By JULIE M. LIPPMANN
If you are one of the favored few, privileged to ride in chaises, you may find the combination of Broadway during the evening rush-hour, in a late November storm, stimulating—you may, that is, provided you have a reliable driver. If, contrariwise, you happen to be of the class whose fate it is to travel in public conveyances (and lucky if you have the price!) and the car, say, won't stop for you—why—
Claire Lang had been standing in the drenching wet at the street-crossing for fully ten minutes. The badgering crowd had been shouldering her one way, pushing her the other, until, being a stranger and not very big, she had become so bewildered that she lost her head completely, and, with the blind impulse of a hen with paresis, darted straight out, in amidst the crush of traffic, with all the chances strong in favor of her being instantly trampled under foot, or ground under wheel, and never a one to know how it had happened.
An instant, and she was back again in her old place upon the curbstone. Something like the firm iron grip of a steam-derrick had fastened on her person, hoisted her neatly up, and set her as precisely down, exactly where she had started from.
It took her a full second to realize what had happened. Then, quick as a flash, anger flamed up in her pale cheeks, blazed in her tired eyes. For, of course, this was an instance of "insult" described by "the family at home" as common to the experience of unprotected girls in New York City. She groped about in her mind for the formula to be applied in such cases, as recommended by Aunt Amelia. "Sir, you are no gentleman! If you were a gentleman, you would not offer an affront to a young, defenseless girl who—" The rest eluded her; she could not recall it, try as she would. In desperate resolve to do her duty anyway, she tilted back her umbrella, whereat a fine stream of water poured from the tip directly over her upturned face, and trickled cheerily down the bridge of her short nose.
"Sir—" she shouted resolutely, and then she stopped, for, plainly, her oration was, in the premises, a misfit—the person beside her—the one of the mortal effrontery and immortal grip, being a—woman. A woman of masculine proportions, towering, deep-chested, large-limbed, but with a face which belied all these, for in it her sex shone forth in a motherliness unmistakable, as if the world at large were her family, and it was her business to see that it was generously provided for, along the pleasantest possible lines for all concerned.
"What car?" the woman trumpeted, gazing down serenely into Claire's little wet, anxious, upturned face at her elbow.
The stranger nodded, peering down the glistening, wet way, as if she were a skipper sighting a ship.
"My car, too! First's Lexin'ton—next Broadway—then—here's ours!" Again that derrick-grip, and they stood in the heart of the maelstrom, but apparently perfectly safe, unassailable.
"They won't stop," Claire wailed plaintively. "I've been waiting for ages. The car'll go by! You see if it won't!"
It did, indeed, seem on the point of sliding past, as all the rest had done, but of a sudden the motorman vehemently shut off his power, and put on his brake. By some hidden, mysterious force that was in her, or the mere commanding dimensions of her frame, Claire's companion had brought him to a halt.
She lifted her charge gently up on to the step, pausing herself, before she should mount the platform, to close the girl's umbrella.
"Step lively! Step lively!" the conductor urged insistently, reaching for his signal-strap.
The retort came calmly, deliberately, but with perfect good nature. "Not on your life, young man. I been steppin' lively all day, an' for so long's it's goin' to take this car to get to One-hundred-an'-sixteenth Street, my time ain't worth no more'n a settin' hen's."
The conductor grinned in spite of himself. "Well, mine is," he declared, while with an authoritative finger he indicated the box into which Claire was to drop her fare.
"So all the other roosters think," the woman let fall with a tolerant smile, while she diligently searched in her shabby purse for five cents.
Claire, in the doorway, lingered.
"Step right along in, my dear! Don't wait for me," her friend advised, closing her teeth on a dime, as she still pursued an elusive nickel. "Step right along in, and sit down anywheres, an' if there ain't nowheres to sit, why, just take a waltz-step or two in the direction o' some of them elegant gen'lemen's feet, occupyin' the places meant for ladies, an' if they don't get up for love of you, they'll get up for love of their shins."
Still the girl did not pass on.
"Fare, please!" There was a decided touch of asperity in the conductor's tone. He glared at Claire almost menacingly.
Her lip trembled, the quick tears sprang to her eyes. She hesitated, swallowed hard, and then brought it out with a piteous gulp.
"I had my fare—'twas in my glove. It must have slipped out. It's gone—lost—and—"
A tug at the signal-strap was the conductor's only comment. He was stopping the car to put her off, but before he could carry out his purpose the woman had dropped her dime into the box with a sounding click.
"Fare for two!" she said, "an' if I had time, an' a place to sit, I'd turn you over acrost my knee, an' give you two, for fair, young man, for the sake of your mother who didn't learn you better manners when you was a boy!" With which she laid a kind hand upon Claire's heaving shoulder, and impelled her gently into the body of the car, already full to overflowing.
For a few moments the girl had a hard struggle to control her rising sobs, but happily no one saw her working face and twitching lips, for her companion had planted herself like a great bulwark between her and the world, shutting her off, walling her 'round. Then, suddenly, she found herself placed in a hurriedly vacated seat, from which she could look up into the benevolent face inclined toward her, and say, without too much danger of breaking down in the effort:
"I really did have it—the money, you know. Truly, I'm not a—"
"O, pooh! Don't you worry your head over a little thing like that. Such accidents is liable to occur in the best-reggerlated fam'lies. They do in mine, shoor!"
"But, you see," quavered the uncertain voice, "I haven't any more. That's all I had, so I can't pay you back, and—"
It was curious, but just here another passenger hastily rose, vacating the seat next Claire's, and leaving it free, whereat her companion compressed her bulky frame into it with a sigh, as of well-earned rest, and remarked comfortably, "Now we can talk. You was sayin'—what was it? About that change, you know. It was all you had. You mean by you, of course."
Claire's pale, pinched face flushed hotly. "No, I don't," she confessed, without lifting her downcast eyes.
Her companion appeared to ponder this for a moment, then quite abruptly she let it drop.
"My name's Slawson," she observed. "Martha Slawson. I go out by the day. Laundry-work, housecleaning, general chores. I got a husband an' four children, to say nothing of a mother-in-law who lives with us, an' keeps an eye on things while me an' Sammy (that's Mr. Slawson) is out workin', an' lucky if it's an eye itself, for it's not a hand, I can tell you that. What's your name, if I may make so bold?"
"Claire Lang. My people live in Grand Rapids—where the furniture and carpet-sweepers come from," with a wistful, faint little attempt at a smile. "My father was judge of the Supreme Court, but he had losses, and then he died, and there wasn't much of anything left, and so—"
"You come to New York to make your everlastin' fortune, an' you—"
Claire Lang shook her head, completing the unfinished sentence. "No, I haven't made it, that is, not yet. But I'm not discouraged. I don't mean to give up. Things look pretty dark just now, but I'm not going to let that discourage me—No, indeed! I'm going to be brave and courageous, and never say die, even if—even if—"
"Turn 'round, an' pertend you're lookin' out of the winder," suggested Mrs. Slawson confidentially. "The way folks stare, you'd think the world was full of nothin' but laughin' hyeenyas. Dontcher care, my dear! Well for some of 'em, if they could shed an honest tear or two themselves, oncet in a while, instead of bein' that brazen; 'twouldn't be water at all, but Putzes Pomady it'd take to make an impression on 'em, an' don't you forget it. There! That's right! Now, no one can observe what's occurrin' in your face, an' I can talk straight into your ear, see? What I was goin' to say is, that bein' a mother myself an' havin' children of my own to look out for, I couldn't recommend any lady, let alone one so young an' pretty as you, to take up with strangers, here in New York City, be they male or be they female. No, certaintly not! But in this case, you can take it from me, I'm O.K. I can give the highest references. I worked for the best fam'lies in this town, ever since I was a child. You needn't be a mite afraid. I'm just a plain mother of a fam'ly an', believe me, you can trust me as you would trust one of your own relations, though I do say it as shouldn't, knowin' how queer own relations can be and is, when put to it at times. So, if you happen to be in a hole, my dear, without friends or such things in the city, you feel free to turn to, or if you seem to stand in need of a word of advice, or—anything else, why, dontcher hesitate a minute. It'd be a pretty deep hole Martha Slawson couldn't see over the edge of, be sure of that, even if she did have to stand on her toes to do it. Holes is my specialty, havin' been in an' out, as you might say, all my life—particularly in."
Judicious or not, Claire told her story. It was not a long one. Just the everyday experience of a young girl coming to a strange city, without influence, friends, or money, expecting to make her way, and finding that way beset with difficulties, blocked by obstacles.
"I've done everything I could think of, honestly I have," she concluded apologetically. "I began by trying for big things; art-work in editorial offices (everybody liked my art-work in Grand Rapids!). But 'twas no use. Then I took up commercial drawing. I got what looked like a good job, but the man gave me one week's pay, and that's all I could ever collect, though I worked for him over a month. Then I tried real estate. One firm told me about a woman selling for them who cleared, oh, I don't know how-much-a-week, in commissions. Something queer must be the matter with me, I guess, for I never got rid of a single lot, though I walked my feet off. I've tried writing ads., and I've directed envelopes. I've read the Wants columns, till it seems as if everybody in the world was looking for a job. But I can't get anything to do. I guess God doesn't mean me to die of starvation, for you wouldn't believe how little I've had to eat all summer and fall, and yet I'm almost as strong and hearty as ever. But lately I haven't been able to make any money at all, not five cents, so I couldn't pay my board, and they—they told me at the house where I live, that I'd have to square up to-night, or I couldn't keep my room any longer. They took my trunk a week ago. I haven't had anything to wear except these clothes I have on, since, and they're pretty wet now—and—and—I've nowhere to go, and it is pouring so hard, and I should have been put off the car if you hadn't—"
Mrs. Slawson checked the labored flow with a hand upon the girl's knee. "Where did you say your boardin'-house is?" she inquired abruptly.
