CRESSY’S NEW-YEAR’S RENT
in Junior Classics Volume 9
Fred Hallowell was sitting at his desk in the Gazette office, looking listlessly out into the City Hall Park, where the biting wind was making the snowflakes dance madly around the leafless trees and in the empty fountain, and he was almost wishing that there would be so few assignments to cover as to allow him an afternoon indoors to write “specials.” The storm was the worst of the season, and as this was the last day of December, it looked as if the old year were going out with a tumultuous train of sleet and snow. But if he had seriously entertained any hopes of enjoying a quiet day, these were dispelled by an office-boy who summoned him to the city desk.
“Good-morning, Mr. Hallowell,” said the city editor, cheerfully. “Here is a clipping from an afternoon paper which says that a French family in Houston Street has been dispossessed and is in want. Mr. Wilson called my attention to it because he thinks, from the number given, the house belongs to old Q. C. Baggold. We don’t like Baggold, you know, and if you find he is treating his tenants unfairly we can let you have all the space you want to show him up. At any rate, go over there and see what the trouble is; there is not much going on to-day.”
Fred took the clipping and read it as he walked back to his desk. It was very short—five or six lines only—and the facts stated were about as the city editor had said. The young man got into his overcoat and wrapped himself up warmly, and in a few moments was himself battling against the little blizzard with the other pedestrians whom he had been watching in the City Hall Park from the office windows.
When he reached Houston Street he travelled westward for several blocks, until he came into a very poor district crowded with dingy tenement-houses that leaned against one another in an uneven sort of way, as if they were tired of the sad kind of life they had been witnessing for so many years. The snow that had piled up on the window-sills and over the copings seemed to brighten up the general aspect of the quarter, because it filled in the cracks and chinks of material misery, and made the buildings look at least temporarily picturesque, just as paint and powder for a time may hide the traces of old age and sorrow. Fred found the number 179 painted on a piece of tin that had become bent and rusty from long service over a narrow doorway, and as he stood there comparing it with the number given in his clipping, a little girl with a shawl drawn tightly over her head and around her thin little shoulders came out of the dark entrance and stopped on the door-sill for a moment, surprised, no doubt, at the sight of the tall rosy-cheeked young man so warmly clad in a big woollen overcoat that you could have wrapped her up in several times, with goods left over to spare.
“Hello! little girl,” said Fred, quickly. “Does Mr. Cressy live here?”
The child stared for a few seconds at the stranger, and then she answered, bashfully: “Yes, sir. But he has got to go away.”
“But he hasn’t gone yet?” continued Fred; and then noticing that the child, in her short calico skirt, was shivering from the cold, and that her feet were getting wet with the snow, he added, “Come inside a minute and tell me where I can find Mr. Cressy.”
The two stepped into the dark narrow hallway that ran through the house to the stairway in the rear, where a narrow window with a broken pane let in just enough light to prove there was day outside. The little girl leaned against the wall, and looked up at the reporter as if she suspected him of having no good intentions toward the man for whom he was inquiring. Very few strangers ever came into that house to do good, she knew. Most of them came for money—rent money—and sometimes they came, as a man had come for Mr. Cressy, to tell him he must go.
“What floor does he live on?” asked Fred.
“On the fifth floor, sir,” answered the child. “In the back, sir. But I think he is really going away, sir.”
“Well, no matter about that,” said Fred, smiling. “I will go up and see him. I hope he won’t have to go out in the storm. It is not good for little girls to go out in the storm, either,” he added. “Does your mamma know you are going out?”
“Oh, yes, sir! She has sent me to the Sisters to try to get some medicine.”
“Is she sick?” asked Fred, quickly.
“Yes, sir,” continued the child.
“What floor does she live on? I will stop in and see her.”
“Oh, you’ll see her! She’s in the room, too.”
“Then you are Mr. Cressy’s little girl?”
So Fred patted her on the head and told her to hurry over to the Sisters in Eleventh Street, and gave her ten cents to ride in the horse-cars; and then he opened the door for her, and as soon as she had left he felt his way back to the staircase and climbed to the fifth floor.
There he knocked upon a door, which was soon opened by a man apparently forty years of age, a man of slightly foreign appearance, with a careworn look, but with as honest a face as you could find anywhere.
“Is this Mr. Cressy?” asked Fred.
“Yes, my name’s Cressy,” replied the man. He spoke with so slight an accent that it was hardly noticeable.
“I am a reporter from the Gazette,” continued Fred.
