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6 Best Works of Theodore DreiserJennie GerhardtSister CarrieThe FinancierThe GeniusThe TitanTwelve Men
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The Best Collection of Theodore Dreiser
Jennie Gerhardt, by Theodore Dreiser
One morning, in the fall of 1880, a middle-aged woman, accompanied by a young girl of eighteen, presented herself at the clerk's desk of the principal hotel in Columbus, Ohio, and made inquiry as to whether there was anything about the place that she could do. She was of a helpless, fleshy build, with a frank, open countenance and an innocent, diffident manner. Her eyes were large and patient, and in them dwelt such a shadow of distress as only those who have looked sympathetically into the countenances of the distraught and helpless poor know anything about. Any one could see where the daughter behind her got the timidity and shamefacedness which now caused her to stand back and look indifferently away. She was a product of the fancy, the feeling, the innate affection of the untutored but poetic mind of her mother combined with the gravity and poise which were characteristic of her father. Poverty was driving them. Together they presented so appealing a picture of honest necessity that even the clerk was affected.
"What is it you would like to do?" he said.
"Maybe you have some cleaning or scrubbing," she replied, timidly. "I could wash the floors."
The daughter, hearing the statement, turned uneasily, not because it irritated her to work, but because she hated people to guess at the poverty that made it necessary. The clerk, manlike, was affected by the evidence of beauty in distress. The innocent helplessness of the daughter made their lot seem hard indeed.
"Wait a moment," he said; and, stepping into a back office, he called the head housekeeper.
There was work to be done. The main staircase and parlor hall were unswept because of the absence of the regular scrub-woman.
"Is that her daughter with her?" asked the housekeeper, who could see them from where she was standing.
"Yes, I believe so."
"She might come this afternoon if she wants to. The girl helps her, I suppose?"
"You go see the housekeeper," said the clerk, pleasantly, as he came back to the desk. "Right through there"--pointing to a near-by door. "She'll arrange with you about it."
A succession of misfortunes, of which this little scene might have been called the tragic culmination, had taken place in the life and family of William Gerhardt, a glass-blower by trade. Having suffered the reverses so common in the lower walks of life, this man was forced to see his wife, his six children, and himself dependent for the necessaries of life upon whatever windfall of fortune the morning of each recurring day might bring. He himself was sick in bed. His oldest boy, Sebastian, or "Bass," as his associates transformed it, worked as an apprentice to a local freight-car builder, but received only four dollars a week. Genevieve, the oldest of the girls, was past eighteen, but had not as yet been trained to any special work. The other children, George, aged fourteen; Martha, twelve; William ten, and Veronica, eight, were too young to do anything, and only made the problem of existence the more complicated. Their one mainstay was the home, which, barring a six-hundred-dollar mortgage, the father owned. He had borrowed this money at a time when, having saved enough to buy the house, he desired to add three rooms and a porch, and so make it large enough for them to live in. A few years were still to run on the mortgage, but times had been so bad that he had been forced to use up not only the little he had saved to pay off the principal, but the annual interest also. Gerhardt was helpless, and the consciousness of his precarious situation--the doctor's bill, the interest due upon the mortgage, together with the sums owed butcher and baker, who, through knowing him to be absolutely honest, had trusted him until they could trust no longer--all these perplexities weighed upon his mind and racked him so nervously as to delay his recovery.
Mrs. Gerhardt was no weakling. For a time she took in washing, what little she could get, devoting the intermediate hours to dressing the children, cooking, seeing that they got off to school, mending their clothes, waiting on her husband, and occasionally weeping. Not infrequently she went personally to some new grocer, each time farther and farther away, and, starting an account with a little cash, would receive credit until other grocers warned the philanthropist of his folly. Corn was cheap. Sometimes she would make a kettle of lye hominy, and this would last, with scarcely anything else, for an entire week. Corn-meal also, when made into mush, was better than nothing, and this, with a little milk, made almost a feast. Potatoes fried was the nearest they ever came to luxurious food, and coffee was an infrequent treat. Coal was got by picking it up in buckets and baskets along the maze of tracks in the near-by railroad yard. Wood, by similar journeys to surrounding lumber-yards. Thus they lived from day to day, each hour hoping that the father would get well and that the glass-works would soon start up. But as the winter approached Gerhardt began to feel desperate.
"I must get out of this now pretty soon," was the sturdy German's regular comment, and his anxiety found but weak expression in the modest quality of his voice.
To add to all this trouble little Veronica took the measles, and, for a few days, it was thought that she would die. The mother neglected everything else to hover over her and pray for the best. Doctor Ellwanger came every day, out of purely human sympathy, and gravely examined the child. The Lutheran minister, Pastor Wundt, called to offer the consolation of the Church. Both of these men brought an atmosphere of grim ecclesiasticism into the house. They were the black-garbed, sanctimonious emissaries of superior forces. Mrs. Gerhardt felt as if she were going to lose her child, and watched sorrowfully by the cot-side. After three days the worst was over, but there was no bread in the house. Sebastian's wages had been spent for medicine. Only coal was free for the picking, and several times the children had been scared from the railroad yards. Mrs. Gerhardt thought of all the places to which she might apply, and despairingly hit upon the hotel. Now, by a miracle, she had her chance.
"How much do you charge?" the housekeeper asked her.
Mrs. Gerhardt had not thought this would be left to her, but need emboldened her.
"Would a dollar a day be too much?"
"No," said the housekeeper; "there is only about three days' work to do every week. If you would come every afternoon you could do it."
"Very well," said the applicant. "Shall we start to-day?"
"Yes; if you'll come with me now I'll show you where the cleaning things are."
The hotel, into which they were thus summarily introduced, was a rather remarkable specimen for the time and place. Columbus, being the State capital, and having a population of fifty thousand and a fair passenger traffic, was a good field for the hotel business, and the opportunity had been improved; so at least the Columbus people proudly thought. The structure, five stories in height, and of imposing proportions, stood at one corner of the central public square, where were the Capitol building and principal stores. The lobby was large and had been recently redecorated. Both floor and wainscot were of white marble, kept shiny by frequent polishing. There was an imposing staircase with hand-rails of walnut and toe-strips of brass. An inviting corner was devoted to a news and cigar-stand. Where the staircase curved upward the clerk's desk and offices had been located, all done in hardwood and ornamented by novel gas-fixtures. One could see through a door at one end of the lobby to the barbershop, with its chairs and array of shaving-mugs. Outside were usually two or three buses, arriving or departing, in accordance with the movement of the trains.
