A stolen kiss and fleeting caress as we met on the deck at night were all I had of Jessie for the rest of the voyage. One evening landlights flickering in the distance drew crowds to the deck; the ship began to slow down. The cabin passengers went below as usual, but hundreds of immigrants sat up as I did and watched the stars slide down the sky till at length dawn came with silver lights and startling revelations.
I can still recall the thrills that overcame me when I realized the great waterways of that land-locked harbor and saw Long Island Sound stretching away on one hand like a sea and the magnificent Hudson River with its palisades on the other, while before me was the East River, nearly a mile in width. What an entrance to a new world! A magnificent and safe ocean port which is also the meeting place of great water paths into the continent.
No finer site could be imagined for a world capital; I was entranced with the spacious grandeur, the manifest destiny of this Queen City of the Waters.
The Old Battery was pointed out to me and Governor’s Island and the prison and where the bridge was being built to Brooklyn: suddenly Jessie passed on her father’s arm and shot me one radiant, lingering glance of love and promise.
I remember nothing more till we landed and the old banker came up to tell me he had had my little box taken from the “H’s” where it belonged and put with his luggage among the “S’s”.
“We are going, he added, “to the Fifth Avenue Hotel away up town in Madison Square: we’ll be comfortable there”, and he smiled self-complacently. I smiled too, and thanked him; but I had no intention of going in his company. I went back to the ship and thanked Dr. Keogh with all my heart for his great goodness to me; he gave me his address in New York and incidentally I learned from him that if I kept the key of my trunk, no one could open it or take it away; it would be left in charge of the Customs till I called for it.
In a minute I was back in the long shed on the dock and had wandered nearly to the end when I perceived the stairs: “Is that the way into the town!” I asked and a man replied, “Sure”. One quick glance around to see that I was not noticed and in a moment I was down the stairs and out in the street: I raced straight ahead of me for two or three blocks and then asked and was told that Fifth Avenue was right in front. As I turned up Fifth Avenue, I began to breathe freely; “no more fathers for me”. The old Greybeard who had bothered me was consigned to oblivion without regret. Of course, I know now that he deserved better treatment. Perhaps indeed I should have done better had I accepted his kindly, generous help, but I’m trying to set down the plain, unvarnished truth, and here at once I must say that children’s affections are much slighter than most parents imagine. I never wasted a thought on my father; even my brother Vernon who had always been kind to me and fed my inordinate vanity, was not regretted: the new life called me: I was in a flutter of expectancy and hope.
Some way up Fifth Avenue I came into the great Square and saw the Fifth Avenue Hotel, but I only grinned and kept right on till at length I reached Central Park. Near it, I can’t remember exactly where, but I believe it was near where the Plaza Hotel stands today, there was a small wooden house with an outhouse at the other end of the lot. While I stared a woman came out with a bucket and went across to the outhouse. In a few moments she came back again and noticed me looking over the fence.
“Would you please give me a drink?” I asked. “Sure I will”, she replied with a strong Irish brogue. “Come right in” and I followed her into her kitchen.
“You’re Irish”, I said, smiling at her. “I am”, she replied, “how did ye guess?” “Because I was born in Ireland too”, I retorted. “You were not!” she cried emphatically, more for pleasure than to contradict. “I was bom in Galway”, I went on and at once she became very friendly and poured me out some milk warm from the cow, and when she heard I had had no breakfast and saw I was hungry, she pressed me to eat and sat down with me and soon heard my whole story or enough of it to break out in wonder again and again.
In turn she told me how she had married Mike Mulligan, a longshoreman who earned good wages and was a good husband but took a drop too much now and again, as a man will when tempted by one of “thiin saloons”. It was the saloons, I learned, that were the ruination of all the best Irishmen and “they were the best men anyway, an’ — an” — and the kindly, homely talk flowed on, charming me.
When the breakfast was over and the things cleared away I rose to go with many thanks but Mrs. Mulligan wouldn’t hear of it. “Ye’re a child’,, she said, “an’ don’t know New York: it’s a terrible place and you must wait till Mike comes home an’ — ”
“But I must find some place to sleep”, I said, “I have money.”
