Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch
"If his heart at high floods
A LARGE audience assembled that night to witness "The Greatest Extravaganza of the Century." The Opera House was a blaze of light and color.
From the recesses of one of the boxes, Redding made a careful survey of the faces beneath him. First nights usually found him there, with the same restless, eager look in his eyes. Tonight he evidently failed to find what he sought, and was turning listlessly away when he stopped suddenly, bent forward, then smiled broadly. He had caught sight of Billy's red comforter.
The boy's hair was plastered close to his head, and his face was transformed by soap and happiness. Redding glanced quizzically at the rest of the party—at the mother's radiant countenance beaming from the dusk of her crepe veil, at the three little girls in their composite costumes, at the carnations pinned on each bosom. Then he deliberately turned his back on "The Greatest Extravaganza of the Century," and centered his attention on the parquet group.
It was a singularly enthusiastic theater party, oblivious of surroundings, and lost in wonder at the strange sights. Billy's laugh rang out frequently, with refreshing spontaneity. Their enjoyment was so evident that Redding was surprised, at the close of the first act, to see them put on their wraps and march solemnly out of the theater. He hastened to the lobby, and touched Billy on the shoulder.
"Didn't you like the show?" he asked.
"You bet!" said Billy, his eyes shining and his cheeks flushed.
Mrs. Wiggs was hopelessly entangled in the crepe veil, but her ideas of etiquette were rigid. She disengaged one hand and said, with dignity: "I 'low this is Mr. Bob, Billy's friend. Happy to meet yer acquaintance. Asia, speak to the gentleman—Australia—Europena!" with a commanding nod at each.
Three small hands were thrust at Redding simultaneously, and he accommodated them all in his broad palm.
"But why are you going home?" he asked, looking from one to the other.
"Where else would we go to?" asked Mrs. Wiggs, in amazement.
"Why not stay and see the play out? That was only the first act."
"Is there some more, ma?" asked Asia, eagerly.
"Why, of course," explained Redding, "lots more. Now, go back, and stay until everybody has left the theater, and then you will be certain it's over."
So back they went, furnishing an amusing entr'acte for the impatient audience.
After the curtain descended on the final tableau, Redding waited in the lobby while the stream of people passed. The Wiggses had obeyed instructions, and were the very last to come out. They seemed dazed by their recent glimpse into fairy-land. Something in their thin bodies and pinched faces made Redding form a sudden resolve.
"Billy," he said gravely, "can't you and your family take supper with me?"
Billy and his mother exchanged doubtful glances; for the past three hours everything had been so strange and unusual that they were bewildered.
"You see, we will go right over to Bond's and have something to eat before you go home," urged Redding.
Mrs. Wiggs was in great doubt, but one of the little girls pulled her skirt and said, in pleading tones: "Ma, let's do!" and Billy was already casting longing eyes at the big restaurant across the way. She had not the heart to refuse. As they were crossing the street, Asia stopped suddenly and cried:
"Ma, there's the 'Christmas Lady' gittin' in that hack! She seen us! Look!"
But before they could turn the carriage door had slammed.
Redding took them into a small apartment, curtained off from the rest of the cafe, so that only the waiters commented on the strange party. At first there was oppressive silence; then the host turned to Europena and asked her what she liked best to eat. A moment of torture ensued for the small lady, during which she nearly twisted her thumb from its socket, then she managed to gasp:
Mr. Bob laughed. "Why, you little cannibal!" he said. "What on earth does she mean?"
"Cream puffs," explained Mrs. Wiggs, airily. "She et 'em onct at Mrs. Reed's, the Bourbon Stock Yard's wife, an' she's been talkin' 'bout 'em ever sence."
After this the ice, while not broken, at least had a crack in it, and by the time the first course was served Redding was telling them a funny story, and three of the audience were able to smile. It had pleased him to order an elaborate supper, and he experienced the keenest enjoyment over the novelty of the situation. The Wiggses ate as he had never seen people eat before. "For speed and durability they break the record," was his mental comment. He sat by and, with consummate tact, made them forget everything but the good time they were having.
As the supper progressed, Mrs. Wiggs became communicative. She still wore her black cotton gloves, and gesticulated with a chicken croquette as she talked.
"Yes," she was saying, "Jim was one of these handy childern; when he was eight years old he could peddle as good as you could! I guess you heard 'bout our roof; ever'body was talkin' 'bout it. Billy is takin' right after him; do you know what that boy has gone an' done? He's built his pa a monumint!"
