The Gift of Tongues

Damon Runyon

September 1911

Tara Hall is an apartment-house designed solely for the occupancy of deaf and dumb persons. That is to say, all the tenants are so afflicted, and the apartment-house was constructed with a view to their convenience. The attendants are deaf and dumb. A system of lights, instead of bells, conveys intelligence to the eye. Every detail of the establishment is so arranged that life may go forward conveniently for the inhabitants and without noise.

The ordinary power of human speech is understood to be a barrier to residence in Tara Hall. The man who conceived this unusual institution knew what he was doing. His profits enable him to maintain personal residence in a more fashionable and tumultuous hive elsewhere.

There came to reside at the Tara a beautiful young maiden, who registered her name as Miss Heliotrope Heman. She was a small, demure-looking girl, of a general lavender effect as to attire, and possessed of a pair of beautiful gray eyes, which always matched her costumes.

So gently did her pretty fingers mold the words of her few desires that one gathered an impression that had she been able to speak, her voice would have been as soft and soothing as the music of a lute. She came and went, mouse-like, unnoticed by the other residents of the Tara, save and excepting Henry Williams, a tall, handsome, romantic-looking young man with rare judgment as to apparel, and with the air of a commander of men in his carriage. When Henry Williams’s fingers were unloosened in the mystic language of the silent, they moved as rapidly as winking lights, mutely conveying a deep barytone effect, and much forcefulness.

By what convenience Henry Williams made the acquaintance of Miss Heliotrope Heman matters not. A dropped handkerchief, perhaps; propinquity in hallways—they lived upon the same floor; the courtesies of the elevator; a modest, but meaning intimation, fingerwise, concerning meteorological conditions. Whatever, however the means, it came to pass that they strolled together upon the avenues of an evening, or sat silently on benches in the near-by park, their digits, mayhap, intertwined, and their hearts beating in that rhythm which is understandable to all manner of men and women, and sometimes even to children.

Henry Williams felt sure that he would one day avow his affection. Miss Heman was equally positive that he would do so, but Henry Williams was a bashful man in the presence of this silently blooming flower, and he had left the fatal words unsaid up to the moment when this story opens. One night in late September, when Tara Hall was as dark and silent as a country schoolhouse on a winter evening, the sound of a great gong suddenly split the quiet like an explosion. A few voices were uplifted throughout the building, shrill and staccato, crying:

“Fire! Fire! Fire!”

There was a stir from floor to floor; lights sprang up, and a weird babel of voices arose. In the main, however, Tara Hall lay in sonorous silence; but a door flew open now and then, and out popped men and women, more or less in dishabille. In each such case, a man stationed at the elevator-landing took down the apartment number, and grinned as he motioned the panic-stricken people that everything was all right.

Henry Williams seemed somehow to sense the purport of the alarum, for he bounded forth from his apartment as a lion from its lair, a commanding figure in a pink bathrobe. He hurried to the door of Miss Heman’s apartment. Just as he had lifted a clenched fist to implant a resounding thump upon the wooden barrier. Miss Heman herself opened it—more beautiful than ever in a silken kimono, her arms bearing a foam of filmy things.

Henry Williams seized upon her. He bore her forth from that place of jeopardy as a man would bear a thing of priceless worth, even though this was scarcely a time for the finer details of gallantry. He “heeled” a man by the elevator-landing with the palm of his left hand as the man tried to stop him.

This man bawled impotent phrases into the ear of Henry Williams, as he went down the stairs in, long leaps, the precious form of Miss Heliotrope Heman pressed close to his palpitating heart.

Henry Williams did not stop moving until he had reached the leafy sanctuary of the adjacent park. Then he sat down upon a bench, and breathed heavily, still clinging fondly to Miss Heman. At this juncture, however, she gently wriggled from his arms, and slipped softly into the seat beside him, marveling, doubtless, upon the strength of man.

Together they looked upon Tara Hall, expecting to see it a welter of furious flame; but not so much as a match-spark flickered in that monument of stillness. Henry Williams and Miss Heliotrope Heman turned the soft eyes of vast regard upon each other, surprised.

A thin light from a near-by arc lent radiance to Henry’s fingers as they swiftly wove these words:

“It must have been a mistake. There appears to be no fire. I have made a fool of myself—and of you!” A burst of passion suddenly shook his digital muscles, and they declared, vehemently: “Darling, my heart almost stood still when I thought of you in danger. Fire or no fire, I love you!”

The eyes of Miss Heliotrope Heman softened. She buried her face in the pink bathrobe, her frail form quivering with sobs. Then, regaining command of herself, she straightened up, and her delicate fingers sparkled in the arc light.

“Dear,” she said, “I have a confession to make to you. I am not deaf and dumb—I can both speak and hear, but I love you despite your affliction. I came to Tara Hall to get a rest from my daily work. I learned the deaf and dumb language for that purpose. Oh, I hope you are not angry with me for deceiving you, but I have loved you from the first!”

Words came to Henry Williams’s willing tongue.

“I’m not deaf and dumb either,” he said in the rich barytone that his manner portended, as he snuggled her close to his breast. “I came here for the same reason you did—peace and quiet. And I have loved you, too, from the first. Tell me, dear, from what turmoil of this noisy town did you seek surcease?”

“I am an elocution teacher,” she said softly.

“That so?” commented Henry Williams. “I’m cashier in a boiler-factory. Well, I guess we can go on living here in Tara Hall, and still have our peace and quiet after business hours—”

A heavy, morose-looking man, followed by another man, whom Henry Williams recognized as the victim of his “heeling,” approached them from the shadows.

“It’s them two,” said the man who had been “heeled.”

“Ladies and gents,” spoke the heavy individual, “I’m the owner of the Tara, and you’re included in the list of guests who’ll have to move. That fire-alarm was our yearly smoke-out to catch you folks who’ve butted in on peace and quiet!”