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Not a flicker of light from a gas lamp, nor even an oil lantern, lit the dank entryway of the tenement building. Nothing, that is, more than the chilling, early-evening light that had to force its way through the grimy sliver of cracked glass set in the door. One flight up the narrow, steep stairs, and Robin found himself swallowed by darkness. Suffocating darkness reeking with the collected smells of rotting wood, clammy stained walls, general filth, and cabbage soup, made by someone lucky enough to have afforded the cabbage to put in it.
To screw up his failing courage, Robin tried to suck in whatever air was available to him, only to have his pounding heart quickly pump it right back out of his thin chest. Nor did it help keep the icy knot forming in his stomach from drawing tighter and tighter.
Robin wondered if he would ever be anything less than terrified every time he had to climb these stairs, or the stairs of other buildings just like it. Same darkness. Same smells. Same misery and fear huddled behind every door in the building, especially fear of him. Fear of his knock on the door and what it meant.
Robin hated the thought of that almost more than he hated the dark hallway. Yet why would they need to be afraid of him? No one else was, certainly not the street boys, boys whose homes were anyplace they could find to sleep at night. Street boys had the uncanny ability to smell out the fact that under his clothes trembled a body as threatening as a pale chicken hanging in the butcher's window -- a chicken so reduced to skin and bones it could well have been nearly dead before anyone came along to wring its neck. Why then should the people behind the doors not be able to recognize that this puny, barely-turned-eleven boy, who could have passed for nine, was as frightened as they were?
But in the end, Robin knew there was no way to change that. For he also knew they were not so much frightened of him as of the person who sent him. Of that person they would be deathly afraid. And had reason to be!
Creeping along the hallway, he found the first door. After a hesitant knock, he waited. The voices behind the door came to a sudden stop, now as dead as the air in the hallway. The silence dragged on, as if a long enough silence would drive him away. Timidly, he knocked again.
The door finally opened, and a man peered out. Coarse stubble on his face did nothing to disguise the deep hollows in his cheeks. A worn vest sagged on his gaunt form. The curiously blank expression in his eyes never changed as he opened the door wider.
"I'll get the rent money," he said in a flat voice. Then he turned and walked heavily across the room, disappearing into the dark, windowless closet that served as a bedroom.
Standing miserably uncomfortable outside the doorway, Robin could see the entire meagerly furnished room. Intended for no more than one or two human beings, it was where seven lived, eight counting the baby asleep on a pile of rags in the corner, watched over by a small girl.
The narrow windows let in whatever fading light they could steal from the airless space not more than an arm's length away from the neighboring tenement building. It fell on a woman with her head bent low over a table barely lit by a small oil lamp, where she was at work beading ladies' slippers. An old woman and two young girls sat with her, sorting the beads she needed. Even the little boy sitting with them was at work, pasting paper onto cardboard candy boxes.
No one in the room looked up at Robin except the girl tending the baby. She stared at him curiously, but at a warning glance from her mother, quickly returned her attention to the baby.
The man soon came back. "Here," he said thrusting some coins and a paper bill into Robin's hand. "You don't have to count it. I can tell you it's...it's fifty cents short. You just tell him please, I know it's short." The man hesitated. His thin, veined hands began to twitch nervously at his sides. "My wife was...she had to see the doctor...." He faltered and gave a hopeless shrug. "Tell him for sure next week he'll have it. Don't forget. Tell him Kringle said so."
Fifty cents short! Robin felt that all the air was suddenly squeezed from his chest. Fifty cents short! And he was the one who would have to tell Hawker Doak that a tenant was fifty cents short! Did Mr. Kringle think that this was a simple thing to do? Oh, surely he must have the money someplace.
"But...but..." Robin stammered, "can't you...don't you..."
"You tell him Kringle said so," Mr. Kringle interrupted quickly. "Tell him Kringle makes a promise. All right?" He made an attempt at a smile. But his hands were twitching nervously at his side, and Robin could see that he was frightened, because he truly did not have the money someplace -- or anyplace.
"I will. I'll...I'll tell him, Mr. Kringle," Robin said, shoving the money into an inside pocket of his jacket.
Mr. Kringle gave him only a brief nod, and then swiftly shut the door on him.
