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At the close of the day on which Dennis received his promotion, and his horizon was widened so unexpectedly, Mr. Ludolph, in passing out, noticed him engaged as usual on one of Pat Murphy's old tasks. He stopped and spoke kindly, "Well, Fleet, where am I going to find a man to fill your place made vacant to-day?"
"Would you be willing to listen to a suggestion from me?"
"If a young boy was employed to black boots, run errands, and attend to minor matters, I think that by industry I might for a while fill both positions. In a short time the furnace will require no further attention. I am a very early riser, and think that by a little good management I can keep the store in order and still be on hand to attend to my counter when customers are about."
Mr. Ludolph was much pleased with the proposition, and said, promptly, "You may try it, Fleet, and I will pay you accordingly. Do you know of a boy who will answer?"
"I think I do, sir. There is a German lad in my mission class who has interested me very much. His father is really a superior artist, but is throwing himself away with drink, and his mother is engaged in an almost hopeless effort to support the family. They have seen much better days, and their life seems very hard in contrast with the past."
"Can we trust such a boy? Their very necessities may lead to theft."
"They are not of the thieving sort, sir. I am satisfied that they would all starve rather than touch a penny that did not belong to them."
"Very well, then, let him come and see me; but I will hold you responsible for him."
Mr. Ludolph, being in a good humor, was disposed to banter Dennis, so he added: "Do you find time to be a missionary, also? Are you not in danger of becoming a 'Jack at all trades'?"
"I am not entitled to the first character, and hope to shun the latter. I merely teach a dozen boys in a mission school on Sundays."
"When you ought to be taking a good long nap, or a row on the lake for fresh air and recreation."
"I should be dishonest if I spent my Sabbaths in that way."
"I should give the lie to my profession and belief. I must drop the name of Christian when I live for myself."
"And if you should drop it, do you think you would be much the loser?"
"Yes, sir," said Dennis, with quiet emphasis.
"You are expecting great reward, in some sort of Paradise, for your mission work, etc.?"
"Nothing done for God is forgotten or unrewarded."
"Believing that, it seems to me that you are looking after self-interest as much as the rest of us," said his employer, with a shrewd smile.
Looking straight into Mr. Ludolph's eyes, Dennis said, earnestly: "Without boasting, I think that I can say that I try to serve you faithfully. If you could see my heart, I am sure you would find that gratitude for your kindness is a part of my motive, as well as my wages. In the same manner, while I do not lose sight of the rich rewards God promises and daily gives for the little I can do for Him, I am certain that I can do much out of simple gratitude and love, and ask no reward."
"Ignorance is certainly bliss in your case, young man. Stick to your harmless superstition as long as you can."
And he walked away, muttering: "Delusion, delusion! I have not said a word or done a thing for him in which I had not in view my interests only, and yet the poor young fool sees in the main disinterested kindness. Little trouble have the wily priests in imposing on such victims, and so they get their hard-earned wages and set them propagating the delusion in mission schools, when mind and body need change and rest. Suppose there is a Supreme Being in the universe, what a monstrous absurdity to imagine that He would trouble Himself to reward this Yankee youth for teaching a dozen ragamuffins in a tenement-house mission school!"
Thus Mr. Ludolph's soliloquy proved that his own pride and selfishness had destroyed the faculty by which he could see God. The blind are not more oblivious to color than he was to those divine qualities which are designed to win and enchain the heart. A man may sadly mutilate his own soul.
At a dainty dinner-table Mr. Ludolph and his daughter discussed the events of the day.
"I am glad," said the latter, "that he is willing to fill Pat's place, for he keeps everything so clean. A dusty, slovenly store is my abomination. Then it shows that he has no silly, uppish notions so common to these Americans." (Though born here, Miss Ludolph never thought herself other than a German lady of rank.) "But I do not wish to see him blacking boots again. Yet he is an odd genius. How comical he looked bowing to me with one of Mr. Schwartz's big boots describing a graceful curve on a level with his head. Let old Schwartz black his own boots. He ought to as a punishment for carrying around so much leather. This Fleet must have seen better days. He is like all Yankees, however, sharp after the dollar, though he seems more willing to work for it than most of them."
