WHO WANTS TO ADOPT A LITTLE BOY -- A Widower, with six children, has a LITTLE BOY, 8 years old, that he would like some respectable person to ADOPT. Inquire of Mrs. Michell, No. 471 Houston-st, corner of the Bowery.
Home Sweet Home
“Be a good boy, Henry,” my mother said, coughing hard into her handkerchief. My father looked at her worriedly.
“There, Rachel,” he said, adjusting the pillows behind her.
“Be a good boy,” my mother said in her weak, raspy voice, “and mind your sister.” She smiled at me, a tear trickling down her cheek. She began to cough once more.
“That just what I was afraid of, Rachel. Don’t speak anymore,” my father pleaded. She shook her head.
“Mary, help your father.”
My mother leaned back onto her pillows and closed her eyes.
“Go on, now, children.” Mrs. Michell, who had come to look after us while Mother was sick, herded us out of the room. My sister Mary was crying.
Mary didn’t answer me. Instead, she ran down the hall and into her room. Mrs. Michell rocked the baby back and forth in her arms and sighed.
“Henry, amuse the girls, would you?”
I turned to my two younger sisters. “What do you want to do?”
“I want Mother to get well,” Cora said, chewing on a tendril of her blond hair. Mother didn’t want her to do that, but I ignored it.
“So do I,” Hannah said, sitting down on the floor. “I want Mother to get well.”
I sighed. “Why don’t you play with your dolls?” I suggested.
Cora’s bottom lip quivered. That was a bad sign. “Is Mother going to get well, Henry?”
I tried to think of something to say, but I didn’t know myself. She’d gotten sick with a cough after Amy was born, and know she had something with a long name I couldn’t say. “I don’t know, Cora.” Cora began to wail.
Mrs. Michell appeared in the door to the kitchen, looking flushed. “Can’t you keep her quiet, Henry?” She sounded angry. I blinked back tears. Eight was much too old to be crying.
The door opened. “We’re here!” Eliza, my oldest sister, took off her coat and hat. Her husband John followed her. She scooped Cora into her arms. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s your mother, Eliza.” Mrs. Michell shifted the baby onto her hip. “Her cough developed into pneumonia.”
“Oh, no!” Eliza dropped her bag onto the floor. “Is she…”
“She’s weak. The doctor doesn’t think…”
“What will Father do?” Eliza set Cora down and hurried into Mother’s bedroom. I sat with the girls, who seemed content to sit quietly and suck their thumbs.
A few minutes later, Eliza emerged from Mother’s bedroom, tears streaming down her face. She fell into Mrs. Michell’s arms.
“She’s-she’s…” Eliza couldn’t finish her sentence because of her sobs. John took her hand.
I felt like I had swallowed a brick and it had settled in my stomach. “What’s happening?”
Mrs. Michell released Eliza and knelt down beside the girls and me. “Children, your mother is dead.” The girls began to sob, and my eyes opened wide. “You need to be good children now, for your father.”
The next few days passed in a blur. The girls cried, and I tried not to, and Mother got put into a box. Mrs. Michell scolded and Father was very, very quiet. It was supper. I sat in my usual chair beside Father.
Father set down his spoon. “Henry, you get to go on a trip.”
I looked up quickly. “I do?”
“You get to go to the city with Mrs. Michell tomorrow. You’re going to visit a very nice family.”
“What is this, Father?” Eliza set down her glass with a thud. “I thought we agreed that John and I would live here so I could help!” Her voice rose. “You can’t just send Henry off to make it easier on you! He’s part of this family!”
Father bowed his head.
Mrs. Michell glared at Eliza. “Your father knows best.”
“No, he doesn’t. Not in this. This is wrong!” Eliza pushed her chair back from the table quickly and left the room.
I stared after her in shock. Why was Eliza calling Father wrong?
“She’s right.” John gazed at Father, his brow wrinkled. “I can help if you need it, but you shouldn’t---”
Father snapped his head up. “No! I will manage my own family.” John’s eyes narrowed, and he stared at Father.
Mrs. Michell stood up. “I- um-there’s apple pie for dessert.” She smiled.
“No, thank you.” John pushed his chair back and left the dining room.
Mrs. Michell sat back down. “Henry, you’re going to stay with this family for a long while.”
“How long?” I whispered, looking from my father to Mrs. Michell. It must be a trick, I thought to myself. Father won’t really send me away.
“Until you are a big boy.” Mrs. Michell smiled at me. “You’ll like it there. They have a boy just your age.”
I didn’t understand. She was serious. “Why?”
Father looked up. “Because with your mother gone, I can’t afford you.”
I stared at Father and drew in a shaky breath. “You’re sending me to live with somebody else?”
“That’s right.” Father nodded.
I swallowed. How could Father send me away? Did he not love me anymore?
