TRAMPING ON LIFE
AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NARRATIVE
GARDEN CITY NEW YORK
GARDEN CITY PUBLISHING COMPANY, Inc.
Copyright, 1922, by
BONI AND LIVERIGHT, INC.
First Printing, September, 1922
Second Printing, November, 1922
Third Printing, January, 1923
Fourth Printing, April, 1923
Fifth Printing, July, 1923
Sixth Printing, September, 1923
Seventh Printing, November, 1923
Eighth Printing, May, 1924
Ninth Printing, November, 1924
Tenth Printing, July, 1925
Eleventh Printing, March, 1926
Twelfth Printing, February, 1927
Printed in the United States of America
All in this book that is good and enduring and worth while for humanity, I dedicate to the memory of my wife,
Waterbury, Connecticut, May 20, 1922.
TRAMPING ON LIFE
Now I am writing these things just as I was told them by my grandmother. For I have utterly no remembrance of my mother. Consumption ran in her family. And bearing and giving birth to me woke the inherited weakness in her. She was not even strong enough to suckle me.
* * * * *
I was born in the early eighties, in Mornington, Ohio, in a section of that great, steel-manufacturing city which was neither city, suburb, nor country,—but a muddy, green-splashed, murky mixture of all three.
* * * * *
They told me, when I was old enough to understand, that my mother was English, that her folks lived in Cleveland and owned a millinery and drygoods store there ... and that my father met my mother one day in Mornington. She was visiting an uncle who ran a candy store on Main Street, and, she girl-like, laughed and stood behind the counter, ready for a flirtation....
My father was young, too. And he was employed there in the store, apprenticed to the candy-maker's trade. And, on this day, as he passed through, carrying a trayful of fresh-dipped chocolates, he winked at my mother and joked with her in an impudent way ... and she rebuffed him, not really meaning a rebuff, of course ... and he startled her by pulling off his hat and grotesquely showing himself to be entirely bald ... for he had grown bald very young—at the age of sixteen ... both because of scarlet fever, and because baldness for the men ran in his family ... and he was tall, and dark, and walked with rather a military carriage.
* * * * *
I was four years old when my mother died.
When she fell sick, they tell me, my grandfather did one of the few decent acts of his life—he let my father have a farm he owned in central Kansas, near Hutchinson. But my father did not try to work it.
He was possessed of neither the capital nor knowledge necessary for farming.
He went to work as clerk in a local hotel, in the rapidly growing town. Crazy with grief, he watched my mother drop out of his life a little more each day.
* * * * *
My father and mother both had tempers that flared up and sank as suddenly.
* * * * *
I had lung fever when I was a baby. That was what they called it then. I nearly died of it. It left me very frail in body.
* * * * *
As soon as I could walk and talk my mother made a great companion of me. She didn't treat me as if I were only a child. She treated me like a grown-up companion. I am told that I would follow her about the house from room to room, clutching at her skirts, while she was dusting and sweeping and working. And to hear us two talking with each other, you would have imagined there was a houseful of people.
* * * * *
My father's anguish over my mother's death caused him to break loose from all ties. His grief goaded him so that he went about aimlessly. He roamed from state to state, haunted by her memory. He worked at all sorts of jobs. Once he even dug ditches for seventy-five cents a day. He had all sorts of adventures, roaming about.
As for me, I was left alone with my grandmother, his mother,—in the big house which stood back under the trees, aloof from the wide, dusty road that led to the mills.
With us lived my young, unmarried aunt, Millie....
My grandmother had no education. She could barely read and write.
And she believed in everybody.
She was stout ... sparse-haired ... wore a switch ... had kindly, confiding, blue eyes.
Beggars, tramps, pack-peddlers, book-agents, fortune-tellers,—she lent a credulous ear to all,—helped others when we ourselves needed help, signed up for preposterous articles on "easy" monthly payments,—gave away food, starving her appetite and ours.
When, child though I was, even I protested, she would say, "well, Johnnie, you might be a tramp some day, and how would I feel if I thought some one was turning you away hungry?"
* * * * *
My Grandfather Gregory was a little, alert, erect, suave man,—he was a man whose nature was such that he would rather gain a dollar by some cheeky, brazen, off-colour practice than earn a hundred by honest methods.
He had keen grey eyes that looked you in the face in utter, disarming frankness. He was always immaculately dressed. He talked continually about money, and about how people abused his confidence and his trust in men. But there was a sharpness like pointed needles in the pupils of his eyes that betrayed his true nature.
Coming to Mornington as one of the city's pioneers, at first he had kept neck to neck in social prestige with the Babsons, Guelders, and the rest, and had built the big house that my grandmother, my aunt, and myself now lived in, on Mansion avenue....
When the Civil War broke out, that streak of adventure and daring in my grandfather which in peace times turned him to shady financial transactions, now caused him to enlist. And before the end of the war he had gone far up in the ranks.
After the war he came into still more money by a manufacturing business which he set up. But the secret process of the special kind of material which he manufactured he inveigled out of a comrade in arms. The latter never derived a cent from it. My grandfather stole the patent, taking it out in his own name. The other man had trusted him, remembering the times they had fought shoulder to shoulder, and had bivouacked together....
My grandfather, though so small as to be almost diminutive, was spry and brave as an aroused wasp when anyone insulted him. Several times he faced down burly-bodied men who had threatened to kill him for his getting the better of them in some doubtful business transaction.
For a long time his meanness and sharp dealings were reserved for outsiders and he was generous with his family. And my sweet, simple, old grandmother belonged to all the societies, charitable and otherwise, in town ... but she was not, never could be "smart." She was always saying and doing naive things from the heart. And soon she began to disapprove of my grandfather's slick business ways.
I don't know just what tricks he put over ... but he became persona non grata in local business circles ... and he took to running about the country, putting through various projects here and there ... this little, dressy, hard-faced man ... like a cross between a weasel and a bird!
He dropped into Mornington, and out again, each time with a wild, restless story of fortunes to be made or in the making!
Once he came home and stayed for a longer time than usual. During this stay he received many letters. My grandmother noticed a furtiveness in his manner when he received them. My grandmother noticed that her husband always repaired immediately to the outhouse when he received a letter.
She followed after him one day, and found fragments of a torn letter cast below ... she performed the disagreeable task of retrieving the fragments, of laboriously piecing them together and spelling them out. She procured a divorce as quietly as possible. Then my grandfather made his final disappearance. I did not see him again till I was quite grown up.
All support of his numerous family ceased. His sons and daughters had to go to work while still children, or marry.
My Aunt Alice married a country doctor whom I came to know as "Uncle Beck." My Uncle Joe, who inherited my grandfather's business-sense, with none of his crookedness, started out as a newsboy, worked his way up to half-proprietorship in a Mornington paper ... the last I heard of him he had money invested in nearly every enterprise in town, and had become a substantial citizen.
My father still pursued his nomadic way of living, sending, very seldom, driblets of money to my grandmother for my support ... my uncle Jim went East to work ... of my uncle Landon I shall tell you later on.
* * * * *
The big house in which my grandmother, my Aunt Millie, and I lived was looking rather seedy by this time. The receding tide of fashion and wealth had withdrawn far off to another section of the rapidly growing city ... and, below and above, the Steel Mills, with their great, flaring furnaces, rose, it seemed, over night, one after one ... and a welter of strange people we then called the "low Irish" came to work in them, and our Mansion Avenue became "Kilkenny Row." And a gang of tough kids sprang up called the "Kilkenny Cats," with which my gang used to fight.
After the "Low Irish" came the "Dagoes" ... and after them the "Hunkies" ... each wilder and more poverty-stricken than the former.
* * * * *
The Industrial Panic of '95 (it was '95, I think) was on ... always very poor since the breaking up of our family, now at times even bread was scarce in the house.
I was going to school, scrawny and freckle-faced and ill-nourished. I had a pet chicken that fortunately grew up to be a hen. It used to lay an egg for me nearly every morning during that hard time.
* * * * *
My early remembrances of school are chiefly olfactory. I didn't like the dirty boy who sat next to me and spit on his slate, rubbing it clean with his sleeve. I loved the use of my yellow, new sponge, especially after the teacher had taught me all about how it had grown on the bottom of the ocean, where divers had to swim far down to bring it up, slanting through the green waters. But the slates of most of the boys stunk vilely with their spittle.
I didn't like the smell of the pig-tailed little girls, either. There was a close soapiness about them that offended me. And yet they attracted me. For I liked them in their funny, kilt-like, swinging dresses. I liked the pudginess of their noses, the shiny apple-glow of their cheeks.
It was wonderful to learn to make letters on a slate. To learn to put down rows of figures and find that one and one, cabalistically, made two, and two and two, four!
It always seemed an age to recess. And the school day was as long as a month is now.
We were ready to laugh at anything ... a grind-organ in the street, a passing huckster crying "potatoes," etc.
I have few distinct memories of my school days. I never went to kindergarten. I entered common school at the age of eight.
My grandfather, after his hegira from Mornington, left behind his library of travels, lives of famous American Statesmen and Business Men, and his Civil War books. Among these books were four treasure troves that set my boy's imagination on fire. They were Stanley's Adventures in Africa, Dr. Kane's Book of Polar Explorations, Mungo Park, and, most amazing of all, a huge, sensational book called Savage Races of the World ... this title was followed by a score of harrowing and sensational sub-titles in rubric. I revelled and rolled in this book like a colt let out to first pasture. For days and nights, summer and winter, I fought, hunted, was native to all the world's savage regions in turn, partook gleefully of strange and barbarous customs, naked and skin-painted. I pushed dug-outs and canoes along tropic water-ways where at any moment an enraged hippopotamus might thrust up his snout and overturn me, crunching the boat in two and leaving me a prey to crocodiles ... I killed birds of paradise with poison darts which I blew out of a reed with my nostrils ... I burned the houses of white settlers ... even indulged shudderingly in cannibal feasts.
