From Harper's Magazine Vol. CXXXIV No. DCCCII (March, 1917)
All his life Joel Rice had cherished what may seem a humble ambition. Exactly why Joel had considered the ownership of a little retail dry-goods store in a country town the apex of his ambition was puzzling. As a child he had played at keeping store, with a soap-box for a counter and pins for the currency of the realm. His lack of success in that juvenile venture ought to have warned him of his entire unfitness for carrying out his scheme, but it failed to do so. Even when he had disposed of countless stocks of cups of sweetened water, of bits of broken china gathered from back yards, of green apples and the cores thereof, and his customers had not only defrauded him of pins, but had mocked him from vantage-points of safety, he remained sublime in his determination that when he was a man he would “keep store.”
However, he was made to take a course in bookkeeping, by his mother, who was of a less sanguine nature than he, and understood much better his capacity.
“Poor boy!” she had observed to his father, after repeated bankruptcies of the soap-box store, with its currency of pins — “poor boy! He will never make a storekeeper. He would be cheated out of his eye-teeth in a month.”
Joel's father, a saturnine man, with much confidence in his wife's judgment, had nodded assent.
It was thus settled, even while Joel, in his dauntless ambition, was starting another store on the soap-box, and inviting bankruptcy to call again, which invitation was promptly accepted. Joel kept all the neighborhood children in green apples and broken china for seasons, without a pin's worth of profit to himself, but his faith in the enterprise remained beautiful and serene.
A year after Joel left school his father died. His mother owned the home, and there was a small life insurance. Before her marriage she had been a dressmaker. She took up her old employment, and kept herself and Joel in comfort, while he attended a business college in a near-by city.
When Joel graduated he obtained a position as bookkeeper in a factory. His pay was moderate at first, and the hours were long. Joel did not marry when he was young. His mother had died and he was nearing middle-age before his salary was raised, and he asked a girl — hardly a girl by that time — to marry him. Both of them had had expectant eyes upon each other for years. The girl whom he married brought him enough money to pay off a mortgage on the house, which had been necessitated by his mother's long illness. She insisted upon doing so with the savings of her work as a music-teacher.
They lived together happily enough, and a little girl was born. She was a delicate, sweet, little creature. Joel's wife was contented. She reveled in her motherhood and her little home. She did not dream of Joel's state of mind. He was secretive as to his inmost emotions. He was happy, but always at his heart teased the old ambition. He was tired of bookkeeping. He longed for the store of his boyish dreams. Joel had never actually grown up. In his increased stature lived still the naïve, trusting, boy who had kept the pin-store on the soap-box and risen from bankruptcy with a perennial courage worthy of something larger.
Of course Joel's wife, Susan, knew her husband would like to own a store; he had told her that much. Perhaps three times since their marriage he had spoken of his ambition.
Susan had not paid very much attention. She considered that her husband had a good position and she was entirely satisfied. She failed to grasp the fact that Joel was not.
However, she glimpsed facts when her aunt out West died and left her five thousand dollars. She opened an account in the local bank while she deliberated what disposal to make of the money.
One evening Joel regarded her with a look like that of a good, faithful, starved dog as she talked of it.
“I feel as if it ought to be well invested,” said she. “It will be good to know that we have a little nest-egg, especially as Vivien grows up.” Vivien was the little girl. Her mother had allowed herself one lapse into the romantic when she named the child Vivien. “I wish I knew what to do with that money,” she said.
In Joel's eyes the look of a faithful, intensely loving, wistful dog — wistful beyond the reach of humanity — remained.
“What is it?” asked Susan.
“Nothing,” said Joel. He sighed.
Susan eyed him sharply. “What is it that you are reading so intently in the paper?” said she.
“Let me see.”
Susan took the paper from him. He looked pitiful while she looked it over. Susan was a delicately pretty woman. Her forehead furrowed when she was disturbed in mind. It furrowed as she looked at Joel after she had read what she knew had caught his attention.
“This advertisement for a man with a little capital to buy a dry-goods store, stock and interest, in Racebridge, Maine, is the item you wished me to read?” said she.
Joel nodded, still with those eyes of wistfulness on her face.
“I thought so; it is just what I thought,” said Susan. She looked keenly in her husband's face. “You can really tell little or nothing about it from this,” said she, finally, scanning the advertisement again.
“Abner Scott's wife has a cousin who used to live there,” said Joel.
