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INTRODUCING TOM, THE BOOTBLACK.
"How do you feel this morning, Jacob?" asked a boy of fifteen, bending over an old man crouched in the corner of an upper room, in a poor tenement-house, distant less than a quarter of a mile from the New York City Hall.
"Weak, Tom," whined the old man, in reply. "I—I ain't got much strength."
"Would you like some breakfast?"
"I—I don't know. Breakfast costs money."
"Never you mind about that, Jacob. I can earn money enough for both of us. Come, now, you'd like some coffee and eggs, wouldn't you?"
There was a look of eager appetite in the old man's eyes as he heard the boy speak.
"Yes," he answered, "I should like them; but we can't afford it."
"Don't you be afraid of that. I'll go and ask Mrs. Flanagan to get some ready at once. I've earned thirty cents this morning already, Jacob, and that'll pay for breakfast for the two of us. I think I could eat some breakfast myself."
Jacob uttered a feeble remonstrance, but the boy did not stop to hear it. He went down the rough staircase, and knocked at the door of the room below. It was opened by a stout, wholesome-looking Irish woman, who saluted the boy heartily.
"Well, Tom, and how's your grandfather this mornin'?"
"He's weak, Mrs. Flanagan; but he'll be the better for some breakfast, and so shall I. I'll go and buy half a dozen eggs, if you'll be kind enough to cook them, and make some coffee for us. I'll pay you for your trouble."
"Of course I will, Tom. And for the eggs you needn't go out, for I've got the same in the closet; but I'm short of bread, and, if you'll buy a loaf, I'll have the coffee and eggs ready in no time."
While Tom is on his way to the baker's shop, a few words of explanation and description may be in place. First, for our hero. I have already said he was fifteen. Let me add that he was stout and strongly built, with an open, prepossessing face, and the air of one who is ready to fight his own battles without calling for assistance. His position in life is humble, for he is a street bootblack. He has served, by turns, at other vocations; but he has found none of them pay so well as this. He has energy and enterprise, and few of his comrades secure so many customers as he. For years he has lived with the old man introduced as Jacob, and is popularly regarded as his grandson; but Jacob has never made claim to that relationship, nor has he ever volunteered any information to the boy as to what originally brought them together. Occasionally Tom has tried to obtain some information, but on such occasions Jacob has been very reticent, and has appeared, for some reason, unwilling to speak. So, by degrees, Tom has given up asking questions, and has been much more concerned about the means of living than about his pedigree.
Jacob has done little or nothing for their common support, though at times, greatly to the annoyance of Tom, he has gone out on the street and asked alms. Tom, being high-spirited and independent, has resented this, and has always interfered, in a very decided manner, to prevent Jacob's figuring as a beggar. Though only a bootblack, he has an honest independence of feeling, in which any one is justified who works, however humbly, for his support.
Old Jacob is, moreover, a miser, so far as he can be. Whatever money he may have acquired by begging, he has kept. At all events, he has offered nothing of it for the common expenses. But Tom has not troubled himself about this. He suspects that Jacob may have a few dollars secreted somewhere, but is perfectly willing he should keep them for his own satisfaction. His earnings average over a dollar a day, and with this sum he is able to pay the small rent of their humble apartment, and buy their food.
In ten minutes Tom reappeared with a loaf under his arm. The door of Mrs. Flanagan's room was partly open, and he entered without ceremony. The good woman was bustling about preparing the eggs. The coffee-pot was already on the stove.
"It'll be ready in a minute, Tom," she said. "A cup of hot coffee'll do the poor craythur, yer grandfather, a power of good. So he's fable, is he?"
"Yes, Mrs. Flanagan."
"He won't last long, to my thinkin'."
"Do you think he's going to die?" asked Tom, thoughtfully.
"Yes, poor craythur. It's all he can do to drag himself up and down stairs."
"I shall be sorry to have him die," said Tom, "though I don't believe he's any relation to me."
"Isn't he your grandfather, then?" asked Mrs. Flanagan, in surprise.
"No; he never said he was."
"Then what makes the two of you live together? Maybe he's your uncle, though he looks too old for that."
"I don't think he's any relation. All I know is, I've lived with him ever since I was so high."
And Tom indicated with his hand the height of a boy of six.
"Then he's never told you anything?"
"No. I've asked him sometimes, but he didn't seem to want to speak."
When Tom re-entered the room he found the old man crouching in the corner, as at first.
"Come, Jacob," he said, cheerfully, "get up; I've got some breakfast for you."
The old man's features lighted up as he inhaled the grateful odor of the coffee, and he rose with some effort to his feet, and seated himself at the little table on which our hero placed it.
"Now, Jacob," said Tom, cheerfully, "I'll pour you out a cup of coffee. Mrs. Flanagan made it, and it's bully. It'll put new life into you. Then what do you say to a plate of eggs and some roll? I haven't got any butter, but you can dip it in your coffee. Now, isn't this a nice breakfast?"
"Yes, Tom," said the old man, surveying the coffee and eggs with eyes of eager desire. "It's nice; but we can't afford to live so all the time."
"Never you mind about that; we can afford it this morning; so don't spoil your appetite with thinkin' how much it costs."
"Now," said Tom, after he had helped the old man, "I don't mind takin' something myself. I ain't troubled with a delicate appetite, 'specially when I've been up and at work for two hours."
"Did you make much, Tom?"
"Well, I ain't made my fortune yet. I've earned thirty cents, but I'll make it up to a dollar before noon."
"You're a good boy, Tom," said the old man, approvingly. "Don't be afraid of work; I'd work, too, if I wasn't so old. It costs a sight to live, and I don't earn a cent."
"There ain't no need of it, Jacob; I can earn enough for the two of us. I'm young and strong. You are old and weak. When I'm an old man, like you, I won't want to work no more."
"I ain't so very old," said Jacob, jealously. "I'm only turned sixty-five. There's a good many years of life in me yet."
"Of course there is, Jacob," said Tom, though as he looked at his companion's thin, wasted face and shaking hand, he felt very doubtful on this point.
"My father lived to be seventy-five," said Jacob.
"So will you," said Tom, though, to the boy of fifteen, sixty-five appeared a very advanced age, and but little younger than eighty.
"I'll be stronger soon," said Jacob. "The weather ain't suited me."
"That's it, Jacob. Now let me give you another cup of coffee. It goes to the right spot, don't it? Don't you be afraid; there's plenty of it."
So he filled Jacob's cup once more, and the old man drank the contents with evident relish.
"Now don't you feel better?" asked Tom. "Why, you look ten years younger'n you did before you sat down. There's nothing like a bully breakfast to make a feller feel tip-top."
"Yes, I do feel better," said Jacob. "I—I think you're right, Tom. If I was rich, I'd always have a good breakfast."
"So you shall now, Jacob. It don't cost much. Now lie down again, and I'll take these dishes down to Mrs. Flanagan."
Tom speedily reappeared, and said, cheerfully:
"If there's nothing more you want, Jacob, I'll go out and look out for work. Mrs. Flanagan will bring you up some toast at noon, and I'll be back at six o'clock."
"All right, Tom. Go to work, there's a good boy. It costs a sight of money to live."
Tom seized his blacking-box and hurried down stairs. He had delayed longer than he intended, and was resolved to make up for lost time.
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