A Study in Optimism
Charles Battell Loomis in the American Magazine
IT was a gorgeously bright sunny day in early summer. Yellow and red honeysuckles peeped in at the open window of a brightly papered nesting place of a room from the tasteful box on the ornamental fireescape, and three tremendously happy golden canaries sang as if their hearts would burst with rapture from their golden cage just over the handsome bird’s-eye maple desk of Ned Merry-field, one time a bachelor, but now a happy husband of a week.
Dressed in a kimono of cherry blossom pink, his wife, Nelly, danced around the room filled with the joy of life. A week ago she 'had been living in a luxurious home with her parents, but she had thwarted their wills and run away to be married to Edwin Merryfield, who had nothing save expectations from his exceedingly rich father.
“Oh, love,” said she, running over to him and imprinting a kiss on his incipient bald spot, “I am just as happy as I know how to be.”
“Well, dear,” said he, “then I would advise no one else to try to be as happy, for I know they couldn’t. I think, though, I am a close second, for I have you.”
He turned as he spoke and catching her plump, soft, pink cheeks in his two strong hands he gave her a lover’s kiss.
“I expect a letter from father today,” said he, “and I’m quite sure that he will tell me that he is glad I married you and that we may come and live with him until I get something to do.”
“What do you intend to do?” said she, and burst into a fragment from the grand opera they had heard the night before (from orchestra seats).
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said he, c
laughing gaily. “I can draw a little,
I can write a little, I can sing a little ; but I have never done anything for money. Never had to, you see. As for going into business, that’s too^ hard work.”
“Ugh,” said she, “how I hate business. Father was in business until he retired and mother never saw him except in-the evening and Sunday. I want a husband who will be with me all the time. We shall celebrate our golden wedding in just fifty years, • dear, and I want you to promise me that you will never leave me for more than three or four hours in all that time.”
Just then the postman’s whistle sounded, and Ned rose and lifting his little wife in his arms he held her high above him as he promised.
“I hope, my dear,” said he, as she pinched his face playfully, “that father will write, for I have just seventy-five cents in the world and we must live somehow. If he invites us to make his home our home I will use the seventy-five cents to wire him , for money to pay our way there.”
Nelly laughed infectiously. “Isn’t my dear boy just a little bit improvident—isn’t that the word I want?”
“I suppose it is, but what’s the use of being provident when I have you ?”
“And the canaries,” said the girl, going to the cage and chirping to the yellow songsters.
Down one flight went Ned and the postman handed him a letter that bore the post-mark of his father’s town.
Three steps at a time he raced up the stairs and sitting down in an easychair (the reckless souls had handsomely furnished their apartment with no thought of the future), he said : “It has come, dear, and I am
almost sure that that rich father of mine is going to forgive you for not being the girl he had chosen for me.”
“I hope so,” said Nelly, perching on the arm of his chair like a pretty bird. “I think I could like your father, dear, because he does look so like you.”
“He’s a little sterner than I am, dearie,” said Ned, and then with his girl wife stroking his beautiful chestnut hair he opened the letter and read it out loud. It ran as follows :
“Ned: I disown you absolutely, as
I said I’d do if you married Ellen Marsh. You are no longer a son of mine and I will never help you to the extent of a single cent.
“Yours not at all, EDWIN MERRYFIELD.”
“Oh, my dear Ned,” said Nelly, slipping off her perch and burying her golden head in her husband’s lap, “we will starve.”
“I have seventy-five cents,” said Ned bravely, but the future at that moment looked very black. And then both caught sight of the fragrant honeysuckles, glorified by the sun, and the three beautiful canaries broke into ecstatic song, and Ned, rising brought his hand down on his leg and said :
“I am young and the world is before me. My father made a fortune with no capital to begin with but a broken shovel and high spirits. I will write a story.”
Nelly danced around the room, clapping her hands. “I knew it would come out all right,” said she. “Oh, I’m so proud of you. Have you any writing paper?”
“Not a bit, but I have seventy-five cents and I will buy paper, pens, ink and pencil, and perhaps I will illustrate the story as well as write it.”