The one thing that pre-eminently seized my imagination in Savage Races of the World was the frontispiece,—a naked black rushing full-tilt through a tropical forest, his head of hair on fire, a huge feather-duster of dishevelled flame ... somehow this appealed to me as especially romantic. I dreamed of myself as that savage, rushing gloriously through a forest, naked, and crowned with fire like some primitive sun-god. It never once occurred to me how it would hurt to have my hair burning!
* * * * *
When Aunt Millie was taken down with St. Vitus's dance, it afforded me endless amusement. She could hardly lift herself a drink out of a full dipper without spilling two-thirds of the contents on the ground.
Uncle Beck, the Pennsylvania Dutch country doctor who married Aunt Alice, came driving in from Antonville, five miles away, once or twice a week to tend to Millie, free, as we were too poor to pay for a doctor. I remember how Uncle Beck caught me and whipped me with a switch. For I constantly teased Aunt Millie to make her scream and cry.
* * * * *
"Granma," I used to call out, on waking in the morning....
"Yes, Johnnie darling, what is it?"
"Granma, yesterday ... in the woods back of Babson's barn, I killed three Indians, one after the other." (The funny part of it was that I believed this, actually, as soon as the words left my mouth.)
"Granma, don't you believe me?"
"Yes, of course, I believe you."
Aunt Millie would strike in with—"Ma, why do you go on humouring Johnnie while he tells such lies? You ought to give him a good whipping."
"The poor little chap ain't got no mother!"
"Poor little devil! If you keep on encouraging him this way he'll become one of the greatest liars in the country."
A colloquy after this sort took place more than once. It gave me indescribable pleasure to narrate an absurd adventure, believe it myself in the telling of it, and think others believed me. Aunt Millie's scorn stung me like a nettle, and I hated her.
In many ways I tasted practical revenge. Though a grown girl of nineteen, she still kept three or four dolls. And I would steal her dolls, pull their dresses for shame over their heads, and set them straddle the banisters.
* * * * *
We took in boarders. We had better food. It was good to have meat to eat every day.
Among the boarders was a bridge builder named Elton Reeves. Elton had a pleasant, sun-burnt face and a little choppy moustache beneath which his teeth glistened when he smiled.
He fell, or pretended to fall, in love with gaunt, raw-boned Millie.
At night, after his day's work, he and Millie would sit silently for hours in the darkened parlour,—silent, except for an occasional murmur of voices. I was curious. Several times I peeked in. But all I could see was the form of my tall aunt couched half-moonwise in Elton Reeve's lap. I used to wonder why they sat so long and still, there in the darkness....
* * * * *
Once a grown girl of fourteen named Minnie came to visit a sweet little girl named Martha Hanson, whose consumptive widower-father rented two rooms from my grandmother. They put Minnie to sleep in the same bed with me....
After a while I ran out of the bedroom into the parlour where the courting was going on.
"Aunt Millie, Minnie won't let me sleep."
Millie did not answer. Elton guffawed lustily.
I returned to bed and found Minnie lying stiff and mute with fury.
* * * * *
Elton left, the bridge-work brought to completion. He had a job waiting for him in another part of the country.
It hurt even my savage, young, vindictive heart to see Millie daily running to the gate, full of eagerness, as the mail-man came....
"No, no letters for you this morning, Millie!"
Or more often he would go past, saying nothing. And Millie would weep bitterly.
* * * * *
I have a vision of a very old woman walking over the top of a hill. She leans on a knobby cane. She smokes a corn-cob pipe. Her face is corrugated with wrinkles and as tough as leather. She comes out of a high background of sky. The wind whips her skirts about her thin shanks. Her legs are like broomsticks.
This is a vision of my great-grandmother's entrance into my boyhood.
I had often heard of her. She had lived near Halton with my Great-aunt Rachel for a long time ... and now, since we were taking in boarders and could keep her, she was coming to spend the rest of her days with us.
At first I was afraid of this eerie, ancient being. But when she dug out a set of fish-hooks, large and small, from her tobacco pouch, and gave them to me, I began to think there might be something human in the old lady.
She established her regular place in a rocker by the kitchen stove. She had already reached the age of ninety-five. But there was a constant, sharp, youthful glint in her eye that belied her age.
She chewed tobacco vigorously like any backwoodsman (had chewed it originally because she'd heard it cured toothache, then had kept up the habit because she liked it).
Her corncob pipe—it was as rank a thing as ditch digger ever poisoned the clean air with.
Granma Wandon was as spry as a yearling calf. She taught me how to drown out groundhogs and chipmunks from their holes. She went fishing with me and taught me to spit on the bait for luck, or rub a certain root on the hook, which she said made the fish bite better.
And solemnly that spring of her arrival, and that following summer, did we lay out a fair-sized garden and carefully plant each kind of vegetable in just the right time and phase of the moon and, however it may be, her garden grew beyond the garden of anyone else in the neighbourhood.
* * * * *
The following winter—and her last winter on earth—was a time of wonder and marvel for me ... sitting with her at the red-heated kitchen stove, I listened eagerly to her while she related tales to me of old settlers in Pennsylvania ... stories of Indians ... ghost stories ... she curdled my blood with tales of catamounts and mountain lions crying like women, and babies in the dark, to lure travellers where they could pounce down from branches on them.
And she told me the story of the gambler whom the Devil took when he swore falsely, avowing, "may the Devil take me if I cheated."
She boasted of my pioneer ancestors ... strapping six-footers in their stocking feet ... men who carried one hundred pound bags of salt from Pittsburgh to Slippery Rock in a single journey.
The effect of these stories on me—?
I dreamed of skeleton hands that reached out from the clothes closet for me. Often at night I woke, yelling with nightmare.
With a curious touch of folk lore Granma Gregory advised me to "look for the harness under the bed, if it was a nightmare." But she upbraided Granma Wandon, her mother, for retailing me such tales.
"Nonsense, it'll do him good, my sweet little Johnnie," she assured her daughter, knocking her corncob pipe over the coal scuttle like a man.
* * * * *
There was a story of Granma Wandon's that cut deep into my memory. It was the story of the man who died cursing God, and who brought, by his cursing, the dancing of the very flames of Hell, red-licking and serrate, in a hideous cluster, like an infernal bed of flowers, just outside the window, for all around his death-bed to see!
In the fall of the next year Granma Wandon took sick. We knew it was all over for her. She faded painlessly into death. She knew she was going, said so calmly and happily. She made Millie and Granma Gregory promise they'd be good to me. I wept and wept. I kissed her leathery, leaf-like hand with utter devotion ... she could hardly lift it. Almost of itself it sought my face and flickered there for a moment.
* * * * *
She seemed to be listening to something far off.
"Can't you hear it, Maggie?" she asked her daughter.
"Hear what, mother?"
"Music ... that beautiful music!"
"Do you see anything, mother?"
"Yes ... heaven!"
Then the fine old pioneer soul passed on. I'll bet she still clings grimly to an astral corncob pipe somewhere in space.
* * * * *
A week before she died, Aunt Millie told us she was sure the end was near. For Millie had waked up in the night and had seen the old lady come into her room, reach under the bed, take the pot forth, use it,—and glide silently upstairs to her room again.
Millie spoke to the figure and received no answer. Then, frightened, she knew she had seen a "token" of Granma Wandon's approaching death.
* * * * *
In the parlour stood the black coffin on trestles; the door open, for we had a fear of cats getting at the body,—we could glimpse the ominous black object as we sat down to breakfast. And I laid my head on the table and wept as much because of that sight as over the loss of my old comrade and playmate.
Something vivid had gone out of my life. And for the first time I felt and knew the actuality of death. Like a universe-filling, soft, impalpable dust it slowly sifted over me, bearing me under. I saw for the first time into all the full graves of the world.
* * * * *
To my great-grandmother's funeral came many distant relatives I had never rested eye on before ... especially there came my Great-aunt Rachel, Granma Gregory's sister,—a woman just as sweet-natured as she, and almost her twin even to the blue rupture of a vein in the middle of the lower lip. She, too, had a slightly protrusive stomach over which she had the habit of folding her hard-working hands restfully, when she talked ... and also there came with her my Great-uncle Joshua, her husband ... and my second cousins, Paul and Phoebe, their children. The other children, two girls, were off studying in a nurses' college ... working their way there.
After the burial Josh and Paul went on back to Halton, where they worked in the Steel Mills. They left Aunt Rachel and Phoebe to stay on and pay us a visit.
Paul and Josh were "puddlers"—when they worked ... in the open furnaces that were in use in those days ... when you saw huge, magnificent men, naked to the belt, whose muscles rippled in coils as they toiled away in the midst of the living red of flowing metal.
* * * * *
Phoebe was wild and beautiful in a frail way. She wore a pea green skirt and a waist of filmy, feminine texture. We instantly took to each other. She was always up and off, skimming swallow-like in all directions, now this way, now that, as if seeking for some new flavour in life, some excitement that had not come to her yet.
We made expeditions together over the country. She joined me in my imaginary battles with Indians ... my sanguinary hunts for big game.... It was she who first taught me to beg hand-outs at back doors—one day when we went fishing together and found ourselves a long way off from home.
Once Phoebe fell into a millpond from a springboard ... with all her clothes on ... we were seeing who dared "teeter" nearest the end.... I had difficulty in saving her. It was by the hair, with a chance clutch, that I drew her ashore.
The picture of her, shivering forlornly before the kitchen stove! She was beautiful, even in her long, wet, red-flannel drawers that came down to her slim, white ankles. She was weeping over the licking her mother had given her.
* * * * *
"I'm afraid your cousin Phoebe will come to no good end some day, if she don't watch out," said my grandmother to me, "and I don't like you to play with her much.... I'm going to have Aunt Rachel take her home soon" ... after a pause, "as sure as I have ten fingers she'll grow up to be a bad woman."
* * * * *
"Granma, what is a bad woman?"
