The Face Of Failure
From: Stories Of A Western Town
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 of clothes."
"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 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 firm mouth.
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 bargaining world.
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 horses' ears.
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
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
"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 myself?"
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 him.
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 their money."
"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 another place.
"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 deck!"
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
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 Street school-house."
"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
"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
"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
"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 the young."
"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
"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
"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 won't mind."
"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 rather sharp.
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
"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 sense!"
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
"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
"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 now."
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.
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