“Henry, it’s not because I want to, it’s because I have to. I’m sure you’ll like them.” Father stood up abruptly. “You’ll leave in the morning.” He left the room. I stared at my full bowl. Suddenly the stew Mrs. Michell had made didn’t look very good.
The next morning, I sat in the carriage beside Mrs. Michell. She had scrubbed me until I thought my skin would fall off, and dressed me in my Sunday clothes. The carriage stopped before a large, white house. Mrs. Michell stepped out, and I followed her up to the door.
The house towered up before us, white with large windows. The door opened, and a plump woman in a pink dress stepped out.
“Oh, how cute!” She drew me to her and squeezed me to herself, hard. Her perfume stung my nose. She pushed me out to arms’ length. “What lovely blond hair, and darling chubby cheeks.” She pinched my cheek, and I drew back.
“I don’t have chubby cheeks.” I frowned.
An angry look flitted across the woman’s face, but was quickly replaced with a smile.
“Of course not, dearie.” She kept an arm tightly wrapped around me, almost as if she was afraid I would run off. “We’ll take good care of him, won’t we, dearie?”
I scowled. “Please don’t leave me here, Mrs. Michell.”
“Why, Henry! You should be grateful for such a nice home,” Mrs. Michell scolded. She looked up to the woman. “Thank you.”
I felt tears well up in my eyes as the carriage drew away. I tried to blink them back, but they wouldn’t go away.
“None of that crying,” the woman said crossly. “You’re a big boy.” She pulled me inside the house. I looked around in awe. The ceiling swept high above me, and a luxurious rug lay on the floor.
The woman stopped and turned me so I faced her. “My name is Gertrude Jenkins. You will call me Mrs. Jenkins. Your name is Billy.”
“No, it’s not,” I protested. “My name is Henry.”
The woman’s hand flashed out and struck my cheek. I jumped back, holding my hand to my cheek as indignant tears stung my eyes. “Never contradict your elders, Billy.” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you understand?”
I nodded quickly. It felt like I had a haystack stuck in my throat and couldn’t swallow quite properly.
“Follow me.” Mrs. Jenkins set off down a narrow hallway to the side. As I followed her, the ceiling grew lower and the air grew more damp and cold. She turned into a side room. “This is your room, Billy,” she said.
The room was small and dark, with no windows. The floor and walls were bare. In the corner was a small cot. I set my bag down. “It’s not very nice.”
Even in the dim light, I could see that Mrs. Jenkins' eyes bulged. “How dare you say such a thing about our kindness to you!” She slammed the door to the room, and I heard a click as she locked the door. Her footsteps faded into the distance.
I lay down on the hard cot and began to cry. It wasn’t girlish when I was alone, only if I cried out in public. Slowly I drifted off to sleep.
I awoke with a start when the door opened, flooding the room with light. A woman stood in the doorway.
“Time to get up, little boy,” she said, not unkindly, I thought. “You slept all day and night.”
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “Are you Mrs. Jenkins?”
The woman grinned broadly. “That I am not.” She held the door open and I walked out. “I am Phoebe.”
“Hello,” I greeted her. Her hair was dark, and she looked kind. She looked me up and down.
“My, oh my, you’re dressed up fancy. Do you have anything more suitable to wear?”
I looked down at my clothes. They were wrinkled and dirty. “I have some clothes in my bag.”
“Change, then, and I’ll instruct you in your duties.” Phoebe shook her head. “It’s not right, it isn’t, to work a little boy so hard.”
I stepped back into the hall wearing my everyday clothes. Phoebe nodded her approval. “Follow me,” she said.
My stomach rumbled. I hadn’t eaten anything yesterday, for I’d been locked in the small room. “Can I have some breakfast, first?”
Phoebe nodded. “I’ll fix you up somethin’ real good,” she assured me. “The Jenkins have more than they can eat, anyhow.”
I followed Phoebe into the kitchen, and she filled a plate with biscuits, gravy, bacon, and eggs. I began eating in delight.
“Boy, what are you doing?” A cold voice came from above. I looked up. Mrs. Jenkins stood over me, glaring. “After our taking you in and providing you with a home, you think it is alright to steal our food? No!”
Phoebe hurried over. “You have to feed him, or else he’ll starve!”
“I will attend my own business, thank you,” Mrs. Jenkins said furiously. I scooted as far away from her as I dared. She stepped closer and leaned down. “You, boy, will have to work for your food. And Phoebe,” she stood up, “if I ever catch you feeding him our food, you’ll be sorry.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Phoebe sighed, and Mrs. Jenkins left the kitchen.
“Can I finish?” I asked, motioning to the food left on my plate. Phoebe nodded. I quickly ate the rest of the food on my plate. I didn’t want Mrs. Jenkins to come back in and take it from me.
A man entered the kitchen. Phoebe gestured to him. “That’s Ed. You go with him, and he’ll show you what to do.”
“That’s right.” Ed smiled. “You know how to scrub?”
