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
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
"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
"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
"No," said the other, "I had not thought of it. What is
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
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
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
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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
"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
"It is well cut," she said.
"And the loveliest you have ever worn," added Walton
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
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
"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
"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
"But necessary, just the same," she said. "And if you are
to begin thus quickly neglecting your duties, what am I to
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.