THE ROMANCE OF A PLAIN MAN
BY ELLEN GLASGOW
AUTHOR OF "THE DELIVERANCE," "THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE," ETC.
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1909
All rights reserved
Copyright, 1909, By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
Set up and electrotyped. Published May, 1909. Reprinted May, July, August, September, twice, October, 1909.
Norwood Press J. S. Cushing Co.—Berwick & Smith Co. Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.
I. IN WHICH I APPEAR WITH FEW PRETENSIONS
II. THE ENCHANTED GARDEN
III. A PAIR OF RED SHOES
IV. IN WHICH I PLAY IN THE ENCHANTED GARDEN
V. IN WHICH I START IN LIFE
VI. CONCERNING CARROTS
VII. IN WHICH I MOUNT THE FIRST RUNG OF THE LADDER
VIII. IN WHICH MY EDUCATION BEGINS
IX. I LEARN A LITTLE LATIN AND A GREAT DEAL OF LIFE
X. IN WHICH I GROW UP
XI. IN WHICH I ENTER SOCIETY AND GET A FALL
XII. I WALK INTO THE COUNTRY AND MEET WITH AN ADVENTURE
XIII. IN WHICH I RUN AGAINST TRADITIONS
XIV. IN WHICH I TEST MY STRENGTH
XV. A MEETING IN THE ENCHANTED GARDEN
XVI. IN WHICH SALLY SPEAKS HER MIND
XVII. IN WHICH MY FORTUNES RISE
XVIII. THE PRINCIPLES OF MISS MATOACA
XIX. SHOWS THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE
XX. IN WHICH SOCIETY RECEIVES US
XXI. I AM THE WONDER OF THE HOUR
XXII. THE MAN AND THE CLASS
XXIII. IN WHICH I WALK ON THIN ICE
XXIV. IN WHICH I GO DOWN
XXV. WE FACE THE FACTS AND EACH OTHER
XXVI. THE RED FLAG AT THE GATE
XXVII. WE CLOSE THE DOOR BEHIND US
XXVIII. IN WHICH SALLY STOOPS
XXIX. IN WHICH WE RECEIVE VISITORS
XXX. IN WHICH SALLY PLANS
XXXI. THE DEEPEST SHADOW
XXXII. I COME TO THE SURFACE
XXXIII. THE GROWING DISTANCE
XXXIV. THE BLOW THAT CLEARS
XXXV. THE ULTIMATE CHOICE
THE ROMANCE OF A PLAIN MAN
IN WHICH I APPEAR WITH FEW PRETENSIONS
As the storm broke and a shower of hail rattled like a handful of pebbles against our little window, I choked back a sob and edged my small green-painted stool a trifle nearer the hearth. On the opposite side of the wire fender, my father kicked off his wet boots, stretched his feet, in grey yarn stockings, out on the rag carpet in front of the fire, and reached for his pipe which he had laid, still smoking, on the floor under his chair.
"It's as true as the Bible, Benjy," he said, "that on the day you were born yo' brother President traded off my huntin' breeches for a yaller pup."
My knuckles went to my eyes, while the smart of my mother's slap faded from the cheek I had turned to the fire.
"What's become o' th' p-p-up-p?" I demanded, as I stared up at him with my mouth held half open in readiness to break out again.
"Dead," responded my father solemnly, and I wept aloud.
It was an October evening in my childhood, and so vivid has my later memory of it become that I can still see the sheets of water that rolled from the lead pipe on our roof, and can still hear the splash! splash! with which they fell into the gutter below. For three days the clouds had hung in a grey curtain over the city, and at dawn a high wind, blowing up from the river, had driven the dead leaves from the churchyard like flocks of startled swallows into our little street. Since morning I had watched them across my mother's "prize" red geranium upon our window-sill—now whipped into deep swirls and eddies over the sunken brick pavement, now rising in sighing swarms against the closed doors of the houses, now soaring aloft until they flew almost as high as the living swallows in the belfry of old Saint John's. Then as the dusk fell, and the street lamps glimmered like blurred stars through the rain, I drew back into our little sitting-room, which glowed bright as an ember against the fierce weather outside.
Half an hour earlier my father had come up from the marble yard, where he spent his days cutting lambs and doves and elaborate ivy wreaths in stone, and the smell from his great rubber coat, which hung drying before the kitchen stove, floated with the aroma of coffee through the half-open door. When I closed an eye and peeped through the crack, I could see my mother's tall shadow, shifting, not flitting, on the whitewashed wall of the kitchen, as she passed back and forth from the stove to the wooden cradle in which my little sister Jessy lay asleep, with the head of her rag doll in her mouth.
Outside the splash! splash! of the rain still sounded on the brick pavement, and as I glanced through the window, I saw an old blind negro beggar groping under the street lamp at the corner. The muffled beat of his stick in the drenched leaves passed our doorstep, and I heard it grow gradually fainter as he turned in the direction of the negro hovels that bordered our end of the town. Across the street, and on either side of us, there were rows of small boxlike frame houses built with narrow doorways, which opened from the sidewalk into funny little kitchens, where women, in soiled calico dresses, appeared to iron all day long. It was the poorer quarter of what is known in Richmond as "Church Hill," a portion of the city which had been left behind in the earlier fashionable progress westward. Between us and modern Richmond there were several high hills, up which the poor dripping horses panted on summer days, a railroad station, and a broad slum-like bottom vaguely described as the "Old Market." Our prosperity, with our traditions, had crumbled around us, yet there were still left the ancient church, with its shady graveyard, and an imposing mansion or two inherited from the forgotten splendour of former days. The other Richmond—that "up-town" I heard sometimes mentioned—I had never seen, for my early horizon was bounded by the green hill, by the crawling salmon-coloured James River at its foot, and by the quaint white belfry of the parish of old St. John's. Beneath that belfry I had made miniature graves on summer afternoons, and as I sat now opposite to my father, with the bright fire between us, the memory of those crumbling vaults made me hug myself in the warmth, while I edged nearer the great black kettle singing before the flames.
"Pa," I asked presently, with an effort to resume the conversation along cheerful lines, "was it a he or a she pup?"
My father turned his bright blue eyes from the fire, while his hand wandered, with an habitual gesture, to his coarse straw-coloured hair which stood, like mine, straight up from the forehead.
"Wall, I'll be blessed if I can recollect, Benjy," he replied, and added after a moment, in which I knew that his slow wits were working over a fresh attempt at distraction, "but speaking of dawgs, it wouldn't surprise me if yo' ma was to let you have a b'iled egg for yo' supper."
Again the storm was averted. He was so handsome, so soft, so eager to make everybody happy, that although he did not deceive even my infant mind for a minute, I felt obliged by sheer force of sympathy to step into the amiable snare he laid.
"Hard or soft?" I demanded.
"Now that's a matter of ch'ice, ain't it?" he rejoined, wrinkling his forehead as if awed by the gravity of the decision; "but bein' a plain man with a taste for solids, I'd say 'hard' every time."
"Hard, ma," I repeated gravely through the crack of the door to the shifting shape on the kitchen wall. Then, while he stooped over in the firelight to prod fresh tobacco into his pipe, I began again my insatiable quest for knowledge which had brought me punishment at the hand of my mother an hour before.
"Pa, who named me?"
"Did ma name you, too?"
He shook his head, doubtfully, not negatively. Above his short growth of beard his cheeks had warmed to a clear pink, and his foolish blue eyes were as soft as the eyes of a baby.
"Wall, I can't say she did that—exactly."
"Then who did name you?"
"I don't recollect. My ma, I reckon."
"Did ma name me Ben Starr, or just Ben?"
"Just Ben. You were born Starr."
"Was she born Starr, too?"
"Good Lord, no, she was born Savage."
"Then why warn't I born Savage?"
"Because she married me an' I was born Starr."
I gave it up with a sigh. "Who had the most to do with my comin' here, God or ma?" I asked after a minute.
My father hesitated as if afraid of committing himself to an heretical utterance. "I ain't so sure," he replied at last, and added immediately in a louder tone, "Yo' ma, I s'pose."
"Then why don't I say my prayers to ma instead of to God?"
"I wouldn't begin to worry over that at my age, if I were you," replied my father, with angelic patience, "seein' as it's near supper time an' the kettle's a-bilin'."
"But I want to know, pa, why it was that I came to be named just Ben?"
"To be named just Ben?" he repeated slowly, as if the fact had been brought for the first time to his attention. "Wall, I reckon 'twas because we'd had considerable trouble over the namin' of the first, which was yo' brother President. That bein' the turn of the man of the family, I calculated that as a plain American citizen, I couldn't do better than show I hadn't any ill feelin' agin the Government. I don't recollect just what the name of the gentleman at the head of the Nation was, seein' 'twas goin' on sixteen years ago, but I'd made up my mind to call the infant in the cradle arter him, if he'd ever answered my letter—which he never did. It was then yo' ma an' I had words because she didn't want a child of hers named arter such a bad-mannered, stuck-up, ornary sort, President or no President. She raised a terrible squall, but I held out against her," he went on, dropping his voice, "an' I stood up for it that as long as 'twas the office an' not the man I was complimentin', I'd name him arter the office, which I did on the spot. When 'twas over an' done the notion got into my head an' kind of tickled me, an' when you came at last, arter the four others in between, that died befo' they took breath, I was a'ready to name you 'Governor' if yo' ma had been agreeable. But 'twas her turn, so she called you arter her Uncle Benjamin—"
"What's become o' Uncle Benjamin?" I interrupted.
"Dead," responded my father, and for the third time I wept.
"I declar' that child's been goin' on like that for the last hour," remarked my mother, appearing upon the threshold. "Thar, thar, Benjy boy, stop cryin' an' I'll let you go to old Mr. Cudlip's burial to-morrow."
"May I go, too, ma?" enquired President, who had come in with a lighted lamp in his hand. He was a big, heavy, overgrown boy, and his head was already on a level with his father's.
"Not if I know it," responded my mother tartly, for her temper was rising and she looked tired and anxious. "I'll take Benjy along because he can crowd in an' nobody'll mind."
