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Ch. 2: College Days

In the fall of 1882 Richard entered Lehigh, but the first year of his college life varied very little from the one he had spent in the preparatory school. During that year he had met most of the upper classmen, and the only difference was that he could now take an active instead of a friendly interest in the life and the sports of the college. Also he had formed certain theories which he promptly proceeded to put into practical effect. Perhaps the most conspicuous of these was his belief that cane-rushes and hazing were wholly unnecessary and barbarous customs, and should have no place in the college of his day. Against the former he spoke at college meetings, and wrote long letters to the local papers decrying the custom. His stand against hazing was equally vehement, and he worked hand in hand with the faculty to eradicate it entirely from the college life. That his stand was purely for a principle and not from any fear of personal injury, I think the following letter to his father will show:


BETHLEHEM, February 1882.

DEAR DAD:

You may remember a conversation we had at Squan about hazing in which you said it was a very black-guardly thing and a cowardly thing. I didn't agree with you, but when I saw how it really was and how silly and undignified it was, besides being brutal, I thought it over and changed my mind completely, agreeing with you in every respect. A large number of our class have been hazed, taking it as a good joke, and have been laughed at by the whole college. I talked to the boys about it, and said what I would do and so on, without much effect. Wednesday a junior came to me, and told me I was to be hazed as I left the Opera House Friday night. After that a great many came to me and advised and warned me as to what I should do. I decided to get about fifty of our class outside and then fight it out; that was before I changed my mind. As soon as I did I regretted it very much, but, as it turned out, the class didn't come, so I was alone, as I wished to be. You see, I'd not a very good place here; the fellows looked on me as a sort of special object of ridicule, on account of the hat and cane, walk, and so on, though I thought I'd got over that by this time. The Opera House was partly filled with college men, a large number of sophomores and a few upper class men. It was pretty generally known I was going to have a row, and that brought them as much as the show. Poor Ruff was in agony all day. He supposed I'd get into the fight, and he knew he'd get in, too, sooner or later. If he did he'd be held and not be able to do anything, and then the next day be blamed by the whole college for interfering in a class matter. He hadn't any money to get into the show, and so wandered around outside in the rain in a great deal more excited state than I was. Howe went all over town after putting on his old clothes, in case of personal damage, in search of freshmen who were at home out of the wet. As I left the building a man grabbed me by my arm, and the rest, with the seniors gathered around; the only freshman present, who was half scared to death, clung as near to me as possible. I withdrew my arm and faced them. "If this means hazing," I said, "I'm not with you. There's not enough men here to haze me, but there's enough to thrash me, and I'd rather be thrashed than hazed." You see, I wanted them to understand exactly how I looked at it, and they wouldn't think I was simply hotheaded and stubborn. I was very cool about it all. They broke in with all sorts of explanations; hazing was the last thing they had thought of. No, indeed, Davis, old fellow, you're mistaken. I told them if that was so, all right, I was going home. I saw several of my friends in the crowd waiting for me, but as I didn't want them to interfere, I said nothing, and they did not recognize me. When among the crowd of sophomores, the poor freshman made a last effort, he pulled me by the coat and begged me to come with him. I said no, I was going home. When I reached the next corner I stopped. "I gave you fair warning, keep off. I tell you I'll strike the first man, the first one, that touches me." Then the four who had been appointed to seize me jumped on me, and I only got one good blow in before they had me down in the gutter and were beating me on the face and head. I put my hands across my face, and so did not get any hard blows directly in the face. They slipped back in a moment, and when I was ready I scrambled up pretty wet and muddy, and with my face stinging where they had struck. It had all been done so quickly, and there was such a large crowd coming from the theatre, that, of course, no one saw it. When I got up there was a circle all around me. They hadn't intended to go so far. The men, except those four who had beaten me, were rather ashamed and wished they were out of it. I turned to Emmerich, a postgraduate, and told him to give me room. "Now," I said, "you're not able to haze me, and I can't thrash twelve of you, but I'll fight any one man you bring out." I asked for the man that struck me, and named another, but there was no response.

The upper classmen, who had just arrived, called out that was fair, and they'd see it fair. Goodnough, Purnell and Douglas, who don't like me much, either. Ruff was beside me by this time.

He hadn't seen anything of it, and did not get there until he heard me calling for a fair chance and challenging the class for a man. I called out again, the second time, and still no one came, so I took occasion to let them know why I had done as I did in a short speech to the crowd. I said I was a peaceable fellow, thought hazing silly, and as I never intended to haze myself, I didn't intend any one to haze me. Then I said again, "This is the third time, will one of your men fight this fair? I can't fight twelve of you." Just then two officers who had called on some mill-hands, who are always dying for a fight, and a citizen to help them, burst into the crowd of students, shouldering them around like sheep until they got to me, when one of them put his arm around me, and said, "I don't know anything about this crowd, but I'll see you're protected, sir. I'll give 'em fair play." One officer got hold of Ruff and pretty near shook him to pieces until I had to interfere and explain. They were for forming a body-guard, and were loud in their denunciations of the college, and declaring they'd see me through if I was a stranger to 'em.

