Maria Edgham, who was a very young girl, sat in the church vestry beside a window during the weekly prayer-meeting.
As was the custom, a young man had charge of the meeting, and he stood, with a sort of embarrassed dignity, on the little platform behind the desk. He was reading a selection from the Bible. Maria heard him drone out in a scarcely audible voice: “Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth,” and then she heard, in a quick response, a soft sob from the seat behind her. She knew who sobbed: Mrs. Jasper Cone, who had lost her baby the week before. The odor of crape came in Maria's face, making a species of discordance with the fragrance of the summer night, which came in at the open window. Maria felt irritated by it, and she wondered why Mrs. Cone felt so badly about the loss of her baby. It had always seemed to Maria a most unattractive child, large-headed, flabby, and mottled, with ever an open mouth of resistance, and a loud wail of opposition to existence in general. Maria felt sure that she could never have loved such a baby. Even the unfrequent smiles of that baby had not been winning; they had seemed reminiscent of the commonest and coarsest things of life, rather than of heavenly innocence. Maria gazed at the young man on the platform, who presently bent his head devoutly, and after saying, “Let us pray,” gave utterance to an unintelligible flood of supplication intermingled with information to the Lord of the state of things on the earth, and the needs of his people. Maria wondered why, when God knew everything, Leon Barber told him about it, and she also hoped that God heard better than most of the congregation did. But she looked with a timid wonder of admiration at the young man himself. He was so much older than she, that her romantic fancies, which even at such an early age had seized upon her, never included him. She as yet dreamed only of other dreamers like herself, Wollaston Lee, for instance, who went to the same school, and was only a year older. Maria had made sure that he was there, by a glance, directly after she had entered, then she never glanced at him again, but she wove him into her dreams along with the sweetness of the midsummer night, and the morally tuneful atmosphere of the place. She was utterly innocent, her farthest dreams were white, but she dreamed. She gazed out of the window through which came the wind on her little golden-cropped head (she wore her hair short) in cool puffs, and she saw great, plumy masses of shadow, themselves like the substance of which dreams were made. The trees grew thickly down the slope, which the church crowned, and at the bottom of the slope rushed the river, which she heard like a refrain through the intermittent soughing of the trees. A whippoorwill was singing somewhere out there, and the katydids shrieked so high that they almost surmounted dreams. She could smell wild grapes and pine and other mingled odors of unknown herbs, and the earth itself. There had been a hard shower that afternoon, and the earth still seemed to cry out with pleasure because of it. Maria had worn her old shoes to church, lest she spoil her best ones; but she wore her pretty pink gingham gown, and her hat with a wreath of rosebuds, and she felt to the utmost the attractiveness of her appearance. She, however, felt somewhat conscience-stricken on account of the pink gingham gown. It was a new one, and her mother had been obliged to have it made by a dress-maker, and had paid three dollars for that, beside the trimmings, which were lace and ribbon. Maria wore the gown without her mother's knowledge. She had in fact stolen down the backstairs on that account, and gone out the south door in order that her mother should not see her. Maria's mother was ill lately, and had not been able to go to church, nor even to perform her usual tasks. She had always made Maria's gowns herself until this pink gingham.
Maria's mother was originally from New England, and her conscience was abnormally active. Her father was of New Jersey, and his conscience, while no one would venture to say that it was defective, did not in the least interfere with his enjoyment of life.
“Oh, well, Abby,” her father would reply, easily, when her mother expressed her distress that she was unable to work as she had done, “we shall manage somehow. Don't worry, Abby.” Worry in another irritated him even more than in himself.
“Well, Maria can't help much while she is in school. She is a delicate little thing, and sometimes I am worried about her.”
“Oh, Maria can't be expected to do much while she is in school,” her father said, easily. “We'll manage somehow, only for Heaven's sake don't worry.”
Then Maria's father had taken his hat and gone down street. He always went down street of an evening. Maria, who had been sitting on the porch, had heard every word of the conversation which had been carried on in the sitting-room that very evening. It did not alarm her at all because her mother considered her delicate. Instead, she had a vague sense of distinction on account of it. It was as if she realized being a flower rather than a vegetable. She thought of it that night as she sat in meeting. She glanced across at a girl who went to the same school—a large, heavily built child with a coarseness of grain showing in every feature—and a sense of superiority at once exalted and humiliated her. She said to herself that she was much finer and prettier than Lottie Sears, but that she ought to be thankful and not proud because she was. She felt vain, but she was sorry because of her vanity. She knew how charming her pink gingham gown was, but she knew that she ought to have asked her mother if she might wear it. She knew that her mother would scold her—she had a ready tongue—and she realized that she would deserve it. She had put on the pink gingham on account of Wollaston Lee, who was usually at prayer-meeting. That, of course, she could not tell her mother. There are some things too sacred for little girls to tell their mothers. She wondered if Wollaston would ask leave to walk home with her. She had seen a boy step out of a waiting file at the vestry door to a blushing girl, and had seen the girl, with a coy readiness, slip her hand into the waiting crook of his arm, and walk off, and she had wondered when such bliss would come to her. It never had. She wondered if the pink gingham might bring it to pass to-night. The pink gingham was as the mating plumage of a bird. All unconsciously she glanced sideways over the fall of lace-trimmed pink ruffles at her slender shoulders at Wollaston Lee. He was gazing straight at Miss Slome, Miss Ida Slome, who was the school-teacher, and his young face wore an expression of devotion. Maria's eyes followed his; she did not dream of being jealous; Miss Slome seemed too incalculably old to her for that. She was not so very old, in her early thirties, but the early thirties to a young girl are venerable. Miss Ida Slome was called a beauty. She, as well as Maria, wore a pink dress, at which Maria privately wondered. The teacher seemed to her too old to wear pink. She thought she ought wear black like her mother. Miss Slome's pink dress had knots of black velvet about it which accentuated it, even as Miss Slome's face was accentuated by the clear darkness of her eyes and the black puff of her hair above her finely arched brows. Her cheeks were of the sweetest red—not pink but red—which seemed a further tone of the pink of her attire, and she wore a hat encircled with a wreath of red roses. Maria thought that she should have worn a bonnet. Maria felt an odd sort of instinctive antagonism for her. She wondered why Wollaston looked at the teacher so instead of at herself. She gave her head a charming cant, and glanced again, but the boy still had his eyes fixed upon the elder woman, with that rapt expression which is seen only in the eyes of a boy upon an older woman, and which is primeval, involving the adoration and awe of womanhood itself. The boy had not reached the age when he was capable of falling in love, but he had reached the age of adoration, and there was nothing in little Maria Edgham in her pink gingham, with her shy, sidelong glances, to excite it. She was only a girl, the other was a goddess. His worship of the teacher interfered with Wollaston's studies. He was wondering as he sat there if he could not walk home with her that night, if by chance any man would be in waiting for her. How he hated that imaginary man. He glanced around, and as he did so, the door opened softly, and Harry Edgham, Maria's father, entered. He was very late, but he had waited in the vestibule, in order not to attract attention, until the people began singing a hymn, “Jesus, Lover of my Soul,” to the tune of “When the Swallows Homeward Fly.” He was a distinctly handsome man. He looked much younger than Maria's mother, his wife. People said that Harry Edgham's wife might, from her looks, have been his mother. She was a tall, dark, rather harsh-featured woman. In her youth she had had a beauty of color; now that had passed, and she was sallow, and she disdained to try to make the most of herself, to soften her stern face by a judicious arrangement of her still plentiful hair. She strained it back from her hollow temples, and fastened it securely on the top of her head. She had a scorn of fashions in hair or dress except for Maria. “Maria is young,” she said, with an ineffable expression of love and pride, and a tincture of defiance, as if she were defying her own age, in the ownership of the youth of her child. She was like a rose-bush which possessed a perfect bud of beauty, and her own long dwelling upon the earth could on account of that be ignored. But Maria's father was different. He was quite openly a vain man. He was handsome, and he held fast to his youth, and would not let it pass by. His hair, curling slightly over temples boyish in outlines, although marked, was not in the least gray. His mustache was carefully trimmed. After he had seated himself unobtrusively in a rear seat, he looked around for his daughter, who saw him with dismay. “Now,” she thought, her chances of Wollaston Lee walking home with her were lost. Father would go home with her. Her mother had often admonished Harry Edgham that when Maria went to meeting alone, he ought to be in waiting to go home with her, and he obeyed his wife, generally speaking, unless her wishes conflicted too strenuously with his own. He did not in the least object to-night, for instance, to dropping late into the prayer-meeting. There were not many people there, and all the windows were open, and there was something poetical and sweet about the atmosphere. Besides, the singing was unusually good for such a place. Above all the other voices arose Ida Slome's sweet soprano. She sang like a bird; her voice, although not powerful, was thrillingly sweet. Harry looked at her as she sang, and thought how pretty she was, but there was no disloyalty to his wife in the look. He was, in fact, not that sort of man. While he did not love his Abby with utter passion, all the women of the world could not have swerved him from her.
Harry Edgham came of perhaps the best old family in that vicinity, Edgham itself had been named for it, and while he partook of that degeneracy which comes to the descendants of the large old families, while it is as inevitable that they should run out, so to speak, as flowers which have flourished too many years in a garden, whose soil they have exhausted, he had not lost the habit of rectitude of his ancestors. Virtue was a hereditary trait of the Edghams.
Harry Edgham looked at Ida Slome with as innocent admiration as another woman might have done. Then he looked again at his daughter's little flower-like head, and a feeling of love made his heart warm. Maria could sing herself, but she was afraid. Once in a while she droned out a sweet, husky note, then her delicate cheeks flushed crimson as if all the people had heard her, when they had not heard at all, and she turned her head, and gazed out of the open window at the plumed darkness. She thought again with annoyance how she would have to go with her father, and Wollaston Lee would not dare accost her, even if he were so disposed; then she took a genuine pleasure in the window space of sweet night and the singing. Her passions were yet so young that they did not disturb her long if interrupted. She was also always conscious of the prettiness of her appearance, and she loved herself for it with that love which brings previsions of unknown joys of the future. Her charming little face, in her realization of it, was as the untried sword of the young warrior which is to bring him all the glory of earth for which his soul longs.
After the meeting was closed, and Harry Edgham, with his little daughter lagging behind him with covert eyes upon Wollaston Lee, went out of the vestry, a number inquired for his wife. “Oh, she is very comfortable,” he replied, with his cheerful optimism which solaced him in all vicissitudes, except the single one of actually witnessing the sorrow and distress of those who belonged to him.
“I heard,” said one man, who was noted in the place for his outspokenness, which would have been brutal had it not been for his naïveté—“I heard she wasn't going to get out again.”
“Nonsense,” replied Harry Edgham.
“Then she is?”
“Of course she is. She would have come to meeting to-night if it had not been so damp.”
“Well, I'm glad to hear it,” said the man, with a curious congratulation which gave the impression of disappointment.
Little Maria Edgham and her father went up the village street; Harry Edgham walked quite swiftly. “I guess we had better hurry along,” he observed, “your mother is all alone.”
Maria tagged behind him. Her father had to stop at a grocery-store on the corner of the street where they lived, to get a bag of peaches which he had left there. “I got some peaches on my way,” he explained, “and I didn't want to carry them to church. I thought your mother might like them. The doctor said she might eat fruit.” With that he darted into the store with the agility of a boy.
Maria stood on the dusty sidewalk in the glare of electric light, and waited. Her pink gingham dress was quite short, but she held it up daintily, like a young lady, pinching a fold between her little thumb and forefinger. Mrs. Jasper Cone, with another woman, came up, and to Maria's astonishment, Mrs. Cone stopped, clasped her in her arms and kissed her. As she did so, she sobbed, and Maria felt her tears of bereavement on her cheek with an odd mixture of pity and awe and disgust. “If my Minnie had—lived, she might have grown up to be like her,” she gasped out to her friend. “I always thought she looked like her.” The friend made a sympathetic murmur of assent. Mrs. Cone kissed Maria again, holding her little form to her crape-trimmed bosom almost convulsively, then the two passed on. Maria heard her say again that she always had thought the baby looked like her, and she felt humiliated. She looked after the poor mother's streaming black veil with resentment. Then Miss Ida Slome passed by, and Wollaston Lee was clinging to her arm, pressing as closely to her side as he dared. Miss Slome saw Maria, and spoke in her sweet, crisp tone. “Good-evening, Maria,” said she.
Maria stood gazing after them. Her father emerged from the store with the bag of peaches dangling from his hand. He looked incongruous. Her father had too much the air of a gentleman to carry a paper bag. “I do hope your mother will like these peaches,” he said.
Maria walked along with her father, and she thought with pain and scorn how singular it was for a boy to want to go home with an old woman like Miss Slome, when there were little girls like her.
Maria and her father entered the house, which was not far. It was a quite new Queen Anne cottage of the better class, situated in a small lot of land, and with other houses very near on either side. There was a great clump of hydrangeas on the small smooth lawn in front, and on the piazza stood a small table, covered with a dainty white cloth trimmed with lace, on which were laid, in ostentatious neatness, the evening paper and a couple of magazines. There were chairs, and palms in jardinières stood on either side of the flight of wooden steps.
Maria's mother was, however, in the house, seated beside the sitting-room table, on which stood a kerosene lamp with a singularly ugly shade. She was darning stockings. She held the stocking in her left hand, and drew the thread through regularly. Her mouth was tightly closed, which was indicative both of decision of character and pain. Her countenance looked sallower than ever. She looked up at her husband and little girl entering. “Well,” she said, “so you've got home.”
“I've brought you some peaches, Abby,” said Harry Edgham. He laid the bag on the table, and looked anxiously at his wife. “How do you feel now?” said he.
“I feel well enough,” said she. Her reply sounded ill-humored, but she did not intend it to be so. She was far from being ill-humored. She was thinking of her husband's kindness in bringing the peaches. But she looked at the paper bag on the table sharply. “If there is a soft peach in that bag,” said she, “and there's likely to be, it will stain the table-cover, and I can never get it out.”
Harry hastily removed the paper bag from the table, which was covered with a white linen spread trimmed with lace and embroidered.
“Don't you feel as if you could eat one to-night? You didn't eat much supper, and I thought maybe—”
“I don't believe I can to-night, but I shall like them to-morrow,” replied Mrs. Edgham, in a voice soft with apology. Then she looked fairly for the first time at Maria, who had purposely remained behind her father, and her voice immediately hardened. “Maria, come here,” said she.
Maria obeyed. She left the shelter of her father's broad back, and stood before her mother, in her pink gingham dress, a miserable little penitent, whose penitence was not of a high order. The sweetness of looking pretty was still in her soul, although Wollaston Lee had not gone home with her.
Maria's mother regarded her with a curious expression compounded of pride and almost fierce disapproval. Harry went precipitately out of the room with the paper bag of peaches. “You didn't wear that new pink gingham dress that I had to hire made, trimmed with all that lace and ribbon, to meeting to-night?” said Maria's mother.
Maria said nothing. It seemed to her that such an obvious fact scarcely needed words of assent.
“Damp as it is, too,” said her mother.
Mrs. Edgham extended a lean, sallow hand and felt of the dainty fabric. “It is just as limp as a rag,” said she, “about spoiled.”
“I held it up,” said Maria then, with feeble extenuation.
“Held it up!” repeated her mother, with scorn.
“I thought maybe you wouldn't care.”
“Wouldn't care! That was the reason why you went out the other door then. I wondered why you did. Putting on that new pink gingham dress that I had to hire made, trimmed with all that lace and ribbon, and wearing it out in the evening, damp as it is to-night! I don't see what you were thinking of, Maria Edgham.”
Maria looked down disconsolately at the lace-trimmed ruffles on her skirt, but even then she thought how pretty it was, and how pretty she must look herself standing so forlornly before her mother. She wondered how her mother could scold her when she was her own daughter, and looked so sweet. She still felt the damp coolness of the night on her cheeks, and realized a bloom on them like that of a wild rose.
But Mrs. Edgham continued. She had the high temper of the women of her race who had brought up great families to toil and fight for the Commonwealth, and she now brought it to bear upon petty things in lieu of great ones. Besides, her illness made her irritable. She found a certain relief from her constant pain in scolding this child of her heart, whom secretly she admired as she admired no other living thing. Even as she scolded, she regarded her in the pink dress with triumph. “I should think you would be ashamed of yourself, Maria Edgham,” said she, in a high voice.
Harry Edgham, who had deposited the peaches in the ice-box, and had been about to enter the room, retreated. He went out the other door himself, and round upon the piazza, when presently the smoke of his cigar stole into the room. Then Mrs. Edgham included him in her wrath.
“You and your father are just alike,” said she, bitterly. “You both of you will do just what you want to, whether or no. He will smoke, though he knows it makes me worse, besides costing more than he can afford, and you will put on your best dress, without asking leave, and wear it out in a damp night, and spoil it.”
Maria continued to stand still, and her mother to regard her with that odd mixture of worshipful love and chiding. Suddenly Mrs. Edgham closed her mouth more tightly.
“Stand round here,” said she, violently. “Let me unbutton your dress. I don't see how you fastened it up yourself, anyway; you wouldn't have thought you could, if it hadn't been for deceiving your mother. You would have come down to me to do it, the way you always do. You have got it buttoned wrong, anyway. You must have been a sight for the folks who sat behind you. Well, it serves you right. Stand round here.”
“I am sorry,” said Maria then. She wondered whether the wrong fastening had showed much through the slats of the settee.
Her mother unfastened, with fingers that were at once gentle and nervous, the pearl buttons on the back of the dress. “Take your arms out,” said she to Maria. Maria cast a glance at the window. “There's nobody out there but your father,” said Mrs. Edgham, harshly, “take your arms out.”
Maria took her arms out of the fluffy mass and stood revealed in her little, scantily trimmed underwaist, a small, childish figure, with the utmost delicacy of articulation as to shoulder-blades and neck. Maria was thin to the extreme, but her bones were so small that she was charming even in her thinness. Her little, beautifully modelled arms were as charming as a fairy's.
“Now slip off your skirt,” ordered her mother, and Maria complied and stood in her little white petticoat, with another glance of the exaggerated modesty of little girlhood at the window.
“Now,” said her mother, “you go and hang this up in the kitchen where it is warm, on that nail on the outside door, and maybe some of the creases will come out. I've heard they would. I hope so, for I've got about all I want to do without ironing this dress all over.”
Maria gazed at her mother with sudden compunction and anxious love. After all, she loved her mother down to the depths of her childish heart; it was only that long custom had so inured her to the loving that she did not always realize the warmth of her heart because of it. “Do you feel sick to-night mother?” she whispered.
“No sicker than usual,” replied her mother. Then she drew the delicate little figure close to her, and kissed her with a sort of passion. “May the Lord look out for you,” she said, “if you should happen to outlive me! I don't know what would become of you, Maria, you are so heedless, wearing your best things every day, and everything.”
Maria's face paled. “Mother, you aren't any worse?” said she, in a terrified whisper.
“No, I am not a mite worse. Run along, child, and hang up your dress, then go to bed; it's after nine o'clock.”
It did not take much at that time to reassure Maria. She had inherited something of the optimism of her father. She carried her pink dress into the kitchen, with wary eyes upon the windows, and hung it up as her mother had directed. On her return she paused a moment at the foot of the stairs in the hall, between the dining-room and sitting-room. Then, obeying an impulse, she ran into the sitting-room and threw her soft little arms around her mother's neck. “I'm real sorry I wore that dress without asking you, mother,” she said. “I won't again, honest.”
“Well, I hope you will remember,” replied her mother. “If you wear the best you have common you will never have anything.” Her tone was chiding, but the look on her face was infinitely caressing. She thought privately that never was such a darling as Maria. She looked at the softly flushed little face, with its topknot of gold, the delicate fairness of the neck, and slender arms, and she had a rapture of something more than possession. The beauty of the child irradiated her very soul, the beauty and the goodness, for Maria never disobeyed but she was sorry afterwards, and somehow glorified faults seem lovelier than cold virtues. “Well, run up-stairs to bed,” said she. “Be careful of your lamp.”
When Maria was in her own room she set the lamp on the dresser and gazed upon her face reflected in the mirror. That was her nightly custom, and might have been regarded as a sort of fetich worship of self. Nothing, in fact, could have been lovelier than that face of childish innocence and beauty, with the soft rays of the lamp illuminating it. Her blue eyes seemed to fairly give forth light, the soft pink on her cheeks deepened until it was like the heart of a rose. She opened her exquisitely curved lips, and smiled at herself in a sort of ecstasy. She turned her head this way and that in order to get different effects. She pulled the little golden fleece of hair farther over her forehead. She pushed it back, revealing the bold yet delicate outlines of her temples. She thought how glad she should be when her hair was grown. She had had an illness two years before, and her mother had judged it best to have her hair cut short. It was now just long enough to hang over her ears, curving slightly forward like the old-fashioned earlocks. She had her hair tied back from her face with a pink ribbon in a bow on top of her head. She loosened this ribbon, and shook her hair quite loose. She peeped out of the golden radiance of it at herself, then she shook it back. She was charming either way. She was undeveloped, but as yet not a speck of the mildew of earth had touched her. She was flawless, irreproachable, except for the knowledge of her beauty, through heredity, in her heart, which was older than she herself.
Suddenly Maria, after a long gaze of rapture at her face in the glass, gave a great start. She turned and saw her mother standing in the door looking at her.
Maria, with an involuntary impulse of concealment, seized her brush, and began brushing her hair. “I was just brushing my hair,” she murmured. She felt as guilty as if she had committed a crime.
Her mother continued to look at her sternly. “There isn't any use in your trying to deceive me, Maria,” said she. “I am ashamed that a child of mine should be so silly. To stand looking at yourself that way! You needn't think you are so pretty, because you are not. You don't begin to be as good-looking as Amy Long.”
Maria felt a cold chill strike her. She had herself had doubts as to her superior beauty when Amy Long was concerned.
“You don't begin to be as good-looking as your aunt Maria was at your age, and you know yourself how she looks now. Nobody would dream for a minute of calling her even ordinary-looking,” her mother continued in a pitiless voice.
Maria shuddered. She seemed to see, instead of her own fair little face in the glass, an elderly one as sallow as her mother's, but without the traces of beauty which her mother's undoubtedly had. She saw the thin, futile frizzes which her aunt Maria affected; she saw the receding chin, indicative at once of degeneracy and obstinacy; she saw the blunt nose between the lumpy cheeks.
“Your aunt Maria looked very much as you do when she was your age,” her mother went on, with the calm cruelty of an inquisitor.
Maria looked at her, her mouth was quivering. “Did I look like Mrs. Jasper Cone's baby that died last week when I was a baby?” said she.
“Who said you did?” inquired her mother, unguardedly.
“She did. She came up behind me with Mrs. Elliot when I was waiting for father to get the peaches, and she said her baby that died looked just like me; she had always thought so.”
“That Cone baby look like you!” repeated Maria's mother. “Well, one's own always looks different to them, I suppose.”
“Then you don't think it did?” said Maria. Tears actually stood in her beautiful blue eyes.
“No, I don't,” replied her mother, abruptly. “Nobody in their sober senses could think so. I am sorry poor Mrs. Cone lost her baby. I know how I felt when my first baby died, but as for saying it looked like you—”
“Then you don't think it did, mother?”
“It was one of the homliest babies I ever laid my eyes on, poor little thing, if it did die,” said Maria's mother, emphatically. She was completely disarmed by this time. But when she saw Maria glance again at the glass she laid hold of her moral weapons, the wielding of which she believed to be for the best spiritual good of her child. “Your aunt Maria was very much better looking than you at her age,” she repeated, firmly. Then, at the sight of the renewed quiver around the sensitive little mouth her heart melted. “Get out of your clothes and into your night-gown, and get to bed, child,” said she. “You look well enough. If you only behave as well as you look, that is all that is necessary.”
Maria fell asleep that night with the full assurance that she had not been mistaken concerning the beauty of the little face which she had seen in the looking-glass. All that troubled her was the consideration that her aunt Maria, whose homely face seemed to glare out of the darkness at her, might have looked just as she did when she was her age. She hoped, and then she hoped that the hope was not wicked, that she might die young rather than live to look like her aunt Maria. She pictured with a sort of pleasurable horror, what a lovely little waxen-image she would look now, laid away in a nest of white flowers. She had only just begun to doze, when she awoke with a great start. Her father had opened her door, and stood calling her.
“Maria,” he said, in an agitated voice.
Maria sat up in bed. “Oh, father, what is it?” said she, and a vague horror chilled her.
“Get up, and slip on something, and go into your mother's room,” said her father, in a gasping sort of voice. “I've got to go for the doctor.”
Maria put one slim little foot out of bed. “Oh, father,” she said, “is mother sick?”
“Yes, she is very sick,” replied her father. His voice sounded almost savage. It was as if he were furious with his wife for being ill, furious with Maria, with life, and death itself. In reality he was torn almost to madness with anxiety. “Slip on something so you won't catch cold,” said he, in his irritated voice. “I don't want another one down.”
Maria ran to her closet and pulled out a little pink wrapper. “Oh, father, is mother very sick?” she whispered again.
“Yes, she is very sick. I am going to have another doctor to-morrow,” replied her father, still in that furious, excited voice, which the sick woman must have heard.
“What shall I—” began Maria, but her father, running down the stairs, cut her short.
“Do nothing,” said he. “Just go in there and stay with her. And don't you talk. Don't you speak a word to her. Go right in.” With that the front door slammed.
Maria went tiptoeing into her mother's room, still shaking from head to foot, and her blue eyes seeming to protrude from her little white face. Even before she entered her mother's room she became conscious of a noise, something between a wail and a groan. It was indescribably terrifying. It was like nothing which she had ever heard before. It did not seem possible that her mother, that anything human, in fact, was making such a noise, and yet no animal could have made it, for it was articulate. Her mother was in fact both praying and repeating verses of Scripture, in that awful voice which was no longer capable of normal speech, but was compounded of wail and groan. Every sentence seemed to begin with a groan, and ended with a long-drawn-out wail. Maria went close to her mother's bed and stood looking at her. Her poor little face would have torn her mother's heart with its piteous terror, had she herself not been in such agony.
Maria did not speak. She remembered what her father had said. As her mother lay there, stretched out stiff and stark, almost as if she were dead, Maria glanced around the room as if for help. She caught sight of a bottle of cologne on the dresser, one which she had given her mother herself the Christmas before; she had bought it out of her little savings of pocket-money. Maria went unsteadily over to the dresser and got the cologne. She also opened a drawer and got out a clean handkerchief. She became conscious that her mother's eyes were upon her, even although she never ceased for a moment her cries of agony.
“What—r you do—g?” asked her mother, in her dreadful voice.
“Just getting some cologne to put on your head, to make you feel better, mother,” replied Maria, piteously. She thought she must answer her mother's question in spite of her father's prohibition.
Her mother seemed to take no further notice; she turned her face to the wall. “Have—mercy upon me, O Lord, according to Thy loving kindness, according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies,” she shrieked out. Then the words ended with a long-drawn-out “Oh—oh—”
Had Maria not been familiar with the words, she could not have understood them. Not a consonant was fairly sounded, the vowels were elided. She went, feeling as if her legs were sticks, close to her mother's bed, and opened the cologne bottle with hands which shook like an old man's with the palsy. She poured some cologne on the handkerchief and a pungent odor filled the room. She laid the wet handkerchief on her mother's sallow forehead, then she recoiled, for her mother, at the shock of the coldness, experienced a new and almost insufferable spasm of pain. “Let—me alone!” she wailed, and it was like the howl of a dog.
Maria slunk back to the dresser with the handkerchief and the cologne bottle, then she returned to her mother's bedside and seated herself there in a rocking-chair. A lamp was burning over on the dresser, but it was turned low; her mother's convulsed face seemed to waver in unaccountable shadows. Maria sat, not speaking a word, but quivering from head to foot, and her mother kept up her prayers and her verses from Scripture. Maria herself began to pray in her heart. She said it over and over to herself, in unutterable appeal and terror, “O Lord, please make mother well, please make her well.” She prayed on, although the groaning wail never ceased.
Suddenly her mother turned and looked at her, and spoke quite naturally. “Is that you?” she said.
“Yes, mother. I'm so sorry you are sick. Father has gone for the doctor.”
“You haven't got on enough,” said her mother, still in her natural voice.
“I've got on my wrapper.”
“That isn't enough, getting up right out of bed so. Go and get my white crocheted shawl out of the closet and put it over your shoulders.”
Maria obeyed. While she was doing so her mother resumed her cries. She said the first half of the twenty-third psalm, then she looked again at Maria seating herself beside her, and said, in her own voice, wrested as it were by love from the very depths of mortal agony. “Have you got your stockings on?” said she.
“Yes, ma'am, and my slippers.”
Her mother said no more to her. She resumed her attention to her own misery with an odd, small gesture of despair. The cries never ceased. Maria still prayed. It seemed to her that her father would never return with the doctor. It seemed to her, in spite of her prayer, that all hope of relief lay in the doctor, and not in the Lord. It seemed to her that the doctor must help her mother. At last she heard wheels, and, in her joy, she spoke in spite of her father's injunction. “There's the doctor now,” said she. “I guess he's bringing father home with him.”
Again her mother's eyes opened with a look of intelligence, again she spoke in her natural voice. She looked towards the clothes which she had worn during the day, on a chair. “Put my clothes in the closet,” said she, but her voice strained terribly on the last word.
Maria flew, and hung up her mother's clothes in the closet just before her father and the doctor entered the room. As she did so, the tears came for the first time. She had a ready imagination. She thought to herself that her mother might never put on those clothes again. She kissed the folds of her mother's dress passionately, and emerged from the closet, the tears streaming down her face, all the muscles of which were convulsed. The doctor, who was a young man, with a handsome, rather hard face, glanced at her before even looking at the moaning woman in the bed. He said something in a low tone to her father, who immediately addressed her.
“Go right into your own room, and stay there until I tell you to come out, Maria,” said he, still in that angry voice, which seemed to have no reason in it. It was the dumb anger of the race against Fate, which included and overran individuals in its way, like Juggernaut.
At her father's voice, Maria gave a hysterical sob and fled. A sense of injury tore her heart, as well as her anxiety. She flung herself face downward on her bed and wept. After a while she turned over on her back and looked at the room. Not one little thing in the whole apartment but served to rack her very soul with the consideration of her mother's love, which she was perhaps about to lose forever. The dainty curtains at the windows, the scarf on the dresser, the chintz cover on a chair—every one her mother had planned. She could not remember how much her mother had scolded her, only how much she had loved her. At the moment of death the memory of love reigns triumphant over all else, but she still felt the dazed sense of injury that her father should have spoken so to her. She could hear the low murmur of voices in her mother's room across the hall. Suddenly the cries and moans ceased. A great joy irradiated the child. She said to herself that her mother was better, that the doctor had given her something to help her.
She got off the bed, wrapped her little pink garment around her, and stole across the hall to her mother's room. The whole hall was filled with a strange, sweet smell which made her faint, but along with the faintness came such an increase of joy that it was almost ecstasy. She turned the knob of her mother's door, but, before she could open it, it was opened from the other side, and her father's face, haggard and resentful as she had never seen it, appeared.
“Go back!” he whispered, fiercely.
“Oh, father, is mother better?”
Maria went back, and again the tempest of woe and injury swept over her. Why should her father speak to her so? Why could he not tell her if her mother were better? She sat in her little rocking-chair beside the window, and looked out at the night. She was conscious of a terrible sensation which seemed to have its starting-point at her heart, but which pervaded her whole body, her whole consciousness. She was conscious of such misery, such grief, that it was like a weight and a pain. She knew now that her mother was no better, that she might even die. She heard no more of the cries and moans, and somehow now, the absence of them seemed harder to bear than they themselves had been. Suddenly she heard her mother's door open. She heard her father's voice, and the doctor's in response, but she still could not distinguish a word. Presently she heard the front door open and close softly. Then her father hurried down the steps, and got into the doctor's buggy and drove away. It was dark, but she could not mistake her father. She knew that he had gone for another doctor, probably Dr. Williams, who lived in the next town, and was considered very skilful. The other doctor was remaining with her mother. She did not dare leave her room again. She sat there watching an hour, and a pale radiance began to appear in the east, which her room faced. It was like dawn in another world, everything had so changed to her. The thought came to her that she might go down-stairs and make some coffee, if she only knew how. Her father might like some when he returned. But she did not know how, and even if she had she dared not leave her room again.
The pale light in the east increased, suddenly rosy streamers, almost like northern lights, were flung out across the sky. She could distinguish things quite clearly. She heard the rattle of wheels, and thought it was her father returning with Dr. Williams, but instead it was the milkman in his yellow cart. He carried a bottle of milk around to the south door. There was something horribly ghastly in that every-day occurrence to the watching child. She realized the interminable moving on of things in spite of all individual sufferings, as she would have realized the revolution of a wheel of torture. She felt that it was simply hideous that the milk should be left at the door that morning, just as if everything was as it had been. When the milkman jumped into his wagon, whistling, it seemed to her as if he were doing an awful thing. The milk-wagon stopped at the opposite house, then moved on out of sight down the street. She wished to herself that the milkman's horse might run away while he was at some door. The rancor which possessed her father, the kicking against the pricks, was possessing her. She felt a futile rage, like that of some little animal trodden underfoot. A boy whom she knew ran past whooping, with a tin-pail, after the milkman. Evidently his mother wanted some extra milk. The sun was reflected on the sides of the swinging pail, and the flash of light seemed to hurt her, and she felt the same unreasoning wrath against the boy. Why was not Willy Royce's mother desperately sick, like her mother, instead of simply sending for extra milk? The health and the daily swing of the world in its arc of space seemed to her like a direct insult.
