The Spirit of an Illinois Town: In Three Parts. Part One


THE prairie was intersected by two railroads, and at their junction, without a single natural advantage, the town sprang up. Neither lake nor stream, neither old woods nor diversity of hills, lured man’s enterprise to the spot; nothing but the bald rolling prairie, gorgeous if you rode into its distances, with scarlet bunches of paint-lady, small yellow sunflowers, and lavender asters, and acres of other blooms. In yet undrained slues the iris flags stood in ranks, and at a passing touch millions of sensitiveplants folded their lace leaves and closed their black-eyed maize-colored blossoms. By such tokens it was early autumn the first evening Sam Peevey and I walked north along one of the principal streets to our new boarding-house.

We had begun by sleeping on benches provided for visiting subscribers in the sanctum of our new paper, and eating crackers and cheese and such cheap browse as the restaurants afforded. Sam was proud of this, and intended to put it in his future political speeches. As for me, I was ready for anything at that time. But our newspaper had so prospered that we could now afford to live in a house, and pay a woman who kept no other guests a modest price for boarding us.

Our belongings had already been sent to her care, and we hoped the drayload would impress her. Sam did the partnership hoping, for I did n’t care for anything in the world. The street along which we walked to our new experiences had been a Pottawatomie trail from the Great Lakes ; and mindful of bygones, the founders of the town called it on their map Trail Street. Further justice had been done the Pottawatomies, and their forerunner in path-making, the buffalo, by naming the town Trail City. Long gaps of vacant lots still showed between buildings. Shopping women had to walk half a mile from the north side to the south side, matching samples. It was the favorite joke of merchants in this direction to bid their customers, “ Give us a call on your way to Chicago.” Some still thought the supremacy of trade might be wrested from Main Street on the south side, but others were wavering toward that thoroughfare. On every hand were scattering houses, from mansions having their own gas, and their water propelled by gayly painted windmills, to the rudest shelters of pine, in which lot-owners tabernacled until they could do better; every man’s first care being to secure what promised to be the most valuable location he could command.

Resin weed, strung with lumps of translucent gum, brushed our knees at the edge of the sidewalk, which like a narrow endless bridge carried us above the black soil. This causeway let directly into many front rooms where the functions of humble life went on almost in public. But the virgin town was still untainted with deep poverty or vice. It had kept itself entirely free, Sam informed me, from that American institution called the saloon, so different from foreign wineshops. We were literally walking through a square mile of Ohio cheer, New England thrift and conscientiousness, Kentucky hospitality. New York far-sightedness with capital to back it, and native Illinois grit. The very air, resinous and sweet, had a peculiar tingle that a man, having once felt, cannot forget. Everybody was going to succeed, and on the way could put up with a few inconveniences.

The sun, a plainly defined ball, was melting away in its own radiance, and flattening as it melted, just above the horizon. This unobstructed setting made weird and long-shadowed effects. I hung back to see it touch ground beyond low buildings. Now it was half gone — now three quarters ; now it was a disk of gold — a quivering thread of fire — and now a memory. The wanness of sudden twilight stole eastward. The whole wide land was a map. A freighttrain trailed off into glorified northern prairie. The town-herder was bringing cows out of the west, and we could hear farmers’ wagons rattling home on the dry autumnal plain. Everybody wore a satisfied grin, because the days of rattlesnake-fighting were over and a longlooked-for millennium had come. Eastward, on a billow of the prairie, a land agent with his swarm of followers could be seen offering lots. Under the clang of locomotive bells and the scattered noises of a skeleton corporation came the suction hint of the note of the bull-goose or thunder-pumper, like a buried village working its pumps.

I here were a great many passers, for people were continually walking about to gloat over the promised land, and brag, — north side, south side, or west side; the southwest quarter did not count, being reserved for driving-parks, manufactories, and other municipal appendages.

