In any group of men I have ever known, speaking from the point of view of character and not that of physical appearance, Peter would stand out as deliciously and irrefutably different. In the great waste of American intellectual dreariness he was an oasis, a veritable spring in the desert. He understood life. He knew men. He was free—spiritually, morally, in a thousand ways, it seemed to me.
As one drags along through this inexplicable existence one realizes how such qualities stand out; not the pseudo freedom of strong men, financially or physically, but the real, internal, spiritual freedom, where the mind, as it were, stands up and looks at itself, faces Nature unafraid, is aware of its own weaknesses, its strengths; examines its own and the creative impulses of the universe and of men with a kindly and non-dogmatic eye, in fact kicks dogma out of doors, and yet deliberately and of choice holds fast to many, many simple and human things, and rounds out life, or would, in a natural, normal, courageous, healthy way.
The first time I ever saw Peter was in St. Louis in 1892; I had come down from Chicago to work on the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and he was a part of the art department force of that paper. At that time—and he never seemed to change later even so much as a hair's worth until he died in 1908—he was short, stocky and yet quick and even jerky in his manner, with a bushy, tramp-like "get-up" of hair and beard, most swiftly and astonishingly disposed of at times only to be regrown at others, and always, and intentionally, I am sure, most amusing to contemplate. In addition to all this he had an air of well-being, force and alertness which belied the other surface characteristics as anything more than a genial pose or bit of idle gayety.
Plainly he took himself seriously and yet lightly, usually with an air of suppressed gayety, as though saying, "This whole business of living is a great joke." He always wore good and yet exceedingly mussy clothes, at times bespattered with ink or, worse yet, even soup—an amazing grotesquery that was the dismay of all who knew him, friends and relatives especially. In addition he was nearly always liberally besprinkled with tobacco dust, the source of which he used in all forms: in pipe, cigar and plug, even cigarettes when he could obtain nothing more substantial. One of the things about him which most impressed me at that time and later was this love of the ridiculous or the grotesque, in himself or others, which would not let him take anything in a dull or conventional mood, would not even permit him to appear normal at times but urged him on to all sorts of nonsense, in an effort, I suppose, to entertain himself and make life seem less commonplace.
And yet he loved life, in all its multiform and multiplex aspects and with no desire or tendency to sniff, reform or improve anything. It was good just as he found it, excellent. Life to Peter was indeed so splendid that he was always very much wrought up about it, eager to live, to study, to do a thousand things. For him it was a workshop for the artist, the thinker, as well as the mere grubber, and without really criticizing any one he was "for" the individual who is able to understand, to portray or to create life, either feelingly and artistically or with accuracy and discrimination. To him, as I saw then and see even more clearly now, there was no high and no low. All things were only relatively so. A thief was a thief, but he had his place. Ditto the murderer. Ditto the saint. Not man but Nature was planning, or at least doing, something which man could not understand, of which very likely he was a mere tool. Peter was as much thrilled and entendered by the brawling strumpet in the street or the bagnio as by the virgin with her starry crown. The rich were rich and the poor poor, but all were in the grip of imperial forces whose ruthless purposes or lack of them made all men ridiculous, pathetic or magnificent, as you choose. He pitied ignorance and necessity, and despised vanity and cruelty for cruelty's sake, and the miserly hoarding of anything. He was liberal, material, sensual and yet spiritual; and although he never had more than a little money, out of the richness and fullness of his own temperament he seemed able to generate a kind of atmosphere and texture in his daily life which was rich and warm, splendid really in thought (the true reality) if not in fact, and most grateful to all. Yet also, as I have said, always he wished to seem the clown, the scapegrace, the wanton and the loon even, mouthing idle impossibilities at times and declaring his profoundest faith in the most fantastic things.
Do I seem to rave? I am dealing with a most significant person.
In so far as I knew he was born into a mid-Western family of Irish extraction whose habitat was southwest Missouri. In the town in which he was reared there was not even a railroad until he was fairly well grown—a fact which amused but never impressed him very much. Apropos of this he once told me of a yokel who, never having seen a railroad, entered the station with his wife and children long before train time, bought his ticket and waited a while, looking out of the various windows, then finally returned to the ticket-seller and asked, "When does this thing start?" He meant the station building itself. At the time Peter had entered upon art work he had scarcely prosecuted his studies beyond, if so far as, the conventional high or grammar school, and yet he was most amazingly informed and but little interested in what any school or college had to offer. His father, curiously enough, was an educated Irish-American, a lawyer by profession, and a Catholic. His mother was an American Catholic, rather strict and narrow. His brothers and sisters, of whom there were four, were, as I learned later, astonishingly virile and interesting Americans of a rather wild, unsettled type. They were all, in so far as I could judge from chance meetings, agnostic, tense, quick-moving—so vital that they weighed on one a little, as very intense temperaments are apt to do. One of the brothers, K——, who seemed to seek me out ever so often for Peter's sake, was so intense, nervous, rapid-talking, rapid-living, that he frightened me a little. He loved noisy, garish places. He liked to play the piano, stay up very late; he was a high liver, a "good dresser," as the denizens of the Tenderloin would say, an excellent example of the flashy, clever promoter. He was always representing a new company, introducing something—a table or laxative water, a shaving soap, a chewing gum, a safety razor, a bicycle, an automobile tire or the machine itself. He was here, there, everywhere—in Waukesha, Wisconsin; San Francisco; New York; New Orleans. "My, my! This is certainly interesting!" he would exclaim, with an air which would have done credit to a comedian and extending both hands. "Peter's pet friend, Dreiser! Well, well, well! Let's have a drink. Let's have something to eat. I'm only in town for a day. Maybe you'd like to go to a show—or hit the high places? Would you? Well, well, well! Let's make a night of it! What do you say?" and he would fix me with a glistening, nervous and what was intended no doubt to be a reassuring eye, but which unsettled me as thoroughly as the imminence of an earthquake. But I was talking of Peter.
The day I first saw him he was bent over a drawing-board illustrating a snake story for one of the Sunday issues of the Globe-Democrat, which apparently delighted in regaling its readers with most astounding concoctions of this kind, and the snake he was drawing was most disturbingly vital and reptilian, beady-eyed, with distended jaws, extended tongue, most fatefully coiled.
"My," I commented in passing, for I was in to see him about another matter, "what a glorious snake!"
"Yes, you can't make 'em too snaky for the snake-editor up front," he returned, rising and dusting tobacco from his lap and shirtfront, for he was in his shirt-sleeves. Then he expectorated not in but to one side of a handsome polished brass cuspidor which contained not the least evidence of use, the rubber mat upon which it stood being instead most disturbingly "decorated." I was most impressed by this latter fact although at the time I said nothing, being too new. Later, I may as well say here, I discovered why. This was a bit of his clowning humor, a purely manufactured and as it were mechanical joke or ebullience of soul. If any one inadvertently or through unfamiliarity attempted to expectorate in his "golden cuspidor," as he described it, he was always quick to rise and interpose in the most solemn, almost sepulchral manner, at the same time raising a hand. "Hold! Out—not in—to one side, on the mat! That cost me seven dollars!" Then he would solemnly seat himself and begin to draw again. I saw him do this to all but the chiefest of the authorities of the paper. And all, even the dullest, seemed to be amused, quite fascinated by the utter trumpery folly of it.
But I am getting ahead of my tale. In so far as the snake was concerned, he was referring to the assistant who had these snake stories in charge. "The fatter and more venomous and more scaly they are," he went on, "the better. I'd like it if we could use a little color in this paper—red for eyes and tongue, and blue and green for scales. The farmers upstate would love that. They like good but poisonous snakes." Then he grinned, stood back and, cocking his head to one side in a most examining and yet approving manner, ran his hand through his hair and beard and added, "A snake can't be too vital, you know, for this paper. We have to draw 'em strong, plenty of vitality, plenty of go." He grinned most engagingly.
I could not help laughing, of course. The impertinent air! The grand, almost condescending manner!
We soon became fast friends.
In the same office in close contact with him was another person, one D—— W——, also a newspaper artist, who, while being exceedingly interesting and special in himself, still as a character never seems to have served any greater purpose in my own mind than to have illustrated how emphatic and important Peter was. He had a thin, pale, Dantesque face, coal black, almost Indian-like hair most carefully parted in the middle and oiled and slicked down at the sides and back until it looked as though it had been glued. His eyes were small and black and querulous but not mean—petted eyes they were—and the mouth had little lines at each corner which seemed to say he had endured much, much pain, which of course he had not, but which nevertheless seemed to ask for, and I suppose earned him some, sympathy. Dick in his way was an actor, a tragedian of sorts, but with an element of humor, cynicism and insight which saved him from being utterly ridiculous. Like most actors, he was a great poseur. He invariably affected the long, loose flowing tie with a soft white or blue or green or brown linen shirt (would any American imitation of the "Quartier Latin" denizen have been without one at that date?), yellow or black gloves, a round, soft crush hat, very soft and limp and very different, patent leather pumps, betimes a capecoat, a slender cane, a boutonnière—all this in hard, smoky, noisy, commercial St. Louis, full of middle-West business men and farmers!
I would not mention this particular person save that for a time he, Peter and myself were most intimately associated. We temporarily constituted in our way a "soldiers three" of the newspaper world. For some years after we were more or less definitely in touch as a group, although later Peter and myself having drifted Eastward and hob-nobbing as a pair had been finding more and more in common and had more and more come to view Dick for what he was: a character of Dickensian, or perhaps still better, Cruikshankian, proportions and qualities. But in those days the three of us were all but inseparable; eating, working, playing, all but sleeping together. I had a studio of sorts in a more or less dilapidated factory section of St. Louis (Tenth near Market; now I suppose briskly commercial), Dick had one at Broadway and Locust, directly opposite the then famous Southern Hotel. Peter lived with his family on the South Side, a most respectable and homey-home neighborhood.
It has been one of my commonest experiences, and one of the most interesting to me, to note that nearly all of my keenest experiences intellectually, my most gorgeous rapprochements and swiftest developments mentally, have been by, to, and through men, not women, although there have been several exceptions to this. Nearly every turning point in my career has been signalized by my meeting some man of great force, to whom I owe some of the most ecstatic intellectual hours of my life, hours in which life seemed to bloom forth into new aspects, glowed as with the radiance of a gorgeous tropic day.
Peter was one such. About my own age at this time, he was blessed with a natural understanding which was simply Godlike. Although, like myself, he was raised a Catholic and still pretending in a boisterous, Rabelaisian way to have some reverence for that faith, he was amusingly sympathetic to everything good, bad, indifferent—"in case there might be something in it; you never can tell." Still he hadn't the least interest in conforming to the tenets of the church and laughed at its pretensions, preferring his own theories to any other. Apparently nothing amused him so much as the thought of confession and communion, of being shrived by some stout, healthy priest as worldly as himself, and preferably Irish, like himself. At the same time he had a hearty admiration for the Germans, all their ways, conservatisms, their breweries, food and such things, and finally wound up by marrying a German girl.
As far as I could make out, Peter had no faith in anything except Nature itself, and very little in that except in those aspects of beauty and accident and reward and terrors with which it is filled and for which he had an awe if not a reverence and in every manifestation of which he took the greatest delight. Life was a delicious, brilliant mystery to him, horrible in some respects, beautiful in others; a great adventure. Unlike myself at the time, he had not the slightest trace of any lingering Puritanism, and wished to live in a lush, vigorous, healthy, free, at times almost barbaric, way. The negroes, the ancient Romans, the Egyptians, tales of the Orient and the grotesque Dark Ages, our own vile slums and evil quarters—how he reveled in these! He was for nights of wandering, endless investigation, reading, singing, dancing, playing!
Apropos of this I should like to relate here that one of his seemingly gross but really innocent diversions was occasionally visiting a certain black house of prostitution, of which there were many in St. Louis. Here while he played a flute and some one else a tambourine or small drum, he would have two or three of the inmates dance in some weird savage way that took one instanter to the wilds of Central Africa. There was, so far as I know, no payment of any kind made in connection with this. He was a friend, in some crude, artistic or barbaric way. He satisfied, I am positive, some love of color, sound and the dance in these queer revels.
Nor do I know how he achieved these friendships, such as they were. I was never with him when he did. But aside from the satiation they afforded his taste for the strange and picturesque, I am sure they reflected no gross or sensual appetite. But I wish to attest in passing that the mere witnessing of these free scenes had a tonic as well as toxic effect on me. As I view myself now, I was a poor, spindling, prying fish, anxious to know life, and yet because of my very narrow training very fearsome of it, of what it might do to me, what dreadful contagion of thought or deed it might open me to! Peter was not so. To him all, positively all, life was good. It was a fascinating spectacle, to be studied or observed and rejoiced in as a spectacle. When I look back now on the shabby, poorly-lighted, low-ceiled room to which he led me "for fun," the absolutely black or brown girls with their white teeth and shiny eyes, the unexplainable, unintelligible love of rhythm and the dance displayed, the beating of a drum, the sinuous, winding motions of the body, I am grateful to him. He released my mind, broadened my view, lengthened my perspective. For as I sat with him, watching him beat his drum or play his flute, noted the gayety, his love of color and effect, and feeling myself low, a criminal, disgraced, the while I was staring with all my sight and enjoying it intensely, I realized that I was dealing with a man who was "bigger" than I was in many respects, saner, really more wholesome. I was a moral coward, and he was not losing his life and desires through fear—which the majority of us do. He was strong, vital, unafraid, and he made me so.
But, lest I seem to make him low or impossible to those who instinctively cannot accept life beyond the range of their own little routine world, let me hasten to his other aspects. He was not low but simple, brilliant and varied in his tastes. America and its point of view, religious and otherwise, was simply amusing to him, not to be taken seriously. He loved to contemplate man at his mysteries, rituals, secret schools. He loved better yet ancient history, medieval inanities and atrocities—a most singular, curious and wonderful mind. Already at this age he knew many historians and scientists (their work), a most astonishing and illuminating list to me—Maspero, Froude, Huxley, Darwin, Wallace, Rawlinson, Froissart, Hallam, Taine, Avebury! The list of painters, sculptors and architects with whose work he was familiar and books about whom or illustrated by whom he knew, is too long to be given here. His chief interest, in so far as I could make out, in these opening days, was Egyptology and the study of things natural and primeval—all the wonders of a natural, groping, savage world.
"Dreiser," he exclaimed once with gusto, his bright beady eyes gleaming with an immense human warmth, "you haven't the slightest idea of the fascination of some of the old beliefs. Do you know the significance of a scarab in Egyptian religious worship, for instance?"
"A scarab? What's a scarab? I never heard of one," I answered.
"A beetle, of course. An Egyptian beetle. You know what a beetle is, don't you? Well, those things burrowed in the earth, the mud of the Nile, at a certain period of their season to lay their eggs, and the next spring, or whenever it was, the eggs would hatch and the beetles would come up. Then the Egyptians imagined that the beetle hadn't died at all, or if it had that it also had the power of restoring itself to life, possessed immortality. So they thought it must be a god and began to worship it," and he would pause and survey me with those amazing eyes, bright as glass beads, to see if I were properly impressed.
"You don't say!"
"Sure. That's where the worship came from," and then he might go on and add a bit about monkey-worship, the Zoroastrians and the Parsees, the sacred bull of Egypt, its sex power as a reason for its religious elevation, and of sex worship in general; the fantastic orgies at Sidon and Tyre, where enormous images of the male and female sex organs were carried aloft before the multitude.
Being totally ignorant of these matters at the time, not a rumor of them having reached me as yet in my meagre reading, I knew that it must be so. It fired me with a keen desire to read—not the old orthodox emasculated histories of the schools but those other books and pamphlets to which I fancied he must have access. Eagerly I inquired of him where, how. He told me that in some cases they were outlawed, banned or not translated wholly or fully, owing to the puritanism and religiosity of the day, but he gave me titles and authors to whom I might have access, and the address of an old book-dealer or two who could get them for me.
In addition he was interested in ethnology and geology, as well as astronomy (the outstanding phases at least), and many, many phases of applied art: pottery, rugs, pictures, engraving, wood-carving, jewel-cutting and designing, and I know not what else, yet there was always room even in his most serious studies for humor of the bizarre and eccentric type, amounting to all but an obsession. He wanted to laugh, and he found occasion for doing so under the most serious, or at least semi-serious, circumstances. Thus I recall that one of the butts of his extreme humor was this same Dick, whom he studied with the greatest care for points worthy his humorous appreciation. Dick, in addition to his genuinely lively mental interests, was a most romantic person on one side, a most puling and complaining soul on the other. As a newspaper artist I believe he was only a fairly respectable craftsman, if so much, whereas Peter was much better, although he deferred to Dick in the most persuasive manner and seemed to believe at times, though I knew he did not, that Dick represented all there was to know in matters artistic.
Among other things at this time, the latter was, or pretended to be, immensely interested in all things pertaining to the Chinese and to know not only something of their language, which he had studied a little somewhere, but also their history—a vague matter, as we all know—and the spirit and significance of their art and customs. He sometimes condescended to take us about with him to one or two Chinese restaurants of the most beggarly description, and—as he wished to believe, because of the romantic titillation involved—the hang-outs of crooks and thieves and disreputable Tenderloin characters generally. (Of such was the beginning of the Chinese restaurant in America.) He would introduce us to a few of his Celestial friends, whose acquaintance apparently he had been most assiduously cultivating for some time past and with whom he was now on the best of terms. He had, as Peter pointed out to me, the happy knack of persuading himself that there was something vastly mysterious and superior about the whole Chinese race, that there was some Chinese organization known as the Six Companions, which, so far as I could make out from him, was ruling very nearly (and secretly, of course) the entire habitable globe. For one thing it had some governing connection with great constructive ventures of one kind and another in all parts of the world, supplying, as he said, thousands of Chinese laborers to any one who desired them, anywhere, and although they were employed by others, ruling them with a rod of iron, cutting their throats when they failed to perform their bounden duties and burying them head down in a basket of rice, then transferring their remains quietly to China in coffins made in China and brought for that purpose to the country in which they were. The Chinese who had worked for the builders of the Union Pacific had been supplied by this company, as I understood from Dick. In regard to all this Peter used to analyze and dispose of Dick's self-generated romance with the greatest gusto, laughing the while and yet pretending to accept it all.
But there was one phase of all this which interested Peter immensely. Were there on sale in St. Louis any bits of jade, silks, needlework, porcelains, basketry or figurines of true Chinese origin? He was far more interested in this than in the social and economic sides of the lives of the Chinese, and was constantly urging Dick to take him here, there and everywhere in order that he might see for himself what of these amazing wonders were locally extant, leading Dick in the process a merry chase and a dog's life. Dick was compelled to persuade nearly all of his boasted friends to produce all they had to show. Once, I recall, a collection of rare Chinese porcelains being shown at the local museum of art, there was nothing for it but that Dick must get one or more of his Oriental friends to interpret this, that and the other symbol in connection with this, that and the other vase—things which put him to no end of trouble and which led to nothing, for among all the local Chinese there was not one who knew anything about it, although they, Dick included, were not honest enough to admit it.
"You know, Dreiser," Peter said to me one day with the most delicious gleam of semi-malicious, semi-tender humor, "I am really doing all this just to torture Dick. He doesn't know a damned thing about it and neither do these Chinese, but it's fun to haul 'em out there and make 'em sweat. The museum sells an illustrated monograph covering all this, you know, with pictures of the genuinely historic pieces and explanations of the various symbols in so far as they are known, but Dick doesn't know that, and he's lying awake nights trying to find out what they're all about. I like to see his expression and that of those chinks when they examine those things." He subsided with a low chuckle all the more disturbing because it was so obviously the product of well-grounded knowledge.