“You’ll sleep here”, she broke in decisively, “and Mike will put ye on yer feet; sure he knows New York like his pocket, an’ yer as welcome as the flowers in May, an’ — ”
What could I do but stay and talk and listen to all sorts of stories about New York, and “toughs” that were “hard cases” and “gunmen” an’ “wimmin that were worse — bad scran to them”.
In due time Mrs. Mulligan and I had dinner together, and after dinner I got her permission to go into the Park for a walk, but “mind now and be home by six or I’ll send Mike after ye”, she added laughing.
I walked a little way in the Park and then started down town again to the address Jessie had given me near the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a mean street, I thought, but I soon found Jessie’s sister’s house and went to a nearby restaurant and wrote a little note to my love, that she could show if need be, saying that I proposed to call on the 18th, or two days after the ship we had come in was due to return to Liverpool. After that duty which made it possible for me to hope all sorts of things on the 18th, 19th or 20th r I sauntered over to Fifth Avenue and made my way up town again. At any rate I was spending nothing in my present lodging.
When I returned that night I was presented to Mike: I found him a big, good-looking Irishman who thought his wife a wonder and all she did perfect. “Mary”, he said, winking at me, “is one of the best cooks in the wurrld and if it weren’t that she’s down on a man when he has a drop in him, she’d be the best gurrl on God’s earth. As it is, I married her and I’ve never been sorry: have I Mary?” “Ye’ve had no cause, Mike Mulligan.”
Mike had nothing particular to do next morning and so he promised he would go and get my little trunk from the Custom House. I gave him the key. He insisted as warmly as his wife that I should stay with them till I got work: I told them how eager I was to begin and Mike promised to speak to his chief and some friends and see what could be done.
Next morning I got up about five-thirty as soon as I heard Mike stirring, and went down Seventh Avenue with him till he got on the horse-car for down-town and left me. About seven-thirty to eight o’clock a stream of people began walking down-town to their offices. On several corners were bootblack shanties. One of them happened to have three customers in it and only one bootblack.
“Won’t you let me help you shine a pair or two?” I asked. The bootblack looked at me: “I don’t mind”, he said and I seized the brushes and went to work. I had done the two just as he finished the first: he whispered to me “halves” as the next man came in and he showed me how to use the polishing rag or cloth. I took off my coat and waistcoat and went to work with a will; for the next hour and a half we both had our hands full. Then the rush began to slack off but not before I had taken just over a, dollar and a half. Afterwards we had a talk and Allison, the bootblack, told me he’d be glad to give me work any morning on the same terms. I assured him I’d be there and do my best till I got other work. I had earned three shillings and had found out I could get good board for three dollars a week, so in a couple of hours I had earned my living. The last anxiety left me.
Mike had a day off, so he came home for dinner at noon and he had great news. They wanted men to work under water in the iron caissons of Brooklyn Bridge and they were giving from five to ten dollars a day.
“Five dollars”, cried Mrs. Mulligan, “it must be dangerous or unhealthy or somethin’ — sure, you’d never put the child to work like that.”
Mike excused himself, but the danger, if danger there was, appealed to me almost as much as the big pay: my only fear was that they’d think me too small or too young. I had told Mrs. Mulligan I was sixteen, for I didn’t want to be treated as a child and now I showed her the eighty cents I had earned that morning bootblacking, and she advised me to keep on at it and not go to work under the water; but the promised five dollars a day won me.
Next morning Mike took me to Brooklyn Bridge soon after five o’clock to see the Contractor: he wanted to engage Mike at once but shook his head over me. “Give me a trial”, I pleaded, “You’ll see, I’ll make good.” After a pause, “0. K.”, he said, “four shifts have gone down already underhanded; you may try.”
I’ve told about the work and its dangers at some length in my novel “The Bomb”, but here I may add some details just to show what labor has to suffer.