"Good gracious! An' we're only three blocks off there now!"
"But you said," expostulated Claire helplessly, feeling herself propelled as by the hand of fate through the crowd toward the door. "You said you live on One-hundred-and-sixteenth Street."
"So I do, my dear, so I do! But I've got some business to transack with a lady livin' in Ninety-fifth Street—West—Two-hunderd-an'-eighty-five-an'-a-half. Come along. 'Step lively,' as my friend, this nice young man out here on the rear platform, says."
They plodded along the flooded street in silence, Claire following after Martha Slawson like a small child, almost clutching at her skirts. It was not easy to keep pace with the long, even strides that covered so much ground, and Claire fell into a steady pony-trot that made her breath come short and quick, her heart beat fast. She dimly wondered what was going to happen, but she did not dare, or care, to ask. It was comfort enough just to feel this great embodiment of human sympathy and strength beside her, to know she was no longer alone.
Before the house Martha paused a moment.
"Now, my dear, there ain't goin' to be nothin' for you to do but just sit tight," she vouchsafed reassuringly. "Don't you start to butt in (if you'll pardon the liberty), no matter what I say. I'm goin' to be a perfect lady, never fear. I know my place, an' I know my dooty, an' if your boardin'-house lady knows hers, there'll be no trouble whatsomedever, so dontcher worry."
She descended the three steps leading from the street-level down into the little paved courtyard below, and rang the basement bell. A moment and an inner door was unlocked, flung open, and a voice from just within the grating of the closed iron area-gate asked curtly, "Well, what's wanted?"
"Is this Mrs.——? I should say, is this the lady of the house?" Martha Slawson's voice was deep, bland, prepossessing.
"I'm Mrs. Daggett, yes, if that's what you mean."
"That's what I mean. My name's Slawson. Mrs. Sammy Slawson, an' I come to see you on a little matter of business connected with a young lady who's been lodgin' in your house—Miss Lang."
Mrs. Daggett stepped forward, and unlatched the iron gate. "Come in," she said, in a changed voice, endeavoring to infuse into her acrid manner the grace of a belated hospitality.
Claire, completely hidden from view behind Martha Slawson's heroic proportions, followed in her wake like a wee, foreshortened shadow as, at Mrs. Daggett's invitation, Mrs. Slawson passed through the area gateway into the malodorous basement hall, and so to the dingy dining-room beyond. Here a group of grimy-clothed tables seemed to have alighted in sudden confusion, reminding one of a flock of pigeons huddled together in fear of the vultures soon to descend on them with greedy, all-devouring appetites.
"We can just as well talk here as anywhere," announced Mrs. Daggett. "It's quarter of an hour before dinnertime, but if you'd rather go up to the parlor we can."
"O, dear, no!" said Martha Slawson suavely. "Any place is good enough for me. Don't trouble yourself. I'm not particular where I am." Unbidden, she drew out a chair from its place beside one of the uninviting tables, and sat down on it deliberately. It creaked beneath her weight.
"O—oh! Miss Lang!" said Mrs. Daggett, surprised, seeing her young lodger now, for the first time.
Martha nodded. "Yes, it's Miss Lang, an' I brought her with me, through the turrbl storm, Mrs.—a—?"
"Daggett," supplied the owner of the name promptly.
"That's right, Daggett," repeated Martha. "I brought Miss Lang with me, Mrs. Daggett, because I couldn't believe my ears when she told me she was goin' to be—to be turned out, if she didn't pay up to-night, weather or no. I wanted to hear the real truth of it from you, ma'am, straight, with her by."
Mrs. Daggett coughed. "Well, business is business. I'm not a capitalist. I'm not keeping a boarding-house for my health, you know. I can't afford to give credit when I have to pay cash."
"But, of course, you don't mean you'd ackchelly refuse the young lady shelter a night like this, if she come to you, open an' honest, an' said she hadn't the price by her just at present, but she would have it sooner or later, an' then you'd be squared every cent. You wouldn't turn her down if she said that, would you?"
"Say, Mrs. Slawson, or whatever your name is," broke in Mrs. Daggett sharply, "I'm not here to be cross-questioned. When you told me you'd come on business for Miss Lang, I thought 'twas to settle what she owes. If it ain't—I'm a busy woman. I'm needed in the kitchen this minute, to see to the dishing-up. Have the goodness to come to the point. Is Miss Lang going to pay? If she is, well and good. She can keep her room. If she isn't—" The accompanying gesture was eloquent.
Mrs. Slawson's chair gave forth another whine of reproach as she settled down on it with a sort of inflexible determination that defied argument.
"So that's your ultomato?" she inquired calmly. "I understand you to say that if this young lady (who any one with a blind eye can see she's quality), I understand you to say, that if she don't pay down every cent she owes you, here an' now, you'll put her out, bag an' baggage?"
"No, not bag and baggage, Mrs. Slawson," interposed the boarding-house keeper with a wry smile, bridling with the sense that she was about to say something she considered rather neat, "I am, as you might say, holding her bag and baggage—as security."
"Now what do you think o' that!" ejaculated Martha Slawson.
"It's quite immaterial to me what anybody thinks of it," Mrs. Daggett snapped. "And now, if that's all you've got to suggest, why, I'm sure it's all I have, and so, the sooner we end this, the sooner I'll be at liberty to attend to my dinner."
Still Mrs. Slawson did not stir.
"I suppose you think you're a lady," she observed without the faintest suggestion of heat. "I suppose you think you're a lady, but you certainly ain't workin' at it now. What takes my time, though, is the way you ackchelly seem to be meanin' what you say! Why, I wouldn't turn a dog out a night like this, an' you'd let a delicate young girl go into the drivin' storm, a stranger, without a place to lay her head—that is, for all you know. I could bet my life, without knowin' a thing about it, that the good Lord never let you have a daughter of your own. He wouldn't trust the keepin' of a child's body, not to speak of her soul, to such as you. That is, He wouldn't if He could help Himself. But, thanks be! Miss Lang ain't dependent. She's well an' able to pay all she owes. Supposin' she has been kinder strapped for a little while back, an' had to economize by comin' to such a place as this! I've knowed others, compelled to economize with three trunks alongside a hall-bedroom wall, for a while, too, an' by an' by their circumstances was such that they had money to burn. It's not for the likes of Miss Lang to try to transack business with your sort. It would soil her lips to bandy words, so I, an old fam'ly servant, an' proud of it! am settlin' up her affairs for her. Be kind enough to say how much it is you are ready to sell your claim to Christian charity for? How much is it you ain't willin' to lend to the Lord on Miss Lang's account?" She plucked up her skirts, thrust her hand, unembarrassed, into her stocking-leg, and brought forth from that safe depository a roll of well-worn greenbacks.
Mrs. Daggett named the amount of Claire's indebtedness, and Martha Slawson proceeded to count it out in slow, deliberate syllables. She did not, however, surrender the bills at once.
"I'll take a receipt," she quietly observed, and then sat back with an air of perfect imperturbability, while the boarding-house keeper nervously fussed about, searching for a scrap of paper, hunting for a pen, trying to unearth, from the most impossible hiding-places, a bottle of ink, her indignation at Martha's cheek escaping her in audible mumblings.
"Impudence! What right have you to come here, holding me to account? I've my own way of doing good—"
Mrs. Slawson shrugged. "Your own way? I warrant you have! Nobody else'd recognize it. I'd like to bet, you don't give a penny to charity oncet in five years. Come now, do you?"
"God doesn't take into account the amount one gives," announced Mrs. Daggett authoritatively.
"P'raps not, but you can take it from me, He keeps a pretty close watch on what we have left—or I miss my guess. An' now, Miss Claire darlin', if you'll go an' get what belongin's you have, that this generous lady ain't stripped off'n you, to hold for security, as she calls it, we'll be goin'. An expressman will be 'round here the first thing in the mornin' for Miss Lang's trunk, an' it's up to you, Mrs. Daggett, to see it's ready for'm when he comes. Good-night to you, ma'am, an' I wish you luck."
Never after could Claire recall in detail what followed. She had a dim vision of glistening pavements on which the rain dashed furiously, only to rebound with resentful force, saturating one to the skin. Of fierce blasts that seemed to lurk around every corner. Of street-lamps gleaming meaninglessly out of the murk, curiously suggesting blinking eyes set in a vacant face, and at last—at last—in blessed contrast—an open door, the sound of cheery voices, the feel of warmth and welcome, the sight of a plain, wholesome haven—rest.
Martha Slawson checked her children's vociferous clamor with a word. Then her orders fell thick and fast, causing feet to run and hands to fly, causing curiosity to give instant way before the pressure of busy-ness, and a sense of cooperation to make genial the task of each.
