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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 16
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
Apr 24, 2018
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The last installment of the Harry Peyton Steger saga found the Rhodes Scholar recuperating from a painful kidney malady.  Under doctor's orders, Steger had been instructed to leave Oxford in June of 1906 for the healing waters of an Austrian spa. 

Harry had tried to get his father to close up the house in Bonham and come join him for a summer in the Alps.  Evidently, in 1906, travel and living abroad was quite reasonable.

"It has occurred to me that it would not be absolutely beyond the realms of possibility for you to come to Bremen on a North Loyd German Steamer from Galveston," Harry wrote to his father, Bonham attorney Thomas Peyton Steger.  "Mither, I fear, would find the trip irksome."

Passage from Galveston to Bremen, which took about 20 days would cost $50; round trip fare was $90.

"Keep in mind that, for $16 a month, I can get you a nice room with a breakfast," Harry tells his dad, "and consider that it would make you ten years younger.  Life is short."

One bit of comic relief here is that Harry tells Mr. Steger that Cowie would meet him in Bremen and act as his guide.  This is the same Cowie that thought he was on a train bound for England and ended up in Holland instead.

Ever the pragmatic lawyer, Thomas Peyton Steger remained in Bonham and waited for Harry to come home for an extended visit once his kidney troubles improved.  The last letter from Karlsbad was dated July 9, 1906 and the family must have inquired about Harry's lost love.

"Dad is mistaken," Steger says stoically.  "I haven't heard from_____ in nearly two months."

The next letter was dated August 7, 1906.

"Your letter was waiting for me when I got home," Harry informs his closest friend, Roy Bedichek.  "Oh yes, I had a pleasant trip.  Slept in same cabin with Polish Jew that scratched himself when he talked."

No doubt that passage conjured up an image Bedicheck could have done without.

"Lomax's version of my illness is a true one," Steger continued.  "I had, among other things, incipient Bright's disease and a stone in the kidney.  I think they are all gone."

The homecoming must have done Harry much good, because this was the first feisty letter, full of what his friends referred to as Stegerisms, in quite some time.

"I'll not pretend that I have deciphered your itinerary," Steger writes to Bedi.  "After reading your time-table paragraph I get the impression you can come to Dallas or some other 'town on the Katy near Bonham.'  I wish I knew exactly what you seemed to know when you made the plan.  Here's my plan.  Tell me 24 hours--better 48 hours--ahead (there is a system of telegraphic communication in action at most R.R. stations) where and when you want me to meet you.  Bedi, I want to see that old dirty yellow mane of your worse than I do the historic (they are very old, I understand) pyramids of Egypt.  Don't be indiscreet and expend too much money on the consummation of this reunion; but for God's sake give us the chance to dovetail again before we both get fat, old and decent.  I sent material re Tristan d' Acunha under separate cover.  Read this matter leisurely and chronologically.  Pay particular attention to the career of that grand old Tristandacunhanian patriarch, Peter Green.  Preserve this material and return it to me flesh to flesh.  You are a crank now.  I sent you a newspaper clipping--a newspaper tearing--about this island.  I had--as you would have done in the Barnhart Spindler days--tore this column out.  You, you file, voul (did I touch a chord?), pink-haired, aesthete, trimmed it off daintily, cut it off symmetrically and sent it back."

-- H.P.S. Rex et Imperator Tristan d' Acunhaiae

There was no further mention of the reunion and the next letter was dated October 10, 1906.  Harry was two thousand miles at sea on his return trip to Oxford.  He had slipped the chief steward a couple of bucks in return for a private room near the bathroom.  As it turned out, there were three other Rhodes Scholars on the ship and Steger took advantage of this captive audience to introduce the domino game "42" into the Oxford culture. 

Harry wrote home to ask his father to check at the Fannin County Bank about a 10-dollar exchange and to tell the Bonham lawyer that he had decided to pursue courses in law at Oxford.  Harry didn't seem to particularly care about the degree, but he sensed that this study would pay dividends in the days ahead.  The tutors at Oxford even altered courses in order to give Steger the most practical study possible. 

In December 1906, Harry was elected president of the Arnold Literary Society, the largest debate club at Oxford.  About a week later, Harry wrote home that he was now living at Tybee Hall with a group of Oxford men that were investigating deplorable living conditions in the London slums.  A harsh winter followed, with rising unemployment fueling the difficult experiences for many east Londoners that Steger was now chronicling in American, German and English magazines.

In order to accurately write about the frightening perspective of a homeless tramp, Harry set out penniless on a 250-mile walk from Queensboro to London, often surviving on backdoor handouts and sleeping in parks and sheds.  His election to lead the most prominent debate club at Oxford and Harry's luxurious life at Balliol College must have seemed a lifetime removed from the tramp hoping to find a handout and a place to lay his head at night. 

And don't forget that only eight months earlier Steger had been hospitalized and suffering from serious kidney disease.  But Steger was finding a market for his writing now and he was convinced that there would be even greater profit in a news syndicate if Bedichek would join forces.  Steger's unique humor surfaced when two of his close friends, Roy Sewell and Carrie Gardener, announced their nuptials.  The occasion, as weddings often did, called for a roast and Steger wasted no time.

"Dear Idiot and the Other One," Harry addressed his congratulatory response.  "I was digesting Old English Plum Pudding in a Dago restaurant when appeared the maid, with a bucket of slop in one hand, a smudge of dirt on her nose and your massive, engraved parchment in the other."

Evidently, either the "idiot" or the "other one" didn't understand the postage system, because Harry had to pay, apparently quite begrudgingly, 13 cents upon receipt of the wedding announcement.

"Do either one of you have any idea what 13 cents is worth down in the cellars?" Harry asked, teeming with mock indignation. 

He then took the time to explain he could get a shave (3 cents), grab a breakfast consisting of bulbous kidneys and a cup of seaweed coffee (6 cents), follow that with five wild Woodbine cigarettes (2 cents) and still have enough left over (2 cents) for a ride on top of an omnibus.

"Seriously, I tried to cable you my congratulations," Harry finally admitted, "but the offices were closed in honor of the King's having shot ten tail feathers out of the royal pheasant."

Previous Steger articles: