The Island of Faith
By MARGARET E. SANGSTER
To M's M and Chance
I. INTRODUCING—THE SETTLEMENT HOUSE
II. THE QUARREL
III. CONCERNING IDEALS
IV. THE PARK
V. ROSE-MARIE COMES TO THE RESCUE
VI. "THERE'S NO PLACE—"
VII. A LILY IN THE SLUMS
VIII. ANOTHER QUARREL
IX. AND ANOTHER
X. MRS. VOLSKY PROMISES TO TRY
XI. BENNIE COMES TO THE SETTLEMENT HOUSE
XII. AN ISLAND
XIII. ELLA MAKES A DECISION
XIV. PA STEPS ASIDE
XV. A SOLUTION
XVII. AN ANSWER
XVIII. AND A MIRACLE
XIX. AND THE HAPPY ENDING
INTRODUCING—THE SETTLEMENT HOUSE
There is a certain section of New York that is bounded upon the north by Fourteenth Street, upon the south by Delancy. Folk who dwell in it seldom stray farther west than the Bowery, rarely cross the river that flows sluggishly on its eastern border. They live their lives out, with something that might be termed a feverish stolidity, in the dim crowded flats, and upon the thronged streets.
To the people who have homes on Central Park West, to the frail winged moths who flutter up and down Broadway, this section does not exist. Its poor are not the picturesque poor of the city's Latin quarter, its criminals seldom win to the notoriety of a front page and inch-high headlines; it almost never produces a genius for the world to smile upon—its talent does not often break away from the undefined, but none the less certain, limits of the district.
It is curious that this part of town is seldom featured in song or story, for it is certainly neither dull nor unproductive of plot. The tenements that loom, canyon-like, upon every side are filled to overflowing with human drama; and the stilted little parks are so teeming with romances, of a summer night, that only the book of the ages would be big enough to hold them—were they written out! Life beats, like some great wave, up the dim alleyways—it breaks, in a shattered tide, against rock-like doorways. The music of a street band, strangely sweet despite its shrillness, rises triumphantly above the tumult of pavement vendors, the crying of babies, the shouting of small boys, and the monotonous voices of the womenfolk.
In almost the exact center of this district is the Settlement House—a brown building that is tall and curiously friendly. Between a great hive-like dwelling place and a noisy dance-hall it stands valiantly, like the soldier of God that it is! And through its wide-open doorway come and go the girls who will gladly squander a week's wage for a bit of satin or a velvet hat; the shabby, dull-eyed women who, two years before, were care-free girls themselves; the dreamers—and the ones who have never learned to dream. For there is something about the Settlement House—and about the tiny group of earnest people who are the heart of the Settlement House—that is like a warm hand, stretched out in welcome to the poor and the needy, to the halt in body and the maimed in soul, and to the casual passer-by.
"They're like animals," said the Young Doctor in the tone of one who states an indisputable fact. "Only worse!" he added.
Rose-Marie laid down the bit of roll that she had been buttering and turned reproachful eyes upon the Young Doctor.
"Oh, but they're not," she cried; "you don't understand, or you wouldn't talk that way. You don't understand!"
Quite after the maddening fashion of men the doctor did not answer until he had consumed, and appreciatively, the last of the roll he was eating. And then—
"I've been here quite as long as you have, Miss Thompson," he remarked, a shade too gently.
The Superintendent raised tired eyes from her plate. She was little and slim and gray, this Superintendent; it seemed almost as though the slums had drained from her the life and colour.
"When you've been working in this section for twenty years," she said slowly, "you'll realize that nobody can ever understand. You'll realize that we all have animal traits—to a certain extent. And you'll realize that quarrelling isn't ever worth while."
"But"—Rose-Marie was inclined to argue the point—"but Dr. Blanchard talks as if the people down here are scarcely human! And it's not right to feel so about one's fellow-men. Dr. Blanchard acts as if the people down here haven't souls!"
The Young Doctor helped himself nonchalantly to a second roll.
"There's a certain sort of a little bug that lives in the water," he said, "and it drifts around aimlessly until it finds another little bug that it holds on to. And then another little bug takes hold, and another, and another. And pretty soon there are hundreds of little bugs, and then there are thousands, and then there are millions, and then billions, and then—"
The Superintendent interrupted wearily.
"I'd stop at the billions, if I were you," she said, "particularly as they haven't any special bearing on the subject."
"Oh, but they have" said the doctor, "for, after a while, the billions and trillions of little bugs, clinging together, make an island. They haven't souls, perhaps," he darted a triumphant glance at Rose-Marie, "but they make an island just the same!"
He paused for a moment, as if waiting for some sort of comment. When it did not come, he spoke again.
"The people of the slums," he said, "the people who drift into, and out of, and around this Settlement House, are not very unlike the little bugs. And, after all, they do help to make the city!"
There was a quaver in Rose-Marie's voice, and a hurt look in her eyes, as she answered.
"Yes, they are like the little bugs," she said, "in the blind way that they hold together! But please, Dr. Blanchard, don't say they are soulless. Don't—"
All at once the Young Doctor's hand was banging upon the table. All at once his voice was vehemently raised.
"It's the difference in our point of view, Miss Thompson," he told Rose-Marie, "and I'm afraid that I'm right and that you're—not right. You've come from a pretty little country town where every one was fairly comfortable and fairly prosperous. You've always been a part of a community where people went to church and prayer-meeting and Sunday-school. Your neighbours loved each other, and played Pollyanna when things went wrong. And you wore white frocks and blue sashes whenever there was a lawn party or a sociable." He paused, perhaps for breath, and then—"I'm different," he said; "I struggled for my education; it was always the survival of the fittest with me. I worked my way through medical school. I had my hospital experience in Bellevue and on the Island—most of my patients were the lowest of the low. I've tried to cure diseased bodies—but I've left diseased minds alone. Diseased minds have been out of my line. Perhaps that's why I've come through with an ideal of life that's slightly different from your sunshine and apple blossoms theory!"
"Oh," Rose-Marie was half sobbing, "oh, you're so hard!"
The Young Doctor faced her suddenly and squarely. "Why did you come here," he cried, "to the slums? Why did you come to work in a Settlement House? What qualifications have you to be a social service worker, you child? What do you know of the meaning of service, of life?"
Rose-Marie's voice was earnest, though shaken.
"I came," she answered, "because I love people and want to help them. I came because I want to teach them to think beautiful thoughts, to have beautiful ideals. I came because I want to show them the God that I know—and try to serve—" she faltered.
The Young Doctor laughed—but not pleasantly.
"And I," he said, "came to make their bodies as healthy as possible. I came because curing sick bodies was my job—not because I loved people or had any particular faith in them. Prescribing to criminals and near-criminals isn't a reassuring work; it doesn't give one faith in human nature or in human souls!"
The Superintendent had been forgotten. But her tired voice rose suddenly across the barrier of speech that had grown high and icy between the Young Doctor and Rose-Marie.
"You both came," she said, and she spoke in the tone of a mother of chickens who has found two young and precocious ducklings in her brood, "you both came to help people—of that I'm sure!"
Rose-Marie started up, suddenly, from the table.
"I came," she said, as she moved toward the door that led to the hall, "to make people better."
"And I," said the Young Doctor, moving away from the table toward the opposite side of the room and another door, "I came to make them healthier!" With his hand on the knob of the door he spoke to the Superintendent.
"I'll not be back for supper," he said shortly, "I'll be too busy. Giovanni Celleni is out of jail again, and he's thrown his wife down a flight of stairs. She'll probably not live. And while Minnie Cohen was at the vaudeville show last night—developing her soul, perhaps—her youngest baby fell against the stove. Well, it'll be better for the baby if it does die! And there are others—" The door slammed upon his angry back.
Rose-Marie's face was white as she leaned against the dark wainscoting.
"Minnie Cohen brought the baby in last week," she shuddered, "such a dear baby! And Mrs. Celleni—she tried so hard! Oh, it's not right—" She was crying, rather wildly, as she went out of the room.
The Superintendent, left alone at the table, rang for the stolid maid. Her voice was carefully calm as she gave orders for the evening meal. If she was thinking of Giovanni Celleni, his brute face filled with semi-madness; if she was thinking of a burned baby, sobbing alone in a darkened tenement while its mother breathlessly watched the gay colours and shifting scenes of a make-believe life, her expression did not mirror her thought. Only once she spoke, as she was folding her napkin, and then—
"They're both very young," she murmured, a shade regretfully. Perhaps she was remembering the enthusiasm—and the intolerance—of her own youth.
"Sunshine and apple blossoms!" Rose-Marie, hurrying along the hall to her own room, repeated the Young Doctor's words and sobbed afresh as she repeated them. She tried to tell herself that nothing he could think mattered much to her, but there was a certain element of truth in everything that he had said. It was a fact that her life had been an unclouded, peaceful one—her days had followed each other as regularly, as innocuously, as blue china beads, strung upon a white cord, follow each other.
Of course, she told herself, she had never known a mother; and her father had died when she was a tiny girl. But she was forced to admit—as she had been forced to admit many times—that she did not particularly feel the lack of parents. Her two aunts, that she had always lived with, had been everything to her—they had indulged her, had made her pretty frocks, had never tried, in any way, to block the reachings of her personality. When she had decided suddenly, fired by the convincing address of a visiting city missionary, to leave the small town of her birth, they had put no obstacle in her path.
"If you feel that you must go," they had told her, "you must. Maybe it is the work that the Lord has chosen for you. We have all faith in you, Rose-Marie!"
And Rose-Marie, splendid in her youth and assurance, had never known that their pillows were damp that night—and for many another night—with the tears that they were too brave to let her see.
They had packed her trunk, folding the white dress and the blue sash—Rose-Marie wondered how the Young Doctor had known about the dress and sash—in tissue paper. They had created a blue serge frock for work, and a staunch little blue coat, and a blue tam-o'-shanter. Rose-Marie would have been aghast to know how childish she looked in that tam-o'-shanter! Her every-day shoes had been resoled; her white ruffled petticoats had been lengthened. And then she had been launched, like a slim little boat, upon the turbulent sea of the city!
Looking back, through a mist of angry tears, Rose-Marie felt her first moment of homesickness for the friendly little town with its wide, tree-shaded streets, its lawn parties, and its neighbours; cities, she had discovered, discourage the art of neighbouring! She felt a pang of emptiness—she wanted her aunts with their soft, interested eyes, and their tender hands.