"Hush, everybody! Cora, you go make up the bed in the boarder's room. Turn the mattress, mind! An' stretch the sheets good an' smooth, like I learned you to do. Francie, you get the hot-water bottle, quick, so's I can fill it! Sammy, you go down to the cellar, an' tell Mr. Snyder your mother will be much obliged if he'll turn on a' extra spark o' steam-heat. Tell'm, Mrs. Slawson has a lady come to board with her for a spell, that's fixin' for chills or somethin', onless she can be kep' warm an' comfortable, an' the radianator in the boarder's room don't send out much heat to speak of. Talk up polite, Sammy; d'you hear me? An' be sure you don't let on Snyder might be keepin' a better fire in his furnace if he didn't begrutch the coal so. It's gospel truth, o' course, but landlords is supposed to have feelin's, same as the rest of us, an' a gentle word turneth aside wrath. Sabina, now show what a big girl you are, an' fetch mother Cora's nicest nightie out o' the drawer in my beaurer—the nightie Mrs. Granville sent Cora last Christmas. Mother wants to hang it in front of the kitchen-range, so's the pretty lady can go by-bye all warm an' comfy, after she's took her supper off'n the tray, like Sabina did when she had the measles."
Huge Sam Slawson, senior, overtopping his wife by fully half a head, gazed down upon his little hive, from shaggy-browed, benevolent eyes. He uttered no complaint because his dinner was delayed, and he, hungry as a bear, was made to wait till a stranger was served and fed. Instead, he wandered over to where Martha was supplementing "Ma's" ministrations at the range, and patted her approvingly on the shoulder.
"Another stray lamb, mother?" he asked casually.
Martha nodded. "Wait till the rush is over, an' the young uns abed an' asleep, an' I'll tell you all about it. Stray lamb! I should say as much! A little white corset-lamb, used to eat out o' your hand, with a blue ribbon round its neck. Goin' to be sent out to her death—or worse, by a sharp-fangled wolf of a boardin'-house keeper, who'd gnaw the skin off'n your bones, an' then crack the bones to get at the marrer, if you give her the chanct. I'll tell you all about it later, Sammy."
For days Claire lay in a state of drowsy quiet.
She hardly realized the fact of her changed condition, that she was being cared for, ministered to, looked after. She had brief, waking moments when she seemed to be aware that Martha was bringing in her breakfast, or sitting beside her while she ate her dinner, but the intervening spaces, when "Ma" or Cora served, were dim, indistinct adumbrations of no more substantial quality than the vagrant dreams that ranged mistily across her relaxed brain.
The thin walls of the cheaply-built flat did not protect her from the noise of the children's prattling tongues and boisterous laughter, but the walls of her consciousness closed her about, as in a muffled security, and she slept on and on, until the exhausted body was reinforced, the overtaxed nerves infused with new strength.
Then, one evening, when the room in which she lay was dusky with twilight shadows, she realized that she was awake, that she was alive. She had gradually groped her way through the dim stretches lying between the region of visions and that of the actual, but the step into a full sense of reality was abrupt. She heard the sound of children's voices in the next room. So clear they were, she could distinguish every syllable.
"Say, now, listen, mother! What do you do when you go out working every day?" It was Cora speaking.
"Pooh, you know what I mean. What kinder work do you do?"
For a moment there was no answer, then Claire recognized Martha's voice, with what was, undeniably, a chuckle tucked away in its mellow depths, where no mere, literal child would be apt to discern it.
"Stenography an' typewritin'!"
"Are you a stenographer an' typewriter, mother? Honest?"
"Well, you can take it from me, if I was it at all, I'd be it honest. What makes you think there's any doubt o' my being one? Don't I have the appearance of a high-toned young lady stenographer an' typewriter?"
A pause, in which Martha's substantial steps were to be heard busily passing to and fro, as she went about her work. Her mother's reply evidently did not carry conviction to Cora's questioning mind, for a second later she was up and at it afresh.
"Say, now, listen, mother—if you do stenography an' typewritin', what makes your apron so wet an' dirty, nights when you come home?"
"Don't you s'pose I clean my machine before I leave? What kinder typewriter d'you think I am? To leave my machine dirty, when a good scrub-down, with a pail o' hot water, an' a stiff brush, an' Sapolio, would put it in fine shape for the next mornin'."
"Mother—say, now, listen! I don't believe that's the way they clean typewriters. Miss Symonds, she's the Principal's seckerterry to our school, an' she sits in the office, she cleans her machine with oil and a little fine brush, like you clean your teeth with."
"What you been doin' in the Principal's office, miss, I should like to know? Been sent up to her for bad behavior, or not knowin' your lessons? Speak up now! Quick!"
"My teacher, she sends me on errands, an' I got a credit-card last week an', say, mother, I don't believe you're a young lady stenographer an' typewriter. You're just trying to fool me."
"Well, Miss Smarty, supposin' I am. So long's I don't succeed you've no kick comin'."
"Say, now listen, mother."
"Hush! You'll wake the pretty lady. Besides, too many questions before dinner is apt to spoil the appetite, to say nothin' of the temper. Turn to, an' lend a hand with them potatoes. Smash 'em good first, an' then beat 'em with a fork until they're light an' creamy, an' you won't have so much gimp left for snoopin' into things that don't concern you!"
"Say, now listen, mother!"
"Say, mother, something awful funny happened to me last night?"
"Are you tellin' what it was?"
"Something woke me up in the middle of the night, 'n' I got up out of bed, an' the clock struck four, 'n' then I knew it was mornin'. 'N' I heard a noise, 'n' I thought it was robbers, 'n' I went to the door, 'n' it was open, 'n' I went out into the hall, 'n'—"
"An' there was you, mother, on the stairs—kneelin'!"
"Guess you had a dream, didn't you?"
"No, I didn't."
"What'd I be kneelin' on the stairs for, at four o'clock in the mornin', I should like to know?"
"It looked like you was brushin' 'em down."
"Me brushin' down Snyder's stairs! Well, now what do you think o' that?" Her tone of amazement, at the mere possibility, struck Cora, and there was a pause, broken at length by Martha, in a preternaturally solemn voice. "I s'pose you never tumbled to it I might be prayin'."
Cora's eyes grew wide. "Prayin'!" she repeated in an awed whisper. "But, mother, what'd you want to go out in the hall for, to pray on the stairs, at four o'clock in the mornin'?"
"Prayin' is a godly ack. Wheresomedever, an' whensomedever you do it."
"But, mother, I don't believe you were prayin'. I heard the knockin' o' your whis'-broom. You was brushin' down the stairs."
"Well, what if I was? Cleanliness is next to godliness, ain't it? Prayin' an' cleanin', it amounts to the same thing in the end—it's just a question of what you clean, outside you or in."
"But say, now, listen, mother, you never cleaned down Mr. Snyder's stairs before. An' you been making shirtwaists for Mrs. Snyder, after you get home nights. I saw her with one of 'em on."
"Cora, do you know what happened to a little girl oncet who asked too many questions?"
"Well, I won't tell you now. It might spoil your appetite for dinner. But you can take it from me, the end she met with would surprise you."
Shortly after, Claire's door quietly opened, and Cora, with a lighted taper in her hand, tiptoed cautiously in, like a young torch-bearing avant-courriere, behind whom Mrs. Slawson, laden with a wonderful tray, advanced processionally.
"Light the changelier, an' then turn it low," Martha whispered. "An' then you, yourself, light out, so's the pretty lady can eat in comfort."
The pretty lady, sitting up among her pillows, awake and alert, almost brought disaster upon the taper, and the tray, by exclaiming brightly, "Good-evening! I'm wide awake for good! You needn't tiptoe or hush any more. O, I feel like new! All rested and well and—ready again. And I owe it, every bit, to you! You've been so good to me!"
It was hard on Cora to have to obey her mother's injunction to "clear out," just when the pretty lady was beginning to demonstrate her right to the title. But Martha's word in her little household was not to be disputed with impunity, and Cora slipped away reluctantly, carrying with her a dazzling vision of soft, dark hair, starry blue-gray eyes, wonderful changing expressions, and, in and over all, a smile that was like a key to unlock hearts.
"My, but it's good to see you so!" said Mrs. Slawson heartily. "I was glad to have you sleep, for goodness knows you needed it, but if you'd 'a' kep' it up a day or so longer, I'd 'a' called in a doctor—shoor! Just as a kind of nacherl percaution, against your settlin' down to a permanent sleepin'-beauty ack, for, you can take it from me, I haven't the business address of any Beast, here in New York City, could be counted on to do the Prince-turn, when needed. There's plenty of beasts, worse luck! but they're on the job, for fair. No magic, lightenin'-change about them. They stay beasts straight through the performance."
"But, as it happened, I didn't need a Prince, did I? I didn't need a Prince or any one else, for I had a good fairy godmother who—O, Mrs. Slawson, I—I—can't—"
"You don't have to. An' I'm not Mrs. Slawson to you. I'm just Martha, for I feel like you was my own young lady, an' if you call me Mrs. Slawson, I won't feel so, an' here—now—see if you can clear up this tray so clean it'll seem silly to wash the dishes."
