Stories Worth Rereading: Elnathan’s Gold

One morning Christopher Lightenhome, aged sixty-eight, received an unexpected legacy of six hundred dollars. His good old face betokened no surprise, but it shone with a great joy. “I am never surprised at the Lord’s mercies,” he said, reverently. Then, with a step to which vigor had suddenly returned, he sought out Elnathan Owsley, aged twelve.

“Elnathan,” he said, “I guess I am the oldest man in the poorhouse, but I feel just about your age. Suppose you and I get out of here.”

The boy smiled. He was very old for twelve, even as Christopher Lightenhome was very young for sixty-eight.

“For a poorhouse this is a good place,” continued Christopher, still with that jubilant tone in his voice. “It is well conducted, just as the county reports say. Still there are other places that suit me better. You come and live with me, Elnathan. What do you say to it, boy?”

“Where are you going to live?” asked Elnathan, cautiously.

The old man regarded him approvingly. “You’ll never be one to get out of the frying-pan into the fire, will you?” he said. “But I know a room. I have had my eye on it. It is big enough to have a bed, a table, a cook-stove, and three chairs in it, and we could live there like lords. Like lords, boy! Just think of it! I can get it for two dollars a month.”

“With all these things in it?”

“No, with nothing in it. But I can buy the things, Elnathan, get them cheap at the second-hand store. And I can cook to beat—well to beat some women anyway—” He paused to think a moment of Adelizy, one of the pauper cooks. “Yes,” he thought, “Adelizy has her days. She’s systematic. Some days things are all but pickled in brine, and other days she doesn’t put in any salt at all. Some days they’re overcooked, and other days it seems as if Adelizy jerked them off the stove before they were heated through.” Then he looked eagerly into the unresponsive young face before him. “What’s the matter with my plan, Elnathan?” he asked, gravely. “Why don’t you fall in with it? I never knew you to hang off like this before.”

“I haven’t any money,” was the slow answer. “I can’t do my share toward it. And I’m not going to live off of you. Your money will last you twice as long as if you don’t have to keep me. Adelizy says six hundred dollars isn’t much, if you do think it is a fortune, and you’ll soon run through with it, and be back here again.”

For a moment the old man was stung. “I sha’n’t spend the most of it for salt to put in my victuals anyway,” he said. Then his face cleared, and he laughed. “So you haven’t any money, and you won’t let me keep you,” he continued. “Well, those are pretty honorable objections. I expect to do away with them though, immediately.” He drew himself up, and said, impressively: “‘That is gold which is worth gold.’ You’ve got the gold all right, Elnathan, or the money, whichever you choose to call it.”

Elnathan stared.

“Why, boy, look here!” Mr. Lightenhome exclaimed, as he seized the hard young arm, where much enforced toil had developed good muscle. “There’s your gold, in that right arm of yours. What you want to do is to get it out of your arm and into your pocket. I don’t need to keep you. You can live with me and keep yourself. What do you say now?”

The boy’s face was alight. “Let’s go today,” he said.

“Not today—tomorrow,” decided Mr. Lightenhome, gravely. “When I was young, before misfortune met me and I was cheated out of all I had, I was used to giving spreads. We’ll give one tonight to those we used to be fellow paupers with no longer ago than yesterday, and tomorrow we will go. We began this year in the poorhouse; we will end it in our own home. That is one of the bad beginnings that made a good ending, boy. There is more than one of them. Mind that.”

The morrow came, and the little home was started. Another morrow followed, and Elnathan began in earnest to try getting the gold out of his arm and into his pocket. He was a dreamy boy, with whom very few had had patience; for nobody, not even himself, knew the resistless energy and dogged perseverance that lay dormant within him. Mr. Lightenhome, however, suspected it. “I believe,” he said to himself, “that Elnathan, when he once gets awakened, will be a hustler. But the poorhouse isn’t exactly the place to rouse up the ambition of Napoleon Bonaparte in any boy. Having a chance to scold somebody is what Adelizy calls one of the comforts of a home. And she certainly took out her comforts on Elnathan, and all the rest helped her—sort of deadening to him, though. Living here with me and doing for himself is a little more like what’s needed in his case.”

Slowly Elnathan wakened, and Mr. Lightenhome had patience with him. He earned all he could, and he kept himself from being a burden on his only friend, but he disliked work, and so he lagged over it. He did all that he did well, however, and he was thoroughly trustworthy.