She moved a step nearer while her shadow loomed to gigantic proportions on the whitewashed wall. Her thin brown hair, partially streaked with grey, was brushed closely over her scalp, and this gave her profile an angularity that became positively grotesque in the shape behind her. Across her forehead there were three deep frowning wrinkles, which did not disappear even when she smiled, and her sad, flint-coloured eyes held a perplexed and anxious look, as if she were trying always to remember something which was very important and which she had half forgotten. I had never seen her, except when she went to funerals, dressed otherwise than in a faded grey calico with a faded grey shawl crossed tightly over her bosom and drawn to the back of her waist, where it was secured by a safety pin of an enormous size. Beside her my father looked so young and so amiable that I had a confused impression that he had shrunk to my own age and importance. Then my mother retreated into the kitchen and he resumed immediately his natural proportions. After thirty years, when I think now of that ugly little room, with its painted pine furniture, with its coloured glass vases, filled with dried cat-tails, upon the mantelpiece, with its crude red and yellow print of a miniature David attacking a colossal Goliath, with its narrow window-panes, where beyond the "prize" red geranium the wind drove the fallen leaves over the brick pavement, with its staring whitewashed walls, and its hideous rag carpet—when I think of these vulgar details it is to find that they are softened in my memory by a sense of peace, of shelter, and of warm firelight shadows.
My mother had just laid the supper table, over which I had watched her smooth the clean red and white cloth with her twisted fingers; President was proudly holding aloft a savoury dish of broiled herrings, and my father had pinned on my bib and drawn back the green-painted chair in which I sat for my meals—when a hurried knock at the door arrested each one of us in his separate attitude as if he had been instantly petrified by the sound.
There was a second's pause, and then before my father could reach it, the door opened and shut violently, and a woman, in a dripping cloak, holding a little girl by the hand, came from the storm outside, and ran straight to the fire, where she stood shaking the child's wet clothes before the flames. As the light fell over them, I saw that the woman was young and delicate and richly dressed, with a quantity of pale brown hair which the rain and wind had beaten flat against her small frightened face. At the time she was doubtless an unusually pretty creature to a grown-up pair of eyes, but my gaze, burning with curiosity, passed quickly over her to rest upon the little girl, who possessed for me the attraction of my own age and size. She wore red shoes, I saw at my first glance, and a white cloak, which I took to be of fur, though it was probably made of some soft, fuzzy cloth I had never seen. There was a white cap on her head, held by an elastic band under her square little chin, and about her shoulders her hair lay in a profuse, drenched mass of brown, which reminded me in the firelight of the colour of wet November leaves. She was soaked through, and yet as she stood there, with her teeth chattering in the warmth, I was struck by the courage, almost the defiance, with which she returned my gaze. Baby that she was, I felt that she would scorn to cry while my glance was upon her, though there were fresh tear marks on her flushed cheeks, and around her solemn grey eyes that were made more luminous by her broad, heavily arched black eyebrows, which gave her an intense and questioning look. The memory of this look, which was strange in so young a child, remained with me after the colour of her hair and every charming feature in her face were forgotten. Years afterwards I think I could have recognised her in a crowded street by the mingling of light with darkness, of intense black with clear grey, in her sparkling glance.
"I followed the wrong turn," said the pale little woman, breathing hard with a pitiable, frightened sound, while my mother took her dripping cloak from her shoulders, "and I could not keep on because of the rain which came up so heavily. If I could only reach the foot of the hill I might find a carriage to take me up-town."
My father had sprung forward as she entered, and was vigorously stirring the fire, which blazed and crackled merrily in the open grate. She accepted thankfully my mother's efforts to relieve her of her wet wraps, but the little girl drew back haughtily when she was approached, and refused obstinately to slip out of her cloak, from which the water ran in streams to the floor.
"I don't like it here, mamma, it is a common place," she said, in a clear childish voice, and though I hardly grasped the meaning of her words, her tone brought to me for the first time a feeling of shame for my humble surroundings.
"Hush, Sally," replied her mother, "you must dry yourself. These people are very kind."
"But I thought we were going to grandmama's?"
"Grandmama lives up-town, and we are going as soon as the storm has blown over. There, be a good girl and let the little boy take your wet cap."
"I don't want him to take my cap. He is a common boy."
In spite of the fact that she seemed to me to be the most disagreeable little girl I had ever met, the word she had used was lodged unalterably in my memory. In that puzzled instant, I think, began my struggle to rise out of the class in which I belonged by birth; and I remember that I repeated the word "common" in a whisper to myself, while I resolved that I would learn its meaning in order that I might cease to be the unknown thing that it implied.
My mother, who had gone into the kitchen with the dripping cloak in her arms, returned a moment later with a cup of steaming coffee in one hand and a mug of hot milk in the other.
"It's a mercy if you haven't caught your death with an inner chill," she observed in a brisk, kindly tone. "'Twas the way old Mr. Cudlip, whose funeral I'm going to to-morrow, came to his end, and he was as hale, red-faced a body as you ever laid eyes on."
The woman received the cup gratefully, and I could see her poor thin hands tremble as she raised it to her lips.
"Drink the warm milk, dear," she said pleadingly to the disagreeable little girl, who shook her head and drew back with a stiff childish gesture.
"I'm not hungry, thank you," she replied to my mother in her sweet, clear treble. To all further entreaties she returned the same answer, standing there a haughty, though drenched and battered infant, in her soiled white cloak and her red shoes, holding her mop of a muff tightly in both hands.
"I'm not hungry, thank you," she repeated, adding presently in a manner of chill politeness, "give it to the boy."
But the boy was not hungry either, and when my mother, finally taking her at her word, turned, in exasperation, and offered the mug to me, I declined it, also, and stood nervously shifting from one foot to the other, while my hands caught and twisted the fringe of the table-cloth at my back. The big grey eyes of the little girl looked straight into mine, but there was no hint in them that she was aware of my existence. Though her teeth were chattering, and she knew I heard them, she did not relax for an instant from her scornful attitude.
"We were just about to take a mouthful of supper, mum, an' we'd be proud if you an' the little gal would jine us," remarked my father, with an eager hospitality.
"I thank you," replied the woman in her pretty, grateful manner, "but the coffee has restored my strength, and if you will direct me to the hill, I shall be quite able to go on again."
A step passed close to the door on the pavement outside, and I saw her start and clutch the child to her bosom with trembling hands. As she stood there in her shaking terror, I remembered a white kitten I had once seen chased by boys into the area of a deserted house.
"If—if anyone should come to enquire after me, will you be so good as to say nothing of my having been here?" she asked.
"To be sure I will, with all the pleasure in life," responded my father, who, it was evident even to me, had become a victim to her distressed loveliness.
Emboldened by the effusive politeness of my parent, I went up to the little girl and shyly offered her a blossom from my mother's geranium upon the window-sill. A scrap of a hand, as cold as ice when it touched mine, closed over the stem of the flower, and without looking at me, she stood, very erect, with the scarlet geranium grasped stiffly between her fingers.
"I'll take you to the bottom of the hill myself," protested my father, "but I wish you could persuade yourself to try a bite of food befo' you set out in the rain."
"It is important that I should lose no time," answered the woman, drawing her breath quickly through her small white teeth, "but I fear that I am taking you away from your supper?"
"Not at all, you will not deprive me in the least," stammered my father, blushing up to his ears, while his straight flaxen hair appeared literally to rise with embarrassment. "I—I—the fact is I'm not an eater, mum."
For an instant, remembering the story of Ananias I had heard in Sunday-school, I looked round in terror, half expecting to hear the dreadful feet of the young men on the pavement. But he passed scathless for the hour at least, and our visitor had turned to receive her half-dried cloak from my mother's hands, when her face changed suddenly to a more deadly pallor, and seizing the little girl by the shoulder, she fled, like a small frightened animal, across the threshold into the kitchen.
My father's hand had barely reached the knob of the street door, when it opened and a man in a rubber coat entered, and stopped short in the centre of the room, where he stood blinking rapidly in the lamplight. I heard the rain drip with a soft pattering sound from his coat to the floor, and when he wheeled about, after an instant in which his glance searched the room, I saw that his face was flushed and his eyes swimming and bloodshot. There was in his look, as I remember it now, something of the inflamed yet bridled cruelty of a bird of prey.
"Have you noticed a lady with a little girl go by?" he enquired.
At his question my father fell back a step or two until he stood squarely planted before the door into the kitchen. Though he was a big man, he was not so big as the other, who towered above the dried cat-tails in a china vase on the mantelpiece.
"Are you sure they did not pass here?" asked the stranger, and as he turned his head the dried pollen was loosened from the cat-tails and drifted in an ashen dust to the hearth.
"No, I'll stake my word on that. They ain't passed here yet," replied my father.
With an angry gesture the other shook his rubber coat over our bright little carpet, and passed out again, slamming the door violently behind him. Running to the window, I lifted the green shade, and watched his big black figure splashing recklessly through the heavy puddles under the faint yellowish glimmer of the street lamp at the comer. The light flickered feebly on his rubber coat and appeared to go out in the streams of water that fell from his shoulders.
When I looked round I saw that the woman had come back into the room, still grasping the little girl by the hand.
"No, no, I must go at once. It is necessary that I should go at once," she repeated breathlessly, looking up in a dazed way into my mother's face.
"If you must you must, an' what ain't my business ain't," replied my mother a trifle sharply, while she wrapped a grey woollen comforter of her own closely over the head and shoulders of the little girl, "but if you'd take my advice, which you won't, you'd turn this minute an' walk straight back home to yo' husband."
But the woman only shook her head with its drenched mass of soft brown hair.
"We must go, Sally, mustn't we?" she said to the child.
"Yes, we must go, mamma," answered the little girl, still grasping the stem of the red geranium between her fingers.
"That bein' the case, I'll get into my coat with all the pleasure in life an' see you safe," remarked my father, with a manner that impressed me as little short of the magnificent.
"But I hate to take you away from home on such a terrible night."
"Oh, don't mention the weather," responded my gallant parent, while he struggled into his rubber shoes; and he added quite handsomely, after a flourish which appeared to set the elements at defiance, "arter all, weather is only weather, mum."
As nobody, not even my mother, was found to challenge the truth of this statement, the child was warmly wrapped up in an old blanket shawl, and my father lifted her in his arms, while the three set out under a big cotton umbrella for the brow of the hill. President and I peered after them from the window, screening our eyes with our hollowed palms, and flattening our noses against the icy panes; but in spite of our efforts we could only discern dimly the shape of the umbrella rising like a miniature black mountain out of the white blur of the fog. The long empty street with the wind-drifts of dead leaves, the pale glimmer of the solitary light at the far corner, the steady splash! splash! of the rain as it fell on the brick pavement, the bitter draught that blew in over the shivering geranium upon the sill—all these brought a lump to my throat, and I turned back quickly into our cheerful little room, where my untasted supper awaited me.
