Mary Catherine Crowley.

Apples, Ripe and Rosy, Sir online

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shabby, contracted house this is! Well, I must try to make it as bright
and pleasant as possible. I wish the girls were older and able to earn a
trifle; every penny helps nowadays. Mary, indeed, might find a place to
run errands for a dressmaker, or something of the kind; but I can not
bear to think of her going around alone down town, becoming pert and
forward. Besides, she is so bright and smart that it seems a pity to
interfere with her studies. She will need all the advantages she can
get, poor child!"

With a sigh the mother returned to her duties, prepared breakfast for the
other children and in the course of an hour hurried them off to school.
There were three: Mary, just twelve years old; Lizzie, ten; and Jack, who
had attained the precocious and mischief-loving age of seven. Bernard
was eighteen, and the head of the family, - a fact which Mrs. Farrell
strove to impress upon the minds of the younger members, as entitling him
to special respect and affection. He was also the principal
bread-winner, and had ten dollars a week, which was considered a fine
beginning for one so young. Still, it was not a great deal for them all
to rely on, and his mother endeavored to eke out their scanty livelihood
by taking sewing, and in various other ways.

Life had not always been such a struggle for the Farrells. Before the
death of the husband and father they had been in good circumstances. Mr.
Farrell held for years a responsible position as book-keeper and
accountant in one of the largest mercantile establishments of the city.
He had a fair salary, which enabled him to support his family
comfortably. But, alas! how much often depends upon the life and efforts
of one person! An attack of pneumonia, the result of a neglected cold,
carried him out of the world in three days. There had been only time to
attend to his religious duties, and no opportunity to provide for the
dear ones he was about to leave, even if any provision had been possible.
When the income derived from the father's daily labor ceased, they found
themselves suddenly plunged into comparative poverty. His life-insurance
policy had not been kept up; the mortgage on the pretty home had never
been paid off, and was now foreclosed. The best of the furniture was
sold to pay current expenses, and the widow removed with her children to
the third floor of a cheap apartment house, - one of those showy,
aggressively genteel structures so often seen in our Eastern cities, with
walls of questionable safety and defective drainage and ventilation.

Mrs. Farrell was now obliged to dismiss her maid-of-all-work, and attend
to the household duties herself. This was a hardship, for she was not a
strong woman; but she did not complain. Bernard, fortunately, had taken
two years of the commercial course at St. Stanislaus' College, and was
therefore in a measure fitted for practical affairs. He obtained a place
as clerk in the law office of Crosswell & Wright. As he tried to keep
his mind on his duties, and was willing and industrious, his employers
were well pleased with him, and he had been several times advanced. But
the means of the family grew more and more straitened. The following
year the rent of the flat was found to be higher than they could afford.
They sought other quarters, and settled at last, just as winter was
approaching, in the little house where we have discovered them, in a
humble neighborhood and unpaved streets, with no pretensions
whatever, - in fact, it did not appear to have even the ambition to be
regarded as a street at all.

The young people took possession of the new dwelling in high glee. They
did not see the drawbacks to comfort which their mother could have
pointed out; did not notice how much the house needed painting and
papering, how decidedly out of repair it was. Only too glad of their
satisfaction, she refrained from comment, tried to make the best of
everything, and succeeded in having a cosey home for them, despite all
difficulties. For there was not a room of the small house into which at
least a ray of sunlight did not find its way sometime during the day. It
shone upon threadbare carpets and painted floors; upon sofas the
upholstering of which had an unmistakable air of having been experimented
with; and chairs which Mrs. Farrell had recaned, having learned the art
from a blind boy who lived opposite. Yet the sunlight revealed as well
an air of thrift and cheeriness; for the widow, despite her days of
discouragement, aimed to train her children to look upon the bright side
of life, and to trust in Providence.

"Bernard," said she one evening, "I have been thinking that if I could
hire a sewing-machine I might get piecework from the shops, and earn more
than by looking to chance patronage. I have a mind to inquire about one."

The boy was silent. She began to doubt if he had heard, and was about to
repeat the remark when he answered:

"No, mother, don't. There are too many women doing that kind of sewing
at starvation prices. But I'll tell you what would be a fine thing if
you really had the time for it, though I do not see how you could, - it
seems to me we keep you busy."

