THE OLD HOMESTEAD
A STORY OF NEW ENGLAND FARM LIFE.
BY MRS. ANN S. STEPHENS.
AUTHOR OF "FASHION AND FAMINE," "THE REIGNING BELLE," "THE GOLD BRICK," "MABEL'S MISTAKE," "THE WIFE'S SECRET," "BELLEHOOD AND BONDAGE," "LORD HOPE'S CHOICE," "BERTHA'S ENGAGEMENT," "THE CURSE OF GOLD," "NORSTON'S REST," "A NOBLE WOMAN," "THE SOLDIER'S ORPHANS," "THE HEIRESS," "MARRIED IN HASTE," "PALACES AND PRISONS," "DOUBLY FALSE," "MARY DERWENT," "THE REJECTED WIFE," "RUBY GRAY'S STRATEGY," "THE OLD COUNTESS," "SILENT STRUGGLES," "WIVES AND WIDOWS," ETC.
"THE OLD HOMESTEAD" is a superb story of quaint New England farm life in the vein now so popular both in fiction and on the stage. With an absorbing plot, effective incidents and characters entirely true to nature, it holds attention as very few stories do. It possesses all that powerful attraction which clings to a romance of home, the family fireside and the people who gather about it. Simplicity and strength are happily combined in its pages, and no one can begin it without desiring to read it through. All the works of Mrs. Ann S. Stephens are books that everybody should read, for in point of real merit, wonderful ingenuity and absorbing interest they loom far above the majority of the books of the day. She has a thorough knowledge of human nature, and so vividly drawn and natural are her characters that they seem instinct with life. Her plots are models of construction, and she excels in depicting young lovers, their trials, troubles, sorrows and joys, while her love scenes fascinate the young as well as the old. In short, Mrs. Stephens' novels richly merit both their vast renown and immense popularity, and they should find a place in every house and in every library.
THE FATHER'S RETURN.
She kneels beside the pauper bed, As seraphs bow while they adore! Advance with still and reverent tread, For angels have gone in before!
"I wonder, oh, I wonder if he will come?"
The voice which uttered these words was so anxious, so pathetic with deep feeling, that you would have loved the poor child, whose heart gave them forth, plain and miserable as she was. Yet a more helpless creature, or a more desolate home could not well be imagined. She was very small, even for her age. Her little sharp features had no freshness in them; her lips were thin; her eyes not only heavy, but full of dull anguish, which gave you an idea of settled pain, both of soul and body, for no mere physical suffering ever gave that depth of expression to the eyes of a child.
But all was of a piece, the garret, and the child that inhabited it. The attic, which was more especially her home, was crowded under the low roof of a tenant house, which sloped down so far in front, that even the child could not stand upright under it, except where it was perforated with a small attic window, which overlooked the chimneys and gables of other tenement buildings, hived full of poverty, and swarming with the dregs of city life.
This was the prospect on one side. On the other a door with one hinge broken, led into a low open garret, where smoke-dried rafters slanted grimly over head, like the ribs of some mammoth skeleton, and loose boards, whose nails had rusted out, creaked and groaned under foot. They made audible sounds even beneath the shadowy tread of the little girl, as she glided toward the top of a stair-case unrailed and out in the floor like the mouth of a well. Here she sat down, supporting her head with one hand, in an attitude of touching despondency.
"I wonder oh, I wonder, if he will come!" she repeated, looking mournfully downward.
It was a dreary view, those flights of broken stairs, slippery and sodden with the water daily carried over them. They led by other tenement rooms, which sent forth a confusion of mingled voices, but opened with a glimpse of pure light upon the street below.
But for this gleam of light, breaking as it were, like a smile through the repulsive vista, Mary Fuller might have given up in absolute despair, for she was an imaginative child, and glimpses of light like that came like an inspiration to her.
After all, what was it that kept the child chained for an hour to one spot, gazing so earnestly down toward the opening? Did she expect any one?
No, it could not be called expectation, but something more beautiful still—FAITH.
Most persons would call it presentiment; but presentiment is not the growth of prayer, or the conviction which follows that earnest pleading when the soul is crying for help.
"Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven."
Again and again Mary Fuller had read these words, and always to creep upon her knees and ask God to let her come, for she was scarcely more than a little child.
But even upon her knees the trouble of her soul grew strong. She felt as if the air around whispered—
"But you are not a little child—they have no sins of disobedience to confess—no vengeful thoughts or unkind words to atone for as you have."
And all the evil that had yet taken growth in a soul planted among evil arose before the child, to startle her from claiming the privilege of her childhood.
But though she did not know it, those very feelings were an answer to the unrevealed want that had become clamorous in her soul; it was the promise of a bright revelation yet to come; her heart was being unfolded to the sunshine, leaf by leaf, and God's angels might have smiled benignly as they watched the development of good in that little soul, amid the depressing atmosphere that surrounded it.
From the day that her poor father left home and went up to the hospital a pauper to die there, these feelings had grown stronger and stronger within the bosom of the child. His words, unheeded at the time, came back to her with power. The passages read over so often to a careless ear from his Bible, seemed to have taken music in their remembrance, that haunted her all the time.
She did not know it, but the atmosphere of prayers, unheard save in heaven, was around her. From its pauper bed at Bellevue a strong earnest soul was pleading for that child, and thus God sent his angel down to trouble the waters of life within her.
As we grow good, a sense of the beautiful always awakens within us; and this became manifest in Mary Fuller. For the first time the squalid misery of her home became a subject of self-reproach, and with a thoughtful cloud upon her brow, she set herself patiently to work drawing out all the scant elements of comfort that the place afforded. Out of this grew a longing for the presence of her father, that he too might enjoy the benefit of her exertion.
Never in her life had she so yearned for a sight of that pale face. It seemed as if the trouble and darkness in her soul must turn to light when he came. With this intense desire arose a thought that he might return home without warning. The thought grew into hope, and at last strengthened into faith.
Mary Fuller not only believed that her father would come, but she felt sure he would be with her that very night. Thus she sat upon the stairs waiting.
But time wore on, and anxiety made the child restless. She began to doubt—to wonder how she could have expected her father without one word or promise to warrant the hope. That which had been faith an hour before, grew into a sharp anxiety. She folded her arms upon her knees, and burying her face upon them, began to cry.
At last she arose with her eyes full of tears, and walked sadly into the attic room where she sat down looking with sorrow on all the little preparations that she had made. She crept to the window, and clinging with both hands to the sill, lifted herself up to see, by the shadows that lay among the chimneys, and the slanting gold of the sunshine which, thank God, warms the tenement house and the palace towers alike, how fast the hours wore on.
"Oh, the sun is up yet, and the long chimney's shadow is only half way to the eves," she exclaimed, hopefully, dropping down from the window, while a flush, as of joyful tears, stole around her eyes.
"Is there anything else I can do?" and she looked eagerly around the room.
It had been neatly swept. A fire burned in the little coffee-pot stove that occupied one corner, and the hum of boiling water stole out from a tea-kettle that stood upon it.
"Everything nice and warm as toast—won't he like it—clean sheets upon the bed, and—and—oh, I forgot—it always lay back of his pillow—he mustn't miss it"; and opening a worn Bible that had seen better days, she found a passage that cheered her heart like a prophecy, and read it with solemn attention as she walked slowly across the room.
She placed the Bible reverently beneath the single pillow arranged so neatly on the bed, and turned away murmuring—
"At any rate, I will have everything ready."
She opened the drawer of a pine table and looked in. Everything was in order there, and the table itself; she employed another minute in giving its spotless surface an extra polish; then arranged a fragment of carpet before the bed, and sat down to wait again.
It would not do; her poor little heart was getting restless with impatience. She went into the open garret closing the door after her, that no heat might escape, and sat down on the upper flight of stairs again. How she longed to run down—to hang about the door-step, and even go as far as the corner to meet him! But this would be disobedience. How often had he told her never to loiter in the street or about the door? So she sat, stooping downward, and looking through the gleams of light that came through the open hall over flights of steps below, thrilled from head to foot with loving expectation. Half an hour—an hour—and there poor Mary Fuller sat, her heart sinking lower and lower with each moment. At last she arose, went back to her room with a dejected air, and sat down by the stove weary with disappointment.
An old house cat that lay by the stove looked at her gravely, closed her eyes an instant as if for reflection, and leaped into her lap. Anything—the fall of a straw would have set Mary Fuller to crying then, and she burst into a passion of tears, rocking herself back and forth and moaning out—
"He will not come—it is almost dark now—he will not come. Oh, dear, how can I wait—how can I wait!"