To this caravanserai came the best of the political and social patronage of the State. Several Governors had made it their permanent abiding place during their terms of office. The two United States Senators, whenever business called them to Columbus, invariably maintained parlor chambers at the hotel. One of them, Senator Brander, was looked upon by the proprietor as more or less of a permanent guest, because he was not only a resident of the city, but an otherwise homeless bachelor. Other and more transient guests included Congressmen, State legislators and lobbyists, merchants, professional men, and, after them, the whole raft of indescribables who, coming and going, make up the glow and stir of this kaleidoscopic world.
Mother and daughter, suddenly flung into this realm of superior brightness, felt immeasurably overawed. They went about too timid to touch anything for fear of giving offense. The great red-carpeted hallway, which they were set to sweep, had for them all the magnificence of a palace; they kept their eyes down and spoke in their lowest tones. When it came to scrubbing the steps and polishing the brass-work of the splendid stairs both needed to steel themselves, the mother against her timidity, the daughter against the shame at so public an exposure. Wide beneath lay the imposing lobby, and men, lounging, smoking, passing constantly in and out, could see them both.
"Isn't it fine?" whispered Genevieve, and started nervously at the sound of her own voice.
"Yes," returned her mother, who, upon her knees, was wringing out her cloth with earnest but clumsy hands.
"It must cost a good deal to live here, don't you think?"
"Yes," said her mother. "Don't forget to rub into these little corners. Look here what you've left."
Jennie, mortified by this correction, fell earnestly to her task, and polished vigorously, without again daring to lift her eyes.
With painstaking diligence they worked downward until about five o'clock; it was dark outside, and all the lobby was brightly lighted. Now they were very near the bottom of the stairway.
Through the big swinging doors there entered from the chilly world without a tall, distinguished, middle-aged gentleman, whose silk hat and loose military cape-coat marked him at once, among the crowd of general idlers, as some one of importance. His face was of a dark and solemn cast, but broad and sympathetic in its lines, and his bright eyes were heavily shaded with thick, bushy, black eyebrows. Passing to the desk he picked up the key that had already been laid out for him, and coming to the staircase, started up.
The middle-aged woman, scrubbing at his feet, he acknowledged not only by walking around her, but by graciously waving his hand, as much as to say, "Don't move for me."
The daughter, however, caught his eye by standing up, her troubled glance showing that she feared she was in his way.
He bowed and smiled pleasantly.
"You shouldn't have troubled yourself," he said.
Jennie only smiled.
When he had reached the upper landing an impulsive sidewise glance assured him, more clearly than before, of her uncommonly prepossessing appearance. He noted the high, white forehead, with its smoothly parted and plaited hair. The eyes he saw were blue and the complexion fair. He had even time to admire the mouth and the full cheeks--above all, the well-rounded, graceful form, full of youth, health, and that hopeful expectancy which to the middle-aged is so suggestive of all that is worth begging of Providence. Without another look he went dignifiedly upon his way, but the impression of her charming personality went with him. This was the Hon. George Sylvester Brander, junior Senator.
"Wasn't that a fine-looking man who went up just now?" observed Jennie a few moments later.
"Yes, he was," said her mother.
"He had a gold-headed cane."
"You mustn't stare at people when they pass," cautioned her mother, wisely. "It isn't nice."
"I didn't stare at him," returned Jennie, innocently. "He bowed to me."
"Well, don't you pay any attention to anybody," said her mother. "They may not like it."
Jennie fell to her task in silence, but the glamor of the great world was having its effect upon her senses. She could not help giving ear to the sounds, the brightness, the buzz of conversation and laughter surrounding her. In one section of the parlor floor was the dining-room, and from the clink of dishes one could tell that supper was being prepared. In another was the parlor proper, and there some one came to play on the piano. That feeling of rest and relaxation which comes before the evening meal pervaded the place. It touched the heart of the innocent working-girl with hope, for hers were the years, and poverty could not as yet fill her young mind with cares. She rubbed diligently always, and sometimes forgot the troubled mother at her side, whose kindly eyes were becoming invested with crows' feet, and whose lips half repeated the hundred cares of the day. She could only think that all of this was very fascinating, and wish that a portion of it might come to her.
At half-past five the housekeeper, remembering them, came and told them that they might go. The fully finished stairway was relinquished by both with a sigh of relief, and, after putting their implements away, they hastened homeward, the mother, at least, pleased to think that at last she had something to do.
As they passed several fine houses Jennie was again touched by that half-defined emotion which the unwonted novelty of the hotel life had engendered in her consciousness.
"Isn't it fine to be rich?" she said.
"Yes," answered her mother, who was thinking of the suffering Veronica.
"Did you see what a big dining-room they had there?"
They went on past the low cottages and among the dead leaves of the year.
"I wish we were rich," murmured Jennie, half to herself.
"I don't know just what to do," confided her mother with a long-drawn sigh. "I don't believe there's a thing to eat in the house."
"Let's stop and see Mr. Bauman again," exclaimed Jennie, her natural sympathies restored by the hopeless note in her mother's voice.
"Do you think he would trust us any more?"
"Let's tell him where we're working. I will."
"Well," said her mother, wearily.
Into the small, dimly lighted grocery store, which was two blocks from their house, they ventured nervously. Mrs. Gerhardt was about to begin, but Jennie spoke first.
"Will you let us have some bread to-night, and a little bacon? We're working now at the Columbus House, and we'll be sure to pay you Saturday."
"Yes," added Mrs. Gerhardt, "I have something to do."
Bauman, who had long supplied them before illness and trouble began, knew that they told the truth.
"How long have you been working there?" he asked.
"Just this afternoon."
