Author: Kelland, Clarence Budington, 1881-1964
Children of the rich — Fiction
Michigan — Fiction
Industrialists — Fiction
By Clarence Budington Kelland
Author of “The Hidden Spring,” Etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY
Published by Arrangement with Harper & Brothers
Copyright 1916. by Harper & Brothers
Printed in the United States of America
Published February, 1917
It is not a fact that clothespins are threshed out like beans or wheat. They are not a product of nature, but of art and machinery. A clear understanding of this is necessary before the story can begin to march; for if clothespins had grown in fields inclosed by rail fences, and were gathered by the aid of a self-binder, there never would have been an individual known from coast to coast as Clothespin Jimmy. This individual would not have had a son named James, nor would Clothespin Jimmy have started to build a new clothespin-mill in Diversity, Michigan. So it is manifest that the fact stated in the first paragraph hereof lies at the very tap-root of the whole matter.
If you studied sufficiently over the hieroglyphics appended by Clothespin Jimmy at the end of a check you discovered them to indicate the signature “James Ashe.” But it required more than a passing glance. Nobody ever quarreled with the signature, because it suited the old man and was honored by the bank.
The owner of the illegible signature was sixty-five years old, was hale, hearty, and ripe for adventure. Also he figured that fifty years of hard labor about completed his sentence and that he was entitled to play about.
Therefore he called home his son James, who had shown an early and marked distaste for the clothespin business, and took him into the library, where there lived in ease and idleness some ninety feet of assorted red, blue and black books. He opened the conversation:
“Son, what name do folks call you by when they speak to you?”
“Why—Jim, I guess.”
“Just Jim? Nothing describin’ it?”
“I haven’t the least notion, father. Why should they call me anything else?”
“No reason in the world. That’s what I’m gettin’ at in my feeble way. What do folks call me?”
“Clothespin Jimmy,” replied his son, promptly.
“Yes, and when I die that’s what’s goin’ onto the headstone. It means somethin’. There hain’t no need for a verse of poetry and clasped hands. ‘Clothespin Jimmy’ tells the whole story. I don’t mind sayin’ I’m proud of it. Just like I was proud of the first dollar I ever handled—because I earned it. Folks call me Clothespin Jimmy because I’ve done things with clothespins—things that amount to somethin’. Men don’t git names like that by settin’ in one spot till their pants wear thin. Now, take you—they call you Jim, and there the matter ends. That’s where you end. You’re just Jim, like seven hundred thousand other Jims. You don’t stick up above the herd. Hain’t it about time folks was findin’ reason to hitch a descriptive name onto you?”
“I’m twenty-eight. I’ve got a good job. I’m supporting myself and not taking a cent from you—”
“I’m not findin’ fault with what you’ve done, son. You ain’t a gilded butterfly—that ain’t what I mean. You’re respectable and self-supportin’, but so’s twenty million other boys in this country. You’re just a good average human critter. But that’s not even comin’ close to the subject, which is that ma and me would like to go to Californy.”
“Good idea, dad. When do you start?”
“As things is we don’t start at all.”
“Largely because you’re satisfied to have folks call you Jim without any description to it.” The old gentleman took a package of folded papers from a drawer and slid the rubber band off them.
“Here’s somethin’,” he said. “Bonds. Fifty of ’em for a thousand dollars apiece. Net five per cent. I’ve milked the business to get ’em. ’Twasn’t right by the business, but I done it just the same. Now, then, you never liked the clothespin business. Don’t know why. So I’ve fixed it so you could pick and choose between two things. I’ll come to that in a minute. But first, about Californy. I started supportin’ myself when I was fifteen, and I’ve been hard at it ever since—fifty years. The time’s come for me to git out with your ma and have a good time if we’re ever a-goin’ to. Short time for frolickin’ left at best. But it rests with you. I figger I’ve earned the right to loaf, but I can’t loaf without leavin’ somebody to labor. There hain’t nobody but you.” He stopped and looked at Jim and slapped the package of bonds on the desk-top three or four times.
