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Chapter 7: he wanders.

  • Horace leaves Poultney
  • -- his first overcoat -- home to his father's Log House -- ranges the country for work -- the sore leg cured -- gets employment, but little money -- Astonishes the draught -- players -- goes to Erie, Pa. -- interview with an editor -- becomes a journeyman in the office -- description of Erie -- the Lake -- his generosity to his father -- his New clothes -- no more work at Erie -- starts for New-York.

‘Well, Horace, and where are you going now?’ asked the kind landlady of the tavern, as Horace, a few days after the closing of the printing-office, appeared on the piazza, equipped for the road— i. e., with his jacket on, and with his bundle and his stick in his hand.

‘I am going,’ was the prompt and sprightly answer, ‘to Pennsylvania, to see my father, and there I shall stay till my leg gets well.’

With these words, Horace laid down the bundle and the stick, and took a seat for the last time on that piazza, the scene of many a peaceful triumph, where, as Political Gazetteer, he had often given the information that he alone, of all the town, could give; where, as political partisan, he had often brought an antagonist to extremities; where, as oddity, he had often fixed the gaze and twisted the neck of the passing pedler.

And was there no demonstration of feeling at the departure of so distinguished a personage? There was. But it did not take the form of a silver dinner-service, nor of a gold tea ditto, nor of a piece of plate, nor even of a gold pen, nor yet of a series of resolutions. While Horace sat on the piazza, talking with his old friends, who gathered around him, a meeting of two individuals was held in the corner of the bar-room. They were the landlord and one of his boarders; and the subject of their deliberations were, an old brown overcoat belonging to the latter. The landlord had the floor, and his speech was to the following purport:— [107] ‘He felt like doing something for Horace before he went. Horace was an entirely unspeakable person. He had lived a long time in the house; he had never given any trouble, and we feel for him as for our own son. Now, there is that brown over-coat of yours. It's cold on the canal, all the summer, in the mornings and evenings. Horace is poor and his father is poor. You are owing me a little, as much as the old coat is worth, and what I say is, let us give the poor fellow the overcoat, and call our account squared.’ This feeling oration was received with every demonstration of approval, and the proposition was carried into effect forthwith. The landlady gave him a pocket Bible. In a few minutes more, Horace rose, put his stick through his little red bundle, and both over his shoulder, took the overcoat upon his other arm, said “Good-bye,” to his friends, promised to write as soon as he was settled again, and set off upon his long journey. His good friends of the tavern followed him with their eyes, until a turn of the road hid the bent and shambling figure from their sight, and then they turned away to praise him and to wish him well. Twenty-five years have passed; and, to this hour, they do not tell the tale of his departure without a certain swelling of the heart, without a certain glistening of the softer pair of eyes.

It was a fine, cool, breezy morning in the month of June, 1830. Nature had assumed those robes of brilliant green which she wears only in June, and welcomed the wanderer forth with that heavenly smile which plays upon her changeful countenance only when she is attired in her best. Deceptive smile! The forests upon those hills of hilly Rutland, brimming with foliage, concealed their granite ribs, their chasms, their steeps, their precipices, their morasses, and the reptiles that lay coiled among them; but they were there. So did the alluring aspect of the world hide from the wayfarer the struggle, the toil, the danger that await the man who goes out from his seclusion to confront the world alone—the world of which he knows nothing except by hearsay, that cares nothing for him, and takes no note of his arrival. The present wayfarer was destined to be quite alone in his conflict with the world, and he was destined to wrestle with it for many years before it yielded him anything more than a show of submission. How prodigal of help is the Devil to his scheming and guileful servants! But the Powers Celestial— [108] they love their chosen too wisely and too well to diminish by one care the burthen that makes them strong, to lessen by one pang the agony that makes them good, to prevent one mistake of the folly that makes them wise.

