The Face of Failure by Octave Thanet
AFTER the week's shower the low Iowa hills looked vividly green. At the
base of the first range of hills the Blackhawk road winds from the city to
the prairie. From its starting-point, just outside the city limits, the
wayfarer may catch bird's-eye glimpses of the city, the vast river that
the Iowans love, and the three bridges tying three towns to the island
arsenal. But at one's elbow spreads Cavendish's melon farm. Cavendish's
melon farm it still is, in current phrase, although Cavendish, whose
memory is honored by lovers of the cantaloupe melon, long ago departed to
raise melons for larger markets; and still a weather-beaten sign creaks
from a post announcing to the world that "the celebrated Cavendish Melons
are for Sale here!" To-day the melon-vines were softly shaded by
rain-drops. A pleasant sight they made, spreading for acres in front of
the green-houses where mushrooms and early vegetables strove to outwit the
seasons, and before the brown cottage in which Cavendish had begun a
successful career. The black roof-tree of the cottage sagged in the
middle, and the weather-boarding was dingy with the streaky dinginess of
old paint that has never had enough oil. The fences, too, were unpainted
and rudely patched. Nevertheless a second glance told one that there were
no gaps in them, that the farm machines kept their bright colors well
under cover, and that the garden rows were beautifully straight and clean.
An old white horse switched its sleek sides with its long tail and drooped
its untrammelled neck in front of the gate. The wagon to which it was
harnessed was new and had just been washed. Near the gate stood a girl and
boy who seemed to be mutually studying each other's person. Decidedly the
girl's slim, light figure in its dainty frock repaid one's eyes for their
trouble; and her face, with its brilliant violet eyes, its full, soft
chin, its curling auburn hair and delicate tints, was charming; but her
brother's look was anything but approving. His lip curled and his small
gray eyes grew smaller under his scowling brows.
"Is THAT your best suit?" said the girl.
"Yes, it is; and it's GOING to be for one while," said the boy.
It was a suit of the cotton mixture that looks like wool when it is new,
and cuts a figure on the counters of every dealer in cheap ready-made
clothing. It had been Tim Powell's best attire for a year; perhaps he had
not been careful enough of it, and that was why it no longer cared even to
imitate wool; it was faded to the hue of a clay bank, it was threadbare,
the trousers bagged at the knees, the jacket bagged at the elbows, the
pockets bulged flabbily from sheer force of habit, although there was
nothing in them.
"I thought you were to have a new suit," said the girl. "Uncle told me
himself he was going to buy you one yesterday when you went to town."
"I wouldn't have asked him to buy me anything yesterday for more'n a suit
"Why?" The girl opened her eyes. "Didn't he do anything with the lawyer?
Is that why you are both so glum this morning?"
"No, he didn't. The lawyer says the woman that owns the mortgage has got
to have the money. And it's due next week."
The girl grew pale all over her pretty rosy cheeks; her eyes filled with
tears as she gasped, "Oh, how hateful of her, when she promised——"
"She never promised nothing, Eve; it ain't been hers for more than three
months. Sloan, that used to have it, died, and left his property to be
divided up between his nieces; and the mortgage is her share. See?"
"I don't care, it's just as mean. Mr. Sloan promised."
"No, he didn't; he jest said if Uncle was behind he wouldn't press him;
and he did let Uncle get behind with the interest two times and never
kicked. But he died; and now the woman, she wants her money!"
"I think it is mean and cruel of her to turn us out! Uncle says mortgages
are wicked anyhow, and I believe him!"
"I guess he couldn't have bought this place if he didn't give a mortgage
on it. And he'd have had enough to pay cash, too, if Richards hadn't
begged him so to lend it to him."
"When is Richards going to pay him?"
"It come due three months ago; Richards ain't never paid up the interest
even, and now he says he's got to have the mortgage extended for three
years; anyhow for two."
"But don't he KNOW we've got to pay our own mortgage? How can we help HIM?
I wish Uncle would sell him out!"
The boy gave her the superior smile of the masculine creature. "I
suppose," he remarked with elaborate irony, "that he's like Uncle and you;
he thinks mortgages are wicked."
"And just as like as not Uncle won't want to go to the carnival," Eve went
on, her eyes filling again.
Tim gazed at her, scowling and sneering; but she was absorbed in dreams
and hopes with which as yet his boyish mind had no point of contact.
"All the girls in the A class were going to go to see the fireworks
together, and George Dean and some of the boys were going to take us, and
we were going to have tea at May Arlington's house, and I was to stay all
night;"—this came in a half sob. "I think it is just too mean! I
never have any good times!"
"Oh, yes, you do, sis, lots! Uncle always gits you everything you want.
And he feels terrible bad when I—when he knows he can't afford to
git something you want——"
"I know well enough who tells him we can't afford things!"