Another phase of this same humor related to the grand artistic, social and other forms of life to which Dick was hoping to ascend via marriage and which led him, because of a kind of anticipatory eagerness, into all sorts of exaggerations of dress, manners, speech, style in writing or drawing, and I know not what else. He had, as I have said, a "studio" in Broadway, an ordinary large, square upper chamber of an old residence turned commercial but which Dick had decorated in the most, to him, recherché or different manner possible. In Dick's gilding imagination it was packed with the rarest and most carefully selected things, odd bits of furniture, objects of art, pictures, books—things which the ordinary antique shop provides in plenty but which to Dick, having been reared in Bloomington, Illinois, were of the utmost artistic import. He had vaulting ambitions and pretensions, literary and otherwise, having by now composed various rondeaus, triolets, quatrains, sonnets, in addition to a number of short stories over which he had literally slaved and which, being rejected by many editors, were kept lying idly and inconsequentially and seemingly inconspicuously about his place—the more to astonish the poor unsophisticated "outsider." Besides it gave him the opportunity of posing as misunderstood, neglected, depressed, as becomes all great artists, poets, and thinkers.
His great scheme or dream, however, was that of marriage to an heiress, one of those very material and bovine daughters of the new rich in the West end, and to this end he was bending all his artistic thought, writing, dressing, dreaming the thing he wished. I myself had a marked tendency in this direction, although from another point of view, and speaking from mine purely, there was this difference between us: Dick being an artist, rather remote and disdainful in manner and decidedly handsome as well as poetic and better positioned than I, as I fancied, was certain to achieve this gilded and crystal state, whereas I, not being handsome nor an artist nor sufficiently poetic perhaps, could scarcely aspire to so gorgeous a goal. Often, as around dinnertime he ambled from the office arrayed in the latest mode—dark blue suit, patent leather boots, a dark, round soft felt hat, loose tie blowing idly about his neck, a thin cane in his hand—I was already almost convinced that the anticipated end was at hand, this very evening perhaps, and that I should never see him more except as the husband of a very rich girl, never be permitted even to speak to him save as an almost forgotten friend, and in passing! Even now perhaps he was on his way to her, whereas I, poor oaf that I was, was moiling here over some trucky work. Would my ship never come in? my great day never arrive? my turn? Unkind heaven!
As for Peter he was the sort of person who could swiftly detect, understand and even sympathize with a point of view of this kind the while he must laugh at it and his mind be busy with some plan of making a fol-de-rol use of it. One day he came into the city-room where I was working and bending over my desk fairly bursting with suppressed humor announced, "Gee, Dreiser, I've just thought of a delicious trick to play on Dick! Oh, Lord!" and he stopped and surveyed me with beady eyes the while his round little body seemed to fairly swell with pent-up laughter. "It's too rich! Oh, if it just works out Dick'll be sore! Wait'll I tell you," he went on. "You know how crazy he is about rich young heiresses? You know how he's always 'dressing up' and talking and writing about marrying one of those girls in the West end?" (Dick was forever composing a short story in which some lorn but perfect and great artist was thus being received via love, the story being read to us nights in his studio.) "That's all bluff, that talk of his of visiting in those big houses out there. All he does is to dress up every night as though he were going to a ball, and walk out that way and moon around. Well, listen. Here's the idea. We'll go over to Mermod & Jaccards to-morrow and get a few sheets of their best monogrammed paper, sample sheets. Then we'll get up a letter and sign it with the most romantic name we can think of—Juanita or Cyrene or Doris—and explain who she is, the daughter of a millionaire living out there, and that she's been strictly brought up but that in spite of all that she's seen his name in the paper at the bottom of his pictures and wants to meet him, see? Then we'll have her suggest that he come out to the west gate of, say, Portland Place at seven o'clock and meet her. We'll have her describe herself, see, young and beautiful, and some attractive costume she's to wear, and we'll kill him. He'll fall hard. Then we'll happen by there at the exact time when he's waiting, and detain him, urge him to come into the park with us or to dinner. We'll look our worst so he'll be ashamed of us. He'll squirm and get wild, but we'll hang on and spoil the date for him, see? We'll insist in the letter that he must be alone, see, because she's timid and afraid of being recognized. My God, he'll be crazy! He'll think we've ruined his life—oh, ho, ho!" and he fairly writhed with inward joy.
The thing worked. It was cruel in its way, but when has man ever grieved over the humorous ills of others? The paper was secured, the letter written by a friend of Peter's in a nearby real estate office, after the most careful deliberation as to wording on our part. Extreme youth, beauty and a great mansion were all hinted at. The fascination of Dick as a romantic figure was touched upon. He would know her by a green silk scarf about her waist, for it was spring, the ideal season. Seven o'clock was the hour. She could give him only a moment or two then—but later—and she gave no address!
The letter was mailed in the West end, as was meet and proper, and in due season arrived at the office. Peter, working at the next easel, observed him, as he told me, out of the corner of his eye.
"You should have seen him, Dreiser," he exclaimed, hunting me up about an hour after the letter arrived. "Oh, ho! Say, you know I believe he thinks it's the real thing. It seemed to make him a little sick. He tried to appear nonchalant, but a little later he got his hat and went out, over to Deck's," a nearby saloon, "for a drink, for I followed him. He's all fussed up. Wait'll we heave into view that night! I'm going to get myself up like a joke, a hobo. I'll disgrace him. Oh, Lord, he'll be crazy! He'll think we've ruined his life, scared her off. There's no address. He can't do a thing. Oh, ho, ho, ho!"
On the appointed day—and it was a delicious afternoon and evening, aflame with sun and in May—Dick left off his work at three p.m., as Peter came and told me, and departed, and then we went to make our toilets. At six we met, took a car and stepped down not more than a short block from the point of meeting. I shall never forget the sweetness of the air, the something of sadness in the thought of love, even in this form. The sun was singing its evensong, as were the birds. But Peter—blessings or curses upon him!—was arrayed as only he could array himself when he wished to look absolutely disconcerting—more like an unwashed, uncombed tramp who had been sleeping out for weeks, than anything else. His hair was over his eyes and ears, his face and hands dirty, his shoes ditto. He had even blackened one tooth slightly. He had on a collarless shirt, and yet he was jaunty withal and carried a cane, if you please, assuming, as he always could and in the most aggravating way, to be totally unconscious of the figure he cut. At one angle of his multiplex character the man must have been a born actor.
We waited a block away, concealed by a few trees, and at the exact hour Dick appeared, hopeful and eager no doubt, and walking and looking almost all that he hoped—delicate, pale, artistic. The new straw hat! The pale green "artists'" shirt! His black, wide-buckled belt! The cane! The dark-brown low shoes! The boutonnière! He was plainly ready for any fate, his great moment.
And then, before he could get the feeling that his admirer might not be coming, we descended upon him in all our wretched nonchalance and unworthiness—out of hell, as it were. We were most brisk, familiar, affectionate. It was so fortunate to meet him so, so accidentally and peradventure. The night was so fine. We were out for a stroll in the park, to eat afterward. He must come along.
I saw him look at Peter in that hat and no collar, and wilt. It was too much. Such a friend—such friends (for on Peter's advice I was looking as ill as I might, an easy matter)! No, he couldn't come. He was waiting for some friends. We must excuse him.
But Peter was not to be so easily shaken off. He launched into the most brisk and serious conversation. He began his badger game by asking about some work upon which Dick had been engaged before he left the office, some order, how he was getting along with it, when it would be done; and, when Dick evaded and then attempted to dismiss the subject, took up another and began to expatiate on it, some work he himself was doing, something that had developed in connection with it. He asked inane questions, complimented Dick on his looks, began to tease him about some girl. And poor Dick—his nervousness, his despair almost, the sense of the waning of his opportunity! It was cruel. He was becoming more and more restless, looking about more and more wearily and anxiously and wishing to go or for us to go. He was horribly unhappy. Finally, after ten or fifteen minutes had gone and various girls had crossed the plaza in various directions, as well as carriages and saddle-horses—each one carrying his heiress, no doubt!—he seemed to summon all his courage and did his best to dispose of us. "You two'll have to excuse me," he exclaimed almost wildly. "I can't wait." Those golden moments! She could not approach! "My people aren't coming, I guess. I'll have to be going on."
He smiled weakly and made off, Peter half following and urging him to come back. Then, since he would not, we stood there on the exact spot of the rendezvous gazing smirkily after him. Then we went into the park a few paces and sat on a bench in full view, talking—or Peter was—most volubly. He was really choking with laughter. A little later, at seven-thirty, we went cackling into the park, only to return in five minutes as though we had changed our minds and were coming out—and saw Dick bustling off at our approach. It was sad really. There was an element of the tragic in it. But not to Peter. He was all laughter, all but apoplectic gayety. "Oh, by George!" he choked. "This is too much! Oh, ho! This is great! his poor heiress! And he came back! Har! Har! Har!"
"Peter, you dog," I said, "aren't you ashamed of yourself, to rub it in this way?"
"Not a bit, not a bit!" he insisted most enthusiastically. "Do him good. Why shouldn't he suffer? He'll get over it. He's always bluffing about his heiresses. Now he's lost a real one. Har! Har! Har!" and he fairly choked, and for days and weeks and months he laughed, but he never told. He merely chortled at his desk, and if any one asked him what he was laughing about, even Dick, he would reply, "Oh, something—a joke I played on a fellow once."
If Dick ever guessed he never indicated as much. But that lost romance! That faded dream!
Not so long after this, the following winter, I left St. Louis and did not see Peter for several years, during which time I drifted through various cities to New York. We kept up a more or less desultory correspondence which resulted eventually in his contributing to a paper of which I had charge in New York, and later, in part at least I am sure, in his coming there. I noticed one thing, that although Peter had no fixed idea as to what he wished to be—being able to draw, write, engrave, carve and what not—he was in no way troubled about it. "I don't see just what it is that I am to do best," he said to me once. "It may be that I will wind up as a painter or writer or collector—I can't tell yet. I want to study, and meantime I'm making a living—that's all I want now. I want to live, and I am living, in my way."
Some men are masters of cities, or perhaps better, of all the elements which enter into the making of them, and Peter was one. I think sometimes that he was born a writer of great force and charm, only as yet he had not found himself. I have known many writers, many geniuses even, but not one his superior in intellect and romantic response to life. He was a poet, thinker, artist, philosopher and master of prose, as a posthumous volume ("Wolf, the Autobiography of a Cave Dweller") amply proves, but he was not ready then to fully express himself, and it troubled him not at all. He loved life's every facet, was gay and helpful to himself and others, and yet always with an eye for the undercurrent of human misery, error and tragedy as well as comedy. Immediately upon coming to New York he began to examine and grasp it in a large way, its museums, public buildings, geography, politics, but after a very little while decided suddenly that he did not belong there and without a by-your-leave, although once more we had fallen into each other's ways, he departed without a word, and I did not hear from him for months. Temporarily at least he felt that he had to obtain more experience in a lesser field, and lost no time in so doing. The next I knew he was connected, at a comfortable salary, with the then dominant paper of Philadelphia.
It was after he had established himself very firmly in Philadelphia that we two finally began to understand each other fully, to sympathize really with each other's point of view as opposed to the more or less gay and casual nature of our earlier friendship. Also here perhaps, more than before, we felt the binding influence of having worked together in the West. It was here that I first noticed the ease with which he took hold of a city, the many-sidedness of his peculiar character which led him to reflect so many angles of it, which a less varied temperament would never have touched upon. For, first of all, wherever he happened to be, he was intensely interested in the age and history of his city, its buildings and graveyards and tombstones which pointed to its past life, then its present physical appearance, the chief characteristics of the region in which it lay, its rivers, lakes, parks and adjacent places and spots of interest (what rambles we took!), as well as its newest and finest things architecturally. Nor did any one ever take a keener interest in the current intellectual resources of a city—any city in which he happened to be—its museums, libraries, old bookstores, newspapers, magazines, and I know not what else. It was he who first took me into Leary's bookstore in Philadelphia, descanting with his usual gusto on its merits. Then and lastly he was keenly and wisely interested in various currents of local politics, society and finance, although he always considered the first a low mess, an arrangement or adjustment of many necessary things among the lower orders. He seemed to know or sense in some occult way everything that was going on in those various realms. His mind was so full and rich that merely to be with him was a delight. He gushed like a fountain, and yet not polemically, of all he knew, heard, felt, suspected. His thoughts were so rich at times that to me they were more like a mosaic of variegated and richly colored stones and jewels. I felt always as though I were in the presence of a great personage, not one who was reserved or pompous but a loose bubbling temperament, wise beyond his years or day, and so truly great that perhaps because of the intensity and immense variety of his interests he would never shine in a world in which the most intensive specialization, and that of a purely commercial character, was the grand rôle.
And yet I always felt that perhaps he might. He attracted people of all grades so easily and warmly. His mind leaped from one interest to another almost too swiftly, and yet the average man understood and liked him. While in a way he contemned their mental states as limited or bigoted, he enjoyed the conditions under which they lived, seemed to wish to immerse himself in them. And yet nearly all his thoughts were, from their point of view perhaps, dangerous. Among his friends he was always talking freely, honestly, of things which the average man could not or would not discuss, dismissing as trash illusion, lies or the cunning work of self-seeking propagandists, most of the things currently accepted as true.
He was constantly commenting on the amazing dullness of man, his prejudices, the astonishing manner in which he seized upon and clung savagely or pathetically to the most ridiculous interpretations of life. He was also forever noting that crass chance which wrecks so many of our dreams and lives,—its fierce brutalities, its seemingly inane indifference to wondrous things,—but never in a depressed or morbid spirit; merely as a matter of the curious, as it were. But if any one chanced to contradict him he was likely to prove liquid fire. At the same time he was forever reading, reading, reading—history, archæology, ethnology, geology, travel, medicine, biography, and descanting on the wonders and idiosyncrasies of man and nature which they revealed. He was never tired of talking of the intellectual and social conditions that ruled in Greece and Rome from 600 B.C. on, the philosophies, the travels, the art, the simple, natural pagan view of things, and regretting that they were no more. He grieved at times, I think, that he had not been of that world, might not have seen it, or, failing that, might not see all the shards of those extinct civilizations. There was something loving and sad in the manner in which at times, in one museum and another, he would examine ancient art designs, those of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, their public and private house plans, their statues, book rolls, inscriptions, flambeaux, boats, swords, chariots. Carthage, Rome, Greece, Phoenicia—their colonies, art and trade stuffs, their foods, pleasures and worships—how he raved! A book like Thaïs, Salammbo, Sonica, Quo Vadis, touched him to the quick.
At the same time, and odd as it may seem, he was seemingly in intimate contact with a circle of friends that rather astonished me by its catholicity. It included, for instance, and quite naïvely, real estate dealers, clerks, a bank cashier or two, some man who had a leather shop or cigar factory in the downtown section, a drummer, a printer, two or three newspaper artists and reporters—a list too long to catalogue here and seemingly not interesting, at least not inspiring to look at or live in contact with. Yet his relations with all of these were of a warm, genial, helpful, homely character, quite intimate. He used them as one might a mulch in which to grow things, or in other words he took them on their own ground; a thing which I could never quite understand, being more or less aloof myself and yet wishing always to be able so to do, to take life, as he did.
For he desired, and secured, their good will and drew them to him. He took a simple, natural pleasure in the kinds of things they were able to do, as well as the kinds of things he could do. With these, then, and a type of girl who might not be classed above the clerk or manicure class, he and they managed to eke out a social life, the outstanding phases of which were dances, "parties," dinners at one simple home and another, flirting, boating, and fishing expeditions in season, evenings out at restaurants or the theater, and I know not what else. He could sing (a very fair baritone), play the piano, cornet, flute, banjo, mandolin and guitar, but always insisted that his favorite instruments were the jews'-harp, the French harp (mouth organ) and a comb with a piece of paper over it, against which he would blow with fierce energy, making the most outrageous sounds, until stopped. At any "party" he was always talking, jumping about, dancing, cooking something—fudge, taffy, a rarebit, and insisting in the most mock-serious manner that all the details be left strictly to him. "Now just cut out of this, all of you, and leave this to your Uncle Dudley. Who's doing this? All I want is sugar, chocolate, a pot, a big spoon, and I'll show you the best fudge you ever ate." Then he would don an apron or towel and go to work in a manner which would rob any gathering of a sense of stiffness and induce a naturalness most intriguing, calculated to enhance the general pleasure an hundredfold.
Yes, Peter woke people up. He could convey or spread a sense of ease and good nature and give and take among all. Wise as he was and not so good-looking, he was still attractive to girls, very much so, and by no means unconscious of their beauty. He could always, and easily, break down their reserve, and was soon apparently on terms of absolute friendship, exchanging all sorts of small gossip and news with them about this, that and the other person about whom they knew. Indeed he was such a general favorite and so seemingly impartial that it was hard to say how he came close to any, and yet he did. At odd tête-à-tête moments he was always making confessions as to "nights" or "afternoons." "My God, Dreiser, I've found a peach! I can't tell you—but oh, wonderful! Just what I need. This world's a healthy old place, eh? Let's have another drink, what?" and he would order a stein or a half-schoppen of light German beer and pour it down, grinning like a gargoyle.
It was while he was in Philadelphia that he told me the beginnings of the love affair which eventually ended in his marrying and settling down into the homiest of home men I have ever seen and which for sheer naïveté and charm is one of the best love stories I know anything about. It appears that he was walking in some out-of-the-way factory realm of North Philadelphia one Saturday afternoon about the first or second year of his stay there, when, playing in the street with some other children, he saw a girl of not more than thirteen or fourteen who, as he expressed it to me, "came damned near being the prettiest thing I ever saw. She had yellow hair and a short blue dress and pink bows in her hair—and say, Dreiser, when I saw her I stopped flat and said 'me for that' if I have to wait fifteen years! Dutchy—you never saw the beat! And poor! Her shoes were clogs. She couldn't even talk English yet. Neither could the other kids. They were all sausage—a regular German neighborhood.
"But, say, I watched her a while and then I went over and said, 'Come here, kid. Where do you live?' She didn't understand, and one of the other kids translated for her, and then she said, 'Ich sprech nicht English,'" and he mocked her. "That fixed her for me. One of the others finally told me who she was and where she lived—and, say, I went right home and began studying German. In three months I could make myself understood, but before that, in two weeks, I hunted up her old man and made him understand that I wanted to be friends with the family, to learn German. I went out Sundays when they were all at home. There are six children and I made friends with 'em all. For a long time I couldn't make Madchen (that's what they call her) understand what it was all about, but finally I did, and she knows now all right. And I'm crazy about her and I'm going to marry her as soon as she's old enough."
"How do you know that she'll have you?" I inquired.
"Oh, she'll have me. I always tell her I'm going to marry her when she's eighteen, and she says all right. And I really believe she does like me. I'm crazy about her."
Five years later, if I may anticipate a bit, after he had moved to Newark and placed himself rather well in the journalistic field and was able to carry out his plans in regard to himself, he suddenly returned to Philadelphia and married, preparing beforehand an apartment which he fancied would please her. It was a fortunate marriage in so far as love and home pleasures were concerned. I never encountered a more delightful atmosphere.
