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A short story by Jacob A. Riis

'Twas 'Liza's Doings

Title:     'Twas 'Liza's Doings
Author: Jacob A. Riis [More Titles by Riis]

Joe drove his old gray mare along the stony road in deep thought. They had been across the ferry to Newtown with a load of Christmas truck. It had been a hard pull uphill for them both, for Joe had found it necessary not a few times to get down and give old 'Liza a lift to help her over the roughest spots; and now, going home, with the twilight coming on and no other job a-waiting, he let her have her own way. It was slow, but steady, and it suited Joe; for his head was full of busy thoughts, and there were few enough of them that were pleasant.

Business had been bad at the big stores, never worse, and what trucking there was there were too many about. Storekeepers who never used to look at a dollar, so long as they knew they could trust the man who did their hauling, were counting the nickels these days. As for chance jobs like this one, that was all over with the holidays, and there had been little enough of it, too.

There would be less, a good deal, with the hard winter at the door, and with 'Liza to keep and the many mouths to fill. Still, he wouldn't have minded it so much but for mother fretting and worrying herself sick at home, and all along o' Jim, the eldest boy, who had gone away mad and never come back. Many were the dollars he had paid the doctor and the druggist to fix her up, but it was no use. She was worrying herself into a decline, it was clear to be seen.

Joe heaved a heavy sigh as he thought of the strapping lad who had brought such sorrow to his mother. So strong and so handy on the wagon. Old 'Liza loved him like a brother and minded him even better than she did himself. If he only had him now, they could face the winter and the bad times, and pull through. But things never had gone right since he left. He didn't know, Joe thought humbly as he jogged along over the rough road, but he had been a little hard on the lad. Boys wanted a chance once in a while. All work and no play was not for them. Likely he had forgotten he was a boy once himself. But Jim was such a big lad, 'most like a man. He took after his mother more than the rest. She had been proud, too, when she was a girl. He wished he hadn't been hasty that time they had words about those boxes at the store. Anyway, it turned out that it wasn't Jim's fault. But he was gone that night, and try as they might to find him, they never had word of him since. And Joe sighed again more heavily than before.

Old 'Liza shied at something in the road, and Joe took a firmer hold on the reins. It turned his thoughts to the horse. She was getting old, too, and not as handy as she was. He noticed that she was getting winded with a heavy load. It was well on to ten years she had been their capital and the breadwinner of the house. Sometimes he thought that she missed Jim. If she was to leave them now, he wouldn't know what to do, for he couldn't raise the money to buy another horse nohow, as things were. Poor old 'Liza! He stroked her gray coat musingly with the point of his whip as he thought of their old friendship. The horse pointed one ear back toward her master and neighed gently, as if to assure him that she was all right.

Suddenly she stumbled. Joe pulled her up in time, and throwing the reins over her back, got down to see what it was. An old horseshoe, and in the dust beside it a new silver quarter. He picked both up and put the shoe in the wagon.

"They say it is luck," he mused, "finding horse-iron and money. Maybe it's my Christmas. Get up, 'Liza!" And he drove off to the ferry.

The glare of a thousand gas lamps had chased the sunset out of the western sky, when Joe drove home through the city's streets. Between their straight, mile-long rows surged the busy life of the coming holiday. In front of every grocery store was a grove of fragrant Christmas trees waiting to be fitted into little green stands with fairy fences. Within, customers were bargaining, chatting, and bantering the busy clerks. Pedlers offering tinsel and colored candles waylaid them on the door-step. The rack under the butcher's awning fairly groaned with its weight of plucked geese, of turkeys, stout and skinny, of poultry of every kind. The saloon-keeper even had wreathed his door-posts in ground-ivy and hemlock, and hung a sprig of holly in the window, as if with a spurious promise of peace on earth and good-will toward men who entered there. It tempted not Joe. He drove past it to the corner, where he turned up a street darker and lonelier than the rest, toward a stretch of rocky, vacant lots fenced in by an old stone wall. 'Liza turned in at the rude gate without being told, and pulled up at the house.

A plain little one-story frame with a lean-to for a kitchen, and an adjoining stable-shed, overshadowed all by two great chestnuts of the days when there were country lanes where now are paved streets, and on Manhattan Island there was farm by farm. A light gleamed in the window looking toward the street. As 'Liza's hoofs were heard on the drive, a young girl with a shawl over her head ran out from some shelter where she had been watching, and took the reins from Joe.

