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When the Old Century Was New by Theodore Dreiser

 

When William Walton, of Colonial prestige, left his father's house, St George's Square, New York, in the spring of 1801, it was to spend a day of social activity, which, in the light of his ordinary commercial duties, might be termed idleness. There were, among other things, a luncheon at the Livingstone Kortright's, a stroll with one Mlle. Cruger to the Lispenard Meadows, and a visit in the evening to the only recently inaugurated Apollo Theater, where were organized the first permanent company of players ever transported to America. Under the circumstances, he had no time for counting-house duties, and had accordingly decided to make a day of it, putting the whole matter of commerce over until such time as he could labor uninterrupted, which was to-morrow.

As he came out of the door over which was a diamond-pane lunette for a transom, he was a striking example of the new order of things which had come with the Declaration of Independence and the victory of the colonies over the British. Long trousers of light twilled cloth encased his legs, and were fastened under his shoes by straps. A flower-ornamented pink waistcoat and light blue dress coat of broadcloth, shared with brass buttons, yellow gloves, and an exceedingly narrow-brimmed silk hat, in giving his appearance that touch of completeness which the fashion of the day demanded. In the face of those of the older order, who still maintained the custom of wearing knee breeches and solemn, black waistcoats, he was a little apt to appear the exaggerated dandy; but, nevertheless, it was good form. My Madame Kortright would expect it at any luncheon of hers, and the common people knew it to be the all-desirable whenever wealth permitted.

In lower Pearl Street, below Wall, which direction he took to reach the Bowling Green and the waterfront, he encountered a number of the fashionable, so far as the commercial world was concerned, who were anything but idle like himself.

"Why, Master Walton, are you neglecting business so early in the morning?" inquired Robert Goelet, whose iron-mongering business was then the most important in the city.

"For this day only," returned Walton, smiling agreeably at the thought of a pleasant day to come. "Several engagements make it unavoidable."

"You are going to the Collect, then, possibly?" returned Goelet, looking in the direction of the old water reservoir, where all of the city's drinking supply was stored.

"No," said the other, "I had not thought of it. What is there?"

"Some one, I understand, who has a boat he wishes to try. It is said to go without sail. I should think one with as many ships upon the water as you have would have heard of any such invention as that."

"Ah, yes," answered young Walton, "I have heard of men who are going to sail in the air, also. I will believe that a vessel can go without sail when I see it."

"Well," said the other, "I do not know. These inventors are strange adventurers, at best, but there might be no harm in looking at it. I think I shall go myself later."

"Oh, I should also like to see it," said the other, "providing I have time. When is it to sail, do you know?"

"About eleven," answered Goelet. "The Post tells of it."

"Many thanks for the information," returned the other, and, with a few commonplaces as to ships expected and the news from France, they betook their separate ways.

In one of the many fine yards which spread before the old mansions below Wall Street, he beheld John Adams, the newly-elected President of the States, busy among his flowers. The elder statesman bowed gravely to the younger gentleman and returned to his work.

"A fine gentleman," thought the latter, "and well worthy to be the chief of this good government."

As he neared the Bowling Green, he observed that there was no one of the many residents about taking advantage of the pleasant sunlight to enjoy an hour at that favorite pastime, and so continued his way to the Astor docks adjoining the Whitehall slip, where never yet had the commercial New Yorker, interested in the matter of shipping, failed to find a crowd. Messrs. John Jacob Astor and William Van Rensalaer were already upon the ground, as he could see at a distance, the distinct high hat of the one and the portly figure of the other standing out in clear relief against the green waters of the bay. Elder Johannis Coop was there, he of the vast ship chandlery business, and Opdyke Stewart, importer of the finest stuffs woven in Holland. Old Jacob Cruger and Mortimer Morris, the lean Van Tassel and Julius van Brunt, merchants all and famous men of the city, chatted, smiled, and laughed together as they discussed the probabilities of trade and the arrival of the Silver Spray and the Laughing Mary, both in the service between New York and Liverpool. Almost every worthy present was armed with his spy-glass, as the three-foot telescopes were then called, and now and then one would take a look down the bay and through the distant narrows to see if any sign of a familiar sail were present.

"And how is Master Walton?" asked the elder Astor, recognizing the scion of the one exceedingly wealthy family of the community.

"Very well, thank you," returned the other, surveying the company, whose knee breeches and black coats presented a striking contrast to his modern trousers and fancy jacket.

"These modern fashions," exclaimed Cruger, the elder, coming forward, "make us old fellows seem entirely out of date. They are a wretched contrivance to hide the legs. If I were a young woman I would have no man whose form I could not judge by his clothes."