"You know, Mrs. Gerhardt," he said, "how it is with me. I don't want to refuse you. Mr. Gerhardt is good for it, but I am poor, too. Times are hard," he explained further, "I have my family to keep."
"Yes, I know," said Mrs. Gerhardt, weakly.
Her old shoddy shawl hid her rough hands, red from the day's work, but they were working nervously. Jennie stood by in strained silence.
"Well," concluded Mr. Bauman, "I guess it's all right this time. Do what you can for me Saturday."
He wrapped up the bread and bacon, and, handing Jennie the parcel, he added, with a touch of cynicism:
"When you get money again I guess you'll go and trade somewhere else."
"No," returned Mrs. Gerhardt; "you know better than that." But she was too nervous to parley long.
They went out into the shadowy street, and on past the low cottages to their own home.
"I wonder," said the mother, wearily, when they neared the door, "if they've got any coal?"
"Don't worry," said Jennie. "If they haven't I'll go."
"A man run us away," was almost the first greeting that the perturbed George offered when the mother made her inquiry about the coal. "I got a little, though." he added. "I threw it off a car."
Mrs. Gerhardt only smiled, but Jennie laughed.
"How is Veronica?" she inquired.
"She seems to be sleeping," said the father. "I gave her medicine again at five."
While the scanty meal was being prepared the mother went to the sick child's bedside, taking up another long night's vigil quite as a matter of course.
While the supper was being eaten Sebastian offered a suggestion, and his larger experience in social and commercial matters made his proposition worth considering. Though only a car-builder's apprentice, without any education except such as pertained to Lutheran doctrine, to which he objected very strongly, he was imbued with American color and energy. His transformed name of Bass suited him exactly. Tall, athletic, and well-featured for his age, he was a typical stripling of the town. Already he had formulated a philosophy of life. To succeed one must do something--one must associate, or at least seem to associate, with those who were foremost in the world of appearances.
For this reason the young boy loved to hang about the Columbus House. It seemed to him that this hotel was the center and circumference of all that was worth while in the social sense. He would go down-town evenings, when he first secured money enough to buy a decent suit of clothes, and stand around the hotel entrance with his friends, kicking his heels, smoking a two-for-five-cent cigar, preening himself on his stylish appearance, and looking after the girls. Others were there with him--town dandies and nobodies, young men who came there to get shaved or to drink a glass of whisky. And all of these he admired and sought to emulate. Clothes were the main touchstone. If men wore nice clothes and had rings and pins, whatever they did seemed appropriate. He wanted to be like them and to act like them, and so his experience of the more pointless forms of life rapidly broadened.
"Why don't you get some of those hotel fellows to give you their laundry?" he asked of Jennie after she had related the afternoon's experiences. "It would be better than scrubbing the stairs."
"How do you get it?" she replied.
"Why, ask the clerk, of course."
This plan struck Jennie as very much worth while.
"Don't you ever speak to me if you meet me around there," he cautioned her a little later, privately. "Don't you let on that you know me."
"Why?" she asked, innocently.
"Well, you know why," he answered, having indicated before that when they looked so poor he did not want to be disgraced by having to own them as relatives. "Just you go on by. Do you hear?"
"All right," she returned, meekly, for although this youth was not much over a year her senior, his superior will dominated.
The next day on their way to the hotel she spoke of it to her mother.
"Bass said we might get some of the laundry of the men at the hotel to do."
Mrs. Gerhardt, whose mind had been straining all night at the problem of adding something to the three dollars which her six afternoons would bring her, approved of the idea.
"So we might," she said. "I'll ask that clerk."
When they reached the hotel, however, no immediate opportunity presented itself. They worked on until late in the afternoon. Then, as fortune would have it, the housekeeper sent them in to scrub up the floor behind the clerk's desk. That important individual felt very kindly toward mother and daughter. He liked the former's sweetly troubled countenance and the latter's pretty face. So he listened graciously when Mrs. Gerhardt ventured meekly to put the question which she had been revolving in her mind all the afternoon.
"Is there any gentleman here," she said, "who would give me his washing to do? I'd be so very much obliged for it."
The clerk looked at her, and again recognized that absolute want was written all over her anxious face.
"Let's see," he answered, thinking of Senator Brander and Marshall Hopkins. Both were charitable men, who would be more than glad to aid a poor woman. "You go up and see Senator Brander," he continued. "He's in twenty-two. Here," he added, writing out the number, "you go up and tell him I sent you."
Mrs. Gerhardt took the card with a tremor of gratefulness. Her eyes looked the words she could not say.
"That's all right," said the clerk, observing her emotion. "You go right up. You'll find him in his room now."
With the greatest diffidence Mrs. Gerhardt knocked at number twenty-two. Jennie stood silently at her side.
After a moment the door was opened, and in the full radiance of the bright room stood the Senator. Attired in a handsome smoking-coat, he looked younger than at their first meeting.
"Well, madam," he said, recognizing the couple, and particularly the daughter, "what can I do for you?"
Very much abashed, the mother hesitated in her reply.
"We would like to know if you have any washing you could let us have to do?"
"Washing?" he repeated after her, in a voice which had a peculiarly resonant quality. "Washing? Come right in. Let me see."
He stepped aside with much grace, waved them in and closed the door. "Let me see," he repeated, opening and closing drawer after drawer of the massive black-walnut bureau. Jennie studied the room with interest. Such an array of nicknacks and pretty things on mantel and dressing-case she had never seen before. The Senator's easy-chair, with a green-shaded lamp beside it, the rich heavy carpet and the fine rugs upon the floor--what comfort, what luxury!
"Sit down; take those two chairs there," said the Senator, graciously, disappearing into a closet.
Still overawed, mother and daughter thought it more polite to decline, but now the Senator had completed his researches and he reiterated his invitation. Very uncomfortably they yielded and took chairs.
"Is this your daughter?" he continued, with a smile at Jennie.
"Yes, sir," said the mother; "she's my oldest girl."
"Is your husband alive?"
"What is his name?"
"Where does he live?"
To all of these questions Mrs. Gerhardt very humbly answered.