THE ENCHANTED GARDEN
The funeral was not until nine o'clock, but at seven my mother served us a cold breakfast in order, as she said, that she might get the dishes washed and the house tidied before we started. Gathering about the bare table, we ate our dismal meal in a depressed silence, while she bustled back and forth from the kitchen in her holiday attire, which consisted of a stiff black bombazine dress and the long rustling crape veil she had first put on at the death of her uncle Benjamin, some twenty years before. As her only outings were those occasioned by the deaths of her neighbours, I suppose her costume was quite as appropriate as it seemed to my childish eyes. Certainly, as she appeared before me in her hard, shiny, very full bombazine skirt and attenuated bodice, I regarded her with a reverence which her everyday calico had never inspired.
"I ain't et a mouthful an' I doubt if I'll have time to befo' we start," she was saying in an irritable voice, as I settled into my bib and my chair. "Anybody might have thought I'd be allowed to attend a funeral in peace, but I shan't be,—no, not even when it comes to my own."
"Thar's plenty of time yet, Susan," returned my father cheerfully, while he sawed at the cold cornbread on the table. "You've got a good hour an' mo' befo' you."
"An' the things to wash up an' the house to tidy in my veil and bonnet. Thar ain't many women, I reckon, that would wash up china in a crape veil, but I've done it befo' an' I'm used to it."
"Why don't you lay off yo' black things till you're through?"
His suggestion was made innocently enough, but it appeared, as he uttered it, to be the one thing needed to sharpen the edge of my mother's temper. The three frowning lines deepened across her forehead, and she stared straight before her with her perplexed and anxious look under her rustling crape.
"Yes, I'll take 'em off an' lay 'em away an' git back to work," she rejoined. "It did seem as if I might have taken a holiday at a time like this—my next do' neighbour, too, an' I'd al'ays promised him I'd see him laid safe in the earth. But, no, I can't do it. I'll go take off my veil an' bonnet an' stay at home."
Before this attack my father grew so depressed that I half expected to see tears fall into his cup of coffee, as they had into mine. His handsome gayety dropped from him, and he looked as downcast as was possible for a face composed of so many flagrantly cheerful features.
"I declar, Susan, I wa'nt thinkin' of that," he returned apologetically, "it just seemed to me that you'd be mo' comfortable without that sheet of crape floatin' down yo' back."
"I've never been comfortable in my life," retorted my mother, "an' I don't expect to begin when I dress myself to go to a funeral. It's got to be, I reckon, an' it's what I'm used to; but if thar's a man alive that would stand over a stove with a crape veil on his head, I'd be obliged to him if he'd step up an' show his face."
At this point; the half-grown girl who had promised to look after the baby arrived, and with her assistance, my mother set about putting the house in order, while my father, as soon as his luncheon basket was packed, wished us a pleasant drive, and started for old Timothy Ball's marble yard, where he worked. At the sink in the kitchen my mother, with her crape veil pinned back, and her bombazine sleeves rolled up, stood with her arms deep in soapsuds.
"Ma," I asked, going up to her and turning my back while she unfastened my bib with one soapy hand, "did you ever hear anybody call you common?"
"Call me what?"
"Common. What does it mean when anybody calls you common?"
"It means generally that anybody is a fool."
"Then am I, ma?"
"Air you what?"
"Am I common?"
"For the Lord's sake, Benjy, stop yo' pesterin'. What on earth has gone an' set that idee workin' inside yo' head?"
"Is pa common?"
She meditated an instant. "Wall, he wa'nt born a Savage, but I'd never have called him common—exactly," she answered.
"Then perhaps you are?"
"You talk like a fool! Haven't I told you that I wa'nt?" she snapped.
"Then if you ain't an' pa ain't exactly, how can I be?" I concluded with triumph.
"Whoever said you were? Show me the person."
"It wa'nt a person. It was a little girl."
"A little girl? You mean the half-drowned brat I wrapped up in yo' grandma's old blanket shawl I set the muffin dough under? To think of my sendin' yo' po' tired pa splashin' out with 'em into the rain. So she called you common?"
But the sound of a carriage turning the corner fell on my ears, and running hastily into the sitting-room, I opened the door and looked out eagerly for signs of the approaching funeral.
A bright morning had followed the storm, and the burnished leaves, so restless the day before, lay now wet and still under the sunshine. I had stepped joyously over the threshold, to the sunken brick pavement, when my mother, moved by a sudden anxiety for my health, called me back, and in spite of my protestations, wrapped me in a grey blanket shawl, which she fastened at my throat with the enormous safety-pin she had taken from her own waist. Much embarrassed by this garment, which dragged after me as I walked, I followed her sullenly out of the house and as far as our neighbour's doorstep, where I was ordered to sit down and wait until the service was over. As the stir of her crape passed into the little hall, I seated myself obediently on the single step which led straight from the street, and made faces, during the long wait, at the merry driver of the hearse—a decrepit negro of ancient days, who grinned provokingly at the figure I cut in my blanket shawl.
"Hi! honey, is you got on swaddlin' close er a windin' sheet?" he enquired. "I'se a-gittin' near bline en I cyarn mek out."
"You jest wait till I'm bigger an' I'll show you," was my peaceable rejoinder.
"Wat's dat you gwine sho' me, boy? I reckon I'se done seed mo' curus things den you in my lifetime."
I looked up defiantly. Between the aristocratic, if fallen, negro and myself there was all the instinctive antagonism that existed in the Virginia of that period between the "quality" and the "poor white trash."
"If you don't lemme alone you'll see mo'n you wanter."
"Whew! I reckon you gwine tu'n out sump'im' moughty outlandish, boy. I'se a-lookin' wid all my eyes an I cyarn see nuttin' at all."
"Wait till I'm bigger an' you'll see it," I answered.
"I'se sho'ly gwine ter wait, caze ef'n hits mo' curus den you is en dat ar windin' sheet, hit's a sight dat I'se erbleeged ter lay eyes on. Wat's yo' name, suh?" he enquired, with a mocking salute.
"I am Ben Starr," I replied promptly, "an' if you wait till I get bigger, I'll bus' you open."
"Hi! hi! wat you wanter bus' me open fur, boy? Is you got a pa?"
"He's Thomas Starr, an' he cuts lambs and doves on tombstones. I've seen 'em, an' I'm goin' to learn to cut 'em, too, when I grow up. I like lambs."
The door behind me opened suddenly without warning, and as I scrambled from the doorstep, my enemy, the merry driver, backed his creaking vehicle to the sidewalk across which the slow procession of mourners filed. A minute later I was caught up by my mother's hand, and borne into a carriage, where I sat tightly wedged between two sombre females.
"So you've brought yo' little boy along, Mrs. Starr," remarked a third from the opposite seat, in an aggressive voice.
"Yes, he had a cold an' I thought the air might do him good," replied my mother with her society manner.
"Wall, I've nine an' not one of 'em has ever been to a funeral," returned the questioner. "I've al'ays been set dead against 'em for children, ain't you, Mrs. Boxley?"
Mrs. Boxley, a placid elderly woman, who had already begun to doze in her corner, opened her eyes and smiled on me in a pleasant and friendly way.
"To tell the truth I ain't never been able really to enjoy a child's funeral," she replied.
"I'm sure we're all mighty glad to have him along, Mrs. Starr," observed the fourth woman, who was soft and peaceable and very fat. "He's a fine, strong boy now, ain't he, ma'am?"
"Middlin' strong. I hope he ain't crowdin' you. Edge closer to me, Benjy."
I edged closer until her harsh bombazine sleeve seemed to scratch the skin from my cheek. Mrs. Boxley had dozed again, and sinking lower on the seat, I had just prepared myself to follow her example, when a change in the conversation brought my wandering wits instantly together, and I sat bolt upright while my eyes remained fixed on the small, straggling houses we were passing.
"Yes, she would go, rain or no rain," my mother was saying, and I knew that in that second's snatch of sleep she had related the story of our last evening's adventure. "To be sure she may have been all she ought to be, but I must say I can't help mistrustin' that little, palaverin' kind of a woman with eyes like a scared rabbit."
"If it was Sarah Mickleborough, an' I think it was, she had reason enough to look scared, po' thing," observed Mrs. Kidd, the soft fat woman, who sat on my left side. "They've only lived over here in the old Adams house for three months, but the neighbours say he's almost killed her twice since they moved in. She came of mighty set up, high falutin' folks, you know, an' when they wouldn't hear of the marriage, she ran off with him one night about ten years ago just after he came home out of the army. He looked fine, they say, in uniform, on his big black horse, but after the war ended he took to drink and then from drink, as is natchel, he took to beatin' her. It's strange—ain't it?—how easily a man's hand turns against a woman once he's gone out of his head?"
"Ah, I could see that she was the sort that's obliged to be beaten sooner or later if thar was anybody handy around to do it," remarked my mother. "Some women are made so that they're never happy except when they're hurt, an' she's one of 'em. Why, they can't so much as look at a man without invitin' him to ill-treat 'em."
"Thar ain't many women that know how to deal with a husband as well as you an' Mrs. Cudlip," remarked Mrs. Kidd, with delicate flattery.
"Po' Mrs. Cudlip. I hope she is bearin' up," sighed my mother. "'Twas the leg he lost at Seven Pines—wasn't it?—that supported her?"
"That an' the cheers he bottomed. The last work he did, po' man, was for Mrs. Mickleborough of whom we were speakin'. I used to hear of her befo' the war when she was pretty Miss Sarah Bland, in a white poke bonnet with pink roses."
"An' now never a day, passes, they say, that Harry Mickleborough doesn't threaten to turn her an' the child out into the street."
"Are her folks still livin'? Why doesn't she go back to them?"
"Her father died six months after the marriage, an' the rest of 'em live up-town somewhar. The only thing that's stuck to her is her coloured mammy, Aunt Euphronasia, an' they tell me that that old woman has mo' influence over Harry Mickleborough than anybody livin'. When he gets drunk an' goes into one of his tantrums she walks right up to him an' humours him like a child."
As we drove on their voices grew gradually muffled and thin in my ears, and after a minute, in which I clung desperately to my eluding consciousness, my head dropped with a soft thud upon Mrs. Kidd's inviting bosom. The next instant I was jerked violently erect by my mother and ordered sternly to "keep my place an' not to make myself a nuisance by spreadin' about." With this admonition in my ears, I pinched my leg and sat staring with heavy eyes out upon the quiet street, where the rolling of the slow wheels over the fallen leaves was the only sound that disturbed the silence. After ten bitter years the city was still bound by the terrible lethargy which had immediately succeeded the war; and on Church Hill it seemed almost as if we had been forgotten like the breastworks and the battle-fields in the march of progress. The grip of poverty, which was fiercer than the grip of armies, still held us, and the few stately houses showed tenantless and abandoned in the midst of their ruined gardens. Sometimes I saw an old negress in a coloured turban come out upon one of the long porches and stare after us, her pipe in her mouth and her hollowed palm screening her eyes; and once a noisy group of young mulattoes emerged from an alley and followed us curiously for a few blocks along the sidewalk.
