"What sort of person is this Burridge over here? He keeps such a peculiar store."
"Elihu is a bit peculiar," he replied, his smile betraying a desire to appear conservative. "The fault with Elihu, if he has one, is that he's terribly strong on religion. Can't seem to agree with anybody around here."
"What's the trouble?" I asked.
"It's more'n I could ever make out, what is the matter with him. They're all a little bit cracked on the subject around here. Nothing but revivals and meetin's, year in and year out. They're stronger on it winters than they are in summer."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, they'll be more against yachtin' and Sunday pleasures when they can't go than when they can."
"What about Elihu?" I asked.
"Well, he can't seem to get along, somehow. He used to belong to the Baptist Church, but he got out o' that. Then he went to a church up in Graylock, but he had a fallin' out up there. Then he went to Northfield and Eustis. He's been all around, even over on Long Island. He goes to church up at Amherst now, I believe."
"What seems to be the trouble?"
"Oh, he's just strong-headed, I guess." He paused, and ideas lagged until finally I observed:
"It's a very interesting store he keeps."
"It's just as Billy Drumgold told him once: 'Burridge,' he says, 'you've got everything in this store that belongs to a full-rigged ship 'cept one thing.' 'What's that?' Burridge asks. 'A second-hand pulpit.' 'Got that too,' he answered, and takes him upstairs, and there he had one sure enough."
"Well," I said, "what was he doing with it?"
"Danged if I know. He had it all right. Has it yet, so they say."
Days passed and as the summer waned the evidences of a peculiar life accumulated. Noank, apparently, was at outs with Burridge on the subject of religion, and he with it. There were instances of genuine hard feeling against him.
Writing a letter in the Postoffice one day I ventured to take up this matter with the postmaster.
"You know Mr. Burridge, don't you—the grocer?"
"Well, I should guess I did," he replied with a flare.
"Anything wrong with him?"
"Oh, about everything that's just plain cussed—the most wrangling man alive. I never saw such a man. He don't get his mail here no more because he's mad at me, I guess. Took it away because I had Mr. Palmer's help in my fight, I suppose. Wrote me that I should send all his mail up to Mystic, and he goes there three or four miles out of his way every day, just to spite me. It's against the law. I hadn't ought to be doing it, re-addressing his envelopes three or four times a day, but I do do it. He's a strong-headed man, that's the trouble with Elihu."
I had no time to follow this up then, but a little later, sitting in the shop of the principal sailboat maker, which was situated in the quiet little lane which follows the line of the village, I was one day surprised by the sudden warm feeling which the name of Elihu generated. Something had brought up the subject of religion, and I said that Burridge seemed rather religious.
"Yes," said the sailboat maker quickly, "he's religious, all right, only he reads the Bible for others, not for himself."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Why, he wants to run things, that's what. As long as you agree with Elihu, why, everything's all right. When you don't, the Bible's against you. That's the way he is."
"Did he ever disagree with you?" I asked, suspecting some personal animus in the matter.
"Me and Elihu was always good friends as long as I agreed with him," he went on bitterly. "We've been raised together, man and boy, for pretty near sixty years. We never had a word of any kind but what was friendly, as long as I agreed with him, but just as soon as I didn't he took a set against me, and we ain't never spoke a word since."
"What was the trouble?" I inquired sweetly, anxious to come at the kernel of this queer situation.
"Well," he said, dropping his work and looking up to impress me, "I'm a man that'll sometimes say what I don't believe; that is, I'll agree with what I hadn't ought to, just to be friendly like. I did that way a lot o' times with Elihu till one day he came to me with something about particular salvation. I'm a little more liberal myself. I believe in universal redemption by faith alone. Well, Elihu came to me and began telling me what he believed. Finally he asked me something about particular salvation and wanted to know whether I didn't agree with him. I didn't, and told him so. From that day on he took a set against me, and he ain't never spoke a word to me since."
I was unaware that there was anything besides a religious disagreement in this local situation until one day I happened to come into a second friendly contact with the postmaster. We were speaking of the characteristics of certain individuals, and I mentioned Burridge.
"He's all right when you take him the way he wants to be taken. When you don't you'll find him quite a different man."
"He seems to be straightforward and honest," I said.
"There ain't anything you can tell me about Elihu Burridge that I don't know," he replied feelingly. "Not a thing. I've lived with him, as you might say, all my life. Been raised right here in town with him, and we went to school together. Man and boy, there ain't ever been a thing that Elihu has agreed with, without he could have the running of it. You can't tell me anything about him that I don't know."
I could not help smiling at the warmth of feeling, although something about the man's manner bespoke a touch of heart-ache, as if he were privately grieving.
"What was the trouble between you two?" I asked.
"It's more'n I could ever find out," he replied in a voice that was really mournful, so difficult and non-understandable was the subject to him. "Before I started to work for this office there wasn't a day that I didn't meet and speak friendly with Elihu. He used to have a good many deeds and papers to sign, and he never failed to call me in when I was passing. When I started to work for this office I noticed he took on a cold manner toward me, and I tried to think of something I might have done, but I couldn't. Finally I wrote and asked him if there was anything between us if he wouldn't set a time and place so's we might talk it over and come to an understanding." He paused and then added, "I wish you could see the letter he wrote me. Comin' from a Christian man—from him to me—I wish you could see it."
"Why don't you show it to me?" I asked inquisitively.
He went back into the office and returned with an ancient-looking document, four years old it proved to be, which he had been treasuring. He handed me the thumbed and already yellowed page, and I read:
"MATTHEW HOLCOMB, ESQUIRE,
"DEAR SIR:—In reply to your letter asking me to set a time and place in which we might talk over the trouble between us, would say that the time be Eternity and the place where God shall call us to judgment.
"Very truly, "ELIHU BURRIDGE."
His eyes rested on me while I read, and the moment I finished he began with:
"I never said one word against that man, not one word. I never did a thing he could take offense at, not one thing. I don't know how a man can justify himself writing like that."
"Perhaps it's political," I said. "You don't belong to the same party, do you?"
"Yes, we do," he said. "Sometimes I've thought that maybe it was because I had the support of the shipyard when I first tried to get this office, but then that wasn't anything between him and me," and he looked away as if the mystery were inexplicable.
This shipyard was conducted by a most forceful man but one as narrow and religionistic as this region in which it had had its rise. Old Mr. Palmer, the aged founder of it, had long been a notable figure in the streets and private chambers of the village. The principal grocery store, coal-yard, sail-loft, hotel and other institutions were conducted in its interests. His opinion was always foremost in the decision of the local authorities. He was still, reticent, unobtrusive. Once I saw him most considerately helping a cripple up the lane to the local Baptist Church.
"What's the trouble between Burridge and Palmer?" I asked of the sail-maker finally, coming to think that here, if anywhere, lay the solution of the difficulty.
"Two big fish in too small a basket," he responded laconically.
"Can't agree, eh?"
"They both want to lead, or did," he said. "Elihu's a beaten man, though, now." He paused and then added, "I'm sorry for Elihu. He's a good man at heart, one of the kindest men you ever saw, when you let him follow his natural way. He's good to the poor, and he's carried more slow-pay people than any man in this country, I do believe. He won't collect an old debt by law. Don't believe in it. No, sir. Just a kind-hearted man, but he loves to rule."
"How about Palmer?" I inquired.
"Just the same way exactly. He loves to rule, too. Got a good heart, too, but he's got a lot more money than Elihu and so people pay more attention to him, that's all. When Elihu was getting the attention he was just the finest man you ever saw, kind, generous, good-natured. People love to be petted, at least some people do—you know they do. When you don't pet 'em they get kind o' sour and crabbed like. Now that's all that's the matter with Elihu, every bit of it. He's sour, now, and a little lonely, I expect. He's drove away every one from him, or nearly all, 'cept his wife and some of his kin. Anybody can do a good grocery business here, with the strangers off the boats"—the harbor was a lively one—"all you have to do is carry a good stock. That's why he gets along so well. But he's drove nearly all the local folks away from him."
I listened to this comfortable sail-loft sage, and going back to the grocery store one afternoon took another look at the long, grim-faced silent figure. He was sitting in the shadow of one of his moldy corners, and if there had ever been any light of merriment in his face it was not there now. He looked as fixed and solemn as an ancient puritan, and yet there was something so melancholy in the man's eye, so sad and disappointed, that it seemed anything but hard. Two or three little children were playing about the door and when he came forward to wait on me one of them sidled forward and put her chubby hand in his.
"Your children?" I asked, by way of reaching some friendly understanding.
"No," he replied, looking fondly down, "she belongs to a French lady up the street here. She often comes down to see me, don't you?" and he reached over and took the fat little cheek between his thumb and forefinger.
The little one rubbed her face against his worn baggy trousers' leg and put her arm about his knee. Quietly he stood there in a simple way until she loosened her hold upon him, when he went about his labor.
I was sitting one day in the loft of the comfortable sail-maker, who, by the way, was brother-in-law to Burridge, when I said to him:
"I wish you'd tell me the details about Elihu. How did he come to be what he is? You ought to know; you've lived here all your life."
"So I do know," he replied genially. "What do you want me to tell you?"
