An Inheritance

I DID N’T have so many troubles of my own in those days but that I could take an interest in other people’s doings, and my interest in Littledan was very keen indeed. He was one of those curious characters whom a boy instinctively finds as soon as he is allowed to run by himself. Such characters are always found in queer spots; always appear to be about the same age; and so far as the boy can understand, must have been just so old and just so located ever since time began.

Littledan had mild blue eyes, a bald spot on the top of his head, and a soft, low voice. His name, as it was spoken, was the outgrowth of his small stature and the fact that he had no other name known to the villagers except Dan. He lived all alone in a little cottage down by the river, and earned his daily bread by doing those things which it is hard to find any one to do: beating carpets, mowing lawns, and the like. Sometimes he got drunk. but his drunks were as small and mild as himself.

Although the fishing was good at the back of his garden he never fished, but I believe I won his heart with the bullheads I took to him. I came to think of his labors as being timed by seasons. There were the carpet-beating season, the lawn-mowing season, and the path-shoveling season, besides various others.

I must have been in the habit of stopping and visiting with him for as many as five years before my boyish mind focused itself upon a curious thing in connection with his carpetbeating.

All day long, in their season, he would have one carpet after another hanging on a rope, and in his patient way would stand and beat. When each was finished it was carefully and methodically folded and laid inside his woodshed until he should have a wheelbarrow-load ready to deliver.

Our village was comparatively new. Of late years it had come to be something of a manufacturing place, so such fortunes as were in it were also comparatively new. Perhaps this fact was nowhere revealed more distinctly than it was on Littledan’s carpetbeating rope. Such monstrous figures, and such monstrous colors, and so monstrously blended — even I, a boy, could see the handwriting on those carpets.

One evening as I stopped on the way home from fishing, it suddenly occurred to me that the small carpet hanging on the rope, and being very gently tapped with the beating stick, was much more subdued than the general display to be seen there. It also seemed to me that this carpet was in some way familiar. After a little it was taken down and folded, but instead of being put in the wood-shed it was carried into the cottage.

My interest in the matter was not sufficient to cause me to ask questions. But when I saw this same small modest carpet the last one to be beaten for six consecutive evenings — and no dust came out of it at that— I called for an explanation.

Littledan blushed sheepishly.

‘That’s my own carpet,’ he admitted. ‘I beat it the last thing every night to steady my nerves. Somehow these bright colors and big figures wear on me in a way I can’t describe. Sometimes they’ll wave and flop before my eyes half the night. Last spring I got so that when one lady gave me a plain, mild sort of a carpet to beat, I was possessed to steal it. I kept it three or four days and beat it over and over again, just for comfort’s sake. A good many times since then I’ve stopped in front of her house and almost gone up to the door and asked if I could n’t go in and look at that carpet. I’ve been saving my money all summer on purpose to buy one like it. I got it just before this housecleaning season started.’

I am afraid I laughed at his explanalion, but, if so, Littledan was not the kind to lay it up against a boy.

When I went home I told my father what I had seen and heard. At first he seemed amused and then he became thoughtful.

‘It’s best not to notice people’s little queer streaks,’ he advised, ‘and we certainly ought not to speak of them, or, what is worse, laugh at them. Queer streaks, when we learn their origin, often turn out to be very sane and logical.’

Father’s hint was sufficient, and I never again made light of Littledan’s drab carpet. During two seasons of each year—the one when the robins were nesting, and again when the leaves were falling—I saw it beaten daily. I associated it with the winding up of the day’s work and the setting of the sun. It was done with the solemn regularity of the Angelus. In time I came to look upon it as a sort of ceremony, much like a benediction. Even after I had grown to manhood, with yet a lingering taste for visits with Littledan, his sacred carpet received its regular beatings.

But at last came the inevitable change at the cottage. I remember distinctly that it was the day after the great blizzard that I found Littledan sick and alone. He had shoveled paths all day, and it was his last work. I took turn-and-turn-about with the neighbors to make him as comfortable as possible, but he grew steadily weaker.

One night when I felt sure that there was no longer ground for hope I ventured to ask him if he had any relatives.

‘ I don’t know,’ he said feebly, ‘but I understand what you mean. Won’t you bring me that box?’

It was the little tin chest of his earthly treasures, and he opened it in my presence for the first time.

‘I suppose that is my father,’ he explained, fumbling out a very old and very dim daguerreotype. ‘ My mother died when I was a little boy. She worked at a farmhouse up in the New Hampshire hills. We were not allowed to come to the table with the others. She kept that picture and this brush under her pillow and laughed and cried over them most of the time, as I remember it.’

He showed me an artist’s brush, and after contemplating it, went on,— ‘She used to tickle my face with it. She said he had painted pretty pictures with it. I never heard her called any name but Mary, and no one ever called me anything but Dan. She used to stand on the river bridge and hold me in her arms while she looked down into the water. The water scared me, and when I cried she would go away from the river. Finally, so they told me, one night when she was alone, she fell in and they found her drowned. Then an old woman took me, and when she died I was quite a lad. They talked of sending me to the poor-house, but I ran away.’

He put the brush and picture back in the box and closed the lid.

‘I’ve told you this,’ he continued, ‘ so you ’d be sure and have them buried with me. I can’t burn them up.’

He turned his face to the wall and when he spoke again it was on another subject. ‘After I’m gone you can have my carpet.’