In the bare shed where we got ready the men told me no one could do the work for long without getting the “bends”; the “bends”, it appeared, were a sort of convulsive fit that twisted one’s body like a knot and often made you an invalid for life. They soon explained the whole procedure to me. We worked, it appeared, in a huge bell-shaped caisson of iron that 8”
went to the bottom of the river and was pumped full of compressed air to keep the water from entering it from below: the top of the caisson is a room called the “material chamber” into which the stuff dug out of the river passes up and is carted away. On the side of the caisson is another room, called the “air-lock”, into which we were to go to be “compressed”. As the compressed air is admitted, the blood keeps absorbing the gasses of the air till the tension of the gasses in the blood becomes equal to that in the air: when this equilibrium has been reached, men can work in the caisson for hours without serious discomfort if sufficient pure air is constantly pumped in. It was the foul air that did the harm, it appeared; “if they’d pump in good air, it would be 0. K.: but that would cost a little time and trouble and men’s lives are cheaper.” I saw that the men wanted to warn me, thinking I was too young, and accordingly I pretended to take little heed.
When we went into the “airlock” and they turned on one aircock after another of compressed air, the men put their hands to their ears and I soon imitated them for the pain was very acute. Indeed, the drums of the ears are often driven in and burst if the compressed air is brought in too quickly. I found that the best way of meeting the pressure was to keep swallowing air and forcing it up into the middle ear where it acted as an air-pad on the inner side of the drum and so lessened the pressure from the outside.
It took about half an hour or so to “compress” us and that half an hour gave me lots to think about. When the air was fully compressed, the door of the airlock opened at a touch and we all went down to work with pick and shovel on the gravelly bottom. My headache soon became acute. The six of us were working naked to the waist in a small iron chamber with a temperature of about 180 Fahrenheit: in five minutes the sweat was pouring from us and all the while we were standing in icy water that was only kept from rising by the terrific air-pressure. No wonder the headaches were blinding. The men didn’t work for more than ten minutes at a time, but I plugged on steadily, resolved to prove myself and get constant employment; only one man, a Swede named Anderson, worked at all as hard. I was overjoyed to find that together we did more than the four others. The amount done each week was estimated, he told me, by an inspector. Anderson was known to the Contractor and received half a wage extra as head of our gang. He assured me I could stay as long as I liked, but he advised me to leave at the end of a month: it was too unhealthy: above all, I mustn’t drink and should spend all my spare time in the open. He was kindness itself to me as indeed were all the others. After two hours’ work down below we went up into the airlock room to get gradually “decompressed”, the pressure of air in our veins having to be brought down gradually to the usual air pressure. The men began to put on their clothes and passed round a bottle of Schnaps; but though I was soon as cold as a wet rat and felt depressed and weak to boot, I would not touch the liquor. In the shed above I took a cupful of hot cocoa with Anderson which stopped the shivering and I was soon able to face the afternoon’s ordeal.
I had no idea one could feel so badly when being “decompressed” in the airlock, but I took Anderson’s advice and got into the open as soon as I could, and by the time I had walked home in the evening and changed, I felt strong again, but the headache didn’t leave me entirely and the earache came back every now and then and to this day a slight deafness reminds me of that spell of work under water.
I went into Central Park for half an hour; the first pretty girl I met reminded me of Jessie: in one week I’d be free to see her and tell her I was making good and she’d keep her promise, I felt sure; the mere hope led me to fairyland. Meanwhile nothing could take away the proud consciousness that with my five dollars I had earned two weeks’ living in a day: a month’s work would make me safe for a year.
When I returned I told the Mulligans I must pay for my board, said “I’d feel better, if you’ll let me” and finally they consented, though Mrs. Mulligan thought three dollars a week too much. I was glad when it was settled and went to bed early to have a good sleep. For three or four days things went fairly well with me but on the fifth or sixth day we came on a spring of water or “gusher” and were wet to the waist before the air pressure could be increased to cope with it. As a consequence a dreadful pain shot through both my ears: I put my hands to them tight and sat still a little while. Fortunately the shift was almost over and Anderson came with me to the horse-car. “You’d better knock off”, he said, “I’ve known ’em go deaf from it.”
The pain had been appalling but it was slowly diminishing and I was resolved not to give in. “Could I get a day offl” I asked Anderson: he nodded, “of course: you’re the best in the shift, the best I’ve ever seen, a great little pony.”
