The insistent theme of Mr. Dreiser’s work is desire, perennial, unquenchable. No matter how badly Mr. Dreiser might do his work, he would be significant as the American novelist who has most felt this subterranean current of life. Many novelists have seen this current as a mere abyss of sin from which the soul is to be dragged to the high ground of moral purpose and redemption, but this will not quite do. The great interpreters see life as a struggle between this desire and the organized machinery of existence, but they are not eager, as we are, to cover up and belittle the desire.
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by THEODORE DREISER
First digital edition 2017 by Gianluca Ruffini
TABLE OF CONTENTS
BOOK I - YOUTH - CHAPTER I
BOOK II- THE STRUGGLE- CHAPTER I
BOOK III- THE REVOLT- CHAPTER I
BOOK I - YOUTH - CHAPTER I
This story has its beginnings in the town of Alexandria, Illinois, between 1884 and 1889, at the time when the place had a population of somewhere near ten thousand. There was about it just enough of the air of a city to relieve it of the sense of rural life. It had one street-car line, a theatre, or rather, an opera house, so-called (why no one might say, for no opera was ever performed there) two railroads, with their stations, and a business district, composed of four brisk sides to a public square. In the square were the county court-house and four newspapers. These two morning and two evening papers made the population fairly aware of the fact that life was full of issues, local and national, and that there were many interesting and varied things to do. On the edge of town, several lakes and a pretty stream perhaps Alexandria’s most pleasant feature gave it an atmosphere not unakin to that of a moderate-priced summer resort. Architecturally the town was not new. It was mostly built of wood, as all American towns were at this time, but laid out prettily in some sections, with houses that sat back in great yards, far from the streets, with flower beds, brick walks, and green trees as concomitants of a comfortable home life. Alexandria was a city of young Americans. Its spirit was young. Life was all before almost everybody. It was really good to be alive.
In one part of this city there lived a family which in its character and composition might well have been considered typically American and middle western. It was not by any means poor, or, at least, did not consider itself so; it was in no sense rich. Thomas Jefferson Witla, the father, was a sewing machine agent with the general agency in that county of one of the best known and best-selling machines made. From each twenty, thirty-five or sixty-dollar machine which he sold, he took a profit of thirty-five per cent. The sale of machines was not great, but it was enough to yield him nearly two thousand dollars a year; and on that he had managed to buy a house and lot, to furnish it comfortably, to send his children to school, and to maintain a local store on the public square where the latest styles of machines were displayed. He also took old machines of other makes in exchange, allowing ten to fifteen dollars on the purchase price of a new machine. He also repaired machines, and with that peculiar energy of the American mind, he tried to do a little insurance business in addition. His first idea was that his son, Eugene Tennyson Witla, might take charge of this latter work, once he became old enough and the insurance trade had developed sufficiently. He did not know what his son might turn out to be, but it was always well to have an anchor to windward.
He was a quick, wiry, active man of no great stature, sandy-haired, with blue eyes with noticeable eye-brows, an eagle nose, and a rather radiant and ingratiating smile. Service as a canvassing salesman, endeavoring to persuade recalcitrant wives and indifferent or conservative husbands to realize that they really needed a new machine in their home, had taught him caution, tact, savoir faire. He knew how to approach people pleasantly. His wife thought too much so.
Certainly, he was honest, hard working, and thrifty. They had been waiting a long time for the day when they could say they owned their own home and had a little something laid away for emergencies. That day had come, and life was not half bad. Their house was neat, white with green shutters, surrounded by a yard with well-kept flower beds, a smooth lawn, and some few shapely and broad spreading trees. There was a front porch with rockers, a swing under one tree, a hammock under another, a buggy and several canvassing wagons in a nearby stable. Witla liked dogs, so there were two collies. Mrs. Witla liked live things, so there were a canary bird, a cat, some chickens, and a bird house set aloft on a pole where a few blue-birds made their home. It was a nice little place, and Mr. and Mrs. Witla were rather proud of it.
Miriam Witla was a good wife to her husband. A daughter of a hay and grain dealer in Wooster, a small town near Alexandria in McLean County, she had never been farther out into the world than Springfield and Chicago. She had gone to Springfield as a very young girl, to see Lincoln buried, and once with her husband she had gone to the state fair or exposition which was held annually in those days on the lake front in Chicago. She was well preserved, good looking, poetic under a marked outward reserve. It was she who had insisted upon naming her only son Eugene Tennyson, a tribute at once to a brother Eugene, and to the celebrated romanticist of verse, because she had been so impressed with his “Idylls of the King.”
Eugene Tennyson seemed rather strong to Witla père, as the name of a middle-western American boy, but he loved his wife and gave her her way in most things. He rather liked the names of Sylvia and Myrtle with which she had christened the two girls. All three of the children were good looking, Sylvia, a girl of twenty-one, with black hair, dark eyes, full blown like a rose, healthy, active, smiling. Myrtle was of a less vigorous constitution, small, pale, shy, but intensely sweet, like the flower she was named after, her mother said. She was inclined to be studious and reflective, to read verse and dream. The young bloods of the high school were all crazy to talk to Myrtle and to walk with her, but they could find no words. And she herself did not know what to say to them.
Eugene Witla was the apple of his family’s eye, younger than either of his two sisters by two years. He had straight smooth black hair, dark almond-shaped eyes, a straight nose, a shapely but not aggressive chin; his teeth were even and white, showing with a curious delicacy when he smiled, as if he were proud of them. He was not very strong to begin with, moody, and to a notable extent artistic. Because of a weak stomach and a semi-anæmic condition, he did not really appear as strong as he was. He had emotion, fire, longings, that were concealed behind a wall of reserve. He was shy, proud, sensitive, and very uncertain of himself.
