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MY NAME IS PAINE
On a cool, pleasant early fall morning, in the year 1774, Dr. Benjamin Franklin was told that Thomas Paine had been waiting to see him for almost an hour. Dr. Franklin, who had lived in England for many years, who was known through all the civilized world as a great scholar, a witty philosopher, a scientist of no mean parts, and altogether a good deal of a man, was acquainted with everyone in England who mattered, and a good many who did not matter, but whose names did. Yet he could not recall ever having heard of Thomas Paine.
The old man who announced visitors said that Mr. Paine was not a gentleman.
It was no novelty for Dr. Franklin to have visitors who were not gentlemen, yet the curl of the old servant's lips defined an extreme. Franklin wrinkled his nose to set his glasses a trifle closer to his eyes, moved his big, shaggy head, and said without looking up from the letter he was writing, "Well, show him in, why don't you?" and then added somewhat testily, "Why didn't you tell me he was waiting? Why didn't you show him in before?"
"He be dirty," the old man said sourly, and went out, and then came back a moment later leading the other, who set himself just inside the door, almost defiantly, and said,
"My name is Paine, sir!"
Dr. Franklin put away his pen, studied his visitor for a moment or two, and then smiled and said, "Mine is Franklin, sir. I'm sorry I kept you waiting," nodding for the servant to leave the room.
"I'm sorry I waited," Paine said belligerently. "You had no other visitors. You can tell me to go to the devil now, and I'll be off. I didn't want to see the King, only Dr. Franklin. And I didn't have anything to do but to sit there."
Dr. Franklin continued to smile and look at his visitor. Paine wasn't handsome; he wasn't prepossessing; somewhere between thirty and forty, the doctor thought, his sharp hooked nose adding years if anything. His chin was sharp, his mouth full, his oddly twisted eyes tight with bitterness and resentment; virtue or evil in that face, but no joy for a long time and no hope either. His whiskers were a week on his face, and he needed washing. He was not tall nor short, but of medium height, with the powerful, sloping shoulders of a workman who has put in long hours at a bench, and his hands were from the bench, meaty and broad. His cheap coat had split under both arms and his breeches were paper thin at the knees; his stockings were a shambles and his toes breathed freely in what were never good shoes.
"How long is it since you've eaten?" Franklin asked.
"That's none of your damn business! I didn't come for charity."
"Sit down, please," Franklin said quietly, and then went out and came back in a few minutes with a loaf of bread, a piece of meat, and a crock of beer. He set it all down on the table, and then went back to his letter writing, nor did he look up again until Paine had finished and was standing up, uncomfortable and somewhat abashed.
"Feel better?" Franklin asked.
Paine nodded; inside of him, something was burning uneasily; his toes tried to draw into the battered shoes, and with a hand in either pocket, he attempted to stare Franklin down. Drawing out of one pocket a handful of dirty bills and silver, he said, "There's thirty guineas. I didn't come for charity."
"I didn't think you did," Franklin answered. "Why don't you sit down? Why don't you let the world roll by, Mr. Paine, instead of trying to hold it on your shoulders? I approve of thrift, and if a man wants thirty guineas in his pocket and not a shilling's worth on his back, it's reasonable enough for me. But a man's bread isn't to be refused, and there's no charity in breaking some of it. Who are you, Mr. Paine, and what do you want of me?"
"I want to go to America," Paine blurted out. "You're an American. I heard you were an easy man, even with nobody, and not to begrudge something that won't cost you a penny. I thought maybe you'd write me a letter for a position."
Still holding the money in his hand, Paine nodded slowly, put the money away, tried to say something, and succeeded only in muttering a few words that meant practically nothing. Then he sat down and spread his broad hands to cover his threadbare knees. Then he fingered his week's growth of beard. Franklin didn't watch him; sealing a letter, glancing up only for a moment, he asked Paine's trade.
"Staymaker," Paine answered, and then added, "Yes—for ladies' corsets and men's vests. I was an excise man," he said, "a gauger for fifty pounds a year. I'm a bad carpenter; I cobbled shoes for sixpence a day because I wanted to live, although God knows why. I swept a weaver's booth for half of that and sold ribbons for maybe twice. I write sometimes," he finished.
"What do you write?" Franklin asked quietly.
"What a man can't say because he's got no guts in him to say it!"
They had talked for an hour. Paine had put down a quart of the beer. His twisted eyes glittered and his broad hands clenched and unclenched with almost rhythmical nervousness. He had forgotten his clothes, his beard, his unwashed skin, his memories; and lost himself in the fascination of an old man who was strangely young and vibrant, and wise as men said he was.
"What is America like?" he asked Franklin.
"Like a promise, or like Scotland or Wales or Sussex, or like none of them, or like a yoke around a man's neck, depending on the man, or like a bonnet to set on his head."
"It goes on," Franklin said. "It's not been explored or surveyed—" There was a note of regret in his voice, as if here was one thing he would have liked to do, but had let slip by.
"I thought of it that way."
