by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Jim Bennet had never married. He had passed middle life and possessed considerable property. Susan Adkins kept house for him. She was a widow and a very distant relative. Jim had two nieces, his brother’s daughters. One, Alma Beecher, was married; the other, Amanda, was not. The nieces had naïvely grasping views concerning their uncle and his property. They stated freely that they considered him unable to care for it; that a guardian should be appointed and the property be theirs at once. They consulted Lawyer Thomas Hopkinson with regard to it; they discoursed at length upon what they claimed to be an idiosyncrasy of Jim’s denoting failing mental powers.
“He keeps a perfect slew of cats, and has a coal fire for them in the woodshed all winter,” said Amanda.
“Why in thunder shouldn’t he keep a fire in the woodshed if he wants to?” demanded Hopkinson. “I know of no law against it. And there isn’t a law in the country regulating the number of cats a man can keep.” Thomas Hopkinson, who was an old friend of Jim’s, gave his prominent chin an upward jerk as he sat in his office armchair before his clients.
“There is something besides cats,” said Alma.
“He talks to himself.”
“What in creation do you expect the poor man to do? He can’t talk to Susan Adkins about a blessed thing except tidies and pincushions. That woman hasn’t a thought in her mind outside her soul’s salvation and fancy work. Jim has to talk once in a while to keep himself a man. What if he does talk to himself? I talk to myself. Next thing you will want to be appointed guardian over me, Amanda.”
Hopkinson was a bachelor, and Amanda flushed angrily.
“He wasn’t what I call even gentlemanly,” she told Alma, when the two were on their way home.
“I suppose Tom Hopkinson thought you were setting your cap at him,” retorted Alma. She relished the dignity of her married state, and enjoyed giving her spinster sister little claws when occasion called. However, Amanda had a temper of her own, and she could claw back.
“You needn’t talk,” said she. “You only took Joe Beecher when you had given up getting anybody better. You wanted Tom Hopkinson yourself. I haven’t forgotten that blue silk dress you got and wore to meeting. You needn’t talk. You know you got that dress just to make Tom look at you, and he didn’t. You needn’t talk.”
“I wouldn’t have married Tom Hopkinson if he had been the only man on the face of the earth,” declared Alma with dignity; but she colored hotly.
Amanda sniffed. “Well, as near as I can find out, Uncle Jim can go on talking to himself and keeping cats, and we can’t do anything,” said she.
When the two women were home, they told Alma’s husband, Joe Beecher, about their lack of success. They were quite heated with their walk and excitement. “I call it a shame,” said Alma. “Anybody knows that poor Uncle Jim would be better off with a guardian.”
“Of course,” said Amanda. “What man that had a grain of horse sense would do such a crazy thing as to keep a coal fire in a woodshed?”
“For such a slew of cats, too,” said Alma, nodding fiercely.
Alma’s husband, Joe Beecher, spoke timidly and undecidedly in the defense. “You know,” he said, “that Mrs. Adkins wouldn’t have those cats in the house, and cats mostly like to sit round where it’s warm.”
His wife regarded him. Her nose wrinkled. “I suppose next thing you’ll be wanting to have a cat round where it’s warm, right under my feet, with all I have to do,” said she. Her voice had an actual acidity of sound.
Joe gasped. He was a large man with a constant expression of wondering inquiry. It was the expression of his babyhood; he had never lost it, and it was an expression which revealed truly the state of his mind. Always had Joe Beecher wondered, first of all at finding himself in the world at all, then at the various happenings of existence. He probably wondered more about the fact of his marriage with Alma Bennet than anything else, although he never betrayed his wonder. He was always painfully anxious to please his wife, of whom he stood in awe. Now he hastened to reply: “Why, no, Alma; of course I won’t.”
“Because,” said Alma, “I haven’t come to my time of life, through all the trials I’ve had, to be taking any chances of breaking my bones over any miserable, furry, four-footed animal that wouldn’t catch a mouse if one run right under her nose.”
