No, we don't use serials and when we do we buy them in stereotyped plates by the pound. This made Miss Bolton droop, with another disappointed "Oh." The grain of the world seems so coarse when one looks at it closely.
We did not see Miss Bolton at the office for a long time after the duke abducted the lady in the moated grange, but we received a poem signed M. B. "To Dan Cupid," and another on "My Heart of Fire." Also there came an anonymous communication in strangely familiar fat vertical handwriting to the effect that "some people in this town think that if a young lady has a gentleman friend call on her more than twice a week it is their business to assume a courtship. They should know that there are souls on this earth whose tendrils reach into the infinite beyond the gross materiality of this mundane sphere to a destiny beyond the stars." At the bottom of the page were the words: "Please publish and oblige a subscriber."
The next that we heard of Miss Bolton was that she was running pink and blue baby-ribbon through her white things, and was expecting a linen shower from the T. T. T. girls, a silver shower from the "Giddy Young Things," a handkerchief shower from the Entre Nous girls, and a kitchen shower from the Imperial Club. Miss Larrabee, the society editor, began to hate Miss Bolton with the white-hot hate which all society editors turn on all brides. Miss Larrabee was authority for the statement that Maybelle had used five hundred yards of baby-ribbon—pink and blue and white and yellow—in her trousseau, and that she was bestowing the same passionate fervour on her hemstitching and tucking that she had wasted on literature; that she was helping papa and mamma by shouldering the biggest wedding on them since the Tomlinsons went into bankruptcy after their firework ceremonial. Miss Larrabee said that Papa Bolton's livery-stable was burning up so fast that she wanted to call out the fire department, and that Mamma Bolton made her think of the patent-medicine testimonials we printed from "poor tired women."
The day of the wedding the blow came. A very starched-up little boy with strawberry juice frescoed around his mouth brought in a note from Maybelle and a tightly-rolled manuscript tied with blue baby-ribbon. In the note she said that she thought it would be so romantic to "write up her own wedding—recalling the dear, dead days when she was a neophyte in letters." We handed the manuscript to Miss Larrabee, from whom, as she read, came snorts: "'Drawing-room!' Huh! 'Music-room.' Heavens to Betsy! 'Peculiar style of beauty!' Oh, joy! 'Looked like a wood-nymph in the morn.' Wouldn't that saturate you! 'The Apollo-like beauty of the groom.'" Miss Larrabee groaned as she rose, and putting her raincoat on the floor by her chair she exclaimed: "Do you people know what I am going to do? I have got to lie right down here and have a fit!"
"By the Rod of His Wrath"
Saturday afternoons, when the town is full, and farmers are coming in to the office to pay their subscriptions for the Weekly, it is our habit, after the paper is out, to sit in the office and look over Main Street, where perhaps five hundred people are milling, and consider with one another the nature of our particular little can of angle-worms and its relation to the great forces that move the world. The town often seems to us to be dismembered from the earth, and to be a chunk of humanity drifting through space by itself, like a vagrant star, forgotten of the law that governs the universe. Go where our people will, they find change; but when they come home, they look out of the hack as they ride through town, seeing the old familiar buildings and bill-boards and street-signs, and say with surprise, as Mathew Boris said after a busy and eventful day in Kansas City, where he had been marketing his steers: "Well, the old town seems to keep right on, just the same."
The old men in town seem always to have been old, and though the middle-aged do sometimes step across the old-age line, the young men remain perennially young, and when they grow fat or dry up, and their hair thins and whitens, they are still called by their diminutive names, and to most of us they are known as sons of the old men. Here a new house goes up, and there a new store is built, but they rise slowly, and everyone in town has time to go through them and over them and criticise the architectural taste of the builders, so that by the time a building is finished it seems to have grown into the original consciousness of the people, and to be a part of their earliest memories. We send our children to Sunday-school, and we go to church and learn how God's rewards or punishments fell upon the men of old, as they were faithful or recreant; but we don't seem to be like the men of old, for we are neither very good nor very bad—hardly worth God's while to sort us over for any uncommon lot. Only once, in the case of John Markley, did the Lord reach into our town and show His righteous judgment. And that judgment was shown so clearly through the hearts of our people that very likely John Markley does not consider it the judgment of God at all, but the prejudice of the neighbours.
When we have been talking over the case of John Markley in the office we have generally ended by wondering whether God—or whatever one cares to call the force that operates the moral laws, as well as those that in our ignorance we set apart as the physical laws of the world—whether God moves by cataclysm and accidents, or whether He moves with blessing or chastisement, through human nature as it is, in the ordinary business of the lives of men. But we have never settled that in our office any more than they have in the great schools, and as John Markley, game to the end, has never said what he thought of the town's treatment of him, it will never be known which side of our controversy is right.
Years ago, perhaps as long ago as the drought of seventy-four, men began calling him "Honest John Markley." He was the fairest man in town, and he made money by it, for when he opened his little bank Centennial year, which was the year of the big wheat crop, farmers stood in line half an hour at a time, at the door of his bank, waiting to give him their money. He was a plain, uncollared, short-whiskered man, brown-haired and grey-eyed, whose wife always made his shirts and, being a famous cook in town, kept him round and chubby. He referred to her as "Ma," and she called him "Pa Markley" so insistently that when we elected him State Senator, after he made his bank a National bank, in 1880, the town and county couldn't get used to calling him Senator Markley, so "Pa Markley" it was until after his Senatorial fame had been forgotten. Their children had grown up and left home before the boom of the eighties came—one girl went to California and the boy to South America;—and when John Markley began to write his wealth in six figures—which is almost beyond the dreams of avarice in a town like ours—he and his wife were lonely and knew little what to do with their income.
They bought new furniture for the parlour, and the Ladies' Missionary Society of the First Methodist Church, the only souls that saw it with the linen jackets off, say it was lovely to behold; they bought everything the fruit-tree man had in his catalogue, and their five acres on Exchange Street were pimpled over with shrubs that never bloomed and with trees that never bore fruit. He passed the hat in church—being a brother-in-law to the organisation, as he explained; sang "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys Are Marching" at Grand Army entertainments, and always as an encore dragged "Ma" out to sing with him "Dear, Dear, What Can the Matter Be." She was a skinny, sharp-eyed, shy little woman in her late fifties when the trouble came. She rose at every annual meeting of the church to give a hundred dollars but her voice never lasted until she got through announcing her donation, and she sat down demurely, blushing and looking down her nose as though she had disgraced the family. She had lost a brother in the war, and never came further out of mourning than purple flowers in her bonnet. She bought John Markley's clothes, so that his Sunday finery contained nothing giddier than a grey made-up tie, that she pinned around the collars which her own hands had ironed.
Slowly as their fortune piled up, and people said they had a million, his brown beard grizzled a little, and his brow crept up and up and his girth stretched out to forty-four. But his hands did not whiten or soften, and though he was "Honest John," and every quarter-section of land that he bought doubled in value by some magic that he only seemed to know, he kept the habits of his youth, rose early, washed at the kitchen basin, and was the first man at his office in the morning. At night, after a hard day's work he smoked a cob-pipe in the basement, where he could spit into the furnace and watch the fire until nine o'clock, when he put out the cat and bedded down the fire, while "Ma" set the buckwheat cakes. They never had a servant in their house.
We used to see John Markley pass the office window a dozen times a day, a hale, vigorous man, whose heels clicked hard on the sidewalk as he came hurrying along—head back and shoulders rolling. He was a powerful, masculine, indomitable creature, who looked out of defiant, cold, unblinking eyes as though he were just about to tell the whole world to go to hell! The town was proud of him. He was our "prominent citizen," and when he was elected president of the district bankers' association, and his name appeared in the papers as a possible candidate for United States Senator or Minister to Mexico or Secretary of the Interior, we were glad that "Honest John Markley" was our fellow-townsman.
And then came the crash. Man is a curious creature, and, even if he is nine parts good, the old Adam in him must burn out one way or another in his youth, or there comes a danger period at the height of his middle life when his submerged tenth that has been smouldering for years flares up and destroys him. Wherefore the problem which we have never been able to solve, though we have talked it over in the office a dozen times: whether John Markley had begun to feel, before he met the Hobart woman, that he wasn't getting enough out of life for the money he had invested in it; or whether she put the notion in his head.
It is scarcely correct to speak of his having met her, for she grew up in the town, and had been working for the Markley Mortgage and Investment Company for half-a-dozen years before he began to notice her. From a brassy street-gadding child of twelve, whose mother crowded her into grown-up society before she left the high school, and let her spell her name Ysabelle, she had grown into womanhood like a rank weed; had married at nineteen, was divorced at twenty-one, and having tried music teaching and failed, china painting and failed, she learned stenography by sheer force of her own will, with no instruction save that in her book, and opened an office for such work as she could get, while aiming for the best job in town—the position of cashier and stenographer for the Markley Mortgage Company. It took her three years to get in and another year to make herself invaluable. She was big and strong, did the work of two men for the pay of one, and for five years John Markley, who saw that she had plenty of work to do, did not seem to know that she was on earth. But one day "Alphabetical" Morrison, who was in our office picking up his bundle of exchanges, looked rather idly out of the window, and suddenly rested his roving eyes upon John Markley and Mrs. Hobart, standing and talking in front of the post office. The man at the desk near Morrison happened to be looking out at that moment, and he, too, saw what Morrison saw—which was nothing at all, except a man standing beside a woman. Probably the pair had met in exactly the same place at exactly the same time, and had exchanged an idle word daily for five years! and no one had noticed it, but that day Morrison unconsciously put his hand to his chin and scratched his jaw, and his eyes and the man's at the desk beside him met in a surprised interrogation, and Morrison's mouth and nose twitched, and the other man said, as he turned his face into his work, "Well, wouldn't that get you!"
