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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)

Pinkerton, Artist and Optimist

From “The Wrecker”

PINKERTON’S parents were from the old country; there, too, I incidentally gathered, he had himself been born, though it was a circumstance he seemed prone to forget. Whether he had run away, or his father had turned him out, I never fathomed; but about the age of twelve he was thrown upon his own resources. A travelling tin-type photographer had picked him up, like a hen out of a hedgerow, on a wayside in New Jersey; took a fancy to the urchin; carried him on with him in his wandering life; taught him all he knew himself—to take tin-types (as well as I can make out)—and doubt the Scriptures; and died at last in Ohio, at the corner of a road. “He was a grand specimen!” cried Pinkerton. “I wish you could have seen him, Mr. Dodd. He had an appearance of magnanimity that used to remind me of the patriarchs.” On the death of this random protector, the boy inherited the plant, and continued the business. “It was a life I could have chosen, Mr. Dodd!” he cried. “I have been in all the finest scenes of that magnificent continent that we were born to be the heirs of. I wish you could see my collection of tin-types; I wish I had them here. They were taken for my own pleasure and to be a memento, and they show nature in her grandest as well as her gentlest moments.”

As he tramped the Western States and Territories, taking tin-types, the boy was continually getting hold of books, good, bad, and indifferent, popular and abstruse, from the novels of Sylvanus Cobb to “Euclid’s Geometry,” both of which I found (to my almost equal wonder) he had managed to peruse. He was taking stock, by the way, of the people, the products, and the country, with an eye unusually observant and a memory unusually retentive; and he was collecting for himself a body of magnanimous and semi-intellectual nonsense, which he supposed to be the natural thoughts, and to contain the whole duty, of the born American. To be pure-minded, to be patriotic, to get culture and money with both hands and with the same irrational fervour—these appeared to be the chief articles of his creed. In later days (not, of course, upon this first occasion) I would sometimes ask him why, and he had his answer pat. “To build up the type!” he would cry. “We’re all committed to that. We’re all under bond to fulfil the American type! Loudon, the hope of the world, is there. If we fail, like those old feudal monarchies, what is left?”

The trade of a tin-typer proved too narrow for the lad’s ambition. It was insusceptible of expansion, he explained; it was not truly modern. And, by a sudden conversion of front, he became a railroad-scalper. The principles of this trade I never clearly understood, but its essence appears to be to cheat the railroads out of their due fare. “I threw my whole soul into it; I grudged myself food and sleep while I was at it. The most practised hands admitted I had caught on to the idea in a month, and revolutionised the practice inside of a year,” he said. “And there’s interest in it too. It’s amusing to pick out some one going by, make up your mind about his character and tastes, dash out of the office, and hit him flying with an offer of the very place he wants to go to. I don’t think there was a scalper on the Continent made fewer blunders. But I took it only as a stage. I was saving every dollar. I was looking ahead. I knew what I wanted—wealth, education, a refined home, and a conscientious, cultured lady for a wife; for, Mr. Dodd”—this with a formidable outcry—“every man is bound to marry above him. If the woman’s not the man’s superior, I brand it as mere sensuality. There was my idea at least. That was what I was saving for—and enough too! But it isn’t every man, I know that—it’s far from every man—could do what I did; close up the liveliest agency in St. Jo, where he was coining dollars by the pot, set out alone, without a friend or a word of French, and settle down here to spend his capital learning art.”

“Was it an old taste,” I asked him, “or a sudden fancy?”

“Neither, Mr. Dodd,” he admitted. “Of course, I had learned in my tin-typing excursions to glory and exult in the works of God. But it wasn’t that. I just said to myself: What is most wanted in my age and country? More culture and more art, I said. And I chose the best place, saved my money, and came here to get them.”

The whole attitude of this young man warmed and shamed me. He had more fire in his little toe than I in my whole carcass. He was stuffed to bursting with the manly virtues; thrift and courage glowed in him; and even if his artistic vocation seemed (to one of my exclusive tenets) not quite clear, who could predict what might be accomplished by a creature so full-blooded and so inspired with animal and intellectual energy? So, when he proposed that I should come and see his work (one of the regular stages of a Latin Quarter friendship), I followed him with interest and hope.

He lodged parsimoniously at the top of a tall house near the Observatory, in a bare room, principally furnished with his own trunks, and papered with his own despicable studies. No man has less taste for disagreeable duties than myself. Perhaps there is only one subject on which I cannot flatter a man without a blush; but upon that—upon all that touches art—my sincerity is Roman. Once and twice I made the circuit of his walls in silence, spying in every corner for some spark of merit, he, meanwhile, following close at my heels, reading the verdict in my face with furtive glances, presenting some fresh study for my inspection with undisguised anxiety, and (after it had been silently weighed in and balance and found wanting), whisking it away with an open gesture of despair. By the time the second round was completed, we were both extremely depressed.

“Oh!” he groaned, breaking the long silence, “it’s quite unnecessary you should speak!”

“Do you want me to be quite frank with you? I think you are wasting time,” said I.

“You don’t see any promise?” he inquired, beguiled by some return of hope, and turning upon me the embarrassing brightness of his eye. “Not in this still-life here, of the melon? One fellow thought it good.”

It was the least I could do to give the melon a more particular examination, which, when I had done, I could but shake my head. “I am truly sorry, Pinkerton,” said I, “but I can’t advise you to persevere.”

He seemed to recover his fortitude at the moment, rebounding from disappointment like a man of India-rubber. “Well,” said he stoutly, “I don’t know that I’m surprised. But I’ll go on with the course, and throw my whole soul into it too. You mustn’t think the time is lost. It’s all culture; it will help me to extend my relations when I get back home; it may fit me for a position on one of the illustrateds. And then I can always turn dealer,” he said, uttering the monstrous proposition, which was enough to shake the Latin Quarter to the dust, with entire simplicity. “It’s all experience, besides,” he continued, “and it seems to me there’s a tendency to underrate experience, both as net profit and investment. Never mind. That’s done with. But it took courage for you to say what you did, and I’ll never forget it. Here’s my hand, Mr. Dodd. I’m not your equal in culture or talent——”

“You know nothing about that,” I interrupted. “I have seen your work, but you haven’t seen mine.”

“No more I have!” he cried. “Let’s go see it at once! But I know you are away up. I can feel it here.”

To say truth, I was almost ashamed to introduce him to my studio, my work, whether absolutely good or bad, being so vastly superior to his. But his spirits were now quite restored, and he amazed me, on the way, with his light-hearted talk and new projects. So that I began at last to understand how matters lay: that this was not an artist who had been deprived of the practice of his single art, but only a business man of very extended interests, informed (perhaps something of the most suddenly) that one investment out of twenty had gone wrong.