Three years went by. Elnathan was fifteen years old, and Christopher Lightenhome was seventy-one.

The little room had always been clean. There had been each day enough nourishing food to eat, though the old man, remembering Adelizy’s prediction, had set his face like flint against even the slightest indulgence in table luxuries. And, although there had been days when Elnathan had recklessly brought home a ten-cent pie and half a dozen doughnuts from the baker’s as his share of provision for their common dinner, Mr. Lightenhome felt that he had managed well. And yet there were only fifty dollars of the original six hundred left, and the poorhouse was looming once more on the old man’s sight. He sighed. An expression of patience grew on the kind old face. He felt it to be a great pity that six hundred dollars could not be made to go farther. And there was a wistfulness in the glance he cast upon the boy. Elnathan was, as yet, only half awake. The little room and the taste of honest independence had done their best. Were they to fail?

The old man began to economize. His mittens wore out. He did not buy more. He needed new flannels, but he did not buy them. Instead he tried to patch the old ones, and Elnathan, coming in suddenly, caught him doing it.

“Why, Uncle Chris!” he exclaimed. “What are you patching those old things for? Why don’t you pitch ’em out and get new ones?”

The old man kept silent till he had his needle threaded. Then he said, softly, with a half-apology in his tone, “The money’s ‘most gone, Elnathan.”

The boy started. He knew as well as Mr. Lightenhome that when the last coin was spent, the doors of the poorhouse would open once more to receive his only friend. A thrill of gladness went through Elnathan as he recognized that no such fate awaited him.

He could provide for himself. He need never return. And by that thrill in his own bosom he guessed the feeling of his friend. He could not put what he guessed into words. Nevertheless, he felt sure that the old man would not falter nor complain.

“How much have you?” he asked.

Mr. Lightenhome told him.

Then, without a word, Elnathan got up and went out. His head sunk in thought, and his hands in his trousers’ pockets, he sauntered on in the wintry air while he mentally calculated how long Mr. Lightenhome’s funds would last. “Not any later than next Christmas he will be in the poorhouse again.” He walked only a few steps. Then he stopped. “Will he?” he cried. “Not if I know it.”

This was a big resolve for a boy of fifteen, and the next morning Elnathan himself thought so. He thought so even to the extent of considering a retreat from the high task which he had the previous day laid before himself. Then he looked at Mr. Lightenhome, who had aged perceptibly in the last hours. Evidently he had lain awake in the night calculating how long his money would last. The sight of him nerved the boy afresh. “I am not going back on it,” he told himself, vigorously. “I am just going to dig out all the gold there is in me. Keeping Uncle Chris out of the poorhouse is worth it.”

But he did not confide in the old man. “He would say it was too big a job for me, and talk about how I ought to get some schooling,” concluded the boy.

Now it came about that the room, which, while it had not been the habitation of lords, had been the abode of kingly kindness, became a silent place. The anxious old man had no heart to joke. He had been to the poorhouse, and had escaped from it into freedom. His whole nature rebelled at the thought of returning. And yet he tried to school himself to look forward to it bravely. “If it is the Lord’s will,” he told himself, “I will have to bow to it.”

Meanwhile those who employed Elnathan were finding him a very different boy from the slow, lagging Elnathan they had known. If he was sent on an errand, he made speed. “Here! get the gold out of your legs,” he would say to himself. If he sprouted potatoes for a grocer in his cellar, “There’s gold in your fingers, El,” he would say. “Get it out as quick as you can.”

He now worked more hours in a day than he had ever worked before, so that he was too tired to talk much at meals, and too sleepy in the evening. But there was a light in his eyes when they rested on Mr. Lightenhome that made the old man’s heart thrill.

“Elnathan would stand by me if he could,” he would say to himself. “He’s a good boy. I must not worry him.”

A month after Elnathan had begun his great labor of love, an astonishing thing happened to him. He had a choice of two places offered him as general utility boy in a grocery. Once he would have told Mr. Lightenhome, and asked his advice as to which offer he should take, but he was now carrying his own burdens. He considered carefully, and then he went to Mr. Benson.

“Mr. Benson,” he said, “Mr. Dale wants me, too, and both offer the same wages. Now which one of you will give me my groceries reduced as you do your other clerks?”

“I will not,” replied Mr. Benson, firmly. “Your demand is ridiculous. You are not a clerk.”