Two or three of the sophomores, when they saw how things were going, set up a yell, but Griffin struck out and sent one of them flying one way and his hat another, so the yells ended. Howe and Murray Stuart took me up to their rooms, and Ruff went off for beefsteak for my eye, and treated the crowd who had come to the rescue, at Dixon's, to beer. The next day was Saturday, and as there was to be a meeting of the Athletic Association, of course, I wanted to show up. The fellows all looked at my eye pretty hard and said nothing. I felt pretty sure that the sympathy was all with me.

Four men are elected from the college to be on the athletic committee. They can be nominated by any one, though generally it is done by a man in their own class. We had agreed the day before to vote for Tolman for our class, so when the president announced nominations were in order for the freshmen class, Tolman was instantly nominated. At the same time one of the leading sophomores jumped up and nominated Mr. Davis, and a number of men from the same class seconded it. I knew every one in the college knew of what had happened, and especially the sophomores, so I was, of course, very much surprised. I looked unconscious, though, and waited. One of the seniors asked that the nominees should stand up, as they didn't know their names only their faces. As each man rose he was hissed and groaned down again. When I stood up the sophomores burst into a yell and clapped and stamped, yelling, "Davis! Davis! vote for D!" until I sat down. As I had already decided to nominate Tolman, I withdrew my name from the nominees, a movement which was received by loud cries of "No! No!" from the sophs. So, you see, Dad, I did as you said, as I thought was right, and came out well indeed. You see, I am now the hero of the hour, every one in town knows it, and every one congratulates me, and, "Well done, me boy," as Morrow '83 said, seems to be the idea, one gets taken care of in this world if you do what's the right thing, if it is only a street fight. In fact, as one of the seniors said, I've made five friends where I had one before. The sophs are ashamed and sorry, as their conduct in chapel, which was more marked, than I made it, shows. I've nothing to show for it but a red mark under the eye, and so it is the best thing that could possibly have happened. Poor Ruff hugged me all the way home, and I've started out well in a good way, I think, though not a very logical one.

Uncle says to tell you that my conduct has his approval throughout.

DICK.


To which letter my father promptly replied:


PHILADELPHIA. February 25th, 1882.

DEAR OLD BOY:

I'm glad the affair ended so well. I don't want you to fight, but if you have to fight a cuss like that do it with all your might, and don't insist that either party shall too strictly observe the Markis O' Queensbury rules. Hit first and hardest so that thine adversary shall beware of you.

DAD.


At that time the secret societies played a very important part in the college life at Lehigh, and while I do not believe that Richard shared the theory of some of the students that they were a serious menace to the social fabric, he was quite firm in his belief that it was inadvisable to be a member of any fraternity. In a general way he did not like the idea of secrecy even in its mildest form, and then, as throughout his life, he refused to join any body that would in any way limit his complete independence of word or action. In connection with this phase of his college life I quote from an appreciation which M. A. De W. Howe, one of Richard's best friends both at college and in after-life, wrote for The Lehigh Burr at the time of my brother's death:

"To the credit of the perceptive faculty of undergraduates, it ought to be said that the classmates and contemporaries of Richard Harding Davis knew perfectly well, while he and they were young together, that in him Lehigh had a son so marked in his individuality, so endowed with talents and character that he stood quite apart from the other collegians of his day. Prophets were as rare in the eighties as they have always been, before and since, and nobody could have foreseen that the name and work of Dick Davis would long before his untimely death, indeed within a few years from leaving college, be better known throughout the world than those of any other Lehigh man. We who knew him in his college days could not feel the smallest surprise that he won himself quickly a brilliant name, and kept a firm hold upon it to the last.

"What was it that made him so early a marked man? I think it was the spirit of confidence and enthusiasm which turned every enterprise he undertook into an adventure,--the brave and humorous playing of the game of life, the true heart, the wholesome body and soul of my friend and classmate. He did not excel in studies or greatly, in athletics. But in his own field, that of writing, he was so much better than the rest of us that no one of his fellow-editors of the Epitome or Burr needed to be considered in comparison with him. No less, in spite of his voluntary nonmembership in the fraternities of his day, was he a leader in the social activities of the University. The 'Arcadian Club' devoted in its beginnings to the 'pipes, books, beer and gingeralia' of Davis's song about it and the 'Mustard and Cheese' were his creations. In all his personal relationships he was the most amusing and stimulating of companions. With garb and ways of unique picturesqueness, rarer even in college communities a generation ago than at present, it was inevitable that he sometimes got himself laughed at as well as with. But what did it all matter, even then? To-day it adds a glow of color to what would be in any case a vivid, deeply valued memory.

