A RUINED MERCHANT.
“Hello, Joe Potter! What you doin’ up in this part of the town?”
The boy thus addressed halted suddenly, looked around with what was very like an expression of fear on his face, and then, recognising the speaker, replied, in a tone of relief:
“Oh, it’s you, is it, Plums?”
“Of course it’s me. Who else did you think it was? Say, what you doin’ ’round here? Who’s tendin’ for you now?”
“It don’t seem as though this was the time of day when you could afford to shut up shop.”
“But that’s what I have done.”
“Got some ‘portant business up here at the depot, eh?”
Joe shook his head mournfully, stepped back a few paces that he might lean against the building, and[Pg 12] looked about him with a languid air, much as if there was no longer anything pleasing for him in life.
Plums, or to give him his full name, George H. Plummer, gazed at his friend in mild surprise.
Any other boy of Joe Potter’s acquaintance would have been astonished at the great change which had come over him; but Plums was not given to excesses of any kind, save in the way of eating. That which would have excited an ordinary lad only served to arouse Plums in a mild degree, and perhaps it was this natural apathy which served to give Master Plummer such an accumulation of flesh. He was what might be called a very fat boy, and was never known to move with sufficient energy to reduce his weight.
Sim Jepson stated that Plums sold newspapers in the vicinity of the Grand Central Station because he lived only a couple of blocks away, and therefore had sufficient time to walk to his place of business during the forenoon.
“How he ever earns enough to pay for fillin’ hisself up is more’n I can make out,” Master Jepson had said, with an air of perplexity. “By the time he’s sold ten papers, he’s ate the profits off of twenty, an’ acts like he was hungrier than when he begun.”
As Plums waited for, rather than solicited, customers, he gazed in an indolent fashion at the dejected-looking friend, who might have served, as he stood leaning against the building on this particular June day, as a statue of misery.
Joe Potter was as thin as his friend was stout, and,[Pg 13] ordinarily, as active as Plums was indolent. His listless bearing now served to arouse Master Plummer’s curiosity as nothing else could have done.
“Business been good down your way?” he finally asked.
“It’s mighty bad. I got stuck on a bunch of bananas, and lost thirty-two cents last week. Then oranges went down till you couldn’t hardly see ’em, an’ I bought a box when they was worth two dollars. It seems like as if every Italian in the city, what ain’t blackin’ boots, has started a fruit-stand, an’ it’s jest knocked the eye out of business.”
“I shouldn’t think you could afford to lay ’round up here if it is as bad as all that.”
“It don’t make any difference where I am now, ’cause I’ve busted; Plums, I’ve busted. Failed up yesterday, an’ have got jest sixteen cents to my name.”
“Busted!” Master Plummer exclaimed. “Why, you told me you had more’n seven dollars when you started that fruit-stand down on West Street.”
“Seven dollars an’ eighty-three cents was the figger, Plums, an’ here’s what’s left of it.”
Joe took from his pocket a handful of pennies, counting them slowly to assure himself he had made no mistake in the sum total.
Master Plummer was so overwhelmed by the sad tidings, that two intending purchasers passed him by after waiting several seconds to be served, and Joe reminded him of his inattention to business by saying, sharply:
“I didn’t see anybody what wanted one. I’m jest knocked silly, Joe, about your hard luck. How did it happen?”
“That’s what I can’t seem to make out. I kept on sellin’ stuff, an’ of course had to buy more; but every night the money was smaller an’ smaller, till I didn’t have much of any left.”
“I felt kind of ‘fraid you was swellin’ too big, Joe. When a feller agrees to give five dollars a month rent, an’ hires a clerk for a dollar a week, same’s you did, he’s takin’ a pretty good contract on his shoulders. Did you pay Sim Jepson his wages all right?”
“Yes, I kept square with him, and I guess that’s where most of my money went. Sim owns the stand now.”
“He owns it? Why, he was your clerk.”
“Don’t you s’pose I know that? But he was gettin’ a dollar a week clean money, an’ it counted up in time. If things had been the other way, most likely I’d own the place to-day.”
Master Plummer was silent for an instant, and then a smile as of satisfaction overspread his fat face.
“I’ll tell you how to do it, Joe: hire out to Sim, an’ after a spell you’ll get the stand back ag’in.”