“It doesn't seem much to go on,” remarked Susan. She knew perfectly well what that look in Joel's eyes meant. He would die before he would put the look into words, but she interpreted it with her loving insight. Joel wanted her, as he had never wanted anything before, to offer him her legacy to invest in that store.
Finally she did. She made a few inquiries. The results did not satisfy her. Susan had a good head for business, but her heart weakened it. It was as if she said to herself, “I will gamble for once.”
“You can have that money, Joel,” said she.
“Perhaps I ought not to take it,” said Joel, pitifully, “but I have wanted this chance all my life, and I don't see any possibility of another.”
Susan laughed pleasantly. “Then take it, and don't say anything more, Joel.”
Joel looked at her with adoring wistfulness and a little shame. “I wouldn't take it if I didn't think I could do better for you and Vivien,” said he.
“Of course you wouldn't. Now we'll take up with Henry Nason's offer for this house, and the money will buy us one in Racebridge. We had better sell most of our furniture and buy new.”
“There are splendid stores in Racebridge,” said Joel, with an air of pride, as if he owned the place.
Within six weeks they were settled in Racebridge. Susan's suspicions were awakened the instant she looked about the store. She knew. She said nothing, but her nesting, feminine instincts stirred fiercely. “If my money is gone I will at least have a home,” she thought.
She found a house. It was bought in her name. She suggested that, but Joel did not know. He thought he suggested it. He did not yet dream of his bad bargain about the store. He was pleased. He went about better clad than formerly. He felt himself, now that he was proprietor of a store, quite a gentleman.
He was a handsome man, although worn and nervous. Susan regarded him, in his new light suit, moving with a slight swagger, and admired him in spite of her dismay. She had appraised the stock of that store. She had said to herself, “Not one-tenth of it but is out-of-date. It means buying new if there is to be any store. Poor Joel has been cheated, cheated!”
For all poor Joel knew, those obsolete fabrics on the shelves might be the latest vogue in Paris. For all he knew, women went “clad in white samite, mystic, wonderful,” or in Tyrian purple.
Poor Joel knew absolutely nothing of the simplest requirements of his new business. Susan reflected with horror that he did not know how to buy a paper of perfectly good pins. When he made his first trip to New York, to buy for the spring trade, Susan almost asked to accompany him. If she had known anybody in that strange place with whom she could have left the child, she might have gone. As it was, she remained, and trembled. Joel had asked her, with a frown of boyish perplexity, what was the voile the women were wearing, and what was the crêpe de Chine, pronouncing the words in such strange wise that Susan wondered what would be sold him in their stead. She tried to coach him in the proper pronunciation, although she could see that her effort hurt his pride. He colored and said he guessed the merchants would know what he meant, but all the same she heard him out on the front piazza, repeating the words over and over.
Susan felt in a chill all the time he was away, but he returned radiant, bringing gifts for her and the child. “You needn't have worried, Susan,” he said, “They knew what I wanted before I spoke. Those great wholesale dealers know what they are about.”
Susan reflected ruefully that they undoubtedly did, but she thanked Joel for his gifts and gave him hot biscuits for supper.
When the purchases arrived she was surprised to see any voile or crêpe de Chine, but there is some good in Sodom. Joel had chosen some slightly obsolete muslins, of course, and even some figured light wool stuff which looked, and probably was, somewhat historic, but she said nothing. After all, Racebridge was provincial and the fabrics were pretty. Joel might sell them.
He did sell more than she had expected, but — his customers ran bills. Joel was naïvely pleased at that. “Don't believe there's another store in town with so many charge customers,” he said.
Susan tried to smile, but she sighed.
Joel looked at her in perplexity. “Ain't you pleased to have me get so many charge customers?” he asked.
“Any store that is a store has charge customers,” said Joel. He eyed Susan.
“Why, of course I know that,” said she.
“I shall send out bills the first of every month,” said Joel. “And I am always going to give you half, Susan. I want you to feel sure of something. It is your right, because it is really your money that is in the store.”
“That is real nice of you, Joel,” said Susan.
The conversation had taken place during the noon dinner. Shortly after, Joel set off to the store. Susan watched her husband, looking more erect and much younger than when he had been only a bookkeeper in a factory, walking smartly down the street under the spread of the maple-trees which bordered it. She looked troubled, but she forced smiles as she bade Vivien good-by when the child set out for the afternoon session at school.
When she had gone Susan washed the dinner-dishes. Then she changed her dress. Then she sat down and wept. She did not dare weep long, because callers were apt to come of an afternoon. Racebridge women were friendly, and welcomed strangers in their midst. Susan bathed her eyes in cold water and sat down beside a window with her needlework.
