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CHAPTER XXVIII: When the Moment Comes the Man Appears - Why Ed. Jackson called on Commodore Vanderbilt - Their Interview - Welcome to the Child of His Friend - A Big Time but under Inspection - Sent on Important Business - A Visit to the Boys on the Boat
Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed.
- Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
The aphorism does really seem true: "Given the Circumstances, the Man will appear." But the man musn't appear ahead of time, or it will spoil everything. In Robinson's case the Moment had been approaching for a quarter of a century - and meantime the future Conciliator was tranquilly laying bricks in Hobart. When all other means had failed, the Moment had arrived, and the Bricklayer put down his trowel and came forward. Earlier he would have been jeered back to his trowel again. It reminds me of a tale that was told me by a Kentuckian on the train when we were crossing Montana. He said the tale was current in Louisville years ago. He thought it had been in print, but could not remember. At any rate, in substance it was this, as nearly as I can call it back to mind.
A few years before the outbreak of the Civil War it began to appear that Memphis, Tennessee, was going to be a great tobacco entrepot - the wise could see the signs of it. At that time Memphis had a wharf boat, of course. There was a paved sloping wharf, for the accommodation of freight, but the steamers landed on the outside of the wharfboat, and all loading and unloading was done across it, between steamer and shore. A number of wharfboat clerks were needed, and part of the time, every day, they were very busy, and part of the time tediously idle. They were boiling over with youth and spirits, and they had to make the intervals of idleness endurable in some way; and as a rule, they did it by contriving practical jokes and playing them upon each other.
The favorite butt for the jokes was Ed Jackson, because he played none himself, and was easy game for other people's - for he always believed whatever was told him.
One day he told the others his scheme for his holiday. He was not going fishing or hunting this time - no, he had thought out a better plan. Out of his $40 a month he had saved enough for his purpose, in an economical way, and he was going to have a look at New York.
It was a great and surprising idea. It meant travel immense travel - in those days it meant seeing the world; it was the equivalent of a voyage around it in ours. At first the other youths thought his mind was affected, but when they found that he was in earnest, the next thing to be thought of was, what sort of opportunity this venture might afford for a practical joke.
The young men studied over the matter, then held a secret consultation and made a plan. The idea was, that one of the conspirators should offer Ed a letter of introduction to Commodore Vanderbilt, and trick him into delivering it. It would be easy to do this. But what would Ed do when he got back to Memphis? That was a serious matter. He was good-hearted, and had always taken the jokes patiently; but they had been jokes which did not humiliate him, did not bring him to shame; whereas, this would be a cruel one in that way, and to play it was to meddle with fire; for with all his good nature, Ed was a Southerner - and the English of that was, that when he came back he would kill as many of the conspirators as he could before falling himself. However, the chances must be taken - it wouldn't do to waste such a joke as that.
So the letter was prepared with great care and elaboration. It was signed Alfred Fairchild, and was written in an easy and friendly spirit. It stated that the bearer was the bosom friend of the writer's son, and was of good parts and sterling character, and it begged the Commodore to be kind to the young stranger for the writer's sake. It went on to say, "You may have forgotten me, in this long stretch of time, but you will easily call me back out of your boyhood memories when I remind you of how we robbed old Stevenson's orchard that night; and how, while he was chasing down the road after us, we cut across the field and doubled back and sold his own apples to his own cook for a hat-full of doughnuts; and the time that we - - " and so forth and so on, bringing in names of imaginary comrades, and detailing all sorts of wild and absurd and, of course, wholly imaginary schoolboy pranks and adventures, but putting them into lively and telling shape.
With all gravity Ed was asked if he would like to have a letter to Commodore Vanderbilt, the great millionaire. It was expected that the question would astonish Ed, and it did.
"What? Do you know that extraordinary man?"
"No; but my father does. They were schoolboys together. And if you like, I'll write and ask father. I know he'll be glad to give it to you for my sake."