Mrs. Mulligan saw at once something was wrong and made me try her household remedy — a roasted onion cut in two and clapped tight on each ear with a flannel bandage. It acted like magic: in ten minutes I was free of pain: then she poured in a little warm sweet oil and in an hour I was walking in the Park as usual. Still the fear of deafness was on me and I was very glad when Anderson told me he had complained to the Boss and we were to get an extra thousand feet of pure air. It would make a great difference, Anderson said, and he was right, but the improvement was not sufficient.1
One day just as the “decompression” of an hour and a half was ending, an Italian named Manfredi fell down and writhed about, knocking his face on the floor till the blood spurted from his nose and mouth. When we got him into the shed, his legs were twisted like plaited hair. The surgeon had him taken to the hospital. I made up my mind that a month would be enough for me.
At the end of the first week I got a note from Jessie saying that her father was going on board that afternoon and she could see me the next evening. I went and was introduced to Jessie’s sister who, to my surprise, was tall and large but without a trace of Jessie’s good looks.
“He’s younger than you, Jess”, she burst out laughing. A week earlier I’d have been hurt to the soul, but I had proved myself, so I said simply, “I’m earning five dollars a day, Mrs. Plummer, and money talks.” Her mouth fell open in amazement. “Five dollars”, she repeated, “I’m sorry, I— I— ”
“There, Maggie”, Jessie broke in, “I told you, you had never seen anyone like him; you’ll be great friends yet. Now come and we’ll have a walk”, she added and out we went.
To be with her even in the street was delightful
1 In Germany I have since learned the State requires that ten times as much pure air must be suppled as we had and in consequence the serious illnesses wh ch with us amounted to eigh y per cent in three months have been reduced to eight. Paternal Government, it appears, has certain good points.
and I had a lot to say, but making love in a New York street on a summer evening is difficult and I was hungry to kiss and caress her freely. Jessie, however, had thought of a way: if her sister and husband had theatre tickets, they’d go out and we’d be alone in the apartment; it would cost two dollars, however, and she thought that a lot. I was delighted: I gave her the bills and arranged to be with her next night before eight o’clock. Did Jessie know what was going to happen? Even now I’m uncertain, though I think she guessed.
Next night I waited till the coast was clear and then hurried to the door. As soon as we were alone in the little parlor and I had kissed her, I said, “Jessie, I want you to undress. I’m sure your figure is lovely, but I want to know it”.
“Not at once, eh?” she pouted, “talk to me first. I want to know how you are?” and I drew her to the big armchair and sat down with her in my arms. “What am I to tell you?” I asked, while my hand went up her dress to her warm thighs and sex. She frowned but I kissed her lips and with a movement or two stretched her out on me so that I could use my finger easily. At once her lips grew hot and I went on kissing and caressing till her eyes closed and she gave herself to the pleasure. Suddenly she wound herself upon me and gave me a big kiss. “You don’t talk”, she said.
“I can’t”, I exclaimed, making up my mind. “Come”, and I lifted her to her feet and took her into the bedroom. “I’m crazy for you”, I said, “take off your clothes, please.” She resisted a little but when I began loosening her dress, she helped me and took it off. Her knickers, I noticed, were new. They soon fell off and she stood in her chemise and black stockings. “That’s enough, isn’t it?” she said, “Mr.
Curious”, and she drew the chemise tight about her. “No”, I cried, “beauty must unveil, please!” The next moment the chemise slipping down caught for a moment on her hips and then slid circling round her feet.
Her nakedness stopped my heart; desire blinded me: my arms went round her, straining her soft form to me: in a moment I had lifted her on to the bed, pulling the bed clothes back at the same time. The foolish phrase of being in bed together deluded me: I had no idea that she was more in my power just lying on the edge of the bed; in a moment I had torn off my clothes and boots and got in beside her. Our warm bodies lay together: a thousand hot pulses beating in us: soon I separated her legs and lying on her tried to put my sex into hers, but she drew away almost at once. “O— O, it hurts” she murmured and each time I tried to push my sex in, her “O’s” of pain stopped me.