"It is hard to foresee in youth what will come most sharply and permanently in the long run. After all these years it is good to find that Davis and what his companionship gave one hold their place with the strongest influences of Lehigh."

But Richard was naturally gregarious and at heart had a great fondness for clubs and social gatherings. Therefore, having refused the offer of several fraternities that did him the honor to ask him to become a member, it was necessary for him to form a few clubs that held meetings, but no secrets. Perhaps the most successful of these were "The Mustard and Cheese," a dramatic club devoted to the presentation of farces and musical comedies, and The Arcadia Club, to the fortnightly meetings of which he devoted much time and thought. The following letter to his father will give some idea of the scope of the club, which, as in the case of "The Mustard and Cheese," gained a permanent and important place in the social life of Lehigh.


DEAR DAD:

We have started the best sort of a club up here which I am anxious to tell you of. It consists of a spread, net price of which will be about 30 cents each, every two or three weeks. Only six fellows belong and those the best of the College. Purnell, Haines and myself founded it. I chose Charley, Purnell, Reeves, Haines and Howe. We will meet Saturday nights at 9 so as not to interfere with our work, and sing, read, eat and box until midnight. It is called the "Pipe and Bowl," and is meant to take the place that The Hasty Pudding, Hammer and Tongs and Mermaid do at other colleges. Two of us are to invite two outsiders in turn each meeting. We will hope to have Dad a member, honorary, of course, when we can persuade him to give us a night off with his company. We want to combine a literary feature and so will have selected readings to provoke discussions after the pipes are lit. The men are very enthusiastic about it and want to invite Mr. Allen and you and every one that they can make an honorary member of immediately.

It was first as an associate editor and afterward as editor-in-chief of the college paper, The Lehigh Burr, that Richard found his greatest pleasure and interest during his three years at Lehigh. In addition to his editorial duties he wrote a very great part of every issue of the paper, and his contributions included short stories, reports of news events, editorials, and numerous poems.

As, after his life at college, Richard dropped verse as a mode of expression, I reprint two of the poems which show him in the lighter vein of those early days.


A COMMENCEMENT IDYL

"I'm a Freshman who has ended his first year, But I'm new; And I do whate'er the Juniors, whom I fear, Bid me do. Under sudden showers I thrive; To be bad and bold I strive, But they ask--'Is it alive?' So they do.

I'm a Sophomore who has passed off his exams, Let me loose! With a mark as high as any other man's, As obtuse I'm fraternal. I am Jolly. I am seldom melancholy And to bone I think is folly, What's the use?

I'm a Junior whom exams. have left forlorn, Flunked me dead; So I'll keep the town awake 'till early morn; Paint it red. At class-meetings I'm a kicker, Take no water with my liquor, And a dumb-bell's not thicker Than my head.

I'm a Senior whose diploma's within reach, Eighty-four. On Commencement Day you'll hear my maiden-speech; I will soar! I got through without condition; I'm a mass of erudition; Do you know of a position!"

OUR STREET

"Our street is still and silent, Grass grows from curb to curb,

No baker's bells With jangling knells Our studious minds disturb. No organ grinders ever call, No hucksters mar our peace; For traffic shuns our neighborhood And leaves us to our ease.

But now it lives and brightens, Assumes a livelier hue; The pavements wide, On either side, Would seem to feel it too. You might not note the difference, The change from grave to gay, But I can tell, and know full well, Priscilla walks our way."


Shortly after his return to college Richard celebrated his nineteenth birthday, and received these letters from his father and mother:


April 17th, 1883.

MY DEAR BOY:

When I was thinking what I could give to you to-morrow, I remembered the story of Herder, who when he was old and weak and they brought him food and wine asked for "a great thought to quicken him."

So I have written some old sayings for you that have helped me. Maybe, this year, or some other year, when I am not with you, they may give you, sometimes, comfort and strength.

God bless you my son--

YOUR OLD MOTHER

who loves you dearly--dearly.

THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

PHILADELPHIA, April 17th, 1883.

MY DEAR BOY:

You are to be nineteen years old on Wednesday. After two years more you will be a man. You are so manly and good a boy that I could not wish you to change in any serious or great thing. You have made us very happy through being what you have been, what you are. You fill us with hope of your future virtue and usefulness.

To be good is the best thing of all; it counts for more than anything else in the world. We are very grateful that you have even in youth been wise enough to choose the right road. You will find it not easy to keep upon it always, but remember if you do get off struggle back to it. I do not know but I think God loves the effort to do as well as the act done.

