“Charity’s Old Indian,” Friend, Jan. 1992, 43
“Who’s out there, Pieter?” Charity asked.
Her younger brother shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he replied. “It looks like somebody trying to see into our shop, but the snow is too thick on the windows.”
“Why don’t they come in?” Charity hurried to the door and opened it. A gust of cold wind blew a cloud of snowflakes into the shop. Standing on the doorstep was an old man breathing deeply of the delicious fragrance of baking that drifted to him from the shop.
“Come in,” Charity said softly. “Please come in. It is warm by the fireplace.” She reached out and touched his bony elbow. Caked snow fell from his head and shoulders as he followed the girl into the shop. He was wearing a bearskin robe and deerskin moccasins.
“He’s a Canarsee Indian,” Pieter whispered to Charity.
“Please be quiet, Pieter,” Charity replied, “and get him something warm to drink while I get some apple tarts.”
The old Indian sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the huge fireplace in the back of the shop and closed his eyes. When the food was brought to him, he ate it quickly. Then he closed his eyes again and seemed to be napping.
Charity had never seen such an old Indian. While it was not unusual for Canarsee Indians to be roaming the streets of New Amsterdam during the seventeenth century, there was a law that prevented Dutch bakers from selling goods to them. But to twelve-year-old Charity, anyone who was hungry was entitled to sample her mama’s delicious Dutch apple tarts.
“What will Mama say when she comes back?” Pieter asked.
Charity replied, “I’ll explain to her that he is just a homeless and hungry old man.”
The little bell over the door of the shop tinkled, and in strode a burly Dutchman. “Well!” he exclaimed, puffing out his red cheeks. “Where is the Widow Van Elf?”
“Mama is not here now, Master Donk,” Charity told him politely. “We are waiting for her to come home. She has gone to the miller’s for more flour.”
The Dutchman looked around the shop. “Business must be good if she needs to buy more flour. Does your mama have money for the rent as well?”
Charity shook her head sadly. “No, Master Donk, business is not good. Mama has gone to ask the miller for some flour on credit. The dampness ruined our barrel of flour.”
“The rent is long overdue, Charity,” he said more kindly. “Tell her I hope that things will go better soon.”
“Yes, Master Donk, I will tell Mama what you said,” Charity replied.
When Mama returned, she was cold and discouraged. The miller had refused to lend her any more flour until she had made a payment on the flour he had loaned her last month. After Charity gave her Master Donk’s message, Mama sighed deeply. “It’s no use,” she said wearily. “We’ll just have to close our shop and move in with Aunt Jenny.”
“But we love the shop!” Charity cried. “I don’t want to leave it.”
“It isn’t what we want to do, but what we must do,” Mama responded sadly as she walked to the back of the shop. When she saw the old man, she let out a little cry in surprise. He opened his eyes, and Mama and the Indian stared at each other.
“Mama, he was hungry and out in the storm,” Charity explained. “Oh, Mama, he’s so old, and he was very hungry.”
“And so you gave him our food.”
“Just two apple tarts and something to drink.”
“Without flour I can’t make more apple tarts,” Mama replied softly. “But you did the right thing.”
“What can we do with him when we close the shop?” Pieter asked.
“We’ll worry about that later,” Mama said. “Get down the trunks and boxes so that we can start packing, Pieter.”
Later Mama cooked a simple meal of cabbage soup. While she was dishing it up, she filled an extra bowl for the old man and gave it to Charity to take to him.
The snow fell quietly all evening, drifting against the doors and windows. At bedtime Mama said, “The Indian can sleep by the fire for the night and leave tomorrow when we do.”
“I’ll give him my extra blanket,” Charity said.
“And I’ll put more wood on the fire,” said Pieter.
In the morning, the sky was still full of whirling white snowflakes. Mama and the children found the Indian sitting in front of the fireplace, just where they had left him. Charity’s extra blanket was wrapped around his shoulders, and the shop was still cozy and warm.
“We have to try to make him understand that he must leave now,” Mama said. “We can’t close the shop and leave him in it.”
“The snow is still coming down hard,” Pieter replied. “If we let him sit here a little longer, maybe it will stop.”
Mama sighed deeply. “I was hoping he would leave when he saw us packing everything,” she said. “But I suppose he has nowhere else to go.”
The Indian looked from one face to the other, not understanding what they said. And after eating the warm food Charity brought to him, he closed his eyes again.
Soon a distant sound startled him awake. Mama and the children looked at each other, wondering what the noises could be. It sounded like people chanting or yelling.
The old Indian listened for a moment, then, with difficulty, rose to his feet and limped slowly to the door. As he opened the shop door, the sounds became very loud. A large group of Canarsee Indians were coursing through the narrow streets, shouting and calling. The old man gave a surprisingly lusty cry, and the entire group came running to the door of the shop.
Mama put her arms protectively around the children as the tiny shop filled with fur-clad Indians.
The old Indian stood among them, talking excitedly in his own language. From time to time he pointed to Mama and the children. When he finished talking, several of the younger men picked him up in their arms and carried him away.
A tall young Indian walked toward Mama and the children. “I speak your language,” he said. “My brothers and I want to thank you for caring for our chief, White Eagle. He said that you took him in out of the storm and gave him food, even though you didn’t have much for yourselves. We are grateful to you, for we love and respect our chief.
“We have come,” he continued, “to find our chief and to trade with the Dutch. We wish to give you some of our pelts. Please take them with our gratitude.”
One by one each Indian came forward and dropped some of his fur pelts on the floor in front of Mama and the children. Soon there was a large pile of valuable furs. Then the men left as quickly as they had come. The shop was empty. Mama and the children were alone.
No one spoke for a long time. Finally Mama said, “I never dreamed that he was the Canarsee chief!”
“Chief White Eagle,” Pieter murmured in a hushed voice.
“Oh, Mama!” Charity cried. “I thought he was just a poor, homeless, old man.”
Mama gave Charity a warm smile. “Your father certainly knew what he was doing when he named you Charity,” she said. She turned to Pieter. “We have work to do,” she told him. “While you and I carry some of these pelts to trade for flour, sugar, and other supplies, Charity can start unpacking. When we get back, we’ll all start baking cakes and pies again.”