The gilded youths who boarded at the Hotel Metropole began to notice her. That pleased her mother also, and she said to the mothers of other little girls of Nora's age who were climbing fences and wiping dishes: "You know Nora is so popular with the gentlemen." When the girl was seventeen she was engaged. She kept a town fellow and had a college fellow. She acquired a "gentleman friend" in Kansas City who gave her expensive presents. These her mother took great joy in displaying, and never objected when he stayed after eleven o'clock; for she thought he was "such a good catch" and such a "swell young man." But Nora shooed him off the front porch in the summer following, because he objected to her having two or three other eleven o'clock fellows. She said he was "selfish, and would not let her have a good time." At nineteen she knew more about matters that were none of her business than most women know on their wedding day, and the boys said that she was soft. Every time that Nora left town she came back with two or three correspondents. She perfumed her stationery, used a seal, adopted all the latest frills, and learned to write an angular hand. At twenty she was going with the young married set, and was invited out to the afternoon card clubs. She was known as a dashing girl at this time, and travelling men in three States knew about her. Her mother used to send personal items to our office telling of their exalted business positions and announcing their visits to the Sinclair home. There was more or less talk about Nora in a quiet way, but her mother said that "it is because the other girls don't know how to wear their clothes as well as Nora does," and that "when a girl has a fine figure—which few enough girls in this town have, Heaven knows—why, she is a fool if she doesn't make the most of herself."
Then, gradually, Nora went to seed. She became a faded, hard-faced woman, and all the sisters in town warned their brothers against her. She was invited out only when there was a crowd. She took up with the boys of the younger set, and the married women of her own age called her the kidnapper. She was a social joke. About once a year a strange man would show up in her parlour, and she kept up the illusion about being engaged. But in the office we shared the town's knowledge that her harp was on the willows. She was massaging her face at twenty-six and her mother was sniffing at the town and saying that there were no social advantages to be had here. She and the girl went to the Lakes every summer, and Nora always came home declaring that she had had the time of her life, and that she met so many lovely gentlemen. But that was all there was to it, and in the end it was Abner Handy or no one.
After their wedding, Nora and Abner Handy set about the business of making politics pay. That is a difficult thing to do in a country town, where every voter is a watchdog of the county and city treasuries. Abner gave up his gambling, he and his wife joined all the lodges in town, and she dragged him into that coterie of people known as Society. She joined a woman's club, and was always anxious to be appointed on the soliciting committee when the women had any public work to do; so when the library needed books, or the trash cans at the street corners needed paint, or the park trees needed trimming, or the new hospital needed an additional bed, or the band needed new uniforms, Mrs. Handy might be seen on the streets with two or three women of a much better social status than she had, making it clear that she was a public-spirited woman and that she moved in the best circles. Whereupon Abner Handy got work in the court-house—as a deputy, or as a clerk, or as an under-sheriff, or as a juror—and when the legislature met he went to Topeka as a clerk.
No one knew how they lived, but they did live. Every two years they gave a series of parties, and the splendour of these festivals made the town exclaim in one voice: "Well, how do they do it?" But Mrs. Handy, who was steaming the wrinkles out of her face, and assuming more or less kittenish airs in her late thirties, never offered the town an explanation. "Hers not to answer why, hers not to make reply, hers but to do and dye" was the way Colonel Morrison put it the day after Mrs. Handy swooped down into Main Street with a golden yellow finish on her hair. She walked serenely between Mrs. Frelinghuysen and Mrs. Priscilla Winthrop Conklin. They were begging for funds with which to furnish a rest room for farmers' wives. And when they bore down on our office, Colonel Morrison folded his papers in his bosom and passed them on the threshold as one hurrying to a fire in the roof of his own house. It was interesting to observe, when the Federation Committee called on us that day, that Mrs. Handy did all the talking. She was as full of airs and graces as an actress, and ogled with her glassy eyes, and put on a sweet babyish innocence of the ways of business and of men—as though men were a race apart, greatly to be feared because they ate up little girls. But she got her dollar before she left the office, and George Kirwin, who happened to be in the front room at the time waiting for a proof, said he thought that the performance and the new hair were worth the price.
Five years passed and in each year Mrs. Handy had found some artificial way of deluding herself that she was cheating time. Then Charley Hedrick, who needed a vote in the legislature, and was too busy to go there himself, nominated Abner Handy and elected him to a seat in the lower house. The thing that Hedrick needed was not important—merely the creation of a new judicial district which would remove an obnoxious district judge in an adjoining county from our district, and leave our county in a district by itself. Hedrick hated the judge, and Hedrick used Handy's vote for trading purposes with other statesmen desiring similar small matters and got the district remade as he desired it.
When the Handys started to Topeka for the opening of the session, they began to inflame with importance as the train whistled for the junction east of town, and by the time they actually arrived at Topeka they were so highly swollen that they could not get into a boarding-house door, but went to the best hotel, and engaged rooms at seven dollars a day. The town gasped for two days and then began to laugh and wink. Two weeks after their arrival at the State capital, Abner Handy had been made chairman of the joint committee on the calendar, second member of the judiciary committee and member of the railroad committee, and Mrs. Handy had established credit at a Topeka dry-goods store and was going it blind. She gave her hair an extra dip, and used to come sailing down the corridors of the hotel in gorgeous silk house-gowns with ridiculous trains, and never appeared at breakfast without her diamonds. Before the session was well under way she had been to Kansas City to have her face enameled and had told the other "ladies of the hotel," as the wives of members of the legislature stopping at the hotel were called, that Topeka stores offered such a poor selection; she confided to them that Mr. Handy always wore silk nightshirts, and that she was unable to find anything in town that he would put on. She regarded herself as a charmer, and made great eyes at all the important lobbyists, to whom she put on her baby voice and manner and said that she thought politics were just simply awful, and added that if she were a man she would show them how honest a politician could be, but she wasn't, and when Abner tried to explain it to her it made her head ache, and all she wanted him to do was to help his friends, and she would add coyly: "I'm going to see that he helps you—whatever he does."
Every bill that had a dollar in it was held at the bottom of the calendar until satisfactory arrangements were made with Abner Handy and his friends. When the legislative buccaneers under the black flag, sailed after an insurance company, their bill remained at the bottom of the calendar in one house or the other until Ab Handy had been seen, and no one could find out why. And so, in spite of our dislike of the man, our paper was forced to acknowledge that Handy was a house leader. Although he had never had a dozen cases above the police court, he came back at the end of the session with the local attorneyship of two railroads, and was chairman of a house committee to investigate the taxes paid by the railroads in the various counties. This gave him a year's work, so he rented an office in the Worthington block and hired a stenographer. Of course, we knew in town how Ab Handy had made his money. But he paid so many of his old debts, and dispensed so many favours with such a lordly hand, that it was hard to stir local sentiment against him. He donned the clothes of a "prominent citizen," and in discussing public affairs assumed an owlish manner that impressed his former associates, and fooled stupid people, who began to believe that they had been harbouring a statesman unawares. But Charley Hedrick only grinned when men talked to him of the rise of Handy, and replied to the complaints of the scrupulous that Ab was no worse than he had always been, and if he was making it pay better, no one was poorer for his prosperity but Ab himself, and added: "Certainly he is a sincere spender." One day when Handy appeared on the street in a particularly fiery red necktie, Hedrick got him in a crowd, and began: "Just for a handful of silver he left us—just for a riband to stick in his coat." And when the crowd laughed with the joker, Hedrick continued in his thick, gravy-coated voice: "Old Browning's the boy. You fellows that want Shakespeare can have him; but Ab here knows that I take a little dash of Browning in mine. Since Ab's got to be a statesman, he's bought all of Webster's works and is learning 'em by heart. But"—and here Hedrick chuckled and shook his fat sides before letting out the joke which he enjoyed so much—"I says to Ab: as old Browning says, what does 'the fine felicity and flower of wickedness' like you need with Webster; what you want to commit to memory is the penal statutes." And he threw back his head and gurgled down in his abdomen, while the crowd roared and Handy showed the wool in his teeth with a dog-like grin.
No other man in town would have dared that with Handy after he became a statesman; but we figured it out in the office that old Charley Hedrick was merely exhibiting his brand on Ab Handy to show the town that his title to Handy was still good. For though there was considerable of the King Cole about Hedrick—in that he was a merry old soul—he was always king, and he insisted on having his divine right to rule the politics of the county unquestioned. That was his vanity and he knew it, and was not ashamed of it.
