When I returned, however, I decided to be politic. I could not very well work with a pick and shovel, and this was about all that was left outside of that. I therefore explained as best I could the sad plight of the chief clerk, who stood in danger of losing his job unless these things came in promptly.
"You see how it is, Rourke, don't you?" I pleaded.
He seemed to see, but he was still angry.
"An o.k. blank! An o.k. blank!" he echoed contentiously, but in a somewhat more conciliatory spirit. "He wants an o.k. blank, does he? Well, I expect ye might as well give thim to him, thin. I think the man lives on thim things, the way he's aalways caallin' fer thim. Ye'd think I was a bookkeeper an' foreman at the same time; it's somethin' aaful. An o.k. blank! An o.k. blank!" and he sputtered to silence.
A little while later he humorously explained that he had "clane forgot thim, anyhow."
The ensuing month was a busy one for us. We had a platform to lay at Morrisania, a chimney to build at Tarrytown, a sidewalk to lay at White Plains, and a large cistern to dig and wall in at Tuckahoe. Besides these, there were platforms to build at Van Cortlandt and Mount Kisco, water-towers at Highbridge and Ardsley, a sidewalk and drain at Caryl, a culvert and an ash-pit at Bronx Park, and some forty concrete piers for a building at Melrose—all of which required any amount of running and figuring, to say nothing of the actual work of superintending and constructing, which Rourke alone could look after. It seemed ridiculous to me at the time that any one doing all this hard practical labor should not be provided with a clerk or an accountant to take at least some of this endless figuring off his hands. At the same time, if he had been the least bit clever, he could have provided himself with one permanently by turning one of his so-called laborers into a clerk—carrying a clerk as a laborer—but plainly it had never occurred to him. He depended on his family. The preliminary labor alone of ordering and seeing that the material was duly shipped and unloaded was one man's work; and yet Rourke was expected to do it all.
In spite of all this, however, he displayed himself a masterful worker. I have never seen a better. He preferred to superintend, of course, to get down into the pit or up on the wall, and measure and direct. At the same time, when necessary to expedite a difficult task, he would toil for hours at a stretch with his trowel and his line and his level and his plumb-bob, getting the work into shape, and you would never hear a personal complaint from him concerning the weariness of labor. On the contrary, he would whistle and sing until something went wrong, when suddenly you would hear the most terrific uproar of words: "Come out av that! Come out, now! Jasus Christ, man, have ye no sinse at aall? Put it down! Put it down! What arre ye doin'? What did I tell ye? Have ye no raison in ye, no sinse, ye h'athen nagur?"
"Great heavens!" I used to think, "what has happened now?"
You would have imagined the most terrible calamity; and yet, all told, it might be nothing of any great import—a little error of some kind, more threatening than real, and soon adjusted. It might last for a few moments, during which time the Italians would be seen hurrying excitedly to and fro; and then there would come a lull, and Rourke would be heard to raise his voice in tuneful melody, singing or humming or whistling some old-fashioned Irish "Come-all-ye."
But the thing in Rourke that would have pleased any one was his ready grasp for the actualities of life—his full-fledged knowledge that work is the thing, not argument, or reports, or plans, but the direct accomplishment of something tangible, the thing itself. Thus, while I was working with him, at least nothing that might concern the clerical end of the labor could disturb him, but, if the sky fell, and eight thousand chief clerks threatened to march upon him in a body demanding reports and o.k.s, he would imperturbably make you wait until the work was done. Once, when I interrupted him to question him concerning some of these same wretched, pestering aftermaths of labor, concerning which he alone could answer, he shut me off with: "The reports! The reports! What good arre the reports! Ye make me sick. What have the reports to do with the work? If it wasn't fer the work, where would the reports be?" And I heartily echoed "Where?"
Another thing was his charming attitude toward his men, kindly and sweet for all his storming, that innate sense of something intimate and fatherly. He had a way of saying kindly things in a joking manner which touched them. When he arrived in the morning, for instance, it was always in the cheeriest way that he began. "Come, now, b'ys, ye have a good day's work before ye today. Get the shovels, Jimmie. Bring the line, Matt!" and then he would go below himself, if below it was, and there would be joy and peace until some obstacle to progress interfered. I might say in passing that Matt and Jimmie, his faithful henchmen, were each between forty and fifty, if they were a day—poor, gnarled, dusty, storm-tossed Italians who had come from heaven knows where, had endured God knows what, and were now rounding out a work-a-day existence under the sheltering wing of this same Rourke, a great and protecting power to them.
This same Matt was a funny little Italian, soft of voice and gentle of manner, whom Rourke liked very much, but with whom he loved to quarrel. He would go down in any hole where the latter was working, and almost invariably shortly after you would hear the most amazing uproar issuing therefrom, shouts of: "Put it here, I say! Put it here! Down with it! Here! Here! Jasus Christ, have ye no sinse at aall?"—coupled, of course, with occasional guttural growls from Matt, who was by no means in awe of his master and who feared no personal blows. The latter had been with Rourke for so long that he was not in the least overawed by his yelling and could afford to take such liberties. Occasionally, not always, Rourke would come climbing out of the hole, his face and neck fairly scarlet with heat, raging and shouting, "I'll get shut av ye! I'll have no more thruck with ye, ye blitherin', crazy loon! What good arre ye? What work can ye do? Naathin'! Naathin'! I'll be shut av ye now, an' thin maybe I'll have a little p'ace." Then he would dance around and threaten and growl until something else would take his attention, when he would quiet down and be as peaceful as ever. Somehow, I always felt that in spite of all the difficulties involved, he enjoyed these rows—must fight, in short, to be happy. Sometimes he would go home without saying a word to Matt, a conclusion which at first I imagined portended the end of the latter, but soon I came to know better. For the next morning Matt would reappear as unconcernedly as though nothing had happened, and Rourke would appear not to notice or remember.
Once, anent all this, I said to him, "Rourke, how many times have you threatened to discharge Matt in the last three years?"
"Shewer," he replied, with his ingratiating grin, "a man don't mane aall he says aall the time."
The most humorous of all his collection of workingmen, however, was the aforementioned Jimmie, a dark, mild-eyed, soft-spoken Calabrian, who had the shrewdness of a Machiavelli and the pertness of a crow. He lived in the same neighborhood as Rourke, far out in one of those small towns on the Harlem, sheltering so many Italians, for, like a hen with a brood of chicks, Rourke kept all his Italians gathered close about him. Jimmie, curiously, was the one who was always selected to run his family errands for him, a kind of valet to Rourke, as it were—selected for some merit I could never discover, certainly not one of speed. He was nevertheless constantly running here and there like an errand boy, his worn, dusty, baggy clothes making him look like a dilapidated bandit fresh from a sewer. On the job, however, no matter what it might be, Jimmie could never be induced to do real, hard work. He was always above it, or busy with something else. But as he was an expert cement-mixer and knew just how to load and unload the tool-car, two sinecures of sorts, nothing was ever said to him. If any one dared to reprove him, myself for instance (a mere interloper to Jimmie), he would reply: "Yeh! Yeh! I know-a my biz. I been now with Misha Rook fifteen year. I know-a my biz." If you made any complaint to Rourke, he would merely grin and say, "Ha! Jimmie's the sharp one," or perhaps, "I'll get ye yet, ye fox," but more than that nothing was ever done.
One day, however, Jimmie failed to comply with an extraordinary order of Rourke's, which, while it resulted in no real damage, produced a most laughable and yet characteristic scene. A strict rule of the company was that no opening of any kind into which a person might possibly step or fall should be left uncovered at any station during the approach, stay, or departure of any train scheduled to stop at that station. Rourke was well aware of this rule. He had a copy of it on file in his collection of circulars. In addition, he had especially delegated Jimmie to attend to this matter, a task which just suited the Italian as it gave him ample time to idle about and pretend to be watching. This it was which made the crime all the greater.
On this particular occasion Jimmie had failed to attend to this matter. We had been working on the platform at Williamsbridge, digging a pit for a coal-bin, when a train bearing the general foreman came along. The latter got off at the station especially to examine the work that had been done so far. When the train arrived there was the hole wide open with Rourke below shouting and gesticulating about something, and totally unconscious, of course, that his order had been neglected. The general foreman, who was, by the way, I believe, an admirer of Rourke, came forward, looked down, and said quietly: "This won't do, Rourke. You'll have to keep the work covered when a train is approaching. I've told you that before, you know."
Rourke looked up, so astonished and ashamed that he should have been put in such a position before his superior that he hardly knew what to say. I doubt if any one ever had a greater capacity for respecting his superiors, anyhow. Instead of trying to answer, he merely choked and began to shout for Jimmie, who came running, crying, as he always did, "What's da mat'? What's da mat'?"
"What's da mat'? What's da mat'?" mocked Rourke, fairly seething with a marvelous Irish fury. "What the devil do ye suppose is the mat'? What do ye mane be waalkin' away an' l'avin' the hole uncovered? Didn't I tell ye niver to l'ave a hole when a train's comin'? Didn't I tell ye to attind to that an' naathin' else? An' now what have ye been doin'? Be all the powers, what d'ye mane be l'avin' it? What else arre ye good fer? What d'ye mane be lettin' a thing like that happen, an' Mr. Wilson comin' along here, an' the hole open?"
