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An Astral Onion

Author: Elia W. Peattie

Genre: Short Story


WHEN Tig Braddock came to Nora Finnegan he was red-headed and freckled, and, truth to tell, he remained with these features to the end of his life -- a life prolonged by a lucky, if somewhat improbable, incident, as you shall hear.

Tig had shuffled off his parents as saurians, of some sorts, do their skins. During the temporary absence from home of his mother, who was at the bridewell, and the more extended vacation of his father, who, like Villon, loved the open road and the life of it, Tig, who was not a well-domesticated animal, wandered away. The humane society never heard of him, the neighbors did not miss him, and the law took no cognizance of this detached citizen -- this lost pleiad. Tig would have sunk into that melancholy which is attendant upon hunger, -- the only form of despair which babyhood knows, -- if he had not wandered across the path of Nora Finnegan. Now Nora shone with steady brightness in her orbit, and no sooner had Tig entered her atmosphere, than he was warmed and comforted. Hunger could not live where Nora was. The basement room where she kept house was redolent with savory smells; and in the stove in her front room -- which was also her bedroom -- there was a bright fire glowing when fire was needed.

Nora went out washing for a living. But she was not a poor washerwoman. Not at all. She was a washerwoman triumphant. She had perfect health, an enormous frame, an abounding enthusiasm for life, and a rich abundance of professional pride. She believed herself to be the best washer of white clothes she had ever had the pleasure of knowing, and the value placed upon her services, and her long connection with certain families with large weekly washings, bore out this estimate of herself -- an estimate which she never endeavored to conceal.

Nora had buried two husbands without being unduly depressed by the fact. The first husband had been a disappointment, and Nora winked at Providence when an accident in a tunnel carried him off -- that is to say, carried the husband off. The second husband was not so much of a disappointment as a surprise. He developed ability of a literary order, and wrote songs which sold and made him a small fortune. Then he ran away with another woman. The woman spent his fortune, drove him to dissipation, and when he was dying he came back to Nora, who received him cordially, attended him to the end, and cheered his last hours by singing his own songs to him. Then she raised a headstone recounting his virtues, which were quite numerous, and refraining from any reference to those peculiarities which had caused him to be such a surprise.

Only one actual chagrin had ever nibbled at the sound heart of Nora Finnegan -- a cruel chagrin, with long, white teeth, such as rodents have! She had never held a child to her breast, nor laughed in its eyes; never bathed the pink form of a little son or daughter; never felt a tugging of tiny hands at her voluminous calico skirts! Nora had burnt many candles before the statue of the blessed Virgin without remedying this deplorable condition. She had sent up unavailing prayers -- she had, at times, wept hot tears of longing and loneliness. Sometimes in her sleep she dreamed that a wee form, warm and exquisitely soft, was pressed against her firm body, and that a hand with tiniest pink nails crept within her bosom. But as she reached out to snatch this delicious little creature closer, she woke to realize a barren woman's grief, and turned herself in anguish on her lonely pillow.

So when Tig came along, accompanied by two curs, who had faithfully followed him from his home, and when she learned the details of his story, she took him in, curs and all, and, having bathed the three of them, made them part and parcel of her home. This was after the demise of the second husband, and at a time when Nora felt that she had done all a woman could be expected to do for Hymen.

Tig was a preposterous baby. The curs were preposterous curs. Nora had always been afflicted with a surplus amount of laughter -- laughter which had difficulty in attaching itself to anything, owing to the lack of the really comic in the surroundings of the poor. But with a red-headed and freckled baby boy and two trick dogs in the house, she found a good and sufficient excuse for her hilarity, and would have torn the cave where echo lies with her mirth, had that cave not been at such an immeasurable distance from the crowded neighborhood where she lived.

At the age of four Tig went to free kindergarten; at the age of six he was in school, and made three grades the first year and two the next. At fifteen he was graduated from the high school and went to work as errand boy in a newspaper office, with the fixed determination to make a journalist of himself.

Nora was a trifle worried about his morals when she discovered his intellect, but as time went on, and Tig showed no devotion for any woman save herself, and no consciousness that there were such things as bad boys or saloons in the world, she began to have confidence. All of his earnings were brought to her. Every holiday was spent with her. He told her his secrets and his aspirations. He admitted that he expected to become a great man, and, though he had not quite decided upon the nature of his career, -- saving, of course, the makeshift of journalism, -- it was not unlikely that he would elect to be a novelist like -- well, probably like Thackeray.

Hope, always a charming creature, put on her most alluring smiles for Tig, and he made her his mistress, and feasted on the light of her eyes. Moreover, he was chaperoned, so to speak, by Nora Finnegan, who listened to every line Tig wrote, and made a mighty applause, and filled him up with good Irish stew, many colored as the coat of Joseph, and pungent with the inimitable perfume of "the rose of the cellar." Nora Finnegan understood the onion, and used it lovingly. She perceived the difference between the use and abuse of this pleasant and obvious friend of hungry man, and employed it with enthusiasm, but discretion. Thus it came about that whoever ate of her dinners, found the meals of other cooks strangely lacking in savor, and remembered with regret the soups and stews, the broiled steaks, and stuffed chickens of the woman who appreciated the onion

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