Kin by Jacob A. Riis
Early twilight was setting in on the Holy Eve. In the streets of the
city stirred the bustling preparation for the holiday. The great stores
were lighting up, and crowds of shoppers thronged the sidewalks and
stood stamping their feet in the snow at the crossings where endless
streams of carriages passed. At a corner where two such currents met
sat an old man, propped against a pillar of the elevated road, and
played on a squeaky fiddle. His thin hair was white as the snow that
fell in great soft flakes on his worn coat, buttoned tight to keep him
warm; his face was pinched by want and his back was bent. The tune he
played was cracked and old like himself, and it stirred no response in
the passing crowd. The tin cup in his lap held only a few coppers.
There was a jam of vehicles on the avenue and the crush increased.
Among the new-comers was a tall young woman in a fur coat, who stood
quietly musing while she waited, till a quavering note from the old
man's violin found its way into her reveries. She turned inquiringly
toward him and took in the forlorn figure, the empty cup, and the
indifferent throng with a glance. A light kindled in her eyes and a
half-amused smile played upon her lips; she stepped close to the
fiddler, touched his shoulder lightly, and, with a gesture of gentle
assurance, took the violin from his hands. She drew the bow across the
strings once or twice, tightened them, and pondered a moment.
Presently there floated out upon the evening the familiar strains of
Old Black Joe played by the hand of a master. It rose above the noise
of the street; through the rattle and roar of a train passing overhead,
through the calls of cabmen and hucksters, it made its way, and where
it went a silence fell. It was as if every ear was bent to listen. The
crossing was clear, but not a foot stirred at the sound of the
policeman's whistle. As the last strain of the tune died away, and was
succeeded by the appealing notes of 'Way Down upon the Suwanee River,
every eye was turned upon the young player. She stood erect, with
heightened color, and nodded brightly toward the old man. Silver coins
began to drop in his cup. Twice she played the tune to the end. At the
repetition of the refrain,
Oh, darkies, how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home,
a man in a wide-brimmed hat who had been listening intently emptied
his pockets into the old man's lap and disappeared in the crowd.
Traffic on street and avenue had ceased; not a wheel turned. From
street cars and cabs heads were poked to find out the cause of the
strange hold-up. The policeman stood spellbound, the whistle in his
half-raised hand. In the hush that had fallen upon the world rose clear
and sweet the hymn, It came upon a midnight clear, and here and there
hats came off in the crowd. Once more the young woman inclined her head
toward the old fiddler, and coins and banknotes were poured into his
cup and into his lap until they could hold no more. Her eyes were wet
with laughing tears as she saw it. When she had played the verse out,
she put the violin back into its owner's hands and with a low Merry
Christmas, friend! was gone.
The policeman awoke and blew his whistle with a sudden blast, street
cars and cabs started up, business resumed its sway, the throng passed
on, leaving the old man with his hoard as he gazed with unbelieving
eyes upon it. The world moved once more, roused from its brief dream.
But the dream had left it something that was wanting before, something
better than the old man had found. Its heart had been touched.