The Man that
Might Have Been
by Rupert Hughes
In the tame little town of Hillsdale he seemed the tamest thing of
all, Will Ruddespecially appropriate to a kneeling trade, a shoe
clerk by election. He bent the pregnant hinges to anybody soever that
entered the shop, with its ingenious rebus on the sign-board:
[Illustration: CLAY KITTREDGE and Emporium Nobby Footwear]
He not only untied the stilted Oxfords or buttoned in the arching
insteps of those who sat in the Ladies' and Misses' Dept., which was
the other side of the double-backed bench whose obverse was the Gents'
Dept., but also he took upon the glistening surface of his trousers
the muddy soles of merchants, the clay-bronzed brogans of hired men,
the cowhide toboggans of teamsters, and the brass-toed, red-kneed boots
of little boys ecstatic in their first feel of big leather.
Rudd was a shoe clerk to be trusted. He never revealed to a soul
that Miss Clara Lommel wore shoes two sizes too small, and when she bit
her lip and blenched with agony as he pried her heel into the
protesting dongola, he seemed not to notice that she was no Cinderella.
And one day, when it was too late, and Miss Lucy Posnett, whose
people lived in the big brick mansard, realized that she had a hole in
her stocking, what did Rudd do? Why, he never let on.
Stanch Methodist that he was, William Rudd stifled in petto
the fact that the United Presbyterian parson's wife was vain and bought
little, soft black kids with the Cuban heel and a patent-leather tip to
the opera toe! The United Presbyterian parson himself had salved his
own vanity by saying that shoes show so plainly on the pulpit, and it
was better to buy them a trifle too small than a trifle too large,
butumm!er, hadn't you better put in a little more of that powder,
Mr. Rudd? I have onwhew!unusually thick socks to-day.
Clay Kittredge, Rudd's employer, valued him, secretly, as a man who
brought in customers and sold them goods. But he never mentioned this
to his clerk lest Rudd be tempted to the sin of vanity, and
incidentally to demanding an increase in that salary which had remained
the same since he had been promoted from delivery-boy.
Kittredge found that Rudd kept his secrets as he kept everybody's
else. Professing church member as he was, Rudd earnestly palmed off
shopworn stock for fresh invoices, declared that the obsolete
Piccadillies which Kittredge had snapped up from a bankrupt sale were
worn on all the best feet on Fifth Avenoo, and blandly substituted
just as good for advertised wares that Kittredge did not carry.
Besides, when no customer was in the shop he spent the time at the
back window, doctoring tagsas the King of France negotiated the
hillby marking up prices, then marking them down.
But when he took his hat from the peg and set it on his head, he put
on his private conscience. Whatever else he did, he never lied or
cheated to his own advantage.
And so everybody in town liked William Rudd, and nobody admired him.
He was treated with the affectionate contempt of an old family servant.
But he had his ambitions and great ones, ambitions that reached past
himself into the future of another generation. He felt the thrill that
stirs the acorn, fallen into the ground and hidden there, but destined
to father an oak. His was the ambition beyond ambition that glorifies
the seed in the loam and ennobles the roots of trees thrusting
themselves downward and gripping obscurity in order that trunks and
branches, flowers and fruits, pods and cones, may flourish aloft.
Eventually old Clay Kittredge died, and the son chopped the Jr.
curlicue from the end of his name and began a new régime. The old
Kittredge had sought only his own aggrandizement, and his son was his
son. The new Clay Kittredge had gone to public school with Rudd and
they continued to be Clay and Will to each other; no one would ever
have called Rudd by so demonstrative a name as Bill.
When Clay second stepped into his father's bootsand shoeshe
began to enlarge the business, hoping to efface his father's
achievements by his own. The shop gradually expanded to a department
store for covering all portions of the anatomy and supplying inner
wants as well.
Rudd was so overjoyed at not being uprooted and flung aside to die
that he never observed the shrewd irony of Kittredge's phrase, You may
remain, Will, with no reduction of salary.
To have lost his humble position would have frustrated his dream,
for he was doing his best to build for himself and for Her a home where
they could fulfil their destinies. He cherished no hope, hardly even a
desire, to be a great or rich man himself. He was one of the
nest-weavers, the cave-burrowers, the home-makers, who prepare the way
for the greater than themselves who shall spring from themselves.
He was of those who become the unknown fathers of great men. And so,
on a salary that would have meant penury to a man of self-seeking
tastes, he managed to save always the major part of his earning. At the
bank he was a modest but regular visitor to the receiving-teller, and
almost a total stranger to the paying-teller.
