GEORGE FITCH AUTHOR OF "AT GOOD OLD SIWASH," "SIZING UP UNCLE SAM," ETC.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY IRMA DEREMEAUX
BOSTON LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY 1915
Copyright, 1915, BY LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY.
All rights reserved
Published, February, 1915
THE COLONIAL PRESS C. H. SIMONDS CO., BOSTON, U. S. A.
I. THE 4:11 TRAIN 1
II. THE FRIENDLY FIRE-FIEND 26
III. HOMEBURG'S TWO FOUR-HUNDREDTHS 47
IV. THE SERVANT QUESTION IN HOMEBURG 71
V. HOMEBURG'S LEISURE CLASS 91
VI. HOMEBURG'S WORST ENEMY 116
VII. THE HOMEBURG WEEKLY DEMOCRAT 142
VIII. THE HOMEBURG MARINE BAND 171
IX. THE AUTO GAME IN HOMEBURG 200
X. THE HOMEBURG TELEPHONE EXCHANGE 230
XI. A HOMEBURG SCHOOL ELECTION 254
XII. CHRISTMAS AT HOMEBURG 278
FINALLY THE BASS CATCHES UP WITH THE CORNETS Frontispiece
IT SEEMED TO ME THEN AS IF SHE MUST HAVE COME FROM HEAVEN BY AIR-LINE PAGE 18
"SHE'S OUT, BOYS," HE SAYS " 148
IN HOMEBURG YOU COME HOME TO THE WHOLE TOWN " 284
THE 4:11 TRAIN
In Which the World Comes Once a Day to Visit Homeburg
Hel-lo, Jim! Darn your case-hardened old hide, but I'm glad to see you! Wait till I unclamp my fingers from this suit case handle and I'll shake hands. Whoa—look out!! That's the fourth time that chap's tried to tag me with his automobile baggage truck. He'll get me yet. I wish I were a trunk, Jim. Why aren't they as kind to the poor traveler as they are to his trunk? I don't see any electric truck here to haul me the rest of the way into New York. It's a long, long walk to the front door of this station, and my feet hurt.
That's the idea. Let the porter lug that suit case. I'd have hired one myself, but I was afraid I couldn't support him in the style you fellows have made him accustomed to. It was mighty nice of you to come down and meet me, Jim. I've been standing here for five minutes in this infernal mass meeting of locomotives, trying to keep out from underfoot, and getting myself all calm and collected before I surged out of this howling forty-acre depot and looked New York in the eye. It's nothing but a plain case of rattles. I have 'em whenever I land here, Jim. Dump me out on Broadway and I wouldn't care, but whenever I land back in the bowels of a Union Station I'm a meek little country cousin, and I always want some one to come along and take me by the hand.
It's the fault of your depots. They're the biggest things you have, and it isn't fair for you to come at me with your biggest things first. Every time I start for New York I swear to myself that I'm going to go into a fifty thousand dollar dining-room full of waiters far above my station, and tuck my napkin in my collar, just to show I'm a free-born citizen; and I'm going to trust my life to crossing policemen, and go by forty-story buildings without even flipping an eye up the corner and counting the stories by threes. I'm mighty sophisticated until I hit the city and get out into a depot which has a town square under roof and a waiting-room so high that they have to shut the front door to keep the thunder storms out. Then I begin to shrink. And by the time I've walked from Yonkers or thereabouts, clean through the station and out of a two-block hallway, with more stores on either side than there are in all Homeburg, and have committed my soul to the nearest taxicab pirate, I feel like a cheese mite in the great hall of Karnak.
No, sir; when I get into a big city depot, I'm a country Jake, and I need a compass and kind words. I've suffered a lot from those depots. I missed a train in Washington once because I figured it would take me only ten minutes to go from my hotel to the train. But I counted only the distance to the front door of the Union Station. By the time I'd journeyed on through the fool thing, my train had gone. Once I missed a train in the Boston station because I didn't know which one of the thirty tracks my train was on. I guessed it was somewhere to the right, and I guessed wrong. It was twenty-four tracks away to the left, and I couldn't get back in time. So I went into their waiting-room, which is as big as a New England cornfield and has all the benches named for various towns. I had to stand up two hours because I couldn't find the Homeburg bench.
I'm an admirer of big cities, Jim, and I wouldn't have you take a foot off your Woolworth building, or a single crashity!! bang!! out of your subways, but I wish there was a little more coziness in your depots. Why, at Homeburg I'm nearer the train at my house than I am in New York after I've got to the station. It's great to have a depot so big that it takes the place of mountain scenery, but it's hard on the poor traveler, even if it does have all the comforts of away-from-home in it. And then it swallows up things so. It takes away all the pleasure of having a railroad in the town. I suppose five hundred trains come into this station every day, but they're just trains—nothing more. You don't get any fun or information or excitement out of them. You can't even chase them—they bang a gate in your face when you try. I'll bet you don't get as much comfort and fun out of all these five hundred trains, Jim, as we do out of the 4:11 train at Homeburg.
No; it's not any better than your trains. It's not as good. You can't get raw oysters and magazines and individual cocktails and shaves on it. All you can get is cinders and peanuts, and I would advise you, if you were hungry, to eat the former and put the latter in your eye. It's the kind of a train you New Yorkers would ride on and then write home telling about the horrors of travel in the great West. But it means everything to Homeburg. It means a lot more than the half dozen limited trains which roar through our town fifty miles an hour every day and have made us so expert at dodging that we will develop kangaroo legs in another generation. It's our train. Here in New York a hundred trains come in each morning from Chicago, New Orleans, Everywhere and points beyond, and the office-boy next door to the depot doesn't stop licking stamps long enough to look up. But when old Number Eleven, which is its official railroad name, pulls into Homeburg from Chicago each afternoon, loaded with mail, news, passengers, home-comers, adventurers, mysterious strangers, friends, brides, heroes, widows and coffins, you can just bet we're there to see her.
It's the town pastime. We all do it. Whenever a Homeburg man has nothing else to do at four o'clock, he steps over to the depot and joins the long line which leans up against the depot wall and keeps it in place during the crisis. Some of them haven't missed a roll-call in years. Old Bill Dorgan, the drayman, has stood on the platform every day since the line was built, rain or shine. Josh James, the colored porter of the Cosmopolitan Hotel, knows more traveling men than William J. Bryan. If he was absent from his post, the engineer wouldn't know where to stop the train. The old men come crawling down on nice days and sun themselves for an hour before the train arrives. The boys sneak slyly down on their way from school and stand in flocks worshiping the train butcher, who is bigger than the Washington Monument to them. Sometimes a few girls come down too, and hang around, giggling. But that doesn't last long. We won't stand for it in our town. Some missionary tells the girls' parents, and then they suddenly disappear from the ranks and look pouty and insulted for a month, and we know, without being told, that a couple of grown-up young ladies of sixteen or more have been spanked in the good old-fashioned way. Homeburg is a good town, and it makes its girls behave even if it has to half kill them.
You haven't any idea, Jim, how much bustle and noise and excitement and general enthusiasm a passenger train can put into a small town for a few minutes. Just imagine yourself in Homeburg on a cold winter afternoon. It's four o'clock. The sun has stood the climate as long as it can and is getting ready to duck for shelter behind the dreary fields to the west. If you ran an automobile a mile a minute down the walk on Main Street you wouldn't have to toot for a soul. Now and then a farmer comes out of a store, takes a half hitch on the muffler around his neck, puts on his bearskin gloves and unties his rig. You watch him drive off, the wheels yelling on the hard snow, and wonder if it isn't more cheerful out in the frozen country with the corn shocks for company. It's the terrible half hour of bleak, fading light before the electricity is turned on and the cozy dark comes down—the loneliest hour of the winter's day.
You've stood it about as long as you can, when you notice signs of life across the street. Three men carrying satchels are steering for the depot. Dorgan's dray is rattling down the street. Dorgan's dray would make a cheerful noise if it was the last sound on earth. Little flocks and groups of people begin plodding across the square. You know them all. Gibb Ogle is going over to watch the baggageman load trunks. It is Gibb's life work. Pelty Amthorne is a little late, but he'll have time to arrange himself against the east end door and answer the roll-call, as he has for thirty years. Miss Ollie Mingle is going over too. She must be expecting that Paynesville young man again. If the competition between her and Ri Hawkes gets any keener, Ollie will have to meet the train down at the crossing and nab the young man there. Sim Atkinson is taking a handful of letters down to the station as usual. Ever since he had his row with Postmaster Flint, he has refused to add to the receipts of the office, and buys his stamps of the mail clerk. It is Sim's hope and dream that sometime the annual receipts of the Homeburg post-office will just miss being enough to bring a raise in salary. Then Sim will bring it to Flint's attention that he would have bought his ten dollars' worth of stamps that year at home, if Flint hadn't advertised his lock box for rent when he neglected the quarterly dues. Watching Sim thirst for revenge is as much fun as having a real Indian in town.