When at home he lounged about the house, reading Dickens, Thackeray, Scott and Poe. He browsed idly through one book after another, wondering about life. The great cities appealed to him. He thought of travel as a wonderful thing. In school, he read Taine and Gibbon between recitation hours, wondering at the luxury and beauty of the great courts of the world. He cared nothing for grammar, nothing for mathematics, nothing for botany or physics, except odd bits here and there. Curious facts would strike him, the composition of clouds, the composition of water, the chemical elements of the earth. He liked to lie in the hammock at home, spring, summer or fall, and look at the blue sky showing through the trees. A soaring buzzard poised in speculative flight held his attention fixedly. The wonder of a snowy cloud, high piled like wool, and drifting as an island, was like a song to him. He had wit, a keen sense of humor, a sense of pathos. Sometimes he thought he would draw; sometimes write. He had a little talent for both, he thought, but did practically nothing with either. He would sketch now and then, but only fragments, a small roof-top, with smoke curling from a chimney and birds flying; a bit of water with a willow bending over it and perhaps a boat anchored; a mill pond with ducks afloat, and a boy or woman on the bank. He really had no great talent for interpretation at this time, only an intense sense of beauty. The beauty of a bird in flight, a rose in bloom, a tree swaying in the wind, these held him. He would walk the streets of his native town at night, admiring the brightness of the store windows, the sense of youth and enthusiasm that went with a crowd; the sense of love and comfort and home that spoke through the glowing windows of houses set back among trees.
He admired girls, was mad about them, but only about those who were truly beautiful. There were two or three in his school who reminded him of poetic phrases he had come across “beauty like a tightened bow,” “thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,” “a dancing shape, an image gay”, but he could not talk to them with ease. They were beautiful but so distant. He invested them with more beauty than they had; the beauty was in his own soul. But he did not know that. One girl whose yellow hair lay upon her neck in great yellow braids like ripe corn, was constantly in his thoughts. He worshiped her from afar but she never knew. She never knew what solemn black eyes burned at her when she was not looking. She left Alexandria, her family moving to another town, and in time he recovered, for there is much of beauty. But the color of her hair and the wonder of her neck stayed with him always.
There was some plan on the part of Witla to send these children to college, but none of them showed any great desire for education. They were perhaps wiser than books, for they were living in the realm of imagination and feeling. Sylvia longed to be a mother, and was married at twenty-one to Henry Burgess, the son of Benjamin C. Burgess, editor of the Morning Appeal. There was a baby the first year. Myrtle was dreaming through algebra and trigonometry, wondering whether she would teach or get married, for the moderate prosperity of the family demanded that she do something. Eugene mooned through his studies, learning nothing practical. He wrote a little, but his efforts at sixteen were puerile. He drew, but there was no one to tell him whether there was any merit in the things he did or not. Practical matters were generally without significance to him. But he was overawed by the fact that the world demanded practical service, buying and selling like his father, clerking in stores, running big business. It was a confusing maze, and he wondered, even at this age, what was to become of him. He did not object to the kind of work his father was doing, but it did not interest him. For himself he knew it would be a pointless, dreary way of making a living, and as for insurance, that was equally bad. He could hardly bring himself to read through the long rigamarole of specifications which each insurance paper itemized. There were times, evenings and Saturdays--when he clerked in his father’s store, but it was painful work. His mind was not in it.
As early as his twelfth year his father had begun to see that Eugene was not cut out for business, and by the time he was sixteen he was convinced of it. From the trend of his reading and his percentage marks at school, he was equally convinced that the boy was not interested in his studies. Myrtle, who was two classes ahead of him but sometimes in the same room, reported that he dreamed too much. He was always looking out of the window.
Eugene’s experience with girls had not been very wide. There were those very minor things that occur in early youth, girls whom we furtively kiss, or who furtively kiss us, the latter had been the case with Eugene. He had no particular interest in any one girl. At fourteen he had been picked by a little girl at a party as an affinity, for the evening at least, and in a game of “post-office” had enjoyed the wonder of a girl’s arms around him in a dark room and a girl’s lips against his; but since then there had been no re-encounter of any kind. He had dreamed of love, with this one experience as a basis, but always in a shy, distant way. He was afraid of girls, and they, to tell the truth, were afraid of him. They could not make him out.
But in the fall of his seventeenth year Eugene came into contact with one girl who made a profound impression on him. Stella Appleton was a notably beautiful creature. She was very fair, Eugene’s own age, with very blue eyes and a slender sylph-like body. She was gay and debonair in an enticing way, without really realizing how dangerous she was to the average, susceptible male heart. She liked to flirt with the boys because it amused her, and not because she cared for anyone in particular. There was no petty meanness about it, however, for she thought they were all rather nice, the less clever appealing to her almost more than the sophisticated. She may have liked Eugene originally because of his shyness.
He saw her first at the beginning of his last school year when she came to the city and entered the second-high school class. Her father had come from Moline, Illinois, to take a position as manager of a new pulley manufactory which was just starting. She had quickly become friends with his sister Myrtle, being perhaps attracted by her quiet ways, as Myrtle was by Stella’s gaiety.
One afternoon, as Myrtle and Stella were on Main Street, walking home from the post office, they met Eugene, who was on his way to visit a boyfriend. He was really bashful; and when he saw them approaching he wanted to escape, but there was no way. They saw him, and Stella approached confidently enough. Myrtle was anxious to intercept him, because she had her pretty companion with her.
“You haven’t been home, have you?” she asked, stopping. This was her chance to introduce Stella; Eugene couldn’t escape. “Miss Appleton, this is my brother Eugene.”
Stella gave him a sunny encouraging smile, and her hand, which he took gingerly. He was plainly nervous.
“I’m not very clean,” he said apologetically. “I’ve been helping father fix a buggy.”
“Oh, we don’t mind,” said Myrtle. “Where are you going?”
“Over to Harry Morris’s,” he explained.
“We’re going for hickory nuts.”
“Oh, I wish I had some,” said Stella.
“I’ll bring you some,” he volunteered gallantly.
She smiled again. “I wish you would.”
She almost proposed that they should be taken along, but inexperience hindered her.
Eugene was struck with all her charm at once. She seemed like one of those unattainable creatures who had swum into his ken a little earlier and disappeared. There was something of the girl with the corn-colored hair about her, only she had been more human, less like a dream. This girl was fine, delicate, pink, like porcelain. She was fragile and yet virile. He caught his breath, but he was more or less afraid of her. He did not know what she might be thinking of him.
“Well, we’re going on to the house,” said Myrtle.