At last it occurred to her that she ought to dress herself. She left the window, brushed her hair, braided it, and tied it with a blue ribbon, and put on her little blue gingham gown which she commonly wore mornings. Then she sat by the window again. It was not very long after that that she saw the doctor coming, driving fast. Her father was with him, and between them sat a woman. She recognized the woman at once. She was a trained nurse who lived in Edgham. “They have got Miss Bell,” she thought; “mother must be awful sick.” She knew that Miss Bell's wages were twenty-five dollars a week, and that her father would not have called her in except in an extreme case. She watched her father help out the woman, who was stout and middle-aged, and much larger than he. Miss Bell had a dress-suit case, which her father tugged painfully into the house; Miss Bell followed him. She heard his key turn in the lock while the doctor fastened his horse.
She saw the doctor, who was slightly lame, limp around to the buggy after his horse was tied, and take out two cases. She hated him while he did it. She felt intuitively that something terrible was to come to her mother because of those cases. She watched the doctor limp up the steps with positive malevolence. “If he is such a smart doctor, why doesn't he cure himself?” she asked.
She heard steps on the stairs, then the murmur of voices, and the sound of the door opening into her mother's room. A frightful sense of isolation came over her. She realized that it was infinitely worse to be left by herself outside, suffering, than outside happiness. She tried again to pray, then she stopped. “It is no good praying,” she reflected, “God did not stop mother's pain. It was only stopped by that stuff I smelled out in the entry.” She could not reason back of that; her terror and misery brought her up against a dead wall. It seemed to her presently that she heard a faint cry from her mother's room, then she was quite sure that she smelled that strange, sweet smell even through her closed door. Then her father opened her door abruptly, and a great whiff of it entered with him, like some ghost of pain and death.
“The doctors have neither of them had any breakfast, and they can't leave her,” he said, with a jerk of his elbow, and speaking still with that angry tone towards the unoffending child. “Can you make coffee?”
“I don't know how.”
“Good for nothing!” said her father, and shut the door with a subdued bang.
Maria heard him going down-stairs, and presently she heard a rattle in the kitchen, a part of which was under her room. She went out herself and stole softly down the stairs. Her father, with an air of angry helplessness, was emptying the coffee-pot into her mother's nice sink. Maria stood trembling at his elbow. “I don't believe that's where mother empties it,” she ventured.
“It has got to be emptied somewhere,” said her father, and his tone sounded as if he swore. Maria shrank back. “They've got to have some coffee, anyhow.”
Maria's father carried the coffee-pot over to the stove, in which a freshly kindled fire was burning, and set it on it, in the hottest place. Maria stealthily moved it back while he was searching for the coffee in the pantry. She did not know much, but she did know that an empty coffee-pot on such a hot place would come to ruin.
Her father emerged from the pantry with a tin-canister in his hand. “I've sent a telegram to our aunt Maria for her to come right on,” said he, “but she can't get here before afternoon. I don't suppose you know how much coffee your mother puts in. I don't suppose you know about anything.”
Maria realized dimly that she was a scape-goat, but there was such terrible suffering in her father's face that she had no impulse to rebel. She smelled of the canister which her father held out towards her with a nervously trembling hand. “Why, father, this is tea; it isn't coffee,” said she.
“Well, if you don't know anything that a big girl like you ought to know, I should think you might know enough not to try to make coffee with tea,” said her father.
Maria looked at her father in a bewildered sort of way. “I guess the coffee is in the other canister,” said she, meekly.
“Why didn't you say so then?” demanded her father.
Maria was silent. It seemed to her that her father had gone mad. Harry Edgham made a ferocious stride across the kitchen to the pantry. Maria followed him. “I guess that is the coffee canister,” said she, pointing.
“Why didn't you say so, then?” asked her father, viciously, and again Maria made no reply. Her father seized the coffee canister and approached the stove. “I don't suppose you know how much she puts in. I don't suppose you know anything,” said he.
“I guess she puts in about a cupful,” said Maria, trembling.
“A cupful! with coffee at the price it is now? I guess she doesn't,” said her father. He poured the coffee-pot full of boiling water from the tea-kettle, then he tipped the coffee canister into his hand, and put one small pinch into the pot.
“Oh, father,” ventured Maria. “I don't believe—”
“You don't believe what?”
“I don't believe that is enough.”
“Of course it's enough. Don't you suppose your father knows how to make coffee?”
Her father set the coffee-pot on the stove, where it immediately began to boil. Then he carried back the canister into the pantry, and returned with a panful of eggs. “You can set the table, I suppose, anyhow?” said he. “You know enough to do as much as that?”
“Yes, I can do that,” replied Maria, with alacrity, and indeed she could. Her mother had exacted some small household tasks from her, and setting the table was one of them. She hurried into the dining-room and began setting the table with the pretty blue-flowered ware that her mother had been so proud of. She seemed to feel tears in her heart when she laid the plates, but none sprang to her eyes. Somehow, handling these familiar inanimate things was the acutest torture. Presently she smelled eggs burning. She realized that her father was burning up the eggs, in his utter ignorance of cookery. She thought privately that she didn't believe but she could cook the eggs, but she dared not go out in the kitchen. Her father, in his anxiety, had actually reached ferocity. He had always petted her, in his easy-going fashion, now he terrified her. She dared not go out there.
All at once, as she was getting the clean napkins from the sideboard, she heard the front door open, and one of the neighbors, Mrs. Jonas White, entered without knocking. She was a large woman and carelessly dressed, but her great face was beaming with kindness and pity.
“I just heard how bad your ma was,” she said, in a loud whisper, “an' I run right over. I thought mebbe—How is she?”
“She is very sick,” replied Maria. She felt at first an impulse to burst into tears before this broadside of sympathy, then she felt stiff.
“You are as white as a sheet,” said Mrs. White. “Who is burnin' eggs out there?” She pointed to the kitchen.
“Lord! Who's up-stairs?”
“Miss Bell and the doctors. They've sent for Aunt Maria, but she can't come before afternoon.”
Mrs. White fastened a button on her waist. “Well, I'll stay till then,” said she. “Lillian can get along all right.” Lillian was Mrs. White's eighteen-year-old daughter.
Mrs. White opened the kitchen door. “How is she?” she said in a hushed voice to Harry Edgham, frantically stirring the burned eggs, which sent up a monstrous smoke and smell. As she spoke, she went over to him, took the frying-pan out of his hands, and carried it over to the sink.
“She is a very sick woman,” replied Harry Edgham, looking at Mrs. White with a measure of gratitude.
“You've got Dr. Williams and Miss Bell, Maria says?”
“Maria says her aunt is coming?”
“Yes, I sent a telegram.”
“Well, I'll stay till she gets here,” said Mrs. White, and again that expression of almost childish gratitude came over the man's face. Mrs. White began scraping the burned eggs off the pan.
“They haven't had any breakfast,” said Harry, looking upward.
“And they don't dare leave her?”
“Well, you just go and do anything you want to, Maria and I will get the breakfast.” Mrs. White spoke with a kindly, almost humorous inflection. Maria felt that she could go down on her knees to her.
“You are very kind,” said Harry Edgham, and he went out of the kitchen as one who beats a retreat before superior forces.
“Maria, you just bring me the eggs, and a clean cup,” said Mrs. White. “Poor man, trying to cook eggs!” said she of Maria's father, after he had gone. She was one of the women who always treat men with a sort of loving pity, as if they were children. “Here is some nice bacon,” said she, rummaging in the pantry. “The eggs will be real nice with bacon. Now, Maria, you look in the ice-chest and see if there are any cold potatoes that can be warmed up. There's plenty of bread in the jar, and we'll toast that. We'll have breakfast in a jiffy. Doctors do have a hard life, and Miss Bell, she ought to have her nourishment too, if she's goin' to take care of your mother.”
When Maria returned from the ice-box, which stood out in the woodshed, with a plate of cold potatoes, Mrs. White was sniffing at the coffee-pot.
“For goodness sake, who made this?” said she.
“How much did he put in?”
“He put in a little pinch.”
“It looks like water bewitched,” said Mrs. White. “Bring me the coffee canister. You know where that is, don't you?”
Maria watched Mrs. White pour out the coffee which her father had made, and start afresh in the proper manner.
“Men are awful helpless, poor things,” said Mrs. White. “This sink is in an awful condition. Did your father empty all this truck in it?”
“Well, I must clean it out, as soon as I get the other things goin', or the dreen will be stopped up.” Mrs. White's English was not irreproachable, but she was masterful.
Maria continued to stand numbly in the middle of the kitchen, watching Mrs. White, who looked at her uneasily.
“You must be a good girl, and trust in the Lord,” said she, and she tried to make her voice sharp. “Now, don't stand there lookin' on; just fly round and do somethin'. I don't believe but the dinin'-room needs dustin'. You find somethin' and dust the dinin'-room real nice, while I get the breakfast.”
Maria obeyed, but she did that numbly, without any realization of the task.
The morning wore on. The doctors, one at a time came down, and the nurse came down, and they ate a hearty breakfast. Maria watched them, and hated them because they could eat while her mother was so ill. Miss Bell also ate heartily, and she felt that she hated her. She was glad that her father refused anything except a cup of coffee. As for herself, Mrs. White made her drink an egg beaten up with milk. “If you won't eat your breakfast, you've got to take this,” said she.
Mrs. White took her own breakfast in stray bites, while she was clearing away the table. She stayed, and put the house in order, until Maria's aunt Maria arrived. One of the physicians went away. For a short time Maria's mother's groans and wailings recommenced, then the smell of chloroform was strong throughout the house.
“I wonder why they don't give her morphine instead of chloroform?” said Mrs. White, while Maria was wiping the dishes. “It is dreadful dangerous to give that, especially if the heart is weak. Well, don't you be scart. I've seen folks enough worse than your mother git well.”
In the last few hours Maria's face had gotten a hard look. She no longer seemed like a little girl. After a while the doctors went away.
“I don't suppose there is much they can do for a while, perhaps,” remarked Mrs. White; “and Miss Bell, she is as good as any doctor.”
Both physicians returned a little after noon, and previously Mrs. Edgham had made her voice of lamentation heard again. Then it ceased abruptly, but there was no odor of chloroform.
“They are giving her morphine now, I bet a cooky,” Mrs. White said. She, with Maria, was clearing away the dinner-table then. “What time do you think your aunt Maria will get here?” she asked.
“About half-past two, father said,” replied Maria.
“Well, I'm real glad you've got some one like her you can call on,” said Mrs. White. “Somebody that 'ain't ever had no family, and 'ain't tied. Now I'd be willin' to stay right along myself, but I couldn't leave Lillian any length of time. She 'ain't never had anything hard put on her, and she 'ain't any too tough. But your aunt can stay right along till your mother gits well, can't she?”
“I guess so,” replied Maria.
There was something about Maria's manner which made Mrs. White uneasy. She forced conversation in order to make her speak, and do away with that stunned look on her face. All the time now Maria was saying to herself that her mother was going to die, that God could make her well, but He would not. She was conscious of blasphemy, and she took a certain pleasure in it.
Her aunt Maria arrived on the train expected, and she entered the house, preceded by the cabman bearing her little trunk, which she had had ever since she was a little girl. It was the only trunk she had ever owned. Both physicians and the nurse were with Mrs. Edgham when her sister arrived. Harry Edgham had been walking restlessly up and down the parlor, which was a long room. He had not thought of going to the station to meet Aunt Maria, but when the cab stopped before the house he hurried out at once. Aunt Maria was dressed wholly in black—a black mohair, a little black silk cape, and a black bonnet, from which nodded a jetted tuft. “How is she?” Maria heard her say, in a hushed voice, to her father. Maria stood in the door. Maria heard her father say something in a hushed tone about an operation. Aunt Maria came up the steps with her travelling-bag. Harry forgot to take it. She greeted Mrs. White, whom she had met on former visits, and kissed Maria. Maria had been named for her, and been given a silver cup with her name inscribed thereon, which stood on the sideboard, but she had never been conscious of any distinct affection for her. There was a queer, musty odor, almost a fragrance, about Aunt Maria's black clothes.
“Take the trunk up the stairs, to the room at the left,” said Harry Edgham, “and go as still as you can.” The man obeyed, shouldering the little trunk with an awed look.
Aunt Maria drew Mrs. White and Maria's father aside, and Maria was conscious that they did not want her to hear; but she did overhear—“...one chance in ten, a fighting chance,” and “Keep it from Maria, her mother had said so.” Maria knew perfectly well that that horrible and mysterious thing, an operation, which means a duel with death himself, was even at that moment going on in her mother's room. She slipped away, and went up-stairs to her own chamber, and softly closed the door. Then she forgot her lack of faith and her rebellion, and she realized that her only hope of life was from that which is outside life. She knelt down beside her bed, and began to pray over and over, “O God, don't let my mother die, and I will always be a good girl! O God, don't let my mother die, and I will always be a good girl!”
Then, without any warning, the door opened and her father stood there, and behind him was her aunt Maria, weeping bitterly, and Mrs. White, also weeping.
“Maria,” gasped out Harry Edgham. Then, as Maria rose and went to him, he seized upon her as if she were his one straw of salvation, and began to sob himself, and Maria knew that her mother had died.
Without any doubt, Maria's self-consciousness, which was at its height at this time, helped her to endure the loss of her mother, and all the sad appurtenances of mourning. She had a covert pleasure at the sight of her fair little face, in her black hat, above her black frock. She realized a certain importance because of her grief.
However, there were times when the grief itself came uppermost; there were nights when she lay awake crying for her mother, when she was nothing but a bereft child in a vacuum of love. Her father's tenderness could not make up to her for the loss of her mother's. Very soon after her mother's death, his mercurial temperament jarred upon her. She could not understand how he could laugh and talk as if nothing had happened. She herself was more like her mother in temperament—that is, like the New-Englander who goes through life with the grief of a loss grown to his heart. Nothing could exceed Harry Edgham's tenderness to his motherless little girl. He was always contriving something for her pleasure and comfort; but Maria, when her father laughed, regarded him with covert wonder and reproach.
Her aunt Maria continued to live with them, and kept the house. Aunt Maria was very capable. It is doubtful if there are many people on earth who are not crowned, either to their own consciousness or that of others, with at least some small semblance of glories. Aunt Maria had the notable distinction of living on one hundred dollars a year. She had her rent free, but upon that she did not enlarge. Her married brother owned a small house, of the story-and-a-half type prevalent in New England villages, and Maria had the north side. She lived, aside from that, upon one hundred dollars a year. She was openly proud of it; her poverty became, in a sense, her riches. “Well, all I have is just one hundred a year,” she was fond of saying, “and I don't complain. I don't envy anybody. I have all I want.” Her little plans for thrift were fairly Machiavellian; they showed subtly. She told everybody what she had for her meals. She boasted that she lived better than her brother, who was earning good wages in a shoe-factory. She dressed very well, really much better than her sister-in-law. “Poor Eunice never had much management,” Maria was wont to say, smoothing down, as she spoke, the folds of her own gown. She never wore out anything; she moved carefully and sat carefully; she did a good deal of fancy-work, but she was always very particular, even when engaged in the daintiest toil, to cover her gown with an apron, and she always held her thin-veined hands high. She charged this upon her niece Maria when she had her new black clothes. “Now, Maria,” said she, “there is one thing I want you to remember, here is nothin'—” (Aunt Maria elided her final “g” like most New-Englanders, although she was not deficient in education, and even prided herself upon her reading.) “Black is the worst thing in the world to grow shiny. Folks can talk all they want to about black bein' durable. It isn't. It grows shiny. And if you will always remember one thing when you are at home, to wear an apron when you are doin' anything, and when you are away, to hold your hands high, you will gain by it. There is no need of anybody gettin' the front breadths of their dresses all shiny by rubbin' their hands on them. When you are at school you must remember and hold your school-books so they won't touch your dress. Then there is another thing you must remember, not to move your arms any more than you can help, that makes the waist wear out under the arms. There isn't any need of your movin' your arms much if any when you are in school, that I can see, and when you come home you can change your dress. You might just as well wear out your colored dresses when you are home. Nobody is goin' to see you. If anybody comes in that I think is goin' to mind, you can just slip up-stairs, and put on your black dress. It isn't as if you had a little sister to take your things—they ought to be worn out.”
It therefore happened that Maria was dressed the greater part of the time, in her own home, where she missed her mother most, in bright-colored array, and in funeral attire outside. She told her father about it, but he had not a large income, and it had been severely taxed by his wife's almost tragic illness and death. Besides, if the truth were known, he disliked to see Maria in mourning, and the humor of the thing also appealed to him.
“You had better wear what your aunt says, dear. You feel just the same in your heart, don't you?” asked Harry Edgham, with that light laugh of his, which always so shocked his serious little daughter.
“Yes, sir,” she replied, with a sob.
“Well, then, do just as your aunt says, and be a good little girl,” said Harry, and he went hastily out on the porch with his cigar.
Nothing irritated him so much as to see Maria weep for her mother. He was one of those who wrestle and fight against grief, and to see it thrust in his face by the impetus of another heart exasperated him, although he could say nothing. It may be that, with his temperament, it was even dangerous for him to cherish grief, and, for that very reason, he tried to put his dead wife out of his mind, as she had been taken out of his life.
“Well, men are different from women,” Aunt Maria said to her niece Maria one night, when Harry had gone out on the piazza, after he had talked and laughed a good deal at the supper-table.
Harry Edgham heard the remark, and his face took on a set expression which it could assume at times. He did not like his sister-in-law, although he disguised the fact. She was very useful. His meals were always on time, the house was as neatly kept as before, and Maria was being trained as she had never been in household duties.
Maria was obedient, under silent protest, to her aunt. Often, after she had been bidden to perform some household task, and obeyed, she had gone to her own room and wept, and told herself that her mother would never have put such things on her. She had no one in whom to confide. She was not a girl to have unlimited intimates among other girls at school. She was too self-centred, and, if the truth were told, too emulative.
“Maria Edgham thinks she's awful smart,” one girl would say to another. They all admitted, even the most carping, that Maria was pretty. “Maria Edgham is pretty enough, and she knows it,” said they. She was in the high school, even at her age, and she stood high in her classes. There was always a sort of moral strike going on against Maria, as there is against all superiority, especially when the superiority is known to be recognized by the possessor thereof.
In spite of her prettiness, she was not a favorite even among the boys. They were, as a rule, innocent as well as young, but they would rather have snatched a kiss from such a pretty, dainty little creature than have had her go above them in the algebra class. It did not seem fitting. Without knowing it, they were envious. They would not even acknowledge her cleverness, not even Wollaston Lee, for whom Maria entertained a rudimentary affection. He was even rude to her.
“Maria Edgham is awful stuck up,” he told his mother. He was of that age when a boy tells his mother a good deal, and he was an only child.
“She's a real pretty little girl, and her aunt says she is a good girl,” replied his mother, who regarded the whole as the antics of infancy.
The Lees lived near the Edghams, on the same street, and Mrs. Lee and Aunt Maria had exchanged several calls. They were, in fact, almost intimate. The Lees were at the supper-table when Wollaston made his deprecatory remark concerning Maria, and he had been led to do so by the law of sequence. Mrs. Lee had made a remark about Aunt Maria to her husband. “I believe she thinks Harry Edgham will marry her,” she said.
“That's just like you women, always trumping up something of that kind,” replied her husband. His words were rather brusque, but he regarded, while speaking them, his wife with adoration. She was a very pretty woman, and looked much younger than her age.
“You needn't tell me,” said Mrs. Lee. “She's just left off bonnets and got a new hat trimmed with black daisies; rather light mourning, I call it, when her sister has not been dead a year.”
“You spiteful little thing!” said her husband, still with his adoring eyes on his wife.
“Well, it's so, anyway.”
“Well, she would make Harry a good wife, I guess,” said her husband, easily; “and she would think more of the girl.”
It was then that Wollaston got in his remark about poor Maria, who had herself noticed with wonder that her aunt had bought a new hat that spring instead of a bonnet.
“Why, Aunt Maria, I thought you always wore a bonnet!” said she, innocently, when the hat came home from the milliner's.
“Nobody except old women are wearing bonnets now,” replied her aunt, shortly. “I saw Mrs. Rufus Jones, who is a good deal older than I, at church Sunday with a hat trimmed with roses. The milliner told me nobody of my age wore a bonnet.”
“Did she know how old you really are, Aunt Maria?” inquired Maria with the utmost innocence.
Harry Edgham gave a little chuckle, then came to his sister-in-law's rescue. He had a thankful heart for even small benefits, and Aunt Maria had done a good deal for him and his, and it had never occurred to him that the doing might not be entirely disinterested. Besides, Aunt Maria had always seemed to him, as well as to his daughter, very old indeed. It might have been that the bonnets had had something to do with it. Aunt Maria had never affected fashions beyond a certain epoch, partly from economy, partly from a certain sense of injury. She had said to herself that she was old, she had been passed by; she would dress as one who had. Now her sentiments underwent a curious change. The possibility occurred to her that Harry might ask her to take her departed sister's place. She was older than that sister, much older than he, but she looked in her glass and suddenly her passed youth seemed to look forth upon her. The revival of hopes sometimes serves as a tonic. Aunt Maria actually did look younger than she had done, even with her scanty frizzes. She regarded other women, not older than herself, with pompadours, and aspiration seized her.
One day she went to New York shopping. She secretly regarded that as an expedition. She was terrified at the crossings. Stout, elderly woman as she was, when she found herself in the whirl of the great city, she became as a small, scared kitten. She gathered up her skirts, and fled incontinently across the streets, with policemen looking after her with haughty disapprobation. But when she was told to step lively on the trolley-cars, her true self asserted its endurance. “I am not going to step in front of a team for you or any other person,” she told one conductor, and she spoke with such emphasis that even he was intimidated, and held the car meekly until the team had passed. When Aunt Maria came home from New York that particular afternoon, she had an expression at once of defiance and embarrassment, which both Maria and her father noticed.
“Well, what did you see in New York, Maria?” asked Harry, pleasantly.
“I saw the greatest lot of folks without manners, that I ever saw in my whole life,” replied Aunt Maria, sharply.
Harry Edgham laughed. “You'll get used to it,” he said, easily. “Everybody who comes from New England has to take time to like New York. It is an acquired taste.”
“When I do acquire it, I'll be equal to any of them,” replied Aunt Maria. “When I lose my temper, they had better look out.”
Harry Edgham laughed again.
It was the next morning when Aunt Maria appeared at the early breakfast with a pompadour. Her thin frizzes were carefully puffed over a mystery which she had purchased the afternoon before.
Maria, when she first saw her aunt, stared open-mouthed; then she ate her breakfast as if she had seen nothing.
Harry Edgham gave one sharp stare at his sister-in-law, then he said: “Got your hair done up a new way, haven't you, Maria?”
“Yes, my hat didn't set well on my head with my hair the way I was wearing it,” replied Aunt Maria with dignity; still she blushed. She knew that her own hair did not entirely conceal the under structure, and she knew, too, why she wore the pompadour.
Harry Edgham recognized the first fact with simple pity that his sister-in-law's hair was so thin. He remembered hearing a hair-tonic recommended by another man in the office, and he wondered privately if Maria would feel hurt if he brought some for her. Of the other fact he had not the least suspicion. He said: “Well, it's real becoming to you, Maria. I guess I like it better than the other way. I notice all the girls seem to wear their hair so nowadays.”
Aunt Maria smiled at him gratefully. When her sister had married him, she had wondered what on earth she saw in Harry Edgham; now he seemed to her a very likeable man.
When Maria sat in school that morning, her aunt's pompadour diverted her mind from her book; then she caught Gladys Mann's wondering eyes upon her, and she studied again.
While Maria could scarcely be said to have an intimate friend at school, a little girl is a monstrosity who has neither a friend nor a disciple; she had her disciple, whose name was Gladys Mann. Gladys was herself a little outside the pale. Most of her father's earnings went for drink, and Gladys's mother was openly known to take in washing to make both ends meet, and keep the girl at school at all; moreover, she herself came of one of the poor white families which flourish in New Jersey as well as at the South, although in less numbers. Gladys's mother was rather a marvel, inasmuch as she was willing to take in washing, and do it well too, but Gladys had no higher rank for that. She was herself rather a pathetic little soul, dingily pretty, using the patois of her kind, and always at the fag end of her classes. Her education, so far, seemed to meet with no practical results in the child herself. Her brain merely filtered learning like a sieve; but she thought Maria Edgham was a wonder, and it was really through her, and her alone, that she obtained any education.
“What makes you always say ‘have went’?” Maria would inquire, with a half-kindly, half-supercilious glance at her satellite.
“What had I ought to say,” Gladys would inquire, meekly—“have came?”
“Have gone,” replied Maria, with supreme scorn.
“Then when my mother has came home shall I say she has gone?” inquired Gladys, with positive abjectness.
“Gladys, you are such a ninny,” said Maria. “Why don't you remember what you learn at school, instead of what you hear at home?”
“I guess I hear more at home than I learn at school,” Gladys replied, with an adoring glance at Maria.
Maria half despised Gladys, and yet she had a sort of protective affection for her, as one might have for a little clinging animal, and she confided more in her than in any one else, sure, at least, of an outburst of sympathy. Maria had never forgotten how Gladys had cried the first morning she went to school after her mother died. Every time Gladys glanced at poor little Maria, in her black dress, her head went down on a ring of her little, soiled, cotton-clad arms on her desk, and Maria knew that she was sorrier for her than any other girl in school.
Gladys had a sort of innocent and ignorant impertinence; she asked anything which occurred to her, with no reflection as to its effect upon the other party.
“Say, is it true?” she asked that very morning at recess.
“Is what true?”
“Is your father goin' to marry her?”
“Marry who?” Maria turned quite pale, and forgot her own grammar.
“Why, your aunt Maria.”
“My aunt Maria? I guess he isn't!” Maria left Gladys with an offended strut. However, she reflected on Aunt Maria's pompadour. A great indignation seized her. After this she treated Aunt Maria stiffly, and she watched both her and her father.
There was surely nothing in Harry Edgham's behaviour to warrant a belief that he contemplated marrying his deceased wife's sister. Sometimes he even, although in a kindly fashion, poked fun at her, in Maria's presence. But Aunt Maria never knew it; she was, in fact, impervious to that sort of thing. But Maria came to be quite sure that Aunt Maria had designs on her father. She observed that she dressed much better than she had ever done; she observed the fairly ostentatious attention which she bestowed upon her brother-in-law, and also upon herself, when he was present. She even used to caress Maria, in her wooden sort of way, when Harry was by to see. Once Maria repulsed her roughly. “I don't like to be kissed and fussed over,” said she.
“You mustn't speak so to your aunt,” said Harry, when Aunt Maria had gone out of the room. “I don't know what we should have done without her.”
“You pay her, don't you, father?” asked Maria.
“Yes, I pay her,” said Harry, “but that does not alter the fact that she has done a great deal which money could not buy.”
Maria gazed at her father with suspicion, which he did not recognize.
It had never occurred to Harry Edgham to marry Aunt Maria. It had never occurred to him that she might think of the possibility of such a thing. It was now nearly a year since his wife's death. He himself began to take more pains with his attire. Maria noticed it. She saw her father go out one evening clad in a new, light-gray suit, which he had never worn before. She looked at him wonderingly when he kissed her good-bye. Harry never left the house without kissing his little daughter.
“Why, you've got a new suit, father,” she said.
Harry blushed. “Do you like it, dear?” he asked.
“No, father, I don't like it half as well as a dark one,” replied Maria, in a sweet, curt little voice. Her father colored still more, and laughed, then he went away.
Aunt Maria, to Maria's mind, was very much dressed-up that evening. She had on a muslin dress with sprigs of purple running through it, and a purple ribbon around her waist. She made up her mind that she would stay up until her father came home, in that new gray suit, no matter what Aunt Maria should say.
However, contrary to her usual custom, Aunt Maria did not mention, at half-past eight, that it was time for her to go to bed. It was half-past nine, and her father had not come home, and Aunt Maria had said nothing about it. She appeared to be working very interestedly on a sofa-cushion which she was embroidering, but her face looked, to Maria's mind, rather woe-begone, although there was a shade of wrath in the woe. When the little clock on the sitting-room shelf struck one for half-past nine, Maria looked at her aunt, wondering.
“Why, I wonder where father has gone so late?” she said.
Aunt Maria turned, and her voice, in reply, was both pained and pitiless. “Well, you may as well know first as last,” said she, “and you'd better hear it from me than outside: your father has gone courtin'.”
Maria looked at her aunt with an expression of almost idiocy. For the minute, the term Aunt Maria used, especially as applied to her father, had no more meaning for her than a term in a foreign tongue. She was very pale. “Courtin',” she stammered out vaguely, imitating her aunt exactly, even to the dropping of the final “g.”
Aunt Maria was, for the moment, too occupied with her own personal grievances and disappointments to pay much attention to her little niece. “Yes, courtin',” she said, harshly. “I've been suspectin' for some time, an' now I know. A man, when he's left a widower, don't smarten up the way he's done for nothin'; I know it.” Aunt Maria nodded her head aggressively, with a gesture almost of butting.
Maria continued to gaze at her, with that pale, almost idiotic expression. It was a fact that she had thought of her father as being as much married as ever, even although her mother was dead. Nothing else had occurred to her.
“Your father's thinkin' of gettin' married again,” said Aunt Maria, “and you may as well make up your mind to it, poor child.” The words were pitying, the tone not.
“Who?” gasped Maria.
“I don't know any more than you do,” replied Aunt Maria, “but I know it's somebody.” Suddenly Aunt Maria arose. It seemed to her that she must do something vindictive. Here she had to return to her solitary life in her New England village, and her hundred dollars a year, which somehow did not seem as great a glory to her as it had formerly done. She went to the parlor windows and closed them with jerks, then she blew out the lamp. “Come,” said she, “it's time to go to bed. I'm tired, for my part. I've worked like a dog all day. Your father has got his key, an' he can let himself in when he gets through his courtin'.”
Maria crept miserably—she was still in a sort of daze—up-stairs after Aunt Maria.
“Well, good-night,” said Aunt Maria. “You might as well make up your mind to it. I suppose it had to come, and maybe it's all for the best.” Aunt Maria's voice sounded as if she were trying to reconcile the love of God with the existence of hell and eternal torment. She closed her door with a slam. There are, in some New England women, impulses of fierce childishness.
Maria, when she was in her room, had never felt so lonely in her life. A kind of rage of loneliness possessed her. She slipped out of her clothes and went to bed, and then she lay awake. She heard her father when he returned. The clock on a church which was near by struck twelve soon after. Maria tried to imagine another woman in the house in her mother's place; she thought of every eligible woman in Edgham whom her father might select to fill that place, but her little-girl ideas of eligibility were at fault. She thought only of women of her mother's age and staidness, who wore bonnets. She could think of only two, one a widow, one a spinster. She shuddered at the idea of either. She felt that she would much rather have had her father marry Aunt Maria than either of those women. She did not altogether love Aunt Maria, but at least she was used to her. Suddenly it occurred to her that Aunt Maria was disappointed, that she felt badly. The absurdity of it struck her strongly, but she felt a pity for her; she felt a common cause with her. After her father had gone into his room, and the house had long been silent, she got up quietly, opened her door softly, and crept across the hall to the spare room, which Aunt Maria had occupied ever since she had been there. She listened, and heard a soft sob. Then she turned the knob of the door softly.
“Who is it?” Aunt Maria called out, sharply.
Maria was afraid that her father would hear.
“It's only me, Aunt Maria,” she replied. Then she also gave a little sob.
“What's the matter?”
Maria groped her way across the room to her aunt's bed. “Oh, Aunt Maria, who is it?” she sobbed, softly.
Aunt Maria did what she had never done before: she reached out her arms and gathered the bewildered little girl close, in an embrace of genuine affection and pity. She, too, felt that here was a common cause, and not only that, but she pitied the child with unselfish pity. “You poor child, you are as cold as ice. Come in here with me,” she whispered.
Maria crept into bed beside her aunt, but she would rather have remained where she was. She was a child of spiritual rather than physical affinities, and the contact of Aunt Maria's thin body, even though it thrilled with almost maternal affection for her, repelled her.
Aunt Maria began to weep unrestrainedly, with a curious passion and abandonment for a woman of her years.
“Has he come home?” she whispered. Aunt Maria's hearing was slightly defective, especially when she was nervously overwrought.
“Yes. Aunt Maria, who is it?”
“Hush, I don't know. He hasn't paid any open court to anybody, that I know of, but—I've seen him lookin'.”
“At Ida Slome.”
“But she is younger than my mother was.”
“What difference do you s'pose that makes to a man. He'll like her all the better for that. You can thank your stars he didn't pitch on a school-girl, instead of the teacher.”
Maria lay stretched out stiff and motionless. She was trying to bring her mind to bear upon the situation. She was trying to imagine Miss Ida Slome, with her pink cheeks and her gay attire, in the house instead of her mother. Her head began to reel. She no longer wept. She became dimly conscious, after a while, of her aunt Maria's shaking her violently and calling her by name, but she did not respond, although she heard her plainly. Then she felt a great jounce of the bed as her aunt sprang out. She continued to lie still and rigid. She somehow knew, however, that her aunt was lighting the lamp, then she felt, rather than saw, the flash of it across her face. Her aunt Maria pulled on a wrapper over her night-gown, and hurried to the door. “Harry, Harry Edgham!” she heard her call, and still Maria could not move. Then she also felt, rather than saw, her father enter the room with his bath-robe slipped over his pajamas, and approach the bed.
“What on earth is the matter?” he said. He also laid hands on Maria, and, at his touch, she became able to move.
“What on earth is the matter?” he asked again.
“She didn't seem able to speak or move, and I was scared,” replied Aunt Maria, with a reproachful accent on the “I”; but Harry Edgham was too genuinely concerned at his little daughter's white face and piteous look to heed that at all.
