The force of the shove sent the boy sliding across the
slippery porch and, his arms flailing the air, he tried to regain
his balance but couldn’t, and falling down the four wooden
steps, landed in a muddy puddle.
Sitting in the mud, looking up, “Mister ‘obbins, Mizz’s
‘obbins…” the boy tried one last appeal, “It’s near Christmas!
Climbing Boy 17: Lewis
December 24, 1843
The light from behind casting long, thin shadows onto
the porch, the undertaker and his wife stood within
“Christmas?” Hobbins looked at his wife. “‘It’s near
Christmas!’” he said in a mimicking, whiny voice, then,
pointing to Zachariah, his voice high pitched with rage, “You
expect me to pay you because…” in the same mimicking
voice, “‘it’s near Christmas’?” Thinking a moment, “All right!”
Remembering, “All right, I’ll give you your payment!”
Lifting himself from the mud, standing, hardly daring to
believe the undertaker’s words, but still, breathing a sigh of
relief, Zachariah attempted to brush the clinging mud from
Turning into the foyer, rushing to the condolence parlor,
going to the fireplace, Hobbins grabbed the item atop the
pile alongside the hearth. Stepping outside again, speaking
in a patronizing tone, “You’re right, boy,” he said. “It is near
Christmas, and because it is near Christmas and because
Mrs. Hobbins and myself are kindly people and good
Christians, we will pay you.”
“Hubert!” Surprised, Mrs. Hobbins turned to
His left hand hidden behind his back, “No, no, my dear,”
holding his right hand up, stopping her, “the boy is right.
He and his master do deserve payment, especially tonight.”
Smiling benignly at Zachariah, “It is Christmas Eve,
Zachariah expectantly stepped forward.
“Here, boy. Here’s something I never gave you, but I see
you have it anyway. So here, I do give it to you as a gift,
now.” Hobbins’ smile faded. The tone of his voice changed.
“As payment for poorly done work, here’s your payment!”
Bringing his arm back, he threw Zachariah’s long-coat
toward the shivering boy. Falling short—as he had planed—
the coat fell in the mud at his feet. “And a good Christmas to
you,” Hobbins screamed, “and your drunken sot of a
master!” Becoming hysterical once again, “And you tell him
not to bother coming back! You tell him I do not want him!
You tell him I’ll be finding another sweep!”
“Hubert!” Recognizing her husband’s near uncontrollable
hysteria, having felt the back of his hand on many more
than one occasion while this hysterical, Mrs. Hobbins went
Catching his breath, grabbing his wife’s arm, pulling her
into the foyer, Hobbins slammed the door shut behind them.
As soon as the door slammed shut, “Mousy!” Knowing
the mouse may have been crushed when the coat had been
balled and thrown, picking his coat out of the mud, the boy
quickly looked into the pocket but, in apparent good health,
Mousy twitched his nose at him.
Sighing, Zachariah put the coat on. Absently rubbing the
bump on his forehead, “Lordy!” He suddenly thought of the
folded pile of drop cloths, the brush, scraper, and his scarf,
all sitting alongside the fireplace in the condolence parlor.
Flinging himself up the stairs and across the porch,
looking through the door window, the boy was just in time
to see a hand pulling the basement door closed.
“Mister ‘obbins!” he yelled, banging on the door. “Mister
‘obbins, Sir! Me cloths! Please! Please give me back the
‘quipment!” The cold wind at his back pushed against his
coat pasting the damp shirt and wet trousers against his
body, shivering, “I’m cold!” shivering, “I’m so cold,” he cried
in near tears, kicking the door, “Me scarf! Please!”
But the basement door did not open, and Zachariah knew
that were he to stand here all night banging on the door
Hobbins would still ignore him. “You ol’ bastard!” he
shouted, kicking the door again, this time hard enough to
rattle the window. “You tightwad, bastard, skinflint!”
