« AnteriorContinuar »
BY JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY
One week ago this Christmas day, in the little back office that adjoins the counting-room of the Daily Journal, I sat in genial conversation with two friends. I do not now recall the theme of our discussion, but the general trend of it-suggested, doubtless, by the busy scene upon the streets-I remember most distinctly savored of the mellowing influences of the coming holidays, with perhaps an acrid tang of irony as we dwelt upon the great needs of the poor at such a time, and the chariness with which the hand of opulence was wont to dole out alms. But for all that we were merry, and as from time to time our glances fell upon the evershifting scene outside, our hearts grew warmer, and within the eyes the old dreams glimmered into fuller dawn. It was during a lull of conversation, and while the philanthropic mind, perchance, was wandering amid the outer throng, and doubtless quoting to itself
“Whene'er I take my walks abroad,"
that our privacy was abruptly broken into by the grimy apparition of a boy of ten; a ragged little fellow-not the stereotyped edition of the street waif, but a cross between the bootblack and the infantine Italian with the violin. Where he had entered, and how, would have puzzled us to answer; but there he stood before us, as it were, in a majesty of insignificance. I have never had the features of a boy impress me as did his, and as I stole a covert glance at my companions I was pleased to find the evidence of more than ordinary interest in their faces. They gazed in attentive silence on the little fellow, as, with uncovered, frowzy head, he stepped forward boldly, yet with an air of deference as unlooked for as becoming
"I don't want to bother you gentlemens,” he began, in a frank but hesitating tone that rippled hurriedly along as he marked a general nod of indulgence for the interruption. “I don't want to bother nobody, but if I can raise fifty cents—and I've got a nickel -and if I can raise the rest—and it ain't much, you know-on’y forty-five—and if I can raise the rest—I tell you, gentlemens,” he broke off abruptly, and speaking with italicized sincerity, “I want jist fifty cents, 'cause I can git a blackin’-box fer that, and brush and ever'thing, and you can bet if I had that I wouldn't haf to ast nobody fer nothin'! And I ain't got no father ner mother, ner brother ner—ner—no sisters, neether; but that don't make no difference, 'cause I'll work—at anything—yes, sir—when I can git anything to do—and I sleep jist any place—and I ain't had no breakfast—and, honest, gentlemens, I'm a good boy—I don't swear ner smoke ner chew—but that's all right-on’y if you'll—jist make up forty-five between you—and that's on’y fifteen cents apieceI'll thank you, I will, and I'll jist do anything--and it's coming Christmas, and I'll roll in the nickels, don't you fergit—if I on’y got a box-'cause I throw up a 'bad' shine !—and I can git the box fer fifty cents if you gentlemens'll on'y make up forty-five between you.” At the conclusion of this long and rambling appeal, the little fellow stood waiting with an eager face for a response.
A look of stoical deliberation played about the features of the oldest member of the group, as with an air of seriousness, which, I think, even the boy recognized as affected, he asked:
“And you couldn't get a box like that for—say forty cents? Fifty cents looks like a lot of money to lay out in the purchase of a blacking-box."
The boy smiled wisely as he answered:
“Yes, it might look big to a feller that ain't up on prices, but I think it's cheap, 'cause it's a second-hand box, and a new one would cost seventy-five cents anyhow—'thout no brushes ner nothin'!"
In the meantime I had dropped into the little fellow's palm the only coin I had in my possession, and we all laughed as he closed his thanks with: “Oh, come, Cap, go the other nickel, er I won't git out o’ here with half enough!” and at that he turned to the former speaker.
"Well, really," said that gentleman, fumbling in his pockets, "I don't believe I've got a dime with me.”
“A dime," said the little fellow, with a look of feigned compassion. “Ain't got a dime? Maybe I'd loan you this one!” And we all laughed again.