All along in writing this I feel as though I were giving but the thinnest portrait of Peter; he was so full and varied in his moods and interests. To me he illustrated the joy that exists, on the one hand, in the common, the so-called homely and what some might think ugly side of life, certainly the very simple and ordinarily human aspect of things; on the other, in the sheer comfort and satisfaction that might be taken in things truly intellectual and artistic, but to which no great expense attached—old books, prints, things connected with history and science in their various forms, skill in matters relating to the applied arts and what not, such as the coloring and firing of pottery and glass, the making of baskets, hammocks and rugs, the carving of wood, the collection and imitation of Japanese and Chinese prints, the art of embalming as applied by the Egyptians (which, in connection with an undertaker to whom he had attached himself, he attempted to revive or at least play with, testing his skill for instance by embalming a dead cat or two after the Egyptian manner). In all of these lines he trained himself after a fashion and worked with skill, although invariably he insisted that he was little more than a bungler, a poor follower after the art of some one else. But most of all, at this time and later, he was interested in collecting things Japanese and Chinese: netsukes, inros, censors, images of jade and porcelain, teajars, vases, prints; and it was while he was in Philadelphia and seemingly trifling about with the group I have mentioned and making love to his little German girl that he was running here and there to this museum and that and laying the foundations of some of those interesting collections which later he was fond of showing his friends or interested collectors. By the time he had reached Newark, as chief cartoonist of the leading paper there, he was in possession of a complete Tokaido (the forty views on the road between Tokio and Kyoto), various prints by Hokusai, Sesshiu, Sojo; a collection of one hundred inros, all of fifty netsukes, all of thirty censers, lacquered boxes and teajars, and various other exceedingly beautiful and valuable things—Mandarin skirts and coats, among other things—which subsequently he sold or traded around among one collector friend and another for things which they had. I recall his selling his completed Tokaido, a labor which had extended over four years, for over a thousand dollars. Just before he died he was trading netsukes for inros and getting ready to sell all these latter to a man, who in turn was going to sell his collection to a museum.
But in between was this other, this ultra-human side, which ran to such commonplaces as bowling, tennis-playing, golf, billiards, cards and gambling with the dice—a thing which always struck me as having an odd turn to it in connection with Peter, since he could be interested in so many other things, and yet he pursued these commonplaces with as much gusto at times as one possessed of a mania. At others he seemed not to miss or think of them. Indeed, you could be sure of him and all his interests, whatever they were, feeling that he had himself well in hand, knew exactly how far he was going, and that when the time came he could and would stop. Yet during the process of his momentary relaxation or satiation, in whatever field it might be, he would give you a sense of abandon, even ungovernable appetite, which to one who had not known him long might have indicated a mania.
Thus I remember once running over to Philadelphia to spend a Saturday and Sunday with him, visits of this kind, in either direction, being of the commonest occurrence. At that time he was living in some quiet-looking boarding-house in South Fourth Street, but in which dwelt or visited the group above-mentioned, and whenever I came there, at least, there was always an atmosphere of intense gaming or playing in some form, which conveyed to me nothing so much as a glorious sense of life and pleasure. A dozen or more men might be seated at or standing about a poker or dice table, in summer (often in winter) with their coats off, their sleeves rolled up, Peter always conspicuous among them. On the table or to one side would be money, a pitcher or a tin pail of beer, boxes of cigarettes or cigars, and there would be Peter among the players, flushed with excitement, his collar off, his hair awry, his little figure stirring about here and there or gesticulating or lighting a cigar or pouring down a glass of beer, shouting at the top of his voice, his eyes aglow, "That's mine!" "I say it's not!" "Two on the sixes!" "Three!" "Four!" "Ah, roll the bones! Roll the bones!" "Get off! Get off! Come on now, Spikes—cough up! You've got the money now. Pay back. No more loans if you don't." "Once on the fours—the fives—the aces!" "Roll the bones! Roll the bones! Come on!" Or, if he saw me, softening and saying, "Gee, Dreiser, I'm ahead twenty-eight so far!" or "I've lost thirty all told. I'll stick this out, though, to win or lose five more, and then I'll quit. I give notice, you fellows, five more, one way or the other, and then I'm through. See? Say, these damned sharks are always trying to turn a trick. And when they lose they don't want to pay. I'm offa this for life unless I get a better deal."
In the room there might be three or four girls—sisters, sweethearts, pals of one or other of the players—some dancing, some playing the piano or singing, and in addition the landlord and his wife, a slattern pair usually, about whose past and present lives Peter seemed always to know much. He had seduced them all apparently into a kind of rakish camaraderie which was literally amazing to behold. It thrilled, fascinated, at times frightened me, so thin and inadequate and inefficient seemed my own point of view and appetite for life. He was vigorous, charitable, pagan, gay, full of health and strength. He would play at something, anything, indoors or out as occasion offered, until he was fairly perspiring, when, throwing down whatever implement he had in hand—be it cards, a tennis-racket, a golf club—would declare, "That's enough! That's enough! I'm done now. I've licked-cha," or "I'm licked. No more. Not another round. Come on, Dreiser, I know just the place for us—" and then descanting on a steak or fish planked, or some new method of serving corn or sweet potatoes or tomatoes, he would lead the way somewhere to a favorite "rat's killer," as he used to say, or grill or Chinese den, and order enough for four or five, unless stopped. As he walked, and he always preferred to walk, the latest political row or scandal, the latest discovery, tragedy or art topic would get his keen attention. In his presence the whole world used to look different to me, more colorful, more hopeful, more gay. Doors seemed to open; in imagination I saw the interiors of a thousand realms—homes, factories, laboratories, dens, resorts of pleasure. During his day such figures as McKinley, Roosevelt, Hanna, Rockefeller, Rogers, Morgan, Peary, Harriman were abroad and active, and their mental states and points of view and interests—and sincerities and insincerities—were the subject of his wholly brilliant analysis. He rather admired the clever opportunist, I think, so long as he was not mean in view or petty, yet he scorned and even despised the commercial viewpoint or trade reactions of a man like McKinley. Rulers ought to be above mere commercialism. Once when I asked him why he disliked McKinley so much he replied laconically, "The voice is the voice of McKinley, but the hands—are the hands of Hanna." Roosevelt seemed to amuse him always, to be a delightful if ridiculous and self-interested "grandstander," as he always said, "always looking out for Teddy, you bet," but good for the country, inspiring it with visions. Rockefeller was wholly admirable as a force driving the country on to autocracy, oligarchy, possibly revolution. Ditto Hanna, ditto Morgan, ditto Harriman, ditto Rogers, unless checked. Peary might have, and again might not have, discovered the North Pole. He refused to judge. Old "Doc" Cook, the pseudo discoverer, who appeared very shortly before he died, only drew forth chuckles of delight. "My God, the gall, the nerve! And that wreath of roses the Danes put around his neck! It's colossal, Dreiser. It's grand. Munchausen, Cook, Gulliver, Marco Polo—they'll live forever, or ought to!"
Some Saturday afternoons or Sundays, if he came to me or I to him in time, we indulged in long idle rambles, anywhere, either going first by streetcar, boat or train somewhere and then walking, or, if the mood was not so, just walking on and on somewhere and talking. On such occasions Peter was at his best and I could have listened forever, quite as the disciples of Plato and Aristotle must have to them, to his discourses on life, his broad and broadening conceptions of Nature—her cruelty, beauty, mystery. Once, far out somewhere beyond Camden, we were idling about an inlet where were boats and some fishermen and a trestle which crossed it. Just as we were crossing it some men in a boat below discovered the body of a possible suicide, in the water, days old and discolored, but still intact and with the clothes of a man of at least middle-class means. I was for leaving, being made a little sick by the mere sight. Not so Peter. He was for joining in the effort which brought the body to shore, and in a moment was back with the small group of watermen, speculating and arguing as to the condition and character of the dead man, making himself really one of the group. Finally he was urging the men to search the pockets while some one went for the police. But more than anything, with a hard and yet in its way humane realism which put any courage of mine in that direction to the blush, he was all for meditating on the state and nature of man, his chemical components—chlorine, sulphuric acid, phosphoric acid, potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, oxygen—and speculating as to which particular chemicals in combination gave the strange metallic blues, greens, yellows and browns to the decaying flesh! He had a great stomach for life. The fact that insects were at work shocked him not at all. He speculated as to these, their duties and functions! He asserted boldly that man was merely a chemical formula at best, that something much wiser than he had prepared him, for some not very brilliant purpose of his or its own perhaps, and that he or it, whoever or whatever he or it was, was neither good nor bad, as we imagined such things, but both. He at once went off into the mysteries—where, when with me at least, he seemed to prefer to dwell—talked of the divinations of the Chaldeans, how they studied the positions of the stars and the entrails of dead animals before going to war, talked of the horrible fetiches of the Africans, the tricks and speculations of the priests of Greek and Roman temples, finally telling me the story of the ambitious eel-seller who anchored the dead horse in the stream in order to have plenty of eels every morning for market. I revolted. I declared he was sickening.
"My boy," he assured me, "you are too thin-skinned. You can't take life that way. It's all good to me, whatever happens. We're here. We're not running it. Why be afraid to look at it? The chemistry of a man's body isn't any worse than the chemistry of anything else, and we're eating the dead things we've killed all the time. A little more or a little less in any direction—what difference?"
Apropos of this same a little later—to shock me, of course, as he well knew he could—he assured me that in eating a dish of chop suey in a Chinese restaurant, a very low one, he had found and eaten a part of the little finger of a child, and that "it was very good—very good, indeed."
"Dog!" I protested. "Swine! Thou ghoula!" but he merely chuckled heartily and stuck to his tale!
But if I paint this side of him it is to round out his wonderful, to me almost incredible, figure. Insisting on such things, he was still and always warm and human, sympathetic, diplomatic and cautious, according to his company, so that he was really acceptable anywhere. Peter would never shock those who did not want to be shocked. A minute or two or five after such a discourse as the above he might be describing some marvelously beautiful process of pollination among the flowers, the history of some medieval trade guild or gazing at a beautiful scene and conveying to one by his very attitude his unspoken emotion.
After spending about two or three years in Philadelphia—which city came to reflect for me the color of Peter's interests and mood—he suddenly removed to Newark, having been nursing an arrangement with its principal paper for some time. Some quarrel or dissatisfaction with the director of his department caused him, without other notice, to paste some crisp quotation from one of the poets on his desk and depart! In Newark, a city to which before this I had paid not the slightest attention, he found himself most happy; and I, living in New York close at hand, felt that I possessed in it and him an earthly paradise. Although it contained no more than 300,000 people and seemed, or had, a drear factory realm only, he soon revealed it to me in quite another light, because he was there. Very swiftly he found a wondrous canal running right through it, under its market even, and we went walking along its banks, out into the woods and fields. He found or created out of an existing boardinghouse in a back street so colorful and gay a thing that after a time it seemed to me to outdo that one of Philadelphia. He joined a country club near Passaic, on the river of that name, on the veranda of which we often dined. He found a Chinese quarter with a restaurant or two; an amazing Italian section with a restaurant; a man who had a $40,000 collection of rare Japanese and Chinese curios, all in his rooms at the Essex County Insane Asylum, for he was the chemist there; a man who was a playwright and manager in New York; another who owned a newspaper syndicate; another who directed a singing society; another who was president of a gun club; another who owned and made or rather fired pottery for others. Peter was so restless and vital that he was always branching out in a new direction. To my astonishment he now took up the making and firing of pottery for himself, being interested in reproducing various Chinese dishes and vases of great beauty, the originals of which were in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His plan was first to copy the design, then buy, shape or bake the clay at some pottery, then paint or decorate with liquid porcelain at his own home, and fire. In the course of six or eight months, working in his rooms Saturdays and Sundays and some mornings before going to the office, he managed to produce three or four which satisfied him and which he kept plates of real beauty. The others he gave away.
A little later, if you please, it was Turkish rug-making on a small scale, the frame and materials for which he slowly accumulated, and then providing himself with a pillow, Turkish-fashion, he crossed his legs before it and began slowly but surely to produce a rug, the colors and design of which were entirely satisfactory to me. As may be imagined, it was slow and tedious work, undertaken at odd moments and when there was nothing else for him to do, always when the light was good and never at night, for he maintained that the coloring required the best of light. Before this odd, homely, wooden machine, a combination of unpainted rods and cords, he would sit, cross-legged or on a bench at times, and pound and pick and tie and unravel—a most wearisome-looking task to me.
"For heaven's sake," I once observed, "couldn't you think of anything more interestingly insane to do than this? It's the slowest, most painstaking work I ever saw."
"That's just it, and that's just why I like it," he replied, never looking at me but proceeding with his weaving in the most industrious fashion. "You have just one outstanding fault, Dreiser. You don't know how to make anything out of the little things of life. You want to remember that this is an art, not a job. I'm discovering whether I can make a Turkish carpet or not, and it gives me pleasure. If I can get so much as one good spot of color worked out, one small portion of the design, I'll be satisfied. I'll know then that I can do it, the whole thing, don't you see? Some of these things have been the work of a lifetime of one man. You call that a small thing? I don't. The pleasure is in doing it, proving that you can, not in the rug itself." He clacked and tied, congratulating himself vastly. In due course of time three or four inches were finished, a soft and yet firm silky fabric, and he was in great glee over it, showing it to all and insisting that in time (how long? I often wondered) he would complete it and would then own a splendid carpet.
It was at this time that he built about him in Newark a structure of friendships and interests which, it seemed to me, promised to be for life. He interested himself intensely in the paper with which he was connected and although he was only the cartoonist, still it was not long before various departments and elements in connection with it seemed to reflect his presence and to be alive with his own good will and enthusiasm. Publisher, editor, art director, managing editor and business manager, were all in friendly contact with him. He took out life insurance for the benefit of the wife and children he was later to have! With the manager of the engraving department he was working out problems in connection with copperplate engraving and printing; with the official photographer, art photography; with the art director, some scheme for enlarging the local museum in some way. With his enduring love of the fantastic and ridiculous it was not long before he had successfully planned and executed a hoax of the most ridiculous character, a piece of idle drollery almost too foolish to think of, and yet which eventually succeeded in exciting the natives of at least four States and was telegraphed to and talked about in a Sunday feature way, by newspapers all over the country, and finally involved Peter as an actor and stage manager of the most vivid type imaginable. And yet it was all done really to amuse himself, to see if he could do it, as he often told me.
This particular hoax related to that silly old bugaboo of our boyhood days, the escaped and wandering wild man, ferocious, blood-loving, terrible. I knew nothing of it until Peter, one Sunday afternoon when we were off for a walk a year or two after he had arrived in Newark, suddenly announced apropos of nothing at all, "Dreiser, I've just hit upon a great idea which I am working out with some of the boys down on our paper. It's a dusty old fake, but it will do as well as any other, better than if it were a really decent idea. I'm inventing a wild man. You know how crazy the average dub is over anything strange, different,'terrible.' Barnum was right, you know. There's one born every minute. Well, I'm just getting this thing up now. It's as good as the sacred white elephant or the blood-sweating hippopotamus. And what's more, I'm going to stage it right here in little old Newark—and they'll all fall for it, and don't you think they won't," and he chuckled most ecstatically.
"For heaven's sake, what's coming now?" I sighed.
"Oh, very well. But I have it all worked out just the same. We're beginning to run the preliminary telegrams every three or four days—one from Ramblersville, South Jersey, let us say, another from Hohokus, twenty-five miles farther on, four or five days later. By degrees as spring comes on I'll bring him north—right up here into Essex County—a genuine wild man, see, something fierce and terrible. We're giving him long hair like a bison, red eyes, fangs, big hands and feet. He's entirely naked—or will be when he gets here. He's eight feet tall. He kills and eats horses, dogs, cattle, pigs, chickens. He frightens men and women and children. I'm having him bound across lonely roads, look in windows at night, stampede cattle and drive tramps and peddlers out of the country. But say, wait and see. As summer comes on we'll make a regular headliner of it. We'll give it pages on Sunday. We'll get the rubes to looking for him in posses, offer rewards. Maybe some one will actually capture and bring in some poor lunatic, a real wild man. You can do anything if you just stir up the natives enough."
I laughed. "You're crazy," I said. "What a low comedian you really are, Peter!"
Well, the weeks passed, and to mark progress he occasionally sent me clippings of telegrams, cut not from his pages, if you please, but from such austere journals as the Sun and World of New York, the North American of Philadelphia, the Courant of Hartford, recording the antics of his imaginary thing of the woods. Longish articles actually began to appear here and there, in Eastern papers especially, describing the exploits of this very elusive and moving demon. He had been seen in a dozen fairly widely distributed places within the month, but always coming northward. In one place he had killed three cows at once, in another two, and eaten portions of them raw! Old Mrs. Gorswitch of Dutchers Run, Pennsylvania, returning from a visit to her daughter-in-law, Annie A. Gorswitch, and ambling along a lonely road in Osgoroola County, was suddenly descended upon by a most horrific figure, half man, half beast, very tall and with long hair and red, all but bloody eyes who, looking at her with avid glance, made as if to seize her, but a wagon approaching along the road from another direction, he had desisted and fled, leaving old Mrs. Gorswitch in a faint upon the ground. Barns and haystacks had been fired here and there, lonely widows in distant cotes been made to abandon their homes through fear… . I marveled at the assiduity and patience of the man.
One day in June or July following, being in Newark and asking Peter quite idly about his wild man, he replied, "Oh, it's great, great! Couldn't be better! He'll soon be here now. We've got the whole thing arranged now for next Sunday or Saturday—depends on which day I can get off. We're going to photograph him. Wanto come over?"
"What rot!" I said. "Who's going to pose? Where?"
"Well," he chuckled, "come along and see. You'll find out fast enough. We've got an actual wild man. I got him. I'll have him out here in the woods. If you don't believe it, come over. You wouldn't believe me when I said I could get the natives worked up. Well, they are. Look at these," and he produced clippings from rival papers. The wild man was actually being seen in Essex County, not twenty-five miles from Newark. He had ravaged the property of people in five different States. It was assumed that he was a lunatic turned savage, or that he had escaped from a circus or trading-ship wrecked on the Jersey coast (suggestions made by Peter himself). His depredations, all told, had by now run into thousands, speaking financially. Staid residents were excited. Rewards for his capture were being offered in different places. Posses of irate citizens were, and would continue to be, after him, armed to the teeth, until he was captured. Quite remarkable developments might be expected at any time … I stared. It seemed too ridiculous, and it was, and back of it all was smirking, chuckling Peter, the center and fountain of it!
"You dog!" I protested. "You clown!" He merely grinned.
Not to miss so interesting a dénouement as the actual capture of this prodigy of the wilds, I was up early and off the following Sunday to Newark, where in Peter's apartment in due time I found him, his rooms in a turmoil, he himself busy stuffing things into a bag, outside an automobile waiting and within it the staff photographer as well as several others, all grinning, and all of whom, as he informed me, were to assist in the great work of tracking, ambushing and, if possible, photographing the dread peril.
"Yes, well, who's going to be him?" I insisted.
"Never mind! Never mind! Don't be so inquisitive," chortled Peter. "A wild man has his rights and privileges, as well as any other. Remember, I caution all of you to be respectful in his presence. He's very sensitive, and he doesn't like newspapermen anyhow. He'll be photographed, and he'll be wild. That's all you need to know."
In due time we arrived at as comfortable an abode for a wild man as well might be. It was near the old Essex and Morris Canal, not far from Boonton. A charming clump of brush and rock was selected, and here a snapshot of a posse hunting, men peering cautiously from behind trees in groups and looking as though they were most eager to discover something, was made. Then Peter, slipping away—I suddenly saw him ambling toward us, hair upstanding, body smeared with black muck, daubs of white about the eyes, little tufts of wool about wrists and ankles and loins—as good a figure of a wild man as one might wish, only not eight feet tall.
"Peter!" I said. "How ridiculous! You loon!"
"Have a care how you address me," he replied with solemn dignity. "A wild man is a wild man. Our punctilio is not to be trifled with. I am of the oldest, the most famous line of wild men extant. Touch me not." He strode the grass with the air of a popular movie star, while he discussed with the art director and photographer the most terrifying and convincing attitudes of a wild man seen by accident and unconscious of his pursuers.
"But you're not eight feet tall!" I interjected at one point.
"A small matter. A small matter," he replied airily. "I will be in the picture. Nothing easier. We wild men, you know—"
Some of the views were excellent, most striking. He leered most terribly from arras of leaves or indicated fright or cunning. The man was a good actor. For years I retained and may still have somewhere a full set of the pictures as well as the double-page spread which followed the next week.