* * * * *
Aunt Rachel and Cousin Phoebe returned home. Uncle Josh, that slack old vagabond with his furtive, kindly eye-glances, came for them with a livery rig.
* * * * *
I think I read every dime novel published, during those years of my childhood ... across the bridge that Elton had helped build, the new bridge that spanned the Hickory River, and over the railroad tracks, stood a news-stand, that was run by an old, near-sighted woman. As she sat tending counter and knitting, I bought her books ... but for each dime laid down before her, I stole three extra thrillers from under her very eye.
From my grandfather's library I dug up a book on the Hawaiian Islands, written by some missionary. In it I found a story of how the natives speared fish off the edges of reefs. Straightway I procured a pitchfork.
I searched the shallows and ripples of Hickory River for miles ... I followed Babson's brook over the hills nearly to its source.
One day, peering through reeds into a shallow cove, I saw a fish-fin thrust up out of the water. I crept cautiously forward.
It was a big fish that lay there. Trembling all over with excitement, I made a mad thrust. Then I yelled, and stamped on the fish, getting all wet in doing so. I beat its head in with the haft of the fork. It rolled over, its white belly glinting in the sun. On picking it up, I was disappointed. It had been dead for a long time; had probably swam in there to die ... and its gills were a withered brown-black in colour, like a desiccated mushroom ... not healthy red.
But I was not to be frustrated of my glory. I tore the tell-tale gills out ... then I beat the fish's head to a pulp, and I carried my capture home and proudly strutted in at the kitchen door.
"Look, Granma, at what a big fish I've caught."
"Oh, Millie, he's really got one," and Granma straightened up from the wash-tub. Millie came out snickering scornfully.
"My Gawd, Ma, can't you see it's been dead a week?"
"You're a liar, it ain't!" I cried. And I began to sob because Aunt Millie was trying to push me back into ignominy as I stood at the very threshold of glory.
"Honest-to-God, it's—fresh—Granma!" I gulped, "didn't I just kill it with the pitchfork?" Then I stopped crying, absorbed entirely in the fine story I was inventing of the big fish's capture and death. I stood aside, so to speak, amazed at myself, and proud, as my tongue ran on as if of its own will.
Even Aunt Millie was charmed.
* * * * *
But she soon came out from under the spell with, "Ma, Johnnie means well enough, but surely you ain't going to feed that fish to the boarders?"
"Yes, I am. I believe in the little fellow."
"All right, Ma ... but I won't eat a mouthful of it, and you'd better drop a note right away for Uncle Beck to drive in, so's he'll be here on time for the cases of poison that are sure to develop."
* * * * *
Cleaned and baked, the fish looked good, dripping with sauce and basted to an appetizing brown.
As I drew my chair up to the table and a smoking portion was heaped on my plate, Aunt Millie watched me with bright, malicious eyes.
"Granma, I want another cup o' coffee," I delayed.
But the big, fine, grey-haired mill boss, our star boarder, who liked me because I always listened to his stories—he sailed into his helping nose-first. That gave me courage and I ate, too ... and we all ate.
"Say, but this fish is good! Where did it come from?"
"The kid here caught it."
"Never tasted better in my life."
None of us were ever any the worse for our rotten fish. And I was vindicated, believed in, even by Aunt Millie.
* * * * *
Summer vacation again, after a winter and spring's weary grind in school.
Aunt Rachel wrote to Granma that they would be glad to have me come over to Halton for a visit.
Granma let me, after I had pleaded for a long while,—but it was with great reluctance, warning me of Phoebe.
* * * * *
Aunt Rachel, Uncle Joshua, Cousin Phoebe and cousin Paul lived in a big, square barn-like structure. Its unpainted, barren bulk sat uneasily on top of a bare hill where the clay lay so close to the top-soil that in wet weather you could hardly labour up the precipitous path that led to their house, it was so slippery.
As I floundered upward in the late spring rain, gaining the bare summit under the drizzly sky, a rush of dogs met me. They leaped and slavered and jumped and flopped and tumbled and whined all about me and over me ... ten of them ... hound dogs with flop-ears and small, red-rimmed eyes ... skinny creatures ... there was no danger from them; but they planted their mud-sticky paws everywhere in a frenzy of welcome.
"A hound ain't got no sense onless he's a-huntin'," drawled Paul, as his great boot caught them dextrously under their bellies and lifted them gently, assiduously, severally, in different directions from me....
Aunt Rachel's face, ineffably ignorant and ineffably sweet, lit up with a smile of welcome. She met me in the doorway, kissed me.
And she made me a great batch of pancakes to eat, with bacon dripping and New Orleans molasses ... but first—
"Josh, where on earth is them carpet slippers o' yourn?"
Josh yawned. He knocked the tobacco out of his pipe leisurely ... then, silent, he began scraping the black, foul inside of the bowl ... then at last he drawled.
"Don't know, Ma!"
But Phoebe knew, and soon, a mile too wide, the carpet slippers hung on my feet, while my shoes were drying in the oven and sending out that peculiar, close smell that wet leather emanates when subjected to heat. Also, I put on Phoebe's pea-green cotton skirt, while my knee britches hung behind the stove, drying. The men chaffed me.
* * * * *
In the industrial Middle West of those days, when the steel kings' fortunes were in bloom of growth, these distantly related kinsfolk of mine still lived the precarious life of pioneer days. Through the bare boards of the uneven floor whistled the wind. Here and there lay a sparse, grey, homemade rag rug. And here and there a window pane, broken, had not been replaced. And an old pair of pants, a ragged shirt, a worn out skirt stuffed in, kept out the draft,—of which everybody but Phoebe seemed mortally afraid. Incidentally these window-stuffings kept out much of the daylight.
Aunt Rachel, near-sighted, with her rather pathetic stoop, was ceaselessly sewing, knitting, scrubbing, washing, and cooking. She took care of her "two men" as she phrased it proudly—her husband and her great-bodied son—as if they were helpless children.
* * * * *
"We're going a-huntin' to-day, Johnny,—wan' ter come along?"
"Wall, git ready, then!"
But first Paul fed the hounds out in the yard ... huge slabs of white bread spread generously with lard. This was all they ever got, except the scraps from the table, which were few. They made a loud, slathering noise, gulping and bolting their food.
* * * * *
But we started off without the hounds.
"Ain't you going to take the dogs along?"
"Why not—ain't we going to hunt rabbits?"
"Then why not take them?"
"Put your hand in my right hand pocket an' find out!"
I stuck my hand down, and it was given a vicious bite by a white, pink-eyed ferret Paul was carrying there. I yelled with pain and surprise. I pulled my hand up in the air, the ferret hanging to a finger. The ferret dropped to the ground. Paul stooped and picked it up, guffawing. It didn't bite him. It knew and feared him. That was his idea of a joke, the trick he played on me!
"Yew might git blood-pisen from that bite!" teased Josh, to scare me. But I remained unscared. I sucked the blood from the tiny punctures, feeling secure, after I had done it. I remembered how Queen Eleanore had saved the life of Richard Coeur de Lion in the Holy Land, when he had been bitten by an adder, by sucking out the venom. I enjoyed the thrill of a repeated historic act.
"If we got ketched we'd be put in jail fer this!" remarked Josh with that sly, slow smile of his; "it ain't the proper season to hunt rabbits in, an' it's agin the law, in season or out, to hunt 'em with ferrets," and he chuckled with relish over the outlawry of it.
We came to a hole under a hollow tree. Paul let the ferret go down, giving him a preliminary smack.
"Mind you, Jim,—God damn you,—don't you stay down that hole too long."
"Think he understands you?"
"In course he does: jest the same es you do."
"And why would Jim stay down?"
"He might corner the rabbit, kill him, an' stay to suck his blood ... but Jim knows me ... I've given him many's the ungodly whipping for playing me that trick ... but he's always so greedy and hongry that sometimes the little beggar fergits."
"And then how do you get him out again?"
"Jest set an' wait till he comes out ... which he must do, sometime ... an' then you kin jest bet I give it to him."
We waited a long time.
"Damn Jim, he's up to his old tricks again, I'll bet," swore Josh, shifting his face-deforming quid of tobacco from one protuberant cheek to the other, meditatively....
The ferret appeared, or, rather, a big grey rabbit ... squealing with terror ... coming up backward ... the ferret clinging angrily to his nose ... and tugging like a playing pup.
Paul took Jim off and put him back in his pocket ... he had to smack him smartly to make him let go—"hongry little devil!" he remarked fondly.
A crack of the hand, brought down edgewise, broke the rabbit's neck, and he was thrust into a bag which Josh carried slung over his shoulder.
We caught fifteen rabbits that afternoon.
We had a big rabbit stew for supper. Afterward the two men sat about in their socks, chairs tilted back, sucking their teeth and picking them with broom straws ... and they told yarns of dogs, and hunting, and fishing, till bed-time.
* * * * *
The morning sun shone brightly over me through three panes of glass in the window, the fourth of which was stopped up with an old petticoat.
I woke with Phoebe's warm kiss on my mouth. We had slept together, for the older folks considered us too young for it to make any difference. We lay side by side all night ... and like a little man and woman we lay together, talking, in the morning.
We could smell the cooking of eggs and bacon below ... an early breakfast for Paul, for he had been taken by a whim that he must work in the mine over the hill for a few weeks in order to earn some money ... for he was a miner, as well as a puddler in the mills ... he worked in coal mines privately run, not yet taken into the trust. He often had to lie on his side in a shallow place, working the coal loose with his pick—where the roof was so close he couldn't sit up straight....
* * * * *
"What shall we do to-day?" asked Phoebe of me, as we lay there, side by side, "I say let's go swimming?"
"You and me together?" I demurred.
"And you a girl?"
"Can't I swim jest as well as you can?"
"Phoebe, git up, you lazy-bones," called Aunt Rachel, from the bottom of the stairs.
"All right, Ma!"
"Johnnie, you git up, too!"