Dejectedly turning away, the boy walked down the four
steps. Taking a few steps, stopping, he looked back at the
square of dull light showing through the doorway window,
You ol’ bastard! he thought and, afraid to go home, not
knowing what to do, Cold! Lordy, so cold! Holding one hand
on his head in an unsuccessful attempt to keep his head
warm and one hand over his breast pocket, trying, somewhat
successfully, to keep his one friend—the small creature inside
his pocket—warm, the boy walked to the road.
Mud and snow soaking his clothing, sleet pelting his bare,
short cropped head, shivering, suddenly confused, suddenly
unsure of the way home, now crying, the not-quite-nine year-
old boy sat on a curbstone under the dull yellow glow
of a gas lit street lamp.
“What’ll I do?” Zachariah said aloud, to himself, to the
mouse in his breast pocket and to whatever God there was
that looked over as insignificant and wretched a creature
as a climbing boy. “Lordy, what’ll I do?” His body quaking
due to the cold, and, in fear of Johnson. “What’ll ‘e do to me
when I get ‘ome?” Answering his own question, “I knows
‘im! ‘e’ll be drunk an’ I ain’t got ‘is money, an’ I ain’t got ‘is
‘quipment, an’… ‘obbins—you ol’ bastard…!” he again
shouted into the darkness, “told me to tell ‘im to not never
come back! I know’s ‘im! ‘e’ll say t’wer cause’a me we ain’t
got no payment nor ‘quipment, an’ we lost ol’ ‘obbin’s work!”
So intent was Zachariah on his misery that he was
unaware of a group of people that had come upon him.
“What’s this?” Speaking in an inebriated but kindly voice,
“What is this?” one of the men asked again.
Startled, standing quickly, Zachariah looked at the four
commonly dressed people.
“Looks to me to be a cryin’ lad,” another inebriated,
feminine voice answered.
“Aye, a dirty, cryin’ lad,” a second lady said.
“Ya be a climbing boy, ain’t ya lad?” the first man asked.
Momentarily startled, but put at ease by the friendly tone
of these people, “Aye, Sir.”
“Boy, why ya be sittin’ all by ya’self in the snow ‘ere, talkin’
to ya’self? Ya be lost?” The man wearing a dented, bent top
Unsure of the way, but, “No, Sir, I ain’t lost.” Zachariah
looked from face to face. “Me master an’ me, we was in that
place there,” pointing to the funeral parlor, “doin’ our work,
an’ then me master, ‘e went off to… uh, ‘e ‘ad another
‘pointment, an’ ‘e left me to finish the work ‘ere by me-self.
An’ now ol’ ‘obbins—‘e’s the man what owns the funeral
‘ome ‘er—‘e won’t pay me, an’ ‘e won’t gi’me me ‘quipment
neither, and me master…” the boy looked from face to face,
“‘e’ll be beatin’ me good when I get ‘ome.”
Jerking his thumb over his shoulder, pointing to the all
but darkened house. “Ya mean to say,” Lewis asked
incredulously, “that ya did ya work ‘ere, an’ ‘e won’t pay ya
“Why?” the second man asked.
“Ol’ ‘obbins said I got a smudge’a dirt onto one’a ‘is
settees. But I din’t! I weren’t no place near it—‘ceptin’ to
pull off me drop cloth, an’ then I was bein’ extra special
careful an’ I know I didn’t get it smudged. I think ol’ ‘obbins
did it ‘isself to keep from givin’ me me payment.”
To a workingman such as Lewis the thought of being
cheated of his rightful due was incomprehensible. “An’ the
bloody bastard won’t pay ya?” he said angrily.
“Aye, Sir. No, Sir, ‘e won’t.”
“An’ this bein’ the night afore the birth of the baby Jesus
an’ all!” The homely, long-faced lady said, “We got to be
doin’ somethin’ to be ‘elpin’ the poor lad ‘ere!”
“Aye, Silbie, that we do!” Screwing his courage up for
the second time that evening, setting the top hat squarely
atop his head, taking long, purposeful strides, Lewis tramped
across the grass-bare yard and up the four wooden steps.
“You in there!” the pane of glass vibrating within its frame,
“Open up ‘ere!” Banging on the door, “Open up ‘ere!”