He leaned over and began stroking her soft little cheeks, and kissing her. “Father's darling,” he whispered. Then he said over his shoulder to Aunt Maria, “I wish you would go into my room and get that flask of brandy I keep in my closet.”
Aunt Maria obeyed. She returned with the flask and a teaspoon, and Maria's father made her swallow a few drops, which immediately warmed her and made the strange rigidity disappear.
“I guess she had better stay in here with you the rest of the night,” said Harry to his sister-in-law; but little Maria sat up determinately.
“No, I'm going back to my own room,” she said.
“Hadn't you better stay with your aunt, darling?”
Harry Edgham looked shamefaced and guilty. He saw that his sister-in-law and Maria had been weeping, and he knew why, in the depths of his soul. He saw no good reason why he should feel so shamed and apologetic, but he did. He fairly cowered before the nervous little girl and her aunt.
“Well, let father carry you in there, then,” he said; and he lifted up the slight little thing, carried her across the hall to her room, and placed her in bed.
It was a very warm night, but Maria was shivering as if with cold. He placed the coverings over her with clumsy solicitude. Then he bent down and kissed her. “Try and keep quiet, and go to sleep, darling,” he said. Then he went out.
Aunt Maria was waiting for him in the hall. Her face, from grief and consternation, had changed to sad and dignified resignation.
“Harry,” said she.
Harry Edgham stopped.
“Well, sister,” he said, with pleasant interrogation, although he still looked shamefaced.
Aunt Maria held a lamp, a small one, which she was tipping dangerously.
“Look out for your lamp, Maria,” he said.
She straightened the lamp, and the light shone full upon her swollen face, at once piteous and wrathful. “I only wanted to know when you wanted me to go?” she said.
“Oh, Lord, Maria, you are going too fast!” replied Harry, and he fairly ran into his own room.
The next morning when Maria, in her little black frock—it was made of a thin lawn for the hot days, and the pale slenderness of her arms and neck were revealed by the thinness of the fabric—went to school, she knew, the very moment that Miss Ida Slome greeted her, that Aunt Maria had been right in her surmise. For the first time since she had been to school, Miss Slome, who was radiant in a flowered muslin, came up to her and embraced her. Maria submitted coldly to the embrace.
“You sweet little thing,” said Miss Slome.
There was a man principal of the school, but Miss Slome was first assistant, and Maria was in most of her classes. She took her place, with her pretty smile as set as if she had been a picture instead of a living and breathing woman, on the platform.
“You are awful sweet all of a sudden, ain't you?” said Gladys Mann in Maria's ear.
Maria nodded, and went to her own seat.
All that day she noted, with her sharp little consciousness, the change in Miss Slome's manner towards her. It was noticeable even in class. “It is true,” she said to herself. “Father is going to marry her.”
Aunt Maria was a little pacified by Harry's rejoinder the night before. She begun to wonder if she had been, by any chance, mistaken.
“Maybe I was wrong,” she said, privately, to Maria. But Maria shook her head.
“She called me a sweet little thing, and kissed me,” said she.
“Didn't she ever before?”
“Well, she may have taken a notion to. Maybe I was mistaken. The way your father spoke last night sort of made me think so.”
Aunt Maria made up her mind that if Harry was out late the next Sunday, and the next Wednesday, that would be a test of the situation. The first time had been Wednesday, and Wednesday and Sunday, in all provincial localities, are the acknowledged courting nights. Of course it sometimes happens that an ardent lover goes every night; but Harry Edgham, being an older man and a widower, would probably not go to that extent.
He soon did, however. Very soon Maria and her aunt went to bed every night before Harry came home, and Miss Ida Slome became more loving towards Maria.
Wollaston Lee, boy as he was, child as he was, really suffered. He lost flesh, and his mother told Aunt Maria that she was really worried about him. “He doesn't eat enough to keep a bird alive,” said she.
It never entered into her heart to imagine that Wollaston was in love with the teacher, a woman almost if not quite old enough to be his mother, and was suffering because of her love for Harry Edgham.
One afternoon, when Harry's courtship of Ida Slome had been going on for about six weeks, and all Edgham was well informed concerning it, Maria, instead of going straight home from school, took a cross-road through some woods. She dreaded to reach home that night. It was Wednesday, and her father would be sure to go to see Miss Slome. Maria felt an indefinable depression, as if she, little, helpless girl, were being carried so far into the wheels of life that it was too much for her. Her father, of late, had been kinder than ever to her; Maria had begun to wonder if she ought not to be glad if he were happy, and if she ought not to try to love Miss Slome. But this afternoon depression overcame her. She walked slowly between the fields, which were white and gold with queen's-lace and golden-rod. Her slender shoulders were bent a little. She walked almost like an old woman. She heard a quick step behind her, and Wollaston Lee came up beside her. She looked at him with some sentiment, even in the midst of her depression. The thought flashed across her mind, what is she should marry Wollaston at the same time her father married Miss Slome? That would be a happy and romantic solution of the affair. She colored sweetly, and smiled, but the boy scowled at her.
“Say?” he said.
Maria trembled a little. She was surprised.
“What?” she asked.
“Your father is the meanest man in this town, he is the meanest in New Jersey, he is the meanest man in the whole United States, he is the meanest man in the whole world.”
Again the boy scowled at Maria, who did not understand; but she would not have her father reviled.
“He isn't, so there!” she said.
“He's going to marry teacher.”
“I don't see as he is mean if he is,” said Maria, forced into justice by injustice.
“I was going to marry her myself, if she'd only waited, and he hadn't butted in,” said Wollaston.
The boy gave one last scowl at the little girl, and it was as if he scowled at all womanhood in her. Then he gave a fling away, and ran like a wild thing across the field of golden-rod and queen's-lace. Maria, watching, saw him throw himself down prone in the midst of the wild-flowers, and she understood that he was crying because the teacher was going to marry her father. She went on, walking like a little old woman, and she had a feeling as if she had found a road in the world that led outside all love.
Maria felt that she no longer cared about Wollaston Lee, that she fairly scorned him. Then, suddenly, something occurred to her. She turned, and ran back as fast as she could, her short fleece of golden hair flying. She wrapped her short skirts about her, and wormed through the barbed-wire fence which skirted the field—the boy had leaped it, but she was not equal to that—and she hastened, leaving a furrow through the white-and-gold herbage, to the boy lying on his face weeping. She stood over him.
“Say?” said she.
The boy gave a convulsive wriggle of his back and shoulders, and uttered an inarticulate “Let me alone”; but the girl persisted.
“Say?” said she again.
Then the boy turned, and disclosed a flushed, scowling face among the flowers.
“Well, what do you want, anyway?” said he.
“If you want to marry Miss Slome, why don't you, instead of my father?” inquired Maria, bluntly, going straight to the point.
“I haven't got any money,” replied Wollaston, crossly; “all a woman thinks of is money. How'd I buy her dresses?”
“I don't believe but your father would be willing for you to live at home with her, and buy her dresses, till you got so you could earn yourself.”
“She wouldn't have me,” said the boy, and he fairly dug his flushed face into the mass of wild-flowers.
“You are a good deal younger than father,” said Maria.
“Your father he can give her a diamond ring, and I haven't got more'n forty cents, and I don't believe that would buy much of anything,” said Wollaston, in muffled tones of grief and rage.
Maria felt a shock at the idea of a diamond ring. Her mother had never owned one.
“Oh, I don't believe father will ever give her a diamond ring in the world,” said she.
“She's wearing one, anyhow—I saw it,” said Wollaston. “Where did she get it if he didn't give it to her, I'd like to know?”
Maria felt cold.
“I don't believe it,” she said again. “Teacher is all alone in the school-house, correcting exercises. Why don't you get right up, and go back and ask her? I'll go with you, if you want me to.”
Wollaston raised himself indeterminately upon one elbow.
“Come along,” urged Maria.
Wollaston got up slowly. His face was a burning red.
“You are a good deal younger and better looking than father,” urged Maria, traitorously.
The boy was only a year older than Maria. He was much larger and taller, but although she looked a child, at that moment he looked younger. Both of his brown hands hung at his sides, clinched like a baby's. He had a sulky expression.
“Come along,” urged the girl.
He stood kicking the ground hesitatingly for a moment, then he followed the girl across the field. They went down the road until they came to the school-house. Miss Slome was still there; her graceful profile could be seen at a window.
Both children marched in upon Miss Slome, who was in a recitation-room, bending over a desk. She looked up, and her face lightened at sight of Maria.
“Oh, it's you, dear?” said she.
Maria then saw, for the first time, the white sparkle of a diamond on the third finger of her left hand. She felt that she hated her.
“He wants to speak to you,” she said, indicating Wollaston with a turn of her hand.
Miss Slome looked inquiringly at Wollaston, who stood before her like a culprit, blushing and shuffling, and yet with a sort of doggedness.
“Well, what is it, Wollaston?” she asked, patronizingly.
“I came back to ask you if—you would have me?” said Wollaston, and his voice was hardly audible.
Miss Ida Slome looked at him in amazement; she was utterly dazed.
“Have you?” she repeated. “I think I do not quite understand you. What do you mean by ‘have you,’ Wollaston?”
“Marry me,” burst forth the boy.
There was a silence. Maria looked at Miss Slome, and, to her utter indignation, the teacher's lips were twitching, and it took a good deal to make Miss Slome laugh, too; she had not much sense of humor.
In a second Wollaston stole a furtive glance at Miss Slome, which was an absurd parody on a glance of a man under similar circumstances, and Miss Slome, who had had experience in such matters, laughed outright.
The boy turned white. The woman did not realize it, but it was really a cruel thing which she was doing. She laughed heartily.
“Why, my dear boy,” she said. “You are too young and I am too old. You had better wait and marry Maria, when you are both grown up.”
Wollaston turned his back upon her, and marched out of the room. Maria lingered, in the vain hope that she might bring the teacher to a reconsideration of the matter.
“He's a good deal younger than father, and he's better looking,” said she.
Miss Slome blushed then.
“Oh, you sweet little thing, then you know—” she began.
Maria interrupted her. She became still more traitorous to her father.
“Father has a real bad temper, when things go wrong,” said she. “Mother always said so.”
Miss Slome only laughed harder.
“You funny little darling,” she said.
“And Wollaston has a real good disposition, his mother told my aunt Maria so,” she persisted.
The room fairly rang with Miss Slome's laughter, although she tried to subdue it. Maria persisted.
“And father isn't a mite handy about the house,” said she. “And Mrs. Lee told Aunt Maria that Wollaston could wipe dishes and sweep as well as a girl.”
Miss Slome laughed.
“And I've got a bad temper, too, when I'm crossed; mother always said so,” said Maria. Her lip quivered.
Miss Slome left her desk, came over to Maria, and, in spite of her shrinking away, caught her in her arms.
“You are a little darling,” said she, “and I am not a bit afraid of your temper.” She hesitated a moment, looking at the child's averted face, and coloring. “My dear, has your father told you?” she whispered; then, “I didn't know he had.”
“No, ma'am, he hasn't,” said Maria. She fairly pulled herself loose from Miss Slome and ran out of the room. Her eyes were almost blinded with tears; she could scarcely see Wollaston Lee on the road, ahead of her, also running. He seemed to waver as he ran. Maria called out faintly. He evidently heard, for he slackened his pace a little; then he ran faster than ever. Maria called again. This time the boy stopped until the girl came up. He picked a piece of grass, as he waited, and began chewing it.
“How do you know that isn't poison?” said Maria, breathlessly.
“Don't care if it is; hope it is,” said the boy.
“It's wicked to talk so.”
“Let it be wicked then.”
“I don't see how I am to blame for any of it,” Maria said, in a bewildered sort of way. It was the cry of the woman, the primitive cry of the primitive scape-goat of Creation. Already Maria began to feel the necessity of fitting her little shoulders to the blame of life, which she had inherited from her Mother Eve, but she was as yet bewildered by the necessity.
“Ain't it your father that's going to marry her?” inquired Wollaston, fiercely.
“I don't want him to marry her any more than you do,” said Maria. “I don't want her for a mother.”
“I told you how it would come out, if I asked her,” cried the boy, still heaping the blame upon the girl.
“I would enough sight rather marry you than my father, if I were the teacher,” said Maria, and her blue eyes looked into Wollaston's with the boldness of absolute guilelessness.
“Hush!” responded Wollaston, with a gesture of disdain. “Who'd want you? You're nothing but a girl, anyway.”
With that scant courtesy Wollaston Lee resumed his race homeward, and Maria went her own way.
It was that very night, after Harry Edgham had returned from his call upon Ida Slome, that he told Maria. Maria, as usual, had gone to bed, but she was not asleep. Maria heard his hand on her door-knob, and his voice calling out, softly: “Are you asleep, dear?”
“No,” responded Maria.
Then her father entered and approached the child staring at him from her white nest. The room was full of moonlight, and Maria's face looked like a nucleus of innocence upon which it centred. Harry leaned over his little daughter and kissed her.
“Father has got something to tell you, precious,” he said.
Maria hitched away a little from him, and made no reply.
“Ida, Miss Slome, tells me that she thinks you know, and so I made up my mind I had better tell you, and not wait any longer, although I shall not take any decisive step before—before November. What would you say if father should bring home a new mother for his little girl, dear?”
“I should say I would rather have Aunt Maria,” replied Maria, decisively. She choked back a sob.
“I've got nothing to say against Aunt Maria,” said Harry. “She's been very kind to come here, and she's done all she could, but—well, I think in some ways, some one else—Father thinks you will be much happier with another mother, dear.”
“No, I sha'n't.”
Harry hesitated. The child's voice sounded so like her dead mother's that he felt a sudden guilt, and almost terror.
“But if father were happier—you want father to be happy, don't you, dear?” he asked, after a little.
Then Maria began to sob in good earnest. She threw her arms around her father's neck. “Yes, father, I do want you to be happy,” she whispered, brokenly.
“If father's little girl were large enough to keep his house for him, and were through school, father would never think of taking such a step,” said Harry Edgham, and he honestly believed what he said. For the moment his old love of life seemed to clutch him fast, and Ida Slome's radiant visage seemed to pale.
“Oh, father,” pleaded Maria. “Aunt Maria would marry you, and I would a great deal rather have her.”
“Nonsense,” said Harry Edgham, laughing, with a glance towards the door.
“Yes, she would, father; that was the reason she got her pompadour.”
Harry laughed again, but softly, for he was afraid of Aunt Maria overhearing. “Nonsense, dear,” he said again. Then he kissed Maria in a final sort of way. “It will be all for the best,” he said, “and we shall all be happier. Father doesn't think any the less of you, and never will, and he is never going to forget your own dear mother; but it is all for the best, the way he has decided. Now, good-night, darling, try to go to sleep, and don't worry about anything.”
It was not long before Maria did fall asleep. Her thoughts were in such a whirl that it was almost like intoxication. She could not seem to fix her mind on anything long enough to hold herself awake. It was not merely the fact of her father's going to marry again, it was everything which that involved. She felt as if she were looking into a kaleidoscope shaken by fate into endless changes. The changes seemed fairly to tire her eyes into sleep.
The very next afternoon Aunt Maria went home. Harry announced his matrimonial intentions to her before he went to New York, and she said immediately that she would take the afternoon train.
“But,” said Harry, “I thought maybe you would stay and be at the—wedding, Maria. I don't mean to get married until the November vacation, and it is only the first of September now. I don't see why you are in such a hurry.”
“Yes,” replied Aunt Maria, “I suppose you thought I would stay and get the house cleaned, and slave here like a dog, getting ready for you to be married. Well, I sha'n't; I'm tired out. I'm going to take the train this afternoon.”
Harry looked helplessly at her.
“I don't see what Maria and I are going to do then,” said he.
“If it wasn't for taking Maria away from school, I would ask her to come and make me a visit, poor child,” said Aunt Maria, “until you brought her new ma home. I have only a hundred dollars a year to live on, but I'd risk it but I could make her comfortable; but she can't leave her school.”
“No, I don't see how she can,” said Harry, still helplessly. “I thought you'd stay, Maria. There is the house to be cleaned, and some painting and papering. I thought—”
“Yes, I'll warrant you thought,” said Aunt Maria, with undisguised viciousness. “But you were mistaken; I am not going to stay.”
“But I don't see exactly—”
“Oh, Lord, you and Maria can take your meals at Mrs. Jonas White's, she'll be glad enough to have you; and you can hire the cleaning done,” said Aunt Maria, with a certain pity in the midst of her disappointment and contempt.
It seemed to Maria, when her aunt went away that afternoon, as if she could not bear it. There is a law of gravitation for the soul as well as for the body, and Maria felt as one who had fallen from a known quantity into strangeness, with a horrible shock.
“Now, if she don't treat you well, you send word, and I'll have you come and stay with me,” whispered Aunt Maria at the last.
Maria loved Aunt Maria when she went away. She went to school late for the sake of seeing her off; and she was late in the geography class, but Miss Slome only greeted her with a smile of radiant reassurance.
At recess, Gladys Mann snuggled up to her.
“Say, is it true?” she whispered.
“Is what true?”
“Is your father goin' to get married to teacher?”
“Yes,” said Maria. Then she gave Gladys a little push. “I wish you'd let me alone,” she said.
Extreme youth is always susceptible to diversion which affords a degree of alleviation for grief. Many older people have the same facility of turning before the impetus of circumstances to another view of life, which serves to take their minds off too close concentration upon sorrow, but it is not so universal. Maria, although she was sadly lonely, in a measure, enjoyed taking her meals at Mrs. Jonas White's. She had never done anything like it before. The utter novelty of sitting down to Mrs. White's table, and eating in company with her and Mr. Jonas White, and Lillian White, and a son by the name of Henry, amused her. Then, too, they were all very kind to her. They even made a sort of heroine of her, especially at noon, when her father was in New York and she, consequently, was alone. They pitied her, in a covert sort of fashion, because her father was going to get married again, especially Mrs. White and Lillian. Lillian was a very pretty girl, with a pert carriage of blond head, and a slangy readiness of speech.
“Well, she's a dandy, as far as looks and dress go, and maybe she'll make you a real good mother-in-law,” she said to Maria. Maria knew that Lillian should have said step-mother, but she did not venture to correct her.
“Looks ain't everything,” said Mrs. White, with a glance at her daughter. She had thought of the possibility of Harry Edgham taking a fancy to her Lillian.
Mr. Jonas White, who with his son Henry kept a market, thereby insuring such choice cuts of meat, spoke then. He did not, as a rule, say much at table, especially when Maria and her father, who in his estimation occupied a superior place in society, were present.
“Guess Mr. Edgham knows what he's about,” said he. “He's going to marry a good-looking woman, and one that's capable of supportin' herself, if he's laid up or anything happens to him. Guess she's all right.”
“I guess so, too,” said Henry White. Both nodded reassuringly at Maria, who felt mournfully comforted.
“Shouldn't wonder if she'd saved something, too,” said Mr. White.
When he and his son were on their way back to the market, driving in the white-covered wagon with “J. White & Son” on the sides thereof, they agreed that women were queer.
“There's your mother and Lillian, they mean all right,” said Jonas White, “but they were getting that poor young one all stirred up.”
Maria never settled with herself whether the Whites thought she had a pleasant prospect before her or the reverse, but they did not certainly influence her to love Miss Ida Slome any more.
Miss Slome was so kind to Maria, in those days, that it really seemed to her that she ought to love her. She and her father were invited to take tea at Miss Slome's boarding-house, and after tea they sat in the little parlor which the teacher had for her own, and Miss Slome sang and played to them. She had a piano. Maria heard her and her father talking about the place in the Edgham parlor where it was to stand. Harry stood over Miss Slome as she was singing, and Maria observed how his arm pressed against her shoulder.
After the song was done, Harry and Miss Slome sat down on the sofa, and Harry drew Maria down on the other side. Harry put his arm around his little daughter, but not as if he realized it, and she peeked around and saw how closely he was embracing Miss Slome, whose cheeks were a beautiful color, but whose set smile never relaxed. It seemed to Maria that Miss Slome smiled exactly like a doll, as if the smile were made on her face by something outside, not by anything within. Maria thought her father was very silly. She felt scorn, shame, and indignation at the same time. Maria was glad when it was time to go home. When her father kissed Miss Slome, she blushed, and turned away her head.
Going home, Harry almost danced along the street. He was as light-hearted as a boy, and as thoughtlessly in love.
“Well, dear, what do you think of your new mother?” he asked, gayly, as they passed under the maples, which were turning, and whose foliage sprayed overhead with a radiance of gold in the electric light.
Then Maria made that inevitable rejoinder which is made always, which is at once trite and pathetic. “I can't call her mother,” she said.
But Harry only laughed. He was too delighted and triumphant to realize the pain of the child, although he loved her. “Oh, well, dear, you needn't until you feel like it,” he said.
“What am I going to call her, father?” asked Maria, seriously.
“Oh, anything. Call her Ida.”
“She is too old for me to call her that,” replied Maria.
“Old? Why, dear, Ida is only a girl.”
“She is a good deal over thirty,” said Maria. “I call that very old.”
“You won't, when you get there yourself,” replied Harry, with another laugh. “Well, dear, suit yourself. Call her anything you like.”
It ended by Maria never calling her anything except “you,” and referring to her as “she” and “her.” The woman, in fact, became a pronoun for the child, who in her honesty and loyalty could never put another word in the place which had belonged to the noun, and feel satisfied.
Maria was very docile, outwardly, in those days, but inside she was in a tumult of rebellion. She went home with Miss Slome when she was asked, but she was never gracious in response to the doll-like smile, and the caressing words, which were to her as automatic as the smile. Sometimes it seemed to Maria that if she could only have her own mother scold her, instead of Miss Slome's talking so sweetly to her, she would give the whole world.
For some unexplained cause, the sorrow which Maria had passed through had seemed to stop her own emotional development. She looked at Wollaston Lee sometimes and wondered how she had ever had dreams about him; how she had thought she would like him to go with her, and, perhaps, act as silly as her father did with Miss Slome. She remembered how his voice sounded when he said she was nothing but a girl, and a rage of shame seized her. “He needn't worry,” she thought. “I wouldn't have him, not if he was to go down on his knees in the dust.” She told Gladys Mann that she thought Wollaston Lee was a very homely boy, and not so very smart, and Gladys told another girl whose brother knew Wollaston Lee, and he told him. After a little, Wollaston and Maria never spoke when they met. The girl did not seem to see the boy; she was more delicate in her manner of showing aversion, but the boy gazed straight at her with an insolent stare, as at one who had dared him. He told the same boy who had told him what Maria had said, that he thought Amy Long was the prettiest girl in school, and Maria was homely enough to crack a looking-glass, and that came back to Maria. Everything said in the school always came back, by some mysterious law of gravitation.
There was one quite serious difficulty involved in Aunt Maria's deserting her post, and that was, Maria was too young to be left alone in the house every night while her father was visiting his fiancée. She could not stay at Mrs. White's, because it was obviously unfair to ask them to remain up until nearly midnight to act as her guardian every, or nearly every, night in the week. However, Harry submitted the problem to Miss Slome, who solved it at once. She had, in some respects, a masterly brain, and her executive abilities were somewhat thrown away in her comparatively humble sphere.
“You must have the house cleaned,” said she. “Let the woman you get to clean stay over until you come home. She won't be afraid to go home alone afterwards. Those kind of people never are. I suppose you will get Mrs. Addix?”
“They tell me she is about the best woman for house-cleaning,” said Harry, rather helplessly. He was so unaccustomed to even giving a thought to household details, that he had a vague sense of self-pity because he was now obliged to do so. His lost Abby occasionally, he believed, had employed this Mrs. Addix, but she had never troubled him about it.
It thus happened that every evening little Maria Edgham sat guarded, as it were, by Mrs. Addix. Mrs. Addix was of the poor-white race, like the Manns—in fact, she was distantly related to them. They were nearly all distantly related, which may have accounted for their partial degeneracy. Mrs. Addix, however, was a sort of anomaly. Coming, as she did, of a shiftless, indolent family, she was yet a splendid worker. She seemed tireless. She looked positively radiant while scrubbing, and also more intelligent. The moment she stopped work, she looked like an automatic doll which had run down: all consciousness of self, or that which is outside self, seemed to leave her face; it was as if her brain were in her toiling arms and hands. Moreover, she always went to sleep immediately after Harry had gone and Maria was left alone with her. She sat in her chair and breathed heavily, with her head tipped idiotically over one shoulder.
It was not very lively for Maria during those evenings. She felt afraid to go to bed and leave the house alone except for the heavily sleeping woman, whom her father had hard work to rouse when he returned, and who staggered out of the door, when she started home, as if she were drunk. She herself never felt sleepy; it was even hard for her to sleep when at last her father had returned and she went to bed. Often after she had fallen asleep her heart seemed to sting her awake.
Maria grew thinner than ever. Somebody called Harry Edgham's attention to the fact, and he got some medicine for her to take. But it was not medicine which she needed—that is, not medicine for the body, but for the soul. What probably stung her most keenly was the fact that certain improvements, for which her mother had always longed but always thought she could not have, were being made in the house. A bay-window was being built in the parlor, and one over it, in the room which had been her father's and mother's, and which Maria dimly realized was, in the future, to be Miss Ida Slome's. Maria's mother had always talked a good deal about some day having that bay-window. Maria reflected that her father could have afforded it just as well in her mother's day, if her mother had insisted upon it, like Miss Slome. Maria's mother had been of the thrifty New England kind, and had tried to have her husband save a little. Maria knew well enough that these savings were going into the improvements, the precious dollars which her poor mother had enabled her father to save by her own deprivations and toil. Maria heard her father and Miss Slome talk about the maid they were to have; Miss Slome would never dream of doing her own work, as her predecessor had done. All these things the child dwelt upon in a morbid, aged fashion, and, consequently, while her evenings with Mrs. Addix were not enjoyable, they were not exactly dull. Nearly every room in the house was being newly papered and painted. Maria and Mrs. Addix sat first in one room, then in another, as one after another was torn up in the process of improvement. Generally the room which they occupied was chaotic with extra furniture, and had a distracted appearance which grated terribly upon the child's nerves. Only her own room was not touched. “You shall have your room all fixed up next year,” her father told her. “I would have it done now, but father is going to considerable expense as it is.” Maria assured him, with a sort of wild eagerness, that she did not want her room touched. It seemed to her that if the familiar paper which her mother had selected were changed for something else, and the room altered, that the last vestige of home would disappear, that she could not bear it.
“Well,” said Harry, easily, “your paper will do very well, I guess, for a while longer; but father will have your room fixed up another year. You needn't think you are going to be slighted.”
That night, Maria and Mrs. Addix sat in Maria's room. The parlor was in confusion, and so was the dining-room and the guest-chamber; indeed, the house was at that time in the height of its repairs. That very day Maria's mother's room had been papered with a beautiful paper with a sheenlike satin, over which were strewn garlands of pink roses. Pink was Miss Slome's favorite color. They had a new hard-wood floor laid in that room, and there was to be a pink rug, and white furniture painted with pink roses; Maria knew that her father and Miss Slome had picked it out. That evening, after her father had gone, and she sat there with the sleeping Mrs. Addix, a sort of frenzy seized her, or, rather, she worked herself up to it. She thought of what her mother would have said to that beautiful new paper, and furniture, and bay-window. Her mother also had liked pink. She thought of how much her mother would have liked it, and how she had gone without, and not made any complaint about her shabby old furnishings, which had that very day been sold to Mrs. Addix for an offset to her wages, and which Maria had seen carried away. She thought about it all, and a red flush deepened on her cheeks, and her blue eyes blazed. For the time she was abnormal. She passed the limit which separates perfect sanity from mania. She had some fancy-work in her hands. Mrs. White had suggested that she work in cross-stitch a cover for the dresser in her new mother's room, and she was engaged upon that, performing, as she thought, a duty, but her very soul rebelled against it. She made some mistakes, and whenever she did she realized with a sort of wicked glee that the thing would not be perfect, and she never tried to rectify them.
Finally, Maria laid her work softly on the table, beside which she was sitting. She glanced at Mrs. Addix, whose heavy, measured breathing filled the room, then she arose. She took the lamp from the table, and tiptoed out. Maria stole across the hall. The room which had been her father's and mother's was entirely empty, and the roses on the satiny wall-paper gleamed out as if they were real. There was a white-and-silver picture-moulding. Maria set her lamp on the floor. She looked at the great bay-window, she looked at the roses on the walls. Then she did a mad thing. The paper was freshly put on; it was hardly dry. Maria deliberately approached the wall near the bay-window, where the paper looked somewhat damp; she inserted her slender little fingers, with a scratching of her nails under the edge, and she tore off a great, ragged strip. Then she took up her lamp and returned to her room.
Mrs. Addix was still asleep. She had begun to snore, in an odd sort of fashion, with deep, regular puffs of breath; it was like the beating of a drum to peace and rest, after a day of weary and unskilled labor unprofitable to the soul. Maria sat down again. She took up her work. She felt very wicked, but she felt better.
When Maria's father returned that night, he came, as usual, straight to the room wherein she and Mrs. Addix were sitting. Maria regarded her father with a sort of contemptuous wonder, tinctured with unwilling admiration. Her father, on his return from his evenings spent with Miss Ida Slome, looked always years younger than Maria had ever seen him. There was the humidity of youth in his eyes, the flush of youth on his cheeks, the triumph of youth in his expression. Harry Edgham, in spite of lines on his face, in spite, even, of a shimmer of gray and thinness of hair on the temples, looked as young as youth itself, in this rejuvenation of his affection, for he was very much in love with the woman whom he was to marry. He had been faithful to his wife while she lived, even the imagination of love for another woman had not entered his heart. His wife's faded face had not for a second disturbed his loyalty; but now the beauty of this other woman aroused within him long dormant characteristics, like some wonderful stimulant, not only for the body, but for the soul. When he looked in Ida Slome's beautiful face he seemed to drink in an elixir of life. And yet, down at the roots of the man's heart slept the memory of his wife; for Abby Edgham, with her sallow, faded face, had possessed something which Ida Slome lacked, and which the man needed, to hold him. And always in his mind, at this time, was the intention to be more than kind to his motherless little daughter, not to let her realize any difference in his feeling for her.
When he came to-night, he looked at the sleeping Mrs. Addix, and at Maria, taking painful stitches in her dresser cover, at first with a radiant smile, then with the deepest pity.
“Poor little soul,” he said. “You have had a long evening to yourself, haven't you?”
“I don't mind,” replied Maria. She was thinking of the torn wall-paper, and she did not look her father fully in the eyes.
“Has she been asleep ever since I went?” inquired Harry, in a whisper.
“Poor little girl. Well, it will be livelier by-and-by for you. We'll have company, and more going on.” Harry then went close to Mrs. Addix, sitting with her head resting on her shoulder, still snoring with those puffs of heavy breath. “Mrs. Addix,” he said.
Mrs. Addix did not stir; she continued to snore.
“Mrs. Addix!” repeated Harry, in a louder tone, but still the sleeping woman did not stir.
“Good Lord, what a sleeper!” said Harry, still aloud. Then he shook her violently by the shoulder. “Come, Mrs. Addix,” said he, in a shout; “I've got home, and I guess you'll want to be going yourself.”
Mrs. Addix moved languidly, and glanced up with a narrow slit of eye, as dull as if she had been drugged. Harry shook her again, and repeated his announcement that he was home and that she must want to go. At last he roused her, and she stood up with a dazed expression. Maria got her bonnet and shawl, and she gazed at them vaguely, as if she were so far removed from the flesh that the garments thereof perplexed her. Maria put on her bonnet, standing on tiptoe, and Harry threw the shawl over her shoulders. Then she staggered out of the room with a mumbled good-night.
“Take care of the stairs, and do not fall,” Harry said.
He himself held the light for her, until she was safely down, and the outer door had closed after her.
“The fresh air will wake her up,” he said, laughing. “Not very lively company, is she, dear?”
“No, sir,” replied Maria, simply.
Harry looked lovingly at her, then his eyes fell on the door of the room which had been papered that day. It occurred to him to go in and see how the new paper looked.
“Come in with father, and let's see the improvements,” he said, in a gay voice, to Maria.
Maria followed him into the room. It would have been difficult to say whether triumphant malice and daring, or fear, prevailed in her heart.
Harry, carrying the lamp, entered the room, with Maria slinking at his heels. The first thing he saw was the torn paper.
“Hullo!” said he. He approached the bay-window with his lamp. “Confound those paperers!” he said.
For a minute Maria did not say a word. She was not exactly struggling with temptation; she had inherited too much from her mother's Puritan ancestry to make the question of a struggle possible when the duty of truth stared her, as now, in the face. She simply did not speak at once because the thing appeared to her stupendous, and nobody, least of all a child, but has a threshold of preparation before stupendous things.
“They haven't half put the paper on,” said her father. “Didn't half paste it, I suppose. You can't trust anybody unless you are right at their heels. Confound 'em! There, I've got to go round and blow 'em up to-morrow, before I go to the city.”
Then Maria spoke. “I tore that paper off, father,” said she.
Harry turned and stared at her. His face went white. For a second he thought the child was out of her senses.
“What?” he said.
“I tore that paper off,” repeated Maria.
The double question seemed to hit the child like a pistol-shot, but she did not flinch.
“Mother never had paper as pretty as this,” she said, “nor new furniture.” Her eyes met her father's with indescribable reproach.
Harry looked at her with almost horror. For the moment the child's eyes looked like her dead mother's, her voice sounded like her's. He continued gazing at her.
“I couldn't bear it,” said Maria. “She” [she meant Mrs. Addix] “was asleep. I was all alone. I got to thinking. I came in here and tore it off.”
Harry heaved a deep sigh. He did not look nor was he in the least angry.