Well, the thing was appropriately discussed, as it should have been, but the wild man got away, as was feared. He went into the nearby canal and washed away all his terror, or rather he vanished into the dim recesses of Peter's memory. He was only heard of a few times more in the papers, his supposed body being found in some town in northeast Pennsylvania—or in the small item that was "telegraphed" from there. As for Peter, he emerged from the canal, or from its banks, a cleaner if not a better man. He was grinning, combing his hair, adjusting his tie.
"What a scamp!" I insisted lovingly. "What an incorrigible trickster!"
"Dreiser, Dreiser," he chortled, "there's nothing like it. You should not scoff. I am a public benefactor. I am really a creator. I have created a being as distinct as any that ever lived. He is in many minds—mine, yours. You know that you believe in him really. There he was peeking out from between those bushes only fifteen minutes ago. And he has made, and will make, thousands of people happy, thrill them, give them a new interest. If Stevenson can create a Jekyll and Hyde, why can't I create a wild man? I have. We have his picture to prove it. What more do you wish?"
I acquiesced. All told, it was a delightful bit of foolery and art, and Peter was what he was first and foremost, an artist in the grotesque and the ridiculous.
For some time thereafter peace seemed to reign in his mind, only now it was that the marriage and home and children idea began to grow. From much of the foregoing it may have been assumed that Peter was out of sympathy with the ordinary routine of life, despised the commonplace, the purely practical. As a matter of fact it was just the other way about. I never knew a man so radical in some of his viewpoints, so versatile and yet so wholly, intentionally and cravingly, immersed in the usual as Peter. He was all for creating, developing, brightening life along simple rather than outré lines, in so far as he himself was concerned. Nearly all of his arts and pleasures were decorative and homey. A good grocer, a good barber, a good saloon-keeper, a good tailor, a shoe maker, was just as interesting in his way to Peter as any one or anything else, if not a little more so. He respected their lines, their arts, their professions, and above all, where they had it, their industry, sobriety and desire for fair dealing. He believed that millions of men, especially those about him were doing the best they could under the very severe conditions which life offered. He objected to the idle, the too dull the swindlers and thieves as well as the officiously puritanic or dogmatic. He resented, for himself at least, solemn pomp and show. Little houses, little gardens, little porches, simple cleanly neighborhoods with their air of routine, industry, convention and order, fascinated him as apparently nothing else could. He insisted that they were enough. A man did not need a great house unless he was a public character with official duties.
"Dreiser," he would say in Philadelphia and Newark, if not before, "it's in just such a neighborhood as this that some day I'm going to live. I'm going to have my little frau, my seven children, my chickens, dog, cat, canary, best German style, my garden, my birdbox, my pipe; and Sundays, by God, I'll march 'em all off to church, wife and seven kids, as regular as clockwork, shined shoes, pigtails and all, and I'll lead the procession."
"Yes, yes," I said. "You talk."
"Well, wait and see. Nothing in this world means so much to me as the good old orderly home stuff. One ought to live and die in a family. It's the right way. I'm cutting up now, sowing my wild oats, but that's nothing. I'm just getting ready to eventually settle down and live, just as I tell you, and be an ideal orderly citizen. It's the only way. It's the way nature intends us to do. All this early kid stuff is passing, a sorting-out process. We get over it. Every fellow does, or ought to be able to, if he's worth anything, find some one woman that he can live with and stick by her. That makes the world that you and I like to live in, and you know it. There's a psychic call in all of us to it, I think. It's the genius of our civilization, to marry one woman and settle down. And when I do, no more of this all-night stuff with this, that and the other lady. I'll be a model husband and father, sure as you're standing there. Don't you think I won't. Smile if you want to—it's so. I'll have my garden. I'll be friendly with my neighbors. You can come over then and help us put the kids to bed."
"Oh, Lord! This is a new bug now! We'll have the vine-covered cot idea for a while, anyhow."
"Oh, all right. Scoff if you want to. You'll see."
Time went by. He was doing all the things I have indicated, living in a kind of whirl of life. At the same time, from time to time, he would come back to this thought. Once, it is true, I thought it was all over with the little yellow-haired girl in Philadelphia. He talked of her occasionally, but less and less. Out on the golf links near Passaic he met another girl, one of a group that flourished there. I met her. She was not unpleasing, a bit sensuous, rather attractive in dress and manners, not very well informed, but gay, clever, up-to-date; such a girl as would pass among other women as fairly satisfactory.
For a time Peter seemed greatly attracted to her. She danced, played a little, was fair at golf and tennis, and she was, or pretended to be, intensely interested in him. He confessed at last that he believed he was in love with her.
"So it's all day with Philadelphia, is it?" I asked.
"It's a shame," he replied, "but I'm afraid so. I'm having a hell of a time with myself, my alleged conscience, I tell you."
I heard little more about it. He had a fad for collecting rings at this time, a whole casket full, like a Hindu prince, and he told me once he was giving her her choice of them.
Suddenly he announced that it was "all off" and that he was going to marry the maid of Philadelphia. He had thrown the solitaire engagement ring he had given her down a sewer! At first he would confess nothing as to the reason or the details, but being so close to me it eventually came out. Apparently, to the others as to myself, he had talked much of his simple home plans, his future children—the good citizen idea. He had talked it to his new love also, and she had sympathized and agreed. Yet one day, after he had endowed her with the engagement ring, some one, a member of the golf club, came and revealed a tale. The girl was not "straight." She had been, mayhap was even then, "intimate" with other men—one anyhow. She was in love with Peter well enough, as she insisted afterward, and willing to undertake the life he suggested, but she had not broken with the old atmosphere completely, or if she had it was still not believed that she had. There were those who could not only charge, but prove. A compromising note of some kind sent to some one was involved, turned over to Peter.
"Dreiser," he growled as he related the case to me, "it serves me right. I ought to know better. I know the kind of woman I need. This one has handed me a damned good wallop, and I deserve it. I might have guessed that she wasn't suited to me. She was really too free—a life-lover more than a wife. That home stuff! She was just stringing me because she liked me. She isn't really my sort, not simple enough."
"But you loved her, I thought?"
"I did, or thought I did. Still, I used to wonder too. There were many ways about her that troubled me. You think I'm kidding about this home and family idea, but I'm not. It suits me, however flat it looks to you. I want to do that, live that way, go through the normal routine experience, and I'm going to do it."
"But how did you break it off with her so swiftly?" I asked curiously.
"Well, when I heard this I went direct to her and put it up to her. If you'll believe me she never even denied it. Said it was all true, but that she was in love with me all right, and would change and be all that I wanted her to be."
"Well, that's fair enough," I said, "if she loves you. You're no saint yourself, you know. If you'd encourage her, maybe she'd make good."
"Well, maybe, but I don't think so really," he returned, shaking his head. "She likes me, but not enough, I'm afraid. She wouldn't run straight, now that she's had this other. She'd mean to maybe, but she wouldn't. I feel it about her. And anyhow I don't want to take any chances. I like her—I'm crazy about her really, but I'm through. I'm going to marry little Dutchy if she'll have me, and cut out this old-line stuff. You'll have to stand up with me when I do."
In three months more the new arrangement was consummated and little Dutchy—or Zuleika, as he subsequently named her—was duly brought to Newark and installed, at first in a charming apartment in a conventionally respectable and cleanly neighborhood, later in a small house with a "yard," lawn front and back, in one of the homiest of home neighborhoods in Newark. It was positively entertaining to observe Peter not only attempting to assume but assuming the rôle of the conventional husband, and exactly nine months after he had been married, to the hour, a father in this humble and yet, in so far as his particular home was concerned, comfortable world. I have no space here for more than the barest outline. I have already indicated his views, most emphatically expressed and forecasted. He fulfilled them all to the letter, up to the day of his death. In so far as I could make out, he made about as satisfactory a husband and father and citizen as I have ever seen. He did it deliberately, in cold reason, and yet with a warmth and flare which puzzled me all the more since it was based on reason and forethought. I misdoubted. I was not quite willing to believe that it would work out, and yet if ever a home was delightful, with a charming and genuinely "happy" atmosphere, it was Peter's.
"Here she is," he observed the day he married her, "me frau—Zuleika. Isn't she a peach? Ever see any nicer hair than that? And these here, now, pink cheeks? What? Look at 'em! And her little Dutchy nose! Isn't it cute? Oh, Dutchy! And right here in me vest pocket is the golden band wherewith I am to be chained to the floor, the domestic hearth. And right there on her finger is my badge of prospective serfdom." Then, in a loud aside to me, "In six months I'll be beating her. Come now, Zuleika. We have to go through with this. You have to swear to be my slave."
And so they were married.
And in the home afterward he was as busy and helpful and noisy as any man about the house could ever hope to be. He was always fussing about after hours "putting up" something or arranging his collections or helping Zuleika wash and dry the dishes, or showing her how to cook something if she didn't know how. He was running to the store or bringing home things from the downtown market. Months before the first child was born he was declaring most shamelessly, "In a few months now, Dreiser, Zuleika and I are going to have our first calf. The bones roll for a boy, but you never can tell. I'm offering up prayers and oblations—both of us are. I make Zuleika pray every night. And say, when it comes, no spoiling-the-kid stuff. No bawling or rocking it to sleep nights permitted. Here's one kid that's going to be raised right. I've worked out all the rules. No trashy baby-foods. Good old specially brewed Culmbacher for the mother, and the kid afterwards if it wants it. This is one family in which law and order are going to prevail—good old 'dichtig, wichtig' law and order."
I used to chuckle the while I verbally denounced him for his coarse, plebeian point of view and tastes.
In a little while the child came, and to his immense satisfaction it was a boy. I never saw a man "carry on" so, make over it, take such a whole-souled interest in all those little things which supposedly made for its health and well-being. For the first few weeks he still talked of not having it petted or spoiled, but at the same time he was surely and swiftly changing, and by the end of that time had become the most doting, almost ridiculously fond papa that I ever saw. Always the child must be in his lap at the most unseemly hours, when his wife would permit it. When he went anywhere, or they, although they kept a maid the child must be carried along by him on his shoulder. He liked nothing better than to sit and hold it close, rocking in a rocking-chair American style and singing, or come tramping into my home in New York, the child looking like a woolen ball. At night if it stirred or whimpered he was up and looking. And the baby-clothes!—and the cradle!—and the toys!—colored rubber balls and soldiers the first or second or third week!
"What about that stern discipline that was to be put in force here—no rocking, no getting up at night to coddle a weeping infant?"
"Yes, I know. That's all good stuff before you get one. I've got one of my own now, and I've got a new light on this. Say, Dreiser, take my advice. Go through the routine. Don't try to escape. Have a kid or two or three. There's a psychic punch to it you can't get any other way. It's nature's way. It's a great scheme. You and your girl and your kid."
As he talked he rocked, holding the baby boy to his breast. It was wonderful.
And Mrs. Peter—how happy she seemed. There was light in that house, flowers, laughter, good fellowship. As in his old rooms so in this new home he gathered a few of his old friends around him and some new ones, friends of this region. In the course of a year or two he was on the very best terms of friendship with his barber around the corner, his grocer, some man who had a saloon and bowling alley in the neighborhood, his tailor, and then just neighbors. The milkman, the coal man, the druggist and cigar man at the next corner—all could tell you where Peter lived. His little front "yard" had two beds of flowers all summer long, his lot in the back was a garden—lettuce, onions, peas, beans. Peter was always happiest when he could be home working, playing with the baby, pushing him about in a go-cart, working in his garden, or lying on the floor making something—an engraving or print or a box which he was carving, the infant in some simple gingham romper crawling about. He was always busy, but never too much so for a glance or a mock-threatening, "Now say, not so much industry there. You leave my things alone," to the child. Of a Sunday he sat out on the front porch smoking, reading the Sunday paper, congratulating himself on his happy married life, and most of the time holding the infant. Afternoons he would carry it somewhere, anywhere, in his arms to his friends, the Park, New York, to see me. At breakfast, dinner, supper the heir presumptive was in a high-chair beside him.
"Ah, now, here's a rubber spoon. Beat with that. It's less destructive and less painful physically."
"How about a nice prust" (crust) "dipped in bravery" (gravy) "—heh? Do you suppose that would cut any of your teeth?"
"Zuleika, this son of yours seems to think a spoonful of beer or two might not hurt him. What do you say?"
Occasionally, especially of a Saturday evening, he wanted to go bowling and yet he wanted his heir. The problem was solved by fitting the latter into a tight little sweater and cap and carrying him along on his shoulder, into the bar for a beer, thence to the bowling alley, where young hopeful was fastened into a chair on the side lines while Peter and myself or some of his friends bowled. At ten or ten-thirty or eleven, as the case might be, he was ready to leave, but before that hour les ongfong might be sound asleep, hanging against Peter's scarf, his interest in his toes or thumbs having given out.
"Peter, look at that," I observed once. "Don't you think we'd better take him home?"
"Home nothing! Let him sleep. He can sleep here as well as anywhere, and besides I like to look at him." And in the room would be a great crowd, cigars, beers, laughter, and Peter's various friends as used to the child's presence and as charmed by it as he was. He was just the man who could do such things. His manner and point of view carried conviction. He believed in doing all that he wanted to do simply and naturally, and more and more as he went along people not only respected, I think they adored him, especially the simple homely souls among whom he chose to move and have his being.
About this time there developed among those in his immediate neighborhood a desire to elect him to some political position, that of councilman, or State assemblyman, in the hope or thought that he would rise to something higher. But he would none of it—not then anyhow. Instead, about this time or a very little later, after the birth of his second child (a girl), he devoted himself to the composition of a brilliant piece of prose poetry ("Wolf"), which, coming from him, did not surprise me in the least. If he had designed or constructed a great building, painted a great picture, entered politics and been elected governor or senator, I would have taken it all as a matter of course. He could have. The material from which anything may rise was there. I asked him to let me offer it to the publishing house with which I was connected, and I recall with interest the comment of the oldest and most experienced of the bookmen and salesmen among us. "You'll never make much, if anything, on this book. It's too good, too poetic. But whether it pays or not, I vote yes. I'd rather lose money on something like this than make it on some of the trash we do make it on."
Amen. I agreed then, and I agree now.
The last phase of Peter was as interesting and dramatic as any of the others. His married life was going forward about as he had planned. His devotion to his home and children, his loving wife, his multiplex interests, his various friends, was always a curiosity to me, especially in view of his olden days. One day he was over in New York visiting one of his favorite Chinese importing companies, through which he had secured and was still securing occasional objects of art. He had come down to me in my office at the Butterick Building to see if I would not come over the following Saturday as usual and stay until Monday. He had secured something, was planning something. I should see. At the elevator he waved me a gay "so long—see you Saturday!"
But on Friday, as I was talking with some one at my desk, a telegram was handed me. It was from Mrs. Peter and read: "Peter died today at two of pneumonia. Please come."
I could scarcely believe it. I did not know that he had even been sick. His little yellow-haired wife! The two children! His future! His interests! I dropped everything and hurried to the nearest station. En route I speculated on the mysteries on which he had so often speculated—death, dissolution, uncertainty, the crude indifference or cruelty of Nature. What would become of Mrs. Peter? His children?
I arrived only to find a home atmosphere destroyed as by a wind that puts out a light. There was Peter, stiff and cold, and in the other rooms his babies, quite unconscious of what had happened, prattling as usual, and Mrs. Peter practically numb and speechless. It had come so suddenly, so out of a clear sky, that she could not realize, could not even tell me at first. The doctor was there—also a friend of his, the nearest barber! Also two or three representatives from his paper, the owner of the bowling alley, the man who had the $40,000 collection of curios. All were stunned, as I was. As his closest friend, I took charge: wired his relatives, went to an undertaker who knew him to arrange for his burial, in Newark or Philadelphia, as his wife should wish, she having no connection with Newark other than Peter.
It was most distressing, the sense of dull despair and unwarranted disaster which hung over the place. It was as though impish and pagan forces, or malign ones outside life, had committed a crime of the ugliest character. On Monday, the day he saw me, he was well. On Tuesday morning he had a slight cold but insisted on running out somewhere without his overcoat, against which his wife protested. Tuesday night he had a fever and took quinine and aspirin and a hot whiskey. Wednesday morning he was worse and a doctor was called, but it was not deemed serious. Wednesday night he was still worse and pneumonia had set in. Thursday he was lower still, and by noon a metal syphon of oxygen was sent for, to relieve the sense of suffocation setting in. Thursday night he was weak and sinking, but expected to come round—and still, so unexpected was the attack, so uncertain the probability of anything fatal, that no word was sent, even to me. Friday morning he was no worse and no better. "If he was no worse by night he might pull through." At noon he was seized with a sudden sinking spell. Oxygen was applied by his wife and a nurse, and the doctor sent for. By one-thirty he was lower still, very low. "His face was blue, his lips ashen," his wife told me. "We put the oxygen tube to his mouth and I said 'Can you speak, Peter?' I was so nervous and frightened. He moved his head a little to indicate 'no.' 'Peter,' I said, 'you mustn't let go! You must fight! Think of me! Think of the babies!' I was a little crazy, I think, with fear. He looked at me very fixedly. He stiffened and gritted his teeth in a great effort. Then suddenly he collapsed and lay still. He was dead."
I could not help thinking of the force and energy—able at the last minute, when he could not speak—to "grit his teeth" and "fight," a minute before his death. What is the human spirit, or mind, that it can fight so, to the very last? I felt as though some one, something, had ruthlessly killed him, committed plain, unpunished murder—nothing more and nothing less.
And there were his cases of curios, his rug, his prints, his dishes, his many, many schemes, his book to come out soon. I gazed and marveled. I looked at his wife and babies, but could say nothing. It spelled, what such things always spell, in the face of all our dreams, crass chance or the willful, brutal indifference of Nature to all that relates to man. If he is to prosper he must do so without her aid.
That same night, sleeping in the room adjoining that in which was the body, a pale candle burning near it, I felt as though Peter were walking to and fro, to and fro, past me and into the room of his wife beyond, thinking and grieving. His imagined wraith seemed horribly depressed and distressed. Once he came over and moved his hand (something) over my face. I felt him walking into the room where were his wife and kiddies, but he could make no one see, hear, understand. I got up and looked at his cadaver a long time, then went to bed again.
The next day and the next and the next were filled with many things. His mother and sister came on from the West as well as the mother and brother of his wife. I had to look after his affairs, adjusting the matter of insurance which he left, his art objects, the burial of his body "in consecrated ground" in Philadelphia, with the consent and aid of the local Catholic parish rector, else no burial. His mother desired it, but he had never been a good Catholic and there was trouble. The local parish assistant refused me, even the rector. Finally I threatened the good father with an appeal to the diocesan bishop on the ground of plain common sense and courtesy to a Catholic family, if not charity to a tortured mother and wife—and obtained consent. All along I felt as if a great crime had been committed by some one, foul murder. I could not get it out of my mind, and it made me angry, not sad.
Two, three, five, seven years later, I visited the little family in Philadelphia. The wife was with her mother and father in a simple little home street in a factory district, secretary and stenographer to an architect. She was little changed—a little stouter, not so carefree, industrious, patient. His boy, the petted F——, could not even recall his father, the girl not at all of course. And in the place were a few of his prints, two or three Chinese dishes, pottered by himself, his loom with the unfinished rug. I remained for dinner and dreamed old dreams, but I was uncomfortable and left early. And Mrs. Peter, accompanying me to the steps, looked after me as though I, alone, was all that was left of the old life.
Noank is a little played-out fishing town on the southeastern coast of Connecticut, lying half-way between New London and Stonington. Once it was a profitable port for mackerel and cod fishing. Today its wharves are deserted of all save a few lobster smacks. There is a shipyard, employing three hundred and fifty men, a yacht-building establishment, with two or three hired hands; a sail-loft, and some dozen or so shops or sheds, where the odds and ends of fishing life are made and sold. Everything is peaceful. The sound of the shipyard axes and hammers can be heard for miles over the quiet waters of the bay. In the sunny lane which follows the line of the shore, and along which a few shops struggle in happy-go-lucky disorder, may be heard the voices and noises of the workers at their work. Water gurgling about the stanchions of the docks, the whistle of some fisherman as he dawdles over his nets, or puts his fish ashore, the whirr of the single high-power sewing machine in the sail-loft, often mingle in a pleasant harmony, and invite the mind to repose and speculation.