His wildest dissipation being a second pipeful of tobacco before he
went to bedor retired, as he would more gently have said ithe
eventually heaped up enough money and courage to ask Martha Kellogg to
marry him. Martha, who was the plainest woman in plain Hillsdale,
accepted William, and they were made one by the parson. The wedding was
accounted plain even in Hillsdale.
The groomy bridegroom and the unbridy bride spent together all the
time that Rudd could spare from the store. He bought for her a little
frame house with a porch about as big as an upper berth, a patch of
grass with a path through it to the back door, some hollyhocks of
startling color, and a highly unimportant woodshed. It spelled HOME to
them, and they were as happy as people usually are. He did all he could
to please her. At her desire he even gave up his pipe without missing
Mrs. Martha Rudd was an ambitious woman, or at least restless and
discontented. Having escaped her supreme horror, that of being an old
maid, she began to grow ambitious for her husband. She nagged him for a
while about his plodding ways, the things that satisfied him, the
salary he endured. But it did no good. Will Rudd was never meant to put
boots and spurs on his own feet and splash around in gore. He was for
carpet slippers, round-toed shoes, and on wet days, rubbers; on slushy
days he even descended to what he called ar'tics.
Not understanding the true majesty of her husband's long-distance
dreams, and baffled by his unresponse to her ambitions for him, Martha
grew ambitious for the child that was coming. She grew frantically,
fantastically ambitious. Here was something William Rudd could respond
to. He could be ambitious as Cæsarbut not for himself. He was a
groundling, but his son should climb.
Husband and wife spent evenings and evenings debating the future of
the child. They never agreed on the nameor the alternative names. For
it is advisable to have two ready for any emergency. But the future was
rosy. They were unanimous on thatPresident of the United States,
mebbe; or at least the President's wife.
Mrs. Rudd, who occasionally read the continued stories in the
evening paper, had happened on a hero named Eric. She favored that
nameor Gwendolynne (with a y"), as the case might be. In any event,
the child's future was so glowing that it warmed Mrs. Rudd to asking
one evening, forgetful of her earlier edict:
Why don't you smoke your pipe any more, Will?
I'd kind o' got out of the habit, Marthy, he said, and added,
hastily, but I guess I'll git back in.
Thereafter they sat of evenings by the lamp, he smoking, she sewing
thingsholding them up now and then for him to see. They looked almost
too small to be convincing, until he brought home from the store a pair
of shoesthe smallest size made, Marthy, too small for some of the
dolls you see over at Bostwick's.
It was the golden period of his life. Rudd never sold shoes so well.
People could hardly resist his high spirits. Anticipation is a great
thingit is all that some people get.
To be a successful shoe clerk one must acquire the patience of Job
without his gift of complaint, and Rudd was thoroughly schooled. So he
waited with a hope-lit serenity the preamble to the arrival of
And then fate, which had previously been content with denying him
comforts and keeping him from luxuries, dealt him a blow in the face,
smote him on his patient mouth. The doctor told him that the little
body of his son had been born still. After that it was rather a stupor
of despair than courage that carried him through the vain struggle for
life of the worn-out housewife who became only almost a mother. It
seemed merely the logical completion of the world's cruelty when the
doctor laid a heavy hand on his shoulder and walked out of the door,
without leaving any prescription to fill. Rudd stood like a wooden
Indian, too dazed to understand or to feel. He opened the door to the
undertaker and waited outside the room, just twiddling his fingers and
wondering. His world had come to an end and he did not know what to do.
At the church, the offices of the parson, and the soprano's voice
from behind the flowers, singing Rock of Ages, Cleft for MeMarthy's
favorite hymnbrought the tears trickling, but he could not believe
that what had happened had happened. He got through the melancholy
honor of riding in the first hack in the shabby pageant, though the
town looked strange from that window. He shivered stupidly at the first
sight of the trench in the turf which was to be the new lodging of his
family. He kept as quiet as any of the group among the mounds while the
bareheaded preacher finished his part.
He was too numb with incredulity to find any expression until he
heard that awfulest sound that ever grates the human earthe first
shovelful of clods rattling on a coffin. Then he understoodthen he
woke. When he saw the muddy spade spill dirt hideously above her lips,
her cheeks, her brow, and the little bundle of futile flesh she cuddled
with a rigid arm to a breast of icethen a cry like the shriek of a
falling tree split his throat and he dropped into the grave, sprawling
across the casket, beating on its denying door, and sobbing:
You mustn't go alone, Marthy. I won't let you two go all by
yourselves. It's so fur and so dark. I can't live without you and
thethe baby. Wait! Wait!