“There ought to be somethin’ to you more ’n just Jim. I’ve waited to see it crop out. Now I’m goin’ to dig for it. Here’s these bonds. Yonder in Diversity is the new mill almost ready to start turnin’ over. It’ll be worth a quarter of a million to somebody. I can make it so in a year. What I got you in here for was to offer you your choice. You can take the mill and the business and have it till God does you part—and buckle in like I’ve done; or you can take this fifty thousand in bonds and go play. If you take the mill, your ma and me take the bonds and go play. There’s the proposition. Take which you like—and no hard feelin’s.”
“But, dad, suppose I don’t take either?”
The old man’s face changed; his eyes grew anxious; the hand that held the bonds trembled ever so little.
“You wouldn’t do that to me, son. Ever since that night twenty-eight years ago when I heard a miserable squawkin’ sound up-stairs and mistrusted it was you, I’ve been workin’ and plannin’ and hopin’—with you as the object of it all. I wanted to fix things for you, son—and I’ve done it. You don’t need to take the business if you don’t want to. Your ma and me can keep on like we’ve been goin’, and have consid’able fun, too. But if you was to refuse both, then I’d feel as if I’d sort of wasted my time—as if my workin’ and livin’ hadn’t been for no good at all. You—you wouldn’t do that to your dad, would you, son?”
Young Jim walked to the window and stood looking out, and as he looked out he reviewed his own plans and scheme of life, his hopes and private aspirations. Presently he turned:
“No, dad, I won’t refuse both. I’ll take one or the other.”
Clothespin Jimmy’s face showed his relief.
“Much ’bliged, son,” he said, as though he were accepting a notable favor instead of giving away what folks not addicted to polo or divorces or Fifth Avenue or ocean-going yachts would consider a fortune.
Jim returned to his window; his father sat thumbing the bonds and waiting. Presently the old man spoke suddenly:
“I don’t want you tradin’ unsight-unseen. You’re entitled to know what you’re up against. In case you take the mill—I milked it for these bonds. I told you that. The business will need this money and need it bad. I’ve built big. The day the mill starts runnin’ you h’ist a debt of seventy thousand dollars onto your shoulder. You’ll be pinched for money, and you’ll have a devil of a time. But I could pull it through—and so can you if you’re any good. You ain’t steppin’ into a snap—not by several statute miles. Furthermore, if you take her you take her for better or for worse. You git no help from me. These bonds’ll be all I have, and I’ll need ’em. I won’t let loose of one of ’em to keep you out of bankruptcy. Understand?”
“Yes,” said Jim.
“Got your mind made up?”
“I’d rather sleep on it, dad. Suppose we put it off till to-morrow.”
“If you’re the man to handle the job you can decide now. Puttin’ off never helped matters. A man that makes up his mind right off may be wrong half the time, but he’s right a whole lot more than the fellow who has to have a decision jerked out of him with an ox-team. If you expect to get anywheres in this world, learn to make up your mind swift and follow up with swift action. We’ll finish the deal now before quittin’-time.”
Jim turned and looked at his father. Somehow he felt detached from himself, as if he were sitting at a distance twiddling his thumbs and watching his own wheels go round. He occupied the position of spectator very briefly, however, but popped back inside of himself and took possession again—with a noticeable change. He felt different. He did not feel like Jim Ashe as he had been acquainted with Jim Ashe, but like another individual of markedly different characteristics. This change manifested itself in his reply:
“All right. We’ll decide now. Now!”
“Yes?” said Clothespin Jimmy, his fingers tightening ever so little.
“I take the mill,” said Jim.
“Huh!” his father said.
That was all. He slipped the bonds into his side pocket. From another pocket he drew an envelope holding two long, many-times-folded strips of blue paper. Jim recognized them as railroad tickets.
“You’d better go to Diversity on Friday. This is Tuesday. Your ma and me leave for Californy on Friday mornin’.”
Jim eyed his father suspiciously. “Had the tickets all the time?”
“You were going, anyhow?”
“No; not unless you took the mill.” The old man chuckled.
Jim snorted. “Pretty sure how I’d decide, weren’t you?”
“Well, seein’ as you’re my son—and your ma’s—I wasn’t more ’n a mite worried. I figgered you was sound timber, but there was always the chance that sap rot had got at you. That envelope there was the stock certificates, all indorsed over to you, inside of it. Take ’em. You’re the proprietor of the Ashe Clothespin Company now. I’m through with it. Fifty years of work to earn a couple of years of play for ma and me. When we’re gone write us often. We’ll need to hear from you. But don’t you dast to mention clothespins to me—either good or bad about ’em. I’m through. Through for good and all—and it’s up to you.”
