An Astral Onion by Elia W. Peattie
WHEN Tig Braddock came to Nora Finnegan he was red-headed and freckled, and, truth to tell, he remained with these features to the end of his life -- a life prolonged by a lucky, if somewhat improbable, incident, as you shall hear.
Tig had shuffled off his parents as saurians, of some sorts, do their skins. During the temporary absence from home of his mother, who was at the bridewell, and the more extended vacation of his father, who, like Villon, loved the open road and the life of it, Tig, who was not a well-domesticated animal, wandered away. The humane society never heard of him, the neighbors did not miss him, and the law took no cognizance of this detached citizen -- this lost pleiad. Tig would have sunk into that melancholy which is attendant upon hunger, -- the only form of despair which babyhood knows, -- if he had not wandered across the path of Nora Finnegan. Now Nora shone with steady brightness in her orbit, and no sooner had Tig entered her atmosphere, than he was warmed and comforted. Hunger could not live where Nora was. The basement room where she kept house was redolent with savory smells; and in the stove in her front room -- which was also her bedroom -- there was a bright fire glowing when fire was needed.
Nora went out washing for a living. But she was not a poor washerwoman. Not at all. She was a washerwoman triumphant. She had perfect health, an enormous frame, an abounding enthusiasm for life, and a rich abundance of professional pride. She believed herself to be the best washer of white clothes she had ever had the pleasure of knowing, and the value placed upon her services, and her long connection with certain families with large weekly washings, bore out this estimate of herself -- an estimate which she never endeavored to conceal.
Nora had buried two husbands without being unduly depressed by the fact. The first husband had been a disappointment, and Nora winked at Providence when an accident in a tunnel carried him off -- that is to say, carried the husband off. The second husband was not so much of a disappointment as a surprise. He developed ability of a literary order, and wrote songs which sold and made him a small fortune. Then he ran away with another woman. The woman spent his fortune, drove him to dissipation, and when he was dying he came back to Nora, who received him cordially, attended him to the end, and cheered his last hours by singing his own songs to him. Then she raised a headstone recounting his virtues, which were quite numerous, and refraining from any reference to those peculiarities which had caused him to be such a surprise.
Only one actual chagrin had ever nibbled at the sound heart of Nora Finnegan -- a cruel chagrin, with long, white teeth, such as rodents have! She had never held a child to her breast, nor laughed in its eyes; never bathed the pink form of a little son or daughter; never felt a tugging of tiny hands at her voluminous calico skirts! Nora had burnt many candles before the statue of the blessed Virgin without remedying this deplorable condition. She had sent up unavailing prayers -- she had, at times, wept hot tears of longing and loneliness. Sometimes in her sleep she dreamed that a wee form, warm and exquisitely soft, was pressed against her firm body, and that a hand with tiniest pink nails crept within her bosom. But as she reached out to snatch this delicious little creature closer, she woke to realize a barren woman's grief, and turned herself in anguish on her lonely pillow.
So when Tig came along, accompanied by two curs, who had faithfully followed him from his home, and when she learned the details of his story, she took him in, curs and all, and, having bathed the three of them, made them part and parcel of her home. This was after the demise of the second husband, and at a time when Nora felt that she had done all a woman could be expected to do for Hymen.
Tig was a preposterous baby. The curs were preposterous curs. Nora had always been afflicted with a surplus amount of laughter -- laughter which had difficulty in attaching itself to anything, owing to the lack of the really comic in the surroundings of the poor. But with a red-headed and freckled baby boy and two trick dogs in the house, she found a good and sufficient excuse for her hilarity, and would have torn the cave where echo lies with her mirth, had that cave not been at such an immeasurable distance from the crowded neighborhood where she lived.
At the age of four Tig went to free kindergarten; at the age of six he was in school, and made three grades the first year and two the next. At fifteen he was graduated from the high school and went to work as errand boy in a newspaper office, with the fixed determination to make a journalist of himself.
Nora was a trifle worried about his morals when she discovered his intellect, but as time went on, and Tig showed no devotion for any woman save herself, and no consciousness that there were such things as bad boys or saloons in the world, she began to have confidence. All of his earnings were brought to her. Every holiday was spent with her. He told her his secrets and his aspirations. He admitted that he expected to become a great man, and, though he had not quite decided upon the nature of his career, -- saving, of course, the makeshift of journalism, -- it was not unlikely that he would elect to be a novelist like -- well, probably like Thackeray.
Hope, always a charming creature, put on her most alluring smiles for Tig, and he made her his mistress, and feasted on the light of her eyes. Moreover, he was chaperoned, so to speak, by Nora Finnegan, who listened to every line Tig wrote, and made a mighty applause, and filled him up with good Irish stew, many colored as the coat of Joseph, and pungent with the inimitable perfume of "the rose of the cellar." Nora Finnegan understood the onion, and used it lovingly. She perceived the difference between the use and abuse of this pleasant and obvious friend of hungry man, and employed it with enthusiasm, but discretion. Thus it came about that whoever ate of her dinners, found the meals of other cooks strangely lacking in savor, and remembered with regret the soups and stews, the broiled steaks, and stuffed chickens of the woman who appreciated the onion.