“I know your poor mother didn't have much,” said he. He sighed again. Then he put his arm around Maria and kissed her. “You can have your room newly papered now, if you want it,” said he, in a choking voice. “Father will send you over to Ellisville to-morrow with Mrs. White, and you can pick out some paper your own self, and father will have it put right on.”
“I don't care about any,” said Maria, and she began to sob.
“Father's baby,” said Harry.
She felt his chest heave, and realized that her father was weeping as well as she.
“Oh, father, I don't want new paper,” she sobbed out, convulsively. “Mother picked out that on my room, and—and—I am sorry I tore this off.”
“Never mind, darling,” said Harry. He almost carried the child back to her own room. “Now get to bed as soon as you can, dear,” he said.
After Maria, trembling and tearful, had undressed and was in bed, her father came back into the room. He held a small lamp in one hand, and a tumbler with some wine in the other.
“Here is some of the wine your mother had,” said Harry. “Now I want you to sit right up and drink this.”
“I—don't want it, father,” gasped Maria.
“Sit right up and drink it.”
Maria sat up. The tumbler was a third full, and the wine was an old port. Maria drank it. Immediately her head began to swim; she felt in a sort of daze when her father kissed her, and bade her lie still and go right to sleep, and went out of the room. She heard him, with sharpened hearing, enter her mother's room. She remembered about the paper, and the new furniture, and how she was to have a new mother, and how she had torn the paper, and how her own mother had never had such things, but she remembered through a delicious haze. She felt a charming warmth pervade all her veins. She was no longer unhappy. Nothing seemed to matter. She soon fell asleep.
As for Harry Edgham, he entered the empty room which he had occupied with his dead wife. He set the lamp on the floor and approached the paper, which poor little Maria, in her fit of futile rebellion, had torn. He carefully tore off still more, making a clean strip of the paper where Maria had made a ragged one. When he had finished, it looked as if the paper had in reality dropped off because of carelessness in putting on. He gathered up the pieces of paper and stood looking about the room.
There is something about an empty room, empty except of memories, but containing nothing besides, no materialities, no certainties as to the future, which is intimidating to one who stops and thinks. Harry Edgham was not, generally speaking, of the sort who stop to think; but now he did. The look of youth faded from his face. Instead of the joy and triumph which had filled his heart and made it young again, came remembrance of the other woman, and something else, which resembled terror and dread. For the first time he deliberated whether he was about to do a wise thing: for the first time, the image of Ida Slome's smiling beauty, which was ever evident to his fancy, produced in him something like doubt and consternation. He looked about the room, and remembered the old pieces of furniture which had that day been carried away. He looked at the places where they had stood. Then he remembered his dead wife, as he had never remembered her before, with an anguish of loss. He said to himself that if he only had her back, even with her faded face and her ready tongue, that old, settled estate would be better for him than this joy, which at once dazzled and racked him. Suddenly the man, as he stood there, put his hands before his face; he was weeping like a child. That which Maria had done, instead of awakening wrath, had aroused a pity for himself and for her, which seemed too great to be borne. For the instant, the dead triumphed over the living.
Then Harry took up the lamp and went to his own room. He set the lamp on the dresser, and looked at his face, with the rays thrown upward upon it, very much as Maria had done the night of her mother's death. When he viewed himself in the looking-glass, he smiled involuntarily; the appearance of youth returned. He curled his mustache and moved his head this way and that. He thought about some new clothes which he was to have. He owned to himself, with perfect ingenuousness, that he was, in his way, as a man, as good-looking as Ida herself. Suddenly he remembered how Abby had looked when she was a young girl and he had married her; he had not compared himself so favorably with her. The image of his dead wife, as a young girl, was much fairer in his mind than that of Ida Slome.
“There's no use talking, Abby was handsomer than Ida when she was young,” he said to himself, as he began to undress. He went to sleep thinking of Abby as a young girl, but when once asleep he dreamed of Ida Slome.
Harry and Ida Slome were to be married the Monday before Thanksgiving. The school would close on the Friday before.
Ida Slome possessed, along with an entire self-satisfaction, a vein of pitiless sense, which enabled her to see herself as others might see her, and which saved her from the follies often incident to the self-satisfied. She considered herself a beauty; she thought, and with reason, that she would be well worth looking at in her wedding-clothes, but she also told herself that it was quite possible that some remarks might be made to her disparagement if she had the wedding to which her inclination prompted her. She longed for a white gown, veil, bridesmaids, and the rest, but she knew better. She knew that more could be made of her beauty and her triumph if she curtailed her wish. She realized that Harry's wife had been dead only a little more than a year, and that, although still a beauty, she was not a young girl, and she steered clear of criticism and ridicule.
The ceremony was performed in the Presbyterian church Monday afternoon. Ida wore a prune-colored costume, and a hat trimmed with pansies. She was quite right in thinking that she was adorable in it, and there was also in the color, with its shade of purple, a delicate intimation of the remembrance of mourning in the midst of joy. The church was filled with people, but there were no bridesmaids. Some of Ida's scholars acted as ushers. Wollaston Lee was among them. To Maria's utter astonishment, he did not seem to realize his trying position as a rejected suitor. He was attired in a new suit, and wore a white rosebud in his coat, and Maria glanced at him with mingled admiration and disdain.
Maria sat directly in front of the pulpit, with Mrs. Jonas White and Lillian. Mrs. White had a new gown of some thin black stuff, profusely ornamented with jet, and Lillian had a new pink silk gown, and wore a great bunch of roses. The situation, with regard to Maria, in connection with the wedding ceremony and the bridal trip, had been a very perplexing one. Harry had some western cousins, far removed, both by blood and distance. Aunt Maria and her brother were the only relatives on his former wife's side. Aunt Maria had received an invitation, both from Harry and the prospective bride, to be present at the wedding and remain in the house with Maria until the return of the bridal couple from their short trip. She had declined in a few stilted words, although Harry had sent a check to cover the expenses of her trip, which was returned in her letter.
“The fact is, I don't know what to do with Maria,” Harry said to Ida Slome, a week before the wedding. “Maria won't come, and neither will her brother's wife, and she can't be left alone, even with the new maid. We don't know the girl very well, and it won't do.”
Ida Slome solved the problem with her usual precision and promptness.
“Then,” said she, “she will have to board at Mrs. White's until we return. There is nothing else to do.”
It was therefore decided that Maria was to board at Mrs. White's, although it involved some things which were not altogether satisfactory to Ida. Maria could not sit all alone in a pew, and watch her father being married to his second wife, that was obvious; and, since Mrs. Jonas White was going to take charge of her, there was nothing else to do but to place herself and daughter in a position of honored intimacy. Mrs. Jonas White said quite openly that she was not in any need of taking boarders, that she had only taken Mr. Edgham and Maria to oblige, and that she now was to take poor little Maria out of pity. She, in reality, did pity Maria, for a good many reasons. She was a shrewd woman, and she gauged Miss Ida Slome pitilessly. However, she had to admit that she had shown some consideration in one respect. In the midst of her teaching, and preparations for her wedding, she had planned a lovely dress for Maria. It was unquestionable but the realization of her own loveliness, and her new attire had an alleviating influence upon Maria. There was a faint buzz of admiration for her when she entered the church. She looked as if enveloped in a soft gray cloud. Ida had planned a dress of some gray stuff, and a soft gray hat, tied under her chin with wide ribbons, and a long gray plume floating over her golden-fleece of hair. Maria had never owned such a gown, and, in addition, she had her first pair of kid-gloves of gray, to match the dress, and long, gray coat, trimmed with angora fur. She was charming in it, and, moreover, the gray, as her step-mother's purple, suggested delicately, if one so chose to understand a dim yet pleasing melancholy, a shade, as it were, of remembrance.
Maria had been dressed at home, under Mrs. White's supervision. Maria had viewed herself in the new long mirror in her mother's room, which was now resplendent with its new furnishings, and she admitted to herself that she was lovelier than she had ever been, and that she had Miss Ida Slome to thank for it.
“I will say one thing,” said Mrs. White, “she has looked out for you about your dress, and she has shown real good taste, too.”
Maria turned herself about before the glass, which reflected her whole beautiful little person, and she loved herself so much that for the first time it seemed to her that she almost loved Ida. She was blushing and smiling with pleasure.
Mrs. White sighed. “Well, maybe it is for the best,” said she. “One never knows about such things, how they will work out.”
Maria listened, with a degree of indignation and awe, to the service. She felt her heart swelling with grief at the sight of this other woman being made her father's wife and put in the place of her own mother, and yet, as a musical refrain is the haunting and ever-recurrent part of a composition, so was her own charming appearance. She felt so sure that people were observing her, that she blushed and dared not look around. She was, in reality, much observed, and both admired and pitied.
People, both privately and outspokenly, did not believe that the step-mother would be, in a way, good to the child by the former marriage. Ida Slome was not exactly a favorite in Edgham. People acquiesced in her beauty and brilliancy, but they did not entirely believe in her or love her. She stood before the pulpit with her same perfect, set smile, displaying to the utmost the sweet curves of her lips. Her cheeks retained their lovely brilliancy of color. Harry trembled, and his face looked pale and self-conscious, but Ida displayed no such weakness. She replied with the utmost self-poise to the congratulations which she received after the ceremony. There was an informal reception in the church vestry. Cake and ice-cream and coffee were served, and Ida and Harry and Maria stood together. Ida had her arm around Maria most of the time, but Maria felt as if it were an arm of wood which encircled her. She heard Ida Slome addressed as Mrs. Edgham, and she wanted to jerk herself away and run. She lost the consciousness of herself in her new attire.
Once Harry looked around at her, and received a shock. Maria's face looked to him exactly like her mother's, although the coloring was so different. Maria was a blonde, and her mother had been dark. There was something about the excitement hardly restrained in her little face, which made the man realize that the dead wife yet lived and reigned triumphant in her child. He himself was conscious that he conducted himself rather awkwardly and foolishly. A red spot burned on either cheek. He spoke jerkily, and it seemed to him that everything he said was silly, and that people might repeat it and laugh. He was relieved when it was all over and he and Ida were in the cab, driving to the station. When they were rolling rapidly through a lonely part of the road, he put his arm around his new wife, and kissed her. She received his kiss, and looked at him with her set smile and the set sparkle in her beautiful eyes. Again the feeling of almost terror which he had experienced the night when Maria had torn the paper off in her mother's room, came over him. However, he made an effort and threw it off.
“Poor little Maria looked charming, thanks to you, dearest,” he said, tenderly.
“Yes, I thought she did. That gray suit was just the thing for her, wasn't it? I never saw her look so pretty before,” returned Ida, and her tone was full of self-praise for her goodness to Maria.
“Well, she will be a great deal happier,” said Harry. “It was a lonesome life for a child to lead.”
Harry Edgham had not an atom of tact. Any woman might have judged from his remarks that she had been married on account of Maria; but Ida only responded with her never-changing smile.
“Yes,” said she, “I think myself that she will be much happier, dear.” Privately she rather did resent her husband's speech, but she never lost sight of the fact that a smile is more becoming than a frown.
Maria remained boarding at Mrs. Jonas White's until her father and his new wife returned. She did not have a very happy time. In the first place, the rather effusive pity with which she was treated by the female portion of the White family, irritated her. She began to consider that, now her father had married, his wife was a member of her family, and not to be decried. Maria had a great deal of pride when those belonging to her were concerned. One day she retorted pertly when some covert remark, not altogether to her new mother's laudation, had been made by Lillian.
“I think she is perfectly lovely,” said she, with a toss of her head.
Lillian and her mother looked at each other. Then Lillian, who was not her match for pertness, spoke.
“Have you made up your mind what to call her?” she asked. “Mummer, or mother?”
“I shall call her whatever I please,” replied Maria; “it is nobody's business.” Then she arose and went out of the room, with an absurd little strut.
“Lord a-massy!” observed Mrs. Jonas White, after she had gone.
“I guess Ida Slome will have her hands full with that young one,” observed Lillian.
“I guess she will, too,” assented her mother. “She was real sassy. Well, her mother had a temper of her own; guess she's got some of it.”
Mr. Jonas White and Henry were a great alleviation of Maria's desolate estate during her father's absence. Somehow, the men seemed to understand better than the women just how she felt: that she would rather be let alone, now it was all over, than condoled with and pitied. Mr. Henry White took one of the market horses, hitched him into a light buggy, and took Maria out riding two evenings, when the market was closed. It was a warm November, and the moon was full. Maria quite enjoyed her drive with Mr. Henry White, and he never said one word about her father's marriage, and her new mother—her pronoun of a mother—all the way. Mr. Henry White had too long a neck, and too large a mouth, which was, moreover, too firmly set, otherwise Maria felt that, with slight encouragement, she might fall in love with him, since he showed so much delicacy. She counted up the probable difference in their ages, and estimated it as no more than was between her father and Her. However, Mr. Henry White gave her so little encouragement, and his neck was so much too long above his collar, that she decided to put it out of her mind.
“Poor little thing,” Mr. Henry White said to his father, next day, “she's about wild, with mother and Lill harping on it all the time.”
“They mean well,” said Mr. White.
“Of course they do; but who's going to stand this eternal harping? If women folks would only stop being so durned kind, and let folks alone sometimes, they'd be a durned sight kinder.”
“That's so,” said Mr. Jonas White.
Maria's father and his bride reached home about seven on the Monday night after Thanksgiving. Maria re-entered her old home in the afternoon. Miss Zella Holmes, who was another teacher of hers, went with her. Ida had requested her to open the house. Ida's former boarding-house mistress had cooked a large turkey, and made some cakes and pies and bread. Miss Zella Holmes drove around for Maria in a livery carriage, and all these supplies were stowed in beside them. On the way they stopped at the station for the new maid, whose train was due then. She was a Hungarian girl, with a saturnine, almost savage visage. Maria felt an awe of her, both because she was to be their maid, and they had never kept one, and because of her personality.
When they reached home, Miss Zella Holmes, who was very lively and quick in her ways, though not at all pretty, gave orders to the maid in a way which astonished Maria. She was conscious of an astonishment at everything, which had not before possessed her. She looked at the kitchen, the dining-room, the sitting-room, the parlor, all the old apartments, and it was exactly as if she saw old friends with new heads. The sideboard in the dining-room glittered with the wedding silver and cut-glass. New pictures hung on the sitting-room and parlor walls, beside the new paper. Wedding gifts lay on the tables. There had been many wedding gifts. Miss Zella Holmes flew about the house, with the saturnine Hungarian in attendance. Maria, at Miss Holmes's bidding, began to lay the table. She got out some new table-linen, napkins, and table-cloth, which had been a wedding present. She set the table with some new china. She looked, with a numb feeling, at her mother's poor old blue-and-white dishes, which were put away on the top shelves.
“I think it would be a very good idea to pack away those dishes altogether, and put them in a box up in the garret,” said Miss Holmes. Then she noticed Maria's face. “They will come in handy for your wedding outfit, little girl,” she added, kindly and jocosely, but Maria did not laugh.
Every now and then Maria looked at the clock on the parlor shelf, that was also new. The old sitting-room clock had disappeared; Maria did not know where, but she missed the face of it as if it had been the face of a friend. Miss Holmes also glanced frequently at the new clock. There arose a fragrant odor of warming potatoes and gravy from the kitchen.
“It is almost time for them,” said Miss Holmes.
She was very much dressed-up, Maria thought. She wore a red silk gown with a good many frills about the shoulders. She was very slight, and affected frills to conceal it. Out of this mass of red frills arose her little, alert head and face, homely, but full of vivacity. Maria thought her very nice. She would have liked her better for a mother than Ida. When Miss Zella Holmes smiled it seemed to come from within.
At last a carriage came rapidly up to their door, and Miss Holmes sprang to open it. Maria remained in the dining-room. Suddenly an uncanny fancy had seized her and terrified her. Suppose her father should look different, like everything else? Suppose it should be to her as if he had a new head? She therefore remained in the dining-room, trembling. She heard her father's voice, loud and merry. “Where is Maria?” Still, Maria did not stir. Then her father came hurrying into the room, and behind him she who had been Ida Slome, radiant and triumphant, in her plum-colored array, with the same smile with which she had departed on her beautiful face. Harry caught Maria in his arms, rubbed his cold face against her soft little one, and kissed her.
“How is father's little girl?” he asked, with a break in his voice.
“Pretty well, thank you,” replied Maria. She gave a helpless little cling to her father, then she stood away.
“Speak to your new mother, darling,” said Harry.
“How do You do?” said Maria, obediently, and Ida said, “You darling,” and then kissed her exactly as if she had been an uncommonly well-constructed doll, with a clock-work system which fitted her to take such a part with perfect accuracy.
Harry watched his wife and daughter rather anxiously. He seized the first opportunity to ask Maria, aside, if she had been well, and if she had been happy and comfortable at Mrs. White's. Then he wound up with the rather wistful inquiry:
“You are going to love your new mother, aren't you, darling? Don't you think she is lovely?”
Ida had gone up-stairs with Miss Holmes, to remove her wraps.
“Yes, sir, I think She is lovely,” replied Maria.
Ida Edgham was, in some respects, a peculiar personality. She was as much stronger, in another way, than her husband, as her predecessor had been. She was that anomaly: a creature of supreme self-satisfaction, who is yet aware of its own limits. She was so unemotional as to be almost abnormal, but she had head enough to realize the fact that absolute unemotionlessness in a woman detracts from her charm. She therefore simulated emotion. She had a spiritual make-up, a panoply of paint and powder for the soul, as truly as any actress has her array of cosmetics for her face. She made no effort to really feel, she knew that was entirely useless, but she observed all the outward signs and semblance of feeling more or less successfully. She knew that to take up her position in Harry Edgham's house like a marble bust of Diana, which had been one of her wedding-presents, would not be to her credit. She therefore put herself to the pace which she would naturally be expected to assume in her position. She showed everybody who called her new possessions, with a semblance of delight which was quite perfect. She was, in reality, less deceptive in that respect than in others. She had a degree of the joy of possession, or she would not have been a woman at all, and, in fact, would not have married. She had wanted a home and a husband; not as some women want them, for the legitimate desire for love and protection, but because she felt a degree of mortification on account of her single estate. She had had many admirers, but, although no one ever knew it, not one offer of marriage, the acceptance of which would not have been an absurdity, before poor Harry Edgham. She was not quite contented to accept him. She had hoped for something better; but he was good-looking, and popular, and his social standing, in her small world, was good. He was an electrical engineer, with an office in the city, and had a tolerably good income, although his first wife's New England thrift had compelled him to live parsimoniously.
Ida made up her mind from the first that thrift, after the plan of the first woman, should not be observed in her household. Without hinting to that effect, or without Harry's recognizing it, she so managed that within a few weeks after her marriage he put an insurance on his life, which would insure her comfort in case she outlived him. He owned his house, and she had herself her little savings, well invested. She then considered that they could live up to Harry's income without much risk, and she proceeded to do so. It was not long before the saturnine Hungarian, who could have provided a regiment of her own countrymen with the coarse food of her race, but seemed absolutely incapable of carrying out American ideas of good cookery, was dismissed, and a good cook, at a price which at first staggered Harry, installed in her place. Then a young girl was found to take care of the bedrooms, and wait on table, attired in white gowns and aprons and caps.
Ida had a reception two weeks after her return from her bridal trip, and an elaborate menu was provided by a caterer from New York. Maria, in a new white gown, with a white bow on her hair, sat at one end of the dining-table, shining with cut-glass and softly lighted with wax-candles under rose-colored shades in silver candlesticks, and poured chocolate, while another young girl opposite dipped lemonade from a great cut-glass punch-bowl, which had been one of the wedding-presents. The table was strewn with pink-and-white carnations. Maria caught a glimpse now and then of her new mother, in a rose-colored gown, with a bunch of pink roses on her breast, standing with her father receiving their guests, and she could scarcely believe that she was awake and it was really happening. She began to take a certain pleasure in the excitement. She heard one woman say to another how pretty she was, “poor little thing,” and her heart throbbed with satisfaction. She felt at once beautiful and appealing to other people, because of her misfortunes. She turned the chocolate carefully, and put some whipped-cream on top of each dainty cup; and, for the first time since her father's marriage, she was not consciously unhappy. She glanced across the table at the other little girl, Amy Long, who was dark, and wore a pink bow on her hair, and she was sure that she herself was much prettier. Then, too, Amy had not the sad distinction of having lost her mother, and having a step-mother thrust upon her in a year's time. It is true that once when Amy's mother, large and portly in a blue satin which gave out pale white lights on the curves of her great arms and back, and whose roseate face looked forth from a fichu of real lace pinned with a great pearl brooch, came up behind her little daughter and straightened the pink bow on her hair, Maria felt a cruel little pang. There was something about the look of loving admiration which Mrs. Long gave her daughter that stung Maria's heart with a sense of loss. She felt that if her new mother should straighten out her white bow and regard her with admiration, it would be because of her own self, and the credit which she, Maria, reflected upon her. Still, she reflected how charming she looked. Self-love is much better than nothing for a lonely soul.
That night Maria realized that she was in the second place, so far as her father was concerned. Ida, in her rose-colored robes, dispensing hospitality in his home, took up his whole attention. She was really radiant. She sang and played twice for the company, and her perfectly true high soprano filled the whole house. To Maria it sounded as meaningless as the trill of a canary-bird. In fact, when it came to music, Ida, although she had a good voice, had the mortification of realizing that her simulation of emotion failed her. Harry did not like his wife's singing. He felt like a traitor, but he could not help realizing that he did not like it. But the moment Ida stopped singing, he looked at her, and fairly wondered that he had married such a beautiful creature. He felt humble before her. Humility was not a salutary condition of mind for him, but this woman inspired it now, and would still more in the future. In spite of his first wife's scolding, her quick temper, he had always felt himself as good as she was. The mere fact of the temper itself had served to give him a sense of equality and, perhaps, superiority, but this woman never showed temper. She never failed to respond with her stereotyped smile to everything that was said. She seemed to have no faults at all, to realize none in herself, and not to admit the possibility of any one else doing so.
Harry felt himself distinctly in the wrong beside such unquestionable right. He even did not think himself so good-looking as he had formerly done. It seemed to him that he looked much older than Ida. When they went out together he felt like a lackey in attendance on an empress. In his own home, it came to pass that he seldom made a remark when guests were present without a covert glance at his wife to see what she thought of it. He could always tell what she thought, even if her face did not change and she made no comment neither then nor afterwards, and she always made him know, in some subtle fashion, when he had said anything wrong.
Maria felt very much in the same way at first, but she fought involuntarily against it. She had a good deal of her mother in her. Finally, she never looked at Ida when she said anything. She was full of rebellion although she was quiet and obedient, and very unobtrusive, in the new state of things.
Ida entertained every Tuesday evening. There was not a caterer as at the first reception, but Ida herself cooked dainty messes in a silver chafing-dish, and Maria and the white-capped little maid passed things. It was not especially expensive, but people in Edgham began to talk. They said Harry was living beyond his means; but Ida kept within his income. She had too good a head for reckless extravagance, although she loved admiration and show. When there were no guests in the house, Maria used to go to her own room early of an evening, and read until it was time to go to bed. She realized that her father and Ida found her somewhat superfluous, although Ida never made any especial effort to entertain her father that Maria could see. She was fond of fancy-work, and was embroidering a silk gown for herself. She embroidered while Harry read the paper. She did not talk much. Maria used to wonder that her father did not find it dull when he and She were alone together of an evening. She looked at him reading his paper, with frequent glances of admiration over it at his beautiful wife, and thought that in his place, she should much prefer a woman like her mother, who had kept things lively, even without company, and even in a somewhat questionable fashion. However, Harry and Ida themselves went out a good deal. People in Edgham aped city society, they even talked about the “four hundred.” The newly wedded pair were frequent guests of honor at dinners and receptions, and Ida herself was a member of the Edgham's Woman's Club, and that took her out a good deal. Maria was rather lonely. Finally the added state and luxury of her life, which had at first pleased her, failed to do so. She felt that she hated all the new order of things, and her heart yearned for the old. She began to grow thin; she did not sleep much nor sleep well. She felt tired all the time. One day her father noticed her changed looks.
“Why, Maria is getting thin!” said he.
“I think it is because she is growing tall,” said Ida. “Everybody seems thin when they are growing tall. I did myself. I was much thinner than Maria at her age.” She looked at Maria with her invariable smile as she spoke.
“She looks very thin to me,” Harry said, anxiously.
He himself looked thin and older. An anxious wrinkle had deepened between his eyes. It was June, and the days were getting warm. He was anxious about Ida's health also. Ida was not at all anxious. She was perfectly placid. It did not seem to her that an overruling Providence could possibly treat her unkindly. She was rather annoyed at times, but still never anxious, and utterly satisfied with herself to that extent that it precluded any doubt as to the final outcome of everything.
Maria continued to lose flesh. A sentimental interest in herself and her delicacy possessed her. She used to look at her face, which seemed to her more charming than ever, although so thin, in the glass, and reflect, with a pleasant acquiescence, on an early death. She even spent some time in composing her own epitaph, and kept it carefully hidden away in a drawer of her dresser, under some linen.
Maria felt a gloomy pride when the doctor, who came frequently to see Ida, was asked to look at her; she felt still more triumphant when he expressed it as his opinion that she ought to have a change of air the moment school closed. The doctor said Maria was running down, which seemed to her a very interesting state of things, and one which ought to impress people. She told Gladys Mann the next day at school.
“The doctor says I'm running down,” said she.
“You do look awful bad,” replied Gladys.
After recess Maria saw Gladys with her face down on her desk, weeping. She knew that she was weeping because she looked so badly and was running down. She glanced across at Wollaston Lee, and wondered if he had noticed how badly she looked, and yet how charming. All at once the boy shot a glance at her in return; then he blushed and scowled and took up his book. It all comforted Maria in the midst of her langour and her illness, which was negative and unattended by any pain. If she felt any appetite she restrained it, she became so vain of having lost it.
It was decided that Maria should go and visit her aunt Maria, in New England, and remain there all summer. Her father would pay her board in order that she should not be any restraint on her aunt, with her scant income. Just before Maria went, and just before her school closed, the broad gossip of the school came to her ears. She ascertained something which filled her at once with awe, and shame, and jealousy, and indignation. If one of the girls began to speak to her about it, she turned angrily away. She fairly pushed Gladys Mann one day. Gladys turned and looked at her with loving reproach, like a chidden dog. “What did you expect?” said she. Maria ran away, her face burning.
After she reached her aunt Maria's nothing was said to her about it. Aunt Maria was too prudish and too indignant. Uncle Henry's wife, Aunt Eunice, was away all summer, taking care of a sister who was ill with consumption in New Hampshire; so Aunt Maria kept the whole house, and she and Maria and Uncle Henry had their meals together. Maria loved her uncle Henry. He was a patient man, with a patience which at times turns to fierceness, of a man with a brain above his sphere, who has had to stand and toil in a shoe-factory for his bread and butter all his life. He was non-complainant because of a sort of stern pride, and a sense of a just cause against Providence, but he was very kind to Maria; he petted her as if she had been his own child. Every pleasant night Uncle Henry took Maria for a trolley-ride, or a walk, and he treated her to ice-cream soda and candy. Aunt Maria also took good care of the child. She showed a sort of vicious curiosity with regard to Maria's step-mother and all the new household arrangements, which Maria did not gratify. She had too much loyalty, although she longed to say all that she thought to her aunt, being sure of a violent sympathizer.
“Well, I'll say one thing, she has fixed your clothes nice,” said Aunt Maria.
“She didn't do it, it was Miss Barnes,” replied Maria. She could not help saying that much. She did not want Aunt Maria to think her step-mother took better care of her wardrobe than her own mother had done.
“Good land! She didn't hire all these things made?” said Aunt Maria.
“Good land! I don't see how your father is going to stand it. I'd like to know what your poor mother would have said?” said Aunt Maria.
Then Maria's loyalty came to the front. After all, she was her father's wife, and to be defended.
“I guess maybe father is making more money now,” said she.
“Well, I hope to the land he is,” said Aunt Maria. “I guess if She (Aunt Maria also treated Ida like a pronoun) had just one hundred dollars and no more to get along with, she'd have to do different.”
Maria regained her strength rapidly. When she went home, a few days before her school begun, in September, she was quite rosy and blooming. She had also fallen in love with a boy who lived next to Aunt Maria, and who asked her, over the garden fence, to correspond with him, the week before she left.
It was that very night that Aunt Maria had the telegram. She paid the boy, then she opened it with trembling fingers. Her brother Henry and Maria were with her on the porch. It was a warm night, and Aunt Maria wore an ancient muslin. The south wind fluttered the ruffles on that and the yellow telegram as she read. She was silent a moment, with mouth compressed.
“Well,” said her brother Henry, inquiringly.
Aunt Maria's face flushed and paled. She turned to Maria.
“Well,” she said, “you've got a little sister.”
“Good!” said Uncle Henry. “Ever so much more company for you than a little brother would have been, Maria.”
Maria was silent. She trembled and felt cold, although the night was so warm.
“Weighs seven pounds,” said Aunt Maria, in a hard voice.
Maria returned home a week from that day. She travelled alone from Boston, and her father met her in New York. He looked strange to her. He was jubilant, and yet the marks of anxiety were deep. He seemed very glad to see Maria, and talked to her about her little sister in an odd, hesitating way.
“Her name is Evelyn,” said Harry.
Maria said nothing. She and her father were crossing the city to the ferry in a cab.
“Don't you think that is a pretty name, dear?” asked Harry, with a queer, apologetic wistfulness.
“No, father, I think it is a very silly name,” replied Maria.
“Why, your mother and I thought it a very pretty name, dear.”
“I always thought it was the silliest name in the world,” said Maria, firmly. However, she sat close to her father, and realized that it was something to have him to herself without Her, while crossing the city. “I don't know as I think Evelyn is such a very silly name, father,” she said, presently, just before they reached the ferry.
Harry bent down and kissed her. “Father's own little girl,” he said.
Maria felt that she had been magnanimous, for she had in reality never liked Evelyn, and would not have named a doll that.
“You will be a great deal happier with a little sister. It will turn out for the best,” said Harry, as the cab stopped. Harry always put a colon of optimism to all his happenings of life.
The next morning, when Ida was arrayed in a silk negligée, and the baby was washed and dressed, Maria was bidden to enter the room which had been her mother's. The first thing which she noticed was a faint perfume of violet-scented toilet-powder. Then she saw Ida leaning back gracefully in a reclining-chair, with her hair carefully dressed. The nurse held the baby: a squirming little bundle of soft, embroidered flannel. The nurse was French, and she awed Maria, for she spoke no English, and nobody except Ida could understand her. She was elderly, small, and of a damaged blond type. Maria approached Ida and kissed her. Ida looked at her, smiling. Then she asked if she had had a pleasant summer. She told the nurse, in French, to show the baby to her. Maria approached the nurse timidly. The flannel was carefully laid aside, and the small, piteously inquiring and puzzled face, the inquiry and the bewilderment expressed by a thousand wrinkles, was exposed. Maria looked at it with a sort of shiver. The nurse laid the flannel apart and disclosed the tiny feet seeming already to kick feebly at existence. The nurse said something in French which Maria could not understand. Ida answered also in French. Then the baby seemed to experience a convulsion; its whole face seemed to open into one gape of expostulation at fate. Then its feeble, futile wail filled the whole room.
“Isn't she a little darling?” asked Ida, of Maria.
“Yes'm,” replied Maria.
There was a curious air of aloofness about Ida with regard to her baby, and something which gave the impression of wistfulness. It is possible that she was capable of wishing that she had not that aloofness. It did not in the least seem to Maria as if it were Ida's baby. She had a vague impression, derived she could not tell in what manner, of a rosebud laid on a gatepost. Ida did not seem conscious of her baby with the woodeny consciousness of an apple-tree of a blossom. When she gazed at it, it was with the same set smile with which she had always viewed all creation. That smile which came from without, not within, but now it was fairly tragic.
“Her name is Evelyn. Don't you think it is a pretty name?” asked Ida.
“Yes'm,” replied Maria. She edged towards the door. The nurse, tossing the wailing baby, rose and got a bottle of milk. Maria went out.
Maria went to school the next Monday, and all the girls asked her if the baby was pretty.
“It looks like all the babies I ever saw,” replied Maria guardedly. She did not wish to descry the baby which was, after all, her sister, but she privately thought it was a terrible sight.
Gladys Mann supported her. “Babies do all look alike,” said she. “We've had nine to our house, and I had ought to know.”
At first Maria used to dread to go home from school, on account of the baby. She had a feeling of repulsion because of it, but gradually that feeling disappeared and an odd sort of fascination possessed her instead. She thought a great deal about the baby. When she heard it cry in the night, she thought that her father and Ida might have sense enough to stop it. She thought that she could stop its crying herself, by carrying it very gently around the room. Still she did not love the baby. It only appealed, in a general way, to her instincts. But one day, when the baby was some six weeks old, and Ida had gone to New York, she came home from school, and she went up to her own room, and she heard the baby crying in the room opposite. It cried and cried, with the insistent cry of a neglected child. Maria said to herself that she did not believe but the French nurse had taken advantage of Her absence, and had slipped out on some errand and left the baby alone.
The baby continued to wail, and a note of despair crept into the wail. Maria could endure it no longer. She ran across the hall and flung open the door. The baby lay crying in a little pink-lined basket. Maria bent over it, and the baby at once stopped crying. She opened her mouth in a toothless smile, and she held up little, waving pink hands to Maria. Maria lifted the baby out of her basket and pressed her softly, with infinite care, as one does something very precious, to her childish bosom, and at once something strange seemed to happen to her. She became, as it were, illuminated by love.
