Mr. Cornelius Johnson, Office-Seeker by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Story type: Literature

It was a beautiful day in balmy May and the sun shone pleasantly on Mr. Cornelius Johnson’s very spruce Prince Albert suit of grey as he alighted from the train in Washington. He cast his eyes about him, and then gave a sigh of relief and satisfaction as he took his bag from the porter and started for the gate. As he went along, he looked with splendid complacency upon the less fortunate mortals who were streaming out of the day coaches. It was a Pullman sleeper on which he had come in. Out on the pavement he hailed a cab, and giving the driver the address of a hotel, stepped in and was rolled away. Be it said that he had cautiously inquired about the hotel first and found that he could be accommodated there.

As he leaned back in the vehicle and allowed his eyes to roam over the streets, there was an air of distinct prosperity about him. It was in evidence from the tips of his ample patent-leather shoes to the crown of the soft felt hat that sat rakishly upon his head. His entrance into Washington had been long premeditated, and he had got himself up accordingly.

It was not such an imposing structure as he had fondly imagined, before which the cab stopped and set Mr. Johnson down. But then he reflected that it was about the only house where he could find accommodation at all, and he was content. In Alabama one learns to be philosophical. It is good to be philosophical in a place where the proprietor of a cafe fumbles vaguely around in the region of his hip pocket and insinuates that he doesn’t want one’s custom. But the visitor’s ardor was not cooled for all that. He signed the register with a flourish, and bestowed a liberal fee upon the shabby boy who carried his bag to his room.

“Look here, boy,” he said, “I am expecting some callers soon. If they come, just send them right up to my room. You take good care of me and look sharp when I ring and you’ll not lose anything.”

Mr. Cornelius Johnson always spoke in a large and important tone. He said the simplest thing with an air so impressive as to give it the character of a pronouncement. Indeed, his voice naturally was round, mellifluous and persuasive. He carried himself always as if he were passing under his own triumphal arch. Perhaps, more than anything else, it was these qualities of speech and bearing that had made him invaluable on the stump in the recent campaign in Alabama. Whatever it was that held the secret of his power, the man and principles for which he had labored triumphed, and he had come to Washington to reap his reward. He had been assured that his services would not be forgotten, and it was no intention of his that they should be.

After a while he left his room and went out, returning later with several gentlemen from the South and a Washington man. There is some freemasonry among these office-seekers in Washington that throws them inevitably together. The men with whom he returned were such characters as the press would designate as “old wheel-horses” or “pillars of the party.” They all adjourned to the bar, where they had something at their host’s expense. Then they repaired to his room, whence for the ensuing two hours the bell and the bell-boy were kept briskly going.

The gentleman from Alabama was in his glory. His gestures as he held forth were those of a gracious and condescending prince. It was his first visit to the city, and he said to the Washington man: “I tell you, sir, you’ve got a mighty fine town here. Of course, there’s no opportunity for anything like local pride, because it’s the outsiders, or the whole country, rather, that makes it what it is, but that’s nothing. It’s a fine town, and I’m right sorry that I can’t stay longer.”

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“How long do you expect to be with us, Professor?” inquired Col. Mason, the horse who had bent his force to the party wheel in the Georgia ruts.

“Oh, about ten days, I reckon, at the furthest. I want to spend some time sight-seeing. I’ll drop in on the Congressman from my district to-morrow, and call a little later on the President.”

“Uh, huh!” said Col. Mason. He had been in the city for some time.

“Yes, sir, I want to get through with my little matter and get back home. I’m not asking for much, and I don’t anticipate any trouble in securing what I desire. You see, it’s just like this, there’s no way for them to refuse us. And if any one deserves the good things at the hands of the administration, who more than we old campaigners, who have been helping the party through its fights from the time that we had our first votes?”

“Who, indeed?” said the Washington man.

“I tell you, gentlemen, the administration is no fool. It knows that we hold the colored vote down there in our vest pockets and it ain’t going to turn us down.”

“No, of course not, but sometimes there are delays–“

“Delays, to be sure, where a man doesn’t know how to go about the matter. The thing to do, is to go right to the centre of authority at once. Don’t you see?”

“Certainly, certainly,” chorused the other gentlemen.

