No, you guessed wrong, Jim. Automobiles aren't a curiosity in Homeburg. How many are there in New York? Say eighty thousand. One for every sixty people. Homeburg has twenty-five hundred people and one hundred machines, counting Sim Askinson's old one-lunger and Red Nolan's refined corn sheller, which he built out of the bone-yard back of Gayley's garage. That's one for every twenty-five people. Figure that out. It only gives each auto five members of the family and twenty citizens to haul around. We're about up to the limit. Of course another one hundred people could buy machines, I suppose; but that would only allow twelve and a half passengers, admirers, guests, and advisers for each car. That isn't anywhere near enough. Why, it wouldn't be worth while owning a machine! As it is, we are all busy. I've ridden in twenty new machines this year and passed my opinion on them. It has taken a good deal of my spare time. I've thought sometimes of buying one myself, but I don't believe it would be right. If I had a car myself, I would have to neglect all the others. It wouldn't do. Besides, I like to be peculiar.
Is every one in Homeburg a millionaire? Goodness, no! Our brag is that we have less people per automobile than any other town, but then that's the ordinary brag with an Illinois small town. We're not much ahead of the others. Automobiles don't stand for riches out our way. Blamed if I know what they do represent. Mechanical ingenuity, I guess. Country town people pick up automobiles as easily as poor people do twins. And they seem to support them about as inexpensively. If you were to take a trip around Homeburg at seven A.M. on a Sunday morning, you would find about eighty-seven automobile owners out in the back yard over, under, or wrapped around their machines.
In the city you can only tell a car owner these days by his silk socks; but in the country town the grimy hand is still the badge of the order. The automobile owner does his own work, like his wife, and on Sunday morning, instead of hustling for the golf links, he inserts himself into his overalls and spends a couple of hours trying to persuade the carbureter to use more air and less gasoline. The interest our automobile owners take in the internals of their cars is intense. That is the only thing which mars the pleasure of the professional guest, such as myself. More than once I've sat in the sun twenty miles from home while some host of mine has taken his engine down clear to the bed plate, just because he had the time to do it and wanted to see how the bearings were standing up.
I've lived in Homeburg all my life, but I haven't yet solved the mystery of how some of our citizens own machines. It's a bigger mystery than yours because our automobile owners pay their bills, and the mortgage records don't tell us anything. There's Wilcox, the telegraph operator. He makes seventy-five dollars a month. He works nights to earn it, and he spends his days driving around the country in his runabout. He's thirty years old, and I think he invested in an auto instead of a wife.
You can get a good meal in our local restaurant for twenty-five cents, and when some painstaking plutocrat comes in and tries to spend a dollar there, he has to be removed by kindly hands in a state of fatal distension before the job is finished. A thousand dollars would buy stock, fixtures, and good will. But a thousand wouldn't buy the restaurant owner's automobile. He began with two hundred and fifty dollars' worth of rubbish and a monkey wrench four years ago, and has pottered and tinkered and traded and progressed until he now owns a last year's model, staggering under labor-saving devices.
Our oculist, who does business in a tiny corner in a shoe-store and never overcharged any one in his life, was our pioneer automobile owner. He bought a homemade machine and a mule at the same time, and by judiciously combining the two he got a good deal of mileage out of both. He would work all morning getting the automobile down-town and all afternoon getting the mule to haul it back. He has had three machines since then, and the one he owns now is only third-hand.
For years Mrs. Strawn washed clothes for the town from morning till night, two washings a day and all garments returned intact. Her boys used to call at our house for the wash with a wheelbarrow. They come in an automobile now. She bought it. It was a hopeless invalid at the time, but they nursed it back to health, and I hear that next spring they are going to trade it in for a new machine.... Why do I say machine? Because that's what an automobile is out our way. It's a machine, and we treat it as such. Most of our people couldn't take a lobster to pieces to save their lives, but you ought to see them go through the shell of an auto. Too many Americans buy portable parlors with sixty-seven coats of varnish, and are then shocked and grieved to discover when too late that said parlors have gizzards just like any other automobile and that they should have been looked after.
I said there were one hundred automobiles in Homeburg. I was mistaken. There are ninety-nine automobiles and one car. The Payleys own the car. They bought it in New York, paid six thousand dollars for it, with a chauffeur thrown in to drive them home, and they have been under his thumb ever since. He was the only chauffeur who had ever been brought alive in captivity to Homeburg, and the whole town inspected him with the utmost care. He was the best stationary chauffeur I ever saw. He seemed to regard that car as a monument and was shocked at the idea of moving it around from place to place.
It was too high-priced a car to be touched by Sam Gayley, our local auto doc., and somehow the chauffeur never seemed to be able to keep it in running order long enough to get up to the Payley residence and take the family out. He ran around the country a good deal, however, tuning it up and trying it out, and as he was a sociable cuss, some of us always went with him. In fact, about every one rode in the Payley car that summer except the Payleys. Wert Payley used to stop me and ask if I could fix it up to take him along sometime when I went riding with his chauffeur, but I never would risk it. Besides, it would be imposing on the boy's generosity to lug a friend along when you went riding.
The most of our machines vary from the one thousand, five hundred dollar touring car to the five hundred dollar little fellows; and since they have come, life in Homeburg is twice as interesting. They are our dissipation, our excitement, our amusement, and the focus of our town pride. The Checker Club disbanded last winter because the members got to quarreling over self-starters, and I understand that in the Women's Missionary Societies and the afternoon clubs the comparative riding qualities of the various tonneaus about the city have about driven out teething and styles as a subject of debate. For a while during the Wilson campaign, it looked as if politics was going to get a foothold in the town, but some enthusiast organized a flying squadron of automobiles to propagate Democratic gospel, and then it was all off. Everybody rushed into the squadron, and the trips around the district became reliability runs, with a lone orator addressing the freeborn citizens upon the tariff at each stop, and said freeborn citizens discussing magnetos, springs, and tires with great earnestness and vehemence during the speech.
Business always suspends for half a day whenever a new automobile comes to town. There may be a dozen of the same make already, but that doesn't make any difference. We are experts, trained to notice the finer shades of perfection, and until we have seen each new machine put up the clay hill four miles south of town and have ridden in it over the Q. B. & C. crossing and the other places which show up bad springs, we can't fix our minds on our work. Time was when a new baby could come into Homeburg and hold the attention of the town for a week. Now a baby is lucky if its birth notice isn't crowded out of the Democrat to make room for the list of new machines.
As for those of us who haven't automobiles, life is pleasant and without responsibilities. We ride in every new automobile, and, what is more, we go over it as carefully as a farmer does a new horse. We open its hood and pry into its internal economy. We crank it to test its compression—half the Homeburg men who have achieved broken wrists by the crank route haven't autos at all. We denounce the owner's judgment on oils and take his machine violently away from him in order to prove that it will pull better uphill with the spark retarded. At night, during the summer, we hurry through supper and then go out on the front porch to wait for a chance to act as ballast.
No automobile owner in the dirt roads belt will go out without a full tonneau if he can help it—makes riding easier—and this means permanent employment during the evenings for about three hundred friends all summer long. In fact the demand for ballast is often greater than the supply. As a result, we have become hideously spoiled. I have passed up as many as six automobiles in an evening on various captious pretexts, waiting all the time for Sim Bone's car, whose tonneau is long and exactly fits my legs. Once or twice Sim has failed to come around after I have waved the rest of the procession by, and we have had to stay at home. I have spoken to him severely about this, and he is more careful now.
Because of our great interest in automobiles, vicarious or otherwise, there is no class-hatred in Homeburg. If a man were to stop by the roadside and begin to denounce the automobile as an oppressor of the pedestrian, he would in all probability be kidnaped by some acquaintance before he was half through and carried forty miles away for company's sake. About the only Homeburg resident who doesn't ride is old Auntie Morley, who broke her leg in a bobsled sixty years ago and has had a holy horror of speed ever since.
In fact the only classes we have are the privileged class who merely ride in automobiles and the oppressed class who ride and have to pay for them, too. Lately the latter class has begun to feel itself abused and has been grumbling a little, but we overlook it. No appeal to prejudice and jealousy can move us. Of course, I don't think that an automobile owner should be expected to leave his wife at home in order to accommodate his neighbors, and there may be some just complaint when an owner is called up late at night and asked to haul friends home from a party to which he hasn't been invited. But on the whole the automobile owners are very well treated. Suppose we spectators should band together and refuse to ride in the things or talk about them! The market would be glutted with second-hand cars in a month.
