Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Philander Deming (18291915)
[Born in Carlisle, Schoharie Co., N. Y., 1829. Died in Albany, N. Y., 1915. Tompkins and Other Folks. 1885.]
HE was a small, wiry man, about forty years of age, with a bright young face, dark eyes, and iron-gray hair. We were reclining in a field, under a clump of pines, on a height overlooking Lake Champlain. Near by were the dull-red brick buildings of the University of Vermont. Burlington, blooming with flowers and embowered in trees, sloped away below us. Beyond the town, the lake, a broad plain of liquid blue, slept in the June sunshine, and in the farther distance towered the picturesque Adirondacks.
It is certainly true, said Tompkins, turning upon his side so as to face me, and propping his head with his hand, while his elbow rested on the ground. Dont you remember, I used to insist that they were peculiar, when we were here in college?
Halloo! he suddenly called out, rising to his feet, and looking toward the little brown road near us. I looked in the same direction, and saw a plainly dressed elderly couple on foot, apparently out for a walk. Tompkins went hastily toward them, helped the lady over the fence, the gentleman following, and a moment later I was introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Pember, of Chicago.
Tompkins gathered some large stones, pulled a board off the fence in rather a reckless manner, and fixed a seat for the couple where they could lean against a tree. When they were provided for, I reclined again, but Tompkins stood before us, talking and gesticulating.
This, said he, is the identical place, Mrs. Pember. Here you can see the beauties I have so often described. Before you are the town and the lake, and beyond them the mountains of Northern New York; and (if you will please to turn your head) that great blue wall behind you, twenty miles away, is composed of the highest mountains in Vermont. The mountains in front of you are the Adirondacks, and those behind you are the Green Mountains. You are at the central point of this magnificent Champlain Valley; and you are comfortably seated here beneath the shade, on this the loveliest day of summer. Dear friends, I congratulate you, and Tompkins shook hands with Mr. and Mrs. Pember.
It was in those memorable and classic halls, as my classmate here can testify, replied Tompkins. And here we roamed in Academus sacred shade, and a good deal beyond it. We went fishing and boating during term-time, and made long trips to the mountains in the vacations. In the mean time this wonderful valley was photographed upon the white and spotless sensorium of my youthful soul.
A general conversation followed, in the course of which it appeared that Tompkins had boarded at the home of the Pembers for several years. They evidently looked upon him almost as their own son. They were travelling with him during his summer rest.
This is a queer world, observed Tompkins, dropping down beside me, and lying flat on his back, with his hands under his head. I came to college from a back neighborhood over in York State, and up to the day I was graduated, and for a long time afterward, I thought I must be President of the United States, or a Presbyterian minister, or a great poet, or something remarkable, and here I am an auctioneer.
Said he, Since I was graduated, I never was back here but once before, and that was four years ago next August. I was travelling this way then, and reached here Saturday evening. I was in the pork business at that time, as a clerk, and had to stop off here to see a man for the firm. I put up at the best hotel, feeling as comfortable and indifferent as I ever did in my life. There was not the shadow of an idea in my mind of what was going to happen. On Sunday morning I walked about town, and it began to come down on me.
No; the strangest and most unaccountable feeling I ever had in my life, answered Tompkins. It was thirteen years since I had said good-by to college. It had long ago become apparent to me that the ideas with which I had graduated were visionary and impracticable. I comprehended that the college professors were not the great men I had once thought them, and that a college president was merely a human being. I had been hardened by fighting my way, as a friendless young man has to do in a great city. As the confidential clerk of a large pork-house in Chicago, I felt equal to the next man, whoever he might be. If a professor had met me as I got off the cars here Saturday night, it would have been easy for me to snub him. But Sunday morning, as familiar objects began to appear in the course of my walk, the strange feeling of which I have spoken came over me. It was the feeling of old times. The white clouds, the blue lake, this wonderful scenery, thrilled me, and called back the college dreams.
