Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag, Volume 5/Chapter 10
AS my friend stood by the window, watching the "soft falling snow," I saw him smile,—a thoughtful yet a very happy smile, and, anxious to know what brought it, I asked,—
"What do you see out there?"
"Myself," was the answer that made me stare in surprise, as I joined him and looked curiously into the street.
All I saw was a man shovelling snow; and, thoroughly puzzled, I turned to Richard, demanding an explanation. He laughed, and answered readily,—
"While we wait for Kate and the children, I'll tell you a little adventure of mine. It may be useful to you some day.
"Fifteen years ago, on a Sunday morning like this, I stood at the window of a fireless, shabby little room, without one cent in my pocket, and no prospect of getting one.
"I had gone supperless to bed, and spent the long night asking, 'What shall I do?' and, receiving no reply but that which is so hard for eager youth to accept, 'Wait and trust.'
"I was alone in the world, with no fortune but my own talent, and even that I was beginning to doubt, because it brought no money. For a year I had worked and hoped, with a brave spirit; had written my life into poems and tales; tried a play; turned critic and reviewed books; offered my pen and time to any one who would employ them, and now was ready for the hardest literary work, and the poorest pay, for starvation stared me in the face.
"All my ventures failed, and my paper boats freighted with so many high hopes, went down one after another, leaving me to despair. The last wreck lay on my table then,—a novel, worn with much journeying to and fro, on which I had staked my last chance, and lost it.
"As I stood there at my window, cold and hungry, solitary and despairing, I said to myself, in a desperate mood,—
"'It is all a mistake; I have no talent, and there is no room in the world for me, so the quicker I get out of it the better.'
"Just then a little chap came from a gate opposite, with a shovel on his shoulder, and trudged away, whistling shrilly, to look for a job. I watched him out of sight, thinking bitterly,—
"'Now look at the injustice of it! Here am I, a young man full of brains, starving because no one will give me a chance; and there is that ignorant little fellow making a living with an old shovel!'
A voice seemed to answer me, saying,—
"'Why don't you do the same? If brains don't pay, try muscles, and thank God that you have health.'
"Of course it was only my own pluck and common sense; but I declare to you I was as much struck by the new idea as if a strange voice had actually spoken; and I answered, heartily,—
"'As I live I will try it! and not give up while there is any honest work for these hands to do.'
"With sudden energy I put on my shabbiest clothes,—and they were very shabby, of course, added an old cap and rough comforter, as disguise, and stole down to the shed where I had seen a shovel. It was early, and the house was very quiet, for the other lodgers were hard workers all the week, and took their rest Sunday morning.
"Unseen by the sleepy girl making her fires, I got the shovel and stole away by the back gate, feeling like a boy out on a frolic. It was bitter cold, and a heavy snow-storm had raged all night. The streets were full of drifts, and the city looked as if dead, for no one was stirring yet but milkmen, and other poor fellows like me, seeking for an early job.
"I made my way to the West End, and was trying to decide at which of the tall houses to apply first, when the door of one opened, and a pretty housemaid appeared, broom in hand.
"At sight of the snowy wilderness she looked dismayed, and with a few unavailing strokes of her broom at the drift on the steps, was about to go in, when her eye fell on me.
"My shovel explained my mission, and she beckoned with an imperious wave of her duster to the shabby man opposite. I ploughed across, and received in silence the order to—
"'Clear them steps and sidewalk, and sweep 'em nice, for our folks always go to church, rain or shine.'
"Then leaving her broom outside, the maid slammed the door with a shiver, and I fell to work manfully. It was a heavy job, and my hands, unused to any heavier tool than a pen, were soon blistered; but I tugged away, and presently found myself much stimulated by the critical and approving glances bestowed upon me by the pretty girl, taking breakfast in the basement with a buxom cook and a friend, who had evidently dropped in on her way home from early Mass.
"I was a young fellow, and in spite of my late despair, the fun of the thing tickled me immensely, and I laughed behind my old tippet, as I shovelled and swept with a vigor that caused the stout cook to smile upon me.
"When the job was done, and I went to the lower door for my well-earned pay, the maid said, with condescension, as she glanced coquettishly at my ruddy face and eyes that twinkled under the old cap, I suspect,—
"'You can wait here while I run up, and get the money, if master is awake.'
"'Ye haven't the heart of a woman, Mary, to kape the poor crater out there when it's kilt wid the could he is,' said the buxom cook; adding, in a motherly tone, 'Come in wid yez, my man, and set till the fire, for it's bitter weather the day.'
"'Faix an' it is, ma'm, thankin' ye kindly,' I answered, with a fine brogue, for as a lad I had played the Irishman with success.
"The good soul warmed to me at once, and, filling a mug with coffee, gave it to me with a hearty—
"'A hot sup will do you no harrum, me b'y, and sure in the blessid Christmas time that's just foreninst us, the master won't begrudge ye a breakfast; so take a biscuit and a sassage, for it's like ye haven't had a mouthful betwixt your lips the day.'
"'That I will,' said I; 'and it's good luck and a long life to ye I'm drinkin' in this illegint coffee.'
"'Bless the b'y! but it's a grateful heart he has, and a blue eye as like my Pat as two pays,' cried the cook, regarding me with increasing favor, as I bolted the breakfast which I should have been too proud to accept from any hand less humble.
"Here the guest asked a question concerning Pat, and instantly the mother gushed into praises of her boy, telling in a few picturesque words, as only an Irishwoman could do it, how Pat had come to 'Ameriky' first when things went hard with them in the 'ould country,' and how good he was in sending home his wages till she could join him.