The irate Mr. Benson turned on his heel, and Elnathan felt himself dismissed. He then went to Mr. Dale, to whom he honestly related the whole. Mr. Dale laughed. “But you are not a clerk,” he said, kindly.

“I know it, but I mean to be, and I mean to do all I can for you, too.”

Mr. Dale looked at him, and he liked the bearing of the lad. “Go ahead,” he said. “You may have your groceries at the same rate I make clerks.”

“Thank you,” responded Elnathan, while the gratitude he felt crept into his tones. “For myself,” he thought, “I would not have asked for a reduction, but for Uncle Chris I will. I have a big job on hand.”

That day he told Mr. Lightenhome that he had secured a place at Mr. Dale’s, and that he was to have a reduction on groceries. “Which means, Uncle Chris, that I pay for the groceries for us both, while you do the cooking and pay the rent.”

Silently and swiftly Mr. Lightenhome calculated. He saw that if he were saved the buying of the groceries for himself, he could eke out his small hoard till after Christmas. The poorhouse receded a little from the foreground of his vision as he gazed into the eyes of the boy opposite him at the table. He did not know that his own eyes spoke eloquently of his deliverance, but Elnathan choked as he went on eating.

“Now hustle, El!” he commanded one day on his way back to the store. “There’s gold in your eyes if you keep them open, and in your tongue if you keep it civil, and in your back and in your wits if they are nimble. All I have to say is, Get it out.”

“Get it out,” he repeated when he had reached the rear of the store. And he began busily to fill and label kerosene cans, gasoline cans, and molasses jugs. From there he went to the cellar to measure up potatoes.

“Never saw such a fellow!” grumbled his companion utility boy. “You’d think he run the store by the way he steps round with his head up and them sharp eyes of his into everything. ‘Hi there!’ he said to me. ‘Fill that measure of gasoline full before you pour it into the can. Mr. Dale doesn’t want the name of giving short measure because you are careless.’ Let’s do some reporting on him, and get him out of the store,” he said. “But there’s nothing to report, and there never will be.”

But the boy persisted, and very shortly he found himself out of a position.

“You needn’t get another boy if you don’t want to, Mr. Dale,” observed Elnathan, cheerily. “I am so used to the place now that I can do all he did, as well as my own work. And, anyway, I would rather do the extra work than go on watching somebody to keep him from measuring up short or wrong grade on everything he touches.” And Elnathan smiled. He had lately discovered that he had ceased to hate work.

Mr. Dale smiled in return. “Very well,” he said. “Go ahead and do it all if you want to.”

A week he went ahead, and at the end of that time he found, to his delight, that Mr. Dale had increased his wages. “Did you think I would take the work of two boys and pay for the work of one?” asked Mr. Dale.

“I didn’t think at all, sir,” replied Elnathan, joyously; “but I am the gladdest boy in Kingston to get a raise.”

“Uncle Chris,” he said that night, “I got a raise today.”

Mr. Lightenhome expressed his pleasure, and his sense that the honor was well merited, but Elnathan did not hear a word he said, because he had something more to say himself.

“Uncle Chris,” he went on, his face very red, “I have been saving up for some time, and tomorrow’s your birthday. Here is a present for you.” And he thrust out a ten-dollar piece, with the words, “I never made a present before.”

Slowly the old man took the money, and again his eyes outdid his tongue in speaking his gratitude. And there was a great glow in the heart of the boy.

“That’s some of the gold I dug out of myself, Uncle Chris,” he laughed. “You are the one who first told me it was in me. I do not know whether it came out of my arms or my legs or my head.”

“I know where the very best gold there is in you is located, Elnathan,” smiled the old man. “It is your heart that is gold, my boy.”

Two months later Elnathan was a clerk at twenty-five dollars a month. “Now we’re fixed, Uncle Chris!” he cried, when he told the news. “You and I can live forever on twenty-five dollars a month.”

“Do you mean it?” asked the old man, tremblingly. “Do you wish to be cumbered with me?”

“No, I do not, Uncle Chris,” answered the boy, with a beaming look. “I do not want to be cumbered with you. I just want to go on living here with you.”

Then to the old man the poorhouse forever receded from sight. He remembered Adelizy no more, as he looked with pride and tenderness on the boy who stood erect and alert before him, looked again and yet again, for he saw in him the Lord’s deliverer, though he knew not that he had been raised up by his own kind hand.

Gulielma Zollinger, in the Wellspring.