"Look at that," he said to me, with a pathetic sweep of the arm, "now just look at that! There's a poor, demented soul, with no one to look after him. His brother is a hard-working saddler. His sister is dead. No money to speak of, any of them." He paused a moment, and then added, "I don't know what we're to do in such cases. The state and the county don't always do their duty. Most people here are too poor to help, there are so many to be taken care of. It seems almost at times as if you can't do anything but leave them to the mercy of God, and yet you can't do that either, quite," and he once more shook his head sadly.
I was for denouncing the county, but he explained very charitably that it was already very heavily taxed by such cases. He did not seem to know exactly what should be done at the time, but he was very sorry, very, and for the time being the warm argument in which he had been indulging was completely forgotten. Now he lapsed into silence and all communication was suspended, while he rocked silently in his great chair and thought.
One day in passing the local poor-farm (and this is of my own knowledge), he came upon a man beating a poor idiot with a whip. The latter was incapable of reasoning and therefore of understanding why it was that he was being beaten. The two were beside a wood-pile and the demented one was crying. In a moment the old patriarch had jumped out of his conveyance, leaped over the fence, and confronted the amazed attendant with an uplifted arm.
"Not another lick!" he fairly shouted. "What do you mean by striking an idiot?"
"Why," explained the attendant, "I want him to carry in the wood, and he won't do it."
"It is not his place to bring in the wood. He isn't put here for that, and in the next place he can't understand what you mean. He's put here to be taken care of. Don't you dare strike him again. I'll see about this, and you."
Knowing his interrupter well, his position and power in the community, the man endeavored to explain that some work must be done by the inmates, and that this one was refractory. The only way he had of making him understand was by whipping him.
"Not another word," the old man blustered, overawing the county hireling. "You've done a wrong, and you know it. I'll see to this," and off he bustled to the county courthouse, leaving the transgressor so badly frightened that whips thereafter were carefully concealed, in this institution at least. The court, which was held in his home town, was not in session at the time, and only the clerk was present when he came tramping down the aisle and stood before the latter with his right hand uplifted in the position of one about to make oath.
"Swear me," he called solemnly, and without further explanation, as the latter stared at him. "I want you to take this testimony under oath."
The clerk knew well enough the remarkable characteristics of his guest, whose actions were only too often inexplicable from the ground point of policy and convention. Without ado, after swearing him, he got out ink and paper, and the patriarch began.
"I saw," he said, "in the yard of the county farm of this county, not over an hour ago, a poor helpless idiot, too weak-minded to understand what was required of him, and put in that institution by the people of this county to be cared for, being beaten with a cowhide by Mark Sheffels, who is an attendant there, because the idiot did not understand enough to carry in wood, which the people have hired Mark Sheffels to carry in. Think of it," he added, quite forgetting the nature of his testimony and that he was now speaking for dictation and not for an audience to hear, and going off into a most scorching and brilliant arraignment of the entire system in which such brutality could occur, "a poor helpless idiot, unable to frame in his own disordered mind a single clear sentence, being beaten by a sensible, healthy brute too lazy and trifling to perform the duties for which he was hired and which he personally is supposed to perform."
There was more to the effect, for instance, that the American people and the people of this county should be ashamed to think that such crimes should be permitted and go unpunished, and that this was a fair sample. The clerk, realizing the importance of Mr. White in the community, and the likelihood of his following up his charges very vigorously, quietly followed his address in a very deferential way, jotting down such salient features as he had time to write. When he was through, however, he ventured to lift his voice in protest.
"You know, Mr. White," he said, "Sheffels is a member of our party, and was appointed by us. Of course, now, it's too bad that this thing should have happened, and he ought to be dropped, but if you are going to make a public matter of it in this way it may hurt us in the election next month."
The old patriarch threw back his head and gazed at him in the most blazing way, almost without comprehension, apparently, of so petty a view.
"What!" he exclaimed. "What's that got to do with it? Do you want the Democratic Party to starve the poor and beat the insane?"
The opposition was rather flattened by the reply, and left the old gentleman to storm out. For once, at least, in this particular instance, anyhow, he had purified the political atmosphere, as if by lightning, and within the month following the offending attendant was dropped.
Politics, however, had long known his influence in a similar way. There was a time when he was the chief political figure in the county, and possessed the gift of oratory, apparently, beyond that of any of his fellow-citizens. Men came miles to hear him, and he took occasion to voice his views on every important issue. It was his custom in those days, for instance, when he had anything of special importance to say, to have printed at his own expense a few placards announcing his coming, which he would then carry to the town selected for his address and personally nail up. When the hour came, a crowd, as I am told, was never wanting. Citizens and farmers of both parties for miles about usually came to hear him.
Personally I never knew how towering his figure had been in the past, or how truly he had been admired, until one day I drifted in upon a lone bachelor who occupied a hut some fifteen miles from the patriarch's home and who was rather noted in the community at the time that I was there for his love of seclusion and indifference to current events. He had not visited the nearest neighboring village in something like five years, and had not been to the moderate-sized county seat in ten. Naturally he treasured memories of his younger days and more varied activity.
"I don't know," he said to me one day, in discussing modern statesmen and political fame in general, "but getting up in politics is a queer game. I can't understand it. Men that you'd think ought to get up don't seem to. It doesn't seem to be real greatness that helps 'em along."
"What makes you say that?" I asked.
"Well, there used to be a man over here at Danville that I always thought would get up, and yet he didn't. He was the finest orator I ever heard."
"Who was he?" I asked.
"Arch White," he said quietly. "He was really a great man. He was a good man. Why, many's the time I've driven fifteen miles to hear him. I used to like to go into Danville just for that reason. He used to be around there, and sometimes he'd talk a little. He could stir a fellow up."
"Oratory alone won't make a statesman," I ventured, more to draw him out than to object.
"Oh, I know," he answered, "but White was a good man. The plainest-spoken fellow I ever heard. He seemed to be able to tell us just what was the matter with us, or at least I thought so. He always seemed a wonderful speaker to me. I've seen as many as two thousand people up at High Hill hollerin' over what he was saying until you could hear them for miles."
"Why didn't he get up, then, do you suppose?" I now asked on my part.
"I dunno," he answered. "Guess he was too honest, maybe. It's sometimes that way in politics, you know. He was a mighty determined man, and one that would talk out in convention, whatever happened. Whenever they got to twisting things too much and doing what wasn't just honest, I suppose he'd kick out. Anyhow, he didn't get up, and I've always wondered at it."
In Danville one might hear other stories wholly bearing out this latter opinion, and always interesting—delightful, really. Thus, a long, enduring political quarrel was once generated by an incident of no great importance, save that it revealed an odd streak in the old patriarch's character and his interpretation of charity and duty.
A certain young man, well known to the people of this county and to the patriarch, came to Danville one day and either drank up or gambled away a certain sum of money intrusted to him by his aunt for disposition in an entirely different manner. When the day was all over, however, he was not too drunk to realize that he was in a rather serious predicament, and so, riding out of town, traveled a little way and then tearing his clothes and marking his skin, returned, complaining that he had been set upon by the wayside, beaten, and finally robbed. His clothes were in a fine state of dilapidation after his efforts, and even his body bore marks which amply seconded his protestation. In the slush and rain of the dark village street he was finally picked up by the county treasurer seemingly in a wretched state, and the latter, knowing the generosity of White and the fact that his door was always open to those in distress, took the young man by the arm and led him to the patriarch's door, where he personally applied for him. The old patriarch, holding a lamp over his head, finally appeared and peered outward into the darkness.
"Yes," he exclaimed, as he always did, eyeing the victim; "what is it you want of me?"
"Mr. White," said the treasurer, "it's me. I've got young Squiers here, who needs your sympathy and aid tonight. He's been beaten and robbed out here on the road while he was on his way to his mother's home."
"Who?" inquired the patriarch, stepping out on the porch and eyeing the newcomer, the while he held the lamp down so as to get a good look. "Billy Squiers!" he exclaimed when he saw who it was. "Mr. Morton, I'll not take this man into my house. I know him. He's a drunkard and a liar. No man has robbed him. This is all a pretense, and I want you to take him away from here. Put him in the hotel. I'll pay his expenses for the night, but he can't come into my home," and he retired, closing the door after him.
The treasurer fell back amazed at this onslaught, but recovered sufficiently to knock at the door once more and declare to his friend that he deemed him no Christian in taking such a stand and that true religion commanded otherwise, even though he suspected the worst. The man was injured and penniless. He even went so far as to quote the parable of the good Samaritan who passed down by way of Jericho and rescued him who had fallen among thieves. The argument had long continued into the night and rain before the old patriarch finally waved them both away.
"Don't you quote Scripture to me," he finally shouted defiantly, still holding the light and flourishing it in an oratorical sweep. "I know my Bible. There's nothing in it requiring me to shield liars and drunkards, not a bit of it," and once more he went in and closed the door.