The conversation went no further. Neither could have said what he saw. But there is something in every human creature—a survival of our jungle days, which lets our eyes see more than our consciousness records in language. And these men, who saw Markley and the woman, could not have defined the canine impression which he gave them. Yet it was there. The volcano was beginning to smoke.
It was a month later before the town saw the flames. During that time John Markley had been walking to and from his midday dinner with Isabel Hobart, had been helping her on and off with her wraps in the office, and had been all but kicking up the dirt behind him and barking around her, as the clerks there told us, without causing comment. An honest man always has such a long start when he runs away from himself that no one misses him until he is beyond extradition. Matters went along thus for nearly a year before the woman in the cottage on Exchange Street knew how they stood. And that speaks well of our town; for we are not a mean town, and if anyone ever had our sympathy it was Mrs. Markley, as she went about her quiet ways, giving her missionary teas, looking after the poor of her church, making her famous doughnuts for the socials, doing her part at the Relief Corps chicken-pie suppers, digging her club paper out of the encyclopaedia, and making over her black silk the third time for every day. If John Markley was cross with her in that time—and the neighbours say that he was; if he sat for hours in the house without saying a word, and grumbled and flew into a rage at the least ruffling of the domestic waters—his wife kept her grief to herself, and even when she left town to visit her daughter in California no one knew what she knew.
A month passed, two months passed, and John Markley's name had become a by-word and a hissing. Three months passed, a year went by, and still the wife did not return. And then one day Ab Handy, who sometimes prepared John Markley's abstracts, came into our office and whispered to the man at the desk that there was a little paper filed in the court which, under the circumstances, Mr. Markley would rather we would say as little about as is consistent with our policy in such cases. Handy didn't say what it was, and backed out bowing and eating dirt, and we sent a boy hot-foot to the court-house to find out what had been filed. The boy came back with a copy of a petition for divorce that had been entered by John Markley, alleging desertion. John Markley did not face the town when he brought his suit, but left for Chicago on the afternoon train, and was gone nearly a month. The broken little woman did not come back to contest the case, and the divorce was granted.
The day before his marriage to Isabel Hobart, John Markley shaved off his grizzled brown beard, and showed the town a face so strong and cunning and brutal that men were shocked; they said that she wished to make him appear young, and the shave did drop ten years from his countenance; but it uncovered his soul so shamelessly that it seemed immodest to look at his face. Upon the return from the wedding trip, the employees of the Markley Mortgage Company, at John Markley's suggestion, gave a reception for the bride and groom, and the Lord laid the first visible stripe on John Markley while he stood with his bride for three hours, waiting for the thousand invited guests who never came. "Alphabetical" Morrison, who owed John Markley money, and had to go, told us in the office the next day that John Markley in evening clothes, with his great paunch swathed in a white silk vest, smirking like a gorged jackal, showing his fellow-townsmen for the first time his coarse, yellow teeth and his thin, cruel lips, looked like some horrible cartoon of his former self. Colonel Morrison did not describe the bride, but she passed our office that day, going the rounds of the dry-goods stores, giggling with the men clerks—a picture of sin that made men wet their lips. She was big, oversexed, and feline; rattling in silks, with an aura of sensuousness around her which seemed to glow like a coal, without a flicker of kindness or shame or sweetness, and which all the town knew instinctively must clinker into something black and ugly as the years went by.
So the threshold of the cottage on Exchange Street was not darkened by our people. And when the big house went up—a palace for a country town, though it only cost John Markley $25,000—he, who had been so reticent about his affairs in other years, tried to talk to his old friends of the house, telling them expansively that he was putting it up so that the town would have something in the way of a house for public gatherings; but he aroused no responsive enthusiasm, and long before the big opening reception his fervour had been quenched. Though we are a curious people, and though we all were anxious to know how the inside of the new house looked, we did not go to the reception; only the socially impossible, and the travelling men's wives at the Metropole, whom Mrs. Markley had met when she was boarding during the week they moved, gathered to hear the orchestra from Kansas City, to eat the Topeka caterer's food, and to fall down on the newly-waxed floors of the Markley mansion. But our professional instinct at the office told us that the town was eager for news of that house, and we took three columns to write up the reception. Our description of the place began with the swimming pool in the cellar and ended with the ballroom in the third story.
It took John Markley a long time to realise that the town was done with him, for there was no uprising, no demonstration, just a gradual loosening of his hold upon the community. In other years his neighbours had urged him and expected him to serve on the school-board, of which he had been chairman for a dozen years, but the spring that the big house was opened Mrs. Julia Worthington was elected in his place. At the June meeting of the Methodist Conference a new director was chosen to fill John Markley's place on the college board, and when he cancelled his annual subscription no one came to ask him to renew it. In the fall his party selected a new ward committeeman, and though Markley had been treasurer of the committee for a dozen years, his successor was named from the Worthington bank, and they had the grace not to come to Markley with the subscription-paper asking for money. It took some time for the sense of the situation to penetrate John Markley's thick skin; whereupon the fight began in earnest, and men around town said that John Markley had knocked the lid off his barrel. He doubled his donation to the county campaign fund; he crowded himself at the head of every subscription-paper; and frequently he brought us communications to print, offering to give as much money himself for the library, or the Provident Association, or the Y. M. C. A., as the rest of the town would subscribe combined. He mended church roofs under which he never had sat; he bought church bells whose calls he never heeded; and paid the greater part of the pipe-organ debts in two stone churches. Colonel Morrison remarked in the office one day that John Markley was raising the price of popular esteem so high that none but the rich could afford it. "But," chuckled the Colonel, "I notice old John hasn't got a corner on it yet, and he doesn't seem to have all he needs for his own use." The wrench that had torn open his treasure chest, had also loosened John Markley's hard face, and he had begun to smile. He became as affable as a man may who has lived for fifty years silent and self-contained. He beamed upon his old friends, and once or twice a week he went the rounds of the stores making small purchases, to let the clerks bask in his sunlight.
If a new preacher came to town the Markleys went to his church, and Mrs. Markley tried to be the first woman to call on his wife.
All the noted campaign speakers assigned to our town were invited to be the Markleys' guests, and Mrs. Markley sent her husband, red necktied, high-hatted and tailor-made, to the train to meet the distinguished guest. If the man was as much as a United States Senator, Markley hired the band, and in an open hack rode in solemn state with his prize through the town behind the tinkling cymbals, and then, with much punctility, took the statesman up and down Main Street afoot, into all the stores and offices, introducing him to the common people. At such times John Markley was the soul of cordiality; he seemed hungry for a kind look and a pleasant word with his old friends. About this time his defiant eyes began to lose their boring points, and to wander and hunt for something they had lost. When we had a State convention of the dominant party, the Markleys saw to it that the Governor and all the important people attending, with their wives, stopped in the big house. The Markleys gave receptions to them, which the men in our town dared not ignore, but sent their wives away visiting and went alone. This familiarity with politicians probably gave the Markleys the idea that they might help their status in the community if John Markley ran for Governor. He announced his candidacy, and the Kansas City papers, which did not appreciate the local situation, spoke well of him; but his boom died in the first month, when some of his old friends called at the back room of the bank to tell him that the Democrats would air his family affairs if he made another move. He looked up pitiably into Ab Handy's face when the men were done talking and said: "Don't you suppose they'll ever quit? Ain't they no statute of limitation?" And then he arose and stood by his desk with one arm akimbo and his other hand at his temple as he sighed: "Oh hell, Ab—what's the use? Tell 'em I'm out of it!"
Mrs. Markley seems to have shut him out of the G. A. R., thinking maybe that the old boys and their wives were not of her social level, or perhaps she had some idea of playing even with them, because their wives had not recognised her; but she shut away much of her husband's social comfort when she barred his comrades, and they in turn grew harder toward him than they were at first. As the Markleys entered their second year, Mrs. Markley alone in the big house, with only the new people from the hotel to eat her dinners, and with only the beer-drinking crowd from the West Side to dance in the attic ballroom, had much time to think, and she bethought her of the lecturers who were upon the college lecture course, whereupon John Markley had to carve for authors and explorers, and an occasional Senator or Congressman, who, after a hard evening's work on the platform, paid for his dinner and lodging by sitting up on a gilded high-backed and uncomfortable chair in the stately reception-room of the Markley home, talking John Markley into a snore, before Isabel let them go to bed. Isabel sent the accounts of these affairs to the office for us to print, with the lists of invited guests, who never accepted. And the town grinned.
At the end of two years John Markley's fat wit told him that it was a losing fight. He had been dropped from the head of the Merchants' Association; he was cut off from the executive committee of the Fair; he was not asked to serve on the railroad committee. His old friends, whom he asked over to spend the evening at his house, always had good excuses, which they gave him later over the telephone, and their wives, who used to call him by his first name, scarcely recognised him on the street. He quit coming to our office with pieces for the paper telling the town his views on this or that local matter; and gradually gave up the fight for his old place on the school board.