Maria had fallen in love with the baby, and her first impulse, as in the case of all true love, was secrecy. Why she should have been ashamed of her affection, her passion, for it was, in fact, passion, her first, she could not have told. It was the sublimated infatuation half compounded of dreams, half of instinct, which a little girl usually has for her doll. But Maria had never had any particular love for a doll. She had possessed dolls, of course, but she had never been quite able to rise above the obvious sham of them, the cloth and the sawdust and the paint. She had wondered how some little girls whom she had known had loved to sleep with their dolls; as for her, she would as soon have thought of taking pleasure in dozing off with any little roll of linen clasped in her arms. It was rather singular, for she had a vivid imagination, but it had balked at a doll. When, as sometimes happened, she saw a little girl of her own age, wheeling with solemnity a doll in a go-cart, she viewed her with amazement and contempt, and thought privately that she was not altogether bright. But this baby was different. It did not have to be laid on its back to make its eyes close, it did not have to be shaken and squeezed to make it vociferous. It was alive, and Maria, who was unusually alive in her emotional nature, was keenly aware of that effect. This little, tender, rosy thing was not stuffed with sawdust, it was stuffed with soul and love. It could smile; the smile was not painted on its face in a doll-factory. Maria was so thankful that this baby, Ida's baby, did not have Her smile, unchanging and permanent for all observers and all vicissitudes. When this baby smiled it smiled, and when it cried it cried. It was honest from the crown of its fuzzy head to the soles of its little pink worsted socks.
At the first reception which Ida gave after the baby came, and when it was on exhibition in a hand-embroidered robe, it screamed every minute. Maria was secretly glad, and proud of it. It meant much to her that her baby should not smile at all the company, whether it was smiling in its heart or not, the way She did. Maria had no room in her heart for any other love, except that for her father and the baby. She looked at Wollaston Lee, and wondered how she could ever have had dreams about him, how she could ever have preferred a boy to a baby like her little sister, even in her dreams. She ceased haunting the post-office for a letter from that other boy in New England, who had asked her to correspond over the garden fence, and who had either never written at all, or had misdirected his letter. She wondered how she had thought for a moment of doing such a thing as writing to a boy like that. She remembered with disgust how overgrown that boy was, and how his stockings were darned at the knees; and how she had seen patches of new cloth on his trousers, and had heard her aunt Maria say that he was so hard on his clothes on account of his passion for bird-nesting, that it was all his mother could do to keep him always decent. How could she have thought for a moment of a bird-nesting sort of boy? She was so thankful that the baby was a girl. Maria, as sometimes happens, had a rather inverted system of growth. With most, dolls come first, then boys; with her, dolls had not come at all. Boys came first, then her little baby sister, which was to her in the place of a doll, and the boys got promptly relegated to the background.
Much to Maria's delight, the French nurse, whom she at once disliked and stood in awe of, only remained until the baby was about two months old, then a little nurse-girl was engaged. On pleasant days the nurse-girl, whose name was Josephine, wheeled out the baby in her little carriage, which was the daintiest thing of the kind to be found, furnished with a white lace canopy lined with rose-colored silk. It was on these occasions that Maria showed duplicity. On Saturdays, when there was no school, she privately and secretly bribed Josephine, who was herself under the spell of the baby, to go home and visit her mother, and let her have the privilege of wheeling it herself. Maria had a small sum every week for her pocket-money, and a large part of it went to Josephine in the shape of chocolates, of which she was inordinately fond; in fact, Josephine, who came of the poor whites, like Gladys Mann, might have been said to be a chocolate maniac. Maria used to arrange with Josephine to meet her on a certain corner on Saturdays, and there the transfer was made: Josephine became the possessor of half a pound of chocolates, and Maria of the baby. Josephine had sworn almost a solemn oath to never tell. She at once repaired to her mother's, sucking chocolates on the way, and Maria blissfully wheeled the baby. She stood in very little danger of meeting Her on these occasions, because the Edgham Woman's Club met on Saturday afternoon. It often happened, however, that Maria met some of the school-girls, and then nothing could have exceeded her pride and triumph. Some of them had little brothers or sisters, but none of them such a little sister as hers.
The baby had, in reality, grown to be a beauty among babies. All the inflamed red and aged puckers and creases had disappeared; instead of that was the sweetest flush, like that of just-opened rosebuds. Evelyn was a compact little baby, fat, but not overlapping and grossly fat. It was such a matter of pride to Maria that the baby's cheeks did not hang the least bit in the world, but had only lovely little curves and dimples. She had become quite a connoisseur in babies. When she saw a baby whose flabby cheeks hung down and touched its bib, she was disgusted. She felt as if there was something morally wrong with such a baby as that. Her baby was wrapped in the softest white things: furs, and silk-lined embroidered cashmeres, and her little face just peeped out from the lace frill of a charming cap. There was only one touch of color in all this whiteness, beside the tender rose of the baby's face, and that was a little knot of pale pink baby-ribbon on the cap. Maria often stopped to make sure that the cap was on straight, and she also stopped very often to tuck in the white fur rug, and she also stopped often to thrust her own lovely little girl-face into the sweet confusion of baby and lace and embroidery and fur, with soft kisses and little, caressing murmurs of love. She made up little love phrases, which she would have been inexpressibly ashamed to have had overheard. “Little honey love” was one of them—“Sister's own little honey love.” Once, when walking on Elm Street under the leafless arches of the elms, where she thought she was quite alone, although it was a very bright, warm afternoon, and quite dry—it was not a snowy winter—she spoke more loudly than she intended, and looked up to see another, bigger girl, the daughter of the Edgham lawyer, whose name was Annie Stone. Annie Stone was large of her age—so large, in fact, that she had a nickname of “Fatty” in school. It had possibly soured her, or her over-plumpness may have been due to some physical ailment which rendered her irritable. At all events, Annie Stone had not that sweetness and placidity of temperament popularly supposed to be coincident with stoutness. She had a bitter and sarcastic tongue for a young girl. Maria inwardly shuddered when she saw Annie Stone's fat, malicious face surveying her from under her fur-trimmed hat. Annie Stone was always very well dressed, but even that did not seem to improve her mental attitude. Her large, high-colored face was also distinctly pretty, but she did not seemed to be cognizant of that to the result of any satisfaction.
“Sister's little honey love!” she repeated after Maria, with fairly a snarl of satire.
Maria had spirit, although she was for the moment dismayed.
“Well, she is—so there,” said she.
“You wait till you have a few more little honey loves,” said Annie Stone, “and see how you feel.”
With that Annie Stone went her way, with soft flounces of her short, stout body, and Maria was left. She was still defiant; her blood was up. “Sister's little honey love,” she said to the baby, in a tone so loud that Annie Stone must have heard. “Were folks that didn't have anything but naughty little brothers jealous of her?” Annie Stone had, in fact, a notorious little brother, who at the early age of seven was the terror of his sisters and all law-abiding citizens; but Annie Stone was not easily touched.
“Sister's little honey love,” she shouted back, turning a malignant face over her shoulder. She had that very morning had a hand-to-hand fight with her naughty little brother, and finally come out victorious, by forcing him to the ground and sitting on him until he said he was sorry. It was not very reasonable that she should be at all sensitive with regard to him.
After Annie Stone had gone out of sight, Maria went around to the front of the little carriage, adjusted the white fur rug carefully, secured a tiny, white mitten on one of the baby's hands, and whispered to the baby alone. “You are sister's little honey love, aren't you, precious?” and the baby smiled that entrancing smile of honesty and innocence which sent the dimples spreading to the lace frill of her cap, and reached out her arms, thereby displacing both mittens, which Maria adjusted; then, after a fervent kiss, she went her way.
However, she was not that afternoon to proceed on her way long uninterrupted. For some time Josephine, the nurse-girl, had either been growing jealous, or chocolates were palling upon her. Josephine had also found her own home locked up, and the key nowhere in evidence. There would be a good half-hour to wait at the usual corner for Maria. The wind had changed, and blew cold from the northwest. Josephine was not very warmly clad. She wore her white gown and apron, which Mrs. Edgham insisted upon, and which she resented. She had that day felt a stronger sense of injury with regard to it, and counted upon telling her mother how mean and set up she thought it was for any lady as called herself a lady to make a girl wear a summer white dress in winter. She shivered on her corner of waiting. Josephine got more and more wroth. Finally she decided to start in search of Maria and the baby. She gave her white skirts an angry switch and started. It was not very long after she had turned her second corner before she saw Maria and the baby ahead of her. Josephine then ran. She was a stout girl, and she plunged ahead heavily until she came up with Maria. The first thing Maria knew, Josephine had grabbed the handle of the carriage—two red girl hands appeared beside her own small, gloved ones.
“Here, gimme this baby to once,” gabbled Josephine in the thick speech of her kind.
Maria looked at her. “The time isn't up, and you know it isn't, Josephine,” said she. “I just passed by a clock in Melvin & Adams's jewelry store, and it isn't time for me to be on the corner.”
“Gimme the baby,” demanded Josephine. She attempted to pull the carriage away from Maria, but Maria, although her strength was inferior, had spirit enough to cope with any poor white. Her little fingers clutched like iron. “I shall not give her up until four o'clock,” said she. “Go back to the corner.”
Josephine's only answer was a tug which dislodged Maria's fingers and hurt her. But Maria came of the stock which believed in trusting the Lord and keeping the powder dry. She was not yet conquered. The right was clearly on her side. She and Josephine had planned to meet at the corner at four o'clock, and it was not quite half-past three, and she had given Josephine half a pound of chocolates. She did not stop to reflect a moment. Maria's impulses were quick, and lack of decision in emergencies was not a failing of hers. She made one dart to the rear of Josephine. Josephine wore her hair in a braided loop, tied with a bow of black ribbon. Maria seized upon this loop of brown braids, and hung. She was enough shorter than Josephine to render it effectual. Josephine's head was bent backward and she was helpless, unless she let go of the baby-carriage. Josephine, however, had good lungs, and she screamed, as she was pulled backward, still holding to the little carriage, which was also somewhat tilted by the whole performance.
“Lemme be, you horrid little thing!” she screamed, “or I'll tell your ma.”
“She isn't my mother,” said Maria in return. “Let go of my baby.”
“She is your ma. Your father married her, and she's your ma, and you can't help yourself. Lemme go, or I'll tell on you.”
“Tell, if you want to,” said Maria, firmly, actually swinging with her whole weight from Josephine's loop of braids. “Let go my baby.”
Josephine screamed again, with her head bent backward, and the baby-carriage tilted perilously. Then a woman, who had been watching from a window near by, rushed upon the scene. She was Gladys Mann's mother. Just as she appeared the baby began to cry, and that accelerated her speed. The windows of her house became filled with staring childish faces. The woman, who was very small and lean but wiry, a bundle of muscles and nerve, ran up to the baby-carriage, and pulled it back to its proper status, and began at once quieting the frightened baby and scolding the girls.
“Hush, hush,” cooed she to the baby. “Did it think it was goin' to get hurted?” Then to the girls: “Ain't you ashamed of yourselves, two great girls fightin' right in the street, and most tippin' the baby over. S'posin' you had killed him?”
Then Josephine burst forth in a great wail of wrath and pain. The bringing down of the carriage had increased her agony, for Maria still clung to her hair.
“Oh, oh, oh!” howled Josephine, her head straining back. “She's most killin' me.”
“An' I'll warrant you deserve it,” said the woman. Then she added to Maria—she was entirely impartial in her scolding—“Let go of her, ain't you shamed.” Then to the baby, “Did he think he was goin' to get hurted?”
“He's a girl!” cried Maria in a frenzy of indignation. “He is not a boy, he is a girl.” She still clung desperately to Josephine's hair, who in her turn clung to the baby-carriage.
Then Gladys came out of the house, in a miserable, thin, dirty gown, and she was Maria's ally.
“Let that baby go!” she cried to Josephine. She tugged fiercely at Josephine's white skirt.
“Gladys Mann, you go right straight into the house. What be you buttin' in for!” screamed her mother. “You let that girl's hair alone. Josephine, what you been up to. You might have killed this baby.”
The baby screamed louder. It wriggled around in its little, white fur nest, and stretched out imploring pink paws from which the mittens had fallen off. Its little lace hood was awry, the pink rosette was cocked over one ear. Maria herself began to cry. Then Gladys waxed fairly fierce. She paid no attention whatever to her mother.
“You jest go round an' ketch on to the kid's wagin,” said she, “an' I'll take care of her.” With that her strong little hands made a vicious clutch at Josephine's braids.
Maria sprang for the baby-carriage. She straightened the lace hood, she tucked in the fur robe, and put on the mittens. The baby's screams subsided into a grieved whimper. “Did great wicked girls come and plague sister's own little precious?” said Maria. But now she had to reckon with Gladys's mother, who had recovered her equilibrium, lost for a second by her daughter's manœuvre. She seized in her turn the handle of the baby-carriage, and gave Maria a strong push aside. Then she looked at all three combatants, like a poor-white Solomon.
“Who were sent out with him in the first place, that's what I want to know?” she said.
“I were,” replied Josephine in a sobbing shout. Her head was aching as if she had been scalped.
“Shet up!” said Gladys's mother inconsistently.
“Did your ma send her out with him?” she queried of her.
“He is not a boy,” replied Maria shiftily.
“Yes, she did,” said Josephine, still rubbing her head.
Gladys, through a wholesome fear of her mother, had released her hold on her braids, and stood a little behind.
Mrs. Mann's scanty rough hair blew in the winter wind as she took hold of the carriage. Maria again tucked in the white fur robe to conceal her discomfiture. She was becoming aware that she was being proved in the wrong.
“Shet up!” said Mrs. Mann in response to Josephine's answer. There was not the slightest sense nor meaning in the remark, but it was, so to speak, her household note, learned through the exigency of being in the constant society of so many noisy children. She told everybody, on general principles, to “shet up,” even when she wished for information which necessitated the reverse.
Mrs. Mann was thin and meagre, and wholly untidy. The wind lashed her dirty cotton skirt around her, disclosing a dirtier petticoat and men's shoes. The skin of her worn, blond face had a look as if the soil of life had fairly been rubbed into it. All the lines of this face were lax, displaying utter lassitude and no energy. She, however, had her evanescent streaks of life, as now. Once in a while a bubble of ancestral blood seemed to come to the surface, although it soon burst. She had come, generations back, of a good family. She was the run out weed of it, but still, at times, the old colors of the blossom were evident. She turned to Maria.
“If,” said she, “your ma sent her out with this young one, I don't see why you went to pullin' her hair fur?”
“I gave her a whole half-pound of chocolates,” returned Maria, in a fine glow of indignation, “if she would let me push the baby till four o'clock, and it isn't four o'clock yet.”
“It ain't more than half-past three,” said Gladys.
“Shet up!” said her mother. She stood looking rather helplessly at the three little girls and the situation. Her suddenly wakened mental faculties were running down like those of a watch which has been shaken to make it go for a few seconds. The situation was too much for her, and, according to her wont, she let it drop. Just then a whiff of strong sweetness came from the house, and her blank face lighted up.
“We are makin' 'lasses candy,” said she. “You young ones all come in and hev' some, and I'll take the baby. He can get warm, and a little of thet candy won't do him no harm, nuther.” Mrs. Mann used the masculine pronoun from force of habit; all her children with the exception of Gladys were boys.
Maria hesitated. She had a certain scorn for the Manns. She eyed Mrs. Mann's dirty attire and face. But she was in fact cold, and the smell of the candy was entrancing. “She said never to take the baby in anywhere,” said she, doubtfully.
Josephine having tired of chocolate, realized suddenly an enormous hunger for molasses candy. She sniffed like a hunting hound. “She didn't say not to go into Mrs. Mann's,” said she.
“She said anywhere; I heard her tell you,” said Maria.
“Mrs. Mann's ain't anywhere,” said Josephine, who had a will of her own. She rushed around and caught up the baby. “She's most froze,” said she. “She'll get the croup if she don't get warmed up.”
With that, Josephine carrying the baby, Maria, Gladys, and Mrs. Mann all entered the little, squalid Mann house, as hot as a conservatory and reeking with the smell of boiled molasses.
When Josephine and Maria and the baby started out again, Maria turned to Josephine.
“Now,” said she, “if you don't let me push her as far as the corner of our street, I'll tell how you took her into Mrs. Mann's. You know what She'll say.”
Josephine, whose face was smeared with molasses candy, and who was even then sucking some, relinquished her hold on the carriage. “You'll be awful mean if you do tell,” said she.
“I will tell if you don't do what you say you'll do another time,” said she.
When they reached home, Ida had not returned, but she came in radiant some few minutes later. She had read a paper on a famous man, for the pleasure and profit of the Edgham Woman's Club, and she had received much applause and felt correspondingly elated. Josephine had taken the baby up-stairs to a little room which had recently been fitted up for a nursery, and, not following her usual custom, Ida went in there after removing her outer wraps. She stood in her blue cloth dress looking at the child with her usual air of radiant aloofness, seeming to shed her own glory, like a star, upon the baby, rather than receive its little light into the loving recesses of her own soul. Josephine and also Maria were in a state of consternation. They had discovered a large, sticky splash of molasses candy on the baby's white embroidered cloak. They had washed the baby's sticky little face, but they did not know what was to be done about the cloak, which lay over a chair. Josephine essayed, with a dexterous gesture, to so fold the cloak over that the stain would be for the time concealed. But Ida Edgham had not been a school-teacher for nothing. She saw the gesture, and immediately took up the cloak herself.
“Why, what is this on her cloak?” said she.
There was a miserable silence.
“It looks like molasses candy. It is molasses candy,” said Ida. “Josephine, did you give this child molasses candy?” Ida's voice was entirely even, but there was something terrible about it.
Maria saw Josephine turn white. “She wouldn't have given her the candy if it hadn't been for me,” said she.
Ida stood looking from one to the other. Josephine's face was white and scared, Maria's impenetrable.
“If you ever give this child candy again, either of you,” said Ida, “you will never take her out again.” Then she went out, still smiling.
Josephine looked at Maria with enormous gratitude.
“Say,” said she, “you're a dandy.”
“You're a cheat!” returned Maria, with scorn.
“I'm awful sorry I didn't wait on the corner till four o'clock, honest.”
“You'd better be.”
“Say, but you be a dandy,” repeated Josephine.
Maria began to be conscious of other and more vital seasons than those of the old earth on which she lived—the seasons of the human soul. Along with her own unconscious and involuntary budding towards bloom, the warm rush of the blood in her own veins, she realized the budding progress of the baby. When little Evelyn was put into short frocks, and her little, dancing feet were shod with leather instead of wool, Maria felt a sort of delicious wonder, similar to that with which she watched a lilac-bush in the yard when its blossoms deepened in the spring.
The day when Evelyn was put into short frocks, Maria glanced across the school-room at Wollaston Lee, and her innocent passion, half romance, half imagination, which had been for a time in abeyance, again thrilled her. All her pulses throbbed. She tried to work out a simple problem in her algebra, but mightier unknown quantities were working towards solution in every beat of her heart. Wollaston shot a sidelong glance at her, and she felt it, although she did not see it. Gladys Mann leaned over her shoulder.
“Say,” she whispered, “Wollaston Lee is jest starin' at you!”
Maria gave a little, impatient shrug of her shoulders, although a blush shot over her whole face, and Gladys saw distinctly the back of her neck turn a roseate color.
“He's awful stuck on you, I guess,” Gladys said.
Maria shrugged her shoulders again, but she thought of Wollaston and then of the baby in her short frock and she felt that her heart was bursting with joy, as a bud with blossom.
Ida, meantime, was curiously impassive towards her child's attainments. There was something pathetic about this impassiveness. Ida was missing a great deal, and more because she did not even know what she missed. However, she began to be conscious of a settled aversion towards Maria. Her manner towards her was unchanged, but she became distinctly irritated at seeing her about. When anything annoyed Ida, she immediately entertained no doubt whatever that it was not in accordance with the designs of an overruling Providence. It seemed manifest to her that if anything annoyed her, it should be removed. However, in this case, the way of removal did not seem clear for a long time. Harry was undoubtedly fond of Maria. That did not trouble Ida in the least, although she recognized the fact. She was not a woman who was capable of jealousy, because her own love and admiration for herself made her impregnable. She loved herself so much more than Harry could possibly love her that his feeling for Maria did not ruffle her in the least. It was due to no jealousy that she wished Maria removed, at least for a part of the time. It was only that she was always conscious of a dissent, silent and helpless, still persistent, towards her attitude as regarded herself. She knew that Maria did not think her as beautiful and perfect as she thought herself, and the constant presence of this small element of negation irritated her. Then, too, while she was not in the least jealous of her child, she had a curious conviction that Maria cared more for her than she herself cared, and that in itself was a covert reproach. When little Evelyn ran to meet her sister when she returned from school, Ida felt distinctly disturbed. She had no doubt of her ultimate success in her purpose of ridding herself of at least the constant presence of Maria, and in the mean time she continued to perform her duty by the girl, to that outward extent that everybody in Edgham pronounced her a model step-mother. “Maria Edgham never looked half so well in her own mother's time,” they said.
Lillian White spoke of it to her mother one Sunday. She had been to church, but her mother had remained at home on account of a cold.
“I tell you she looked dandy,” said Lillian. Lillian was still as softly and negatively pretty as ever. She was really charming because she was not angular, because her skin was not thick and coarse, because she did not look anæmic, but perfectly well fed and nourished and happy.
“Who?” asked her mother.
“Maria Edgham. She was togged out to beat the band. Everything looked sort of fadged up that she had before her own mother died. I tell you she never had anything like the rig she wore to-day.”
“What was it?” asked her mother interestedly, wiping her rasped nose with a moist ball of handkerchief.
“Oh, it was the handsomest brown suit I ever laid my eyes on, with hand-embroidery, and fur, and a big picture hat trimmed with fur and chrysanthemums. She's an awful pretty little girl anyhow.”
“She always was pretty,” said Mrs. White, dabbing her nose again.
“If Ida don't look out, her step-daughter will beat her in looks,” said Lillian.
“I never thought myself that Ida was anything to brag of, anyway,” said Mrs. White. She still had a sense of wondering injury that Harry Edgham had preferred Ida to her Lillian.
Lillian was now engaged to be married, but her mother did not feel quite satisfied with the man. He was employed in a retail clothing establishment in New York, and had only a small salary. “Foster Simpkins” (that was the young man's name) “ain't really what you ought to have,” she often said to Lillian.
But Lillian took it easily. She liked the young man very much as she would have liked a sugar-plum, and she thought it high time for her to be married, although she was scarcely turned twenty. “Oh, well, ma,” she said. “Men don't grow on every bush, and Foster is real good-lookin', and maybe his salary will be raised.”
“You ain't lookin' very high,” said her mother.
“No use in strainin' your neck for things out of your own sky,” said Lillian, who had at times a shrewd sort of humor, inherited from her father.
“Harry Edgham would have been a better match for you,” her mother said.
“Lord, I'd a good sight rather have Foster than another woman's leavin's,” replied Lillian. “Then there was Maria, too. It would have been an awful job to dress her, and look out for her.”
“That's so,” said her mother, “and then the two sets of children, too.”
Lillian colored and giggled. “Oh, land, don't talk about children, ma!” said she. “I'm contented as it is. But you ought to have seen that young one to-day.”
“What did Ida wear?” asked Mrs. White.
“She wore her black velvet suit, that she had this winter, and the way she strutted up the aisle was a caution.”
“I don't see how Harry Edgham lives the way he does,” said Mrs. White. “Black velvet costs a lot. Do you s'pose it is silk velvet?”
“I don't see how he does it!”
“He looks sort of worn-out to me. He's grown awful old, I noticed it to-day.”
“Well, all Ida cares for is herself. She don't see he's grown old, you can be sure of that,” said Mrs. White, with an odd sort of bitterness. Actually the woman was so filled with maternal instincts that the bare dream of Harry as her Lillian's husband had given her a sort of motherly solicitude for him, which she had not lost. “It's a shame,” said she.
“Oh, well, it's none of my funeral,” said Lillian, easily. She took a chocolate out of a box which her lover had sent her, and began nibbling it like a squirrel.
“Poor man,” said Mrs. White. Tears of emotion actually filled her eyes and mingled with the rheum of her cold. She took out her moist ball of handkerchief again and dabbed both her eyes and nose.
Lillian looked at her half amusedly, half affectionately. “Mother, you do beat the Dutch,” said she.
Mrs. White actually snivelled. “I can't help remembering the time when his poor first wife died,” said she, “and how he and little Maria came here to take their meals, poor souls. Harry Edgham was just the one to be worked by a woman, poor fellow.”
Lillian sucked her chocolate with a full sense of its sweetness. “Ma, you can't keep track of all creation, nor cry over it,” said she. “You've got to leave it to the Lord. Have you taken your pink pellet?”
“Poor little Maria, too,” said Mrs. White.
“Good gracious, ma, don't you take to worryin' over her,” said Lillian. “Here's your pink pellet. A young one dressed up the way she was to-day!”
“Dress ain't everything, and nothin' is goin' to make me believe that Ida Slome is a good mother to her, nor to her own child neither. It ain't in her.”
Lillian, approaching her mother at the window with the pink pellet and a glass of water, uttered an exclamation. “For the land's sake, there she is now!” she said. “Look, ma, there is Maria in her new suit, and she's got the baby in a little carriage on runners. Just look at the white fur-tails hanging over the back. Ain't that a handsome suit?”
Mrs. White gazed out eagerly. “It must have cost a pile,” said she. “I don't see how he does it.”
“She sees you at the window,” said Lillian.
Both she and her mother smiled and waved at Maria. Maria bowed, and smiled with a sweet irradiation of her rosy face.
“She's a little beauty, anyhow,” said Lillian.
“Dear child,” said Mrs. White, and she snivelled again.
“Ma, either your cold or the stuff you are takin' is making you dreadful nervous,” said Lillian. “You cry at nothin' at all. How straight she is! No stoop about her.”
Maria was, in fact, carrying herself with an extreme straightness both of body and soul. She was conscious to the full of her own beauty in her new suit, and of the loveliness of her little sister in her white fur nest of a sledge. She was inordinately proud. She had asked Ida if she might take the child for a little airing before the early Sunday dinner, and Ida had consented easily.
Ida also wished for an opportunity to talk with Harry about her cherished scheme, and preferred doing so when Maria was not in the house. For manifest reasons, too, Sunday was the best day on which to approach her husband on a subject which she realized was a somewhat delicate one. She was not so sure of his subservience when Maria was concerned, as in everything else, and Sunday was the day when his nerves were less strained, when he had risen late. Ida did not insist upon his going to church, as his first wife had done. In fact, if the truth was told, Harry wore his last winter's overcoat this year, and she was a little doubtful about its appearance in conjunction with her new velvet costume. He sat in the parlor when Ida entered after Maria had gone out with Evelyn. Harry looked at her admiringly.
“How stunning you do look in that velvet dress!” he said.
Ida laughed consciously. “I rather like it myself,” said she. “It's a great deal handsomer than Mrs. George Henderson's, and I know she had hers made at a Fifth Avenue tailor's, and it must have cost twice as much.”
Ida had filled Harry with the utmost faith in her financial management. While he was spending more than he had ever done, and working harder, he was innocently unconscious of it. He felt a sense of gratitude and wonder that Ida was such a good manager and accomplished such great results with such a small expenditure. He was unwittingly disloyal to his first wife. He remembered the rigid economy under her sway, and owned to himself, although with remorseful tenderness, that she had not been such a financier as this woman. “You ought to go on Wall Street,” he often told Ida. He gazed after her now with a species of awe that he had such a splendid, masterful creature for his wife, as she moved with the slow majesty habitual to her out of the room, the black plumes on her hat softly floating, the rich draperies of her gown trailing in sumptuous folds of darkness.
When she came down again, in a rose-colored silk tea-gown trimmed with creamy lace, she was still more entrancing. She brought with her into the room an atmosphere of delicate perfume. Harry had stopped smoking entirely nowadays. Ida had persuaded him that it was bad for him. She had said nothing about the expense, as his first wife had been accustomed to do. Therefore there was no tobacco smoke to dull his sensibilities to this delicate perfume. It was as if a living rose had entered the room. Ida sank gracefully into a chair opposite him. She was wondering how she could easily lead up to the subject in her mind. There was much diplomacy, on a very small and selfish scale, about Ida. She realized the expediency of starting from apparently a long distance, to establish her sequences in order to maintain the appearance of unpremeditativeness.
“Isn't it a little too warm here, dear?” said she, presently, in the voice which alone she could not control. Whenever she had an entirely self-centred object in mind, an object which might possibly meet with opposition, as now, her voice rang harsh and lost its singing quality.
Harry did not seem to notice it. He started up immediately. The portières between the room and the vestibule were drawn. He had, in fact, felt somewhat chilly. It was a cold day, and he had a touch of the grip. “I will open the portières, dear,” he said. “I dare say you are right.”
“I noticed it when I first came in,” said Ida. “I meant to draw the portières apart myself, but going out through the library I forgot it. Thank you, dear. How is your cold?”
“It is nothing, dear,” replied Harry. “There is only a little soreness in my throat.”
He resumed his seat, and noticed the fragrance of roasted chicken coming through the parted portières from the kitchen. Harry was very fond of roasted chicken. He inhaled that and the delicate perfume of Ida's garments and hair. He regarded her glowing beauty with affection which had no taint of sensuality. Harry had more of a poetic liking for sweet odors and beauty than a sensual one.
Harry Edgham in these days had a more poetic and spiritual look than formerly. He had not lost his strange youthfulness of expression; it was as if a child had the appearance of having been longer on the earth. His hair had thinned, and receded from his temples, and the bold, almost babyish fulness of his temples was more evident. His face was thinner, too, and he had not much color. His mouth was drawn down at the corner, and he frowned slightly, as a child might, in helpless but non-aggressive dissent. His worn appearance was very noticeable, in spite of his present happy mood, of which his wife shrewdly took advantage.
Ida Edgham did not care for books, although she never admitted that fact, but she could read with her cold feminine astuteness the moods and souls of men, with unerring quickness. Those last were to her advantage or disadvantage, and in anything of that nature she was gifted by nature. Ida Edgham might have been, as her husband might have been, a poet, an adventuress, who could have made the success of her age had she not been hindered, as well as aided, by her self-love. She had the shrewdness which prognosticates as well as discerns, and saw the inevitableness of the ultimatum of all irregularities in a world which, however irregular it is in practice, still holds regularity as its model of conduct and progression. Ida Edgham would, in the desperate state of the earth before the flood, have made herself famous. As it was, her irregular talents had a limited field; however, she did all she could. It always seemed to her that, as far as the right and wrong of things went, her own happiness was eminently right, and that it was distinctly wrong for her, or any one else, to oppose any obstacle to it. She allowed the pleasant influences of the passing moment to have their full effect upon her husband, and she continued her leading up to the subject by those easy and apparently unrelated sequences which none but a diplomat could have managed.
“Thank you, dear,” she said, when Harry resumed his seat. “The air is cold but very clear and pleasant out to-day,” she continued.
“It looks so,” said Harry.
“Still, if I were you, I think I would not go out; it might make your cold worse,” said Ida.
“No, I think it would be full as well for me to stay in to-day,” replied Harry happily. He hemmed a little as he spoke, realizing the tickle in his throat with rather a pleasant sense of importance than annoyance. He stretched himself luxuriously in his chair, and gazed about the warm, perfumed, luxurious apartment.
“You have to go out to-morrow, anyway,” said Ida, and she increased his sense of present comfort by that remark.
“That is so,” said Harry, with a slight sigh.
Lately it had seemed harder than ever before for him to start early in the black winter mornings and hurry for his train. Then, too, he had what he had never had before, a sense of boredom, of ennui, so intense that it was almost a pain. The deadly monotony of it wearied him. For the first time in his life his harness of duty chafed his spirit. He was so tired of seeing the same train, the same commuters, taking the same path across the station to the ferry-boat, being jostled by the same throng, going to the same office, performing the same, or practically the same, duties, that his very soul was irritated. He had reached a point where he not only needed but demanded a change, but the change was as impossible, without destruction, as for a planet to leave its orbit.
Ida saw the deepening of the frown on his forehead and the lengthening of the lines around his mouth.
“Poor old man!” said she. “I wish I had a fortune to give you, so you wouldn't have to go.”
The words were fairly cooing, but the tone was still harsh. However, Harry brightened. He regarded this lovely, blooming creature and inhaled again the odor of dinner, and reflected with a sense of gratitude upon his mercies. Harry had a grateful heart, and was always ready to blame himself.
“Oh, I should be lost, go all to pieces, if I quit work,” he said, laughing. “If I were left a fortune, I should land in an insane asylum very likely, or take to drink. No, dear, you can't teach such an old bird new tricks; he's been in one tree too long, summer and winter.”
“Well, after all, you have not got to go out to-day,” remarked Ida, skilfully, and Harry again stretched himself with a sense of present comfort.
“That is so, dear,” he said.
“I have something you like for supper, too,” said Ida, “and I think George Adams and Louisa may drop in and we can have some music.”
Harry brightened still more. He liked George Adams, and the wife had more than a talent for music, of which Harry was passionately fond. She played wonderfully on Ida's well-tuned grand piano.
“I thought you might like it,” said Ida, “and I spoke to Louisa as I was coming out of church.”
“You were very kind, sweetheart,” Harry said, and again a flood of gratitude seemed to sweeten life for the man.
Ida took another step in her sequence.
“I think Maria had better stay up, if they do come,” said she. “She enjoys music so much. She can keep on her new gown. Maria is so careful of her gowns that I never feel any anxiety about her soiling them.”
“She is just like—” began Harry, then he stopped. He had been about to state that Maria was just like her mother in that respect, but he had remembered suddenly that he was speaking to his second wife.
However, Ida finished his remark for him with perfect good-nature. She had not the slightest jealousy of Harry's first wife, only a sort of contempt, that she had gotten so little where she herself had gotten so much.
