June 3, 1874
Scribner's Monthly Magazine
“The Best Fellow in the World.”
I ought to apologize for bringing in an old acquaintance with such a flourish: for all of you know the Major, and have, very likely helped or been helped by him. You may see him any day just now on Broadway. He always walks as though a crowd a people were waiting for him just at the end of the block. His clothes, however, thin or patched, sit on him well and jauntily; a broad-brimmed felt hat shades his white hair and moustache, and ruddy, beaming face; but he is perpetually jerking it off with an eager, gallant flourish. It is amazing, the number of women that man knows! You may have met this best fellow in the world in any part of this country; though he belongs less to New England than to the South and West. Yet he has a keen sympathy for Concord mysticism and hardihood of thought; he even went there once to found a community who were to live on potatoes and fruit, and to dress in grass linen; but since he grew fat and scant of breath, he pooh-poohs your Great Primal Ideas; and he does not like the spare diet of Massachusetts. He can put his finger for you on the two or three restaurants in this country where a porter-house steak can be properly broiled, and has a masonic intelligence with their cooks. His keen palate and eye for horse-flesh are due, I suppose, to the liberal dash of Irish blood in his veins. He is not a kinsman of the high-seasoned California hero who dirks, drinks and dies heroically through our recent literature; though his grandfather may have been such a one. The Major is hampered, tone downed by town-life, and by an early marriage.
His congener, the good fellow who did not marry early, became a brilliant young fellow on the town. Old ladies shook their heads when his cheeks grew red and his lips thick. But the girls liked his bright eyes, and a queer, pathetic laugh he had at times; and when, (after a year or two, of which we need not talk now,) the outraged world refused longer to give him room, and they lowered him, deaf and silent, by a grating rope out of sight forever, into the pebbles and the clay, the memory of him was kept longer alive than that of better men. His pious, steady-going brothers mourned him secretly as they will never do for each other.
Our comrade the Major, (everybody’s comrade, I might say,) seldom touches liquor and more rarely gambles; he is too fond of his wife and children for that. He is perpetually on the verge of making a gigantic fortune for them. He thinks, and it is true, that he would literally give his blood, drop by drop, if it would make them any happier. Whether they have enough to eat or not in the meanwhile, depends wholly on what money comes to them from outside.
It is a curious fact in physiology that the wife of these genial whole-souled fellows, the very ring of whose voices inspires all who hear it with courage and enthusiasm, whatever she may have been before marriage, always becomes afterwards sallow as to skin, dogmatic as to religion, narrow and scrimped in her opinions as in her petticoats. She is instant in season and out of season in all manner of small and severe virtues, striving as for life and death—the loving, sour-tempered creature!—to fill up somebody’s empty measure of duty. She is apt to condemn any amusement simply because her husband enters into it with headlong zest: she sniffs critically at all his friends, and turns her back downright on the whole of the rosebud garden of girls among whom he wanders delighted, though he be three-score, buzzing and sipping sweets like an ancient bee. Impartial lookers-on may say that she has not lost a whit of her rights; that the man’s daily life, work, planning, thinking, dreaming is great and hard-burning flame, which must have fuel, be it friendship, flirtation, travel or amusement. Now every wife is apt to think her own stock of burning material quite sufficient for any well conditioned man. History tells us of one of our friend’s clan, a poet, whom all the fine world delighted to dandle and humor. London drawing-rooms and Parisian salons were open for him to flutter through, and titled and untitled dames crowded about him quite willing that he should make love to any lips that were near. Yet, like the rest, he had his Bessy in his neglected cottage, growing jealous and sharp-nosed into an ugly little shadow, which faded out of his life at last. Another of them, an author, we can all remember, who drew the tears and laughter of the world at will over the history and graves of people who never lived but in his brain. It was only yesterday he went posting over land and sea, tediously gusty in his breathless energy, acting, reading to packed audiences, plunging into all kinds of mad excitement, pouring down liquor like water, demanding unlimited flattery; all needful as fuel—fuel. And there was the inevitable wife in the background, waiting for him to take all his sustenance of life through the circle of that ring she wore. Could anything, argued he, be more psychologically impossible? But the wives of good fellows seldom study psychology; and one wonders, after all, with what fuel they are to keep their own poor little fires burning?
