DeLancey has been at home almost ten years now, and his chief mission has been to ornament Homeburg and add to its elegance on state occasions. His father had designed him for a captain of finance, and when he first came home DeLancey was put in the bank in order that he might work up by degrees into the bond business or some other auriferous form of toil. Wert Payley almost had nervous prostration from overwork that year, and in the end he had to give up. He couldn't carry his own load and make DeLancey work too. It was too much. No human being should be asked to do it. Wert often says that if he had had nothing else to do he could have kept DeLancey at work at least part of the time, but that he was too old to shoulder the task on top of his other duties. So DeLancey left the bank, except as an enthusiastic check casher, and took up his life work—I mean that, of course, figuratively. I mean his life occupation—hang it, that won't do either! He took up his mission—the work for which his ardent young soul was fitted. He began to specialize in leisure.
For close to nine years DeLancey has loafed. It is a miracle to us. We can't understand his endurance. Yet he thrives on it. Wert Payley has given up trying to make him work, but he has taken what he considers to be an awful revenge. He has refused to spend one cent for carfare. DeLancey can hang around Homeburg until he dies, but if he wants to leave, he must earn the money himself. And DeLancey hasn't been fifty miles from Homeburg since he slipped the clutch out of his tired, throbbing brain and let it rest, nine years ago.
We have to admire his ingenuity. He kills time so scientifically. They say it takes him two hours to do himself up in the morning after he gets out of bed, and that he has almost as many beautifying tools as an actress. He doesn't get down-town before ten. It takes him from fifteen minutes to half an hour to buy his morning cigar. That is, he talks to McMuggins, the druggist, as long as Mac will stand for it. Mac has a regular schedule. If Delancey buys a ten-cent cigar, Mac will talk with him fifteen minutes. If he buys a fifteen-cent cigar, he will talk half an hour, if business isn't too brisk. Mac keeps a box of fifteen-cent cigars especially for DeLancey, but he says it is an awful risk. If DeLancey were to die on him, he couldn't sell those cigars in a hundred years.
The tellers at the bank are good for fifteen minutes or so after DeLancey has bought his cigar; he strolls in and gossips with them until his father begins to snort ominously in his little railed-off pen marked "President." Cooney Simpson, the tailor, likes DeLancey, and they talk clothes for half an hour almost every morning. Then it's noon, and this is his hardest problem, because every one goes to dinner at noon except the Payleys and Singers, who have luncheon at one. If DeLancey can find Sam Singer, he is all right. But Sam, who used to loaf enthusiastically with him, has rosy ideas about Mabel Andrews now, and he is working hard in his father's bank and on the farms. It was a bitter day for DeLancey when Sam went to work. It almost shook his faith in idleness. But he stood firm.
Luncheon kills two hours for DeLancey, and then he goes up to the Homeburg Commercial Club and shoots the pool balls around the table until 4:30, waiting eagerly for some one to stop working and come to play with him. Sometimes they come and sometimes they don't. If they don't, he goes down to the hotel and talks with a traveling man. I often see him in the lobby of the Delmonico, sitting in magnificent ease, blowing large smoke rings and talking with an air of unconscious grandeur to some eager-eyed drummer, who is delighted but mystified at the ease with which he is breaking into the first families. DeLancey has a quiet way of talking about the East and the great people thereof which fools even us sometimes.
DeLancey makes his toilet after dinner at night and that of course kills an hour or more. Then he calls on Madeline Hicks, old Judge Hicks's daughter, when she will let him. He has an idea he would like to marry her, but while she likes him, they say she can't bring herself to marry a man of leisure and have the whole town sorry for her. But he takes her to all the parties, and about once a week his father lets him have the automobile, if the chauffeur doesn't want to use it. On other nights DeLancey comes down-town and buys another cigar at the restaurant. It is as good as a show to see DeLancey buy his evening cigar. You'd think he was taking over a railroad, he chooses it with such care. The young farmer boys and the workers in the factory come down-town at night and loaf around the restaurants without any excuse. They have to kill the time. But that would be too coarse work for DeLancey. He doesn't come down-town to loaf—Oh, no! He has merely dropped in on his orbit. It takes him half the evening to buy his cigar and smoke it, conversing as he does so with a few selected citizens on the benefits of slim-cut clothes and the origin of the pussy-cat hat.
Sometimes DeLancey can abduct some busy young chap and make him play a round of golf on week-day afternoons, but not often. That's the difference between our clubs and yours. We have clubs, but we don't use them. We wouldn't think of spending time there if we could spend it at business. Nothing is lonelier on week days than our golf club, and one of the chief duties of the caretaker at the Commercial Club is to dust off the reading table. We have our clubs, and that is the main object. We know that they are there, and that we could enjoy them if we wanted to. Perhaps we do want to. But it's a hard art to learn. And, oh, how patiently and earnestly DeLancey is trying to teach us! If it were any one but he, we might learn faster. But he sort of figures as a horrible example. It's like a battered and yellowed wreck advocating cigarettes, or a bald-headed barber pushing his own hair tonic.
Gibb Ogle, the other member of our leisure class, is a very different kind of a bird. His art is more sublime than DeLancey's because he has no one to support him. He has worked down to his present state from nothing at all. He is a self-unmade man. With no resources, not even a loving wife with a wash tub, he lives a life of perfect ease and idleness. He doesn't even have to hunt for means of killing time, as DeLancey does. Time with him dies a natural death. He is not implicated in the sad event in any way. All he does is to watch its demise. He watches whole hours pass away while leaning against the door-frame of the Delmonico Hotel. Chet Frazier and Sim Bone got into an argument one day, and to settle it they went over and took Gibb away from the building. It didn't fall, and Sim won. Gibb has watched several thousand hours expire while propping up the Q. B. & C. depot. He is the chief spectator at every fire, runaway, dog fight and public event. He is a movable landmark, as permanent as the Republican flagpole in the city park. I have never yet gone down-town in the morning without seeing Gibb on the street. And very seldom have I gone home at night, even in the howling blizzards of winter, without passing Gibb leaning against the warm bright show window of the last open place of business, and waiting with placid greediness for one final event of some kind to transpire before going to his well-earned repose.
Beside Gibb's leisure, DeLancey's is poor amateurish stuff. Gibb's total income during the year would hardly exceed twenty-five dollars, and it doesn't do him much good at that. When he gets any money, he eats it up in the most determined and hasty fashion. I have seen him eat a dollar's worth of ham sandwiches in an afternoon—because he had the dollar. What he does between dollars is a town mystery. He doesn't beg. He is believed by some to absorb sustenance from the air, like a plant. But I happen to know that he absorbs a good deal of sustenance from the Delmonico Hotel. He has attached himself to this hotel as a sort of retainer, and through all its changes of ownership he has hung on. He will not work, but he gives the place his moral support and speaks highly of it to all comers. He will even carry a satchel across to the depot, but only as an accommodation to the hotel. In return he asks nothing and thus saves his proud spirit from the insult of a refusal. But I think he has first pick of the scattered remains of the dinners that leave the kitchen door whenever the cook is good-natured.
I say I think so, because few of us have seen Gibb Ogle eat. He has a pride, and performs this humiliating act in secret. But grocers tell me that he is always offering to dispose of broken-up crackers, stale cheese and old mackerel. "I'll just carry that out for you," he says. And they understand and let him do it. One night as he hurried past me, a package dropped from under his coat and broke at my feet. It was food—dry bread and a bologna skin with a little meat in the end. He stopped and told me how hard it was to find food for a dog in which he was interested. But that was a fib. With all his faults Gibb never maintained a dog in idleness.
In summers Gibb leads a care-free, happy life, sunning himself all day and sleeping comfortably at night in any one of a dozen places. He is our village grasshopper, taking no thought of the chill future. How he lives through our fierce winters is a mystery. He sleeps in barns. He sleeps on the coal in the electric light power house. If the clerk at the hotel happens to be a friend of his, he curls up in a chair in the lobby. Sometimes all of these fail him. I have heard that he spent one winter in an empty room over a store, and thawed out his toes on several mornings. We are always afraid some crackling January dawn will find Gibb frozen hard on the streets, and it is a relief when spring comes and he begins to fatten up a little and drink in sunshine again.
We'd like to send Gibb to the county home. Some of us are even willing to contribute to his support, scandalous as it would be. But it is hard to do, because Gibb is no pauper. He is a gentleman of leisure with the dignity of an Indian. His worn suits are neat, and he is as dapper with a battered hat and a four-year-old celluloid collar as if he spent real money on his wardrobe. He chooses his life and lives it without complaint. Periodically we strive heroically to make him work. The boys at the planter factory, who are a rough lot but have some hold on Gibb because they entertain him out of their lunch boxes, kidnap him about twice a year and drag him in to the superintendent to get a job for him. Gibb protests frantically that he has business which can't be neglected—that he is just closing a deal for a good position at the hotel—that he is going away on a trip—but nothing helps him. He accepts the job with ill-concealed horror, and the factory boys climb up on the roof of the main building and hoist a flag. We all know what it means. Gibb is working again. And we all know what will happen next.