“That won’t work; I tried it. You see, when it come yesterday, I owed him a dollar for wages, an’ thirty cents I’d borrowed. There wasn’t more’n ninety cents’ worth of stuff in the stand, an’ Sim said he’d got to be paid right sharp. Of course I couldn’t raise money when I’d[Pg 15] jest the same’s failed, an’ told him so. He offered to square things if I’d give him the business; an’ what else could I do? I left there without a cent to my name; but earned a quarter last night, an’ here’s what’s left of it.”
The ruined merchant mournfully jingled the coins in his hand, while he gazed dreamily at the railway structure overhead, and Master Plummer regarded him sympathetically.
“What you goin’ to do now?” the fat boy asked, after a long pause.
“That’s jest what I don’t know, Plums. If I had the money, I reckon I’d take up shinin’ for a spell, even if the Italians are knockin’ the life out of business.”
“Why don’t you sell papers, same’s you used to?”
“Well, you see when I went into the fruit-stand I sold out my rights ’round the City Hall, to Dan Fernald, an’ it wouldn’t be the square thing for me to jump in down there ag’in.”
“There’s plenty of chances up-town.”
“I don’t know about that. S’posen I started right here, then I’d be rubbin’ against you; an’ it’s pretty much the same everywhere. I tell you, Plums, there’s too many folks in this city. I ain’t so certain but I shall go for a sailor; they say there’s money in that business.”
“S’posen there was barrels in it, how could you get any out?” and in his astonishment that Joe should have considered such a plan even for a moment, Master Plummer very nearly grew excited. “You ain’t big enough[Pg 16] to shin up the masts, an’ take in sails, an’ all that sort of work, same’s sailors have to do.”
“I’d grow to it, of course. I don’t expect I could go down to the docks an’ get a chance right off as a first-class hand on masts an’ sails; but I shouldn’t go on a vessel, you know, Plums. I’m countin’ on a steamboat, where there ain’t any shinnin’ round to be done. Them fellers that run on the Sound steamers have snaps, that’s what they have. You know my stand was on West Street, where I saw them all, and the money they spend! It don’t seem like as if half a dollar was any account to ’em.”
“But what could you do on a steamboat?”
“I don’t know yet; but I’ll snoop ’round before the summer’s over, an’ find out. Where you livin’ now?”
“Well, say, Joe, you can talk ’bout steamboat snaps; but this house of mine lays over ’em all. I s’pose I’ve got about the swellest layout in this city, an’ don’t have to give up a cent for it, either. First off McDaniels counted on chargin’ me rent, an’ after I’d been there a couple of days he said it didn’t seem right to take money, ’cause the place wasn’t fit for a dog. I’ll tell you what it is, if McDaniels keeps his dogs in any better shanty than that, they must be livin’ on the fat of the land.”
“He’s the blacksmith what owns the shanty where I live. You see, it was like this: I allers sold him a paper every afternoon, an’ when it rained, or business was dull, I loafed ’round there, an’ that’s how I found the place.”[Pg 17]
“Do you live in the blacksmith’s shop?”
“Well I should say I didn’t! Right behind it is a shed he built, to keep a wagon in, but I guess he ain’t got any now, leastways he don’t flash one up. There was a lot of old iron an’ the like of that thrown in at one end, an’ when I saw it, I says to myself, says I, ‘That’s a mighty good shanty for some feller what don’t want to give up all the money he makes for a place to sleep in,’ and I began to figger how it could be fixed. It took me as much as two days before I could see into it, an’ then I had it all in my mind; so I tackled McDaniels about hirin’ it. He was willin’, so long’s I ‘greed to be careful about fire, an’—well, if you’re out of business now there’s nothin’ to keep you from comin’ down to-night an’ seein’ it.”
“I’m not only out of business, but I’m out of a home, Plums. You see, when I sold the fruit-stand of course I hadn’t any right to count on sleepin’ there, an’—”
“Didn’t Sim Jepson offer you the chance?”
“He seemed to think it wasn’t big enough for two.”
“He didn’t have any sich swell notions when you first started there, an’ he wanted a place to sleep.”
“Yes, I remember all about that; but it’s no use twittin’ a feller. He was willin’ enough to bunk in with me, but if he don’t want to turn about an’ give me the same show, it ain’t any of my business.”
“I ain’t certain but I’ll try my luck hangin’ ’round the depot here waitin’ for a chance to carry baggage. I’ve done them kind of jobs before, an’ they didn’t turn out so terrible bad. You see, with only sixteen cents, a feller can’t spread hisself very much on goin’ into business.”
