The Fortune Hunter

Author: David Graham Phillips

IX an Idyl of Plain People

Hilda had not spent her nineteen years in the glare of the Spartan publicity in which the masses live without establishing a character. Just as she knew all the good points and bad in all the people of that community, so they knew all hers, and therefore knew what it was possible for her to do and what impossible. And if a baseless lie is swift of foot where everybody minutely scrutinizes everybody else, it is also scant of breath. Sophie’s scandal soon dwindled to a whisper and expired, and the kindlier and probable explanation of Hilda’s wan face and downcast eyes was generally accepted.

Her code of morals and her method of dealing with moral questions were those of all the people about her—strict, severe, primitive. Feuerstein was a cheat, a traitor. She cast him out of her heart—cast him out at once and utterly and for ever. She could think of him only with shame. And it seemed to her that she was herself no longer pure—she had touched pitch; how could she be undefiled?

She accepted these conclusions and went about her work, too busy to indulge in hysteria of remorse, repining, self-examination.

She avoided Otto, taking care not to be left alone with him when he called on Sundays, and putting Sophie between him and her when he came up to them in the Square. But Otto was awaiting his chance, and when it came, plunged boldly into his heart-subject and floundered bravely about. "I don’t like to see you so sad, Hilda. Isn’t there any chance for me? Can’t things be as they used to be?"

Hilda shook her head sadly. "I’m never going to marry," she said. "You must find some one else."

"It’s you or nobody. I said that when we were in school together and—I’ll stick to it." His eyes confirmed his words.

"You mustn’t, Otto. You make me feel as if I were spoiling your life. And if you knew, you wouldn’t want to marry me."

"I don’t care. I always have, and I always will."

"I suppose I ought to tell you," she said, half to herself. She turned to him suddenly, and, with flushed cheeks and eyes that shifted, burst out: "Otto, he was a married man!"

"But you didn’t know."

"It doesn’t change the way I feel. You might—any man might—throw it up to me. And sooner or later, everybody’ll know. No man would want a girl that had had a scandal like that on her."

"I would," he said, "and I do. And it isn’t a scandal."

Some one joined them and he had no chance to continue until the following Sunday, when Heiligs and Brauners went together to the Bronx for a half-holiday. They could not set out until their shops closed, at half-past twelve, and they had to be back at five to reopen for the Sunday supper customers. They lunched under the trees in the yard of a German inn, and a merry party they were.

Hilda forgot to keep up her pretense that her healing wounds were not healing and never would heal. She teased Otto and even flirted with him. This elevated her father and his mother to hilarity. They were two very sensible young-old people, with a keen sense of humor—the experience of age added to the simplicity and gaiety of youth.

You would have paused to admire and envy had you passed that way and looked in under the trees, as they clinked glasses and called one to another and went off into gales of mirth over nothing at all. What laughter is so gay as laughter at nothing at all? Any one must laugh when there is something to laugh at; but to laugh just because one must have an outlet for bubbling spirits there’s the test of happiness!

After luncheon they wandered into the woods and soon Otto and Hilda found themselves alone, seated by a little waterfall, which in a quiet, sentimental voice suggested that low tones were the proper tones to use in that place.

"We’ve known each other always, Hilda," said Otto. "And we know all about each other. Why not—dear?"

She did not speak for several minutes.

"You know I haven’t any heart to give you," she answered at last.

Otto did not know anything of the kind, but he knew she thought so, and he was too intelligent to dispute, when time would settle the question—and, he felt sure, would settle it right. So he reached out and took her hand and said: "I’ll risk that."

And they sat watching the waterfall and listening to it, and they were happy in a serious, tranquil way. It filled him with awe to think that he had at last won her. As for her, she was looking forward, without illusions, without regrets, to a life of work and content beside this strong, loyal, manly man who protested little, but never failed her or any one else.

On the way home in the train she told her mother, and her mother told her father. He, then and there, to the great delight and pleasure of the others in the car, rose up and embraced and kissed first his daughter, then Otto and then Otto’s mother. And every once in a while he beamed down the line of his party and said: "This is a happy day!"

