Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch
WAYS AND MEANS
"Ah! well may the children weep before you!
THE cold wave that was ushered in that December morning was the beginning of a long series of days that vied with each other as to which could induce the mercury to drop the lowest. The descent of the temperature seemed to have a like effect on the barrel of potatoes and the load of coal in the Wiggses' parlor.
Mrs. Wiggs's untiring efforts to find employment had met with no success, and Jim's exertions were redoubled; day by day his scanty earnings became less sufficient to meet the demands of the family.
On Christmas eve they sat over the stove, after the little ones had gone to bed, and discussed the situation. The wind hurled itself against the house in a very frenzy of rage, shaking the icicles from the window-ledge and hissing through the patched panes. The snow that sifted in through the loose sash lay unmelted on the sill. Jim had a piece of old carpet about him, and coughed with almost every breath. Mrs. Wiggs's head was in her hands, and the tears that trickled through her crooked fingers hissed as they fell on the stove. It was the first time Jim had ever seen her give up.
"Seems like we'll have to ast fer help, Jim," she said. "I can't ast fer credit at Mr. Bagby's; seems like I'd never have the courage to pull agin a debt. What do you think? I guess—it looks like mebbe we'll have to apply to the organization."
Jim's eyes flashed. "Not yet, ma!" he said, firmly. "It 'ud be with us like it was with the Hornbys; they didn't have nothin' to eat, and they went to the organization ant the man asted 'em if they had a bed or a table, an' when they said yes, he said, 'Well, why don't you sell 'em?' No, ma! As long as we've got coal I'll git the vittles some way!" He had to pause, for a violent attack of coughing shook him from head to foot. "I think I can git a night job next week; one of the market-men comes in from the country ever' night to git a early start next morning an' he ast me if I'd sleep in his wagon from three to six an' keep his vegetables from bein' stole. That 'ud gimme time to git home an' git breakfast, an' be down to the fact'ry by seven."
"But, Jimmy boy," cried his mother, her voice quivering with anxiety, "you never could stan' it night an' day too! No, I'll watch the wagon; I'll—"
A knock on the parlor door interrupted her. She hastily dried her eyes and smoothed her hair. Jim went to the door.
"I've a Christmas basket for you!" cried a cheery voice.
"Is this Christmas?" Jim asked dully.
The girl in the doorway laughed. She was tall and slender, but Jim could only see a pair of sparkling eyes between the brim of the hat and her high fur collar. It was nice to hear her laugh, though; it made things seem warmer somehow. The colored man behind her deposited a large basket on the doorstep.
"It's from the church," she explained; "a crowd of us are out in the omnibus distributing baskets."
"Well, how'd you ever happen to come here?" cried Mrs. Wiggs, who had come to the door.
"There is one for each of the mission-school families; just a little Christmas greeting, you know."
Mrs. Wiggs's spirits were rising every minute. "Well, that certainly is kind an' thoughtful like," she said. "Won't you—" she hesitated; the room she had just left was not in a condition to receive guests, but Mrs. Wiggs was a Kentuckian. "Come right in an' git warm," she said cordially; "the stove's died down some, but you could git thawed out."
"No, thank you, I can't come in," said the young lady, with a side glance at Jim, who was leaning against the door. "Have you plenty of coal?" she asked, in an undertone.
"Oh, yes'm, thank you," said Mrs. Wiggs, smiling reassuringly. Her tone might have been less confident, but for Jim's warning glance. Every fiber of his sensitive nature shrank from asking help.
The girl was puzzled; she noticed the stamp of poverty on everything in sight except the bright face of the little woman before her.
"Well," she said doubtfully, "if you ever want—to come to see me, ask for Miss Lucy Olcott at Terrace Park. Good night, and a happy Christmas!"
She was gone, and the doorway looked very black and lonesome in consequence. But there was the big basket to prove she was not merely an apparition, and it took both Jim and his mother to carry it in. Sitting on the floor, they unpacked it. There were vegetables, oatmeal, fruit, and even tea and coffee. But the surprise was at the very bottom! A big turkey, looking so comical with his legs stuck in his body that Jim laughed outright.
"It's the first turkey that's been in this house fer many a day!" said Mrs. Wiggs, delightedly, as she pinched the fat fowl. "I 'spect Europena'll be skeered of it, it's so big. My, but we'll have a good dinner to-morrow! I'll git Miss Hazy an' Chris to come over an' spend the day, and I'll carry a plate over to Mrs. Schultz, an' take a little o' this here tea to ole Mrs. Lawson."
The cloud had turned inside out for Mrs. Wiggs, and only the silver lining was visible. Jim was doing a sum on the brown paper that came over the basket, and presently he looked up and said slowly:
"Ma, I guess we can't have the turkey this year. I kin sell it fer a dollar seventy-five, and that would buy us hog-meat fer a good while."
Mrs. Wiggs's face fell, and she twisted her apron-string in silence. She had pictured the joy of a real Christmas dinner, the first the youngest children had ever known; she had already thought of half a dozen neighbors to whom she wanted to send "a little snack." But one look at Jim's anxious face recalled their circumstances.
