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Chapter 13

XIII.

The sense of outrage with which Lemuel was boiling when Miss Vane came in upon Sibyl and himself had wholly passed away, and he now saw his dismissal, unjust as between that girl and him, unimpeachably righteous as between him and the moral frame of things. If he had been punished for being ready to take advantage of that fellow's necessity, and charge him fifty cents for changing ten dollars, he must now be no less obviously suffering for having abused that young lady's trust and defencelessness; only he was not suffering one-tenth as much. When he recurred to that wrong, in fact, and tried to feel sorry for it and ashamed, his heart thrilled in a curious way; he found himself smiling and exulting, and Miss Vane and her niece went out of his mind, and he could not think of anything but of being with that girl, of hearing her talk and laugh, of touching her. He sighed; he did not know what his mother would say if she knew; he did not know where he was going; it seemed a hundred years since the beginning of the afternoon.

A horse-car came by, and Lemuel stopped it. He set his bag down on the platform, and stood there near the conductor, without trying to go inside, for the bag was pretty large, and he did not believe the conductor would let him take it in.

The conductor said politely after a while, "See, 'd I get your fare?"

"No," said Lemuel. He paid, and the conductor went inside and collected the other fares.

When he came back he took advantage of Lemuel's continued presence to have a little chat. He was a short, plump, stubby-moustached man, and he looked strong and well, but he said, with an introductory sigh, "Well, sir, I get sore all over at this business. There ain't a bone in me that hain't got an ache in it. Sometimes I can't tell but what it's the ache got a bone in it, ache seems the biggest."

"Why, what makes it?" asked Lemuel absently.

"Oh, it's this standin'; it's the hours, and changin' the hours so much. You hain't got a chance to get used to one set o' hours before they get 'em all shifted round again. Last week I was on from eight to eight; this week it's from twelve to twelve. Lord knows what it's going to be next week. And this is one o' the best lines in town, too."

"I presume they pay you pretty well," said Lemuel, with awakening interest.

"Well, they pay a dollar 'n' half a day," said the conductor.

"Why, it's more than forty dollars a month," said Lemuel.

"Well, it is," said the conductor scornfully, "if you work every day in the week. But I can't stand it more than six days out o' seven; and if you miss a day, or if you miss a trip, they dock you. No, sir. It's about the meanest business I ever struck. If I wa'n't a married man, 'n' if I didn't like to be regular about my meals and get 'em at home 'th my wife, I wouldn't stand it a minute. But that's where it is. It's regular."

A lady from within signalled the conductor. He stopped the car, and the lady, who had risen with her escort, remained chatting with a friend before she got out. The conductor snapped his bell for starting, with a look of patient sarcasm. "See that?" he asked Lemuel. "Some these women act as if the cars was their private carriage; and you got to act so too, or the lady complains of you, and the company bounces you in a minute. Stock's owned along the line, and they think they own you too. You can't get 'em to set more than ten on a side; they'll leave the car first. I'd like to catch 'em on some the South End or Cambridge cars. I'd show 'em how to pack live stock once, anyway. Yes, sir, these ladies that ride on this line think they can keep the car standin' while they talk about the opera. But you'd ought to see how they all look if a poor woman tries their little game. Oh, I tell you, rich people are hard."

Lemuel reflected upon the generalisation. He regarded Miss Vane as a rich person; but though she had blamed him unjustly, and had used him impatiently, even cruelly, in this last affair, he remembered other things, and he said—

"Well, I don't know as I should say all of them were hard."

"Well, may be not," admitted the conductor. "But I don't envy 'em. The way I look at it, and the way I tell my wife, I wouldn't want their money 'f I had to have the rest of it. Ain't any of 'em happy. I saw that when I lived out. No, sir; what me and my wife want to do is to find us a nice little place in the country."

At the words a vision of Willoughby Pastures rose upon Lemuel, and a lump of home-sickness came into his throat. He saw the old wood- coloured house, crouching black within its walls under the cold November stars. If his mother had not gone to bed yet, she was sitting beside the cooking-stove in the kitchen, and perhaps his sister was brewing something on it, potion or lotion, for her husband's rheumatism. Miss Vane had talked to him about his mother; she had said he might have her down to visit him, if everything went on right; but of course he knew that Miss Vane did not understand that his mother wore bloomers, and he made up his mind that her invitation was never to be accepted. At the same time he had determined to ask Miss Vane to let him go up and see his mother some Sunday.

"'S fur's we go," said the conductor. "'F you're goin' on, you want to take another car here."

"I guess I'll go back with you a little ways," said Lemuel. "I want to ask you—"

"Guess we'll have to take a back seat, then," said the conductor, leading the way through the car to the other platform; "or a standee," he added, snapping the bell. "What is it you want to ask?"