Well, continued Tompkins, that Sunday morning those things began to come back to me. It wasnt exactly delightful. My old ambition to do something great in the world awoke as if from a long sleep. As I prolonged my walk the old associations grew stronger. When I came near the college buildings it seemed as if I still belonged here. The hopes of an ideal career were before me as bright as ever. The grand things I was going to do, the volumes of poems and other writings by Tompkins, and his marvellous successes were as clear as day. In short, the whole thing was conjured up as if it were a picture, just as it used to be when I was a student in college, and it was too much for me.
Well, resumed Tompkins, as I was saying, on one side were Homer and Virgil and Horace and Tompkins, and on the other was pork. I cannot explain it, but somehow there it was. The two pictures, thirteen years apart, were brought so close together that they touched. It was something I do not pretend to understand. Managing to get by the college buildings, I came up to this spot where we are now. You will infer that my eyes watered badly, and to tell the truth they did. Of course it is all very well, explained Tompkins, uncrossing his legs, turning upon his side, and propping his head on his hand again,of course it is all very well to rake down the college, and say Alma Mater doesnt amount to anything. The boys all do it, and they believe what they say for the first five or six years after they leave here. But we may as well understand that if we know how to slight the old lady, and dont go to see her for a dozen years, she knows how to punish. She had me across her knee, that Sunday morning, in a way that I would have thought impossible. After an hour I controlled myself, and went back to the hotel. I brushed my clothes, and started for church, with a lump in my throat all the while. My trim business suit didnt seem so neat and nobby as usual. The two pictures, the one of the poets and the other of pork, were in my mind. I shied along the sidewalk in a nervous condition, and reaching the church without being recognized managed to get a seat near the door. Could I believe my senses? I knew that I was changed, probably past all recognition, but around me I saw the faces of my Burlington friends exactly as they had been thirteen years before. I did not understand then, as I do now, that a young man in business in Chicago will become gray-headed in ten years, though he might have lived a quiet life in Vermont for a quarter of a century, without changing a hair.
Yes, replied Tompkins, with an uneasy glance at me; but I didnt do it. There was one thing in the church there, that morning, that I shall never have a better chance to tell of, and I am going to tell it now, while you are here.
This last sentence was addressed to me, and my old classmate uttered the words with a gentleness and a frankness that brought back my best recollections of him in our college days, when he was little Tompkins, the warmest-hearted fellow in our class.
You have asked me, Mrs. Pember, very often, about the people up here, and now I will tell you about some of them. Do you notice that mountain away beyond the lake, in behind the others, so that you can see only the top, which is shaped like a pyramid? That is old Whiteface, and it is more than forty miles from here. It used to be understood that there was nothing whatever over there except woods and rocks and bears and John Brown. But the truth is, right at the foot of the mountain, in the valley on this side, there is a little village called Wilmington, and it is the centre of the world. Lucy Cary and I were born there. It was not much of a village then, and it is about the same now. There was no church, and no store, and no hotel, in my time; there were only half a dozen dwelling-houses, and a blacksmith shop, and a man who made shoes. Lucy lived in the house next to ours. Her father was the man who made shoes. Lucy and I picked berries and rambled about with Rover, the dog, from the time we were little. Of course you will naturally think there is something romantic coming, but there is not. We were just a couple of children playing together; and we studied together as we grew older. They made a great deal of studying and schooling over there. They had almost as much respect for learning then in Wilmington as they have now among the White Mountains, where they will not allow any waiters at the hotels who cannot talk Greek.
It was quite an affair when Lucy and I left Wilmington and came to Burlington. The departure of two inhabitants was a loss to the town. It was not equal to the Chicago fire, but it was an important event. I went to college, and Lucy came over the lake to work in a woollen factory. There is where she worked, pointing to the beautiful little village of Winooski, a mile away behind us, in the green valley of Onion River.
That was it, said Tompkins. We used to serenade her sometimes, with the rest; but she seemed to think it was not exactly the right thing for a poor factory-girl, and so we gave it up. I used to see her occasionally, but somehow there grew up a distance between us.
Well, to tell the truth, answered Tompkins, I think my college ideas had too much to do with it. I did not see it at the time, but it has come over me lately. When a young chap gets his head full of new ideas, he is very likely to forget the old ones.