There's the headlight half a mile down the track! She's coming fast, ten minutes late, and, because you've been lonesome all afternoon and need exercise, you slip into your coat and hustle down. Just as you get to the depot, Number Eleven comes in with a crash and a roar, bell ringing, steam popping off, every brake yelling, platforms loaded, expectation intense, confusion terrific, all nerves a-tingle, and fat old Jack Ball, the conductor, lantern under arm, sweeping majestically by on the bottom step of the smoker. Young Red Nolan and Barney Gastit, two of the station agent's innumerable amateur helpers, race for the baggage car with their truck, making a terrible uproar over the old planks. The mail clerk dumps the sacks. Usually he gets a stranger in the shin with them. Nothing doing to-day. Just missed a traveling man. We still tell of the time the paper sack scooted across the icy platform and stood Mayor Andrews on his head. He wanted to abolish the whole post-office department.
I've always realized what the city gate must have meant to the medieval loafers, because I've watched Homeburg's city gate at the 4:11 train so often. There's Mrs. Sim Estabrook getting home. Must have been unexpected. No one to meet her. Wonder if Sim's sick again. I'll call up pretty soon. Wimble Horn's been to Chicago again, evidently. Wonder if he'll dump his last eighty acres into the Board of Trade. Who's the fine-looking duck in the fur-lined coat? Not a transient, evidently. He passed Josh by. Must be visiting somebody. Yes; Mrs. Ackley's kissing him. That might mean a scandal in New York, but at home it means relatives. Poor old Jedson Bane's back, I see. Looks pretty bad. Hospital didn't help him. Guess he's not long for us. Hello, Jed, old man! How are you? Better? That's fine. You're looking great! For the love of Mike, will you take a swift look at what's got off? I believe it's from college. They don't wear clothes like that anywhere else. Oh, yes, of course, that's why the Singers' automobile came down. Don't know what we'd do, now that the circus has passed us up, if it wasn't for Sally Singer. She imports a new specimen from the University about every two weeks.
The crowd is off, and you hurl a few good-bys at the travelers getting on. Our two editors check them off as they go. The Argus and the Democrat get all their news at this train. There's no slipping in and out of town in Homeburg. One and all we face the gantlet. Young Andy Lowes hates to have us beg him not to miss the morning train back, as we do three times a week; but he simply has to go to Jonesville that often, and we all know why, and he knows we know. The Parsons are rid of their Aunt Mary at last. She's worse than an oyster. Put her in a guest-room and she grows fast to it. They've had her for six months now. Hello! Peter Link's son is going down to Jonesville. Guess he's got his job back. Andy would be a good boy if he would only stop trying to make the distilleries work nights. There goes old Colonel Ackley on his weekly trip. Wonder if he thinks he fools any one with that suit case. Ever since the town went dry, he's had business in the next county. Hello, Colonel! Don't drop that case. You'll break a suit of clothes! Watch him glare.
The engine has gotten its breath by this time. Ever notice how human an engine sounds when it stops after a long run and the air-brake apparatus begins to pant? Old Ball has been fussing for a minute and now he yells "'Board." Aunt Emma Newcomb gets in a few more kisses all around her family. She's going down to the next station. The engine gives a few loud puffs, spins its wheels a few times, and the cars begin moving past. Hurrah! Something doing to-day. That grocery salesman who gets here once a week is coming across the square two jumps to a rod. Go it, old man! Go it, train! Ball will always stop for a woman, but the drummers have to take her on the fly. There! He's on—all but his hat. Red Nolan will keep that for him till his next trip.
She's moving fast now. The brakeman hops the next to the last car with grace and carelessness. From every platform devoted friends and relatives are spilling—it is a point of honor in Homeburg to remain with your loved ones in the car as long as you dare before leaping for life. The last car sweeps by. The red and green lights begin to grow smaller with businesslike promptness. There is a parting clatter as the train hits the last switch frog two blocks away. Then it's over. The noise, bustle, confusion, and joyful excitement follow the flying cinders out of town, and silence resumes its reign. I've never heard anything so still as Homeburg after the 4:11 has pulled out.
But we're too busy to notice it as we string across the square to the post-office. We have the day's cargo to digest. We have to wait for the evening mail to be distributed, read the evening newspapers, shake hands with all the returned Homeburgers, size up the brand new Homeburgers and investigate the strangers. And it keeps us busy until supper time.
I've lived in Homeburg thirty-five years and more, and the 4:11 train has been tangled up in my biography all the way. I remember the first time I ever rode on it. The cars were funny-looking coops then, and the engine had a sixty-gallon smokestack. I was four, and I yelled with fear when the train came in and kept it up for the first twenty miles after they lugged me on board. The conductor chucked me under the chin and gave me his punch to play with. He was a young man then. He'd carried my father and mother on their wedding journey, and twenty years after that first ride of mine he carried me and my wife on our wedding journey. The other day we gave our oldest girl two dollars and sent her on her first trip down to Jonesville, by herself. Old Ball was on the train, and he grinned at me and promised to take good care of her. He's pretty gray now, but I hope he stays long enough to start another generation of our family on its travels.
I went to my first circus, to Jonesville, on old Number Eleven. And I went down there at sixteen, a member of the Republican Club, with a torch, and the proudest boy in the State. The next year I started to college with an algebra and a tennis racket under my arm (they wouldn't jam into the trunk), and a dozen friends came down to see me off. On Number Eleven that day I met four other boys going to the same school. We are still close chums, though one is on the coast, another's here in New York, and the third is in the Philippines.
It was the next year that I noticed a girl as she stepped off of Number Eleven and was met by one of the Homeburg girls. I didn't know who she was, but it seemed to me then as if she must have come from heaven by air-line, and I felt so friendly toward the girl who met her that I had to go down to her house to call that very night. The visitor had come to stay—her father was starting a new store in Homeburg. I'll tell you, when a snorty old train, which assays two pecks of cinders per car, hauls the most wonderful girl on earth into your town and dumps her into your arms—so to speak, and bunching up events a little—you're bound to love that train.
I could write the history of Homeburg from the 4:11 too. In fact, the train has hauled most of Homeburg into the town. Year after year we watch strangers get off the train and turn around three times, in the way a stranger does when he tries to orient himself and locate the nearest hotel. We get acquainted with those strangers, and in the next week we discover their business and antecedents and politics and preferences in jokes, and whether they pull for the Chicago Cubs or the White Sox. In two weeks they are old-time citizens and go down with us to welcome the newcomers. Henry Broar came to us on the 4:11. I remember he wore a loppy hat and needed a shave that day, and we didn't assess him very highly. But he had a whacking law practice inside of a year, ran for county judge two years later, and now we swell up to the danger point when people mention Congressman Broar, and let it slip modestly that we are intimate enough with Hank to trade shirts with him.
I remember well the day two imposing strangers got off of Number Eleven, and made the town nearly explode with curiosity by walking out to the Dover farm at the edge of town and pacing it off this way and that. Took us a month to learn their business. That was the time we got the Scraper Works. When Allison B. Unk arrived, he made a tremendous impression by wearing a plug hat still in its first youth, and rolling ponderously around town in a Prince Albert. We've despised Prince Alberts ever since because the town fell for that one and deposited liberally in Unk's new bank, which closed up a year later. And then there was the time when the trainmen put off a scared and sick cripple, who lay in the depot waiting-room with a ring of sympathetic incompetents around him until Doc Simms could help him. He touched our hearts, and we shelled out enough to send him on a hundred miles to his people. He came back ten years later and kept Homeburg balanced magnificently in the air for a week by showing us how much fun it is to chum with a millionaire. Even sick cripples are likely to guess the market right in this country, you know, and he never forgot us.
As they come in on Number Eleven, so they go. The young men come to Homeburg full of hope, and their sons go on elsewhere loaded with the same. Mothers weep on the station platform many times a year while their Willies and Johns and Petes hike gaily off to chase their fortunes. And many times a year the old boys come back from Chicago. Some of them are rich and proud, and some of them are rich and friendly, and some of them are just friendly. But they all get off of Number Eleven under our keen, discriminating glare, and they all get the same greeting while we size them up and wonder if their nobby thirty-five dollar suits are their sole stocks-in-trade, and just how much a "lucrative position" means in Chicago.
When the big strike was on, twenty-five years ago, Number Eleven didn't run for two days. We might as well have been marooned on St. Helena. It was awful. When a hand-car came sweeping into town the third day with a big sail on, we hailed it like starving sailors. It was Number Eleven which took on a flat-car loaded with Paynesville's fire department twenty years ago and saved our business section. When President Banks, of the Great F. C. & L. Railroad, rolled into Homeburg in his private car, to become "Pudge" Banks again for a day or two and revisit the scenes of his boyhood, he came on Number Eleven of course. The train hung around while the band played two selections and the mayor gave an address of welcome. That was her longest visit in Homeburg.
