From Ailenroc’s Book, by Cornelia Alexander
Quietness reigned in the town of C——. The hum of busy everyday life was hushed in the streets, while the closed doors and the sound of church bells proclaimed to the traveler that it was the Lord’s day. Even the green parrot which hung in its gay cage over Jim Carter’s door seemed subdued by the sweet stillness of the morning, and held its tongue where it belonged—in its head.
I said the doors were closed. They were, all but one, and that was where the parrot hung. “Bar” was written over it in big letters, and there was a tall green screen standing just inside to hide the thirsty caller from the passers-by.
“But,” says one, “the law of the land does not allow whisky shops open on Sunday.” But the law only imposes a fine, you see, for so doing; and Jim Carter didn’t care for fines.
“I makes it up in the long run, he said, winking his one eye. “Bless you, Sunday is as good a day as any! I buys my liquors, and sells when I gets ready. I pays my fines, and it’s nobody’s business. Old Jim and the law has a tussle occasionally; but what of it? I does as I pleases.”
On this particular morning he sat sunning himself, like a great, big, bloated spider at the door of his den, and, as usual, a crowd of loafers had collected to keep him company.
“The new parson holds forth to-day, I suppose,” said Joe Bently, a young limb of the law, whose shaky hands and watery eyes proclaimed his habits. He did not add that he had fled from home by the way of a back window, fearing that his pious widowed mother would ask his company to the house of God.
“Yes,” drawled old Jim, “and I thought you’d a-been there; but ‘birds of a feather,’ you know,” he added, with a wink of his eye, giving Joe, at the same time, a dig in the ribs.
Joe scarcely knew whether to be offended or not. He held himself above his associates in a great many things, and yet their company held a great charm for him.
“I was up late last night,” he said, in a surly tone, “and did not feel like going out to-day. If I did, I should go to sleep, sure as fate.”
“I sleeps of a night and stays awake of a day,” said Jim, with a grin.
“Why don’t you go, Jim?” said one of the crowd, who sat on a box whittling a pine stick.
“Didn’t want to,” Jim answered. “Old preachers and new preachers are all the same to me. The old judge is about all that I can stand. I believe in every tub standin’ on its own bottom, and every man ‘tendin’ to to his own affairs. I ‘tend to mine; but I don’t have to go out on the street, take a man by the collar, and make him drink. If a man wants a dram, though, he knows where to get it;” and Jim laughed as though it were the richest joke in the world.
“Yonder comes the preacher now,” said the man on the box, rising and going in behind the screen for some water, whereat they all laughed, and old Jim winked till he did not appear to have even one eye.
They all knew that John Barton’s name was on the church book, and they knew, too, that it had no right there; for wicked men despise religious hypocrites.
The minister passed on, touching his hat with gentle courtesy to the idlers. He was a pale, kind-looking man; and to his hand clung a little girl, who chattered like a magpie, and smiled so sweetly in old Jim’s face that he was quite bewildered.
“Bless my soul!” he ejaculated, when he had time to catch his breath. “My! That’s the sweetest little one I’ve seen in many a day. Blow me, if it ain’t so!”
“She is a pretty little thing,” the other men assented; and John Barton, having assuaged his thirst, came out, and looking after them, said so, too.
When the father and daughter came on by after service, the group had scattered, and old Jim sat within the doorway, with his chair tilted back, reading a newspaper.
“O, papa,” cried a little piping voice, “let me see the pitty Poll.! Do, papa, hold me up!”
“Not to-day, my dear,” her father answered.
“Can I see it to-morrow, papa?” and he said, absently, as fathers will: “Yes, yes, my dear.”
Great was old Jim’s surprise on the next morning when a tiny apparition walked into his den.
“Please, sir,” she said, folding her hands and glancing around, “I come to see the pitty Poll., but he is gone.”
“Bless my soul!” said Jim. “The old rascal is in the back room. I’ll have him out; yes, yes—bless my soul!—that I will.” And he dived into a little apartment and brought out the old bird.
The little girl clapped her hands delightedly, and laughed with such glee that old Jim joined in for company; but the parrot ruffled his feathers and buried his beak in his breast, till he looked like a great ball.
“Polly, want your breakfast?” said his master; but Polly answered never a word.
“Polly, Polly, want your breakfast?” But no answer.