He was as red as a beet, purple almost, perspiring, apoplectic. During all this tirade Mr. Wilson, a sad, dark, anaemic-looking person, troubled with acute indigestion, I fancy, stood by with an amused, kindly, and yet mock severe expression on his face. I am sure he did not wish to be severe.
Jimmie, dumbfounded, scarcely knew what to say. In the face of Rourke's rage and the foreman's presence, he did his best to remedy his error by covering the hole, at the same time stuttering something about going for a trowel.
"A trowel!" cried Rourke, glaring at him. "A trowel, ye h'athen ginny! What'd ye be doin' lookin' fer a trowel, an' a train comin' that close on ye it could 'a' knocked ye off the thrack? An' the hole open, an' Mr. Wilson right here! Is that what I told ye? Is that what I pay ye fer? Be all the saints! A trowel, is it? I'll trowel ye! I'll break yer h'athen Eyetalian skull, I will. Get thim boards on, an' don't let me ketch ye l'avin' such a place as that open again. I'll get shut av ye, ye blitherin' lunatic."
When it was all over and the train bearing the general foreman had gone, Rourke quieted down, but not without many fulgurous flashes that kept the poor Italian on tenterhooks.
About an hour later, however, another train arrived, and, by reason of some intervening necessity and the idle, wandering mood of the Italian, the hole was open again. Jimmie was away behind the depot somewhere, smoking perhaps, and Rourke was, as usual, down in the hole. This time misfortune trebled itself, however, by bringing, not the general foreman, but the supervisor himself, a grave, quiet man, of whom Rourke stood in the greatest awe. He was so solid, so profound, so severe. I don't believe I ever saw him smile. He walked up to the hole, and looking reproachfully down, said: "Is this the way you leave your excavations, Rourke, when a train is coming? Don't you know better than to do a thing like that?"
"Jimmie!" shouted Rourke, leaping to the surface of the earth with a bound, "Jimmie! Now, be Jasus, where is that bla'guard Eyetalian? Didn't I tell him not to l'ave this place open!" and he began shoving the planks into place himself.
Jimmie, suddenly made aware of this new catastrophe, came running as fast as his short legs would carry him, scared almost out of his wits. He was as pale as a very dark and dirty Italian could be, and so wrought up that his facial expression changed involuntarily from moment to moment. Rourke was in a fairly murderous mood, only he was so excited and ashamed that he could not speak. Here was the supervisor, and here was himself, and conditions—necessity for order, etc.—would not permit him to kill the Italian in the former's presence. He could only choke and wait. To think that he should be made a mark of like this, and that in the face of his great supervisor! His face and neck were a beet-red, and his eyes flashed with anger. He merely glared at his recalcitrant henchman, as much as to say, "Wait!" When this train had departed and the dignified supervisor had been carried safely out of hearing he turned on Jimmie with all the fury of a masterful and excitable temper.
"So ye'll naht cover the hole, after me tellin' ye naht fifteen minutes ago, will ye?" he shouted. "Ye'll naht cover the hole! An' what'll ye be tellin' me ye was doin' now?"
"I carry da waut (water) for da concrete," pleaded Jimmie weakly.
"Waut fer the concrete," almost moaned Rourke, so great was his fury, his angry face shoved close to the Italian's own. "Waut fer the concrete, is it? It's a pity ye didn't fall into yer waut fer the concrete, ye damned nagur, an' drown! Waut fer the concrete, is it, an' me here, an' Mr. Mills steppin' off an' lookin' in on me, ye black-hearted son of a Eyetalian, ye! I'll waut fer the concrete ye! I'll crack yer blitherin' Eyetalian skull with a pick, I will! I'll chuck ye in yer waut fer the concrete till ye choke, ye flat-footed, leather-headed lunatic! I'll tache ye to waalk aaf an' l'ave the hole open, an' me in it. Now, be Jasus, get yer coat an' get out av this. Get—I'm tellin' ye! I'll have no more thruck with ye! I'll throuble no more with ye. Ye're no damned good. Out with ye! An' niver show me yer face again!" And he made a motion as if he would grab him and rend him limb from limb.
Jimmie, well aware of his dire position, was too clever, however, to let Rourke seize him. During all this conversation he had been slowly backing away, always safely beyond Rourke's reach, and now ran—an amazing feat for him. He had evidently been through many such scenes before. He retreated first behind the depot, and then when Rourke had gone to work once more down in his hole, came back and took a safe position on guard over the hitherto sadly neglected opening. When the next train came he was there to shove the boards over before it neared the station, and nothing more was said about the matter. Rourke did not appear to notice him. He did not even seem to see that he was there. The next morning, however, when the latter came to work as usual, it was, "Come, Matt! Come, Jimmie!" just as if nothing had happened. I was never more astonished in my life.
An incident, even more ridiculous, but illustrative of the atmosphere in which Rourke dwelt, occurred at Highbridge one frosty October Sunday morning, where because of seepage from a hill which threatened to undermine some tracks, Rourke was ordered to hurry and build a drain—a thing which, because the order came on Saturday afternoon, required Sunday labor, a most unusual thing in his case. But in spite of the order, Rourke, who was a good Catholic, felt impelled before coming to go to at least early mass, and in addition—a regular Sunday practice with him, I presume—to put on a long-skirted Prince Albert coat, which I had never seen before and which lent to his stocky figure some amusing lines. It was really too tight, having been worn, I presume, every Sunday regularly since his wedding day. In addition, he had donned a brown derby hat which, to me at least, gave him a most unfamiliar look.
I, being curious more than anything else and wishing to be out of doors as much as possible, also went up, arriving on the scene about nine. Rourke did not arrive until ten. In the meantime, I proceeded to build myself a fire on the dock, for we were alongside the Harlem River and a brisk wind was blowing. Then Rourke came, fresh from church, smiling and genial, in the most cheerful Sunday-go-to-meeting frame of mind, but plainly a little conscious of his grand garb.
"My," I said, surveying him, "you look fine. I never saw you dressed up before."
"L'ave aaf with yer taalk," he replied. "I know well enough how I look—good enough."
Then he bestirred himself about the task of examining what had been done so far. But I could see, in spite of all the busy assurance with which he worked, that he was still highly conscious of his clothes and a little disturbed by what I or others might think. His every-day garb plainly suited his mood much better.
Everything went smoothly until noon, not a cloud in the sky, when, looking across the tracks at that hour, I beheld coming toward us with more or less uncertain step another individual, stocky of figure and evidently bent on seeing Rourke—an Irishman as large as Rourke, younger, and, if anything, considerably coarser in fiber. He was very red-faced, smooth shaven, with a black derby hat pulled down over his eyes and wearing a somewhat faded tight-fitting brown suit. He was drunk, or nearly so, that was plain from the first. From the moment Rourke beheld him he seemed beside himself with anger or irritation. His expression changed completely and he began to swell, as was customary with him when he was angry, as though suffering from an internal eruption of some kind.
"The bla'guard!" I heard him mutter. "Now, be gob, what'll that felly be waantin'?" and then as the stranger drew nearer, "Who was it tould him I was here? Maybe some waan at the ahffice."
Regardless of his speculations on this score, the stranger picked his way across the tracks and came directly to him, his face and manner indicating no particularly friendly frame of mind.
"Maybe ye'll be lettin' me have that money now," he began instanter, and when Rourke made no reply, merely staring at him, he added, "I'll be waantin' to know now, when it is ye're goin' to give me the rest av me time fer that Scarborough job. I've been waitin' long enough."
Rourke stirred irritably and aggressively before he spoke. He seemed greatly put out, shamed, to think that the man should come here so, especially on this peaceful Sabbath morning.
"I've tould ye before," he replied defiantly after a time, "that ye've had aall ye earned, an' more. Ye left me without finishin' yer work, an' ye'll get no more time from me. If ye waant more, go down to the ahffice an' see if they'll give it to ye. I have no money fer ye here," and he resumed a comfortable position before the fire, his hands behind his back.
"It's siven dollars ye still owe me," returned the other, ignoring Rourke's reply, "an' I waant it now."
"Well, ye'll naht get it," replied my boss. "I've naathin' fer ye, I'm tellin' ye. I owe ye naathin'."
"Is that so?" returned the other. "Well, we'll see about that. Ye'll be after givin' it to me, er I'll get it out of ye somehow. It's naht goin' to be ch'ated out av me money I am."
"I'm owin' ye naathin'," insisted Rourke. "Ye may as well go away from here. Ye'll get naathin'. If ye waant anything more, go an' see the ahffice," and now he strode away to where the Italians were, ignoring the stranger completely and muttering something about his being drunk. The latter followed him, however, over to where he stood, and continued the dispute. Rourke ignored him as much as possible, only exclaiming once, "L'ave me be, man. Ye're drunk."
"I'm naht drunk," returned the other. "Once an' fer all now, I'm askin' ye, arre ye goin' to give me that money?"
"No," replied Rourke, "I'm naht."
"Belave me," said the stranger, "I'll get it out av ye somehow," but for the moment he made no move, merely hanging about in an uncertain way. He seemed to have no definite plan for collecting the money, or if he had he had by now abandoned it.