"How many children have you?" he went on.
"Six," said Mrs. Gerhardt.
"Well," he returned, "that's quite a family. You've certainly done your duty to the nation."
"Yes, sir," returned Mrs. Gerhardt, who was touched by his genial and interesting manner.
"And you say this is your oldest daughter?"
"What does your husband do?"
"He's a glass-blower. But he's sick now."
During the colloquy Jennie's large blue eyes were wide with interest. Whenever he looked at her she turned upon him such a frank, unsophisticated gaze, and smiled in such a vague, sweet way, that he could not keep his eyes off of her for more than a minute of the time.
"Well," he continued, sympathetically, "that is too bad! I have some washing here not very much but you are welcome to it. Next week there may be more."
He went about now, stuffing articles of apparel into a blue cotton bag with a pretty design on the side.
"Do you want these any certain day?" questioned Mrs. Gerhardt.
"No," he said, reflectively; "any day next week will do."
She thanked him with a simple phrase, and started to go.
"Let me see," he said, stepping ahead of them and opening the door, "you may bring them back Monday."
"Yes, sir," said Mrs. Gerhardt. "Thank you."
They went out and the Senator returned to his reading, but it was with a peculiarly disturbed mind.
"Too bad," he said, closing his volume. "There's something very pathetic about those people." Jennie's spirit of wonder and appreciation was abroad in the room.
Mrs. Gerhardt and Jennie made their way anew through the shadowy streets. They felt immeasurably encouraged by this fortunate venture.
"Didn't he have a fine room?" whispered Jennie.
"Yes," answered the mother; "he's a great man."
"He's a senator, isn't he?" continued the daughter.
"It must be nice to be famous," said the girl, softly.
The spirit of Jennie--who shall express it? This daughter of poverty, who was now to fetch and carry the laundry of this distinguished citizen of Columbus, was a creature of a mellowness of temperament which words can but vaguely suggest. There are natures born to the inheritance of flesh that come without understanding, and that go again without seeming to have wondered why. Life, so long as they endure it, is a true wonderland, a thing of infinite beauty, which could they but wander into it wonderingly, would be heaven enough. Opening their eyes, they see a conformable and perfect world. Trees, flowers, the world of sound and the world of color. These are the valued inheritance of their state. If no one said to them "Mine," they would wander radiantly forth, singing the song which all the earth may some day hope to hear. It is the song of goodness.
Caged in the world of the material, however, such a nature is almost invariably an anomaly. That other world of flesh into which has been woven pride and greed looks askance at the idealist, the dreamer. If one says it is sweet to look at the clouds, the answer is a warning against idleness. If one seeks to give ear to the winds, it shall be well with his soul, but they will seize upon his possessions. If all the world of the so-called inanimate delay one, calling with tenderness in sounds that seem to be too perfect to be less than understanding, it shall be ill with the body. The hands of the actual are forever reaching toward such as these--forever seizing greedily upon them. It is of such that the bond servants are made.
In the world of the actual, Jennie was such a spirit. From her earliest youth goodness and mercy had molded her every impulse. Did Sebastian fall and injure himself, it was she who struggled with straining anxiety, carried him safely to his mother. Did George complain that he was hungry, she gave him all of her bread. Many were the hours in which she had rocked her younger brothers and sisters to sleep, singing whole-heartedly betimes and dreaming far dreams. Since her earliest walking period she had been as the right hand of her mother. What scrubbing, baking, errand-running, and nursing there had been to do she did. No one had ever heard her rudely complain, though she often thought of the hardness of her lot. She knew that there were other girls whose lives were infinitely freer and fuller, but, it never occurred to her to be meanly envious; her heart might be lonely, but her lips continued to sing. When the days were fair she looked out of her kitchen window and longed to go where the meadows were. Nature's fine curves and shadows touched her as a song itself. There were times when she had gone with George and the others, leading them away to where a patch of hickory-trees flourished, because there were open fields, with shade for comfort and a brook of living water. No artist in the formulating of conceptions, her soul still responded to these things, and every sound and every sigh were welcome to her because of their beauty.
When the soft, low call or the wood-doves, those spirits of the summer, came out of the distance, she would incline her head and listen, the whole spiritual quality of it dropping like silver bubbles into her own great heart.
Where the sunlight was warm and the shadows flecked with its splendid radiance she delighted to wonder at the pattern of it, to walk where it was most golden, and follow with instinctive appreciation the holy corridors of the trees.
Color was not lost upon her. That wonderful radiance which fills the western sky at evening touched and unburdened her heart.
"I wonder," she said once with girlish simplicity, "how it would feel to float away off there among those clouds."
She had discovered a natural swing of a wild grape-vine, and was sitting in it with Martha and George.
"Oh, wouldn't it be nice if you had a boat up there," said George.
She was looking with uplifted face at a far-off cloud, a red island in a sea of silver.
"Just supposing," she said, "people could live on an island like that."
Her soul was already up there, and its elysian paths knew the lightness of her feet.
"There goes a bee," said George, noting a bumbler winging by.
"Yes," she said, dreamily, "it's going home."
"Does everything have a home?" asked Martha.
"Nearly everything," she answered.
"Do the birds go home?" questioned George.
"Yes," she said, deeply feeling the poetry of it herself, "the birds go home."
"Do the bees go home?" urged Martha.
"Yes, the bees go home."
"Do the dogs go home?" said George, who saw one traveling lonesomely along the nearby road.
"Why, of course," she said, "you know that dogs go home."
"Do the gnats?" he persisted, seeing one of those curious spirals of minute insects turning energetically in the waning light.
"Yes," she said, half believing her remark. "Listen!"
"Oho," exclaimed George, incredulously, "I wonder what kind of houses they live in."
"Listen!" she gently persisted, putting out her hand to still him.
It was that halcyon hour when the Angelus falls like a benediction upon the waning day. Far off the notes were sounding gently, and nature, now that she listened, seemed to have paused also. A scarlet-breasted robin was hopping in short spaces upon the grass before her. A humming bee hummed, a cow-bell tinkled, while some suspicious cracklings told of a secretly reconnoitering squirrel. Keeping her pretty hand weighed in the air, she listened until the long, soft notes spread and faded and her heart could hold no more. Then she arose.