He was the best lawyer in the State in those days, and one of the best in the West. Ten months in the year he paid no attention to politics, pendulating daily between his house and his office. Often, being preoccupied with his work, he would go the whole length of Main Street speaking to no one. When a tangled case was in his mind he would enter his office in the morning, roll up his desk top, and dig into his work without speaking to a soul until, about the middle of the morning, he would look up from his desk to say as though he had just left off speaking: "Jim, hand me that 32 Kansas report over there on the table." When he worked, law books sprang up around him and sprawled over his desk and lay half open on chairs and tables near him until he had found his point; then he would get up and begin rollicking, slamming books together, cleaning up his debris and playing like a great porpoise with the litter he had made. At such times—and, indeed, all the time unless he was in what he called a "legal trance"—Hedrick was bubbling with good spirits, and when he left his office for politics he could get out in his shirt-sleeves at a primary and peddle tickets, or nose up and down the street like a fat ferret looking for votes. So when Abner Handy announced that he desired to go to the State Senate, to fill an unexpired term for two years, he had Hedrick behind him to give strength and respectability to his candidacy. Between the two Handy won. That was before the days of reform, when it was supposed to be considerable of a virtue for a man to stand by his friend; and, being a lawyer, Hedrick naturally had the lawyer's view that no man is guilty until the jury is in, and its findings have been reviewed by the supreme court.
So Senator and Mrs. Senator Handy—as the town put it—went to Topeka as grandly as ever "Childe Roland to the dark tower came"—to use Hedrick's language. "No one ever has been able to find out what Roland was up to when he went to the dark tower, but," continued Hedrick, "with Ab and his child-wonder it will be different. She isn't taking all that special scenery along in her trunks for nothing. Ab has stumbled on to this great truth—that clothes may not make the man, but they make the crook!"
Handy drew a dark brow when he became a Senator, and made a point of trying to look ominous. He carried his chin tilted up at an angle of forty-five degrees, and spoke of the most obvious things with an air of mystery. He never admitted anything; his closest approach to committing himself on even so apparent a proposition as the sunrise, was that it had risen "ostensibly"; he became known to the reporters as "Old Ostensible."
It was his habit to tiptoe around the Senate chamber whispering to other Senators, and then having sat down to rise suddenly as though some great impulse had come to him and hurry into the cloakroom. He inherited the chairmanship of the railroad committee, and all employees came to him for their railroad passes; so he was the god of the blue-bottle flies of politics that feed on legislatures, and buzz pompously about the capitol doing nothing, at three dollars a day. In that session Handy was for the "peepul." He patronised the State Shippers' Association, and told their committee that he would give them a better railroad bill than they were asking. His practice was to commit to memory a bill that he was about to introduce and then go into his committee-room, when it was full of loafers, and pretend to dictate it offhand to the stenographer, section by section without pausing. It was an impressive performance, and gained Handy the reputation of being brainy. But we at home who knew Handy were not impressed; and, in our office, we knew that he was the same Ab Handy who once did business with a marked deck; who cheated widows and orphans; who sold bogus bonds; who got on two sides of lawsuits, and whose note was never good at any bank unless backed by blackmail.
When the session closed Abner Handy came home, a statesman with views on the tariff, and ostentatiously displayed his thousand-dollar bills. The Handys spent the summer in Atlantic City, and Abner came home wearing New York clothes of an exaggerated type, and though he never showed it in our town, they used to say that he put on a high hat when the train whistled for Topeka. Also we heard that the first time Mrs. Handy appeared at the political hotel in her New York regalia, adorned with spangles and beads and cords and tassels, the "ladies of the hotel" said that she was "fixed up like a Christmas tree"—a remark that we in the office coupled with Colonel Morrison's reflection when he spoke of Ab's "illustrated vests." At the meeting of the State Federation of Woman's Clubs, Mrs. Handy first flourished her lorgnette, and came home with her wedding ring made over on a pattern after the prevailing style. About this time she made her famous remark to "Aunt" Martha Merrifield that she didn't think it proper for a woman to go through her husband's money with too sensitive a nose; she said that men must work and women must weep, and that she for one would not make the work of her husband any harder by criticising it with her silly morals.
As for Abner Handy, it would have made little difference to him then whether she or anyone else had tried to check his career; for he was cultivating a loud tone of voice and a regal sweep to his arms. He always signed himself on hotel registers Senator Handy, and the help about the Topeka hotels began to mark him for their hate, for he was insolent to those whom he regarded as his inferiors. But Colonel Morrison used to say that he wore his vest-buttons off crawling to those in authority. He took little notice of the town. He referred to us as "his people" in a fine feudal way, and went about town with his cigar pointing toward his hat brim and his eyes fixed on something in the next block. He became the attorney for a number of crooked promotion schemes, and the diamond rings on his wife's fingers crowded the second joint. He had telegraph and express franks, railway and Pullman passes in such quantities that it made his coat pocket bulge to carry them. Often he would spread out these evidences of his shame on his office table, to awe the local politicians, and in so far as they could influence the town opinion, they promulgated the idea that if Ab Handy was a scoundrel—and of course he was—he was a smart scoundrel. So he came to think this himself.
Mrs. Handy threw herself into the work of the City Federation with passionate zeal. Also she kept up her lodge connections, and explained to the women, whom she considered of a higher social caste than the lodge women, that she was "doing it to help Mr. Handy." She did a little church work for the same reason, but her soul was in the Federation, for it insured her social status as neither lodge nor church could do. So she put herself under the protecting seal-lined wing of Mrs. Julia Neal Worthington who on account of her efforts to clean the streets we at the office had been taught by Colonel Morrison to know as the Joan of the trash-cans. And Miss Larrabee, our society reporter, told us that Mrs. Handy was the only woman in town who did not smile into her handkerchief when Mrs. Worthington, who had trained down to one hundred and ninety-seven pounds five and three-eighths ounces, gave her course of lectures on delsarte before the Federation.
It was Mrs. Handy who encouraged Mrs. Worthington to open her salon. But as there were lodge meetings the first three nights in the week, and prayer-meetings in the middle of the week, and as the choirs met for practice, and the whist clubs met for business the last of the week, the salon did not seem to take with the town, and so was discontinued. Then Mrs. Worthington and Mrs. Handy sought other fields. And the first field they stumbled into was the court-house square. For fifty years the farmers near our town had been hitching at the racks provided by the county commissioners. But Mrs. Worthington decided that the time had come for a change and that the town was getting large enough to take down the hitching-racks. So, as chairman of the Municipal Improvement section of the City Federation, Mrs. Worthington began war on the hitching-racks. At the Federation meetings for three months there were reports from committees appointed to interview the councilmen; reports of committees to interview the county commissioners—who were obdurate; reports of committees to lease new ground for the hitching rack stands; reports of the legal committee; reports of the sanitary committee, and through it all Mrs. Worthington rose at every meeting and declared that the hitching racks must be destroyed. And as she was rated in Bradstreet's report at nearly half a million dollars, her words had much force.
The town was beginning to stir itself. The merchants were with the women—because the women bought the dry goods and groceries—and we forgot about the farmers. To all this milling among the people Handy was oblivious, for he was stepping like a hen in high oats, with his eyes on a seat in Congress. Matters of mere local importance did not concern him. The railroads were for him, and the stars in their courses seemed to him to be pointing his way to Washington. He knew of the hitching-rack trouble only when he had to go with Mrs. Handy to the dinners at the Worthington home given to the councilmen and their wives, who were lukewarm on the removal proposition.
In the spring before the election of 1902 Mrs. Worthington had a majority in the council, and one Saturday night the hitching-racks were taken down by the street commissioner. And within a week the town was on the verge of civil war, for the farmers of the county rose as one man and demanded the blood of the offenders. But Abner Handy knew nothing of the disturbance. The county attorney had the street commissioner and his men arrested for trespassing upon county property; farmers threatened to boycott the town. But Abner Handy's ear was attuned to higher things. Merchants who had signed the petition asking the council to remove the racks began to denounce the removal as an act of treason. But Abner Handy conferred with State leaders on great questions, and the city attorney, who was a candidate for county attorney that fall, did not dare to defend the street commissioner. The council got stubborn, and Colonel Morrison, before whom as justice of the peace the case was to be tried, fearing for the professional safety of his three daughters in the town schools and his four daughters in the county schools, took a trip to his wife's people, and told us he was enlisted there for "ninety days or during the war"; and still Abner Handy looked at the green hills afar.
