Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them
THERE is really no reason why the story should not be told. Dudley is dead now. So are Dr. Hale and Mr. Kidder. So, too, are Martin and Walker and Eliot.
I will try to tell the thing just as it occurred. It needs no garnishing; it is preposterous enough in its simple nakedness of truth.
It all happened in less than two hours, and left me a dazed, much-honored, sorely-discomfited young man. What Dudley thought of me afterwards I never could clearly tell. He treated me as a man of mystery and power. He believed that I had a destiny, — or something of that sort. Poor Dudley! How little he knew that I was a mere pawn in the hand of Fate. But I must let the story tell itself without my flowers of rhetoric.
It was the afternoon of an autumn day in Boston, in the year 1884; and the Park Street clock gave the time as a quarter to two. I was walking up Tremont Street, and had passed the corner of Beacon Street, when I noticed a somewhat excited crowd trying to gain admittance to Tremont Temple. The fringe of the crowd extended a third of the distance across the street, but it was not blocking my path and I hurried on, caring little for what it all meant. Speaking candidly, the vital concern of earning a living held me in its grip. It was low tide on my financial beach, and I was not attending afternoon religious services. In front of Park Street Church I ran bang into the arms of L. Edwin Dudley. Dudley was something of a character. Originally an Indian agent in the West, and a man of generous enthusiasms, he had journeyed East, shaken off the alkali, shaved, and settled down into the prosaic vocation of organizer of the Law and Order League of Massachusetts. This brought him into close contact with men of political prominence, and Dudley was always a politician. He reveled in politics, cold, hot, raw, or with tabasco sauce.
I wanted to see Dudley about a newspaper I was printing for his league, and I tried to detain him. But he was in a hurry! He said he was on his way to a mass-meeting in Tremont Temple; it was already late; there was sure to be a big crowd, and he dared not delay. I decided to walk back with him and so gain a few moments’ conversation.
‘But how is it you’re not going to Tremont Temple yourself?’ he said.
‘Every man who cares for the welfare of Boston will be on hand to-day.’
I was impatient to talk business, and his enthusiasm over his Tremont Temple meeting bored me, but I managed to ask him civilly what it was all about.
‘It’s a call for a Citizens’ Movement,’ said Dudley, warming to his subject. ‘I tell you, my boy, a Citizens’ party is the only solution of municipal government. “Republican” and “Democrat” are all right when you’re dealing with state issues, but when it comes to a question of backyard politics you want the best men, irrespective of party. This is a massmeeting to-day of every one who wants good government right here in this city of Boston. First of all, we’re going to take the public schools out of politics. We’re going to nominate an improved school committee, and we — ’
I choked him off rather abruptly. ‘Good-bye! I’ll see you later — ’
But Dudley had the soul of a missionary. ‘Now look here, don’t try to skin out of this! It’s your duty— it’s every man’s duty to go to this meeting.’
We had nearly reached the Temple entrance. The crowd was before us. It was useless to argue. I had to act quickly. I told Dudley that politics was something I knew nothing about, and I gripped his hand in token of immediate departure.
But he opened fire from a new battery. ‘You say you’re new to this business! Well, here’s a great chance for you! If you don’t know anything about political meetings, then you ought to see this sight, — just as an experience if nothing more. Now keep close to me; hang on to my coat-tails and I’ll get you through this crowd.’
We were well into the throng now, and Dudley began propelling himself along, partly by his height and force, and partly by a certain assumption of importance which made many give place to him. Behind him, comparatively sheltered, I followed in his glorious wake. For just one brief moment as we reached the foot of the staircase I had a chance to speak to him. I told him that it was no use; that, in fact, I had to be in another part of the city in ten minutes to keep an engagement. ‘And anyway, Dudley,’ I said, ‘the thing does n’t interest me. I’m no politician. I’ve got a family to feed, and the sooner I get away from this Citizens’ matinee the better for me.’
