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The Poorhouse Waif | Isabel C. Byrum

From Bad to Worse

“What bliss is born of sorrow!
’Tis never sent in vain—
The heavenly Surgeon maims to save,
He gives no useless pain.”


Something more than six years had passed since the departure of Mrs. Fischer from the county poor-house, but still the place was little changed. Mr. Engler was once more in the office of the institution. This time he was there to interview a stranger concerning the child Edwin. There was still the same strong odor of nicotine in the room, and the furniture and the condition of the walls and the floor still told of much want and wretchedness, as well as of habits that were unclean; but apparently as little heed was given to the fact by the stranger as had been manifested by the selfish mother.

It seems that the word that Mrs. Fischer was receiving generous pensions both for herself and for the support of her children had been carried to the board that governed the affairs of the poorhouse. Finding that none of the amount had been paid into that institution, orders had been issued to the effect that Mrs. Fischer must either pay for the support of her child or take him away from the poorhouse. Having received a notice from Mr. Engler of the board’s decision, she had decided to have him brought to her own home, and the stranger was no other than the boy’s own uncle. He had come with horse and buggy, at the mother’s request, he had told Mr. Engler, and he would appreciate having the child brought to him as quickly as possible, as he had no time to lose.

“And so the heartless woman’s sent for her child at last, has she?” Mr. Engler said in a tone that might have inferred several things.

“Yes, that was her order,” was the reply, and Mr. Engler left the room at once to bring the fatherless and worse than motherless boy. The steward smiled as he thought of the contrast between Edwin and his uncle. The latter, a large, powerful man, was well-dressed and was apparently of a strong will, and the peculiar light within his eye and the hard lines about his mouth revealed the same characteristics that had been so prominent in the mother. Edwin, on the other hand, was small for his age and hollow-eyed from lack of sufficient food to satisfy his hunger, and his clothes were ragged and soiled. The honest, straightforward expression of the large brown eyes and the marks of refinement around his mouth made up, however, for what he otherwise lacked.

In a room where several other children were playing Edwin was found, but he was taking no part in the games. In fact, many things were done by the children in the poorhouse day after day that he did not enjoy and in which he would take no part. If questioned he could not have explained why he felt as he did about their actions, but he preferred turning to the window, where he could look out upon God’s creation. The little birds that had charmed him in his rambles had long been his friends, and as he gazed through an open window, he could see a nest full of small fuzzy heads waiting for the parent birds to bring them a meal of worms. Many times the bills had been raised and the mouths opened wide because of the rustling of the leaves above or below them, and the boy was glad when they could realize that their expected meal was there.

In answer to Mr. Engler’s order to come at once to the office, Edwin followed, but before he entered the room, Mrs. Engler saw to it that his clothing was changed, so that he would be a little more respectable to appear in public.

It was evident that, when Edwin, clad in a pair of faded blue overalls and shirt, entered the presence of his uncle, the latter was greatly surprised at the slight figure before him, but he sought to conceal his thoughts and said, “Edwin, I’m your uncle and have come to take you home to your mother.”

Very pleasantly these words fell upon Edwin’s ears, but he associated them with his rambles; for he knew nothing at all about his father or mother, not even that any such relation was necessary in life. He therefore was glad, but said nothing, for he knew not what to say. Mistaking the meaning of his silence for timidity, the uncle spoke again.

“Come on now, boy; I am here with a horse and buggy to take you to your mother’s home. Will you be glad to see your mother?”

But again Edwin was at a loss to know what to say, but his thoughts were that the man before him was very large. It was not until his uncle said impatiently, “Come along!” that he understood, and this command he instantly obeyed.

A moment later the two were standing beside a large, noble-looking, brown horse that was hitched to an open buggy. Next he felt a pair of strong hands placed upon his shoulders, and then he was lifted high in the air to a seat that was so different from the bed of the old ox-wagon that he had to examine and rub his hand over the soft cushion. When his uncle took the seat beside him, everything about him began to move, and he thought of the few times when the children had been taken for rides behind the large team of oxen. But he had never been away from the poorhouse farm, and when they passed from the driveway onto the public highway, he remembered that the children had been forbidden to leave the place, and he wondered what it all meant. He was not troubled, however, for Mr. Engler knew of his going, and he reasoned that since he was not going of his own accord, it must be all right.

As there was nothing else for him to do as he and his uncle rode along, he began to look about at the many interesting things. The herds in the large meadow-lands reminded him of the poorhouse cattle, and as he saw the little “jumper-men” skipping about in the tall grass, so many pleasant recollections were brought to his mind that he laughed aloud. They met other horses and buggies similar to their own as well as covered carriages, and passed some horses quite like his uncle’s tied to hitching-racks in front of houses or running about in the rich pasturelands.