We are generally accounted by ourselves a fearless newspaper; but here we admitted that the situation required discretion. So we straddled it. We wrote cautious editorials in carefully-balanced sentences demanding that the people keep cool. We advised both sides to realise that only good sense and judgment would straighten out the tangle. We demanded that each side recognise the other's rights and made both sides angry, whereas General Durham, of the Statesman, made his first popular stroke in a dozen years by insisting, in double leads and italics, that the tariff on hides was a divine institution, and that humanity called upon us to hold the Philippines. Charley Hedrick knew better than anyone else in town what a tempest was rising. He might have warned Handy, but he did not; for Handy had reached a point in his career where he considered that a mere county boss was beneath his confidence. More than that, Hedrick had refused to indorse Handy's note at the bank. Handy needed money, and being a shorn lamb, the wind changed in his direction in this wise:
In the midst of the furore that week, Mrs. Worthington gave an evening reception for the Federation and its husbands at her mansion, fed them sumptuously, and, after Mrs. Handy had tapped a bell for silence, Mrs. Worthington rose in her jet and passementerie and announced that our town had come to a crisis in its career; that we must now decide whether we were going to be a beautiful little city or a cow pasture. She said that beauty was as much an essential to life as money and that we would be better off with more beauty and less trade, and that with the court-house square a mudhole the town could never rise to any real consequence. As the men of the town seemed to be moral cowards, she was going to enlist the women in this war, and as the first step in her campaign she proposed to hire the Honourable Abner Handy to assist the city attorney in fighting this case, and as a retainer she would herewith and now hand him her personal check for five hundred dollars. Whereat the women clapped their hands, their husbands winked at one another, and "there was a sound of revelry by night." The check was put on a silver card-tray by Mrs. Worthington and set on a table in the midst of the company waiting for Handy to come forward and take it. After the town had looked at the check, Mrs. Handy seemed to cut his leashes and Abner went after it. He was waiting at the Worthington bank the next morning at nine o'clock to cash it—and all the town saw that also.
Whereupon the town grinned broadly that evening when it read in the Statesman a most laudatory article about "our distinguished fellow-townsman." The article declared that it was "the duty of the hour to send Honourable Abner Handy to the halls of Congress." The Statesman contended that "Judge Handy had been for a lifetime the defender of those grand and glorious principles of freedom and protection and sound money for which the Grand Old Party stood." The General proclaimed that "it shall be not only a duty, but a pleasure, for our citizens to lay aside all petty personal and factional quarrels and rally round the standard of our noble leader in this great contest."
If Handy ever went to the city attorney's office to look after Mrs. Worthington's lawsuit, no one knew it. He smiled wisely when asked how the suit was progressing, and one day John Markley—who during the life of Ezra Worthington, hated him with a ten-horse-power hate and loaded it onto his widow's shoulders and the Worthington bank which she inherited—John Markley called Handy into the back room of the Markley Mortgage Company, and, when Handy passed the cashier's window going out, he cashed a check signed by John Markley for a thousand dollars on which was inscribed "for legal services in assisting the county attorney in the hitching rack case."
Handy had arrived at a point where he feared nothing. He seemed to believe that he lived a charmed life and never would get caught. He bought extra copies of the Statesman, which was booming him for Congress, and sent them over the Congressional District by the thousands. He went to Topeka in his high silk hat and his New York clothes, gave out interviews on the causes of the flurry in the money market, and, desiring further advertisement, gave a banquet for the newspaper men of the capital which cost him a hundred dollars. So he became a great man. At home he assumed a patronising air to the people about Charley Hedrick. And one night in Smith's cigar store, just to be talking, he said that he didn't get so much of Mrs. Worthington's money as people thought, for part of it had to go to "square old Charley Hedrick." Hedrick was John Markley's attorney, and he had taken an active part in helping the county attorney prosecute the street commissioners. Naturally Handy's remark stirred up the town. It was two weeks, however, in getting to Hedrick, and when it came the man turned black and seemed to be swallowing a pint of emotional language before he spoke. And there Abner Handy's doom was sealed; though Hedrick did not make the sentence public.
Now, it is well known in our county that the country people are slow to wrath. They were two months finding out beyond a question of doubt that Abner Handy had accepted Mrs. Worthington's money to act against them, but when they knew this there was no hope for Handy among them. They are a quiet people, and make no noise. For a month, only Charley Hedrick and the grocers and the hardware men, with whom the farmers trade, knew the truth about Handy's standing in the county. Hedrick bided his time. The Handy boom for Congress was rolling over the district, and the Statesman italics were becoming worn, and its exclamation points battered in the service, when one day Handy stalked up to Hedrick's office, imperiously beckoned Hedrick into the private room, and blurted out:
"Charley, I got to have some more money—need it in my business. Can't you touch old John Markley for me again—say for about five hundred on that hitching rack case? Sister Worthington is kind of wanting me to get action on her case."
Hedrick was dumb with rage, but Handy thought it was acquiescence. He went on:
"You just step down to the bank and say: 'John, I've noticed Ab Handy actin' kind of queer about that hitching rack case.' That's all you need say, and pretty soon I'll step in and say: 'John, I don't see how I can help doin' something for Aunt Julia Worthington.' And I believe I can tap him for five hundred more easy enough. I got an idea he is mightily in earnest about beating her in that suit."
When Hedrick got his breath, which was churning and wheezing in his throat, he cut Handy's sentence off with:
"You human razor-back shoat—you swill-barrel gladiator, why—why—I—I——" And Hedrick sparred for wind and went on before Handy realised the situation. "Ab Handy, I spat on the dust and breathed into the chaff that made you, and put you on the mud-sills of hell to dry, and I've got a right to turn you back into fertiliser, and I'm going to do it. Git out of here—git out of this office, or I——"
And the hulking form of Hedrick fell on the bag of shaking bones that was Handy and battered him through the latched door into the crowded outer office; and Handy picked himself up and ran like a wolf, turning at the door to show his teeth before he scampered through the hall and scurried down the stairs. As Hedrick came puffing out of the broken door his coat snagged on a splinter. He grinned as he unfastened himself:
"Well, the snail seems to be on the thorn; the lark certainly is on the wing.
"God's in his heaven. All's right with the world!"
And he batted his eyes at the group of loafing local statesmen in his office as he viewed the wreckage, and went to the telephone and ordered a carpenter, without wasting any words on the crowd.
We decided long ago that the source of Hedrick's power in politics was what we called his "do it now" policy. All politicians have schemes. Hedrick puts his through before he talks about them. If he has an idea that satisfies his judgment, he makes it a reality in the quickest possible time. That is why the fellows around town who hate Hedrick call him the rattlesnake, and those who admire him call him the Wrath of God. When he put up the telephone receiver he reached for his hat and bolted from the office under a full head of steam. He went directly to John Markley's back office, got the check that Markley had given to Handy, dictated a letter in the anteroom of Markley's office to a Kansas City plate-maker, inclosed fifty dollars as he passed the draft counter, and, as he swung by the post-office he mailed the Handy check with instructions to have ten photographic half-tone cuts made of the check and mailed back to Hedrick in four days.
Then he went to Mrs. Worthington, told her his story, as a lawyer puts his case before a jury—had her raging at Ab Handy—and got an order on the bank for the check she had given to Handy. This also he sent to the plate-maker, and in an hour was back at his desk dictating a half-page advertisement to go into every Republican weekly newspaper in the district. He sent that advertisement out with the half-tone cuts Monday morning, and it appeared all over the district that week. The advertisement was signed by Hedrick, and began:
"Browning has a poem made after visiting a dead house, and in it he describes the corpse of a suicide, and says 'one clear, nice, cool squirt of water o'er the bust,' is the 'right thing to extinguish lust.' And I desire this advertisement to be 'one clear, nice, cool squirt of water' over the political remains of Honourable Abner Handy, to extinguish if possible his fatal lust for crooked money." After this followed the story of Handy's perfidy in the hitching rack case, a petition in disbarment proceedings, and the copy of the warrant for his arrest charged with a felony in the case sworn to by Hedrick himself. But the effective thing was the pictures, showing both sides of the two checks, each carefully inscribed by the two makers "for legal services in the hitching rack case," and each check indorsed by Handy in his big, brazen signature.
