I shared my room with another countryman, Anthony Ronne, a young axe-maker, who, like myself, was in hard luck. The axe-factory had burned down, and, with no work in sight, the outlook for him was not exactly bright. He had not my way of laughing it off, but was rather disposed to see the serious side of it. Probably that was the reason we took to each other; the balance was restored so. Maybe he sobered me down somewhat. If any one assumes that in my role of unhappy lover I went about glooming and glowering on mankind, he makes a big mistake. Besides, I had not the least notion of accepting that role as permanent. I was out to twist the wheel of fortune my way when I could get my hands upon it. I never doubted that I should do that sooner or later, if only I kept doing things. That Elizabeth should ever marry anybody but me was preposterously impossible, no matter what she or anybody said.
Was this madness? They half thought so at home when they caught a glimpse of it in my letters. Not at all. It was conviction—the conviction that shapes events and the world to its ends. I know what I am talking about. If any one doubts it, and thinks his a worse case than mine, let him try my plan. If he cannot muster up courage to do it, it is the best proof in the world that she was right in refusing him.
To return to my chum; he, on his part, rose to the height even of "going out," but not with me. There was a physical obstacle to that. We had but one coat between us, a turned black kersey, worn very smooth and shiny also on the wrong side, which I had bought of a second-hand dealer in Philadelphia for a dollar. It was our full-dress, and we took turns arraying ourselves in it for the Dexterville weekly parties. These gatherings interested me chiefly as outbreaks of the peculiar American humor that was very taking to me, in and out of the newspapers. Dancing being tabooed as immoral and contaminating, the young people had recourse to particularly energetic kissing games, which more than made up for their deprivation on the other score. It was all very harmless and very funny, and the winter wore away pleasantly enough in spite of hard luck and hard work when there was any.
With the early thaw came change. My friends moved away to Buffalo, and I was left for two months the sole occupant of the Romer homestead. My last job gave out about that time, and a wheelbarrow express which I established between Dexter-ville and the steamboat landing on the lake refused to prosper. The idea was good enough, but I was ahead of my time: travel on the lake had not yet begun. With my field thus narrowed down, I fell back on my gun and some old rat-traps I found in the woodshed. I became a hunter and trapper. Right below me was the glen through which the creek ran on its way to the sawmills and furniture-shops of Jamestown. It was full of musk-rats that burrowed in its banks between the roots of dead hemlocks and pines. There I set my traps and baited them with carrots and turnips. The manner of it was simple enough. I set the trap on the bottom of the creek and hung the bait on a stick projecting from the bank over it, so that to get at it the rat had to step on the trap. I caught lots of them. Their skins brought twenty cents apiece in the town, so that I was really quite independent. I made often as much as a dollar overnight with my traps, and then had the whole day to myself in the hills, where I waylaid many a fat rabbit or squirrel and an occasional bird.
The one thing that marred my enjoyment of this life of freedom was my vain struggle to master the art of cookery in its elements. To properly get the hang of that, and of housekeeping in general, two heads are needed, as I have found out since—one of them with curls and long eyelashes. Then it is fine fun; but it is not good for man to tackle that job alone. Goodness knows I tried hard enough. I remember the first omelet I made. I was bound to get it good. So I made a muster-roll of all the good things Mrs. Romer had left in the house, and put them all in. Eggs and strawberry jam and raisins and apple-sauce, and some sliced bacon—the way I had seen mother do with "egg pancakes." But though I seasoned it liberally with baking-powder to make it rise, it did not rise. It was dreadfully heavy and discouraging, and not even the strawberry jam had power to redeem it. To tell the truth, it was not a good omelet. It was hardly fit to eat. The jam came out to better advantage in the sago I boiled, but there was too much of it. It was only a fruit-jar full, but I never saw anything swell so. It boiled out of the pot and into another and another, while I kept pouring on water until nearly every jar in the house was full of sago that stood around until moss grew on it with age. There is much contrariness in cooking. When I tapped my maples with the rest—there were two big trees in front of the house—and tried to make sugar, I was prepared to see the sap boil away; but when I had labored a whole day and burned half a cord of wood, and had for my trouble half a tea-cupful of sugar, which made me sick into the bargain, I concluded that that game was not worth the candle, and gave up my plans of becoming a sugar-planter on a larger scale.
It was at this time that I made my first appearance on the lecture platform. There was a Scandinavian society in Jamestown, composed chiefly of workingmen whose fight with life had left them little enough time for schooling. They were anxious to learn, however, and as I was set on teaching where I saw the chance, the thing came of itself. I had been mightily interested in the Frenchman Figuier's account of the formation and development of the earth, and took that for my topic. Twice a week, when I had set my traps in the glen, I went to town and talked astronomy and geology to interested audiences that gazed terror stricken at the loathsome saurians and the damnable pterodactyl which I sketched on the blackboard. Well they might. I spared them no gruesome detail, and I never could draw, anyhow. However, I rescued them from those beasts in season, and together we hauled the earth through age-long showers of molten metal into the sunlight of our day. I sometimes carried home as much as two or three dollars, after paying for gas and hall, with the tickets ten cents apiece, and I saw wealth and fame ahead of me, when sudden wreck came to my hopes and my career as a lecturer.
It was all because, having got the earth properly constructed and set up, as it were, I undertook to explain about latitude and longitude. Figures came in there, and I was never strong at mathematics. My education in that branch had run into a snag about the middle of the little multiplication table. A boy from the "plebs" school challenged me to fight, as I was making my way to recitation, trying to learn the table by heart. I broke off in the middle of the sixes to wallop him, and never got any farther. The class went on that day without me, and I never overtook it. I made but little effort. In the Latin School, which rather prided itself upon being free from the commercial taint, mathematics was held to be in the nature of an intrusion, and it was a sort of good mark for a boy that he did not take to it, if at the same time he showed aptitude for language. So I was left to deplore with Marjorie Fleming to the end of my days the inherent viciousness of sevens and eights, as "more than human nature can endure." It is one of the ironies of life that I should have had to take up work into which the study of statistics enters largely. But the powers that set me the task provided a fitter back than mine for that burden. As I explained years ago in the preface to "How the Other Half Lives," the patient friendship of Dr. Roger S. Tracy, the learned statistician of the Health Department, has smoothed the rebellious kinks out of death-rates and population statistics, as of so many other knotty problems which we have worked out together.
But I am getting out of my longitude, as I did then. When I had groped about long enough trying to make my audience understand what I only half understood myself, an old sea-captain arose in his place and said that any man who would make a mess of so simple a thing as latitude and longitude evidently knew nothing at all. It happened to be the one thing he knew about. Popular favor is a fickle thing. The audience that had but now been applauding my efforts to organize the earth took his word for it without waiting for an explanation and went out in a body, scouting even the ichthyosaurus as a prehistoric fake.
I made a valiant effort to stem the tide, but came to worse grief than before. My only listener was a Swedish blacksmith who had attended the creation and development of the earth from the beginning with unshaken faith, though he was a member of the Lutheran church, with the pastor and deacons of which I had waged a bitter newspaper war over the "sin" of dancing. But when I said, on the authority of Figuier, that an English man-of-war had once during an earthquake been thrown into the city of Callao and through the roof of a church, between the walls of which it remained standing upright on its keel, he got up and went too. He circulated the story in town with various embellishments. The deacons aforesaid seized upon it as welcome ammunition, construing it into an insult to the church, and there was an end to my lecturing.
The warm spring weather, together with these disappointments, bred in me the desire to roam. I packed away my traps and started for Buffalo with my grip, walking along the lake. It set in with a drizzling rain, and I was soon wet to the skin. Where the Chautauqua summer school grounds are now I surprised a flock of wild ducks near the shore, and was lucky enough to wound one with my revolver. But the wind carried it out of my reach, and I trudged on supperless, through Mayville, where the lights were beginning to shine in the windows. Not one of them was for me. All my money had gone to pay back debts to my Dexterville landlady. The Danes had a good name in Jamestown, and we were all very jealous of it. We would have starved, every one of us, rather than leave unpaid debts behind. As Mrs. Ben Wah many years after put it to me, "it is no disgrace to be poor, but it is sometimes very inconvenient." I found it so when, worn out with walking, I crawled into an abandoned barn halfway to Westfield and dug down in the hay, wet through and hungry as a bear. It stormed and rained all night, and a rat or a squirrel fell from the roof on my face. It felt like a big sprawling hand, and woke me up in a great fright.
