Drift from Two Shores

The Office Seeker

Bret Harte

HE asked me if I had ever seen the “Remus Sentinel.”

I replied that I had not, and would have added that I did not even know where Remus was, when he continued by saying it was strange the hotel proprietor did not keep the “Sentinel” on his files, and that he, himself, should write to the editor about it. He would not have spoken about it, but he, himself, had been an humble member of the profession to which I belonged, and had often written for its columns. Some friends of his—partial, no doubt—had said that his style somewhat resembled Junius’s; but of course, you know—well, what he could say was that in the last campaign his articles were widely sought for. He did not know but he had a copy of one. Here his hand dived into the breast-pocket of his coat, with a certain deftness that indicated long habit, and, after depositing on his lap a bundle of well-worn documents, every one of which was glaringly suggestive of certificates and signatures, he concluded he had left it in his trunk.

I breathed more freely. We were sitting in the rotunda of a famous Washington hotel, and only a few moments before had the speaker, an utter stranger to me, moved his chair beside mine and opened a conversation. I noticed that he had that timid, lonely, helpless air which invests the bucolic traveler who, for the first time, finds himself among strangers, and his identity lost, in a world so much larger, so much colder, so much more indifferent to him than he ever imagined. Indeed, I think that what we often attribute to the impertinent familiarity of country-men and rustic travelers on railways or in cities is largely due to their awful loneliness and nostalgia. I remember to have once met in a smoking-car on a Kansas railway one of these lonely ones, who, after plying me with a thousand useless questions, finally elicited the fact that I knew slightly a man who had once dwelt in his native town in Illinois. During the rest of our journey the conversation turned chiefly upon his fellow-townsman, whom it afterwards appeared that my Illinois friend knew no better than I did. But he had established a link between himself and his far-off home through me, and was happy.

While this was passing through my mind I took a fair look at him. He was a spare young fellow, not more than thirty, with sandy hair and eyebrows, and eyelashes so white as to be almost imperceptible. He was dressed in black, somewhat to the “rearward o’ the fashion,” and I had an odd idea that it had been his wedding suit, and it afterwards appeared I was right. His manner had the precision and much of the dogmatism of the country schoolmaster, accustomed to wrestle with the feeblest intellects. From his history, which he presently gave me, it appeared I was right here also.

He was born and bred in a Western State, and, as schoolmaster of Remus and Clerk of Supervisors, had married one of his scholars, the daughter of a clergyman, and a man of some little property. He had attracted some attention by his powers of declamation, and was one of the principal members of the Remus Debating Society. The various questions then agitating Remus,—“Is the doctrine of immortality consistent with an agricultural life?” and, “Are round dances morally wrong?”—afforded him an opportunity of bringing himself prominently before the country people. Perhaps I might have seen an extract copied from the “Remus Sentinel” in the “Christian Recorder” of May 7, 1875? No? He would get it for me. He had taken an active part in the last campaign. He did not like to say it, but it had been universally acknowledged that he had elected Gashwiler.


Gen. Pratt C. Gashwiler, member of Congress from our deestrict.


A powerful man, sir—a very powerful man; a man whose influence will presently be felt here, sir—here! Well, he had come on with Gashwiler, and—well, he did not know why—Gashwiler did not know why he should not, you know (a feeble, half-apologetic laugh here), receive that reward, you know, for these services which, etc., etc.

I asked him if he had any particular or definite office in view.

Well, no. He had left that to Gashwiler. Gashwiler had said—he remembered his very words: “Leave it all to me; I’ll look through the different departments, and see what can be done for a man of your talents.”


He’s looking. I’m expecting him back here every minute. He’s gone over to the Department of Tape, to see what can be done there. Ah! here he comes.

A large man approached us. He was very heavy, very unwieldy, very unctuous and oppressive. He affected the “honest farmer,” but so badly that the poorest husbandman would have resented it. There was a suggestion of a cheap lawyer about him that would have justified any self-respecting judge in throwing him over the bar at once. There was a military suspicion about him that would have entitled him to a court-martial on the spot. There was an introduction, from which I learned that my office-seeking friend’s name was Expectant Dobbs. And then Gashwiler addressed me:—

“Our young friend here is waiting, waiting. Waiting, I may say, on the affairs of State. Youth,” continued the Hon. Mr. Gashwiler, addressing an imaginary constituency, “is nothing but a season of waiting—of preparation—ha, ha!”

