MY friend Prew had a genius for putting himself at a disadvantage. He did not do it clumsily and because he could not help it, but chose his drawbacks as if by an intuition that they were in some way good for him. They often proved so; and, at least, if they did not benefit him, they did not fail to be of profit to some one else. It was characteristic of him that he should have isolated himself in that little Jersey village whither he went to practice medicine. The old name of this village was English Neighborhood. As it sat there on the hill-side facing the wide, wistful salt-marshes, it seemed to be waiting to grow up, like a child who longs to be of some importance.
This semblance was not deceptive, for the village dreamed much of its future, and cherished hopes of a vast prosperity. Measured in a straight line across the Weehawken hills, the distance to New York was only three or four miles: what, then, more natural than that the inhabitants of the great city should some day pour across the river in large numbers, select this very village from among the hundred others that environ the island, and settle there, bringing with them wealth and grandeur? But as yet the place remained a small, languid settlement, with only one marked distinction, — a large shed-like building guarded by an inclosure hard by on the salty plain, and devoted to the making of nitro-glycerine.
Not satislied with fixing his home in this particular spot, and inviting the tyranny of circumstance, Prew subjected himself to still another tyranny: he hired a man to attend to his horse. The man’s name was Joe Croombe. He was a small, shrunken creature, with thin hair; his face tanned the color of undressed leather, and his mouth curbed by a withered iron-gray mustache. The doctor, returning from his visits, on the first evening of Croombe’s engagement, found him stretched on the sofa of the consulting room, — a dilapidated, indolent figure clad in a faded, flapping vest instead of a coat, and finished off by a pair of vast boots so fully illustrating the varieties of Jersey mud that they would have been of value to any geological museum. Croombe kept his recumbent position and entered suavely into conversation with his employer: first concerning patients, and then in praise of the neighborhood and the splendid views to be had from the heights along the Hudson. Prew was taken by surprise, and let him ramble on. He did not want to injure the man’s feelings by thrusting a quadruped into the conversation. But while he revolved how he should come to the point, Croombe, growing more expansive as he talked, brought his bubble of dignity to a condition where it could be pricked. Having strayed at large, for a while, on the subject of real estate: “ Me and my family,” he said, casually, " owns a piece of land up at Closter. That’s the way to git rich, doc’. Bought it for twenty dollars an acre, and now it’s wuth two hundred and seventy.”
Prew was not startled by the enormous advance, no had already learned how illusory were land sales and the prices of land in that region. But he so far affected belief as to ask why Croombe did not at once enrich himself by selling out.
“We ain’t in no hurry,” said the other, shaking his small head slowly.
“ We ain’t in no hurry.”
“ Perhaps not being in a hurry is the usual thing, then, in your family,” said Prew. “You don’t seem to be so tonight, but I am in a hurry, and I rather think my horse is. Suppose you go and see. ”
“That’s so!” exclaimed Croombe, jumping up from the couch. “ Glad you reminded me, doc’. I pretty near let it slip. If ever you find me forgettin’ any little thing like that, I’d be real obliged if you ’d mention it.”
This was like the key-note of Croombe’s conception as to his relation with his employer. He never lost sight of the inspiring idea that he was one American gentleman who had consented for a season to take care of another American gentleman’s horse, and to render such other services as his genial fancy might suggest; the fact of a casual transfer of money from the latter to the former gentleman’s pocket being rather obstructive than otherwise to pleasant intercourse between them. Prew felt a liberal, forgiving interest in watching Croombe’s method of balancing their mutual obligations on this principle. But the precautions which his servant took were sometimes highly inconvenient. One day, for example, he disappeared from the face of the earth, could not be found at his own home, and explained next morning that he had been cleaning a well belonging to a house at some distance. On this occasion he confuted criticism by replying with a touch of indignation: “ Why, well-cleaning was always one of my trades! ” It turned out that he had also been a bar-tender, an expressman, a carpenter, a soldier; and he evidently thought that his contract with the doctor covered a right to resume any one of his former occupations at will; so thatgrooming and gardening for Prew should not unfit him for carrying out his other duties to the human race. For a time Prew received these eccentricities with a benign amusement. He even seemed to think that there was a peculiar providence in Croombe’s having found a person so easy-going, to exhibit his foibles to. For the man had errands in so many other directions than the doctor’s, and exhibited such constant industry in doing jobs for almost any one else, that Prew was at liberty to attend to his horse himself, a great part of the time. It was difficult, however, to reconcile some of Croombe’s absences with his favorite theory of their being the result of his previous occupations. He had indeed been a shad-fisher and the cook of a mackerelboat; but this did not seem a sufficient warrant for rambling away to the Hudson and relieving the shad-nets there of a basket of fish without letting the owner know of his considerate action. The foraging habits of his military life might partly excuse this, and might also account for his taking a day off, now and then, to follow the sedgy creeks of the Hackensack, fishing and shooting. But Prew could discover nothing in his past career which gave any color of reason to Croombe’s passion for haunting auctions. Other pastimes to which he was given were equally irrational. Yet Prew bore all patiently, until Croombe one day proposed to drop a week out of what he still imaginatively called his engagement with the doctor, — the time to be used in driving a wagon-load of nitro-glycerine from the neighboring factory to a place in Connecticut.