“Oh!” said the man. “Come in,” and as he spoke he looked somewhat embarrassed and anxious, for this was doubtless the first time he had had any dealings with a newspaper. Lying on a bed in an alcove was a woman who looked very ill, and piled in a corner near the door were a couple of boxes and a few pieces of furniture. The stove had not yet been taken down, and some pale embers in it only just kept the chill off the atmosphere. Fred took off his hat, and led the man across the room toward the window.
“Have you been dispossessed?” he asked.
“Yes,” said the man; “we must leave to-night.”
“Why?” asked the reporter.
Cressy smiled in a ghastly sort of way.
“Because,” he replied—“because I have not a cent to my name, sir, and the landlord has got it in for me—and I must go.”
“Who is your landlord?” asked the reporter.
“Baggold—Q. C. Baggold, the shoe-man.”
“How much do you owe?”
“Twenty dollars—two months’ rent.”
“Were you ever in arrears before?”
“What’s the trouble? Out of work?”
“Yes, sir, I have been. But I’ve got a job now, and I’ll have money on the tenth of the month. But that is not it.”
“What is ‘it,’ then?” continued Fred.
“Well, I’ll tell you. I don’t want this in the paper, but I’ll tell you. Baggold hates me. He knows the woman’s sick, and he takes advantage of my owing him to drive me out. Do you want to know why? Well, I’ll tell you. I worked for him for five years, sir, in his shoe-factory. He brought me over from France to do the fine work. He had a lawsuit about six months ago, and he offered me $500 to lie for him on the stand. I would not do it, sir, and when they called me as a witness I told the truth, and that settled the case, and Baggold had to pay $10,000, sir, for a sly game on a contract. Then he sent me off, and I’ve been looking for a job, and I’ve got behind, and I’m just getting up again, and here he is sending me out into the snow! To-morrow is what we call at home, in France, the jour de l’an—the day of the New Year, sir, and it is a fête. And the little one, here, always looked forward to that day, sir, for a doll or a few sweetmeats; but this time—I don’t think she’ll have a roof for her little head! I have not a place in the world to go to, sir, but to the police station, and there’s the woman on her back!”
Two big tears rolled down the man’s cheeks. Fred felt a lump rising in his throat, and he knew that if he had had twenty dollars in his pocket he would have given it to Cressy. But he did not have twenty dollars, so he coughed vigorously, and put on his hat quickly, and said:
“Well, this is hard, Mr. Cressy. I’ll see what we can do. I must go up town for a while, and then I’ll come back and see you. Don’t move out in this storm till the last minute.”
As he rushed down the stairs he met the little girl coming back with a big blue bottle of something with a yellow label on it. He stopped and pulled a quarter out of his pocket, thrust it into the child’s hand, and leaped on down the stairs, leaving the little girl more frightened than surprised, as he dashed out into the snow.
He entered the first drug-store he came to and looked up Q. C. Baggold’s address in the directory. It was nearly four o’clock, and he argued the rich shoe-manufacturer would be at his home. The address given in the directory was in a broad street in the fashionable quarter of the city. Half an hour later Fred was pulling at Mr. Baggold’s door-bell. The butler who answered the summons thought Mr. Baggold was in, and took Fred’s card after showing the young man into the parlor. This was a large elegantly furnished room filled with costly ornaments, almost any one of which, if offered for sale, would have brought the amount of Cressy’s debt, or much more.
Presently Mr. Baggold came into the room. He was a short man with a bald head and a sharp nose, and his small eyes were fixed very close to one another under a not very high forehead.
“I am a reporter from the Gazette,” began Fred at once. “I have called to see you, Mr. Baggold, about this man Cressy whom you have ordered to be dispossessed.”
“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Baggold, smiling. “My agent has told me something about this matter, but I hardly think it is of sufficient importance to be of interest to the readers of the Gazette.”
“The readers of the Gazette,” continued Fred “are always interested in good deeds, Mr. Baggold, and especially when these are performed by rich men. I came here hoping you would disavow the action of your agent, and say that the Cressy’s might remain in the room.”
“Nonsense!” replied Mr. Baggold. “I cannot interfere with my agent. I pay him to take care of my rents, and I can’t be looking after fellows who won’t pay. This man Cressy is in arrears, and he must get out.”
“But his wife is sick,” argued Fred.
“Bah!” retorted the other. “That is an old excuse. These scoundrels try all sorts of dodges to cheat a man whom they think has money.”
“This woman is actually sick, Mr. Baggold,” said Fred, severely, “and to drive her out in a storm like this is positive cruelty.”
“Cressy has had two weeks to find other quarters, and to-morrow is the first of the month. I can’t keep him any longer.”
“Yes, to-morrow is the great French fête-day, and you put Cressy in the street.”