"And if I were a young man," put in the jovial John Jacob, "I would put on no clothes which a young woman did not approve of."

"Ah, well," said the other, smiling, "these fashions are strange contrivances. Not ten years since a man would have been drummed out of New York had he appeared in such finery as this, and now, by heaven, it is we old fellows who are like to be shown the door for dressing as our fathers taught us."

"Not so bad as that, surely," said Walton. "Full dress commands the old style yet at evening. This is but daylight custom. But how about the Bowling Green; is no one to play there this morning?"

"Not when two ships like the Silver Spray and the Laughing Mary are like to show their noses at any moment," observed Cruger stoutly. "I have fifty barrels of good India ale on the Silver Spray. Astor, here, has most of the hold of the Laughing Mary filled with his dress goods. No bowling when stocks must be unpacked quickly."

"It is a weary watch, this, for these dogged vessels," added Astor reflectively. "There is no good counting wind or wave. The Spaniard, too, is not dead yet, worse luck to him."

"I saw that about the Polly," said young Walton interestedly. "Perhaps the government will wake up now to our situation. The Spaniard can wipe our vessels off the seas and hide behind the piracy idea. We need more war vessels and that quickly, I think."

"And I, too," said Astor. "But we are like to have them now. Only to-day Congress voted to buy more land across the East River there," and he waved his spy-glass in the direction of the green outlines of Long Island.

"And that reminds me," said Walton, pulling out his timepiece by the fob attached to it; "I but now met Goelet, who says there is to be a boat tried at the Collect which goes without sail. It is to be run by steam."

"Ha!" exclaimed Cruger, have no time for such nonsense."

"I heard of it," remarked Astor. "Possibly there is something to it. There could be no harm in going to see."

"I am going," said Walton, "and by-the-bye, it is high time I was on my way."

"And if you have no objection I go with you," said Astor, who was seriously interested to know if there was anything to this idea or not. Others hearing this joined them.

Having thus secured companionship, young Walton proceeded up the Whitehall slip to the Bowling Green, whence, with his friends, he now turned into the Broadway, and so out past the fine residences and occasional stores of that new thoroughfare to the old White residence, where later was to be White Street, and thence eastward, across the open common, to the Collect, where is now the Tombs. Quite a formidable company of sightseers had gathered, the aristocracy, gentry, and common rabble forming in separate groups. A very plain and homely looking individual of the older school, clad in swallowtail and knee breeches, was there with a contrivance large enough to sustain his own weight in the water, which he was endeavoring with a wrench, a hammer, and an oil can to put in final shape for the very important experiment of traveling without sail. Naturally he had the undivided and even pushing and prying attention of all present.

While the citizens thus gazed, awaiting in comfortable idleness for something of the marvelous to happen, there came a clattering sound along the east road toward the city, where suddenly appeared the outlines of Van Huicken's water wagon, a great hogshead on wheels, which, by its rumbling haste, suggested fire. Close after followed the Almerich, another vehicle of the same kind, which secured its name from its owner. Both drivers hailed the crowd while yet a distance off with shouts of "Fire!" and then from distant Fulton Street were heard the sounds of a bell tolling out the same intelligence.

Everybody now wavered uncertainly between the possibility of witnessing a marvelous invention and the certainty of seeing a splendid conflagration, with the result that certainty triumphed. Instantly upon learning the nature of the fire, both commonry and gentry departed, leaving Astor and Walton, with their associates, gazing at the tinkering wonder-worker alone.

"That must be near the President's house," observed Walton, who was looking toward the city. "It may spread."

"This fellow will get nothing out of his machine to-day, I fear," returned Astor, moved by the thought of a dangerous and yet interesting fire as he gazed rather unfavorably upon the quiet inventor, who had not remained unaware of this public defection. "Let us go back."

With somewhat more of eagerness than was conformable with their general stately bearing, this rather important local company now took up the trail of the water wagons and returned.

In William Street, just off the Old Boston Road and near the newly-named Liberty Street, were many signs of public excitement. The fine residence of the Athorps, recently leased by the French minister, had taken fire, and was rapidly burning. Although nine of the fourteen water-pumps of the city were upon the scene of action, and eight men were toiling at each handle, little progress was making. Bucket brigades were also in operation, the volunteer citizens drawing upon every well in the neighborhood for blocks about; but to small result. The flames gained apace. Men ran looking for Goiter's water conveyance, which had not yet been pressed into action, and Huicken's Broadway sprinkler, which, however, had already been sent to the Collect for more water. There was a deal of clatter and confusion, coupled with the absolute certainty of destruction, for no pumping could throw the water beyond the second story. More than once the tank supply, as rattled forward from the Collect and the East River, was totally suspended, while the flames gained new ground. This latter was due to the badness of the roads and the inadequacy of the help at the supply end, where, since all thought to gaze upon the fire, none were remaining to help the lone Huicken or the energetic Goiter.