Without paying any more attention to him, Rourke, still very irritated and defiant, returned to the fire. He tried to appear calm and indifferent, but the ex-workman, a non-union mason, I judged, followed after, standing before him and staring in the defiant, irritating way a drunken man will, not quite able to make up his mind what else to do. Presently Rourke, more to relieve the tedium of an embarrassing situation than anything else (a number of accusatory remarks having been passed), turned and began poking at the blaze, finally bending over to lay on a stick of wood. On the instant, and as if seized by sudden inspiration, whether because the tails of Rourke's long coat hung out in a most provoking fashion and suggested the thing that followed or not, I don't know, but now the red-faced intruder jumped forward, and seizing them in a most nimble and yet vigorous clutch, gave an amazing yank, which severed them straight up the back, from seat to nape, at the same time exclaiming:
"Ye'll naht pay me, will ye? Ye'll naht, will ye?"
On the instant a tremendous change came over the scene. It was as swift as stage play. Instantly Rourke was upright and faced about, shouting, "Now, be gob, ye've torn me coat, have ye! Now I'll tache ye! Now I'll show ye! Wait! Get ready, now. Now I'll fix ye, ye drunken, thavin' loafer," and at the same time he began to move upon the enemy in a kind of rhythmic, cryptic circle (some law governing anger and emotion, I presume), the while his hands opened and shut and his eyes looked as though they would be veiled completely by his narrowing lids. At the same time the stranger, apparently seeing his danger, began backing and circling in the same way around Rourke, as well as around the fire, until it looked as though they were performing a war dance. Round and round they went like two Hopi bucks or Zulu warriors, their faces displaying the most murderous cunning and intention to slay—only, instead of feathers and beads, they had on their negligible best. All the while Rourke was calling, "Come on, now! Get ready, now! I'll show ye, now! I'll fix ye, now! It's me coat ye'll rip, is it? Come on, now! Get ready! Make yerself ready! I'm goin' to give ye the lickin' av yer life! Come on, now! Come on, now! Come on, now!"
It was as though each had been secreted from the other and had to be sought out in some mysterious manner and in a circle. In spite of the feeling of distress that an impending struggle of this kind gives one, I could not help noting the comic condition of Rourke's back—the long coat beautifully ripped straight up the back, its ends fluttering in the wind like fans, and exposing his waistcoat and Sunday boiled white shirt—and laying up a laugh for the future. It was too ridiculous. The stranger had a most impressive and yet absurd air of drunken sternness written in his face, a do-or-die look.
Whether anything serious would really have happened I was never permitted to learn, for now, in addition to myself and the Italians, all of them excited and ready to defend their lord and master, some passengers from the nearby station and the street above as well as a foreman of a section gang helping at this same task, a great hulking brute of a man who looked quite able to handle both Rourke and his opponent at one and the same time, came forward and joined in this excited circle. Considerable effort was made on the part of the latter to learn just what the trouble was, after which the big foreman interposed with:
"What's the trouble here? Come, now! What's all this row, Rourke? Ye wouldn't fight here, would ye? Have him arristed, er go to his home—ye say ye know him—but don't be fightin' here. Supposin' waan av the bosses should be comin' along now?" and at the same time he interposed his great bulk between the two.
Rourke, quieted some by this interruption but still sputtering with rage and disgrace, shouted, "Lookit me coat! Lookit what he done to me coat! See what he done to me coat! Man alive, d'ye think I'm goin' to stand fer the likes av that? It's naht me that can be waalked on by a loafer like that—an' me payin' him more than ever he was worth, an' him waalkin' aaf an' l'avin' the job half done. I'll fix him this time. I'll show him. I'll tache him to be comin' around an' disturbin' a man when he's at his work. I'll fix him now," and once more he began to move. But the great foreman was not so easily to be disposed of.
"Well then, let's caall the police," he argued in a highly conciliatory mood. "Ye can't be fightin' him here. Sure, ye don't waant to do that. What'll the chafe think? What is it ye'll think av yerself?"
At the same time he turned to find the intruder and demand to know what he meant by it, but the latter had already decamped. Seeing the crowd that had and was gathering, and that he was likely to encounter more forms of trouble than he had anticipated, he had started down the track toward Mott Haven.
"I'll fix ye!" Rourke shouted when he saw him going. "Ye'll pay fer this. I'll have ye arristed. Wait! Ye'll naht get aaf so aisy this time."
But just the same the storm was over for the present, anyhow, the man gone, and in a little while Rourke left for his home at Mount Vernon to repair his tattered condition. I never saw a man so crestfallen, nor one more determined to "have the laa on him" in my life. Afterwards, when I inquired very cautiously what he had done about it—this was a week or two later—he replied, "Shewer, what can ye do with a loafer like that? He has no money, an' lockin' him up won't help his wife an' children any."
Thus ended a perfect scene out of Kilkenny.
It was not so very long after I arrived that Rourke began to tell me of a building which the company was going to erect in Mott Haven Yard, one of its great switching centers. It was to be an important affair, according to him, sixty by two hundred feet in breadth and length, of brick and stone, and was to be built under a time limit of three months, an arrangement by which the company hoped to find out how satisfactorily it could do work for itself rather than by outside contract, which it was always hoping to avoid. From his manner and conversation, I judged that Rourke was eager to get this job, for he had been a contractor of some ability in his day before he ever went to work for the company, and felt, I am sure, that fate had done him an injustice in not allowing him to remain one. In addition, he felt a little above the odds and ends of masonry that he was now called on to do, where formerly he had done so much more important work. He was eager to be a real foreman once more, a big one, and to show the company that he could erect this building and thus make a little place for himself in the latter's good graces, although to what end I could not quite make out. He would never have made a suitable general foreman. At the same time, he was a little afraid of the clerical details, those terrible nightmares of reports, o.k.s and the like.
"How arre ye feelin', Teddy, b'y?" he often inquired of me during this period, with a greater show of interest in my troublesome health than ever before. I talked of leaving, I suppose, from time to time because sheer financial necessity was about to compel it.
"Fine, Rourke," I would say, "never better. I'm feeling better every day."
"That's good. Ye're the right man in the right place now. If ye was to sthay a year er two at this work it would be the makin' av ye. Ye're too thin. Ye need more chist," and he would tap my bony chest in a kindly manner. "I niver have a sick day, meself."
"That's right, Rourke," I replied pleasantly, feeling keenly the need of staying by so wonderful a lamp of health. "I intend to stick at it as long as I can."
"Ye ought to; it'll do ye good. If we get the new buildin' to build, it'll be better yet for ye. Ye'll have plenty to do there to relave yer mind."
"Relieve, indeed!" I thought, but I did not say so. On the contrary I felt so much sympathy for this lusty Irishman and his reasonable ambitions that I desired to help him, and urged him to get it. I suggested indirectly that I would see him through, which touched him greatly. He was a grateful creature in his way, but so excitable and so helplessly self-reliant that there was no way of aiding him without doing it in a secret or rather self-effacing manner. He would have much preferred to struggle along alone and fail, though I doubt whether real failure could have come to Rourke so essentially capable was he.
In another three weeks the work was really given him to do, and then began one of the finest exhibitions of Irish domination and self-sufficiency that I have ever witnessed. We moved to Mott Haven Yard, a great network of tracks and buildings, in the center of which this new building was to be erected. Rourke was given a large force of men, whom he fairly gloried in bossing. He had as many as forty Italians, to say nothing of a number of pseudo-carpenters and masons (not those shrewd hawks clever enough to belong to the union, but wasters and failures of another type) who did the preliminary work of digging for the foundation, etc. Handling these, Rourke was in his element. He loved to see so much brisk work going on. He would trot to and fro about the place, beaming in the most angelic fashion, and shouting orders that could be heard all over the neighborhood. It was delicious to watch him. At times he would stand by the long trenches where the men were digging for the foundation, a great line of them, their backs bent over their work, and rub his hands in pleasingly human satisfaction, saying, "We're goin' along fine, Teddy. I can jist see me way to the top av the buildin'," and then he would proceed to harass and annoy his men out of pure exuberance of spirits.
"Ye waant to dig it so, man," or, "Ye don't handle yer pick right; can't ye see that? Hold it this way." Sometimes he would get down in the trench and demonstrate just how it was to be done, a thing which greatly amused some of the workmen. Frequently he would exhibit to me little tricks or knacks of his trade, such as throwing a trowel ten feet so that it would stick in a piece of wood; turning a shovel over with a lump of dirt on it and not dropping the lump, and similar simple acts, always adding, "Ye'll niver be a mason till ye can do that."
When he was tired of fussing with the men outside he would come around to the little wooden shed, where I was keeping the mass of orders and reports in shape and getting his material ready for him, and look over the papers in the most knowing manner. When he had satisfied himself that everything was going right, he would exclaim, "Ye're jist the b'y fer the place, Teddy. Ye'd made a good bookkeeper. If ever I get to be Prisident, I'll make ye me Sicretary av State."
