Project Canterbury

My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter XIII. Tessy

IT is generally admitted now that all men are religious; that there never was, and in the very nature of the case, that there never can be an irreligious human being. This, of course, is very far from asserting that all men are Christians; for there are religions good, bad, and indifferent. But that St. Augustine made a true generalization when he said, "All men are made for Thee, O Lord, and there is no rest for the soul till it finds its rest in Thee," can hardly be doubted by any unprejudiced student of human nature. The appeal which genuine Christianity makes to the human heart is so well-nigh irresistible just because it finds that heart prepared by anticipation to receive its message. Otherwise, it had long since perished from off the face of the earth. No one, I venture to say, could have spent twelve years in close contact with the various types of men presented in Wyoming and Idaho, when it was my privilege to minister to that people, without taking a hopeful view of the unlimited possibilities of the human soul. One lesson that I learned was that underneath all life of passion there are spiritual potentialities for the meanest; that underneath all vice there is still something true; that deeper than the deepest degradation there is still a hope unspeakable and full of glory. The cow-boy or the miner has sometimes but little religion to talk about, but he usually responds nobly to an appeal to his unselfishness or generosity or courage. Let some misfortune befall a brother man, and see how quickly he will come to the rescue. Judged by many of the outward or conventional standards, I admit he falls very far short; but when you come to put him to the test of real fraternity, and measure him by the spirit of disinterested service to his fellow-man, he will often surprise you. Indeed, he is not to be blamed for his carelessness about church-going, as there is frequently no church for him to attend. Think of the spiritual destitution which prevails in the far-off mining-camp. Try to picture to yourself the life of a cow-boy on the plains thirty years ago. Realize, if you can, the abject loneliness of a sheep-herder amid the sage-brush, spending days and nights for months without converse with a human being. Under such conditions of spiritual famine one cannot be surprised to find instances here and there where, with many good traits, men are lacking in those finer qualities of moral discrimination which, after all, are the products of careful home training and education. Tessy Holstein was such a man. If his story has its amusing side, I beg the reader not to lose sight of the infinite pathos which brings him to our notice and fairly entitles him to some charitable consideration in view of a situation too dark to contemplate. Tessy was a miner. He had a promising claim in the mountains about twenty-five miles from a certain town in northern Idaho. He was a German by birth, but left his native land and crossed the Atlantic while yet a youth. The spirit of adventure led him into the Far West, where stories of marvellous discoveries of gold were filling the world with wonder. Again and again in his eventful life he had a fortune, as he thought, almost within his grasp, when all at once his hopes would be dashed. At the time I first heard of him he was taking out some good high-grade ore, and more than making wages.

Early one morning in December he started to town to lay in some provisions. The sun was shining brightly, and there was every promise of one of those fine, warm days which are not uncommon in the early winter of the Rocky Mountain region. But it is also characteristic of that locality that some of the worst snow-storms come at that time, and entirely without warning. The miner was afoot, and had not proceeded far on his way before he was caught in such a blizzard. It was one of those blinding storms when it is impossible to see one's way, and the thermometer drops suddenly to many degrees below zero. All through that country one hears tragic stories of men perishing within a few steps of their homes, blinded by the fury of the gale and overcome by the cold. It is the custom of the ranchman to have guide-ropes leading from his own door to his barn, his corral, his well, and all the various out-buildings, for he knows he may at any time be suddenly overtaken by a blizzard, and, in that case, his life would actually be in danger without these safeguards. Tessy was entirely familiar with the road, and had walked it time and again; but he lost his way, and wandered about helplessly, often coming back to the same place where he first left the trail. The blizzard raged with unabating fury all that day and late into the night. At last, overcome by long exposure to the cold, faint, and weakened by hunger, Tessy began to feel sleepy and to realize that his body was becoming numb and that he was freezing. He could never recall when he had fallen, for he lost consciousness suddenly in the embrace of that sleep which is destined to end in death.

