But I insisted on the note. He finally agreed and offered to secure for me anything I wanted for the work.
I went back to Ruth and we sat down and figured the matter all over once again. We stripped it down to a figure so low that my chief profit would come on the time I could save with my machine. I allowed for the scantiest profit on dirt and rock though I had secured a good option on what I needed of this. I was lucky in finding a short haul though I had had my eye on this for some time. Of one thing I was extremely careful--to make my estimate large enough so that I couldn't possibly lose anything but my profit. Even if I wasn't able to carry out my hope of being able to speed up the gang I should be able to pay my bills and come out of the venture even.
Ruth and I worked for a week on it and when I saw the grand total it took away my breath. I wasn't used to dealing in big figures. They frightened me. I've learned since then that it's a good deal easier in some ways to deal in thousands than it is in ones. You have wider margins, for one thing. But I must confess that now I was scared. I was ready to back out. When I turned to Ruth for the final decision, she looked into my eyes a second just as she did when I asked her to marry me and said,
"Go after it, Billy. You can do it."
That night I sent in my estimate endorsed by Dan and a friend of his and for a month I waited. I didn't sleep as well as usual but Ruth didn't seem to be bothered. Then one night when I came home I found Ruth at the outside door waiting for me. I knew the thing had been decided. She came up to me and put her hand on my shoulder and patted me.
"It's yours, Billy," she said.
My heart stopped beating for a moment and then it went on again beating a dozen ticks to the second.
The next day I closed up my options. I went to Corkery, gave my notice and told him what I was going to do. He was madder than a hornet. I listened to what he had to say and went off without a word in reply.
He was so unreasonable that it didn't seem worth it. That noon I rounded up the men and told them frankly that I was going to start in business for myself and needed a hundred men. I told them also that this first job might last only four or five weeks and that while I had nothing definite in mind after that I was in hopes to secure in the meanwhile other contracts. I said this would be largely up to them. I told them that I didn't want a man to come who wasn't willing to take the chance. Of course it was something of a chance because Corkery had been giving them steady employment. Still it wasn't a very big chance because there was always work for such men.
I watched anxiously to see how they would take it. I felt that the truth of my theories were having their hardest test. When they let out a cheer and started towards me in a mass I saw blurry.
I'll never forget the feeling I had when I started out in the morning that first day as an independent contractor; I'll never forget my feeling as I reached the work an hour ahead of my men and waited for them to come straggling up. I seemed closer than ever to my ancestors.
I felt as my great-great-grandfather must have felt when he cut loose from the Massachusetts colony and went off down into the unknown Connecticut. I was full enough of confidence but I knew that a month might drive me back again. Deeper than this trivial fear however there was something bigger--something finer. I was a free man in a larger way than I had ever been before. It made me feel an American to the very core of my marrow.
The work was all staked out but before the men began I called them all together. I didn't make a speech; I just said:
"Men--I've estimated that this can be done by an ordinary bunch of men in forty days; I've banked that you can do it in thirty. If you succeed, it gives me profit enough to take another contract. Do the best you can."
There wasn't a mother's son among them who didn't appreciate my position. There were a good many who knew Ruth and knew her through what she had done for their families, and these understood it even better. The dirt began to fly and it was a pretty sight to watch. I never spoke again to the men. I simply directed their efforts. I spent about half the time with a shovel in my hands myself. There was scarcely a day when Ruth didn't come out to watch the work with an anxious eye but after the first week there was little need for anxiety. I think she would have liked to take a shovel herself. One Saturday Dick came out and actually insisted upon being allowed to do this. The men knew him and liked to see such spirit.
Well, we clipped ten days from my estimate, which left me with all my bills paid and with a handsome profit. Better still I had secured on the strength of Carleton's gang another contract.
The night I deposited my profit in the bank, Ruth quite unconsciously took her pad and pencil and sat down by my side as usual to figure up the household expenses for the week. We had been a bit extravagant that week because she had been away from the house a good deal. The total came to four dollars and sixty-seven cents. When Ruth had finished I took the pad and pencil away from her and put it in my pocket.
"There's no use bothering your head any more over these details," I said.
She looked at me almost sadly.
"No, Billy," she said, with a sigh, "there isn't, is there?"
