The Iron Stove
ID you see him
The boy, shaking with the cold—for it was winter and his jacket was none too thick—set down his basket on the rough deal table, and leaned over the tiny fire that burned on the hearth. His eyes shone, though, as he turned to answer his sister.
"Yes, Beth, I saw him down at the wharf and he gave me this." As he spoke, William drew from underneath his coat, a crude little brush made of rushes bound together with narrow strips of willow.
"What is it?" Beth took the brush in her hands and held it up to the light, looking at it curiously. She made a quaint picture in the shifting light of the fire, a little Quaker girl of old Philadelphia, her yellow curls tucked inside a close-fitting gray cap, and her straight gray frock reaching almost to the heels of her heavy shoes.
"It is something new for cleaning," William explained. He took the brush and began sweeping up the ashes on the hearth, as Beth watched him curiously. "Mr. Franklin brought a whole bunch of them down to the wharf to show to people, and he gave me one."
"How did he make it?" Beth asked curiously.
"It took him a whole year, for it had to grow first," William explained. "He saw some brush baskets last year that the sea captains had brought fruit in, lying in the wet on the wharf. They had sprouted and sent out shoots, so what did Mr. Franklin do but plant the shoots in his garden. They grew and this year he had a fine crop of broom corn, as he called it. He dried it, and bound it into these brushes. He has some with long handles, and he calls them brooms."
The children's mother had come in now from the next room and she grasped the hearth brush with eagerness.
"It is just what Philadelphia, the city of cleanliness, needs," she said, as she went to work brushing the corners of the window sills and the [should be mantel instead of mantle] piece. "If we were to take more thought of our houses and less of these street brawls as to who is for, and who is against the king, it would be better."
"That is what Mr. Franklin does," William said. "Do you remember how the streets were full of quarreling folk last summer, and a hard thunder storm came up that every one thought was sent directly from the skies as a punishment for our wickedness? The women and children were crying and the men praying when Mr. Franklin came in their midst. I can see him now, looking like a prophet with his long hair flowing over his shoulders and his long cloak streaming out behind him. As the skies flashed with lightning and the thunder crashed he told them not to be afraid. He said that he would give them lightning rods to put on their houses that would keep them from burning down."
"Yes," their mother said. "He helps us all very much. Mr. Franklin is truly our good neighbor in Philadelphia."
As her mother finished speaking, Beth emptied the basket that William had brought in. There was not a great deal in it—a little flour, some tea, a very tiny package of sugar, and some potatoes. She arranged them on the shelves in the kitchen, shivering a little as she moved about the cold room.
Chill comfort it would seem to a child
It was almost as cold in the Arnold's house as it was outside. The children's father had not been able to stand the hardships of the new country, and there were only Beth, and William, and their mother left to face this winter. Mrs. Arnold did fine sewing and William ran errands for the sailors and merchantmen down at the wharves, having his basket filled with provisions in return for his work. It was a hard winter for them, though; no one could deny that.
Mrs. Arnold drew her chair up to the fireplace now and opened her bag of sewing. Beth leaned over her shoulder as she watched the thin, white fingers trying to fly in and out of the white cloth.
"Your fingers are stiff with the cold," Beth exclaimed as she blew the coals with the bellows and then rubbed her mother's hands.
"Not very," she tried to smile.
"Yes, very," William said as he swung his arms and blew on his finger tips. "We're all of us cold. It would be easier to work if we could only keep warm."
Just then they heard a rap at the brass knocker of their door. Beth ran to open it, and both children shouted with delight as a strange, slightly stooping figure entered. His long white hair made him look like some old patriarch. His forehead was high, and his eyes deep set in his long, thin face. His long cloak folded him like a [should be mantel instead of mantle]. He reached out two toil-hardened hands to greet the family.
"Mr. Franklin!" their mother exclaimed. "We are most glad to see you. You are our very welcome guest always, but it is poor hospitality we are able to offer you. Our fire is very small and the house cold."
"A small fire is better than none," their guest said, "and the welcome in Friend Arnold's house is always so warm that it makes a fire unnecessary. Still," he looked at the children's blue lips and pinched cheeks, "I wish that your hearth were wider."