Hedrick saw to it also that, on the day the country papers printed his advertisement, the Kansas City and Topeka papers printed the whole story, including the casting out of Handy from Hedrick's office. It did Handy little good to go to Topeka in his flashy clothes and give out a festive interview asking his friends to suspend judgment, and saying that he would try his case in the courts and not in the newspapers. It was contended by the newspapers that if Handy had an honest defence, it would lose no weight in court by being printed in the newspapers; and his enemies in the Congressional fight pushed the charges against Handy so relentlessly that the public faith in him melted like an April snow, and when the delegates to the Congressional convention were named, our own county instructed its delegates against Handy. The farmers opposed him for taking the case against them, and the town scorned him for his perfidy. No one who was not paid for it would peddle his tickets at the primaries, so Handy, with his money all spent, went home on the night of the local primaries a whipped dog. They said around town that all the whipped dog got at home was a tin can; for it is certain that at daylight Handy was down on Main Street viciously drunk, flourishing a revolver with which he said he was going to kill Charley Hedrick and then himself. They took the pistol from him, and then he wept and said he was going to jump in the river, but no one followed him when he started toward the bridge, and he fell asleep in the shade of the piers, where he was found during the morning, washed up and sent home sober.
One of the curious revelations of society's partnership in crime was the way the grocers and butchers who despised Ab Handy's method, but shared his gains when he succeeded, stopped giving him credit when he failed. At the end of the first year after the primary wherein he was defeated, the Handys could not get a dime's worth of beefsteak without the dime. And dimes were scarce. By that time Handy was wearing his flashy New York clothes for every day—frayed and spotted and rusty. His temperament changed with his clothes, from the oily optimism of success to the sodden pessimism of utter failure; which inspired Colonel Morrison, returning after the hitching rack case had been settled in favour of the town, to remark, speaking of Handy, that "an optimist is a man who isn't caught, and is cheering to keep up his courage, and a pessimist is one who has been caught and thinks it will be but a question of time until his neighbours are found out too."
Mrs. Worthington, who was a necessary witness in the disbarment proceedings and the criminal proceedings against Handy, always went to Europe when the cases were called; so rather than put a woman in jail for contempt of court, the court dismissed the proceedings against Handy and he was not allowed to be even a martyr. One morning about a year and a half after Handy's defeat, when Hedrick opened his office door, he found Handy there with his fingers clutching the chair arms and his eyes fixed on the floor. The man was breathing audibly, and seemed to be struggling with a great passion. Hedrick and Handy had not spoken since they came through the panels of the door together, but Hedrick went to the miserable creature, touched him gently on the shoulder, and motioned him into the private office. There, with his eyes still on the floor, Handy told Hedrick that the end of the rope had been reached.
"I had to come down without any breakfast this morning—because—they—they ain't anything in the house for her to fix. And there ain't any show for dinner. Next week, Red Martin has promised me some money he's goin' to get from Jim Huddleson; but they ain't a soul in town but you I can come to now"; and Handy raised his eyes from the floor in canine self-pity as he whined—"and she's making life a hell for me!" When Hedrick opened his desk and got out his check-book, he smiled as he fancied he could detect about Handy's body the faint resemblance of a wagging tail. He made the check for fifty dollars and gave it to Handy saying, "Oh, well, Ab—we'll let bygones be bygones."
Handy snapped at it and in an instant was gone.
That afternoon Hedrick met Handy sailing down Main Street in his old manner. His head was erect, his eyes were sparkling, his big, rough, statesman's voice was bellowing abroad, and his thumbs were in the armholes of his vest. He walked straight to Hedrick and led him by the coat lapel into a dark stairway. There was an air of deep mystery about Handy and when he put his arm on Hedrick to whisper in his ear, Hedrick, smelling the statesman's breath heavy with whiskey and onions and cloves and cardamon seeds and pungent gum, heard this:
"Say, Charley, I'm fooling 'em—I've got 'em all fooled. They think I'm poor. They think I ain't got any money. But old Ab's too smart for them. I've got lots of money—all I want—all anyone could want—wealth beyond the dreams of avar—of av—avar—avar'ce, as John Ingalls used to say. Just look at this!" And with that Handy pulled from his inside coat pocket a roll of one and two-dollar bills, that seemed to Hedrick to represent fifty dollars less the price of about ten drinks. "Look a-here," continued Handy, "ol' Ab's got 'em all fooled. Don't you say anything about it; but ol' Ab's goin' to make his mark." And he shook Hedrick's hand and took him down to the street, and shook it again and again before prancing grandly down the sidewalk.
For three years Mrs. Handy's boarding-house has been one of the most exclusive in our town. They say that she pays Mr. Handy for mowing the lawn and helping about the rough work in the kitchen, and that he sleeps in the barn and pays her for such meals as he eats. Sometimes a new boarder makes the mistake of paying the board money to Handy, and he appears on Main Street ostentatiously jingling his silver and toward evening has ideas about the railroad situation. On election days and when there is a primary Handy drives a carriage and gathers up his cronies in the fifth ward, who, like him, are not so much in evidence as they were ten years ago.
It was only last week that Hedrick was in our office telling us of Handy's "wealth beyond the dreams of avarice." He paused when he had finished the story, cocked his head on one side, and squinted at the ceiling as he said:
"For three long, weary, fruitless years I've searched the drug-stores of this town for the brand of liquor Ab had that day. I believe if I had two drinks of that I could write better poetry than old Browning himself."
Whereupon Hedrick shook himself out of the office in a gentle wheesy laugh.
The Tremolo Stop
Our business has changed greatly since Horace Greeley's day. And, although machines have come into little offices like ours, the greatest changes have come in the men who do the work in these offices. In the old days—the days before the great war and after it—printers and editors were rarely leading citizens in the community. The editor and the printer were just coming out of the wandering minstrel stage of social development, and the journeyman who went from town to town seeking work, and increasing his skill, was an important factor in the craft. One might always depend upon a tramp printer's coming in when there was a rush of work in the office, and also figure on one of the tourists in the office leaving when he was needed most.
From the ranks of this wayward class came the old editors and reporters; they were postgraduates from the back room of newspaper offices and they brought to the front room their easy view of life. Some of these itinerant writing craftsmen had professional fame. There was Peter B. Lee, who had tramped the country over, who knew Greeley and Dana and Prentice and Bob Burdett and Henry Watterson, and to whom the cub in country offices looked with worshipful eyes. There was "Old Slugs"—the printer who carried his moulds for making lead slugs, and who, under the influence of improper stimulants, could recite stirring scenes from the tragedies of Shakespeare. There was Buzby—old Buzby, who went about from office to office leaving his obituary set up by his own hand, conveying the impression that at last the end had come to a misspent life. Then there was J. N. Free—the "Immortal J. N.," as he called himself, a gaunt, cadaverous figure in broad hat and linen duster, with hair flowing over his shoulders, who stalked into the offices at unseemly hours to "raise the veil" of ignorance and error, and "relieve the pressure" of psychic congestion in a town by turning upon it the batteries of his mind.
They were a dear lot of old souls out of accord with the world about them, ever seeking the place where they would harmonise. They might have stepped out of Dickens's books or Cruikshank's pictures, and, when one recalls them now, their lineaments seem out of drawing and impossible in the modern world. And yet they did live and move in the world that was, and the other day when we were looking over the files we came across the work of Simon Mehronay,—the name which he said was spelled Dutch and sounded Irish,—and it does not seem fair to set down the stories of the others who have made our office traditions without giving some account of him.
For to us he was the most precious of all the old tribe of journalistic aborigines. He came to the office one bright April day with red mud on his shoes that was not the mud of our river bottoms, and we knew that he had ridden to town "blind baggage"—as they say of men who steal their way—from the South. The season was ripe for the birds to come North and it was the mud of Texas that clung to him. His greeting as he strode through the front room not waiting for a reply was "How's work?" And when the foreman told him to hang up his coat, he found a stick, got a "chunk of copy," and was clicking away at his case three minutes from the time he darkened the threshold of the office.
