Ben Stone at OakdaleŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
ONE RAY OF LIGHT
As he passed, he looked up at the academy, set far back in its yard of many maple trees, and saw that the great white door was closed, as if shut upon him forever. The leaden windows stared at him with silent disapproval; a sudden wind came and swung the half-open gate to the yard, which closed with a click, making it seem that an unseen hand had thrust it tight against him and held it barred.
Farther along the street stood a square, old-fashioned, story-and-a-half house, with a more modern ell and shed adjoining, and a wretched sagging barn, that lurched on its foundations, and was only kept from toppling farther, and possibly falling, by long, crude timber props, set against its side. The front yard of the house was enclosed by a straggling picket fence. As well as the fence, the weather-washed buildings, with loose clapboards here and there, stood greatly in want of paint and repairs.
This was the home of Mrs. Jones, a widow with three children to support, and here Ben had found a bare, scantily-furnished room that was within his means. The widow regarded as of material assistance in her battle against poverty the rent money of seventy-five cents a week, which her roomer had agreed to pay in advance.
For all of her misfortune and the constant strain of her toil to keep the wolf from the door and a roof over the heads of herself and her children, Mrs. Jones was singularly happy and cheerful. It is true the wounds of the battle had left scars, but they were healed or hidden by this strong-hearted woman, who seldom referred to them save in a buoyant manner.
Jimmy Jones, a puny, pale-faced child of eight, permanently lamed by hip disease, which made one leg shorter than the other, was hanging on the rickety gate, as usual, and seemed to be waiting Benís appearance, hobbling out to meet him when he came along the road.
ďYouíre awful late,Ē cried the lame lad, in a thin, high-pitched voice, which attested his affliction and weakness. ďIíve been watchiní. I saw lots of other fellers go by, but then I waited aní waited, aní you didnít come.Ē
A lump rose in Benís throat, and into his chilled heart crept a faint glow. Here was some one who took an interest in him, some one who did not regard him with aversion and scorn, even though it was only a poor little cripple.
Jimmy Jones had reminded Ben of his own blind brother, Jerry, which had led him to seek to make friends with the lame boy, and to talk with him in a manner that quickly won the confidence of the child. This was his reward; in this time when his heart was sore and heavy with the belief that he was detested of all the world, Jimmy watched and waited for him at the gate, and came limping toward him with a cheery greeting.
Ben stooped and caught up the tiny chap, who was pitifully light, swinging him to a comfortable position on his bent left arm.
ďSo you were watching for me, were you, Jimmy?Ē he said, in a wonderfully soft voice for him.
ďThat was fine of you, and I wonít forget it.Ē
ďYep, I waited. What made you so late? I wanted to tell you, I set that box-trap you fixed for me so it would work, aní what do you think I ketched? Bet you canít guess.Ē
ďA squirrel,Ē hazarded Ben.
ďNope, a cat!Ē laughed the little fellow, and Ben whistled in pretended great surprise. ďBut I let her go. We donít want no cats; we got enough now. But that jest shows the trap will work all right now, aní Iíll have a squirrel next, I bet yíu.Ē
ďSure you will,Ē agreed Ben, as he passed through the gate and caught a glimpse of the buxom widow, who, hearing voices, had hastened from the kitchen to peer out. ďYouíll be a great trapper, Jimmy; not a doubt of it.Ē
ďSay, if I ketch a squirrel, will you help me make a cage for him?Ē asked Jimmy eagerly.
ďI donít know,Ē answered Ben soberly. ďIf I can, I will; but Ė Ē
ďCourse you ken! Didnít you fix the trap? I expect you know how to make evíry kind of thing like that.Ē
ďIf I have a chance to make it, I will,Ē promised Ben, as he gently placed the boy on the steps and forced to his face a smile that robbed it in a remarkable way of its uncomeliness.
ďI donít sípose we ken begin now?Ē
ďItís too late to-night, and Iím in a hurry. Weíll have to put it off, Jimmy.Ē
The smile vanished from his face the moment he passed round the corner of the house on his way to the back door. ďPoor little Jimmy!Ē he thought. ďI canít help you make your squirrel-cage, as Iím not going to stay here long enough to do it.Ē
He ascended the narrow, uncarpeted stairs to his small, uncarpeted room over the kitchen, where a loose board rattled beneath his feet, and the dull light from a single window showed him the old-fashioned, low-posted, corded bedstead Ė with its straw tick, coarse sheets and patchwork quilt Ė pushed back beneath the sloping rafters of the roof.
Besides the bed, there was in the room for furniture a broken-backed rocking-chair; a small table with a split top, on which stood a common kerosene hand-lamp; a dingy white earthen water pitcher and bowl Ė the former with a circular piece broken out of its nose Ė sitting on a washstand, made of a long box stood on one end, with a muslin curtain hanging in front of it. His trunk was pushed into a corner of the room opposite the bed.
