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Title: A Cool Million, or, The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin (1934)
Author: Nathanael West
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0608941.txt
Date first posted: November 2006
Date most recently updated: November 2006
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To S. J. PERELMAN
"John D. Rockefeller would give a cool million to have a stomach like yours."
The home of Mrs. Sarah Pitkin, a widow well on in years, was situated on an eminence overlooking the Rat River, near the town of Ottsville in the state of Vermont. It was a humble dwelling much the worse for wear, yet
exceedingly dear to her and her only child, Lemuel.
While the house had not been painted for some time, owing to the straitened circumstances of the little family, it still had a great deal of charm. An antique collector, had one chanced to pass it by, would have been greatly interested in its architecture. Having been built about the time of General Stark's campaign against the British, its lines reflected the character of his army, in whose ranks several Pitkins had marched.
One late fall evening, Mrs. Pitkin was sitting quietly in her parlor, when a knock was heard on her humble door.
She kept no servant, and, as usual, answered the knock in person.
"Mr. Slemp!" she said, as she recognized in her caller the wealthy
"Yes, Mrs. Pitkin, I come upon a little matter of business."
"Won't you come in?" said the widow, not forgetting her politeness in her
"I believe I will trespass on your hospitality for a brief space," said
the lawyer blandly. "Are you quite well?"
"Thank you, sir--quite so," said Mrs. Pitkin as she led the way into the
sitting room. "Take the rocking chair, Mr. Slemp," she said, pointing to the best chair which the simple room contained.
"You are very kind," said the lawyer, seating himself gingerly in the chair referred to.
"Where is your son, Lemuel?" continued the lawyer.
"He is in school. But it is nearly time for him to be home; he never loiters." And the mother's voice showed something of the pride she felt
in her boy.
"Still in school!" exclaimed Mr. Slemp. "Shouldn't he be helping to support you?"
"No," said the widow proudly. "I set great store by learning, as does my
son. But you came on business?"
"Ah, yes, Mrs. Pitkin. I fear that the business may be unpleasant for you, but you will remember, I am sure, that I act in this matter as agent for another."
"Unpleasant!" repeated Mrs. Pitkin apprehensively. "Yes. Mr. Joshua Bird,
Squire Bird, has placed in my hands for foreclosure the mortgage on your
house. That is, he will foreclose," he added hastily, "if you fail to raise the necessary monies in three months from now, when the obligation
"How can I hope to pay?" said the widow brokenly. "I thought that Squire
Bird would be glad to renew, as we pay him twelve per cent interest."
"I am sorry, Mrs. Pitkin, sincerely sorry, but he has decided not to
renew. He wants either his money or the property."
The lawyer took his hat and bowed politely, leaving the widow alone with
(It might interest the reader to know that I was right in my surmise. An
interior decorator, on passing the house, had been greatly struck by its
appearance. He had seen Squire Bird about purchasing it, and that is why
that worthy had decided to foreclose on Mrs. Pitkin. The name of the cause of this tragedy was Asa Goldstein, his business, "Colonial Exteriors and Interiors." Mr. Goldstein planned to take the house apart and set it up again in the window of his Fifth Avenue shop.)
As Lawyer Slemp was leaving the humble dwelling, he met the widow's son, Lemuel, on the threshold. Through the open door, the boy caught a glimpse
of his mother in tears, and said to Mr. Slemp:
"What have you been saying to my mother to make her cry?"
"Stand aside, boy!" exclaimed the lawyer. He pushed Lem with such great
force that the poor lad fell off the porch steps into the cellar, the
door of which was unfortunately open. By the time Lem had extricated
himself, Mr. Slemp was well on his way down the road.
Our hero, although only seventeen years old, was a strong, spirited lad
and would have followed after the lawyer but for his mother. On hearing
her voice, he dropped the ax which he had snatched up and ran into the
house to comfort her.
The poor widow told her son all we have recounted and the two of them sat
plunged in gloom. No matter how they racked their brains, they could not
discover a way to keep the roof over their heads.