“Won’t he talk?” said the child.
“No, my dear, only just when he pleases. He is like me—old, contrary, and mean;” and Jim laughed and winked.
“Is you mean?” said the child, seriously. “If you is, I doin’ home.”
“No, no,” said Jim hastily; “I was jokin’. What might your name be, little girl?”
“My name’s ‘Birdie.’ I’m a bird, too,” she said, laughing and shaking her yellow locks; “but not like that one. I ain’t green, and I’ll talk.”
“Come, little Birdie,” said old Jim, “and have a seat. I’m a mannerly old sight—have a lady to come to see me and never offer her a cheer;” and he wheeled a rocker out of the back room and placed Birdie in it. “Now,” said he, “it’s my treat. What will you have?” But she did not understand. “Do you like candy, Birdie, and oranges, and such things? You see, I don’t know what children likes.”
“You dot no little dirl?” Birdie asked, full of pity.
“No, no little girl; I lives by myself.”
“Don’t you dit ‘onesome?” said the child, with her mouth full.
“Yes, sorter—sorter—sometimes,” said Jim, not laughing now.
“But den,” said Birdie, striving to comfort this man who was lonely and had no little girl, “God is with you all the time.”
She said it seriously because of her strong childish faith, because of her training; she said it impressively, because, like all children, her tongue was inclined to trip lightly over the letter “g;” but she invariably took time to say “God,” dwelling with emphasis upon the sacred name.
“Now, I be blessed if it don’t git away with me!” said Jim, watching Birdie put her white teeth into the rosy cheek of an apple. “I guess,” he muttered, “that he is with her all the time.”
“Now,” she went on, confidentially, “we’re not ‘onesome at our house. I’ve dot papa, and papa’s dot me, and then we’ve dot mamma, and she’s dot de baby, and he is a sweet baby. He sleeps all day and all night, and he’s a boy,” she added, as though that fact must not be overlooked, “and some day he will be a man, and then—and then—“ But the outlook was too vast; she returned to her apple. “I wish you’d come to our house and see him,” she resumed. “Papa said he’d have his picture token, and I’ll div you one. I love goodies,” glancing suggestively at the glass jars.
“You shall have goodies every day,” said old Jim. “Now, hold your apron, for you must take some to the baby. Did yer pa know you come?” he asked, shaking some raisins out of a box.
“No, sir; I didn’t ast him. He said to-morrow I might come and see pitty Polly, and I dest walked out. Nobody saw me but Nero—that’s our dog—and he was asleep, or he would have come, too. Nero is a good dog. O,” jumping out of the chair, “there he is! Here, Nero; here, sir!”
A great shaggy Newfoundland dog ran in, whining for joy, and after him came Mr. Stephens.
“Why, Birdie!” he said, too amazed for further utterance.
“I come to see the pitty Polly, papa,” she said, gathering up her treasures in her big apron, “and I dest stayed long enough to eat some lots of things and talk to this good man. He not dot any little dirl, papa.”
Mr. Stephens smiled. What else could he do? Birdie was so small and innocent that she did not know that a barroom was forbidden ground to women and children.
“You must not carry off the gentleman’s sweetmeats in that style, my dear. I fear”—to old Jim—“that she has been troublesome.”
But the barkeeper hastened to reassure him. “O no, sir; not in the least! I’ve enjoyed her visit—indeed I have—for she ‘minds me of a little sister that died when I was a lad. I’ve been thinkin’ of her all mornin’. Let her carry home the little tricks I gave her—do, now,” as the minister hesitated. “It’s not often I have such good company. You’d hardly believe how she has talked this mornin’—like a ‘postle, I might say.”
“Well, thank the gentleman, Birdie, and let us go to mamma; she is uneasy about her little daughter.”
Then Birdie made her little bow, as she had been taught, lisped her thanks, and stooped to offer Polly a tempting morsel, which he took, to her great delight; and then, escorted by her papa and Nero, she set out for home.
Her mamma was shocked.
“Been to the grocery, Birdie? O dear! What will the people think of their minister’s little daughter, to run away and go to a place where they drink whisky and say bad words?”
“No, mamma; you is mistooken. I didn’t see no drunk mans nor no whisky. Why, mamma, it’s a pitty place, and the man is too funny! He wears hankers, like our cook, and God didn’t let him have but one eye, and he’s dot a big—a big rocking-chair, and lots of goodies and things, and a big bird, mamma, what won’t talk, with red legs, and it’s green.”