They dragged him out, and the shovels concluded their venerable
task. He was sobbing too loudly to hear them, and the parson was
holding him in his arms and patting his back and saying 'Shh! 'Shh!
as if he were a child afraid of the dark.
The sparse company that had gathered to pay the last devoir to the
unimportant woman in the box in the ditch felt, most of all, amazement
at such an unexpected outburst from so expectable a man as William
Rudd. There was much talk about it as the horses galloped home, much
talk in every carriage except his and the one that had been hers.
Up to this, the neighbors had taken the whole affair with that
splendid philosophy neighbors apply to other people's woes. Mrs. Budd
Granger had said to Mrs. Ad. Peck when they met in Bostwick's dry-goods
store, at the linen counter:
Too bad about Martha Rudd, isn't it? Plain little body, but nice.
Meant well. Went to church regular. Yes, it's too bad. I don't think
they ought to put off the strawb'ry fest'val, though, just for that, do
you? Never would be any fun if we stopped for every funeral, would
there? Besides, the strawb'ry fest'val's for charity, isn't it?
The strawberry festival was not put off and the town paper said that
a pleasant time was had by all. Most of the talk was about Will Rudd.
The quiet shoe clerk had provided the town with an alarm, an
astonishment. He was most astounded of all. As he rode back to the
frame house in the swaying carriage he absolutely could not believe
that such hopes, such plans, could be shattered with such wanton,
wasteful cruelty. That he should have loved, married, and begotten, and
that the new-made mother and the new-born child should be struck dead,
nullified, returned to claysuch things were too foolish, too
spendthrift, to believe.
It is strange that people do not get used to death. It has come to
nearly every being anybody has ever heard of; and whom it has not yet
reached, it will. Every one of the two billions of us on earth to-day
expects it to come to him, and (if he have them) to his son, his
daughter, his man-servant, his maid-servant, his ox, his ass, the
stranger within his gates, the weeds by the road. Kittens and kingdoms,
potato-bugs, plants, and planetsall are on the visiting-list.
Death is the one expectation that never fails to arrive. But it
comes always as a new thing, an unheard-of thing, a miracle. It is the
commonest word in the lexicon, yet it always reads as a hapax
legomenon. It is like spring, though so unlike. For who ever
believed that May would emerge from March this year? And who ever
remembers that violets were suddenly abroad on the hills last April,
William Rudd ought to have known better. In a town where funerals
were social events dangerously near to diversion, he had been unusually
frequent at them. For he belonged to the local chapter of the Knights
of Pythias, and when a fellow-member in good standing was forced to
resign, William Rudd donned his black suit, his odd-looking cocked hat
with the plume, and the anachronous sword, which he carried as one
would expect a shoe clerk to carry a sword. The man in the hearse ahead
went to no further funerals, stopped paying his dues, made no more
noise at the bowling-alley, and ceased to dent his pew cushion.
Somebody got his job at once and, after a decent time, somebody else
probably got his wife. The man became a remembrance, if that.
Rudd had long realized that people eventually become dead; but he
had never realized death. He had been an oblivious child when his
mother and father had taken the long trip whose tickets read but one
way, and had left him to the grudging care of an uncle with a large
And now his own family was obliterated. He was again a single man,
that familiar thing called a widower. He could not accept it as a fact.
He denied his eyes. He was as incredulous as a man who sees a magician
play some old vanishing trick. He had seen it, but he could not
understand it enough to believe it. When the hack left him at his house
he found it emptier than he could have imagined a house could be.
Marthy was not on the porch, or in the settin'-room, the dinin'-room,
the kitchen, or anywhere up-stairs. The bed was empty, the stove cold.
The lamp had not been filled. The cruse of his life was dry, the silver
cord loosened, the pitcher broken at the fountain, the wheel broken at
As he stumbled about filling the lamp, and covering his hands with
kerosene, he wondered what he should do in those long hours between the
closing of the shoe-shop of evenings and its opening of mornings. Men
behave differently in this recurring situation. Some take to drink, or
return to it. Rudd did not like liquor; at least he did not think he
would have liked it if he had ever tasted it. Some take to gambling.
Rudd did not know big casino from little, though he had once almost
acquired a passion for checkersthe give-away game. Some submerge
themselves in money-getting. Rudd would not have given up the serene
certainty of his little salary for a speculator's chance to clean up a
million, or lose his margin.