About two days later Gibb will be limping to the factory very late with his off-foot done up in an enormous comforter. "That's what you have done, boys," he will say with simple dignity, "you've hurt that old sore foot of mine. It's never been right since I hurt it with the fire company. It's in awful shape now. I guess I'll lose it at last. You oughtn't to have done it, boys. Goodness knows, I'd have worked all these years if I'd had any foot to speak of."
Then he goes in and resigns—after which the foot recovers in great haste, and Gibb stands on it relentlessly twelve hours a day in the old way, while he watches the world go round and waits for the judgment day.
You'd think from the way we hammer at both DeLancey and Gibb to go to work that they would hang together, being in the same class. But they don't. In fact they have the greatest contempt for each other. DeLancey will not speak to Gibb, and thinks it is a crime that he isn't sent to the stone pile; while Gibb speaks of DeLancey in pitying accents as a young man who ought to know better than to waste his time herding a little white pill into a hole in a cow pasture. Gibb is very severe on the frivolities of the prosperous. He can't bear to see them frittering away their time.
That's our leisure class in Homeburg, and it isn't growing. If it was we'd be worried, and the Commercial Club would hold meetings about it. And I'm just telling you these things so that you'll see why I am so warped and foolish regarding Williston; it's just my small town ignorance—My, I wish that chap would get a job!
HOMEBURG'S WORST ENEMY
How Old Man Opportunity Stands Outside the Town and Beckons to her Greatest Men
You don't say, Jim! Gosh, let me look! Where? Behind the big fellow in the two-gallon plug hat? There—I see him! Yes, sir! It's he! I could tell him anywhere. Do you suppose we could get up nearer? What, go up in the elevator with him? Say, I haven't the nerve. No, I don't want—This is close enough—Why, there isn't even a crowd! You mean to say he comes down here just like this right along? Do you see him often?
Why, when I go home and tell the boys I watched Teddy Roosevelt go down the street common as dirt and could have gone up in the same elevator with him, they'll want me to give a lecture in the Woodmen Hall. It certainly beats all what you can see in New York for nothing.
That's where you have all the luck, Jim—you big city folks. You keep your interesting people at home; there's nowhere bigger for them to go. No matter how famous or successful they are, they have to stick around and mingle unless they get Europitis of the intellect. When you grow up with a chum in New York and he discovers a talent that has been kicking around in his garret ever since he was born, you don't lose him. He just stays at home and grows up to fit the town. But when I want to see my old Homeburg playmates who have succeeded, I have to go to New York or Chicago or San Francisco, or some other big place where old Opportunity keeps a wrecking crew busy all the time beating in doors. Opportunity doesn't come into a small town and knock. He stands outside and beckons.
Life in Homeburg is one long bereavement because of this fact. Seems as if the world was always looking Homeburg men over, the way a housewife looks over an asparagus patch, and yanking out the ones who stick up a little higher than the rest. We don't worry about the good who die young in Homeburg; but the interesting who go early and forget to come back make us sad and sore. No sooner does a Homeburg man begin to broaden out and get successful and to hoist the town upward as he climbs himself, than we begin to grieve. We know what is coming. Presently he will go down to the Democrat office and insert a notice, advertising for sale a seven-room house with gas and water, good cistern, orchard with bearing trees, good barn and milch cow, cement walks and watertight cellar. And he will sell that place at a sacrifice, which he can well afford, and go off to the city, where he will learn to wear a fur-lined coat, kick about the financial legislation and visit us on Christmas Day once per decade.
I sometimes wonder what Homeburg would be like if all her bright boys and girls should come back. Don't suppose the town could hold them at all. It would be stretched out of shape in a week. But it would be a glorious place to live in, and wouldn't we shine in art and music and politics and finance—to say nothing of baseball! Suppose we had Forrest Brady back home, catching for the Homeburg team! He gets seven thousand dollars a year from Boston now; but I remember when he helped put dents in Paynesville baseball pride for nothing, and would pay some youngster a quarter to hustle baggage at the depot in his absence. And suppose the Congregational choir still had Mary Saunders! Why, we could charge a dollar a seat for ordinary services, and people would come down from Chicago to attend! When I think what she gets for one concert now, and then think how long the Ladies' Aid Society has been working to paint the church and haven't made it yet, it makes me wish we could put Homeburg on wheels and haul it after some of our distinguished children. And what if we had Alex McQuinn to write up the Democrat again? Every month we almost ruin ourselves at home buying all the magazines he writes for; but when he was a fat young thing in spectacles hunting locals and trying to write funny things for the Democrat, he wasn't appreciated at all. Old Judge Hicks, who had no sense of humor, chased him several miles once for telling how he tried to stop the 4:11 train by yelling "Whoa" at it. And Editor Ayers had to fire Alex to keep the peace.
When Rollin Derby, who draws pictures for your New York paper, went to school, he could climb a tree by digging his bare toes into the rough bark, but was not otherwise distinguished. When Maurice Gadby was a boy in Homeburg, he went barefooted in summer with the rest of us, and who could have guessed that he would grow up to give tango teas for your four hundred and only allow the better quality of them to pay him twenty-five dollars per cup at that? But the career that amuses me most is Jack Nixon—"Shinner" Nixon, we used to call him. He commands a battleship for a living now; and Homeburg is exactly seven miles from the nearest stream that is navigable by a duck. We used to walk out to that stream Saturday mornings, spend four hours building a dam and then swim painfully on our elbows and knees in the puddle we had made until dark, but Shinner wouldn't go in. He was a regular young Goethals when it came to dam building, but he abhorred water, especially behind the ears.
Back of my generation the batting average was just about as good. It seemed to have been the fashion of Homeburg boys of thirty years ago to go out and run Nebraska politically. Two governors and a representative have come from our town. If we had them here now, we wouldn't have to fight so desperately to get a county surveyor or coroner on the ticket every four years. Samuel P. Wiggins, who now lives in a stone hut covering an acre in Chicago and owns a flock of flour mills, was once Sam Wiggins, who bought grain in our town and married the daughter of one of our most reliable washerwomen. She comes back occasionally now, and we can't see but that she's as nice as she used to be when she hauled our family wash home in a little wagon every Saturday night. Being rich hasn't hurt her at all, though it has spoiled her figure beyond the utmost and most heartrending efforts of her clothes to conceal.
Then there's Mrs. Maysworth. When she comes down from Chicago for a visit, the old town fairly hums for a month. We pick up our interest in art and woman's suffrage and cheap trips to Europe and Dante's Inferno; the Shakespeare Club is revived, the bookstore sells its copy of Browning, and the tone of the afternoon teas goes up about two hundred per cent. Mrs. Maysworth was the ruling spirit of a little bunch of prosperous Homeburg people who lived at the end of Milk Street—we used to call it the cream end of Milk Street. When they were with us, Homeburg was called the Athens of the Steenth Congressional District. We heard singers and lecturers, who jumped towns of fifty thousand on either side of us. We had state presidents of Women's Federations and Church Societies. We had a free library before Mr. Carnegie had a bank account. North Milk Street established it, and every Saturday afternoon the muddy feet of the tough south side kids scuffled over Mrs. Maysworth's hardwood floors, the first west of Chicago, while their owners drew out books, the said library being located in an extinct conservatory, which protruded from the house like a large wart.
Homeburg was a Mecca of learning and refinement in those days; and then six of these families pulled out in the same year and moved to Chicago, where they could soak up a little more culture instead of giving away all they had. They left a chasm in our midst as big as the Grand Canyon. It never has been filled—for me at least. I feel, when I wander up that fine old shady street, past those houses filled with people who are only as wise as I am, as if I were wandering through the deserted haunts of an ancient and irreplaceable civilization.
That's the way it goes with us—one bereavement after another. It's mighty hard to be a mother of sons in Homeburg. I worked in the post-office for a year once—handed out mail—and I got to know just exactly what most of the mothers in town wanted. I could please them with a new magazine and mystify them with a circular or a business letter. But if I wanted to light them up until they took the shadows out of the corners as they went out, I would give them a letter from a son, way off somewhere, making good. The best of them didn't write any too often. Once a week is pretty regular, I suppose, from the other end; but you should see the mother begin to come in hungry again the second day after her letter came. And when a boy came home successful and prosperous, and his proud mother towed him down Main Street on pretense of getting him to carry a spool of thread home for her, it used to go to my heart to see the wistful looks of her women friends. There is hardly a family in Homeburg of the right age which hasn't a grown-up son off at war somewhere—fighting failure. It's grand when they win; but I hate to think of some of our boys who haven't come back.
