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26 June, 2013
From Boyhood to Manhood
XXV. Working, Reading, and Courting.
by Thayer, William M.


Benjamin continued to work for Keimer, who did not suspect that his employee was planning to set up business for himself. Keimer was a very singular, erratic man, believing little in the Christian religion, and yet given to a kind of fanaticism on certain lines.

"Thou shalt not mar the corners of thy beard," he quoted from the Mosaic law, as a reason for wearing a long beard, when Benjamin inquired of him:

"Then you think that passage means 'Thou shalt not shave,' if I understand you?" asked Benjamin.

"Yes, that is about it; and I feel religiously bound to observe it."

"Well, I prefer a religion that is seated in the heart instead of the beard." And there was a twinkle in Benjamin's eye when he said it.

He enjoyed arguing with Keimer, and frequently had a contest with him in argument. Keimer had come to respect his abilities. Indeed, he considered Benjamin the most remarkable young man he ever met.

"It is the religion of the heart that settles the length of the beard, my youthful Socrates." By this reference to Socrates, Keimer meant to slap Benjamin's Socratic method of argument, about which he talked much. "Can't you see it?"

"And it ought to settle the appetite, also; and the quantity and kind of food that goes into the stomach," rejoined Benjamin, quickly.

Keimer was a large eater--never more satisfied than when devouring a good dinner that was exactly to his taste. On the other hand, while Benjamin had abandoned his "vegetable diet," he cared very little about a good dinner, and seemed to eat one thing with about as good relish as another. He often discussed the subject with Keimer, and always maintained that most people ate too much meat. His last remark hit, and Keimer knew where.

"I shall not dispute you on that point," Keimer answered; "if we had religion enough in our hearts, I suppose it would regulate all our acts."

"It ought to; but there is not much prospect of its regulating you and me at present. Neither of us has much to boast of in that respect."

"Perhaps not. I don't propose to carry my religion so far as many people do, and be fanatical," replied Keimer.

"Not much danger of it, I think," retorted Benjamin. "You and I will never be charged with that."

Benjamin was as much of a skeptic as Keimer, only his skepticism took a different turn. Keimer believed two things thoroughly: first, to wear the beard long, and, second, to keep the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath. Benjamin, on the other hand, regarded these and kindred dogmas as of little consequence, compared with morality and industry. He believed in work, self-improvement, and uprightness; and that was more than Keimer believed or practised. So their disputes were frequent and animated. Of the two, Benjamin's skepticism was the less dangerous.

"I am seriously thinking of establishing a new sect," continued Keimer; "if you will join me, I will. I can preach my doctrines, and you can confound all opponents by your Socratic method."

"I shall want some latitude if I join you. It is narrowing down a little too much when a creed contains but two articles, like yours, and both of those grave errors."

"In starting a sect I should not insist upon those two articles alone; minor doctrines will naturally gather about them. But I am really in earnest about a new sect, Ben; and I am only waiting to win you over."

"Well, perhaps I will join you after you adopt my creed, to use no animal food. Your head will be clearer for running your sect, and such respect for your stomach will show more religion than a long beard does."

"My constitution would not withstand that sort of a diet; it would undermine my health."

"Temperance in eating and drinking never undermined any body's constitution," retorted Benjamin. "You will live twenty years longer to practise it, and possess a much larger per cent, of self-respect."

"Perhaps I will try it, if you will; and also, if you will adopt my creed, and go for a new sect."

"I am ready to join you any time in discarding animal food; and, if you succeed well, then I will talk with you about the rest of it."