Light of heart and step, the traveler walked on. In the afternoon he reached Ann Harbor, fourteen miles from Poultney; thence, partly on canal-boat and partly on foot, he went to Schenectady, and there took a “line-boat” in the Erie Canal. A week of tedium in the slow line-boat—a walk of a hundred miles through the woods, and he had reached his father's log-house. He arrived late in the evening. The last ten miles of the journey he performed after dark, guided, when he could catch a glimpse of it through the dense foliage, by a star. The journey required at that time about twelve days: it is now done in eighteen hours. It cost Horace Greeley about seven dollars; the present cost by railroad is eleven dollars; distance, six hundred miles.

He found his father and brother transformed into backwoodsmen. Their little log-cabin stood in the mist of a narrow clearing, which was covered with blackened stumps, and smoked with burning timber. Forests, dense and almost unbroken, heavily timbered, abounding in wolves and every other description of varmint, extended a day's journey in every direction, and in some directions many days' journey. The country was then so wild and “new,” that a hunter would sell a man a deer before it was shot; and appointing the hour when, and the spot where, the buyer was to call for his game, would have it ready for him as punctually as though he had ordered it at Fulton market. The wolves were so bold, that their howlings could be heard at the house as they roamed about in packs in search of the sheep; and the solitary camper-out could hear them breathe and see their eye-balls glare, as they prowled about his smoldering fire. Mr. Greeley, who had brought from Vermont a fondness for rearing sheep, tried to continue that branch of rural occupation in the wilderness; but after the wolves, in spite of his utmost care and precaution, had killed a hundred sheep for him, he gave up the attempt. But it was a level and a very fertile region— “varmint” always select a good “ location” —and it has since been subdued into a beautiful land of wheat and woods.

Horace stayed at home for several weeks, assisting his father, [109] fishing occasionally, and otherwise amusing himself; while his good mother assiduously nursed the sore leg. It healed too slowly for its impatient proprietor, who had learned “to labor,” not “to wait;” and so, one morning, he walked over to Jamestown, a town twenty miles distant, where a newspaper was struggling to get published, and applied for work. Work he obtained It was very freely given; but at the end of the week the workman received a promise to pay, but no payment. He waited and worked four days longer, and discovering by that time that there was really no money to be had or hoped for in Jamestown, he walked home again, as poor as before.

And now the damaged leg began to swell again prodigiously; at one time it was as large below the knee as a demijohn. Cut off from other employment, Horace devoted all his attention to the unfortunate member, but without result. He heard about this time of a famous doctor who lived in that town of Pennsylvania which exult in the singular name of “North-East,” distant twenty-five miles from his father's clearing. To him, as a last resort, though the family could ill afford the trifling expense, Horace went, and stayed with him a month. ‘You don't drink liquor,’ were the doctor's first words as he examined the sore, ‘if you did, you'd have a bad leg of it.’ The patient thought he had a bad leg of it, without drinking liquor. The doctor's treatment was skillful, and finally successful. Among other remedies, he subjected the limb to the action of electricity, and from that day the cure began. The patient left North-East greatly relieved, and though the leg was weak and troublesome for many more months, yet it gradually recovered, the wound subsiding at length into a long red scar.

He wandered, next, in an easterly direction, in search of employment, and found it in the village of Lodi, fifty miles off, in Cataraugus county, New York. At Lodi, he seems to have cherished a hope of being able to remain awhile and earn a little money. He wrote to his friends in Poultney describing the paper on which he worked, ‘as a Jackson paper, a forlorn affair, else I would have sent you a few numbers.’ One of his letters written from Lodi to a friend in Vermont, contains a passage which may serve to show what was going on in the mind of the printer as he stood at the case setting up Jacksonian paragraphs. ‘You are aware that an [110] important election is close at hand in this State, and of course, a great deal of interest is felt in the result. The regular Jacksonians imagine that they will be able to elect Throop by 20,000 majority; but after having obtained all the information I can, I give it as my decided opinion, that if none of the candidates decline, we shall elect Francis Granger, governor. This county will give him 1000 majority, and I estimate the vote in the State at 125,000. I need not inform you that such a result will be highly satisfactory to your humble servant, H. Greeley.’ It was a result, however, which he had not the satisfaction of contemplating. The confident and yet cautious manner of the passage quoted is amusing in a politician not twenty years of age.

