Ben Stone at Oakdaleñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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 Ben’s appearance, hobbling out to meet him when he came along the road.
“You’re awful late,” cried the lame lad, in a thin, high-pitched voice, which attested his affliction and weakness. “I’ve been watchin’. I saw lots of other fellers go by, but then I waited an’ waited, an’ you didn’t come.”
A lump rose in Ben’s 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.
“So you were watching for me, were you, Jimmy?” he said, in a wonderfully soft voice for him.
“That was fine of you, and I won’t forget it.”
“Yep, 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, an’ what do you think I ketched? Bet you can’t guess.”
“A squirrel,” hazarded Ben.
“Nope, a cat!” laughed the little fellow, and Ben whistled in pretended great surprise. “But I let her go. We don’t want no cats; we got enough now. But that jest shows the trap will work all right now, an’ I’ll have a squirrel next, I bet y’u.”
“Sure you will,” 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. “You’ll be a great trapper, Jimmy; not a doubt of it.”
“Say, if I ketch a squirrel, will you help me make a cage for him?” asked Jimmy eagerly.
“I don’t know,” answered Ben soberly. “If I can, I will; but – ”
“Course you ken! Didn’t you fix the trap? I expect you know how to make ev’ry kind of thing like that.”
“If I have a chance to make it, I will,” 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.
“I don’t s’pose we ken begin now?”
“It’s too late to-night, and I’m in a hurry. We’ll have to put it off, Jimmy.”
The smile vanished from his face the moment he passed round the corner of the house on his way to the back door. “Poor little Jimmy!” he thought. “I can’t help you make your squirrel-cage, as I’m not going to stay here long enough to do it.”
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 – with its straw tick, coarse sheets and patchwork quilt – 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 – the former with a circular piece broken out of its nose – 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 – 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 – a steaming bowl – came a most delightful odor.
“Land sakes!” said the widow. “Them stairs is awful in the dark, an’ I didn’t darst bring a lamp; I hed my han’s full. I brought y’u somethin’ hot to eat; I hope y’u don’t mind. It ain’t right for a big, growin’ youngster like you to be alwus a-eatin’ cold vittles, ’specially when he’s studyin’ hard. It’s bad f’r the dejesshun; an’ Joel – my late departed – he alwus had somethin’ the matter with his dejesshun. It kep’ him from workin’ reg’ler an’ kinder sp’iled his prospects, poor man! an’ left me in straightened circumstances when he passed away. But I ain’t a-repinin’ or complainin’; there is lots in this world a heap wuss off’n I be, an’ I’m satisfied that I’ve got a great deal to be thankful f’r. If I’d thought, I’d a-brought up somethin’ f’r a tablecloth, but mebbe you can git along.”
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.
“There’s some beef stew,” she said, depositing the steaming bowl. “An’ here’s hot bread an’ butter, an’ some doughnuts I fried to-day. Joel alwus uster say my doughnuts was the best he ever tasted, an’ he did eat a monst’rus pile of ’em. I don’t think they was the best thing in the world f’r his dejesshun, either. Mis’ Collins give me some apples this mornin’, an’ I made a new apple pie. I thought y’u might like to try it, though it ain’t very good, an’ I brought y’u up a piece. An’ here’s a glass of milk. Jimmy he likes milk, an’ I hev to keep it in the house f’r him. He don’t eat much, nohow. I saw you with Jimmy when you come in, an’ I noticed you looked kinder tired an’ pale, an’ I says to myself, ‘What that boy needs is a good hot supper.’ Jimmy he’s bin talkin’ about you all day, an’ how y’u fixed his squirrel trap. Now, you jest set right up here, an’ fall to.”
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.
“Mrs. Jones,” he faltered, “I – I – how can I – ”
“Now you set right down, an’ let the victuals stop y’ur mouth,” she laughed. “You’ve bin good to my Jimmy, an’ I don’t forgit nobody who’s good to him. I’d asked y’u down to supper with us, but you’re so kinder backward an’ diffident, that I thought p’raps y’u wouldn’t come, an’ Mamie said she knowed y’u wouldn’t.”
Ben felt certain that back of this was Mamie’s 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 mother’s 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.
“Set right down,” persisted Mrs. Jones, as she took hold of him and pushed him into the chair. “I want to see y’u eatin’. That’s Mamie!” she exclaimed, her face lighting with pride, as the sound of the melodeon came from a distant part of the house. “She’s gittin’ so she can play real fine. She don’t seem to keer much f’r books an’ study, but I’m sartin she’ll become a great musician if she keeps on. If Sadie was only more like her; but Sadie she keeps havin’ them chills. I think she took ’em of her father, f’r when he warn’t ailin’ with his dejesshun he was shakin’ with a chill, an’ between one thing an’ t’other, he had a hard time of it. It ain’t to be wondered at that he died with debt piled up and a mortgage on the place; but I don’t want you to think I’m complainin’, an’ if the good Lord lets me keep my health an’ strength, I’ll pay up ev’ry dollar somehow. How is the stew?”
