What Can I Do?
by T. S. Arthur
HE was a poor cripple—with fingers twisted out of all useful
shape, and lower limbs paralyzed so 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 be only a
single talent 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
never at school?' I went on. 'No: how can I get to school?' 'Why don'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 some one 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 could 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
"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 that 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 that 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 queer 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 risk 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 this 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 low, 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 intercourse with the cripple, towards whom few were
prepossessed, 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 intercourse. 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 send 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
"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, and is the passport to eternal felicities.
"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 ill 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 gave up 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 signs. 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 figures, and write a fair hand. 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 fairer 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
"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 to-day, 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 ere
the coffin-lid closed over it. "What would I have been except for
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 vale of ignorance? Think!
Cast 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
counsellor who holds him back from vice. Indeed, you cannot pass a
single day, whether your sphere be 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 nodding, 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