The old train even bursts into local politics and social affairs now and then. It managed to jump the track in the campaign of '96, leaving four distinguished Democratic speakers, fizzing with oratory, in the cornfields, and ruining the only rally the Dems attempted to pull off. And it took DeLancey Payley down after all the rest of the town had failed, in a manner which kept us tearful with delight for a week. DeLancey was sequestered in an Eastern college by his loving parents, and when he was graduated he came home and started an exclusive circle composed mostly of himself. He was unapproachably haughty, until one day he accompanied a proud beauty, who was visiting the Singers (our other hothouse family) to Number Eleven, and lingered too long after the train started. DeLancey got off, but in doing so he performed a variety of difficult and instructive feats of balancing on his ear which were viewed by a large audience with terrific enthusiasm. When DeLancey was haughty after that, we always praised this feat, and you'd be surprised to see how soon he got his nose down out of the zenith.
Every day old Number Eleven brings in its mail-bag full of hopes and triumphs, of good news, bad news, and tragedy. Every day it brings the new ideas from the world outside and the latest wrinkles in hanging on to this whirling old sphere in a pleasant and successful manner. We get our styles from the Chicago men who step off of its platforms and tarry with us. We send our brides off on it with an entire change of bill at each performance. We get our peeps into wonderland and romance and comedy from the theatrical troupes which straggle out of its cars and rush to the baggage car to make sure that no varlet has attached their trunks since the last stop. It is the magic carpet which carries our youth forth into the great world to wonder and learn and prevail. And now and then it is the kindly beast of burden who brings back some old playmate, done with weariness and striving, and coming home to rest in our cemetery beyond the south hill.
No, Jim, your thousand trains a day, with their parlor cars, bathrooms, barber shops and libraries, are all right, but they're just trains. Number Eleven is a whole lot more than a train. It is the world come to visit us once a day—a moving picture of life which we enjoyed long before Edison took out his patent. Do you wonder that it makes me sad to see so many perfectly good trains going to waste in this roofed-over township of yours? Take me out of it, please.
THE FRIENDLY FIRE-FIEND
The Joys of Fighting Him with a Volunteer Fire Department
Hello! Here comes the fire department! Watch the people swarm! Uumpp! Ouch! Excuse me for living. This is no place for a peaceable spectator. I'm going to cast anchor in this doorway until the mob gets past.
No, thank you. I'll not join the Marathon. But you don't know how homesick and happy it makes me to see this crowd run! I've been in New York a week now, and honestly this is almost the first really human impulse I've seen a citizen give way to. Until this minute I've felt as if I were a hundred thousand miles from Homeburg, with all train service suspended for the winter. If I could find the man who stepped on my heels while chasing that engine, I'd thank him and ask him what volunteer fire department he used to run with. See 'em scramble.
Whoop! Here comes the hook-and-ladder truck! This is nothing but Homeburg on a big scale. I'm beginning to envy you city chaps now. That makes the fourth engine that's come past. You get more for your money than we do. Look at that chief hurdling curbstones in his little red wagon. If Homeburg ever gets big enough to have a chief's wagon, I'll suffocate with pride.
I see it's the same old story. Fire's all out. It always is by the time you've run nine blocks. Watch the racers coming back. Stung, every one of them—gold-bricked. There's a fat fellow who's run half a mile, I'll bet. If his tongue hung out any farther, he'd trip up on it. But he'll do it again next time. They all do. Learning to stop running to fires is as hard as learning to stop buying mining-stock in the West. And it's just as big a swindle too. The returns from running to fires are marvelously small. They tell me that a hundred million dollars a year goes up in flames in this country. I don't believe it. If it does, I want to know who gets to see all the fun. I don't.
I've run to fires all my life, until lately, and I've drawn about three hundred and seventy-five blanks. Once I almost saw a big grain-elevator burn in a Western town. That is, I would have seen it, if I had looked out of my hotel window. But I'd run two miles to see a burning haystack in the afternoon, and I was so dead tired that I slept right through the performance that night. And once I did see a row of stores burn, back in Homeburg—at the distance of a mile. I was in school, and the teacher wouldn't dismiss us. By stretching my neck several feet I could just see the flames leaping over the trees, but that was all. Some of the bad boys sneaked out of the door, but I was a good boy, and waited one thousand years until school was out and the fire was ditto. I've never felt quite the same since toward either goodness or education.
Some men run faithfully to fires year after year and view a fine collection of burning beefsteaks and feverish chimneys and volcanic wood-sheds, while others stroll out after dinner in a strange city and spend a pleasant evening watching a burning oil-refinery make a Vesuvius look pale and sickly in comparison. Luck is distributed in a dastardly way, and as for myself I've quit trying. I don't run to fires at all any more. The big cities have fooled me long enough by sending out forty pieces of apparatus to smother a defective flue. I stay behind and watch the crowd. It's more amusing and not half so much work.
Of course in Homeburg it's different. You city people don't realize what a blessing the fire-fiend is to a small town. Fires mean a whole lot to us. They keep us from petrifying altogether during the dull seasons. And they don't have to be real fires, either. Any old alarm will do. Our fire-bell sounds just as terrible for a little brush fire as it would for a flaming powder-mill. It's an adventure merely to hear the thing. Take a winter night in the dull season after Christmas, for instance. You have begun to go to sleep right after supper. You've finished the job at nine o'clock, and by two A.M. you're sailing placidly southwest of Australia in a seagoing automobile.
Suddenly the pirate-ship in the rear, which you hadn't noticed before, slips up and begins potting away at you with a dull metallic boom. The auto slips its clutch, and the engine begins to clang and clatter, and somebody off behind a red-hot mountain in the distance begins ringing an enormous bell just as you slide downward into a crater of flame—and then you wake up entirely, and the fire-bell is going "clang-clang-clang-clang-clang," while below you hear the ringing crunch of your neighbor's feet on the cold snow, and outside the north window there is a red glare which may be either the end of the world or another exploded lamp in 'Bige Brinton's chicken-incubator; you won't know which until you have stabbed both feet into one pants-leg, crawled all over the cold floor for a missing sock, and run half a mile, double-reefing your nightshirt to keep it from trailing out from under your overcoat. That's what a fire-alarm means in Homeburg.
It's just as interesting in the daytime too. Imagine a summer afternoon in Homeburg about three o'clock. It's hotter than a simoon in the Sahara, and the aggregate business being done along Front Street is nineteen cents an hour. The nearest approach to life on the street is Sam McAtaw sitting in a shady spot on the edge of the sidewalk and leaning against a telephone-pole, sound asleep. You're sitting in your office chair, with your feet on the desk, dozing, when suddenly you hear footsteps outside. Whoever is making them is turning them out with great rapidity, and that in itself is novel enough to be interesting. The footsteps go by, and you look at their maker. It is Gibb Ogle surging up the walk and yanking his ponderous feet this way and that with tremendous energy. Nothing but a fire or a loose lion can make Gibb run, and you don't take any stock in the lion theory; so you tumble out after him.
By this time Sim Bone is on the street, and Harvey McMuggins is coming up behind, while half a dozen heads have suddenly sprouted from as many doorways. Your heart beats with suspense when Gibb comes to the town-hall corner. Hurrah! He's steering for the fire-house. You're overhauling him rapidly, and by a big sprint you beat out Clatt Sanderson, and grab one handle of the fire-bell ropes. Gibb grabs the other, and then you let her have it for all there is in you.
Did I say anything about Homeburg being asleep? Forget it. Before you've hit the bell a dozen taps you can't hear it for the tramp of feet. Every store in town is belching forth proprietors and clerks. They are coming bareheaded and coatless; some of them are collarless. Chief Dobbs, who shoes horses in his less glorious moments and keeps his helmet hanging on the forge-cover, dashes into the engine-room, grabs his trumpet, and begins firing orders, not singly, but in broadsides. There's nobody there to order yet, but he's just getting his hand in, and ten seconds later, when the first member of the company arrives, he is saluted with nineteen stentorian commands in one blast. Half a minute later the engine-house is clogged with fire-fighters, and the air is a maelstrom of orders, counter orders, suggestions, objections, and hoarse yells. Then a roar of wheels sounds outside, and you drop the bell-rope handle and go out to see the finest sight of all.
I suppose those old Romans thought the chariot-races were pretty nifty, but if an old Roman should reassemble himself and watch the dray-race to a Homeburg fire, he'd wonder how he ever managed to sit through a silly little dash around an arena. From the south comes a cloud of dust and a terrific racket. At an equal distance from the east comes another cloud of dust and an even more terrible uproar, Clay Billings's dray having more loose spokes than Bill Dorgan's. The clouds approach with tremendous speed. Bill is a little ahead. He is lashing his horses with the ends of the reins, while from the bounding dray small articles of no value, such as butter-firkins and cases of eggs, are emerging and following on the road behind.
But Clay isn't beaten—not by a thousand miles. He's going to make it a dead heat or better—no, Bill hit the crossing first. By George! That Clay boy is a wonder. He deliberately pulled in and shot across behind Bill, cutting off a good fifty feet. His team stops, sliding on their haunches, and ten seconds later is being hitched to the hose-cart, while Clay is on the seat clanging the foot-bell triumphantly. It's the fiftieth race, or thereabouts, between the two, and the score is about even. The winner gets two dollars for the use of his team. I've seen horse-races for a thousand-dollar purse which weren't half as exciting.
In the meanwhile more messengers have arrived from the fire. It is in the Mahlon Brown barn, and late advices indicate terrible progress. As fast as forty-nine rival fingers can do it, the tugs are fastened, and the cart is off down the street with a long trail of citizens after it.
