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Paul the Peddler: Plot Summary

Paul the Peddler; or, The Adventures of a Young Street Merchant, Boston: A. K. Loring, 1871

Paul the Peddler cover image is borrowed from the Dime Novels Collection of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester          The narrator introduces the hero, Paul Hoffman, as the fourteen-year-old sells "prize packages." An elementary gambling game, he sells envelopes that have either candy or money in them; although the odds are poor, the price to play is cheap, and he performs well. Paul is a second generation American, whose late father was a skillful cabinet-maker. Since Paul's business is an odd one to the typical Alger hero, the narrator explains that Paul has pride in his personal appearance, and deigns to be a bootblack. As for the selling of newspapers, he did not care for the competition. He lives with his mother, who sews shirts to contribute towards their apartment, and his nine-year-old brother, who is lame but possesses an exceptional artistic ability.
          The first major event of the novel involves a plot by bullies Mike Donovan and Jim Parker, who plan to rob Paul Hoffman. While one runs into him, the other one steals his winnings for the day. Although Paul puts up a heated pursuit, he fails in the end, running into an older businessman while the two get away. The two bullies then set up their own prize games, which promise bigger winnings but are actually swindles. With the unfair competition, Paul abandons the prize game.
          Luckily, Paul Hoffman encounters George Barry, a street-corner necktie salesman who has just taken ill. Paul offers to fill in for half profits. Paul's salesmanship is much better than George's, who, the narrator supplies is "not possessed of superior business ability...[and] lacking in energy and push" (75). Whereas George does not push the customer for better sales, Paul recognizes big buyers and knows how to speak to the customer.
          Next, Mrs. Hoffman is put out of shirt-sewing business. The family fears for their well-being, but luckily, Paul has a chance encounter with Patron Mr. Preston, the man he ran into when chasing the bullies. He enquires after Paul's family, and when he hears of their bad luck, he offers a very high rate of pay for Mrs. Hoffman's sewing services. When Paul asks why Mr. Preston would be willing to give such assistance, the businessman replies, "I have some faith in physiognomy, and you have an honest face" (115).
          Eventually, George Barry recovers, but is soon after offered a clerkship in Philadelphia. He offers to sell the stand to Paul Hoffman for thirty-five dollars. He does not have the money up front, so Paul asks George to hold the offer for a short time. When he explains his desire to his mother, she gives him a gold ring that she had found on the street a year ago. Although she had put an advertisement in the paper reporting the ring found, no one ever came forward to claim it. She asks Paul to pawn it and consider her a partner in the necktie stand. This entails a visit to the pawnbroker, Eliakim Henderson, an Englishman. The following passage details the exchange between Paul and the greedy man:
          "Eliakim took it, and his small, beadlike eyes sparkled avariciously as he recognized the diamond, for his experience was such that he could form a tolerably correct estimate of its value. But he quickly suppressed all outward manifestations of interest, and said, indifferently, 'What do you want for it?'
          'I want twenty dollars,' said Paul, boldly.
          'Twenty dollars!' returned the pawnbroker. 'That's a joke.'
          'No, it isn't,' said Paul. 'I want twenty dollars, and you can't have the ring for less.'
          'If you said twenty shillings, I might give it to you,' said Eliakim; 'but you must think I am a fool to give twenty dollars.'
          'That's cheap for a diamond ring,' said Paul. 'It's worth a good deal more.'
          The pawnbroker eyed Paul sharply. Did the boy know that it was a diamond ring? What chance was there of deceiving him as to its value? The old man, whose business made him a good judge, decided that the ring was not worth less than two hundred and fifty dollars, and if he could get it into his possession for a trifle, it would be a paying operation.
          'You're mistaken, boy,' he said. 'It's not a diamond.'
          'What is it?'
          'A very good imitation.'
          'How much is it worth?'
          'I'll give you three dollars.'
          'That won't do. I want to raise twenty dollars, and if I can't get that, I'll keep the ring.'
          The pawnbroker saw that he had made a mistake. Paul was not as much in need of money as the majority of his customers. He would rather pay twenty dollars than lose the bargain, though it went against the grain to pay so much money. But after pronouncing the stone an imitation, how could he rise much above the offer he had already made? He resolved to approach it gradually. Surveying it more closely, he said: 'It is an excellent imitation. I will give you five dollars.'
          Paul was not without natural shrewdness, and this sudden advance convinced him that it was, after all, a real stone. He determined to get twenty dollars or carry the ring home. 'Five dollars won't do me any good,' he said. 'Give me back the ring.'
          'Five dollars is a good deal of money,' said Eliakim.
          'I'd rather have the ring.'
          'What is your lowest price?'
          'Twenty dollars.'
          'I'll give you eight.'
          'Just now you said it was worth only three,' said Paul, sharply.
          'It is very fine gold. It is better than I thought. Here is the money.'
          'You're a little too fast,' said Paul, coolly. 'I haven't agreed to part with the ring for eight dollars, and I don't mean to. Twenty dollars is my lowest price.'
          'I'll give you ten,' said the old man, whose eagerness increased with Paul's indifference.
          'No, you won't. Give me back the ring.'
          'I might give eleven, but I should lose money.'
          'I don't want you to lose money, and I've concluded to keep the ring,' said Paul, rightly inferring from the old man's eagerness that the ring was much more valuable than he had at first supposed.
          But the old pawnbroker was fascinated by the sparkling bauble. He could not make up his mind to give it up. By fair means or foul he must possess it. He advanced his bid to twelve, fourteen, fifteen dollars, but Paul shook his head resolutely. He had made up his mind to carry it to Ball & Black's, or some other first-class jewelers, and ascertain whether it was a real diamond or not, and if so to obtain an estimate of its value.
          'I've changed my mind,' he said. 'I'll keep the ring. Just give it back to me'" (160-4).
          Paul then takes the ring to Tiffany's, where he is offered two hundred and fifty dollars, but on the condition that he has a man of good standing assure the store that the ring is not stolen. On his way to Mr. Preston's house, Paul is stopped by a jeweler from Syracuse, Felix Montgomery, who offers two hundred seventy-five dollars. Paul is quite happy at the turn of events and agrees to accompany Felix to his boarding house, where they can make the exchange.
          However, Felix is actually a villain and a thief, who drugs Paul with chloroform and escapes with the ring, locking the young man in the room. Felix then assumes the role and dress of a preacher from Connecticut with his wife and cohort. With the ring, he goes to Ball and Black's. However, Paul, having escaped from the hotel, stops and accuses Felix. Although the clerk at the jewelry store is uncertain as to who is telling the truth, he agrees to wait until a police officer comes to settle the matter. While waiting, Felix becomes nervous, and an observer doubts his identity. He abandons Ball and Black, parts ways with his wife, goes to Tiffany's, claiming that Paul Hoffman is his son when they recognize the ring. He fails; Paul arrives with Mr. Preston and the police. He is arrested, but very un-villainously seems not to feel animosity towards Paul Hoffman: he remarks, "I played for high stakes, and I have lost the game" (258). He asks Paul to go to his wife and let her know what happened, a request with which Paul respectfully complies.
          The tale concludes with Paul beginning his own forms of patronage. He buys the shop and begins to do well. Mrs. Hoffman offers to make the neckties to increase their profit margin. One day, he encounters Bully Jim Parker, to whom he gives twenty-five cents for dinner and newspapers to sell, saying only, "I am sorry for you, and want to help you along" (275).
[Paul Hoffman also appears in Phil the Fiddler, and Slow and Sure, which detail his continued rise to respectability.]