As she moaned thus, the cat leaped from her lap and walked into the garret, stood a moment at the head of the stairs, and came back again looking at his little mistress wistfully through the door.
Mary started up. Surely, that was his step! No! there was no firmness in it. Whoever mounted those stairs, moved with a staggering, unsteady walk, like that of a drunken person.
Mary turned very pale and hardly breathed.
"Oh, if it should be mother," she thought, casting a startled look back into the little room, "staggering, too!" and trembling with affright, she stole softly to the top of the stairs and looked down.
A gush of welcome broke from her lips. She held out her arms, descending rapidly to meet him.
"Father! oh, my blessed, blessed father!"
They came up slowly, the deathly pale man leaning partly on his stick, partly on the shoulder of the child, whose frame shivered with joy beneath his pressure, and whose eyes, beaming with affection, were uplifted to his.
"Not here, don't sit down here," she cried, resisting his impulse to rest at the head of the stairs. "I have got a fire—the room is warm—just five steps more—don't stop till then!"
He moved on, attempting to smile, though his lips were blue and his emaciated limbs shivered painfully.
"There, sit down, father: I borrowed this rocking-chair of Mrs. Ford; isn't it nice? Let me put the pillow behind your head. Are you very sick, father?"
His lips quivered out, "Yes, very!"
She stooped down and kissed his forehead, then knelt by his side and kissed his hands, also, with such reverential affection.
"Oh, father, father, how sorry I am; you will stay with us—you will stay at home now—they have let you grow worse at the hospital; but I—your own little girl—see if I don't make you well. You will not go to Bellevue again, father."
"No, I shall never go back again; the doctors can do nothing for me, but I could not die without seeing you again—that wish was stronger than death."
"Oh, father, don't."
The sick man looked down upon her with his glittering eyes, and a pathetic smile stole over his lips. An ague chill seized upon him, and ran in a shiver through his limbs; but it had no power to quench that smile of ineffable affection—that solemn, sweet smile, that said more softly than words—
"Yes, my child, your father must die here in his poverty-stricken home."
"No, no!" cried Mary, in fond affright; for the look affected her more than his words; "it is only the cold, your clothes are so thin, dear father—it is only the cold; a good warm cup of tea will drive it off. Here is the kettle, boiling hot; besides, you are hungry—ah, I thought of that; here are crackers and a dear little sponge-cake, and such nice bread and butter; of course, it's only the cold and the hunger. I always feel as if I should die the next minute, when we've gone without anything to eat a day or two; nothing is so discouraging as that."
She ran on thus, striving to cheat her own aching heart, while she cheered the sick man. As if activity would drive away her fear, she bustled about, put her tea to drawing by the stove, spread the little table, and pulled it close to her father, and strove, by a thousand sweet caressing ways, to entice him into an appetite. The sick man only glanced at the food with a weary smile; but seizing upon the warm cup of tea, drank it off eagerly, asking for more.
This was some consolation to the little nurse; and she stood by, watching him wistfully through her tears, as he drained the second cup. It checked the shivering fit somewhat, and he sat upwright a moment, casting his bright eyes around the room.
"Isn't it nice and warm?" said Mary, as he leaned back.
The sick man murmured softly—
"Yes, child, it feels like home. God bless you. But your mother—did she help to do this?"
Mary's countenance fell. She shrunk away from the glance of those bright, questioning eyes.
"Mother has not been home in five or six days," she said, gently.
The sick man turned his head and closed his eyes. Directly, Mary saw two great tears press through the quivering lashes, followed by a faint gasping for breath.
"I have prayed—I have so hoped to see her before"—
He broke off; and Mary could see, by the glow upon his face, that he was praying then.
She knelt down, reverently, and leaned her forehead upon the arm of his chair.
After a little, Fuller opened his eyes, and lifting one pale hand from his knee, laid it on his child's shoulder.
She looked up and smiled. There was something so loving and holy in his face, that the child could not help smiling, even through her tears.
"Mary, listen to me while I can speak, for in a little while I shall be gone."
"Not to the hospital again—oh, not there!"
"No, Mary, not there; but look up—be strong, my child, you know what death is!"
"Oh, yes," whispered the child with a shudder.
"Hush, Mary, hush—don't shake so—I must die, very, very soon, I feel," he added, looking at his fingers and dropping them gently back to her shoulder; "I feel now that it is very nigh, this death which makes you tremble so."
Mary broke forth into a low, wailing sob.
"Hush! stop crying, Mary; look up!"
Mary lifted her eyes, filled with touching awe, and choked back the agony of her grief.
"Father, I listen."
Oh, the holy love with which those eyes looked down into hers!
"Have you read the Bible that I left behind for you?"
"Yes, father; oh, yes, morning and night."
"Then, you know that the good meet again, after death?"
"But I—I am not good. Oh, father, father, I cannot make myself good enough to see you again; you will go, and I shall be left behind—I and mother!—I and mother!"
"Have you been patient with your mother—respectful to her?" he asked, sadly.
"There—there it is. I have tried and tried, but when she strikes me, or brings those people here, or comes home with that horrible bottle under her shawl, I cannot be respectful—I get angry and long to hide away when she comes up stairs."
"Hush, my child, hush; these are wicked words!"
"I know it, father; it seems to me as if no one ever was so wicked—try ever so much, I cannot be good. I thought when you came"—
"Well, my child."
"I thought that you would tell me how, and you talk of—. Don't, father, don't; I want you so much."
"It is God who takes me," said Fuller, gently; "He will teach you how to be good."
"Oh, but it takes so long; I have asked and asked so often."
Again that beautiful smile beamed over the dying man's face.
"He will hear you—He has heard you—I felt that you had need of me, and came; see how God has answered your want in this, my child!"
"But I can do nothing alone; when you are with me, I feel strong; but if you leave me, what can I do?"
"Pray without ceasing; and in everything give thanks," said that faint gentle voice once more.
"But I have prayed till my heart seemed full of tears."
"They were sweet tears, Mary."
"No, no; my heart grew heavy with them; and—mother, how could I give thanks when she came home so—!"
"Hush, hush, Mary—it is your mother!"
"But I can't give thanks for that, when I remember how she let you suffer—how miserable everything was—how she left you to starve, day by day, spending all the money you had laid up in drink!"
"Oh, my child, my child!" cried the dying man, sweeping the tears from his eyes with one pale hand, and dropping it heavily on her shoulder.
She cowered beneath the pressure.
"It is wrong—I know it," she said, clasping her hands and dropping them heavily before her, as if weighed down by a sense of her utter unworthiness. "But oh, father, what shall I do! what shall I do!"
"Honor your mother!"
"How can I honor her, when she degrades and abuses us all!"
"God does not make you the judge of your parents, but commands you unconditionally to honor them."
Mary dropped her eyes and stooped more humble downward. She saw now why the darkness had hung so long over her prayers. Filled with unforgiving bitterness against her mother she had asked God to forgive her, scarcely deeming her fault one to be repented of. A brief struggle against the memory of bitter ill-usage and fierce wrong inflicted by her mother, and Mary drew a deep free breath. Her eyes filled, and meekly folding her hands she held them toward her father.
"What shall I do, father?"
He drew her toward him, and a look of holy faith lay upon his face.
"Listen to me, Mary; God may yet help you to save this woman, your mother and my wife; for next to God I always loved her."
"But what can I do? She hates me because I am so small and ugly. She will never let me love her, and without that what can a poor little thing like me do?"
"My child, there is no human being so weak or so humble that it is incapable of doing good, of being happy, and of making others happy also. The power of doing good does not rest so much in what we possess, as in what we are. Gentle words, kind acts are more precious than gold. These are the wealth of the poor; more precious than worldly wealth, because it is never exhausted. The more you give, the more you possess."
A strange beautiful light came into Mary's eyes, as she listened.
"Go on, father, say more."
She drew a deep breath.
"Then the good are never poor!"
"Never, my child."
"And never unhappy?"
"Never utterly miserable, as the wicked are—never without hope."
"Oh, father, tell me more; ask God to help me—He will listen to you."
He laid his pale hands upon her head, and as a flower folds itself beneath the night shadow, Mary sunk to her knees. She clasped her little hands, and dropping them upon her father's knee, buried her face there; then the lips of that dying man parted, and the last pulses of his life glowed out in a prayer so fervent, so powerful in its faith, that the very angels of heaven must have veiled their faces as they listened to that blending of eternal faith and human sorrow.