“Maria's own mother was very particular, wasn't she, dear?” she said.
“Very,” replied Harry.
“Maria takes it from her, without any doubt,” Ida said, smoothly. “She looked so sweet in that new gown to-day, that I would like to have the Adamses see her without her coat to-night; and Maria looks even prettier without her hat, too, her hair grows so prettily on her temples. Maria grows lovelier every day, it seems to me. I don't know how many I saw looking at her in church this morning.”
“Yes, she is going to be pretty, I guess,” said Harry, and again his very soul seemed warm and light with pleasure and gratitude.
“She is pretty,” said Ida, conclusively. “She is at the awkward age, too. But there is no awkwardness about Maria. She is like a little fairy.”
Harry beamed upon her. “She is as proud as punch when she gets a chance to take the little one out, and they made a pretty picture going down the street,” said he, “but I hope she won't catch cold. Is that new suit warm?”
“Oh yes! it is interlined. I looked out for that.”
“You look out for my child as if she were your own, bless you, dear,” Harry said, affectionately.
Then Ida thought that the time for her carefully-led-up-to coup had arrived. “I try to,” said she, meekly.
Ida began to speak, then she hesitated, with timid eyes on her husband's face.
“What is it, dear?” asked he.
“Well, I have been thinking a good deal lately about Maria and her associates in school here.”
“Why, what is the matter with them?” Harry asked, uneasily.
“Oh, I don't know that there is anything very serious the matter with them, but Maria is at an age when she is very impressible, and there are many who are not exactly desirable. There is Gladys Mann, for instance. I saw Maria walking down the street with her the other day. Now, Harry, you know that Gladys Mann is not exactly the kind of girl whom Maria's own mother would have chosen for an intimate friend for her.”
“You are right,” Harry said, frowning.
“Well, I have been thinking over the number of pupils of both sexes in the school who can be called degenerates, either in mind or morals, and I must say I was alarmed.”
“Well, what is to be done?” asked Harry, moodily. “Maria must go to school, of course.”
“Yes, of course, Maria must have a good education, as good as if her own mother had lived.”
“Well, what is to be done, then?”
Then Ida came straight to the point. “The only way I can see is to remove her from doubtful associates.”
“Remove her?” repeated Harry, blankly.
“Yes; send her away to school. Wellbridge Hall, in Emerson, where I went myself, would be a very good school. It is not expensive.”
Harry stared. “But, Ida, she is too young.”
“Not at all.”
“You were older when you went there.”
“A little older.”
“How far is Emerson from here?”
“Only a night's journey from New York. You go to sleep in your berth, and in the morning you are there. You could always see her off. It is very easy.”
“Send Maria away! Ida, it is out of the question. Aside from anything else, there is the expense. I am living up to my income as it is.”
“Oh,” said Ida—she gave her head a noble toss, and spoke impressively—“I am prepared to go without myself to make it possible for you to meet her bills. You know I spoke the other day of a new lace dress. Well, that would cost at least a hundred; I will go without that. And I wanted some new portières for my room; I will go without them. That means, say, fifty more. And you know the dining-room rug looks very shabby. I was thinking we must have an Eastern rug, which would cost at least one hundred and fifty; I thought it would pay in the end. Well, I am prepared to give that up and have a domestic, which only costs twenty-five; that is a hundred and twenty-five more saved. And I had planned to have my seal-skin coat made over after Christmas, and you know you cannot have seal-skin touched under a hundred; there is a hundred more. There are three hundred and seventy-five saved, which will pay for Maria's tuition for a year, and enough over for travelling expenses.” Nothing could have exceeded the expression of lofty virtue of Ida Edgham when she concluded her speech. As for her own selfish considerations, those, as always, she thought of only as her duty. Ida established always a clear case of conscience in all her dealings for her own interests.
But Harry continued to frown. The childish droop of his handsome mouth became more pronounced. “I don't like the idea,” he said, quite sturdily for him.
“Suppose we leave it to Maria,” said Ida.
“I really think,” said Harry, in almost a fretful tone, “that you exaggerate. I hardly think there is anything so very objectionable about her associates here. I will admit that many of the children come from what we call the poor whites, but after all their main vice is shiftlessness, and Maria is not very likely to become contaminated with that.”
“Why, Harry, my dear, that is the very least of their vices.”
“Why, you know that they are notoriously light-fingered.”
“My dear Ida, you don't mean to say that you think Maria—”
“Why, of course not, Harry, but aside from that, their morals.”
Harry rose from his chair and walked across the room nervously.
“My dear Ida,” he said, “you are exaggerating now. Maria is simply not that kind of a girl; and, besides, I don't know that she does see so much of those people, anyway.”
“Well, I never heard any harm of that poor little runt. On the other side, Ida, I should think Maria's influence over her for good was to be taken into consideration.”
“I hope you don't mean Maria to be a home missionary?” said Ida.
“She might go to school for a worse purpose,” replied Harry, simply. “Maria has a very strong character from her mother, if not from her father. I actually think the chances are that the Mann girl will have a better chance of getting good from Maria than Maria evil from her.”
“Well, dear, suppose we leave it to Maria herself,” said Ida. “Nobody is going to force the dear child away against her will, of course.”
“Very well,” said Harry. His face still retained a slightly sulky, disturbed expression.
Ida, after a furtive glance at him, took up a sheet of the Sunday paper, and began swaying back and forth gracefully in her rocking-chair, as she read it.
“How foolish all this sentiment about that murderer in the Tombs is,” said she presently. “They are actually going to give him a Christmas-tree.”
“He is only a boy,” said Harry absently.
“I know that—but the idea!”
Just then Maria passed the window, dragging little Evelyn in her white sledge. Ida rose with a motion of unusual quickness for her, but Harry stopped her as she was about to leave the room.
“Don't go out, Ida,” he said, with a peremptoriness which sat strangely upon him.
Ida stared at him. “Why, why not?” she asked. “I wanted to take Evelyn out. You know Josephine is not here.”
“She is getting out all right with Maria's help; sit down, Ida,” said Harry, still with that tone of command which was so foreign to him.
Ida hesitated a second, then she sat down. She realized the grace and policy of yielding in a minor point, when she had a large one in view. Then, too, she was in reality rather vulnerable to a sudden attack, for a moment, although she was always as a rule sure of ultimate victory. She was at a loss, moreover, to comprehend Harry's manner, which was easily enough understood. He wished to be the first to ascertain Maria's sentiments with regard to going away to school. Without admitting it even to himself, he distrusted his wife's methods and entire frankness.
Presently Maria entered, leading little Evelyn, who was unusually sturdy on her legs for her age. She walked quite steadily, with an occasional little hop and skip of exuberant childhood.
She could talk a little, in disconnected sentences, with fascinating mistakes in the sounds of letters, but she preferred a gurgle of laughter when she was pleased, and a wail of woe when things went wrong. She was still in the limbos of primitivism. She was young with the babyhood of the world. To-day she danced up to her father with her little thrill of laughter, at once as meaningless and as full of meaning as the trill of a canary. She pursed up her little lips for a kiss, she flung frantic arms of adoration around his neck. She clung to him, when he lifted her, with all her little embracing limbs; she pressed her lovely, cool, rosy cheek against his, and laughed again.
“Now go and kiss mamma,” said Harry.
But the baby resisted with a little, petulant murmur when he tried to set her down. She still clung to him. Harry whispered in her ear.
“Go and kiss mamma, darling.”
But Evelyn shook her head emphatically against his face. Maria, almost as radiant in her youth as the child, stood behind her. She glanced uneasily at Ida. She held the white fur robes and wraps which she had brought in from the sledge.
“Take those things out and let Emma put them away, dear,” Ida said to her. She smiled, but her voice still retained its involuntary harshness.
Maria obeyed with an uneasy glance at little Evelyn. She knew that her step-mother was angry because the baby would not kiss her. When she was out in the dining-room, giving the fluffy white things to the maid, she heard a shriek, half of grief, half of angry dissent, from the baby. She immediately ran back into the parlor. Ida was removing the child's outer garments, smiling as ever, and with seeming gentleness, but Maria had a conviction that her touch on the tender flesh of the child was as the touch of steel. Little Evelyn struggled to get to her sister when she saw her, but Ida held her firmly.
“Stand still, darling,” she said. It was inconceivable how she could say darling without the loving inflection which alone gave the word its full meaning.
“Stand still and let mamma take off baby's things,” said Harry, and there was no lack of affectionate cadences in his voice. He privately thought that he himself could have taken off the child's wraps better than his wife, but he recognized her rights in the matter. Harry remembering his first wife, with her child, was in a state of constant bewilderment at the sight of his second with hers. He had always had the masculine opinion that women, in certain primeval respects, were cut on one pattern, and his opinion was being rudely shaken.
“Call Emma, please,” said Ida to Maria, and Maria obeyed.
When the maid came in, Ida directed her to take the child up-stairs and put on another frock.
Maria was about to follow, but Harry stopped her. “Maria,” said he.
Maria stopped, and eyed her father with surprise.
“Maria,” said Harry, bluntly, “your mother and I have been talking about your going away to school.”
Maria turned slightly pale and continued to stare at him, but she said nothing.
“She thinks, and I don't know but she is right,” said Harry, with painful loyalty, “that your associates here are not just the proper ones for you, and that it would be much better for you to go to boarding-school.”
“How much would it cost?” asked Maria, in a dazed voice. The question sounded like her own mother.
“Father can manage that; you need not trouble yourself about that,” replied Harry, hurriedly.
“Where?” said Maria, then.
“To a nice school where your mother was educated.”
“Ida—to Wellbridge Hall.”
“How often should I come home and see you and Evelyn? Every week?”
“I am afraid not, dear,” said Harry, uneasily.
“How long are the terms?” asked Maria.
“Only about twelve weeks,” said Ida.
Maria stood staring from one to the other. Her face had turned deadly pale, and had, moreover, taken on an expression of despair and isolation. Somehow, although the little girl was only a few feet from the others, she had a look as if she were leagues off, as if she were outside something vital, which removed her, in fact, to immeasurable distances. And, in fact, Maria had a feeling which never afterwards wholly left her, of being outside the love of life in which she had hitherto dwelt with confidence.
“Maybe you would like it, dear,” Harry said, feebly.
“I will go,” Maria said, in a choking voice. Then she turned without another word and went out of the room, up-stairs to her own little chamber. When there she sat down beside the window. She did not think. She did not seem to feel her hands and feet. It was as if she had fallen from a height. The realization that her father and his new wife wanted to send her away, that she was not wanted in her home, stunned her.
But in a moment the door was flung open and her father entered. He knelt down beside Maria and pulled her head to his shoulder and kissed her, and she felt with a sort of dull wonder his face damp against her own.
“Father's little girl!” said Harry. “Father's own little girl! Father's blessing! Did she think he wanted to send her away? I rather guess he didn't. How would father get along without his own precious baby, when he came home at night. She shan't go one step. She needn't fret a bit about it.”
Maria turned and regarded him with a frozen look still on her face. “It was She that wanted me to go?” she said, interrogatively.
“She thought maybe it would be best for you, darling,” said Harry. “She means to do right by you, Maria; you must try to think so.”
Maria said nothing.
“But father isn't going to let you go,” said Harry. “He can't do without his little girl.”
Then Maria's strange calm broke up. She clung, weeping, to her father, as if he were her only stay. Harry continued to soothe her.
“Father's blessing!” he whispered in her ear. “She was the best little girl that ever was. She is just like her own dear mother.”
“I wish mother was back,” Maria whispered, her whisper stifled against his ear.
“Oh, my God, so do I!” Harry said, with a half sob. For the minute the true significance of his position overwhelmed him. He felt a regret, a remembrance, that was a passion. He realized, with no disguise, what it all meant: that he a man with the weakness of a child in the hands of a masterly woman, had formerly been in the leading-strings of love for himself, for his own best good, whereas he was now in the grasp of the self-love of another who cared for him only as he promoted her own interests. In a moment, however, he recovered himself. After all, he had a sense of loyalty and duty which amounted to positive strength. He put Maria gently from him with another kiss.
“Well, this won't bring your mother back, dear,” he said, “and God took her away, you know, and what He does is for the best; and She means to do her duty by you, you know, dear. She thought it would be better for you, but father can't spare you, that's all there is about it.”
It was an utter impossibility for Ida Edgham to be entirely balked of any purpose which she might form. There was something at once impressive and terrible about the strength of this beautiful, smiling creature's will, about its silence, its impassibility before obstacles, its persistency. It was as inevitable and unswervable as an avalanche or a cyclone. People might shriek out against it and struggle, but on it came, a mighty force, overwhelming petty things as well as great ones. It really seemed a pity, taking into consideration Ida's tremendous strength of character, that she had not some great national purpose upon which to exert herself, instead of such trivial domestic ones.
Ida realized that she could not send Maria to the school which she had proposed. Her strength had that subtlety which acknowledges its limitations and its closed doors, and can look about for other means and ways. Therefore, when Harry came down-stairs that Sunday afternoon, his face working with emotion but his eyes filled with a steady light, and said, with no preface, “It's no use talking, Ida, that child does not want to go, and she shall never be driven from under my roof, while I live,” Ida only smiled, and replied, “Very well, dear, I only meant it for her good.”
“She is not going,” Harry said doggedly.
Harry resumed his seat with a gesture of defiance which was absurd, from its utter lack of any response from his wife. It was like tilting with a windmill.
Ida continued to sway gently back and forth, and smile.
“I think if the Adamses do come in to-night we will have a little salad, there will be enough left from the chicken, and some cake and tea,” she observed presently. “We won't have the table set, because both the maids have asked to go out, but Maria can put on my India muslin apron and pass the things. I will have the salad made before they go, and I will make the tea. We can have it on the table in here.” Ida indicated, by a graceful motion of her shoulder, a pretty little tea-table loaded with Dresden china.
“All right,” replied Harry, with a baffled tone. He felt baffled without knowing exactly why.
Ida took up another sheet of the Herald, a fashion page was uppermost. She read something and smiled. “It says that gowns made like Maria's new one are the most fetching ones of the season,” she said. “I am so glad I have the skirt plaited.”
Harry made a gesture of assent. He felt, without in the least knowing why, like a man who had been completely worsted in a hand-to-hand combat. He felt humiliated and unhappy. His first wife, even with her high temper and her ready tongue, had never caused him such a sense of abjectness. He had often felt angry with her, but never with himself. She had never really attacked his self-respect as this woman did. He did not dare look up from his newspaper for a while, for he realized that he should experience agony at seeing the beautiful, radiant face of his second wife opposite him instead of the worn, stern, but altogether loving and single-hearted face of his first. He was glad when Maria came down-stairs, and looked up and greeted her with a smile of reassuring confidence. Maria's pretty little face was still tear-stained, although she had bathed it with cold water. She also took up a sheet of the Sunday paper.
“Did you see Alice Lundy's new hat in church to-day, dear?” Ida presently asked her, and her manner was exactly as if nothing had occurred to disturb anybody.
Maria looked at her with a sort of wonder, which made her honest face almost idiotic.
“No, ma'am,” said she.
Maria had been taught to say “yes, ma'am” and “no, ma'am” by her own mother, whose ideas of etiquette were old-fashioned, and dated from the precepts of her own childhood.
“It is a little better not to say ma'am,” said Ida, sweetly. “I think that expression is not used so much as formerly.”
Maria looked at her with a quick defiance, which gave her an almost startling resemblance to her own mother.
“Yes, ma'am,” said she.
Harry's mouth twitched behind his paper. Ida said no more. She continued to smile, but she was not reading the paper which she held. She was making new plans to gain her own ends. She was seeking new doors of liberty for her own ways, in lieu of those which she saw were closed to her, and by the time dinner was served she was quite sure that she had succeeded.
The next autumn, Maria began attending the Elliot Academy, in Wardway. The Elliot Academy was an endowed school of a very high standing, and Wardway was a large town, almost a city, about fifteen miles from Edgham. When this plan was broached by Ida, Maria did not make any opposition; she was secretly delighted. Wollaston Lee was going to the Elliot Academy that autumn, and there was another Edgham girl and her brother, besides Maria, who were going.
“Now, darling, you need not go to the Elliot Academy any more than to the other school she proposed, if you don't want to,” Harry told Maria, privately, one Saturday afternoon in September, shortly before the term began.
Ida had gone to her club, and Harry had come home early from the city, and he and Maria were alone in the parlor. Evelyn was having her nap up-stairs. A high wind was roaring about the house. A cherry-tree beside the house was fast losing its leaves in a yellow rain. In front of the window, a hydrangea bush, tipped with magnificent green-and-rosy plumes, swayed in all its limbs like a living thing. Somewhere up-stairs a blind banged.
“I think I would like to go,” Maria replied, hurriedly. Then she jumped up. “That blind will wake Evelyn,” she said, and ran out of the room.
She had colored unaccountably when her father spoke. When she returned, she had a demure, secretive expression on her face which made Harry stare at her in bewilderment. All his life Harry Edgham had been helpless and bewildered before womenkind, and now his little daughter was beginning to perplex him. She sat down and took up a piece of fancy-work, and her father continued to glance at her furtively over his paper. Presently he spoke of the academy again.
“You need not go if you do not want to,” he repeated.
Then again Maria's delicate little face and neck became suffused with pink. Her reply was not as loud nor more intelligible than the murmur of the trees outside in the wind.
“What did you say, darling?” asked Harry. “Father did not understand.”
“I would like to go there,” Maria replied, in her sweet, decisive little pipe. A fresh wave of color swept over her face and neck, and she selected with great care a thread from a skein of linen floss.
“Well, she thought you might like that,” Harry said, with an air of relief.
“Maud Page is going, too,” said Maria.
“Is she? That will be nice. You won't have to go back and forth alone,” said Harry.
Maria said nothing; she continued her work.
Her father turned his paper and looked at the stock-list. Once he had owned a hundred shares of one of the Industrials. He had long since sold out, not at a loss, but the stock had risen since. He always noted it with an odd feeling of proprietorship, in spite of not owning any. He saw with pride that it had advanced half a point.
Maria worked silently; and as she worked she dreamed, and the dream was visible on her face, had any one been astute enough to understand it. She was working a lace collar to wear with a certain blue blouse, and upon that flimsy keystone was erecting an air-castle. She was going to the Elliot Academy, wearing the blue blouse and the lace collar, and looking so lovely that Wollaston Lee worshipped her. She invented little love-scenes, love-words, and caresses. She blushed, and dimples appeared at the corners of her mouth, the blue light of her eyes under her downcast lids was like the light of living gems. She viewed with complacency her little, soft white hands plying the needle. Maria had hands like a little princess. She cast a glance at the toe of her tiny shoe. She remembered how somebody had told her to keep her shoulders straight, and she threw them back with a charming motion, as if they had been wings. She was entirely oblivious of her father's covert glances. She was solitary, isolated in the crystal of her own thoughts. Presently, Evelyn woke and cried, and Maria roused herself with a start and ran up-stairs. Soon the two came into the room, Evelyn dancing with the uncertain motion of a winged seed on a spring wind. She was charming. One round cheek was more deeply flushed than the other, and creased with the pillow. Her yellow hair, fine and soft and full of electric life, tossed like a little crest. She ran with both fat little hands spread palms outward, and pounced violently upon her father. Harry rolled her about on his knee, and played with her as if she had been a kitten. Maria stood by laughing. The child was fairly screaming with mirth.
A graceful figure passed the window, its garments tightly wrapped by the wind, flying out like a flag behind. Harry set the little girl down at once.
“Here is mamma coming,” said he. “Go to sister and she will show you the pictures in the book papa brought home the other day.”
Evelyn obeyed. She was a docile little thing, and she had a fear of her mother without knowing why. She was sitting beside Maria, looking demurely at the pictures which her sister pointed out to her, when Ida entered.
“See the horsey running away,” said Maria. Then she added in a whisper, “Go and kiss mamma, baby.”
The child hesitated, then she rose, and ran to her mother, who stooped her radiant face over her and kissed her coolly.
“Have you been a good little girl?” asked she. Ida was looking particularly self-satisfied to day, and more disposed consequently to question others as to their behavior.
“Yeth,” replied Evelyn, without the slightest hesitation. A happy belief in her own merits was an inheritance from her mother. As yet it was more charming than otherwise, for the baby had unquestionable merits in which to believe. Harry and Maria laughed.
“Mamma is very glad,” said Ida. She did not laugh; she saw no humor in it. She turned to Harry. “I think I will go in on the early train with you to-morrow, dear,” she said. “I want to see about Maria's new dress.” Then she turned to Maria. “I have been in to see Miss Keeler,” said she, “and she says she can make it for you next week, so you can have it when you begin school. I thought of brown with a touch of blue and burnt-orange. How would you like that?”
“I think that would be perfectly lovely,” said Maria with enthusiasm. She cast a grateful look at her step-mother, almost a look of affection. She was always very grateful to Ida for her new clothes, and just now clothes had a more vital interest for her than ever. She took another stitch in her collar, with Evelyn leaning against her and kicking out first one chubby leg, then the other, and she immediately erected new air-castles, in which she figured in her brown suit with the touches of burnt-orange and blue.
A week later, when she started on the train for Wardway in her new attire, she felt entirely satisfied with herself and life in general. She was conscious of looking charming in her new suit of brown, with the touches of blue and burnt-orange, and her new hat, also brown with blue and burnt-orange glimpses in the trimmings. Wollaston Lee got on the same car and sat behind her. Maud Page, the other Edgham girl who was going to the academy, had a cousin in Wardway, and had gone there the night before. There were only Maria, Wollaston, and Edwin Shaw, who sat by himself in a corner, facing the other passengers with a slightly shamed, sulky expression. He was very tall, and had blacked his shoes well, and the black light from them seemed to him obtrusive, the more so because his feet were very large. He looked out of the window as the train left the station, and saw a very pretty little child with a fluff of yellow hair, carrying a big doll, climbing laboriously on a train on the other track, with the tender assistance of a brakeman. She was in the wake of a very stout woman, who stumbled on her skirts going up the steps. Edwin Shaw thought that the child looked like Maria's little sister, but that she could not be, because the stout woman was a stranger to him. Then he thought no more about it. He gazed covertly at Maria, with the black sparkles of his shoes continuing to disturb him. He admired Maria. Presently he saw Wollaston Lee lean over the back of her seat and say something to her, and saw her half turn and dimple, and noticed how the lovely rose flushed the curve of her cheek, and he scowled at his shiny shoes.
As for Maria, when she felt the boy's warm breath on her neck, her heart beat fast. She realized herself on the portals of an air-castle.
“Well, glad you are going to leave this old town?” said Wollaston.
“I am not going to leave it, really,” replied Maria.
“Oh, of course not, but you are going to leave the old school, anyhow. I had got mighty tired of it, hadn't you?”
“Yes, I had, rather.”
“It's behind the times,” said the boy; and, as he spoke he himself looked quite up to the times. He had handsome, clearly cut features and black eyes, which seemed at the same time to demand and question. He had something of a supercilious air, although the expression of youthful innocence and honesty was still evident on his face. He wore a new suit as well as Maria, only his was gray instead of brown, and he wore a red carnation in his button-hole. Maria inhaled the clovy fragrance of it. At the next station more passengers got into the train, and Wollaston seized upon that excuse to ask to share Maria's seat. They talked incessantly—an utterly foolish gabble like that of young birds. An old gentleman across the aisle cast an impatient glance at them from time to time. Finally he arose stiffly and went into the smoker. Their youth and braggadocio of innocence and ignorance, and the remembrance of his own, irritated him. He did not in the least regret his youth, but the recollection of the first stages of his life, now that he was so near the end, was like looking backward over a long road, which had led to absurdly different goals from what he had imagined. It all seemed inconceivable, silly and futile to him, what he had done, and what they were doing. He cast a furious glance at them as he passed out, but neither noticed it. Wollaston said something, and Maria laughed an inane little giggle which was still musical, and trilled through the car. Maria's cheeks were burning, and she seldom looked at the boy at her side, but oftener at the young autumn landscape through which they were passing. The trees had scarcely begun to turn, but here and there one flamed out like a gold or red torch among the green, and all the way-sides were blue and gold with asters and golden-rod. It was a very warm morning for the season. When they stopped at one of the stations, a yellow butterfly flew in through an open window and flitted airily about the car. Maria removed her coat, with the solicitous aid of her companion. She cast a conscious glance at the orange and blue on her sleeves.
“Say, that dress is a stunner!” whispered Wollaston.
Maria laughed happily. “Glad you like it,” said she.
Before they reached Wardway, Wollaston's red carnation was fastened at one side of her embroidered vest, making a discord of color which, for Maria, was a harmony of young love and romance.
“That is the academy,” said Wollaston, as the train rolled into Wardway. He pointed to a great brick structure at the right—a main building flanked by enormous wings. “Are you frightened?” he asked.
“I guess not,” replied Maria, but she was.
“You needn't be a bit,” said the boy. “I know some of the boys that go there, and I went to see the principal with father. He's real pleasant. I know the Latin teacher, Miss Durgin, too. My Uncle Frank married her cousin, and she has been to my house. You'll be in her class.” Wollaston spoke with a protective warmth for which Maria was very grateful.
She had a very successful although somewhat confused day. She was asked this and that and led hither and yon, and so surrounded by strange faces and sights that she felt fairly dizzy. She felt more herself at luncheon, when she sat beside Maud Page in the dining-hall, with Wollaston opposite. There was a restaurant attached to the academy, for the benefit of the out-of-town pupils.
When Maria went down to the station to take her train for home, Maud Page was there, and Wollaston. There was a long time to wait. They went out in a field opposite and picked great bunches of golden-rod, and the girls pinned them on their coats. Edwin Shaw was lingering about the station when they returned, but he was too shy to speak to them. When the train at last came in, Maria, with a duplicity which shamed her in thinking of it afterwards, managed to get away from Maud, and enter the car at the same time with Wollaston, who seated himself beside her as a matter of course. It was still quite light, but it had grown cold. Everything had a cold look—the clear cowslip sky, with its reefs of violet clouds; even the trees tossed crisply, as if stiffened with cold.
“Hope we won't have a frost,” said Wollaston, as they got off at Edgham.
“I hope not,” said Maria; and then Gladys Mann ran up to her, crying out:
“Say, Maria, Maria, did you know your little sister was lost?”
Maria turned deadly white. Wollaston caught hold of her little arm in its brown sleeve.
“When was she lost?” he asked, fiercely, of Gladys. “Don't you know any better than to rush right at anybody with such a thing as that? Don't you be frightened, Maria. I'll find her.”
A little knot of passengers from the train gathered around them. Gladys was pale herself, and had a strong sense of the sadness of the occasion, still she had a feeling of importance. Edwin Shaw came lumbering up timidly, and Maud Page pressed quickly to Maria's side with a swirl of her wide skirts.
“Gladys Mann, what on earth are you talking about?” said she, sharply. “Who's lost?”
“Maria's little sister.”
“Hm! I don't believe a word of it.”
“She is, so there! Nobody has seen a sign of her since morning, and Maria's pa's most crazy. He's been sending telegrams all round. Maria's step-mother, she telegraphed for him to come home, and he come at noon, and he sent telegrams all round, and then he went himself an hour ago.”
“Back to New York. Guess he's gone huntin' himself. Guess he thought he could hunt better than policemen. Maria's step-mother don't act scared, but I guess she is, awful. My mummer says that folks that bear up the best are the ones that feel things most. My mummer went over to see if she could do anything and see how she took it.”
“When was she lost?” gasped Maria. She was shaking from head to foot.
“Your step-mother went down to the store, and when she got back the baby was gone. Josephine said she hadn't seen her after you had started for Wardway. She took her doll with her.”
“Where?” gasped Maria.
“Nobody knows where,” said Gladys, severely, although the tears were streaming down her own grimy cheeks. “She wouldn't be lost, would she, if folks knew where she was? Nothin' ain't never lost when you know where it is unless you drop it down a well, and you 'ain't got no well, have you, Maria Edgham?”
“No,” said Maria. She was conscious of an absurd thankfulness and relief that she had no well.
“And there ain't no pond round here big enough to drown a baby kitten, except that little mud-puddle up at Fisher's, and they've dragged every inch of that. I see 'em.”
All this time Edwin Shaw had been teetering on uncertain toes on the borders of the crowd. He remembered the child with the doll whom he had seen climbing into the New York train in the morning, and he was eager to tell of it, to make himself of importance, but he was afraid. After all, the child might not have been Evelyn. There were so many little, yellow-haired things with dolls to be seen about, and then there was the stout woman to be accounted for. Edwin never doubted that the child had been with the stout woman whom he had seen stumbling over her voluminous skirts up the car steps. At last he stepped forward and spoke, with a moist blush overspreading his face, toeing in and teetering with embarrassment.
“Say,” he began.
The attention of the whole company was at once riveted upon him. He wriggled; the blood looked as if it would burst through his face. Great drops of perspiration stood upon his forehead. He stammered when he spoke. He caught a glimpse of Maria's blue-and-orange trimmings, and looked down, and again the black light of his shoes, which all the dust of the day had not seemed to dim, flashed in his eyes. He came of a rather illiterate family with aspirations, and when he was nervous he had a habit of relapsing into the dialect in common use in his own home, regardless of his educational attainments. He did so now.
“I think she has went to New York,” he said.
“Who?” demanded Wollaston, eagerly. His head was up like a hunting hound; he kept close hold of Maria's little arm.
“Her little sister-in-law.” Edwin pointed to Maria.
Gladys Mann went peremptorily up to Edwin Shaw, seized his coat-collar, and shook him. “For goodness sake! when did she went?” she demanded. “When did you see her? If you know anythin', tell it, an' not stand thar like a fool!”
“I saw a little girl jest about her size, a-carryin' of a doll, that clim on the New York train jest as we went out this mornin',” replied Edwin with a gasp, as if the information were wrung from him by torture. “And she was with a awful fat woman. Leastways—”
“A fat woman!” cried Wollaston Lee. “Who was the fat woman?”
“I hadn't never saw her afore. She was awful fat, and was a steppin' on her dress.”
Wollaston was keen-witted, and he immediately grasped at the truth of the matter.
“You idiot!” he said. “What makes you think she was with the stout woman—just because she was climbing into the train after her?”
“Little girls don't never go to New York alone with dolls,” vouchsafed Edwin, more idiotically than ever. “Leastways—”
“If you don't stop saying leastways, I'll punch your head,” said Wollaston. “Are you sure the child was Maria's little sister?”
“Looked like her,” said Edwin, shrinking back a little. “Leastways—”
“What was she dressed in?” asked Maria, eagerly.
“I didn't see as she had nothin' on.”
“You great gump!” said Gladys, shaking him energetically. “Of course she had something on.”
“She had a big doll.”
“What did she have on? You answer me this minute!” said Gladys.
“She might have had on a blue dress,” admitted Edwin, with a frantic grasp at his memory, “but she didn't have nothin' on her, nohow. Leastways—”
“Oh!” sobbed Maria, “she did wear her little blue dress this morning. She did! Was her hair light?”
“Yes, it were,” said Edwin, quite positively. “Leastways—”
“It was Evelyn,” sobbed Maria. “Oh, poor little Evelyn, all alone in New York! She never went but once with Her and me, and she wouldn't know where to go. Oh, oh!”
“Where did she go when she went with your step-ma and you?” demanded Gladys, who seemed to have suddenly developed unusual acumen. Her face was streaming with tears but her voice was keen.
“She went to Her cousin's, who lives in an apartment in West Forty-ninth Street,” said Maria.
“She'd try to go there again,” said Gladys. “Did she know the woman's name?”
“Yes, she did.”
“You bet she did. She was an awful bright kid,” said Gladys. “Now, I tell you what, Maria, I shouldn't a mite wonder if your step-ma had had a telegram from her cousin by this time, that she was to her house. You'd better jest run home an' see.”
“She was only her third cousin,” said Maria, “and She hardly ever heard from her. It was only the other day I heard Her say that she didn't know but she had left New York. I don't think Her cousin liked her very well.”
“What was the cousin's name?”
“She called her Alice, but her name was Mrs. George B. Edison.”
“That's jest where the kid has went,” said Gladys. “You go right home, M'ria. We'll go with you, and I'll bet a cooky you'll find that your step-ma has had a telegram.”
Maria hesitated a moment; then she started, Wollaston Lee still keeping close hold of her arm. Gladys was on the other side.
When Maria reached home, she pushed open the front door, which was unlocked, and rushed violently in. Wollaston and Gladys followed her, after a slight hesitation, but remained standing in the vestibule. When Maria had come in sight of the house, she had perceived the regular motion of a rocking female head past the parlor light, and she knew that it was Ida. Ida nearly always occupied a rocking-chair, and was fond of the gentle, swaying motion.
“There she is, rocking just as if the baby wasn't lost,” Maria thought, with the bitterest revulsion and sarcasm. When she opened the door she immediately smelled tea, the odor of broiling beefsteak and fried potatoes. “Eating just as if the baby wasn't lost,” she thought. She rushed into the parlor, and there was Ida swaying back and forth in her rocking-chair, and there were three ladies with her. One was Mrs. Jonas White; one was a very smartly dressed woman, Mrs. Adams, perhaps the most intimate friend whom Ida had in Edgham; one was the wife of the minister whose church the Edghams attended, Mrs. Applegate, or, as she was called, Mrs. Dr. Applegate—her husband had a degree. Her sister had just died and she was dressed in the deepest mourning; sitting in the shade in a corner, she produced a curious effect of a vacuum of grief. Mrs. Adams, who was quite young and very pretty, stout and blond, was talking eagerly; Mrs. Jonas White was sniffing quietly; Mrs. Applegate, who was ponderously religious, asked once in a while, in a subdued manner, if Mrs. Edgham did not think it would be advisable to unite in prayer.