The sun was shining upon a peaceful Sabbath when I crawled out of my hole and saw to my dismay that I had been sleeping in a pile of old hay seed that had worked through and through my wet clothes until I was a sight. An hour's patient plucking and a bath in a near-by pond restored me to something like human shape, and I held my entry into Westfield. The people were going to church in their holiday clothes, and eyed the uncouth stranger askance. I travelled the whole length of the town thinking what to do next. My stomach decided for me. There was a house standing in a pretty garden with two little cast-iron negro boys for hitching-posts at the steps. I rang the bell, and to an old lady who opened the door I offered to chop wood, fetch water, or do anything there was to do in exchange for breakfast. She went in and brought out her husband, who looked me over and said that if I was willing to do his chores I need go no farther. I was tired and famished, and the place was so restful that I said yes at once. In ten minutes I was eating my breakfast in the kitchen, duly installed as Dr. Spencer's hired man.
I think of the month I spent in the doctor's house with mingled feelings of exasperation and amusement. If I had not learned to milk a cow there, probably Octavia Ely would never have come into my life, horrid nightmare that she was. Octavia Ely was a Jersey cow with a brass tag in her ear, whose attacks upon the domestic peace of my house in after years even now fill me with rage. In the twelve months of her sojourn with us she had fifteen different kinds of disease, every one of which advertised itself by the stopping of her milk, When she had none, she never once gave down the milk without grudging it. With three of us to hold her legs and tail lest she step in the pail or switch our ears, she would reach back and eat the vest off my back where I sat milking her. But she does not belong in this story, thank goodness! If she had never belonged to me or mine, I should be a better man to-day; she provoked me so. However, I cannot reasonably lay the blame for her on the doctor. His cow was friendly enough. It was Sport, the old dog, that made the heaviest and at the same time a most ludicrous item in my duties as hired man. Long past the age of sport of any kind, he spent his decadent years in a state of abject fear of thunder and lightning. If only a cloud darkened the sun, Sport kept up a ceaseless pilgrimage between his corner and the kitchen door to observe the sky, sighing most grievously at the outlook. At the first distant rumble—this was in the month of May, when it thundered almost every day—he became perfectly rigid with terror. It was my duty then to carry him down into the cellar and shut him in the wood-box, where he was out of the way of it all. Poor Sport laid his head against my shoulder and wept great tears that wrung peals of laughter from me and from the boys who always hung around to see the show.
One of these was just beginning the struggle with his Homer, which I knew by heart almost, and it may have been the discovery that I was able to steer him through it between chores, as well as to teach him some tricks of fencing, that helped make the doctor anxious that I should promise to stay with him always. He would make me rich, he said. But other ambitions than to milk cows and plant garden truck were stirring in me. To be rich was never among them. I had begun to write essays for the magazines, choosing for my topic, for want of any other, the maltreatment of Denmark by Prussia, which rankled fresh in my memory, and the duty of all Scandinavians to rise up and avenge it. The Scandinavians would not listen when I wrote in Danish, and my English outpourings never reached the publishers. I discovered that I lacked words—they didn't pour; at which, in general discontentment with myself and all things, I pulled up stakes and went to Buffalo. Only, this time I rode in a railway train, with money in my pocket.
For all that, Buffalo received me with no more circumstance than it had done when I came there penniless, on the way to the war, the year before. I piled boards in a lumber-yard until I picked a quarrel with a tyrant foreman on behalf of a lot of green Germans whom he maltreated most shamefully. Then I was put out. A cabinet-maker in the "Beehive," a factory building out in Niagara Street, hired me next to make bedsteads, and took me to board with him. In the top story of the factory we fitted up a bedroom that was just large enough for one sitting and two standing, so long as the door was not opened; then one of the two had to get out. It mattered little, for the only visitor I had was a half-elderly countryman of mine whom they had worked so hard in his childhood that he had never had a chance to go to school. We two labored together by my little lamp, and it was great fun to see him who had never known how to read and write his own Danish make long strides in the strange tongue he spoke so singularly well. When we were both tired out, we would climb up on the roof and lie there and look out over the lake and the city where the myriad lights were shining, and talk of the old home and old times.
Sometimes the new would crowd them out in spite of all. I remember that Fourth of July when the salute from Fort Porter woke me up at sunrise and fired me with sudden patriotic ardor. I jumped out of bed and grabbed my revolver. There was a pile of packing-boxes in the yard below, and, knowing that there was no one around whom I could hurt, I made it my target and fired away all my ammunition at it. It made a fine racket, and I was happy. A couple of days later, when I was down in the yard, it occurred to me to look at the boxes to ascertain what kind of a score I had made. A very good one. All the bullets had hit. The boxes looked like so many sieves. Incidentally I found out that they were not empty, as I had supposed, but filled with glass fruit-jars.
I had eventually to give that job up also, because my boss was "bad pay." He was pretty much all bad, I guess. I do think his house was the most disorderly one I have ever come across. Seven ill-favored children clamored about the table, fighting with their even more ill-favored mother. She used to single out the one she wished to address by slamming a handful of string-beans, or whatever greens might be at hand, across the table at him. The youngster would fire it back, and so they were en rapport with each other. The father was seldom sober at meals. When he "felt funny," he would stealthily pour a glass of water down the nearest child's back and then sit and chuckle over the havoc he had wrought. There followed a long and woful wail and an instant explosion from the mother in this wise. I can hear her now. It was always the same:—
"Gott-himmel-donnerwetter-noch-emal-ich-will-de- mal-hole-du-spitzbub-eselskerl-wart'-nur-ich-schlag- de-noch-todt-potz-sacrement!"
Whereupon, from sheer exhaustion all round, there was peace for at least five minutes.
Which reminds me of meeting Adler, my chum from Brady's Bend, in Buffalo. He had come up to get a $1500 place, as he informed me. That would about satisfy him. That such jobs were waiting by the score for an educated German in this barbarous land he never doubted for a moment. In the end he went to work in a rolling-mill at a dollar a day. Adler was ever a stickler for etiquette. In Brady's Bend we had very little of it. At mealtimes a flock of chickens used to come into the summer kitchen where we ate, and forage around, to Adler's great disgust. One day they deliberately flew up on the table, and fell to fighting with the boarders for the food. A big Shanghai rooster trod in the butter and tracked it over the table. At the sight Adler's rage knew no bounds. Seizing a half-loaf of bread, he aimed it at the rooster and felled him in his tracks. The flock of fowl flew squawking out of the door. The women screamed, and the men howled with laughter. Adler flourished another loaf and vowed vengeance upon bird or beast that did not let the butter alone.
I have been often enough out of patience with the ways of the labor men which seem to me to be the greatest hindrance to the success of their cause; but I am not in danger of forgetting the other side which makes that cause—if for no other reason, because of an experience I had in Buffalo that year. In a planing-mill in which I had found employment I contracted with the boss to plane doors, sandpaper them, and plug knot-holes at fifteen cents a door. It was his own offer, and I did the work well, better than it had been done before, so he said himself. But when he found at the end of the week that I had made $15 where my slow-coach predecessor had made only ten, he cut the price down to twelve cents. I objected, but in the end swallowed my anger and, by putting on extra steam and working overtime, made $16 the next week. The boss examined the work very carefully, said it was good, paid my wages, and cut down the price to ten cents. He did not want his men to make over $10 a week, he said; it was not good for them. I quit then, after giving him my opinion of him and of the chances of his shop. I do not know where he may be now, but wherever he is, I will warrant that my prediction came true. There is in Danish an old proverb, "Falsk slaar sin egen Herre paa Hals," which is to say that chickens come home to roost, and that right in the end does prevail over might. The Lord Chief Justice over all is not to be tricked. If the labor men will only remember that, and devote, let us say, as much time to their duties as to fighting for their rights, they will get them sooner. Which is not saying that there is not a time to strike. Witness my experience with the planing-mill man.
I struck not only against him, but against the whole city of Buffalo. I shook the dust of it from my feet and went out to work with a gang on a new railroad then being built through Cattaraugus County—the Buffalo and Washington, I think. Near a village called Coonville our job was cut out for us. We were twenty in the gang, and we were to build the line across an old dry river-bed at that point. In the middle of the river there had once been a forest-clad island. This we attacked with pickaxe and spade and carried it away piecemeal in our wheelbarrows. It fell in with the hottest weather of the year. Down in the hollow where no wind blew it was utterly unbearable. I had never done such work before, and was not built for it. I did my best to keep up with the gang, but my chest heaved and my heart beat as though it would burst. There were nineteen Irishmen in the gang—big, rough fellows who had picked me out, as the only "Dutchman," as the butt for their coarse jokes; but when they saw that the work was plainly too much for me, the other side of this curiously contradictory, mischief-loving, and big-hearted people came out. They invented a thousand excuses to get me out of the line. Water was certainly not their daily diet, but they fell victims, one and all, to the most ravening thirst, which required the despatching of me every hour to the spring a quarter of a mile away to fill the pail. If they could not empty it quickly enough, they managed to upset it, and, to cover up the fraud, cursed each other roundly for their clumsiness. Between whiles they worried me as ever with their horseplay; but I had seen the real man behind it, and they might have called me Bismarck, had they chosen, without offence.