For a moment there was silence in the little room, while Claire tried to compose herself, and Martha pretended to be busy with the tray. Then Claire said, "I'll be very glad to call you Martha if you'll let me, and there's something I'd like to say right off, because I've been lying here quite a while thinking about it, and it's very important, indeed. It's about my future, and—"
"You'll excuse my interruckting, but before you reely get your steam up, let me have a word on my own account, an' then, if you want to, you can fire away—the gun's your own. What I mean is—I don't believe in lyin' awake, thinkin' about the future, when a body can put in good licks o' sleep, restin' from the past. It's against my principles. I'm by the day. I work by the day, an' I live by the day. I reasoned it out so-fashion: the past is over an' done with, whatever it may be, an' you can't change it, for all you can do, so what's the use? You can bet on one thing, shoor, whatever ain't dead waste in your past is, somehow, goin' to get dished up to you in your present, or your future. You ain't goin' to get rid of it, till you've worked it into your system for health, as our dear old friend, Lydia Pinkham, says. As to the future, the future's like a flea—when you can put your finger on the future, it's time enough to think what you'll do with it. Folkes futures'd be all right, if they'd just pin down a little tighter to to-day, an' make that square up, the best they can, with what they'd oughter do. Now, as to your future, there's nothin' to fret about for a minute in it. Jus' now, you're here, safe an' sound, an' here you're goin' to stay until you're well an' strong an' fed up, an' the chill o' Mrs. Daggett is out o' your body an' soul. You can take it from me, that woman is worse than any line-storm I ever struck for dampenin'-down purposes, an' freeze-out, an' generl cussedness. Your business to-day—now—is to get well an' strong. Then the future'll take care of itself."
"But meanwhile," Claire persisted, "I'm living on you. Eating food for which I haven't the money to pay, having loving care for which I couldn't pay, if I had all the money in the world. I guess I know how you settled my account with Mrs. Daggett. You gave her money you had been saving for the rent, and now you are working, slaving overtime, at four o'clock mornings, sweeping down the stairs, and late nights, making shirtwaists for Mrs. Snyder, to help supply what's lacking."
"Just you wait till I see that Cora," observed Mrs. Slawson irrelevantly. "That's the time her past will have slopped over on her present, so's she can't tell which is which. Just you wait till I see that Cora!"
"No, no—please! Martha dear! It wasn't Cora! She's not to blame. I'd have known sooner or later anyway. I always reason things out for myself. Please promise not to scold Cora."
"Scold Cora? Not on your life, my dear; I won't scold Cora. I'm old-fashioned in my ways with childern. I don't believe in scoldin'. It spoils their tempers, but a good lickin' oncet in a while, helps 'em to remember, besides bein' good for the circulation."
Claire was ready to cry. "It's all my fault," she lamented. "I was clumsy. I was tactless. And now Cora will be punished for it, and—I make nothing but trouble for you all."
"There, there! For mercy sake, don't take on like that. I promise I'll let Cora go free, if you'll sit back quiet an' eat your dinner in peace. So now! That's better!"
"What I was going to say, Martha dear, is, I'm quite well and strong now, and I want to set about immediately looking for something to do. I ought to be able to support myself, you know, for I'm able-bodied, and not so stupid but that I managed to graduate from college. Once, two summers ago, I tutored—I taught a young girl who was studying to take the Wellesley entrance exams. And I coached her so well she went through without a condition, and she wasn't very quick, either. I wonder if I couldn't teach?"
"Shoor, you could!"
"If I could get a position to teach in some school or some family, I could, maybe, live here with you—rent this room—unless you have some other use for it."
"Lord, no! I call it the boarder's room because this flat is really too rich for my blood, but you see I don't want the childern brought up in a bad neighborhood with low companions. Well, Sammy argued the rent was too high, till I told'm we'd let a room an' make it up that way, but what with this, an' what with that, we ain't had any boarders exceptin' now an' then some friend of himself out of a job, or one o' the girls, livin' out in the houses where I work, gettin' bounced suddent, an' in want of a bed, an' none of 'em ever paid us a cent or was asked for it."
"Well, if I could get a position as teacher or governess, I'd soon be able to pay back what you've laid out for me, and more besides, and—In the houses where you work, are there any children who need a governess? Any young girls who need a tutor? That's what I wanted to ask you, Martha."
Mrs. Slawson deliberated in silence for a moment.
"There's the Livingstons," she mused, "but they ain't any childern. Only a childish brother-in-law. He's not quite all there, as you might say. It'd be no use tryin' to learn him nothin', seein' he's so odd—seventy-odd—an' his habits like to be fixed. Then, there's the Farrands. But the girls goes to Miss Spenny's school, an' the son's at Columbia. It might upset their plans, if I was to suggest their givin' up where they're at, an' havin' you. Then there's the Grays, an' the Granvilles, an' the Thornes. Addin' 'em all together for childern, they'd come to about half a child a pair. Talk about your race suicide! They say they 'can't afford to have childern.' You can take it from me, it's the poor people are rich nowadays. We can afford to have childern, all right, all right. Then there's Mrs. Sherman—She's got one boy, but he—Radcliffe Sherman—well, he's a limb! A reg'lar young villain. You couldn't manage him. Only Lord Ronald can manage Radcliffe Sherman, an' he—"
"Lord Ronald?" questioned Claire, when Mrs. Slawson's meditation threatened to become static.
"Why, he's Mrs. Sherman's brother, Mr. Frank Ronald, an' no real lord could be handsomer-lookin', or grander-behavin', or richer than him. Mrs. Sherman is a widder, or a divorcy, or somethin' stylish like that. Anyhow, I worked for her this eight years an' more—almost ever since Radcliffe was born, an' I ain't seen hide nor hair o' any Mr. Sherman yet, an' they never speak o' him, so I guess he was either too good or too bad to mention. Mr. Frank an' his mother lives with Mrs. Sherman, an' what Mr. Frank says goes. His word is law. She thinks the world of'm, an' well she may, for he's a thorerbred. The way he treats me, for instants. You'd think I was the grandest lady in the land. He never sees me but it's, 'How d'do, Martha?' or, 'How's the childern an' Mr. Slawson these days?' He certainly has got grand ways with'm, Mr. Frank has. An' yet, he's never free. You wouldn't dare make bold with'm. His eyes has a sort o' keep-off-the-grass look gener'ly, but when he smiles down at you, friendly-like, why, you wouldn't call the queen your cousin. Radcliffe knows he can't monkey with his uncle Frank, an' when he's by, butter wouldn't melt in that young un's mouth. But other times—my! You see, Mrs. Sherman is dead easy. She told me oncet, childern ought to be brought up 'scientifically.' Lord! She said they'd ought to be let express their souls, whatever she means by that. I told her I thought it was safer not to trust too much to the childern's souls, but to help along some occasional with your own—the sole of your slipper. It was then she said she 'abserlootly forbid' any one to touch Radcliffe. She wanted him 'guided by love alone.' Well, that's what he's been guided with, an', you can take it from me, love's made a hash of it, as it ushally does when it ain't mixed with a little common sense. You'd oughta see that fella's anticks when his mother, an' Lord Ronald, ain't by. He'd raise the hair offn your head, if you hadn't a spear of it there to begin with. He speaks to the help as if they was dirt under his feet, an' he'd as lief lie as look at you, an' always up to some new devilment. It'd take your time to think fast enough to keep up with'm. But he ain't all bad—I don't believe no child is, not on your life, an' my idea is, he'd turn out O.K. if only he'd the right sort o' handlin'. Mr. Frank could do it—but when Lord Ronald is by, Radcliffe is a pet lamb—a little woolly wonder. You ast me why I call Mr. Frank Lord Ronald. I never thought of it till one time when Cora said a piece at a Sund'-School ent'tainment. I can't tell you what the piece was, for, to be perfectly honest, I was too took up, at the time, watchin' Cora's stockin', which was comin' down, right before the whole churchful. It reely didn't, but I seen the garter hangin', an' I thought it would, any minute. I remember it was somethin' about a fella called Lord Ronald, who was a reel thorerbred, just like Mr. Frank is. I recklect one of the verses went:
"'Lord Ronald had the lily-white dough—'
(to my way o' thinkin' it's no matter about the color, white or gold or just plain, green paper-money, so long's you've got it), anyhow, that's what it said in the piece—
"'Lord Ronald had the lily-white dough, Which he gave to his cousin, Lady Clare.'
Say, wasn't he generous?—'give to his cousin—Lady Clare'—an'—good gracious! O, excuse me! I didn't mean to jolt your tray like that, but I just couldn't help flyin' up, for I got an idea! True as you live, I got an idea!"
It did not take long, once Claire was fairly on her feet again, to adjust herself to her new surroundings, to find her place and part in the social economy of the little family-group where she was never for a moment made to feel an alien. She appropriated a share in the work of the household at once, insisting, to Martha's dismay, upon lending a hand mornings with the older children, who were to be got off to school, and with the three-year-old Sabina, who was to stay at home. She assisted with the breakfast preparations, and then, when the busy swarm had flown for the day, she "turned to," to Ma's delight, and got the place "rid up" so it was "clean as a whistle an' neat as a pin."
Ma was not what Martha approvingly called "a hustler."
"Ma ain't thorer," her daughter-in-law confided to Claire, without reproach. "She means well, but, as she says, her mind ain't fixed on things below, an' when that's the case, the dirt is bound to settle. Ma thinks you can run a fam'ly, readin' the Bible an' singin' hymns. Well, p'raps you can, only I ain't never dared try. When I married Sammy he looked dretful peaky, the fack bein' he hadn't never been properly fed, an' it's took me all of the goin'-on fifteen years now, we been livin' together, to get'm filled up accordin' to his appetite, which is heavy. You see, Ma never had any time to attend to such earthly matters as cookin' a square meal—but she's settin' out to have a lot of leisure with the Lord."