I was in a most examining and critical mood that summer, looking into the nature and significance of many things, and was sitting one day in the shed of the maker of sailboats, where a half-dozen characters of the village were gathered, when some turn in the conversation brought up the nature of man. He is queer, he is restless; life is not so very much when you come to look upon many phases of it.
"Did any of you ever know a contented man?" I inquired idly, merely for the sake of something to say.
There was silence for a moment, and one after another met my roving glance with a thoughtful, self-involved and retrospective eye.
Old Mr. Main was the first to answer.
"Yes, I did. One."
"So did I," put in the sailboat maker, as he stopped in his work to think about it.
"Yes, and I did," said a dark, squat, sunny, little old fisherman, who sold cunners for bait in a little hut next door.
"Maybe you and me are thinking of the same one, Jacob," said old Mr. Main, looking inquisitively at the boat-builder.
"I think we've all got the same man in mind, likely," returned the builder.
"Who is he?" I asked.
"Charlie Potter," said the builder.
"That's the man!" exclaimed Mr. Main.
"Yes, I reckon Charlie Potter is contented, if anybody be," said an old fisherman who had hitherto been silent.
Such unanimity of opinion struck me forcibly. Charlie Potter—what a humble name; not very remarkable, to say the least. And to hear him so spoken of in this restless, religious, quibbling community made it all the more interesting.
"So you really think he is contented, do you?" I asked.
"Yes, sir! Charlie Potter is a contented man," replied Mr. Main, with convincing emphasis.
"Well," I returned, "that's rather interesting. What sort of a man is he?"
"Oh, he's just an ordinary man, not much of anybody. Fishes and builds boats occasionally," put in the boat-builder.
"Is that all? Nothing else?"
"He preaches now and then—not regularly," said Mr. Main.
A-ha! I thought. A religionist!
"A preacher is expected to set a good example," I said.
"He ain't a regular preacher," said Mr. Main, rather quickly. "He's just kind of around in religious work."
"What do you mean?" I asked curiously, not quite catching the import of this "around."
"Well," answered the boat builder, "he don't take any money for what he does. He ain't got anything."
"What does he live on then?" I persisted, still wondering at the significance of "around in religious work."
"I don't know. He used to fish for a living. Fishes yet once in a while, I believe."
"He makes models of yachts," put in one of the bystanders. "He sold the New Haven Road one for two hundred dollars here not long ago."
A vision of a happy-go-lucky Jack-of-all-trades arose before me. A visionary—a theorist.
"What else?" I asked, hoping to draw them out. "What makes you all think he is contented? What does he do that makes him so contented?"
"Well," said Mr. Main, after a considerable pause and with much of sympathetic emphasis in his voice, "Charlie Potter is just a good man, that's all. That's why he's contented. He does as near as he can what he thinks he ought to by other people—poor people."
"You won't find anybody with a kinder heart than Charlie Potter," put in the boat-builder. "That's the trouble with him, really. He's too good. He don't look after himself right, I say. A fellow has to look out for himself some in this world. If he don't, no one else will."
"Right you are, Henry," echoed a truculent sea voice from somewhere.
I was becoming both amused and interested, intensely so.
"If he wasn't that way, he'd be a darned sight better off than he is," said a thirty-year-old helper, from a far corner of the room.
"What makes you say that?" I queried. "Isn't it better to be kind-hearted and generous than not?"
"It's all right to be kind-hearted and generous, but that ain't sayin' that you've got to give your last cent away and let your family go hungry."
"Is that what Charlie Potter does?"
"Well, no, maybe he don't, but he comes mighty near to it at times. He and his wife and his adopted children have been pretty close to it at times."
You see, this was the center, nearly, for all village gossip and philosophic speculation, and many of the most important local problems, morally and intellectually speaking, were here thrashed put.
"There's no doubt but that's where Charlie is wrong," put in old Mr. Main a little later. "He don't always stop to think of his family."
"What did he ever do that struck you as being over-generous?" I asked of the young man who had spoken from the corner.
"That's all right," he replied in a rather irritated and peevish tone; "I ain't going to go into details now, but there's people around here that hang on him, and that he's give to, that he hadn't orter."
"I believe in lookin' out for Number One, that's what I believe in," interrupted the boat-maker, laying down his rule and line. "This givin' up everything and goin' without yourself may be all right, but I don't believe it. A man's first duty is to his wife and children, that's what I say."
"That's the way it looks to me," put in Mr. Main.
"Well, does Potter give up everything and go without things?" I asked the boat-maker.
"Purty blamed near it at times," he returned definitely, then addressing the company in general he added, "Look at the time he worked over there on Fisher's Island, at the Ellersbie farm—the time they were packing the ice there. You remember that, Henry, don't you?"
Mr. Main nodded.
"What about it?"
"What about it! Why, he give his rubber boots away, like a darned fool, to old drunken Jimmy Harper, and him loafin' around half the year drunk, and worked around on the ice without any shoes himself. He might 'a' took cold and died."
"Why did he do it?" I queried, very much interested by now.
"Oh, Charlie's naturally big-hearted," put in the little old man who sold cunners. "He believes in the Lord and the Bible. Stands right square on it, only he don't belong to no church like. He's got the biggest heart I ever saw in a livin' being."
"Course the other fellow didn't have any shoes for to wear," put in the boat-maker explanatorily, "but he never would work, anyhow."
They lapsed into silence while the latter returned to his measuring, and then out of the drift of thought came this from the helper in the corner:
"Yes, and look at the way Bailey used to sponge on him. Get his money Saturday night and drink it all up, and then Sunday morning, when his wife and children were hungry, go cryin' around Potter. Dinged if I'd 'a' helped him. But Potter'd take the food right off his breakfast table and give it to him. I saw him do it! I don't think that's right. Not when he's got four or five orphans of his own to care for."
"His own children?" I interrupted, trying to get the thing straight.
"No, sir; just children he picked up around, here and there."
Here is a curious character, sure enough, I thought—one well worth looking into.
Another lull, and then as I was leaving the room to give the matter a little quiet attention, I remarked to the boat-maker:
"Outside of his foolish giving, you haven't anything against Charlie Potter, have you?"
"Not a thing," he replied, in apparent astonishment. "Charlie Potter's one of the best men that ever lived. He's a good man."
I smiled at the inconsistency and went my way.
A day or two later the loft of the sail-maker, instead of the shed of the boat-builder, happened to be my lounging place, and thinking of this theme, now uppermost in my mind, I said to him:
"Do you know a man around here by the name of Charlie Potter?"
"Well, I might say that I do. He lived here for over fifteen years."
"What sort of a man is he?"
He stopped in his stitching a moment to look at me, and then said:
"How d'ye mean? By trade, so to speak, or religious-like?"
"What is it he has done," I said, "that makes him so popular with all you people? Everybody says he's a good man. Just what do you mean by that?"
"Well," he said, ceasing his work as though the subject were one of extreme importance to him, "he's a peculiar man, Charlie is. He believes in giving nearly everything he has away, if any one else needs it. He'd give the coat off his back if you asked him for it. Some folks condemn him for this, and for not giving everything to his wife and them orphans he has, but I always thought the man was nearer right than most of us. I've got a family myself—but, then, so's he, now, for that matter. It's pretty hard to live up to your light always."
He looked away as if he expected some objection to be made to this, but hearing none, he went on. "I always liked him personally very much. He ain't around here now any more—lives up in Norwich, I think. He's a man of his word, though, as truthful as kin be. He ain't never done nothin' for me, I not bein' a takin' kind, but that's neither here nor there."
He paused, in doubt apparently, as to what else to say.
"You say he's so good," I said. "Tell me one thing that he ever did that struck you as being preëminently good."
"Well, now, I can't say as I kin, exactly, offhand," he replied, "there bein' so many of them from time to time. He was always doin' things one way and another. He give to everybody around here that asked him, and to a good many that didn't. I remember once"—and a smile gave evidence of a genial memory—"he give away a lot of pork that he'd put up for the winter to some colored people back here—two or three barrels, maybe. His wife didn't object, exactly, but my, how his mother-in-law did go on about it. She was livin' with him then. She went and railed against him all around."
"She didn't like to give it to them, eh?"
"Well, I should say not. She didn't set with his views, exactly—never did. He took the pork, though—it was right in the coldest weather we had that winter—and hauled it back about seven miles here to where they lived, and handed it all out himself. Course they were awful hard up, but then they might 'a' got along without it. They do now, sometimes. Charlie's too good that way. It's his one fault, if you might so speak of it."
I smiled as the evidence accumulated. Houseless wayfarers, stopping to find food and shelter under his roof, an orphan child carried seven miles on foot from the bedside of a dead mother and cared for all winter, three children, besides two of his own, being raised out of a sense of affection and care for the fatherless.
One day in the local post office I was idling a half hour with the postmaster, when I again inquired:
"Do you know Charlie Potter?"
"I should think I did. Charlie Potter and I sailed together for something over eleven years."
"How do you mean sailed together?"
"We were on the same schooner. This used to be a great port for mackerel and cod. We were wrecked once together"
"How was that?"
"Oh, we went on rocks."
"Any lives lost?"
"No, but there came mighty near being. We helped each other in the boat. I remember Charlie was the last one in that time. Wouldn't get in until all the rest were safe."
A sudden resolution came to me.
"Do you know where he is now?"
"Yes, he's up in Norwich, preaching or doing missionary work. He's kind of busy all the time among the poor people, and so on. Never makes much of anything out of it for himself, but just likes to do it, I guess."
"Do you know how he manages to live?"
"No, I don't, exactly. He believes in trusting to Providence for what he needs. He works though, too, at one job and another. He's a carpenter for one thing. Got an idea the Lord will send 'im whatever he needs."
"Well, and does He?"
"Well, he lives." A little later he added:
"Oh, yes. There's nothing lazy about Charlie. He's a good worker. When he was in the fishing line here there wasn't a man worked harder than he did. They can't anybody lay anything like that against him."
"Is he very difficult to talk to?" I asked, meditating on seeking him out. I had so little to do at the time, the very idlest of summers, and the reports of this man's deeds were haunting me. I wanted to discover for myself whether he was real or not—whether the reports were true. The Samaritan in people is so easily exaggerated at times.
"Oh, no. He's one of the finest men that way I ever knew. You could see him, well enough, if you went up to Norwich, providing he's up there. He usually is, though, I think. He lives there with his wife and mother, you know."
I caught an afternoon boat for New London and Norwich at one-thirty, and arrived in Norwich at five. The narrow streets of the thriving little mill city were alive with people. I had no address, could not obtain one, but through the open door of a news-stall near the boat landing I called to the proprietor:
"Do you know any one in Norwich by the name of Charlie Potter?"
"The man who works around among the poor people here?"
"That's the man."
"Yes, I know him. He lives out on Summer Street, Number Twelve, I think. You'll find it in the city directory."
The ready reply was rather astonishing. Norwich has something like thirty thousand people.
I walked out in search of Summer Street and finally found a beautiful lane of that name climbing upward over gentle slopes, arched completely with elms. Some of the pretty porches of the cottages extended nearly to the sidewalk. Hammocks, rocking-chairs on verandas, benches under the trees—all attested the love of idleness and shade in summer. Only the glimpse of mills and factories in the valley below evidenced the grimmer life which gave rise mayhap to the need of a man to work among the poor.
"Is this Summer Street?" I inquired of an old darky who was strolling cityward in the cool of the evening. An umbrella was under his arm and an evening paper under his spectacled nose.
"Bress de Lord!" he said, looking vaguely around. "Ah couldn't say. Ah knows dat street—been on it fifty times—but Ah never did know de name. Ha, ha, ha!"
The hills about echoed his hearty laugh.
"You don't happen to know Charlie Potter?"
"Oh, yas, sah. Ah knows Charlie Potter. Dat's his house right ovah dar."
The house in which Charlie Potter lived was a two-story frame, overhanging a sharp slope, which descended directly to the waters of the pretty river below. For a mile or more, the valley of the river could be seen, its slopes dotted with houses, the valley itself lined with mills. Two little girls were upon the sloping lawn to the right of the house. A stout, comfortable-looking man was sitting by a window on the left side of the house, gazing out over the valley.
"Is this where Charlie Potter lives?" I inquired of one of the children.
"Did he live in Noank?"
Just then a pleasant-faced woman of forty-five or fifty issued from a vine-covered door.
"Mr. Potter?" she replied to my inquiry. "He'll be right out."
She went about some little work at the side of the house, and in a moment Charlie Potter appeared. He was short, thick-set, and weighed no less than two hundred pounds. His face and hands were sunburned and brown like those of every fisherman of Noank. An old wrinkled coat and a baggy pair of gray trousers clothed his form loosely. Two inches of a spotted, soft-brimmed hat were pulled carelessly over his eyes. His face was round and full, but slightly seamed. His hands were large, his walk uneven, and rather inclined to a side swing, or the sailor's roll. He seemed an odd, pudgy person for so large a fame.
"Is this Mr. Potter?"
"I'm the man."
"I live on a little hummock at the east of Mystic Island, off Noank."
"I came up to have a talk with you."
"Will you come inside, or shall we sit out here?"
"Let's sit on the step."
"All right, let's sit on the step."
He waddled out of the gate and sank comfortably on the little low doorstep, with his feet on the cool bricks below. I dropped into the space beside him, and was greeted by as sweet and kind a look as I have ever seen in a man's eyes. It was one of perfect courtesy and good nature—void of all suspicion.
"We were sitting down in the sailboat maker's place at Noank the other day, and I asked a half dozen of the old fellows whether they had ever known a contented man. They all thought a while, and then they said they had. Old Mr. Main and the rest of them agreed that Charlie Potter was a contented man. What I want to know is, are you?"
I looked quizzically into his eyes to see what effect this would have, and if there was no evidence of a mist of pleasure and affection being vigorously restrained I was very much mistaken. Something seemed to hold the man in helpless silence as he gazed vacantly at nothing. He breathed heavily, then drew himself together and lifted one of his big hands, as if to touch me, but refrained.
"Yes, brother," he said after a time, "I am."
"Well, that's good," I replied, taking a slight mental exception to the use of the word brother. "What makes you contented?"
"I don't know, unless it is that I've found out what I ought to do. You see, I need so very little for myself that I couldn't be very unhappy."
"What ought you to do?"
"I ought to love my fellowmen."
"And do you?"
"Say, brother, but I do," he insisted quite simply and with no evidence of chicane or make-believe—a simple, natural enthusiasm. "I love everybody. There isn't anybody so low or so mean but I love him. I love you, yes, I do. I love you."
He reached out and touched me with his hand, and while I was inclined to take exception to this very moral enthusiasm, I thrilled just the same as I have not over the touch of any man in years. There was something effective and electric about him, so very warm and foolishly human. The glance which accompanied it spoke, it seemed, as truthfully as his words. He probably did love me—or thought he did. What difference?
We lapsed into silence. The scene below was so charming that I could easily gaze at it in silence. This little house was very simple, not poor, by no means prosperous, but well-ordered—such a home as such a man might have. After a while I said:
"It is very evident that you think the condition of some of your fellowmen isn't what it ought to be. Tell me what you are trying to do. What method have you for improving their condition?"
"The way I reason is this-a-way," he began. "All that some people have is their feelings, nothing else. Take a tramp, for instance, as I often have. When you begin to sum up to see where to begin, you find that all he has in the world, besides his pipe and a little tobacco, is his feelings. It's all most people have, rich or poor, though a good many think they have more than that. I try not to injure anybody's feelings."
He looked at me as though he had expressed the solution of the difficulties of the world, and the wonderful, kindly eyes beamed in rich romance upon the scene.
"Very good," I said, "but what do you do? How do you go about it to aid your fellowmen?"
"Well," he answered, unconsciously overlooking his own personal actions in the matter, "I try to bring them the salvation which the Bible teaches. You know I stand on the Bible, from cover to cover."
"Yes, I know you stand on the Bible, but what do you do? You don't merely preach the Bible to them. What do you do?"
"No, sir, I don't preach the Bible at all. I stand on it myself. I try as near as I can to do what it says. I go wherever I can be useful. If anybody is sick or in trouble, I'm ready to go. I'll be a nurse. I'll work and earn them food. I'll give them anything I can—that's what I do."
"How can you give when you haven't anything? They told me in Noank that you never worked for money."
"Not for myself alone. I never take any money for myself alone. That would be self-seeking. Anything I earn or take is for the Lord, not me. I never keep it. The Lord doesn't allow a man to be self-seeking."
"Well, then, when you get money what do you do with it? You can't do and live without money."
He had been looking away across the river and the bridge to the city below, but now he brought his eyes back and fixed them on me.
"I've been working now for twenty years or more, and, although I've never had more money than would last me a few days at a time, I've never wanted for anything and I've been able to help others. I've run pretty close sometimes. Time and time again I've been compelled to say, 'Lord, I'm all out of coal,' or 'Lord, I'm going to have to ask you to get me my fare to New Haven tomorrow,' but in the moment of my need He has never forgotten me. Why, I've gone down to the depot time and time again, when it was necessary for me to go, without five cents in my pocket, and He's been there to meet me. Why, He wouldn't keep you waiting when you're about His work. He wouldn't forget you—not for a minute."
I looked at the man in open-eyed amazement.
"Do you mean to say that you would go down to a depot without money and wait for money to come to you?"
"Oh, brother," he said, with the softest light in his eyes, "if you only knew what it is to have faith!"
He laid his hand softly on mine.
"What is car-fare to New Haven or to anywhere, to Him?"
"But," I replied materially, "you haven't any car-fare when you go there—how do you actually get it? Who gives it to you? Give me one instance."
"Why, it was only last week, brother, that a woman wrote me from Maiden, Massachusetts, wanting me to come and see her. She's very sick with consumption, and she thought she was going to die. I used to know her in Noank, and she thought if she could get to see me she would feel better.
"I didn't have any money at the time, but that didn't make any difference.
"'Lord,' I said, 'here's a woman sick in Maiden, and she wants me to come to her. I haven't got any money, but I'll go right down to the depot, in time to catch a certain train,' and I went. And while I was standing there a man came up to me and said, 'Brother, I'm told to give you this,' and he handed me ten dollars."
"Did you know the man?" I exclaimed.
"Never saw him before in my life," he replied, smiling genially.
"And didn't he say anything more than that?"
I stared at him, and he added, as if to take the edge off my astonishment:
"Why, bless your heart, I knew he was from the Lord, just the moment I saw him coming."
"You mean to say you were standing there without a cent, expecting the Lord to help you, and He did?"
"'He shall call upon me, and I shall answer him,'" he answered simply, quoting the Ninety-first Psalm.
This incident was still the subject of my inquiry when a little colored girl came out of the yard and paused a moment before us.
"May I go down across the bridge, papa?" she asked.
"Yes," he answered, and then as she tripped away, said:
"She's one of my adopted children." He gazed between his knees at the sidewalk.
"Have you many others?"
"Raising them, are you?"
"They seem to think, down in Noank, that living as you do and giving everything away is satisfactory to you but rather hard on your wife and children."
"Well, it is true that she did feel a little uncertain in the beginning, but she's never wanted for anything. She'll tell you herself that she's never been without a thing that she really needed, and she's been happy."
He paused to meditate, I presume, over the opinion of his former fellow townsmen, and then added:
"It's true, there have been times when we have been right where we had to have certain things pretty badly, before they came, but they never failed to come."
While he was still talking, Mrs. Potter came around the corner of the house and out upon the sidewalk. She was going to the Saturday evening market in the city below.
"Here she is," he said. "Now you can ask her."
"What is it?" she inquired, turning a serene and smiling face to me.