The heat, the work, and the slave-driver of a foreman were too much for them even, and before the end of a week the gang was broken and scattered wide. I was on the road again looking for work on a farm. It was not to be had. Perhaps I did not try very hard. Sunday morning found me spending my last quarter for breakfast in an inn at Lime Lake. When I had eaten, I went out in the fields and sat with my back against a tree, and listened to the church-bells that were ringing also, I knew, in my home four thousand miles away. I saw the venerable Domkirke, my father's gray head in his pew, and Her, young and innocent, in the women's seats across the aisle. I heard the old pastor's voice in the solemn calm, and my tears fell upon her picture that had called up the vision. It was as if a voice spoke to me and said to get up and be a man; that if I wanted to win Elizabeth, to work for her was the way, and not idling my days away on the road. And I got right up, and, setting my face toward Buffalo, went by the shortest cut back to my work.
I walked day and night, pursued in the dark by a hundred skulking curs that lurked behind trees until I came abreast of them and then sallied out to challenge my progress. I stoned them and went on. Monday's setting sun saw me outside Buffalo, tired, but with a new purpose. I had walked fifty miles without stopping or eating. I slept under a shed that night, and the very next day found work at good wages on some steamers the Erie Railroad was then building for the Lake Superior trade. With intervals of other employment when for any reason work in the ship-yard was slack, I kept that up all winter, and became quite opulent, even to the extent of buying a new suit of clothes, the first I had had since I landed. I paid off all my debts, and quarrelled with all my friends about religion. I never had any patience with a person who says "there is no God." The man is a fool, and therefore cannot be reasoned with. But in those days I was set on converting him, as my viking forefathers did when from heathen they became Christians—by fire and sword if need be. I smote the infidels about me hip and thigh, but there were a good many of them, and they kept springing up, to my great amazement. Probably the constant warfare imparted a tinge of fierceness to that whole period of my life, for I remember that one of my employers, a Roman Catholic builder, discharged me for disagreeing with him about the saints, telling me that I was "too blamed independent, anyhow." I suspect I must have been a rather unlovely customer, take it all together. Still, every once in a while it boils up in me yet against the discretion that has come with the years, and I want to slam in after the old fashion. Seems to me we are in danger of growing stale with all our soft speeches nowadays.
Things enough happened to take down my self-esteem a good many pegs. It was about this time I made up my mind to go into the newspaper business. It seemed to me that a reporter's was the highest and noblest of all callings; no one could sift wrong from right as he, and punish the wrong. In that I was right. I have not changed my opinion on that point one whit, and I am sure I never shall. The power of fact is the mightiest lever of this or of any day. The reporter has his hand upon it, and it is his grievous fault if he does not use it well. I thought I would make a good reporter. My father had edited our local newspaper, and such little help as I had been of to him had given me a taste for the business. Being of that mind, I went to the Courier office one morning and asked for the editor. He was not in. Apparently nobody was. I wandered through room after room, all empty, till at last I came to one in which sat a man with a paste-pot and a pair of long shears. This must be the editor; he had the implements of his trade. I told him my errand while he clipped away.
[Figure: When I worked in the Buffalo Ship-yard. ]
"What is it you want?" he asked, when I had ceased speaking and waited for an answer.
"Work," I said.
"Work!" said he, waving me haughtily away with the shears; "we don't work here. This is a newspaper office."
I went, abashed. I tried the Express next. This time I had the editor pointed out to me. He was just coming through the business office. At the door I stopped him and preferred my request. He looked me over, a lad fresh from the shipyard, with horny hands and a rough coat, and asked:—
"What are you?"
"A carpenter," I said.
The man turned upon his heel with a loud, rasping laugh and shut the door in my face. For a moment I stood there stunned. His ascending steps on the stairs brought back my senses. I ran to the door, and flung it open. "You laugh!" I shouted, shaking my fist at him, standing halfway up the stairs, "you laugh now, but wait—" And then I got the grip of my temper and slammed the door in my turn. All the same, in that hour it was settled that I was to be a reporter. I knew it as I went out into the street.
I GO INTO BUSINESS, HEADLONG
Somewhat suddenly and quite unexpectedly, a business career opened for me that winter. Once I had tried to crowd into it uninvited, but the result was not good. It was when I had observed that, for the want of the window reflectors which were much in use in the old country, American ladies were at a disadvantage in their homes in not being able to make out undesirable company at a distance, themselves unseen, and conveniently forgetting that they were "in." This civilizing agency I set about supplying forthwith. I made a model and took it to a Yankee business man, to whom I explained its use. He listened attentively, took the model, and said he had a good mind to have me locked up for infringing the patent laws of other lands; but because I had sinned from ignorance he would refrain. His manner was so impressive that he really made me uneasy lest I had broken some kind of a law I knew not of. From the fact that not long after window reflectors began to make their appearance in Buffalo, I infer that, whatever the enactment, it did not apply to natives, or else that he was a very fearless man, willing to take the risk from which he would save me—a sort of commercial philanthropist. However, by that time I had other things to think of, being a drummer and a very energetic one.
It came about in this way: some countrymen of mine had started a cooperative furniture-factory in Jamestown, where there were water-power and cheap lumber. They had no capital, but just below was the oil country, where everybody had money, slathers of it. New wells gushed every day, and boom towns were springing up all along the Allegheny valley. Men were streaming into it from everywhere, and needed furniture. If once they got the grip on that country, reasoned the furniture-makers, they would get rich quickly with the rest. The thing was to get it. To do that they needed a man who could talk. Perhaps they remembered the creation of the world the year before. At all events, they sent up to Buffalo and asked me if I would try.
I slammed my tool-box shut and started for Jamestown on the next train. Twenty-four hours later saw me headed for the oil country, equipped with a mighty album and a price-list. The album contained pictures of the furniture I had for sale. All the way down I studied the price-list, and when I reached Titusville I knew to a cent what it cost my employers per foot to make ash extension tables. I only wish they had known half as well.
My first customer was a grumpy old shopkeeper who needed neither tables nor bedsteads, so he said. But I had thought it all over and made up my mind that the first blow was half the battle. Therefore I knew better. I pushed my album under his nose, and it fell open at the extension tables. Cheap, I said, and rattled off the price. I saw him prick up his ears, but he only growled that probably they were no good.
What! my extension tables no good? I dared him to try them, and he gave me an order for a dozen, but made me sign an agreement that they were to be every way as represented. I would have backed my tables with an order for the whole shop, so sure was I that they could not be beaten. The idea! With the fit of righteous indignation upon me, I went out and sold every other furniture-dealer in Titusville a bill of tables; not one of them escaped. At night, when I had sent the order home, I set out for Oil City, so as to lose no valuable time.
It was just the same there. For some reason they were suspicious of the extension tables, yet they wanted nothing else. I had to give ironclad guarantees that they were as represented, which I did impatiently enough. There was a thunder storm raging at the time. The lightning had struck a tank, and the burning oil ran down a hill and set the town on fire. One end of it was burning while I was canvassing the other, mentally calculating how many extension tables would be needed to replace those that were lost. People did not seem to have heard of any other kind of furniture in that country. Walnut bed-steads, marble-top bureaus, turned washstands—they passed them all by to fall upon the tables with shrill demand. I made out their case to suit the facts, as I swept down through that region, scattering extension tables right and left. It was the excitement, I reasoned, the inrush of population from everywhere; probably everybody kept boarders, more every day; had to extend their tables to seat them. I saw a great opportunity and resolutely grasped it. If it was tables they wanted, tables it should be. I let all the rest of the stock go and threw myself on the tables exclusively. Town after town I filled with them. Night after night the mails groaned under the heavy orders for extension tables I sent north. From Allegheny City alone an order of a thousand dollars' worth from a single reputable dealer went home, and I figured in my note-book that night a commission of $50 for myself plus my salary.
I could know nothing of the despatches that were hot on my trail ever since my first order came from Titusville, telling me to stop, let up on the tables, come home, anything; there was a mistake in the price. They never overtook me. My pace was too hot for that. Anyhow, I doubt if I would have paid any attention to them. I had my instructions and was selling according to orders. Business was good, getting better every day. The firm wrote to my customers, but they merely sent back copies of the iron-clad contract. They had seen my instructions, and they knew it was all right. It was not until I brought up, my last penny gone, in Rochester, near the Ohio line, that the firm established communication with me at last. Their instructions were brief: to come home and sell no more tables. They sent $10, but gave me no clew to their curious decision, with things booming as they were.
