Chapter XXXIII
 

In the second year of his residence Keith had a minor adventure that shifted a portion of his activities to other fields. He was in attendance at a council meeting, following the interests of certain clients. The evening was warm, the proceedings dull. Opened windows let in the sounds from the Plaza and a night air that occasionally flared the smoky lamps. The clerk's voice was droning away at some routine when the outer door opened and a most extraordinary quartette entered the chamber. Three of these were the ordinary, ragged, discouraged, emaciated, diseased "bums," only too common in that city. In early California a man either succeeded or he failed into a dark abyss of complete discouragement; the new civilization had little use for weaklings. The fourth man can be no better described than in the words of a chronicler of the period. Says the worthy diarist:

"He was a man of medium stature, slender but very graceful, with almost effeminate hands and feet--the former scrupulously kept, the latter neatly shod--and with a certain air of fragility; very soft blue eyes with sleepy lids; a classically correct nose; short upper lip; rosy, moist lips. His clothes: a claret-coloured coat, neither dress nor frock, but mixed of both fashions, with a velvet collar and brass buttons; a black vest, double breasted; iron-gray pantaloons; fresh, well-starched, and very fine linen; plain black cravat, negligently tied; a cambric handkerchief; and dark kid gloves. He wore gold spectacles, and carried a malacca cane."

Instead of slipping into the seats provided for spectators, this striking individual marched boldly to the open space before the mayor's chair, followed, shamefaced and shambling, by the three bums.

"Your honours and gentlemen," he cried in a clear, ringing voice, to the scandal of the interrupted legislators, "we are very sick and hungry and helpless and wretched. If somebody does not do something for us, we shall die; and that would be bad, considering how far we have come, and how hard it was to get here, and how short a time we have been here, and that we have not had a fair chance. All we ask is a fair chance, and we say again, upon our honour, gentlemen, if somebody does not do something for us, we shall die, or we shall be setting fire to the town first and cutting all our throats."

He stood leaning lightly against his malacca cane, surveying them through his sleepy blue eyes. The first astonishment over, they took up a collection, after the customary careless, generous fashion. The young man saluted with his cane, and herded his three exhibits out.

Keith, much struck, followed them, overtaking the quartette on the street.

"My name is Keith," he said, "I should like to make your acquaintance."

"Mine is Krafft," replied the unknown, "and I am delighted to accept your proffer."

He said nothing more until he had marshalled his charges, into a cheap eating-house, ordered and paid for a supper, and divided the remainder of the amount collected. Then he dusted his fingers daintily with a fine handkerchief, and sauntered out into the street, swinging his malacca cane.

"Incidents of that sort restore one's faith in the generosity of our people," Keith remarked, in order to say something.

"Nobody has been generous," denied Krafft categorically, "and no particular good has been accomplished. Filled their bellies for this evening; given them a place to sleep for this night; that's all."

"That's something," ventured Keith. "It helps."

"The only way to help we have not undertaken. We have done nothing toward finding out why there are such creatures--in a place like this. That's the only way to help them: find out why they are, and then remove the why."

This commonplace of modern charity was then a brand-new thought. Keith had never heard it expressed, and he was much interested.

"I suppose there are always the weak and the useless," he said vaguely.

"If those men were wholly weak and useless, how did they get out here?" countered Krafft. "To compass such a journey takes a certain energy, a certain sum of money, a certain fund of hope. The money goes, the energy drains, the hope fades. Why?"

They stopped at a corner.

"I live just near here," said Krafft. "If you will honour me."

He led the way down a narrow dark alley, along which they had fairly to grope their way. It debouched, however, into the forgotten centre of the square. All the edges had been built close with brick stores, warehouses, and office buildings. But in the very middle had been left a waste piece of ground, occupied only by a garden and a low one-room abode, with a veranda and a red-tiled roof. Under the moonlight and the black shadows from the modern buildings it slept amid its bright flowers with the ancient air of another world. Krafft turned a key and lighted a lamp. Keith found himself in a small, neat room, with heavy beams, fireplace, and deep embrasured windows. An iron bed, two chairs, a table, a screen, a shelf of books, and a wardrobe were its sole furnishings. In the fireplace had been laid, but not lighted, a fire of sagebrush roots.

