His Three Trials by Kate Gannett Wells



For three years Hal had been trying to decide what should be his business in life; and now at the age of fifteen, and in his last school year, he was as far as ever from any fixed plan. A profession, he argued, required too much study; a trade meant ten hours a day of hard labor; he was too old for an office-boy; and he had no capital to put into business. Well, if he could only even find out now for what he was fitted, it would save time in the end.

"How do people ever sit still and think!" he exclaimed aloud. "I'll go over and consult Ned."

Ned was two years his senior. He had started in life with the idea of being a doctor, and had kept to it. Consequently he had little sympathy with Hal's vagaries, and often chided him for his lack of definite purpose. But as Hal's well-known war-whoop sounded under the window, he came out on his steps.

"What's up?" he asked. "You look as black as a thunder cloud."

"Father says I've got to make up my mind what to do, and that if I don't he'll do it for me," answered Hal laconically, "and that might not suit, you know."

"I told you it would come to that if you did not look sharp," answered Ned. "Take my advice now. A boy like you better begin with a trade and work up to be boss mechanic; then when you are rich, buy a library and turn scholar. There's a swell carpenter's school just started down at the Institute, box and tools included in the tuition, so you'll have some property at the end of the term, if you haven't ideas."

"I had thought of being a physicist, or chemist," replied Hal; "but carpentering is really more in my line; might try it at least. Suppose I talk it over at home."

"You better," said Ned, "than keep me out here bareheaded; good-by!"

"Much obliged and good-by," called out Hal, as he turned homewards.

It did not take long to obtain his parents' consent, as they hoped they saw in this definite wish an earnest of practical ability which would help them and him to decide the question of what he had better do. He had owned one or two carpenter's chests and had broken several tools, so that he knew something about their use which would count in the beginning.

Hal's pride suffered, however, when at the Institute he had to learn how to strike square blows, and to practise the wrist, elbow and shoulder movement, in striking with light tools. Then, too, he had to submit to be taught how to drive nails just so many inches apart, exactly as if he had never hammered before. He was as indignant, also, at being told to neither split nor cut towards himself, as if he had never hurt his jacket.

At last he was permitted to begin to make a picture frame. Its four sides had to be glued and dovetailed together, and the fitting required careful measurements. As Hal was too anxious to go ahead to attend to details, it is not surprising that the sides would not meet. The more he planed and chiselled, the worse it grew, till in despair he took it home for kindling wood.

Next he started on a bevelled-edge frame, and still despising exact measurements, he made the inner curve too deep, thus injuring the effect of his design.

Weary of mathematical carpentering, he turned to the ordinary, rough work of making a miniature house frame. His previous mistakes had helped him so much that here he soon went ahead of the other boys; but when he reached the staircase he began to fail. The steps were not alike in depth, nor were they placed at the right angles; he used up four blocks of wood, succeeding on the fifth, though the stairs were still rather steep.

His frame completed, he discovered that his acquaintances at the Institute had advanced to the turning-lathe. Too vexed and proud to go on and take up what they were leaving, he went into the moulding room. All went well at first; the frame was evenly placed, put together and inserted in the sand-box; but when he came back two days later and lifted the upper half, the sand all fell out and spoilt his mould; for he had paid very little attention to getting it into the completely proper condition for receiving an impression.

This final failure at the Institute convinced him that nature had not fitted him for a carpenter, which knowledge he bore calmly; for, as he said, it was a saving of time to find out what he could not be. In his need, he turned again to Ned, whom he had ignored during this two months at the Institute. Ned looked as if he had expected him, but could only learn that "carpentering had gone up," and that Hal would now like to try his first idea and enter the chemical business, provided that Ned would become a partner and put in some stock.

Ned demurred at first, but finally concluded it might be helping himself, as a doctor, especially as the stock he had on hand and the use of his laundry, could be considered an offset for Hal's capital.

"My laundry would do just as well," said Hal; "you ought to put in money."

"Oh, you had better take my laundry," replied Ned. "My mother does not object to smells, for she thinks chemistry is going to revolutionize perfumery. I've got some scales and a spirit-lamp, and we can get bottles and tumblers enough."