Presently two women in fine silk dresses appeared under bobbing, ruffled parasols. They were coming to call. Susan admitted them, and the three sat in the parlor and talked. Everybody who called said exactly the same things. They all asked Susan where she had lived before she came to Racebridge, if she was homesick, how old her little girl was, and if Vivien had had the mumps, because the mumps were going around.
These ladies were no exception to the rule at first. But when they took leave, one, who had a sharp tongue, and was feared because of it, said something radically different.
“How does Mr. Rice like his store?” said she.
“Very much, I think,” replied Susan.
The lady had a fine, shrewd face with a peculiar expression compounded of bitterness and mischief. “It is an experiment for any man to go into business in Racebridge,” said she. She regarded her hands encased in immaculate white kid gloves. She did not touch them to smooth them, as did most ladies. Miss Eliza Bangley never crossed the threshold of her own house door without being as completely adjusted as possible in every detail of her attire. She emerged, as it were, in full plumage, with every feather in its exact place.
As she made that remark to Susan she stood complacently, with the soft flare of her nice skirts around her, with the crisp rise of white ruche at her neck, with a tuft of violets in her toque, one hand clasping a card-case, the other held away from her skirt, with the little white kid finger slightly curved outward.
Susan changed color. “You mean —” said she.
“I mean,” repeated Miss Eliza, “that it has always proved experimental for a man to go into business in Racebridge.”
Susan regarded her with an expression of alarm. The other woman fidgeted. She was large and handsome, richly, although not carefully, dressed. She smoothed the fingers of her gloves and murmured something about other calls.
“Please tell me what you mean, Miss Bangley,” said Susan.
Miss Eliza did not even glance at her companion, who now determinedly walked out. Susan could not dream that a fine and subtle revenge was being wreaked upon the large, handsome woman, Mrs. Morse, because she had invited herself to accompany Miss Eliza Bangley, who considered herself of a quite superior caste, on a round of calls.
“I mean,” said Miss Eliza, distinctly, although with the gentlest of accents, “that often the people of Racebridge attain a spiritual plane above bills.”
Then she also passed through the door with a “Good afternoon.”
Susan sat down and reflected hard. She was a simple woman, although a shrewd one. She failed at first to grasp the entire meaning of Miss Eliza's remarks, but she was very uneasy.
“She means,” said Susan, finally, “that people in Racebridge are bad about paying their bills.”
That evening she declared to Joel that she thought it would be wiser to have cash customers than charge customers. Joel stared at her. “Why, Susan,” he said, “who ever heard of a business without charge customers? Three more opened accounts today.”
“I should much prefer cash,” Susan said, firmly.
“Cash? Why, a good charge is better than cash. There was a drummer in the store to-day talking about it. He was a real up-and-coming young man. He said if he were keeping store, give him a woman charge customer, instead of a cash one, every time. He said a woman with cash would squeeze a dollar until the eagle squealed, but a woman with a charge account never knew where she was. She'd go right ahead and buy everything in sight and never know she'd bought anything. He said a woman with a check-book was as bad as a thousand prodigal sons boiled down into one.”
“I wouldn't act like that if I had a check-book,” said Susan, with a show of spirit.
“Of course you wouldn't. I told that drummer I would trust you just as much in a business deal as I would myself.”
“Thank you,” said Susan.
Joel started and looked at her. “Why, what's the matter?” he asked, anxiously.
Susan controlled her facial muscles with a strong effort. “Nothing,” said she. “Why should there be?”
“I thought you looked sort of funny, and your voice sounded funny.”
“All imagination,” said Susan, briskly. “You have a powerful imagination, Joel. I must go and see if the corn bread is done.”
Joel did not even reflect upon the conversation after Susan had left the room. He was entirely self-satisfied. His list of charge customers looked to him like an orderly pile of gold coins. Later it was different. Joel sent his monthly bills a second, and third, and even fourth time. When no remittances were forthcoming he began to look worried. He haunted the post-office. He lost flesh and did not sleep well. It seemed as if from the first Joel, with his expert knowledge of bookkeeping, might have realized something of the state of affairs, even with his profound ignorance of his stock. He may have been more suspicious than his wife knew. He may not have dared to fully investigate the books in which the store accounts had been kept for many years. The poor man was so pleased and proud that he may have trembled before his own happiness. Sometimes people are afraid to touch their good fortune lest they find a soft spot of rottenness, especially people like Joel, to whom good fortune has been so long in coming.