The clerks in the Markley Mortgage Company office say that he fell into a moody way, and would come to the office and refuse to speak to anyone for hours. Also, as the big house often glowed until midnight for a dance of the socially impossible who used the Markley ballroom, rent free, as a convenience, John Markley grew to have a sleepy look by day, and lines came into his red, shaved face. He grew anxious about his health, and a hundred worries tightened his belt and shook his great fat hand, just the least in the world, and when through some gossip that his wife brought him from the kitchen he felt the scorn of an old friend burn his soul like a caustic, for many days he would brood over it. Finally care began to chisel down his flinty face, to cut the fat from his bull neck, so that the cords stood out, and, through staring in impotent rage and pain at the ceiling in the darkness of the night, red rims began to worm around his eyes. He was not sixty years old then, and he had lashed himself into seventy.
However his money-cunning did not grow dull. He kept his golden touch and his impotent dollars piled higher and higher. The pile must have mocked Isabel Markley, for it could bring her nothing that she wanted. She stopped trying to give big parties and receptions. Her social efforts tapered down to little dinners for the new people in town. But as the dinner hour grew near she raged—so the servants said—whenever the telephone rang, and in the end she had to give up even the dinner scheme.
So there came a time when they began to take trips to the seashore and the mountains, flitting from hotel to hotel. In the office we knew when they changed quarters, for at each resort John Markley would see the reporters and give out a long interview, which was generally prefaced by the statement that he was a prominent Western capitalist, who had refused the nomination for Governor or for Senator, or for whatever Isabel Markley happened to think of; and papers containing these interviews, marked in green ink, came addressed to the office in her stylish, angular hand. During grand opera season one might see the Markleys hanging about the great hotels of Chicago or Kansas City, he a tired, sleepy-faced, prematurely old man, who seemed to be counting the hours till bed-time, and she a tailored, rather overfed figure, with a freshly varnished face and unhealthy, bright, bold eyes, walking slightly ahead of her shambling companion, looking nervously about her in search of some indefinite thing that was gone from her life.
One day John Markley shuffled into our office, bedizened as usual, and fumbled in his pocket for several minutes before he could find the copy of the Mexican Herald containing the news of his boy's death in Vera Cruz. He had passed the time of life for tears, yet when he asked us to reprint the item he said sadly: "The old settlers will remember him—maybe. I don't know whether they will or not." He seemed a pitiful figure as he dragged himself out of the office—so stooped and weazened, and so utterly alone, but when he turned around and came back upon some second thought, his teeth snapped viciously as he snarled: "Here, give it back. I guess I don't want it printed. They don't care for me, anyway."
The boys in his office told the boys in our office that the old man was cross and petulant that year, and there is no doubt that Isabel Markley was beginning to find her mess of pottage bitter. The women around town, who have a wireless system of collecting news, said that the Markleys quarrelled, and that she was cruel to him. Certain it is that she began to feed on young boys, and made the old fellow sit up in his evening clothes until impossible hours, for sheer appearance sake, while his bed was piled with the wraps of boys and girls from what our paper called the Hand-holders' Union, who were invading the Markley home, eating the Markley olives and canned lobster, and dancing to the music of the Markley pianola. Occasionally a young travelling man would be spoken of by these young people as Isabel Markley's fellow.
Mrs. Markley began to make fun of her husband to the girls of the third-rate dancing set whose mothers let them go to her house; also, she reviled John Markley to the servants. It was known in the town that she nicknamed him the "Goat." As for Markley, the fight was gone from him, and his whole life was devoted to getting money. That part of his brain which knew the accumulative secret kept its tireless energy; but his emotions, his sensibilities, his passions seemed to be either atrophied or burned out, and, sitting at his desk in the back room of the Mortgage Company's offices, he looked like a busy spider spinning his web of gold around the town. It was the town theory that he and Isabel must have fought it out to a finish about the night sessions; for there came a time when he went to bed at nine o'clock, and she either lighted up and prepared to celebrate with the cheap people at home, or attached one of her young men, and went out to some impossible gathering—generally where there was much beer, and many risque things said, and the women were all good fellows. And thus another year flew by.
One night, when the great house was still, John Markley grew sick and, in the terror of death that, his office people say, was always with him, rose to call for help. In the dark hall, feeling for an electric-light switch, he must have lost his way, for he fell down the hard oak stairs. It was never known how long he lay there unable to move one-half of his body, but his wife stood nearly an hour at the front door that night, and when she finally switched on the light, she and the man with her saw Markley lying before them with one eye shut and with half his face withered and dead, the other half around the open eye quivering with hate. He choked on an oath, and shook at her a gnarled bare arm. Her face was flushed, and her tongue was unsure, but she laughed a shrill, wicked laugh and cried: "Ah, you old goat; don't you double your fist at me!"
Whereupon she shuddered away from the shaking figure at her feet and scurried upstairs. And the man standing in the doorway, wondering what the old man had heard, wakened the house, and helped to carry John Markley upstairs to his bed.
It was nearly three months before he could be wheeled to his office, where he still sits every day, spinning his golden web and filling his soul with poison. They say that, helpless as he is, he may live for a score of years. Isabel Markley knows how old she will be then. A thousand times she has counted it.
To see our town of a summer twilight, with the families riding abroad behind their good old nags, under the overhanging elms that meet above our newly-paved streets, one would not think that there could exist in so lovely a place as miserable a creature as John Markley is; or as Isabel, his wife, for that matter. The town—out beyond Main Street, which is always dreary and ugly with tin gorgons on the cornices—the town is a great grove springing from a bluegrass sod, with porch boxes making flecks of colour among the vines; cannas and elephant ears and foliage plants rise from the wide lawns; and children bloom like moving flowers all through the picture.
There are certain streets, like the one past the Markley mansion, upon which we make it a point always to drive with our visitors—show streets we may as well frankly call them—and one of these leads down a wide, handsome street out to the college. There the town often goes in its best bib and tucker to hear the lecturers whom Mrs. Markley feeds. Last winter one came who converted Dan Gregg—once Governor, but for ten years best known among us as the town infidel. The lecturer explained how matter had probably evolved from some one form—even the elements coming in a most natural way from a common source. He made it plain that all matter is but a form of motion; that atoms themselves are divided into ions and corpuscles, which are merely different forms of electrical motion, and that all this motion seems to tend to one form, which is the spirit of the universe. Dan said he had found God there, and, although the pious were shocked, in our office we were glad that Dan had found his God anywhere. While we were sitting in front of the office one fine evening this spring, looking at the stars and talking of Dan Gregg's God and ours, we began to wonder whether or not the God that is the spirit of things at the base of this material world might not be indeed the spirit that moves men to execute His laws. Men in the colleges to-day think they have found the moving spirit of matter; but do they know His wonderful being as well as the old Hebrew prophets knew it who wrote the Psalms and the Proverbs and the wisdom of the Great Book. That brought us back to the old question about John Markley. Was it God, moving in us, that punished Markley "by the rod of His wrath," that used our hearts as wireless stations for His displeasure to travel through, or was it the chance prejudice of a simple people? It was late when we broke up and left the office—Dan Gregg, Henry Larmy, the reporter, and old George. As we parted, looking up at the stars where our ways divided out under the elms, we heard, far up Exchange Street, the clatter of the pianola in the Markley home, and saw the high windows glowing like lost souls in the night.
"A Bundle of Myrrh"
One of the first things that a new reporter on our paper has to learn is the kinology of the town. Until he knows who is kin to whom, and how, a reporter is likely at any time to make a bad break. Now, the kinology of a country town is no simple proposition. After a man has spent ten years writing up weddings, births and deaths, attending old settlers' picnics, family reunions and golden weddings, he may run into a new line of kin that opens a whole avenue of hitherto unexplainable facts to him, showing why certain families line up in the ward primaries, and why certain others are fighting tooth and toe-nail.
The only person in town who knows all of our kinology—and most of that in the county, where it is a separate and interminable study—is "Aunt" Martha Merryfield. She has lived here since the early fifties, and was a Perkins, one of the eleven Perkins children that grew up in town; and the Perkinses were related by marriage to the Mortons, of whom there are over fifty living adult descendants on the town-site now. So one begins to see why she is called "Aunt Martha" Merryfield. She is literally aunt to over a hundred people here, and the habit of calling her aunt has spread from them to the rest of the population.
She lives alone in the big brick house on the hill, though her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are in and out all day and most of the night, so that she is not at all lonesome. She is the only person to whom we can look for accurate information about local history, and when a man dies who has been at all prominent in affairs of the town or county or State, we always call up "Aunt" Martha on the 'phone, or send a reporter to her, to learn the real printable and unprintable truth about him. She knows whom he "went with" before he was married, and why they "broke off," and what crowd he associated with in the early days; how he got his money, and what they used to "say" about him. If a family began putting on frills, she can tell how the head of the house got his start by stealing "aid" sent to the grasshopper sufferers and opening a store with the goods. If a woman begins speaking of the hired girl as her "maid," contrary to the vernacular rules of the town, Aunt Martha does not hesitate to bring up the subject of the flour-sack underwear which the woman wore when she was a girl during the drought of '60.