The excuse I have, continued Tompkins, is that I had to work and scrimp and suffer so myself, to get along and pay my way, that I hardly thought of anything except my studies and how to meet my expenses. Then there was that dream of doing some great thing in the world. I taught the district school in Wilmington three months during my sophomore year to get money to go on with, and I think that helped to make me ambitious. It was the sincere conviction of the neighborhood over there that I would be president of the college or of the United States. I do not think they would have conceded that there was much difference in the two positions. I felt that I would be disgraced if I did not meet their expectations. By one of those coincidences which seemed to follow our fortunes, Lucy made a long visit home when I was teaching in Wilmington. She was one of my pupils. She was a quiet little lady, and hardly spoke a loud word, that I remember, all winter.
I do not claim that I did, answered Tompkins. I was studying hard to keep up with my class, and that was the reason. But I wish I had paid more attention to Lucy Cary that winter. I would not have you think there was anything particular between Lucy and me. It was not that.
Yes, I will, responded Tompkins. After I came back to college I got along better than before I had taught. The money I received for teaching helped me, and another thing aided me. The folks in Wilmington found out how a poor young man works to get through college. Some of us used to live on a dollar a week apiece, and board ourselves in our rooms, down there in the buildings; and we were doing the hardest kind of studying at the same time. We would often club together, one doing the cooking for five or six. The cook would get off without paying. It was one of the most delightful things in the world to see a tall young man in a calico dressing-gown come out on the green, where we would be playing foot-ball, and make the motions of beating an imaginary gong for dinner. In order to appreciate it, you need to work hard and play hard and live on the slimmest kind of New England fare. But there is one thing even better than that. To experience the most exquisite delight ever known by a Burlington student, you ought to have an uncle Jason. While I was teaching in Wilmington, my uncle Jason, from North Elba, which was close by, came there. When he found out what an important man I was, and how I was fighting my way, he sympathized wonderfully. He was not on good terms at our house, but he called at my school, and almost cried over me. He was not a man of much learning, but he looked upon those who were educated as a superior order of beings. I was regarded in the neighborhood as a sort of martyr to science, a genius who was working himself to death. I was the only public man ever produced by the settlement up to that date. It was part of the religion of the place to look upon me as something unusual, and uncle Jason shared the general feeling. I could see, as he sat there in the school-house observing the school, that he was very proud of me. Before leaving, he called me into the entry and gave me a two-dollar bill. It was generous, for he was a poor man, and had his wife and children to support. It brought the tears to my eyes when he handed me the money, and told me I was the flower of the family and the pride of the settlement. I felt as if I would rather die than fail of fulfilling the expectations of my friends. There was great delight in it, and it was an inexpressible joy to know that my relatives and the neighbors cared so much for me.
To comprehend this thing fully, Mrs. Pember, you ought to be in college, and when you are getting hard up, and see no way but to leave, get letters, as I did from uncle Jason, with five or six dollars at a time in them. Such a trifle would carry you through to the end of the term, and save your standing in the class. If you were a Burlington college boy, while you might be willing to depart this life in an honorable manner, you would not be willing to lose your mark and standing as a student. You would regard the consequences of such a disaster as very damaging to your character, and certain to remain with you forever.
I may as well say, while it is on my mind, that I do think this matter of education is a little overdone in this part of the country. A young man is not the centre of the universe merely because he is a college student, or a graduate, and it is not worth while to scare him with any such idea. The only way he can meet the expectation of his friends, under such circumstances, is to get run over accidentally by the cars. That completes his martyrdom, and affords his folks an opportunity to boast of what he would have been if he had lived.
Yes, certainly, replied Tompkins. Lucy had a wonderful idea of poetry and writing. It is really alarming to a stranger to see the feeling there is up here in that way. The impression prevails generally that a writer is superior to all other people on earth. I remember to have heard that one of our class, a year after we were graduated, started a newspaper back here about ten miles, on the bank of the Onion River. He might just as well have started it under a sage bush out on the alkali plains. He gave it some queer Greek name, and I heard that the publication was first semi-weekly, then weekly, and then very weakly indeed, until it came to a full stop at the end of six months. It would have been ridiculous anywhere else; but being an attempt at literature, I suppose it was looked upon here as respectable.
