A Self-Made Man

Stephen Crane

TOM had a hole in his shoe. It was very round and very uncomfortable,

particularly when he went on wet pavements. Rainy days made him feel that he

was walking on frozen dollars, although he had only to think for a moment to

discover he was not.

He used up almost two packs of playing cards by means of putting four

cards at a time inside his shoe as a sort of temporary sole, which usually

lasted about half a day. Once he put in four aces for luck. He went down

town that morning and got refused work. He thought it wasn't a very

extraordinary performance for a young man of ability, and he was not sorry

that night to find his packs were entirely out of aces.

One day, Tom was strolling down Broadway. He was in pursuit of work,

although his pace was slow. He had found that he must take the matter

coolly. So he puffed tenderly at a cigarette and walked as if he owned

stock. He imitated success so successfully that if it wasn't for the

constant reminder (king, queen, deuce, and tray) in his shoe, he would have

gone into a store and bought something.

He had borrowed five cents that morning of his landlady, for his mouth

craved tobacco. Although he owed her much for board, she had unlimited

confidence in him, because his stock of self-assurance was very large

indeed. And as it increased in a proper ratio with the amount of his bills,

his relations with her seemed on a firm basis. So he strolled along and

smoked, with his confidence in fortune in nowise impaired by his financial


Of a sudden he perceived an old man seated upon a railing, and smoking a

clay pipe.

He stopped to look because he wasn't in a hurry, and because it was an

unusual thing on Broadway to see old men seated upon railings and smoking

clay pipes.

And to his surprise the old man regarded him very intently in return. He

stared, with a wistful expression, into Tom's face, and he clasped his hands

in trembling excitement.

Tom was filled with astonishment at the old man's strange demeanour. He

stood, puffing at his cigarette, and tried to understand matters. Failing,

he threw his cigarette away, took a fresh one from his pocket, and

approached the old man.

'Got a match?' he inquired pleasantly.

The old man, much agitated, nearly fell from the railing as he leaned

dangerously forward.

'Sonny, can you read?' he demanded, in a quavering voice.

'Certainly I can,' said Tom encouragingly. He waived the affair of the


The old man fumbled in his pocket. 'You look honest, sonny. I've been

lookin' fer an honest feller fur a'most a week. I've set on this railing fur

six days,' he cried plaintively.

He drew forth a letter and handed it to Tom. 'Read it fur me, sonny, read

it,' he said coaxingly.

Tom took the letter and leaned back against the railings. As he opened it

and prepared to read, the old man wriggled like a child at a forbidden


Thundering trucks made frequent interruptions and seven men in a hurry

jogged Tom's elbow, but he succeeded in reading what follows:

'Office of Ketchum R. Jones, Attorney-at-Law,

'Tin Can, Nevada, May 19, 18 -- .



I have as yet received no acknowledgment of the draft from the sale of

the north section lots, which I forwarded to you on June 25. I would request

an immediate reply concerning it.

'Since my last I have sold the three corner lots at five thousand each.

The city grew so rapidly in that direction that they were surrounded by

brick stores almost before you would know it. I have also sold for four

thousand dollars the ten acres of outlying sage-bush which you once

foolishly tried to give away. Mr. Simpson, of Boston, bought the tract. He

is very shrewd, no doubt, but he hasn't been in the West long. Still, I

think if he holds it for about a thousand years he may come out all right.

'I worked him with the projected-horse-car-line gag. Inform me of the

address of your New York attorneys and I will send on the papers. Pray do

not neglect to write me concerning the draft sent on June 25.

'In conclusion I might say that if you have any eastern friends

who are after good western investments, inform them of the glorious future

of Tin Can. We now have three railroads, a bank, an electric-light plant, a

projected-horse-car line, and an art society. Also, a saw manufactory, a

patent car-wheel mill, and a Methodist church. Tin Can is marching forward

to take her proud stand as the metropolis of the West. The rose-hued future

holds no glories to which Tin Can does not -- ' Tom stopped abruptly. 'I

guess the important part of the letter came first,' he said.

'Yes,' cried the old man, 'I've heard enough. It is just as I thought.

George has robbed his dad.'

The old man's frail body quivered with grief. Two tears trickled slowly

down the furrows of his face.

'Come, come, now,' said Tom, patting him tenderly on the back. 'Brace up,

old feller. What you want to do is to get a lawyer and go put the screws on


'Is it really?' asked the old man eagerly.

'Certainly it is,' said Tom.

'All right,' cried the old man, with enthusiasm; 'tell me where to get

one.' He slid down from the railing and prepared to start off.

Tom reflected. 'Well,' he said finally, 'I might do for one myself.'

'What!' shouted the old man in a voice of admiration, 'are you a lawyer

as well as a reader?'

'Well,' said Tom again, 'I might appear to advantage as one. All you need

is a big front,' he added slowly. He was a profane young man.

