That Printer of Udell's by Harold Bell Wright
Uncle Bobbie Wicks pulled down the top of his desk and heard the lock click with a long sigh of satisfaction, for a glance at his large, old-fashioned hunting-case watch told him that it was nearly eleven o'clock. It was a dismal, dreary, rainy night; just the sort of a night to make a man thank God that he had a home; and those who had homes to go to were already there, except a few business men, who like Mr. Wicks, were obliged to be out on work of especial importance.
Locking the rear door of the office and getting hastily into his rain coat, the old gentleman took his hat and umbrella from the rack and stepped out into the storm. As he was trudging along through the wet, his mind still on business, a gleam of light from the window of Udell's printing office caught his eye. "Hello!" he said to himself; "George is working late tonight; guess I'll run in and see if he's got that last batch of bill-heads fixed yet; we'll need 'em tomorrow morning. Howdy, George," he said, a few seconds later; and then stopped, for it was not Udell, but Dick, who was bending over the stone; and in place of working with the type, he was playing a game of solitaire, while he pulled away at an old corn-cob pipe.
"Good evening," said the young man, pausing in his amusement, "What can I do for you?"
"I see ye got a job," said Uncle Bobbie.
"Yes," Dick replied, as he shuffled the cards; "and a very good one too."
"Huh! looks like ye weren't overworked just now."
"Oh, this is out of hours; we quit at six, you know."
"Strikes me ye might find somethin' better to do than foolin' with them dirty pasteboards, if 'tis out of hours;" said Mr. Wicks, pointedly.
"They are rather soiled," remarked Dick, critically examining the queen of hearts; and then he continued, in a matter-of-fact tone, "you see I found them back of the coal box; some fellow had thrown them away, I guess. Lucky for me that he did."
"Lucky for you? Is that the best you can do with your time?"
"Perhaps you would suggest some more elevating amusement," smiled Dick.
"Well, why don't you read somethin'?"
The young man waved his pipe toward a lot of month-old papers and printers journals--"My dear sir, I have gone through that pile three times and have exhausted every almanac in this establishment."
"Visit some of your friends."
"Not one in the city except Udell," answered the other, "and if I had--" he glanced down at his worn clothing.
Mr. Wicks tried again; "Well, go somewhere."
"Where?" asked Dick. "There is only one place open to me --the saloon--I haven't money enough for that, and if I had, I wouldn't spend it there now. I might go to some respectable gambling den, I suppose, but there's the money question again, and my foolish pride, so I play solitaire. I know I am in good company at least, if the sport isn't quite so exciting."
Uncle Bobbie was silent. The rain swished against the windows and roared on the tin roof of the building; the last car of the evening, with one lone passenger, scurried along Broadway, its lights brightly reflected on the wet pavement; a cab rumbled toward the hotel, the sound of the horses' feet dull and muffled in the mist; and a solitary policeman, wrapped in his rubber coat, made his way along the almost deserted street. As Uncle Bobbie stood listening to the lonely sounds and looking at the young man, with his corn-cob pipe and pack of dirty cards, he thought of his own cheery fireside and of his waiting wife. "To-be-sure," he said at last, carefully placing his umbrella in a corner near the door, and as carefully removing his coat and hat; "To-be-sure, I quit smokin' sometime ago--'bout a month, I reckon--used to smoke pretty nigh all the time, but wife she wanted me to quit--I don't know as there is any use in it." A long pause followed, as he drew a chair to the stove and seated himself. "To-be-sure, I don't know as there's any great harm in it either." There was another pause, while Dick also placed his chair near the stove--"and I git so plaguey fat every time I quit."
Dick tilted back and lazily blew a soft cloud into the air. Uncle Bobbie arose and placed the coal bucket between them. "Told mother last night I was gettin' too fat again--but it made me sick last time I tried it--I wonder if it would make me sick now."--A longer pause than usual followed--then: "It's really dangerous for me to get so fat, and smokin' 's the only thing that keeps it down. D'ye reckon it would make me sick again?" He drew a cigar from his pocket, almost as big as a cannon fire-cracker and fully as dangerous. "I got this t'day. Looks like a pretty good one. It didn't use to make me sick 'fore I quit the last time." Dick handed him a match and two minutes later the big cigar was burning as freely as its nature would permit.
"What an awful wasteful habit it is to-be-sure, ain't it?" went on the old gentleman between vigorous puffs. "Just think, there's school books, and Bibles and baby clothes and medicine for the sick, and food for the hungry, and houses and stores, and farms, and cattle, all a' goin' up in that smoke;" he pointed with his cigar to the blue cloud that hung between them. "If I had half the money church members burn, I could take care of every old worn-out preacher in the world, and have a good bit left over for the poor children. I wisht I was as young as you be; I'd quit it fer good; but it sure does take a hold on an old feller like me."