"Well, do you want us to git things we can't afford? I ain't never advised
him except the best I knew how. I told him Richards was a blow-hard, and I
told him those Alliance grocery folks he bought such a lot of truck of
would skin him, and they did; those canned things they sold him was all
musty, and they said there wasn't any freight on 'em, and he had to pay
freight and a fancy price besides; and I don't believe they had any more
to do with the Alliance than our cow!"
"Uncle always believes everything. He always is so sure things are going
to turn out just splendid; and they don't—only just middling; and
then he loses a lot of money."
"But he is an awful good man," said the boy, musingly.
"I don't believe in being so good you can't make money. I don't want
always to be poor and despised, and have the other girls have prettier
clothes than me!"
"I guess you can be pretty good and yet make money, if you are sharp
enough. Of course you got to be sharper to be good and make money than you
got to be, to be mean and make money."
"Well, I know one thing, that Uncle ain't EVER going to make money. He——"
The last word shrivelled on her lips, which puckered into a confused smile
at the warning frown of her brother. The man that they were discussing had
come round to them past the henhouse. How much had he overheard?
He didn't seem angry, anyhow. He called: "Well, Evy, ready?" and Eve was
glad to run into the house for her hat without looking at him. It was a
relief that she must sit on the back seat where she need not face Uncle
Nelson. Tim sat in front; but Tim was so stupid he wouldn't mind.
Nor did he; it was Nelson Forrest that stole furtive glances at the lad's
profile, the knitted brows, the freckled cheeks, the undecided nose, and
The boyish shoulders slouched forward at the same angle as that of the
fifty-year-old shoulders beside him. Nelson, through long following of the
plough, had lost the erect carriage painfully acquired in the army. He was
a handsome man, whose fresh-colored skin gave him a perpetual appearance
of having just washed his face. The features were long and delicate. The
brown eyes had a liquid softness like the eyes of a woman. In general the
countenance was alertly intelligent; he looked younger than his years; but
this afternoon the lines about his mouth and in his brows warranted every
gray hair of his pointed short beard. There was a reason. Nelson was
having one of those searing flashes of insight that do come occasionally
to the most blindly hopeful souls. Nelson had hoped all his life. He hoped
for himself, he hoped for the whole human race. He served the abstraction
that he called "PROgress" with unflinching and unquestioning loyalty.
Every new scheme of increasing happiness by force found a helper, a
fighter, and a giver in him; by turns he had been an Abolitionist, a
Fourierist, a Socialist, a Greenbacker, a Farmers' Alliance man.
Disappointment always was followed hard on its heels by a brand-new
confidence. Progress ruled his farm as well as his politics; he bought the
newest implements and subscribed trustfully to four agricultural papers;
but being a born lover of the ground, a vein of saving doubt did assert
itself sometimes in his work; and, on the whole, as a farmer he was
successful. But his success never ventured outside his farm gates. At
buying or selling, at a bargain in any form, the fourteen-year-old Tim was
better than Nelson with his fifty years' experience of a wicked and
Was that any part of the reason, he wondered to-day, why at the end of
thirty years of unflinching toil and honesty, he found himself with a vast
budget of experience in the ruinous loaning of money, with a mortgage on
the farm of a friend, and a mortgage on his own farm likely to be
foreclosed? Perhaps it might have been better to stay in Henry County. He
had paid for his farm at last. He had known a good moment, too, that day
he drove away from the lawyer's with the cancelled mortgage in his pocket
and Tim hopping up and down on the seat for joy. But the next day Richards—just
to give him the chance of a good thing—had brought out that Maine
man who wanted to buy him out. He was anxious to put the money down for
the new farm, to have no whip-lash of debt forever whistling about his
ears as he ploughed, ready to sting did he stumble in the furrows; and Tim
was more anxious than he; but—there was Richards! Richards was a
neighbor who thought as he did about Henry George and Spiritualism, and
belonged to the Farmers' Alliance, and had lent Nelson all the works of
Henry George that he (Richards) could borrow. Richards was in deep
trouble. He had lost his wife; he might lose his farm. He appealed to
Nelson, for the sake of old friendship, to save him. And Nelson could not
resist; so, two thousand of the thirty-four hundred dollars that the Maine
man paid went to Richards, the latter swearing by all that is holy, to pay
his friend off in full at the end of the year. There was money coming to
him from his dead wife's estate, but it was tied up in the courts. Nelson
would not listen to Tim's prophecies of evil. But he was a little dashed
when Richards paid neither interest nor principal at the year's end,
although he gave reasons of weight; and he experienced veritable
consternation when the renewed mortgage ran its course and still Richards
could not pay. The money from his wife's estate had been used to improve
his farm (Nelson knew how rundown everything was), his new wife was sickly
and "didn't seem to take hold," there had been a disastrous hail-storm—but
why rehearse the calamities? they focussed on one sentence: it was
impossible to pay.