If it's hard on the mothers, it's even harder on the Homeburg girls. They say there are one hundred thousand old maids in Massachusetts. I'll bet that's just about the number of Massachusetts young men who have gone West or somewhere, and haven't remembered the things they said at parting as well as the girls did. We've got plenty of girls in Homeburg who are getting intimately acquainted with the thirties—fine girls, still pretty, bright, and keeping up with the world. Young men come into town and do their best to get on a "thou-beside-me" footing, but somehow the girls don't seem to marry. At the root of almost every case there's an old Homeburg boy. Maybe he's making good somewhere, and they're both waiting until he does. Maybe he isn't making good and is too proud to ask her to wait. Maybe she's waiting alone—because some other girl was handier in the new place. And maybe it wasn't a case of wait at all, only the boy who went away looked better to some Homeburg girl than any of those who stayed at home. That was the case with Sam Flanburg and Minnie Briggs a few years ago.
Sam is on the Chicago Board of Trade and is one of our old-time boys. Two years ago he came back, roaringly prosperous, to visit for the first time since he had left, and pretty suddenly he discovered to his amazement that on packing up ten years before he'd left a pearl of great price behind, said pearl being Minnie. In other words he fell in love over his ears with her, and Minnie, who was one of our very nicest girls, with a disposition like triple distilled extract of charity, treated him like a dog. He stayed around for a month cluttering up the Briggs's front porch day and night, while Minnie put up an imitation of haughty indifference and careless frivolity which was as good as a show for every one in town except Sam, who couldn't see through it. That's one of our small town assets—you get to look on at most of the love affairs. We watched Minnie and Sam with our hearts in our mouths for fear she'd carry it too far and lose him, for every one had it straight from Mary Askinson, who is intimately acquainted with a close friend of Minnie's old school chum, that Minnie had been in love with Sam since they graduated from the high school together. It was all we could do from breaking in and interfering, especially when Sam went off his feed and began to throw out ugly talk about going to the Philippines or some place where fever can be gotten cheap. But one morning Sam came down-town, and the first man who saw his face called up his wife and told her the good news. Talk about extra editions for distributing news! Before a city paper could have gotten an extra on the street, five intimate friends of Minnie's had dropped in casually to see her, and when they saw her face, of course they fell on her neck. Sam told Chet Frazier next day that it made him so mad to think he'd lived twenty years in the same town with Minnie and had never appreciated his blessings that he felt like climbing Pikes Peak and kicking himself off.
There's Mary Smith. She's our prize old maid and dresses like a mail sack full of government seeds, but they say she was the prettiest girl in Homeburg when young Cyrus McCord went to Chicago to carve out his future so that he could come home and marry her. But Cyrus didn't carve out his future. He married it instead, and Mary is almost fifty now, living alone and getting peculiar, like so many of our lonely old folks do.
Taking it all around, you can't blame us for feeling a little bit hostile to the big grabby towns which reach out like tax collectors every year and take a tithe of our boy and girl crop—first choice too. But of course we're enormously proud of our Homeburg people who go out and help run the world, and we watch their careers like hawks. When Chester Arnett was running for a state office out West, I'll bet twenty Homeburg families subscribed for a Denver paper to read about him; and when Deacon White was making his great plunges in Wall Street, Homeburg looked at the financial page of the Chicago papers first and then read the baseball. We're as happy over their success as if they were our children—but it's always embarrassing for a little while when a Homeburg man who has made good comes back to visit in the old town. We're aching to rush up and wring his arm off, but we want to know how he feels about it first. One or two experiences have made us gun-shy. We can't forget Lyla Enbright, who moved away with her family years ago and married a national bank or something of the kind in the East. She didn't come home for ten years, but finally the father died and Lyla came back to sell off some property. A lot of us had made mud pies with Lyla, and while she hadn't shown any great genius in that or anything else, she was jolly and we liked her, so we tried to rush up and greet her rapturously.
Those who didn't do it say it was one of the funniest things that ever happened in Homeburg, but I couldn't see it at the time. I was one of the rushers. Lyla waited until my outstretched hand was within reaching distance, and then she pulled a lorgnette on me. Say, Jim, did you ever get right squarely in range of both barrels of an honest-for-God lorgnette with about a thousand dollars worth of dry goods and a pinch of brains behind it? If my turn ever comes to face a Gatling gun I hope to march right up to it like a little man—but lorgnettes? No! Any hostile army could lick Homeburg by aiming lorgnettes at it. I gave one look at the thing and fell over myself in heaps getting away. I wouldn't speak to Sim Bone for a week because he laughed. But after I had recovered a little, I hunted up Chet Frazier in a hurry and told him Lyla wanted to see him. By that I got even with Chet for about a dozen practical jokes. When he got in range of that lorgnette, he said "Gosh!" and actually ran. Then we survivors lined up and got some comfort out of it, watching the rest get theirs.
As I said, Lyla and one or two others who have brought home their prosperous and expanded corporal beings, and nothing else to speak of, have made us a little timid about greeting our successful Prods. We hang around all ready for action, but we need encouragement. We wouldn't speak first for a farm. We wait for some calloused gabbler to break the ice. Gibb Ogle usually does it. Gibb would act as a reception committee for the Angel Gabriel without a quiver. He's always on the street, anyway, propping up some building or other, and he is always willing to waddle up to a returned governor or financier or rising young business man, and stick out his unwashed paw, while we hold our breath and wait for the result.
As a rule it's cheering. Our Homeburg boys don't fall down once in twenty times. No matter who the visitor is, he grabs Ogle's hand and yells: "Why, hello, Gibb, you fat old scoundrel, how's your sore foot?" Then we crowd around and fight for the next turn, and go home and hastily spread the news that So-and-so has come home big and prosperous as all get-out, and not spoiled a bit.
Sometimes they don't come back at all, of course, and nervy scouts who look up the delinquents in their city offices come back with badly frosted ears and spread the warning. But there are few of these. Even President Banks of the great F. C. & L. Railroad System, who played on the Homeburg baseball nine thirty-five years ago, will stop puzzling over the financial situation long enough to give the glad hand to a Homeburg man during office hours. Of course I don't mean that any one from Homeburg can break in on him and pile his desk full of feet. You have to be a thirty-third degree Homeburger from his standpoint; that is, you or your father must have stolen apples with him—I belong to the inner lodge. My father and President Banks ate a peck of peaches one night in Frazier's orchard, between them, and got half way through the pearly gates before they were yanked back by two doctors. That's why Banks took me to lunch when I went to call on him last month. If the Government would let him, he'd give me a pass home.
I'll never forget the day when Banks came back to Homeburg. He hadn't been back for thirty years and hadn't the slightest intention of coming either, as he admitted afterward. But he was going through on his special car, and old Number Eleven, which was hauling him, performed the most intelligent act of its career. The engine broke down right at the depot, and when Banks found he was in for an hour or two, he got out and strolled down Main Street to see the town in which he had begun his life.
It was a most depressing occasion. No one who had ever come back had changed as much as Banks. If he had worn a pigtail and talked Choctaw, he couldn't have grown farther away. It wasn't his fault. He tried his best. But he hadn't talked our language for years. He couldn't get down near enough to converse. He passed most of his playmates without remembering them, but when he saw Pash Wade's sign, he went in and shook hands with him. About forty of us came in to trade and watched him do it. It was pathetic. They stood there like strangers from different lands, Banks trying to unbutton his huge, thick ulster of dignity, and not succeeding, and Pash trying to say something that would interest Banks—along the line of high finance of course—state of the country, etc. They gave it up in a minute, and Banks went out. He found Pelty Amthorne and shook hands with him. Pelty is pretty loquacious as a rule, but he couldn't talk to Banks—not that Banks, anyway. He'd never seen him before. He said "How-dy-do," and, "It's a long time since you were here," and Banks said, "It is indeed. I hope you and your family are well." And then Pelty oozed hastily back into the crowd with a relieved air as if he had done his duty, and Banks looked bored and took out his watch. But just then Sim Askinson came up all out of breath and burst through the crowd.
Sim is little and meek and has a hard time holding his own, even in our peaceful world. But when he saw Banks, he snorted like a war horse and grew up three inches.
"Hello, Pudge, you old son-of-a-gun!" he said, with both hands in his pockets.
"Hello, Sim!" said Banks, sort of startled.
"Where'd you come from?" demanded Sim, "and why ain't you come before? You're a nice friendly cuss, you are. Sucked any turkey eggs lately?"
"No, you knock-kneed dishwasher," said Banks as a grin began to edge its way across his face. "Have you tried to sell any more toads for bullfrogs?"
"No, nor I ain't fought out any bumble-bees' nest since the time you got one up your pant leg and pretty near pounded yourself to death with a ball bat," said Sim. "Can you still run as fast as the time Wert Payley and I dared you to ride Malstead's bull?"