My wild excitement made me shiver; I could have struck her for drawing away; but soon I noticed that she let my sex touch her clitoris with pleasure and I began to use my cock as a finger, caressing her with it. In a moment or two I began to move it more quickly and as my excitement grew to the height, I again tried to slip it into her pussy, and now as her love-dew came, I got my sex in a little way which gave me inexpressible pleasure; but when I pushed to go further, she drew away again with a sharp cry of pain. At the same moment my orgasm came on for the first time and seed like milk spurted from my sex. The pleasure thrill was almost unbearably keen: I could have screamed with the pang of it; but Jessie cried out, “Oh, you’re wetting me” and drew away with a frightened “Look, look!” And there, sure enough, on her round white thighs were patches of crimson blood. “Oh! I’m bleeding”, she cried, “what have you done?”
“Nothing”, I answered, a little sulky, I’m afraid, at having my indescribable pleasure cut short, “nothing” and in a moment I had got out of bed, and taking my handkerchief soon wiped away the tell-tale traces.
But when I wanted to begin again, Jessie wouldn’t hear of it at first:
“No, no”, she said. “You’ve hurt me really, Jim, (my Christian name, I had told her, was James) and I’m scared, please be good”. I could only do her will, till a new thought struck me. At any rate I could see her now and study her beauties one by one, and so still lying by her I began kissing her left breast and soon the nipple grew a little stiff in my mouth. Why, I didn’t know and Jessie said she didn’t, but she liked it when I said her breasts were lovely and indeed they were, small and firm while the nipples pointed straight out. Suddenly the thought came, surprising me: it would have been much prettier if the circle surrounding the nipples had been rose-red instead of merely umber brown. I was thrilled by the bare idea. But her flanks and belly were lovely; the navel like a curled sea-shell, I thought, and the triangle of silky brown hairs on the Mount of Venus seemed to me enchanting, but Jessie kept covering her beauty-place. “It’s ugly”, she said, “please, boy”, but I went on caressing it and soon I was trying to slip my sex in again; though Jessie’s “O’s” of pain began at once and she begged me to stop.
“We must get up and dress”, she said, “they’ll soon be back”, so I had to content myself with just lying in her arms with my sex touching hers. Soon she began to move against my sex, and to kiss me,
and then she bit my lips just as my sex slipped into hers again; she left it in for a long moment and then as her lips grew hot: “it’s so big”, she said, “but you’re a dear”. The moment after she cried: “We must get up, boy! if they caught us, I’d die of shame”. When I tried to divert her attention by kissing her breasts, she pouted, “That hurts too. Please, boy, stop and don’t look”, she added as she tried to rise, covering her sex the while with her hand, and pulling a frowning face. Though I told her she was mistaken and her sex was lovely, she persisted in hiding it, and in truth her breasts and thighs excited me more, perhaps because they were in themselves more beautiful.
I put my hand on her hips; she smiled, “Please, boy” and as I moved away to give her room, she got up and stood by the bed, a perfect little figure in rosy, warm outline. I was entranced, but the cursed critical faculty was awake. As she turned, I saw she was too broad for her height; her legs were too short, her hips too stout. It all chilled me a little. Should I ever find perfection?
Ten minutes later she had arranged the bed and we were seated in the sitting-room but to my wonder Jessie didn’t want to talk over our experience. “What gave you most pleasure?” I asked. “All of it”, she said, “you naughty dear; but don’t let’s talk of it”.
I told her I was going to work for a month, but I couldn’t talk to her: my hand was soon up her clothes again playing with her sex and caressing it, and we had to move apart hurriedly when we heard her sister at the door.
I didn’t get another evening alone with Jessie for some time. I asked for it often enough, but Jessie made excuses and her sister was very cold to me. I soon found out it was by her advice that Jessie guarded herself. Jessie confessed that her sister accused her of letting me “act like a husband: she must have seen a stain on my chemise”, Jessie added, “when you made me bleed, you naughty boy; any way something gave her the idea and now you must be good”.
That was the conclusion of the whole matter. If I had known as much then as I knew ten years later, neither the pain nor her sister’s warnings could have dissuaded Jessie from giving herself to me. Even at the time I felt that a little more knowledge would have made me the arbiter.
