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It was the night before the New Year. In many a household in the great city it was a night of happy anticipation. In the humble home of the Hardings it was an evening of anxious thought, for to-morrow the quarter's rent was due.
"I haven't got a dollar to meet the rent, Martha," said the cooper, in a depressed tone.
"Won't Mr. Colman wait?"
"I'm afraid not. You know what sort of a man he is, Martha. There isn't much feeling about him. He cares more for money than anything else."
"Perhaps you are doing him an injustice."
"I am afraid not. Did you never hear how he treated the Underhills?"
"Underhill was laid up with rheumatic fever for three months. The consequence was that when quarter day came round he was in about the same situation with ourselves--a little worse, even, for his wife was sick also. But, though Colman was aware of the circumstances, he had no pity; he turned them out without ceremony."
"Is it possible?" asked Mrs. Harding, uneasily.
"And there's no reason for his being more lenient with us. I can't but feel anxious about to-morrow, Martha."
At this moment, verifying an old adage, which will perhaps occur to the reader, who should knock but Mr. Colman himself. Both the cooper and his wife had an instinctive foreboding as to his visit.
He came in, rubbing his hands in a social way, as was his custom. No one, to look at him, would have suspected the hardness of heart that lay veiled under his velvety softness of manner.
"Good-evening, Mr. Harding," he said, affably. "I trust you and your excellent wife are in good health."
"That blessing, at least, is continued to us," said the cooper, gravely.
"And how comfortable you're looking, too, eh! It makes an old bachelor like me feel lonesome when he contrasts his own solitary room with such a scene of comfort as this. You've got a comfortable home, and dog cheap, too. All my other tenants are grumbling to think you don't have to pay any more for such superior accommodations. I've about made up my mind that I must ask you twenty-five dollars a quarter hereafter."
All this was said very pleasantly, but the pill was none the less bitter.
"It seems to me, Mr. Colman," answered the cooper, soberly, "you have chosen rather a singular time for raising the rent."
"Why singular, my good sir?" inquired the landlord, urbanely.
"You know, of course, that this is a time of general business depression; my own trade in particular has suffered greatly. For a month past I have not been able to find any work."
Colman's face lost something of its graciousness.
"And I fear I shall not be able to pay my quarter's rent to-morrow."
"Indeed!" said the landlord, coldly. "Perhaps you can make it up within two or three dollars."
"I can't pay a dollar toward it," said the cooper. "It's the first time, in the five years I've lived here, that this thing has happened to me. I've always been prompt before."
"You should have economized as you found times growing harder," said Colman, harshly. "It is hardly honest to live in a house when you know you can't pay the rent."
"You shan't lose it, Mr. Colman," said the cooper, earnestly. "No one ever yet lost anything by me, and I don't mean anyone shall, if I can help it. Only give me a little time, and I will pay all."
The landlord shook his head.
"You ought to have cut your coat according to your cloth," he responded. "Much as it will go against my feelings I am compelled, by a prudent regard to my own interests, to warn you that, in case your rent is not ready to-morrow, I shall be obliged to trouble you to find another tenement; and furthermore, the rent of this will be raised five dollars a quarter."
"I can't pay it, Mr. Colman," said Timothy Harding, gravely. "I may as well say that now; and it's no use agreeing to pay more rent. I pay all I can afford now."
"Very well, you know the alternative. Of course, if you can do better elsewhere, you will. That's understood. But it's a disagreeable subject. We won't talk of it any more now. I shall be round to-morrow forenoon. How's your excellent sister--as cheerful as ever?"
"Quite as much so as usual," answered the cooper, dryly.
"There's one favor I should like to ask," he said, after a pause. "Will you allow us to remain here a few days till I can look about a little?"
"I would with the greatest pleasure in the world," was the reply; "but there's another family very anxious to take the house, and they wish to come in immediately. Therefore I shall be obliged to ask you to move out to-morrow. In fact, that is the very thing I came here this evening to speak about, as I thought you might not wish to pay the increased rent."
"We are much obliged to you," said the cooper, with a tinge of bitterness unusual to him. "If we are to be turned into the street, it is pleasant to have a few hours' notice of it."
"Turned out of doors, my good sir! What disagreeable expressions you employ! If you reflect for a moment, you will see that it is merely a matter of business. I have an article to dispose of. There are two bidders, yourself and another person. The latter is willing to pay a larger sum. Of course I give him the preference, as you would do under similar circumstances. Don't you see how it is?"
"I believe I do," replied the cooper. "Of course it's a regular proceeding; but you must excuse me if I think of it in another light, when I reflect that to-morrow at this time my family may be without a shelter."
"My dear sir, positively you are looking on the dark side of things. It is actually sinful for you to distrust Providence as you seem to do. You're a little disappointed, that's all. Just take to-night to sleep on it, and I've no doubt you'll see things in quite a different light. But positively"--here he rose, and began to draw on his gloves--"positively I have stayed longer than I intended. Good-night, my friends. I'll look in upon you in the morning. And, by the way, as it's so near, permit me to wish you a happy New Year."
The door closed upon the landlord, leaving behind two anxious hearts.
"It looks well in him to wish that," said the cooper, gloomily. "A great deal he is doing to make it so. I don't know how it seems to others; for my part, I never say them words to anyone, unless I really wish 'em well, and am willing to do something to make 'em so. I should feel as if I was a hypocrite if I acted anyways different."
Martha was not one who was readily inclined to think evil of anyone, but in her own gentle heart she could not help feeling a repugnance for the man who had just left them. Jack was not so reticent.
"I hate that man," he said, decidedly.
"You should not hate anyone, my son," said Mrs. Harding.
"I can't help it, mother. Ain't he goin' to turn us out of the house to-morrow?"
"If we cannot pay our rent, he is justified in doing so."
"Then why need he pretend to be so friendly? He don't care anything for us."
"It is right to be polite, Jack."
"I s'pose if you're goin' to kick a man, it should be done politely," said Jack, indignantly.
"If possible," said the cooper, laughing.
"Is there any tenement vacant in this neighborhood?" asked Mrs. Harding.
"Yes, there is one in the next block belonging to Mr. Harrison."
"It is a better one than this."
"Yes; but Harrison only asks the same rent that we have been paying. He is not so exorbitant as Colman."
"Couldn't we get that?"
"I am afraid if he knows that we have failed to pay our rent here, that he will object."
"But he knows you are honest, and that nothing but the hard times would have brought you to this pass."
"It may be, Martha. At any rate, you have lightened my heart a little. I feel as if there was some hope left, after all."
"We ought always to feel so, Timothy. There was one thing that Mr. Colman said that didn't sound so well, coming from his lips; but it's true for all that."
"What do you refer to?"
"I mean that about not distrusting Providence. Many a time have I been comforted by reading the verse: 'Never have I seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.' As long as we try to do what is right, Timothy, God will not suffer us to want."
"You are right, Martha. He is our ever-present help in time of trouble. When I think of that, I feel easier."
They retired to rest thoughtfully but not sadly.
The fire upon the hearth flickered and died out at length. The last sands of the old year were running out, and the new morning ushered in its successor.
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