Dick's face grew thoughtful. "I never looked at it in that way before," he said, as he took his pipe from his mouth; "It's a big comfort to a chap who is all alone, though I suppose it does get a strong hold on a man who has used it most of his life; and a fellow could do a lot of good with the money it costs him." He arose to his feet and went to the window, where he stood for a moment looking out into the rain. Presently he came back to his chair again; "Look out," cried Uncle Bobbie, as Dick took his seat, "You've dropped your pipe into the coal bucket."
"Oh, that's all right; its worn-out anyway, and I have another." But he smoked no more that evening.
"Where are you from?" asked Wicks abruptly.
"Everywhere," answered Dick, shortly, for he did not relish the thought of being questioned about his past.
"Where you goin'?" came next from his companion.
"Nowhere," just as short.
"How long been dead?"
"Since I was a little fellow."
"Ain't you got no relations?"
"Don't want any if they're like an aunt of mine."
Uncle Bobbie nodded in sympathy.
"How'd you happen to strike this place?"
Dick told him in three words, "Lookin' for work."
"Udell's a mighty fine fellow."
"You're right he is."
"Not much of a Christian though." And the old man watched Dick keenly through the cloud of smoke.
"No, good thing for me he isn't," the young man answered bitterly, his face and voice betraying his feelings.
"I know; yes, I know," nodded Uncle Bobbie. "To-be-sure, I used to look at things just like you, and then I got more sense and learned a heap better, and I tell you right now that you'll do the same way. I know there is church members that are meaner'n a mule with shoulder galls. They won't pull nothin' and would kick a man's head off quicker'n greased lightnin'. But they ain't goin' to Heaven, be they? Not much they ain't; no more'n my dog's goin' to the Legislature. And there's them outside the church that's a whole lot worse. Taint Christianity that makes folks mean, but they're mean in spite of it, though you can't get such fellers as you to see it that way, no more'n you can foller a mosquito through a mile o' fog. To-be-sure, I aint blamin' you much though."
Dick's face changed. This was not just what he expected. "I'll tell you," he said, when he saw that the old gentleman expected him to reply. "Ever since I can remember, I've been kicked and cuffed and cursed by saint and sinner alike, until I can't see much difference between the church members and those whom they say are in the world."
"Except that the members of the church do the kickin' and cuffin' and let the sinners do the cussin'," broke in Uncle Bobbie. "To-be-sure, ye can't tell me nothin' about that either."
"I'm not saying anything about the teaching of Christ," continued Dick; "that's all right so far as it goes, but it don't seem to go very far. I have not made much of a success of life, but I've worked mighty hard to earn a living and learn my trade, and I don't know but that I am willing to take my chances with some of the church members I have seen."
"To-be-sure," said Uncle Bobbie; "and I reckon your chance is just as good as their'n. But it strikes me that I want to stand a little better show than them fellers. How about the folks that be Christians? You know there is them that do follow the Master's teachin'; what about their chances, heh?"
"You see it's just this way," continued Uncle Bobbie, settling himself more comfortably in his chair; "I had a whole lot of brothers and sisters at home, back in Ohio; an' they was all members of the church but me. To-be-sure, I went to Sunday School and meetin' with the rest--I jing! I had to!--Huh!--My old dad would just naturally a took th' hide off me if I hadn't. Yes sir-ee, you bet I went to church. But all the same I didn't want to. An' they sorter foundered me on religi'n, I reckon, Jim and Bill and Tom and Dave. They'd all take their girls and go home with them after meetin', an' I'd have to put out the team and feed the stock all alone; an' Sunday evenin' every one of 'em would be off to singin' and I'd have to milk and feed again. An' then after meetin' of course the boys had to take their girls home, and other fellows would come home with our girls, and I'd have to put up the team and take care of the boys' horses that come sparkin'. An' somehow I didn't take to Christianity. To-be-sure, 'twas a good thing fer the stock I didn't."
He carefully knocked the ashes from his cigar and continued: "To-be-sure, I know now that wasn't no excuse, but it looked that way then. After a while the boys married off and I staid to home and took care of the old folks; and purty soon the girls they got married too; and then pa and ma got too old to go out, and I couldn't leave 'em much, and so I didn't get to meetin' very often. Things went on that way a spell 'til Bill got to thinkin' he'd better come and live on the home farm and look after things, as I didn't have no woman; to-be-sure, it did need a good bit of tendin'. Six hundred acres all in fine shape and well stocked--so I told pa that I'd come west an let 'em run things at home. I got a job punchin' steers out here in James County, and they're all back there yet. The old folks died a little bit after I came west, and Bill--well--Bill, he keeps the home place 'cause he took care of 'em ye know--well, I homesteaded a hundred and sixty, and after a spell, the Santa Fe road come through and I got to buyin' grain and hogs, and tradin' in castor-oil beans and managed to get hold of some land here when the town was small. To-be-sure, I aint rich yet, though I've got enough to keep me I reckon. I handle a little real estate, get some rent from my buildin's, and loan a little money now and then. But you bet I've worked for every cent I've got, and I didn't fool none of it away either, 'cept what went up in smoke."
