By the Light of the Soul
By Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Author of "The Debtor" "The Portion of Labor" "Jerome" "A New England Nun" Etc. etc.
Illustrations by Harold M. Brett
New York and London Harper & Brothers Publishers 1907
Copyright, 1906, by Harper & Brothers. All rights reserved. Published January, 1907.
To Harriet and Carolyn Alden
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 naivete—"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 jardinieres 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.