"Coming down right now, Aunt Rachel!"
"Hurry up, or your breakfast'll git cold ... the idea of you children laying in bed like this ... what on earth are you doing up there, talking and talking? I kin hear you buzzing away clear down here!"
I had been rapt in telling Phoebe how, when I grew to be a man, I was going to become a great adventurer, traveller, explorer.
Phoebe sat up on the edge of the bed, lazily stretching for a moment, as a pretty bird stretches its leg along its wing. Then, her slim, nubile body outlined sharply in the brilliant day, she stood up, slipped off her flannel nightgown with a natural, unaffected movement, and stood naked before me.
* * * * *
It was a custom of mine to swing my feet as I ate; "just like a little calf wags its tail when it sucks its mother's tit," my grandmother would say. I swung my feet vigorously that morning, but did not eat noisily, as my uncles, all my male relatives, in fact, did. I never made a noise when I ate. I handled my food delicately by instinct. If I found a fly in anything it generally made me sick to my stomach.
Feeling warm, I suppose, in her heart toward me, because I was different in my ways, and frail-looking, and spoke a sort of book-English and not the lingua franca that obtained as speech in the Middle West, my Aunt Rachel heaped my plate with griddle cakes, which she made specially for me.
"You're goin' to be diff'rent from the rest, the way you read books and newspapers," she remarked half-reverentially.
* * * * *
A foamy bend in a racing brook where an elbow of rock made a swirling pool about four-foot deep. Phoebe took me there.
How smooth-bodied she was, how different from me! I studied her with abashed, veiled glances. The way she wound her hair on the top of her head, to put it out of the way, made her look like a woman in miniature.
She dove first, like a water-rat. I followed on her heels.
We both shot to the surface immediately. For all the warmth of the day, the water was deceptively icy. We crawled out. We lay on the bank, in the good sun, gasping....
* * * * *
As we lay there, I spoke to her of her difference ... a thing which was for the first time brought home to me in clear eyesight.
Phoebe proceeded to blaze her way into my imagination with quaint, direct, explanatory talk ... things she had picked up God knows where ... grotesque details ... Rabelaisan concentrations on seldom-expressed particulars....
I learned many things at once from Phoebe ... twisted and childish, but at least more fundamental than the silly stories about storks and rabbits that brought babies down chimneys, or hid them in hollow stumps ... about benevolent doctors, who, when desired by the mothers and fathers, brought additions to the family, from nowhere!...
The house-cat ... kittens and the way they came ... surely I knew, but had not lifted the analogy up the scale....
A furtive hand touched mine, interwove itself, finger with thrilling finger ... close together, we laughed into each other's eyes, over-joyed that we knew more than our elders thought we knew....
Girls, just at the gate of adolescence, possess a directness of purpose which, afterwards, is looked upon as a distinct, masculine prerogative....
Phoebe drew closer to me, pressing against me ... but a fierce, battling reluctance rose in my breast....
* * * * *
She was astonished, stunned by my negation.
Silently I dressed,—she, with a sullen pout on her fresh, childish mouth.
"You fool! I hate you! You're no damn good!" she cried passionately.
With a cruel pleasure in the action, I beat her on the back. She began to sob.
Then we walked on a space. And we sat down together on the crest of a hill. My mood changed, and I held her close to me, with one arm flung about her, till she quietened down from her sobbing. I was full of a power I had never known before.
* * * * *
I have told of the big, double house my grandmother had for renting, and how she might have made a good living renting it out, if she had used a little business sense ... but now she let the whole of it to a caravan of gypsies for their winter quarters,—who, instead of paying rent, actually held her and Millie in their debt by reading their palms, sometimes twice a day ... I think it was my Uncle Joe who at last ousted them....
* * * * *
When I came back from Aunt Rachel's I found a voluble, fat, dirty, old, yellow-haired tramp established in the ground floor of the same house. He had, in the first place, come to our back door to beg a hand-out. And, sitting on the doorstep and eating, and drinking coffee, he had persuaded my grandmother that if she would give him a place to locate on credit he knew a way to clear a whole lot of money. His project for making money was the selling of home-made hominy to the restaurants up in town.
* * * * *
I found him squatted on the bare floor, with no furniture in the room. He had a couple of dingy wash-boilers which he had picked up from the big garbage-dump near the race-track.
Day in, day out, I spent my time with this tramp, listening to his stories of the pleasures and adventures of tramp-life.
I see him still, wiping his nose on his ragged coat-sleeve as he vociferates....
When one day he disappeared, leaving boilers, hominy and all, behind, I missed his yarns as much as my grandmother missed her unpaid rent.
* * * * *
It appears that at this time my grandfather had a manufacturing plant for the terra cotta invention he had stolen from his comrade-in-arms, in Virginia somewhere, and that, during all these years, he had had Landon working with him,—and now word had come to us that Landon was leaving for Mornington again.
My grandmother was mad about him, her youngest ... always spoke of him as "her baby" ... informed me again and again that he was the most accomplished, the handsomest man the Gregory family had ever produced.
* * * * *
Landon arrived. He walked up to the front porch from the road. He came in with a long, free stride ... he gave an eager, boyish laugh ... he plumped down his big, bulged-to-bursting grip with a bang.
"Hello, Ma!... hello, Millie!... well, well, so this is Duncan's kid?... how big he's grown!"
Landon's fine, even, white teeth gleamed a smile at me.
Granma couldn't say a word ... she just looked at him ... and looked at him ... and looked at him ... after a long while she began saying his name over and over again....
"Landon, Landon, Landon,"—holding him close.
Landon began living with us regularly as one of the family. He went to work in the steel mills, and was energetic and tireless when he worked, which he did, enough to pay his way and not be a burden on others. He performed the hardest kinds of labour in the mills.
But often he laid off for long stretches at a time and travelled about with a wild gang of young men and women, attending dances, drinking, gambling.
Nothing seemed to hurt him, he was so strong.
At most of the drinking bouts, where the object was to see who could take down the most beer, Landon would win by drinking all he could hold, then stepping outside on another pretext ... where he would push his finger down his throat and spout out all he had drunk. Then he would go back and drink more.
Sunday afternoons were the big gambling and card-playing times in our semi-rural neighbourhood.
The "boys" spent the day till dusk in the woods back of Babson's Hill. They drank and played cards. Landon taught me every card game there was.
He could play the mouth-organ famously, too ... and the guitar and banjo. And he had a good strong voice with a rollick in it. And he was also a great mimic ... one of his stunts he called "the barnyard," in which he imitated with astonishing likeness the sounds every farm-animal or bird makes ... and by drumming on his guitar as he played, and by the energetic use of his mouth-organ at the same time, he could also make you think a circus band was swinging up the street, with clowns and camels and elephants.
* * * * *
His great fault was that he must have someone to bully and domineer. And he began picking on me, trying to force me to model my life on his pattern of what he thought it should be.
One day I saw him eating raw steak with vinegar. I told him it made me sick to see it.
"Well, you'll have to eat some, too, for saying that." And he chased me around and 'round the table and room till he caught me. He held me, while I kicked and protested. He compelled me, by forcing his finger and thumb painfully against my jaws, to open my mouth and eat. He struck me to make me swallow.
Everything I didn't want to do he made me do ... he took to beating me on every pretext. When my grandmother protested, he said he was only educating me the way I should go ... that I had been let run wild too long without a mastering hand, and with only women in the house. He must make a man out of me....
My reading meant more to me than anything else. I was never so happy as when I was sitting humped up over a book, in some obscure corner of the house, where Uncle Landon, now grown the incarnate demon of my life, could not find me.
It was a trick of his, when he surprised me stooping over a book, to hit me a terrific thwack between the shoulder-blades, a blow that made my backbone tingle with pain.
"Set up straight! Do you want to be a hump-back when you grow big?"
His pursuit drove me from corner to corner, till I lost my mischievous boldness and began to act timid and fearful.
Whenever I failed to obey Granma, that was his opportunity. (Millie would cry triumphantly, "Now you have someone to make you be good!") The veins on his handsome, curly forehead would swell with delight, as he caught me and whipped me ... till Granma would step in and make him stop ... but often he would over-rule her, and keep it up till his right arm was actually tired. And he would leave me to crawl off, sobbing dry sobs, incapable of more tears.
A black hatred of him began to gnaw at my heart ... I dreamed still of what I would do when I had grown to be a man ... but now it was not any more to be a great traveller or explorer, but to grow into a strong man and kill my uncle, first putting him to some savage form of torture ... torture that would last a long, long while.
He would often see it in my eyes.
"Don't you look at me that way!" with a swipe of the hand.
* * * * *
Out in the woods I caught a dozen big yellow spiders, the kind that make pretty silver traceries, like handwriting with a flourish—on their morning webs.
I brought these spiders home in a tin can and transferred them to some empty fruit jars in the cellar, keeping them for some boyish reason or other, in pairs, and putting in flies for them.
Aunt Millie came upon them and set up a scream that brought Uncle "Lan," as we called him, down to see what was the matter....
I took my beating in silence. I would no longer beg and plead for mercy. After he had finished, I lay across the sloping cellar door, lumpish and still, inwardly a shaking jelly of horror.
I was wanting to die ... these successive humiliations seemed too great to live through.
* * * * *
The grey light of morning filtering in.
Lan stood over my bed.
"—want to go hunting with me to-day?... shootin' blackbirds?"
"Yes, Uncle Lan," I assented, my mind divided between fear of him and eagerness to go.
In the kitchen we ate some fried eggs and drank our coffee in silence. Then we trudged on through the dew-wet fields, drenched to the knees as if having waded through a brook.
Lan bore his double-barrelled shotgun over his shoulder. He shot into a tree-top full of bickering blackbirds and brought three down, torn, flopping, bleeding. He thrust them into his sack, which reddened through, and we went on ... still in silence. The silence began to make me tremble but I was glad, anyhow, that I had gone with him. I conjectured that he had brought me a-field to give me a final whipping—"to teach me to mind Granma."