Ida made no reply. She continued to rock, and she had a curious set expression. Her lips were resolutely compressed, as if to restrain that radiant smile of hers, which had become habitual with her. She looked straight ahead, keeping her eyes fastened upon a Tiffany vase which stood on a little shelf, a glow of pink and gold against a skilful background of crimson velvet. It was as if she were having her photograph taken and had been requested by the photographer to keep her eyes fixed upon that vase.
“The detective system of New York is so lax,” said Mrs. Adams. “I do wish there was more system among them and among the police. One would feel—” She heaved a deep sigh.
Mrs. Jonas White sobbed audibly.
“Do you not think, dear friends, that it would be a good plan to offer up our voices at the Throne of Grace for the dear child's return?” asked Mrs. Applegate in a solemn voice, albeit somewhat diffidently. She was a corpulent woman, and was richly dressed, in spite of her deep mourning. A jet brooch rimmed with pearls, gleamed out of the shadow where she sat.
Ida continued to rock.
“But,” said Mrs. Adams, “a great many children are lost every year and found. Sometimes the system does really work in a manner to astonish any one. I should not be surprised at any minute to see Mr. Edgham or a policeman walking in with her. But—well—there is so much to be done. The other night, when Mr. Adams and I went in to hear Mrs. Fiske, we drove eight blocks after the performance without seeing one policeman.”
“I suppose, though, if you had been really attacked, a dozen would have sprung out from somewhere,” said Mrs. White, in a tearful voice. Mrs. White could not have heard Satan himself assailed without a word in his defence, such was the maternal pity of her heart.
“That was what Mr. Adams said,” retorted Mrs. Adams, with some asperity, “and I told him that I would rather the dozen policemen were in evidence before I was shot and robbed than after. I had on all my rings, and my diamond sunburst.”
“Do you not think, dear friend, that it would be a good plan to offer up our voices at the Throne of Grace for the safe restoration of the dear child?” asked Mrs. Applegate again. Her voice was sonorous, very much like her husband's. She felt that, so far as in her lay, she was taking his place. He was out of town.
It was then that Maria rushed into the room. She ran straight up to her step-mother. The other women started. Ida continued to rock, and look at the Tiffany vase. It seemed as if she dared not take her eyes from it for fear of losing her expression. Then Maria spoke, and her voice did not sound like her own at all. It was accusatory, menacing.
“Where is my little sister?” she cried. “Where is she?”
Mrs. Jonas White rose, approached Maria, and put her arms around her caressingly. “You poor, dear child,” she sobbed, “I guess you do feel it. You did set a heap by that blessed little thing, didn't you?”
“She is in the hands of the Lord,” said Mrs. Applegate.
“If the police of New York were worth anything, she would be in the police station by this time,” said Mrs. Adams, with a fierce toss of her pretty blond head.
“We know not where His islands lift their fronded palms in air; we only know we cannot drift beyond His love and care,” said Mrs. Applegate, with a solemn aside. Tears were in her own eyes, but she resolutely checked her impulse to weep. She felt that it would show a lack of faith. She was entirely in earnest.
“Mebbe she is in the police-station,” sobbed Mrs. White, continuing to embrace Maria. But Maria gave her a forcible push away, and again addressed herself to her step-mother.
“Where is she?” she demanded.
“Oh, you poor, dear child! Your ma don't know where she is, and she is so awful upset, she sets there jest like marble,” said Mrs. White.
“She isn't upset at all. You don't know her as well as I do,” said Maria, mercilessly. “She thinks she ought to act upset, so she sits this way. She isn't upset.”
“Oh, Maria!” gasped Mrs. White.
“The child is out of her head,” said Mrs. Adams, and yet she looked at Maria with covert approval. She was Ida's intimate friend, but in her heart of hearts she doubted her grief. She had once lost by death a little girl of her own. She kept thinking of her little Alice, and how she should feel in a similar case. It did not seem to her that she should rock, and look at a Tiffany vase. She inveighed against the detectives and police with a reserve meaning of indignation against Ida. It seemed to her that any woman whose child was lost should be up and generally making a tumult, if she were doing nothing else.
The Maria, standing before the beautiful woman swaying gently, with her eyes fixed upon the pink and gold of the vase, spoke out for the first time what was in her heart of hearts with regard to her.
“You are a wicked woman,” said she; “that is what you are. I don't know as you can help being wicked. I guess you were made wicked; but you are a wicked woman. Your mouth smiles, but your heart never does. You act now as if you were sorry,” said she, “but you are not sorry, the way my mother would have been sorry if she had lost me, the way she would have been sorry if Evelyn had been her little girl instead of yours. You are a wicked woman. I have always known it, but I have never told you so before. Now I am going to tell you. Your own child is lost, you let her be lost. You didn't look out for her. Yes, your own child is lost, and you sit there and rock!”
Ida for a moment made no reply. The other women, and Gladys and Wollaston in the vestibule, listened with horror.
“You have had beefsteak and fried potatoes cooked, too,” continued Maria, sniffing, “and you have eaten them. You have been eating beefsteak and fried potatoes when your own child was lost and you did not know where she was!” It might have been ridiculous, this last accusation in the thin, sweet, childish voice, but it was not. It was even more terrible than anything else.
Ida turned at last. “I hate you,” she said slowly. “I have always hated you. You have hated me ever since I came into this house,” she said, “though I have done more than your own mother ever did for you.”
“You have not!” cried Maria. “You have got nice clothes for me, but my own mother loved me. What are nice clothes to love? You have not even loved Evelyn. You have only got her nice clothes. You have never loved her. Poor papa and I were the only ones that loved her. You never even loved poor papa. You saw to it that he had things to eat, but you never loved him. You are not made right. All the love in your heart is for your own self. You are turned the wrong way. I don't know as you can help it, but you are a dreadful woman. You are wicked. You never loved the baby, and now you have let her be lost. She is my own little sister, and papa's child, a great deal more than she is anything to you. Where is she?” Maria's voice rang wild. Her face was blazing. She had an abnormal expression in her blue eyes fixed upon her step-mother.
Ida, after her one outburst, gazed upon her with a sort of fear as well as repulsion. She again turned to the Tiffany vase.
Mrs. White, sobbing aloud like a child, again put her arms around Maria.
“Come, come,” she said soothingly, “you poor child, I know how you feel, but you mustn't talk so, you mustn't, dear! You have no right to judge. You don't know how your mother feels.”
“I know how She doesn't feel!” Maria burst out, “and She isn't my mother. My mother loves me more way off in heaven than that woman loves Her own child on earth. She doesn't feel. She just rocks, and thinks how She looks. I hate Her! Let me go!” With that Maria was out of the room, and ran violently up-stairs.
When she had gone, the three visiting women looked at one another, and the same covert expression of gratified malice, at some one having spoken out what was in their inmost hearts, was upon all three faces. Ida was impassive, with her smiling lips contracted. Mrs. Applegate again murmured something about uniting in prayer.
Maria came hurrying down-stairs. She had in her hand her purse, which contained ten dollars, which her father had given her on her birthday, also a book of New York tickets which had been a present from Ida, and which Ida herself had borrowed several times since giving them to Maria. Maria herself seldom went to New York, and Ida had a fashion of giving presents which might react to her own benefit. Maria, as she passed the parlor door, glanced in and saw her step-mother rocking and staring at the vase. Then she was out of the front-door, racing down the street with Wollaston Lee and Gladys hardly able to keep up with her. Wollaston reached her finally, and again caught her arm. The pressure of the hard, warm boy hand was grateful to the little, hysterical thing, who was trembling from head to foot, with a strange rigidity of tremors. Gladys also clutched her other sleeve.
“Say, M'ria Edgham, where be you goin'?” she demanded.
“I'm going to find my little sister,” gasped out Maria. She gave a dry sob as she spoke.
“My!” said Gladys.
“Now, Maria, hadn't you better go back home?” ventured Wollaston.
“No,” said Maria, and she ran on towards the station.
“Come home with me to my mother,” said Wollaston, pleadingly, but a little timidly. A girl in such a nervous strait as this was a new experience for him.
“She can go home with me,” said Gladys. “My mother's a heap better than Ida Slome. Say, M'ria, all them things you said was true, but land! how did you darse?”
Maria made no reply. She kept on.
“Say, M'ria, you don't mean you're goin' to New York?” said Gladys.
“Yes, I am. I am going to find my little sister.”
“My!” said Gladys.
“Now, Maria, don't you think you had better go home with me, and see mother?” Wollaston said again.
But Maria seemed deaf. In fact, she heard nothing but the sound of the approaching New York train. She ran like a wild thing, her little, slim legs skimming the ground like a bird's, almost as if assisted by wings.
When the train reached the station, Maria climbed in, Wollaston and Gladys after her. Neither Wollaston nor Gladys had the slightest premeditation in the matter; they were fairly swept along by the emotion of their companion.
When the train had fairly started, Gladys, who had seated herself beside Maria, while Wollaston was in the seat behind them, heaved a deep sigh of bewilderment and terror. “My!” said she.
Wollaston also looked pale and bewildered. He was only a boy, and had never been thrown much upon his own responsibility. All that had been uppermost in his mind was the consideration that Maria could not be stopped, and she must not go alone to New York. But he did not know what to think of it all. He felt chaotic. The first thing which seemed to precipitate his mentality into anything like clearness was the entrance of the conductor. Then he thought instinctively about money. Although still a boy, money as a prime factor was already firmly established in his mind. He reflected with dismay that he had only his Wardway tickets, and about three dollars beside. It was now dark. The vaguest visions of what they were to do in New York were in his head. The fare to New York was a little over a dollar; he had only enough to take them all in, then what next? He took out his pocket-book, but Gladys looked around quickly.
“She's got a whole book of tickets,” she said.
However, Wollaston, who was proud, started to pay the conductor, but he had reached Maria first, and she had said “Three,” peremptorily. Then she handed the book to Wollaston, with the grim little ghost of a smile. “You please keep this,” said she. “I haven't got any pocket.”
Wollaston was so bewildered that the possession of pockets seemed instantly to restore his self-respect. He felt decidedly more at his ease when he had Maria's ticket-book in his innermost pocket. Then she gave him her purse also.
“I wish you would please take this,” said she. “There are ten dollars in it, and I haven't any pocket.” Wollaston took that.
“All right,” he said. He buttoned his gray vest securely over Maria's pretty little red purse. Then he leaned over the seat, and began to speak, but he absolutely did not know what to say. He made an idiotic remark about the darkness. “Queer how quick it grows dark, when it begins,” said he.
Maria ignored it, but Gladys said: “Yes, it is awful queer.”
Gladys's eyes looked wild. The pupils were dilated. She had been to New York but once before in her life, and now to be going in the evening to find Maria's little sister was almost too much for her intelligence, which had its limitations.
However, after a while, Wollaston Lee spoke again. He was in reality a keen-witted boy, only this was an emergency into which he had been surprised, and which he had not foreseen, and Maria's own abnormal mood had in a measure infected him. Presently he spoke to the point.
“What on earth are you going to do when you get to New York, anyhow?” said he to Maria.
“Find her,” replied Maria, laconically.
“But New York is a mighty big city. How do you mean to go to work? Now I—”
Maria cut him short. “I am going right up to Her cousin's, on West Forty-ninth Street, and find out if Evelyn is there,” said she.
“But what would make the child want to go there, anyhow?”
“It was the only place she had ever been in New York,” said Maria.
“But I don't see what particular reason she would have for going there, though,” said Wollaston. “How would she remember the street and number?”
“She was an awful bright kid,” said Gladys, with a momentary lapse of reason, “and kids is queer. I know, 'cause we've got so many of 'em to our house. Sometimes they'll remember things you don't ever think they would. My little sister Maud remembers how my mother drowned five kittens oncet, when she was in long clothes. We knowed she did, 'cause when the cat had kittens next time we caught her trying to drown 'em herself. Kids is awful queer. Maud can't remember how to spell her own name, either, and she's most six now. She spells it M-a-u-d, when it had ought to be M-a-u-g-h-d. I shouldn't be one mite surprised if M'ria's little sister remembered the street and number.”
“Anyway, she knew her whole name, because I've heard her say it,” said Maria. “Her cousin's name is Mrs. George B. Edison. Evelyn used to say it, and we used to laugh.”
“Oh, well, if she knew the name like that she might have found the place all right,” said Wollaston. “But what puzzles me is why she wanted to go there, anyway?”
“I don't know,” said Maria.
“I don't know,” said Wollaston, “but it seems to me the best thing to do would be to go directly to a police-office and have the chief of police notified, and set them at work; but then I suppose your father has done that already.”
Maria turned upon him with indignation. “Go to a police-station to find my little sister!” said she. “What would I go there for?”
“Yes, what do you suppose that kid has did?” asked Gladys.
“What would I go there for?” demanded Maria, flashing the light of her excited, strained little face upon the boy.
Maria no longer looked pretty. She no longer looked even young. Lines of age were evident around her mouth, her forehead was wrinkled. The boy fairly started at the sight of her. She seemed like a stranger to him. Her innermost character, which he had heretofore only guessed at by superficial signs, was written plainly on her face. The boy felt himself immeasurably small and young, manly and bold of his age as he really was. When a young girl stretches to the full height of her instincts, she dwarfs any boy of her own age. Maria's feeling for her little sister was fairly maternal. She was in spirit a mother searching for her lost young, rather than a girl searching for her little sister. Her whole soul expanded. She fairly looked larger, as well as older. When they got off the train at Jersey City, she led the little procession straight for the Twenty-third Street ferry. She marched ahead like a woman of twice her years.
“You had better hold up your dress, M'ria,” said Gladys, coming up with her, and looking at her with wonder. “My, how you do race!”
Maria reached round one hand and caught a fold of her skirt. Her new dress was in fact rather long for her. Ida had remarked that morning that she would have Miss Keeler shorten it on Saturday. Ida had no wish to have a grown-up step-daughter quite yet, whom people might take for her own.
The three reached the ferry-boat just as she was about to leave her slip. They sat down in a row midway of the upper deck. The heat inside was intense. Gladys loosened her shabby little sacque. Maria sat impassible.
“Ain't you most baked in here?” asked Gladys.
“No,” replied Maria.
Both Gladys and Wollaston looked cowed. They kept glancing at each other and at Maria. Maria sat next Gladys, Wollaston on Gladys's other side. Gladys nudged Wollaston, and whispered to him.
“We've jest got to stick close to her,” she whispered, in an alarmed cadence. The boy nodded.
Then they both glanced again at Maria, who seemed quite oblivious of their attention. When they reached the other side, Wollaston, with an effort, asserted himself.
“We had better take a cross-town car to the Sixth Avenue Elevated,” he said, pressing close to Maria's side and seizing her arm again.
Maria shook her head. “No,” she said. “Where Mrs. Edison lives is not so near the Elevated. It will be better to take a cross-town car and transfer at Seventh Avenue.”
“All right,” said Wollaston. He led the way in the run down the stairs, and aided his companions onto the cross-town car. He paid their fares, and got the transfers, and stopped the other car. He was beginning to feel himself again, at least temporarily.
“Well, I think the police-station is the best place to look, but have your own way. It won't take long to see if she is there now,” said Wollaston. He was hanging on a strap in front of Maria. The car was crowded with people going to up-town theatres. Some of the ladies, in showy evening wraps, giving glimpses of delicate waists, looked curiously at the three. There was something extraordinary about their appearance calculated to attract attention, although it was difficult to say just why. After they had left the car, a lady with a white lace blouse showing between the folds of a red cloak, said to her escort: “I wonder who they were?”
“I don't know,” said the man, who had been watching them. “I thought there was something unusual.”
“I thought so, too. That well-dressed young woman, and that handsome boy, and that shabby little girl.” By the “young woman” she meant Maria.
“Yes, a queer combination,” said the man.
“It wasn't altogether that, but they looked so desperately in earnest.”
Meantime, while the lights of the car disappeared up the avenue, Maria, Wollaston, and Gladys Mann searched for the house in which had lived Ida Edgham's cousin.
At last they found it, mounted the steps, and rang the bell. It was an apartment-house. After a little the door opened of itself.
“My!” said Gladys, but she followed Wollaston and Maria inside.
Wollaston began searching the names above the rows of bells on the wall of the vestibule.
“What did you say the name was?” he asked of Maria.
“Edison. Mrs. George B. Edison.”
“There is no such name here.”
“There must be.”
“Let me see,” said Maria. She searched the names. “Well, I don't care,” said she. “It was on the third floor, and I am going up and ask, anyway.”
“Now, Maria, do you think—” began Wollaston.
But Maria began climbing the stairs. There was no elevator.
“My!” said Gladys, but she followed Maria.
Wollaston pushed by them both. “See here, you don't know what you are getting into,” said he, sternly. “You let me go first.”
When they reached the third floor, Maria pointed to a door. “That is the door,” she whispered, breathlessly.
Wollaston knocked. Immediately the door was flung open by a very pretty young woman in a rose-colored evening gown. Her white shoulders gleamed through the transparent chiffon, and a comb set with rhinestones sparkled in the fluff of her blond hair. When she saw the three she gave a shrill scream, and immediately a very small man, much smaller than she, but with a fierce cock of a black pointed beard, and a tremendous wiriness of gesture, appeared.
“Oh, Tom!” gasped the young woman. “Oh!”
“What on earth is the matter, Stella?” asked the man. Then he looked fiercely at the three. “Who are these people?” he asked.
“I don't know. I opened the door. I thought it was Adeline and Raymond, and then I saw these strange people. I don't know how they got in.”
“We came in the door,” said Gladys, with some asperity, “and we are lookin' for M'ria's little sister. Be you her ma-in-law's cousin?”
“I don't know who these people are,” the young woman said, faintly, to the man. “I think they must be burglars.”
“Burglars, nothin'!” said Gladys, who had suddenly assumed the leadership of the party. Opposition and suspicion stimulated her. She loved a fight. “Be you her ma-in-law's cousin, and have you got her little sister?”
Wollaston looked inquiringly at Maria, who was very pale.
“It isn't Her cousin,” she gasped. “I don't know who she is. I never saw her.”
Then Wollaston spoke, hat in hand, and speaking up like a man. “Pardon us, sir,” he said, “we did not intend to intrude, but—”
“Get out of this,” said the man, with a sudden dart towards the door.
His wife screamed again, and put her hand over a little diamond brooch at her throat. “I just know they are sneak-thieves,” she gasped. “Do send them away, Tom!”
Wollaston tried to speak again. “We merely wished to ascertain,” said he, “if a lady by the name of Mrs. George A.—”
“B.” interrupted Gladys.
“B. Edison lived here. This young lady's little sister is lost, and Mrs. Edison is a relative, and we thought—”
The man made another dart. “Don't care what you thought,” he shouted. “Keep your thoughts to yourself! Get out of here!”
“Do you know where Mrs. George B. Edison lives now?” asked Wollaston, courteously, but his black eyes flashed at the man.
“No, I don't.”
“No, we don't,” said the young woman in pink. “Do make them go, Tom.”
“We are perfectly willing to go,” said Wollaston. “We have no desire to remain any longer where people are not willing to answer civil questions.”
Maria all this time had said nothing. She was perfectly overcome with the conviction that Ida's cousin was not there, and consequently not Evelyn. Moreover, she was frightened at the little man's fierce manner. She clung to Wollaston's arm as they retreated, but Gladys turned around and deliberately stuck her tongue out at the man and the young woman in rose. The man slammed the door.
The three met on the stoop of the house two people in gay attire.
“Go up and see your friends that don't know how to treat folks decent,” said Gladys. The woman looked wonderingly at her from under the shade of a picture hat. Her escort opened the door. “Ten chances to one they had the kid hid somewhere,” said Gladys, so loudly that both turned and looked at her.
“Hush up,” said Wollaston.
“Well, what be you goin' to do now?” asked Gladys.
“I am going to a drug-store, and see if I can find out where Maria's relatives have moved to,” replied Wollaston. He walked quite alertly now. Maria's discomfiture had reassured him.
They walked along a few blocks until they saw the lights of a drug-store on the corner. Then Wollaston led them in and marched up to the directory chained to the counter.
“What's that?” Gladys asked. “A Bible?”
“No, it's a directory,” Maria replied, in a dull voice.
“What do they keep it chained for? Books don't run away.”
“I suppose they are afraid folks will steal it.”
“My!” said Gladys, eying the big volume. “I don't see what on earth they'd do with it when they got it stole,” she remarked, in a low, reflective voice.
Maria leaned against the counter and waited.
Finally, Wollaston turned to her with an apologetic air. “I can't find any George B. here,” he said. “You are sure it was B?”
“Yes,” replied Maria.
“Well, there's no use,” said Wollaston. “There is no George B. Edison in this book, anyhow.”
He came forward, and stood looking at Maria. Maria gazed absently at the crowds passing on the street. Gladys watched them both.
“Well,” said Gladys, presently, “you ain't goin' to stand here all night, be you? What be you goin' to do next? Go to the police-station?”
“I don't see that there is any use,” replied Wollaston. “Maria's father must have been there by this time. This is a wild-goose chase anyhow.” Wollaston's tone was quite vicious. He scowled superciliously at the salesman who stepped forward and asked if he wanted anything. “No, we don't, thank you,” he said.
“What be you goin' to do?” asked Gladys, again. She looked at the soda-fountain.
“I don't see anything to do but to go home,” said Wollaston. “There is no sense in our chasing around New York any longer, that I can see.”
“You can't go home to-night, anyhow,” Gladys said, quite calmly. “They've took off that last train, and there ain't more'n ten minutes to git down to the station.”
Wollaston turned pale, and looked at her with horror. “What makes you think they've taken off that last train?” he demanded.
“Ain't my pa brakeman when he's sober, and he's been real sober for quite a spell now.”
Wollaston seized Maria by the arm. “Come, quick!” he said, and leaving the drug-store he broke into a run for the Elevated, with Gladys following.
“There ain't no use in your runnin',” said she. “You know yourself you can't git down to Cortlandt Street, and walk to the ferry in ten minutes. I never went but oncet, but I know it can't be did.”
Wollaston slackened his pace. “That is so,” he said. Then he looked at Maria in a kind of angry despair. He felt, in spite of his romantic predilection for her, that he wished she were a boy, so he could say something forcible. He realized his utter helplessness with these two girls in a city where he knew no one, and he again thought of the three dollars in his pocket-book. He did not suppose that Maria had more than fifty cents in hers. Then, too, he was worldly wise enough to realize the difficulty of the situation, the possible danger even. It was ten o'clock at night, and here he was with two young girls to look out for.
Then Gladys, who had also worldly wisdom, although of a crude and vulgar sort, spoke. “Folks are goin' to talk like the old Harry if we stay in here all night,” said she, “and besides, there's no knowin' what is a safe place to go into.”
“That is so,” said Wollaston, gloomily, “and I—have not much money with me.”
“I've got money enough,” Maria said, suddenly. “There are ten dollars in my pocket-book I gave you to keep.”
“My!” said Gladys.
Wollaston brightened for a moment, then his face clouded again. “Well, I don't know as that makes it much better,” said he. “I don't quite see how to manage. They are so particular in hotels now, that I don't know as I can get you into a decent one. As for myself, I don't care. I can look out for myself, but I don't know what to do with you, Maria.”
Gladys made a little run and stepped in front of them. “There ain't but one thing you can do, so Maria won't git talked about all the rest of her life, and I kin tell you what it is,” said she.
“What is it?” asked Wollaston, in a burst of anger. “I call it a pretty pickle we are in, for my part. Ten chances to one, Mr. Edgham has got the baby back home safe and sound by this time, anyway, and here we are, here is Maria!”
“There ain't but one thing you can do,” said Gladys. Her tone was forcible. She was full of the vulgar shrewdness of a degenerate race, for the old acumen of that race had sharpened her wits.
“What! in Heaven's name?” cried Wollaston.
The three had been slowly walking along, and had stopped near a church, which was lighted. As they were talking the lights went out. A thin stream of people ceased issuing from the open doors. A man in a clerical dress approached them, walking quite rapidly. He was evidently bound, from the trend of his steps, to a near-by house, which was his residence.
“Git married,” said Gladys, abruptly. Then, before the others realized what she was doing, she darted in front of the approaching clergyman. “They want to git married,” said she.
The clergyman stopped and stared at her, then at the couple beyond, who were quite speechless with astonishment. He was inconceivably young for his profession. He was small, and had a round, rollicking face, which he was constantly endeavoring to draw down into lines of asceticism.
“Who wants to get married?” asked the clergyman.
“Them two,” replied Gladys, succinctly. She pointed magisterially at Wollaston and Maria.
Wollaston was tall and manly looking for his age, Maria's dress touched the ground. The clergyman had not, at the moment, a doubt as to their suitable age. He was not a brilliant young man, naturally. He had been pushed through college and into his profession by wealthy relatives, and, moreover, with his stupidity, he had a certain spirit of recklessness and sense of humor which gave life a spice for him.
“Want to get married, eh?” he said.
Then Wollaston spoke. “No, we do not want to get married,” he said, positively. Then he said to Gladys, “I wish you would mind your own business.”
But he had to cope with the revival of a wonderful feminine wit of a fine old race in Gladys. “I should think you would be plum ashamed of yourself,” she said, severely, “after you have got that poor girl in here; and if she stays and you ain't married, she'll git talked about.”
The clergyman approached Wollaston and Maria. Maria had begun to cry. She was trembling from head to foot with fear and confusion. Wollaston looked sulky and angry.
“Is that true—did you induce this girl to come to New York to be married?” he inquired, and his own boyish voice took on severe tones. He was very strong in moral reform.
“No, I did not,” replied Wollaston.
“He did,” said Gladys. “She'll get talked about if she ain't, too, and the last train has went, and we've got to stay in New York all night.”
“Where do you come from?” inquired the young clergyman, and his tone was more severe still.
“From Edgham, New Jersey,” replied Gladys.
“Who are you?” inquired the clergyman.
“I ain't no account,” replied Gladys. “All our folks git talked about, but she's different.”
“I suppose you are her maid,” said the clergyman, noting with quick eye the difference in the costumes of the two girls.
“Call it anything you wanter,” said Gladys, indifferently. “I ain't goin' to have her talked about, nohow.”
“Come, Maria,” said Wollaston, but Maria did not respond even to his strong, nervous pull on her arm. She sobbed convulsively.
“No, that girl does not go one step, young man,” said the clergyman. He advanced closely, and laid a hand on Maria's other arm. Although small in body and mind, he evidently had muscle. “Come right in the house,” said he, and Maria felt his hand on her arm like steel. She yielded, and began following him, Wollaston in vain trying to hold her back.
Gladys went behind Wollaston and pushed vigorously. “You git right in there, the way he says, Wollaston Lee,” said she. “You had ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Before the boy well knew what he was doing he found himself in a small reception-room lined with soberly bound books. All that was clear in his mind was that he could not hinder Maria from entering, and that she must not go into the house alone with Gladys and this strange man.
A man had been standing in the doorway of the house, waiting the entrance of the clergyman. He was evidently a servant, and his master beckoned him.
“Call Mrs. Jerrolds, Williams,” he said.
“What is your name?” he asked Maria, who was sobbing more wildly than ever.
“Her name is Maria Edgham,” replied Gladys, “and his is Wollaston Lee. They both live in Edgham.”
“How old are you?” the clergyman asked of Wollaston; but Gladys cut in again.
“He's nineteen, and she's goin' on,” she replied, shamelessly.
“We are neither of us,” began Wollaston, whose mind was in a whirl of anger of confusion.
But the clergyman interrupted him. “I am ashamed of you, young man,” he said, “luring an innocent young girl to New York and then trying to lie out of your responsibility.”
“I am not,” began Wollaston again; but then the man who had stood in the door entered with a portly woman in a black silk tea-gown. She looked as if she had been dozing, or else was naturally slow-witted. Her eyes, under heavy lids, were dull; her mouth had a sleepy, although good-natured pout, like a child's, between her fat cheeks.
“I am sorry to trouble you, Mrs. Jerrolds,” said the clergyman, “but I need you and Williams for witnesses.” Then he proceeded.
Neither Wollaston nor Maria were ever very clear in their minds how it was done. Both had thought marriage was a more complicated proceeding. Neither was entirely sure of having said anything. Indeed, Wollaston was afterwards quite positive that Gladys Mann answered nearly all the clergyman's questions; but at all events, the first thing he heard distinctly was the clergyman's pronouncing him and Maria man and wife. Then the clergyman, who was zealous to the point of fanaticism, and who honestly considered himself to have done an exceedingly commendable thing, invited them to have some wedding-cake, which he kept ready for such emergencies, and some coffee, but Wollaston replied with a growl of indignation and despair. This time Maria followed his almost brutally spoken command to follow him, and the three went out of the house.
“See that you treat your wife properly, young man,” the clergyman called out after him, in a voice half jocular, half condemnatory, “or there will be trouble.”
Wollaston growled an oath, the first which he had ever uttered, under his breath, and strode on. He had released his hold on Maria's arm. Ahead of them, a block distant, was an Elevated station, and Maria, who seemed to suddenly recover her faculties, broke into a run for it.
“Where be you goin'?” called out Gladys.
“I am going down to the Jersey City station, quick,” replied Maria, in a desperate voice.
“I thought you'd go to a hotel. There ain't no harm, now you're married, you know,” said Gladys, “and then we could have some supper. I'm awful hungry. I ain't eat a thing sence noon.”
“I am going right down to the station,” repeated Maria.
“The last train has went. What's the use?”
“I don't care. I'm going down there.”
“What be you goin' to do when you git there?”
“I am going to sit there, and wait till morning.”
“My!” said Gladys.
However, she went on up the Elevated stairs with Maria and Wollaston. Wollaston threw down the fares and got the tickets, and strode on ahead. His mouth was set. He was very pale. He probably realized to a greater extent than any of them what had taken place. It was inconceivable to him that it had taken place, that he himself had been such a fool. He felt like one who has met with some utterly unexplainable and unaccountable accident. He felt as he had done once when, younger, he had stuck his own knife, with which he was whittling, into his eye, to the possible loss of it. It seemed to him as if something had taken place without his volition. He was like a puppet in a show. He looked at Maria, and realized that he hated her. He wondered how he could ever have thought her pretty. He looked at Gladys Mann, and felt murderous. He had a high temper. As the train approached, he whispered in her ear,
“Damn you, Gladys Mann, it's a pretty pickle you have got us into.”
Gladys was used to being sworn at. She was not in the least intimidated.
“Do you s'pose I was goin' to have M'ria talked about?” she said. “You can cuss all you want to.”
They got into the train. Wollaston sat by himself, Gladys and Maria together. Maria was no longer weeping, but she looked terrified beyond measure, and desperate. A horrible imagination of evil was over her. She never glanced at Wollaston. She thought that she wished there would be an accident on the train and he might be killed. She hated him more than he hated her.
They were just in time for a boat at Cortlandt Street. When they reached the Jersey City side Wollaston went straight to the information bureau, and then returned to Gladys and Maria, seated on a bench in the waiting-room.
“Well, there is a train,” he said, curtly.
“'Ain't it been took off?” asked Gladys.
“No, but we've got to wait an hour and a half.” Then he bent down and whispered in Gladys's ear, “I wish to God you'd been dead before you got us into this, Gladys Mann!”
“My father said it had been took off,” said Gladys. “You sure there is one?”
“Of course I'm sure!”
“My!” said Gladys.
Wollaston went to a distant seat and sat by himself. The two girls waited miserably. Gladys had suffered a relapse. Her degeneracy of wit had again overwhelmed her. She looked at Maria from time to time, then she glanced around at Wollaston, and her expression was almost idiotic. The people who were on the seat with them moved away. Maria turned suddenly to Gladys.
“Gladys Mann,” said she, “if you ever tell of this—”
“Then you ain't goin' to—” said Gladys.
“Going to what?”
“Live with him?”
“Live with him! I hate him enough to wish he was dead. I'll never live with him; and if you tell, Gladys Mann, I'll tell you what I'll do.”
“What?” asked Gladys, in a horrified whisper.
“I'll go and drown myself in Fisher's Pond, that's what I'll do.”
“I never will tell, honest, M'ria,” said Gladys.
“You'd better not.”
“Hope to die, if I do.”
“You will die if you do,” said Maria, “for I'll leave a note saying you pushed me into the pond, and it will be true, too. Oh, Gladys Mann! it's awful what you've done!”
“I didn't mean no harm,” said Gladys.
“And there's a train, too.”
“Father said there wasn't.”
“I know it. There ain't never tellin' when father lies,” said Gladys. “I guess father don't know what lies is, most of the time. I s'pose he's always had a little, if he 'ain't had a good deal. But I'll never tell, Maria, not as long as I live.”
“If you do, I'll drown myself,” said Maria.
Then the two sat quietly until the train was called out, when they went through the gate, Maria showing her tickets for herself and Gladys. Wollaston had purchased his own and returned Maria's. He kept behind the two girls as if he did not belong to their party at all. On the train he rode in the smoking-car.
The car was quite full at first, but the passengers got off at the way-stations. When they drew near Edgham there were only a few left. Wollaston had not paid the slightest attention to the passengers. He could not have told what sort of a man occupied the seat with him, nor even when he got off. He was vaguely conscious of the reeking smoke of the car, but that was all. When the conductor came through he handed out his ticket mechanically, without looking at him. He stared out of the window at the swift-passing, shadowy trees, at the green-and-red signal-lights, and the bright glare from the lights of the stations through which they passed. Once they passed by a large factory on fire, surrounded by a shouting mob of men, and engines. Even that did not arrest his attention, although it caused quite a commotion in the car. He sat huddled up in a heap, staring out with blank eyes, all his consciousness fixed upon his own affairs. He felt as if he had made an awful leap from boyhood to manhood in a minute. He was full of indignation, of horror, of shame. He was conscious of wishing that there were no girls in the world. After they had passed the last station before reaching Edgham he looked wearily away from the window, and recognized, stupidly, Maria's father in a seat in the forward part of the car. Harry was sitting as dejectedly hunched upon himself as was the boy. Wollaston recognized the fact that he could not have found little Evelyn, and realized wickedly and furiously that he did not care, that a much more dreadful complication had come into his own life. He turned again to the window.
