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Ben runs away from home and lives on the streets of New York City for years. He learns how to survive ... In presenting "Ben, the Luggage Boy" to the public, the author desires to say that it is in all essential points a true history ...
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Title: Ben, Luggage Boy, or, Among the Wharves
Date of first publication: 1870
Author: Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832-1899)
In presenting "Ben, the Luggage Boy," to the public, as the fifth of the Ragged Dick Series, the author desires to say that it is in all essential points a true history; the particulars of the story having been communicated to him, by Ben himself, nearly two years since. In particular, the circumstances attending the boy's running away from home, and adopting the life of a street boy, are in strict accordance with Ben's own statement. While some of the street incidents are borrowed from the writer's own observation, those who are really familiar with the different phases which street life assumes in New York, will readily recognize their fidelity. The chapter entitled "The Room under the Wharf" will recall to many readers of the daily journals a paragraph which made its appearance within two years. The writer cannot close without expressing anew his thanks for the large share of favor which has been accorded to the volumes of the present series, and takes this opportunity of saying that, in their preparation, invention has played but a subordinate part. For his delineations of character and choice of incidents, he has been mainly indebted to his own observation, aided by valuable communications and suggestions from those who have been brought into familiar acquaintance with the class whose mode of life he has sought to describe.
New York, April 5, 1876.
"How much yer made this mornin', Ben?"
"Nary red," answered Ben, composedly.
"Had yer breakfast?"
"Only an apple. That's all I've eaten since yesterday. It's most time for the train to be in from Philadelphy. I'm layin' round for a job."
The first speaker was a short, freckled-faced boy, whose box strapped to his back identified him at once as a street boot-black. His hair was red, his fingers defaced by stains of blacking, and his clothing constructed on the most approved system of ventilation. He appeared to be about twelve years old.[Pg 10]
The boy whom he addressed as Ben was taller, and looked older. He was probably not far from sixteen. His face and hands, though browned by exposure to wind and weather, were several shades cleaner than those of his companion. His face, too, was of a less common type. It was easy to see that, if he had been well dressed, he might readily have been taken for a gentleman's son. But in his present attire there was little chance of this mistake being made. His pants, marked by a green stripe, small around the waist and very broad at the hips, had evidently once belonged to a Bowery swell; for the Bowery has its swells as well as Broadway, its more aristocratic neighbor. The vest had been discarded as a needless luxury, its place being partially supplied by a shirt of thick red flannel. This was covered by a frock-coat, which might once have belonged to a member of the Fat Men's Association, being aldermanic in its proportions. Now it was fallen from its high estate, its nap and original gloss had long departed, and it was frayed and torn in many places. But among the street-boys dress is not much regarded, and Ben never thought of apologizing for the defects of[Pg 11] his wardrobe. We shall learn in time what were his faults and what his virtues, for I can assure my readers that street boys do have virtues sometimes, and when they are thoroughly convinced that a questioner feels an interest in them will drop the "chaff" in which they commonly indulge, and talk seriously and feelingly of their faults and hardships. Some do this for a purpose, no doubt, and the verdant stranger is liable to be taken in by assumed virtue, and waste sympathy on those who do not deserve it. But there are also many boys who have good tendencies and aspirations, and only need to be encouraged and placed under right influences to develop into worthy and respectable men.
The conversation recorded above took place at the foot of Cortlandt Street, opposite the ferry wharf. It was nearly time for the train, and there was the usual scene of confusion. Express wagons, hacks, boys, laborers, were gathering, presenting a confusing medley to the eye of one unaccustomed to the spectacle.
Ben was a luggage boy, his occupation being to wait at the piers for the arrival of steamboats, or at the railway stations, on the chance of getting a carpet[Pg 12]-bag or valise to carry. His business was a precarious one. Sometimes he was lucky, sometimes unlucky. When he was flush, he treated himself to a "square meal," and finished up the day at Tony Pastor's, or the Old Bowery, where from his seat in the pit he indulged in independent criticism of the acting, as he leaned back in his seat and munched peanuts, throwing the shells about carelessly.
