* * * * *
- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation in the original document has been preserved. This e-text contains dialect and unusual spelling. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -
* * * * *
ONE WAY OUT
A MIDDLE-CLASS NEW-ENGLANDER EMIGRATES TO AMERICA
ONE WAY OUT
A MIDDLE-CLASS NEW-ENGLANDER EMIGRATES TO AMERICA
BY WILLIAM CARLETON
BOSTON SMALL, MAYNARD & COMPANY PUBLISHERS
BY SMALL, MAYNARD & COMPANY (INCORPORATED)
Entered at Stationers' Hall
Published January 28, 1911; second printing January
Presswork by Geo. H. Ellis Co., Boston, U.S.A.
TO HER WHO WASN'T AFRAID
I A BORN AND BRED NEW ENGLANDER 1
II THIRTY DOLLARS A WEEK 18
III THE MIDDLE CLASS HELL 37
IV WE EMIGRATE TO AMERICA 53
V WE PROSPECT 67
VI I BECOME A DAY LABORER 82
VII NINE DOLLARS A WEEK 94
VIII SUNDAY 112
IX PLANS FOR THE FUTURE 125
X THE EMIGRANT SPIRIT 146
XI NEW OPPORTUNITIES 165
XII OUR FIRST WINTER 183
XIII I BECOME A CITIZEN 200
XIV FIFTEEN DOLLARS A WEEK 216
XV THE GANG 234
XVI DICK FINDS A WAY OUT, TOO 252
XVII THE SECOND YEAR 266
XVIII MATURING PLANS 283
XIX ONCE AGAIN A NEW ENGLANDER 298
ONE WAY OUT
ONE WAY OUT
A BORN AND BRED NEW ENGLANDER
My great-grandfather was killed in the Revolution; my grandfather fought in the War of 1812; my father sacrificed his health in the Civil War; but I, though born in New England, am the first of my family to emigrate to this country—the United States of America. That sounds like a riddle or a paradox. It isn't; it's a plain statement of fact.
As a matter of convenience let me call myself Carleton. I've no desire to make public my life for the sake of notoriety. My only idea in writing these personal details is the hope that they may help some poor devil out of the same hole in which I found myself mired. They are of too sacred a nature to share except impersonally. Even behind the disguise of an assumed name I passed some mighty uncomfortable hours a few months ago when I sketched out for a magazine and saw in cold print what I'm now going to give in full. It made me feel as though I had pulled down the walls of my house and was living my life open to the view of the street. For a man whose home means what it does to me, there's nothing pleasant about that.
However, I received some letters following that brief article which made the discomfort seem worth while. My wife and I read them over with something like awe. They came from Maine and they came from Texas; they came from the north, they came from the south, until we numbered our unseen friends by the hundred. Running through these letters was the racking cry that had once rended our own hearts—"How to get out!" As we read some of them our throats grew lumpy.
"God help them," said my wife over and over again.
As we read others, we felt very glad that our lives had been in some way an inspiration to them. After talking the whole matter over we decided that if it helped any to let people know how we ourselves pulled out, why it was our duty to do so. For that purpose, which is the purpose of this book, Carleton is as good a name as any.
My people were all honest, plodding, middle-class Americans. They stuck where they were born, accepted their duties as they came, earned a respectable living and died without having money enough left to make a will worth while. They were all privates in the ranks. But they were the best type of private—honest, intelligent, and loyal unto death. They were faithful to their families and unswerving in their duty to their country. The records of their lives aren't interesting, but they are as open as daylight.
My father seems to have had at first a bit more ambition stirring within him than his ancestors. He started in the lumber business for himself in a small way but with the first call for troops sold out and enlisted. He did not distinguish himself but he fought in more battles than many a man who came out a captain. He didn't quit until the war was over. Then he crawled back home subdued and sick. He refused ever to draw a pension because he felt it was as much a man's duty to fight for his country as for his wife. He secured a position as head clerk and confidential man with an old established lumber firm and here he stuck the rest of his life. He earned a decent living and in the course of time married and occupied a comfortable home. My mother died when I was ten and after that father sold his house and we boarded. It was a dreary enough life for both of us. Mother was the sort of mother who lives her whole life in caring for her men folks so that her going left us as helpless as babies. For a long while we didn't even know when to change our stockings. But obeying the family tradition, father accepted his lot stoically and as final. No one in our family ever married twice. With the death of the wife and mother the home ceased and that was the end of it.
I remember my father with some pride. He was a tall, old-fashioned looking man with a great deal of quiet dignity. I came to know him much better in the next few years after mother died than ever before for we lived together in one room and had few friends. I can see him now sitting by a small kerosene lamp after I had gone to bed clumsily trying to mend some rent in my clothes. I thought it an odd occupation for a man but I know now what he was about. I think his love for my mother must have been deep for he talked to me a great deal of her and seemed much more concerned about my future on her account than on either his own or mine. I think it was she—she was a woman of some spirit—who persuaded him to consider sending me to college. This accounted partly for the mending although there was some sentiment about it too. I think he liked to feel that he was carrying out her work for me even in such a small matter as this.
How much he was earning and how much he saved I never knew. I went to school and had all the common things of the ordinary boy and I don't remember that I ever asked him for any pocket money but what he gave it to me. It was towards the end of my senior year in the high school that I began to notice a change in him. He was at times strangely excited and at other times strangely blue. He asked me a great many questions about my preference in the matter of a college and bade me keep well up in my studies. He began to skimp a little and I found out afterwards that one reason he grew so thin was because he did away with his noon meal. It makes my blood boil now when I remember where the fruit of this self-sacrifice went. I wouldn't recall it here except as a humble tribute to his memory.
One night I came back to the room and though it was not yet dark I was surprised to see a crack of yellow light creeping out from beneath the sill. Suspecting something was wrong, I pushed open the door and saw my father seated by the lamp with a pair of trousers I had worn when a kid in his hands. His head was bent and he was trying to sew. I went to his side and asked him what the trouble was. He looked up but he didn't know me. He never knew me again. He died a few days afterwards. I found then that he had invested all his savings in a wild-cat mining scheme. They had been swept away.
So at eighteen I was left alone with the only capital that succeeding generations of my family ever inherited—a common school education and a big, sound physique. My father's tragic death was a heavy blow but the mere fact that I was thrown on my own resources did not dishearten me. In fact the prospect rather roused me. I had soaked in the humdrum atmosphere of the boarding house so long that the idea of having to earn my own living came rather as an adventure. While dependent on my father, I had been chained to this one room and this one city, but now I felt as though the whole wide world had suddenly been opened up to me. I had no particular ambition beyond earning a comfortable living and I was sure enough at eighteen of being able to do this. If I chose, I could go to sea—there wasn't a vessel but what would take so husky a youngster; if I wished, I could go into railroading—here again there was a demand for youth and brawn. I could go into a factory and learn manufacturing or I could go into an office and learn a business. I was young, I was strong, I was unfettered. There is no one on earth so free as such a young man. I could settle in New York or work my way west and settle in Seattle or go north into Canada. My legs were stout and I could walk if necessary. And wherever I was, I had only to stop and offer the use of my back and arms in return for food and clothes. Most men feel like this only once in their lives. In a few years they become fettered again—this time for good.
Having no inclination towards the one thing or the other, I took the first opportunity that offered. A chum of mine had entered the employ of the United Woollen Company and seeing another vacancy there in the clerical department, he persuaded me to join him. I began at five dollars a week. I was put at work adding up columns of figures that had no more meaning to me than the problems in the school arithmetic. But it wasn't hard work and my hours were short and my associates pleasant. After a while I took a certain pride in being part of this vast enterprise. My chum and I hired a room together and we both felt like pretty important business men as we bought our paper on the car every morning and went down town.
It took close figuring to do anything but live that first year and yet we pushed our way with the crowd into the nigger heavens and saw most of the good shows. I had never been to the theatre before and I liked it.
Next year I received a raise of five dollars and watched the shows from the rear of the first balcony. That is the only change the raise made that I can remember except that I renewed my stock of clothes. The only thing I'm sure of is that at the end of the second year I didn't have anything left over.
