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Mittens by Ralph Henry Barbour

 

There was a loud and imperative knock at the study door. Stowell growled to himself at the interruption, took a deep breath and bellowed, “Come in!”

Then his eyes went back to the book on his knees. The knock was unmistakably that of “Chick” Reeves, and with “Chick” Stowell never stood on ceremony. But when a full minute had passed after the door had closed, without any of “Chick’s” customary demonstrations, such as the overturning of chairs, the wafting of pillows across the room, or the emitting of blood-curdling whoops, Stowell became alarmed for his fellow freshman’s health, and so, after many groans and much exertion, he sat up and put his head around the corner of the big armchair. What he saw surprised him.

The visitor was a stranger; a tall, raw-boned youth of about seventeen, with a homely, freckled face surmounted by a good deal of tousled, hemp-colored hair. His eyes were ridiculously blue and his cheeks held the remains of what had apparently been a generous tan. Altogether the face was attractive, if not handsome; the blue eyes looked candid and honest; the nose was straight and well-made; the mouth suggested good nature and strength of purpose. But it is not to be supposed that Jimmie Stowell reached these numerous conclusions on this occasion. On the contrary, the impression he received was of an awkward, illy-clothed boy holding a small paper parcel.

“Hello!” said Stowell.

The visitor had evidently been at a loss, for the back of the armchair had hidden his host from sight, and he had turned irresolutely toward the door again. Now he faced Stowell, observing him calmly.

“Hello!” he answered. He crossed the study deliberately, unwrapping his parcel as he went.

“Er—want to see me?” asked Stowell, puzzled.

“If you please.” There was no evidence of diffidence in the caller’s manner, and yet Stowell found it hard to reconcile his appearance with that commanding knock at the portal. The blue-eyed youth threw back the wrapping from his bundle and held it forth. Stowell took it wonderingly. Five pairs of coarse blue woolen mittens met his gaze. He frowned and viewed the caller suspiciously.

“What is it,” he growled, “a joke?”

“Mittens,” answered the other imperturbably. “I’m selling them.”

“Oh, I see.” He handed them back. “Well, I never wear them.” He turned toward his chair. “Hang these peddlers!” he said to himself.

“They’re very warm,” suggested the other.

“They look it,” answered Stowell, grimly. “But I wear gloves.”

“Oh, excuse me.” The visitor began to wrap them carefully up again. “That’s what everybody says. I wish I’d known it before.”

“But, Great Scott!” exclaimed Stowell, “you didn’t really think that any one wore that sort of thing nowadays? Why they look like—like socks!”

“Yes, I suppose they do. But up our way we generally wear them. You see, they’re warmer than gloves.”

“Where do you come from?”

“Michigan.”

“Michigan! Well, what are you doing here, then?”

“Studying.” He looked surprised at the question.

“Do you mean that you’re in college?” asked Stowell, in amazement. The other nodded.

“I’m a freshman.” Stowell’s perplexity increased. “I thought,” the other went on, “that I could sell some of these around college. I didn’t know about you all wearing gloves. I—I guess I’ll have to give it up.” There was disappointment in his voice.

“Are you doing this to make money?” Stowell asked.

“Yes, I’m only asking sixty cents. Does that seem too much?”

Stowell thought it was a good deal too much, but he didn’t say so, and the other went on.

“They’re regular lumberman’s mittens, you know, made of best woolen yarn and mighty warm. Of course, they don’t cost me that much, but I have to make something on them.”

“Oh, that’s reasonable enough,” said Stowell, hurriedly, “and, I tell you what you do. I’m dead broke this morning, but you come in later in the week and bring me a couple of pairs and I’ll have the money for you.”

But to his surprise the other shook his head smilingly.

“You just want to help me,” he said. “You wouldn’t wear them, I guess. But I’m thankful to you.” He placed his parcel under his arm and moved toward the door.

“Well, but hold on,” cried Stowell. “Don’t be an ass! Look here— By the way, what’s your name?”

“Shult.”

“Well, now you bring those along and I’ll wear them. You say they’re warm; that’s what I want, something warm. And—look here, have you got them in any other color?”

“No, they’re always blue, you know.”

“Oh!” Stowell felt that he had displayed unpardonable ignorance. “Yes, of course. Well, you bring a couple of pairs, say, Wednesday, will you?”