In desperation, Lem finally decided to go and see Mr. Nathan Whipple, who
was the town's most prominent citizen. Mr. Whipple had once been
President of the United States, and was known affectionately from Maine
to California as "Shagpoke" Whipple. After four successful years in
office, he had beaten his silk hat, so to speak, into a ploughshare and
had refused to run a second time, preferring to return to his natal
Ottsville and there become a simple citizen again. He spent all his time
between his den in the garage and the Rat River National Bank, of which
he was president.
Mr. Whipple had often shown his interest in Lem, and the lad felt that he
might be willing to help his mother save her home.
Shagpoke Whipple lived on the main street of Ottsville in a two-story
frame house with a narrow lawn in front and a garage that once had been a
chicken house in the rear. Both buildings had a solid, sober look, and,
indeed, no one was ever allowed to create disorder within their
The house served as a place of business as well as a residence; the first floor being devoted to the offices of the bank and the second functioning as the home of the ex-President. On the porch, next to the front door, was a large bronze plate that read:
RAT RIVER NATIONAL BANK
Nathan "Shagpoke" Whipple
Some people might object to turning a part of their dwelling into a bank,
especially if, like Mr. Whipple, they had hobnobbed with crowned heads. But Shagpoke was not proud, and he was of the saving kind. He had always saved: from the first time he received a penny at the age of five, when he had triumphed over the delusive pleasures of an investment in candy, right down to the time he was elected President of the United States. One of his favorite adages was "Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs."
By this he meant that the pleasures of the body are like grandmothers, once they begin to suck eggs they never stop until all the eggs (purse) are dry.
As Lem turned up the path to Mr. Whipple's house, the sun rapidly sank
under the horizon. Every evening at this time, the ex-President lowered
the flag that flew over his garage and made a speech to as many of the town's citizenry as had stopped to watch the ceremony. During the first year after the great man's return from Washington, there used to collect quite a crowd, but this had dwindled until now, as our hero approached the house, there was but a lone Boy Scout watching the ceremony. This lad was not present of his own free will, alas, but had been sent by his father, who was desirous of obtaining a loan from the bank.
Lem removed his hat and waited in reverence for Mr. Whipple to finish his speech.
"All hail Old Glory! May you be the joy and pride of the American heart,
alike when your gorgeous folds shall wanton in the summer air and your
tattered fragments be dimly seen through clouds of war! May you ever wave in honor, hope and profit, in unsullied glory and patriotic fervor, on the dome of the Capitol, on the tented plain, on the wave-rocked topmast and on the roof of this garage!"
With these words, Shagpoke lowered the flag for which so many of our finest have bled and died, and tenderly gathered it up in his arms. The Boy Scout ran off hurriedly. Lem moved forward to greet the orator.
"I would like to have a few words with you, sir," said our hero.
"Certainly," replied Mr. Whipple with native kindness. "I am never too busy to discuss the problems of youth, for the youth of a nation is its only hope. Come into my den," he added.
The room into which Lem followed Mr. Whipple was situated in the back of
the garage. It was furnished with extreme simplicity; some boxes, a
cracker barrel, two brass spittoons, a hot stove and a picture of Lincoln
were all it held.
When our hero had seated himself on one of the boxes, Shagpoke perched on
the cracker barrel and put his congress gaiters near the hot stove. He lined up the distance to the nearest spittoon with a measuring gob of spittle and told the lad to begin.
As it will only delay my narrative and serve no good purpose to report how Lem told about his predicament, I will skip to his last sentence.
"And so," concluded our hero, "the only thing that can save my mother's
home is for your bank to take over Squire Bird's mortgage."
"I would not help you by lending you money, even if it were possible for
me to do so," was the surprising answer Mr. Whipple gave the boy.
"Why not, sir?" asked Lem, unable to hide his great disappointment.
"Because I believe it would be a mistake. You are too young to borrow."