Another part of the room, which served as a wardrobe, or was intended for that purpose, was set off by a calico curtain. The kitchen chimney ran up through one end of the room and served to heat it a little Ė a very little.
Such a room as this was the best Ben Stone could afford to pay for from his meager savings. He had been satisfied, and had thought it would do him very well; for Mrs. Jones had genially assured him that on evenings when the weather became colder he would be welcome to sit and study by the open fire in the sitting-room, a concession for which he had been duly grateful.
But now he would need it no more; his hopes, his plans, his dreams were ended. He sat down dumbly on the broken chair, his hard, square hands lying helpless in his lap. The shadows of the dingy little chamber crept upon him from the corners; and the shadows of his life hovered thick about him.
Finally he became aware of the smell of cooking, which came to him from below, and slowly the consciousness that he was hungry grew upon him. It did not matter; he told himself so. There was in his heart a greater hunger that might never be satisfied.
It had grown quite dark and he struck a light, after which he pulled out his small battered trunk and lifted the lid. Then, in a mechanical manner, he began packing it with his few belongings.
At last the craving of his stomach became so insistent that he took down a square tin box from a shelf behind the calico curtain and opened it on the little table. It had been full when he came on Monday, but now there was left only the end of a stale loaf of bread and a few crumbs of cheese. These, however, were better than nothing, and he was about to make the best use of them, when there sounded a step outside his door, followed by a knock that gave him a start.
Had it come so soon? Would they give him no more time? Well, then, he must meet them; and, with his face gray and set, he opened the door.
With a long, nicked, blue platter, that served as a tray, Mrs. Jones stood outside and beamed upon him. On the tray were a knife, a fork, pewter spoons, and dishes of food, from one of which Ė a steaming bowl Ė came a most delightful odor.
ďLand sakes!Ē said the widow. ďThem stairs is awful in the dark, aní I didnít darst bring a lamp; I hed my hanís full. I brought yíu somethiní hot to eat; I hope yíu donít mind. It ainít right for a big, growiní youngster like you to be alwus a-eatiní cold vittles, íspecially when heís studyiní hard. Itís bad fír the dejesshun; aní Joel Ė my late departed Ė he alwus had somethiní the matter with his dejesshun. It kepí him from workiní regíler aní kinder spíiled his prospects, poor man! aní left me in straightened circumstances when he passed away. But I ainít a-repininí or complaininí; there is lots in this world a heap wuss offín I be, aní Iím satisfied that Iíve got a great deal to be thankful fír. If Iíd thought, Iíd a-brought up somethiní fír a tablecloth, but mebbe you can git along.Ē
She had entered while talking, bringing with her, besides the odor of food, another odor of soapsuds, which clung to her from her constant labor at the washtubs, where, with hard, backaching toil, she uncomplainingly scrubbed out a subsistence. For Mrs. Jones took in washings, and in Oakdale there was not another whose clothes were so white and spotless, and whose work was done so faithfully.
Ben was so taken aback that he stood speechless in the middle of the floor, watching her as she arranged the dishes on the table.
ďThereís some beef stew,Ē she said, depositing the steaming bowl. ďAní hereís hot bread aní butter, aní some doughnuts I fried to-day. Joel alwus uster say my doughnuts was the best he ever tasted, aní he did eat a monstírus pile of íem. I donít think they was the best thing in the world fír his dejesshun, either. Misí Collins give me some apples this morniní, aní I made a new apple pie. I thought yíu might like to try it, though it ainít very good, aní I brought yíu up a piece. Aní hereís a glass of milk. Jimmy he likes milk, aní I hev to keep it in the house fír him. He donít eat much, nohow. I saw you with Jimmy when you come in, aní I noticed you looked kinder tired aní pale, aní I says to myself, ĎWhat that boy needs is a good hot supper.í Jimmy heís bin talkiní about you all day, aní how yíu fixed his squirrel trap. Now, you jest set right up here, aní fall to.Ē
She had arranged the dishes and placed the old chair at the table, after which, as had become habitual with her on rising from the wash-tub, she wiped her hands on her apron and rested them on her hips, her arms akimbo. She was smiling at him in such a healthy, motherly manner, that her whole face seemed to glow like the genial face of the sun when it appears after a dark and cloudy day.
To say that Ben was touched, would be to fail utterly in expressing the smallest degree of his feelings, yet he was a silent, undemonstrative fellow, and now he groped in vain for satisfactory words with which to thank the widow. Unattractive and uncomely he was, beyond question, but now his unspeakable gratitude to this kind woman so softened and transformed his face that, could they have seen him, those who fancied they knew him well would have been astonished at the change.