"Where's Wert?" demanded Banks. They were shaking hands now, using all four of them. "Say, I've got to see him and Wim. Horn. I've got to leave in a few minutes."
"Like fun you have," growled Sim, linking arms with Banks. "You seem to think some one's chasing you. You're going to stay all night, that's what you're going to do."
"I am not," said Banks; "and I wouldn't stay with you, anyway. You had a garter snake in the bed last time I slept with you. I've got to see some more of the boys, though."
"He thinks he's going away in a few minutes," said Sim to Wert Payley, who had heard his name and was now shaking hands with Banks. "Why, the old fat snide, nobody wants to see him outside of Homeburg. He's going to get a free supper to-night. Remember Sadie Warren?"
"Remember!" shouted Banks. "What do you think I am?—Methuselah? I remember more things than you ever heard of. Why, Sadie and I went skating the night you couldn't find your fat horse and sleigh."
"Ya-a-a—" yelled Payley, with a sudden shriek of laughter. "Never knew who took your rig, did you, Sim?"
"You—you—" said Sim, glaring at Banks. "You confounded horse thief, I believe you took Sadie in my own sleigh."
"Ain't he bright, Pudge," gasped Payley, "only took him thirty years to catch on."
"Well, Banksie," said Sim, "Sadie's been more particular about her young men since that night. We've been married twenty-five years, and I guess I'll let you come up and eat this evening, anyway. She lets me bring most any old pelter home."
"Gosh, boys, I can't."
"Say, what are you? the porter on that varnished car down there?" demanded Sim. "Won't they let you off a minute?"
"Tell you what we'll do," said Pelty Amthorne. "We'll take you to band practice to-night. Sim still runs it, but he won't let me play any more."
"I haven't touched a horn since I left Homeburg," laughed Banks. "But I'd give ten dollars to see you and Wimble Horn blat away on those altos again, with your eyes bulging out of your cheeks."
"We'll get Wimble and we'll break up band practice if you'll stay over."
"No, you don't," said Sim. "I won't have riff-raff loafing around my band."
"You won't, eh?" said Banks. "We'll show you. Come down to the car while I send about forty telegrams, and then we'll fix you, Mister Askinson."
Which they did that night, while most of the town looked on. The next fall Banks came back and stayed three days, and his conduct and that of his old companions in crime set an example to our younger generation which didn't wear off for years. They went out orchard robbing in an automobile, and Banks said he never realized before the wonder of modern conveniences.
THE HOMEBURG WEEKLY DEMOCRAT
Which Swamps the Post-Office Every Friday
No, Jim, as I have already said about thirty-four times this week, I don't care for a paper. Don't buy one for me. I could read your New York papers for twenty-four hours at a stretch, and at the end of the time I would have to stop some good-natured looking chap and ask what the news was. It's all there, I know, but I don't seem able to find it. Even the Chicago baseball scores are hidden in the blamed things. Instead of putting them first, the way they ought to, they stick them down at the end of the page. As for the editorial pages, I might as well go to Labrador and hunt for personal friends as to read them. If there's anything that makes a stranger feel about ten thousand miles from home, with the cars not running, it is to get into the editorial page of an unknown newspaper and try to sit in with the family discussions. It makes me feel like a man who has gotten into a reunion of the Old Settlers' Association of Zanzibar by mistake.
It's not much of a trick to go into a strange town and learn to navigate from hotel to hotel, but it's a hopeless task to try to find your way around a strange newspaper. Takes about two years to learn to read a strange newspaper skilfully, anyway, and find your way through it without banging into the want ads when you want to find the editorials, and tripping over the poets' column when you are hunting for the crop reports. You've been buying a paper every time you turned a corner for the last week, Jim—you New Yorkers seem to have to have a paper about as often as a whale needs a new lungful of air—and I've taken a hasty look at all of them, but when I get home I am going to ask my wife what has happened in the U. S. while I've been away from Homeburg. Outside of the eternal Mexican case, I don't seem to have discovered a thing.
Mind you, I don't blame your papers for bearing down hard on the local news. I suppose it's mighty interesting to you New Yorkers to learn every morning just how much more money you owe on your new subway, and whether or not the temperature of Mrs. Van Damexpense's second-best Siberian wolf-hound is still rising. That's what newspapers are for—to save you the trouble of stepping around and collecting the events of the day from the back fence. But your papers don't bear down hard enough on the Homeburg happenings, and that's why they don't suit me.
I don't pretend that our Homeburg paper is the equal of yours in any particular. The best I can say for it is that it's no worse than it was ten years ago. It hasn't any three-story type, and you could read it for years without discovering who was being divorced in San Francisco or murdered in Chicago. People who depend on it don't know yet that war has been declared in the Balkans, and they won't hear any more politics until 1916. All week long I think as little about the paper as all this. But somehow, when Thursday evening comes around, rain or shine, I step over to the post-office, and if my paper isn't there, I wait a few minutes, growing more impatient all the time, and then I drift over to the door of the Homeburg Weekly Democrat office and join the silent throng.
Like as not I'll find twenty people there. We don't expect any wild news. There will probably not be anything in the Democrat when it comes out, but we want to make sure of it. We don't want to go home without the paper. We've read it for twenty years, and every week we open it up and poke through its internals after a sensation that will stand Homeburg on its ear and split the Methodist church from steeple to pipe organ. We're as patient as fishers in the Seine, and the fact that the world has never rocked when the Democrat did come out doesn't discourage us any.
We want our paper, and so we stand there and grumble. Now and then one of us stumps up the narrow hallway to the second story where the Democrat makes its lair, and looks on with an abused air while two young lady compositors claw around the bottom of the boxes for enough type to set the last items, and the foreman stuffs the forms of the last two pages with old boiler plate, medicine ads and anything that will fill. There isn't any reason for the Democrat being late any more than there is for the branch accommodation train, which got almost to town on time once and stood beyond the crossing for twenty minutes because her conductor forgot just when she was due and didn't want to run in too soon. The Democrat is just late naturally. It's part of its function to be late. Makes it more eagerly sought after. We talk with the foreman and make nuisances of ourselves generally, and presently old man Ayers, who runs the paper, waddles in with another item to be set. The compositors set down their sticks with a jerk and say, "Oh, my land!" and the foreman goes and puts the item on the case with that air of patient resignation which is a little more irritating than a swift kick; and then Chet Frazier, if he's hanging around, which he usually is, speaks up:
"For goodness' sakes, Ayers, let that item go and get to press," he says. "Give it to me and I'll read it aloud down-stairs, your whole subscription list's down there waiting."
But we have to wait just the same until the item is set up. Then the foreman locks up the forms and bangs them on the face with his big wooden plane, and he and the old man lug them out into the pressroom while we all hold our breath—sometimes the form explodes on the way and then we don't get the Democrat for three days.
Pretty soon we hear the rattle-te-bang-te-clank-te-clicketty-clang of the old press, and in five minutes more Editor Ayers comes out with an armful of folded papers all fragrant with fresh black ink.
"She's out, boys," he says. Then we grab copies and hurry to spread the news of the birth of another Democrat. We open the sheet and look carefully down the page where old man Ayers generally conceals his local news. For a minute or two there is silence. Then somebody crams his paper into his pocket. "Hmph, nothing in it," he says, and starts home.
He's right, too. Outside of the fact that it has another week of old man Ayers's laborious and worried life in it, it is mighty bare. There isn't enough news in it to cause a thrill in a sewing circle. But after supper at home, when we look it over more carefully and the first hot flush of anticipation has worn off, we do find a lot of information. We find that Miss Ollie Mingle has gone to Paynesville for a two days' visit (aha, that Paynesville young man's folks are going to look her over), and that Mrs. Ackley is visiting her daughter in Ogallala, Neb. (Unless Ackley straightens up, we don't expect her back.) Wimble Horn is erecting a new porch and painting his house. (He must have beaten the bucket shop for once.) We also find that Jedson Bane's peaches are ripe and of the best quality, which fact he has just proven to the editor's entire satisfaction. And that old Mrs. Gastit is feeling very poorly, and Pete Parson, while working on his automobile the other night, contributed a forefinger to the cause of gasoline by poking around in the cogs while the engine was running.
All of this is news and interesting to us; so is the fact that Miss Ri Hawkes is not teaching in the Snyder district school this week, because of a sore toe. While this item does not jar the country quite so extensively as it would if Miss Hawkes belonged to one of your leading New York families, and was employing an eleven-thousand-dollar physician to treat her for gout, it is just as important to Miss Hawkes. And there you have the great keynote of our Homeburg journalism. In the eyes of the Democrat we are all equal.