At Lodi, as at Jamestown, our roving journeyman found work much more abundant than money. Moreover, he was in the camp of the enemy; and so at the end of his sixth week, he again took bundle and stick and marched homeward, with very little more money in his pocket than if he had spent his time in idleness. On his way home he fell in with an old Poultney friend who had recently settled in the wilderness, and Horace arrived in time to assist at he “warming” of the new cabin, a duty which he performed in a way that covered him with glory.

In the course of the evening, a draught-board was introduced, and the stranger beat in swift succession half a dozen of the best players in the neighborhood. It happened that the place was rather noted for its skilful draught-players, and the game was played incessantly at private houses and at public. To be beaten in so scandalous a manner by a passing stranger, and he by no means an ornamental addition to an evening party, and young enough to be the son of some of the vanquished, nettled them not a little. They challenged the victor to another encounter at the tavern on the next evening. The challenge was accepted. The evening arrived, and there was a considerable gathering to witness and take part in the struggle—among the rest, a certain Joe Wilson who had been specially sent for, and whom no one had ever beaten, since he came into the settlement. The great Joe was held in reserve. The party of the previous evening, Horace took in turn, and beat with ease. Other players tried to foil his “Yankee tricks,” but were themselves foiled. The reserve was brought up. Joe Wilson took his seat at [111] the table. He played his deadliest, pausing long before he hazarded a move; the company hanging over the board, hushed and anxious. They were not kept many minutes in suspense; Joe was overthrown; the unornamental stranger was the conqueror. Another game—the same result. Another and another and another; but Joe lost every game. Joseph, however, was too good a player not to respect so potent an antagonist, and he and all the party behaved well under their discomfiture. The board was laid aside, and a lively conversation ensued, which was continued “with unabated spirit to a late hour.” The next morning, the traveler went on his way, leaving behind him a most distinguished reputation as a draught-player and a politician.

He remained at home a few days, and then set out again on his travels in search of some one who could pay him wages for his work. He took a “bee line” through the woods for the town of Erie, thirty miles off, on the shores of the great lake. He had exhausted the smaller towns; Erie was the last possible move in that corner of the board; and upon Erie he fixed his hopes. There were two printing offices, at that time, in the place. It was a town of five thousand inhabitants, and of extensive lake and inland trade.

The gentleman still lives who saw the weary pedestrian enter Erie, attired in the homespun, abbreviated and stockingless style with which the reader is already acquainted. His old black, felt hat slouched down over his shoulders in the old fashion. The red cotton handkerchief still contained his wardrobe, and it was carried on the same old stick. The country frequenters of Erie were then, and are still, particularly rustic in appearance; but our hero seemed the very embodiment and incarnation of the rustic Principle; and among the crowd of Pennsylvania farmers that thronged the streets, he swung along, pre-eminent and peculiar, a marked person, the observed of all observers. He, as was his wont, observed nobody, but went at once to the office of the Erie Gazette, a weekly paper, published then and still by Joseph M. Sterritt.

‘I was not,’ Judge Sterritt is accustomed to relate,

I was not in the printing office when he arrived. I came in, soon after, and saw him sitting at the table reading the newspapers, and so absorbed in them that he paid no attention to my entrance. My first feeling was one of astonishment, that a fellow so singularly “green” in his [112] appearance should be reading, and above all, reading so intently I looked at him for a few moments, and then, finding that he made no movement towards acquainting me with his business, I took up my composing stick and went to work. He continued to read for twenty minutes, or more; when he got up, and coming close to my case, asked, in his peculiar, whining voice,

‘Do you want any help in the printing business?’