It was Willie Day, a nephew of his wife's, who forced Joel's reluctant knowledge upon his mind. Willie had a little money, and he came to clerk for Joel, a year after the latter bought the store. Willie was a pretty boy. At first Joel thought he was greatly increasing his custom. His former clerk had been a sober, rather testy, middle-aged man. When he died suddenly, Joel sent for Willie. Willie was very naïve and not at all shrewd, but he had a vein of curiosity. He poked around between hours in the storeroom behind the main store, and he made discoveries.
“Seems to me you've got a lot of queer goods packed away out there, Uncle Joel,” he said one day. It was raining and the two were alone. It was raining so hard that the great voice of the river, which ran behind the store, was drowned out, as a shrill soprano drowns out accompanying chords.
Joel paled and started: “What d'ye mean?” he asked, gruffly.
“Haven't you ever looked into those big boxes out there?” Willie indicated the store-room by a nod of his head. A long streamer of cobweb, acquired during his search, floated from his right arm.
“Not so's to say I have,” replied Joel.
“I don't know much about the stuff women folks are wearing,” said Willie, who had previously clerked in a grocery, “but it seems to me a lot of the goods packed away out there are older than the old goods you told me you couldn't sell here. Why don't you get Aunt Susan to look at them? She's a woman, and she ought to know the styles.”
“I don't believe in having women folks mixed up with men's business,” replied Joel. “I guess the goods out there are all right.”
“Suppose I bring some in and fill up those shelves,” suggested Willie, eagerly. He was quite ready to be convinced, and he was an industrious boy. Joel hesitated.
“Don't you want me to?”
“All right, go ahead,” said Joel, but he looked positively terrified.
Willie delightedly began going to and fro between the store and back room, his arms piled with goods. “After all, they look pretty nice to me,” he announced, after he had neatly filled the shelves. “I didn't just know about the plaids and spotted things and bright shades of red, but they look all right.”
“Of course they are all right,” said Joel, sharply. “Do you suppose I bought out this stock unless it was all right?”
“Don't know why I did think they were old-fashioned,” admitted Willie. “You see, I don't know anything to speak of about dry-goods.”
“Then you had better wait till you do before you criticise,” said Joel.
Willie was meek before the reprimand. But the next evening he came to Joel and made a whispered report. He was careful that his aunt should not hear. There was the making of a man among men in young Willie, and he instinctively excluded women from councils of such import.
“Say, Uncle Joel,” he began, with a wary eye on the kitchen door, where Susan and Vivien were washing the supper-dishes.
“When you were out this afternoon the Lindsay girls came in; they laughed till they cried over those goods I brought out; then that pretty Maud Willet came in, and the Adams girls and their mother, and Mrs. Adams said those goods dated back to her grandmother, but the girls, they said —”
“They said Noah and his family was dressed up in just such things when they went into the ark, and it was a pity they couldn't have had the remnants.”
“Then they didn't buy any?”
Willie shook his head. “They all went off laughing. They acted dreadful silly.”
Joel's face was pale. Willie looked at him lovingly. “Guess we shall have to buy some new goods, Uncle Joel,” said he.
Joel shook his head with a strange, numb gesture. Willie knew his uncle had no money. “Take my money, uncle,” he whispered eagerly.
“I've took enough money to lose. I've lost about enough for your poor aunt.”
“You won't lose mine, because you know how to buy now.”
Joel regarded his nephew eagerly, “I rather guess I do.”
“Of course you do, Uncle Joel. Didn't the things you bought in New York sell?”
“Sold like hot cakes, but —”
Willie looked expectantly at his uncle. “They're most of them charged, but I guess the customers are good. I guess they'll pay sometime. They live as if they had money.”
“Of course they'll pay. Let's go down to the store this evening and make out some more bills. Then you can take my money and go to New York and buy new goods. When the money begins to come in for the others you can go again.”
Of course it ended in Joel's taking Willie's money. The boy was eager to lend it, and very proud to be left in charge of the store while his uncle was in New York buying. Susan did not know of the loan until long afterward. She had begun to face the situation with courage, although with deep sadness. She retrenched in every way. She begun practising faithfully on her old piano, and it was in her mind that she could give music lessons again, if necessary.
When the stock of new goods was in, business improved. Joel became uneasily cheerful. “The things are going like hot cakes, uncle,” Willie said.
“What is the matter, uncle?”