"But what shall I do?" asked Lem in desperation. "There are still three
months left to you before they can sell your house," said Mr. Whipple.
"Don't be discouraged. This is the land of opportunity and the world is
an oyster." "But how am I to earn fifteen hundred dollars (for that was
the face value of the mortgage) here in such a short time?" asked Lem, who was puzzled by the ex-President's rather cryptic utterances.
"That is for you to discover, but I never said that you should remain in
Ottsville. Do as I did, when I was your age. Go out into the world and
win your way."
Lem considered this advice for a while. When he spoke again, it was with courage and determination.
"You are right, sir. I'll go off to seek my fortune." Our hero's eyes
shone with a light that bespoke a high heart. "Good," said Mr. Whipple, and he was genuinely glad. "As I said before, the world is an oyster that but waits for hands to open it. Bare hands are best, but have you any
"Something less than a dollar," said Lem sadly.
"It is very little, my young friend, but it might suffice, for you have
an honest face and that is more than gold. But I had thirty-five dollars
when I left home to make my way, and it would be nice if you had at least as much."
"Yes, it would be nice," agreed Lem.
"Have you any collateral?" asked Mr. Whipple.
"Collateral?" repeated Lem, whose business education was so limited that
he did not even know what the word meant.
"Security for a loan," said Mr. Whipple.
"No, sir, I'm afraid not."
"Your mother has a cow, I think?"
"Yes, Old Sue." The boy's face fell as he thought of parting with that faithful servitor.
"I believe that I could lend you twenty-five dollars on her, maybe
thirty," said Mr. Whipple.
"But she cost more than a hundred, and besides she supplies us with milk,
butter and cheese, the main part of our simple victuals."
"You do not understand," said Mr. Whipple patiently. "Your mother can
keep the cow until the note that she will sign comes due in sixty days
from now. This new obligation will be an added incentive to spur you on
"But what if I fail?" asked Lem. Not that he was losing heart, be it said, but he was young and wanted encouragement.
Mr. Whipple understood how the lad felt and made an effort to reassure
"America," he said with great seriousness, "is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.
"America is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost."
"Let me warn you that you will find in the world a certain few scoffers
who will laugh at you and attempt to do you injury. They will tell you
that John D. Rockefeller was a thief and that Henry Ford and other great
men are also thieves. Do not believe them. The story of Rockefeller and
of Ford is the story of every great American, and you should skive to
make it your story. Like them, you were born poor and on a farm. Like
them, by honesty and industry, you cannot fail to succeed."
It is needless to say that the words of the ex-President encouraged our
young hero just as similar ones have heartened the youth of this country
ever since it was freed from the irksome British yoke. He vowed then and there to go and do as Rockefeller and Ford had done.
Mr. Whipple drew up some papers for the lad's mother to sign and ushered
him out of the den. When he had gone, the great man turned to the picture
of Lincoln that hung on the wall and silently communed with it.
Our hero's way home led through a path that ran along the Rat River. As he passed a wooded stretch he cut a stout stick with a thick gnarled top. He was twirling this club, as a bandmaster does his baton, when he was startled by a young girl's shriek. Turning his head, he saw a terrified figure pursued by a fierce dog. A moment's glance showed him that it was Betty Prail, a girl with whom he was in love in a boyish way.
Betty recognized him at the same moment.
"Oh, save me, Mr. Pitkin!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands.
"I will," said Lem resolutely.
Armed with the stick he had most fortunately cut, he rushed between the
girl and her pursuer and brought the knob down with full force on the
dog's back. The attention of the furious animal--a large bulldog--was
diverted to his assailant, and with a fierce howl he rushed upon Lem. But
our hero was wary and expected the attack. He jumped to one side and
brought the stick down with great force on the dog's head. The animal
fell, partly stunned, his quivering tongue protruding from his mouth.
"It won't do to leave him so," thought Lem; "when he revives he'll be as
dangerous as ever."
He dealt the prostrate brute two more blows which settled its fate. The furious animal would do no more harm.