Nevertheless the youth was housed and fed at his expense and no charge of any kind made against him, although many believed, as did Mr. White, that he was guilty of theft, whereas others of the opposing political camp believed not. However, considerable opposition, based on old Mr. White's lack of humanity in this instance, was generated by this argument, and for years he was taunted with it although he always maintained that he was justified and that the Lord did not require any such service of him.
The crowning quality of nearly all of his mercies, as one may easily see, was their humor. Even he was not unaware, in retrospect, of the figure he made at times, and would smilingly tell, under provocation, of his peculiar attitude on one occasion or another. Partially from himself, from those who saw it, and the judge presiding in the case, was the following characteristic anecdote gathered.
In the same community with him at one time lived a certain man by the name of Moore, who in his day had been an expert tobacco picker, but who later had come by an injury to his hand and so turned cobbler, and a rather helpless, although not hopeless, one at that. Mr. White had known this man from boyhood up, and had been a witness at various times to the many changes in his fortunes, from the time, for instance, when he had earned as much as several dollars a day—good pay in that region—to the hour when he took a cobbler's kit upon his back and began to eke out a bare livelihood for his old age by traveling about the countryside mending shoes. At the time under consideration, this ex-tobacco picker had degenerated into so humble a thing as Uncle Bobby Moore, a poor, half-remembered cobbler, whose earlier state but few knew, and who at this time had only a few charitably inclined friends, with some of whom he spent the more pleasant portion of the year from spring to fall. Thus, it was his custom to begin his annual pilgrimage with a visit of ten days to Mr. White, where he would sit and cobble shoes for all the members of the household. From here he would go to another acquaintance some ten miles farther on, where he could enjoy the early fruit which was then ripening in delicious quantity. Then he would visit a friendly farmer whose home was upon the Missouri River still farther away, where he did his annual fishing, and so on by slow degrees, until at last he would reach a neighborhood rich in cider presses, where he would wind up the fall, and so end his travel for the winter, beginning his peculiar round once more the following spring at the home of Mr. White. Naturally the old patriarch knew him and liked him passing well.
As he grew older, however, Uncle Bobby reached the place where even by this method and his best efforts he could scarcely make enough to sustain him in comfort during the winter season, which was one of nearly six months, free as his food and lodging occasionally were. He was too feeble. Not desiring to put himself upon any friend for more than a short visit, he finally applied to the patriarch.
"I come to you, Mr. White," he said, "because I don't think I can do for myself any longer in the winter season. My hand hurts a good deal and I get tired so easily. I want to know if you'd won't help me to get into the county farm during the winter months, anyhow. In summer I can still look out for myself, I think."
In short, he made it clear that in summer he preferred to be out so that he might visit his friends and still enjoy his declining years.
The old patriarch was visibly moved by this appeal, and seizing him by the arm and leading off toward the courthouse where the judge governing such cases was then sitting he exclaimed, "Come right down here, Uncle Bobby. I'll see what can be done about this. Your old age shouldn't be troubled in this fashion—not after all the efforts you have made to maintain yourself," and bursting in on the court a few moments later, where a trial was holding at the time, he deliberately led his charge down the aisle, disturbing the court proceedings by so doing, and calling as he came:
"Your Honor, I want you to hear this case especially. It's a very important and a very sad case, indeed."
Agape, the spectators paused to listen. The judge, an old and appreciative friend of his, turned a solemn eye upon this latest evidence of eccentricity.
"What is it, Mr. White?" he inquired.
"Your Honor," returned the latter in his most earnest and oratorical manner, "this man here, as you may or may not know, is an old and honorable citizen of this county. He has been here nearly all the days of his life, and every day of that time he has earned an honest living. These people here," he said, gazing about upon the interested spectators, "can witness whether or not he was one of the best tobacco pickers this county ever saw. Mayhew," he interrupted himself to call to a spectator on one of the benches, "you know whether Uncle Bobby always earned an honest living. Speak up. Tell the Court, did he?"
"Yes, Mr. White," said Mayhew quickly, "he did."
"Morrison," he called, turning in another direction, where an aged farmer sat, "what do you know of this man?"
Mr. Morrison was about to reply, when the Court interfered.
"The Court knows, Mr. White, that he is an honest man. Now what would you have it do?"
"Well, your Honor," resumed the speaker, indifferently following his own oratorical bent, the while the company surveyed him, amused and smiling, "this man has always earned an honest living until he injured his hand here in some way a number of years ago, and since then it has been difficult for him to make his way and he has been cobbling for a living. However, he is getting so old now that he can't even earn much at that, except in the spring and summer, and so I brought him here to have him assigned a place in the county infirmary. I want you to make out an order admitting him to that institution, so that I can take it and go with him and see that he is comfortably placed."
"All right, Mr. White," replied the judge, surveying the two figures in mid-aisle, "I so order."
"But, your Honor," he went on, "there's an exception I want made in this case. Mr. Moore has a few friends that he likes to visit in the summer, and who like to have him visit them. I want him to have the privilege of coming out in the summer to see these people and to see me."
"All right, Mr. White," said the judge, "he shall have that privilege. Now, what else?"
Satisfied in these particulars, the aged citizen led his charge away, and then went with him to the infirmary, where he presented the order of the Court and then left him.
Things went very well with his humble client for a certain time, and Uncle Bobby was thought to be well disposed of, when one day he came to his friend again. It appeared that only recently he had been changed about in his quarters at the infirmary and put into a room with a slightly demented individual, whose nocturnal wanderings greatly disturbed his very necessary sleep.
"I want to know if you won't have them put me by myself, Mr. White," he concluded. "I need my sleep. But they say they can't do it without an order."
Once more the old patriarch led his charge before the Court, then sitting, as it happened, and breaking in upon the general proceedings as before, began:
"Your Honor, this man here, Mr. Moore, whom I brought before you some time ago, has been comfortably housed by your order, and he's deeply grateful for it, as he will tell you, and as I can, but he's an old man, your Honor, and, above all things, needs his rest. Now, of late they've been quartering him with a poor, demented sufferer down there who walks a good deal in his sleep, and it wears upon him. I've come here with him to ask you to allow him to have a room by himself, where he will be alone and rest undisturbed."
"Very well, Mr. White," said the Court, "it shall be as you request."
Without replying, the old gentleman turned and led the supplicant away.
Everything went peacefully now for a number of years, until finally Uncle Bobby, having grown so feeble with age that he feared he was soon to die, came to his friend and asked him to promise him one thing.
"What is it?" asked the latter.
By way of replying, the supplicant described an old oak tree which grew in the yard of the Baptist Church some miles from Danville, and said:
"I want you to promise that when I am dead, wherever I happen to be at the time, that you will see that I am buried under that tree." He gave no particular reason save that he had always liked the tree and the view it commanded, but made his request a very secret matter and begged to be assured that Mr. White would come and get his body and carry it to the old oak.
The latter, always a respecter of the peculiarities and crotchets of his friends, promised. After a few years went by, suddenly one day he learned that Uncle Bobby was not only dead but buried, a thing which astonished him greatly. No one locally being supposed to know that he was to have had any special form of burial, the old patriarch at once recalled his promise.
"Where is his body?" he asked.
"Why, they buried it under the old white oak over at Mt. Horeb Church," was the answer.
"What!" he exclaimed, too astonished to think of anything save his lost privilege of mercy, "who told them to bury him there?"
"Why, he did," said the friend. "It was his last wish, I believe."
"The confounded villain," he shouted, amusingly enough. "He led me to believe that I was the only one he told. I alone was to have looked after his burial, and now look at him—going and having himself buried without a word. The scoundrel! Would you believe that an old friend like Uncle Bobby would do anything like that? However," he added after a time, "I think I know how it was. He got so old and feeble here of late that he must have lost his mind—otherwise he would never have done anything like that to me."
And with this he was satisfied to rest and let bygones be bygones.
De Maupassant, Junior
He dawned on me in the spring of 1906, a stocky, sturdy, penetrative temperament of not more than twenty-four or -five years of age, steady of eye, rather aloof and yet pervasive and bristling; a devouring type. Without saying much, and seeming to take anything I had to say with a grain of salt, he managed to impress himself on me at once. Frankly, I liked him very much, although I could see at a glance that he was not so very much impressed with me. I was an older man than he by, say, ten years, an editor of an unimportant magazine, newly brought in (which he did not know) to turn it into something better. In order to earn a few dollars he had undertaken to prepare for the previous editor a most ridiculous article, some silly thing about newspaper writing as a career for women. It had been ordered or encouraged, and I felt that it was but just that it should be paid for.
"Why do you waste your time on a thing like that?" I inquired, smiling and trying to criticize and yet encourage him at one and the same time, for I had been annoyed by many similar assignments given out by the old management which could not now be used. "You look to me to have too much force and sense for that. Why not undertake something worth your time?"
"My time, hell!" he bristled, like a fighting sledge-dog, of which by the way he reminded me. "You show me a magazine in this town that would buy anything that I thought worthy of my time! You're like all the rest of them: you talk big, but you really don't want anything very important. You want little things probably, written to a theory or down to 'our policy.' I know. Give me the stuff. You don't have to take it. It was ordered, but I'll throw it in the waste basket."
