There was a north-bound car temporarily disabled on Broadway, near Fourth Street, and, in consequence, as far south as the eye could reach stood a row of motionless cars. Also, in consequence, along the curb was ranged a fretting, impatient, helpless crowd, among whom the most anxious was probably Edward Billings Henry.
In stature Edward Billings Henry was briefer than his name would indicate, but to a certain two-room dwelling on Jackson Street he made up in importance what he lacked in height; and it was his overwhelming sense of this importance which made every thin muscle taut and strained every nerve as he stood in the forefront of the crowd, his bare feet planted on the cold asphalt, one hand gripping his remaining stock of papers, the other clutching a nickel.
“I never was in a tearing hurry in my life but that this thing happened!” exploded a man just behind the boy.
Edward Billings Henry turned and looked up. The man was jingling a lot of loose coins in his pocket. The boy looked at his one nickel, and said, with conviction, “You can’t need to have ’em go like I do.”
The big man stared down at the little man, in surprise, with a gruff “Huh?” but Edward Billings Henry had no time to repeat. His hope had revived. The two men who lay on their backs under the injured car began to crawl out, and the boy rushed forward.
“Will it go now?” he inquired of one of the numerous conductors clustered around.
“Maybe so—in half an hour,” replied the conductor, carelessly.
“O,” cried the boy, in dismay, “I just can’t wait that long!”
“Walk, then!” said the conductor, crossly.
“It’s too far,” replied the boy, “when you’ve got a stone toe.”
“A what?” ejaculated the conductor; but his voice was lost in the honk! honk! of a big white touring car which pushed slowly through the crowd.
In front of the car Edward Billings Henry raced limpingly on his stone toe back to the curb and to the man jingling the coins in his pocket.
“Just what time is it, please?” he asked.
The man pulled out a watch and showed it to him. Edward Billings Henry heaved a great sigh.
“Half past ten! It’ll likely be filled up before I can get there.”
“What will be?”
“The place I’m after.”
Skilfully he raised the limping foot, laid it across the other leg, and nursed the stone-bruised big toe, his eyes on the automobile, which had halted almost in front of him.
“Halloo, Junius!” a voice in the crowd sang out. “Lucky man you, not to have to depend on street-cars!”
The driver of the car was a young man. That is, Edward Billings Henry judged him to be young by the only feature visible, a flexible, wide mouth, with clean-shaven lips. His eyes were behind goggles, and a cap covered his forehead and ears, meeting the tip of a high collar, which effectually concealed his chin. But the mouth smiled as the goggles turned toward the pavement, the owner answering lightly:—
“Halloo yourself, Dick! Jump in and try my luck.”
“Where are you going?”
“Up to Congress Square.”
“Well, get along then!” returned the other. “That’s no good to me.”
Congress Square! What luck! Exactly where Edward Billings Henry wished to go! And here was a rapid-transit vehicle, with room enough for ten such diminutive persons as he! Without loss of time, he limped up on his aching stone toe and jogged the arm of the driver.
Junius looked down at the boy. Edward Billings Henry removed a man’s derby from his head and looked out of eyes kindling with hope, as he asked eagerly:—
“Do you suppose you could get me up there inside of twenty-five minutes, mister?”
“What do you mean?” Junius stared hard through his goggles.
“To Congress Square,” said Edward Billings Henry, impatiently. “It’s business, and if I don’t get there I’m out of a job, that’s all.” The boy mounted the step and clung to the seat, proffering his nickel. “I’ll pay just what I’d pay on the car,” he argued, “so you’d be making some money as well as giving me a lift.”
The goggled eyes looked at the nickel in the dirty hand, and then traveled up and down the small figure back of the hand. The eyes noticed that while those parts of the boy’s anatomy which had been exposed all the morning to the city dirt had collected grime, the rims, as it were, of the exposed parts revealed hidden cleanliness.
“Congress Square is an awful way up,” urged Edward Billings Henry, “and we mustn’t waste much time; for I would like to get that job.” The small hand extended the nickel enticingly toward the glove. “You’ll be earning as much as the street-car by giving a lift,” the boy repeated.
The driver’s lips twisted a bit. “That’s so,” he said. “Huh!” he chuckled, and gracelessly extended his hand for the nickel. “Get in, my man, and I’ll give you the lift.”
Edward Billings Henry drew a deep sigh of relief dropped the coin into the other’s palm, and engulfed himself in the soft front seat.
“Whom have I the honor of giving a lift?” asked Junius, formally, dropping the nickel into a pocket, where it lay alone. After it he sent a curious, lingering smile.
“Edward Billings Henry, Junior,” replied the boy.
The lips beneath the goggles smiled. “And where am I lifting you to, may I also ask, Edward Billings?”
“To Mr. Florins’s office, where they’re going to select an office boy this morning ‘tween ten and eleven.”
The driver busied himself a moment with the steering-gear as the car passed the crowded mail-wagons behind the post-office building. Then he turned and shot a curious glance at his small companion, asking abruptly:—
“And you think you’ll get the job, do you?”