"Oh, nothing. How do you fellows learn to be conductors? How long does it take you?"

Till other passengers should come the conductor lounged against the guard of the platform in a conversational posture.

"Well, generally it takes you four or five days. You got to learn all the cross streets, and the principal places on all the lines."

"Yes?"

"It didn't take me more'n two. Boston boy."

"Yes," said Lemuel, with a fine discouragement. "I presume the conductors are mostly from Boston."

"They're from everywhere. And some of 'em are pretty streaked, I can tell you; and then the rest of us has got to suffer; throws suspicion on all of us. One fellow gets to stealin' fares, and then everybody's got to wear a bell-punch. I never hear mine go without thinkin' it says, 'Stop thief!' Makes me sick, I can tell you."

After a while Lemuel asked, "How do you get such a position?"

The conductor seemed to be thinking about some thing else. "It's a pretty queer kind of a world, anyway, the way everybody's mixed up with everybody else. What's the reason, if a man wants to steal, he can't steal and suffer for it himself, without throwin' the shame and the blame on a lot more people that never thought o' stealin'? I don't notice much when a fellow sets out to do right that folks think everybody else is on the square. No, sir, they don't seem to consider that kind of complaint so catching. Now, you take another thing: A woman goes round with the scarlet fever in her clothes, and a whole carful of people take it home to their children; but let a nice young girl get in, fresh as an apple, and a perfect daisy for wholesomeness every way, and she don't give it to a single soul on board. No, sir; it's a world I can't see through, nor begin to."

"I never thought of it that way," said Lemuel, darkened by this black pessimism of the conductor. He had not, practically, found the world so unjust as the conductor implied, but he could not controvert his argument. He only said, "May be the right thing makes us feel good in some way we don't know of."

"Well, I don't want to feel good in some way I don't know of, myself," said the conductor very scornfully.

"No, that's so," Lemuel admitted. He remained silent, with a vague wonder flitting through his mind whether Mr. Sewell could make anything better of the case, and then settled back to his thoughts of Statira, pierced and confused as they were now with his pain from that trouble with Miss Vane.

"What was that you asked me just now?" said the conductor.

"That I asked you?" Lemuel echoed. "Oh yes! I asked you how you got your place on the cars."

"Well, sir, you have to have recommendations—they won't touch you without 'em; and then you have to have about seventy-five dollars capital to start with. You got to get your coat, and your cap, and your badge, and you got to have about twenty dollars of your own to make change with, first off; company don't start you with a cent."

Lemuel made no reply. After a while he asked, "Do you know any good hotel, around here, where I could go for the night?"

"Well, there's the Brunswick, and there's the Van-dome," said the conductor. "They're both pretty fair houses." Lemuel looked round at the mention of the aristocratic hostelries to see if the conductor was joking. He owned to something of the kind by adding, "There's a little hotel, if you want something quieter, that ain't a great ways from here." He gave the name of the hotel, and told Lemuel how to find it.

"Thank you," said Lemuel. "I guess I'll get off here, then. Well, good evening."

"Guess I'll have to get another nickel from you," said the conductor, snapping his bell. "New trip," he explained.

"Oh," said Lemuel, paying. It seemed to him a short ride for five cents.

He got off, and as the conductor started up the car, he called forward through it to the driver, "Wanted to try for conductor, I guess. But I guess the seventy-five dollars capital settled that little point for him."

Lemuel heard the voice but not the words. He felt his bag heavy in his hand as he walked away in the direction the conductor had given him, and he did not set it down when he stood hesitating in front of the hotel; it looked like too expensive a place for him, with its stained-glass door, and its bulk hoisted high into the air. He walked by the hotel, and then he came back to it, and mustered courage to go in. His bag, if not superb, looked a great deal more like baggage than the lank sack which he had come to Boston with; he had bought it only a few days before, in hopes of going home before long; he set it down with some confidence on the tesselated floor of cheap marble, and when a shirt-sleeved, drowsy-eyed, young man came out of a little room or booth near the door, where there was a desk, and a row of bells, and a board with keys, hanging from the wall above it, Lemuel said quite boldly that he would like a room. The man said, well, they did not much expect transients; it was more of a family-hotel, like; but he guessed they had a vacancy, and they could put him up. He brushed his shirt sleeves down with his hands, and looked apologetically at some ashes on his trousers, and said, well, it was not much use trying to put on style, anyway, when you were taking care of a furnace and had to run the elevator yourself, and look after the whole concern. He said his aunt mostly looked after letting the rooms, but she was at church, and he guessed he should have to see about it himself. He bade Lemuel just get right into the elevator, and he put his bag into a cage that hung in one corner of the hallway, and pulled at the wire rope, and they mounted together. On the way up he had time to explain that the clerk, who usually ran the elevator when they had no elevator-boy, had kicked, and they were just between hay and grass, as you might say. He showed Lemuel into a grandiose parlour or drawing-room, enormously draped and upholstered, and furnished in a composite application of yellow jute and red plush to the ashen easy-chairs and sofa. A folding-bed in the figure of a chiffonier attempted to occupy the whole side of the wall and failed.