Being in the field I considered that, whatever was up, I had a better command of the situation. I decided that I would not go home,—at least not until I had sold a few more extension tables while they were in such demand. I made that $10 go farther than $10 ever went before. It took me a little way into Ohio, to Youngstown, and then back to Pennsylvania, to Warren and Meadville and Corry. My previous training in going hungry for days came in handy at last. In the interests of commerce, I let my dinners go. So I was enabled to make a final dash to Erie, where I planted my last batch of tables before I went home, happy.
I got home in time to assist in the winding up of the concern. The iron-clad contracts had done the business. My customers would not listen to explanations. When told that the price of those tables was lower than the cost of working up the wood, they replied that it was none of their business. They had their contracts. The Allegheny man threatened suit, if I remember rightly, and the firm gave up. Nobody blamed me, for I had sold according to orders; but instead of $450 which I had figured out as my commission, I got seventy-five cents. It was half of what my employer had. He divided squarely, and I could not in reason complain.
I sat in the restaurant where he had explained the situation to me, and tried to telescope my ambitions down to the seventy-five-cent standard, when my eyes fell upon a copy of Harper's Weekly that lay on the table. Absent-mindedly I read an advertisement in small type, spelling it over idly while I was trying to think what to do next.
"Wanted," it read, "by the Myers Manufacturing Company, agents to sell a patent flat and fluting iron. Samples 75 cents."
The address was somewhere in John Street, New York. Samples seventy-five cents! I repeated it mechanically. Why, that was just the size of my pile. And right in my line of canvassing, too! In ten minutes it was on the way to New York and I had secured a provisional customer in the cook at the restaurant for an iron that would perform what this one promised, iron the skirt and flute the flounce too. In three days the iron came and proved good. I started in canvassing Jamestown with it, and in a week had secured orders for one hundred and twenty, upon which my profit would be over $80. Something of business ways must have stuck to me, after all, from my one excursion into the realm of trade; for when it came to delivering the goods and I had no money, I went boldly to a business man whose wife was on my books, and offered, if he would send for the irons, to pay for them as I took them out of the store. He made no bones about it, but sent for the irons and handed them over to me to pay for when I could. So men are made. Commercial character, as it is rated on 'change, I had none before that; but I had after. How could I disappoint a man like that?
The confidence of the community I had not lost through my too successful trip as a drummer, at all events. Propositions came speedily to me to "travel in" pianos and pumps for local concerns. It never rains but it pours. An old schoolmate who had been ordained a clergyman wrote to me from Denmark to find him a charge among the Danish settlements out West. But neither pumps, pianos, nor parsons had power to swerve me from my chosen course. With them went bosses and orders; with the flat-iron cherished independence. When I had sold out Jamestown, I made a bee-line for Pittsburg, a city that had taken my fancy because of its brisk business ways. They were brisk indeed. Grant's second campaign for the Presidency was in full swing. On my second night in town I went to hear Horace Greeley address an open-air meeting. I can see his noble old head yet above the crowd, and hear his opening appeal. Farther I never got. A marching band of uniformed shouters for Grant had cut right through the crowd. As it passed I felt myself suddenly seized; an oilcloth cape was thrown over my head, a campaign cap jammed after, and I found myself marching away with a torch on my shoulder to the tune of a brass band just ahead. How many others of Mr. Greeley's hearers fared as I did I do not know. The thing seemed so ludicrous (and if I must march I really cared very little whether it was for Greeley or Grant) that I stuck it out, hoping as we went to come somewhere upon my hat, which had been lost in the sudden attack; but I never saw it again.
Speaking of parading, my old desire to roam, that kept cropping out at intervals, paid me a characteristic trick at this time. I was passing through a horse-market when I saw a fine-looking, shapely young horse put up at what seemed a ridiculously low price. Eighteen dollars was the bid, and it was about to be knocked down at that. The October sun was shining warm and bright. A sudden desire to get on the horse and ride out into the wide world, away from the city and the haunts of men, never to come back, seized me. I raised the bid to $19. Almost before I knew, the beast was knocked down to me and I had paid over the money. It left me with exactly $6 to my name.
Leading the animal by the halter, I went down the street and sat on the stoop of the Robinson House to think. With every step, perplexities I hadn't thought of sprang up. In the first place, I could not ride. I had always wanted to, but had never learned. Even if I had been able to, where was I going, and to do what? I couldn't ride around and sell flat-irons. The wide world seemed suddenly a cold and far-off place, and $6 but small backing in an attack upon it, with a hungry horse waiting to be fed. That was only too evident.
The beast was tearing the hitching-post with its teeth in a way that brooked no delay. Evidently it had a healthy appetite. The conclusion was slowly dawning upon me that I had made a fool of myself, when the man who had bid $18 came by and saw me sitting there. He stopped to ask what was the matter, and I told him frankly. He roared and gave me $18 for the beast. I was glad enough to give it up. I never owned a horse before or since, and I had that less than fifteen minutes; but it was the longest quarter of an hour since I worked in the coal-mine.
The flat-iron did not go in Pittsburg. It was too cheap. During a brief interval I peddled campaign books, but shortly found a more expensive iron, and had five counties in western Pennsylvania allotted to me as territory. There followed a winter of great business. Before it was half over I had achieved a bank account, though how I managed it is a mystery to me till this day. Simple as the reckoning of my daily trade ought to be, by no chance could I ever make it foot up as it should. I tried honestly every night, but the receipts would never square with the expenditures, do what I might. I kept them carefully apart in different pockets, but mixed they would get in spite of all. I had to call it square, however far the footing was out of the way, or sit up all night, which I would not do. I remember well the only time I came out even. I was so astonished that I would not believe it, but had to go all over the account again. That night I slept the sleep of the just. The next morning, when I was starting out on my route with a clean conscience and a clean slate, a shopkeeper rapped on his window as I went by to tell me that I had given him the previous day a twenty-dollar bill for a ten, in making change. After that I gave up trying.
I was no longer alone. From Buffalo my old chum Ronne had come, hearing that I was doing well, to join me, and from Denmark an old schoolfellow, whose life at twenty-two had been wrecked by drink and who wrote begging to be allowed to come. His mother pleaded for him too, but it was not needed. He had enclosed in his letter the strongest talisman of all, a letter written by Elizabeth in the long ago when we were children together. I have it yet. He came, and I tried hard to break him of his failing. But I had undertaken a job that was too big for me. Upon my return from a Western trip I found that he had taken to drinking again, and in his cups had enlisted. His curse followed him into the army. He rose to the rank of sergeant, only to fall again and suffer degradation. The other day he shot himself at the post where he was stationed, after nearly thirty years of service. Yet in all his ups and downs he never forgot his home. While his mother lived he helped support her in far-off Denmark; and when she was gone, no month passed that he did not send home the half of his wages for the support of his crippled sister in the old town. Charles was not bad. He was a poor, helpless, unhappy boy, who came to me for help, and I had none to give, God pity him and me.
The Western trip I spoke of was my undoing. Puffed up by my success as a salesman, I yielded in an evil hour to the blandishments of my manufacturers, and accepted the general agency of the State of Illinois, with headquarters in Chicago. It sounded well, but it did not work well. Chicago had not yet got upon its feet after the great fire; and its young men were too sharp for me. In six weeks they had cleaned me out bodily, had run away with my irons and with money they borrowed of me to start them in business. I returned to Pittsburg as poor as ever, to find that the agents I had left behind in my Pennsylvania territory had dealt with me after the same fashion. The firm for which I worked had connived at the frauds. My friends had left me. The one I spoke of was in the army. Ronne had given up in discouragement, and was at work in a rolling-mill. In the utter wreck of all my hopes I was alone again.
Angry and sore, I went up the Allegheny River, with no definite purpose in mind except to get away from everybody I knew. At Franklin I fell ill with a sneaking fever. It was while I lay helpless in a lonely tavern by the riverside that the crushing blow fell. Letters from home, sent on from Pittsburg, told me that Elizabeth was to be married. A cavalry officer who was in charge of the border police, a dashing fellow and a good soldier, had won her heart. The wedding was to be in the summer. It was then the last week in April. At the thought I turned my face to the wall, and hoped that I might die.