Bill's team, badly blown, is hitched to the hook-and-ladder truck, and willing hands push it out through the door. There is always more or less of a feud between the hook-and-ladder boys and the hose-cart boys, because the former get the second team and rarely arrive at the fire in time to hoist the beautiful blue ladders before the hose-cart gang puts the conflagration out. Indeed, the feeling has gotten so strong at times that the hook-and-ladder gang has threatened to double the prize-money by private subscription and get their rig out first, but patriotism has thus far prevented this.
You have rung the bell until you are tired, by this time, and, besides, the human flood has rushed on, leaving no one to whom you can explain just how you thought you smelled fire and beat the world to the engine-house. So you set out for the fire yourself and jog over the half-mile in pretty fair time, considering the heat. It is an impressive sight—not the fire itself, but the event. Two thousand, two hundred and nine people are there—that being the population of Homeburg minus the sick and wandering.
In the midst of the seething mass are the hose-cart and the ladder-truck. Around them dozens of red helmets are bobbing, while the quivering air is cut and slashed and mangled with a very hurricane of orders: "Bring up that hose—" "Whoa, keep that horse still—" "Bring her round this way—" "Bring her round this way—" "Hey, you chumps, the fire's this side—" "Back up that wagon—" "Come ahead with the wagon—" "Get out of here till we get a ladder up—" "Axes here—" "Turn on that water—" "Turn on that water—" "Turn on that water!!—" "Jones, go down and tell that wooden Indian to turn on that water." "Hold that water, you—" "Hold that water!" "Turn her on, I say." "Turn her—" "Wow—turn that nozzle the other way—"
And then the water comes with a mighty rush, yanking the nozzlemen this way and that and sweeping firemen and common citizens aside as if they were mere straws.
As a rule, this is the climax, and the end comes rapidly. By this time Brown, who had put the fire out with a few pails of water before the alarm sounded, has persuaded the department to call off its hose, the barn being full of valuable hay. So there isn't anything to do. The water is turned off. Gibb Ogle explains to the one hundred and eleventh knot of people how he was going past the place when he saw the tongue of flame, and every one disperses after a pleasant social time.
Everybody is tolerably well satisfied except the hook-and-ladder gang, which, as usual, is skunked again—never got a ladder out. A couple of the axmen had a little fun with a rear window, but otherwise the affair is a flat failure. They go back sullenly, but are comforted when the roll is called, when each member who was present draws a dollar from the city treasury. As usual, Pete Sundbloom is late, and tries to edge in to roll-call, though he was a mile away from peril, but he can't make it stick and gets the hoarse hoot when his little game is discovered.
I want to ask you—isn't that a pleasant interruption on a dead day? It makes life worth living, and I really wonder that there isn't more incendiarism in small towns throughout the United States.
Of course all the alarms aren't fizzles. Sometimes we have a real fire, and then the scene defies description. When a fair-sized house burns down, Chief Dobbs is so hoarse that he can't talk for a week, and when the row of wooden stores on the south side went up in flames a few years ago, the old chief, Patrick McQuinn, burst a blood-vessel and had to retire, the doctor having warned him that he must never use a speaking-trumpet again.
I was away at the time, but they tell me that was a grand fire for the hook-and-ladder boys. They were right in the middle of it, and every ladder in the truck was out. There was some trouble over the fact that the big extension ladder was too tall for the buildings, and when Art Simms had climbed to the top, he managed to fall fifteen feet to the roof of the furniture-store, bruising himself badly. But, on the whole, great good was done, and the second story workers were kings that day. When the hotel caught, and the hook-and-ladder gang got into it, the way the upper windows belched mattresses, mirrors, toilet-sets, pictures and beds was unbelievable. Almost everything in the building was saved, and some of it was successfully repaired afterward.
The axmen had their innings that day, too. It was a great sight to see Andy Lowes leap nimbly up the ladder and poke in window after window with his spiked ax, stepping backward now and then into nozzleman Jones's face in order to view the effect. The axmen got glory enough to last for years, and it was an axman who put out the last scrap of fire. Frank Sundell was the hero. He was sitting on the ridge-pole of Emerson's restaurant when he noticed a few blazing spots on the shingle roof beneath him. He might have called the hose department; but, as I have said, there is a good deal of rivalry between the two, and, besides, Sundell had had a slow time that day, Lowes doing most of the display work. So Frank reached cautiously down with his trusty ax, cut out a blazing section of shingles, and tossed it to the ground. The crowd cheered, and he was so encouraged that he cut out the rest of the hot spots and put out the fire single-handed. Sundell is one of our very best firemen and stands in line for a nozzleman's position some day.
Of course a small-town fire department doesn't get as much practice in twisting the fire-fiend's tail as a city fire company; but our boys have a mighty good record, and we're proud of them. Since we've had water-works, and the department hasn't had to depend on some cistern which always went dry just at a critical moment, there hasn't been a conflagration in Homeburg big enough to get into the city papers. The boys may be a little overzealous now and then, but they are always on the job ten minutes after the first tap of the bell, and the way they go after a red tongue of flame on a kitchen roof reminds me of a terrier shaking a rat. They are our real heroes,—the fire-laddies,—for outside of Frank Ericson and Shorty McGrew, who work on the switching-crew, and come sailing down through town hanging gracefully from the end of a box-car ladder by one foot and hand, no one else has any chance to face danger in Homeburg.
Of course our firemen don't face danger regularly, between meals, like your big paid departments here, and about the most the ordinary business man gets in the danger-line is the imminent peril of getting a new twenty-five-dollar suit in line with the chemical hose; but we don't forget in Homeburg how old Mrs. Agnew's house burned twenty years ago this spring and the department was late, owing to the magnificent depth of Exchange Street, the roads having broken up, and how, when it got there, the house was a mass of flames, with the poor old lady, who had been bedridden for years, shrieking inside, and a hundred neighbors shrieking on the outside; and how Pat McQuinn and Henry Aultmeyer dove in through a window, with wet coats around their heads and the chemical-hose playing on their backs; and how they tugged and hauled at Mrs. Agnew, who weighed two hundred and fifty pounds, and couldn't get a grip on her, and finally upended the burning bed and dumped her out of the window, breaking her hip, and then dumped themselves out and rolled in the wet grass until their hair and mustaches and clothes quit blazing—after which they retired into cotton-wool for a month.
Maybe your men would have done it more scientifically and entirely saved poor Mrs. Agnew, who died the next month of the broken hip, but they couldn't have stuck to the job any more heroically; and when Homeburg citizens talk about "brave fire-laddies" and "homely heroes" at the annual benefit supper of the Volunteer Company No. 1, they mean Pat and Henry, and are perfectly willing to argue the question with any one.
So we worship our company to our heart's content, and when it comes pacing slowly down the street at the head of every parade, with the members looking handsomer than chorus girls in their dark-blue flannel suits, red belts, and neat blue caps, we look at them full of pride and confidence. Our little boys dream of the time when they will grow up and join the company and wear seven-pound red helmets at fires, and come home tired and muddy in the gray dawn after a fire and demand hot coffee from their admiring women-folks; and as for the Homeburg girls—well, the greatest social function of our town, or of the county for that matter, is the annual ball of the Homeburg fire department.
And let me tell you, when the nine-piece orchestra—all home talent—strikes up the grand march and Chief Dobbs, with his wide-gauge mustache and vacuum-cleaned uniform, leads the company around the hall, every hero with the girl or wife of his heart on his arm and a full hundred couples of the mere laymen crowding in behind, in a long and many-looped line, the Astor ball would have to do business with a brass band and a display of fireworks to attract any more enthusiasm.
That's what the fire department means to us in Homeburg. We don't suffer half so much from fires as we would from the lack of them; and when this new concrete construction makes the world fire-proof, and the Homeburg fire department rusts away and disappears, we will mourn it even more sincerely than we did the opera house with a real gallery, which got over-heated one night twenty-five years ago and burned, compelling us to get along with a mere hall with a flat floor ever afterward.
HOMEBURG'S TWO FOUR-HUNDREDTHS
The Struggles of our Best Families to Impress Us
Hold on, Jim. Don't hurry so. Remember I don't have a chance to walk up Fifth Avenue every day. Give me a chance to astonish myself. Here are ten thousand women going by in clothes that would make a lily turn red and burn up with shame, and an equal number of proud gents with curlycue collars on their overcoats, and I want to do the sight justice.
You see all this parade every day, but I don't, and I want to drink it all in. See that feminine explosion in salmon plush! That would paralyze business back home. Watch that hat crossing the street—it ought to be arrested for being without visible means of support—Oh, I see! There's a girl under it with one of those rifle-barrel skirts. Gee! Ssh, Jim! Did you see the lady who just passed? Let's beg her pardon for intruding on this earth. Say, you could peel enough haughtiness off of her to supply eight duchesses and still have enough for the lady cashier at my hotel. I'll bet she is one of your Four Hundred. For goodness' sake, Jim, if we pass any of your social lighthouses, point them out to me. I'm here to see the sights.
