Theodore Dreiser ~ A Doer of the Word

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Noank is a little played-out fishing town on the southeastern coast of Connecticut, lying half-way between New London and Stonington. Once it was a profitable port for mackerel and cod fishing. Today its wharves are deserted of all save a few lobster smacks. There is a shipyard, employing three hundred and fifty men, a yacht-building establishment, with two or three hired hands; a sail-loft, and some dozen or so shops or sheds, where the odds and ends of fishing life are made and sold. Everything is peaceful. The sound of the shipyard axes and hammers can be heard for miles over the quiet waters of the bay. In the sunny lane which follows the line of the shore, and along which a few shops struggle in happy-go-lucky disorder, may be heard the voices and noises of the workers at their work. Water gurgling about the stanchions of the docks, the whistle of some fisherman as he dawdles over his nets, or puts his fish ashore, the whirr of the single high-power sewing machine in the sail-loft, often mingle in a pleasant harmony, and invite the mind to repose and speculation.

I was in a most examining and critical mood that summer, looking into the nature and significance of many things, and was sitting one day in the shed of the maker of sailboats, where a half-dozen characters of the village were gathered, when some turn in the conversation brought up the nature of man. He is queer, he is restless; life is not so very much when you come to look upon many phases of it.

“Did any of you ever know a contented man?” I inquired idly, merely for the sake of something to say.

There was silence for a moment, and one after another met my roving glance with a thoughtful, self-involved and retrospective eye.

Old Mr. Main was the first to answer.

“Yes, I did. One.”

“So did I,” put in the sailboat maker, as he stopped in his work to think about it.

“Yes, and I did,” said a dark, squat, sunny, little old fisherman, who sold cunners for bait in a little hut next door.

“Maybe you and me are thinking of the same one, Jacob,” said old Mr. Main, looking inquisitively at the boat-builder.

“I think we’ve all got the same man in mind, likely,” returned the builder.

“Who is he?” I asked.

“Charlie Potter,” said the builder.

“That’s the man!” exclaimed Mr. Main.

“Yes, I reckon Charlie Potter is contented, if anybody be,” said an old fisherman who had hitherto been silent.

Such unanimity of opinion struck me forcibly. Charlie Potter—what a humble name; not very remarkable, to say the least. And to hear him so spoken of in this restless, religious, quibbling community made it all the more interesting.

“So you really think he is contented, do you?” I asked.

“Yes, sir! Charlie Potter is a contented man,” replied Mr. Main, with convincing emphasis.

“Well,” I returned, “that’s rather interesting. What sort of a man is he?”

“Oh, he’s just an ordinary man, not much of anybody. Fishes and builds boats occasionally,” put in the boat-builder.

“Is that all? Nothing else?”

“He preaches now and then—not regularly,” said Mr. Main.

A-ha! I thought. A religionist!

“A preacher is expected to set a good example,” I said.

“He ain’t a regular preacher,” said Mr. Main, rather quickly. “He’s just kind of around in religious work.”

“What do you mean?” I asked curiously, not quite catching the import of this “around.”

“Well,” answered the boat builder, “he don’t take any money for what he does. He ain’t got anything.”

“What does he live on then?” I persisted, still wondering at the significance of “around in religious work.”

“I don’t know. He used to fish for a living. Fishes yet once in a while, I believe.”

“He makes models of yachts,” put in one of the bystanders. “He sold the New Haven Road one for two hundred dollars here not long ago.”

A vision of a happy-go-lucky Jack-of-all-trades arose before me. A visionary—a theorist.

“What else?” I asked, hoping to draw them out. “What makes you all think he is contented? What does he do that makes him so contented?”

“Well,” said Mr. Main, after a considerable pause and with much of sympathetic emphasis in his voice, “Charlie Potter is just a good man, that’s all. That’s why he’s contented. He does as near as he can what he thinks he ought to by other people—poor people.”

“You won’t find anybody with a kinder heart than Charlie Potter,” put in the boat-builder. “That’s the trouble with him, really. He’s too good. He don’t look after himself right, I say. A fellow has to look out for himself some in this world. If he don’t, no one else will.”

