Old Man Conlon
Old Man Conlon
By what untoward working of the law of atavistic reversion Old Man Conlon ever came to have a son who combined the qualities of miser, braggart, coward, and bully, no one could ever determine. Old Man Conlon was himself the most generous of souls, the gentlest, bravest, must considerate. But the sight of Tom Conlon, big, ruddy, swaggering, was enough to give grave doubts as to the person and disposition of his father's late wife.
They lived together, the old man, Tom, Tom's wife, and two children, in one of the back streets of Heronside. The back streets of Heronside were not unsightly or crowded. The air from the buy blew salt and vigorous through them, and in the dooryards of their little houses bloomed those bright-colored blossoms which the villagers of the Eastern coast love—bits of brief, flaming defiance to the gray gloom of the sea and the fogs.
The Conlon place in particular rioted with color. Beneath the windows of the weather beaten cottage there was a border of nasturtiums. In an incapacitated dory, painted a more vivid green than any waters through which it had ever cut its way, were the pink and white and red of geraniums, the cheerful blue of bachelors' buttons, and the cloudier azure of forget-me-nots. Behind the house, hedges of sunflowers hid the patch of earth divided into more utilitarian strips—rows of beets, tomatoes, cabbages, and onions. And all this efflorescence and vegetation was the result of Old Man Conlon's industry.
"Sure, what would I be doin'—nothin' at all but twiddlin' me thumbs in the house?" he used to ask when the doctor in passing, or Father Joseph on a pastoral visit—yes, or even the Rev. Cotton Mather Putnam of the Old South Church of Heronside, on an errand in the neighborhood—would pause to admire the show and to comment upon his activity.
Tom Conlon heartily concurred in his father's sentiment.
"He'd be a nice one, he would," Tom was accustomed to remark, "to sit an' eat an' drink an' keep warm by the fire, an' never do a hand's turn for the whole of it! One more mouth to fill counts, I can tell you, an' I ain't no Rothschild nor no Astor."
"I hear the old man set you up in business, Tom," an adventurous listener would sometimes say. The conversation generally took place in Tom's waterside grocery shop, patronized by the poorer folk of the town for supplies, and used by the loungers as a poor man's club.
"Aw, you hear a great deal," Tom would snarl in reply.
Hut his repartee never went beyond that. For it was true that, at his son's earnest solicitation. Old Man Conlon had raised the money to start the boy in business. A "back pension" was the foundation of their fortunes. Old Man Conlon had been one of Heronside's volunteers during the Civil War; but it had taken a quarter of a century to convince him that there was enough connection between a bullet wound at Antietam and his lameness to justify him in applying for a pension. His son had finally made him see reason in the matter, and it was the two or three thousand dollars resulting that had set Tom up as a grocer. Whereupon he had made a thrifty and provident marriage with the only daughter of the village barber, who was also the village usurer, and the pair took Old Man Conlon to live with them.
"We might as well have that eight dollars a month as anybody else," said Tom.
"It's little enough," added his wife.
She was a thoroughly consistent woman, and she never changed her attitude even when she discovered that the old man could he made useful in varied ways; that he could turn the wringer on wash days, do the marketing, mend the window glass, manage a garden, tend a cow, and take care of the children as they came. And when people said to her: "My, ain't your father-in-law grown old an' quiet-like all of a sudden?" she answered curtly: "Old? That man'll live forever. They always do that's livin' on others."
Now, the labors that the old man performed doubtless served to keep his strength and health. His sad, sunken, blue eyes were clear; his brown, wrinkled skin had a look of vigor. He was almost as straight as on the day, forty years before, when he, with all the county volunteers, had marched from Heronside to the squealing of a fife and the beating of a drum, and a woman on the roadside had smiled and smiled and waved her hand until he had passed, and had then fallen in a faint. But he did not talk much now, and he did not laugh. He had given up his pipe and his plug—"filthy things," his daughter-in-law called them, and "expensive in hard times," his son.
When all his chores about the little place were done he used to mount to his attic. In winter the kitchen fire—the only one the economical Conlons maintained—seemed scarce large enough for three adults and the children. In summer the narrow porch was crowded if he sat upon it. He used to tell himself in his banishment that "of course Tom an' his woman would be wantin' a few minutes together: sure, an' didn't he remember how 'twas himself? But he sighed as he climbed into bed.
Day by day the younger children grew more and more impertinent to him. Day by day his son and daughter-in-law regarded him with more grudging eyes. They had succeeded in convincing themselves that the words they had uttered so long were true—that they were supporting a useless, tiresome old man, and that it was an ungrateful task. He felt it all; he opposed to the impertinence of the little Conlons a more timid affection, which they scorned and trampled on with the sure, instinctive imitation of childhood. He strove to make himself more useful to his son's wife, but no usefulness could be commensurate with her insatiable demands. He thought, dully and dimly, of leaving the house, of trying to board elsewhere; vague notions of the Soldiers' Home floated through his mind. But he had pride, Old Man Conlon, as well as a loving heart. He could not advertise his children's coldness and ingratitude.