"—had to bring you out here ... the women are too chicken-hearted—they stop me too soon...."
"—Pity your pa's away ... don't do to leave a kid alone with women folks ... they don't make him walk the chalk enough!"
It was about an hour after sunrise. We had come to an open field among trees. Lan set down his gun against a tree-trunk.
"—needn't make to run ... I can catch you, no matter how fast you go."
He cut a heavy stick from a hickory.
"Come on and take your medicine ... I'm goin' away to-morrow to Halton, and I want to leave you something to remember me by—so that you'll obey Ma and Millie while I'm gone. If you don't, when I come back, you'll catch it all over again."
My heart was going like a steam engine. At the last moment I started to run, my legs sinking beneath me. He was upon me with my first few steps, and had me by the scruff of the neck, and brought down the cudgel over me.
Then an amazing thing happened inside me. It seemed that the blows were descending on someone else, not me. The pain of them was a dull, far-away thing. Weak, fragile child that I was (known among the other children as "Skinny Gregory" and "Spider-Legs") a man's slow fury was kindling in me ... let Lan beat me for a year. It didn't matter. When I grew up I would kill him for this.
I began to curse boldly at him, calling him by all the obscene terms I had ever learned or heard. This, and the astounding fact that I no longer squirmed nor cried out, but physically yielded to him, as limp as an empty sack, brought him to a puzzled stop. But he sent me an extra blow for good measure as he flung me aside. That blow rattled about my head, missing my shoulders at which it had been aimed. I saw a shower of hot sparks soaring upward into a black void.
I woke with water trickling down my face and all over me. I heard, far off, my uncle's voice calling, cajoling, coaxing, with great fright sounding through it....
"Johnnie, Johnnie ... I'm so sorry ... Johnnie, only speak to me!" He was behaving exactly like Aunt Millie when she had St. Vitus' dance.
He began tending me gently like a woman. He built a fire and made some coffee over it—he had brought coffee and some lunch. I crouched white and still, saying not a word.
Landon squatted with his back turned, watching the coffee. His shotgun, leaning against the tree-trunk, caught my eye. I crept toward that shotgun. I trembled with anticipatory pleasure. God, but now I would pay him back!...
But it was too heavy. I had struggled and brought it up, however, half to my shoulder, when that uncanny instinct that sometimes comes to people in mortal danger, came to Uncle Lan. He looked about.
He went as pale as a sheet of paper.
"—God, Johnnie!" he almost screamed my name.
I dropped the gun in the grass, sullenly, never speaking.
"Johnnie, were you—were you?" he faltered, unnerved.
"Yes, I was going to give you both barrels ... and I'm sorry I didn't."
All his desire to whip me had gone up like smoke.
"Yes, and I'll tell you what, you big, dirty ——, I'll kill you yet, when I grow big."
* * * * *
That night I fainted at supper. When Granma put me to bed she saw how bruised and wealed I was all over ... for the first time she went after Uncle Lan—turned into a furious thing.
* * * * *
Shortly after, I was taken sick with typhoid fever. They used the starvation cure for it, in those days. When they began to give me solid food, I chased single grains of rice that fell out of the plate, about the quilt, just as a jeweller would pearls, if a necklace of them broke.
* * * * *
With my recovery came news, after many days, of my father.
The Hunkies were pushing out the Irish from the mills—cheaper labour. My grandmother could not afford to board the Hunkies, they lived so cheaply. Renewed poverty was breaking our household up.
My grandmother was about to begin her living about from house to house with her married sons and daughters.
My father was sending for me to come East. He had a good job there in the Composite Works at Haberford. He was at last able to take care of his son—his only child.
* * * * *
My grandmother and my aunt Millie took me to the railroad station. I tried to be brave and not cry. I succeeded, till the train began to pull out. Then I cried very much.
The face of my grandmother pulled awry with grief and flowing tears. Aunt Millie wept, too.
No, I wouldn't leave them. I would stay with them, work till I was rich and prosperous, never marry, give all my life to taking care of them, to saving them from the bitter grinding poverty we had shared together.
I ran into the vestibule. But the train was gathering speed so rapidly that I did not dare jump off.
I took my seat again. Soon my tears dried.
The trees flapped by. The telegraph poles danced off in irregular lines. I became acquainted with my fellow passengers. I was happy.
I made romance out of every red and green lamp in the railroad yards we passed through, out of the dingy little restaurants in which I ate....
The mysterious swaying to and fro of the curtains in the sleeper thrilled me, as I looked out from my narrow berth.
In the smoker I listened till late to the talk of the drummers who clenched big black cigars between their teeth, or slender Pittsburgh stogies, expertly flicking off the grey ash with their little fingers, as they yarned.
I wore a tag on my coat lapel with my name and destination written on it. My grandmother had put it there in a painful, scrawling hand.
* * * * *
The swing out over wide, salt-bitten marshes, the Jersey marshes grey and smoky before dawn!... then, far off, on the horizon line, New York, serrate, mountainous, going upward great and shining in the still dawn!
* * * * *
Beneath a high, vast, clamorous roof of glass....
As I stepped down to the platform my father met me.
I knew him instantly though it had been years since I had seen him.
* * * * *
My father whisked me once more across the long Jersey marshes. To Haberford. There, on the edge of the town, composed of a multitude of stone-built, separate, tin-roofed houses, stood the Composite Works. My father was foreman of the drying department, in which the highly inflammable sheets of composite were hung to dry....
My father rented a large, front room, with a closet for clothes, of a commuting feed merchant named Jenkins ... whose house stood three or four blocks distant from the works.
So we, my father and I, lived in that one room. But I had it to myself most of the time, excepting at night, when we shared the big double bed.
* * * * *
Still only a child, I was affectionate toward him. And, till he discouraged me, I kissed him good night every night, I liked the smell of the cigars he smoked.
I wanted my father to be more affectionate to me, to notice me more. I thought that a father should be something intuitively understanding and sympathetic. And mine was offish ... of a different species.. wearing his trousers always neatly pressed ... and his neckties—he had them hanging in a neat, perfect row, never disarranged. The ends of them were always pulled even over the smooth stick on which they hung.
I can see my father yet, as he stands before the mirror, painstakingly adjusting the tie he had chosen for the day's wear.
I was not at all like him. Where I took my knee britches off, there I dropped them. They sprawled, as if half-alive, on the floor ... my shirt, clinging with one arm over a chair, as if to keep from falling to the floor.. my cap, flung hurriedly into a corner.
* * * * *
"Christ, Johnnie, won't you ever learn to be neat or civilised? What kind of a boy are you, anyhow?"
He thought I was stubborn, was determined not to obey him, for again and again I flung things about in the same disorder for which I was rebuked. But a grey chaos was settling over me. I trembled often like a person under a strange seizure. My mind did not readily respond to questions. It went here and there in a welter. Day dreams chased through my mind one after another in hurried heaps of confusion. I was lost ... groping ... in a curious new world of growing emotions leavened with grievous, shapeless thoughts.
Strange involuntary rhythms swung through my spirit and body. Fantastic imaginations took possession of me.
And I prayed at night, kneeling, great waves of religious emotion going over me. And when my father saw me praying by the bedside, I felt awkwardly, shamefully happy that he saw me. And I took to posing a childishness, an innocence toward him.
Jenkins, the little stringy feed merchant, had two daughters, one thirteen, Alva, and another Silvia, who was fifteen or sixteen.. and a son, Jimmy, about seven....
It was over Alva and Silvia that my father and Jenkins used to come together, teasing me. And, though the girls drew me with an enchanting curiosity, I would protest that I didn't like girls ... that when I became full-grown I would never marry, but would study books and mind my business, single....
After this close, crafty, lascivious joking between them, my father would end proudly with—
"Johnnie's a strange boy, he really doesn't care about such things. All he cares about is books."
So I succeeded in completely fooling my father as to the changes going on within me.
* * * * *
Though I had not an atom of belief left in orthodox Christianity (or thought I had not) I still possessed this all-pervasive need to pray to God. A need as strong as physical hunger.
Torn with these curious, new, sweet tumults, I turned to Him. And I prayed to be pure ... like Sir Galahad, or any of the old knights who wore their lady's favour in chastity, a male maiden,—and yet achieved great quests and were manly in their deeds....
* * * * *
The crying and singing of the multitudinous life of insects and animals in the spring marshes under the stars almost made me weep, as I roamed about, distracted yet exalted, alone, at night.
I was studying the stars, locating the constellations with a little book of star-maps I possessed.
I wanted, was in search of, something ... something ... maybe other worlds could give this something to me ... what vistas of infinite imagination I saw about me in the wide-stretching, star-sprinkled sky!
Dreaming of other worlds swinging around other suns, seething with strange millions of inhabitants, through all space, I took to reading books on astronomy ... Newcomb ... Proctor's Other Worlds ... Camille Flammarion ... Garret Serviss as he wrote in the daily papers ... and novels and romances dealing with life on the moon, on Mars, on Venus....
During my night-rovings I lay down in dark hollows, sometimes, and prayed to God as fervently as if the next moment I might expect His shining face to look down at me out of the velvet, far-reaching blackness of night:
"O God, make me pure, and wonderful ... let me do great things for humanity ... make me handsome, too, O God, so that girls and women will love me, and wonder at me, in awe, while I pass by unperturbed—till one day, having kept myself wholly for her as she has kept herself for me,—give me then the one wonderful and beautiful white maiden who will be mine ... mine ... all and alone and altogether, as I shall be all and alone and altogether hers. And let me do things to be wondered at by watching multitudes, while bands play and people applaud."
Such was my mad, adolescent prayer, while the stars seemed to answer in sympathetic silence. And I would both laugh and weep, thrilled to the core with ineffable, enormous joy because of things I could not understand ... and I would want to shout and dance extravagantly.