Edward Billings Henry leaned forward as if he could push the machine into a yet faster pace. “I can try for it,” he replied. “Father says you never know what you can do unless you try. He’s always wanting me to try.”
“Yes,” muttered Junius, still more interested. “Fathers seem much alike, whether they live up-town or down-town.”
“Can’t we go faster?” asked Edward Billings Henry, sitting on the edge of the seat.
Junius shook his head. “Too many blue-coats around. But about that job, now—you’ll not be the only boy after it. There will probably be dozens older——”
“I’m eleven, if I am small,” interrupted the boy.
The boy stretched out a thin arm defiantly, and closed his fist. “Just feel!” he cried. “I’ve got a good muscle, and on my legs it’s better yet. Just now I’ve got a stone-bruise on my big toe, but I tell you I can get round pretty fast just the same. I don’t believe Mr. Florins would ever be sorry he took me.”
“Yes, I’m inclined to believe that myself,” mused the man. “But how are you going to make him believe that in the beginning?”
The boy raised his lame foot and gently rubbed the swollen big toe. “Well,” he began, “I’m going to talk up big. Father says you have to sometimes when nobody’s round to do it for you, and he says it’s all right if you do afterward just as big as you talk.”
The driver wagged his head wisely. “That’s sound business sense,” he agreed, gravely. “You intend to deliver the same goods that you sell. Let’s hear what you have to say.”
“Well, if you get me there in time to say anything, I’m going to tell Mr. Florins that father went to school a lot when he was young. He went through high school and got all ready to go through college.”
Edward Billings emphasized his verbs as if “going through” was solely a physical exercise on the flying-wedge order; and Junius chuckled.
“Then I’ll tell him that father stood almost at the head of his class in high school, and he almost took a lot of honors.”
“Well,” assented Junius, “that ‘almost’ is a step farther than some of the rest of us got.”
“Yes,” exulted the boy, “I guess Mr. Florins will say so, too. Then I’ll tell him that father taught a lot when he couldn’t go through college.”
“What next?” inquired Junius.
They were approaching Twelfth Street now, and the car was hardly moving in the press of vehicles.
Edward Billings curled his bare toes under, and unconsciously pushed forward with all his slender might. “Then I’ll tell him that father used to read a lot, law books and things, same as he does——”
“But see here!” interrupted Junius. “All this talk will be about your father. What are you going to say about yourself?”
A cloud overspread Edward Billings’s face. He raised a pair of troubled eyes to his questioner. “Why, I never stopped to think of that,” he began, slowly, all the brightness fading out of his tone. “There’s nothing much to say about me. I sell papers and help father——”
“What does your father do?” asked Junius.
The boy hesitated. His face flushed, and he looked up uncertainly at the goggles. “He used to teach, I told you,” was the evasive answer, “until his eyes gave out.”
Edward Billings Henry wriggled about on the padded leather. “He’s always had bad legs,”—the evasion continued,—”but his arms and back are strong, and his legs all right to stand on.”
“Yes?” insisted Junius, and waited.
“So he’s doing something he ain’t going to do if I can get this job. Then I could sell papers after and before office hours, and earn a lot of money.” Edward Billings Henry talked rapidly, but the young man beside him was not to be turned from his purpose.
“Then what is it he’s not going to do?”
The boy hesitated again. “Father takes in washing,” he finally burst out, proudly defiant, “and I help him, and we do it good, I tell you! No one ever complains. Father says if you can’t do what you want to, you can try something else, and that was all he could do, so he tried, and found out he could wash and iron good, and a lot of it!”
Junius considerately looked straight ahead of him, not wishing to add to the embarrassment of Edward Billings Henry, Junior, but he could not resist asking, “Are you going to tell this to Mr. Florins?”
“No-sir-ee!” responded the boy, proudly. “Father ain’t going to do—washings—any longer if I can get the job.”
The car entered Congress Square, drew up in front of an imposing stone building, and stopped. The driver removed his goggles and turned a pair of pleasant gray eyes on the boy.
“Well, Edward Billings, here we are, and you’ve got the job all right. Can you come in the morning?”
Edward Billings Henry nearly fell off the seat.
“W-hat?” he stammered.
“The job is yours,” smiled the young man. “I happen to be that same Mr. Florins who, you have assured me, will never regret employing you. My office is on the second floor here. I did advertise for a boy, but had totally forgotten it.” He gave a short laugh. “Report in the morning, please, and we’ll see about a suit and some shoes and that stone-bruised toe.”
Out of the automobile Edward Billings Henry tumbled in a dazed condition, and stood beside his new employer, looking up speechlessly.
“I’ll advance you a car fare on your salary,” the young man continued. He carefully avoided the pocket where lay the nickel previously owned by his passenger, and produced the change. “And, Edward Billings, just tell your father from me that his maxims work out so well that I’m thinking of adopting them myself.”
—Alice Louise Lee, in Youth’s Companion, used by permission.