Then Nelson, who had been restfully counting on the money from Richards
for his own debt, bestirred himself, only to find his patient creditor
gone and a woman in his stead who must have her money. He wrote again—sorely
against his will—begging Richards to raise the money somehow.
Richards's answer was in his pocket, for he wore the best black broadcloth
in which he had done honor to the lawyer, yesterday. Richards plainly was
wounded; but he explained in detail to Nelson how he (Nelson) could borrow
money of the banks on his farm and pay Miss Brown. There was no bank where
Richards could borrow money; and he begged Nelson not to drive his wife
and little children from their cherished home. Nelson choked over the
pathos when he read the letter to Tim; but Tim only grunted a wish that HE
had the handling of that feller. And the lawyer was as little moved as
Tim. Miss Brown needed the money, he said. The banks were not disposed to
lend just at present; money, it appeared, was "tight;" so, in the end,
Nelson drove home with the face of Failure staring at him between his
There was only one way. Should he make Richards suffer or suffer himself?
Did a man have to grind other people or be ground himself? Meanwhile they
had reached the town. The stir of a festival was in the air. On every side
bunting streamed in the breeze or was draped across brick or wood. Arches
spanned some of the streets, with inscriptions of welcome on them, and
swarms of colored lanterns glittered against the sunlight almost as gayly
as they would show when they should be lighted at night. Little children
ran about waving flags. Grocery wagons and butchers' wagons trotted by
with a flash of flags dangling from the horses' harness. The streets were
filled with people in their holiday clothes. Everybody smiled. The
shopkeepers answered questions and went out on the sidewalks to direct
strangers. From one window hung a banner inviting visitors to enter and
get a list of hotels and boarding-houses. The crowd was entirely
good-humored and waited outside restaurants, bandying jokes with true
Western philosophy. At times the wagons made a temporary blockade in the
street, but no one grumbled. Bands of music paraded past them, the escort
for visitors of especial consideration. In a window belonging, the sign
above declared, to the Business Men's Association, stood a huge doll clad
in blue satin, on which was painted a device of Neptune sailing down the
Mississippi amid a storm of fireworks. The doll stood in a boat arched
about with lantern-decked hoops, and while Nelson halted, unable to
proceed, he could hear the voluble explanation of the proud citizen who
was interpreting to strangers.
This, Nelson thought, was success. Here were the successful men. The man
who had failed looked at them. Eve roused him by a shrill cry, "There they
are. There's May and the girls. Let me out quick, Uncle!"
He stopped the horse and jumped out himself to help her. It was the first
time since she came under his roof that she had been away from it all
night. He cleared his throat for some advice on behavior. "Mind and be
respectful to Mrs. Arlington. Say yes, ma'am, and no, ma'am——"
He got no further, for Eve gave him a hasty kiss and the crowd brushed her
"All she thinks of is wearing fine clothes and going with the fellers!"
said her brother, disdainfully. "If I had to be born a girl, I wouldn't be
born at all!"
"Maybe if you despise girls so, you'll be born a girl the next time," said
Nelson. "Some folks thinks that's how it happens with us."
"Do YOU, Uncle?" asked Tim, running his mind forebodingly over the
possible business results of such a belief. "S'posing he shouldn't be
willing to sell the pigs to be killed, 'cause they might be some friends
of his!" he reflected, with a rising tide of consternation. Nelson smiled
rather sadly. He said, in another tone: "Tim, I've thought so many things,
that now I've about given up thinking. All I can do is to live along the
best way I know how and help the world move the best I'm able."
"You bet I ain't going to help the world move," said the boy; "I'm
going to look out for myself!"
"Then my training of you has turned out pretty badly, if that's the way
A little shiver passed over the lad's sullen face; he flushed until he
lost his freckles in the red veil and burst out passionately: "Well, I got
eyes, ain't I? I ain't going to be bad, or drink, or steal, or do things
to git put in the penitentiary; but I ain't going to let folks walk all
over me like you do; no, sir!"
Nelson did not answer; in his heart he thought that he had failed with the
children, too; and he relapsed into that dismal study of the face of
He had come to the city to show Tim the sights, and, therefore, though
like a man in a dream, he drove conscientiously about the gay streets,
pointing out whatever he thought might interest the boy, and generally
discovering that Tim had the new information by heart already. All the
while a question pounded itself, like the beat of the heart of an engine,
through the noise and the talk: "Shall I give up Richards or be turned out
When the afternoon sunlight waned he put up the horse at a modest little
stable where farmers were allowed to bring their own provender. The
charges were of the smallest and the place neat and weather-tight, but it
had been a long time before Nelson could be induced to use it, because
there was a higher-priced stable kept by an ex-farmer and member of the
Farmers' Alliance. Only the fact that the keeper of the low-priced stable
was a poor orphan girl, struggling to earn an honest livelihood, had moved
They had supper at a restaurant of Tim's discovery, small, specklessly
tidy, and as unexacting of the pocket as the stable. It was an excellent
supper. But Nelson had no appetite; in spite of an almost childish
capacity for being diverted, he could attend to nothing but the question
always in his ears: "Richards or me—which?"
