by Timothy Shay Arthur
All the village was getting out of patience with Andy Lowell, the shoemaker; and yet Andy Lowell's shoes fitted so neatly, and wore so long, that the village people could ill afford to break with him. The shoes made by Tompkins was strong enough, but Tompkins was no artist in leather. Lyon's shoes fit was good, and his shoes neat in appearance, but they had no wear in them. So Andy Lowell had the run of work, and in a few years laid by enough to make him feel independent.
Now this feeling of independence is differently based with different men. Some must have hundreds of thousands of dollars for it to rest upon, while others find tens of thousands sufficient. A few drop below the tens, and count by units. Of this last number was Andy Lowell, the shoemaker.
When Andy opened his shop and set up business for himself, he was twenty-four years of age. Previous to that time he had worked as journeyman, earning good wages, and spending as fast as he earned, for he had no particular love of money, nor was he ambitious to rise and make an appearance in the world. But it happened with Andy as with most young men — he fell in love; and as the village beauty was compliant, betrothal followed. From this time he was changed in many things, but most of all in his regard for money. From a free-handed young man, he became prudent and saving, and in a single year laid aside enough to warrant setting up business for himself. The wedding followed soon after.
The possession of a wife and children gives to most men broader views of life. They look with more earnestness into the future, and calculate more narrowly the chances of success. In the ten years that followed Andy Lowell's marriage, no one could have given more attention to business, or devoted more thought and care to the pleasure of customers. He was ambitious to lay up money for his wife's and children's sake, as well as to secure for himself the means of rest from labor in his more advancing years. The consequence was, that Andy served his neighbors, in his vocation, to their highest satisfaction. He was useful, contented, and thrifty.
A sad thing happened to Andy and his wife after this. Scarlet fever raged in the village one winter, sweeping many little ones into the grave. Of their three children, two were taken; and the third was spared, only to droop, like a frost-touched plant, and die before the summer came. From that time, all of Andy Lowell's customers noted a change in the man; and no wonder. Andy had loved these children deeply. His thought had all the while been running into the future, and building castles for them to dwell in. Now the future was as nothing to him; and so his heart beat feebly in the present. He had already accumulated enough for himself and his wife to live on for the rest of their days; and, if no more children came, what motive was there for a man of his views and temperament to devote himself, with the old ardor, to business?
So the change noticed by his customers continued. He was less anxious to accommodate; disappointed them oftener; and grew impatient under complaint or remonstrance. Customers, getting discouraged or offended, dropped away, but it gave Andy no concern. He had, no longer, any heart in his business; and worked in it more like an automaton than a live human being.
At last, Andy suddenly made up his mind to shut up his shop, and retire from business. He had saved enough to live on — why should he go on any longer in this halting, miserable way — a public servant, yet pleasing nobody?
Mrs. Lowell hardly knew what to say in answer to her husband's suddenly formed resolution. It was as he alleged; they had laid up sufficient; to make them comfortable for the rest of their lives; and, sure enough, why should Andy worry himself any longer with the shop? As far as her poor reason went, Mrs. Lowell had nothing to oppose; but all her instincts were on the other side — she could not feel that it would be right.
But Andy, when he made up his mind to a thing, was what people call hard-headed. His "I won't stand it any longer," meant more than this common form of speech on the lips of ordinary men. So he gave it out that he would quit business; and it was soon all over the village. Of course Tompkins and Lyon were well enough pleased, but there were a great many who heard of the shoemaker's determination with regret. In the face of all difficulties and annoyances, they had continued to depend on him for foot garniture, and were now haunted by unpleasant images of cramped toes, corns, bunions, and all the varied ill, attendant on badly made and badly fitting shoes, boots, and gaiters. The retirement of Andy, cross and unaccommodating as he had become, was felt, in many homes, to be a public calamity.
"Don't think of such a thing, Mr. Lowell," said one.
"We can't do without you," asserted another.
"You'll not give up altogether," pleaded a third, almost coaxingly.
But Andy Lowell was tired of working without any heart in his work; and more tired of the constant fret and worry attendant upon a business in which his mind had ceased to feel interest. So he kept to his resolution, and went on with his arrangements for closing the shop.
"What are you going to do?" asked a neighbor.
"Do?" Andy looked, in some surprise, at his interrogator.
"Yes. What are you going to do? A man in good health, at your time of life, can't be idle. Rust will eat him up."
"Rust?" Andy looked slightly bewildered.
"What's this?" asked the neighbor, taking something from Andy's counter.
"An old knife," was the reply. "It dropped out of the window two or three months ago and was lost. I picked it up this morning."
"It's in a sorry condition," said the neighbor. "Half eaten up with rust, and good for nothing."
"And yet," replied the shoemaker, "there was better stuff in that knife, before it was lost, than in any other knife in the shop."
"Better than in this?" And the neighbor lifted a clean, sharp-edged knife from Andy's cutting-board.
"Worth two of it."
"Which knife is oldest?" asked the neighbor.
"I bought them at the same time."
"And this has been in constant use?"
"While the other lay idle, and exposed to the rains and dews?"
"And so has become rusted and good for nothing. Andy, my friend — just so rusted, and good for nothing as a man, are you in danger of becoming. Don't quit business; don't fall out of your place; don't pass from useful work into self-corroding idleness, You'll be miserable — miserable!"
