The Americanization of Edward Bok/Chapter 17

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The Americanization of Edward Bok by Edward W. Bok
Chapter 17: Eugene Field’s Practical Jokes

EUGENE FIELD was one of Edward Bok’s close friends and also his despair, as was likely to be the case with those who were intimate with the Western poet. One day Field said to Bok: “I am going to make you the most widely paragraphed man in America.” The editor passed the remark over, but he was to recall it often as his friend set out to make his boast good.

The fact that Bok was unmarried and the editor of a woman’s magazine appealed strongly to Field’s sense of humor. He knew the editor’s opposition to patent medicines, and so he decided to join the two facts in a paragraph, put on the wire at Chicago, to the effect that the editor was engaged to be married to Miss Lavinia Pinkham, the granddaughter of Mrs. Lydia Pinkham, of patent-medicine fame. The paragraph carefully described Miss Pinkham, the school where she had been educated, her talents, her wealth, etc. Field was wise enough to put the paragraph not in his own column in the Chicago News, lest it be considered in the light of one of his practical jokes, but on the news page of the paper, and he had it put on the Associated Press wire.

He followed this up a few days later with a paragraph announcing Bok’s arrival at a Boston hotel. Then came a paragraph saying that Miss Pinkham was sailing for Paris to buy her trousseau. The paragraphs were worded in the most matter-of-fact manner, and completely fooled the newspapers, even those of Boston. Field was delighted at the success of his joke, and the fact that Bok was in despair over the letters that poured in upon him added to Field’s delight.

He now asked Bok to come to Chicago. “I want you to know some of my cronies,” he wrote. “Julia [his wife] is away, so we will shift for ourselves.” Bok arrived in Chicago one Sunday afternoon, and was to dine at Field’s house that evening. He found a jolly company: James Whitcomb Riley, Sol Smith Russell the actor, Opie Read, and a number of Chicago’s literary men.

When seven o’clock came, some one suggested to Field that something to eat might not be amiss.

“Shortly,” answered the poet. “Wife is out; cook is new, and dinner will be a little late. Be patient.” But at eight o’clock there was still no dinner. Riley began to grow suspicious and slipped down-stairs. He found no one in the kitchen and the range cold. He came back and reported. “Nonsense,” said Field. “It can’t be.” All went down-stairs to find out the truth. “Let’s get supper ourselves,” suggested Russell. Then it was discovered that not a morsel of food was to be found in the refrigerator, closet, or cellar. “That’s a joke on us,” said Field. “Julia has left us without a crumb to eat.

It was then nine o’clock. Riley and Bok held a council of war and decided to slip out and buy some food, only to find that the front, basement, and back doors were locked and the keys missing! Field was very sober. “Thorough woman, that wife of mine,” he commented. But his friends knew better.

Finally, the Hoosier poet and the Philadelphia editor crawled through one of the basement windows and started on a foraging expedition. Of course, Field lived in a residential section where there were few stores, and on Sunday these were closed. There was nothing to do but to board a down-town car. Finally they found a delicatessen shop open, and the two hungry men amazed the proprietor by nearly buying out his stock.

It was after ten o’clock when Riley and Bok got back to the house with their load of provisions to find every door locked, every curtain drawn, and the bolt sprung on every window. Only the cellar grating remained, and through this the two dropped their bundles and themselves, and appeared in the dining-room, dirty and dishevelled, to find the party at table enjoying a supper which Field had carefully hidden and brought out when they had left the house.

Riley, cold and hungry, and before this time the victim of Field’s practical jokes, was not in a merry humor and began to recite paraphrases of Field’s poems. Field retorted by paraphrasing Riley’s poems, and mimicking the marked characteristics of Riley’s speech. This started Sol Smith Russell, who mimicked both. The fun grew fast and furious, the entire company now took part, Mrs. Field’s dresses were laid under contribution, and Field, Russell, and Riley gave an impromptu play. And it was upon this scene that Mrs. Field, after a continuous ringing of the door-bell and nearly battering down the door, appeared at seven o’clock the next morning!

It was fortunate that Eugene Field had a patient wife; she needed every ounce of patience that she could command. And no one realized this more keenly than did her husband. He once told of a dream he had which illustrated the endurance of his wife.

“I thought,” said Field, “that I had died and gone to heaven. I had some difficulty in getting past St. Peter, who regarded me with doubt and suspicion, and examined my records closely, but finally permitted me to enter the pearly gates. As I walked up the street of the heavenly city, I saw a venerable old man with long gray hair and flowing beard. His benignant face encouraged me to address him. ‘I have just arrived and I am entirely unacquainted,’ I said. ‘May I ask your name?’

“‘My name,’ he replied, ‘is Job.’

“‘Indeed,’ I exclaimed, ‘are you that Job whom we were taught to revere as the most patient being in the world?’

“‘The same,’ he said, with a shadow of hesitation; ‘I did have quite a reputation for patience once, but I hear that there is a woman now on earth, in Chicago, who has suffered more than I ever did, and she has endured it with great resignation.’

“‘Why,’ said I, ‘that is curious. I am just from earth, and from Chicago, and I do not remember to have heard of her case. What is her name?’

“‘Mrs. Eugene Field,’ was the reply.

“Just then I awoke,” ended Field.

