The Touch In The Heart by Eugene Field

Story type: Literature

Old Abel Dunklee was delighted, and so was old Abel’s wife, when little Abel came. For this coming they had waited many years. God had prospered them elsewise; this one supreme blessing only had been withheld. Yet Abel had never despaired. “I shall some time have a son,” said he. “I shall call him Abel. He shall be rich; he shall succeed to my business; my house, my factory, my lands, my fortune,–all shall be his!” Abel Dunklee felt this to be a certainty, and with this prospect constantly in mind he slaved and pinched and bargained. So when at last the little one did come it was as heir to a considerable property.

The joy in the house of Dunklee was not shared by the community at large. Abel Dunklee was by no means a popular man. Folk had the well-defined opinion that he was selfish, miserly, and hard. If he had not been actually bad, he had never been what the world calls a good man. His methods had been of the grinding, sordid order. He had always been scrupulously honest in the payment of his debts, and in keeping his word; but his sense of duty seemed to stop there: Abel’s idea of goodness was to owe no man any money. He never gave a penny to charities, and he never spent any time sympathizing with the misfortunes or distresses of other people. He was narrow, close, selfish, and hard, so his neighbors and the community at large said, and I shall not deny that the verdict was a just one.

When a little one comes into this world of ours, it is the impulse of the people here to bid it welcome, and to make its lot pleasant. When little Abel was born no such enthusiasm obtained outside the austere Dunklee household. Popular sentiment found vent in an expression of the hope that the son and heir would grow up to scatter the dollars which old man Dunklee had accumulated by years of relentless avarice and unflagging toil. But Dr. Hardy–he who had officiated in an all-important capacity upon that momentous occasion in the Dunklee household–Dr. Hardy shook his head wisely, and perhaps sadly, as if he were saying to himself: “No, the child will never do either what the old folk or what the other folk would have him do; he is not long for here.”

Had you questioned him closely, Dr. Hardy would have told you that little Abel was as frail a babe as ever did battle for life. Dr. Hardy would surely never have dared say that to old Dunklee; for in his rapture in the coming of that little boy old Dunklee would have smote the offender who presumed even to intimate that the babe was not the most vigorous as well as the most beautiful creature upon earth. The old man was simply assotted upon the child,–in a selfish way, undoubtedly, but even this selfish love of that puny little child showed that the old man was capable of somewhat better than his past life had been. To hear him talk you might have fancied that Mrs. Dunklee had no part or parcel or interest in their offspring. It was always “my little boy,”–yes, old Abel Dunklee’s money had a rival in the old man’s heart at last, and that rival was a helpless, shrunken, sickly little babe.

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Among his business associates Abel Dunklee was familiarly known as Old Growly, for the reason that his voice was harsh and discordant, and sounded for all the world like the hoarse growling of an ill-natured bear. Abel was not a particularly irritable person, but his slavish devotion to money-getting, his indifference to the amenities of life, his entire neglect of the tender practices of humanity, his rough, unkempt personality, and his deep, hoarse voice,–these things combined to make that sobriquet of “Old Growly” an exceedingly appropriate one. And presumably Abel never thought of resenting the slur implied therein and thereby; he was too shrewd not to see that, however disrespectful and evil-intentioned the phrase might be, it served him to good purpose; for it conduced to that very general awe, not to say terror, which kept people from bothering him with their charitable and sentimental schemes.

Yes, I think we can accept it as a fact that Abel liked that sobriquet; it meant more money in his pocket, and fewer demands upon his time and patience.

But Old Growly abroad and Old Growly at home were two very different people. Only the voice was the same. The homely, furrowed, wizened face lighted up, and the keen, restless eyes lost their expression of shrewdness, and the thin, bony hands that elsewhere clutched and clutched and pinched and pinched for possession unlimbered themselves in the presence of little Abel, and reached out their long fingers yearningly and caressingly toward the little child. Then the hoarse voice would growl a salutation that was full of tenderness, for it came straight from the old man’s heart; only, had you not known how much he loved the child, you might have thought otherwise, for the old man’s voice was always hoarse and discordant, and that was why they called him Old Growly. But what proved his love for that puny babe was the fact that every afternoon, when he came home from the factory, Old Growly brought his little boy a dime; and once, when the little fellow had a fever on him from teething, Old Growly brought him a dollar! Next day the tooth came through and the fever left him, but you could not make the old man believe but what it was the dollar that did it all. That was natural, perhaps; for his life had been spent in grubbing for money, and he had not the soul to see that the best and sweetest things in human life are not to be had by riches alone.

