From Ailenroc’s Book, by Cornelia Alexander
He was only a poor, lone old man, small, wrinkled, and bent; yet, directly after he moved into Hillsboro and set up his modest little sign, “Shoe and Boot-making and Mending,” the boys chose to invest him with a kind of mystery. It is very likely that none of them had heard of “the little man in black,” the descendant of the renowned “Limpkin Fidilius;” certain it is they laid nothing weird or ghostly to his credit; and, instead of avoiding his little shop, they had a way of flocking into it at odd times and on rainy days to hear his odd tales of foreign lands, and thus it came about that those youngsters dreamed dreams and wove romances concerning the little bent shoemaker.
The boys were about all the company he had. The preacher, looking out over his audience on Sundays, noted the shrunken figure of the shoemaker always in its place; but it never occurred to him to hunt up the little man in his home and converse with him. The doctor, a good brother in the church, sometimes heard, in passing, a startling cough ring out from the shoeshop, and knew that at the cost of a few cents he could stop that cough and the pain it caused; but he was a practicing physician, whose business was to go when called for, and help when paid. The deacons wondered what church the little old man belonged to; but when they heard the wild tales the boys told, they voted him an old cheat and passed by on the other side. Sometimes the good sisters, on baking days, gatherings, etc., thought of the lonely old man, and thought of sending him a toothsome lunch; but they reasoned that it might cause him to be troublesome, so they let him alone. Thus it happened that the boys were his only companions.
What strange tales he could tell! Of frozen lands, of ice and snow, of storms and tempests; and, again, of tropical climes, where flowers bloomed, sluggish waters ran, and venomous serpents and bloodthirsty beasts hid in the jungles. How one who knew so much could content himself in a quiet village was more than they could understand.
Sam. Willis hinted as much to him one day, and the answer he received was the beginning of the mystery.
“I shall stay here but a short time, boys; for, although I seem so poor, I am rich. I am of a royal family, heir to princely honors, and I am only staying here a few days to wind up my business. When the King sends for me I shall go to take possession of my rights.”
The boys looked at each other in open-mouthed amazement, then at the little shoemaker, who sat quietly stitching away on a little girl’s shoe, as though he had not imparted any startling news whatever.
“You are truing to fool us, aren’t you?” Sam. asked, when he had collected his wits sufficiently.
“No,” the old man answered, “it is all true. I would not be surprised at any time for a messenger to come bringing me the tidings that the King is ready for me.”
“Is it the king of England?” said little Bob Hunter. “But no, they have a Queen. Well, is it the king of France?”
“The French people are done with kings,” said Ed. Johnson; “they have presidents. Maybe it’s the king of Russia—the ‘Czar,’ they call him.”
“No,” said the old man, “I think it is all the poor Czar can do to keep his own head on his shoulders. I do not look to him.”
Then the boys went on guessing, but each time the old man would answer: “No, he is not my King.”
“Is he a very wealthy King?” they asked; and he said:
“Immensely so; in fact, you could not count his riches; you have never imagined anything so dazzling and splendid as his court. It blazes and sparkles with jewels.”
“Have you ever been there?” said Ed. Johnson.
“No,” said the old man; “but I have a description of the place written by one who has seen it. My wife and child have crossed over and gone there, and there is a palace prepared for me. I am only waiting, as I told you, for the King to send for me. Of course I will not intrude myself upon him, till he wants me; but he is sure to send, for I am one of the royal family.”
They looked at him in doubt, and Hugh Cline, the doctor’s son, shook his head; he had heard his father talk of people who were sane on all subjects, perhaps, save one, and he imagined that the poor old man was a monomaniac.
“They dress very fine when they go before rulers, I have heard,” said Sam. Willis. “Will you go as you are?” eying the thin suit, almost threadbare; the patched shoes, the shabby cap.
“It is the rule that every one has a court dress given him. Why need I care if my clothes are old and shabby here? All my family, my interests, are there.”
“Is it over the ocean?” asked little Bob Hunter, whose geographical knowledge was rather limited, and the old man, looking dreamily out of the window, as though he would pierce the clouds with his gaze, answered: “Yes, my son, it is across the ocean.”
Every boy went home with new ideas under his cap.
Hugh told his father at supper that the shoemaker was a nobleman in disguise; that he was allied by the ties of blood to some royal family, or at least he thought he was; and the doctor laughed and told his neighbor how the little old man had been “gassing” to the boys.
Sam. Willis stuck at the name. “I might believe the strange tale,” he said to his sister, “if he had any other name; but a royal John Smith—it’s too ridiculous!”
“But,” said his sister, “remember there are John Smiths all over the world. In France he would be ‘Jean Smeets,’ while in Spain he would change a little and be ‘Juan Smithus;’ in Holland he would be ‘Hans Schmidt,’ and in Italy he would be ‘Giovanni Smith;’ in China he would spring up with almond-shaped eyes, a long pigtail, and pointed shoes, and be called ‘Jabon Shimmit;’ even in the Czar’s dominions you might find him, but would scarcely recognize the familiar name in ‘Jouloff Smittowski.’ The Poles, you know, are exiles, noblemen, patriots, etc., and ‘John Smith’ with them would borrow several ‘i’s’ and be ‘Ivan Schmittiwieski.’ ‘John Smith’ might be a Greek bandit, called ‘Ion Smikton;’ and he might be a Turk, sitting cross-legged with a pipe in his mouth, and his friends would call him ‘Yoc Seef.’”
