The Adventures of a Bookkeeper

The Adventures of a Bookkeeper  (1909) 
by Rupert Hughes

From The American Magazine, Jun 1909. Illustrations omitted.

The Adventures of a Bookkeeper


With Illustrations by Albert Levering

UNDER the thick eyeglasses, under the green eyeshade—under the heavy eyelids, under the thick eyeglasses, under the green eyeshade, under the green drop-light, the bookkeeper's weary eyeballs shuttled to and fro. He could not strike his trial balance. It was just $10,000 askew.

Inasmuch as the total business of Spiegel's Owego Emporium for six months would not have reached that sum, the bookkeeper was worried, and worse.

It was late—so late that it was early. By ten o'clock nearly every light in the business district of Owego was out, except the green drop-light over the long-legged desk where Horace Wadhams sat among his lank limbs like a huge many-jointed grasshopper. He was studying a ponderous volume of his own composition. For hours and hours he added, and re-added, and re-re-added cords of columns, but he could not find the missing $10,000.

And so he moiled till that harbinger of dawn, the first rattletrap milk wagon, went crackling down the street.

Filled with despair and haggard for sleep, the bookkeeper pushed back his eyeshade, dropped down from his eyrie and went to the window. The starless sky looked like an ocean upside down, and that reminded him of the romance he ad been reading the past few days, in what little leisure bookkeepers enjoy. It was Jules Verne's "Ten Thousand Leagues Under the"—all of a heap, Wadhams realized where the mysterious ten thousand had come from. His subconsciousness of the story bad obtruded itself on his work, the wires had crossed, and he had absentmindedly tucked the ten thousand into a crevice in his addition.

This thing had happened before. While he was submerged in the tale of "The Count of Monte Cristo" he bad caught himself beginning a column with the fatal "One! Two! Three!" On another occasion he had found himself entering in his daybook among such items as "Mrs. L. K. Schuster two rolls oil cloth," "Mrs. N. C. Hassett, six yards insertion," "N. C. Peabody, one lawn mower"—among such items he had caught himself inserting this: "Henry M. Stanley, six crocodiles, four natives, three rhinoceroses." It had taken a deal of work with the ink eradicator to efface this dangerous aberration. For, while a rolling eye and an absent mind may be a fine thing in a poet, they are not pardoned in a bookkeeper.

Horace Wadhams was underpaid and overworked at the Emporium, and he was under-fed and over-lodged at Mrs. Magoffin's boarding-house. But the rag carpet in his little bedroom was a magic carpet, and of evenings as he sat creaking precariously in a wicker-bottomed chair, with a book from the circulating library between the long sharp arms elbowing his long skinny legs, the genie of imagination swept him through the walls and out across the world. The rag-carpet genie had an incongruous passenger in Wadhams; he was as grotesque in his store-clothes as Don Quixote in his tinware, but his soul was as high and his fancy as free.

Wadhams affected especially books of adventurous travel. He knew more about forbidden Tibet than he did about Broadway. He would have been lost in Central Park, but he could have taken you by the hand and led you across Africa in the track of Livingstone on a cloudy night. Though he drank nothing stronger than the partial coffee or the pallid tea of Mrs. Magoffin, he saw strange shapes wherever he looked. Across his ledgers at times ran trumpeting elephant herds; in his inkstand coiled an inflated cobra; with his pen he speared many a deadly fer de lance.

At the boarding-house, if he spoke at all, it was of exploration or adventure; his table-talk was spiced with picturesque words like assegai, ice floe, felucca, mushroom bullet, quetzal, iguana, sandalwood, copra, coral atoll, simoom, and lagoon.

The most scandalous thing Wadhams did was to stay home from church. He did this so regularly that it was almost a religion of itself. But he did not waste this period on the bulky Sabbath newspapers that came up from New York; he spent it in the company of wilderness-threaders and horizon-haters.

And so he lived his life unhonored, unsung, unmarried and unimportant. Aside from his book-voyages, his travels were confined to the trips up and down his ledger columns and to that stretch of sidewalk between the boarding-house and the Emporium, though he sometimes varied this by walking a block or two out of his way—"for exercise." You would have called his a torpid life, the career of an oyster in an R-less month; but that would have been because you were ignorant of the high excitements that enriched his evenings and his Sundays.