Withdrawing my gaze from the window, I looked enviously at Mrs. Boxley, who snored gently in her corner. Then for the second time sleep overpowered me, and in spite of my struggles, I sank again on Mrs. Kidd's bosom.
"Thar, now, don't think of disturbin' him, Mrs. Starr. He ain't the least bit in my way. I can look right over his head," I heard murmured over me as I slid blissfully into unconsciousness.
What happened after this I was never able to remember, for when I came clearly awake again, we had reached our door, and my mother was shaking me in the effort to make me stand on my feet.
"He's gone and slept through the whole thing," she remarked irritably to President, while I stumbled after them across the pavement, with the fringed ends of my blanket shawl rustling the leaves.
"He's too little. You might have let me go, ma," replied President, as he dragged me, sleepy eyes, ruffled flaxen hair, and trailing shawl over the doorstep.
"An' you're too big," retorted my mother, removing the long black pins from her veil, and holding them in her mouth while she carefully smoothed and folded the lengths of crape. "You could never have squeezed in between us, an' as it was Mrs. Kidd almost overlaid Benjy. But you didn't miss much," she hastened to assure him, "I declar' I thought at one time we'd never get on it all went so slowly."
Having placed her bonnet and veil in the tall white bandbox upon the table, she hurried off to prepare our dinner, while President urged me in an undertone to "sham sick" that afternoon so that he wouldn't have to take me out for an airing on the hill.
"But I want to go," I responded selfishly, wide awake at the prospect. "I want to see the old Adams house where the little girl lives."
"If you go I can't play checkers, an' it's downright mean. What do you care about little girls? They ain't any good."
"But this little girl has got a drunken father."
"Well, you won't see him anyway, so what is the use?"
"She lives in a big house an' it's got a big garden—as big as that!" I stretched out my arms in a vain attempt to impress his imagination, but he merely looked scornful and swore a mighty vow that he'd "be jiggered if he'd keep on playin' nurse-girl to a muff."
At the time he put my pleading sternly aside, but a couple of hours later, when the afternoon was already waning, he relented sufficiently to take me out on the ragged hill, which was covered thickly with pokeberry, yarrow, and stunted sumach. Before our feet the ground sank gradually to the sparkling river, and farther away I could see the silhouette of an anchored vessel etched boldly against the rosy clouds of the sunset.
As I stood there, holding fast to his hand, in the high wind that blew up from the river, a stout gentleman, leaning heavily on a black walking-stick, with a big gold knob at the top, came panting up the slope and paused beside us, with his eyes on the western sky. He was hale, handsome, and ruddy-faced, with a bunch of iron-grey whiskers on either cheek, and a vivacious and merry eye which seemed to catch at a twinkle whenever it met mine. His rounded stomach was spanned by a massive gold watch-chain, from which dangled a bunch of seals that delighted my childish gaze.
"It's a fine view," he observed pleasantly, patting my shoulder as if I were in some way responsible for the river, the anchored vessel, and the rosy sunset. "I moved up-town as soon as the war ended, but I still manage to crawl back once in a while to watch the afterglow."
"Where does the sun go," I asked, "when it slips way down there on the other side of the river?"
The gentleman smiled benignly, and I saw from his merry glance that he did not share my mother's hostility to the enquiring mind.
"Well, I shouldn't be surprised if it went to the wrong side of the world for little boys and girls over there to get up by," he replied.
"May I go there, too, when I'm big?"
"To the wrong side of the world? You may, who knows?"
"Have you ever been there? What is it like?"
"Not yet, not yet, but there's no telling. I've been across the ocean, though, and that's pretty far. I went once in a ship that ran through the blockade and brought in a cargo of Bibles."
"What did you want with so many Bibles? We've got one. It has gilt clasps."
"Want with the Bibles! Why, every one of these Bibles, my boy, may have saved a soul."
"Has our Bible saved a soul? An' whose soul was it? It stays on our centre table, an' my name's in it. I've seen it."
"Indeed! and what may your name be?"
"Ben Starr. That's my name. What is yours? Is yo' name in the Bible? Does everybody's name have to be in the Bible if they're to be saved? Who put them in there? Was it God or the angels? If I blot my name out can I still go to heaven? An' if yours isn't in there will you have to be damned? Have you ever been damned an' what does it feel like?"
"Shut up, Benjy, or ma'll wallop you," growled President, squeezing my hand so hard that I cried aloud.
"Ah, he's a fine boy, a promising boy, a remarkable boy," observed the gentleman, with one finger in his waistcoat pocket. "Wouldn't you like to grow up and be President, my enquiring young friend?"
"No, sir, I'd rather be God," I replied, shaking my head.
All the gentleman's merry grey eyes seemed to run to sparkles.
"Ah, there's nothing, after all, like the true American spirit," he said, patting my shoulder. Then he laughed so heartily that his gold-rimmed eye-glasses fell from his eyes and dangled in the air at the end of a silk cord. "I'm afraid your aspiration is too lofty for my help," he said, "but if you should happen to grow less ambitious as you grow older, then remember, please, that my name is General Bolingbroke."
"Why, you're the president of the Great South Midland and Atlantic Railroad, sir!" exclaimed President, admiring and embarrassed.
The General sighed, though even I could see that this simple tribute to his fame had not left him unmoved. "Ten years ago I was the man who tried to save Johnston's army, and to-day I am only a railroad president," he answered, half to himself; "times change and fames change almost as quickly. When all is said, however, there may be more lasting honour in building a country's trade than in winning a battle. I'll have a tombstone some day and I want written on it, 'He brought help to the sick land and made the cotton flower to bloom anew.' My name is General Bolingbroke," he added, with his genial and charming smile. "You will not forget it?"
I assured him that I should not, and that if it could be done, I'd try to have it written in our Bible with gilt clasps, at which he thanked me gravely as he shook my hand.
"An' I think now I'd rather be president of the Great South Midland and Atlantic Railroad, sir," I concluded.
"Young man, I fear you're with the wind," he said, laughing, and added, "I've a nephew just about your age and at least a head shorter, what do you think of that?"
"Has he a kite?" I enquired eagerly. "I have, an' a top an' ten checkers an' a big balloon."
"Have you, indeed? Well, my poor boy is not so well off, I regret to say. But don't you think your prosperity is excessive considering the impoverished condition of the country?"
The big words left me gasping, and fearing that I had been too boastful for politeness, I hastened to inform him that "although the balloon was very big, it was also bu'sted, which made a difference."
"Ah, it is, is it? Well, that does make a difference."
"If your boy hasn't any checkers I'll give him half of mine," I added with a gulp.
With an elaborate flourish the General drew out a stiffly starched pocket handkerchief and blew his nose. "That's a handsome offer and I'll repeat it without fail," he said.
Then he shook hands again and marched down the hill with his gold-headed stick tapping the ground.
"Now you'll come and trot home, I reckon," said President, when he had disappeared.
But the spirit of revolt had lifted its head within me, for through a cleft in the future, I saw myself already as the president of the Great South Midland and Atlantic Railroad, with a jingling bunch of seals and a gold-headed stick.
"I ain't goin' that way," I said, "I'm goin' home by the old Adams house where the little girl lives."
"No, you ain't either. I'll tell ma on you."
"I don't care. If you don't take me home by the old Adams house, you'll have to carry me every step of the way, an' I'll make myself heavy."
For a long minute President wrinkled his brows and thought hard in silence. Then an idea appeared to penetrate his slow mind, and he grasped me by the shoulder and shook me until I begged him to stop.
"If I take you home that way will you promise to sham sick to-morrow, so I shan't have to bring you out?"
The price was high, but swallowing my disappointment I met it squarely.
"I will if you'll lift me an' let me look over the wall."
"Hope you may die?"
"Hope I may die."
"Wall, it ain't anything to see but jest a house," remarked President, as I held out my hand, "an' girls ain't worth the lookin' at."
"She called me common," I said, soberly.
"Oh, shucks!" retorted President, with fine scorn, and we said no more.
Clinging tightly to his hand I trudged the short blocks in silence. As I was little, and he was very large for his years, it was with difficulty that I kept pace with him; but by taking two quick steps to his single slow one, I managed to cover the same distance in almost the same number of minutes. He was a tall, overgrown boy, very fat for his age, with a foolish, large-featured face which continued to look sheepishly amiable even when he got into a temper.
"Is it far, President?" I enquired at last between panting breaths.
"There 'tis," he answered, pointing with his free hand to a fine old mansion, with a broad and hospitable front, from which the curved iron railing bent in a bright bow to the pavement. It was the one great house on the hill, with its spreading wings, its stuccoed offices, its massive white columns at the rear, which presided solemnly over the terraced hill-side. A moment later he led me up to the high, spiked wall, and swung me from the ground to a secure perch on his shoulder. With my hands clinging to the iron nails that studded the wall, I looked over, and then caught my breath sharply at the thought that I was gazing upon an enchanted garden. Through the interlacing elm boughs the rosy light of the afterglow fell on the magnolias and laburnums, on the rose squares, and on the tall latticed arbours, where amid a glossy bower of foliage, a few pale microphylla roses bloomed out of season. Overhead the wind stirred, and one by one the small yellow leaves drifted, like wounded butterflies, down on the box hedges and the terraced walks.
"You've got to come down now—you're too heavy," said President from below, breathing hard as he held me up.
"Jest a minute—give me a minute longer an' I'll let you eat my blackberry jam at supper."
"An' you've promised on yo' life to sham sick to-morrow?"
"I'll sham sick an' I'll let you eat my jam, too, if you'll hold me a little longer."
He lifted me still higher, and clutching desperately to the iron spikes, I hung there quivering, breathless, with a thumping heart. A glimmer of white flitted between the box rows on a lower terrace, and I saw that the princess of the enchanted garden was none other than my little girl of the evening before. She was playing quietly by herself in a bower of box, building small houses of moss and stones, which she erected with infinite patience. So engrossed was she in her play that she seemed perfectly oblivious of the fading light and of the birds and squirrels that ran past her to their homes in the latticed arbours. Higher and higher rose her houses of moss and stones, while she knelt there, patient and silent, in the terrace walk with the small, yellow leaves falling around her.
"That's a square deal now," said President, dropping me suddenly to earth. "You'd better come along and trot home or you'll get a lamming."
My enchanted garden had vanished, the spiked wall rose over my head, and before me, as I turned homeward, spread all the familiar commonplaceness of Church Hill.