"They still think, down in Noank, that you're not very happy with me," he said. "They're afraid you want for something once in a while."
She took this piece of neighborly interference in better fashion than most would, I fancy.
"I have never wanted for anything since I have been married to my husband," she said. "I am thoroughly contented."
She looked at him and he at her, and there passed between them an affectionate glance.
"Yes," he said, when she had passed after a pleasing little conversation, "my wife has been a great help to me. She has never complained."
"People are inclined to talk a little," I said.
"Well, you see, she never complained, but she did feel a little bit worried in the beginning."
"Have you a mission or a church here in Norwich?"
"No, I don't believe in churches."
"Not in churches?"
"No. The sight of a minister preaching the word of God for so much a year is all a mockery to me."
"What do you believe in?"
"Personal service. Churches and charitable institutions and societies are all valueless. You can't reach your fellowman that way. They build up buildings and pay salaries—but there's a better way." (I was thinking of St. Francis and his original dream, before they threw him out and established monasteries and a costume or uniform—the thing he so much objected to.) "This giving of a few old clothes that the moths will get anyhow, that won't do. You've got to give something of yourself, and that's affection. Love is the only thing you can really give in all this world. When you give love, you give everything. Everything comes with it in some way or other."
"How do you say?" I queried. "Money certainly comes handy sometimes."
"Yes, when you give it with your own hand and heart—in no other way. It comes to nothing just contributed to some thing. Ah!" he added, with sudden animation, "the tangles men can get themselves into, the snarls, the wretchedness! Troubles with women, with men whom they owe, with evil things they say and think, until they can't walk down the street any more without peeping about to see if they are followed. They can't look you in die face; can't walk a straight course, but have got to sneak around corners. Poor, miserable, unhappy—they're worrying and crying and dodging one another!"
He paused, lost in contemplation of the picture he had conjured up.
"Yes," I went on catechistically, determined, if I could, to rout out this matter of giving, this actual example of the modus operandi of Christian charity. "What do you do? How do you get along without giving them money?"
"I don't get along without giving them some money. There are cases, lots of them, where a little money is necessary. But, brother, it is so little necessary at times. It isn't always money they want. You can't reach them with old clothes and charity societies," he insisted. "You've got to love them, brother. You've got to go to them and love them, just as they are, scarred and miserable and bad-hearted."
"Yes," I replied doubtfully, deciding to follow this up later. "But just what is it you do in a needy case? One instance?"
"Why, one night I was passing a little house in this town," he went on, "and I heard a woman crying. I went right to the door and opened it, and when I got inside she just stopped and looked at me.
"'Madam,' I said, 'I have come to help you, if I can. Now you tell me what you're crying for.'
"Well, sir, you know she sat there and told me how her husband drank and how she didn't have anything in the house to eat, and so I just gave her all I had and told her I would see her husband for her, and the next day I went and hunted him up and said to him, 'Oh, brother, I wish you would open your eyes and see what you are doing. I wish you wouldn't do that any more. It's only misery you are creating.' And, you know, I got to telling about how badly his wife felt about it, and how I intended to work and try and help her, and bless me if he didn't up and promise me before I got through that he wouldn't do that any more. And he didn't. He's working today, and it's been two years since I went to him, nearly."
His eyes were alight with his appreciation of personal service.
"Yes, that's one instance," I said.
"Oh, there are plenty of them," he replied. "It's the only way. Down here in New London a couple of winters ago we had a terrible time of it. That was the winter of the panic, you know. Cold—my, but that was a cold winter, and thousands of people out of work—just thousands. It was awful. I tried to do what I could here and there all along, but finally things got so bad there that I went to the mayor. I saw they were raising some kind of a fund to help the poor, so I told him that if he'd give me a little of the money they were talking of spending that I'd feed the hungry for a cent-and-a-half a meal."
"A cent-and-a-half a meal!"
"Yes, sir. They all thought it was rather curious, not possible at first, but they gave me the money and I fed 'em."
"Yes, as good as I ever eat myself," he replied.
"How did you do it?" I asked.
"Oh, I can cook. I just went around to the markets, and told the market-men what I wanted—heads of mackerel, and the part of the halibut that's left after the rich man cuts off his steak—it's the poorest part that he pays for, you know. And I went fishing myself two or three times—borrowed a big boat and got men to help me—oh, I'm a good fisherman, you know. And then I got the loan of an old covered brickyard that no one was using any more, a great big thing that I could close up and build fires in, and I put my kettle in there and rigged up tables out of borrowed boards, and got people to loan me plates and spoons and knives and forks and cups. I made fish chowder, and fish dinners, and really I set a very fine table, I did, that winter."
"For a cent-and-a-half a meal!"
"Yes, sir, a cent-and-a-half a meal. Ask any one in New London. That's all it cost me. The mayor said he was surprised at the way I did it."
"Well, but there wasn't any particular personal service in the money they gave you?" I asked, catching him up on that point. "They didn't personally serve—those who gave you the money?"
"No, sir, they didn't," he replied dreamily, with unconscious simplicity. "But they gave through me, you see. That's the way it was. I gave the personal service. Don't you see? That's the way."
"Yes, that's the way," I smiled, avoiding as far as possible a further discussion of this contradiction, so unconscious on his part, and in the drag of his thought he took up another idea.
"I clothed 'em that winter, too—went around and got barrels and boxes of old clothing. Some of them felt a little ashamed to put on the things, but I got over that, all right. I was wearing them myself, and I just told them, 'Don't feel badly, brother. I'm wearing them out of the same barrel with you—I'm wearing them out of the same barrel.' Got my clothes entirely free for that winter."
"Can you always get all the aid you need for such enterprises?"
"Usually, and then I can earn a good deal of money when I work steadily. I can get a hundred and fifty dollars for a little yacht, you know, every time I find time to make one; and I can make a good deal of money out of fishing. I went out fishing here on the Fourth of July and caught two hundred blackfish—four and five pounds, almost, every one of them."
"That ought to be profitable," I said.
"Well, it was," he replied.
"How much did you get for them?"
"Oh, I didn't sell them," he said. "I never take money for my work that way. I gave them all away."
"What did you do?" I asked, laughing—"advertise for people to come for them?"
"No. My wife took some, and my daughters, and I took the rest and we carried them around to people that we thought would like to have them."
"Well, that wasn't so profitable, was it?" I commented amusedly.
"Yes, they were fine fish," he replied, not seeming to have heard me.
We dropped the subject of personal service at this point, and I expressed the opinion that his service was only a temporary expedient. Times changed, and with them, people. They forgot. Perhaps those he aided were none the better for accepting his charity.
"I know what you mean," he said. "But that don't make any difference. You just have to keep on giving, that's all, see? Not all of 'em turn back. It helps a lot. Money is the only dangerous thing to give—but I never give money—not very often. I give myself, rather, as much as possible. I give food and clothing, too, but I try to show 'em a new way—that's not money, you know. So many people need a new way. They're looking for it often, only they don't seem to know how. But God, dear brother, however poor or mean they are—He knows. You've got to reach the heart, you know, and I let Him help me. You've got to make a man over in his soul, if you want to help him, and money won't help you to do that, you know. No, it won't."
He looked up at me in clear-eyed faith. It was remarkable.
"Make them over?" I queried, still curious, for it was all like a romance, and rather fantastic to me. "What do you mean? How do you make them over?"
"Oh, in their attitude, that's how. You've got to change a man and bring him out of self-seeking if you really want to make him good. Most men are so tangled up in their own errors and bad ways, and so worried over their seekings, that unless you can set them to giving it's no use. They're always seeking, and they don't know what they want half the time. Money isn't the thing. Why, half of them wouldn't understand how to use it if they had it. Their minds are not bright enough. Their perceptions are not clear enough. All you can do is to make them content with themselves. And that, giving to others will do. I never saw the man or the woman yet who couldn't be happy if you could make them feel the need of living for others, of doing something for somebody besides themselves. It's a fact. Selfish people are never happy."
He rubbed his hands as if he saw the solution of the world's difficulties very clearly, and I said to him:
"Well, now, you've got a man out of the mire, and 'saved,' as you call it, and then what? What comes next?"
"Well, then he's saved," he replied. "Happiness comes next—content."
"I know. But must he go to church, or conform to certain rules?"
"No, no, no!" he replied sweetly. "Nothing to do except to be good to others. 'True religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this,'" he quoted, "'to visit the widow and the orphan in their affliction and to keep unspotted from the world. Charity is kind,' you know. 'Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, seeketh not its own.'"
"Well," I said, rather aimlessly, I will admit, for this high faith staggered me. (How high! How high!) "And then what?"
"Well, then the world would come about. It would be so much better. All the misery is in the lack of sympathy one with another. When we get that straightened out we can work in peace. There are lots of things to do, you know."
Yes, I thought, looking down on the mills and the driving force of self-interest—on greed, lust, love of pleasure, all their fantastic and yet moving dreams.
"I'm an ignorant man myself, and I don't know all," he went on, "and I'd like to study. My, but I'd like to look into all things, but I can't do it now. We can't stop until this thing is straightened out. Some time, maybe," and he looked peacefully away.
"By the way," I said, "whatever became of the man to whom you gave your rubber boots over on Fisher's Island?"
His face lit up as if it were the most natural thing that I should know about it.
"Say," he exclaimed, in the most pleased and confidential way, as if we were talking about a mutual friend, "I saw him not long ago. And, do you know, he's a good man now—really, he is. Sober and hard-working. And, say, would you believe it, he told me that I was the cause of it—just that miserable old pair of rubber boots—what do you think of that?"
I shook his hand at parting, and as we stood looking at each other in the shadow of the evening I asked him:
"Are you afraid to die?"
"Say, brother, but I'm not," he returned. "It hasn't any terror for me at all. I'm just as willing. My, but I'm willing."
He smiled and gripped me heartily again, and, as I was starting to go, said:
"If I die tonight, it'll be all right. He'll use me just as long as He needs me. That I know. Good-by."
"Good-by," I called back.
He hung by his fence, looking down upon the city. As I turned the next corner I saw him awakening from his reflection and waddling stolidly back into the house.
I like best to think of him as he was at the height of his all-too-brief reputation and success, when, as the author and composer of various American popular successes ("On the Banks of the Wabash," "Just Tell Them That You Saw Me," and various others), as a third owner of one of the most successful popular music publishing houses in the city and as an actor and playwright of some small repute, he was wont to spin like a moth in the white light of Broadway. By reason of a little luck and some talent he had come so far, done so much for himself. In his day he had been by turn a novitiate in a Western seminary which trained aspirants for the Catholic priesthood; a singer and entertainer with a perambulating cure-all oil troupe or wagon ("Hamlin's Wizard Oil") traveling throughout Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; both end- and middle-man with one, two or three different minstrel companies of repute; the editor or originator and author of a "funny column" in a Western small city paper; the author of the songs mentioned and a hundred others; a black-face monologue artist; a white-face ditto, at Tony Pastor's, Miner's and Niblo's of the old days; a comic lead; co-star and star in such melodramas and farces as "The Danger Signal," "The Two Johns," "A Tin Soldier," "The Midnight Bell," "A Green Goods Man" (a farce which he himself wrote, by the way), and others. The man had a genius for the kind of gayety, poetry and romance which may, and no doubt must be, looked upon as exceedingly middle-class but which nonetheless had as much charm as anything in this world can well have. He had at this time absolutely no cares or financial worries of any kind, and this plus his health, self-amusing disposition and talent for entertaining, made him a most fascinating figure to contemplate.
My first recollection of him is of myself as a boy often and he a man of twenty-five (my oldest brother). He had come back to the town in which we were then living solely to find his mother and help her. Six or seven years before he had left without any explanation as to where he was going, tired of or irritated by the routine of a home which for any genuine opportunity it offered him might as well never have existed. It was run dominantly by my father in the interest of religious and moral theories, with which this boy had little sympathy. He was probably not understood by any one save my mother, who understood or at least sympathized with us all. Placed in a school which was to turn him out a priest, he had decamped, and now seven years later was here in this small town, with fur coat and silk hat, a smart cane—a gentleman of the theatrical profession. He had joined a minstrel show somewhere and had become an "end-man." He had suspected that we were not as fortunate in this world's goods as might be and so had returned. His really great heart had called him.
But the thing which haunts me, and which was typical of him then as throughout life, was the spirit which he then possessed and conveyed. It was one of an agile geniality, unmarred by thought of a serious character but warm and genuinely tender and with a taste for simple beauty which was most impressive. He was already the author of a cheap songbook, "The Paul Dresser Songster" ("All the Songs Sung in the Show"), and some copies of this he had with him, one of which he gave me. But we having no musical instrument of any kind, he taught me some of the melodies "by ear." The home in which by force of poverty we were compelled to live was most unprepossessing and inconvenient, and the result of his coming could but be our request for, or at least the obvious need of, assistance. Still he was as much an enthusiastic part of it as though he belonged to it. He was happy in it, and the cause of his happiness was my mother, of whom he was intensely fond. I recall how he hung about her in the kitchen or wherever she happened to be, how enthusiastically he related all his plans for the future, his amusing difficulties in the past. He was very grand and youthfully self-important, or so we all thought, and still he patted her on the shoulder or put his arm about her and kissed her. Until she died years later she was truly his uppermost thought, crying with her at times over her troubles and his. He contributed regularly to her support and sent home all his cast-off clothing to be made over for the younger ones. (Bless her tired hands!)
As I look back now on my life, I realize quite clearly that of all the members of my family, subsequent to my mother's death, the only one who truly understood me, or, better yet, sympathized with my intellectual and artistic point of view, was, strange as it may seem, this same Paul, my dearest brother. Not that he was in any way fitted intellectually or otherwise to enjoy high forms of art and learning and so guide me, or that he understood, even in later years (long after I had written "Sister Carrie," for instance), what it was that I was attempting to do; he never did. His world was that of the popular song, the middle-class actor or comedian, the middle-class comedy, and such humorous æsthetes of the writing world as Bill Nye, Petroleum V. Nasby, the authors of the Spoopendyke Papers, and "Samantha at Saratoga." As far as I could make out—and I say this in no lofty, condescending spirit, by any means—he was entirely full of simple, middle-class romance, middle-class humor, middle-class tenderness and middle-class grossness, all of which I am very free to say early disarmed and won me completely and kept me so much his debtor that I should hesitate to try to acknowledge or explain all that he did for or meant to me.
Imagine, if you can, a man weighing all of three hundred pounds, not more than five feet ten-and-one-half inches in height and yet of so lithesome a build that he gave not the least sense of either undue weight or lethargy. His temperament, always ebullient and radiant, presented him as a clever, eager, cheerful, emotional and always highly illusioned person with so collie-like a warmth that one found him compelling interest and even admiration. Easily cast down at times by the most trivial matters, at others, and for the most part, he was so spirited and bubbly and emotional and sentimental that your fiercest or most gloomy intellectual rages or moods could scarcely withstand his smile. This tenderness or sympathy of his, a very human appreciation of the weaknesses and errors as well as the toils and tribulations of most of us, was by far his outstanding and most engaging quality, and gave him a very definite force and charm. Admitting, as I freely do, that he was very sensuous (gross, some people might have called him), that he had an intense, possibly an undue fondness for women, a frivolous, childish, horse-playish sense of humor at times, still he had other qualities which were absolutely adorable. Life seemed positively to spring up fountain-like in him. One felt in him a capacity to do (in his possibly limited field); an ability to achieve, whether he was doing so at the moment or not, and a supreme willingness to share and radiate his success—qualities exceedingly rare, I believe. Some people are so successful, and yet you know their success is purely selfish—exclusive, not inclusive; they never permit you to share in their lives. Not so my good brother. He was generous to the point of self-destruction, and that is literally true. He was the mark if not the prey of all those who desired much or little for nothing, those who previously might not have rendered him a service of any kind. He was all life and color, and thousands (I use the word with care) noted and commented on it.
When I first came to New York he was easily the foremost popular song-writer of the day and was the cause of my coming, so soon at least, having established himself in the publishing field and being so comfortably settled as to offer me a kind of anchorage in so troubled a commercial sea. I was very much afraid of New York, but with him here it seemed not so bad. The firm of which he was a part had a floor or two in an old residence turned office building, as so many are in New York, in Twentieth Street very close to Broadway, and here, during the summer months (1894-7) when the various theatrical road-companies, one of which he was always a part, had returned for the closed season, he was to be found aiding his concern in the reception and care of possible applicants for songs and attracting by his personality such virtuosi of the vaudeville and comedy stage as were likely to make the instrumental publications of his firm a success.
I may as well say here that he had no more business skill than a fly. At the same time, he was in no wise sycophantic where either wealth, power or fame was concerned. He considered himself a personage of sorts, and was. The minister, the moralist, the religionist, the narrow, dogmatic and self-centered in any field were likely to be the butt of his humor, and he could imitate so many phases of character so cleverly that he was the life of any idle pleasure-seeking party anywhere. To this day I recall his characterization of an old Irish washerwoman arguing; a stout, truculent German laying down the law; lean, gloomy, out-at-elbows actors of the Hamlet or classic school complaining of their fate; the stingy skinflint haggling over a dollar, and always with a skill for titillating the risibilities which is vivid to me even to this day. Other butts of his humor were the actor, the Irish day-laborer, the negro and the Hebrew. And how he could imitate them! It is useless to try to indicate such things in writing, the facial expression, the intonation, the gestures; these are not things of words. Perhaps I can best indicate the direction of his mind, if not his manner, by the following:
One night as we were on our way to a theater there stood on a nearby corner in the cold a blind man singing and at the same time holding out a little tin cup into which the coins of the charitably inclined were supposed to be dropped. At once my brother noticed him, for he had an eye for this sort of thing, the pathos of poverty as opposed to so gay a scene, the street with its hurrying theater crowds. At the same time, so inherently mischievous was his nature that although his sympathy for the suffering or the ill-used of fate was overwhelming, he could not resist combining his intended charity with a touch of the ridiculous.
"Got any pennies?" he demanded.
"Three or four."
Going over to an outdoor candystand he exchanged a quarter for pennies, then came back and waited until the singer, who had ceased singing, should begin a new melody. A custom of the singer's, since the song was of no import save as a means of attracting attention to him, was to interpolate a "Thank you" after each coin dropped in his cup and between the words of the song, regardless. It was this little idiosyncrasy which evidently had attracted my brother's attention, although it had not mine. Standing quite close, his pennies in his hand, he waited until the singer had resumed, then began dropping pennies, waiting each time for the "Thank you," which caused the song to go about as follows:
"Da-a-'ling" (Clink!—"Thank you!") "I am—" (Clink!—"Thank you!") "growing o-o-o-ld" (Clink!—"Thank you!"), "Silve-e-r—" (Clink!—"Thank you!") "threads among the—" (Clink!—"Thank you!") "go-o-o-ld—" (Clink! "Thank you!"). "Shine upon my-y" (Clink!—"Thank you!") "bro-o-ow toda-a-y" (Clink!—"Thank you!"), "Life is—" (Clink!—"Thank you!") "fading fast a-a-wa-a-ay" (Clink!—"Thank you!")—and so on ad infinitum, until finally the beggar himself seemed to hesitate a little and waver, only so solemn was his rôle of want and despair that of course he dared not but had to go on until the last penny was in, and until he was saying more "Thank yous" than words of the song. A passer-by noticing it had begun to "Haw-haw!", at which others joined in, myself included. The beggar himself, a rather sniveling specimen, finally realizing what a figure he was cutting with his song and thanks, emptied the coins into his hand and with an indescribably wry expression, half-uncertainty and half smile, exclaimed, "I'll have to thank you as long as you keep putting pennies in, I suppose. God bless you!"
My brother came away smiling and content.