"What is your idea?" inquired Mrs. Farrell eagerly, paying no heed to the
latter part of his speech.

"Well, if we could manage to pay the rent of a type-writing machine, I
could probably get you copying from the firm as well as from some of the
other lawyers in the building. I was wondering the other day if I could
do anything at it myself, and thus pick up an additional dollar or two in
the week. Of course, you would accomplish more than I could, and it
would be a hundred times better than stitch! stitch! How I hate the whir
of the thing!" And Bernard, with his juggler gift of mimicry, proceeded
forthwith to turn himself into a sewing-machine, jerking his feet up and
down in imitation of the motion of the treadle, and making an odd noise
in his throat.

Mrs. Farrell laughed, as she replied: "I do not know that there is much
choice between this and the click of the type-writer. But, anyhow, your
plan, though it sounds plausible, would not do, because I should not be
able to work the type-writer."

"There would be no difficulty about that," argued Bernard. "You know how
to play the piano, and the fingering is very much easier. It will come
naturally."

His mother laughed again, yet she sighed as well. Her father had given
her a piano as a wedding present, but this had been the first article of
value to be dispensed with when the hard times came. Bernard was so
sanguine, however, that she consented to his project. He spoke to Mr.
Crosswell on the subject; that gentleman became interested, succeeded in
obtaining a type-writer for Mrs. Farrell on easy terms, and promised to
send her any extra copying he might have. The manipulation of the
machine did not, indeed, come quite as naturally as Bernard predicted,
but after a few weeks of patient practice she mastered it sufficiently to
produce a neat-looking page. Bernard brought her all the work she could
do; it was well paid for, and a more prosperous season seemed to have
dawned upon the little home.

Just at this time the children took scarlet fever at school. They had
the disease lightly, but what anxiety the mother endured! Thank God,
they got through it safely; but there was the doctor's bill to be
settled, and funds were at a low ebb once more. To cap the climax, when
the house had been thoroughly fumigated by the board of health, and Mrs.
Farrell was prepared to take up her occupation again, an attack of
rheumatism crippled her fingers and rendered them almost powerless. Then
it was that, worn out and disheartened, she broke down and cried:

"Oh! why does not God help us?"

Her son's usually happy face wore an expression of discouragement also as
she turned to him with the appeal. His lips twitched nervously; but in a
moment the trustfulness which she had taught him was at hand to comfort
her.

"Indeed, mother, He will - He _does_," said Bernard tenderly, though in
the matter-of-fact manner which he knew would best arouse her. "You are
all tired out, or you would not speak in that way. You must have a good
rest. Keep the rooms warm, so that you will not take any more cold, and
before long you will be able to rattle the type-writer at a greater speed
than ever. That reminds me, mother," he continued - seeing that she was
beginning to recover herself, and wishing to divert her thoughts, - "one
of the things we have to be thankful for is that this house is easily
heated. It beats all the way coal does last here! The ton we got two
months ago isn't gone yet,"

"That is the way coal lasts when there is not any one to steal it, as
there was in the flat, where the cellars were not properly divided off,"
answered Mrs. Farrell, brightening up.

"No, there's nobody living immediately around here whom I'd suspect of
being mean enough to steal coal," returned Bernard, carelessly, - "except,
perhaps, Stingy Willis, I don't think I'd wager that old codger wouldn't,
though."

"I am afraid I should not have entire confidence in him, either," agreed
Mrs. Farrell.

But the intelligence that there was still coal in the bin had cheered her
wonderfully. Repenting of her rash conclusion, she hastened to qualify
it by adding, "That is, if half of what the neighbors say is true. But,
then, we have no right to listen to gossip, or to judge people."