“All right,” answered Shult. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” murmured Stowell. The door closed behind his visitor and he went grinning back to his chair.

Half an hour later when “Chick” Reeves did come in, playfully tipping Stowell and the armchair on to the hearth-rug by way of greeting, Stowell told him about the Michigan freshie who was peddling blue woolen mitts, and told it so well that “Chick” sat on the floor and howled with delight.

“And you are going to wear them?” he gurgled.

“Why, I’ll have to,” answered Stowell, ruefully. “I wanted to help the beggar, and he wouldn’t sell them to me unless I wore them.”

“Then I’ll have to have a pair, too.”

“Oh, you’ll need a couple of pairs,” laughed Stowell, “one for week-days and one for Sundays.”

“Of course I will. A chap needs something nice for the theater. Where does ‘Mittens’ hang out?”

“Don’t know, I’m sure. His name’s Shoot or Shult; you can find him in the catalogue.”

“I will. And, say, maybe he sells blue socks, too, eh? If the cooperative hears of it they’ll have the law on him. Did you ask him if he had a license?”

“No.” Stowell looked down at Reeves thoughtfully.

Then he said slowly, “Now, look here, ‘Mittens,’ as you call him, is all right. So don’t go to having fun with him, hear?”

“Not me,” grinned “Chick.”

“Oh, no, you naturally wouldn’t,” growled Stowell. “But if you do I’ll break your head for you.”

Stowell had quite forgotten his strange visitor of the day before when, on Tuesday morning, he met him on the steps of University. Shult’s clothes looked more ill fitting than before, and it cost Stowell, who was accompanied by two extremely select members of his class, somewhat of an effort to stop and speak to him.

“Hello, Shult,” he said, “how are you getting along?”

The dealer in blue mittens flushed, whether with embarrassment or pleasure Stowell couldn’t tell, and paused on his way down the granite steps.

“Not very well,” he answered. “I—I’ve sold three pairs so far.”

“Hard luck,” answered Stowell. “Don’t forget mine, will you?”

“Oh, no; I’m—I’ll bring them to-morrow. Do you want them long or short?”

“Er—well, what would you suggest?” asked Stowell gravely.

“The long ones keep your wrists warmer, of course,” said Shult.

“Of course, I’ll take that kind,” Stowell decided. “I’ve a friend, by the way, fellow named Reeves, who said he’d take a couple of pairs. He was going to look you up. Seen him yet?”

“No, I haven’t. I could—I could call on him if you think he’d like me to?”

“No, it wouldn’t pay; you’d never find him in. I’ll tell him to look you up. Where’s your joint?”

“Joint?”

“Yes, your room, you know.”

“Oh,” said Shult. He gave an address that Stowell had never heard of. “I’m usually in at night,” he added.

They parted, and Stowell joined the two grinning freshmen inside. Their names were Clinton and Hazlett.

“Who’s your handsome friend?” asked one.

“Looks like a genius,” laughed the other. “What’s his line?”

“Mittens,” answered Stowell, gravely.

“What?”

“Mittens.”

Then the green door swung behind him.

At four o’clock the next afternoon Clinton, Hazlett and Stowell were sitting in the latter’s study. The fire roared in the grate and a northwest wind roared outside the curtained windows. There came a resounding thump on the door, and, without waiting a response, “Chick” Reeves bounded in. Standing just inside, he closed the portal, shook imaginary snowflakes from his cap, shivered and blew on his hands.

“Br-r-r,” he muttered, “’tis bitter cold! The river is caked with chokes of ice! I can not cross the river to-night! Hark, how the wind howls round the turret!”

Then, with sudden abandonment of melodrama, he made his way to the grate, spread his legs apart, and, with his back to the flames, grinned broadly upon Stowell. Gradually his grin grew into a laugh.

“You’re an awful idiot,” said Stowell.

“I know, I know,” chuckled Reeves. “But I’ve got the biggest joke you ever heard! It’s—it’s like a story. Listen, my children.” He turned to Stowell. “You remember ‘Mittens’?” Stowell nodded.

“I’ve been to see him, and——”

“Did you buy some mittens?” asked Hazlett, who, with Clinton, had at last heard of Stowell’s protégé.