We have no trouble with the speed limit in Homeburg either. This may be due partly to our good sense, but it is mostly due to our peculiar crossings. Homeburg is paved with rich black dirt, and in order to keep the populace out of the bosom of the soil in the muddy seasons, the brick crossings are built high and solid, forming a series of impregnable "thank-ye-marms" all over the town. One of our great diversions during the tourist season is to watch the reckless strangers from some other State dash madly into town at forty miles an hour and hit the crossing at the head of Main Street. There is a crash and a scream as the occupants of the tonneau soar gracefully into the top. There is another crash and more screams at the other side of the street, and before the driver has diagnosed the case, he has hit the Exchange Street crossing, which sticks out like the Reef of Norman's Woe. When he has landed on the other side of this crossing, he slows down and goes meekly out of town at ten miles an hour, while we saunter forth and pick up small objects of value such as wrenches, luncheon baskets, hairpins, hats, and passengers.
Last summer we picked up an oldish man who had been thrown out of an unusually jambangsome touring car. He had been traveling in the tonneau alone, and even before he met our town he had not been enjoying himself. The driver and his accomplice had not noticed their loss, and when we had brushed off and restored the old gentleman, he said "Thank God!" and went firmly over to the depot, where he took the next train for home, leaving no word behind in case his friends should return—which they did that afternoon and searched mournfully at a snail's pace for over twenty miles on both sides of our town.
Since the automobile has begun to rage in our midst, the garage is the center of our city life. The machine owners stop each day for lubricating oil and news and conversation; the non-owners stroll over to inspect the visiting cars and give advice when necessary; and the loafers have abandoned the implement store, Emerson's restaurant, and the back of McMuggins' drug store in favor of the garage, because they find about seven times as much there to talk about. The city garage can't compare with ours for adventure and news. I have spent a few hours in your most prominent car-nurseries and I haven't heard anything but profanity on the part of the owners and Broadway talk among the chauffeurs.
In the country it's different. Take a busy day at Gayley's, for instance. It usually opens about three A.M., when Gayley crawls out of bed in response to a cataract of woe over the telephone and goes out nine miles hither or yon to haul in some foundered brother. Gayley has a soft heart and is always going out over the country at night to reason with some erring engine; but since last April first, when he traveled six miles at two A.M. in response to a call and found a toy automobile lying bottom-side up in the road, he has become suspicious and embittered, and has raised his prices.
At six A.M. Worley Gates, who farms eight miles south, comes in to catch an early train and delivers the first bulletin. The roads to the south are drying fast, but he went down the clay hill sidewise and had to go through the bottom on low. At seven, Wimble Horn and Colonel Ackley and Sim Bone drop in while waiting for breakfast. Bone thinks he'll drive to Millford, but doesn't think he can get in an hour's business and get back by noon.
This starts the first debate of the day, Colonel Ackley contending that he has done the distance easily in an hour-ten, and Sim being frankly incredulous. Experts decide that it can be done with good roads. Colonel says he can do it in mud and can take the hills on high; says he never goes into low for anything. Bill Elwin, one of our gasless experts, reminds him of the time he couldn't get up Foster's Hill on second and was passed by three automobiles and fourteen road roaches. This is a distinct breach of etiquette on Bill's part, for he was riding with Colonel at the time and should have upheld him. The discussion is just getting good when Ackley's wife calls him home to breakfast over the 'phone, and the first tourist of the day comes in.
He has come from the west and has had heavy weather. He asks about the roads east. Gibb Ogle, our leading pessimist, hastens to inform him that very likely the roads are impassable, because the Highway Commissioners have been improving them. Out our way road improvement consists of tearing the roads out with a scraper and heaping them up in the middle. It takes a road almost a year to recover from a good, thorough case of improvement.
The stranger goes on dejectedly, and about nine A.M. young Andy Link roars in with his father's car, which he has taken away from the old man and converted into a racer by the simple process of taking off the muffler and increasing the noise to one hundred miles per hour. Andy declares that there has been no rain to the northwest and that he has done sixty miles already this morning, but can't get his carbureter to working properly, as usual. By this time several owners and a dozen critics have assembled, and the morning debate on gasoline versus motor spirit takes place. It ends a tie and both sides badly winded, when Pelty Amthorne drives in, very mad. He has been over to Paynesville and back. This is only twenty miles, but owing to the juicy and elusive condition of the roads, his rear wheels have traveled upward of two thousand miles in negotiating the distance and he has worn out two rear casings.
Right here I wish to state that Homeburg roads are not always muddy. We average three months of beautiful, smooth, resilient and joltless roads each year. The remaining nine months, however, I mention with pain. Illinois boosters say our beautiful rich black soil averages ten feet in depth, but I think this understates the case—at least our beautiful black dirt roads seem to be deeper than that in the spring. What we need in the spring in Illinois are locks and harbor lights, and the man who invents an automobile buoyant enough to float on its stomach and paddle its way swiftly to and fro on the heaving bosom of our April roads will be a public benefactor.
Pelty is justly indignant, because he had hoped to get another thousand miles of actual travel out of his tires. We sympathize with him, but in the middle of his grief Chet Frazier drives up. When he sees his ancient enemy, he climbs out of his car, comes hastily over to where Pelty is erupting, and starts trading autos with him.
Did you ever hear a couple of seasoned horse traders discussing each other's wares? Horse traders are considerate and tender of each other's feelings compared with two rural automobile owners who are talking swap with any enthusiasm.
"Hello, Pelty," says Chet. "Separator busted again?"
Everybody laughs, and Chet walks all around the machine. "Why, it ain't a separator at all," he finally says. "What is it, Pelty?"
"If you'd ever owned an automobile you'd know," grunts Amthorne, hauling off a tire. "What's become of that tinware exhibit you used to block up traffic with?"
Chet gets the laugh this time.
"That tinware exhibit stepped over from Jenniesburg in thirty minutes flat this morning," says Chet. "Lucky you weren't on the road. I'd have thrown mud on your wind shield."
"Say!" Pelty shouts. "Your machine couldn't fall ten miles in thirty minutes. Why don't you get a real automobile? What will you give me to boot for mine?"
They are off, and business in the vicinity suspends.
"I'll trade with you, Pelty," says Chet calmly—quite calmly. "Let me look it over."
He walks carefully around the auto, opens the hood and looks in. "Funny engine, isn't it? I saw one like that at the World's Fair."
Pelty has the hood of Chet's machine open too and is right there with the retort courteous. "Is this an engine or a steam heater?" he asks. "What pressure does she carry?"
"She never heats at all except when I run a long time on low," Chet says eagerly.
"Oh, yes," says Pelty, "I never have to go into low much—"
"Gosh!" Chet explodes. "When you go up Sanders Hill, they have to close two district schools for the noise."
"Only time you ever heard me I was hauling you up with your broken jack-shaft," snorts Pelty. "You ought to get some iron parts for your car. Cheese has gone out of style."
"You still use it for tires, I see," says Chet.
"Never mind," says Pelty wrathfully. "I get mileage out of my machine; I don't drive around town and then spend two days shoveling out carbon."
"Peculiar radiator you've got," says Chet, changing the subject. "Oh, I see; it's a road sprinkler. What do you get from the city for laying the dust?"
"I can stop that leak in two minutes with a handful of corn meal," says Pelty, busily surveying Chet's machine. "Do you still strip a gear on this thing every time you try to back?"
"Why do you carry a horn?" asks Chet. "You're wasteful; I heard your valves chattering when I was three blocks away."
"I didn't hear yours chatter much last Tuesday on Main Street," snorts Pelty. "You cranked that thing long enough to grind it home by hand."
"Ya-a! Talk, will you?" yells Chet earnestly. "Any man who begins carrying hot water out to his machine in a teakettle in September knows a lot about starting cars."
"Well, get down to business," says Pelty. "You want to trade, you say. I don't want that mess. It's an old back-number with tin springs, glass gears and about as much compression as a bandbox. Give me five hundred dollars and throw your automobile in. I need something to tie my cow to. She'd haul away anything that was movable."
"Give you five hundred dollars for that parody on a popcorn wagon?" snorts Chet. "Why, man, the poor old thing has to go into low to pull its shadow! You're delirious, Pelty. I'll tell you what I'll do. You give me a thousand dollars for my car, and I'll agree to haul that old calliope up to my barn, out of your way, and make a hen roost out of it. Come on now. It's your only chance."
Shortly after this they are parted by anxious friends, and the show is over. I've known Homeburg men to give up a trip to Chicago because Chet and Pelty began to trade their autos just before train time.
In New York an auto means comfort and pleasure and advertisement, like a fur-lined overcoat with a Persian lamb collar. But in Homeburg it means a lot more. It keeps us busy and happy and full of conversation and debate. It pulls our old, retired farmers out of their shells and makes them yell for improvements. It unbuckles our tight-wads and gives our ingenious young loafers something to do. It promotes town pride, and it keeps our money circulating so fast that every one has a chance to grasp a chunk as it goes by.