Seeing him in his humble room, or shambling to and from his work, you could not have guessed that his was a life of double-entry. In that boarding-house cell he fought maddened pumas with a woodman's axe; he scaled ghastly precipices where his least whisper would have brought down avalanches; he staggered across alkaline hells, mumbling with split lips and black tongue for water, water, water; he found whiskered tarantulas under his pillow; he saw the one-eyed octopod leering at him and thrusting snaky arms from under his bed; he heard the first crackling flames snickering in the fagots of the cannibals (or, as he preferred to call them, the anthropophagi); down the early morning streets of Owego he heard the black wolves come howling and hungry; under his door he heard the sniff of the famished tiger; and if a branch of the maple tree outside swished at his window, he shuddered lest a shaggy pygmy be perched there with poisoned blowgun aimed, It was more than Mrs. Magoffin's food that kept him thin and sharp.

But all his adventures were by proxy. He never had anything deserving the name "event" that he could call his very own. And then one day, one long-delayed day, something actually happened to him. A distant relative became still more distant, leaving her dear kinsman an altogether unforeseen legacy of fifteen hundred dollars. The shock was so great that Wadhams came near joining the distant relative.

The effect on his boarding-house status was nothing short of revolution. Mrs. Magoffin put butter in his coffee at breakfast and offered him a second dish of cherries at supper, But—and this you will hardly believe—when he walked into the Emporium and reached for his alpaca desk-coat, the proprietor, Mr. Spiegel, said:

"Good morning, Mr. Wadhams."

This was almost more exciting than fifteen hundred dollars. Wadhams could hardly hold his pen for thinking of it. To cap it all, the proprietor took him to dinner at Shanaban's Bonanza Restaurant. There Mr. Spiegel told him that he had always liked him and his work, and that, as a favor to an old friend, he would sell him an interest in the business.

But Wadhams knew the business—from the inside. So he declined, with many apologies, Then Mr. Spiegel graciously offered to borrow the fifteen hundred on a long-time loan at six per cent. Wadhams mentally computed the interest at $90 a year, with a fair chance of getting neither it nor the principal. So he declined once more, with profuse apologies and perspiration.

Mr. SpiegePs temperature dropped twenty degrees Fahrenheit, and he said:

"Vell, I metch you to see who bays for the lungeon."

Wadhams did not believe in gambling, but he matched, and paid. His fortune was now reduced to $1499.50, He realized that he must avoid ruinous hospitalities.

Many days passed while Wadhams wondered what to do with his fortune. Much advice was given him, most of it involving a commission of some kind for the adviser. But Wadhams shook his head.

He had a letter from his mother who lived on a farm at Oscawana. She advised him to apply the money to the mortgage on the farm.

But as the mortgage was $1450, and it had lived so long, he decided not to impoverish himself in vain. He sent his mother a note of filial regret and a hat which he bought at cost price at the Emporium. His fifteen hundred was now S1491.31.

Once a bookkeeper always a bookkeeper. Wadhams pondered. Fifteen hundred would not suffice to lift him from his estate for more than a few months. It would dribble away in inconsequential luxuries, the mere sweetmeats of pleasure which have no sustenance and leave a sour taste. While he was fretting over his good luck, a new book on Africa appeared at the library. He got it. He read the first chapter. Then he slammed the volume shut with an irreverence that was almost sacrilege in such a book-worshiper as he. He leaped to his feet, emancipated. With one fierce gesture, he flung off the shackles of literature. He was through with books. He was done with hand-me-down adventures. He had nearly fifteen hundred dollars in cash and he was going forth for to get some experiences of his own. As for books, he would write one himself. He spent several delicious hours dreaming over a title for it. "My Adventures in Africa, by Horace Wadhams." That looked good. "African Adventures" was also good, "In Wildest Africa" was better yet. He could hear people asking for it at the library where he had asked for so many other people's books:

"Excuse me, Miss, have you got Wadhams' 'Wildest Africa'?"

"I'm sorry, but it's out."

"Seems to me a library like this'd ought to have more'n one copy of such a book."

"More'n one? Goodness me, we have six; but they're always out. Three copies are at the bindery now being rebound after being all wore to pieces."

