The Portion of Labor
By Mary E. Wilkins
Author of "Jerome" "A New England Nun" Etc.
Harper & Brothers Publishers New York And London MDCCCCI
To Henry Mills Alden
On the west side of Ellen's father's house was a file of Norway spruce-trees, standing with a sharp pointing of dark boughs towards the north, which gave them an air of expectancy of progress.
Every morning Ellen, whose bedroom faced that way, looked out with a firm belief that she would see them on the other side of the stone wall, advanced several paces towards their native land. She had no doubt of their ability to do so; their roots, projecting in fibrous sprawls from their trunks, were their feet, and she pictured them advancing with wide trailings, and rustlings as of green draperies, and a loudening of that dreamy cry of theirs which was to her imagination a cry of homesickness reminiscent of their old life in the White north. When Ellen had first heard the name Norway spruce, 'way back in her childhood—so far back, though she was only seven and a half now, that it seemed to her like a memory from another life—she had asked her mother to show her Norway on the map, and her strange convictions concerning the trees had seized her. When her mother said that they had come from that northernmost land of Europe, Ellen, to whose childhood all truth was naked and literal, immediately conceived to herself those veritable trees advancing over the frozen seas around the pole, and down through the vast regions which were painted blue on her map, straight to her father's west yard. There they stood and sang the songs of their own country, with a melancholy sweetness of absence and longing, and were forever thinking to return. Ellen felt always a thrill of happy surprise when she saw them still there of a morning, for she felt that she would miss them sorely when they were gone. She said nothing of all this to her mother; it was one of the secrets of the soul which created her individuality and made her a spiritual birth. She was also silent about her belief concerning the cherry-trees in the east yard. There were three of them, giants of their kind, which filled the east yard every spring as with mountains of white bloom, breathing wide gusts of honey sweetness, and humming with bees. Ellen believed that these trees had once stood in the Garden of Eden, but she never expected to find them missing from the east yard of a morning, for she remembered the angel with the flaming sword, and she knew how one branch of the easternmost tree happened to be blasted as if by fire. And she thought that these trees were happy, and never sighed to the wind as the dark evergreens did, because they had still the same blossoms and the same fruit that they had in Eden, and so did not fairly know that they were not there still. Sometimes Ellen, sitting underneath them on a low rib of rock on a May morning, used to fancy with success that she and the trees were together in that first garden which she had read about in the Bible.
Sometimes, after one of these successful imaginings, when Ellen's mother called her into the house she would stare at her little daughter uneasily, and give her a spoonful of a bitter spring medicine which she had brewed herself. When Ellen's father, Andrew Brewster, came home from the shop, she would speak to him aside as he was washing his hands at the kitchen sink, and tell him that it seemed to her that Ellen looked kind of "pindlin'." Then Andrew, before he sat down at the dinner-table, would take Ellen's face in his two moist hands, look at her with anxiety thinly veiled by facetiousness, rub his rough, dark cheek against her soft, white one until he had reddened it, then laugh, and tell her she looked like a bo'sn. Ellen never quite knew what her father meant by bo'sn, but she understood that it signified something very rosy and hearty indeed.
Ellen's father always picked out for her the choicest and tenderest bits of the humble dishes, and his keen eyes were more watchful of her plate than of his own. Always after Ellen's mother had said to her father that she thought Ellen looked pindling he was late about coming home from the shop, and would turn in at the gate laden with paper parcels. Then Ellen would find an orange or some other delicacy beside her plate at supper. Ellen's aunt Eva, her mother's younger sister, who lived with them, would look askance at the tidbit with open sarcasm. "You jest spoil that young one, Fanny," she would say to her sister.
"You can do jest as you are a mind to with your own young ones when you get them, but you can let mine alone. It's none of your business what her father and me give her to eat; you don't buy it," Ellen's mother would retort. There was the utmost frankness of speech between the two sisters. Neither could have been in the slightest doubt as to what the other thought of her, for it was openly proclaimed to her a dozen times a day, and the conclusion was never complimentary. Ellen learned very early to form her own opinions of character from her own intuition, otherwise she would have held her aunt and mother in somewhat slighting estimation, and she loved them both dearly. They were headstrong, violent-tempered women, but she had an instinct for the staple qualities below that surface turbulence, which was lashed higher by every gust of opposition. These two loud, contending voices, which filled the house before and after shop-hours—for Eva worked in the shop with her brother-in-law—with a duet of discords instead of harmonies, meant no more to Ellen than the wrangle of the robins in the cherry-trees. She supposed that two sisters always conversed in that way. She never knew why her father, after a fiery but ineffectual attempt to quell the feminine tumult, would send her across the east yard to her grandmother Brewster's, and seat himself on the east door-step in summer, or go down to the store in the winter. She would sit at the window in her grandmother's sitting-room, eating peacefully the slice of pound-cake or cooky with which she was always regaled, and listen to the scolding voices across the yard as she might have listened to any outside disturbance. She was never sucked into the whirlpool of wrath which seemed to gyrate perpetually in her home, and wondered at her grandmother Brewster's impatient exclamations concerning the poor child, and her poor boy, and that it was a shame and a disgrace, when now and then a louder explosion of wrath struck her ears.
Ellen's grandmother—Mrs. Zelotes Brewster, as she was called, though her husband Zelotes had been dead for many years—was an aristocrat by virtue of inborn prejudices and convictions, in despite of circumstances. The neighbors said that Mrs. Zelotes Brewster had always been high-feeling, and had held up her head with the best. It would have been nearer the truth to say that she held up her head above the best. No one seeing the erect old woman, in her draperies of the finest black goods to be bought in the city, could estimate in what heights of thin upper air of spiritual consequence her head was elevated. She had always a clear sight of the head-tops of any throng in which she found herself, and queens or duchesses would have been no exception. She would never have failed to find some stool of superior possessions or traits upon which to raise herself, and look down upon crown and coronet. When she read in the papers about the marriage of a New York belle to an English duke, she reflected that the duke could be by no means as fine a figure of a man as Zelotes had been, and as her son Andrew was, although both her husband and son had got all their education in the town schools, and had worked in shoe-shops all their lives. She could have looked at a palace or a castle, and have remained true to the splendors of her little one-story-and-a-half house with a best parlor and sitting-room, and a shed kitchen for use in hot weather.
She would not for one instant have been swerved from utmost admiration and faith in her set of white-and-gold wedding china by the contemplation of Copeland and Royal Sevres. She would have pitted her hair-cloth furniture of the ugliest period of household art against all the Chippendales and First Empire pieces in existence.
As Mrs. Zelotes had never seen any household possessions to equal her own, let alone to surpass them, she was of the same mind with regard to her husband and his family, herself and her family, her son and little granddaughter. She never saw any gowns and shawls which compared with hers in fineness and richness; she never tasted a morsel of cookery which was not as sawdust when she reflected upon her own; and all that humiliated her in the least, or caused her to feel in the least dissatisfied, was her son's wife and her family and antecedents.
Mrs. Zelotes Brewster had considered that her son Andrew was marrying immeasurably beneath him when he married Fanny Loud, of Loudville. Loudville was a humble, an almost disreputably humble, suburb of the little provincial city. The Louds from whom the locality took its name were never held in much repute, being considered of a stratum decidedly below the ordinary social one of the city. When Andrew told his mother that he was to marry a Loud, she declared that she would not go to his wedding, nor receive the girl at her house, and she kept her word. When one day Andrew brought his sweetheart to his home to call, trusting to her pretty face and graceful though rather sharp manner to win his mother's heart, he found her intrenched in the kitchen, and absolutely indifferent to the charms of his Fanny in her stylish, albeit somewhat tawdry, finery, though she had peeped to good purpose from her parlor window, which commanded the road, before she fled kitchenward.
Mrs. Zelotes was beating eggs with as firm an impetus as if she were heaving up earth-works to strengthen her own pride when her son thrust his timid face into the kitchen. "Mother, Fanny's in the parlor," he said, beseechingly.
"Let her set there, then, if she wants to," said his mother, and that was all she would say.
Very soon Fanny went home on her lover's arm, freeing her mind with no uncertain voice on the way, though she was on the public road, and within hearing of sharp ears in open windows. Fanny had a pride as fierce as Mrs. Zelotes Brewster's, though it was not so well sustained, and she would then and there have refused to marry Andrew had she not loved him with all her passionate and ill-regulated heart. But she never forgave her mother-in-law for the slight she had put upon her that day, and the slights which she put upon her later. She would have refused to live next door to Mrs. Zelotes had not Andrew owned the land and been in a measure forced to build there. Every time she had flaunted out of her new house-door in her wedding finery she had an uncomfortable feeling of defiance under a fire of hostile eyes in the next house. She kept her own windows upon that side as clear and bright as diamonds, and her curtains in the stiffest, snowy slants, lest her terrible mother-in-law should have occasion to impeach her housekeeping, she being a notable housewife. The habits of the Louds of Loudville were considered shiftless in the extreme, and poor Fanny had heard an insinuation of Mrs. Zelotes to that effect.
