My Mother’s Ring
I am living now on borrowed time. The sun of my allotted life-day has set, and with the mellow twilight of old age there come to my memory reflections of a life which, if not well spent, has in it enough of good at least to make these reflections pleasant. And yet, during all the years in which I have responded to the name Carter Brassfield, but a single fortnight of time, it seems to me, is worth recounting.
We were living in Milwaukee, having recently moved there from York State, where I was born. My father, a bookkeeper of some expertness, not securing a position in our newly adopted city as soon as he had expected, became disheartened, and, to while away the time that hung so heavily, took to drinking beer with some newly acquired German friends. The result was that our funds were exhausted much sooner than they should have been, and Mother took it upon herself to turn breadwinner for the family by doing some plain sewing.
A small allotment of this money she gave to me one day on my return from school, and sent me to Mr. Blodget, the grocer, to purchase some supplies. After giving my order to one of the clerks I immediately turned my attention to renewing my acquaintance with Tabby, the store cat.
While I was thus engaged, I heard my name repeated by a stranger who was talking with Mr. Blodget, and erelong the man sauntered over, spoke to me, and after some preliminary remarks asked if I was Carter Brassfield. He was dark, had a sweeping mustache, and wore eyeglasses. Upon being assured that I was Carter Brassfield, he took from his pocket a gold ring, and, turning it around carefully in the light, read the inscription on its inner side.
“Is your mother’s name Alice?” he asked.
I told him that it was.
“And your father’s name Carter?”
“Yes, sir,” said I.
Then he showed the ring to me and asked if I had seen it before.
I at once recognized the ring as my mother’s. Since I could remember she had worn it, until recently. Of late she had grown so much thinner that the ring would no longer stay on her finger, and she was accustomed, therefore, to keep the circlet in a small drawer of her dresser, secure in an old purse with some heirlooms of coins; and I was greatly surprised that it should be in the possession of this stranger. I told him that it was my mother’s ring, and asked him how he came by it.
“Your father put it up in a little game the other day,” said he, “and it fell into my possession.” He dropped the ring into his purse, which he then closed with a snap. “I have been trying for several days to see your father and give him a chance at the ring before I turned it in to the pawnbroker’s. If your mother has any feeling in the matter, tell her she can get the ring for ten dollars,” he added as he turned away.
I did not know what to do. I was so ashamed and hurt to think that my father, whom I loved and in whom I had such implicit confidence, should have gambled away my mother’s ring, the very ring—I was old enough to appreciate—he had given her in pledging to her his love. My eyes filled with tears, and as I stood, hesitating, Mr. Blodget came forward, admonishing me not to forget my parcels. He evidently observed my tears, although I turned my face the other way, for shame of crying. At any rate, he put his hand on my shoulder and said very kindly, “It’s pretty tough, Carter, my boy, isn’t it?”
He referred, I thought, to my father, for Father was uppermost in my thoughts.
Lowering his voice, he said, “But I will help you out, son, I will help you out.”
I forgot all about hiding my tears, and faced about, attracted by his kindness.
“I will redeem the ring, and keep it for you until you can get the money. What do you say? You can rest easy then, knowing that it is safe, and you can take your time. What do you say?”
With some awkwardness I acquiesced to his plan. Then he called the stranger, and, leading the way back to his desk, paid to him the ten dollars, requiring him to sign a paper, though I did not understand why. He then placed the ring carefully in his safe.
“There, Carter,” said he, rubbing his hands together, “it is safe now, and we need not worry.”
I held out my hand to him, then without a word took my parcels and started on a run for home.
That evening Father was more restless than usual. He repeatedly lamented his long-enforced idleness. After retiring that night, I lay awake for a long time evolving in my mind plans whereby I might earn ten dollars to redeem the ring. Finally, with my boyish heart full of hope and adventure, I fell asleep in the wee hours of morning.
After breakfast I took my books, as usual, but, instead of going to school, I turned my steps toward a box factory where I knew a boy of about my own age to be working. I confided to him as much of my story as I thought advisable, and he took me to the superintendent’s office and introduced me. I was put to work, at five dollars a week, with the privilege of stopping at four each day. Every afternoon I brought my schoolbooks home and studied as usual till bedtime, and took them with me again in the morning.
During the two weeks I was employed at the factory neither Father nor Mother suspected that I had not been to school each day. In fact, I studied so assiduously at night that I kept up with my classes. But my mother observed that I grew pale and thin.
At the end of two weeks, when I told the manager I wanted to stop work, he seemed somewhat disappointed. He paid me two crisp five-dollar notes, and I went very proudly to Mr. Blodget with the first ten dollars I had ever earned, and received that gentleman’s hearty praise, and my mother’s ring.
That evening Father was out as usual, and I gave the ring to mother, telling her all about it, and what I had done. She kissed me, and, holding me close in her arms for a long time, cried, caressing my hair with her hand, and told me that I was her dear, good boy. Then we had a long talk about father, and agreed to lay nothing to him, at present, about the ring.
