Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 38

Chapter 38

I worked some weeks before my regiment was sent forward. I planned to be at home for a day, but they needed me on the staff, and I dreaded the pain of a parting, the gravity of which my return would serve only to accentuate. So I wrote them a cheerful letter, and kept at work. It was my duty to interview some of the great men of that day as to the course of the government. I remember Commodore Vanderbilt came down to see me in shirt-sleeves and slippers that afternoon, with a handkerchief tied about his neck in place of a collar - a blunt man, of simple manners and a big heart, one who spoke his mind in good, plain talk, and, I suppose, he got along with as little profanity as possible, considering his many cares. He called me 'boy'and spoke of a certain public man as a 'big sucker . I soon learned that to him a 'sucker'was the lowest and meanest thing in the world. He sent me away with nothing but a great admiration of him. As a rule, the giants of that day were plain men of the people, with no frills upon them, and with a way of hitting from the shoulder. They said what they meant and meant it hard. I have heard Lincoln talk when his words had the whiz of a bullet and his arm the jerk of a piston.

John Trumbull invited McClingan, of whom I had told him much, and myself to dine with him an evening that week. I went in my new dress suit - that mark of sinful extravagance for which Fate had brought me down to the pounding of rocks under Boss McCormick. Trumbull's rooms were a feast for the eye - aglow with red roses. He introduced me to Margaret Hull and her mother, who were there to dine with us. She was a slight woman of thirty then, with a face of no striking beauty, but of singular sweetness. Her dark eyes had a mild and tender light in them; her voice a plaintive, gentle tone, the like of which one may hear rarely if ever. For years she had been a night worker in the missions of the lower city, and many an unfortunate had been turned from the way of evil by her good offices. I sat beside her at the table, and she told me of her work and how often she had met Trumbull in his night walks.

'Found me a hopeless heathen,'he remarked.

'To save him I had to consent to marry him,'she said, laughing.

'"Who hath found love is already in Heaven,"'said McClingan. 'I have not found it and I am in'' he hesitated, as if searching for a synonym.

'A boarding house on William Street,'he added.

The remarkable thing about Margaret Hull was her simple faith. It looked to no glittering generality for its reward, such as the soul s 'highest good much talked of in the philosophy of that time. She believed that, for every soul she saved, one jewel would be added to her crown in Heaven. And yet she wore no jewel upon her person. Her black costume was beautifully fitted to her fine form, but was almost severely plain. It occurred to me that she did not quite understand her own heart, and, for that matter, who does? But she had somewhat in her soul that passeth all understanding - I shall not try to say what, with so little knowledge of those high things, save that I know it was of God. To what patience and unwearying effort she had schooled herself I was soon to know.

'Can you not find anyone to love you?'she said, turning to McClingan. 'You know the Bible says it is not good for man to live alone.

'It does, Madame,'said he, 'but I have a mighty fear in me, remembering the twenty-fourth verse of the twenty-fifth chapter of Proverbs: "It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetops than with a brawling woman in a wide house." We cannot all be so fortunate as our friend Trumbull. But I have felt the great passion.

He smiled at her faintly as he spoke in a quiet manner, his r s coming off his tongue with a stately roll. His environment and the company had given him a fair degree of stimulation. There was a fine dignity in his deep voice, and his body bristled with it, from his stiff and heavy shock of blonde hair parted carefully on the left side, to his high-heeled boots. The few light hairs that stood in lonely abandonment on his upper lip, the rest of his lean visage always well shorn, had no small part in the grand effect of McClingan.

'A love story!'said Miss Hull. 'I do wish I had your confidence. I like a real, true love story.

'A simple stawry it is,'said McClingan, 'and Jam proud of my part in it. I shall be glad to tell the stawry if you are to hear it.

We assured him of our interest.

'Well,'said he, 'there was one Tom Douglass at Edinburgh who was my friend and dassmate. We were together a good bit of the time, and when we had come to the end of our course we both went to engage in journalism at Glasgow. We had a mighty conceit of ourselves - you know how it is, Brower, with a green lad - but we were a mind to be modest, with all our learning, so we made an agreement: I would blaw his horn and he would blaw mine. We were not to lack appreciation. He was on one paper and I on another, and every time he wrote an article I went up and down the office praising him for a man o'mighty skill, and he did the same for me. If anyone spoke of him in my hearing I said every word of flattery at my command. "What Tom Douglass?" I would say, "the man o'the Herald that's written those wonderful articles from the law court? A genius, sir! an absolute genius!" Well, we were rapidly gaining reputation. One of those days I found myself in love with as comely a lass as ever a man courted. Her mother had a proper curiosity as to my character. I referred them to Tom Douglass of the Herald - he was the only man there who had known me well. The girl and her mother both went to him.

"Your friend was just here," said the young lady, when I called again. "He is a very handsome man."

'"And a noble man!" I said.