Before going, the Washington man suggested that the newcomer join them that evening and see something of society at the capital. “You know,” he said, “that outside of New Orleans, Washington is the only town in the country that has any colored society to speak of, and I feel that you distinguished men from different sections of the country owe it to our people that they should be allowed to see you. It would be an inspiration to them.”

So the matter was settled, and promptly at 8:30 o’clock Mr. Cornelius Johnson joined his friends at the door of his hotel. The grey Prince Albert was scrupulously buttoned about his form, and a shiny top hat replaced the felt of the afternoon. Thus clad, he went forth into society, where he need be followed only long enough to note the magnificence of his manners and the enthusiasm of his reception when he was introduced as Prof. Cornelius Johnson, of Alabama, in a tone which insinuated that he was the only really great man his state had produced.

It might also be stated as an effect of this excursion into Vanity Fair, that when he woke the next morning he was in some doubt as to whether he should visit his Congressman or send for that individual to call upon him. He had felt the subtle flattery of attention from that section of colored society which imitates–only imitates, it is true, but better than any other, copies–the kindnesses and cruelties, the niceties and deceits, of its white prototype. And for the time, like a man in a fog, he had lost his sense of proportion and perspective. But habit finally triumphed, and he called upon the Congressman, only to be met by an under-secretary who told him that his superior was too busy to see him that morning.


“Too busy,” repeated the secretary.

Mr. Johnson drew himself up and said: “Tell Congressman Barker that Mr. Johnson, Mr. Cornelius Johnson, of Alabama, desires to see him. I think he will see me.”

“Well, I can take your message,” said the clerk, doggedly, “but I tell you now it won’t do you any good. He won’t see any one.”

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But, in a few moments an inner door opened, and the young man came out followed by the desired one. Mr. Johnson couldn’t resist the temptation to let his eyes rest on the underling in a momentary glance of triumph as Congressman Barker hurried up to him, saying: “Why, why, Cornelius, how’do? how’do? Ah, you came about that little matter, didn’t you? Well, well, I haven’t forgotten you; I haven’t forgotten you.”

The colored man opened his mouth to speak, but the other checked him and went on: “I’m sorry, but I’m in a great hurry now. I’m compelled to leave town to-day, much against my will, but I shall be back in a week; come around and see me then. Always glad to see you, you know. Sorry I’m so busy now; good-morning, good-morning.”

Mr. Johnson allowed himself to be guided politely, but decidedly, to the door. The triumph died out of his face as the reluctant good-morning fell from his lips. As he walked away, he tried to look upon the matter philosophically. He tried to reason with himself–to prove to his own consciousness that the Congressman was very busy and could not give the time that morning. He wanted to make himself believe that he had not been slighted or treated with scant ceremony. But, try as he would, he continued to feel an obstinate, nasty sting that would not let him rest, nor forget his reception. His pride was hurt. The thought came to him to go at once to the President, but he had experience enough to know that such a visit would be vain until he had seen the dispenser of patronage for his district. Thus, there was nothing for him to do but to wait the necessary week. A whole week! His brow knitted as he thought of it.

In the course of these cogitations, his walk brought him to his hotel, where he found his friends of the night before awaiting him. He tried to put on a cheerful face. But his disappointment and humiliation showed through his smile, as the hollows and bones through the skin of a cadaver.

“Well, what luck?” asked Col. Mason, cheerfully.

“Are we to congratulate you?” put in Mr. Perry.

“Not yet, not yet, gentlemen. I have not seen the President yet. The fact is–ahem–my Congressman is out of town.”

He was not used to evasions of this kind, and he stammered slightly and his yellow face turned brick-red with shame.

“It is most annoying,” he went on, “most annoying. Mr. Barker won’t be back for a week, and I don’t want to call on the President until I have had a talk with him.”

“Certainly not,” said Col. Mason, blandly. “There will be delays.” This was not his first pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mr. Johnson looked at him gratefully. “Oh, yes; of course, delays,” he assented; “most natural. Have something.”

At the end of the appointed time, the office-seeker went again to see the Congressman. This time he was admitted without question, and got the chance to state his wants. But somehow, there seemed to be innumerable obstacles in the way. There were certain other men whose wishes had to be consulted; the leader of one of the party factions, who, for the sake of harmony, had to be appeased. Of course, Mr. Johnson’s worth was fully recognized, and he would be rewarded according to his deserts. His interests would be looked after. He should drop in again in a day or two. It took time, of course, it took time.

