What Can I Do?
by Timothy Shay Arthur
He was a poor cripple — with fingers twisted out of all useful shape, and lower limbs so paralyzed, that he had to drag them after him wearily when he moved through the short distances that limited his sphere of locomotion — a poor, unhappy, murmuring, and, at times, ill-natured cripple, eating the bread which a mother's hard labor procured for him.
For hours every fair day, during spring, summer, and autumn, he might be seen in front of the little house where he lived leaning upon the gate, or sitting on an old bench looking with a sober face at the romping village children, or dreamily regarding the passengers who moved with such strong limbs up and down the street. How often, bitter envy stung the poor cripple's heart! How often, as the thoughtless village children taunted him cruelly with his misfortune, would he fling harsh maledictions after them. Many pitied the poor cripple; many looked upon him with feelings of disgust and repulsion; but few, if any, sought to do him good.
Not far from where the cripple lived, was a man who had been bedridden for years, and who was likely to remain so to the end of his days. He was supported by the patient industry of a wife.
"If good works are the only passport to Heaven," he said to a neighbor one day, "I fear my chances will be small."
"'Well done, good and faithful servant,' is the language of welcome," was replied; and the neighbor looked at the sick man in a way that made him feel a little uncomfortable.
"I am sick and bedridden — what can I do?" he spoke, fretfully.
"When little is given — little is required. But if there is only a single talent, then it must be improved."
"I have no talent," said the invalid.
"Are you sure of that?"
"What can I do? Look at me! No health, no strength, no power to rise from this bed. A poor, helpless creature, burdening my wife. Better for me, and for all, if I were in my grave!"
"If that were so, you would be in your grave. But God knows best. There is something for you to do, or you would be no longer permitted to live," said the neighbor.
The sick man shook his head.
"As I came along just now," continued the neighbor, "I stopped to say a word to poor Tom Hicks, the cripple, as he stood swinging on the gate before his mother's house, looking so unhappy that I pitied him in my heart.
'What do you do with yourself all through these long days, Tom?' I asked.
'Nothing,' he replied, moodily.
'Don't you read sometimes?' I queried.
'Can't read,' was his sullen answer.
'Were you ever at school?' I went on.
'No, how can I get to school?'
'Why doesn't your mother teach you?'
'Because she can't read herself,' replied Tom.
'It isn't too late to begin now,' said I, encouragingly; 'suppose I were to find someone willing to teach you, what would you say?' The poor lad's face brightened as if the sunshine had fallen upon it; and he answered,
'I would say that nothing would please me better.' I promised to find him a teacher; and, as I promised, the thought of you, friend Croft, came into my mind. Now, here is something that you can do; a good work in which you can employ your one talent."
The sick man did not respond warmly to this proposition. He had been so long a mere recipient of good offices — had so long felt himself the object towards which pity and service must tend — that he had nearly lost the relish for good deeds. Idle dependence had made him selfish.
"Give this poor cripple a lesson every day," went on the neighbor, pressing home the subject, "and talk and read to him. Take him in charge, as one of God's children, who needs to be instructed and led up to a higher life than the one he is now living. Is not this a good and a great work? It is, my friend, one that God has brought to your hand, and in the doing of which there will be great reward. What can you do? Much! Think of that poor boy's weary life, and of the sadder years which lie still before him. What will become of him when his mother dies? The almshouse alone will open its doors for the helpless one. But who can tell what resources may open before him, if stimulated by thought. Take him, then, and unlock the doors of a mind which now sits in darkness, that sunlight may come in. To you, it will give a few hours of pleasant work each day; to him, it will be a life-long benefit. Will you do it?"
The sick man could not say "No," though in uttering that half-extorted assent he manifested no warm interest in the case of poor Tom Hicks.
On the next day, the cripple came to the sick man, and received his first lesson; and every day, at an appointed hour, he was in Mr. Croft's room, eager for the instruction he received. Quickly he mastered the alphabet, and as quickly learned to construct small words, preparatory to combining them in a reading lesson.
After the first three or four days the sick man, who, had undertaken this work with reluctance, began to find his heart going down into it. Tom was so ready a scholar, so interested, and so grateful, that Mr. Croft found the task of instructing him a real pleasure. The neighbor, who had suggested this useful employment of the invalid's time, looked in now and then to see how matters were progressing, and to speak words of encouragement.
