"Little Tommy Tucker", by Elizabeth Stuart
There were but three persons in the car; a merchant, deep in the income
list of the "Traveller," an old lady with two bandboxes, a man in the
corner with his hat pulled over his eyes.
Tommy opened the door, peeped in, hesitated, looked into another car,
came back, gave his little fiddle a shove on his shoulder, and walked
"Hi! Little Tommy Tucker
Plays for his supper,"
shouted the young exquisite lounging on the platform in tan-colored coat
and lavender kid gloves.
"O Kids, you're there, are you? Well, I'd rather play for it than loaf
for it, I had," said Tommy, stoutly.
The merchant shot a careless glance over the top of his paper, at the
sound of this petit dialogue, and the old lady smiled benignly; the
man in the corner neither looked nor smiled.
Nobody would have thought, to look at that man in the corner, that he
was at that very moment deserting a wife and five children. Yet that is
precisely what he was doing.
A villain? O no, that is not the word. A brute? Not by any means. A
man, weak, unfortunate, discouraged, and selfish, as weak, unfortunate,
and discouraged people are apt to be; that was the amount of it. His
panoramas never paid him for the use of his halls. His travelling
tin-type saloon had trundled him into a sheriff's hands. His petroleum
speculations had crashed like a bubble. His black and gold sign, J.
Harmon, Photographer, had swung now for nearly a year over the
dentist's rooms, and he had had the patronage of precisely six old women
and three babies. He had drifted to the theatre in the evenings, he did
not care now to remember how many times,—the fellows asked him, and it
made him forget his troubles; the next morning his empty purse would
gape at him, and Annie's mouth would quiver. A man must have his glass
too, on Sundays, and—well, perhaps a little oftener. He had not always
been fit to go to work after it; and Annie's mouth would quiver. It will
be seen at once that it was exceedingly hard on a man that his wife's
mouth should quiver. "Confound it! Why couldn't she scold or cry? These
still women aggravated a fellow beyond reason."
Well, then the children had been sick; measles, whooping-cough,
scarlatina, mumps, he was sure he did not know what not; every one of
them from the baby up. There was medicine, and there were doctor's
bills, and there was sitting up with them at night,—their mother
usually did that. Then she must needs pale down herself, like a poorly
finished photograph; all her color and roundness and sparkle gone; and
if ever a man liked to have a pretty wife about, it was he. Moreover she
had a cough, and her shoulders had grown round, stooping so much over
the heavy baby, and her breath came short, and she had a way of being
tired. Then she never stirred out of the house,—he found out about that
one day; she had no bonnet, and her shawl had been cut up into blankets
for the crib. The children had stopped going to school. "They could not
buy the new arithmetic," their mother said, half under her breath.
Yesterday there was nothing for dinner but Johnny-cake, nor a large one
at that. To-morrow the saloon rents were due. Annie talked about pawning
one of the bureaus. Annie had had great purple rings under her eyes for
He would not bear the purple rings and quivering mouth any longer. He
hated the sight of her, for the sight stung him. He hated the corn-cake
and the untaught children. He hated the whole dreary, dragging, needy
home. The ruin of it dogged him like a ghost, and he should be the ruin
of it as long as he stayed in it. Once fairly rid of him, his scolding
and drinking, his wasting and failing, Annie would send the children to
work, and find ways to live. She had energy and invention, a plenty of
it in her young, fresh days, before he came across her life to drag her
down. Perhaps he should make a golden fortune and come back to her some
summer day with a silk dress and servants, and make it all up; in theory
this was about what he expected to do. But if his ill luck went westward
with him, and the silk dress never turned up, why, she would forget him,
and be better off, and that would be the end of it.
So here he was, ticketed and started, fairly bound for Colorado, sitting
with his hat over his eyes, and thinking about it.
"Hm-m. Asleep," pronounced Tommy, with his keen glance into the corner.
"Guess I'll wake him up."
He laid his cheek down on his little fiddle,—you don't know how Tommy
loved that little fiddle,—and struck up a gay, rollicking tune,—
"I care for nobody and nobody cares for me."
The man in the corner sat quite still. When it was over he shrugged his
"When folks are asleep they don't hist their shoulders, not as a general
thing," observed Tommy. "We'll try another."
Tommy tried another. Nobody knows what possessed the little fellow, the
little fellow himself least of all; but he tried this:—
"We've lived and loved together,
Through many changing years."