"Oh," she said, clenching her fingers in an agony of poetic feeling. There were crystal tears overflowing in her eyes. The wondrous sea of feeling in her had stormed its banks. Of such was the spirit of Jennie.
The junior Senator, George Sylvester Brander, was a man of peculiar mold. In him there were joined, to a remarkable degree, the wisdom of the opportunist and the sympathetic nature of the true representative of the people. Born a native of southern Ohio, he had been raised and educated there, if one might except the two years in which he had studied law at Columbia University. He knew common and criminal law, perhaps, as well as any citizen of his State, but he had never practised with that assiduity which makes for pre-eminent success at the bar. He had made money, and had had splendid opportunities to make a great deal more if he had been willing to stultify his conscience, but that he had never been able to do. And yet his integrity had not been at all times proof against the claims of friendship. Only in the last presidential election he had thrown his support to a man for Governor who, he well knew, had no claim which a strictly honorable conscience could have recognized.
In the same way, he had been guilty of some very questionable, and one or two actually unsavory, appointments. Whenever his conscience pricked him too keenly he would endeavor to hearten himself with his pet phrase, "All in a lifetime." Thinking over things quite alone in his easy-chair, he would sometimes rise up with these words on his lips, and smile sheepishly as he did so. Conscience was not by any means dead in him. His sympathies, if anything, were keener than ever.
This man, three times Congressman from the district of which Columbus was a part, and twice United States Senator, had never married. In his youth he had had a serious love affair, but there was nothing discreditable to him in the fact that it came to nothing. The lady found it inconvenient to wait for him. He was too long in earning a competence upon which they might subsist.
Tall, straight-shouldered, neither lean nor stout, he was to-day an imposing figure. Having received his hard knocks and endured his losses, there was that about him which touched and awakened the sympathies of the imaginative. People thought him naturally agreeable, and his senatorial peers looked upon him as not any too heavy mentally, but personally a fine man.
His presence in Columbus at this particular time was due to the fact that his political fences needed careful repairing. The general election had weakened his party in the State Legislature. There were enough votes to re-elect him, but it would require the most careful political manipulation to hold them together. Other men were ambitious. There were a half-dozen available candidates, any one of whom would have rejoiced to step into his shoes. He realized the exigencies of the occasion. They could not well beat him, he thought; but even if this should happen, surely the President could be induced to give him a ministry abroad.
Yes, he might be called a successful man, but for all that Senator Brander felt that he had missed something. He had wanted to do so many things. Here he was, fifty-two years of age, clean, honorable, highly distinguished, as the world takes it, but single. He could not help looking about him now and then and speculating upon the fact that he had no one to care for him. His chamber seemed strangely hollow at times--his own personality exceedingly disagreeable.
"Fifty!" he often thought to himself. "Alone--absolutely alone."
Sitting in his chamber that Saturday afternoon, a rap at his door aroused him. He had been speculating upon the futility of his political energy in the light of the impermanence of life and fame.
"What a great fight we make to sustain ourselves!" he thought. "How little difference it will make to me a few years hence!"
He arose, and opening wide his door, perceived Jennie. She had come, as she had suggested to her mother, at this time, instead of on Monday, in order to give a more favorable impression of promptness.
"Come right in," said the Senator; and, as on the first occasion, he graciously made way for her.
Jennie passed in, momentarily expecting some compliment upon the promptitude with which the washing had been done. The Senator never noticed it at all.
"Well, my young lady," he said when she had put the bundle down, "how do you find yourself this evening?"
"Very well," replied Jennie. "We thought we'd better bring your clothes to-day instead of Monday."
"Oh, that would not have made any difference," replied Brander lightly. "Just leave them on the chair."
Jennie, without considering the fact that she had been offered no payment for the service rendered, was about to retire, had not the Senator detained her.
"How is your mother?" he asked pleasantly.
"She's very well," said Jennie simply.
"And your little sister? Is she any better?"
"The doctor thinks so," she replied.
"Sit down," he continued graciously. "I want to talk to you."
Moving to a near-by chair, the young girl seated herself.
"Hem!" he went on, clearing his throat lightly, "What seems to be the matter with her?"
"She has the measles," returned Jennie. "We thought once that she was going to die."
Brander studied her face as she said this, and he thought he saw something exceedingly pathetic there. The girl's poor clothes and her wondering admiration for his exalted station in life affected him. It made him feel almost ashamed of the comfort and luxury that surrounded him. How high up he was in the world, indeed!
"I am glad she is better now," he said kindly. "How old is your father?"
"And is he any better?"
"Oh yes, sir; he's around now, although he can't go out just yet."
"I believe your mother said he was a glass-blower by trade?"
Brander well knew the depressed local conditions in this branch of manufacture. It had been part of the political issue in the last campaign. They must be in a bad way truly.
"Do all of the children go to school?" he inquired.
"Why yes, sir," returned Jennie, stammering. She was too shamefaced to own that one of the children had been obliged to leave school for the lack of shoes. The utterance of the falsehood troubled her.
He reflected awhile; then realizing that he had no good excuse for further detaining her, he arose and came over to her. From his pocket he took a thin layer of bills, and removing one, handed it to her.
"You take that," he said, "and tell your mother that I said she should use it for whatever she wants."
Jennie accepted the money with mingled feelings; it did not occur to her to look and see how much it was. The great man was so near her, the wonderful chamber in which he dwelt so impressive, that she scarcely realized what she was doing.
"Thank you," she said. "Is there any day you want your washing called for?" she added.
"Oh yes," he answered; "Monday--Monday evenings."
She went away, and in a half reverie he closed the door behind her. The interest that he felt in these people was unusual. Poverty and beauty certainly made up an affecting combination. He sat down in his chair and gave himself over to the pleasant speculations which her coming had aroused. Why should he not help them?
"I'll find out where they live," he finally resolved.