That is true of the next six years. My salary was advanced steadily to twenty dollars and at that time it took just twenty dollars a week for me to live. I wasn't extravagant and I wasn't dissipated but every raise found a new demand. It seemed to work automatically. You might almost say that our salaries were not raised at all but that we were promoted from a ten dollar plane of life to a fifteen dollar plane and then to a twenty. And we all went together—that is the men who started together. Each advance meant unconsciously the wearing of better clothes, rooming at better houses, eating at better restaurants, smoking better tobacco, and more frequent amusements. This left us better satisfied of course but after all it left us just where we began. Life didn't mean much to any of us at this time and if we were inclined to look ahead why there were the big salaried jobs before us to dream about. But even if a man had been forehanded and of a saving nature, he couldn't have done much without sacrificing the only friends most of us had—his office associates. For instance—to save five dollars a week at this time I would have had to drop back into the fifteen dollars a week crowd and I'd have been as much out of place there as a boy dropped into a lower grade at school. I remember that when I was finally advanced another five dollars I half-heartedly resolved to put that amount in the bank weekly. But at this point the crowd all joined a small country club and I had either to follow or drop out of their lives. Of course in looking back I can see where I might have done differently but I wasn't looking back then—nor very far ahead either. If it would have prevented my joining the country club I'm glad I didn't.
It was out there that I met the girl who became my wife. My best reason for remaining anonymous is the opportunity it will give me to tell about Ruth. I want to feel free to rave about her if I wish. She objected in the magazine article and she objects even more strongly now but, as before, I must have an uncramped hand in this. The chances are that I shall talk more about her than I did the first time. The whole scheme of my life, beginning, middle and end, swings around her. Without her inspiration I don't like to think what the end of me might have been. And it's just as true to-day as it was in the stress of the fight.
I was twenty-six when I met Ruth and she was eighteen. She came out to the club one Saturday afternoon to watch some tennis. It happened that I had worked into the finals of the tournament but that day I wasn't playing very well. I was beaten in the first set, six-two. What was worse I didn't care a hang if I was. I had found myself feeling like this about a lot of things during those last few months. Then as I made ready to serve the second set I happened to see in the front row of the crowd to the right of the court a slight girl with blue eyes. She was leaning forward looking at me with her mouth tense and her fists tight closed. Somehow I had an idea that she wanted me to win. I don't know why, because I was sure I'd never seen her before; but I thought that perhaps she had bet a pair of gloves or a box of candy on me. If she had, I made up my mind that she'd get them. I started in and they said, afterwards, I never played better tennis in my life. At any rate I beat my man.
After the game I found someone to introduce me to her and from that moment on there was nothing else of so great consequence in my life. I learned all about her in the course of the next few weeks. Her family, too, was distinctly middle-class, in the sense that none of them had ever done anything to distinguish themselves either for good or bad. Her parents lived on a small New Hampshire farm and she had just been graduated from the village academy and had come to town to visit her aunt. The latter was a tall, lean woman, who, after the death of her husband had been forced to keep lodgers to eke out a living. Ruth showed me pictures of her mother and father, and they might have been relatives of mine as far as looks went. The father had caught an expression from the granite hills which most New England farmers get—a rugged, strained look; the mother was lean and kind and worried. I met them later and liked them.
Ruth was such a woman as my mother would have taken to; clear and laughing on the surface, but with great depths hidden among the golden shallows. Her experience had all been among the meadows and mountains so that she was simple and direct and fearless in her thoughts and acts. You never had to wonder what she meant when she spoke and when you came to know her you didn't even have to wonder what she was dreaming about. And yet she was never the same because she was always growing. But the thing that woke me up most of all from the first day I met her was the interest she took in everyone and everything. A fellow couldn't bore Ruth if he tried. She would have the time of her life sitting on a bench in the park or walking down the street or just staring out the window of her aunt's front room. And that street looked like Sunday afternoon all the week long.
I began to do some figuring when I was alone but there wasn't much satisfaction in it. I had the clothes in my room, a good collection of pipes, and ten dollars of my last week's salary. A man couldn't get married on that even to a girl like Ruth who wouldn't want much. I cut down here and there but I naturally wanted to appear well before Ruth and so the savings went into new ties and shoes. In this way I fretted along for a few months until I screwed my courage up to ask for another raise. Those were prosperous days for the United Woollen and everyone from the president to the office boy was in good humor. I went to Morse, head of the department, and told him frankly that I wished to get married and needed more money. That wasn't a business reason for an increase but those of us who had worked there some years had come to feel like one of the family and it wasn't unusual for the company to raise a man at such a time. He said he'd see what he could do about it and when I opened my pay envelope the next week I found an extra five in it.
I went direct from the office to Ruth and asked her to marry me. She didn't hang her head nor stammer but she looked me straight in the eyes a moment longer than usual and answered:
"All right, Billy."
"Then let's go out this afternoon and see about getting a house," I said.
I don't think a Carleton ever boarded when first married. To me it wouldn't have seemed like getting married. I knew a suburb where some of the men I had met at the country club lived and we went out there. It was a beautiful June day and everything looked clean and fresh. We found a little house of eight rooms that we knew we wanted as soon as we saw it. It was one of a group of ten or fifteen that were all very much alike. There was a piazza on the front and a little bit of lawn that looked as though it had been squeezed in afterwards. In the rear there was another strip of land where we thought we might raise some garden stuff if we put it in boxes. The house itself had a front hall out of which stairs led to the next floor. To the right there was a large room separated by folding doors with another good-sized room next to it which would naturally be used as a dining room. In the rear of this was the kitchen and besides the door there was a slide through which to pass the food. Upstairs there were four big rooms stretching the whole width of the house. Above these there was a servant's room. The whole house was prettily finished and in the two rooms down stairs there were fireplaces which took my eye, although they weren't bigger than coal hods. It was heated by a furnace and lighted by electricity and there were stained glass panels either side of the front door.
The rent was forty dollars a month and I signed a three years' lease before I left. The next week was a busy one for us both. We bought almost a thousand dollars' worth of furniture on the installment plan and even then we didn't seem to get more than the bare necessities. I hadn't any idea that house furnishings cost so much. But if the bill had come to five times that I wouldn't have cared. The installments didn't amount to very much a week and I already saw Morse promoted and myself filling his position at twenty-five hundred. I hadn't yet got over the feeling I had at eighteen that life was a big adventure and that a man with strong legs and a good back couldn't lose. With Ruth at my side I bought like a king. Though I never liked the idea of running into debt this didn't seem like a debt. I had only to look into her dear blue eyes to feel myself safe in buying the store itself. Ruth herself sometimes hesitated but, as I told her, we might as well start right and once for all as to go at it half heartedly.
The following Saturday we were married. My vacation wasn't due for another month so we decided not to wait. The old folks came down from the farm and we just called in a clergyman and were married in the front parlor of the aunt's house. It was both very simple and very solemn. For us both the ceremony meant the taking of a sacred oath of so serious a nature as to forbid much lightheartedness. And yet I did wish that the father and mother and aunt had not dressed in black and cried during it all. Ruth wore a white dress and looked very beautiful and didn't seem afraid. As for me, my knees trembled and I was chalk white. I think it was the old people and the room, for when it was over and we came out into the sunshine again I felt all right except a bit light-headed. I remember that the street and the houses and the cars seemed like very small matters.
THIRTY DOLLARS A WEEK
When, with Ruth on my arm, I walked up the steps of the house and unlocked the front door, I entered upon a new life. It was my first taste of home since my mother died and added to that was this new love which was finer than anything I had ever dreamed about. It seemed hard to have to leave every morning at half past six and not get back until after five at night, but to offset this we used to get up as early as four o'clock during the long summer days. Many the time even in June Ruth and I ate our breakfast by lamp-light. It gave us an extra hour and she was bred in the country where getting up in the morning is no great hardship.