Mary listened at first tremblingly, and with strange awe; then the burning words began to thrill her, heart and limb, and yielding to the might of a spirit which his prayer had drawn down from heaven. She also broke forth with a cry of the same holy anguish; and the voice of father and child rose and swelled together up to the throne of God.
As he prayed, the face of the sick man grew sublime in its paleness, and the death sweat rolled over it like rain, while that of the child grew strangely luminous. Gradually mouth, eyes and forehead kindled with glorious joy, and instead of that heart-rending petition that broke from her at first, her voice mellowed into soft throes and murmurs of praise.
The sick man hushed his soul and listened; his exhausted voice broke into sighs, and thus, after a little time, they both sunk into silence—the child filled with strange ecstasy—the father bowing with calm joy beneath the hand of death.
"Let me lie down. I am very, very weak," he said, attempting to rise.
Mary stood up and helped him. She had grown marvellously strong within the last hour, and her soul, better than that slight form, supported the dying man.
He lay down. She placed the pillow under his head and knelt again. It seemed as if her heart could give forth its silent gratitude to God best in that position.
He laid his hand upon her head. It was growing cold.
"And you are willing now that I should die?"
"Yes, my father, only—-," and here a human throb broke in her voice, "if I could but go with you!"
"No, my child, it is but a little time, at most. For her sake be content to wait."
"Father, I am content."
"Very, very happy, father!"
The dying man closed his eyes, and a faint murmur rose to his lips.
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation."
His hand was still upon her head, and there it rested till the purple shadows died off into cold grey tints, and upon his still face there rose a smile pure as moonlight, luminous as waters that gush from the throne of heaven.
The same holy spirit must have touched the living and the dead, for when the little girl lifted her face, the pale, pinched features were radiant as those of an angel. She had gone close to the gate of heaven with her father, soul and body. She was bathed in the holy light that had gushed through the portals.
THE MAYOR AND THE POLICEMAN.
When the strong man turns, with a haughty lip, On poverty, stern and grim, When he seizes the fiend with a ruthless grip, Ye need not fear for him. But when poverty comes to a little child, Freezing its bloom away— When its cheeks are thin and its eyes are wild, Give pity its gentle sway.
It was a bitter cold night—a myriad of stars hung in the sky, clear and glittering, as if burnished by the frost. The moon sent down a pale, freezing brilliancy that whitened all the ground, as if a sprinkling of snow had fallen, but there was not a flake on the earth or in the air. Little wind was abroad, but that little pierced through mufflers and overcoats, like a swarm of invisible needles, sharp and stinging. It was rather late in the evening, and in such weather few persons were tempted abroad. Those who had comfortable hearths remained at home, and even the street beggars crept within their alleys and cellars; many of them driven to seek shelter in their rags, without hope of fire or food.
But there was one man in New York city, who could neither seek rest nor shelter till a given time, however inclement the weather might be. With a thick pilot cloth overcoat buttoned to the chin, and his glittering police star catching the moonbeams as they fell upon his breast, he strode to and fro on his beat, occasionally pausing, with his eyes lifted towards the stars, to ponder over some thought in his mind, but speedily urged to motion again by the sharp tingling of his feet and hands.
A feeling and thoughtful man was this policeman; he possessed much originality of mind, which had received no small share of cultivation. He had been connected with a mercantile house till symptoms of a pulmonary disease drove him from his desk; then, by the kind aid of a politician, who had not entirely lost all human feelings in the council chamber, he was enrolled in the city police. To a mind less nobly constructed, this minor position might have been a cause of depression and annoyance, but John Chester, though not yet thirty-two, had learned to think for himself. He felt that no occupation could degrade an honorable man, and that gentlemanly habits, integrity and intelligence were certain to shine out with greater lustre when found in the humbler spheres of life.
Chester possessed both education and refinement, but having no better means of support, accepted that which Providence presented, not with grumbling condescension, but with that grateful alacrity which was a sure proof that his duties would be faithfully performed; and that, though capable of higher things, he was not one to neglect the most humble, when they became duties.
To a man like Chester, the solitude of his night watches was at times a luxury. When the great city lay slumbering around him, his mind found subjects of deep thought in itself and in surrounding things. Even on the night when we present him to the reader, the cold air, while it chilled his body, seemed only to invigorate his mind. Instead of brooding gloomily over his own position, certainly very inferior to what it had been, he had many a compassionate thought for those poorer than himself, without one envious feeling for the thousands and thousands who would have deemed his small income of ten dollars a week absolute poverty.
The ward in which he was stationed exhibited in a striking degree the two great extremes of social life. Blocks of palatial buildings loomed imposingly along the broad streets. Each dwelling, with its spacious rooms and luxurious accommodations, was occupied by a single family, sometimes of not more than two or three persons. Here plate glass, silver mounted doors, and rich traceries in bronze and iron, gave brilliant evidence of wealth; while many small gardens thrown together, rich with shrubbery and vines in their season of verdure, threw a fresh glow of nature around the rich man's dwelling. Resources of enjoyment were around him on every hand. Each passing cloud seemed to turn its silver lining upon these dwellings, as it rolled across the heavens.
You had but to turn a corner, and lo! the very earth seemed vital and teeming with human beings. Poor men and the children of poor men, disputed possession of every brick upon the sidewalks. Every hole in those dilapidated buildings swarmed with a family; every corner of the leaky garrets and damp cellars was full of poverty-stricken life. Here were no green trees, no leaf-clad vines climbing upon the walls; empty casks, old brooms, and battered wash-tubs littered the back yards, which the sweet fresh grass should have carpeted. Ash pans and tubs of kitchen offal choked up the areas. The very light, as it struggled through those dingy windows, seemed pinched and smoky.
All this contrast of poverty and wealth lay in the policeman's beat. Now he was with the rich, almost warmed by the light that came like a flood of wine through some tall window muffled in crimson damask. The smooth pavements under his feet glowed with brilliant gas-light. The next moment, and a few smoky street lamps failed to reveal the broken flagging on which he trod. Now and then the gleam of a coarse tallow candle swaling gloomily away by some sick bed, threw its murky light across his path. Still, but for the cold moonlight, Chester would have found much difficulty in making his rounds in the poor man's district. Yet here he remained longest; here his step always grew heavy and his brow thoughtful. Surrounded by suffering, shut out from his eyes only by those irregular walls, and clouded, as it were, with the slumbering sorrow around him, this dark place always cast him into painful thought. That cold night he was more than usually affected by the suffering which he knew was close to him, and only invisible to the eye.
The night before, he had entered one of those dismal houses and had taken from thence a woman who, squalid and degraded as she was, had evidently once been in the higher walks of life. As he passed her dwelling, the remembrance of this woman sent a thrill of mingled pity and disgust through his heart. The miserable destitution of her home, the glimpses of refinement that broke through her outbursts of passion, the state of revolting intoxication in which she was plunged—all arose vividly to his mind. He paused before the house with a feeling of vague interest. The night before, a scene of perfect riot greeted him as he approached the door. Now the inmates seemed numbed, silent and torpid with cold.
As Chester stood gazing on the house, he saw that the door was open, and fancied that some object was moving in the hall. It seemed at first like a lame animal creeping down the steps. As it came forth into the moonlight, Chester saw that it was a child with a singular, crouching appearance, muffled in an old red cloak that had belonged to some grown person. With a slow and painful effort the child dragged itself along the pavement, its face bent down, and stooping, as if it had some burden to conceal. The old cloak brushed Chester's garments, yet the child seemed quite unconscious of his presence, but moved on, breathing hard and shuddering with the cold, till he could hear her teeth knock together. Chester did not speak, but softly followed the child.
The Mayor of New York at that time lived within Chester's beat, and toward his dwelling the little wanderer bent her way. As she drew near the steps, the child lifted her face for the first time, and reaching forth a little wan hand, held herself up by the railing. She was not seeking that particular house, but there her strength gave way, and she clung to the cold iron, faint and trembling, with her eyes lifted wildly towards the drawing-room windows.
The plate glass was all in a blaze from a chandelier that hung within, and the genial glow fell upon that little frost-bitten face, lighting it up with intense lustre. The face was not beautiful—those features were too pale—the eyes large and hollow, while black lashes of unusual length gave them a wild depth of color that was absolutely fearful. Still there was something in the expression of those wan features indescribably touching—a look of meek suffering and of moral strength unnatural in its development. It was the face of a child, suffering, feeble, with the expression of a holy spirit breaking through, holy but tortured.