“Oh, how splendid !”
Pride was in every lineament of the beautiful child-wife, and she hugged handsome Ned to the point of suffocation before she would let him begin his career.
A half hour later the sun was shining in at two windows, the honeysuckles were sweeter than ever, and the three canaries were singing to beat the German band that was playing merry music in the street outside.
And Ned sat at the desk and wrote his first story. Sheet after sheet fell on the floor just as they used to do in Walter Scott’s time, and Nelly sat on a stool at his feet and admired her brave young husband who had taken up the struggle of life so heroically.
“May I read it?” said Nelly.
“Yes, dear,” said he, a writer’s nervousness struggling with his love for her, “but please don’t talk again or you will put to flight all my ideas. And don’t criticize it harshly.” His busy pen ran over the page as the white-hot thoughts gushed from brain to willing hand.
“My love, do you think I would ever criticize a single clever word that you wrote? I know beforehand that it will be the best story I ever read. Did you ever write anything before?”
“Only letters to my friends, dear, but I have studied human nature for nearly a year.” A scowl darkened his -brow. “And now I hope my pet will not talk, because I must concentrate or else the story will never sell, and then we would starve and starving is so painful.”
“Goose !” laughed the merry girl and ran to the window to smell the honeysuckles. Then she poured out fresh water for the canaries and sat down at her husband’s feet resolved to be as still as a mouse in order not to spoil the masterpiece that he was forming so swiftly.
For two hours Ned wrote, and as it was his first story there was no rehashing of his old ideas. It was imaginative and told of life among the East Siders. He knew very little about them, but he knew there was a good market for such stories and so lie gave his imagination free rein and wrote like one possessed.
Then when the story was finished he looked at the beautiful being who had been reading the sheets as they fell and said, “Dear, how do you like it? Has it merit.”
She waited until she had read the last sheet which he had just thrown down and then she said, “I think it is the best story I ever read.”
“Do you really?” said he, feeling that praise from his wife was praise indeed.
“I certainly do,” said she, very gravely. She felt that in a way she too had helped him create it. She knew as little of the East Siders as he did.
“Do you think it will sell?” said he. “Why, of course. Where will you show it first?”
“To the leading magazine. Now, dear, be quiet once more and I will rewrite it.”
“You’ll do no such thing. You’ll send it just as it is. It couldn’t be improved.”
“I believe you are right, little one,” said Ned, taking his young wife up in his arms and tossing her in the air before he kissed her.
The canaries sang, the luscious honeysuckle scented the sunny air, and the cool breezes of early summer breathed through the apartment where dwelt so much happiness.
“How do you know so much about those poor people Neddy, dear?” “Imagination, my love. They say Shakespeare never went to Italy, and yet in his opera of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that we heard last night think how true to Italy it all was.”
“Yes, love, only I think that Shakespeare didn’t write the opera. He wrote the play from which the opera was made.”
“That doesn’t injure my point in the least. I believe you are right, but the point is that imagination sees through walls and across seas. Imagination-”
He broke off suddenly.
“Shall I illustrate it?”
“Oh, to be sure. You’ll get more then, won’t you?”
“Yes, I suppose I will.’
“I didn’t know you could draw, Ned, dear.”
“One never knows what he can do until he tries,” said the sanguine young fellow. “I used to do caricatures at college that everyone said were pretty bad, but I don’t think they knew what they were talking about.”
“Of course they didn’t,” said she indignantly. “Do make a lot of drawings. The more you make the more you’ll get, won’t you ? They say Christy and Gibson draw every day.”
“I think I’ll do a dozen,” said he.
He sharpened a pencil and full of enthusiasm he began the work of illustrating the story he had just written.
“Can you talk while you’re drawing?” said his wife, standing at his side and watching with admiration the funny little East Siders that seemed to drop from his rapid pencil.
“Yes, I don’t have to concentrate as I do when I’m writing. It is easy to draw !” He felt that he had been writing for years—so much of himself had he put into his work.