Not to any dangerous extent, replied Tompkins. I do not deny that I tried while in college, but I reformed when I went West. I think uncle Jason always had an idea that it might be better for me to be Daniel Webster. He stood by me after I left college, and for three years I continued to get those letters, with five or six dollars at a time in them. They kept me from actual suffering sometimes, before I got down off my stilts, and went to work, like an honest man, in the pork business.
Yes, I was, rejoined Tompkins. When I saw Lucy here, four years ago, in the gallery with the singers, I felt as if it would be impossible for me to face her and talk with her. She would not have known me, for one thing. When I was a brown-haired boy, making poetry and being a martyr, and doing serenading, and living on codfish and crackers and soup, I could meet Lucy with a grand air that made her shudder; but, as I sat there in church, gray and worn, I dreaded to catch her eye, or have her see me. Although there was not three years difference in our ages, yet it seemed to me that I was very old, while she was still blooming. Then there was the feeling that I had not become a great poet, or orator, or anything really worth while. On the contrary, I was just nobody. It seemed like attending my own funeral. I felt disgraced. Of course it was not all true. I had been a good, square, honest, hard-working man.
Yes indeed, I had, repeated Tompkins, his chin quivering. It was not the thing for a fair-minded man to think so poorly of himself; but I was alone, and the old associations and the solemn services were very impressive. There was Lucy in the choir; she always could sing like a nightingale. When I heard her voice again, it overcame me. I did not hear much of the sermon. I think it was something about temptation and the suggestions of the evil one; but I am not sure, for I had my head down on the back of the pew in front of me most of the time. I had to fight desperately to control my feelings. One minute I would think that as soon as the services closed I would rush around and shake hands with my old acquaintances, and the next minute would be doing my best to swallow the lump in my throat. It was as tough a sixty minutes as I ever passed. But finally the services were ended. I felt that it was plainly my duty to stop in the porch and claim the recognition of my friends. I did pause, and try for a few seconds to collect myself; but the lump grew bigger and choked me, while the tears would flow. Besides that, as the adversary just then, in the meanest possible manner, suggested to my soul, there was that pork. I knew I would have to tell of it if I stopped. But I did not stop; I retreated. When I reached my room in the hotel I felt a longing to get out of town. Fortunately, I could not leave on Sunday. So in the afternoon I sat with the landlord on his broad front platform, or piazza. It was not the person who keeps the place now, but one of the oldest inhabitants, who knew all about the Burlington people. He guessed that I was a college boy; he thought he remembered something about my appearance. I did not mind talking freely with a landlord, for hotels and boarding-houses had been my home in Chicago. I had always been a single man, just as I am to this day. This landlord was a good-hearted old chap, and it was pleasant to talk with him. While we were sitting there, who should come along the street but Lucy, with a book in her hand. She was on the opposite sidewalk, and did not look up. She would not look at a hotel on Sunday. I asked the landlord about her, and he told me all there was to tell. She was living in one end of a little wooden cottage over toward Winooski, another factory-woman occupying the other part of the house. They made a home together. The landlord said Lucy was an excellent woman, and might have married one of the overseers in the factory any time she chose for years back, but that she preferred a single life.
When I got back to Chicago I kept thinking about Lucy Cary. The old times when we used to live in Wilmington came back to my mind. The truth of it was, I was getting along a little, at last, in Chicago in the way of property, and I found myself all the while planning how I could have Lucy Cary near me.