“Nitro-glycerine!” Prew echoed, aghast.
“ Yes,” said the other, deprecatingly, “ that was one of my regular trades.”
He brought out with emphasis the word “ regular.” But Prew absolutely withheld his consent, and hinted that it, would be well for Croombe to add one more to his list of “regular” occupations by coming to the house more consecutively.
With a grieved air, Croombe gave up his plan. Then matters went on for a while just as before; the doctor still pardoning Croombe’s eagerness to do chores for other people, because he knew how pressing his poverty was. But little by little he became aware that Croombe seldom took any money for these services. He now perceived that his man was indulging himself in the luxury of giving away much time and labor miscellaneously, merely in order to feel that he was not enslaved to any one person. He commented to him on this discovery, placing before him the situation: that he, Prew, was supporting Croombe for the benefit of the community at large. “ I don’t call it supporting,” said his servant, with pride. “ If I chose, I could have pay for all that outside work.”
One day Croombe invited the doctor to see his wife; not in a strictly social way, for medical advice was needed. But as he had no intention of paying for either advice or medicine, the invitation was in the nature of a hospitable act. Anything, of course, which the doctor could do for his wife would be regarded as a personal favor to himself; and between gentlemen on the same level this tacit understanding was enough. But he took the further precaution of making light of the malady. “ My opinion is,” he complained, “ she works herself up into this chills and fever just by nagging at me to send our little gal to school.”
“ But your child has the fever, too.”
“ Then, if you think it all comes from her not going to school, why not try sending her? ”
For the first time since Prew had known him, Croombe looked ashamed of himself. His wife, — who had once been pretty, and even now in her old saffron gown possessed a dim and troubled beauty, — his pallid, ailing wife turned to Prew and said warmly: “ I know I had n’t ought to urge it on him so, though it’s nature to me. Poor Joe! You see he has all he can do, now, to get along.”
Croombe drew down the straightforward visor of his cap, so as to shelter his eyes, and thrust his hands gloomily into his trousers pockets. He turned away and looked out of the window of the small, shaky hovel, as if the aspect of the interior had suddenly pained him beyond endurance. Just then, the wife, who after her utterance on Croombe’s behalf had fallen to brooding again, spoke out almost querulously. “I do think, anyhow,” she said, “you might have spared to build that piazza ’side of the house, and put the money into schoolin’.”
Croombe, still gazing out of the window, plucked up courage at this, and answered with some bitterness: “ How many times have I told you I could n’t have got anything for the lumber ? You know how I picked it up, odd bits.”
Prew remembered the pile of old lumber which had accumulated slowly beside the shanty, till there was enough to build the erratic, tottering little balcony with. He detected a hidden virtue in Croombe’s gratuitous jobs of house - repairing for the neighbors.
“ Besides,” continued the father, “ don’t Etta play house under that balcony, and scold about her doll not goin’ to school, till you’d think she was a regular grown woman with a good-for-nothin’ of a husband ? ’ ’ Before any reply could be made, Croombe gave a shout. “ Here comes Etta, now! ” he exclaimed. “ And she’s goin ’ to play on her balcony. ”
The next moment a gay, prancing child with light hair and dark eyes, running down the hill-side against which the shanty feebly supported itself, appeared, laughing, upon the balcony, and gazed in through the window at her withered papa. Prew had never seen his man happy before. The little girl quickly darted around the house and came in. There was something wonderfully breezy in all the movements of her agile, tiny form. An odor of fresh grass hung about her ; her eyes had a dark gleam like that of the water in the creeks; and her fair hair and lively face seemed to have drawn to themselves the brighter parts of the sunlight, leaving some other quality of it to stain her father’s cheeks that leathery brown.