"Yes, but you know we must have a round-bottomed receiver, a measuring glass, crucibles, retorts and test-tubes."

"As you seem to know all about it," replied Ned carelessly, "you buy them and come here to-morrow." Hal assented and they separated to meet the next afternoon, when they began with a manual of chemistry as their guide. They first distilled water; and then they analyzed it by boiling it.

But all this was too safe, they wished to venture upon something dangerous; so they put three drops of nitric acid on a copper cent and wrote out the result thus:

(1).  1 copper cent.
3 drops Nitric acid.

Result: A greenish liquid—nitrate of copper.

This formula was so pleasing that they continued to note down their work somewhat as follows:

(2).  1 Shell.
6 drops nitric acid.

Result: Shell dissolved.

(3).  Solution muriate of lime.
"Solution Carbonate of potassium.

Result: Solid.

From these simple but important discoveries they proceeded to move difficult analyses and syntheses. They made ammonia water; they combined weights; they experimented in acids, bases and salts; they produced explosions; they almost set the house on fire with their experiments in hydrogen; they tested iodine and chlorine.

The greatest hindrance to their advancement was the amount of care required. They had burnt holes in their clothes; the laundry had became an inconvenient refuge for the cats and dogs of the house; the younger children could no longer play there, but broken glass should injure them; and the maids dreaded entering a place where unlooked-for events were always happening.

A crisis was at last developed by the gift of a friend who sent them some lumps of "Sulphuret Potass" which the boys heated, when a strange and still stranger odor arose. Absorbed in their experiments, they heard neither approaching footsteps nor voices; the door was even opened, but quickly shut. At last Ned's mother courageously rushed up to them holding her handkerchief tight over her face, and insisted with unmistakable gestures upon their leaving the laundry. The odor had penetrated every nook and corner of the house, a committee meeting had vanished, and windows were all thrown open.

"This is an end to your chemistry," she declared in injured tones; "you have discovered nothing except how to make yourselves sick, have injured your coats and trousers, and I won't have any more of it, do you understand?"

"Yes," said both boys meekly. Perhaps they were rather glad than otherwise of any expression of authority which could plausibly end what they were secretly longing to give up. As partners they had been faithful to each other's interests; but did it pay to give up base-ball, week after week, just to carry out an idea! Hal's money was gone, and both boys had done a large amount of "trading" of books and curiosities for some other boys' half-used chemical stock. Ned was sure he knew enough to aid him in his profession; and Hal valued failure as an exponent in indicating, negatively, his future career.

"Glad of it;" Ned ventured to assert at last when the family had dispersed and windows were closed. "We must clean up, and we might as well sell out the whole concern, take account of stock, and divide the profits."

"Don't flatter yourself," replied Hal, "that there'll be much profit. If there is I ought to have two thirds of it as I put in the most capital."

"Yes, as far as cash goes, but brains count too, and I think you will admit that the ideas have been furnished by me chiefly; besides my trousers were burned more than yours. But I don't care—divide things as you like. I am agreed."



When all was definitely settled between Ned and himself, and the assets of the firm disposed of, Hal felt, for some days, as if he had been to a funeral. He wandered around the house disconsolately, and then, suddenly, a new influence crossed his path which promised tangible and immediate rewards in other fields of labor. Money prizes were offered to graduates of the High Schools for the best two essays which should be written, one on the Colonial Policy towards Quakers; the other on the Value of Republican Government. The money was not considerable, but the work looked toward political journalism, perhaps on to a career like Motley's or Bancroft's. Hal had always been an attentive lounger around newspaper offices on election nights, and in the Representatives Hall of the State House when any interesting bill was being debated. This he considered as proof of his love of history; history was the one study, too, in which he invariably gained the highest marks at school. These "indications" greatly encouraged him now. He felt impelled to write the essays, even if they should be failures, because he was really interested in the subjects and had often talked with his father about them both.

The closing day of school soon came. The boys marched, sang, received their diplomas and then threw up their hats, when free and in the street. Very early the next morning Hal visited three libraries and took down the titles of innumerable books and sketched two plans for he intended, as I have before said, to write two essays, each in different style thus to increase his chance of success. He selected "Nisus Sum" and "America," as signatures. He furnished himself with a quart bottle of ink, a box of pens, two dozens of lead pencils and two reams of paper, and greatly enjoyed these preliminaries.