As he laid his hand in a fatherly manner—a fatherly manner that was as much of a sham as anything else about him—I don’t know whether I was more incensed at him or his victim, who received it with evident pride and satisfaction. Nevertheless he ventured to falter out:—

“Has anything been done yet?”

“Well, no; I can’t say that anything—that is, that anything has been completed; but I may say we are in excellent position for an advance—ha, ha! But we must wait, my young friend, wait. What is it the Latin philosopher says? ‘Let us by all means hasten slowly’—ha, ha!” and he turned to me as if saying confidentially, “Observe the impatience of these boys!” “I met, a moment ago, my old friend and boyhood’s companion, Jim McGlasher, chief of the Bureau for the Dissemination of Useless Information, and,” lowering his voice to a mysterious but audible whisper, “I shall see him again to-morrow.”

The “All aboard!” of the railway omnibus at this moment tore me from the presence of this gifted legislator and his protégé; but as we drove away I saw through the open window the powerful mind of Gashwiler operating, so to speak, upon the susceptibilities of Mr. Dobbs.

I did not meet him again for a week. The morning of my return I saw the two conversing together in the hall, but with the palpable distinction between this and their former interviews, that the gifted Gashwiler seemed to be anxious to get away from his friend. I heard him say something about “committees” and “to-morrow,” and when Dobbs turned his freckled face toward me I saw that he had got at last some expression into it—disappointment.

I asked him pleasantly how he was getting on.

He had not lost his pride yet. He was doing well, although such was the value set upon his friend Gashwiler’s abilities by his brother members that he was almost always occupied with committee business. I noticed that his clothes were not in as good case as before, and he told me that he had left the hotel, and taken lodgings in a by-street, where it was less expensive. Temporarily of course.

A few days after this I had business in one of the great departments. From the various signs over the doors of its various offices and bureaus it always oddly reminded me of Stewart’s or Arnold and Constable’s. You could get pensions, patents, and plants. You could get land and the seeds to put in it, and the Indians to prowl round it, and what not. There was a perpetual clanging of office desk bells, and a running hither and thither of messengers strongly suggestive of “Cash 47.”

As my business was with the manager of this Great National Fancy Shop, I managed to push by the sad-eyed, eager-faced crowd of men and women in the anteroom, and entered the secretary’s room, conscious of having left behind me a great deal of envy and uncharitableness of spirit. As I opened the door I heard a monotonous flow of Western speech which I thought I recognized. There was no mistaking it. It was the voice of the Gashwiler.

“The appointment of this man, Mr. Secretary, would be most acceptable to the people in my deestrict. His family are wealthy and influential, and it’s just as well in the fall elections to have the supervisors and county judge pledged to support the administration. Our delegates to the State Central Committee are to a man”—but here, perceiving from the wandering eye of Mr. Secretary that there was another man in the room, he whispered the rest with a familiarity that must have required all the politician in the official’s breast to keep from resenting.

“You have some papers, I suppose?” asked the secretary, wearily.

Gashwiler was provided with a pocketful, and produced them. The secretary threw them on the table among the other papers, where they seemed instantly to lose their identity, and looked as if they were ready to recommend anybody but the person they belonged to. Indeed, in one corner the entire Massachusetts delegation, with the Supreme Bench at their head, appeared to be earnestly advocating the manuring of Iowa waste lands; and to the inexperienced eye, a noted female reformer had apparently appended her signature to a request for a pension for wounds received in battle.

“By the way,” said the secretary, “I think I have a letter here from somebody in your district asking an appointment, and referring to you? Do you withdraw it?”

“If anybody has been presuming to speculate upon my patronage,” said the Hon. Mr. Gashwiler, with rising rage.

“I’ve got the letter somewhere here,” said the secretary, looking dazedly at his table. He made a feeble movement among the papers, and then sank back hopelessly in his chair, and gazed out of the window as if he thought and rather hoped it might have flown away. “It was from a Mr. Globbs, or Gobbs, or Dobbs, of Remus,” he said finally, after a superhuman effort of memory.

“Oh, that’s nothing—a foolish fellow who has been boring me for the last month.”

“Then I am to understand that this application is withdrawn?”

“As far as my patronage is concerned, certainly. In fact, such an appointment would not express the sentiments—indeed, I may say, would be calculated to raise active opposition in the deestrict.”

The secretary uttered a sigh of relief, and the gifted Gashwiler passed out. I tried to get a good look at the honorable scamp’s eye, but he evidently did not recognize me.