* * * * *
The Jenkins girls were curious about me, and while they, together with the rest of the feed merchant's family, thought me slightly "touched," still they liked the unusual things I said about the stars ... and about great men whose biographies I was reading ... and about Steele's Zoology I was studying, committing all the Latin nomenclature of classification to heart, with a curious hunger for even the husks and impedimenta of learning....
Silvia was a rose, half-opened ... an exquisite young creature. Alva was gawky and younger. She was callow and moulting, flat-footed and long-shanked. Her face was sallow and full of freckles.
In the long Winter evenings we sat together by the warmth of the kitchen stove, alone, studying our lessons,—the place given over entirely to us for our school work.
A touch of the hand with either of them, but with Silvia especially, was a superb intoxication, an ecstasy I have never since known. When all my power of feeling fluttered into my fingers ... and when we kissed, each night, good-night (the girls kissed me because I pretended to be embarrassed, to object to it) our homework somehow done,—the thought of their kisses was a memory to lie and roll in, for hours, after going to bed.
I would pull away as far as I could from my father, and think luxuriously, awake sometimes till dawn.
* * * * *
I hated school so that I ran away. For the first time in my life, but by no means my last, I hopped a freight.
I was absent several weeks.
When I returned, weary, and dirty from riding in coal cars, my father was so glad to see me he didn't whip me. He was, in fact, a little proud of me. For he was always boastful of the many miles he had travelled through the various states, as salesman, not many years before. And after I had bathed, and had put on the new suit which he bought me, I grew talkative about my adventures, too.
I now informed my father that I wanted to go to work. Which I didn't so very much. But anything, if only it was not going to school. He was not averse to my getting a job. He took out papers for me, and gave me work under him, in the drying department of the Composite Works. My wage was three dollars a week. My task, to hang the thin sheets of composite, cut from three to fifteen hundredths of an inch in thickness, on metal clips to dry.
In the Composite Works I discovered a new world—the world of factory life.
I liked to be sent to the other departments on errands. There were whirling wheels and steadily recurring, ever-lapsing belts ... and men and women working and working in thin fine dust, or among a strong smell as of rubbed amber—the characteristic smell of composite when subjected to friction....
And these men and women were continually joking and jesting and making horse-play at one another's expense, as rough people in their social unease do.
They seemed part and adjunct to the machines, the workers! Strong, sturdy, bared forearms flashed regularly like moving, rhythmic shafts ... deft hands clasped and reached, making only necessary movements.
Each department housed a different kind of worker. In the grinding, squealing, squeaking, buzzing machine shop the men were not mixed with women.
They were alert, well-muscled; their faces were streaked with paleness and a black smutch like dancers made up for a masquerade. Always they were seeking for a vigorous joke to play on someone. And, if the trick were perpetrated within the code, the foreman himself enjoyed it, laughing grimly with the "boys."
Once I was sent to the machine shop for "strap oil." I was thrown over a greasy bench and was given it—the laying on of a heavy strap not at all gently! I ran away, outraged, to tell my father; as I left, the men seemed more attentive to their work than ever. They smiled quietly to themselves.
In the comb department the throwing of chunks of composite was the workers' chief diversion. And if you were strange there, you were sure to be hit as you passed through.
The acid house was a gruesome place. Everything in it and for yards around it, was covered with a yellow blight, as if the slight beard of some pestilential fungous were sprouting ... the only people the company could induce to work there were foreigners who knew little of America.... Swedes mostly ... attentive churchgoers on Sunday,—who on week-days, and overtime at nights, laboured their lives out among the pungent, lung-eating vats of acid. The fumes rose in yellow clouds. Each man wore something over his nose and mouth resembling a sponge. But many, grown careless, or through a silly code of mistaken manliness, dispensed with this safeguard part of the time. And whether they dispensed with it or not, the lives of the workers in the acid house was not much more than a matter of a few years ... big, hulking, healthy Swedes, newly arrived, with roses in their cheeks like fair, young girls, faded perceptibly from day to day, into hollow-cheeked, jaundice-coloured death's-heads. They went about, soon, with eyes that had grey gaunt hollows about them—pits already cavernous like the eye-pits of a skull.
* * * * *
"Well, they don't have to work in there unless they want to, do they?"
"Ah, they're only a lot of foreigners anyhow."
* * * * *
Three dollars a week was a lot of money for me ... a fortune, because I had never owned anything higher than nickles and dimes before.
And my father, for the first few weeks, allowed me to have all I earned, to do with as I wished. Later on he made me save two dollars a week.
Each Saturday I went down to Newark and bought books ... very cheap, second hand ones, at Breasted's book store.
Every decisive influence in life has been a book, every vital change in my life, I might say, has been brought about by a book.
My father owned a copy of Lord Byron in one volume. It was the only book he cared for, outside of Shakespeare's Hamlet, together with, of course, his own various books on Free Masonry and other secret societies.
At first, oddly enough, it was my instinct for pedantry and linguistic learning that drew me to Byron. I became enamoured of the Latin and Greek quotations with which he headed his lyrics in Hours of Idleness, and laboriously I copied them, lying on my belly on the floor, under the lamp light. And under these quotations I indited boyish rhymes of my own.
Then I began to read—_Manfred, Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus_—the Deformed Transformed ... The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, Lara, The Prisoner of Chillon_.
The frontispiece to the book was a portrait of Byron with flowing tie and open shirt. Much as a devout Catholic wears a gold cross around his neck to signify his belief, with a like devoutness I took to wearing my shirt open at the neck, and a loose, flowing black tie. And I ruffled my hair in the Byronic style.
"I see you're discovering Byron," my father laughed.
Then he slyly intimated that the best of the poet's works I had evidently overlooked, Childe Harold and Don Juan. And he quoted me the passage about the lifted skirt above the peeking ankle. And he reinforced his observation by grinning salaciously.
From that time on I searched with all the fever of adolescence through Byron for every passage which bore on sex, the mystery of which was beginning to devour my days.
I read and pondered, shaking with eagerness, the stories of Haidee, of Antonia and Julia—the tale of the dream of Dudu. I dwelt in a musk-scented room of imagination. Silver fountains played about me. Light forms flowed and undulated in white draperies over mosaiced pavements ... flashing dark eyes shone mysteriously and amorously, starry through curtains and veils.
My every thought was alert with naive, speculative curiosity concerning the mystery of woman.
Through Byron I learned about Moore. I procured the latter's Lalla Rookh, his odes of Anacreon.
From Byron and Moore I built up an adolescent ideal of woman,—exquisitely sensual and sexual, and yet an angel, superior to men: an ideal of a fellow creature who was both a living, breathing mystery and a walking sweetmeat ... a white creation moved and actuated by instinct and intuition—a perpetually inexplicable ecstasy and madness to man.
I drew more and more apart to myself. Always looked upon as queer by the good, bourgeois families that surrounded us, I was now considered madder still.
* * * * *
How wonderful it would be to become a hermit on some far mountain side, wearing a grey robe, clear-browed and calmly speculative under the stars—or, maybe,—more wonderful: a singer for men, a travelling minstrel—in each case, whether minstrel or hermit, whether teaching great doctrines or singing great songs for all the world—to have come to me, as a pilgrim seeking enlightenment, the most beautiful maiden in the world, one who was innocent of what man meant. And together we would learn the mystery of life, and live in mutual purity and innocence.
* * * * *
The strangeness of my physical person lured me. I marvelled at, scrutinised intimately the wonder of myself. I was insatiable in my curiosities.
* * * * *
My discovery of my body, and my books, held me in equal bondage. I neglected my work in the drying room. My father was vexed. He'd hunt me out of the obscure corners back of the hanging sheets of composite where I hid, absorbed in myself and the book I held, and would run me back to work.
* * * * *
One day, in the factory, two other boys on an errand from another department, came back where I sat, in a hidden nook, reading Thompson's Seasons. One of them spit over my shoulder, between the leaves. I leaped to my feet, infuriated, and a fight began. The desecration of my beloved poetry gave me such angry strength that I struck out lustily and dropped both of them....
Rushing in on the uproar and blaming me for it, my father seized me by the collar. He booted the other boys off, who were by this time on their feet again, took me up into the water-tower, and beat me with one of the heavy sticks, with metal clips on it, that was used for hanging the composite on.
Still trembling with the fight, I shook with a superadded ague of fear. My father's chastisement brought back to me with a chill the remembrance of the beatings Uncle Landon had given me.
* * * * *
"By God, Johnnie, this is the only thing there's left to do with you." He flung me aside. I lay there sobbing.
"Tell me, my boy, what is the matter with you?" he asked, softening. Unlike Landon, he was usually gentle with me. He seldom treated me harshly.
"Father, I don't want to work any more."
"Don't want to work?... but you quit school just to go to work, at your own wish!"
"I want to go back to school!"
"Back to school?... you'll be behind the rest by now."
"I've been studying a lot by myself," I replied, forgetting the feel of the stick already and absorbed in the new idea.
By this time we were down the stairs again, and I was sitting by my father's desk. He took up the unlighted cigar he always carried in his mouth (for smoking was not allowed among such inflammable material as composite). He sucked at it thoughtfully from habit, as if he were smoking.
"Look here, my son, what is the matter with you ... won't you tell your daddy?"
"Nothing's the matter with me, Pop!"
"You're getting thin as a shadow ... are you feeling sick?"
"You're a queer little duck."
There was a long silence.
"You're always reading ... good books too ... yet you're no more good in school than you are at work ... I can't make you out, by the living God, I can't ... what is it you want to be?"
"I don't know, only I want to go back to school again."
"But what did you leave for?"
"I hated arithmetic."
"What do you want to study, then?"
"Would you like a special course in the high school?
"Principal Balling of the Keeley Heights High School might be able to work you in. He is a brother Mason of mine."
"I know some Latin and Greek and Ancient History already. I have been teaching myself."