Stingy Willis, the individual who apparently bore an unenviable
reputation, was a small, dried-up looking old man, who lived next door to
the Farrells, - in fact, under the same roof; for the structure consisted
of two houses built together. Here he dwelt alone, and attended to his
household arrangements himself, except when, occasionally, a woman was
employed for a few hours to put the place in order. He was accustomed to
prepare his own breakfast and supper; his dinner he took at a cheap
restaurant. He dressed shabbily, and was engaged in some mysterious
business down town, to and from which he invariably walked; not even a
heavy rain-storm could make him spend five cents for a ride in a
horse-car. And yet he was said to be very wealthy. Persons declared
they knew "upon good authority" that he held the mortgage which covered
the two connecting houses; that, as the expression is, he "had more money
than he knew what to do with." Others, who did not profess to be so
scrupulously exact in their determination to tell only a plain,
unvarnished tale, delighted in fabulous stories concerning his riches.
They said that though the floor of his sitting-room was carpetless, and
the bay-window curtainless but for the cobwebs, he could cover the one
with gold pieces and the other with bank-notes, if he pleased. Many were
convinced he had a bag of treasure hidden up the chimney or buried in the
cellar; this they asserted was the reason he would not consent to having
the upper rooms of the house rented, and so they remained untenanted
season after season. Thus, according to the general verdict (and
assuredly the circumstantial evidence was strong), he was a miser of the
most pronounced type, - "as stingy as could be," everybody agreed; and is
not what everybody says usually accepted as the truth?

Certain it is that Stingy Willis acted upon the principle, "a penny saved
is a penny gained," - denied himself every luxury, and lived with extreme
frugality, as the man who kept the meat-market and grocery at the corner
frequently testified. Even in the coldest weather, a fire was never
kindled in the house till evening; for over its dying embers the solitary
man made his coffee the following morning. A basket of coal lasted him a
week, and he sifted the cinders as carefully as if he did not know where
to find a silver quarter to buy more fuel. He had nothing to do with his
neighbors, who really knew very little about him beyond what they could
see of his daily life. They were almost all working people, blessed with
steady employment; though they had not more than enough of this world's
goods, there was no actual poverty among them. They were respectable,
honest, and industrious; as Bernard said, not one of the dwellers in the
street would ever be suspected of being "mean enough to steal coal,"
unless indeed Stingy Willis.



II.

Gloomy days continued for the Farrells; yet the outside world never
dreamed of the straits to which they were reduced, for a spirit of worthy
independence and pardonable pride led them to keep their trouble to
themselves. Mrs. Farrell would have died, almost, rather than reveal
their need to any one; nothing save the cry of her children asking in
vain for bread would bring her to it. Well, they still had bread and
oatmeal porridge, but that was all.

Who would have imagined it! The little house was still distinguished
from the others of the row by an appearance of comfort. Although Mrs.
Farrell could not do any type-writing, the children were neat and trim
going to school; Bernard's clothes were as carefully brushed, his boots
as shining, linen as fresh, his mien as gentlemanly as ever. And they
found great satisfaction in the reflection that no one was aware of the
true state of affairs. The mother and Bernard agreed, when they began
housekeeping under their changed circumstances, to contract no bills;
what they could not afford to pay for at the time they would do without.
So now no butcher nor baker came clamoring for settlement of his account.
The doctor was willing to wait for his money; all they owed besides was
the rent. Only the landlord knew this, and he was disposed to be
lenient. Mrs. Farrell still tried to hope for the best, but sometimes
she grew dejected, was sorely tempted to repine.

"Mother," little Jack once asked, "aren't people who, as you say, 'have
seen better days' and become poor, much poorer than people who have
always been poor?"

"It seems to me they are, my child," answered the widow, dispiritedly.
"But why do you think so?"

"Because," replied the young philosopher, "we are much poorer than the
woman who used to wash for us. She appeared to have everything she
wanted, but we have hardly anything."

It was unreasonable, to be sure, but sometimes Mrs. Farrell used to
wonder how her neighbors could be so hard-hearted as to go past
unconcernedly, and not notice the necessities which, all the while, she
was doing her best to keep from their knowledge. Often, too, as Stingy
Willis went in and out of the door so close to her own, she thought: "How
hard it is that this man should have riches hidden away, while I have
scarcely the wherewith to buy food for my children! Walls are said to
have ears, - why have they not also tongues to cry out to him, to tell him
of the misery so near? Is there nothing which could strike a spark of
human feeling from his flinty heart?" Then, reproaching herself for the
rebellious feeling, she would murmur a prayer for strength and patience.