The elder Mrs. Brewster's knowledge of her son's house and his wife was limited to the view from her west windows, but there was half-truce when little Ellen was born. Mrs. Brewster, who considered that no woman could be obtained with such a fine knowledge of nursing as she possessed, and who had, moreover, a regard for her poor boy's pocket-book, appeared for the first time in his doorway, and opened her heart to her son's child, if not to his wife, whom she began to tolerate.
However, the two women had almost a hand-to-hand encounter over little Ellen's cradle, the elder Mrs. Brewster judging that it was for her good to be rocked to sleep, the younger not. Little Ellen herself, however, turned the balance that time in favor of her grandmother, since she cried every time the gentle, swaying motion was hushed, and absolutely refused to go to sleep, and her mother from the first held every course which seemed to contribute to her pleasure and comfort as a sacred duty. At last it came to pass that the two women met only upon that small neutral ground of love, and upon all other territory were sworn foes. Especially was Mrs. Zelotes wroth when Eva Loud, after the death of her father, one of the most worthless and shiftless of the Louds of Loudville, came to live with her married sister. She spoke openly to Fanny concerning her opinion of another woman's coming to live on poor Andrew, and paid no heed to the assertions that Eva would work and pay her way.
Mrs. Zelotes, although she acknowledged it no social degradation for a man to work in a shoe-factory, regarded a woman who worked therein as having hopelessly forfeited her caste. Eva Loud had worked in a shop ever since she was fourteen, and had tagged the grimy and leathery procession of Louds, who worked in shoe-factories when they worked at all, in a short skirt with her hair in a strong black pigtail. There was a kind of bold grace and showy beauty about this Eva Loud which added to Mrs. Zelotes's scorn and dislike.
"She walks off to work in the shop as proud as if she was going to a party," she said, and she fairly trembled with anger when she saw the girl set out with her son in the morning. She would have considered it much more according to the eternal fitness of things had her son Andrew been attending a queen whom he would have dropped at her palace on the way. She writhed inwardly whenever little Ellen spoke of her aunt Eva, and would have forbidden her to do so had she dared.
"To think of that child associating with a shop-girl!" she said to Mrs. Pointdexter. Mrs. Pointdexter was her particular friend, whom she regarded with loving tolerance of superiority, though she had been the daughter of a former clergyman of the town, and had wedded another, and might presumably have been accounted herself of a somewhat higher estate. The gentle and dependent clergyman's widow, when she came back to her native city after the death of her husband, found herself all at once in a pleasant little valley of humiliation at the feet of her old friend, and was contented to abide there. "Perhaps your son's sister-in-law will marry and go away," she said, consolingly, to Mrs. Zelotes, who indeed lived in that hope. But Eva remained at her sister's, and, though she had admirers in plenty, did not marry, and the dissension grew.
It was an odd thing that, however the sisters quarrelled, the minute Andrew tried to take sides with his wife and assail Eva in his turn, Fanny turned and defended her. "I am not going to desert all the sister I have got in the world," she said. "If you want me to leave, say so, and I will go, but I shall never turn Eva out of doors. I would rather go with her and work in the shop." Then the next moment the wrangle would recommence, and the harsh trebles of wrath would swell high. Andrew could not appreciate this savageness of race loyalty in the face of anger and dissension, and his brain reeled with the apparent inconsistency of the thing.
"Sometimes I think they are both crazy," he used to tell his mother, who sympathized with him after a covertly triumphant fashion. She never said, "I told you so," but the thought was evident on her face, and her son saw it there.
However, he said not a word against his wife, except by implication. Though she and her sister were making his home unbearable, he still loved her, and, even if he did not, he had something of his mother's pride.
However, at last, when Ellen was almost eight years old, matters came suddenly to a climax one evening in November. The two sisters were having a fiercer dispute than usual. Eva was taking her sister to task for cutting over a dress of hers for Ellen, Fanny claiming that she had given her permission to do so, and Eva denying it. The child sat listening in her little chair with a look of dawning intelligence of wrath and wicked temper in her face, because she was herself in a manner the cause of the dissension. Suddenly Andrew Brewster, with a fiery outburst of inconsequent masculine wrath with the whole situation, essayed to cut the Gordian knot. He grabbed the little dress of bright woollen stuff, which lay partly made upon the table, and crammed it into the stove, and a reek of burning wool filled the room. Then both women turned upon him with a combination of anger to which his wrath was wildfire.
Andrew caught up little Ellen, who was beginning to look scared, wrapped the first thing he could seize around her, and fairly fled across the yard to his mother's. Then he sat down and wept like a boy, and his pride left him at last. "Oh, mother," he sobbed, "if it were not for the child, I would go away, for my home is a hell!"
Mrs. Zelotes stood clasping little Ellen, who clung to her, trembling. "Well, come over here with me," she said, "you and Ellen."
"Live here in the next house!" said Andrew. "Do you suppose Fanny would have the child living under her very eyes in the next house? No, there is no way out of the misery—no way; but if it was not for the child, I would go!"
Andrew burst out in such wild sobs that his mother released Ellen and ran to him; and the child, trembling and crying with a curious softness, as of fear at being heard, ran out of the house and back to her home. "Oh, mother," she cried, breaking in upon the dialogue of anger which was still going on there with her little tremulous flute—"oh, mother, father is crying!"
"I don't care," answered her mother, fiercely, her temper causing her to lose sight of the child's agitation. "I don't care. If it wasn't for you, I would leave him. I wouldn't live as I am doing. I would leave everybody. I am tired of this awful life. Oh, if it wasn't for you, Ellen, I would leave everybody and start fresh!"
"You can leave me whenever you want to," said Eva, her handsome face burning red with wrath, and she went out of the room, which was suffocating with the fumes of the burning wool, tossing her black head, all banged and coiled in the latest fashion.
Of late years Fanny had sunk her personal vanity further and further in that for her child. She brushed her own hair back hard from her temples, and candidly revealed all her unyouthful lines, and dwelt fondly upon the arrangement of little Ellen's locks, which were of a fine, pale yellow, as clear as the color of amber.
She never recut her skirts or her sleeves, but she studied anxiously all the slightest changes in children's fashions. After her sister had left the room with a loud bang of the door, she sat for a moment gazing straight ahead, her face working, then she burst into such a passion of hysterical wailing as the child had never heard. Ellen, watching her mother with eyes so frightened and full of horror that there was no room for childish love and pity in them, grew very pale. She had left the door by which she had entered open; she gazed one moment at her mother, then she turned and slipped out of the room, and, opening the outer door softly, though her mother would not have heard nor noticed, went out of the house.
Then she ran as fast as she could down the frozen road, a little, dark figure, passing as rapidly as the shadow of a cloud between the earth and the full moon.
The greatest complexity in the world attends the motive-power of any action. Infinite perspectives of mental mirrors reflect the whys of all doing. An adult with long practice in analytic introspection soon becomes bewildered when he strives to evolve the primary and fundamental reasons for his deeds; a child so striving would be lost in unexpected depths; but a child never strives. A child obeys unquestioningly and absolutely its own spiritual impellings without a backward glance at them.
Little Ellen Brewster ran down the road that November night, and did not know then, and never knew afterwards, why she ran. Loving renunciation was surging high in her childish heart, giving an indication of tidal possibilities for the future, and there was also a bitter, angry hurt of slighted dependency and affection. Had she not heard them say, her own mother and father say, that they would be better off and happier with her out of the way, and she their dearest loved and most carefully cherished possession in the whole world? It is a cruel fall for an apple of the eye to the ground, for its law of gravitation is of the soul, and its fall shocks the infinite. Little Ellen felt herself sorely hurt by her fall from such fair heights; she was pierced by the sharp thorns of selfish interests which flourish below all the heavenward windows of life.
Afterwards, when her mother and father tried to make her tell them why she ran away, she could not say; the answer was beyond her own power.
