CHAPTER XI

By Mark Twain
From American Claimant (1892).


During the first few days he kept the fact diligently before his mind that he was in a land where there was "work and bread for all." In fact, for convenience' sake he fitted it to a little tune and hummed it to himself; but as time wore on the fact itself began to take on a doubtful look, and next the tune got fatigued and presently ran down and stopped. retreat.

His first effort was to get an upper clerkship in one of the departments, where his Oxford education could come into play and do him service. But he stood no chance whatever. There, competency was no recommendation; political backing, without competency, was worth six of it. He was glaringly English, and that was necessarily against him in the political centre of a nation where both parties prayed for the Irish cause on the house-top and blasphemed it in the cellar. By his dress he was a cowboy; that won him respect--when his back was not turned--but it couldn't get a clerkship for him. But he had said, in a rash moment, that he would wear those clothes till the owner or the owner's friends caught sight of them and asked for that money, and his conscience would not let him retire from that engagement now.

At the end of a week things were beginning to wear rather a startling look. He had hunted everywhere for work, descending gradually the scale of quality, until apparently he had sued for all the various kinds df work a man without a special calling might hope to be able to do, except ditching and the other coarse manual sorts-and had got neither work nor the promise of it.

He was mechanically turning over the leaves of his diary, meanwhile, and now his eye fell upon the first record made after he was burnt out:

"I myself did not doubt my stamina before, nobody could doubt it now, if they could see how I am housed, and realise that I feel absolutely no disgust with these quarters, but am as serenely content with them as any dog would be in a similar kennel. Terms, twenty-five dollars a week. I said I would start at the bottom. I have kept my word."

A shudder went quaking through him, and he exclaimed:

"What have I been thinking of! This the bottom! Mooning along a whole week, and these terrific expenses climbing and climbing all the time! I must end this folly straightway."

He settled up at once and went forth to find less sumptuous lodgings. He had to wander far and seek with diligence, but he succeeded. They made him pay in advance--four dollars and a half; this secured both bed and food for a week. The good-natured, hardworked landlady took him up three flights of narrow, uncarpeted stairs and delivered him into his room. There were two double-bedsteads in it, and one single one. He would be allowed to sleep alone in one of the double beds until some new boarder should come, but he wouldn't be charged extra.

So he would presently be required to sleep with some stranger! The thought of it made him sick. Mrs. Marsh, the landlady, was very friendly and hoped he would like her house-they all liked it, she said.

"And they're a very nice set of boys. They carry on a good deal, but that's their fun. You see, this room opens right into this back one, and sometimes they're all in one and sometimes in the other; and hot nights they all sleep on the roof when it don't rain. They get out there the minute it's hot enough. The season's so early that they've already had a night or two up there. If you'd like to go up and pick out a place, you can. You'll find chalk in the side of the chimney where there's a brick wanting. You just take the chalk and--but of course you've done it before."

"Oh, no, I haven't."

"Why, of course you haven't-what am I thinking of? Plenty of room on the Plains without chalking, I'll be bound. Well, you just chalk out a place the size of a blanket anywhere on the tin that ain't already marked off, you know, and that's your property. You and your bed-mate take turn- about carrying up the blanket and pillows and fetching them down again; or one carries them up and the other fetches them down, you fix it the way you like, you know. You'll like the boys, they're everlasting sociable--except the printer. He's the one that sleeps in that single bed-the strangest creature; why, I don't believe you could get that man to sleep with another man, not if the house was afire. Mind you, I'm not just talking, I know. The boys tried him, to see. They took his bed out one night, and so when he got home about three in the morning--he was on a morning paper then, but he's on an evening one now--there wasn't any place for him but with the iron-moulder; and if you'll believe me, he just set up the rest of the night--he did, honest. They say he's cracked, but it ain't so, he's English--they're awful particular. You won't mind my saying that. You--you're English?"

"Yes."