"An' if me own, that I've done everything for, treat me so," he reasoned, "what would it be wid strangers?"
Mercy Rankin paused in front of the Conlon wicket, and addressed the old man with that note of eagerness which gave her girlish voice so much of its charm.
"Oh!" she cried. "I beg your pardon, but how lovely those pale brown nasturtiums are! Can you tell me what kind they are?"
The old man smiled kindly upon her.
"I can't do that." he answered. "for I've no head at all to be rememberin' names. But I can do better, miss, if ye'll kindly let me. I'll be diggin' ye a plant, an' ye know how 'twill spread for ye."
"Oh, would you please?" she asked. "I love gardening: I do a good deal of it over at our place—my father's, I mean. He is Mr. Rankin."
"Sure an' ye've a fine place over there on the bay, an' gardeners enough an' to spare, I'm thinkin'."
"Certainly we could spare some of them," agreed Mercy. "You see, I love to do my own digging; and pruning and planting. And they don't care particularly to have me."
The old man nodded understandingly. Then he went indoors to find a box and a bit of twine, and when he returned he brought Mercy a glass of water. They talked together a few minutes, flower-grower to flower-grower, not the rich man's daughter to the poor man. And a glow stole through Old Man Conlon's veins; it was so satisfactory and so warming to talk with a congenial spirit!
"What did she pay you for the plant you dug up for her?" demanded Mrs. Tom when the colloquy was over and Mercy Rankin had gone glimmering along her way through the village streets.
"She didn't offer money," replied the old man with deep content. "She's a nice young girl."
"It's easy seen you're livin' on other folks," retorted Mrs. Tom; but the gibe had lost some of its power to wound.
By the end of the month, Mercy's "affair" with Old Man Conlon was a favorite jest in her own circle, so frequent, long, and confidential were the talks over the wicket fence. The Hon. Ezra Kankin and his wife laughed indulgently at Mercy's enthusiasm. The Hon. Ezra, with gubernatorial aspirations, even encouraged her democracy. He had, however, the good sense not to make it self-conscious.
As for the old man, the respect, the affectionate regard, the docile attention of the pretty girl were a tonic to him. He forgot to brood upon the impertinences of his grandchildren and the harshness of his son. Here was some one from another sphere seeking and honoring what his own ignored and scorned.
However, not until the great two hundred and fiftieth birthday celebration of Heronside was planned was all the distinction which the Rankin connection held for Old Man Conlon revealed. Then oven the grudging Conlon and the embittered Mrs. Tom and the awed children admitted that the friendship between their relative and Mercy Rankin had not been in vain. For the Hon. Ezra himself, chairman of the committee on parades, with a committeeman or two in tow, came to ask Old Man Conlon to head the procession of veterans sitting in state with a tattered battle-flag in an open barouche.
"All the other veterans," smiled the Hon. Ezra, "are merely Spanish war heroes. You are the only Heronside man left who fought in the Civil War, Mr. Conlon."
Mr. Conlon sighed and nodded. His talk drifted to Antietam. By a happy coincidence, the Hon. Ezra's father had fought there. Still happier, the Ninth Massachusetts and the Thirteenth Illinois, in which the older Rankin had been enrolled, were camped side by side before the battle. In fact, the Hon. Ezra was almost ready to claim relationship with Old Man Conlon before the end of the interview.
It was upon this fraternal scene that Tom Conlon entered. Tom had not his father's simplicity in the presence of greatness. He was awkward and flustered by the meeting. But nothing could exceed the Hon. Ezra's affability. He understood that Mr. Conlon was one of Heronside's merchants Yes? Ah, noble industry! He himself believed in encouraging home activities. The contract for fireworks, now—and yes, the provisioning of the boats which were to take part in the water pageant of the celebration—could Mr. Conlon consider applying for them, perhaps?
Tom's greedy eyes sparkled; but before he could blurt out his joyous acceptance of the chance to bid for these contracts, Old Man Conlon spoke.
"It's a good chanst you're offerin' us, Mr. Rankin." he said with dignity. "An' me an' Tom will talk it over together. 'Twas me set him up in business, an' I'm a sort of silent partner to him."
"That will settle it with the committee," the suave Mr. Rankin assured them, while Tom glowered and blinked and started to speak and then thought better of it. Then the politician left them to their consultation.
"Don't ye say a word, Tom," advised the old man. "Ye'll he sorry for it if ye do. If ye want the conthracts, ye'll have to pay me back the money I set ye up wid. We've thried it your way, an', God forgive me, it's made a dreary old man of me an' a cold-blooded young man of ye. But here's another chanst for us both. D'ye want thim conthracts?"
"I—you—what the—yes, sir, I do," answered Tom.
And nowadays the Conlon children refer to the day when grandpa rode in the procession as the most effulgent occasion of their lives. And Mrs. Conlon cuffs them as soundly as the old man will permit if they do not drag his easy chair to the fire and find his slippers for him, and his glasses and his paper. For he has two or three thousand dollars, and he might leave it to the church, or to the library in which Mercy Rankin is so interested, if his relatives crossed him in anything!