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Seeking His Fortune by Mrs. W. J. Hays


A boy sat whistling on a fence. He was a lad of twelve years, and worked at all sorts of odd chores on the river farm, which sent most of its produce down to the city on the barges which one sees on the Hudson River, headed by little steam-tugs, and which are commonly called "tows." This boy, Tom Van Wyck, was a poor boy, and worked hard; he did not much care for the beautiful hills which encompassed the winding, gleaming river, nor the fair and fertile fields beyond, but he had an adventurous and daring spirit, which just now was working up in the manner of yeast when it is pushing its way through the mass of unbaked bread. All sorts of bubbles were bothering his brain, and foremost was the wish to leave his country home, and go to the great city of which he had heard so much, but about which he knew little. Aunt Maria, he was sure, would never say "yes" to his project. She looked upon the city as a great den of thieves, and she did not want Tom to go there; but he was tired of being a farm hand, and thought it would be fine to stand behind a counter, to wear kid gloves on a Sunday, to be able to buy good broadcloth and shining boots—indeed, with one bound to be a merchant prince whose grandeur should be the town talk.

He had not very clear ideas as to how all this was to be attained, but he knew he could work hard; he had read how many a poor boy had struggled up to fame, and he meant to try, anyhow. And now, as he sat on the fence whistling, he was considering a plan of action. There was no use in being too tender-hearted. He would have to leave Aunt Maria without asking permission. True, the little red house by the hill was a snug little home, and his aunt toiled hard to make it so; but would he not come home to her with silks and diamonds which should so outshine her best alpaca that it would only do for common use? Often down at the dock he had talked with the men on the boats, but he knew none of them other than as Jack and Bill. His proposed plan was to leave some night quietly, get on a barge, go to the city, and secure work; then write home to Aunt Maria, and make his peace with her. Perhaps if Aunt Maria had known all these thoughts, she might have been less harsh when Tom scolded about farm-work, and called it drudgery; but she had a scornful way of sniffing at him and his ideas, which made Tom more and more close and reserved. On this very day, when the momentous project was ripening, she had said he was lazy, that "a rolling stone gathered no moss," that the "boy was father to the man," and that if all he could do was to whistle and whittle, he had better go over to Squire Green's and help them shuck their corn.

"Shuck corn! In a week's or a month's time he'd show her what he could do."

It was a clear October night, calm and beautiful, and Tom rose softly, tied his best suit up in a bundle with a couple of shirts, took off his shoes—he had not undressed—slipped down stairs, unfastened the door, which, however, was only latched, and crept out into the moonlight. He paused to count the few silver pieces in his little well-worn purse, took one long look at the red house, and especially at the window where little Jane's yellow head was oftenest to be seen—for Aunt Maria was mother as well as aunt to these two motherless children—and away he went. If he had any qualms of conscience, they were soon forgotten in the excitement of the moment. The walk was not a long one to the river-side, and he had made a right guess as to the time the night boat would land. One by one a sleepy head appeared from the sheds as the boat neared the wharf, but despite the moonlight, no one noticed him particularly as he slipped stealthily on board, and to his great relief the truck was soon shipped, the gang-plank drawn up, and the steamboat making its white furrow through the sparkling water. He was too wide-awake now to think of sleeping, and after paying his fare, sat down to watch the progress of the boat. By-and-by the moon sank, and it was dark; the chilly dawn soon came, and then long rows of sparkling lights appeared; the tall spires of the town; the masts of the shipping; the flitting ferry-boats, each with its green or scarlet blaze of lantern; rows of house-tops; docks; wharves; flag-staffs; sheds. This, then, was the great city of his hopes.

Now there was a stirring and calling; a rush of men to the work of unlading; a heaving of ropes, winding of cables, shouts, curses, the rattling of carts on the piers, the tinkle of bells on the cars, the roar of escaping steam, the scream of whistles, and the foul smells of garbage and bilge-water. He watched the men at their work, he saw the passengers come out, with sleepy eyes and sodden faces, and take their departure. He too must go—but where? He wandered off the pier in a maze. Where should he go? what should he do in all this crowd of strange faces? He was hungry, and stopped at an apple stand, where a woman in a huge cap and plaid shawl sold him an apple and a molasses cake. He asked her if she knew where he could get work.

"Shure an' I don't. It is hard enough to find it for my boy Jim, lettin' alone sthrangers."

He went up to a man pitching boxes on a cart, and asked him the same question.

"Be off, now! none of your nonsense with me," was the reply.

To a dozen he spoke, and with little variety in the replies.

This was somewhat disheartening, but of course he could not expect success at once. He must keep up a stout heart, so on he walked. It was a fine clear morning, but the air seemed to him heavy with bad odors, and he had never seen such filth as lay in the streets before him. The children looked wan and wizened and old, the grown people cross and care-worn; but by-and-by the streets improved; he came to the region of shops, where it was somewhat cleaner, and now every window attracted his gaze. There was so much to look at that he forgot himself until hunger again attacked him. One window was most inviting—raw oysters reposing in their shells, boiled eggs, salad, strings of sausages, and a juicy array of pies. He went in and asked the price of a dinner. "Fifty cents," was the reply of a personage whose florid countenance and well-oiled locks looked unctuous.