It was a new tune, and he wanted practice, perhaps.
The train jarred and started slowly; the gloved exquisite, waiting
hackmen, baggage-masters, coffee-counter, and station-walls slid back;
engine-house and prison towers, and labyrinths of tracks slipped by;
lumber and shipping took their place, with clear spaces between, where
sea and sky shone through. The speed of the train increased with a
sickening sway; old wharves shot past, with the green water sucking at
their piers; the city shifted by and out of sight.
"We've lived and loved together,"
played Tommy in a little plaintive wail,
"We've lived and loved—"
"Confound the boy!" Harmon pushed up his hat with a jerk, and looked out
of the window. The night was coming on. A dull sunset lay low on the
water, burning like a bale-fire through the snaky trail of smoke that
went writhing past the car windows. Against lonely signal-houses and
little deserted beaches the water was plashing drearily, and playing
monotonous bases to Tommy's wail:—
"Through many changing years,
Many changing years."
It was a nuisance, this music in the cars. Why didn't somebody stop it?
What did the child mean by playing that? They had left the city far
behind now. He wondered how far. He pushed up the window fiercely,
venting the passion of the music on the first thing that came in his
way, and thrust his head out to look back. Through the undulating smoke,
out in the pale glimmer from the sky, he could see a low, red tongue of
land, covered with the twinkle of lighted homes. Somewhere there, in
among the quivering warmth, was one—
What was that boy about now? Not "Home, sweet Home?" But that was what
Tommy was about.
They were lighting the lamps now in the car. Harmon looked at the
conductor's face, as the sickly yellow flare struck on it, with a
curious sensation. He wondered if he had a wife and five children; if he
ever thought of running away from them; what he would think of a man who
did; what most people would think; what she would think. She!—ah, she
had it all to find out yet.
"There's no place like home,"
said Tommy's little fiddle,
"O, no place like home."
Now this fiddle of Tommy's may have had a crack or so in it, and I
cannot assert that Tommy never struck a false note; but the man in the
corner was not fastidious as a musical critic; the sickly light was
flickering through the car, the quiver on the red flats was quite out of
sight, the train was shrieking away into the west,—the baleful, lonely
west,—which was dying fast now out there upon the sea, and it is a fact
that his hat went slowly down over his face again, and that his face
went slowly down upon his arm.
There, in the lighted home out upon the flats, that had drifted by
forever, she sat waiting now. It was about time for him to be in to
supper; she was beginning to wonder a little where he was; she was
keeping the coffee hot, and telling the children not to touch their
father's pickles; she had set the table and drawn the chairs; his pipe
lay filled for him upon the shelf over the stove. Her face in the light
was worn and white,—the dark rings very dark; she was trying to hush
the boys, teasing for their supper; begging them to wait a few minutes,
only a few minutes, he would surely be here then. She would put the baby
down presently, and stand at the window with her hands—Annie's hands
once were not so thin—raised to shut out the light,—watching,
The children would eat their supper; the table would stand untouched,
with his chair in its place; still she would go to the window, and stand
watching, watching. O, the long night that she must stand watching, and
the days, and the years!
"Sweet, sweet home,"
By and by there was no more of "Sweet Home."
"How about that cove with his head lopped down on his arms?" speculated
Tommy, with a businesslike air.
He had only stirred once, then put his face down again. But he was
awake, awake in every nerve; and listening, to the very curve of his
fingers. Tommy knew that; it being part of his trade to learn how to use
The sweet, loyal passion of the music—it would take worse playing than
Tommy's to drive the sweet, loyal passion out of Annie Laurie—grew
above the din of the train:—
"'T was there that Annie Laurie
Gave me her promise true."
She used to sing that, the man was thinking,—this other Annie of his
own. Why, she had been his own, and he had loved her once. How he had
loved her! Yes, she used to sing that when he went to see her on Sunday
nights, before they were married,—in her pink, plump, pretty days.
Annie used to be very pretty.
"Gave me her promise true,"
hummed the little fiddle.
"That's a fact," said poor Annie's husband, jerking the words out under
his hat, "and kept it too, she did."
Ah, how Annie had kept it! The whole dark picture of her married
years,—the days of work and pain, the nights of watching, the patient
voice, the quivering mouth, the tact and the planning and the trust for
to-morrow, the love that had borne all things, believed all things,
hoped all things, uncomplaining,—rose into outline to tell him how she
had kept it.