There was no snow on the ground, but the earth was frozen in great ribs after a late thaw. Ellen ran painfully between the ridges which a long line of ice-wagons had made with their heavy wheels earlier in the day. When the spaces between the ridges were too narrow for her little feet, she ran along the crests, and that was precarious. She fell once and bruised one of her delicate knees, then she fell again, and struck the knee on the same place. It hurt her, and she caught her breath with a gasp of pain. She pulled up her little frock and touched her hand to her knee, and felt it wet, then she whimpered on the lonely road, and, curiously enough, there was pity for her mother as well as for herself in her solitary grieving. "Mother would feel pretty bad if she knew how I was hurt, enough to make it bleed," she murmured, between her soft sobs. Ellen did not dare cry loudly, from a certain unvoiced fear which she had of shocking the stillness of the night, and also from a delicate sense of personal dignity, and a dislike of violent manifestations of feeling which had strengthened with her growth in the midst of the turbulent atmosphere of her home. Ellen had the softest childish voice, and she never screamed or shouted when excited. Instead of catching the motion of the wind, she still lay before it, like some slender-stemmed flower. If Ellen had made much outcry with the hurt in her heart and the smart of her knee, she might have been heard, for the locality was thickly settled, though not in the business portion of the little city. The houses, set prosperously in the midst of shaven lawns—for this was a thrifty and emulative place, and democracy held up its head confidently—were built closely along the road, though that was lonely and deserted at that hour. It was the hour between half-past six and half-past seven, when people were lingering at their supper-tables, and had not yet started upon their evening pursuits. The lights shone for the most part from the rear windows of the houses, and there was a vague compound odor of tea and bread and beefsteak in the air. Poor Ellen had not had her supper; the wrangle at home had dismissed it from everybody's mind. She felt more pitiful towards her mother and herself when she smelt the food and reflected upon that. To think of her going away without any supper, all alone in the dark night! There was no moon, and the solemn brilliancy of the stars made her think with a shiver of awe of the Old Testament and the possibility of the Day of Judgment. Suppose it should come, and she all alone out in the night, in the midst of all those worlds and the great White Throne, without her mother? Ellen's grandmother, who was of a stanch orthodox breed, and was, moreover, anxious to counteract any possible detriment as to religious training from contact with the degenerate Louds of Loudville, had established a strict course of Bible study for her granddaughter at a very early age. All celestial phenomena were in consequence transposed into a Biblical key for the child, and she regarded the heavens swarming with golden stars as a Hebrew child of a thousand years ago might have done.
She was glad when she came within the radius of a street light from time to time; they were stationed at wide intervals in that neighborhood. Soon, however, she reached the factories, when all mystery and awe, and vague terrors of what beside herself might be near unrevealed beneath the mighty brooding of the night, were over. She was, as it were, in the mid-current of the conditions of her own life and times, and the material force of it swept away all symbolisms and unstable drift, and left only the bare rocks and shores of existence. Always when the child had been taken by one of her elders past the factories, humming like gigantic hives, with their windows alert with eager eyes of toil, glancing out at her over bench and machine, Ellen had seen her secretly cherished imaginings recede into a night of distance like stars, and she had felt her little footing upon the earth with a shock, and had clung more closely to the leading hand of love. "That's where your poor father works," her grandmother would say. "Maybe you'll have to work there some day," her aunt Eva had said once; and her mother, who had been with her also, had cried out sharply as if she had been stung, "I guess that little delicate thing ain't never goin' to work in a shoe-shop, Eva Loud." And her aunt Eva had laughed, and declared with emphasis that she guessed there was no need to worry yet awhile.
"She never shall, while I live," her mother had cried; and then Eva, coming to her sister's aid against her own suggestion, had declared, with a vehemence which frightened Ellen, that she would burn the shop down herself first.
As for Ellen's father, he never at that time dwelt upon the child's future as much as his wife did, having a masculine sense of the instability of houses of air which prevented him from entering them without a shivering of walls and roof into naught but star-mediums by his downrightness of vision. "Oh, let the child be, can't you, Fanny?" he said, when his wife speculated whether Ellen would be or do this or that when she should be a woman. He resented the conception of the woman which would swallow up, like some metaphysical sorceress, his fair little child. So when he now and then led Ellen past the factories it was never with the slightest surmise as to any connection which she might have with them beyond the present one. "There's the shop where father works," he would tell Ellen, with a tender sense of his own importance in his child's eyes, and he was as proud as Punch when Ellen was able to point with her tiny pink finger at the window where father worked. "That's where father works and earns money to buy nice things for little Ellen," Andrew would repeat, beaming at her with divine foolishness, and Ellen looked at the roaring, vibrating building as she might have looked at the wheels of progress. She realized that her father was very great and smart to work in a place like that, and earn money—so much of it. Ellen often heard her mother remark with pride how much money Andrew earned.
To-night, when Ellen passed in her strange flight, the factories were still, though they were yet blazing with light. The gigantic buildings, after a style of architecture as simple as a child's block house, and adapted to as primitive an end, loomed up beside the road like windowed shells enclosing massive concretenesses of golden light. They looked entirely vacant except for light, for the workmen had all gone home, and there were only the keepers in the buildings. There were three of them, representing three different firms, rival firms, grouped curiously close together, but Lloyd's was much the largest. Andrew and Eva worked in Lloyd's.
She was near the last factory when she met a man hastening along with bent shoulders, of intent, middle-aged progress. After he had passed her with a careless glance at the small, swift figure, she smelt coffee. He was carrying home a pound for his breakfast supply. That suddenly made her cry, though she did not know why. That familiar odor of home and the wontedness of life made her isolation on her little atom of the unusual more pitiful. The man turned round sharply when she sobbed. "Hullo! what's the matter, sis?" he called back, in a pleasant, hoarse voice. Ellen did not answer; she fled as if she had wings on her feet. The man had many children of his own, and was accustomed to their turbulence over trifles. He kept on, thinking that there was a sulky child who had been sent on an errand against her will, that it was not late, and she was safe enough on that road. He resumed his calculation as to whether his income would admit of a new coal-stove that winter. He was a workman in a factory, with one accumulative interest in life—coal-stoves. He bought and traded and swapped coal-stoves every winter with keenest enthusiasm. Now he had one in his mind which he had just viewed in a window with the rapture of an artist. It had a little nickel statuette on the top, and that quite crowded Ellen out of his mind, which had but narrow accommodations.
So Ellen kept on unmolested, though her heart was beating loud with fright. When she came into the brilliantly lighted stretch of Main Street, which was the business centre of the city, her childish mind was partly diverted from herself. Ellen had not been down town many times of an evening, and always in hand of her hurrying father or mother. Now she had run away and cut loose from all restrictions of time; there was an eternity for observation before her, with no call in-doors in prospect. She stopped at the first bright shop window, and suddenly the exultation of freedom was over the child. She tasted the sweets of rebellion and disobedience. She had stood before that window once before of an evening, and her aunt Eva had been with her, and one of her young men friends had come up behind, and they had gone on, the child dragging backward at her aunt's hand. Now she could stand as long as she wished, and stare and stare, and drink in everything which her childish imagination craved, and that was much. The imagination of a child is often like a voracious maw, seizing upon all that comes within reach, and producing spiritual indigestions and assimilations almost endless in their effects upon the growth. This window before which Ellen stood was that of a market: a great expanse of plate-glass framing a crude study in the clearest color tones. It takes a child or an artist to see a picture without the intrusion of its second dimension of sordid use and the gross reflection of humanity.
Ellen looked at the great shelf laid upon with flesh and vegetables and fruits with the careless precision of a kaleidoscope, and did not for one instant connect anything thereon with the ends of physical appetite, though she had not had her supper. What had a meal of beefsteak and potatoes and squash served on the little white-laid table at home to do with those great golden globes which made one end of the window like the remove from a mine, those satin-smooth spheres, those cuts as of red and white marble? She had eaten apples, but these were as the apples of the gods, lying in a heap of opulence, with a precious light-spot like a ruby on every outward side. The turnips affected her imagination like ivory carvings: she did not recognize them for turnips at all. She never afterwards believed them to be turnips; and as for cabbages, they were green inflorescences of majestic bloom. There is one position from which all common things can be seen with reflections of preciousness, and Ellen had insensibly taken it. The window and the shop behind were illuminated with the yellow glare of gas, but the glass was filmed here and there with frost, which tempered it as with a veil. In the background rosy-faced men in white frocks were moving to and fro, customers were passing in and out, but they were all glorified to the child. She did not see them as butchers, and as men and women selling and buying dinners.