"Not so fast! Not so fast!" I replied, admiring his courage and moved by his contempt of the editorial and book publishing conditions in America. He was so young and raw and savage in his way, quite animal, and yet how interesting! There was something as fresh and clean about him as a newly plowed field or the virgin prairies. He typified for me all the young unsophisticated strength of my country, but with more "punch" than it usually manifests, in matters intellectual at least. "Now, don't get excited, and don't snarl," I cooed. "I know what you say is true. They don't really want much of what you have to offer. I don't. Working for some one else, as most of us do, for the dear circulation department, it's not possible for us to get very far above crowd needs and tastes. I've been in your position exactly. I am now. Where do you come from?"
He told me—Missouri—and some very few years before from its state university.
"And what is it you want to do?"
"What's that to you?" he replied irritatingly, with an ingrowing and obvious self-conviction of superiority and withdrawing as though he highly resented my question as condescending and intrusive. "You probably wouldn't understand if I told you. Just now I want to write enough magazine stuff to make a living, that's all."
"Dear, dear!" I said, laughing at the slap. "What a bravo we are! Really, you're interesting. But suppose now you and I get down to brass tacks. You want to do something interesting, if you can, and get paid for it. I rather like you, and anyhow you look to me as though you might do the things I want, or some of them. Now, you want to do the least silly thing you can—something better than this. I want the least silly stuff I can get away with in this magazine—genuine color out of the life of New York, if such a thing can be published in an ordinary magazine. Roughly, here's the kind of thing I want," and I outlined to him the probable policy of the magazine under my direction. I had taken an anaemic "white-light" monthly known as The Broadway (!) and was attempting to recast it into a national or international metropolitan picture. He thawed slightly.
"Well, maybe with that sort of idea behind it, it might come to something. I don't know. It's possible that you may be the one to do it." He emphasized the "possible." "At any rate, it's worth trying. Judging by the snide editors and publications in this town, no one in America wants anything decent." His lip curled. "I have ambitions of my own, but I don't expect to work them out through the magazines of this town; maybe not of this country. I didn't know that any change was under way here."
"Well, it is," I said. "Still, you can't expect much from this either, remember. After all, it seeks to be a popular magazine. We'll see how far we can go with really interesting material. And now if you know of any others like yourself, bring them in here. I need them. I'll pay you for that article, only I'll include it in a better price I'll give you for something else later, see?"
I smiled and he smiled. His was a warmth which was infectious when he chose to yield, but it was always a repressed warmth, cynical, a bit hard; heat chained to a purpose, I thought. He went away and I saw him no more until about a week later when he brought me his first attempt to give me what I wanted.
In the meantime I was busy organizing a staff which should if possible, I decided after seeing him, include him. I could probably use him as a salaried "special" writer, provided he could be trained to write "specials." He looked so intelligent and ambitious that he promised much. Besides, the little article which he had left when he came again, while not well organized or arranged as to its ideas or best points, was exceedingly well written from the point of mere expression.
And the next thing I had given him to attempt was even better. It was, if I recall correctly, a stirring picture of the East Side, intended to appeal to readers elsewhere than in the city, but while in the matter of color and definiteness of expression as well as choice of words it was exceptional, it was lacking in, quite as the first one had been, the arrangement of its best points. This I explained to him, and also made it clear to him that I could show him how if he would let me. He seemed willing enough, quite anxious, although always with an air of reserve, as if he were accommodating himself to me in this much but no more. He grasped the idea of order swiftly, and in a little while, having worked at a table in an outer room, brought me the rearranged material, almost if not quite satisfactory. During a number of weeks and months thereafter, working on one "special" and another in this way with me, he seemed finally to grasp the theory I had, or at least to develop a method of his own which was quite as satisfactory to me, and I was very much pleased. A little later I employed him at a regular salary.
It was pathetic, as I look at it now, the things we were trying to do and the conditions under which we were trying to do them—the raw commercial force and theory which underlay the whole thing, the necessity of explaining and fighting for so much that one should not, as I saw it then, have to argue over at all. We were in new rooms, in a new building, filled with lumber not yet placed and awaiting the completion of partitions which, as some one remarked, "would divide us up." Our publisher and owner was a small, energetic, vibrant and colorful soul, all egotism and middle-class conviction as to the need of "push," ambition, "closeness to life," "punch," and what not else, American to the core, and descending on us, or me rather, hourly as it were, demanding the "hows" and the "whyfors" of the dream which the little group I was swiftly gathering about me was seeking to make real.
It was essential to me, therefore, that something different should be done, some new fresh note concerning metropolitan life and action be struck; the old, slow and somewhat grandiose methods of reporting and describing things dispensed with, at least in this instance, and here was a youth who seemed able to help me do it. He was so vigorous, so avid of life, so anxious to picture the very atmosphere which this magazine was now seeking to portray. I felt stronger, better for having him around. The growth of the city, the character and atmosphere of a given neighborhood, the facts concerning some great social fortune, event, condition, crime interested him intensely; on the other hand he was so very easy to teach, quick to sense what was wanted and the order in which it must be presented. A few brief technical explanations from me, and he had the art of writing a "special" at his fingertips, and thereafter gave me no real difficulty.
But what was more interesting to me than his success in grasping my theory of "special" writing was his own character, as it was revealed to me from day to day in intimate working contact with him under these conditions. Here, as I soon learned, and was glad to learn, was no namby-pamby scribbler of the old happy-ending, pretty-nothing school of literary composition. On the contrary he sounded, for the first time in my dealings with literary aspirants of every kind, that sure, sane, penetrating, non-sentimental note so common to the best writers of the Continent, a note entirely free from mush, bravado and cant. He had a style as clear as water, as simple as rain; color, romance, humor; and if a little too much of vanity and self-importance, still one could forgive him for they were rather well-based. Already used to dealing with literary and artistic aspirants of different kinds in connection with the publications of which I had been a part, this one appealed to me as being the best of them all and a very refreshing change.
One day, only a few weeks after I had met him, seeing that I was alert for fiction, poetry and short essays or prose phantasies, all illustrative of the spirit of New York, he brought me a little poem entitled "Neuvain," which interested me greatly. It was so brief and forceful and yet so delicate, a double triolet of the old French order, but with the modernity and flavor of the streets outside, the conduit cars, hand-organs and dancing children of the pavements. The title seemed affected, seeing that the English word "Spring" would have done as well, but it was typical of his mood at the time, his literary adorations. He was in leash to the French school of which de Maupassant was the outstanding luminary, only I did not know it at the time.
"Charming," I exclaimed quite enthusiastically. "I like this. Let me see anything else you have. Do you write short stories?"
For answer he merely stared at me for a little while in the most examining and arrogant and contemptuous way, as much as to say, "Let me see if you are really worth my time and trouble in this matter," or "This sad specimen of alleged mentality is just beginning to suspect that I might write a short story." Seeing that I merely smiled most genially in return, he finally deigned to say, "Sure, I write short stories. What do you think I'm in the writing game for?"
"But you might be interested in novels only or plays, or poetry."
"No," he returned after a pause and with that same air of unrelieved condescension, "the short story is what I want to specialize in."
"Well," I said to myself, "here is a young cub who certainly has talent, is crowded with it, and yet owing to the kind of thing he is starting out to do and the fact that life will give him slaps and to spare before he is many years older, he needs to be encouraged. I was like that myself not so long ago. And besides, if I do not encourage this type of work financially (which is the best way of all), who will?"
About a week later I was given another and still more gratifying surprise, for one day, in his usual condescending manner, he brought to me two short pieces of fiction and laid them most gingerly on my desk with scarcely a word—"Here was something I might read if I chose," I believe. The reading of these two stories gave me as much of a start as though I had discovered a fully developed genius. They were so truly new or different in their point of view, so very clear, incisive, brief, with so much point in them (The Second Motive; The Right Man). For by then having been struggling with the short-story problem in other magazine offices before this, I had become not a little pessimistic as to the trend of American short fiction, as well as long—the impossibility of finding any, even supposing it publishable once we had it. My own experience with "Sister Carrie" as well as the fierce opposition or chilling indifference which, as I saw, overtook all those who attempted anything even partially serious in America, was enough to make me believe that the world took anything even slightly approximating the truth as one of the rankest and most criminal offenses possible. One dared not "talk out loud," one dared not report life as it was, as one lived it. And one of the primary warnings I had received from the president of this very organization—a most eager and ambitious and distressing example of that American pseudo-morality which combines a pirate-like acquisitiveness with an inward and absolute conviction of righteousness—was that while he wanted something new in fiction, something more virile and life-like than that "mush," as he characterized it, to be found in the current magazines, still (1), it must have a strong appeal for the general reader (!); and (2), be very compelling in fact and clean, as the dear general reader would of course understand that word—a solid little pair of millstones which would unquestionably end in macerating everything vital out of any good story.