Aunt Martha used to bring us flowers for the office table, and it was her delight to sit down and take out her corn-knife—as she called it—and go after the town shams. She has promised a dozen times to write an article for the paper, which she says we dare not print, entitled "Self-made Women I Have Known." She says that men were always bragging about how they had clerked, worked on farms, dug ditches and whacked mules across the plains before the railroads came; but that their wives insisted that they were princesses of the royal blood. She says she is going to include in her Self-made Women only those who have worked out, and she maintains that we will be surprised at the list.
Her particular animosity in the town is Mrs. Julia Neal Worthington. Aunt Martha told us that when Tim Neal came to town he had a brogue you could scrape with a knife and an "O" before his name you could hoop a hogshead with. "And that woman," exclaimed Aunt Martha, when she was under full sail, "that woman, because she has two bookcases in the front room and reads the book-reviews in the Delineator, thinks that she is cultured. When her folks first came to town they were as poor as Job's turkey, which was not to their discredit—everyone was poor in those days. The old man Neal was as honest an old Mick as you'd meet in a day's journey, or at a fair, and he used to run a lemonade and peanut stand down by the bank corner. But his girls, who were raised on it, until they began teaching school, used to refer to the peanut stand as 'papa's hobby,' pretend that he only ran it for recreation, and say: 'Now why do you suppose papa enjoys it?—We just can't get him to give it up!' And now Julia is president of the Woman's Federation, has stomach trouble, has had two operations, and is suffering untold agonies with acute culturitis. And yet," Aunt Martha would say through a beatific smile, "she's a good-enough woman in many ways, and I wouldn't say anything against her for the world."
Once Miss Larrabee, the society editor, brought back this from a visit to Aunt Martha: "I know, my dear, that your paper says there are no cliques and crowds in society in this town, and that it is so democratic. But you and I know the truth. We know about society in this town. We know that if there ever was a town that looked like a side of bacon—streak of lean and streak of fat all the way down—it is this blessed place. Crowds?—why, I've lived here over fifty years and it was always crowds. 'Way back in the days when the boys used to pick us up and carry us across Elm Creek when we went to dances, there were crowds. The girls who crossed on the boys' backs weren't considered quite proper by the girls who were carried over in the boys' arms. And they didn't dance in the same set."
Miss Larrabee says she looked into the elder woman's eyes to find which crowd Aunt Martha belonged to, when she flashed out:
"Oh, child, you needn't look at me—I did both; it depended on who was looking! But, as I was saying, if anyone knows about society in this town, I do. I went to every dance in town for the first twenty-five years, and I have made potato salad to pay the salary of every Methodist preacher for the past thirty years, and I ought to know what I'm talking about." There was fire enough to twinkle in her old eyes as she spoke. "Beginning at the bottom, one may say that the base of society is the little tads, ranging down from what your paper calls the Amalgamated Hand-holders, to the trundle-bed trash just out of their kissing games. It's funny to watch the little tads grow up and pair off and see how bravely they try to keep in the swim. I've seen ten grandchildren get out and I've a great-grandchild whose mother will be pushing her out before she is old enough to know anything. When young people get married they all say they're not going to be old-marriedy, and they hang on to the dances and little hops until the first baby comes. Then they don't get out to the dances much, but they join a card club."
In her dissertation on the social progress of young married people, Aunt Martha explained that after the second year the couple go only to the big dances where everyone is invited, but they pay more attention to cards. The young mother begins going to afternoon parties, and has the other young married couples in for dinner. Then, before they know it, they are invited out to receptions and parties, where little tads preside at the punch-bowls and wait on table, and are seen and not heard. Aunt Martha continued:
"By the time the second baby comes they take one of two shoots—either go in for church socials or edge into a whist club. In this town, I think, on the whole, that the Congregational Whist Club is younger and gayer than the Presbyterian Whist Club, but in most towns the Episcopalians have the really fashionable club. Of course, these clubs never call themselves by the church names, but they are generally made up along church lines—except we poor Methodists and Baptists—we have to divide ourselves out among the others to keep the preacher from going after us."
Aunt Martha's eyes danced with the mischief in her heart as she went on: "Now, if after the second baby comes, the young parents begin to feel like saving money, and being someone at the bank, they join the church and go in for church socials, which don't take so much time or money as the whist clubs and receptions. The babies keep coming and the young people keep on improving their home, moving from the little house to the big house; the young man's name begins to creep into lists of directors at the bank, and they are invited out to the big parties, and she goes to all the stand-up and 'gabble-gobble-and-git' receptions. As they grow older, they are asked with the preachers and widows for the first night of a series of parties at a house to get them out of the way and over with before the young folks come later in the week. When they get to a point where the young folks laugh and clap their hands at little pudgy daddy when he dances 'Old Dan Tucker' at the big parties in the brick houses, it's all up with them—they are old married folks, and the next step takes them to the old folks' whist club, where the bankers' wives and the insurance widows run things. That is the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies in the society of this town."
After a pause Aunt Martha added: "You'd think, to hear these chosen people talk, that the benighted souls who go to missionary teas, Woman's Relief Corps chicken-pie suppers, and get up bean-dinners for the church on election day, live on another planet. Yet I guess we're all made of the same kind of mud.
"That reminds me of the Winthrops. When they came here, back in the sixties, it happened to be Fourth of July, and the band was out playing in the grove by the depot. Mrs. Winthrop got off the train quite grandly and bowed and waved her hand to the band, and the Judge walked over and gave the band leader five dollars. They said afterward that they felt deeply touched to find a raw Western town so appreciative of the coming of an old New England family, that it greeted them with a band. Before Mrs. Winthrop had been here three weeks she called on me, 'as one of the first ladies of the town,' she said, to organise and see if we couldn't break up the habit of the hired girls eating at the table with the family." Aunt Martha smiled and her eyes glittered as she added: "After they organised, the titled aristocracy of this town did their own work and sent the washing out for a year or more."
The talk drifted back to the old days, and Aunt Martha got out her photograph-album and showed Miss Larrabee the pictures of those whom she called "the rude forefathers of the village," in their quaint old costumes of war-times. In the book were baby pictures of middle-aged men and women, and youthful pictures of the old men and women of the town. But most interesting of all to Miss Larrabee were the daguerreotypes—quaint old portraits in their little black boxes, framed in plush and gilt. The old woman brought out picture after picture—her husband's among the others, in a broad beaver hat with a high choker taken back in Brattleboro before he came to Kansas. She looked at it for a long minute, and then said gaily to Miss Larrabee: "He was a handsome boy—quite the beau of the State when we were married—Judge of the District Court at twenty-four." She held the case in her hand and went on opening the others. She came to one showing a moustached and goateed youth in a captain's uniform—a slim, straight, soldierly figure. As she passed it to Miss Larrabee Aunt Martha looked sidewise at her, saying: "You wouldn't know him now. Yet you see him every day, I suppose." After the girl shook her head, the elder woman continued: "Well, that's Jim Purdy, taken the day he left for the army." She sighed as she said: "Let me see, I guess I haven't happened to run across Jim for ten years or more, but he didn't look much like this then. Poor old Jim, they tell me he's not having the best time in the world. Someway, all the old-timers that are living seem to be hard up, or in bad health, or unhappy. It doesn't seem right, after what they've done and what they've gone through. But I guess it's the way of life. It's the way life gets even with us for letting us outlive the others. Compensation—as Emerson says."
Miss Larrabee came down the lilac-bordered walk from the stately old brick house, carrying a great bouquet of sweet peas and nasturtiums and poppies and phlox, a fleeting memory of some association she had in her mind of Uncle Jimmy Purdy and Aunt Martha kept tantalising her. She could not get it out of the background of her consciousness, and yet it refused to form itself into a tangible conception. It was associated vaguely with her own grandmother, as though, infinite ages ago, her grandmother had said something that had lodged the idea in the girl's head.
When the occasion made itself, Miss Larrabee asked her grandmother the question that puzzled her, and learned that Martha Perkins and Jim Purdy were lovers before the war, and that she was wearing his ring when he went away—thinking he would be back in a few weeks with the Rebellion put down. In his first fight he was shot in the head and was in the hospital for a year, demented; when he was put back in the ranks he was captured and his name given out among the killed. In prison his dementia returned and he stayed there two years. Then for a year after his exchange he followed the Union Army like a dumb creature, and not until two years after the close of the war did the poor fellow drift home again, as one from the dead—all uncertain of the past and unfitted for the future.
And his sweetheart drank her cup alone. The old settlers say that she never flinched nor shrank, but for years, even after her marriage to the Judge, the young woman kept a little grave covered with flowers, that bore the simple words: "Martha, aged five months and three days." They say that she did not lose her courage and that she bent her head for no one. But the war brought her neighbours so many sorrows that Martha's trouble was forgotten, the years passed and only the old people of the community know about the little grave beside the Judge's and their little boy's. Jimmy Purdy grew into a smooth-faced, unwrinkled, rather blank-eyed old man, clerking in the bookstore for a time, serving as City Clerk for twenty years, and later living at the Palace Hotel on his pension. He worshipped Aunt Martha's children and her children's children, but he never saw her except when they met in some casual way. She was married when he came back from the war, and if he ever knew her agony he never spoke of it. Whenever he talked of the events before the war, his face wore a troubled, baffled look, and he did not seem to remember things clearly. He was a simple old man with a boyish face and heart who was confused by the world growing old around him.