ďMrs. Jones,Ē he faltered, ďI Ė I Ė how can I Ė Ē
ďNow you set right down, aní let the victuals stop yíur mouth,Ē she laughed. ďYouíve bin good to my Jimmy, aní I donít forgit nobody whoís good to him. Iíd asked yíu down to supper with us, but youíre so kinder backward aní diffident, that I thought píraps yíu wouldnít come, aní Mamie said she knowed yíu wouldnít.Ē
Ben felt certain that back of this was Mamieís dislike for him, which something told him had developed in her the moment she first saw him. She was the older daughter, a strong, healthy girl of seventeen, who never helped her mother about the work, who dressed in such cheap finery as she could obtain by hook or crook, who took music lessons on a rented melodeon paid for out of her motherís hard earnings, who felt herself to be a lady unfortunately born out of her sphere, and who was unquestionably ashamed of her surviving parent and her brother and sister.
ďSet right down,Ē persisted Mrs. Jones, as she took hold of him and pushed him into the chair. ďI want to see yíu eatiní. Thatís Mamie!Ē she exclaimed, her face lighting with pride, as the sound of the melodeon came from a distant part of the house. ďSheís gittiní so she can play real fine. She donít seem to keer much fír books aní study, but Iím sartin sheíll become a great musician if she keeps on. If Sadie was only more like her; but Sadie she keeps haviní them chills. I think she took íem of her father, fír when he warnít ailiní with his dejesshun he was shakiní with a chill, aní between one thing aní tíother, he had a hard time of it. It ainít to be wondered at that he died with debt piled up and a mortgage on the place; but I donít want you to think Iím complaininí, aní if the good Lord lets me keep my health aní strength, Iíll pay up evíry dollar somehow. How is the stew?Ē
ďIt Ė itís splendid!Ē declared Ben, who had begun to eat; and truly nothing had ever before seemed to taste so good.
As he ate, the widow continued to talk in the same strain, strong-hearted, hopeful, cheerful, for all of the ill-fortune that had attended her, and for all of the mighty load on her shoulders. He began to perceive that there was something heroic in this woman, and his admiration for her grew, while in his heart her thoughtful kindness had planted the seed of affection.
The warm bread was white and light and delicious, and somehow the smell of the melting butter upon it made him think vaguely of green fields and wild flowers and strawberries. Then the doughnuts Ė such doughnuts as they were! Ben could well understand how the ďlate departedĒ must have fairly reveled in his wifeís doughnuts; and, if such perfect productions of the culinary art could produce the result, it was fully comprehensible why Mr. Jonesí ďdejesshunĒ had been damaged.
But the pie was the crowning triumph. The crust was so flaky that it seemed to melt in the boyís mouth, and the apple filling had a taste and flavor that had been imparted to it in some magical manner by the genius of the woman who seemed to bestow something sweet and wholesome upon the very atmosphere about her.
With her entrance into that room, she had brought a ray of light that was growing stronger and stronger. He felt it shining upon him; he felt it warming his chilled soul and driving the shadows from his gloomy heart; he felt it giving him new courage to face the world and fight against fate Ė fight until he conquered.
A BRAVE HEART
ďThere,Ē said the widow, when Ben finished eating and sat back, flushing as he realized he had left not a morsel before him, ďnow I know yíu feel better. It jest done me good to see you eat. It sort of reminded me of the way Joel used to stow victuals away. He was a marster hand to eat, but it never seemed to do him no good. Even when he was in purty good health, which was seldom, he never could eat all he wanted to without feeliní oppressed arterwards aní haviní to lay down and rest. He was a good one at restiní,Ē she added, with a slight whimsical touch.
Once more Ben tried to find words to express his thanks, and once more Mrs. Jones checked him.
ďIt ainít been no trouble,Ē was her declaration, ďaní it was wuth a good deal to me to see you enjoy it so. Whatíre yíu doiní with your trunk pulled out this way?Ē
This question reminded him again of his determination to leave Oakdale directly; and, knowing the good woman had regarded the room as engaged by him for the time of the fall term of school, and also feeling that to leave her thus and so deprive her of the rent money she expected to receive for weeks to come would be a poor return for her kindness, he hesitated in confusion and reluctance to tell her the truth.
ďWhatís the matter?Ē she asked, noting his manner. ďHas anything happened? I noticed you was pale, aní didnít look jest well, when you come in. Is there anything wrong?Ē
ďYes, Mrs. Jones,Ē he forced himself to say; ďeverything is wrong with me.Ē
ďAt the academy? Why,Ē she exclaimed, as he nodded in answer to her question, ďI thought yíu passed the exammernation all right? Didnít yíu?Ē
ďItís not that; but I must leave school just the same.Ē
ďLand of goodness! Do tell! It canít be possible!Ē Mrs. Jones was completely astounded and quite shocked.