“I don’t want any cat,” repeated Joe, miserably. His fear and awe of the two women increased. When his sister-in-law turned upon him he fairly cringed.
“Cats!” said Amanda. Then she sniffed. The sniff was worse than speech.
Joe repeated in a mumble that he didn’t want any cats, and went out, closing the door softly after him, as he had been taught. However, he was entirely sure, in the depths of his subjugated masculine mind, that his wife and her sister had no legal authority whatever to interfere with their uncle’s right to keep a hundred coal fires in his woodshed, for a thousand cats. He always had an inner sense of glee when he heard the two women talk over the matter. Once Amanda had declared that she did not believe that Tom Hopkinson knew much about law, anyway.
“He seems to stand pretty high,” Joe ventured with the utmost mildness.
“Yes, he does,” admitted Alma, grudgingly.
“It does not follow he knows law,” persisted Amanda, “and it may follow that he likes cats. There was that great Maltese tommy brushing round all the time we were in his office, but I didn’t dare shoo him off for fear it might be against the law.” Amanda laughed a very disagreeable little laugh. Joe said nothing, but inwardly he chuckled. It was the cause of man with man. He realized a great, even affectionate, understanding of Jim.
The day after his nieces had visited the lawyer’s office, Jim was preparing to call on his friend Edward Hayward, the minister. Before leaving he looked carefully after the fire in the woodshed. The stove was large. Jim piled on the coal, regardless outwardly that the housekeeper, Susan Adkins, had slammed the kitchen door to indicate her contempt. Inwardly Jim felt hurt, but he had felt hurt so long from the same cause that the sensation had become chronic and was borne with a gentle patience. Moreover, there was something which troubled him more and was the reason for his contemplated call on his friend. He evened the coals on the fire with great care, and replenished from the pail in the ice box the cats’ saucers. There was a circle of clean white saucers around the stove. Jim owned many cats; counting the kittens, there were probably over twenty. Mrs. Adkins counted them in the sixties. “Those sixty-seven cats,” she said.
Jim often gave away cats when he was confident of securing good homes, but supply exceeded the demand. Now and then tragedies took place in that woodshed. Susan Adkins came bravely to the front upon these occasions. Quite convinced was Susan Adkins that she had a good home, and it behooved her to keep it, and she did not in the least object to drowning, now and then, a few very young kittens. She did this with neatness and dispatch while Jim walked to the store on an errand and was supposed to know nothing about it. There was simply not enough room in his woodshed for the accumulation of cats, although his heart could have held all.
That day, as he poured out the milk, cats of all ages and sizes and colors purred in a softly padding multitude around his feet, and he regarded them with love. There were tiger cats, Maltese cats, black-and-white cats, black cats and white cats, tommies and females, and his heart leaped to meet the pleading mews of all. The saucers were surrounded. Little pink tongues lapped. “Pretty pussy! pretty pussy!” cooed Jim, addressing them in general. He put on his overcoat and hat, which he kept on a peg behind the door. Jim had an armchair in the woodshed. He always sat there when he smoked; Susan Adkins demurred at his smoking in the house, which she kept so nice, and Jim did not dream of rebellion. He never questioned the right of a woman to bar tobacco smoke from a house. Before leaving he refilled some of the saucers. He was not sure that all of the cats were there; some might be afield, hunting, and he wished them to find refreshment when they returned. He stroked the splendid striped back of a great tiger tommy which filled his armchair. This cat was his special pet. He fastened the outer shed door with a bit of rope in order that it might not blow entirely open, and yet allow his feline friends to pass, should they choose. Then he went out.
The day was clear, with a sharp breath of frost. The fields gleamed with frost, offering to the eye a fine shimmer as of diamond dust under the brilliant blue sky, overspread in places with a dapple of little white clouds.
“White frost and mackerel sky; going to be falling weather,” Jim said, aloud, as he went out of the yard, crunching the crisp grass under heel.