“I’d go along if I hadn’t promised Harry I’d come over.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” replied Myrtle. “We don’t mind.”
He withdrew, feeling that he had made a very poor impression. Stella’s eyes had been on him in a very inquiring way. She looked after him when he had gone.
“Isn’t he nice?” she said to Myrtle frankly.
“I think so,” replied Myrtle; “kind o’. He’s too moody, though.”
“What makes him?”
“He isn’t very strong.”
“I think he has a nice smile.”
“I’ll tell him!”
“No, please don’t! You won’t, will you?”
“But he has a nice smile.”
“I’ll ask you round to the house some evening and you can meet him again.”
“I’d like to,” said Stella. “It would be a lot of fun.”
“Come out Saturday evening and stay all night. He’s home then.”
“I will,” said Stella. “Won’t that be fine!”
“I believe you like him!” laughed Myrtle.
“I think he’s awfully nice,” said Stella, simply.
The second meeting happened on Saturday evening as arranged, when he came home from his odd day at his father’s insurance office. Stella had come to supper. Eugene saw her through the open sitting room door, as he bounded upstairs to change his clothes, for he had a fire of youth which no sickness of stomach or weakness of lungs could overcome at this age. A thrill of anticipation ran over his body. He took especial pains with his toilet, adjusting a red tie to a nicety, and parting his hair carefully in the middle. He came down after a while, conscious that he had to say something smart, worthy of himself, or she would not see how attractive he was; and yet he was fearful as to the result. When he entered the sitting room, she was sitting with his sister before an open fire-place, the glow of a lamp with a red-flowered shade warmly illuminating the room. It was a commonplace room, with its blue cloth-covered center table, its chairs of stereotyped factory design, and its bookcase of novels and histories, but it was homey, and the sense of hominess was strong.
Mrs. Witla was in and out occasionally, looking for things which appertained to her functions as house-mother. The father was not home yet; he would get there by supper-time, having been to some outlying town of the county trying to sell a machine. Eugene was indifferent to his presence or absence. Mr. Witla had a fund of humor which extended to joking with his son and daughters, when he was feeling good, to noting their budding interest in the opposite sex; to predicting some commonplace climax to their one grand passion when it should come. He was fond of telling Myrtle that she would one day marry a horse-doctor. As for Eugene, he predicted a certain Elsa Brown, who, his wife said, had greasy curls. This did not irritate either Myrtle or Eugene. It even brought a wry smile to Eugene’s face for he was fond of a jest; but he saw his father pretty clearly even at this age. He saw the smallness of his business, the ridiculousness of any such profession having any claim on him. He never wanted to say anything, but there was in him a burning opposition to the commonplace, a molten pit in a crater of reserve, which smoked ominously now and then for anyone who could have read. Neither his father nor his mother understood him. To them he was a peculiar boy, dreamy, sickly, unwitting, as yet, of what he really wanted.
“Oh, here you are!” said Myrtle, when he came in. “Come and sit down.”
Stella gave him an enticing smile.
He walked to the mantel-piece and stood there, posing. He wanted to impress this girl, and he did not quite know how. He was almost lost for anything to say.
“You can’t guess what we’ve been doing!” his sister chirped helpfully.
“Well, what?” he replied blankly.
“You ought to guess. Can’t you be nice and guess?”
“One guess, anyhow,” put in Stella.
“Toasting pop-corn,” he ventured with a half-smile.
“You’re warm.” It was Myrtle speaking.
Stella looked at him with round blue eyes. “One more guess,” she suggested.
“Chestnuts!” he guessed.
She nodded her head gaily. “What hair!” he thought. Then: “Where are they?”
“Here’s one,” laughed his new acquaintance, holding out a tiny hand.
Under her laughing encouragement he was finding his voice. “Stingy!” he said.
“Now isn’t that mean,” she exclaimed. “I gave him the only one I had. Don’t you give him any of yours, Myrtle.”
“I take it back,” he pleaded. “I didn’t know.”
“I won’t!” exclaimed Myrtle. “Here, Stella,” and she held out the few nuts she had left, “take these, and don’t you give him any!” She put them in Stella’s eager hands.
He saw her meaning. It was an invitation to a contest. She wanted him to try to make her give him some. He fell in with her plan.
“Here!” He stretched out his palm. “That’s not right!”
She shook her head.
“One, anyhow,” he insisted.
Her head moved negatively from side to side slowly.
“One,” he pleaded, drawing near.
Again, the golden negative. But her hand was at the side nearest him, where he could seize it. She started to pass its contents behind her to the other hand but he jumped and caught it.
“Myrtle! Quick!” she called.
Myrtle came. It was a three-handed struggle. In the midst of the contest Stella twisted and rose to her feet. Her hair brushed his face. He held her tiny hand firmly. For a moment, he looked into her eyes. What was it? He could not say. Only he half let go and gave her the victory.
“There,” she smiled. “Now I’ll give you one.”
He took it, laughing. What he wanted was to take her in his arms.
A little while before supper his father came in and sat down, but presently took a Chicago paper and went into the dining room to read. Then his mother called them to the table, and he sat by Stella. He was intensely interested in what she did and said. If her lips moved he noted just how. When her teeth showed he thought they were lovely. A little ringlet on her forehead beckoned him like a golden finger. He felt the wonder of the poetic phrase, “the shining strands of her hair.”
After dinner, he and Myrtle and Stella went back to the sitting room. His father stayed behind to read, his mother to wash dishes. Myrtle left the room after a bit to help her mother, and then these two were left alone. He hadn’t much to say, now that they were together--he couldn’t talk. Something about her beauty kept him silent.
“Do you like school?” she asked after a time. She felt as if they must talk.
“Only fairly well,” he replied. “I’m not much interested. I think I’ll quit one of these days and go to work.”
“What do you expect to do?”
“I don’t know yet, I’d like to be an artist.” He confessed his ambition for the first time in his life, why, he could not have said.
Stella took no note of it.
“I was afraid they wouldn’t let me enter second year high school, but they did,” she remarked. “The superintendent at Moline had to write the superintendent here.”
“They’re mean about those things,” he cogitated.
She got up and went to the bookcase to look at the books. He followed after a little.