“ You see, doc’, she’s like me,” said Croombe, unconscious of the startling contrast between them. “ She loves the hills and the woods; she don’t want to be cooped up. Say, Etta, how would you like goin’ to school? ”
“ My doll must go to school,” answered Etta, with authority, indicating her own superior exemption.
“ And what will you do? ’’asked Prew.
“I ’ll have a great big house like the works on the meadows, and live there when I'm rich.”
Croombe glanced over at the doctor with a knowing air. “I’m holdin’ on to that land at Closter, you know. I ain’t in no hurry.”
“ But your doll,” said Prew to Etta, “ will know more than you, if you don’t go to school.”
The child hesitated now in that halfpleased, partly frightened way that children have when they suspect that something too clever for them has been said. Prew pressed the question: “ Don’t you really want to go? ”
Little Etta gazed embarrassed at some wild flowers she had brought in her hand; then she eyed her mother, who in an absent, brooding way was awaiting the issue. At last she carried her mother the flowers. “ Papa,” she said, “ likes me to get the flowers for mamma; but mamma wants me to go to school. Shall I go with you? Yes, with you,—I will.” She appeared to think the doctor would take her at once, in his buggy.
Croombe was crest-fallen. But “ Not to-day,” said Prew.
The next morning Croombe came and examined with much interest a certain decayed gate-post at the doctor’s, in which a swarm of bees had housed themselves. “ Curious,” he remarked, dreamily, “ there seems to be quite some bees there: ’t ain’t very large, too.” And he devoted the day to hiving the bees, for Prew’s benefit. This was understood as a full confession that he had had the worst of it in the discussion as to Etta. The confession was strengthened by his being on hand a great deal, after that, when he was not needed, and even appearing frequently when he was. He soon relapsed into his shiftless ways; but Prew would not dismiss him. He thought of the ailing wife and the wild, pretty daughter.
In Etta he saw a type of the neglected village itself. Perched like it on the hill-side, she dreamed — also like the village— of growing up, getting rich, being important in the world. Many improvements in the village, which might have helped it to gain its desires, were deferred: similarly, the education that Etta needed was replaced with empty expectations. Prew tried to enforce upon her father the mistake he was making. But Croombe would not yield so far as to send her to school. That, he fancied, might hurt his independence; and his independence, he appeared to think, was the best dowry he could give her. He could conceive of no better way to benefit Etta than to wait for good fortune, proudly. If improvement was to come, he had faith in its coming suddenly, or by some more dignified pursuit than currying a horse.
But one day Prew made a great discovery: Croombe’s land at Closter turned out to be nearly worthless. It was a small lot, mainly swamp, and its total value was the sum which Croombe had adroitly made to appear as the price of each acre. Even that value was an imaginary one. Armed with this information, Prew again tried to move his man. He offered to buy the land at its assumed worth. Croombe refused: nevertheless, he felt the force of the attack. The very next day he resigned his place with Prew, and said he had found a vacancy at the glycerine works. It was in vain that the doctor tried to dissuade him from this perilous business.
“ ’T ain’t a hundredth part as bad as Cliickamauga battle - ground,” said Croombe; “ and the wages is high. I think,” he added, without dropping his air of severe self-respect, “I think my wife’s fever ’ll git better, now.”
Prew saw that the danger steadied his lax and desultory nature; possibly it was essential to the man’s success. Most of his pursuits had been dangerous. We soon accustomed ourselves to this idea, and used to laugh at the likeness between Croombe and the material he worked in; both so mild, even languid, yet capable of a change that filled them with exceptional force.
Led by my interest in Croombe, I one day visited the works. How still and harmless seemed the long “convertingroom”! There, in long troughs, stood rows of stone pitchers containing nitric acid and surrounded by ice-cold water.
Above them were ranged glass jars full of glycerine that trickled drop by drop into the acid, and a light current of air impelled by steam fanned the mixture. This simple process changed the healing oil into a glittering liquid charged with sudden death and the terrors of earthquakes. Two men paced up and down, silent, watchful as serpents, their movements quick as those of fine steel. If but a few drops of the oil flowed too fast into the acid — fire! If the soft aircurrent should waver for an instant — fire! The men counted the drops with keen eyes, and stirred the fuming fluid with short tubes of glass; always pacing to and fro, wary, quiet, as if they were keepers of some caged wild beast. How still and peaceful seemed the room, how punctiliously clean the floor was kept! It was flooded every day, I found, to carry off chance drops which, stepped upon, would have hurled the watchers beyond human reach, and left the factory a splintered ruin.