The following day dawned bright and clear, as is often the case after such a storm. Tessy's friends in town knew he was expected the night before, and were anxious about his fate when he did not put in an appearance. Accordingly they lost no time in organizing a search-party, and it was not long before the unfortunate miner's body was found under a heap of snow that had drifted about it. Brushing away the white mantle that enveloped him, the searchers were convinced that their friend was dead; but in response to their loud calls and vigorous shaking and rubbing, Tessy manifested faint signs of life. Brandy and restoratives were administered, and at last he was brought back to consciousness. They carried him to town, and placed him in the little emergency hospital provided for such cases. Upon examination it was discovered that his arms and legs were frozen; but with great difficulty and only by means of the most skilful treatment his arms were saved; his lower limbs had to be amputated close to the body. He was a very vigorous man and in perfect health, and in a few months was convalescent. Two small three-legged stools used by his strong arms and hands had to take the place of legs. With these it was astonishing how well Tessy could propel himself. With a little practice he learned to move about as rapidly as occasion demanded, but of course his occupation as a miner was at an end.

Even before he had been allowed to leave the hospital his generous and sympathetic friends, supported by the whole community, had raised a considerable sum of money, rented a small, vacant store-room, and furnished and supplied it as a candy and cigar stand, where Tessy could make a living. He at once took charge, and a little boy who needed the small wages which the place afforded was employed to run errands and help in the store. The grateful recipient of all this generosity displayed much artistic taste in decorating the little room and making it as attractive as possible. He catered especially to the hundreds of school-children, who found Tessy's shop an ideal place for their numerous small demands. Then the men felt in honor bound to go there for their cigars and tobacco. The result was that Tessy began to do a lucrative business. He had a remarkable genius for making and keeping his money. He slept behind the counter, and prepared his meals on a little stove at the back of the store. Hence he was always on hand to serve his customers. He developed more and more agility in handling himself. His arms became so strong that he could pull himself up without apparent effort to get any object from the shelves. He was admirably adapted to the peculiar financial conditions that prevailed in the place at that time. He availed himself of the high rate of interest by loaning on good security small sums of money, and thus his accumulations rapidly increased.

Years passed. Incredible as it may seem, Tessy was quoted in Bradstreet's Mercantile Agency as worth seventy-five thousand dollars. He was highly esteemed in the town as a man of financial ability and integrity.

One day the rumor went forth that Tessy had purchased an eligible piece of ground on a commanding site, and had determined to erect a fine residence. Before many weeks the foundations were being laid, and gradually the house on the hill took form. It proved to be one of the most imposing and attractive homes in the little town. When it was nearing completion the proud owner took council with some of the ladies of his acquaintance as to the decorations and furnishings. Handsome carpets, tasteful wall-paper, luxurious upholstery, and expensive furniture were procured. To add to all this, the house was heated throughout with steam and lighted with electricity.

By this time people began to wonder and speculate. "What does Tessy mean? Surely he is not thinking of getting married." But no other theory could account for all this lavish expenditure. At last, after much conjecture and questioning on the part of his friends, Tessy frankly admitted that he was looking for a wife. It leaked out that in his emergency he had consulted some one who advised him that the best way to get a good wife was to send for a copy of the Heart and Hand, a magazine published by a Chicago matrimonial bureau. He was told that many of the lonely bachelors in the Far West, where ladies are so scarce, had by this plan drawn rare prizes. In fact, it was well known that there were a number of wives in that community who had been acquired in that way, and who had proved entirely satisfactory. Accordingly, he had sent for a copy of this wonderful publication. When it came he was delighted. On its pages, in rich profusion, he could gaze upon the faces of a great variety of fair women from whom to choose. There he saw illustrations depicting maidens and widows, blondes and brunettes, young and old. It was really embarrassing to make a selection when all seemed to him so charming and attractive. At last, however, he was especially pleased with the picture of a widow of about forty. He nattered himself that he was a judge of character, and he thought he could discern in the personal charms of this fair creature just the characteristics sure to make him forever happy.

Under each picture there was a little description which assisted his imagination to complete the ideal he might form. Then, best of all, there was the address; so, having made his selection, he lost no time in writing the object of his choice. He told her of his great loneliness, and of his longing for a congenial companion to share his future life; he said that he had been reasonably successful in business; that he possessed a comfortable home, neatly furnished and ready to receive her; that she need not take his word for his financial standing, but could consult any banker in Chicago, where she would learn that he was quoted in Bradstreet as worth seventy-five thousand dollars; that he did not owe a dollar in the world. Finally, to clinch the argument, he enclosed one of his photographs, and intimated that he would be much gratified to receive one of hers in return. In due course of mail he was made happy by the arrival of an entirely satisfactory reply, and with it a photograph from which it seemed to him that the engraving in the Heart and Hand had not revealed one tithe of the fascination of the original. She expressed herself as delighted with his letter and his photograph, and said she was disposed to consider favorably his proposition; that she, too, was alone in the world, and without means, and that the prospect of such a home as she was confident he could give her appealed to her strongly.