“A splendid description,” said her mother, laughing. “But, Birdie, you must not go there any more; if you do, I shall have to punish you. Do you hear me, Birdie?
“Yes, mamma, I hear,” sorting her treasures. “Now you put ‘em up and give me some next day. I don’t want any now.”
So her mamma put by the nuts and candies. They lasted two or three days, then Birdie began to pine for more.
She asked several times: “Is there one orange?”
“Not a single nut?”
“Look in the drawer, Birdie. They are all gone.”
After a while Birdie was missing. Her mother searched the house, while the cook and the nurse girl searched the yard and garden; but no Birdie answered their calls.
“Can it be possible,” said Mrs. Stephens, “that she has gone to that grocery again? Ann, run down there and see.”
Ann departed in hot haste, and presently returned, leading the truant.
“An’ it’s there I found her, to be sure, a-settin’ in a high chair as large as loife, a-fadin’ that ugly birrud which is part human, part imp, I’m thinkin’. ‘Shiver me splinters!’ says the baste the same minit I puts me foot to the door, and this child here—begorra!—just scr’amed wid the laughter. Yez ought to have seen the men standin’ and waitin’ on her, and the man wid but one eye ‘twixt him an’ heaven must fill her apron wid a bushel o’ things, and every mother’s son of them must give her some gimcrack or other; and at last I got off wid her, and here she is; and it’s sorry enough I am that I had to go to sech a place. I shall confess it to the praste before me conscience can rest aisy.”
“Are you doin’ to punish me, mamma?” said Birdie, seeing her mother look very grave.
“Yes, my daughter. I told you I would if you went back there any more. Why will you disobey me, Birdie? That is the way bad girls do; and my little daughter does not wish to be a bad girl, does she?”
“No, mamma; but I wanted to see the big bird so bad. Why, mamma, he talks; he is better’n our baby to talk to. If you’d go see him, mamma, I’d not punish you.”
When Mr. Stephens returned, he held a consultation with his wife, and they decided to make Birdie go without her supper and stay indoors—a prisoner—all the next day.
Birdie looked very sober, but shed no tears. Indeed, the thought of supper was all that hurt, for she had eaten so much at Jim Carter’s that she was not hungry in the least.
The next day passed off slowly enough, but, on the whole, it was light punishment.
Sunday morning came again, and as old Jim bustled around, he muttered: “I’ve a good mind to keep shet up to-day; but the boys would laugh at me, if I did. Dogged if I hain’t a good will to go to church! Wonder what the mighty high and pious folks would say?” And he laughed and winked to himself at the thought.
Directly he paused, duster in hand. “That was curious what the little one said to me—‘God with me all the time.’ If that’s so, I guess he has got a good many marks ag’in me about his day, as well as other things. After all, it’s a good thing on dumb brutes to have one day in the week to rest, and on folks, too, I reckon. If men didn’t have one day set apart, I calculate that they would wear out a heap sooner; but when they want something to recuperate, they know where to come to—old Jim is reliable.”
The old parrot was hung out in the sun. The church bells began to ring; groups of bright-faced children flocked by, followed by their elders; and lastly, holding to her father’s hand, went Birdie. Mr. Stephens had a pleasant salutation for old Jim, sitting there spiderlike, while Birdie laughed and nodded her bright head many times.
“Howdy, Polly!” Birdie said; and Polly, mindful of her sea voyage, responded, in a deep guttural: “Polly, Polly; splinter my timbers!”
Old Jim heaved a sigh. Somehow it did not make him feel good to see respectable age and joyous youth passing by on their way to church, and he sitting there, left out entirely. He glanced up at his sign, and was struck with a new significance. A bar it was, truly—a bar to all the pleasures of life. The idlers found him dull company that morning, so they all sauntered off.
He did not see Birdie for several days; then she came, saying, as she entered the room: “I’ve comed again. Ann watches, but I runned away, if I do have to do wivout my supper. Mamma says ladies don’t come here; but little dirls can come. O Polly, pitty Polly! Let me feed him.”
Old Jim placed her in the big chair, and the parrot on the table, where she fed him in an ecstasy of delight when he accepted a bite, and of fear lest he should take one out of her fingers.
