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"The Adopted Baby" from Munsey's Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Munsey's Magazine
The Adopted Baby
by Ellis Parker Butler

Sometimes they could see him with his face pressed wistfully against the bars of the big iron gate, peering over at their small white cottage, and sometimes they saw him playing by himself on the big lawn, and he seemed a very lonely little boy. Each day they saw him seated beside the driver of the sturdy salmon-colored horses, going out with his mother to take the air, and each day as the phaeton turned into the road the little boy turned his face toward the small white cottage, as if hoping for a wave of the hand from Benjy or a nod of the head from Mr. Wentworth, but the two old men never waved or nodded. They did not like boys. Perhaps it would be more truthful to say they thought they did not like boys.

I wish you could see the great, cool, brick house set among the giant oaks, with the broad expanse of close-clipped green lawn and the shady summer houses, and the fountain with goldfish in the basin, and the swing hung from one of the oaks, and the tricycle the boy owned, and the good gravel walks on which to ride it, and all the pleasant verdant copses in which a boy could play. And then, if you could see the little white cottage, sun-baked because trees would interfere with Benjy's garden, you would wonder why the boy looked longingly through the bars of the gate toward the white cottage.

For years the big house had been untenanted. Then came painters and carpenters and, finally, trunks and Mr. Rothcranz and Mrs. Rothcranz and -- Edward!

"Them folks that took the big place has a boy," said Benjy sullenly to Mr. Wentworth. "Right here is where we're goin' to be bothered to tarnation!"

"Perhaps not," said Mr. Wentworth, "He has plenty of room at home. If he comes bothering we'll send him home."

"And we'll send him home a scootin'!" affirmed Benjy fiercely. "You leave it to me, and I'll send him home a skippin' and a scootin', and no mistake about it."

For a month or more than a month, however, Benjy had no opportunity to send the boy a skippin' and a scootin'. Mr. Wentworth, as was his custom, sat on the small white porch half dozing over a newspaper, and Benjy worked his garden undisturbed except for a glimpse of the face of the boy pressed against the bars of the gate across the road. Benjy shook his head.

"He's a comin'!" he told Mr. Wentworth. "You can't keep 'em home. They're all alike, bound to come a botherin' and a fussin' where they ain't wanted. You mark my word -- he'll be a rip-tearin' across that road and a rip-tearin' into my garden and a rip-tearin' away all the comfort you get out of life on that porch! You mark my word!"

The two old men were as unlike as men could be. Mr. Wentworth -- white-haired, tall, and dignified -- wore, even on the hottest day, a linen collar. It was a low collar, but it was a linen collar, and his shirt was white -- "a b'iled shirt," as Benjy called it, with a stiff bosom. His hat was a black hat, like a Grand Army hat, and except on the hottest days he wore a frock coat. On very hot days he wore a black alpaca coat and tucked a white handkerchief in his collar.

He was a fine type of decayed gentleman. But Benjy! Rough-bearded, rough-haired, rough-clothed, rough-spoken Benjy might have been a hard-handed, hard-souled old sea dog or a tough-fisted, tough-headed old flock-walloper, to judge by his looks. And his manners were worse than his looks.

The two men had come together in the simplest manner possible. For years Mr. Wentworth had been bookkeeper in the wholesale house where Benjy had driven the truck, and Benjy had rented the white cottage from Mr. Wentworth and kept bachelor hall there. Mr. Wentworth boarded at an eminently respectable boarding house, but when Mr. Wentworth, superannuated, was told his services were no longer needed by his employers, he told Benjy he wished to occupy the white cottage himself.

"And I'll move out when I get good and ready," said Benjy; "but that needn't hinder you from movin' in when you get good and ready, neither."

So Mr. Wentworth moved in, and Benjy did not move out, and when Benjy lost his job both had become accustomed to living together. They divided the work of the place evenly enough between them. Benjy did the outdoor work and Mr. Wentworth, covering his black garments and white linen with blue gingham aprons, attended to the dishwashing and bed making and other indoor chores. They split the cooking. Mr. Wentworth could fry a chop and Benjy could flap a flapjack. Sometimes they "et cold," as Benjy called it, and avoided cooking.