Fifty cents! Fifty cents! Fifty cents short! And Hawker Doak had warned him he had better not come in one cent short. Not one measly, miserable, murderous cent! One cent short and he would "get it," Hawker had said. So how many more welts and bruises on his chicken-skinny body would he, Robin, earn for being fifty cents short? Fifty cents already, and he still had seven more doors to knock on.
What if one, or two, or even all of them came up short? And what if, after all, Mr. Kringle had withheld the money because there was actually only a runt of a boy at his door instead of Hawker Doak? And what if the others all felt the same?
But in his head, Robin once again saw the twitching hands, and the fear in the sunken eyes. No, Robin might have been standing there, but it was Hawker Doak Mr. Kringle had been seeing. And it would be that way with the rest.
But how far would Hawker go in paving Robin's way to kingdom come? How much more than fifty cents short would it take? Robin stood motionless in the hallway, too paralyzed by these thoughts to move. Then, with a shudder, he finally put a hand up against the clammy wall and began once again to feel his tortuous way through the dark building. Soon, all too soon, his questions would be answered.
Less than forty-five minutes later, he had finished making his calls on seven more wretched families, from the pale young couple with the sickly, wailing baby in an attic room barely large enough to turn around in, and with a window so small any light or air entering through it could only be called an accident, to the family of eight plus a boarder, who in their cellar rookery shared with rats and roaches their walls of scaly paint, floors of cold, damp dirt, and their oftimes diet of little more than stale bread and water.
But all of them had somehow managed to scrape together enough to pay their rent. Every last person. Every last cent. It had all been carefully, painstakingly counted out into Robin's hand. But there was still the missing fifty cents. And he still had to face Hawker and explain it. Face Hawker! Robin could almost feel the heavy hand striking his arm, or his back, or whatever other spot was most convenient. But as he was starting down the crumbling brick steps leading from the stoop outside the building, he stopped suddenly as an idea came to him. There might be a way he could put off the reckoning for the time being, perhaps even until Mr. Kringle could make good his promise to pay the rent!
Although Hawker had never said so outright, Robin knew that he was being trained to do one of Hawker's jobs for him so Hawker could spend more time at one of the hundreds of establishments that served the refreshments he was partial to. Now, if he had indulged himself in enough of these refreshments, might he not be too befuddled to make a proper accounting of money handed to him? He had ordered Robin to meet him at The Whole Hog, five blocks away. This was not very far, and Robin could get there quickly. Too quickly. He needed to give Hawker as much time as possible to enjoy himself. This, unfortunately, meant staying holed up in the dismal building doing nothing but waiting in the dark as the minutes crawled by. Or he could take to the street as he would have done anyway, killing time by dragging his feet and dawdling about until he thought it was safe to reach his destination. And that is what he decided to do.
First, however, he pulled from his jacket pocket the old nickel pocket watch that had belonged to his papa, which he had so far managed to keep safely hidden from Hawker. After consulting it and determining that he should allow Hawker at least another half hour at The Whole Hog, Robin climbed down the remaining steps.
Streetlamps were already being lit. His mama had never allowed him out alone to roam the street at this hour. Mama! What he would not give now to hear her voice scolding him once again! But he would never hear that voice on this side of the grave, for she was no more. Suddenly, to his horror, he felt his eyes flood with tears.
But he quickly dashed the tears away with the sleeve of his patched, too-large jacket. Patched because it had once belonged to another boy. Too large because he could grow into it, and it would thus last longer. How Robin regretted complaining about both these points after his mama had scraped together enough money to buy him the jacket. It would, after all, probably be a very long time before Hawker would see fit to buy him another. Further, Robin had the faint hope now that a patched, oversized jacket was making him look a little more like one of the street boys he so feared. He had yet to put it to the test, as the familiar boys had not been around lately. But if they appeared, perhaps they would leave him alone. He wondered if he could even adopt the swagger so many of them had.
But no jacket in the world would do any good if he were caught with tears. Any street boy worth his salt would spot them in a flash, just as they always seemed to know when someone was a ripe subject for tormenting and teasing. Robin had been the victim often enough of a particular gang when he walked to school, a place whose insides that group had probably rarely seen, if ever.
