Twas Liza's Doings by Jacob A. 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
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
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
'Liza! he called, 'Liza, old girl! It's meJim!
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,
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.