It has made us so independent of railroads that we feel now when buying a ticket to Chicago as if we were helping the poor old line out. Our Creamery has been collecting milk and shipping butter in an old roadster with a wagon bed thorax for a year. Two of our rural route mail carriers use small machines, except in wet weather, and good-roads societies in our vicinity are the latest fad. We raised one thousand five hundred dollars last spring to bring the Cannon Ball Trail from Chicago to Kansas City through our town, and our hotel-keeper contributed one hundred dollars of it. He says we'll be on the gas-line tourist route to the coast after the trail has been marked and drained and graded up well.
But mostly the automobile means freedom to us. We're no longer citizens of Homeburg but of the congressional district. We're neighbors to towns we hadn't heard of ten years ago, and the horizon nowadays for most of us is located at the end of a ten-gallon tank of gasoline. Why, in the old days, you had to go fifty miles east and double back to get into the north part of our county, and more of us had crossed the ocean than had been to Pallsbury in the north tier of townships. Now our commercial clubs meet together alternate months, and about seventeen babies in our town have proud grandparents up there.
That's part of what the automobile means to us, Jim. Can you blame me for being so interested in a new one? Maybe it will have some contrivance for scaring cows out of a narrow road.
THE HOMEBURG TELEPHONE EXCHANGE
What Would Happen if We Tried to Get Along With a City Operator
All right, Jim! Having now completed the task of telephoning to Murray Hill several thousand and something, I'm ready to join you at luncheon. I'm glad I telephoned. I won't have to spend the afternoon doing it now and, besides, I feel so triumphant. I got through this time without forgetting to get a nickel first. I usually go into one of those wooden overcoats and go through all the agonies of elbowing my way through half a dozen centrals into some one's ear several miles away, and then discover that I haven't anything but a half dollar. Then I have to stop and begin all over again.
Telephoning is one of the prices you have to pay to live in a metropolis, Jim. I suppose it will always hurt me to pay a nickel for telephoning. Seems like paying for a lungful of air—and bad air at that. Coming as I do from the simple bosom of the nation, where talk over the wires is so cheap that you sometimes have to wait half an hour while two women are planning a church social over your line, I can't seem to resign myself to paying the price of a street-car ride every time I breathe a few sentiments into a telephone. Now the street cars never fail to dazzle me. They are a wonderful bargain. When we are too tired to walk in Homeburg, we have to pay at least fifty cents for a horse from the livery stable, unless some automobile is going our way. Nothing is more pleasant to me than to slip a nickel to a street-car conductor and ride ten miles on it. But when we want to use a telephone, do we go through all this ceremony of dropping a nickel into a set of chimes? Not much. My bill at home at five cents per telephone call would be more than my income. Why, many a time I've called up as many as eight people in the west part of town to know whether the red glow in the sky was the sunset or the Rolling Mills at Paynesville burning down! And almost every day I telephone McMuggins, the druggist, to collar a small boy and send up an Eltarvia Cigar. If that call cost me five cents, I would be practically smoking ten-cent cigars, and all Homeburg would regard me with suspicion.
I suppose it will be a hundred years before we get over saying "Great invention, isn't it?" every time we have finished a satisfactory session over the telephone. But I don't think you city people realize how much of an invention it is. Of course, the telephone is more important in New York than it is in Homeburg. If you had to go back to the old-fashioned stationary messenger boy to do your business here, a good share of the city would have to close out at a sacrifice. You do things with your telephones which dazzle us entirely, like talking into parlor cars, calling up steamships, buying a railroad and saying airily "Charge it," and tossing a few hectic words over to Pittsburgh or Cincinnati at five dollars per remark, as casually as I would stop in and ask Postmaster Flint why in thunder the Chicago papers were late again—and that is about as casual as anything I know of.
I'm willing to admit that your telephones are much more wonderful than ours, not only because of what they do for you, but because of the amount of money they can get out of you without causing revolutions and indignation meetings. Why, they tell me that business firms here think nothing of paying one hundred dollars a year for a telephone! At home once, when we tried to raise the farmer lines from fifty cents to a dollar a month, we almost had to fortify the town. I take off my hat to a telephone which can collect one hundred dollars a year from its user without using thumbscrews. It must have more ways of working for you than I have ever dreamed of.
No, the telephone in Homeburg is a very ordinary thing, and we could get along without it quite nicely as far as exertion is concerned, it being only a mile from end to end of the town. But if we had to do without our telephone girls, we'd turn the whole town into a lodge of sorrow and refuse to be comforted. I know of no grander invention than the country town telephone girl. She's not only our servant and master, but she's our watch-dog, guardian, memorandum book, guide, philosopher and family friend. When our telephone can't give us convenience enough, she supplies the lack. When brains at both ends are scarce, she dumps hers into the pot; and when the poor overworked instrument falls down on any task, she takes up the job. She not only gives our telephone a voice, but she gives it feet and hands and something to think with.
I got into a big telephone exchange once and watched it for over a minute before I was fired out. It was a very impressive sight—rows on rows of switchboards, hundreds of girls, thousands of little flashing lights, millions of clickety-clicks and not enough conversation to run a sewing circle up to refreshment time. The company was very proud of it, and I suppose it was good enough for a city—but, pshaw, it wouldn't do Homeburg for a day. If some one were to offer that entire exchange to us free of charge, we'd struggle along with it for a few hours, and then we'd rise up en masse and trade it off for Carrie Mason, our chief operator, throwing in whatever we had to, to boot.
Our exchange is in the back room of the bank building up-stairs. You could put the entire equipment in a dray. Our switchboard is about as big as an old-fashioned china closet and has three hundred drops. I suppose an up-to-date telephone manager has forgotten what "drops" are and you can't be expected to know. But out our way the telephone companies are cooeperative, and as every subscriber owns a share, we all take a deep personal interest in the construction and operation of the plant, discussing the need of a new switchboard and the advantage of cabling the Main Street lead, in technical terms.
Well, anyway, a drop is a little brass door which falls down with a clatter whenever the telephone which is hitched to that particular drop wants a connection. And Miss Carrie Mason, our chief operator, sits on a high stool with a receiver strapped over her rick of blond hair jabbing brass plugs with long cords attached into the right holes with unerring accuracy, and a reach which would give her a tremendous advantage in any boarding-house in the land. Sometimes she has one assistant, and in rush hours she has two. But on Sunday afternoons and other quiet times she holds down the whole job alone for hours at a time; and when I go up to her citadel and ask her to jam a toll call through forty miles of barbed wire and miscellaneous junk to Taledo by sheer wrist and lung power, she entertains me as follows while I wait:
"Yes, indeed, I'll get your call through as soon as I can, but the connection's—Nmbr—awful—Nmbr—bad to-day—Nmbr—They're not at home, Mrs. Simmons; they went to Paynesville—Nmbr—I'll ring again—Nmbr—Hello, Doctor Simms, Mrs. McCord told me to tell you to come right out to the farm; the baby's sick—Nmbr—The train's late to-day, Mrs. Bane, you've got plenty of time—Nmbr—I can't get them, Mrs. Frazier. I'll call up next door and leave word for them to call you—Nmbr (To me: "Hot to-day, isn't it? I tell 'em we ought to have an electric fan up here.")—Nmbr—("It would keep us better tempered.")—Nmbr—Oh, Mrs. Horn, will you tell Mrs. Flint when she comes home that Mrs. Frazier wants her to call her up?—Nmbr—Now, Jimmy, you haven't waited two seconds. I know you're anxious to talk to Phoeb, but she isn't home; she's at the cooking club—Nmbr—Cambridge, do see if you can't get through to Taledo. I've a party here that's in a hurry—Nmbr. (To me: "That Taledo line's awful. It's grounded somewhere on that farmer's line west of Tacoma.")—Nmbr—Yes, Mr. Bell, I'll call you quick as he comes in his office; I can see his door from my window—Nmbr—No, Mrs. Bane, the doctor's just gone out to the McCord farm. If you hurry, you can stop him as he goes past. He left about five minutes ago—Nmbr—Gee, Paynesville, you gave me an awful ring in the ear then! No, you can't get through, the line's busy. Well, you'll have to wait. I can't take the line away from them—Nmbr—Oh! (very softly) Hello, Sam. Oh, pretty well. I'm most melted—wait a minute—Nmbr—Hello, Sam (long silence) Oh, get out! My ear's all full of taffy—wait a minute—Nmbr—Nmbr—No, Mr. Martin, there hasn't been any one in his office all day. I think he's gone to Chicago—Hello, Sam—wait a minute, Sam—Nmbr—Nmbr—Hello, Sam—Say, I'm all alone and jumping sidewise. Call me up about six (very softly). G'by, Sam—Nmbr. Oh, Mrs. Lucey, is Mrs. Simms at your house? Tell her her husband will be home late to supper, he's gone out in the country—Hello. Hello. Hello, Taledo. Is your party ready? (To me: "All right, here they are. You'll have to talk pretty loud.") Hello, Taledo. All ready—Nmbr."
