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- The Making of an American - 2/49 -


The Mulberry Bend as it is

My Little Ones gathering Daisies for "the Poors"

Mr. Lowell's Letter

The Boys' "Playground" in an Old-time School

Typical East Side Tenement Block (_five hundred babies in it, not one bath-tub_)

President Theodore Roosevelt, of the Police Board

"One was sitting asleep on a butter-tub"

Chief of Police Thomas Byrnes

The Mott Street Barracks

Gotham Court

A Tenement House Air-shaft

The School of the New Day

The Way to prevent the Manufacture of "Toughs"

Ribe, in my Childhood (_seen from Elisabeths Garden_)

At Home in the Old Town (_the last time we were all together_)

"The 'gossip benches' are filled"

The Extinct Chimney-sweep

The Ancient Bellwoman

The Village Express

Holy Andrew's Cross

Sir Asker Ryg's Church at Fjennesloevlille

"Horse-meat to-day!"

The Cross of Dannebrog

After Twenty-five Years

King Christian as I saw him last

The Jacob A. Riis House (_No. 50 Henry Street, New York_)

Christmas Eve with the King's Daughters

James Tanner

"The little ones from Cherry Street"

My Silver Bride

Here comes the Baby!

"That minute I knew"

CHAPTER I

THE MEETING ON THE LONG BRIDGE

[Illustration: Our Stork]

On the outskirts of the ancient town of Ribe, on the Danish north seacoast, a wooden bridge spanned the Nibs River when I was a boy--a frail structure, with twin arches like the humps of a dromedary, for boats to go under. Upon it my story begins. The bridge is long since gone. The grass-grown lane that knew our romping feet leads nowhere now. But in my memory it is all as it was that day nearly forty years ago, and it is always summer there. The bees are droning among the forget-me-nots that grow along shore, and the swans arch their necks in the limpid stream. The clatter of the mill-wheel down at the dam comes up with drowsy hum; the sweet smells of meadow and field are in the air. On the bridge a boy and a girl have met.

He whistles a tune, boy-fashion, with worsted jacket slung across his arm, on his way home from the carpenter shop to his midday meal. When she has passed he stands looking after her, all the music gone out of him. At the other end of the bridge she turns with the feeling that he is looking, and, when she sees that he is, goes on with a little toss of her pretty head. As she stands one brief moment there with the roguish look, she is to stand in his heart forever--a sweet girlish figure, in jacket of gray, black-embroidered, with schoolbooks and pretty bronzed boots--

"With tassels!" says my wife, maliciously--she has been looking over my shoulder. Well, with tassels! What then? Did I not worship a pair of boots with tassels which I passed in a shop window in Copenhagen every day for a whole year, because they were the only other pair I ever saw? I don't know--there may have been more; perhaps others wore them. I know she did. Curls she had, too--curls of yellow gold. Why do girls not have curls these days? It is such a rare thing to see them, that when you do you feel like walking behind them miles and miles just to feast your eyes. Too much bother, says my daughter. Bother? Why, I have carried one of your mother's, miss! all these--there, I shall not say how long--and carry it still. Bother? Great Scott!

[Illustration: The Meeting on the Long Bridge.]

And is this going to be a love story, then? Well, I have turned it over and over, and looked at it from every angle, but if I am to tell the truth, as I promised, I don't see how it can be helped. If I am to do that, I must begin at the Long Bridge. I stepped on it that day a boy, and came off it with the fixed purpose of a man. How I stuck to it is part of the story--the best part, to my thinking; and I ought to know, seeing that our silver wedding comes this March. Silver wedding, humph! She isn't a week older than the day I married her--not a week. It was all in the way of her that I came here; though at the time I am speaking of I rather guessed than knew it was Elizabeth. She lived over there beyond the bridge. We had been children together. I suppose I had seen her a thousand times before without noticing. In school I had heard the boys trading in her for marbles and brass buttons as a partner at dances and games--generally trading off the other girls for her. She was such a pretty dancer! I was not. "Soldiers and robbers" was more to my taste. That any girl, with curls or without, should be worth a good marble, or a regimental button with a sound eye, that could be strung, was rank foolishness to me until that day on the bridge.

And now I shall have to recross it after all, to tell who and what we were, that we may start fair. I shall have to go slow, too, for back of that day everything seems very indistinct and strange. A few things stand out more clearly than the rest. The day, for instance, when I was first dragged off to school by an avenging housemaid and thrust howling into an empty hogshead by the ogre of a schoolmarm, who, when she had put the lid on, gnashed her yellow teeth at the bunghole and told me that so bad boys were dealt with in school. At recess she had me up to the pig-pen in the yard as a further warning. The pig had a slit in the ear. It was for being lazy, she explained, and showed me the shears. Boys were no better than pigs. Some were worse; then--a jab at the air with the scissors told the rest. Poor father! He was a schoolmaster, too; how much sorrow it might have spared him had he known of this! But we were too scared to tell, I suppose. He had set his heart upon my taking up his calling, and I hated the school from the day I first saw it. Small wonder. The only study he succeeded in interesting me in was English, because Charles Dickens's paper, _All the Year Round_, came to the house with stories ever so much more alluring than the tedious grammar. He was of the old dispensation, wedded to the old ways. But the short cut I took to knowledge in that branch I think opened his eyes to some things ahead of his time. Their day had not yet come. He lived to see it dawn and was glad. I know how he felt about it. I myself have lived down the day of the hogshead in the child-life of New York. Some of the schools our women made an end of a few years ago weren't much better. To help clean them out was like getting square with the ogre that plagued my childhood.

I mind, too, my first collision with the tenement. There was just one, and it stood over against the castle hill, separated from it only by the dry moat. We called it Rag Hall, and I guess it deserved the name. Ribe was a very old town. Five hundred years ago or so it had been the seat of the fighting kings, when Denmark was a power to be reckoned with. There they were handy when trouble broke out with the German barons to the south. But the times changed, and of all its greatness there remained to Ribe only its famed cathedral, with eight centuries upon its hoary head, and its Latin School. Of the castle of the Valdemars there was left only this green hill with solemn sheep browsing upon it and ba-a-a-ing into the sunset. In the moats, where once ships sailed in from the sea, great billowy masses of reeds ever bent and swayed under the west wind that swept over the meadows. They grew much taller than our heads, and we boys loved to play in them, to track the tiger or the grizzly to its lair, not without creeping shudders at the peril that might lie in ambush at the next turn; or, hidden deep down among them, we lay and watched the white clouds go overhead and listened to the reeds whispering of the great days and deeds that were.

[Illustration: Ribe, from the Castle Hill.]

The castle hill was the only high ground about the town. It was said in some book of travel that one might see twenty-four miles in any direction from Ribe, lying flat on one's back; but that was drawing the long bow. Flat the landscape was, undeniably. From the top of the castle hill we could see the sun setting upon the sea, and the islands lying high in fine weather, as if floating in the air, the Nibs winding its silvery way through the green fields. Not a tree, hardly a house, hindered the view. It was grass, all grass, for miles, to the sand dunes and the beach. Strangers went into ecstasy over the little woodland patch down by the Long Bridge, and very sweet and pretty it was; but to me, who was born there, the wide view to the sea, the green meadows, with the lonesome flight of the shore-birds and the curlew's call in the night-watches, were dearer far, with all their melancholy. More than mountains in their majesty; more, infinitely more, than the city of teeming millions with all its wealth and might, they seem to me to typify


The Making of an American - 2/49

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