The Biography of an Elderly Gentleman: Iv. The Wages of Youth
JEAN KENYON MACKENZIE
DETROIT in 1868, says the old gentleman, was different. Many a true Detroiter has told us this, and we know by hearsay of that vanished golden age. Robert at twenty-one was there in time. In that far superior Detroit he set about to earn a living, and this is what offered: he might have been a baggage-man, had he not explained that he must leave in September to enter college. But for this indiscretion again, he might have been a rough carpenter working for the government in the lighthouses along the Lake shore. And at last he signed up as purser aboard the Sea Bird, plying between Cleveland and Toledo. With Robert waiting to board her as purser, the Sea Bird burned to the water’s edge.
Without a harsh word for Detroit, Robert went west to Chicago. And almost at once he begins to make that city over. Many a thing he did for Chicago before he became a minister, and this is the first: he worked for a month on the new directory.
The critical cases were given to Robert, claims the old gentleman, because he had a way with him. With this way of his he came to be in strange houses — the houses of foreigners who suspected the uses of the census, the houses of irritable housewives loath to leave their work. And, on a day, the house of a woman in a decent dress who bids him be seated. He takes out his little book to list the inhabitants of that house, and he observes as they pass the door that they look in at him, and that they are girls. Two of them, more curious than the others, come in and eye him closely.
‘When the madame told them what I wanted,’ says the old gentleman, ‘and that I had come to list them, they laughed and rushed away. And then she said to me, “Young man, this is no place for you.” She said it very kindly, too.’
Such segregations were new to Robert, who pondered them on that day of ’68; but the old gentleman at this end of time thinks rather of that maternal kindness in that least likely place.
Having put Chicago, red lights and all, upon the map, young Robert enters a box-factory, and here he meets with his first machine. There was such a lack of affinity between him and a machine as cannot be put in words. We make out that there was no heart in that machine. For a week he took away the boards it threw him with an incredible punctuality and without let or breathing. The heels of his one pair of shoes wore away in the service of that machine, and still without ceasing he slaved. Until on the morning of the sixth day he just could n’t go to work. He could n’t. He sacrificed that bloodmoney, packed his carpet-bag, and set out on a country road to the south of Chicago. There was room on that spring day in the prairie lands about the city of Chicago for the escape of a lad from a box-machine.
Young like that, and with your carpet-bag in your hand and the prairies all before you, you cannot do better than trust to a man with a wagon. A taxi could never do as much for you — never. Seated by the man in his wagon, you tell him what you need and he tells you where it may be had. At the crossroads it is to be had, and he drops you there. Sure enough, you sleep that night under a farmer’s roof, — the roof provided for you by the man with the wagon, — and this in spite of the judgment passed upon you by the farmer’s wife, which is adverse. She is heard to tell her husband that you are no farmhand, but just a shop-clerk. Could a taxi driver have put you to bed in that house?
Because of a way he had with a given horse, a poor temperamental mare, Robert worked all summer on that farm. And the day he remembers well was the fourth of July. Yes, and the day after. Very early on the morning of the fourth of July the farmer and his wife and the other hired hand — for there was another — went away to Chicago. They went to celebrate the Fourth, and the hired hand wore Robert’s best trousers. He was an Austrian, and bigger than Robert by a good deal; but, never mind, he had begged the loan of the trousers and they just had to fit.
Robert had a long, delicious, solitary day cultivating corn. Not being an experienced American, he knew no better than to work on the Fourth of July. No bigger than usual, — smaller indeed than usual, — we see him at the very heart of the wide prairie summer, busy in the corn, and the odd sound we hear is himself singing. He sang ‘Nancy Lee’ all that day, says the old gentleman, complacently; he had just learned to sing it. And late that night, when the farmer returned, the Austrian was not with him.
On the morning of the fifth, Robert on the temperamental mare set out to find his trousers. ‘What, in all Chicago?’ we ask. But no, Robert thought he would know where to look: he would look in the saloons. You see how wise he was for a teetotaler. And in the very first saloon, on the outskirts of the town, there were indeed the trousers. They were cleaning out the saloon, after the wreckage of the Fourth. You are to remember what they were — trousers of a very special decency, and Robert meaning to go to college and to be a minister and all!