As for Ma, she found it pleasant to watch, from a comfortable distance, the work progressing satisfactorily, without any draft on her own energies.
"Martha's a good woman, miss," she observed judicially, in her detached manner, "but she is like the lady of her name we read about in the blessed Book. When I set out in life, I chose the betther part, an' now I'm old, I have the faith to believe I'll have a front seat in heaven. I've knew throuble in me day. I raised ten childern, an' I had three felons, an' God knows I think I earned a front seat in heaven."
Claire's pause, before she spoke, seemed to Ma to indicate she was giving the subject the weighty consideration it deserved.
"According to that, it would certainly seem so. You have rheumatism, too, haven't you?" as if that might be regarded as an added guarantee of special celestial reservation.
Ma paled visibly. "No, miss. I don't never have the rheumatiz now—not so you'd notice it," she said plaintively. "Oncet I'd it thurrbl, an' me son Sammy had it, too, loikewoise, fierce. I'd uster lay in bed moanin' an' cryin' till you'd be surprised, an' me son Sammy, he was a'most as bad. Well, for a week or two, Martha, she done for us the best she cud, I s'pose, but she didn't make for to stop the pain, an' at last one night, when me son Sammy was gruntin', an' I was groanin' to beat the band, Martha, she up, all of a suddint, an' says she, she was goin' for to cure us of the rheumatiz, or know the reason why. An' she went, an' got the karrysene-can, an' she poured out two thurrbl big doses, an' she stood over me son Sammy an' I, till we swalleyed it down, an' since ever we tuk it, me an' Sammy ain't never had a retur-rn. Sometimes I have a sharp twinge o' somethin' in me leg or me arrm, but it ain't rheumatiz, an' I wouldn't like for me son Sammy's wife to be knowin' it, for the very sight of her startin' for the karrysene—if it's only to fill the lamp, is enough to make me gullup, an' I know it's the same wit' me son Sammy, though we never mention the subjeck between us."
"But if your son didn't want to take the stuff," Claire said, trying to hide her amusement, "why didn't he stand up and say so? He's a man. He's much bigger and stronger than his wife. How could she make him do what he didn't want to?"
The question was evidently not a new one to Ma.
"That's what annywan'd naturrly think," she returned promptly. "But that's because they wouldn't be knowin' me son Sammy's wife. It ain't size, an' it ain't stren'th—it's just, well, Martha. There's that about her you wouldn't like to take any chances wit'. Perhaps it's the thing manny does be talkin' of these days. Perhaps it's that got a holt of her. Annyhow, she says she's in for't. They does be callin' it Woman Sufferrich, I'm told. In my day a dacint body'd have thought shame to be discoursin' in public to the men. They held their tongues, an' let their betthers do the colloguein', but Martha says some of the ladies she works for says, if they talk about it enough the men will give them their rights, an' let 'em vote. I'm an old woman, an' I never had much book-learnin', but I'm thinkin' one like me son Sammy's wife has all the rights she needs wit'out the votin'. She goes out worrkin', same's me son Sammy, day in, day out. She says Sammy could support her good enough, but she won't raise her childern in a teniment, along wit' th' low companions. Me son Sammy, he has it harrd these days. He'd not be able to pay for such a grrand flat as this, in a dacint, quiet neighborhood, an' so Martha turrns to, an' lends a hand. An' wance, when me son Sammy was sick, an' out av a job entirely, Martha, she run the whole concern herself. She wouldn't let me son Sammy give up, or get down-hearted, like he mighta done. She said it was her right to care for us all, an' him, too, bein' he was down an' out, like he was. It seems to me that's fairrly all the rights anny woman'd want—to look out for four childern, an' a man, an' a mother-in-law. But if Martha wants to vote, too, why, I'm thinkin' she will."
It was particularly encouraging to Claire, just at this time, to view Martha in the light of one who did not know the meaning of the word fail, for Mrs. Slawson had assured her that if she would give up all attempt to find employment on her own account, she, Mrs. Slawson, felt she could safely promise to get her "a job that would be satisfacktry all round, only one must be a little pationate."
But a week, ten days, had gone by, since Martha announced she had an idea, and still the idea had not materialized. Meanwhile, Claire had ample time to unpack her trunk and settle her belongings about her, so "the pretty lady's room" took on a look of real comfort, and the children never passed the door without pausing before the threshold, waiting with bated breath for some wonderful chance that would give them a "peek" into the enchanted chamber. As a matter of fact, the transformation was effected with singularly few "properties." Some good photographs tastefully framed in plain, dark wood. A Baghdad rug left over from her college days, some scraps of charming old textiles, and such few of the precious home trifles as could be safely packed in her trunk. There was a daguerreotype of her mother, done when she was a girl. "As old-fashioned as your grandmother's hoopskirt," Martha called it. A sampler wrought by some ancient great-aunt, both aunt and sampler long since yellowed and mellowed by the years. A della Robbia plaque, with its exquisite swaddled baby holding out eager arms, as if to be taken. A lacquer casket, a string of Egyptian mummy-beads—what seemed to the children an inexhaustible stock of wonderful, mysterious treasures.
But the object that appeared to interest their mother more than anything else in the whole collection, was a book of unmounted photographs, snap-shots taken by Claire at college, during her travels abroad, some few, even, here in the city during those first days when she had dreamed it was easy to walk straight into an art-editorship, and no questions asked.
Mrs. Slawson scrutinized the prints with an earnestness so eager that Claire was fairly touched, until she discovered that here was no aching hunger for knowledge, no ungratified yearning "for to admire and for to see, for to be'old this world so wide," but just what looked like a perfectly feminine curiosity, and nothing more.
"Say, ain't it a pity you ain't any real good likeness of you?" Martha deplored. "These is so aggeravatin'. They don't show you up at all. Just a taste-like, an' then nothin' to squench the appetite."
"That sounds as if I were an entree or something," laughed Claire. "But, you see, I don't want to be shown up, Martha. I couldn't abear it, as my friend, Sairy Gamp, would say. When I was little, my naughty big brother used to tease me dreadfully about my looks. He invented the most embarrassing nicknames for me; he alluded to my features with every sort of disrespect. It made me horribly conscious of myself, a thing no properly-constituted kiddie ought ever to be, of course. And I've never really got over the feeling that I am a 'sawed-off,' that my nose is 'curly,' and my hair's a wig, and that the least said about the rest of me, the better. But if you'd actually like to see something my people at home consider rather good, why, here's a little tinted photograph I had done for my dear Daddy, the last Christmas he was with us. He liked it, and that's the reason I carry it about with me—because he wore it on his old-fashioned watch-chain."
She put into Martha's hand a thin, flat, dull-gold locket.
Mrs. Slawson opened it, and gave a quick gasp of delight—the sound of triumph escaping one who, having diligently sought, has satisfactorily found. "Like it!" Martha ejaculated.
Claire deliberated a moment, watching the play of expression on Martha's mobile face. "If you like it as much as all that," she said at last, "I wish you'd take it and keep it. It seems conceited—priggish—to suppose you'd care to own it, but if you really would care to—"
Mrs. Slawson closed one great, finely-formed, work-hardened fist over the delicate treasure, with a sort of ecstatic grab of appropriation. "Care to own it! You betcher life! There's nothin' you could give me I'd care to own better," she said with honest feeling, then and there tying its slender ribbon about her neck, and slipping the locket inside her dress, as if it had been a precious amulet.
The day following saw her started bright and early for work at the Shermans'. When she arrived at the area-gate and rang, there was no response, and though she waited a reasonable time, and then rang and rang again, nobody answered the bell.
"They must be up," she said, settling down to business with a steady thumb on the electric button. "What ails the bunch o' them in the kitchen, I should like to know. It'd be a pity to disturb Eliza. She might be busy, gettin' herself an extry cup o' coffee, an' couple o' fried hams-an'-eggs, to break her fast before breakfast. But that gay young sprig of a kitchen-maid, she might answer the bell an' open the door to an honest woman."
The gay young sprig still failing of her duty, and Martha's patience giving out at last, the honest woman began to tamper with the spring-lock of the iron gate. For any one else, it would never have yielded, but it opened to Martha's hand, as with the dull submission of the conquered.
Mrs. Slawson closed the gate after her with care. "I'll just step light," she said to herself, "an' steal in on 'em unbeknownst, an' give 'em as good a scare as ever they had in their lives—the whole lazy lot of 'em."
But, like Mother Hubbard's cupboard, the kitchen was bare, and no soul was to be found in the laundry, the pantry or, in fact, anywhere throughout the basement region. Softly, and with some real misgiving now, Martha made her way upstairs. Here, for the first time, she distinguished the sound of a human voice breaking the early morning hush of the silent house. It was Radcliffe's voice issuing, evidently, from the dining-room, in which imposing apartment he chose to have his breakfast served in solitary grandeur every morning, what time the rest of his family still slept.
Martha, pausing on her way up, peeped around the edge of the half-closed door, and then stopped short.
Along the wall, ranged up in line, like soldiers facing their captain, or victims of a hold-up their captor, stood the household servants—portly Shaw the butler, Beatrice the parlor-maid, Eliza the "chef-cook"—all, down to the gay young sprig, aforesaid, who, as Martha had explained to her family in strong disapproval, "was engaged to do scullerywork, an' then didn't even know how to scull." Before them, in an attitude of command, not to say menace, stood Radcliffe, brandishing a carving-knife which, in his cruelly mischievous little hand, became a weapon full of dangerous possibilities.