"Good wages," Franklin said. "Nobody starves if he wants to work."
"Nobody starves," Paine repeated.
"You can burn there." Franklin smiled. "The fire won't singe anybody."
"I've had enough of burning," Paine said stolidly. "I want a coat on my back and a pair of good shoes. I want to be able to walk into a tavern and put down a guinea like I knew what a guinea was instead of just the smell of it, and I don't have to worry about the change."
"Have you any Latin?"
"You're Quaker born and bred, aren't you?"
"I was, I don't know what I am now. I tried to bang out, and I hit my head against the wall. I'm a little drunk, Dr. Franklin, and there's no bridle on my tongue, but this isn't a good country; it stinks, it rots like a pile of dung, and I want to go away and get out of it and not see it again, and aside from that I don't want so much, only some food and a place to sleep and some work to do."
"You can have that," Franklin said thoughtfully. "I'll write you a letter, if it will help you. Don't bang against the wall, but put a penny by here and there and find a piece of land in Pennsylvania, where land's cheap, and get your hands into it."
"I'll write to my son-in-law, who will do something for you."
Paine kept nodding, trying to say somehow that Franklin was being good to him, very good. Paine was a little drunk and tired, his sharp head rocking forward, his twisted eyes closing, the whole of him, wretched clothes and dirty skin and beard, and curious pointed features making a disturbing enigma that Franklin remembered for long years afterward whenever he thought of Tom Paine. Franklin had a taste for enigmas, yet this was one he would never solve.
"Get thee to America, if thee will not work," Paine's father told him when the boy was thirteen years old, and had had more than enough of schooling and dreaming and wandering in the lush fields of old Thetford and climbing in the ruins of the old castle and building castles of his own and thinking that childhood goes on forever.
"Not stays," he said stubbornly.
"And thee are one to say stays or not stays!"
"And thee know another trade, thee stubborn, ill-mannered, ill-weaned whelp."
He was apprenticed to the art and shown how an artist works. Mrs. Hardy, who was some sort of quality, on the borderline in those days when quality was not nearly so rigidly defined as twenty-five years later, had come to have her corset fitted. Mrs. Hardy weighed two hundred pounds, and most of it was in midriff and above, a bosom like the heathered hills of Scotland and a belly that had given passage to more ale than the Dog's Head Inn. She hadn't bathed in the fourteen months since she had been to the watering place at Bath, and in his first day as a staymaker he had to ram his head against her belly. He had to go into the mysteries and tug and tug, while she squealed like a pig.
"Get thee onto it, Thomas!" his father commanded.
He hung on the laces, while Mrs. Hardy roared, "Paine, you rascal, you're twelve inches short."
"You're twelve inches long," the thirteen-year-old thought miserably. He braced a hand, and it sank deep into a monstrous huge breast.
"Get thee onto it, Thomas," his father repeated, stony and secure in his shell, then stepping out of the room for a moment. Thomas was lost; he sank deeper and deeper into the ocean of flesh; caught in terror and hot misery, he forgot the laces and the corset snapped open and the flesh rolled out at him. Snickering, "You little rascal, you little rascal," she caught him in her arms. He struggled, sank deeper, fought for his life, then broke loose and ran from the shop, across the fields, panting like a dog until he threw himself down in the shadow of the old ruins.
Twelve of the best laid his behind open and bleeding; he was going to be a staymaker; his father had been a staymaker. Otherwise, get thee to America. Old Paine wasn't a hard man, but there was a way of things, and what you were your son was; the world was a bitter, angry place, and if you earned your honest shilling, that was all God gave you reason to expect. Now Tom Paine was going to America, leaving more broken things behind him than a set of stays, and no man really remembers what was here and what was there at the age of thirteen. He had dozed off, and he looked up now to hear Benjamin Franklin reading the letter he had written so kindly to his son-in-law, Richard Bache, a person of influence in a far-off place called Philadelphia:
"—the bearer, Mr. Thomas Paine (and that was America for you, titled Mr. Paine, this dirty raggle-taggle, and not by nobody or anybody, but by Dr. Benjamin Franklin, the wisest man in the world) is very well recommended to me as an ingenious worthy young man—(and hear that, worthy young man). He goes to Pennsylvania with a view of settling there. I request you to give him your best advice and countenance, as he is quite a stranger there. If you can put him in the way of obtaining employment as a clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor, of all of which I think him very capable, so that he may procure a subsistence at least, till he can make acquaintance and obtain a knowledge of the country, you will do well and much oblige your affectionate father—"
"I want to do something," Paine said. "No one was so good to me; I have no friends. If I thought to give you some money, you would laugh at me."