Robert certainly had a way with tipsy men, for there are the two of them, going away from the saloon and back to the farm. Robert on his horse rides to the rear of the trousers that are, oh, so pitiful. They pitifully halt and stumble. And if presently you think you see the trousers a-horseback, the beggar riding and Robert afoot, you are right; for so it is, the old gentleman confesses it. And just as you foresaw, the beggar gives the mare a cut and off they go at full gallop, back again to the pit from which the trousers have been digged. And it is all to be done over, with the difference that Robert rides, and it is evening.
On a day in September Robert asked for his wages, as he must now be going to college. Forty-two dollars the farmer owed him, and well he knew that his farm-hand must be going to college, and when. But never a cent would he be paying him then, for there was his hay, said he, in the field. And there for all of Robert it is standing to this day. At the crossroads Robert sat down by his carpet-bag and took account of the five cents in his pocket. He sits and sits, looking up and down the road that is empty in the September sunlight, and presently he feels a tear.
‘Oh, but why?’ we exclaim, terribly upset, because by now we are inured to poverty and we had banked on Robert not to cry.
‘Because I thought there would be a man with a wagon,’explains the old gentleman, off the top of this remembrance; and then he says that it was a tear of self-pity, Robert’s first, and that feeling it there on his cheek, he jumped up and was angry. He starts off with his carpet-bag while we hurry up the man with the wagon — it is a load of hay this time, and not alert.
In those days the street-car came to the end of Archer Avenue. There Robert was dropped by the hay wagon. And that would have been all right, too, but the fare was six cents, and Robert with five in his pocket! Surely you begin to feel now how wrong it is to add a penny to the live-cent fare. Robert parleys with the conductor of that street-car before he goes aboard; do not think that he is the only lad who has done so, and with shame. Yes, he says that he felt like a beggar when the conductor told him to come aboard anyway and ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ And from the foot of Archer Avenue to the heart of Chicago the conductor ignores Robert, who remembers him to this day. ‘And that was the day,’says the old gentleman, glad to turn from these hard details to romance, ‘that I entered college.’ ‘But you had not a penny,’we remind him; but oh, yes, he had; for he collected at once and upon that very day ten dollars that were owing him.
‘Now who could have owed you ten dollars?’ we ask him. But he has forgotten long ago — some poor fellow, he tells us, and that you must never despair of the return of money you have loaned; neither, indeed, must you expect it. And he will tell us strange tales of money returned after many years, — from good men and bad men, — and do we remember the English bride and groom who brought a puppy to pay their hard-luck loan?
We remember too, too many of the old gentleman’s loans, and we like to forget them. We think it fortunate that his debtor of 1868 paid him ten dollars and not a pup. We bring him back to that September day in the heart of Chicago, and himself about to enter college.
There is nothing adequate in us to feel what the old gentleman so obviously felt — and feels — of the thrilling climactic value of this event. We try to feel it, and we can only feel that here is Youth come at last by desperate ways to his ‘hunger’s rarest food and water ever to his wildest thirst.’ We follow him, after his registration, along Cottage Grove Avenue and the railroad track, upon a never-to-be-forgotten walk which he took solely to savor this consummation. But we follow him at a distance, not to disturb him with our thoughts of the probable bleakness of the old building where he has registered, and of the odd fancy that has lighted for a celebration upon a railroad track. It must be surely that he has meat to eat that we know not of. And this brings us back to the matter of a living.
‘But surely,’we ask him, ’you did not let the farmer keep the forty dollars you had earned!’
That he did not. On every Saturday afternoon for eight weeks he dunned that farmer, from whom on each visit he received five dollars. And with this and the money he earned from delivering the Chicago Republican, he lived. He rose at four and delivered papers until eight, and he lived, we are begged to believe, uncommonly well. And he was a great walker! Let us hope so. And that to this day, when he sees a lad at a meal of pancakes and coffee in a restaurant, he thinks of himself in those wonderful academic days. It was then, he tells us, that he fell into his cherished way of working late at night. And in those days, too, he made friends.
This is the way he made a friend in church: he was standing in the aisle while the minister was praying, and he saw — don’t ask him how — a pair of shoes beside his own. They were old country shoes. And when the prayer was done, he looked up from the shoes into the face of a youth like himself, and that was the beginning of a friendship.