"And didn t I hear you say that he was a very skilful man, too?"

'"A genius!" I answered, "an absolute genius!"

McClingan stopped and laughed heartily as he took a sip of water.

'What happened then?'said Miss I-lull.

'She took him on my recommendation,'he answered. 'She said that, while he had the handsomer face, I had the more eloquent tongue. And they both won for him. And, upon me honour as a gentleman, it was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, for she became a brawler and a scold. My mother says there is "no the like o'her in Scotland".

I shall never forget how fondly Margaret Hull patted the brown cheek of Trumbull with her delicate white band, as we rose.

'We all have our love stawries,'said McClingan.

'Mine is better than yours,'she answered, 'but it shall never be told.

'Except one little part if it,'said Trumbull, as he put his hands upon her shoulders, and looked down into her face. 'It is the only thing that has made my life worth living.

Then she made us to know many odd things about her work for the children of misfortune - inviting us to come and see it for ourselves. We were to go the next evening.

I finished my work at nine that night and then we walked through noisome streets and alleys - New York was then far from being so clean a city as now - to the big mission house. As we came in at the door we saw a group of women kneeling before the altar at the far end of the room, and heard the voice of Margaret Hull praying' a voice so sweet and tender that we bowed our heads at once, and listened while it quickened the life in us. She plead for the poor creatures about her, to whom Christ gave always the most abundant pity, seeing they were more sinned against than sinning. There was not a word of cant in her petition. It was full of a simple, unconscious eloquence, a higher feeling than I dare try to define. And when it was over she had won'their love and confidence so that they clung to her hands and kissed them and wet them with their tears. She came and spoke to us presently, in the same sweet manner that had charmed us the night before' there was no change in it We offered to walk home with her, but she said Trumbull was coming at twelve.

'So that is "The Little Mother" of whom I have heard so often,'said McClingan, as we came away.

'What do you think of her?'I enquired.

'Wonderful woman!'he said. 'I never heard such a voice. It gives me visions. Every other is as the crackling of thorns under a pot

I came back to the office and went into Mr Greeley's room to bid him goodbye. He stood by the gas jet, in a fine new suit of clothes, reading a paper, while a boy was blacking one of his boots. I sat down, awaiting a more favourable moment. A very young man had come into the room and stood timidly holding his hat.

'I wish to see Mr Greeley,'he said.

'There he is,'I answered, 'go and speak to him.

'Mr Greeley,'said he, 'I have called to see if you can'take me on the Tribune.

The Printer continued reading as if he were the only man in the room.

The young man looked at him and then at me - with an expression that moved me to a fellow feeling. He was a country boy, more green and timid even than I had been.

'He did not hear you - try again,'I said.

'Mr Greeley,'said he, louder than before, 'I have called to see if you can'take me on the Tribune.

The editor's eyes glanced off at the boy and returned to their reading.

'No, boy, I can't,'he drawled, shifting his eyes to another article. And the boy, who was called to the service of the paper in time, but not until after his pen had made him famous, went away with a look of bitter disappointment.

In his attire Mr Greeley wore always the best material, that soon took on a friendless and dejected look. The famous white overcoat had been bought for five dollars of a man who had come by chance to the office of the New Yorker, years before, and who considered its purchase a great favour. That was a time when the price of a coat was a thing of no little importance to the Printer. Tonight there was about him a great glow, such as comes of fine tailoring and new linen.

He was so preoccupied with his paper that I went out into the big room and sat down, awaiting a better time.

'The Printer's going to Washington to talk with the president,'said an editor.

Just then Mr Greeley went running hurriedly up the spiral stair on his way to the typeroom. Three or four compositors had gone up ahead of him. He had risen out of sight when we heard a tremendous uproar above stairs. I ran up, two steps at a time, while the high voice of Mr Greeley came pouring down upon me like a flood. It had a wild, fleering tone. He stood near the landing, swinging his arms and swearing like a boy just learning how. In the middle of the once immaculate shirt bosom was a big, yellow splash. Something had fallen on him and spattered as it struck We stood well out of range, looking at it, undeniably the stain of nicotine. In a voice that was no encouragement to confession he dared 'the drooling idiot'to declare himself. In a moment he opened his waistcoat and surveyed the damage.

'Look at that!'he went on, complainingly. 'Ugh! The reeking, filthy, slobbering idiot! I d rather be slain with the jaw bone of an ass.

'You ll have to get another shirt,'said the pressman, who stood near. 'You can't go to Washington with such a breast pin.

'I'd breast pin him if I knew who he was,'said the editor.'

A number of us followed him downstairs and a young man went up the Bowery for a new shirt. When it came the Printer took off the soiled gannent, flinging it into a corner, and I helped him to put himself in proper fettle again. This finished, he ran away, hurriedly, with his carpet-bag, and I missed the opportunity I wanted for a brief talk with him.