“Right you are, Henry,” echoed a truculent sea voice from somewhere.

I was becoming both amused and interested, intensely so.

“If he wasn’t that way, he’d be a darned sight better off than he is,” said a thirty-year-old helper, from a far corner of the room.

“What makes you say that?” I queried. “Isn’t it better to be kind-hearted and generous than not?”

“It’s all right to be kind-hearted and generous, but that ain’t sayin’ that you’ve got to give your last cent away and let your family go hungry.”

“Is that what Charlie Potter does?”

“Well, no, maybe he don’t, but he comes mighty near to it at times. He and his wife and his adopted children have been pretty close to it at times.”

You see, this was the center, nearly, for all village gossip and philosophic speculation, and many of the most important local problems, morally and intellectually speaking, were here thrashed put.

“There’s no doubt but that’s where Charlie is wrong,” put in old Mr. Main a little later. “He don’t always stop to think of his family.”

“What did he ever do that struck you as being over-generous?” I asked of the young man who had spoken from the corner.

“That’s all right,” he replied in a rather irritated and peevish tone; “I ain’t going to go into details now, but there’s people around here that hang on him, and that he’s give to, that he hadn’t orter.”

“I believe in lookin’ out for Number One, that’s what I believe in,” interrupted the boat-maker, laying down his rule and line. “This givin’ up everything and goin’ without yourself may be all right, but I don’t believe it. A man’s first duty is to his wife and children, that’s what I say.”

“That’s the way it looks to me,” put in Mr. Main.

“Well, does Potter give up everything and go without things?” I asked the boat-maker.

“Purty blamed near it at times,” he returned definitely, then addressing the company in general he added, “Look at the time he worked over there on Fisher’s Island, at the Ellersbie farm—the time they were packing the ice there. You remember that, Henry, don’t you?”

Mr. Main nodded.

“What about it?”

“What about it! Why, he give his rubber boots away, like a darned fool, to old drunken Jimmy Harper, and him loafin’ around half the year drunk, and worked around on the ice without any shoes himself. He might ‘a’ took cold and died.”

“Why did he do it?” I queried, very much interested by now.

“Oh, Charlie’s naturally big-hearted,” put in the little old man who sold cunners. “He believes in the Lord and the Bible. Stands right square on it, only he don’t belong to no church like. He’s got the biggest heart I ever saw in a livin’ being.”

“Course the other fellow didn’t have any shoes for to wear,” put in the boat-maker explanatorily, “but he never would work, anyhow.”

They lapsed into silence while the latter returned to his measuring, and then out of the drift of thought came this from the helper in the corner:

“Yes, and look at the way Bailey used to sponge on him. Get his money Saturday night and drink it all up, and then Sunday morning, when his wife and children were hungry, go cryin’ around Potter. Dinged if I’d ‘a’ helped him. But Potter’d take the food right off his breakfast table and give it to him. I saw him do it! I don’t think that’s right. Not when he’s got four or five orphans of his own to care for.”

“His own children?” I interrupted, trying to get the thing straight.

“No, sir; just children he picked up around, here and there.”

Here is a curious character, sure enough, I thought—one well worth looking into.

Another lull, and then as I was leaving the room to give the matter a little quiet attention, I remarked to the boat-maker:

“Outside of his foolish giving, you haven’t anything against Charlie Potter, have you?”

“Not a thing,” he replied, in apparent astonishment. “Charlie Potter’s one of the best men that ever lived. He’s a good man.”

I smiled at the inconsistency and went my way.

A day or two later the loft of the sail-maker, instead of the shed of the boat-builder, happened to be my lounging place, and thinking of this theme, now uppermost in my mind, I said to him:

“Do you know a man around here by the name of Charlie Potter?”

“Well, I might say that I do. He lived here for over fifteen years.”

“What sort of a man is he?”

He stopped in his stitching a moment to look at me, and then said:

“How d’ye mean? By trade, so to speak, or religious-like?”

“What is it he has done,” I said, “that makes him so popular with all you people? Everybody says he’s a good man. Just what do you mean by that?”