At first the city had thrilled her. But now that she had been in the Settlement House a month, the thrill was beginning to die away. The great buildings were still unbelievably high, the crowds of people were still a strange and mysterious throng, the streets were as colourful as ever—but life, nevertheless, was beginning to settle into ordinary channels.
She had thought, at the beginning of her stay there, that the Settlement House was a hotbed of romance. Every ring of the doorbell had tingled through her; every step in the hall had made her heart leap, with a strange quickening movement, into her throat—every shabby man had been to her a possible tragedy, every threadbare woman had been a case for charity. She had fluttered from reception-hall to reading-room, and back again—she had been alert, breathless, eager.
But, with the assignment of regular duties, some of the adventure had been drained from life. For her these consisted of teaching a club of girls to sew, of instructing a group of mothers in the art of making cakes and pies and salads, and of hearing a half hundred little children repeat their A B Cs. Only the difference in setting, only the twang of foreign tongues, only the strange precociousness of the children, made life at all different from the life at home. She told herself, fiercely, that she might be a teacher in a district school—a country school—for all the good she was accomplishing.
She had offered, so many times, to do visiting in the tenements—to call upon families of the folk who would not come to the Settlement House. But the Superintendent had met her, always, with a denial that was wearily firm.
"I have a staff of women—older women from outside—who do the visiting," she had said. "I'm afraid" she was eyeing Rose-Marie in the blue coat and the blue tam-o'-shanter, "I'm afraid that you'd scarcely be—convincing. And," she had added, "Dr. Blanchard takes care of all the detail in that department of our work!"
Dr. Blanchard ... Rose-Marie felt the tears coming afresh at the thought of him! She remembered how she had written home enthusiastic, schoolgirlish letters about the handsome man who sat across the dining table from her. It had seemed exciting, romantic, that only the three of them really should live in the great brownstone house—the Young Doctor, the Superintendent—who made a perfect chaperon—and herself. It had seemed, somehow, almost providential that they should be thrown together. Yes, Rose-Marie remembered how she had been attracted to Dr. Blanchard at the very first—how she had found nothing wanting in his wiry strength, his broad shoulders, his dark, direct eyes.
But she had not been in the Settlement House long before she began to feel the clash of their natures. When she started to church service, on her first Sunday in New York, she surprised a smile of something that might have been cynical mirth upon his lean, square-jawed face. And when she spoke of the daily prayers that she and her aunts had so beautifully believed in, back in the little town, he laughed at her—not unkindly, but with the sympathetic superiority that one feels for a too trusting child. Rose-Marie, thinking it over, knew that she would rather meet direct unkindness than that bland superiority!
And so—though there had never been an open quarrel until the one at the luncheon table—Rose-Marie had learned to look to the Superintendent for encouragement, rather than to the Young Doctor. And she had frigidly declined his small courtesies—a visit to the movies, a walk in the park, a 'bus ride up Fifth Avenue.
"I never went to the movies at home," she had told him. Or, "I'm too busy, just now, to take a walk." Or, "I can't go with you to-day. I've letters to write."
"It's a shame," she confided, on occasion, to the Superintendent, "that Dr. Blanchard never goes to church. It's a shame that he has had so little religious life. I gave him a book to read the other day—the letters of an American Missionary in China—and he laughed and told me that he couldn't waste his time. What do you think of that! But later," Rose-Marie's voice sank to a horrified whisper, "later, I saw him reading a cheap novel—he had time for a cheap novel!"
The Superintendent looked down into Rose-Marie's earnest little face.
"My dear," she said gently, stifling a desire to laugh, "my dear, he's a very busy man. He gives a great deal of himself to the people here in the slums. The novel, to him, was just a mental relaxation."
But to the Young Doctor, later, the Superintendent spoke differently.
"Billy Blanchard," she said, and she only called him Billy Blanchard when she wanted to scold him, "I've known you for a long time. And I'm sure that there's no harm in you. Of course," she sighed, "I wish that you could feel a little more in sympathy with the spiritual side of our work. But I've argued with you, more than once, on that point!"
The doctor, who was packing medicines into his bag, looked up.
"You know, you old dear," he told her, "that I'm hopeless. I haven't had an easy row to hoe, not ever; you wouldn't be religious yourself if you were in my shoes! There—don't look so shocked—you've been a mother to me in your funny, fussy way, since I came to this place! That's the main reason, I guess, that I stick here, as I do, when I could make a lot more money somewhere else!" He reached up to pat her thin hand, and then, "But why are you worrying, just now, about my soul?" he questioned.
The Superintendent sighed again.
"It's the little Thompson girl," she answered; "she's so anxious to convert people, and she's so sincere,—so very sincere. I can't help feeling that you are a thorn in her flesh, Billy. She says that you won't read her missionary books—"
The Young Doctor interrupted.
"She's such a pretty girl," he said quite fiercely. "Why on earth didn't she stay at home, where she belonged! Why on earth did she pick out this sort of work?"
The Superintendent answered.
"One never knows," she said, "why girls pick out certain kinds of work. I've had the strangest cases come to my office—of homely girls who wanted to be artists' models, and anemic girls who wanted to be physical directors, and flighty girls who wanted to go to Bible School, and quiet girls who were all set for a career on the stage. Rose-Marie Thompson is the sort of a girl who was cut out to be a home-maker, to give happiness to some nice, clean boy, to have a nursery full of rosy-cheeked babies. And yet here she is, filled with a desire to rescue people, to snatch brands from the burning. Here she is in the slums when she'd be dramatically right in an apple orchard—at the time of year when the trees are covered with pink and white blossoms."
The Young Doctor laughed. He so well understood the Superintendent—so enjoyed her point of view.
"Yes," he agreed, "she'd be perfect there in an organdy frock with the sun slanting across her face. But—well, she's just like other girls. Tell a pretty girl that she's clever, they say, and tell a clever girl that she's a raving, tearing beauty. That's the way for a man to be popular!"
The Superintendent laughed quietly with him. It was a moment before she grew sober again.
"I wonder," she said at last, "why you have never tried to be popular with girls. You could so easily be popular. You're young and—don't try to hush me up—good-looking. And yet—well, you're such an antagonistic person. From the very first you've laughed at Rose-Marie—and she was quite ready to adore you when she arrived. How do I know? Oh, I could tell! Take the child seriously, Billy Blanchard, before she actually begins to dislike you!"
The Young Doctor put several bottles of violently coloured pills into his bag before he spoke.
"She dislikes me already," he said. "She's such a cool little person. What are you trying to do, anyway? Are you trying to matchmake; to stir up a love affair between the both of us—" suddenly he was laughing again.
"I'm too busy to have a romance, you old dear," he told the Superintendent, "far too busy. I'm as likely to fall in love, just now, as you are!"
The woman's face was averted as she answered. But her low voice was steady.
"When I was your age, Billy," she said gently, "I was in love. That's why, perhaps, I came here. That's why, perhaps, I stayed. No, he didn't die—he married another girl. And dreams are hard things to forget. That's why I left the country. Maybe that's why the little Thompson girl—"
But the Young Doctor was shaking his head.
"She hasn't had any love affair," he told the Superintendent. "She's too young and full of ideals to have anything so ordinary as a romance. Everybody," his laugh was not too pleasant, "can have a romance! And few people can be so filled with ideals as Miss Thompson. Oh, it's her ideals that I can't stand! It's her impractical way of gazing at life through pink-coloured glasses. She'll never be of any real use here in the slums. I'm only afraid that she'll come to some harm because she's so trusting and over-sincere. I'd hate to see her placed in direct contact with some of the young men that I work with, for instance. You haven't—" All at once his voice took on a new note. "You haven't let her be with any of the boys' classes, have you? Her ideals might not stand the strain!"
The Superintendent answered.
"Ideals don't hurt any one," she said, and her voice was almost as fierce as the doctor's. "No, I haven't given her a bit of work with the boys. She's too young and too untouched and, as you say, too pretty. I'm letting her spend her time with the mothers, and the young girls, and the little tots—not even allowing her to go out alone, if I can help it. Such innocence—" The Superintendent broke off suddenly in the middle of the sentence. And she sighed again.
Crying helps, sometimes. When Rose-Marie, alone in her room, finally dried away the tears that were the direct result of her quarrel with Dr. Blanchard, there was a new resolve in her eyes—a look that had not been there when she went, an hour before, to the luncheon table. It was the look of one who has resolutions that cannot be shattered—dreams that are unbreakable. She glanced at her wrist watch and there was a shade of defiance in the very way she raised the arm that wore it.
"They make a baby of me here," she told herself, "they treat me like a silly child. It's a wonder that they don't send a nurse-maid with me to my classes. It's a wonder"—she was growing vehement—"that they give me credit for enough sense to wear rubbers when it's raining! I," again she glanced at the watch, "I haven't a single thing to do until four o'clock—and it's only just a little after two. I'm going out—now. I'm going into the streets, or into a tenement, or into a—a dive, if necessary! I'm going to show them"—the plural pronoun, strangely, referred to a certain young man—"that I can help somebody! I'm going to show them—"
She was struggling eagerly into her coat; eagerly she pulled her tam-o'-shanter over the curls that, even in the city slums, were full of sunshine. With her hands thrust staunchly into her pockets, she went out; out into the jungle of streets that met, as in the center of a labyrinth, in front of the Settlement House.
Always, when she had gone out alone, she had sought a small park not far from her new home. It was a comfortingly green little oasis in the desert of stone and brick—a little oasis that reminded one of the country. She turned toward it now, quite blindly, for the streets confused her—they always did. As the crowds closed around her she hurried vaguely, as a swimmer hurries just before he loses his head and goes down. She caught her breath as she went, for the crowds always made her feel submerged—quite as the swimmer feels just before the final plunge. She entered the park—it was scarcely more than a square of grass—with a very definite feeling of relief, almost of rescue.
As usual, the park was crowded. But park crowds are different from street crowds—they are crowds at rest, rather than hurrying, restless throngs. Rose-Marie sank upon an iron bench and with wide, childishly distended eyes surveyed the people that surged in upon her.
There was a woman with a hideous black wig—the badge of revered Jewish motherhood—pressed down over the front of her silvered hair. Rose-Marie, a short time ago, would have guessed her age at seventy—now she told herself that the woman was probably forty. There was a slim, cigarette-smoking youth with pale, shifty eyes. There was an old, old man—white-bearded like one of the patriarchs—and there was a dark-browed girl who held a drowsy baby to her breast. All of these and many more—Italians, Slavs, Russians, Hungarians and an occasional Chinaman—passed her by. It seemed to the girl that this section was a veritable melting pot of the races—and that every example of every race was true to type. She had seen any number of young men with shifty eyes—she had seen many old men with white beards. She knew that other black-wigged women lived in every tenement; that other dark-browed girls were, at that same moment, rocking other babies. She fell to wondering, whimsically, whether God had fashioned the people of the slums after some half-dozen set patterns—almost as the cutter, in many an alley sweatshop, fashions the frocks of a season.