When this last company of volunteer fire fighters arrived, with their buckets and other contrivances for fighting a blaze, the flames had gained such headway that there was little to be done. Walton wasted half an hour discussing fire protection, and then bethought himself of his luncheon engagement.

"I must be out of this," he said to Astor, as they stood gazing upon the flames and the surging throng. "I am late as it is."

The genial forefather scarcely heard him at all. So interested was he that his own luncheon mattered not at all. Quietly Walton withdrew then, and getting back into Boston Road and the Broadway, betook himself toward the Bowling Green and Madame Kortright's.

That lady's mansion was to the west of the old playground, looking out over lawn and lane to some space of water to be seen in the East River and a boat or two at anchor in the bay. As he tapped upon the broad door with its brazen knocker, a liveried servant opened to him, bowing profoundly in greeting.

"Will Master Walton give me his hat and gloves?"

"Ah, Master Walton," remarked the hostess, who now entered smiling. "I had almost doubted your punctuality, though you have good reason. Whose house is it burning?"

"Count Rennay's," answered Walton, mentioning the French representative to our government.

"I have sent a servant to discover it for me, but he has not yet returned. It must have fascinated him also. We must sit to lunch at once, sir."

As the hostess said this, she turned about in her great hoops, now but recently, like long trousers, come into fashion, and led the way. Her hair was done in the curls of the post-revolution period, three at each side, about the ears, and a tall chignon that was almost a curl in itself. With stately grace she led the way to the dining chamber and bowed him to his place. Eulalia, a daughter, and Sophia, a friend, entered almost at the same moment with them through another door.

At the head of the long, oaken table there were already standing the two black table servants of this dignified household, splendid imported Africans, trained in Virginia. My lady's table was a-gleam with much of the richest plate and old Holland china in the city. An immense silver candelabra graced the center, and at every corner were separate graven gold sticks making a splendid show.

"I have the greatest terror of fire anywhere in our city," began the hostess, even as young Walton was bowing. "We have so little protection. I have urged upon our selectmen the necessity of providing something better than we have--a water tower or something of the sort but so far nothing has come of it."

"You were at the fire, Master Walton?" inquired the handsome Eulalie archly.

"I came that way with several friends from the Collect," he answered.

"Why the Collect?" asked the hostess, who was now seated with the two blacks towering above her.

"There is a man there who has a boat which is to go without sail, as I understand it, providing his idea is correct. It is to go by steam, I believe, only he did not succeed in making it so do to-day, at least not while I was there. It may have gone, though. I could not wait to see."

"Oh marvelous," exclaimed Eulalie, putting up a pair of pretty hands, "and really is it a boat that will travel so?"

"I cannot vouch for that," returned the youth gravely. "It was not going when we visited it. The fire and my engagement took the entire audience of the inventor away," and he smiled.

"I shall have no faith in any such trap as that until I see it," observed Madame Kortright. "Fancy being on the water and no sail to waft you. Mercy!"

"I fancy it will be some time before men will venture afar on any such craft," returned the youth; "but it is a bit curious."

"Dangerous, I should say," suggested Mistress Sophia.

"No," said Walton, "not that, I think. My father has often told me that Master Franklin predicted to him that men should harness the lightning before many years. That is even more strange than this."

"That may all be true," said Madame Kortright, but it has not come to pass yet. It will never be in our time, I fear. But did you hear of the case of jewels at Maton's?"

"Has he imported something new?" inquired Eulalie smartly.

"The last ship brought a case of gems for him, I hear," continued the hostess. "That should be of interest to you, Master Walton."

The youth flushed slightly at the implication involved. His attentions to Mistress Beppie Cruger were becoming a subject of pleasing social comment.

"So it is," he said gaily, as he recovered his composure. "I shall look in upon Maton this very afternoon."

"And I should like to see what is new in France," said the ruddy Sophia seriously. "I have not an earring or a pin in my collection that is not as old as the hills--"

"Nor any the less valuable, I venture," answered Walton, with an impressive air.

"I would give them for new ones, believe me," returned the girl quaintly.