The child clung to the railing, waving to and fro, but holding on with a desperate grasp. She seemed struggling to lift herself to an upright position, but without sufficient strength. Chester advanced a step to help her, but drew back, for, without perceiving him, she was creeping feebly up the steps, with her face shrouded in darkness again. She reached the bell with difficulty, and drew the silver knob.
Scarcely had the child taken her hand from the cold metal, when the shadow of a man crossed the drawing-room window, and his measured step sounded along the oilcloth in the hall. The door was unfastened, and the Mayor himself stood in the opening. The child lifted her eyes, and saw standing before, or rather above her, a tall man with light hair turning grey, and a cast of features remarkable only for an absence of all generous expression. He fixed his cold eyes on the little wanderer with a look that chilled her worse than the frost. As he prepared to speak, she could see the corners of his mouth curve haughtily downward, and when his voice fell upon her ear, though not particularly loud, it was cold and repelling.
"Well, what are you doing here? What do you want?" said the great man, keeping his eyes immovably on the shivering child, enraged at himself for having opened the door for a miserable beggar like that.
He was in the habit of extending these little condescensions to the voters of his ward; it had a touch of republicanism in it that looked well; but from that wretched little thing what was to be gained? Still the child might have a father, and that father might be a citizen, one of the sovereign people, possessed of that inestimable privilege—a vote. So the Mayor was cautious, as usual, about exhibiting any positive traces of the ill-humor that possessed him. He had not groped and grovelled his way to the Mayoralty, without knowing how and when to exhibit the evil feelings of his heart. Those that were not evil he very prudently left to themselves, knowing that they could never obtain strength enough in his barren nature to become in the slightest degree troublesome.
Had kindly feelings still lived in his bosom, they must have been aroused by the sweet, humble voice that answered him.
"They have turned me out of doors. I am hungry, sir. I am very cold."
"Turned you out of doors! Where is your father? Can't he take care of you?"
"I have no father—he is dead."
No father, no vote! The little beggar had not the most indirect claim for sympathy or forbearance from the Mayor of New York. He could afford to be angry with her; nay, better, to seem angry also, and that was an uncommon luxury with him.
"Well, why didn't you go to the basement?"
"It was dark there—and through that window everything looked so warm—I could not help it!"
"Could not help it, indeed! Go away! I never encourage street beggars. It would be doing a wrong to the people who look up to me for an example. Go away this minute—how dare you come up to this door? You are a bad little girl, I dare say!"
"No sir—no—no, I am not bad! Please not to say that. It hurts me worse than the cold!" said the child, raising her sweet voice and clasping her little wan hands, while over her features many a wounded feeling trembled, though she gave no signs of weeping.
What a contrast there was between the heartless face of that man, and the meek, truthful look of the child! How cold and harsh seemed his voice after the troubled melody of hers!
"I tell you, there is no use in attempting to deceive me. Station houses are built on purpose for little thieves that prowl about at night!" and the cold-hearted man half closed the door, adding, "go away—go away! Some policeman will take you to a station house, though I dare be sworn you know how to find one without help."
The door was closed with these words, shutting the desolate child into the cold night again. She neither complained nor wept; but sinking on the stone, gathered her frail limbs in a heap and buried her face in the old cloak.
Chester heard the whole conversation; he saw the expression of meek despair which fell upon the child as the door closed against her, and with a swelling heart mounted the steps.
"My little girl," he said very gently, touching the crouching form with his hand, "my poor, little girl!"
The child looked up wildly, for the very benevolence of his voice frightened her, she was so unused to anything of the kind; but the instant her eyes fell upon his bosom, where the silver star glittered in the moonlight, she uttered a faint shriek.
"Oh, do not—do not take me—I am not a thief—I am not wicked!" and she shrunk back into a corner of the iron railing shuddering, and with her wild eyes bent upon him like some little wounded animal hunted down by fierce dogs.
"Don't be frightened—I will take care of you—I"—
"They took her—the policemen, I mean. Where is she? What have you done with her?"
"But I wish to be kind," said Chester, greatly distressed; she interrupted him, pointing to his star with her finger.
"Kind? see—see. I tell you I am not a thief!"
"I know, I am sure you are not," was the compassionate answer.
"Then why take me up if I am not a thief?"
"But you will perish with the cold!"
"No—no; it's not so very cold here since the gentleman went away!" cried the child in a faint voice, muffling the old cloak close around her, and trying to smile. "Only—only"—
Her voice grew fainter. She had just strength to draw up her knees, clasp the little thin hands over them, and in attempting to rock herself upon the cold stone to prove how comfortable she was, fell forward dizzy and insensible.
"Great Heavens! this is terrible," cried Chester, gathering up the child in his arms.
Agitated beyond all self-control, he gave the bell-knob a jerk that made the Mayor start from his seat with a violence that threw one of his well-trodden slippers half across the hearth-rug.
"Who is coming now?" muttered the great man, thrusting his foot into the truant slipper with a peevish jerk, for he had taken supper at the City Hall that evening, and after a temperance movement of that kind, the luxurious depth of his easy-chair was always inviting.
"Will that bell never have done? These gas-lights—I verily believe they entice beggars to the door; besides, that great Irish girl has lighted double the number I ordered," and, with a keen regard to the economy of his household, the Chief Magistrate of New York mounted a chair and turned off four of the six burners that had been lighted in the chandelier. Another sharp ring brought him to the carpet, and to the street-door again. There he found Chester with the little beggar girl in his arms, her eyes shut and her face pale as death, save where a faint violet color lay about the mouth.
"Sir, this child, you have driven her from your door—she is dying!" said Chester, passing with his burden into the hall and moving towards the drawing-room, from which the light of an anthracite fire glowed warm; and ruddily "she needs warmth. I believe in my soul she is starving!"
"Well, sir, why do you bring her here—who are you? Is there no station-house? I do not receive beggars in my drawing-room!" said the Mayor, following the policeman.
Chester, heedless of his remonstrance, strode across the carpet and laid the wretched child tenderly into the great crimson chair which "his honor" had just so reluctantly abandoned. Wheeling the chair close to the fire, he knelt on the rug and began to chafe those thin purple hands between his own.
"I could not take her anywhere else—she was dying with cold—a minute was life or death to her," said Chester, lifting his fine eyes to the sullen countenance of the Mayor, and speaking in a tone of apology.
The Mayor bent his eyes on that manly face, so warm and eloquent with benevolent feeling; then, just turned his glance over the deathly form of the child.
"You will oblige me by moving that bundle of rags from my chair!" he said.
"But she is dying!" cried the policeman, trembling all over with generous indignation; "she may be dead now!"
"Very well, this is no place for a coroner's inquest," was the terse reply.
The policeman half started up, and in his indignation almost crushed one of the little hands that he had been chafing.
"Sir, this is inhuman—it is shameful."
"Do you know where you are?—whom you are speaking to?" said the great man, growing pale about the mouth, but subduing his passion with wonderful firmness.
"Yes, I know well enough. This is your house, and you are the Mayor of New York!"
"And you—may I have the honor of knowing who it is that favors my poor dwelling, and with company like that!" said the Mayor, pointing to the child, while his upper lip contracted and the corners of his mouth drooped into a cold sneer.
"Yes, sir, you can know: I am a policeman of this ward, appointed by your predecessor—a just and good man; my name is John Chester. Taking pity on this forlorn little creature, I followed her from a house whence she had crept out into the cold, hoping to be of some use; she came up here, and rang at your door. I heard what passed between you. As a citizen, I should have been ashamed, had I unfortunately been among those who placed you in power; I must say it—your conduct to this poor starved thing, shocked me beyond utterance. I thank God that no vote of mine aided to lift you where you are."
"And so you are a policeman of this ward. Very well," said the Mayor; and the sneer upon his face died away while he began to pace the room, the soft fall of his slippers upon the carpet giving a cat-like stillness to his movements.
He felt that a man who could thus fearlessly speak out his just indignation, was not the kind of person to persecute openly. Besides, it was not in this man's nature to do anything openly. Like a mole, he burrowed out his plans under ground, and when forced to brave the daylight, always cunningly allowed some pliant tool to remove the earth that was unavoidably cast up in his passage. His genius lay in that low cunning and prudent management, with which small men of little intellect and no heart sometimes deceive the world. He had long outlived all feelings sufficiently strong to render him impetuous, and was utterly devoid of that generous self-respect which prompts a man to repel an attack fearlessly and at once. In short, he was one of those who lie still and wait, like the crafty pointer dogs that creep along the grass, hunting out game for others to shoot down for them, and devouring the spoil with a keener relish than the noble hound that makes the forest ring as he plunges upon his prey.
