His Three Trials by Kate Gannett Wells
AS CARPENTER AND CHEMIST.
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,
"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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
"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
"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."
AS OFFICE BOY.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,'" 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
"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.