ďIt is not because I have failed in any of the requirements of the school,Ē Ben hastened to say. ďI canít explain just why it is, Mrs. Jones. Itís a long story, and I donít wish to tell it. But I have an enemy in the school. I didnít know he was here; I saw him for the first time to-day.Ē
This explanation did not satisfy her. ďWhy,Ē she said, ďI was thinkiní yíu told me when yíu took this room that you didnít know a liviní soul in this place.Ē
ďI did tell you so, and I thought at the time that it was the truth; but since then I have found out I was mistaken. There is one fellow in the school whom I know Ė and he knows me! He will make it impossible for me to attend school here.Ē
ďI donít see how,Ē said the widow, greatly puzzled. ďHow can anybody make yíu leave the school if yíu donít want to?Ē
ďHe hates me Ė he and his father, too. I am sure his father is a man of influence here.Ē
ďNow I donít want to be curiís aní pry inter nobodyís affairs,Ē declared the widow; ďbut I do think youíd better trust me aní tell me about this business. I donít bílieve you ever done no great wrong or bad thing to make yíu afraid of nobody. Anybody that can be good aní kind to a little lame boy, same as youíve been to my Jimmy, ainít bad.Ē
ďPerhaps if you knew all about it you would change your opinion of me,Ē said the boy a trifle huskily, for he was affected by her confidence in him.
She shook her head. ďNo I wouldnít. I bílieve youíre makiní a mountain out of er molehill. Youíre deescouraged, thatís whatís the matter. But somehow you donít look like a boy thatís easy deescouraged aní quick to give up. Now, you jest tell me who your enemy is. You ainít got no mother here to advise yíu, aní perhaps I can help yíu some.Ē
Her insistent kindness prevailed upon him, and he yielded.
ďMy enemyís name is Bernard Hayden,Ē he said.
ďLand! You donít tell! Why, heís the son of Lemuel Hayden, who come here aní bought the limestone quarries over south of thí lake. He ainít been here a year yet, but heís built buildinís aní run a branch railroad from the main road to the quarries, aní set things humminí in great shape. Next to Urian Eliot, who owns ímost all the mill business in the place, heís said to be the richest man in town.Ē
ďI knew it!Ē cried Ben; ďI knew he would be a man of influence here. I knew him in Farmington, the place where I was born. Mrs. Jones, if I do not leave the school and Oakdale at once, Lemuel Hayden will try to make me do so.Ē
He could not bring himself to disclose to her his fear that Mr. Hayden might again seek to commit him to the State Reformatory. That secret was the shame of his soul, and when he was gone from Oakdale he was certain it would be a secret no longer. Already Bern Hayden had told the boys on the football field, and in a small place gossip of such nature flies quickly.
ďNow let me talk to you a little,Ē said Mrs. Jones, sitting down on the trunk, which threatened to collapse beneath her weight. ďI stick to it that I donít bílieve you ever done northing very bad, aní if youíre poor that ainít your fault. Youíve got a right to have an eddercation, jest the same as Lemuel Haydenís boy has. Jest because, mebbe, you got inter some foolish boy scrape aní got this Hayden boy down on you, be yíu goiní to let him keep yíu from gittiní an eddercation, to make a man of yíu, aní take you through the world?
ďAs I said before, you donít look like a boy to be scart or driv easy, aní I shall be disappíinted in you if yíu are. I ainít goiní to pry inter the affair; if yíu want to tell me about it some time, yíu can. But Iím goiní to advise yíu to stay right here in this school aní hold your head up. Joel, my late departed, he alwus said it warnít no disgrace to be poor. That passage in the Bible that says itís harder fír a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven then fír a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, alwus was a great conserlation to Joel.
ďAní thereís rich people in this very town that should be ashamed to hold their heads up, knowiní, as evírybody does, how they come by their riches; but to-day Iíd ruther be a-earniní my daily bread by sweatiní at the wash-tub than to be in their shoes aní have on my mind what they must have on their minds. Evíry day I live I thank the Lord that heís been so good to me aní let me have so many pleasures aní enjoyments.Ē
Here she paused a moment to take breath, having digressed without intending to do so; and once more Ben found himself wondering at her splendid courage and the cheerful heart she maintained in spite of troubles and afflictions that might well have crushed and broken the spirit of an ordinary woman. She laughed in the face of misfortune, and she positively refused to be trampled on by bitter fate.
She was right in thinking Ben was not a weak boy nor one to be easily frightened; but had she known that over him hung the dark, chilling shadow of the reformatory, she could not have wondered at the course he had contemplated pursuing, and she might have hesitated about so freely giving him advice. Knowing nothing of this, however, she continued to urge him to reconsider his determination to give up school and leave Oakdale.
ďNow promise me that youíll stay till yíu have to leave school,Ē she entreated. ďAní I donít bílieve youíll have to at all.ĒŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
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