It is not surprising that the street-boys like the Old Bowery, and are willing to stint their stomachs, or run the risk of a night in the streets, for the sake of the warm room and the glittering illusions of the stage, introducing them for the time being to the society of nobles and ladies of high birth, and enabling them to forget for a time the hardships of their own lot, while they follow with rapt interest the fortunes of Lord Frederic Montressor or the Lady Imogene Delacour. Strange as it may seem, the street Arab has a decided fancy for these pictures of aristocracy, and never suspects their want of fidelity. When the play ends, and Lord Frederic comes to his own, having foiled all the schemes of his crafty and unprincipled enemies, no one rejoices more than the ragged[Pg 13] boy who has sat through the evening an interested spectator of the play, and in his pleasure at the successful denouement, he almost forgets that he will probably find the Newsboys' Lodging House closed for the night, and be compelled to take up with such sleeping accommodations as the street may provide.
Ben crossed the street, taking a straight course, without paying especial attention to the mud, which caused other pedestrians to pick their way. To the condition of his shoes he was supremely indifferent. Stockings he did not wear. They are luxuries in which few street boys indulge.
He had not long to wait. The boat bumped against the wharf, and directly a crowd of passengers poured through the open gates in a continuous stream.
Ben looked sharply around him to judge who would be likely to employ him. His attention was drawn to an elderly lady, with a large carpet-bag swelled almost to bursting. She was looking about her in a bewildered manner.
"Carry your bag, ma'am?" he said, at the same time motioning towards it.
"Who be you?" asked the old lady, suspiciously.[Pg 14]
"I'm a baggage-smasher," said Ben.
"Then I don't want you," answered the old lady, clinging to her bag as if she feared it would be wrested from her. "I'm surprised that the law allows sich things. You might be in a better business, young man, than smashing baggage."
"That's where you're right, old lady," said Ben.
"Bankin' would pay better, if I only had the money to start on."
"Are you much acquainted in New York?" asked the old lady.
"Yes," said Ben; "I know the mayor 'n' aldermen, 'n' all the principal men. A. T. Stooart's my intimate friend, and I dine with Vanderbilt every Sunday when I aint engaged at Astor's."
"Do you wear them clo'es when you visit your fine friends?" asked the old lady, shrewdly.
"No," said Ben. "Them are my every-day clo'es. I've got some velvet clo'es to home, embroidered with gold."
"I believe you are telling fibs," said the old lady. "What I want to know is, if you know my darter, Mrs. John Jones; her first name is Seraphiny. She[Pg 15] lives on Bleecker Street, and her husband, who is a nice man, though his head is bald on top, keeps a grocery store."
"Of course I do," said Ben. "It was only yesterday that she told me her mother was comin' to see her. I might have knowed you was she."
"How would you have knowed?"
"Cause she told me just how you looked."
"Did she? How did she say I looked?"
"She said you was most ninety, and—"
"It isn't true," said the old lady, indignantly. "I'm only seventy-three, and everybody says I'm wonderful young-lookin' for my years. I don't believe Seraphiny told you so."
"She might have said you looked as if you was most ninety."
"You're a sassy boy!" said the owner of the carpet-bag, indignantly. "I don't see how I'm going to get up to Seraphiny's," she continued, complainingly. "They'd ought to have come down to meet me. How much will you charge to carry my carpet-bag, and show me the way to my darter's?"
"Fifty cents," said Ben.[Pg 16]
"Fifty cents!" repeated the old lady, aghast. "I didn't think you'd charge more'n ten."
"I have to," said Ben. "Board's high in New York."
"How much would they charge me in a carriage? Here you, sir," addressing a hackman, "what'll you charge to carry me to my darter's house, Mrs. John Jones, in Bleecker Street?"
"What's the number?"
"I think it's a hundred and sixty-three."
"A dollar and a half."
"A dollar 'n' a half? Couldn't you do it for less?"
"Carry your bag, sir?" asked Ben, of a gentleman passing.
The gentleman shook his head.
He made one or two other proposals, which being in like manner unsuccessful, he returned to the old lady, who, having by this time got through her negotiations with the hackman, whom she had vainly striven to beat down to seventy-five cents, was in a more favorable mood to accept Ben's services.
"Can't you take less than fifty cents?" she asked.[Pg 17]
"No," said Ben, decidedly.