There he sat for two weeks—the first man down in the morning and the last to quit at night—before anyone knew whence he came or whither he was bound. He had a little "false motion," the foreman said, and clattered his types too audibly in the steel stick, but as he got up a good string of type at the end of the day and furnished his own chewing tobacco, he created no unfavourable comment in the office. He was a bald little man, with a fringe of hair above the greasy velvet collar of his coat, with beady, dancing black eyes, and black chin whiskers and a moustache that often needed dyeing. It was the opinion of the foreman and the printers that Mehronay's weakness was liquor, though that opinion did not arise from anything that he said. For during the first two weeks we did not hear him say much, but in the years that followed, his mild little voice that ever seemed to be teetering on the edge of the laugh into which he fell a score of times during an hour, became a familiar sound about the office, and the soft, flabby little hand which the other printers laughed about, during the first week of his employment with us, has rested on most of the shoulders in the shop guiding us through many sad ways.
In those days there were only three of us in the front room. All the bookkeeping and collecting and reporting and editorial writing were done by the three, and it happened that one morning near the first of the month, when the books needed attention, no one had heard the performance of "Hamlet" given by Thomas Keene at the opera house the night before, and no one about the paper could write it up. Wherefore there was perturbation; but in an hour this came from the back room set up in type and proved in the galley:
"There were more clean shaves in town last night than have been seen here for a long time. Everyone who wears cuffs and a necktie got a 'twice-over' and was 'out amongst 'em.' In the gallery of the opera house roosted the college faculty and the Potter boy who holds the Cottonwood Valley belt as the champion lay-down collar swell, and near him was Everett Fowler, who was making his first public appearance in his new parted spring whiskers, and was the observed of all observers. Colonel Alphabetical Morrison, with his famous U-shaped hair-cut, lent the grace of his presence to the dress circle. The first Methodist Church was represented by Brother-in-law John Markley, who is wearing a new flowered necktie, sent by his daughter in California (if you must know), and General Durham of the Statesman says that when the orchestra played 'Turkey in the Straw,' and Bill Master began to shake the sand-box—which is a new wrinkle in musical circles in our town—John Markley's feet began to wiggle until people thought this was his 'chill day.' After 'Turkey in the Straw,' the orchestra struck up something quick and devilish, which Charley Hedrick, who played the snare drum at Gettysburg, and is therefore entitled to speak on musical subjects, says was 'The Irish Washerwoman.' After this appropriate overture the curtain rose and the real show began.
"Mr. Keene's Hamlet is not so familiar to our people as his Richard III., but it gave great satisfaction; for it is certainly a Methodist Hamlet from the clang of the gong to the home-stretch. The town never has stood for Mr. Lawrence Barrett's Unitarian Hamlet, and the high church Episcopal Hamlet put on the boards last winter by Mr. Frederick Paulding was distinctly disappointing. One of the most searching scenes in the play was enacted when Ophelia got the power and had to be carried out to the pump. The Chicago brother who plays the ghost has a great voice for his work. He brought many souls to a realizing sense that they are sin-stricken and hair-hung over the fiery pit. The groans and amens from the sanctified in the audience were a delicate compliment to his histrionic ability. The queen seems to have been a Presbyterian, and the king a Second Day Adventist of an argumentative type. And they were not popular with the audience, but the boy preacher who did Laertes was exceedingly blessed with the gift of tongues. Brother Polonius seems to have been a sort of presiding elder, and, when his exhortation rose, the chickens in Mike Wessner's coop, in the meat-market downstairs, gave up hope of life and lay down to be cut up and fried for breakfast. The performance was a great treat and, barring the fact that some switchmen, thinking Ophelia was full, giggled during the mad scene, and the further fact that someone yelled, 'Go for his wind, Ham!' during the fencing scene, the evening with Shakespeare's weirdest hero was a distinct credit to Mr. Keene, his company and our people."
We wrote a conventional report of the performance, and printed Mehronay's account below it, under the caption FROM ANOTHER REPORTER, and it made the paper talked about for a week. Now in our town Keene was a histrionic god of the first order, and so many church people came to the office to "stop the paper" that circulation had a real impetus. We have never had a boom in subscription that did not begin with a lot of angry citizens coming in to stop the paper. It became known about town who wrote the Keene article, and Mehronay became in a small way a public character. We encouraged him to write more, so every morning the first proof slips that came in began to have on them ten or a dozen short items of Mehronay's writing. There was a smile in every one of them, and if he wrote more than ten lines there was a laugh. It was Mehronay who referred to Huddleson's livery-stable joint—where the old soaks got their beer in a stall and salted it from the feed-box—as "a gilded palace of sin." It was Mehronay who wrote the advertisement of the Chinese laundryman and signed his name "Fat Sam Child of the Sun, Brother of the Moon and Second Cousin by marriage to all the Stars." It was Mehronay who took a galley of pi which the office devil had set up from a wrecked form, and interspersed up and down the column of meaningless letters "Great applause"—"Tremendous cheering"—Cries of "Good, good!—that's the way to hit 'em!"—"Hurrah for Hancock"—and ran it in the paper as a report of Carl Schurz's speech to the German-American League at the court-house. It was Mehronay who put the advertisement in the paper proclaiming the fact that General Durham of the Statesman office desired to purchase a good second-hand fiddle, and explaining that the owner must play five tunes on it in front of the Statesman office door before bringing it in. Mehronay originated the fiction that there was an association in town formed to insure its members against wedding invitations which, in case of loss, paid the afflicted member a pickle dish or a napkin ring, to present as his offering to the bride.
Mehronay started a mythical Widowers' Protective Foot-racing Society, and the town had great sport with the old boys whose names he used so wittily that it transcended impudence. Mehronay got up a long list of husbands who wiped dishes when the family was "out of a girl," as our people say, and organised them into a union to strike for their altars and their kitchen fires. When we sent him out to write up a fire, however, he generally forgot the amount of insurance and the extent of the loss, but he told all about the way the crowd tried to boss the fire department; and if we sent him out to gather the local markets, he made such a mess of it that we were a week straightening matters up. Figures didn't mean anything to Mehronay. When the bank failed, he tried to write something about it, but mixed the assets and the liabilities so hopelessly that we had to keep him busy with other things, so that he would have no time to touch the bank story. They used to say around town that when he laid down a piece of money, however large, on a store counter he never waited for his change, but be it said to the credit of most of the merchants that they would save it for Mehronay and give it to him on his next visit to the store, when he would be as joyful as a child.
Gradually he left the back room and became a fixture in the front office. He wrote locals and editorials and helped with the advertising, drawing for this the munificent salary of fifteen dollars a week, which should have kept him like a prince; but it did not—though what he did with his money no one knew. He bought no new clothes, and never buttoned those he had. Before sending him out on the street in the morning, someone in the office had to button him up, and if it was a gala day—say circus day, or the day of a big political pow-wow—we had to put a clean paper collar on Mehronay above his brown wool shirt and shove out the dents in his derby hat—a procedure which he called "making a butterfly of fashion out of an honest workin' man." He slept in the press-room, on a bed which he rolled up and stowed behind the press by day, and in the evening he consorted with the goddess of nicotine—as he called his plug tobacco—and put in his time at his desk with a lead pencil and a pad of white paper writing copy for the next day's issue. Nothing delighted him so much as a fictitious personage or situation which held real relations with local events or home people. One of the best of his many inventions was a new reporter who, according to Mehronay's legend, had just quit work for a circus where he had been employed writing the posters. Mehronay's joy was to write up a local occurrence and pretend that the circus poster-writer had written it and that we had been greatly bothered to restrain his adjectives. A few days after the Sinclair-Handy wedding—a particularly gorgeous affair in one of the stone churches, which had been written up by the bride's mother, as the whole town knew, in a most disgusting manner—Mehronay sat chuckling in his corner, writing something which he put on the copy-hook before going out on his beat. It was headed A DAZZLING AFFAIR and it ran thus:
"For some time we have realised that we have not been doing full justice to the weddings that occur in this town; we have been using a repressed and obsolete style which is painful to those who enter into the joyous spirit of such occasions, and last night's wedding in the family of the patrician Skinners we assigned to our gentlemanly and urbane Mr. J. Mortimer Montague, late of the publicity department of the world-famed Robinson Circus and Menagerie. The following graceful account from Mr. Montague's facile pen is the most accurate and satisfactory report of a nuptial event we have ever recorded in these columns."