Thus equipped, he began with no depressing circumstances, except his mother's words, that if by the first of September he had not decided what he should like to do, she should decide for him. He went out of town, as usual, in the hot weeks; he fished, and climbed hills, and got lost, as usual; but through it all, he thought and read of the Colonial Policy, and wondered whether he should have fallen in love with a Quaker girl, and whether the troubles between England and Ireland arose from a need of Republican government. In spite of his ramblings, and in spite of some discouraged moods, some unexamined idea always urged him on, and the result was that in two months he had prepared rough sketches of his work, and his parents were, this time, convinced of his earnestness.

Coming home the very evening of the first day of September, the day and the hour he had dreaded as the last of his liberty, because as he had not made up his mind, it was to be made up for him, he saw two men lifting his father out of a carriage. He stopped and looked at them. He had no power to speak or help. He saw them carry his father up-stairs and lay him on the bed. Then, at a word from his mother, he went for a doctor. He never could recall the manner of his errand, but the physician came; at last some one said to him:

"It is a slight shock of paralysis. If another does not follow, he will soon get well." This was like saying to him, "If your father does not die, he'll live."

How long was he to wait for that knowledge! An hour would be a year and a year would be a century. He helped in all things as he was told to do; but his fingers were like thumbs and his feet like clubs. He felt a singular and confusing sense of identity with his father, as though the paralysis had included him.

By and by, the room grew quiet. He and his mother were left alone; he would have given anything if he had dared to speak or touch her. Nothing was near him. Had he ever been a boy? Was there a prize essay? Were there only three people in the world—his father, his mother and himself?

Later came his uncle. His mother then called him by name for the first time in those terrible hours, and bade him bid his father good-night. As he went mechanically to do so, his father seemed to keep Hal's hand in his own numb fingers, and to look most imploringly, the mother's hand on to Harry's. The mother, as the hands met, said, "Hal will take care of me, dear," and Hal exclaimed, "I will." Then they knew they were right in their interpretation as the sick face brightened and the eyelids slowly closed in weariness.

Hal went up-stairs to his own room. The thinking he did that night made a man of him. He was sure his father would live, but also that his salary would cease, and that he himself must help to support the family. "And so help me God, I'll do it," said he, "but I'll win the prizes too." The growing strength of his purpose soon overcame him and he fell asleep to dream of Olympic games and wreaths of victory.

When the physician's visit was over the next day, the world did not look quite so dark. Uncle Joe was to live with them awhile, and the father was conscious and quiet.

"Good-by, mother," said Hal.

"Good-by," she answered.

The front door closed, and Hal went down town to the office of Newton & Bryce, old friends of his father's. He walked up to the senior partner, and said, very like a mechanical toy unwinding:

"My father has had a stroke of paralysis. He can't do anything for months. I heard you say once that if you could get an office-boy who could keep accounts you would make it worth while for him to stay with you. I can."

"Stop, stop," said Mr. Bryce. "I had just heard of your father's illness and am very sorry. But you talk so fast I don't understand you. What is it you want? Who sent you?"

"No one. I suppose I did rattle on, but I had been saying over to myself on the way down what I meant to say to you, like points in an essay."

"Points in an essay! The boy is a daft one."

"I'm all right, sir, or will be, if you take me. How much wages can you pay?"

The senior partner smiled. "Three dollars a week at first, and more by and by—is that what you want?"

"I need my evenings, sir," said Hal. "I forgot to mention that."

"You can have them—but why?" As Hal made no reply, Mr. Bryce added kindly: "Never mind. The boy I have goes to-night. I was to tell him to-day whether I would take his brother, or make an arrangement with the janitor. I have no opinion of office-boys I'll confess to you, young sir. But for your father's sake, I am going to try you. Be here to-morrow at eight o'clock, put the office in order, get the mail, and have my table ready for me at half-past eight."