As the doctor had in one way and another intimated would be the case, the child did not wax fat and vigorous. Although Old Growly did not seem to see the truth, little Abel grew older only to become what the doctor had foretold,–a cripple. A weakness of the spine was developed, a malady that dwarfed the child’s physical growth, giving to his wee face a pinched, starved look, warping his emaciated body, and enfeebling his puny limbs, while at the same time it quickened the intellectual faculties to the degree of precocity. And so two and three and four years went by, little Abel clinging to life with pathetic heroism, and Old Growly loving that little cripple with all the violence of his selfish nature. Never once did it occur to the father that his child might die, that death’s seal was already set upon the misshapen little body; on the contrary, Old Growly’s thoughts were constantly of little Abel’s famous future, of the great fortune he was to fall heir to, of the prosperous business career he was to pursue, of the influence he was to wield in the world,–of dollars, dollars, dollars, millions of them which little Abel was some time to possess; these were Old Growly’s dreams, and he loved to dream them!

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Meanwhile the world did well by the old man; despising him, undoubtedly, for his avarice and selfishness, but constantly pouring wealth, and more wealth, and even more wealth into his coffers. As for the old man, he cared not for what the world thought or said, so long as it paid tribute to him; he wrought on as of old, industriously, shrewdly, hardly, but with this new purpose: to make his little boy happy and great with riches.

Toys and picture-books were vanities in which Old Growly never indulged; to have expended a farthing for chattels of that character would have seemed to Old Growly like sinful extravagance. The few playthings which little Abel had were such as his mother surreptitiously bought; the old man believed that a child should be imbued with a proper regard for the value of money from the very start, so his presents were always cash in hand, and he bought a large tin bank for little Abel, and taught the child how to put the copper and silver pieces into it, and he labored diligently to impress upon the child of how great benefit that same money would be to him by and by. Just picture to yourself, if you can, that fond, foolish old man seeking to teach this lesson to that wan-eyed, pinched-face little cripple! But little Abel took it all very seriously, and was so apt a pupil that Old Growly made great joy and was wont to rub his bony hands gleefully and say to himself, “He has great genius,–this boy of mine,–great genius for finance!”

But on a day, coming from his factory, Old Growly was stricken with horror to find that during his absence from home a great change had come upon his child. The doctor said it was simply the progress of the disease; that it was a marvel that little Abel had already held out so long; that from the moment of his birth the seal of death had been set upon him in that cruel malady which had drawn his face and warped his body and limbs. Then all at once Old Growly’s eyes seemed to be opened to the truth, and like a lightning flash it came to him that perhaps his pleasant dreams which he had dreamed of his child’s future could never be realized. It was a bitter awakening, yet amid it all the old man was full of hope, determination, and battle. He had little faith in drugs and nursing and professional skill; he remembered that upon previous occasions cures had been wrought by means of money; teeth had been brought through, the pangs of colic beguiled, and numerous other ailments to which infancy is heir had by the same specific been baffled. So now Old Growly set about wooing his little boy from the embrace of death,–sought to coax him back to health with money, and the dimes became dollars, and the tin bank was like to burst of fulness. But little Abel drooped and drooped, and he lost all interest in other things, and he was content to lie, drooping-eyed and listless, in his mother’s arms all day. At last the little flame went out with hardly so much as a flutter, and the hope of the house of Dunklee was dissipated forever. But even in those last moments of the little cripple’s suffering the father struggled to call back the old look into the fading eyes, and the old smile into the dear, white face. He brought treasure from his vaults and held it up before those fading eyes, and promised it all, all, all–everything he possessed, gold, houses, lands–all he had he would give to that little child if that little child would only live. But the fading eyes saw other things, and the ears that were deaf to the old man’s lamentations heard voices that soothed the anguish of that last solemn hour. And so little Abel knew the Mystery.

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Then the old man crept away from that vestige of his love, and stood alone in the night, and lifted up his face, and beat his bosom, and moaned at the stars, asking over and over again why he had been so bereaved. And while he agonized in this wise and cried there came to him a voice,–a voice so small that none else could hear, a voice seemingly from God; for from infinite space beyond those stars it sped its instantaneous way to the old man’s soul and lodged there.

“Abel, I have touched thy heart!”

And so, having come into the darkness of night, old Dunklee went back into the light of day and found life beautiful; for the touch was in his heart.