A sharp cry broke in upon her wonderings. It was the cry of an animal in utter pain—in blind, unreasoning agony. Rose-Marie was on her feet at the first moment that it cut, quiveringly, through the air. With eyes distended she whirled about to face a small boy who knelt upon the ground behind her bench.
To Rose-Marie the details of the small boy's appearance came back, later, with an amazing clarity. Later she could have described his dark, sullen eyes, his mouth with its curiously grim quirk at one corner, his shock of black hair and his ragged coat. But at the moment she had the ability to see only one thing—the scrawny gray kitten that the boy had tied to the iron leg of the bench; the shrinking kitten that the boy was torturing with a cold, relentless cruelty.
It shrieked again—with an almost human cry—as she started around the bench toward it. And the wild throbbing of her heart told her that she was witnessing, for the first time, a phase of human nature of which she had never dreamed.
ROSE-MARIE COMES TO THE RESCUE
Rose-Marie's hand upon the small boy's coat collar was not gentle. With surprising strength, for she was small and slight, she jerked him aside.
"You wicked child!" she exclaimed, and the Young Doctor would have chuckled to hear her tone. "You wicked child, what are you doing?"
Without waiting for an answer she knelt beside the pitiful little animal that was tied to the bench, and with trembling fingers unloosed the cord that held it, noting as she did so how its bones showed, even through its coat of fur. When it was at liberty she gathered it close to her breast and turned to face the boy.
He had not tried to run away. Even with the anger surging through her, Rose-Marie admitted that the child was not—in one sense—a coward. He had waited, brazenly perhaps, to hear what she had to say. With blazing eyes she said it:
"Why," she questioned, and the anger that made her eyes blaze also put a tremor into her voice, "why were you deliberately hurting this kitten? Don't you know that kittens can feel pain just as much as you can feel pain? Don't you know that it is wicked to make anything suffer? Why were you so wicked?"
The boy looked up at her with sullen, dark eyes. The grim twist at one corner of his mouth became more pronounced.
"Aw," he said gruffly, "why don't yer mind yer own business?"
If Rose-Marie's hands had been free, she would have taken the boy suddenly and firmly by both shoulders. She felt an overwhelming desire to shake him—to shake him until his teeth chattered. But both of her hands were busy, soothing the gray kitten that shivered against her breast.
"I am minding my own business," she told the boy. "It's my business to give help where it's needed, and this kitten," she cuddled it closer, "certainly needed help! Haven't you ever been told that you should be kind? Like," she faltered, "like Jesus was kind? He wouldn't have hurt anything. He loved animals—and He loved boys, too. Why don't you try to be the sort of a boy He could love? Why do you try to be bad—to do wrong things?"
The eyes of the child were even more sullen—the twist of his mouth was even more grim as he listened to Rose-Marie. But when she had finished speaking, he answered her—and still he did not try to run away.
"Wot," he questioned, almost in the words of the Young Doctor, "wot do you know about things that's right an' things that's wrong? It ain't bad t' hurt animals—not if they're little enough so as they ain't able t' hurt you!"
Rose-Marie sat down, very suddenly, upon the bench. In all of her life—her sheltered, glad life—she had never heard such a brutal creed spoken, and from the lips of a child! Her eyes, searching his face, saw that he was not trying to be funny, or saucy, or smart. Curiously enough she noted that he was quite sincere—that, to him, the torturing of a kitten was only a part of the day with its various struggles and amusements. When she spoke again her tone was gentle—as gentle as the tone with which the other slum children, who came to the Settlement House, were familiar.
"Whoever told you," she questioned, "that it's not wrong to hurt an animal, so long as it can't fight back?"
The boy eyed her strangely. Rose-Marie could almost detect a gleam of latent interest in his dark eyes. And then, as if he had gained a sort of confidence in her, he answered.
"Nobody never told me," he said gruffly. "But I know."
The kitten against Rose-Marie's breast cried piteously. Perhaps it was the hopelessness of the cry that made her want so desperately to make the boy understand. Conquering the loathing she had felt toward him she managed the ghost of a smile.
"I wish," she said, and the smile became firmer, brighter, as she said it, "I wish that you'd sit down, here, beside me. I want to tell you about the animals that I've had for pets—and about how they loved me. I had a white dog once; his name was Dick. He used to go to the store for me, he used to carry my bundles home in his mouth—and he did tricks—"
The boy had seated himself, gingerly, on the bench. He interrupted her, and his voice was eager.
"Did yer have t' beat him," he questioned, "t' make him do the tricks? Did he bleed when yer beat him?"
Again Rose-Marie gasped. She leaned forward until her face was on a level with the boy's face.
"Why," she asked him, "do you think that the only way to teach an animal is to teach him by cruelty? I taught my dog tricks by being kind and sweet to him. Why do you talk of beatings—I couldn't hurt anything, even if I disliked it, until it bled!"
The small boy drew back from Rose-Marie. His expression was vaguely puzzled—it seemed almost as if he did not comprehend what her words meant.
"My pa beats me," he said suddenly, "always he beats me—when he's drunk! An' sometimes he beats me when he ain't. He beats Ma, too, an' he uster beat Jim, 'n' Ella. He don't dare beat Jim now, though"—this proudly—"Jim's as big as he is now, an' Ella—nobody'd dast lay a hand on Ella ..." almost as suddenly as he had started to talk, the boy stopped.
For the moment the episode of the kitten was a forgotten thing. There was only pity, only a blank sort of horror, on Rose-Marie's face.
"Doesn't your father love you—any of you?" she asked.
"Naw." The boy's mouth was a straight line—a straight and very bitter line, for such a young mouth. "Naw, he only loves his booze. He hits me all th' time—an' he's four times as big as me! An' so I hit whoever's smaller'n I am. An' even if they cry I don't care. I hate things that's little—that can't take care o' themselves. Everything had oughter be able t' take care of itself!"
"Haven't you"—again Rose-Marie asked a question—"haven't you ever loved anything that was smaller than you are? Haven't you ever had a pet? Haven't you ever felt that you must protect and take care of some one—or something? Haven't you?"
All at once the boy was smiling, and the smile lit up his small, dark face as a candle, slowly flickering, brings cheer and brightness to a dull, lonely room.
"I love Lily," he told her. "I wouldn't let nobody touch Lily! If Pa so much as spoke mean to her—I'd kill him. I'd kill him with a knife!"
Rose-Marie shuddered inwardly at the thought. But her voice was very even as she spoke.
"Who is Lily?" she asked.
The boy had slid down along the bench. He was so close to her that his shabby coat sleeve touched her blue one.
"Lily's my kid sister," he said, and, miracle of miracles, his voice held a note of tenderness. "Say—Miss, I'm sorry I hurt th' cat."
With a sudden feeling of warmth Rose-Marie moved just a fraction of an inch closer to the boy. She knew, somehow, that his small, curiously abject apology was in a way related to the "kid sister"; she knew, almost instinctively, that this Lily who could make a smile come to the dark little face, who could make a tenderness dwell in those hard young eyes, was the only avenue by which she could reach this strange child. She spoke to him suddenly, impulsively.
"I'd like to see your Lily; I'd like to see her, awfully," she told him. "Will you bring her some time to call on me? I live at the Settlement House."
A subtle change had come over the child's face. He slid, hurriedly, from the bench.
"Oh," he said, "yer one o' them! You sing hymns 'n' pray 'n' tell folks t' take baths. I know. Well, I can't bring Lily t' see you—not ever!"
Rose-Marie had also risen to her feet.
"Then," she said eagerly, "let me come and see Lily. Where do you live?"
The boy's eyes had fallen. It was plain that he did not want to answer—that he was experiencing the almost inarticulate embarrassment of childhood.
"We live," he told her at last, "in that house over there." His pointing finger indicated the largest and grimiest of the tenements that loomed, dark and high, above the squalor of a side street. "But you wouldn't wanter come—there!"
Rose-Marie caught her breath sharply. She was remembering how the Superintendent had forbidden her to do visiting, how the Young Doctor had laughed at her desire to be of service. She knew what they would say if she told them that she was going into a tenement to see a strange child named Lily. Perhaps that was why her voice had an excited ring as she answered.
"Yes, I would come there!" she told the boy. "Tell me what floor you live on, and what your name is, and when it would be best for me to come?"
"My name's Bennie Volsky," the boy said slowly. "We're up five flights, in th' back. D'yer really mean that you'll come—an' see Lily?"
Rose-Marie nodded soberly. How could the child know that her heart was all athrob with the call of a great adventure?
"Yes, I mean it," she told him. "When shall I come?"
The boy's grubby hand shot out and rested upon her sleeve.
"Come to-morrow afternoon," he told her. "Say, yer all right!" He turned, swiftly, and ran through the crowd, and in a moment had disappeared like a small drab-coloured city chameleon.
Rose-Marie, standing by the bench, watched the place where he had disappeared. And then, all at once, she turned swiftly—just as swiftly as the boy had—and started back across the park toward the Settlement House.
"I won't tell them!" she was saying over and over in her heart, as she went, "I won't tell them! They wouldn't let me go, if I did.... I won't tell them!"
The kitten was still held tight in her arms. It rested, quite contentedly, against her blue coat. Perhaps it knew that there was a warm, friendly place—even for little frightened animals—in the Settlement House.
"THERE'S NO PLACE—"
When Rose-Marie paused in front of the tenement, at three o'clock on the following afternoon, she felt like a naughty little girl who is playing truant from school. When she remembered the way that she had avoided the Superintendent's almost direct questions, she blushed with an inward sense of shame. But when she thought of the Young Doctor's offer to go with her—"wherever she was going"—she threw back her head with a defiant little gesture. She knew well that the Young Doctor was sorry for yesterday's quarrel—she knew that a night beside the dying Mrs. Celleni, and the wails of the Cohen baby, had temporarily softened his viewpoint upon life. And yet—he had said that they were soulless—these people that she had come to help! He would have condemned Bennie Volsky from the first—but she had detected the glimmerings of something fine in the child! No—despite his more tolerant attitude—she knew that, underneath, his convictions were unchanged. She was glad that she had gone out upon her adventure alone.