‘Why,’ said I, running my eye involuntarily up and down the extraordinary figure, ‘did you ever work at the trade?’

‘Yes,’ was the reply; ‘I worked some at it in an office in Vermont, and I should be willing to work under instruction, if you could give me a job.’

Now Mr. Sterritt did want help in the printing business, and could have given him a job; but, unluckily, he misinterpreted this modest reply. He at once concluded that the timid applicant was a runaway apprentice; and runaway apprentices are a class of their fellow-creatures to whom employers cherish a common and decided aversion. Without communicating his suspicions, he merely said that he had no occasion for further assistance, and Horace, without a word, left the apartment.

A similar reception and the same result awaited him at the other office; and so the poor wanderer trudged home again, not in the best spirits.

‘Two or three weeks after this interview,’ continues Judge Sterritt—he is a judge, I saw him on the bench—‘an acquaintance of mine, a farmer, called at the office, and inquired if I wanted a journeyman. I did. He said a neighbor of his had a son who learned the printing business somewhere Down East, and wanted a place. “What sort of a looking fellow is he?” said I. He described him, and I knew at once that he was my supposed runaway apprentice. My friend, the farmer, gave him a high character, however; so I said, “Send him along,” and a day or two after along he came.’

The terms on which Horace Greeley entered the office of the Erie Gazette were of his own naming, and therefore peculiar. He would do the best he could, he said, and Mr. Sterritt right pay him what he (Mr. Sterritt) thought he had earned. He had only one request to make, and that was, that he should lot be required [113] to work at the press, unless the office was so much hurried that his services in that department could not be dispensed with. He had had a little difficulty with his leg, and press work rather hurt him than otherwise. The bargain included the condition that he was to board at Mr. Sterritt's house; and when he went to dinner on the day of his arrival, a lady of the family expressed her opinion of him in the following terms:—‘So, Mr. Sterritt, you've hired that fellow to work for you, have you? Well, you won't keep him three days.’ In three days she had changed her opinion; and to this hour the good lady cannot bring herself to speak otherwise than kindly of him, though she is a stanch daughter of turbulent Erie, and “must say, that certain articles which appeared in the Tribune during the war did really seem too bad from one who had been himself an Eriean.” But then, “he gave no more trouble in the house than if he had'nt been in it.”

Erie, famous in the Last War but one, as the port whence Commodore Perry sailed out to victory—Erie, famous in the last war of all, as the place where the men, except a traitorous thirteen, and the women, except their faithful wives, all rose as on man against the Railway Trains, saying, in the tone which is generally described as “not to be misunderstood” : ‘Thus far shalt thou go without stopping for refreshment, and no farther,’ and achieved as Break of Gauge men, the distinction accorded in another land to the Break oa Day boys—Erie, which boasts of nine thousand inhabitants, and aspires to become the Buffalo of Pennsylvania—Erie, which already has business enough to sustain many stores wherein not every article known to traffic is sold, and where a man cannot consequently buy coat, hat, boots, physic, plough, crackers, grindstone and penknife, over the same counter—Erie, which has a Mayor and Aldermen, a dog-law, and an ordinance against shooting off guns in the street under a penalty of five dollars for each and every offence—Erie, for the truth cannot be longer dashed from utterance, is the shabbiest and most broken-down looking large town, I, the present writer, an individual not wholly untraveled, ever saw, in a free State of this Confederacy.