Until it should be time for the spectacle they walked down the hill, and
watched the crowds gradually blacken every inch of the river-banks.
Already the swarms of lanterns were beginning to bloom out in the dusk.
Strains of music throbbed through the air, adding a poignant touch to the
excitement vibrating in all the faces and voices about them. Even the
stolid Tim felt the contagion. He walked with a jaunty step and assaulted
a tune himself. "I tell you, Uncle," says Tim, "it's nice of these folks
to be getting up all this show, and giving it for nothing!"
"Do you think so?" says Nelson. "You don't love your book as I wish you
did; but I guess you remember about the ancient Romans, and how the great,
rich Romans used to spend enormous sums in games and shows that they let
the people in free to—well, what for? Was it to learn them anything
or to make them happy? Oh, no, it was to keep down the spirit of liberty,
Son, it was to make them content to be slaves! And so it is here. These
merchants and capitalists are only looking out for themselves, trying to
keep labor down and not let it know how oppressed it is, trying to get
people here from everywhere to show what a fine city they have and get
"Well, 'TIS a fine town," Tim burst in, "a boss town! And they ain't
gouging folks a little bit. None of the hotels or the restaurants have put
up their prices one cent. Look what a dandy supper we got for twenty-five
cents! And ain't the boy at Lumley's grocery given me two tickets to set
on the steamboat? There's nothing mean about this town!"
Nelson made no remark; but he thought, for the fiftieth time, that his
farm was too near the city. Tim was picking up all the city boys' false
pride as well as their slang. Unconscious Tim resumed his tune. He knew
that it was "Annie Rooney" if no one else did, and he mangled the notes
with appropriate exhilaration.
Now, the river was as busy as the land, lights swimming hither and
thither; steamboats with ropes of tiny stars bespangling their dark bulk
and a white electric glare in the bow, low boats with lights that sent
wavering spear-heads into the shadow beneath. The bridge was a blazing
barbed fence of fire, and beyond the bridge, at the point of the island,
lay a glittering multitude of lights, a fairy fleet with miniature sails
outlined in flame as if by jewels.
Nelson followed Tim. The crowds, the ceaseless clatter of tongues and jar
of wheels, depressed the man, who hardly knew which way to dodge the
multitudinous perils of the thoroughfare; but Tim used his elbows to such
good purpose that they were out of the levee, on the steamboat, and
settling themselves in two comfortable chairs in a coign of vantage on
deck, that commanded the best obtainable view of the pageant, before
Nelson had gathered his wits together enough to plan a path out of the
"I sized up this place from the shore," Tim sighed complacently, drawing a
long breath of relief; "only jest two chairs, so we won't be crowded."
Obediently, Nelson took his chair. His head sank on his thin chest.
Richards or himself, which should he sacrifice? So the weary old question
droned through his brain. He felt a tap on his shoulder. The man who
roused him was an acquaintance, and he stood smiling in the attitude of a
man about to ask a favor, while the expectant half-smile of the lady on
his arm hinted at the nature of the favor. Would Mr. Forrest be so kind?—there
seemed to be no more seats. Before Mr. Forrest could be kind Tim had
yielded his own chair and was off, wriggling among the crowd in search of
"Smart boy, that youngster of yours," said the man; "he'll make his way in
the world, he can push. Well, Miss Alma, let me make you acquainted with
Mr. Forrest. I know you will be well entertained by him. So, if you'll
excuse me, I'll get back and help my wife wrestle with the kids. They have
been trying to see which will fall overboard first ever since we came on
Under the leeway of this pleasantry he bowed and retired. Nelson turned
with determined politeness to the lady. He was sorry that she had come,
she looking to him a very fine lady indeed, with her black silk gown, her
shining black ornaments, and her bright black eyes. She was not young, but
handsome in Nelson's judgment, although of a haughty bearing. "Maybe she
is the principal of the High School," thought he. "Martin has her for a
boarder, and he said she was very particular about her melons being cold!"
But however formidable a personage, the lady must be entertained.
"I expect you are a resident of the city, ma'am?" said Nelson.
"Yes, I was born here." She smiled, a smile that revealed a little break
in the curve of her cheek, not exactly a dimple, but like one.
"I don't know when I have seen such a fine appearing lady," thought
Nelson. He responded: "Well, I wasn't born here; but I come when I was a
little shaver of ten and stayed till I was eighteen, when I went to Kansas
to help fight the border ruffians. I went to school here in the Warren
"So did I, as long as I went anywhere to school. I had to go to work when
I was twelve."