He gave his eyes another fierce swipe with his sleeve. Then, pulling his cap down over his ears, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, and hunching up inside his jacket, he attempted a swagger as he set out to somehow kill a half hour without being killed himself.
Actually, it was easy to melt into a street teeming with people who, unless a boy ran into one of them, had no more interest in him than if he were a rag dangling from a ragmonger's cart. Less. Why would anyone notice him when there were hundreds of children roaming the tenement streets? Robin had one heart-stopping moment, however, when he saw a gang of street boys headed right toward him. But they were not ones he recognized, and they looked through him as if he were nothing but a lamppost. Possibly because they were looking for a pocket to pick, and Robin was only a boy in a patched jacket, not a very likely prospect. Nonetheless, inside his pocket, Robin's fingers tightened around his nickel watch.
Beyond that, there were a great many other things happening on the street to keep his mind away from his forthcoming dreaded encounter with Hawker. For he was overwhelmed by the bedlam of confusion and racket swirling around him. Rickety wagons clogged the street, their loud-mouthed owners vying for space. Rusty wheels squealed and horses snorted. Housewives haggled with street vendors over the prices of rags and wilted vegetables. Newsboys shouted the headlines of evening papers.
To escape as much of this as he could, Robin hugged the walls, trying to interest himself in what lay behind the shop windows. At the fishmonger's he stared into the eyes of dead fish to which the word "fresh" had long since ceased to apply. At the butcher shop he gazed at ugly slabs of meat being enjoyed by something that might have been flies, only this was still winter and not the time for flies.
Some shops were not so deadly. One in particular had a sign in its dusty windows saying "buy or sell." It was filled with everything from trays of tarnished spoons, cheap rings, bracelets, and watches, to ladies' tortoiseshell hair combs. There were even two violins with broken strings hanging on the walls. Over the door of this shop he read the word "Pawnshop." Then his eyes fell on a large clock hanging on the pawnshop wall, its pendulum swinging. Could that be the right time?
Quickly he pulled his watch from his pocket, very careful to let no one see it. For someone in that crowd could snatch it from him, or just as easily accuse him of being a pickpocket. After all, how could a boy in a patched jacket be the owner of such a fine watch? And nickel though it might be, to Robin it was the finest watch in the world. But now this fine watch of his told him that he had managed to pass all but five minutes of the half hour he had set himself, and he must now hurry to face Hawker.
Breathless, he arrived in only four minutes at a disreputable brick building that seemed to be held up on either side by two equally disreputable buildings. But it looked like thousands of its kind even to the door, blackened and stained by filth from the city streets, splintered by the countless pairs of heavy boots that had kicked it in order to hasten their owner's entrance into the building's miserable interior. The only thing that distinguished this building from the rest was the sign hanging tipsily beside it. Portrayed on one side in paint that might once have been gold was a pig's snout. Across from the snout was the opposite end of the pig. Or might have been if so much of the curly tail had not been worn away. These two pig parts were joined by words barely leg-ible that announced the building as being The Whole Hog. This was the place where Hawker was waiting for Robin. His heart starting to pound, he pushed open the door....
And was hit in the face with the terrible stench of stale air, stale drink, and stale smoke, in a squalid room not large enough for half the bodies packed into it. In the murky light, men in work clothes and a few frowzy women sat crowded together, leaning heavily on an array of dark, scarred, wood tables. Some occupants had gone beyond simple leaning, and had collapsed on the table, arms sprawled out over their heads. No one, including the management, paid any attention to Robin as he huddled against the front wall, his eyes searching the room.
At first he saw only the dark knit cap on a head bent over a table, a cap like many others there, but he knew the black jacket under it at once. Oh, how well he knew it, for it was rarely off its owner. Sometimes it stayed on all night when he stumbled in late and fell into bed like a stone. The drooping head was a good sign, because it meant Robin had gauged his time just right. Under that cap would be a brain too befuddled to count money. But then the head rose.
There was the familiar red rag that served as a scarf tied around the neck. There was the thick black beard covering all the face but for the gash cutting across the cheek bone. There was the pitted nose over the thick, wet lips. And there were the dark eyes suddenly piercing Robin with a razor-sharp stare as the heavy lids narrowed around them.
"Get over here, boy!" Hawker Doak snarled. "You're late!"
Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Brooks Wallace