Still I did not despair; something might be done. And though I sighed, I hoped to be able to make my superior stretch a point in favor of the exceptional thing, or, as the slang phrase went, "slip a few over on him," but that of course meant nothing or something, as you choose. My dream was really to find one or many like this youth, or a pungent kind of realism that would be true and yet within such limits as would make it usable. Imagine, then, my satisfaction in finding these two things, tales that I could not only admire genuinely but that I could publish, things that ought to have an interest for all who knew even a little about life. True, they were ironic, cruel, but still with humor and color, so deftly and cleanly told that they were smile-provoking. I called him and said as much, or nearly so—a mistake, as I sometimes think now, for art should be long—and bought them forthwith, hoping, almost against hope, to find many more such like them.
By this time, by the way, and as I should have said before, I had still further enlarged my staff by one art director of the most flamboyant and erratic character, a genius of sorts, volatile, restless, emotional, colorful, a veritable Verlaine-Baudelaire-Rops soul, who, not content to arrange and decorate the magazine each month, must needs wish to write, paint, compose verse and music and stage plays, as well as move in an upper social world, entree to which was his by birth. Again, there was by now an Irish-Catholic makeup editor, a graduate of some distinguished sectarian school, who was more interested in St. Jerome and his Vulgate, as an embodiment of classic Latin, than he was in getting out the magazine. Still he had the advantage of being interesting—"and I learned about Horace from him." Again, there was a most interesting and youthful and pretty, if severe, example of the Wellesley-Mt. Holyoke-Bryn Mawr school of literary art and criticism, a most engagingly interesting intellectual maiden, who functioned as assistant editor and reader in an adjoining room, along with the art-director, the makeup editor and an office boy. This very valuable and in some respects remarkable young woman, who while holding me in proper contempt, I fear, for my rather loose and unliterary ways, was still, as I had suspected before employing her, as keen for something new and vital in fiction and every other phase of the scriptic art as any one well could be. She was ever for culling, sorting, eliminating—repression carried to the N-th power. At first L—— cordially hated her, calling her a "simp," a "bluff," a "la-de-da," and what not. In addition to these there was a constantly swelling band of writers, artists, poets, critics, dreamers of reforms social, and I know not what else, who, holding the hope of achieving their ends or aims through some really forceful magazine, were by now beginning to make our place a center. It fairly swarmed for a time with aspirants; an amusing, vivid, strident world.
As for L——, all this being new to him, he was as interested, fascinated even, as any one well might be. He responded to it almost gayly at times, wondering whether something wonderful, international, enduring might not be made to come of it. He rapidly developed into one of the most pertinacious and even disconcerting youths I have ever met. At times he seemed to have a positive genius for saying and doing irritable and disagreeable things, not only to me but to others. Never having heard of me before he met me here, he was convinced, I think, that I was a mere nothing, with some slight possibilities as an editor maybe, certainly with none as a writer or as one who could even suggest anything to writers. I had helped him, but that was as it should be. As for my art-director, he was at first a fool, later a genius; ditto my makeup man.
As for Miss E——, the Wellesley-Bryn Mawr-Mt. Holyoke assistant, who from the first had agreed with me that here indeed was a writer of promise, a genius really, he, as I have said, at first despised her. Later, by dint of exulting in his force, sincerity of purpose, his keen insight and all but braggart strength, she managed, probably on account of her looks and physical graces, to install herself in his confidence and to convince him that she was not only an honest admirer of his skill but one who had taste and judgment of no mean caliber. Thereafter he was about as agreeable as a semi-caged wild animal would be about any office.
But above all he was affronted by M——, the publisher of the paper, concerning whom he could find no words equal to his contemptuous thoughts of him. The publisher, as L—— made quite bold to say to me, was little more than a "dodging, rat-like financial ferret," a "financial stool-pigeon for some trust or other," a "shrewd, material little shopkeeper." This because M—— was accustomed to enter and force a conversation here and there, anxious of course to gather the full import of all these various energies and enthusiasms. One of the things which L—— most resented in him at the time was his air of supreme material well-being, his obvious attempt and wish not to convey it, his carefully-cut clothes, his car, his numerous assistants and secretaries following him here and there from various other organizations with which he was connected.
M——'s idea, as he always said, was to spend and to live, only it wasn't. He merely induced others so to do. One of his customs (and it must have impressed L—— very much, innocent newcomer that he was) was to have one or another of his hirelings announce his passing from one "important" meeting to another, within or without his own building, telephone messages being "thrown in" on his line or barred out, wherever he happened to be at the moment and when, presumably, he was deep in one of those literary conferences or confidences with one employee or another or with a group, for which he rapidly developed a passion. Another of his vanities was to have his automobile announced and he be almost forced into it by impetuous secretaries, who, because of orders previously given, insisted that he must be made to keep certain important engagements. Or he would send for one of his hirelings, wherever he chanced to be—club, restaurant, his home—midnight if necessary, to confer with him on some subject of great moment, and the hireling was supposed to call a taxi and come post haste in order that he might not be kept waiting.
"God!" L—— once remarked in my presence. "To think that a thinking being has to be beholden to a thing like that for his weekly income! Somebody ought to tap him with a feather-duster and kill him!"
But the manner in which L—— developed in this atmosphere! It was interesting. At first, before the magazine became so significant or well-organized, it was a great pleasure for me to associate with him outside office hours, and a curious and vivid companion he made. He was so intensely avid of life, so intolerant of the old, of anything different to that which he personally desired or saw, that at times it was most difficult to say anything at all for fear of meeting a rebuff or at least a caustic objection. As I was very pleased to note, he had a passion for seeing, as all youth should have when it first comes to the great city—the great bridges, the new tunnels just then being completed or dug, the harbor and bay, Coney Island, the two new and great railway terminals, then under construction. Most, though, he reveled in different and even depressing neighborhoods—Eighth Avenue, for instance, about which he later wrote a story, and a very good one ("A Quiet Duet"); Hell's Kitchen, that neighborhood that lies (or did), on the West Side of Manhattan, between Eighth and Tenth Avenues, Thirty-sixth and Forty-first Streets; Little Italy, the region below Delancey and north of Worth Street on the East Side; Chinatown; Washington Street (Syria in America); the Greeks in Twenty-seventh and -eighth Streets, West Side. All these and many more phases of New York's multiplex life took his full and restless attention. Once he said to me quite excitedly, walking up Eighth Avenue at two in the morning—I was showing him some rear tenement slums in the summertime—"God, how I hate to go to bed in this town! I'm afraid something will happen while I'm asleep and I won't see it!" That was exactly how he felt all the time, I am sure.
And in those days he was most simple, a very Spartan of a boy. He hadn't the least taste for drink, lived in a small hall-bedroom somewhere—Eighth Avenue, I believe—and took his meals in those shabby little quick-lunch rooms where the characters were more important to him than the food. (My hat—my hat is in my hand!) Intellectually he was so stern and ambitious that I all but stood in awe of and reverence before him. Here, I said to myself, is one who will really do; let him be as savage as he pleases. In America he probably needs to be.
And during this short time, what scraps of his early life he revealed! By degrees I picked up bits of his early deprivations and difficulties, if such they might be called. He had been a newspaper reporter, or had tried to be, in Kansas City, had worked in the college restaurant and laundry of the middle-West State university from which he had graduated, to help pay his way. Afterward he had assisted the janitor of some great skyscraper somewhere—Kansas City, I believe—and, what was most pleasing to me, he in nowise emphasized these as youthful difficulties or made any comment as to their being "hard." Neither did he try to boastingly minimize them as nothing at all—another wretched pose. From him I learned that throughout his youth he had been carried here and there by the iron woman who was his mother and whom he seemed to adore in some grim contentious way, smothering his comments as though he disliked to say anything at all, and yet describing her at times as coarse and vulgar, but a mother to him "all right," someone who had made marked sacrifices for him.
She had once "run" a restaurant in a Western mining camp, had then or later carried him as a puling baby under her shawl or cloak across the Mojave Desert, on foot a part of the way. Apparently he did not know who his father was, and he was not very much concerned to know whether she did or not. His father had died, he said, when he was a baby. Later his mother, then a cook in some railroad hotel in Texas, had sent him to school there. Later still she had been a "bawler out," if you know what that means, an employee of a loan shark and used by him to compel delinquent, albeit petty and pathetic, creditors to pay their dues or then and there, before all their fellow-workers, be screamed at for their delinquency about the shop in which they worked! Later she became a private detective! an insurance agent—God knows what—a kind of rough man-woman, as she turned out to be, but all the while clinging to this boy, her pet, no doubt her dream of perfection. She had by turns sent him to common and high school and to college, remitting him such sums of money as she might to pay his way. Later still (at that very time in fact) she was seeking to come to New York to keep house for him, only he would not have that, perhaps sensing the need of greater freedom. But he wrote her regularly, as he confessed to me, and in later years I believe sent her a part of his earnings, which were to be saved by her for him against a rainy day. Among his posthumous writings later I found a very lovely story ("His Mother"), describing her and himself in unsparing and yet loving terms, a compound of the tender and the brutal in his own soul.