The musical birds also added much to the boy’s enjoyment when he heard them now and then singing in some tree-top or bower, but all that he thought about any of the beautiful things around him was unexpressed and securely fastened within his little mind for future meditation. His small store of knowledge had been gained in this way, but it seemed to be God’s method of teaching him the lessons that in later years would be the most useful to him.

Occasionally he turned to look at the “big man” by his side, and each time, beneath the poverty-branded garments, there throbbed a heart full of the deepest esteem, and his desire to do his very best to win the confidence and friendship of his new companion was strong. This was not a new impulse in Edwin, for he had always endeavored to please every one, and in doing this he had found real pleasure.

The afternoon was rapidly passing away, and as the sun sank in the western horizon, the blue sky above him became streaked with crimson and gold. Then Edwin noticed that the houses were closer together, but he did not know that it was because he was entering a village and was close to his mother’s home.

During the entire journey from the poorhouse the uncle had been silent, but suddenly Edwin saw the right line tightening, and in answer to the uncle’s command, “Whoa, there, Bill!” they stopped close beside a hitching-post.

Without a word of explanation the uncle sprang lightly to the ground and after tying the horse grasped Edwin’s shoulders and roughly placed him upon the ground. Again the boy’s decision to endeavor to please was strengthened, and when the uncle started toward the pretty brown house just inside the picket fence and repeated the words he had used at the poorhouse, “Come along,” Edwin instantly obeyed.

As they passed in through the open gateway, Edwin noticed pretty flower-bushes. His uncle told him that it was his mother’s home. As they stepped upon the porch, Edwin could not refrain from sniffing in some of the delicious fragrance of the honey-suckle blossoms dangling so gracefully here and there from the pillars of the porch, but he was hurried on.

When they entered the house, Edwin looked about in amazement, for everything seemed so very beautiful. Then he saw a woman sitting near a window with a piece of sewing in her hands and three children—a boy about his own size, a girl, and a boy younger—playing on the floor.

“This is your mother,” he heard his uncle say.

Without rising or giving the child a word of welcome, the unfeeling woman said to the uncle:

“What do you think of him?”

“I don’t know what to think,” was the uncle’s answer. “He hasn’t said a word since Engler turned him over into my care, and I certainly tried hard to get something out of him. All he did until I told him to come along was to stare at me with those large brown eyes of his. While we were riding along, though, he seemed to see everything there was to see, and by the way he kept smiling to himself one would have supposed he was looking at a circus.”

Ah, could they have known the deep thoughts that had been passing through the childish mind even upon that trip, they would have understood better how to encourage him. With no consideration for the manner in which Edwin had been shut away from the better class of society and the proper helps that are usually thrown about the young, they at once gave him a low and degraded place in their estimation and pronounced him dull, stupid, and idiotic. All commands were given in a harsh tone and in such a manner that he could not comprehend them.

Before going farther into the life of Edwin, it might be well to explain that the uncle and his three small children were making their home with Edwin’s mother. The house in which they were living, although rented, contained many comforts and even luxuries; for the mother, aside from her pension-money, was being liberally paid by the uncle for keeping him and his family. And Edwin’s ignorance, as has already been inferred, was due to his lack of training and to the fact that everything in his mother’s house was so new and different from what he had been used to in the poorhouse.

“Go and wash yourself and get ready for supper,” he heard his mother say; but he had not been taught that this was necessary, and because he did not understand and so failed to obey, he was scolded and abused.

“You worthless thing!” his mother said. “I’m sorry I didn’t leave you at the poorhouse now and let you grow up with the cattle if you don’t know enough to wash before you eat.”

When supper was ready, she ordered Edwin to get around behind the table in a corner where he would be the farthest from her, and added, “Any place in my home is too good for the likes of you, and you shall stand while you eat. Do you hear?”

Evidently Edwin understood this command, for he had been used to eating his meals under just such trying circumstances, and he went at once to the place assigned him. The good food upon the table was very tempting, and when he had eaten all that was on his plate, he watched the other children to see what they would do when more was wanted, and when he saw them passing plates, he did the same.

He did not repeat this, however, for he found that he was not expected to share with the rest, or to eat until his hunger was satisfied. Without a murmur he did without the dainties that were given freely to the other children, and with a dry crust he finished his meal in silence.

When bedtime came, Edwin was given a place to sleep in an unused part of the house, and there, alone in the darkness, he could repeat the words that the kind old lady at the poorhouse had taught him. Then, while the rats and mice played hide-and-seek in the room about him, his eyelids closed in peaceful slumber.

We have heard that “there is nothing so bad that it could not have been worse.” For Edwin life seemed to be constantly growing more serious and dark, but “man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh upon the heart.”* (1 Samuel 16:7)