"The whole story of the trouble between him and Palmer; how he comes to be at outs with all these people."
"Well," he began, and here followed with many interruptions and side elucidations, which for want of space have been eliminated, the following details:
Twenty-five years before Elihu had been the leading citizen of Noank. From operating a small grocery at the close of the Civil War he branched out until he sold everything from ship-rigging to hardware. Noank was then in the height of its career as a fishing town and as a port from which expeditions of all sorts were wont to sail. Whaling was still in force, and vessels for whaling expeditions were equipped here. Wealthy sea-captains frequently loaded fine three-masted schooners here for various trading expeditions to all parts of the world; the fishers for mackerel, cod and herring were making three hundred and fifty dollars a day in season, and thousands of dollars' worth of supplies were annually purchased here.
Burridge was then the only tradesman of any importance and, being of a liberal, strong-minded and yet religious turn, attracted the majority of this business to him. He had houses and lands, was a deacon in the local Baptist Church and a counselor in matters political, social and religious, whose advice was seldom rejected. Every Fourth of July during these years it was his custom to collect all the children of the town in front of his store and treat them to ice-cream. Every Christmas Eve he traveled about the streets in a wagon, which carried half a dozen barrels of candy and nuts, which he would ladle out to the merry shouting throng of pursuing youngsters, until all were satisfied. For the skating season he prepared a pond, spending several thousand dollars damming up a small stream, in order that the children might have a place to skate. He created a library where all might obtain suitable reading, particularly the young.
On New Year's morning it was his custom to visit all the poor and bereaved and lonely in Noank, taking a great dray full of presents and leaving a little something with his greetings and a pleasant handshake at every door. The lonely rich as well as the lonely poor were included, for he was certain, as he frequently declared, that the rich could be lonely too.
He once told his brother-in-law that one New Year's Day a voice called to him in church: "Elihu Burridge, how about the lonely rich and poor of Noank?" "Up I got," he concluded, "and from that day to this I have never neglected them."
When any one died who had a little estate to be looked after for the benefit of widows or orphans, Burridge was the one to take charge of it. People on their deathbeds sent for him, and he always responded, taking energetic charge of everything and refusing to take a penny for his services. After a number of years the old judge to whom he always repaired with these matters of probate, knowing his generosity in this respect, also refused to accept any fee. When he saw him coming he would exclaim:
"Well, Elihu, what is it this time? Another widow or orphan that we've got to look after?"
After Elihu had explained what it was, he would add:
"Well, Elihu, I do hope that some day some rich man will call you to straighten out his affairs. I'd like to see you get a little something, so that I might get a little something. Eh, Elihu?" Then he would jocularly poke his companion in charity in the ribs.
These general benefactions were continuous and coeval with his local prosperity and dominance, and their modification as well as the man's general decline the result of the rise of this other individual—Robert Palmer,—"operating" to take the color of power and preeminence from him.
Palmer was the owner of a small shipyard here at the time, a thing which was not much at first but which grew swiftly. He was born in Noank also, a few years before Burridge, and as a builder of vessels had been slowly forging his way to a moderate competence when Elihu was already successful. He was a keen, fine-featured, energetic individual, with excellent commercial and strong religious instincts, and by dint of hard labor and a saving disposition he obtained, soon after the Civil War, a powerful foothold. Many vessels were ordered here from other cities. Eventually he began to build barges in large numbers for a great railroad company.
Early becoming a larger employer of labor than any one else in the vicinity he soon began to branch out, possessed himself of the allied industries of ship-rigging, chandlering, and finally established a grocery store for his employees, and opened a hotel. Now the local citizens began to look upon him as their leading citizen. They were always talking of his rise, frequently in the presence of Burridge. He said nothing at first, pretending to believe that his quondam leadership was unimpaired. Again, there were those who, having followed the various branches of labor which Palmer eventually consolidated, viewed this growth with sullen and angry eyes. They still sided with Burridge, or pretended still to believe that he was the more important citizen of the two. In the course of time, however—a period of thirty years or more—some of them failed; others died; still others were driven away for want of a livelihood. Only Burridge's position and business remained, but in a sadly weakened state. He was no longer a man of any great importance.
Not unnaturally, this question of local supremacy was first tested in the one place in which local supremacy is usually tested—the church where they both worshiped. Although only one of five trustees, Burridge had been the will of the body. Always, whatever he thought, the others had almost immediately agreed to it. But now that Palmer had become a power, many of those ardent in the church and beholden to him for profit became his humble followers. They elected him trustee and did what he wished, or what they thought he wished. To Burridge this made them sycophants, slaves.
Now followed the kind of trivialities by which most human feuds are furthered. The first test of strength came when a vagrant evangelist from Alabama arrived and desired to use the church for a series of evening lectures. The question had to be decided at once. Palmer was absent at the time.
"Here is a request for the use of the church," said one of the trustees, explaining its nature.
"Well," said Burridge, "you'd better let him have it."
"Do you think we ought to do anything about it," the trustee replied, "until Mr. Palmer returns?"
Although Burridge saw no reason for waiting, the other trustees did, and upon that the board rested. Burridge was furious. By one fell stroke he was put in second place, a man who had to await the return of Palmer—and that in his own church, so to speak.
"Why," he told some one, "the rest of us are nothing. This man is a king."
From that time on differences of opinion within the church and elsewhere were common. Although no personal animosity was ever admitted, local issues almost invariably found these two men opposed to each other. There was the question of whether the village should be made into a borough—a most trivial matter; another, that of creating public works for the manufacture of gas and distribution of water; a third, that of naming a State representative. Naturally, while these things might be to the advantage of Palmer or not, they were of no great import to Burridge, but yet he managed to see in them an attempt or attempts to saddle a large public debt upon widows and orphans, those who could not afford or did not need these things, and he proceeded to so express himself at various public meetings. Slowly the breach widened. Burridge became little more than a malcontent in many people's eyes. He was a "knocker," a man who wanted to hold the community back.
Although defeated in many instances he won in others, and this did not help matters any. At this point, among other things the decay of the fishing industry helped to fix definitely the position of the two men as that of victor and vanquished. Whaling died out, then mackerel and cod were caught only at farther and farther distances from the town, and finally three- and even two-masted schooners ceased entirely to buy their outfits here, and Burridge was left dependent upon local patronage or smaller harbor trade for his support. Coextensively, he had the dissatisfaction of seeing Palmer's industries grow until eventually three hundred and fifty men were upon his payrolls and even his foremen and superintendents were considered influential townspeople. Palmer's son and two daughters grew up and married, branched out and became owners of industries which had formerly belonged to men who had traded with Burridge. He saw his grocery trade dwindle and sink, while with age his religiosity grew, and he began to be little more than a petty disputant, one constantly arguing as to whether the interpretation of the Bible as handed down from the pulpit of what he now considered his recalcitrant church was sound or not. When those who years before had followed him obediently now pricked him with theological pins and ventured to disagree with him, he was quick and sometimes foolish in his replies. Thus, once a former friend and fellow-church-member who had gone over to the opposition came into his store one morning and said:
"Elihu, for a man that's as strong on religion as you are, I see you do one thing that can't quite be justified by the Book."
"What's that?" inquired Burridge, looking up.
"I see you sell tobacco."
"I see you chew it," returned the host grimly.
"I know I do," returned his visitor, "but I'll tell you what I'll do, Elihu. If you'll quit selling, I'll quit chewing it," and he looked as if he had set a fancy trap for his straw-balancing brother, as he held him to be.
"It's a bargain," said Burridge on the instant. "It's a bargain!"
And from that day on tobacco was not offered for sale in that store, although there was a large local demand for it.
Again, in the pride of his original leadership, he had accepted the conduct of the local cemetery, a thing which was more a burden than a source of profit. With his customary liberality in all things reflecting credit upon himself he had spent his own money in improving it, much more than ever the wardens of the church would have thought of returning to him. In one instance, when a new receiving vault was desired, he had added seven hundred dollars of his own to three hundred gathered by the church trustees for the purpose, and the vault was immediately constructed. Frequently also, in his pride of place, he had been given to asserting he was tired of conducting the cemetery and wished he could resign.
In these later evil days, therefore, the trustees, following the star of the newer power, saw fit to intimate that perhaps some one else would be glad to look after it if he was tired of it. Instantly the fact that he could no longer boast as formerly came home to him. He was not essential any longer in anything. The church did not want him to have a hand in any of its affairs! The thought of this so weighed on him that eventually he resigned from this particular task, but thereafter also every man who had concurred in accepting his resignation was his bitter enemy. He spoke acidly of the seven hundred he had spent, and jibed at the decisions of the trustees in other matters. Soon he became a disturbing element in the church, taking a solemn vow never to enter the graveyard again, and not long after resigned all his other official duties—passing the plate, et cetera—although he still attended services there.
Decoration Day rolled around, the G.A.R. Post of which he was an ardent member prepared for the annual memorial services over the graves of its dead comrades. Early on the morning of the thirtieth of May they gathered before their lodge hall, Burridge among them, and after arranging the details marched conspicuously to the cemetery where the placing of the wreaths and the firing of the salute were to take place. No one thought of Burridge until the gate was reached, when, gun over shoulder and uniform in perfect trim, he fell conspicuously out of line and marched away home alone. It was the cemetery he had vowed not to enter, his old pet and protege.
