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- The Making of an American - 10/49 -

until in a week scarcely anything was left of the "problem" that had bothered us so.

Four days I was on the way to Philadelphia, living on apples and an occasional meal earned by doing odd jobs. At night I slept in lonely barns that nearly always had a board ripped out--the tramps' door. I tried to avoid the gang, but I was not always successful. I remember still with a shudder an instance of that kind. I was burrowing in a haymow, thinking myself alone. In the night a big storm came up. The thunder shook the old barn, and I sat up wondering if it would be blown away. A fierce lightning-flash filled it with a ghostly light, and showed me within arm's length a white and scared face with eyes starting from their sockets at the sight of me. The next moment all was black darkness again. My heart stood still for what seemed the longest moment of my life. Then there came out of the darkness a quaking voice asking, "Is anybody there?" For once I was glad to have a live tramp about. I really thought it was a ghost.

The last few miles to Camden I rode in a cattle-car, arriving there at night, much the worse for the wear of it on my linen duster. In the freight-yard I was picked up by a good-hearted police captain who took me to his station, made me tell him my story, and gave me a bed in an unused cell, the door of which he took the precaution to lock on the outside. But I did not mind. Rather that a hundred times than the pig-sty in the New York station-house. In the morning he gave me breakfast and money to get my boots blacked and to pay my fare across the Delaware. And so my homeless wanderings came, for the time being, to an end. For in Philadelphia I found in the Danish Consul, Ferdinand Myhlertz, and his dear wife, friends indeed as in need. The City of Brotherly Love found heart and time to welcome the wanderer, though at the time it was torn up by the hottest kind of fight over the question whether or not to disfigure the beautiful square at Broad and Market streets by putting the new municipal building there.

When, after two weeks' rest with my friends, they sent me on my way to an old schoolmate in Jamestown, N.Y., clothed and in my right mind, I was none the worse for my first lesson in swimming against the current, and quite sure that next time I should be able to breast it. Hope springs eternal at twenty-one. I had many a weary stretch ahead before I was to make port. But with youth and courage as the equipment, one should win almost any fight.



Winter came quickly up by the northern lakes, but it had no terror for me. For once I had shelter and enough to eat. It found me felling trees on Swede Hill, where a considerable settlement of Scandinavians was growing up. I had tried my hand at making cradles in a furniture-shop, but at two dollars and forty cents per dozen there was not much profit in it. So I took to the woods and learned to swing an axe in the American fashion that had charmed me so at Brady's Bend. I liked it much better, anyway, than being in the house winter and summer. It is well that we are fashioned that way, some for indoors and some for outdoors, for so the work of the world is all done; but it has always seemed to me that the indoor folk take too big a share of credit to themselves, as though there were special virtue in that, though I think that the reverse is the case. At least it seems more natural to want to be out in the open where the sun shines and the winds blow. When I was not chopping wood I was helping with the ice harvest on the lake or repairing the steamer that ran in summer between Jamestown and Mayville. My home was in Dexterville, a mile or so out of town, where there lived a Danish family, the Romers, at whose home I was made welcome. The friendship which grew up between us has endured through life and been to me a treasure. Gentler and truer hearts than those of Nicholas and John Romer there are not many.

I shared my room with another countryman, Anthony Ronne, a young axe-maker, who, like myself, was in hard luck. The axe-factory had burned down, and, with no work in sight, the outlook for him was not exactly bright. He had not my way of laughing it off, but was rather disposed to see the serious side of it. Probably that was the reason we took to each other; the balance was restored so. Maybe he sobered me down somewhat. If any one assumes that in my role of unhappy lover I went about glooming and glowering on mankind, he makes a big mistake. Besides, I had not the least notion of accepting that role as permanent. I was out to twist the wheel of fortune my way when I could get my hands upon it. I never doubted that I should do that sooner or later, if only I kept doing things. That Elizabeth should ever marry anybody but me was preposterously impossible, no matter what she or anybody said.

Was this madness? They half thought so at home when they caught a glimpse of it in my letters. Not at all. It was conviction--the conviction that shapes events and the world to its ends. I know what I am talking about. If any one doubts it, and thinks his a worse case than mine, let him try my plan. If he cannot muster up courage to do it, it is the best proof in the world that she was right in refusing him.

To return to my chum; he, on his part, rose to the height even of "going out," but not with me. There was a physical obstacle to that. We had but one coat between us, a turned black kersey, worn very smooth and shiny also on the wrong side, which I had bought of a second-hand dealer in Philadelphia for a dollar. It was our full-dress, and we took turns arraying ourselves in it for the Dexterville weekly parties. These gatherings interested me chiefly as outbreaks of the peculiar American humor that was very taking to me, in and out of the newspapers. Dancing being tabooed as immoral and contaminating, the young people had recourse to particularly energetic kissing games, which more than made up for their deprivation on the other score. It was all very harmless and very funny, and the winter wore away pleasantly enough in spite of hard luck and hard work when there was any.

