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Life's Best Gift by Jacob A. Riis


Margaret Kelly is dead, and I need not scruple to call her by her own name. For it is certain that she left no kin to mourn her. She did all the mourning herself in her lifetime, and better than that when there was need. She nursed her impetuous Irish father and her gentle English mother in their old age—like the loving daughter she was—and, last of all, her only sister. When she had laid them away, side by side, she turned to face the world alone, undaunted, with all the fighting grit of her people from both sides of the Channel. If troubles came upon her for which she was no match, it can be truly said that she went down fighting. And who of her blood would ask for more?

What I have set down here is almost as much as any one ever heard about her people. She was an old woman when she came in a way of figuring in these pages, and all that lay behind her.

Of her own past this much was known: that she had once been an exceedingly prosperous designer of dresses, with a brown-stone house on Lexington Avenue, and some of the city's wealthiest women for her customers. Carriages with liveried footmen were not rarely seen at her door, and a small army of seamstresses worked out her plans. Her sister was her bookkeeper and the business head of the house. Fair as it seemed, it proved a house of cards, and with the sister's death it fell. One loss followed another. Margaret Kelly knew nothing of money or the ways of business. She lost the house, and with it her fine clients. For a while she made her stand in a flat with the most faithful of her sewing-women to help her. But that also had to go when more money went out than came in and nothing was left for the landlord. Younger rivals crowded her out. She was stamped “old-fashioned,” and that was the end of it. Her last friend left her. Worry and perplexity made her ill, and while she was helpless in Bellevue Hospital, being in a ward with no “next friend” on the books, they sent her over to the Island with the paupers. Against this indignity her proud spirit arose and made the body forget its ills. She dragged herself down to the boat that took her back to the city, only to find that her last few belongings were gone, the little hall room she had occupied in a house in Twenty-ninth Street locked against her, and she, at seventy-five, on the street, penniless, and without one who cared for her in all the world.

Yes, there was one. A dressmaker who had known her in happier days saw from her window opposite Father McGlynn's church a white-haired woman seek shelter within the big storm-doors night after night in the bitter cold of midwinter, and recognized in her the once proud and prosperous Miss Kelly. Shocked and grieved, she went to the district office of the Charities with money to pay for shelter and begged them to take the old lady in charge and save her from want.

And what a splendid old lady she was! Famished with the hunger of weeks and months, but with pride undaunted, straight as an arrow under the burden of heavy years, she met the visitor with all the dignity of a queen. The deep lines of suffering in her face grew deeper as she heard her message. She drew the poor black alpaca about her with a gesture as if she were warding off a blow: “Why,” she asked, “should any one intrude upon her to offer aid? She had not asked for anything, and was not—” she faltered a bit, but went on resolutely—“did not want anything.”

“Not work?” asked her caller, gently. “Would you not like me to find some work for you?”

A sudden light came into the old eyes. “Work—yes, if she could get that—” And then the reserve of the long, lonely years broke down. She buried her face in her hands and wept.

They found her a place to sew in a house where she was made welcome as one of the family. For all that, she went reluctantly. All her stubborn pride went down before the kindness of these strangers. She was afraid that her hand had lost its cunning, that she could not do justice to what was asked of her, and she stipulated that she should receive only a dollar for her day's work, if she could earn that. When her employer gave her the dollar at the end of the day, the look that came into her face made that woman turn quickly to hide her tears.

The worst of Margaret Kelly's hardships were over. She had a roof over her head, and an “address.” If she starved, that was her affair. And slowly she opened her heart to her new friends and gave them room there. I have a letter of that day from one of them that tells how they were getting on: “She has a little box of a room where she almost froze all winter. A window right over her bed and no heat. But she is a great old soldier and never whines. Occasionally she comes to see me, and I give her something to eat, but what she does between times God alone knows. When I give her a little change, she goes to the bake-shop, but I think otherwise goes without and pretends she is not hungry. A business man who knows her told her if she needed nourishment to let him know; she said she did not need anything. Her face looks starvation. When she was ill in the winter, I tried to get her into a hospital; but she would not go, and no wonder. If she had only a couple of dollars a week she could get along, as I could get her clothing. She wears black for her sister.”

The couple of dollars were found and the hunger was banished with the homelessness. Margaret Kelly had two days' work every week, and in the feeling that she could support herself once more new life came to her. She was content.

So two years passed. In the second summer the old woman, now nearing eighty, was sent out in the country for a vacation of five or six weeks. She came back strong and happy; the rest and the peace had sunk into her soul. “Some of the tragedy has gone out of her face,” her friend wrote to me. She was looking forward with courage to taking up her work again when what seemed an unusual opportunity came her way. A woman who knew her story was going abroad, leaving her home up near Riverside Drive in charge of a caretaker. She desired a companion for her, and offered the place to Miss Kelly. It was so much better a prospect than the cold and cheerless hall room that her friends advised her to accept, and Margaret Kelly moved into the luxurious stone house uptown, and once more was warmly and snugly housed for the winter with congenial company.

Man proposes and God disposes. Along in February came a deadly cold spell. The thermometer fell below zero. In the worst of it Miss Kelly's friend from the “office,” happening that way, rang the bell to inquire how she was getting on. No one answered. She knocked at the basement door, but received no reply. Concluding that the two women were in an upper story out of hearing of the bell, she went away, and on her return later in the day tried again, with no better success. It was too cold for the people in the house to be out, and her suspicions were aroused. She went to the police station and returned with help. The door was forced and the house searched. In the kitchen they found the two old women sitting dead by the stove, one with her head upon the other's shoulder. The fire had long been out and their bodies were frozen. There was plenty of fuel in the house. Apparently they had shut off the draught to save coal and raised the lid of the stove, perhaps to enjoy the glow of the fire in the gloaming. The escaping gas had put them both to sleep before they knew their peril.

So the police and the coroner concluded. “Two friends,” said the official report. Margaret Kelly had found more than food and shelter. Life at the last had given her its best gift, and her hungry old heart was filled.


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