"How long will it be befo' I can climb up by myself?" I asked.
"When you grow up. You're nothin' but a kid."
"An' when'll I grow up if I keep on fast?"
"Oh, in ten or fifteen years, I reckon."
"Shan't I be big enough to climb up befo' then?"
"Look here, you shut up! I'm tired answerin' questions," shouted my elder brother, and grasping his hand I trotted in a depressed silence back to our little home.
A PAIR OF RED SHOES
I awoke the next morning a changed creature from the one who had fallen asleep in my trundle-bed. In a single hour I had awakened to the sharp sense of contrast, to the knowledge that all ways of life were not confined to the sordid circle in which I lived. Outside the poverty, the ugliness, the narrow streets, rose the spiked wall of the enchanted garden; and when I shut my eyes tight, I could see still the half-bared elms arching against the sunset, and the old house beyond, with its stuccoed wings and its grave white columns, which looked down on the magnolias and laburnums just emerging from the twilight on the lower terrace. In the midst of this garden I saw always the little girl patiently building her houses of moss and stones, and it seemed to me that I could hardly live through the days until I grew strong enough to leap the barriers and play beside her in the bower of box.
"Ma," I asked, measuring myself against the red and white cloth on the table, "does it look to you as if I were growin' up?"
The air was strong with the odour of frying bacon, and when my mother turned to answer me, she held a smoking skillet extended like a votive offering in her right hand. She was busy preparing breakfast for Mrs. Cudlip, whose husband's funeral we had attended the day before, and as usual when any charitable mission was under way, her manner to my father and myself had taken a biting edge.
"Don't talk foolishness, Benjy," she replied, stopping to push back a loosened wiry lock of hair; "it's time to think about growin' up when you ain't been but two years in breeches. Here, if you're through breakfast, I want you to step with this plate of muffins to Mrs. Cudlip. Tell her I sent 'em an' that I hope she is bearin' up."
"That you sent 'em an' that you hope she is bearin' up," I repeated.
"That's it now. Don't forget what I told you befo' you're there. Thomas, have you buttered that batch of muffins?"
My father handed me the plate, which was neatly covered with a red-bordered napkin.
"Did you tell me to lay a slice of middlin' along side of 'em, Susan?" he humbly enquired.
Without replying to him in words, my mother seized the plate from me, and lifting the napkin, removed the offending piece of bacon, which she replaced in the dish.
"I thought even you, Thomas, would have had mo' feelin' than to send middlin' to a widow the day arter she has buried her husband—even a one-legged one! Middlin' indeed! One egg an' that soft boiled, will be as near a solid as she'll touch for a week. Keep along, Benjy, an' be sure to say just what I told you."
I did my errand quickly, and returning, asked eagerly if I might go out all by myself an' play for an hour. "I'll stay close in the churchyard if you'll lemme go," I entreated.
"Run along then for a little while, but if you go out of the churchyard, you'll get a whippin'," replied my mother.
With this threat ringing like a bell in my ears, I left the house and walked quickly along the narrow pavement to where, across the wide street, I discerned the white tower and belfry which had been added by a later century to the parish church of Saint John. Overhead there was a bright blue sky, and the October sunshine, filtering through the bronzed network of sycamore and poplar, steeped the flat tombstones and the crumbling brick vaults in a clear golden light. The church stood upon a moderate elevation above the street, and I entered it now by a short flight of steps, which led to a grassy walk that did not end at the closed door, but continued to the brow of the hill, where a few scattered slabs stood erect as sentinels over the river banks. For a moment I stood among them, watching the blue haze of the opposite shore; then turning away I rolled over on my back and lay at full length in the periwinkle that covered the ground. From beyond the church I could hear Uncle Methusalah, the negro caretaker, raking the dead leaves from the graves, and here and there among the dark boles of the trees there appeared presently thin bluish spirals of smoke. The old negro's figure was still hidden, but as his rake stirred the smouldering piles, I could smell the sharp sweet odour of the burning leaves. Sometimes a wren or a sparrow fluttered in and out of the periwinkle, and once a small green lizard glided like the shadow of a moving leaf over a tombstone. One sleeper among them I came to regard, as I grew somewhat older, almost with affection—not only because he was young and a soldier, but because the tall marble slab implored me to "tread lightly upon his ashes." Not once during the many hours when I played in the churchyard, did I forget myself and run over the sunken grave where he lay.
The sound of the moving rake passed the church door and drew nearer, and the grey head of Uncle Methusalah appeared suddenly from behind an ivied tree trunk. Sitting up in the periwinkle, I watched him heap the coloured leaves around me into a brilliant pile, and then bending over hold a small flame close to the curling ends. The leaves, still moist from the rain, caught slowly, and smouldered in a scented cloud under the trees.
"Dis yer trash ain' gwine ter bu'n twel hit's smoked out," he remarked in a querulous voice.
"Uncle Methusalah," I asked, springing up, "how old are you?"
With a leisurely movement, he dragged his rake over the walk, and then bringing it to rest at his feet, leaned his clasped hands on the end of it, and looked at me over the burning leaves. He wore an old, tightly fitting army coat of Union blue, bearing tarnished gold epaulets upon the shoulders, and around his throat a red bandanna handkerchief was wrapped closely to keep out the "chills."
"Gaud-a-moughty, honey!" he replied, "I'se so ole dat I'se done clean furgit ter count."
"I reckon you knew almost everybody that's buried here, didn't you?"
"Mos' un um, chile, but I ain't knowed near ez many ez my ole Marster. He done shuck hans w'en he wuz live wid um great en small. I'se done hyern 'im tell in my time how he shuck de han' er ole Marse Henry right over dar in dat ar church."
"Who was ole Marse Henry?" I enquired.
"I dunno, honey, caze he died afo' my day, but he mus' hev done a powerful heap er talkin' while he wuz 'live."
"Whom did he talk to, Uncle Methusalah?"
"Ter hisself mostly, I reckon, caze you know folks ain' got time al'ays ter be lisen'in'. But hit wuz en dish yer church dat he stood up en ax 'em please ter gin 'im liberty er ter gin 'im deaf."
"An' which did they give him, Uncle?"
"Wall, honey, ez fur ez I recollect de story dey gun 'im bofe."
Bending over in his old blue army coat with the tarnished epaulets, he prodded the pile of leaves, where the scented smoke hung low in a cloud. The wind stirred softly in the grass, and a small flame ran along a bent twig of maple to a single scarlet leaf at the end.
"Did they give 'em to him because he talked too much?" I asked.
"I ain' never hyern ner better reason, chile. Folks cyarn' stan' too much er de gab nohow, en' dey sez dat he 'ouldn't let up, but kep' up sech a racket dat dey couldn't git ner sleep. Den at las' ole King George over dar in England sent de hull army clear across de water jes' ter shet his mouf."
"An' did he shut it?"
"Dat's all er hit dat I ever hyern tell, boy, but ef'n you don' quit axin' folks questions day in en day out, he'll send all de way over yer agin' jes' ter shet yourn."
He went off, gathering the leaves into another pile at a little distance, and after a moment I followed him and stood with my back against a high brick vault.
"Is there any way, Uncle Methusalah, that you can grow up befo' yo' time?" I asked.
"Dar 'tis agin!" exclaimed the old negro, but he added kindly enough, "Dey tell me you kin do hit by stretchin', chile, but I ain' never seed hit wid my eyes, en w'at I ain' seed wid my eyes I ain' set much sto' by."
His scepticism, however, honest as it was, did not prevent my seizing upon the faint hope he offered, and I had just begun to stretch myself violently against the vault, when a voice speaking at my back brought my heels suddenly to the safe earth again.
"Boy," said the voice, "do you want a dog?"
Turning quickly I found myself face to face with the princess of the enchanted garden. She wore a fresh white coat and a furry white cap and a pair of red shoes that danced up and down. In her hand she carried a dirty twine string, the other end of which was tied about the neck of a miserable grey and white mongrel puppy.
"Do you want a dog, boy?" she repeated, as proudly as if she offered a canine prize.
The puppy was ugly, ill-bred, and dirty, but not an instant did I hesitate in the response I made.
"Yes, I want a dog," I answered as gravely as she had spoken.
She held out the string and my fist closed tightly over it. "I found him in the gutter," she explained, "and I gave him a plate of bread and milk because he is so young. Grandmama wouldn't let me keep him, as I have three others. I think it was very cruel of grandmama."
"I may keep him," I responded, "I ain't got any grandmama. I'll let him sleep in my bed."
"You must give him a bath first," she said, "and put him by the fire to dry. They wouldn't let me bring him into our house, but yours is such a little one that it will hardly matter."
At this my pride dropped low. "You live in the great big house with the high wall around the garden," I returned wistfully.
She nodded, drawing back a step or two with a quaint little air of dignity, and twisting a tassel on her coat in and out of her fingers, which were encased in white crocheted mittens. The only touch of colour about her was made by her small red shoes.
"I haven't lived there long, and I remember where we came from—way—away from here, over yonder across the river." She lifted her hand and pointed across the brick vault to the distant blue on the opposite shore of the James. "I liked it over there because it was the country and we lived by ourselves, mamma and I. She taught me to knit and I knitted a whole shawl—as big as that—for grandmama. Then papa came and took us away, but now he has gone and left us again, and I am glad. I hope he will never come back because he is so very bad and I don't like him. Mamma likes him, but I don't."
"May I play with you in your garden?" I asked when she had finished; "I'd like to play with you an' I know ever so many nice ways to play that I made up out of my head."
She looked at me gravely and, I thought, regretfully.
"You can't because you're common," she answered. "It's a great pity. I don't really mind it myself," she added gently, seeing my downcast face, "I'd just every bit as lief play with you as not—a little bit—but grandmama wouldn't—"
"But I don't want to play with your grandmama," I returned, on the point of tears.
"Well, you might come sometimes—not very often," she said at last, with a sympathetic touch on my sleeve, "an' you must come to the side gate where grandmama won't see you. I'll let you in an' mamma will not mind. But you mustn't come often," she concluded in a sterner tone, "only once or twice, so that there won't be any danger of my growin' like you. It would hurt grandmama dreadfully if I were ever to grow like you."
She paused a moment, and then began dancing up and down in her red shoes over the coloured leaves. "I'd like to play—play—play all the time!" she sang, whirling, a vivid little figure, around, the crumbling vault.
The next minute she caught up the puppy in her arms and hugged him passionately before she turned away.
"His name is Samuel!" she called back over her shoulder as she ran out of the churchyard.
