner was a blank
canvas on an easel that had been waiting there for twentyfive
years to receive the first line of the masterpiece. She
told him of Johnsy’s fancy, and how she feared she would,
indeed, light and fragile as a leaf herself, float away when
her slight hold upon the world grew weaker.
Old Behrman, with his red eyes, plainly streaming, shouted
his contempt and derision for such idiotic imaginings.
“Vass!” he cried. “Is dere people in de world mit der
foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a
confounded vine? I haf not heard of such a thing. No, I will
not bose as a model for your fool hermit-dunderhead. Vy do
you allow dot silly pusiness to come in der prain of her?
Ach, dot poor lettle Miss Johnsy.”
“She is very ill and weak,” said Sue, “and the fever has left
her mind morbid and full of strange fancies. Very well, Mr.
Behrman, if you do not care to pose for me, you needn’t.
But I think you are a horrid old–old flibbertigibbet.”
“You are just like a woman!” yelled Behrman. “Who said I
will not bose? Go on. I come mit you. For half an hour I haf
peen trying to say dot I am ready to bose. Gott! dis is not
any blace in which one so goot as Miss Yohnsy shall lie
sick. Some day I vill baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go
away. Gott! yes.”
Johnsy was sleeping when they went upstairs. Sue pulled
the shade down to the window-sill, and motioned Behrman
into the other room. In there they peered out the window
fearfully at the ivy vine. Then they looked at each other for
a moment without speaking. A persistent, cold rain was
falling, mingled with snow. Behrman, in his old blue shirt,
took his seat as the hermit-miner on an upturned kettle for a
rock.
When Sue awoke from an hour’s sleep the next morning she
found Johnsy with dull, wide-open eyes staring at the drawn
green shade.
“Pull it up; I want to see,” she ordered, in a whisper.
Wearily Sue obeyed.
But, lo! after the beating rain and fierce gusts of wind that
had endured through the livelong night, there yet stood out
against the brick wall one ivy leaf. It was the last on the
vine. Still dark green near its stem, but with its serrated
edges tinted with the yellow of dissolution and decay, it
hung bravely from a branch some twenty feet above the
ground.
“It is the last one,” said Johnsy. “I thought it would surely
fall during the night. I heard the wind. It will fall to-day, and
I shall die at the same time.”
“Dear, dear!” said Sue, leaning her worn face down to the
pillow, “think of me, if you won’t think of yourself. What
would I do?”
But Johnsy did not answer. The lonesomest thing in all the
world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its
mysterious, far journey. The fancy seemed to possess her
more strongly as one by one the ties that bound her to
friendship and to earth were loosed.
The day wore away, and even through the twilight they
could see the lone ivy leaf clinging to its stem against the
wall. And then, with the coming of the night the north wind
was again loosed, while the rain still beat against the
windows and pattered down from the low Dutch eaves.
When it was light enough Johnsy, the merciless,
commanded that the shade be raised.
The ivy leaf was still there.
Johnsy lay for a long time looking at it. And then she called
to Sue, who was stirring her chicken broth over the gas
stove.
“I’ve been a bad girl, Sudie,” said Johnsy. “Something has
made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was.
It is a sin to want to die. You may bring me a little broth
now, and some milk with a little port in it, and–no; bring
me a hand-mirror first, and then pack some pillows about
me, and I will sit up and watch you cook.”
An hour later she said.
“Sudie, some day I hope to paint the Bay of Naples.”
The doctor came in the afternoon, and Sue had an excuse to
go into the hallway as he left.
“Even chances,” said the doctor, taking Sue’s thin, shaking
hand in his. “With good nursing you’ll win. And now I must
see another case I have downstairs. Behrman, his name is–
some kind of an artist, I believe. Pneumonia, too. He is an
old, weak man, and the attack is acute. There is no hope for
him; but he goes to the hospital to-day to be made more
comfortable.”
The next day the doctor said to Sue: “She’s out of danger.
You’ve won. Nutrition and care now–that’s all.”
And that afternoon Sue came to the bed where Johnsy lay,
contentedly knitting a very blue and very useless woolen
shoulder scarf, and put one arm around her, pillows and all.
“I have something to tell you, white mouse,” she said. “Mr.
Behrman died of pneumonia to-day in the hospital. He was
ill only two days. The janitor found him on the morning of
the first day in his room downstairs helpless with pain. His
shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They
couldn’t imagine where he had been on such a dreadful
night. And then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a
ladder that had been dragged from its place, and some
scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow
colors mixed on it, and–look out the window, dear, at the
last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never
fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s
Behrman’s masterpiece–he painted it there the night that the
last leaf fell.”

Biju John is an educational writer, educator and the author of OM - The Otherwise Men. He gives live classes on Skype and Facebook. You can attend his 3 Day Classes (English & Business Studies) in Delhi, Bangalore, Qatar and Dubai. His Contact number is 91 9810740061.

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