“Well,” he said, ceasing his work as though the subject were one of extreme importance to him, “he’s a peculiar man, Charlie is. He believes in giving nearly everything he has away, if any one else needs it. He’d give the coat off his back if you asked him for it. Some folks condemn him for this, and for not giving everything to his wife and them orphans he has, but I always thought the man was nearer right than most of us. I’ve got a family myself—but, then, so’s he, now, for that matter. It’s pretty hard to live up to your light always.”

He looked away as if he expected some objection to be made to this, but hearing none, he went on. “I always liked him personally very much. He ain’t around here now any more—lives up in Norwich, I think. He’s a man of his word, though, as truthful as kin be. He ain’t never done nothin’ for me, I not bein’ a takin’ kind, but that’s neither here nor there.”

He paused, in doubt apparently, as to what else to say.

“You say he’s so good,” I said. “Tell me one thing that he ever did that struck you as being preëminently good.”

“Well, now, I can’t say as I kin, exactly, offhand,” he replied, “there bein’ so many of them from time to time. He was always doin’ things one way and another. He give to everybody around here that asked him, and to a good many that didn’t. I remember once”—and a smile gave evidence of a genial memory—”he give away a lot of pork that he’d put up for the winter to some colored people back here—two or three barrels, maybe. His wife didn’t object, exactly, but my, how his mother-in-law did go on about it. She was livin’ with him then. She went and railed against him all around.”

“She didn’t like to give it to them, eh?”

“Well, I should say not. She didn’t set with his views, exactly—never did. He took the pork, though—it was right in the coldest weather we had that winter—and hauled it back about seven miles here to where they lived, and handed it all out himself. Course they were awful hard up, but then they might ‘a’ got along without it. They do now, sometimes. Charlie’s too good that way. It’s his one fault, if you might so speak of it.”

I smiled as the evidence accumulated. Houseless wayfarers, stopping to find food and shelter under his roof, an orphan child carried seven miles on foot from the bedside of a dead mother and cared for all winter, three children, besides two of his own, being raised out of a sense of affection and care for the fatherless.

One day in the local post office I was idling a half hour with the postmaster, when I again inquired:

“Do you know Charlie Potter?”

“I should think I did. Charlie Potter and I sailed together for something over eleven years.”

“How do you mean sailed together?”

“We were on the same schooner. This used to be a great port for mackerel and cod. We were wrecked once together”

“How was that?”

“Oh, we went on rocks.”

“Any lives lost?”

“No, but there came mighty near being. We helped each other in the boat. I remember Charlie was the last one in that time. Wouldn’t get in until all the rest were safe.”

A sudden resolution came to me.

“Do you know where he is now?”

“Yes, he’s up in Norwich, preaching or doing missionary work. He’s kind of busy all the time among the poor people, and so on. Never makes much of anything out of it for himself, but just likes to do it, I guess.”

“Do you know how he manages to live?”

“No, I don’t, exactly. He believes in trusting to Providence for what he needs. He works though, too, at one job and another. He’s a carpenter for one thing. Got an idea the Lord will send ‘im whatever he needs.”

“Well, and does He?”

“Well, he lives.” A little later he added:

“Oh, yes. There’s nothing lazy about Charlie. He’s a good worker. When he was in the fishing line here there wasn’t a man worked harder than he did. They can’t anybody lay anything like that against him.”

“Is he very difficult to talk to?” I asked, meditating on seeking him out. I had so little to do at the time, the very idlest of summers, and the reports of this man’s deeds were haunting me. I wanted to discover for myself whether he was real or not—whether the reports were true. The Samaritan in people is so easily exaggerated at times.

“Oh, no. He’s one of the finest men that way I ever knew. You could see him, well enough, if you went up to Norwich, providing he’s up there. He usually is, though, I think. He lives there with his wife and mother, you know.”

I caught an afternoon boat for New London and Norwich at one-thirty, and arrived in Norwich at five. The narrow streets of the thriving little mill city were alive with people. I had no address, could not obtain one, but through the open door of a news-stall near the boat landing I called to the proprietor:

“Do you know any one in Norwich by the name of Charlie Potter?”