But the thing which really interested and enthralled Rourke was the coming of the masons—those hardy buccaneers of the laboring world who come and go as they please, asking no favors and brooking no interference. Plainly he envied them their reckless independence at the same time that he desired to control their labor in his favor—a task worthy of the shrewdest diplomat. Never in my life have I seen such a gay, ruthless, inconsiderate point of view as these same union masons represented, a most astounding lot. They were—are, I suppose I should say—our modern buccaneers and Captain Kidds of the laboring world, demanding, if you please, their six a day, starting and stopping almost when they please, doing just as little as they dare and yet face their own decaying conscience, dropping any task at the most critical and dangerous point, and in other ways rejoicing in and disporting themselves in such a way as to annoy the representatives of any corporation great or small that suffered the sad compulsion of employing them. Seriously, I am not against union laborers. I like them. They spell rude, blazing life. But when you have to deal with them!
Plainly, Rourke anticipated endless rows. Their coming promised him the opportunity he inmostly desired, I suppose, of once more fussing and fuming with real, strong, determined and pugnacious men like himself, who would not take his onslaughts tamely but would fight him back, as he wished strong men to do. He was never weary of talking of them.
"Wait till we have thirty er forty av thim on the line," he once observed to me in connection with them, "every man layin' his six hundred bricks a day, er takin' aaf his apron! Thim's the times ye'll see what excitement manes, me b'y. Thim's the times."
"What'll I see, Rourke?" I asked interestedly.
"Throuble enough. Shewer, they're no crapin' Eyetalians, that'll let ye taalk to thim as ye pl'ase. Indade not. Ye'll have to fight with them fellies."
"Well, that's a queer state of affairs," I remarked, and then added, "Do you think you can handle them, Rourke?"
"Handle thim!" he exclaimed, his glorious wrath kindling in anticipation of a possible conflict. "Handle thim, an' the likes av a thousand av thim! I know them aall, every waan av thim, an' their thricks. It's naht foolin' me they'll be. But, me b'y," he added instructively, "it's a fine job ye'll have runnin' down to the ahffice gettin' their time." (This is the railroad man's expression for money due, or wages.) "Ye'll have plenty av that to do, I'm tellin' ye."
"You don't mean to say that you're going to discharge them, Rourke, do you?" I asked.
"Shewer!" he exclaimed authoritatively. "Why shouldn't I? They're jist the same as other min. Why shouldn't I?" Then he added, after a pause, "But it's thim that'll be comin' to me askin' fer their time instid av me givin' it to thim, niver fear. They're not the kind that'll let ye taalk back to thim. If their work don't suit ye, it's 'give me me time.' Wait till they'll be comin' round half drunk in the mornin', an' not feelin' just right. Thim's the times ye'll find out what masons arre made av, me b'y."
I confess this probability did not seem as brilliant to me as it did to him, but it had its humor. I expressed wonder that he would hire them if they were such a bad lot.
"Where else will ye get min?" he demanded to know. "The unions have the best, an' the most av thim. Thim outside fellies don't amount to much. They're aall pore, crapin' creatures. If it wasn't fer the railroad bein' against the union I wouldn't have thim at aall, and besides," he added thoughtfully, and with a keen show of feeling for their point of view, "they have a right to do as they pl'ase. Shewer, it's no common workmen they arre. They can lay their eight hundred bricks a day, if they will, an' no advice from any waan. If ye was in their place ye'd do the same. There's no sinse in allowin' another man to waalk on ye whin ye can get another job. I don't blame thim. I was a mason wanst meself."
"You don't mean to say that you acted as you say these men are going to act?"
"Well, I shouldn't think you'd be very proud of it."
"I have me rights," he declared, flaring up. "What kind av a man is it that'll let himself be waalked on? There's no sinse in it. It's naht natchral. It's naht intinded that it should be so."
"Very well," I said, smoothing the whole thing over, and so that ended.
Well, the masons came, and a fine lot of pirates they surely were. Such independence! Such defiance! Such feverish punctilio in regard to their rights and what forms and procedures they were entitled to! I stared in amazement. For the most part they were hale, healthy, industrious looking creatures, but so obstreperously conscious of their own rights, and so proud of their skill as masons, that there was no living with them. Really, they would have tried the patience of a saint, let alone a healthy, contentious Irish foreman-mason. "First off," as the railroad men used to say, they wanted to know whether there were any non-union men on the job, and if so, would they be discharged instanter?—if not, no work—a situation which gave Rourke several splendid opportunities for altercations, which he hastened to improve, although the non-union men went, of course. Then they wanted to know when, where, and how they were to get their money, whether on demand at any time they chose, and this led to more trouble, since the railroad paid only once a month. However, this was adjusted by a special arrangement being made whereby the building department stood ready to pay them instantly on demand, only I had to run down to the division office each time and get their pay for them at any time that they came to ask for it! Then came an argument (or many of them) as to the number of bricks they were to lay an hour; the number of men they were to carry on one line, or wall; the length of time they were supposed to work, or had worked, or would work—all of which was pure food and drink to Rourke. He was in his element at last, shouting, gesticulating, demanding that they leave or go to ——. After all these things had been adjusted, however, they finally consented to go to work, and then of course the work flew. It was a grand scene, really inspiring—forty or fifty masons on the line, perhaps half as many helpers or mixers, the Italians carrying bricks, and a score of carpenters now arriving under another foreman to set the beams and lay the joists as the walls rose upward.
Rourke was about all the time now, arguing and gesticulating with this man or that, fighting with this one or the other, and calling always to some mason or other to "come down" and get his "time." "Come down! Come down!" I would hear, and then would see him rushing for the office, a defiant and even threatening mason at his heels; Rourke demanding that I make out a time-check at once for the latter and go down to the "ahffice" and get the money, the while the mason hung about attempting to seduce other men to a similar point of view. Once in a while, but only on rare occasions, Rourke would patch up a truce with a man. As a rule, the mason was only too eager to leave and spend the money thus far earned, while Rourke was curiously indifferent as to whether he went or stayed. "'Tis to drink he waants," he would declare amusedly. To me it was all like a scene out of comic opera.
Toward the last, however, a natural calm set in, the result no doubt of weariness and a sense of surfeit, which sent the building forward apace. During this time Rourke was to be seen walking defiantly up and down the upper scaffolding of the steadily rising walls, or down below on the ground in front of his men, his hands behind his back, his face screwed into a quizzical expression, his whole body bearing a look of bristling content and pugnacity which was too delicious for words. Since things were going especially well he could not say much, but still he could look his contentiousness, and did. Even now he would occasionally manage to pick a quarrel with some lusty mason or other, which resulted in the customary descent to the office, but not often.
But one cold December day, about three weeks later, when I was just about to announce that I could no longer delay my departure, seeing that my health was now as good, or nearly so, as my purse was lean, and that, whether I would or no, I must arrange to make more money, that a most dreadful accident occurred. It appeared that Rourke and a number of Italians, including Matt and Jimmie, were down in the main room of the building, now fast nearing completion, when the boiler of the hoisting engine, which had been placed inside the building and just at the juncture of three walls, blew up and knocked out this wall and the joists of the second and third floors loose, thus precipitating all of fifteen thousand bricks, which had been placed on the third floor, into this room below. For a few moments there had been a veritable hurricane of bricks and falling timber; and then, when it was over, it was found that the mighty Rourke and five Italians were embedded in or under them, and all but Jimmie more or less seriously injured or killed. Two Italians were killed outright. A third died later. Rourke, in particular, was unfortunately placed and terribly injured. His body from the waist down was completely buried by a pile of bricks, and across his shoulder lay a great joist pressing where it had struck him, and cutting his neck and ear. He was a pathetic sight when we entered, bleeding and pain-wrenched yet grim and undaunted, as one might have expected.
"I'm tight fast, me lad," he said when he could speak. "It's me legs that's caught, not me body. But give a hand to the min, there. The Eyetalians are underneath."
Disregarding his suggestion, however, we began working about him, every man throwing away bricks like a machine; but he would not have it.
"'Tind to the min!" he insisted with all of his old firmness. "The Eyetalians are under there—Matt an' Jimmie. Can't ye see that I'll be all right till ye get thim out? Come, look after the min!"
We fell to this end of the work, although by now others had arrived, and soon there was a great crowd assisting—men coming from the yard and the machine shop. Although embedded in this mass of material and most severely injured, there was no gainsaying him, and he still insisted on directing us as best he could. But now he was so picturesque, so much nobler, really, than he had been in his healthier, uninjured days. A fabled giant, he seemed to me, half-god, half-man, composed in part of flesh, in part of brick and stone, gazing down on our earthly efforts with the eye of a demi-god.
"Come, now—get the j'ists from aaf the end, there. Take the bricks away from that man. Can't ye see? There's where his head is—there. There! Jasus Christ—theyer!"
You would have thought we were Italians ourselves, poor wisps of nothing, not his rescuers, but slaves, compelled to do his lordly bidding.
After a time, however, we managed to release him and all his five helpers—two dead, as I say, and Matt badly cut about the head and seriously injured, while Jimmie, the imperturbable, was but little the worse for a brick mark on one shoulder. He was more or less frightened, of course, and comic to look at, even in this dread situation. "Big-a smash," he exclaimed when he recovered himself. "Like-a da worl' fall. Misha Rook! Misha Rook! Where Misha Rook?"
"Here I am, ye Eyetalian scalawag," exclaimed the unyielding Rourke genially, who was still partially embedded when Jimmie was released. There was, however, a touch of sorrow in his voice as he added weakly, "Arre ye hurted much?"
"No, Misha Rook. Help Misha Rook," replied Jimmie, grabbing at bricks himself, and so the rescue work of "Rook" went on.