We couldn't afford a servant and we didn't want one. Ruth was a fine cook and I certainly did justice to her dishes after ten years of restaurants and boarding-houses. On rainy days when we couldn't get out, she used to do her cooking early so that I might watch her. It seemed a lot more like her cooking when I saw her pat out the dough and put it in the oven instead of coming home and finding it all done. I used to fill up my pipe and sit by the kitchen stove until I had just time to catch the train by sprinting.
But when the morning was fine we'd either take a long walk through the big park reservation which was near the house or we'd fuss over the garden. We had twenty-two inches of radishes, thirty-eight inches of lettuce, four tomato plants, two hills of corn, three hills of beans and about four yards of early peas. In addition to this Ruth had squeezed a geranium into one corner and a fern into another and planted sweet alyssum around the whole business. Everyone out here planned to raise his own vegetables. It was supposed to cut down expenses but I noticed the market man always did a good business.
I had met two or three of the men at the country club and they introduced me to the others. We were all earning about the same salaries and living in about the same type of house. Still there were differences and you could tell more by the wives than the husbands those whose salaries went over two thousand. Two or three of the men were in banks, one was in a leather firm, one was an agent for an insurance company, another was with the telegraph company, another was with the Standard Oil, and two or three others were with firms like mine. Most of them had been settled out here three or four years and had children. In a general way they looked comfortable and happy enough but you heard a good deal of talk among them about the high cost of living and you couldn't help noticing that those who dressed the best had the fewest children. One or two of them owned horses but even they felt obliged to explain that they saved the cost of them in car fares.
They all called and left their cards but that first year we didn't see much of them. There wasn't room in my life for anyone but Ruth at that time. I didn't see even the old office gang except during business hours and at lunch.
The rent scaled my salary down to one thousand and eighty dollars at one swoop. Then we had to save out at least five dollars a week to pay on the furniture. This left eight hundred and twenty, or fifteen dollars and seventy-five cents a week, to cover running expenses. We paid cash for everything and though we never had much left over at the end of the week and never anything at the end of the month, we had about everything we wanted. For one thing our tastes were not extravagant and we did no entertaining. Our grocery and meat bill amounted to from five to seven dollars a week. Of course I had my lunches in town but I got out of those for twenty cents. My daily car fare was twenty cents more which brought my total weekly expenses up to about three dollars. This left a comfortable margin of from five to seven dollars for light, coal, clothes and amusements. In the summer the first three items didn't amount to much so some weeks we put most of this into the furniture. But the city was new to Ruth, especially at night, so we were in town a good deal. She used to meet me at the office and we'd walk about the city and then take dinner at some little French restaurant and then maybe go to a concert or the theatre. She made everything new to me again. At the theatre she used to perch on the edge of her seat so breathless, so responsive that I often saw the old timers watch her instead of the show. I often did myself. And sometimes it seemed as though the whole company acted to her alone.
Those days were perfect. The only incident to mar them was the death of Ruth's parents. They died suddenly and left an estate of six or seven hundred dollars. Ruth insisted upon putting that into the furniture. But in our own lives every day was as fair as the first. My salary came as regularly as an annuity and there was every prospect for advancement. The garden did well and Ruth became acquainted with most of the women in a sociable way. She joined a sewing circle which met twice a month chiefly I guess for the purpose of finding out about one another's husbands. At any rate she told me more about them than I would have learned in ten years.
Still, during the fall and winter we kept pretty much by ourselves, not deliberately but because neither of us cared particularly about whist parties and such things but preferred to spend together what time we had. And then I guess Ruth was a little shy about her clothes. She dressed mighty well to my eye but she made most of her things herself and didn't care much about style. She didn't notice the difference at home but when she was out among others, they made her feel it. However spring came around again and we forgot all about those details. We didn't go in town so much that summer and used to spend more time on our piazza. I saw more of the men in this way and found them a pleasant, companionable lot. They asked me to join the Neighborhood Club and I did, more to meet them half way than because I wanted to. There we played billiards and discussed the stock market and furnaces. All of them had schemes for making fortunes if only they had a few thousand dollars capital. Now and then you'd find a group of them in one corner discussing a rumor that so and so had lost his job. They spoke of this as they would of a death. But none of those subjects interested me especially in view of what I was looking forward to in my own family.
In the afternoons of the early fall the women sent over jellies and such stuff to Ruth and dropped in upon her with whispered advice. She used to repeat it to me at night with a gay little laugh and her eyes sparkling like diamonds. She was happier now than I had ever seen her and so was I myself. When I went in town in the morning I felt very important.
I thought I had touched the climax of life when I married Ruth but when the boy came he lifted me a notch higher. And with him he brought me a new wife in Ruth, without taking one whit from the old. Sweetheart, wife and mother now, she revealed to me new depths of womanhood.
She taught me, too, what real courage is. I was the coward when the time came. I had taken a day off but the doctor ordered me out of the house. I went down to the club and I felt more one of the neighborhood that day than I ever did before or afterwards. It was Saturday and during the afternoon a number of the men came in and just silently gripped my hand.
The women, too, seemed to take a new interest in us. When Ruth was able to sit up they brought in numberless little things. But you'd have thought it was their house and not mine, the way they treated me. When any of them came I felt as though I didn't belong there and ought to tip-toe out.
We'd been saving up during the summer for this emergency so that we had enough to pay for the doctor and the nurse but that was only the beginning of the new expenses. In the first place we had to have a servant now. I secured a girl who knew how to cook after a fashion, for four dollars a week. But that wasn't by any means what she cost us. In spite of Ruth's supervision the girl wasted as much as she used so that our provision bill was nearly doubled. If we hadn't succeeded in paying for the furniture before this I don't know what we would have done. As it was I found my salary pretty well strained. I hadn't any idea that so small a thing as a baby could cost so much. Ruth had made most of his things but I know that some of his shirts cost as much as mine.
When the boy was older Ruth insisted upon getting along without a girl again. I didn't approve of this but I saw that it would make her happier to try anyway. How in the world she managed to do it I don't know but she did. This gave her an excuse for not going out—though it was an excuse that made me half ashamed of myself—and so we saved in another way. Even with this we just made both ends meet and that was all.
The boy grew like a weed and before I knew it he was five years old. Until he began to walk and talk I didn't think of him as a possible man. He didn't seem like anything in particular. He was just soft and round and warm. But when he began to wear knickerbockers he set me to thinking hard. He wasn't going to remain always a baby; he was going to grow into a boy and then a young man and before I knew it he would be facing the very same problem that now confronted me. And that problem was how to get enough ahead of the game to give him a fair start in life. I realized, too, that I wanted him to do something better than I had done. When I stopped to think of it I had accomplished mighty little. I had lived and that was about all. That I had lived happily was due to Ruth. But if I was finding difficulty in keeping even with the game now, what was I going to do when the youngster would prove a decidedly more serious item of expense?
I talked this over with Ruth and we both decided that somehow, in some way, we must save some money every year. We started in by reducing our household expenses still further. But it seemed as though fate were against us for prices rose just enough to absorb all our little economies. Flour went up and sugar went up, and though we had done away with meat almost wholly now, vegetables went up. So, too, did coal. Not only that but we had long since found it impossible to keep to ourselves as we had that first year. Little by little we had been drawn into the social life of the neighborhood. Not a month went by but what there was a dinner or two or a whist party or a dance. Personally I didn't care about such things but as Ruth had become a matron and in consequence had been thrown more in contact with the women, she had lost her shyness and grown more sociable. She often suggested declining an invitation but we couldn't decline one without declining all. I saw clearly enough that I had no right to do this. She did more work than I and did not have the daily change. To have made a social exile of her would have been to make her little better than a slave. But it cost money. It cost a lot of money. We had to do our part in return and though Ruth accomplished this by careful buying and all sorts of clever devices, the item became a big one in the year's expenses.