“The man who works around among the poor people here?”

“That’s the man.”

“Yes, I know him. He lives out on Summer Street, Number Twelve, I think. You’ll find it in the city directory.”

The ready reply was rather astonishing. Norwich has something like thirty thousand people.

I walked out in search of Summer Street and finally found a beautiful lane of that name climbing upward over gentle slopes, arched completely with elms. Some of the pretty porches of the cottages extended nearly to the sidewalk. Hammocks, rocking-chairs on verandas, benches under the trees—all attested the love of idleness and shade in summer. Only the glimpse of mills and factories in the valley below evidenced the grimmer life which gave rise mayhap to the need of a man to work among the poor.

“Is this Summer Street?” I inquired of an old darky who was strolling cityward in the cool of the evening. An umbrella was under his arm and an evening paper under his spectacled nose.

“Bress de Lord!” he said, looking vaguely around. “Ah couldn’t say. Ah knows dat street—been on it fifty times—but Ah never did know de name. Ha, ha, ha!”

The hills about echoed his hearty laugh.

“You don’t happen to know Charlie Potter?”

“Oh, yas, sah. Ah knows Charlie Potter. Dat’s his house right ovah dar.”

The house in which Charlie Potter lived was a two-story frame, overhanging a sharp slope, which descended directly to the waters of the pretty river below. For a mile or more, the valley of the river could be seen, its slopes dotted with houses, the valley itself lined with mills. Two little girls were upon the sloping lawn to the right of the house. A stout, comfortable-looking man was sitting by a window on the left side of the house, gazing out over the valley.

“Is this where Charlie Potter lives?” I inquired of one of the children.

“Yes, sir.”

“Did he live in Noank?”

“Yes, sir.”

Just then a pleasant-faced woman of forty-five or fifty issued from a vine-covered door.

“Mr. Potter?” she replied to my inquiry. “He’ll be right out.”

She went about some little work at the side of the house, and in a moment Charlie Potter appeared. He was short, thick-set, and weighed no less than two hundred pounds. His face and hands were sunburned and brown like those of every fisherman of Noank. An old wrinkled coat and a baggy pair of gray trousers clothed his form loosely. Two inches of a spotted, soft-brimmed hat were pulled carelessly over his eyes. His face was round and full, but slightly seamed. His hands were large, his walk uneven, and rather inclined to a side swing, or the sailor’s roll. He seemed an odd, pudgy person for so large a fame.

“Is this Mr. Potter?”

“I’m the man.”

“I live on a little hummock at the east of Mystic Island, off Noank.”

“You do?”

“I came up to have a talk with you.”

“Will you come inside, or shall we sit out here?”

“Let’s sit on the step.”

“All right, let’s sit on the step.”

He waddled out of the gate and sank comfortably on the little low doorstep, with his feet on the cool bricks below. I dropped into the space beside him, and was greeted by as sweet and kind a look as I have ever seen in a man’s eyes. It was one of perfect courtesy and good nature—void of all suspicion.

“We were sitting down in the sailboat maker’s place at Noank the other day, and I asked a half dozen of the old fellows whether they had ever known a contented man. They all thought a while, and then they said they had. Old Mr. Main and the rest of them agreed that Charlie Potter was a contented man. What I want to know is, are you?”

I looked quizzically into his eyes to see what effect this would have, and if there was no evidence of a mist of pleasure and affection being vigorously restrained I was very much mistaken. Something seemed to hold the man in helpless silence as he gazed vacantly at nothing. He breathed heavily, then drew himself together and lifted one of his big hands, as if to touch me, but refrained.

“Yes, brother,” he said after a time, “I am.”

“Well, that’s good,” I replied, taking a slight mental exception to the use of the word brother. “What makes you contented?”

“I don’t know, unless it is that I’ve found out what I ought to do. You see, I need so very little for myself that I couldn’t be very unhappy.”

“What ought you to do?”

“I ought to love my fellowmen.”

“And do you?”