"Give it to someone else," Franklin said evenly. "Stop pitying yourself. Wash and shave off your beard, and don't think the world has knocked you harder than anyone else."CHAPTER 2
AMERICA IS THE PROMISED LAND
This was the great crossing, east to west for nine weeks, and then off the edge of the world, as the old folks back in Thetford believed, having never gotten more than a mile or two from their native heath. But he was Tom Paine the traveler and adventurer, not the staymaker and weaver's assistant, and he had sailed for nine weeks on a fever-ridden ship. Now he was dying; no one knew and no one cared, and the captain was too sick himself to be bothered. The ship gently rocked in the placid sunshine that flooded the Delaware River, with the red roofs of Philadelphia only a stone's throw off, while in the blackness of the sick-hold Tom Paine groaned away his life.
He didn't care, he told himself. Franklin had said, "Stop pitying yourself." He cursed Franklin; well enough for Franklin, who lived like a fat old toad in England; the world was good for some, but you could count them on the fingers of a hand, and for the others it was a pen and a jail and a desolation. Like a pinned-down fly on a board, a man struggled for a time and then died, and then there was nothing, as in the beginning there had been nothing. Why should Tom Paine fight it? Why should he fight disease and hunger and loneliness and misery?
He wouldn't fight it, now he would die, and his pity was such an enormous thing that he was thrilled and amazed by the spectacle of himself. He wept for himself, and then wiped away the tears and allowed sunny memories of long ago to creep in. A child in Thetford walked on a flower-decked hillside. May Adams, who had long braids, ran before him into the vine-grown ruins and fell and hurt her knee, and he licked out the dirt and then kissed her. Wrong, she said, and when he asked why, only repeated, wrong, wrong; yet for all that they became lovers and no one knew. She died of the pox when he was not much older and he held the sorrow inside of him, sitting at his bench and making a corset for Jenny Literton, not eating, not stopping, his father saying, "There's a boy with industry, and a change from the rascal he was."
Everything died; now he was dying because Franklin had sent him off to America.
The fever ship held the spotlight at the waterfront, and in the twenty-four hours after she docked almost half the people in Philadelphia came down to have a look at her. It was told how five bodies were dropped overboard during the nine weeks, though you wouldn't know it just to look at her; as the sickly passengers, the convalescing passengers, the tottering passengers came ashore, each told a different version of the lurid story. One of them mentioned a man in the hold who had a letter written by Franklin, and Dr. Kearsley who was trying to set up in the great city of America and having a rather hard time of it, smelled a fee.
"What's his name?"
"Paine, I think."
"Did you see the letter?" Kearsley asked cautiously.
"No, I heard about it."
"You?" the doctor asked someone else.
A fee was a fee, but to go onto the fever ship for nothing at all was not part of a doctor's duty. "Did he come in the bilge?"
The bilge had been full of indentured servants, among whom the sickness had first started, and already the still tottering captain was discussing their sale with a pair of prosperous Philadelphia merchants.
"Duty's duty," the doctor said, and went on board. He went down into the stinking hold, and stumbling over bodies, cursing and regretting that duty bulked so large, yelled above the groaning for Mr. Paine.
Mr. Paine answered. The doctor had a candle which wavered and flickered in the foul air, but candle and all it was a task to pick out Tom Paine, and the search over, a thankless task it seemed to the doctor. The clothes were the same, the beard worse, the dirt thicker, the whole a disgusting bundle of rags and misery that whispered for the doctor to go away and allow it to die in peace.
"Ah, and die you shall," the doctor said to himself.
"Go away," Paine groaned.
"You have a letter from Franklin?" Kearsley inquired, clutching at one last straw.
"Yes, damn him!"
"Ah—and what money, my good lad?"
"Three pounds seven," Paine whispered.
"Ah! And tomorrow you'll be up and walking! Got the money with you? Got any luggage?"
"Can't you see I'm dying?"
The doctor left and then returned with the boatman, who demanded three shillings before he would step onto the ship. Hand and foot, they took Tom Paine, dragged him out into the air, and then dumped him like a pile of rags into the bottom of the boat.
There was a last spark of defiance and consciousness in Paine, only enough for him to call the doctor and boatman a pair of bastards and ask why he hadn't been left to die. The doctor was equally frank, and as the boatman pulled for shore he leaned over his sweating, suffering patient and explained, "Because three pounds seven are not come by every day, not by a man who's starting in practice. I'm not a thief; I'll earn the money; you'll live, though God only knows why."
"The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away; blessed be the Lord," said a Quaker lady who brought him a box of cookies and a scent bag to hang under his nose. She had heard that there was a homeless one living with Kearsley, and that he was profane and dirty, and that Kearsley had wagered the great Dr. Japes twenty pounds that the patient wouldn't die. That was blasphemous. Now Paine admitted to her that he had been born and raised a Quaker, while Kearsley snickered at the foot of the bed—which made matters worse.
"Pray," she told Paine. "Beg the Lord's forgiveness and his everlasting mercy."
"He's cured now." Kearsley smiled.
"Pray, pray!" she called back as she fled from the room, and Kearsley leaned over the footboard, shaking with laughter.
"What a filthy devil you are," Paine said.
"Call the kettle black! Didn't I give you your first bath?"
"Get out of here."
Excerpted from Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1986 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 12, 2012
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