The old gentleman's voice sank lower and lower as he recalled the years that had flown. And as Dick looked at the kindly face, seamed and furrowed by the cares of life, and the hair just whitened by the frost of time, now half hidden in a halo of smoke, he felt his heart warm with sympathy, which he knew was returned full measure by the boy who had left his Ohio home to battle with life alone in that strange western country.
"But what I wanted to tell ye," said Uncle Bobbie, coming suddenly back to the present and speaking in his usual abrupt manner, "you'll find out, same as I have, that it don't much matter how the other feller dabbles in the dirt, you've got to keep your hands clean anyhow. An' taint the question whether the other feller's mean or not, but am I livin' square? I know that Christ is the Saviour of men, but he can't save 'em 'less they want him to, no more'n I can catch a jack-rabbit a-foot. Christianity's all right, but it aint a goin' to do no good 'less people live it, and there's a heap more living it too than we think. What such fellers as you want to do is to listen to what Christ says and not look at what some little two by four church member does. They aint worth that;" and he tossed his cigar stub to keep company with Dick's pipe.
Dick said nothing, because he could find no words to express himself, and the older man, seeing how it was, rose to his feet.
"Well, I must be goin'. Wife'll think I've clean gone back on her. Come up to the house and see me sometime. I reckon you know you're welcome after what I've been sayin'." And then as the young man gave him a lift with his coat; "keep a stiff upper lip; you'll strike pay dirt after a while; just keep a hangin' on, like a puppy to a root. Good-night," and Dick was alone again.
"Wife," said Mr. Wicks next morning, just before getting up to build the fire; "wife, I made a discovery last night."
"You were out late enough to discover something," returned Mrs. Wicks, with a laugh; "what is it?"
And Uncle Bobbie replied slowly as he arose and began dressing, "There's some fellers go to the devil just because they aint got nowheres else to go."
Later, the old gentleman sat at his desk in his office, tilted back in his revolving chair, his feet among the papers where his hands should have been. No one came in to disturb his revery for it was still early in the morning, and the only sound was the clicking of a typewriter in the next room. Suddenly the feet came down to their proper place with a bang, and leaning forward, he wrote rapidly for a few moments, then called, "Charlie." The noise of the typewriter stopped and a young man entered the room. "Charlie, I've been gettin' out a little advertisin' stuff here, and I wish you'd take it over to George Udell's an' wait until they fix it up, so you can bring me back the proof. You can let them letters rest a spell."
The young man took his hat and umbrella, for it was still raining, and started on his errand, but his employer stopped him. "Wait a bit, Charlie. Do you remember that young feller what called here for a job week before last, the time I sold that Johnson property, you know?"
"Said he was a printer from Kansas City?" asked Charlie.
The other nodded.
"Yes, sir, I remember him."
"Well, he's got a job with Udell. I was there last night and had a talk with him. He aint got no friends and stays in the office nights alone. I just thought I'd tell you. He's shy of Christians though, and proud as an old turkey gobbler in the spring. But he needs somebody to talk to more'n anything else, that's all." And the old man turned back to his papers.
This was the beginning. The end is easily foreseen; for, given a young man of Dick's temperament, longing for companionship, and another young man of Charlie's make-up, with a legitimate business to bring the two together, and only a friendship of the David and Jonathan order could result.
Dick was distant at first, but Charlie was too wise to force himself upon him, and as Mr. Wicks found many excuses for sending his young assistant to the printing office, the two slowly grew better acquainted. Then came a time when Charlie dared to ask Dick what he did evenings, and Dick answered in his proud way, "Smoke and play solitaire. Couldn't Charlie come up and chat with him sometimes? He couldn't play cards and didn't care to smoke, but he did like to talk. Yes, Charlie could if he chose, but he would find it a dull place to spend an evening."
Dick was pulling away at his corn-cob pipe the first time Charlie came, but moved to hide it from sight as the latter entered the room. Then thinking better of it, with a proud lifting of his chin, he stuck the pipe in his mouth again. However, Charlie noticed that the smoke soon ceased to come from his companion's lips, and guessed that the tobacco was not burning well. This was the last time that he ever saw Dick smoking. Indeed, it was the last time that Dick ever used tobacco in any form. "For," said he to himself, "I can't afford to do anything that robs babies and mothers, and makes me disagreeable to my friends."
The ice once broken, Charlie's calls grew more and more frequent, until the two met and talked like old friends, and often left the office to walk about the city, arm in arm, after dark.
"Mr. Udell," said Dick, one Saturday night, as the latter handed him his wages for the week, "Where's the best place to go for clothing?"
And George, with a pleased look on his face, which Dick could not help but notice, directed him to a clothing store on the corner of Fourth and Broadway.