But one does not die of love at twenty-four. The days that passed slowly saw me leave my sick-bed and limp down to the river on sunny days, to sit and watch the stream listlessly for hours, hoping nothing, grasping nothing, except that it was all over. In all my misadventures that was the one thing I had never dreamed of. If I did, I as quickly banished the thought as preposterous. That she should be another's bride seemed so utterly impossible that, sick and feeble as I was, I laughed it to scorn even then; whereat I fell to reading the fatal letter again, and trying to grasp its meaning. It made it all only the more perplexing that I should not know who he was or what he was. I had never heard of him before, in that town where I thought I knew every living soul. That he must be a noble fellow I knew, or he could not have won her; but who—why—what—what had come over everything in such a short time, and what was this ugly dream that was setting my brain awhirl and shutting out the sunlight and the day? Presently I was in a relapse, and it was all darkness to me, and oblivion.
When at last I got well enough to travel, I set my face toward the east, and journeyed on foot through the northern coal regions of Pennsylvania by slow stages, caring little whither I went, and earning just enough by peddling flat-irons to pay my way. It was spring when I started; the autumn tints were on the leaves when I brought up in New York at last, as nearly restored as youth and the long tramp had power to do. But the restless energy that had made of me a successful salesman was gone. I thought only, if I thought at all, of finding some quiet place where I could sit and see the world go by that concerned me no longer. With a dim idea of being sent into the farthest wilds as an operator, I went to a business college on Fourth Avenue and paid $20 to learn telegraphing. It was the last money I had. I attended the school in the afternoon. In the morning I peddled flat-irons, earning money for my board, and so made out.
One day, while I was so occupied, I saw among the "want" advertisements in a newspaper one offering the position of city editor on a Long Island City weekly to a competent man. Something of my old ambition stirred within me. It did not occur to me that city editors were not usually obtained by advertising, still less that I was not competent, having only the vaguest notions of what the functions of a city editor might be. I applied for the job, and got it at once. Eight dollars a week was to be my salary; my job, to fill the local column and attend to the affairs of Hunter's Point and Blissville generally, politics excluded. The editor attended to that. In twenty-four hours I was hard at work writing up my then most ill-favored bailiwick. It is none too fine yet, but in those days, when every nuisance crowded out of New York found refuge there, it stunk to heaven.
Certainly I had entered journalism by the back door, very far back at that, when I joined the staff of the Review. Signs of that appeared speedily, and multiplied day by day. On the third day of my employment I beheld the editor-in-chief being thrashed down the street by an irate coachman whom he had offended, and when, in a spirit of loyalty, I would have cast in my lot with him, I was held back by one of the printers with the laughing comment that that was his daily diet and that it was good for him. That was the only way any one ever got any satisfaction or anything else out of him. Judging from the goings on about the office in the two weeks I was there, he must have been extensively in debt to all sorts of people who were trying to collect. When, on my second deferred pay-day, I met him on the stairs, propelled by his washerwoman, who brought her basket down on his head with every step he took, calling upon the populace (the stairs were outside the building) to witness just punishment meted out to him for failing to pay for the washing of his shirts, I rightly concluded that the city editor's claim stood no show. I left him owing me two weeks' pay, but I freely forgive him. I think I got my money's worth of experience. I did not let grass grow under my feet as "city editor." Hunter's Point had received for once a thorough raking over, and I my first lesson in hunting the elusive item and, when found, making a note of it.
Except for a Newfoundland pup which some one had given me, I went back over the river as poor as I had come. The dog proved rather a doubtful possession as the days went by. Its appetite was tremendous, and its preference for my society embarrassingly unrestrained. It would not be content to sleep anywhere else than in my room. If I put it out in the yard, it forthwith organized a search for me in which the entire neighborhood was compelled to take part, willy-nilly. Its manner of doing it boomed the local trade in hair-brushes and mantel bric-a-brac, but brought on complications with the landlord in the morning that usually resulted in the departure of Bob and myself for other pastures. Part with him I could not; for Bob loved me. Once I tried, when it seemed that there was no choice. I had been put out for perhaps the tenth time, and I had no more money left to provide for our keep. A Wall Street broker had advertised for a watch-dog, and I went with Bob to see him. But when he would have counted the three gold pieces he offered into my hand, I saw Bob's honest brown eyes watching me with a look of such faithful affection that I dropped the coins as if they burned, and caught him about the neck to tell him that we would never part. Bob put his huge paws on my shoulders, licked my face, and barked such a joyous bark of challenge to the world in general that even the Wall Street man was touched.
"I guess you are too good friends to part," he said. And so we were.
We left Wall Street and its gold behind to go out and starve together. Literally we did that in the days that followed. I had taken to peddling books, an illustrated Dickens issued by the Harpers, but I barely earned enough by it to keep life in us and a transient roof over our heads. I call it transient because it was rarely the same two nights together, for causes which I have explained. In the day Bob made out rather better than I. He could always coax a supper out of the servant at the basement gate by his curvetings and tricks, while I pleaded vainly and hungrily with the mistress at the front door. Dickens was a drug in the market. A curious fatality had given me a copy of "Hard Times" to canvass with. I think no amount of good fortune could turn my head while it stands in my bookcase. One look at it brings back too vividly that day when Bob and I had gone, desperate and breakfastless, from the last bed we might know for many days, to try to sell it and so get the means to keep us for another twenty-four hours.
It was not only breakfast we lacked. The day before we had had only a crust together. Two days without food is not good preparation for a day's canvassing. We did the best we could. Bob stood by and wagged his tail persuasively while I did the talking; but luck was dead against us, and "Hard Times" stuck to us for all we tried. Evening came and found us down by the Cooper Institute, with never a cent. Faint with hunger, I sat down on the steps under the illuminated clock, while Bob stretched himself at my feet. He had beguiled the cook in one of the last houses we called at, and his stomach was filled. From the corner I had looked on enviously. For me there was no supper, as there had been no dinner and no breakfast. Tomorrow there was another day of starvation. How long was this to last? Was it any use to keep up a struggle so hopeless? From this very spot I had gone, hungry and wrathful, three years before when the dining Frenchmen for whom I wanted to fight thrust me forth from their company. Three wasted years! Then I had one cent in my pocket, I remembered. Today I had not even so much. I was bankrupt in hope and purpose. Nothing had gone right; nothing would ever go right; and, worse, I did not care. I drummed moodily upon my book. Wasted! Yes, My life was wasted, utterly wasted.
A voice hailed me by name, and Bob sat up, looking attentively at me for his cue as to the treatment of the owner of it. I recognized in him the principal of the telegraph school where I had gone until my money gave out. He seemed suddenly struck by something.
"Why, what are you doing here?" he asked. I told him Bob and I were just resting after a day of canvassing.
"Books!" he snorted. "I guess they won't make you rich. Now, how would you like to be a reporter, if you have got nothing better to do? The manager of a news agency down town asked me to-day to find him a bright young fellow whom he could break in. It isn't much—$10 a week to start with. But it is better than peddling books, I know."
He poked over the book in my hand and read the title. "Hard Times," he said, with a little laugh. "I guess so. What do you say? I think you will do. Better come along and let me give you a note to him now."
As in a dream, I walked across the street with him to his office and got the letter which was to make me, half-starved and homeless, rich as Crusus, it seemed to me. Bob went along, and before I departed from the school a better home than I could give him was found for him with my benefactor. I was to bring him the next day. I had to admit that it was best so. That night, the last which Bob and I spent together, we walked up and down Broadway, where there was quiet, thinking it over. What had happened had stirred me profoundly. For the second time I saw a hand held out to save me from wreck just when it seemed inevitable; and I knew it for His hand, to whose will I was at last beginning to bow in humility that had been a stranger to me before. It had ever been my own will, my own way, upon which I insisted. In the shadow of Grace Church I bowed my head against the granite wall of the gray tower and prayed for strength to do the work which I had so long and arduously sought and which had now come to me; the while Bob sat and looked on, saying clearly enough with his wagging tail that he did not know what was going on, but that he was sure it was all right. Then we resumed our wanderings. One thought, and only one, I had room for. I did not pursue it; it walked with me wherever I went: She was not married yet. Not yet. When the sun rose, I washed my face and hands in a dog's drinking-trough, pulled my clothes into such shape as I could, and went with Bob to his new home. That parting over, I walked down to 23 Park Row and delivered my letter to the desk editor in the New York News Association, up on the top floor.
He looked me over a little doubtfully, but evidently impressed with the early hours I kept, told me that I might try. He waved me to a desk, bidding me wait until he had made out his morning book of assignments; and with such scant ceremony was I finally introduced to Newspaper Row, that had been to me like an enchanted land. After twenty-seven years of hard work in it, during which I have been behind the scenes of most of the plays that go to make up the sum of the life of the metropolis, it exercises the old spell over me yet. If my sympathies need quickening, my point of view adjusting, I have only to go down to Park Row at eventide, when the crowds are hurrying homeward and the City Hall clock is lighted, particularly when the snow lies on the grass in the park, and stand watching them awhile, to find all things coming right. It is Bob who stands by and watches with me then, as on that night.