"Well, you are a queer fish ... there never was anyone like you in the family, except your mother. She used to read and read, and read. And once or twice she wrote a short story ... had one accepted, even, by the Youth's Companion once, but never printed."
* * * * *
Though it was some months off till the Fall term began, on the strength of my desire to return to school my father let me throw up my job....
But we soon found out that, brother in the bond, or not, Principal Balling could not get me into high school because I was not well enough prepared. My studying and reading by myself, though it had been quite wide, had also been too desultory. The principal advised a winter in the night school where men and boys who had been delayed in their education went to learn.
I ran about that summer, with a gang of fellow adolescents; our headquarters, strange to say, being the front room and outside steps of an undertaker's establishment. This was because our leader was the undertaker's boy-of-all-work. Harry Mitchell was his name. Harry, a sort of young tramp, fat and pimply-faced, had jaunted into our town one day from New York, and had found work with the undertaker. Harry had watery blue eyes and a round, moon face. He was a whirlwind fighter but he never fought with us. It was only with the leaders of other gangs or with strangers that he fought.
Harry continued our education in the secrets and mysteries of life, in the stable-boy and gutter way,—by passing about among us books from a sort of underground library ... vile things, fluently conceived and made even more vivid and animal with obscene and unimaginable illustrations. And our minds were trailed black with slime.
And whole afternoons we stood about on the sidewalk jeering and fleering, jigging and singing, talking loud, horse-laughing, and hungrily eyeing the girls and women that passed by, who tried hard to seem, as they went, not self-conscious and stiff-stepping because of our observation ... and sometimes we whistled after them or called out to them in falsetto voices.
* * * * *
As a child my play had been strenuous and absorbing, like work that one is happy at, so that at night I fell asleep with all the pleasant fatigue of a labourer.
It is the adolescent who loafs and dawdles on street corners. For the cruel and fearful urge of sex stirs so powerfully in him, that he hardly knows what to do, and all his days and nights he writhes in the grip of terrible instincts.
* * * * *
Yet, in the midst of the turbidness of adolescence, I was still two distinct personalities. With my underground library of filth hidden away where my father could not find it, at the same time I kept and read my other books. The first were for the moments of madness and curious ecstasy I had learned how to induce.
But my better self periodically revolted. And I took oath that I would never again spew a filthy expression from my mouth or do an ill thing. I suffered all the agonies of the damned in hell. I believe hell to be the invention of adolescence.
Always, inevitably, I returned to my wallow and the gang.
* * * * *
We were not always loafing in front of the undertaker's shop. Sometimes we were quite active. Many windows and street lamps were smashed. And we derived great joy from being pursued by the "cops"—especially by a certain fat one, for whom we made life a continual burden.
Once we went in a body to the outskirts of the town and stoned a greenhouse. Its owner chased us across ploughed fields. We flung stones back at him. One hit him with a dull thud and made him cry out with pain, and he left off pursuing us. It was so dark we could not be identified.
One of our favourite diversions was to follow mature lovers as they strolled a-field, hoping to catch them in the midst of intimate endearments.
* * * * *
My father received a raise of a few dollars in salary. As it was they paid him too little, because he was easy-going. The additional weekly money warranted our leaving the Jenkinses and renting four rooms all our own, over the main street. This meant that I was to have a whole room to myself, and I was glad ... a whole room where I could stand a small writing desk and set up my books in rows. With an extreme effort I burned my underground books.
* * * * *
All the women liked my father. He dressed neatly and well. His trousers were never without their fresh crease. He was very vain of his neat appearance, even to the wearing of a fresh-cut flower in his buttonhole. This vanity made him also wear his derby indoors and out, because of his entirely bald head.
Every time he could devise an excuse for going to the departments where the women worked, he would do so, and flirt with them. He, for this reason I am sure, made special friends with Schlegel, foreman of the collar department. I never saw a man derive a keener pleasure out of just standing and talking with women.
Though, like most men, he enjoyed a smutty story, yet I never heard him say a really gross thing about any woman. And his language was always in good English, with few curses and oaths in it.
* * * * *
Our new place was a bit of heaven to me. I procured a copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, of Darwin's Origin of Species and Descent of Man. Laboriously I delved through these last two books, my knowledge of elementary zoology helping me to the explication of their meaning.
The theory of evolution came as a natural thing to me. It seemed that I knew it all, before,—as I did, because, in my own way, I had thought out the problem of the growth of the varying forms of animal life, exactly to the Darwinian conclusion.
Whitman's Leaves of Grass became my Bible.
* * * * *
It was at this time that I made the harrowing discovery that I had been working evil on myself ... through an advertisement of a quack in a daily paper.
And now I became an anchorite battling to save myself from the newly discovered monstrosity of the flesh.... For several days I would be the victor, but the thing I hugged to my bosom would finally win. Then would follow a terror beyond comprehension, a horror of remorse and degradation that human nature seemed too frail to bear. I grew thinner still. I fell into a hacking cough.
And, at the same time, I became more perverse in my affectation of innocence and purity—saying always to my father that I never could care for girls, and that what people married for was beyond my comprehension. Thus I threw his alarmed inquisitiveness off the track....
I procured books about sexual life. My most cherished volume was an old family medical book with charred covers, smelling of smoke and water, that I had dug out of the ruins of a neighbouring fire.
In the book was a picture of a nude woman, entitled The Female Form Divine. I tore this from the body of the book and kept it under my pillow.
I would draw it forth, press it against myself, speak soft words of affection to it, caress and kiss it, fix my mind on it as if it were a living presence. Often the grey light of dawn would put its ashen hand across my sunken cheeks before dead-heavy, exhausted sleep proved kind to me....
* * * * *
Again: my imagination grew to be all graveyards, sepulchral urns, skeletons. How beautiful it would be to die young and a poet, to die like the young English poet, Henry Kirke White, whose works I was so enamoured of. The wan consumptive glamour of his career led me, as he had done, to stay up all night, night after night, studying....
* * * * *
After the surging and mounting of that in me which I could not resist, several hours of strange, abnormal calm would ensue and for that space I would swing calm and detached from myself, like a luminous, disembodied entity. And then it was that I would write and write. The verses would come rushing from my pen. I must hurry with them before my early death overtook me.
* * * * *
There were two visions I saw continually in my sleep:
One was of myself walking with a proud step down a vast hall, the usual wreath of fame on my head. I wore a sort of toga. And of course a great concourse of people stood apart in silent reverence on either side, gazing at me admiringly. With the thunder of their hand-clapping I would wake.
The other dream was of being buried alive.
I lay there, smelling the dark earth, and not being able to stir so much as the last joint of my little finger. Yet every nerve of me ached with sentience.. and I woke gasping, my face bathed with tears and the moisture of terror.
* * * * *
From head to foot hot flushes swept over me. And I was stung with the pricking of a million needles, going in sharply at every pore!... was bathed in cold sweats. And I hoped I was dying.
* * * * *
"Johnnie, what are you doing to yourself?" And my father fixed his eyes on me.
"If you weren't such a good boy, I'd—" and he halted, to continue, "as it is, you're a clean boy, and I'm proud of you."
I struggled hard to speak with him, to make a confidant of him, but I could not.
"I wonder," he added with alarm in his voice, "I wonder if you're catching consumption, the disease your mother died of ... you must be careful of yourself."
I told him I would be careful....
"I think I'll send you back home to visit the folks this fall."
* * * * *
There was a restaurant just around the corner from where we lived in our second story flat—a restaurant which bore the legend stuck up in the window, "Home Cooking." The sign itself was of a dull, dirty, fly-specked white which ought to have been a sufficient warning to the nice palate.
The place was run by a family of three ... there was Mister Brown, the man, a huge-built, blotch-faced, retired stone-mason, his meagre little wife, Mrs. Brown, and their grass-widow daughter, Flora.... Flora did but little work, except to lean familiarly and with an air of unspoken intimacy, over the tables of the men, as she slouched up with their food ... and she liked to sit outside in the back yard when there was sunshine ... in the hammock for more comfort ... shelling peas or languidly peeling potatoes.
Flora's vibrant, little, wasplike mother whose nose was so sharp and red that it made me think of Paul's ferret—she bustled and buzzed about, doing most of the work.
* * * * *
Looking out from our back window, I could see Flora lolling, and I would read or write a little and then the unrest would become too strong and I would go down to her. Soon two potato knives would be working.
"Come and sit by me in the hammock."
I liked that invitation ... she was plump to heaviness and sitting in the hammock crushed us pleasantly together.
This almost daily propinquity goaded my adolescent hunger into an infatuation for her,—I thought I was in love with her,—though I never quite reconciled myself to the cowlikeness with which she chewed gum.
She was as free and frank of herself as I was curious and timid.
"Johnnie, what small feet and little hands you have ... you're a regular aristocrat."
* * * * *
I give her a poem written to her. She reads it, letting her knife stick in a half-peeled potato. She looks up at me out of heavy-lidded eyes.
* * * * *
"I believe you're falling in love with me."
I trembled, answered nothing, was silent.
Seeing me so a-tremble, she obeyed her own injunction. With slow deliberation she crushed her lips, full and voluptuous, into mine. The warmth of them seemed to catch hold of something deep down in me, and, with exquisite painfulness, draw it out. Blinded with emotion, I clutched close to her. She laughed. I put one hand over her full breast as infants do. She pushed me back.
"There, that's enough for one day—a promise of sweets to come!" and she laughed again, with a hearty purr like a cat that has a mouse at its mercy.
She rose and carried in the pan of potatoes we had just finished peeling. And I saw her sturdy, but not unshapely ankles going from me as she went up the steps from the yard, her legs gleaming white through her half-silk hose (that were always coming down, and that she was always twisting up, just under her knees, before my abashed eyes). She wore shoes much too little for her plump feet ... and, when not abroad, let them yawn open unbuttoned. And her plump body was alive and bursting through her careless, half-fastened clothes.
She sang with a deep sultriness of voice as she walked away with the pan of potatoes.