If only the child had lived, he should have had an industry, an
ambition, a use.
Widowers have occasionally hunted consolation with the same sex that
sent them grief. Rudd had never known any woman in town as well as he
had known Martha, and it had taken him years to find courage to propose
to her. The thought of approaching any other woman with intimate
intention gave him an ague sweat.
And how was he to think of taking another wife? Even if he had not
been so confounded with grief for his helpmeet as to believe her the
only woman on earth for him, how could he have accosted another woman
when he had only debts for a dowry?
Death is an expensive thing in every phase. The event that robbed
Rudd of his wife, his child, his hope, had taken also his companion,
his cook, his chambermaid, his washerwoman, the mender of his things;
and in their place had left an appalling monument of bills. The only
people he had permitted himself to owe money to were the gruesome
committee that brought him his grief; the doctor, the druggist, the
casket-maker, the sexton, and the dealer in the unreal estate who sold
the tiny lots in the sad little town.
His soul was too bruised to grope its way about, but instinct told
him that bills must be paid. Instinct automatically set him to work
clearing up his accounts. For their sakes he devoted himself to a
stricter economy than ever. He engaged meals at Mrs. Judd's
boarding-house. He resolved even to rent his home. But, mercifully,
there was no one in town to take the place. In economy's name, too, he
put away his pipefor one horrible evening. The next day he remembered
how Marthy had sung out, Why don't you smoke your pipe any more,
Will? and he had answered: I'd kind o' got out of the habit, Marthy,
but I guess I'll git back in. And Lordy, how she laughed! The laughter
of the deadit made a lonely echo in the house.
Gradually he found, as so many dismal castaways have found, that
there is a mystic companionship in that weed which has come out of the
vegetable world, as the dog from among the animals, to make fellowship
with man. Rudd and his pipe were Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday on
the desert island of loneliness. They stared out to sea; and imagined.
Remembering how Martha and he used to dream about the child, in the
tobacco twilight, and how they planned his future, Rudd's soul learned
to follow the pipe smoke out from the porch, over the fence and to
disappear beyond the horizons of the town and the sharp definition of
the graveyard fence. He became addicted to dreams, habituated to
dealing in futurities that could never come to pass.
Being his only luxury on earth, by and by they became his
necessities, realities more concrete than the shoes he sold or the
board walk he plodded to and from his store.
One Sunday Rudd was present at church when Mr. and Mrs. Budd Granger
brought their fourth baby forward to be christened. The infant bawled
and choked and kicked its safety-pins loose. Rudd was sure that Eric
never would have misbehaved like that. Yet Eric had been denied the
This reminded Rudd how many learned theologians had proved by rigid
logic that unbaptized babies are damned forever. He spent days of
horror at the frightful possibility, and nights of infernal travel
across gridirons where babies flung their blistered hands in vain
appeal to far-off mothers. He could not get it from his mind until, one
evening, his pipe persuaded him to erect a font in the temple of his
He mused through all the ritual, and the little frame house seemed
to thrill as the vague preacher enounced the sonorous phrase:
I baptize thee Ericin the name of the Father, and of the Son, and
of the Holy Ghost.
Marthy was there, too, of course, but it was the father that held
the baby. And the child did not wince when the pastor's fingers
moistened the tiny brow. He just clasped a geranium-petal hand round
Rudd's thumb and stared at the sacrament with eyes of more than mortal
The very next day Mrs. Ad. Peck walked into the store, proud as a
peahen. She wanted shoes for her baby. The soles of the old pair were
intact, but the stubby toes were protruding.
He crawls all over the house, Mr. Rudd! And he cut his first tooth
to-day, too. Just look at it. Ain't it a beauty?
In her insensate conceit she pried the child's mouth apart as if he
were a pony, to disclose the minute peak of ivory. It was nothing to
make such a fuss over, Rudd thought, though he praised it as if it were
a snow-capped Fuji-yama.
That night Eric cut two teeth. And Marthy nearly laughed her head
Rudd did not talk aloud to the family he had revened from the grave.
He had no occult persuasions. He just sat in his rocker and smoked hard
and imagined hard. He imagined the lives of his family not only as they
might have been, but as they ought to have been. He was like a
spectator at a play, mingling belief and make-belief inextricably,
knowing it all untrue, yet weeping, laughing, thrilling as if it were
the very image of fact.
All mothers and some fathers have a sad little calendar in their
hearts' cupboards where they keep track of the things that might have
been. October fifth, they muse. Why, it's Ned's birthday! He'd have
been twenty-one to-day if he'd lived. He'd have voted this year.