We parted on that word! Speaking accurately, Dudley parted from me; alas, I could not part from him so easily. To attempt to turn back now was useless; to stand still was equally impossible; and I resigned myself to being propelled into a citizens’ convention as the only way by which I could finally escape from it.
At the head of the stairs I made a futile attempt at a revolving wedge formation which might save my entering the hall and enable me to reach the wall and slip down by the baluster rail on the side of the staircase. But there was no revolving whirlpool for me; I was in the upper rapids and the utmost I could accomplish was to work gradually to the right until, at last, forced through the main doors of the hall, I broke from the edge of the crowd and reached a place against the rear wall. There I fixed myself, hoping that as soon as an opening came I could reach the stairs and again try a retreat by that baluster rail.
I held this outpost for nearly five minutes, vainly waiting for some sign of relief at the door. From my perch I had a fine sight of the throng that filled the hall. Once I caught a glimpse of Dudley. He had worked to the head of a crowd in the lower third of one aisle, and I marveled at his ability.
‘That’s what comes of being a politician,’ I thought. And then suddenly I was aware that some one on my right was speaking to me.
I turned to face an excited usher. ‘Are you Mr. Deland?’ he demanded. I owned up! It seemed best to do so; he might prove an influential friend on this battlefield.
‘Mr. Hale wants to know if he can speak to you for a moment,’ said my influential friend.
‘Do you mean Dr. Edward Everett Hale?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said the excited one.
‘But I don’t know him,’ I said; ‘you must be looking for some one else.’
‘No,’ the usher insisted, ‘he sent me to get you. He’s up in a room — back of the stage. I can take you round there if you’ll follow me. We never can get there up this aisle.’
It is recorded that a tramp once approached a hospitable door where a dog wagged his tail and growled. But the tramp did n’t dare advance, — he said he did n’t know which end to believe. I found myself murmuring vague protests that Dr. Hale did n’t know me: ‘There has been a mistake. — It must be some one else he wants.’ But all the while I was addressing these polite sounds to the back of an usher whom I was following at furious speed. By side doors and erratic rear passages we reached a room. Into this room he threw me! It seemed to contain about seventeen men in long frock-coats and white ties. There was positively nothing else in that room but men, coat-tails, and clergymen’s neckwear. The familiar form of Dr. Hale loomed up through the ecclesiastical mist and gripped my hand.
‘Oh, Mr. Deland!’ said he, ‘such an absurd thing has happened! Here we are, nine clergymen and only one layman. May I depend upon you for a twenty-minute speech on the Public School question?’
To the day of my death I shall always swear it was the tone of his voice that lured me to my ruin. I knew no more about the public schools than I did about carpet-weaving; I did n’t even know that there was a public school question. I could n’t have told you who ran the public schools, or why he ran them. Yet then and there I consented to address that, outside mob for twenty minutes on the Public School question, whatever it might be. And twenty minutes is a long time to talk when you have n’t anything to say.
I have said that Dr. Hale did n’t know me; this proves it! But don’t judge me harshly! Any one who remembers Dr. Hale’s voice, that benign and Zeus-like countenance, and the splendid note of inspiration in his graciousness, will understand the flattery of his appeal. Under such encouragement prudence melts like a snowflake in the sea. It was as if he had said, ‘My boy, of course we all know you! You are the one man on earth who can be depended on in any emergency.’
I fell! I have always insisted that if a man is going to fall, he might as well fall the full distance. If there was any more distance that I did n’t fall, I should be glad to have it pointed out. Yet in the black horror that confronted me, I recall one delightful bit of satire. The good clergyman asked if I could use three minutes or so in getting my thoughts in order. I acknowledged that I could use three minutes, and he said, ‘We’ll delay the meeting for three minutes.’ Then, instinctively, without knowing just what I was seeking, I dodged through that forest of coattails and gained the window. I wanted air! I felt like a fly in a huge mass of ecclesiastical amber. Two kind clergymen came up to introduce themselves. I gave them my precious three minutes. After all, they were of no use to me.