“Do you like Dickens?” she asked.
He nodded his head solemnly in approval. “Pretty much,” he said.
“I can’t like him. He’s too long drawn out. I like Scott better.”
“I like Scott,” he said.
“I’ll tell you a lovely book that I like.” She paused, her lips parted trying to remember the name. She lifted her hand as though to pick the title out of the air. “The Fair God,” she exclaimed at last.
“Yes, it’s fine,” he approved. “I thought the scene in the old Aztec temple where they were going to sacrifice Ahwahee was so wonderful!”
“Oh, yes, I liked that,” she added. She pulled out “Ben Hur” and turned its leaves idly. “And this was so good.”
They paused and she went to the window, standing under the cheap lace curtains. It was a moonlight night. The rows of trees that lined the street on either side were leafless; the grass brown and dead. Through the thin, interlaced twigs that were like silver filigree they could see the lamps of other houses shining through half-drawn blinds. A man went by, a black shadow in the half-light.
“Isn’t it lovely?” she said.
Eugene came near. “It’s fine,” he answered.
“I wish it were cold enough to skate. Do you skate?” She turned to him.
“Yes, indeed,” he replied.
“My, it’s so nice on a moonlit night. I used to skate a lot at Moline.”
“We skate a lot here. There’re two lakes, you know.”
He thought of the clear crystal nights when the ice of Green Lake had split every so often with a great resounding rumble. He thought of the crowds of boys and girls shouting, the distant shadows, the stars. Up to now he had never found any girl to skate with successfully. He had never felt just easy with anyone. He had tried it, but once he had fallen with a girl, and it had almost cured him of skating forever. He felt as though he could skate with Stella. He felt that she might like to skate with him.
“When it gets colder we might go,” he ventured. “Myrtle skates.”
“Oh, that’ll be fine!” she applauded.
Still she looked out into the street.
After a bit, she came back to the fire and stood before him, pensively looking down.
“Do you think your father will stay here?” he asked.
“He says so. He likes it very much.”
“Oh, I didn’t like it at first.”
“Oh, I guess it was because I didn’t know anybody. I like it though, now.” She lifted her eyes.
He drew a little nearer.
“It’s a nice place,” he said, “but there isn’t much for me here. I think I’ll leave next year.”
“Where do you think you’ll go?”
“To Chicago. I don’t want to stay here.”
She turned her body toward the fire and he moved to a chair behind her, leaning on its back. She felt him there rather close, but did not move. He was surprising himself.
“Aren’t you ever coming back?” she asked.
“Maybe. It all depends. I suppose so.”
“I shouldn’t think you’d want to leave yet.”
“You say it’s so nice.”
He made no answer and she looked over her shoulder. He was leaning very much toward her.
“Will you skate with me this winter?” he asked meaningly.
She nodded her head.
Myrtle came in.
“What are you two talking about?” she asked.
“The fine skating, we have here,” he said.
“I love to skate,” she exclaimed.
“So, do I,” added Stella. “It’s heavenly.”
Some of the incidents of this courtship that followed, ephemeral as it was, left a profound impression on Eugene’s mind. They met to skate not long after, for the snow came and the ice and there was wonderful skating on Green Lake. The frost was so prolonged that men with horses and ice-saws were cutting blocks a foot thick over at Miller’s Point, where the ice houses were. Almost every day after Thanksgiving there were crowds of boys and girls from the schools scooting about like water skippers. Eugene could not always go on week evenings and Saturdays because he had to assist his father at the store. But at regular intervals he could ask Myrtle to get Stella and let them all go together at night. And at other times he would ask her to go alone. Not infrequently she did.
On one particular occasion, they were below a group of houses which crept near the lake on high ground. The moon was up, its wooing rays reflected in the polished surfaces of the ice. Through the black masses of trees that lined the shore could be seen the glow of windows, yellow and homey. Eugene and Stella had slowed up to turn about, having left the crowd of skaters some distance back. Stella’s golden curls were covered, except for a few ringlets, with a French cap; her body, to below the hips, encased in a white wool Jersey, close-fitting and shapely. The skirt below was a grey mixture of thick wool and the stockings were covered by white woolen leggings. She looked tempting and knew it.
Suddenly, as they turned, one of her skates came loose and she hobbled and exclaimed about it. “Wait,” said Eugene, “I’ll fix it.”
She stood before him and he fell to his knees, undoing the twisted strap. When he had the skate off and ready for her foot he looked up, and she looked down on him, smiling. He dropped the skate and flung his arms around her hips, laying his head against her waist.
“You’re a bad boy,” she said.
For a few minutes she kept silent, for as the center of this lovely scene she was divine. While he held her, she pulled off his wool cap and laid her hand on his hair. It almost brought tears to his eyes, he was so happy. At the same time, it awakened a tremendous passion. He clutched her significantly.
“Fix my skate, now,” she said wisely.
He got up to hug her but she would not let him.
“No, no,” she protested. “You mustn’t do like that. I won’t come with you if you do.”
“Oh, Stella!” he pleaded.
“I mean it,” she insisted. “You mustn’t do like that.”
He subsided, hurt, half angry. But he feared her will. She was really not as ready for caresses as he had thought.
Another time a sleighing party was given by some school girls, and Stella, Eugene and Myrtle were invited. It was a night of snow and stars, not too cold but bracing. A great box-wagon had been dismantled of its body and the latter put on runners and filled with straw and warm robes. Eugene and Myrtle, like the others, had been picked up at their door after the sleigh had gone the rounds of some ten peaceful little homes. Stella was not in yet, but in a little while her house was reached.
“Get in here,” called Myrtle, though she was half the length of the box away from Eugene. Her request made him angry. “Sit by me,” he called, fearful that she would not. She climbed in by Myrtle but finding the space not to her liking moved farther down. Eugene made a special effort to have room by him, and she came there as though by accident. He drew a buffalo robe around her and thrilled to think that she was really there. The sleigh went jingling around the town for others, and finally struck out into the country. It passed great patches of dark woods silent in the snow, little white frame farmhouses snuggled close to the ground, and with windows that gleamed in a vague romantic way. The stars were countless and keen. The whole scene made a tremendous impression on him, for he was in love, and here beside him, in the shadow, her face palely outlined, was this girl. He could make out the sweetness of her cheek, her eyes, the softness of her hair.