December twenty-third? Alice would have been coming home from
boarding-school to-day ifJuly fourth? Humph! How Harry loved the
fireworks! But he'd be a Senator now and invited to his home town to
make a speech in the park to-day if If! If!
Everybody must keep some such if-almanac, some such diary of prayers
denied. That was all Rudd did; only he wrote it up every evening. He
would take from the lavender where he kept them the little things
Martha had sewed for the child and the little shoes he had bought. The
warm body had never wriggled and laughed in the tiny trousseau, the
little shoes had never housed pink toes, but they helped him to pretend
until they became to him things outgrown by a living, growing child. He
cherished them as all parents cherish the first shoes and the first
linens and woolens of their young.
Marthy and Eric Rudd lived just behind the diaphanous curtain of the
pipe smoke, or in the nooks of the twilight shadow, or in the heart of
the settin'-room stove.
The frame house had no fireplace, and in its lieu he was wont to
open the door of the wood-stove, lean forward, elbows on knees, and
gaze into the creamy core of the glow where his people moved unharmed
and radiant, like the three youths conversing in the fiery furnace.
In the brief period allotted them before bedtime they must needs
live fast. The boy grew at an extraordinary rate and in an
extraordinary manner, for sometimes Rudd performed for him that feat
which God Himself seems not to achieve in His world; he turned back
time and brought on yesterday again, or reverted the year before last,
as a reaper may pause and return to glean some sheaf overlooked before.
For instance, Eric was already a strapping lad of seven spinning
through school at a rate that would have given brain fever to a
less-gifted youngster, when, one day, Farmer Stebbins came to the
Emporium with a four-year-old chub of a son who ran in ahead of his
father, kicked his shoes in opposite directions and yelled, to the
great dismay of an old maid in the Ladies' and Misses' Dept.:
Hay, mister, gimme pair boots 'ith brass toes!
The father, after a formulaic pretense of reproving the lad,
We'll have to excuse him, Rudd; it's his first pair of boots.
Rudd's heart was sore within him, and he was oppressed with guilt.
He had never bought Eric his first pair of brass-toed boots! And he a
So that night Eric had to be reduced several years, brought out of
school, and taken to St. Louis. Rudd knew what an epoch-making event
this was, and he wanted Eric to select from a larger stock than the
meager and out-of-date supply of Kittredge's Emporiumthough this
admission was only for Rudd's own family. The thumb-screw could not
have wrung it from him for the public.
There was a similar mix-up about Eric's first long trousers which
Rudd likewise overlooked. He accomplished the Irish miracle of the
tight boots. Eric had worn his breeches a long while before he put them
on for the first time.
To the outer knowledge of the stranger or the neighbor, William
Rudd's employer had all the good luck that was coming to him, and all
of Rudd's besides. They were antitheses at every point.
Where Rudd was without ambition, importance, family, or funds,
Kittredge was the richest man in town, the man of most impressive
family, and easily the leading citizen. People began to talk him up for
Congressman, maybe for Senator. He had held all the other conspicuous
offices in his church, his bank, his county. You could hardly say that
he had ever run for any office; he had just walked up and taken it.
Yet Rudd did not envy him his record or his family. Clay Kittredge
had children, real children. The cemetery lodged none of them. Yet one
of the girls or boys was always ill or in trouble with somebody; Mrs.
Kittredge was forever cautioning her children not to play with Mrs.
So-and-so's children and Mrs. So-and-so would return the compliment.
The town was fairly torn up with these nursery Guelph and Ghibelline
Rudd compared the wickednesses of other people's children with the
perfections of Eric. Sometimes his evil genius whispered a bitter
thought that if Eric had lived to enter the world this side of the
tobacco smoke, he, too, might have been a complete scoundrel in
knee-breeches, instead of the clean-hearted, clear-skinned, studious,
truthful little gentleman of light and laughter and love that he was.
But Rudd banished the thought.
Eric was never ill, or only ill enough at times to give the parents
a little of the rapture of anxiety and of sitting by his bedside
holding his hand and brushing his hair back from a hot forehead. Eric
never was impolite, or cruel to an animal, or impudent to a teacher, or
backward in a class.
And Rudd's wife differed from Kittredge's wife and wives in
generaland indeed from the old Martha herselfin staying young and
growing more and more beautiful. The old Martha had been too shy and
too cognizant of the truth ever to face a camera; and Rudd often
regretted that he owned not even a bridal photograph such as the other
respectable married folks of Hillsdale had on the wall, or in a crayon
enlargement on an uneasy easel. He had no likeness of Martha except
that in his heart. But thereby his fancy was unshackled and he was
enabled to imagine her sweeter, fairer, every day.