“My dear sir,” returned the rich man, “I cannot allow sentiment to interfere with my business. If I did I should never collect rents in Houston Street. And, as I told you before, I do not see that this question is one to interest the public. It is purely a matter of my private business.”
“Very true,” replied Fred; “but I don’t think it would look well in print.”
This statement seemed to startle Mr. Baggold a little, and Fred thought it made him feel uncomfortable. There was a brief silence, after which the rich man said:
“It would depend entirely upon how you put it in print. To tell you the truth, I am not at all in favor of these sensational articles that so many newspapers publish nowadays. Reporters often jump at conclusions before they are familiar with the facts of a case, and it makes things disagreeable for all concerned. Now, if you will only listen to me, sir, I think we can come to an understanding about this Cressy matter. I don’t want anything about it to get into the papers—especially now. I have many reasons, but I cannot give them to you. Yet I think we can come to an understanding,” he repeated, as he looked at Fred and smiled.
“How?” asked the reporter.
“Well,” drawled Mr. Baggold, “there are some points that I may be able to explain to you. Of course I don’t want to put you to any trouble for nothing. If it is worth something to me not to have notoriety thrust upon me, of course, on the other hand, it might be worth something to you to cause the notoriety. But just excuse me a moment.”
Mr. Baggold arose hastily and stepped into a rear room, apparently his library or study.
“H’m,” thought Fred to himself. “This old chap talks as though he were going to offer me money. I’d just like to see him try! I’d give him such a roasting as he has never had before! Some of these crooked old millionaires think that sort of thing works with reporters, but I’ll show him that it does not. I have never known a newspaper man yet that would accept a bribe.”
And as Fred mused in this fashion, Mr. Baggold returned. He bore a long yellow envelope in his hand.
“Here,” he said, “are some papers and other things that I should like to have you look over before you write the article. I think they will influence you in your opinion of the matter. I am sorry I cannot tell you any more just now, but I have an appointment which I must keep. Take these papers and look them over at your leisure, and if you find later this evening that they are not satisfactory, I will talk with you further. Good-afternoon, sir. I hope you will excuse me for the present.”
And so saying he handed the envelope to Fred, bowed pleasantly, and left the room. Fred had been standing near the door, and so he put the envelope in his pocket and went out. He walked a few blocks down the street, and went into the large hotel on the corner in order to get out of the storm and to find some quiet place where he might look over Mr. Baggold’s documents. He was very curious to see what they could be. He found a seat in a secluded corner of the office, and there tore open the envelope. To his disgust, it contained three ten-dollar bills, and a brief note, unsigned, which read,
“The accompanying papers will show you that the matter we spoke of is not of sufficient importance to be published.”
Fred Hallowell was furious. This was the first time in his brief career as a newspaper man that anything like this had happened to him. He grew red in the face, his fingers twitched, and he felt as if he had never before been so grossly insulted. As he sat in his chair, fuming and wondering what he should do, Griggs, the fat and jolly political reporter of the Gazette, came up to him and said, laughing,
“Well, you look as if you were plotting murder!”
“I am—almost!” exclaimed Fred, and then he told Griggs all about what had happened.
Griggs listened patiently, and at the end he chuckled to himself, and said: “Well, Hallowell, don’t waste any righteous wrath on any such stuff as that Baggold. I’ll tell you how to get even with him.” And then he talked for twenty minutes to the younger man.
At the end of the conference Fred smiled and buttoned his coat, and hastened back to Cressy’s room in Houston Street. He found a Sister of Charity there nursing the sick woman. Cressy came to the door, pale and eager.
“Well?” he said nervously.
“Oh, it’s all right,” returned Fred, laughing. “I have just seen Mr. Baggold. He said his agent was perfectly right in having you dispossessed, because that was business; but when he heard what I had to say, he gave me this money.” And here Fred handed out the thirty dollars. “It is for you to pay the agent with, and then you can keep your room, and you will have ten dollars besides.”
Cressy was speechless. The sick woman wept softly. The Sister said something in Latin, and the little girl just looked; she did not understand what it was all about.
“You see,” said Fred to Cressy, “I suppose Mr. Baggold does not want his business to be interfered with by his sentiment.” And before Cressy could reply the reporter had slipped out of the door, and in a moment was hurrying down town to his office.
The next morning—New-Year’s morning—the Gazette contained a pretty little story of how a rich man, who had heard of the distress of a tenant, put his hand in his own pocket and paid his tenant’s rent to himself, so that the new year would begin well for him by having rents coming in at the very opening of the twelvemonth.
“I’ll bet Baggold was surprised this morning when he read that,” gurgled the genial Griggs; “but it will do him more good than ten columns of abuse and exposure. So here’s a Happy New Year to him!”