They were wonderfully poor. Mr. Wentworth had a life tenure in the white cottage (unless a certain will, still in the courts, should be set aside), and Benjy had his vegetable garden. To make the garden meet their needs Benjy gardened the entire property. Cabbages grew close against the alley fence, radishes edged the front walk, and beets and carrots took the place of a front lawn. If it could have been done, Benjy would have grown parsley between the bricks of the walk. Thus the two old men lived, Mr. Wentworth washing his dishes and sitting on the porch, and Benjy digging and weeding and peddling, and they kept themselves "off the town" and maintained their self-respect.

One day the little boy across the road, having peered between the bars of the gate even more wistfully than usual, raised the iron latch and opened the gate and crossed the road. He came directly to the white fence and looked through the pickets at Benjy weeding his beets.

"I know what you're doing," he said pleasantly when he had watched Benjy a while. "You're gardening a garden, aren't you?"

"Seems like," answered Benjy with unfriendly gruffness, not taking the trouble to lift his head.

"You do it very nicely, don't you?" said the boy.

"Git along every bit as well if I ain't bothered by nobody," said Benjy.

"You mean you don't want me to bother you, don't you?" asked the boy, after thinking the answer over carefully. "I didn't know I would bother you. I just wanted to ask you something."

"I bet ye!" said Benjy sarcastically. "'Bout a million things. Want to take up all my time and waste it and be a gen'ral nuisance, hey?"

"Oh, no! I just wanted to ask you if -- if you ever were a pirate."

"A what?" shouted Benjy.

"A pirate," repeated the boy. "I didn't mean anything rude, but you looked so -- so healthy and -- and strong, you know, I thought you might have been a pirate."

"Huh!" said Benjy, "Pirate! Look like that, do I? No, I ain't never been none, and I ain't got time to talk, neither."

"I'm sorry," said the boy. "I rather like to talk with you; but do you suppose the man on the porch would have time to talk a little?"

"Ask him," suggested Benjy. "He won't do no more than bite you."

The boy opened the white gate and closed it carefully behind him. He walked up the neat brick walk to the foot of the porch steps.

"Good afternoon," he said politely.

"Good afternoon, sir," said Mr. Wentworth.

"That's a nice way to say it," went on the boy, "but I'm not really a 'sir,' you know. I'm only a boy yet. My name is Edward, and your friend said perhaps you might let me talk to you. I haven't talked to any one new since I came to this town. I don't get many operatunities."

Mr. Wentworth folded his newspaper.

"And you think you would like to talk to an old fellow like me?" he smiled. "Come up and sit down. What would you like to talk about?"

"Ships, if you please," said Edward. "I am very fond of talking about ships. My father and mother came to this country in a ship. His name is Rudolph -- Rudolph Rothcranz. He imports hops and has an office in New York. They make beer of hops, you know. Would you mind telling me your name?"

"John Truscott Wentworth," said Mr. Wentworth.

"I think I'll call you Mr. Wentworth. You may call me Edward. We're all German, except me. Mother and father and Heiny and the maids are all German, but I am an adopted child, because mother and father are not acquainted with any storks in this country. That's funny, isn't it? I don't think there are any storks in this country to be acquainted with. So they adopted me when I was a little baby. I was a great trial. My insides, you know."

The boy stayed as long as he thought polite that time and talked with Mr. Wentworth of many things besides ships. He learned Benjy's name, and sighed when he learned Mr. Wentworth had never been a captain of a ship, because he said Mr. Wentworth looked like the captain of a ship.

Thereafter he opened the iron gate and crossed the road to the white cottage as often as he could. For a while Benjy was gruff and rough in earnest; then he kept up the roughness and gruffness because it pleased the boy. They pretended Benjy was a pirate and the boy a midshipman, but before long they did not have to pretend at all. Benjy, after that, was just Benjy, and the boy was the close friend of both the old men. Sometimes he took short walks with Mr. Wentworth, always chattering and asking innumerable questions; sometimes he helped Benjy in the garden or went with him to sell vegetables.