It was the boy alone that grew; the mother, having become perfect,
remained stationary in charm like the blessed Greeks in the
asphodel-fields of Hades.
About the time Eric Rudd outgrew the public schools of Hillsdale and
graduated from the high school with a wonderful oration of his own
writing called Night Brings Out the Stars, Kittredge announced that
his eldest son would go to Harvard in the fall. Rudd determined that
Eric should go to Yale. He even sent for catalogues. Rudd was appalled
to see how much a person had to know before he could even get into
college. And then, this nearly omniscient intellect was called a
The prices of rooms, of meals, of books, of extra fees, the
estimated allowances for clothing and spending-money dazed the poor
shoe clerk and nearly sent Eric into business. But, fortunately, the
brier pipe came to the rescue with an unexpected legacy from an
The four years of college life were imagined with a good deal of
elision and an amount of guesswork that would have amused a janitor.
But Rudd and Martha were chiefly interested in the boy's vacations at
home, and their own trips to New Haven, and the letters of approval
from the professors.
Eric had an athletic career seldom equaled since the days of
Hercules. For Eric was a champion tennis-player, hockey-player,
baseballist, boxer, swimmer, runner, jumper, shot-putter. And he was
the best quoit-thrower in the New Haven town square. Rudd had rather
dim notions of some of the games, so that Eric was established both as
center rush of the football team and the cockswain in the crew.
He was also a member of all the best fraternities. He was a Bones
man in his Freshman year, and in his Sophomore year added the other
Senior societies. And, of course, he stood at the head of all his
classesthough he never condescended to take a single red apple to a
The boy's college life lasted Rudd a thousand and one evenings. It
was in beautiful contrast with the career of Kittredge's children, some
of whom were forever flunking their examinations, slipping back a year,
requiring expensive tutors, acquiring bad habits, and getting into
debt. Almost the only joy Kittredge had of them was in telegraphing
them money in response to their telegrams for moneythey never wrote.
Their vacations either sent them scurrying on house parties or other
excursions. Or if they came home they were discontented with house and
parents. They corrected Kittredge's grammar, though his State accounted
him an orator. They corrected Mrs. Kittredge's etiquette, though
Hillsdale looked up to her as a social arbitrix.
Kittredge poured a deal of his disappointment into Rudd's ear,
because his hard heart was broken and breaking anew every day, and he
had to tell somebody. He knew that his old clerk would keep it where he
kept all the secrets of his business, but he never knew that Rudd still
had a child of his own, forging ahead without failure. Rudd could give
comfort, for he had it to spare, and he was empty of envy.
It was a ghastly morning when Kittredge showed Rudd a telegram
saying that his eldest son, Thomas, had thrown himself in front of a
train because of the discovery that his accounts were wrong. Kittredge
had found him a place in a New York bank, but the gambling fever had
seized the young fellow. And now he was dead, in his sins, in his
shame. Dives cried out to Lazarus:
It's hell to be a father, Will. It's an awful thing to bring
children into the world and try to carry 'em through it. It's not a
man's job. It's God's.
At times like these, and when Rudd heard from the tattlers, or read
in the printed gossip of the evening paper concerning the multifarious
wickednesses of the children of men about the earth, he felt almost
glad that his boy had never lived upon so plague-infected a world. But
in the soothe of twilight the old pipe persuaded him to a pleasanter
view of his boy, alive and always doing the right thing, avoiding the
His motto was, Eric would have done different. He was sure of
that. It was his constant conclusion.
After graduating from an imaginary Yale Eric went to an imaginary
law-school in New York Cityno less. Then he was admitted to that
imaginary bar where a lawyer never defends an unrighteous cause, never
loses a case, yet grows rich. And, of course, like every other American
boy that dreams or is dreamed of, in good time he had to become
Eric lived so exemplary a life, was so busy in virtue, so
unblemished of fault, that he could not be overlooked by the managers
of the quadrennial national performance, searching with Demosthenes'
lantern for a man against whom nothing could be said. They called Eric
from private life to be headliner in their vaudeville.