The shores of the lake there are “bluffy,” sixty feet or more above the water, and the land for many miles back is nearly a dead level, exceedingly fertile, and quite uninteresting. No, not quite. For [114] much of the primeval forest remains, and the gigantic trees that were saplings when Columbus played in the streets of Genoa, tower aloft, a hundred feet without a branch, with that exquisite daintiness of taper of which the eye never tires, which architecture has never equalled, which only Grecian architecture approached, and was beautiful because it approached it. The City of Erie is merely a square mile of this level land, close to the edge of the bluff, with a thousand houses built upon it, which are arranged on the plan of a corn-field—only, not more than a third of the houses have “come up.” The town, however, condenses to a focus around a piece of ground called “ The Park,” four acres in extent, surrounded with a low, broken board fence, that was white-washed a long time ago, and therefore now looks very forlorn and pig-pen-ny. The side-walks around “ The Park” present an animated scene. The huge hotel of the place is there—a cross between the Astor House and a country tavern, having the magnitude of the former, the quality of the latter. There, too, is the old Court-House,—its uneven brick floor covered with the chips of a mortising machine, —its galleries up near the high ceiling, kept there by slender poles,—its vast cracked, rusty stove, sprawling all askew, and putting forth a system of stovepipes that wander long through space before they find the chimney. Justice is administered in that Court-house in a truly free and easy style; and to hear the drowsy clerk, with his heels in the air, administer, 'twixt sleep and awake, the tremendous oath of Pennsylvania, to a brown, abashed farmer, with his right hand raised in a manner to set off his awkwardness to the best advantage, is worth a journey to Erie. Two sides of “The Park” are occupied by the principal stores, before which the country wagons stand, presenting a continuous range of muddy wheels. The marble structure around the corner is not a Greek temple, though built in the style of one, and quite deserted enough to be a ruin—it is the Erie Custom House, a fine example of governmental management, as it is as much too large for the business done in it as the Custom House of New York is too small.

The Erie of the present year is, of course, not the Erie of 1831, when Horace Greeley walked its streets, with his eyes on the pavemeant and a bundle of exchanges in his pocket, ruminating on the [115] prospects of the next election, or thinking out a copy of verses to send to his mother. It was a smaller place, then, with fewer brick blocks, more pigs in the street, and no custom-house in the Greek style. But it had one feature which has not changed. The Lake was there!

An island, seven miles long, but not two miles wide, once a part of the main land, lies opposite the town, at an apparent distance of half a mile, though in reality two miles and a half from the shore. This island, which approaches the main land at either extremity, forms the harbor of Erie, and gives to that part of the lake the effect of a river. Beyond, the Great Lake stretches away further than the eye can reach.

A great lake in fine weather is like the ocean only in one particular—you cannot see across it. The ocean asserts itself; it is demonstrative. It heaves, it flashes, it sparkles, it foams, it roars. On the stillest day, it does not quite go to sleep; the tide steals up the white beach, and glides back again over the shells and pebbles musically, or it murmurs along the sides of black rocks, with a subdued though always audible voice. The ocean is a living and life-giving thing, “fair, and fresh, and ever free.” The lake, on a fine day, lies dead. No tide breaks upon its earthy shore. It is as blue as a blue ribbon, as blue as the sky; and vessels come sailing out of heaven, and go sailing into heaven, and no eye can discern where the lake ends and heaven begins. It is as smooth as a mirror's face, and as dull as a mirror's back. Often a light mist gathers over it, and then the lake is gone from the prospect; but for an occasional sail dimly descried, or a streak of black smoke left by a passing steamer, it would give absolutely no sign of its presence, though the spectator is standing a quarter of a mile from the shore. Oftener the mist gathers thickly along the horizon, and then; so perfect is the illusion, the stranger will swear he sees the opposite shore, not fifteen miles off. There is no excitement in looking upon a lake, and it has no effect upon the appetite or the complexion. Yet there is a quiet, languid beauty hovering over it, a beauty all its own, a charm that grows upon the mind the longer you linger upon the shore. The Castle of Indolence should have been placed upon the bank of Lake Erie. where its inmates could have lain on the grass and gazed down, [116] through all the slow hours of the long summer day, upon the lazy, hazy, blue expanse.

