Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 24.

Max’s Story Continued — The Journeyman Printer

“You may be sure that that night the public took the variety theater by storm; every seat was filled; the very aisles were crowded with men standing; the beer flowed in streams and the tobacco-smoke rose in clouds; the establishment was doing a splendid business. Christina was down on the bills for three solos. Each one was a triumph — encore followed encore — and when the performance closed the little singer was called before the curtain and another Danaë shower of silver and gold, and some bouquets, fell around her. When I went behind the scenes I found the happy girl surrounded by even a larger circle of admirers than the night before, each one sounding her praises. I called the manager aside. He knew me well as a rich young spendthrift. I said to him:

“‘How much a week do you pay Christina?’

“‘I promised her,’ said he, ‘five dollars a week; but,’ and here he looked at me suspiciously, ‘I have determined to double it. I shall pay her ten.’

“‘That is not enough,’ I said; ‘you will find in her a gold mine. You must pay her fifty.’

“‘My dear sir,’ he said, ‘I cannot afford it. I really cannot.’

“‘Well,’ said ‘I will speak to Jobson [a rival in business]; he will pay her a hundred. I saw him here to-night. He has already heard of her.’

“‘But,’ said he, ‘she has contracted with me to sing for three months, at five dollars per week; and I have permitted her to take home all the money that was thrown on the stage last night and to-night. Now I shall pay her ten. Is not that liberal?’

“‘Liberal!’ I said; ‘it is hoggish. This girl has made you two hundred dollars extra profit to-night. She is under age. She cannot make a binding contract. And the money that was thrown to her belongs to her and not to you. Come, what do you say — shall I speak to Jobson?’

“‘What interest have you in this girl?’ he asked, sullenly.

“‘That is no matter of yours,’ I replied; ‘if you will not pay her what I demand, to-morrow night she will sing for Jobson, and your place will be empty.’

“‘Well,’ said he, ‘I will pay it; but I don’t see what right you have to interfere in my business.’

“‘That is not all,’ I said; ‘go to her now and tell her you have made a good deal of money to-night, by her help, and ask her to accept fifty dollars from you as a present; and tell her, in my hearing, that she is to receive fifty dollars a week hereafter. The family are very poor, and need immediate help. And besides, if she does not know that she is to receive a liberal salary, when the agents of the other houses come for her, she may leave you. Fair play is the wisest thing.’

“He thought a moment; he was very angry with me; but finally he swallowed his wrath, and pushed his way through the crowd to where Christina stood, and said to her with many a bow and smile:

“‘Miss Christina, your charming voice has greatly increased my business to-night; and I think it only fair to give you a part of my profits — here are fifty dollars.’

“Christina was delighted — she took the money — she had never seen so large an amount before — she handed it to her mother; and both were profuse in their thanks, while the crowd vigorously applauded the good and generous manager.

“‘But this is not all,’ he continued; ‘instead of five dollars per week, the sum we had agreed upon, for your singing, I shall pay you hereafter fifty dollars a week!’

“There was still greater applause; Christina’s eyes swam with happiness; her mother began to cry; Christina seized the manager’s hand, and the old scamp posed, as he received the thanks of those present, as if all this were the outcome of his own generosity, and as if he were indeed the best and noblest of men. I have no doubt that if I had not interfered he would have kept her on the five dollars a week, and the silly little soul would have been satisfied.

“I followed them home. I again listened to their happiness. And then I heard the mother tell the father that they must both go out to-morrow and find a better place to lodge in, for they were rich now. A bright thought flashed across my mind, and I hastened away.

“The next morning, at daybreak, I hurried to the same detective I had employed the day before; he was a shrewd, but not unkindly fellow. I explained to him my plans, and we went out together. We took a carriage and drove rapidly from place to place; he really seemed pleased to find himself engaged, for once in his life, in a good action. What I did will be revealed as I go on with this story.