When she had gone down the short flight of steps and into the wide street, I tucked Samuel under my arm, and lugged him, not without inward misgivings, into the kitchen, where my mother stood at the ironing-board, with one foot on the rocker of Jessy's cradle.
"Ma," I began in a faltering and yet stubborn voice, "I've got a pup."
My mother's foot left the rocker, and she turned squarely on me, with a smoking iron half poised above the garment she had just sprinkled on the board.
"Whar did he come from?" she demanded, and moistened the iron with the thumb of her free hand.
"I got him in the churchyard. His name is Samuel."
For a moment she stared at the two of us in a stony silence. Then her face twitched as if with pain, the perplexed and anxious look appeared in her eyes, and her mouth relaxed.
"Wall, he's ugly enough to be named Satan," she said, "but I reckon if you want to you may put him in a box in the back yard. Give him that cold sheep's liver in the safe and then you come straight in and comb yo' head. It looks for all the world like a tousled straw stack."
All the afternoon I sat in our little sitting-room, and faithful to my promise, shammed sickness, while Samuel lay in his box in the back yard and howled.
"I'll have that dog taken up the first thing in the mornin'," declared my mother furiously, as she cleared the supper table.
"I reckon he's lonely out thar, Susan," urged my father, observing my trembling mouth, and eager, as usual, to put a pacific face on the moment.
"Lonely, indeed! I'm lonely in here, but I don't set up a howlin'. Thar're mighty few folks, be they dogs or humans, that get all the company they want in life."
Once I crept out into the darkness, and hugging Samuel around his dirty stomach besought him, with tears, to endure his lot in silence; but though he licked my face rapturously at the time, I had no sooner entered the house than his voice was lifted anew.
"To think of po' Mrs. Cudlip havin' to mourn in all that noise," commented my mother, as I undressed and got into my trundle-bed.
My pillow was quite moist before I went to sleep, while my mother's loud threats against Samuel sounded from the other side of the room with each separate garment that she laid on the chair at the foot of her bed. In sheer desperation at last I pulled the cover over my ears in an effort to shut out her thin, querulous tones. At the instant I felt that I was wicked enough to wish that I had been born without any mother, and I asked myself how she would like it if I raised as great a fuss about baby Jessy's crying as she did about Samuel's—who didn't make one-half the noise.
Here the light went out, and I fell asleep, to awaken an hour or two later because of the candle flash in my eyes. In the centre of the room my mother was standing in her grey dressing-gown, with a shawl over her head and the rapturously wriggling body of Samuel in her arms. Too amazed to utter an exclamation, I watched her silently while she made a bed with an old flannel petticoat before the waning fire. Then I saw her bend over and pat the head of the puppy with her knotted hand before she crept noiselessly back to bed.
At this day I see her figure as distinctly as I saw it that instant by the candle flame—her soiled grey wrapper clutched over her flat bosom; her sallow, sharp-featured face, with bluish hollows in the temples over which her sparse hair strayed in locks; her thin, stooping shoulders under the knitted shawl; her sad, flint-coloured eyes, holding always that anxious look as if she were trying to remember some important thing which she had half forgotten.
So she appeared to my startled gaze for a single minute. Then the light went out, she faded into the darkness, and I fell asleep.
IN WHICH I PLAY IN THE ENCHANTED GARDEN
For the next two years, when my mother sent me on errands to McKenney's grocery store, or for a pitcher of milk to old Mrs. Triffit's, who kept a fascinating green parrot hanging under an arbour of musk cluster roses, it was my habit to run five or six blocks out of my way, and measure my growing height against the wall of the enchanted garden. On the worn bricks, unless they have crumbled away, there may still be seen the scratches from my penknife, by which I tried to persuade myself that each rapidly passing week marked a visible increase in my stature. Though I was a big boy for my age, the top of my straw-coloured hair reached barely halfway up the spiked wall; and standing on my tiptoes my hands still came far below the grim iron teeth at the top. Yet I continued to measure myself, week by week, against the barrier, until at last the zigzag scratches from my knife began to cover the bricks.
It was on a warm morning in spring during my ninth year, that, while I stood vigorously scraping the wall over my head, I heard a voice speaking in indignant tones at my back.
"You bad boy, what are you doing?" it said.
Wheeling about, I stood again face to face with the little girl of the red shoes and the dancing feet. Except for her shoes she was dressed all in white just as I had last seen her, and this time, I saw with disgust, she held a whining and sickly kitten clasped to her breast.
"I know you are doing something you ought not to," she repeated, "what is it?"
"Nothink," I responded, and stared at her red shoes like one possessed.
"Then why were you crawling so close along the wall to keep me from seeing you?"
"You wa'nt what?"
"I wa'nt crawlin' along the wall; I was just tryin' to look in," I answered defiantly.
An old negro "mammy," in a snowy kerchief and apron, appeared suddenly around the corner near which we stood, and made a grab at the child's shoulder.
"You jes let 'im alont, honey, en he ain' gwine hu't you," she said.
"He won't hurt me anyway," replied the little girl, as if I were a suspicious strange dog, "I'm not afraid of him."
Then she made a step forward and held the whining grey kitten toward me.
"Don't you want a cat, boy?" she asked, in a coaxing tone.
My hands flew to my back, and the only reason I did not retreat before her determined advance was that I could hardly retreat into a brick wall.
"I've just found it in the alley a minute ago," she explained. "It's very little. I'd like to keep it, only I've got six already."
"I don't like cats," I replied stubbornly, shaking my head. "I saw Peter Finn's dog kill one. He shook it by the neck till it was dead. I'm goin' to train my dog to kill 'em, too."
Raising herself on the toes of her red shoes, she bent upon me a look so scorching that it might have burned a passage straight through me into the bricks.
"I knew you were a horrid bad boy. You looked it!" she cried.
At this I saw in my imagination the closed gate of the enchanted garden, and my budding sportsman's proclivities withered in the white blaze of her wrath.
"I don't reckon I'll train him to catch 'em by the back of thar necks," I hastened to add.
At this she turned toward me again, her whole vivid little face with its red mouth and arched black eyebrows inspired by a solemn purpose.
"If you'll promise never, never to kill a cat, I'll let you come into the garden—for a minute," she said.
I hesitated for an instant, dazzled by the prospect and yet bargaining for better terms. "Will you let me walk under the arbours and down all the box-bordered paths?"
She nodded. "Just once," she responded gravely.
"An' may I play under the trees on the terrace where you built yo' houses of moss and stones?"
"For a little while. But I can't play with you because—because you don't look clean."
My heart sank like lead to my waist line, and I looked down ashamed at my dirty hands.
"I—I'd rather play with you," I faltered.
"Fur de Lawd's sake, honey, come in en let dat ar gutter limb alont," exclaimed the old negress, wagging her turbaned head.
"Well, I'll tell you what I'll do," said her charge, after a deep moment; "I'll let you play with me for a little while if you'll take the cat."
"But I ain't got any use for it," I stammered.
"Take it home for a pet. Grandmama won't let any more come on the place. She's very cruel is grandmama, isn't she, mammy?"
"Go way, chile, dar ain' nobody dat 'ould want all dem ar critters," rejoined the old negress.
"I do," said the little girl, and sighed softly.
"I'll take it home with me," I began desperately at last, "if you'll let me play with you the whole evening."
"And take you into the house?"
"An' take me into the house," I repeated doggedly.
Her glance brushed me from head to foot, while I writhed under it, "I wonder why you don't wash your face," she observed in her cool, impersonal manner.
I fell back a step and stared defiantly at the ground.
"I ain't got any water," I answered, driven to bay.
"I think if you'd wash it ever so hard and brush your hair flat on your head, you'd look very nice—for a boy," she remarked. "I like your eyes because they're blue, and I have a dog with blue eyes exactly like yours. Did you ever see a blue-eyed dog? He's a collie. But your hair stands always on end and it's the colour of straw."
"It growed that way," I returned. "You can't get it to be flat. Ma has tried."
"I bet I could," she rejoined, and caught at the old woman's hand. "This is my mammy an' her name is Euphronasia, an' she's got blue eyes an' golden hair," she cried, beginning to dance up and down in her red shoes.
"Gawd erlive, lamb, I'se ez black ez a crow's foot," protested the old woman, at which the dance of the red shoes changed into a stamp of anger.
"You aren't!—You aren't! You've got blue eyes an' golden hair!" screamed the child. "I won't let you say you haven't,—I won't let anybody say you haven't!"
It took a few minutes to pacify her, during which the old negress perjured herself to the extent of declaring on her word of honour that she had blue eyes and golden hair; and when the temper of her "lamb" was appeased, we turned the corner, approached the front of the house, and ascended the bright bow of steps. As we entered the wide hall, my heart thumped so violently that I hurriedly buttoned my coat lest the little girl should hear the sound and turn indignantly to accuse, me of disturbing the peace. Then as the front door closed softly behind us, I stood blinking nervously in the dim green light which entered through the row of columns at the rear, beyond which I saw the curving stairway and the two miniature yew trees at its foot. There was a strange musty smell about the house—a smell that brings to me now, when I find it in old and unlighted buildings, the memory of the high ceiling, the shining floor over which I moved so cautiously, and the long melancholy rows of moth-eaten stags' heads upon the wall.
A door at the far end was half open, and inside the room there were two ladies—one of them very little and old and shrivelled, and the other a pretty, brown-haired, pliant creature, whom I recognised instantly as our visitor of that stormy October evening more than two years ago. She was reading aloud when we entered, in a voice which sounded so soft and pious that I wondered if I ought to fold my hands and bow my head as I had been taught to do in the infant Sunday-school.
"Be careful not to mush your words, Sarah; the habit is growing upon you," remarked the elder lady in a sharp, imperative tone.
"Shall I read it over, mother? I will try to speak more distinctly," returned the other submissively, and she began again a long paragraph which, I gathered vaguely, related to that outward humility which is the becoming and appropriate garment for a race of miserable sinners.
"That is better," commented the old lady, in an utterly ungrateful manner, "though you have never succeeded in properly rolling your r's. There, that will do for to-day, we will continue the sermon upon Humility to-morrow."
She was so little and thin and wrinkled that it was a mystery to me, as I looked at her, how she managed to express so much authority through so small a medium. The chair in which she sat seemed almost to swallow her in its high arms of faded green leather; and out of her wide, gathered skirt of brocade, her body rose very erect, like one of my mother's black-headed bonnet pins out of her draped pincushion. On her head there was a cap of lace trimmed gayly with purple ribbons, and beneath this festive adornment, a fringe of false curls, still brown and lustrous, lent a ghastly coquetry to her mummied features. In the square of sunshine, between the gauze curtains at the window, a green parrot, in a wire cage, was scolding viciously while it pecked at a bit of sponge-cake from its mistress's hand. At the time I was too badly frightened to notice the wonderful space and richness of the room, with its carved rosewood bookcases, and its dim portraits of beruffled cavaliers and gravely smiling ladies.