"I thought so. I could tell it by the way you mispronounce the words that's got a's in them, you know; such as saying loff when you mean laff --but you'll get over that. He's a right down good fellow, and a little sociable with the photographer's boy and the caulker and the blacksmith that work in the navy yard, but not so much with the others. The fact is, though it's private, and the others don't know it, he's a kind of an aristocrat, his father being a doctor, and you know what style that is-- in England, I mean, because in this country a doctor ain't so very much, even if he's that. But over there of course it's different. So this chap had a falling out with his father, and was pretty high strung, and just cut for this country, and the first he knew he had to get to work or starve. Well, he'd been to college, you see, and so he judged he was all right--did you say anything?"

"No--I only sighed."

"And there's where he was mistaken. Why, he mighty near starved. And I reckon he would have starved sure enough, if some jour' printer or other hadn't took pity on him and got him a place as apprentice. So he learnt the trade, and then he was all right--but it was a close call. Once he thought he had got to haul in his pride and holler for his father and-- why, you're sighing again. Is anything the matter with you?--does my clatter--"

"Oh, dear--no. Pray go on--I like it."

"Yes, you see, he's been over here ten years; he's twenty-eight, now, and he ain't pretty well satisfied in his mind, because he can't get reconciled to being a mechanic and associating with mechanics, he being, as he says to me, a gentleman, which is a pretty plain letting-on that the boys ain't, but of course I know enough not to let that cat out of the bag."

"Why-would there be any harm in it?"

"Harm in it? They'd lick him, wouldn't they? Wouldn't you? Of course you would. Don't you ever let a man say you ain't a gentleman in this country. But laws, what am I thinking about? I reckon a body would think twice before he said a cowboy wasn't a gentleman."

A trim, active, slender and very pretty girl of about eighteen walked into the room now, in the most satisfied and unembarrassed way. She was cheaply but smartly and gracefully dressed, and the mother's quick glance at the stranger's face as he rose, was of the kind which inquires what effect has been produced, and expects to find indications of surprise and admiration.

"This is my daughter Hattie--we call her Puss. It's the new boarder, Puss." This without rising.

The young Englishman made the awkward bow common to his nationality and time of life in circumstances of delicacy and difficulty, and these were of that sort; for, being taken by surprise, his natural, lifelong self sprang to the front, and that self of course would not know just how to act when introduced to a chambermaid, or to the heiress of a mechanics' boarding house. His other self--the self which recognized the equality of all men--would have managed the thing better, if it hadn't been caught off guard and robbed of its chance. The young girl paid no attention to the bow, but put out her hand frankly and gave the stranger a friendly shake and said:

"How do you do?"

Then she marched to the one washstand in the room, tilted her head this way and that before the wreck of a cheap mirror that hung above it, dampened her fingers with her tongue, perfected the circle of a little lock of hair that was pasted against her forehead, then began to busy herself with the slops.

"Well, I must be going--it's getting towards supper time. Make yourself at home, Mr. Tracy, you'll hear the bell when it's ready."

The landlady took her tranquil departure, without commanding either of the young people to vacate the room. The young man wondered a little that a mother who seemed so honest and respectable should be so thoughtless, and was reaching for his hat, intending to disembarrass the girl of his presence; but she said:

"Where are you going?"

"Well--nowhere in particular, but as I am only in the way here--"

"Why, who said you were in the way? Sit down--I'll move you when you are in the way."

She was making the beds, now. He sat down and watched her deft and diligent performance.

"What gave you that notion? Do you reckon I need a whole room just to make up a bed or two in?"

"Well no, it wasn't that, exactly. We are away up here in an empty house, and your mother being gone--"

The girl interrupted him with an amused laugh, and said:

"Nobody to protect me? Bless you, I don't need it. I'm not afraid. I might be if I was alone, because I do hate ghosts, and I don't deny it. Not that I believe in them, for I don't. I'm only just afraid of them."

"How can you be afraid of them if you don't believe in them?"

"Oh, I don't know the how of it--that's too many for me; I only know it's so. It's the same with Maggie Lee."

"Who is that?"

"One of the boarders; young lady that works in the factry."

"She works in a factory?"

"Yes. Shoe factory."

"In a shoe factory; and you call her a young lady?"

"Why, she's only twenty-two; what should you call her?"