“They don’t really look like East Siders, but they are awfully funny and they’re so delightfully sketchy. They don’t look as if you’d been horribly conscientious about them. They’re so spontaneous.”
“Do you know, dear,” said Ned, not seeming to have heard her remarks, “if they don’t take this story I’m going down to Keith’s to see whether I can get an engagement to sing ballads.”
“I didn’t know you sang ballads,” said she.
“I don’t, but they’re easy to learn. Don’t you think I have a good stage presence ?”
“You could stand before kings,” said she, unconsciously quoting something she had heard somewhere.
“Well, I don’t suppose there’ll be many kings there, but at least I have several strings to my bow. We won’t starve.”
In less than an hour he had done twelve illustrations and then he put on his hat, and while his wife made a funny little package of the illustrated story he washed his hands, whistled gaily to the canaries, sniffed the honeysuckles and looked buoyantly out at the fleecy clouds flecking the deep blue June sky.
“Well, dear, you may expect me in an hour. But wait ; let’s have some lunch before I start.”
He looked at his watch. “It is one o’clock. I imagine most of the editors will still be out to lunch. We’ll go too and I’ll blow in my last penny on it. It won’t be more than a bite, my dear.”
“Oh. won’t it be romantic and bohemian, dear?” said Nelly with a delicious little wriggle of her body. “Oh, I’m so glad I married you. And I’m so glad your father cut you off because it brought out all that was big and noble in you. I think those are the best illustrations I ever saw. You’ll probably rival Gibson himself before very long.”
“Yes, only it’s easier to do East Siders than it is to do handsome girls —like you, for instance.”
In a few minutes they were tripping down the stairs like a new Paul and Virginia, and were soon seated in a picturesque and exceedingly bohemian lunch room where they spent their last cent. Then Nelly, full of life and hope, ran back to her canaries and her honeysuckles and Ned bent his steps to the editorial rooms of one of the leading magazines.
“Yes, he is in and will see yqfi if you’ll wait a few minutes.”
“My time is very precious,” said Ned. “Tell him he’d better see me now.”
“Very well, sir,” said the boy and departed with the message.
In a minute he came back and said, “Follow me, please.”
Ned followed him to the editorial rooms and saw an intellectual-looking man talking to a lady who was rising to go.
“I’m sorry we can’t take it, but we are only taking what we are positively compelled to accept.”
He bowed the lady out and then shook hands with Ned.
“Haven’t we met before?” said he. “Never,” said Ned, shortly. He did not want to hold any more conversation than was necessary. He had come to sell his story, not to exchange reminiscences.
The Edwin Merryfield of set purpose who was in the editorial room was a different fellow from the genial, loving husband of the honeysuckled, canary-haunted bower.
“I have here a story which I have myself illustrated.”
“Oh, will you leave it?” said the edicor, fumbling among his papers to show that he was busy.
“You evidently don’t unuerstand the circumstances,” said Ned. “This morning my father absolutely cut me off. I am newly married. I intend to live. I have written this story and illustrated it myself and I want it read—now. If not by you then by one of your rival editors.”
The editor saw that he was dealing with no ordinary man and he motioned Ned to a seat and began to read. Sheet after sheet dropped from his hand and in half an hour he had finished the story.
“It’s a good story. The public is interested in the submerged tenth.” “That is not the point,” said Ned coldly. “Do you accept it?”
The editor hesitated. Ned rose. “Yes, we will take it.”
“Good. Now will you look at the pictures ?”
“I don’t think we would care to illustrate it,” said the editor.
“Well, I don’t care to divorce it from its illustrations,” said Ned calmly, reaching for the manuscript. “I will take it to some editor who wishes to have a harmonious whole.”
“Let me see the pictures,” said the editor, realizing that this was no ordinary man who sat in front of him.
He took the pictures and looked at them one by one.
“They are unusual,” said he. “Certainly. It is unusual for me to draw,” said Ned proudly. “Well, my time is limited. Do you wish them?” “I will take them. Now if you will excuse me I’ll be glad to see you some other time. I have all this correspondence to attend to.”