At the end of the day, I fell onto my bed exhausted. I had never worked so hard before. Every bone of my body ached. If this was what my grandmother had meant when she had spoken of her achiness, I felt very sorry for her.
Before I could fall asleep, I heard a familiar voice in the hall. I hurried over to the door and pressed my ear to it. Was that Eliza?
“Do you have Henry?” A faint voice came. “I’ve been looking for him. I want to take him back to live with me.”
“We don’t have a boy named Henry here,” Mrs. Jenkin’s voice came. I opened my eyes wide. Why was she lying to Eliza? “Perhaps you have the wrong house.”
I rattled the doorknob, trying to get out. I didn’t want to stay here with Mrs. Jenkins. I wanted to go back and live with Eliza.
“I’m sorry for bothering you, then,” Eliza replied. “If you hear of him, would you contact me?”
I had to do something before Eliza left! I couldn’t stay here. I looked desperately around the room. There weren’t any windows. There was no way to escape. I heard a door shut, and lay back down on my bed in despair. Eliza was gone. I would probably have to stay here for the rest of my life.
Before Mother died, she had told me that God listens when we pray. I could sure use God's help right now, I thought. I tried to remember how I'd seen people pray. I had never really paid much attention in church, but I knew that Reverend Astor always closed his eyes while he prayed. If I closed my eyes, I would go to sleep, so instead I just kept mine open.
"Dear God," I said, "If you can hear me, please help me and let Eliza figure out that I'm here. Amen." I waited for a moment, and nothing happened, so I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
It seemed I had hardly been asleep a moment when Ed awoke me. “Time to get up,” he said. I followed him out of the room.
“What are we doing today?”
“More scrubbin’.” He winked. “Just today it’s on silverware. Mrs. J’s havin’ a party, and she wants everythin’ to shine.”
I looked up at Ed. “Why do you stay here?”
Ed let out a long breath. “Son, I didn’t have a choice.”
“But you’re not a slave.”
“Sometimes I think slavery would be better than this. Mr. Jenkins is a banker. I went into debt, and he offered me work to pay it off.” Ed polished in silence a long while. “Boy, let me tell you this. Never go into debt, and never trust a banker.”
I set aside a spoon. “Not even a good one?”
Ed laughed. “Is there such a thing?”
He didn’t seem to be asking a real question, so I didn’t respond. My eyes felt gritty, and I was tired. The silverware seemed to go on and on. As soon as we would finish some, there would be a whole pile more.
The last piece of silver was finally polished, and I set my rag down. “Can I go to bed now?” I asked Ed. I’d never wanted to go to bed before in my life. All I’d wanted was to stay up late. I wouldn’t make that mistake again… if I ever had the chance to.
“Of course not.” I whirled around in surprise. I hadn’t even heard Mrs. Jenkins enter the room. “You’re going to dress up and entertain my friends. Oh, they will be delighted.” Mrs. Jenkins smiled. “All you’ll need to do is bring them their glasses.”
Evening came, and with it the party. Mrs. Jenkins had dressed me in a very uncomfortable suit, and Phoebe had instructed me in what to do. I carefully carried out a tray holding glasses of punch.
“Oh, how darling,” a lady gushed as I set her punch before her. She reached out to pinch my cheek and I stumbled, sending the glasses tumbling to the floor. Punch splashed onto the gowns of the women nearby, and glass shards flew through the air in every direction. One sharp piece hit me in the cheek, and I felt warm blood trickling down my face.
“You clumsy boy!” Mrs. Jenkins shrieked. She flew out of her chair and raised her hand to strike me.
“Wait,” a familiar voice called. I looked over the table. There sat Eliza. “That’s my brother. You told me no boy by the name of Henry was here.”
Mrs. Jenkins spluttered. “That’s not Henry, that’s Billy!”
“No, I’m Henry!” I ran to Eliza and threw my arms around her, blood dripping from my cheek onto her dress. “Please, take me home,” I cried. I didn’t even care that I was crying before as many ladies as I could count on two hands.
“Of course I will.” Eliza wrapped her arms around me. She was angry, her hands shaking and her cheeks red. “I’ll be speaking with you, Mrs. Jenkins,” she called over her shoulder as she led me out the door.
I sat beside Eliza in the carriage. She tore a strip off the bottom of her dress and mopped at the blood on my face.
“Are we going home to Father?” I winced as the strip of fabric brushed over my cut.
“No.” She shook her head with a frown. “You’re coming to live with John and me. I’m sorry, Henry. I don’t think Father’s thinking very well, with Mother leaving us so quickly an all.” Eliza’s voice was trembling. “It will be your new home.”
"Eliza, I prayed that God would let you know I was there. Do you think he heard me?”
Eliza smiled. "Yes, Henry, I know he did."
"Good." I looked out the carriage window at Mrs. Jenkins' house, receding into the distance. Anywhere would be better than there, but this was the best. I was going home.