"Agreed," responded Keimer, thinking that Benjamin was really inclined to embrace his scheme, whereas he was only laying his plans for sport. He knew that a man, who liked a good meal as well as Keimer did, would have a hard time on the diet he proposed. Referring to it in his "Autobiography" he said:
"He was usually a great eater, and I wished to give myself some diversion in half-starving him. He consented to try the practice, if I would keep him company. I did so, and we held it for three months. Our provisions were purchased, cooked, and brought to us regularly by a woman in the neighborhood, who had from me a list of forty dishes, which she prepared for us at different times, in which there entered neither fish, flesh, nor fowl. This whim suited me the better at this time from the cheapness of it,--not costing us above eighteen pence sterling each per week. I have since kept several lents most strictly, leaving the common diet for that, and that for the common, abruptly, without the least inconvenience. So that, I think, there is little in the advice of making those changes by easy gradations. I went on pleasantly, but poor Keimer suffered grievously, grew tired of the project, longed for the flesh pots of Egypt, and ordered a roast pig. He invited me and two women friends to dine with him; but, it being brought too soon upon the table, he could not resist the temptation, and ate the whole before we came."
The trial resulted about as Benjamin anticipated, and he got out of it as much fun as he expected. Keimer proved himself a greater pig than the one he swallowed. At the same time, the result left Keimer without a claim on Benjamin to advocate the new sect. So the scheme was dropped.

Keimer was no match for Benjamin in disputation. With the use of the Socratic way of reasoning, Benjamin discomfited him every time; so that he grew shy and suspicious. In his ripe years, Benjamin wrote of those days, and said:

"Keimer and I lived on a pretty good familiar footing, and agreed tolerably well; for he suspected nothing of my setting up. He retained a great deal of his old enthusiasm, and loved argumentation. We therefore had many disputations. I used to work him so with my Socratic method, and had trepanned him so often by questions apparently so distant from any point we had in hand, yet by degrees leading to the point and bringing him into difficulties and contradictions, that at last he grew ridiculously cautious, and would hardly answer me the most common question, without asking first, 'What do you intend to infer from that?' However, it gave him so high an opinion of my abilities in the confuting way, that he seriously proposed my being his colleague in a project he had of setting up a new sect. He was to preach the doctrines, and I was to confound all opponents."

Benjamin found pleasant literary associates in Philadelphia. A gifted young man usually attracts to himself bright young men near his age. Such was the case with Benjamin. Three young men especially became his boon companions, all of them great readers. Their literary tendencies attracted Benjamin, though their characters were not deficient in high aims and integrity. Their names were Charles Osborne, Joseph Matson, and James Ralph. The first two were clerks of Charles Brockden, an eminent conveyancer of the town, and the other was a merchant's clerk. Matson was a pious young man of sterling integrity, while the others were more lax in their religious opinions and principles. All were sensible young men, much above the average of this class in intellectual endowments. Osborne and Ralph were imaginative and poetical, and frequently tried their talents at verse-making.

They formed a literary club, and spent their leisure time together, reading to each other, discussing questions, and, in other ways, seeking self-improvement. Sundays they devoted chiefly to intellectual pastime, strolling along the banks of the Schuylkill, except Matson, who was too much of a Christian to desecrate the Sabbath. He always went to the house of God on Sundays; nor was he esteemed any less highly by his skeptical associates for so doing.

"You estimate your talent for poetry too highly," said Osborne to Ralph, at one of their literary interviews. "Poets are born, not made; and I hardly think you was born one."

"Much obliged for your compliment," replied Ralph, not at all disconcerted by Osborne's rather personal remark; "but I may become poet enough for my own use. All poets are not first-best when they begin. It is practice that makes perfect, you know."

"Practice can't make a poet out of a man who is not born one; and you are not such," continued Osborne. "That piece that you just read is not particularly poetical. It is good rhyme, but it lacks the real spirit of poesy."

"I agree with you; I do not call it good poetry; but every poet must begin; and his first piece can not be his best. Poets improve as well as clerks."

"Real poets!" responded Osborne, with a peculiar smile at the corners of his mouth. And he continued:

"You seem to think that a fortune awaits a poet, too; but you are laboring under a great mistake. There is no money in poetry in our day, and there never was."

"Perhaps not; nevertheless I am confident that a poet may readily win popularity and a livelihood. At any rate, I am determined to try it, in spite of your decidedly poor opinion of my abilities."

"Well, my advice is that you stick to the business for which you were bred, if you would keep out of the poor-house." Osborne said it more to hector Ralph than any thing. "A good clerk is better than a poor poet; you will agree to that."

Benjamin listened with a good deal of interest to the foregoing discussion, and he saw that, from jealousy or some other cause, Osborne was not according to Ralph the credit to which he was entitled; and so he interrupted, by saying:

"You set yourself up for a critic, Osborne; but I think more of Ralph as a poet than I do of you as a critic. You are unwilling to grant that his productions have any merit at all; but I think have. Moreover, it is a good practice for him, and for all of us, to write poetry, even if it does not come quite up to Milton. It will improve us in the use of language."

