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The Washerwoman's Windfall by Jonathan F. Kelley


Some years ago, there lived, dragged and toiled, in one of our “Middle States,” or Southern cities, and old lady, named Landon, the widow of a lost sea captain; and as a dernier resort, occurring in many such cases, with a family of children to provide for,—the father and husband cut off from life and usefulness, leaving his family but a stone's cast from indigence,—the mother, to keep grim poverty from famishing her hearth and desolating her home, took in gentlemen's washing. Her eldest child, a boy of some twelve years old, was in the habit of visiting the largest hotels in the city, where he received the finer pieces of the gentlemen's apparel, and carried them to his mother. They were done up, and returned by the lad again.

It was in mid-winter, cold and dreary season for the poor—travel was slack, and few and far between were the poor widow's receipts from her drudgery.

“To-morrow,” said the widow, as she sat musing by her small fire, “to-morrow is Saturday; I have not a stick of wood, pound of meal, nor dollar in the world, to provide food or warmth for my children over Sunday.”

“But, mother,” responded her 'main prop,' George, the eldest boy, “that gentleman who gave me the half dollar for going to the bank for him, last week,—you know him we washed for at the United States Hotel,—said he was to be here again to-morrow. I was to call for his clothes; so I will go, mother, to-morrow; maybe he will have another errand for me, or some money—he's got so much money in his trunk!”

“So, indeed, you said, good child; it's well you thought of it,” said the poor woman.

Next day the lad called at the hotel, and sure enough, the strange gentleman had arrived again. He appeared somewhat bothered, but quickly gathering up some of his soiled clothes, gave them to the lad, and bade him tell his mother to wash and return them that evening by all means.

“Alas! that I cannot do,” said the widow, as her son delivered the message. “My dear child, I have neither fire to dry them, nor money to procure the necessary fuel.”

“Shall I take the clothes back again, mother, and tell the gentleman you can't dry them in time for him?”

“No, son. I must wash and dry them—we must have money to-day, or we'll freeze and starve—I must wash and dry these clothes,” said the disconsolate widow, as she immediately went about the performance, while her son started to a neighboring coopering establishment, to get a basket of chips and shavings to make fire sufficient to dry and iron the clothes.

The clothes were duly tumbled into a great tub of water, and the poor woman began her manipulations. After a time, in handling a vest, the widow felt a knot of something in the breast pocket. She turned the pocket, and out fell a little mass of almost pulpy paper. She carefully unrolled the saturated bunch—she started—stared; the color from her wan cheeks went and came! Her two little children, observing the wild looks and strange actions of the mother, ran to her, screaming:

“Dear—dear mother! Mother, what's the matter?”

“Hush-h-h!” said she; “run, dear children—lock the door—lock the door! no, no, never mind. I a—I a—feel—dizzy!”

The alarmed children clung about the mother's knees in great affright, but the widow, regaining her composure, told them to sit down and play with their little toys, and not mind her. The cause of this sudden emotion was the unrolling of five five hundred dollar bills. They were very wet—nearly “used up,” in fact—but still significant of vast, astounding import to the poor and friendless woman. She was amazed—honor and poverty were struggling in her breast. Her poverty cried out, “You are made up—rich—wash no more—fly!” But then the poor woman's honor, more powerful than the tempting wealth in her hands—triumphed! She laid the wet notes in a book, and again set about her washing.

About this time, quite a different scene was being enacted at the hotel. The gentleman so anxious that his clothes should be returned that evening, was no other than a famous counterfeiter and forger; and it happened, that the day previous, in a neighboring city, he had committed a forgery, drawn some four or five thousand dollars, had the greater part of the notes exchanged—and, with the exception of the five large bills hurriedly thrust into the vest pocket, and which he had sent to the poor laundress, there was little available evidence of the forgery in his possession. The widow's son had scarcely left the traveller's room with the clothes, when in came two policemen. The forger was not arrested as a principal, but certain barely suspicious circumstances had led to an investigation of him and his effects.

“You are our prisoner, sir!” said one of the policemen, as a servant opened the door to let them in.

“Me! What for?” was the quick response of the forger.

“That you will learn in due season; at present we wish to examine your person and effects.”

The forger started—his heart beat with the rapidity of galvanic pulsation—the evidence of part of his villany was, as he supposed, among his effects. It was a moment of terror to him, but it passed like a flash, and in a gay and careless tone, he quickly replied:

“O, very well, gentlemen—go ahead. There are my keys and baggage—search, and look around. I have no idea what you are after—probably you'll find.” In a low tone, he continued, to himself, “By heavens, how lucky! that boy has saved me!”

A considerable amount of money was found upon the forger, but none that could be identified, and after a long and wearisome private examination at the police court, he was discharged. He returned to the hotel, and shortly afterwards the lad made his appearance with the clothes, presenting him with a small roll of damp paper, saying:

“Here, sir, is something mother found in one of your pockets. She thinks it may be valuable to you, sir, and she is sorry it was wet.”

The forger started, as though the little roll of wet money had been a serpent the lad was holding towards him.

“No, no, my little man; return it to your mother; tell her to dry it carefully, and that I will call and see her to-night, when she can return the little parcel.”

George stood, his cap in one hand, and the other upon the door-knob; the man was much agitated, and perceiving the lad lingered, he thrust his hand into a carpet-bag, and hauling forth an old-fashioned wallet, he opened it, and taking thence a coin, put it in the hands of the lad and requested him to run home to his mother and deliver the message immediately. The lad did as he was ordered; and the poor washerwoman, the while, sat in her humble and ill-provided home, patiently awaiting the return of her boy, and fearing the anger of the gentleman at the hotel, when he should find his bank notes nearly, if not quite destroyed, would probably so indispose him towards the child that he would return empty-handed. But no; as the quick tread of the blithesome lad smote upon the widow's ear, she rushed to the door to receive him.

“Dear son, was the gentleman very angry?”

“Angry, dear mother? No! he was far from angry. He said you must dry these papers, and he would call to-night for them. And here, dear mother, he gave me a large piece of beautiful yellow money!” And the dutiful boy placed a golden doubloon in the trembling hand of the overjoyed mother. They were saved—the golden coin soon made the widow's domicil cheerful and happy.

It is almost needless to say, the five notes were not called for. They laid in the widow's bureau drawer two entire years, when a friend to the poor woman negotiated for their exchange into a dwelling-house and small store. And to this little incident does a certain elderly lady and her family owe their present prosperous and perfectly honorable position in the respectable society of the city of ——.


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