"I'll wager you a pair of gloves," said her father, "that they get a good percentage of it down at the mission school. He is just the subject for a cunning priest, because he sincerely believes in their foolery. He belongs to a tribe now nearly extinct, I imagine--the martyrs, who in old-fashioned times died for all sorts of delusions."
"How time mellows and changes everything! There is something heroic and worthy of art in the ancient martyrdoms, while nothing is more repulsive than modern fanaticism. It is a shame, though, that this young man, with mother and sisters to support, should be robbed of his hard earnings as was Pat Murphy by his priest, and I will try to open his eyes some day."
"I predict for you no success."
"Why so?--he seems intelligent."
"I have not studied character all my life in vain. He would regard you, my fair daughter, as the devil in the form of an angel of light tempting him."
"He had better not be so plain-spoken as yourself."
"Oh, no need of Fleet's speaking; his face is like the page of an open book."
"Indeed! a face like a sign-board is a most unfortunate one, I should think."
"Most fortunate for us. I wish I could read every one as I can Fleet."
"You trust no one, I believe, father."
"I believe what I see and know."
"I wish I had your power of seeing and knowing. But how did he get his artistic knowledge and taste?"
"That I have not inquired into fully, as yet. I think he has an unusual native aptness for these things, and gains hints and instruction where others would see nothing. And, as you say, in the better days past he may have had some advantages."
"Well," said she, caressing the greyhound beside her, "if Wolf here should go to the piano and execute an opera, I should not be more astonished than I was this morning."
And then their conversation glided off on other topics.
After dessert, Mr. Ludolph lighted a cigar and sat down to the evening paper, while his daughter evoked from the piano true after-dinner music--light, brilliant, mirth-inspiring. Then both adjourned to their private billiard-room.
The scene of our story now changes from Mr. Ludolph's luxurious apartments in one of the most fashionable hotels in the city to a forlorn attic in De Koven Street. It is the scene of a struggle as desperate, as heroic, against as tremendous odds, as was ever carried on in the days of the Crusades. But as the foremost figure in this long, weary conflict was not an armed and panoplied knight, but merely a poor German woman, only God and the angels took much interest in it. Still upon this evening she was almost vanquished. She seemed to have but one vantage-point left on earth. For a wonder, her husband was comparatively sober, and sat brooding with his head in his hands over the stove where a fire was slowly dying out. The last coal they had was fast turning to ashes. From a cradle came a low, wailing cry. It was that of hunger. On an old chest in a dusky corner sat a boy about thirteen. Though all else was in shadow, his large eyes shone with unnatural brightness, and followed his mother's feeble efforts at the washtub with that expression of premature sadness so pathetic in childhood. Under a rickety deal table three other and smaller children were devouring some crusts of bread in a ravenous way, like half-famished young animals. In a few moments they came out and clamored for more, addressing--not their father; no intuitive turning to him for support--but the poor, over-tasked mother. The boy came out of his corner and tried to draw them off and interest them in something else, but they were like a pack of hungry little wolves. The boy's face was almost as sharp and famine-pinched as his mother's, but he seemed to have lost all thought of himself in his sorrowful regard for her. As the younger children clamored and dragged upon her, the point of endurance was passed, and the poor woman gave way. With a despairing cry she sank upon a chair and covered her face with her apron.
"Oh, mine Gott, Oh, mine Gott," she cried, "I can do not von more stroke if ve all die."
In a moment her son had his arms around her neck, and said: "Oh, moder, don't cry, don't cry. Mr. Fleet said God would surely help us in time of trouble if we would only ask Him."
"I've ask Him, and ask Him, but der help don't come. I can do no more;" and a tempest of despairing sobs shook her gaunt frame.
The boy seemed to have got past tears, and just fixed his large eyes, full of reproach and sorrow, on his father.