Susan Adkins at a window saw his lips moving. His talking to himself made her nervous, although it did not render her distrustful of his sanity. It was fortunate that Susan had not told Jim that she disliked his habit. In that case he would have deprived himself of that slight solace; he would not have dreamed of opposing Susan’s wishes. Jim had a great pity for the nervous whims, as he regarded them, of women — a pity so intense and tender that it verged on respect and veneration. He passed his nieces’ house on the way to the minister’s, and both were looking out of windows and saw his lips moving.
“There he goes, talking to himself like a crazy loon,” said Amanda.
Jim went on, blissfully unconscious. He talked in a quiet monotone; only now and then his voice rose; only now and then there were accompanying gestures. Jim had a straight mile down the broad village street to walk before he reached the church and the parsonage beside it.
Jim and the minister had been friends since boyhood. They were graduates and classmates of the same college. Jim had had unusual educational advantages for a man coming from a simple family. The front door of the parsonage flew open when Jim entered the gate, and the minister stood there smiling. He was a tall, thin man with a wide mouth, which either smiled charmingly or was set with severity. He was as brown and dry as a wayside weed which winter had subdued as to bloom but could not entirely prostrate with all its icy storms and compelling blasts. Jim, advancing eagerly toward the warm welcome in the door, was a small man, and bent at that, but he had a handsome old face, with the rose of youth on the cheeks and the light of youth in the blue eyes, and the quick changes of youth, before emotions, about the mouth.
“Hullo, Jim!” cried Doctor Edward Hayward. Hayward, for a doctor of divinity, was considered somewhat lacking in dignity at times; still, he was Doctor Hayward, and the failing was condoned. Moreover, he was a Hayward, and the Haywards had been, from the memory of the oldest inhabitant, the great people of the village. Doctor Hayward’s house was presided over by his widowed cousin, a lady of enough dignity to make up for any lack of it in the minister. There were three servants, besides the old butler who had been Hayward’s attendant when he had been a young man in college. Village people were proud of their minister, with his degree and what they considered an imposing household retinue.
Hayward led, and Jim followed, to the least pretentious room in the house — not the study proper, which was lofty, book-lined, and leather-furnished, curtained with broad sweeps of crimson damask, but a little shabby place back of it, accessible by a narrow door. The little room was lined with shelves; they held few books, but a collection of queer and dusty things — strange weapons, minerals, odds and ends — which the minister loved and with which his lady cousin never interfered.
“Louisa,” Hayward had told his cousin when she entered upon her post, “do as you like with the whole house, but let my little study alone. Let it look as if it had been stirred up with a garden rake — that little room is my territory, and no disgrace to you, my dear, if the dust rises in clouds at every step.”
Jim was as fond of the little room as his friend. He entered, and sighed a great sigh of satisfaction as he sank into the shabby, dusty hollow of a large chair before the hearth fire. Immediately a black cat leaped into his lap, gazed at him with green-jewel eyes, worked her paws, purred, settled into a coil, and slept. Jim lit his pipe and threw the match blissfully on the floor. Doctor Hayward set an electric coffee urn at its work, for the little room was a curious mixture of the comfortable old and the comfortable modern.
“Sam shall serve our luncheon in here,” he said, with a staid glee.
Jim nodded happily.
“Louisa will not mind,” said Hayward. “She is precise, but she has a fine regard for the rights of the individual, which is most commendable.” He seated himself in a companion chair to Jim’s, lit his own pipe, and threw the match on the floor. Occasionally, when the minister was out, Sam, without orders so to do, cleared the floor of matches.
Hayward smoked and regarded his friend, who looked troubled despite his comfort. “What is it, Jim?” asked the minister at last.
“I don’t know how to do what is right for me to do,” replied the little man, and his face, turned toward his friend, had the puzzled earnestness of a child.
Hayward laughed. It was easily seen that his was the keener mind. In natural endowments there had never been equality, although there was great similarity of tastes. Jim, despite his education, often lapsed into the homely vernacular of which he heard so much. An involuntarily imitative man in externals was Jim, but essentially an original. Jim proceeded.
