Chapter XXXIV. Given a Chance
 

"Come in, Mr. Bagley," I said, "and bring the children. I want to talk with you all. Merton, you go home with Junior."

But, papa--" he objected.

"Do as I bid you," I said, firmly, and I entered the squalid abode.

The man and the children followed me wonderingly. I sat down and looked the man steadily in the eye for a moment.

"Let us settle one thing first," I began. "Do you think I am afraid of you?"

"S'pose not, with sich backin' as yer got," was the somewhat nervous reply.

"I told Mr. Jones after I came home last night that I should fight this thing alone if no one stood by me. But you see that your neighbors have reached the limit of forbearance. Now, Mr. Bagley, I didn't remain to threaten you. There has been enough of that, and from very resolute, angry men, too. I wish to give you and yours a chance. You've come to a place where two roads branch; you must take one or the other. You can't help yourself. You and your children won't be allowed to steal or prowl about any more. That's settled. If you go away and begin the same wretched life elsewhere, you'll soon reach the same result; you and your son will be lodged in jail and put at hard labor. Would you not better make up your mind to work for yourself and family, like an honest man? Look at these children. How are you bringing them up?--Take the road to the right. Do your level best, and I'll help you. I'll let bygones be bygones, and aid you in becoming a respectable citizen."

"Oh, Hank, do be a man, now that Mr. Durham gives you a chance," sobbed his wife; "you know we've been living badly."

"That's it, Bagley. These are the questions you must decide. If you'll try to be a man, I'll give you my hand to stand by you. My religion, such as it is, requires that I shall not let a man go wrong if I can help it. If you'll take the road to the right and do your level best, there's my hand."

The man showed his emotion by a slight tremor only, and after a moment's thoughtful hesitation he took my hand and said, in a hoarse, choking voice: "You've got a claim on me now which all the rest couldn't git, even if they put a rope around my neck. I s'pose I have lived like a brute, but I've been treated like one, too."

"If you'll do as I say, I'll guarantee that within six months you'll be receiving all the kindness that a self-respecting man wants," I answered.

Then, turning to his wife, I asked, "What have you in the house to eat?"

"Next to nothin'," she said, drying her eyes with her apron, and then throwing open their bare cupboard.

"Put on your coat, Bagley, and come with me," I said,

He and his wife began to be profuse with thanks.

"No, no!" I said, firmly. "I'm not going to give you a penny's worth of anything while you are able to earn a living. You shall have food at once; but I shall expect you to pay for it in work. I am going to treat you like a man and a woman, and not like beggars."

A few minutes later, some of the neighbors were much surprised to see Bagley and myself going up the road together.

My wife, Merton, and tender-hearted Mousie were at the head of the lane watching for me. Reassured, as we approached, they returned wonderingly to the house, and met us at the door.

"This is Mrs. Durham," I said. "My dear, please give Mr. Bagley ten pounds of flour and a piece of pork. After you're had your dinner, Mr. Bagley, I shall expect you, as we've agreed. And if you'll chain up that dog of yours, or, better still, knock it on the head with an axe, Mrs. Durham will go down and see your wife about fixing up your children."

Winifred gave me a pleased, intelligent look, and said, "Come in, Mr. Bagley;" while Merton and I hastened away to catch up with neglected work.

"Your husband's been good to me," said the man, abruptly.

"That's because he believes you are going to be good to yourself and your family," was her smiling reply.

"Will you come and see my wife?" he asked.

"Certainly, if I don't have to face your dog," replied Winifred.

"I'll kill the critter soon's I go home," muttered Bagley.

"It hardly pays to keep a big, useless dog," was my wife's practical comment.

In going to the cellar for the meat, she left him alone for a moment or two with Mousie; and he, under his new impulses, said: "Little gal, ef my children hurt your flowers agin, let me know, and I'll thrash 'em!"

The child stole to his side and gave him her hand, as she replied, "Try being kind to them."

Bagley went home with some new ideas under his tattered old hat. At half-past twelve he was on hand, ready for work.

"That dog that tried to bite ye is dead and buried," he said, "and I hope I buried some of my dog natur' with 'im,"

"You've shown your good sense. But I haven't time to talk now. The old man has mown a good deal of grass. I want you to shake it out, and, as soon as he says it's dry enough, to rake it up. Toward night I'll be out with the wagon, and we'll stow all that's fit into the barn. To-morrow I want your two eldest children to come and pick berries."

"I'm in fer it, Mr. Durham. You've given me your hand, and I'll show yer how that goes furder with me than all the blood-and-thunder talk in Maizeville," said Bagley, with some feeling.

"Then you'll show that you can be a man like the rest of us," I said, as I hastened to our early dinner.

My wife beamed and nodded at me. "I'm not going to say anything to set you up too much," she said. "You are great on problems, and you are solving one even better than I hoped."

"It isn't solved yet," I replied. "We have only started Bagley and his people on the right road. It will require much patience and good management to keep them there. I rather think you'll have the hardest part of the problem yet on your hands. I have little time for problems now, however, except that of making the most of this season of rapid growth and harvest. I declare I'm almost bewildered when I see how much there is to be done on every side. Children, we must all act like soldiers in the middle of a fight. Every stroke must tell. Now, we'll hold a council of war, so as to make the most of the afternoon's work. Merton, how are the raspberries?"