However, it is not as a humorist or song-writer or publisher that I wish to portray him, but as an odd, lovable personality, possessed of so many interesting and peculiar and almost indescribable traits. Of all characters in fiction he perhaps most suggests Jack Falstaff, with his love of women, his bravado and bluster and his innate good nature and sympathy. Sympathy was really his outstanding characteristic, even more than humor, although the latter was always present. One might recite a thousand incidents of his generosity and out-of-hand charity, which contained no least thought of return or reward. I recall that once there was a boy who had been reared in one of the towns in which we had once lived who had never had a chance in his youth, educationally or in any other way, and, having turned out "bad" and sunk to the level of a bank robber, had been detected in connection with three other men in the act of robbing a bank, the watchman of which was subsequently killed in the mêlée and escape. Of all four criminals only this one had been caught. Somewhere in prison he had heard sung one of my brother's sentimental ballads, "The Convict and the Bird," and recollecting that he had known Paul wrote him, setting forth his life history and that now he had no money or friends.
At once my good brother was alive to the pathos of it. He showed the letter to me and wanted to know what could be done. I suggested a lawyer, of course, one of those brilliant legal friends of his—always he had enthusiastic admirers in all walks—who might take the case for little or nothing. There was the leader of Tammany Hall, Richard Croker, who could be reached, he being a friend of Paul's. There was the Governor himself to whom a plain recitation of the boy's unfortunate life might be addressed, and with some hope of profit.
All of these things he did, and more. He went to the prison (Sing Sing), saw the warden and told him the story of the boy's life, then went to the boy, or man, himself and gave him some money. He was introduced to the Governor through influential friends and permitted to tell the tale. There was much delay, a reprieve, a commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment—the best that could be done. But he was so grateful for that, so pleased. You would have thought at the time that it was his own life that had been spared.
"Good heavens!" I jested. "You'd think you'd done the man an inestimable service, getting him in the penitentiary for life!"
"That's right," he grinned—an unbelievably provoking smile. "He'd better be dead, wouldn't he? Well, I'll write and ask him which he'd rather have."
I recall again taking him to task for going to the rescue of a "down and out" actor who had been highly successful and apparently not very sympathetic in his day, one of that more or less gaudy clan that wastes its substance, or so it seemed to me then, in riotous living. But now being old and entirely discarded and forgotten, he was in need of sympathy and aid. By some chance he knew Paul, or Paul had known him, and now because of the former's obvious prosperity—he was much in the papers at the time—he had appealed to him. The man lived with a sister in a wretched little town far out on Long Island. On receiving his appeal Paul seemed to wish to investigate for himself, possibly to indulge in a little lofty romance or sentiment. At any rate he wanted me to go along for the sake of companionship, so one dreary November afternoon we went, saw the pantaloon, who did not impress me very much even in his age and misery for he still had a few of his theatrical manners and insincerities, and as we were coming away I said, "Paul, why should you be the goat in every case?" for I had noted ever since I had been in New York, which was several years then, that he was a victim of many such importunities. If it was not the widow of a deceased friend who needed a ton of coal or a sack of flour, or the reckless, headstrong boy of parents too poor to save him from a term in jail or the reformatory and who asked for fine-money or an appeal to higher powers for clemency, or a wastrel actor or actress "down and out" and unable to "get back to New York" and requiring his or her railroad fare wired prepaid, it was the dead wastrel actor or actress who needed a coffin and a decent form of burial.
"Well, you know how it is, Thee" (he nearly always addressed me thus), "when you're old and sick. As long as you're up and around and have money, everybody's your friend. But once you're down and out no one wants to see you any more—see?" Almost amusingly he was always sad over those who had once been prosperous but who were now old and forgotten. Some of his silliest tender songs conveyed as much.
"Quite so," I complained, rather brashly, I suppose, "but why didn't he save a little money when he had it? He made as much as you'll ever make." The man had been a star. "He had plenty of it, didn't he? Why should he come to you?"
"Well, you know how it is, Thee," he explained in the kindliest and most apologetic way. "When you're young and healthy like that you don't think. I know how it is; I'm that way myself. We all have a little of it in us. I have; you have. And anyhow youth's the time to spend money if you're to get any good of it, isn't it? Of course when you're old you can't expect much, but still I always feel as though I'd like to help some of these old people." His eyes at such times always seemed more like those of a mother contemplating a sick or injured child than those of a man contemplating life.
"But, Paul," I insisted on another occasion when he had just wired twenty-five dollars somewhere to help bury some one. (My spirit was not so niggardly as fearsome. I was constantly terrified in those days by the thought of a poverty-stricken old age for myself and him—why, I don't know. I was by no means incompetent.) "Why don't you save your money? Why should you give it to every Tom, Dick and Harry that asks you? You're not a charity organization, and you're not called upon to feed and clothe and bury all the wasters who happen to cross your path. If you were down and out how many do you suppose would help you?"
"Well, you know," and his voice and manner were largely those of mother, the same wonder, the same wistfulness and sweetness, the same bubbling charity and tenderness of heart, "I can't say I haven't got it, can I?" He was at the height of his success at the time. "And anyhow, what's the use being so hard on people? We're all likely to get that way. You don't know what pulls people down sometimes—not wasting always. It's thoughtlessness, or trying to be happy. Remember how poor we were and how mamma and papa used to worry." Often these references to mother or father or their difficulties would bring tears to his eyes. "I can't stand to see people suffer, that's all, not if I have anything," and his eyes glowed sweetly. "And, after all," he added apologetically, "the little I give isn't much. They don't get so much out of me. They don't come to me every day."
Another time—one Christmas Eve it was, when I was comparatively new to New York (my second or third year), I was a little uncertain what to do, having no connections outside of Paul and two sisters, one of whom was then out of the city. The other, owing to various difficulties of her own and a temporary estrangement from us—more our fault than hers—was therefore not available. The rather drab state into which she had allowed her marital affections to lead her was the main reason that kept us apart. At any rate I felt that I could not, or rather would not, go there. At the same time, owing to some difficulty or irritation with the publishing house of which my brother was then part owner (it was publishing the magazine which I was editing), we twain were also estranged, nothing very deep really—a temporary feeling of distance and indifference.
So I had no place to go except to my room, which was in a poor part of the town, or out to dine where best I might—some moderate-priced hotel, was my thought. I had not seen my brother in three or four days, but after I had strolled a block or two up Broadway I encountered him. I have always thought that he had kept an eye on me and had really followed me; was looking, in short, to see what I would do As usual he was most smartly and comfortably dressed.
"Where you going, Thee?" he called cheerfully.
"Oh, no place in particular," I replied rather suavely, I presume. "Just going up the street."
"Now, see here, sport," he began—a favorite expression of his, "sport"—with his face abeam, "what's the use you and me quarreling? It's Christmas Eve, ain't it? It's a shame! Come on, let's have a drink and then go out to dinner."
"Well," I said, rather uncompromisingly, for at times his seemingly extreme success and well-being irritated me, "I'll have a drink, but as for dinner I have another engagement."
"Aw, don't say that. What's the use being sore? You know I always feel the same even if we do quarrel at times. Cut it out. Come on. You know I'm your brother, and you're mine. It's all right with me, Thee. Let's make it up, will you? Put 'er there! Come on, now. We'll go and have a drink, see, something hot—it's Christmas Eve, sport. The old home stuff."
He smiled winsomely, coaxingly, really tenderly, as only he could smile. I "gave in." But now as we entered the nearest shining bar, a Christmas crowd buzzing within and without (it was the old Fifth Avenue Hotel), a new thought seemed to strike him.
"Seen E—— lately?" he inquired, mentioning the name of the troubled sister who was having a very hard time indeed. Her husband had left her and she was struggling over the care of two children.
"No," I replied, rather shamefacedly, "not in a week or two—maybe more."
He clicked his tongue. He himself had not been near her in a month or more. His face fell, and he looked very depressed.
"It's too bad—a shame really. We oughtn't to do this way, you know, sport. It ain't right. What do you say to our going around there," it was in the upper thirties, "and see how she's making out?—take her a few things, eh? Whaddya say?"
I hadn't a spare dollar myself, but I knew well enough what he meant by "take a few things" and who would pay for them.
"Well, we'll have to hurry if we want to get anything now," I urged, falling in with the idea since it promised peace, plenty and good will all around, and we rushed the drink and departed. Near at hand was a branch of one of the greatest grocery companies of the city, and near it, too, his then favorite hotel, the Continental. En route we meditated on the impossibility of delivery, the fact that we would have to carry the things ourselves, but he at last solved that by declaring that he could commandeer negro porters or bootblacks from the Continental. We entered, and by sheer smiles on his part and some blarney heaped upon a floor-manager, secured a turkey, sweet potatoes, peas, beans, a salad, a strip of bacon, a ham, plum pudding, a basket of luscious fruit and I know not what else—provender, I am sure, for a dozen meals. While it was being wrapped and packed in borrowed baskets, soon to be returned, he went across the way to the hotel and came back with three grinning darkies who for the tip they knew they would receive preceded us up Broadway, the nearest path to our destination. On the way a few additional things were picked up: holly wreaths, toys, candy, nuts—and then, really not knowing whether our plan might not mis-carry, we made our way through the side street and to the particular apartment, or, rather, flat-house, door, a most amusing Christmas procession, I fancy, wondering and worrying now whether she would be there.
But the door clicked in answer to our ring, and up we marched, the three darkies first, instructed to inquire for her and then insist on leaving the goods, while we lagged behind to see how she would take it.
The stage arrangement worked as planned. My sister opened the door and from the steps below we could hear her protesting that she had ordered nothing, but the door being open the negroes walked in and a moment or two afterwards ourselves. The packages were being piled on table and floor, while my sister, unable quite to grasp this sudden visitation and change of heart, stared.
"Just thought we'd come around and have supper with you, E——, and maybe dinner tomorrow if you'll let us," my brother chortled. "Merry Christmas, you know. Christmas Eve. The good old home stuff—see? Old sport here and I thought we couldn't stay away—tonight, anyhow."
He beamed on her in his most affectionate way, but she, suffering regret over the recent estrangement as well as the difficulties of life itself and the joy of this reunion, burst into tears, while the two little ones danced about, and he and I put our arms about her.
"There, there! It's all over now," he declared, tears welling in his eyes. "It's all off. We'll can this scrapping stuff. Thee and I are a couple of bums and we know it, but you can forgive us, can't you? We ought to be ashamed of ourselves, all of us, and that's the truth. We've been quarreling, too, haven't spoken for a week. Ain't that so, sport? But it's all right now, eh?"
There were tears in my eyes, too. One couldn't resist him. He had the power of achieving the tenderest results in the simplest ways. We then had supper, and breakfast the next morning, all staying and helping, even to the washing and drying of the dishes, and thereafter for I don't know how long we were all on the most affectionate terms, and he eventually died in this sister's home, ministered to with absolutely restless devotion by her for weeks before the end finally came.
But, as I have said, I always prefer to think of him at this, the very apex or tower window of his life. For most of this period he was gay and carefree. The music company of which he was a third owner was at the very top of its success. Its songs, as well as his, were everywhere. He had in turn at this time a suite at the Gilsey House, the Marlborough, the Normandie—always on Broadway, you see. The limelight district was his home. He rose in the morning to the clang of the cars and the honk of the automobiles outside; he retired at night as a gang of repair men under flaring torches might be repairing a track, or the milk trucks were rumbling to and from the ferries. He was in his way a public restaurant and hotel favorite, a shining light in the theater managers' offices, hotel bars and lobbies and wherever those flies of the Tenderloin, those passing lords and celebrities of the sporting, theatrical, newspaper and other worlds, are wont to gather. One of his intimates, as I now recall, was "Bat" Masterson, the Western and now retired (to Broadway!) bad man; Muldoon, the famous wrestler; Tod Sloan, the jockey; "Battling" Nelson; James J. Corbett; Kid McCoy; Terry McGovern—prize-fighters all. Such Tammany district leaders as James Murphy, "The" McManus, Chrystie and Timothy Sullivan, Richard Carroll, and even Richard Croker, the then reigning Tammany boss, were all on his visiting list. He went to their meetings, rallies and district doings generally to sing and play, and they came to his "office" occasionally. Various high and mighties of the Roman Church, "fathers" with fine parishes and good wine cellars, and judges of various municipal courts, were also of his peculiar world. He was always running to one or the other "to get somebody out," or they to him to get him to contribute something to something, or to sing and play or act, and betimes they were meeting each other in hotel grills or elsewhere and having a drink and telling "funny stories."
Apropos of this sense of humor of his, this love of horse-play almost, I remember that once he had a new story to tell—a vulgar one of course—and with it he had been making me and a dozen others laugh until the tears coursed down our cheeks. It seemed new to everybody and, true to his rather fantastic moods, he was determined to be the first to tell it along Broadway. For some reason he was anxious to have me go along with him, possibly because he found me at that time an unvarying fountain of approval and laughter, possibly because he liked to show me off as his rising brother, as he insisted that I was. At between six and seven of a spring or summer evening, therefore, we issued from his suite at the Gilsey House, whither he had returned to dress, and invading the bar below were at once centered among a group who knew him. A whiskey, a cigar, the story told to one, two, three, five, ten to roars of laughter, and we were off, over the way to Weber & Fields (the Musical Burlesque House Supreme of those days) in the same block, where to the ticket seller and house manager, both of whom he knew, it was told. More laughter, a cigar perhaps. Then we were off again, this time to the ticket seller of Palmer's Theater at Thirtieth Street, thence to the bar of the Grand Hotel at Thirty-first, the Imperial at Thirty-second, the Martinique at Thirty-third, a famous drug-store at the southwest corner of Thirty-fourth and Broadway, now gone of course, the manager of which was a friend of his. It was a warm, moony night, and he took a glass of vichy "for looks' sake," as he said.
Then to the quondam Hotel Aulic at Thirty-fifth and Broadway—the center and home of the then much-berated "Hotel Aulic or Actors' School of Philosophy," and a most impressive actors' rendezvous where might have been seen in the course of an evening all the "second leads" and "light comedians" and "heavies" of this, that and the other road company, all blazing with startling clothes and all explaining how they "knocked 'em" here and there: in Peoria, Pasadena, Walla-Walla and where not. My brother shone like a star when only one is in the sky.
Over the way then to the Herald Building, its owls' eyes glowing in the night, its presses thundering, the elevated thundering beside it. Here was a business manager whom he knew. Then to the Herald Square Theater on the opposite side of the street, ablaze with a small electric sign—among the newest in the city. In this, as in the business office of the Herald was another manager, and he knew them all. Thence to the Marlborough bar and lobby at Thirty-sixth, the manager's office of the Knickerbocker Theater at Thirty-eighth, stopping at the bar and lobby of the Normandie, where some blazing professional beauty of the stage waylaid him and exchanged theatrical witticisms with him—and what else? Thence to the manager's office of the Casino at Thirty-ninth, some bar which was across the street, another in Thirty-ninth west of Broadway, an Italian restaurant on the ground floor of the Metropolitan at Fortieth and Broadway, and at last but by no means least and by such slow stages to the very door of the then Mecca of Meccas of all theater- and sportdom, the sanctum sanctorum of all those sportively au fait, "wise," the "real thing"—the Hotel Metropole at Broadway and Forty-second Street, the then extreme northern limit of the white-light district. And what a realm! Rounders and what not were here ensconced at round tables, their backs against the leather-cushioned wall seats, the adjoining windows open to all Broadway and the then all but somber Forty-second Street.
It was wonderful, the loud clothes, the bright straw hats, the canes, the diamonds, the "hot" socks, the air of security and well-being, so easily assumed by those who gain an all too brief hour in this pretty, petty world of make-believe and pleasure and pseudo-fame. Among them my dearest brother was at his best. It was "Paul" here and "Paul" there—"Why, hello, Dresser, you're just in time! Come on in. What'll you have? Let me tell you something, Paul, a good one—". More drinks, cigars, tales—magnificent tales of successes made, "great shows" given, fights, deaths, marvelous winnings at cards, trickeries in racing, prize-fighting; the "dogs" that some people were, the magnificent, magnanimous "God's own salt" that others were. The oaths, stories of women, what low, vice-besmeared, crime-soaked ghoulas certain reigning beauties of the town or stage were—and so on and so on ad infinitum.
But his story?—ah, yes. I had all but forgotten. It was told in every place, not once but seven, eight, nine, ten times. We did not eat until we reached the Metropole, and it was ten-thirty when we reached it! The handshakes, the road stories—"This is my brother Theodore. He writes; he's a newspaper man." The roars of laughter, the drinks! "Ah, my boy, that's good, but let me tell you one—one that I heard out in Louisville the other day." A seedy, shabby ne'er-do-well of a song-writer maybe stopping the successful author in the midst of a tale to borrow a dollar. Another actor, shabby and distrait, reciting the sad tale of a year's misfortunes. Everywhere my dear brother was called to, slapped on the back, chuckled with. He was successful. One of his best songs was the rage, he had an interest in a going musical concern, he could confer benefits, favors.
Ah, me! Ah, me! That one could be so great, and that it should not last for ever and for ever!
Another of his outstanding characteristics was his love of women, a really amusing and at times ridiculous quality. He was always sighing over the beauty, innocence, sweetness, this and that, of young maidenhood in his songs, but in real life he seemed to desire and attract quite a different type—the young and beautiful, it is true, but also the old, the homely and the somewhat savage—a catholicity of taste I could never quite stomach. It was "Paul dearest" here and "Paul dearest" there, especially in his work in connection with the music-house and the stage. In the former, popular ballad singers of both sexes, some of the women most attractive and willful, were most numerous, coming in daily from all parts of the world apparently to find songs which they could sing on the American or even the English stage. And it was a part of his duty, as a member of the firm and the one who principally "handled" the so-called professional inquirers, to meet them and see that they were shown what the catalogue contained. Occasionally there was an aspiring female song-writer, often mere women visitors.
Regardless, however, of whether they were young, old, attractive or repulsive, male or female, I never knew any one whose manner was more uniformly winsome or who seemed so easily to disarm or relax an indifferent or irritated mood. He was positive sunshine, the same in quality as that of a bright spring morning. His blue eyes focused mellowly, his lips were tendrilled with smiles. He had a brisk, quick manner, always somehow suggestive of my mother, who was never brisk.
And how he fascinated them, the women! Their quite shameless daring where he was concerned! Positively, in the face of it I used to wonder what had become of all the vaunted and so-called "stabilizing morality" of the world. None of it seemed to be in the possession of these women, especially the young and beautiful. They were distant and freezing enough to all who did not interest them, but let a personality such as his come into view and they were all wiles, bending and alluring graces. It was so obvious, this fascination he had for them and they for him, that at times it took on a comic look.
"Get onto the hit he's making," one would nudge another and remark.
"Say, some tenderness, that!" This in reference to a smile or a melting glance on the part of a female.
"Nothing like a way with the ladies. Some baby, eh, boys?"—this following the flick of a skirt and a backward-tossed glance perhaps, as some noticeable beauty passed out.
"No wonder he's cheerful," a sour and yet philosophic vaudevillian, who was mostly out of a job and hung about the place for what free meals he could obtain, once remarked to me in a heavy and morose undertone. "If I had that many women crazy about me I'd be too."
And the results of these encounters with beauty! Always he had something most important to attend to, morning, noon or night, and whenever I encountered him after some such statement "the important thing" was, of course, a woman. As time went on and he began to look upon me as something more than a thin, spindling, dyspeptic and disgruntled youth, he began to wish to introduce me to some of his marvelous followers, and then I could see how completely dependent upon beauty in the flesh he was, how it made his life and world.
One day as we were all sitting in the office, a large group of vaudevillians, song-writers, singers, a chance remark gave rise to a subsequent practical joke at Paul's expense. "I'll bet," observed some one, "that if a strange man were to rush in here with a revolver and say, 'Where's the man that seduced my wife?' Paul would be the first to duck. He wouldn't wait to find out whether he was the one meant or not."