“Not many of the customers pay cash, but I guess they must be good. We have had a big trade this last week.”
“Of course they are good. Look at the way they live,” said Willie.
But the new stock of goods was soon exhausted and very little cash had been turned in for them. Joel began to return to the store after supper and pore over his books. After a while Willie accompanied him. They sent out beautiful bills, and spent much time on the road to the post-office. Their hope waxed and waned like the moon, month after month. When the first of a new month came, more bills were sent out, and the moon of financial hope waxed and waned again.
Susan had secured a few music pupils. She was barely able to supply the meager table and pay for the coal. The taxes remained unpaid. The tax bill lived like a terrible ghost in a pigeon-hole of the sitting-room desk. Vivien went to school in a gown made of Royal Stuart plaid, from her father's ancient stock and came home looking old. The other girls had made fun of her costume, but she did not tell her parents. She was a delicate little thing, but she had moral courage. Her other clothes were worn out and outgrown. It was either things made from those obsolete fabrics or staying home from school. But Susan knew without being told. She suffered more than her daughter. She worked beyond her strength and grew thin. All of them grew thin. Even Willie's rosy cheeks lost their color and curves.
Then suddenly came a rumor that Joel's wife had a fortune left her. It transpired later that it was a legacy of seven hundred and fifty dollars from a distant cousin, who died intestate and had spent all she had in the world except that.
People believed in that fortune. Joel, without a question, took the money and made another trip to New York to replenish his stock.
When he returned, customers fairly crowded the store. Poor Joel had become wise concerning desirable fabrics. It was announced in the Racebridge Chronicle that Mr. Joel Rice had returned from New York, having purchased a stock of goods equal in style and exclusiveness to any in the great metropolis. There was such a rush of custom that Joel was obliged to hire an extra clerk. In spite of his ulterior forebodings, Joel began to take heart. He added more charge customers to his list, and twice he had an unexpected cash payment. Even Susan began to wonder if the tide had turned, and relaxed her stern efforts for a little.
It was soon enough she knew the truth. All the beautifully made out bills were disregarded. Even Willie was not ready with his jokes for the pretty girls, and his face fell when they tittered, “Charge.” Poor Joel went about with a wistful, questioning expression. He became almost painfully obsequious, he was so terror-stricken lest customers desert him for another firm before they settled their accounts. That was what happened when the last fine new stock disappeared, for people thought so little of the obsolete goods, that they did not even buy on credit. Day after day passed with hardly a customer. Joel's wife had obtained all the music scholars possible, then she resorted to other means of gaining extra pennies. She answered one of the advertisements advising women to make fortunes, with elegant ease, in their own homes, and sunk a little money in the venture. It was quite a task which she had undertaken. Susan toiled at it, sent it off, and that was the end. She tried to get sewing to do, although that had to be kept a secret from Joel. Even in his tottering estate of storekeeper he would not have brooked knowing his musical wife was taking in sewing. People gave her work readily enough, but they did not pay her. She became almost vicious then. She refused to even see the women who flocked after her like harpies.
When her music pupils' parents became lax in payment Susan was relentless. She gave up teaching the non-payers. Finally she had just two pupils left. One was the daughter of a clergyman, the Reverend Silas Blake, the other was the daughter of Judge Lincoln Ormsbee, the richest man in the place.
Things were at this pass when winter set in, an unusually cold one. The Rices had little to live on except the pay for those two little girls' music lessons. They actually suffered for some of the merest necessities of life, but nobody knew it. Nobody made it his business to know. People loved to dwell upon Susan's fortune which she had inherited. They loved to think it was pure parsimony which made Joel wear his thin overcoat of black, turning green, and made Susan dress her little girl in such uncouth fashion, and buy so very little at the butcher's and grocer's.
“The Rices are saving people,” they said.
They knew how Joel's store custom had dwindled, but they attributed that to Joel's failure to spend money on new goods.
When Willie got a job for a short time in a store in another town, they said Joel was too miserly to keep a clerk. The young girls missed Willie. When he returned, being sick with a fever, they used to go, giggling and pushing each other forward into the store, to inquire of Joel how he was.
Finally the Rices were obliged to call in the doctor, and Susan sold, in an adjoining town, her pearl pin, to buy medicines and luxuries. At last the doctor understood how matters were. He sent fuel and provisions and, when Joel received them grudgingly, told him that the boy's life was at stake.