"Don't dare to budge, any one of you," he breathed masterfully to his cowed regiment. "Get back there, you Shaw! An', Beetrice, if you don't mind me, I'll carve your ear off. You better be afraid of me, all of you, an' mind what I say, or I'll take this dagger, an' dag the life out of you! You're all my servants—you're all my slaves! D'you hear me!"
Evidently they did, and not one of them cared or dared to stir.
For a second Radcliffe faced them in silence, before beginning to march Napoleonically back and forth, his savage young eye alert, his naughty hand brandishing the knife threateningly. A second, and then, suddenly, without warning, the scene changed, and Radcliffe was a squirming, wriggling little boy, shorn of his power, grasped firmly in a grip from which there was no chance of escape.
"Shame on you!" exclaimed Martha indignantly, addressing the spellbound line, staring at her blankly. "Shame on you! To stand there gawkin', an' never raisin' a finger to this poor little fella, an' him just perishin' for the touch of a real mother's hand. Get out of this—the whole crowd o' you," and before the force of her righteous wrath they fled as chaff before the wind. Then, quick as the automatic click of a monstrous spring, the hitherto unknown—the supposed-to-be-impossible—befell Radcliffe Sherman. He was treated as if he had been an iron girder on which the massive clutch of a steam-lift had fastened. He was raised, lowered, laid across what seemed to be two moveless iron trestles, and then the weight as of a mighty, relentless paddle, beat down upon him once, twice, thrice—and he knew what it was to suffer.
The whole thing was so utterly novel, so absolutely unexpected, that for the first instant he was positively stunned with surprise. Then the knowledge that he was being spanked, that an unspeakable indignity was happening him, made him clinch his teeth against the sobs that rose in his throat, and he bore his punishment in white-faced, shivering silence.
When it was over, Martha stood him down in front of her, holding him firmly against her knees, and looked him squarely in the eyes. His colorless, quivering lips gave out no sound.
"You've got off easy," observed Mrs. Slawson benevolently. "If you'd been my boy Sammy, you'd a got about twict as much an' three times as thora. As it is, I just kinder favored you—give you a lick an' a promise, as you might say, seein' it's you and you ain't used to it—yet. Besides, I reely like you, an' want you to be a good boy. But, if you should need any more at any other time, why, you can take it from me, I keep my hand in on Sammy, an' practice makes perfect."
She released the two small, trembling hands, rose to her feet, and made as if to leave the room. Then for the first time Radcliffe spoke.
"S-say," he breathed with difficulty, "s-say—are you—are you goin' to t-tell?"
Martha paused, regarding him and his question with due concern. "Tell?"
"Are y-you going to—t-tell on me, t-to ev-everybody? Are y-you going to t-tell—S-Sammy?"
"Shoor I'm not! I'm a perfect lady! I always keep such little affairs with my gen'lemen friends strickly confidential. Besides—Sammy has troubles of his own."
All that day, Martha held herself in readiness to answer at headquarters for what she had done.
"He'll shoor tell his mother, the young villyan," said Eliza. "An' then it'll be Mrs. Slawson for the grand bounce."
But Mrs. Slawson did not worry. She went about her work as usual, and when, in the course of her travels, she met Radcliffe, she greeted him as if nothing had happened.
"Say, did you know that Sammy has a dog?"
"It's a funny kind o' dog. If you begged your head off, I'd never tell you where he come from."
"Where did he come from?"
"Didn't you hear me say I'd never tell you? I do' know. He just picked Sammy's father up on the street, an' follered him home, for all the world the same's he'd been a Christian."
"What kind of dog is he?"
"What kind's that?"
"Well, a full-blooded cur-dog is somethin' rare in these parts. You wouldn't find him at an ordinary dog-show, like your mother goes to. Now, Sammy's dog is full-blooded—leastways, he will be, when he's fed up."
"My mother's dog is a pedigree-dog. Is Sammy's that kind?"
"I ain't ast him, but I shouldn't wonder."
"My mother's got a paper tells all about where Fifi came from. It's in a frame."
"No, the paper is. The paper says Fifi is out of a deller, sired by Star. I heard her read it off to a lady that came to see her one day. Say, Martha, what's a deller?"
"I do' know."
"Fifi has awful long ears. What kind of ears has Sammy's dog got?"
"I didn't notice partic'lar, I must say. But he's got two of 'em, an' they can stand up, an' lay down, real natural-like, accordin' to taste—the dog's taste, which wouldn't be noways remarkable, if it was his tongue, but is what I call extraordinary, seein' it's his ears. An' his tail's the same, exceptin' it has even more education still. It can wag, besides standin' up an' layin' down. Ain't that pretty smart for a pup, that prob'ly didn't have no raisin' to speak of, 'less you count raisin' on the toe of somebody's boot?"
"D'you mean anybody kicked him?"
"Well, he ain't said so, in so many words, but I draw my own conclusions. He's an honorable, gentlemanlike dog. He keeps his own counsel. If it so happened that he'd needed to be punished at any time, he'd bear it like a little man, an' hold his tongue. You don't catch a reel thorerbred whinin'."
"I wish I could see Sammy's dog."
"Well, p'raps you can. But I'll tell you confidential, I wouldn't like Flicker to 'sociate with none but the best class o' boys. I'm goin' to see he has a fine line of friends from this time on, an' if Sammy ain't what he'd oughter be, why, he just can't mix with Flicker, that's all there is to it!"
"Who gave him that name?"
"'His sponsers in baptism—' Ho! Hear me! Recitin' the Catechism! I'm such a good 'Piscopalian I just can't help it! A little lady-friend of mine gave him that name, 'cause he flickers round so—so like a little yeller flame. Did I mention his color was yeller? That alone would show he's a true-breed cur-dog."
"Say, I forgot—my mother she—she sent me down to tell you she wants to see you right away up in her sittin'-room. I guess you better go quick."
Mrs. Slawson ceased plying her polishing-cloth upon the hardwood floor, sat back upon her heels, and calmly gathered her utensils together.
"Say, my mother she said tell you she wanted to see you right off, for something particular. Ain't you goin' to hurry?"
"Shoor I am. Certaintly."
"You don't look as if you was hurrying."
"When you get to be a big boy, and have a teacher to learn you knowledge, you'll find that large bodies moves slowly. I didn't have as much schoolin' as I'd like, but what I learned I remember, an' I put it into practice. That's where the use of books comes in—to be put in practice. Now, I'm a large body, an' if I tried to move fast I'd be goin' against what's printed in the books, which would be wrong. Still, if a lady sends for me post-haste, why, of course, I makes an exception an' answers in the same spirit. So long! See you later!"
Radcliffe had no mind to remain behind. Something subtly fascinating in Martha seemed to draw him after her, and he followed on upstairs, swinging himself athletically along, hand over hand, upon the baluster-rail, almost at her heels.
"Say, don't you wonder what it is my mother's goin' to say to you?" he demanded disingenuously.
Mrs. Slawson shook her head. "Wonderin' is a habit I broke myself off of, when I wasn't knee-high to a grasshopper," she replied. "I take things as they come, not to mention as they go. Either way suits me, an' annyhow I don't wonder about 'em. If it's somethin' good, why, it'll keep. An' if it's somethin' bad, wonderin' won't make it any better. So what's the use?"
"Guess I'll go on up, an' see my grandmother in her room," observed Radcliffe casually, as they reached Mrs. Sherman's door. "I won't go in here with you."
"Dear me, how sorry I am!" Martha returned with feeling. "I'd kinder counted on you for—for what they calls moral support, that bein' the kind the male gender is mainly good for, these days. But, of course, if you ain't been invited, it wouldn't be genteel for you to press yourself. I can understand your feelin's. They does credit to your head an' to your heart. As I said before—so long! See you later."
The door having closed her in, Radcliffe lingered aimlessly about, outside. Without, of course, being able to analyze it, he felt as if some rare source of entertainment had been withdrawn from him, leaving life flat and tasteless. He felt like being, what his mother called, "fractious," but—he remembered, as in a flash, "you never catch a thorerbred whinin'," and he snapped his jaws together with manly determination.
At Martha's entrance, Mrs. Sherman glanced up languidly from the book she was reading, and inquired with pointed irony, "You didn't find it convenient to come to me directly I sent for you, did you, Martha?"
Mrs. Slawson closed the door behind her gently, then stood planted like some massive caryatid supporting the frame. Something monumental in the effect of her presence made the question just flung at her seem petty, impudent, and Mrs. Sherman hastened to add more considerately, "But I sent Radcliffe with my message. No doubt he delayed."
"No'm," admitted Martha, "he told me all right enough, but I was in the middle o' polishin'. It took me a minute or two to get my things collected, an' then it took me a couple more to get me collected, but—better late than never, as the sayin' goes, which, by the same token, I don't believe it's always true."
There was not the faintest trace of apology or extenuation in her tone or manner. If she had any misgivings as to the possibility of Radcliffe's having complained, she gave no evidence of it.
"What I want to say is this," announced Mrs. Sherman autocratically, making straight for the point. "I absolutely forbid any one in my household to touch—"
Martha settled herself more firmly on her feet and crossed her arms with unconscious dignity upon her bosom, bracing herself against the coming blow.
