Short Stories · The Magazine Rack

The Little Miser from 1919

In an earlier blog post I talked about the lure of the Twentieth Century magazine stand. You can read that post here. Today begins a three-part post where I give you one of the stories from World War I: The Little Miser, by Ray Unger. The story was illustrated by Edmund Frederick. Although The Little Miser dates from 1919, it was written during the war itself. The illustration dates from 1916. Enjoy this dip into magazines’ literary past with The Little Miser from 1919.

1916 illustration of little girl counting money on her bed while her mother looks on. A red cross poster hangs above her bed.
Muvver catches Hippity-hop counting her pennies when she should be asleep.

The Little Miser

by Ray Unger

A loud, angry exclamation which came through the open study window produced upon Hippity-Hop the effect of a physical blow. She started back, clutching Rags tightly. Her frightened blue eyes grew black. Her lips parted as she sharply released her breath. Rags snapped an answering bark, but Hippity-Hop’s warning finger quieted him. The child and the Skye terrier understood each other. 

Words of recrimination hot as live coals dropped from Jerry Stewart’s lips. It was hard to believe! Jerry’s image rose before her as she listened in horror. He was a big, reticent youth whose beetling black brows overshadowed deeper gray eyes. She had thought him her brother Dick’s friend, but friends didn’t use such ugly words to each other. At his denunciation a hitherto unknown passion was born in her soul – a strong hate of the young man who dared assail dear, kind, big brother Dick in this unwarrantable fashion – Dick, who loved everybody and whom everybody loved. When she heard Dick, who was afraid of nothing, answer in trembling tones of fear, she marveled. A hard look came into her eye as the conversation continued. The voices ceased. The wedge of reality had pierced her soul. Laughing, singing Hippity-hop Sunbeam, who spent much of her time talking to the flowers, the butterflies, the birds, and the chipmunks, became a responsible Elizabeth.

To big brother Dick she was “Hippity-hop,” to Daddy she was “Sunbeam,” but Muvver called her Elizabeth. The combination of names gives one a fair idea of six-year-old Elizabeth Ellison Browne.

She knew now why he was pale and silent, why Jerry Stewart haunted him like a shadow.

Only this afternoon she had romped with Rags. She had grown tired and was now sitting under the study window. Snub-nosed, happy, and elusive as a flea, but with less responsibility than that insect, the presence of Hippity-hop Sunbeam had brought gladness to the Browne household. Muvver encouraged the sedate company manners of Elizabeth and was answerable for the tight little pigtails done in a pretzel, with the concession to Hippity-hop Sunbeam of two huge red bows. The buds of the old-fashioned Berkeley garden had seemed to expand their chalices to drink in the merriment of her laughter and the rhythm of her dancing footsteps. She had vied with the sunshine in shedding brightness.

Now all was changed. She spoke to Rags in a whisper:

“Rags, we mustn’t tell anybody!”

Her bright cherubic face was contorted with dread.

Silently she went into the house. Her eyes sought big brother Dick. She knew now why he was pale and silent, why Jerry Stewart haunted him like a shadow. Muvver and Daddy thought he was studying too hard. She had heard Muvver tell Daddy.

Clenching her little fists and tightening her lips, she muttered:

“I mustn’t, mustn’t ever tell!”

Her ready laugh did not come, but she smiled politely with her lips at Daddy’s jokes. Daddy and Muvver looked concernedly at each other, and then at her. The usual after-dinner romp was dispensed with when Daddy realized Hippity-hop Sunbeam’s half-hearted attempt to show her enjoyment. 

Muvver carried the child off to bed. Bedtime was the hour of confidences between the two. She questioned her little daughter, but her questions elicited no answers. Elizabeth’s pulse was normal, her throat could not have been better; there was no fever, no sign of illness. Reassured by her investigations, Muvver tucked the little girl in bed after hearing her simple prayer. 

Hippity-hop listened as her mother’s footsteps descended the stairs, threw the covers back, sprang from bed, took her bank from the bureau drawer, and hurried back to bed. After listening furtively for any interruption, she emptied it of its contents and started counting the money. That was a laborious task. The nickels and dimes were easy enough, but the pennies and quarters and one half dollar puzzled her. She knew she had to do it alone. Rags was the only one who knew, and he couldn’t help her. After several attempts she counted out four dollars and ninety cents. That was a beginning. The Red Cross would have to do without her money. She couldn’t help it. Her throat constricted with the thought. 

She carried her calendar carefully to her room. By marking each day as it passed, she would be able to work more intelligently toward the fulfillment of her plan.

When Muvver looked in before going to her room, a blanket-tossed bed gave evidence of Elizabeth’s restlessness, but Elizabeth was asleep. 

Next morning a serious problem assailed Hippity-hop. Jerry had said he would give Dick two months. How would she know when the two months were up? A solution came to her. She would ask Daddy for a calendar. If he asked her why she wanted it, she mustn’t tell him.

As Daddy was leaving, he made matters easier by saying as he kissed her:

“Well, Sunbeam, what shall Daddy bring home for his little girl?”

“I’d like a nice calendar with big black numbers on it.”

Daddy laughed heartily.

“Your modest wish refutes the feminine reputation for extravagant demands.”

That night, when Daddy gave her the calendar, she asked:

“Will you put a cross on yesterday?”

Daddy acceded to her wish, at the same time asking the dreaded question. “Why?”

Hippity was prepared. She hadn’t pondered all day for nothing.

“Yesterday Susie Black said she was going to have a birthday in two months. When’s two months?”

Unsuspectingly Daddy was led into the trap. He put a cross on the important date. 

She carried her calendar carefully to her room. By marking each day as it passed, she would be able to work more intelligently toward the fulfillment of her plan.

Hippity-hop knew they were all watching her, knew that she must not divulge her secret, and her need enveloped her perturbation in a husk of unconscious theatrical effort. The crystal transparency of her soul was befogged by a hidden purpose. 

Dick had grown even more quiet and serious. He and Jerry didn’t play tennis so often, nor did Jerry come to the house quite so frequently. There was a constraint between the boys when they were together. Hippity-hop found it an effort to be polite to the sullen, glowering youth when he came. She could not forgive him; she blamed him for the change in her dear brother, her teasing, romping, laughing Dick, who had become silent, morose, furtive. When Jerry did come, Dick and he remained closeted in the study. They said they had to dig for examinations. Muvver and Daddy believed them, but Hippity-hop, although she heard no more angry words, knew better.

Muvver chided her gently when she discovered her standing indeterminately first on one foot, then the other, her hands locked behind, her face, unmantled of courtesy, obviously expressing repulsion. Jerry’s hand was extended to her in welcome.

“Shake hands with Jerry, Elizabeth.”

Coldly, distrustfully, she allowed her hand to rest in Jerry’s for a moment. 

Mother looked at the little girl reproachfully, and apologetically addressed Jerry.

“Elizabeth hasn’t been very well lately. I’m worried about her. Her father and I have been seriously considering taking her out of school for a while.”

Fear clutched the child’s heart. She would have to pull herself together. Taking her out of school would mean being deprived of the money which Muvver gave her for the Red Cross and Thrift stamps.

To be continued…

This story continues in the next two blog posts. Click the title to see The Little Miser Part 2.

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