Tom glanced at his purse in a corner. It was all he possessed, so he turned away. A little farther on was another window of the same sort, only the pies looked drier, and the viands staler; and as an ornament, flanked by beer bottles, was a queer, dwarfish-looking man built of empty oyster shells. He peered into the shop, and looked so hungry, that a man shouted at him in a manner that was not meant to be unkind, but which startled him much: "Vat for you comes here, hey? Can you open oyshters? Ve vant some one to open two or tree hundert; ve have one supper here to-night—the 'Bavarian Brüders' meet. If you can do the vork, you may have von goot sqvare meal." Tom hardly understood the man, but the gestures aided him, and putting his bundle down, he set to work on the cellar steps. Talk of farm-work being drudgery any more! In the pure, sweet October air they were gathering apples for the cider-press to-day. Tom remembered well what would have been his portion, as he sat on the dirty cellar steps and pegged away with his oyster-knife. It took him a long while to get the right touch, to clip off the muddy edge of the shells, to pry into the bivalve without injury to the luscious morsel within, and then to slip it into the big tin pail at hand. He got a bad cut in the palm as he did it, but he bound it up with his handkerchief, finished his score, and asked the man for his dinner.

"You tink I gif you von plate und knife und fork und napkin; no, go to vork at the oyshters, und here is brod a blenty." So he had to take his meal as he could get it on the cellar stairs, but he stowed away enough to satisfy him before he again started on his travels. The food revived his drooping spirits, and he made bold to ask more people for work. Some shook their heads without a word; some said, "No, my boy," in a kind sort of way that made a lump come in his throat; others told him to go to the place assigned to evil spirits; and others again stared at him and passed on. This was not very promising. It was now late in the day, and he was far from the steamboat landing. He knew nobody, and was just wondering where he should pass the night, when a boy with a box strung by a leathern strap over his shoulder jostled him. He was a rough fellow, about his own age, but there was a twinkle in his eye which emboldened Tom to speak to him.

"Do you know where I can get any work to do?"

The boy put his fingers aside of his nose, winked violently, and made a grimace, but said nothing.

"I'm in earnest," said Tom. "I want work badly."

"Yes, in my eye!" was the response, regarding Tom's more decent apparel.

"Oh, but I do. What is your trade?"

"Now see here, feller-citizen, if you've any idea of comin' on my beat, I jist warn ye ye'd better git at once," and he shook his fist in Tom's face to make the reply more emphatic.

"But I have not," said Tom, anxiously. "I only want work of some sort, and a decent lodging. I'm just from the country, and don't know a soul in this town; besides, I've hurt my hand, and it pains a good deal."

"Let's see. I'm a crack doctor on all the fellers' cuts."

Tom unbound his hand, and the youthful Æsculapius gazed at it with great interest.

"That'll knock you up yet," was the comforting diagnosis, with a wise shake of the head. "Bad place to git a cut. Jim Jones had one jist in that spot, and it festered, and hurt him so he had to go to the hospital."

"Pshaw!" said Tom.

"Ye'd better get yer granny to poultice it."

"I tell you I don't know a human being in this city, and I haven't an idea where I am going to sleep to-night."

The boy surveyed him doubtfully.

"You might go to the station-house."

"Not if I know it," said Tom, whose visions of grandeur, though dimmer, were not to be brought down so low.

"Then there's the Newsboys' Lodging-House."

"Could I get in there? But I don't know the way."

"Come along with me; I'll show yer. I sleep there most o' the time."

This was, indeed, unforeseen good fortune, and Tom embraced it heartily. As they walked along, Tim got out of him his whole story; and when it was finished, he said to him: "You were a big fool to leave a good home and try your luck here. For one that swims, a hundred sinks. Why, half the time I'm hungry, and the way we fellers gits knocked about is jist awful."

They reached the Lodging-House, and Tom, with his companion's aid, registered his name, got his ticket, and secured a bed. He was so tired he could hardly speak, and the pain in his hand was increasing. In the morning his friend had gone. The matron seeing his suffering dressed his hand, and led him on to tell her who he was and what was his errand to the city. Kindly and patiently, she pointed out to him the great wrong of his beginning, the wickedness of leaving his aunt in ignorance of his whereabouts, the mistake of supposing that it was an easy matter to work one's way up from obscurity to places of trust and honor; that if his endeavors were sanctioned by those in authority over him, and kind friends were willing to assist him and procure him occupation, he yet would find that it would only be by patient labor and constant effort that he could maintain himself, and that larks ready cooked no longer dropped into open mouths. All this and more came home to the sorrowful Tom with great force, for the dirt and jargon of the city were to him very distasteful. His castles were crumbling as he wended his way again to the docks. It was a weary time he had to find the boat which would carry him back, and it was with a grieved spirit that he found himself again at the door of the little red house by the hill. Grieved and weary and hungry, Aunt Maria, whose eyes were red with weeping, perceived him to be, and with wonderful wisdom she kept down her questions, and silently made him comfortable. Little Jane was full of curiosity, and more than one neighbor put their heads in to have a word to say.


A year afterward, as Tom, Ned Green, and Jonas were busy husking corn in the calm stillness of the fall, when the stacks were all about them, like Indian wigwams, and the stubble only of the golden pumpkins was left in the field, and the beautiful river wound itself away in the distance, bearing all kinds of craft, Tom told them about his day in the city, and said he had concluded that the country was good enough for him, and he meant to be a farmer all the days of his life.