Nelson's amazement took shape before his courtesy had a chance to control
it. "I didn't suppose you ever did any work in your life!" cried he.
"I guess I haven't done much else. Father died when I was twelve and the
oldest of five, the next only eight—Polly, that came between Eb and
me, died—naturally I had to work. I was a nurse-girl by the day,
first; and I never shall forget how kind the woman was to me. She gave me
so much dinner I never needed to eat any breakfast, which was a help."
"You poor little thing! I'm afraid you went hungry sometimes." Immediately
he marvelled at his familiar speech, but she did not seem to resent it.
"No, not so often," she said, musingly; "but I used often and often to
wish I could carry some of the nice things home to mother and the babies.
After a while she would give me a cookey or a piece of bread and butter
for lunch; that I could take home. I don't suppose I'll often have more
pleasure than I used to have then, seeing little Eb waiting for sister;
and the baby and mother——" She stopped abruptly, to continue,
in an instant, with a kind of laugh; "I am never likely to feel so
important again as I did then, either. It was great to have mother
consulting me, as if I had been grown up. I felt like I had the weight of
the nation on my shoulders, I assure you."
"And have you always worked since? You are not working out now?" with a
glance at her shining gown.
"Oh, no, not for a long time. I learned to be a cook. I was a good cook,
too, if I say it myself. I worked for the Lossings for four years. I am
not a bit ashamed of being a hired girl, for I was as good a one as I knew
how. It was Mrs. Lossing that first lent me books; and Harry Lossing, who
is head of the firm now, got Ebenezer into the works. Ebenezer is
shipping-clerk with a good salary and stock in the concern; and Ralph is
there, learning the trade. I went to the business-college and learned
book-keeping, and afterward I learned typewriting and shorthand. I have
been working for the firm for fourteen years. We have educated the girls.
Milly is married, and Kitty goes to the boarding-school, here."
"Then you haven't been married yourself?"
"What time did I have to think of being married? I had the family on my
mind, and looking after them."
"That was more fortunate for your family than it was for my sex," said
Nelson, gallantly. He accompanied the compliment by a glance of
admiration, extinguished in an eye-flash, for the white radiance that had
bathed the deck suddenly vanished.
"Now you will see a lovely sight," said the woman, deigning no reply to
his tribute; "listen! That is the signal."
The air was shaken with the boom of cannon. Once, twice, thrice. Directly
the boat-whistles took up the roar, making a hideous din. The fleet had
moved. Spouting rockets and Roman candles, which painted above it a
kaleidoscopic archway of fire, welcomed by answering javelins of light and
red and orange and blue and green flares from the shore; the fleet
bombarded the bridge, escorted Neptune in his car, manoeuvred and massed
and charged on the blazing city with a many-hued shower of flame.
After the boats, silently, softly, floated the battalions of lanterns, so
close to the water that they seemed flaming water-lilies, while the dusky
mirror repeated and inverted their splendor.
"They're shingles, you know," explained Nelson's companion, "with lanterns
on them; but aren't they pretty?"
"Yes, they are! I wish you had not told me. It is like a fairy story!"
"Ain't it? But we aren't through; there's more to come. Beautiful
The fireworks, however, were slow of coming. They could see the barge from
which they were to be sent; they could watch the movements of the men in
white oil-cloth who moved in a ghostly fashion about the barge; they could
hear the tap of hammers; but nothing came of it all.
They sat in the darkness, waiting; and there came to Nelson a strange
sensation of being alone and apart from all the breathing world with this
woman. He did not perceive that Tim had quietly returned with a box which
did very well for a seat, and was sitting with his knees against the
chair-rungs. He seemed to be somehow outside of all the tumult and the
spectacle. It was the vainglorying triumph of this world. He was the soul
outside, the soul that had missed its triumph. In his perplexity and
loneliness he felt an overwhelming longing for sympathy; neither did it
strike Nelson, who believed in all sorts of occult influences, that his
confidence in a stranger was unwarranted. He would have told you that his
"psychic instincts" never played him false, although really they were
traitors from their astral cradles to their astral graves.
He said in a hesitating way: "You must excuse me being kinder dull; I've
got some serious business on my mind and I can't help thinking of it."
"Is that so? Well, I know how that is; I have often stayed awake nights
worrying about things. Lest I shouldn't suit and all that—especially
after mother took sick."
"I s'pose you had to give up and nurse her then?"
"That was what Ebenezer and Ralph were for having me do; but mother—my
mother always had so much sense—mother says, 'No, Alma, you've got a
good place and a chance in life, you sha'n't give it up. We'll hire a
girl. I ain't never lonesome except evenings, and then you will be home. I
should jest want to die,' she says, 'if I thought I kept you in a kind of
prison like by my being sick—now, just when you are getting on so
well.' There never WAS a woman like my mother!" Her voice shook a little,
and Nelson asked gently:
"Ain't your mother living now?"