However, all at once everything was spoiled, for her fairy castle of illusion or a higher reality was demolished, and that not by any blow of practicality, but by pity and sentiment. Ellen was a woman-child, and suddenly she struck the rock upon which women so often wreck or effect harbor, whichever it may be. All at once she looked up from the dazzling mosaic of the window and saw the dead partridges and grouse hanging in their rumpled brown mottle of plumage, and the dead rabbits, long and stark, with their fur pointed with frost, hanging in a piteous headlong company, and all her delight and wonder vanished, and she came down to the hard actualities of things. "Oh, the poor birds!" she cried out in her heart. "Oh, the poor birds, and the poor bunnies!"
Just at that moment, when the sudden rush of compassion and indignation had swollen her heart to the size of a woman's, and given it the aches of one, when her eyes were so dilated with the sight of helpless injury and death that they reflected the mystery of it and lost the outlook of childhood, when her pretty baby mouth was curved like an inverted bow of love with the impulse of tears, Cynthia Lennox came up the street and stopped short when she reached her.
Suddenly Ellen felt some one pressing close to her, and, looking up, saw a woman, only middle-aged, but whom she thought very old, because her hair was white, standing looking at her very keenly with clear, light-blue eyes under a high, pale forehead, from which the gray hair was combed uncompromisingly back. The woman had been a beauty once, of a delicate, nervous type, and had a certain beauty now, a something which had endured like the fineness of texture of a web when its glow of color has faded. Her black garments draped her with sober richness, and there was a gleam of dark fur when the wind caught her cloak. A small tuft of ostrich plumes nodded from her bonnet. Ellen smelt flowers vaguely, and looked at the lady's hand, but she did not carry any.
"Whose little girl are you?" Cynthia Lennox asked, softly, and Ellen did not answer. "Can't you tell me whose little girl you are?" Cynthia Lennox asked again. Ellen did not speak, but there was the swift flicker of a thought over her face which told her name as plainly as language if the woman had possessed the skill to interpret it.
"Ellen Brewster—Ellen Brewster is my name," Ellen said to herself very hard, and that was how she endured the reproach of her own silence.
The woman looked at her with surprise and admiration that were fairly passionate. Ellen was a beautiful child, with a face like a white flower. People had always turned to look after her, she was so charming, and had caused her mothers heart to swell with pride. "The way everybody we met has stared after that child to-day!" she would whisper her husband when she brought Ellen home from some little expedition; then the two would look at the little one's face with the one holy vanity of the world. Ellen wore to-night the little white shawl which her father had caught up when he carried her over to her grandmother's. She held it tightly together under her chin with one tiny hand, and her face looked out from between the soft folds with the absolute purity of curve and color of a pearl.
"Oh, you darling!" said the woman, suddenly; "you darling!" and Ellen shrank away from her. "Don't be afraid, dear," said Cynthia Lennox. "Don't be afraid, only tell me who you are. What is your name, dear?" But Ellen remained silent; only, as she shrank aloof, her eyes grew wild and bright with startled tears, and her sweet baby mouth quivered piteously. She wanted to run, but the habit of obedience was so strong upon her little mind that she feared to do so. This strange woman seemed to have gotten her in some invisible leash.
"Tell me what your name is, darling," said the woman, but she might as well have importuned a flower. Ellen was proof against all commands in that direction. She suddenly felt the furry sweep of the lady's cloak against her cheek, and a nervous, tender arm drawing her close, though she strove feebly to resist. "You are cold, you have nothing on but this little white shawl, and perhaps you are hungry. What were you looking in this window for? Tell me, dear, where is your mother? She did not send you on an errand, such a little girl as you are, so late on such a cold night, with no more on than this?"
A tone of indignation crept into the lady's voice.
"No, mother didn't send me," Ellen said, speaking for the first time.
"Then did you run away, dear?" Ellen was silent. "Oh, if you did, darling, you must tell me where you live, what your father's name is, and I will take you home. Tell me, dear. If it is far, I will get a carriage, and you shall ride home. Tell me, dear."
There was an utmost sweetness of maternal persuasion in Cynthia Lennox's voice; Ellen was swayed by it as a child might have been swayed by the magic pipe of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. She half yielded to her leading motion, then she remembered. "No," she cried out, with a sob of utter desolation. "No, no."
"Why not, dear?"
"They don't want; they don't want. No, no!"
"They don't want you? Your own father and mother don't want you? Darling, what is the matter?" But Ellen was dumb again. She stood sobbing, with a painful restraint, and pulling futilely from the lady's persuasive hand. But it ended in the mastery of the child. Suddenly Cynthia Lennox gathered her up in her arms under her great fur-lined cloak, and carried her a little farther down the street, then across it to a dwelling-house, one of the very few which had withstood the march of business blocks on this crowded main street of the provincial city. A few people looked curiously at the lady carrying such a heavy, weeping child, but she met no one whom she knew, and the others looked indifferently away after a second backward stare. Cynthia Lennox was one to bear herself with such dignity over all jolts of circumstances that she might almost convince others of her own exemption from them. Her mental bearing disproved the evidence of the senses, and she could have committed a crime with such consummate self-poise and grace as to have held a crowd in abeyance with utter distrust of their own eyes before such unquestioning confidence in the sovereignty of the situation. Cynthia Lennox had always had her own way except in one respect, and that experience had come to her lately.
Though she was such a slender woman, she seemed to have great strength in her arms, and she bore Ellen easily and as if she had been used to such a burden. She wrapped her cloak closely around the child.
"Don't be afraid, darling," she kept whispering. Ellen panted in bewilderment, and a terror which was half assuaged by something like fascination.
She was conscious of a soft smother of camphor, in which the fur-lined cloak had lain through the summer, and of that flower odor, which was violets, though she did not know it. Only the wild American scentless ones had come in little Ellen's way so far.
She felt herself carried up steps, then a door was thrown open, and a warm breath of air came in her face, and the cloak was tossed back, and she was set softly on the floor. The hall in which she stood seemed very bright; she blinked and rubbed her eyes.
The lady stood over her, laughing gently, and when the child looked up at her, seemed much younger than she had at first, very young in spite of her white hair. There was a soft red on her cheek; her lips looked full and triumphant with smiles; her eyes were like stars. An emotion of her youth which had never become dulled by satisfaction had suddenly blossomed out on her face, and transformed it. An unassuaged longing may serve to preserve youth as well as an undestroyed illusion; indeed, the two are one. Cynthia Lennox looked at the child as if she had been a young mother, and she her first-born; triumph over the future, and daring for all odds, and perfect faith in the kingdom of joy were in her look. Had she nursed one child like Ellen to womanhood, and tasted the bitter in the cup, she would not have been capable of that look, and would have been as old as her years. She threw off her cloak and took off her bonnet, and the light struck her hair and made it look like silver. A brooch in the laces at her throat shone with a thousand hues, and as Ellen gazed at it she felt curiously dull and dizzy. She did not resist at all when the lady removed her little white shawl, but stared at her with the look of some small and helpless thing in too large a grasp of destiny to admit of a struggle. "Oh, you darling!" Cynthia Lennox said, and stooped and kissed her, and half carried her into a great, warm, dazzling room, with light reflected in long lines of gold from picture-frames on the wall, and now and then startling patches of lurid color blazing forth unmeaningly from the dark incline of their canvases, with gleams of crystal and shadows of bronze in settings of fretted ebony, with long swayings of rich draperies at doors and windows, a red light of fire in a grate, and two white lights, one of piano keys, the other of a flying marble figure in a corner, outlined clearly against dusky red. The light in this room was very dim. It was all beyond Ellen's imagination. The White North where the Norway spruces lived would not have seemed as strange to her as this. Neither would Bluebeard's Castle, nor the House that Jack Built, nor the Palace of King Solomon, nor the tent in which lived little Joseph in his coat of many colors, nor even the Garden of Eden, nor Noah's Ark. Her imagination had not prepared her for a room like this. She had formed her ideas of rooms upon her grandmother's and her mother's and the neighbors' best parlors, with their glories of crushed plush and gilt and onyx and cheap lace and picture-throws and lambrequins. This room was such a heterodoxy against her creed of civilization that it did not look beautiful to her as much as strange and bewildering, and when she was bidden to sit down in a little inlaid precious chair she put down her tiny hand and reflected, with a sense of strengthening of her household faith, that her grandmother had beautiful, smooth, shiny hair-cloth.
Cynthia Lennox pulled the chair close to the fire, and bade her hold out her little feet to the blaze to warm them well. "I am afraid you are chilled, darling," she said, and looked at her sitting there in her dainty little red cashmere frock, with her spread of baby-yellow hair over her shoulders. Then Ellen thought that the lady was younger than her mother; but her mother had borne her and nursed her, and suffered and eaten of the tree of knowledge, and tasted the bitter after the sweet; and this other woman was but as a child in the garden, though she was fairly old. But along with Ellen's conviction of the lady's youth had come a conviction of her power, and she yielded to her unquestioningly. Whenever she came near her she gazed with dilating eyes upon the blazing circle of diamonds at her throat.