The old man seized him by the arm. 'Come on, then,' he cried, 'and we'll

go put the screws on George.'

Tom permitted himself to be dragged by the weak arms of his companion

around a corner and along a side-street. As they proceeded, he was

internally bracing himself for a struggle, and putting large bales of

self-assurance around where they would be likely to obstruct the advance of

discovery and defeat.

By the time they reached a brown stone house, hidden away in a street of

shops and warehouses, his mental balance was so admirable that he seemed to

be in possession of enough information and brains to ruin half the city, and

he was no more concerned about the king, queen, deuce and tray than if they

had been discards that didn't fit his draw. Too, he infused so much

confidence and courage into his companion, that the old man went along the

street breathing war, like a decrepit hound on the scent of new blood.

He ambled up the steps of the brown stone house as if he were charging

earthworks. He unlocked the door, and they passed along a dark hall-way. In

a rear room they found a man seated at table engaged with a very late

breakfast. He had a diamond in his shirt front, and a big of egg on his


'George,' said the old man in a fierce voice that came from his aged

throat with a sound like the crackle of burning twigs, 'here's my lawyer,

Mr. -- er -- ah -- Smith, and we want to know what you did with the draft

that was sent on June 25th.'

The old man delivered the words as if each one was a musket shot.

George's coffee spilled softly upon the table-cover, and his fingers worked

convulsively upon a slice of bread. He turned a white, astonished face

toward the old man and the intrepid Thomas.

The latter, straight and tall, with a highly legal air, stood at the old

man's side. His glowing eyes were fixed upon the face of the man at the

table. They seemed like two little detective cameras taking pictures of the

other man's thoughts.

'Father, what d-do you mean?' faltered George, totally unable to

withstand the two cameras and the highly legal air.

'What do I mean?' said the old man with a feeble roar, as from an ancient

lion; 'I mean that draft -- that's what I mean. Give it up, or we'll --

we'll -- ' he paused to gain courage by a glance at the formidable figure at

his side, 'we'll put the screws on you.'

'Well, I was -- I was only borrowin' it for 'bout a month,' said George.

'Ah,' said Tom.

George started, glared at Tom, and then began to shiver like an animal

with a broken back.

There were a few moments of silence. The old man was fumbling about in

his mind for more imprecations. George was wilting and turning limp before

the glittering orbs of the valiant attorney. The latter, content with the

exalted advantage he had gained by the use of the expression, 'Ah,' spoke no

more, but continued to stare.

'Well,' said George finally, in a weak voice, 'I s'pose I can give you a

check for it, though I was only borrowin' it for 'bout a month. I don't

think you have treated me fairly, father, with your lawyers, and your threats, and all that. But I'll give you the check.'

The old man turned to his attorney. 'Well?' he asked. Tom looked at the

son and held an impressive debate with himself. 'I think we may accept the

check,' he said coldly, after a time.

George arose and tottered across the room. He drew a check that made the

attorney's heart come privately into his mouth. As he and his client passed

triumphantly out, he turned a last highly legal glare upon George that

reduced that individual to a mere paste.

On the sidewalk the old man went into a spasm of delight and called his

attorney all the admiring and endearing names there were to be had.

'Lord, how you settled him!' he cried ecstatically. They walked slowly

back toward Broadway. 'The scoundrel,' murmured the old man. 'I'll never see

'im again. I'll desert 'im. I'll find a nice quiet boarding-place, and -- '

'That's all right,' said Tom. 'I know one. I'll take you right up,' which

he did.

He came near being happy ever after. The old man lived at advanced rates

in the front room at Tom's boarding-house. And the latter basked in the

proprietress's smiles, which had a commercial value and were a great

improvement on many we see.

The old man, with his quantities of sage-bush, thought Thomas owned all

the virtues mentioned in high-class literature, and his opinion, too, was of

commercial value. Also, he knew a man who knew another man who received an

impetus which made him engage Thomas on terms that were highly satisfactory.

Then it was that the latter learned he had not succeeded sooner because he

did not know a man who knew another man.

So it came to pass that Tom grew to be Thomas G. Somebody. He achieved

that position in life from which he could hold out for good wines when he

went to poor restaurants. His name became entangled with the name of Wilkins

in the ownership of vast and valuable tracts of sage-bush in Tin Can,


At the present day he is so great that he lunches frugally at high

prices. His fame has spread through the land as a man who carved his way to

fortune with no help but his undaunted pluck, his tireless energy, and his

sterling integrity.

Newspapers apply to him now, and he writes long signed articles to

struggling young men, in which he gives the best possible advice as to how

to become wealthy. In these articles he, in a burst of glorification, cites

the king, queen, deuce, and tray, the four aces, and all that. He alludes

tenderly to the nickel he borrowed and spent for cigarettes as the

foundation of his fortune.

'To succeed in life,' he writes, 'the youth of America have only to see

an old man seated upon a railing and smoking a clay pipe. Then go up and ask

him for a match.'