That is a fair sample of Carrie. We couldn't keep house without her. And that's why I feel an awful pang of jealousy when I hear that lobster Sam talking to her. Maybe it's just the ordinary joshing which goes on over the toll lines in the off hours. But maybe it isn't. Wherever Sam is and whoever he is, he is a danger to Homeburg. Perhaps he is a lineman at Paynesville, and then again he may be a grocer in some crossroads town near by, with a toll telephone in the back of his store. But if he talks to Carrie long enough and skilfully enough, he will come up to Homeburg, marry her, and bear her away to his lair, far from our bereaved ears. We've lost several telephone girls that way, and when a telephone girl knows all of your habits and customs and those of your friends, and can tell just where to find you or to find whomever you want found, and has the business of the town down to the smallest details stowed away in her capable head, it messes things up dreadfully to have her leave us high and dry and go to housekeeping—which any one can do.
Telephone girls are born, not made, in towns like Homeburg. We require so much more of them than city folks do. When my wife wants to know if hats are being worn at an afternoon reception, she calls up Carrie. Ten to one Carrie has caught a scrap of conversation over the line and knows. But if she hasn't, she will call up and find out. When a doctor leaves his office to make a call, he calls up Carrie, and she faithfully pursues him through town and country all day, if necessary. When we are preparing for a journey, we do not go down to the depot until we have called up Carrie and have found out if the train is on time, and if it isn't, we ask her to call us when it is discovered by the telegraph operator. And when our babies wander away, we no longer run frantically up and down the street hunting for them. We ask Carrie to advertise for a lost child seven hands high, and wearing a four-hour-old face-wash; and within five minutes she has called up fifteen people in various parts of the town and has discovered that said child is playing Indian in some back yard a few blocks away.
Carrie is also our confidante. I hate to think of the number of things Carrie knows. Prowling into our lines while we are talking, as she does, in search of connections to take down, she overhears enough gossip to turn Homeburg into a hotbed of anarchy if she were to loose it. But she doesn't. Carrie keeps all the secrets that a thousand other women can't. She knows what Mrs. Wimble Horn said to Mrs. Ackley over the line which made Mrs. Ackley so mad that the two haven't spoken for three years. She knows just who of our citizens telephone to Paynesville when Homeburg goes dry, and order books, shoes, eggs, and hard-boiled shirts from the saloons up there to be sent by express in a plain package. She knows who calls up Lutie Briggs every night or two from Paynesville, and young Billy Madigan would give worlds for the information, reserving only enough for a musket or some other duelling weapon. She knows how hard it is for one of our supposedly prosperous families to get credit and how long they have to talk to the grocer before he will subside for another month.
There's very little that Carrie doesn't know. I shudder to think what would happen if Carrie should get miffed and begin to divulge. Once we had a telephone girl who did this. She was a pert young thing who had come to town with her family a short time before. It was a mistake to hire her—telephone girls should be watched and tested for discretion from babyhood up—but our directors did it, and because she showed a passion for literature and gum and very little for work, they fired her in three months. She left with reluctance, but she talked with enthusiasm; and Homeburg was an armed camp for a long time.
Goodness knows we have enough trouble with our telephone even with Carrie to supply discretion for the whole town. Party lines and rubber ears are the source of all our woe. You know what a party line is, of course. It's a line on which you can have a party and gab merrily back and forth for forty minutes, while some other subscriber is wildly dancing with impatience. Most of our lines have four subscribers apiece, and it's just as hard to live in friendliness on a party line as it is for four families to get along good-naturedly in the same house.
There's Mrs. Sim Askinson, for instance. She's a good woman and her pies have produced more deep religious satisfaction at the Methodist church socials than many a sermon. But St. Peter himself couldn't live on the same telephone line with her. She's polite and refined in any other way, but when she gets on a telephone line she's a hostile monopolist. Early in the morning she grabs it and holds it fiercely against all comers, while talking with her friends about the awful time she had the night before when the cold water faucet in the kitchen began to drip. Mrs. Askinson can talk an hour on this fertile subject, stopping each minute or two to say, with the most corrosive dignity, to some poor victim who is wiggling his receiver hook: "Please get off this line, whoever you are. Haven't you any manners? I'm talking, and I'll talk till I get through." And then, like as not, when she's through, she'll leave the receiver down so that no one else will be able to talk—thus holding the line in instant readiness when another fit of conversation comes on. Seven party lines have revolted in succession and have demanded that Mrs. Askinson be taken off and wished on to some one else, and Sim is mighty worried. His wife has lost him so many friends that he doubts if he will be able to run for the town board next year.
We're a nice, peaceable folk in Homeburg, face to face. But like every one else, we lay aside our manners when we get on the wires and push and elbow each other a good deal. Funny what a difference it makes when you are talking into a formless void to some strange human voice. I've never said: "Get out of here," to any one in my office yet, but when some one intrudes on my electric conversation, even by mistake, I boil with rage and I yell with the utmost fervor and indignation: "Get off this line! Don't you know any better than to ring in?" And the other person comes right back with: "Well, you big hog, I've waited ten minutes, and I'll ring all I want!" And then I say something more, and something is said to me that eats a little semicircular spot out of the edge of my ear. It's mighty lucky neither of us knows who is talking. Suppose Carrie should tell. As I say, Carrie holds us in the hollow of her hand.
But the rubber ear is even worse than the Berkshire manners. A rubber ear is one that is always stretching itself over some telephone line to hear a conversation which doesn't concern it. For a long time we were singularly obtuse about this little point of etiquette in the country. The fact that all the bells on a line rang with every call was a constant temptation to sit in when we weren't wanted. We listened to other people's conversations when we felt like it. It amused us, and why shouldn't we? We rented our telephone and we had a right to pick it up and soak in everything that was going through it.
When the exchange was first put in, fifteen years ago, more than one Homeburg woman used to wash her dishes with the telephone receiver strapped tightly to her ear, dropping into the conversation whenever she felt that she could contribute something of interest. As for the country lines, it was the regular thing, and nobody minded it at all. That was what killed the first line out of Homeburg. It had fourteen subscribers and every one was hitched on the same wire. For a month everything went nicely. Then old man Miller got mad at two neighbors who were sort of sizing him up over the wire, and quit speaking to them. And Mrs. Ames was caught gossiping, and a quarrel ensued in which about half the line took part, all being on the wire and handy. Young Frank Anderson heard Barney DeWolf making an engagement with his girl and licked Barney. One thing led to another until not a subscriber would speak to another one, and the line just naturally pined away.
Etiquette has tightened up a lot since then. Still, we have rubber ears to-day, and they cause half the trouble in Homeburg. You see, the telephone has entirely driven out the back fence as a medium of gossip. It offers so much wider opportunities. Nowadays it does all the business which begins with: "Don't breathe this to a soul, but I just heard—" and half the time some uninvited listener with an ear like a graphophone horn is drinking in the details, to be published abroad later. Mrs. Cal Saunders had our worst case of gummy ear up to a couple of years ago, and broke up two engagements by listening too much. But she doesn't do it any more. Clayt Emerson cured her.
Something had to be done for the good of the town and Clayt, who lived on the same line with her, conceived the plan of letting Mrs. Saunders hear something worth while just to keep her busy and happy. So he called up Wimble Horn and talked casually until he heard the little click which meant that Mrs. Saunders had focused her large receptive ear on the conversation. Then he told Horn that he was going to burn the darn stuff up, trade being bad, anyway. Wimble offered to help him, and for three nights they talked mysteriously about the crime, mentioning more plotters, while Mrs. Cal hung on the line with her eyes bulging out, and confided the secret to all the friends she had.
Finally on Friday night, Policeman Costello, who was in the deal, told Clayt that the expected had happened and that Mrs. Saunders had told him about the horrible incendiary plot which was being hatched. Saturday night came, and Costello refused to go to Clayt's store unless Mrs. Saunders would come and denounce the villains, who were among our most respected citizens. So Mrs. Saunders finally agreed, in fear and trembling, and, taking a couple of her firmest friends, she led Policeman Costello down to Clayt's restaurant at midnight, and, sure enough, there was a light in the back part. Costello burst open the door, and when they all rushed down on the scene of the crime, they found Clayt and half a dozen of us manfully smoking up a box of stogies which a slick traveling man had unloaded on him. Mrs. Saunders insisted that crime was about to be committed and got so excited that she repeated Clayt's exact words—in the middle of which a great light came to her, and she said she was going home.