I began to look forward with some anxiety for the next raise. At the office I hunted for extra work with an eye upon the place above; but though I found the work nothing came of it but extra hours. In fact I began to think myself lucky to hold the job I had for a gradual change of methods had been slowly going on in the office. Mechanical adding machines had cost a dozen men their jobs; a card system of bookkeeping had made it possible to discharge another dozen, while an off year in woollens sent two or three more flying, among them the man who had found me the position in the first place. But he hadn't married and he went out west somewhere. Occasionally when work picked up again a young man was taken on to fill the place of one of the discharged men. The company always saved a few hundred dollars by such a shift for the lad never got the salary of the old employee, and so far as anyone could see the work went on just as well.
While these moves were ominous, as I can see now in looking back, they didn't disturb me very much at the time. I filled a little niche in the office that was all my own. At every opportunity I had familiarized myself with the work of the man above me and was on very good terms with him. I waited patiently and confidently for the day when Morse should call me in and announce his own advance and leave me to fill his place. I might have to begin on two thousand but it was a sure twenty-five hundred eventually to say nothing of what it led to. The president of the company had begun as I had and had moved up the same steps that now lay ahead of me.
In the meanwhile the life at home ran smoothly in spite of everything. Neither the wife, the boy nor I was sick a day for we all had sound bodies to start with. Our country-bred ancestors didn't need a will to leave us those. If at times we felt a trifle pinched especially in the matter of clothes, it was wonderful how rich Ruth contrived to make us feel. She knew how to take care of things and though I didn't spend half what some of the men spent on their suits, I went in town every morning looking better than two-thirds of them. I was inspected from head to foot before I started and there wasn't a wrinkle or a spot so small that it could last twenty-four hours. I shined my own shoes and pressed my own trousers and Ruth looked to it that this was done well. Moreover she could turn a tie, clean and press it so that it looked brand new. I think some of the neighbors even thought I was extravagant in my dressing.
She did the same for herself and had caught the knack of seeming to dress stylishly without really doing so. She had beautiful hair and this in itself made her look well dressed. As for the boy he was a model for them all.
In the meanwhile the boy had grown into short trousers and before we knew it he was in school. It made it lonesome for her during the day when he began to trudge off every morning at nine o'clock. She began to look forward to Saturdays as eagerly as the boy did. Then the next thing we knew he'd start off even earlier on that day to join his playmates. Sunday was the only day either of us had him to ourselves.
After he began to go to school, Ruth and I seemed to begin another life. In a way we felt all by ourselves once more. I didn't get home until half past seven now and Dick was then abed. He was abed too when I left in the morning. Of course he was never off my mind and if he hadn't been asleep upstairs I guess I'd have known a difference. But at the same time he was, in a small way, living his own life now which left Ruth and me to ourselves once more. She used to go over for me all the details of his day from the time she took him up in the morning until she tucked him away in bed again at night and then there would come a pause. It seemed as though there ought to be something more, but there wasn't. The next few months it seemed almost as though she was waiting. For what, I didn't know and yet I too felt there was a lapse in our lives. I never loved her more. There was never a time when she was so truly my wife and yet in our combined lives there was something lacking. After a while I began to notice a wistful expression in her eyes. It always came after she had said,
"So Dicky said, 'God bless father and mother,' and then he went to sleep."
Then one night it dawned on me. Hers was the same heart hunger that had been eating at me. Dick was a boy now and there was no baby to take his place. But, good Lord, as it was I hadn't been able to save a dollar. I knew that we were simply holding on tight and drifting. The boat was loaded to the gunwales even now. And yet that expression in her eyes had a right to be answered. But I couldn't answer it. I didn't dare open my mouth. I didn't dare speak even one night when she said,
"He's all we have, Billy—just one."
I gripped her hand and sat staring into the little coal hod fireplace which we didn't light more than once a month now. Even as I watched the flames I saw them licking up pennies.
Just one! And I too wanted a houseful like Dick.
I had to see that look night after night and I had to go to town knowing I was leaving her all alone with the one away at school. And what a mother she was! She ought to have had a baby by her side all the time.
As the one grew, his expenses increased. The only way to meet them was by cutting down our own expenses still more. I cut out smoking and made my old clothes do an extra year. Ruth spent half her time in bargain hunting and saved still more by taking it out of herself. Poor little woman, she worked harder for a quarter than I did and I was working harder for that sum than I used to work for a dollar. But we were not alone in the struggle. As we came to know more about the people in that group of snug little houses we knew that the same grim fight was going on in all of them. Some of them were not so lucky as we and ran into debt while a few of them were luckier and were helped out with legacies or by well-to-do relatives. We were as much alike as peas in a pod. We were living on the future and bluffing out the present. You'd have thought it would have cast a gloom over the neighborhood—you'd have thought it would have done away with some of the parties and dances. But it didn't. In the first place this was, to most of us, just life. In the second place there didn't seem to be any alternative. There was no other way of living. The conditions seemed to be fixed; we had to eat, we had to wear a certain type of dress; and unless we wished to exist as exiles we had to meet on a certain plane of social intercourse. The conventions were as iron clad here as among the nobility of England. No one thought of violating them; no one thought it was possible. You had to live as the others did or die and be done with it. If anyone of us had thought we might have seen the foolishness of this but it was all so manifest that no one did think. The only method of escape was a raise and that meant moving into another sphere which would cover that.
A new complication came when the boy grew old enough to have social functions of his own. He had made many new friends and he wanted to join a tennis club, a dancing class and contribute towards the support of the athletic teams of the school. Moreover he was invited to parties and had to give parties himself. Once again I tried to see some way out of this social business. It seemed such a pitiful waste of ammunition under the circumstances. I wanted to save the money if it was possible in any way to eke it out, for his education. But what could I do? The boy had to live as his friends lived or give them up. He wasn't asked to do any more than the other boys of the neighborhood but he was rightly asked to do as much. If he couldn't it would be at the sacrifice of his pride that he associated with them at all. And a just pride in a boy is something you can't safely tamper with. He had to have the money and we managed it somehow. But it brought home the old grim fact that I hadn't as yet saved a dollar.
I clung more than ever now to the one ray of hope—the job ahead. It was the only comfort Ruth and I had and whenever I felt especially downhearted she'd start in and plan how we'd spend it. It took the edge off the immediate thought of danger. In the meanwhile I resigned even from the Neighborhood Club and let the boy join the tennis club. I noticed at once a change in the attitude of the men towards me. But I was reaching a point now where I didn't care.
In this way, then, we lived until I was thirty-eight and Ruth was thirty, and the boy was eleven. For the last few months I had been doing night work without extra pay and so was practically exiled from the boy except on Sundays. He was not developing the way I wanted. The local grammar school was almost a private school for the neighborhood. I should have preferred to have it more cosmopolitan. The boy was rubbing up against only his own kind and this was making him soft, both physically and mentally. He was also getting querulous and autocratic. Ruth saw it, but with only one.... Well, on Sundays I took the boy with me on long cross-country jaunts and did a good deal of talking to him. But all I said rolled off like water off a duck. He lacked energy and initiative. He was becoming distinctly more middle-class than either of us, with some of the faults of the so-called upper class thrown in. He chattered about Harvard, not as an opportunity, but as a class privilege. I didn't like it. But before I had time to worry much about this the crash came that I had not been wise enough to foresee.
THE MIDDLE CLASS HELL
One Saturday afternoon, after we had been paid off, Morse, the head of the department, whose job I had been eyeing enviously for five years now, called me into his office. For three minutes I saw all my hopes realized; for three minutes I walked dizzily with my whole life justified. I could hardly catch my breath as I followed him. I didn't realize until then how big a load I had been carrying. As a drowning man is said to see visions of his whole past life, I saw visions of my whole future. I saw Ruth's eager face lifted to mine as I told her the good news; I saw the boy taken from his commonplace surroundings and doing himself proud in some big preparatory school where he brushed up against a variety of other boys; I saw—God pity me for the fool I was—other children at home to take his place. I can say that for three minutes I have lived.
Morse seated himself in the chair before his desk and, bending over his papers, talked without looking at me. He was a small fellow. I don't suppose a beefy man ever quite gets over a certain feeling of superiority before a small man. I could have picked up Morse in one hand.