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Pitkin!" exclaimed Betty, a trace of color returning to her cheeks. "I was terribly frightened." "I don't wonder," said Lem. "The brute was certainly ugly."
"How brave you are!" the young lady said in admiration.
"It doesn't take much courage to hit a dog on the head with a stick," said Lem modestly.
"Many boys would have run," she said.
"What, and left you unprotected?" Lem was indignant. "None but a coward would have done that."
"Tom Baxter was walking with me, and he ran away."
"Did he see the dog chasing you?"
"And what did he do?"
"He jumped over a stone wall."
"All I can say is that that isn't my style," said Lem. "Do you see how the dog froths at the mouth? I believe he's mad."
"How fearful!" exclaimed Betty with a shudder. "Did you suspect that before?"
"Yes, when I first saw him."
"And yet you dared to meet him?"
"It was safer than to run," said Lem, making little of the incident. "I
wonder whose dog it was?"
"I'll tell you," said a brutal voice.
Turning his head, Lem beheld a stout fellow about three years older than
himself, with a face in which the animal seemed to predominate. It was
none other than Tom Baxter, the town bully.
"What have you been doing to my dog?" demanded Baxter with a snarl.
Addressed in this tone, Lem thought it unnecessary to throw away politeness on such a brutal customer. "Killing him," he answered shortly.
"What business have you killing my dog?" demanded the bully with much
"It was your business to keep the brute locked up, where he wouldn't do
any harm," said Lem. "Besides, you saw him attack Miss Frail. Why didn't you interfere?"
"I'll flog you within an inch of your life," said Baxter with an oath.
"You'd better not try it," said Lem coolly. "I suppose you think I ought
to have let the dog bite Miss Frail."
"He wouldn't have bitten her."
"He would too. He was chasing her with that intention."
"It was only in sport."
"I suppose he was frothing at the mouth only in sport," said Lem. "The
dog was mad. You ought to thank me for killing him because he might have bitten you."
"That don't go down," said Baxter coarsely. "It's much too thin."
"It's true," said Betty Frail, speaking for the first time.
"Of course you'll stand up for him," said the butcher boy (for that was
Baxter's business ), "but that's neither here nor there. I paid five
dollars for that dog, and if he don't pay me what I gave, I'll mash him."
"I shall do nothing of the sort," said Lem quietly. "A dog like that ought to be killed, and no one has any right to let him run loose, risking the lives of innocent people. The next time you get five dollars you ought to invest it better."
"Then you won't pay me the money?" cried the bully in a passion. "I'll
break your head."
"Come on," said Lem, "I've got something to say about that," and he
squared off scientifically.
"Oh, don't fight him, Mr. Pitkin," said Betty, very much distressed. "He
is much stronger than you."
"He'll find that out soon enough, I'm thinking," growled Lem's opponent.
That Tom Baxter was not only larger but stronger than our hero was no
doubt true. On the other hand he did not know how to use his strength. It
was merely undisciplined brute force. If he could have got Lem around the
waist the latter would have been at his mercy, but our hero knew that
well enough and didn't choose to allow it. He was a pretty fair boxer, and stood on his defense, calm and wary.
When Baxter rushed in, thinking to seize his smaller opponent, he was
greeted by two rapid blows in the face, one of which struck him on the
nose, the other in the eye, the effect of both being to make his head spin.
"I'll mash you for that," he yelled in a frenzy of rage, but as he rushed in again he never thought to guard his face. The result was a couple of more blows, the other eye and his mouth being assailed this time.
Baxter was astonished. He had expected to "chaw up" Lem at the first onset. Instead of that, there stood Lem cool and unhurt, while he could feel that his nose and mouth were bleeding and both his eyes were rapidly closing.
He stopped short and regarded Lem as well as he could through his injured
optics, then surprised our hero by smiling. "Well," he said, shaking his
head sheepishly, "you're the better man. I'm a rough customer, I expect,
but I know when I'm bested. There's my hand to show that I don't bear malice."