"No, she died last year." She added, after a little silence, "I somehow
can't get used to being lonesome."
"It IS hard," said Nelson. "I lost my wife three years ago."
"That's hard, too."
"My goodness! I guess it is. And it's hardest when trouble comes on a man
and he can't go nowhere for advice."
"Yes, that's so, too. But—have you any children?"
"Yes, ma'am; that is, they ain't my own children. Lizzie and I never had
any; but these two we took and they are most like my own. The girl is
eighteen and the boy rising of fourteen."
"They must be a comfort to you; but they are considerable of a
"Yes, ma'am," he sighed softly to himself. "Sometimes I feel I haven't
done the right way by them, though I've tried. Not that they ain't good
children, for they are—no better anywhere. Tim, he will work from
morning till night, and never need to urge him; and he never gives me a
promise he don't keep it, no ma'am, never did since he was a little mite
of a lad. And he is a kind boy, too, always good to the beasts; and while
he may speak up a little short to his sister, he saves her many a step. He
doesn't take to his studies quite as I would like to have him, but he has
a wonderful head for business. There is splendid stuff in Tim if it could
only be worked right."
While Nelson spoke, Tim was hunching his shoulders forward in the
darkness, listening with the whole of two sharp ears. His face worked in
spite of him, and he gave an inarticulate snort.
"Well," the woman said, "I think that speaks well for Tim. Why should you
be worried about him?"
"I am afraid he is getting to love money and worldly success too well, and
that is what I fear for the girl, too. You see, she is so pretty, and the
idols of the tribe and the market, as Bacon calls them, are strong with
"Yes, that's so," the woman assented vaguely, not at all sure what either
Bacon or his idols might be. "Are the children relations of yours?"
"No, ma'am; it was like this: When I was up in Henry County there came a
photographic artist to the village near us, and pitched his tent and took
tintypes in his wagon. He had his wife and his two children with him. The
poor woman fell ill and died; so we took the two children. My wife was
willing; she was a wonderfully good woman, member of the Methodist church
till she died. I—I am not a church member myself, ma'am; I passed
through that stage of spiritual development a long while ago." He gave a
wistful glance at his companion's dimly outlined profile. "But I never
tried to disturb her faith; it made HER happy."
"Oh, I don't think it is any good fooling with other people's religions,"
said the woman, easily. "It is just like trying to talk folks out of
drinking; nobody knows what is right for anybody else's soul any more than
they do what is good for anybody else's stomach!"
"Yes, ma'am. You put things very clearly."
"I guess it is because you understand so quickly. But you were saying———"
"That's all the story. We took the children, and their father was killed
by the cars the next year, poor man; and so we have done the best we could
ever since by them."
"I should say you had done very well by them."
"No, ma'am; I haven't done very well somehow by anyone, myself included,
though God knows I've tried hard enough!"
Then followed the silence natural after such a confession when the
listener does not know the speaker well enough to parry abasement by
"I am impressed," said Nelson, simply, "to talk with you frankly. It isn't
polite to bother strangers with your troubles, but I am impressed that you
"Oh, no, I won't mind."
It was not extravagant sympathy; but Nelson thought how kind her voice
sounded, and what a musical voice it was. Most people would have called it
He told her—with surprisingly little egotism, as the keen listener
noted—the story of his life; the struggle of his boyhood; his random
self-education; his years in the army (he had criticised his superior
officers, thereby losing the promotion that was coming for bravery in the
field); his marriage (apparently he had married his wife because another
man had jilted her); his wrestle with nature (whose pranks included a
cyclone) on a frontier farm that he eventually lost, having put all his
savings into a "Greenback" newspaper, and being thus swamped with debt;
his final slow success in paying for his Iowa farm; and his purchase of
the new farm, with its resulting disaster. "I've farmed in Kansas," he
said, "in Nebraska, in Dakota, in Iowa. I was willing to go wherever the
land promised. It always seemed like I was going to succeed, but somehow I
never did. The world ain't fixed right for the workers, I take it. A man
who has spent thirty years in hard, honest toil oughtn't to be staring
ruin in the face like I am to-day. They won't let it be so when we have
the single tax and when we farmers send our own men instead of city
lawyers, to the Legislature and halls of Congress. Sometimes I think it's
the world that's wrong and sometimes I think it's me!"