It was a question in my mind whether I ought not to expose the treachery of Dobbs’s friend, but the next time I met Dobbs he was in such good spirits that I forebore. It appeared that his wife had written to him that she had discovered a second cousin in the person of the Assistant Superintendent of the Envelope Flap Moistening Bureau of the Department of Tape, and had asked his assistance; and Dobbs had seen him, and he had promised it. “You see,” said Dobbs, “in the performance of his duties he is often very near the person of the secretary, frequently in the next room, and he is a powerful man, sir—a powerful man to know, sir—a very powerful man.”

How long this continued I do not remember. Long enough, however, for Dobbs to become quite seedy, for the giving up of wrist cuffs, for the neglect of shoes and beard, and for great hollows to form round his eyes, and a slight flush on his cheek-bones. I remember meeting him in all the departments, writing letters or waiting patiently in anterooms from morning till night. He had lost all his old dogmatism, but not his pride. “I might as well be here as anywhere, while I’m waiting,” he said, “and then I’m getting some knowledge of the details of official life.”

In the face of this mystery I was surprised at finding a note from him one day, inviting me to dine with him at a certain famous restaurant. I had scarce got over my amazement, when the writer himself overtook me at my hotel. For a moment I scarcely recognized him. A new suit of fashionably-cut clothes had changed him, without, however, entirely concealing his rustic angularity of figure and outline. He even affected a fashionable dilettante air, but so mildly and so innocently that it was not offensive.

“You see,” he began, explanatory-wise, “I’ve just found out the way to do it. None of these big fellows, these cabinet officers, know me except as an applicant. Now, the way to do this thing is to meet ’em fust sociably; wine ’em and dine ’em. Why, sir,”—he dropped into the schoolmaster again here,—“I had two cabinet ministers, two judges, and a general at my table last night.”

“On your invitation?”

“Dear, no! all I did was to pay for it. Tom Soufflet gave the dinner and invited the people. Everybody knows Tom. You see, a friend of mine put me up to it, and said that Soufflet had fixed up no end of appointments and jobs in that way. You see, when these gentlemen get sociable over their wine, he says carelessly, ‘By the way, there’s So-and-so—a good fellow—wants something; give it to him.’ And the first thing you know, or they know, he gets a promise from them. They get a dinner—and a good one—and he gets an appointment.”

“But where did you get the money?”

“Oh,”—he hesitated,—“I wrote home, and Fanny’s father raised fifteen hundred dollars some way, and sent it to me. I put it down to political expenses.” He laughed a weak, foolish laugh here, and added, “As the old man don’t drink nor smoke, he’d lift his eyebrows to know how the money goes. But I’ll make it all right when the office comes—and she’s coming, sure pop.”

His slang fitted as poorly on him as his clothes, and his familiarity was worse than his former awkward shyness. But I could not help asking him what had been the result of this expenditure.

“Nothing just yet. But the Secretary of Tape and the man at the head of the Inferior Department, both spoke to me, and one of them said he thought he’d heard my name before. He might,” he added, with a forced laugh, “for I’ve written him fifteen letters.”

Three months passed. A heavy snow-storm stayed my chariot wheels on a Western railroad, ten miles from a nervous lecture committee and a waiting audience; there was nothing to do but to make the attempt to reach them in a sleigh. But the way was long and the drifts deep, and when at last four miles out we reached a little village, the driver declared his cattle could hold out no longer, and we must stop there. Bribes and threats were equally of no avail. I had to accept the fact.

“What place is this?”


“Remus, Remus,” where had I heard that name before? But while I was reflecting he drove up before the door of the tavern. It was a dismal, sleep-forbidding place, and only nine o’clock, and here was the long winter’s night before me. Failing to get the landlord to give me a team to go further, I resigned myself to my fate and a cigar, behind the red-hot stove. In a few moments one of the loungers approached me, calling me by name, and in a rough but hearty fashion condoled with me for my mishap, advised me to stay at Remus all night, and added: “The quarters ain’t the best in the world yer at this hotel. But thar’s an old man yer—the preacher that was—that for twenty years hez taken in such fellers as you and lodged ’em free gratis for nothing, and hez been proud to do it. The old man used to be rich; he ain’t so now; sold his big house on the cross roads, and lives in a little cottage with his darter right over yan. But ye couldn’t do him a better turn than to go over thar and stay, and if he thought I’d let ye go out o’ Remus without axing ye, he’d give me h-ll. Stop, I’ll go with ye.”

I might at least call on the old man, and I accompanied my guide through the still falling snow until we reached a little cottage. The door opened to my guide’s knock, and with the brief and discomposing introduction, “Yer, ole man, I’ve brought you one o’ them snow-bound lecturers,” he left me on the threshold, as my host, a kindly-faced, white-haired man of seventy, came forward to greet me.