Men now looked askance at him. He was becoming queer, no doubt of it, not really sensible—or was he? Up in Northfield, a nearby town, dwelt a colonel of the Civil War who had led the very regiment of which Burridge was a member but who during the war had come into serious difficulty through a tangle of orders, and had been dishonorably discharged. Although wounded in one of the engagements in which the regiment had distinguished itself, he had been allowed to languish almost forgotten for years and finally, failing to get a pension, had died in poverty. On his deathbed he had sent for Burridge, and reminding him of the battle in which he had led him asked that after he was gone, for the sake of his family, he would take up the matter of a pension and if possible have his record purged of the stigma and the pension awarded.
Burridge agreed most enthusiastically. Going to the local congressman, he at once began a campaign, but because of the feeling against him two years passed without anything being done. Later he took up the matter in his own G.A.R. Post, but there also failing to find the measure of his own enthusiasm, he went finally direct to one of the senators of the State and laying the matter before him had the records examined by Congress and the dead colonel honorably discharged.
One day thereafter in the local G.A.R. he commented unfavorably upon the indifference which he deemed had been shown.
"There wouldn't have been half so much delay if the man hadn't been a deserter," said one of his enemies—one who was a foreman in Palmer's shipyard.
Instantly Burridge was upon his feet, his eyes aflame with feeling. Always an orator, with a strangely declamatory style he launched into a detailed account of the late colonel's life and services, his wounds, his long sufferings and final death in poverty, winding up with a vivid word picture of a battle (Antietam), in which the colonel had gallantly captured a rebel flag and come by his injury.
When he was through there was great excitement in the Post and much feeling in his favor, but he rather weakened the effect by at once demanding that the traitorous words be withdrawn, and failing to compel this, preferred charges against the man who had uttered them and attempted to have him court-martialed.
So great was the bitterness engendered by this that the Post was now practically divided, and being unable to compel what he considered justice he finally resigned. Subsequently he took issue with his former fellow-soldiers in various ways, commenting satirically on their church regularity and professed Christianity, as opposed to their indifference to the late colonel, and denouncing in various public conversations the double-mindedness and sharp dealings of the "little gods," as he termed those who ran the G.A.R. Post, the church, and the shipyards.
Not long after his religious affairs reached a climax when the minister, once a good friend of his, following the lead of the dominant star, Mr. Palmer, publicly denounced him from the pulpit one Sunday as an enemy of the church and of true Christianity!
"There is a man in this congregation," he exclaimed in a burst of impassioned oratory, "who poses as a Christian and a Baptist, who is in his heart's depth the church's worst enemy. Hell and all its devils could have no worse feelings of evil against the faith than he, and he doesn't sell tobacco, either!"
The last reference at once fixed the identity of the person, and caused Burridge to get up and leave the church. He pondered over this for a time, severed his connections with the body, and having visited Graylock one Sunday drove there every Sabbath thereafter, each time going to a different church. After enduring this for six months he generated a longing for a more convenient meeting-place, and finally allied himself with the Baptist Church of Eustis. Here his anchor might possibly have remained fast had it not been that subtle broodings over his wrongs, a calm faith in the righteousness of his own attitude, and disgust with those whom he saw calmly expatiating upon the doctrines and dogmas of religion in his own town finally caused him to suspect a universal misreading of the Bible. This doubt, together with his own desire for justification according to the Word, finally put the idea in his mind to make a study of the Bible himself. He would read it, he said. He would study Hebrew and Greek, and refer all questionable readings of words and passages back to the original tongue in which it had been written.
With this end in view he began a study of these languages, the importance of the subject so growing upon him that he neglected his business. Day after day he labored, putting a Bible and a Concordance upon a pile of soap-boxes near the door of his store and poring over them between customers, the store meantime taking care of itself. He finally mastered Greek and Hebrew after a fashion, and finding the word "repent" frequently used, and that God had made man in the image of Himself, with a full knowledge of right and wrong, he gravitated toward the belief that therefore his traducers in Noank knew what they were doing, and that before he needed to forgive them—though his love might cover all—they must repent.
He read the Bible from beginning to end with this one feeling subconsciously dominant, and all its loving commands about loving one another, forgiving your brother seventy times seven, loving those that hate you, returning good for evil, selling all that you have and giving it to the poor, were made to wait upon the duty of others to repent. He began to give this interpretation at Eustis, where he was allowed to have a Sunday-school, until the minister came and told him once, "to his face," as the local report ran: "We don't want you here."
Meekly he went forth and, joining a church across the Sound on Long Island, sailed over every Sunday and there advanced the same views until he was personally snubbed by the minister and attacked by the local papers. Leaving there he went to Amherst, always announcing now that he held distinctive views about some things in the Bible and asking the privilege of explaining. In this congregation he was still comfortably at rest when I knew him.
"All sensitiveness," the sail-maker had concluded after his long account. "There ain't anything the matter with Elihu, except that he's piqued and grieved. He wanted to be the big man, and he wasn't."
I was thinking of this and of his tender relationship with children as I had noticed it, and of his service to the late colonel when one day being in the store, I said:
"Do you stand on the Bible completely, Mr. Burridge?"
"Yes, sir," he replied, "I do."
"Believe every word of it to be true?"
"If your brother has offended you, how many times must you forgive him?"
"Seventy times seven."
"Do you forgive your brothers?"
"Yes, sir—if they repent."
"If they repent?"
"Yes, sir, if they repent. That's the interpretation. In Matthew you will find, 'If he repent, forgive him.'"
"But if you don't forgive them, even before they repent," I said, "aren't you harboring enmity?"
"No, sir, I'm not treasuring up enmity. I only refuse to forgive them."
I looked at the man, a little astonished, but he looked so sincere and earnest that I could not help smiling.
"How do you reconcile that with the command, 'Love one another?' You surely can't love and refuse to forgive them at the same time?"
"I don't refuse to forgive them," he repeated. "If John there," indicating an old man in a sun-tanned coat who happened to be passing through the store at the time, "should do me a wrong—I don't care what it was, how great or how vile—if he should come to me and say, 'Burridge, I'm sorry,'" he executed a flashing oratorical move in emphasis, and throwing back his head, exclaimed: "It's gone! It's gone! There ain't any more of it! All gone!"
I stood there quite dumbfounded by his virility, as the air vibrated with his force and feeling. So manifestly was his reading of the Bible colored by the grief of his own heart that it was almost painful to tangle him with it. Goodness and mercy colored all his ideas, except in relation to his one-time followers, those who had formerly been his friends and now left him to himself.
"Do you still visit the poor and the afflicted, as you once did?" I asked him once.
"I'd rather not say anything about that," he replied sternly.
"But do you?"
"Still make your annual New Year round?"
"Well, you'll get your reward for that, whatever you believe."
"I've had my reward," he said slowly.
"Yes, sir, had it. Every hand that's been lifted to receive the little I had to offer has been my reward."
He smiled, and then said in seemingly the most untimely way:
"I remember once going to a lonely woman here on New Year's Day and taking her a little something—basket of grapes or fruit of some kind it was. I was stopping a minute—never stay long, you know; just run in and say 'Happy New Year!' leave what I have and get out—and so said, 'Good morning, Aunt Mary!'
"'Good morning, Elihu,' says she.
"'Can't stay long, Aunt Mary,' I said. 'Just want to leave you these. Happy New Year!'
"Well, sir, you know I was just turning around and starting when she caught hold of my sleeve and says:
"'Elihu Burridge,' she says, 'give me that hand!' and do you know, before I knew what she was about she took it up to her lips and kissed it! Yes, she did—kissed my hand!
"Now," he said, drawing himself up, with eyes bright with intense feeling, "you know whether I've had my reward or not, don't you?"
"Vanity, Vanity," Saith the Preacher
Sometimes a single life will clearly and effectively illustrate a period. Hence, to me, the importance of this one.
I first met X—— at a time when American financial methods and American finances were at their apex of daring and splendor, and when the world was in a more or less tolerant mood toward their grandiose manners and achievements. It was the golden day of Mr. Morgan, Senior, Mr. Belmont, Mr. Harriman, Mr. Sage, Mr. Gates, Mr. Brady, and many, many others who were still extant and ruling distinctly and drastically, as was proved by the panic of 1907. In opposition to them and yet imitating their methods, now an old story to those who have read "Frenzied Finance," "Lawless Wealth," and other such exposures of the methods which produced our enormous American fortunes, were such younger men as Charles W. Morse (the victim of the 1907 panic), F. Augustus Heinze (another if less conspicuous victim of the same "panic"), E.R. Thomas, an ambitious young millionaire, himself born to money, David A. Sullivan, and X——. I refuse to mention his name because he is still alive although no longer conspicuous, and anxious perhaps to avoid the uncomfortable glare of publicity when all the honors and comforts which made it endurable in the first place are absent.