The thing that always made me hope for the best was that at that time he was not at all concerned with the petty little moralic and economic definitions and distinctions which were floating about his American world in one form and another. Indeed he seemed to be entirely free of and even alien to them. What he had heard about the indwelling and abiding perfections of the human soul had gone, and rightly so, in one ear and out the other. He respected the virtues, but he knew of and reckoned with die antipathetic vices which gave them their reason for being. To him the thief was almost as important as the saint, the reason for the saint's being. And, better still, he had not the least interest in American politics or society—a wonderful sign. The American dream of "getting ahead" financially and socially was not part of him—another mark royal. All life was fascinating, acceptable, to be interpreted if one had the skill; it was a great distinction to have the skill—worth endless pains to acquire it.
But how unwilling would the average American of his day have been, stuffed as he was and still is with book and picture drivel about artists and art, to accept L—— as anything more than a raw, callow yokel, presuming to assail the outer portals of the temple with his muddy feet! A romping, stamping, irritable soul, with more the air of a young railroad brakeman or "hand," than an artist, and with so much coarse language at times and such brutality of thought as to bar him completely, one might say, from having anything to do with great fiction, great artistic conceptions, or the temple of art. What, sit with the mighty!—that coarse youth, with darkish-brown hair parted at one side and combed over one ear, in the manner of a grandiose barber; with those thick-soled and none too shapely brown shoes, that none too well-made store suit of clothes, that little round brown hat, more often a cap, pulled rather savagely and vulgarly, even insultingly, over one eye; that coarse frieze overcoat, still worn on cold spring days, its "corners" back and front turned up by the damp and from being indifferently sat on; that brash corn-cob pipe and bag of cheap tobacco, extracted and lit at odd moments; what, that youth with the aggressive, irritating vibrant manner—almost the young tough with a chip on his shoulder looking for one to even so much as indicate that he is not all he should be! Positively, there was something brutal and yet cosmic (not comic) about him, his intellectual and art pretensions considered. At times his waspishness and bravado palled even on me. He was too aggressive, too forceful, too intolerant, I said. He should be softer. At other times I felt that he needed to be all that and more to "get by," as he would have said. I wanted to modify him a little—and yet I didn't—and I remained drawn to him in spite of many irritating little circumstances, all but infuriating at times, and actually calculated, it seemed, with a kind of savage skill to reduce what he conceived to be my lofty superiority. At times I thought he ought to be killed—like a father meditating on an unruly son—but the mood soon passed and his literary ability made amends for everything.
In so far as the magazine was concerned, once it began to grow and attract attention he was for me its most important asset; not that he did so much directly as that he provided a definite standard toward which we all had to work. Not incuriously, he was swiftly recognized for what he was by all who came in touch with the magazine. In the first place, interested in his progress, I had seen to it that he was properly introduced wherever that was possible and of benefit to him, and later on, by sheer force of his mental capacity and integrity, his dreams and his critical skill, he managed to center about him an entire band of seeking young writers, artists, poets, playwrights, aspiring musicians; an amusing and as interesting a group as I have ever seen. Their points of rendezvous appeared to be those same shabby quick-lunches in back streets or even on the principal thoroughfares about Times Square, or they met in each other's rooms or my office at night after I had gone, giving me as an excuse that they had work to do. And during all this time the air fairly hummed with rumors of new singers, dancers, plays, stories being begun or under way, articles and essays contemplated; avid, if none too well financed frolics or bohemian midnight suppers here and there. Money was by no means plentiful, and in consequence there was endless borrowing and "paying up" among them. Among the most enthusiastic members of this circle, as I had begun to note, and finally rather nervously, were my art-director, a valiant knight in Bohemia if ever there was one, and she of Bryn Mawr-Wellesley standards. My makeup editor, as well as various contributors who had since become more or less closely identified with the magazine, were also following him up all the time.
If not directly profitable it was enlivening, and I was fairly well convinced by now that from the point of view of being "aware," "in touch with," "in sympathy with" many of the principal tendencies and undercurrents which make for a magazine's success and precedence, this group was as valuable to me as any might well be. It constituted a "kitchen cabinet" of sorts and brought hundreds of interesting ideas to the surface, and from all directions. Now it would be a new and hitherto unheard-of tenor who was to be brought from abroad and introduced with great noise to repute-loving Americans; a new sculptor or painter who had never been heard of in America; a great actor, perhaps, or poet or writer. I listened to any quantity of gossip in regard to new movements that were ready to burst upon the world, in sculpture, painting, the scriptic art. About the whole group there was much that was exceedingly warm, youthful, full of dreams. They were intensely informative and full of hope, and I used to look at them and wonder which one, if any, was destined to have his dreams realized.
Of L—— however I never had the least doubt. He began, it is true, to adopt rather more liberal tendencies, to wish always to be part and parcel of this gayety, this rushing here and there; and he drank at times—due principally, as I thought, to my wildling art-director, who had no sense or reserve in matters material or artistic and who was all for a bacchanalian career, cost what it might. On more than one occasion I heard L—— declaring roundly, apropos of some group scheme of pilgrimage, "No, no! I will not. I am going home now!" He had a story he wanted to work on, an article to finish. At the same time he would often agree that if by a certain time, when he was through, they were still at a certain place, or a second or third, he would look them up. Never, apparently, did his work suffer in the least.
And it was about this time that I began to gather the true source and import of his literary predisposition. He was literally obsessed, as I now discovered, with Continental and more especially the French conception of art in writing. He had studied the works as well as the temperaments and experiences (more especially the latter, I fear) of such writers as de Maupassant, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Balzac, de Musset, Sand, Daudet, Dumas junior, and Zola, as well as a number of the more recent writers: Hervieu, Bourget, Louys and their contemporaries. Most of all, though, he was impressed, and deeply, by the life and art of de Maupassant, his method of approach, his unbiased outlook on life, his freedom from moral and religious and even sentimental predisposition. In the beginning of his literary career I really believe he slaved to imitate him exactly, although he could not very well escape the American temperament and rearing by which he was hopelessly conditioned. A certain Western critic and editor, to whom he had first addressed his hopes and scribblings before coming to me, writing me after L——'s death in reference to a period antedating that in which I had known him, observed, "He was crazy about the fin de siecle stuff that then held the boards and from which (I hope the recording angel will put it to my credit) I steered him clear." I think so; but he was still very much interested in it. He admired Aubrey Beardsley, the poster artists of France, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rops, the Yellow Book, even Oscar Wilde, although his was a far more substantial and plebeian and even radical point of view.
Unfortunately for L——, I have always thought, there now thrust himself forward the publisher and owner of the magazine, who from previously having been content to see that the mercantile affairs of the magazine were in good order, had decided that since it was attracting attention he should be allowed to share in its literary and artistic prestige, should indeed be closely identified with it and recognized as its true source and inspiration—a thing which in no fashion had been contemplated by me when I went there. From having agreed very distinctly with me that no such interference would at any time be indulged in, he now came forward with a plan for an advisory council which was to consist of himself and the very members of the staff which I had created.
I could not object and it did not disturb me so much personally. For some time I had been sensing that the thing was for me no end in itself, but an incident. This same I felt to be true for L——, who had been taking more and more interest in the magazine's technical composition. At the same time I saw no immediate way of arranging my affairs and departing, which left me, for a very little while, more or less of a spectator. During this time I had the dissatisfaction of noting the growth of an influence with L—— which could, as I saw, prove only harmful. M—— was no suitable guide for him. He was a brilliant but superficial and very material type who was convinced that in the having and holding of many things material—houses, lands, corporation stocks, a place in the clubs and circles of those who were materially prosperous—was really to achieve all that was significant in the now or the hereafter. Knowing comparatively nothing of either art or letters, or that subtle thing which makes for personality and atmosphere in a magazine or in writing (and especially the latter), that grateful something which attracts and detains one, he was nevertheless convinced that he did. And what was more, he was determined not only to make friends with and hold all those whom I might have attracted, providing they could prove useful to him, but also a number of a much more successful group in these fields, those who had already achieved repute in a more commonplace and popular way and were therefore presumably possessed of a following and with the power to exact a high return for their product, and for the magazine, regardless of intrinsic merit. His constant talk was of money, its power to attract and buy, the significance of all things material. He now wanted the magazine to be representative of this glowing element, and at the same time, paradoxical as it might seem, the best that might be in literary and artistic thought.
Naturally the thing was impossible, but he had a facile and specious method of arguing, a most gay and in some respects magnetic personality, far from stodgy or gross, which for a time attracted many to him. Very briskly then indeed he proceeded to make friends with all those with whom I had surrounded myself, to enter into long and even private discussions with them as to the proper conduct of the magazine, to hint quite broadly at a glorious future in which all, each one particularly to whom he talked, was to share. Curiously, this new and (as I would have thought) inimical personality of M—— seemed to appeal to L—— very much.