One day they found him dead in his bed. And Miss Larrabee hurried out to Aunt Martha's to get the facts about his life for the paper. It was a bright October morning as she went up the walk to the old brick house, and she heard someone playing on the piano, rolling the chords after the grandiose manner of pianists fifty years ago. A voice seemed to be singing an old ballad. As the girl mounted the steps the voice came more distinctly to her. It was quavering and unsure, but with a moan of passion the words came forth:
"As I lay my heart on your dead heart,—Douglas, Douglas, Douglas, tender and true——"
Suddenly the voice choked in a groan. As she stood by the open door Miss Larrabee could see in the darkened room the figure of an old woman racked with sobs on a great mahogany sofa, and on the floor beside her lay a daguerreotype, glinting its gilt and glass through the gloom.
The girl tiptoed across the porch, down the steps through the garden and out of the gate.
Our Loathed but Esteemed Contemporary
No one remembers a time when there were not two newspapers in our town—generally quarrelling with each other. Though musicians and doctors and barbers are always jealous of their business rivals, and though they show their envy more or less to their discredit, editors are so jealous of one another, and so shameless about it, that the profession has been made a joke. Certainly in our town there is a deep-seated belief that if one paper takes one side of any question, even so fair a proposition as street-paving, the other will take the opposing side.
Of course, our paper has not been contrary; but we have noticed a good many times—every one in the office has noticed it, the boys and girls in the back-office, and the boys and girls in the front-office—that whenever we take a stand for anything, say for closing the stores at six o'clock, the General swings the Statesman into line against it. If he has done it once he has done it fifty times in the last ten years; and, though we have often felt impelled to oppose some of the schemes which he has brought forward, it has been because they were bad for the town, and perhaps because, even though they did seem plausible, we knew that the unscrupulous gang that was behind these schemes would in some way turn them into a money-making plot to rob the people. We never could see that justification in the Statesman's position. To us it seemed merely pigheadedness. But the passing years are teaching us to appreciate the General better, and each added year is seeming to make us more tolerant of his shortcomings.
Counting in the three years he was in the army, he has been running the Statesman for forty-five years, and for thirty-five years he was master of the field. For thirty years this town was known as General A. Jackson Durham's town. He ran the county Republican conventions, and controlled the five counties next to ours, so that, though he could never go to Congress himself, on account of his accumulation of enemies, he always named the successful candidate from the district, and for a generation held undisturbed the selection of post-masters within his sphere of influence. In State politics he was more powerful than any Congressman he ever made. Often he came down to the State Convention with blood in his eye after the political scalp of some politician who had displeased him, and the fight he made and the disturbance he started, gave him the name of Old Bull Durham. On such occasions, he would throw back his head, shut his eyes and roar his wrath at his opponents in a most disquieting manner, and when he returned home, whether he had won or lost his fight, his paper would bristle for two or three weeks with rage, and his editorial page would be full of lurid articles written in short exclamatory sentences, pocked with italics, capital letters and black-faced lines.
For General A. Jackson Durham was a fire-eater and was proud of it. He advertised the fact that he was a good hater by showing his barrel to callers at his office. In that barrel he had filed away every disreputable thing that he had been able to find against friend or foe, far or near, and when the friend became a foe, or the foe became troublesome, the General opened his barrel. He kept also an office blacklist, on which were written the names of the men in town that were never to be printed in the Statesman. When we established our little handbill of a newspaper, he made all manner of fun of our "dish-rag," as he called it, and insisted on writing so much about our paper that people read it to see what we had to say. Other papers had made the mistake of replying to the General in kind, and people had soon tired of the quarrel and dropped the new quarrelling paper for the old one. The State never had seen the General's equal as a wrangler; but we did not fight back, and there was only a one-sided quarrel for the people to tire of. We grew and got a foothold in the town, but the General never admitted it. He does not admit it now, though his paper has been cut down time and again, and is no larger than our little dish-rag was in the beginning. But he still maintains his old assumption of the power that departed years ago. He walked proudly out of the County Convention the day that it rode over him, and he still begins the names of the new party leaders in the county in small letters to show his contempt for them.
The day of his downfall in the County Convention marked the beginning of his decline in State politics. When it was known that his county was against him, people ceased to fear him and in time new leaders came in the State whom he did not know even by sight; but the General did not recognise them as leaders. To him they were interlopers. He sent his paper regularly to the old leaders, who had been shoved aside as he had been, and wrote letters to them urging them to arouse the people to throw off the chains of bossdom. Five years ago he and a number of lonesome and forgotten ones, who formerly ruled the State with an iron hand, and whose arrogance had cost the party a humiliating defeat, organised the "Anti-Boss League," and held semi-annual conventions at the capital. They made long speeches and issued long proclamations, and called vehemently upon the people to rend their chains, but some way the people didn't heed the call, and the General and his boss-busters, as they were called, began to have hard work getting their "calls" and "proclamations" and "addresses" into the city papers. The reporters referred to them as the Ancient Order of Has-Beens, and wounded the General's pride by calling him Past Master of the Grand Lodge of Hons. He came home from the meeting of the boss-busters at which this insult had been heaped upon him and bellowed like a mad bull for six months, using so much space in his paper that there was no room at all for local news.
In the General's idea of what a newspaper should contain; news does not come first, and he does not mind crowding it out. He believes that a newspaper should stand for "principles." The Statesman was started during the progress of the Civil War, when issues were news, and the General has never been able to realize that in times of peace people buy a newspaper for its news and not for its opinions. He never could understand our attitude toward what he called "principles." When the town was for free silver, we were for the gold standard, and we never exerted ourselves particularly for a high tariff, and when the General saw our paper grow in spite of its heresies, he was amazed, and expressed his amazement in columns of vitriolic anger. Because we often ignored "issues" and "principles" and "great basic and fundamental ideas," as he called his contentions on the silver and tariff questions, for lists of delegates at conventions, names of pupils at the county institute, and winners of prizes at the fair, he was filled with alarm for the future of the noble calling of journalism.
Long ago we quit making fun of him. One day we wrote an article referring to him as "the old man," and it was gossiped among the printers that he was cut to the heart. He did not reply to that, and although a few days later he referred to us as thieves and villains, we never had the heart to tease him again, and now every one around the office has instructions to put "General" before his name whenever it is used. Probably this cheers him up. At least it should do so, for in spite of his pride and his much advertised undying wrath, he is in truth a tender-hearted old man, and has never been disloyal to the town. It is the apple of his eye. His fierceness has always been more for publication than as an evidence of good faith. He likes to think that he is unforgiving and relentless, but he has a woman's heart. He fought the renomination of Grant for a third term most bitterly, but when the old commander died, the boys in the Statesman office say that Durham sniffled gently while he wrote the obituary, and when he closed with the words "Poor Grant," he laid his head on the table and his frame shook in real sorrow.
Most of the subscribers have left his paper, and few of the advertisers use it, but what seems to hurt him worst is his feeling that the town has gone back on him. He has given all of his life to this town; he has spent thousands of dollars to promote its growth; he has watched every house on the town-site rise, and has made an item in his paper about it; he has written up the weddings of many of the grandmothers and grandfathers of the town; he has chronicled the birth of their children and children's children. The old scrapbooks are filled with kind things that the General has written. Old men and old women scan these wrinkled pages with eyes that have lost their lustre, and on the rusty clippings pasted there fall many tears. In this book many a woman reads the little verse below the name of a child whom only she and God remember. In some other scrapbook a man, long since out of the current of life, reads the story of his little triumph in the world; in the family Bible is a clipping from the Statesman—yellow and crisp with years—that tells of a daughter's wedding and the social glory that descended upon the house for that one great day. So, as the General goes about the streets of the town, in his shiny long frock-coat and his faded campaign hat, men do not laugh at him, nor do they hate him. He is the old buffalo, horned out of the herd.
The profession of newspaper making is a young man's profession. The time will come when over at our office there will be a shrinkage. Even now our leading citizens never go away from town and talk to other newspaper men that they do not say that if someone would come over here and start a bright, spicy newspaper he could drive us out of town and make money. The best friends we have, when they talk to newspaper men in other towns are not above saying that our paper is so generally hated that it would be no trouble to put it out of business. That is what people said of the General in the eighties. They do not say it now.
For the fight is over with him. And he is walking on an old battlefield, reviewing old victories, not knowing that another contest is waging further on. Sometimes the boys in the Statesman office get their money Saturday night, and sometimes they do not. If they do not, the General grandly issues "orders" on the grocery stores. Then he takes his pen in hand and writes a stirring editorial on the battle of Cold Harbor, and closes by enquiring whether the country is going to forget the grand principles that inspired men in those trying days.
