The Wolf at the Door
In the aftermath of the Williper's Thanksgiving Dinner, distressful things happened. The economic world turned over, and Williper Pere fell out of his berth. The thread mill at which he had worked for so many years found its orders suddenly cut off in volume, and it was found necessary to discharge one-third of the employes. Williper Pere lost his job.
The little tenement in the alley off Bull Dog Square was the scene of great depression in consequence. The head of the family had never been out of work before, and he did not know which way to turn. He was a dresser tender, and this especial occupation he knew well. He felt that he might be able to do other things, but his confidence was not of an inspiring quality. As a producer he was only one-third of a man. Machinery was the other two-thirds, and the first proportion had come to rely greatly upon the other.
He spent the first week of loafing by tramping through Pawtucket and the other factory towns of the State, looking for a job similar to the one he had lost. There were no vacancies. No one wanted a man. Dresser tenders were a drug in the market. So also were mill operatives of every description, for Hard Times were abroad in the land.
Mamie Kelley came down from Smith Hill to condole with the wretched Willipers, but she was not cheerful. The sword hung over her head also, and she worked in fear and trembling.
"Williper has just simply got to find something to do, or we will be in the street," Williper Mere said with marked decision.
"That's it," returned Williper Pere. "I've just simply got to."
"What's the matter with everything?" Little Jack asked anxiously.
"That's just what we'd all like to know," Mamie replied. " I don't know, for one. The mills have no orders. The country is scared. They say we make more stuff than the people can use. It's a stone wall to me. I don't know what I'll do if I lose my own job. I ain't got a soul to fall back on."
" You come and live with us, then!" cried Little Jack.
The girl kissed his wasted cheek and broke into tears. This started Williper Mere, and she was soon sobbing in concert. Williper Pere felt the corners of his mouth twitch, but he realized that it was not manly to cry. So he bravely resisted the temptation.
"Jack is right, Mamie," he said. "You come and live with us. We'll get on somehow."
The next week Mamie Kelley followed her trunk, pushed in a wheelbarrow by Williper Pere to the latter's home. The sword had fallen!
The immediate present was not to be feared, for both Mamie and the Willipers had a rainy-day fund in the savings bank. But it was like cutting teeth to draw upon this.
Day after day the man and the girl went through the Square into the city looking for employment. They tried the industrial bureaus, but quickly caught on to the game played there. Up and down they walked, looking everywhere, and each night related their experiences to Williper Mere and Little Jack.
"It's just like this," Mamie once said, " the world ain't got no use for us. Nobody wants us, or cares whether we live or die. I feel, when goin' 'round, just as if I was outside a big walled city with iron gates. Inside everything is lovely. Outside it's misery.
"I goes up to the man at one of the gates and says, 'Let me in, please.'
"He says, 'No, you can't go in; there ain't room for another soul inside just at present.'
'But I want to get in awful bad,' I says to him.
'I can't help it,' he says. ' Don't blame me. I'd let you in fast enough if I could, but I just can't.'
"So 'round an' 'round the walls I go, tryin' a gate here and a gate there, but always the same, with variations, for one sends you away gentle like, and another scowls as much as to say, ' How dare you ask such a thing! ' "
"If Richard Cure the Lion was only living!" cried Little Jack. "He'd knock in a gate with his battle-axe mighty lively, I tell you! He wouldn't take no back talk!"
"Ah!" sighed Mamie, "now is when I feel if I only had a man behind me."
"Yes, and a kitchen full of young 'uns!" Williper Mere returned, with fine scorn. "You're well off as you be, Mamie Kelley, I tell you that. Hungry babies is what gnaws the heart out, folks tells me as knows. 'Tis what keeps the Irish down, havin' such terrible families. Now there's Bridget O'Shay — she that was Beazie McCarthy, — you remember, Williper. She worked next spooler to me for years. A rosy-cheeked girl was Beazie McCarthy when she married Mike O'Shay. Seven children she had in as many years, and look at her now! You mind me, Mamie Kelley, and don't you fret about gettin' married. It's the natural curse of the Irish — I mean the children as follows."