When the wind blows, the lake wakes up; and still it is not the ocean. The waves are discolored by the earthy bank upon which they break with un-oceanlike monotony. They neither advance nor recede, nor roar, nor sell. A great lake, with all its charms, and they are many and great, is only an infinite pond.

The people of Erie care as much for the lake as the people of Niagara care for the cataract, as much as people generally care for anything wonderful or anything beautiful which they can see by turning their heads. In other words, they care for it as the means by which lime, coal, and lumber may be transported to another and a better market. Not one house is built along the shore, though the shore is high and level. Not a path has been worn by human feet above or below the bluff. Pigs, sheep, cows, and sweet-brier bushes occupy the unenclosed ground, which seems so made to be built upon that it is surprising the handsome houses of the-town should have been built anywhere else. One could almost say, in a weak moment, Give me a cottage on the bluff, and I will live at Erie!

It was at Erie, probably, that Horace Greeley first saw the uniform of the American navy. The United States and Great Britain are each permitted by treaty to keep one vessel of war in commission on the Great Lakes. The American vessel usually lies in the harbor of Erie, and a few officers may be seen about the town. What the busy journeyman printer thought of those idle gentlemen, apparently the only quite useless, and certainly the best dressed, persons in the place, may be guessed. Perhaps, however, he passed them by, in his absent way, and saw them not.

In a few days, the new comer was in high favor at the office of the Erie Gazette. He is remembered there as a remarkably correct and reliable compositor, though not as a rapid one, and his steady devotion to his work enabled him to accomplish more than faster workmen. He was soon placed by his employer on the footing of a regular journeyman, at the usual wages, twelve dollars a month and board. All the intervals of labor he spent in reading. As soon as the hour of cessation arrived, he would hurry off his apron, wash his hands, and lose himself in his book or his newspapers, often forgetting his dinner, and often forgetting whether he had [117] his dinner or not. More and more, he became absorbed in politics. It is said, by one who worked beside him at Erie, that he could tell the name, post-office address, and something of the history and political leanings, of every member of Congress; and that he could give the particulars of every important election that had occurred within his recollection, even, in some instances, to the county majorities.

And thus, in earnest work and earnest reading, seven profitable and not unhappy months passed swiftly away. He never lost one day's work. On Sundays, he read, or walked along the shores of the lake, or sailed over to the Island. His better fortune made no change either in his habits or his appearance; and his employer was surprised, that month after month passed, and yet his strange journeyman drew no money. Once, Mr. Sterritt ventured to rally him a little upon his persistence in wearing the hereditary homespun, saying, ‘Now, Horace, you have a good deal of money coming to you; don't go about the town any longer in that outlandish rig. Let me give you an order, on the store. Dress up a little, Horace.’ To which Horace replied, looking down at the “ outlandish rig,” as though he had never seen it before, ‘You see, Mr. Sterritt, my father is on a new place, and I want to help him all I can.’ However, a short time after, Horace did make a faint effort to dress up a little; but the few articles which he bought were so extremely coarse and common, that it was a question in the office whether his appearance was improved by the change, or the contrary.

At the end of the seventh month, the man whose sickness had made a temporary vacancy in the office of the Gazette, returned to his place, and there was, in consequence, no more work for Horace Greeley. Upon the settlement of his account, it appeared that he had drawn for his personal expenses during his residence at Erie, the sum of six dollars! Of the remainder of his wages, he took about fifteen dollars in money, and the rest in the form of a note; and with all this wealth in his pocket, he walked once more to his father's house. This note the generous fellow gave to his father, reserving the money to carry on his own personal warfare with the world.

And now, Horace was tired of dallying with fortune in country [118] printing offices. He said, he thought it was time to do something, and he formed the bold resolution of going straight to New York and seeking his fortune in the metropolis. After a few days of recreation at home, he tied up his bundle once more, put his money in his pocket, and plunged into the woods in the direction of the Erie Canal.

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