True to his character and his system, the Mayor paused in his walk, and, bending over the child, said coldly, but still with some appearance of feeling—
"She seems to be getting better—probably it will be nothing serious!"
Chester looked up, and a smile illuminated his face. Always willing to look on the bright side of human nature, his generous heart smote him for having perhaps judged too harshly. The little hand which he was chafing began to warm with life; this relieved him of the terrible excitement which the moment before had rendered his words, if just, more than imprudent.
"Thank you, sir, she is better," he said, with an expression of frank gratitude beaming over every feature, "I think she will live now, so we will only trouble you a few minutes longer."
"My family are in bed—and these street beggars are so little to be relied upon," observed the Mayor, evidently wishing to offer some excuse for his former harshness, without doing so directly; "but this seems a case of real distress."
Chester was subdued by this speech. More and more he regretted the excitement of his former language. He longed to make some reparation to a man who, after all, might be only prudent, not unfeeling.
"If," said he, looking at the child, whose features began to quiver in the glowing fire-light, "if I had a drop of wine now."
"Oh, we are temperance people here, you know," replied the Mayor, coldly.
"Or anything warm," persisted Chester, as the child opened her eyes with a famished look.
"You can get wine at the station-house. My girls are in bed."
"I am afraid she will have small hopes of help at the station-house. The Common Council make no provision for medical aid where the sick or starving are brought in at night. It is a great omission, sir."
"The Common Council cannot do everything," replied the Mayor, becoming impatient, but still subduing himself.
"I know sir, but its first duty is to the poor."
"Oh, yes, no one denies that;" replied the Mayor, observing with satisfaction that Chester was preparing to remove the little intruder. "You will not have a very long walk," he added. "The station-house is not more than eight or ten blocks off. She will be strong enough, I fancy, to get so far."
"Don't, don't take me there! I am not a thief!" murmured the child, and two great tears rolled over her cheek slowly, as if the fire-light had with difficulty thawed them out from her heart.
They were answered—God bless the policeman—they were answered by a whole gush of tears that sprang into his fine eyes, and sparkled there like so many diamonds.
"No," he said, taking off his overcoat, and wrapping it around the child, his hands and arms shaking with eager pity as he lifted her from the chair. "She shall go home with me for one night at least. I will say to my wife, 'Here is a little hungry thing whom God has sent you from the street.' She will be welcome, sir. I am sure she will be as welcome as if I were to carry home a casket of gold in my bosom. Will you go home with me, little girl?"
The child turned her large eyes upon him; a smile of ineffable sweetness floated over her face, and drawing a deep breath, she said:
"Oh, yes, I will go!"
"You will excuse the trouble," said Chester, turning with his burden toward the Mayor as he went out, "the case seemed so urgent!"
"Oh, it is all excused," replied his honor, bowing stiffly as he walked towards the door, "but I shall remember—never doubt that!" he muttered with a smile, in which all the inward duplicity of his nature shone out.
That instant a carriage drove up to the door, and after some bustle a lady entered, followed by a young lad, who paused a moment on the upper step and gave some orders to the coachman in a clear, cheerful voice, that seemed out of place in that house.
"Why don't you come in?" cried the lady, folding her rose-colored opera-cloak closely around her, "you fill the whole house with cold."
"In a moment—in a moment," cried the boy, breaking into a snatch of opera music as if haunted by some melody; "but pray send Tim out a glass of wine, or he will freeze on the box this Greenland night."
"Nonsense! come in!" cried the mother, entering the drawing-room and approaching the fire. Here she threw back her opera-cloak, revealing a rich brocade dress underneath, lighted up with jewels and covered as with a mist of fine lace! "he'll do well enough—come to the fire!" she continued, holding out her hands in their snowy gloves for warmth.
The lady had not noticed Chester, who stood back in the hall, that she might pass. Applicants of all kinds were so common at her dwelling, even at late hours, that she seldom paused, even to regard a stranger. But the noble-looking lad was far more quick-sighted. As he turned reluctantly to close the door, Chester advanced with the little girl in his arms, and would have passed.
"What is this?—what is the matter?—is she sick?" inquired the boy, earnestly.
"She is a poor, homeless child, half frozen and almost famished," answered Chester.
"Homeless on a night like this!—hungry and cold!" exclaimed the lad, throwing off his Spanish cloak and tossing his cap to the hall table. "Come back, till she gets thoroughly warm, and I'll soon ransack the kitchen for eatables; a glass of Madeira now to begin with. Lady Mother, come and look at this little girl—it's a sin and a shame to see anything with a soul reduced to this."
"What is it, Fred?" cried the lady, sweeping across the drawing-room; "oh, I see, a little beggar girl! Why don't you let the man pass? He's taken her up for something, I dare say."
"No," said Chester with a faint hope of getting food; "it is want, nothing worse—she is frozen and starved."
"What a pity, and the authorities make such provision for the poor, too! I declare, Mr. Farnham, you ought to stop this sort of thing—it is scandalous to have one's house haunted with such frightful objects."
Young Farnham drew toward his mother, flushed and eager.
"If the girls are in bed, let me go down and search for something, the poor child looks so forlorn."
As he pleaded with his mother the hall light lay full upon him, and never did benevolence look more beautiful on a young face. It must have been a cold-hearted person, indeed, who could have resisted those fine, earnest eyes, and that manner so full of generous grace.
"Come, mother, music should open one's heart—may I go?"
"Nonsense, Fred, what would you be at? The man is in a hurry to go. Why can't you be reasonable for once," replied the weak woman, glancing at her husband, who was walking angrily up and down the drawing-room; and sinking her voice she added:
"See, your father is out of sorts; do come in!"
"In a moment—in a moment," answered, the youth, moving up the hall and searching eagerly in his pockets—"stop, my dear fellow, don't be in such a confounded hurry—oh, here it is."
The lad drew forth a portmonnaie, and emptied the only bit of gold it contained into his hand.
"Here, here," he said, blushing to the temples and forcing it upon Chester; "I haven't a doubt that everything is eaten up in the house, but this will go a little way. You are a fine fellow, I can see that; don't let the poor thing suffer—if help is wanted, I'm always on hand for a trifle like that; but good night, good night, the governor is getting fractious, and my lady mother will take cold—good night."
Chester grasped the hand so frankly extended, and moved down the steps, cheered by the noble sympathy so unexpected in that place.
"You will understand," said the Mayor, turning short upon poor Fred, as he entered the room, "you will please to understand, sir, that to station yourself on my door-steps and call for wine as if you were in a tavern, is an insult to your father's principles. It is not to be supposed that this house contains Madeira or any other alcoholic drink. Remember, sir, that your father is the chief magistrate of New York, and the head of a popular principle."
"But why may I not request wine for a poor child suffering for warmth and food, when we have it every now and then on the dinner table?" inquired the boy seriously.
"You are mistaken; you are too young for explanations of this kind," answered the father sternly; "we never have wine on the table, except when certain men are here. When did you ever see even an empty glass there, when our temperance friends visit us?"
The boy did not answer, but kept his fine honest eyes fixed on his father, and their half astonished, half grieved expression disturbed the politician, who really loved his son.
"You are not old enough to understand the duties of a public station like mine, Frederick; a politician, to be successful, must be a little of all things to all men."
"Then I, for one, will never be a politician," exclaimed the boy, while childish tears were struggling with manly indignation.
"God forbid that you ever should," was the thought that rose in the father's heart; for there was yet one green spot in his nature kept fresh by love of his only son.
"And," continued the boy still more impetuously, "I will never drink another glass of wine in my life. What is wrong for the poor is wrong for the rich. What I may not give to a suffering child, I will not drink myself."
"Now that is going a little too far, I should say, Fred," interposed Mrs. Farnham, softly withdrawing her gloves, and allowing the fire-light to flash over her diamond rings; "my opinion has long been that whisky punches, brandy what-do-you-call-'ems, and things of that sort, are decidedly immoral; but champaigne and Madeira, sherry coblers—a vulgar name that—always puts one in mind of low shoemakers—don't it Mr. Farnham? if it wasn't for the glass tubes and cut-crystal goblets, that beverage ought to be legislated on. Well, Fred, as I was saying, refreshments like these are gentlemanly, and I rather approve of them, so don't let me hear more nonsense about your drinking wine in a quiet way, you know, and with the right set. Isn't this about the medium, Mr. Farnham?"