A scratching sound was now audible in the hall.
"What's that?" Little Jack inquired, pricking up his ears.
It's 'the wolf at the door!'" Williper Pere replied with a grin.
This is the first joke ever known to have been uttered by Williper Pere. A gruesome joke it was, and it set the shivers chasing one another up Little Jack's spine. It clung to the boy's memory, too, and haunted him continually throughout that winter.
The wolf at the door! Oh, that terrible wolf at the door! When Williper Pere would sit by the fire of an evening with head bowed in despair, and the two women sat by the table sewing feverishly on sweat-shop clothes, Little Jack, feeling strangely depressed, would close his eyes and in fancy hear the gnawing, gnawing of that hungry wolf and see its clammy nose poking through the crack it had made.
When the funds in the savings bank were exhausted, all the family had to depend on was the little that Williper Mere and Mamie could earn with their needles, and even this ill-paid labor was not enough in volume to keep them busy. A God-send in the shape of a snowstorm was the means of Williper Pere earning four dollars. How he revelled in his work! It was so good to be earning money again. But the sun soon destroyed this source of revenue, and he took to the streets again. He made a practice of visiting each of the mills once every week, and his face soon became known. He had no longer to state his business, but simply to show his face at the office window, to be met by the curt remark, "No help wanted to-day."
Now let it be remembered that throughout this miserable ordeal, Williper Pere did not cry out against the rich, or spend any of his time reflecting on the injustice of natural laws. He did not concern himself at all about other men's affairs, but took it for granted that he must either find work or starve. In his way he was fiercely selfish, for he met hundreds of other men whose situation was even more desperate than his own, without extending to them any considerable sympathy. They must do the best they could. He did not stop to ask them how many helpless children they had, but thought solely of his own Little Jack, and kept his own secrets as to the possibilities of employment which he discovered in his rounds.
It might be termed maudlin pathos if an attempt were made to describe the scenes at home when he would return with springing step and report that at one of the mills he had been told to come around in the morning, as there might be a chance. Williper Mere, at such times, would bustle around vigorously and get up a meal just a little above the average. Mamie would do up her wealth of auburn-hued tresses especially fine, just as if she meditated again showing herself to the world, and Little Jack would ripple with delight, and chatter like a robin arrived after a long winter.
But we know these chances did not materialize. Still Williper Pere kept at it, never giving up hope, doggedly determined to find work. They were now in debt to their greengrocer, and lived in constant dread of a withdrawal of credit. Brave as he was in looking for work, Williper Pere did not possess the nerve to do the shopping. He could not say the words, " Please put it on the book!"
Williper Mere, however, rose to the occasion, and though every time she entered the market her heart beat furiously, she forced sunshine into her face and spoke pleasantly to the awful groceryman, bidding him be of good cheer, for "Williper would certainly get a job soon, as times was lookin' up."
"Times were looking up!" God bless your stout heart, Williper Mere.
There was a line one hundred yards long before the headquarters of the Overseer of the Poor each morning, — a line of one-meal-a-day men and women, with empty baskets; and the preachers in churches, high and low, no longer preached sermons, but pled and prayed and stormed at their congregations that they must open their hearts and give, for men, women and children — their fellow citizens — were dying daily of cold and hunger.
Then the end came, and the terrors of the wolf at the door vanished for Little Jack. It was all so simple, too. Williper Pere got the job of assistant box maker and man of all work in Mamie Kelley's woolen mill. His wages were to be seven dollars a week until times got better.
Williper Mere and Mamie danced crazily together on receipt of the good news, and Little Jack clapped his hands and joined in the commotion with lusty lungs.
Seven dollars a week! They could live on six and pay the remaining dollar on the bug-a-boo grocery bill.
The peace of heaven was in their hearts that night when they slept, and the next morning Williper Pere was off half an hour ahead of time, swinging his dinner pail ostentatiously. He was a proud man — a vain man — a wholly happy man. He had a job!
The everlasting gates, which had been closed so long, had lifted up their heads and he had gone in.