There was a good deal of chatter and singing, and in the midst of these distractions he managed to slip an arm about her waist, to get her hand in his, to look close into her eyes, trying to divine their expression. She was always coy with him, not wholly yielding. Three or four times he kissed her cheek furtively and once her mouth. In a dark place, he pulled her vigorously to him, putting a long, sensuous kiss on her lips that frightened her.
“No,” she protested, nervously. “You mustn’t.”
He ceased for a time, feeling that he had pressed his advantage too closely. But the night in all its beauty, and she in hers made a lasting impression.
“I think we ought to get Eugene into newspaper work or something like that,” Witla senior suggested to his wife.
“It looks as though that’s all he would be good for, at least now,” replied Mrs. Witla, who was satisfied that her boy had not yet found himself. “I think he’ll do something better later on. His health isn’t very good, you know.”
Witla half suspected that his boy was naturally lazy, but he wasn’t sure. He suggested that Benjamin C. Burgess, the prospective father-in-law of Sylvia and the editor and proprietor of the Morning Appeal, might give him a place as a reporter or type-setter in order that he might learn the business from the ground up. The Appeal carried few employees, but Mr. Burgess might have no objections to starting Eugene as a reporter if he could write, or as a student of type-setting, or both. He appealed to Burgess one day on the street.
“Say, Burgess,” he said, “you wouldn’t have a place over in your shop for that boy of mine, would you? He likes to scribble a little, I notice. I think he pretends to draw a little, too, though I guess it doesn’t amount to much. He ought to get into something. He isn’t doing anything at school. Maybe he could learn type-setting. It wouldn’t hurt him to begin at the bottom if he’s going to follow that line. It wouldn’t matter what you paid him to begin with.”
Burgess thought. He had seen Eugene around town, knew no harm of him except that he was lackadaisical and rather moody.
“Send him in to see me some day,” he replied noncommittally. “I might do something for him.”
“I’d certainly be much obliged to you if you would,” said Witla. “He is not doing much good as it is now,” and the two men parted.
He went home and told Eugene. “Burgess says he might give you a position as a type-setter or a reporter on the Appeal if you’d come in and see him some day,” he explained, looking over to where his son was reading by the lamp.
“Does he?” replied Eugene calmly. “Well, I can’t write. I might set type. Did you ask him?”
“Yes,” said Witla. “You’d better go to him some day.”
Eugene bit his lip. He realized this was a commentary on his loafing propensities. He wasn’t doing very well, that was certain. Still type-setting was no bright field for a person of his temperament. “I will,” he concluded, “when school’s over.”
“Better speak before school ends. Some of the other fellows might ask for it around that time. It wouldn’t hurt you to try your hand at it.”
“I will,” said Eugene obediently.
He stopped in one sunny April afternoon at Mr. Burgess’ office. It was on the ground floor of the three-story Appeal building in the public square. Mr. Burgess, a fat man, slightly bald, looked at him quizzically over his steel rimmed spectacles. What little hair he had was gray.
“So you think you would like to go into the newspaper business, do you?” queried Burgess.
“I’d like to try my hand at it,” replied the boy. “I’d like to see whether I like it.”
“I can tell you right now there’s very little in it. Your father says you like to write.”
“I’d like to well enough, but I don’t think I can. I wouldn’t mind learning type-setting. If I ever could write I’d be perfectly willing to.”
“When do you think you’d like to start?”
“At the end of school, if it’s all the same to you.”
“It doesn’t make much difference. I’m not really in need of anybody, but I could use you. Would you be satisfied with five a week?”
“Well, come in when you are ready. I’ll see what I can do.”
He waved the prospective type-setter away with a movement of his fat hand, and turned to his black walnut desk, dingy, covered with newspapers, and lit by a green shaded electric light. Eugene went out, the smell of fresh printing ink in his nose, and the equally aggressive smell of damp newspapers. It was going to be an interesting experience, he thought, but perhaps a waste of time. He did not think so much of Alexandria. Some time he was going to get out of it.
The office of the Appeal was not different from that of any other country newspaper office within the confines of our two hemispheres. On the ground floor in front was the business office, and in the rear the one large flat bed press and the job presses. On the second floor was the composing room with its rows of type cases on their high racks--for this newspaper was, like most other country newspapers, still set by hand; and in front was the one dingy office of the so-called editor, or managing editor, or city editor, for all three were the same person, a Mr. Caleb Williams whom Burgess had picked up in times past from heaven knows where. Williams was a small, lean, wiry man, with a black pointed beard and a glass eye which fixed you oddly with its black pupil. He was talkative, skipped about from duty to duty, wore most of the time a green shade pulled low over his forehead, and smoked a brown briar pipe. He had a fund of knowledge, piled up in metropolitan journalistic experience, but he was anchored here with a wife and three children, after sailing, no doubt, a chartless sea of troubles, and was glad to talk life and experiences after office hours with almost anybody. It took him from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon to gather what local news there was, and either write it or edit it. He seemed to have a number of correspondents who sent him weekly batches of news from surrounding points. The Associated Press furnished him with a few minor items by telegraph, and there was a “patent insides,” two pages of fiction, household hints, medicine ads. and what not, which saved him considerable time and stress. Most of the news which came to him received short shrift in the matter of editing. “In Chicago, we used to give a lot of attention to this sort of thing,” Williams was wont to declare to anyone who was near, “but you can’t do it down here. The readers really don’t expect it. They’re looking for local items. I always look after the local items pretty sharp.”
Mr. Burgess took care of the advertising sections. In fact, he solicited advertising personally, saw that it was properly set up as the advertiser wanted it, and properly placed according to the convenience of the day and the rights and demands of others. He was the politician of the concern, the handshaker, the guider of its policy. He wrote editorials now and then, or, with Williams, decided just what their sense must be, met the visitors who came to the office to see the editor, and arbitrated all known forms of difficulties. He was at the beck and call of certain Republican party-leaders in the county; but that seemed natural, for he was a Republican himself by temperament and disposition. He was appointed postmaster once to pay him for some useful services, but he declined because he was really making more out of his paper than his postmastership would have brought. He received whatever city or county advertising it was in the power of the Republican leaders to give him, and so he did very well. The complications of his political relationships Williams knew in part, but they never troubled that industrious soul. He dispensed with moralizing. “I have to make a living for myself, my wife and three children. That’s enough to keep me going without bothering my head about other people.” So, this office was really run very quietly, efficiently, and in most ways pleasantly. It was a sunny place to work.