While she was engaged thus, old Jim was making up a packet of sweets such as she loved best, and surprised her by putting it in her apron, and saying: “Run along home now, Birdie; your folks don’t want you to come here, and I guess they are about right. I like for you to come, but it ain’t just the proper place for good little girls like you.”
“What for do you stay here, then?” she said, her eyes big with wonder.
“Me? O, it’s my business; I make money.”
“Selling good things?”
“Yes.” Then, under his breath: “Bad things, too.”
“Guess I’ll go,” said the child, looking at him in doubt. “I loves good people; God loves good people. Bad people don’t go to heaven.” Then she soberly walked out.
Birdie’s father met her, and she told him she was not going there any more; so he persuaded his wife to forgive the small sinner once more.
Old Jim had not seen the inside of a church for many years. All thought on the subject of religion had faded from his mind, but the words of the innocent child struck a chord in his breast which vibrated strangely. “God loves good people, but bad folks don’t go to heaven,” rang in his ears time and again. He followed a low calling—almost the lowest on earth—that of making drunkards, and growing rich on the traffic; but all good was not dead in the man’s nature, and, through his love of pets and a fancied resemblance to his dead sister, little Birdie had found a place in his heart.
Before the next day of rest came around a startling rumor had reached Jim: the minister’s daughter lay at death’s door with diphtheria. He was so much disturbed that he ran out to hail the doctor to ask after his little patient.
“Scarcely any chance for her,” was the answer.
Men wondered after that to see old Jim so forgetful and absent-minded, and old Polly saw what no one else did—a tear in his eye—when he fed the ancient bird.
It was night—Sunday night—and death seemed to hover very near to Mr. Stephens’ home. A minister from a neighboring town, hearing of his affliction, had ridden over to offer his condolences; but every word was a stab in place of a comfort.
“My dear sir,” he said to the troubled father, “you must not give way so; you must practice what you preach. If it be God’s will to take your child from you, you can only submit like a man and a Christian. Indeed, it is unmanly to weep. I am shocked at your grief.”
“Jesus wept,” said Mr. Stephens, raising his pale, tear-stained face. “I am not stronger than my Master. O, it seems that I cannot give her up—my precious child!”
“Nerve yourself, my brother. You have preached patience and resignation to others; you must not give way.”
“I am only a man,” cried the stricken father, “and my child is dying—my firstborn, my darling daughter!”
“Dear, dear! What can I say?” said the reverend visitor. “He will not listen to reason.”
Reason, when the heart is breaking and the floods of affliction are pouring in on the soul!
Just then Ann opened the library door, and, in a hushed voice, announced, “Some one to see Mr. Stephens,” and a man in a big coat came in.
Mr. Stephens looked up. He saw as through a mist, and his ears were filled with the sound of labored breathing in the next room; so he was scarcely surprised to see in the man before him Jim Carter, the barkeeper.
Jim fumbled awkwardly with his hat a moment; then, reaching out, he took the hand of the sorrowing father in his own, and the man within him spoke, though his sentences were few and disjointed.
“I heard of your trouble, sir, and I were troubled, too. I couldn’t sleep last night, and I says to myself, ‘I’ll go up;’ and anything I can do, or anything I’ve got, is at your command. If the little angel can just live, it’s all I ask, sir. If there is any arrants to run, or anything I can do, I want to be told of it.”
He ceased and wiped away the tears that trickled down his face.
O blessed human sympathy! How it flashes from heart to heart! Mr. Stephens’ grasp tightened over the hand of the liquor dealer, and he accepted his offer with thanks, for he knew it came from the heart.
Jim Carter spoke again after they had sat in silence for some time: “If you’ve no objection, I’d like to see her again. If she—don’t—live—you know, I may not see her any more.”
“My friend,” said Mr. Stephens, while an expression of heavenly rapture overspread his face, “if she dies, I expect to see her again. O blessed be God,” he continued, “for the hope that lies beyond the grave! Come, you shall see her.”
Opening a door, he ushered old Jim into the chamber where Birdie lay battling for life.
The doctor sat close by, Mrs. Stephens hung over the bed in the agony which none but a mother knows, two kind neighbors sat by the fire, and Ann knelt, sobbing, at the foot of the bed.