"Fiddlesticks! It is simply wasting time that might be spent in profitable reading; and good reading will improve the mind more than rhyming." Osborne spoke with much earnestness.

"Not half so much as your empty criticisms are wasting your breath," replied Benjamin, with a smile. "But, look here, I have just thought of a good exercise that we better adopt. At our next meeting each one of us shall bring in a piece of poetry of our own composition, and we'll compare notes and criticise each other."

"I should like that," responded Ralph; "it is a capital proposition. Perhaps Osborne may think it will be a waste of time and breath."

"Not at all," answered Osborne; "I agree to the plan, provided the subject shall be selected now, so that all shall have fair play."

"We will do that, of course," said Benjamin. "Have you a subject to suggest?"

"None whatever, unless it is a paraphrase of the Eighteenth Psalm, which describes the descent of the Deity."

"That is a grand subject," responded Benjamin. "What do you say to taking that, Ralph?"

"I think it is an excellent subject, and I am in favor of adopting it."

Thus it was understood that each one should write a poetical paraphrase of the Eighteenth Psalm for their next meeting, and, with this understanding, they separated.

Just before the time of their next meeting Ralph called upon Benjamin with his paraphrase, and asked him to examine it.

"I have been so busy," remarked Benjamin, "that I have not been able to write any thing, and I shall be obliged to say 'unprepared' when my turn comes to read. But I should like to read yours."

Benjamin read Ralph's article over, and then reread it.

"It is excellent; better than any poetry you have ever written," remarked Benjamin, when he had finished reading. "Osborne will have to praise that."

"But he won't; you see if he does. Osborne never allows the least merit in any thing I write. His envy, or jealousy, or something else, hatches severe criticism, whether there is reason for it or not. He will do that with this article; see if he don't."

"If he does, it will be proof that he is prejudiced against you, or is no judge of poetry," replied Benjamin.

"Suppose we try a little game," continued Ralph. "I think we can put his judgment to a test. He is not so jealous of you as he is of me. Now you take this article, and produce it as your own, and I will make some excuse for not being prepared. We shall then get at his real opinion of the composition."

"A very ingenious test, Ralph," exclaimed Benjamin. "I will enter into the plan with all my heart. But I must transcribe the article, so that he will see that it is in my own handwriting."

"Certainly; and be careful that you do not let the secret out."

So they waited, almost impatiently, for the time of meeting, both feeling almost sure that Osborne would fall into their net. The appointed time came. Matson was the first to read his production. Osborne came next; and his piece was much better than Matson's. Ralph noticed two or three blemishes, but pointed out many beauties in it.

Next it was Ralph's turn to read. "I am sorry to confess that I have nothing to read; but I promise to atone for this failure by doing my part faithfully in future."

"Poets ought to be ready at any time," remarked Osborne humorously, looking at Ralph.

"It is in order for them to fail sometimes, I think," replied Ralph; "especially if they are not born poets."

"Well, Ben, we must have yours, then. You will not disappoint us."

"I think you must excuse me this time," Benjamin answered, feigning an unwillingness to read.

"No, Ben, no excuse for you," said Osborne. "You have it written; I saw it in your hand."

"That is true; but after listening to such fine productions as we have heard, I am not ambitious to read mine. I think I must correct it, and dress it up a little before I submit it for criticism."

"That was not in the arrangement, Ben, when you suggested the exercise," remarked Ralph.

"You are prepared, and, of course, we shall not excuse you."

After much bantering and urging, Benjamin proceeded to read his, apparently with much diffidence; and all listened with profound attention.

"You must read that again," said Osborne, when he finished reading it. "Two readings of such a poem as that are none too much. Come, read it again."

Benjamin read the article again, apparently with more confidence than at first.

"You surprise me, Ben," exclaimed Osborne, when the second reading was finished. "You are a genuine poet. I had no idea that you could write like that."

"Nor I," added Matson. "It is better than half the poetry that is printed. If the subject had not been given out, I don't know but I should have charged you with stealing it."