What had happened ? Had there been an explosion? A roaring sound shook the air around me, and filled my ears with strange hummings. That was the noise of the train I had just left. But there I stood, looking over the marshes amazed. Where the-nitro - glycerine works had once been remained now merely a gaunt heap of charred and scattered timbers. It seemed as if the explosion had just happened. I knew that was impossible, yet I hurried to Prew’s house with something of the illusion hanging about me. He was not in.
“ When did it happen? ” I asked the servant. She did not understand. “The explosion,” I added, impatiently. “ Over there. ’ ’
“ Oh, that was last autumn.”
Then I explained that I had been away all winter, and had not heard of it. Hastening away I turned down a lane near Prew’s that led to the marshes, and near the railroad I found an old shrewd man spading in a field. He was un wholesomely glad to find some one to whom the story of the disaster was new. He had something to say about cans of “compound glycerin,”and carboys of acid, and a load going out by canal-boat. No one knew just how it began. “ First it went off inside, and then outside, and it blew those six men —well, you couldn’t find anything of ’em afterward, so ’s to reco’nize ’em. We found three fingers, and in another place two or three ’’ —
“ Never mind that,”I interposed, to his surprise. “ Were the men all killed? ”
“Every one. As I say, you could n’t find the pieces, so’s to count up six fair and square, but they was all there. What was left of’em, you could put it all into a dinner-can.”
“ Horrible! ” I exclaimed.
“ Yes,”he repeated, " you could just put it all in a dinner-can, — one of the men’s dinner-cans.” This allusion, no doubt, struck him as exceedingly apt; and he felt encouraged to go on with an account so grotesquely hideous that I suspected he was drawing on his fancy.
“ Hid you have a funeral? " I asked, suddenly.
But here the shrewd old man’s memory or else his imagination failed him. " I don’t remember,”he said, mysteriously, " whether we had a funeral or not.”
After a pause I asked if he had known Joe Croombe. “Yes, I did,”he answered. " He was a good fellow, Joe; it hurt me, I tell you, to have him took off that way.’ ’ He spoke with the force of real regret, and went on to say how he had been sitting in the store when Joe stopped in on his way to the works. " Well, he had n’t been gone long when we heard suthin’ go off, and the doors flew open, and windows — my!—they was smashed all around here. ‘ Hit him ag’in! ’ says I. I thought it was a cannon. I had n’t more ’n got the words out, when it went off ag’in. Then I heard a woman crying; she come running out. It was Joe’s wife. ' My husband ’s dead! ’ says she. She come running out, crying, ' My husband’s dead! ’ And his little gal,” he continued in an awe-struck voice, “when she heard it up at the school-house, she stopped right in her lesson with her hand at her heart, and she said, ‘ My father’s dead! ’ That was before any one told her.”He stopped, with his hand on his spade, staring out at the ruin-heap; then he maundered on through many repetitious details. “Jacob Wheeler was twenty rods away with a cart and team; both the horses was knocked flat, and he — why, he didn't know whether he jumped or was throwed out. Jury tried to censure him. I was on the jury, and I said: ' Do you want to censure that poor fella because he got knocked flat and was n’t killed? A little more and he would have been killed, and then how’d you have felt if you’d censured him ? ’ ”
The feeble old logician’s garrulity made it appear as if he were trying to hobble away from the whole dreary subject. He had told all he knew, and I feared that to stay would tempt him to put an undue tax on his fancy. I moved away, but I could not turn my eyes from the ruin. Close by me was a field where the daisies were spreading their white, flat petals; beyond lay the rough, tawny marsh, burnt black in spots and overhung by a haze, against which some willows were blotted like pale yellow lights. There was a wild charm in the scene, yet it was indescribably mournful. Its dumbness seemed to reflect the unsatisfied longing winch I felt to see Croombe once more in his old slate, — well, happy, and worthless. Was I unreasonable? Did I overrate the man, now that he was dead, or had we valued him too slightly while he lived ? As humanity constantly misestimates its greatest, so it blunders in measuring its least. In this case we had been content to assign to Croombe the part of a rough comedian; he had suddenly become the centre of a tragedy. Nature for a time had tolerated our levity; but she now showed that there was something in this frail life which we had not calculated upon. Croombe gone, the void which he left was filled with a mysterious, contradictory sacredness.
George Parsons Lathrop.