I know the rest of the country throws it up to New York a lot because of its Four Hundred, and that the ordinary small-town man gets so scornful when he talks of the idle and diamond-crusted rich, with their poodle-dog pastimes, that he lives in constant danger of stabbing his eyes with his nose. But I'm not that way; I'm interested. Nothing fascinates me so much as the stories in your papers about Mrs. Clymorr Busst's clever pearl earrings, made to resemble door knobs; and about Mrs. Spenser Coyne's determination to have Columbia University removed because it interferes with the view from her garage; and about little Mrs. Justin Wright's charming innocence in buying a whole steamship whenever she goes over to Europe. I'd go a long way to see your Four Hundred perform; and moreover, after I had accumulated a precarious balance on an iron spike fence in order to rest one eye on a genuine duke while he fought his way out of a church with one of your leading local beauties, who had just been affixed to him for life, I would not squint pityingly on the heaving mass of spectators and hiss:
"We don't do this in Homeburg."
Because we would do it fast enough if we had a chance.
We don't have anything like your Smart Set, of course, but I desire to say with pride that while there aren't enough tiaras in Homeburg to fill a pill box, and the only limousine we possess is the closed carriage which is used for the family of the deceased at funerals, we have our exclusive and magnificent class just as New York has. We haven't a Four Hundred in Homeburg, but we have a Two Four-Hundredths. If you get as much real, solid pleasure and amusement in New York watching your Four Hundred as we do watching the Payleys and the Singers, I envy you. They're worth all the trouble they cause.
For a good many years, Mrs. Wert Payley, wife of the First National Bank, was our Smart Set, all by herself. There was never any question of it. She admitted it, and we didn't take the trouble to deny it. In a way, she was regarded as a public benefactor. Nobody else cared to spend the money necessary to be a Smart Set, and since Mrs. Payley was willing to fight and be bled, so to speak, to give our town tone and inject a little excitement into our prairie lives now and then, we felt that the least we could do was to regard her as a social colossus.
The Payleys were the only people in Homeburg who had lunch at noon, and as early as 1900 they ate it from the bare table. She was the only woman in Homeburg who could "look in" on an afternoon gabble of any kind for a few minutes and get away with it without insulting the hostess. When she shook hands with you, you always grabbed in the wrong place, no matter how much thought you put into it, and while you were readjusting your sights and clawing for her fingers and perspiring with mortification, she was getting a start on you which kept you bashfully humble as long as she was in sight. She was real goods, Mrs. Payley was—not arrogant, but just naturally superior. People who called at the Payleys' evenings were the social lights of Homeburg, and whenever some lady wanted to discharge a few fireworks indicating her social position, she would form a hollow square around Mrs. Payley in public and get intimate with her in full view of everybody. Mrs. Payley ran the town, and everybody was comfortable and content about it until the Singers arrived.
The Singers came from Cincinnati to cashier in the Farmers' State Bank: Mrs. Singer was city bred and city heeled and when she met Mrs. Wert Payley she didn't even blink. She put out her hand a little nor'-nor'east of her chatelaine watch, when Mrs. Payley put out her hand some four inches southwest by south, and waited calmly for Mrs. Payley to correct herself. There was an awful moment of suspense, and when it became evident that the only way to get Mrs. Singer's hand down to the other level would be to excavate beneath her and change her foundations, Mrs. Payley gave in and reached.
War was declared that minute, and I shudder now when I think of the months which followed.
Mrs. Payley, having been on the ground a long time, had fortified it, of course, and was president of all the clubs. But inside of a month Mrs. Singer flanked her position. She declined to join most of the clubs on the plea of being a busy woman, and organized a flower mission. Its object was to distribute flowers to the sick and needy, who generally consisted of Pat Ryan. Pat was nearly smothered in flowers that year, being good-natured, and as the work of collecting said flowers involved a great deal of meeting in the Singer home and dancing in the Singer attic, which was floored with hard maple that winter, Mrs. Singer had the girls of the town organized into a Roman phalanx before spring.
Mrs. Payley was triumphantly reelected to the presidency of all her clubs that winter, but Mrs. Singer organized a public library association and pulled off a German. Mrs. Payley attended, and when she tried to patronize Mrs. Singer with her compliments, that clever infighter beat her to it by explaining the theory of the German to her. That made Mrs. Payley so mad that the next month she invited the state president of the Federation of Women's Clubs to visit her, and didn't ask Mrs. Singer to the tea. The next week Mrs. Singer organized a Country Club. It only consisted of a two-room pavilion in which picnics could be held and dances could be pulled off, with long intermissions for the extraction of slivers from the feet. But it was just as easy to talk about while you were in town and to refer to in a hushed and exclusive manner as if it cost a million, and when Mrs. Payley realized that she could never hope to become exclusive enough to get into it, though goodness knows she couldn't have been hired to belong to the foolish thing, she quit speaking to Mrs. Singer, the split became a chasm, and we began choosing up sides in earnest.
That winter Mrs. Singer seceded from the church which Mrs. Payley ran, and founded an Episcopal church, taking seven choir members out of the Congregational church, to say nothing of the organist. All this mixed up religion in Homeburg that winter until you could scarcely tell it from a ward caucus.
By spring it was dangerous to show favors to either side, and when the school election came around, it was fought out between the Payley and Singer factions. Sally Singer had been given higher marks than Sarah Payley, and the upshot of it all was that when the Payley side prevailed at election by nine votes, the superintendent lost his job. He was a good superintendent and the cause of education didn't get over the jolt for some years, but justice, of course, had to be done.
The Singers got some satisfaction out of it by electing the school board treasurer, which took a lot of money out of the First National Bank. That, of course, got the banks into the row. You city folks may have your financial flurries, but if you've never been around and between and under a bank scrap in a small town, you don't know what trouble is. There were a couple of failures that needn't have happened, and a lot of partisan financiering, and then the town rose up and sat down on our social leaders with a most pronounced scrunch. We can stand just about so much society in Homeburg, but when it gets to elbowing into business, churches, schools and funerals, we are more sensible than you metropolitans are. It only takes a half-day to pass the word through a small town, and one fine morning the Payleys and Singers discovered that while they were still facing each other like two snorty and inextinguishable generals, their armies had gone off arm in arm.
That ended the feud and put society in Homeburg back in its proper place—in the front parlors in the evening after the dishes had been done up. The Payleys and Singers still continued to compete, but we declined to fight and bleed for them and amused ourselves instead by watching them from the sidelines. Mrs. Payley joined the "When I was in Europe" brigade, and the Singers got the first automobile in town. It kept the Singers so busy supporting and encouraging it, that the Payleys were able to build the first modern house with a sleeping porch and individual bathrooms—and about the time the Singers came back with a two-story bungalow full of chopped wood furniture, Mrs. Payley went abroad again and began to say: "The last time I was in Europe." It was nip and tuck, year in and year out, between the two, and we all enjoyed it a lot.
But it wasn't until the Payley and Singer children came home from college and formed a tight little circle with their backs out, that we began to reap the benefits of really haughty society.
The Payley and Singer children had absorbed all their families had to offer, and then they went off to school in the East and laid in a complete stock of the latest styles in superiority. They were all finished in the same spring and shipped back to Homeburg—magnificent specimens of college art with even their names done over—and when they realized that they had to live forever in the old town, where no one spoke their language or could even understand their clothes, the family feud was forgotten and the four rushed together for mutual protection and formed a real Smart Set.
It's just like your bigger crowd. It doesn't have anything to do with us in particular. And we are just like you are. You open your Sunday papers and read reams about the plumbing and pajamas and pet dogs and love affairs of your first families, and I guess nothing that Sally Singer or Sarah Payley ever did got past the scornful but lynx-eyed Homeburgers. When Sarah was getting letters on expensive stationery from Kansas City, the whole town discussed the probable character of a man who would put blue sealing wax on his envelopes, and when Sally made her pa put an addition on the Singer home, we knew what color she was going to do her boudoir in three months in advance. But we are prouder than your people. You hire down-trodden reporters to go and abase themselves to get the information, while we wouldn't lower ourselves enough to ask even by proxy. We just let the sewing women and hired girls tell us.
Being an exclusive set in a small town is a whole lot harder than it is in New York, and I've always admired our youngsters for the way they've carried it off. Of course, four people can't form a club or give parties or support an exclusive restaurant; they can't even be exclusive all by themselves. They have had to mingle with us, but they are always carefully insulated. They joined our Country Club, but they did it with their fingers crossed, so to speak. They always come out together and protect each other from our rude advances as much as possible. They import college friends whenever they can, and they always have a few bush leaguers, or utility players, to work in on such occasions. Henry Snyder used to say he could tell when there was need of the peasantry at the Singer house by the way Sally Singer would suddenly descend from the third cross-road beyond Mars to the street in front of the post-office and ask him with an accurately hospitable smile if he couldn't bring his sister up to the house that evening to meet a few guests. And once a year all four turn in and give a real dress rehearsal of up-to-date social science, to which Homeburg is liberally invited and at which unknown and unsuspected things are served for refreshments and a new and deadly variation of bridge or dancing or punch or receiving lines or conversational technique is put on for our inspection and bewilderment.