And he made them all come into the sitting-room back of the shop. "Wait here," he commanded. "No one must move!"

He went down to the cellar, presently to reappear with a dusty bottle of Johannisberger Cabinet. He pointed proudly to the seal. "Bronze!" he exclaimed. "It is wine like gold. It must be drunk slowly." He drew the cork and poured the wine with great ceremony, and they all drank with much touching of glasses and bowing and exchanging of good wishes, now in German, now in English, again in both. And the last toast, the one drunk with the greatest enthusiasm, was Brauner’s favorite famous "Arbeit und Liebe und Heim!"

From that time forth Hilda began to look at Otto from a different point of view. And everything depends on point of view.

Then—the house in which Schwartz and Heilig had their shop was burned. And when their safe was drawn from the ruins, they found that their insurance had expired four days before the fire. It was Schwartz’s business to look after the insurance, but Otto had never before failed to oversee. His mind had been in such confusion that he had forgotten.

He stared at the papers, stunned by the disaster. Schwartz wrung his hands and burst into tears. "I saw that you were in trouble," he wailed, "and that upset me. It’s my fault. I’ve ruined us both."

There was nothing left of their business or capital, nothing but seven hundred dollars in debts to the importers of whom they bought.

Heilig shook off his stupor after a few minutes. "No matter," he said. "What’s past is past."

He went straightway over to Second Avenue to the shop of Geishener, the largest delicatessen dealer in New York.

"I’ve been burned out," he explained. "I must get something to do."

Geishener offered him a place at eleven dollars a week. "I’ll begin in the morning," said Otto. Then he went to Paul Brauner.

"When will you open up again?" asked Brauner.

"Not for a long time, several years. Everything’s gone and I’ve taken a place with Geishener. I came to say that—that I can’t marry your daughter."

Brauner did not know what answer to make. He liked Otto and had confidence in him. But the masses of the people build their little fortunes as coral insects build their islands. And Hilda was getting along—why, she would be twenty in four months. "I don’t know. I don’t know." Brauner rubbed his head in embarrassment and perplexity. "It’s bad—very bad. And everything was running so smoothly."

Hilda came in. Both men looked at her guiltily. "What is it?" she asked. And if they had not been mere men they would have noticed a change in her face, a great change, very wonderful and beautiful to see.

"I came to release you," said Otto.

"I’ve got nothing left—and a lot of debts. I—"

"Yes—I know," interrupted Hilda. She went up to him and put her arm round his neck. "We’ll have to begin at the bottom," she said with a gentle, cheerful smile.

Brauner pretended that he heard some one calling him from the shop. "Yes right away!" he shouted. And when he was alone in the shop he wiped his eyes, not before a large tear had blistered the top sheet of a pile of wrapping paper.

"I know you don’t care for me as—as" —Otto was standing uneasily, his eyes down and his face red. "It was hard enough for you before. Now—I couldn’t let you do it—dear."

"You can’t get rid of me so easily," she said. "I know I’m getting along and I won’t be an old maid."

He paid no attention to her raillery. "I haven’t got anything to ask you to share," he went on. "I’ve been working ever since I was eleven—and that’s fourteen years—to get what I had. And it’s all gone. It’ll take several years to pay off my debts, and mother must be supported. No—I’ve got to give it up."

"Won’t you marry me, Otto?" She put her arms round his neck.

His lips trembled and his voice broke. "I can’t—let you do it, Hilda."

"Very well." She pretended to sigh.

"But you must come back this evening. I want to ask you again."

"Yes, I’ll come. But you can’t change me."

He went, and she sat at the table, with her elbows on it and her face between her hands, until her father came in. Then she said: "We’re going to be married next week. And I want two thousand dollars. We’ll give you our note."

Brauner rubbed his face violently.

"We’re going to start a delicatessen," she continued, "in the empty store where Bischoff was. It’ll take two thousand dollars to start right."

"That’s a good deal of money," objected her father.

"You only get three and a half per cent. in the savings bank," replied Hilda. "We’ll give you six. You know it’ll be safe—Otto and I together can’t fail to do well."