The desire to have Jessie completely to myself again, was one reason why I gave up the job at the Bridge as soon as the month was up. I had over a hundred and fifty dollars clear in my pocket and I had noticed that though the pains in my ears soon ceased, I had become a little hard of hearing. The first morning I wanted to he in bed and have one .great lazy day, but I awoke at five as usual, and it .suddenly occurred to me that I should go down and see Allison, the bootblack, again. I found him busier than ever and I had soon stripped off and set to work. About ten o’clock we had nothing to do, so I told him of my work under water; he boasted that his “stand” brought him in about four dollars a day: there wasn’t much to do in the afternoons, but from six to seven again he usually earned something more.
I was welcome to come and work with him any morning on halves and I thought it well to accept his offer.
That very afternoon I took Jessie for a walk in the Park, but when we had found a seat in the shade she confessed that her sister thought we ought to be engaged, and as soon as I got steady work we could be married: “A woman wants a home of her own”,
she said, “and oh, Boy! I’d make it so pretty! and we’d go out to the theatres and have a gay old time”.
I was horrified; married at my age, no, Sir! It seemed absurd to me and with Jessie. I saw she was pretty and bright, but she knew nothing, never had read anything: I couldn’t marry her. The idea made me snort. But she was dead in earnest, so I agreed to all she said, only insisting that first I must got regular work; I’d buy the engagement ring too: but first we must have another great evening. Jessie didn’t know whether her sister would go out, but she’d see. Meanwhile we kissed and kissed and her lips grew hot and my hand got busy, and then we walked again, on and on, and finally went into the great Museum.
Here I got one of the shocks of my life.. Suddenly Jessie stopped before a picture representing, I think, Paris choosing the Goddess of Beauty, — Paris being an ideal figure of youthful manhood.
“Oh, isn’t he splendid!” cried Jessie, “just like you”, she added with feminine wit, pouting out her lips as if to kiss me. If she hadn’t made the personal application, I might not have realized the absurdity of the comparison. But Paris had long, slim legs while mine were short and stout, and his face was oval and his nose straight, while my nose jutted out with broad, scenting nostrils.
The conviction came to me in a flash: I was ugly with irregular features, sharp eyes and short squat figure: the certainty overpowered me: I had learned before that I was too small to be a great athlete, now I saw that I was ugly to boot: my heart sank: I can not describe my disappointment and disgust.
Jessie asked; what was the matter and at length I told her. She wouldn’t have it: “You’ve a lovely white skin”, she cried, “and you’re quick and strong: no one would call you ugly! — the idea!” But the knowledge was in me indisputable, never to leave me again for long. It even led me to some erroneous inferences then and there: for example, it seemed clear to me that if I had been tall and handsome like Paris, Jessie would have given herself to me in spite of her sister; but further knowledge of women makes me inclined to doubt this: they have a luscious eye for good looks in the male, naturally; but other qualities, such as strength and dominant self-confidence have an even greater attraction for the majority, especially for those who are richly endowed sexually and I am inclined to think that it was her sister’s warnings and her own matter-of-fact hesitation before the irrevocable that induced Jessie to withhold her sex from complete abandonment. But the pleasure I had experienced with her, made me keener than ever, and more enterprising. The conviction of my ugliness, too, made me resolve to develope my mind and all other faculties as much as I could.
Finally, I saw Jessie home and had a great hug and long kiss and was told she had had a bully afternoon and we made another appointment.
I worked at bootblacking every morning and soon got some regular customers, notably a young, well-dressed man who seemed to like me. Either Allison, or he himself, told me his name was Kendrick and he came from Chicago. One morning he was very silent and absorbed. At length I said, “Finished” and ““Finished”, he repeated after me: “I was thinking of something else”, he explained. “Intent”, I said smiling. “A business deal”, he explained, “but why do you say intent 1” “The Latin phrase came into my head”, I replied without thinking, ‘Intentique ore tenebant’, Vergil says.”