The reply came in crisp and assured accents, which were the strongest
contrast to Nelson's soft, undecided pipe: "Seems to me in this last case
the one most to blame is neither you nor the world at large, but this man
Richards, who is asking YOU to pay for HIS farm. And I notice you don't
seem to consider your creditor in this business. How do you know she don't
need the money? Look at me, for instance; I'm in some financial difficulty
myself. I have a mortgage for two thousand dollars, and that mortgage—for
which good value was given, mind you—falls due this month. I want
the money. I want it bad. I have a chance to put my money into stock at
the factory. I know all about the investment; I haven't worked there all
these years and not know how the business stands. It is a chance to make a
fortune. I ain't likely to ever have another like it; and it won't wait
for me to make up my mind forever, either. Isn't it hard on me, too?"
"Lord knows it is, ma'am," said Nelson, despondently; "it is hard on us
all! Sometimes I don't see the end of it all. A vast social revolution——"
"Social fiddlesticks! I beg your pardon, Mr. Forrest, but it puts me out
of patience to have people expecting to be allowed to make every mortal
kind of fools of themselves and then have 'a social revolution' jump in to
slue off the consequences. Let us understand each other. Who do you
suppose I am?"
"Miss—Miss Almer, ain't it?"
"It's Alma Brown, Mr. Forrest. I saw you coming on the boat and I made Mr.
Martin fetch me over to you. I told him not to say my name, because I
wanted a good plain talk with you. Well, I've had it. Things are just
about where I thought they were, and I told Mr. Lossing so. But I couldn't
be sure. You must have thought me a funny kind of woman to be telling you
all those things about myself."
Nelson, who had changed color half a dozen times in the darkness, sighed
before he said: "No, ma'am; I only thought how good you were to tell me. I
hoped maybe you were impressed to trust me as I was to trust you."
Being so dark Nelson could not see the queer expression on her face as she
slowly shook her head. She was thinking: "If I ever saw a babe in arms
trying to do business! How did HE ever pay for a farm?" She said: "Well, I
did it on purpose; I wanted you to know I wasn't a cruel aristocrat, but a
woman that had worked as hard as yourself. Now, why shouldn't you help me
and yourself instead of helping Richards? You have confidence in me, you
say. Well, show it. I'll give you your mortgage for your mortgage on
Richards's farm. Come, can't you trust Richards to me? You think it over."
The hiss of a rocket hurled her words into space. The fireworks had begun.
Miss Brown looked at them and watched Nelson at the same time. As a good
business woman who was also a good citizen, having subscribed five dollars
to the carnival, she did not propose to lose the worth of her money;
neither did she intend to lose a chance to do business. Perhaps there was
an obscurer and more complex motive lurking in some stray corner of that
queer garret, a woman's mind. Such motives—aimless softenings of the
heart, unprofitable diversions of the fancy—will seep unconsciously
through the toughest business principles of woman.
She was puzzled by the look of exaltation on Nelson's features, illumined
as they were by the uncanny light. If the fool man had not forgotten all
his troubles just to see a few fireworks! No, he was not that kind of a
fool; maybe—and she almost laughed aloud in her pleasure over her
own insight—maybe it all made him think of the war, where he had
been so brave. "He was a regular hero in the war," Miss Brown concluded,
"and he certainly is a perfect gentleman; what a pity he hasn't got any
She had guessed aright, although she had not guessed deep enough in regard
to Nelson. He watched the great wheels of light, he watched the river
aflame with Greek fire, then, with a shiver, he watched the bombs bursting
into myriads of flowers, into fizzing snakes, into fields of burning gold,
into showers of jewels that made the night splendid for a second and
faded. They were not fireworks to him; they were a magical phantasmagoria
that renewed the incoherent and violent emotions of his youth; again he
was in the chaos of the battle, or he was dreaming by his camp-fire, or he
was pacing his lonely round on guard. His heart leaped again with the old
glow, the wonderful, beautiful worship of Liberty that can do no wrong. He
seemed to hear a thousand voices chanting:
"In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, As He died to
make men holy, let us die to make men free!"
His turbid musings cleared—or they seemed to him to clear—under
the strong reaction of his imagination and his memories. It was all over,
the dream and the glory thereof. The splendid young soldier was an
elderly, ruined man. But one thing was left: he could be true to his flag.
"A poor soldier, but enlisted for the war," says Nelson, squaring his
shoulders, with a lump in his throat and his eyes brimming. "I know by the
way it hurts me to think of refusing her that it's a temptation to
wrong-doing. No, I can't save myself by sacrificing a brother soldier for
humanity. She is just as kind as she can be, but women don't understand
business; she wouldn't make allowance for Richards."
He felt a hand on his shoulder; it was Martin apologizing for hurrying
Miss Brown; but the baby was fretting and——
"I'm sorry—yes—well, I wish you didn't have to go!" Nelson
began; but a hoarse treble rose from under his elbows: "Say, Mr. Martin,
Uncle and me can take Miss Brown home."
"If you will allow me the pleasure," said Nelson, with the touch of
courtliness that showed through his homespun ways.
"Well, I WOULD like to see the hundred bombs bursting at once and Vulcan
at his forge!" said Miss Brown.