There is this about selling newspapers — you don’t keep it up. All the most interesting newsboys are ex-newsboys. They may have loved the calling that had them up before the dawn, but for financial reasons they have left it, little materialists that they are. And Robert was like that. On a day in November, the sun having risen later than usual on that day, he set out to get him a new job,
‘I thought I would go along South Water Street,’ says the old gentleman,
‘and go up every stair. At the corner of Wells Street and at the top of the first stair I saw an open door, and at a table, with his back to the door, a man writing like thunder. He wore a slouch hat. He heard my feet and that I paused at the door, and he said, but he did not turn around, —
‘Well, what can I do for you?’
‘I want a job, sir.’
‘What can you do?’
‘We don’t want you, sir!’ came the instant report from that man, who never turned to look at our Robert at the door!
One of the lovers of our old gentleman begs to know why in all these words about him there is no word of his eyes and his voice. And at this reproach we claim that we are saving them up. But in our hearts we wonder how could that man in the slouch hat not have turned to the voice at the door? For then he would have seen the eyes — and who knows? But no, there he is through all the years, never turning, and writing like thunder.
Now Robert going down the stairs is saying to himself, ‘There must be a reason! He did n’t look at. me, so it was n’t that. Or ask me other questions. There must be a reason! ’ And before he went up the next stair he thought he had light.
There, in an office full of youths addressing envelopes, Robert begs to speak to Mr. Wells. ‘How did you know his name was Wells?’ we ask the old gentleman, who says, ‘The name was on the door.’ And presently he says to Mr. Wells, —
‘I want a job, sir.’
‘What can you do?’
‘I can address envelopes,’ clips out Robert, little flashes of the new light shining through the chinks of him. And when Mr. Wells says, but that is only boy’s work, Robert answers, in the best melodramatic form, ‘All I want is to earn my bread, sir!’
And so he does: he earns his bread addressing envelopes. But oh, he has such a way with envelopes that his employer remarks it. On the very first pay-day it is remarked, and his lifestory is inquired into, and his aims are asked after, and this searching question is put: —
‘Can you live on five dollars a week? ’
‘I have to, sir,’ says Robert, with exactly the accent that you imagine you hear when you are reading these things in a book.
And then you hoar that on Monday he is to be made foreman of all those young scribes!
Do you hear that, you who write like thunder, never turning the head?
As foreman he received ten dollars a week, and there was once more money to send home. We seem not to have heard from home this long time, but that is only because the news is too sad. The old gentleman was wishing not to tell us the news, for Murdo is ill and his mother is dead. People will not be wishing to know these things, they are too sad, the old gentleman tells us; and we remark in him the beginning of a secret look and a look of warning. We have a feeling that if we pass too often this way we will come to a door marked, ‘Strictly Private,’ and with fresh paint. So we withdraw. We turn to the door marked, ‘Business Only.’ And there we come upon a figure in the grand manner — and this is My Employer!
There is this difference between My Employer and the statues of frockcoated, estimable men to be seen in parks — he has a heart. He has a most practical and lively interest in young men who go to college. He pays them exorbitant wages, and like Joseph in the car of Pharaoh, they go abroad adorned with the symbols of trust and office. In My Employer’s chariot they go abroad, and there is an Ethiopian to drive them. They collect rents. They are all day gone collecting rents, and munching on a lunch put up by the wife of My Employer. Fabulous things happen to them, both of good and of evil. To Robert himself there happened the affair of The Barber Who Would Not Pay His Rent. On a Saturday night he would not pay his rent; rather he would pay it on a Monday. And on the Monday his house was not. to be found among the houses upon Front Street. Hundreds of detached small houses there were on Front Street, all alike, and among them, neither on that Monday nor thereafter, was there found any timber of number 632, or serpent on a pole, or smell of a barber. The house, I do assure you, had vanished. The old gentleman believes that the barber took it away on wheels, thus breaking the Sabbath; but the Aladdin look of Robert, in these days of the late sixties, makes us wonder.
We had supposed that My Employer’s name was Wells, but no, his name is now Forsythe. He is a lawyer. Robert was a present from Mr. Wells to Mr. Forsythe, and there would be mention in the inventory — be sure of it — of the eyes and of the voice. And of ‘ thirty-two sound teeth; small but comely; willing; of good habits, and has a way with him. Teetotaler.’
From the day Robert receives ten dollars a week and is delivered over to My Employer, we seem to lose him. He passes and repasses us on his weighty errands in the chariot of Pharaoh, and he would salute us if he saw us, never doubt it; but all his eye is upon My Employer. When wo reproach him with this, as we cannot always forbear to do, he has his reasons. On such a day Long John Wentworth called upon My Employer, and on another day, N. B. Judd. We are to understand from the old gentleman that really nothing of importance occurred in Chicago without the let of My Employer.