The partition between the two houses was thin. She and Bernard could
frequently hear the old man moving about his dreary apartments, or going
up or down the stairs leading to the cellar. "Old Willis is counting his
money-bags again, I guess!" Bernard would say lightly, as the familiar
shuffling to and fro caught his ear; while his mother, to banish the
shadow of envious discontent, quietly told a decade of her Rosary.

The conversation anent the subject of the coal kept recurring to her mind
with odd persistency. Repeatedly of late she had awakened in the night
and heard the miser stumbling around; several times she was almost
certain he was in her cellar, and - yes, surely, _at the
coal_, - purloining it piece by piece, probably. Then just as, fully
aroused, she awaited further proof, the noise would cease, and she would
conclude she must have been mistaken. At last, however, it would seem
that her suspicions were confirmed.

On this occasion Mrs. Farrell had not retired at the usual hour. It was
after midnight, yet she was still occupied in a rather hopeless effort to
patch Jack's only pair of trousers; for he evinced as remarkable an
ability to wear out clothes as any son of a millionaire. The work was
tedious and progressed slowly, for her fingers were stiff and the effort
of sewing painful. Finally it was finished. With a sigh of relief she
rested a moment in her chair. Just then the silence was broken by a
peculiar sound, like the cautious shifting of a board. That it proceeded
from the cellar was beyond question. A singular rattling followed. She
rose, went into the hall and listened. Yes, there was no delusion about
it: somebody was at the coal, - that coal which, she remembered bitterly,
was now but a small heap in the bin. That the culprit was Stingy Willis
there could be little doubt.

Bernard had fallen asleep on the sofa an hour or more before. His mother
stole to his side, and in a low voice called him. He stirred uneasily.
She called again, whereupon he opened his eyes and stared at her in
bewilderment.

"Hark!" she whispered, signalling to him not to speak.

Once more came the noise, now more distinct and definable. The heartless
intruder had become daring; the click of a shovel was discernible; he was
evidently helping himself liberally.

Bernard looked at his mother in perplexity and surprise.

"Stingy Willis?" he interrogated.

She nodded.

"And at the coal, by Jove!" he exclaimed, suddenly realizing the
situation, and now wide awake.

He started up, and presently was creeping down the stairs to the kitchen.
Mrs. Farrell heard him open the cellar door with the least possible
creak. She knew he was on the steps which led below, but he made no
further sound. She had no other clue to his movements, and could only
distinguish the rumble of the coal. She waited, expecting momentarily
that it would cease, dreading the altercation which would follow, and
regretting she had aroused her son.

"He is quick-tempered," she soliloquized. "What if words should lead to
blows, - if he should strike the old man! How foolish I was to let him go
alone!"

The suspense was ominous. What was the boy going to do? Why all this
delay? Why did he not promptly confront the fellow and order him to be
gone? In reality, only a few minutes had elapsed since she first heard
the noise, but it seemed a quarter of an hour even since he left her.
Should she go down herself, or call out to him? While she hesitated
Bernard suddenly reappeared. She leaned over the banisters to question
him; but, with a gesture imploring her to be silent, the astonished boy
said, hardly above his breath: "Mother, come here!"

Cautiously she descended to the entry. He led her through the kitchen to
the cellar steps. All the time the shovelling continued. Whispering
"Don't be afraid," Bernard blew out the candle he carried, and, taking
her hand, added: "Look!"

From the corner of the cellar in which the coal-bin was situated came the
light of a lantern. Crouching down, Mrs. Farrell could see that it
proceeded from a hole in the wall which separated the two houses. There
was no one upon her premises, after all; but at the other side of the
partition was Stingy Willis, sure enough! Through the opening she could
just catch a glimpse of his grey head and thin, sharp features.
Trembling with indignation, she peered forward to get a better view.
Yes, there was Stingy Willis certainly; but - oh, for the charity, the
neighborliness which "thinketh no evil!" - he was shovelling coal from his
own _into_ the Farrells' bin! As this fact dawned upon her she felt as
if she would like to go through the floor for shame. Drawing back
abruptly, she groped her way to the kitchen, and sank into a chair, quite
overcome by emotion. Bernard, having relighted the candle, stood gazing
at her with an abashed air. In a moment or two the shovelling ceased,
and they could hear the old man, totally unconscious of the witnesses to
his good deed, slowly ascending to his cheerless rooms again.