In the days that followed Jennie regularly came for the clothes. Senator Brander found himself more and more interested in her, and in time he managed to remove from her mind that timidity and fear which had made her feel uncomfortable in his presence. One thing which helped toward this was his calling her by her first name. This began with her third visit, and thereafter he used it with almost unconscious frequency.
It could scarcely be said that he did this in a fatherly spirit, for he had little of that attitude toward any one. He felt exceedingly young as he talked to this girl, and he often wondered whether it were not possible for her to perceive and appreciate him on his youthful side.
As for Jennie, she was immensely taken with the comfort and luxury surrounding this man, and subconsciously with the man himself, the most attractive she had ever known. Everything he had was fine, everything he did was gentle, distinguished, and considerate. From some far source, perhaps some old German ancestors, she had inherited an understanding and appreciation of all this. Life ought to be lived as he lived it; the privilege of being generous particularly appealed to her.
Part of her attitude was due to that of her mother, in whose mind sympathy was always a more potent factor than reason. For instance, when she brought to her the ten dollars Mrs. Gerhardt was transported with joy.
"Oh," said Jennie, "I didn't know until I got outside that it was so much. He said I should give it to you."
Mrs. Gerhardt took it, and holding it loosely in her folded hands, saw distinctly before her the tall Senator with his fine manners.
"What a fine man he is!" she said. "He has a good heart."
Frequently throughout the evening and the next day Mrs. Gerhardt commented upon this wonderful treasure-trove, repeating again and again how good he must be or how large must be his heart. When it came to washing his clothes she almost rubbed them to pieces, feeling that whatever she did she could scarcely do enough. Gerhardt was not to know. He had such stern views about accepting money without earning it that even in their distress, she would have experienced some difficulty in getting him to take it. Consequently she said nothing, but used it to buy bread and meat, and going as it did such a little way, the sudden windfall was never noticed.
Jennie, from now on, reflected this attitude toward the Senator, and, feeling so grateful toward him, she began to talk more freely. They came to be on such good terms that he gave her a little leather picture-case from his dresser which he had observed her admiring. Every time she came he found excuse to detain her, and soon discovered that, for all her soft girlishness, there lay deep-seated in her a conscious deprecation of poverty and a shame of having to own any need. He honestly admired her for this, and, seeing that her clothes were poor and her shoes worn, he began to wonder how he could help her without offending.
Not infrequently he thought to follow her some evening, and see for himself what the condition of the family might be. He was a United States Senator, however. The neighborhood they lived in must be very poor. He stopped to consider, and for the time the counsels of prudence prevailed. Consequently the contemplated visit was put off.
Early in December Senator Brander returned to Washington for three weeks, and both Mrs. Gerhardt and Jennie were surprised to learn one day that he had gone. Never had he given them less than two dollars a week for his washing, and several times it had been five. He had not realized, perhaps, what a breach his absence would make in their finances. But there was nothing to do about it; they managed to pinch along. Gerhardt, now better, searched for work at the various mills, and finding nothing, procured a saw-buck and saw, and going from door to door, sought for the privilege of sawing wood. There was not a great deal of this to do, but he managed, by the most earnest labor to earn two, and sometimes three, dollars a week. This added to what his wife earned and what Sebastian gave was enough to keep bread in their mouths, but scarcely more.
It was at the opening of the joyous Christmas-time that the bitterness of their poverty affected them most. The Germans love to make a great display at Christmas. It is the one season of the year when the fullness of their large family affection manifests itself. Warm in the appreciation of the joys of childhood, they love to see the little ones enjoy their toys and games. Father Gerhardt at his saw-buck during the weeks before Christmas thought of this very often. What would little Veronica not deserve after her long illness! How he would have liked to give each of the children a stout pair of shoes, the boys a warm cap, the girls a pretty hood. Toys and games and candy they always had had before. He hated to think of the snow-covered Christmas morning and no table richly piled with what their young hearts would most desire.
As for Mrs. Gerhardt, one could better imagine than describe her feelings. She felt so keenly about it that she could hardly bring herself to speak of the dreaded hour to her husband. She had managed to lay aside three dollars in the hope of getting enough to buy a ton of coal, and so put an end to poor George's daily pilgrimage to the coal yard, but now as the Christmas week drew near she decided to use it for gifts. Father Gerhardt was also secreting two dollars without the knowledge of his wife, thinking that on Christmas Eve he could produce it at a critical moment, and so relieve her maternal anxiety.
When the actual time arrived, however, there was very little to be said for the comfort that they got out of the occasion. The whole city was rife with Christmas atmosphere. Grocery stores and meat markets were strung with holly. The toy shops and candy stores were radiant with fine displays of everything that a self-respecting Santa Claus should have about him. Both parents and children observed it all--the former with serious thoughts of need and anxiety, the latter with wild fancy and only partially suppressed longings.
Frequently had Gerhardt said in their presence:
"Kriss Kringle is very poor this year. He hasn't so very much to give."
But no child, however poverty-stricken, could be made to believe this. Every time after so saying he looked into their eyes, but in spite of the warning, expectation flamed in them undiminished.
Christmas coming on Tuesday, the Monday before there was no school. Before going to the hotel Mrs. Gerhardt had cautioned George that he must bring enough coal from the yards to last over Christmas day. The latter went at once with his two younger sisters, but there being a dearth of good picking, it took them a long time to fill their baskets, and by night they had gathered only a scanty supply.
"Did you go for the coal?" asked Mrs. Gerhardt the first thing when she returned from the hotel that evening.
"Yes," said George.
"Did you get enough for to-morrow?"
"Yes," he replied, "I guess so."
"Well, now, I'll go and look," she replied. Taking the lamp, they went out into the woodshed where the coal was deposited.
"Oh, my!" she exclaimed when she saw it; "why, that isn't near enough. You must go right off and get some more."
"Oh," said George, pouting his lips, "I don't want to go. Let Bass go."
Bass, who had returned promptly at a quarter-past six, was already busy in the back bedroom washing and dressing preparatory to going down-town.
"No," said Mrs. Gerhardt. "Bass has worked hard all day. You must go."
"I don't want to," pouted George.
