The young man in straitened circumstances who comes to New York City to enter literature has but one thing to do, provided he has studied carefully his field in advance. He must go straight to Madison Square, write an article about the sparrows there, and sell it to the Sun for $15. I cannot recall either a novel or a story dealing with the popular theme of the young writer from the provinces who comes to the metropolis to win fame and fortune with his pen in which the hero does not get his start that way. It does seem strange that some author, in casting about for startlingly original plots, has not hit upon the idea of having his hero write about the bluebirds in Union Square and sell it to the Herald. But a search through the files of metropolitan fiction counts up overwhelmingly for the sparrows and the old Garden Square, and the Sun always writes the check.
Of course it is easy to understand why this first city venture of the budding author is always successful. He is primed by necessity to a superlative effort; mid the iron and stone and marble of the roaring city he has found this spot of singing birds and green grass and trees; every tender sentiment in his nature is baffling with the sweet pain of homesickness; his genius is aroused as it never may be again; the birds chirp, the tree branches sway, the noise of wheels is forgotten; he writes with his soul in his pen — and he sells it to the Sun for $15.
I had read of this custom during many years before I came to New York. When my friends were using their strongest arguments to dissuade me from coming, I only smiled serenely. They did not know of that sparrow graft I had up my sleeve.
When I arrived in New York, and the car took me straight from the ferry up Twenty-third Street to Madison Square, I could hear that $15 check rustling in my inside pocket.
I obtained lodging at an unhyphenated hostelry, and the next morning I was on a bench in Madison Square almost by the time the sparrows were awake. Their melodious chirping, the benignant spring foliage of the noble trees and the clean, fragrant grass reminded me so potently of the old farm I had left that tears almost came into my eyes.
Then, all in a moment, I felt my inspiration. The brave, piercing notes of those cheerful small birds formed a keynote to a wonderful, light, fanciful song of hope and joy and altruism. Like myself, they were creatures with hearts pitched to the tune of woods and fields; as I was, so were they captives by circumstance in the discordant, dull city — yet with how much grace and glee they bore the restraint!
And then the early morning people began to pass through the square to their work — sullen people, with sidelong glances and glum faces, hurrying, hurrying, hurrying. And I got my theme cut out clear from the bird notes, and wrought it into a lesson, and a poem, and a carnival dance, and a lullaby; and then translated it all into prose and began to write.
For two hours my pencil traveled over my pad with scarcely a rest. Then I went to the little room I had rented for two days, and there I cut it to half, and then mailed it, white-hot, to the Sun.
The next morning I was up by daylight and spent two cents of my capital for a paper. If the word “sparrow” was in it I was unable to find it. I took it up to my room and spread it out on the bed and went over it, column by column. Something was wrong.
Three hours afterward the postman brought me a large envelope containing my MS. and a piece of inexpensive paper, about 3 inches by 4 — I suppose some of you have seen them — upon which was written in violet ink, “With the Sun’s thanks.”
I went over to the square and sat upon a bench. No; I did not think it necessary to eat any breakfast that morning. The confounded pests of sparrows were making the square hideous with their idiotic “cheep, cheep.” I never saw birds so persistently noisy, impudent, and disagreeable in all my life.
By this time, according to all traditions, I should have been standing in the office of the editor of the Sun. That personage — a tall, grave, white-haired man — would strike a silver bell as he grasped my hand and wiped a suspicious moisture from his glasses.
“Mr. McChesney,” he would be saying when a subordinate appeared, “this is Mr. Henry, the young man who sent in that exquisite gem about the sparrows in Madison Square. You may give him a desk at once. Your salary, sir, will be $80 a week, to begin with.”
This was what I had been led to expect by all writers who have evolved romances of literary New York.
Something was decidedly wrong with tradition. I could not assume the blame, so I fixed it upon the sparrows. I began to hate them with intensity and heat.
At that moment an individual wearing an excess of whiskers, two hats, and a pestilential air slid into the seat beside me.
“Say, Willie,” he muttered cajolingly, “could you cough up a dime out of your coffers for a cup of coffee this morning?”
“I’m lung-weary, my friend,” said I. “The best I can do is three cents.”
“And you look like a gentleman, too,” said he. “What brung you down? — boozer?”
“Birds,” I said fiercely. “The brown-throated songsters carolling songs of hope and cheer to weary man toiling amid the city’s dust and din. The little feathered couriers from the meadows and woods chirping sweetly to us of blue skies and flowering fields. The confounded little squint-eyed nuisances yawping like a flock of steam pianos, and stuffing themselves like aldermen with grass seeds and bugs, while a man sits on a bench and goes without his breakfast. Yes, sir, birds! look at them!”
As I spoke I picked up a dead tree branch that lay by the bench, and hurled it with all my force into a close congregation of the sparrows on the grass. The flock flew to the trees with a babel of shrill cries; but two of them remained prostrate upon the turf.
In a moment my unsavory friend had leaped over the row of benches and secured the fluttering victims, which he thrust hurriedly into his pockets.
Then he beckoned me with a dirty forefinger.
“Come on, cully,” he said hoarsely. “You’re in on the feed.”
Thank you very much!
Weakly I followed my dingy acquaintance. He led me away from the park down a side street and through a crack in a fence into a vacant lot where some excavating had been going on. Behind a pile of old stones and lumber he paused, and took out his birds.
“I got matches,” said he. “You got any paper to start a fire with?”
I drew forth my manuscript story of the sparrows, and offered it for burnt sacrifice. There were old planks, splinters, and chips for our fire. My frowsy friend produced from some interior of his frayed clothing half a loaf of bread, pepper, and salt.
In ten minutes each of us was holding a sparrow spitted upon a stick over the leaping flames.
“Say,” said my fellow bivouacker, “this ain’t so bad when a fellow’s hungry. It reminds me of when I struck New York first — about fifteen years ago. I come in from the West to see if I could get a job on a newspaper. I hit the Madison Square Park the first mornin’ after, and was sitting around on the benches. I noticed the sparrows chirpin’, and the grass and trees so nice and green that I thought I was back in the country again. Then I got some papers out of my pocket, and— “
“I know,” I interrupted. “You sent it to the Sun and got $15.”
“Say,” said my friend, suspiciously, “you seem to know a good deal. Where was you? I went to sleep on the bench there, in the sun, and somebody touched me for every cent I had — $15.”