At noon on a dreary November day, a lonesome little fellow stood at the door of a cheap eating house, in Boston, and offered a solitary copy of a morning paper for sale to the people passing.
But there were really not many people passing, for it was Thanksgiving day, and the shops were shut, and everybody who had a home to go to, and a dinner to eat, seemed to have gone home to Bert Hampton, the newsboy, stood trying in vain to sell the last Extra left on his hands by the dull business of the morning.
An old man, with a face that looked pinched, and who was dressed in a seedy black coat, stopped at the same doorway, and, with one hand on the latch, he appeared to hesitate between hunger and a sense of poverty, before going in.
It was possible, however, that he was considering whether he could afford himself the indulgence of a morning paper, seeing it was Thanksgiving day; so at least Bert thought, and addressed him accordingly:—
"Buy a paper, sir? All about the fire in East Boston, and arrest of safe-burglars in Springfield. Only two cents."
The little old man looked at the boy, with keen gray eyes which seemed to light up the pinched look of his face, and answered in a shrill voice:—
"You ought to come down in your price, this time of day. You can't expect to sell a morning paper at 12 o'clock for full price."
"Well, give me a cent, then," said Bert. "That's less than cost; but never mind. I'm bound to sell out, anyhow."
"You look cold," said the old man.
"Cold," replied Bert, "I'm nearly froze. And I want my dinner. And I'm going to have a big dinner, too, seeing it's Thanksgiving day."
"Ah! lucky for you, my boy!" said the old man. "You've a home to go to, and friends, too I hope."
"No, sir; no home, and no friend—only my mother." Bert hesitated and grew serious, then suddenly changed his tone—"and Hop Houghton. I told him to meet me here, and we'd have a first-rate Thanksgiving dinner together, for it's no fun to be eating alone Thanksgiving day! It sets a fellow thinking,—if he ever had a home, and then hasn't got a home any more."
"It's more lonesome not to eat at all," said the old man, his gray eyes twinkling. "And what can a boy like you have to think of? Here, I guess I can find one cent for you—though there's nothing in the paper, I know."
The old man spoke with some feeling, his fingers trembled, and somehow he dropped two cents instead of one into Bert's hand.
"Here! you've made a mistake!" cried Bert. "A bargain's a bargain. You've given me a cent too much!"
"No, I didn't,—I never give anybody a cent too much!"
"But—see here!" And Bert showed the two cents, offering to return one.
"No matter," said the old man. "It will be so much less for my dinner—that's all."
Bert had instinctively pocketed the pennies, but his sympathies were excited.
"Poor old man!" he thought; "he's seen better days, I guess. Perhaps he's no home. A boy like me can stand it, but I guess it must be hard for him. He meant to give me the odd cent, all the while; and I don't believe he has had a decent dinner for many a day."
All this, which I have been obliged to write out slowly in words, went through Bert's mind like a flash. He was a generous little fellow, and any kindness shown him, no matter how trifling, made his heart overflow.
"Look here," he cried; "where are you going to get your dinner, to-day?"
"I can get a bite here as well as anywhere—it don't matter much to me," replied the old man.
"Come; eat dinner with me," said Bert, "I'd like to have you."
"I'm afraid I couldn't afford to dine as you are going to," said the man, with a smile, his eyes twinkling again.
"I'll pay for your dinner!" Bert exclaimed. "Come! we don't have a Thanksgiving but once a year, and a fellow wants a good time then."
"But you are waiting for another boy."
"Oh! Hop Houghton. He won't come now, it's too late. He's gone to a place down in North street, I guess,—a place I don't like, there's so much tobacco smoked and so much beer drank there." Bert cast a final glance up the street, but could see nothing of his friend.
"No, he won't come now. So much the worse for him! He likes the men down there; I don't."
"Ah!" said the man, taking off his hat and giving it a brush with his elbow as they entered the restaurant, as if trying to appear as respectable as he could in the eyes of a newsboy of such fastidious tastes.
To make him feel quite comfortable in his mind on that point, Bert hastened to say:—
"I mean rowdies, and such. Poor people, if they behave themselves, are just as respectable to me as rich folks. I ain't at all aristocratic!"
"Ah, indeed!" And the old man smiled again, and seemed to look relieved. "I'm very glad to hear it."
He placed his hat on the floor, and took a seat opposite Bert at a little table which they had all to themselves. Bert offered him the bill of fare.
"I must ask you to choose for me; nothing very extravagant, you know I am used to plain fare."
"So am I. But I'm going to have a dinner, for once in my life, and so are you," cried Bert, generously. "What do you say to chicken soup—and wind up with a big piece of squash pie! How's that for a Thanksgiving dinner?"
"Sumptuous!" said the old man, appearing to glow with the warmth of the room and the prospect of a good dinner. "But won't it cost you too much?"
"Too much? No, sir!" said Bert. "Chicken soup, fifteen cents; pie—they give tremendous big pieces here, thick, I tell you—ten cents. That's twenty-five cents; half a dollar for two. Of course, I don't do this way every day in the year! But mother's glad to have me, once in a while. Here! waiter!" And Bert gave his princely order as if it were no very great thing for a liberal young fellow like him, after all.
"Where is your mother? Why don't you take dinner with her?" the little man asked.
Bert's face grew sober in a moment.
"That's the question! Why don't I? I'll tell you why I don't. I've got the best mother in the world! What I'm trying to do is to make a home for her, so we can live together, and eat our Thanksgiving dinners together, sometime. Some boys want one thing, some another; there's one goes in for good times, another's in such a hurry to get rich, he don't care much how he does it; but what I want most of anything is to be with my mother and my two sisters again, and I am not ashamed to say so."
