From The Children’s Friend, October 1924 –
The Hero of the Tenements
By Coe Hayne
“Whew, but it is cold!” muttered Mat, the little Hungarian newsboy, as he jumped up and down at the corner of the street, the wide, rickety boards of the sidewalk, covered white with frost, creaked shrilly with every movement of his feet.
“Morning’s papers, here!” shouted Mat.
Across the street the sidewalk was squeaking under the clumsy shoes of a night messenger boy upon his way home.
“Hello, Billy!” Mat accosted.
“Hello, Mat! How’s the family?” returned Billy.
“They’re all right ‘long as it’s summer,” answered the newsboy. “But this morning Heddy is worse, ’cause it’s cold-d-d.”
Mat pressed up closer to Billy and shivered. Two big tears were rolling down his cheeks, but he was too much of a man to notice them or even wipe them away.
“I’ve found a chance for you, Mat,” continued Billy. “They want an office boy in a fine place on Fourth Avenue. I saw the sign in the window this morning. Come along and see it.”
“Here’s the sign, Mat,” said the messenger boy, stepping up in front of a handsome office building.
“‘Boy wanted for lawyer’s office. Must have good recommendations. Apply in person Tuesday morning,’” read Mat, slowly repeating each word.
“You’d get a pile out of such a place as that. Why don’t you try for it? I would if I was out of a job and had your schooling,” prompted Billy.
Mat shook his head soberly.
“No, there’s no chance for me. Don’t you see it says you’ve got to have recommends – and where could I get any?”
“That’s so,” assented the other. “Didn’t think of that. but say, it wouldn’t do any harm to try anyway, would it?”
During the day Mat thought about his “chance.” He decided that Billy was right. It would do no harm to try, anyway. So next morning he presented himself at the office of one of the prominent lawyers of the great city in which he lived.
Mat had not always lived in America. A few years before, when he was but a mere lad, he had come from Hungary, away across the rolling Atlantic, with his parents and his baby sister Hedwig, a wee, sweet-faced cripple. This little family was just beginning to get accustomed to the new life when misfortune, hard and sudden, came to it. The father became stricken with a mysterious disease and died. The poor mother, now prostrated with grief, longed for the dear old rural home in her native land. Here she was in a strange country with few friends and a family for which she must provide. What could she do? Little Mat, however, now came manfully to the front and showed that he was born of sturdy stock. He realized that he must now take his place
at the head of the house. Leaving his school, which he loved more than he chose to confess, and in which he was fast forging to the head of his class, he went out upon the streets as a newsboy.
For several years Mat’s family prospered very well. The mother was able to earn a good deal by her needle, and Mat helped out with the pennies which he gained by selling papers.
But a time came when Mother’s eyes, already weakened by too close work with the needle, gave out completely, and she found that she could make no more garments for the big, wholesale clothing house that employed her. This had happened but a short time before that morning upon which Mat was shown the sign in the lawyer’s office.
With the stern winter staring them in the face, Mat was ready to make almost any attempt to secure some honorable employment that would bring him bigger income than he made by selling papers. But now he stood in the lawyer’s office awaiting his turn in the line of eager young applicants, he wished that he had not been so ready to take Billy’s advice. For what chance had he against all of these better dressed boys, who doubtless had their pockets full of recommendations?
“Next!” called out the spry young man; and Mat found himself being ushered into the mysterious back room from which all of the boys ahead of him had come away, some of the with disappointment written plainly upon their faces.
Mat walked bravely into the room and met the gaze of the great lawyer who was seated at a desk covered with many papers.
“Well, what is your name?” asked the lawyer, briskly.
“Matthias Boeskay, sir. They calls me ‘Mat’ for short,” answered the little Hungarian.
“What recommendations have you?”
“None, sir; but I thought that maybe you’d take me without any,” faltered Mat, his throat choking up with some sort of a lump which he could not swallow.
“Without any!” exclaimed the lawyer as his keen, searching eyes wandered over Mat from head to foot, making the boy painfully conscious of his shabby and ill-fitting clothes, his chapped hands and tattered shoes.
For a moment Mat wavered under the attack of those critical eyes and was just upon the point of fleeing from the room when a picture of his mother as she had vainly tried him and made him straighten up and feel once more like to see to patch his trousers the night before, appeared to a man.
“Well, what have you to say for yourself?” the lawyer asked abruptly. “What made you think that I would take you without any recommendations?”