"You're late," she said, stroking the mare's steaming flank. 'Liza reached around and rubbed her head against the girl's shoulder, nibbling playfully at the fringe of her shawl.

"Yes; we've come far, and it's been a hard pull. 'Liza is tired. Give her a good feed, and I'll bed her down. How's mother?"

"Sprier than she was," replied the girl, bending over the shaft to unbuckle the horse; "seems as if she'd kinder cheered up for Christmas." And she led 'Liza to the stable while her father backed the wagon into the shed.

It was warm and very comfortable in the little kitchen, where he joined the family after "washing up." The fire burned brightly in the range, on which a good-sized roast sizzled cheerily in its pot, sending up clouds of savory steam. The sand on the white-pine floor was swept in tongues, old-country fashion. Joe and his wife were both born across the sea, and liked to keep Christmas eve as they had kept it when they were children. Two little boys and a younger girl than the one who had met him at the gate received him with shouts of glee, and pulled him straight from the door to look at a hemlock branch stuck in the tub of sand in the corner. It was their Christmas tree, and they were to light it with candles, red and yellow and green, which mamma got them at the grocer's where the big Santa Claus stood on the shelf. They pranced about like so many little colts, and clung to Joe by turns, shouting all at once, each one anxious to tell the great news first and loudest.

Joe took them on his knee, all three, and when they had shouted until they had to stop for breath, he pulled from under his coat a paper bundle, at which the children's eyes bulged. He undid the wrapping slowly.

"Who do you think has come home with me?" he said, and he held up before them the veritable Santa Claus himself, done in plaster and all snow-covered. He had bought it at the corner toy-store with his lucky quarter. "I met him on the road over on Long Island, where 'Liza and I was to-day, and I gave him a ride to town. They say it's luck falling in with Santa Claus, partickler when there's a horseshoe along. I put hisn up in the barn, in 'Liza's stall. Maybe our luck will turn yet, eh! old woman?" And he put his arm around his wife, who was setting out the dinner with Jennie, and gave her a good hug, while the children danced off with their Santa Claus.

She was a comely little woman, and she tried hard to be cheerful. She gave him a brave look and a smile, but there were tears in her eyes, and Joe saw them, though he let on that he didn't. He patted her tenderly on the back and smoothed his Jennie's yellow braids, while he swallowed the lump in his throat and got it down and out of the way. He needed no doctor to tell him that Santa Claus would not come again and find her cooking their Christmas dinner, unless she mended soon and swiftly.

It may be it was the thought of that which made him keep hold of her hand in his lap as they sat down together, and he read from the good book the "tidings of great joy which shall be to all people," and said the simple grace of a plain and ignorant, but reverent, man. He held it tight, as though he needed its support, when he came to the petition for "those dear to us and far away from home," for his glance strayed to the empty place beside the mother's chair, and his voice would tremble in spite of himself. He met his wife's eyes there, but, strangely, he saw no faltering in them. They rested upon Jim's vacant seat with a new look of trust that almost frightened him. It was as if the Christmas peace, the tidings of great joy, had sunk into her heart with rest and hope which presently throbbed through his, with new light and promise, and echoed in the children's happy voices.

So they ate their dinner together, and sang and talked until it was time to go to bed. Joe went out to make all snug about 'Liza for the night and to give her an extra feed. He stopped in the door, coming back, to shake the snow out of his clothes. It was coming on with bad weather and a northerly storm, he reported. The snow was falling thick already and drifting badly. He saw to the kitchen fire and put the children to bed. Long before the clock in the neighboring church tower struck twelve, and its doors were opened for the throngs come to worship at the midnight mass, the lights in the cottage were out, and all within it fast asleep.

The murmur of the homeward-hurrying crowds had died out, and the last echoing shout of "Merry Christmas!" had been whirled away on the storm, now grown fierce with bitter cold, when a lonely wanderer came down the street. It was a lad, big and strong-limbed, and, judging from the manner in which he pushed his way through the gathering drifts, not unused to battle with the world, but evidently in hard luck. His jacket, white with the falling snow, was scant and worn nearly to rags, and there was that in his face which spoke of hunger and suffering silently endured. He stopped at the gate in the stone fence, and looked long and steadily at the cottage in the chestnuts. No life stirred within, and he walked through the gap with slow and hesitating step. Under the kitchen window he stood awhile, sheltered from the storm, as if undecided, then stepped to the horse shed and rapped gently on the door.