And thereafter followed this:
"Last evening, just as the clock in the steeple struck nine, a vast concourse of the beauty and the chivalry of our splendid city, composing wealth beyond the dreams of the kings of India and forming a galaxy only excelled in splendour by the knightly company at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, assembled to witness the marriage of Miss May Skinner and Mr. John Fortesque. The great auditorium was a bower of smilax and chrysanthemums, bewildering, amazing, superb in its verdant labyrinth. As the clock was striking the hour, the ten-thousand-dollar pipe-organ filled the edifice with strains of most seductive, entrancing music, played by Miss Jane Brown, the only real left-handed organist in the civilised world. Then came the wedding party, magnificent, radiant, resplendent with the glittering jewels of the Orient, dazzling with gorgeousness, stupefying and miraculous in its revelation of beauty. There were six handsome ushers—count them—six, ten bridesmaids—ten—a bevy of real, live, flower-bearing fairies, captured at an immense outlay of time and money in far Caucasia. The bride's resplendent costume and surpassing beauty put the blush upon the Queen of Sheba, made Hebe's effulgence fade as the moon before the sun; and as the long courtly train of knights errant and ladies-in-waiting passed the populace, they presented a regal spectacle, never equalled since the proud Cleopatra sailed down the perfumed lotus-bearing Nile in her gilded pageant to meet Marc Antony, while all the world stood agape at the unheard-of triumph.
"To describe the bride's costume beggars the English language; and human imagination falls faint and feeble before the Herculean task. From the everlasting stars she stole the glittering diamonds that decked her alabaster brow and hid them in the Stygian umbrage of her hair. From the fleecy, graceful cloud she snared the marvellous drapery that floated like a dream about her queenly figure, and from the Peri at Heaven's gate she captured the matchless grace that bore her like an enchanted wraith through the hymeneal scene.
"The array of presents spread in the throne-room of the Skinner palace has been unexcelled in lavish expenditure of fabulous and reckless prodigal wealth anywhere in the world. Golden tokens literally strewed the apartment, merely as effulgent settings for the mammoth, appalling, maddening array of jewels and precious stones, sunbursts and pearls without price, that gleamed like a transcendent electrical display in the hypnotising picture."
There was more of the same kind, but it need not be set down here. However, it should be said that nothing we ever printed in the paper before or since set the town to laughing as did that piece. We have calls to-day for papers containing the circus-poster wedding, and it was printed over two decades ago.
It was Mehronay's first great triumph in town; then the expected happened. For three days he did not appear at the office and we suspected the truth—that by day he slept the sleep of the unjust in the loft of Huddleson's stable and by night he vibrated between the Elite oyster parlour, where he absorbed fabulous quantities of soup, and Red Martin's gambling-room, where he disported himself most festively before the gang assembled there. The morning of the fourth day Mehronay appeared—but not at his desk. We found him sitting glumly on his stool at the case in the back room, clicking the types, with his hat over his eyes and the smile rubbed off his face.
We were a month coaxing Mehronay back in to the front room. His self-respect grew slowly, but finally it returned, and he sat at his desk turning off reams of copy so good that the people read the paper up one side and down the other hunting for his items. He is the only man we have ever had around the paper who could write. Everyone else we have employed has been a news-gatherer. But Mehronay cared little for what we call news. He went about the town asking for news, and getting more or less of it, but the way he put it was much more important than the thing itself. He had imagination. He created his own world in the town, and put it in the paper so vividly that before we realised it the whole town was living in Mehronay's world, seeing the people and events about them through his merry countenance. No one ever referred to him as Mr. Mehronay, and before he had been on the street six months he was calling people by their first names, or by nicknames, which he tagged onto them. He was so fatherly to the young people that the girls in the Bee Hive, or the White Front, or the Racket Store used to brush his clothes when they needed it, if we in the office neglected him, and smooth his back hair with their pocket combs, and he—never remembering the name of the particular ministering angel who fixed him up—called one and all of them "darter," smiled a grateful smile like an old dog that is petted, and then went his way. The girls in the White Front Drygoods Store gave him a cravat, and though it was made up, he brought it every morning in his pocket for them to pin on. He was as simple as a child, and, like a child, lived in a world of unrealities. He swore like a mule driver, and yet he told the men in the back room that he could never go to sleep without getting down and saying his prayers, and the only men with whom he ever quarrelled were a teacher of zoology at the College, who is an evolutionist, and Dan Gregg, the town infidel.
One morning when we were sitting in the office before going out to the street for the morning's grist, Mehronay dog-eared a fat piece of copy and jabbed it on the hook as he started for the door.
"My boy was drunk last night," he said. "Me and his mother felt so bad over it that I gave him a pretty straight talk this morning. There it is."
The office dropped its jaw and bugged its eyes.
"Oh, yes," he continued. "Didn't you know I had a boy? He's been the best kind of a boy till here lately. I can see his mother don't like it and his sister's worried too." His face for a second wore an expression of infinite sadness, and he sighed even while the smile came back on the face he turned to us from the door as he said: "Sometimes I think he is studying law with old Charley Hedrick and sometimes I think he is in the bank with John Markley; but he is always with me, and was such a decent boy when I had him out to the College. But I saw him with Joe Nevison last night, and I knew he'd been drinking."
With that he closed the door behind him and was gone. This was the article that Mehronay left on the hook:
"Your pa was downtown this morning, complaining about his 'old trouble,' that crick in his back that he got loading hay one hot day in Huron County, Ohio, 'before the army.' The 'old trouble,' as you will remember, bothers your pa a good deal, and your ma thinks that his father must have been a pretty hard-hearted man to let him work so hard when he was a boy. Your pa likes to have you and your ma think that when he was a boy he did nothing but work and go to prayer-meeting and go around doing noble deeds out of the third reader, but a number of the old boys of the Eleventh Kansas, who knew your pa in the sixties, are prepared to do a lot of forgetting for him whenever he asks it. The truth about your pa's 'old trouble' is that he was down at Fort Leavenworth just after the close of the war, and after filling up on laughing-water at a saloon, he got into a fight with the bartender, was kicked out of the saloon, and slept in the alley all night. That was his last whizz. He took an invoice of his stock and found that he had some of the most valuable experiences that a man can acquire, and he straightened up and came out here and grew up with the country. Your ma met him at a basket-meeting, and she thought he was an extremely pious young man, and they made a go of it.
"So, Bub, when you think that by breathing on your coat sleeve to kill the whisky you can fool your pa, you are wrong. Your pa in his day ate three carloads of cardamon seeds and cloves and used listerine by the barrel. He knew which was the creaky step on the stairs in his father's house and used to avoid it coming in at night, just as you do now, and he knows just what you are doing. More than that, your pa speaks from the bitterest kind of experience when he pleads with you to quit. It is no goody-goody talk of a mutton-headed old deacon that he is giving you; it has taken him a year to get his courage up to speak to you, and every word that he speaks is boiled out of an agony of bitter memories. He knows where boys that start as you are starting end if they don't turn back. Your pa turned, but he recollects the career of the Blue boys, who are divided between the penitentiary, the poor-house and the southwest corner of hell; he recalls the Winklers—one dead, one a porter in a saloon in Peoria, one crazy; and he looks at you, and it seems to him that he must take you in his arms as he did when you were a little child in the prairie fire, and run to safety with you. And when he talks to you with his bashful, halting speech, you just sit there and grin, and cut his heart to its core, for he knows you do not understand.
"It's rather up to you, Bub. In the next few months you will have to decide whether or not you are going to hell. Of course the 'vilest sinner may return' at any point along the road—but to what? To shattered health; to a mother heart-broken in her grave; to a wife damned to all eternity by your thoughtless brutality; and to children who are always afraid to look up the alley, when they see a group of boys, for fear they may be teasing you—you, drunk and dirty, lying in the stable filth! To that you will 'return,' with your strength spent, and your sportive friends, gone to the devil before you, and your chance in life frittered away.
"Just sit down and figure it out, Bub. Of course there are a lot of good fellows on the road to hell; you will have a good time going; but you'll be a long time there. You'll dance and play cards and chase out nights, and soak your soul in the essence of don't-give-a-dam-tiveness, and you'll wonder, as you go up in the balloon, what fun there is in walking through this sober old earth. Friends—what are they? The love of humanity—what is it? Thoughtfulness to those about you? Gentility—What are these things? Letteroll—letteroll! But as you drop out of the balloon, the earth will look like a serious piece of landscape.
"When you are old, the beer you have swilled will choke your throat; the women you have flirted with will hang round your feet and make you stumble. All the nights you have wasted at poker will dim your eyes. The garden of the days that are gone, wherein you should have planted kindness and consideration and thoughtfulness and manly courage to do right, will be grown up to weeds, that will blossom in your patches and in your rags and in your twisted, gnarly face that no one will love.