"Sally," said the old lady, turning upon me a piercing glance which was like the flash of steel in the sunlight, "is that a boy?"
Going over to the armchair, the little girl stood holding the kitten behind her, while she kissed her grandmother's cheek.
"What is it, Sally, dear?" asked the younger woman, closing her book with a sigh.
"It's a boy, mamma," answered the child.
At this the old lady stiffened on her velvet cushions. "I thought I had told you, Sally," she remarked icily, "that there is nothing that I object to so much as a boy. Dogs and cats I have tolerated in silence, but since I have been in this house no boy has set foot inside the doors."
"I am sure, dear mamma, that Sally did not mean to disobey you," murmured the younger woman, almost in tears.
"Yes, I did, mamma," answered the child, gravely, "I meant to disobey her. But he has such nice blue eyes," she went on eagerly, her lips glowing as she talked until they matched the bright red of her dancing shoes; "an' he's goin' to take a kitten home for a pet, an' he says the reason he doesn't wash his face is because he hasn't any water."
"Is it possible," enquired the old lady in the manner of her pecking parrot, "that he does not wash his face?"
My pride could bear it no longer, and opening my mouth I spoke in a loud, high voice.
"If you please, ma'am, I wash my face every day," I said, "and all over every Saturday night."
She was still feeding the parrot with a bit of cake, and as I spoke, she turned toward me and waved one of her wiry little hands, which reminded me of a bird's claw, under its ruffle of yellowed lace.
"Bring him here, Sally, and let me see him," she directed, as if I had been some newly entrapped savage beast.
Catching me by the arm, Sally obediently led me to the armchair, where I stood awkward and trembling, with my hands clutching the flaps of my breeches' pockets, and my eyes on the ground.
For a long pause the old lady surveyed me critically with her merciless eyes. Then, "Give him a piece of cake, Sally," she remarked, when the examination was over.
Sally's mother had come up softly behind me while I writhed under the piercing gaze, and bending over she encircled my shoulders with her protecting arms.
"He's a dear little fellow, with such pretty blue eyes," she said.
As she spoke I looked up for the first time, and my glance met my reflection in a long, gold-framed mirror hanging between the windows. The "pretty blue eyes" I saw, but I saw also the straw-coloured hair, the broad nose sprinkled with freckles, and the sturdy legs disguised by the shapeless breeches, which my mother had cut out of a discarded dolman she had once worn to funerals. It was a figure which might have raised a laugh in the ill-disposed, but the women before me carried kind hearts in their bosoms, and even grandmama's chilling scrutiny ended in nothing worse than a present of cake.
"May I play with him just a little while, grandmama?" begged Sally, and when the old lady nodded permission, we joined hands and went through the open window out upon the sunny porch.
On that spring morning the colours of the garden were all clear white and purple, for at the foot of the curving stairway, and on the upper terrace, bunches of lilacs bloomed high above the small spring flowers that bordered the walk. Beneath the fluted columns a single great snowball bush appeared to float like a cloud in the warm wind. As we went together down the winding path to the box maze which was sprinkled with tender green, a squirrel, darting out of one of the latticed arbours, stopped motionless in the walk and sat looking up at us with a pair of bright, suspicious eyes.
"I reckon I could make him skeet, if I wanted to," I remarked, embarrassed rather than malevolent.
Her glance dwelt on me thoughtfully for a moment, while she stood there, kicking a pebble with the toe of a red shoe.
"An' I reckon I could make you skeet, if I wanted to," she replied with composure.
Since the parade of mere masculinity had failed to impress her, I resorted to subtler measures, and kneeling among the small spring flowers which powdered the lower terrace, I began laboriously erecting a palace of moss and stones.
"I make one every evening, but when the ghosts come out and walk up an' down, they scatter them," observed Sally, hanging attentively upon the work.
"Are there ghosts here really an' have you seen 'em?" I asked.
Stretching out her hand, she swept it in a circle over the growing palace. "They are all around here—everywhere," she answered. "I saw them one night when I was running away from my father. Mamma and I hid in that big box bush down there, an' the ghosts came and walked all about us. Do you have to run away from your father, too?"
For an instant I hesitated; then my pride triumphed magnificently over my truthfulness. "I ran clear out to the hill an' all the way down it," I rejoined.
"Is his face red and awful?"
"As red as—as an apple."
"An apple ain't awful."
"But he is. I wish you could see him."
"Would he kill you if he caught you?"
"He—he'd eat me," I panted.
She sighed gravely. "I wonder if all fathers are like that?" she said. "Anyway, I don't believe yours is as bad as mine."
"I'd like to know why he ain't?" I protested indignantly.
Her lips quivered and went upward at the corners with a trick of expression which I found irresistible even then.
"It's a pity that it's time for you to go home," she observed politely.
"I reckon I can stay a little while longer," I returned.
She shook her head, but I had already gone back to the unfinished palace, and as the work progressed, she forgot her hint of dismissal in watching the fairy towers. We were still absorbed in the building when her mother came down the curving stairway and into the maze of box.
"It's time for you to run home now, pretty blue eyes," she said in her soft girlish way. Then catching our hands in hers, she turned with a merry laugh, and ran with us up the terraced walk.
"Is your mamma as beautiful as mine?" asked Sally, when we came to a breathless stop.
"She's as beautiful as—as a wax doll," I replied stoutly.
"That's right," laughed the lady, stooping to kiss me. "You're a dear boy. Tell your mother I said so."
She went slowly up the steps as she spoke, and when I looked back a moment later, I saw her smiling down on me between two great columns, with the snowball bush floating in the warm wind beneath her and the swallows flying low in the sunshine over her head.
I had opened the side gate, when I felt a soft, furry touch on my hand, and Sally thrust the forgotten kitten into my arms.
"Be good to her," she said pleadingly. "Her name's Florabella."
Resisting a dastardly impulse to forswear my bargain, I tucked the mewing kitten under my coat, where it clawed me unobserved by any jeering boy in the street. Passing Mrs. Cudlip's house on my way home, I noticed at once that the window stood invitingly open, and yielding with a quaking heart to temptation, I leaned inside the vacant room, and dropped Florabella in the centre of the old lady's easy chair. Then, fearful of capture, I darted along the pavement and flung myself breathlessly across our doorstep.
A group of neighbours was gathered in the centre of our little sitting-room, and among them I recognised the flushed, perspiring face of Mrs. Cudlip herself. As I entered, the women fell slightly apart, and I saw that they regarded me with startled, compassionate glances. A queer, strong smell of drugs was in the air, and near the kitchen door my father was standing with a frightened and sheepish look on his face, as if he had been thrust suddenly into a prominence from which he shrank back abashed.
"Where's ma?" I asked, and my voice sounded loud and unnatural in my own ears.
One of the women—a large, motherly person, whom I remembered without recognising, crossed the room with a heavy step and took me into her arms. At this day I can feel the deep yielding expanse of her bosom, when pushing her from me, I looked round and repeated my question in a louder tone.
"She was took of a sudden, dear," replied the woman, still straining me to her. "It came over her while she was standin' at the stove, an' befo' anybody could reach her, she dropped right down an' was gone."
She released me as she finished, and walking straight through the kitchen and the consoling neighbours, I opened the back door, and closing it after me, sat down on the single step. I can't remember that I shed a tear or that I suffered, but I can still see as plainly as if it were yesterday, the clothes-line stretching across the little yard and the fluttering, half-dried garments along it. There was a striped shirt of my father's, a faded blue one of mine, a pink slip of baby Jessy's, and a patched blue and white gingham apron I had seen only that morning tied at my mother's waist. Between the high board fence, above the sunken bricks of the yard, they danced as gayly as if she who had hung them there was not lying dead in the house. Samuel, trotting from a sunny corner, crept close to my side, with his warm tongue licking my hand, and so I sat for an hour watching the flutter of the blue, the pink, and the striped shirts on the clothes-line.
"There ain't nobody to iron 'em now," I said suddenly to Samuel, and then I wept.
IN WHICH I START IN LIFE
With my mother's death all that was homelike and comfortable passed from our little house. For three days after the funeral the neglected clothes still hung on the line in the back yard, but on the fourth morning a slatternly girl, with red hair and arms, came from the grocery store at the corner, and gathered them in. My little sister was put to nurse with Mrs. Cudlip next door, and when, at the end of the week, President went off to work somewhere in a mining town in West Virginia, my father and I were left alone, except for the spasmodic appearances of the red-haired slattern. Gradually the dust began to settle and thicken on the dried cat-tails in the china vases upon the mantel; the "prize" red geranium dropped its blossoms and withered upon the sill; the soaking dish-cloths lay in a sloppy pile on the kitchen floor; and the vegetable rinds were left carelessly to rot in the bucket beside the sink. The old neatness and order had departed before the garments my mother had washed were returned again to the tub, and day after day I saw my father shake his head dismally over the soggy bread and the underdone beef. Whether or not he ever realised that it was my mother's hand that had kept him above the surface of life, I shall never know; but when that strong grasp was relaxed, he went hopelessly, irretrievably, and unresistingly under. In the beginning there was merely a general wildness and disorder in his appearance,—first one button, then two, then three dropped from his coat. After that his linen was changed less often, his hair allowed to spread more stiffly above his forehead, and the old ashes from his pipe dislodged less frequently from the creases in his striped shirt. At the end of three months I noticed a new fact about him—a penetrating odour of alcohol which belonged to the very air he breathed. His mind grew slower and seemed at last almost to stop; his blue eyes became heavier and glazed at times; and presently he fell into the habit of going out in the evenings, and not returning until I had cried myself to sleep, under my tattered quilt, with Samuel hugged close in my arms. Sometimes the red-haired girl would stop after her work for a few friendly words, proving that a slovenly exterior is by no means incompatible with a kindly heart; but as a usual thing I was left alone, after the boys had gone home from their play in the street, to amuse myself and Samuel as I could through the long evening hours. Sometimes I brought in an apple or a handful of chestnuts given me by one of the neighbours and roasted them before the remnants of fire in the stove. Once or twice I opened my mother's closet and took down her clothes—her best bombazine dress, her black cashmere mantle trimmed with bugles, her long rustling crape veil, folded neatly beneath her bonnet in the tall bandbox—and half in grief, half in curiosity, I invaded those sacred precincts where my hands had never dared penetrate while she was alive. My great loss, from which probably in more cheerful surroundings I should have recovered in a few weeks, was renewed in me every evening by my loneliness and by the dumb sympathy of Samuel, who would stand wagging his tail for an hour at the sight of the cloak or the bonnet that she had worn. Like my father I grew more unkempt and ragged every day I lived. I ceased to wash myself, because there was nobody to make me. My buttons dropped off one by one and nobody scolded. I dared no longer go near the gate of the enchanted garden, fearing that if the little girl were to catch sight of me, she would call me "dirty," and run away in disgust. Occasionally my father would clap me upon the shoulder at breakfast, enquire how I was getting along, and give me a rusty copper to spend. But for the greater part of the time, I believe, he was hardly aware of my existence; the vacant, flushed look was almost always in his face when we met, and he stayed out so late in the evening that it was not often his stumbling footsteps aroused me when he came upstairs to bed.