The assignment that fell to my lot when the book was made out, the first against which my name was written in a New York editor's book, was a lunch of some sort at the Astor House. I have forgotten what was the special occasion. I remember the bearskin hats of the Old Guard in it, but little else. In a kind of haze, I beheld half the savory viands of earth spread under the eyes and nostrils of a man who had not tasted food for the third day. I did not ask for any. I had reached that stage of starvation that is like the still centre of a cyclone, when no hunger is felt. But it may be that a touch of it all crept into my report; for when the editor had read it, he said briefly:—
"You will do. Take that desk, and report at ten every morning, sharp."
That night, when I was dismissed from the office, I went up the Bowery to No. 185, where a Danish family kept a boarding-house up under the roof. I had work and wages now, and could pay. On the stairs I fell in a swoon and lay there till some one stumbled over me in the dark and carried me in. My strength had at last given out.
So began my life as a newspaper man.
IN WHICH I BECOME AN EDITOR AND RECEIVE MY FIRST LOVE LETTER
I had my hands full that winter. The profession I had entered by so thorny a path did not prove to be a bed of roses. But I was not looking for roses. I doubt if I would have known what to do with them had there been any. Hard work and hard knocks had been my portion heretofore, and I was fairly trained down to that. Besides, now that the question where the next meal was to come from did not loom up whichever way I looked, the thing for me was to be at work hard enough and long enough to keep from thinking. With every letter from home I expected to hear that she was married, and then—I never got any farther. A furious kind of energy took possession of me at the mere idea, and I threw myself upon my work in a way that speedily earned for me the name of a good reporter. "Good" had reference to the quantity of work done rather than to the quality of it. That was of less account than our ability to "get around" to our assignments; necessarily so, for we mostly had six or seven of an evening to attend, our route extending often from Harlem clear down to the Bowery. So that they were nearly "on a line," we were supposed to have no cause of complaint. Our office sold news to morning and evening papers both, and our working day, which began at 10 A.M., was seldom over until one or two o'clock the next morning. Three reporters had to attend to all the general news of the city that did not come through the regular department channels.
A queerly assorted trio we were: "Doc" Lynch, who had graduated from the medical school to Bohemia, following a natural bent, I suppose; Crafts, a Maine boy of angular frame and prodigious self-confidence; and myself. Lynch I have lost sight of long ago. Crafts, I am told, is rich and prosperous, the owner of a Western newspaper. That was bound to happen to him. I remember him in the darkest days of that winter, when to small pay, hard work, and long hours had been added an attack of measles that kept him in bed in his desolate boarding-house, far from kindred and friends. "Doc" and I had run in on a stolen visit to fill their place as well as we might. We sat around trying to look as cheerful as we could and succeeding very poorly; but Crafts's belief in himself and his star soared above any trivialities of present discouragement. I see him now rising on his elbow and transfixing the two of us with long, prophetic forefinger:—
"The secret of my success," he said, impressively, "I lay to—"
We never found out to what he laid it, for we both burst out laughing, and Crafts, after a passing look of surprise, joined in. But that finger prophesied truly. His pluck won the day, and won it fairly. They were two good comrades in a tight place. I shouldn't want any better.
Running around was only working off steam, of which we had plenty. The long rides, on Harlem assignments, in horse-cars with straw in the bottom that didn't keep our feet from freezing until all feeling in them was gone, were worse, a good deal. At the mere thought of them I fall to nursing my toes for reminiscent pangs. However, I had at least enough to eat. At the downtown Delmonico's and the other swell restaurants through the windows of which I had so often gazed with hungry eyes, I now sometimes sat at big spreads and public dinners, never without thinking of the old days and the poor fellows who might then be having my hard luck. It was not so long since that I could have forgotten. I bit a mark in the Mulberry Bend, too, as my professional engagements took me that way, promising myself that the day should come when I would have time to attend to it. For the rest, if I had an hour to spare, I put it in at the telegraph instrument. I had still the notion that it might not be labor lost. And though I never had professional use for it, it did come handy to me as a reporter more than once. There is scarcely anything one can learn that will not sooner or later be useful to a newspaper man, if he is himself of the kind that wants to be useful.
Along in the spring some politicians in South Brooklyn who had started a weekly newspaper to boom their own fortunes found themselves in need of a reporter, and were told of a "young Dutchman" who might make things go. I was that "Dutchman." They offered me $15 a week, and on May, 20, 1874, I carried my grip across the river, and, all unconscious that I was on the turning tide in my fortunes, cast in my lot with "Beecher's crowd," as the boys in the office said derisively when I left them.
In two weeks I was the editor of the paper. That was not a vote of confidence, but pure economy on the part of my owners. They saved forty dollars a week by giving me twenty-five and the name of editor. The idea of an editor in anything but the name I do not suppose had ever entered their minds. Theirs was an "organ," and for the purposes for which they had started it they thought themselves abundantly able to run it. I, on my part, quickly grew high notions of editorial independence. Their purposes had nothing to do with it. The two views proved irreconcilable. They clashed quite regularly, and perhaps it was as much that they were tired of the editor as that the paper was a drag upon them that made them throw it up after the fall elections, in which they won. The press and the engine were seized for debt. The last issue of the South Brooklyn News had been put upon the street, and I went to the city to make a bargain with the foundryman for the type. It was in the closing days of the year. Christmas was at the door, with its memories. Tired and disheartened, I was on my way back, my business done, as the bells rang in the Holy Eve. I stood at the bow of a Fulton Street ferryboat listening sadly to them, and watched the lights of the city kindling alongshore. Of them all not one was for me. It was all over, and I should have to strike a new trail. Where would that lead? What did it matter, anyhow? Nobody cared. Why should I? A beautiful meteor shot out of the heavens overhead and spanned the river with a shining arc. I watched it sail slowly over Williamsburg, its trail glowing bright against the dark sky, and mechanically the old wish rose to my lips. It was a superstition with us when we were children that if we were quick enough to "wish out" before the star was extinguished, the wish would come true. I had tried a hundred times, always to fail; but for once I had ample time. A bitter sigh smothered the wish, half uttered. My chance had come too late. Even now she might be another man's wife, and I—I had just made another failure of it, as usual.
It had never happened in all the holiday seasons I had been away that a letter from home had reached me in time for Christmas Eve, and it was a sore subject with me. For it was ever the dearest in the year to me, and is now. But that evening, when I came home, in a very ill humor, for the first time I found the coveted letter. It told me of the death of my two older brothers and of my favorite aunt. In a postscript my father added that Lieutenant B——, Elizabeth's affianced husband, had died in the city hospital at Copenhagen. She herself was living among strangers. She had chosen her lover when the family demanded of her that she give him up as a hopeless invalid. They thought it all for her good. Of her I should have expected nothing less. But she shall tell the story of that herself.
I read the letter through, then lay down upon my bed and wept. When I arose, it was to go to the owners of my paper with a proposition to buy it. They laughed at me at first; asked to see my money. As a reporter for the news bureau I had saved up $75, rather because I had no time to spend it than with any definite notion of what I was going to do with it. This I offered to them, and pointed out that the sale of the old type, which was all that was left of the paper beside the goodwill, would bring no more. One of them, more reasonable than the rest—the one who had generally paid the scores while the others took the tricks—was disposed to listen. The upshot of it was that I bought the paper for $650, giving notes for the rest, to be paid when I could. If I could not, they were not much out. And then, again, I might succeed.
I did; by what effort I hesitate to set down here lest I be not believed. The News was a big four-page sheet. Literally every word in it I wrote myself. I was my own editor, reporter, publisher, and advertising agent. My pen kept two printers busy all the week, and left me time to canvass for advertisements, attend meetings, and gather the news. Friday night the local undertaker, who advertised in the paper and paid in kind, took the forms over to New York, where the presswork was done. In the early morning hours I shouldered the edition—it was not very large in those days—and carried it from Spruce Street down to Fulton Ferry, and then home on a Fifth Avenue car. I recall with what inward rage I submitted to being held up by every chance policeman and prodded facetiously in the ribs with remarks about the "old man's millions," etc. Once or twice it boiled over and I was threatened with summary arrest. When I got home, I slept on the counter with the edition for my pillow, in order to be up with the first gleam of daylight to skirmish for newsboys. I gathered them in from street and avenue, compelled them to come in if they were not willing, and made such inducements for them that shortly South Brooklyn resounded with the cry of "News" from sunrise to sunset on Saturday. The politicians who had been laughing at my "weekly funeral" beheld with amazement the paper thrust under their noses at every step. They heard its praises, or the other thing, sung on every hand. From their point of view it was the same thing: the paper was talked of. Their utmost effort had failed of that. When, on June 5, Her birthday, I paid down in hard cash what was left of the purchase sum and hoisted the flag over an independent newspaper, freed from debt, they came around with honeyed speeches to make friends. I scarcely heard them. Deep down in my soul a voice kept repeating unceasingly: Elizabeth is free! She is free, free! That night, in the seclusion of my den, clutching grimly the ladder upon which I had at last got my feet, I resolved that I would reach the top, or die climbing and found me sleepless, pouring out my heart to her, four thousand miles away.
