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A PAPER PONIARD
Throughout an early breakfast Mr. Growther appeared to be revolving some subject in his mind, and his question, at last, was only seemingly abrupt, for it came at the end of quite a long mental altercation, in which, of course, he took sides against himself.
"I say, young man, do you think you could stand me?"
"What do you mean?" asked Haldane.
"Well, before you say no, you ought to realize all the bearin's of the case. The town is down on you. Respectable people won't have nothin' to do with you, any more than they would walk arm in arm with the charcoal-man in their Sunday toggery. I aren't respectable, so you can't blacken me. I've showed you I'm not afraid to trust you. You can't sleep in the streets, you can't eat pavin'-stuns and mud, and you won't go home. This brings me to the question again: Can you stand me? I warn you I'm an awful oncomfortable customer to live with; I won't take any mean advantage of you in this respect, and, what's more, I don't s'pose I'll behave any better for your sake or anybody else's. I'm all finished and cooled off, like an old iron casting, and can't be bent or made over in any other shape. You're crooked enough, the Lord knows; but you're kind o' limber yet in your moral j'nts, and you may git yourself in decent shape if you have a chance. I've taken a notion to give you a chance. The only question is, Can you stand me?"
"It would be strange if I could not stand the only man in Hillaton who has shown a human and friendly interest in me. But the thing I can't stand is taking charity."
"Who's asked you to take charity?"
"What else would it be--my living here on you?"
"I can open a boardin'-house if I want to, can't I? I have a right to lend my own money, I s'pose. You can open a ledger account with me to a penny. What's more, I'll give you a receipt every time," added the old man, with a twinkle in his eye; "you don't catch me gettin' into the papers as 'kind-hearted' Mr. Growther."
"Mr. Growther, I can scarcely understand your kindness to me, for I have no claim on you whatever. As much as I would like to accept your offer, I scarcely feel it right to do so. I will bring discredit to you with certainty, and my chances of repaying you seem very doubtful now."
"Now, look here, young man, I've got to take my choice 'twixt two evils. On one side is you. I don't want you botherin' round, seein' my mean ways. For the sake of decency I'll have to try to hold in a little before you, while before my cat and dog I can let out as I please; so I'd rather live alone. But the tother side is a plaguy sight worse. If I should let you go a-wanderin' off you don't know where, the same as if I should start my dog off with a kick, knowin' that every one else in town would add a kick or fire a stun, I couldn't sleep nights or enjoy my vittels. I'd feel so mean that I should jest set and cuss myself from mornin' till night. Look here, now; I couldn't stan' it," concluded Mr. Growther, overcome by the picture of his own wretchedness. "Let's have no more words. Come back every night till you can do better. Open an account with me. Charge what you please for board and lodgin', and pay all back with lawful interest, if it'll make you sleep better." And so it was finally arranged.
Haldane started out into the sun-lighted streets of the city as a man might sally forth in an enemy's country, fearing the danger that lurked on every side, and feeling that his best hope was that he might be unnoted and unknown. He knew that the glance of recognition would also be a glance of aversion and scorn, and, to his nature, any manifestation of contempt was worse than a blow. He now clung to his literary ventures as the one rope by which he could draw himself out of the depths into which he had fallen, and felt sure that he must hear from some of his manuscripts within a day or two. He went to the post-office in a tremor of anxiety only to hear the usual response, "Nothing for E. H."
With heavy steps and a sinking heart he then set out in his search for something to do, and after walking weary miles he found only a small bit of work, for which he received but small compensation. He returned despondently in the evening to his refuge at Mr. Growther's cottage, and his quaint good Samaritan showed his sympathy by maintaining a perpetual growl at himself and the "disjinted world" in general. But Haldane lowered at the fire and said little.
Several successive days brought disappointment, discouragement, and even worse. The slanderous paragraph concerning his relations with Mr. Shrumpf was copied by the Morning Courier, with even fuller and severer comment. Occasionally upon the street and in his efforts to procure employment, he was recognized, and aversion, scorn, or rough dismissal followed instantly.
For a time he honestly tried to obtain the means of livelihood, but this became more and more difficult. People of whom he asked employment naturally inquired his name, and he was fairly learning to hate it from witnessing the malign changes in aspect and manner which its utterance invariably produced. The public had been generally warned against him, and to the natural distrust inspired by his first crime was added a virtuous indignation at the supposed low trickery in his dealing with the magnanimous Mr. Shrumpf, "the poor but kind-hearted German." Occasionally, that he might secure a day's work in full or in part, he was led to suppress his name and give an alias.