Rudd had watched Kittredge clambering to his success, or rather
wallowing to it through a swamp of mud. All the wrong things Kittredge
had ever done, and their name was legion, were hurled in his path. His
family scandals were dug up by the double handful and splashed in his
face. Against his opponent the same methods were used. It was like a
race through a marsh; and when Kittredge reached his goal in the Senate
he was so muck-bemired, his heart had been so lacerated, the nakedness
of his past so exposed, that his laurel seemed more like a wreath of
poison ivy. And once mounted on his high post, he was an even better
target than when he was on the wing.
Against Eric's blameless life the arrows of slander were like darts
shot toward the sun. They fell back upon the archers' heads. That was a
lively night in the tobacco lagoon when the election returns came in
and State after State swung to Eric's column. Rudd made it as nearly
unanimous as he could without making it stupid. The solid South he left
unbroken; he just brought it over to Eric en bloc. For Eric, it seems,
had devised what everybody else has looked for in vain, a solution of
the negro problem to satisfy both North and Southand the negroes.
Unfortunately the details have been lost.
Marthy was there, of course; she rode in the same hack with their
boy. Some of the politicians and the ex-President wanted to get in, but
My mother and father ride with me or I won't be President.
That settled 'em. Eric even wanted to ride backward, too, but Will,
as his father, insisted; and of course Eric obeyed, though he was
President. And the weather was more like June than March, no blizzards
delaying trains and distributing pneumonia.
Once the administration was begun, the newspapers differed strangely
in their treatment of Eric from their attitude toward other Chief
Magistrates, from Washington down. Realizing that Eric was an honorable
man trying to do the right thing by the people, no editor or cartoonist
dreamed of accusing him of an unworthy motive or an unwise act. As for
the tariff labyrinth, a matter of some trouble to certain Presidents
pulled in all directions at once by warring constituencies, Eric
settled that in a jiffy. And the best of it was that everybody was
satisfied, importers and exporters; East, West, and Middle; farmers,
manufacturers, lumbermen, oilmen, painterseverybody.
And when his first term was ended the Democrats and Republicans,
realizing that they had at last found a perfectly wise and honorable
ruler, nominated him by acclamation at both conventions. The result was
delightful; both parties elected their candidate.
Marthy and Will sat with Eric in the carriage at the second
inaugural, too. There was an argument again about who should ride
backward. Rudd said:
Eric, your Excellency, these here crowds came to see you, and you
ought to face 'em. As your dad I order you to set there 'side of your
But Eric said, Dad, your Majesty, the people have seen me often
enough, and as the President of these here United States I order you to
set there 'side of your wife.
And of course Rudd had to do it. Folks looked very much surprised to
see him and there was quite a piece in the papers about it.
To every man his day's work and his night's dream. Will Rudd has
poor nourishment of the former, but he is richly fed of the latter. His
failures and his poverty and the monotony of his existence are public
knowledge; his dream is his own triumph and the greater for being his
The Fates seemed to go out of their way to be cruel to Will Rudd,
but he beat them at their own game. Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos kept
Jupiter himself in awe of their shears, and the old Norns, Urdur,
Verdandi, and Skuld, ruined Wotan's power and his glory. But they could
not touch the shoe clerk. They shattered his little scheme of things to
bits, but he rebuilt it nearer to his heart's desire. He spread a sky
about his private planet and ruled his little universe like a tribal
god. He, alone of all men, had won the oldest, vainest prayer that was
ever said or sung: O God, keep the woman I love young and beautiful,
and grant our child happiness and success without sin or sorrow.
If, sometimes, the imagination of the matter-of-fact man wavers, and
the ugliness of his loneliness overwhelms him, thrusts through his
dream like a hideous mountainside when an avalanche strips the barren
crags of their fleece; and if he then breaks down and calls aloud for
his child and his wife to be given back to him from Out Therethese
panics are also his secret. Only the homely sitting-room of the lonely
frame house knows them. He opens the door of the wood-stove or follows
his pipe smoke and rallies his courage, resumes his dream. The next
morning sees him emerge from his door and go briskly to the shop as
always, whether his path is through rain or sleet, or past the
recurrent lilacs that have scattered many a purple snow across his
sidewalk since the bankruptcy of his ambitions.
He would have been proud to be the unknown father of a great man. He
was not permitted to be the father even of a humble man. Yet being
denied the reality, he has taken sustenance in what might have been,
and has turned the saddest words of tongue or pen into something
almost sweet. If his child has missed the glories of what might have
been, he has escaped the shames that might have been, and the bruises
and heartaches and remorses that must have been, that always have been.
That is the increasing consolation a bitter world offers to those who
love and have lost. That was Rudd's solace. And he made the most of it;
added to it a dream. He was a wise man.