With a heart that throbbed in quick staccato beats, she mounted the steps of the tenement. Little dark-eyed children moved away from her, apparently on every side, but somehow she scarcely noticed them. The doorway yawned, like an open mouth, in front of her—and she could think of nothing else. As she went over the dark threshold she remembered stories that she had read about people who go in at tenement doorways and are never seen again. Every one has read such stories in the daily newspapers—and perhaps some of them are true!
A faint light flickered in through the doorway. It made the ascent of the first flight of creaking stairs quite easy. At least Rose-Marie could step aside from the piles of rubbish and avoid the rickety places. She wondered, as she went up, her fingers gingerly touching the dirty hand-rail, how people could exist under such wretched conditions.
The second flight was harder to manage. The light from the narrow doorway was shut off, and there were no windows. There might have been gas jets upon every landing—Rose-Marie supposed that there were—but it was mid-afternoon, and they had not yet been lighted. She groped her way up the second flight, and the third, feeling carefully along each step with her foot before she put her weight upon it.
On the fourth flight she paused for a moment to catch her breath. But she realized, as she paused, that even breathing had to be done under difficulties in this place. There was no ventilation of any sort, so far as she could tell—all about her floated the odours of boiled cabbage, and fried onions, and garlic. And there were other odours, too; the indescribable smells of soiled clothing and soap-suds and greasy dishes.
But in Rose-Marie's mind, the odours—poignant though they were—took second place to the sounds. Never, she told herself, had she imagined that so many different sorts of noises could exist in the same place at one and the same time. There were the cries and sobs of little children, the moans of sickness, the thuds of falling furniture and the crashes of breaking crockery. There were yells of rage, and—worst of all—bursts of appalling profanity. Rose-Marie, standing there in the darkness of the fourth flight, heard words that she had never expected to hear—phrases of which she had never dreamed. She shuddered as she started up the fifth flight, and when, at last, she stood in front of the Volsky flat, she experienced almost a feeling of relief. At least she would be shut off, in a moment, from those alien and terrible sounds—at least, in a moment, she would be in a home.
To most of us—particularly if we have grown up in an atmosphere such as had always sheltered Rose-Marie—the very sound of the word "home" brings a certain sense of warmth and comfort. Home stands for shelter and protection and love. "Be it ever so humble," the old song tells us, "be it ever so humble ..."
And Rose-Marie, knocking timidly upon the Volsky door, expected to find a home. She expected it to be humble in the truest sense of the word—to be ragged and poverty-stricken and mean. And yet she could not feel that it would be utterly divorced from the ideals she had always built around her conception of the word. She expected it to be a home because a family lived there together—a mother, and a father, and children.
In answer to her knock the door swung open—a little way. The glow of a dingy lamp fell about her, through the opening—she felt suddenly as if she had been swept, willy-nilly, before the footlights of some hostile stage. For a moment she stood blinking. And as she stood there, quite unable to see, she heard the voice of Bennie Volsky, speaking in a hoarse whisper.
"It's you, Miss!" said the voice, and it was as full of intense wonderment as a voice could be. "I never thought that you'd come—I didn't think you was on th' level. So many folks say they'll do things—" he broke off, and then—"Walk in, quiet," he told her slowly. "Don't make any noise, if yer can help it! Pa's come home, all lit up. An' he's asleep, in th' corner! There'll be—" he broke off—"There'll be th' dickens t' pay, if Pa wakes up! But walk in, still-like. An' yer can see Ma an' all, an'—Lily!"
Rose-Marie, whose eyes had now become accustomed to the dim light, stepped past the boy and into the room. Her hand, in passing, touched his arm lightly, for she knew that he was labouring under intense excitement. She stepped into the room, on mousy-quiet feet—and then, with a quick gasp, drew back again.
Never, in her wildest dreams of poverty, had Rose-Marie supposed that squalor, such as she saw in the Volsky home, could exist. Never had she supposed that a family could live in such cramped, airless quarters. Never had she thought that filth, such as she saw in the room, was possible. It all seemed, somehow, an unbelievably bad dream—a dream in which she was appearing, with startling realism. Her comfortable picture of a home was vanishing—vanishing as suddenly and completely as a soap bubble vanishes, if pricked by a pin.
"Why—why, Bennie!" she began. But the child was not listening. He had darted from her side and was dragging forward, by one listless, work-coarsened hand, a pallid, drooping woman.
"Dis is my ma," he told Rose-Marie. "She didn't know yer was comin'. I didn't tell her!"
It seemed to Rose-Marie that there was a scared sort of appeal in the woman's eyes as they travelled, slowly, over her face. But there was not even appeal in the tone of her voice—it was all a drab, colourless monotone.
"Whatcha come here fer?" she questioned. "Pa, he's home. If he should ter wake up—" She left the sentence unfinished.
Almost instinctively the eyes of Rose-Marie travelled past the figure of Mrs. Volsky. There was nothing in that figure to hold her gaze—it was so vague, so like a shadow of something that had been. She saw the few broken chairs, the half-filled wash tub, the dish-pan with its freight of soiled cups and plates. She saw the gas stove, with its battered coffee-pot, and a mattress or two piled high with dingy bedding. And, in one corner, she saw—with a new sense of horror—the reclining figure of Pa.
Pa was sleeping. Sleeping heavily, with his mouth open and his tousled head slipping to one side. One great hairy hand was clenched about an empty bottle—one huge foot, stockingless and half out of its shoe, was dragging limply off the heap of blankets that was his bed. A stubble of beard made his already dark face even more sinister, his tousled hair looked as if it had never known the refining influences of a comb or brush. As Rose-Marie stared at him, half fascinated, he turned—with a spasmodic, drunken movement—and flung one heavy arm above his head.
The room was not a large one. But, at that moment, it seemed appallingly spacious to Rose-Marie. She turned, almost with a feeling of affection, toward Bennie. At least she had seen him before. And, as if he interpreted her feeling, Bennie spoke.
"We got two other rooms," he told her, "one that Ella an' Lily sleep in, an' one that Jim pays fer, his own self. Ma an' Pa an' me—we sleep here! Say, don't you be too scared o' Pa—he'll stay asleep fer a long time, now. He won't wake up unless he's shook. Will he, Ma?"
Mrs. Volsky nodded her head with a worn out, apathetic movement. Noiselessly, but with the appearance of a certain terrible effort under the shell of quiet, she moved away across the room toward the stove.
"She's goin' t' warm up th' coffee," Bennie said. "She'll give you some, in a minute, if yer want it!"
Rose-Marie was about to speak, about to assure Bennie that she didn't want any of the coffee, when steps sounded on the stairs. They were hurried steps; steps suggesting to the listener that five flights were nothing, after all! Rose-Marie found herself turning as a hand fell heavily upon a door-knob, and the door swung in.
A young man stood jauntily upon the threshold. Rose-Marie's first impression of him was one of extreme, almost offensive neatness—of sleek hair, that looked like patent leather, and of highly polished brown shoes. She saw that his blue and white striped collar was speckless, that his blue tie was obviously new, that his trousers were creased to an almost dangerous edge. But it was the face of the young man from which Rose-Marie shrank back—a clever, sharp face with narrow, horribly speculative eyes and a thin-lipped red mouth. It was a handsome face, yes, but—
The voice of Bennie broke, suddenly, across her speculations. "Jim," he said.
Still jauntily—Rose-Marie realized that jauntiness was his keynote—the young man entered the room. His sharp eyes travelled with lightning-like rapidity over the place, resting a moment on the sleeping figure of Pa before they hurried past him to Rose-Marie. He surveyed her coolly, taking in every feature, every fold of her garments, with a studied boldness that was somehow offensive.
"Who's she?" he questioned abruptly, of any one who cared to answer, and one manicured finger pointed in her direction. "Where'd she come from?"
Bennie was the one who spoke. Rather gallantly he stepped in front of Rose-Marie.
"She's a friend of mine," he said; "she lives by th' Settlement House. She come up here t' see me, 'n' Ma, 'n' Lily. You leave her be—y' understand?"
The young man laughed, and his laugh was curiously hard and dry.
"Oh, sure!" he told Bennie. "I'll leave her be! What," he turned to Rose-Marie with an insolent smile, "what's yer name?"
Rose-Marie met his insolent gaze with a calm expression. No one would have guessed that she was trembling inwardly.
"My name," she told him, "is Rose-Marie Thompson. I live in the Settlement House, and I came to see your sister."
"Well," the young man's insolent gaze was still studying Rose-Marie, "well, she'll be up soon. I passed 'er on th' stairs. But," he laughed again, "why didn't yer come t' see me—huh?"
Rose-Marie, having no answer, turned expectantly toward the door. If this Jim had passed his sister on the stairs, she couldn't be very far away. As if in reply to her supposition, the door swung open again and a tall, dark-eyed girl came into the room. Rose-Marie saw with her first swift glance that the red upon the girl's cheeks was too high to be quite natural—that the scarlet of her lips was over-vivid. And yet, despite the patently artificial colouring, she realized that the girl was beautiful with a high strung, almost thoroughbred beauty. She wondered how this beauty had been born of the dim woman who seemed so colourless and the sodden brute who lay snoring in the comer.
Her train of thought was broken, suddenly. For the young man was speaking. Rose-Marie disliked, somehow, the very tone of his voice.
"Here's a girl t' see you, Ella," he said. "She's from th' Settlement House—she says! Maybe she wants," sarcastically, "that you should join a Bible Class!"
The girl's eyes were flashing with a dangerously hard light. She turned angrily to Rose-Marie. But before she could say anything, the child, Bennie, had interposed.
"She didn't come t' see you" he told his older sister—"she don't want t' see you—like those other wimmen did. She come t' see Lily—"
He paused and Rose-Marie, who had gathered that social service workers were not welcome visitors, went on breathlessly, from where he left off.
"I am from the Settlement House," she told Ella, "and I'd like awfully to have you join our classes. But that wasn't why I came here. Bennie told me that he had a dear little sister. And I came to see her."
A change swept miraculously over Ella's cold face. Rose-Marie could see, all at once, that she and her young brother were strikingly alike—that Jim was the different one in this family.
"I'll get Lily," Ella said simply, and there was a warmth, a tenderness in her dark eyes that had been so hard. "I didn't understand," she added, as she went quickly past Rose-Marie and into the small inner room that Bennie had said his sisters shared. In a moment she came out leading a small girl by the hand.