I carried the letter to the post-office myself, and waited till I saw it started on its long journey. I stood watching the carrier till he turned the corner; then went back to my work.
To that work there had been added a fresh spur just when I was at last free from all trammels. The other strongest of human emotions had been stirred within me. In a Methodist revival—it was in the old Eighteenth Street Church—I had fallen under the spell of the preacher's fiery eloquence. Brother Simmons was of the old circuit-riders' stock, albeit their day was long past in our staid community. He had all their power, for the spirit burned within him; and he brought me to the altar quickly, though in my own case conversion refused to work the prescribed amount of agony. Perhaps it was because I had heard Mr. Beecher question the correctness of the prescription. When a man travelling in the road found out, he said, that he had gone wrong, he did not usually roll in the dust and agonize over his mistake; he just turned around and went the other way. It struck me so, but none the less with deep conviction. In fact, with the heat of the convert, I decided on the spot to throw up my editorial work and take to preaching. But Brother Simmons would not hear of it.
[Footnote: Brother Simmons. [The Rev. Ichabod Simmons.]]
"No, no, Jacob," he said; "not that. We have preachers enough. What the world needs is consecrated pens."
Then and there I consecrated mine. I wish I could honestly say that it has always come up to the high ideal set it then. I can say, though, that it has ever striven, toward it, and that scarce a day has passed since that I have not thought of the charge then laid upon it and upon me.
The immediate result was a campaign for reform that made the town stare. It struck the politicians first. They were Democrats, and I was running a Democratic paper. I did it con amore, too, for it was in the days of the scandals of Grant's second term, and the disgrace of it was foul. So far we were agreed. But it happened that the chief obstacle to Democratic success in the Twenty-second Ward, where my paper was located, was the police captain of the precinct, John Mackellar, who died the other day as Deputy Chief of the Borough of Brooklyn. Mackellar was a Republican of a pronounced type and a good deal of a politician besides. Therefore he must go. But he was my friend. I had but two in the entire neighborhood who really cared for me—Edward Wells, clerk in a drug-store across the street, who was of my own age, and Mackellar. Between us had sprung up a strong attachment, and I could not think of having Mackellar removed, particularly as he had done nothing to deserve it. He was a good policeman. I told the bosses so. They insisted; pleaded political expedience. I told them I would not allow it, and when they went ahead in spite of me, told the truth about it in my paper. The Twenty-second was really a Republican ward. The attitude of the News killed the job.
The Democratic bosses were indignant.
"How can we run the ward with you acting that way?" they asked. I told them I did not care if they didn't. I could run it better myself, it seemed.
They said nothing. They had other resources. The chief of them—he was a judge—came around and had a friendly talk with me. He showed me that I was going against my own interest. I was just starting out in life. I had energy, education. They were qualities that in politics were convertible into gold, much gold, if I would but follow him and his fortunes.
"I never had an education," he said. "I need you. If you will stick to me, I will make you rich."
I think he meant it. He certainly could have done so had he chosen. He himself died rich. He was not a bad fellow, as bosses go. But I did not like boss politics. And the bait did not tempt me. I never wanted to be rich. I am afraid it would make me grasping; I think I am built that way. Anyhow, it is too much bother. I wanted to run my own paper, and I told him so.
"Well," he said, "you are young. Think it over."
It was some time after that I read in a newspaper, upon returning from a hunting trip to Staten Island, that I had been that day appointed an interpreter in my friend the judge's court, at a salary of $100 a month. I went to him and asked him what it meant.
"Well," he said, "we need an interpreter. There are a good many Scandinavians and Germans in my district. You know their language?"
"But," I protested, "I have no time to go interpreting police court cases. I don't want the office."
He pushed me out with a friendly shoulder-pat. "You go back and wait till I send for you. We can lump the cases, and we won't need you every day."
In fact, they did not need me more than two or three times that month, at the end of which I drew my pay with many qualms of conscience. My services were certainly not worth the money I received. Such is the soothing power of public "pap": on the second pay-day, though I had performed even less service, I did not feel nearly so bad about it. My third check I drew as a matter of course. I was "one of the boys" now, and treated with familiarity by men whom I did not like a bit, and who, I am sure, did not like me. But the cordiality did not long endure. It soon appeared that the interpreter in the judge's court had other duties than merely to see justice done to helpless foreigners; among them to see things politically as His Honor did. I did not. A ruction followed speedily—I think it was about our old friend Mackellar—that wound up by his calling me an ingrate. It was a favorite word of his, as I have noticed it is of all bosses, and it meant everything reprehensible. He did not discharge me; he couldn't. I was as much a part of the court as he was, having been appointed under a State law. But the power of the Legislature that had created me was invoked to kill me, and, for appearance's sake, the office. Before it adjourned, the same Legislature resurrected the office, but not me. So contradictory is human nature that by that time I was quite ready to fight for my "rights." But for once I was outclassed. The judge and the Legislature were too many for me, and I retired as gracefully as I could.
So ceased my career as a public officer, and forever. It was the only office I ever held, and I do not want another. I am ashamed yet, twenty-five years after, of having held that one. Because, however I try to gloss it over, I was, while I held it, a sinecurist, pure and simple.
However, it did not dampen my zeal for reform in the least. That encompassed the whole range of my little world; nor would it brook delay even for a minute. It did not consider ways and means, and was in nowise tempered with discretion. Looking back now, it seems strange that I never was made to figure in the police court in those days in another capacity than that of interpreter. Not that I did anything for which I should have been rightly jailed. But people will object to being dragged by the hair even in the ways of reform. When the grocer on my corner complained that he was being ruined by "beats" who did not pay their bills and thereby compelled him to charge those who did pay more, in order that he might live, I started in at once to make those beats pay up. I gave notice, in a plain statement of the case in my editorial columns, that they must settle their scores for the sake of the grocer and the general good, or I would publish their names. I was as good as my word. I not only published the list of them, but how much and how long they owed it, and called upon them to pay or move out of the ward.
Did they move? Well, no! Perhaps it was too much to expect. They were comfortable. They stayed to poison the mind of the town against the man who was lying awake nights to serve it; in which laudable effort they were ably seconded by the corner grocer. I record without regret the subsequent failure of that tradesman. There were several things wrong with the details of my campaign,—for one thing, I had omitted to include him among the beats,—but in its large lines we can all agree that it was right. It was only another illustration of the difficulty of reducing high preaching to practice. Instead of society hailing me as its saviour, I grew personally unpopular. I doubt if I had another friend in the world beside the two I have mentioned. But the circulation of my paper grew enormously. It was doubled and trebled week by week—a fact which I accepted as public recognition of the righteousness of my cause. I was wrong in that. The fact was that ours was a community of people with a normally healthy appetite for knowing one's neighbor's business. I suppose the thing has been mistaken before by inexperience for moral enthusiasm, and will be again.
I must stop here to tell the reason why I would not convict the meanest thief on circumstantial evidence. I would rather let a thousand go free than risk with one what I risked and shudder yet to think of. There had been some public excitement that summer about mad dogs, especially spitz-dogs. A good many persons had been bitten, and the authorities of Massachusetts, if I remember rightly, had put that particular breed under the ban as dangerous at all times. There was one always prowling about the lot behind my office, through which the way led to my boarding-house, and, when it snapped at my leg in passing one day, I determined to kill it in the interest of public safety. I sent my office-boy out to buy a handful of buckshot, and, when he brought it, set about loading both barrels of the fowling-piece that stood in my office. While I was so occupied, my friend the drug-clerk came in, and wanted to know what I was up to. Shooting a dog, I said, and he laughed:—
"Looks as though you were going gunning for your beats."
I echoed his laugh thoughtlessly enough; but the thing reminded me that it was unlawful to shoot within the city limits, and I sent the boy up to the station to tell the captain to never mind if he heard shooting around: I was going out for a dog. With that I went forth upon my quest.
The dog was there; but he escaped before I could get a shot at him. He dodged, growling and snapping, among the weeds, and at last ran into a large enclosed lot in which there were stacks of lumber and junk and many hiding-places. I knew that he could not get out, for the board fence was high and tight. So I went in and shut the door after me, and had him.