Once Benjy sent him hippety-hopping home, to return with Mrs. Rothcranz's permission to go fishing, and Benjy took him to the pond and taught him the secrets of hook and line and sinker. And one glorious day he actually had dinner with the two old men. They had fig-bars and bakery doughnuts, and it was a great occasion for all concerned. The boy was wistful no longer. His cup of happiness was full.

One day Edward crossed the road and took his accustomed seat at Mr. Wentworth's side.

"Well," he said, "I'm going to have a brother."

"A what?" exclaimed Mr. Wentworth.

"A brother," said Edward, "to play with, you know. I'm a lonely child, and I'm in have a brother to play with. He'll be a baby at first, because that's the only way you can be sure they're properly raised. We wouldn't want one that wasn't properly raised. So mother is looking for a young one, and when she finds him we'll adopt him."

"H-m!" said Mr. Wentworth, jealous of the new brother already. "I hope you'll like him."

"Well, that's the strange thing," said Edward, his chin in his hand. "I suppose I will like him when he comes, but I don't seem to take much interest in him now, Mr. Wentworth. I'm afraid he's going to interfere considrabul. With my coming here, you know,"

Benjy, knocking the ashes from his pipe, came to the porch.

"Thought you was goin' to help me pick peas today, young feller," he said. "Gone back on this ol' pirate, have ye?"

"Edward is going to have a new brother," announced Mr. Wentworth soberly.

"As soon as mother can find one to suit," explained Edward eagerly. "She's looking for one in the city -- a good one -- she don't want one to be a care like I was."

"A care!" shouted Benjy savagely. "You a care? Bless my eyes! The woman is --"

"The insides of me," explained Edward. "Gen'rally I was a nice baby, but my insides gave mother great worry. We want a better-insided baby this time."

"Well, bless my eyes!" exclaimed Benjy again. "Craziest idee I ever heard of! Wantin' a squallin', howlin' baby around when you don't need one. Plumb foolish!"

"Yes, I felt a little that way, too," said Edward, "but you see I'm a lonely child. I need a brother to play with."

"Hah!" cried Benjy angrily. "Parrot talk! You need a brother to play with! I guess me and Mr. Wentworth ain't good enough, hey? We ain't fitten, hey?"

"Benjy!" said Mr. Wentworth warningly.

"Wentworth, shut up!" said Benjy. "You feel the same as I do, only you ain't got spunk to say so. We ain't good enough to play with. We ain't iron-fenced, brick-housed, lawn-cut, all-fired good enough. That's what's the matter,"

He threw his tin pail across the yard angrily and tramped around the house.

"Of course I'll come over just exackly the same," said Edward, taking Mr. Wentworth's hand.

"I hope so, my boy; I hope so!" said Mr. Wentworth, and there were tears in his eyes when Edward left him to seek Benjy in the back garden.

The search for a brother did not proceed very satisfactorily. There seemed to be a great demand for properly certified baby brothers; Mrs. Rothcranz was rather large and found it difficult to get to the city often; Mr. Rothcranz had his business to attend to on the few days he now went to town. Matrons of institutions by the dozen promised to keep Mrs. Rothcranz in mind and to let her know as soon as a properly qualified baby brother appeared; but time passed and Edward continued to visit Mr. Wentworth and Benjy.

Mr. Wentworth was unchanged, but Benjy seemed to have fallen back into the gruff selfishness of the days before the coming of Edward had softened his heart. He was short and gruff with Edward and short and irritating with Mr. Wentworth. He was snippish even with his cabbages.

It was at this moment that the catastrophe arrived. The will case had been decided and the will set aside. Mr. Wentworth's thin hands trembled as he opened the lawyer's letter, and trembled more as he read the notice to vacate the premises unless he was prepared to pay the back rent and accrued interest. He found Benjy in the garden. Benjy listened to the letter, in sullen silence. It was the end of things. They could not pay the rent and live. What Benjy said no respectable press would print.

"It is hard -- hard!" said Mr. Wentworth. "I must fall on the town. Well, others have gone to the poorhouse," he said with a sigh of resignation. "I will go without complaining. But you, Benjy, can find some gardening to do. Perhaps Mr. Rothcranz --"

Benjy raised his head and looked across the road toward the great brick mansion. He rubbed his hand over his tousled hair. He did not hesitate long. A grin of satisfaction wrinkled his tanned features, and he turned toward the cottage.

