Peter by Jacob A. Riis
Miss Wald of the Nurses' Settlement told me the story of Peter, and
I set it down here as I remember it. She will forgive the slips. Peter
has nothing to forgive; rather, he would not have were he alive. He was
all to the good for the friendship he gave and took. Looking at it
across the years, it seems as if in it were the real Peter. The other,
who walked around, was a poor knave of a pretender.
This was Miss Wald's story:
He came to me with the card of one of our nurses, a lanky, slipshod
sort of fellow of nineteen or thereabouts. The nurse had run across him
begging in a tenement. When she asked him why he did that, he put a
question himself: Where would a fellow beg if not among the poor? And
now there he stood, indifferent, bored if anything, shiftless, yet with
some indefinite appeal, waiting to see what I would do. She had told
him that he had better go and see me, and he had come. He had done his
part; it was up to me now.
He was a waiter, he said, used to working South in the winter, but
it was then too late. He had been ill. He suppressed a little hacking
cough that told its own story; he was a lunger. Did he tramp? Yes, he
said, and I noticed that his breath smelled of whisky. He made no
attempt to hide the fact.
I explained to him that I might send him to some place in the
country where he could get better during the winter, but that it would
be so much effort wasted if he drank. He considered a while, and nodded
in his curious detached way; he guessed he could manage without it, if
he had plenty of hot coffee. The upshot of it was that he accepted my
condition and went.
[Illustration: THERE HE STOOD, INDIFFERENT, BORED IF ANYTHING,
Along in midwinter our door-bell was rung one night, and there stood
Peter. Oh! did you come back? Too bad! It slipped out before I had
time to think. But Peter bore with me. He smiled reassurance. I did
not run away. The place burned down; we were sent back.
It was true; I remembered. But the taint of whisky was on his
breath. You have been drinking again, I fretted. You spent your
money for that
No, said he; a man treated me.
And did you have to take whisky?
There was no trace of resentment in his retort: Well, now, what
would he have said if I'd took milk? It was as one humoring a child.
He went South on a waiter job. From St. Augustine he sent me a
letter that ended: Write me in care of the post-office; it is the
custom of the town to get your letters there. Likely it was the first
time in his life that he had had a mail address. This is a very nice
place, ran his comment on the old Spanish town, but for business give
me New York.
The Wanderlust gripped Peter, and I heard from him next in
the Southwest. For years letters came from him at long intervals,
showing that he had not forgotten me. Once another tramp called on me
with greeting from him and a request for shoes. When business next
took Peter to New York and he called, I told him that I valued his
acquaintance, but did not care for that of many more tramps. He knew
the man at once.
Oh, he said, isn't he a rotter? I didn't think he would do that.
They were tramping in Colorado, he explained, and one night the other
man told him of his mother. Peter, in the intimacy of the camp-fire,
spoke of me. The revelation of the other's baseness was like the
betrayal of some sacred rite. I would not have liked to be in the man's
place when next they met, if they ever did.
Some months passed, and then one day a message came from St.
Joseph's Home: I guess I am up against it this time. He did not want
to trouble me, but would I come and say good-by? I went at once. Peter
was dying, and he knew it. Sitting by his bed, my mind went back to our
first meetingperhaps his did tooand I said: You have been real
decent several times, Peter. You must have come of good people; don't
you want me to find them for you? He didn't seem to care very much,
but at last he gave me the address in Boston of his only sister. But
she had moved, and it was a long and toilsome task to find her. In the
end, however, a friend located her for me. She was a poor Irish
dressmaker, and Peter's old father lived with her. She wrote in answer
to my summons that they would come, if Peter wanted them very much, but
that it would be a sacrifice. He had always been their great triala
born tramp and idler.
Peter was chewing a straw when I told him. I had come none too soon.
His face told me that. He heard me out in silence. When I asked if he
wanted me to send for them, he stopped chewing a while and ruminated.
They might send me the money instead, he decided, and resumed his