Sam was always in a hurry, but he let me see the sunset as a spectacle of local value. Sam was broad and pink and muscular. He had been the athlete of our class, while I was only the poor fellow who carried off college honors. He intended to go in for politics from the ground up. Congress was one of his goals. Congress indorsed you for the presidency, or any other job that came your way after you had been elected town alderman. Sam put a great deal of time into what he called making himself solid with people, and left me to do the office work; but I did n’t want to be solid with people. The only endearing characteristic of the town was its Americanness. The raw land, the unfinish, the glad rush, the high, clear air, the jolly insolence of independent human beings, — how American they all were ! I had been so sick for things American. In Paris it had seemed impossible to wait until the ship ferried me over. Gorgeous autumn colors of my country, high zenith shining as no other sky shines, clean gladness of a landscape unsoaked by mediæval filth, primitive still, but full of promise that no words can set forth, — my God ! how my soul shouted hallelujah, while I whizzed through in a dining-car, paying five prices for a vile breakfast and rancid butter! If a man could always be coming home from Europe, he might accomplish something by the mere rise of his spirits. That was when I thought I could begin again where I had left off six years before.

“I’m hungry,” said Sam. “And we ’re going to the house of one of the best amateur cooks in Trail City. But they say she has a falling jaw, and we don’t want to let it drop on us. She’s a holy terror over poor Kate Keene. Why don’t you limber up, Seth, and fascinate folks as you used to before you went abroad ? Travel’s taken all the life out of you. Six years more of Europe would have made you an imbecile.”

“ Who’s Kate Keene ? ”

“ You did n’t need six years more ; you ’re an imbecile now. Ever since you dumped your baggage in Trail City and walked into the War Path office, you ’ve had the names of all the inhabitants put at your pen’s end. Who’s Colonel York ? Who ’s Banker Babcock ? I ’ll make you a little catechism.”

“ You ’ll make me an apology. You are taking an unpopular manner with me, and may lose my vote.”

“ Try to feel a little interest in humanity around you, Seth,” pleaded Sam. “ When Esther comes into the office to scrub, you do take her boy on your knee, and notice her and even her confounded crane.”

“ Esther comes only once a month. If we could afford to have her oftener, it might exhaust me.”

“ I tell you it is n’t liked, Seth.”

I laughed because he could think that would make any difference to me.

“Some of the finest families in the United States have gathered to this town,” blustered Sam. “ Lucia and Alice York and Teresa Babcock, — where will you find prettier girls? And if you look at externals, there ’ll be plenty of people sitting down to well-served dinners when we sit down to supper.”

“ I don’t look at externals.”

“I wish you did. For a fellow that works like a horse, you take confounded little notice of what’s around you. Now, we ought to be laying our plans to get hold of some of this land while it’s comparatively cheap. It ’ll be worth a hundred dollars an acre some time. Rich, black, deep ” —

“ Up to a man’s knees,” said I.

“ Or a mule’s,” assented Sam. “ And we want some. You had a fortune when you left college.” He gave me that cast of the eye with which he always approached this subject. It was almost a compensation to me for the loss of my fortune to see how defrauded Sam felt.

“ If I had it now, would I be here ? ” But bow could you run through with it — all ? ”

“ Same old way.”

“ You had fifty thousand dollars.”

“ And you’ll come back at me fifty thousand times to make me account for every dollar of it.”

“ You ought to account to somebody.”

“ That’s been one of my fatal troubles, Sam : there was no one for me to account to,— no father, mother, brother, or sister.”

“ I ’d be a brother to you and show you where to put it now, if you had it. I don’t understand how you let foreigners rob you so; you ’re no profligate. Buying old books and old pictures is n’t absolute drunkenness.”

I never excused myself to Sam or helped him to better understanding of my affairs. We were partners, with all we both had staked in our little printinghouse, and I had dropped into that place when I came back because it was the first thing that offered. When Sam had given me a thought, he went on : —

“ Poor Keene, his profligacy was absolute drunkenness. We came here to start the paper together. I didn’t know as much as I do now. I had been rubbing around at different jobs four or five years, trying to study law and one thing or another, without enough money to live on, and dabbling with newspapers all the time. In six months Keene had us sold out, and he was in the gutter. So I tried it again alone. He was as bright a fellow as you are, but he could n’t be kept steady. We opened the new graveyard with him just before you came. He never did a more distinguished thing than plant his carcass on that slope. We made an occasion of it, like laying a cornerstone. Poor Kate ! He left her without a cent in the world, and without a relation except this half-aunt. I should say she was left literally on her wits ; and she needs them, to get on with Mrs. Jutberg. Jutberg is a Swede, well-to-do, but probably the most regretful Swede that ever was in a hurry to marry an American woman. I never saw him do anything but follow his wife submissively into church. But she has religious ecstasies, and they tell this story of him : One night he sat watching Mrs. Jutberg in disgust while she paraded the aisles shouting, ’I want to be a burden-bearer ! ’ and the next morning he refused to carry any coal into the house for her. ‘ Get on to dat burden yourself,’ Jutberg says. ‘You vas so sveet on burdens, I let you bear dat one.’ ”

