5.—The Reminiscences of Mr. Apricot
“Rather a cold day, isn’t it?” I said as I entered the club.
The man I addressed popped his head out from behind a newspaper and I saw it was old Mr. Apricot. So I was sorry that I had spoken.
“Not so cold as the winter of 1866,” he said, beaming with benevolence.
He had an egg-shaped head, bald, with some white hair fluffed about the sides of it. He had a pink face with large blue eyes, behind his spectacles, benevolent to the verge of imbecility.
“Was that a cold winter?” I asked.
“Bitter cold,” he said. “I have never told you, have I, of my early experiences in life?”
“I think I have heard you mention them,” I murmured, but he had already placed a detaining hand on my sleeve. “Sit down,” he said. Then he continued: “Yes, it was a cold winter. I was going to say that it was the coldest I have ever experienced, but that might be an exaggeration. But it was certainly colder than any winter that you have ever seen, or that we ever have now, or are likely to have. In fact the winters now are a mere nothing,”—here Mr. Apricot looked toward the club window where the driven snow was beating in eddies against the panes,—“simply nothing. One doesn’t feel them at all,”—here he turned his eyes towards the glowing fire that flamed in the open fireplace. “But when I was a boy things were very different. I have probably never mentioned to you, have I, the circumstances of my early life?”
He had, many times. But he had turned upon me the full beam of his benevolent spectacles and I was too weak to interrupt.
“My father,” went on Mr. Apricot, settling back in his chair and speaking with a far-away look in his eyes, “had settled on the banks of the Wabash River——”
“Oh, yes, I know it well,” I interjected.
“Not as it was then,” said Mr. Apricot very quickly. “At present as you, or any other thoughtless tourist sees it, it appears a broad river pouring its vast flood in all directions. At the time I speak of it was a mere stream scarcely more than a few feet in circumference. The life we led there was one of rugged isolation and of sturdy self-reliance and effort such as it is, of course, quite impossible for you, or any other member of this club to understand,—I may give you some idea of what I mean when I say that at that time there was no town nearer to Pittsburgh than Chicago, or to St. Paul than Minneapolis——”
“Impossible!” I said.
Mr. Apricot seemed not to notice the interruption.
“There was no place nearer to Springfield than St. Louis,” he went on in a peculiar sing-song voice, “and there was nothing nearer to Denver than San Francisco, nor to New Orleans than Rio Janeiro——”
He seemed as if he would go on indefinitely.
“You were speaking of your father?” I interrupted.
“My father,” said Mr. Apricot, “had settled on the banks, both banks, of the Wabash. He was like so many other men of his time, a disbanded soldier, a veteran——”
“Of the Mexican War or of the Civil War?” I asked.
“Exactly,” answered Mr. Apricot, hardly heeding the question,—“of the Mexican Civil War.”
“Was he under Lincoln?” I asked.
“Over Lincoln,” corrected Mr. Apricot gravely. And he added,—“It is always strange to me the way in which the present generation regards Abraham Lincoln. To us, of course, at the time of which I speak, Lincoln was simply one of ourselves.”
“In 1866?” I asked.
“This was 1856,” said Mr. Apricot. “He came often to my father’s cabin, sitting down with us to our humble meal of potatoes and whiskey (we lived with a simplicity which of course you could not possibly understand), and would spend the evening talking with my father over the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. We children used to stand beside them listening open-mouthed beside the fire in our plain leather night-gowns. I shall never forget how I was thrilled when I first heard Lincoln lay down his famous theory of the territorial jurisdiction of Congress as affected by the Supreme Court decision of 1857. I was only nine years old at the time, but it thrilled me!”
“Is it possible!” I exclaimed, “how ever could you understand it?”
“Ah! my friend,” said Mr. Apricot, almost sadly, “in those days the youth of the United States were educated in the real sense of the word. We children followed the decisions of the Supreme Court with breathless interest. Our books were few but they were good. We had nothing to read but the law reports, the agriculture reports, the weather bulletins and the almanacs. But we read them carefully from cover to cover. How few boys have the industry to do so now, and yet how many of our greatest men were educated on practically nothing else except the law reports and the almanacs. Franklin, Jefferson, Jackson, Johnson,”—Mr. Apricot had relapsed into his sing-song voice, and his eye had a sort of misty perplexity in it as he went on,—“Harrison, Thomson, Peterson, Emerson——”
I thought it better to stop him.
“But you were speaking,” I said, “of the winter of eighteen fifty-six.”
“Of eighteen forty-six,” corrected Mr. Apricot. “I shall never forget it. How distinctly I remember,—I was only a boy then, in fact a mere lad,—fighting my way to school. The snow lay in some places as deep as ten feet”— Mr. Apricot paused—“and in others twenty. But we made our way to school in spite of it. No boys of to-day,—nor, for the matter of that, even men such as you,—would think of attempting it. But we were keen, anxious to learn. Our school was our delight. Our teacher was our friend. Our books were our companions. We gladly trudged five miles to school every morning and seven miles back at night, did chores till midnight, studied algebra by candlelight”—here Mr. Apricot’s voice had fallen into its characteristic sing-song, and his eyes were vacant—“rose before daylight, dressed by lamplight, fed the hogs by lantern-light, fetched the cows by twilight—”
I thought it best to stop him.
“But you did eventually get off the farm, did you not?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered, “my opportunity presently came to me as it came in those days to any boy of industry and intelligence who knocked at the door of fortune till it opened. I shall never forget how my first chance in life came to me. A man, an entire stranger, struck no doubt with the fact that I looked industrious and willing, offered me a dollar to drive a load of tan bark to the nearest market—”
“Where was that?” I asked.
“Minneapolis, seven hundred miles. But I did it. I shall never forget my feelings when I found myself in Minneapolis with one dollar in my pocket and with the world all before me.”
“What did you do?” I said.
“First,” said Mr. Apricot, “I laid out seventy-five cents for a suit of clothes (things were cheap in those days); for fifty cents I bought an overcoat, for twenty-five I got a hat, for ten cents a pair of boots, and with the rest of my money I took a room for a month with a Swedish family, paid a month’s board with a German family, arranged to have my washing done by an Irish family, and—”
“But surely, Mr. Apricot——” I began.
But at this point the young man who is generally in attendance on old Mr. Apricot when he comes to the club, appeared on the scene.
“I am afraid,” he said to me aside as Mr. Apricot was gathering up his newspapers and his belongings, “that my uncle has been rather boring you with his reminiscences.”
“Not at all,” I said, “he’s been telling me all about his early life in his father’s cabin on the Wabash——”
“I was afraid so,” said the young man. “Too bad. You see he wasn’t really there at all.”
“Not there!” I said.
“No. He only fancies that he was. He was brought up in New York, and has never been west of Philadelphia. In fact he has been very well to do all his life. But he found that it counted against him: it hurt him in politics. So he got into the way of talking about the Middle West and early days there, and sometimes he forgets that he wasn’t there.”
“I see,” I said.
Meantime Mr. Apricot was ready.
“Good-bye, good-bye,” he said very cheerily,—“A delightful chat. We must have another talk over old times soon. I must tell you about my first trip over the Plains at the time when I was surveying the line of the Union Pacific. You who travel nowadays in your Pullman coaches and observation cars can have no idea——”
“Come along, uncle,” said the young man.