Mr. Johnson left the office unnerved by his disappointment. He had thought it would be easy to come up to Washington, claim and get what he wanted, and, after a glance at the town, hurry back to his home and his honors. It had all seemed so easy–before election; but now–

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A vague doubt began to creep into his mind that turned him sick at heart. He knew how they had treated Davis, of Louisiana. He had heard how they had once kept Brotherton, of Texas–a man who had spent all his life in the service of his party–waiting clear through a whole administration, at the end of which the opposite party had come into power. All the stories of disappointment and disaster that he had ever heard came back to him, and he began to wonder if some one of these things was going to happen to him.

Every other day for the next two weeks, he called upon Barker, but always with the same result. Nothing was clear yet, until one day the bland legislator told him that considerations of expediency had compelled them to give the place he was asking for to another man.

“But what am I to do?” asked the helpless man.

“Oh, you just bide your time. I’ll look out for you. Never fear.”

Until now, Johnson had ignored the gentle hints of his friend, Col. Mason, about a boarding-house being more convenient than a hotel. Now, he asked him if there was a room vacant where he was staying, and finding that there was, he had his things moved thither at once. He felt the change keenly, and although no one really paid any attention to it, he believed that all Washington must have seen it, and hailed it as the first step in his degradation.

For a while the two together made occasional excursions to a glittering palace down the street, but when the money had grown lower and lower Col. Mason had the knack of bringing “a little something” to their rooms without a loss of dignity. In fact, it was in these hours with the old man, over a pipe and a bit of something, that Johnson was most nearly cheerful. Hitch after hitch had occurred in his plans, and day after day he had come home unsuccessful and discouraged. The crowning disappointment, though, came when, after a long session that lasted even up into the hot days of summer, Congress adjourned and his one hope went away. Johnson saw him just before his departure, and listened ruefully as he said: “I tell you, Cornelius, now, you’d better go on home, get back to your business and come again next year. The clouds of battle will be somewhat dispelled by then and we can see clearer what to do. It was too early this year. We were too near the fight still, and there were party wounds to be bound up and little factional sores that had to be healed. But next year, Cornelius, next year we’ll see what we can do for you.”

His constituent did not tell him that even if his pride would let him go back home a disappointed applicant, he had not the means wherewith to go. He did not tell him that he was trying to keep up appearances and hide the truth from his wife, who, with their two children, waited and hoped for him at home.

When he went home that night, Col. Mason saw instantly that things had gone wrong with him. But here the tact and delicacy of the old politician came uppermost and, without trying to draw his story from him–for he already divined the situation too well–he sat for a long time telling the younger man stories of the ups and downs of men whom he had known in his long and active life.

They were stories of hardship, deprivation and discouragement. But the old man told them ever with the touch of cheeriness and the note of humor that took away the ghastly hopelessness of some of the pictures. He told them with such feeling and sympathy that Johnson was moved to frankness and told him his own pitiful tale.

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Now that he had some one to whom he could open his heart, Johnson himself was no less willing to look the matter in the face, and even during the long summer days, when he had begun to live upon his wardrobe, piece by piece, he still kept up; although some of his pomposity went, along with the Prince Albert coat and the shiny hat. He now wore a shiny coat, and less showy head-gear. For a couple of weeks, too, he disappeared, and as he returned with some money, it was fair to presume that he had been at work somewhere, but he could not stay away from the city long.

It was nearing the middle of autumn when Col. Mason came home to their rooms one day to find his colleague more disheartened and depressed than he had ever seen him before. He was lying with his head upon his folded arm, and when he looked up there were traces of tears upon his face.

“Why, why, what’s the matter now?” asked the old man. “No bad news, I hope.”

“Nothing worse than I should have expected,” was the choking answer. “It’s a letter from my wife. She’s sick and one of the babies is down, but”–his voice broke–“she tells me to stay and fight it out. My God, Mason, I could stand it if she whined or accused me or begged me to come home, but her patient, long-suffering bravery breaks me all up.”