He would dedicate it, of course, to the memory of the distant relative who had given him Africa and immortality. He spent several delicious days writing the dedication. Two or three of his attempts were in verse, but he found that poets had to plod, so he decided to stick to prose.

He could see the reviews of his book, especially in the Owego papers. How the Owegans would talk about him! People who hardly knew him would claim kin. Probably they would put a memorial tablet on the boarding-house, and his tall stool would be chipped away by souvenir hunters. The magazines would publish pictures of the sidewalk—"his favorite stroll."

The only fly in the ointment of this rapture was the fear that he might not live to finish the book. He might perish at the hands of a Mbuti warrior, some treacherous Aruwimi chief might transfix him from behind his wicker shield, the tusk of a chaining rhinoceros might disembowel him, or he might be macerated by the flail-like tail of a crocodile, or end as a ragout in the kettle of a Mpongwe tribal feast.

Still it would be dying the death. Better to die than never to have lived. Better to let his bones bleach in the jungle than to let his heart fossilize at Owego.

He resigned his job. That was the first great draught on his courage, but he believed in burning his bridges behind him. He set forth for New York, and there was a piece in the paper about it; he was called "our distinguished fellow townsman, long identified with the enterprising Spiegel Emporium, which has long been one of Owego's most flourishing institutiona, a favorite resort of the ladies of our fair city," etc. There was a little too much about the Emporium. That was because Mr. Spiegel advertised. Wadhams breathed a sigh of relief at fleeing from such venality and such grinding commerce to the great free wilderness.

Wadhams found New York very trying, He had to ask the way so often that he began to wonder what he would do in Africa, where there were no numbered lamp-posts and no policemen.

He had an evening to kill before his steamer sailed. He went to a roof garden where an Arab magician with three wives performed some wonderful tricks. Also there was an American lady who performed a "Salome" dance in an imitation of a costume, mostly imitation jewels. Wadhams wondered if anything in Africa could shock him after that.

At the dock the next day he had a trunk dumped on his foot. He limped aboard, and a banging cabin door put his hand in a sling for a week. Later his stomach envied his hand. His ticket included his food. That was more than Wadhams could do. He ate but little, nor loved that little long. When he arrived in Liverpool at the end of a week, he decided to go to Africa by land. But that turned out too expensive, and he was forced to return to the docks. At the sight of the greasy waves and the churning keel, he came near giving up Africa. He gave up everything else. But when he was nighest to despair he would go to his stateroom and look at his pith helmet, and his elephant gun, the field glass and the camera he had bought in Liverpool. They were the guarantees of hope.

The slow old ship went on its scallopy way past historic England, the Abbey, and the Tower, and all the sights dear to tourists. They were not for Wadhams. Nor did Paris with her gilded mirth lure him from the forthright of his purpose. Rome should not know him, nor even Spain. He was for greater wonders than any Alhambra or Escorial.

The ocean disappointed him sadly. He had counted on assisting in at least one storm at sea. He had read so much of the mountainous waves of Fenimore Cooper, and the foam-smother of Marryat, and the crackling timbers of W. Clark Russell. But the billows were never high enough to give him anything more than a headache. He saw nothing but tame skies, drizzly rains, dismal fogs, and waves—always waves and more waves that went by in stupid droves like cattle crowded to a slaughter-house.

At length, when he was but a wisp of strength, the left shoulder of Africa loomed up along the sea. It gave him new hope, but it was some days before the ship reached Sierra Leone.

Here the vessel paused for a few hours. Wadhams donned his pith helmet, slung his camera over one shoulder, his field glass over the other, and taking his elephant gun in hand, went ashore, feeling like Vasco da Gama and Diego Cam rolled into one.

He set foot on Africa at last! To his sea-shaken legs it seemed as if the continent were about to tip over under his weight. But he found no chance to use his elephant gun. He found ordinary streets full of ordinary people. He could have wept at the natives he saw. They wore shirts and trousers! They looked and acted and dressed like the negroes of Owego, only more so.

He was glad when the steamer sailed. But the further towns were not much better. Everywhere, he found simply the discomfort and crudity of American villages gone to seed, or still in a fresh-plank condition. The foliage was tropical, but it did not come up to the pictures. The animals to be seen were the cows and pigs, the hens and dogs of Owego; and if there were any local fauna they revealed nothing that the circuses had not shown him since his boyhood.