"Well, Benjy?" said Mr. Wentworth. Benjy turned back, irritated by the interruption.

"I'm goin' over to Rothcranz's," he said shortly. "I got a notion I can git the gardenin' job, and the sooner the better. There's no tellin' when I'll git throwed off this place."

"Good luck to you!" said Mr. Wentworth. "Good luck, Benjy!" and then he turned and rested his arm on the alley fence and leaned his head upon it and closed his eyes. He felt very old and weary; very helpless and poor, but he was glad Benjy could still hope for something better than the poorhouse.

When Benjy issued from the front door of the white cottage he was a different Benjy. For years he had respected Mr. Wentworth's belongings as the property of a superior, for Mr. Wentworth had been the landholder of the two, but now he raided Mr. Wentworth's room ruthlessly. What he wanted he took.

He threw his own coarse blue shirt in a corner and enveloped himself in one of Mr. Wentworth's precious stiff-bosomed "b'iled shirts," He fastened one of Mr. Wentworth's clean linen collars about his tanned neck. He tried to don a pair of Mr. Wentworth's shoes, but they were too small, and he polished his boots as well as he could polish boots that had never been polished since they were made.

He put on a pair of Mr. Wentworth's black trousers and drew the legs outside his boot tops. He buttoned himself into Mr. Wentworth's frock coat, which squeezed him so tight he could hardly breathe. As a final touch he soaked his unruly hair in water and brushed it flat with one of Mr. Wentworth's brushes and set on top of it Mr. Wentworth's best black felt hat. In the hall he hesitated a moment with Mr. Wentworth's gold-headed cane in his hand, but put it away reluctantly. Something told him a gold-headed cane did not harmonize with Benjy.

When he was complete he looked like a pirate of the Spanish Main who had, for unknown reasons, suddenly taken the place and clothes of a Sunday-school superintendent. He crossed the road and walked to the front door of the big brick house.

Mr. Wentworth, as Benjy was ringing Mr. Rothcranz's bell, raised his head.

"Even Benjy!" he said sadly. "But we are all selfish. Each must look out for himself."

Mrs. Rothcranz herself came to the door to admit Benjy. She was a buxom woman, cheerful and well fed. For a moment she was inclined to slam the door in the face of the uncouth creature standing before her, but she knew that Mr. Rothcranz was within call.

"Well, what it iss?" she asked.

"Now -- now -- about a baby," said Benjy, turning his hat in his hand nervously. "About a baby, now. I hear how you want to adopt a first-class baby."

"Come right in," said Mrs. Rothcranz. "Sure we would adopt a baby. Mr. Rothcranz he is in the parlor, too, and he could hear aboudt it. Come in. I don't know it your name, no?"

"Biggs," said Benjy. "Benjamin Biggs, ma'am," and he followed Mrs. Rothcranz into the parlor. Mr. Rothcranz, with a pile of mail on one chair, sat on another, with his stockinged feet on a third. As his wife and Benjy entered he dropped his feet hastily and felt for his slippers, sliding his feet into them.

"Rudy," said Mrs. Rothcranz pleasantly, "this could be Mr. Biggs who comes to talk aboudt the baby maybe we adopt it."

"Fine!" said Mr. Rothcranz heartily, holding out his hand. "Sit down once. Mama is crazy to adopt a new baby right away. Maybe I ain't so crazy about it, but mama mostly has her way. You know aboudt one, yes?"

Benjy seated himself and placed Mr. Wentworth's hat carefully on the floor. He felt for a handkerchief with which to wipe his face, but not finding one he wiped his forehead with the back of his forefinger. He could feel his drying hair rising in clumps.

"Well, now, ma'am," he said uneasily, "I guess you guessed right. That's what I sort of come for, although I'm a gardener by trade, as you may say. What you want is a boy baby -- ain't that right?"

"Oh, sure!" exclaimed Mama Rothcranz. "A boy -- to play with Edward. Girls maybe I should adopt after while yet. Hein, poppa?"

"So I heard tell -- about the boy part," said Benjy nervously. "And you sort of set your mind on a -- a brand-new one, like, didn't you?"