"I wasn't thinking of her age, I was thinking of the title. The fact is, I came away from England to get away from artificial forms--for artificial forms suit artificial people only--and here you've got them too. I'm sorry. I hoped you had only men and women; everybody equal; no differences in rank."

The girl stopped with a pillow in her teeth and the case spread open below it, contemplating him from under her brows with a slightly puzzled expression. She released the pillow and said:

"Why, they are all equal. Where's any difference in rank?"

"If you call a factory girl a young lady, what do you call the President's wife?"

"Call her an old one."

"Oh, you make age the only distinction?"

"There ain't any other to make as far as I can see."

"Then all women are ladies?"

"Certainly they are. All the respectable ones."

"Well, that puts a better face on it. Certainly there is no harm in a title when it is given to everybody. It is only an offense and a wrong when it is restricted to a favored few. But Miss--er--"

"Hattie."

"Miss Hattie, be frank; confess that that title isn't accorded by everybody to everybody. The rich American doesn't call her cook a lady-- isn't that so?"

"Yes, it's so. What of it?"

He was surprised and a little disappointed, to see that his admirable shot had produced no perceptible effect.

"What of it?" he said. "Why this: equality is not conceded here, after all, and the Americans are no better off than the English. In fact there's no difference."

"Now what an idea. There's nothing in a title except what is put into it--you've said that yourself. Suppose the title is 'clean,' instead of 'lady.' You get that?"

"I believe so. Instead of speaking of a woman as a lady, you substitute clean and say she's a clean person."

"That's it. In England the swell folks don't speak of the working people as gentlemen and ladies?"

"Oh, no."

"And the working people don't call themselves gentlemen and ladies?"

"Certainly not."

"So if you used the other word there wouldn't be any change. The swell people wouldn't call anybody but themselves 'clean,' and those others would drop sort of meekly into their way of talking and they wouldn't call themselves clean. We don't do that way here. Everybody calls himself a lady or gentleman, and thinks he is, and don't care what anybody else thinks him, so long as he don't say it out loud. You think there's no difference. You knuckle down and we don't. Ain't that a difference?"

"It is a difference I hadn't thought of; I admit that. Still--calling one's self a lady doesn't--er--"

"I wouldn't go on if I were you."

Howard Tracy turned his head to see who it might be that had introduced this remark. It was a short man about forty years old, with sandy hair, no beard, and a pleasant face badly freckled but alive and intelligent, and he wore slop-shop clothing which was neat but showed wear. He had come from the front room beyond the hall, where he had left his hat, and he had a chipped and cracked white wash-bowl in his hand. The girl came and took the bowl.

"I'll get it for you. You go right ahead and give it to him, Mr. Barrow. He's the new boarder--Mr. Tracy--and I'd just got to where it was getting too deep for me."

"Much obliged if you will, Hattie. I was coming to borrow of the boys." He sat down at his ease on an old trunk, and said, "I've been listening and got interested; and as I was saying, I wouldn't go on, if I were you. You see where you are coming to, don't you? Calling, yourself a lady doesn't elect you; that is what you were going to say; and you saw that if you said it you were going to run right up against another difference that you hadn't thought of: to-wit, Whose right is it to do the electing? Over there, twenty thousand people in a million elect themselves gentlemen and ladies, and the nine hundred and eighty thousand accept that decree and swallow the affront which it puts upon them. Why, if they didn't accept it, it wouldn't be an election, it would be a dead letter and have no force at all. Over here the twenty thousand would-be exclusives come up to the polls and vote themselves to be ladies and gentlemen. But the thing doesn't stop there. The nine hundred and eighty thousand come and vote themselves to be ladies and gentlemen too, and that elects the whole nation. Since the whole million vote themselves ladies and gentlemen, there is no question about that election. It does make absolute equality, and there is no fiction about it; while over yonder the inequality, (by decree of the infinitely feeble, and consent of the infinitely strong,) is also absolute--as real and absolute as our equality."