I should have said before that among my enemies was a worthless fellow, a hanger-on of the local political machine, who had that afternoon been in the office annoying me with his loud and boisterous talk. He was drunk, and as there were some people to see me, I put him out. He persisted in coming back, and I finally told him, in the hearing of a dozen persons, to go about his business, or some serious harm would befall him. If I connected any idea with it, it was to call a policeman; but I left them to infer something worse, I suppose. Getting arrested was not very serious business with him. He went out, swearing.
It was twilight when I began my still-hunt for the spitz in the lumber lot, and the outlines of things were more or less vague; but I followed the dog about until at last I made him out standing on a pile of boards a little way off. It was my chance. I raised the gun quickly and took aim. I had both barrels cocked and my finger on the trigger, when something told me quite distinctly not to shoot; to put down the gun and go closer. I did so, and found, not the dog as I thought, but my enemy whom I had threatened but an hour or two before, asleep at full length on the stack, with his coat rolled under his head for a pillow. It was his white shirt-bosom which I had mistaken in the twilight for the spitz dog.
He never knew of his peril. I saw my own at a glance, and it appalled me. Stranger that I was, hated and denounced by many who would have posed as victims of my violence; with this record against me of threatening the man whom I would be accused of having slain an hour later; with my two only friends compelled to give evidence which would make me out as artfully plotting murder under the shield of a palpable invention—for who ever heard of any one notifying the police that he was going to shoot a dog?—with no family connection or previous good character to build a defence upon: where would have been my chance of escape? What stronger chain of circumstantial evidence could have been woven to bring me, an innocent man, to the gallows? I have often wished to forget that evening by the sleeping man in the lumber lot. I cannot even now write calmly about it. Many months passed before I could persuade myself to touch my gun, fond as I had always been of carrying it through the woods.
Of all this the beats knew nothing. They kept up their warfare of backbiting and of raising petty ructions at the office when I was not there, until I hit upon the plan of putting Pat in charge. Pat was a typical Irish coal-heaver, who would a sight rather fight than eat. There was a coal office in the building, and Pat was generally hanging around, looking for a job. I paid him a dollar a week to keep the office clear of intruders, and after that there was no trouble. There was never any fighting, either. The mere appearance of Pat in the doorway was enough, to his great disgust. It was a success as far as preserving the peace of the office was concerned. But with it there grew up, unknown to me, an impression that personally I would not fight, and the courage of the beats rose correspondingly. They determined to ambush me and have it out with me. One wintry Saturday night, when I was alone in the office closing up the business of the week, they met on the opposite corner to see me get a thrashing. One of their number, a giant in stature, but the biggest coward of the lot, was to administer it. He was fitted out with an immense hickory club for the purpose, and to nerve his arm they filled him with drink.
My office had a large window running the whole length of the front, with a sill knee-high that made a very good seat when chairs were scarce. Only, one had to be careful not to lean against the window. It was made of small panes set in a slight wooden framework, which every strong wind blew out or in, and I was in constant dread lest the whole thing should collapse. On that particular night the window was covered with a heavy hoarfrost, so that it was quite impossible to see from outside what was going on within, or vice versa. From my seat behind the desk I caught sight through the door, as it was opened by a chance caller, of the gang on the opposite corner, with Jones and his hickory club, and knew what was coming. I knew Jones, too, and awaited his debut as a fighter with some curiosity.
He came over, bravely enough, after the fifth or sixth drink, opened the door, and marched in with the tread of a grenadier. But the moment it fell to behind him, he stood and shook so that the club fairly rattled on the floor. Outside the gang were hugging their sides in expectation of what was coming.
"Well, Jones," I said, "what is it?"
He mumbled something so tremulously and incoherently that I felt really sorry for him. Jones was not a bad fellow, though he was in bad company just then. I told him so, and that it would be best for him to go out quietly, or he might hurt himself. He seemed to be relieved at the suggestion, and when I went from behind the counter and led him toward the door, he went willingly enough. But as I put my hand on the latch he remembered his errand, and, with a sudden plucking up of courage at the thought of the waiting gang, he raised the stick to strike at me.
Honestly, I didn't touch the man with a finger. I suppose he stumbled over the sill, as I had sometimes done in my sober senses. Whatever the cause, he fell against the window, and out with him it went, the whole of the glass front, with a crash that resounded from one end of the avenue to the other, and brought neighbors and policemen, among them my friend the captain, on a run to the store. In the midst of the wreck lay Jones, moaning feebly that his back was broken. The beats crowded around with loud outcry.
"He threw him out of the window," they cried. "We saw him do it! Through window and all, threw him bodily! Did he not, Jones?"
Jones, who was being picked up and carried into my office, where they laid him on the counter while they sent in haste for a doctor, nodded that it was so. Probably he thought it was. I cannot even blame the beats. It must have seemed to them that I threw him out. They called upon the captain with vehement demand to arrest me for murder. I looked at him; his face was serious.
"Why, I didn't touch him," I said indignantly. "He must have fallen."
"Fallen!" they shouted. "We saw him come flying through. Fallen! Look at the window!" And indeed it was a sorry sight.
Dr. Howe came with his instrument box, and the crowd increased. The doctor was a young man who had been very much amused by my battle with the beats, and, though he professed no special friendship for me, had no respect for the others. He felt the groaning patient over, punched him here and there, looked surprised, and felt again. Then he winked one eye at the captain and me.
"Jones," he said, "get up! There is nothing the matter with you. Go and get sober."
The beats stood speechless.
"He came right through this window," they began. "We saw him—"
"Something has come through the window, evidently," said the captain, with asperity, "and broken it. Who is to pay for it? If you say it was Jones, it is my duty to hold you as witnesses, if Mr. Riis makes a charge of disorderly conduct against him, as I suppose he will." He trod hard on my toe. "A man cannot jump through another man's window like that. Here, let me—"
But they were gone. I never heard from them again. But ever after the reputation clung to me of being a terrible fighter when roused. Jones swore to it, drunk or sober. Twenty witnesses backed him up. I was able to discharge Pat that week. There was never an ill word in my street after that. I suppose my renown as a scrapper survives yet in the old ward. As in the other case, the chain of circumstantial evidence was perfect. No link was missing. None could have been forged to make it stronger.
I wouldn't hang a dog on such evidence. And I think I am justified in taking that stand.
The summer and fall had worn away, and no word had come from home. Mother, who knew, gave no sign. Every day, when the letter-carrier came up the street, my hopes rose high until he had passed. The letter I longed for never came. It was farthest from my thoughts when, one night in the closing days of a hot political campaign, I went to my office and found it lying there. I knew by the throbbing of my heart what it was the instant I saw it. I think I sat as much as a quarter of an hour staring dumbly at the unopened envelope. Then I arose slowly, like one grown suddenly old, put it in my pocket, and stumbled homeward, walking as if in a dream. I went up to my room and locked myself in.
It lies before me as I write, that blessed letter, the first love-letter I had ever received; much faded and worn, and patched in many places to keep it together. The queer row of foreign stamps climbing over one another—she told me afterward that she had no idea how many were needed for a letter to America, and was afraid to ask, so she put on three times more than would have been enough—and the address in her fair round hand,
Mr. Jacob A. Riis, Editor South Brooklyn News, Fifth Avenue cor. Ninth Street, Brooklyn, N. Y, North America,
the postmark of the little town of Hadersleben, where she was teaching school, the old-fashioned shape of the envelope—they all then and there entered into my life and became part of it, to abide forever with light and joy and thanksgiving. How much of sunshine one little letter can contain! Six years seemed all at once the merest breath of time to have waited for it. Toil, hardship, trouble—with that letter in my keep? I laughed out loud at the thought. The sound of my own voice sobered me. I knelt down and prayed long and fervently that I might strive with all my might to deserve the great happiness that had come to me.
The stars were long out when my landlord, who had heard my restless walk overhead, knocked to ask if anything was the matter. He must have seen it in my face when he opened the door, for he took a sidelong step, shading his eyes from the lamp to get a better look, and held out his hand.
"Wish you joy, old man," he said heartily. "Tell us of it, will you?" And I did.
It is true that all the world loves a lover. It smiled upon me all day long, and I smiled back. Even the beats looked askance at me no longer. The politicians who came offering to buy the influence of my paper in the election were allowed to escape with their lives. I wrote—I think I wrote to her every day. At least that is what I do now when I go away from home. She laughs when she tells me that in the first letter I spoke of coming home in a year. Meanwhile, according to her wish, we were to say nothing about it. In the second letter I decided upon the following spring. In the third I spoke of perhaps going in the winter. The fourth and fifth preferred the early winter. The sixth reached her from Hamburg, on the heels of a telegram announcing that I had that day arrived in Frisia.