Ocean Echoes - Ways And Means
( Originally Published 1922 )
A NIGHT or two later in Tacoma, I was sitting in the hotel lobby, wondering what to do next. A fat, flabby man, whose eyes, however, had a fine quality, squeezed himself into the chair alongside of me. We talked about the weather, and the people going past outside the window, and of the thousands who had suffered in the earthquake. Then he encouraged me to talk of myself, and I sketched my life for him in some detail, not cheerfully, I must admit.
He listened with interest, for he seemed to fancy me. When I had done, he asked: "What's the loss of a few dollars?" And unbuttoning his coat, and exposing a large morocco-bound book; "It amounts to nothing. Why, you haven't found yourself yet, that's the trouble. I was forty years old before I found myself, and the result is that the last year I made twenty thou-sand dollars, and this year promises to double that amount."
He talked on, fairly bristling with energy.
"It's seldom that I do what I am going to do for you," he whispered; "I am going to take you along with me, and show you how to pile up dollars."
"Doing what?" I asked. I'll grant him that he had me swamped in dollars, and that I felt as nervous as any bank-robber.
He pulled out the morocco-bound book from his pocket. His eyes beamed with enthusiasm, and he forgot that we were not alone in the hotel. He slapped the book down on the arm of his chair and shouted :
"This is what we get our money from. The 'Student's Reference,' in three volumes, sold in every home in the U. S. for nineteen dollars and seventy-five cents ! Children knock you down in the street for it. Women weep for the privilege of buying it from you! Five dollars commission on each set, and ten sets a day you sell ! Four hours work ! Three hundred dollars a week ! Friends by the thousands ! Crazy about you! Too many! A. wonderful business!"
Giving me no time even to catch my breath, he jumped to his feet, as he went telling me to meet him the next morning at nine o'clock. Then he trotted rapidly off to the elevator, from which, as it whisked him out of sight, he called a final "Good night !"
I went to bed, oblivious of rheumatism and earthquake, to dream of treasure, and thousands of friends.
Two hours later, the hotel being cleared of the mold of the day, and the yawning clerks and the busy night-porter willing me off to bed, I went, my mind still foggy, as it had been these two hours, with books and greenbacks, and the hope of getting back again to ease and self-respect.
I met the book man at nine o'clock the following morning. He had lost none of the charm of the night before. We flew to talking; and I went to work under his instructions, selling books.
For three months I was a successful book agent, making money easily. But as if some fluency lay in money so easily gained, it went as if it had no value, and seemed to lack the power to accumulate. This appealed to my sailor's superstition. By what right, I thought, did I assume control of my fellow beings, to the extent that they must get something they did not want, for which they must deprive themselves materially? How could I deny responsibility, shrugging it onto them for being so easily dominated? Was it not a kind of black art that I was practicing? God forbid, I thought, and gave it up.
As I look back on it now, I still can see it no other way, for the rich and the poor were helpless in our hands. Our arguments flowed over them, covered them, swamped them, sucked them under and they were gone, as if their money were ours, and not theirs.
So I went back to "that old devil, sea" again, to clean soiled hands with Stockholm tar.