Tracy had shrunk promptly into his English shell when this speech began, notwithstanding he had now been in severe training several weeks for contact and intercourse with the common herd on the common herd's terms; but he lost no time in pulling himself out again, and so by the time the speech was finished his valves were open once more, and he was forcing himself to accept without resentment the common herd's frank fashion of dropping sociably into other people's conversations unembarrassed and uninvited. The process was, not very difficult this time, for the man's smile and voice and manner were persuasive and winning. Tracy would even have liked him on the spot, but for the fact--fact which he was not really aware of--that the equality of men was not yet a reality to him, it was only a theory; the mind perceived, but the man failed to feel it. It was Hattie's ghost over again, merely turned around. Theoretically Barrow was his equal, but it was distinctly distasteful to see him exhibit it. He presently said:

"I hope in all sincerity that what you have said is true, as regards the Americans, for doubts have crept into my mind several times. It seemed that the equality must be ungenuine where the sign-names of castes were still in vogue; but those sign-names have certainly lost their offence and are wholly neutralized, nullified and harmless if they are the undisputed property of every individual in the nation. I think I realize that caste does not exist and cannot exist except by common consent of the masses outside of its limits. I thought caste created itself and perpetuated itself; but it seems quite true that it only creates itself, and is perpetuated by the people whom it despises, and who can dissolve it at any time by assuming its mere sign-names themselves."

"It's what I think. There isn't any power on earth that can prevent England's thirty millions from electing themselves dukes and duchesses to-morrow and calling themselves so. And within six months all the former dukes and duchesses would have retired from the business. I wish they'd try that. Royalty itself couldn't survive such a process. A handful of frowners against thirty million laughers in a state of irruption: Why, it's Herculaneum against Vesuvius; it would take another eighteen centuries to find that Herculaneum after the cataclysm. What's a Colonel in our South? He's a nobody; because they're all colonels down there. No, Tracy" (shudder from Tracy) "nobody in England would call you a gentleman and you wouldn't call yourself one; and I tell you it's a state of things that makes a man put himself into most unbecoming attitudes sometimes--the broad and general recognition and acceptance of caste as caste does, I mean. Makes him do it unconsciously--being bred in him, you see, and never thought over and reasoned out. You couldn't conceive of the Matterhorn being flattered by the notice of one of your comely little English hills, could you?"

"Why, no."

"Well, then, let a man in his right mind try to conceive of Darwin feeling flattered by the notice of a princess. It's so grotesque that it--well, it paralyzes the imagination. Yet that Memnon was flattered by the notice of that statuette; he says so-says so himself. The system that can make a god disown his godship and profane it--oh, well, it's all wrong, it's all wrong and ought to be abolished, I should say."

The mention of Darwin brought on a literary discussion, and this topic roused such enthusiasm in Barrow that he took off his coat and made himself the more free and comfortable for it, and detained him so long that he was still at it when the noisy proprietors of the room came shouting and skylarking in and began to romp, scuffle, wash, and otherwise entertain themselves. He lingered yet a little longer to offer the hospitalities of his room and his book shelf to Tracy and ask him a personal question or two:

"What is your trade?"

"They--well, they call me a cowboy, but that is a fancy. I'm not that. I haven't any trade."

"What do you work at for your living?"

Oh, anything--I mean I would work at, anything I could get to do, but thus far I haven't been able to find an occupation."

"Maybe I can help you; I'd like to try."

"I shall be very glad. I've tried, myself, to weariness."

"Well, of course where a man hasn't a regular trade he's pretty bad off in this world. What you needed, I reckon, was less book learning and more bread-and-butter learning. I don't know what your father could have been thinking of. You ought to have had a trade, you ought to have had a trade, by all means. But never mind about that; we'll stir up something to do, I guess. And don't you get homesick; that's a bad business. We'll talk the thing over and look around a little. You'll come out all right. Wait for me--I'll go down to supper with you."

By this time Tracy had achieved a very friendly feeling for Barrow and would have called him a friend, maybe, if not taken too suddenly on a straight-out requirement to realize on his theories. He was glad of his society, anyway, and was feeling lighter hearted than before. Also he was pretty curious to know what vocation it might be which had furnished Barrow such a large acquaintanceship with books and allowed him so much time to read.








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