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The Willipers at Newport
The most remarkable thing about a Rhode Island summer is the fact that the Sundays are, with rare exceptions, days of ideal beauty. It may rain on Saturday or on Monday, but on Sunday we expect to find a warm sun come out of the sea to the east of Block Island, followed by a gentle and invigorating breeze that is fully charged with vital gases.
It was on one of these golden Sundays that Little Jack Williper took his father and mother to Newport to see the sights and incidentally to enjoy the sail on the "Day Star."
Little Jack Williper had an imagination; his parents had none. This, of course, was owing to the fact that Nature was compelled to bestow upon Little Jack some wonderful gift to even up matters, for she had made a sad mess of his body, which was long where it should be short, and flat where it should be round. He had used crutches ever since he could hold himself upright, and like all lame children he made the most of his opportunities, and could get over the ground by means of these wooden legs at a surprisingly rapid gait. His face was a study in interrogation points; his eyes constantly asked questions; the mouth, the ears — in fact, every line in his face curved into a query. He was now sixteen years old (looking twelve), and sought knowledge, principally concerning kings, princes, dukes, and other gentlemen of title. This was owing to the course of reading he had taken, for when a mere child he had read a story about Peter the Great, and had been so fascinated with it that his constant request to his father for years had been to bring to him from the Public Library, books about the nobility.
In consequence, Little Jack had an exalted idea of life far beyond his station, for his father was a "dresser tender" in a cotton mill, a place where men work the year round in an atmosphere 110 degrees above zero, for $10.50 a week. His mother had been a spooler tender in the same mill, but since the birth of Little Jack she had ceased being a "new woman," and now did nothing outside save the sewing of "ready-made garments" for the "cheapest clothing house on earth." Mrs. Williper knew thoroughly the sound economic principle that to sell cheap one must buy cheap, and that to work for the "cheapest clothing house on earth," "benefactors of the masses," etc., meant 36 cents a day, at most 40.
Strange as it may appear, the home in which Little Jack lived with his father and mother never seemed to him the least bit mean or squalid. He never remembered when there were no odds and ends of shoddy scattered over the floor, and unwashed dishes sitting on the table, for Mrs. Williper, being bred to a spooler and subsequently post- graduated at a sewing machine, had not found opportunity to cultivate housewifery, after the traditional New England fashion.
Little Jack had a special chair by his own window, in which sat three half-starved geraniums, which annually brought forth as many more fragile flowers after severe travail. In this window seat he read his stories of kings, etc., sometimes to himself, but more often to his mother, who pretended to be delighted, and actually became interested in exciting places if Little Jack warned her in advance that something good was coming. And when he was not reading he sat in his window and thought, the result being that he quickly evolved an imaginative world, in which diamonds and gold were as stones are, and where ermine and purple and fine laces were the common garments of the day. He knew well every emperor or king, from Solomon to young Alexandria of Servia. He had wallowed in the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" during his fourteenth and fifteenth years; and so great was his exaltation of spirit after reading the resonant Gibbonian record of some stirring event, that at times his mother would declare that his face fairly shone.
It was a handsome young man, with a Great Dane at his heels, who had given Little Jack Williper the five dollars, on the strength of which he had invited his parents to see Newport with him. This handsome young man, with the handsomer dog, had no excuse but idleness for walking through the little lane leading off Bull Dog Square, where the Willipers lived, and where he found Little Jack seated on the doorstep, reading.
The peculiar and complete deformity of the child attracted him, and he stopped a moment to inquire what he was reading. It was Carlyle's "Frederick the Great," and Little Jack, hearing the request of this elegant young man, immediately gave a twitch to his face, which screwed into one symmetrical note of interrogation, and asked: —
"Do you really think 'Frederick the Great' was a bigger man than Napoleon Bonaparte?"
"Love of God!" cried the strange young man, who straightway put his hand in his vest pocket, and finding a five-dollar note, handed it to Little Jack with the remark: "Throw that rot away, sonny, and go down the river and breathe the fresh air. The book is too old for you."
"But was he?" persisted Little Jack.
"Damned if I know," replied the young man, as he and the Great Dane continued their way.
There are a dozen or so seats on the deck of the "Day Star" forward, which are extra choice. Three of these seats were secured by the Willipers, by following the example of the early bird. Little Jack sat in the middle, with his father and mother, looking really grand in their Sunday best, on either side of him.
Williper Pere was especially worthy of notice from the fact that he looked entirely happy, and yet not one single article of his clothing fitted him. His coat sleeves were too short; his trousers suffered from the same affliction; his collar was too big and his necktie roosted high. His face was white as chalk, consequent on the 110 degrees, and his hands had been dyed so many times that they were now a composite shade, most nearly like old gold. Nevertheless this man Williper was a trusted employee, a kind and loving husband and father, a man of great sympathies, sober and industrious, but wholly ignorant. He was perfectly satisfied with his position in the world and with his family, and the world was as fully satisfied with him. Williper Pere was a grand success.
