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The Rent Baby by Jacob A. Riis

 

Adam Grunschlag sat at his street stand in a deep brown study. He heeded not the gathering twilight, or the snow that fell in great white flakes, as yet with an appreciable space between, but with the promise of a coming storm in them. He took no notice of the bustle and stir all about that betokened the approaching holiday. The cries of the huckster hawking oranges from his cart, of the man with the crawling toy, and of the pedler of colored Christmas candles passed him by unheard. Women with big baskets jostled him, stopped and fingered his cabbages; he answered their inquiries mechanically. Adam's mind was not in the street, at his stand, but in the dark back basement where his wife Hansche was lying, there was no telling how sick. They could not afford a doctor. Of course, he might send to the hospital for one, but he would be sure to take her away, and then what would become of little Abe? Besides, if they had nothing else in the whole world, they had yet each other. When that was no longer the case—Adam would have lacked no answer to the vexed question if life were then worth living.

Troubles come not singly, but in squads, once the bag be untied. It was not the least sore point with Adam that he had untied it himself. They were doing well enough, he and his wife, in their home in Leinbach, Austria, keeping a little grocery store, and living humbly but comfortably, when word of the country beyond the sea where much money was made, and where every man was as good as the next, made them uneasy and discontented. In the end they gave up the grocery and their little home, Hansche not without some tears; but she dried them quickly at the thought of the good times that were waiting. With these ever before them they bore the hardships of the steerage, and in good season reached Hester Street and the longed-for haven, only to find—this. A rear basement, dark and damp and unwholesome, for which the landlord, along with the privilege of keeping a stand in the street, which was not his to give, made them pay twelve dollars a month. Truly, much money was made in America, but not by those who paid the rent. It was all they could do, working early and late, he with his push-cart and at his stand, she with the needle, slaving for the sweater, to get the rent together and keep a roof over the head of little Abe.

Five years they had kept that up, and things had gone from bad to worse. The police blackmail had taken out of it what little profit there was in the push-cart business. Times had grown harder than they ever were in Hester Street. To cap it all, two weeks ago gas had begun to leak into the basement from somewhere, and made Hansche sick, so that she dropped down at her work. Adam had complained to the landlord, and he had laughed at him. What did he want for twelve dollars, anyway? If the basement wasn't good enough for him, why didn't he hire an upstairs flat? The landlord did not tell him that he could do that for the same rent he paid for the miserable hole he burrowed in. He had a good thing and he knew it. Adam Grunschlag knew nothing of the Legal Aid Society, that is there to help such as he. He was afraid to appeal to the police. He was just a poor, timid Jew, of a race that has been hunted for centuries to make sport and revenue for the great and mighty. When he spoke of moving and the landlord said that he would forfeit the twenty dollars deposit that he had held back all these years, and which was all the capital the pedler had, he thought that was the law, and was silent. He could not afford to lose it, and yet he must find some way of making a change, for the sake of little Abe as well as his wife, and the child.

At the thought of the child, the pedler gave a sudden start and was wide awake on the instant. Little Abe was their own, and though he had come in the gloom of that dismal basement, he had been the one ray of sunshine that had fallen into their dreary lives. But the child was a rent baby. In the crowded tenements of New York the lodger serves the same purpose as the Irishman's pig; he helps to pay the rent. “The child”—it was never called anything else—was a lodger. Flotsam from Rivington Street, after the breaking up of a family there, it had come to them, to perish “if the Lord so willed it” in that basement. “Infant slaughter houses” the Tenement House Commission had called their kind. The father paid seventy-five cents a week for its keep, pending the disclosure of the divine purpose with the baby. The Grunschlags, all unconscious of the partnership that was thus thrust upon them, did their best for it, and up to the time the trouble with the gas began it was a disgracefully healthy baby. Since then it had sickened with the rest. But now, if the worst came to the worst, what was to become of the child?

The pedler was not given long to debate this new question. Even as he sat staring dumbly at nothing in his perplexity, little Abe crawled out of the yard with the news that “mamma was most deaded;” and though it was not so bad as that, it was made clear to her husband when he found her in one of her bad fainting spells, that things had come to a pass where something had to be done. There followed a last ineffectual interview with the landlord, a tearful leave-taking, and as the ambulance rolled away with Hansche to the hospital, where she would be a hundred times better off than in Hester Street, the pedler took little Abe by the hand, and, carrying the child, set out to deliver it over to its rightful owners. If he were rid of it, he and Abe might make a shift to get along. It was a case, emphatically; in which two were company and three a crowd.

He spied the father in Stanton Street where he was working, but when he saw Adam he tried to run away. Desperation gave the pedler both strength and speed, however, and he overhauled him despite his handicaps, and thrust the baby upon him. But the father would have none of it.

“Aber, mein Gott,” pleaded the pedler, “vat I do mit him? He vas your baby.”

“I don't care what you do with her,” said the hard-hearted father. “Give her away—anything. I can't keep her.”

And this time he really escaped. Left alone with his charge, the pedler bethought himself of a friend in Pitt Street who had little children. Where so many fed, there would be easily room for another. To Pitt Street he betook himself, only to meet with another setback. They didn't want any babies there; had enough of their own. So he went to a widow in East Broadway who had none, to be driven forth with hard words. What did a widow want with a baby? Did he want to disgrace her? Adam Grunschlag visited in turn every countryman he knew of on the East Side, and proposed to each of them to take the baby off his hands, without finding a single customer for it. Either because it was hurt by such treatment, or because it thought it time for Hansche's attentions, the child at length set up a great cry. Little Abe, who had trotted along bravely upon his four-years-old legs, wrapped in a big plaid shawl, lost his grip at that and joined in, howling dolefully that he was hungry.