When Nora Finnegan came home with a cold one day, she took it in such a jocular fashion that Tig felt not the least concern about her, and when, two days later, she died of pneumonia, he almost thought, at first, that it must be one of her jokes. She had departed with decision, such as had characterized every act of her life, and had made as little trouble for others as possible. When she was dead the community had the opportunity of discovering the number of her friends. Miserable children with faces which revealed two generations of hunger, homeless boys with vicious countenances, miserable wrecks of humanity, women with bloated faces, came to weep over Nora's bier, and to lay a flower there, and to scuttle away, more abjectly lonely than even sin could make them. If the cats and the dogs, the sparrows and horses to which she had shown kindness, could also have attended her funeral, the procession would have been, from a point of numbers, one of the most imposing the city had ever known. Tig used up all their savings to bury her, and the next week, by some peculiar fatality, he had a falling out with the night editor of his paper, and was discharged. This sank deep into his sensitive soul, and he swore he would be an underling no longer -- which foolish resolution was directly traceable to his hair, the color of which, it will be recollected, was red.
Not being an underling, he was obliged to make himself into something else, and he recurred passionately to his old idea of becoming a novelist. He settled down in Nora's basement rooms, went to work on a battered type-writer, did his own cooking, and occasionally pawned something to keep him in food. The environment was calculated to further impress him with the idea of his genius.
A certain magazine offered an alluring prize for a short story, and Tig wrote one, and rewrote it, making alterations, revisions, annotations, and interlineations which would have reflected credit upon Honoré Balzac himself. Then he wrought all together, with splendid brevity and dramatic force, -- Tig's own words, -- and mailed the same. He was convinced he would get the prize. He was just as much convinced of it as Nora Finnegan would have been if she had been with him.
So he went about doing more fiction, taking no especial care of himself, and wrapt in rosy dreams, which, not being warm enough for the weather, permitted him to come down with rheumatic fever.
He lay alone in his room and suffered such torments as the condemned and rheumatic know, depending on one of Nora's former friends to come in twice a day and keep up the fire for him. This friend was aged ten, and looked like a sparrow who had been in a cyclone, but somewhere inside his bones was a wit which had spelled out devotion. He found fuel for the cracked stove, somehow or other. He brought it in a dirty sack which he carried on his back, and he kept warmth in Tig's miserable body. Moreover, he found food of a sort -- cold, horrible bits often, and Tig wept when he saw them, remembering the meals Nora had served him.
Tig was getting better, though he was conscious of a weak heart and a lamenting stomach, when, to his amazement, the Sparrow ceased to visit him. Not for a moment did Tig suspect desertion. He knew that only something in the nature of an act of Providence, as the insurance companies would designate it, could keep the little bundle of bones away from him. As the days went by, he became convinced of it, for no Sparrow came, and no coal lay upon the hearth. The basement window fortunately looked toward the south, and the pale April sunshine was beginning to make itself felt, so that the temperature of the room was not unbearable. But Tig languished; sank, sank, day by day, and was kept alive only by the conviction that the letter announcing the award of the thousanddollar prize would presently come to him. One night he reached a place, where, for hunger and dejection, his mind wandered, and he seemed to be complaining all night to Nora of his woes. When the chill dawn came, with chittering of little birds on the dirty pavement, and an agitation of the scrawny willow "pussies," he was not able to lift his hand to his head. The window before his sight was but "a glimmering square." He said to himself that the end must be at hand. Yet it was cruel, cruel, with fame and fortune so near! If only he had some food, he might summon strength to rally -- just for a little while! Impossible that he should die! And yet without food there was no choice.
Dreaming so of Nora's dinners, thinking how one spoonful of a stew such as she often compounded would now be his salvation, he became conscious of the presence of a strong perfume in the room. It was so familiar that it seemed like a sub-consciousness, yet he found no name for this friendly odor for a bewildered minute or two. Little by little, however, it grew upon him, that it was the onion -- that fragrant and kindly bulb which had attained its apotheosis in the cuisine of Nora Finnegan of sacred memory. He opened his languid eyes, to see if, mayhap, the plant had not attained some more palpable materialization.
Behold, it was so! Before him, in a brown earthen dish, -- a most familiar dish, -- was an onion, pearly white, in placid seas of gravy, smoking and delectable. With unexpected strength he raised himself, and reached for the dish, which floated before him in a halo made by its own steam. It moved toward him, offered a spoon to his hand, and as he ate he heard about the room the rustle of Nora Finnegan's starched skirts, and now and then a faint, faint echo of her old-time laugh -- such an echo as one may find of the sea in the heart of a shell.
The noble bulb disappeared little by little before his voracity, and in contentment greater than virtue can give, he sank back upon his pillow and slept.
Two hours later the postman knocked at the door, and receiving no answer, forced his way in. Tig, half awake, saw him enter with no surprise. He felt no surprise when he put a letter in his hand bearing the name of the magazine to which he had sent his short story. He was not even surprised, when, tearing it open with suddenly alert hands, he found within the check for the first prize -- the check he had expected.
All that day, as the April sunlight spread itself upon his floor, he felt his strength grow. Late in the afternoon the Sparrow came back, paler, and more bony than ever, and sank, breathing hard, upon the floor, with his sack of coal.
"I've been sick," he said, trying to smile. "Terrible sick, but I come as soon as I could."
"Build up the fire," cried Tig, in a voice so strong it made the Sparrow start as if a stone had struck him. "Build up the fire, and forget you are sick. For, by the shade of Nora Finnegan, you shall be hungry no more!"