Maria, in the car behind the smoker, sat beside Gladys, and looked out of the window very much as Wollaston was doing. She also was conscious of an exceeding horror and terror, and a vague shame. It was, to Maria, as if she had fallen through the fairy cobweb of romance and struck upon the hard ground of reality with such force that her very soul was bleeding. Wollaston, in the smoker, wished no more devoutly that there were no girls in the world, than Maria wished there were no boys. Her emotions had been, as it were, thrust back down her own throat, and she was choked and sickened with them. She would not look at nor speak to Gladys. Once, when Gladys addressed a remark to her, Maria thrust out an indignant shoulder towards her.
“You needn't act so awful mad,” whispered Gladys. “I ain't goin' to tell, and I was doin' it on your account. My mother will give it to me when I git home.”
“What are you going to tell her?” asked Maria, with sudden interest.
“I'm goin' to tell her I've been out walkin' with Ben Jadkins. She's told me not to, and she'll lick me for all she's wuth,” said Gladys, angrily. “But I don't care. It's lucky father 'ain't been through this train. It's real lucky to have your father git drunk sometimes. I'll git licked, but I don't care.”
Maria, sitting there, paid no more attention. The shock of her own plight had almost driven from her mind the thought of Evelyn, but when a woman got on the train leading a child about her age, the old pain concerning her came back. She began to weep again quietly.
“I don't see what you are cryin' for,” said Gladys, in an accusing voice. “You might have been an old maid.”
“I don't believe she is found,” Maria moaned, in a low voice.
“Oh, the kid! You bet your life she'll turn up. Your pa 'll find her all right. I didn't know as you were cryin' about that.”
When they reached Edgham, Maria and Gladys got off the train, Wollaston Lee also got off, and Harry Edgham, and from a rear car a stout woman, yanking, rather than leading, by the hand, a little girl with a fluff of yellow hair. The child was staggering with sleep. The stout woman carried on her other arm a large wax-doll whose face smiled inanely over her shoulder.
Suddenly there was a rush and cry, and Maria had the little girl in her arms. She was kneeling beside her on the dusty platform, regardless of her new suit.
“Sister! Sister!” screamed the child.
“Sister's own little darling!” said Maria, then she began to sob wildly.
“It's her little sister. Where did you get her?” Gladys asked, severely, of the stout woman, who stood holding the large doll and glowering, while Harry Edgham came hurrying up. Then there was another scream from the baby, and she was in her father's arms. There were few at the station at that hour, but a small crowd gathered around. On the outskirts was Wollaston Lee, looking on with his sulky, desperate face.
The stout woman grasped Harry vehemently by the arm. “Look at here,” said she. “I want to know, an' I ain't got no time to fool around, for I want to take the next train back. Is that your young one? Speak up quick.”
Harry, hugging the child to his breast, looked at the stout woman.
“Yes,” he replied, “she is mine, and I have been looking for her all day. Where—Did you?”
“No, I didn't,” said the stout woman, emphatically. “She did. I don't never meddle with other folks' children. I 'ain't never been married, and I 'ain't never wanted to be. And I 'ain't never cared nothin' about children; always thought they was more bother than they were worth. And when I changed cars here this mornin', on my way from Lawsons, where I've been to visit my married sister, this young one tagged me onto the train, and nothin' I could say made anybody believe she wa'n't mine. I told 'em I wa'n't married, but it didn't make no difference. I call it insultin'. There I was goin' up to Tarrytown to-day to see my aunt 'Liza. She's real feeble, and they sent for me, and there I was with this young one. I had a cousin in New York, and I took her to her house, and she didn't know any better what to do than I did. She was always dreadful helpless. We waited till her husband got home. He runs a tug down the harbor, and he said take her to the police-station, and mebbe I'd find out somebody had been tryin' to find her. So my cousin's husband and me went to the station, and he was so tuckered out and mad at the whole performance that I could hear him growlin' cuss words under his breath the whole way. We took her and this great doll down to the station, and we found out there who she was most likely, and who she belonged to. And my cousin's husband said I'd got to take her out here. He looked it up and found out I could git back to New York to-night. He said he wouldn't come nohow.” Suddenly a light flashed on the woman. “Say,” she said, “you don't mean to say you've been on the train yourself all the way out from New York?”
“Yes, I came out on the train,” admitted Harry, meekly. “I am sorry—”
“Well, you'd better be,” said the woman. “Here I've traipsed out here for nothin' this time of night. I call you all a set of numskulls. I don't call the young one very bright, either. Couldn't tell where she lived, nor what her father's name was. Jest said it was papa, and her name was peshious, or some such tomfoolery. I advise you to tag her if she is in the habit of runnin' away. Here I ought to have been up in Tarrytown, and I've been foolin' round in New York all day with your young one and this big doll.” With that the stout woman thrust the doll at Maria. “Here, take this thing,” said she. “I've had enough of it! There ain't any sense in lettin' a child of her size lug around a doll as big as that, anyhow. When does my train come? Hev I got to cross to the other side? My cousin's husband said it would be about twenty minutes I'd have to wait.”
“I'll take you round to the other side, and I cannot be grateful enough for your care,” began Harry, but the woman stopped him again.
“I suppose you'll be willin' to pay my fare back to New York; that's all I want,” said she. “I don't want no thanks. I 'ain't no use for children, but I ain't a heathen.”
“I'll be glad to give you a great deal more than your fare to New York,” Harry said, in a broken voice. Evelyn was already fast asleep on his shoulder. He led the way down the stairs towards the other track.
“I don't want nothin' else, except five cents for my car-fare. I can get a transfer, and it won't be more'n that,” said the woman, following. “I've got enough to git along with, and I ain't a heathen.”
Harry, with Evelyn asleep in his arms, and Maria and Gladys, waited with the stout woman until the train came. The station was closed, and the woman sat down on a bench outside and immediately fell asleep herself.
When the train came, Harry thrust a bank-note into the woman's hand, having roused her with considerable difficulty, and she stumbled on to the train over her skirts just as she had done in the morning.
Harry knew the conductor. “Look out for that woman,” he called out to him. “She found my little girl that was lost.”
The conductor nodded affably as the train rolled out.
Wollaston Lee had gone home when the others descended the stairs and crossed to the other track. When Harry, with Evelyn in his arms, her limp little legs dangling, and Maria and Gladys, were on their way home, the question, which he in his confusion had not thought to put before, came.
“Why, Maria, where did you come from?” he asked.
“From New York,” replied Maria, meekly.
“Her and me went up to her ma-in-law's cousin's, on Forty-ninth Street, to find the kid,” Gladys cut in, glibly, “but the cousin had moved.”
Harry stared at them. “Why, how happened you to do such a thing?” he asked.
“I couldn't wait home and not do anything,” Maria sobbed, nervously.
“Her ma-in-law's cousin had moved,” said Gladys.
“How did you find your way?”
“I had been there before,” sobbed Maria. She felt for her father's hand, and grasped it with a meaning of trust and fear which he did not understand.
“Well, you must never do such a thing again, no matter what happens,” he said, and held the poor little girl's hand firmly. “Thank God father's got you both back safe and sound.”
Gladys made an abrupt departure on a corner.
“Good-night, M'ria!” she sung out, and was gone, a slim, flying figure in the gloom.
“Are you afraid to go alone?” Harry called after her, in some uncertainty.
“Land, no!” came cheerily back.
“How happened she to be with you?” asked Harry.
“She was down at the station when I came home from Wardway,” replied Maria, faintly. Her strength was almost gone. She could hardly stagger up the steps of the house with her father, he bearing his recovered child, she bearing her secret.
Ida was still to be seen rocking when Harry, with Evelyn and Maria, came in sight of the house. The visiting ladies had gone. Josephine, with her face swollen and tear-stained, was standing watching at a window in the dark dining-room. When she saw the three approaching she screamed:
“Oh, Mis' Edgham, they've found her! They're comin'! They've got her!” and rushed to open the door.
Ida rose, and came gracefully to meet them with a sinuous movement and a long sweep of her rose-colored draperies. Her radiant smile lit up her face again. She looked entirely herself when Harry greeted her.
“Well, Ida, our darling is found,” he said, in a broken voice.
Ida reached out her arms, from which hung graceful pendants of lace and ribbons, but the sleepy child clung to her father and whimpered crossly.
“She is all tired out, poor little darling! Papa's poor little darling!” said Harry, carrying her into the parlor.
“Josephine, tell Annie to heat some milk at once,” Ida said, sharply.
Annie, whose anxious face had been visible peeping through the dark entrance of the dining-room, hastened into the kitchen.
“Josephine, go right up-stairs and get Miss Evelyn's bed ready,” ordered Ida. Then she followed Harry into the parlor and began questioning him, standing over him, and now and then touching the yellow head of the child, who always shrank crossly at her touch.
Harry told his story. “I had the whole police force of New York on the outlook, although I did not really think myself she was in the city, and there papa's precious darling was all the time right on the train with him and he never knew it. And here was poor little Maria,” added Harry, looking at Maria, who had sunk into a corner of a divan—“here was poor little Maria, Ida, and she had gone hunting her little sister on her own account. She thought she might be at your cousin Alice's. If I had known that both my babies were wandering around New York I should have been crazy. When I got off the train, there was Maria and that little Mann girl. She was down at the station when she got home from Wardway, Maria says, and those two children went right off to New York.”
“Did they?” said Ida, in a listless voice. She had resumed her seat in her rocking-chair.
“Edwin Shaw said he thought he saw Evelyn getting on the New York train this morning,” said Maria, faintly.
“She is all used up,” Harry said. “You had better drink some hot milk yourself, Maria. Only think of that child and that Mann girl going off to New York on their own accounts, Ida!”
“Yes,” said Ida.
“Wollaston Lee went, too,” Maria said, suddenly. A quick impulse for concealment in that best of hiding-places, utter frankness and openness, came over her. “He got off the train here. You know he began school, too, at Wardway this morning, and he and Gladys both went.”
“Well, I'm thankful you had him along,” said Harry. “The Lord only knows what you two girls would have done alone in a city like New York. You must never do such a thing again, whatever happens, Maria. You might as well run right into a den of wild beasts. Only think of that child going to New York, and coming out on the last train, with that Mann girl; and Wollaston is only a boy, though he's bright and smart. And your cousin has moved, Ida.”
“I thought she had,” said Ida.
“And to think of what those children might have got into,” said Harry, “in a city like New York, which is broken out all over with plague spots instead of having them in one place! Only think of it, Ida!”
Harry's voice was almost sobbing. It seemed as if he fairly appealed to his wife for sympathy, with his consciousness of the dangers through which his child had passed. But Ida only said, “Yes.”
“And the baby might have fallen into the worst hands,” said Harry. “But, thank God, a good woman, although she was coarse enough, got hold of her.”
“Yes, we can't be thankful enough,” Ida said, smoothly, and then Josephine came in with a tray and a silver cup of hot milk for Evelyn.
“Is that all the milk Annie heated?” asked Harry.
“Well, tell Annie to go to the sideboard and get that bottle of port-wine and pour out a glass for Miss Maria; and, Josephine, you had better bring her something to eat with it. You haven't had any supper, have you, child?”
Maria shook her head. “I don't want any, thank you, papa,” said she.
“Is there any cold meat, Josephine, do you know?”
Josephine said there was some cold roast beef.
“Well, bring Miss Maria a plate, with a slice of bread-and-butter, and some beef.”
“Have you had any supper yourself, dear?” Ida asked.
“I declare I don't know, dear,” replied Harry, who looked unutterably worn and tired. “No, I think not. I don't know when I could have got it. No, I know I have not.”
“Josephine,” said Ida, “tell Annie to broil a piece of beefsteak for Mr. Edgham, and make a cup of tea.”
“Thank you, dear,” poor Harry said, gratefully. Then he said to Maria, “Will you wait and have some hot beefsteak and tea with papa, darling?”
Maria shook her head.
“I think she had better eat the cold beef and bread, and drink the wine, and go at once to bed, if she is to start on that early train to-morrow,” Ida said.
“Maybe you are right, dear,” Harry said. “Hurry with the roast beef and bread and wine for Miss Maria, Josephine, and Annie can see to my supper afterwards.”
All this time Harry was coaxing the baby to imbibe spoonfuls of the hot milk. It was hard work, for Evelyn was not very hungry. She had been given a good deal of cake and pie from a bakery all day.
However, at last she was roused sufficiently to finish her little meal, and Maria drank her glass of wine and ate a little of the bread and meat, although it seemed to her that it would choke her. She was conscious of her father's loving, anxious eyes upon her as she ate, and she made every effort.
Little Evelyn had recently had her own little room fitted up. It was next to Maria's; indeed, there was a connecting door between the two rooms. Evelyn's room was a marvel. It was tiny, but complete. Ida had the walls hung with paper with a satin gloss, on which were strewn garlands of rose-buds. There was a white matting and a white fur rug. The small furniture was white, with rose-bud decorations. There was a canopy of rose silk over the tiny bed, and a silk counterpane of a rose-bud pattern.
After Evelyn had finished her hot milk, her father carried her up-stairs into this little nest, and Josephine undressed her and put her to bed. The child's head drooped as helplessly as a baby's all the time, she was so overcome with sleep. When she was in bed, Ida came in and kissed her. She was so fast asleep that she did not know. She and Harry stood for a moment contemplating the little thing, with her yellow hair spread over the white pillow and her round rose of a face sunken therein. Harry put his arm around his wife's waist.
“We ought to be very thankful, dear,” he said, and he almost sobbed.
“Yes,” said Ida. To do her justice, she regarded the little rosy-and-white thing sunk in slumber with a certain tenderness. She was even thankful. She had been exceedingly disturbed the whole day. She was very glad to have this happy termination, and to be able to go to rest in peace. She bent again over the child, and touched her lips lightly to the little face, and when she looked up her own was softened. “Yes,” she whispered, with more of womanly feeling than Harry had ever seen in her—“yes, you are right, we have a great deal to be thankful for.”
Maria, in the next room, heard quite distinctly what Ida said. It would once have aroused in her a contemptuous sense of her step-mother's hypocrisy, but now she felt too humbled herself to blame another, even to realize any fault in another. She felt as if she had undergone a tremendous cataclysm of spirit, which had cast her forever from her judgment-seat as far as others were concerned. Was she not deceiving as never Ida had deceived? What would Ida say? What would her father say if he knew that she was—? She could not say the word even to herself. When she was in bed and her light out, she was overcome by a nervous stress which almost maddened her. Faces seemed to glower at her out of the blackness of the night, faces which she knew were somehow projected out of her own consciousness, but which were none the less terrific. She even heard her name shouted, and strange, isolated words, and fragments of sentences. She lay in a deadly fear. Now was the time when, if her own mother had been alive, she would have screamed aloud for some aid. But now she could call to no one. She would have spoken to her father. She would not have told him—she was gripped too fast by her sense of the need of secrecy—but she would have obtained the comfort and aid of his presence and soothing words; but there was Ida. She remembered how she had talked to Ida, and her father was with her. A dull wonder even seized her as to whether Ida would tell her father, and she should be allowed to remain at home after saying such dreadful things. There was no one upon whom she could call. All at once she thought of the maid Annie, whose room was directly over hers. Annie was kindly. She would slip up-stairs to her, and make some excuse for doing so—ask her if she did not smell smoke, or something. It seemed to her that if she did not hear another human voice, come in contact with something human, she should lose all control of herself.
Maria, little, slender, trembling girl, with all the hysterical fancies of her sex crowding upon her, all the sufferings of her sex waiting for her in the future, and with no mother to soften them, slipped out of bed, stole across her room, and opened the door with infinite caution. Then she went up the stairs which led to the third story. Both maids had rooms on the third story. Josephine went home at night, and Hannah, the cook, had gone home with her after the return of the wanderers, and was to remain. She was related to Josephine's mother. She knocked timidly at Annie's door. She waited, and knocked again. She was trembling from head to foot in a nervous chill. She got no response to her knock. Then she called, “Annie,” very softly. She waited and called again. At last, in desperation, she opened the door, which was not locked. She entered, and the room was empty. Suddenly she remembered that Annie, kind-hearted as she was, and a good servant, had not a character above suspicion. She remembered that she had heard Gladys intimate that she had a sweetheart, and was not altogether what she should be. She gazed around the empty, forlorn little room, with one side sloping with the slope of the roof, and an utter desolation overcame her, along with a horror of Annie. She felt that if Annie were there she would be no refuge.
Maria turned, and slipped as silently as a shadow down the stairs back to her room. She looked at her bed, and it seemed to her that she could not lie down again in it. Then suddenly she thought of something else. She thought of little Evelyn asleep in the next room. She opened the connecting door softly and stole across to the baby's little bed. It was too small, or she would have crept in beside her. Maria hesitated a moment, then she slid her arms gently under the little, soft, warm body, and gathered the child up in her arms. She was quite heavy. At another time Maria, who had slender arms, could scarcely have carried her. Now she bore her with entire ease into her own room and laid her in her own bed. Then she got in beside her and folded her little sister in her arms. Directly a sense of safety and peace came over her when she felt the little snuggling thing, who had wakened just enough to murmur something unintelligible in her baby tongue, and cling close to her with all her little, rosy limbs, and thrust her head into the hollow of Maria's shoulder. Then she gave a deep sigh and was soundly asleep again. Maria lay awake a little while, enjoying that sense of peace and security which the presence of this little human thing she loved gave her. Then she fell asleep herself.
She waked early. The thought of the early train was in her mind, and Maria was always one who could wake at the sub-recollection of a need. Evelyn was still asleep, curled up like a flower. Maria raised her and carried her back to her own room and put her in her bed without waking her. Then she dressed herself in her school costume and went down-stairs. She had smelled coffee while she was dressing, and knew that Hannah had returned. Her father was in the dining-room when she entered. He usually took an earlier train, but this morning he had felt utterly unable to rise. Maria noticed, with a sudden qualm of fear, how ill and old and worn-out he looked, but Harry himself spoke first with concern for her.
“Papa's poor little girl!” he said, kissing her. “She looks tired out. Did you sleep, darling?”
“Yes, after a while. Are you sick, papa?”
“No, dear. Why?”
“Because you did not go on the other train.”
“No, dear, I am all right, just a little tired,” replied Harry. Then he added, looking solicitously at Maria, “Are you sure you feel able to go to school to-day?—because you need not, you know.”
“I am all right,” said Maria.
She and her father had seated themselves at the table. Harry looked at his watch.
“We shall neither of us go if we don't get our breakfast before long,” he said.
Then Hannah came in, with a lowering look, bringing the coffee-pot and the chops and rolls.
“Where is Annie?” asked Harry.
“I don't know,” replied Hannah, with a toss of her head and a compression of her lips. She was a large, solid woman, with a cast in her eyes. She had never been married.
“You don't know?” said Harry, helping Maria to a chop and a roll, while Hannah poured the coffee.
“No,” said Hannah again, and this time her face was fairly malicious. “I don't know how long I can stand such doin's, and that's the truth,” she said.
Hannah had come originally from New England, and had principles, in which she took pride, perhaps the more because they had never in one sense been assailed. Annie was a Hungarian, and considered by Hannah to have no principles. She was also pretty, in a rough, half-finished sort of fashion, and had no cast in her eyes. Hannah privately considered that as against her.
Harry began sipping his coffee, which Hannah had set down with such impetus that she spilled a good deal in the saucer, and he looked uneasily at her.
“What do you mean, Hannah?” he asked.
“I mean that I am not used to being throwed in with girls who stays out all night, and nobody knows where they be, and that's the truth,” said Hannah, with emphasis.
“Do you mean to say that Annie—”
“Yes, I do. She wa'n't in, and they do say she's married, and—”
“Hush, Hannah, we'll talk about this another time,” Harry said, with a glance at Maria.
Just then a step was heard in the kitchen.
“There she is now, the trollop,” said Hannah, but she whispered the last word under her breath, and she also gave a glance at Maria, as one might at any innocent ignorance which must be shielded even from knowledge itself.
Annie came in directly. Her pretty, light hair was nicely arranged; she was smiling, but she looked doubtful.
Hannah went with a flounce into the kitchen. Annie had removed her hat and coat and tied on a white apron in a second, and she began waiting exactly as if she had come down the back stairs after a night spent in her own room. Indeed, she did not dream that either Harry or Maria knew that she had not, and she felt quite sure of Hannah's ignorance, since Hannah herself had been away all night.
Maria from time to time glanced at Annie, and, although she had always liked her, a feeling of repulsion came over her. She shrank a little when Annie passed the muffins to her. Harry gave one keen, scrutinizing glance at the girl's face, but he said nothing. After breakfast he went up-stairs to bid Ida, who had a way of rising late, good-bye, and he whispered to her, “Annie was out all last night.”
“Oh, well,” replied Ida, sleepily, with a little impatience, “it does not happen very often. What are we going to do about it?”
“Hannah is kicking,” said Harry, “and—”
“I can't help it if she is,” said Ida. “Annie does her work well, and it is so difficult to get a maid nowadays; and I cannot set up as a moral censor, I really cannot, Harry.”
“I hate the example, that is all,” said Harry. “There Hannah said, right before Maria, that Annie had been out.”
“It won't hurt Maria any,” Ida replied, with a slight frown. “Maria wouldn't know what she meant. She is not only innocent, but ignorant. I can't turn off Annie, unless I see another maid as good in prospect. Good-bye, dear.”
Harry and Maria walked to the station together. Their trains reached Edgham about the same time, although going in opposite directions. It was a frosty morning. There had been a slight frost the night before. A light powder of glistening white lay over everything. The roofs were beginning to smoke as it melted. Maria inhaled the clear air, and her courage revived a little—still, not much. Nobody knew how she dreaded the day, the meeting Wollaston. She could not yet bring herself to call him her husband. It seemed at once horrifying and absurd. The frosty air brought a slight color to the girl's cheeks, but she still looked wretched. Harry, who himself looked more than usually worn and old, kept glancing at her, as they hastened along.
“See here, darling,” he said, “hadn't you better not go to school to-day? I will write a note of explanation myself to the principal, at the office, and mail it in New York. Hadn't you better turn around and go home and rest to-day?”
“Oh no,” replied Maria. “I would much rather go, papa.”
“You look as if you could hardly stand up, much less go to school.”
“I am all right,” said Maria; but as she spoke she realized that her knees fairly bent under her, and her heart beat loudly in her ears, for they had come in sight of the station.
“You are sure?” Harry said, anxiously.
“Yes, I am all right. I want to go to school.”
“Well, look out that you eat a good luncheon,” said Harry, as he kissed her good-bye.
Maria had to go to the other side to take her Wardway train. She left her father and went under the bridge and mounted the stairs. When she gained the platform, the first person whom she saw, with a grasp of vision which seemed to reach her very heart, although she apparently did not see him at all, was Wollaston Lee. He also saw her, and his boyish face paled. There were quite a number waiting for the train, which was late. Maud Page was among them. Maria at once went close to her. Maud asked about her little sister. She had heard that she was found, although it was almost inconceivable how the news had spread at such an early hour.
“I am real glad she's found,” said Maud. Then she stared curiously at Maria. “Say, was it so?” she asked.
“Was what true?” asked Maria, trembling.
“Was it true that you and Wollaston Lee and Gladys Mann all went to New York looking for your sister, and came out on the last train?”
“Yes, it is true,” replied Maria, quite steadily.
“What ever made you?”
“I thought she might have gone to a cousin of Hers who used to live on Forty-ninth Street, but we found the cousin had moved when we got there.”
“Gracious!” said Maud. “And you didn't come out till that last train?”
“I should think you would be tired to death, and you don't look any too chipper.” Maud turned and stared at Wollaston, who was standing aloof. “I declare, he looks as if he had been up a week of Sundays, too,” said she. Then she called out to him, in her high-pitched treble, which sounded odd coming from her soft circumference of throat. Maud's voice ought, by good rights, to have been a rich, husky drone, instead of bearing a resemblance to a parrot's. “Say, Wollaston Lee,” she called out, and the boy approached perforce, lifting his hat—“say,” said Maud, “I hear you and Maria eloped last night.” Then she giggled.
The boy cast a glance of mistrust and doubt at Maria. His face turned crimson.
“You are telling awful whoppers, Maud Page,” Maria responded, promptly, and his face cleared. “We just went in to find Evelyn.”
“Oh!” said Maud, teasingly.
“You are mean to talk so,” said Maria.
Maud laughed provokingly.
“What made Wollaston go for, then?” she asked.
“Do you suppose anybody would let a girl go alone to New York on a night train?” said Maria, with desperate spirit. “He went because he was polite, so there.”
Wollaston said nothing. He tried to look haughty, but succeeded in looking sheepish.
“Gladys Mann went, too,” said Maria.
“I don't see what makes you go with a girl like that anywhere?” said Maud.
“She's as good as anybody,” said Maria.
“Maybe she is,” returned Maud. Then she glanced at Wollaston, who was looking away, and whispered in Maria's ear: “They talk like fury about her, and her mother, too.”
“I don't care,” Maria said, stoutly. “She was down at the station and told me how Evelyn was lost, and then she went in with me.”
Maud laughed her aggravating laugh again.
“Well, maybe it was just as well she did,” she said, “or else they would have said you and Wollaston had eloped, sure.”
Maria began to speak, but her voice was drowned by the rumble of the New York train on the other track. The Wardway train was late. Usually the two trains met at the station.
However, the New York train had only just pulled out of sight before the Wardway train came in. As Maria climbed on the train she felt a paper thrust forcibly into her hand, which closed over it instinctively. She sat with Maud, and had no opportunity to look at it all the way to Wardway. She slipped it slyly into her Algebra.
Maud's eyes were sharp. “What's that you are putting in your Algebra?” she asked.
“A marker,” replied Maria. She felt that Maud's curiosity was such that it justified a white lie.
She had no chance to read the paper which Wollaston had slipped into her hand until she was fairly in school. Then she read it under cover of a book. It was very short, and quite manly, although manifestly written under great perturbation of spirit.
Wollaston wrote: “Shall I tell your folks to-night?”
Wollaston was not in Maria's classes. He was older, and had entered in advance. She had not a chance to reply until noon. Going into the restaurant, she in her turn slipped a paper forcibly into his hand.
“Good land! look out!” said Maud Page. “Why, Maria Edgham, you butted right into Wollaston Lee and nearly knocked him over.”
What Maria had written was also short, but desperate. She wrote:
“If you ever tell your folks or my folks, or anybody, I will drown myself in Fisher's Pond.”
A look of relief spread over the boy's face. Maria glanced at him where he sat at a distant table with some boys, and he gave an almost imperceptible nod of reassurance at her. Maria understood that he had not told, and would not, unless she bade him.
On the train going home that night he found a chance to speak to her. He occupied the seat behind her, and waited until a woman who sat with Maria got off the train at a station, and also a man who had occupied the seat with him. Then he leaned over and said, ostentatiously, so he could be heard half the length of the car, “It is a beautiful day, isn't it?”
Maria did not turn around at all, but her face was deadly white as she replied, “Yes, lovely.”
Then the boy whispered, and the whisper seemed to reach her inmost soul. “Look here, I want to do what is right, and—honorable, you know, but hang me if I know what is. It is an awful pickle.”
Maria nodded, still with her face straight ahead.
“I don't know how it happened, for my part,” the boy whispered.
Maria nodded again.
“I didn't say anything to my folks, because I didn't know how you would feel about it. I thought I ought to ask you first. But I am not afraid to tell, you needn't think that, and I mean to be honorable. If you say so, I will go right home with you and tell your folks, and then I will tell mine, and we will see what we can do.”
Maria made no answer. She was in agony. It seemed to her that the whisper was deafening her.
“I will leave school, and go to work right away,” said the boy, and his voice was a little louder, and full of pathetic manliness; “and I guess in a year's time I could get so I could earn enough to support you. I mean to do what is right. All is I want to do what you want me to do. I didn't know how you felt about it.”
Then Maria turned slightly. He leaned closer.
“I told you how I felt,” she whispered back.
“You mean what you wrote?”
“Yes, what I wrote.”
“You don't want me to tell at all?”
“Never, as long as you live.”
“How about her?”
“Yes, confound her!”
“She won't tell. She won't dare to.”
Wollaston was silent for a moment, then he whispered again. “Well,” he said, “I want to do what you want me to and what is honorable. Of course, we are both young, and I haven't any money except what father gives me, but I am willing to quit school to-morrow and go to work. You needn't think I mean to back out and show the white feather. I am not that kind. We have got into this, and I am ready and willing to do all I can.”
“I meant what I wrote,” whispered Maria again. “I never want you to tell, and—”
“I wish you would go and sit somewhere else, and not speak to me again. I hate the very sight of you.”
“All right,” said the boy. There was a slight echo of rancor in his own voice, still it was patient, with the patience of a man with a woman and her unreason. All his temper of the night before had disappeared. He was quite honest in saying that he wished to do what was right and honorable. He was really much more of a man than he had been the day before. He was conscious of not loving Maria—his budding boy-love for her had been shocked out of life. He was even repelled by her, but he had a strong sense of his duty towards her, and he was full of pity for her. He saw how pale and nervous and frightened she was. He got up to change his seat, but before he went, he leaned over her and whispered again: “You need not be a mite afraid, Maria. All I want is what will please you and what is right. I will never tell, unless you ask me to. You need not worry. You had better put it all out of your mind.”
Maria nodded. She felt very dizzy. She was glad when Wollaston not only left his seat, but the car, going into the smoker. She heard the door slam after him with a sense of relief. She felt a great relief at his assurance that he would keep their secret. Wollaston Lee was a boy whose promises had weight. She looked out of the window and a little of her old-time peace seemed to descend upon her. She saw how lovely the landscape was in the waning light. She saw the new moon with a great star attendant, and reflected that it was over her right shoulder. After all, youth is hard to down, and hope finds a rich soil in it. Then, too, a temporization to one who is young means eternity. If Wollaston did not tell, and Gladys did not tell, and she did not tell, it might all come right somehow in the end.
She looked at the crescent of the moon, and the great depth of light of the star, and her own affairs seemed to quiet her with their very littleness. What was little Maria Edgham and her ridiculous and tragic matrimonial tangle compared with the eternal light of those strange celestial things yonder? She would pass, and they would remain. She became comforted. She even reflected that she was hungry. She had not obeyed her father's injunction, and had eaten very little luncheon. She thought with pleasure of the good dinner which would be awaiting her. Then suddenly she remembered how she had talked to Her. How would she be treated? But she remembered that Ida could not have said anything against her to her father, or, if she had done so, it had made no difference to him. She considered Ida's character, and it seemed to her quite probable that she would make no further reference to the subject. Ida was averse even to pursuing enmities, because of the inconvenience which they might cause her. It was infinitely less trouble to allow birds which had pecked at her to fly away than to pursue them; then, too, she always remained unshaken in her belief in herself. Maria's tirade would not in the least have disturbed her self-love, and it is only a wound in self-love which can affect some people. Maria was inclined to think that Ida would receive her with the same coldly radiant smile as usual, and she was right. That night, when she entered the bright parlor, glowing with soft lights under art-shades, Ida, in her pretty house-gown—scarlet cashmere trimmed with medallions of cream lace—greeted her in the same fashion as she had always done. Evelyn ran forward with those squeals of love which only a baby can accomplish. Maria, hugging her little sister, saw that Ida's countenance was quite unchanged.
“So you have got home?” said she. “Is it very cold?”
“Not very,” replied Maria.
“I have not been out, and I did not know,” Ida said, in her usual fashion of making commonplaces appear like brilliances.
“There may be a frost, I don't know,” Maria said. She was actually confused before this impenetrability. Remembering the awful things she had said to Her, she was suddenly conscience-stricken as she saw Ida's calm radiance of demeanor. She began to wonder if she had not been mistaken, if Ida was not really much better than she herself. She knew that is she had had such things said to her she could not have appeared so forgiving. Such absolute self-love, and self-belief, was incomprehensible to her. She had accused Ida of more than she could herself actually comprehend. She began to think Ida had a forgiving heart, and that she herself had been the wicked one, not She. She responded to everything which Ida said with a conciliatory air. Presently Harry came in. He was late. He looked very worn and tired. Ida sent Josephine up-stairs to get his smoking-jacket and slippers, and Maria thought She was very kind to her father. Evelyn climbed into his arms, but he greeted even her rather wearily. Ida noticed it.
“Come away, darling,” she said. “Papa is tired, and you are a heavy little lump of honey,” Ida smiled, entrancingly.
Harry looked at her with loving admiration, then at Maria.
“I tell you what it is, I feel pretty thankful to-night, when I think of last night—when I realize I have you all home,” said he.
Ida smiled more radiantly. “Yes, we ought to be very thankful,” she said.
Maria made up her mind that she would apologize to her if she had a chance. She did not wish to speak before her father, not because she did not wish him to know, but because she did not wish to annoy him, he looked so tired. She had a chance after dinner, when Josephine was putting Evelyn to bed, and Harry had been called to the door to speak to a man on business.
“I am sorry I spoke as I did to you,” she said, in a low voice, to Ida.
They were both in the parlor. Maria had a school-book in her hand, and Ida was embroidering. The rosy shade of the lamp intensified the glow on her beautiful face. She looked smilingly at Maria.
“Why, my dear,” she said, “I don't know what you said. I have forgotten.”
Thank you for reading!