"I'm afraid it's more than I can pay," said Lemuel. "I guess I better see some other room." But the man said the room belonged to a boarder that had just gone, and he guessed they would not charge him very much for it; he guessed Lemuel had better stay. He pulled the bed down, and showed him how it worked, and he lighted two bulbous gas-burners, contrived to burn the gas at such a low pressure that they were like two unsnuffed candles for brilliancy. He backed round over the spacious floor and looked about him with an unfamiliar, marauding air, which had a certain boldness, but failed to impart courage to Lemuel, who trembled for fear of the unknown expense. But he was ashamed to go away, and when the man left him he went to bed, after some suspicious investigation of the machine he was to sleep in. He found its comfort unmistakable. He was tired out with what had been happening, and the events of the day recurred in a turmoil that helped rather than hindered slumber; none evolved itself distinctly enough from the mass to pursue him; what he was mainly aware of was the daring question whether he could not get the place of that clerk who had kicked.

In the morning he saw the landlady, who was called Mrs. Harmon, and who took the pay for his lodging, and said he might leave his bag a while there in the office. She was a large, smooth, tranquil person, who seemed ready for any sort of consent; she entered into an easy conversation with Lemuel, and was so sympathetic in regard to the difficulties of getting along in the city, that he had proposed himself as clerk and been accepted almost before he believed the thing had happened. He was getting a little used to the rapidity of urban transactions, but his mind had still a rustic difficulty in keeping up with his experiences.

"I suppose," said Mrs. Harmon, "it ain't very usual to take anybody without a reference; I never do it; but so long as you haven't been a great while in the city—You ever had a place in Boston before?"

"Well, not exactly what you may call a place," said Lemuel, with a conscience against describing in that way his position at Miss Vane's. "It was only part work." He added, "I wasn't there but a little while."

"Know anybody in the city?"

"Yes," said Lemuel reluctantly; "I know Rev. David L. Sewell, some."

"Oh, all right," said Mrs. Harmon, with eager satisfaction. "I have to be pretty particular who I have in the house. The boarders are all high-class, and I have to have all the departments accordingly. I'll see Mr. Sewell about you as soon as I get time, and I guess you can take right hold now, if you want to."

Mrs. Harmon showed him in half a minute how to manage the elevator, and then left him with general instructions to tell everybody who came upon any errand he did not understand, that she would be back in a very short time. He found pen and paper in the office, and she said he might write the letter that he asked leave to send his mother; when he mentioned his mother, she said, yes, indeed, with a burst of maternal sympathy which was imagined in her case, for she had already told Lemuel that if she had ever had any children she would not have gone into the hotel business, which she believed unfriendly to their right nurture; she said she never liked to take ladies with children.

He enclosed some money to his mother which he had intended to send, but which, before the occurrence of the good fortune that now seemed opening upon him, he thought he must withhold. He made as little as he could of his parting with Miss Vane, whom he had celebrated in earlier letters to his mother; he did not wish to afflict her on his own account, or incense her against Miss Vane, who, he felt, could not help her part in it; but his heart burned anew against Miss Sibyl while he wrote. He dwelt upon his good luck in getting this new position at once, and he let his mother see that he considered it a rise in life. He said he was going to try to get Mrs. Harmon to let him go home for Thanksgiving, though he presumed he might have to come back the same night.

His letter was short, but he was several times interrupted by the lady boarders, many of whom stopped to ask Mrs. Harmon something on their way to their rooms from breakfast. They did not really want anything, in most cases; but they were strict with Lemuel in wanting to know just when they could see Mrs. Harmon; and they delayed somewhat to satisfy a natural curiosity in regard to him. They made talk with him as he took them up in the elevator, and did what they could to find out about him. Most of them had their door-keys in their hands, and dangled them by the triangular pieces of brass which the keys were chained to; they affected some sort of negligée breakfast costume, and Lemuel thought them very fashionable. They nearly all snuffled and whined as they spoke; some had a soft, lazy nasal; others broke abruptly from silence to silence, in voices of nervous sharpness, like the cry or the bleat of an animal; one young girl, who was quite pretty, had a high, hoarse voice, like a gander.