Little Jack had been to Crescent Park and Rocky Point a number of times with his parents, and he had enjoyed the ravishing delights of those beautiful shore resorts, where all is fairyland for good people and children, and all tawdryness and debauchery for those who are neither young nor good. But his soul yearned for Newport, the city of palaces, the home of princes and the Mecca of millionaires. Neither his father nor mother had ever visited Newport, so they were also much interested in its possibilities. Then they had five dollars to spend, every cent of it to be dissipated before the return to Bull Dog Square, as per previous solemn agreement.
Williper Mere had bought peanuts, freshly baked. The "Day Star" had not reached Field's Point before she brought the aforesaid peanuts from a wonderful bag which she always carried with her when she went great distances from home, like to the Public Market, to Shepard's, or "Down the Bay." This bag held lunch, popcorn, four apples, and the peanuts. Little Jack liked peanuts, so did his mother and father, and so did every man, woman and child on the steamer; for soon above the roar of the machinery could be heard that ponderous crunching incident to 2,000 pairs of jaws coming together upon 2,000 peanuts at the same instant. Peanuts are the especial delight of Rhode Islanders. Clams have their season, so likewise have frost fish and blueberries, but peanuts are perennial.
When the peanuts were consumed, the Willipers ate their lunch and the four apples, saving the popcorn for the beach. Incidentally they admired the scenery.
There is only one living creature which has a greater admiration for nature, expressed in silence through the eyes, than the city wage-earner, and that is the cow, who, having eaten of the green grass as much as she desires, chews her cud and dreamily looks out upon the fields with love and adoration. The workingman is less demonstrative than the cow, but he certainly enjoys much.
As the "Day Star" glided past Nayatt and Prudence, Williper Pere absorbed all the beauty of the scene, munched his peanuts, and occasionally looked into the eyes of his wife. But he said no words. A highly educated man, seeing for the first time the wonderful beauties of Narragansett Bay thus unrolled, would have talked admiringly and entertainingly all the while to his companions, dilating on this and that especial charm. Beauty, like an electric shock, goes through such a man, exhilarating every nerve for the moment. Williper Pere and the cow hold fast to impressions, and their lives are molded thereby.
Arriving at Newport, the Willipers found seats in a large 'bus, whose driver agreed to take his patrons, for a modest fee, the entire ten-mile drive, and incidentally to point out all the chief points of interest.
Little Jack was in raptures, but strange to say, they had no sooner reached Bellevue avenue, with its marble palaces and magnificent cottages, than his heart fell. He expected something far grander. Here was a city, and Little Jack had his mind made up to deer-stocked parks, in the midst of which stood immense baronial halls with towers and battlements. There were to be ponds with white swans floating upon them, and princes and princesses playing about, with their tutors and nurses standing guardian near at hand. Instead, here were only great houses set in closely-cropped lawns, with men and women seated on the piazzas reading the Sunday papers, just as they do everywhere.
Here and there they passed elegant equippages containing beautifully gowned ladies on their way home from the morning service at church, and they were told that such and such a carriage belonged to so and so and cost so much; that the owner possessed many millions and had a yacht now lying at anchor in the harbor.
Suddenly, however, their loquacious driver turned, and holding his hand to the left of his mouth, whispered hoarsely:
"Keep your eyes on that little redheaded cuss in the next turnout we pass — him with the girl in white lollin' beside 'im, — that's the king of Saxonia."
"Stop the 'bus!" yelled Little Jack Williper with a shrill scream, as he struggled frantically to get to his feet.
But the carriage containing the king and his fair companion had dashed by them, and all Little Jack could see was a glimmer of red hair and a white hand resting on a gold-headed cane. And from that day to this all kings in his imagination have red hair and carry golden-crowned walking sticks. He was naturally much disappointed because he had not got a better view of so exalted a personage, and the driver's further remark that "dukes and princes was thick as flies at milkin' time," did not mollify him. He wanted to know an hundred things at once. "What was this king's name? where was Saxonia, and what was he doing here?"
The driver replied good-naturedly in the picturesque language of the handsome young man with the Great Dane who had one day strayed into Bull Dog Square, and turning to his horses, showed that as far as he was concerned the incident was closed.
After the drive the Willipers had lunch with ice cream in an English tea room on Bellevue avenue, which Williper Mere enjoyed immensely, and then they all went over to the beach, Little Jack racking along like a tin soldier, looking each moment as if he would go all to pieces. The bathers interested them ever so much, and they sat on the sand and munched their popcorn with delight. Little Jack would have it that the bathers were all of the nobility, and offered to bet his father and mother many times without naming the stakes that such and such a one was a king or a duke. He set his mind beyond argument on the fact that one plump, well-formed young lady must be a princess of the blood from the fact that she had red hair and the skin of her arms was snow white.