Much laughter followed, and some thought. The subject of this banter was, of course, not present at the time. There was one actor who hung about there who was decidedly skillful in make-up. On more than one occasion he had disguised himself there in the office for our benefit. Coöperating with us, he disguised himself now as a very severe and even savage-looking person of about thirty-five—side-burns, mustachios and goatee. Then, with our aid, timing his arrival to an hour when Paul was certain to be at his desk, he entered briskly and vigorously and, looking about with a savage air, demanded, "Where is Paul Dresser?"
The latter turned almost apprehensively, I thought, and at once seemed by no means captivated by the man's looks.
"That's Mr. Dresser there," explained one of the confederates most willingly.
The stranger turned and glared at him. "So you're the scoundrel that's been running around with my wife, are you?" he demanded, approaching him and placing one hand on his right hip.
Paul made no effort to explain. It did not occur to him to deny the allegation, although he had never seen the man before. With a rising and backward movement he fell against the rail behind him, lifting both hands in fright and exclaiming, "Why—why—Don't shoot!" His expression was one of guilt, astonishment, perplexity. As some one afterwards said, "As puzzled as if he was trying to discover which injured husband it might be." The shout that went up—for it was agreed beforehand that the joke must not be carried far—convinced him that a hoax had been perpetrated, and the removal by the actor of his hat, sideburns and mustache revealed the true character of the injured husband. At first inclined to be angry and sulky, later on he saw the humor of his own indefinite position in the matter and laughed as heartily as any. But I fancy it developed a strain of uncertainty in him also in regard to injured husbands, for he was never afterwards inclined to interest himself in the much-married, and gave such wives a wide berth.
But his great forte was of course his song-writing, and of this, before I speak of anything else, I wish to have my say. It was a gift, quite a compelling one, out of which, before he died, he had made thousands, all spent in the manner described. Never having the least power to interpret anything in a fine musical way, still he was always full of music of a tender, sometimes sad, sometimes gay, kind—that of the ballad-maker of a nation. He was constantly attempting to work them out of himself, not quickly but slowly, brooding as it were over the piano wherever he might find one and could have a little solitude, at times on the organ (his favorite instrument), improvising various sad or wistful strains, some of which he jotted down, others of which, having mastered, he strove to fit words to. At such times he preferred to be alone or with some one whose temperament in no way clashed but rather harmonized with his own. Living with one of my sisters for a period of years, he had a room specially fitted up for his composing work, a very small room for so very large a man, within which he would shut himself and thrum a melody by the hour, especially toward evening or at night. He seemed to have a peculiar fondness for the twilight hour, and at this time might thrum over one strain and another until over some particular one, a new song usually, he would be in tears!
And what pale little things they were really, mere bits and scraps of sentiment and melodrama in story form, most asinine sighings over home and mother and lost sweethearts and dead heroes such as never were in real life, and yet with something about them, in the music at least, which always appealed to me intensely and must have appealed to others, since they attained so wide a circulation. They bespoke, as I always felt, a wistful, seeking, uncertain temperament, tender and illusioned, with no practical knowledge of any side of life, but full of a true poetic feeling for the mystery and pathos of life and death, the wonder of the waters, the stars, the flowers, accidents of life, success, failure. Beginning with a song called "Wide Wings" (published by a small retail music-house in Evansville, Indiana), and followed by such national successes as "The Letter That Never Came," "I Believe It, For My Mother Told Me So" (!), "The Convict and the Bird," "The Pardon Came Too Late," "Just Tell Them That You Saw Me," "The Blue and the Grey," "On the Bowery," "On the Banks of the Wabash," and a number of others, he was never content to rest and never really happy, I think, save when composing. During this time, however, he was at different periods all the things I have described—a black-face monologue artist, an end- and at times a middle-man, a publisher, and so on.
I recall being with him at the time he composed two of his most famous successes: "Just Tell Them That You Saw Me," and "On the Banks of the Wabash," and noting his peculiar mood, almost amounting to a deep depression which ended a little later in marked elation or satisfaction, once he had succeeded in evoking something which really pleased him.
The first of these songs must have followed an actual encounter with some woman or girl whose life had seemingly if not actually gone to wreck on the shore of love or passion. At any rate he came into the office of his publishing house one gray November Sunday afternoon—it was our custom to go there occasionally, a dozen or more congenial souls, about as one might go to a club—and going into a small room which was fitted up with a piano as a "try-out" room (professionals desiring a song were frequently taught it in the office), he began improvising, or rather repeating over and over, a certain strain which was evidently in his mind. A little while later he came out and said, "Listen to this, will you, Thee?"
He played and sang the first verse and chorus. In the middle of the latter, so moved was he by the sentiment of it, his voice broke and he had to stop. Tears stood in his eyes and he wiped them away. A moment or two later he was able to go through it without wavering and I thought it charming for the type of thing it was intended to be. Later on (the following spring) I was literally astonished to see how, after those various efforts usually made by popular music publishers to make a song "go"—advertising it in the Clipper and Mirror, getting various vaudeville singers to sing it, and so forth—it suddenly began to sell, thousands upon thousands of copies being wrapped in great bundles under my very eyes and shipped express or freight to various parts of the country. Letters and telegrams, even, from all parts of the nation began to pour in—"Forward express today —— copies of Dresser's 'Tell Them That You Saw Me.'" The firm was at once as busy as a bee-hive, on "easy street" again, as the expression went, "in clover." Just before this there had been a slight slump in its business and in my brother's finances, but now once more he was his most engaging self. Every one in that layer of life which understands or takes an interest in popular songs and their creators knew of him and his song, his latest success. He was, as it were, a revivified figure on Broadway. His barbers, barkeepers, hotel clerks, theatrical box-office clerks, hotel managers and the stars and singers of the street knew of it and him. Some enterprising button firm got out a button on which the phrase was printed. Comedians on the stage, newspaper paragraphers, his bank teller or his tailor, even staid business men wishing to appear "up-to-date," used it as a parting salute. The hand-organs, the bands and the theater orchestras everywhere were using it. One could scarcely turn a corner or go into a cheap music hall or variety house without hearing a parody of it. It was wonderful, the enormous furore that it seemed to create, and of course my dear brother was privileged to walk about smiling and secure, his bank account large, his friends numerous, in the pink of health, and gloating over the fact that he was a success, well known, a genuine creator of popular songs.
It was the same with "On the Banks of the Wabash," possibly an even greater success, for it came eventually to be adopted by his native State as its State song, and in that region streets and a town were named after him. In an almost unintentional and unthinking way I had a hand in that, and it has always cheered me to think that I had, although I have never had the least talent for musical composition or song versification. It was one of those delightful summer Sunday mornings (1896, I believe), when I was still connected with his firm as editor of the little monthly they were issuing, and he and myself, living with my sister E——, that we had gone over to this office to do a little work. I had a number of current magazines I wished to examine; he was always wishing to compose something, to express that ebullient and emotional soul of his in some way.
"What do you suppose would make a good song these days?" he asked in an idle, meditative mood, sitting at the piano and thrumming while I at a nearby table was looking over my papers. "Why don't you give me an idea for one once in a while, sport? You ought to be able to suggest something."
"Me?" I queried, almost contemptuously, I suppose. I could be very lofty at times in regard to his work, much as I admired him—vain and yet more or less dependent snip that I was. "I can't write those things. Why don't you write something about a State or a river? Look at 'My Old Kentucky Home,' 'Dixie,' 'Old Black Joe'—why don't you do something like that, something that suggests a part of America? People like that. Take Indiana—what's the matter with it—the Wabash River? It's as good as any other river, and you were 'raised' beside it."
I have to smile even now as I recall the apparent zest or feeling with which all at once he seized on this. It seemed to appeal to him immensely. "That's not a bad idea," he agreed, "but how would you go about it? Why don't you write the words and let me put the music to them? We'll do it together!"
"But I can't," I replied. "I don't know how to do those things. You write it. I'll help—maybe."
After a little urging—I think the fineness of the morning had as much to do with it as anything—I took a piece of paper and after meditating a while scribbled in the most tentative manner imaginable the first verse and chorus of that song almost as it was published. I think one or two lines were too long or didn't rhyme, but eventually either he or I hammered them into shape, but before that I rather shamefacedly turned them over to him, for somehow I was convinced that this work was not for me and that I was rather loftily and cynically attempting what my good brother would do in all faith and feeling.
He read it, insisted that it was fine and that I should do a second verse, something with a story in it, a girl perhaps—a task which I solemnly rejected.
"No, you put it in. It's yours. I'm through."
Some time later, disagreeing with the firm as to the conduct of the magazine, I left—really was forced out—which raised a little feeling on my part; not on his, I am sure, for I was very difficult to deal with.
Time passed and I heard nothing. I had been able to succeed in a somewhat different realm, that of the magazine contributor, and although I thought a great deal of my brother I paid very little attention to him or his affairs, being much more concerned with my own. One spring night, however, the following year, as I was lying in my bed trying to sleep, I heard a quartette of boys in the distance approaching along the street in which I had my room. I could not make out the words at first but the melody at once attracted my attention. It was plaintive and compelling. I listened, attracted, satisfied that it was some new popular success that had "caught on." As they drew near my window I heard the words "On the Banks of the Wabash" most mellifluously harmonized.
I jumped up. They were my words! It was Paul's song! He had another "hit" then—"On the Banks of the Wabash," and they were singing it in the streets already! I leaned out of the window and listened as they approached and passed on, their arms about each other's shoulders, the whole song being sung in the still street, as it were, for my benefit. The night was so warm, delicious. A full moon was overhead. I was young, lonely, wistful. It brought back so much of my already spent youth that I was ready to cry—for joy principally. In three more months it was everywhere, in the papers, on the stage, on the street-organs, played by orchestras, bands, whistled and sung in the streets. One day on Broadway near the Marlborough I met my brother, gold-headed cane, silk shirt, a smart summer suit, a gay straw hat.
"Ah," I said, rather sarcastically, for I still felt peeved that he had shown so little interest in my affairs at the time I was leaving. "On the banks, I see."
"On the banks," he replied cordially. "You turned the trick for me, Thee, that time. What are you doing now? Why don't you ever come and see me? I'm still your brother, you know. A part of that is really yours."
"Cut that!" I replied most savagely. "I couldn't write a song like that in a million years. You know I couldn't. The words are nothing."
"Oh, all right. It's true, though, you know. Where do you keep yourself? Why don't you come and see me? Why be down on me? I live here, you know." He looked up at the then brisk and successful hotel.
"Well, maybe I will some time," I said distantly, but with no particular desire to mend matters, and we parted.
There was, however, several years later, a sequel to all this and one so characteristic of him that it has always remained in my mind as one of the really beautiful things of life, and I might as well tell it here and now. About five years later I had become so disappointed in connection with my work and the unfriendly pressure of life that I had suffered what subsequently appeared to have been a purely psychic breakdown or relapse, not physical, but one which left me in no mood or condition to go on with my work, or any work indeed in any form. Hope had disappeared in a sad haze. I could apparently succeed in nothing, do nothing mentally that was worth while. At the same time I had all but retired from the world, living on less and less until finally I had descended into those depths where I was in the grip of actual want, with no place to which my pride would let me turn. I had always been too vain and self-centered. Apparently there was but one door, and I was very close to it. To match my purse I had retired to a still sorrier neighborhood in B——, one of the poorest. I desired most of all to be let alone, to be to myself. Still I could not be, for occasionally I met people, and certain prospects and necessities drove me to various publishing houses. One day as I was walking in some street near Broadway (not on it) in New York, I ran into my brother quite by accident, he as prosperous and comfortable as ever. I think I resented him more than ever. He was of course astonished, shocked, as I could plainly see, by my appearance and desire not to be seen. He demanded to know where I was living, wanted me to come then and there and stay with him, wanted me to tell him what the trouble was—all of which I rather stubbornly refused to do and finally got away—not however without giving him my address, though with the caution that I wanted nothing.
The next morning he was there bright and early in a cab. He was the most vehement, the most tender, the most disturbed creature I have ever seen. He was like a distrait mother with a sick child more than anything else.
"For God's sake," he commented when he saw me, "living in a place like this—and at this number, too!" (130 it was, and he was superstitious as to the thirteen.) "I knew there'd be a damned thirteen in it!" he ejaculated. "And me over in New York! Jesus Christ! And you sick and run down this way! I might have known. It's just like you. I haven't heard a thing about you in I don't know when. Well, I'm not going back without you, that's all. You've got to come with me now, see? Get your clothes, that's all. The cabby'll take your trunk. I know just the place for you, and you're going there tomorrow or next day or next week, but you're coming with me now. My God, I should think you'd be ashamed of yourself, and me feeling the way I do about you!" His eyes all but brimmed.
I was so morose and despondent that, grateful as I felt, I could scarcely take his mood at its value. I resented it, resented myself, my state, life.
"I can't," I said finally, or so I thought. "I won't. I don't need your help. You don't owe me anything. You've done enough already."
"Owe, hell!" he retorted. "Who's talking about 'owe'? And you my brother—my own flesh and blood! Why, Thee, for that matter, I owe you half of 'On the Banks,' and you know it. You can't go on living like this. You're sick and discouraged. You can't fool me. Why, Thee, you're a big man. You've just got to come out of this! Damn it—don't you see—don't make me"—and he took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. "You can't help yourself now, but you can later, don't you see? Come on. Get your things. I'd never forgive myself if I didn't. You've got to come, that's all. I won't go without you," and he began looking about for my bag and trunk.
I still protested weakly, but in vain. His affection was so overwhelming and tender that it made me weak. I allowed him to help me get my things together. Then he paid the bill, a small one, and on the way to the hotel insisted on forcing a roll of bills on me, all that he had with him. I was compelled at once, that same day or the next, to indulge in a suit, hat, shoes, underwear, all that I needed. A bedroom adjoining his suite at the hotel was taken, and for two days I lived there, later accompanying him in his car to a famous sanitarium in Westchester, one in charge of an old friend of his, a well-known ex-wrestler whose fame for this sort of work was great. Here I was booked for six weeks, all expenses paid, until I should "be on my feet again," as he expressed it. Then he left, only to visit and revisit me until I returned to the city, fairly well restored in nerves if not in health.
But could one ever forget the mingled sadness and fervor of his original appeal, the actual distress written in his face, the unlimited generosity of his mood and deed as well as his unmerited self-denunciation? One pictures such tenderness and concern as existing between parents and children, but rarely between brothers. Here he was evincing the same thing, as soft as love itself, and he a man of years and some affairs and I an irritable, distrait and peevish soul.
Take note, ye men of satire and spleen. All men are not selfish or hard.
The final phase of course related to his untimely end. He was not quite fifty-five when he died, and with a slightly more rugged quality of mind he might have lasted to seventy. It was due really to the failure of his firm (internal dissensions and rivalries, in no way due to him, however, as I have been told) and what he foolishly deemed to be the end of his financial and social glory. His was one of those simple, confiding, non-hardy dispositions, warm and colorful but intensely sensitive, easily and even fatally chilled by the icy blasts of human difficulty, however slight. You have no doubt seen some animals, cats, dogs, birds, of an especially affectionate nature, which when translated to a strange or unfriendly climate soon droop and die. They have no spiritual resources wherewith to contemplate what they do not understand or know. Now his friends would leave him. Now that bright world of which he had been a part would know him no more. It was pathetic, really. He emanated a kind of fear. Depression and even despair seemed to hang about him like a cloak. He could not shake it off. And yet, literally, in his case there was nothing to fear, if he had only known.
And yet two years before he did die, I knew he would. Fantastic as it may seem, to be shut out from that bright world of which he deemed himself an essential figure was all but unendurable. He had no ready money now—not the same amount anyhow. He could not greet his old-time friends so gayly, entertain so freely. Meeting him on Broadway shortly after the failure and asking after his affairs, he talked of going into business for himself as a publisher, but I realized that he could not. He had neither the ability nor the talent for that, nor the heart. He was not a business man but a song-writer and actor, had never been anything but that. He tried in this new situation to write songs, but he could not. They were too morbid. What he needed was some one to buoy him up, a manager, a strong confidant of some kind, some one who would have taken his affairs in hand and shown him what to do. As it was he had no one. His friends, like winter-frightened birds, had already departed. Personally, I was in no position to do anything at the time, being more or less depressed myself and but slowly emerging from difficulties which had held me for a number of years.
About a year or so after he failed my sister E—— announced that Paul had been there and that he was coming to live with her. He could not pay so much then, being involved with all sorts of examinations of one kind and another, but neither did he have to. Her memory was not short; she gave him the fullness of her home. A few months later he was ostensibly connected with another publishing house, but by then he was feeling so poorly physically and was finding consolation probably in some drinking and the caresses of those feminine friends who have, alas, only caresses to offer. A little later I met a doctor who said, "Paul cannot live. He has pernicious anæmia. He is breaking down inside and doesn't know it. He can't last long. He's too depressed." I knew it was so and what the remedy was—money and success once more, the petty pettings and flattery of that little world of which he had been a part but which now was no more for him. Of all those who had been so lavish in their greetings and companionship earlier in his life, scarcely one, so far as I could make out, found him in that retired world to which he was forced. One or two pegged-out actors sought him and borrowed a little of the little that he had; a few others came when he had nothing at all. His partners, quarreling among themselves and feeling that they had done him an injustice, remained religiously away. He found, as he often told my sister, broken horse-shoes (a "bad sign"), met cross-eyed women, another "bad sign," was pursued apparently by the inimical number thirteen—and all these little straws depressed him horribly. Finally, being no longer strong enough to be about, he took to his bed and remained there days at a time, feeling well while in bed but weak when up. For a little while he would go "downtown" to see this, that and the other person, but would soon return. One day on coming back home he found one of his hats lying on his bed, accidentally put there by one of the children, and according to my sister, who was present at the time, he was all but petrified by the sight of it. To him it was the death-sign. Some one had told him so not long before!!!
Then, not incuriously, seeing the affectional tie that had always held us, he wanted to see me every day. He had a desire to talk to me about his early life, the romance of it—maybe I could write a story some time, tell something about him! (Best of brothers, here it is, a thin little flower to lay at your feet!) To please him I made notes, although I knew most of it. On these occasions he was always his old self, full of ridiculous stories, quips and slight mots, all in his old and best vein. He would soon be himself, he now insisted.
Then one evening in late November, before I had time to call upon him (I lived about a mile away), a hurry-call came from E——. He had suddenly died at five in the afternoon; a blood-vessel had burst in the head. When I arrived he was already cold in death, his soft hands folded over his chest, his face turned to one side on the pillow, that indescribable sweetness of expression about the eyes and mouth—the empty shell of the beetle. There were tears, a band of reporters from the papers, the next day obituary news articles, and after that a host of friends and flowers, flowers, flowers. It is amazing what satisfaction the average mind takes in standardized floral forms—broken columns and gates ajar!
Being ostensibly a Catholic, a Catholic sister-in-law and other relatives insistently arranged for a solemn high requiem mass at the church of one of his favorite rectors. All Broadway was there, more flowers, his latest song read from the altar. Then there was a carriage procession to a distant Catholic graveyard somewhere, his friend, the rector of the church, officiating at the grave. It was so cold and dreary there, horrible. Later on he was removed to Chicago.
But still I think of him as not there or anywhere in the realm of space, but on Broadway between Twenty-ninth and Forty-second Streets, the spring and summer time at hand, the doors of the grills and bars of the hotels open, the rout of actors and actresses ambling to and fro, his own delicious presence dressed in his best, his "funny" stories, his songs being ground out by the hand organs, his friends extending their hands, clapping him on the shoulder, cackling over the latest idle yarn.
Ah, Broadway! Broadway! And you, my good brother! Here is the story that you wanted me to write, this little testimony to your memory, a pale, pale symbol of all I think and feel. Where are the thousand yarns I have laughed over, the music, the lights, the song?
Peace, peace. So shall it soon be with all of us. It was a dream. It is. I am. You are. And shall we grieve over or hark back to dreams?