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The Uninvited Guest by Ella M. Baker

 

"Molly, put the kettle on,
Molly, put the kettle on,
Molly, put the kettle on—
We'll all take tea."

Thus sang the cheerful mother of the Donald family, as she set the kettle of potatoes over the fire to boil for breakfast. The kettle was a tight fit for so many potatoes, and Bonny, looking on with interest from his high chair by the fire, remarked,

"Full, mamma; ain't it?"

"Yes, laddie, full as it can hold—just like our house."

"How it spatters and boils over, mamma!"

"And our house spatters and boils over with us, too, wee one."

Sure enough the Donald dozen did live in such a small tenement that it was a puzzle how they ever could all get packed into it at once.

But then early in the morning the father went out to his work; Alec followed to the shop, Jeanie to the store, Nickie to sell morning papers, some to school and some to do errands, till Bonny and the baby would be left alone with the mother. Then, shutting the door after the last, she would say,

"Do you see how they all boil away, Bonny?" and she would sing merrily as she scrubbed, swept, and cooked.

She did not sing so often after father Donald fell one day and broke a leg. Nor did she fill the kettle of potatoes as full either after that. Mr. Donald lay helpless, and worried about the place he feared he should lose.

"But I've worked for the house till it seems I could not work anywhere else. If they'd only promise to let me back again when I'm able, I'd bear the rest with an easy mind," said the sick man, getting fevered and flushed.

"Lad, I can't have you fret so," spoke his wife at last. She took down her bonnet and shawl. "I'll go and ask the master myself. I don't believe he'll refuse a woman, and you such a faithful hand. Bonny is so good he won't be any trouble to you, and I'll take the baby along."

So Bonny climbed up by the window, and watched his mother and the baby "boil away" like the rest.

Then Bonny played by himself a long while, it seemed to him. He built a church tower with his blocks, like the tower he could see shooting up above the low roofs. He changed the blocks into street cars, and dragged them up and down the window-sill. He thumbed his torn picture-books; he thumped his rag doll. Getting tired of all, he flattened his dear little soft nose against the pane, watching the people tramp, tramping by on the brick sidewalks, and the carts, drays, carriages, that clamp, clamped over the stony street. He liked this, and crooned over to himself, contentedly, tunes that were no tunes, and words that he made up as he went along.

But time went on, and still his mother did not come. Bonny grew hungry, and crept down to ask papa about it. Papa was lying quiet and breathing heavily. Bonny had fairly sung his father to sleep.

It occurred to Bonny, as he tiptoed back, that there could be no good reason why he should not go and find his mother, or else Jeanie, or Nickie, or Ted. Jeanie's old red cape hung in the corner; quickly he threw it over his yellow head, and holding it fast under his chin with one hand, he lifted the latch and stepped forth.

He walked slowly and thoughtfully off in the direction he had seen his mother take, with short, nipping steps, like a meditative chickabiddy's. He had not a doubt that he should come to some member of his numerous family before long, but meanwhile he was thinking less of that than of the sights by the way. Two boys were racing velocipedes. To Bonny that was a splendid sight.

"I wist I had a velehorsipede," he whispered, with a pensive air.

On and on he plodded, blissfully bewildered, absorbed in these enchanting visions, until he found himself before a caterer's show window, tempting with crisp loaves of bread, daintily frosted cakes, and unspeakable cookies, tarts, jellies.

"Oh my! oh my!" cried Bonny, beginning at last to remember that he was nobody but a little hungry boy, "I'm hungry—I'm so hungry!"

While he stared with all his longing eyes, he heard these words spoken loudly right by his side, "Come on, then; we shall be sure of a good dinner."

Bonny turned round. Two men in tall black hats were striding by, and one, as he spoke, clapped the other on the shoulder. The invitation was not meant for Bonny at all. But that did not make any difference to him. He simply received the idea that if he followed these two men he should get to a dinner. So he pressed sturdily after them. He had to walk fast, and sometimes he almost lost sight of them in the throng. But Bonny was so hungry by this time that he was very much in earnest. He did not stop to watch the people, nor to look into any more shop windows.

It was really not long before the two tall hats were seen turning up some low, broad steps. The panting Bonny, tugging after, followed unnoticed through a wide door into a vast hall, all paved with marble. Quite confused and out of breath, Bonny suddenly stood still. Where he had lost sight of the two tall hats and the wearers of them he did not know.

"Seems like another out-doors," the child thought, looking up at the high ceiling; "but where's the dinner? There is a dinner; I smell it; it smells good. Seems to me I never did smell so much dinner in my life."

By this time he also became aware of a cheerful clatter of dishes and voices; and following the sound across the wide hall, he pushed open a great door that stood half ajar.

Sure enough, there before him lay table after table, adorned with spotless linen, and spread temptingly not only with flowers and fruit, but with plenty to eat.

How should little Bonny know that this was the day when the grand new Metropolis Hotel first opened to the public? How should he know that here were all the mighty men of the city—merchants, editors, ministers even—with their wives, met together by invitation to celebrate the dedication dinner? You see, they had not invited Bonny: nobody expected him; so at first nobody noticed him as he slipped noiselessly in.