There are not many of us Homeburgers. We will never see twenty-five hundred again, for as families grow smaller, most of the Illinois towns like Homeburg are contracting slowly in size even while prosperous. The Democrat hasn't above seven hundred subscribers, but every one of those subscribers gets his name in the paper at least once a year, even if it is only a general mention of his patriotism when he pays his annual subscription. No baby born in Homeburg is too humble to get its exact weight heralded to the world through the Democrat. Mrs. Maloney's pneumonia and Banker Payley's quinsy grieve the town in the same paragraph under the heading "Among our sick." The Widow Swanson's ten-mile trip down the line to a neighboring town gets as careful attention as Mrs. Singer's annual pilgrimage to California. In the matter of news we are a pure democracy. The man who buys a new automobile gets no more space than the member of Patrick McQuinn's section crew who scores a clean scoop by digging his potatoes one week ahead of the town. And when the humblest of us lies down in death he does it with the serene consciousness that he will get half a column, anyway, with more if his disease is rare and interesting, and that at the end of the article the city will sympathize with the family in its bereavement. When Mrs. Agnew died of her broken hip she got a column, though she had been financially unable to take the paper for years, while in the same issue Jay Gould got a two-inch obituary in its boiler plate inside.
Your big papers pride themselves on their brevity, except in murder cases, and I understand that almost every New York editor thinks he could boil the story of the Creation down into less than the six hundred words which the Bible wasted on it. But Editor Ayers could give all your editors instructions in this kind of economy. If the Creation had happened around Homeburg while he was on the job, he would have called attention to it the next week about as follows:
"We understand there was a creation in these parts during the last week. We did not learn the particulars but those who were on the ground at the time say that it was a successful affair, and that the new world is doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances."
Ayers would write it this way for two reasons. In the first place he hates to write more than one paragraph. Coming after a hard day's work collecting bills and chasing subscribers, it is a wearing effort. Nothing gets much space in the Democrat except obituaries and marriages, and they are all contributed—the former by the relatives and the latter by the minister. In the second place, there wouldn't be any use of wasting a lot of space on a big item because by the time the Democrat comes out, everybody knows all about it, and the mere facts would be stale and unimportant beside the superstructure of soaring fancy which has been built up by the easy-running imaginations of our chief news dispensers on the street corners. And so, when the creamery burns down or the evening fast freight runs through an accommodation on the crossing, the old man puts his duty off until the last minute and then writes a few well-chosen lines merely to let us know that he is on the job and lets no news escape him. When you are running a weekly paper, your competitors in the news business are the talkers in the town who mingle seven days a week and issue a hundred thrilling extras to their fellow citizens before your press day comes around.
Besides, as I have said, old man Ayers can't afford to waste much time chasing news. He has to get a living for himself as well as for the Democrat, and keeping both his family and the paper alive is a distinct feat performed weekly. His pay-roll for a foreman and two girls must amount to over fifteen dollars a week, and that means cold solid cash which must be wrung from a reluctant public. Seems to me I never go into a store that I don't see old man Ayers trying to collect a little cash on an advertising account or wheedling a subscriber into coming out of the misty past and creeping cautiously down a few years toward the present on his subscription account. If there is anything which we can't do without and for which we positively object to paying real money, it is our home newspaper. Sim Bone has a roaring shoe business and pays cash for his automobiles, but he has often told me that paying good paper money for advertising would be as wasteful as eating it. He carries an ad in the Democrat all the year and changes it about every six months. It's July now, and he is still advertising bargains in overshoes—but he won't pay any money. Ayers has to trade the account out, as he has to do with every other advertiser in the town.
People pity the poor ministers' families who have to live on the scrambled proceeds of donation parties, but an editor's family in our parts has even harder luck. I have seen Ayers order two suits of clothes from a clothier who owed him a big bill and was getting wabbly, and then pass by the meat market empty-handed, because his advertising account there was traded out. He told me once that he has taken disk-plows, flaxseed, magazines, encyclopedias and a new back porch in trade for advertising and subscriptions, but that he has been wearing an obsolete pair of spectacles, to his great discomfort, for ten years, because our local jeweler will not advertise. The doctors in town carry cards in the paper and owe him large amounts because his family is too healthy to catch up with them; but it will be two years before either of our local dentists accumulates a big enough bill to allow Mrs. Ayers to have some very necessary construction and betterment work, as the railroad folks say, done to her teeth.
If it weren't for the patent medicine ads, Ayers tells me, he wouldn't be able to keep afloat for want of ready cash. He says a patent medicine may be an abomination before the Lord, but that a patent medicine advertising agent looks to him like a very present help in time of trouble. The agent comes in and beats him down until he agrees to publish several hundred yards of notices next to pure reading matter on all sides for fifteen dollars. But the fifteen dollars is cash—he doesn't have to take the stuff in trade. And so we are forever running into such thrilling headlines as, "Horrible Wreck," "Her escape was simply marvelous," "Worse than the Titanic Disaster," in the Democrat's local page. And then we exclaim: "Hurray! Real news at last," and prowl eagerly down the items only to find that the horrible wreck was a citizen of Swamp Hollow upon whom a wonderful cure was effected; that "Her escape" was from inflammatory rheumatism by the aid of Gettem's Dead Shot Specific, and that the Titanic Disaster is eclipsed annually by the sad ends of thousands of people who neglect to take Palaver's Punk Pills. It always makes us mad, but we can't kick. If it weren't for the patent medicine people, we would have to pay for the Democrat all by ourselves.
They say that when Editor Ayers first came to Homeburg some forty years ago he was a bright young man with a great rush of words from the pen, and that he had a dapper air and was generally admired. The Democrat contained about a page of solid editorial opinion each week on everything, from the tariff to the duty of Russia, in whatever crisis was then pending, and people swore by the paper and didn't make up their opinions until they had read it. But times have changed. We don't stand in awe of the Democrat any more. Most of us laugh at it, even those of us who are not financiers enough to keep our subscriptions called up. We call it the "Weekly Gimlet" and the "Poorly Democrat," and we make bright remarks to old man Ayers when he asks us for news and tell him that he ought to turn the paper inside out so that we can read the boiler plate first and not have to wade through his stuff. But he doesn't object. Time and toil and the worry of keeping cash enough on hand to pay the expressman who dumps his ready prints on the floor each Wednesday and refuses to budge until he has collected $3.24 have taken the pepper out of him. He doesn't write editorials any more except on the week following a national election, and they are affairs of duty which always begin: "Another election has come and gone and the party of Jackson—"
He has made a living for forty years and has sent two sons through college from the Democrat, and the effort has taken the fight out of him. I never saw him resent a joke but once. That was when Pelty Amthorne told him that his wife considered the Democrat to be the best paper she had ever seen. He let Ayers burst a couple of buttons from his vest in his swelling pride before he explained that the Democrat, when cut in two, exactly fitted his wife's pantry shelves, and that she didn't have to trim it a bit. The old man turned on his heel without a word and that week he kindled his old-time fires and wrote the following for the local page:
A citizen of Homeburg who hasn't done anything more exciting for twenty years than stand off his grocery bill poked fun at the Democrat last week to our face because there wasn't any more news in it. News, say we—News in Homeburg? News in a town where an ice-cream social is a sensation and a dog fight suspends business for three hours? News in a town where it takes a couple five years to work up a wedding and seven kinds of wedding cake is the only news in it? Where the city marshal hasn't made an arrest for two years because no one has done anything after nine P.M. except snore, and where they have to put up the lamps in pairs to keep them from getting lonesome? We don't print news from Homeburg because there isn't any, and the old rooster who joshed us knows it. He's sore because we can't make half a column out of his trip to Paynesville eight miles away last summer, but we'll promise to do better. We'll dump the paste pot in the fire, throw the old shears out of the window and get out a regular screamer of a Democrat some week; a paper with red ink on it and big headlines and a real piece of news in it. We will when this gabby old fossil does his part. When he pays his six years' subscription, we'll write two columns about it. And even then no one will believe it.
Lafe Simpson, who runs the Argus, is a younger man than Ayers and more ambitious. Oh, yes, we have two papers. In a town the size of Homeburg you simply have to have two papers, because half of the people are always mad at one paper. The Argus and Democrat trade subscription lists about every seven years—not counting the hard-shell Democrats and blown-in-the-bottle Republicans who have to stand by their papers whether they get mad at them or not. I've been taking the Democrat for about five years because Simpson got too busy in the school election one year to suit me. It's pretty hard on me, because Simpson runs a better paper; but my neighbor, Sim Askinson, likes the Democrat better and can't take it because he took his whole family to Chicago one week, and Ayers overlooked the fact. So he borrows my Democrat every week and I get his Argus, and thus both of us preserve our mad and our dignity and get what we want just the same.