"'Liza!" he called, "'Liza, old girl! It's me--Jim!"

A low, delighted whinnying from the stall told the shivering boy that he was not forgotten there. The faithful beast was straining at her halter in a vain effort to get at her friend. Jim raised a bar that held the door closed by the aid of a lever within, of which he knew the trick, and went in. The horse made room for him in her stall, and laid her shaggy head against his cheek.

"Poor old 'Liza!" he said, patting her neck and smoothing her gray coat, "poor old girl! Jim has one friend that hasn't gone back on him. I've come to keep Christmas with you, 'Liza! Had your supper, eh? You're in luck. I haven't; I wasn't bid, 'Liza; but never mind. You shall feed for both of us. Here goes!" He dug into the oats-bin with the measure, and poured it full into 'Liza's crib.

"Fill up, old girl! and good night to you." With a departing pat he crept up the ladder to the loft above, and, scooping out a berth in the loose hay, snuggled down in it to sleep. Soon his regular breathing up there kept step with the steady munching of the horse in her stall. The two reunited friends were dreaming happy Christmas dreams.

The night wore into the small hours of Christmas morning. The fury of the storm was unabated. The old cottage shook under the fierce blasts, and the chestnuts waved their hoary branches wildly, beseechingly, above it, as if they wanted to warn those within of some threatened danger. But they slept and heard them not. From the kitchen chimney, after a blast more violent than any that had gone before, a red spark issued, was whirled upward and beaten against the shingle roof of the barn, swept clean of snow. Another followed it, and another. Still they slept in the cottage; the chestnuts moaned and brandished their arms in vain. The storm fanned one of the sparks into a flame. It flickered for a moment and then went out. So, at least, it seemed. But presently it reappeared, and with it a faint glow was reflected in the attic window over the door. Down in her stall 'Liza moved uneasily. Nobody responding, she plunged and reared, neighing loudly for help. The storm drowned her calls; her master slept, unheeding.

But one heard it, and in the nick of time. The door of the shed was thrown violently open, and out plunged Jim, his hair on fire and his clothes singed and smoking. He brushed the sparks off himself as if they were flakes of snow. Quick as thought, he tore 'Liza's halter from its fastening, pulling out staple and all, threw his smoking coat over her eyes, and backed her out of the shed. He reached in, and, pulling the harness off the hook, threw it as far into the snow as he could, yelling "Fire!" at the top of his voice. Then he jumped on the back of the horse, and beating her with heels and hands into a mad gallop, was off up the street before the bewildered inmates of the cottage had rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and come out to see the barn on fire and burning up.

Down street and avenue fire-engines raced with clanging bells, leaving tracks of glowing coals in the snow-drifts, to the cottage in the chestnut lots. They got there just in time to see the roof crash into the barn, burying, as Joe and his crying wife and children thought, 'Liza and their last hope in the fiery wreck. The door had blown shut, and the harness Jim threw out was snowed under. No one dreamed that the mare was not there. The flames burst through the wreck and lit up the cottage and swaying chestnuts. Joe and his family stood in the shelter of it, looking sadly on. For the second time that Christmas night tears came into the honest truckman's eyes. He wiped them away with his cap.

"Poor 'Liza!" he said.

A hand was laid with gentle touch upon his arm. He looked up. It was his wife. Her face beamed with a great happiness.

"Joe," she said, "you remember what you read: 'tidings of great joy.' Oh, Joe, Jim has come home!"

She stepped aside, and there was Jim, sister Jennie hanging on his neck, and 'Liza alive and neighing her pleasure. The lad looked at his father and hung his head.

"Jim saved her, father," said Jennie, patting the gray mare; "it was him fetched the engines."

Joe took a step toward his son and held out his hand to him.

"Jim," he said, "you're a better man nor yer father. From now on, you 'n' I run the truck on shares. But mind this, Jim: never leave mother no more."

And in the clasp of the two hands all the past was forgotten and forgiven. Father and son had found each other again.

"'Liza," said the truckman, with sudden vehemence, turning to the old mare and putting his arm around her neck, "'Liza! It was your doin's. I knew it was luck when I found them things. Merry Christmas!" And he kissed her smack on her hairy mouth, one, two, three times.

[The end]
Jacob A. Riis's short story: 'Twas 'Liza's Doings