Any but homeless men might have entered Mrs. Jutberg’s sphere apprehensively. The two or three weeks I had camped in the office with Sam separated me from my former life, and the square, roomy house typified a return to civilization. From the porch inward one was impressed by exquisite rigorous housekeeping. An odor of roses sifted about. There was not a speck of dust on the furniture or on the framed hair-flowers and ancient sampler-work in the parlor. I wondered if the orphan Kate Keene held levees of youthful people in this little salon. She was nowhere to be seen, and neither was there any visible servant. Mrs. Jutberg received us with brisk dispatch. She was a small woman, of excellent trim figure, though I thought her sallow face a sullen one. Her teeth were large and broad. With unusual scrutiny I detected a looseness about the lower part of her face, which seemed thrown on its own support. But when you are predisposed against a person, and find that person a quick-footed and capable domestic angel, small minor imperfections go for nothing. Our rooms had the sweetness of lavender in the sheets. My box of books had been opened and arranged on standing shelves by some one who knew their value. I had a comfortable feeling in the house, such as I thought I should never have again in the world.

Sam and I sat down in state with the Swedish host in the dining-room, and the hostess herself served us.

“ Good-evening, yentlemens,” he said, holding knife and fork upright in his fists ; and I thought he was a dear blueeyed old fellow who would appreciate sitting and smoking in silence with a companion after meals. Sam gormandized on broiled prairie chicken and talked all the time, but the fragrance of the tea floated Mr. Jutberg and myself into a smiling, unspoken friendship. It was a meal to set a man on Mount Olympus, Sam said, becoming heartily solid with Mrs. Jutberg, who appeared distrustful of the praises of men’s mouths, yet exacting of appreciation. It did indeed mark a new era after bread and cheese and restaurant stuff, and there was no restraining the vigor it put into Sam. He rushed forth, as soon as he rose from the table, into the dusk streets, where the kerosene lamps were yet unlighted, to further cultivate the influence of woman, or pursue patrons for advertising, or talk his kind of politics, or continue what he called hustling along the development of the town.

I was used to Sam’s desertions in the evening, for we never went in the same direction if we walked, and often I lighted a lamp in the office and read or wrote, beetles and evening street noises buzzing up from the sidewalks. The discipline on the sanctum benches made me look forward to a bed with gratitude that astonished me, and the very best preparation for such bliss seemed a smoke on the porch with Mr. Jutberg. So we sat down, with our feet on the top step, he and his pipe, and I and one of my treasured cigars.

“ I vas not a feller dat talk much ven I smoke,” remarked Mr. Jutberg before each man sunk into his own sweet trance; and I responded, “The same.”

His gentle Swedish monotone was more soothing than his tobacco. The sky seemed to let its stars down almost within reach, and over eastern hummocks we could watch the unobstructed rising of constellations. There was no light in the house except in the kitchen, at the end of the hall behind us. We could hear the tinkle of dishes being washed and set on shelves, and by turning our heads could see Mrs. Jutberg and another figure passing back and forth. I wondered if the two women of the house ate in secret, and like the priests of the oracles performed their feats by hidden machinery ? After my life of fierce and sickening passion these saltless doings were infinitely peaceful.

There had not been an audible word spoken in the house, when the clamor of a shrew began, almost lifting Mr. Jutberg and me, like a powder explosion, from the top step. He turned toward me, pipe in mouth, his face drawn back in apprehensive horizontal lines. I began a Latin quotation under my breath, but the terrible words of that incensed woman could not be shut out. Her voice soared and spread, and must have filled the air for several blocks. I have heard hysterical cries, but never anything so like the shrieking of a human beast. The mire of Billingsgate market and its red-faced fishwives at once came into my mind. Could any one have imagined this trim, pleasant-spoken, and skilled American woman was such a devil ? The opinion of neighbors was no check on Mrs. Jutberg. She called her young relation names. The insanity of her anger being restrained by nothing but religion, she doomed the poor girl to fire and flame, which is the second death and a well-deserved one.