Upon this gossiping company the two blacks waited with almost noiseless accuracy, one serving at each side in answer to silent looks and nods from the hostess. Walton watched them out of the corner of his eye, gossiping the while. In his new home, he thought, whenever the fair lady consented, there should be two such lackeys gracing her more tender beauty. He could not help thinking how much more effective they would appear behind her than his present hostess, who, however, was attractive enough. It made him restless to depart, for certainly this afternoon he should definitely, if he could, learn his fate. The jewels would be one excuse. He would take her to look at the jewels before the evening called them to the theater, and then he would see.

Once he was free of the entertainment provided, he hurried away into Wall Street, the spire of Trinity already beginning to cast a short eastward shadow. About the building occupied as the new National Capitol a few dignitaries from the colonies were to be seen. The new mixture of stores among the residences was beginning to make lovely Wall Street less conservative. A bank had opened just below the Capitol, its entrance reaching out to the very sidewalk and hedging in the view of the gardens beyond. Soon, if the city kept on growing, all the fine old gardens would have to go.

He pondered, as he walked, until he came to a certain gateway below William Street, where he entered. From a window looking out upon a small balcony above a face disappeared, and now he was greeted by another pompous servant at the door.

"My compliments," he said, "to Mistress Cruger, if she pleases, and I am waiting."

The servant bowed and retired. In a few moments more there fluttered down into the large reception room from above the loveliest embodiment of the new order of finery that he had ever seen. Such daintiness in curls and laces, such lightness in silken flounces displayed upon spreading hoops, he felt to be without equal. With a graceful courtesy she received his almost ponderous bow.

"Mother gives you her greeting, and she cannot come with us to-day," she said. "She has a very severe headache."

"I am very sorry to hear that," he replied sympathetically, "but you will come? The weather has favored us, and I fancy the meadows will be beautiful to see."

"Oh, yes, I will come," she returned smiling. "It is not quite three, however," she added. "You are early."

"I know," he answered, "but we may talk until then. Besides there is something I wish you to see before theater time--no, I will tell you of it later. Henry will be on time."

They seated themselves very respectfully distant and took up the morning's commonplaces. Had he heard of the fire and where the French minister was now being entertained? Cards had but this morning come from the Jacob Van Dams for a reception at their new house in Broome Street. The Goelets were to build farther out in Pearl Street

"I think it is a shame," she said, "the way they are deserting us in this street. We shall have to go also very shortly, and I like Wall Street."

"When your turn comes perhaps you will not mind it so much," he returned, thinking of the proposal he hoped to find the courage to make. "Broome Street is certainly pleasing after the new style."

She thought of all the fine residences being erected in that new residence section, and for some, to him, inexplicable reason, smiled. Outside, through the vine-festooned window, she could see a broad, open barouche turning.

"Here is the carriage," she said.

As they came out of the quiet chamber into the open sunlight, part of their stilted reserve vanished. Once in the carriage beside him, she smiled happily. As they rolled into William Street and up the Old Boston Road into the green shaded Bowery, she laughed for the very joy of laughing.

"It is good to feel spring again," she said, "the cold days are so many."

As they traveled, an occasional citizen before his doorway, or pleasure seeker upon horseback, greeted them. The distinguished Aaron Burr was here prancing gaily countryward. Old Peter Stuyvesant's mansion was kept as rich in flowers as when he had been alive to care for it.

"Are not the fields beautiful about here?" he observed, after they had passed the region of the Collect.

"Lovely," she returned. "I never see them but I think of dancing, they are so soft."

"Let us get out and walk upon them, anyhow," he answered. "Henry can wait for us at the turn yonder."

He was pointing to a far point, where, through a dump of trees, the winding footpath, leading out from here, joined Broadway, now a lane through the woods and fields.

Gaily she acquiesced, and he helped her down. When the servant was out of hearing, he reached for a dandelion, and pressing his lips to it said, "Here is a token."

"Of what?" she said shyly.

"What should it be?" he asked wistfully.

"Spring, probably."

"And nothing else?"

"Youth," she answered, laughing.

"And nothing else?" he questioned, drawing close with a tenderness in his voice.

"How should I know?" she said, laughing and casting it down, because of her fear of the usual significance of the situation.

"You mustn't throw it away," he said stooping. "Keep it. I'll tell you what it means. I--I--"

"See the wild roses!" she exclaimed, suddenly increasing her pace. "I should rather have some of those for a token, if you please."

He relaxed his tension, and hastened for that which she desired. When he returned to hand them to her, she was laughing at something.

"Ah, you laugh," he said sadly. "I think I know why."

"It is because of the day," she answered.

Somehow he could make no progress with his declaration until it was too late. Already they were near the carriage, and south along the road a quarter of a mile was the Lispenard country house. Her relatives, the Lispenards, were there as owners. He scarcely had time for what he wished to say.