Witla, who came here at the end of his eleventh school year and when he had just turned seventeen, was impressed with the personality of Mr. Williams. He liked him. He came to like a Jonas Lyle who worked at what might be called the head desk of the composing room, and a certain John Summers who worked at odd times, whenever there was an extra rush of job printing. He learned very quickly that John Summers, who was fifty-five, grey, and comparatively silent, was troubled with weak lungs and drank. Summers would slip out of the office at various times in the day and be gone from five to fifteen minutes. No one ever said anything, for there was no pressure here. What work was to be done was done. Jonas Lyle was of a more interesting nature. He was younger by ten years, stronger, better built, but still a character. He was semi-phlegmatic, philosophic, feebly literary. He had worked, as Eugene found out in the course of time, in nearly every part of the United States, Denver, Portland, St. Paul, St. Louis, where not, and had a fund of recollections of this proprietor and that. Whenever he saw a name of particular distinction in the newspapers he was apt to bring the paper to Williams, and later, when they became familiar, to Eugene and say, “I knew that fellow out in ----. He was postmaster (or what not) at X----. He’s come up considerably since I knew him.” In most cases he did not know these celebrities personally at all, but he knew of them, and the echo of their fame sounding in this out-of-the-way corner of the world impressed him. He was a careful reader of proof for Williams in a rush, a quick type-setter, a man who stayed by his tasks faithfully. But he hadn’t got anywhere in the world, for, after all, he was little more than a machine. Eugene could see that at a glance.
It was Lyle who taught him the art of type-setting. He demonstrated the first day the theory of the squares or pockets in a case, how some letters were placed more conveniently to the hand than others, why some letters were well represented as to quantity, why capitals were used in certain offices for certain purposes, in others not. “Now on the Chicago Tribune we used to italicize the names of churches, boats, books, hotels, and things of that sort. That’s the only paper I ever knew to do that,” he remarked. What slugs, sticks, galleys, turnovers, meant, came rapidly to the surface. That the fingers would come to recognize weights of leads by the touch, that a letter would almost instinctively find its way back to its proper pocket, even though you were not thinking, once you became expert, were facts which he cheerfully communicated. He wanted his knowledge taken seriously, and this serious attention, Eugene, because of his innate respect for learning of any kind, was only too glad to give him. He did not know what he wanted to do, but he knew quite well that he wanted to see everything. This shop was interesting to him for some little time for this reason, for though he soon found that he did not want to be a type-setter or a reporter, or indeed anything much in connection with a country newspaper, he was learning about life. He worked at his desk cheerfully, smiling out upon the world, which indicated its presence to him through an open window, read the curious bits of news or opinion or local advertisements as he set them up, and dreamed of what the world might have in store for him. He was not vastly ambitious as yet, but hopeful and, withal, a little melancholy. He could see boys and girls whom he knew, idling in the streets or on the corner squares; he could see where Ted Martinwood was driving by in his father’s buggy, or George Anderson was going up the street with the air of someone who would never need to work. George’s father owned the one and only hotel. There were thoughts in his mind of fishing, boating, lolling somewhere with some pretty girl, but alas, girls did not apparently take to him so very readily. He was too shy. He thought it must be nice to be rich. So he dreamed.
Eugene was at that age when he wished to express himself in ardent phrases. He was also at the age when bashfulness held him in reserve, even though he were in love and intensely emotional. He could only say to Stella what seemed trivial things, and look his intensity, whereas it was the trivial things that were most pleasing to her, not the intensity. She was even then beginning to think he was a little strange, a little too tense for her disposition. Yet she liked him. It became generally understood around town that Stella was his girl. School day mating usually goes that way in a small city or village. He was seen to go out with her. His father teased him. Her mother and father deemed this a manifestation of calf love, not so much on her part, for they were aware of her tendency to hold lightly any manifestation of affection on the part of boys, but on his. They thought his sentimentalism would soon be wearisome to Stella. And they were not far wrong about her. On one occasion at a party given by several high school girls, a “country post office” was organized. That was one of those games which mean kissing only. A system of guessing results in a series of forfeits. If you miss you must be postmaster, and call someone for “mail.” Mail means to be kissed in a dark room (where the postmaster stands) by someone whom you like or who likes you. You, as postmaster, have authority or compulsion, however you feel about it, to call whom you please.
In this particular instance Stella, who was caught before Eugene, was under compulsion to call someone to kiss. Her first thought was of him, but on account of the frankness of the deed, and because there was a lurking fear in her of his eagerness, the name she felt impelled to speak was Harvey Rutter. Harvey was a handsome boy whom Stella had met after her first encounter with Eugene. He was not as yet fascinating to her, but pleasing. She had a coquettish desire to see what he was like. This was her first direct chance.
He stepped gaily in, and Eugene was at once insane with jealousy. He could not understand why she should treat him in that way. When it came to his turn he called for Bertha Shoemaker, whom he admired, and who was sweet in a way, but who was as nothing to Stella in his estimation. The pain of kissing her when he really wanted the other girl was great. When he came out Stella saw moodiness in his eyes, but chose to ignore it. He was obviously half-hearted and downcast in his simulation of joy.
A second chance came to her and this time she called him. He went, but was in a semi-defiant mood. He wanted to punish her. When they met in the dark she expected him to put his arms around her. Her own hands were up to about where his shoulders should be. Instead he only took hold of one of her arms with his hand and planted a chilly kiss on her lips. If he had only asked, “Why did you?” or held her close and pleaded with her not to treat him so badly, the relationship might have lasted longer. Instead he said nothing, and she grew defiant and she went out gaily. There was a strain of reserve running between them until the party broke up and he took her home.