Poor Tom was seen less frequently than before, hanging on the gate, or sitting idly on the bench before his mother's dwelling; and when you did find him there, as of old, you saw a different expression on his face. Soon the children, who had only looked at him, half in fear, from a distance, or come closer to the gate where he stood gazing with his strange eyes out into the street, in order to worry him — began to have a different feelings for the cripple, and one and another stopped occasionally to speak with him; for Tom no longer made strange faces, or looked at them wickedly, as if he would harm them if in his power, nor retorted angrily if they said things to worry him.
And now it often happened that a little boy or girl, who had pitied the poor cripple, and feared him at the same time, would offer him a flower, or an apple, or at handful of nuts in passing to school; and he would take these gifts thankfully, and feel better all day in remembrance of the kindness with which they had been bestowed. Sometimes he would ask to see their books, and his eyes would run eagerly over the pages so far in advance of his comprehension, yet with the hope in his heart of one day mastering them; for he had grown all athirst for knowledge.
As soon as Tom could read, the children in the neighborhood, who had grown to like him, and always gathered around him at the gate, when they happened to find him there, supplied him with books; so that he had an abundance of mental food, and now began to repay his benefactor, the bedridden man, by reading to him for hours every day.
The mind of Tom had some of the qualities of a sponge — it absorbed a great deal, and, like a sponge, gave out freely at every pressure.
Whenever his mind came in contact with another mind, it must either absorb or impart. So he was always talking — or always listening — when he had anybody who would talk or listen.
There was something about him that strongly attracted the boys in the neighborhood, and he usually had three or four of them around him and often a dozen, late in the afternoon, when the schools were out. As Tom had entered a new world — the world of books — and was interested in all he found there, the subjects on which he talked with the boys who sought his company were always instructive. There, was no nonsense about the cripple: suffering of body and mind had long ago made him serious; and all nonsense, or base, sensual talk, to which boys are sometimes addicted, found no encouragement in his presence. His influence over these boys was therefore of the best kind. The parents of some of the children, when they found their sons going so often to the house of Tom Hicks, felt doubts as to the safety of such intimate fellowship with the cripple, towards whom few were biased, as he bore in the village the reputation of being ill-tempered and depraved, and questioned them very closely in regard to the nature of their fellowship. The report of these boys took their parents by surprise; but, on investigation, it proved to be true, and Tom's character soon rose in the public estimation.
Then came, as a natural consequence, inquiry as to the cause of such a change in the unfortunate lad; and the neighbor of the sick man who had instructed Tom, told the story of Mr. Croft's agency in the matter. This interested the whole town in both the cripple and his bedridden instructor. The people were taken by surprise at such a notable interest of the great good which may sometimes be done, where the means look discouragingly small. Mr. Croft was praised for his generous conduct, and not only praised, but helped by many who had, until now, felt indifferent, towards his case — for his good work rebuked them for neglected opportunities.
The cripple's eagerness to learn, and rapid progress under the most limited advantages, becoming generally known — a gentleman, whose son had been one of Tom's visitors, and who had grown to be a better boy under his influence, offered to bring him in his wagon, every day to the school-house, which stood half a mile distant, and have him brought back in the afternoon.
It was the happiest day in Tom's life, when he was helped down from the wagon, and went hobbling into the school-room.
Before leaving home on that morning he had made his way up to the sick room of Mr. Croft.
"I owe it all to you," he said, as he brought the white, thin hand of his benefactor to his lips. It was damp with more than a kiss when he laid it back gently on the bed. "And our Father in Heaven will reward you."
"You have done a good work," said the neighbor, who had urged Mr. Croft to improve his one talent, as he sat talking with him on that evening about the poor cripple and his opening prospects; "and it will serve you in that day when the record of life is opened. Not because of the work itself, but for the true charity which prompted the work. It was begun, I know, in some self-denial, but that self-denial was for another's good; and because you put away love of ease, and indifference, and forced yourself to do kind offices, seeing that it was right to help others — God will send a heavenly love of doing good into your soul, which always includes a great reward.