“Yes, but listen. He lives in the queerest place you ever heard tell of; it’s down on one of those side streets toward the bridge; a regular tenement-house with brats all over the front steps and an eloquent, appealing odor of boiled cabbage and onions in the air. Well, I asked a woman in a calico wrapper where Mr. Shult lived and she directed me up two flights of stairs; told me to knock on the ‘sicond door to me roight.’ I knocked, a voice called, ‘Come in, Mrs. Brannigan,’ and I went in, politely explaining that, despite certain similarities of appearance, I was not Mrs. Brannigan. Well”—“Chick’s” risibilities threatened to master him again; he choked and went on. “Well, there was ‘Mittens.’ He was sitting in a sort of kitchen rocker with a Latin book on his knee and—and— Say, what do you think he was doing?”

“Grinding,” said Clinton.

“Sawing wood,” said Hazlett.

Stowell shook his head.

“You’d never guess,” howled Reeves, “never in a thousand years! He was—was—oh, golly!—he was knitting!”

Knitting!” It was a chorus of three incredulous voices.

“Yes, knitting! Knitting blue-woolen mittens!”

“By Jove!” muttered Stowell.

Clinton and Hazlett burst into peals of laughter.

“You—you ought to have seen his expression when he saw that I wasn’t Mrs. Brannigan,” went on “Chick,” wiping the tears from his eyes. “He stared and got as red as a beet; then he tried to get the thing out of sight. Of course, I apologized for intruding when he was busy, and he said it didn’t matter. And after a while he told me all about it. Seems he lives up in the backwoods—or whatever you call ’em—in Michigan; up among the lumber-camps, you know. His father’s dead, he told me, and his mother keeps a sort of hotel or boarding-house or something. Of course,” added “Chick,” with a note of apology in his voice, “that isn’t funny. But it seems that when he was a kid they taught him to knit, and made him do socks and mittens and things. I’ve forgotten a lot of it, but he wanted to go to college and hadn’t any money to speak of, and so they borrowed a little somewhere—enough for tuition—and now he’s trying to make enough on mittens to pay his board. He gets his room free for teaching some of the little Brannigans, I believe. He’s spunky, isn’t he? But I thought I’d keel over on the floor when I saw him sitting there for all the world like an old granny in the Christmas pictures, just making those needles fly. Maybe he can’t knit!”

“And then what?” asked Stowell, quietly.

“Chick’s” grin faded out a little.

“Why—er—that’s all, I guess. I ordered two pairs of the funny things and came away.”

Clinton and Hazlett were still chuckling. “Chick” looked from them to Stowell doubtfully and began to wonder what ailed the latter’s sense of humor.

“Knitting!” murmured Clinton, “think of it!”

“Yes,” said Stowell, suddenly, “that’s awfully funny, ‘Chick.’ Funniest thing I’ve heard for a long while. Do you know—” the tone made his friend stare in surprise—“I think you’ve got one of the most delicate humorous perceptions I’ve ever met up with. You have, indeed. Only you, ‘Chick,’ could have seen all the exquisite humor in the situation you’ve described. You ought to be proud of yourself.”

Clinton and Hazlett had ceased their chuckles and were looking over at their host, their faces reflecting the surprise and uneasiness upon “Chick’s.”

“Here’s a poor duffer,” went on Stowell, “without money; father dead; mother takes boarders to make a living; wants to go to college and learn to be something a little better than a backwoods lumberman. He gets enough money together somehow—I think you said they borrowed it, ‘Chick’?”

That youth nodded silently.

“Yes, borrowed enough to pay the tuition fee. And then he’s thrown on his own resources to make enough to buy himself things to eat. I suppose even these backwoods beggars have to eat once in a while, Clint? And having learned how to knit blue-woolen mittens—awfully funny looking things, they are—he just goes ahead and knits them, rather than starve to death, and tries to sell them to a lot of superior beings like you and me here, not knowing in his backwoods ignorance that we only wear Fownes’s or Dent’s, and that we naturally look down on fellows who——”

“Oh, dry up, old man,” growled “Chick.” “I haven’t been saying anything against the duffer. Of course he’s plucky and all that. You needn’t jump on a fellow so.”

“Yes, he has got grit, and that’s a fact,” Clinton allowed. “Only, of course, knitting—well, it’s a bit out of the ordinary, eh?”

“I suppose it is,” answered Stowell. “In fact ‘Mittens’ is a bit out of the ordinary himself. He’s——”

There was a knock at the door, and, in response to Stowell’s invitation, Shult, tall, ungainly, tow-haired, freckle-faced, entered and paused in momentary embarrassment as his blue eyes lighted on Reeves.