“You must be melancholy tonight,” she remarked, after they had walked two blocks in complete silence. The streets were dark, and their feet sounded hollowly on the brick pavement.
“Oh, I’m feeling all right,” he replied moodily.
“I think it’s awfully nice at the Weimers’, we always have so much fun there.”
“Yes, lots of fun,” he echoed contemptuously.
“Oh, don’t be so cross!” she flared. “You haven’t any reason for fussing.”
“No, you haven’t.”
“Well if that’s the way you feel about it I suppose I haven’t. I don’t see it that way.”
“Well, it doesn’t make any difference to me how you see it.”
“Oh, doesn’t it?”
“No, it doesn’t.” Her head was up and she was angry.
“Well I’m sure then it doesn’t to me.”
There was another silence which endured until they were almost home.
“Are you coming to the sociable next Thursday?” he inquired. He was referring to a Methodist evening entertainment which, although he cared very little about it, was a convenience as it enabled him to see her and take her home. He was prompted to ask by the fear that an open rupture was impending.
“No,” she said. “I don’t think I will.”
“I don’t care to.”
“I think you’re mean,” he said reprovingly.
“I don’t care,” she replied. “I think you’re too bossy. I don’t think I like you very much anyhow.”
His heart contracted ominously.
“You can do as you please,” he persisted.
They reached her gate. It was his wont to kiss her in the shadow--to hold her tight for a few minutes in spite of her protests. Tonight, as they approached, he thought of doing it, but she gave him no chance. When they reached the gate, she opened it quickly and slipped in. “Good-night,” she called.
“Good-night,” he said, and then as she reached her door, “Stella!”
It was open, and she slipped in. He stood in the dark, hurt, sore, oppressed. What should he do? He strolled home cudgelling his brain whether never to speak to or look at her again until she came to him, or to hunt her up and fight it all out with her. She was in the wrong, he knew that. When he went to bed he was grieving over it, and when he awoke it was with him all day.
He had been gaining rather rapidly as a student of type-setting, and to a certain extent of the theory of reporting, and he worked diligently and earnestly at his proposed trade. He loved to look out of the window and draw, though of late, after knowing Stella so well and coming to quarrel with her because of her indifference, there was little heart in it. This getting to the office, putting on an apron, and starting in on some local correspondence left over from the day before, or some telegraph copy which had been freshly filed on his hook, had its constructive value. Williams endeavored to use him on some local items of news as a reporter, but he was a slow worker and almost a failure at getting all the facts. He did not appear to know how to interview anybody, and would come back with a story which needed to be filled in from other sources. He really did not understand the theory of news, and Williams could only make it partially clear to him. Mostly he worked at his case, but he did learn some things.
For one thing, the theory of advertising began to dawn on him. These local merchants put in the same ads. day after day, and many of them did not change them noticeably. He saw Lyle and Summers taking the same ads. which had appeared unchangingly from month to month in so far as their main features were concerned, and alter only a few words before returning them to the forms. He wondered at the sameness of them, and when, at last, they were given to him to revise he often wished he could change them a little. The language seemed so dull.
“Why don’t they ever put little drawings in these ads?” he asked Lyle one day. “Don’t you think they’d look a little better?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Jonas. “They look pretty good. These people around here wouldn’t want anything like that. They’d think it was too fancy.” Eugene had seen and in a way studied the ads. in the magazines. They seemed so much more fascinating to him. Why couldn’t newspaper ads. be different?
Still it was never given to him to trouble over this problem. Mr. Burgess dealt with the advertisers. He settled how the ads were to be. He never talked to Eugene or Summers about them, not always to Lyle. He would sometimes have Williams explain just what their character and layout was to be. Eugene was so young that Williams at first did not pay very much attention to him, but after a while he began to realize that there was a personality here, and then he would explain things, why space had to be short for some items and long for others, why county news, news of small towns around Alexandria, and about people, was much more important financially to the paper than the correct reporting of the death of the sultan of Turkey. The most important thing was to get the local names right. “Don’t ever misspell them,” he once cautioned him. “Don’t ever leave out a part of a name if you can help it. People are awfully sensitive about that. They’ll stop their subscription if you don’t watch out, and you won’t know what’s the matter.”
Eugene took all these things to heart. He wanted to see how the thing was done, though basically it seemed to be a little small. In fact, people seemed a little small, mostly.
One of the things that did interest him was to see the paper put on the press and run off. He liked to help lock up the forms, and to see how they were imposed and registered. He liked to hear the press run, and to help carry the wet papers to the mailing tables and the distributing counter out in front. The paper hadn’t a very large circulation but there was a slight hum of life about that time and he liked it. He liked the sense of getting his hands and face streaked and not caring, and of seeing his hair tousled, in the mirror. He tried to be useful and the various people on the paper came to like him, though he was often a little awkward and slow. He was not strong at this period and his stomach troubled him. He thought, too, that the smell of the ink might affect his lungs, though he did not seriously fear it. In the main it was interesting but small; there was a much larger world outside, he knew that. He hoped to go to it some day; he hoped to go to Chicago.
Eugene grew more and more moody and rather restless under Stellaᛙs increasing independence. She grew steadily more indifferent because of his moods. The fact that other boys were crazy for her consideration was a great factor; the fact that one particular boy, Harvey Rutter, was persistently genial, not insistent, really better looking than Eugene and much better tempered, helped a great deal. Eugene saw her with him now and then, saw her go skating with him, or at least with a crowd of which he was a member. Eugene hated him heartily; he hated her at times for not yielding to him wholly; but he was none the less wild over her beauty. It stamped his brain with a type or ideal. Thereafter he knew in a really definite way what womanhood ought to be, to be really beautiful.