"All right," said Mrs. Gerhardt, "maybe to-morrow you'll be without a fire, and then what?"
They went back to the house, but George's conscience was too troubled to allow him to consider the case as closed.
"Bass, you come, too," he called to his elder brother when he was inside.
"Go where?" said Bass.
"To get some coal."
"No," said the former, "I guess not. What do you take me for?"
"Well, then, I'll not," said George, with an obstinate jerk of his head.
"Why didn't you get it up this afternoon?" questioned his brother sharply; "you've had all day to do it."
"Aw, I did try," said George. "We couldn't find enough. I can't get any when there ain't any, can I?"
"I guess you didn't try very hard," said the dandy.
"What's the matter now?" asked Jennie, who, coming in after having stopped at the grocer's for her mother, saw George with a solemn pout on his face.
"Oh, Bass won't go with me to get any coal?"
"Didn't you get any this afternoon?"
"Yes," said George, "but ma says I didn't get enough."
"I'll go with you," said his sister. "Bass, will you come along?"
"No," said the young man, indifferently, "I won't." He was adjusting his necktie and felt irritated.
"There ain't any," said George, "unless we get it off the cars. There wasn't any cars where I was."
"There are, too," exclaimed Bass.
"There ain't," said George.
"Oh, don't quarrel," said Jennie. "Get the baskets and let's go right now before it gets too late."
The other children, who had a fondness for their big sister, got out the implements of supply--Veronica a basket, Martha and William buckets, and George, a big clothes-basket, which he and Jennie were to fill and carry between them. Bass, moved by his sister's willingness and the little regard he still maintained for her, now made a suggestion.
"I'll tell you what you do, Jen," he said. "You go over there with the kids to Eighth Street and wait around those cars. I'll be along in a minute. When I come by don't any of you pretend to know me. Just you say, 'Mister, won't you please throw us some coal down?' and then I'll get up on the cars and pitch off enough to fill the baskets. D'ye understand?"
"All right," said Jennie, very much pleased.
Out into the snowy night they went, and made their way to the railroad tracks. At the intersection of the street and the broad railroad yard were many heavily laden cars of bituminous coal newly backed in. All of the children gathered within the shadow of one. While they were standing there, waiting the arrival of their brother, the Washington Special arrived, a long, fine train with several of the new style drawing-room cars, the big plate-glass windows shining and the passengers looking out from the depths of their comfortable chairs. The children instinctively drew back as it thundered past.
"Oh, wasn't it long?" said George.
"Wouldn't I like to be a brakeman, though," sighed William.
Jennie, alone, kept silent, but to her particularly the suggestion of travel and comfort had appealed. How beautiful life must be for the rich!
Sebastian now appeared in the distance, a mannish spring in his stride, and with every evidence that he took himself seriously. He was of that peculiar stubbornness and determination that had the children failed to carry out his plan of procedure he would have gone deliberately by and refused to help them at all.
Martha, however, took the situation as it needed to be taken, and piped out childishly, "Mister, won't you please throw us down some coal?"
Sebastian stopped abruptly, and looking sharply at them as though he were really a stranger, exclaimed, "Why, certainly," and proceeded to climb up on the car, from whence he cast down with remarkable celerity more than enough chunks to fill their baskets. Then as though not caring to linger any longer amid such plebeian company, he hastened across the network of tracks and was lost to view.
On their way home they encountered another gentleman, this time a real one, with high hat and distinguished cape coat, whom Jennie immediately recognized. This was the honorable Senator himself, newly returned from Washington, and anticipating a very unprofitable Christmas. He had arrived upon the express which had enlisted the attention of the children, and was carrying his light grip for the pleasure of it to the hotel. As he passed he thought that he recognized Jennie.
"Is that you, Jennie?" he said, and paused to be more certain.
The latter, who had discovered him even more quickly than he had her, exclaimed, "Oh, there is Mr. Brander!" Then, dropping her end of the basket, with a caution to the children to take it right home, she hurried away in the opposite direction.
The Senator followed, vainly calling three or four times "Jennie! Jennie!" Losing hope of overtaking her, and suddenly recognizing, and thereupon respecting, her simple, girlish shame, he stopped, and turning back, decided to follow the children. Again he felt that same sensation which he seemed always to get from this girl--the far cry between her estate and his. It was something to be a Senator to-night, here where these children were picking coal. What could the joyous holiday of the morrow hold for them? He tramped along sympathetically, an honest lightness coming into his step, and soon he saw them enter the gateway of the low cottage. Crossing the street, he stood in the weak shade of the snow-laden trees. The light was burning with a yellow glow in a rear window. All about was the white snow. In the woodshed he could hear the voices of the children, and once he thought he detected the form of Mrs. Gerhardt. After a time another form came shadow-like through the side gate. He knew who it was. It touched him to the quick, and he bit his lip sharply to suppress any further show of emotion. Then he turned vigorously on his heel and walked away.
The chief grocery of the city was conducted by one Manning, a stanch adherent of Brander, and one who felt honored by the Senator's acquaintance. To him at his busy desk came the Senator this same night.
"Manning," he said, "could I get you to undertake a little work for me this evening?"
"Why, certainly, Senator, certainly," said the grocery-man. "When did you get back? Glad to see you. Certainly."
"I want you to get everything together that would make a nice Christmas for a family of eight--father and mother and six children--Christmas tree, groceries, toys--you know what I mean."
"Certainly, certainly, Senator."
"Never mind the cost now. Send plenty of everything. I'll give you the address," and he picked up a note-book to write it.
"Why, I'll be delighted, Senator," went on Mr. Manning, rather affected himself. "I'll be delighted. You always were generous."
"Here you are, Manning," said the Senator, grimly, from the mere necessity of preserving his senatorial dignity. "Send everything at once, and the bill to me."
"I'll be delighted," was all the astonished and approving grocery-man could say.
The Senator passed out, but remembering the old people, visited a clothier and shoe man, and, finding that he could only guess at what sizes might be required, ordered the several articles with the privilege of exchange. When his labors were over, he returned to his room.