His frankness and simple courtesy overcame the embarrassment left by my guide’s introduction, and I followed him passively as he entered the neat, but plainly-furnished sitting-room. At the same moment a pretty, but faded young woman arose from the sofa and was introduced to me as his daughter. “Fanny and I live here quite alone, and if you knew how good it was to see somebody from the great outside world now and then, you would not apologize for what you call your intrusion.”

During this speech I was vaguely trying to recall where and when and under what circumstances I had ever before seen the village, the house, the old man or his daughter. Was it in a dream, or in one of those dim reveries of some previous existence to which the spirit of mankind is subject? I looked at them again. In the careworn lines around the once pretty girlish mouth of the young woman, in the furrowed seams over the forehead of the old man, in the ticking of the old-fashioned clock on the shelf, in the faint whisper of the falling snow outside, I read the legend, “Patience, patience; Wait and Hope.”

The old man filled a pipe, and offering me one, continued, “Although I seldom drink myself, it was my custom to always keep some nourishing liquor in my house for passing guests, but to-night I find myself without any.” I hastened to offer him my flask, which, after a moment’s coyness, he accepted, and presently under its benign influence at least ten years dropped from his shoulders, and he sat up in his chair erect and loquacious.

“And how are affairs at the National Capital, sir?” he began.

Now, if there was any subject of which I was profoundly ignorant, it was this. But the old man was evidently bent on having a good political talk. So I said vaguely, yet with a certain sense of security, that I guessed there wasn’t much being done.

“I see,” said the old man, “in the matters of resumption; of the sovereign rights of States and federal interference, you would imply that a certain conservative tentative policy is to be promulgated until after the electoral committee have given their verdict.” I looked for help towards the lady, and observed feebly that he had very clearly expressed my views.

The old man, observing my look, said: “Although my daughter’s husband holds a federal position in Washington, the pressure of his business is so great that he has little time to give us mere gossip—I beg your pardon, did you speak?”

I had unconsciously uttered an exclamation. This, then, was Remus—the home of Expectant Dobbs—and these his wife and father; and the Washington banquet-table, ah me! had sparkled with the yearning heart’s blood of this poor wife, and had been upheld by this tottering Caryatid of a father.

“Do you know what position he has?”

The old man did not know positively, but thought it was some general supervising position. He had been assured by Mr. Gashwiler that it was a first-class clerkship; yes, a first class.

I did not tell him that in this, as in many other official regulations in Washington, they reckoned backward, but said:—

“I suppose that your M. C., Mr.—Mr. Gashwiler—”

“Don’t mention his name,” said the little woman, rising to her feet hastily; “he never brought Expectant anything but disappointment and sorrow. I hate, I despise the man.”

“Dear Fanny,” expostulated the old man, gently, “this is unchristian and unjust. Mr. Gashwiler is a powerful, a very powerful man! His work is a great one; his time is preoccupied with weightier matters.”

“His time was not so preoccupied but he could make use of poor Expectant,” said this wounded dove, a little spitefully.

Nevertheless it was some satisfaction to know that Dobbs had at last got a place, no matter how unimportant, or who had given it to him; and when I went to bed that night in the room that had been evidently prepared for their conjugal chamber, I felt that Dobbs’s worst trials were over. The walls were hung with souvenirs of their ante-nuptial days. There was a portrait of Dobbs, ætat. 25; there was a faded bouquet in a glass case, presented by Dobbs to Fanny on examination-day; there was a framed resolution of thanks to Dobbs from the Remus Debating Society; there was a certificate of Dobbs’s election as President of the Remus Philomathean Society; there was his commission as Captain in the Remus Independent Contingent of Home Guards; there was a Freemason’s chart, in which Dobbs was addressed in epithets more fulsome and extravagant than any living monarch. And yet all these cheap glories of a narrow life and narrower brain were upheld and made sacred by the love of the devoted priestess who worshiped at this lonely shrine, and kept the light burning through gloom and doubt and despair. The storm tore round the house, and shook its white fists in the windows. A dried wreath of laurel that Fanny had placed on Dobbs’s head after his celebrated centennial address at the school-house, July 4, 1876, swayed in the gusts, and sent a few of its dead leaves down on the floor, and I lay in Dobbs’s bed and wondered what a first-class clerkship was.