If there's anything keener than the competition between two weekly newspapers in a small town, I'd like to see it—but not feel it. It's a searching sort of competition which seems to work its way into every detail of the town's affairs. We town people are judged by our editors according to our patronage. If a man gives two jobs of letterheads in succession to the Argus, Ayers looks on him as a man who has stabbed him in the back and has twisted the sword. If the Board of Education spends $67 for commencement invitations with the Democrat one year and $69.50 with the Argus the next, things aren't exactly calm and peaceable again until the discrimination has been explained. When twins come to a man who has always taken the Argus in preference to the Democrat, old man Ayers wags his head as if to say, "He brought it on himself;" and when Lafe Simpson meets a man who persistently refuses to take his paper in preference to the sheet across the street, he greets him as formally and warily as if he had smallpox and was passing free samples around.
Lafe claims to have more circulation than the Democrat, and this comes nearer giving Ayers apoplexy than anything else. He claims that Lafe's circulation consists two thirds of wind and that he hasn't more than 750 bona fide subscribers, including deadhead copies to patent medicine houses. Lafe, on the other hand, says Ayers prints 750 papers merely from force of habit—that most of his subscribers have been trying to stop the paper for years and can't. Lafe says that when a man puts his name on Ayers's subscription list, he might as well carve it in stone and then try to wipe it off with gasoline. Ayers says, in return, that when a stranger arrives to make his home in Homeburg, Lafe Simpson meets him at the train, takes him to his new residence, and hangs around the doorstep until the stranger subscribes for the Argus in order to improve the atmosphere around the neighborhood.
Of course the two papers are always on opposite political sides—no matter whether it is a school or national election. Makes us scheme a good deal at times to keep one of them quiet on some public project so that the other will not jump on it. We had a big time, when the plan to pave Main Street was going through, to keep Lafe from jumping in and shouting for it. That would have set Ayers off dead against it, and we had to muzzle Lafe until Ayers had committed himself.
The struggles of the two editors to outdo each other have been titanic. When Simpson put in a steam engine, Ayers mortgaged his plant and got one of the new gasoline engines just then being introduced into an unhappy world. He never used it much unless he had lots of time in which to start it, but it was a great comfort and held Simpson level. When Simpson bought the building in which the Argus is printed, it nearly killed Ayers, who couldn't have bought the sign on his building. But he finally prevailed on the owner to put in a new front and name his block "The Democrat Building." But about that time Simpson, who is a go-ahead young chap, bought a young automobile in the last stage of lung trouble, and Ayers has never really recovered from that blow.
The two papers go to press on the same day, and the rivalry is intense. Early in the day the two foremen each visit the rival plants, ostensibly to borrow some type and a little gasoline, but in reality to count the advertisements and to see how late the rival sheet is going to be. All afternoon the forces work feverishly, reports drifting in occasionally to the effect that over in the other shop they are locking up the forms. The minute the press turns in the Democrat office, Ayers grabs the first paper, folds it and saunters hastily over toward the Argus. Sometimes he meets Simpson half way over with a copy of the Argus in his pocket, and sometimes he gets clear over and has a chance to swell around for a minute with his new-born paper in plain sight, watching the mad foreman lock up the forms. The first paper into the post-office gets distributed first, while the subscribers of the other paper hang around in a state of frenzy and waver in their allegiance in a manner to make the stoutest heart quail. And one of the weekly diversions in Homeburg is watching this race. If it isn't too late in starting, we hang around and make mild bets on the result. One week old man Ayers and his foreman will hurry out from the Democrat office and trot hastily over to the post-office carrying the week's issue of the paper between them in a wash basket. And the next week Simpson and the office devil will beat them to it. Now and then they will both appear at the same time and race side by side, bareheaded, coatless, breathless, and full of hate. I hear a good deal about the exertions to which your papers go to be on the street first with extras, but I'll bet there has never been more voltage in the competition here than there was in Homeburg the night old man Ayers and young Simpson arrived at the post-office door at precisely the same second and got their baskets and themselves in a hopeless jam. Postmaster Flint had to appoint a peace conference to settle the dispute.
Ayers is getting pretty old, and for several years we have been worrying about his future. Since a cruel Government has decided that a newspaper publisher must keep his subscription list paid up or go out of business, times have been pretty hard for Ayers; formerly he could let a subscription account run for ten years and then take a second-hand buggy or a quarter of beef, or a few odd size grindstones on account; but of late he has had to dun us every year, and of course that makes us mad, and we quit his paper with great frequency and vim. I don't know what would have happened to the old man if Wilson hadn't been elected. But that, of course, has settled things for him. He will be our next postmaster. Every one has conceded that except Pash Wade, Emery Billings, Colonel Ackley, and Sim Askinson, who are also candidates. However, old man Ayers's petition is as long as all the rest put together, and when he is appointed and begins to draw down fifteen hundred dollars a year for handing out his own paper to his subscribers, we will sigh with relief, and Simpson's yells will be sweet music in our ears.
If I had my way, I would put a clause in the Constitution giving all third-class postmasterships to third-class editors, anyway. It's the only chance they have of accumulating enough of a surplus to be able to go into a store with their hats on one side and buy things like other people.
THE HOMEBURG MARINE BAND
Where Music is Cherished for its own Sweet Sake Regardless of Dividends
Where you New Yorkers get farthest ahead of us Homeburgers, Jim, is the fact that you can go out and soak yourself in real, soul-hoisting music whenever you feel like it—provided, of course, that you have the price and that some speculator hasn't cornered the tickets, and that you can get home at night in time to get dressed in time to go back to town, and that you have sufficient nerve and endurance to go four rounds with your celebrated subway in the same twenty-four hours.
You can't realize what having music constantly on tap means to a pilgrim from a town where two concerts in a winter is a gorge, and where about the only regular musical diversion is going to church on Sunday morning and betting on where the veteran soprano in the choir is going to hang on to the key or skid on the high turns. You laugh at me because I can't eat down-town unless I am encouraged by a bull fiddle, and because I gulp at free concert tickets like a young robin swallowing worms. But if most of your life had been spent listening to Mrs. Sim Estabrook jumping for middle C about as successfully as a dog jumps for a squirrel in a hickory tree, you'd splash around in melody, too, while you had the chance.
Of course, I don't mean to say that the music canneries don't do as big a business out our way as they do anywhere. I'll bet they ship as much as ten barrels of assorted masterpieces a month into Homeburg for our graphophone cranks; and last winter Wimble Horn broke the piano-player record by tramping out Tannhaeuser in seven minutes flat. But while these things educate us and enable us to roll our eyes in the right place in a Wagner number, they don't satisfy the soul any more than souvenir cards from Europe take away a thirst for travel. We want the real thing, and year in and out we're music-hungry. We drive our young folks to the piano and listen to them heroically until they get good, and then they go away to the city where the gate receipts are better and leave us at Lutie Briggs's mercy again. Time and time again the only thing that has stood between Homeburg and a ghastly musical silence has been the Homeburg Marine Band.
That's right! Laugh, darn you! What if Homeburg is twenty miles from the nearest creek? Our band is a lot nearer salt water than your Cafe de Paris is to France. And, besides, there are only three names for a country band, anyway. If it isn't the Marine Band, it has to be the Military Band, or the Silver Cornet Band. Chet Frazier, who is our village cut-up, says that they named ours the Marine Band years ago, after it had waded out to the cemetery on a wet Memorial Day through our celebrated bottomless roads.
You can't realize what a comfort and pride a band is in a Class X town, unless you have grown up in one. They say this isn't a musical country, but its intentions are certainly good as far as brass bands go. Long before an American town is big enough to have a post-office, its citizens have either organized a brass band or are trying to get another man to move in to complete a quorum. Life never gets so complicated out on the grain elevator circuit that the station agent, school principal, and the two rival blacksmiths, and the city marshal can't lug their horns down-town once a week in the evening and soar sweetly off into melody at band practice—that is, if they can get off on the same beat during the evening.
I can hear our home band now—up over McMuggins' Drug Store on a summer evening. It's hot—not hot enough to ignite the woodwork, but plenty warm enough to fry eggs on the sidewalks—and the whole town is out on the porches and lawns chasing a breeze, except the band. It is up in the super-heated lodge room of the Modern Woodmen, huddled around two oil lamps, because the less light it has the less heat will be generated, and it is getting ready to practice the "Washington Post March" for the Fourth of July parade. Our band has practiced the "Washington Post March" for over twenty years, but while the band has altered greatly, the grand old piece shows no sign of wear and is as fresh and unconquerable as ever.
Querulous, complaining sounds come from the lodge room. The tenor horns are crooning, and the bass horn blatting gently, while the clarionet players are chasing each other up and down the scale, like squirrels running round and round in a cage. The warming-up exercises are on. They will continue until Frank Sundell shaves his last customer and gets up to the hall with his trombone. You can tell when he comes. He pulls the slide in and out a couple of times with an unearthly chromatic grunt, and then there is a deep, pregnant silence. They are going to begin.
Usually they begin several times. It is as hard to get a band off together in practice as it is to send a dozen horses from the wire. But finally the bass catches up with the cornets, and the others sprint or put on the brakes, and they land on the fourth or fifth beat together.