“Say, brother, but I do,” he insisted quite simply and with no evidence of chicane or make-believe—a simple, natural enthusiasm. “I love everybody. There isn’t anybody so low or so mean but I love him. I love you, yes, I do. I love you.”

He reached out and touched me with his hand, and while I was inclined to take exception to this very moral enthusiasm, I thrilled just the same as I have not over the touch of any man in years. There was something effective and electric about him, so very warm and foolishly human. The glance which accompanied it spoke, it seemed, as truthfully as his words. He probably did love me—or thought he did. What difference?

We lapsed into silence. The scene below was so charming that I could easily gaze at it in silence. This little house was very simple, not poor, by no means prosperous, but well-ordered—such a home as such a man might have. After a while I said:

“It is very evident that you think the condition of some of your fellowmen isn’t what it ought to be. Tell me what you are trying to do. What method have you for improving their condition?”

“The way I reason is this-a-way,” he began. “All that some people have is their feelings, nothing else. Take a tramp, for instance, as I often have. When you begin to sum up to see where to begin, you find that all he has in the world, besides his pipe and a little tobacco, is his feelings. It’s all most people have, rich or poor, though a good many think they have more than that. I try not to injure anybody’s feelings.”

He looked at me as though he had expressed the solution of the difficulties of the world, and the wonderful, kindly eyes beamed in rich romance upon the scene.

“Very good,” I said, “but what do you do? How do you go about it to aid your fellowmen?”

“Well,” he answered, unconsciously overlooking his own personal actions in the matter, “I try to bring them the salvation which the Bible teaches. You know I stand on the Bible, from cover to cover.”

“Yes, I know you stand on the Bible, but what do you do? You don’t merely preach the Bible to them. What do you do?”

“No, sir, I don’t preach the Bible at all. I stand on it myself. I try as near as I can to do what it says. I go wherever I can be useful. If anybody is sick or in trouble, I’m ready to go. I’ll be a nurse. I’ll work and earn them food. I’ll give them anything I can—that’s what I do.”

“How can you give when you haven’t anything? They told me in Noank that you never worked for money.”

“Not for myself alone. I never take any money for myself alone. That would be self-seeking. Anything I earn or take is for the Lord, not me. I never keep it. The Lord doesn’t allow a man to be self-seeking.”

“Well, then, when you get money what do you do with it? You can’t do and live without money.”

He had been looking away across the river and the bridge to the city below, but now he brought his eyes back and fixed them on me.

“I’ve been working now for twenty years or more, and, although I’ve never had more money than would last me a few days at a time, I’ve never wanted for anything and I’ve been able to help others. I’ve run pretty close sometimes. Time and time again I’ve been compelled to say, ‘Lord, I’m all out of coal,’ or ‘Lord, I’m going to have to ask you to get me my fare to New Haven tomorrow,’ but in the moment of my need He has never forgotten me. Why, I’ve gone down to the depot time and time again, when it was necessary for me to go, without five cents in my pocket, and He’s been there to meet me. Why, He wouldn’t keep you waiting when you’re about His work. He wouldn’t forget you—not for a minute.”

I looked at the man in open-eyed amazement.

“Do you mean to say that you would go down to a depot without money and wait for money to come to you?”

“Oh, brother,” he said, with the softest light in his eyes, “if you only knew what it is to have faith!”

He laid his hand softly on mine.

“What is car-fare to New Haven or to anywhere, to Him?”

“But,” I replied materially, “you haven’t any car-fare when you go there—how do you actually get it? Who gives it to you? Give me one instance.”

“Why, it was only last week, brother, that a woman wrote me from Maiden, Massachusetts, wanting me to come and see her. She’s very sick with consumption, and she thought she was going to die. I used to know her in Noank, and she thought if she could get to see me she would feel better.

“I didn’t have any money at the time, but that didn’t make any difference.

“‘Lord,’ I said, ‘here’s a woman sick in Maiden, and she wants me to come to her. I haven’t got any money, but I’ll go right down to the depot, in time to catch a certain train,’ and I went. And while I was standing there a man came up to me and said, ‘Brother, I’m told to give you this,’ and he handed me ten dollars.”

