Enos Lex—A Cobbler and Drunkard
Mary Brunt was a visiting governess in Philadelphia. She went from house to house giving lessons to little children in the rudiments of knowledge. She was not young, nor beautiful, nor particularly clever, yet she had hosts of loyal friends, and if any of them had been asked to name a woman whose life was full, secure and happy, they would probably have named the poor governess, Mary Brunt.
Let me tell you an incident which may, perhaps, give a hint of her secret life to you.
She lived in Germantown, a suburb of Philadelphia, and made, twice each day, the half-hour’s journey on the railway which grows so wearisome to most people from repetition. It never seemed wearisome to Mary. Every day she met with some pleasant adventure. It might be only a child to pet, or some old woman who gave her a friendly nod; but these little things warmed her heart all day.
On the outskirts of the city the train passed near to Hennig’s great woollen mills. A little distance beyond there was a block of old dwelling-houses which had fallen into wretchedness and disrepair, and were occupied only by the poorest poor. Ragged, dirty children swarmed about the doors, and women with coarse faces and unkempt hair stared from the windows, the broken panes of which were stuffed with old hats and rags.
In but one window of the whole block the glass was whole and clean. A curtain of the cheapest muslin, but white, hung before it. This window was in the third story of the back of the house; the train, running on trestles at that point, passed within a few feet of it. Every day Mary watched this window. Whenever the sun shone, the curtain was lifted so that the light might reach a box upon the sill. The box was covered with a pane of glass, and Mary fancied that within it were ants or moths or some living thing.
One day the curtain was drawn aside, revealing a bare garret within. In one corner was a straw bed, in another a cobbler’s bench; here, a table, there, a chair, beyond, a grate without a fire. The setting, in short, for dire poverty--but clean.
Another day a man’s face appeared at the window as the train rushed by--a haggard old face, marked by lifelong dissipation. Afterwards Mary often saw the man stooping over his box or at work cobbling, but always alone. He had neither wife nor child.
Probably hundreds of people saw him as the train passed. He was no more to them than a tree or a post. But to Mary he was a human being who needed a friend. One day she left the cars at the nearest station, penetrated the house, and climbed to the garret. Outside of the door was a pine shingle on which was scrawled in charcoal: "E. Lex. Boots and Shoes mended here."
The door stood open. The cobbler was gone, but she saw on the floor and on the wall boxes and paper cases filled with spiders--little black dots, and huge yellow-legged monsters.
Mary went home and looked over her book-shelves. Choosing a couple of old scientific magazines, she wrapped them up, directed them to E. Lex, and sent them by mail. The next day she saw the cobbler pouring over them at the window.
Throughout that winter E. Lex received by mail every week old books, pamphlets, or clippings interesting to a naturalist. It was amazing how much information Miss Brunt found on Madam Arachne and her habits. She saw, as she flew past, that the cobbler had made a shelf on which his new treasures were carefully placed.
One day Miss Brunt, reading the morning paper, saw that Enos Lex had been run over, and his leg broken. Lex, it was stated, had been drunk for several days, and had fallen on the track.
That evening, when Mary had finished her work, she went to the great hospital at Blockley almshouse and saw Enos Lex. She often had friends in that hospital, to that the nurses knew her well.
There could be no doubt that the cobbler had been drunk for several days; nor indeed that, year in and year out, he was drunk much of the time.
Mary did not lecture him. She did not even hint at his iniquity. She talked intelligently to him about his broken leg, and, after he grew used to her, about his spiders.
Lex was a Scotchman, with all the obstinacy, the honest, the belief in his own opinions, of his race. He was a shrewd observer of spiders, and, uneducated as he was, had written two monographs concerning them which had attracted notice. But he was also a drunkard, and--worst of all--was not ashamed of it.
One day he followed Mary with his keen gray eyes as she bade him good-by, and motioned to her to stop.
"Yere a vary young leddy," he said, with the patronizing tone which he always used to her. "Nae doot when I'm on the mend ye'll be tryin' to reform me. Mind what I say! Hand yer hand: it's nae use."
Mary looked him steadily in the eyes, but said nothing.
The muscles of the grim face worked. "Nae use," he repeated. "When I was twenty-four I came till this country, an' laid my plans high. I had my wife and bairn. I wud be a gentleman like the others. My life wud be in a big hoose. The devil got me, Miss Brunt, an' made me a drunkard. They're dead that cared for me. The hoose has tumbled aboot my ears. There's no reason why Enos Lex should na tak' a' the comfort out o' whiskey that he can get."
Mary had no eloquence. She only shook hands with him heartily, and went away. Doctor C---- stopped her at the door.
"You can do nothing with Lex, Miss Brunt. He's an incorrigible sot."
"Yes; but--he's clean. There's always hope for a man, doctor, who hates dirt."
There was hope, too, she thought, for the man who loves any living creature, even a hideous spider.
Lex was in bed for months, during which time he could get no liquor. So much was gained. When he was ready to leave Blockley, Mary came to him."
"There is an opening for a good cobbler in Germantown," she said. "I know of a shop and room which you can rent low, and behind which is a little garden, a fine nursery for spiders!"
His eyes sparkled. "I'll tak' it," he said briefly.
Mary brought him custom--plenty of it. She procured him admission to the library, and to a free reading-room. Better than all, she sent a professor and a doctor--scientific men--to talk to him and make him feel that he belonged to their guild.
"This is my friend, Mr. Lex," she said, as she introduced him to the doctor. "He can teach you much about spiders."
The Scotchman eyed her keenly as she spoke. There was a whiskey flask in his pocket. It was the first time since Jeanie died that a woman had called him her friend.
After she was gone, he took out the flask and broke it. "I'll not disgrace her!" he said. "I'll mak’ myself fit to meet Jeanie, God helping me!"
Mary Brunt died a year ago. There were many strangers crowded into the graveyard who were unknown to her friends. Women of the tenement-houses, poor Polish mill-men, negroes--no one ever knew what her relations to these people had been.
On the next day a tall, raw-boned Scotchman, coarsely clothed, but bearing himself with a certain grave dignity, came alone to the grave, and planted a root of heather on it. It was the best he could do. He stood looking steadily up into the clear sky, and then, nodding gravely to himself, went away. It was the man she had saved.
Why had she been able to save him? Hundreds of other Christians, it may be, had looked at the wretched garret of the bloated drunkard with hopeless pity; but Mary saw the white curtain at the window.
In every ruined life there is the bit of white, if we have eyes to see it.
1. In Greek mythology, Arachne was a talente weaver who displeased the goddess Athena by challenging her; Athena turned Arachne into a spider. Spiders came to be called arachnids after this legend. ↩
2. A charity hospital in west Philadelphia that later became Philadelphia General Hospital. ↩
3. Child. ↩