“You know, Edward, I have never been one to complain,” he said, with an almost boyish note of apology.
“Never complained half enough; that’s the trouble,” returned the other.
“Well, I overheard something Mis’ Adkins said to Mis’ Amos Trimmer the other afternoon. Mis’ Trimmer was calling on Mis’ Adkins. I couldn’t help overhearing unless I went outdoors, and it was snowing and I had a cold. I wasn’t listening.”
“Had a right to listen if you wanted to,” declared Hayward, irascibly.
“Well, I couldn’t help it unless I went outdoors. Mis’ Adkins she was in the kitchen making light bread for supper, and Mis’ Trimmer had sat right down there with her. Mis’ Adkins’s kitchen is as clean as a parlor, anyway. Mis’ Adkins said to Mis’ Trimmer, speaking of me — because Mis’ Trimmer had just asked where I was and Mis’ Adkins had said I was out in the woodshed sitting with the cats and smoking — Mis’ Adkins said, ‘He’s just a doormat, that’s what he is.’ Then Mis’ Trimmer says, ‘The way he lets folks ride over him beats me.’ Then Mis’ Adkins says again: ‘He’s nothing but a doormat. He lets everybody that wants to just trample on him and grind their dust into him, and he acts real pleased and grateful.’”
Hayward’s face flushed. “Did Mrs. Adkins mention that she was one of the people who used you for a doormat?” he demanded.
Jim threw back his head and laughed like a child, with the sweetest sense of unresentful humor. “Lord bless my soul, Edward,” replied Jim, “I don’t believe she ever thought of that.”
“And at that very minute you, with a hard cold, were sitting out in that draughty shed smoking because she wouldn’t allow you to smoke in your own house!”
“I don’t mind that, Edward,” said Jim, and laughed again.
“Could you see to read your paper out there, with only that little shed window? And don’t you like to read your paper while you smoke?”
“Oh yes,” admitted Jim; “but my! I don’t mind little things like that! Mis’ Adkins is only a poor widow woman, and keeping my house nice and not having it smell of tobacco is all she’s got. They can talk about women’s rights — I feel as if they ought to have them fast enough, if they want them, poor things; a woman has a hard row to hoe, and will have, if she gets all the rights in creation. But I guess the rights they’d find it hardest to give up would be the rights to have men look after them just a little more than they look after other men, just because they are women. When I think of Annie Berry — the girl I was going to marry, you know, if she hadn’t died — I feel as I couldn’t do enough for another woman. Lord! I’m glad to sit out in the woodshed and smoke. Mis’ Adkins is pretty good-natured to stand all the cats.”
Then the coffee boiled, and Hayward poured out some for Jim and himself. He had a little silver service at hand, and willow-ware cups and saucers. Presently Sam appeared, and Hayward gave orders concerning luncheon.
“Tell Miss Louisa we are to have it served here,” said he, “and mind, Sam, the chops are to be thick and cooked the way we like them; and don’t forget the East India chutney, Sam.”
“It does seem rather a pity that you cannot have chutney at home with your chops, when you are so fond of it,” remarked Hayward when Sam had gone.
“Mis’ Adkins says it will give me liver trouble, and she isn’t strong enough to nurse.”
“So you have to eat her ketchup?”
“Well, she doesn’t put seasoning in it,” admitted Jim. “But Mis’ Adkins doesn’t like seasoning herself, and I don’t mind.”
“And I know the chops are never cut thick, the way we like them.”
“Mis’ Adkins likes her meat well done, and she can’t get such thick chops well done. I suppose our chops are rather thin, but I don’t mind.”
“Beefsteak and chops, both cut thin, and fried up like sole leather. I know!” said Doctor Hayward, and he stamped his foot with unregenerate force.
“I don’t mind a bit, Edward.”
“You ought to mind, when it is your own house, and you buy the food and pay your housekeeper. It is an outrage!”
“I don’t mind, really, Edward.”