The Major, too, has written both books and poems. Their rhetoric and white heat of emotion were very popular for awhile. Whatever he does is popular; clapping of hands follow him all through life. There are thousands of people who speak of him with grateful tears in their eyes. Luck, they will tell you, went against him even in his benevolence, but always meant well! There was the Working Men’s Home, a village which he laid out in the suburbs of New York, and into which many mill-men put their earnings. To be sure, the ground was swampy; half the cellars tumbled in, and the babies died of malaria by the score; but how could he foresee that? The poor fellow was ruined himself by it, as everybody knows. He used to go about for months afterwards with his coat out at elbows and unblackened shoes, although he had decent clothes at home. No half-way measures for him! He drank even the cup of misery to the dregs with gusto.
About that time he was appointed agent of a building firm, his chief business being to collect their rents. The houses were let to a lot of poor devils, whose monthly appeals for mercy tore his heart, and brought tears to his eyes. He used to advance their rent out of his own pocket. He lived, too, on the strength of his salary, in a large, liberal way, in Bergen filled the house to overflowing with all his own or his wife’s needy kinsfolk. While he had a dollar he would share it with friend or foe. But his grocer’s and butcher’s bills were never paid; and they brought suit, mortgaged the house, and finally sold it, “there being no limit,” as he said, “to the rapacity and greed of such people when they begin to hoard money.”
He gave his wife music lessons, and so kept them alive, until one day, when seeing a poor family in distress, he sold the piano to relieve them. Since that, times have been rough. Now and then he has had a windfall, through some of those queer uses of their wits which men find place for in a city, but which are unknown outside of it. A certain railroad company converted him to a belief in their stock, and sent him out to sell shares. He has gone to Albany to lobby, and to Congress to engineer different measures in which he had faith. There is a certain force and magnetism about the enthusiastic old fellow, with his high-bred manner, eager eyes and genuine voice, that carries everybody with him in his projects, except, indeed, his wife and children. No price would bring him to advocate any measure in which he did not himself believe. Nobody could doubt his keen sense of honor. He is handsomely paid for his advocacy in a delicate way—by presents usually, a few shares of stock, a diamond ring for his wife. By these means, and a chronic antipathy to paying small bills, he kept his head above water until a year or two ago. He had been so often mistaken that his judgment began to rate below par. Corporations found that for him to support a cause was to damn it. His old friends are cordial when they run against him on the street (he never seeks them in their offices), urge him to come around to Delmonico’s or the Lotos Club to lunch, but never give him any commissions. His wife has rented a little truck farm in Jersey, where she and the children barely manage to live, owing nobody a penny. His sons, as the sons of all good fellows are apt to be, are hard-working, just, sour-natured men. His daughters are moody, morbid girls, who despise all enthusiasm and fervor, and pass their days in drudging and thinking what they would have done had they been so lucky as to be men. Now and then comes a letter from their father, detailing a new vast philanthropic or money-making scheme, in which he means to gain renown or wealth for them—never for himself. The old man cares for little in the world outside of his children. The letters are thrust into the dusty pigeon-hole of the secretary; nobody reads them to the end. They are full of tender love and delicate fancies. The Major has the sensitiveness of a woman. Yet he takes a keen delight in dodging the creditors, boarding-house keepers, &c., to whom he owes money. He understands honor, but not honesty. But there are natures so constructed as not to find room for the coarser virtues; one need not look in a bit of old Dresden for the qualities of an iron pot.
The Major is an old man now, well nigh sixty-five; but his blood flows as hotly, his brain is as full of subtle, far-reaching plans, and he is just as sure of success in them, as when he was twenty. If he meet you this afternoon, he will almost compel you to go in as partner, and be as zealous in one of them as he. You will find a certain originality in the idea—a sound sub-stratum of common sense; but when he comes to put it into practice, it will fail.
Men with one tithe of the Major’s mental power or business tact are famous and wealthy. With none of his generosity or affection, they are surrounded by a loving woman and children. He is unknown, poor and alone.
Some of the thousand ships he has sent out with such vigorous cheers from shore may come back even yet, bringing the treasure which he has lacked so long, and give him, for a brief space, his own footing in the world. If they should not, doubtless the old man will bear himself gallantly to the last. When old age, or disease, or his creditors press him quite to the wall, he will find some quiet corner in which to die, where Susan and the children will never be hurt by seeing how hungry he is, or how alone.
Perhaps in those wider lives beyond the coffin and grave-stone, the right work may be waiting for this perpetually hopeful, perpetually defeated old creature, and some use be found at last for the large, clear-burning fire which never warmed anybody here. At all events, the Major at the last hour will be perfectly sure that such is the case. He will, in all likelihood, confidently cross the dark river full of some promising new plan, to be carried out on the other side, and be ready to take old Death confidentially by the elbow, and persuade him to go in as partner of his success in it.