After he paid his sorrowful debts his next slow savings went to the
building of a monument for his family. It is one of the handsomest
shafts in the cemetery. If Rudd could brag of anything he would brag of
that. The inscription took a long time to write. You could tell that by
its simplicity. And you might notice the blank space left for his own
name when all three shall be together again.
Rudd is now saving a third fund against the encroaching time when he
shall be too feeble to get up from his knees after he has dropped upon
them to unlace somebody's sandal. Lonely old orphans like Rudd must
provide their own pensions. There is a will, however, which bequeaths
whatever is left of his funds to an orphan home. Being a sonless
father, he thinks of the sons who have no fathers to do for them what
he was so fain to do for his. It is not a large fund for these days
when rich men toss millions as tips to posterity, but it is pretty good
for a shoe clerk. And it will mean everything to some Eric that gets
himself really born.
If you drop in at the Emporium and ask for a pair of shoes or boots,
or slippers or rubbers, or trees or pumps, and wait for old Rudd to get
round to you, you will be served with deference, yet with a pride of
occupation that is almost priestly. And you will probably buy
something, whether you want it or not.
The old man is slightly shuffly in his gaiters. His own elastics are
less resilient than once they were. If you ask for anything on the top
shelf he is a trifle slow getting the ladder and rather ratchety in
clambering up and down, and his eyes are growing so tired that he may
offer you a 6D when you ask for a 3A.
But, above all things, don't hurt his pride by offering to help him
to his feet if he shows some difficulty in rising when he has performed
his genuflexion before you. Just pretend not to notice, as he would
pretend not to notice any infirmity or vanity of yours. It is his
vanity to be still the best shoe clerk in townas he is. There is a
gracious satisfiedness about the old man that radiates contentment and
makes you comfortable for the time in most uncomfortable shoes. And as
old Rudd says:
You'll find that the best shoe is the one that pinches at first and
hurts a little; in time it will grow very comfortable and still be
That is what Rudd says, and he ought to know.
In these days he is so supremely comfortable in his old shoes that
his own fellow-clerks hardly know what to make of him. If they only
understood what is going on in his private world they would realize
that Eric is about to be marriedin the White House. The boy was so
busy for the country and loved his mother so that he had no time to go
But Marthy got after him and said: Eric, they're goin' to make you
President for the third term. Oh, what's that old tradition got to do
with it? Can't they change it? Well, you mark my words, like as not
you'll settle down and live in the White House the rest of your life.
You'd ought to have a wife, Eric, and be raisin' some childern to
comfort your declining years. What would Will and me have done without
you? I'm gettin' old, Eric, and I'd kind o' like to see how it feels to
be a grandmother, before they take me out to the
But that was a word Rudd could never frame even in his thoughts.
Eric, being a mighty good boy, listened to his mother, as always.
And Marthy looked everywhere for an ideal woman, and when she found
one, Eric fell in love with her right away. It is not every child that
is so dutiful as that.
The marriage is to take place shortly and Rudd is very busy with the
details. He will go on to Washington, of courseof evenings. In fact,
the wedding is to be in the evening, so that he won't have to miss any
time at the shop. There are so many people coming in every day and
asking for shoes, that he wouldn't dare be away.
Martha is insisting on Will's buying a dress soot for the
festivities, but he is in doubt about that. Martha, though, shall have
the finest dress in the land, for she is more beautiful even than
Eric's bride, and she doesn't look a day older than she did when she
was a bride herself. A body would never guess how many years ago that
The White House is going to be all lit up, and a lot of big folks
will be therea couple of kings, like as not. There will be fried
chicken for dinner and ice-creammixed, maybe, chocolate and vanella,
and p'raps a streak of strawb'ry. And there will be enough so's
everybody can have two plates. Marthy will prob'ly bake the cake
herself, if she can get that old White House stove to working right.
Rudd has a great surprise in store for her. He's going to tell a
good one on Marthy. At just the proper moment he's going to lean
overLord, he hopes he can keep his face straightand say, kind of
Do you remember, Marthy, the time when you was makin' little
baby-clothes for the President of the United States here, and you says
to meyou see, Eric, she'd made me quit smokin', herself, but she
plumb forgot all about thatand she says to me, s'she, 'Why don't you
smoke your pipe any more, Will?' she says. And I says, 'I'd kind o' got
out of the habit, Marthy,' s'I, 'but I guess I'll git back in,' s'I. I
said it right off like that, 'I guess I'll git back in!' s'I. Remember,