"Carleton," he began, "I've got to cut down your salary five hundred dollars."
It came like a blow in the face. I don't think I answered.
"Sorry," he added, "but Evans says he can double up on your work and offers to do it for two hundred dollars more."
I repeated that name Evans over and over. He was the man under me. Then I saw my mistake. While watching the man ahead of me I had neglected to watch the man behind me. Evans and I had been good friends. I liked him. He was about twenty, and a hard worker.
"Well?" said Morse.
I recovered my wind.
"Good God," I cried; "I can't live on any less than I'm getting now!"
"Then you resign?" he asked quickly.
For a second I saw red. I wanted to take this pigmy by the throat. I wanted to shake him. He didn't give me time before exclaiming:
"Very well, Carleton. I'll give you an order for two weeks' pay in advance."
The next thing I knew I was in the outer office with the order in my hand. I saw Evans at his desk. I guess I must have looked queer, for at first he shrank away from me. Then he came to my side.
"Carleton," he said, "what's the matter?"
"I guess you know," I answered.
"You aren't fired?"
I bucked up at this. I tried to speak naturally.
"Yes," I said, "I'm fired."
"But that isn't right, Carleton," he protested. "I didn't think it would come to that. I went to Morse and told him I wanted to get married and needed more money. He asked me if I thought I could do your work. I said yes. I'd have said yes if he'd asked me if I could do the president's work. But—come back and let me explain it to Morse."
It was white of him, wasn't it? But I saw clearly enough that he was only fighting for his right to love as I was fighting for mine. I don't know that I should have been as generous as he was—ten years before. He had started toward the door when I called him back.
"Don't go in there," I warned. "The first thing you know you'll be doing my work without your two hundred."
"That's so," he answered. "But what are you going to do now?"
"Get another job," I answered.
One of the great blessings of my life is the fact that it has always been easy to report bad news to Ruth. I never had to break things gently to her. She always took a blow standing up, like a man. So now I boarded my train and went straight to the house and told her. She listened quietly and then took my hand, patting it for a moment without saying anything. Finally she smiled at me.
"Well, Billy," she said, "it can't be helped, can it? So good luck to Evans and his bride."
When a woman is as brave as that it stirs up all the fighting blood in a man. Looking into her steady blue eyes I felt that I had exaggerated my misfortune. Thirty-eight is not old and I was able-bodied. I might land something even better than that which I had lost. So instead of a night of misery I actually felt almost glad.
I started in town on Monday in high hope. But when I got off the train I began to wonder just where I was bound. What sort of a job was I going to apply for? What was my profession, anyway? I sat down in the station to think the problem over.
For twenty years now I had been a cog in the clerical machinery of the United Woollen Company. I was known as a United Woollen man. But just what else had this experience made of me? I was not a bookkeeper. I knew no more about keeping a full set of books than my boy. I had handled only strings of United Woollen figures; those meant nothing outside that particular office. I was not a stenographer, or an accountant, or a secretary. I had been called a clerk in the directory. But what did that mean? What the devil was I, after twenty years of hard work?
The question started the sweat to my forehead. But I pulled myself together again. At least I was an able-bodied man. I was willing to work, had a record of honesty and faithfulness, and was intelligent as men go. I didn't care what I did, so long as it gave me a living wage. Surely, then, there must be some place for me in this alert, hustling city.
I bought a paper and turned to "Help Wanted." I felt encouraged at sight of the long column. I read it through carefully. Half of the positions demanded technical training; a fourth of them demanded special experience; the rest asked for young men. I couldn't answer the requirements of one of them. Again and again the question was forced in upon me—what the devil was I?
I didn't know which way to turn. I had no relatives to help me—from the days of my great-grandfather no Carleton had ever quit the game more than even. My business associates were as badly off as I was and so were my neighbors.
My relations with the latter were peculiar, now that I came to think of it. In these last dozen years I had come to know the details of their lives as intimately as my own. In a way we had been like one big family. We knew each other as Frank, and Joe, and Bill, and Josh, and were familiar with one another's physical ailments when any of us had any. If any of the children had whooping cough or the measles every man and woman in the neighborhood watched at the bedside, in a sense, until the youngster was well, again. We knew to a dollar what each man was earning and what each was spending. We borrowed one another's garden tools and the women borrowed from each other's kitchens. On the surface we were just about as intimate as it's possible for a community to be. And yet what did it amount to?
There wasn't a man-son of them to whom I would have dared go and confess the fact I'd lost my job. They'd know it soon enough, be sure of that; but it mustn't come from me. There wasn't one of them to whom I felt free to go and ask their help to interest their own firms to secure another position for me. Their respect for me depended upon my ability to maintain my social position. They were like steamer friends. On the voyage they clung to one another closer than bark to a tree, but once the gang plank was lowered the intimacy vanished. If I wished to keep them as friends I must stick to the boat.
I knew they couldn't do anything if they had wanted to, but at the same time I felt there was something wrong in a situation that would not allow me to ask even for a letter of introduction without feeling like a beggar. I felt there was something wrong when they made me feel not like a brother in hard luck but like a criminal. I began to wonder what of sterling worth I had got out of this life during the past decade.
However that was an incidental matter. The only time I did such thinking as this was towards the early morning after I had lain awake all night and exhausted all other resources. I tackled the problem in the only way I could think of and that was to visit the houses with whom I had learned the United Woollen did business. I remembered the names of about a dozen of them and made the rounds of these for a starter. It seemed like a poor chance and I myself did not know exactly what they could do with me but it would keep me busy for a while.
With waits and delays this took me two weeks. Without letters it was almost impossible to reach the managers but I hung on in every case until I succeeded. Here again I didn't feel like an honest man offering to do a fair return of work for pay, so much as I did a beggar. This may have been my fault; but after you've sat around in offices and corridors and been scowled at as an intruder for three or four hours and then been greeted with a surly "What do you want?" you can't help having a grouch. There wasn't a man who treated my offer as a business proposition.
At the end of that time two questions were burned into my brain: "What can you do?" and "How old are you?" The latter question came as a revelation. It seems that from a business point of view I was considered an old man. My good strong body counted for nothing; my willingness to undertake any task counted for nothing. I was too old. No one wanted to bother with a beginner over eighteen or twenty. The market demanded youth—youth with the years ahead that I had already sold. Wherever I stumbled by chance upon a vacant position I found waiting there half a dozen stalwart youngsters. They looked as I had looked when I joined the United Woollen Company. I offered to do the same work at the same wages as the youngsters, but the managers didn't want me. They didn't want a man around with wrinkles in his face. Moreover, they were looking to the future. They didn't intend to adjust a man into their machinery only to have him die in a dozen years. I wasn't a good risk. Moreover, I wouldn't be so easily trained, and with a wider experience might prove more bothersome. At thirty-eight I was too old to make a beginning. The verdict was unanimous. And yet I had a physique like an ox and there wasn't a gray hair in my head. I came out of the last of those offices with my fists clenched.
In the meanwhile I had used up my advance salary and was, for the first time in my life, running into debt. Having always paid my bills weekly I had no credit whatever. Even at the end of the third week I knew that the grocery man and butcher were beginning to fidget. The neighbors had by this time learned of my plight and were gossiping. And yet in the midst of all this I had some of the finest hours with my wife I had ever known.
She sent me away every morning with fresh hope and greeted me at night with a cheerfulness that was like wine. And she did this without any show of false optimism. She was not blind to the seriousness of our present position, but she exhibited a confidence in me that did not admit of doubt or fear. There was something almost awesomely beautiful about standing by her side and facing the approaching storm. She used to place her small hands upon my back and exclaim:
"Why, Billy, there's work for shoulders like those."
It made me feel like a giant.
So another month passed. I subscribed to an employment bureau, but the only offer I received was to act as a sort of bouncer in a barroom. I suppose my height and weight and reputation for sobriety recommended me there. There was five dollars a week in it, and as far as I alone was concerned I would have taken it. That sum would at least buy bread, and though it may sound incredible the problem of getting enough to eat was fast becoming acute. The provision men became daily more suspicious. We cut down on everything, but I knew it was only a question of time when they would refuse to extend our credit for the little we had to have. And all around me my neighbors went their cheerful ways and waited for me to work it out. But whenever I thought of the barroom job and the money it would bring I could see them shake their heads.