"This is Lily!" she said softly.
Even in that dingy place—perhaps accentuated by the very dinginess of it—Lily's blond loveliness struck Rose-Marie with a sense of shock. The child might have been a flower—the very flower whose name she bore—growing upon an ash heap. Her beauty made the rest of the room fade into dim outlines—made Jim and Ella and Bennie seem heavy, and somehow overfed. Even Pa, snoring lustily, became almost a shadow. Rose-Marie stepped toward the child impulsively, with outflung arms.
"Oh, you dear!" she said shakily, "you dear!"
Nobody spoke. Only Ella, with gentle hands, pushed her little sister forward. The child's great blue eyes looked past Rose-Marie, and a vague smile quivered on her lips.
"Oh, you dear!" Rose-Marie exclaimed again, and went down on her knees on the dirty floor—real women will always kneel before a beautiful child.
Lily might have been four years old. Her hair, drawn back from her white little face, was the colour of pale gold, and her lips were faintly coral. But it was her deep eyes, with their vague expression, that clutched, somehow, at Rose-Marie's heart.
"Tell me that you're going to like me, Lily!" she almost implored. "I love little girls."
The child did not answer—indeed, she did not seem to hear. But one thin little hand, creeping out, touched Rose-Marie's face with a gesture that was singularly appealing, singularly full of affection. When the fingers touched her cheek, Rose-Marie felt a sudden suspicion, a sudden dread. She noticed, all at once, that no one was speaking—that the room was quite still, except for the beastial grunts of the sleeping Pa.
"Why," she asked, quite without meaning to, "why doesn't she answer me? She isn't afraid of me, is she? Why doesn't she say something?"
It was, curiously enough, Mrs. Volsky who answered. Even her voice—that was usually so dull and monotonous—held a certain tremor.
"Lily," she said slowly, "can't spick—'r hear.... An' she's—blind!"
A LILY IN THE SLUMS
Rose-Marie started back from the child with a sickening sense of shock. All at once she realized the reason why Bennie's eyes grew tender at the mention of his little sister—why Ella forgot anger and suspicion when Lily came into the room. She understood why Mrs. Volsky's dull voice held love and sorrow. And yet, as she looked at the small girl, it seemed almost incredible that she should be so afflicted. Deaf and dumb and blind! Never to hear the voices of those who loved her, never to see the beautiful things of life, never—even—to speak! Rose-Marie choked back a sob, and glanced across the child's cloud of pale golden hair at Ella. As their eyes met she knew that they were, in some strange way, friends.
With a sudden, overwhelming pity, her arms reached out again to Lily. As she gathered the child close she was surprised at the slenderness of the tiny figure, at the neatness of the faded gingham frock that blended in tone with the great, sightless eyes. All at once she remembered what Bennie had said to her, the day before, in the park.
"I love Lily," he had told her, "I wouldn't let nobody hurt Lily! If any one—even Pa, so much as spoke mean to her—I'd kill him...."
Glancing about the room, at the faces of the others, she sensed a silent echo of Bennie's words. Mrs. Volsky, who would keep neither her flat nor herself neat, quite evidently saw to it that Lily's little dress was spotless. Ella, whose temper would flare up at the slightest word, cared for the child with the tender efficiency of a professional nurse; Bennie's face, as he looked at his tiny sister, had taken on a cherubic softness. And Jim ... Rose-Marie glanced at Jim and was startled out of her reflections. For Jim was not looking at Lily. His gaze was fixed upon her own face with an intensity that frightened her. With a sudden impulse she spoke directly to him.
"You must be very kind to this little sister of yours," she told him. "She needs every bit of love and affection and consideration that her family can give her!"
Jim, his gaze still upon her face, shrugged his shoulders. But before he could answer Ella had come a step closer to Rose-Marie. Her eyes were flashing.
"Jim," she said, "ain't got any love or kindness or consideration in him! Jim thinks that Lily ain't got any more feelin's than a puppy dog—'cause she can't answer back. Oh," in response to the question in Rose-Marie's face, "oh, he'd never put a finger on her—not that! But he don't speak kind to her, like we do. It's enough fer him that she can't hear th' words he lays his tongue to. Even Pa—"
Suddenly, as if in answer to his spoken name, there came a scuffling sound from the corner where Pa was sleeping. All at once the empty bottle dropped from the unclenched hand, the mouth fell open in a prodigious yawn, the eyes became wide, burned-out wells of drunkenness. And as she watched, Rose-Marie saw the room cleared in an amazing fashion. She heard Mrs. Volsky's terrified whisper, "He's wakin' up!" She heard Jim's harsh laugh; she saw Ella, with a fiercely maternal sweep of her strong arms, gather the little Lily close to her breast and dart toward the inner room. And then, as she stood dazedly watching the mountain of sodden flesh that was Pa rear itself to a sitting posture, and then to a standing one, she felt a hot little hand touch her own.
"We better clear out," said the voice of Bennie. "We better clear out pretty quick! Pa's awful bad, sometimes, when he's just wakin' up!"
With a quickness not unlike the bump at the end of a falling-through-space dream, Rose-Marie felt herself drawn from the room—heard the door close with a slam behind her. And then she was hurrying after the shadowy form of Bennie, down the five rickety flights of stairs—past the same varied odours and the same appalling sounds that she had noticed on the way up!
When Rose-Marie came out into the sunlight of the street she glanced at her watch and saw, with an almost overwhelming surprise, that it was only four o'clock. It was just an hour since she had entered the cavern-like doorway of the tenement. But in that hour she had come, for the first time, against life in the rough. She had seen degeneracy, and poverty, and—she was thinking of the expression in Jim's eyes—a menace that she did not at all understand. She had seen the waste of broken middle age and the pity of blighted childhood. She had seen fear and, if she had stayed a few moments longer, she would have seen downright brutality. Her hand, reaching out, clutched Bennie's hand.
"Dear," she said—and realized, from the startled expression of his eyes, that he had not often been called "Dear,"—"is it always like that, in your home?"
Bennie looked up into her eyes. He seemed, somehow, younger than he had appeared the day before, younger and softer.
"Yes, Miss," he told her, "it's always like that, except when it's worse!"
"And," Rose-Marie was still asking questions, "do your older sister and brother just drift in, at any time, like that? And is your father home in the middle of the day? Don't any of them work?"
Bennie's barriers of shyness had been burned away by the warmth of her friendship. He was in a mood to tell anything.
"Pa, he works sometimes," he said. "An' Ella—she uster work till she had a fight with her boss last week. An' now she says she ain't gotta work no more 'cause there's a feller as will give her everythin' she wants, if she says th' word! An' Jim—I ain't never seen him do nothin', but he always has a awful lot o' money. He must do his workin' at night—after I'm asleep!"
Rose-Marie, her mind working rapidly, realized that Bennie had given revelations of which he did not even dream. Pa—his condition was what she had supposed it to be—but Ella was drifting toward danger-shoals that she had never imagined! Well she knew the conditions under which a girl of Ella's financial status stops working—she had heard many such cases discussed, with an amazing frankness, during her short stay at the Settlement House. And Jim—Jim with his sleek, patent-leather hair, and his rat-like face—Jim did his work at night! Rose-Marie could not suppress the shudder that ran over her. Quickly she changed the subject to the one bright spot in the Volsky family—to Lily.
"Your little sister," she asked Bennie, "has she always been as she is now? Wasn't there ever a time when she could hear, or speak, or see?"
Bennie winked back a suspicion of tears before he answered. Rose-Marie, who found herself almost forgetting the episode of the kitten, liked him better for the tears. "Yes, Miss," he told her, "she was born all healthy, Ma says. But she had a sickness—when she was a baby. An' she ain't been right since!"
They walked the rest of the way in silence—a silence of untold depth. But it was that silent walk, Rose-Marie felt afterward, that cemented the strange affection that had sprung suddenly into flower between them. As they said good-bye, in front of the brownstone stoop of the Settlement House, there was none of the usual restraint that exists between a child and a grown-up. And when Rose-Marie asked Bennie, quite as a matter of course, to come to some of their boys' clubs he assented in a manner as casual as her own.
* * * * *
As she sat down to dinner, that night, Rose-Marie was beaming with happiness and the pride of achievement. The Superintendent, tired after the day's work, noticed her radiance with a wearily sympathetic smile—the Young Doctor, coming in briskly from his round of calls, was aware of her pink cheeks and her sparkling eyes. All at once he realized that Rose-Marie was a distinct addition to the humdrum life of the place; that she was like a sweet old-fashioned garden set down in the gardenless slums. He started to say something of the sort before he remembered that a quarrel lay, starkly, between them.
Rose-Marie, herself, could scarcely have told why she was so bubbling over with gladness. When she left the tenement home of the Volskys she had been exceedingly depressed, when she parted from Bennie at the Settlement House steps she had been ready to cry. But the hours between that parting and dinnertime had brought her a sort of assurance, a sort of joyous bravery. She felt that at last she had found her true vocation, her real place in the sun. The Volsky family presented to her a very genuine challenge.
She glanced, covertly, at the Young Doctor. He was eating soup, and no man is at his best while eating soup. And yet as she watched him, she considered very seriously whether she should tell him of her adventure. His skill might, perhaps, find some way out for Lily, who had not been born a mute, who had come into the world with seeing eyes. Bennie had told her that the child's condition was the result of an illness. Perhaps the Young Doctor might be able to effect at least a partial cure. Perhaps it was selfish of her—utterly, absurdly selfish, to keep the situation to herself.
The Superintendent's voice broke, sharply, into her reverie. It was a pleasant voice, and yet Rose-Marie found herself resenting its questioning tone.
"Did you have a pleasant afternoon, dear?" the Superintendent was asking. "I noticed that you were out for a long while, alone!"
"Why, yes," Rose-Marie faltered, as she spoke, and, to her annoyance, she could feel the red wave of a blush creeping up over her face (Rose-Marie had never learned to control her blushes). "Why, yes, I had a very delightful afternoon!"
The Young Doctor, glancing up from his soup, felt a sudden desire to tease. Rose-Marie, with her cheeks all flushed, made a startlingly colourful, extremely young picture.
"You're blushing!" he told her accusingly. "You're blushing!"