“Good God!” he cried, “fancy a bootblack quoting Vergil. You’re a strange lad, what age are you?” “Sixteen”, I replied. “You don’t look it”, he said, “but now I must hurry; one of these days we’ll have a talk”. I smiled, “Thank you, Sir”, and away he hastened.
The very next day he was in still greater haste: “I must get down town”, he said, “I’m late already; just give me a rub or two”, he cried impatiently, “I must catch that train” and he fumbled with some bills in his hand. “It’s all right”, I said, and smiling added; “Hurry! I’ll be here tomorrow”. He smiled and went off without paying, taking me at my word.
The next day I strolled down-town early; for Allison had found that a stand and lean-to were to be sold on the corner of 13th Street and Seventh Avenue, and as he was known, he wanted me to go and have a look at the business done from seven to nine. The Dago who wished to sell out and go back to Dalmatia, wanted three hundred dollars for the outfit, asserting that the business brought in four dollars a day. He had not exaggerated unduly, I found, and Allison was hot that we should buy it together and go fifty-fifty. “You’ll make five or six dollars a day at it”, he said, “if the Dago makes four. It’s one of the good pitches and with three dollars a day coming in, you’ll soon have a stand of your own”.
While we were discussing it, Kendrick came up and took his accustomed seat. “What were you so hot about?” he asked, and as Allison smiled, I told him, “Three dollars a day seems good”, he said, “but bootblacking’s not your game. How would you like to come to Chicago and have a place as night-clerk in my hotel? I’ve got one with my uncle”, he added, “and I think you’d make good”.
“I’d do my best”, I replied, the very thought of Chicago and the Great West drawing me, “Will you let me think it over?”
“Sure, sure!”, he replied, “I don’t go back till Friday; that gives you three days to decide”.
Allison stuck to his opinion, that a good stand would make more money; but when I talked it over with the Mulligans, they were both in favor of the hotel. I saw Jessie that same evening and told her of the “stand” and begged for another evening, but she stuck to it that her sister was suspicious and cross with me and would not leave us alone again. Accordingly, I said nothing to her of Chicago.
I had already noticed that sexual pleasure is in its nature profoundly selfish. So long as Jessie yielded to me and gave me delight, I was attracted by her; but as soon as she denied me, I became annoyed and dreamed of more pliant beauties. I was rather pleased to leave her without even a word; “that’ll teach her!” my wounded vanity whispered, “she deserves to suffer a little for disappointing me”.
But parting with the Mulligans was really painful: Mrs. Mulligan was a dear, kind woman who would have mothered the whole race if she could; one of those sweet Irish women whose unselfish deeds and thoughts are the flowers of our sordid human life. Her husband too was not unworthy of her; very simple and straight and hard-working, without a mean thought in him, a natural prey to good fellowship and songs and poteen.
On Friday afternoon I left New York for Chicago with Mr. Kendrick. The country seemed to me very bare, harsh and unfinished, but the great distances enthralled me; it was indeed a land to be proud of, every broad acre of it spoke of the future and suggested hope.
My first round, so to speak, with American life was over. What I had learned in it remains with me still. No people is so kind to children and no life so easy for the handworkers; the hewers of wood and drawers of water are better off in the United States than anywhere else on earth. To this one class and it is by far the most numerous class, the American democracy more than fulfills its promises. It levels up the lowest in a most surprising way. I believed then with all my heart what so many believe today, that all deductions made, it was on the whole, the best civilization yet known among men.
In time, deeper knowledge made me modify this opinion more and more radically. Five years later I was to see Walt Whitman, the noblest of all Americans, living in utter poverty at Camden, dependent upon English admirers for a change of clothes or a sufficiency of food, and Poe had suffered in the same way.
Bit by bit the conviction was forced in upon me that if the American democracy does much to level up the lowest class, it is still more successful in levelling down the highest and best. No land on earth is so friendly to the poor illiterate toilers, no land so contemptuous-cold to the thinkers and artists, the guides of humanity. What help is there here for men of letters and artists, for the seers and prophets? Such guides are not wanted by the idle rich and are ignored by the masses, and after all the welfare of the head is more important even than that of the body and feet.
What will become of those who stone the prophet? and persecute the teachers’? The doom is written in flaming letters on every page of history.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51