It was hell. It was the deepest of all deep hells—the middle-class hell. There was nothing theatrical about it—no fireworks or red lights. It was plain, dull, sodden. Here was my position: work in my own class I couldn't get; work as a young man I was too old to get; work as just plain physical labor these same middle-class neighbors refused to allow me to undertake. I couldn't black my neighbors' boots without social ostracism, though Pasquale, who kept the stand in the United Woollen building, once confided to me that he cleared some twenty-five dollars a week. I couldn't mow my neighbors' front lawns or deliver milk at their doors, though there was food in it. That was honest work—clean work; but if I attempted it would they play golf with me? Personally I didn't care. I would have taken a job that day. But there were the wife and boy. They were held in ransom. It's all very well to talk about scorning the conventions, to philosophize about the dignity of honest work, to quote "a man's a man for a' that"; but associates of their own kind mean more to a woman and a growing boy than they do to a man. At least I thought so at that time. When I saw my wife surrounded by well-bred, well-dressed women, they seemed to me an essential part of her life. What else did living mean for her? When my boy brought home with him other boys of his age and kind—though to me they did not represent the highest type—I felt under obligations to retain those friends for him. I had begot him into this set. It seemed barbarous to do anything that would allow them to point the finger at him.
I felt a yearning for some primeval employment. I hungered to join the army or go to sea. But here again were the wife and boy. I felt like going into the Northwest and preempting a homestead. That was a saner idea, but it took capital and I didn't have enough. I was tied hand and foot. It was like one of those nightmares where in the face of danger you are suddenly struck dumb and immovable.
I was beginning to look wild-eyed. Ruth and I were living on bread, without butter, and canned soup. I sneaked in town with a few books and sold them for enough to keep the boy supplied with meat. My shoes were worn out at the bottom and my clothes were getting decidedly seedy. The men with whom I was in the habit of riding to town in the morning gave me as wide a berth as though I had the leprosy. I guess they were afraid my hard luck was catching. God pity them, many of them were dangerously near the rim of this same hell themselves.
One morning my wife came to me reluctantly, but with her usual courage, and said:
"Billy, the grocery man didn't bring our order last night." It was like a sword-thrust. It made me desperate. But the worst of the middle-class hell is that there is nothing to fight back at. There you are. I couldn't say anything. There was no answer. My eyes must have looked queer, for Ruth came nearer and whispered:
"Don't go in town to-day, Billy."
I had on my hat and had gathered up two or three more volumes in my green bag. I looked at the trim little house that had been my home for so long. The rent would be due next month. I looked at the other trim little houses around me. Was it actually possible that a man could starve in such a community? It seemed like a satanic joke. Why, every year this country was absorbing immigrants by the thousand. They did not go hungry. They waxed fat and prosperous. There was Pasquale, the bootblack, who was earning nearly as much as I ever did.
We were standing on the porch. I took Ruth in my arms and kissed her. She drew back with a modest protest that the neighbors might see. The word neighbors goaded me. I shook my fist at their trim little houses and voiced a passion that had slowly been gathering strength.
"Damn the neighbors!" I cried.
Ruth was startled. I don't often swear.
"Have they been talking about you?" she asked suddenly, her mouth hardening.
"I don't know. I don't care. But they hold you in ransom like bloody Moroccan pirates."
"How do they, Billy?"
"They won't let me work without taking it out of you and the boy."
Her head dropped for a second at mention of the boy, but it was soon lifted.
"Let's get away from them," she gasped. "Let's go where there are no neighbors."
"Would you?" I asked.
"I'd go to the ends of the earth with you, Billy," she answered quietly.
How plucky she was! I couldn't help but smile as I answered, more to myself:
"We haven't even the carfare to go to the ends of the earth, Ruth. It will take all we have to pay our bills."
"All we have?" she asked.
No, not that. They could get only a little of what she and I had. They could take our belongings, that's all. And they hadn't got those yet.
But I had begun to hate those neighbors with a fierce, unreasoning hatred. In silence they dictated, without assisting. For a dozen years I had lived with them, played with them, been an integral part of their lives, and now they were worse than useless to me. There wasn't one of them big enough to receive me into his home for myself alone, apart from the work I did. There wasn't a true brother among them.
Our lives turn upon little things. They turn swiftly. Within fifteen minutes I had solved my problem in a fashion as unexpected as it was radical.
WE EMIGRATE TO AMERICA
Going down the path to town bitterly and blindly, I met Murphy. He was a man with not a gray hair in his head who was a sort of man-of-all-work for the neighborhood. He took care of my furnace and fussed about the grounds when I was tied up at the office with night work. He stopped me with rather a shamefaced air.
"Beg pardon, sor," he began, "but I've got a bill comin' due on the new house—"
I remembered that I owed him some fifteen dollars. I had in my pocket just ten cents over my carfare. But what arrested my attention was the mention of a new house.
"You mean to tell me that you're putting up a house?"
"The bit of a rint, sor, in —— Street."
The contrast was dramatic. The man who emptied my ashes was erecting tenements and I was looking for work that would bring me in food. My people had lived in this country some two hundred years or more, and Murphy had probably not been here over thirty. There was something wrong about this, but I seemed to be getting hold of an idea.
"How old are you, Murphy?" I asked.
"Goin' on sixty, sor."
"You came to America broke?"
"Dead broke, sor."
"You have a wife and children?"
"A woman and six childer."
Six! Think of it! And I had one.
"Children in school?"
I asked it almost in hope that here at least I would hold the advantage.
"Two of them in college, sor."
He spoke it proudly. Well he might. But to me it was confusing.
"And you have enough left over to put up a house?" I stammered.
"It's better than the bank," Murphy said apologetically.
"And you aren't an old man yet," I murmured.
"Why you're young and strong and independent, Murphy. You're——" But I guess I talked a bit wild. I don't know what I said. I was breathless—lightheaded. I wanted to get back to Ruth.
"Pat," I said, seizing his hand—"Pat, you shall have the money within a week. I'm going to sell out and emigrate."
"Emigrate?" he gasped. "Where to?"
I laughed. The solution now seemed so easy.
"Why, to America, Pat. To America where you came thirty years ago." I left him staring at me. I hurried into the house with my heart in my throat.
I found Ruth in the sitting-room with her chin in her hands and her white forehead knotted in a frown. She didn't hear me come in, but when I touched her arm she jumped up, ashamed to think I had caught her looking even puzzled. But at sight of my face her expression changed in a flash.
"Oh, Billy," she cried, "it's good news?"
"It's a way out—if you approve," I answered.
"I do, Billy," she answered, without waiting to hear.
"Then listen," I said. "If we were living in England or Ireland or France or Germany and found life as hard as this and some one left us five hundred dollars what would you advise doing?"
"Why, we'd emigrate, Billy," she said instantly.
"Exactly. Where to?"
"Right," I cried. "And we'd be one out of a thousand if we didn't make good, wouldn't we?"
"Why, every one succeeds who comes here from somewhere else," she exclaimed.
"And why do they?" I demanded, getting excited with my idea. "Why do they? There are a dozen reasons. One is because they come as pioneers—with all the enthusiasm and eagerness of adventurers. Life is fresh and romantic to them over here. Hardships only add zest to the game. Another reason is that it is all a fine big gamble to them. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose. It's the same spirit that drives young New Englanders out west to try their luck, to preempt homesteads in the Northwest, to till the prairies. Another reason is that they come over here free—unbound by conventions. They can work as they please, live as they please. They haven't any caste to hamper them. Another reason is that, being on the same great adventure, they are all brothers. They pull together. Still another reason is that as emigrants the whole United States stands ready to help them with schools and playgrounds and hospitals and parks."
I paused for breath. She cut in excitedly:
"Then we're going out west?"