I found out early the next summer. I was strolling through the long corridors of a certain great department, when I came upon a man accurately yoked across the shoulders, and supporting two huge pails of ice on either side, from which he was replenishing the pitchers in the various offices. As I passed I turned to look at him again. It was Dobbs!

He did not set down his burden; it was against the rules, he said. But he gossiped cheerily, said he was beginning at the foot of the ladder, but expected soon to climb up. That it was Civil Service Reform, and of course he would be promoted soon.

“Had Gashwiler procured the appointment?”

No. He believed it was me. I had told his story to Assistant-secretary Blank, who had, in turn related it to Bureau-director Dash—both good fellows—but this was all they could do. Yes, it was a foothold. But he must go now.

Nevertheless, I followed him up and down, and, cheered up with a rose-colored picture of his wife and family, and my visit there, and promising to come and see him the next time I came to Washington, I left him with his self-imposed yoke.

With a new administration, Civil Service Reform came in, crude and ill-digested, as all sudden and sweeping reforms must be; cruel to the individual, as all crude reforms will ever be; and among the list of helpless men and women, incapacitated for other work by long service in the dull routine of federal office, who were decapitated, the weak, foolish, emaciated head of Expectant Dobbs went to the block. It afterward appeared that the gifted Gashwiler was responsible for the appointment of twenty clerks, and that the letter of poor Dobbs, in which he dared to refer to the now powerless Gashwiler, had sealed his fate. The country made an example of Gashwiler and—Dobbs.

From that moment he disappeared. I looked for him in vain in anterooms, lobbies, and hotel corridors, and finally came to the conclusion that he had gone home.

How beautiful was that July Sabbath, when the morning train from Baltimore rolled into the Washington depot. How tenderly and chastely the morning sunlight lay on the east front of the Capitol until the whole building was hushed in a grand and awful repose. How difficult it was to think of a Gashwiler creeping in and out of those enfiling columns, or crawling beneath that portico, without wondering that yon majestic figure came not down with flat of sword to smite the fat rotundity of the intruder. How difficult to think that parricidal hands have ever been lifted against the Great Mother, typified here in the graceful white chastity of her garments, in the noble tranquillity of her face, in the gathering up her white-robed children within her shadow.

This led me to think of Dobbs, when, suddenly a face flashed by my carriage window. I called to the driver to stop, and, looking again, saw that it was a woman standing bewildered and irresolute on the street corner. As she turned her anxious face toward me I saw that it was Mrs. Dobbs.

What was she doing here, and where was Expectant?

She began an incoherent apology, and then burst into explanatory tears. When I had got her in the carriage she said, between her sobs, that Expectant had not returned; that she had received a letter from a friend here saying he was sick,—oh very, very sick,—and father could not come with her, so she came alone. She was so frightened, so lonely, so miserable.

Had she his address?

Yes, just here! It was on the outskirts of Washington, near Georgetown. Then I would take her there, if I could, for she knew nobody.

On our way I tried to cheer her up by pointing out some of the children of the Great Mother before alluded to, but she only shut her eyes as we rolled down the long avenues, and murmured, “Oh, these cruel, cruel distances!”

At last we reached the locality, a negro quarter, yet clean and neat in appearance. I saw the poor girl shudder slightly as we stopped at the door of a low, two-story frame house, from which the unwonted spectacle of a carriage brought a crowd of half-naked children and a comely, cleanly, kind-faced mulatto woman.

Yes, this was the house. He was upstairs, rather poorly, but asleep, she thought.

We went upstairs. In the first chamber, clean, though poorly furnished, lay Dobbs. On a pine table near his bed were letters and memorials to the various departments, and on the bed-quilt, unfinished, but just as the weary fingers had relaxed their grasp upon it, lay a letter to the Tape Department.

As we entered the room he lifted himself on his elbow. “Fanny!” he said, quickly, and a shade of disappointment crossed his face. “I thought it was a message from the secretary,” he added, apologetically.

The poor woman had suffered too much already to shrink from this last crushing blow. But she walked quietly to his side without a word or cry, knelt, placed her loving arms around him, and I left them so together.

When I called again in the evening he was better; so much better that, against the doctor’s orders, he had talked to her quite cheerfully and hopefully for an hour, until suddenly raising her bowed head in his two hands, he said, “Do you know, dear, that in looking for help and influence there was one, dear, I had forgotten; one who is very potent with kings and councilors, and I think, love, I shall ask Him to interest Himself in my behalf. It is not too late yet, darling, and I shall seek Him to-morrow.”

And before the morrow came he had sought and found Him, and I doubt not got a good place.

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