"I'll give you forty."
"Couldn't do it," said Ben, who felt sure of gaining his point now.
"Well, I suppose I shall be obleeged to hire you," said the old lady with a sigh. "Seraphiny ought to have sent down to meet me. I didn't tell her I was comin' to-day; but she might have thought I'd come, bein' so pleasant. Here, you boy, you may take the bag, and mind you don't run away with it. There aint nothin' in it but some of my clo'es."
"I don't want none of your clo'es," said Ben. "My wife's bigger'n you, and they wouldn't fit her."
"Massy sakes! you aint married, be you?"
"Why shouldn't I be?"
"I don't believe it. You're not old enough. But I'm glad you don't want the clo'es. They wouldn't be of no use to you. Just you take the bag, and I'll foller on behind."
"I want my pay first."
"I aint got the change. My darter Seraphiny will pay you when we get to her house."[Pg 18]
"That don't go down," said Ben, decidedly. "Payment in advance; that's the way I do business."
"You'll get your pay; don't you be afraid."
"I know I shall; but I want it now."
"You won't run away after I've paid you, will you?"
"In course not. That aint my style."
The old lady took out her purse, and drew therefrom forty-seven cents. She protested that she had not a cent more. Ben pardoned the deficiency, feeling that he would, notwithstanding, be well paid for his time.
"All right," said he, magnanimously. "I don't mind the three cents. It aint any object to a man of my income. Take my hand, old lady, and we'll go across the street."
"I'm afraid of bein' run over," said she, hesitatingly.
"What's the odds if you be?" said Ben. "The city'll have to pay you damages."
"But if I got killed, that wouldn't do me any good," remarked the old lady, sensibly.[Pg 19]
"Then the money'd go to your friends," said Ben, consolingly.
"Do you think I will be run over?" asked the old lady, anxiously.
"In course you won't. I'll take care of you. They wouldn't dare to run over me," said Ben, confidently.
Somewhat reassured by this remark, the old lady submitted to Ben's guidance, and was piloted across the street in safety.
"I wouldn't live in New York for a heap of money. It would be as much as my life is worth," she remarked. "How far is Bleecker Street?"
"About two miles."
"I almost wish I'd rid. But a dollar and a half is a sight to pay."
"You'd have to pay more than that."
"That's all the man asked."
"I know," said Ben; "but when he'd got you there, he'd have charged you five dollars."
"I wouldn't have paid it."
"Yes, you would," said Ben.
"He couldn't make me."[Pg 20]
"If you didn't pay, he'd have locked you in, and driven you off to the river, and dumped you in."
"Do they ever do such things?" asked the old lady, startled.
"In course they do. Only last week a beautiful young lady was served that way, 'cause she wouldn't pay what the hackman wanted."
"And what was done to him?"
"Nothin'," said Ben. "The police is in league with 'em, and get their share of the money."
"Why, you don't say so! What a wicked place New York is, to be sure!"
"Of course it is. It's so wicked I'm goin' to the country myself as soon as I get money enough to buy a farm."
"Have you got much money saved up?" asked the old lady, interested.
"Four thousand six hundred and seventy-seven dollars and fifty-five cents. I don't count this money you give me, 'cause I'm goin' to spend it."
"You didn't make it all carryin' carpet-bags," said the old lady, incredulously.[Pg 21]
"No, I made most of it spekilatin' in real estate," said Ben.
"You don't say!"
"Yes, I do."
"You've got most enough to buy a farm a'ready."
"I aint goin' to buy till I can buy a good one."
"What's the name of this street?"
They were really upon West Broadway by this time, that being as direct a line as any to Bleecker Street.
"You see that store," said Ben.
"Yes; what's the matter of it?"
"I don't own it now," said Ben. "I sold it, cos the tenants didn't pay their rent reg'lar."
"I should think you'd dress better if you've got so much money," said the old lady, not unnaturally.
"What's the use of wearin' nice clo'es round among the wharves?" said Ben.