It was not over three minutes before Dr. Hale summoned us to march to the stage. He placed me in the middle of that long single file. First, five clergymen; then the Public School expert; then four clergymen, — and so we walked to my doom. A door was suddenly thrown open; before us was a short flight of steps, and beyond there rose a sea of faces. As I mounted those steps it only needed a cross-beam and the dangling rope, and my misery would have been complete.
In that moment of horrible glory I thought of Dudley. Somewhere out on that billowy sea his astounded face was looking up at mine, and his political sagacity was trying to figure out just why two and two made five. I knew that that problem would hold Dudley for a while.
We took seats in a long line across the stage, my seat being close to the centre. Dr. Hale advanced to the speaker’s desk and read the summons under which the meeting had been called, He asked for nominations for temporary chairman. At that precise moment Henry P. Kidder, the banker, was moving from the crowd at the foot of one aisle to a seat at the reporters’ table which stood on the floor directly below the stage. He was a prominent citizen, and his face was familiar to many in the audience. Some one caught the suggestion and nominated him for temporary chairman. The motion was carried with a strong vote, and Mr. Kidder, who had halted at the reporters’ bench during the voting, continued his way to the platform. Taking the gavel from Dr. Hale, he called for a nomination for temporary secretary.
I shall never know how it happened, or who caught that flash of lightning by the tail, but some one in the audience sized up the situation on a priori principles. Accounting for my presence in a group of much older men by the presumption that I was ‘working for my passage,’ he saw in me a logical candidate for the working post, and I heard my name called out from the floor. Mr. Kidder, never having heard the name before, asked to have it repeated; a loud voice called it clearly, and Mr. Kidder announced that I was nominated as temporary secretary.
I heard that announcement with a great throb in my breast-bone; I was to be plucked as a brand from the burning! Then I glanced at Dr. Hale, and my heart almost stopped. For the good Doctor looked aggrieved. Clearly he did not want his Public School expert used as a temporary secretary. He rose from his seat and started toward the chairman, but even as he reached the desk the vote was taken, and Mr. Kidder announced my election.
Dr. Hale went back to his chair. Just what had passed through his mind, and why he started forward as he did, I never knew. It was enough for me to hear the chairman asking me, in a voice addressed to all parts of the hall, if I would come up to the platform and act as secretary. A link in my chains had snapped somewhere, and I was drifting toward freedom.
My first thought was to get out of the danger-zone, away from that firing line of frock-coated speakers, and I went at once to the desk, reported myself to the chairman, and moving over to the edge of the platform on the left, I commandeered a small table from the reporters and started on my new job. I was resolved that the public schools might now go hang before I would say a word in their favor. I regarded them, in fact, as a deadly enemy; they had nearly killed me, and it was not their fault that I was not at that moment politically and socially dead. I resolved to take no further chances with them. To speak plainly, I took refuge in flight. Slipping down among the reporters, I remained in semi-concealment while the blackfrocked spell-binders unlimbered into action.
Safely hidden away, I longed to ask the reporters one question, yet I dared not betray my miserable plight. It was an innocent question: I merely wanted to know what the meeting was all about. From Dudley’s talk I gathered that it had something to do with a new citizens’ movement in the cause of good government. Then I knew that the public schools got into the scheme somewhere. But I would have given a week’s earnings for reliable information as to just what game I was up against.
When at last I saw Dr. Hale rise and start down the platform stairs I resolved to sell my life dearly. As the reverend gentleman descended the stairs, I placed one foot on the reporters’ table and vaulted to my secretary’s seat on the stage.