Lem gave his hand in return without fear that there might be craft in the
bully's offer of friendship. The former was a fair-dealing lad himself
and he thought that everyone was the same. However, no sooner did Baxter
have a hold of his hand than he jerked the poor _boy into his embrace and
squeezed him insensible.
Betty screamed and fainted, so great was her anxiety for Lem. Hearing her
scream, Baxter dropped his victim to the ground and walked to where the young lady lay in a dead faint. He stood over her for a few minutes admiring her beauty. His little pig-like eyes shone with bestiality.
It is with reluctance that I leave Miss Prail in the lecherous embrace of
Tom Baxter to begin a new chapter, but I cannot with propriety continue my narrative beyond the point at which the bully undressed that unfortunate lady.
However, as Miss Prail is the heroine of this romance, I would like to use this opportunity to acquaint you with a little of her past history.
On her twelfth birthday, Betty became an orphan with the simultaneous death of her two parents in a fire which also destroyed what 'little property might have been left her. In this fire, or rather at it, she also lost something which, like her parents, could never be replaced.
The Prail farm was situated some three miles from Ottsville on a rough dirt road, and the amateur fire company, to whose ministrations all the fires in the district were left, was not very enthusiastic about dragging their apparatus to it. To tell the truth, the Ottsville Fire Company consisted of a set of young men who were more interested in dirty stories, checkers and applejack than they were in fire fighting. When the news of the catastrophe arrived at the fire house, the volunteer firemen were all inebriated, and their chief, Bill Baxter (father to the man in whose arms we left our heroine), was dead drunk.
After many delays, the fire company finally arrived at the Prail farm,
but instead of trying to quench the flames they immediately set to work
and looted the place.
Betty, although only twelve years old at the time, was a well-formed little girl with the soft, voluptuous lines of a beautiful woman. Dressed only in a cotton nightgown, she was wandering among the firemen begging them to save her parents, when Bill Baxter noticed her budding form and enticed her into the woodshed.
In the morning, she was found lying naked on the ground by some neighbors
and taken into their house. She had a bad cold, but remembered nothing of
what Bill Baxter had done to her. She mourned only the loss of her parents.
After a small collection had been taken up by the minister to purchase an outfit, she was sent to the county orphan asylum. There she remained until her fourteenth year, when she was put out as a maid of all work to
the Slemps, a prominent family of Ottsville, the head of which, Lawyer
Slemp, we already know.
As one can well imagine, all was not beer and skittles in this household
for the poor orphan. If she had been less beautiful, perhaps things would
have gone better for her. As it was, however, Lawyer Slemp had two ugly
daughters and a shrewish wife who were very jealous of their beautiful servant. They saw to it that she was badly dressed and that she wore her hair only in the ugliest possible manner. Yet despite these things, and
although she had to wear men's shoes and coarse cotton stockings, our
heroine was a great deal more attractive than the other women of the
Lawyer Slemp was a deacon in the church and a very stern man. Still, one would think that as a male he would have less against the poor orphan than his women folks. But, unfortunately, it did not work out this way.
Mr. Slemp beat Betty regularly and enthusiastically. He had started these
beatings when she first came from the asylum as a little girl, and did not stop them when she became a splendid woman. He beat her twice a week on her bare behind with his bare hand.
It is a hard thing to say about a deacon, but Lawyer Slemp got little
exercise and he seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in these bi-weekly workouts. As for Betty, she soon became inured to his blows and did not mind them as much as the subtler tortures inflicted on her by Mrs. Slemp and her daughters. Besides, Lawyer Slemp, although he was exceedingly penurious, always gave her a quarter when he had finished beating her.
It was with this weekly fifty cents that Betty hoped to effect her escape
from Ottsville. She had already obtained part of an outfit, and was on
her way home from town with the first store hat she had ever owned when
she met Tom Baxter and his dog.
The result of this unfortunate encounter we already know.
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