Another thing it did was to bring home to him a sense of his position in the world. So far, he had always been dependent on his parents for food, clothes and spending money, and his parents were not very liberal. He knew other boys who had money to run up to Chicago or down to Springfield, the latter was nearer, to have a Saturday and Sunday lark. No such gaieties were for him. His father would not allow it, or rather would not pay for it. There were other boys who, in consequence of amply provided spending money, were the town dandies. He saw them kicking their heels outside the corner book store, the principal loafing place of the elite, on Wednesdays and Saturdays and sometimes on Sunday evenings preparatory to going somewhere, dressed in a luxury of clothing which was beyond his wildest dreams. Ted Martinwood, the son of the principal drygoods man, had a frock coat in which he sometimes appeared when he came down to the barber shop for a shave before he went to call on his girl. George Anderson was possessed of a dress suit, and wore dancing pumps at all dances. There was Ed Waterbury, who was known to have a horse and runabout of his own. These youths were slightly older, and were interested in girls of a slightly older set, but the point was the same. These things hurt him.
He himself had no avenue of progress which, so far as he could see, was going to bring him to any financial prosperity. His father was never going to be rich, anybody could see that. He himself had made no practical progress in schoolwork, he knew that. He hated insurance, soliciting or writing, despised the sewing machine business, and did not know where he would get with anything which he might like to do in literature or art. His drawing seemed a joke, his writing, or wish for writing, pointless. He was broodingly unhappy.
One-day Williams, who had been watching him for a long time, stopped at his desk.
I say, Witla, why donᛙt you go to Chicago? he said. Thereᛙs a lot more up there for a boy like you than down here. Youᛙll never get anywhere working on a country newspaper.
I know it, said Eugene.
Now with me itᛙs different, went on Williams. Iᛙve had my rounds. Iᛙve got a wife and three children and when a manᛙs got a family he canᛙt afford to take chances. But youᛙre young yet. Why donᛙt you go to Chicago and get on a paper? You could get something.
What could I get? asked Eugene.
Well, you might get a job as type-setter if youᛙd join the union. I donᛙt know how good youᛙd be as a reporter, I hardly think thatᛙs your line. But you might study art and learn to draw. Newspaper artists make good money.
Eugene thought of his art. It wasnᛙt much. He didnᛙt do much with it. Still he thought of Chicago; the world appealed to him. If he could only get out of here, if he could only make more than seven or eight dollars a week. He brooded about this.
One Sunday afternoon he and Stella went with Myrtle to Sylviaᛙs home, and after a brief stay Stella announced that she would have to be going; her mother would be expecting her back. Myrtle was for going with her, but altered her mind when Sylvia asked her to stay to tea. Let Eugene take her home, Sylvia said. Eugene was delighted in his persistent, hopeless way. He was not yet convinced that she could not be won to love. When they walked out in the fresh sweet air, it was nearing spring, he felt that now he should have a chance of saying something which would be winning, which would lure her to him.
They went out on a street next to the one she lived on quite to the confines of the town. She wanted to turn off at her street, but he had urged her not to. Do you have to go home just yet? he asked, pleadingly.
No, I can walk a little way, she replied.
They reached a vacant place, the last house a little distance back, talking idly. It was getting hard to make talk. In his efforts to be entertaining he picked up three twigs to show her how a certain trick in balancing was performed. It consisted in laying two at right angles with each other and with a third, using the latter as an upright. She could not do it, of course. She was not really very much interested. He wanted her to try and when she did, took hold of her right hand to steady her efforts.
No, donᛙt, she said, drawing her hand away. I can do it.
She trifled with the twigs unsuccessfully and was about to let them fall, when he took hold of both her hands. It was so sudden that she could not free herself, and so she looked him straight in the eye.
Let go, Eugene, please let go.
He shook his head, gazing at her.
Please let go, she went on. You mustnᛙt do this. I donᛙt want you to.
Well, because I donᛙt.
Donᛙt you like me anymore, Stella, really? he asked.
I donᛙt think I do, not that way.
But you did.
I thought I did.
Have you changed your mind?
Yes, I think I have.
He dropped her hands and looked at her fixedly and dramatically. The attitude did not appeal to her. They strolled back to the street, and when they neared her door he said, Well, I suppose thereᛙs no use in my coming to see you anymore.
I think youᛙd better not, she said simply.
She walked in, never looking back, and instead of going back to his sisterᛙs he went home. He was in a very gloomy mood, and after sitting around for a while went to his room. The night fell, and he sat there looking out at the trees and grieving about what he had lost. Perhaps he was not good enough for her, he could not make her love him. Was it that he was not handsome enough, he did not really consider himself good looking, or what was it, a lack of courage or strength?
After a time, he noticed that the moon was hanging over the trees like a bright shield in the sky. Two layers of thin clouds were moving in different directions on different levels. He stopped in his cogitations to think where these clouds came from. On sunny days when there were great argosies of them he had seen them disappear before his eyes, and then, marvel of marvels, reappear out of nothingness. The first time he ever saw this it astonished him greatly, for he had never known up to then what clouds were. Afterward he read about them in his physical geography. Tonight, he thought of that, and of the great plains over which these winds swept, and of the grass and trees, great forests of them--miles and miles. What a wonderful world! Poets wrote about these things, Longfellow, and Bryant, and Tennyson. He thought of Thanatopsis, and of the Elegy, both of which he admired greatly. What was this thing, life?
Then he came back to Stella with an ache. She was actually gone, and she was so beautiful. She would never really talk to him anymore. He would never get to hold her hand or kiss her. He clenched his hands with the hurt. Oh, that night on the ice; that night in the sleigh! How wonderful they were! Finally, he undressed and went to bed. He wanted to be alone--to be lonely. On his clean white pillow, he lay and dreamed of the things that might have been, kisses, caresses, a thousand joys.
One Sunday afternoon he was lying in his hammock thinking, thinking of what a dreary place Alexandria was, anyhow, when he opened a Chicago Saturday afternoon paper, which was something like a Sunday one because it had no Sunday edition, and went gloomily through it. It was as he had always found, full of a subtle wonder, the wonder of the city, which drew him like a magnet. Here was the drawing of a big hotel someone was going to build; there was a sketch of a great pianist who was coming to play. An account of a new comedy drama; of a little romantic section of Goose Island in the Chicago river, with its old decayed boats turned into houses and geese waddling about; an item of a man falling through a coal hole on South Halstead street fascinated him. This last was at sixty-two hundred and something and the idea of such a long street seized on his imagination. What a tremendous city Chicago must be. The thought of car lines, crowds, trains, came to him with almost a yearning appeal.
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