"A monument!" exclaimed Redding.
"Yes, sir, a tombstun monumint! I was allers a-wishin' that Mr. Wiggs could have a monumint, and Billy never said a word, but he set his head to it. One day he come home with a lot of these here tiles what they had throwed out from the tile fact'ry; some of 'em was jes' a little nicked, an' the others was jes' as good as new. Well, he kep' on gittin' 'em ever' day or two, till he had a consider'ble pile. Ever' night he used to set on the floor an' fool with them things, a-fittin' 'em here an' crackin' 'em off there, but I never paid no 'tention to him. One night, when I come in from Mrs. Eichorn's, what did I see on the floor but a sure-'nough tombstun-slab, an' spelt out in little blue tiles down the middle was:
"'Pa. Gone, but not forgotten.'
"I was jes' that pleased I set down an' bust out cryin'. We made a sorter box to hold it, an' chinked it up with cement, an' las' Sunday me an' the childern took it out an' fixed it up on Mr. Wiggs's grave. Some day we are going to make Jimmy one; you know Jimmy's my boy that's dead." Her eyes filled and her lips trembled; even the sunshine of her buoyant nature could not dispel one shadow that always lay across her heart.
At this moment Billy, doubtless thrilled at being the topic of conversation, upset his glass of water, and the deluge descended full upon Australia, drenching the waist of the blue alpaca. Such a wail as arose! Threats and persuasion were alike unavailing; she even refused to be mopped off, but slid in a disconsolate heap under the table. Redding attempted to invade the citadel with an orange as a flag of truce, but his overtures were ineffectual, and he was compelled to retreat under fire.
"I'd leave her be, Mr. Bob," advised Mrs. Wiggs, placidly, as she spread her salad on a piece of bread. "She'll git to holdin' her breath if you notice her."
The shrieks gradually diminished to spasmodic sobs, which in turn gave place to ominous silence.
"Billy," said Redding, taking Mrs. Wiggs's advice and ignoring the flood sufferer, "how would you like to be my office-boy?"
"I'd like it a heap," answered Billy, promptly.
Redding turned to Mrs. Wiggs. "You see, it's a newspaper office, and while the pay isn't much at first, still it's better than peddling kindling, and there would be a chance for promotion as he got older."
"Oh, yes," answered Mrs. Wiggs, complacently; "there wouldn't be no trouble 'bout Billy promotin'. I 'spect he could take to writin' newspapers right away, if you could hold him down to it. He's jes' like his pa—the very spittin' image of him! Mr. Wiggs was so educated—the most fluent man in jography I ever seen!"
"I'm goin' to be like Mr. Bob when I grow up," said Billy, stoutly. His recollection of his paternal parent was not the sort ideals are made of.
Just here the waiter appeared with the final course, and Asia lifted the tablecloth and whispered, "Say, 'Straly, we 've got ice-cream." No answer. Then little Europena, with baby wisdom, put her tow head under the cloth, and said, "'Traly, it's pink!" and Australia emerged, tear-stained but smiling, and finished her supper on Mr. Bob's knee.
When the limit of capacity had been tested to the fullest, and Billy had declared that "he couldn't swaller no more, he was jes' chawin'," Redding filled their pockets with candy and, when Mrs. Wiggs was not looking, put a quarter in each hand. Then he rang for a carriage, and, in spite of Mrs. Wiggs's protestations, he put them in, and repeated Billy's directions as to the exact location of the Cabbage Patch.
"My, my, ain't this nice!" said Mrs. Wiggs, leaning back against carriage cushions for the first time in her life, while Redding lifted Europena in beside her.
"We 've seed a good time fer onct in our lives," said Asia. It was the first time she had spoken since they left the theater.
"Lemme ride up on top, ma!" demanded Billy, eagerly.
"Lemme, too, lemme!" came from the sleepy Australia, who did not know what new attraction was being offered, but was resolved not to miss anything.
"All right, Billy; but, Austry, you must stay with ma. Good-by, Mr. Bob, and thanks—thanks fer one an' all!"
Redding stood on the corner where they had left him, and the smile died out of his face. Within a block was a jolly crowd and a hearty welcome; across the street was the big apartment house where his dark and cheerless window promised him nothing. For a moment he stood irresolute. "There is certainly nobody to care where I go," he thought gloomily; then suddenly the smile came back. "But if I'm to be Billy Wiggs's model, I guess I'd better go to bed." He ran lightly across the street, and up the broad stone steps.