The Mayor, who usually allowed the wisdom of his lady to flow by him like the wind, did not choose to answer this sapient appeal, but observed curtly, that he had some writing to do, and should like, as soon as convenient, to be left to himself. Upon this the lady folded her white gloves spitefully and left the room, tossing her head till the marabouts on each side of her coiffure trembled like drifting snow-flakes, while she muttered something about husbands and bears, which sounded very much as if she mingled the two unpleasantly together in her ideas of natural history.
Frederick followed his mother with a serious and grieved demeanor, taking leave of his father with a respectful "good night," which the Mayor, dissatisfied with himself, and consequently angry, did not deign to notice.
When left to himself, the Mayor impatiently rang a bell connected with the kitchen. This brought a hard-faced Irish woman to the room, who was ordered to wheel the easy-chair into the hall, and have it thoroughly aired the first thing in the morning. After that he gave her a brief reprimand for exceeding his directions regarding the gas-lights, and dismissed her for the night.
After she disappeared, the Mayor continued to pace up and down the room, meditating over the scene that had just transpired.
"I was right in smoothing the thing over," he muttered; "one never cares for the report of a little beggar like that. Who would believe her? But this Chester might tell the thing in a way that would prove awkward; a man like him has no business in the police. He thinks for himself and acts for himself, I'll be sworn; besides, he is a fine, gentlemanly-looking fellow, and somehow the people get attached to such men, and are influenced by them. It always pleases me to twist the star from a breast like that. It shall be done!" he added, suddenly. "His language to me, a magistrate, is reason enough for breaking him; but then I must not bring the complaint. It can be managed without that."
Thus gently musing over his hopes of vengeance on a man, who, belonging to an adverse party, had dared to speak the truth rather too eloquently in his presence, the Mayor spent perhaps half an hour very much in his usual way; for he had always some small plot to ripen just before retiring for the night, and his plan of vengeance on poor Chester was only a little more piquant than others, because it was more directly personal.
THE POLICEMAN'S GUEST.
"Home, sweet home, Be it ever so humble there is no place like home."
Home is emphatically the poor man's paradise. The rich, with their many resources, too often live away from the hearth-stone, in heart, if not in person; but to the virtuous poor, domestic ties are the only legitimate and positive source of happiness short of that holier Heaven which is the soul's home.
The wife of Chester sat up for him that winter's night. It was so intensely cold that she could not find the heart to seek rest while he was exposed to the weather. The room in which she sat was a small chamber in the second story of a dwelling that contained two other families. Around her were many little articles of comfort tastefully arranged, and bearing a certain degree of elegance that always betrays the residence of a refined woman, however poor she may be. A well worn but neatly darned carpet covered the floor. The chairs, with their white rush bottoms, were without stain or dust. A mahogany breakfast-table, polished like a mirror, stood beneath a pretty looking-glass, whose guilt frame shone through a net-work of golden tissue-paper. Curtains of snow-white cotton, starched till they looked clear and bright as linen, were looped back from the windows, with knots of green riband. A pot or two of geraniums stood beneath the curtains, and near one of the windows hung a Canary bird sleeping upon its perch, with its feathers ruffled up like a ball of yellow silk.
All these objects, nothing in themselves, but so combined that an air of comfort and even elegance reigned over them, composed a most beautiful domestic picture; especially when Mrs. Chester, obeying the gentle sway of her Boston rocking-chair, passed to and fro before the lamp by which she was sewing—cutting off the light from some object, and then allowing it to flow back again—giving a sort of animation to the stillness, peculiarly cheerful.
Now and then Jane Chester would lift her eyes to the clock, which, with a tiny looking-glass, framed in the mahogany beneath its dial, stood directly before her upon the mantle-piece. As the pointer approached the half hour before midnight, she laid the child's dress which she had been mending upon the little oblong candle-stand that held her lamp, and put a shovelful of coal on the grate of her little cooking-stove. Then she took a tea-kettle bright as silver from the stove, and went into a closet room at hand, where you could hear the clink of thin ice as it flowed from the water-pail into the tea-kettle.
When Mrs. Chester entered the room again with the kettle in her hand, a soft glow was on her cheek, and it would be difficult to imagine a lovelier or more cheerful face than hers. You could see by the rising color and the sweet expression of her mouth, that her heart was beginning to beat in a sort of fond tumult, as the time of her husband's return drew near. The fire was darting in a thousand bright flashes, through the black mass that had just been cast upon it, shooting out here and there a gleam of gold on the polished blackness of the stove, and curling up in little prismatic eddies around the tea-kettle as she placed it on the grate. The lamp, clean and bright as crystal could be made, was urged to a more brilliant flame by the point of her scissors, and then with another glance at the clock, the pretty housekeeper sat down in her chair again, and with one finely-shaped foot laced in its trim gaiter resting upon the stove hearth, she began to rock to and fro just far enough to try the spring of her ankle, without, however, once removing her boot from its pressure on the hearth.
"In twenty minutes more," she said aloud, lifting her fine eyes to the dial with a smile that told how impatiently she was coquetting with the time. "In twenty minutes. There, one has gone—another—five!—so now I may go to work in earnest."
She started up as if it delighted her to be in a hurry, and rolling up the child's frock removed it with a little work basket to the table. Then she spread a spotless cloth upon the stand, smoothing it lightly about the edges with both hands, and opening a little cupboard where you might have caught glimpses of a tea-set, all of snow-white china, and six bright silver spoons in a tumbler, spread out like a fan, with various other neat and useful things, part of which she busily transferred to the stand.
By the time her little supper table was ready, the kettle began to throw up a cloud of steam from its bright spout. A soft, mellow hum arose with it, rushing out louder and louder, like an imprisoned bird carousing in the vapor. The fire glowed up around it red, and cheerfully throwing its light in a golden circle on the carpet, the stand, and on the placid face of Jane Chester as she knelt before the grate, holding a slice of bread before the coals, now a little nearer, then further off, that every inch of the white surface might be equally browned.
When everything was ready—the plate of toast neatly buttered—the tea put to soak in the drollest little china tea-pot you ever set eyes on, old fashioned, but bearing in every painted rose that clustered around it the most convincing evidence that Mrs. Chester must at least have had a grand mother—when all was ready, and while Mrs. Chester stood by the little supper stand pondering in her mind if anything had been omitted, she heard the turn of her husband's latchkey in the door.
"Just in time," she said, with one of those smiles which one never sees in perfect beauty away from home.
But as she leaned her head gently on one side to listen, the smile left her face. There was something heavy and unnatural in her husband's tread that troubled her. She was turning toward the door, when Chester opened it and entered the room with his overcoat off, and bearing in his arms a mysterious burden.
"Why, Chester, how is this?—the night so cold, and your forehead all in a perspiration. What is this wrapped in your coat?"
As Mrs. Chester spoke, her husband sat down near the door, still holding the child. She took off his hat and touched her lips to his damp forehead, while he gently opened his overcoat and revealed the little thin face upon his bosom.
"See here, Jane, it is a poor little girl I found in the street freezing to death."
"Poor thing! poor little creature!" said Mrs. Chester, filled with compassion, as she encountered the glance of the great wild eyes that seemed to illuminate the whole of that miserable face, "here, let her sit in the rocking-chair close up to the fire—dear me!"
This last exclamation broke from Mrs. Chester, as she drew the great coat from around the child, and saw how miserably she was clad; but checking her astonishment, she placed her guest in the rocking-chair, took off the old cloak, and was soon kneeling on the carpet holding a saucer of warm tea to the pale lips of the child.
"Give me a piece of the toast, John," she said, holding the saucer in one hand, and reaching forth the other towards her husband, who had seated himself at the supper table. "This is all she wants—a good fire and something to eat. Please pour out your own tea, while I take care of her. She hasn't had a good warm drink before, this long time, I dare say—have you, little girl?"
"No," said the child, faintly, "I never tasted anything so good as that before in my life."
Mrs. Chester laughed, and the tears came into her eyes.
"Poor thing! it is only because she is starved, that this tea and toast seem so delicious," she said, looking at her husband; "a small piece more. I must be careful, you know, John, and not give her too much at once," and breaking off what she deemed a scant portion of the toast, the kind woman gave it into the eager hands of the child.
The little girl swallowed the morsel of toast greedily, and held out her hand again.
Mrs. Chester shook her head and smiled through the tears that filled her eyes. A look of meek self-denial settled on the child's face. She dropped her hand, drew a deep breath, and tried to be content; but in spite of herself, those strange eyes wandered toward the food with intense craving.
"No," said Chester, answering the appealing glance of his wife, "it might do harm."
The little girl gently closed her eyes, and thus shut out the sight of food.
"Are you sleepy?" said Mrs. Chester.