Old Jim felt strangely awed and humbled. The silence in the room was broken only by the suppressed sobs of the mother and the hoarse breathing of the child, who tossed restlessly, with swollen, bandaged throat, upon her fevered pillow.
“Birdie,” said Mr. Stephens—and O the love and despair in his voice!—“here is Mr. Carter come to see you.”
She turned her restless eyes and the feverish lips shaped themselves into a word; but no word came.
“Your friend, Birdie, who gave you so many ‘pitties.’”
A gleam of intelligence came into the violet eyes, and she held out one hot and trembling hand. Old Jim took it, scarcely seeing for the tears that almost blinded him, and bent over the child.
“Pitty Polly,” she said. “Where’s pitty Polly?”
“You shall see Polly to-morrow,” said Jim, soothingly; then you’ll get better.”
“I is better now,” she said, pantingly. “Papa, ask God to make me well again.”
Down on his knees dropped the father, and the others followed his example. When old Jim knelt by the bed and buried his face in his hands, it seemed to him, as he afterwards expressed it, that he entered on a new existence. Certain it is that it was a new experience to find himself bowed before God and following every word uttered by the agonized father. Mr. Stephens poured out his soul in prayer. Humble and heart-sore, he began; triumphing in Christ, he closed; and as they arose from their knees, they saw that Birdie was sleeping quietly.
All night old Jim remained in the library, pondering his past life; he felt his condition as he never had before. “If death should come to me—” Jim shuddered at the thought. “If trouble comes to me, I cannot go to God with my afflictions as Mr. Stephens did. Not as I am;” he said, “but I can reform, and I will.” When the east began to grow rosy with the dawn, Mr. Stephens came out of the sick room with a hopeful look, and whispered that she was better; then Jim Carter took his leave.
When Birdie awoke from a long and restful slumber, she saw on a table the familiar cage, while through the bars peeped the wondering eyes of the (to her) wonderful bird. She broke into a faint laugh, and through the long hours of her convalescence she petted Polly to her heart’s content.
One day Jim Carter came and had a long conversation with Mr. Stephens. “You see, sir,” he said, “I have a mind to change my way of doing business. I’ve a notion to quit the place where women and children cannot come, and open a store where they can come. Bless you, sir, I’m ashamed to think (and I never looked at it that way till lately) that I’ve followed so low-down a calling that nobody but men—and the bad, low-down kind at that—can come where I keep. I thought I would talk to you about it, as you are the father of that dear child who has said things to me that set me to thinkin’.”
“‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,’” said Mr. Stephens, with thankful heart and tear-wet eyes; but seeing old Jim staring, he said: “You are right, Mr. Carter. I honor you for what you have said, and will render you every assistance in my power. You can sell eatables, and make a good living without trafficking in liquors.”
Great was the wonder when it was noised abroad that Jim Carter—wicked Jim Carter—had shut up his saloon for good; had given his precious pet to a sick child; had gone into the family grocery business—a business where good women and good men, pure young girls and innocent children might come.
Another surprise awaited the town. Jim Carter went to church; Jim Carter, whose feet had not crossed the threshold of God’s house in long years, went to church. He went again and again; the man’s heart within him was melted—won by the sweet, simple truths of the Bible—and, with the courage of a soldier, he gave in his allegiance.
Again a startling rumor filled the town. Old Jim Carter had joined the church, was baptized, and, clothed in his right mind, sat around the Lord’s table with his brethren.
“He will not hold out,” said one, sneeringly. “He’s been too bad a feller to change out and out, and I’ll bet that he’ll be keepin’ grocery open on Sunday by another year.”
“I think he is a converted man,” said another; “I’ll tell you why. Well, you know Ned Parker died a drunkard, and now Jim is sending Ned’s children to school. Yes, sir, Jim Carter’s got money put aside for his old customers to draw on when in need. He gives away provisions every week to the poor souls that he has helped to injure, and he works in a quiet way to get men to give up whisky. Whenever a man’s religion gets down into his pocket, I think it’s got a hold deep enough to do good.”
Jim Carter did hold out faithful. He lived long the honored friend of Mr. Stephens and his wife, and trusted and respected by his fellow-citizens. But between the one-eyed exsailor and beautiful Birdie, there always existed a sincere friendship; and pretty Polly, their joint possession, lived to a green old age.