Bert's eyes grew very tender, and he went on; while his companion across the table watched him with a very gentle, searching look.
"I haven't been with her now for two years—hardly at all since father died. When his business was settled up,—he kept a little hosiery store on Hanover street,—it was found he hadn't left us anything. We had lived pretty well, up to that time, and I and my two sisters had been to school; but then mother had to do something, and her friends got her places to go out nursing; she's a nurse now. Everybody likes her, and she has enough to do. We couldn't be with her, of course. She got us boarded at a good place, but I saw how hard it was going to be for her to support us, so I said, I'm a boy; I can do something for myself; you just pay the board for the girls and keep them to school, and I'll go to work, and maybe help you a little, besides taking care of myself."
"What could you do?" said the little old man.
"That's it; I was only eleven years old; and what could I do? What I should have liked would have been some nice place where I could do light work, and stand a chance of learning a good business. But beggars mustn't be choosers. I couldn't find such a place; and I wasn't going to be loafing about the streets, so I went to selling newspapers. I've sold newspapers ever since, and I shall be twelve years old next month."
"You like it?" said the old man.
"I like to get my own living," replied Bert, proudly. "But what I want is, to learn some trade, or regular business, and settle down and make a home for my mother. But there's no use talking about that.
"Well I've told you about myself," added Bert; "now suppose you tell me something?"
"Yes. I think that would go pretty well with the pie."
But the man shook his head. "I could go back and tell you about many of my plans and high hopes when I was a lad of your age; but it would be too much like your own story over again. Life isn't what we think it will be, when we are young. You'll find that out soon enough. I am all alone in the world now; and I am nearly seventy years old."
"It must be so lonely, at your age! What do you do for a living?"
"I have a little place in Devonshire street. My name is Crooker. You'll find me up two nights of stairs, back room at the right. Come and see me, and I'll tell you all about my business and perhaps help you to such a place as you want, for I know several business men. Now don't fail."
And Mr. Crooker wrote his address, with a little stub of a pencil, on a corner of the newspaper which had led to their acquaintance, tore it off carefully, and gave it to Bert.
Thereupon the latter took a card from his pocket, and handed it across the table to his new friend.
The old man read the card, with his sharp gray eyes, which glowed up funnily at Bert, seeming to say, "Isn't this rather aristocratic for a twelve-year-old news-boy?"
Bert blushed and explained:—
"Got up for me by a printer's boy I know. I had done some favors for him, and so he made me a few cards. Handy to have sometimes, you know."
"Well, Herbert," said the old man, "I'm glad to make your acquaintance, and I hope you'll come and see me. You'll find me in very humble quarters; but you are not aristocratic, you say. Now won't you let me pay for my dinner? I believe I have money enough. Let me see." And he put his hand in his pocket.
Bert would not hear of such a thing; but walked up to the desk, and settled the bill with the air of a person who did not regard a trifling expense.
When he looked around again, the little old man was gone.
"Now mind; I'll go and see him the first chance I have," said Bert, as he looked at the penciled strip of newspaper margin again before putting it into his pocket.
He then went round to his miserable quarters, in the top of a cheap lodging-house, and prepared himself at once to go and see his mother. He could not afford to ride, and it was a long walk,—at least five miles to the place where his mother was nursing.
On the following Monday, Bert, having a leisure hour, went to call on his new acquaintance in Devonshire street.
Having climbed the two nights, he found the door of the back room at the right ajar, and, looking in, saw Mr. Crooker at a desk, in the act of receiving a roll of money from a well-dressed visitor.
Bert entered unnoticed, and waited till the money was counted and a receipt signed. Then, as the visitor departed, Mr. Crooker noticed the lad, offered him a chair, and then turned to place the money in the safe.
"So this is your place of business?" said Bert, glancing about the plain office room. "What do you do here?"
"I buy real estate, sometimes—sell—rent—and so forth."
"Who for?" asked Bert.
"For myself," said the old gentleman, with a smile.
Bert started, perfectly aghast, at this situation. This, then, was the man whom he had invited to dinner and treated so patronizingly the preceding Thursday!
"I—I—I thought—you were a poor man!"
"I am a poor man," said Mr. Crooker, locking his safe. "Money doesn't make a man rich. I've money enough. I own houses in the city. They give me something to think of, and so keep me alive. I had truer riches once, but I lost them long ago."
From the way the old man's voice trembled and eyes glistened, Bert thought he must have meant by these riches, the friends he had lost, wife and children, perhaps.
"To think of me inviting you to dinner!" he said, abashed and ashamed.
"It was odd. But it may turn out to have been a lucky circumstance for both of us. I like you. I believe in you, and I've an offer to make you. I want a trusty, bright boy in this office, somebody I can bring up to my business, and leave it with, as I get too old to attend to it myself. What do you say?"
What could Bert say?
Again that afternoon he walked—or rather ran—to his mother; and, after consulting with her, joyfully accepted Mr. Crooker's offer.
Interviews between his mother and his employer followed. The lonely, childless old man, who owned so many houses, wanted a home; and one of these houses he offered to Mrs. Hampton, with ample support for herself and children if she would also make it a home for him.
Of course this proposition was accepted; and Bert soon had the satisfaction of seeing the great ambition of his life accomplished. He had employment, which promised to become a profitable business, as indeed it did in a few years. The old man and the lad proved useful to each other; and, more than that, he was united once more with his mother and sisters in a happy home, where he has since had many Thanksgiving dinners.