Doctor Hayward regarded Jim with a curious expression compounded of love, anger, and contempt. “Any more talk of legal proceedings?” he asked, brusquely.
Jim flushed. “Tom ought not to tell of that.”
“Yes, he ought; he ought to tell it all over town. He doesn’t, but he ought. It is an outrage! Here you have been all these years supporting your nieces, and they are working away like field mice, burrowing under your generosity, trying to get a chance to take action and appropriate your property and have you put under a guardian.”
“I don’t mind a bit,” said Jim; “but —”
The other man looked inquiringly at him, and, seeing a pitiful working of his friend’s face, he jumped up and got a little jar from a shelf. “We will drop the whole thing until we have had our chops and chutney,” said he. “You are right; it is not worth minding. Here is a new brand of tobacco I want you to try. I don’t half like it, myself, but you may.”
Jim, with a pleased smile, reached out for the tobacco, and the two men smoked until Sam brought the luncheon. It was well cooked and well served on an antique table. Jim was thoroughly happy. It was not until the luncheon was over and another pipe smoked that the troubled, perplexed expression returned to his face.
“Now,” said Hayward, “out with it!”
“It is only the old affair about Alma and Amanda, but now it has taken on a sort of new aspect.”
“What do you mean by a new aspect?”
“It seems,” said Jim, slowly, “as if they were making it so I couldn’t do for them.”
Hayward stamped his foot. “That does sound new,” he said, dryly. “I never thought Alma Beecher or Amanda Bennet ever objected to have you do for them.”
“Well,” said Jim, “perhaps they don’t now, but they want me to do it in their own way. They don’t want to feel as if I was giving and they taking; they want it to seem the other way round. You see, if I were to deed over my property to them, and then they allowance me, they would feel as if they were doing the giving.”
“Jim, you wouldn’t be such a fool as that?”
“No, I wouldn’t,” replied Jim, simply. “They wouldn’t know how to take care of it, and Mis’ Adkins would be left to shift for herself. Joe Beecher is real good-hearted, but he always lost every dollar he touched. No, there wouldn’t be any sense in that. I don’t mean to give in, but I do feel pretty well worked up over it.”
“What have they said to you?”
“Out with it, now. One thing you may be sure of: nothing that you can tell me will alter my opinion of your two nieces for the worse. As for poor Joe Beecher, there is no opinion, one way or the other. What did they say?”
Jim regarded his friend with a curiously sweet, far-off expression. “Edward,” he said, “sometimes I believe that the greatest thing a man’s friends can do for him is to drive him into a corner with God; to be so unjust to him that they make him understand that God is all that mortal man is meant to have, and that is why he finds out that most people, especially the ones he does for, don’t care for him.”
Hayward looked solemnly and tenderly at the other’s almost rapt face. “You are right, I suppose, old man,” said he; “but what did they do?”
“They called me in there about a week ago and gave me an awful talking to.”
Jim looked at his friend with dignity. “They were two women talking, and they went into little matters not worth repeating,” said he. “All is — they seemed to blame me for everything I had ever done for them, and for everything I had ever done, anyway. They seemed to blame me for being born and living, and, most of all, for doing anything for them.”
“It is an outrage!” declared Hayward. “Can’t you see it?”
“I can’t seem to see anything plain about it,” returned Jim, in a bewildered way. “I always supposed a man had to do something bad to be given a talking to; but it isn’t so much that, and I don’t bear any malice against them. They are only two women, and they are nervous. What worries me is, they do need things, and they can’t get on and be comfortable unless I do for them; but if they are going to feel that way about it, it seems to cut me off from doing, and that does worry me, Edward.”
The other man stamped. “Jim Bennet,” he said, “they have talked, and now I am going to.”
“Yes, I am. It is entirely true what those two women, Susan Adkins and Mrs. Trimmer, said about you. You are a doormat, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself for it. A man should be a man, and not a doormat. It is the worst thing in the world for people to walk over him and trample him. It does them much more harm than it does him. In the end the trampler is much worse off than the trampled upon. Jim Bennet, your being a doormat may cost other people their souls’ salvation. You are selfish in the grain to be a doormat.”