"Her face is as the fairest
That e'er the sun shone on,"
suggested the little fiddle.
That it should be darkened forever, the sweet face! and that he should
do it,—he, sitting here, with his ticket bought, bound for Colorado.
"And ne'er forget will I,"
murmured the little fiddle.
He would have knocked the man down who had told him twenty years ago
that he ever should forget; that he should be here to-night, with his
ticket bought, bound for Colorado.
But it was better for her to be free from him. He and his cursed
ill-luck were a drag on her and the children, and would always be. What
was that she had said once?
"Never mind, Jack, I can bear anything as long as I have you."
And here he was, with his ticket bought, bound for Colorado.
He wondered if it were ever too late in the day for a fellow to make a
man of himself. He wondered—
"And she's a' the world to me,
And for bonnie Annie Laurie
I'd lay me down and dee,"
sang the little fiddle, triumphantly.
Harmon shook himself, and stood up. The train was slackening; the
lights of a way-station bright ahead. It was about time for supper and
his mother, so Tommy put down his fiddle and handed around his faded
The merchant threw him a penny, and returned to his tax list. The old
lady was fast asleep with her mouth open.
"Come here," growled Harmon, with his eyes very bright. Tommy shrank
back, almost afraid of him.
"Come here," softening, "I won't hurt you. I tell you, boy, you don't
know what you've done to-night."
"Done, sir?" Tommy couldn't help laughing, though there was a twinge of
pain at his stout little heart, as he fingered the solitary penny in the
faded cap. "Done? Well, I guess I've waked you up, sir, which was about
what I meant to do."
"Yes, that is it," said Harmon, very distinctly, pushing up his hat,
"you've waked me up. Here, hold your cap."
They had puffed into the station now, and stopped. He emptied his purse
into the little cap, shook it clean of paper and copper alike, was out
of the car and off the train before Tommy could have said Jack Robinson.
"My eyes!" gasped Tommy, "that chap had a ticket for New York, sure!
Methuselah! Look a here! One, two, three,—must have been crazy; that's
"He'll never find out," muttered Harmon, turning away from the station
lights, and striking back through the night for the red flats and home.
"He'll never find out what he has done, nor, please God, shall she."
It was late when he came in sight of the house; it had been a long tramp
across the tracks, and hard; he being stung by a bitter wind from the
east all the way, tired with the monotonous treading of the sleepers,
and with crouching in perilous niches to let the trains go by.
She stood watching at the window, as he had known that she would stand,
her hands raised to her face, her figure cut out against the warm light
of the room.
He stood still a moment and looked at her, hidden in the shadow of the
street, thinking his own thoughts. The publican, in the old story,
hardly entered the beautiful temple with more humble step than he his
home that night.
She sprang to meet him, pale with her watching and fear.
"Worried, Annie, were you? I haven't been drinking; don't be
frightened,—no, not the theatre, either, this time. Some business,
dear; business that delayed me. I'm sorry you were worried, I am, Annie.
I've had a long walk. It is pleasant here. I believe I'm tired, Annie."
He faltered, and turned away his face.
"Dear me," said Annie, "why, you poor fellow, you are all tired out.
Sit right up here by the fire, and I will bring the coffee. I've tried
so hard not to let it boil away, you don't know, Jack, and I was so
afraid something had happened to you."
Her face, her voice, her touch, seemed more than he could bear for a
minute, perhaps. He gulped down his coffee, choking.
"Annie, look here." He put down his cup, trying to smile and make a jest
of the words. "Suppose a fellow had it in him to be a rascal, and nobody
ever knew it, eh?"
"I should rather not know it, if I were his wife," said Annie, simply.
"But you couldn't care anything more for him, you know, Annie?"
"I don't know," said Annie, shaking her head with a little perplexed
smile, "you would be just Jack, any how."
Jack coughed, took up his coffee-cup, set it down hard, strode once or
twice across the room, kissed the baby in the crib, kissed his wife, and
sat down again, winking at the fire.
"I wonder if He had anything to do with sending him," he said,
presently, under his breath.
"Sending whom?" asked puzzled Annie.
"Business, dear, just business. I was thinking of a boy who did a little
job for me to-night, that's all."
And that is all that she knows to this day about the man sitting in the
corner, with his hat over his eyes, bound for Colorado.