"Much obliged, thank you. For my father's sake, I'll furnish you with an opinion of office-boys presently," said Hal. He started and got as far as the door, when he turned back. "I really do thank you," said he.

"That's a new sort of boy, anyway—one consolation," said Mr. Bryce. "But it will cost something to teach him. Bother the change!"

"Mother," said Hal on reaching home, "I've been and gone and done it. I am an office-boy at three dollars a week now; more in prospect."

"You blessed child!" she exclaimed; and then she and Hal had a good old-fashioned cry together which saved much talking, explanation, and advice.

Hal's work was promptly done the next morning. Mr. Bryce's table was ready at half-past eight, in ideal order. Yet though he went to the bank, wrote, and added figures, he still had much idle time on his hands. Therefore, the following day, when there was really nothing more for him to do, he felt at liberty to seat himself at a table and begin to write. Mr. Bryce, noticing him thus occupied, walked leisurely by and beheld out of the corner of his eye two rolls of manuscript; but if the boy could be silent, so could his master.

Still the master's curiosity was excited. This "new kind of office-boy" piqued his interest. "I'll call him off, and see how he'll take it," reasoned Mr. Bryce; and he whistled. Hal came at once, alert, attentive, and did the errands assigned. Mr. Bryce could not detect any sign of a preoccupied mind.

Thus passed the week. Hal bore home his first earnings, Saturday night, and laid the bills on his father's bed with a deeper and more pleasurable feeling of having done something worth doing than he had ever felt or dreamt of before. Yet if any one had spoken a word of appreciation to him, he could not have borne it.

That first week was the type of weeks to come. His office-work was not heavy, though he was more and more trusted. At times he had to bite his lips, as his brain came to a sudden stop in its work when the whistle sounded for him in the midst of his own personal copying or reading. But as the evenings grew longer and his father better, he had more time at home to work on his essays. He had however, decided to give up trying for two prizes, and he also had become very doubtful about the certainty of receiving even one; as his ideal of an essay grew and perfected itself, and as he realized how much hard work was required in both reading and reflection and even in any truly logical arrangement of his ideas. He had made several rough drafts of his essay. He had wholly rewritten it twice. But the hard work of form, development and finish remained. Still when he considered his previous failures as carpenter and as chemist, he was determined to be patient with himself and try his utmost with this plan. In this painstaking mood the essay was completed. He sent it in on the last hour of the last day assigned.



Now that Hal had sent in his essay he felt weary, for the excitement of composition and of haste had ceased; and he tormented himself, too, by recalling sentence after sentence which he wished he could remodel. Also memory brought back his past failures; he had not succeeded as chemist or carpenter and all the boys knew it. What would they say when his name would be posted on the bulletin, down town, as a Rejected Essayist? Presently too, it was announced that the bestowal of the Old South Prizes must be deferred as an unexpectedly large number of essays had been presented! Hal whistled, shrugged his shoulders, refused to endure the suspense, cast aside his interest in the matter, and resolved to settle down into an office-boy.

He cleaned the office more vigorously than ever, and as he began a catalogue of his employer's library, there arose the faint glimpse of a new hope, in the thought that his present pursuit might eventuate in his being a lawyer. But with it there came a hot flush of shame as he remembered his many visions of the future; and to get rid of them he would run to the bank on an errand with such fury that his haste suggested a panic. But in spite of all his changes of intention he was growing manly; making character, developing mental fibre and muscle; his mother trusted him with her hopes and fears, and his father talked to him with a respect that was very consoling to his wounded spirit. Also the boys ceased to come for him in the evening; if they met him on the street, they called him "a dig" and asked him what new hobby made him so serious.

Some months had thus passed, when one day, Hal, who had almost forgotten his history in his law, thought Mr. Bryce's whistle for him had a peculiar sound. "Get your hat," said the lawyer, "and follow me. I want you to go to the Court House."

Hal's active imagination instantly saw himself seated there as Judge. Yes, law was his vocation. But when there, he was almost pushed into a corner, while Mr. Bryce pointed him out to the clerk of the court. This rather frightened Hal, but he felt reassured at the command to stay where he was until the clerk should bid him go for Mr. Bryce, for the latter could not afford to spend the morning in court waiting for his case to come up.