In the days when the Statesman was a power in the land, editorials like this were widely quoted. He was department commander of the G. A. R. at a time when such a personage was as important in our State as the Governor. The General's editorials on pensions were read before the Pensions Committee in Congress and had much weight there, and even in the White House the General's attitude was reckoned with. When he rallied the old soldiers to any cause the earth trembled, but now the General's editorials pass unheeded. When he calls to "the men who defended this country in one great crisis to rise and rescue her again," he does not understand that he is speaking to a world of ghosts, and that his "clarion note" falls on empty air. The old boys whom he would arouse are sleeping; only he and a little handful survive. Yet to him they still live; to him their power is still invincible—if they would but rally to the old call. He believes that some day they will rally, and that the world, which is now going sadly wrong, will be set right. With his hands clasped behind him, looking through his steel-rimmed glasses, from under his shaggy brows, he walks through a mad world, waiting for it to return to reason. In his fiery black eyes one may see a puzzled look as he views the bewildering show. He is confused, but defiant. His head is still high; he has no thought of surrender. So, day after day, he riddles the bedlam about him with his broadsides, in the hourly hope of victory.
It was only last week that the General was in Jim Bolton's livery stable office asking Jim if he had any old ledgers, that the Statesman office might have. He explained that he tore off their covers, cut them up and used the unspoiled sheets for copy-paper. In Bolton's office he met a farmer from the Folcraft neighbourhood in the southern end of the county, who hadn't seen the General for half-a-dozen years. "Why—hello General," exclaimed the farmer with unconcealed surprise, as though addressing one risen from the dead. "You still around here? What are you doing now?" The old man tucked the ledger under his arm, straightened up with great dignity, and tried not to wince under the blow. He put one hand in his shiny, frayed, greenish-black frock-coat, and replied with quiet dignity, "I am following my profession, sir—that of a journalist." And after fixing the farmer with his piercing black eyes for a moment, the General turned away and was gone.
When we do something to displease him, he turns all his guns on us, though probably his foreman has to borrow paper from our office to get the Statesman out. The General regards us as his natural prey and his foreman regards our paper stock as his natural forage—but they use so little that we do not mind.
Once a new bookkeeper in our office saw the General's old account for paper. She sent the General a statement, and another, and in the third she put the words: "Please remit." The day after he had received the insult the General stalked grandly into the office with the amount of money required by the bookkeeper. He put it down without a word and walked over to the desk where the proprietor was working.
"Young man," said the General, as he rapped with his cane on the desk. "I was talking to-day with a gentleman from Norwalk, Ohio, who knew your father. Yes, sir; he knew your father, and speaks highly of him, sir. I am surprised to hear, sir, that your father was a perfect gentleman, sir. Good-morning, sir."
And with that the General moved majestically out of the office.
A Question of Climate
Colonel Morrison had three initials, so the town naturally called him "Alphabetical" Morrison, and dropped the "Colonel." He came to our part of the country in an early day—he used to explain that they caught him in the trees, when he was drinking creek water, eating sheep-sorrel, and running wild with a buffalo tail for a trolley, and that the first thing they did, after teaching him to eat out of a plate, was to set him at work in the grading gang that was laying out the Cottonwood and Walnut Rivers and putting the limestone in the hills. He was one of the original five patriots who laid out the Corn Belt Railroad from the Mississippi to the Pacific, and was appointed one of that committee to take the matter to New York for the inspection of capitalists—and be it said to the credit of Alphabetical Morrison that he was the only person in the crowd with money enough to pay the ferryman when he reached the Missouri River, though he had only enough to get himself across. But in spite of that the road was built, and though it missed our town, it was because we didn't vote the bonds, though old Alphabetical went through the county, roaring in the schoolhouses, bellowing at the crossroads, and doing all that a good, honest pair of lungs could do for the cause. However, he was not dismayed at his failure, and began immediately to organise a company to build another road. We finally secured a railroad, though it was only a branch.
Over his office door he had a sign—"Land Office"—painted on the false board front of the building in letters as big as a cow, and the first our newspaper knew of him was twenty years ago, when he brought in an order for some stationery for the Commercial Club. At that time we had not heard that the town supported a Commercial Club—nor had anyone else heard of it, for that matter—for old Alphabetical was the president, and his bookkeeper, with the Miss dropped off her name, was secretary. But he had a wonderfully alluring letterhead printed, and seemed to get results, for he made a living while his competitors starved. Later, when he found time, he organised a real Commercial Club, and had himself elected president of it. He used to call meetings of the club to discuss things, but as no one cared much for his monologues on the future of the town, the attendance was often light. He issued circulars referring to our village as "the Queen City of the Prairies," and on the circulars was a map, showing that the Queen City of the Prairies was "the railroad axis of the West." There was one road running into the town; the others old Alphabetical indicated with dotted lines, and explained in a foot-note that they were in process of construction.
He became possessed of a theory that a canning factory would pay in the Queen City of the Prairies, and the first step he took toward building it was to invest in a high hat, a long coat and white vest, and a pair of mouse-coloured trousers. With these and his theory he went East and returned with a condition. The canning factory went up, but the railroad rates went wrong, and the factory was never opened. Alphabetical blinked at it through his gold-rimmed glasses for a few weeks, and then organised a company to turn it into a woollen mill. He elected himself president of that company and used to bring around to our paper, notices of directors' meetings, and while he was in the office he would insist that we devoted too much space to idle gossip and not enough to the commercial and industrial interests of the Queen City.
At times he would bring in an editorial that he had written himself, highly excitable and full of cyclonic language, and if we printed it Alphabetical would buy a hundred copies of the paper containing it and send them East. His office desk gradually filled with woodcuts and zinc etchings of buildings that never existed save in his own dear old head, and about twice a year during the boom days he would bring them around and have a circular printed on which were the pictures showing the imaginary public buildings and theoretical business thoroughfares of the Queen City.
The woollen mill naturally didn't pay, and he persuaded some Eastern capitalists to install an electric plant in the building and put a streetcar line in the town, though the longest distance from one side of the place to the other was less than ten blocks. But Alphabetical was enthusiastic about it, and had the Governor come down to drive the first spike. It was gold-plated, and Alphabetical pulled it up and used it for a paper-weight in his office for many years, and it is now the only reminder there is in town of the street railway, except a hard ridge of earth over the ties in the middle of Main Street. When someone twitted him on the failure of the street railway he made answer:
"Of course it failed; here I go pawing up the earth, milking out the surplus capital of the effete East, and building up this town—and what happens? Four thousand old silurian fossils comb the moss on the north side of 'em, with mussel shell, and turn over and yawp that old Alphabetical is visionary. Here I get a canning factory and nobody eats the goods; I hustle up a woollen factory, and the community quits wearing trousers; I build for them a streetcar line to haul them to and from their palatial residences, and what do the sun-baked human mud turtles do but all jump off the log into the water and hide from them cars like they were chariots of fire? What this town needs is not factories, nor railroads, nor modern improvements—Old Alphabetical can get them—but the next great scheme I go into is to go down to the river, get some good red mud, and make a few thousand men who will build up a town."
It has been fifteen years and over since Colonel Morrison put on his long coat and high hat and started for the money markets of the East, seeking whom he might devour. At the close of the eighties the Colonel and all his tribe found that the stock of Eastern capitalists who were ready to pay good prices for the fine shimmering blue sky and bracing ozone of the West was running low. It was said in town that the Colonel had come to the end of his string, for not only were the doors of capital closed to him in the East, but newcomers had stopped looking for farms at home. There was nothing to do but to sit down and swap jack-knives with other land agents, and as they had taken most of the agencies for the best insurance companies while the Colonel was on dress parade, there was nothing left for him to do but to run for justice of the peace, and, being elected, do what he could to make his tenure for life.
Though he was elected, more out of gratitude for what he had tried to do for the town than because people thought he would make a fair judge, he got no further than his office in popular esteem. He did not seem to wear well with the people in the daily run and jostle of life. During the forty years he has been in our town, he has lived most of the time apart from the people—transacting his business in the East, or locating strangers on new lands. He has not been one of us, and there were stories afloat that his shrewdness had sometimes caused him to thrust a toe over the dead-line of exact honesty. In the town he never helped us to fight for those things of which the town is really proud: our schools, the college, the municipal ownership of electric lights and waterworks, the public library, the abolition of the saloon, and all of the dozen small matters of public interest in which good citizens take a pride. Colonel Morrison was living his grand life, in his tailor-made clothes, while his townsmen were out with their coats off making our town the substantial place it is. So in his latter days he is old Alphabetical Morrison, a man apart from us. We like him well enough, and so long as he cares to be justice of the peace no one will object, for that is his due. But, someway, there is no talk of making him County Clerk; and there is a reason in everyone's mind why no party names him to run for County Treasurer. He has been trying hard enough for ten years to break through the crust of the common interests that he has so long ignored. One sees him at public meetings—a rather wistful-looking, chubby-faced old man—on the edge of the crowd, ready to be called out for a speech. But no one calls his name; no one cares particularly what old Alphabetical has to say. Long ago he said all that he can say to our people.
The only thing that Alphabetical ever organised that paid was a family. In the early days he managed to get a home clear of indebtedness and was shrewd enough to keep it out of all of his transactions. Tow-headed Morrisons filled the schoolhouse, and twenty years later there were so many of his girls teaching school that the school-board had to make a ruling limiting the number of teachers from one family in the city school, in order to force the younger Morrison girls to go to the country to teach. In these days the girls keep the house going and Alphabetical is a notary public and a justice of the peace, which keeps his office going in the little square board building at the end of the street. But every day for the past ten years he has been coming to our office for his bundle of old newspapers. These he reads carefully, and sometimes what he reads inspires him to write something for our paper on the future of the Queen City, though much oftener his articles are retrospective. He is the president of the Old Settlers' Society, and once or twice a year he brings in an obituary which he has written for the family of some of the old-timers.