"No; we haven't the capital for that. By selling all our things we can pay our debts and have a few dollars over, but that wouldn't take us to Chicago. I'm not going ten miles from home."
"Where then, Billy?"
"You've seen the big ships come in along the water-front? They are bringing over hundreds of emigrants every year and landing them right on those docks. These people have had to cross the ocean to reach that point, but our ancestors made the voyage for you and me two hundred years ago. We're within ten miles of the wharf now."
She couldn't make out what I meant.
"Why, wife o' mine," I ran on, "all we need to do is to pack up, go down to the dock and start from there. We must join the emigrants and follow them into the city. These are the only people who are finding America to-day. We must take up life among them; work as they work; live as they live. Why, I feel my back muscles straining even now; I feel the tingle of coming down the gangplank with our fortunes yet to make in this land of opportunity. Pasquale has done it; Murphy has done it. Don't you think I can do it?"
She looked up at me. I had never seen her face more beautiful. It was flushed and eager. She clutched my arm. Then she whispered:
"My man—my wonderful, good man!"
The primitive appellation was in itself like a whiff of salt air. It bore me back to the days when a husband's chief function was just that—being a man to his own good woman. We looked for a moment into each other's eyes. Then the same question was born to both of us in a moment.
"What of the boy?"
It was a more serious question to her, I think, than it was to me. I knew that the sons of other fathers and mothers had wrestled with that life and come out strong. There were Murphy's boys, for instance. Of course the life would be new to my boy, but the keen competition ought to drive him to his best. His present life was not doing that. As for the coarser details from which he had been so sheltered—well, a man has to learn sooner or later, and I wasn't sure but that it was better for him to learn at an age when such things would offer no real temptations. With Ruth back of him I didn't worry much about that. Besides, the boy had let drop a phrase or two that made me suspect that even among his present associates that same ground was being explored.
"Ruth," I said, "I'm not worrying about Dick."
"He has been kept so fresh," she murmured.
"It isn't the fresh things that keep longest," I said.
"That's true, Billy," she answered.
Then she thought a moment, and as though with new inspiration answered me using again that same tender, primitive expression:
"I don't fear for my man-child."
When the boy came home from school that night I had a long talk with him. I told him frankly how I had been forced out of my position, how I had tried for another, how at length I had resolved to go pioneering just as his great-grandfather had done among the Indians. As I thought, the naked adventure of it appealed to him. That was all I wished; it was enough to work on.
The next day I brought out a second-hand furniture dealer and made as good a bargain as I could with him for the contents of the house. We saved nothing but the sheer essentials for light housekeeping. These consisted of most of the cooking utensils, a half dozen plates, cups and saucers and about a dozen other pieces for the table, four tablecloths, all the bed linen, all our clothes, including some old clothes we had been upon the point of throwing away, a few personal gimcracks, and for furniture the following articles: the folding wooden kitchen table, a half dozen chairs, the cot bed in the boy's room, the iron bed in our room, the long mirror I gave Ruth on her birthday, and a sort of china closet that stood in the dining-room. To this we added bowls, pitchers, and lamps. All the rest, which included a full dining-room set, a full dinner set of china, the furnishings of the front room, including books and book case, chairs, rugs, pictures and two or three good chairs, a full bed-room set in our room and a cheaper one in the boy's room, piazza furnishings, garden tools, and forty odds and ends all of which had cost me first and last something like two thousand dollars, I told the dealer to lump together. He looked it over and bid six hundred dollars. I saw Ruth swallow hard, for she had taken good care of everything so that to us it was worth as much to-day as we had paid for it. But I accepted the offer without dickering, for it was large enough to serve my ends. It would pay off all our debts and leave us a hundred dollars to the good. It was the first time since I married that I had been that much ahead.
That afternoon I saw Murphy and hired of him the top tenement of his new house. It was in the Italian quarter of the city and my flat consisted of four rooms. The rent was three dollars a week. Murphy looked surprised enough at the change in my affairs and I made him promise not to gossip to the neighbors about where I'd gone.
"Faith, sor," he said, "and they wouldn't believe it if I told them."
This wasn't all I accomplished that day. I bought a pair of overalls and presented myself at the office of a contractor's agent. I didn't have any trouble in getting in there and I didn't feel like a beggar as I took my place in line with about a dozen foreigners. I looked them over with a certain amount of self-confidence. Most of them were undersized men with sagging shoulders and primitive faces. With their big eyes they made me think of shaggy Shetland ponies. Lined up man for man with my late associates they certainly looked like an inferior lot. I studied them with curiosity; there must be more in them than showed on the surface to bring them over here—there must be something that wasn't in the rest of us for them to make good the way they did. In the next six months I meant to find out what that was. In the meantime just sitting there among them I felt as though I had more elbow room than I had had since I was eighteen. Before me as before them a continent stretched its great length and breadth. They laughed and joked among themselves and stared about at everything with eager, curious eyes. They were ready for anything, and everything was ready for them—the ditch, the mines, the railroads, the wheat fields. Wherever things were growing and needed men to help them grow, they would play their part. They say there's plenty of room at the top, but there's plenty of room at the bottom, too. It's in the middle that men get pinched.
I worked my way up to the window where a sallow, pale-faced clerk sat in front of a big book. He gave me a start, he was such a contrast to the others. In my new enthusiasm I wanted to ask him why he didn't come out and get in line the other side of the window. He yawned as he wrote down my name. I didn't have to answer more than half a dozen questions before he told me to report for work Monday at such and such a place. I asked him what the work was and he looked up.
"Subway," he answered.
I asked him how much the pay was. He looked me over at this. I don't know what he thought I was.
"Dollar and a half—nine hours."
"All right," I answered.
He gave me a slip of paper and I hurried out. It hadn't taken ten minutes. And a dollar and a half a day was nine dollars a week! It was almost twice as much as I had started on with the United; it was over a third of what I had been getting after my first ten years of hard work with them. It seemed too good to be true. Taking out the rent, this left me six dollars for food. That was as much as it had cost Ruth and me the first year we were married. There was no need of going hungry on that.
I came back home jubilant. Ruth at first took the prospect of my digging in a ditch a bit hard, but that was only because she contrasted it with my former genteel employment.
"Why, girl," I explained, "it's no more than I would have to do if we took a homestead out west. I'd as soon dig in Massachusetts as Montana."
She felt of my arm. It's a big arm. Then she smiled. It was the last time she mentioned the subject.
We didn't say anything to the neighbors until the furniture began to go out. Then the women flocked in and Ruth was hard pressed to keep our secret. I sat upstairs and chuckled as I heard her replies. She says it's the only time I ever failed to stand by her, but it didn't seem to me like anything but a joke.
"We shall want to keep track of you," said little Mrs. Grover. "Where shall we address you?"
"Oh, I can't tell," answered Ruth, truthfully enough.
"Are you going far?"
"Yes. Oh—a long, long way."
That was true enough too. We couldn't have gone farther out of their lives if we'd sailed for Australia.
And so they kept it up. That night we made a round of the houses and everyone was very much surprised and very much grieved and very curious. To all their inquiries, I made the same reply; that I was going to emigrate. Some of them looked wistful.
"Jove," said Brown, who was with the insurance company, "but I wish I had the nerve to do that. I suppose you're going west?"
"We're going west first," I answered.
The road to the station was almost due west.
"They say there are great chances out in that country," he said. "It isn't so overcrowded as here."
"I don't know about that," I answered, "but there are chances enough."
Some of the women cried and all the men shook hands cordially and wished us good luck. But it didn't mean much to me. The time I needed their handshakes was gone. I learned later that as a result of our secrecy I was variously credited with having lost my reason with my job; with having inherited a fortune, with having gambled in the market, with, thrown in for good measure, a darker hint about having misappropriated funds of the United Woollen. But somehow their nastiest gossip did not disturb me. It had no power to harm either me or mine. I was already beyond their reach. Before I left I wished them all Godspeed on the dainty journey they were making in their cockleshell. Then so far as they were concerned I dropped off into the sea with my wife and boy.