“Done.” said young James.
Young Jim Ashe rode from five o’clock in the morning until two in the afternoon on a train that carried him through a stretch of the State of Michigan that not even a local poet had ventured to call lovely. It was flat as an exhausted purse—indeed, it was an exhausted purse, for its wealth in straight, clean pine had long since poured from it, down its rivers to mills where it had been minted into money. With this money a second generation that did not know a wanigan from a cook-shanty, cork pine from Norway, nor the difference between the Doyle and Scribner scales, was getting its names in the Sunday papers and illustrated magazines as bold and hardy owners of imported Chow dogs.
At the end of nine hours of travel through the sort of scenery that would make the decorations of a modern New York hotel a restful diversion, Jim thought even a game of coon can with a traveling-man which, as everybody knows, is the world’s most futile method of passing time—would be a boon from heaven. But there was neither drummer nor cards. He was not the sort of person who could sit and think, and when tired of that omit the thinking and just sit. So he brooded. Long before he reached Diversity he was terribly sorry for himself, which, after all, is a species of mild pleasure enjoyed by many. One conclusion he did reach—namely, that Diversity must be the ultimate fag-end of desolation trimmed with a fringe of black despair. When the train stopped at Diversity’s depot he looked out and felt that conclusion to be sound.
The first thing he saw was heat. He could see it rising in little wiggling waves from the blackened sand; he could see it at work raising more blisters on the paint of the station; he could see it struggling in vain to reduce the weight of the baggage-master, who was also telegraph-operator, station-agent, porter, and information bureau. The next thing he saw was a jumble of form and color that would have made immortal a cubist who could have caught it and labeled it “A Hole Raveled in Civilization’s Heel.” But if the cubist had caught it he probably would have called it “Gentleman in Union Suit Climbing a Telegraph Pole,” and so passed Fame by on the other side.
The station reminded him for all the world of a flabby, disreputable redbird, squatting in the midst of an hilariously ragamuffin brood which sat back on its tails and derided her scurrilously. The progeny consisted of coal-sheds, warehouses, nondescript buildings where nothing was or apparently ever had been done, a feed-mill and a water-tank. All of them seemed to detest the perpendicular; most of them leered through doors squeezed to the shape of a clumsy diamond. Fire, thought Jim, would bring a merciful release to the whole of them.
He alighted with all the pleasant anticipation of a Christian martyr about to dip into a caldron of boiling oil. No one was there to meet him, for no one knew he was coming. He didn’t know where to go and didn’t much care. All directions seemed equally unpromising. However, before plunging into the unknown he stopped in the shade of the building, mopped his forehead, and took an observation.
Standing with the sun beating down upon her was a young woman who looked at the departing train with an expression like one Jim had seen on a girl’s face as she stood in the bread-line. It spoke hunger. In spite of his own discomfort Jim was interested, and there can be no doubt he stared. He stared long enough to observe that the young woman was dark, with a heap of curling hair so black that even the old, hard-working simile of the raven’s wing was not of the slightest use to him. She was small, but had one of those exquisite figures which just a little startle one.
She did not impress Jim as at all pretty, but she did impress him as a young person who might find difficulty in letting somebody else have his own way.
She continued to stare hungrily after the train, but presently she turned her eyes so they met Jim’s stare. In a second she comprehended he was staring, and she flashed resentment at him. She even bit her lip with vexation. Then she turned abruptly—but very gracefully, Jim noticed—and walked across the tracks.
Jim flushed uncomfortably and looked about to see if anybody had noticed his bit of bad manners and its result. In a ramshackle buggy drawn up to the platform sat an old man with square white whiskers. Possibly “sat” is not the precise word to use, for the old man rested mainly on the back of his neck, allowing the rest of his body to clutter up the space intended only for his legs and feet. Jim picked up his bag and approached.
“Could you drive me to the hotel?” he asked.
The old man looked at Jim’s feet, at his ankles, his knees, his belt-buckle, his cravat, finally into his eyes. This took time, and the sun was hot on Jim’s head.