The doctor was a bachelor, and target for all the unmarried women in the village. How he contrived to steer a clear course, and awaken no jealousies to interfere with his practice, was marvelous. He did so contrive. He also contrived that his bills should be paid. He had many conferences with Joel about his lack of business ability when he found out the latter's circumstances.
“Why do you let a yard of goods go out of your store without the cash in hand?” he demanded. “Why did you ever do it?”
Joel regarded him helplessly. “I thought all business was conducted in that way,” he replied, feebly.
“Well, I can tell you right here it is not,” said Dr. Frank Hapgood. He was a handsome, middle-aged man, smooth-shaven, and decisive in manner.
“How do you manage? You can't possibly ask the folks you call on to hand out your fee every time.”
Doctor Hapgood laughed. “Of course not, and I do pay visits and take the chance of never collecting a cent, but —” He hesitated and laughed again. Joel eyed him inquiringly.
“Oh, I have my methods,” said Doctor Hapgood. “They differ, with different people, of course, but I collect very well. If I found too much difficulty in collecting, I should set up practice elsewhere,” he concluded, dryly.
“Willie always hated to ask for cash, just as I did,” said Joel.
“Of course. Well, you make up your mind to one fact before you are a day older, Mr. Rice. Life is strictly a cash business for all of us, and we can't live, or practise medicine, or keep dry-goods stores without a cash basis. And you can make up your mind to another thing; cash always exists and somebody gets it.”
“I can't pay you cash,” Joel said, miserably.
“Who said anything to you about cash. You'll pay me when you can. I'm not a heathen.” Hapgood packed up his bottles in his case. “Glad that boy is out of the woods,” he said, with a jerk of his head toward the ceiling.
Suddenly Joel turned deathly pale. “I have lost every dollar he had in the world,” he said, hoarsely.
“Well, he's young. He can go to work. Don't fret.”
“I have lost all my wife's money, too.”
“See here, Rice, you are tired out. You have lost a lot of sleep over your nephew. You had better go up-stairs and lie down and keep quiet. I will give you something to —”
Hapgood began opening his medicine-case, but Joel stopped him.
“No, I don't want anything,” he said. “I've got some business to attend to.”
Hapgood eyed him sharply. “All right, but don't overdo it. Go slow,” he advised. “Nerves and brains are queer things, and yours are a bit over-strained. Go slow, Rice.”
Joel nodded in a queer, absent way. Again the doctor made a motion as if to open his medicine-case, but checked himself, repeated his advice to go slow, and went out.
The next morning Joel slunk out of Racebridge laden with two suit-cases filled with samples of his antiquated goods. He had made up his mind to turn peddler, and had gotten his license.
Poor Joel was absent for days at a time, and returned looking worse and worse. He always told Susan that he had been away on business. She never dreamed of the true state of affairs. Joel persisted in his hopeless venture. Once in a while he sold a few dollars' worth, and then he would return elated, with mysterious hints of future success, which did not in the least reassure Susan. She had no doubt whatever that her poor, honest, innocent husband was engaged upon some perfectly legitimate venture, but she also had no doubt of his failure.
After a while she got one more music pupil, through Doctor Hapgood. She never knew that the doctor himself paid for the lessons. The little girl was rather talented, and he had taken an interest in her; besides, he had an enormous respect for Susan herself, as one of the fighters of the world, in an unrenowned battlefield.
About the time that Joel Rice started out in his futile efforts to redeem his fortunes the Great War broke out, but neither he nor Susan felt much vital interest in it. Their tax bills, and the problem of their daily food forced them into narrow ruts of self-interest.
After a while, however, Joel got a certain comfort from attributing his failure to succeed, as a peddler of shop-worn and antiquated goods, to the war. Of course he only made vague allusions to it at home.
“When that dreadful war is over we may make good,” he would say to Susan, then would add, “All the little dogs go under when such a world-wide crisis occurs.” He had heard a man say that to another on a train, and repeated it often.
Joel made his desultory trips for some months. Then came the spring, and his courage for anything except resentment had failed.
That year the spring came upon Racebridge with a rush of sweet violence. The heat, the terrible, virile heat of spring, attacked the world with a force which was overwhelming. The buds on the trees burst so suddenly it seemed as if one must hear explosions. The branches were clouds of crimson and emerald and gold, floating low under the brilliant blue of the sky. Suddenly bushes in full bloom stood out in dooryards, like radiant visitants. One expected them momentarily to spread their flower-wings wider and fly away. They did not seem real. Bird-calls were everywhere, and the air was sharply clipped by wings. All the brooks were in full chorus. The earth was vocal with the song of running water.