We were lucky in getting into a new tenement and lucky in securing the top floor. This gave us easy access to the flat roof five stories above the street. From here we not only had a magnificent view of the harbor, but even on the hottest days felt something of a sea breeze. Coming down here in June we appreciated that before the summer was over.
The street was located half a dozen blocks from the waterfront and was inhabited almost wholly by Italians, save for a Frenchman on the corner who ran a bake-shop. The street itself was narrow and dirty enough, but it opened into a public square which was decidedly picturesque. This was surrounded by tiny shops and foreign banks, and was always alive with color and incident. The vegetables displayed on the sidewalk stands, the gay hues of the women's gowns, the gaudy kerchiefs of the men, gave it a kaleidoscopic effect that made it as fascinating to us as a trip abroad. The section was known as Little Italy, and so far as we were concerned was as interesting as Italy itself.
There were four other families in the house, but the only things we used in common were the narrow iron stairway leading upstairs and the roof. The other tenants, however, seldom used the latter at all except to hang out their occasional washings. For the first month or so we saw little of these people. We were far too busy to make overtures, and as for them they let us severely alone. They were not noisy, and except for a sick baby on the first floor we heard little of them above the clamor of the street below. We had four rooms. The front room we gave to the boy, the next room we ourselves occupied, the third room we used for a sitting-and dining-room, while the fourth was a small kitchen with running water. As compared with our house the quarters at first seemed cramped, but we had cut down our furniture to what was absolutely essential, and as soon as our eyes ceased making the comparison we were surprised to find how comfortable we were. In the dining-room, for instance, we had nothing but three chairs, a folding table and a closet for the dishes. Lounging chairs and so forth we did away with altogether. Nor was there any need of making provision for possible guests. Here throughout the whole house was the greatest saving. I took a fierce pleasure at first in thus caring for my own alone.
The boy's room contained a cot, a chair, a rug and a few of his personal treasures; our own room contained just the bed, chair and washstand. Ruth added a few touches with pictures and odds and ends that took off the bare aspect without cluttering up. In two weeks these scant quarters were every whit as much home as our tidy little house had been. That was Ruth's part in it. She'd make a home out of a prison.
On the second day we were fairly settled, and that night after the boy had gone to bed Ruth sat down at my side with a pad and pencil in her hand.
"Billy," she said, "there's one thing we're going to do in this new beginning: we're going to save—if it's only ten cents a week."
I shook my head doubtfully.
"I'm afraid you can't until I get a raise," I said.
"We tried waiting for raises before," she answered.
"I know, but—"
"There aren't going to be any buts," she answered decidedly.
"But six dollars a week—"
"Is six dollars a week," she broke in. "We must live on five-fifty, that's all."
"With steak thirty cents a pound?"
"We won't have steak. That's the point. Our neighbors around here don't look starved, and they have larger families than ours. And they don't even buy intelligently."
"How do you know that?"
"I've been watching them at the little stores in the square. They pay there as much for half-decayed stuff as they'd have to pay for fresh odds and ends at the big market."
She rested her pad upon her knee.
"Now in the first place, Billy, we're going to live much more simply."
"We've never been extravagant," I said.
"Not in a way," she answered slowly, "but in another way we have. I've been doing a lot of thinking in the last few days and I see now where we've had a great many unnecessary things."
"Not for the last few weeks, anyhow," I said.
"Those don't count. But before that I mean. For instance there's coffee. It's a luxury. Why we spent almost thirty cents a week on that alone."
"I know but—"
"There's another but. There's no nourishment in coffee and we can't afford it. We'll spend that money for milk. We must have good milk and you must get it for me somewhere up town. I don't like the looks of the milk around here. That will be eight cents a day."
"Better have two quarts," I suggested.
She thought a moment.
"Yes," she agreed, "two quarts, because that's going to be the basis of our food. That's a dollar twelve cents a week."
She made up a little face at this. I smiled grandly.
"Now for breakfast we must have oatmeal every morning. And we'll get it in bulk. I've priced it and it's only a little over three cents a pound at some of the stores."
"And the kind we've always had?"
"About twelve when it's done up in packages. That's about the proportion by which I expect to cut down everything. But you'll have to eat milk on it instead of cream. Then we'll use a lot of potatoes. They are very good baked for breakfast. And with them you may have salt fish—oh, there are a dozen nice ways of fixing that. And you may have griddle cakes and—you wait and see the things I'll give you for breakfast. You'll have to have a good luncheon of course, but we'll have our principal meal when you get back from work at night. But you won't get steak. When we do get meat we'll buy soup bones and meat we can boil. And instead of pies and cakes we'll have nourishing puddings of cornstarch and rice. There's another good point—rice. It's cheap and we'll have a lot of it. Look at how the Japanese live on it day after day and keep fat and strong. Then there's cheap fish; rock cod and such to make good chowders of or to fry in pork fat like the bass and trout I used to have back home. Then there's baked beans. We ought to have them at least twice a week in the winter. But this summer we'll live mostly on fish and vegetables. I can get them fresh at the market."
"It sounds good," I said.
"Just you wait," she cried excitedly. "I'll fatten up both you and the boy."
"And yourself, little woman," I reminded her. "I'm not going to take the saving out of you."
"Don't you worry about me," she answered. "This will be easier than the other life. I shan't have to worry about clothes or dinners or parties for the boy. And it isn't going to take any time at all to keep these four rooms clean and sweet."
I took the rest of the week as a sort of vacation and used it to get acquainted with my new surroundings. It's a fact that this section of the city which for twenty years had been within a short walk of my office was as foreign to me as Europe. I had never before been down here and all I knew about it was through the occasional head-lines in the papers in connection with stabbing affrays. For the first day or two I felt as though I ought to carry a revolver. Whenever I was forced to leave Ruth alone in the house I instructed her upon no circumstances to open the door. The boy and I arranged a secret rap—an idea that pleased him mightily—and until she heard the single knock followed by two quick sharp ones, she was not to answer. But in wandering around among these people it was difficult to think of them as vicious. The Italian element was a laughing, indolent-appearing group; the scattered Jewish folk were almost timid and kept very much to themselves. I didn't find a really tough face until I came to the water front where they spoke English.
On the third morning after a breakfast of oatmeal and hot biscuit—and, by the way, Ruth effected a fifty per cent. saving right here by using the old-fashioned formula of soda and cream of tartar instead of baking powder—and baked potatoes, Ruth and the boy and myself started on an exploring trip. Our idea was to get a line on just what our opportunities were down here and to nose out the best and cheapest places to buy. The thing that impressed us right off was the big advantage we had in being within easy access of the big provision centres. We were within ten minutes' walk of the market, within fifteen of the water front, within three of the square and within twenty of the department stores. At all of these places we found special bargains for the day made to attract in town those from a distance. If one rose early and reached them about as soon as they were opened one could often buy things almost at cost and sometimes below cost. For instance, we went up town to one of the largest but cheaper grade department stores—we had heard its name for years but had never been inside the building—and we found that in their grocery department they had special mark-downs every day in the week for a limited supply of goods. We bought sugar this day at a cent a pound less than the market price and good beans for two cents a quart less. It sounds at first like rather picayune saving but it counts up at the end of the year. Then every stall in the market had its bargain of meats—wholesome bits but unattractive to the careless buyer. We bought here for fifty cents enough round steak for several good meals of hash. We couldn't have bought it for less than a dollar in the suburbs and even at that we wouldn't have known anything about it for the store was too far for Ruth to make a personal visit and the butcher himself would never have mentioned such an odd end to a member of our neighborhood.
We enjoyed wandering around this big market which in itself was like a trip to another land. Later one of our favorite amusements was to come down here at night and watch the hustling crowds and the lights and the pretty colors and confusion. It reminded Ruth, she said, of a country fair. She always carried a pad and pencil and made notes of good places to buy. I still have those and am referring to them now as I write this.
"Blanks," she writes (I omit the name), "nice clean store with pleasant salesman. Has good soup bones."