Krafft touched a match to the roots, which instantly leaped into eager and aromatic flames. From a shelf he took a new clay pipe which he handed to Keith.

"Tobacco is in that jar," he said.

He himself filled and lighted a big porcelain pipe with wexelwood stem.

"What would you do about it?" asked Keith, continuing the discussion.

"What would you most want, if you were those poor men?" retorted Krafft, blowing a huge cloud.

Keith laughed.

"Drink, food, clothes, bed," he stated succinctly.

"And work wherewith to get them," supplemented Krafft.

Keith laughed again.

"Not if I know their sort! Work is the one thing they don't want."

Krafft leaned forward, and tapped the table with one of his long forefingers,

"The lazy part of them, the earthen part of them, the dross of them--yes, perhaps. But let us concede to them a spark that smoulders, way down deep within them--a spark of which they think they are ashamed, which they do not themselves realize the existence of except occasionally. What is the deep need of them? It is to feel that they are still of use, that they amount to something, that they are men. That more than mere food and warmth. Is it not so?"

"I believe you're right," said Keith, impressed.

"Then," said Krafft triumphantly, "it is work they want, work that is useful and worth paying for."

"But there's plenty of work to be had," objected Keith, after a moment. "In fact, there's more work in this town than there are men to do it."

"True, But it is the hard work these men have failed at. It is too hard. They try; they are discouraged; they fall again, and perhaps they never get up. Such men must be led, must be watched, must be stopped within their strength."

"Who's there to do that sort of dry nursing of bums?" demanded Keith with a half laugh.

"He who would help," said Krafft quietly.

They smoked for some time in silence; then Keith arose to go.

"It is a big idea; it requires thought," said he ruminativeiy. "You are a recent arrival, Mr. Krafft? What is your line of activity?"

The slight, elegant little man smiled.

"I am one of the--what is it you called, them--bums of whom we talk. I try to do what is within my power, within my strength-lest I, too, become discouraged, lest I, too, fall again--and not get up."

"I have not seen you about anywhere," said Keith, puzzled by this speech.

"I do not go anywhere; I should be eaten. You do not understand me, and I am a poor host to talk in riddles. I am a philosopher, not a man of action; egotist, not an egoist; one who cannot swim in your strong waters. As I said, one of that same class whom your bounty helped this evening."

"Good Lord, man!" cried Keith, looking about the little room. "You're not in want?"

Krafft laughed gently.

"In your sense, no. I have my meals. Enough of me. Go, and think of what I say."

Keith did so, and the result was the first organized charity in San Francisco. Since 1849 men had always been exceptionally generous in responding to appeals for money. Huge sums could easily be raised at any time. Hospitals and almshouses dated from the first. But having given, these pioneers invariably forgot. The erection of the buildings cost more than they should, and management being venal, conditions soon became disgraceful. Alms reached the professional pauper. The miner or immigrant, diseased, discouraged, out of luck, more often died--either actually or morally.

So much had this first interview caught his interest that Keith dropped in on his new acquaintance quite often. It soon became evident that Krafft lived in what might be called decent poverty. The one fine rig-out in which he made his public appearances was most carefully preserved. Indoors he always promptly assumed a dressing-gown, a skull cap with a gold tassel, and his great porcelain pipe. His meals he cooked for himself. Never did he leave his house until about three o'clock. Then, spick and span, exquisitely appointed, he sauntered forth swinging his malacca cane. After a promenade of several hours he returned again to his dressing-gown, his porcelain pipe, and his books. Keith enjoyed hugely his detached, reflective, philosophical, spectator-of-life conversation. They talked on many subjects besides sociology. At his fourth visit Krafft made a suggestion.

"You shall come with me and see," said he.