With the early thaw came change. My friends moved away to Buffalo, and I was left for two months the sole occupant of the Romer homestead. My last job gave out about that time, and a wheelbarrow express which I established between Dexter-ville and the steamboat landing on the lake refused to prosper. The idea was good enough, but I was ahead of my time: travel on the lake had not yet begun. With my field thus narrowed down, I fell back on my gun and some old rat-traps I found in the woodshed. I became a hunter and trapper. Right below me was the glen through which the creek ran on its way to the sawmills and furniture-shops of Jamestown. It was full of musk-rats that burrowed in its banks between the roots of dead hemlocks and pines. There I set my traps and baited them with carrots and turnips. The manner of it was simple enough. I set the trap on the bottom of the creek and hung the bait on a stick projecting from the bank over it, so that to get at it the rat had to step on the trap. I caught lots of them. Their skins brought twenty cents apiece in the town, so that I was really quite independent. I made often as much as a dollar overnight with my traps, and then had the whole day to myself in the hills, where I waylaid many a fat rabbit or squirrel and an occasional bird.

[Illustration: "There I set my traps"]

The one thing that marred my enjoyment of this life of freedom was my vain struggle to master the art of cookery in its elements. To properly get the hang of that, and of housekeeping in general, two heads are needed, as I have found out since--one of them with curls and long eyelashes. Then it is fine fun; but it is not good for man to tackle that job alone. Goodness knows I tried hard enough. I remember the first omelet I made. I was bound to get it good. So I made a muster-roll of all the good things Mrs. Romer had left in the house, and put them all in. Eggs and strawberry jam and raisins and apple-sauce, and some sliced bacon--the way I had seen mother do with "egg pancakes." But though I seasoned it liberally with baking-powder to make it rise, it did not rise. It was dreadfully heavy and discouraging, and not even the strawberry jam had power to redeem it. To tell the truth, it was not a good omelet. It was hardly fit to eat. The jam came out to better advantage in the sago I boiled, but there was too much of it. It was only a fruit-jar full, but I never saw anything swell so. It boiled out of the pot and into another and another, while I kept pouring on water until nearly every jar in the house was full of sago that stood around until moss grew on it with age. There is much contrariness in cooking. When I tapped my maples with the rest--there were two big trees in front of the house--and tried to make sugar, I was prepared to see the sap boil away; but when I had labored a whole day and burned half a cord of wood, and had for my trouble half a tea-cupful of sugar, which made me sick into the bargain, I concluded that that game was not worth the candle, and gave up my plans of becoming a sugar-planter on a larger scale.

It was at this time that I made my first appearance on the lecture platform. There was a Scandinavian society in Jamestown, composed chiefly of workingmen whose fight with life had left them little enough time for schooling. They were anxious to learn, however, and as I was set on teaching where I saw the chance, the thing came of itself. I had been mightily interested in the Frenchman Figuier's account of the formation and development of the earth, and took that for my topic. Twice a week, when I had set my traps in the glen, I went to town and talked astronomy and geology to interested audiences that gazed terror stricken at the loathsome saurians and the damnable pterodactyl which I sketched on the blackboard. Well they might. I spared them no gruesome detail, and I never could draw, anyhow. However, I rescued them from those beasts in season, and together we hauled the earth through age-long showers of molten metal into the sunlight of our day. I sometimes carried home as much as two or three dollars, after paying for gas and hall, with the tickets ten cents apiece, and I saw wealth and fame ahead of me, when sudden wreck came to my hopes and my career as a lecturer.

It was all because, having got the earth properly constructed and set up, as it were, I undertook to explain about latitude and longitude. Figures came in there, and I was never strong at mathematics. My education in that branch had run into a snag about the middle of the little multiplication table. A boy from the "plebs" school challenged me to fight, as I was making my way to recitation, trying to learn the table by heart. I broke off in the middle of the sixes to wallop him, and never got any farther. The class went on that day without me, and I never overtook it. I made but little effort. In the Latin School, which rather prided itself upon being free from the commercial taint, mathematics was held to be in the nature of an intrusion, and it was a sort of good mark for a boy that he did not take to it, if at the same time he showed aptitude for language. So I was left to deplore with Marjorie Fleming to the end of my days the inherent viciousness of sevens and eights, as "more than human nature can endure." It is one of the ironies

The Making of an American - 10/49

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