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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.


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 meeting—perhaps his did too—and 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 trial—a 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 straw.


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