"Shall we stop there?" he asked in a subdued murmur, as in driving again they neared the long piazza where guests were seated enjoying the prospect of the meadows beyond. "It is four now, and the play begins at six. There are some new jewels from France at Maton's, which I thought you might like to see before then."

"Jewels from France! Oh, yes, I should like to see those. Let us go there," she answered. "But I must have time to dress, too, you know."

To the guests then, bowing as they passed, they returned a smiling nod, and meeting others in carriages and chairs, extended this same courtesy as they went along. Walton brooded in a mock-dreary manner, but finding that it availed nothing thought to tempt her considerateness with jewels.

"What trinkets are these you have from France of which I hear?" he inquired of Maton as they entered that sturdy jeweler's shop in Maiden Lane.

"On the very last packet," explained the latter, spreading the best of his importations upon a black velvet cloth before them. "You will not see the like of these six diamonds in New York again for many years, I warrant you. Look at this."

He held up an exquisitely wrought ring of French workmanship, in which a fine stone was gleaming, and smiled upon it approvingly.

"Look," he said, "it is very large. It is cut by Toussard. Did you ever see such workmanship?" He turned it over and over, and then held it lovingly up. "The band itself is so small," he added, "that I believe it would fit the lady's finger--let us see."

Coquettishly she put out her hand, and then seeing that it marvelously slipped on and fitted, opened her eyes wide.

"Now, is not that beautiful!" exclaimed the jeweler. "What a gem! The finest of any that I have imported yet, and it fits as though it had been ordered for her." He cast a persuasive smile upon Walton whose interest in the fair Beppie he well knew. The latter pretended not the slightest understanding.

"It is well cut," she said.

"And the loveliest you have ever worn," added Walton hopefully.

By her side, in front of the counter and between their bodies, he was endeavoring to take her free hand.

"Let it stay," he said gently, when he had secured it, and was signalling the significance of the ring to her fingers.

"Oh," she said, smiling as if she were only jesting, "you are too daring. I might!"

"Do," he answered.

"Such a ring!" said the jeweler.

"I will then," said she.

"Then, Master Maton," said Walton, "you need only send the bill to me," and he laughed as he pushed the remaining display away.

As they came out, after having vaguely picked over the others, the young lover was all elation. Upon the narrow side-path a servant wheeling a trunk to the Liverpool dock upon a barrow brushed him rudely, but he did not notice. Only a newsboy crying out the Gazette, the blast of the bugle of the incoming stage coach from Boston, the dust of the side-path, where the helper of the Apollo was sweeping the lobby preparatory to the performance of the night, attracted and pleased him. He helped his fiancée gaily into the carriage and half bounded with joy to the seat beside her, where he smiled and smiled.

"I may not wear it, though," said his betrothed, now that the remarkable episode was over, and she held up a dainty finger; "because, as you know, you have not spoken to my father as yet."

"Keep it, nevertheless," he answered. "I will speak to him fast enough."

"I give you good-day, Master Walton," said the distinguished Jefferson as they passed from William into Wall Street, near where that statesman made temporary stopping-place when in the city.

"Master Jefferson, William," cried his fiancée softly, using for the first time his given name. "Master Jefferson has bid you good-day."

"Good evening!" cried Walton, all deference in a moment because of the error which his excitement had occasioned, "good evening to you, sir!" and he bowed, and bowed very gracefully again.

"How can I be so mindful, though, of all these formalities," he said explanatorily as he turned once more to his fair intended, "when I have you? It is not to be expected."

"But necessary, just the same," she said. "And if you are to begin thus quickly neglecting your duties, what am I to think?"

For answer he took her hand. Elatedly then they made their way to the old homestead again, and there being compelled to leave her while she dressed for the theater, he made his way toward the broad and tree-shaded Bowery, where was the only true and idyllic walk for a lover. The older houses nearest the city, redolent in their Dutch architecture of an older and even quainter period; the wide paths and broad doorways, rich in both vines and flowers; the rapidly decreasing evidences of population as one's steps led northward--all combined to soothe and set dreaming the poetic mind. Here young Walton, as so many before him, strolled and hummed, thinking of all that life and the young city held for him. Now, indeed, was his fortune truly made. Love was his, the lovely Beppie, no less. Here then he decided to build that mansion of his own--far out, indeed, above Broome Street, but in this self-same thoroughfare where all was so suggestive of flowers and romance. He had no inkling, as he pondered, of what a century might bring forth. The crush and stress and wretchedness fast treading upon this path of loveliness he could not see.

 
 
 

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