"Carrying coal," he thought, over and over. "Really, it was very thoughtless in me. I mustn't forget them any more."
The desire to flee which Jennie experienced upon seeing the Senator again was attributable to what she considered the disgrace of her position. She was ashamed to think that he, who thought so well of her, should discover her doing so common a thing. Girl-like, she was inclined to imagine that his interest in her depended upon something else than her mere personality.
When she reached home Mrs. Gerhardt had heard of her flight from the other children.
"What was the matter with you, anyhow?" asked George, when she came in.
"Oh, nothing," she answered, but immediately turned to her mother and said, "Mr. Brander came by and saw us."
"Oh, did he?" softly exclaimed her mother. "He's back then. What made you run, though, you foolish girl?"
"Well, I didn't want him to see me."
"Well, maybe he didn't know you, anyhow," she said, with a certain sympathy for her daughter's predicament.
"Oh yes, he did, too," whispered Jennie. "He called after me three or four times."
Mrs. Gerhardt shook her head.
"What is it?" said Gerhardt, who had been hearing the conversation from the adjoining room, and now came out.
"Oh, nothing," said the mother, who hated to explain the significance which the Senator's personality had come to have in their lives. "A man frightened them when they were bringing the coal."
The arrival of the Christmas presents later in the evening threw the household into an uproar of excitement. Neither Gerhardt nor the mother could believe their eyes when a grocery wagon halted in front of their cottage and a lusty clerk began to carry in the gifts. After failing to persuade the clerk that he had made a mistake, the large assortment of good things was looked over with very human glee.
"Just you never mind," was the clerk's authoritative words. "I know what I'm about. Gerhardt, isn't it? Well, you're the people."
Mrs. Gerhardt moved about, rubbing her hands in her excitement, and giving vent to an occasional "Well, isn't that nice now!"
Gerhardt himself was melted at the thought of the generosity of the unknown benefactor, and was inclined to lay it all to the goodness of a great local mill owner, who knew him and wished him well. Mrs. Gerhardt tearfully suspected the source, but said nothing. Jennie knew, by instinct, the author of it all.
The afternoon of the day after Christmas Brander encountered the mother in the hotel, Jennie having been left at home to look after the house.
"How do you do, Mrs. Gerhardt," he exclaimed genially extending his hand. "How did you enjoy your Christmas?"
Poor Mrs. Gerhardt took it nervously; her eyes filled rapidly with tears.
"There, there," he said, patting her on the shoulder. "Don't cry. You mustn't forget to get my laundry to-day."
"Oh no, sir," she returned, and would have said more had he not walked away.
From this on, Gerhardt heard continually of the fine Senator at the hotel, how pleasant he was, and how much he paid for his washing. With the simplicity of a German workingman, he was easily persuaded that Mr. Brander must be a very great and a very good man.
Jennie, whose feelings needed no encouragement in this direction, was more than ever prejudiced in his favor.
There was developing in her that perfection of womanhood, the full mold of form, which could not help but attract any man. Already she was well built, and tall for a girl. Had she been dressed in the trailing skirts of a woman of fashion she would have made a fitting companion for a man the height of the Senator. Her eyes were wondrously clear and bright, her skin fair, and her teeth white and even. She was clever, too, in a sensible way, and by no means deficient in observation. All that she lacked was training and the assurance of which the knowledge of utter dependency despoils one. But the carrying of washing and the compulsion to acknowledge almost anything as a favor put her at a disadvantage.
Nowadays when she came to the hotel upon her semi-weekly errand Senator Brander took her presence with easy grace, and to this she responded. He often gave her little presents for herself, or for her brothers and sisters, and he talked to her so unaffectedly that finally the overawing sense of the great difference between them was brushed away, and she looked upon him more as a generous friend than as a distinguished Senator. He asked her once how she would like to go to a seminary, thinking all the while how attractive she would be when she came out. Finally, one evening, he called her to his side.
"Come over here, Jennie," he said, "and stand by me."
She came, and, moved by a sudden impulse, he took her hand.
"Well, Jennie," he said, studying her face in a quizzical, interrogative way, "what do you think of me, anyhow?"
"Oh," she answered, looking consciously away, "I don't know. What makes you ask me that?"
"Oh yes, you do," he returned. "You have some opinion of me. Tell me now, what is it?"
"No, I haven't," she said, innocently.
"Oh yes, you have," he went on, pleasantly, interested by her transparent evasiveness. "You must think something of me. Now, what is it?"
"Do you mean do I like you?" she asked, frankly, looking down at the big mop of black hair well streaked with gray which hung about his forehead, and gave an almost lionine cast to his fine face.
"Well, yes," he said, with a sense of disappointment. She was barren of the art of the coquette.
"Why, of course I like you," she replied, prettily.
"Haven't you ever thought anything else about me?" he went on.
"I think you're very kind," she went on, even more bashfully; she realized now that he was still holding her hand.
"Is that all?" he asked.
"Well," she said, with fluttering eyelids, "isn't that enough?"
He looked at her, and the playful, companionable directness of her answering gaze thrilled him through and through. He studied her face in silence while she turned and twisted, feeling, but scarcely understanding, the deep import of his scrutiny.
"Well," he said at last, "I think you're a fine girl. Don't you think I'm a pretty nice man?"
"Yes," said Jennie, promptly.
He leaned back in his chair and laughed at the unconscious drollery of her reply. She looked at him curiously, and smiled.
"What made you laugh?" she inquired.
"Oh, your answer" he returned. "I really ought not to laugh, though. You don't appreciate me in the least. I don't believe you like me at all."
"But I do, though," she replied, earnestly. "I think you're so good." Her eyes showed very plainly that she felt what she was saying.
"Well," he said, drawing her gently down to him; then, at the same instant, he pressed his lips to her cheek.
"Oh!" she cried, straightening up, at once startled and frightened.
It was a new note in their relationship. The senatorial quality vanished in an instant. She recognized in him something that she had not felt before. He seemed younger, too. She was a woman to him, and he was playing the part of a lover. She hesitated, but not knowing just what to do, did nothing at all.
"Well," he said, "did I frighten you?"
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