Brauner reflected. "You can have the money," he said.

She went up the Avenue humming softly one of Heine’s love songs, still with that wonderful, beautiful look in her eyes. She stopped at the tenement with the vacant store. The owner, old man Schulte, was sweeping the sidewalk. He had an income of fifteen thousand a year; but he held that he needed exercise, that sweeping was good exercise, and that it was stupid for a man, simply because he was rich, to stop taking exercise or to take it only in some form which had no useful side.

"Good morning," said Hilda. "What rent do you ask for this store?"

"Sixty dollars a month," answered the old man, continuing his sweeping. "Taxes are up, but rents are down."

"Not with you, I guess. Otto Heilig and I are going to get married and open a delicatessen. But sixty dollars a month is too much. Good morning." And she went on.

Schulte leaned on his broom. "What’s your hurry?" he called. "You can’t get as good a location as this."

Hilda turned, but seemed to be listening from politeness rather than from interest.

"We can’t pay more than forty," she answered, starting on her way again.

"I might let you have it for fifty," Schulte called after her, "if you didn’t want any fixing up."

"It’d have to be fixed up," said Hilda, halting again. "But I don’t care much for the neighborhood. There are too many delicatessens here now."

She went on more rapidly and the old man resumed his sweeping, muttering crossly into his long, white beard. As she came down the other side of the street half an hour later, she was watching Schulte from the corner of her eye. He was leaning on his broom, watching her. Seeing that she was going to pass without stopping he called to her and went slowly across the street. "You would make good tenants," he said. "I had to sue Bischoff. You can have it for forty—if you’ll pay for the changes you want—you really won’t want any."

"I was looking at it early this morning," replied Hilda. "There’ll have to be at least two hundred dollars spent. But then I’ve my eye on another place."

"Forty’s no rent at all," grumbled the old man, pulling at his whiskers.

"I can get a store round in Seventh Street for thirty-five and that includes three rooms at the back. You’ve got only one room at the back."

"There’s a kitchen, too," said Schulte.

"A kitchen? Oh, you mean that closet."

"I’ll let you have it for forty, with fifty the second year."

"No, forty for two years. We can’t pay more. We’re just starting, and expenses must be kept down."

"Well, forty then. You are nice people—hard workers. I want to see you get on." The philanthropic old man returned to his sweeping. "Always the way, dealing with a woman," he growled into his beard. "They don’t know the value of anything. Well, I’ll get my money anyway, and that’s a point."

She spent the day shopping and by half-past five had her arrangements almost completed. And she told every one about the coming marriage and the new shop and asked them to spread the news.

"We’ll be open for business next Saturday a week," she said. "Give us a trial."

By nightfall Otto was receiving congratulations. He protested, denied, but people only smiled and winked. "You’re not so sly as you think," they said. "No doubt she promised to keep it quiet, but you know how it is with a woman."

When he called at Brauner’s at seven he was timid about going in. "They’ve heard the story," he said to himself, "and they must think I went crazy and told it."

She had been bold enough all day, but she was shy, now that the time had come to face him and confess—she had been a little shy with him underneath ever since she had suddenly awakened to the fact that he was a real hero—in spite of his keeping a shop just like everybody else and making no pretenses. He listened without a word.

"You can’t back out now," she ended.

Still he was silent. "Are you angry at me?" she asked timidly.

He could not speak. He put his arms round her and pressed his face into her waving black hair. "MY Hilda," he said in a low voice. And she felt his blood beating very fast, and she understood.

"Arbeit und Liebe und Heim," she quoted slowly and softly.


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Chicago: David Graham Phillips, "IX an Idyl of Plain People," The Fortune Hunter, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in The Fortune Hunter (New York: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1894), Original Sources, accessed March 29, 2023,

MLA: Phillips, David Graham. "IX an Idyl of Plain People." The Fortune Hunter, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in The Fortune Hunter, Vol. 22, New York, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1894, Original Sources. 29 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Phillips, DG, 'IX an Idyl of Plain People' in The Fortune Hunter, ed. . cited in 1894, The Fortune Hunter, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 29 March 2023, from