Jim turned pale. His childlike face looked suddenly old with his mental effort to grasp the other’s meaning. In fact, he was a child — one of the little ones of the world — although he had lived the span of a man’s life. Now one of the hardest problems of the elders of the world was presented to him. “You mean —” he said, faintly.
“I mean, Jim, that for the sake of other people, if not for your own sake, you ought to stop being a doormat and be a man in this world of men.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to go straight to those nieces of yours and tell them the truth. You know what your wrongs are as well as I do. You know what those two women are as well as I do. They keep the letter of the Ten Commandments — that is right. They attend my church — that is right. They scour the outside of the platter until it is bright enough to blind those people who don’t understand them; but inwardly they are petty, ravening wolves of greed and ingratitude. Go and tell them; they don’t know themselves. Show them what they are. It is your Christian duty.”
“You don’t mean for me to stop doing for them?”
“I certainly do mean just that — for a while, anyway.”
“They can’t possibly get along, Edward; they will suffer.”
“They have a little money, haven’t they?”
“Only a little in savings bank. The interest pays their taxes.”
“And you gave them that?”
“Very well, their taxes are paid for this year; let them use that money. They will not suffer, except in their feelings, and that is where they ought to suffer. Man, you would spoil all the work of the Lord by your selfish tenderness toward sinners!”
“They aren’t sinners.”
“Yes, they are — spiritual sinners, the worst kind in the world. Now —”
“You don’t mean for me to go now?”
“Yes, I do — now. If you don’t go now you never will. Then, afterward, I want you to go home and sit in your best parlor and smoke, and have all your cats in there, too.”
Jim gasped. “But, Edward! Mis’ Adkins —”
“I don’t care about Mrs. Adkins. She isn’t as bad as the rest, but she needs her little lesson, too.”
“Edward, the way that poor woman works to keep the house nice — and she don’t like the smell of tobacco smoke.”
“Never mind whether she likes it or not. You smoke.”
“And she don’t like cats.”
“Never mind. Now you go.”
Jim stood up. There was a curious change in his rosy, childlike face. There was a species of quickening. He looked at once older and more alert. His friend’s words had charged him as with electricity. When he went down the street he looked taller.
Amanda Bennet and Alma Beecher, sitting sewing at their street windows, made this mistake.
“That isn’t Uncle Jim,” said Amanda. “That man is a head taller, but he looks a little like him.”
“It can’t be Uncle Jim,” agreed Alma. Then both started.
“It is Uncle Jim, and he is coming here,” said Amanda.
Jim entered. Nobody except himself, his nieces, and Joe Beecher ever knew exactly what happened, what was the aspect of the doormat erected to human life, of the worm turned to menace. It must have savored of horror, as do all meek and down-trodden things when they gain, driven to bay, the strength to do battle. It must have savored of the godlike, when the man who had borne with patience, dignity, and sorrow for them the stings of lesser things because they were lesser things, at last arose and revealed himself superior, with a great height of the spirit, with the power to crush.
When Jim stopped talking and went home, two pale, shocked faces of women gazed after him from the windows. Joe Beecher was sobbing like a child. Finally his wife turned her frightened face upon him, glad to have still some one to intimidate.
“For goodness’ sake, Joe Beecher, stop crying like a baby!” said she, but she spoke in a queer whisper, for her lips were stiff.
Joe stood up and made for the door.
“Where are you going?” asked his wife.
“Going to get a job somewhere,” replied Joe, and went. Soon the women saw him driving a neighbor’s cart up the street.
“He’s going to cart gravel for John Leach’s new sidewalk!” gasped Alma.
“Why don’t you stop him?” cried her sister. “You can’t have your husband driving a tip cart for John Leach. Stop him, Alma!”
“I can’t stop him,” moaned Alma. “I don’t feel as if I could stop anything.”