Finally he was released, although not without deprecating our efforts the while (this wonderful and exceptional fuss over him), and exclaiming at one point as we tugged at joists and beams rather frantically, "Take yer time. Take yer time. I'm naht so bad fixed as aall that. Take yer time. Get that board out o' the way there, Jimmie."
But he was badly "fixed," and "hurted" unto death also, as we now found, and as he insisted he was not. His hip was severely crushed by the timbers and his legs broken, as well as his internal organs disarranged, although we did not know how badly at the time. Only after we had removed all the weight did he collapse and perhaps personally realize how serious was his plight. He was laid on a canvas tarpaulin brought by the yard-master and spread on the chip-strewn ground, while the doctors from two ambulances worked over him. While they were examining his wounds he took a critical and quizzical interest in what they were doing, and offered one or two humorous suggestions. Finally, when they were ready to move him he asked how he was, and on being told that he was all right, looked curiously about until he caught my eye. I could see that he realized how critical it was with him.
"I'd like to see a priest, Teddy," he whispered, "and, if ye don't mind, I'd like ye to go up to Mount Vernon an' tell me wife. They'll be after telegraphin' her if ye don't. Break it aisy, if ye will. Don't let 'er think there's anything serious. There's no need av it. I'm naht hurted so bad as aall that."
I promised, and the next moment one of the doctors shot a spray of cocaine into his hip to relieve what he knew must be his dreadful pain. A few moments later he lost consciousness, after which I left him to the care of the hospital authorities and hurried away to send the priest and to tell his wife.
For a week thereafter he lingered in a very serious condition and finally died, blood-poisoning having set in. I saw him at the hospital a day or two before, and, trying to sympathize with his condition, I frequently spoke of what I deemed the dreadful uncertainty of life and the seeming carelessness of the engineer in charge of the hoisting engine. He, however, had no complaint to make.
"Ye must expect thim things," was his only comment. "Ye can't aalways expect to go unhurted. I niver lost a man before, nor had one come to haarm. 'Tis the way av things, ye see."
Mighty Rourke! You would have thought the whole Italian population of Mount Vernon knew and loved him, the way they turned out at his funeral. It was a state affair for most of them, and they came in scores, packing the little brick church at which he was accustomed to worship full to overflowing. Matt was there, bandaged and sore, but sorrowful; and Jimmie, artful and scheming in the past, but now thoroughly subdued. He was all sorrow, and sniveled and blubbered and wept hot, blinding tears through the dark, leathery fingers of his hands.
"Misha Rook! Misha Rook!" I heard him say, as they bore the body in; and when they carried it out of the church, he followed, head down. As they lowered it to the grave he was inconsolable.
"Misha Rook! Misha Rook! I work-a for him fifteen year!"
A Mayor and His People
Here is the story of an individual whose political and social example, if such things are ever worth anything (the moralists to the contrary notwithstanding), should have been, at the time, of the greatest importance to every citizen of the United States. Only it was not. Or was it? Who really knows? Anyway, he and his career are entirely forgotten by now, and have been these many years.
He was the mayor of one of those dreary New England mill towns in northern Massachusetts—a bleak, pleasureless realm of about forty thousand, where, from the time he was born until he finally left at the age of thirty-six to seek his fortune elsewhere, he had resided without change. During that time he had worked in various of the local mills, which in one way and another involved nearly all of the population. He was a mill shoe-maker by trade, or, in other words, a factory shoe-hand, knowing only a part of all the processes necessary to make a shoe in that fashion. Still, he was a fair workman, and earned as much as fifteen or eighteen dollars a week at times—rather good pay for that region. By temperament a humanitarian, or possibly because of his own humble state one who was compelled to take cognizance of the difficulties of others, he finally expressed his mental unrest by organizing a club for the study and propagation of socialism, and later, when it became powerful enough to have a candidate and look for political expression of some kind, he was its first, and thereafter for a number of years, its regular candidate for mayor. For a long time, or until its membership became sufficient to attract some slight political attention, its members (following our regular American, unintellectual custom) were looked upon by the rest of the people as a body of harmless kickers, filled with fool notions about a man's duty to his fellowman, some silly dream about an honest and economical administration of public affairs—their city's affairs, to be exact. We are so wise in America, so interested in our fellowman, so regardful of his welfare. They were so small in number, however, that they were little more than an object of pleasant jest, useful for that purpose alone.
This club, however, continued to put up its candidate until about 1895, when suddenly it succeeded in polling the very modest number of fifty-four votes—double the number it had succeeded in polling any previous year. A year later one hundred and thirty-six were registered, and the next year six hundred. Then suddenly the mayor who won that year's battle died, and a special election was called. Here the club polled six hundred and one, a total and astonishing gain of one. In 1898 the perennial candidate was again nominated and received fifteen hundred, and in 1899, when he ran again, twenty-three hundred votes, which elected him.
If this fact be registered casually here, it was not so regarded in that typically New England mill town. Ever study New England—its Puritan, self-defensive, but unintellectual and selfish psychology? Although this poor little snip of a mayor was only elected for one year, men paused astounded, those who had not voted for him, and several of the older conventional political and religious order, wedded to their church and all the routine of the average puritanic mill town, actually cried. No one knew, of course, who the new mayor was, or what he stood for. There were open assertions that the club behind him was anarchistic—that ever-ready charge against anything new in America—and that the courts should be called upon to prevent his being seated. And this from people who were as poorly "off" commercially and socially as any might well be. It was stated, as proving the worst, that he was, or had been, a mill worker!—and, before that a grocery clerk—both at twelve a week, or less!! Immediate division of property, the forcing of all employers to pay as much as five a day to every laborer (an unheard-of sum in New England), and general constraint and subversion of individual rights (things then unknown in America, of course), loomed in the minds of these conventional Americans as the natural and immediate result of so modest a victory. The old-time politicians and corporations who understood much better what the point was, the significance of this straw, were more or less disgruntled, but satisfied that it could be undone later.
An actual conversation which occurred on one of the outlying street corners one evening about dusk will best illustrate the entire situation.
"Who is the man, anyway?" asked one citizen of a total stranger whom he had chanced to meet.
"Oh, no one in particular, I think. A grocery clerk, they say."
"Astonishing, isn't it? Why, I never thought those people would get anything. Why, they didn't even figure last year."
"Seems to be considerable doubt as to just what he'll do."
"That's what I've been wondering. I don't take much stock in all their talk about anarchy. A man hasn't so very much power as mayor."
"No," said the other.
"We ought to give him a trial, anyway. He's won a big fight. I should like to see him, see what he looks like."
"Oh, nothing startling. I know him."
"Rather young, ain't he?"
"Where did he come from?"
"Oh, right around here."
"Was he a mill-hand?"
The stranger made inquiry as to other facts and then turned off at a corner.
"Well," he observed at parting, "I don't know. I'm inclined to believe in the man. I should like to see him myself. Good-night."
"Good-night," said the other, waving his hand. "When you see me again you will know that you are looking at the mayor."
The inquirer stared after him and saw a six-foot citizen, of otherwise medium proportions, whose long, youthful face and mild gray eyes, with just a suggestion of washed-out blue in them, were hardly what was to be expected of a notorious and otherwise astounding political figure.
"He is too young," was the earliest comments, when the public once became aware of his personality.
"Why, he is nothing but a grocery clerk," was another, the skeptical and condemnatory possibilities of which need not be dilated upon here.
And he was, in his way—nothing much of a genius, as such things go in politics, but an interesting figure. Without much taste (or its cultivated shadow) or great vision of any kind, he was still a man who sensed the evils of great and often unnecessary social inequalities and the need of reorganizing influences, which would tend to narrow the vast gulf between the unorganized and ignorant poor, and the huge beneficiaries of unearned (yes, and not even understood) increment. For what does the economic wisdom of the average capitalist amount to, after all: the narrow, gourmandizing hunger of the average multi-millionaire?
At any rate, people watched him as he went to and fro between his office and his home, and reached the general conclusion after the first excitement had died down that he did not amount to much.
When introduced into his office in the small but pleasant city hall, he came into contact with a "ring," and a fixed condition, which nobody imagined a lone young mayor could change. Old-time politicians sat there giving out contracts for street-cleaning, lighting, improvements and supplies of all kinds, and a bond of mutual profit bound them closely together.
"I don't think he can do much to hurt us," these individuals said one to another. "He don't amount to much."
The mayor was not of a talkative or confiding turn. Neither was he cold or wanting in good and natural manners. He was, however, of a preoccupied turn of mind, "up in the air," some called it, and smoked a good many cigars.
"I think we ought to get together and have some sort of a conference about the letting of contracts," said the president of the city council to him one morning shortly after he had been installed. "You will find these gentlemen ready to meet you half-way in these matters."
"I'm very glad to hear that," he replied. "I've something to say in my message to the council, which I'll send over in the morning."
The old-time politician eyed him curiously, and he eyed the old-time politician in turn, not aggressively, but as if they might come to a very pleasant understanding if they wanted to, and then went back to his office.
The next day his message was made public, and this was its key-note:
"All contract work for the city should be let with a proviso, that the workmen employed receive not less than two dollars a day."
The dissatisfied roar that followed was not long in making itself heard all over the city.