When she was bidden, she followed the lady into the dining-room, where the glitter of glass and silver and the soft gleam of precious china made her think for a little while that she must be in a store. She had never seen anything like this except in a store, when she had been with her mother to buy a lamp-chimney. So she decided this to be a store, but she said nothing. She did not speak at all, but she ate her biscuits, and slice of breast of chicken, and sponge-cake, and drank her milk.
She had her milk in a little silver cup which seemed as if it might have belonged to another child; she also sat in a small high-chair, which made it seem as if another child had lived or visited in the house. Ellen became singularly possessed with this sense of the presence of a child, and when the door opened she would look around for her to enter, but it was always an old black woman with a face of imperturbable bronze, which caused her to huddle closer into her chair when she drew near.
There were not many colored people in the city, and Ellen had never seen any except at Long Beach, where she had sometimes gone to have a shore dinner with her mother and Aunt Eva. Then she always used to shrink when the black waiter drew near, and her mother and aunt would be convulsed with furtive mirth. "See the little gump," her mother would say in the tenderest tone, and look about to see if others at the other tables saw how cunning she was—what a charming little goose to be afraid of a colored waiter.
Ellen saw nobody except the lady and the black woman, but she was still sure that there was a child in the house, and after supper, when she was taken up-stairs to bed, she peeped through every open door with the expectation of seeing her.
But she was so weary and sleepy that her curiosity and capacity for any other emotion was blunted. She had become simply a little, tired, sleepy animal. She let herself be undressed; she was not even moved to much self-pity when the lady discovered the cruel bruise on her delicate knee, and kissed it, and dressed it with a healing salve. She was put into a little night-gown which she knew dreamily belonged to that other child, and was laid in a little bedstead which she noted to be made of gold, with floating lace over the head.
She sleepily noted, too, that there were flowers on the walls, and more floating lace over the bureau. This room did not look so strange to her as the others; she had somehow from the treasures of her fancy provided the family of big bears and little bears with a similar one. Then, too, one of the neighbors, Mrs. George Crocker, had read many articles in women's papers relative to the beautifying of homes, and had furnished a wonderful chamber with old soap-boxes and rolls of Japanese paper which was a sort of a cousin many times removed of this. When she was in bed the lady kissed her, and called her darling, and bade her sleep well, and not be afraid, she was in the next room, and could hear if she spoke. Then she stood looking at her, and Ellen thought that she must be younger than Minnie Swensen, who lived on her street, and wore a yellow pigtail, and went to the high-school. Then she closed her heavy eyes, and forgot to cry about her poor father and mother; still, there was, after all, a hurt about them down in her childish heart, though a great wave of new circumstances had rolled on her shore and submerged for the time her memory and her love, even, she was so feeble and young.
She slept very soundly, and awoke only once, about two o'clock in the morning. Then a passing lantern flashed into the chamber into her eyes, and woke her up, but she only sighed and stretched drowsily, then turned her little body over with a luxurious roll and went to sleep again.
It was poor Andrew Brewster's lantern which flashed in her eyes, for he was out with a posse of police and sympathizing neighbors and friends searching for his lost little girl. He was frantic, and when he came under the gas-lights from time to time the men that saw him shuddered; they would not have known him, for almost the farthest agony of which he was capable had changed his face.
By the next morning all the city was in a commotion over little Ellen's disappearance. Woods on the outskirts were being searched, ponds were being dragged, posters with a stare of dreadful meaning in large characters of black and white were being pasted all over the fences and available barns, and already three of the local editors had been to the Brewster house to obtain particulars and photographs of the missing child for reproduction in the city papers.
The first train from Boston brought two reporters representing great dailies.
Fanny Brewster, white-cheeked, with the rasped redness of tears around her eyes and mouth, clad in her blue calico wrapper, received them in her best parlor. Eva had made a fire in the best parlor stove early that morning. "Folks will be comin' in all day, I expect," said she, speaking with nervous catches of her breath. Ever since the child had been missed, Eva's anxiety had driven her from point to point of unrest as with a stinging lash. She had pelted bareheaded down the road and up the road; she had invaded all the neighbors' houses, insisting upon looking through their farthest and most unlikely closets; she had even penetrated to the woods, and joined wild-eyed the groups of peering workers on the shore of the nearest pond. That she could not endure long, so she had rushed home to her sister, who was either pacing her sitting-room with inarticulate murmurs and wails of distress in the sympathizing ears of several of the neighboring women, or else was staring with haggard eyes of fearful hope from a window. When she looked from the eastern window she could see her mother-in-law, Mrs. Zelotes Brewster, at an opposite one, sitting immovable, with her Bible in her lap, prayer in her heart, and an eye of grim holding to faith upon the road for the fulfilment of promise. She felt all her muscles stiffen with anger when she saw the wild eyes of the child's mother at the other window. "It is all her fault," she said to herself—"all her fault—hers and that bold trollop of a sister of hers." When she saw Eva run down the road, with her black hair rising like a mane to the morning wind, she was an embodiment of an imprecatory psalm. When, later on, she saw the three editors coming—Mr. Walsey, of The Spy, and Mr. Jones, of The Observer, and young Joe Bemis, of The Star, on his bicycle—she watched jealously to see if they were admitted. When Fanny's head disappeared from the eastern window she knew that Eva had let them in and Fanny was receiving them in the parlor. "She will tell them all about the words they had last night, that made the dear child run away," she thought. "All the town will know what doings there are in our family." Mrs. Zelotes made up her mind to a course of action. Each editor was granted a long audience with Fanny and Eva, who entertained them with hysterical solemnity and displayed Ellen's photographs in the red plush album, from the last, taken in her best white frock, to one when she was three weeks old, and seeming weakly and not likely to live. This had been taken by a photographer summoned to the house at great expense. "Her father has never spared expense for Ellen," said Fanny, with an outburst of grief. "That's so," said Eva. "I'll testify to that. Andrew Brewster never thought anything was too good for that young one." Then she burst out with a sob louder than her sister's. Eva had usually a coarsely well-kempt appearance, her heavy black hair being securely twisted, and her neck ribbons tied with smart jerks of neatness; but to-day her hair was still in the fringy braids of yesterday, and her cotton blouse humped untidily in the back. Her face was red and her lips swollen; she looked like a very bacchante of sorrow, and as if she had been on some mad orgy of grief.
Mr. Walsey, of The Spy, who had formerly conducted a paper in a college town and was not accustomed to the feminine possibilities of manufacturing localities, felt almost afraid of her. He had never seen a woman of that sort, and thought vaguely of the French Revolution and fish-wives when she gave vent to her distress over the loss of the child. He fairly jumped when she cut short a question of his with a volley of self-recriminatory truths, accompanied with fierce gesturing. He stood back involuntarily out of reach of those powerful, waving arms. "Do I know of any reason for the child to run away?" shrieked Eva, in a voice shrilly hideous with emotion, now and then breaking into hoarseness with the strain of tears. "I guess I know why, I guess I do, and I wish I had been six foot under ground before I did what I did. It was all my fault, every bit of it. When I got home, and found that Fan had been making that precious young one a dress out of my old blue one, I pitched into her for it, and she gave it back to me, and then we jawed, and kept it up, till Andrew, he grabbed the dress and flung it into the fire, and did just right, too, and took Ellen and run over to old lady Brewster's with her; then Ellen, she see him cryin', and it scared her 'most to death, poor little thing, and she heard him say that if it wasn't for her he'd quit, and then she come runnin' home to her mother and me, and her mother said the same thing, and then that poor young one, she thought she wa'n't wanted nowheres, and she run. She always was as easy to hurt as a baby robin; it didn't take nothing to set her all of a flutter and a twitter; and now she's just flown out of the nest. Oh my God, I wish my tongue had been torn out by the roots before I'd said a word about her blessed little dress; I wish Fan had cut up every old rag I've got; I'd go dressed in fig-leaves before I'd had it happen. Oh! oh! oh!"
Young Joe Bemis, of The Star, was the first to leave, whirling madly and precariously down the street on his wheel, which was dizzily tall in those days. Mrs. Zelotes, hailing him from her open window, might as well have hailed the wind. Her family dissensions were well aired in The Star next morning, and she always kept the cutting at the bottom of a little rosewood work-box where she stored away divers small treasures, and never looked at the box without a swift dart of pain as from a hidden sting and the consciousness as of the presence of some noxious insect caged therein.