"I absolutely forbid any one in my household to touch the new marble slabs and nickel fittings in my dressing-rooms with cleaning stuffs containing acids, after this. I have gone to great expense to have the house remodeled this summer, and the bathrooms have all been tiled and fitted up afresh, from beginning to end. I know that, in the past, you have used acid, gritty soaps on the basins and tubs, Martha, and my plumber tells me you mustn't do it. He says it's ruinous. He recommends kerosene oil for the bath-tubs and marble slabs. He says it will take any stain out, and is much safer than the soaps. So please use kerosene to remove the stains—"
Mrs. Slawson relaxed. Without the slightest hint of incivility she interrupted cheerfully, "An' does your plumber mention what'll remove the stink—I should say, odor, of the karrysene?"
Mrs. Sherman laughed. "Dear me, no. I'm afraid that's up to you, as Radcliffe says."
"O, I ain't no doubt it can be done, an' even if it can't, the smell o' karrysene is healthy, an' you wouldn't mind a faint whifft of it now an' then, clingin' to you, comin' outer your bath, would you? Or if you did, you might set over against the oil-smell one o' them strong bath-powders that's like the perfumery-counter in a department-store broke loose, an' let 'em fight it out between 'em. To my way o' thinkin', it'd be a tie, an' no thanks to your nose."
"Well, I only follow the plumber's directions. He guarantees his work and materials, but he says acids will roughen the surface of anything—enamel or marble or whatever it may be. I'm sure you'll be careful in the future, now I have spoken, and—er—how are you getting on these days? How are you and your husband and the children?"
"Tolerable, thank you. Sammy, my husband, he ain't been earnin' as much as usual lately, but I says to him, when he's downhearted-like because he can't hand out the price o' the rent, 'Say, you ain't fished up much of anythin' certaintly, but count your blessin's. You ain't fell in the river either.' An' be this an' be that, we make out to get along. We never died a winter yet."
"Dear me, I should think a great, strapping man ought to be able to support his family without having to depend on his wife to go out by the day."
"My husband does his best," said Martha with simple dignity. "He does his best, but things goes contrairy with some, no doubt o' that."
"O, the thought of the day would not bear you out there, I assure you!" Mrs. Sherman took her up quickly. "Science teaches us that our condition in life reflects our character. We get the results of what we are in our environment. You understand? In other words, each receives his desert. I hope I am clear? I mean, what he deserves."
Martha smiled, a slow, calm, tolerant smile. "You are perfeckly clear," she said reassuringly. "Only I ain't been educated up to seein' things that way. Seems to me, if everybody got their dessert, as you calls it, some o' them that's feedin' so expensive now at the grand hotels wouldn't have a square meal. It's the ones that ain't earned 'em, havin' the square meal and the dessert, that puts a good man, like my Sammy, out o' a job. But that's neither here nor there. It's all bound to come right some day—only meanwhiles, I wish livin' wasn't so high. What with good steak twenty-eight cents a pound, an' its bein' as much as your life is worth to even ast the price o' fresh vegetables, it takes some contrivin' to get along. Not to speak o' potatas twenty-five cents the half-peck, an' every last one o' my fam'ly as fond of 'em as if they was fresh from Ireland, instead o' skippin' a generation on both sides."
"But, my good woman!" exclaimed Mrs. Sherman, shocked, "what do you mean by talking of porterhouse steak and fresh vegetables this time of year? Oughtn't you to economize? Isn't it extravagant for you to use such expensive cuts of meat? I'm sure there are others that are cheaper—more suited to your—your income."
"Certaintly there is. Chuck steak is cheap. Chuck steak's so cheap that about all it costs you is a few cents to the butcher, an' the price of the store teeth you need, after you've broke your own tryin' to chew it. But, you see, my notion is, to try to give my fam'ly the sort o' stuff that's nourishin'. Not just somethin' to eat, but food. I don't believe their stummicks realize they belong to poor folks. I'm not envyin' the rich, mind you. Dear no! I wouldn't be hired to clutter up my insides with the messes I see goin' up to the tables of some I work for. Cocktails, an' entrys, an' foody-de-gra-gra, an' suchlike. No! I believe in reel, straight nourishment. The things that builds up your bones, an' gives you red blood, an' good muscle, so's you can hold down your job, an' hold up your head. I believe in payin' for that kind o' food, if I do have to work for it."
Mrs. Sherman took up the book she had dropped at Martha's entrance.
"You certainly are a character," she observed.
"Thank you, 'm," said Martha.
"O, and by the way, before you go—I want you to see that Mr. Ronald's rooms are put in perfect order to-day. I don't care to trust it to the girls, but you can have one of them to help you, if you like, provided you are sure to oversee her. You know how particular I am about my brother Frank's rooms. Be sure nothing is neglected."
"Yes'm," said Martha.
The next morning Eliza met her at the area-gate, showing a face of ominous sympathy, wagging a doleful head.
"What'd I tell you?" she exclaimed before she had even unlatched the spring-lock. "That young villyan has a head on him old enough to be his father's, if so be he ever had one. He's deep as a well. He didn't tell his mother on ye yesterday mornin', but he done worse—the little fox! He told his uncle Frank when he got home last night. Leastways, Mr. Shaw got a message late in the evenin' from upstairs, which was, to tell Mrs. Slawson, Mr. Ronald wanted to see her after his breakfast this mornin', an' be sure she didn't forget."
Mrs. Slawson received the news with a smile as of such actual welcome, that Eliza, who flattered herself she knew a thing or two about human nature, was rather upset in her calculations.
"You look like you relish bein' bounced," she observed tartly.
"Well, if I'm goin' to get my walkin'-papers, I'd rather get 'em from Mr. Frank than from anybody else. There's never any great loss without some small gain. At least, if Mr. Frank is dischargin' me, he's noticin' I'm alive, an' that's somethin' to be thankful for."
"That's as you look at it!" snapped Eliza. "Mr. Frank is all right enough, but I must say I'd rather keep my place than have even him kick me out. An' you look as if his sendin' for you was to say you'd come in for a fortune."
"P'raps it is," said Martha. "You never can tell."
"Well, if I was makin' tracks for fortunes, I wouldn't start in on Mr. Frank Ronald," Eliza observed cuttingly.
"Which might be exackly where you'd slip up on it," Martha returned with a bland smile.
And yet, in reality, she was by no means so composed as she appeared. She felt as might one who, moved by a great purpose, had rashly usurped the prerogative of fate and set in motion mighty forces that, if they did not make for success, might easily make for disaster. She had very definitely stuck her thumb into somebody else's pie, and if her laudable intention was to draw forth a plum, not for herself but for the other, why, that was no proof that, in the end, she might not get smartly scorched for her pains.
When the summons to the dining-room actually came, Martha felt such an unsubstantiality in the region of her knee-joints, that for a moment she almost believed the bones had turned into breadcrumbs. Then energetically she shook herself into shape, spurning her momentary weakness from her, with an almost visible gesture, and marched forward to meet what awaited her.
Shaw had removed the breakfast dishes from the table beside which "Lord Ronald" sat alone. It was all very imposing, the place, the particular purpose for which she had been summoned, and which was, as yet, unrevealed to her, the person, most of all.
Martha thought that perhaps she had been a little hard on Cora, "the time she give her the tongue-lashin' for stumblin' over the first lines of her piece, that evenin' of the Sund'-School ent'tainment. It wasn't so dead easy as a body might think, to stand up to a whole churchful o' people, or even one person, when he was the kind that's as good (or as bad) as a whole churchful."
Martha could see her now, as she stood then, announcing to the assembled multitude in a high, unmodulated treble:
"It was the t-time when l-lilies bub-blow"
"an' her stockin' fixin' to come down any min'ute!"
"Ah, Martha, good-morning!"
At the first sound of his voice Mrs. Slawson recovered her poise. That wouldn't-call-the-queen-your-cousin feeling came over her again, and she was ready to face the music, whatever tune it might play. So susceptible is the foolish spirit of mortal to those subtle, impalpable influences of atmosphere that we try to describe, in terms of inexact science, as personality, vibration, aura, magnetism.
"I asked to see you, Martha, because Radcliffe tells me—"
Martha's heart sank within her. So it was Radcliffe and the grand bounce after all, and not—Well, it was a pity! After all her thinkin' it out, an' connivin', an' contrivin', to have nothin' come of it! To be sent off before she had time to see the thing through!
"Radcliffe tells me," continued the clear, mellow voice, penetrating the mist of her meditations, "that you own a very rare, a very unusual breed of dog. I couldn't make out much from Radcliffe's description, but apparently the dog is a pedigree animal."
Mrs. Slawson's shoulders, in her sudden revulsion of feeling, shook with soundless mirth.
"Pedigree animal!" she repeated. "Certaintly! Shoor, he's a pedigree animal. He's had auntsisters as far back as any other dog, an' that's a fack. What's the way they put it? 'Out of' the gutter, 'sired by' Kicks. You never see a little yeller, mongol, cur-dog, sir, that's yellerer or cur-er than him. I'd bet my life his line ain't never been crossed by anythin' different, since the first pup o' them all set out to run his legs off tryin' to get rid o' the tin-can tied to his tail. But Flicker's a winner, for all that, an' he's goin' to keep my boy Sammy in order, better'n I could ever do it. You see, I just has to hint to Sammy that if he ain't proper-behaved I won't let Flicker 'sociate with'm, an' he's as good as pie. I wouldn't be without that dog, sir, now I got intimately acquainted with him, for—"
"That touches the question I was intending to raise," interposed Mr. Ronald. "You managed to get Radcliffe's imagination considerably stirred about Flicker, and the result is, he has asked me to see if I can't come to an understanding with you. He wants me to buy Flicker."