"Stuff and nonsense," yelled the office jobbers in a chorus. "Socialism!" "Anarchy!" "This thing must be put down!" "The city would be bankrupt in a year." "No contractor could afford to pay his ordinary day laborers two a day. The city could not afford to pay any contractor enough to do it."
"The prosperity of the city is not greater than the prosperity of the largest number of its component individuals," replied the mayor, in a somewhat altruistic and economically abstruse argument on the floor of the council hall. "We must find contractors."
"We'll see about that," said the members of the opposition. "Why, the man's crazy. If he thinks he can run this town on a goody-good basis and make everybody rich and happy, he's going to get badly fooled, that's all there is to that."
Fortunately for him three of the eight council members were fellows of the mayor's own economic beliefs, individuals elected on the same ticket with him. These men could not carry a resolution, but they could stop one from being carried over the mayor's veto. Hence it was found that if the contracts could not be given to men satisfactory to the mayor they could not be given at all, and he stood in a fair way to win.
"What the hell's the use of us sitting here day after day!" were the actual words of the leading members of the opposition in the council some weeks later, when the fight became wearisome. "We can't pass the contracts over his veto. I say let 'em go."
So the proviso was tacked on, that two a day was the minimum wage to be allowed, and the contracts passed.
The mayor's followers were exceedingly jubilant at this, more so than he, who was of a more cautious and less hopeful temperament.
"Not out of the woods yet, gentlemen," he remarked to a group of his adherents at the reform club. "We have to do a great many things sensibly if we expect to keep the people's confidence and 'win again.'"
Under the old system of letting contracts, whenever there was a wage rate stipulated, men were paid little or nothing, and the work was not done. There was no pretense of doing it. Garbage and ashes accumulated, and papers littered the streets. The old contractor who had pocketed the appropriated sum thought to do so again.
"I hear the citizens are complaining as much as ever," said the mayor to this individual one morning. "You will have to keep the streets clean."
The contractor, a robust, thick-necked, heavy-jawed Irishman, of just so much refinement as the sudden acquisition of a comfortable fortune would allow, looked him quizzically over, wondering whether he was "out" for a portion of the appropriation or whether he was really serious.
"We can fix that between us," he said.
"There's nothing to fix," replied the mayor. "All I want you to do is to clean the streets."
The contractor went away and for a few days after the streets were really clean, but it was only for a few days.
In his walks about the city the mayor himself found garbage and paper uncollected, and then called upon his new acquaintance again.
"I'm mentioning this for the last time, Mr. M——," he said. "You will have to fulfill your contract, or resign in favor of some one who will."
"Oh, I'll clean them, well enough," said this individual, after five minutes of rapid fire explanation. "Two dollars a day for men is high, but I'll see that they're clean."
Again he went away, and again the mayor sauntered about, and then one morning sought out the contractor in his own office.
"This is the end," he said, removing a cigar from his mouth and holding it before him with his elbow at right angles. "You are discharged from this work. I'll notify you officially to-morrow."
"It can't be done the way you want it," the contractor exclaimed with an oath. "There's no money in it at two dollars. Hell, anybody can see that."
"Very well," said the mayor in a kindly well-modulated tone. "Let another man try, then."
The next day he appointed a new contractor, and with a schedule before him showing how many men should be employed and how much profit he might expect, the latter succeeded. The garbage was daily removed, and the streets carefully cleaned.
Then there was a new manual training school about to be added to the public school system at this time, and the contract for building was to be let, when the mayor threw a bomb into the midst of the old-time jobbers at the city council. A contractor had already been chosen by them and the members were figuring out their profits, when at one of the public discussions of the subject the mayor said:
"Why shouldn't the city build it, gentlemen?"
"How can it?" exclaimed the councilmen. "The city isn't an individual; it can't watch carefully."
"It can hire its own architect, as well as any contractor. Let's try it."
There were sullen tempers in the council chamber after this, but the mayor was insistent. He called an architect who made a ridiculously low estimate. Never had a public building been estimated so cheaply before.
"See here," said one of the councilmen when the plans were presented to the chamber—"This isn't doing this city right, and the gentlemen of the council ought to put their feet down on any such venture as this. You're going to waste the city's money on some cheap thing in order to catch votes."
"I'll publish the cost of the goods as delivered," said the mayor. "Then the people can look at the building when it's built. We'll see how cheap it looks then."
To head off political trickery on the part of the enemy he secured bills for material as delivered, and publicly compared them with prices paid for similar amounts of the same material used in other buildings. So the public was kept aware of what was going on and the cry of cheapness for political purposes set at naught. It was the first public structure erected by the city, and by all means the cheapest and best of all the city's buildings.
Excellent as these services were in their way, the mayor realized later that a powerful opposition was being generated and that if he were to retain the interest of his constituents he would have to set about something which would endear him and his cause to the public.
"I may be honest," he told one of his friends, "but honesty will play a lone hand with these people. The public isn't interested in its own welfare very much. It can't be bothered or hasn't the time. What I need is something that will impress it and still be worth while. I can't be reelected on promises, or on my looks, either."
When he looked about him, however, he found the possibility of independent municipal action pretty well hampered by mandatory legislation. He had promised, for instance, to do all he could to lower the exorbitant gas rate and to abolish grade crossings, but the law said that no municipality could do either of these things without first voting to do so three years in succession—a little precaution taken by the corporation representing such things long before he came into power. Each vote must be for such contemplated action, or it could not become a law.
"I know well enough that promises are all right," he said to one of his friends, "and that these laws are good enough excuses, but the public won't take excuses from me for three years. If I want to be mayor again I want to be doing something, and doing it quick."
In the city was a gas corporation, originally capitalized at $45,000, and subsequently increased to $75,000, which was earning that year the actual sum of $58,000 over and above all expenses. It was getting ready to inflate the capitalization, as usual, and water its stock to the extent of $500,000, when it occurred to the mayor that if the corporation was making such enormous profits out of a $75,000 investment as to be able to offer to pay six per cent on $500,000 to investors, and put the money it would get for such stocks into its pocket, perhaps it could reduce the price of gas from one dollar and nineteen cents to a more reasonable figure. There was the three years' voting law, however, behind which, as behind an entrenchment, the very luxurious corporation lay comfortable and indifferent.
The mayor sent for his corporation counsel, and studied gas law for awhile. He found that at the State capital there was a State board, or commission, which had been created to look after gas companies in general, and to hear the complaints of municipalities which considered themselves unjustly treated.
"This is the thing for me," he said.
Lacking the municipal authority himself, he decided to present the facts in the case and appeal to this commission for a reduction of the gas rate.
When he came to talk about it he found that the opposition he would generate would be something much more than local. Back of the local reduction idea was the whole system of extortionate gas rates of the State and of the nation; hundreds of fat, luxurious gas corporations whose dividends would be threatened by any agitation on this question.
"You mean to proceed with this scheme of yours?" asked a prominent member of the local bar who called one morning to interview him. "I represent the gentlemen who are interested in our local gas company."
"I certainly do," replied the mayor.
"Well," replied the uncredentialed representative of private interests, after expostulating a long time and offering various "reasons" why it would be more profitable and politically advantageous for the new mayor not to proceed, "I've said all I can say. Now I want to tell you that you are going up against a combination that will be your ruin. You're not dealing with this town now; you're dealing with the State, the whole nation. These corporations can't afford to let you win, and they won't. You're not the one to do it; you're not big enough."
The mayor smiled and replied that of course he could not say as to that.
The lawyer went away, and that next day the mayor had his legal counsel look up the annual reports of the company for the consecutive years of its existence, as well as a bulletin issued by a firm of brokers, into whose hands the matter of selling a vast amount of watered stock it proposed to issue had been placed. He also sent for a gas expert and set him to figuring out a case for the people.
It was found by this gentleman that since the company was first organized it had paid dividends on its capital stock at the rate of ten per cent per annum, for the first thirty years; had made vast improvements in the last ten, and notwithstanding this fact, had paid twenty per cent, and even twenty-five per cent per annum in dividends. All the details of cost and expenditure were figured out, and then the mayor with his counsel took the train for the State capitol.
Never was there more excitement in political circles than when this young representative of no important political organization whatsoever arrived at the State capitol and walked, at the appointed time, into the private audience room of the commission. Every gas company, as well as every newspaper and every other representative of the people, had curiously enough become interested in the fight he was making, and there was a band of reporters at the hotel where he was stopping, as well as in the commission chambers in the State capitol where the hearing was to be. They wanted to know about him—why he was doing this, whether it wasn't a "strike" or the work of some rival corporation. The fact that he might foolishly be sincere was hard to believe.
"Gentlemen," said the mayor, as he took his stand in front of an august array of legal talent which was waiting to pick his argument to pieces in the commission chambers at the capitol, "I miscalculated but one thing in this case which I am about to lay before you, and that is the extent of public interest. I came here prepared to make a private argument, but now I want to ask the privilege of making it public. I see the public itself is interested, or should be. I will ask leave to postpone my argument until the day after tomorrow."
There was considerable hemming and hawing over this, since from the point of view of the corporation it was most undesirable, but the commission was practically powerless to do aught but grant his request. And meanwhile the interest created by the newspapers added power to his cause. Hunting up the several representatives and senators from his district, he compelled them to take cognizance of the cause for which he was battling, and when the morning of the public hearing arrived a large audience was assembled in the chamber of representatives.