The person who made X—— essentially interesting to me long before I met him was one Lucien de Shay, a ne'er-do-well pianist and voice culturist, who was also a connoisseur in the matters of rugs, hangings, paintings and furniture, things in which X—— was just then most intensely interested, erecting, as he was, a great house on Long Island and but newly blossoming into the world of art or fashion or culture or show—those various things which the American multi-millionaire always wants to blossom or bloom into and which he does not always succeed in doing. De Shay was one of those odd natures so common to the metropolis—half artist and half man of fashion who attach themselves so readily to men of strength and wealth, often as advisors and counselors in all matters of taste, social form and social progress. How this particular person was rewarded I never quite knew, whether in cash or something else. He was also a semi-confidant of mine, furnishing me "tips" and material of one sort and another in connection with the various publications I was then managing. As it turned out later, X—— was not exactly a multi-millionaire as yet, merely a fledgling, although the possibilities were there and his aims and ambitions were fast nearing a practical triumph the end of which of course was to be, as in the case of nearly all American multi-millionaires of the newer and quicker order, bohemian or exotic and fleshly rather than cultural or aesthetic pleasure, although the latter were never really exactly ignored.
But even so. He was a typical multi-millionaire in the showy and even gaudy sense of the time. For if the staid and conservative and socially well-placed rich have the great houses and the ease and the luxury of paraphernalia, the bohemian rich of the X—— type have the flare, recklessness and imagination which lend to their spendings and flutterings a sparkle and a shine which the others can never hope to match.
Said this friend of mine to me one day: "Listen, I want you to meet this man X——. You will like him. He is fine. You haven't any idea what a fascinating person he really is. He looks like a Russian Grand Duke. He has the manners and the tastes of a Medici or a Borgia. He is building a great house down on Long Island that once it is done will have cost him five or six hundred thousand. It's worth seeing already. His studio here in the C—— studio building is a dream. It's thick with the loveliest kinds of things. I've helped buy them myself. And he isn't dull. He wrote a book at twenty, 'Icarus,' which is not bad either and which he says is something like himself. He has read your book ("Sister Carrie") and he sympathizes with that man Hurstwood. Says parts of it remind him of his own struggles. That's why he wants to meet you. He once worked on the newspapers too. God knows how he is making his money, but I know how he is spending it. He's decided to live, and he's doing it splendidly. It's wonderful."
I took notice, although I had never even heard of the man. There were so very, very many rich men in America. Later I heard much more concerning him from this same de Shay. Once he had been so far down in the scale that he had to shine shoes for a living. Once he had walked the streets of New York in the snow, his shoes cracked and broken, no overcoat, not even a warm suit. He had come here a penniless emigrant from Russia. Now he controlled four banks, one trust company, an insurance company, a fire insurance company, a great real estate venture somewhere, and what not. Naturally all of this interested me greatly. When are we indifferent to a rise from nothing to something?
At de Shay's invitation I journeyed up to X——'s studio one Wednesday afternoon at four, my friend having telephoned me that if I could I must come at once, that there was an especially interesting crowd already assembled in the rooms, that I would meet a long list of celebrities. Two or three opera singers of repute were already there, among them an Italian singer and sorceress of great beauty, a veritable queen of the genus adventuress, who was setting the town by the ears not only by her loveliness but her voice. Her beauty was so remarkable that the Sunday papers were giving full pages to her face and torso alone. There were to be several light opera and stage beauties there also, a basso profundo to sing, writers, artists, poets.
I went. The place and the crowd literally enthralled me. It was so gay, colorful, thrillful. The host and the guests were really interesting—to me. Not that it was so marvelous as a studio or that it was so gorgeously decorated and furnished—it was impressive enough in that way—but that it was so gracefully and interestingly representative of a kind of comfort disguised as elegance. The man had everything, or nearly so—friends, advisors, servants, followers. A somewhat savage and sybaritic nature, as I saw at once, was here disporting itself in velvets and silks. The iron hand of power, if it was power, was being most gracefully and agreeably disguised as the more or less flaccid one of pleasure and friendship.
My host was not visible at first, but I met a score of people whom I knew by reputation, and listened to clatter and chatter of the most approved metropolitan bohemian character. The Italian sorceress was there, her gorgeous chain earrings tinkling mellifluously as she nodded and gesticulated. De Shay at once whispered in my ear that she was X——'s very latest flame and an expensive one too. "You should see what he buys her!" he exclaimed in a whisper. "God!" Actresses and society women floated here and there in dreams of afternoon dresses. The automobiles outside were making a perfect uproar. The poets and writers fascinated me with their praises of the host's munificence and taste. At a glance it was plain to me that he had managed to gather about him the very element it would be most interesting to gather, supposing one desired to be idle, carefree and socially and intellectually gay. If America ever presented a smarter drawing-room I never saw it.
My friend de Shay, being the fidus Achates of the host, had the power to reveal the inner mysteries of this place to me, and on one or two occasions when there were not so many present and while the others were chattering in the various rooms—music-, dining-, ball-, library and so forth—I was being shown the kitchen, pantry, wine cellar, and also various secret doors and passages whereby mine host by pressing a flower on a wall or a spring behind a picture could cause a door to fly open or close which gave entrance to or from a room or passage in no way connected with the others save by another secret door and leading always to a private exit. I wondered at once at the character of the person who could need, desire or value this. A secret bedroom, for instance; a lounging-room! In one of these was a rather severe if handsome desk and a steel safe and two chairs—no more; a very bare room. I wondered at this silent and rather commercial sanctum in the center of this frou-frou of gayety, no trace of the sound of which seemed to penetrate here. What I also gained was a sense of an exotic, sybaritic and purely pagan mind, one which knew little of the conventions of the world and cared less.
On my first visit, as I was leaving, I was introduced to the host just within his picture gallery, hung with many fine examples of the Dutch and Spanish schools. I found him to be as described: picturesque and handsome, even though somewhat plump, phlegmatic and lethargic—yet active enough. He was above the average in height, well built, florid, with a huge, round handsome head, curly black hair, keen black eyes, heavy overhanging eyebrows, full red lips, a marked chin ornamented by a goatee. In any costume ball he would have made an excellent Bacchus or Pan. He appeared to have the free, easy and gracious manner of those who have known much of life and have achieved, in part at least, their desires. He smiled, wished to know if I had met all the guests, hoped that the sideboard had not escaped me, that I had enjoyed the singing. Would I come some evening when there was no crowd—or, better yet, dine with him and my friend de Shay, whose personality appeared to be about as agreeable to him as his own. He was sorry he could not give me more attention now.
Interestingly enough, and from the first, I was impressed with this man; not because of his wealth (I knew richer men) but because of a something about him which suggested dreams, romance, a kind of sense or love of splendor and grandeur which one does not often encounter among the really wealthy. Those cracked shoes were in my mind, I suppose. He seemed to live among great things, but in no niggardly, parsimonious or care-taking way. Here was ease, largess, a kind of lavishness which was not ostentation but which seemed rather to say, "What are the minute expenses of living and pleasuring as contrasted with the profits of skill in the world outside?" He suggested the huge and Aladdin-like adventures with which so many of the great financiers of the day, the true tigers of Wall Street, were connected.
It was not long thereafter that I was once more invited, this time to a much more lavish affair and something much more sybaritic in its tone, although I was really not conscious of what it was to be like when I went there. It began at twelve midnight, and to this day it glitters in my mind as among the few really barbaric and exotic things that I have ever witnessed. Not that the trappings or hangings or setting were so outre or amazing as that the atmosphere of the thing itself was relaxed, bubbling, pagan. There were so many daring and seeking people there. The thing sang and was talked of for months after—in whispers! The gayety! The abandon! The sheer intoxication, mental and physical! I never saw more daring costumes, so many really beautiful women (glitteringly so) in one place at one time, wonderful specimens of exotic and in the main fleshy or sensuous femininity. There was, among other things, as I recall, a large nickeled ice-tray on wheels packed with unopened bottles of champagne, and you had but to lift a hand or wink an eye to have another opened for you alone, ever over and over. And the tray was always full. One wall of the dining-room farther on was laden with delicate novelties in the way of food. A string quartette played for the dancers in the music-room. There were a dozen corners in different rooms screened with banks of flowers and concealing divans. The dancing and singing were superb, individual, often abandoned in character, as was the conversation. As the morning wore on (for it did not begin until after midnight) the moods of all were either so mellowed or inflamed as to make intentions, hopes, dreams, the most secret and sybaritic, the order of expression. One was permitted to see human nature stripped of much of its repression and daylight reserve or cant. At about four in the morning came the engaged dancers, quite the piece de resistance—with wreaths about heads, waists and arms for clothing and well, really nothing more beyond their beautiful figures—scattering rose leaves or favors. These dancers the company itself finally joined, single file at first, pellmell afterwards—artists, writers, poets—dancing from room to room in crude Bacchic imitation of their leaders—the women too—until all were singing, parading, swaying and dancing in and out of the dozen rooms. And finally, liquor and food affecting them, I suppose, many fell flat, unable to do anything thereafter but lie upon divans or in corners until friends assisted them elsewhere—to taxis finally. But mine host, as I recall him, was always present, serene, sober, smiling, unaffected, bland and gracious and untiring in his attention. He was there to keep order where otherwise there would have been none.