Martha's genial smile faded. "Why, goodness gracious, Lor—I should say, Mr. Ronald, the poor little rascal, dog rather, ain't worth two cents. He's just a young flagrant pup, you wouldn't be bothered to notice, 'less you had the particular likin' for such things we got."
"Radcliffe wants Flicker. I'll give you ten dollars for him."
"I—I couldn't take it, Mr. Ronald, sir. It wouldn't be fair to you!"
"It ain't the money—"
"Twenty-five dollars, Martha. Radcliffe's heart is set on the dog."
A quick observer, looking attentively at Mrs. Slawson's face, could have seen something like a faint quiver disturb the firm lines of her lips and chin for a moment. A flash, and it was gone.
"I'd give you the dog, an' welcome, Mr. Ronald," she said presently, "but I just can't do it. The little feller, he never had a square deal before, an' because my husband an' the rest of us give it to him, he loves us to death, an' you'd think he'd bark his head off for joy when the raft o' them gets home after school. An' then, nights—(I ben workin' overtime lately, doin' outside jobs that bring me home late)—nights, when I come back, an' all in the place is abed an' asleep, an' I let myself in, in the black an' the cold, the only livin' creature to welcome me is Flicker. An' there he stands, up an' ready for me, the minute he hears my key in the lock, an' when I open the door, an' light the changelier (he don't dare let a bark out of'm, he knows better, the smart little fella!), there he stands, a-waggin' his stump of a tail like a Christian, an'—Mr. Ronald, sir—that wag ain't for sale!"
For a moment something akin in both held them silent. Then Mr. Ronald slowly inclined his head. "You are quite right, Martha. I understand your feeling."
Martha turned to go. She had, in fact, reached the door when she was recalled.
"O—one moment, please."
She came back.
"My sister tells me you worked in my rooms yesterday. Was any one there with you at the time?"
"No, sir. Mrs. Sherman said I might have one of the girls, but I perfer to see to your things myself."
"Then you were quite alone?"
"Do you know if any one else in the household had occasion to go into my rooms during the day?"
"Of course I can't be pos'tive. But I don't think so, sir."
"Then I wonder if this belongs to you?" He extended his hand toward her. In his palm lay a small, flat, gold locket.
Something like the faintest possible electric shock passed up Mrs. Slawson's spine, and contracted the muscles about her mouth. For a second she positively grinned, then quickly her face regained its customary calm. With a clever, if slightly tardy, movement, her hand went up to her throat.
"Yes, sir—shoor, it's mine! Now what do you think of that! Me losin' somethin' I think the world an' all of, an' have wore for, I do' know how long, an' never missin' it!"
Mr. Ronald's eyes shot out a quick, quizzical gleam.
"O, you have been accustomed to wear it?"
"Mrs. Sherman tells me she never remembers to have seen you with any sort of ornament, even a gold pin. She thought the locket could not possibly belong to you."
"Well, it does. An' the reason she hasn't noticed me wearin' it is, I wear it under my waist, see?"
Again Mr. Ronald fixed her with his keen eyes. "I see. You wear it under your waist. Of course, that explains why she hasn't noticed it. Yet, if you wear it under your waist, how came it to get out from under and be on my desk?"
Martha's face did not change beneath his scrutiny. During a rather long moment she was silent, then her answer came glibly enough.
"When I'm workin' I'm ap' to get het-up, an' then I sometimes undoes the neck o' my waist, an' turns it back to give me breathin'-room."
Mr. Ronald accepted it gravely. "Well, it is a very pretty locket, Martha—and a very pretty face inside it. Of course, as the trinket was in my room, and as there was no name or sign on the outside to identify it, I opened it. I hope you don't mind."
"Certainly not," Martha assured him. "Certainly not!"
"The inscription on the inside puzzles me. 'Dear Daddy, from Claire.' Now, assuredly, you're not dear Daddy, Martha."
Mrs. Slawson laughed. "Not on your life, I ain't Dear Daddy, sir. Dear Daddy was Judge Lang of Grand Rapids—you know, where the furnitur' an' the carpet-sweepers comes from—He died about a year ago, an' Miss Claire, knowin' how much store I set by her, an' how I'd prize her picture, she give me the locket, as you see it."
"You say Grand Rapids?—the young lady, Miss Claire, as you call her, lives in Grand Rapids?"
"I suppose you think I am very inquisitive, asking so many questions, but the fact is, I am extremely interested. You will see why, when I explain that several weeks ago, one day downtown, I saw a little girl—a young lady—who might have been the original of this very picture, the resemblance is so marked. But, of course, if your young lady lives in Grand Rapids, she can't be my little girl—I should say, the young woman I saw here in New York City. But if they were one and the same, they couldn't look more alike. The only difference I can see, is that the original of your picture is evidently a prosperous 'little sister of the rich,' and the original of mine—the one I've carried in my mind—is a breadwinner. She was employed in an office where I had occasion to go one day on business. The next time I happened to drop in there—a few days later—she was gone. I was sorry. That office was no place for her, but I would have been glad to find her there, that I might have placed her somewhere else, in a safer, better position. I hope she has come to no harm."
Martha hung fire a moment. Then, suddenly, her chin went up, as with the impulse of a new resolve.
"I'll be open an' aboveboard with you, sir," she said candidly. "The world is certaintly small, an' the way things happen is a caution. Now, who'd ever have thought that you'd 'a' seen my Miss Claire, but I truly believe you have. For after her father died she come to New York, the poor lamb! for to seek her fortune, an' her as innercent an' unsuspectin' as my Sabina, who's only three this minit. She tried her hand at a lot o' things, an' thank God an' her garden-angel for keepin' her from harm, for as delicate an' pretty as she is, she can't help attractin' attention, an' you know what notions some as calls themselves gen'lemen has, in this town. Well, Miss Claire is livin' under my roof, an' you can betcher life I'm on the job—relievin' her garden-angel o' the pertectin' end o' the business. But Miss Claire's that proud an' inderpendent-like she ain't contented to be idle. She's bound to make her own livin', which, she says, it's everybody's dooty to do, some ways or other. So my eye's out, as you might say, for a place where she can teach, like she's qualified to do. Did I tell you, she's a college lady, an' has what she calls a 'degree,' which I didn't know before anythin' but Masons like himself had 'em.
"You oughter see how my boy Sammy gets his lessons, after she's learned 'em to him. She's a wizard at managin' boys. My Sammy useter to be up to all sorts o' mischief. They was a time he took to playin' hookey. He'd march off mornin's with his sisters, bold as brass, an' when lunchtime come, in he'd prance, same as them, an' nobody ever doubtin' he hadn't been to his school. An' all the time, there he was playin' in the open lots with a gang o' poor little neglected dagos. I noticed him comin' in evenin's kinder dissipated-lookin', but I hadn't my wits about me enough to be onto'm, till his teacher sent me a note one day, by his sister Cora, askin' what was ailin' Sammy. That night somethin' ailed Sammy for fair. He stood up to his dinner, an' he wouldn't 'a' had a cravin' to set down to his breakfast next mornin', only Francie put a pilla in his chair. But Miss Claire, she's got him so bewitched, he'd break his heart before he'd do what she wouldn't like. The thought of her goin' away makes him sick to his stummick, the poor fella! Yet, it ain't to be supposed anybody so smart, an' so good-lookin' as her, but would be snapped up quick by them as has the sense to see the worth of her. There's no question about her gettin' a job, the only worry I have is her gettin' one that will take her away from this, out of New York City, where I can't see her oncet in a while. She's the kind you'd miss, like you would a front tooth. You feel you can't get on without her, an' true for you, you can't. But, beggin' your pardon, sir, for keepin' you so long with my talkin'. If that's all, I'll get to my work."
"That is all," said Mr. Ronald, "except—" He rose and handed her the locket.
She took it from him with a smile of perfect good-fellowship, and passed from the room. Once outside the threshold, with the door closed upon her, she drew a long, deep breath of relief.
"Well, I'm glad that's over, an' I got out of it with a whole skin," she ruminated. "Lord, but I thought he had me shoor, when he took me up about how the thing got out o' me dress, with his gimlet eyes never stirrin' from my face, an' me tremblin' like an ashpan. If I hadn't 'a' had my wits about me, I do' know where I'd 'a' come out. But all's well that ends swell, as Miss Claire says, an' bless her heart, it's her as'll end swell, if what I done this day takes root, an' I believe it will."
When Martha let herself into her flat that night, she was welcomed by another beside Flicker.
"You naughty Martha!" whispered Claire. "What do you mean by coming home so late, all tired out and worked to death! It is shameful! But here's a good cup of hot chocolate, and some big plummy buns to cheer you up. And I've got some good news for you besides. I didn't mean to tell right off, but I just can't keep in for another minute. I've got a job! A fine, three-hundred-dollars-a-year-and-home-and-laundry job! And a raise, as soon as I show I'm worth it! Now, what do you think of that? Isn't it splendid? Isn't it—bully?"
She had noiselessly guided Martha into her own room, got her things off, and seated her in a comfortable Morris chair before the lighted oil-stove, from whose pierced iron top a golden light gleamed cheerily, reflecting on the ceiling above in a curious pattern.