Lemuel did not mind all this; he talked through his nose too; and he accepted Mrs. Harmon's smooth characterisation of her guests, as she called them, which she delivered in a slow, unimpassioned voice. "I never have any but the highest class people in my house—the very nicest; and I never have any jangling going on. In the first place I never allow anybody to have anything to complain of, and then if they do complain, I'm right up and down with them; I tell them their rooms are wanted, and they understand what I mean. And I never allow any trouble among the servants; I tell them, if they are not suited, that I don't want them to stay; and if they get to quarrelling among themselves, I send them all away, and get a new lot; I pay the highest wages, and I can always do it. If you want to keep up with the times at all, you have got to set a good table, and I mean to set just as good a table as any in Boston; I don't intend to let any one complain of my house on that score. Well, it's as broad as it's long: if you set a good table, you can ask a good price; and if you don't, you can't, that's all. Pay as you go, is my motto."

Mrs. Harmon sat talking in the little den beside the door which she called the office, when she returned from that absence which she had asked him to say would not be more than fifteen minutes at the outside. It had been something more than two hours, and it had ended almost clandestinely; but knowledge of her return had somehow spread through the house, and several ladies came in while she was talking, to ask when their window-shades were to be put up, or to say that they knew their gas-fixtures must be out of order; or that there were mice in their closets, for they had heard them gnawing; or that they were sure their set-bowls smelt, and that the traps were not working. Mrs. Harmon was prompt in every exigency. She showed the greatest surprise that those shades had not gone up yet; she said she was going to send round for the gasfitter to look at the fixtures all over the house; and that she would get some potash to pour down the bowls, for she knew the drainage was perfect—it was just the pipes down to the traps that smelt; she advised a cat for the mice, and said she would get one. She used the greatest sympathy with the ladies, recognising a real sufferer in each, and not attempting to deny anything. From the dining-room came at times the sound of voices, which blended in a discord loud above the clatter of crockery, but Mrs. Harmon seemed not to hear them. An excited foreigner of some sort finally rushed from this quarter, and thrust his head into the booth where Lemuel and Mrs. Harmon sat, long enough to explode some formula of renunciation upon her, which left her serenity unruffled. She received with the same patience the sarcasm of a boarder who appeared at the office-door with a bag in his hand, and said he would send an express-man for his trunk. He threw down the money for his receipted bill; and when she said she was sorry he was going, he replied that he could not stand the table any longer, and that he believed that French cook of hers had died on the way over; he was tired of the Nova Scotia temporary, who had become permanent. A gentleman waited for the parting guest to be gone, and then said to the tranquil Mrs. Harmon: "So Mellen has kicked, has he?"

"Yes, Mr. Evans," said Mrs. Harmon; "Mr. Mellen has kicked."

"And don't you want to abuse him a little? You can to me, you know," suggested the gentleman.

He had a full beard, parted at the chin; it was almost white, and looked older than the rest of his face; his eyes were at once sad and whimsical. Lemuel tried to think where he had seen him before.

"Thank you; I don't know as it would do any good, Mr. Evans. But if he could have waited one week longer, I should have had that cook."

"Yes, that is what I firmly believe. Do you feel too much broken up to accept a ticket to the Wednesday matinée at the Museum?"

"No, I don't," said Mrs. Harmon. "But I shouldn't want to deprive
Mrs. Evans of it."

"Oh, she wouldn't go," said Mr. Evans, with a slight sigh. "You had better take it. Jefferson's going to do Bob Acres."

"Is that so?" asked Mrs. Harmon placidly, taking the ticket. "Well, I'm ever so much obliged to you, Mr. Evans. Mr. Evans, Mr. Barker— our new clerk," she said, introducing them.

Lemuel rose with rustic awkwardness, and shook hands with Mr. Evans, who looked at him with a friendly smile, but said nothing.

"Now Mr. Barker is here, I guess I can get the time." Mr. Evans said, well, he was glad she could, and went out of the street door. "He's just one of the nicest gentlemen I've got," continued Mrs. Harmon, following him with her eye as far as she conveniently could without turning her head, "him and his wife both. Ever heard of the Saturday Afternoon?"

"I don't know as I have," said Lemuel.

"Well, he's one of the editors. It's a kind of a Sunday paper, I guess, for all it don't come out that day. I presume he could go every night in the week to every theatre in town, if he wanted to. I don't know how many tickets he's give me. Some of the ladies seem to think he's always makin' fun of them; but I can't ever feel that way. He used to board with a great friend of mine, him and his wife. They've been with me now ever since Mrs. Hewitt died; she was the one they boarded with before. They say he used to be dreadful easy- going, 'n' 't his wife was all 't saved him. But I guess he's different now. Well, I must go out and see after the lunch. You watch the office, and say just what I told you before."

William Dean Howells