“Tell you what do now," said the boy, taking advantage of the moment, and looking coaxingly into the smiling eyes of the gentleman still fumbling vainly in his pockets.—“Tell you what do: borry twenty cents of the man that stays behind the counter there, and then we'll go the other fifteen, and that'll make it, and I'll skip out oʻ here a little the flyest boy you ever see! What do ye soy?” And the little fellow struck a Pat Rooney attitude that would have driven the original inventor mad with envy.
“Give him a quarter !” laughed the gentleman appealed to.
“And here's the other dime,” and as the little fellow clutched the money eagerly, he turned; and in a tone of curious gravity, he said:
“Now, honest, gentlemens, I ain't a-givin' you no game about the box—'cause a new one costs seventy-five cents, and the one I've got-I mean the one I'm a-goin' to git—is jist as good as a new one, on’y it's second-hand; and I'm much oblige', gentlemenshonest, I am—and if ever I give you a shine you can jist bet it don't cost vou nothin'!"
And with this expression of his gratitude, the little fellow vanished as mysteriously as he had at first appeared.
“That boy hasn't a bad face,” said the first speaker—"wide between the eyes—full forehead-good mouth, denoting firmness -altogether, a good, square face."
"And a noble one," said I, perhaps inspired to that rather lofty assertion by the rehearsal of the good points noted by my more observant companion.
“Yes, and an honest, straightforward way of talking, I would say," continued that gentleman. “I only noted one thing to shake my faith in that particular, and that was in his latest reference to the box. You'll remember his saying he was 'giving us no game' about it, whereas he had not been accused of such a thing."
“Oh, he meant about the price, don't you remember?” said I.
"No," said the gentleman at the counter, "you're both wrong. He only threw in that remark because he thought I suspected him, for he recognized me just the instant before that speech, and it confused him, and with some reason, as you will see :On my way to supper only last night, I overtook that same little fellow in charge of an old man who was in a deplorable state of drunkenness; and you know how slippery the streets were. I think if that old man fell a single time he fell a dozen, and once so violently that I ran to his assistance and helped him to his feet. I thought him badly hurt at first, for he gashed his forehead as he fell, and I helped the little fellow to take him into a drug-store, where the wound, upon examination, proved to be nothing more serious than to require a strip of plaster. I got a good look at the boy, there, however, and questioned him a little; and he said the man was his father, and he was taking him home; and I gathered further from his talk that the man was a confirmed inebriate. Now you'll remember the boy told us here a while ago he had no father, and when he recognized me a moment since and found himself caught in one ‘yarn,' at least, he very naturally supposed I would think his entire story a fabrication, hence the suspicious nature of his last remarks, and the sudden transition of his manner from that of real delight to gravity, which change, in my opinion, rather denotes lying to be a new thing to him. I can't be mistaken in the boy, for I noticed, as he turned to go, a bald place on the back of his head, the left side, a 'trade-mark,' first discovered last evening, as he bent over the prostrate form of his father.”
"I noticed a thin spot in his hair," said I, "and wondered at the time what caused it.”
“And don't you know ?" I shook my head.
“Coal-bins and entry floors.—That little fellow hasn't slept within a bed for years, perhaps.”
“But he told you, as you say, last night, he was taking the old man home?"
“Yes, home! I can imagine that boy's home. There are myriads like it in the city here—a cellar or a shed—a box-car or a loft in some old shop, with a father to chase him from it in his sober interludes, and to hold him from it in unconscious shame when helplessly drunk. Home, Sweet Home! That boy has heard it on the hand-organ, perhaps, but never in his heart—you couldn't grind it out of there with a thousand cranks.”
The remainder of that day eluded me somehow; I don't know how or where it passed. I suppose it just dropped into a comatose condition, and so slipped away "unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.”
But one clear memory survives—an experience so vividly imprinted on my mind that I now recall its every detail: Entering the Union Depot that evening to meet the train that was to carry me away at six o'clock, muffled closely in my overcoat, yet more closely muffled in my gloomy thoughts, I was rather abruptly