"How she came, but could not find her 'b'y, because of the loss of the letter with his address, and how for a year she waited and watched, sure that he would find her at last. How the saints had an eye on him, and one happy day answered her prayers in a way that she considered 'aquil to any merrycle ever seen.' For, looking up from her work, who should she see, in a fine livery, sitting on the box of a fine carriage at the master's door, but 'her own b'y, like a king in his glory.'
"'Arrah, ye should have seen me go up thim steps, Katy, and my Pat come off that box like an angel flyin', and the way he tuk me in his arms, never mindin' his illigint coat, and me all dirt a-blackin' me range. Ah'r, but I was a happy crayter that day!'
"Here the good soul stopped to wipe away the tears that were shining on her fat cheeks, and Mary appeared with a dollar, 'for master said it was a tough job and well done.'
"'May his bed be aisy above, darlin', and many thanks, and the compliments of the sayson to ye, ladies.'
"With which grateful farewell I trudged away, well pleased at the success of my first attempt. Refreshed and cheered by the kindness of my humble hostess, I took heart, and worked away at my next job with redoubled energy, and by the time the first bells rang for church, I had three dollars in my pocket. My blood danced in my veins, and all my despair seemed shovelled away with the snow I had cleared from other people's paths.
"My back ached, and my palms were sore, but heart and soul were in tune again, and hurrying home, I dressed and went to church, feeling that a special thanksgiving was due for the lesson I had learned.
"Christmas garlands hung upon the walls, Christmas music rolled through the church, and Christmas sermon, prayer, and psalm cheered the hearts of all. But the shabby young man in the back seat found such beauty and comfort in the service of that day that he never forgot it, for it was the turning-point of his life."
My friend fell silent for a minute, and I sat, contrasting that past of his, with the happy present, for he was a prosperous man now, with an honored name, a comfortable fortune, and best of all, a noble wife, and some brave lads to follow in his footsteps.
Presently I could not resist asking,—
"Did you go on shovelling, Dick?"
"Not long, for there was no need of it, thanks to Pat's mother," he answered smiling.
"Come, I must have all the story, for I know it has a sequel!"
"A very happy one. Yes, I owe to that kind soul and her little story, the turn that Fortune gave her wheel. Nay, rather say, the touch of nature that makes the whole world kin. For when I went home that day, I sat down and made a simple tale from the hint she gave, and something of her own humor and pathos must have got into it, for it was accepted, and more stories solicited, to my great surprise.
"I wrote it to please myself, for I was in a happy mood; and though my room was cold, the sun shone; though my closet was bare, honest money was in my pocket, and I felt as rich as a king.
"I remember I laughed at myself as I posted the manuscript on Monday morning, called it infatuation, and thought no more of it for days, being busy with my new friend, the shovel.
"Snow was gone, but coal remained, and I put in tons of it with a will, for this active labor was the tonic my overwrought nerves needed, and my spirits rose wonderfully, as muscles earned the daily bread that brains had failed to win.
"Ah! but they brought me something better than bread, dearer than fame; and to that old shovel I owe the happiness of my life! The very day I got the letter accepting the little story, I was gaily putting in my last ton of coal, for I felt that now I might take up the pen again, since in a kitchen I had discovered the magic that wins listeners.
"Bless my heart! how I worked and how I whistled, I was so happy, and felt so lifted above all doubt and fear by the knowledge that my talent was not a failure, and the fact that my own strong arms could keep the wolf from the door!
"I was so busy that I had not observed a lady watching me from the window. She had opened it to feed the hungry sparrows, and my whistle caught her ear, for it was an air she knew, and had heard a certain young man sing before he dropped out of her circle, and left her wondering sadly what had befallen him.
"All this I learned afterward; then I unconsciously piped away till my job was done, wiped my hot face, and went in to get my money. To my surprise I was told to 'go into the dining room, and missis would attend to it.'
"I went and found myself face to face, not with 'missis,' but the woman I had loved hopelessly but faithfully all that hard year, since I had gone away to fight my battle alone.
"For a moment I believed she did not know me, in my shabby suit and besmirched face. But she did, and with a world of feeling in her own sweet face, she offered me, not money, but her hand, saying in a voice that made my heart leap up,—
"'Richard, I was afraid you had gone down as so many disappointed young men go when their ambitious hopes fail; but I am so glad, so proud to see in your face that you still work and wait, like a brave and honest man. I must speak to you!'
"What could I do after that but hold the white hand fast in both my grimy ones, while I told my little story, and the hope that had come at last. Heaven knows I told it very badly, for those tender eyes were upon me all the time, so full of unspoken love and pity, admiration and respect, that I felt like one in a glorified dream, and forgot I was a coal-heaver.
"That was the last of it, though, and the next time I came to see my Kate it was with clean hands, that carried her, as a first love-token, the little tale which was the foundation-stone of this happy home."
He stopped there, and his face brightened beautifully, for the sound of little feet approached, and childish voices cried eagerly,—
"Papa! papa! the snow has come! May we go and shovel off the steps?"
"Yes, my lads, and mind you do it well; for some day you may have to earn your breakfast," answered Dick, as three fine boys came prancing in, full of delight at the first snow-fall.
"These fellows have a passion for shovelling which they inherit from their father," he added, with a twinkle of the eye that told Mrs. Kate what we had been talking about.
It was sweet to see with what tender pride she took the hand he stretched out to her, and holding it in both her own, said, with her eyes upon her boys,—
"I hope they will inherit not only their father's respect for honest work, but the genius that can see and paint truth and beauty in the humble things of this world."