I mention this merely to indicate the character of a long series of such events which covered the years 19— to 19—. During that time, for the reason that I have first given (his curious pleasure in my company), I was part and parcel of a dozen such more or less vivid affairs and pleasurings, which stamped on my mind not only X—— but life itself, the possibilities and resources of luxury where taste and appetite are involved, the dreams of grandeur and happiness which float in some men's minds and which work out to a wild fruition—dreams so outre and so splendid that only the tyrant of an obedient empire, with all the resources of an enslaved and obedient people, could indulge with safety. Thus once, I remember, that a dozen of us—writers and artists—being assembled in his studio in New York one Friday afternoon for the mere purpose of idling and drinking, he seeming to have nothing better to do for the time being, he suddenly suggested, and as though it had but now occurred to him, that we all adjourn to his country house on Long Island, which was not yet quite finished (or, rather, furnished), but which was in a sufficient state of completion to permit of appropriate entertainment providing the necessaries were carried out there with us.
As I came to think of this afterward, I decided that after all it was not perhaps so unpremeditated as it seemed and that unconsciously we served a very useful purpose. There was work to do, suggestions to be obtained, an overseer, decorator and landscape gardener with whom consultations were absolutely necessary; and nothing that X—— ever did was without its element of calculation. Why not make a gala affair of a rather dreary November task—
At any rate the majority of us forthwith agreed, since plainly it meant an outing of the most lavish and pleasing nature. At once four automobiles were pressed into service, three from his own garage and one specially engaged elsewhere. There was some telephoning in re culinary supplies to a chef in charge of the famous restaurant below who was en rapport with our host, and soon some baskets of food were produced and subsequently the four cars made their appearance at the entryway below. At dusk of a gray, cold, smoky day we were all bundled into these—poets, playwrights, novelists, editors (he professed a great contempt for actors), and forthwith we were off, to do forty-five miles between five-thirty and seven p.m.
I often think of that ride, the atmosphere of it, and what it told of our host's point of view. He was always so grave, serene, watchful yet pleasant and decidedly agreeable, gay even, without seeming so to be. There was something so amazingly warm and exotic about him and his, and yet at the same time something so cold and calculated, as if after all he were saying to himself, "I am the master of all this, am stage-managing it for my own pleasure." I felt that he looked upon us all not so much as intimates or friends as rather fine birds or specimens of one kind and another, well qualified to help him with art and social ideas if nothing more—hence his interest in us. Also, in his estimation no doubt, we reflected some slight color or light into his life, which he craved. We had done things too. Nevertheless, in his own estimation, he was the master, the Can Grande. He could at will, "take us up or leave us out," or so he thought. We were mere toys, fine feathers, cap-and-bell artists. It was nice to, "take us around," have us with him. Smothered in a great richly braided fur coat and fur cap, he looked as much the Grand Duke as one might wish.
But I liked him, truly. And what a delicious evening and holiday, all told, he made of it for us. By leaving a trail of frightened horses, men and women, and tearing through the gloom as though streets were his private race-track—I myself as much frightened as any at the roaring speed of the cars and the possibilities of the road—we arrived at seven, and by eight were seated to a course dinner of the most gratifying character. There was no heat in the house as yet, but from somewhere great logs had been obtained and now blazed in the large fireplaces. There was no electricity as yet—a private plant was being installed—but candles and lamps blazed in lovely groups, casting a soft glow over the great rooms. One room lacked a door, but an immense rug took its place. There were rugs, hangings and paintings in profusion, many of them as yet unhung. Some of the most interesting importations of furniture and statuary were still in the cases in which they had arrived, with marks of ships and the names of foreign cities upon the cases. Scattered about the great living-room, dining-room, music-room and library were enough rugs, divans and chairs as well as musical instruments—a piano among others—to give the place an air of completeness and luxury. The walls and ceilings had already been decorated—in a most florid manner, I must say. Outside were great balconies and verandahs commanding, as the following morning proved, a very splendid view of a very bleak sea. The sand dunes! The distant floor of the sea! The ships! Upstairs were nine suites of one- and two-rooms and bath. The basement was an intricate world of kitchen, pantry, engine-room, furnace, wine cellars and what not. Outside was a tawny waste of sand held together in places in the form of hummocks and even concealing hills by sand-binding grasses.
That night, because it was windy and dull and bleak, we stayed inside, I for one going outside only long enough to discover that there were great wide verandahs of concrete about the house, fit for great entertainments in themselves, and near at hand, hummocks of sand. Inside all was warm and flaring enough. The wine cellar seemed to contain all that one might reasonably desire. Our host once out here was most gay in his mood. He was most pleasantly interested in the progress of his new home, although not intensely so. He seemed to have lived a great deal and to be making the best of everything as though it were something to go through with. With much talking on the part of us all, the evening passed swiftly enough. Some of the men could play and sing. One poet recited enchanting bits of verse. For our inspection certain pieces of furniture and statuary were unpacked and displayed—a bronze faun some three feet in height, for one thing. All the time I was sensible of being in contact with some one who was really in touch with life in a very large way, financially and otherwise. His mind seemed to be busy with all sorts of things. There were two Syrians in Paris, he said, who owned a large collection of rugs suitable for an exhibition. He had an agent who was trying to secure the best of them for his new home. De Shay had recently introduced him to a certain Italian count who had a great house in Italy but could not afford its upkeep. He was going to take over a portion of its furnishings, after due verification, of course. Did I know the paintings of Monticelli and Mancini? He had just secured excellent examples of both. Some time when his new home was further along I must come out. Then the pictures would be hung, the statuary and furniture in place. He would get up a week-end party for a select group.
The talk drifted to music and the stage. At once I saw that because of his taste, wealth and skill, women formed a large and yet rather toy-like portion of his life, holding about as much relation to his inner life as do the concubines of an Asiatic sultan. Madame of the earrings, as I learned from De Shay, was a source of great expense to him, but at that she was elusive, not easily to be come at. The stage and Broadway were full of many beauties in various walks of life, many of whom he knew or to whom he could obtain access. Did I know thus, and so—such-and-such, and one?
"I'll tell you," he said after a time and when the wine glasses had been refilled a number of times, "we must give a party out here some time, something extraordinary, a real one. De Shay and Bielow" (naming another artist) "and myself must think it out. I know three different dancers"—and he began to enumerate their qualities. I saw plainly that even though women played a minor part in his life, they were the fringe and embroidery to his success and power. At one a.m. we went to our rooms, having touched upon most of the themes dear to metropolitan lovers of life and art.
The next morning was wonderful—glittering, if windy. The sea sparkled beyond the waste of sand. I noted anew the richness of the furnishings, the greatness of the house. Set down in so much sand and facing the great sea, it was wonderful. There was no order for breakfast; we came down as we chose. A samovar and a coffee urn were alight on the table. Rolls, chops, anything, were brought on order. Possibly because I was one of the first about, my host singled me out—he was up and dressed when I came down—and we strolled over the estate to see what we should see.
Curiously, although I had seen many country homes of pretension and even luxury, I never saw one that appealed to me more on the ground of promise and, after a fashion, of partial fulfillment. It was so unpretentiously pretentious, so really grand in a limited and yet poetic way. Exteriorly its placement, on a rise of ground commanding that vast sweep of sea and sand, its verandahs, so very wide—great smooth floors of red concrete—bordered with stone boxes for flowers and handsomely designed stone benches, its long walks and drives but newly begun, its stretch of beach, say a half mile away and possibly a mile and a half long, to be left, as he remarked, "au naturel," driftwood, stones and all, struck me most favorably. Only one long pier for visiting yachts was to be built, and a certain stretch of beach, not over three hundred feet, cleared for bath houses and a smooth beach. On one spot of land, a high hummock reaching out into the sea, had already been erected a small vantage tower, open at the bottom for shade and rest, benches turning in a circle upon a concrete floor, above it, a top looking more like a small bleak lighthouse than anything else. In this upper portion was a room reached by small spiral concrete stairs!
I could not help noting the reserve and savoir faire with which my host took all this. He was so healthy, assured, interested and, I am glad to say, not exactly self-satisfied; at least he did not impress me in that way—a most irritating condition. Plainly he was building a very splendid thing. His life was nearing its apex. He must not only have had millions, but great taste to have undertaken, let alone accomplished, as much as was already visible here. Pointing to a bleak waste of sand between the house and the sea—and it looked like a huge red and yellow bird perched upon a waste of sand—he observed, "When you come again in the spring, that will contain a garden of 40,000 roses. The wind is nearly always off the sea here. I want the perfume to blow over the verandahs. I can rotate the roses so that a big percentage of them will always be in bloom."
We visited the stables, the garage, an artesian well newly driven, a drive that was to skirt the sea, a sunken garden some distance from the house and away from the sea.
Next spring I came once more—several times, in fact. The rose garden was then in bloom, the drives finished, the pictures hung. Although this was not a world in which society as yet deigned to move, it was entirely conceivable that at a later period it might, and betimes it was crowded with people smart enough and more agreeable in the main than the hardy, strident members of the so-called really inner circles. There were artists, writers, playwrights, singers, actresses, and some nondescript figures of the ultra-social world—young men principally who seemed to come here in connection with beautiful young women, models and other girls whose beauty was their only recommendation to consideration.