He led the way to the water front under Telegraph Hill, the newest and the most squalid part of town. The shallow water was in slow process of being filled in by sand from the grading uptown and with all sorts of miscellaneous debris, Pending solidity, this sketchy real estate swarmed with squatters. There were lots sunken below the street level, filled with stagnant water, discarded garments, old boxes, ashes, and rubbish; houses huddled closely together with stale water beneath; there were muddy alleys; murderous cheap saloons; cheaper gambling joints; rickety, sagging tenements. The people corresponded to their habitations. All the low elements lurked here, the thugs, strong-arm men, the hold-ups, the heelers, the weaklings, the bums, the diseased. In ordinary times they here dwelt in a twilight existence; but at periods of excitement--as when the city burned--they swarmed out like rats for plunder.

Krafft held his way steadily to the wharves. There he left the causeway and descended to the level of the beach. Beneath the pilings, and above the high-water mark, was a little hut. It was not over six feet square, constructed of all sorts of old pieces of boxes, scraps of tin, or remnants of canvas. Overhead rumbled continuously the heavy drays, shaking down, through the cracks the dust of the roadway. Against one outside wall of this crazy structure an old man sat, chair tilted in the sun. Even the chair was a curiosity, miraculously held together by wires. The man was very old, and very feeble, his knotted hands clasping a short, black clay pipe. Inside the hut Keith, saw a rough bunk on which lay jumbled a quilt and a piece of canvas.

"Well, John," greeted Krafft cheerfully, "I've brought a friend to see you."

The old man turned on Keith a twinkling blue eye.

"Glad to see you," he said briefly.

"Getting on?" pursued Krafft.

"Fine."

"Here's a new kind of tobacco I want you to try. I should value your opinion."

Keith's hand wandered toward his pocket, but stopped at a sharp look from Krafft. After a moment's chat they withdrew.

"What a pathetic old figure! What utter misery!" cried Keith.

"No!" said Krafft positively. "There you are wrong. Old John is in no need of us. He has his house and his bed, and he gets his food. How, I do not know, but he gets it. The spark is burning clear and steady. He has not lost his grip. He gets his living with confidence. Let him alone."

"But he must be very miserable--especially when it rains," persisted Keith.

Krafft shrugged his shoulders.

"As to that, I know not," he returned indifferently. "That does not matter to the soul. I will now show you another man."

They retraced their steps. On a corner of Montgomery Street Krafft stopped before a one-armed beggar, the stump exposed, a placard around his neck.

"Now here's another John," said Krafft. "What he wants is work, and somebody to see that he does it."

The one-armed beggar, who was fat, with a good-natured countenance, evidently considered this a joke. He grinned cheerfully.

"Don't have to, guvenor," said he.

"How much did you take in yesterday, John?" asked Krafft; then, catching the beggar's look of suspicion, he added, "This is a friend of mine; he's all right."

"Twenty-two dollars," replied the beggar proudly. "Pretty good day's wages!"

"I'm afraid the spark is about out with you, John," said Krafft thoughtfully. He walked on a few steps, then turned back. "John," he asked, "what is your contribution to society?"

The beggar stared, uncertain of this new chaff.

"The true theory of business, John, is that traffic which does not result In reciprocal advantages to buyer and seller is illegitimate, or at least abnormal."

They walked on, Keith laughing at the expression on the beggar's face.

"That was considerably over his head," he observed.

Nothing more was said for half a block.

"I wonder if it was over yours," then said Krafft, unexpectedly.

"Eh?" ejaculated Keith, bewildered.

These walks with Krafft finally resulted in the institution of a fund which Keith raised and put into Krafft's hands for intelligent use. The effects were so interesting that Keith, thoroughly fascinated, began to pester his friends for positions for some of his proteges. As he was well-liked and in earnest, these efforts were taken good-humourediy.

"Here comes Milt Keith," said John Webb to Bert Taylor. "Bet you a beaver hat he's got a highly educated college professor that he wants a job for."

"'A light job, not beyond his powers,'" quoted Taylor.

"Like cleaning genteel spittoons," supplemented Webb.

"The engine house is full of 'em polishing brass," complained Taylor.

"Well, he's a young felly, and I like him," concluded Webb heartily.

Of course many of the experiments failed, but fewer than might have been anticipated. Part of Krafft's task was to keep in touch with the men. His detached, philosophical method of encouragement and analysis of the situation seemed just the thing they needed.