Stingy Willis alone had discovered their need. With a delicacy which
respected their reticence, and shrank from an offer of aid which might
offend, he had hit upon this means of helping them. Clearly, he had been
thus surreptitiously supplying them with fuel for weeks, - a little at a
time, to avoid discovery. And Mrs. Farrell, in her anxiety and
preoccupation, had not realized that, with the steady inroads made upon
it, a ton of coal could not possibly last so long.

"That, of all people, Stingy Willis should be the one to come to our
assistance!" exclaimed the widow.

"And to think he is not _Stingy_ Willis at all! That is the most
wonderful part of it!" responded Bernard.

"Often lately," continued the former, "when I happened to meet him going
in or out, I fancied that his keen old eyes darted a penetrating glance
at me; and the fear that they would detect the poverty we were trying to
hide so irritated me that sometimes I even pretended not to hear his
gruff 'Good-morning!'"

"Well, he's a right jolly fellow!" cried Bernard, enthusiastically,

His mother smiled. The adjective was ludicrously inappropriate, but she
understood Bernard's meaning, and appreciated his feelings as he went on:

"Yes, I'll never let anybody say a word against him in my hearing after
this, and I'll declare I have proof positive that he's no miser."

"He is a noble-hearted man certainly," said Mrs. Farrell. "I wish we
knew more about him. But, for one thing, Bernard, this experience has
taught us to beware of rash judgments; to look for the jewels, not the
flaws, in the character of our neighbor."

"Yes, indeed, mother," replied the youth, decidedly. "You may be sure
that in future I'll try to see what is best in everyone."

The next morning Mrs. Farrell went about her work in a more hopeful mood.
Bernard started for the office in better spirits than usual, humming
snatches of a song, a few words of which kept running in his mind all day:

"God rules, and thou shall have more sun
When clouds their perfect work have done."

That afternoon Mr. Crosswell, the head of the firm, who seemed suddenly
to have become aware that something was wrong, said to him:

"My lad, how is it that your mother has not been doing the extra
type-writing lately? I find a great deal of it has been given to some
one else."

"She has been sick with rheumatism, sir," answered the boy; "and her
fingers are so stiff that she cannot work the machine."

"Tut! tut!" cried the lawyer, half annoyed. "You should have told me
this before. If she is ill, she must need many little luxuries" (he
refrained from saying _necessaries_). "She must let me pay her in
advance. Here are twenty-five dollars. Tell her not to hesitate to use
the money, for she can make up for it in work later. I was, you know, a
martyr to rheumatism last winter, but young Dr. Sullivan cured me. I'll
send him round to see her; and, remember, there will be no expense to you
about it."

"I don't know how to thank you, sir!" stammered Bernard, gratefully.
Then he hurried home to tell his mother all that had happened, and to put
into her hands the bank-notes, for which she could find such ready use.

Doctor Sullivan called to see Mrs. Farrell the following day,

"Why," said he, "this is a very simple case! You would not have been
troubled so long but for want of the proper remedies."

He left her a prescription, which wrought such wonders that in a
fortnight she was able to resume her occupation.

From this time also Mr. Crosswell gave Bernard many opportunities by
which he earned a small sum in addition to his weekly salary, and soon
the Farrells were in comfortable circumstances again.

By degrees they became better acquainted with old Willis; but it was not
till he began to be regarded, and to consider himself, as an intimate
friend of the family that Bernard's mother ventured to tell him they knew
of his kind deed done in secret, - a revelation which caused him much
confusion. Bernard had discovered long before that their eccentric
neighbor, far from being a parsimonious hoarder of untold wealth, was, in
fact, almost a poor man. He possessed a life-interest in the house in
which he dwelt, and the income of a certain investment left to him by the
will of a former employer in acknowledgment of faithful service. It was
a small amount, intended merely to insure his support; but, in spite of
his age, he still worked for a livelihood, distributing the annuity in
charity. The noble-hearted old man stinted himself that he might be


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Online LibraryMary Catherine CrowleyApples, Ripe and Rosy, Sir → online text (page 9 of 13)