It was not that, he replied; but I wanted to become acquainted with her again. I knew she was the best girl I had ever seen. She always was just as good and pious as anybody could be. We were like brother and sister, almost, when young; and when I thought of home and my folks and old Wilmington and the college days, somehow Lucy was the centre of it all. In fact, almost everything else was gone. My folks were scattered, and Lucy and uncle Jason were nearly the only persons up this way that I could lay claim to. There is a kind of lonesome streak comes over a man when he has been grinding away in a great city for a good many years, and comes back to the old places, and sees them so fresh and green and quiet, and he cant get over it. He will cling to anything that belongs to old times. I was strongly influenced to write to Lucy, but finally I did not. I determined that I would get all I could for two or three years, and then I would come here and face things. I would get something comfortable, and would have a place I could call my own in Chicago. Then, when I had it fixed, I would come and see uncle Jason and Lucy, and stand the racket. Of course it was nonsense to feel shy, but it seemed to me that I could not say a word until I had something to brag of. They knew, in a general kind of way, that I was in Chicago, dealing in pork, or doing auctioneering or something, and that was as much humiliation as I could endure. To be sure, it was nothing to be ashamed of, for I had been an honest, faithful man; but to come back to my friends empty-handed, without money or fame, and gray-headed at that, was more than I could stand. If I had had anything or been anything, just to take the edge off, I could have managed it. As it was, I looked ahead and worked. If any man in Chicago has tried and planned and toiled during the last three years, I am that man. There has been a picture before my mind of a pleasant home there.
As I was saying, I have worked hard, and have got a nice little pile. I am worth thirty-five thousand dollars. When I made up my mind to come East this summer, the money to pay uncle Jason for what he had done was all ready. It made me choke to think how long I had let it run. I figured it up as near as I couldthe two hundred that came to me in college, and the two hundred after that; and I put in the simple interest at seven per cent., according to the York State law, which brought the sum total up to nearly nine hundred; and to fix it all right I made it an even thousand dollars. Then I bought a new buckskin bag, and went to a bank in Chicago and got the money all in gold. I knew that would please uncle Jason. He once talked of going to California to dig. I suppose he had never seen a pile of the real yellow coin in his life. I wrote to him that I was to be in Burlington, and that I would be ever so glad if he would come over and see me. I met him yesterday afternoon, as he got off the boat, down at the steamboat landing. He knew me, and I knew him, although we were both changed a good deal. After we had talked a little, and got used to each other, I took him up to my room in the hotel. I was in a hurry to get at the business part of my visit with him first; for it seemed to me that it would be better to let him see, to begin with, that I was not exactly poor, nor such an ungrateful cub as may be he had thought I was. It was my resolve that before we talked of anything else I would get that money off my conscience. I knew that then I could hold up my head, and discuss our neighborhood and old times, and it would be plain sailing for me. I had pictured to my mind a dozen times how uncle Jason would look with that new yellow buckskin bag crammed with gold on his knee, steadying it with his hand and talking to me. So when I got him up to my room, and seated him in a chair, I began the performance. I got red in the face, and spluttered, and flourished round with the bag and the gold; and, to tell the truth, I fully expected to make the old mans hair rise right up. But it did not work. He got shaky and trembled, and somehow did not seem to want the money at all, and finally owned how it was. He said that he had never given me a cent; it was all Lucy Carys doing. And she had made him promise, on his everlasting Bible oath, as he called it, that he would not tell. She had put him up to the whole thing; even that first two-dollar bill had come from her wages.
My old classmate ceased speaking. He was becoming flushed and excited. He gazed abstractedly at the broad blue mirror of old Champlain, upon which he and I had looked together so often in the days of our youth.
Why, Timothy, what is the matter? cried Mrs. Pember, rising from her seat and coming to him, as he bent his head and buried his face in his hands. The motherly woman took off his soft hat, and stroking his hair said: You had better tell; it will do you good. And then she put his hat on again, and stood wiping her eyes in sympathy, while he struggled with himself.
The storm of feeling passed away, and Tompkins, having gained control of his emotions, slowly lifted his face from his hands, and sat peering out under his hat-brim, looking apparently at a boat upon the lake. At last he said, in a calm voice: She is dead.
It was very still after this announcement. The softest breath of June scarcely whispered in the pines overhead, and the vast landscape below seemed strangely at rest in the fervid brightness of the summer noon.