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Incidents in a Fortune Hunter's Life by Jonathan F. Kelley

 

We do not now recollect what philosopher it was who said, “it's no disgrace to be poor, but it's often confoundedly unhandy!” But, we have little or no sympathy for poor folks, who, ashamed of their poverty, make as many and tortuous writhings to escape its inconveniences, as though it was “against the law” to be poor. It is the cause of incalculable human misery, to seem what we are not; to appear beyond want—yea, even in affluence and comfort, when the belly is robbed to clothe the back—the inner man crucified to make the outside lie you through the world, or into—genteel “society.” This, though abominable, is common, and leads to innumerable ups and downs, crime and fun, in this old world that we temporarily inhabit.

Choosing rather to give our life pictures a familiar and diverting—and certainly none the less instructive garb—than to hunt up misery, and depict the woeful tragics of our existence, we will give the facts of a case—not uncommon, we ween, either, that came to us from a friend of one of the parties.

In most cities—especially, perhaps, in Baltimore and Washington, are any quantity of decayed families; widows and orphans of men—who, while blessed with oxygen and hydrogen sufficient to keep them healthy and active—held offices, or such positions in the business world as enabled them and their families to carry pretty stiff necks, high heads, and go into what is called “good society;” meaning of course where good furniture garnishes good finished domiciles, good carpets, good rents, good dinners, and where good clothes are exhibited—but where good intentions, good manners and morals are mostly of no great importance. As, in most all such cases, when, by some fortuitous accident, the head of the family collapses, or dies,—the reckless regard for society having led to the squandering of the income, fast or faster than it came, the poor family is driven by the same society, so coveted, to hide away—move off, and by a thousand dodges of which wounded pride is capable, work their way through the world, under tissues of false pretences; at once ludicrous and pitiable. Such a family we have in view. Colonel Somebody held a lucrative office under government, in the city of Washington. Colonel Somebody, one day, very unexpectedly, died. There was nothing mysterious in that, but the Somebodies having always cut quite a swell in the “society” of the capital—which society, let us tell you, is of the most fluctuating, tin-foil and ephemeral character; it was by some considered strange, that as soon as Colonel Somebody had been decently buried in his grave, his family at once made a sale of their most expensive furniture—the horses, carriage, and man-servant disappeared, and the Somebodies apprized society that they were going north, to reside upon an estate of the Colonel's in New York. And so they vanished. Whither they went or how they fared society did not know, and society did not care!

Mrs. Somebody had two daughters and a son, the eldest twenty-three, confessedly, and the youngest, the son, seventeen. Marriages, in such society, floating and changing as it does in Washington, are not frequent, and less happy or prosperous when effected; every body, inclined to become acquainted, or form matrimonial connections, are ever on the alert for something or somebody better than themselves; and under such circumstances, naturally enough, Miss Alice Somebody—though a pretty girl—talented, as the world goes, highly educated, too, as many hundreds beside her, was still a spinster at twenty-three. The fact was, Mrs. Somebody was a woman of experience in the world—indeed, a dozen years' experience in life at Washington, had given her very definite ideas of expediency and diplomacy; and hence, as the means were cut off to live in their usual style and expensiveness—Mrs. Somebody packed up and retired to Baltimore. The son soon found an occupation in a store—the daughter, being a woman of taste and education, resorted to—as a matter of diversion—they could not think of earning a living, of course!—the needle—while Mrs. Somebody arranged a pair of neat apartments, for two “gentlemen of unexceptionable reference,” as boarders.

During their palmy days at the capital of the nation, Miss Alice Somebody came in contact with a young gentleman named Rhapsody,—of pleasant and respectable demeanor, an office-holder, but not high up enough to suit the tastes and aims of Colonel Somebody and his lady; and so, our friend Rhapsody stood little or no chance for favor or preferment in the graces of Miss Alice, though he was a recognized visitor at the Colonel's house, and essayed to make an impression upon the heart's affections of the Colonel's daughter.

Time fled, and with its fleetings came those changes in the fates and fortunes of the Somebodies, we have noted. Nor was our friend Rhapsody without his changes,—mutations of fortune, a change of government, made changes. Rhapsody one morning was not as much surprised as mortified to find his “services no longer required,” as a new hand was awaiting his withdrawal. Rhapsody, true to custom at the capital—lived up to and ahead of his salary; and, when deposed, deemed it prudent to make his exit from a spot no longer likely to be favorable to the self-respect or personal comfort of a man bereft of power, and without patronage or position. Rhapsody, by trade (luckily he had a trade), was a boot-maker. Start not, reader, at the idea; we know “shoemaker” may have a tendency to shock some people, whose moral and mental culture has been sadly neglected, or quite perverted; but Rhapsody was but a boot-maker, and no doubt quite as gentlemanly—physically and mentally considered, as the many thousands who merely wear boots, for the luxury of which they are indebted to the skill, labor and industry of others. Rhapsody came down gracefully, and quite as manfully, to his level, only changing the scene of his endeavors to the city of monuments. Rhapsody had feelings—pride. He sought obscurity, in which he might perform the necessary labors of his craft, to enable him to keep his head above water, and await that tide in the affairs of men, when perhaps he might again be drifted to fortune and favor.