"There's suthin in that. I tell my darter Jane—she lives in the country—that it's no use dressin' up the children to go to school,—they're sure to get their clo'es tore and dirty afore they get home."[Pg 22]
So Ben beguiled the way with wonderful stories, with which he played upon the old lady's credulity. Of course it was wrong; but a street education is not very likely to inspire its pupils with a reverence for truth; and Ben had been knocking about the streets of New York, most of the time among the wharves, for six years. His street education had commenced at the age of ten. He had adopted it of his own free will. Even now there was a comfortable home waiting for him; there were parents who supposed him dead, and who would have found a difficulty in recognizing him under his present circumstances. In the next chapter a light will be thrown upon his past history, and the reader will learn how his street life began.
One pleasant morning, six years before the date at which this story commences, a small coasting-vessel drew up at a North River pier in the lower part of the city. It was loaded with freight, but there was at least one passenger on board. A boy of ten, dressed in a neat jacket and pants of gray-mixed cloth, stood on deck, watching with interest the busy city which they had just reached.
"Well, bub, here we are," said the captain as he passed. "I suppose you know your way home."
"Are you going on shore now?"
"Well, good luck to you, my lad. If you are ever down this way, when I'm in port, I shall be glad to see you."
"Thank you, sir; good-by."[Pg 24]
Ben clambered over the side, and stepped upon the wharf. In the great city he knew no one, and he was an utter stranger to the streets, never before having visited it. He was about to begin life for himself at the age of ten. He had voluntarily undertaken to support himself, leaving behind him a comfortable home, where he had been well cared for. I must explain how this came about.
Ben had a pleasant face, and would be considered good-looking. But there was a flash in his eye, when aroused, which showed that he had a quick temper, and there was an expression of firmness, unusual to one so young, which might have been read by an experienced physiognomist. He was quick-tempered, proud, and probably obstinate. Yet with these qualities he was pleasant in his manners, and had a sense of humor, which made him a favorite among his companions.
His father was a coal-dealer in a town a few miles distant from Philadelphia, of a hasty temper like Ben himself. A week before he had punished Ben severely for a fault which he had not committed.[Pg 25] The boy's pride revolted at the injustice, and, young as he was, he resolved to run away. I suppose there are few boys who do not form this resolution at some time or other in their lives; but as a general thing it amounts to nothing. With Ben it was different. His was a strong nature, whether for good or for evil, and when he decided to do anything he was not easily moved from his resolve. He forgot, in the present case, that, though he had been unjustly punished, the injustice was not intentional on the part of his father, who had been under a wrong impression respecting him. But right or wrong, Ben made up his mind to run away; and he did so. It was two or three days before a good opportunity presented itself. Then, with a couple of shirts and collars rolled up in a small bundle, he made his escape to Philadelphia, and after roaming about the streets for several hours he made his way to the wharves, where he found a vessel bound for New York. Representing to the captain that he lived in New York, and had no money to pay his passage home, that officer, who was a good-natured man, agreed to carry him for nothing.[Pg 26]
The voyage was now over, and Ben landed, as we have said, an utter stranger, with very indefinite ideas as to how he was to make his living. He had told the captain that he knew his way home, for having falsely represented that he lived in New York, he was in a manner compelled to this additional falsehood. Still, in spite of his friendless condition, his spirits were very good. The sun shone brightly; all looked animated and cheerful. Ben saw numbers of men at work about him, and he thought, "It will be a pity if I cannot make a living."
He did not care to linger about the wharf, for the captain might be led to doubt his story. Accordingly he crossed the street, and at a venture turned up a street facing the wharf.
Ben did not know much about New York, even by report. But he had heard of Broadway,—as who has not?—and this was about all he did know. When, therefore, he had gone a short distance, he ventured to ask a boot-black, whom he encountered at the corner of the next block, "Can you tell me the shortest way to Broadway?"
"Follow your nose, Johnny," was the reply.[Pg 27]
"My name isn't Johnny," replied Ben, rather indignant at the familiarity. He had not learned that, in New York, Johnny is the generic name for boy, where the specific name is unknown.
"Aint it though?" returned the boot-black "What's the price of turnips out where you live?"
"I'll make your nose turn up if you aint careful," retorted Ben, wrathfully.