“At half past eight o’clock that morning the Jansen family had finished their breakfast and talked over and over again, for the twentieth time, their wonderful turn of fortune, and all its incidents, including repeated counting of their marvelous hoard of money. Then Christina was left in charge of the children, and the father and mother sallied forth to look for a new residence. The neighbors crowded around to congratulate them; and they explained — for, kindly-hearted souls, they did not wish their old companions in poverty to think that they had willingly fled from them, at the first approach of good fortune — they explained that they must get a new home nearer to the theater, for Christina’s sake; and that they proposed that she should have teachers in music and singing and acting; for she was now the bread-winner of the family, and they hoped that some day she would shine in opera with the great artists.

“Did the neighbors know of any place, suitable for them, which they could rent?

“No, they did not; they rarely passed out of their own poor neighborhood.

“But here a plainly dressed man, who looked like a workman, and who had been listening to the conversation, spoke up and said that he had observed, only that morning, a bill of ‘To Rent’ upon a very neat little house, only a few blocks from the theater; and, as he was going that way, he would be glad to show them the place. They thanked him; and, explaining to him that the business of renting houses was something new to them, for heretofore they had lived in one or two rooms — they might have added, very near the roof — they walked off with the stranger. He led them into a pleasant, quiet, respectable neighborhood, and at last stopped before a small, neat three-story house, with a little garden in front and another larger one in the rear.

“‘What a pretty place!’ said the mother; ‘but I fear the rent will be too high for us.’

“‘Well, there is no harm in inquiring,’ said the workman, and he rang the bell.

“A young man, dressed like a mechanic, answered the summons. He invited them in; the house was comfortably, but not richly furnished. They went through it and into the garden; they were delighted with everything. And then came the question they feared to ask: What was the rent?

“‘Well,’ said the young man, pleasantly, I must explain my position. I am a printer by trade. My name is Francis Montgomery. I own this house. It was left to me by my parents. It is all I have. I am not married. I cannot live in it alone; it is too big for that; and, besides, I think I should get some income out of it, for there are the taxes to be paid. But I do not want to leave the house. I was born and raised here. I thought that if I could get some pleasant family to take it, who would let me retain one of the upper rooms, and would board me, I would rent the house for’— here he mentioned a ridiculously low price. ‘I do not want,’ he added, ‘any expensive fare. I am content to take “pot-luck” with the family. I like your looks; and if you want the house, at the terms I have named, I think we can get along pleasantly together. I may not be here all the time.’

“The offer was accepted; the workman was dismissed with thanks. That afternoon the whole family moved in. The delight of Christina was unbounded. There was one room which I had forseen would be assigned to her, and that I had adorned with some flowers. She was introduced to me; we shook hands; and I was soon a member of the family. What a curious flock of little white-heads, of all ages, they were — sturdy, rosy, chubby, healthy, merry, and loving toward one another. They brought very little of their poor furniture with them; it was too shabby for the new surroundings; they gave it away to their former neighbors. But I noticed that the father carefully carried into the kitchen an old chair, time-worn and venerable; the back was gone, and it was nothing but a stool. The next day I observed a pudgy little boy, not quite three years old (the father’s favorite, as I discovered), driving wrought nails into it with a little iron hammer.

“‘Stop! stop! my man!’ I exclaimed; ‘you must not drive nails in the furniture.’

“I looked at the chair: the seat of it was a mass of nailholes. And then Christina, noticing my looks of perplexity, said:

“‘Last Christmas we were very, very poor. Papa was out of work. We could scarcely get enough to eat. Papa saw the preparations in the store windows for Christmas — the great heaps of presents; and he saw the busy parents hurrying about buying gifts for their children, and he felt very sad that he could not give us any presents, not even to little Ole, whom he loves so much. So he went into the blacksmith shop of a friend, and, taking up a piece of iron that had been thrown on the floor, he made that little hammer Ole has in his hand, and a number of wrought nails; and he brought them home and showed Ole how to use the hammer and drive the nails into the chair; and when he had driven them all into the wood, papa would pry them out for him, and the work would commence all over again, and Ole was happy all day long.’