So accustomed had I become to my lonely hours by the kitchen stove, with Samuel curled up at my feet, that when one night, about six months after my mother's death, I heard the unexpected sound of my father's tread on the pavement outside, I turned almost with a feeling of terror, and waited breathlessly for his unsteady hand on the door. It came after a minute, followed immediately by his entrance into the kitchen, and to my amazement I saw presently that he was accompanied by a strange woman, whom I recognised at a glance as one of those examples of her sex that my mother had been used to classify sweepingly as "females." She was plump and jaunty, with yellow hair that hung in tight ringlets down to her neck, and pink cheeks that looked as if they might "come off" if they were thoroughly scrubbed. There was about her a spring, a bounce, an animation that impressed me, in spite of my inherited moral sense, as decidedly elegant.
My father's eyes looked more vacant and his face fuller than ever. "Benjy," he began at once in a husky voice, while his companion released his arm in order to put her ringlets to rights, "I've brought you a new mother."
At this the female's hands fell from her hair, and she looked round in horror. "What boy is that, Thomas?" she demanded, poised there in all her flashing brightness like a figure of polished brass.
"That boy," replied my father, as if at a loss exactly how to account for me, "that boy is Ben Starr—otherwise Benjy—otherwise—"
He would have gone on forever, I think, in his eagerness to explain me away, if the woman had not jerked him up with a peremptory question: "How did he come here?" she enquired.
Since nothing but the naked truth would avail him now, he uttered it at last in an eloquent monosyllable—"Born."
"But you told me there was not a chick or a child," she exclaimed in a rage.
For a moment he hesitated; then opening his mouth slowly, he gave voice to the single witticism of his life.
"That was befo' I married you, dearie," he said.
"Well, how am I to know," demanded the female, "that you haven't got a parcel of others hidden away?"
"Thar's one, the littlest, put out to nurse next do', an' another, the biggest, gone to work in the West," he returned in his amiable, childish manner.
After my unfortunate introduction, however, the addition of a greater and a lesser appeared to impress her but little. She looked scornfully about the disorderly room, took off her big, florid bonnet, and began arranging her hair before the three-cornered mottled mirror on the wall. Then wheeling round in a temper, her eyes fell on Samuel, sitting dejectedly on his tail by my mother's old blue and white gingham apron.
"What is that?" she fired straight into my father's face.
"That," he responded, offering his unnecessary information as if it were a piece of flattery, "air the dawg, Sukey."
Goaded into defiance by this attack on my only friend, I spoke in a shrill voice from the corner into which I had retreated. "Mine," I said.
"Wall, I'll tell you what!" exclaimed the female, charging suddenly upon me, "if I've got to put up with a chance o' kids, I don't reckon I've got to be plagued with critters, too. Shoo, suh! get out!"
Seizing my mother's broom, she advanced resolutely to the attack, and an instant later, to my loud distress and to Samuel's unspeakable horror, she had whisked him across the kitchen and through the back door out into the yard.
"Steady, Sukey, steady," remarked my father caressingly, much as he might have spoken to a favourite but unruly heifer. For an instant he looked a little crestfallen, I saw with pleasure, but as soon as Samuel was outside and the door had closed, he resumed immediately his usual expression of foolish good humour. It was impossible, I think, for him to retain an idea in his mind after the object of it had been removed from his sight. While I was still drying my eyes on my frayed coat sleeve, I watched him with resentment begin a series of playful lunges at the neck of the female, which she received with a sulky and forbidding air. Stealing away the next minute, I softly opened the back door and joined the outcast Samuel, where he sat whining upon the step.
The night was very dark, but beyond the looming chimneys a lonely star winked at me through the thick covering of clouds. I was a sturdy boy for my age, sound in body, and inwardly not given to sentiment or softness of any kind; but as I sat there on the doorstep, I felt a lump rise in my throat at the thought that Samuel and I were two small outcast animals in the midst of a shivering world. I remembered that when my mother was alive I had never let her kiss me except when she paid me by a copper or a slice of bread laid thickly with blackberry jam; and I told myself desperately that if she could only come back now, I would let her do it for nothing! She might even whip me because I'd torn my trousers on the back fence, and I thought I should hardly feel it. I recalled her last birthday, when I had gone down to the market with five cents of my own to buy her some green gage plums, of which she was very fond, and how on the way up the hill, being tempted, I had eaten them all myself. At the time I had stifled my remorse with the assurance that she would far rather I should have the plums than eat them herself, but this was cold comfort to me to-night while I regretted my selfishness. If I had only saved her half, as I had meant to do if the hill had not been quite so long and so steep.
Samuel snuggled closer to me and we both shivered, for the night was fresh. The house had grown quiet inside; my father and his new wife had evidently left the kitchen and gone upstairs. As I sat there I realised suddenly, with a pang, that I could never go inside the door again; and rising to my feet, I struck a match and fumbled for a piece of chalk in my pocket. Then standing before the door I wrote in large letters across the panel:—
"DEAR PA. I have gone to work. Your Aff. son, BEN STARR."
The blue flame of the match flickered an instant along the words; then it went out, and with Samuel at my heels, I crept through the back gate and down the alley to the next street, which led to the ragged brow of the hill. Ahead of me, as I turned off into Main Street, the scattered lights of the city showed like blurred patches upon the darkness. Gradually, while I went rapidly downhill, I saw the patches change into a nebulous cloud, and the cloud resolve itself presently into straight rows of lamps. Few people were in the streets at that hour, and when I reached the dim building of the Old Market, I found it cold and deserted, except for a stray cur or two that snarled at Samuel from a heap of trodden straw under a covered wagon. Despite the fact that I was for all immediate purposes as homeless as the snarling curs, I was not without the quickened pulses which attend any situation that a boy may turn to an adventure. A high heart for desperate circumstances has never failed me, and it bore me company that night when I came back again with aching feet to the Old Market, and lay down, holding Samuel tight, on a pile of straw.
In a little while I awoke because Samuel was barking, and sitting up in the straw I saw a dim shape huddled beside me, which I made out, after a few startled blinks, to be the bent figure of a woman wrapped in a black shawl with fringed ends, which were pulled over her head and knotted under her chin. From the penetrating odour I had learned to associate with my father, I judged that she had been lately drinking, and the tumbled state of my coat convinced me that she had been frustrated by Samuel in a base design to rifle my pockets. Yet she appeared so miserable as she sat there rocking from side to side and crying to herself, that I began all at once to feel very sorry. It seemed to hurt her to cry and yet I saw that the more it hurt her the more she cried.
"If I were you," I suggested politely, "I'd go home right away."
"Home?" repeated the woman, with a hiccough, "what's home?"
"The place you live in."
"Lor, honey, I don't live in no place. I jest walks."
"But what do you do when you get tired?"
"I walks some mo'."
"An' don't you ever leave off?"
"Only when it's dark like this an' thar's no folks about."
"But what do folks say to you when they see you walkin'?"
"Say to me," she threw back her head and broke into a drunken laugh, "why, they say to me: 'Step lively!'"
She crawled closer, peering at me greedily under the pale glimmer of the street lamp.
"Why, you're a darlin' of a boy," she said, "an' such pretty blue eyes!" Then she rose to her feet and stood swaying unsteadily above me, while Samuel broke out into angry barks. "Shall I tell you a secret because of yo' blue eyes?" she asked. "It's this—whatever you do in this world, you step lively about it. I've done a heap of lookin' an' I've seen the ones who get on are the ones who step the liveliest. It ain't no matter where you're goin', it ain't no matter who's befo' you, if you want to get there first, step lively!"
She went out, taking her awful secret with her, and turning over I fell asleep again on my pile of straw. "If ever I have a dollar I'll give it to her so she may stop walkin'," was my last conscious thought.
My next awakening was a very different one, for the light was streaming into the market, and a cheerful red face was shining down, like a rising sun, over a wheelbarrow of vegetables.
"Don't you think it's about time all honest folk were out of bed, sonny?" enquired a voice.
"I ain't been here mo'n an hour," I retorted, resenting the imputation of slothfulness with a spirit that was not unworthy of my mother.
The open length of the market, I saw now, was beginning to present a busy, almost a festive, air. Stalls were already laden with fruit and vegetables, and farmers' wagons covered with canvas, and driven by sunburnt countrymen, had drawn up to the sidewalk. Rising hurriedly to my feet, I began rubbing my eyes, for I had been dreaming of the fragrance of bacon in our little kitchen.
"Now I'd be up an' off to home, if I were you, sonny," observed the marketman, planting his wheelbarrow of vegetables on the brick floor, and beginning to wipe off the stall. "The sooner you take yo' whippin', the sooner you'll set easy again."
"There ain't anybody to whip me," I replied dolefully, staring at the sign over his head, on which was painted in large letters—"John Chitling. Fish, Oysters (in season). Vegetables. Fruits."
Stopping midway in his preparations, he turned on me his great beaming face, so like the rising sun that looked over his shoulder, while I watched his big jean apron swell with the panting breaths that drew from his stomach.
"Here's a boy that says he ain't got nobody to whip him!" he exclaimed to his neighbours in the surrounding stalls,—a poultryman, covered with feathers, a fish vender, bearing a string of mackerel in either hand, and a butcher, with his sleeves rolled up and a blood-stained apron about his waist.
"I al'ays knew you were thick-headed, John Chitling," remarked the fish dealer, with contempt, "but I never believed you were such a plum fool as not to know a tramp when you seed him."
"You ain't got but eleven of yo' own," observed the butcher, with a snicker; "I reckon you'd better take him along to round out the full dozen."
"If I've got eleven there ain't one of 'em that wa'nt welcome," responded John, his slow temper rising, "an' I reckon what the Lord sends he's willing to provide for."