"There are more ripe, papa, than I thought there would be."

"Then, Winnie, you and Bobsey must leave the weeding in the garden and help Merton pick berries this afternoon."

"As soon as it gets cooler," said my wife, "Mousie and I are going to pick, also."

"Very well," I agreed. "You can give us raspberries and milk to- night, and so you will be getting supper at the same time. Until the hay is ready to come in, I shall keep on hoeing in the garden, the weeds grow so rapidly. Tomorrow will be a regular fruit day all around, for there are two more cherry-trees that need picking."

Our short nooning over, we all went to our several tasks. The children were made to feel that now was the chance to win our bread for months to come, and that there must be no shirking. Mousie promised to clear away the things while my wife, protected by a large sun-shade, walked slowly down to the Bagley cottage. Having seen that Merton and his little squad were filling the baskets with raspberries properly, I went to the garden and slaughtered the weeds where they threatened to do the most harm.

At last I became so hot and wearied that I thought I would visit a distant part of the upland meadow, and see how Bagley was progressing. He was raking manfully, and had accomplished a fair amount of work, but it was evident that he was almost exhausted. He was not accustomed to hard work, and had rendered himself still more unfit for it by dissipation.

"See here, Bagley," I said, "you are doing well, but you will have to break yourself into harness gradually. I don't wish to be hard upon you. Lie down under this tree for half an hour, and by that time I shall be out with the wagon."

"Mr. Durham, you have the feelin's of a man for a feller," said Bagley, gratefully. "I'll make up the time arter it gets cooler."

Returning to the raspberry patch, I found Bobsey almost asleep, the berries often falling from his nerveless hands. Merton, meanwhile, with something of the spirit of a martinet, was spurring him to his task. I remembered that the little fellow had been busy since breakfast, and decided that he also, of my forces, should have a rest. He started up when he saw me coming through the bushes, and tried to pick with vigor again. As I took him up in my arms, he began, apprehensively, "Papa, I will pick faster, but I'm so tired!"

I reassured him with a kiss which left a decided raspberry flavor on my lips, carried him into the barn, and, tossing him on a heap of hay, said, "Sleep there, my little man, till you are rested."

He was soon snoring blissfully, and when I reached the meadow with the wagon, Bagley was ready to help with the loading.

"Well, well!" he exclaimed, "a little breathin'-spell does do a feller good on a hot day."

"No doubt about it," I said. "So long as you are on the right road, it does no harm to sit down a bit, because when you start again it's in the right direction."

After we had piled on as much of a load as the rude, extemporized rack on my market wagon could hold, I added, "You needn't go to the barn with me, for I can pitch the hay into the mow. Rake up another load, if you feel able."

"Oh, I'm all right now," he protested.

By the time I had unloaded the hay, I found that my wife and Mousie were among the raspberries, and that the number of full, fragrant little baskets was increasing rapidly.

"Winifred, isn't this work, with your walk to the Bagley cottage, too much for you?"

"Oh, no," she replied, lightly. "An afternoon in idleness in a stifling city flat would have been more exhausting. It's growing cool now. What wretched, shiftless people those Bagleys are! But I have hopes of them. I'm glad Bobsey's having a nap."

"You shall tell me about your visit to-night. We are making good progress. Bagley is doing his best. Winnie," I called, "come here."

She brought her basket, nearly filled, and I saw that her eyes were heavy with weariness also.

"You've done well to-day, my child. Now go and look after your chickens, big and little. Then your day's work is done, and you can do what you please;" and I started for the meadow again.

By six o'clock, we had in the barn three loads of hay, and Merton had packed four crates of berries ready for market. Bobsey was now running about, as lively as a cricket, and Winnie, with a child's elasticity, was nearly as sportive. Bagley, after making up his half-hour, came up the lane with a rake, instead of his ugly dog as on the evening before. A few moments later, he helped me lift the crates into the market wagon; and then, after a little awkward hesitation, began:

"I say, Mr. Durham, can't ye give a feller a job yerself? I declar' to you, I want to brace up; but I know how it'll be down at Rollins's. He'll be savage as a meat-axe to me, and his men will be a-gibin'. Give me a job yerself, and I'll save enough out o' my wages to pay for his chickens, or you kin keep 'nuff back to pay for 'em."

I thought a moment, and then said, promptly: "I'll agree to this if Rollins will. I'll see him to-night."

"Did yer wife go to see my wife?"

"Yes, and she says she has hopes of you all. You've earned your bread to-day as honestly as I have, and you've more than paid for what my wife gave you this morning. Here's a quarter to make the day square, and here's a couple of baskets of raspberries left over. Take them to the children." "Well, yer bring me right to the mark," he said, emphasizing his words with a slap on his thigh. "I've got an uphill row to hoe, and it's good ter have some human critters around that'll help a feller a bit."

I laughed as I clapped him on the shoulder, and said: "You're going to win the fight, Bagley. I'll see Rollins at once, for I find I shall need another man awhile."

"Give me the job then," he said, eagerly, "and give me what you think I'm wuth;" and he jogged off home with that leaven of all good in his heart--the hope of better things.