I do not claim that the result was fatal. It may even, or at least might, have had value, combined with an older or slightly more balanced temperament. But it seemed to me that it offered too quickly what should have come, if at all, as the result of much effort. For in regard to the very things L—— should have most guarded against—show and the shallow pleasures of social and night and material life in New York—M—— was most specious. I never knew a more intriguing and fascinating man in this respect nor one who cared less for those he used to obtain his unimportant ends. He had positive genius for making the gaudy and the unworthy seem worthy and even perfect. During his earlier days there, L—— had more than once "cursed him out" (in his absence, of course), to use his own expressive phrase, for his middle-West trade views, as he described them, his shabby social and material ideals, and yet, as I could plainly see, even at that time the virus of his theories was working. For it must be remembered that L—— was very new to New York, very young, and never having had much of anything he was no doubt slightly envious of the man's material facility, the sense of all-sufficiency, exclusiveness and even a kind of petty trade grandeur with which he tried to surround himself.
Well, that might not have proved fatal either, only L—— needed some one to keep him true to himself, his individual capabilities, to constantly caution and if possible sober him to his very severe taste, and as it was he was all but surrounded by acolytes and servitors.
A little later, having left M——'s and assumed another editorial position, and being compelled to follow the various current magazines more or less professionally, I was disturbed to note that there began to appear in various publications—especially M——'s, which was flourishing greatly for the moment—stories which while exhibiting much of the deftness and repression as well as an avidity for the true color of things, still showed what I had at first feared they might: a decided compromise. That curse of all American fiction, the necessarily happy ending, had been impressed on him—by whom? To my sincere dissatisfaction, he began writing stories, some at least, which concerned (1), a young woman who successfully abandoned art dreams for advertising; (2), a middle-aged charmer, female, who attempted libertinage and was defeated, American style; (3), a Christmas picture with sweetness and light reigning on every hand (Dickens at his sentimentalest could have done no worse); (4), a Broadway press agent who, attempting to bring patronage to a great hotel via chic vice, accidentally and unintentionally mates an all-too-good young society man turned hotel manager to a grand heiress. And so on and so on, not ad infinitum but for a period at least—the ten years in which he managed to live and work.
And, what was more, during this new period I heard and occasionally saw discouraging things in connection with him from time to time. True to his great promise, for I sincerely think M—— had a genuine fondness for his young protege, as much of a fondness as he could well have for anything, he guaranteed him perhaps as much as three thousand a year; sent him to Stockholm at the age of twenty-four or -five to meet and greet the famous false pole discoverer, Doctor Cook; allowed him to go to Paris in connection with various articles; to Rome; sent him into the middle and far West; to Broadway for dramatic and social studies. Well and good, only he wanted always in what was done for him the "uplift" note, the happy ending—or at least one not vulgar or low—whereas my idea in connection with L——, gifted as he was, was that he should confine himself to fiction as an art and without any regard to theories or types of ending, believing, as I did, that he would definitely establish himself in that way in the long run. I had no objection of course to experiences of various kinds, his taking up with any line of work which might seem at the moment far removed from realistic writing, providing always that the star of his ideal was in sight. Whenever he wrote, be it early or late, it must be in the clear, incisive, uncompromising vein of these first stories and with that passion for revelation which characterized him at first, that same unbiased and unfettered non-moral viewpoint.
But after meeting with and working for M—— under this new arrangement and being apparently fascinated for the moment by his personality, he seemed to me to gradually lose sight of his ideal, to be actually taken in by the plausible arguments which the latter could spin with the ease that a spider spins gossamer. In that respect I insist that M—— was a bad influence. Under his tutelage L—— gradually became, for instance, an habitue of a well-known and pseudo-bohemian chop-house, a most mawkish and naively imitative affair, intended frankly to be a copy or even the original, forsooth, of an old English inn, done, in so far as its woodwork was concerned, in smoked or dark-stained oak to represent an old English interior, its walls covered with long-stemmed pipes and pictures of English hunting and drinking scenes, its black-stained but unvarnished tables littered with riding, driving and country-life society papers, to give it that air of sans ceremonie with an upper world of which its habitues probably possessed no least inkling but most eagerly craved. Here, along with a goodly group of his latter-day friends, far different from those by whom he had first been surrounded—a pretentious society poet of no great merit but considerable self-emphasis, a Wall Street broker, posing as a club man, raconteur, "first-nighter" and what not, and several young and ambitious playwrights, all seeking the heaven of a Broadway success—he began to pose as one of the intimates of the great city, its bosom child as it were, the cynosure and favorite of its most glittering precincts—a most M——-like proceeding. His clothes by now, for I saw him on occasion, had taken on a more lustrous if less convincing aspect than those he had worn when I first knew him. The small round hat or rakish cap, typical of his Western dreams, had now given way to a most pretentious square-topped derby, beloved, I believe, of undertakers and a certain severe type of banker as well as some clergymen, only it was a light brown. His suit and waistcoat were of a bright English tweed, reddish-brown or herring-bone gray by turns, his shoes box-toed perfections of the button type. He carried a heavy cane, often a bright leather manuscript case, and seemed intensely absorbed in the great and dramatic business of living and writing. "One must," so I read him at this time, "take the pleasures as well as the labors of this world with the utmost severity." Here, with a grand manner, he patronized the manager and the waiters, sent word to his friend the cook, who probably did not know him at all, that his chop or steak was to be done just so. These friends of his, or at least one of them (the poet) he met every day at five for an all-essential game of chess, after which an evening paper was read and the chop ordered. Ale—not beer—in a pewter mug was comme il faut, the only thing for a gentleman of letters, worthy of the name, to drink.
I am sorry to write so, for after all youth must have its fling. Still, I had expected better of L——, and I was a little disappointed to see that earlier dream of simplicity and privation giving way to an absolutely worthless show. Besides, twenty or thirty such stories as "The Right Man," "Sweet Dreams," "The Man With the Broken Fingers," "The Second Motive," would outweigh a thousand of the things he was getting published and the profits of which permitted him these airs.
Again, during the early days of his success with M——, he had married—a young nurse who had previously been a clerk in a store, a serious, earnest and from one point of view helpful person, seeing that she could keep his domestic affairs in order and bear him children, which she did, but she had no understanding of, or flair for, the type of thing he was called upon to do. She had no instinct for literature or the arts, and aside from her domestic capacities little skill or taste for "socializing." And, naturally, he was neglecting her. His head was probably surging with great ideas of art and hence a social supremacy which might well carry him anywhere. He had bought a farm some distance from New York, where in a community supposedly inhabited by successful and superior men of letters he posed as a farmer at times, mowing and cocking hay as became a Western plow-boy; and also, as the mood moved him, and as became a great and secluded writer, working in a den entirely surrounded by books in fine leather bindings (!) and being visited by those odd satellites of the scriptic art who see in genius of this type the summum bonum of life. It was the thing to do at that time, for a writer to own a farm and work it. Horace had. One individual in particular, a man of genuine literary and critical ability and great taste in the matter of all the arts but with no least interest in or tolerance for the simplicities of effort, came here occasionally, as I heard, to help him pile hay, and this in a silk shirt and a monocle; a second—and a most fascinating intellectual flaneur, who, however, had no vision or the gift of dreams—came to eat, drink, talk of many things to be done, to steal a few ideas, borrow a little money perhaps or consume a little morphine, and depart; a third came to spout of his success in connection with plays, or his proposed successes; a fourth to paint a picture, urged on by L——; a fifth to compose rural verse; a sixth, a broker or race-track tout or city bar-tender (for color, this last), to marvel that one of L——'s sense, or any one indeed, should live in the country at all. There were drinking bouts, absolute drunkenness, in which, according to the Johnsonian tradition and that of Messieurs Rabelais and Moliere, the weary intellect and one's guiding genius were immersed in a comforting Lethe of rye.
Such things cost money, however. In addition, my young friend, due to a desire no doubt to share in the material splendors of his age (a doctrine M—— was ever fond of spouting—and as a duty, if you please), had saddled himself, for a time at least, with an apartment in an exclusive square on the East Side, the rent of which was a severe drain. Before this there had been, and after it were still, others, obligations too much for him to bear financially, all in the main taken for show, that he might be considered a literary success. Now and again (so I was told by several of his intimates), confronted by a sudden exhaustion of his bank balance, he would leave some excellent apartment house or neighborhood, where for a few months he had been living in grand style, extracting his furniture as best he might, or leaving it and various debts beside, and would take refuge in some shabby tenement, or rear rooms even, and where, touched by remorse or encouraged by the great literary and art traditions (Balzac, Baudelaire, Johnson, Goldsmith, Verlaine) he would toil unendingly at definite money-yielding manuscripts, the results of which carried to some well-paying successful magazine would yield him sufficient to return to the white lights—often even to take a better apartment than that which last had been his. By now, however, one of the two children he eventually left behind him had been born. His domestic cares were multiplying, the marriage idea dull. Still he did not hesitate to continue those dinners given to his friends, the above-mentioned group or its spiritual kin, either in his apartment or in a bohemian restaurant of great show in New York. In short, he was a fairly successful short-story writer and critic in whom still persisted a feeling that he would yet triumph in the adjacent if somewhat more difficult field of popular fiction.