“It – it’s splendid!” 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 – such doughnuts as they were! Ben could well understand how the “late departed” must have fairly reveled in his wife’s doughnuts; and, if such perfect productions of the culinary art could produce the result, it was fully comprehensible why Mr. Jones’ “dejesshun” had been damaged.
But the pie was the crowning triumph. The crust was so flaky that it seemed to melt in the boy’s 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 – fight until he conquered.
A BRAVE HEART
“There,” said the widow, when Ben finished eating and sat back, flushing as he realized he had left not a morsel before him, “now I know y’u 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 feelin’ oppressed arterwards an’ havin’ to lay down and rest. He was a good one at restin’,” 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.
“It ain’t been no trouble,” was her declaration, “an’ it was wuth a good deal to me to see you enjoy it so. What’re y’u doin’ with your trunk pulled out this way?”
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.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, noting his manner. “Has anything happened? I noticed you was pale, an’ didn’t look jest well, when you come in. Is there anything wrong?”
“Yes, Mrs. Jones,” he forced himself to say; “everything is wrong with me.”
“At the academy? Why,” she exclaimed, as he nodded in answer to her question, “I thought y’u passed the exammernation all right? Didn’t y’u?”
“It’s not that; but I must leave school just the same.”
“Land of goodness! Do tell! It can’t be possible!” Mrs. Jones was completely astounded and quite shocked.
“It is not because I have failed in any of the requirements of the school,” Ben hastened to say. “I can’t explain just why it is, Mrs. Jones. It’s a long story, and I don’t wish to tell it. But I have an enemy in the school. I didn’t know he was here; I saw him for the first time to-day.”
This explanation did not satisfy her. “Why,” she said, “I was thinkin’ y’u told me when y’u took this room that you didn’t know a livin’ soul in this place.”
“I 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 – and he knows me! He will make it impossible for me to attend school here.”
“I don’t see how,” said the widow, greatly puzzled. “How can anybody make y’u leave the school if y’u don’t want to?”
“He hates me – he and his father, too. I am sure his father is a man of influence here.”
“Now I don’t want to be curi’s an’ pry inter nobody’s affairs,” declared the widow; “but I do think you’d better trust me an’ tell me about this business. I don’t b’lieve you ever done no great wrong or bad thing to make y’u afraid of nobody. Anybody that can be good an’ kind to a little lame boy, same as you’ve been to my Jimmy, ain’t bad.”
“Perhaps if you knew all about it you would change your opinion of me,” said the boy a trifle huskily, for he was affected by her confidence in him.
She shook her head. “No I wouldn’t. I b’lieve you’re makin’ a mountain out of er molehill. You’re deescouraged, that’s what’s the matter. But somehow you don’t look like a boy that’s easy deescouraged an’ quick to give up. Now, you jest tell me who your enemy is. You ain’t got no mother here to advise y’u, an’ perhaps I can help y’u some.”
Her insistent kindness prevailed upon him, and he yielded.
“My enemy’s name is Bernard Hayden,” he said.
“Land! You don’t tell! Why, he’s the son of Lemuel Hayden, who come here an’ bought the limestone quarries over south of th’ lake. He ain’t been here a year yet, but he’s built buildin’s an’ run a branch railroad from the main road to the quarries, an’ set things hummin’ in great shape. Next to Urian Eliot, who owns ’most all the mill business in the place, he’s said to be the richest man in town.”
“I knew it!” cried Ben; “I 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.”
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.
“Now let me talk to you a little,” said Mrs. Jones, sitting down on the trunk, which threatened to collapse beneath her weight. “I stick to it that I don’t b’lieve you ever done northing very bad, an’ if you’re poor that ain’t your fault. You’ve got a right to have an eddercation, jest the same as Lemuel Hayden’s boy has. Jest because, mebbe, you got inter some foolish boy scrape an’ got this Hayden boy down on you, be y’u goin’ to let him keep y’u from gittin’ an eddercation, to make a man of y’u, an’ take you through the world?
“As I said before, you don’t look like a boy to be scart or driv easy, an’ I shall be disapp’inted in you if y’u are. I ain’t goin’ to pry inter the affair; if y’u want to tell me about it some time, y’u can. But I’m goin’ to advise y’u to stay right here in this school an’ hold your head up. Joel, my late departed, he alwus said it warn’t no disgrace to be poor. That passage in the Bible that says it’s harder f’r a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven then f’r a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, alwus was a great conserlation to Joel.
“An’ there’s rich people in this very town that should be ashamed to hold their heads up, knowin’, as ev’rybody does, how they come by their riches; but to-day I’d ruther be a-earnin’ my daily bread by sweatin’ at the wash-tub than to be in their shoes an’ have on my mind what they must have on their minds. Ev’ry day I live I thank the Lord that he’s been so good to me an’ let me have so many pleasures an’ enjoyments.”
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.
“Now promise me that you’ll stay till y’u have to leave school,” she entreated. “An’ I don’t b’lieve you’ll have to at all.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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