After that, Old Growly’s way of dealing with the world changed. He had always been an honest man, honest as the world goes. But now he was somewhat better than honest; he was kind, considerate, merciful. People saw and felt the change, and they knew why it was so. But the pathetic part of it all was that Old Growly would never admit–no, not even to himself–that he was the least changed from his old grinding, hard self. The good deeds he did were not his own; they were his little boy’s,–at least so he said. And it was his whim when doing some kind and tender thing to lay it to little Abel, of whom he always spoke as if he were still living. His workmen, his neighbors, his townsmen,–all alike felt the graciousness of the wondrous change, and many, ah! many a lowly sufferer blessed that broken old man for succor in little Abel’s name. And the old man was indeed much broken: not that he had parted with his shrewdness and acumen, for, as of old, his every venture prospered; but in this particular his mind seemed weakened; that, as I have said, he fancied his child lived, that he was given to low muttering and incoherent mumblings, of which the burden seemed to be that child of his, and that his greatest pleasure appeared now to be watching other little ones at their play. In fact, so changed was he from the Old Growly of former years, that, whereas he had then been wholly indifferent to the presence of those little ones upon earth, he now sought their company, and delighted to view their innocent and mirthful play. And so, presently, the children, from regarding him at first with distrust, came to confide in and love him, and in due time the old man was known far and wide as Old Grampa Growly, and he was pleased thereat. It was his wont to go every fair day, of an afternoon, into a park hard by his dwelling, and mingle with the crowd of little folk there; and when they were weary of their sports they used to gather about him,–some even clambering upon his knees,–and hear him tell his story, for he had only one story to tell, and that was the story that lay next his heart,–the story ever and forever beginning with, “Once ther’ wuz a littl’ boy.” A very tender little story it was, too, told very much more sweetly than I could ever tell it; for it was of Old Grampa Growly’s own little boy, and it came from that heart in which the touch–the touch of God Himself–lay like a priceless pearl.

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So you must know that the last years of the old man’s life made full atonement for those that had gone before. People forgot that the old man had ever been other than he was now, and of course the children never knew otherwise. But as for himself, Old Grampa Growly grew tenderer and tenderer, and his goodness became a household word, and he was beloved of all. And to the very last he loved the little ones, and shared their pleasures, and sympathized with them in their griefs, but always repeating that same old story, beginning with “Once ther’ wuz a littl’ boy.”

The curious part of it was this: that while he implied by his confidences to the children that his own little boy was dead, he never made that admission to others. On the contrary, it was his wont, as I have said, to speak of little Abel as if that child still lived, and, humoring him in this conceit, it was the custom of the older ones to speak always of that child as if he lived and were known and beloved of all. In this custom the old man had great content and solace. For it was his wish that all he gave to and did for charity’s sake should be known to come, not from him, but from Abel, his son, and this was his express stipulation at all such times. I know whereof I speak, for I was one of those to whom the old man came upon a time and said: “My little boy–Abel, you know–will give me no peace till I do what he requires. He has this sum of money which he has saved in his bank, count it yourselves, it is $50,000, and he bids me give it to the townsfolk for a hospital, one for little lame boys and girls. And I have promised him–my little boy, Abel, you know–that I will give $50,000 more. You shall have it when that hospital is built.” Surely enough, in eighteen months’ time the old man handed us the rest of the money, and when we told him that the place was to be called the Abel Dunklee hospital he was sorely distressed, and shook his head, and said: “No, no,–not my name! Call it the Little Abel hospital, for little Abel–my boy, you know–has done it all.”

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The old man lived many years,–lived to hear tender voices bless him, and to see pale faces brighten at the sound of his footfall. Yes, for many years the quaint, shuffling figure moved about our streets, and his hoarse but kindly voice–oh, very kindly now!–was heard repeating to the children that pathetic old story of “Once ther’ wuz a littl’ boy.” And where the dear old feet trod the grass grew greenest, and the sunbeams nestled. But at last there came a summons for the old man,–a summons from away off yonder,–and the old man heard it and went thither.

The doctor–himself hoary and stooping now–told me that toward the last Old Grampa Growly sunk into a sort of sleep, or stupor, from which they could not rouse him. For many hours he lay like one dead, but his thin, creased face was very peaceful, and there was no pain. Children tiptoed in with flowers, and some cried bitterly, while others–those who were younger–whispered to one another: “Hush, let us make no noise; Old Grampa Growly is sleeping.”

At last the old man roused up. He had lain like one dead for many hours, but now at last he seemed to wake of a sudden, and, seeing children about him, perhaps he fancied himself in that pleasant park, under the trees, where so very often he had told his one pathetic story to those little ones. Leastwise he made a feeble motion as if he would have them gather nearer, and, seeming to know his wish, the children came closer to him. Those who were nearest heard him say with the ineffable tenderness of old, “Once ther’ wuz a littl’ boy–“

And with those last sweet words upon his lips, and with the touch in his heart, the old man went down into the Valley.

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