It was during this period, if I may interpolate an incident, that I was waiting one night in a Broadway theater lobby for a friend to appear, when who should arrive on the scene but L——, most outlandishly dressed in what I took to be a reductio ad absurdum of his first pose, as I now half-feared it to be: that of the uncouth and rugged young American, disclaiming style in dress at least, and content to be a clod in looks so long as he was a Shelley in brains. His suit was of that coarse ill-fitting character described as Store, and shelf-worn; his shoes all but dusty brogans, his headgear a long-visored yellowish-and-brown cross-barred cap. He had on a short, badly-cut frieze overcoat, his hands stuck defiantly in his trousers pockets, forcing its lapels wide open. And he appeared to be partially if not entirely drunk, and very insolent. I had the idea that the drunkenness and the dress were a pose, or else that he had been in some neighborhood in search of copy which required such an outfit. Charitably let us accept the last. He was accompanied by two satellic souls who were doing their best to restrain him.
"Come, now! Don't make a scene. We'll see the show all right!"
"Sure we'll see the show!" he returned contentiously. "Where's the manager?"
A smug mannikin whose uniform was a dress suit, the business manager himself, eyed him in no friendly spirit from a nearby corner.
"This is Mr. L——," one of the satellites now approached and explained to the manager. "He's connected with M——'s Magazine. He does short stories and dramatics occasionally."
The manager bowed. After all, M——'s Magazine had come to have some significance on Broadway. It was as well to be civil. Courtesy was extended for three, and they went in.
As for myself, I resented the mood and the change. It was in no way my affair—his life was his own—and still I resented it. I did not believe that he was as bad as he seemed. He had too much genuine sense. It was just boyish swagger and show, and still it was time that he was getting over that and settling down. I really hoped that time would modify all this.
One thing that made me hope for the best was that very shortly after this M——'s Magazine blew completely up, leaving him without that semi-financial protection which I felt was doing him so much harm. The next favorable sign that I observed was that a small volume of short stories, some sixteen in number, and containing the cream of his work up to that time, was brought to a publishing house with which I was financially identified at the time, and although no word was said to me (I really think he took great care not to see me), still it was left and on my advice eventually published (it sold, I believe, a little under five hundred copies). But the thing that cheered me was that it contained not one story which could be looked upon as a compromise with his first views. And better, it had been brought to the concern with which I was connected—intentionally, I am sure. I was glad to have had a hand in its publication. "At least," I said, "he has not lost sight of his first ideal. He may go on now."
And thereafter, in one magazine and another, excellent enough to have but a small circulation, I saw something of his which had genuine merit. A Western critical journal began to publish a series of essays by him, for which I am sure he received nothing at all. Again, three or four years later, a second volume of stories, almost if not quite as good as his first, was issued by this same Western paper. He was trying to do serious work; but he still sought and apparently craved those grand scenes on the farm or in some New York restaurant or an expensive apartment, and when he could no longer afford it. He still wrote happy-ending, or compromise, stories for any such magazine as would receive him, and was apparently building up a reasonably secure market for them. In the meantime the moving-picture scenario market had developed, and he wrote for it. His eyes were also turning toward the stage, as one completed manuscript and several "starts" turned over to me after his death proved. One day some one who knew him and me quite well assured me that L——, having sent out many excellent stories only to have them returned, had one day cried and then raged, cursing America for its attitude toward serious letters—an excellent sign, I thought, good medicine for one who must eventually forsake his hope of material grandeur and find himself. "In time, in time," I said, "he will eat through the husks of these other things, the 'M—— complex,' and do something splendid. He can't help it. But this fantastic dream of grandeur, of being a popular success, will have to be lived down."
For a time now I heard but little more save once that he was connected with a moving-picture concern, suggesting plots and making some money. Then I saw a second series of essays in the same Western critical paper—that of the editor who had published his book—and some of them were excellent, very searching and sincere. I felt that he was moving along the right line, although they earned him nothing. Then one week, very much to my surprise, there was a very glowing and extended commentary on myself, concerning which for the time being I decided to make no comment; and a little later, perhaps three weeks, a telephone call. Did I recall him? (!) Could he come and see me? (!) I invited him to dinner, and he came, carrying, of all things—and for him, the ex-railroad boy—a great armful of red roses. This touched me.
"What's the idea?" I inquired jovially, laughing at him.
He blushed like a girl, a little irritably too, I thought, for he found me (as perhaps he had hoped not to) examining and critical, and he may have felt that I was laughing at him, which I wasn't. "I wished to give them to you, and I brought 'em. Why shouldn't I?"
"You know you should bring them if you want me to have them, and I'm only too glad to get them, anyway. Don't think I'm criticizing."
He smiled and began at once on the "old days," as he now called them, a sad commentary on our drifting days. Indeed he seemed able to talk of little else or fast enough or with too much enthusiasm. He went over many things and people—M——; K——, the wonderful art-director, now insane and a wreck; the group of which he and I had once been a part; his youthful and unsophisticated viewpoint at the time. "You know," he confessed quite frankly finally, "my mother always told me then and afterwards that I made a mistake in leaving you. You were the better influence for me. She was right. I know it now. Still, a life's a life, and we have to work through it and ourselves somehow."
I agreed heartily.
He told me of his wife, children, farm, his health and his difficulties. It appeared that he was making a bare living at times, at others doing very well. His great bane was the popular magazine, the difficulty of selling a good thing. It was true, I said, and at midnight he left, promising to come again, inviting me to come to his place in the country at my convenience. I promised.
But one thing and another interfered. I went South. One day six months later, after I had returned, he called up once more, saying he wished to see me. Of course I asked him down and he came and spoke of his health. Some doctor, an old college pal of his, was assuring him that he had Bright's disease and that he might die at any time. He wanted to know, in case anything happened to him, would I look after his many mss., most of which, the most serious efforts at least, had never been published. I agreed. Then he went away and I never saw him again. A year later I was one day informed that he had died three days before of kidney trouble. He had been West to see a moving-picture director; on his way East he had been taken ill and had stopped off with friends somewhere to be treated, or operated upon. A few weeks later he had returned to New York, but refusing to rest and believing that he could not die, so soon, had kept out of doors and in the city, until suddenly he did collapse. Or, rather, he met his favorite doctor, an intellectual savage like himself, who with some weird desire to appear forceful, definite, unsentimental perhaps—a mental condition L—— most fancied—had told him to go home and to bed, for he would be dead in forty-eight hours!—a fine bit of assurance which perhaps as much as anything else assisted L—— to die. At any rate and in spite of the ministrations of his wife, who wished to defy the doctor and who in her hope for herself and her children as well as him strove to contend against this gloom, he did so go to bed and did die. On the last day, realizing no doubt how utterly indifferent his life had been, how his main aspirations or great dreams had been in the main nullified by passions, necessities, crass chance (how well he was fitted to understand that!) he broke down and cried for hours. Then he died.
A friend who had known much of this last period, said to me rather satirically, "He was dealing with death in the shape of a medic. Have you ever seen him?" The doctor, he meant. "He looks like an advertisement for an undertaker. I do believe he was trying to discover whether he could kill somebody by the power of suggestion, and he met L—— in the nick of time. You know how really sensitive he was. Well, that medic killed him, the same as you would kill a bird with a bullet. He said 'You're already dead,' and he was."
And—oh yes—M——, his former patron. At the time of L——'s sickness and death he was still owing him $1100 for services rendered during the last days of that unfortunate magazine. He had never been called upon to pay his debts, for he had sunk through one easy trapdoor of bankruptcy only to rise out of another, smiling and with the means to continue. Yes, he was rich again, rated A No. 1, the president of a great corporation, and with L——'s $1100 still unpaid and now not legally "collectible." His bank balance, established by a friend at the time, was exactly one hundred thousand.
But Mrs. L——, anxious to find some way out of her difficulty since her husband was lying cold, and knowing of no one else to whom to turn, had written to him. There was no food in the house, no medicine, no way to feed the children at the moment. That matter of $1100 now—could he spare a little? L—— had thought—
A letter in answer was not long in arriving, and a most moving M——y document it was. M—— had been stunned by the dreadful news, stunned. Could it really be? Could it? His young brilliant friend? Impossible! At the dread, pathetic news he had cried—yes he had—cried—and cried—and cried—and then he had even cried some more. Life was so sad, so grim. As for him, his own affairs were never in so wretched a condition. It was unfortunate. Debts there were on every hand. They haunted him, robbed him of his sleep. He himself scarcely knew which way to turn. They stood in serried ranks, his debts. A slight push on the part of any one, and he would be crushed—crushed—go down in ruin. And so, as much as he was torn, and as much as he cried, even now, he could do nothing, nothing, nothing. He was agonized, beaten to earth, but still—. Then, having signed it, there was a P.S. or an N.B. This stated that in looking over his affairs he had just discovered that by stinting himself in another direction he could manage to scrape together twenty-five dollars, and this he was enclosing. Would that God had designed that he should be better placed at this sad hour!