Rose-Marie, feeling the blushes creep still higher, knew a rude impulse to slap the Young Doctor. All of her desire to confide in him died away, as suddenly as it had been born. He was the man who had said that the people who lived in poverty are soulless. He would scoff at the Volskys, and at her desire to help them. Worse than that—he might keep her from seeing the Volskys again. And, in keeping her from seeing them, he would also keep her from making Bennie into a real, wholesome boy—he would keep her from showing Ella the dangers of the precipice that she was skirting. Of course, he might help Lily. But, Rose-Marie told herself that perhaps even Lily—golden-haired, angelic little Lily—might seem soulless to him.
"I'm not blushing, Dr. Blanchard," she said shortly, and could have bitten her tongue for saying it.
The Young Doctor laughed with a boyish vigour.
"I thought," he said annoyingly, "that you were a Christian, Miss Rose-Marie Thompson!"
Rose-Marie felt a tide of quite definite anger rising in her heart.
"I am a Christian!" she retorted.
"Then," the Young Doctor was still laughing, "then you must never, never tell untruths. You are blushing!"
The Superintendent interrupted. It had been her role, lately, to interrupt quarrels between the two who sat on either side of her table.
"Don't tease, Billy Blanchard!" she said, sternly. "If Rose-Marie went anywhere this afternoon, she certainly had a right to. And she also has a right to blush. I'm glad, in these sophisticated days, to see a girl who can blush!"
The Young Doctor was leaning back in his chair, surveying the pair of them with unconcealed amusement.
"How you women do stick together!" he said. "Talk about men being clannish! I believe," he chuckled, "from the way Miss Thompson is blushing, that she's got a very best beau! I believe that she was out with him, this afternoon!"
Rose-Marie, who had always been taught that deceit is wicked, felt a sudden, unexplainable urge to be wicked! She told herself that she hated Dr. Blanchard—she told herself that he was the most unsympathetic of men! His eyes, fixed mirthfully upon her, brought words—that she scarcely meant to say—to her lips.
"Well," she answered slowly and distinctly, "what if I was?"
There was silence for a moment. And then—with something of an effort—the Superintendent spoke.
"I told you," she said, "not to bother Rose-Marie, Doctor. If Rose-Marie was out with a young man I'm sure that she had every right to be. Rose-Marie"—was it possible that her eyes were fixed a shade inquiringly upon the blushing girl—"would have nothing to do with any one who had not been approved by her aunts. And she realizes that she is, in a way, under my care—that I am more or less responsible for her safety and welfare. Rose-Marie is trustworthy, absolutely trustworthy. And she is old enough to take care of herself. You must not bother her, Billy Blanchard!"
It was a long speech for the Superintendent, and it was a kindly one. It was also a speech to invite confidences. But—strangely enough—Rose-Marie could not help feeling that there was a question half concealed in the kindliness of it. She could not help feeling that the Superintendent was just a trifle worried over the prospect of an unknown young man.
It was her time, then, to admit that there was nobody, really—that she had gone out on an adventure by herself, that there had been no "beau." But the consciousness of the Young Doctor's eyes, fixed upon her face, prohibited all speech. She could not tell him about the Volskys—neither could she admit that no young man was interested in her. Every girl wants to seem popular in the eyes of some member of the opposite sex—even though that member may be an unpleasant person—whom she dislikes. And so, with a feeling of utter meanness in her soul—with a real weight of deceit upon her heart—she smiled into the Superintendent's anxious face.
"I do appreciate the way you feel about me," she said softly, "I do, indeed! You may be sure that I won't do anything that either you, or my aunts, would disapprove of!"
After all, she assured herself a trifle uncomfortably, she had in no way told a direct falsehood. They had assumed too much and she had not corrected their assumptions. She said fiercely, in her heart, that she was not to blame if they insisted upon taking things for granted!
As the days crept into weeks, Rose-Marie no longer felt the dull unrest of inaction. She was busy at the Settlement House—her clubs for mothers and young girls, her kindergarten for the little tots, had grown amazingly popular. And at the times when she was not busy at the Settlement House, she had the Volsky family and their many problems to occupy her.
The Volsky family—and their many problems! Rose-Marie would have found it hard to tell which problem was the most important! Of course Lily came first—her infirmities and her sweetness made her the central figure. But the problem of Ella was a more vital one to watch—it was, somehow, more immediate. Rose-Marie had found it hard to reach Ella—except when Lily was the topic of conversation; except when Lily's welfare was to be considered, she stayed silently in the background. But the flashings of her great dark eyes, the quiverings of her too scarlet mouth, were ominous. Rose-Marie could see that the untidiness of the flat, the drunken mutterings of Pa, and her mother's carelessness and dirt had strained Ella's resistance to the breaking point. Some day there would be a crash and, upon that day Ella would disappear like a gorgeous butterfly that drifts across the road, and out of sight. Rose-Marie was hoping to push that day into the background—to make it only a dim uncertainty rather than the sword of Damocles that it was. But she could only hope.
Bennie, too, was a problem. But it was Bennie who cheered Rose-Marie when she felt that her efforts in behalf of Ella were failing. For Bennie's brain was the fertile ground in which she could plant ideals, and dreams. Bennie was young enough to change, and easily. He got into the way of waiting for her, after his school had been dismissed, in the little park. And there, seated close together on an iron bench, they would talk; and Rose-Marie would tell endless stories. Most of the stories were about knights who rode upon gallant quests, and about old-time courtesy, and about wonderful animals. But sometimes she told him of her home in the country—of apple trees in bloom, and frail arbutus hiding under the snow. She told him of coasting parties, and bonfires, and trees to climb. And he listened, star-eyed and adoring. They made a pretty picture together—the slim, rosy-cheeked girl and the ragged little boy, with the pale, city sunshine falling, like a mist, all about them.
Lily and Ella and Bennie—Rose-Marie loved them, all three. But Jim Volsky was the unsolvable problem—the one that she tried to push to the back of her mind, to avoid. Mrs. Volsky and Pa she gave up as nearly hopeless—she kept, as much as possible, out of Pa's way, and Mrs. Volsky could only be helped in the attaining of creature comforts—her spirit seemed dead! But Jim insisted upon intruding upon her moments in the flat; he monopolized conversations, and asked impertinent questions, and stared. More than once he had offered to "walk her home" as she was leaving; more than once he had thrust himself menacingly across her path. But she had managed, neatly, to avoid him.
Rose-Marie was afraid of Jim. She admitted it to herself—she even admitted, at times, that the Young Doctor might be of assistance if any emergency should arise out of Jim's sleek persistence. She had noticed, from the first, that the doctor was an impressive man among men—she had seen the encouraging swell of muscles through the warm tweed of his coat sleeve. But to have asked his help in the controlling of Jim would have been an admission of deceit, of weakness, of failure! To prove her own theory that the people were real, underneath—to prove that they had some sort of a code, and worth-while impulses—she had to make the reformation of the Volsky family her own, individual task.
Yes—Rose-Marie was busy. Almost she hated to give up moments of her time to the letters she had to write home—to the sewing that she had to do. She made few friends among the teachers and visitors who thronged the Settlement House by day—she was far too tired, when night came, to meet with the Young Doctor and the Superintendent in the cosy little living-room. But often when her activities lasted well along into the evening, often when her clubs gave sociables or entertainments, she was forced to welcome the Young Doctor (the Superintendent was always welcome); to make room for him beside her own place.
It was during one of these entertainments—her Girls' Sewing Society was giving a party—that she and the Young Doctor had their first real talk. Before the quarrel at the luncheon table they had had little time together; since the quarrel the Young Doctor had seldom been able to corner Rose-Marie. But at the entertainment they were placed, by the hand of circumstance, upon a wooden settee in the back of the room. And there, for the better part of two hours—while Katie Syrop declaimed poetry and Helen Merskovsky played upon the piano, and others recited long and monotonous dialogues—they were forced to stay.
The Young Doctor was in a chastened mood. He applauded heartily whenever a part of the program came to a close; the comments that he made behind his hand were neither sarcastic nor condescending. He praised the work that Rose-Marie had done and then, while she was glowing—almost against her will—from the warmth of that praise, he ventured a remark that had nothing to do with the work.
"When I see you," he told her very seriously, "when I see you, sitting here in one of our gray coloured meeting rooms, I can't help thinking how appropriate your name is. Rose-Marie—there's a flower, isn't there, that's named Rosemary? I like flowery names!"
Rose-Marie laughed, as lightly as she could, to cover a strange feeling of embarrassment.
"Most people don't like them," she said—"flowery names, I mean. I don't myself. I like names like Jane, and Anne, and Nancy. I like names like Phyllis and Sarah. I've always felt that my first name didn't fit my last one. Thompson," she was warming to her subject, "is such a matter-of-fact name. There's no romance in it. But Rose-Marie—"
The Young Doctor interrupted.
"But Rose-Marie," he finished for her, "is teeming with romance! It suggests vague perfumes, and twilight in the country, and gay little lights shining through the dusk. It suggests poetry."
Rose-Marie had folded her hands, softly, in her lap. Her eyes were bent upon them.
"My mother," she said, and her voice was quiet and tender, "loved poetry. I've heard how she used to read it every afternoon, in her garden. She loved perfumes, too, and twilight in the country. My mother was the sort of a woman who would have found the city a bit hard, I think, to live in. Beauty meant such a lot—to her. She gave me my name because she thought, just as you think, that it had a hint of lovely things in it. And, even though I sometimes feel that I'd like a plainer one, I can't be sorry that she gave it to me. For it was a part of her—a gift that was built out of her imagination," all at once she coughed, perhaps to cover the slight tremor in her voice, and then—
"To change the subject," she said, "I'll tell you what Rosemary really is. You said that you thought it was a flower. It's more than a flower," she laughed shakily, "it's a sturdy, evergreeny sort of little shrub. It has a clean fragrance, a trifle like mint. And it bears small blue blossoms. Folk say that it stands for remembrance," suddenly her eyes were down, again, upon her clasped hands. "Let's stop talking about flowers and the country—and mothers—" she said suddenly. Her voice broke upon the last word.
The Young Doctor's understanding glance was on the girl's down-bent face. After a moment he spoke.
"Are you ever sorry that you left the home town, Miss Rose-Marie?" he questioned.
Rose-Marie looked at him, for a moment, to see whether he was serious. And then, as no flicker of mirth stirred his mouth, she answered.
"Sometimes I'm homesick," she said. "Usually after the lights are out, at night. But I'm never sorry!"
The Young Doctor was staring off into space—past the raised platform where the girls of the club were performing.
"I wonder," he said, after a moment, "I wonder if you can imagine what it is to have nothing in the world to be lonesome for, Miss Rose-Marie?"
Rose-Marie felt a quick wave of sympathy toward him.