I congratulate you my dear son, on your new birthday. I wish you health, happiness and God's loving care. May he bless you my son forever. I enclose a trifle for your pleasure. My love to you always, but God bless you dear Dick.

DAD.


In the fall of 1885, Richard decided to leave Lehigh and go to John Hopkins University, where he took a special course in such studies as would best benefit him in the career which he had now carefully planned. During this year in Baltimore Richard's letters show that he paid considerable attention to such important subjects as political economy and our own labor problems, but they also show that he did not neglect football or the lighter social diversions. In a short space of time he had made many friends, was very busy going to dinners and dances, and had fallen in love with an entirely new set of maids and matrons. Richard had already begun to send contributions to the magazines, and an occasional acceptance caused him the satisfaction common to all beginners. It was in regard to one of these early contributions that my mother wrote Richard the following letter:


PHILADELPHIA

January 1887.

DEAR BOY:

What has become of The Current? It has not come yet. If it has suspended publication be sure and get your article back. You must not destroy a single page you write. You will find every idea of use to you hereafter.

Sometimes I am afraid you think I don't take interest enough in your immediate success now with the articles you send. But I've had thirty years experience and I know how much that sort of success depends on the articles suiting the present needs of the magazine, and also on the mood of the editor when he reads it.

Besides--except for your own disappointment--I know it would be better if you would not publish under your own name for a little while. Dr. Holland--who had lots of literary shrewdness both as writer and publisher--used to say for a young man or woman to rush into print was sure ruin to their lasting fame. They either compromised their reputations by inferior work or they made a great hit and never played up to it, afterwards, in public opinion.

Now my dear old man this sounds like awfully cold comfort. But it is the wisest idea your mother has got. I confess I have GREAT faith in you--and I try to judge you as if you were not my son. I think you are going to take a high place among American authors, but I do not think you are going to do it by articles like that you sent to The Current. The qualities which I think will bring it to you, you don't seem to value at all. They are your dramatic eye. I mean your quick perception of character and of the way character shows itself in looks, tones, dress, etc., and in your keen sympathy--with all kinds of people--Now, these are the requisites for a novelist. Added to that your humour.

You ought to make a novelist of the first class. But you must not expect to do it this week or next. A lasting, real success takes time, and patient, steady work. Read Boz's first sketches of "London Life" and compare them with "Sydney Carton" or "David Copperfield" and you will see what time and hard work will do to develop genius.

I suppose you will wonder why I am moved to say all this? It is, I think, because of your saying "the article sent to St. Nicholas was the best you would be able to do for years to come" and I saw you were going to make it a crucial test of your ability. That is, forgive me, nothing but nonsense. Whatever the article may be, you may write one infinitely superior to it next week or month. Just in proportion as you feel more deeply, or notice more keenly, and as you acquire the faculty of expressing your feelings or observations more delicately and powerfully which faculty must come into practice. It is not inspiration--it never was that--without practice, with any writer from Shakespeare down.

me. I don't say, like Papa, stop writing. God forbid. I would almost as soon say stop breathing, for it is pretty much the same thing. But only to remember that you have not yet conquered your art. You are a journeyman not a master workman, so if you don't succeed, it does not count. The future is what I look to, for you. I had to stop my work to say all this, so good-bye dear old chum.

Yours,

MOTHER.


If anything worried Richard at all at this period, I think it was his desire to get down to steady newspaper work, or indeed any kind of work that would act as the first step of his career and by which he could pay his own way in the world. It was with this idea uppermost in his mind in the late spring of 1886, and without any particular regret for the ending of his college career, that he left Baltimore and, returning to his home in Philadelphia, determined to accept the first position that presented itself. But instead of going to work at once, he once more changed his plans and decided to sail for Santiago de Cuba with his friend William W. Thurston, who as president of the Bethlehem Steel Company, was deeply interested in the iron mines of that region. Here and then it was that Richard first fell in love with Cuba--a love which in later years became almost an obsession with him. Throughout his life whenever it was possible, and sometimes when it seemed practically impossible, my brother would listen to the call of his beloved tropics and, casting aside all responsibilities, would set sail for Santiago. After all it was quite natural that he should feel as he did about this little Cuban coast town, for apart from its lazy life, spicy smells, waving palms and Spanish cooking, it was here that he found the material for his first novel and greatest monetary success, "Soldiers of Fortune." Apart from the many purely pleasure trips he made to Santiago, twice he returned there to work--once as a correspondent during the Spanish-American War, and again when he went with Augustus Thomas to assist in the latter's film version of the play which years before Thomas had made from the novel.


Richard Harding Davis