Then came a strange, weird day. For, during those few days of early, triumphant spring, when a whole town sang with voices of tree-branches and streams, with laughter of children and whistles of birds, the great, rapid river, which bounded Racebridge on the west, had not broken up. It remained ice-locked.
The night before the local paper had come out with an invitation marked by big headlines:
To the People of Racebridge
You are, one and all, invited to the dry-goods store of Joel Rice at 1 P.M., April 24th, for the purpose of a spring festival upon lines heretofore unprecedented in any community. A wide attendance is expected, for great delight over the distribution of gifts exemplifying Scripture is predicted, with a certainty of fulfillment.
People read it, and looked askance at one another. Many said it sounded crazy, but they planned to go.
The next day was chilly. There had been a drop in temperature during the night, and a breath of northward snows was in the air. And on that strange day came the breaking up of the river. The people crowded to the banks that morning to see the spectacle. The river on that day was like the rush of a herd of yellow-maned lions. People saw their heaving backs and tossing manes, the foam from their gaping mouths of flight, and heard their roar. The river on that day became more like a multiple wild beast, in a fury of raging flight, than anything else. The whole scene was magnificent and terrible. It might have been one of the seven days of creation, from the sensation of tremendous forces let loose toward infinite change and progression.
Poor Susan Rice, that morning, was unusually sad. She heard the roar of the river, like a dreadful accompaniment of adverse fate to her little, insignificant solo of woe. Over her was a premonition. She said to herself that she felt as if something was going to happen, but she did not say it to Joel nor her little girl.
Beyond that dull mental cowering, as before a blow, she felt nothing. She had no gleam of the brightness which was afterward to come into her life, alleviating even her terrible loss. That she could not see. She only cowered before the certainty of impending tragedy. Joel had not shown her the local paper. She had asked for it, and he had made some evasive reply.
At noon that day Joel asked her to go with Vivien to the store, but when she inquired the reason he would not tell her. Susan and Vivien arrived a little late. Susan had shrunk before her husband's bidding, without knowing why. The store was half filled when they got there. Susan went close to her husband, who stood, looking strangely solemn and important, in the center of the floor.
“What are you going to do, Joel?” she whispered.
Joel looked at her, then suddenly, before them all, he bent and kissed her. “You poor woman!” said he.
“Don't you worry, Susan. I am going to do what the Lord has appointed me to do.”
Susan stared about her. Joel had gotten evergreen and trimmed the store. He had brought down the little girl's canary-bird. The cage dangled overhead, and the little golden thing shrilled above the awful roar of the river.
“What did you bring Dicky down here for? Oh, Joel!”
Susan did not ask any more questions after that. She lifted Vivien to a stool, and the child, with her shock of fair hair and her white face, seemed to focus all the light in the dim place. It was dim, for the clouds were heavy and it was beginning to rain.
Presently the store was filled with people. Some of them, after they had entered, made as if to retreat, but they stayed.
Then Joel began to talk. His wife stood close to him. She even clung to a corner of his old coat, but she shuddered so at every word that it did not seem possible that she could remain standing. Judge Ormsbee got a chair and forced her to sit down, but she was up again in a second, as if propelled by a spring.
Joel began quietly and slowly. He did not hesitate, but his voice was weak. It was at first difficult to hear him, on account of that and the roar of the river, and the singing of the canary-bird.
He began in the stilted, old-fashioned manner of speech-makers:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have summoned you here to-day for the purpose of saying a few words to you. I have long planned to do this, but have only now found my mind firm enough to carry out my plan.”
Then there came a pause. Joel's wife fairly crouched, and one could see the whites of her frightened eyes as she stared up at her husband.
“Two and two and three and four make eleven,” went on Joel.
Everybody jumped. Then he repeated it. And after that it was repeated once in a while like a refrain. Doctor Hapgood always had a theory that Joel had acquired the habit of going over that little mathematical statement for the purpose of steadying his poor, tottering brain.
Then Joel went on. It sounded reasonable enough at first.
“It took considerable time for me to realize the exact situation,” he said. “I was brought up to believe in the honesty of all men and women not behind prison bars. I have been honest, as honest as I knew how to be, according to my lights.”
Then he paused and again repeated his little mathematical statement. Some of the women began to look frightened and turn to the door, but their curiosity held them. With so many men there they could not be exactly afraid, especially when a man was so very thin and weak and worn as Joel was.