Ed could not find words capable of expressing his gratitude and delight. The three days passed, and the letter was put into his bands. He started on his trip, still pouring out his thanks while he shook good-bye all around. And when he was out of sight his comrades let fly their laughter in a storm of happy satisfaction - and then quieted down, and were less happy, less satisfied. For the old doubts as to the wisdom of this deception began to intrude again.
Arrived in New York, Ed found his way to Commodore Vanderbilt's business quarters, and was ushered into a large anteroom, where a score of people were patiently awaiting their turn for a two-minute interview with the millionaire in his private office. A servant asked for Ed's card, and got the letter instead. Ed was sent for a moment later, and found Mr. Vanderbilt alone, with the letter - open - in his hand.
"Pray sit down, Mr. - er - "
" Ah - sit down, Mr. Jackson. By the opening sentences it seems to be a letter from an old friend. Allow me - I will run my eye through it. He says he says - why, who is it?" He turned the sheet and found the signature. "Alfred Fairchild - hm - Fairchild - I don't recall the name. But that is nothing - a thousand names have gone from me. He says - he says-hm-hmoh, dear, but it's good! Oh, it's rare! I don't quite remember it, but I seem to it'll all come back to me presently. He says - he says - hm - hm-oh, but that was a game! Oh, spl-endid ! How it carries me back! It's all dim, of course it's a long time ago - and the names - some of the names are wavery and indistinct - but sho', I know it happened - I can feel it! and lord, how it warms my heart, and brings back my lost youth! Well, well, well, I've got to come back into this work-a-day world now - business presses and people are waiting - I'll keep the rest for bed to-night, and live my youth over again. And you'll thank Fairchild for me when you see him - I used to call him Alf, I think - and you'll give him my gratitude for - what this letter has done for the tired spirit of a hard-worked man; and tell him there isn't anything that I can do for him or any friend of his that I won't do. And as for you, my lad, you are my guest; you can't stop at any hotel in New York. Sit. where you are a little while, till I get through with these people, then we'll go home. I'll take care of you, my boy - make yourself easy as to that."
Ed stayed a week, and had an immense time - and never suspected that the Commodore's shrewd eye was on him, and that he was daily being weighed and measured and analyzed and tried and tested.
Yes, he had an immense time; and never wrote home, but saved it all up to tell when he should get back. Twice, with proper modesty and decency, he proposed to end his visit, but the Commodore said, "No - wait; leave it to me; I'll tell you when to go."
In those days the Commodore was making some of those vast combinations of his - consolidations of warring odds and ends of railroads into harmonious systems, and concentrations of floating and rudderless commerce in effective centers - and among other things his farseeing eye had detected the convergence of that huge tobacco-commerce, already spoken of, toward Memphis, and he had resolved to set his grasp upon it and make it his own.
The week came to an end. Then the Commodore said:
"Now you can start home. But first we will have some more talk about that tobacco matter. I know you now. I know your abilities as well as you know them yourself - perhaps better. You understand that tobacco matter; you understand that I am going to take possession of it, and you also understand the plans which I have matured for doing it. What I want is a man who knows my mind, and is qualified to represent me in Memphis, and be in supreme command of that important business - and I appoint you."
"Yes. Your salary will be high - of course-for you are representing me. Later you will earn increases of it, and will get them. You will need a small army of assistants; choose them yourself - and carefully. Take no man for friendship's sake; but, all things being equal, take the man you know, take your friend, in preference to the stranger." After some further talk under this head, the Commodore said:
"Good-bye, my boy, and thank Alf for me, for sending you to me."
When Ed reached Memphis he rushed down to the wharf in a fever to tell his great news and thank the boys over and over again for thinking to give him the letter to Mr. Vanderbilt. It happened to be one of those idle times. Blazing hot noonday, and no sign of life on the wharf. But as Ed threaded his way among the freight piles, he saw a white linen figure stretched in slumber upon a pile of grain-sacks under an awning, and said to himself, "That's one of them," and hastened his step; next, he said, "It's Charley - it's Fairchild good"; and the next moment laid an affectionate hand on the sleeper's shoulder. The eyes opened lazily, took one glance, the face blanched, the form whirled itself from the sack-pile, and in an instant Ed was alone and Fairchild was flying for the wharf-boat like the wind!