When the final moment arrived the young mayor came forward, and after making a very simple statement of the cause which led him to request a public hearing and the local condition which he considered unfair begged leave to introduce an expert, a national examiner of gas plants and lighting facilities, for whom he had sent, and whose twenty years of experience in this line had enabled him to prepare a paper on the condition of the gas-payers in the mayor's city.
The commission was not a little surprised by this, but signified its willingness to hear the expert as counsel for the city, and as his statement was read a very clear light was thrown upon the situation.
Counsel for the various gas corporations interrupted freely. The mayor himself was constantly drawn into the argument, but his replies were so simple and convincing that there was not much satisfaction to be had in stirring him. Instead, the various counsel took refuge in long-winded discussions about the methods of conducting gas plants in other cities, the cost of machinery, labor and the like, which took days and days, and threatened to extend into weeks. The astounding facts concerning large profits and the present intentions of not only this but every other company in the State could not be dismissed. In fact the revelation of huge corporation profits everywhere became so disturbing that after the committee had considered and re-considered, it finally, when threatened with political extermination, voted to reduce the price of gas to eighty cents.
It is needless to suggest the local influence of this decision. When the mayor came home he received an ovation, and that at the hands of many of the people who had once been so fearful of him, but he knew that this enthusiasm would not last long. Many disgruntled elements were warring against him, and others were being more and more stirred up. His home life was looked into as well as his past, his least childish or private actions. It was a case of finding other opportunities for public usefulness, or falling into the innocuous peace which would result in his defeat.
In the platform on which he had been elected was a plank which declared that it was the intention of this party, if elected, to abolish local grade crossings, the maintenance of which had been the cause of numerous accidents and much public complaint. With this plank he now proposed to deal.
In this of course he was hampered by the law before mentioned, which declared that no city could abolish its grade crossings without having first submitted the matter to the people during three successive years and obtained their approval each time. Behind this law was not now, however, as in the case of the gas company, a small $500,000 corporation, but all the railroads which controlled New England, and to which brains and legislators, courts and juries, were mere adjuncts. Furthermore, the question would have to be voted on at the same time as his candidacy, and this would have deterred many another more ambitious politician. The mayor was not to be deterred, however. He began his agitation, and the enemy began theirs, but in the midst of what seemed to be a fair battle the great railway company endeavored to steal a march. There was suddenly and secretly introduced into the lower house of the State legislature a bill which in deceptive phraseology declared that the law which allowed all cities, by three successive votes, to abolish grade crossings in three years, was, in the case of a particular city mentioned, hereby abrogated for a term of four years. The question might not even be discussed politically.
When the news of this attempt reached the mayor, he took the first train for the State capitol and arrived there just in time to come upon the floor of the house when the bill was being taken up for discussion. He asked leave to make a statement. Great excitement was aroused by his timely arrival. Those who secretly favored the bill endeavored to have the matter referred to a committee, but this was not to be. One member moved to go on with the consideration of the bill, and after a close vote the motion carried.
The mayor was then introduced.
After a few moments, in which the silent self-communing with which he introduced himself impressed everyone with his sincerity, he said:
"I am accused of objecting to this measure because its enactment will remove, as a political issue, the one cause upon which I base my hope for reelection. If there are no elevated crossings to vote for, there will be no excuse for voting for me. Gentlemen, you mistake the temper and the intellect of the people of our city. It is you who see political significance in this thing, but let me assure you that it is of a far different kind from that which you conceive. If the passing of this measure had any significance to me other than the apparent wrong of it, I would get down on my knees and urge its immediate acceptance. Nothing could elect me quicker. Nothing could bury the opposition further from view. If you wish above all things to accomplish my triumph you will only need to interfere with the rights of our city in this arbitrary manner, and you will have the thing done. I could absolutely ask nothing more."
The gentlemen who had this measure in charge weighed well these assertions and trifled for weeks with the matter, trying to make up their minds.
Meanwhile election time approached, and amid the growing interest of politics it was thought unwise to deal with it. A great fight was arranged for locally, in which every conceivable element of opposition was beautifully harmonized by forces and conceptions which it is almost impossible to explain. Democrats, republicans, prohibitionists, saloon men and religious circles, all were gathered into one harmonious body and inspired with a single idea, that of defeating the mayor. From some quarter, not exactly identified, was issued a call for a civic committee of fifty, which should take into its hands the duty of rescuing the city from what was termed a "throttling policy of commercial oppression and anarchy." Democrats, republicans, liquor and anti-liquorites, were invited to the same central meeting place, and came. Money was not lacking, nor able minds, to prepare campaign literature. It was openly charged that a blank check was handed in to the chairman of this body by the railway whose crossings were in danger, to be filled out for any amount necessary to the destruction of the official upstart who was seeking to revolutionize old methods and conditions.
As may be expected, this opposition did not lack daring in making assertions contrary to facts. Charges were now made that the mayor was in league with the railroad to foist upon the city a great burden of expense, because the law under which cities could compel railroads to elevate their tracks declared that one-fifth of the burden of expense must be borne by the city and the remaining four-fifths by the railroad. It would saddle a debt of $250,000 upon the taxpayers, they said, and give them little in return. All the advantage would be with the railroad. "Postpone this action until the railroad can be forced to bear the entire expense, as it justly should," declared handbill writers, whose services were readily rendered to those who could afford to pay for them.
The mayor and his committee, although poor, answered with handbills and street corner speeches, in which he showed that even with the extravagantly estimated debt of $250,000, the city's tax-rate would not be increased by quite six cents to the individual. The cry that each man would have to pay five dollars more each year for ten years was thus wholesomely disposed of, and the campaign proceeded.
Now came every conceivable sort of charge. If he were not defeated, all reputable merchants would surely leave the city. Capital was certainly being scared off. There would be idle factories and empty stomachs. Look out for hard times. No one but a fool would invest in a city thus hampered.
In reply the mayor preached a fair return by corporations for benefits received. He, or rather his organization, took a door-to-door census of his following, and discovered a very considerable increase in the number of those intending to vote for him. The closest calculations of the enemy were discovered, the actual number they had fixed upon as sufficient to defeat him. This proved to the mayor that he must have three hundred more votes if he wished to be absolutely sure. These he hunted out from among the enemy, and had them pledged before the eventual morning came.
The night preceding election ended the campaign, for the enemy at least, in a blaze of glory, so to speak. Dozens of speakers for both causes were about the street corners and in the city meeting room.
Oratory poured forth in streams, and gasoline-lighted band-wagons rattled from street to street, emitting song and invective. Even a great parade was arranged by the anti-mayoral forces, in which horses and men to the number of hundreds were brought in from nearby cities and palmed off as enthusiastic citizens.
"Horses don't vote," a watchword handed out by the mayor, took the edge off the extreme ardor of this invading throng, and set to laughing the hundreds of his partisans, who needed such encouragement.
Next day came the vote, and then for once, anyhow, he was justified. Not only was a much larger vote cast than ever, but he thrashed the enemy with a tail of two hundred votes to spare. It was an inspiring victory from one point of view, but rather doleful for the enemy. The latter had imported a carload of fireworks, which now stood sadly unused upon the very tracks which, apparently, must in the future be raised. The crowning insult was offered when the successful forces offered to take them off their hands at half price.
For a year thereafter (a mayor was elected yearly there), less was heard of the commercial destruction of the city. Gas stood, as decided, at eighty cents a thousand. A new manual training school, built at a very nominal cost, a monument to municipal honesty, was also in evidence. The public waterworks had also been enlarged and the rates reduced. The streets were clean.
Then the mayor made another innovation. During his first term of office there had been a weekly meeting of the reform club, at which he appeared and talked freely of his plans and difficulties. These meetings he now proposed to make public.
Every Wednesday evening for a year thereafter a spectacle of municipal self-consciousness was witnessed, which those who saw it felt sure would redound to the greater strength and popularity of the mayor. In a large hall, devoted to public gatherings, a municipal meeting was held. Every one was invited. The mayor was both host and guest, an individual who chose to explain his conduct and his difficulties and to ask advice. There his constituents gathered, not only to hear but to offer counsel.
"Gentlemen," so ran the gist of his remarks on various of these occasions, "the present week has proved a most trying one. I am confronted by a number of difficult problems, which I will now try to explain to you. In the first place, you know my limitations as to power in the council. But three members now vote for me, and it is only by mutual concessions that we move forward at all."
Then would follow a detailed statement of the difficulties, and a general discussion. The commonest laborer was free to offer his advice. Every question was answered in the broadest spirit of fellowship. An inquiry as to "what to do" frequently brought the most helpful advice. Weak and impossible solutions were met as such, and shown to be what they were. Radicals were assuaged, conservatives urged forward. The whole political situation was so detailed and explained that no intelligent person could leave, it was thought, with a false impression of the mayor's position or intent.
With five thousand or more such associated citizens abroad each day explaining, defending, approving the official conduct of the mayor, because they understood it, no misleading conceptions, it was thought, could arise. Men said that his purpose and current leaning in any matter was always clear. He was thought to be closer to his constituency than any other official within the whole range of the Americas and that there could be nothing but unreasoning partisan opposition to his rule.