We have a show at our opera-house now and then, and we always go to these affairs largely to see our Smart Set perform. It always comes—even East Lynne is better that West Homeburg—and I'll tell you, by the time they have come rustling in about half way through the first act, H. DeLancey Payley and W. Sam Singer in clawhammers with an acre apiece of white shirt and holding about four bushels of pink fluff over their arms, and the boys have consulted anxiously with the usher, the two girls, beautiful visions of Arctic perfection, standing in well-bred suspense and holding their gowns in the 1915 manner, and all four have hurried down to the best seats and have unharnessed and stowed away their upholsterings, and DeLancey has folded up his explosive hat and Sam has leaned back in a lordly way and beckoned to the usher for another program—by the time all this has transpired, the actors have forgotten their lines, and we have gotten our money's worth out of the evening's entertainment.
The hardships those people inflict on themselves in the sacred cause of correctness are agonizing. It takes something more than nerve to wear a silk hat and Prince Albert down to the Homeburg post-office on Sundays to get the mail—especially with Ad Summers always on hand to spill a large red laugh into his sleeve and say to some friend in a tremendous stage whisper that the darn dude's legs must be bowed or he wouldn't want to hide 'em that way. And as for the carriage proposition, I'm certain that no martyrs have endured more. DeLancey persuaded Hi Nott to buy a real city carriage, and the four have used it faithfully; only the Payleys and Singers live in different edges of town, and by the time Hi has hauled Sam and his sister across town to the Payleys, through Homeburg's April streets, which average a little more depth than width, and has hauled the four down to the theater, there are usually about three breakdowns. I've seen the four of them plodding haughtily home from "Wedded but No Wife", the girls holding their imported dresses out of the mud, and the boys sounding for bottom on the crossings with their canes, while Hi drove the carriage solemnly down the road beside them. The mud was too deep for them to get home in the carriage, but everybody could see it was there and that they had paid for it and had done their darndest, anyway. After all, that's no worse than the way you New Yorkers carry your gloves in your hand in warm weather. You don't need them, but you want the world to know you've got 'em and wouldn't be found dead without 'em.
When our Smart Set gives a party, we all try to live up to it as far as possible, and so we insist on going by carriage. Hi starts hauling us at six o'clock, six to a load in dry weather, and he usually gets the last batch there just in time to begin hauling the first platoon home.
But those are just little troubles for our Smart Set. Your Smart Set has no troubles except the job of spending its money fast enough to keep from being smothered by the month's income. It does what it pleases, and if anybody objects, it raises the price of something or other by way of retort. But our Smart Set has to live in Homeburg, and what is more, it has to live off of Homeburg, which is as hoity-toity a place to live off of as you can find. Sally Singer can't afford to offend any one but the depositors in the Payley Bank, and if DeLancey caused any Homeburger to stalk down to his father's bank and extract a thousand-dollar savings deposit, old man Payley would thrash DeLancey and set him to work on his farm. They have to show their superiority over us so deftly and pleasantly that we don't mind it. They have to keep us good-natured while despising us. With half the genius for contemptuous conciliation that the Payley and Singer children have displayed in the last five years, the French nobility could have kept the peasantry yelling for bread as a privilege long after 1793.
Emma Madigan weighs two hundred pounds and drives a milk route. She went to high school with Sally Singer, and it is the joy of her life to poke her head into the Singer home when Sally has company and yell: "Sall, here's your milk!" But Sally never tries to refrigerate her with the Spitzbergen glare which she uses on us collectively when she goes to the theater. You couldn't possibly refrigerate Emma, but you might encourage her to say more—like the time when Sarah Payley passed her on the street without speaking, being busy treading the upper altitudes with a young Princeton College visitor, and Em yelled back: "For goodness' sakes, Sarey, if you didn't lace so tight you could get your chin down and see some one!"
But most of us are not so frank. We are too good-natured. As a matter of fact, we'd hate to see the Payleys and Singers common. They help to make Homeburg interesting, and so long as they know their place and don't irritate us, we wouldn't hurt their feelings for the world—that is, not much.
There was a dancing school in Homeburg two winters ago, and to the consternation of every one the Payley and Singer young folks joined it. It took two meetings for us to discover what had clogged up the atmosphere and taken the prance out of things. Then we tumbled. The Payleys and Singers were educating us. They were fitting us to live in the rarified upper altitudes of refinement and to mingle with rank without stepping all over its feet. By the third meeting Henry Snyder had caught on to most of the signals and he explained them to a lot of us beforehand with care. When Sally Singer dropped on to a bench and moved her skirt ever so slightly aside it was a sign that the young man with whom she was speaking might sit down and hold sweet converse. And when Sarah Payley smiled brightly at a gentleman from some distance and just caressed the chair beside her with her eye for the millionth part of a second, that young man, if he had a spark of gentility in him, would hurdle the intervening chairs to arrive. We also discovered how to get away just before the young ladies got bored, by other delicate signs, and how to derive the fact that they were thirsty and needed sustenance, and just how to imprison them in our strong but respectful arms during a waltz, and how to collect fans and gloves and programs and handkerchiefs from the floor without grunting or jolting the conversation. It was hard work, and spoiled the evening to a certain extent, but we did the best we could until Jim Reebe spoiled it all in the fourth lesson. Miss Singer had collected her usual six men during the intermission with as many bright glances, and was being admired properly and according to Hoyle, when Jim up and remarks, in his megaphone bass: "Say, Sall, you're a great work of art, but the time you made a hit with me was the day you slid down the banisters at school."
That finished the course; and the Smart Set, being unanimously absent the rest of the winter, we gave ourselves up to vulgar pleasure, stuffed our white gloves back into the bureaus and yelled for encores when we couldn't get them any other way.
I'll tell you, a man could be a hero to his valet with half the exertion which it takes to be a Somebody to an old grammar-school mate in a small town.
Our Smart Set is disintegrating now, and things look blue for social progress in Homeburg. Sally Singer is getting ready to be married this summer to a Pittsburgh man who wears a cane. The remaining three look like the old guard at Waterloo closing in under a heavy fire. Looks to me as if there were going to be some of these mess alliances to wind up with, for Sam Singer is calling on Mabel Andrews in citizen's clothing, she having jeered him out of his Prince Albert; and Henry Snyder has stopped scoffing and infests the Payley house to an alarming extent. So I imagine that our Smart Set will get back to shirtsleeves in two generations less than yours usually requires, and we'll miss it a lot. Next to the ill feeling between the Argus and the Democrat, it has been our greatest diversion.
THE SERVANT QUESTION IN HOMEBURG
How Mrs. Singer Amuses Us All by Insisting on Having It
No apologies, Jim. If the Declaration of Independence who prepares your meals for you has packed up and gone, I don't need any explanations. I understand already. You can't ask me up to dinner because there isn't going to be any dinner. If you don't go out to a restaurant, you'll get a bite yourself while Mrs. Jim puts the children to bed. And then you'll spend the evening wondering where you can beg, borrow, abduct, hypnotize, or manufacture another cook.
I know all about it. The great sorrow has come upon you, and there's only one comfort—there are others. It falls upon all who try to get out of doing their own housework in New York. And I'll bet you were good enough to the last cook, too—only asked her for one night out a week, came to her meals promptly, didn't demand more than a fair living wage, and let her have the rest. Yes, of course you did. And you're going to let the next one have the best room and ring for her breakfast in the morning, aren't you? What? Draw the line at that? Well, Jim, I admire your nerve. You're one of the grand old rugged patriots who will not be trodden on. Why did your last cook leave, anyway?
Didn't like the kitchen, eh? And being in a flat you couldn't tear it out and rebuild it. Yes, I agree with you. The servant problem in New York is getting to be very serious. To-day you are gay and happy with luxury and comfort all about you, and to-morrow you are picking sardines out of a can with a fork for dinner. I am certainly glad I live in the country, where servant girls do not come on Monday with two trunks and go away early Thursday morning with three trunks and a bundle.
We have no servant problem in Homeburg. However, I exclude Mrs. Singer from this "we." There are only two servants in the whole town. Mrs. Singer has them. That is, she tries to have them. Mrs. Singer's attempt to have servants in a town which is full of hired girls is one of the things which make life worth living and talking about in Homeburg.
How do I know about it? Bless you, we all know about it. It's a public tragedy. Can't help ourselves. We've had four of Mrs. Singer's ex-servants in our house in six years, and they have all told their troubles. Mrs. Singer trains girls for the entire town. She's twice as good as a domestic science school, and she doesn't charge any tuition. She is devoting her life to the training up of perfect hired girls, and we revel in the results. It is ungrateful of us to blame her for taking away our hired girls, because, as a matter of fact, she is our greatest blessing. Right at this minute in Homeburg I know that two eager families are sitting around waiting for the latest Singer class in domestic science to graduate and come back to them for jobs. It ought to come most any time. The course rarely lasts over three months.