"No," replied the child, almost with a sob. "I only would rather not look that way; it makes me long for another piece."
Tears gushed through her black eyelashes as she spoke, and rolled down her cheek.
"Wait a little while. In an hour—shall I say an hour, John?" said Mrs. Chester, deeply moved.
Chester nodded his head; he did not like to trust his voice just then.
"Well," said the generous woman; "in an hour you shall have something more; a cake, perhaps, and a cup of warm milk."
The child opened her eyes, and through their humid lashes flashed a gleam that made Mrs. Chester's heart thrill.
"Now," she said, rising cheerfully, "we must make up some sort of a nest for the little creature. Let me see, the bolster and pillows from our bed, with a thick blanket folded under them, and four chairs for a bedstead; that will do very nicely. You remember, Chester, when our Isabel was ill, she fancied that sort of bed before anything. Would you like to sleep that way, my dear?"
"I don't know, ma'am; I ain't used to sleeping in a bed, lately," faltered the little girl, bewildered by all the gentle kindness that she was receiving.
"Not used to sleeping in a bed!" cried Mrs. Chester, looking at her husband; "just fancy our Isabel saying that, Chester."
And with fresh tears in her eyes the gentle housewife proceeded to make up the temporary couch, which she had so ingeniously contrived for her little beggar-guest. She entered her bed-room for the pillows. The light in her hand shed its beams full upon a little girl, whose long raven curls lay in masses over the pillow, and down upon her night-dress, till they were lost among the bed-clothes. The child might be ten years of age, and nothing more beautiful could well be imagined than the sweet and oval cast of her countenance. Color soft and rich as the downy side of a peach, bloomed upon her cheek, which rested against the palm of one plump little hand. Her chin was dimpled, and around her pretty mouth lay a soft smile that just parted its redness, as the too ardent sunbeam cleaves open a cherry.
"Isabel, bless the darling," murmured Mrs. Chester, as she bent over her child, passing one hand under her beautiful head very carefully, that her fingers might not get entangled in those rich tresses and thus arouse the little sleeper.
She gently removed the pillow, and permitting the head to fall softly back, stole away. The child murmured in her sleep, and feeling the change of position, turned indolently. One hand and a portion of her tresses fell over the side of the bed, her curls sweeping downward half-way to the floor. When Mrs. Chester returned she found her child in this position, partly out of bed, and with the quilt thrown back. With a kiss and a murmured thanksgiving for the rosy health so visible in that sleeping form, the happy mother covered up those little white shoulders.
The little miserable child seemingly about her own daughter's age, sat in the rocking-chair, following her with those singular eyes and with that wan smile upon her lips. The contrast was too striking—her own child so luxuriant in health and beauty—that little homeless being with cheeks so thin and eyes so full of intelligence. It seemed to her that moment as if the fate of these two children would be jostled together—as if they, so unlike, would travel the same path and suffer with each other. Nothing could be more improbable than this; but it was a passing thought, full of pain, which the mother could not readily fling from her heart. For a moment it made her breathe quick, and she sat down gazing upon the strange child as if fascinated, holding the warm hand of Isabel with both of hers.
Chester wondered at the stillness and called to his wife. She came forth looking rather sad, but soon arranged the pillows, the blankets and snowy sheets, which she brought with her, into a most inviting little nest in one corner of the room. The little stranger watched her earnestly, with a wan smile playing about her mouth.
Mrs. Chester saw that the strange child, though thinly clad, was clean in her attire, and that some rents in her old calico frock had been neatly mended.
"What is your name?" she said, gently taking the child's hand and drawing her into the bed-room, "we have not asked your name yet, little girl."
"Mary Fuller, that is my name ma'am," replied the child, in her sweet, low voice.
"And have you got a mother?"
"I don't know," faltered the child, and a spot of crimson sprang into her pinched cheek.
"Please not to ask me about it," said the child, meekly. "I don't like to talk about my mother."
"But your father," said Mrs. Chester, remarking the color that glowed with such unnatural brightness on the child's face with a thrill of pain, for it seemed to her as if a corpse had blushed.
"My father! Oh, he is dead."
The color instantly went out from her cheek, like a flash of fire suddenly extinguished there, and the child clasped her hands in a sort of thoughtful ecstasy, as if the mention of her father's name had lifted her soul to a communion with the dead.
Mrs. Chester sat down by a bureau, and searched for one of Isabel's night-gowns in the drawer, now and then casting wistful glances on her singular guest.
"Come," she said, gently, after a few minutes had elapsed, "let me take off your frock, then say your prayers and go to bed."
"I have said my prayers," replied the child, lifting her eyes with a look that thrilled through and through Mrs. Chester. "When I think of my father, then I always say the prayers that he taught me, over in my heart."
"Then you loved your father?"
"Loved him!" replied the child, with a look of touching despondency. "My dear dead father—did you ask me if I loved him? What else in the wide, wide world had I to love?"
"Your mother," said Mrs. Chester.
That flush of crimson shot over the child's face again, and bowing her head with a look of the keenest anguish, she faltered out,
"Well, my poor child," said Mrs. Chester, compassionating the strange feeling whose source she could only guess at, "I will not ask any more questions to-night. Keep up a good heart. You are almost an orphan, and God takes care of little orphans, you know."
"Oh, yes, God will take care of me," answered the child, turning her large eyes downward upon her person, with a look that said more plainly than words, "helpless and ugly as I am."
"It is the helpless—it is children whom our Saviour—you know about our Saviour?"
"Oh, yes, I know."
"Well, it was such little helpless creatures as you are whom our Saviour meant, when he said, 'Of such is the kingdom of Heaven.'"
"Yes, such as I am, ma'am."
The child again glanced at her person, and then with a look of tearful humility at Mrs. Chester.
Mrs. Chester bent over the drawer she was searching, to conceal her tears; there was something strangely pathetic in the child's looks and words.
"I thought," said the child, lifting her face and pointing to little Isabel, with a look of thrilling admiration, "I thought when I came in here, that Heaven must be full of little children like her."
"And why like her?"
"Because she looks in her sleep like the picture which I have seen of Heaven, where beautiful, curly-headed children just like her, lie dreaming on the clouds."
"Then you think she is like those little angels?" said Mrs. Chester, unable to suppress a feeling of maternal pride, and smiling through her tears as she gazed on her daughter's beauty.
"I never saw an ugly little girl in those pictures in my whole life, and I have looked for one a great many times," said the child, sadly.
"Yes, but these pictures are only according to the artist's fancy—they are not the real Heaven."
"I know; but then those who make these pictures do not so much as fancy a little girl like—like me, among the angels."
"But I can fancy them there," said Mrs. Chester, carried away by the strange language of the child—"remember, little girl, that it is our souls—the spirit that makes us love and think—which God takes home to Heaven."
"I know," said the little girl, shaking her head with a mournful smile, "but she would not like to leave all those curls and that red upon her mouth behind her, would she?"
Mrs. Chester shook her head and tried to smile; the child puzzled her with these singular questions.
"And I—I should not like either, to leave my body behind!"
"Indeed—why not, little girl?" said Mrs. Chester, amazed.
"Oh, we have suffered so much together, my soul and this poor body!" replied the child, sadly.
"This is all very strange and very mournful," murmured Mrs. Chester, deeply moved. But she checked herself, and drawing the child toward her, began to untie her dress. A faint exclamation of surprise and pity broke from her lips as she loosened the garment and observed that it was the only one which the little creature had on.
"Oh, this is destitution," she said, covering her eyes with one hand as little Mary crouched down and put on the nightdress. "What if she, my own child, were left thus,"—and dashing aside her tears, Mrs. Chester went to the bed and covered the little Isabel with kisses.
The strange child stood by in her long night-gown. A smile of singular pleasure lay about her mouth as she attempted with her little pale hands to arrange the plaited ruffles around her neck and bosom. Drawing close to Mrs. Chester, she took hold of her dress, and looked earnestly in her face. Mrs. Chester turned away her head; her lips were yet tremulous with the caresses which she had bestowed upon her child; and it seemed as if those large eyes reproached her.
"You are cold," she said, looking down upon the child.
"Well, what is it you want—the milk I promised you?"
"No, not that. I will give up the milk, if you will only—only"—
"Only what, child?"
"If you will only kiss my forehead just once as you kissed hers," answered the child. And after one yearning look, her head drooped upon her bosom. She seemed completely overpowered by her own boldness.