“Did you know the man?” I exclaimed.

“Never saw him before in my life,” he replied, smiling genially.

“And didn’t he say anything more than that?”

“No.”

I stared at him, and he added, as if to take the edge off my astonishment:

“Why, bless your heart, I knew he was from the Lord, just the moment I saw him coming.”

“You mean to say you were standing there without a cent, expecting the Lord to help you, and He did?”

“‘He shall call upon me, and I shall answer him,'” he answered simply, quoting the Ninety-first Psalm.

This incident was still the subject of my inquiry when a little colored girl came out of the yard and paused a moment before us.

“May I go down across the bridge, papa?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered, and then as she tripped away, said:

“She’s one of my adopted children.” He gazed between his knees at the sidewalk.

“Have you many others?”

“Three.”

“Raising them, are you?”

“Yes.”

“They seem to think, down in Noank, that living as you do and giving everything away is satisfactory to you but rather hard on your wife and children.”

“Well, it is true that she did feel a little uncertain in the beginning, but she’s never wanted for anything. She’ll tell you herself that she’s never been without a thing that she really needed, and she’s been happy.”

He paused to meditate, I presume, over the opinion of his former fellow townsmen, and then added:

“It’s true, there have been times when we have been right where we had to have certain things pretty badly, before they came, but they never failed to come.”

While he was still talking, Mrs. Potter came around the corner of the house and out upon the sidewalk. She was going to the Saturday evening market in the city below.

“Here she is,” he said. “Now you can ask her.”

“What is it?” she inquired, turning a serene and smiling face to me.

“They still think, down in Noank, that you’re not very happy with me,” he said. “They’re afraid you want for something once in a while.”

She took this piece of neighborly interference in better fashion than most would, I fancy.

“I have never wanted for anything since I have been married to my husband,” she said. “I am thoroughly contented.”

She looked at him and he at her, and there passed between them an affectionate glance.

“Yes,” he said, when she had passed after a pleasing little conversation, “my wife has been a great help to me. She has never complained.”

“People are inclined to talk a little,” I said.

“Well, you see, she never complained, but she did feel a little bit worried in the beginning.”

“Have you a mission or a church here in Norwich?”

“No, I don’t believe in churches.”

“Not in churches?”

“No. The sight of a minister preaching the word of God for so much a year is all a mockery to me.”

“What do you believe in?”

“Personal service. Churches and charitable institutions and societies are all valueless. You can’t reach your fellowman that way. They build up buildings and pay salaries—but there’s a better way.” (I was thinking of St. Francis and his original dream, before they threw him out and established monasteries and a costume or uniform—the thing he so much objected to.) “This giving of a few old clothes that the moths will get anyhow, that won’t do. You’ve got to give something of yourself, and that’s affection. Love is the only thing you can really give in all this world. When you give love, you give everything. Everything comes with it in some way or other.”

“How do you say?” I queried. “Money certainly comes handy sometimes.”

“Yes, when you give it with your own hand and heart—in no other way. It comes to nothing just contributed to some thing. Ah!” he added, with sudden animation, “the tangles men can get themselves into, the snarls, the wretchedness! Troubles with women, with men whom they owe, with evil things they say and think, until they can’t walk down the street any more without peeping about to see if they are followed. They can’t look you in die face; can’t walk a straight course, but have got to sneak around corners. Poor, miserable, unhappy—they’re worrying and crying and dodging one another!”

He paused, lost in contemplation of the picture he had conjured up.

“Yes,” I went on catechistically, determined, if I could, to rout out this matter of giving, this actual example of the modus operandi of Christian charity. “What do you do? How do you get along without giving them money?”

“I don’t get along without giving them some money. There are cases, lots of them, where a little money is necessary. But, brother, it is so little necessary at times. It isn’t always money they want. You can’t reach them with old clothes and charity societies,” he insisted. “You’ve got to love them, brother. You’ve got to go to them and love them, just as they are, scarred and miserable and bad-hearted.”

“Yes,” I replied doubtfully, deciding to follow this up later. “But just what is it you do in a needy case? One instance?”