"Go it, Bub! don't stop for your pa's sake; you know it all. Your pa is merely an old fogy. Tell him you can paddle your own canoe. But when you were a little boy, a very little boy, with a soft, round body, your pa used to take you in his arms and rub his beard—his rough, stubby, three-days' beard—against your face and pray that God would keep you from the path you are going in.
"And so the sins of the father, Bub—but we won't talk of that."
Three months later, when the Methodists opened their regular winter revival, Mehronay, becoming enraged at what he called the tin-horn clothes of the travelling evangelist conducting the meetings, began to make fun of him in the paper; and, as a revivalist in a church is a sacred person while the meetings are going on, we had to kill Mehronay's items about the revival; whereupon, his professional pride being hurt, Mehronay went forth into the streets, got haughtily drunk, and strutted up and down Main Street scattering sirs and misters and madams about so lavishly that men who did not appreciate his condition thought he had gone mad. That night he went to the revival, and sat upon the back seat alone, muttering his imprecations at the preacher until the singing began, when the heat of the room and the emotional music mellowed his pride, and he drowned out the revivalist's singing partner with a clear, sweet tenor that made the congregation turn to look at him. Mehronay knew the gospel hymns by heart, as he seemed to know his New Testament, and the cunning revivalist kept the song service going for an hour. When Mehronay was thoroughly sober there was a short prayer, and the singer on the platform feelingly sang "There Were Ninety and Nine" with an adagio movement, and Mehronay's face was wet with tears and he rose for prayers.
He came to the office chastened and subdued next morning and wrote an account of the revival so eulogistic that we had to tone it down, and for a week he went about damning, with all the oaths in the pirate's log, Dan Gregg and the College professor who taught evolution. But no one could coax him back to the revival. As spring came we thought that he had forgotten the episode of his regeneration, and perhaps he had forgotten it, but the Saturday before Easter he put on the copy-hook an Easter sermon that made us in the office think that he had added another dream to his world. It was a curious thing for Mehronay to write; indeed, few people in town realised that he did write it; for he had been rollicking over town on his beat every day for months after the revival, and half the pious people in town thought he shammed his emotion the night he came to the church merely to mock them and their revivalist. But we in the office knew that Mehronay's Easter sermon had come as the offering of a contrite heart. It is in so many scrapbooks in the town that it should be reprinted here that the town may know that Mehronay wrote it. It read:
"The celebration of Easter is the celebration of the renewal of life after the death that prevails in winter. People of many faiths observe a spring festival of rejoicing, and of prayer for future bounty. Probably the Easter celebration is like that at Christmas and Thanksgiving—a survival of some ancient pagan rite that men established out of overflowing hearts, rejoicing at the end of a good season and praying for favour at the beginning of a new one.
"To the Christian world Easter symbolises a Divine tragedy. The coming of Easter, as it is set forth in the Great Book, is a most powerful story; it is the story of one of the deepest passions that may move the human heart—the passion of father-love.
"Once there lived in the desert a man and his little child—a very little boy, who sometimes was a bad little boy, and who did not do as he was told. On a day when the father was away about his business the child, playing, wandered out on the desert and was lost. From home the desert beckoned the little boy; it seemed fair and fine to adventure in. When the boy had been gone for many hours the father returned and could not find him, and knew that the child was lost. But the father knew the desert; he knew how it lured men on; he knew its parching thirst; he knew its thorns and brambles, and its choking dust and the heat that beats one down.
"And when he saw that the boy was lost his heart was aflame with anguish; he could all but feel the desert fire in the little boy's blood, the cactus barbs in the bleeding little feet, and the great lonesomeness of the desert in the little boy's heart; and as from afar the man heard a wailing little voice in his ears calling, 'Father, father!' like a lost sheep. But it was only a seeming, and the house where the little boy had played was silent.
"Then the father went to the desert, and neither the desert fire murmuring at his brow, nor the sand that filled his mouth, nor the stones and prickles that cut his feet, nor the wild beasts that lurked upon the hillsides, could keep out of his ears the bleat of that little child's voice crying 'Father, father!' When the night fell, still and cold and numbing, the father pressed on, calling to the child in his agony; for he thought it was such a little boy, such a poor, lonesome, terror-stricken little boy out in the desert, lost and in pain, crying for help, with no one to hear.
"And wandering so, the father died, with his heart full of unspeakable woe. But they found the wayward child in the light of another day. And he never knew what his father suffered, nor why his father died, nor did he understand it all till he had grown to a man's stature, and then he knew; and he tried to live his days as his father had lived, and to lay down his life, if need be, for his friend.
"This is the Easter story that should come to every heart. The Christ that came into the desert of this weary life, and walked here foot-sore, heart-broken and athirst, came here for the love that was in His heart. Who put it there—whether the God that gave Shakespeare his brain and Wagner his harmonies, gave Christ His heart—or whether it was the God that paints the lily and moves the mountains in their labours—it matters not. It is one God, the Author and First Cause of all things. It is His heart that moves our own hearts to all their aspirations, to all the benevolence that the wicked world knows; it is His mind that is made manifest in our marvels of civilisation; it is His vast, unknowable plan that is moving the nations of the earth.
"Whether it be spirit or law or tendency or person—what matter?—it is our Father, who went to the desert to find His sheep."
All day Saturday, in order to square himself with the printers who set up his sermon, and to rehabilitate himself in the graces of the others about the office who knew of his weakness, Mehronay turned in the gayest lot of copy that he had ever written. There was an "assessment call of the Widowers' Protective Association to pay the sad wedding loss of Brother P. R. Cullom, of the Bee Hive," whose wedding was announced in the society column; there was a card of thanks from Ben Pore to those who had come with their sympathy and glue to nurse his wooden Indian which had blown down and broken the night before, and resolutions of respect for the same departed brother, in most mocking language, from the Red Men's Lodge. There was an item saying seven different varieties of Joneses and three kinds of Hugheses were in town from Lebo—the Welsh settlement; there was a call for the uniformed rank of head waiters to meet in regalia at Mrs. Larrabee's reception, signed by the three men in town who were known to have evening clothes, and there was a meeting of the anti-kin society announced to discuss the length of time Alphabetical Morrison's new son-in-law should be allowed to visit the Morrisons before the neighbours could ask when he was going to leave. But when the paper was out Mehronay got a dozen copies from the press and sent them away in wrappers which he addressed, and the piece his blue pencil marked was none of these.
For many days after Mehronay wrote his Easter sermon the gentle, low, beelike hum that he kept up while he was at work followed the tunes of gospel hymns, or hymns of an older fashion. We always knew when to expect what he called a "piece" from Mehronay—which meant an article into which he put more than ordinary endeavour—for his bee-song would grow louder, with now and then an intelligible word in it, and if it was to be an exceptional piece Mehronay would whistle. When he began writing the music would die down, but when he was well under sail on his "piece," the steam of his swelling emotions would set his chin to going like the lid of a kettle, and he would drone and jibber the words as he wrote them—half audibly, humming and sputtering in the pauses while he thought. Scores of times we have seen the dear old fellow sitting at his desk when a "piece" was in the pot, and have gathered the men around back of his chair to watch him simmer. When it was finished he would whirl about in his chair, as he gathered up the sheets of paper and shook them together, and say: "I've writ a piece here—a damn good piece!" And then, as he put the copy on the hook and got his hat, he would tell us in most profane language what it was all about—quoting the best sentences and chuckling to himself as he went out onto the street.
As the spring filled out and became summer we noticed that Mehronay was singing fewer gospel hymns and rather more sentimental songs than usual. And then the horrible report came to the office that Mehronay had been seen by one of the printers walking by night after bed-time under the State Street elms with a woman. Also his items began to indicate a closer knowledge of what was going on in society than Mehronay naturally could have. In the fall we learned through the girls in the Bee Hive that he had bought a white shirt and a pair of celluloid cuffs. This rumour set the office afire with curiosity, but no one dared to tease Mehronay. For no one knew who she was.