Her sister gazed at her, and the same expression was on both faces, making them more than sisters of the flesh. Both saw before them a stern boundary wall against which they might press in vain for the rest of their lives, and both saw the same sins of their hearts.
Meantime Jim Bennet was seated in his best parlor and Susan Adkins was whispering to Mrs. Trimmer out in the kitchen.
“I don’t know whether he’s gone stark, staring mad or not,” whispered Susan, “but he’s in the parlor smoking his worst old pipe, and that big tiger tommy is sitting in his lap, and he’s let in all the other cats, and they’re nosing round, and I don’t dare drive ’em out. I took up the broom; then I put it away again. I never knew Mr. Bennet to act so. I can’t think what’s got into him.”
“Did he say anything?”
“No, he didn’t say much of anything, but he said it in a way that made my flesh fairly creep. Says he, ‘As long as this is my house and my furniture and my cats, Mis’ Adkins, I think I’ll sit down in the parlor, where I can see to read my paper and smoke at the same time.’ Then he holds the kitchen door open, and he calls, ‘Kitty, kitty, kitty!’ and that great tiger tommy comes in with his tail up, rubbing round his legs, and all the other cats followed after. I shut the door before these last ones got into the parlor.” Susan Adkins regarded malevolently the three tortoise-shell cats of three generations and various stages of growth, one Maltese settled in a purring round of comfort with four kittens, and one perfectly black cat, which sat glaring at her with beryl-colored eyes.
“That black cat looks evil,” said Mrs. Trimmer.
“Yes, he does. I don’t know why I didn’t drown him when he was a kitten.”
“Why didn’t you drown all those Malty kittens?”
“The old cat hid them away until they were too big. Then he wouldn’t let me. What do you suppose has come to him? Just smell that awful pipe!”
“Men do take queer streaks every now and then,” said Mrs. Trimmer. “My husband used to, and he was as good as they make ’em, poor man. He would eat sugar on his beefsteak, for one thing. The first time I saw him do it I was scared. I thought he was plumb crazy, but afterward I found out it was just because he was a man, and his ma hadn’t wanted him to eat sugar when he was a boy. Mr. Bennet will get over it.”
“He don’t act as if he would.”
“Oh yes, he will. Jim Bennet never stuck to anything but being Jim Bennet for very long in his life, and this ain’t being Jim Bennet.”
“He is a very good man,” said Susan with a somewhat apologetic tone.
“He’s too good.”
“He’s too good to cats.”
“Seems to me he’s too good to ‘most everybody. Think what he has done for Amanda and Alma, and how they act!”
“Yes, they are ungrateful and real mean to him; and I feel sometimes as if I would like to tell them just what I think of them,” said Susan Adkins. “Poor man, there he is, studying all the time what he can do for people, and he don’t get very much himself.”
Mrs. Trimmer arose to take leave. She had a long, sallow face, capable of a sarcastic smile. “Then,” said she, “if I were you I wouldn’t begrudge him a chair in the parlor and a chance to read and smoke and hold a pussy cat.”
“Who said I was begrudging it? I can air out the parlor when he’s got over the notion.”
“Well, he will, so you needn’t worry,” said Mrs. Trimmer. As she went down the street she could see Jim’s profile beside the parlor window, and she smiled her sarcastic smile, which was not altogether unpleasant. “He’s stopped smoking, and he ain’t reading,” she told herself. “It won’t be very long before he’s Jim Bennet again.”
But it was longer than she anticipated, for Jim’s will was propped by Edward Hayward’s. Edward kept Jim to his standpoint for weeks, until a few days before Christmas. Then came self-assertion, that self-assertion of negation which was all that Jim possessed in such a crisis. He called upon Doctor Hayward; the two were together in the little study for nearly an hour, and talk ran high, then Jim prevailed.