The next evening, when I returned from school, Father met me at the hall door, and asked if I had been to school. I saw that he had been drinking, and was not in a very amiable mood.
“I met Clarence Stevenson just now,” he said, “and he inquired about you. He thought you were sick, and said you had not been to school for two weeks, unless you had gone today.” I stood for a moment without answering. “What do you say to that?” he demanded.
“Clarence told the truth, Father,” I replied.
“He did, eh? What do you mean by running away from school in this manner?” He grew very angry, catching me by the shoulder, gave me such a jerk that my books, which I had under my arm, went flying in all directions. “Why have you not been to school?” he said thickly.
“I was working, but I did not intend to deceive you, Father.”
“Working! Working! Where have you been working?”
“At Mr. Hazleton’s box factory.”
“At a what factory?”
“How much did you earn?” he growled, watching me closely to see if I told the truth.
“Five dollars a week,” I said timidly, feeling all the time that he was exacting from me a confession that I wished, on his account, to keep secret.
“Five dollars a week! Where is the money? Show me the money!” he persisted incredulously.
“I cannot, Father. I do not have it.”
I was greatly embarrassed and frightened at his conduct.
“Where is it?” he growled.
“I—I—spent it,” I said, not thinking what else to say.
A groan escaped through his shut teeth as he reeled across the hall and took down a short rawhide whip that had been mine to play with. Although he had never punished me severely, I was now frightened at his anger.
“Don’t whip me, father!” I pleaded, as he came staggering toward me with the whip. “Don’t whip me, please!”
I started to make a clean breast of the whole matter, but the cruel lash cut my sentence short. I had on no coat, only my waist, and I am sure a boy never received such a whipping as I did.
I did not cry at first. My heart was filled only with pity for my father. Something lay so heavy in my breast that it seemed to fill up my throat and choke me. I shut my teeth tightly together, and tried to endure the hurt, but the biting lash cut deeper and deeper until I could stand it no longer. Then my spirit broke, and I begged him to stop. This seemed only to anger him the more, if such a thing could be. I cried for mercy, and called for mother, who was out at one of the neighbor’s. Had she been at home, I am sure she would have interceded for me. But he kept on and on, his face as white as the wall. I could feel something wet running down my back, and my face was slippery with blood, when I put up my hand to protect it. I thought I should die; everything began to go round and round. The strokes did not hurt any longer; I could not feel them now. The hall suddenly grew dark, and I sank upon the floor. Then I suppose he stopped.
When I returned to consciousness, I was lying on the couch in the dining room, with a wet cloth about my forehead, and mother was kneeling by me, fanning me and crying. I put my arms about her neck, and begged her not to cry, but my head ached so dreadfully that I could not keep back my own tears. I asked where Father was, and she said he went downtown when she came. He did not return at suppertime, nor did we see him again until the following morning.
I could eat no supper that night before going to bed, and Mother came and stayed with me. I am sure she did not sleep, for as often as I dropped off from sheer exhaustion, I was wakened by her sobbing. Then I, too, would cry. I tried to be brave, but my wounds hurt me so, and my head ached. I seemed to be thinking all the time of Father. My poor father! I felt sorry for him, and kept wondering where he was. All through the night it seemed to me that I could see him drinking and drinking, and betting and betting. My back hurt dreadfully, and mother put some ointment and soft cotton on it.
It was late in the morning when I awoke, and heard Mother and Father talking downstairs. With great difficulty, I climbed out of bed and dressed myself. When I went down, mother had a fire in the dining room stove, and Father was sitting, or rather lying, with both arms stretched out upon the table, his face buried between them. By him on a plate were some slices of toast that Mother had prepared, and a cup of coffee, which had lost its steam without being touched.
I went over by the stove and stood looking at Father. I had remained there but a moment, my heart full of sympathy for him, and wondering if he were ill, when he raised his head and looked at me. I had never before seen him look so haggard and pale. As his eyes rested on me, the tears started down my cheeks.
“Carter, my child,” he said hoarsely, “I have done you a great wrong. Can you forgive me?”
In an instant my arms were about his neck—I felt no stiffness nor soreness now. He folded me to his breast, and cried, as I did.
After a long time he spoke again. “If I had only known—your mother has just told me. It was the beer, Carter, the beer. I will never touch the stuff again, never,” he said faintly. Then he stretched out his arms upon the table, and bowed his head upon them. I stood awkwardly by, the tears streaming down my cheeks, but they were tears of joy.
Mother, who was standing in the kitchen doorway with her apron to her eyes, came and put her arm about him, and said something, very gently, which I did not understand. Then she kissed me several times. I shall never forget the happiness of that hour.
For a long time after that Father would not go downtown in the evening unless I could go with him. He lived to a good old age, and was for many years head bookkeeper for Mr. Blodget. He kept his promise always.
Mother is still living, and still wears the ring.