For a few minutes it's great. They go over the first four bars in a bunch, and old Dobbs gets the half note and change of key in the bass, which usually floors him, like a professional. It is a proud and happy moment for the leader. But it doesn't last. It's too good to be true. Ad Smith strikes a falsetto with his cornet and stops for wind; this rattles his partner, who can't carry the air alone to save him. Dobbs sits down on the wrong key in the bass. The tenors weaken, discouraged by the cornet, and everybody hesitates. A couple of clarionets lose the place and get to wandering around at random, creating terrible havoc. The altos stop, being in doubt. Ad recovers and launches out with terrific vim half a beat behind. There is a rally, but it is too late. You can hear fragments of five different keys, and presently every one stops except Mahlon Brown, who plays the bass drum and always bangs away through fire or water until some one turns him off.
Then there is silence—a good deal of it. We all know what is happening. Sim Askinson, the leader, is making a few well-chosen remarks, and each player is turning around in his chair and going over the faults of his neighbor in the most kindly and thorough fashion. Ed Smith empties out his baritone horn and takes a little practice run, and then they commence to begin—or begin to start—or start to commence—whatever it is, all over again. But when they stop at ten o'clock, they haven't played the "Washington Post March" clear through in any one heat.
Doesn't sound encouraging for the Fourth, does it? But, pshaw, that's only practice! When the big day comes and the boys put on their caps and coats and such trousers as will come nearest to blending with the said coats and march down the street, do they falter and blow up in the back stretch? Not much. They canter through that air as if they had been born whistling it. There's a wonderful inspiration in marching to a band man—give him a horn, a ragged slip of music, and about four miles of road, and he will prance down the street, climbing over ruts, wading through mud, reading at night by the light of a torch carried by a boy who is twenty feet away fighting with another boy; and he will blow his immortal soul into his horn for hours at a stretch without missing a note.
Part of the reason for the difference at home is because we always carry a few amateurs, who are privileged to come in at practice and do all the damage they can, but who have to keep mighty quiet on the march. They can carry their horns, puff out their cheeks and look as grand as they please, but if they'd presume to cut loose with some real notes and smear up a piece, they'd be fired in no time.
We have always been mighty proud of our Homeburg band. Nobody knows how old it is. We think it arrived with the first inhabitants. These are all dead, but some of the original horns are still doing duty, and the brass on them is worn thin and almost bright. Our band is much better than the average band. That's one of the great Homeburg comforts. Whenever we get blue about the muddy streets and the small stores, and the great need of a sewage system, and the disgraceful condition of the stove in the Q. B. & C. Depot, we think of our band and are comforted. It has at least twenty members right along, most of whom can play their instruments, and Sim Askinson, who is a professional music teacher, has conducted it off and on for twenty-five years. Citizens from other towns get mighty jealous when they come down to Homeburg Thursday evenings during the summer and listen to the magnificent concerts which our band gives. I've seen as many as three hundred rigs around the public square those nights. And when our band practices up on "Poet and Peasant," which is its star piece, and goes off to the big band contests which break loose in the summer and create great havoc, large numbers of our citizens go along and bet their good money in a manner which keeps the town poor for months afterward.
I don't know anything more magnificent than the way our band plays "Poet and Peasant" with Sim Askinson leading, Ad Smith and Henry Aultmeyer duetting perfectly for once with their cornets, and the clarionet section eating up the fast parts in a manner that sends goose flesh up and down your spine. We're head and shoulders above any other band that enters the contests, but that's the trouble. The judges are never educated up to "Poet and Peasant." They always give the prize to the Paynesville Military Band, which has a five-foot painted bass drum and has to play "Over the Waves" for a concert piece, because they haven't got a decent cornet player in town. Sometime they will get a real musician to judge these contests, and then we will win by seventeen toots.
You may not believe it, Jim, but I am an alumnus of the Homeburg band. Didn't suspect that I was anything but an ordinary citizen, did you? But it's a fact. I am a band man. I'm too modest to brag about it, but I was carrying a horn and had a uniform before I was eighteen. I suppose there is nothing, not even the fire department, that fills a small town boy with such wild ambition as a band. When I was twelve, I used to watch that band in its more sublime passages, feeling that if I ever could become great enough to play in it, others could run the country and win its great battles with no jealousy from me. The snare drummer at that time was a boy of sixteen. Of course, being snare drummer in the band, he didn't mix around much with the common kids, and I didn't know him. But I watched him until my ribs swelled out and cracked with envy; and I used to wonder how fortune ever happened to reach down and yank that particular boy so far up into the rarefied upper regions of glory.
When I was fourteen, I went after his job. But I never could learn to play the snare drum. You have to learn to "roll," and I couldn't make my left hand behave. I tried a year and would probably be trying yet but for the fact that when Ed Norton left town, he traded me his ruinous old alto horn for three dollars and a dog. There was about as much music left in it as there is in a fish horn, but I was as delighted as if it had been a pipe organ, and when the folks wouldn't let me practice at home on it, I took it out in the country and kept it in Smily Garrett's barn. After a while I learned how to fit my face into the mouthpiece in just the right way, and as the sounds I made became more human, I sort of edged into town, until finally I was practicing in our own barn. And the next year Askinson let me come into the band and "pad" as second alto during the less important engagements.
I played with the band for five years, and while I never got out of the "thump section," which was what the trombonists and snare drummers and the other aristocrats of the band call the altos, I had all the fun and adventures that a high-priced musician could have had, and was perfectly happy. I can still remember with pride the deep-green looks on the faces of Pete Amthorne and Billy Madigan and Snoozer Ackley, as they watched me marching grandly down the street lugging my precious old three bushels of brass in my arms, and "ump-umping" until my eyes stuck out of my head. Of course they didn't know that most of the time I was watching a change in my notes half a bar away and wondering if I could make it without falling all over the treble clef. I looked like Sousa to them, and when I leaned grandly back in my chair at the band concerts and borrowed a page of music from my neighbor—said page being mostly Hebrew to me—I felt like a Senator or Chief Justice letting the common herd have a look at him.
I pity the poor city boys who have to grow up nowadays and depend on taxicabs and vaudeville for their excitement. Belonging to the band was more fun than belonging to the baseball team or the torchlight brigade or anything else. We got in on everything. They couldn't pull off a rally or celebration, or even a really successful church social, without us. I might say that the importance of a Homeburg citizen in the old days was determined by whether or not the Homeburg Band escorted him to his tomb. When great doings occurred in the neighboring towns, plain citizens dug down in their pockets for car-fare, and then dug painfully down once more for our car-fare. When an ordinary Homeburger wanted to help boost McKinley to victory by parading in some distant town with a torch, it cost him five dollars and a suit of clothes. But we not only went free, but got two dollars apiece for plowing a wide furrow of glory down the streets between rows of admiring eyes.
Those two dollars counted a lot in those days, too. It looked like an easy income to us. All we had to do to earn it was to beg off from our employers for half a day, travel thirty miles or so by train, usually standing up and protecting our horns from the careless mob, march eight or ten miles over unknown streets, picking out dry places underfoot and notes from a piece of music bobbing up and down in the shadows above our horns, and then drive home across country after midnight, getting home in time to go to work in the morning. Why, it was just like finding money; I've never had so much fun earning it since. I started once to figure out how many miles our band marched during the first Bryan campaign, but I gave it up. We never felt it at that time, but it made me so tired counting that I quit with a distinct footsore feeling.
The most worrisome task about a Homeburg band was keeping it alive. I suppose all small town bands have the same trials. We worked against incredible difficulties. If city people had the same devotion to music which we displayed, you would have a ten-thousand-piece philharmonic orchestra in New York playing twenty-four hours a day for glory. We were always building up our band with infinite pains, only to have Fate jerk the gizzard out of it just as perfection was in sight. Talent was scarce, and the rude, heartless city was forever reaching down into Homeburg and yanking some indispensable players away. Of course there was always a waiting list of youngsters who would coax a few hoarse toots out of the alto horn, and we always had a bunch of kid clarionetists who would sail along grandly through the soft parts and then blow goose notes whenever they hit the solo part. But try as we would, we could never get more than two cornets. One of these was Ad Smith. He was a bum cornetist, but his brother Ed was a good baritone, and we had to have both or none. The other was usually some anxious young student who got along pretty well on plain work, but who would come down the chromatic run in the "Chicago Tribune March" like a fat man falling down the cellar stairs with an oleander plant.
As for trombones, there was a positive fatality among them; we were always losing them. Trombone players have to be born, anyway, and there was no hope of developing one. Besides, the neighbors wouldn't allow it. Young Henry Wood showed promise once, but after his father had listened to him for about six months, he took the slip end of his horn away from him and beat carpets with it, until it was extinct as far as melody was concerned.