But my agitation was needless. Dr. Hale was not thinking of the public school question; I had long passed that danger, though I was too ignorant to realize it. To speak frankly, my friend, the Doctor, was now up against his game. Charged with preparing the resolutions which should start the machinery of permanent organization, he had neglected this essential, and now he was doing his best to make good the deficiency at the eleventh hour by scribbling various motions on scraps of paper. These he had in a sheaf in his hand as he went in search of me. He soon located my changed base, and it suited well with his plans. From the reporters’ table he passed his motions up to me, one by one, with some brief, hurried words of explanation: — ‘Make this motion first,’ — ‘make the motion next for this committee,’ — ‘let this motion come third,’ and so through the list. It was terribly cut-and-dried, but as we conferred together in whispers over the edge of the platform, I think no one in the audience knew what was transpiring, or realized, when the motions came later, how they had originated.
And so it came about that I made a series of motions. To the audience I must have appeared like a lambent flame playing over the whole Citizens’ Movement from end to end. I had come through the Public School furnace as unscathed as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; and now what were a few motions more or less to me! To the chairman I made all roads smooth; if the course of true government ever seemed to hesitate, he had but to turn to his secretary and a motion came flying from my mouth before any one else got started. To Dudley I must have seemed — well, I hesitate to say what I must have seemed to Dudley. Ossas had been piled on Pelions, and Dudley was out of sight in the valley.
The motions which I was so busily making called for the appointment of different committees to carry forward the permanent work: a motion for the appointment, by the chairman, of an executive committee of nine; a motion for the appointment (always by the chairman) of a committee of seven on nominations; another for a committee of three on printing and advertising; another for a committee of five on future permanent organization; another for a committee of four on finance.
I do not mean to imply that no motions came from the floor; quite the contrary. But there was no conflict from the floor. Some one put through a motion by which the temporary officers were made permanent, and some one else moved that each committee should meet subject to the call of its chairman. Later the meeting voted that the officers and committees should form the nucleus of a permanent organization on a platform irrespective of party lines, and place a citizens’ ticket in the field. Then the meeting adopted the resolution for an improved school committee.
One or two of the committees called for by the votes of the convention were named by the chairman immediately upon the passing of the vote. Some were taken under consideration and announced later in the proceedings, and I think that one committee was not announced until the very close of the meeting.
Perhaps in this way the fact escaped attention that the chairman, in making up these committees, merely followed the old rule of appointing as chairman of each committee the one who had introduced the motion to create it. Now the reader may recall that I had acted as the mouth-piece of the ‘ men higher up ’ in the motions to constitute these committees, and a little mental calculation will make clear the avalanche of political power which now descended upon my unworthy head.
I had entered that wretched hall against my will, — thrown into it like a chip on a stormy sea, — ignorant of politics, not even knowing what the meeting was called for or who called it. Two hours later I was the chairman of every committee, and practically the whole Citizens’ Movement! When I left the hall I carried away under my hat the entire power of the organization. Gilbert and Sullivan might have dramatized me just as I stood. I had pooh-bahed everything in sight. No committee could meet till I called it together. More than that, I carried away in my pocket the complete records of the convention. If I had been wiped out that night, the Citizens’ organization would — at least temporarily — have ceased to exist, except as a pleasant memory for that throng in the street and that jostling crowd on the stairs.
It is said that two men were once traveling companions on a railway train entering Russia. One was an Englishman; the second was none other than Karl Baedeker. Each was a stranger to the other. They had talked for four long hours over a wide range of topics, when the Englishman asked the German if he happened to have a Baedeker that he could lend him, in his satchel. It was too much for the warm-hearted Teuton. Bursting with a sudden and overwhelming enthusiasm of friendship, he beat his breast with both hands, exclaiming,
‘ Gott in Himmel! — I am it! ’
I felt just that way when I found myself once more on Tremont Street, passing the spot where, only two hours before, the enthusiastic Dudley had lured me from t he sober path of honest toil. As I walked home, those first words of Dudley came back to my mind: “If you don’t know anything about political meetings, then you ought to see this sight, just as an experience.” I had had the experience. So this was politics! I recalled an old lady who rode for the first time on a railroad train. There was a head-on collision, and from the ruins they brought her out miraculously unhurt. When they asked her if she was n’t frightened, she replied, calmly, “O no,
I thought they always stopped that way.” I resolved to emulate the old lady’s composure.
