Chapter III. An Earth of Brass
As September ends, Johnny still spends his days wandering the wharf district, attempting to get another artisan to take him on as an apprentice. Unfortunately, he has no luck. Johnny learns that Mrs. Lapham is searching for another practicing silversmith to help run the family business; she wants an unmarried man, so he can marry one of her daughters and keep the business in the family.
On one of his wanderings, Johnny enters the office of the Boston Observer, a paper Mr. Lapham despises for its anti-English views. Here, he befriends the printer’s apprentice, Rab, who treats him with respect and kindness and offers him a meal. Johnny tells his story to Rab, and as he does so he is finally able to put the events into perspective. Johnny notices that Rab’s situation is very different from his own, since Rab’s uncle owns the business. When Mr. Lorne arrives with two other apprentices, the Webb twins, Johnny feels it is time to go. Rab wishes Johnny the best and notes that he will find work, though it may not be work he wants to do.
Percival Tweedie, a journeyman silversmith, arrives from Baltimore to help with Mr. Lapham’s business. Tweedie stays at a local boarding house while terms of his contract are drawn up. Tweedie is a very timid, forty-year-old bachelor, and Johnny immediately dislikes him. Johnny attempts to tell Mrs. Lapham his feelings toward Tweedie, but Mrs. Lapham, who desperately seeks some way to improve the family’s situation, doesn’t want to hear Johnny’s opinion. When Johnny won’t be quiet, Mrs. Lapham slaps him.
As Johnny once again wanders the streets, he thinks that he might have luck trying to become an apprentice with one of the merchants. He decides that he will first visit the office of John Hancock. On the way to Hancock’s office, Johnny sees the fine coach of Merchant Lyte approaching. Although Johnny’s mother told him not to approach Merchant Lyte unless he fell upon hard times, Johnny has spent much time watching the Lytes. Johnny knows that Mr. Lyte’s wife is dead, two of his sons drowned, and two daughters died in infancy. He also knows that Lavinia Lyte, Mr. Lyte’s daughter, recently returned from London. Lavinia is described as fashionably dressed and is compared to a classical goddess, though she does have a visible flaw: “a tiny perpendicular line” between her brows. Mr. Lyte has come to the dock to greet his returning daughter, and she throws herself into his arms when then meet. Johnny is captivated by Lavinia but looks upon her unfavorably.
As Johnny arrives at John Hancock’s office, he learns that it is not easy to see an important man like Hancock. One of Hancock’s clerks has Johnny read a brief document. Hancock, attracted to the quality of Johnny’s voice and his ability to read, emerges for his office. He doesn’t recognize Johnny, but hands him an invoice to add. Impressed by Johnny’s ability to read and calculate, Hancock asks Johnny to write out Hancock’s name. Johnny does so, but his withered hand makes the writing illegible. When Hancock sees Johnny’s hand, he averts his eyes. The clerk then reprimands Johnny for wasting their time. Johnny asserts that he thought he might find work as a cabin boy, but the clerk insists that such jobs are only for “whole boys.” Johnny angrily leaves Hancock’s office, but out of pity Hancock sends one of is slaves, Jehu, to give Johnny a small purse filled with silver coins.
Johnny is very hungry and decides to treat himself to a fancy meal. He gorges himself on a lavish meal but is somewhat upset by how much of the money he spends. He uses the remaining money to purchase a gift of limes for Isannah, a book and colored crayons for Cilla, and a new pair of shoes for himself.
When he returns to the Lapham house, Mrs. Lapham notices his new shoes and accuses Johnny of stealing them. Johnny dismisses Mrs. Lapham’s accusation and gives his gifts to Isannah and Cilla. Seeing them smile makes him forget his misfortunes so much that he attempts to pick up Isannah and hold her over his head. Isannah screams that she doesn’t want to be touched by his hideous hand. Cilla attempts to reprimand her sister, but Isannah screams out for Johnny to leave. He does so.
Not knowing where to go, Johnny enters the local cemetery. He finds his mother’s grave, falls down it and, for the first time, begins to cry. He comes to the realization that he has his nowhere else to turn and resolves that in the morning he will visit Merchant Lyte. This calms him, and he falls fast asleep.
In a real sense Johnny is drifting in this chapter. The former stability and direction he had as a valued apprentice is gone. At the same time, his place in the world, his identity, is no longer clear. He must now find a new path and a new identity. The chapter asserts that such endeavors aren’t easily performed.
While the previous chapter shows how easily one’s life can completely change, this chapter presents the common notion of humans as interchangeable cogs. In Mrs. Lapham’s eyes, if Johnny cannot help the Laphams’ business, someone else will be brought in who can help. Of course, Johnny’s replacement, Percival Tweedie, turns out to be a poor substitute. Tweedie does not possess Johnny’s drive or talent, and as a result the Laphams’ business does not thrive.
The fact that Johnny is brushed aside to make room for the arrival of Merchant Lyte demonstrates a clear division of social class: Lyte is part of the privileged upper class, whereas Johnny is part of a lower class. The action also foreshadows the unkind treatment Johnny will later receive from the Lytes.
Lavinia Lyte’s tiny “flaw,” the one crack in her beauty, serves as a clear contrast to Johnny’s significant flaw: his crippled hand. However, as the novel progresses the reader learns that Lavinia is much more hideous than Johnny ever could be.
Johnny’s decision to visit Merchant Lyte is a clear indication of how desperate he has become.