How Maggie Paid the Rent

PRESENCE of mind is one of the rarest, as it is one of the most enviable of endowments. It is the power of instantaneously forming a judgment, and acting upon it, and includes not only moral courage, but self-possession. No matter how brave a man may be in the face of expected peril,—if he lacks presence of mind, he is helpless in a sudden emergency. But, as this quality is an ingredient of the highest courage, the bravest men invariably possess it. The presence of mind of one man has often saved thousands of lives in sudden peril, on sea or land. This is naturally enough regarded as a distinctively masculine virtue; but it is one that both sexes may profitably cultivate, as is shown by the following story. Girls as well as boys should be taught self-reliance—to depend on themselves, to think quickly and act promptly. Perhaps no emergency will arise in their lives in which the importance of such mental training shall be illustrated; but it is well to be prepared “for any fate,” and the discipline which produces this virtue gives strength and symmetry to the whole intellectual organism.

“Is supper nearly ready, Maggie? It is time for Jack to return from his work.”

The speaker was an elderly woman in a widow’s garb, and the person she addressed was her granddaughter, a pleasant-looking girl, who might perhaps have been fourteen years of age.

“Yes, grandmother, it is just ready, such as it is,” replied Maggie; “but I  could wish poor Jack had a better meal after his hard work than what we are able to give him.”

“Ay, ay, child, I wish it as much as you can; but what is to be done? Wishing will never make us rich folk, and we may be thankful if worse troubles than a poor supper do not come upon us soon.”

So spoke the grandmother, and taking the spectacles from her nose, she wiped their dim glasses with her apron.

“Why, grandmother, what do you mean?” cried Maggie, looking up in alarm. “What worse troubles can be coming, think you?” And eagerly and anxiously she fixed her bright blue eyes upon her grandmother’s face.

“Well,” replied the old woman, “the truth is just this, Maggie: I hear that the new landlord is going to make some changes among his tenants; the cottages are all to be repaired, and the folks who can pay higher rents will stay, while those who cannot must find lodging elsewhere. And how can we ever pay a higher rent, Maggie? Even now, every penny of poor Jack’s earnings is spent at the end of the week, and yet we live as cheaply as ever we can.”

For a moment or two the girl’s face was as perturbed and downcast as that of her grandmother’s, and she bent over her knitting in silence; but by an evident effort she quickly assumed a more cheerful aspect. And advancing to the old lady’s side, and placing a gentle hand on her shoulder, she said,—

“Don’t fret, dear grandmother; God has cared for us so far, and he will never suffer us to want, if we put our trust in him. That’s what father used to say, and what he said up to the very day of his death.”

So saying, Maggie stooped and kissed the withered cheek of that father’s mother, thereby enforcing, as it were, her encouraging words.

“God bless you, my child!” sobbed the old woman, returning the kiss. “You remind me of what I am too apt to forget. Yes, Maggie, your father’s God is our God, and he will never forsake his people. I will wipe away these tears, and put faith in him for the future.” And the grandmother dried her eyes, and rising from her low seat, said cheerfully, “Maggie, dear, go to the gate, and watch for your brother Jack. When you see him coming across the field, let me know, and I will dish up the supper, so as to have it ready.”

Maggie put down her work, and passing through the low doorway of the cottage, stood presently at the little gate that separated the tiny garden from the meadow of a neighboring farmer, who turned his cattle out there to graze.

Opening the gate, Maggie leaned against it, while with one hand she shaded her eyes from the yet dazzling beams of the sinking sun, which bathed with its parting radiance the western horizon, and crimsoned the landscape around.

A moment or two she thus stood, but Jack did not appear; and wondering why he should be so late, Maggie was about to retrace her steps in order to fetch her knitting, when, from that corner of the field which by a stile communicated with the landlord’s grounds, she saw a little child emerge, dressed in a bright red frock and jacket, and running heedlessly along, nearer and nearer to the cattle, which hitherto had been grazing quietly in the centre of the field.

Now, however, as the little one approached, directing her steps so as to pass them closely, they raised their heads, and a huge bull, the king and guardian of the herd, attracted doubtless and enraged by the color of the scarlet dress, bounded away from his companions, and with his savage head bent, and his tail raised, gave chase to the child, who, frightened at the bellowing of the angry beast, quickened  her pace, and fled screaming towards the cottage gate, at which Maggie was standing. But the utmost speed of which the little one was capable was nothing to the long gallop of the bull, and in the first moment that Maggie witnessed the child’s danger, her quick presence of mind and tender heart resolved to do what many strong men, less self-forgetful, would not have dared to attempt.

Tearing from her head a colored kerchief, which she had thrown over it before she came out, she sprang through the gateway into the meadow, and bounding lightly over the turf, in another minute she had placed herself between the fierce animal and the child. On in his headlong fury came the gigantic brute, and was about to pass Maggie, seeing only the scarlet frock just beyond, when the intrepid girl, springing forward, dashed the kerchief across his eyes, and before he had time to recover himself and recommence his pursuit, she had turned, snatched up the little one, and was running towards the cottage gate. Close behind the fugitives followed the bull, now recovered from his momentary astonishment; but Maggie’s feet were winged, for she felt that through God’s help she should save the child.

A few more rapid steps, and the gate was reached and barred, while Maggie tottered into the house, still carrying the child, and in the reaction of the fearful excitement, fell fainting on the floor.

Maggie’s fainting fit, however, did not last long; and she was fully restored, and had told her grandmother the whole story, before Jack arrived, half an hour later.

He, too, had something to recount. On his way home from the landlord’s grounds, where he had been working, he was overtaken by a young woman, who seemed in a great state of alarm. She told Jack that she was the nursery maid, and that while that afternoon she was sitting at work beneath one of the trees, with the children playing around her, one of them—little Gertrude, a child about six years old—must have slipped away from her brother and sisters unobserved; and when tea time came, and the nurse rose to bring the children home, she was nowhere to be found. The nurse had taken the other three little ones home, and had now come in search of Gertrude, fearful lest she should fall into danger of any kind.

Jack would not stop to eat his supper, after telling his own story and hearing Maggie’s, but announced his intention of at once carrying the little truant lady back to her home.

So the kind-hearted youth took Gertrude in his arms, and soon conveyed her safely to the landlord’s house, where she astonished every one by the childish recital of her own danger and Maggie’s courage.

The next morning Gertrude’s mother came down to the cottage to thank Maggie for the preservation of her darling’s life, and to bring a message from her husband.

This message consisted of his grateful acknowledgments, and of the promise that Jack should be promoted to the office of assistant gardener as soon as that post was vacant (which would be in the course of a few weeks). But, best of all, the promise included also this, namely, that the widow and her grandchildren should hold the cottage rent free for the remainder of their lives.

Thus was averted, by means wholly unforeseen, the trial of poverty and want so dreaded by the old widow in her thoughts of the future; and never again was she heard to repine, or even to express a fear for herself or for those whom she loved.