I saw a figure dart across the lighted space with its hands over its ears, and Mrs. Jutberg pursued it. It was then that her shrewish face worked in a spasm. The muscles struggled ineffectually while she chewed air with dreadful mouthings and contortions of the countenance, and beckoned to us with imperative hand. I leaped up, convinced that the woman was in a fit, but Mr. Jutberg shook the ashes deliberately out of his pipe.

“ It vas notting but her yaw come unyointed,” he explained in gentle monotone. “ I put it up again. But, by Vashin’tons and all dem big fellers ! it vas better out of yoint dan it vas in.”

The girl’s hand was stretched forth to help Mrs. Jutberg, but Mrs. Jutberg slapped at it. My friend arose, straightening his stiffened limbs, and went in to the rescue. At my distance I thought I heard a slight click which might signify that his surgery was effectual. Mrs. Jutberg worked her jaw up and down, recovering command of it; and then, without a word to acknowledge his services, she turned her back and went into darkness at the rear of the house. We heard a door slam. Her husband took his hat from the hall and passed me, with an apology for our interrupted smoke.

I yust valk out behind her aviles and keep her in sight. It make her so mad ven her yaw come unyointed she not stay in de house aviles, but go out and valk de streets in her sunbonnet. Seem like ven I put it up she blame me because it. come down.”

I shared Mr. Jutberg’s feeling of uneasiness and responsibility because Mrs. Jutberg could no longer bear to be in the house with us. The long streets, safe though poorly lighted, would lead her past much jollity and banjo and guitar playing. Nearly everybody was young and happy.

I thought it a pity that Protestant churches never keep open doors for weary and passion - tormented souls, as the Catholic church does. Toilers who left their work for a minute’s prayer in the cathedral were a common sight abroad ; and the dim light and holy silence must have done a lurid spirit like Mrs. Jutberg much good. There was a wide sprinkling of variously housed denominations all over town. Every man had put his hand in his pocket to help the churches, and none more generously than the banker, Mr. Babcock, until he called a halt with sudden thought.

“ Look here, boys ! We ’ll have the preachers of all these churches to keep by and by. Let up on subscriptions. We won’t build any more.”

I had smoked out my cigar and thrown the stump away, when it occurred to me what guileless people these were to leave their young relation alone in the house with a stranger. Ashamed of the thought because it was un-American, I rose to go to bed, when we met in the hall. The young girl was carrying a lamp. There was no back stairway in the house, I understood afterwards, and the kitchen lamp was the only one she was allowed to make use of. It was clean and bright as the flambeaux of the wise virgins, showing her face and brown hair, and her black dress, short like a little girl’s around the ankles. She was lithe and long-bodied, with an undulous motion as she walked, which struck me as the perfection of young grace. I did not expect to find anything perfect in Mrs. Jutberg’s relation, though I was as indifferently sorry for the lot of the unprotected creature as I could be for anything.

We stopped, — I to give her the right of way up the stairs, and she in humility to decline it. The sickening shame which the young experience when their guardians degrade themselves made her avoid my eyes. I knew instantly that one of her ideals of life was high breeding, — daughter of a drunkard and niece of a scold !

I said, “ Good-evening,” and she answered, Good-evening.”

“ Adams, one of Mrs. Jutberg’s boarders,” I mentioned, to quiet any misapprehension.

“ Yes, I know.”

“ I ’m going upstairs, too. Shall I carry the lamp for you ? ”

She gave it to me ; but, with a touching swiftness which moistened my own eyes, she turned against the stair-side and burst out crying.

Oh, come, now,” I objected, don’t do that.”

I looked around and set the lamp on a step. It threw our shadows across the narrow passage, but I put my length in front of her as a screen from the street. Her slim sides expanded and contracted with the effort she made to hold her sobs. That helpless crying into which a visibly brave creature fell cut me up. I did not know how to comfort her; but I could have brought her Mrs. Jutberg’s jaw on a salver.