He crossed to the fireplace, feeling of the bricks and measuring with his eye the breadth and depth of the opening in the chimney. He seemed lost in thought for a moment, and then his face suddenly shone with a smile like the one it had worn when he had seen the first green shoots of the broom corn pushing their way up through the ground of his garden.
"What is it, Mr. Franklin?" Beth asked. "What do you see up our chimney?"
"A surprise," the good neighbor of Philadelphia replied. "If I make no mistake in my plans, you will see that surprise before long. In the meantime, be of good cheer."
He was gone as quickly as he had come, but he had left a glow of cheer and neighborliness behind him. All Philadelphia was warmed in this way by Benjamin Franklin. Whenever he crossed a threshold, he brought the spirit of comfort and helpfulness to the house.
"What do you suppose he meant?" Beth asked as the door closed behind the quaint figure of the man.
"I wonder," William said. Then he took out his speller and copy book and the words of their visitor were soon forgotten.
But all Philadelphia began to wonder soon at the doings at the big white house where Benjamin Franklin lived. The neighbors were used to hearing busy sounds of hammering and tinkering coming from the back where Mr. Franklin had built himself a workshop. Now, however, he sent away for a small forge and its flying sparks could be seen and the sound of its bellows heard in the stillness of the long, cold winter nights. Great slabs of iron were unloaded for him at the wharf, and for days no one saw him. He was shut up in his workshop and from morning until night passers-by heard ringing blows on iron coming from it as if it were the shop of some country blacksmith.
"Benjamin Franklin wastes his time," said some of the Philadelphians. "He should be in the town hall, helping us to settle some of our land disputes."
But others spoke more kindly of the man of helpful hands.
"Mr. Franklin is making Philadelphia truly a City of Friends by being the best Friend of all," they said.
None could explain Benjamin Franklin's present occupation, though.
In the middle of winter Beth and William and their mother went to a friend's house to stay for a week. Mrs. Arnold was not well and the house was very cold. The week for which they were invited lengthened into two, then three.
"We must go home," Mrs. Arnold said at last. "Mr. Franklin said that he would stop this afternoon and help William carry the carpet bag. It is time that we began our work again."
As they took their homeward way through the snow, they noticed, again, the happy smile on Mr. Franklin's kind face. He held the handle of the bag with one hand and Beth's chilly little fingers with the other. He was the spryest of them all as they hurried on. They understood why, as they opened the door of their home.
They started, at first, wondering if, by any chance they had come to the wrong house. No, there were the familiar things just as they had left them; the row of shining copper pans on the wall, the polished candlesticks on the mantel piece, the warming pan in the corner and the braided rag rugs on the floor. But the house was as warm as summer. They had never felt such a comforting heat in the winter time before. The fireplace, that had been all too tiny, was gone. In its place, against the chimney, was a crude iron stove, partly like a fireplace in shape, but with a top and sides that held and spread the heat of the glowing fire inside until the whole room glowed with it.
"That is my surprise," Mr. Franklin explained, rubbing his hands with pleasure as he saw the wonder and delight in the faces of the others, "an iron geni to drive out the cold and frighten away the frosts. You can cook on it, or hang the kettle over the coals. It will keep the coals alive all night and not eat up as much fuel as your draughty fireplace did. This is my winter gift to my dear Friend Arnolds."
"Oh, how wonderful! How can we thank you for it? We, who were so poor, are the richest family in all Philadelphia now. How I shall be able to work!" the children's mother said.
Beth and William put out their hands to catch the friendly warmth of the fire, in this, the first stove, in the City of Friends. It warmed them through and through. Then William examined its rough mechanism so that he would be able to tend it, and Beth bustled about the room, filling the shining brass teakettle and putting a spoonful of tea in the pot to draw a cup for their mother and Mr. Franklin. At last she turned to him, her blue eyes looking deep in his.
"You are so good to us," Beth said. "Why did you work so hard to invent and make this iron stove for us?"
The kindest Friend that old Philadelphia ever had stopped a second to think. He never knew the reason for his good deeds. They were as natural as the flowering of the broom corn in his garden. At last he spoke:
"Because of your warm hearts, little Friend," he said. "Not that they needed any more heat, but that you may see their glow reflected in the fires you kindle in my stove."
And so may we feel the kindly warmth of Benjamin Franklin's heart in our stoves, which are so much better, but modelled after the one he made for his neighbors in the Quaker City of long ago.