“You might buy papers, an’ sell ’em here. It ain’t a very great show for trade, but you won’t have to work very hard, an’ there’s a good deal in that.”
“Yes, Plums, there is, for a feller like you, what don’t want to stir ’round much; but I’m ready to hustle, an’ it wouldn’t suit me nohow. You don’t earn more’n fifteen or twenty cents a day.”
“Not a great deal more,” Master Plummer replied, in a tone of content, and a probable customer approaching just at that moment, he succeeded in making sufficient exertion to offer his wares for sale.
“That’s jest about the way of it!” he exclaimed, as the gentleman passed into the building without giving heed to the paper held invitingly towards him. “There’s no use to hustle ’round here, ’cause it don’t pay. If they want to buy papers they buy ’em, an’ if they don’t, you can’t give ’em away. There’s one good thing about doin’ business here, though, an’ that is, the other fellers won’t try to drive you out. It’s mighty tough on you, droppin’ all that money. If I’d had most eight dollars you can bet I wouldn’t take the chances of losin’ it. I’d sooner spend the whole pile buyin’ swell dinners down on the Avenue.”
“Oh, somewhere ’bout dark, ‘less I’ve sold out before. Say, I know of a place where you can get the biggest bowl of stew in this city, for five cents,—’most all meat. Of course there’ll be a bone now an’ then,—you expect that; but it’s rich! We’ll go there to-night, eh?”
“I ain’t so certain whether a feller with only sixteen cents ought’er spend five of it fer stuff to eat,” Joe replied, reflectively; “but if I make a few nickels ‘tween now an’ night, perhaps we’ll take a whirl at it.”
“A feller’s bound to eat, whether he makes anything or not. So long’s you’ve got that much money you might as well enjoy yourself. Now I say it’s best not to go hungry, else you can’t do so much work, ‘an then—”
“I’ll see you later,” Joe interrupted, not caring just at the moment to listen to his friend’s ideas on the subject of food, for it was well known among Master Plummer’s acquaintances that his highest idea of happiness consisted in ministering to his stomach.
The fat boy gazed after the ruined merchant until the latter was lost to view amid the throng of pedestrians, and then in a dreamy, indolent fashion he turned his attention once more to the business of selling newspapers to such of the passers-by as requested him to do so, murmuring mournfully from time to time:
“Seven dollars an’ eighty-three cents, an’ a feller can buy custard pies two inches thick for a dime apiece!”
Having assured himself of a lodging-place, and decided as to what business he should pursue, Joe Potter[Pg 20] wasted no more time, but set about earning his livelihood in as cheery a fashion as if the depression in the fruit market had brought him great gains instead of dire failure.
Before the night had come he was richer by forty cents, through having carried to their several destinations, a satchel for a gentleman, a basket containing a kitten for a lady, and a message for one of the employees at the station.
“Business is boomin’ right along. At this rate I guess I can afford to stand one of Plums’s bowls of stew,” he said to himself, in a tone of satisfaction, and was about to seek other employment when his name was called from a shop on the opposite side of the street.
Turning quickly, he saw a boy with whom he had had slight acquaintance while in the fruit business, who stood in the door of the shop, and said, as Joe crossed the street:
“I’m workin’ here now. It’s a good deal more tony than down on West Street. You ought’er move your stand up this way somewhere.”
“I haven’t got any to move,” Joe replied, and then explained why he was no longer connected with the business.
The young clerk did not appear particularly surprised by the information.
“Sim was square with me,” Joe replied, stoutly.
“Well, I’m glad you think so, for you’re the only one he ever acted square with, an’ it wouldn’t astonish me a bit to know he’d done you up.”
Joe was a boy who would not willingly listen to evil words against one he called a friend, and was about to begin a wordy war in Sim’s behalf, when his friend’s employer put an end to the conversation by demanding that the clerk “get in and attend to business.”
“I won’t believe Sim ever did a thing crooked to me,” Joe said, recrossing the street and taking up his station where he could have a full view of those who came from the building. “He saved his money while I was losin’ mine, an’ that’s all there is to it. It seems like as if everybody wanted to jump on him ’cause he had sense enough to do jest what he has done.”
This was not the first time Master Potter had heard such an accusation against his late clerk, and, while he would not believe Sim had been dishonest, the suggestion so troubled him that he had some difficulty in banishing the matter from his mind.