He met a few native monarchs, but they were simply replicas of the more shiftless negroes of Owego. They were a little drunker, a little dirtier, a little nakeder, a little smellier, that was all. Their wives were many. but were only like unkempt washerwomen, carelessly clad.

He saw a few native dances. But his trip to the Midway at the Chicago Fair had given him sensations that were not surpassed. He saw an unusual amount of human hide displayed, but it was so unattractive that he regretted the lack of drapery. To a man of his neat habits, the evident neglect of the Saturday night bath was enough to rob this living ebon statuary of any allurement it might have had.

He found that a drunken sot is a drunken sot even if he happens to be called King Palabala. A thatched roof was a slovenly and populous thing in spite of all the traditions. The head-dresses of the natives looked better in the photograph than on the head. Wadhams believed in short hair and frequent shampoo.

But still with an undismayed hope he stalked adventure, lugging the heavy gun that was guaranteed to stop an elephant and double up a leaping tiger.

Finally he reached the goal of his dreams, the storied mouth of the Congo. His revered Stanley had described the region as "barren, uninviting and sparsely populated." In spite of themselves, the printed words had fascination. To read that a place is "a barren and uninviting mangrove swamp" gave it at once a charm. But Wadhams found the appalling possibilities of the literal truth seen with the fleshly eye.

In desperation he left the towns and plunged into the wilderness, hoping against hope for adventure. Better to be entombed in a tiger or a cannibal than murdered with ennui. His heart was stopped once by a terrific scream that curdled through one primeval fastness. He asked a grinning native if it were a maddened tigress. "Nope, him locomotive," was the answer. He never saw a tigress or even a tiger loose. No cannibals noticed him.

The only elephants he saw were like enormously idiotic oxen overworked and disgustingly meek. He lost his way often enough, but polite natives acted like policemen and led him to shelter. He was bitten by flies, gnats and mosquitoes, but that might have happened in Owego. He got blisters on his feet and tore his trousers, but one native applied to his sole a salve made in Skaneateles, and another mended his trousers with a sewing machine. His nearest approach to death was when he was butted by a trolley car whizzing through the jungle. And yet he labored on, assured that some great event lurked behind the next cocoa palm, or lay in wait just across the nearest yam-farm.

From childhood he had been giving his pennies to the missionary funds. And now he saw what crops those copper showers were raising. He felt like asking for his money back with interest. The missionaries themselves were doleful. They baptized numerous black bodies, but the souls stayed chocolate. Civilization had brought all its attendants. Natives learned to speak English in order to lie in another language. They were schooled in new vices, new cheats, new gambles, new crimes. There were churches, but they were like the African Baptist or the A. M. E. churches of Owego; and there were saloons like Owego saloons.

Wadhams made so bold as to invade the dirty hut of one shiny onyx monarch of Gaboon known as King Jim Smith Bobala. Wadhams counseled this ace of spades that rum was ruining his people.

The boozy King bleared at him and answered:

"Thasso—'stoo bad—have some wit' me."

Wadhams evaded the rum, but he had to sit through a concert. Even this was not of barbaric music, for the delighted natives had welcomed the labor-saving device of the phonograph. And poor Wadhams must squat on a dusty mat and listen to raucous records of old times, stale even in Owego, and not improved by rough usage. He had come to Africa to hear again "The Letter that He Longed for Never Came," "In the Baggage Car Ahead" and "Oh, Promise Me."

He promised himself that he would take himself back to Owego. There was that odious ocean to do over again, but on the other side of it was home.

Never was a man more disappointed than Horace Wadhams. His fifteen hundred dollars was going, going, almost gone. His Africa—his fabled Africa—had yielded him nothing but bad smells, bad beds, bad meals and boredom. Never an adventure, never a chapter for his book.

He would return to the Emporium and ask Mr. Spiegel for his job again. At least he could have the uncertainty of hunting down his wild and elusive trial balance. Perhaps the old charm of adventure would come back to him through the inverted telescope of the printed page.

Wadhams began to believe that literature is to many people what stained glass is to little churches; it takes what the average eye can see only as common every-day yellow sunshine and weaves it into glory and magic and rainbow resplendence. Charles Lamb was a bookkeeper, and he saw everything prismatically. It was not because Wadhams was a bookkeeper that he could not see Africa artistically. It was because he was Wadhams and he had read too much.

