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The Spinster's Eight-Cent Lawn

The careful attention I accord my philanthropies brings me pleasure, and I feel sorry for poor folks who, for want of fortune, are unable to do kind deeds for those who need them. I achieved this eleemosynary attitude from Melinda Croteland, spinster, to whom I am ever indebted. She inculcated precepts regarding charity and suchlike sterling attributes of an upright life. I was 10 years old at the time and eager to do good, and I needed a new kite string. Miss Croteland did me the honor of inviting me to come every Saturday and mow her lawn.

When I arrived that first Saturday, Miss Croteland took me to the stable, where the Samson-size mower was precisely against the wall. Miss Croteland pointed to an oil can on its own shelf and told me to oil the machine before and after using it. She pointed to a rag for wiping the blades dry of dew, and said I was to return the mower to its place when I was finished.

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Her lawn was not large and was enclosed by a lilac-bush hedge, so that while it was by the street nobody could see me cutting the grass. Nor could anybody watch the croquet. The lawn was just right for a croquet set, and Miss Croteland said I was to take up the wickets and stakes to mow, and then replace the croquet set with care. It occurred to me that for such a small lawn, Miss Croteland had a whopping great house. Built for her grandfather by the shipwrights who worked in his yard, it was 2-1/2 stories tall.

The great stable still had everything, except horses, that went with gracious Maine living in the days of Clippers and Downeasters. The stable was with the south wing, and opposite it on the north was a ballroom, with a grand piano and a stage for musicians. As I mowed, I wondered if Miss Croteland, who never entertained and seldom had callers, played croquet alone and danced by herself. But there it was: Three Croteland tycoons had made and enlarged their fortunes, and her father had provided Miss Croteland with a lifetime of wherewithal. Knowing I would share in this wealth overwhelmed me.

I finished mowing, replaced the croquet set, bullied the mower into the stable, wiped it, and drenched it with oil. I fitted the lanyard to the handle and was about to roll the stable door shut on its track when Miss Croteland appeared. She surveyed the lawn and nodded. She said she was well pleased. Then she consulted a great timepiece that was fastened to her bosom by a golden fleur-de-lis, its heavy gold-link chain held up in a loop. She pursed her lips in thought, opened her reticule, and counted out eight cents, which she handed me with a philanthropic flourish. In my diligent zeal, I had mowed her lawn in 52 minutes.

Thus I learned the difference between parsimony and generosity at an early date, and I pondered on this during the following week. Long years later, I learned that Miss Croteland's timepiece was really a navigational chronometer that her grandfather had carried around the world 17 times. He had bought it in Antwerp, and in three generations it had gained less that two seconds. When lawyer Penlevvy settled that somewhat complicated Croteland estate, it fetched $40,000 dollars (or that might have been pounds), and is now in the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, Maine.

But hat in hand, I told Miss Croteland after my second mowing that other pressing duties prevented my further attendance. She sighed and said, ``Dear me! Things are certainly at a pretty pass when I can't find a boy reliable for two weeks at a time.'' ``Yes, Maam,'' I said.

With Miss Croteland gone, lawyer Penlevvy effected many charitable gifts, and I asked him one day if he was using the eight cents on the dime formula. So I told him about my mowing the lawn, and he said some of the Croteland assets were hard to believe. He found 10 tenth-shares in a fleet of vessels out of Galveston, one of which had just earned $74,000 on a single voyage. There were 28 apartment buildings in the Fanueil section of Boston, all occupied but most unfortunately rent-controlled. There was a gold mine in Ontario.

He hadn't been able, yet, to find out where the rubber plantations were, but the tea properties had been readily picked up by Lipton. I asked him if the lawn mower was extant, and he said I might buy it if I wanted a souvenir. I offered him two cents, but not loud enough so he heard.

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