You see, Mrs. Singer isn't one of us. She came to Homeburg from a large city, and she brought her ideas with her. She's not the kind of a woman, either, who is going to cut those ideas down to fit Homeburg. Her plan is to change Homeburg over to fit her ideas. She's been working at it for fifteen years now, and I must say she's won out in several cases. Dress suits are now worn quite unblushingly, we have a country club half a mile from the post-office—that's the advantage of a small town, you can get away from the rush and bustle of the city into the sweet cool country in about four jumps—and no one thinks of serving a party dinner without salad any more. But she's fallen down on one thing. She can't keep servants. That problem has been too much for her. Mrs. Payley, her rival, has had the same hired girl for sixteen years or more; but Mrs. Singer scorns a hired girl. She must have servants, two of them, and while she has a remarkable constitution and has stood up for years under the fight, I don't see how she can keep it up much longer.
A hired girl in Homeburg is a very reasonable creature. We never have any trouble with them, and they have very little with us. We usually catch them green and wild, just off the steamer, and they come to us equipped with a thorough working knowledge of the Swedish language, and nothing else to speak of. Our wives take them in and teach them how to boil water, make beds, handle a broom, use clothespins, and all the simpler tricks of housework, to say nothing of an elementary knowledge of English, which they usually acquire in a month; and we pay this kind a couple of dollars a week, and they wash the clothes, take care of the furnace, and mow the lawn with great pleasure. They usually stay a year or so and then they go to Mrs. Singer's finishing school. They do not go because they are discontented, but because she offers them five dollars a week, which is a pretty fair-sized chunk of the earth to a young Swedish girl just learning to do a few loops and spirals in English and saving up the steamer fare to bring her sister over.
Mrs. Singer takes our nice, green, young hired girls, who are willing to do anything up to the capacity of a stout back, and she tries to make servants out of them. She gives them embroidered aprons and caps and makes them keep house her way. And after they have spent a couple of months making coffee to suit Mrs. Singer, and going over the mahogany to suit Mrs. Singer, and arranging the magazines on the table to suit Mrs. Singer, and taking up the breakfast to Miss Sally to suit Mrs. Singer, and going over the back hall again to suit Mrs. Singer, and keeping their mouths closed tightly all day to suit Mrs. Singer, and only going out on Thursday afternoons to suit Mrs. Singer, they sort of get tired of the job, and one after another they stop Mrs. Singer at a favorable moment and say these fatal words:
"Aye gass aye ent stay eny longer."
Then some Homeburg family joyfully seizes on the deserter, and Mrs. Singer starts out all over again on the job of making a servant out of a hired girl.
I have to admire the woman for her eternal grit. She won't give up for a minute. She is going to run her house just so if she has to train up a million girls and lose them all. Half the time she has to do her own work, but I'll bet that when she has the luncheon ready she puts her little white lace napkin on her hair and comes in and announces it to herself in the proper style; and I'll bet, too, that she doesn't talk to herself while she is working in the kitchen, either. She says the way Homeburg women talk to their servants is disgraceful; that it lowers a servant's respect for her mistress. I'd give a lot to see Mrs. Singer looking at herself coldly in the glass after breakfast and giving herself orders for the day in a tone that would brook no familiarity whatever.
Our women-folks, who are familiar with the Singer residence, say that it is a beautiful thing full of monogrammed linen and embroidered towels and curtains that have to be washed as often as a white shirt, and that whenever they call they are pretty sure to find Mrs. Singer trying to teach some new and slightly dizzy second girl how to take care of the house without breaking off the edges.
You observe the fluency and ease with which I say "second girl." We all do in Homeburg. We're used to talking about second girls since Mrs. Singer has tried to keep one. As far as her experience has taught us, we are firmly convinced that having a second girl is like having mumps on the other side too. When Mrs. Singer isn't busy trying to teach her cook how to run the oven and the plate heater and serve the soup all at the same time, she is attempting to give a new second girl some inkling of the general ideas of her duties. Trouble is most of them are ten-second girls. They listen to the program in the Singer household and then they sprint for safety to some family where they will work twice as hard, but will give three times as much satisfaction. Then Mrs. Singer arms herself with the dust rag and clear-starch bowl, and subs on the job until she finds a new second girl—after which the cook gives up her job with a loud report, and Mr. Singer stays down-town for dinner at the Delmonico Hotel until the Singer house management is staved off the rocks again.
We feel sorry for the Singers and invite them out a good deal while they are hunting cooks. And they pay us back royally as soon as the household staff is fully recruited once more. We eat strange but delicious dishes made by a reluctant and mystified girl, plus Mrs. Singer's persuasiveness and will power; and said girl, still reluctant, and scared into the bargain, serves the dinner with a lace-edged apron and a napkin on her hair, Mrs. Singer egging her in loud whispers like the prompter in grand opera. Steering a green cook through a dinner party, and keeping up a merry conversation at the same time, calls for about as much social skill as anything I know of. I myself stand in awe of Mrs. Singer.
As for the rest of us—we have no servant problem, having no servants. And about the only hired girl problem we have is the following: "Shall the girl eat with the family or in the kitchen?" Mrs. Singer wished that on us. Ten years ago there was no question at all. The girl ate with the family, and waited on the table when something was needed which couldn't be reached. Then Mrs. Singer came to town and made her eat in the kitchen, since which time the question has raged with more or less fury and the whole town has chosen up sides on it. Half of us want the girl to eat in the kitchen, and the other half are invincibly democratic and have her at the table.
As for the girls, they are divided too. Half of the girls who come to see about places ask us: "Do I have to eat in the kitchen?" and the other half ask: "Do I have to eat with the family?" And of course it's just our luck that the people who wish to dine by themselves never can find girls who prefer the kitchen, and the people who insist on associating with their help usually lose them because said help has been spoiled somewhere else by being allowed to eat in the kitchen, far from the domestic squabbles and the children with the implacable appetite for spread bread.
But on the whole this problem doesn't bother us much, and our hired girls are a great comfort. They usually stay with us until they are married or retire from old age, and after they've been ten years in a house they're pretty much one of the family. The Payleys' girl has been with them sixteen years, as I said before, and when she wants to go to the opera-house to an entertainment, Wert Payley makes young DeLancey Payley take her. It's the only use he's found for DeLancey as yet. We keep out of the kitchen after supper, unless too strongly pressed by thirst, because usually from seven to ten some hardworking young Swedish man sits bolt upright in a straight-backed chair, his head against the wall, discussing romance and other subjects of interest with a scared, resolute expression. Usually this goes on for about three years before anything happens. Then the girl admits, with some hesitation, that she is going to get married, and our wife or mother, as the case may be, hustles around and helps make the trousseau and pick out the linen. The wedding takes place in the parlor, and about a year later the young Swedish-American citizen who arrives is named after whatever member of our family is the most convenient as to sex.
We never entirely lose a good hired girl in Homeburg. They pass us on to their relatives when they are married, and come back to visit with great faithfulness. In this topsy-turvy Eldorado of ours where a man sometimes becomes rich before he really knows what anything larger than five dollars looks like, many of our girls draw prizes in the shape of good farmers and prosperous young merchants. But their heads aren't turned by it. They come around in their new automobiles and take us out riding, just as if we had money too. The wife of our mayor used to work for us, and when the electric light gang stuck a light where it would shine straight into our back porch, thus reducing the value of our house 105 per cent. as a place of employment for a nice, attractive girl in summers, I stepped over to the mayor's office and asked him if he remembered how he used to sit on that porch himself. He smiled once, winked twice, and three minutes afterward four men were on their way to relocate that pole.
If I have any criticism of the hired girls in our town, it is because they go to Europe too much. Now, of course, it's no worse for a hired girl to go to Europe for the summer than it is for any one else to indulge themselves in that way. But that's the irritating part. Nobody else goes. Outside of Mrs. Wert Payley and one or two school teachers, I don't suppose any Homeburg people have crossed the Atlantic. But half a dozen of our hired girls go every year. They leave late in the spring, and during the hot weary summer their mistresses toil patiently along keeping the job open if they can't find a substitute who will work for a few months, for the girls who go to Europe are usually pearls of great price and must be gotten back at all cost. I don't suppose anything is harder on the temper than to work over a hot kitchen stove all day in July, and then to sit down to supper, a damp and wilted mess of weariness, and read a souvenir card from your hired girl, said card depicting a cool and inviting Swedish meadow with snow-topped mountains in the distance.
Our girl has been to Europe three times. She has crossed on the Mauretania, the old Deutschland and the new Olympic. Two years from this summer she thinks she will try the Imperator. Often in the evening she tells us of the wonders of these great vessels—of the beauty of the sunset at sea, and of the smoke and noise and majesty of London. I suppose it indicates a jealous disposition, but it makes me mad sometimes to think that it takes practically all the money I can earn, working steadily and with two weeks off per year, to send that girl abroad.
Of course I don't mean it just that way. She doesn't get all of it. In fact she gets three dollars a week of it. Out of this she saves about three dollars and twenty-five cents because sometimes she gets a dollar extra for doing the washing. And when she goes to Europe for the summer on the same ship with the Astors and the Vanderbilts, it sounds more magnificent than it really is. She is on the same ship, but about eleven decks down, in a corner of the steerage close to the stern, where the smells are rich and undisturbed. And she doesn't visit ruins and art galleries in Europe, but a huge circle of loving relatives, who pass her around from farm to farm for months, while she does amateur business agent work for the steamship lines, talking up the wonders of America and—allow me to blush—the saintliness of her employers, and coming blithely back home in the fall with three or four old childhood chums for roommates.