Mrs. Zelotes was more successful in arresting the progress of the other editors, and (standing at the window, her Bible on the little table at her side) flatly contradicted all that had been told them by her daughter-in-law and her sister. "The Louds always give way, no matter what comes up. You can always tell what kind of a family anybody comes from by the way they take things when anything comes across them. You can't depend on anything she says this morning. My son did not marry just as I wished; everybody knows that; the Louds weren't equal to our family, and everybody knows it, and I have never made any secret as to how I felt, but we have always got along well enough. The Brewsters are not quarrelsome; they never have been. There were no words whatever last night to make my granddaughter run away. Eva and Fanny are all wrong about it. Ellen has been stolen; I know it as well as if I had seen it. A strange-looking woman came to the door yesterday afternoon; she was the tallest woman I ever saw, and she took the widest steps; she measured her dress skirt every step she took, and she spoke gruff. I said then I knew she was a man dressed up. Ellen was playing out in the yard, and she saw the child as she went out, and I see her stoop and look at her real sharp, and my blood run kind of cold then, and I called Ellen away as quick as I could; and the woman, she turned round and gave me a look that I won't ever forget as long as I live. My belief is that that woman was laying in wait when Ellen was going across the yard home from here last night, and she has got her safe somewhere till a reward is offered. Or maybe she wants to keep her, Ellen is such a beautiful child. You needn't put in your papers that my grandchild run away because of quarrelling in our family, because she didn't. Eva and Fanny don't know what they are talking about, they are so wrought up; and, coming from the family they do, they don't know how to control themselves and show any sense. I feel it as much as they do, but I have been sitting here all the morning; I know I can't do anything to help, and I am working a good deal harder, waiting, than they are, rushing from pillar to post and taking on, and I'm doing more good. I shall be the only one fit to do anything when they find the poor child. I've got blankets warming by the fire, and my tea-kettle on, and I'm going to be the one to depend on when she's brought home." Mrs. Zelotes gave a glance of defiant faith from the window down the road as she spoke. Then she settled back in her chair and resumed her Bible, and dismissed the tall and forbidding woman whom she had summoned to save the honor of her family resolutely from her conscience. The editors of The Spy and The Observer had a row of ingratiating photographs of little Ellen from three weeks to seven years of age; and their opinions as to the cause of her disappearance, while fully agreeing in all points of sensationalism with those of young Bemis, of The Star, differed in detail.
Young Bemis read about the mysterious kidnapper, and wondered, and the demand for The Star was chiefly among the immediate neighbors of the Brewsters. Both The Observer and The Spy doubled their circulation in one day, and every face on the night cars was hidden behind poor little Ellen's baby countenances and the fairy-story of the witch-woman who had lured her away. Mothers kept their children carefully in-doors that evening, and pulled down curtains, fearful lest She look in the windows and be tempted. Mrs. Zelotes also waylaid both of the Boston reporters, but with results upon which she had not counted. One presented her story and Fanny's and Eva's with impartial justice; the other kept wholly to the latter version, with the addition of a shrewd theory of his own, deduced from the circumstances which had a parallel in actual history, and boldly stated that the child had probably committed suicide on account of family troubles. Poor Fanny and Eva both saw that, when night was falling and Ellen had not been found. Eva rushed out and secured the paper from the newsboy, and the two sisters gasped over the startling column together.
"It's a lie! oh, Fanny, it's a lie!" cried Eva. "She never would; oh, she never would! That little thing, just because she heard you and me scoldin', and you said that to her, that if it wasn't for her you'd go away. She never would."
"Go away?" sobbed Fanny—"go away? I wouldn't go away from hell if she was there. I would burn; I would hear the clankin' of chains, and groans, and screeches, and devils whisperin' in my ears what I had done wrong, for all eternity, before I'd go where they were playin' harps in heaven, if she was there. I'd like it better, I would. And I'd stay here if I had twenty sisters I didn't get along with, and be happier than I would be anywhere else on earth, if she was here. But she couldn't have done it. She didn't know how. It's awful to put such things into papers."
Eva jumped up with a fierce gesture, ran to the stove, and crammed the paper in. "There!" said she; "I wish I could serve all the papers in the country the same way. I do, and I'd like to put all the editors in after 'em. I'd like to put 'em in the stove with their own papers for kindlin's." Suddenly Eva turned with a swish of skirts, and was out of the room and pounding up-stairs, shaking the little house with every step. When she returned she bore over her arm her best dress—a cherished blue silk, ornate with ribbons and cheap lace. "Where's that pattern?" she asked her sister.
"She wouldn't ever do such a thing," moaned Fanny.
"Where's that pattern?"
"What pattern?" Fanny said, faintly.
"That little dress pattern. Her little dress pattern, the one you cut over my dress for her by."
"In the bureau drawer in my room. Oh, she wouldn't."
Eva went into the bedroom, returned with the pattern, got the scissors from Fanny's work-basket, and threw her best silk dress in a rustling heap upon the table.
Fanny stopped moaning and looked at her with wretched wonder. "What be you goin' to do?"
"Do?" cried Eva, fiercely—"do? I'm goin' to cut this dress over for her."
"Yes, I be. If I drove her away from home, scoldin' because you cut over that other old thing of mine for her, I'm goin' to make up for it now. I'm goin' to give her my best blue silk, that I paid a dollar and a half a yard for, and 'ain't worn three times. Yes, I be. She's goin' to have a dress cut out of it, an' she's comin' back to wear it, too. You'll see she is comin' home to wear it."
Eva cut wildly into the silk with mad slashes of her gleaming shears, while two neighboring women, who had just come into the room, stared aghast, and even Fanny was partly diverted from her sorrow.
"She's crazy," whispered one of the women, backing away as she spoke.
"Oh, Eva, don't; don't do so," pleaded Fanny, tremulously.
"I be," said Eva, and she cut recklessly up the front breadth.
"You ain't cutting it right," said the other neighbor, who was skilful in such matters, and never fully moved from her own household grooves by any excitement. "If you are a-goin' to cut it at all, you had better cut it right."
"I don't care how I cut it," returned Eva, thrusting the woman away. "Oh, I don't care how I cut it; I want to waste it. I will waste it."
The other neighbor backed entirely out of the room, then turned and fled across the yard, her calico wrapper blowing wildly and lashing about her slender legs, to her own house, the doors of which she locked. Presently the other woman followed her, stepping with the ponderous leisure which results from vastness of body and philosophy of mind. The autumn wind, swirling in impetuous gusts, had little effect upon her broadside of woollen shawl. She had not come out on that raw evening with nothing upon her head. She shook the kitchen door of her friend, and smiled with calm reassurance when it was cautiously set ajar to disclose a wide-eyed and open-mouthed face of terror. "Who is it?"
"It's me. What have you got your door locked for?"
"I think that Eva Loud is raving crazy. I'm afraid of her."
"Lord! you 'ain't no reason to be 'fraid of her. She ain't crazy. She's only lettin' the birds that fly over your an' my heads settle down to roost. You and me, both of us, if we was situated jest as she is, might think of doin' jest what she's a-doin', but we won't neither of us do it. We'd let our best dresses hang in the closet, safe and sound, while we cut them up in our souls; but Eva, she's different."
"Well, I don't care. I believe she's crazy, and I'm going to keep my doors locked. How do you know she hasn't killed Ellen and put her in the well?"
"Stuff! Now you're lettin' your birds roost, Hattie Monroe."
"I read something that wasn't any worse than that in the paper the other day. I should think they would look in the well. Have Mrs. Jones and Miss Cross gone home?"
"No; they are over there. There's poor Andrew coming now; I wonder if he has heard anything?"
Both women eyed hesitatingly poor Andrew Brewster's dejected figure creeping up the road in the dark.
"You holler and ask him," said the woman in the door.
"I hate to, for I know by his looks he 'ain't heard anything of her. I know he's jest comin' home to rest a minute, so he can start again. I know he 'ain't eat a thing since last night. Well, Maria has got some coffee all made, and a nice little piece of steak ready to cook."
"You holler and ask him."
"What is the use? Just see the way he walks; I know without askin'."
However, as Andrew neared his house he involuntarily quickened his pace, and his head and shoulders became suddenly alert. It had occurred to him that possibly Fanny and Eva might have had some news of Ellen during his absence. Possibly she might have come home even.
Then he was hailed by the stout woman standing at the door of the next house. "Heard anything yet, Andrew?"