“Hello, Shult; come in,” called Stowell. “Have you brought those mittens?”

Shult had, and he undid them carefully, and crossing the study, handed them to their purchaser.

“Ah,” continued Stowell, drawing one of the heavy blue things on to his hand, “long wrists, I see. That’s fine. Like to see them, Bob?” Hazlett said that he would. Every one was very silent and grave. Reeves, after nodding to Shult, had busied himself with a magazine. Now he leaned over Hazlett’s shoulder and examined the mittens with almost breathless interest. Clinton craned his head forward and Stowell handed the other pair to him for inspection. Shult stood silently by, his embarrassment gone.

“Look as though they’d be very warm,” said Hazlett, in the voice of one hazarding an opinion on a matter of national importance. He looked inquiringly, deferentially, up at Shult.

“Warm as toast,” said the latter.

“Seem well made, too,” said Clinton. Then he colored and glanced apologetically at Stowell. Stowell turned his head.

“Do you get these hereabouts, Shult?” he asked. There was a moment’s hesitation. Then,

“I—I knit them myself,” said the freshman, quietly.

“Not really!” exclaimed Stowell, in much surprise. “Did you hear that, Clint? He makes them himself. It must be quite a knack, eh?”

“I should say so!” Clinton exclaimed, enthusiastically. “It—it’s an accomplishment!”

“By Jove!” said Hazlett. They all stared admiringly at Shult.

“But, I say, don’t stand up,” exclaimed Stowell. “‘Chick,’ push that chair over.”

Shult sat down. He was very grateful to Reeves for not telling what he had seen during his call, and grateful to the others for not laughing at his confession. It had taken quite a deal of courage to make that confession, for he had anticipated ridicule. But instead these immaculately dressed fellows almost appeared to envy him his knowledge of the art of knitting woolen mittens. He was very pleased.

“I wonder—” began Clinton. He glanced doubtfully at his host. “I think I’d like to have some of these myself. Have you—er—any more, Mr. Shult?”

“Oh, yes; I can make a pair an evening, anyhow. I—I didn’t suppose you fellows would care for them.”

“Nonsense,” said Stowell. “They’re just what a chap needs around here. I—I used to wear them when I was a boy; after all, there’s nothing like old-fashioned mitts to keep your hands warm.”

“Nothing!” said Clinton.

“Nothing!” echoed Hazlett.

“Nothing!” murmured Reeves.

“If you could let me have—ah—about two pairs——”

Clinton’s request was firmly interrupted by his host.

“Nonsense, Clint, you’ll need at least four. I’m going to have a couple more myself.”

“I dare say you’re right. If you could let me have four pairs, Mr. Shult, I—ah—should be very much obliged.”

“And me the same,” said Hazlett.

“Yes, certainly,” answered Shult, flustered and vastly pleased. “You shall have them right off.”

“And let me see, ‘Chick,’” said Stowell, “didn’t I hear you say you wanted a couple more pairs?”

“Yes, oh, yes,” Reeves replied explosively. “Er—two pairs, please.”

Shult looked surprised. Fortune was favoring him beyond his wildest hopes. He muttered an incoherent answer. Then Stowell gravely paid him for the two pairs of intensely blue and shapeless objects in his lap and Shult made the exact change after repeated searches in three different pockets. At the door he turned.

“You are all very kind to me,” he said, gravely and earnestly. “I’m—I’m thankful to you.”

Stowell murmured politely.

After the door had closed there followed several moments of silence. Then a smile crept over Stowell’s face and was reflected on the faces of the others. But nobody laughed.


Possibly the reader recalls the epidemic of blue-woolen mittens that raged in college that winter. One saw them everywhere. The fashion started, they say, among a certain coterie of correct dressers in the freshman class and spread until it enveloped the entire undergraduate body. None could explain it, and none tried to; blue-woolen mitts were the proper thing; that was sufficient. At first the demand could not be supplied, but before the Midyears were over the Cooperative Society secured a quantity, and the furnishing stores followed its example as soon as possible. But blue-woolen mitts in sufficient quantities to fill the orders were difficult to find, and long before the shops had secured the trade in that commodity, one Shult, out of Michigan, had reaped a very respectable harvest and found a nickname which, despite the lapse of years and the accumulation of honors, still sticks—“Mittens.”