‘Well, there was the fire,’ we suggest; and the old gentleman is taken back a bit. He cannot prove that My Employer either provided or prevented the fire. Having brought him to earth, we try to get news of our Robert.
‘Do tell us,’ we beg, ‘what Robert lost in the fire!’
And the old gentleman says, taken by surprise like this, — and make what you like of it, —
‘That was the summer I had met your mother.’ And then with immediate craft he amends, ‘I lost my mother’s letters.’
And many books he lost, though he saved a dictionary. And this he claims to have observed, standing at the bridge at Wells Street, over which the refugees streamed on that illuminated night, that all the men were talking and talking and talking and all the women were silent. Did you ever? And oh, yes, he remembers now that he lost in the fire a valuable stone set in a ring and given him by My Employer!
We give it up. We wait until the day when My Employer calls him to the inner office and makes him the familiar offer —the offer made by the Francie Henrys of the farm and by the eloquent uncle of the doctor’s practice. There is the august person of My Employer making the familiar proffering gesture, and Robert once more the gesture of refusal. We know we have him back again minus the chain of office and the seal-ring lost in the fire. But oh, if you hear a chinking in the pocket of Robert who has returned to us, that is a real chinking, and of more than two bawbees! For a little while there is that chinking, and it is surely an odd sound, a kind of sound of fairy gold soon to vanish by way of the post and other ways.
In those days Robert lived on the second floor of the dormitory of a theological seminary. Often he wearied of Chicago. ‘I was often homesick then,’ says the old gentleman. ‘Oh, I could have painted the heather on the hills and the very rocks among the heather!’
‘But all the time you were with your Employer you never said a word of this,’ we urge, ‘and we thought—’
‘ Because it was too sad,’ says the old gentleman, hoping we will let him off without the story of Katie. But that we could never do — and Robert with a sound of money in his pocket.
It would be on a night of the summer of '72, not a moonlight night. There were four theological students in the old half, the rest were on vacation. The old gentleman thinks that there were stars. Robert was asleep in his room above the entrance, and he woke suddenly to a cough that was his mother’s cough.
‘I thought it was my mother coughing,’ says the old gentleman, ‘and I knew it was not. I sat up in bed and I heard the cough again. Down at the outer door. I put my head out of the window and there in the starlight I saw a woman. “ Who’sthere?” I called, and she turned her face up. “It’s me, Rubie,” she said; “it’s Katie.” And it was my sister Katie.’
A bed was made for her that night in one of the empty rooms, and there that Highland girl slept after what lonely journeyings. What did they talk of, those two who had been parted now six years? The old gentleman cannot bring himself to tell us. There is not a brother left to him, and of his little sisters here is Katie looking to him for what it is now too late for him to do. She was very intelligent, he tells us, and very brave. She had need to be. She was with him six weeks, and of a day in the last of these weeks we have this account. That it was raining. And that Robert was walking up and down his room as a young man does who is making a sermon — and so he was: Robert was making a sermon to preach that very Sunday. And that Katie was not turning her head away from the window at all; she was looking out at the rain. And that she said, —
‘Robert, if I should die would you bury me here?’
And that Robert then asked her would she like to be going home now?
And that she said, ‘O Rubie, I would fine like to be going.’
And they went. At once.
This is how Robert came to go home in the summer of ’72. And on the dock in New York there came up to him a young Scot with his wife — and would Robert give her over to her mother in Greenock ? She was that homesick there was nothing else for it. And it may be three months will do it, the husband thinks.
But why did he pick on Robert? And we are reminded that the whole of them were Scotch, and it would be the white tie. At which, upon looking well at Robert, we do observe that he wears a white tie.
‘Did you go second cabin?’ we ask.
But no, because of Katie they went first cabin. And when they came to Greenock the mother of the little homesick bride came out in a boat, and the girl, except that Robert restrained her, would have gone over the side before she could get down the ladder. And when they came to their own home village of the three corners, there truly it was, and oh, but it was little and wee! All perfect it was, as remembered, but so low and under such a sky as you could lay hands upon. You could never have believed it.