For a year we had Mason Peters, who was a wonder on the slide trombone. But he was only getting twelve dollars a week in Snyder's Shoe Emporium, and Paynesville, which never tired of putting up dirty tricks on us, hustled around and got him an eighteen dollar job up there—after which they came down to Homeburg at the first opportunity with their band to parade Peters before our eyes. It would have been a grand success if they hadn't put Peters in the front row. He lived for his art, Peters did, paying no attention to anything but his trombone, and besides he was quite deaf. He got confused about the line of march, and when the band swung around the public square he kept right on up Main Street all alone, playing in magnificent form and solitary grandeur while the band swung off the other way. The whole town followed him with tears of joy, and he traveled two blocks before he became aware of the vast and appalling silence behind him; then he kept right on for the city limits on the run. It was a great comfort to us, and by the time we had gotten through apologizing to the Paynesville boys for following Peters under the impression that he was the real band, they had offered to fight us singly or in platoons.
We used to watch every new citizen like Russian detectives, only we searched them for horns instead of dynamite. Several times a trombonist came to town, and music revived noticeably. But none of them lasted. Trombonists seem to be temperamental, and when they are not changing jobs they are resigning from the band because they are not allowed to play enough solos. Our greatest bonanza was a quiet chap named Williams, who came to town to work in the moulding room of the plow factory. After he had been there a week, we discovered that he had a saxophone. No one had ever heard or eaten a saxophone, but we looked it up, and when we found out what it was, we made a rush for him. At the next practice he appeared with a bright silver instrument covered with two bushels of keys and played a solo which sounded like three clarionets with the croup. We wept for joy and elected him leader on the spot.
This caused Sim Askinson to resign, of course, and he took Ad and Ed Smith with him, and they remained in dignified and awful silence for two years. But we didn't care. One saxophone was worth five baritones, and while Williams was in town, we were an object of envy to all of the other bands around. We changed our name to the Homeburg Saxophone Band, and the way we rubbed it into Paynesville was pitiful. He was a little fellow, Williams was, and short of wind, which caused him to gasp a good deal during the variation parts. But he was willing. There was no shirk about him. After a year our program usually consisted of eleven saxophone solos and some other piece which could be done almost entirely on the saxophone, and the jealous Paynesvillains used to ask why we used nineteen men to play the rests when one man could have produced as much silence at far less expense.
Those were glorious years; but of course they didn't last. Williams got to resigning at the foundry just for the pleasure of having us come down and plead with the proprietor to raise his pay. Finally he resigned so much that the proprietor fired him, and then we had to take our caps in hand and wheedle the Smiths and Askinson back into the band. I haven't belonged for years, but they are still there. When I drop in at practice, as many of the alumni do, Askinson greets me cordially and takes some young cub's horn away from him, so I can sit in. It is just like old times, especially when Ed Smith lays down his horn after a slight altercation with some one and goes home never to come back—just as he has done for the last thirty years.
That's the worst of music. One's art, you know, has so much influence over one's temper. To see our band soaring majestically down Main Street and playing "Canton Halifax" in one great throbbing rough-house of melody you would never believe that anything but brotherly love existed between the players. As a matter of fact, we never wasted any harmony among ourselves. We didn't have any to spare. It took all we had to produce the music. For twenty-five years the Smiths and Cooney Simpson, who plays first clarionet, have been at swords' points, each with a faction behind him. Cooney says it's a shame that a good band must limp along with a cornetist who always takes three strikes to hit a high note, and Ed Smith says Cooney wants to be leader and will not be satisfied until he can play the solo and bass parts at once on his clarionet. I can see Ed Smith now, after the band has run aground in practice, taking his horn down and glaring around at Cooney.
"What you gobstick players need is a time-table," says he, "instead of notes. Come in on the A about eight-fifteen. If you can do that well, we'll try to struggle along."
"Don't get forte," Cooney replies cheerfully. "If you'd try to follow both those cornets instead of rambling along by yourself, you'd split, sure."
"Better play cornet, too, Cooney," says Ad Smith, whirling around. "You've got enough mouth for both."
"Well, we ought to have a cornetist," says Cooney, "it's what we've needed for years."
This riles the scrub cornet player, whoever he happens to be, and he gets up excitedly. "We'd get along a lot better without one or two human calliopes—" he begins.
"Set down, set down," says old Dobbs from the coils of his tuba. "Let 'em fight. They know it all between pieces—"
"Who asked you to horn in?" says Ed Smith, getting up preparatory to going home with his baritone horn and leaving a broken and forlorn world to grieve his loss.
Of course this is a crisis. But we never bust up. The Paynesville Band busts up about twice a year over the division of profits and the color of their new uniforms and the old question of whether the cornets or trombones shall march in front. But we never go entirely to pieces. This is largely because of Sam Green. He is our peacemaker and most faithful player. He has played second alto in the band for thirty-five years without a promotion, and is by all odds the worst player I ever saw, being only entirely at home in the key of C; and he can't play three-four time to save his soul. But his devotion is marvelous. He is always the first man down to practice. He lights the lamps, builds the fires, and when necessary goes out to Ed Smith's home and persuades him to come back into the band for just this night. And whenever the dispute between the factions gets to the point where Ed Smith begins gathering up his doll things, Sam interferes.
"Come on now, boys," he pleads, "we've got to get this piece worked up. You're all good players. Why, if Paynesville had you fellows, she'd have a band. That was my fault that time. I'll get this here thing right sometime. I'll sit out in the trio now and you fellows take it."
And pretty soon, as he argues, Ed's proud heart softens, and he comes back with a glare at Cooney. Then Sim Askinson raps on his music rack and says: "Gentlemen and trombone players," as he has for a quarter of a century; and a minute later the band is tumbling eagerly through its piece once more, all feuds suspended in the desperate effort to come out even at the end with no surplus bars to be played by some floundering horn.
Some time during the evening, as a rule, the various sections get together on some passage and swim grandly through, every horn in perfect time, and the parts blending like Mocha and Java. All differences are forgotten, and the band breaks up with friendly words, Ed Smith and Cooney going home together. Music has charms to soothe the savage beast, and it also has a wonderful power of taking the temper out of the grocer and the painter and the mahout of the waterwork's gasoline engine.
I never stepped so high or felt so grand as I did the first time I marched out with the boys and went down the street in the back row of the band next to the drums, a member in good standing, and dodging every time I passed under a telephone wire to keep from scraping my cap off. I never expect to feel that grand again. But I have an ambition. If ever I should become so famous and successful that when I went back to Homeburg to visit my proud and happy parents and stepped off of the 4:11 train, I would find the Homeburg Marine Band there to meet me, I would know that I had made good, and I would be content. The only thing that encourages me in my ambition is that the band didn't come down to play when I went away. Do you know, Jim, it's the funniest thing—the fellows we played out-of-town in a blaze of glory never happened to be the chaps we came down to the train to meet afterward, somehow. But I imagine we weren't the only poor guessers in the world.
THE AUTO GAME IN HOMEBURG
It has Driven out Politics as a Subject of Debate
Wait a minute, Jim. I want to look at this automobile.... Yes, I know it is the sixth machine I've walked around in seven blocks, but what's time to a New Yorker on Saturday afternoon? This nifty little mile-eater has an electric gear shift, and I want to ask the chauffeur how he likes it. Promised Ad Summers I would.
... Says it hangs a little if his voltage is low. That's what I'd be afraid of—Gee! there's a new Jacksnipe with a center searchlight. Never would do for rutty roads. How do you like the wire wheels, Jim? Bad for side strains, I should think. Look at those foxy inset lamps. Listen to that engine purr—two cycle, I'll bet. Say, Fifth Avenue is certainly one great street! I could walk up and down here for a month. There's a new Battleax—wonder if those two speed differentials are going to work out.
All right, Jim, I'll reluctantly shut up and focus my attention on the salmon-colored cloaks and green stockings for a while. I forgot that you don't take any deep, abiding interest in automobiles. All they mean to you is something to ride in, but to me they're as interesting as a new magazine. I've spent about four days in the sales-rooms since I've been here, and when I get home I'll be the center of breathless attention until I've passed around all the information I've dug up. I could go back without any information about the new shows, or the city campaign, but if I were to come back without a bale of automobile gossip, I'd be fired for gross incompetency from the League of Amateur Advisers at Gayley's garage.
You thought I said I didn't own a machine? I did say it and I can prove it. But do you suppose that makes any difference in Homeburg? Here the other fellow's car is his own business. But in Homeburg an automobile is every one's business. It's like the weekly newspaper, or the new minister, or the latest wedding—it's common property. Since gasoline has been domesticated we're all enthusiasts, whether we are customers or not. The man who can't talk automobile is as lonely as the chap who can't play golf at a country club. About all there is left for him to do is to hunt up Postmaster Flint and talk politics. Flint has to talk all our politics; it's what he's paid for, but it's mighty hard on him because he just bought a new machine last spring himself.