Ed was dazed, stupefied. Was Fairchild crazy? What could be the meaning of this? He started slow and dreamily down toward the wharf-boat; turned the corner of a freight-pile and came suddenly upon two of the boys. They were lightly laughing over some pleasant matter; they heard his step, and glanced up just as he discovered them; the laugh died abruptly; and before Ed could speak they were off, and sailing over barrels and bales like hunted deer. Again Ed was paralyzed. Had the boys all gone mad? What could be the explanation of this extraordinary conduct? And so, dreaming along, he reached the wharf-boat, and stepped aboard nothing but silence there, and vacancy. He crossed the deck, turned the corner to go down the outer guard, heard a fervent -
"O lord!" and saw a white linen form plunge overboard.
The youth came up coughing and strangling, and cried out -
"Go 'way from here! You let me alone. I didn't do it, I swear I didn't!"
"Didn't do what?"
"Give you the - - "
"Never mind what you didn't do - come out of that! What makes you all act so? What have I done?"
"You? Why you haven't done anything. But - - "
"Well, then, what have you got against me? What do you all treat me so for?"
"I - er - but haven't you got anything against us?"
"Of course not. What put such a thing into your head?"
"Honor bright - you haven't?
"I don't know what in the world you mean, but I swear it, anyway."
"And you'll shake hands with me?"
"Goodness knows I'll be glad to! Why, I'm just starving to shake hands with somebody!"
The swimmer muttered, "Hang him, he smelt a rat and never delivered the letter! - but it's all right, I'm not going to fetch up the subject." And he crawled out and came dripping and draining to shake hands. First one and then another of the conspirators showed up cautiously - armed to the teeth - took in the amicable situation, then ventured warily forward and joined the love-feast.
And to Ed's eager inquiry as to what made them act as they had been acting, they answered evasively, and pretended that they had put it up as a joke, to see what he would do. It was the best explanation they could invent at such short notice. And each said to himself, "He never delivered that letter, and the joke is on us, if he only knew it or we were dull enough to come out and tell."
Then, of course, they wanted to know all about the trip; and he said -
"Come right up on the boiler deck and order the drinks it's my treat. I'm going to tell you all about it. And to-night it's my treat again-and we'll have oysters and a time!"
When the drinks were brought and cigars lighted, Ed said:
"Well, when, I delivered the letter to Mr. Vanderbilt - - "
"Gracious, how you scared me. What's the matter?"
"Oh - er - nothing. Nothing - it was a tack in the chair-seat," said one.
"But you all said it. However, no matter. When I delivered the letter - - "
"Did you deliver it?" And they looked at each other as people might who thought that maybe they were dreaming.
Then they settled to listening; and as the story deepened and its marvels grew, the amazement of it made them dumb, and the interest of it took their breath. They hardly uttered a whisper during two hours, but sat like petrifactions and drank in the immortal romance. At last the tale was ended, and Ed said -
"And it's all owing to you, boys, and you'll never find me ungrateful-bless your hearts, the best friends a fellow ever had! You'll all have places; I want every one of you. I know you - I know you 'by the back,' as the gamblers say. You're jokers, and all that, but you're sterling, with the hallmark on. And Charley Fairchild, you shall be my first assistant and right hand, because of your first-class ability, and because you got me the letter, and for your father's sake who wrote it for me, and to please Mr. Vanderbilt, who said it would! And here's to that great man - drink hearty!"
Yes, when the Moment comes, the Man appears - even if he is a thousand miles away, and has to be discovered by a practical joke.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXIX: Tasmania, Early Days - Description of the Town of Hobart - An Englishman's Love of Home Surroundings - Neatest City on Earth - The Museum - A Parrot with an Acquired Taste - Glass Arrow Beads - Refuge for the Indigent too healthy