The scene was not without brilliance. A butler and numerous flunkeys fluttered to and fro. Guests were received at the door by a footman. A housekeeper and various severe-looking maids governed in the matter of cleaning. One could play golf, tennis, bridge, motor, fish, swim, drink in a free and even disconcerting manner or read quietly in one angle or another of the grounds. There were affairs, much flirting and giggling, suspicious wanderings to and fro at night—no questions asked as to who came or whether one was married, so long as a reasonable amount of decorum was maintained. It was the same on other occasions, only the house and grounds were full to overflowing with guests and passing friends, whose machines barked in the drives. I saw as many gay and fascinating costumes and heard as much clever and at times informative talk here as anywhere I have been.
During this fall and winter I was engaged in work which kept me very much to myself. During the period I read much of X——, banks he was combining, new ventures he was undertaking. Yet all at once one winter's day, and out of a clear sky, the papers were full of an enormous financial crash of which he was the center. According to the newspapers, the first and foremost of a chain of banks of which he was the head, to say nothing of a bonding and realty company and some street-railway project on Long Island, were all involved in the crash. Curiously, although no derogatory mention had previously been made of him, the articles and editorials were now most vituperative. Their venom was especially noticeable. He was a get-rich-quick villain of the vilest stripe; he had been juggling a bank, a trust company, an insurance company and a land and street-railway speculative scheme as one would glass balls. The money wherewith he gambled was not his. He had robbed the poor, deceived them. Yet among all this and in the huge articles which appeared the very first day, I noted one paragraph which stuck in my mind, for I was naturally interested in all this and in him. It read:
"Wall Street heard yesterday that Superintendent H—— got his first information concerning the state in which X——'s affairs were from quarters where resentment may have been cherished because of his activity in the Long Island Traction field. This is one of the Street's 'clover patches' and the success which the newcomer seemed to be meeting did not provoke great pleasure."
Another item read:
"A hitch in a deal that was to have transferred the South Shore to the New York and Queens County System, owned by the Long Island Railroad, at a profit of almost $2,000,000 to X——, was the cause of all the trouble. Very active displeasure on the part of certain powers in Wall Street blocked, it is said, the closing of the deal for the railroad. They did not want him in this field, and were powerful enough to prevent it. At the same time pressure from other directions was brought to bear on him. The clearing-house refused to clear for his banks. X—— was in need of cash, but still insisting on a high rate of remuneration for the road which he had developed to an important point. Their sinister influences entered and blocked the transfer until it was no longer possible for him to hold out."
Along with these two items was a vast mass of data, really pages, showing how, when, where he had done thus and so, "juggled accounts" between one bank and another, all of which he controlled however, and most of which he owned, drew out large sums and put in their place mortgages on, or securities in, new companies which he was organizing—tricks which were the ordinary routine of Wall Street and hence rather ridiculous as the sub-stone of so vast a hue and cry.
I was puzzled and, more than that, moved by the drama of the man's sudden end, for I understood a little of finance and its ways, also of what place and power had plainly come to mean to him. It must be dreadful. Yet how could it be, I asked myself, if he really owned fifty-one per cent or more in so many companies that he could be such a dark villain? After all, ownership is ownership, and control, control. On the face of the reports themselves his schemes did not look so black. I read everything in connection with him with care.
As the days passed various other things happened. For one thing, he tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a window of his studio in New York; for another, he tried to take poison. Now of a sudden a bachelor sister, of whom I had never heard in all the time I had known him, put in an appearance as his nearest of kin—a woman whose name was not his own but a variation of it, an "-ovitch" having suddenly been tacked onto it. She took him to a sanitarium, from which he was eventually turned out as a criminal, then to a hospital, until finally he surrendered himself to the police. The names of great lawyers and other bankers began to enter the case. Alienists of repute, those fine chameleons of the legal world, were employed who swore first that he was insane, then that he was not. His sister, who was a physician and scientist of repute, asked the transfer of all his property to her on the ground that he was incompetent and that she was his next of kin. To this she swore, giving as her reasons for believing him insane that he had "illusions of grandeur" and that he believed himself "persecuted by eminent financiers," things which smacked more of sanity than anything else to me. At the same time he and she, as time rather indicated, had arranged this in part in the hope of saving something out of the great wreck. There were other curious features: Certain eminent men in politics and finance who from revelations made by the books of the various banks were in close financial if not personal relations with X—— denied this completely. Curiously, the great cry on the part of these was that he was insane, must be, and that he was all alone in his schemes. His life on Broadway, on Long Island, in his studio in New York, were ransacked for details. Enough could not be made of his gay, shameful, spendthrift life. No one else, of course, had ever been either gay or shameful before—especially not the eminent and hounding financiers.
Then from somewhere appeared a new element. In a staggeringly low tenement region in Brooklyn was discovered somehow or other a very old man and woman, most unsatisfactory as relatives of such imposing people, who insisted that they were his parents, that years before because he and his sister were exceedingly restless and ambitious, they had left them and had only returned occasionally to borrow money, finally ceasing to come at all. In proof of this, letters, witnesses, old photos, were produced. It really did appear as if he and his sister, although they had long vigorously denied it, really were the son and daughter of the two who had been petty bakers in Brooklyn, laying up a little competence of their own. I never knew who "dug" them up, but the reason why was plain enough. The sister was laying claim to the property as the next of kin. If this could be offset, even though X—— were insane, the property would at once be thrown into the hands of the various creditors and sold under a forced sale, of course—in other words, for a song—for their benefit. Naturally it was of interest to those who wished to have his affairs wound up to have the old people produced. But the great financier had been spreading the report all along that he was from Russia, that his parents, or pseudo-parents, were still there, but that really he was the illegitimate son of the Czar of Russia, boarded out originally with a poor family. Now, however, the old people were brought from Brooklyn and compelled to confront him. It was never really proved that he and his sister had neglected them utterly or had done anything to seriously injure them, but rather that as they had grown in place and station they had become more or less estranged and so ignored them, having changed their names and soared in a world little dreamed of by their parents. Also a perjury charge was made against the sister which effectually prevented her from controlling his estate, a lease long enough to give the financiers time for their work. Naturally there was a great hue and cry over her, the scandal, the shame, that they should thus publicly refuse to recognize their parents as they did or had when confronted by them. Horrible! There were most heavily illustrated and tearful Sunday articles, all blazoned forth with pictures of his house and studio, his banks, cars, yacht, groups of guests, while the motives of those who produced the parents were overlooked. The pictures of the parents confronting X—— and his sister portrayed very old and feeble people, and were rather moving. They insisted that they were his parents and wept brokenly in their hands. But why? And he denying it! His sister, who resented all this bitterly and who stood by him valiantly, repudiated, for his sake of course, his and her so-called parents and friends.
I never saw such a running to cover of "friends" in all my life. Of all those I had seen about his place and in his company, scores on scores of people reasonably well known in the arts, the stage, the worlds of finance and music, all eating his dinners, riding in his cars, drinking his wines, there was scarcely any one now who knew him anything more than "casually" or "slightly"—oh, so slightly! When rumors as to the midnight suppers, the Bacchic dancing, the automobile parties to his great country place and the spirited frolics which occurred there began to get abroad, there was no one whom I knew who had ever been there or knew anything about him or them. For instance, of all the people who had been close or closest and might therefore have been expected to be friendly and deeply concerned was de Shay, his fidus Achates and literally his pensioner—yet de Shay was almost the loudest in his denunciation or at least deprecation of X——, his habits and methods! Although it was he who had told me of Mme. —— and her relation to X——, who urged me to come here, there and the other place, especially where X—— was the host, always assuring me that it would be so wonderful and that X—— was really such a great man, so generous, so worth-while, he was now really the loudest or at least the most stand-offish in his comments, pretending never to have been very close to X——, and lifting his eyebrows in astonishment as though he had not even guessed what he had actually engineered. His "Did-you-hears," "Did-you-knows" and "Wouldn't-have-dreamed" would have done credit to a tea-party. He was so shocked, especially at X——'s robbing poor children and orphans, although in so far as my reading of the papers went I could find nothing that went to prove that he had any intention of robbing anybody—that is, directly. In the usual Wall Street high finance style he was robbing Peter to pay Paul, that is, he was using the monies of one corporation which he controlled to bolster up any of the others which he controlled, and was "washing one hand with the other," a proceeding so common in finance that to really radically and truly oppose it, or do away with it, would mean to bring down the whole fabric of finance in one grand crash.
Be that as it may. In swift succession there now followed the so-called "legal" seizure and confiscation of all his properties. In the first place, by alienists representing the District Attorney and the State banking department, he was declared sane and placed on trial for embezzlement. Secondly, his sister's plea that his property be put into her hands as trustee or administrator was thrown out of court and she herself arrested and confined for perjury on the ground that she had perjured herself in swearing that she was his next of kin when in reality his real parents, or so they swore, were alive and in America. Next, his banks, trust companies and various concerns, including his great country estate, were swiftly thrown into the hands of receivers (what an appropriate name!) and wound up "for the benefit of creditors." All the while X—— was in prison, protesting that he was really not guilty, that he was solvent, or had been until he was attacked by the State bank examiner or the department back of him, and that he was the victim of a cold-blooded conspiracy which was using the State banking department and other means to drive him out of financial life, and that solely because of his desire to grow and because by chance he had been impinging upon one of the choicest and most closely guarded fields of the ultra-rich of Wall Street—the street railway area in New York and Brooklyn.