"I think you had better," said Clayt, "and I'll tell you something more. You listen to other people's affairs more than is good for you."
But she hasn't since.
Of course you don't have these troubles. But whenever I see New York people harboring telephones in their homes which absolutely decline to be civil until you feed them five cents, I think of our Homeburg blessings and am content. Six dollars a year buys a telephone at home, and about the only families which haven't telephones are a few widows who live frugally on nothing a year, and old Mr. Stephens, who has one hundred thousand dollars loaned out on mortgages and spends half an hour picking out the biggest eggs when he buys half a dozen. There isn't a farm within ten miles which isn't connected with the town, and while the desk 'phone is a novelty with us and we still have to grind away at a handle to get Central, we can put just as much conversation into the transmitter and take just as much out of the receiver as if we were connected with a million telephones. Our Homeburg 'phones are old-fashioned; and the lines sound as if eleven million bees were holding indignation meetings on them, but they have made a big family out of three whole counties, and I guess they will take care of us all right—so long as Carrie holds out and we can keep that Sam fellow where he belongs.
A HOMEBURG SCHOOL ELECTION
Where Woman is Allowed to Vote and Man Has To
Well, Jim, you've taken me to see a great many wonderful sights in this municipal monstrosity of yours, but I don't believe one of them has interested me as much as this parade. I've worn three fat men on my toes for an hour to get a chance to watch it, but it was worth the agony. Think of it—at home we are doing well to get an attendance of two thousand at a fire. Here in New York are several hundred thousand people stopping their mad grabs at limousines and country houses, and blocking up the streets to watch a few women parading in the interest of the ballot for psyche knots as well as bald heads. It's wonderful! How did the women persuade you to do it? I can't help thinking that they lost a tremendous chance for the cause. Think how much money the ladies would have made if each one had worn a sandwich board advertising some new breakfast food or velveteen tobacco! With a crowd like this reading every word, they could have charged enough to pay the expenses of a whole campaign!
It's the crowd that interested me. As far as the parade went, it wasn't so much. Half a hundred women in cloaks and staffs setting off on foot for Washington or Honolulu isn't terrifically exciting. I'd a lot rather go down the line about twenty or thirty miles and watch them come in to roost at night. There would be some inhuman interest in that. But what does all this mob mean? Have you New Yorkers gone crazy over suffrage? What! Just the novelty of the thing? Well, let me tell you then, you are goners! You may not want suffrage now, but if the women are going to choke traffic every time they spring a novelty, you're going to have to grant them suffrage just to get the chance to attend to business now and then.
Me? Of course I'm a suffragist. I'm a suffragist on twenty counts. No, thanks, I won't argue the question now, because we have to get over to the hotel for dinner in an hour or two, and there's no use starting a thing you will have to leave in the middle. I'll just tell you the last count to save time, and let it go at that. I'm a suffragist because I want the rest of mankind to have what we've had in Homeburg for the last twenty years or so. We've been through the whole thing. Whenever a man's been through anything, he naturally isn't content until he can stand by and watch some other man get his. Understand? I'm for suffrage in aged little New York. I want you to have it and have it a plenty. And I want to watch you while you're having it. It's a grand thing when you've got used to it. It will do you good, Jim, just like medicine.
Do women vote in Homeburg? Of course they do. I'd like to see anybody stop them. I don't mean that they vote for President. That is, they won't until next time. It's only the more important elections that they take part in. Oh, I know you folks in the big town think that unless you're voting for governor or for the ringleaders of your city government, the job isn't worth while. But that's where you differ from Homeburg. We men vote for President and get a good deal of fun out of the campaign. It's a favorite masculine amusement, and the women don't interfere with us. But it's not important. I mean it's not important to Homeburg. We stand up all summer and tear our suspender buttons off trying to persuade each other that Homeburg's future depends on who reviews the inaugural parade at Washington; but it isn't so, and we know it.
The really burning question in Homeburg is the make-up of the next school board. That is the election which paralyzes business, splits families, and sours friendships. And let me just convey to you in a few brief words, underscored with red ink, the fact that women vote in the Homeburg school elections. If you want to see real, concentrated politics with tabasco sauce trimmings, go to Homeburg or some other small town which is fond of its school system and watch the women getting out the vote.
Don't waste your time by coming the day before election. Don't even expect to see any excitement in the morning. We don't smear our school election troubles all over the almanac. We have the convulsion quickly and get over it. You could stray into Homeburg on the morning of a school election and not suspect that anything was going on except, perhaps, a general funeral. Absolute quiet reigns. People are attending to business with the usual calm.
You can tell that there is an election on by the little flags stuck out a hundred feet from the engine-house doors, but that's the only way. Inside the judges sit waiting for business about as successfully as a cod fisher on the banks of the Mississippi. Now and then some one strays in and casts a vote. By noon half a dozen are in the ballot box. The nation is safe, the schools are progressing satisfactorily, the ticket is going through without a kick. Even the candidates stop standing around outside peddling their cards, go home to dinner and forget to come back.
Pretty placid, eh? You bet it is. You know all about the calm before the storm and the little cloud the size of the man's hand which comes up about eight bells and does a general chaos business without any advance notices. Well, that cloud in our school elections is impersonated by Mrs. Delia Arbingle, and she usually arrives at the polls about three P.M. with a new ticket, twenty warlike followers, and several thousand assorted snorts of defiance.
That's when the storm breaks—and it's a whole lot bigger than a man's hand by that time. Delia is a mighty plentiful woman physically, and when she gets her war paint on, she's a regular cloudburst. As I say, about three o'clock or thereabouts, we suddenly wake up to the fact that we have a school election in our midst, and that unless we arise as true men and patriots, it will soon be at our throats. How do we find it out? Our women folks tell us. You never saw such devoted women folks, or such determined ones, either. The minute Delia leaves her house with her marauding band in her annual attempt to get the scalp of the high school principal who whipped her oldest son seventeen years ago, the women of Homeburg rise. And we men go and vote.
Now, we're not enthusiastic about voting. We're not afraid of Delia. We've seen her insurge too often. But we go and vote, anyway. We go by request. You've never had your loving wife come in and request you to vote, have you, Jim? Well, you've got something coming. It's a request which you're going to grant. You may not want to, but that has nothing to do with the case. This is about the way it happens in Homeburg: I am sitting in my office. I've got a lot of work on hand, and it's no use to vote, anyway, and, to tell the truth, I had forgotten all about it. Suddenly the telephone bell rings: I answer it. Here's my cross-section of the conversation:
"Hello? Oh, hello!... No, I haven't voted yet.... Pretty busy to-day.... You're coming down?... No, I don't want to vote.—What's the use? It's the same old.... Now, my dear, it's just the same old row. She can't get any.... But I tell you I'm busy. You go on and.... Yes, of course I'm an American citizen, but I don't get a salary for it. I'm trying to earn.... Well, five minutes to cast a useless vote is.... Oh, all right. Anything to please you.... No, I'll not call up Judge Hicks. He's old enough to vote by himself.... Oh, all right.... Now, look here, my dear, I can't ask Fleming to do that. His wife is a friend of Mrs. Arbingle's.... Yes, I can say that, but it would be a threat.... Oh, the schools will run anyway. Now, don't get excited.... All right, doggone it, it'll make a regular fool of me though!... Good-by.
I am mopping my forehead while I say that. I'm going to vote and, what is more, I'm going over to get Judge Hicks, who is a cross old man-eater, and get him to vote, and then I am going to call up Fleming, who would otherwise vote against us, and tell him that if he doesn't support our ticket, our grocery account will go elsewhere. I hate to do that like the mischief. It isn't considered ethical in national elections. But somehow we can't stop and discuss these fine points at 3.15 P.M. with our loving but excited wives. They don't seem to allow it.
I get into my coat, pretty cross, and go down-stairs. Homeburg is frantically awake. Down the street scores of patriots are marching to the polls. They are not marching in lock-step, but most of them are under guard just the same. Mrs. Chet Frazier, pale but determined, is towing Chet out of his store. Mrs. Wimble Horn is hurrying down the street with an umbrella in one hand and Wimble in the other. From the post-office comes Postmaster Flint emitting loud wails. It is against the law to leave the post-office unoccupied, but he can thresh that out with his wife at home after he has voted. Attorney Briggs was going to Chicago this afternoon, but I notice he is coming back from the depot. Mrs. Briggs is bringing him. If I know anything about rage, Attorney Briggs is ready to masticate barbed wire. His arms are making a blue haze as they revolve. But he's coming back to vote. He can go to Chicago to-morrow, but the nation must be saved before five o'clock.