Andrew shook his head, and looked with despairing eyes at the windows where he used to see Ellen's little face. She had not come, then, for these women would have known it. He entered the house, and Fanny greeted him with a tremulous cry. "Have you heard anything; oh, have you heard anything, Andrew?"
Eva sprang forward and clutched him by the arm.
Andrew shook his head, and moved her hand from his arm, and pushed past her roughly.
Fanny stood in his way, and threw her arms around him with a wild, sobbing cry, but he pushed her away also with sternness, and went to the kitchen sink to wash his hands. The four women—his wife, her sister, and the two neighbors—stood staring at him; his face was terrible as he dipped the water from the pail on the sink corner, and the terribleness of it was accentuated by the homely and every-day nature of his action.
They all stared, then Fanny burst out with a loud and desperate wail. "He won't speak to me, he pushes me away, when it is our child that's lost—his as well as mine. He hasn't any feelings for me that bore her. He only thinks of himself. Oh, oh, my own husband pushes me away."
Andrew went on washing his hands and his ghastly face, and made no reply. He had actually at that moment not the slightest sympathy with his wife. All his other outlets of affection were choked by his concern for his lost child; and as for pity, he kept reflecting, with a cold cruelty, that it served her right—it served both her and her sister right. Had not they driven the child away between them?
He would not eat the supper which the neighbors had prepared for him; finally he went across the yard to his mother's. It seemed to him at that time that his mother could enter into his state of mind better than any one else.
When he went out, Fanny called after him, frantically, "Oh, Andrew, you ain't going to leave me?"
When he made no response, she gazed for a second at his retreating back, then her temper came to her aid. She caught her sister's arm, and pulled her away out of the kitchen. "Come with me," she said, hoarsely. "I've got nobody but you. My own husband leaves me when he is in such awful trouble, and goes to that old woman, that has always hated me, for comfort."
The sisters went into Fanny's bedroom, and sat down on the edge of the bed, with their arms round each other. "Oh, Fanny!" sobbed Eva; "poor, poor Fanny! if Andrew turns against you, I will stand by you as long as I live. I will work my fingers to the bone to support you and Ellen. I will never get married. I will stay and work for you and her. And I will never get mad with you again as long as I live, Fanny. Oh, it was all my fault, every bit my fault, but, but—" Eva's voice broke; suddenly she clasped her sister tighter, and then she went down on her knees beside the bed, and hid her tangled head in her lap. "Oh, Fanny," she sobbed out miserably, "there ain't much excuse for me, but there's a little. When Jim Tenny stopped goin' with me last summer, my heart 'most broke. I don't care if you do know it. That's what made me so much worse than I used to be. Oh, my heart 'most broke, Fanny! He's treated me awful, but I can't get over it; and now little Ellen's gone, and I drove her away!"
Fanny bent over her sister, and pressed her head close to her bosom. "Don't you feel so bad, Eva," said she. "You wasn't any more to blame than I was, and we'll stand by each other as long as we live."
"I'll work my fingers to the bone for you and Ellen, and I'll never get married," said Eva again.
Ellen Brewster was two nights and a day at Cynthia Lennox's, and no one discovered it. All day the searching-parties passed the house. Once Ellen was at the window, and one of the men looked up and saw her, and since his solicitude for the lost child filled his heart with responsiveness towards all childhood, he waved his hand and nodded, and bade another man look at that handsome little kid in the window.
"Guess she's about Ellen's size," said the other.
"Shouldn't wonder if she looked something like her," said the first.
"Answers the description well enough," said the other, "same light hair."
Both of the men waved their hands to Ellen as they passed on, but she shrank back afraid. That was about ten o'clock of the morning of the day after Miss Lennox had taken her into her house. She had waked at dawn with a full realization of the situation. She remembered perfectly all that had happened. She was a child for whom there were very few half-lights of life, and no spiritual twilights connected her sleeping and waking hours. She opened her eyes and looked around the room, and remembered how she had run away and how her mother was not there, and she remembered the strange lady with that same odd combination of terror and attraction and docility with which she had regarded her the night before. It was a very cold morning, and there was a delicate film of frost on the windows between the sweeps of the muslin curtains, and the morning sun gave it a rosy glow and a crusting sparkle as of diamonds. The sight of the frost had broken poor Andrew Brewster's heart when he saw it, and reflected how it might have meant death to his little tender child out under the blighting fall of it, like a little house-flower.
Ellen lay winking at it when Cynthia Lennox came into the room and leaned over her. The child cast a timid glance up at the tall, slender figure clad in a dressing-gown of quilted crimson silk which dazzled her eyes, accustomed as she was to morning wrappers of dark-blue cotton at ninety-eight cents apiece; and she was filled with undefined apprehensions of splendor and opulence which might overwhelm her simple grasp of life and cause her to lose all her old standards of value.
She had always thought her mother's wrappers very beautiful, but now look at this! Cynthia's face, too, in the dim, rosy light, looked very fair to the child, who had no discernment for those ravages of time of which adults either acquit themselves or by which they measure their own. She did not see the faded color of the woman's face at all; she did not see the spreading marks around mouth and eyes, or the faint parallels of care on the temples; she saw only that which her unbiased childish vision had ever sought in a human face, love and kindness, and tender admiration of herself; and her conviction of its beauty was complete. But at the same time a bitter and piteous jealousy for her mother and home, and all that she had ever loved and believed in, came over her. What right had this strange woman, dressed in a silk dress like that, to be leaning over her in the morning, and looking at her like that—to be leaning over her in the morning instead of her own mother, and looking at her in that way, when she was not her mother? She shrank away towards the other side of the bed with that nestling motion which is the natural one of all young and gentle children even towards vacancy, but suddenly Cynthia was leaning close over her, and she was conscious again of that soft smother of violets, and Cynthia's arms were embracing all her delicate little body with tenderest violence, folding her against the soft red silk over her bosom, and kissing her little, blushing cheeks with the lightest and carefulest kisses, as though she were a butterfly which she feared to harm with her adoring touch.
"Oh, you darling, you precious darling!" whispered Cynthia. "Don't be afraid, darling; don't be afraid, precious; you are very safe; don't be afraid. You shall have such a little, white, new-laid egg for your breakfast, and some slices of toast, such a beautiful brown, and some honey. Do you love honey, sweet? And some chocolate, all in a little pink-and-gold cup which you shall have for your very own."
"I want my mother!" Ellen cried out suddenly, with an exceedingly bitter and terrified and indignant cry.
"There, there, darling!" Cynthia whispered; "there is a beautiful red-and-green parrot down-stairs in a great cage that shines like gold, and you shall have him for your own, and he can talk. You shall have him for your very own, sweetheart. Oh, you darling! you darling!"
Ellen felt herself overborne and conquered by this tide of love, which compelled like her mother's, though this woman was not her mother, and her revolt of loyalty was subdued for the time. After all, whether we like it or not, love is somewhat of an impersonal quality to all children, and perhaps to their elders, and it may be in such wise that the goddess is evident.
She did not shrink from Cynthia any more then, but suffered her to lift her out of bed as if she were a baby and set her on a white fur rug, into which her feet sank, to her astonishment. Her mother had only drawn-in rugs, which Ellen had watched her make. She was a little afraid of the fur rug.
Ellen was very small, and seemed much younger than she was by reason of her baby silence and her little clinging ways. Then, too, she had always been so petted at home, and through never going to school had not been in contact with other children. Often the bloom of childhood is soonest rubbed off by friction with its own kind. Diamond cut diamond holds good in many cases.
Cynthia did not think she was more than six years old, and never dreamed of allowing her to dress herself, and indeed the child had always been largely assisted in so doing. Cynthia washed her and dressed her, and curled her hair, and led her down-stairs into the dining-room of the night before, which Ellen still regarded with wise eyes as the store. Then she sat in the tall chair which must have been vacated by that mysterious other child, and had her breakfast, eating her new-laid egg, which the black woman broke for her, while she leaned delicately away as far as she could with a timid shrug of her little shoulder, and sipping her chocolate out of the beautiful pink-and-gold cup. That, however, Ellen decided within herself was not nearly as pretty as one with "A Gift of Friendship" on it in gilt letters which her grandmother kept on the whatnot in her best parlor. This had been given to her aunt Ellen, who died when she was a young girl, and was to be hers when she grew up. She did not care as much for the egg and toast either as for the griddle-cakes and maple syrup at home. All through breakfast Cynthia talked to her, and in such manner as the child had never heard. That fine voice, full of sweetest modulations and cadences, which used the language with the precision of a musician, was as different from the voices at home with their guttural slurs and maimed terminals as the song of a spring robin from the scream of the parrot which Ellen could hear in some distant room. And what Cynthia said was as different from ordinary conversation to the child as a fairy tale, being interspersed with terms of endearment which her mother and grandmother would have considered high-flown, and have been shamefaced in employing, and full of a whimsical playfulness which had an undertone of pathos in it. Cynthia was not still for a minute, and seemed to feel that much of her power lay in her speech and voice, like some enchantress who cast her spell by means of her silver tongue. Nobody knew how she dreaded that outcry of Ellen's, "I want my mother!" It gave her the sensations of a murderess, even while she persisted in her crime. So she talked, diverting the child's mind from its natural channel by sheer force of eloquence. She told a story about the parrot, which caused Ellen's eyes to widen with thoughtful wonder; she promised her treasures and pleasures which made her mouth twitch into smiles in spite of herself; but with all her efforts, when after breakfast they went into another room, Ellen broke out again, "I want my mother!"