"What do you say, Ralph?" inquired Osborne. "You are a poet, and poets ought to be good judges of such matters." Another fling at Ralph's claim to poetical ability.

"I don't think it is entirely faultless," remarked Ralph, after some hesitation. "I think you have commended it full as highly as it deserves. Not being a born poet, however, I may not be a good judge," glancing his eye at Osborne.

"Well done, Ralph!" exclaimed Osborne. "Your opinion of that production is proof positive that you are destitute of real poetical taste, as I have told you before."

Osborne was fairly caught. Ralph and Benjamin exchanged glances, as if to inquire if their time of avowed triumph had not come; but both appeared to conclude to keep the secret a little longer. They controlled their risibles successfully, and allowed Osborne to go on and express himself still more strongly in favor of the composition.

Ralph walked home with Osborne, in order to play the game a little more, and their conversation was very naturally about Benjamin's poetry.

"I had no idea," remarked Osborne, "that Ben could write poetry like that. I was ashamed of my own when I heard his. I knew him to be a talented fellow; but I had no idea that he was a poet. His production was certainly very fine. In common conversation he seems to have no choice of words; he hesitates and blunders; and yet, how he writes!"

"Possibly he might not have written it," suggested Ralph; a very natural suggestion in the circumstances, though Osborne thought it was an outrageous reflection.

"That is the unkindest cut of all," retorted Osborne; "to charge him with plagiarism. Ben would never descend to so mean a thing as that."

They separated for that night; but Ralph embraced the first opportunity to call on Benjamin, to exult over the success of their little scheme. They laughed to their hearts' content, and discussed the point of revealing the secret. They concluded finally, that the real author of the article should be known at their next meeting.

Accordingly, the affair was managed so as to bring the facts of the case before their companions at their next gathering. Osborne was utterly confounded when the revelation was made, and knew not what to say for himself. Matson shook his whole frame with convulsive laughter at poor Osborne's expense, and Benjamin joined him with a keen relish. Never was a fellow in a more mortifying predicament than this would-be critic, since it was now perfectly manifest that he was influenced by blind prejudice in his criticisms of Ralph's poetry. For now, disarmed of prejudice, he had given it his most emphatic endorsement.

A few years later, Matson died in Benjamin's arms, much lamented by all of his companions, who regarded him as "the best of their set." Osborne removed to the West Indies, where he became an eminent lawyer, but died just past middle life. Of the others we shall have occasion to speak hereafter.

Benjamin always spoke well of that literary club. It was an excellent way of using leisure time. It contributed much to his self-advancement, as it did to that of his companions. Such an arrangement converts spare moments into great blessings.

The time was drawing near for Benjamin to leave for England; and there was one thing above all others, that he wished to do, viz.: to be betrothed to Deborah Read. They had fallen in love with each other, but were not engaged. He had not opened the subject to her parents; but he must, if he would win her hand before going to England. So he ventured.

"Both of you are too young," replied Deborah's mother. "You are only eighteen! You can not tell what changes may occur before you are old enough to be married."

"But that need not interfere with an engagement," suggested Benjamin. "We only pledge each to the other against the time we are ready to be married. Sometimes parties are engaged for years before they are married."

"It is not a good plan, however. And why, Benjamin, do you deem an engagement necessary in the circumstances?"

"Simply because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," answered Benjamin, laughing. Mrs. Read laughed, too.

"I have not quite satisfied myself that it is best to give up my daughter to a printer," she added.

"How so?" inquired Benjamin with some anxiety.

"Because there are already several printing houses in the country, and I doubt whether another can be supported."

"If I can not support her by the printing business, then I will do it by some other," responded Benjamin, emphatically.

"I do not call in question your good intentions, by any means; but you may not realize the fulfillment of your hopes. I think you had better leave the matter as it is until you return from England, and see how you are prospered."

"Of course, I shall yield to your judgment in the matter," said Benjamin, very politely, "though I shall be somewhat disappointed."

"You and Deborah can have such understanding with each other as you wish; but I object to a formal engagement. Leave that until you return." Mrs. Read was decided in her opinions. Her husband died five or six weeks before this interview.

So Benjamin had to leave his bird in the bush, instead of having it in hand. And the bird promised to stay there, and sing for him on his return.

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