Not until late in the fall, when Madame Janauschek came to the opera house to play "Macbeth," did Mehronay uncover his intrigue. Then for the first time in his three years' employment on the paper he asked for two show tickets! The entire office lined up at the opera house—most of us paying our own way, not to see the Macbeths, but to see Mehronay's Romeo and Juliet. The office devil, who was late mailing the papers that night, says that about seven o'clock Mehronay came in singing "Jean, Jean, my Bonnie Jean," and that he went to his trunk, took out his celluloid cuffs, a new sky-blue and shell-pink necktie that none of us had seen before, a clean paper collar—and the boy, who probably was mistaken, swears Mehronay also took his white shirt—in a bundle which he proudly tucked under his arm and toddled out of the office whistling a wedding march. An hour later, dressed in this regalia and a new black suit, buttoned primly and exactly in a fashion unknown to Mehronay, he appeared at the opera house with Miss Columbia Merley, spinster, teacher of Greek and Hellenic philosophy at the College. The office force asked in a gasp of wonder: "Who dressed him?" Miss Merley—late in her forties, steel-eyed, thin-chested, flint-faced and with hair knotted so tightly back from her high stony brow that she had to take out two hairpins to wink—Miss Merley might have done it—but she had no kith or kin who could have done it for her, and certainly the hand that smoothed the coat buttoned the vest, and the hand that buttoned the vest put on the collar and tie, and as for the shirt——
But that was an office mystery. We never have solved it, and no one had the courage to tease Mehronay about it the next morning. After that we knew, and Mehronay knew that we knew, that he and Miss Merley went to church every Sunday evening—the Presbyterian church, mind you, where there is no foolishness—and that after church Mehronay always spent exactly half an hour in the parlour of the house where his divinity roomed. A whole year went by wherein Mehronay was sober, and did not look upon the wine when it was red or brown or yellow or any other colour. Now when he "writ a piece" there was frequently something in it defending women's rights. Also he severed diplomatic relations with the girl clerks in the White Front and the Bee Hive and the Racket, and bought a cane and aspired to some dignity of person. But Mehronay's heart was unchanged. The snows of boreal affection did not wither or fade his eternal spring. The sap still ran sweet in his veins and the bees still sang among the blossoms that sprang up along his path. He was everyone's friend, and spoke cheerily to the dogs and the horses, and was no more courteous to the preachers and the bankers, who are our most worshipful ones in town, than to the men from Red Martin's gambling-room, and even the woman in red, whom all the town knows but whom no one ever mentions, got a kind word from Mehronay as they met upon the street. He always called her sister.
And so another year went by and Mehronay's "pieces" made the circulation grow, and we were prosperous. It became known about town long before we knew it in the office that if Mehronay kept sober for three years she would have him, and when we finally heard it he was on the last half of the third year and was growing sombre. "In the Cottage by the Sea" was his favourite song, and "Put Away the Little Playthings" also was much in his throat when he wrote. We thought, perhaps—and now we know—that he was thinking of a home that was gone. The day before Mehronay's wedding a child died over near the railroad, and on the morning he was to be married we found this on the copy hook when we came down to open the office, after Mehronay had gone to claim his bride:
"A ten-line item appeared in last night's paper, away down in one corner, that brought more hearts together in a common bond—the bond of fear and sympathy and sorrow—than any other item has done for a long time. The item told of the death, by scarlet fever, of little Flossie Yengst. Probably the child was not known outside of her little group of playmates; her father and mother are not of that advertised clique known of men as prominent people; he is an engineer on the Santa Fe, and the mother moves in that small circle of friends and neighbours which circumscribes American motherhood of the best type. And yet last night, when that little ten-line item was read by a thousand firesides in this town, thousands and thousands of hearts turned to that desolate home by the track, and poured upon it the benediction of their sympathies. That home was the meeting-place where rich and poor, great and weak, good and bad, stood equals. For there is something in the death of a little child, something in its infinite pathos, that makes all human creatures mourn. Because in every heart that is not a dead heart, calloused to all joy or sorrow, some little child is enshrined—either dead or living—and so child-love is the one universal emotion of the soul, and child-death is the saddest thing in all the world.
"A child's soul is such a small thing, and the world and the systems of worlds, and the infinite stretches of illimitable space, are so wide for a child's soul to wander in, that, sane as we may be, stolid as we may try to be, we think in imagery, and the figure of little feet setting off on the far track to the end of things, hunting God, wrings our heart-strings and makes our throats grip and our eyelids quiver.
"And then a child dying, leaving this good world of ours, seems to have had so small a chance for itself. There is something in all of us struggling against oblivion, striving vainly to make some real impress on the current of time, and a child, dying, can only clutch the hands about it and go down—forever. It seems so merciless, so unfair. Perhaps that is why, all over the world, the little graves are cared for best. It is to the little graves that we turn in our keenest anguish and not to the larger mounds; to the little graves that our hearts are drawn in our hours of triumph. And so the child, though dead, lives its appointed time and dies only in the fullness of its years. The little shoes, the little dresses, the 'little tin soldiers covered with rust,' and the memories sweeter than dreams of a honeymoon, these are life's immortelles that never fade. And though men and women come and go upon the earth, though civilisations may wither and pass, these little images remain; and the sun and the stars, which see men come and go, may see these little idols before which every creature bows, and the sun and stars, knowing no time, may think these children's relics are also eternal.
"It is a desperately lonely home, that Yengst home, with the little girl gone away on a long journey; but how tight and close other fathers and mothers hugged their little ones last night when their hearts came back from the house of sorrow. And the little ones, feeling no fear, unconscious of the pang of terror that was shooting through the souls about them—the children played on, and maybe, before dropping to sleep, wondered a little at anxious looks they saw in grown-up eyes.
"This is the faith of a little child, curious but implicit, in the goodness of those things outside one's self. And 'of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.'"
A day or so after the wedding someone said to him: "Mehronay, sometimes your pieces make me cry," and he replied with all the fine sincerity of his heart showing in his eyes: "Yes—and if you only knew how they make me cry! Sometimes when I have written one like—like that—I go to my bed and sob like a child." He turned and walked away, but he came into the office whistling "The Dutch Company."
After his wedding we made brave, in a sly way, to rail at Mehronay about his love affair, and he took it good-naturedly. He knew the situation just as it was; his sense of humour allowed him no false view of the matter. One afternoon when the paper was out, George Kirwin, the foreman, and one of the reporters and Mehronay were in the back room leaning against the imposing-stones looking over the paper, when Kirwin said: "Say, Mehronay, how did you get yourself screwed up to ask her?"
It was spoken in a joke. The two young men were grinning, but Mehronay looked at the floor in a study as he said:
"Well, to be honest—damfino if I ever did—just exactly." He smiled reflectively in a pause and continued: "Nearest I remember was one night we was sitting with our feet on the base-burner and I looked up and says, 'Hell's afire, Commie'—I called her that for short—'why in the devil don't a fine woman like you get married? She got up and come over to where I was a-sitting and before I could say Lordamighty, she put her hand on my shoulder and says real soft and solemn: 'I'll just be damned if I don't believe I will.'"
He did not smile when he looked up, but sighed contentedly as he added reverently: "And so, by hell, she did!" If Columbia Merley Mehronay had known this language which her husband's innocent inadvertence put into her mouth she would have strangled him—even then.
We did not have Mehronay with us more than a year after his wedding. Mrs. Mehronay knew what he was worth. She asked for twenty-five dollars a week for him, and when we told her the office could not afford it she took him away. They went to New York City, where she peddled his pieces about town until she got him a regular place. There they have lived happily ever after. Mehronay brings his envelope home every Saturday night, and she gives him his carfare and his shaving-money and puts the rest where it will do the most good. When the men from our office go to New York—which they sometimes do—they visit with Mehronay at his office, and sometimes—if there is time for due and proper notice of the function in writing—there is an invitation to dinner. Mehronay fondles his old friends as a child fondles its playmates and he takes eager pleasure in them, but she that was Columbia Merley all but searches their pockets for the tempter.
Mehronay has never broken his word. He knows if he does break it she will tear him limb from limb and eat him raw. So he goes to his work, writes his pieces, hums his gentle bee-song—so that men do not like to room with him at the office—and has learned to keep himself fairly well buttoned up in the great city. But Miss Larrabee that was—who used to edit the society page for our paper, but who now lives in New York—told us when she was home that as she was walking down Fourth Avenue one winter day when the street was empty, she saw Mehronay standing before the window of a liquor store looking intently at the display of bottled goods before him. When he saw her half a block away he turned from her and shuffled rapidly down the street, clicking his cane nervously.
It was not for him!
Sown in Our Weakness