Mrs. Chester stood gazing on her in silent surprise. There was something in the request that startled and pained her. Here stood a poor, miserable orphan, begging with a voice of unutterable desolation for a few moments of that affection which she saw profusely lavished upon a happier child. Her silence seemed to strike the little girl with terror. She lifted her eyes with a look of humble deprecation, and said:
"Nobody has kissed me since my father died!"
Mrs. Chester conquered the repugnance, that spite of herself arose in her heart, at the thought of chilling the lips yet warm from the rosy mouth of her child, by contact with anything less dear, and bending down, she pressed a tremulous kiss upon the uplifted forehead of the little stranger.
Mary drew an uneven breath; an expression of exquisite content spread over her face, and giving her hand to Mrs. Chester, she allowed herself to be lead toward the pretty couch, made up so temptingly in a corner of the outer room.
THE MIDNIGHT CONSULTATION
Oh, it is hard for rich men in their pride, To know how dear a thing it is to give; When, for sweet charity, the poor divide The little pittance upon which they live, And from their scanty comforts take a share, To save a wretched brother from despair.
Chester was sitting by the fire, and a serious expression settled on his features—he was pondering over the events of the evening; his mind reverting constantly in spite of himself to the conversation which he had held with the Mayor. Like most excitable persons, he found, on reviving his own words, much to regret in them. His impulse had been kind, his intention good, but notwithstanding this, he was compelled to admit that his entrance into the Mayor's house must have seemed singular and his words imprudent. Both were certainly justified by the occasion. Still, Chester felt that he had made an enemy of one who had the power to injure him deeply, and this thought gave a serious cast to his features.
Jane Chester had put her little charge to bed. She now drew a chair close to her husband, and placed her hand upon his.
"You are tired, John," she said. "You seem worn out. Has anything gone wrong that you look so grave?"
"I fear, Jane," said Chester, turning his eyes upon the benign face of his wife, with a look of anxious affection; "I fear that I have not acted in the wisest manner to-night—by a few rash words I may have made an enemy."
"An enemy, and of whom?" inquired the wife, entering as she always did, heart and soul, into any subject that disturbed her husband.
Seeing her look of anxiety, Chester told her of his interview with the Mayor, and the rash words which he had used regarding the little girl. As Jane Chester listened, the anxious expression on her face gave way to a glow of generous indignation.
"Why, what else could you have done with the poor little thing in that dreadful state, and the station-house so far off? Surely, the Mayor deserved all that you said and more—he must be conscious of this, and glad enough to forget it."
"I don't know," said Chester, thoughtfully; "I should think him capable of anything, but a frank and honest feeling of forgiveness."
"Well," said Jane Chester, hopefully, "we must not anticipate evil in this way. Let the Mayor be ever so angry, he really has no power to harm us. You can only be broken for bad conduct, and there we can defy him, you know."
Chester smiled, but more at the trust and exulting love that beamed in his wife's face, than from any confidence excited by her words. He had relieved his mind by this little confidential chat, and made an effort to be cheerful again.
Mrs. Chester turned and glanced toward the bed where her little guest lay quite still, and to all appearance asleep. She looked so comfortable in her snow-white gown and the little cap of spotted muslin, with its border of cheap lace falling softly around the high forehead and hollow temples, that Mrs. Chester could not help smiling.
"How contented she looks," murmured the happy wife, pressing her husband's hand, and thus drawing his attention toward the little bed. "Did you ever see such a change in your life?"
"She does sleep very quietly and looks almost pretty, now that she is comfortable and quiet. You are pleased that I brought her home, Jane?"
"Pleased, why yes, of course I am pleased, but then this is only for one night, John. What will become of her to-morrow?" and Mrs. Chester looked with a sort of pleading earnestness into her husband's face, as if she had something on her mind which he might not quite sanction.
"I know—it was that partly which made me a little downhearted just now. It will be hard for her to go away to-morrow—she will feel it very much after you have made her so snug and comfortable."
"But why send her away?" said Mrs. Chester softly, as if she were proposing something very wrong, only that her eyes were brim full of kindness, and a world of gentle persuasion lay in the smile with which she met his surprised look—it was a smile of audacious benevolence, if we may use the term.
"If we could afford it," said Chester, heaving a sigh; "but no—no, Jane, we must not think of this, remember I am in debt still. Let us be just before we are charitable. We have no right to give while we owe a cent which is not yet earned."
The smile left Jane Chester's face—she sighed and looked gravely in the fire; this view of the matter dampened her spirits. After a little her face brightened up.
"Well, John, I suppose you are right, but then what if I manage to keep the child, and save just as much as usual at the end of the week? then it would be my own little charity, you know."
"But how can you manage that, Jane?"
"Well, now, promise to let me have my own way—just promise that before we go another step—and I will manage it; you shall see."
Chester shook his head, and was about to speak, but his wife rose just then half leaning on his chair, her arm somehow got around his neck, and bending her red lips close to his cheek she raised the only hand that was disengaged and folded the fingers over his mouth.
"Not a word, John—not a word; only promise to let me have my own way—I will have it—you know that well enough!"
"Well," said Chester, laughing, and trying to speak through the fingers that held his lips, "well, go on—I promise—only don't quite stop my breath!"
"Very well," said Jane Chester, removing her hand, and clasping it with the other that fell over his shoulder; "now you shall hear."
"With our little family, you know, I have a great deal of spare time."
"I don't know any such thing, Jane—you are always at work."
"Oh, yes, stitching your shirt-bosoms in plaits so fine that nobody can see them; ruffling Isabel's pantalets, and knitting lace to trim morning-gowns and frocks—but what does that amount to?"
"Why, nothing, only you and Isabel always look so pretty and lady-like with these things."
"Very well—but does all this stitching and so on, help to pay your debts?"
"No, perhaps not; but then it pleases me—it sends us into the world well dressed, and"—
"Gratifies your pride a little, hey!" said Mrs. Chester, interrupting him. "Very well, this shall not be all my own charity. You and Isabel shall help—we will all adopt the little girl."
"Well, what do you mean—what would you be at?"
"Why, just this—all the extra work that occupies me so much, we must do without; you shall be content with clean white linen, and Isabel's frocks and things must go with less trimming—she is pretty enough without them, you know—then I can take in sewing, and earn enough to pay for what the poor little thing will eat. Perhaps she knows how to sew a little; at any rate, she and Isabel will be handy about the house, and give me more time. There, now, isn't my plan a good one? after all, I shall only do about the same work as ever. You and Isabel will make all the sacrifices."
"I'm afraid not," replied Chester, drawing his wife towards him and kissing her forehead; "but we shall make some, for I have often thought how dreadful it would be to have you—so pretty, so well educated—obliged to go round from shop to shop inquiring for work; and have felt with some pride, perhaps, that while I lived you should never come to this."
"But," said Mrs. Chester, with animation, "if we had no other way—if Isabel were crying for bread, then you would not object—you would give up this feeling of pride—for after all, it is only that."
"No, it is something more than pride, Jane," said Chester, tenderly. "I love to feel that your comforts are all earned by my own strength; that I am soul and body your protector; were I able, you should never soil these hands with labor again!"
Mrs. Chester lifted the hand which she held to her lips, and her eyes beamed with joy through the tears that filled them.
"I know all this, John, and it makes me love you! oh, how dearly; but then it is wrong—very, very delightful, but still wrong."
"Why wrong, Jane, I cannot understand that?"
"Wrong—why because it might, if I were only selfish enough to take advantage of your tenderness, make me a very useless, gossiping, idle sort of person."
"You would never come to that, Jane."
"No, I should not like to become one of those worthless drones in the great hive of human life, who exist daintily on their husbands' energies, making him the slave of capricious wants that would never arise but for the idea that it is refined and feminine to be useless. I would be a wife; a companion; a help to my husband."
"And so you are, all these and more," said Chester, gazing with delight on her animated face. "God bless you, Jane, for you have been to me a noble and a true wife."
"Well, then, of course I am to have my own way now. This poor child, I shall not mind in the least asking about work, when it is for her."
"But the shopkeepers, they will not know why you do this."
"Well, what need I care for them?"
"They will think you have a very shiftless, or perhaps dissipated husband, who obliges you to go about among them begging for work."
"No—no, these miseries are not written in my face, John, they will never think that of me."
"Or a widow, perhaps!" rejoined Chester, with a faint smile.
"Don't talk in that way," and Mrs. Chester's eyes filled with tears. "A widow—your widow—I should never live to be that. The very thought makes my heart stand still. With you I can do anything—but alone—a widow—John, never mention that word again!"
Chester drew down his wife's head and kissed her cheek very tenderly, smoothing her bright tresses with his hand the while.