As the passengers from the incoming train appeared, he had other affairs than Sim’s possible dishonesty to think about, as he did his best to attract the attention of those whom he thought might prove to be patrons.
In this manner, but yet without earning any more money, the remainder of the afternoon was passed, and when one by one the electric lights began to appear, telling that the day had come to a close, he decided it was time to seek out Master Plummer.[Pg 22]
Now the thought of that bowl of stew for five cents was particularly pleasing, and he had made up his mind to indulge in such a hearty meal, when a little tot of a girl, who could not have been more than three years old, came out from among the throng of pedestrians and stood looking up into Joe’s face.
“Well, say, but you are a dandy!” Master Potter exclaimed, in genuine admiration, as he surveyed the tiny figure, allowing his eyes to dwell almost lovingly upon the sweet, baby face. “You are a dandy, an’ no mistake; but them as owns you must be crazy to let sich a mite of a thing snoop ’round here alone.”
The child came nearer, and Joe stooped down to look at her more closely, for she was the most dainty little maid he had ever seen.
“I’d ask you to speak to me if I was any ways fit,” he said, holding out a not over-cleanly hand.
The little maid must have judged the boy by his face rather than his apparel, for hardly had he spoken when she came boldly towards him and laid her tiny hand on his cheek with a caressing movement that captivated Joe immediately.
“Talk about daisies! Why, you’re a corker! You look jest like a pink an’ blue image I’ve seen in the shop windows. What’s your name?”
“Essie,” the little lady replied, and added what may have been words; but might equally well be Greek so far as Joe was concerned.
“What’s that you say? I didn’t jest catch on.”
Then he stood erect, fearing lest the little maid’s parents should appear and reprove him for having dared to speak to her; but the moments passed and no one came to claim the child.
It was evident Essie had not been accustomed to neglect, for when Joe ceased speaking, she put a tiny little hand in his and told him in her childish dialect what may have been a very interesting story.
Joe looked at the pink hand, and then at his own soiled palm.
“I’d give a nickel if I was a little bit cleaner! It seems like it was wicked to hold her hand while mine is so dirty. She takes the shine off of anything I ever saw before. Say, Essie, where’s your mamma?”
“Mamma dorn,” and the little lady clutched Joe’s finger yet more tightly.
“Well, say, do you s’pose this kid’s lost?” and now Joe began to look alarmed. “Anybody what would lose their grip of a dandy little thing like her ought to be horsewhipped, an’ I’d like to do it.”
Again he tried to get some information from the little maid, and again she replied readily; but Joe was no wiser than before.
The night had come; those who passed this way or that on the sidewalk moved rapidly as if in haste to get home; but no one gave any heed to the ruined fruit merchant or the charming little child by his side.
“Look here, baby,” Joe said, after what seemed to him[Pg 24] like a long time of waiting, and no one came to claim the child, “will you let me take you up in my arms, if I try not to muss your clothes? I’m ‘fraid folks can’t see sich a bit of a thing down there, an’ I’ll hold you high, so’s your mother can find you easier.”
Miss Essie certainly understood something of what the fruit merchant said, for she held out her hands towards him as if to be taken, and he lifted her carefully, saying, as he did so:
“It’s pretty rough for a feller like me to handle a kid like her! It seems like I was holdin’ some of that swell candy you see in the shop windows. It’ll be a wonder if I don’t daub her all up with my great, dirty hands. I never knew how big they was till she took hold of ’em.”
The little maid must have thought he was speaking for her especial benefit, for she made reply in language which apparently gave her the most intense satisfaction, but failed to enlighten Master Potter, and during perhaps five minutes the two stood on the sidewalk near the curbstone, jostled rudely now and then by the homeward-bound throng, but seeing no one who laid claim to the baby.
“This won’t do at all,” Joe said. “It ain’t right for you to stay out in the night, and I don’t know what’s to be done, unless you could stand it for a spell in Plums’s shanty. Say, I wonder if that wouldn’t go down? Will you be willin’ to hang ’round with us till mornin’, if I buy a slat of good things? When it comes daylight I can find your folks without much trouble, ’cause of course they’ll be right here huntin’, don’t you see? Is it a go?”[Pg 25]
From what the little maid said, Joe concluded it was a “go,” and, since she made no protest when he walked swiftly down towards where he knew his fat and hungry friend would be waiting for him, believed he had chosen such a course as met with her approval.
Categories: English Literature