* * * * *
However that may be, I at once sent for the mss. and they came, a jumbled mass in two suitcases and a portfolio; and a third suitcase, so I was informed, containing all of a hundred mss., mostly stories, had been lost somewhere! There had been much financial trouble of late and more than one enforced move. Mrs. L—— had been compelled—but I will not tell all. Suffice it to say that he had such an end as his own realistic pen might have satirically craved.
The mss., finally sorted, tabulated and read, yielded two small volumes of excellent tales, all unpublished, the published material being all but uniformly worthless. There was also the attempt at a popular comedy, previously mentioned, a sad affair, and a volume of essays, as well as a very, very slender but charming volume of verse, in case a publisher could ever be found for them—a most agreeable little group, showing a pleasing sense of form and color and emotion. I arranged them as best I could and finally—
But they are still unpublished.
* * * * *
P.S. As for the sum total of the work left by L——, its very best, it might be said that although he was not a great psychologist, still, owing to a certain pretentiousness of assertion at times, one might unthinkingly suppose he was. Neither had he, as yet, any fixed theories of art or definite style of his own, imitating as he was now de Maupassant, now O. Henry, now Poe; but also it must be said that slowly and surely he was approximating one, original and forceful and water-clear in expression and naturalness. At times he veered to a rather showy technique, at others to a cold and even harsh simplicity. Yet always in the main he had color, beauty, emotion, poignance when necessary. Like his idol, de Maupassant, he had no moral or strong social prejudices, no really great or disturbing imagination, no wealth of perplexing ideas. He saw America and life as something to be painted as all masters see life and paint it. Gifted with a true vein of satire, he had not, at the time of his death, quite mastered its possibilities. He still retained prejudice of one type or another, which he permitted to interfere with the very smooth arrangement of his colors. At the same time, had he not been disturbed by so many of the things which in America, as elsewhere, ordinarily assail an ambitious and earnest writer—the prejudice against naturalness and sincerity in matters of the intellect and the facts of life, and the consequent difficulty of any one so gifted in obtaining funds at any time—he might have done much better sooner. He was certain to come into his own eventually had he lived. His very accurate and sensitive powers of observation, his literary taste, his energy and pride in his work, were destined to carry him there. It could not have been otherwise. Ten years more, judging by the rate at which he worked, his annual product and that which he did leave, one might say that in the pantheon of American letters it is certain that he would have proved a durable if not one of its great figures, and he might well have been that. As it stands, it is not impossible that he will be so recognized, if for no more than the sure promise of his genius.
The Village Feudists
In a certain Connecticut fishing-town sometime since, where, besides lobstering, a shipyard and some sail-boat-building there existed the several shops and stores which catered to the wants of those who labored in those lines, there dwelt a groceryman by the name of Elihu Burridge, whose life and methods strongly point the moral and social successes and failures of the rural man.
Sixty years of age, with the vanities and desires of the average man's life behind rather than before him, he was at the time not unlike the conventional drawings of Parson Thirdly, which graced the humorous papers of that day. Two moon-shaped eyes, a long upper lip, a mouth like the sickle moon turned downward, prominent ears, a rather long face and a mutton-chop-shaped whisker on either cheek, served to give him that clerical appearance which the humorous artists so religiously seek to depict. Add to this that he was middle-sized, clerically spare in form, reserved and quiet in demeanor, and one can see how he might very readily give the impression of being a minister. His clothes, however, were old, his trousers torn but neatly mended, his little blue gingham jumper which he wore about the store greasy and aged. Everything about him and his store was so still and dark that one might have been inclined on first sight to consider him crusty and morose.
Even more remarkable than himself, however, was his store. I have seen many in my time that were striking because of their neatness; I never saw one before that struck me as more remarkable for its disorder. In the first place it was filled neck-deep with barrels and boxes in the utmost confusion. Dark, greasy, provision-lined alleys led off into dingy sections which the eye could not penetrate. Old signs hung about, advertising things which had long since ceased to sell and were forgotten by the public. There were pictures in once gilt but now time-blackened frames, wherein queerly depicted children and pompous-looking grocers offered one commodity and another, all now almost obliterated by fly-specks. Shelves were marked on the walls by signs now nearly illegible. Cobwebs hung thickly from corners and pillars. There were oil, lard, and a dust-laden scum of some sort on three of the numerous scales with which he occasionally weighed things and on many exteriors of once salable articles. Pork, lard, molasses, and nails were packed in different corners of the place in barrels. Lying about were household utensils, ship-rigging, furniture and a hundred other things which had nothing to do with the grocery business.
As I entered the store the first afternoon I noticed a Bible open at Judges and a number of slips of paper on which questions had been written. On my second visit for oil and vinegar, two strangers from off a vagrant yacht which had entered the little harbor nudged one another and demanded to know whether either had ever seen anything like it. On the third, my companion protested that it was not clean, and seeing that there were other stores we decided to buy our things elsewhere. This was not so easily accomplished.
"Where can I get a flatiron?" I inquired at the Postoffice when I first entered the village.
"Most likely at Burridge's," was the reply.
"Do you know where I can get a pair of row-locks?" I asked of a boy who was lounging about the town dock.
"At Burridge's," he replied.
When we wanted oars, pickles of a certain variety, golden syrup, and a dozen other things which were essential at times, we were compelled to go to Burridge's, so that at last he obtained a very fair portion of our trade despite the condition of his store.
During all these earlier dealings there cropped up something curt and dry in his conversation. One day we lost a fruit jar which he had loaned, and I took one very much like it back in its place. When I began to apologize he interrupted me with, "A jar's a jar, isn't it?"
Another time, when I remarked in a conciliatory tone that he owed me eight cents for a can of potted ham which had proved stale, he exclaimed, "Well, I won't owe you long," and forthwith pulled the money out of the loose jacket of his jumper and paid me.
I inquired one day if a certain thing were good. "If it isn't," he replied, with a peculiar elevation of the eyebrows, "your money is. You can have that back."
"That's the way you do business, is it?"
"Yes, sir," he replied, and his long upper lip thinned out along the line of the lower one like a vise.
I was in search of a rocking-chair one day and was directed to Burridge's as the only place likely to have any!
"Do you keep furniture?" I inquired.
"Some," he said.
"Have you a rocking-chair?"
A day or two later I was in search of a table and on going to Burridge's found that he had gone to a neighboring city.
"Have you got a table?" I inquired of the clerk.
"I don't know," he replied. "There's some furniture in the back room, but I don't know as I dare to sell any of it while he's away."
"Well, he don't like me to sell any of it. He's kind of queer that way. I dunno what he intends to do with it. Gar!" he added in a strangely electric way, "he's a queer man! He's got a lot of things back there—chairs and tables and everything. He's got a lot more in a loft up the street here. He never seems to want to sell any of 'em. Heard him tell people he didn't have any."
I shook my head in puzzled desperation.
"Come on, let's go back and look anyway. There's no harm in seeing if he has one."
We went back and there amid pork and molasses barrels, old papers, boxes and signs, was furniture in considerable quantity—tables, rocking-chairs, washstands, bureaus—all cornered and tumbled about.
"Why, here are rocking-chairs, lots of them," I exclaimed. "Just the kind I want! He said he didn't have any."
"Gar! I dunno," replied the clerk. "Here's a table, but I wouldn't dare sell it to you."
"Why should he say he didn't have a rocking-chair?"
"Gar! I dunno. He's goin' out of the furniture business. He don't want to sell any. I don't know what he intends to do with it."
"Well," I said in despair, "what about the table? You can sell that, can't you?"
"I couldn't—not till he comes back. I don't know what he'd want to do about it."
"What's the price of it?"
"I dunno. He could tell you."
I went out of the thick-aired stuffy backroom with its unwashed windows, and when I got opposite the Bible near the door I said:
"What's the matter with him anyhow? Why doesn't he straighten things out here?"
Again the clerk awoke. "Huh!" he exclaimed. "Straighten it out! Gar! I'd like to see anybody try it."
"It could be," I said encouragingly.
"Gar!" he chuckled. "One man did try to straighten it out once when Mr. Burridge was away. Got about a third of it cleaned up when he come back. Gar! You oughta seen him! Gar!"
"What did he do?"
"What did he do! What didn't he do! Gar! Just took things an' threw them about again. Said he couldn't find anything."
"You don't say!"
"Gar! I should say so! Man come in an' asked for a hammer. Said he couldn't find any hammer, things was so mixed up. Did it with screws, water-buckets an' everything just the same. Took 'em right off the shelves, where they was all in groups, an' scattered 'em all over the room. Gar! 'Now I guess I can find something when I want it,' he said." The clerk paused to squint and add, "There ain't anybody tried any straightenin' out around here since then, you bet. Gar!"
"How long ago has that been?"
"About fourteen years now."
Surprised by this sharp variation from the ordinary standards of trade, I began thinking of possible conditions which had produced it, when one evening I happened in on the local barber. He was a lean, inquisitive individual with a shock of sandy hair and a conspicuous desire to appear a well-rounded social factor.