ONCE AGAIN A NEW ENGLANDER
During all those years we had never seen or heard of any of our old neighbors. They had hardly ever entered our thoughts except as very occasionally the boy ran across one of his former playmates. Shortly after this, however, business took me out into the old neighborhood and I was curious enough to make a few inquiries. There was no change.
My trim little house stood just as it then stood and around it were the other trim little houses. There were a few new houses and a few new-comers, but all the old-timers were still there. I met Grover, who was just recovering from a long sickness. He didn't recognize me at first. I was tanned and had filled out a good deal.
"Why, yes," he said, after I had told my name. "Let me see, you went off to Australia or somewhere, didn't you, Carleton?"
"I emigrated," I answered.
He looked up eagerly.
"I remember now. It seems to have agreed with you."
"You're still with the leather firm?" I inquired.
He almost started at this unexpected question.
"Yes," he answered.
His eyes turned back to his trim little house, then to me as though he feared I was bringing him bad news.
"But I've been laid up for six weeks," he faltered.
I knew what was troubling him. He was wondering whether he would find his job when he got back. Poor devil! If he didn't what would become of his trim little house? Grover was older by five years than I had been when the axe fell.
I talked with him a few minutes. There had been a death or two in the neighborhood and the children had grown up. That was the only change.
The sight of Grover made me uncomfortable, so I hurried about my business, eager to get home again.
God pity the poor? Bah! The poor are all right if by poor you mean the tenement dwellers. When you pray again pray God to pity the middle-class American on a salary. Pray that he may not lose his job; pray that if he does it shall be when he is very young; pray that he may find the route to America. The tenement dwellers are safe enough.
Pray--and pray hard--for the dwellers in the trim little houses of the suburbs.
I've had my ups and downs, my profits and losses since I entered business for myself but I've come out at the end of each year well ahead of the game. I never made again as much in so short a time as I made on that first job. One reason is that as soon as I was solidly on my feet I started a profit sharing scheme, dividing with the men what was made on every job over a certain per cent. Many of the original gang have left and gone into business for themselves of one sort and another but each one when he went, picked a good man to take his place and handed down to him the spirit of the gang.
Dick went through college and is now in my office. He's a hustler and is going to make a good business man. But thank God he has a heart in him as well as brains. He hopes to make "Carleton and Son" a big firm some day and he will. If he does, every man who faithfully and honestly handles his shovel will be part of the big firm. His idea isn't to make things easy for the men; it's to preserve the spirit they come over with and give them a share of the success due to that spirit.
We didn't move away from our dear, true friends until the other boy came. Then I bought two or three deserted farms outside the city--fifty acres in all. I bought them on time and at a bargain. I'm trying another experiment here. I want to see if the pioneer spirit won't bring even these worn out acres to life. I find that some of my foreign neighbors have made their old farms pay even though the good Americans who left them nearly starved to death. I have some cows and chickens and pigs and am using every square foot of the soil for one purpose or another. We pretty nearly get our living from the farm now.
We entertain a good deal but we don't entertain our new neighbors.
There isn't a week summer or winter that I don't have one or more families of Carleton's gang out here for a half holiday. It's the only way I can reconcile myself to having moved away from among them. Ruth keeps very closely in touch with them all and has any number of schemes to help them. Her pet one just now is for us to raise enough cows so that we can sell fresh milk at cost to those families which have kiddies.
Dan comes out to see us every now and then. He's making ten dollars to my one. He says he's going to be mayor of the city some day. I told him I'd do my best to prevent it. That didn't seem to worry him.
"If ye was an Irishmon, now," he said, "I'd be after sittin' up nights in fear of ye. But ye ain't."
I'm almost done. This has been a hard job for me. And yet it's been a pleasant job. It's always pleasant to talk about Ruth. I found that even by taking away her pad and pencil I didn't accomplish much in the way of making her less busy. Even with three children to look after instead of one she does just as much planning about the housework. And we don't have sirloin steaks even now. We don't want them. Our daily fare doesn't vary much from what it was in the tenement.
Ruth just came in with Billy, Jr., in her arms and read over these last few paragraphs. She says she's glad I'm getting through with this because she doesn't know what I might tell about next. But there's nothing more to tell about except that to-day as at the beginning Ruth is the biggest thing in my life. I can't wish any better luck for those trying to fight their way out than they may find for a partner half as good a wife as Ruth. I wouldn't be afraid to start all over again to-day with her by my side.