The tables seemed so full of people that Bonny had to walk up the room to find a place. A queer hush fell on the clatter and the chatter. People dropped their forks. They watched this little figure with the sunny hair, the happy face, the shabby shoes, the tumbled check apron, that dragged after it the well-nigh forgotten red cape, and at last mounting into an empty chair, said, with a sigh of satisfaction, and in a very clear voice, "I want dinner, please."

Bonny glanced round him. He thought everybody looked pleased, and catching the eye of a lady who bent toward him, he smiled back a shy, friendly smile.

This lady was the first to speak to him. She crossed eagerly over and said, "May I sit beside you, dear? I knew a little boy once with yellow hair like yours."

Bonny never noticed that she had tears in her soft eyes now.

"I like your hair best," he answered, half timidly, half frankly. The lady's hair was very dark, and she wore in it a splendid yellow flower.

"But, please, I am so hungry! May I have dinner?"

Before the lady could answer, a stout gentleman came hurrying up.

"Well, well, let's see about this," he began, in a rollicking tone. "Shake hands, little stranger. So you came to my dinner, did you?"

Bonny dropped his head. He was rather afraid of the loud-voiced man; but the lady whom he was not afraid of said, re-assuringly, "This is the man who gives the dinner, little one; this is his house; he'll be very good to you, never fear."

So Bonny looked up then, and replied, simply, "I came; I was hungry, and I came."

The host cleared his throat, and said, heartily, while he patted Bonny's curls, "Well, I didn't expect you, that's a fact; but we'll give you just as good a dinner, for all that. A dinner?—I'll warrant you we will: and upon my word, ladies and gentlemen, I rather think the Metropolis Hotel is honored to have the chance."

Never, never had Bonny imagined such a dinner as he ate that day. The lady who sat by his side cut up the chicken, and helped him choose among the lavish dainties that the host kept insisting on having brought for him to taste.

Hungry? It seemed to Bonny that he never in this world could be hungry again.

His innocent heart ran over, and he told his new friend, the lady, all she asked him about his sick father, his tired mother, the little tenement that was like the kettle that all boiled away, and the big family that crammed it so full when gathered together. But one thing neither the lady, nor her husband, who filled Bonny's pocket with pennies, nor the host, could succeed in finding out from him.

This was where the little fellow belonged, and how to return him to his home.

Street and number he knew naught about. What was his name? "Bonny Laddie." His father's name? "Oh, John." What kind of work did his father do? "Oh, nothing; father is sick." He had no clear ideas associated with any calling except with Nickie's, as they found by questioning.

That Nickie peddled papers, and that Bonny would when he was bigger, he was very positive about.

"Well, then," suggested the host, "we'll try the newsboys. We'll just have Laddie standing by the door when they go past, and maybe he can pick out this brother of his from the lot."

The company sat for a long time round the tables. Bonny kept still, listening and wondering, though he understood little of the speeches and the toasts. Once all eyes were again turned toward Bonny.

A gentleman rose and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to propose the health of the first guest of the Metropolis Hotel, who, though uninvited, has given the patriarch of this palace the privilege of entertaining an angel unawares."

But Bonny answered nothing to the looks bent upon him. With one hand full of nuts and bonbons, the other in his heavy pocket, and a face of perfect peace, the little guest of the Metropolis Hotel lay fast asleep in his chair.

He was rosily awake again by the time the newsboys were crying their evening papers.

"Come and watch for Nickie," coaxed the host; and with Bonny's small, warm hand in his own he stepped out on the broad granite slab in front of the hotel.

"That isn't Nickie—nor that—nor that," Bonny kept saying at first. "Oh, Nickie!" he shouted, suddenly; and plunging forth into the street, tumbled against a small boy in big trousers and an overgrown cap, whose bundle of papers looked much fatter than he did.

Astonished Nickie, who had not been home since morning, could scarcely believe his senses at first, as he stared at his little brother through the dusk, the fog, and the rain-drops that now began to fall. However, he could answer all the questions that Laddie had been unable to satisfy, and in a very short interval a carriage had been summoned, the host had stowed away in it a capacious basket hastily filled with choice remnants from the feast, and Bonny Laddie was rolling toward his home in charge of the gentle stranger lady and her husband.

Was there ever in the most agitated of kettles such bubbling and boiling over as took place inside the crowded Donald tenement that night? Had not they all been breaking their loving, anxious hearts about Bonny Laddie, and lo! here he was, safe in the old red cape, smiling and shining as usual, and rather mystified at having such a fuss made over him.

The stranger lady, promising Bonny to come again, made haste to go away, but before going she had time to wonder at something she saw. Why did Bonny's tired but blithe-looking mother give the lady's husband such a sad, almost fearful, look? Why did he seem confused, and going over to the sick man, say, "I will reconsider that matter, John. You may rest easy"?

Afterward she understood. When John's master had that afternoon curtly refused Mrs. Donald's petition, and let her go away disappointed and distressed, her patient waiting and her earnest pleading having been in vain, he had considered himself right, from the stand-point of his own interest. But then he had known nothing of the clean, crowded household, and nothing of this yellow-haired laddie who reminded him of another little yellow-haired laddie who had been taken from him.