* * * * *
"You ought to see my Florrie read books!" exclaimed the mother.
Flora did read a lot ... but chiefly the erotic near-society novels that Belford used to print....
"Yes, she's a smart girl, she is."
And the father....
"I won't work till the unions get better conditions for a man. I won't be no slave to no man."
* * * * *
One sultry afternoon I went into the restaurant and found Flora away. Poignantly disappointed, I asked where she was.
"—Gone on a trip!" her mother explained, without explaining.
From time to time Flora went on "trips."
* * * * *
And one morning, several mornings, Flora was not there to serve at the breakfast table ... and I was hurt when I learned that she had gone back to Newark to live, and had left no word for me. Her father told me she "had gone back to George," meaning her never-seen husband from whom she evidently enjoyed intervals of separation and grass-widowhood.
I was puzzled and hurt indeed, because she had not even said good-bye to me. But soon came this brief note from her:
Do come up to Newark and see me some afternoon. And come more than once. Bring your Tennyson that you was reading aloud to me. I love to hear you read poetry. I think you are a dear and want to see more of you. But I suppose you have already forgotten
In the absurd and pitiful folly of youth I lifted the letter to my lips and kissed it. I trembled with eagerness till the paper rattled as I read it again and again. It seemed like some precious holy script.
I bolted my lunch nervously and it stuck half way down in a hard lump. I would go to her that very afternoon.
* * * * *
The car on which I rode was subject to too frequent stoppage for me. I leaped out and walked along with brisk strides. But the car sailed forth ahead of me now on a long stretch of roadway and I ran after it to catch it again. The conductor looked back at me in derisive scorn and made a significant whirling motion near his temple with his index finger, indicating that I had wheels there....
At last I found the street where Flora lived. I trailed from door to door till the number she had given me met my eye. It made my heart jump and my knees give in, to be so near the quarry. For the first time I was to be alone with a woman I desired.
At the bell, it took me a long time to gain courage to pull. But at last I reached out my hand. I had to stand my ground. I couldn't run away now. The bell made a tinkling sound far within.
* * * * *
The door opened cautiously. A head of touseled black hair crept out.
"Johnnie, dear! You!... you are a surprise!"
Did I really detect an echo of disappointment in her deep, contralto voice?
Frightened in my heart like a trapped animal, I went in. Down a long, dusk, musty-smelling corridor and into a back-apartment on the first floor; she led me into a room which was bed-and-sitting room combined. In one part of it stood several upholstered chairs with covers on, cluttered about a plain table. In the other part stood a bureau heaped with promiscuous toilette articles, and a huge, brass-knobbed bed with a spread of lace over its great, semi-upright pillows.
"Shall I let in a little more light, dear?"
For the blinds were two-thirds down.
"I like to sit and think in the dark," she explained, and her one dimple broke in a rich, brown-faced animal smile.
"Yes, but I—I want to see your lovely face," I stuttered, with much effort at gallantry....
* * * * *
"He's not at home ... he's off at Wilmington, on a job" (meaning her husband, though I had not asked about him). "But what made you come so soon? You must of just got my letter!"
"I—I wanted you," I blurted ... in the next moment I was at her feet in approved romantic fashion, following up my declaration of desire. Calmly she let me kneel there ... I put my arms about her plump legs ... I was almost fainting....
After a while she took me by the hair with both hands. She slowly bent my head back as I knelt. Leaning over, she kissed deliberately, deeply into my mouth ... then, gazing into my eyes with a puzzled expression, as I relaxed to her—almost like something inanimate....
"Why, you dear boy, I believe you're innocent like a child. And yet you know so much about books ... and you're so wise, too!"
As she spoke she pushed back my mad hands from their clutching and reaching. She held both of them in hers, and closed them in against her half-uncovered, full breasts, pressing them there.
"Do you mean to tell me that you've never gone out with the boys for a good time?... how old are you?"
I told her I was just sixteen.
"Do you think I'm ... I'm too young?" I asked.
"I feel as if I was your mother ... and I'm not much over twenty ... but do sit up on a chair, dear!"
She stood on her feet, shook out her dress, smiled curiously, and started out of the room. I was up and after her, my arms around her waist, desperate. She slid around in my arms, laughing quietly to herself till the back of her head was against my mouth. I kissed and kissed the top of her head. Then she turned slowly to face me, pressing all the contours of her body into me ... she crushed her bosom to mine. Already I was quite tall; and she was stocky and short ... she lifted her face up to me, a curious kindling light in her eyes ... of a phosphorescent, greenish lustre, like those chance gleams in a cat's eyes you catch at night....
She took my little finger and deliberately bit it ... then she leaned away from my seeking mouth, my convulsive arms....
"You want too much, all at once," she said, and, whirling about broke away....
With the table between me and her....
"Wouldn't you like a little beer, and some sandwiches? I have some in the ice box.... Do let's have some beer and sandwiches."
I assented, though hating the bitter taste of beer, and hungry for her instead of sandwiches. And soon we were sitting down calmly at the table, or rather, she was sitting down calmly ... baffled, I pretended to be calm.
As she rose for something or other, I sprang around the table and caught her close to me once more, marvelling, at the same time, at my loss of shyness, my new-found audacity. Again she snuggled in close to me, her flesh like a warm, palpitating cushion.
"Flora, my darling ... help me!" I cried, half-sobbing.
"What do you mean?" laughing.
"I love you!"
"I know all you want!"
"But I do love you ... see...."
And I prostrated myself, in a frenzy, at her feet.
"Say, you're the queerest kid I've ever known."
And she walked out of the room abruptly, while I rose to my feet and sat in a chair, dejected. She came in again, a twinkle in her eye.
"Don't torture me, Flora!" I pleaded, "either send me away, or—"
"Stop pestering me ... let's talk ... read me some of that Tennyson you gave me...." and I began reading aloud, for there was nothing else she would for the moment, have me do....
* * * * *
"You're a poet," whimsically, "I want you to write some letters to me because I know you must write beautiful."
"—if you will only let me love you!"
"Well, ain't I lettin' you love me?"
A perverse look came into her face, a thought, an idea that pleased her—
"I've lots and lots of letters from men," she began, "men that have been in love with me."
"Oh!" I exclaimed weakly ... she had just expressed a desire to add some of mine to the pack ... the next thing that she followed up with gave me a start—
"My father?—" I echoed.
"He's written me the best letters of all ... wait a minute ... I'll read a little here and there to you." And, gloating and triumphant, and either not seeing or, in her vulgarity, not caring what effect the reading of my father's love letters would have on me, she began reading ardent passages aloud. "See!" She showed me a page to prove that it was in his handwriting. The letters told a tale easy to understand. She was so eager in her vanity that she read on and on without seeing in my face what, seen, would have made her stop.
A frightful trembling seized me, a loathing, a horror. This was my father's woman ... and ... I!...
I sat on, dumbfounded, paralysed. I remembered his stories of trips to T—— and other places on supposed lodge business ... unluckily, I also remembered that several times Flora had been off on trips at the same time.
"Just listen to this, will you!" and she began at another passage.
She was so absorbed in her reading that she did not see how I was on my feet ... had seized my hat ... was going.
"I'm sorry, Flora, but I've got to go!"
"What?" looking up and surprised, "—got to go?"
"Yes ... Yes ... I must—must go!" my lips trembled.
"Why, we're just getting acquainted ... I didn't mean for you to go yet."
She rose, dropping the letters all in a heap.
She was the aggressive one now. She drew me to her quickly, "Stay ... and I'll promise to be good to you!"
I pushed back, loathing ... loathing her and myself, but myself more, because in spite of all my disgust, my pulses leaped quick again to hers.
"Sit down again."
I did not listen, but stood.
"I was thinking that you would stay for supper and then we could go to some show and after come back here and I would give you a good time."
* * * * *
I staggered out, shocked beyond belief, the last animal flush had died out of me. All my body was ice-cold.
"Promise me you'll come again this day next week," she called after me persistently.
She drew the door softly shut and left me reeling down the dark corridor.
* * * * *
I could hardly speak to my father that night. I avoided him.
* * * * *
At the creeping edge of dawn I woke from a dream with a jerk as I slid down an endless black abyss. The abyss was my bed's edge and I found myself on the floor. When I went to rise again, I had to clutch things to stand up. I was so weak I sat on the bed breathing heavily. I tumbled backward into bed again and lay in a daze during which dream-objects mixed with reality and my room walked full of people from all the books I had read—all to evaporate as my father's face grew, from a cluster of white foreheads and myriads of eyes, into him.
"Johnnie, wake up ... are you sick?"
"Please go away from me and let me alone." I turned my face to the wall in loathing.
"I'll call a doctor."
* * * * *
The doctor came. He felt my pulse. Put something under my tongue. Whispered my father in a room, apart. Left.
My father returned, dejected, yet trying to act light and merry.
"What did the doctor say?" I forced myself to ask of him.
"To be frank, Johnnie ... you're old enough to learn the truth ... he thinks you're taken down with consumption."
"That's what my mother died of."
My father shuddered and put his face down in his hands. I felt a little sorry for him, then.
"Well you've got to go West now ... and work on a farm ... or something."
* * * * *
I began to get ready for my trip West. Surely enough, I had consumption, if symptoms counted ... pains under the shoulder blades ... spitting of blood ... night-sweats....
But my mind was quickened: I read Morley's History of English Literature ... Chaucer all through ... Spenser ... even Gower's Confessio Amantis and Lydgate's ballads ... my recent discovery of Chatterton having made me Old English-mad.
As I read the life of young Chatterton I envied him, his fame and his early death and more than ever, I too desired to die young.
* * * * *
The week before I was to set out my father calmly discovered to me that he intended I should work on a farm as a hand for the next four years, when I reached Ohio ... was even willing to pay the farmer something to employ me. This is what the doctor had prescribed as the only thing that would save my life—work in the open air. My father had written Uncle Beck to see that this program was inaugurated.