Sam. looked at his sister with much admiration. Her learning impressed him very much, and he said: “You’re a brick, Nora!” by which he evidently meant she was hard to beat.
“It may be true,” Miss Nora resumed, warming with her subject, “that the old man is of noble birth; I read of such cases often. I saw an account not long ago of a marquis keeping an eating house in New York.”
“But what would bring him here, and his family gone over there?”
“Political troubles, possibly,” said Nora. “You said he told you that he dared not go until the King sent for him. I’ll tell you what I’d do, Sam.: I’d cultivate his acquaintance; if it’s as he says, you may make by it.”
Nora had read a great many romances, and such an occurrence would not have startled her in the least.
Sam. had his doubts. “I don’t think he is crazy, nor I can’t believe that he willingly and knowingly lied about it. I’ll gather all the dots I can,” he said.
The rumor ran over the village in a short time, gathering material as it ran, until the wildest stretch of fancy could not keep up with it. Nobody believed it but the boys. They were ready to believe anything. They thronged the little shop and plied the little old man with questions. How long he would have mystified them cannot be told, or how he would have unfolded to them the true story, I cannot say; but one night poor old John Smith, sleeping alone in his little house, was taken with severe sickness.
In the early dawn a passer-by heard his groans. A doctor was summoned, and the neighbors who had neglected him in life gathered around to see him die.
Under the influence of stimulants he revived, and his eyes roved around the poor room as though in search of some one; seeing which, a woman bent over him, and asked: “Do you want anything?”
“The boys,” he murmured, in reply—“the boys who have been so good to me;” and a swift-footed messenger departed.
“Hurry, Sam.,” said his sister, bringing his cap. “Maybe he is rich, and is going to remember you in his will.”
Sam. hurried. He really liked the poor old man, and ‘way down in his boyish heart there was a strange aching as he ran down the street.
The preacher came out on his porch, and called: “What is the matter?”
Sam., halting his rapid pace for a moment, answered: “They say poor old John Smith is dying. Hadn’t you better go down, sir?”
“Certainly; I’ll be there directly,” was answered; and Sam. ran on.
When the boys were all gathered around his bedside, the poor old man looked at them a few moments in silence. His thin lips quivered, and slow, painful tears gathered in his sunken eyes. He asked to be raised higher; and when they had arranged his pillows and given him a cordial, the curious crowd that thronged the doors and windows heard him talking.
“My dear boys,” he said, “my time on earth is short. I am about to enter on my inheritance. The King has called for me. Last night, when you were all sleeping, his white-winged messenger found me, and I received the summons to cross over and join with the loved ones who have gone before. You have been laboring under a mistake, my dear children, and I probably should have set it straight before now. What are all the kings of the earth compared to the Lord God who rules over all, who is the same yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow? Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,” he said, raising his shaking hands toward heaven.
Never were boys so astonished, and into each heart crept a shadow of disappointment. They were glad to know their poor old friend was going to a better land; but it seemed so far off to them; they could not by an eye of faith see the pearly gates and golden streets that shone brighter and brighter to the fading eyes before them.
Just then the preacher entered, and the dying man turned to him and held out one shaking hand. “I bless you,” he said, “for the words of counsel and comfort which I have heard from you. My heart has been strengthened more than I can tell you.”
The preacher took that poor hand in his for the first time. He felt very humble at that moment. Here was a poor, struggling soul who stood afar off, glad to receive the “Crumbs that fell from the children’s table;” and yet he had kept aloof from the man, listening to idle rumors. Some words came into his mind, and he repeated them to the dying man: “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.”
The ashen face on the pillow kindled and he turned his eyes to the sad young faces at the foot of the bed. “That is it!” he cried, joyfully. “Do you remember, boys, I told you that when the King called for me I would go to receive my rights? O that city—that city ‘whose maker and builder is God!’ Sam., do you remember, I told you that I had a description of that city of my King, written by one who has been there? You will find it in the New Testament. John wrote it; for it pleased God to show him the glories of that heavenly land, that he might tell it to us and kindle in our hearts a desire to be there. I have long lived in it in anticipation; now I shall enter in and enjoy all its glories in reality. Friends, will you all strive for entrance there? And you, boys, that have been so kind to the old man, shall I strike hands with you and see your faces again in the better land?”
He ceased. His momentary strength had passed, and he lay pallid and faint before their weeping eyes. How many hearts reproached themselves in that hour as they recognized the goodness of that humble heart, stayed on its God in the trying hour of death! The minister sat with his head leaning upon his hand, while tears ran unheeded down his cheeks. No need for priestly ministrations here—a saint lay before him. The last vestige of disappointment fled from the boyish bosoms around him, and while their tears flowed they felt their hearts glow with exultant joy to see how a Christian could die.
When the last pulse beat was over, when the silver cord had been loosed and the soul of poor John Smith had left its feeble old tenement and soared to a land where care, sorrow, and age are unknown, a something stirred the hearts of those lads. New thoughts were awakened. Eternity seemed no longer afar off, but very close at hand, and that “something” was a resolve to live in such a manner that they might die as he had died, laying hold of the promises, and with full confidence claiming the reward.
When a golden sunbeam struck across the coffin and fell like a benediction upon the still face of the dead, it seemed to the boys that the doors of the eternal city had been for a moment ajar, and the light was from the glories within.
“Not poor John Smith,” said Sam. Willis to his sister, through his tears, “but rich, rich, beyond all the treasures of earth.”