Just the same, I envy our girls. I wish I could go to Europe in the steerage, not being able to go any other way.
It's a fortunate thing for us that our hired girls do go back home and proselyte for America, or else we would soon be jam up against the real thing in help problems. If, for any reason, the Swedish nation should cease contributing to Homeburg, we should have to do our own work. I often wonder at the things our American girls will do rather than to go on the fighting deck as commander of some one else's kitchen. Twenty-five of our girls go up to Paynesville every morning at six on the interurban and make cores in the rolling mills there all day. Carfare and board deducted, they get less than a good hired girl—and they don't go to Europe for the summers and never by any chance marry some rising young farmer who has made the first payment on a quarter section. Several of our middle-aged young ladies sew for a dollar a day and keep house by themselves. And there's Mary Smith, who has been a town problem. She's thirty-five and an orphan. She lives in a house about as large as a piano box and tries to scare away the wolf by selling flavoring extracts and taking orders for books. She's never more than two meals ahead of an embarrassing appetite. Every fall we dig down and buy her winter coal, and she hasn't bought any clothes for ten years. Some one gives her an ex-dress and Mary does her best to make it over, but she never looks much more enticing than a scarecrow in the result.
Mary's hands are red with chilblains in the winter, and the poorhouse yawns for her. But will she take a place as hired girl? Not she. Mary has her pride. She'll sell you things you don't want, which is as near begging as graft is to politics, and she'll wear second-hand clothes and take home cold bread pudding from the hotel—but she will not be a hired girl and go to Europe in the summer and marry into an automobile. Once she did consent to become Mrs. Singer's second girl. Mrs. Singer was desperate, and after a long defense Mary consented on condition that she be called the "up-stairs maid." But she only lasted three days. Mary could have drawn five dollars a week and Mrs. Singer's clothes, which would have fitted her. But Mary couldn't take orders—not that kind. She came back to take orders from us for a patent glass washtub or something of the kind—and we sighed wearily.
HOMEBURG'S LEISURE CLASS
It is not as large as New York's but it is twice as ingenious
Confound it, Jim, I wish you hadn't told me that your friend Williston never worked a day in his life! You don't know how it disappointed me.
Why? Because I don't know when I have met a man whom I liked so much at first sight as I did Williston. He suited me from the ground up. I never spent a more interesting afternoon with any one. No matter what he did, he interested me—I enjoyed watching him handle his cigar as well as I did hearing him tell about his Amazon adventures. Says I to myself: "Here is a man whose friendship I will win if I have to live in New York all my life to get it." And then you had to go and spoil it all.
Oh, yes, I know it's just my backwoods way of looking at things. I'm not saying what I do as a boast. I'm making a confession of it. I know why Williston doesn't work. It's because he owns a piano box full of bonds left by his late lamented pa, and when he was educated, the word "work" was crossed out of his spelling-book in red ink. And I'm not saying that he isn't a fine fellow. He's intelligent and witty and companionable and forty other desirable things. But he won't work. Somehow that sticks in my vision of him. It reminds me of the case of Mamie Gastit, who was the prettiest, best-dispositioned, and most capable girl in Homeburg, but who had a glass eye. We didn't hold it up against her, but it made us awfully sad. There were plenty of Homeburg girls who would have been decorated by a glass eye. Why did Providence have to wish it on the finest girl in town?
You say it is no crime not to work in New York? Bless you, I know it. In fact, loafing in New York is the most fascinating business in the world. Why, it seems as if you New York men actually struggle to get spare time. I've sat in your office and watched you on Saturday morning working yourself into a blue haze in your efforts to get done early enough to cord up a fine big mess of leisure on Saturday afternoon. That's the difference between New York and Homeburg. In Homeburg you would have been stretching out your job to last until supper time—unless you were one of our nineteen golfers, or the roads were good enough to let you drive over to the baseball game at Paynesville.
Leisure in New York means pleasure, excitement, and seven dozen kinds of interest. But for many and many a long year in hundreds of Homeburg homes, leisure has meant waiting for meal times—and not much of anything else.
City people laugh at country people for beating the chickens to roost. But what are you going to do when going to bed is the most fascinating diversion available after supper? I've noticed that as fast as a small town man discovers something else to do in the evening, his light bill goes up and up. When crokinole was introduced into Homeburg twenty odd years ago, the kerosene wagon had to make an extra mid-week trip. When the magazines came down from thirty-five cents to ten and you could get three of them and a set of books for one dollar down and a dollar a month until death did you part, they had to put an operator in the telephone exchange after 8 P.M. because of the general sleeplessness. When the automobile came, and when two moving picture theaters, a Chautauqua, and a Lyceum course opened fire in one year, and the business men fitted up a club with an ancient pool table in it, Homeburg got chummy with all the evening hours, and kicked so hard about the electric lights going off at midnight that the company had to run them an hour longer. And I suppose if any invader ever puts in an all-night restaurant where you can have lobster and a soubrette on the table at the same time, a certain proportion of us will get as foolish as you are and will forget how to go to bed at all by artificial light.
We've changed that much from the past generation. We know what to do with leisure in the evening. But we're still awkward and embarrassed when we meet it by daylight. Since we have built our Country Club, a few of us have learned to enjoy ourselves in a fitful and guilty fashion late in the afternoon. But as a rule, even to-day, when you give a Homeburg man a bright golden daylight hour of leisure, he has no more use for it than he would have for a five-ton white elephant with an appetite for ice-cream. And that, Jim, is why I can't speed myself up to appreciate a young man who has never worked and never intends to. I still have to look at him with my Homeburg eyes. And in Homeburg, when a man doesn't work when he has a chance and takes what amusement we have to offer as a steady diet in perfect content, we know something is the matter with him—and we are sorry for him.
Leisure has killed more people in Homeburg than work ever did. For years our biggest problem was the job of keeping our retired farmers alive. When a farmer has worked forty years or so, and has accumulated a quarter section of land, and a few children who need high school education, he rents his farm and moves into town, where he lives comfortably on eighty dollars a month and fills a tasty tomb in a very few years. It isn't so hard on the farmer's wife, because she takes her housework into town with her and keeps busy. But when the farmer has settled down in town, far from a chance to work, he discovers that he has about fourteen hours of leisure each day on his hands and nothing to do with them but to eat. Out of regard for his digestion he can't eat more than three hours a day. That leaves him eleven hours in which to go down-town for the mail and do the chores around the house.
He stands it pretty well the first year. The second year is so long that he begins to lay plans for his centennial, and about the third year he takes to his bed and dies, with a sigh of relief. That's what leisure does to a Homeburg man who isn't used to it. And that is one of the reasons why, when I see a man in New York with nothing to do from choice, I think of the sad army of the unemployed in Homeburg draping themselves around the grain office every day in fine weather, and wearing away the weary years in idleness because they are too old to work, and don't have to, anyway.
Of late years we have been working earnestly to conserve our retired farmers. They are fine men, and we hate to see them wasted. We have been trying to reduce their leisure—just as a city man tries to reduce his flesh. We elect them to everything possible. We have taught a number of them how to play pool in the Commercial Club. We have started a farmers' elevator, a farmers' bank and a planter factory, and have got them to invest money. That has been a godsend, because it has kept a large number of them busy and happy trying to save the said money. But where we have saved one retired farmer, the automobile has saved ten. Whenever one of our unemployed comes out with a machine, we sigh with relief and stop worrying about him. It's just the same as if he had been given wings and a world to explore. In summer, our retired farmers who have autos loaf around the country from Indiana to Idaho and talk crops in the garages of a thousand towns. And in winter they rebuild their cars, and talk good roads. Twenty years ago you could talk good roads to a farmer or bang him with a club, with the same result. But last year our retired farmers organized a good roads association, and to amuse themselves they have dragged the roads for miles around and have built a mile of rock road leading south to the cemetery—where in the old April days, as Henry Snyder says, the deceased was buried once, but the mourners got buried twice—going out and coming back.
We have a real leisure class in Homeburg, however, outside of the retired farmers, who really can't help themselves. Our genuine metropolitan leisure class consists of DeLancey Payley and Gibb Ogle. They are, as far as I know, the only two people in Homeburg who loaf from choice year in and year out in perfect content. We have done our best with both of them, but we have given up. Leisure is what they were created for. It is a talent with them, and their only talent. They have developed it to the best of their ability.
DeLancey's is the saddest case, because so much money was wasted on him. Wert Payley is the richest man in our part of the country. He owns a bank and one or two counties out West. He sent DeLancey East to school, where he was educated regardless of expense or anything else and was returned a few years ago a finished product, sublime, though a little terrifying to look at, and reeking with knowledge of one kind or another. I have heard it said that DeLancey can tell offhand what has been the correct thing in dress for each of the last thirty-five years, and that he can handle as many as fifteen articles of cutlery and forkery at a dinner table with absolute accuracy.