Rhapsody took lodgings in a respectable hotel; he arose late—took breakfast, read the news—smoked—lounged—dressed, and went through the ordinary evolutions of a gentleman of leisure, until he dined at 3 P. M.; then, by a circuitous way, he proceeded to his shop—put on his working attire, and went at it faithfully, until midnight, when, having accomplished his maximum of toil, he re-dressed—walked to his hotel—talked politics—fashions, etc., took his glass of wine with a friend, and very quietly retired; to rise on the morrow, and go through the same routine from day to day, only varying it a little by an eye to an eligible marriage, or a place.

Rhapsody—we must give him the credit of the fact—from no mawkish feeling of his own, but from force of public opinion, resorted to this secret manner of eking out his daily bread, and acting out his part of the fictitious gentleman. During one of his morning lounges—accidentally, Rhapsody met Miss Somebody in the street. They had not met for some few years, and it may not be troublesome to conceive, that Miss Alice—under the new order of things—was more pleased than otherwise to renew the acquaintance of other days, with a gentleman still supposed to be—and his attire and manner surely gave no sign of an altered state of affairs—in a position recognizable by society.

Rhapsody renewed his attentions to the Somebody family, and Miss Alice in particular—with fervor. He admitted himself no longer an attache of government, but offset the deprivation of government patronage, by asserting that he was graduating for a higher sphere in life than the drudgery and abjectness of a clerkship—he was studying political economy, and the learned profession of the law!

The Somebodies were game; not a concession would they make to stern indigence; it was merely for the sake of quietude, said Mrs. Somebody, and the solace of retirement from the gay and tempestuous whirls of society, that we changed the scene and dropped a peg lower in domestic show. Rhapsody believed Colonel Somebody a man of substance. He knew how easy it was to account for the expenditure of fifteen hundred dollars a year, but it did not so readily appear possible for a man holding the Colonel's place and perquisites, some thousands a year, to die poor, without estate; ergo, the Somebodies were still, doubtless, somebody, and the more the infatuated Rhapsody dwelt upon it, the more he absorbed the idea of forming an alliance with the dead Colonel's family. And the favor with which he was received seemed to facilitate matters as desirably as could be wished for. What airy castles, or gossamer projects may have haunted the fancy of our sanguine friend, Rhapsody, we know not; but that he whacked away more cheerily at his trade, and kept up his appearances spiritedly, was evident enough. An expert and artistic craftsman, he secured paying work, and executed it to the satisfaction of his employers.

The industry of the Somebodies was one of the traits in the characters of the two young women, particularly commendatory to Rhapsody; he seldom paid them a morning or afternoon call, that they were not diligently engaged with needles and Berlin wool—fashioning wrought suspenders for brother, slippers for brother, or mother, or sister, or the Rev. Mr. So-and-So—the recently made inmate of the family. The multiplicity of such performances, for brother, mother, sister, the reverend gentleman—mere pastime, as Mrs. Somebody would remark,—most probably would have caused a mystery or misgiving in the minds of many adventurous Lotharios; but Rhapsody, though, as we see, a man of the world, had something yet to learn of society and its complexities. Things progressed smoothly—the reverend gentleman facetiously cajoled Miss Alice and the mother upon the issue of coming events—the lively young lawyer, etc., etc.,—and it seemed to be a settled matter that Miss Alice was to be the bride of Mr. Rhapsody at last.

Rhapsody, usually, after dark, in the evening, in his laboring garments, made his return of work and received more. Whilst thus out, one evening, on business, in making a sudden turn of a corner, he came plump upon Mrs. Somebody and Alice! Rhapsody would have dashed down a cellar—into a shop—up an alley, or sunk through the footwalk, had any such opportunity offered, but there was none—he was there—beneath the flame of a street lamp, with the eagle eyes of all the party upon him! Cut off from retreat, he boldly faced the enemy!