Tessy sent her a generous draft to provide for her trousseau and purchase her railroad transportation to his home. He went fully into detail as to the route, and made it clear to her that on reaching the terminus of a certain railroad she was to take a boat which would bring her at about seven o'clock in the evening to her destination. He told her he would, of course, meet her on the arrival of the boat, and, to make her feel more at home, would have some of his friends among the ladies and also the clergyman who was to perform the ceremony accompany him to the landing.

Fortunately, all turned out just as Tessy had planned. The boat arrived on scheduled time. The expectant bridegroom, seated in a handsome new carriage and driving a spirited team of bays, was promptly on hand. As the horses were somewhat nervous, Tessy, protected from the chill evening air by a comfortable lap-robe, thought it best to remain in the carriage, while the clergyman and the ladies went down to the boat to welcome the bride-elect. She was there, radiant with smiles and eager with expectation. The ladies accorded her a gracious welcome, and the rector looked after her baggage, giving directions that it should be delivered without loss of time at her new home, for the wedding was to take place immediately. The party then ascended the hill to the carriage, where Tessy greeted his future bride with gracious cordiality. He delicately apologized for not going down to the boat, telling her that his horses were restless, and asked the clergyman to assist the ladies into the carriage and get in himself.

So far, all had gone as smoothly as possible. Of course, the clergyman and the two ladies never so much as dreamed that Tessy had not acquainted the Chicago widow with the story of his physical misfortune. But, as a matter of fact, all the knowledge the unfortunate woman had gained of his appearance had been gathered from the photograph he had sent her, and it was not taken at full length. Hence, everybody was happy but Tessy himself. Every step the horses took towards home added to his feeling of awful apprehension. He realized that the time was now at hand when the whole truth must be revealed. What would happen? How would she take it? But at last he drew up in front of his brightly illuminated house. A servant was in readiness to take charge of the horses and another to assist them from the carriage to the house. Poor Tessy, with greater nimbleness and agility than he had ever displayed before in his life, began to climb down the front wheel, and was ready to receive the bridal party. As the widow alighted, her eyes fell on Tessy. Then all the pent-up feelings of her nature found vent in one great, prolonged sulphurous explosion of wrath and indignation. The clergyman assured me that he never in all his life heard such language as poured forth from the lips of that justly furious woman. He said he actually feared that in her unbridled rage she would literally leap at Tessy and utterly annihilate him. Meanwhile, the clergyman and ladies gradually learned for the first time that the woman had been grossly deceived. They could hardly believe it, so utterly different was such conduct from their long-cherished opinion of their old friend as a man of honor. They openly rebuked him; told him they were ashamed of him, and had they known he had withheld from her the knowledge to which for every reason she was entitled, they would have taken no part in the disgraceful affair. At the same time they assured her of their sympathy. At last, through sheer exhaustion, the widow calmed down. The ladies gently expostulated with her, told her they would not desert her; that, as Tessy had so wickedly deceived her, she was under no obligation to him whatsoever; but they also added that, bad as Tessy seemed in this one instance, he was really a kind-hearted, good man, and stood high in the community. They pledged her their support to the end, and guaranteed that Tessy would pay her way back to Chicago.

"But," said one of them, "you are very tired after your long journey. Come into the house. You will find a warm supper prepared for you, and you can rest and refresh yourself. Then we will go down with you to the hotel, and secure you comfortable quarters until you are ready to return East."

Their kindly and sympathetic councils prevailed, and she accompanied them into the house. Gradually a peace conference was brought about. Tessy was evidently ready not only to surrender fully all territory demanded, but to make good any indemnity she might ask. The charm and comfort of the pretty new house also had its effect. Who can wonder that, before the evening was over, under the healing influences of her environment and the eloquent appeals of Tessy, the feminine susceptibility of the woman's nature was prevailed upon, and the wedding followed. Congratulations poured in from every side, and though he could always bear witness that for one tumultuous hour at least the course of true love had not run smooth, Tessy was supremely happy.

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