"You'll do," said the boot-black, favorably impressed by Ben's pluck. "Just go straight ahead, and you'll come to Broadway. I'm going that way, and you can come along with me if you want to."
"Thank you," said Ben, appeased by the boy's changed manner.
"Are you going to stay here?" inquired his new acquaintance.
"Yes," said Ben; "I'm going to live here."
"Where do your friends live?"
"I haven't got any friends in New York," said Ben, with a little hesitation.
"Over in Brooklyn, or Jersey, maybe?"
"No, I don't know anybody this way."[Pg 28]
"Whew!" whistled the other. "How you goin' to live?"
"I expect to earn my living," said Ben, in a tone of importance.
"Father and mother dead?"
"No, they're alive."
"I s'pose they're poor?"
"No, they're not; they're well off."
The boot-black looked puzzled.
"Why didn't you stay at home then? Wouldn't they let you?"
"Of course they would. The fact is, I've run away."
"Maybe they'd adopt me instead of you."
"I don't think they would," said Ben, laughing.
"I wish somebody with lots of cash would adopt me, and make a gentleman of me. It would be a good sight better'n blackin' boots."
"Do you make much money that way?" inquired Ben.
"Pleasant days like this, sometimes I make a dollar, but when it rains there aint much doin'."[Pg 29]
"How much have you made this morning?" asked Ben, with interest.
"Sixty cents, and it isn't more than ten o'clock. That's doing pretty well."
"'Taint so good in the afternoon. Most every body gets their boots blacked in the mornin'. What are you goin' to do?"
"I don't know," said Ben.
"Goin' to black boots? I'll show you how," said the other, generously overlooking all considerations of possible rivalry.
"I don't think I should like that very well," said Ben, slowly.
Having been brought up in a comfortable home, he had a prejudice in favor of clean hands and unsoiled clothes,—a prejudice of which his street life speedily cured him.
"I think I should rather sell papers, or go into a store," said Ben.
"You can't make so much money sellin' papers," said his new acquaintance. "Then you might get 'stuck'"[Pg 30].
"What's that?" inquired Ben, innocently.
"Don't you know?" asked the boot-black, wonderingly. "Why, it's when you've got more papers than you can sell. That's what takes off the profits. I was a newsboy once; but it's too hard work for the money. There aint no chance of gettin' stuck on my business."
"It's rather a dirty business," said Ben, venturing to state his main objection, at the risk of offending. But Jerry Collins, for that was his name, was not very sensitive on this score.
"What's the odds?" he said, indifferently. "A feller gets used to it."
Ben looked at Jerry's begrimed hands, and clothes liberally marked with spots of blacking, and he felt that he was not quite ready to get used to appearing in public in this way. He was yet young in his street life. The time came when he ceased to be so particular.
"Where do you board?" asked Ben, after a little pause.
Jerry Collins stared at the questioner as if he sus[Pg 31]pected that a joke was intended. But Ben's serious face assured him that he was in earnest.
"You're jolly green," he remarked, sententiously.
"Look here," said Ben, with spirit, "I'll give you a licking if you say that again."
It may be considered rather singular that Jerry, Instead of resenting this threat, was led by it to regard Ben with favor.
"I didn't mean anything," he said, by way of apology. "You're a trump, and you'll get over it when you've been in the city a week."
"What made you call me green?" asked Ben.
"Did you think I boarded up to the Fifth Avenue?" asked Jerry.
"What's that,—a hotel?"
"Yes, it's one of the big hotels, where they eat off gold plates."
"No, I don't suppose you board there," said Ben, laughing; "but I suppose there are cheaper boarding-places. Where do you sleep?"
"Sometimes in wagons, or in door-ways, on the docks, or anywhere where I get a chance."[Pg 32]
"Don't you get cold sleeping out-doors?" asked Ben.
"Oh, I'm used to it," said Jerry. "When it's cold I go to the Lodging House."
Jerry explained that there was a Newsboys' Lodging House, where a bed could be obtained for six cents a night.
"That's cheap," said Ben.
"'Taint so cheap as sleepin' out-doors," returned the boot-black.