“I’ll be gone in a few minutes,” said Ned, in a more pleasant tone of voice because he was 'glad to have sold the story, “but you have forgotten the most important thing. I wish to be paid for my work. The laborer is worthy of his hire. You have bought my story and my pictures and yet you would send me away without payment. Is that just? Is that the way you would buy a horse? I must have my money at once or I will carry the story and the pictures to a rival establishment.”
The editor saw that he was dealing with no ordinary man and he rang for a boy. While the boy was coming he said, “How much do you think we ought to pay you? Would a cent a word be enough for the story and three dollars apiece for the pictures? That is what we ordinarily pay. It would be about sixty dollars.”
Ned thought rapidly. Sixty dollars would be soon spent at the rate at which he and his wife preferred to spend it, and he might not care to write another story for some time.
“What do you pay your star contributor?”
“Ten cents a word,” said the editor, “but-”
“And your star illustrator?”
“Fifty dollars a picture for that size. But-”
“And you were going to put me off with the beggarly pittance of a cent a word and three dollars a picture,” said Ned, his color rising. “My work is worth as much to me as Kipling’s or Gibson’s work is to them. There are 3,000 words in my story. That will be three hundred dollars ; and there are twelve pictures ; that will be six hundred more. Let me tell you en passant that I think artists have a cinch. It did not take me as long to draw the pictures as it did to write the story. Kindly have them draw me a check for nine hundred and I will go at once. Otherwise I’ll have to take my wares to a rival establishment. You gave me a speedy reading and I am eminently fair. I would rather you had the story than another. But I am not a sentimentalist. Please decide at once.”
Nine hundred dollars for an East Side story seemed a good deal to pay, particularly as Edwin Merryfield was a new name, but the editor saw that he was dealing with no ordinary man, and when the boy came in response to his call he said to him :
“Take this order to the cashier and bring me the money at once.”
A few minutes later the boy came back with a large roll of bills and asked Ned to count them and let him know if it were all right, as no mistakes could be rectified after leaving the establishment.
“It is quite right,” said Ned. He had always been used to carrying large sums of money before he had married Nelly, and it was no trouble at ail for him to count nine hundred dollars.
“I would like you to accept this ten-dollar bill,” said he generously to the boy.”
“Thank you, sir,” said the boy smiling “This is most unusual.”
The lad took the money and went away, and then Ned, taking a fiftydollar bill, said to the editor, “I beg of you to accept this.”
“Sir,” said the editor, reddening, “you mean well, but this is the magazine that first exposed the wickedness of Wall Street, and what you have offered me is nothing less than a ‘rake off.’ Invite me to lunch some time if you wish to, but never tempt me that way again.”
Ned shook hands with the editor. “You are a good fellow,” said he.
Then he pursued his way toward home with a light heart. On the way he passed Keith’s.
“Shall I stop in and have my voice tried?” said he to himself. “No, it will be time enough to do so when our money is exhausted. It is awfully easy to make a living. This money ought to last us a good month if Nelly is economical, and then I will write another story or sing a ballad or perhaps paint a scene for a theatre. What man has done man can do, and I am a man.”
He ran up the stairs, four steps at a time, and burst into the room. Nelly was singing a merry song and accompanying herself on a mandolin and the canaries were mutely listening. The honeysuckle still scented the air and the sun was peeping in at the third window. All the breezes sang of love and the world seemed young. “I know you sold it,” said Nelly, laying aside the mandolin, “from the look of your face. I hope you got plenty for it. It was certainly the best story I ever read.”
“I could only make him give me a beggarly nine hundred for it,” said Ned.
Nelly’s face fell. “And how much did you get for the pictures, my love?” said she, coming to him and twining her arms around his neck.
“That included the pictures, my dear,” said he.
“They cheated you shamefully, my dear,” said she. “Gibson gets a thousand dollars for every one of his pictures. But never mind,” she added, upheld by her beautiful optimism. “You can draw more and we’ll be very economical and make this last at least a fortnight.”
She looked lovingly into his eyes. “Oh, I’m so glad you aren’t a horrid business man.”