“Why, one night I was passing a little house in this town,” he went on, “and I heard a woman crying. I went right to the door and opened it, and when I got inside she just stopped and looked at me.

“‘Madam,’ I said, ‘I have come to help you, if I can. Now you tell me what you’re crying for.’

“Well, sir, you know she sat there and told me how her husband drank and how she didn’t have anything in the house to eat, and so I just gave her all I had and told her I would see her husband for her, and the next day I went and hunted him up and said to him, ‘Oh, brother, I wish you would open your eyes and see what you are doing. I wish you wouldn’t do that any more. It’s only misery you are creating.’ And, you know, I got to telling about how badly his wife felt about it, and how I intended to work and try and help her, and bless me if he didn’t up and promise me before I got through that he wouldn’t do that any more. And he didn’t. He’s working today, and it’s been two years since I went to him, nearly.”

His eyes were alight with his appreciation of personal service.

“Yes, that’s one instance,” I said.

“Oh, there are plenty of them,” he replied. “It’s the only way. Down here in New London a couple of winters ago we had a terrible time of it. That was the winter of the panic, you know. Cold—my, but that was a cold winter, and thousands of people out of work—just thousands. It was awful. I tried to do what I could here and there all along, but finally things got so bad there that I went to the mayor. I saw they were raising some kind of a fund to help the poor, so I told him that if he’d give me a little of the money they were talking of spending that I’d feed the hungry for a cent-and-a-half a meal.”

“A cent-and-a-half a meal!”

“Yes, sir. They all thought it was rather curious, not possible at first, but they gave me the money and I fed ’em.”

“Good meals?”

“Yes, as good as I ever eat myself,” he replied.

“How did you do it?” I asked.

“Oh, I can cook. I just went around to the markets, and told the market-men what I wanted—heads of mackerel, and the part of the halibut that’s left after the rich man cuts off his steak—it’s the poorest part that he pays for, you know. And I went fishing myself two or three times—borrowed a big boat and got men to help me—oh, I’m a good fisherman, you know. And then I got the loan of an old covered brickyard that no one was using any more, a great big thing that I could close up and build fires in, and I put my kettle in there and rigged up tables out of borrowed boards, and got people to loan me plates and spoons and knives and forks and cups. I made fish chowder, and fish dinners, and really I set a very fine table, I did, that winter.”

“For a cent-and-a-half a meal!”

“Yes, sir, a cent-and-a-half a meal. Ask any one in New London. That’s all it cost me. The mayor said he was surprised at the way I did it.”

“Well, but there wasn’t any particular personal service in the money they gave you?” I asked, catching him up on that point. “They didn’t personally serve—those who gave you the money?”

“No, sir, they didn’t,” he replied dreamily, with unconscious simplicity. “But they gave through me, you see. That’s the way it was. I gave the personal service. Don’t you see? That’s the way.”

“Yes, that’s the way,” I smiled, avoiding as far as possible a further discussion of this contradiction, so unconscious on his part, and in the drag of his thought he took up another idea.

“I clothed ’em that winter, too—went around and got barrels and boxes of old clothing. Some of them felt a little ashamed to put on the things, but I got over that, all right. I was wearing them myself, and I just told them, ‘Don’t feel badly, brother. I’m wearing them out of the same barrel with you—I’m wearing them out of the same barrel.’ Got my clothes entirely free for that winter.”

“Can you always get all the aid you need for such enterprises?”

“Usually, and then I can earn a good deal of money when I work steadily. I can get a hundred and fifty dollars for a little yacht, you know, every time I find time to make one; and I can make a good deal of money out of fishing. I went out fishing here on the Fourth of July and caught two hundred blackfish—four and five pounds, almost, every one of them.”

“That ought to be profitable,” I said.

“Well, it was,” he replied.

“How much did you get for them?”

“Oh, I didn’t sell them,” he said. “I never take money for my work that way. I gave them all away.”

“What did you do?” I asked, laughing—”advertise for people to come for them?”

“No. My wife took some, and my daughters, and I took the rest and we carried them around to people that we thought would like to have them.”