This was true; but Ben thought he would rather pay the six cents than sleep out, if it were only for the damage likely to come to his clothes, which were yet clean and neat. Looking at Jerry's suit, however, he saw that this consideration would be likely to have less weight with him. He began to understand that he had entered upon a very different life from the one he had hitherto led. He was not easily daunted, however.
"If he can stand it, I can," he said to himself.
"Here's Broadway," said Jerry, suddenly.
They emerged from the side street on which they had been walking, and, turning the corner, found themselves in the great thoroughfare, a block or two above Trinity Church.
Ben surveyed the busy scenes that opened before him, with the eager interest of a country boy who saw them for the first time.
"What church is that?" he asked, pointing to the tall spire of the imposing church that faces Wall Street.
"That's Trinity Church."
"Do you go to church there?"
"I don't go anywhere else," said Jerry, equivocally. "What's the use of going to church?"
"I thought everybody went to church," said Ben, speaking from his experience in a country village[Pg 34] "that is, most everybody," he corrected himself, as several persons occurred to his mind who were more punctual in their attendance at the liquor saloon than the church.
"If I'd got good clothes like you have I'd go once just to see what it's like; but I'd a good sight rather go to the old Bowery Theatre."
"But you ought not to say that," said Ben, a little startled.
"Because it's better to go to church than to the theatre."
"Is it?" said Jerry. "Well, you can go if you want to. I'd give more for a stunnin' old play at the Bowery than fifty churches."
Ben began to suspect that Jerry was rather loose in his ideas on the subject of religion, but did not think it best to say so, for fear of giving offence, though in all probability Jerry's sensitiveness would not have been at all disturbed by such a charge.
During the last portion of the conversation they had been standing still at the street corner.[Pg 35]
"I'm goin' to Nassau Street," said Jerry. "If you want to go up Broadway, that's the way."
Without waiting for an answer he darted across the street, threading his way among the numerous vehicles with a coolness and a success which amazed Ben, who momentarily expected to see him run over. He drew a long breath when he saw him safe on the other side, and bethought himself that he would not like to take a similar risk. He felt sorry to have Jerry leave him so abruptly. The boot-black had already imparted to him considerable information about New York, which he saw was likely to be of benefit to him. Besides, he felt that any society was better than solitude, and a sudden feeling of loneliness overpowered him, as he felt that among the crowd of persons that jostled him as he stood at the corner, there was not one who felt an interest in him, or even knew his name. It was very different in his native village, where he knew everybody, and everybody had a friendly word for him. The thought did occur to him for a moment whether he had been wise in running away from home; but the thought of the[Pg 36] unjust punishment came with it, and his expression became firmer and more resolute.
"I won't go home if I starve," he said proudly to himself; and armed with this new resolution he proceeded up Broadway.
His attention was soon drawn to the street merchants doing business on the sidewalk. Here was a vender of neckties, displaying a varied assortment of different colors, for "only twenty-five cents each." Next came a candy merchant with his stock in trade, divided up into irregular lumps, and labelled a penny apiece. They looked rather tempting, and Ben would have purchased, but he knew very well that his cash capital amounted to only twenty-five cents, which, considering that he was as yet without an income, was likely to be wanted for other purposes.
Next came a man with an assortment of knives, all of them open, and sticking into a large board, which was the only shop required by their proprietor. Ben stopped a moment to look at them. He had always had a fancy for knives, but was now without one. In fact he had sold a handsome knife, which he had received as a birthday present, for seventy[Pg 37]-five cents, to raise money for his present expedition. Of this sum but twenty-five cents remained.
"Will you buy a knife to-day, young gentleman?" asked the vender, who was on the alert for customers.
"No, I guess not," said Ben.
"Here's a very nice one for only one dollar," said the street merchant, taking up a showy-looking knife with three blades. "Its the best of steel, warranted. You won't get another such knife for the price in the city."
It did look cheap certainly. Ben could not but allow that. He would like to have owned it, but circumstances forbade.
"No, I won't buy to-day," he said.
"Here, you shall have it for ninety-four cents," and the vender began to roll it up in a piece of paper. "You can't say it isn't cheap."
"Yes, it's cheap enough," said Ben, moving away, "but I haven't got the money with me."
This settled the matter, and the dealer reluctantly unrolled it, and replaced it among his stock.
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