One day, so he publicly swore to the grand jury, by which he was being examined, as he was sitting in his great offices, in one of the great sky-scrapers of New York, which occupied an entire floor and commanded vast panoramas in every direction (another evidence of the man's insane "delusion of grandeur," I presume), he was called to answer the telephone. One Mr. Y——, so his assistant said, one of the eminent financiers of Wall Street and America, was on the wire. Without any preliminary and merely asking was this Mr. X—— on the wire, the latter proceeded, "This is Mr. Y——. Listen closely to what I am going to say. I want you to get out of the street railway business in New York or something is going to happen to you. I am giving you a reasonable warning. Take it." Then the phone clicked most savagely and ominously and superiorly at the other end.
"I knew at the time," went on X——, addressing the grand jury, "that I was really listening to the man who was most powerful in such affairs in New York and elsewhere and that he meant what he said. At the same time I was in no position to get out without closing up the one deal which stood to net me two million dollars clear if I closed it. At the same time I wanted to enter this field and didn't see why I shouldn't. If I didn't it spelled not ruin by any means but a considerable loss, a very great loss, to me, in more ways than one. Oddly enough, just at this time I was being pressed by those with whom I was associated to wind up this particular venture and turn my attention to other things. I have often wondered, in the light of their subsequent actions, why they should have become so pressing just at this time. At the same time, perhaps I was a little vain and self-sufficient. I had once got the better of some agents of another great financier in a Western Power deal, and I felt that I could put this thing through too. Hence I refused to heed the warning. However, I found that all those who were previously interested to buy or at least develop the property were now suddenly grown cold, and a little later when, having entered on several other matters, I needed considerable cash, the State banking department descended on me and, crying fraud and insolvency, closed all my banks.
"You know how it is when they do this to you. Cry 'Fire!' and you can nearly wreck a perfectly good theater building. Depositors withdraw, securities tumble, investigation and legal expenses begin, your financial associates get frightened or ashamed and desert you. Nothing is so squeamish or so retiring and nervous as money. Time will show that I was not insolvent at the time. The books will show a few technically illegal things, but so would the books or the affairs of any great bank, especially at this time, if quickly examined. I was doing no more than all were doing, but they wanted to get me out—and they did."
Regardless of proceedings of various kinds—legal, technical and the like—X—— was finally sent to the penitentiary, and spent some time there. At the same time his confession finally wrecked about nine other eminent men, financiers all. A dispassionate examination of all the evidence eight years later caused me to conclude without hesitation that the man had been a victim of a cold-blooded conspiracy, the object of which was to oust him from opportunities and to forestall him in methods which would certainly have led to enormous wealth. He was apparently in a position and with the brains to do many of the things which the ablest and coldest financiers of his day had been and were doing, and they did not want to be bothered with, would not brook, in short, his approaching rivalry. Like the various usurpers of regal powers in ancient days, they thought it best to kill a possible claimant to the throne in his infancy.
But that youth of his! The long and devious path by which he had come! Among the papers relating to the case and to a time when he could not have been more than eighteen, and when he was beginning his career as a book agent, was a letter written to his mother (August, 1892), which read:
"MY DEAR PARENTS: Please answer me at once if I can have anything of you, or something of you or nothing. Remember this is the first and the last time in my life that I beg of you anything. You have given to the other child not $15 but hundreds, and now when I, the very youngest, ask of you, my parents, $15, are you going to be so hard-hearted as to refuse me? Without these $15 it is left to me to be without income for two or three weeks.
"For God's sake, remember what I ask of you, and send me at once so that I should cease thinking of it. Leon, as I have told you, will give me $10, $15 he has already paid for the contract, and your $15 will make $25. Out of this I need $10 for a ticket and $15 for two or three weeks' board and lodging.
"Please answer at once. Don't wait for a minute, and send me the money or write me one word 'not.' Remember this only that if you refuse me I will have nothing in common with you.
"Your son, "——"
There was another bit of testimony on the part of one Henry Dom, a baker, who for some strange reason came forward to identify him as some one he had known years before in Williamsburgh, which read:
"I easily recognize them" (X—— and his sister) "from their pictures in the newspapers. I worked for X——'s father, who was a baker in Williamsburgh, and frequently addressed letters that were written by X—— Senior and his wife to Dr. Louise X—— who was then studying medicine in Philadelphia. X—— was then a boy going to school, but working in his father's bakery mornings and evenings. He did not want to do that, moaned a great deal, and his parents humored him in his attitude. He was very vain, liked to appear intellectual. They kept saying to their friends that he should have a fine future. Five years later, after I had left them once, I met the mother and she told me that X—— was studying banking and getting along fine."
Some seven years after the failure and trial by which he had so summarily been disposed of and after he had been released from prison, I was standing at a certain unimportant street corner in New York waiting for a car when I saw him. He was passing in the opposite direction, not very briskly, and, as I saw, plainly meditatively. He was not so well dressed. The clothes he wore while good were somehow different, lacking in that exquisite something which had characterized him years before. His hat—well, it was a hat, not a Romanoff shako nor a handsome panama such as he had affected in the old days. He looked tired, a little worn and dusty, I thought.
My first impulse was of course to hail him, my second not, since he had not seen me. It might have been embarrassing, and at any rate he might not have even remembered me. But as he walked I thought of the great house by the sea, the studio, the cars, the 40,000 roses, the crowds at his summer place, the receptions in town and out, Madame of the earrings (afterward married to a French nobleman), and then of the letter to his mother as a boy, the broken shoes in the winter time, his denial of his parents, the telephone message from the financial tiger. "Vanity, vanity," saith the preacher. The shores of our social seas are strewn with pathetic wrecks, the whitening bone of half-sand-buried ships.
At the next corner he paused, a little uncertain apparently as to which way to go, then turned to the left and was lost. I have never seen nor heard of him since.
The Mighty Rourke
When I first met him he was laying the foundation for a small dynamo in the engine-room of the repair shop at Spike, and he was most unusually loud in his protestations and demands. He had with him a dozen Italians, all short, swarthy fellows of from twenty-five to fifty years of age, who were busy bringing material from a car that had been pushed in on the side-track next to the building. This was loaded with crushed stone, cement, old boards, wheelbarrows, tools, and the like, all of which were to be used in the labor that he was about to undertake. He himself was standing in the doorway of the shop where the work was to be conducted, coat off, sleeves rolled up, and shouting with true Irish insistence, "Come, Matt! Come, Jimmie! Get the shovels, now! Get the picks! Bring some sand here! Bring some stone! Where's the cement, now? Where's the cement? Jasus Christ! I must have some cement! What arre ye all doin'? What do ye think ye're up here fer? Hurry, now, hurry! Bring the cement!" and then, having concluded this amazing fanfare, calmly turning to gaze about as if he were the only one in the world who had the right to stand still.
More or less oppressed with life myself at the time, I was against all bosses, and particularly against so seemingly a vicious one as this. "What a slave driver!" I thought. "What a brute!" And yet I remember thinking that he was not exactly unpleasant to look at, either—quite the contrary. He was medium in height, thick of body and neck, with short gray hair and mustache, and bright, clear, twinkling Irish gray eyes, and he carried himself with an air of unquestionable authority. It was much as if he had said, "I am the boss here"; and, indeed, he was. Is it this that sends the Irish to rule as captains of hundreds the world over?
The job he was bossing was not very intricate or important, but it was interesting. It consisted of digging a trench ten by twelve feet, and shaping it up with boards into a "form," after which concrete was to be mixed and poured in, and some iron rods set to fasten the engine to—an engine bed, no less. It was not so urgent but that it might have been conducted with far less excitement, but what are you to do when you are naturally excitable, love to make a great noise, and feel that things are going forward whether they are or not? Plainly this particular individual loved noise and a great stir. So eager was he to have done with it, no matter what it was or where, that he was constantly trotting to and fro, shouting, "Come, Matt! Come, Jimmie! Hurry, now, bring the shovels! Bring the picks!" and occasionally bursting forth with a perfect avalanche of orders. "Up with it! Down with it! Front with it! Back with it! In with it! Out with it!" all coupled with his favorite expletive, "Jasus Christ," which was as innocent of evil, I subsequently came to know, as a prayer. In short, he was simply wild Irish, and that was all there was to him—a delightful specimen, like Namgay Doola.
But, as I say, at the time he seemed positively appalling to me, a virulent specimen, and I thought, "The Irish brute! To think of human beings having to work for a brute like that! To think of his driving men like that!" However, I soon began to discover that he was not so bad as he seemed, and then I began to like him.