"My mother and my father are dead, Dr. Blanchard—you know that," she told him, "but my aunts have always been splendid," she added honestly, "and I have any number of friends! No, I've never felt at all alone!"
The Young Doctor was silent for a moment. And then—
"It isn't an alone feeling that I mean," he told her, "not exactly! It's rather an empty feeling! Like hunger, almost. You see my father and mother are dead, too. I can't even remember them. And I never had any aunts to be splendid to me. My childhood—even my babyhood—was spent in an orphan asylum with a firm-fisted matron who punished me; with nobody to give me the love I needed. I came out of it a hard man—at fourteen. I—" he broke off, suddenly, and then—
"I don't know why I'm telling you all this," he said; "you wouldn't be in the least interested in my school days—they were pretty drab! And you wouldn't be interested in the scholarship that gave me my profession. For," his tone changed slightly, "you aren't even interested in the result—not enough to try to understand my point of view, when I attempt to tell you, frankly, just what I think of the people down here—barring girls like these," he pointed to the stage, "and a few others who are working hard to make good! You act, when I say that they're like animals, as if I'm giving you a personal insult! You think, when I suggest that you don't go, promiscuously, into dirty tenements, that I'm trying to curb your ambition—to spoil your chances of doing good! But I'm not, really. I'm only endeavouring, for your own protection, to give you the benefit of my rather bitter experience. I don't want any one so young, and trusting and—yes, beautiful—as you are, to be forced by experience into my point of view. We love having you here, at the Settlement House. But I almost wish that you'd go home—back to the place and the people that you're lonesome for—after the lights are out!"
Rose-Marie, watching the play of expression across his keen dark face, was struck, first of all by his sincerity. It was only after a moment that she began to feel the old resentment creeping back.
"Then," she said at last, very slowly, "then you think that I'm worthless here? It seems to me that I can help the people more, just because I am fresh, and untried, and not in the least bitter! It seems to me that by direct contact with them I may be able to show them the tender, guiding hand of God—as it has always been revealed to me. But you think that I'm worthless!"
There was a burst of loud singing from the raised platform. The girls of the sewing club loved to sing. But neither Rose-Marie nor the Young Doctor was conscious of it.
"No," the Young Doctor answered, also very slowly, "no, I don't think that you are worthless—not at all.-But I'm almost inclined to think that you're wasted. Go home, child, go home to the little town! Go home before the beautiful colour has worn off the edge of your dreams!"
Again Rose-Marie felt the swift burst of anger that she had felt upon other occasions. Why did he persist in treating her like a child? But her voice was steady as she answered.
"Well," she said, "I'm afraid that I'll have to disappoint you! For I came here with a definite plan to carry out. And I'm going to stay here until I've at least partly made good!"
The Young Doctor was watching her flushed face. He answered almost regretfully.
"Then," he said, "I'm glad that you have a sweetheart—you didn't deny it, you know, the other night! He'll take you away from the slums, I reckon, before very long! He'll take you away before you've been hurt!"
Rose-Marie, looking straight ahead, did not answer. But the weight of deceit upon her soul made her feel very wicked.
Yes, the weight of deceit upon her soul made her feel very wicked! But later that night, after the club members had gone home, dizzy with many honours, it was not the weight of deceit that troubled her. As she crept into her narrow little bed she was all at once very sorry for herself; and for a vanished dream! Dr. Blanchard could be so nice—when he wanted to. He could be so understanding, so sympathetic! There on the bench in the rear of the room they had been, for a moment, very close together. She had nearly come back, during their few minutes of really intimate conversation, to her first glowing impression of him. And then he had changed so suddenly—had so abruptly thrust aside the little house of friendship that they had begun to build. "If he would only let me," she told herself, "I could teach him to like the things I like. If he would only understand I could explain just how I feel about people. If he would only give me a chance I could keep him from being so lonely."
Rose-Marie had known few men. The boys of her own town she scarcely regarded as men—they were old playmates, that was all. No one stood out from the other, they were strikingly similar. They had carried her books to school, had shared apples with her, had played escort to prayer-meetings and to parties. But none of them had ever stirred her imagination as the Young Doctor stirred it.
There in the dark Rose-Marie felt herself blushing. Could it be possible that she felt an interest in the Young Doctor, an interest that was more than a casual interest? Could it be possible that she liked a man who showed plainly, upon every possible occasion, that he did not like her? Could it be possible that a person who read sensational stories, who did not believe in the greatness of human nature, who refused to go to church, attracted her?
Of a sudden she had flounced out of bed; had shrugged her slender little body into a shapeless wrapper—the parting gift of a girl friend—from which her small flushed face seemed to grow like some delicate spring blossom. With hurried steps—she might almost have been running away from something—she crossed the room to a small table that served as a combination dresser and writing desk. Brushing aside her modest toilet articles, she reached for a pad of paper and a small business-like fountain pen. Her aunts—she wanted them, all at once, and badly. She wished that she might talk with them—writing seemed so inadequate.
"My dears," she began, "I miss you very much. Often I'm lonely enough to cry. Of course," she added hastily (for they must not worry), "of course, every one is nice to me. I like every one, too. That is, except Dr. Blanchard. I guess I told you about him; he's the resident physician. He's awfully good looking but he's not very pleasant. I never hated any one so—" she paused, for a moment, as a round tear splashed devastatingly down upon the paper.
MRS. VOLSKY PROMISES TO TRY
As Lily pattered across the room, on her soft, almost noiseless little feet, Rose-Marie stopped talking. She had been having one of her rare conversations alone with Mrs. Volsky—a conversation that she had almost schemed for—and yet she stopped. It struck her suddenly as strange that Lily's presence in any place should make such a vast difference—that the child should bring with her a healing silence and a curious tenderness. She had felt, many times before, a slowing up in conversations—she had seen the bitterness drain from Ella's face, the stolidness from Bennie's. She had even seen Pa, half intoxicated, turn and go quietly from a room that Lily was entering. And now, as she watched, she saw a spark leap into the dullness of Mrs. Volsky's eyes.
With a gentle hand she reached out to the child, drew her close. Lily nestled against her side with a slight smile upon her faintly coral lips, with her blue, vacant gaze fixed upon space—or upon something that they could not see! Rose-Marie had often felt that Lily was watching beautiful vistas with those sightless eyes of hers; that she was hearing wonderful sounds, with her useless little ears—sounds that normal people could not hear. But she did not say anything of the sort to Mrs. Volsky—Mrs. Volsky would not have been able to understand. Instead she spoke of something else that had lain, for a long time, upon her mind.
"Has Lily ever received any medical attention?" she asked abruptly.
Mrs. Volsky's face took on lines of blankness. "What say?" she mouthed thickly. "I don' understan'?"
Rose-Marie reconstructed her question.
"Has Lily ever been taken to a doctor?" she asked.
Mrs. Volsky answered more quickly than she usually answered questions.
"When she was first sick, years ago," she told Rose-Marie, "she had a doctor then. He say—no help fer her. Las' year Ella, she took Lily by a free clinic. But the doctors, there, they say Lily never get no better. And if there comes another doctor to our door, now—" she shrugged; and her shrug seemed to indicate the uselessness of all doctors.
Rose-Marie, with suddenly misting eyes, lifted Lily to her knee... "The only times," she said slowly, "when I feel any doubt in my mind of the Divine Plan—are the times when I see little children, who have never done anything at all wicked or wrong, bearing pain and suffering and..." she broke off.
Mrs. Volsky answered, as she almost always answered, with a mechanical question.
"What say?" she murmured dully.
Rose-Marie eyed her over the top of Lily's golden head. After all, she told herself, in the case of Mrs. Volsky she could see the point of Dr. Blanchard's assertion! She had known many animals who apparently were quicker to reason, who apparently had more enthusiasm and ambition, than Mrs. Volsky. She looked at the dingy apron, the unkempt hair, the sagging flesh upon the gray cheeks. And she was conscious suddenly of a feeling of revulsion. She fought it back savagely.
"Christ," she told herself, "never turned away from people because they were dirty, or ugly, or stupid. Christ loved everybody—no matter how low they were. He would have loved Mrs. Volsky."
It was curious how it gave her strength—that reflection—strength to look straight at the woman in front of her, and to smile.
"Why," she asked, and the smile became brighter as she asked it, "why don't you try to fix your hair more neatly, Mrs. Volsky? And why don't you wear fresh aprons, and keep the flat cleaner? Why don't you try to make your children's home more pleasant for them?"
Mrs. Volsky did not resent the suggestion as some other women might have done. Mrs. Volsky had reached the point where she no longer resented even blows.
"I uster try—onct," she said tonelessly, "but it ain't no good, no more. Ella an' Bennie an' Jim don' care. An' Pa—he musses up th' flat whenever he comes inter it. An' Lily can't see how it looks. So what's th' use?"
It was a surprisingly long speech for Mrs. Volsky. And some of it showed a certain reasoning power. Rose-Marie told herself, in all fairness, that if she were Mrs. Volsky—she, too, might be inclined to ask "What's th' use?" She leaned forward, searching desperately in her mind for something to say.
"Do you like me, Mrs. Volsky?" she questioned at last, "Do you like me?"
The woman nodded, and again the suggestion of a light flamed up in her eyes.
"Sure I like you," she said, "you are good to all of us—an' to Lily."
"Then," Rose-Marie's voice was quivering with eagerness, "then won't you try—for my sake—to make things here," the sweep of her hand included every corner of the ugly room, "a little better? I'll help you, very gladly. I'll make new aprons for you, and I'll"—her brave resolution faltered, but only for a moment—"I'll wash your hair, and take you to the free baths with me. And then," she had a sudden inspiration, "then Lily will love to touch you, you'll be so nice and clean! Then Lily will be glad that she has you for a mother!"
All at once the shell of stupidity had slipped from Mrs. Volsky's bent shoulders. All at once she was eager, breathlessly eager.
"Miss," she said, and one thin, dingy hand was laid appealingly upon Rose-Marie's dress, "Miss, you can do wit' me as you wish to! If you t'ink dat my bein' clean will make Lily glad"—she made a sudden impetuous gesture with her hand—"den I will be clean! If you t'ink dat she will like better dat I should be her mother," the word, on her lips, was surprisingly sweet, "den I will do—anyt'ing!" All at once she broke into phrases that were foreign to Rose-Marie, phrases spoken lovingly in some almost forgotten tongue. And the girl knew that she was quite forgotten—that the drab woman was dreaming over some youthful hope, was voicing tenderly the promises of a long dead yesterday, and was making an impassioned pledge to her small daughter and to the future! The words that she spoke might be in the language of another land—but the tone was unmistakable, was universal.