It was a doleful and empty Wadhams who leaned over the rail of the steamer making once more for the right side of the equator. He threw overboard his pith helmet and his white umbrella. He was tempted to jettison also his elephant gun, but he decided that it would look well hung across a couple of nails on his wall at Mrs. Magoffin's. All else he was taking home was a few snapshots. The most nearly interesting ones had come out light-struck or under-exposed, the remnant were of such nature that they would hardly do to show in Owego; they would prove shocking without proving interesting. He had not even the material for his dreamed-of stereopticon lecture at the Sunday-school. He decided to visit his mother for a few days at Oscawana, while he waited to see if Mr. Spiegel would re-receive the husk-sick prodigal, with or without fatted calf.

When the endless voyage was ended, and the steamer sighted Sandy Hook, Wadhams believed that there was no such thing as adventure outside the libraries. How little we now where or when our adventures await us or in what clusters they may come!

The view of the Manhattan sky-line, the Gargantuan buildings mountained together at the foot of the metropolis, lifted him from his depression like a sudden gift of wings. The puffing tugs and the waddling ferry-boats gave life a lilt. The anchored freighters rusting for paint and sitting high on their red keels while they waited for cargoes, looked to be the very vessels of romance. Wadhams forgot that he had gone further than they, and had fetched home no such merchandise.

The slow warping into the wharf on the Jersey shore was a pageant to him. The hustling stevedores were beautiful when he thought of the pitiful blackamoors swarming about the African coasts. Everything American was more beautiful than the charms of any other continent. His money was nearly gone, however, and he found New York as expensive as it was exhilarating. He posted a letter to Mr. Spiegel, and asked him to send his forgiveness to Oscawana, care of Mrs. A. J. Wadhams, R. F. D. 31. Then he took train to his ancestral estates, consisting of several acres and a mortgage.

Even Oscawana had changed a good deal since he had left it, but there was a reminder of boyhood days in the billboards and dead walls which were alive with the circus posters was of one of the numerous greatest shows on earth. One huge picture represented the wilds of Africa. It was a conglomeration of ferocious animals: a lion leaping into the gaping jaws of a crocodile; a cannibal in the coils of a boa constrictor; a tiger making ribbons of a goring rhinoceros; an elephant with a leopard in his trunk while a hippopotamus crunched his hind leg, and a Zulu in death wrestle with a gorilla.

Wadhams smiled—the smile of one who has been there.

The hack driver explained that a circus was in the town the day before and had driven away early that morning. It had a grand menagerie, he explained. He asked what kind of a weapon Wadhams had in the case, and Wadhams showed him the long express rifle that had neither suffered nor done any harm, and the unbroken box of cartridges guaranteed to plough a widening furrow through a whale.

Peaceful thoughts wooed Wadhams as he recognized the scenes of his barefoot boyhood, the trees from which he had fallen, the swimming-hole in which he had come so near drowning, even the schoolhouse to which he had expected to return as President of the United States. He sighed to think that he was returning only as a jobless bookkeeper in seedy clothes. But his mother—bless her heart!—she would be glad to see him any way he came.

He wondered where and how he would find her.

As they topped the last hill, he saw her—in the last place he could have dreamed.

She was sitting on the roof of the farm-house; in the farmyard below stood a lion, a tiger, two elephants and a cougar.

Wadhams and the hackman looked at each other. The horses looked at each other, sniffed the foreign odors from afar and whirled so quickly that they spilled Wadhams and his ammunition into the road. They disappeared in a cloud of dust, the hackman assisting their speed with willing whip. As Wadhams sprawled on the ground he fully expected to wake and find himself in bed or just out of it. The old homestead mixed with the circus lithograph come to life had no claim on reality. Then he noted that the lion was pacing majestically and roaring in huge grunts, while the tiger was making ineffectual attempts to leap to the roof where his mother sat huddled. Her shrieks were no dream.

Wadhams was much too scared to run away. Besides that was his mother there—the only mother he ever had. There was nothing to do but unlimber and get into action. He had lugged that elephant gun all over Africa. Now was its chance to prove itself.