The success of Field’s paragraph engaging Bok to Miss Pinkham stimulated the poet to greater effort. Bok had gone to Europe; Field, having found out the date of his probable return, just about when the steamer was due, printed an interview with the editor “at quarantine” which sounded so plausible that even the men in Bok’s office in Philadelphia were fooled and prepared for his arrival. The interview recounted, in detail, the changes in women’s fashions in Paris, and so plausible had Field made it, based upon information obtained at Marshall Field’s, that even the fashion papers copied it.

All this delighted Field beyond measure. Bok begged him to desist; but Field answered by printing an item to the effect that there was the highest authority for denying “the reports industriously circulated some time ago to the effect that Mr. Bok was engaged to be married to a New England young lady, whereas, as a matter of fact, it is no violation of friendly confidence that makes it possible to announce that the Philadelphia editor is engaged to Mrs. Frank Leslie, of New York.”

It so happened that Field put this new paragraph on the wire just about the time that Bok’s actual engagement was announced. Field was now deeply contrite, and sincerely promised Bok and his fiancée to reform. “I’m through, you mooning, spooning calf, you,” he wrote Bok, and his friend believed him, only to receive a telegram the next day from Mrs. Field warning him that “Gene is planning a series of telephonic conversations with you and Miss Curtis at college that I think should not be printed.” Bok knew it was of no use trying to curb Field’s industry, and so he wired the editor of the Chicago News for his cooperation. Field, now checked, asked Bok and his fiancée and the parents of both to come to Chicago, be his guests for the World’s Fair, and “let me make amends.”

It was a happy visit. Field was all kindness, and, of course, the entire party was charmed by his personality. But the boy in him could not be repressed. He had kept it down all through the visit. “No, not a joke—cross my heart,” he would say, and then he invited the party to lunch with him on their way to the train when they were leaving for home. “But we shall be in our travelling clothes, not dressed for a luncheon,” protested the women. It was an unfortunate protest, for it gave Field an idea! “Oh,” he assured them, “just a goodbye luncheon at the club; just you folks and Julia and me.” They believed him, only to find upon their arrival at the club an assembly of over sixty guests at one of the most elaborate luncheons ever served in Chicago, with each woman guest carefully enjoined by Field, in his invitation, to “put on her prettiest and most elaborate costume in order to dress up the table!”

One day Field came to Philadelphia to give a reading in Camden in conjunction with George W. Cable. It chanced that his friend, Francis Wilson, was opening that same evening in Philadelphia in a new comic opera which Field had not seen. He immediately refused to give his reading, and insisted upon going to the theatre. The combined efforts of his manager, Wilson, Mr. Cable, and his friends finally persuaded him to keep his engagement and join in a double-box party later at the theatre. To make sure that he would keep his lecture appointment, Bok decided to go to Camden with him. Field and Cable were to appear alternately.

Field went on for his first number; and when he came off, he turned to Bok and said: “No use, Bok, I’m a sick man. I must go home. Cable can see this through,” and despite every protestation Field bundled himself into his overcoat and made for his carriage. “Sick, Bok, really sick,” he muttered as they rode along. Then seeing a fruit-stand he said: “Buy me a bag of oranges, like a good fellow. They’ll do me good.

When Philadelphia was reached, he suggested: “Do you know I think it would do me good to go and see Frank in the new play? Tell the driver to go to the theatre like a good boy.” Of course, that had been his intent all along! When the theatre was reached he insisted upon taking the oranges with him. “They’ll steal ’em if you leave ’em there,” he said.

Field lost all traces of his supposed illness the moment he reached the box. Francis Wilson was on the stage with Marie Jansen. “Isn’t it beautiful?” said Field, and directing the attention of the party to the players, he reached under his chair for the bag of oranges, took one out, and was about to throw it at Wilson when Bok caught his arm, took the orange away from him, and grabbed the bag. Field never forgave Bok for this act of watchfulness. “Treason,” he hissed—“going back on a friend.”

The one object of Field’s ambition was to achieve the distinction of so “fussing” Francis Wilson that he would be compelled to ring down the curtain. He had tried every conceivable trick: had walked on the stage in one of Wilson’s scenes; had started a quarrel with an usher in the audience—everything that ingenuity could conceive he had practised on his friend. Bok had known this penchant of Field’s, and when he insisted on taking the bag of oranges into the theatre, Field’s purpose was evident!

One day Bok received a wire from Field: “City of New Orleans purposing give me largest public reception on sixth ever given an author. Event of unusual quality. Mayor and city officials peculiarly desirous of having you introduce me to vast audience they propose to have. Hate to ask you to travel so far, but would be great favor to me. Wire answer.” Bok wired back his willingness to travel to New Orleans and oblige his friend. It occurred to Bok, however, to write to a friend in New Orleans and ask the particulars. Of course, there was never any thought of Field going to New Orleans or of any reception. Bok waited for further advices, and a long letter followed from Field giving him a glowing picture of the reception planned. Bok sent a message to his New Orleans friend to be telegraphed from New Orleans on the sixth: “Find whole thing to be a fake. Nice job to put over on me. Bok.” Field was overjoyed at the apparent success of his joke and gleefully told his Chicago friends all about it—until he found out that the joke had been on him. “Durned dirty, I call it,” he wrote Bok.

It was a lively friendship that Eugene Field gave to Edward Bok, full of anxieties and of continuous forebodings, but it was worth all that it cost in mental perturbation. No rarer friend ever lived: in his serious moments he gave one a quality of unforgetable friendship that remains a precious memory. But his desire for practical jokes was uncontrollable: it meant being constantly on one’s guard, and even then the pranks could not always be thwarted!