Rose-Marie, listening to her, felt a sudden desire to kneel there, on the dirty tenement floor, and say a little prayer of thanksgiving. Once again she had proved that she was right—and that the Young Doctor was wrong.
BENNIE COMES TO THE SETTLEMENT HOUSE
It was Bennie who came first to the Settlement House. Shyly, almost, he slipped through the great doors—as one who seeks something that he does not quite understand. As he came, a gray kitten, creeping out from the shadows of the hall, rubbed affectionately against his leg. And Bennie, half unconsciously—and with absolutely no recognition—stooped to pat its head. Rose-Marie would have cried with joy to have seen him do it, but Rose-Marie was in another part of the building, teaching tiny children to embroider outlines, with gay wool, upon perforated bits of cardboard. The Young Doctor, passing by the half-opened door of the kindergarten room, saw her there and paused for a moment to enjoy the sight. He thought, with a curious tightening of his lips, as he left noiselessly, that some day Rose-Marie would be surrounded by her own children—far away from the Settlement House. And he was surprised at the sick feeling that the thought gave him.
"I've been rather a fool," he told himself savagely, "trying to send her away. I've been a fool. But I'd never known anything like her—not in all of my life! And it makes me shiver to think of what one meeting with some unscrupulous gangster would do to her point of view. It makes me want to fight the world when I realize how an unpleasant experience would affect her love of people. I'd rather never see her again," he was surprised, for a second time, at the pain that the words caused him, "than to have her made unhappy. I hope that this man of hers is a regular fellow!"
He passed on down the hall. He walked slowly, the vision of Rose-Marie, a dream child held close to her breast, before his eyes. That was why, perhaps, he did not see Bennie—why he stumbled against the boy.
"Hello," he said gruffly, for his voice was just a trifle hoarse (voices get that way sometimes, when visions will stay in front of one's eyes!) "Hello, youngster! Do you want anything? Or are you just looking around?"
Bennie straightened up. The kitten that he had been patting rubbed reassuringly against his legs, but Bennie needed more reassurance than the affection of a kitten can give. The kindness of Rose-Marie, the stories that she had told him, had given him a great deal of confidence. But he had not yet learned to stand up, fearlessly, to a big man with a gruff voice. It is a step forward to have stopped hurting the smaller things. But to accept a pretty lady's assurance that things larger than you will be kind—that is almost too much to expect! Bennie answered just a shade shrinkingly.
"Th' kids in school," he muttered, "tol' me 'bout a club they come to here. It's a sort of a Scout Club. They wears soldier clo's. An' they does things fer people. An' I wanter b'long," he gulped, noisily.
The Young Doctor leaned against the wall. He did not realize how tall and strong he looked, leaning there, or he could not have smiled so whimsically. To him the small dark boy with his earnest face, standing beside the gray kitten, was just an interesting, rather lovable joke.
"Which do you want most," he questioned, "to wear soldier clothes, or to do things for people?"
Bennie gulped again, and shuffled his feet. His voice came, at last, rather thickly.
"I sorter want to do things fer people!" he said.
More than anything else the Young Doctor hated folk, even children, who say or do things for effect. And he knew well the lure that soldier clothes hold for the small boy.
"Say, youngster," he inquired in a not too gentle voice, "are you trying to bluff me? Or do you really mean what you're saying? And if you do—why?"
Bennie had never been a quitter. By an effort he steadied his voice.
"I mean," he said, "what I'm a-tellin' yer. I wanter be a good boy. My pa, he drinks. He drinks like—" The word he used, in description, was not the sort of a word that should have issued from childish lips. "An' my big brother—he ain't like Pa, but he's a bum, too! I don't wanter be like they are—not if I kin help it! I wanter be th' sort of a guy King Arthur was, an' them knights of his'n. I wanter be like that there St. George feller, as killed dragons. I wanter do real things," unconsciously he was quoting from the gospel of Rose-Marie, "wi' my life! I wanter be a good husban' an' father—"
All at once the Young Doctor was laughing. It was not an unkind laugh—it gave Bennie heart to listen to it—but it was exceedingly mirthful. Bennie could not know that the idea of himself, as a husband and father, was sending this tall man into such spasms of merriment—he could not know that it was rather incongruous to picture his small grubby form in the shining armour of St. George or of King Arthur. But, being glad that the doctor was not angry, he smiled too—his strange, twisted little smile.
The Young Doctor stopped laughing almost as quickly as he had begun. With something of interest in his face he surveyed the little ragged boy.
"Where," he questioned after a moment, "did you learn all of that stuff about knights, and saints, and doing things with your life, and husbands and fathers? Who told you about it?"
Bennie hesitated a moment. Perhaps he was wondering who had given this stranger a right to pry into his inner shrine. Perhaps he was wondering if Rose-Marie would like an outsider to know just what she had told him. When he answered, his answer was evasive.
"A lady told me," he said. "A lady."
The Young Doctor was laughing again.
"And I suppose," he remarked, with an effort at solemnity, "that gentlemen don't pass ladies' names about between 'em—I suppose that you wouldn't tell me who this lady of yours may be, even though I'd like to meet her?"
Bennie's lips closed in a hard little line that quirked up at one end. He shook his head.
"I'd ruther not," he said very slowly. "Say—Where's th' Scout Club?"
The Young Doctor shook his head.
"It's such a strange, old-fashioned, young person!" he informed the empty hallway. And then—"Come with me, youngster," he said kindly, "and we'll find this very wonderful club where small boys learn about doing things for people—and, incidentally, wear soldier clothes!"
Bennie, following stealthily behind him, felt that he had found another friend—something like his lady, only different!
Rose-Marie was exceptionally weary that night. It had been a hard day. All three of her classes had met, and—late in the afternoon—she had made good her promise to wash Mrs. Volsky's hair. The task had not been a joyous one—she felt that she could never wash hair again—not even her own soft curls or the fine, snowy locks that crowned her aunts' stately heads. Mrs. Volsky had once more relapsed into her shell of silence—she had seemed more apathetic, more dull than ever. But Rose-Marie had noticed that there were no unwashed dishes lying in the tub—that the corners of the room had had some of the grime of months swept out of them. When Ella Volsky came suddenly into the flat, with lips compressed, and a high colour, Rose-Marie had been glowingly conscious of her start of surprise. And when she had said, haltingly, in reference to the hair—"I'll dry it for you, Miss Rose-Marie!" Rose-Marie could have wept with happiness. It was the first time that she had ever heard Ella offer to do anything for her mother.
Jim—coming in as she was about to leave—had added to Rose-Marie's weariness. He had been more insistent than usual—he had commented upon her rosy cheeks and he had made a laughing reference to her wide eyes. And he had asked her, gruffly, why she didn't take up with some feller like himself—a good provider, an' all, that'd doll her up the way she'd oughter be dolled up? And when Ella had interrupted, her dark eyes flashing, he had told her—with a burst of soul-chilling profanity—to mind her own business.
And then Pa had come in—apparently more drunk than he had ever been. And Rose-Marie had seen his bleary eyes pass, without a flicker of interest, over his wife's clean apron and freshly washed hair; had seen him throw his coat and his empty bottle into one of the newly dusted corners, had seen his collapse into a heap in the center of the room. And, last of all, as she had hurried away, with Jim's final insinuation ringing in her ears, she had known the fear that all was not well with Bennie—for Bennie came in every afternoon before she left. She could not know that Bennie, by this time a budding Boy Scout, was learning more lessons of the sort that she had taught him.
Yes, she was weary, in every fibre of her being, as she sat down to supper that night. She had it quite alone in the dining-room, which, all at once, seemed very large—for the Superintendent was sitting, somewhere, with a dying woman, and the Young Doctor had been called out on an emergency case. And then, still alone, she wandered into the library of the Settlement House and picked up a book. She felt, somehow, too tired to sleep—too utterly exhausted to lay her head upon her pillow. It was in the library that the Superintendent, coming wearily back from the watch with death, found her.
"My dear," said the Superintendent, and there was a sound of tears in her usually steady voice, "my dear, I'm about all in! Yes, I know it's slang, but I can't help it—I feel slangy! Come up to my sitting-room for a few minutes and we'll have a cup of hot chocolate!"
Rose-Marie laid down her book with alacrity. She realized, suddenly, that she wanted companionship of her own sort—that she longed with all of her soul to chat with some one who did not murder the queen's English, that she wanted to exchange commonplaces about books, and music, and beautiful things—things that the Volskys would not understand.
"I guess," she said, as she followed the Superintendent into the cozy sitting-room, "I guess that tiredness is in the air to-day. I'm all in, myself. A cup of chocolate and a friendly talk will be a godsend to me, this evening!"
The Superintendent was laying aside her coat and her hat. She smoothed her hair with a nervous hand, and straightened her linen collar, before she sank into an easy chair.
"Child," she said abruptly, "you shouldn't be tired—not ever! You've got youth, and all of the world at your feet. You've got beauty, and confidence, and faith. And I—well, I'm getting to be an old woman! I feel sometimes as if I've been sitting on the window sill, watching life go by, for centuries. You mustn't—" She paused, and there was a sudden change in her voice, "You're not tiring yourself, Rose-Marie? You're not doing more than your strength will permit? If you could have read the letter that your aunts sent to me, when you first came to the Settlement House! I tell you, child, I've felt my responsibility keenly! I'd no more think of letting you brush up against the sort of facts I'm facing, than I would—"
Rose-Marie's cheeks were flushed, her eyes were bright, as she interrupted.
"Somehow," she said, "I can't think that you and my aunts are quite right about shielding me—about keeping me from brushing up against life, and the real facts of life. It seems to me that there's only one way to develop—really. And that way is to learn to accept things as they come; to meet situations—no matter how appalling they may be, with one's eyes open. If I," she was warming to her subject, "am never to tire myself out, working for others, how am I to help them? If I am never to see conditions as they are how am I ever to know the sort of a problem that we, here at the Settlement House, are fighting? Dr. Blanchard wouldn't try to treat a case if he had no knowledge of medicine—he wouldn't try to set a broken leg if he had never studied anatomy. You wouldn't be in charge, here, if you didn't know the district, if you didn't realize the psychological reasons back of the things that the people of the district say and do. Without the knowledge that you're trying to keep from me you'd be as useless as"—she faltered—"as I am!"