He was going to a political caucus meeting in a noisy and turbulent ward—apprehended a disturbance—donned those shady habiliments, and the large green bag in his hand, that a—well, though it did not seem to contain such goods, was supposed, for the nonce, to contain his books and papers; documents he was likely to have use for at the caucus! Rhapsody got through—it was a tight shave; he dexterously declined accompanying the ladies home—they were rather queerly attired themselves, it occurred to Rhapsody; they made some excuse for their appearance, and so the maskers quit, even. Time passed on—Alice and Rhapsody had almost climaxed the preparatory negotiations of an hymenial conclusion, when another contretemps came to pass—it was the grand finale.

It was on a rather blustery night, that Rhapsody, in haste, sought the shop of his employer; he had work in hand which, being ordered done at a certain hour, for an anxious customer, he was in haste to deliver. His green bag under his arm, in rushed Rhapsody,—the servant of the customer was awaiting the arrival of the bottier and his master's boots. The shopman eagerly seized Rhapsody's verdant-colored satchel, and out came the boots, and which underwent many critical inspections, eliciting sundry professional remarks from the shopman, to our hero, Rhapsody, who, in his business matters had assumed, it appeared, the more humble name of Mr. Jones, in the shop. The customer's servant stood by the counter—fencing off a lady, further on—from immediate notice of Rhapsody. A side glance revealed sundry patterns or specimens of most elegantly-wrought slippers—the boss of the shop, and the lady, were apparently negotiating a trade, in these embroidered articles; the lady, now but a few feet from Rhapsody and the garrulous shopman, turned toward the poor fellow just as the shopman had stuffed more work into the green bag—their eyes met. Rhapsody felt an all-overish sensation peculiar to that experienced by an amateur in a shower bath, during his first douse, or the incipient criminal detected in his initiatory crime! Poor Rhapsody felt like fainting, while Miss Alice Somebody, without the nerve to gather up her work, or withstand a further test of the force of circumstances, precipitately left the store, her face red as scarlet, and her demeanor wild and incomprehensible, at least to all but Rhapsody.

       * * * * *

Rhapsody was at breakfast the next morning—a servant announced a gentleman in the parlor desirous of an interview with Mr. Rhapsody—it was granted, and soon Jones, the boot-maker, confronted the Rev. Mr. So-and-So. Though an inclination to smile played about the pleasant features of the reverend gentleman, he assumed to be severe upon what he called the duplicity of Mr. Rhapsody; and that gentleman patiently hearing the story out, quietly asked:

“Are you, sir, here as an accuser—denouncer, or an ambassador of peace and good will?”

“The latter, sir, is my self-constituted mission,” said the reverend gentleman.

“Then,” said Rhapsody, “I am ready to make all necessary concessions—a clean breast of it, you may say. I am in a false position—struggling against public opinion—false pride—falsely, and yet honestly, working my way through the world. I am no more nor less, nominally, than Jones, the boot-maker. Now,” continued Rhapsody, “if a false purpose covers not a false heart also, I can yet be happy in the affections of Miss Somebody, and she in mine. For those who can battle as we have, against the common chances of indigence, upright and alone in our integrity, may surely yet win greater rewards by mutual consolation and support, our fortunes joined.”

“I have not been mistaken, then, sir,” said the reverend gentleman, “in your character, if I was in your occupation; and you may rely upon my friendly service in an amicable and definite arrangement of this very delicate matter.”

       * * * * *

When General Harrison took the “chair of state,” our friend Rhapsody was reinstated in his place, occupied years before, and by fortuitous circumstances he got still higher—an appointment of trust connected with a handsome salary; so that Jones, the boot-maker, was enabled to re-enter the Somebodies into the gay and fluctuating society at the national capital, from which they had been so unceremoniously driven by the death of the husband and father. Mrs. Somebody, that was, however, is now a much older and much wiser person, the wife of our ministerial friend, who vouches the difficulty he had in overcoming Mrs. Somebody's repugnance to leather—and for sundry quibbles—yea, strong arguments against any blood of hers ever uniting with the fates and fortunes of a boot-maker; with what propriety, her experience has long since taught her. Alice is the happiest of women, mother of many fine children, the wife of a man poverty could not corrupt, if public opinion forced him to mask the means that gave him bread. Rhapsody is no longer a politician, or office-holder, but engaged in lucrative pursuits that yield comfort and position in society. To relate the trials, courtship and marriage of “Jones, the boot-maker,” is one of our friend Rhapsody's standing jokes, to friends at the fireside and dinner table; but that such a safe and happy tableau would again befall parties so circumstanced, is a very material question; and the moral of our story, being rather complex, though very definite, we leave to society, and you, reader, to determine.

 
 
 

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