He felt as if he had been caught in a swift black torrent that was sweeping him down in spite of all that he could do; he also felt that the black tide would eventually plunge him into an abyss into which he dared not look. He struggled hard to regain a footing, and clutched almost desperately at everything that might impede or stay his swift descent; but seemingly in vain.
His mental distress was such that he was unable to write, even with the aid of stimulants; and he also felt that it was useless to attempt anything further until he heard from the manuscripts already in editorial hands. But the ominous silence in regard to them remained unbroken, As a result, he began to give way to moods of the deepest gloom and despondency, which alternated with wild and reckless impulses.
He was growing intensely bitter toward himself and all mankind. Even the image of his kind friend, Mrs. Arnot, began to merge itself into merely that of the wife of the man who had dealt him a blow from which he began to fear he would never recover. He was too morbid to be just to any one, even himself, and he felt that she had deserted and turned against him also, forgetting that he had given her no clew to his present place of abode, and had sent a message indicating that he would regard any effort to discover him as officious and intrusive. He quite honestly believed that by this time she had come to share in the general contempt and hostility which is ever cherished toward those whom society regards as not only depraved and vile, but also dangerous to its peace. It seemed as if both she and Laura had receded from him to an immeasurable distance, and he could not think of either without almost gnashing his teeth in rage at himself, and at what he regarded as his perverse and cruel fate. At times he would vainly endeavor to banish their images from his mind, but more often would indulge in wild and impossible visions of coming back to them in a dazzling halo of literary glory, and of overwhelming them with humiliation that they were so slow to recognize the genius which smouldered for weeks under their very eyes.
But his dreams were in truth "baseless fabrics" for at last there came a letter addressed to "E. H.," with the name of a popular literary paper printed upon it. He clutched it with a hand that shook in his eagerness, and walked half a mile before finding a nook sufficiently secluded in which to open the fateful missive. There were moments as he hastened through the streets when the crumpled letter was like a live coal in his hand; again it seemed throbbing with life, and he held it tighter, as though it might escape. With a chill at heart he also admitted that this bit of paper might be a poniard that would stab his hope and so destroy him.
He eventually entered a half-completed dwelling, which some one had commenced to build but was not able to finish.
It was a wretched, prosaic place, that apparently had lost its value even to the owner, and had become to the public at large only an unsightly blot upon the street. There was no danger of his being disturbed here, for the walls were not sufficiently advanced to have ears, and even a modern ghost would scorn to haunt a place whose stains were not those of age, and whose crumbling ruins resulted only from superficial and half-finished work. Indeed, the prematurely old and abortive house had its best counterpart in the young man himself, who stole into one of its small, unplastered rooms with many a wary glance, as though it were a treasure-vault which he was bent on plundering.
Feeling at last secure from observation, he tremblingly opened the letter, which he hoped contained the first instalment of wealth and fame. It was, indeed, from the editor of the periodical, and, remembering the avalanche of poetry and prose from beneath which this unfortunate class must daily struggle into life and being, it was unusually kind and full; but to Haldane it was cruel as death--a Spartan short-sword, only long enough to pierce his heart. It was to the following effect:
"E. H.--DEAR SIR: It would be easier to throw your communication into the waste-basket than thus to reply; and such, I may add, is the usual fate of productions like yours. But something in your letter accompanying the MSS. caught my attention, and induced me to give you a little good advice, which I fear you will not take, however. You are evidently a young and inexperienced man, and I gather from your letter that you are in trouble of some nature, and, also, that you are building hopes, if not actually depending, upon the crude labors of your pen. Let me tell you frankly at once that literature is not your forte. It you have sent literary work to other parties like that inclosed to me you will never hear from it again. In the first place, you do not write correctly; in the second, you have nothing to say. We cannot afford to print words merely--much less pay for them. What is worse, many of your sentences are so unnatural and turgid as to suggest that you sought in stimulants a remedy for paucity of ideas. Take friendly advice. Attempt something that you are capable of doing, and build your hopes on that. Any honest work--even sawing wood--well done, is better than childish efforts to perform what, to us, is impossible. Before you can do anything in the literary world it is evident that years of culture and careful reading would be necessary. But, as I have before said, your talents do not seem to be in this direction. Life is too precious to be wasted in vain endeavor; and that reminds me that I have spent several moments, and from the kindliest motives, in stating to you facts which you may regard as insults. But were the circumstances the same I would give my own son the same advice. Do not be discouraged; there is plenty of other work equally good and useful as that for which you seem unfitted. Faithfully yours, ---- ----"
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