The pertinence of this illustration struck the mind of Andy Lowell, and set him to thinking; and the more he thought, the more disturbed became his mental state. He had, as we have see, no longer any heart in his business. All that he desired was obtained — enough to live on comfortably; why, then, should he trouble himself with hard-to-please and ill-natured customers? This was one side of the question.
The rusty knife suggested the other side. So there was conflict in his mind; but only a disturbing conflict. Reason acted too feebly on the side of these new-coming convictions. A desire to be at once, and to escape daily work and daily troubles — was stronger than any cold judgment of the case.
"I'll find something to do," he said, within himself, and so pushed aside unpleasantly intruding thoughts. But Mrs. Lowell did not fail to observe, that since, her husband's determination to go out of business — he had become more irritable than before, and less at ease in every way.
The closing day came at last. Andy Lowell shut the blinds before the windows of his shop, at night-fall, saying, as he did so, but in a half-hearted, depressed kind of a way, "For the last time;" and then going inside, sat down in front of the counter, feeling strangely and ill at ease. The future looked very blank. There was nothing in it to strive for, to hope for, to live for. Andy was no philosopher. He could not reason from any deep knowledge of human nature. His life had been merely external, touching scarcely the confines of interior thought. Now he felt that he was getting adrift, but could not understand the why and the wherefore.
As the twilight deepened, his mental obscurity deepened also. He was still sitting in front of his counter, when a form darkened his open door. It was the postman, with a letter for Andy's wife. Then he closed the door, saying in his thought, as he had said when closing the shutters, "For the last time," and went back into the house with the letter in his hand. It was sealed with black. Mrs. Lowell looked frightened as she noticed this sign of death. The contents were soon known. An only sister, a widow, had died suddenly — and this letter announced the fact. She left three young children, two girls and a boy. These, the letter stated, had been dispensed among the late husband's relatives; and there was a sentence or two expressing a regret that they should be separated from each other.
Mrs. Lowell was deeply afflicted by this news, and abandoned herself, for a while, to excessive grief. Her husband had no consolation to offer, and so remained, for the evening, silent and thoughtful. Andy Lowell did not sleep well that night. Certain things were suggested to his mind, and dwelt upon, in spite of many efforts to thrust them aside. Mrs. Lowell was wakeful also, as was evident to her husband from her occasional sighs, sobs, and restless movements; but no words passed between them. Both arose earlier than usual.
Had Andy Lowell forgotten that he opened his shop door, and put back the shutters, as usual? Was this mere habit-work, to be corrected when he bethought himself of what he had done? Judging from his sober face and deliberate manner — no. His air was not that of a man acting unconsciously.
Absorbed in her grief, and troubled with thoughts of her sister's oprhaned children, Mrs. Lowell did not, at first, regard the opening of her husband's shop as anything unusual. But, the truth flashing across her mind, she went in where Lowell stood at his old place by the cutting-board, on which was laid a side of morocco leather, and said —
"Why, Andy! I thought you had shut up the shop for good and all."
"I thought so last night, but I've changed my mind," was the low-spoken but decided answer.
"Changed your mind! Why?"
"I don't know what you may think about it, Sally; but my mind's made up." And Andy squared around, and looked steadily into his wife's face. "There's just one thing we've got to do; and it's no use trying to run away from it. That letter didn't come for nothing. The fact is, Sally, those children mustn't be separated. I've been thinking about it all night, and it hurts me dreadfully."
"How can we help it? Mary's dead, and her husband's relations have divided the children round. I've no doubt they will be well cared for," said Mrs. Lowell.
She had been thinking as well as her husband, but not to so clear a result. To bring three little children into her quiet home, and accept years of care, of work, of anxiety, and responsibility, was not a thing to be done on light consideration. She had turned from the thought as soon as presented, and pushed it away from every avenue through which it sought to find entrance. So she had passed the wakeful night, trying to convince herself that her dead sister's children would be happy and well cared for.
"If they are here, Sally — we can be certain that they are well cared for," replied Andy.
"O, dear! I can never undertake the management of three children!" said Mrs. Lowell, her countenance expressing the painful reluctance she felt.
Andy turned partly away from his wife, and bent over the cutting-board. She saw, as he did so, an expression of countenance that rebuked her.
"A matter like this should be well considered," remarked Mrs. Lowell.
"That's true," answered her husband. "So take your time. They're your flesh and blood, you know, and if they come here, you'll have the largest share of work with them."
Mrs. Lowell went back into the house to think alone, while Andy commenced cutting out work, his hands moving with the springs of a readier will than had acted through them for a long time.
It took Mrs. Lowell three or four days to make up her mind to send for the children, but the right decision came at last. All this while Andy was busy in his shop — cheerfully at work, and treating the customers, who, hearing that he had changed his mind, were pressing in upon him with their orders, much after the pleasant fashion in which he had treated them in years gone by. He knew that his wife would send for the children; and after their arrival, he knew that he would have increased expenses. So, there had come a spur to action, quickening the blood in his veins; and he was at work once more, with heart and purpose, a happier man, really, than he had been for years.
Two or three weeks passed, and then the long silent dwelling of Andy Lowell was filled with the voices of children. Two or three years have passed since then. How is it with Andy? There is not a more cheerful man in all the village, though he is in his shop early and late. No more complaints from customers. Every one is promptly and cheerfully served. He has the largest run of work, as of old; and his income is sufficient not only to meet increased expenses, but to leave a surplus at the end of every year. He is the bright, sharp knife, always in use — not the idle blade, which had so narrowly escaped, falling from the window, rusting to utter worthlessness in the dew and rain.