He went right on. “I never thought I was any better than other people. Now I know I am. It is a terrible knowledge to come to a man who loves God and tries to walk in His path. It is terrible to know yourself better than others because you cannot help but disobey Scripture. You know that you fail in humility, and yet what can any man do against facts?”
All of a sudden he turned like a flash and his eyeballs gleamed red. He pointed to a woman standing near him. She was a pretty, well-dressed woman, the wife of a well-to-do man. She wore an outer garment made of a soft shade of gray, decorated with fur. Joel pointed straight at that garment, and the woman turned pale and shrank. Then he shouted, and after that there was no trouble about hearing him above the roar of the river and the pipe of the canary-bird.
“Mrs. Lester Weeks,” he screamed, “I am here to-day to obey the precepts of the Holy Bible. That coat you have on was made of cloth at three dollars a yard, that you bought of me. You have never paid for it. You have taken my coat; now take my cloak also!”
He pointed with a gesture worthy of a tragedy star at a roll of old cloth on a counter. “Plenty there for a cloak,” said he. “Take my cloak also.”
Then he glared at her. The woman started to leave the store, but her husband elbowed his way up to her. “Do you mean to say you have never paid for that cloth, Alice?” he said.
His wife looked at him and nodded.
“I have given you plenty of money, Alice,” said Weeks. “There is no excuse for this. No, you can't go. You stay right where you are.”
Joel pointed next to a man. He was the proprietor of the Racebridge House, and was called rich.
“You!” shouted Joel. “You, too! Take the cloak also. You bought table linen and sheets for your hotel the first year I was here. I have sent you bill after bill. You have never taken the slightest notice. There is some more sheeting; there is some table linen. Take my cloak also! Take my cloak also, John Woodsum!”
Woodsum had a terrible temper. He swore and made for the door, but Judge Ormsbee and some other men shut it and stood guard before it. They had begun to see light in darkness, and they were determined that nobody should get out of that store scot free, who needed to hear the truth.
“Let me out, damn you all!” shouted Woodsum. “I'll have the law of ye!”
“Better keep still,” advised the judge, in his deep voice. “Joel's got the right of it.”
Well, Joel went down his list. He had a good many names on it, and he did not spare one. The goods for which they owed him were specified, and they were ordered to take his cloak also. Now and then he stopped and reeled off his little mathematical formula, then he was off again.
Some of the women cried, some looked mad, and some frightened. The men appeared mortally ashamed.
At last Joel's list was finished. “God help and pity a poor man,” he cried, and his voice was something dreadful, and yet at the same time it trembled, as if he were spent and about at the end of his strength. “God help and pity a poor man who came here thinking he was going to realize the hope of his lifetime, who trusted every one to be as honest as he was. All my money has gone, the seven hundred and fifty dollars my wife had left her is gone, and her nephew's money is gone. You have made me a thief, you people whom I came among so happy and trusting. You made me rob my own flesh and blood. You made me a thief, as you are thieves! Oh, my God! How beautiful I thought the whole world was when I came here! You have spoiled God's world for me! You have made me see the wickedness of my own kind! You have done me the worst wrong that human beings can do one another. You have made me know myself better than other men, so I shall be set among those who are not elect at the Judgment Day. How can I say, after living here these years and finding you out, that I am unworthy and you are worthy, and not lie to God himself? You have robbed me of my coat; I have given you my cloak also!”
Then he fell. Doctor Hapgood, who had been gradually edging nearer, caught him. He worked over him until he had regained consciousness, and, the people having slunk away, walked home with his poor trembling wife and his little girl, who cried aloud for sheer fright as she went along.
Nobody ever saw Joel alive again. There was good evidence that he had stolen out while Susan was trying to quiet the poor, nervous child, and had thrown himself into the death-drive of the river. His body was never found, but a man had seen something drifting past.
Afterward the debts were paid in like a stream of gold. Soon Susan had enough in the bank, with the now certain proceeds of her music class, to keep her and the child in comfort. She settled down into that peace of negation which sometimes comes, like a dew of blessing, after a tragedy.
Doctor Hapgood auctioned off the forlorn stock of the store. People bid against one another as if they were fighting for the acquisition of rare bargains. They were a mean people, the people of Racebridge, but in the end their own meanness shocked them into a sense of it, and they were at that auction of the man whom they had all wronged, a grand people, with hearts of love and fire. There was a breaking up of human meanness and dishonesty greater than the breaking up of the ice in the great river.