It was a new world to Hal and his astonishment and interest was increased as he recognized an old playmate in the one who was being examined. An officer had removed the boy's jacket and was calling the attention of the Judge to long, deep welts on the boy's back, the result of lashes inflicted by his father, because his son earned but little. The contents of a dirty paper-bag were also exhibited, as being the only dinner allowed the boy, who, with his mouldy crust, walked three miles each day to the shop where he worked. That very morning he had been so dull, that some one, suspecting the truth, had told "the boss" of his condition, and through an officer of the "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children," his case had been brought into court.

Poor Hal! perhaps he was born to be a philanthropist after all. He resolved to interest himself in the S. P. C. C. Visions of "cases" hunted out and brought before the officers, thrilled his soul. How he ached for this particular boy! and how he contrived to make that boy feel he was there and to tuck some lozenges into his hand, as his former companion passed by him under the kind guardianship of the Secretary of the Society; and then the clerk ordered him to find Mr. Bryce.

The next day, when he was summoned to Mr. Bryce's inner office, from dreams of himself as the eminent legal adviser and prosecutor for the S. P. C. C., that gentleman asked him rather quizzically how he liked "court business." Hal replied that he did not know surely, but guessed he might come to prefer it to office work and cataloguing.

"Well," said Mr. Bryce, "I am rather sorry to hear that, for I had thought of raising your wages. However, I am doubtful about employing essayists as office-boys. It might work badly."

"Has it, sir?" he asked; then in an embarrassed manner, "I am not certain what you mean."

The lawyer made no reply, and Hal turned away crestfallen.

"O come back here, boy," called out Mr. Bryce then. "And by the way, can you tell me who is Nisus Sum?"

Harry wriggled with conflicting sensations until he could scarcely stand. At last he burst out: "What is that to you?"

"O not much!" replied Mr. Bryce, with an amused look, "only I hold an essay to return to him."

Hal grew so white that his employer pitied him, and forebore.

"You did not know I was chairman of the committee on the Old South Prizes, did you?" he added in a different tone.

"No, sir, I did not;" exclaimed Hal, flushing to his very temples.

"And I did not know that you were 'Nisus Sum' until ten minutes ago."

"Well, this may be fun to you, sir, but it isn't to me," said Hal, almost with a sob.

"Look here, my boy, listen. You knew Mr. Akers died; well, he was one of the judges, and I was asked to take his place, and I consented, because I saw that I had an office-boy who would attend to his work."

Hal put his hand out vaguely towards the table as if to lean on it for support. Mr. Bryce's tone involuntarily softened as he continued: "I have been comparing the estimates sent in by the other judges, and I see that we agree that the first prize for 'Colonial Policy' is taken by 'Nisus Sum.'"

"'Nisus Sum,'" said the boy dreamily, "first prize." Then suddenly, as if beside himself, he twirled Mr. Bryce's chair round and round with the poor man in it until the lawyer had to exert his strength to stop him.

"That'll do," exclaimed he. "Don't get frantic, but it was really very risky for you to try to do my work and yours too. There was danger of doing neither satisfactorily."

"Did I neglect anything, sir? you know I didn't. I began to read up for the essay before father was taken sick, and then when that came, I was bound I would do something at last."

"Well, well, you succeeded, didn't you? Go home now and tell them; only, remember this," and Mr. Bryce grew stern, "don't think because you have succeeded now that you always are to win. Stick to your daily work. Be a good clerk first, that you may be a good historian later."

"Trust me," said Hal gravely, who felt the awe of success stealing over him. He felt queer, yet happy and humble; and bowing low, he left the room. It took but a few moments for him to rush home; and if his father had not gained in strength he certainly would have suffered, for Hal bounded into the room, upsetting the chairs and a table and spinning his mother round in circles somewhat as he had treated Mr. Bryce, he exclaimed:

"I have won! I have won! first prize! Now you can be sick, father, as long as you please."

Then followed explanation and a quiet talk which made Harry always look back upon that evening as the happiest one of his boyhood.

It only remains to add that he was as good as his word; he was an able clerk first, and an historian only as a middle-aged man.