Adam Grunschlag gave up at last and sat down on the curb, helpless and hopeless. Hungry! Yes, and so was he. Since morning he had not eaten a morsel, and been on his feet incessantly. Two hungry mouths to fill beside his own and not a cent with which to buy bread. For the first time he felt a pang of bitterness as he saw the shoppers hurry by with filled baskets to homes where there was cheer and plenty. From the window of a tenement across the way shone the lights of a Christmas tree, lighted as in old-country fashion on the Holy Eve. Christmas! What had it ever meant to him and his but hatred and persecution? There was a shout from across the street and voices raised in laughter and song. The children could be seen dancing about the tree, little room though there was. Ah, yes! Let them make merry upon their holiday while two little ones were starving in the street. A colder blast than ordinary came up from the river and little Abe crept close to him, wailing disconsolate within his shawl.

“Hey, what's this?” said a rough, but not unkindly voice at his elbow. “Campin' out, shepherd fashion, Moses? Bad for the kids; these ain't the hills of Judea.”

It was the policeman on the beat stirring the trio gently with his club. The pedler got up without a word, to move away, but little Abe, from fright or hunger, set up such a howl that the policeman made him stop to explain. While he did so, telling as briefly as he could about the basement and Hansche and the baby that was not his, a silver quarter found its way mysteriously into little Abe's fist, to the utter upsetting of all that “kid's” notions of policemen and their functions. When the pedler had done, the officer directed him to Police Headquarters where they would take the baby, he need have no fear of that.

“Better leave this one there, too,” was his parting counsel. Little Abe did not understand, but he took a firmer grip on his papa's hand, and never let go all the way up the three long flights of stairs to the police nursery where the child at last found peace and a bottle. But when the matron tried to coax him to stay also, he screamed and carried on so that they were glad to let him go lest he wake everybody in the building. Though proverbially Police Headquarters never sleeps, yet it does not like to be disturbed in its midnight nap, as it were. It is human with the rest of us, that is how.

Down in the marble-tiled hall little Abe and his father stopped irresolute. Outside it was dark and windy; the snow, that had ceased falling in the evening, was swept through the streets on the northern blast. They had nowhere to go. The doorman was called downstairs just then to the telegraph office. When he came up again he found father and son curled up on the big mat by the register, sound asleep. It was against the regulations entirely, and he was going to wake them up and put them out, when he happened to glance through the glass doors at the storm without, and remembered that it was Christmas Eve. With a growl he let them sleep, trusting to luck that the inspector wouldn't come out. The doorman, too, was human.

So it came about that the newspaper boys who ran with messages to the reporters' offices across the street, found them there and held a meeting over them. Rudie, the smartest of them, declared that his “fingers just itched for that sheeny's whiskers,” but the others paid little attention to him. Even reporters' messengers are not so bad as they like to have others believe them, sometimes. The year before, in their rough sport in the alley, the boys had upset old Mary, so that she fell and broke her arm. That finished old Mary's scrubbing, for the break never healed. Ever since this, bloodthirsty Rudie had been stealing down Mulberry Street to the old woman's attic on pay-day and sharing his meagre wages with her, paying, beside, the insurance premium that assured her of a decent burial; though he denied it hotly if charged with it. So when Rudie announced that he would like to pull the pedler's whiskers, it was taken as a motion that he be removed to the reporters' quarters and made comfortable there, and the motion was carried unanimously. Was it not Christmas Eve?

Little Abe was carried across Mulberry Street, sleeping soundly, and laid upon Rudie's cot. The dogs, Chief and Trilby, that run things in Mulberry Street when the boys are away, snuggled down by him to keep him warm, taking him at once under their protection. The father took off his shoes, and curling up by the stove, slept, tired out, but not until he had briefly told the boys the story he had once that evening gone over with the policeman. They heard it in silence, but one or two made notes which, could he have seen them, would have spoiled one Hester Street landlord's Christmas. When the pedler was asleep, they took them across the street and consulted with the inspector about it.

Father and son slept soundly yet when, the morning papers having gone to press, the boys came down into the office with the night-gang of reporters to spend the dog-watch, according to their wont, in a game of ungodly poker. They were flush, for it had been pay-day in the afternoon, and under the reckless impulse of the holiday the jack-pot, ordinarily modest enough for cause, grew to unheard-of proportions. It contained nearly fifteen dollars when Rudie opened it at last. Amid breathless silence, he then and there made the only public speech of his life.

“The pot,” he said, “goes to the sheeny and his kid for their Christmas, or my name is mud.”

Wild applause followed the speech. It awakened the pedler and little Abe. They sat up and rubbed their eyes, while Chief and Trilby barked their welcome. The morning was struggling through the windows. The snow had ceased falling and the sky was clear.

“Mornin',” said Rudie, with mock deference, “will yer worships have yer breakfast now, or will ye wait till ye get it?”

The pedler looked about him in bewilderment. “I hab kein blam' cent,” he said, feeling hopelessly in his pockets.

A joyous yell greeted him. “Ikey has more nor you,” shouted the boys, showing the quarter which little Abe had held fast to in his sleep. “And see this.”

They swept the jack-pot into his lap, handfuls of shining silver. The pedler blinked at the sight.

“Good morning and Merry Christmas,” they shouted. “We just had Bellevue on the 'phone, and Hansche is all right. She will be out to-day. The gas poisoned her, that was all. For that the police will settle with the landlord, or we will. You go back there and get your money back, and go and hire a flat. This is Christmas, and don't you forget it!”

And they pushed the pedler and little Abe, made fast upon a gorgeous sled that suddenly appeared from somewhere, out into the street, and gave them a rousing cheer as they turned the corner going east, Adam dragging the sled and little Abe seated on his throne, perfectly and radiantly happy.

 
 
 

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