"Of course we'll sell it," she said brightly. "You have got the longest head fer a boy! We'll sell it in the mornin', an' buy sausage fer dinner, an' I'll cook some of these here nice vegetables an' put a orange an' some candy at each plate, an' the childern'll never know nothin' 'bout it. Besides," she added, "if you ain't never et turkey meat you don't know how good it is."
But in spite of her philosophy, after Jim had gone to bed she slipped over and took one more look at the turkey.
"I think I wouldn't 'a' minded so much," she said, wistfully, "ef they hadn't 'a' sent the cramberries, too!"
For ten days the basket of provisions and the extra money made by Jim's night work and Mrs. Wiggs's washing supplied the demands of the family; but by the end of January the clouds had gathered thicker than before.
Mrs. Wiggs's heart was heavy, one night, as she tramped home through the snow after a hard day's work. The rent was due, the coal was out, and only a few potatoes were left in the barrel. But these were mere shadow troubles, compared to Jim's illness; he had been too sick to go to the factory that morning, and she dared not think what changes the day may have brought. As she lifted the latch of her rickety door the sobbing of a child greeted her; it was little Europena, crying for food. For three days there had been no bread in the house, and a scanty supply of potatoes and beans had been their only nourishment.
Mrs. Wiggs hastened to where Jim lay on a cot in the corner; his cheeks were flushed, and his thin, nervous fingers picked at the old shawl that covered him.
"Jim," she said, kneeling beside him and pressing his hot hand to her cheek, "Jim, darling lemme go fer the doctor. You're worser than you was this mornin', an'—an'—I'm so skeered!" Her voice broke in a sob.
Jim tried to put his arm around her, but something hurt him in his chest when he moved, so he patted her hand instead.
"Never mind, ma," he said, his breath coming short; "we ain't got no money to buy the medicine, even if the doctor did come. You go git some supper, now; an', ma, don't worry; I'm goin' to take keer of you all! Only—only," he added, wearily, "I guess I can't sleep in the wagon to-night."
Slowly the hours passed until midnight. Mrs. Wiggs had pulled Jim's cot close to the stove, and applied vigorous measures to relieve him. Her efforts were unceasing, and one after another the homely country remedies were faithfully administered. At twelve o'clock he grew restless.
"Seems like I'm hot, then agin I'm cold," he said, speaking with difficulty. "Could you find a little somethin' more to put over me, ma?"
Mrs. Wiggs got up and went toward the bed. The three little girls lay huddled under one old quilt, their faces pale and sunken. She turned away abruptly, and looked toward the corner where Billy slept on a pallet. The blankets on his bed were insufficient even for him. She put her hands over her face, and for a moment dry sobs convulsed her. The hardest grief is often that which leaves no trace. When she went back to the stove she had a smile ready for the sick boy.
"Here's the very thing," she said; "it's my dress skirt. I don't need it a mite, settin' up here so clost to the fire. See how nice it tucks in all 'round!"
For a while he lay silent, then he said: "Ma, are you 'wake?"
"Well, I bin thinking it over. If I ain't better in the morning I guess—" the words came reluctantly—"I guess you'd better go see the Christmas lady. I wouldn't mind her knowin' so much. 'T won't be fer long, nohow, cause I kin take keer of you all soon—soon 's I kin git up."
The talking brought on severe coughing, and he sank back exhausted.
"Can't you go to sleep, honey?" asked his mother.
"No, it's them ole wheels," he said fretfully, "them wheels at the fact'ry; when I git to sleep they keep on wakin' me up."
Mrs. Wiggs's hands were rough and knotted, but love taught them to be gentle as she smoothed his hot head.
"Want me to tell you 'bout the country, Jim?" she asked.
Since he was a little boy he had loved to hear of their old home in the valley. His dim recollection of it all formed his one conception of heaven.
"Yes, ma; mebbe it will make me fergit the wheels," he said.
"Well," she began, putting her head beside his on the pillow, so he could not watch her face, "it was all jes' like a big front yard without no fences, an' the flowers didn't belong to folks like they do over on the avenue, where you dassent pick a one; but they was God's, an' you was welcome to all you could pull. An' there was trees, Jim, where you could climb up an' git big red apples, an' when the frost 'ud come they'd be persimmons that 'ud jes' melt in yer mouth. An' you could look 'way off 'crost the meaders, an' see the trees a-wavin' in the sunshine, an' up over yer head the birds 'ud be singin' like they was never goin' to stop. An' yer pa an' me 'ud take you out at the harvestin' time, an' you 'ud play on the hay-stacks. I kin remember jes' how you looked, Jim—a fat little boy, with red cheeks a-laughin' all the time."
Mrs. Wiggs could tell no more, for the old memories were too much for her. Jim scarcely knew when she stopped; his eyes were half closed, and a sweet drowsiness was upon him.
"It's nice an' warm in the sunshine," he murmured; "the meaders an' trees—laughin' all the time! Birds singin', singin', singin'."
Then Jim began to sing too, softly and monotonously, and the sorrow that had not come with years left his tired face, and he fearlessly drifted away into the Shadowy Valley where his lost childhood lay.