One would think that an idler would be a nuisance in a busy place, but, on the contrary, we all like old Alphabetical around our office. For he is an old man who has not grown sour. His smooth, fat face has not been wrinkled by the vinegar of failure, and the noise that came from his lusty lungs in the old days is subsiding. But he has never forgiven General Durham, of the Statesman, for saying of a fight between Alphabetical and another land agent back in the sixties that "those who heard it pronounced it the most vocal engagement they had ever known." That is why he brings his obituaries to us; that is why he does us the honour of borrowing papers from us; and that is why, on a dull afternoon, he likes to sit in the old sway-back swivel-chair and tell us his theory of the increase in the rainfall, his notion about the influence of trees upon the hot winds, his opinion of the disappearance of the grasshoppers. Also, that is why we always save a circus-ticket for old Alphabetical, just as we save one for each of the boys in the office.
One day he came into the office in a bad humour. He picked up a country paper, glanced it over, threw it down, kicked from under his feet a dog that had followed a subscriber into the room, and slammed his hat into the waste-basket with considerable feeling as he picked up a New York paper.
"Well—well, what's the matter with the judiciary this morning?" someone asked the old man.
He did not reply at once, but turned his paper over and over, apparently looking for something to interest him. Gradually the revolutions of his paper became slower and slower, and finally he stopped turning the paper and began reading. It was ten or fifteen minutes before he spoke. When he put down the paper his cherubic face was beaming, and he said:
"Oh—I know I'm a fool, but I wish the Lord had sent me to live in a town large enough so that every dirty-faced brat on the street wouldn't feel he had a right to call me 'Alphabetical'! Dammit, I've done the best I could! I haven't made any alarming success. I know it. There's no need of rubbing it in on me."—He was silent for a time with his hands on his knees and his head thrown back looking at the ceiling. Almost imperceptibly a smile began to crack his features, and, when he turned his eyes to the man at the desk, they were dancing with merriment, as he said: "Just been reading a piece here in the Sun about the influence of climate on human endeavour. It says that in northern latitudes there is more oxygen in the air and folks breathe faster, and their blood flows faster, and that keeps their livers going. Trouble with me has always been climate—sluggish liver. If I had had just a little more oxygen floating round in my system, the woollen mill would still be running, the street-cars would be going, and this town would have had forty thousand inhabitants. My fatal mistake was one of latitude. But"—and he drawled out the word mockingly—"but I guess if the Lord had wanted me to make a town here he would have given me a different kind of liver!" He slapped his knees as he sighed: "This is a funny world, and the more you see of it the funnier it gets." The old man grinned complacently at the ceiling for a minute, and before getting out of his chair kicked his shoe-heels together merrily, wiped his glasses as he rose, put his bundle of papers under his arm, and left the office whistling an old, old-fashioned tune.
The Casting Out of Jimmy Myers
It seemed a cruel thing to do, but we had to do it. For ours is ordinarily a quiet office. We have never had a libel suit. We have had fewer fights than most newspaper offices have, and while it hardly may be said that we strive to please, still in the main we try to get on with the people, and tell them as much truth as they are entitled to for ten cents a week. Naturally, we do our best to get up a sprightly paper, and in that the Myers boy had our idea exactly. He was industrious; more than that, he tried with all his might to exercise his best judgment, and no one could say that he was careless; yet everyone around the office admitted that he was unlucky. He was one of those persons who always have slivers on their doors, or tar on the knocker, when opportunity comes their way; so his stay in the office was marked by a series of seismic disturbances in the paper that came from under his desk, and yet he was in no way to blame for them.
We took him from the college at the edge of town. He had been running the college paper for a year, and knew the merchants around town fairly well; and, since he was equipped as far as education went, he seemed to be a likely sort of a boy for reporter and advertising solicitor.
One of the first things that happened to him was a mistake in an item about the opera house. He said that a syndicate had taken a lien on it. What he meant was a lease, and as he got the item from a man who didn't know the difference, and as the boy stuck to it that the man had said lien and not lease, we did not charge that up to him. A few days later he wrote for a town photographer a paid local criticising someone who was going around the county peddling picture-frames and taking orders for enlarged pictures. That was not so bad, but it turned out that the pedlar was a woman, and she came with a rawhide and camped in the office for two days waiting for Jimmy, while he came in and out of the back door, stuck his copy on the hook by stealth, and travelled only in the alleys to get his news. One could hardly say that he was to blame for that, either, as the photographer who paid for the item didn't say the pedlar was a woman, and the boy was no clairvoyant.
One dull day he wrote a piece about the gang who played poker at night in Red Martin's room. Jimmy said he wasn't afraid of Red, and he wasn't. The item was popular enough, and led to a raid on the place, which disclosed our best advertiser sitting in the game. To suppress his name meant our shame before the town; to print it meant his—at our expense. It was embarrassing, but it wasn't exactly the boy's fault. It was just one of those unfortunate circumstances that come up in life. However, the advertiser aforesaid began to hate the boy.
He must have been used to injustice all his life, for there was a vertical line between his eyes that marked trouble. The line deepened as he went further and further into the newspaper business; for, generally speaking, a person who is unlucky has less to fear handling dynamite than he has writing local items on a country paper.
A few days after the raid on the poker-room Jimmy, who had acquired a particularly legible hand, wrote: "The hem of her skirt was trimmed with pink crushed roses," and he was in no way to blame for the fact that the printer accidentally put an "h" for a "k" in skirt, though the woman's husband chased Jimmy into a culvert under Main Street and kept him there most of the forenoon, while the cheering crowd informed the injured husband whenever Jimmy tried to get out of either end of his prison.
The printer that made the mistake bought Jimmy a new suit of clothes, we managed to print an apology that cooled the husband's wrath, and for ten days, or perhaps two weeks, the boy's life was one round of joy. Everything was done promptly, accurately and with remarkable intelligence. He whistled at his work and stacked up more copy than the printers could set up in type. No man ever got in or out of town without having his name in our paper. Jimmy wrote up a railroad bond election meeting so fairly that he pleased both sides, and reported a murder trial so well that the lawyers for each side kept the boy's pockets full of ten-cent cigars. The vertical wrinkle was fading from his forehead, when one fine summer morning he brought in a paid item from a hardware merchant, and went blithely out to write up the funeral of the wife of a prominent citizen. He was so cheerful that day that it bothered him.
He told us in confidence that he never felt festive and gay that something didn't happen. He was not in the building that evening when the paper went to press, but after it was printed and the carriers had left the office he came in, singing "She's My Sweetheart, I'm Her Beau," and sat down to read the paper.
Suddenly the smile on his face withered as with frost, and he handed the paper across the table to the bookkeeper, who read this item:
DIED—MRS. LILLIAN GILSEY.
Prepare for the hot weather, my good woman. There is only one way now; get a gasoline stove, of Hurley & Co., and you need not fear any future heat.
And it wasn't Jimmy's fault. The foreman had merely misplaced a head line, but that explanation did not satisfy the bereaved family.
Jimmy was beginning to acquire a reputation as a joker. People refused to believe that such things just happened. They did not happen before Mr. James Myers came to the paper—why should they begin with his coming and continue during his engagement? Thus reasoned the comforters of the Gilseys, and those interested in our downfall. The next day the Statesman wrote a burning editorial denouncing us "for an utter lack of all sense of common decency" that permitted us "to violate the sacredest feeling known to the human heart for the sake of getting a ribald laugh from the unthinking." We were two weeks explaining that the error was not the boy's fault. People assumed that the mistake could not have occurred in any well-regulated printing office, and it didn't seem probable that it could occur—yet there it was. But Jimmy wasn't to blame. He suffered more than we did—more than the bereaved family did. He went unshaven and forgot to trim his cuffs or turn his collar. He hated to go on the streets for news, and covered with the office telephone as much of his beat as possible.
The summer wore away and the dog days came. The Democratic State campaign was about to open in our town, and orators and statesmen assembled from all over the Missouri valley. There was a lack of flags at the dry-goods stores. The Fourth of July celebration had taken all the stock. The only materials available were some red bunting, some white bunting, and some blue bunting with stars dotted upon it. With this bunting the Committee on Reception covered the speakers' stand, wrapping the canopy under which the orators stood in the solid colours and the star-spangled blue. It was beautiful to see, and the pride of the window-dresser of the Golden Eagle Clothing Store. But the old soldiers who walked by nudged one another and smiled.
About noon of the day of the speaking the City Clerk, who wore the little bronze button of the G. A. R., asked Jimmy if he didn't want someone to take care of the Democratic meeting. Jimmy, who hated politics, was running his legs off to get the names of the visitors, and was glad to have the help. He turned in the contributed copy without reading it, as he had done with the City Clerk's articles many times before, and this is what greeted his horrified eyes when he read the paper:
"UNDER THE STARS & BARS"
Democracy Opens Its State Campaign Under the Rebel Emblem To-day A Fitting Token Treasonable Utterances Have a Proper Setting
And then followed half a column of most violent abuse of the Democrats who had charge of the affair. Jimmy did not appear on the street that night, but the next morning, when he came down, the office was crowded with indignant Democrats "stopping the paper."