After one year of such service a presidential campaign drew near, and the mayor's campaign for reelection had to be contested at the same time. No gas monopoly evil was now a subject of contention. Streets were clean, contracts fairly executed; the general municipal interests as satisfactorily attended to as could be expected. Only the grade crossing war remained as an issue, and that would require still another vote after this. His record was the only available campaign argument.
On the other side, however, were the two organizations of the locally defeated great parties, and the railroad. The latter, insistent in its bitterness, now organized these two bodies into a powerful opposition. Newspapers were subsidized; the national significance of the campaign magnified; a large number of railroad-hands colonized. When the final weeks of the campaign arrived a bitter contest was waged, and money triumphed. Five thousand four hundred votes were cast for the mayor. Five thousand four hundred and fifty for the opposing candidate, who was of the same party as the successful presidential nominee.
It was a bitter blow, but still one easily borne by the mayor, who was considerable of a philosopher. With simple, undisturbed grace he retired, and three days later applied to one of the principal shoe factories for work at his trade.
"What? You're not looking for a job, are you?" exclaimed the astonished foreman.
"I am," said the mayor.
"You can go to work, all right, but I should think you could get into something better now."
"I suppose I can later," he replied, "when I complete my law studies. Just now I want to do this for a change, to see how things are with the rank and file." And donning the apron he had brought with him he went to work.
It was not long, however, before he was discharged, largely because of partisan influence anxious to drive him out of that region. It was said that this move of seeking a job in so simple a way was a bit of "grand standing"—insincere—that he didn't need to do it, and that he was trying to pile up political capital against the future. A little later a local grocery man of his social faith offered him a position as clerk, and for some odd reason—humanitarian and sectarian, possibly—he accepted this. At any rate, here he labored for a little while. Again many said he was attempting to make political capital out of this simple life in order to further his political interests later, and this possibly, even probably, was true. All men have methods of fighting for that which they believe. So here he worked for a time, while a large number of agencies pro and con continued to denounce or praise him, to ridicule or extol his so-called Jeffersonian simplicity. It was at this time that I encountered him—a tall, spare, capable and interesting individual, who willingly took me into his confidence and explained all that had hitherto befallen him. He was most interesting, really, a figure to commemorate in this fashion.
In one of the rooms of his very humble home—a kind of office or den, in a small house such as any clerk or working-man might occupy—was a collection of clippings, laudatory, inquiring, and abusive, which would have done credit to a candidate for the highest office in the land. One would have judged by the scrap-books and envelopes stuffed to overflowing with long newspaper articles and editorials that had been cut from papers all over the country from Florida to Oregon, that his every movement at this time and earlier was all-essential to the people. Plainly, he had been watched, spied upon, and ignored by one class, while being hailed, praised and invited by another. Magazine editors had called upon him for contributions, journalists from the large cities had sought him out to obtain his actual views, citizens' leagues in various parts of the nation had invited him to come and speak, and yet he was still a very young man in years, not over-intelligent politically or philosophically, the ex-mayor of a small city, and the representative of no great organization of any sort.
In his retirement he was now comforted, if one can be so comforted, by these memories, still fresh in his mind and by the hope possibly for his own future, as well as by a droll humor with which he was wont to select the sharpest and most willful slur upon his unimpeachable conduct as an offering to public curiosity.
"Do you really want to know what people think of me?" he said to me on one occasion. "Well, here's something. Read this." And then he would hand me a bunch of the bitterest attacks possible, attacks which pictured him as a sly and treacherous enemy of the people—or worse yet a bounding anarchistic ignoramus. Personally I could not help admiring his stoic mood. It was superior to that of his detractors. Apparent falsehoods did not anger him. Evident misunderstandings could not, seemingly, disturb him.
"What do you expect?" he once said to me, after I had made a very careful study of his career for a current magazine, which, curiously, was never published. I was trying to get him to admit that he believed that his example might be fruitful of results agreeable to him in the future. I could not conclude that he really agreed with me. "People do not remember; they forget. They remember so long as you are directly before them with something that interests them. That may be a lower gas-rate, or a band that plays good music. People like strong people, and only strong people, characters of that sort—good, bad or indifferent—I've found that out. If a man or a corporation is stronger than I am, comes along and denounces me, or spends more money than I do (or can), buys more beers, makes larger promises, it is 'all day' for me. What has happened in my case is that, for the present, anyhow, I have come up against a strong corporation, stronger than I am. What I now need to do is to go out somewhere and get some more strength in some way, it doesn't matter much how. People are not so much interested in me or you, or your or my ideals in their behalf, as they are in strength, an interesting spectacle. And they are easily deceived. These big fighting corporations with their attorneys and politicians and newspapers make me look weak—puny. So the people forget me. If I could get out, raise one million or five hundred thousand dollars and give the corporations a good drubbing, they would adore me—for awhile. Then I would have to go out and get another five hundred thousand somewhere, or do something else."
"Quite so," I replied. "Yet Vox populi, vox dei."
Sitting upon his own doorstep one evening, in a very modest quarter of the city, I said:
"Were you very much depressed by your defeat the last time?"
"Not at all," he replied. "Action, reaction, that's the law. All these things right themselves in time, I suppose, or, anyhow, they ought to. Maybe they don't. Some man who can hand the people what they really need or ought to have will triumph, I suppose, some time. I don't know, I'm sure. I hope so. I think the world is moving on, all right."
In his serene and youthful face, the pale blue, philosophical eyes, was no evidence of dissatisfaction with the strange experiences through which he had passed.
"You're entirely philosophical, are you?"
"As much as any one can be, I suppose. They seem to think that all my work was an evidence of my worthlessness," he said. "Well, maybe it was. Self-interest may be the true law, and the best force. I haven't quite made up my mind yet. My sympathies of course are all the other way. 'He ought to be sewing shoes in the penitentiary,' one paper once said of me. Another advised me to try something that was not above my intelligence, such as breaking rock or shoveling dirt. Most of them agreed, however," he added with a humorous twitch of his large, expressive mouth, "that I'll do very well if I will only stay where I am, or, better yet, get out of here. They want me to leave. That's the best solution for them."
He seemed to repress a smile that was hovering on his lips.
"The voice of the enemy," I commented.
"Yes, sir, the voice of the enemy," he added. "But don't think that I think I'm done for. Not at all. I have just returned to my old ways in order to think this thing out. In a year or two I'll have solved my problem, I hope. I may have to leave here, and I may not. Anyhow, I'll turn up somewhere, with something."
He did have to leave, however, public opinion never being allowed to revert to him again, and five years later, in a fairly comfortable managerial position in New York, he died. He had made a fight, well enough, but the time, the place, the stars, perhaps, were not quite right. He had no guiding genius, possibly, to pull him through. Adherents did not flock to him and save him. Possibly he wasn't magnetic enough—that pagan, non-moral, non-propagandistic quality, anyhow. The fates did not fight for him as they do for some, those fates that ignore the billions and billions of others who fail. Yet are not all lives more or less failures, however successful they may appear to be at one time or another, contrasted, let us say, with what they hoped for? We compromise so much with everything—our dreams and all.
As for his reforms, they may be coming fast enough, or they may not. In medias res.
But as for him...?
Life's little ironies are not always manifest. We hear distant rumbling sounds of its tragedies, but rarely are we permitted to witness the reality. Therefore the real incidents which I am about to relate may have some value.
I first called upon W.L. S——, Jr., in the winter of 1895. I had known of him before only by reputation, or, what is nearer the truth, by seeing his name in one of the great Sunday papers attached to several drawings of the most lively interest. These drawings depicted night scenes of the city of New York, and appeared as colored supplements, eleven by eighteen inches. They represented the spectacular scenes which the citizen and the stranger most delight in—Madison Square in a drizzle; the Bowery lighted by a thousand lamps and crowded with "L" and surface cars; Sixth Avenue looking north from Fourteenth Street.
I was a youthful editor at the time and on the lookout for interesting illustrations of this sort, and when a little later I was in need of a colored supplement for the Christmas number I decided to call upon S——. I knew absolutely nothing about the world of art save what I had gathered from books and current literary comment of all sorts, and was, therefore, in a mood to behold something exceedingly bizarre in the atmosphere with which I should find my illustrator surrounded.
I was not disappointed. It was at the time when artists—I mean American artists principally—went in very strongly for that sort of thing. Only a few years before they had all been going to Paris, not so much to paint as to find out and imitate how artists do and live. I was greeted by a small, wiry, lean-looking individual arrayed in a bicycle suit, whose countenance could be best described as wearing a perpetual look of astonishment. He had one eye which fixed you with a strange, unmoving solemnity, owing to the fact that it was glass. His skin was anything but fair, and might be termed sallow. He wore a close, sharp-pointed Vandyke beard, and his gold-bridge glasses sat at almost right angles upon his nose. His forehead was high, his good eye alert, his hair sandy-colored and tousled, and his whole manner indicated thought, feeling, remarkable nervous energy, and, above all, a rasping and jovial sort of egotism which pleased me rather than otherwise.
I noticed no more than this on my first visit, owing to the fact that I was very much overawed and greatly concerned about the price which he would charge me, not knowing what rate he might wish to exact, and being desirous of coming away at least unabashed by his magnificence and independence.