Cynthia turned white and struggled with herself for a moment, then she spoke. That which she was doing of the nature of a crime was in reality more foreign to her nature than virtue, and her instinct was to return to her narrow and straight way in spite of its cramping of love and natural longings. "Who is your mother, darling?" she asked. "And what is your name?"
But Ellen was silent, except for that one cry, "I want my mother!" The persistency of the child, in spite of her youth and her distress, was almost invulnerable. She came of a stiff-necked family on one side at least, and sometimes stiff-neckedness is more pronounced in a child than in an adult, in whom it may be tempered by experience and policy. "I want my mother! I want my mother!" Ellen repeated in her gentle wail as plaintively inconsequent as the note of a bird, and would say no more.
Then Cynthia displayed the parrot, but a parrot was too fine and fierce a bird for Ellen. She would have preferred him as a subject for her imagination, which could not be harmed by his beak and claws, and she liked Cynthia's story about him better than the gorgeous actuality of the bird himself. She shrank back from that shrieking splendor, clinging with strong talons to his cage wires, against which he pressed cruelly his red breast and beat his gold-green wings, and through which he thrust his hooked beak, and glared with his yellow eyes.
Ellen fairly sobbed at last when the parrot thrust out a wicked and deceiving claw towards her, and said something in his unearthly shriek which seemed to have a distinct reference to her, and fired at her a volley of harsh "How do's" and "Good-mornings," and "Good-nights," and "Polly want a cracker's," then finished with a wild shriek of laughter, her note of human grief making a curious chord with the bird's of inhuman mirth. "I want my mother!" she panted out, and wept, and would not be comforted. Then Cynthia took her away from the parrot and produced the doll. Then truly did the sentiment of emulative motherhood in her childish breast console her for the time for her need of her own mother. Such a doll as that she had never seen, not even in the store-windows at Christmas-time. Still, she had very fine dolls for a little girl whose relatives were not wealthy, but this doll was like a princess, and nearly as large as Ellen.
Ellen held out her arms for this ravishing creature in a French gown, looked into its countenance of unflinching infantile grace and amiability and innocence, and her fickle heart betrayed her, and she laughed with delight, and the tension of anxiety relaxed in her face.
"Where is her mother?" she asked of Cynthia, having a very firm belief in the little girl-motherhood of dolls. She could not imagine a doll without her little mother, and even in the cases of the store-dolls, she wondered how their mothers could let them be sold, and mothered by other little girls, however poor they might be. But she never doubted that her own dolls were her very own children even if they had been bought in a store. So now she asked Cynthia with an indescribably pitying innocence, "Where is her mother?"
Cynthia laughed and looked adoringly at the child with the doll in her arms. "She has no mother but you," said she. "She is yours, but once she belonged to a dear little boy, who used to live with me."
Ellen stared thoughtfully: she had never seen a little boy with a doll. The lady seemed to read her thought, for she laughed again.
"This little boy had curls, and he wore dresses like a little girl, and he was just as pretty as a little girl, and he loved to play with dolls like a little girl," said she.
"Where is he?" asked Ellen, in a small, gentle voice. "Don't he want her now?"
"No, darling," said Cynthia; "he is not here; he has been gone away two years, and he had left off his baby curls and his dresses, and stopped playing with her for a year before that." Cynthia sighed and drew down her mouth, and Ellen looked at her lovingly and wonderingly.
"Be you his mother?" she asked, piteously; then, before Cynthia could answer, her own lip quivered and she sobbed out again, even while she hugged her doll-child to her bosom, "I want my mother! I want my mother!"
All that day the struggle went on. Cynthia Lennox, leading her little guest, who always bore the doll, traversed the fine old house in search of distraction, for the heart of the child was sore for its mother, and success was always intermittent. The music-box played, the pictures were explained, and even old trunks of laid-away treasures ransacked. Cynthia took her through the hot-houses and gave her all the flowers she liked to pick, to still that longing cry of hers. Cynthia Lennox had fine hot-houses kept by an old colored man, the husband of her black cook. Her establishment was very small; her one other maid she had sent away early that morning to make a visit with a sick sister in another town. The old colored couple had lived in her family since she was born, and would have been silent had she stolen a whole family of children. Ellen caught a glimpse of a bent, dark figure at one end of the pink-house as they entered; he glanced up at her with no appearance of surprise, only a broad, welcoming expansion of his whole face, which caused her to shrink; then he shuffled out in response to an order of his mistress.
Ellen stared at the pinks, swarming as airily as butterflies in motley tints of palest rose to deepest carmine over the blue-green jungle of their stems; she sniffed the warm, moist, perfumed atmosphere; she followed Cynthia down the long perspective of bloom, then she said again that she wanted her mother; and Cynthia led her into the rose-house, then into one where the grapes hung low overhead and the air was as sweet and strong as wine, but even there Ellen wanted her mother.
But it was not until the next morning when she was eating her breakfast that the climax came. Then the door-bell rang, and presently Cynthia was summoned into another room. She kissed Ellen, and bade her go on with her breakfast and she would return shortly; but before she had quite left the room a man stood unexpectedly in the door-way, a man who looked younger than Cynthia. He had a fair mustache, a high forehead scowling over near-sighted blue eyes, and stood with a careless slouch of shoulders in a gray coat.
"Good-morning," he began. Then he stopped short when he saw Ellen in her tall chair staring shyly around at him through her soft golden mist of hair. "What child is that?" he demanded; but Cynthia with a sharp cry sprang to him, and fairly pulled him out of the room, and closed the door.
Then Ellen heard voices rising higher and higher, and Cynthia say, in a voice of shrill passion: "I cannot, Lyman. I cannot give her up. You don't know what I have suffered since George married and took little Robert away. I can't let this child go."
Then came the man's voice, hoarse with excitement: "But, Cynthia, you must; you are mad. Think what this means. Why, if people know what you have done, kept this child, while all this search has been going on, and made no effort to find out who she was—"
"I did ask her, and she would not tell me," Cynthia said, miserably.
"Good Lord! what of that? That is nothing but a subterfuge. You must have seen in the papers—"
"I have not looked at a paper since she came."
"Of course you have not. You were afraid to. Why, good God! Cynthia Lennox, I don't know but you will stand in danger of lynching if people ever find this out, that you have taken in this child and kept her in this way—I don't know what people will do."
Ellen waited for no more; she rose softly, she gathered up her great doll which sat in a little chair near by, she gathered up her pink-and-gold cup which had been given her, and the pinks which had been brought from the hot-house the day before, which Cynthia had arranged in a vase beside her plate, then she stole very softly out of the side door, and out of the house, and ran down the street as fast as her little feet could carry her.
That morning, after the street in front of Lloyd's factory had been cleared of the flocking employes with their little dinner-boxes, and the great broadside of the front windows had been set with faces of the workers, a distracted figure came past. A young fellow at a window of the cutting-room noticed her first. "Look at that, Jim Tenny," said he, with a shove of an elbow towards his next neighbor.
"Get out, will ye?" growled Jim Tenny, but he looked.
Then three girls from the stitching-room came crowding up behind with furtively tender pressings of round arms against the shoulders of the young men. "We come in here to see if that was Eva Loud," said one, a sharp-faced, alert girl, not pretty, but a favorite among the male employes, to the constant wonder of the other girls.
"Yes, it's her fast enough," rejoined another, a sweet-faced blonde with an exaggeratedly fashionable coiffure and a noticeable smartness in the tie of her neck-ribbon and the set of her cotton waist. "Just look at the poor thing's hair. Only see how frowsly it is, and she has come out without her hat."