“I found my eyes growing damp; for I was thinking of the riotous profusion of the rich, and of the costly toys they heap upon their children; and the contrast of this poor man, unable to buy a single cheap toy for his family, and giving his chubby boy a rude iron hammer and nails, to pound into that poor stool, as a substitute for doll or rocking-horse, was very touching. And then I looked with some wonder at the straightforward honesty of the little maid, who, in the midst of the new, fine house, was not ashamed to talk so frankly of the dismal wretchedness and want which a few days before had been the lot of the family. She saw nothing to be ashamed of in poverty; while by meaner and more sordid souls it is regarded as the very abasement of shame and crime.

“Ole was pounding away at his nails.

“‘Does he not hurt himself sometimes?’ I asked.

“‘Oh yes, she said, laughing; ‘at first he would hit his little fingers many a hard rap; and he would start to cry, but papa would tell him that “men never cry; — and then it was funny to see how he would purse up his little red mouth, while the tears of pain ran down from his big round eyes, but not a sound more would escape him.’

“And I said to myself: ‘This is the stuff of which was formed the masterful race that overran the world under the names of a dozen different peoples. Ice and snow made the tough fiber, mental and physical, which the hot sun of southern climes afterward melted into the viciousness of more luxurious nations. Man is scourged into greatness by adversity, and leveled into mediocrity by prosperity. This little fellow, whose groans die between his set teeth, has in him the blood of the Vikings.’

“There was one thing I did out of policy, which yet went very much against my inclinations, in dealing with such good and honest people. I knew that in all probability I had been traced by the spies of the Oligarchy to this house; they would regard it of course as a crazy adventure, and would naturally assign it to base purposes. But it would not do for me to appear altogether different, even in this family, from the character I had given myself out to be, of a reckless and dissipated man; for the agents of my enemies might talk to the servant, or to members of the household. And so the second night I came home to supper apparently drunk. It was curious to see the looks of wonder, sorrow and sympathy exchanged between the members of the family as I talked ramblingly and incoherently at the table. But this feint served one purpose; it broke down the barrier between landlord and tenants. Indeed, paradoxical as it may seem, I think they thought more of me because of my supposed infirmity; for ‘pity is akin to love;’ and it is hard for the tenderer feelings of the heart to twine about one who is so strong and flawless that he demands no sympathy or forbearance at our hands. I ceased to be the rich owner of a house — I was simply one of themselves; a foolish journeyman printer; given to drink, but withal a kindly and pleasant man. Two days afterwards, Christina, who had looked at me several times with a troubled brow, took me aside and tried to persuade me to join a temperance society of which her father was a member. It was very pretty and touching to see the motherly way in which the little woman took my hand, and coaxed me to give up my vice, and told me, with eloquent earnestness, all the terrible consequences which would flow from it. I was riot foolish enough to think that any tender sentiment influenced her. It was simply her natural goodness, and her pity for a poor fellow, almost now one of their own family, who was going to destruction. And indeed, if I had been a veritable drunkard, she would have turned me from my evil courses. But I assured her that I would try to reform; that I would drink less than previously, and that, on the next New Year’s day, I might be able to summon up courage enough to go with her father to his society, and pledge myself to total abstinence. She received these promises with many expressions of pleasure; and, although I had to keep up my false character, I never afterwards wounded her feelings by appearing anything more than simply elevated in spirit by drink.

“They were a very kind, gentle, good people; quite unchanged by prosperity and unaffected in their manners. Even in their poverty the children had all looked clean and neat; now they were prettily, but not expensively, dressed. Their religious devotion was great; and I endeared myself to them by sometimes joining in their household prayers. And I said to myself: If there is no God — as the miserable philosophers tell us — there surely ought to be one, if for nothing else than to listen to the supplications of these loving and grateful hearts. And I could not believe that such tender devotions could ascend and be lost forever in empty and unresponsive space. The impulse of prayer, it seems to me, presupposes a God.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37