“Well, that wasn’t so profitable, was it?” I commented amusedly.

“Yes, they were fine fish,” he replied, not seeming to have heard me.

We dropped the subject of personal service at this point, and I expressed the opinion that his service was only a temporary expedient. Times changed, and with them, people. They forgot. Perhaps those he aided were none the better for accepting his charity.

“I know what you mean,” he said. “But that don’t make any difference. You just have to keep on giving, that’s all, see? Not all of ’em turn back. It helps a lot. Money is the only dangerous thing to give—but I never give money—not very often. I give myself, rather, as much as possible. I give food and clothing, too, but I try to show ’em a new way—that’s not money, you know. So many people need a new way. They’re looking for it often, only they don’t seem to know how. But God, dear brother, however poor or mean they are—He knows. You’ve got to reach the heart, you know, and I let Him help me. You’ve got to make a man over in his soul, if you want to help him, and money won’t help you to do that, you know. No, it won’t.”

He looked up at me in clear-eyed faith. It was remarkable.

“Make them over?” I queried, still curious, for it was all like a romance, and rather fantastic to me. “What do you mean? How do you make them over?”

“Oh, in their attitude, that’s how. You’ve got to change a man and bring him out of self-seeking if you really want to make him good. Most men are so tangled up in their own errors and bad ways, and so worried over their seekings, that unless you can set them to giving it’s no use. They’re always seeking, and they don’t know what they want half the time. Money isn’t the thing. Why, half of them wouldn’t understand how to use it if they had it. Their minds are not bright enough. Their perceptions are not clear enough. All you can do is to make them content with themselves. And that, giving to others will do. I never saw the man or the woman yet who couldn’t be happy if you could make them feel the need of living for others, of doing something for somebody besides themselves. It’s a fact. Selfish people are never happy.”

He rubbed his hands as if he saw the solution of the world’s difficulties very clearly, and I said to him:

“Well, now, you’ve got a man out of the mire, and ‘saved,’ as you call it, and then what? What comes next?”

“Well, then he’s saved,” he replied. “Happiness comes next—content.”

“I know. But must he go to church, or conform to certain rules?”

“No, no, no!” he replied sweetly. “Nothing to do except to be good to others. ‘True religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this,'” he quoted, “‘to visit the widow and the orphan in their affliction and to keep unspotted from the world. Charity is kind,’ you know. ‘Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, seeketh not its own.'”

“Well,” I said, rather aimlessly, I will admit, for this high faith staggered me. (How high! How high!) “And then what?”

“Well, then the world would come about. It would be so much better. All the misery is in the lack of sympathy one with another. When we get that straightened out we can work in peace. There are lots of things to do, you know.”

Yes, I thought, looking down on the mills and the driving force of self-interest—on greed, lust, love of pleasure, all their fantastic and yet moving dreams.

“I’m an ignorant man myself, and I don’t know all,” he went on, “and I’d like to study. My, but I’d like to look into all things, but I can’t do it now. We can’t stop until this thing is straightened out. Some time, maybe,” and he looked peacefully away.

“By the way,” I said, “whatever became of the man to whom you gave your rubber boots over on Fisher’s Island?”

His face lit up as if it were the most natural thing that I should know about it.

“Say,” he exclaimed, in the most pleased and confidential way, as if we were talking about a mutual friend, “I saw him not long ago. And, do you know, he’s a good man now—really, he is. Sober and hard-working. And, say, would you believe it, he told me that I was the cause of it—just that miserable old pair of rubber boots—what do you think of that?”

I shook his hand at parting, and as we stood looking at each other in the shadow of the evening I asked him:

“Are you afraid to die?”

“Say, brother, but I’m not,” he returned. “It hasn’t any terror for me at all. I’m just as willing. My, but I’m willing.”

He smiled and gripped me heartily again, and, as I was starting to go, said:

“If I die tonight, it’ll be all right. He’ll use me just as long as He needs me. That I know. Good-by.”

“Good-by,” I called back.

He hung by his fence, looking down upon the city. As I turned the next corner I saw him awakening from his reflection and waddling stolidly back into the house.

107-the-jester

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