“It’s no use, Edward,” he said; “a man can’t be made over when he’s cut and dried in one fashion, the way I am. Maybe I’m doing wrong, but to me it looks like doing right, and there’s something in the Bible about every man having his own right and wrong. If what you say is true, and I am hindering the Lord Almighty in His work, then it is for Him to stop me. He can do it. But meantime I’ve got to go on doing the way I always have. Joe has been trying to drive that tip cart, and the horse ran away with him twice. Then he let the cart fall on his foot and mash one of his toes, and he can hardly get round, and Amanda and Alma don’t dare touch that money in the bank for fear of not having enough to pay the taxes next year in case I don’t help them. They only had a little money on hand when I gave them that talking to, and Christmas is ‘most here, and they haven’t got things they really need. Amanda’s coat that she wore to meeting last Sunday didn’t look very warm to me, and poor Alma had her furs chewed up by the Leach dog, and she’s going without any. They need lots of things. And poor Mis’ Adkins is ‘most sick with tobacco smoke. I can see it, though she doesn’t say anything, and the nice parlor curtains are full of it, and cat hairs are all over things. I can’t hold out any longer, Edward. Maybe I am a doormat; and if I am, and it is wicked, may the Lord forgive me, for I’ve got to keep right on being a doormat.”
Hayward sighed and lighted his pipe. However, he had given up and connived with Jim.
On Christmas eve the two men were in hiding behind a clump of cedars in the front yard of Jim’s nieces’ house. They watched the expressman deliver a great load of boxes and packages. Jim drew a breath of joyous relief.
“They are taking them in,” he whispered — “they are taking them in, Edward!”
Hayward looked down at the dim face of the man beside him, and something akin to fear entered his heart. He saw the face of a lifelong friend, but he saw something in it which he had never recognized before. He saw the face of one of the children of heaven, giving only for the sake of the need of others, and glorifying the gifts with the love and pity of an angel.
“I was afraid they wouldn’t take them!” whispered Jim, and his watching face was beautiful, although it was only the face of a little, old man of a little village, with no great gift of intellect. There was a full moon riding high; the ground was covered with a glistening snow level, over which wavered wonderful shadows, as of wings. One great star prevailed despite the silver might of the moon. To Hayward Jim’s face seemed to prevail, as that star, among all the faces of humanity.
Jim crept noiselessly toward a window, Hayward at his heels. The two could see the lighted interior plainly.
“See poor Alma trying on her furs,” whispered Jim, in a rapture. “See Amanda with her coat. They have found the money. See Joe heft the turkey.” Suddenly he caught Hayward’s arm, and the two crept away. Out on the road, Jim fairly sobbed with pure delight. “Oh, Edward,” he said, “I am so thankful they took the things! I was so afraid they wouldn’t, and they needed them! Oh, Edward, I am so thankful!” Edward pressed his friend’s arm.
When they reached Jim’s house a great tiger cat leaped to Jim’s shoulder with the silence and swiftness of a shadow. “He’s always watching for me,” said Jim, proudly. “Pussy! Pussy!” The cat began to purr loudly, and rubbed his splendid head against the man’s cheek.
“I suppose,” said Hayward, with something of awe in his tone, “that you won’t smoke in the parlor tonight?”
“Edward, I really can’t. Poor woman, she’s got it all aired and beautifully cleaned, and she’s so happy over it. There’s a good fire in the shed, and I will sit there with the pussy cats until I go to bed. Oh, Edward, I am so thankful that they took the things!”
“Good night, Jim.”
“Good night. You don’t blame me, Edward?”
“Who am I to blame you, Jim? Good night.”
Hayward watched the little man pass along the path to the shed door. Jim’s back was slightly bent, but to his friend it seemed bent beneath a holy burden of love and pity for all humanity, and the inheritance of the meek seemed to crown that drooping old head. The doormat, again spread freely for the trampling feet of all who got comfort thereby, became a blessed thing. The humble creature, despised and held in contempt like One greater than he, giving for the sake of the needs of others, went along the narrow footpath through the snow. The minister took off his hat and stood watching until the door was opened and closed and the little window gleamed with golden light.