“Well, sir, it’s just this way,” answered Mat in an honest and open manner. “Billy, my chum, was kind enough to tell me about this place. I know it isn’t business to take a fellow without recommends, but if you’ll just give me a chance once I’ll make a big try to suit you. There’s a lot depending on me, and I couldn’t afford to do poor work for anybody. You see, since Father died I’m the main fellow at our house. I sell papers, but as long as I’ve got to buy better stuff for my sister Heddy to eat, I can’t depend on that sort of work. I’ve got to hustle now mor’n ever, ‘cause mother’s eyes have given out. I didn’t want to let any chance slip by to get work, so I came here.”
There was silence in the comfortable office. The lawyer had turned away and was looking out of the window with a far-away expression in his eyes. Perhaps he was thinking of the time, many years before, when he himself was a boy with a future scarcely less discouraging than that of this ragged, anxious-looking lad. Perhaps he was thinking also of the kind old gentleman who had given him a start in life when no one else would notice him. At any rate, he suddenly aroused himself and looked at Mat with eyes altogether softened.
“Where did you say you lived?” he asked; and as the boy told him he wrote the address in a note-book, adding aloud: “Come tomorrow at this time and I’ll let you know.”
With this Mat was dismissed, and the next waiting boy was shown into the private room, and then the next one, until finally all had been examined and had departed.
“Charles,” said the lawyer to his clerk, “did you notice the little fellow who claimed that he had a family to support?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Charles.
“I want you to go to his home and find out, if possible, whether he told us the truth. Inquire of his neighbors – any way to find out. Here is his address.”
A street-car ride of twenty minutes took Charles to the poor tenement district where Mat, the newsboy, lived with his mother and sister.
“Will you tell me, please, whether a boy by the name of Matthias Boeskay lives, with his mother and crippled sister, next door to you/’ asked Charles of a pleasant-faced old woman who had answered his knock.
“Yes, he does; and a right good boy he is, too, as everybody will tell you,” answered the woman. “He reminds me every day of my own son who got lost at sea. I tell you, there never was a better son nor –”
good old mother still speaking her praises of Mat and her own dead sailor boy. Charles immediately turned back, however, and stood by a street corner near at hand. Presently he saw Mat come upon the street, drawing in a shaky little cart his invalid sister. The wind blew somewhat cold, yet the sun was bright and warm, and no doubt Mat thought that this would be one of the last chances for “Heddy” to enjoy the out-of-doors. He made his way directly toward Charles.
“I’m getting cold,” the lawyer’s clerk heard the little girl complain.
“Oh, well, I’ll fix that,” assured Mat. Whereupon he whisked off his coat and wrapped it about the tiny shoulders of his passenger.
“That boy is all right,” thought Charles as he started for the nearest street-car.
When he returned to the office he told his employer all that he had seen and heard.
When Mat left the office the great lawyer that Tuesday morning it was with a mingled feeling of hope and despair. Would he really get the place, or not? Perhaps the lawyer was merely trying to get rid of him without hurting his feelings. He resolved to speak nothing concerning the matter to his mother, but to wait and see what fortune the morrow had in store for him. During all the long night he tossed to and fro upon the bed.
After a frugal breakfast, Mat started away next morning to secure his usual supply of papers. But before he could gain courage to go to the crowded thoroughfares, he felt that he must return home to bid his mother and Heddy goodby once more. He was troubled at heart, for his mother had told him that the little sister whom he loved so much was growing thin and frail for want of more nourishing food.
“Things are going to pick up, mama, just you see; for you must remember that I am a man now,” said Mat as he stood for a moment in the doorway.
His mother looked down at him with love and pride revealed in her face, though she found it hard to hide her anxiety.
“I must get that place!” vowed Mat to himself as he sped away.
At exactly the hour mentioned by the lawyer, mat again stood waiting his turn to be called into a private room. Three or four other boys who had been asked to call again, were already there waiting and hoping like himself. But one after another they were dismissed, and Mat again stood before the lawyer.
“This is Matthias Boeskay, is it? Well, sir, we’ve decided that you are the boy for this place. No, no, – never mind about thanking me. All we want is good service. See if that suit over there upon that chair fits you. That all comes with the position, you know. I have also made an engagement for you with Dr. Warwick of the Grant Medical Institute. You are to meet him at his office this morning to talk about your invalid sister. He is a good man and will be able to help her if anyone can. I will tell you later what your duties in this office will be.”
With his eyes almost popping out of his head with glee, Mat listened to the words of the lawyer. During all that day while he was becoming accustomed to his new duties he could hardly keep from shouting. For had not Dr. Warwick told him that he thought that he could cure Heddy? She was going to get stronger and stronger each day, he knew, for he was able to buy for her everything in the world which she needed.
And that night God heard from the lips of Mat and his family the thanks which the lawyer had not taken for himself.