"You said," continued the neighbor, "only a few months ago, 'What can I do?' and spoke as a man who felt that he was deprived of all the means of accomplishing good; and yet you have, with but little effort, lifted a human soul out of the dark valley of ignorance, where it was groping in self-torture — and placed it on an ascending mountain path. The light of hope has fallen, through your aid, with sunny warmth upon a heart that was cold and barren a little while ago, but is now green with verdure, and blossoming in the sweet promise of fruit. The infinite years to come, alone can reveal the blessings that will flow from this one act of a bedridden man, who felt that in him was no capacity for good deeds."
The advantages of a school being placed within the reach of Tom Hicks, he dedicated every thought to the acquirement of knowledge. And now came a serious difficulty. His bent, stiff fingers could not be made to hold either pen or pencil in the right position, or to use them in such a way as to make intelligible letters. But Tom was too much in earnest to give up on the first, or second, or third effort. He found, after a great many trials, that he could hold a pencil more firmly than at first, and guide his hand in some obedience to his will. This was sufficient to encourage him to daily long-continued efforts, the result of which was a gradual yielding of the rigid muscles, which became in time so flexible that he could make quite passable letters, and write a fair way. This did not satisfy him, however. He was ambitious to do better; and so kept on trying and trying, until few boys in the school could give a clearer copy.
"Have you heard the news?" said a neighbor to Mr. Croft, the poor bedridden man. It was five years from the day he gave the poor cripple, Tom Hicks, his first lesson.
"What news?" the sick man asked, in a feeble voice, not even turning his head towards the speaker. Life's pulses were running very low. The long struggle with disease was nearly over.
"Tom Hicks has received the appointment of teacher to our public school."
"Are you in earnest?" There was a mingling of surprise and doubt in the low tones that crept out upon the air.
"Yes. It is true what I say. You know that after Mr. Wilson died, the directors got Tom, who was a favorite with all the scholars, to keep the school together for a few weeks until a successor could be appointed. He managed so well, kept such good order, and showed himself so capable as an instructor — that, when the election took place today, he received a large majority of votes over a number of highly-recommended teachers, and this without his having made application for the situation, or even dreaming of such a thing."
At this moment, the cripple's well-known shuffling tread and the rattle of crutches was heard on the stairs. He came up with more than his usual hurry. Croft turned with an effort, so as to get a sight of him as he entered the room.
"I have heard the good news," he said, as he reached a hand feebly towards Tom, "and it has made my heart glad."
"I owe it all to you!" replied the cripple, in a voice that trembled with feeling. "God will reward you."
And he caught the shadowy hand, touched it with his lips, and wet it with grateful tears, as once before. Even as he held that thin, white hand, the low-moving pulse took an lower beat — lower and lower — until the long-suffering heart grew still, and the freed spirit went up to its reward.
"My benefactor!" sobbed the cripple, as he stood by the wasted form shrouded in grave-clothes, and looked upon it for the last time before the coffin-lid closed over it. "What would I have been, except for you?"
Are your opportunities for doing good, few, and limited in range, to all appearances, reader? Have you often said, like the bedridden man, "What can I do?" Are you poor, weak, ignorant, obscure, or even sick as he was, and shut out from contact with the busy outside world? No matter. If you have a willing heart — good work will come to your hands. Is there no poor, unhappy neglected one to whom you can speak words of encouragement, or lift out of the valley of ignorance? Think! Look around you. You may, by a single sentence, spoken in the right time and in the right spirit, awaken thoughts in some dull mind that may grow into giant powers in after times, wielded for the world's good.
While you may never be able to act directly on society to any great purpose, in consequence of mental or physical disabilities, you may, by instruction and guidance, prepare some other mind for useful work, which, but for your agency, might have wasted its powers in ignorance or crime. All around us are human souls that may be influenced. The nurse, who ministers to you in sickness — may be hurt or helped by you. The children, who look into your face and read it daily, who listen to your speech, and remember what you say — will grow better or worse, according to the spirit of your life, as it flows into them. The neglected son of a neighbor may find in you the wise counselor who holds him back from vice. Indeed, you cannot pass a single day, whether your sphere is large or small, your place exalted or lowly, without abundant opportunities for doing good. Only the willing heart is required. As for the harvest, that is ripe for the sickle, in every man's field. What of that time when the Lord of the Harvest comes, and you bind up your sheaves and lay them at his feet?