“Open up ‘ere!”
The basement door finally opened.
Hobbins, accompanied by his wife, came to the parlor
door, but upon seeing the quality of Lewis’ clothing, “We’re
closed!” Not opening the door, “Get away!” he yelled from
within the door.
“It ain’t your services—thank the Lord—I be wantin’!”
“Then what is you ‘be wantin’ at this hour?”
“The lad,” jerking his thumb over his shoulder, “says ya
be cheatin’ ‘im outta ‘is due,” Lewis said. “an’ I’m ‘ere to be
‘elpin’ him to be gettin’ it!”
“Money?” Mrs. Hobbins screeched from her side of the
door. “No money! The scum filthied my settee!”
“The lad says ‘e ain’t! The lad says ya ol’ man maybe did
it ‘isself, to keep from payin’ ‘im!”
“No, sir! He surely did it and I won’t be paying him!”
Reaching into his trouser pocket, removing a whistle, “Best
you be gone,” the undertaker yelled through the door, “‘afore
I whistle for a copper!”
Lewis looked from the face of the undertaker to the
whistle in his hand and not wanting to spend Christmas
Eve—or for that matter any eve—in jail, his resolve
crumbling, “Sir, it bein’ the night afore the birth of our Lord
an’ such,” he asked meekly, “why don’t ya pay the lad an’
give ‘im his ‘quipment, an’ let ‘im be on ‘is way ‘ome?”
Knowing he’d won, looking contemptuously at Lewis,
without another word Hobbins, followed by his wife, turned
from the door, went to the basement door and, slamming it
behind them, returned to the work of embalming the body
Lewis stood looking through the door a moment, then,
turning from the door, he returned to his friends and the
boy. “Sorry, lad, but the ol’ geezer there,” cocking his head
backward, “‘e said t’were your fault, an’ ‘e ain’t payin’ you,
an’ that’s that.”
The five people stood beneath the glow of a street lamp
amidst the failing sleet and snow till, shrugging his shoulders
and pulling his collar higher about his throat, the other man
said, “Best be on our way, then.”
“Yeah, sorry, boy,” the woman called Silbie said. “We best
be on our way, then.”
“Yeah, an’ you, too, boy. Ain’t gonna be doin’ ya no good
to be standin’ out ‘ere till ya catches ya death,” the other
The other man rubbed his hand over the boy’s cold, wet
head as a sign of affection—and also, by touching Zachariah
he hoped to bring some good luck to himself. “Did what we
could for ya, lad.”
Lewis patted Zachariah’s head also, but strictly as a sign
of affection. “Sorry ‘t’wern’t more we could do for ya boy.”
Turning, he began to follow his friends, whom, anxious to
be out of the weather and home, had begun up the street.
“A good Christmas to ya, boy!” one of the women called
over her shoulder.
“Yeah!” said the other man.
“God be with ya, boy!” the other woman said.
Zachariah watched the backs of the four people for a
moment, then, dejectedly, with shoulders sagging, began his
journey in the opposite direction, to home—to Johnson.
Stopping, turning about, Zachariah waited as the man
in the top hat ran to him.
“‘ere, lad. A gift for ya. Ya be needin’ it more’n me.” Taking
the hat from his head, the young man put it onto the head of
the boy, but, too big, it dropped over his eyes. Lifting the
hat, “‘ere, boy, b-b-bend ya ears.” Stuttering now, Lewis put it
back onto Zachariah’s head. “An’a g-g-good C-C-Christmas
Watching Lewis as he chased after his friends, two things
became evident to Zachariah: the sleety snow had stopped
falling, and the dented hat that rested on the three points of
the tops of his bent ears and the bump on his forehead
somehow seemed to warm him.
Stretching upward, Mousy stuck his head through the
slit of the pocket.
Becoming aware of the mouse again, smiling…
Looking down, the boy rubbed the rodent’s head with
the tip of his finger. “Yeah, Mousy, if ’n I ‘ad a safe pocket to
‘ide into I would, too.” Giving the pocket a gentle pat,
Zachariah began on his way home.