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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 10
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
Apr 16, 2018
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Talk about a change of scenery.


The last time we heard from Harry Peyton Steger, he was bunkered down in burned out Baltimore.


On February 7, 1904, mere months before Steger arrived at Johns Hopkins University, a fire in Baltimore had destroyed 1,500 buildings in a 30-hour inferno.



But just listen to our friend from Fannin County now.


"The fine sea air has kept me ravenous," Steger writes his parents.  "There have been beautiful sunsets.  We have passed scores of ocean liners; we have been out of the sight of land twelve days; we have seen whales; we have seen enormous icebergs (two of them weighing over two million tons); porpoises; sailboats; lighthouses.  The coast of France, the cliffs of Dover, the Isle of Wight, the English war fleet; we have had dances on board; we have seen the phosphorescent sea.  It has been my most delightful week."

Harry is on his way to spend the summer in Germany and then it's on to Oxford.

Steger has finally been appointed a Rhodes Scholar. 

And he had known all along this would happen. 

Harry considered Germany "the land of scholars" and during his year at Johns Hopkins University, Steger was even hesitant to spend time at the wharfs for fear he might secure steerage on a German steamer.  He had been chasing the Rhodes Scholarship for two years, ever since being passed over at the University of Texas due a "$4,500 joke" that Steger referred to later as his "naughty" incident.  But all this was in the cards and, in every letter, it seemed Harry had been given a peek at the hand that would be dealt him.  Soon Steger would be tramping about Europe.  

Unfortunately, Steger wasn't able to share this experience with the person he had been talking about it for years - Roy Bedichek, Steger's first roommate at UT.

Or, would he?

"I'm a fortune teller," Harry Peyton Steger once joked to a friend.

Maybe he was. 

After all, Harry complained that his health had been an issue since his late teens.  The headaches and insomnia could largely be ignored, but when a 20-year-old writer's eyes suddenly began causing trouble, it was time to see a professional.

"My eyes gave out completely," Steger tells Bedichek in 1903.  "The oculist, or optician, or ophthalmologist, or eye-doctor, told me in accents humid with tears that I would have to quit my work.  Of course that is all rot; but I will have to calm down a little bit."

Was Steger's health slipping away?  His close friends certainly were.

"I have held for years that a friend's marriage takes him away from the haunts of his single friends and that they are gradually separated forever," Harry had once confided to Peewee Witt, yet no one could be more sincerely thrilled when a dear friend found a soulmate.

And as Steger set his sails for Europe, one by one friends were disappearing from the inner circle.

First it was John Lomax and Bess Brown. Then Peewee Witt, another impressive chum who would morph into Texas Lieutenant Governor Edgar Witt, married Gwynne, or as Harry called her, Gwynnynynynyneeyenene.

Then Dexter Hamilton, Damnibidexterous Deck, of Corsicana, Texas recoiled from Steger after falling prey to the sting of Cupid's arrow.

"My dear old Deck, is it really so?" Steger inquires.  "I am afraid it is not, so I won't allow myself too much latitude.  However, if you have gone and inflicted yourself on another, for weal or woe, veal or ham, for batter or for wurst, let me be the first to bless you.  Man is a useless animal by himself; and, if there was ever a mixture of heaven and hell, dark and bright, wit and pathos, buttermilk and champagne, I guess you are it.  If you haven't married, be sure to do it by tomorrow night.  It's all that will save you." 

For Harry, however, the vivid love interests seemed to fade out of sight.  Instead, he received an interesting letter from a cousin, Edith Lee Collier that Steger had played with 20 years before as a child in Moscow, Tennessee.  Gifted intellects were obviously a family trait because Harry was officially a Rhodes Scholar and Edith was a Vassar girl.

"Your letter brought back to me many a memory of mud-pies, 'pokeberry ink' and 'playing house,'" Harry wrote back.   "I am a dull old grind of a student in dead - and dying - languages. I leave here within a week now, for a summer's studies in Germany, in or around Bonn, Heidelberg and Zena -- with tramps through the country from time to time.  What are you?  In view of the old, old times, can't you tell me something of how the years have gone for you since we were 'infants' together?  Then, if you will listen, I will tell you the story of me sad little life."

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