The thing that brought about this swift change of feeling in me was the attitude of his men toward him. Although he was so insistent with his commands, they did not seem to mind nor to strain themselves working. They were not killing themselves, by any means. He would stand over them, crying, "Up with it! Up with it! Up with it! Up with it!" or "Down with it! Down with it! Down with it!" until you would have imagined their nerves would be worn to a frazzle. As it was, however, they did not seem to care any more than you would for the ticking of a clock; rather, they appeared to take it as a matter of course, something that had to be, and that one was prepared for. Their steps were in the main as leisurely as those of idlers on Fifth Avenue or Broadway. They carried boards or stone as one would objects of great value. One could not help smiling at the incongruity of it; it was farcical. Finally gathering the full import of it all, I ventured to laugh, and he turned on me with a sharp and yet not unkindly retort.
"Ha! ha! ha!" he mocked. "If ye had to work as hard as these min, ye wouldn't laugh."
I wanted to say, "Hard work, indeed!" but instead I replied, "Is that so? Well, I don't see that they're killing themselves, or you either. You're not as fierce as you sound."
Then I explained that I was not laughing at them but at him, and he took it all in good part. Since I was only a nominal laborer here, not a real one—permitted to work for my health, for twelve cents an hour—we fell to conversing upon railroad matters, and in this way our period of friendship began.
As I learned that morning, Rourke was the foreman-mason for minor tasks for all that part of the railroad that lay between New York and fifty miles out, on three divisions. He had a dozen or so men under him and was in possession of one car, which was shunted back and forth between the places in which he happened to be working. He was a builder of concrete platforms, culverts, coal-bins, sidewalks, bridge and building piers, and, in fact, anything that could be made out of crushed stone and cement, or bricks and stone, and he was sent here and there, as necessity required. As he explained to me at the time, he sometimes rose as early as four a.m. in order to get to his place of labor by seven. The great railroad company for which he toiled was no gentle master, and did not look upon his ease, or that of his men, as important. At the same time, as he himself confessed, he did not mind hard work—liked it, in short. He had been working now for the company for all of twenty-two years, "rain or shine." Darkness or storm made no difference to him. "Shewer, I have to be there," he observed once with his quizzical, elusive Irish grin. "They're not payin' me wages fer lyin' in bed. If ye was to get up that way yerself every day fer a year, me b'y," he added, eyeing my spare and none too well articulated frame, "it'd make a man av ye."
"Yes?" I said tolerantly. "And how much do you get, Rourke?"
"Two an' a half a day."
"You don't say!" I replied, pretending admiration.
The munificence of the corporation that paid him two and a half dollars a day for ten hours' work, as well as for superintending and constructing things of such importance, struck me forcibly. Perhaps, as we say in America, he "had a right" to be happy, only I could not see it. At the same time, I could not help thinking that he was better situated than myself at the time. I had been ill, and was now earning only twelve cents an hour for ten hours' work, and the sight of the foreman for whom I was working was a torture to my soul. He was such a loud-mouthed, blustering, red-headed ignoramus, and I wanted to get out from under him. At the same time, I was not without sufficient influence so to do, providing I could find a foreman who could make use of me. The great thing was to do this, and the more I eyed this particular specimen of foreman the better I liked him. He was genial, really kindly, amazingly simple and sincere. I decided to appeal to him to take me on his staff.
"How would you like to take me, Mr. Rourke, and let me work for you?" I asked hopefully, after explaining to him why I was here.
"Shewer," he replied. "Ye'd do fine."
"Would I have to work with the Italians?" I asked, wondering how I would make out with a pick and shovel. My frame was so spare at the time that the question must have amused him, considering the type of physique required for day labor.
"There'll be plenty av work fer ye to do without ever yer layin' a hand to a pick er shovel," he replied comfortingly. "Shewer, that's no work fer white min. Let the nagurs do it. Look at their backs an' arrms, an' then look at yers."
I was ready to blush for shame. These poor Italians whom I was so ready to contemn were immeasurably my physical superiors.
"But why do you call them negroes, Rourke?" I asked after a time. "They're not black."
"Well, bedad, they're not white, that's waan thing shewer," he added. "Aany man can tell that be lookin' at thim."
I had to smile. It was so dogmatic and unreasoning.
"Very well, then, they're black," I said, and we left the matter.
Not long after I put in a plea to be transferred to him, at his request, and it was granted. The day that I joined his flock, or gang, as he called it, he was at Williamsbridge, a little station north on the Harlem, building a concrete coal-bin. It was a pretty place, surrounded by trees and a grass-plot, a vast improvement upon a dark indoor shop, and seemed to me a veritable haven of rest. Ah, the smiling morning sun, the green leaves, the gentle fresh winds of heaven!
Rourke was down in an earthen excavation under the depot platform when I arrived, measuring and calculating with his plumb-bob and level, and when I looked in on him hopefully he looked up and smiled.
"So here ye arre at last," he said with a grin.
"Yes," I laughed.
"Well, ye're jist in time; I waant ye to go down to the ahffice."
"Certainly," I replied, but before I could say more he climbed out of his hole, his white jeans odorous of the new-turned earth, and fished in the pocket of an old gray coat which lay beside him for a soiled and crumpled letter, which he finally unfolded with his thick, clumsy fingers. Then he held it up and looked at it defiantly.
"I waant ye to go to Woodlawn," he continued, "an' look after some bolts that arre up there—there's a keg av thim—an' sign the bill fer thim, an' ship thim down to me. An' thin I waant ye to go down to the ahffice an' take thim this o.k." Here again he fished around and produced another crumpled slip, this time of a yellow color (how well I came to know them!), which I soon learned was an o.k. blank, a form which had to be filled in and signed for everything received, if no more than a stick of wood or a nail or a bolt. The company demanded these of all foremen, in order to keep its records straight. Its accounting department was useless without them. At the same time, Rourke kept talking of the "nonsinse av it," and the "onraisonableness" of demanding o.k.s for everything. "Ye'd think some one was goin' to sthale thim from thim," he declared irritably and defiantly.
I saw at once that some infraction of the railroad rules had occurred and that he had been "called down," or "jacked up" about it, as the railroad men expressed it. He was in a high state of dudgeon, and as defiant and pugnacious as his royal Irish temper would allow. At the same time he was pleased to think that I or some one had arrived who would relieve him of this damnable "nonsinse," or so he hoped. He was not so inexperienced as not to imagine that I could help him with all this. In fact, as time proved, this was my sole reason for being here.
He flung a parting shot at his superior as I departed.
"Tell him that I'll sign fer thim when I get thim, an' not before," he declared.
I went on my way, knowing full well that no such message was for delivery, and that he did not intend that it should be. It was just the Irish of it. I went off to Woodlawn and secured the bolts, after which I went down to the "ahffice" and reported. There I found the chief clerk, a mere slip of a dancing master in a high collar and attractive office suit, who was also in a high state of dudgeon because Rourke, as he now explained, had failed to render an o.k. for this and other things, and did not seem to understand that he, the chief clerk, must have them to make up his reports. Sometimes o.k.s did not come in for a month or more, the goods lying around somewhere until Rourke could use them. He wanted to know what explanation Rourke had to offer, and when I suggested that the latter thought, apparently, that he could leave all consignments of goods in one station or another until such time as he needed them before he o.k.ed for them, he fairly foamed.
"Say," he almost shouted, at the same time shoving his hands distractedly through his hair, "what does he think I am? How does he think I'm going to make up my books? He'll leave them there until he needs them, will he? Well, he's a damned fool, and you go back and tell him I said so. He's been long enough on the road to know better. You go back and tell him I said that I want a signed form for everything consigned to him the moment he learns that it's waiting for him, and I want it right away, without fail, whether it's a single nut or a car of sand. I want it. He's got to come to time about this now, or something's going to drop. I'm not going to stand it any longer. How does he think I'm going to make up my books? I wish he'd let you attend to these matters while you're up there. It will save an awful lot of trouble in this office and it may save him his job. There's one thing sure: he's got to come to time from now on, or either he quits or I do."
These same o.k.s plus about twenty-five long-drawn-out reports or calculations, retroactive and prospective, covering every possible detail of his work from the acknowledgment of all material received up to and including the expenditure of even so much as one mill's worth of paper, were the bane of my good foreman's life. As I learned afterward, he had nearly his whole family, at least a boy and two girls, assisting him nights on this part of the work. In addition, while they were absolutely of no import in so far as the actual work of construction was concerned—and that was really all that interested Rourke—they were an essential part of the system which made it possible for him to do the work at all—a point which he did not seem to be able to get clear. At the same time, there was an unsatisfactory side to this office technicalia, and it was this: If a man could only sit down and reel off a graphic account of all that he was doing, accompanied by facts and figures, he was in excellent standing with his superiors, no matter what his mechanical defects might be; whereas, if his reports were not clear, or were insufficient, the efficiency of his work might well be overlooked. In a vague way, Rourke sensed this and resented it. He knew that his work was as good as could be done, and yet here were these constant reports and o.k.s to irritate and delay him. Apparently they aided actual construction no whit—but, of course, they did. Although he was a better foreman than most, still, because of his lack of skill in this matter of accounting, he was looked upon as more or less a failure, especially by the chief clerk. Naturally, I explained that I would do my best, and came away.