I do my errands, losing one friend at Fleming's and considerable dignity at the judge's, because the judge is an old widower and mighty outspoken. Then I hurry back and go to the polls arm in arm with my loving wife. We have to wait our turn outside the engine house. From all corners of town the votes roll in, most of them under convoy. It's a weird mixture—the men sullen and sheepish, the women inspired and terrible. Even the candidates, most of whom are men, are embarrassed. They are peddling tickets frantically, and whenever they falter and show signs of running, their wives hiss something into their ears and brace them up again.
The two hostile forces are eying each other with horrid looks. Mrs. Arbingle is quiet but deadly. I never saw so much hostility coated over one face as there is on hers. She is in her glory. This time she is going to unmask the hosts of corruption, including those who will not call on her, cave in the school ring, boot out the incompetents, and see justice done to her son at last. Mrs. Wert Payley, who generally leads the other side, has higher ideals, of course, and isn't so red in the face. But she is hostile too. No viperess shall tread on the school system if she can help it! She keeps her lieutenants hustling, and now and then she looks over the crowd of captive men on the enemy's side and issues a command. Then some woman talks to her husband, and he gets red and mad and wags his arms. But in the end he goes over and talks to a man on the other side. And then that conversation spreads like a prairie fire, and the men knot up into a cluster, and hard words are used, and a lot more friendships go into the back shop for repairs.
Five o'clock is coming fast. Mrs. Payley looks over her list. Young Ad Summers has refused to budge from his shop. Miss Ri Hawkes blushes a little and then goes away to a telephone. Pretty soon Ad appears. He's panting, into the bargain. He gets in line, votes, and Ri walks away with him. There is a sigh of relief from the Payley cohorts now because old man Thompson is coming. He is over ninety and hates like thunder to go out and vote, but he can't help himself. He has lived in a wheeled chair for ten years and has to go wherever his granddaughter wheels him. He passes in, muttering.
Only five minutes more. The excitement is intense. Hurrah! Some one has gotten the telegraph operator's goat. He's coming on the run. That probably means he'll go to the next dancing-club party. Judge Hicks appears, four women around him. He is mad, but they are triumphant and they look scornfully at me, saying "chump" with their eyes. He votes. There is a commotion at the corner because Gibb Ogle has attempted in a mild way to be corrupted. He wants to know why he can't sleep in the South School basement. The women are indignant, and appoint two husbands to deal with him. Gibb votes. Bang! The polls are closed. It's all over but the counting.
We'd like to go back to work, but the suspense is too great. Not that we have any suspense, but our wives have; and if we are worthy of the name of men, we must help them endure it, even if we ourselves are not interested in the schools. So we hang around and fume over the jungle-fingered judges who take as much time as if they were enumerating the fleas of Africa. Finally a cheer comes from the front of the crowd. The women beside us gasp anxiously. Which side cheered? Hurrah! There's Mrs. Payley waving her handkerchief. We win.
After that, we men can go. The schools have been saved by a vote of 453 to 78, but it was no thanks to us. No, indeed! If it weren't for the women where would our schools be?
We've had women's suffrage in our midst for almost twenty years, as I say, and looking back over it I can't see a single dull moment politically. From the day when an indulgent State gave them permission, our women have guarded the schools at the ballot box. They've done a thorough and painstaking job, and I must say the schools have improved a lot. But they have sprung a lot of political ideas which have made the old-timers sit up with startled looks and scratch their heads hopelessly.
That's what you are going to find out, Jim, when woman begins to vote for herself around here and to vote you into the bargain. She isn't going to play the game according to the old rules. She has no use for them. She has her own way of going about things politically, and while it is effective, its wear and tear on mankind is terrific. When the Homeburg women first attempted to place a woman on the school board, about fifteen years ago, most of the men objected, and they decided to hold a town caucus and call the women in. There were a great many reasons why a woman shouldn't leave her home and sit around on a school board, and they felt sure that if they were to talk it over frankly in meeting they could show them these reasons. And, anyway, the chairman would be a man, which would of course take care of the situation.
So a caucus was called, and the Grand Opera House, which holds six hundred human beings, and about a hundred boys in the front seats, was jammed until it bulged. We knew that no woman could out-argue our seasoned old politicians, and when Calvin Briggs, who has planned all the inside work in the congressional district for twenty years, got up and showed just why woman ought not to intrude, there was an abashed silence all over the house, until Emma Madigan, who is a town character and does just as she pleases, got up. She stood up about fifty-nine seconds after Briggs had got a good start, and she argued with him as follows:
"That's all right, Mr. Briggs—You can't make me sit down, Mr. Chairman, you nor any of you politicians—You're a fine man to talk about schools, Mr. Briggs. No, I won't stop. You know a lot about children, don't you, coming up here with tobacco juice all over your shirt front; and why don't you pay some taxes before you get up here and tell how to run a town? All right, Chairman, I'm done."
But so was Briggs. We couldn't help laughing at him. Editor Simpson, who runs the Argus, stepped into the breach and regretted greatly that so disgraceful an attack had been made upon a well-beloved citizen by a woman. No man would dare make such an attack, he opined. Then Emma got up again. The chairman called her to order, but he might as well have rapped down the rising tide.
"I know mighty well no man 'ud dare say what I did, Lafe Simpson," she shouted. "'Nd you're the biggest coward of 'em all. If you thought you'd have to lose the school printing, you'd vote for the devil for president of the school board."
Of course it was perfectly disgraceful, but what could we do? Emma was a woman. We couldn't throw her out. We couldn't even get her to listen to parliamentary rules. And the worst of it was, she was telling the truth. That was something no one presumes to tell in local elections. To do it breaks the first commandment of politics; but what do the women, bless 'em, care for our commandments?
The president of the school board at that time was Sanford Jones. He was a large party who panned out about ninety-five per cent. solemnity and the rest water on the brain. At this point in the proceedings he judged it best to rise and turn the subject by telling us why woman should stay at home. He got about two hundred words into circulation before Emma got up. Her scandalized women friends tried to pull her down, and Pelty Amthorne yelled "whoa," but she was in politics to stay.
"You look mighty fine standing up there, Mr. Jones," she shouted, "and tellin' us women to go back home where we belong. But I just want to tell this here crowd to-night that if you wasn't tighter than the bark on a tree, your wife wouldn't have to do her own washing.
"That's why you want her to home. So you can save money."
After that a gloom fell over the meeting, and as no one else seemed to care to speak, people began adjourning on all sides of Emma. After every one else had gone she adjourned. There was no further attempt to hold a caucus that year, and even now when any school faction desires to get together and discuss things, it carefully conceals the news from Miss Madigan.
That was just one of the many little surprises woman has handed to us in Homeburg politics. Since they've gotten interested in school affairs, it beats all how much influence they've got. Take Sadie Askinson for instance. Her husband wanted to run for member of the school board, and Sadie didn't want him to, because he was away from home enough nights anyway, goodness knows. Sim was stubborn, and said the night before election that he was going down and have some ballots printed, anyway, and run. But he didn't, because that night Sadie cut every button off of every garment he had and threw them down into the well. When the kindergarten business came up about ten years ago, old Colonel Ackley hung out against it on the board. Said he wasn't going to stand for wasting the people's money on such foolishness. But he did, because the Young Ladies' Vigilance Society came and wept upon his shoulder. It was organized for that purpose, and after the seventh young lady had soaked up Ackley's coat, he said he'd either vote for kindergarten or leave town, and he didn't care much which.
Mrs. Wert Payley, who really runs our school system and once marred her proud record by defeating a good school superintendent because he didn't give her daughter good marks, says the English suffragettes are poor sticks and don't know how to demand the ballot. "If the Homeburg women were ready to go after any more ballot than we have now," says she, "would we fool away time getting arrested? Not much! We'd turn our attention to the men. Every Homeburg woman would take care of her husband and argue with him. Maybe all the men in town would find 'Votes for Women' in place of their dinners on the table one night, and sewed on to their coats the next morning. Maybe they would get corn-meal mush for thirty days, and maybe, if any he politician presumed to get obnoxious, he would be dealt with on the public street by a committee. I know Homeburg, I think, and before Calvin Briggs would stand for the guying he would receive after half a dozen women had gone down on their knees to him and grabbed him around the legs so he couldn't get away, he'd go out of politics. Suffragettes? Bah! What do they know about it? I'd just like to know how long our men-folks in Homeburg would hold out if we women were to get sick some fine morning and remain hopeless invalids until we got the ballot. Why, if Wert Payley presumed to deny me the ballot, I wouldn't think of parading about it. I'd just have the girl starch his underwear for about two months, and if that didn't fetch him, I'd start cleaning house and quit in the middle. The men will give you anything, if you ask them the right way."