"So young as I can get him!" said Mrs. Rothcranz emphatically. "Und then I raise him like I want him. Yes!"

"I reckon!" said Benjy. "Get 'em young and you can sort o' mold 'em, hey? Good idee. 'Bout one day old, hey?"

"Ach, no!" exclaimed Mrs. Rothcranz, laughing. "Weaned he should be already, anyhow."

"Sure, mama!" said Mr. Rothcranz.

"And plenty weaned, too. With his teeth already, maybe. Not too young, mama."

"When you get 'em too blame young," said Benjy eagerly, "you got no end of trouble, ain't it so? Colic, hey? Bawlin' all the time, hey?"

"He's got the right, mama," said Mr. Rothcranz, nodding his head approvingly. "Better we should get one past colic time, yes?"

"Sure!" said Benjy more eagerly. "With teeth to eat things. And hair so you can cut it. That's the idee! When you get 'em like that you know what you're gettin'. Four years old. hey?"

"Ach, no!" cried Mrs. Rothcranz. "Four year old is no baby --"

"Now, mama, wait! Wait!" said Mr. Rothcranz. "It is an idea for you, maybe. Walking and talking a four-year-old would be, and --"

"Sure he would be!" exclaimed Benjy enthusiastically. "Playin' round and not fallin' down an' gettin' hurt all the time, Saves a lot of work."

"Y-e-s!" said Mrs, Rothcranz lingeringly. "It saves me a lot of work yet. Sleeping all night and such. A good, strong four-year-old --"

"Or maybe five," said Benjy hastily. "No thin' like gettin' 'em ready-raised, if they're raised right. A six-year-old, raised proper --"

"Yet a minute he was four, and now he is six already!" exclaimed Mrs. Rothcranz.

"Six or seven," said Benjy hastily, "so he's had them children's diseases like measles and mumps. You get a good, healthy eight-year-old and make sure he's had whoopin' cough already --"

"I should get an eight-year-old!" cried Mrs. Rothcranz indignantly.

"To play with Edward," Benjy explained. "That's what you want him for, ain't it, and what kind of fun is a nine-year-old like Edward goin' to have unless he's got a nine-year-old to play with? Some nice fetched-up kid ten or 'leven years old is what a lonely feller like Edward needs. He needs a brother old enough to keep him playin' hard. Now you get a good boy about twelve, say, strong enough to look out for a little feller like Edward, and you've got a real brother for him. What say?"

"A fine big boy from such a good family ain't so bad, mama, if he was twelve years old," said Mr. Rothcranz sagely.

"Twelve or thirteen," said Benjy hurriedly, "and nice raised, and you save a lot of trouble. You'd know what you was gettin'. Course, if I was Edward I'd prefer a bigger feller to play with, so he could take me swimmin' an' fishin' an' see I didn't git drownded. I'd prefer a brother about -- say -- sixteen year old."

Mrs. Rothcranz opened her lips, but she did not speak, She stared at Benjy, but nothing could stop Benjy now.

"But there you are!" said Benjy. "I know just what you was goin' to say. You take a feller sixteen or eighteen year old, or nineteen, say, an' what does he do? Starts smokin' cigarettes an' playin' pool an' stayin' out late an' foolin' after the girls, and you've got no end of worry. No tellin' what tricks he'd lead a nice feller like Edward into. If I was Edward's folks I'd say his brother ought to be a mite older -- old enough to be set in his ways -- and have some carackter formed up. I'd say one about --"

He glanced at Mrs. Rothcranz doubtfully. She was gazing at him in open-mouthed amazement. He wiped his forehead with his finger and plungeg.

"One about thirty year old, say." he said.

Mr. Rothcranz opened his mouth, but he did not speak. He smiled amusedly.

"About thirty," Benjy hurried on, "and that knowed something about runnin' a garden, say. Thirty or forty, because forty would be more safer. But the dickens is you can't hardly get a feller forty years old, because if he's good he's in business or married or something. To my way of thinkin' a feller don't know how to play with kids until he's gone past fifty, and when a feller's just about fifty is when he's goin' to get married if he ever is, and no tellin' who he might fetch you home for a darter-in-law. But when a feller is fifty-five, and ain't married, chances are he ain't goin' to get married. Only --"

"Only --" said Mrs. Rothcranz.