"She's a reigning princess, I'm sure, mother," he would say, and kept directing that parent's attention to her constantly.
Presently the fair princess left the water and came directly toward them, a smile of greeting in her eyes.
"Look! mother, look!" cried Little Jack. " She's coming our way!"
"Why, bless my soul, if it ain't Sarah Kelley's girl Mamie!" cried Mrs. Williper, whose vision had been weakened by her post graduate course.
"Hello, Mrs. Williper," said the princess, standing before them and shaking the water from her hair. "How on earth did you ever come to get 'way down here?"
"Little Jack fetched me an' father," replied the mother, "with the money the gentleman gave him. But, do you know what, Mamie?"
"Don't! mother, — don't!" pleaded Little Jack, tugging at her sleeve.
"Well, I won't, dear — I won't tell her if you mind," his mother replied, soothingly.
"What was it, Mrs. Williper?" the wet princess inquired with considerable curiosity.
"Little Jack minds so I won't tell you that he spotted you for a real princess, 'cause you have red hair."
The cripple looked very sheepish at this unexpected betrayal of a family confidence, but the girl took it far from unkindly. She reached down, and with her plump hand patted Little Jack on the cheek.
"He knows a thing or two — that kid," she said. "Don't you mind, Little Jack.
I'm as good as the best of them."
"Where be you workin' now, Mamie?" inquired Mrs. Williper, offering the young lady the bag of popcorn.
"Over to Olneyville, to Fletcher's," she replied. "I lost my job at the shoestring business, and have gone back to the loom."
"You're too gay for your pay, I'm afraid," said Mr. Williper, solemnly.
"I intend to have a good time while I'm young and alive," replied the girl, defiantly. " We'll all be long enough in the churchyard. But my mother was a good woman before me, as you well know, Mrs. Williper, you an' she havin' wound at the same spooler, and I intend to be a good woman, too."
"Said well! said well!" exclaimed Mr. Williper almost with enthusiasm. "Follow your mother's steps, Mamie, and you'll win out."
"You ain't married yet or nothin?" queried Mrs Williper.
"Not yet, nor ever intend to be," was the sharp answer. "The man don't live as can have me work for him. I make my own money and I spend it myself. I'd look pretty tied to any of the men I know!"
"Married life might be worse, Mamie, it might be worse," said Mrs. Williper, soothingly. " See me an' father now, and how happy we be; and then we've got Little Jack here, the pride of our eyes an' comfort always."
"You're all right — all three of you, and many's the good word I've heard of you; but I'll take no chances on marryin'."
"It's a caution to me how you keep yourself so well and handsome," Mrs. Williper said, after a bit, looking up with admiration at the finely formed girl before her.
"It comes natural, I suppose," replied the princess of the loom. "The Lord knows I get little chance to groom myself, and weaving is not a job to sigh for in these times; but I think the tramp over to Olneyville from Smith's Hill in the morning does me good and fills my lungs with fresh air for the day. Then on Sundays I come down here or to " Crescent" and have a glorious bath. Oh, how good it feels! It's just the same as if I was a real princess, Little Jack."
"You've got the red hair and the white arms, anyhow," said the cripple, with an old-fashioned smile.
When Mamie had returned to take a final plunge in the surf, the Willipers journeyed back to Bellevue avenue and watched the fine ladies and gentlemen drive up and down in their carriages. They stood on a corner so that Little Jack might have a lamp-post to lean against, and found much pleasure in the gay panorama before them.
After a silence of some time Williper Pere broke forth earnestly: —
"I'm danged, mother," he said, "if there's a girl in the hull lot we've seen as can hold a candle to Sarah Kelley's girl Mamie."
Just then a gentleman who was passing, seeing Little Jack, paused, and pointing to him, inquired of Mr. Williper: —
"Does he suffer much?"
"None at all, 'cept for readin' matter."
An embarrassing pause, during which Mrs. Williper looked indignant.
"Did he fall?"
"How did he come so, may I ask?"
"Dear me, dear me; and you say he's happy?"
"Happy all the time, 'specially when readin' about kings and things."
"Well I declare! Good day, sir."
The gentleman raised his hat politely to Mrs. Williper, which mollified her at once, and passed on.
Father and mother looked questioningly into each other's eyes until Little
Jack laid all doubts at rest by saying:
"Wasn't it funny that he should ask whether I'm ever unhappy and you both here!"
The sail home was delightful, rendered more so because Mamie Kelley joined them on the boat and insisted on staying with them so she might hear Little Jack tell about the queens and princesses he had met in his travels through the Public Library.
It was just supper time when they reached home, and after the dishes were cleared away and Mr. Williper had filled
his pipe and gone to sleep — an inevitable occurrence — Little Jack talked over the events of the day with his mother, winding up with the remark:
"Anyhow, mother, I've got a real king to think about, and Mamie Kelley'll do for a princess till I find a better."