All of this makes us shiver, because we don't know just how long it will be before the Homeburg women do make up their minds to have more ballot. But when they do, we'll brace up like men and give it to them if the State will let us. We just naturally hate to disappoint our women-folks.
CHRISTMAS AT HOMEBURG
And What It Means
Now don't urge me to stay longer, Jim, because I'm going to anyway. Just to prove it, I'll take another of those gold-corseted cigars of yours, which would elevate me from the masses to the classes in three puffs if I smoked it back home. I didn't begin telling you how much I have enjoyed myself because I intended to go and wanted to start the soft music. I just wanted to begin on the job, that was all. It's going to take me an hour, at least, to tell you and Mrs. Jim what this meal has meant for me.
Oh, I know there have been better meals in history perhaps. I suppose now and then a king gets real hungry and orders up a feed that might have a shade on this one—just a shade. That's as far as I'll compromise, Mrs. Jim. You needn't argue the matter. I'm a regular mule in my opinions. But if you had given me crackers and cheese, and old, decrepit flexible crackers at that, it would have been all the same. I'd have devoured them with awe and thanksgiving, and I'd have marveled at my luck. Here it is Christmas Day, and while half a million strangers in New York have been eating their hearts along with the regular bill of fare at boarding-houses and restaurants, I have been grabbed up and taken into an actual home where they have a Christmas tree!
I always was lucky, Jim. Every time I fell out of a tree in my youth, I landed on my head or some other soft spot, but this beats any luck I ever had. Think of it! Me sitting around in the sub-cellar of gloom yesterday afternoon with my family a thousand miles away, and deciding to go to Boston for Christmas just because I'd have to travel ten hours and that would be some time killed; and then, when I went to my boarding-house for a clean collar, you called me up, just as I was leaving. There's a special department of Providence working on my case. Got a permanent assignment. And you are a Deputy Angel, Mrs. Jim. Gratitude! You couldn't get my brand of gratitude anywhere. They don't keep it in stock. Say the word and I will go back and eat a third piece of mince pie, and die for you.
I don't want to seem critical. It's hard for me to criticize anything right now, anyway, I'm so soaked and soused in contentment. I always strive to admit all of New York's good points, and I've gotten a job here largely to encourage the old town and help it along. But I do think that in one respect New York is in the bush league, so to speak. Even with such people as you to help, you can't get much Christmas out of it. When I think of Homeburg to-day, I feel proud and haughty. You can beat us on most everything else, but when it comes to Christmas, we can't notice you. You don't compete.
Christmas in this town is only a feat. It's a race against time in two heats. If you win the first one, you get your shopping done on the day before. If you win the second, you get through Christmas Day, before your patience and good spirits give out. Of course, New Yorkers, like yourselves, who indulge in families and other old customs, have a mighty good time out of it. Christmas with a family is great anywhere on earth. But that isn't New York's fault. If you didn't have a family, you would be dining out or going to some matinee or sitting around watching the clock. That's where it is your solemn duty to envy Homeburg if you never have done it before. And that's why I would be homesick to-day if you had fed me four dinners, Mrs. Jim, and had been a whole covey, or bevy, or flock, or constellation of angels—whichever is correct.
I don't mean to say that we get any more at Christmas than you do. We enjoy and endure our presents, same as any one else. And we have just as hard a time buying them. There aren't enough people in Homeburg to make a Christmas jam, but we have our own line of troubles. The question in Homeburg is not how to keep from spending so much money but how to spend what we have. The storekeepers don't pamper us. In fact they are severe with us. If we don't buy what they offer the first year, they store it up, and we have to take it the next Christmas. When the Homeburg storekeepers have had a bad season, it's up to us to go back the next year and face the same old line of junk, knowing it will be there until we give in and buy it. There are two Christmas gift edition copies of Trilby still on sale in Homeburg, and Sam Green the druggist has had a ten-dollar manicure set on sale for ten years now. He won't get another, either. Says he was stung on the first one, and he's going to get his money back before he goes in any deeper. It goes down about fifty cents a year in price, and last year Jim Reebe almost bought it at four dollars and seventy-five cents for Selma Snood. We have hopes of him this year—unless he and Selma quarrel or get married, either of which will be fatal.
No, we have our troubles, same as you do, and Homeburg is full, on the day before Christmas, of worried fathers who duck into the stores about seven P.M. and try to buy enough stuff to eat up a ten dollar bill before the doors close. But that's a minor detail. What makes me love our Christmas is its communism. Christmas isn't a family rite in Homeburg. It's a town festival, a cross between Home-coming Week and a general amnesty celebration.
People come home for Christmas all over the world, but in Homeburg you don't merely come home to your family, you come home to the whole town. A week before the twenty-fifth the clans begin to gather. Usually the college folks come first. Sometimes we have as many as a dozen, and the whole town is on edge to see them. It's next to a circus parade in interest because you never can tell what new sort of clothes the boys are going to spring on us. In the grand old days when DeLancey Payley and Sam Singer used to blow in for Christmas, they walked up from the depot between double lines of admirers, and their clothes never failed to strike us with awe. I remember the year when Sam came home with one of those overcoats with a sort of hood effect in the back. I never saw one before or since. He was also wearing a felt hat as flat as a soup plate that year and a two-quart pipe fitted carefully into his face, and when old Bill Dorgan, the drayman, saw him, he threw up both hands and cried, "My gosh, it ain't possible!"
Then the children begin coming back. There is a great difference between Homeburg and New York regarding children. In New York a child is personal property. But in Homeburg a child belongs to the whole town. A birth notice is a real news item in Homeburg. I suppose every baby is personally inspected by at least two hundred citizens. We criticize their care and feeding, suggest spanking when they are a little older, quiver unanimously with horror when they begin to "flip" freight trains, or get scarlet fever, and watch them grow up as eagerly as you New Yorkers watched the Woolworth Building. When they are graduated from high school we are all there with bouquets and presents, and we have an equity in the whole brood. Molly Strawn, the washerwoman's daughter, got more flowers than any one last year. And when they leave town to get a job, if they are boys, or when some rude outsider breaks in with a marriage license and despoils us of them, if they are girls, we all feel the loss.
That's why Christmas means so much more to us. At Christmas time the town children come home. Will Askinson comes home from Chicago. He's doing very well up there, and it takes him two hours to get the length of Main Street on the first day after he arrives. Every one has to hear about it. Sadie Gastit comes home from Des Moines with a baby; regular custom of hers. Sometimes she makes the same baby do for two years, but usually it's a new one. I remember Sadie when she was only knee high to a grasshopper, and her mother spanked her for climbing the Republican flagpole during the McKinley campaign. The Flint children come down from Chicago to visit their aunt. There were only a boy and girl when they left fifteen years ago. Now there are eleven, counting wife, husband, and acquisitions. Last year Ad Bridge brought a new wife home from Denver to show us. Year before last Miss Annie Simms, who has been teaching in Minneapolis, brought down a young man to show to her family. She was going to be exclusive about it, but did it work? Not much. She had to show him all around. We just happened over there in droves. Everybody loves Annie and we were afraid for a little while that she was going to be an old maid. The young man will bring her down this year I suppose. They were married last June.
All the Homeburg children and grandchildren arrive in the last two days before Christmas. They go home to their folks to deposit their baggage, and then they all come down-town to the post-office, to get the mail ostensibly but in reality to shake hands all around. The day before Christmas is one long reception on Main Street. The old town fairly hums.
As a matter of fact, Christmas is a good deal like a Union Depot. The approaches are the most important part of it. By the day before Christmas every one is feeling so good that things begin to happen. People whom you have never suspected of caring for you come up to your office and leave things—cigars, and toys for the children, and Christmas cards. Men with whom you have quarreled during the year shake hands violently all around a circle on the street, and when they come to you they grab yours, too; and you begin to talk elaborately as if nothing had happened—a good deal like two women wading through a formal call; and it makes you feel so good that pretty soon you buy a box of Colorado Durable cigars and you go over to the office of some man for whom you have cherished an undying hatred, because he didn't vote for you for the school board. You peek in his door, and if he isn't there you go in and leave the cigars with your compliments.
There's never been a Christmas at home when I haven't been operated on for a grouch of this sort, and most always it comes the day before. If I had my way there wouldn't be any Christmas—only the day before. On the day before you're so tickled over what the other folks are going to get from you, and so full of pleased anticipation over what you may get from the others, that good humor just bursts out all over you like spring waters from the mountainside.
On Christmas Eve in Homeburg we all go to the Exercises to hear the children perform. They build churches in Homeburg with big doors, so that they can get big Christmas trees in them, and we grown-ups go early in order to hear the kids squeal with wonder when they come in and see those thirty-foot miracles in candles and tinsel, down in front.