We began to feel uneasy about Jimmy. So long as his face was in the eclipse of grief there seemed to be a probability that we would have no trouble, but as soon as his moon began to shine we were nervous.
Jimmy had a peculiar knack of getting up little stories of the town—not exactly news stories, but little odd bits that made people smile without rancour when they saw their names in the quaintly turned items. One day he wrote up a story of a little boy whose mother asked him where he got a dollar that he was flourishing on his return with his father from a visit in Kansas City. The little boy's answer was that his father gave it to him for calling him uncle when any ladies were around. It was merrily spun, and knowing that it would not make John Lusk, the boy's father, mad, we printed it, and Jimmy put at the head of it a foolish little verse of Kipling's. Miss Larrabee, at the bottom of her society column, announced the engagement of two prominent young people in town. The Saturday paper was unusually readable. But when Jimmy came in after the paper was out he found Miss Larrabee in tears, and the foreman leaning over the counter laughing so that he couldn't speak. It wasn't Jimmy's fault. The foreman had done it—by the mere transposition of a little brass rule separating the society news from Jimmy's story with the Kipling verse at the head of it. The rule tacked the Kipling verse onto Miss Larrabee's article announcing the engagement. Here is the way it read:
"This marriage, which will take place at St. Andrew's Church, will unite two of the most popular people in town and two of the best-known families in the State.
"And this is the sorrowful story Told as the twilight fails, While the monkeys are walking together, Holding each other's tails!"
Now, Jimmy was no more to blame than Miss Larrabee, and many people thought, and think to this day, that Miss Larrabee did it—and did it on purpose. But for all that it cast clouds over the moon of Jimmy's countenance, and it was nearly a year before he regained his merry heart. He was nervous, and whenever he saw a man coming toward the office with a paper in his hand Jimmy would dash out of the room to avoid the meeting. For an hour after the paper was out the ringing of the telephone bell would make him start. He didn't know what was going to happen next.
But as the months rolled by he became calm, and when Governor Antrobus died, Jimmy got up a remarkably good story of his life and achievements, and though there was no family left to the dear old man to buy extra copies, all the old settlers—who are the hardest people in the world to please—bought extra copies for their scrapbooks. We were proud of Jimmy, and assigned him to write up the funeral. That was to be a "day of triumph in Capua." There being no relatives to interfere, the lodges of the town—and the Governor was known as a "jiner"—had vied with one another to make the funeral the greatest rooster-feather show ever given in the State. The whole town turned out, and the foreman of our office, and everyone in the back room who could be spared, was at the Governor's funeral, wearing a plume, a tin sword, a red leather belt, or a sash of some kind. We put a tramp printer on to make up the paper, and told Jimmy to call by the undertaker's for a paid local which the undertaker had written for the paper that day.
Jimmy's face was beaming as he snuggled up to his desk at three o'clock that afternoon. He said he had a great story—names of the pall-bearers, names of the double sextette choir, names of all the chaplains of all the lodges who read their rituals, names of distinguished guests from abroad, names of the ushers at the church. Page by page he tore off his copy and gave it to the tramp printer, who took it in to the machines. Trusting the foreman to read the proof, Jimmie rushed out to get from a United States Senator who was attending the funeral an interview on the sugar scandal, for the Kansas City Star.
The rest of us did not get back from the cemetery until the carriers had left the office, and this is what we found:
"The solemn moan of the organ had scarcely died away, like a quivering sob upon the fragrant air, when the mournful procession of citizens began filing past the flower-laden bier to view the calm face of their beloved friend and honoured townsman. In the grief-stricken hush that followed might be heard the stifled grief of some old comrade as he paused for the last time before the coffin.
"At this particular time we desire to call the attention of our readers to the admirable work done by our hustling young undertaker, J. B. Morgan. He has been in the city but a short time, yet by his efficient work and careful attention to duty, he has built up an enviable reputation and an excellent custom among the best families of the city. All work done with neatness and dispatch. We strive to please.
"When the last sad mourner had filed out, the pall-bearers took up their sorrowful task, and slowly, as the band played the 'Dead March in Saul,' the great throng assembled in the street viewed the mortal remains of Governor Antrobus start on their last long journey."
Of course it wasn't Jimmy's fault. The "rising young undertaker" had paid the tramp printer, who made up the forms, five dollars to work his paid local into the funeral notice. But after that—Jimmy had to go. Public sentiment would no longer stand him as a reporter on the paper, and we gave him a good letter and sent him onward and upward. He took his dismissal decently enough. He realised that his luck was against him; he knew that we had borne with him in all patience.
The day that he left he was instructing the new man in the ways of the town. Reverend Frank Milligan came in with a church notice. Jimmy took the notice and began marking it for the printer. As the door behind him opened and closed, Jimmy, with his head still in his work, called across the room to the new man: "That was old Milligan that just went out—beware of him. He will load you up with truck about himself. He rings in his sermons; trots around with church social notices that ought to be paid for, and tries to get them in free; likes to be referred to as doctor; slips in mean items about his congregation, if you don't watch him; and insists on talking religion Saturday morning when you are too busy to spit. More than that, he has an awful breath—cut him out; he will make life a burden if you don't—and if you do he will go to the old man with it, and say you are not treating him right."
There was a rattling and a scratching on the wire partition between Jimmy and the door. Jimmy looked up from his work and saw the sprightly little figure of Parson Milligan coming over the railing like a monkey. He had not gone out of the door—a printer had come in when it opened and shut. And then Jimmy took his last flying trip out of the back door of the office, down the alley, "toward the sunset's purple rim." It was not his fault. He was only telling the truth—where it would do the most good.
"'A Babbled of Green Fields"
Our town is set upon a hillside, rising from a prairie stream. Forty years ago the stream ran through a thick woodland nearly a mile wide, and in the woodland were stately elms, spreading walnut trees, shapely oaks, gaunt white sycamores, and straight, bushy hackberries, that shook their fruit upon the ice in spots least frequented by skaters. Along the draws that emptied into the stream were pawpaw trees, with their tender foliage, and their soft wood, which little boys delighted to cut for stick horses. Beneath all these trees grew a dense underbrush of buckeyes, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, and little red winter berries called Indian beads by the children. Wild grapevines, "poison" grapes, and ivies of both kinds wove the woods into a mass of summer green. In the clearings and bordering the wood grew the sumach, that flared red at the very thought of Jack Frost's coming. In these woods the boys of our town—many of whom have been dead these twenty years—used to lay their traps for the monsters of the forest, and trudged back from the timber before breakfast, in winter, bringing home redbirds, and rabbits and squirrels. Sometimes a particularly doughty woodsman would report that there were wildcat tracks about his trap; but none of us ever saw a wildcat, though Enoch Haver, whose father's father had heard a wildcat scream, and had taught the boy its cry, would hide in a hollow sycamore and screech until the little boys were terrified and would not go alone to their traps for days. In summer, boys, usually from the country, or from a neighbouring town, caught 'coons, and dragged them chained through alleys for our boys to see, and 'Dory Paine had an owl which was widely sought by other boys in the circus and menagerie line. The boys of our town in that day seemed to live in the wood and around the long millpond, though little fellows were afraid that lurking Indians or camping gypsies might steal them—a boy's superstition, which experience has proved too good to be true. They fared forth to the riffle below the dam, which deepens in the shade under the water elm; this was the pool known as "baby hole," despised of the ten-year-olds, who plunged into the deepest of the thicket and came out at the limekiln, where all day long one might hear "so-deep, so-deep, so-deep," and "go-round, go-round, go-round," until school commenced in the fall. Then the rattle of little homemade wagons, and the shrilling of boy voices might be heard all over the wilderness, and the black-stained hands of schoolboys told of the day of the walnut harvest. It was nearly a mile from the schoolhouse to the woods, and yet on winter afternoons no school-ma'am could keep the boys from using school hours to dig out the screw-holes and heel-plates of their boots before wadding them with paper. At four o'clock a troop of boys would burst forth from that schoolhouse so wildly that General Durham of the Statesman, whose office we used to pass with a roar, always looked up from his work to say: "Well, I see hell's out for noon again."
In the spring the boys fished, and on Saturdays go, up the river or down, or on either side, where one would, one was never out of sight of some thoughtful boy, sitting either on a stump or on a log stretching into the stream, or squatting on a muddy bank with his worm can beside him, throwing a line into the deep, green, quiet water. Always it was to the woods one went to find a lost boy, for the brush was alive with fierce pirates, and blood-bound brother-hoods, and gory Indian fighters, and dauntless scouts. Under the red clay banks that rose above the sluggish stream, robbers' caves, and treasure houses, and freebooters' dens, were filled with boys who, five days in the week and six hours a day, could "amo amas amat, amamus amatus amant" with the best of them. On Sundays these same boys sat with trousers creeping above the wrinkles at the ankles of their copper-toed, red-topped boots, recited golden texts, sang "When He Cometh," and while planning worse for their own little brothers, read with much virtuous indignation of little Joseph's wicked brothers, who put him in a pit. After Sunday School was over these highly respected young persons walked sedately in their best clothes over the scenes of their Saturday crimes.