“ Never mind,” I said ; “ I don’t believe anybody heard but myself, and it makes no difference, anyway.”

The girl began to laugh, and lifted her head, though tears ran down her clear cheeks. “ It was n’t that.”

“ What was it, then ? ”

“ Oh, you look like my father, — you look like my father ! ” She flung herself against the stair-side and sobbed again.

This was flattering to a man who had had some measure of success : I looked like a sot, the opener of the new cemetery, the mortuary corner-stone, so to speak, of Trail City. I passed my hand through the thin layer of hair on my cadaverous head, being unable to hit on any suitable response.

Her second fit of weeping was short, and she dried her face, showing the freshest innocence I had ever seen on a human countenance. The guilelessness of childhood was supplemented by something like a high spiritual brightness which gave her an intent and all-alive look. Among chance comings of children into this world, I divined, whatever her parentage had been, that hers was a happy chance. She attracted the material needful to make her life.

“ My father has only been dead a few months. I have n’t got used to it yet.”

“ He left you here, did he ? ” I remarked, making a case against the man I resembled.

“ Only until I am eighteen. After I am eighteen I may go where I please.”

“ He made that provision for you ? ”

“ He only told me to stay until I was of age ; and I will do as he told me.”

“ Perhaps he thought you would be taking a husband by that time.”

“ No, indeed. I am never going to marry. My father told me not to.”

“ He was a man of sense,” I admitted, feeling more reconciled to the resemblance.

“He was the best man in the world. Other people have bad faults, but he had only one little weakness. You don’t know what my father was to me. I miss him ” — She stopped, catching her lip in her teeth.

The forcible reminder which I had been of this good man for the first time suggested itself as an advantage. A differentiation, impalpable as air, set the child apart to me, and gave me some hold on the only friendship I felt moved to seek. I was possessed to let out my story, which had cost lying to keep from American ears, to a person I had talked with five minutes. Sam had labored on me incessantly, and closed me up tighter all the time ; and for backing he had our college years. This girl was not acquainted with my kind of grief. It was in fact unfit to mention to her. You knew by instinct she was the species of innocent who might stand in the thick of intrigue and never see it, keeping company with holy angels all the time. But I felt sure she could help me with my intolerable load just as she defended her father’s little weakness.

I took up the lamp and rested it on the flat newel, detaining her when she would have continued up the stairs.

“ I wish you would sometimes call me father. Not openly, I mean — but sometimes. I had a child of my own, and he died. I think of him day and night, like a woman.”

“ But where is the child’s mother ? ”

“ That is what I have asked myself a great many times,” I said deliberately.

“ ‘ Where is the child’s mother ? ’ And the only satisfactory answer I could ever give was, ‘ Damn the child’s mother.’ She left her little sick boy with me, and she left me because she had impoverished me. But the boy, he was old enough to call me father, and I should like — to hear the word once in a while.”

My young confessor took hold of a narrow ribbon and drew a packet out of her bosom, her wide and solemn eyes transfixing me while she prepared to exchange confidences. From the packet she unfolded a paper, and gave into my hand her father’s last will and testament. I read it by the lamplight.

“ Kate, my child, you are the only thing that excuses me for ever having lived. I want you to make a success of life, my girl. Do it for me. Cover my failure. Don’t idolize anybody, Kate, but be friends with all. Be cautious about men ; some of them are worse even than I am.

“ It’s a battle, my child, getting through the world. The people you see best off have their fights as well as the rest of us. But if you get through with credit, think what it will be to your mother and me. For God’s sake, Kate, my love, do your best; and if they let a fellow out on the other side, I will watch you night and day. Your


I gave her back the paper, and she folded and returned it to its place. By one impulse we then shook hands, feeling that we had made a compact of friendship.

She said, “ You may call me Kate.

I said, “ My name is Seth.”

We stood with our eyes cast down, as became the importance of the moment.

“ Well, good - night,” said Kate. “ Good-night —father.”

“ Good-night, Kate.”

I gave her the lamp and turned again to the porch, where I sat until Sam came home.

Mary Hartwell Catherwood.