"Only," said Benjy, "if I was lookin' for a playmate for a nice little feller like Edward I'd be mighty careful about it. I wouldn't take nobody under sixty year old, because sixty is the time when a feller starts lovin' little tykes like Edward and would do anything for them. When a feller is sixty he knows all he's goin' to know about gardening and he likes it, and he likes to have a little feller come and fool round and ask questions. Yep, I'd say seventy was a mite too old, but when a feller has started gardenin' at sixty he's a mighty useful man to have around the place by the time he's sixty-eight. I'd say sixty-eight was about right. If I had a boy like Edward and was adoptin' a brother for him I'd pick out a brother sixty-eight year old, and a bachelor, and healthy, and settled in his ways, and used to Edward and his tricks and manners. That's what I'd do. I'd pick a feller like that, that Edward was already so fond of it would break his heart to be tore away from him. And -- and a feller that could be handy around a big place like this, gardenin' the garden and all."

Benjy stopped short. He looked down at his big brown hands and twisted them together nervously.

"I know a feller," he said hoarsely, "a feller that meets all them specifications. An old feller that thinks the world an' all of --"

Through the hall came the soft tread of Edward's feet and the boy entered the room. He flew to Benjy's side and took the old man's hand.

"Why, Benjy! I didn't know you were here," he cried joyfully.

"Listen once, Edward," said Mrs. Rothcranz. "Your Mr. Benjy comes to see about the little brother I should get you. He says it is better you should have a bigger one -- sixty-eight years old already, maybe, that could garden some --"

"Well, come to think of it," said Benjy, putting his hand on Edward's shoulder, "I don't know as a feller'd have much time to garden with a lively little feller like Edward to 'tend to. Leave out the garden part. Sixty-eight year old, and hale and hearty --"

"Well, come! Talk up once, Edward! How you like Mr. Benjy for a baby brother?" asked Mrs. Rothcranz jokingly.

"I'd like him better than any baby brother that ever was!" exclaimed Edward, but Benjy was out of his chair.

"Me?" he exclaimed. "Me be Edward's brother? Why, I ain't fitten to be his brother -- I ain't been raised right. I'm common folks. I didn't mean me, ma'am. I meant Mr. Wentworth. Poorhouse wouldn't hurt an ol' feller like me but Mr. Wentworth was raised gentlemanly."

Mrs. Rothcranz lifted her brows questioningly.

"Mr. Wentworth is my other friend." said Edward simply.

"Well, how you like him for a baby brother?" asked Mrs. Rothcranz.

"Why, he couldn't be a baby brother," laughed Edward joyfully. "He's as old as old. He's always going to live in the white house and be my Mr. Wentworth. and Benjy's always going to live there and be my Benjy."

"We been put out," said Benjy thickly. "We been thrown on the town. That's why I come over. If you could sort of take Mr. Wentworth, ma'am, and -- and let me get along for myself -- why -- why --"

"And so you think maybe you get mama to adopt him for a baby, yes?" said Mr. Rothcranz, chuckling. "Maybe you like them so much, Edward, mama should adopt both of them yet for baby brothers -- twins, yes? One in blue, maybe, and one in pink."

He laughed good-naturedly.

"Anyhow," he said, "I go over and see your Mr. Wentworth once," and he wiggled his feet more securely into his slippers and went out and Benjy went with him.

When Mr. Rothcranz returned he was in a jovial mood. He lifted Edward and tossed him in the air.

"So!" he said. "Your Mr. Wentworth is too old for a baby brother, but I adopt him anyway."

"Poppa!" exclaimed Mrs. Rothcranz.

"Sure!" he laughed. "And Benjy, too. A pair of twin grandpas, yes? I buy me the white cottage and leave them in it, mama. Edward needs it no baby brother with two friends like he got."

"Sei dank!" cried Mrs. Rothcranz. "Then I could get me a girl baby right quick, Rudolph!"

"Sure!" said her husband, smiling. "Mit colic and teethings and all, yes, mama. The younger the better. Girls can't be too young, no, mama?"

"'Raus mit!" she laughed, and then she kissed him.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:17:45am USA Central
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