“I could,” said the old man, finally. Then he wiggled the lines. “Giddap, Tiffany,” he said, wholly oblivious to Jim’s presence on earth. “Giddap there. Stir yourself. G’long.”
Jim stood goggling after him, as nonplussed as if the old fellow had suddenly developed the old-fashioned dragon habit of spouting smoke and flames. Behind Jim the fat station-agent laughed twice, thus: “Heh! Heh!” which was all he could manage on account of his weight and the heat. Jim’s ears burned; he snatched up his grip and followed in the wake of the buggy.
He halted before a sign which proclaimed that here was the Diversity House. There did not seem to be a great deal of bustle connected with this establishment; as a matter of fact, there was no sign of life at all unless you count an unshaven gentleman in white woolen socks and a calico shirt, who lent the support of his back to a post on the piazza and snored feebly. Jim went in. The office was deserted. He coughed. In another month Jim knew how useless it was to seek to attract attention in that hotel by coughing, indeed by anything short of exploding dynamite on the floor. Next he tried kicking the counter. At best it was only a hollow-sounding sort of kick and got no results whatever. Jim was growing impatient, so he inserted three or four fingers in his mouth and whistled. It was a lovely, ear-splitting, sleep-piercing whistle, and Jim heard a movement on the porch.
The gentleman of the white socks peered through the window, feeling of his ear as though it had been sorely abused, and looked at Jim disapprovingly.
“Gosh all hemlock!” exclaimed the gentleman, mildly.
“Are you the proprietor?” Jim demanded.
The gentleman stared some more. “Who? Me? Ho! Don’t calc’late to be,” he said.
“Where is he? Dead?”
“If he is he hain’t let on to nobody. Seems though he might be over t’ the printin’-office playin’ cribbage.”
“What do I do? Wait till he comes back before I get a room?”
“Hain’t no objections, but mostly they go up and pick out the room they like.”
Jim sighed impatiently and placed his bag on the counter.
“Can you tell me where the new mill is being built?”
“Down the road a piece. Keep right a-goin’ and you can’t miss the dum thing.”
“Thank you,” said Jim, and started out to inspect the plant of which he had become proprietor.
Jim walked down the street, which did not run ahead in a straight line, but meandered about aimlessly as though trying for all it was worth to keep under the shade of the fine big maples which bordered it. Nobody could blame it. In fact, Jim thought it showed extraordinary intelligence for an illiterate, unpaved, country clodhopper of a road, for the shade was the pleasantest, most friendly thing he had found in Diversity.
In five minutes he rounded a bend and came upon a flat which seemed like a huge platter on which somebody was trying to fry a number of large and small buildings. Half an eye could tell the buildings were new, indeed unfinished. Heat-waves radiated from their composition roofs, and as for their corrugated-iron sides, Jim fancied their ugly red was not due so much to paint as to the fact that they were red-hot. Everywhere were men hurrying about as if it were a reasonable day and they weren’t in the least danger of sunstroke. Inside Jim could hear the clang of hammers, the rasp of saws, the multitude of sounds which denote the business of an army of workmen.
It looked very big and raw and uninviting to him. There was nothing homey about it at all. It didn’t even look interesting, and Jim stood under a tree and wished his father had chosen some other calling than the manufacture of clothespins. He mopped his head and wrinkled his nose, and grew very gloomy at the thought that down there on that unspeakable flat lay the work of his future years. His dreams had been of something very different.
He shrugged his shoulders and walked rapidly down on to his property, acting very much like a man with a tender tooth on his way to the dentist’s.
As he walked along the side of the biggest building he encountered a small Italian boy with a big pail of water.
“Son,” he said, “where’s the office? Where’s the boss?”
The big black eyes lighted; white teeth gleamed.
“You lika drink? Sure. I take you da office.”
Jim drank and followed the boy, whose bare feet seemed miraculously to take no harm from the rubbish he walked over.
“Me Pete.” he said, pointing to himself. “Me carry da drink.” Then he pointed to a small frame shack. “Dat da office,” he said.
Jim walked through the half-open door. Nobody was there. On a drafting-table were drawings and blue-prints; a roll-top desk was littered with papers and letters. Jim sat down in a revolving-chair to wait for the return of Mr. Wattrous, the engineer