Thus the matter arranged itself. Tim waited with the lady while Nelson
went for the horse, nor was it until afterward that Miss Brown wondered
why the lad did not go instead of the man. But Tim had his own reasons. No
sooner was Nelson out of earshot than he began: "Say, Miss Brown, I can
tell you something."
"That Richards is no good; but you can't get Uncle to see it. At least it
will take time. If you'll help me we can get him round in time. Won't you
please not sell us out for six months and give me a show? I'll see you get
your interest and your money, too."
"You?" Miss Brown involuntarily took a business attitude, with her arms
akimbo, and eyed the boy.
"Yes, ma'am, me. I ain't so very old, but I know all about the business. I
got all the figures down—how much we raise and what we got last
year. I can fetch them to you so you can see. He is a good farmer, and he
will catch on to the melons pretty quick. We'll do better next year, and
I'll try to keep him from belonging to things and spending money; and if
he won't lend to anybody or start in raising a new kind of crop just when
we get the melons going, he will make money sure. He is awful good and
honest. All the trouble with him is he needs somebody to take care of him.
If Aunt Lizzie had been alive he never would have lent that dead-beat
Richards that money. He ought to get married."
Miss Brown did not feel called on to say anything. Tim continued in a
judicial way: "He is awful good and kind, always gets up in the morning to
make the fire if I have got something else to do; and he'd think
everything his wife did was the best in the world; and if he had somebody
to take care of him he'd make money. I don't suppose YOU would think of
it?" This last in an insinuating tone, with evident anxiety.
"Well, I never!" said Miss Brown.
Whether she was more offended or amused she couldn't tell; and she stood
staring at him by the electric light. To her amazement the hard little
face began to twitch. "I didn't mean to mad you," Tim grunted, with a
quiver in his rough voice. "I've been listening to every word you said,
and I thought you were so sensible you'd talk over things without
nonsense. Of course I knew he'd have to come and see you Saturday nights,
and take you buggy riding, and take you to the theatre, and all such
things—first. But I thought we could sorter fix it up between
ourselves. I've taken care of him ever since Aunt Lizzie died, and I did
my best he shouldn't lend that money, but I couldn't help it; and I did
keep him from marrying a widow woman with eight children, who kept telling
him how much her poor fatherless children needed a man; and I never did
see anybody I was willing—before—and it's—it's so
lonesome without Aunt Lizzie!" He choked and frowned. Poor Tim, who had
sold so many melons to women and seen so much of back doors and kitchen
humors that he held the sex very cheap, he did not realize how hard he
would find it to talk of the one woman who had been kind to him! He turned
red with shame over his own weakness.
"You poor little chap!" cried Miss Brown; "you poor little sharp, innocent
chap!" The hand she laid on his shoulder patted it as she went on: "Never
mind, if I can't marry your uncle, I can help you take care of him. You're
a real nice boy, and I'm not mad; don't you think it. There's your uncle
Nelson found her so gentle that he began to have qualms lest his carefully
prepared speech should hurt her feelings. But there was no help for it
now. "I have thought over your kind offer to me, ma'am," said he, humbly,
"and I got a proposition to make to you. It is your honest due to have
your farm, yes, ma'am. Well, I know a man would like to buy it; I'll sell
it to him, and pay you your money."
"But that wasn't my proposal."
"I know it, ma'am. I honor you for your kindness; but I can't risk what—what
might be another person's idea of duty about Richards. Our consciences
ain't all equally enlightened, you know."
Miss Brown did not answer a word.
They drove along the streets where the lanterns were fading. Tim grew
uneasy, she was silent so long. On the brow of the hill she indicated a
side street and told them to stop the horse before a little brown house.
One of the windows was a dim square of red.
"It isn't quite so lonesome coming home to a light," said Miss Brown.
As Nelson cramped the wheel to jump out to help her from the vehicle, the
light from the electric arc fell full on his handsome face and showed her
the look of compassion and admiration, there.
"Wait one moment," she said, detaining him with one firm hand. "I've got
something to say to you. Let Richards go for the present; all I ask of you
about him is that you will do nothing until we can find out if he is so
bad off. But, Mr. Forrest, I can do better for you about that mortgage.
Mr. Lossing will take it for three years for a relative of his and pay me
the money. I told him the story."
"And YOU will get the money all right?"
"Just the same. I was only trying to help you a little by the other way,
and I failed. Never mind."
"I can't tell you how you make me feel," said Nelson.
"Please let him bring you some melons to-morrow and make a stagger at it,
though," said Tim.
"Can I?" Nelson's eyes shone.
"If you want to," said Miss Brown. She laughed; but in a moment she
All the way home Nelson saw the same face of Failure between the old
mare's white ears; but its grim lineaments were softened by a smile, a
smile like Miss Brown's.