Homeburg children are divided into two classes—those who get all of their presents on the church Christmas trees and have to worry through the next day without any additional excitement, and those who have to sit through the Christmas Eve exercises with only a sack of candy to sustain them and who land heavily the next day. The discussion as to which is the better way has raged for a generation, anyway; at least my chum and I discussed it every year when we were boys, he adhering to the Christmas tree plan, and I to the homemade Christmas. And last year, when he came back, we began it all over again, he claiming it was cruel for me to make my children wait until Christmas Day, and I pitying his poor youngsters for getting done with Christmas before it began.
Anyway, Christmas Eve is a grand occasion in the churches, and every year I notice with amazement that some youngster whom I remember as having been formally introduced to society through her birth notice only a few weeks ago, seems to me, has gotten large enough to get up on the platform and speak a piece. They do it at the most unheard-of ages. I believe there are two-year-old orators in the Congregational Sunday school. I get a good deal of suspense out of some of your baseball games here, especially when Chicago plays you, but the most suspense per individual I've ever noticed has been in these Christmas Eve exercises when some youngster just high enough to step over a crack in the floor gets up to recite a piece, and fourteen parents and relatives lean forward and forget to breathe until he has gotten his forty words out, wrong end to, and has been snatched off the stage by his relieved mother.
Competition gets into everything, and it has marred our Christmas exercises a little lately. The Methodists are growing fast and are very ambitious. A few years ago they rented the Opera House, put in two Christmas trees, with a real fireplace between and a Santa Claus who came out of it, and charged ten cents admission. That embittered us Congregationalists. It smacked of commercialism to us, and we would not budge an inch—besides, there wasn't another Opera House to rent. So, nowadays, our spirit of good-fellowship on Christmas Eve is sort of absent-minded and anxious. We are always counting up our attendance and sizing up our tree, and then sliding over to the Opera House and looking over the Methodist layout. Sometimes we beat them, but generally they have a regular mass meeting and make a barrel of money. Last year they turned people away and brought Santa Claus on the stage in a real automobile. We were so jealous that we could hardly cool down in time for Christmas dinner.
As a matter of fact, the only unimportant part of our Christmas season is Christmas Day itself. It is a sort of hiatus in the great doings. When we go home on Christmas Eve, it is with a great peace. We have bought our presents. We have greeted all the returned prodigals. We have made up with a few carefully selected enemies. Our children have spoken their pieces successfully at the Exercises, and have gotten a good start on the job of eating their way through a young mountain range of mixed candies and nuts. All the hustle and worry is over, and we are unanimously happy. The week following Christmas will be one dizzy round of parties and teas for the visitors, and Homeburg will be a delightful place full of the friends of boyhood, with an average of one reunion every fifteen minutes in and out of business hours. But on Christmas Day nothing will happen except the dinner. We'll get our presents in the morning, and then at noon the great crisis will come. We'll either conquer the dinner, or it will conquer us.
You know how it is, Jim, because that's the kind of dinner you had to-day. It was an Athletic Feat—not the ordinary kind of city dinner where you save up carefully during seven courses, and finish strong on the water crackers and cheese, but a real Christmas gorge. Every time I sit down to a Christmas dinner in Homeburg, I feel more strongly than ever that each guest should have his capacity stenciled on him. They are more careful of box cars in this country than they are of humans. You never see a box car that doesn't have "Capacity, 100,000 lbs." stenciled on its sides. And they don't overload that car. There have been times when, if I could have had "Capacity, two turkey thighs, one wish-bone, trimmings, and two pieces of pie" stenciled on me, I would have gotten along better. I think they ought to try to make these Olympic games more useful to our nation by instituting a Christmas dinner marathon. If we have to eat for two hours and a quarter, top speed, once or twice a year, we ought to train up to the task as a nation.
I always feel a little bit nervous about Christmas dinner before it comes, but I never shirk. As a matter of fact, it isn't really dangerous. As far as I know, no one has ever actually exploded in Homeburg on Christmas Day, and we all seem to get away with the job in pretty fair shape. But it spoils the day for anything else. The town is full, in the afternoon, of partially paralyzed men lying around on sofas in a comatose condition, like anacondas sleeping off their bi-monthly lunch. Homeburg is absolutely dead for the rest of the day. If a fire broke out on Christmas afternoon, I don't believe even Chief Dobbs would have the energy to get up and put on his helmet. It's hard on the exiled men who just run down for Christmas Day from the cities. They don't get in on anything but the eating. Sam Frazier struck last year. Said he wasn't going to pay ten dollars fare and incidentals any more, to come down from Chicago on Christmas Day for an all-afternoon view of his brother's feet as said brother lay piled up on the sofa. He was going to come down after this on the Fourth of July.
It doesn't affect the women so badly because they don't eat so much. They haven't time. It takes two women to steer one child safely through a Christmas dinner, anyway, and about three to get the ruins cleared away in time to get up a light lunch in the evening for the reviving hosts. If there is any one time when I would care less to be a woman than at any other time, it is on Christmas afternoon, when her men-folks have gone to sleep and have left her with a few cross children and a carload of Christmas dinner fragments for company.
That's where you city folks with your servant problem have the best of us, and I'll not dispute it, Mrs. Jim. On the other hand, the nicest part of our Homeburg Christmas is the fact that, when we fold our tired hands over our bulging vests after dinner and lie down to rest, we know that there is no starving family in Homeburg which has had to celebrate Christmas by taking on an extra drink of water and indulging in a long, succulent sniff at a restaurant door.
We have poor people in Homeburg, but we haven't any poverty problem at Christmas. It's a strictly local issue, and it is handled by the neighbors. Having lived a long time in the city, Jim, you may not know what a neighbor is. It's a person who lives close to you and takes a personal interest in your affairs. A good neighbor is a woman whose heart is so large that she has had to annex a lot of outlying territory around the family real estate in order to fill it. No Homeburg woman would think of constructing an extraordinarily fine pie without sending a cut over to her nearest neighbor.
About Christmas time we are especially busy neighboring in Homeburg, and any family which lives near us and isn't going very strong on the Christmas game, because of sickness or trouble, is our meat. It would be an insult to go across the town and help a family in some other neighbor's territory, and that was what got Editor Simpson of the Argus into trouble a couple of years ago.
Simpson is a young man, a comparative newcomer from the city, and a very earnest and enterprising party. He runs the Argus on the high gear and is never so happy as when he is promoting a public movement in real city style. It occurred to Simpson three years ago that Homeburg ought not to be behind Chicago in anything, especially at Christmas time, and so he started a "Good-fellow" movement. They were running it strong in Chicago that year. Any man who wished to be a "Good Fellow" sent his name to the "Good-fellow Editor" and offered to provide a Christmas for one or more poor children. It was a grand idea, stuffed full of sentiment, and we Homeburg men just naturally ate it up. When the day before Christmas came, seventy-five "Good Fellows" were on Simpson's list, and they had offered to take care of one hundred and twenty-five children, to give each a real Christmas. Simp's office was full of groceries and toys, applicants were clamoring for children, all was excitement and enthusiasm—and then a horrible state of affairs was disclosed. Simpson hadn't provided any children. There was a bleak and distressing lack of material for us to work upon. In all Homeburg there weren't ten families who were going without Christmas turkey, or its equivalent, and in each one of these cases some neighbor had sternly ordered Simp to keep his hands off and mind his own affairs. There we were—seventy-five Good Fellows with boatloads of cheer and no way to dispose of it. The only person we could find in all the town to descend on was Pat Ryan. We smothered him in groceries, and he ate himself into biliousness that night and had to have a doctor for three days, which helped some, but not much. On the whole, it was a dismal failure.
What! Nine o'clock? Excuse me, Jim. I seem to have taken root here. No; I am going this time. Back to my room with Christmas all gotten through with, thank goodness and you folks. You understand. You've made it as nice for me as any two magicians could have done, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. But it's my last Christmas in New York, I hope. Next month the wife and children come on, and by next Christmas, if I have any luck at all, we'll join the happy army that swoops down on Homeburg for the holidays. My, but it will be funny to look at the old town from the outside in! Me—a visitor in Homeburg!
Do you know what prosperity is to a whole mob of city people, Jim? It's the ability to pack up their families and go off to some Homeburg or other for Christmas. And do you know what makes city people successful, in Homeburg opinion? It's coming back every year. And if we made a million apiece, and didn't preserve enough of the old home-town love to come back, we wouldn't be successful in their eyes, not by a long way. Well, good-by, philanthropists. And, thank you, I can't come again next year. I'm saving up to go home. That's what makes this cigar taste so good, Jim. Last one I'll smoke until carfare is in the bank.