That evening I told the whole astonishing business to my wife, and I had barely ended when Dudley, the bewildered Dudley, arrived to demand an explanation of my conduct. He wanted half a dozen explanations, beginning with some certified proof that ’I am I and you are you.’ Poor Dudley was like the Spanish madman trying to mix a salad. It was in vain that I presented to him the true story of the tragedy of my political glory. He was too old a fox to be caught by such talk, and never, so long as he lived, would he admit that I was telling him the raw truth about the events of that day. Thenceforward he treated me less as a friend and more as one to be placated. I think he really believed I made the political slate of the diocese. He even came to me a few days later with a proposition that I should let. him announce me as a candidate for alderman of the city. He was sure that he could effect the nomination. It was too absurd even to be humorous. I told him so, but his Indian-agent sagacity merely detected in this simple truth-telling another proof of my political guile. He could not descend to the level of my stupidity. So we played ‘Puss in the Corner’ for a while longer. I told him that it would all be clear if only he would believe my story of the convention. ‘Yes,’he said, ‘ but no sane man can believe such a combination of absurdities.’ And he never believed it.
Few words will suffice to tell the results of the campaign that followed. We joined with the Republicans in the effort to reëlect Augustus P. Martin as mayor. The Cunniff-Maguire combination, controlling the Boston Democracy, defeated us. However, acting independently, we induced General Francis A. Walker and Dr. Samuel Eliot, to accept nominations for the School Committee, and we brought these names forward before either party had made up its slate. We succeeded in getting both of these candidates accepted by the Republicans, and one of them by the Democrats. Both were elected, and each one in a letter the day after election gave to our organization the credit for the result. It is doubt ful if either the Republicans or the Democrats would have troubled to seek out men of this calibre for nomination. To that extent, we might reasonably claim to have effected their election. Undoubtedly we modified the plans of both parties as to school-committee candidates, and on the whole we accomplished much for municipal betterment.
One last catastrophe remains to be told. When I called the various committees together, I succeeded in persuading Mr. Kidder to become chairman of the finance committee, but I could not shake off so easily my other ill-gotten honors. I did practically nothing until the election but manage the Citizens’ campaign. After election we found ourselves short of funds. As secretary of the finance committee I finally was compelled to call a meeting and report the inability to pay all our bills until we could collect about eight hundred dollars.
I can shut my eyes now and see the whole scene. I can see Mr. Kidder rise and say in his pleasant voice, ‘It’s a little late to ask our friends for subscriptions; here we are, four gentlemen together; I think the best plan will be for us each to draw our check for two hundred dollars and hand it to the treasurer. Let us settle it that way, and so save the need of further meetings of the committee. We are all busy men.’
I will not set down in cold type my emotions at that moment, nor reveal the amount of money I then had at my command. If this were a work of fiction there would be a row of stars here to indicate the omission of something on the part of the narrator. I could use those stars even now without violating the truth. For there surely was an omission. I had omitted many days of legitimate toil for daily bread; I had lost the regard of my friend Dudley; now I had to take two hundred dollars from my small store and pay for all this glory! Yes, there was an omission.
Somewhere in this curious experience there should be a moral for young men. Of course if I had not walked up Tremont Street it never would have happened. If I had not met Dudley it never would have happened. But I pass over both these innocent happenings and fasten instead upon that wretched ‘Public School Question,’ about, which I was to talk for twenty minutes. Here is the danger, and I warn all young men to beware of the public schools. Know just as little about them as you can, for they are fraught with terrible ‘questions’ that may spring upon you from ambush at any moment and can only be appeased by your talking for twenty minutes.
Sometimes in sleepless nights I have wondered just what I should have said to that audience if my twenty-minute speech had once got started. In the absence of adequate police protection, I suspect that I escaped easily with no greater punishment than the carrying away of the entire movement.