He loaded it with hands composed of ten thumbs and tried to remember all the rules he had ever read about the art of accurate aim. Then he drew head on the bounding tiger. He pulled the trigger and went over backward. So did the lion.

The tiger continued to spring in the air. Wadhams was puzzled. Then he calculated hastily that if, by aiming at a tiger, he had killed a lion, the way to kill a tiger was to aim at the cougar.

It did not work. He tried it twice in vain, his second bullet taking a brick from the chimney over his mother's head. Then he ran further down the hill, reloaded and fired again and again at the tiger. It leaped and snarled, oblivious of the bullets, while Wadhams crept nearer and nearer, firing always.

The eighth shot at the tiger nipped the cougar, and he sped for the horizon on three legs. The tiger grew more and more desperate as he grew wearier and hungrier, but he leaped and leaped like a dying flame. He did not heed the approach of the desperate Wadhams, until finally, blind with frenzy and realizing that he had only one bullet left, he ran straight for the striped fury, and jamming the muzzle of the gun into the tiger's ribs, blazed away. The result was a smell of singed fur and a dead tiger with a millstone hole through him.

Wadhams and his elephant gun were at last confronted now by an angry elephant—by two angry elephants, in fact. But there were no more of those famous mushroom bullets. Wadhams was too crazed with excitement to know what he was doing, but a pale-faced gentleman peeking through a knothole in the woodshed said that, after casting about vainly for an elephant hook, Wadhams seized a garden-rake and dug it into the nearer elephant's jaw after the manner of a mahout. The amazed mammoth shivered with respect and suffered himself to be led into the barn, whither he was dutifully followed by the other elephant.

Wadhams was then seen to issue from the stable, bolt the door calmly, and calmly carry a ladder to the side of the house. He assisted his mother to the ground with the grace of a Sir Walter Raleigh.

She started to faint, but her son, having finished his work, fainted first. The man in the woodshed came forth and simultaneously, from behind a dozen rail fences, came various circus people who had remained in discreet retirement, less afraid of the animals than of the the terrible figure of Wadhams and the blazing elephant gun with which he had eventually destroyed several thousand dollars' worth of live stock.

The leader of the circus gang demanded damages for his dead; but the pale-faced man from the woodshed turned out to be a business man too—a Mr. Joel Crane, the mortgagee of the farm, in fact. He had called on Mrs. Wadhams to demand payment on penalty of foreclosure, when the homestead was invaded by a rabble of mad animals from foreign parts. Mr. Crane had swiftly negotiated the woodpile, while old Mrs. Wadhams, whose motto was rheumatism, had scaled the roof with an agility that won the applause of a distant trapeze artist.

It transpired eventually, after much palaver, that a discharged tent-pegger had taken a sublime and drunken revenge on the proprietor of the circus by opening the cages of several of the animals during a pause to rest the horses. The lion, the tiger, and the cougar had stampeded the elephants, and all had made for the nearest poultry farm, which chanced to be that of Mrs. Wadhams.

Mr. Crane finally got rid of the circus gang by offering to sell them the two elephants in the stable in return for a receipt in full for the useless felines littering the farmyard. This was agreed upon.

When the circus men departed over the hills with the two elephants meekly lumbering after, Mr. Crane and Mrs. Wadhams carried bookkeeper within. Mr. Crane in a burst of generosity told Mrs. Wadhams that, in view of her son's heroism, he would not foreclose the mortgage yet awhile.

As for Wadhams himself, the embarrassment of adventures had been too much for him after the tedium of his voyage to Africa. He went to bed for six weeks with a well-earned case of nervous prostration.

The neighbors had ceased to heroize him long before he was a well man. During his convalescence he received from the owner of the circus a letter praising his pluck and offering him a job as a lion tamer. But Wadhams declined with thanks. He had had enough of real life. Mr. Spiegel agreed to give him back his old job. He returned to the keeping of his own books and the reading of other men's. And now at least once a month when trial-balancing time comes, you may find him at the Owego Emporium late at night. Once more under the green eyeshade—under the heavy eyelids, under the thick eyeglasses, under the green eyeshade, under the green drop-light, the book-keeper's eyeballs shuttle to and fro as he adds and re-adds and re-re-adds cords of columns.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.