The man rose and turned his bloodshot eyes slowly around the room. The whole scene, with its meaning, seemed to dawn upon him. His mind was not so clouded by the fumes of liquor but that he could comprehend the supreme misery of the situation. He heard his children crying--fairly howling for bread. He saw the wife he had sworn to love and honor, where she had fallen in her unequal conflict, brave, but overpowered. He remembered the wealthy burgher's blooming, courted daughter, whom he had lured away to marry him, a poor artist. He remembered how, in spite of her father's commands and her mother's tears, she had left home and luxury to follow him throughout the world because of her faith in him and love for him--how under her inspiration he had risen to great promise as an artist, till fame and fortune became almost a certainty, and then, under the debasing influence of his terrible appetite, he had dragged her down and down, till now he saw her--prematurely old, broken in health, broken in heart--fall helplessly before the hard drudgery that she no longer had strength to perform. With a sickening horror he remembered that he had taken even the pittance she had wrung from that washtub, to feed, not his children, but his accursed appetite for drink. Even his purple, bloated face grew livid as all the past rushed upon him, and despair laid an icy hand upon his heart.
A desperate purpose formed itself within his mind.
Turning to the wall where hung a noble picture, a lovely landscape, whose rich coloring, warm sunlight, and rural peace formed a sharp, strange contrast with the meagre, famine-stricken apartment, he was about to take it down from its fastening when his hand was arrested by a word--"Father!"
He turned, and saw his son looking at him with his great eyes full of horror and alarm, as if he were committing a murder.
"I tell you I must, and I vill," said he, savagely.
His wife looked up, sprang to his side, and with her hands upon his arm, said, "No, Berthold, you must not, you shall not sell dot picture."
He silently pointed to his children crying for bread.
"Take der dress off my back to sell, but not dot picture. Ve may as vell die before him goes, for we certainly vill after. Dot is de only ding left of der happy past. Dot, in Gott's hands, is my only hope for der future. Dot picture dells you vat you vas, vat you might be still if you vould only let drink alone. Many's der veary day, many's der long night, I've prayed dot dot picture vould vin you back to your former self, ven tears and sufferings vere in vain. Leave him, and some day he vill tell you so plain vat you are, and vot you can be, dot you break der horrid spell dot chains you, and your artist-soul come again. Leave him, our only hope, and sole bar against despair and death. I vill go and beg a dousand times before dot picture's sold; for if he goes, your artist-soul no more come back, and you're lost, and ve all are lost."
The man hesitated. His good angel was pleading with him, but in vain.
Stamping his foot with rage and despair, he shouted, hoarsely, "It is too late I am lost now."
And he tore the picture from its fastening. His wife sank back against the wall with a groan as if her very soul were departing.
But before his rash steps could leave the desolation he had made, he was confronted by the tall form of Dennis Fleet.
The man stared at him for a moment as if he had been an apparition, and then said, in a hard tone, "Let me pass!"
Dennis had knocked for some time, but such was the excitement within no one had regarded the sound. He had, therefore, heard the wife's appeal and its answer, and from what he knew of the family from his mission scholar, the boy Ernst, comprehended the situation in the main. When, therefore, matters reached the crisis, he opened the door and met the infatuated man as he was about to throw away the last relic of his former self and happier life. With great tact he appeared as if he knew nothing, and quietly taking a chair he sat down with his back against the door, thus barring egress. In a pleasant, affable tone, he said: "Mr. Bruder, I came to see you on a little business to-night. As I was in something of a hurry, and no one appeared to hear my knock, I took the liberty of coming in."
The hungry little ones looked at him with their round eyes of childish curiosity, and for a time ceased their clamors. The wife sank into a chair and bowed her head in her hands with the indifference of despair. Hope had gone. A gleam of joy lighted up Ernst's pale face at the sight of his beloved teacher, and he stepped over to his mother and commenced whispering in her ear, but she heeded him not. The man's face wore a sullen, dangerous, yet irresolute expression. It was evident that he half believed that Dennis was knowingly trying to thwart him, and such was his mad frenzy that he was ready for any desperate deed.
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