And there is another boy that cannot be yourself selling tickets from your very window. The first man you meet in the street, is the blacksmith you worked for; and you are glad to see him, but he cannot remember you. He is looking at your white tie and at your young face that is too eager, with the ironic indifference of the aged.
‘Don’t you remember me?’ you ask him.
And he says, ‘I canna just seem to remember.’
Ah, well, there are two little sisters in the house; they will trouble to remember who is the young man at the door, with poor Katie come home so soon. They cook a haddock for him, remembering gleefully more than they ever knew. But when the young stranger with the white tie knocks on the door of his father’s workshop, that old man looks at him long and asks, ‘Now wha micht ye be?’
This is the work of six years, plus a white tie.
The old gentleman has little to say of his two weeks in that village. He casts about for pleasing adventures with which to enliven us. He tells us how he knocked upon a door to claim his clean linen, and there across the ironingtable was Euphemia, her skirts kilted to her knees like the Highland girl she was. ‘ You remember,’ says the old gentleman, ‘I kissed her once.’
And we remember. But surely the memory of one kiss does not make a summer, and we feel a growing bleakness in the village of three corners. We bear it as long as we can and then we say, ‘Oh, let’s go home!’
‘I was just thinking of that myself,’ says Robert; ‘but first I must go to see my old aunt in Nigg.’
When Robert went to see his old aunt in Nigg, his father went with him. And it was observed of old Winter that he talked more to that son of his, home on visit, than ever he had been known to talk to another. Aye, wherever they went together, they talked. On this day young Robert wore an overcoat. Chilly he was, most like, and his aunt, thinking as much, went to a cupboard from which she brought a brown bottle and two glasses.
‘Three, surely,’ we say; but the old gentleman remembers well that it was two. And said she, —
‘You’ll have a drop, Robert.’
Robert said, ‘Not any, thanks.’
‘Aye, lad,’ said she, ‘but you’re chilly.’
‘No, really, aunt,’ says our Robert, ‘I make it a habit not to take it.’
‘Ah, but you’ll tak this, man,’ she tells him with an obvious zest; ‘it’s smuggled!’
‘Even so, aunt, do not press me, for I have religious scruples against it.’
Oh dear, oh dear! Who could abide it! ‘Releegious scruples,is it? Aye,aye!’ and she wags her head. ‘Releegious scruples!’ And if a flash from old eyes could blast a white tie, then that tie is blasted. ‘Nay, it’s just proud you are, and not wishing to drink with your old aunt!’ She busies herself filling the glasses, flicking him with her glance and muttering about ‘releegious scruples — aye, aye!’
‘Now, John,’ she says to Robert’s father, ‘you’ll tak a drop.’ And she sits at the table. She folds her hands under her apron. John folds his old hands by his glass. The two of them look at Robert — he of the white tie — and she says in an accent, of sharpest irony, ‘Noo, Robert, you’ll ask the blessing!’
Robert asks the blessing on the whiskey he would not drink. So much for him and his religious scrupling in the very home and birthplace of that art.
‘It was not my conviction vexed her,’ explains the old gentleman, ‘but my manners. If I had never mentioned my scruples at all, but had raised the glass to her and to my father, I need only have said, “Slyanche!” — and that is the old Gaelic toast—to have taken the curse off my abstinence.’
But Robert thought of this too late. We know those words that come to mind too late and can never now be said.
Odd, is n’t it? But Robert cannot remember his second going-away. Too many have gone away before him, who are not there to see him go. He cannot remember was it afternoon or evening, or what it was. But he remembers that, when he came to sail from Greenock, there was that Scotchman’s bride at the boat, and she was just begging him to take her home with him, for home is in the West after all.
‘She cried and all,’ says the old gentleman; ‘but I remembered how her husband had said, “ three months would do it,” and here was no more than two weeks gone. So I left her.’
And she crying and all!
There was something very special about the spire of Trinity Church in those days when seen from a ship’s deck. You saw it from the Narrows, as you entered New York harbor. It was very high — the old gentleman says so. It thrust up into the bright air above the soil of America in a particular way. Robert, still sad from that little wee village of three corners and something strange and haunted there, saw this spire from the ship, and in his heart he felt a thrilling recognition and an appropriation — it was as if he took possession then of his country and of his man’s estate. Hail! he said. And oh, he said, farewell. Farewell!
But many a time since, the old gentleman has wished — I have heard him wish it — that Robert had raised his glass to his old aunt and to his father, saying, ‘Slyanche!’