Col. Mason stood up and folded his arms across his big chest. “She’s a brave little woman,” he said, gravely. “I wish her husband was as brave a man.” Johnson raised his head and arms from the table where they were sprawled, as the old man went on: “The hard conditions of life in our race have taught our women a patience and fortitude which the women of no other race have ever displayed. They have taught the men less, and I am sorry, very sorry. The thing, that as much as anything else, made the blacks such excellent soldiers in the civil war was their patient endurance of hardship. The softer education of more prosperous days seems to have weakened this quality. The man who quails or weakens in this fight of ours against adverse circumstances would have quailed before–no, he would have run from an enemy on the field.”

“Why, Mason, your mood inspires me. I feel as if I could go forth to battle cheerfully.” For the moment, Johnson’s old pomposity had returned to him, but in the next, a wave of despondency bore it down. “But that’s just it; a body feels as if he could fight if he only had something to fight. But here you strike out and hit–nothing. It’s only a contest with time. It’s waiting–waiting–waiting!”

“In this case, waiting is fighting.”

“Well, even that granted, it matters not how grand his cause, the soldier needs his rations.”

“Forage,” shot forth the answer like a command.

“Ah, Mason, that’s well enough in good country; but the army of office-seekers has devastated Washington. It has left a track as bare as lay behind Sherman’s troopers.” Johnson rose more cheerfully. “I’m going to the telegraph office,” he said as he went out.

A few days after this, he was again in the best of spirits, for there was money in his pocket.

“What have you been doing?” asked Mr. Toliver.

His friend laughed like a boy. “Something very imprudent, I’m sure you will say. I’ve mortgaged my little place down home. It did not bring much, but I had to have money for the wife and the children, and to keep me until Congress assembles; then I believe that everything will be all right.”

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Col. Mason’s brow clouded and he sighed.

On the reassembling of the two Houses, Congressman Barker was one of the first men in his seat. Mr. Cornelius Johnson went to see him soon.

“What, you here already, Cornelius?” asked the legislator.

“I haven’t been away,” was the answer.

“Well, you’ve got the hang-on, and that’s what an officer-seeker needs. Well, I’ll attend to your matter among the very first. I’ll visit the President in a day or two.”

The listener’s heart throbbed hard. After all his waiting, triumph was his at last.

He went home walking on air, and Col. Mason rejoiced with him. In a few days came word from Barker: “Your appointment was sent in to-day. I’ll rush it through on the other side. Come up to-morrow afternoon.”

Cornelius and Mr. Toliver hugged each other.

“It came just in time,” said the younger man; “the last of my money was about gone, and I should have had to begin paying off that mortgage with no prospect of ever doing it.”

The two had suffered together, and it was fitting that they should be together to receive the news of the long-desired happiness; so arm in arm they sauntered down to the Congressman’s office about five o’clock the next afternoon. In honor of the occasion, Mr. Johnson had spent his last dollar in redeeming the grey Prince Albert and the shiny hat. A smile flashed across Barker’s face as he noted the change.

“Well, Cornelius,” he said, “I’m glad to see you still prosperous-looking, for there were some alleged irregularities in your methods down in Alabama, and the Senate has refused to confirm you. I did all I could for you, but–“

The rest of the sentence was lost, as Col. Mason’s arms received his friend’s fainting form.

“Poor devil!” said the Congressman. “I should have broken it more gently.”

Somehow Col. Mason got him home and to bed, where for nine weeks he lay wasting under a complete nervous give-down. The little wife and the children came up to nurse him, and the woman’s ready industry helped him to such creature comforts as his sickness demanded. Never once did she murmur; never once did her faith in him waver. And when he was well enough to be moved back, it was money that she had earned, increased by what Col. Mason, in his generosity of spirit, took from his own narrow means, that paid their second-class fare back to the South.

During the fever-fits of his illness, the wasted politician first begged piteously that they would not send him home unplaced, and then he would break out in the most extravagant and pompous boasts about his position, his Congressman and his influence. When he came to himself, he was silent, morose, and bitter. Only once did he melt. It was when he held Col. Mason’s hand and bade him good-bye. Then the tears came into his eyes, and what he would have said was lost among his broken words.

As he stood upon the platform of the car as it moved out, and gazed at the white dome and feathery spires of the city, growing into grey indefiniteness, he ground his teeth, and raising his spent hand, shook it at the receding view. “Damn you! damn you!” he cried. “Damn your deceit, your fair cruelties; damn you, you hard, white liar!”

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