"Oh, Lord, Maria, you are going too fast!" replied Harry, and he fairly ran into his own room.
The next morning when Maria, in her little black frock—it was made of a thin lawn for the hot days, and the pale slenderness of her arms and neck were revealed by the thinness of the fabric—went to school, she knew, the very moment that Miss Ida Slome greeted her, that Aunt Maria had been right in her surmise. For the first time since she had been to school, Miss Slome, who was radiant in a flowered muslin, came up to her and embraced her. Maria submitted coldly to the embrace.
"You sweet little thing," said Miss Slome.
There was a man principal of the school, but Miss Slome was first assistant, and Maria was in most of her classes. She took her place, with her pretty smile as set as if she had been a picture instead of a living and breathing woman, on the platform.
"You are awful sweet all of a sudden, ain't you?" said Gladys Mann in Maria's ear.
Maria nodded, and went to her own seat.
All that day she noted, with her sharp little consciousness, the change in Miss Slome's manner towards her. It was noticeable even in class. "It is true," she said to herself. "Father is going to marry her."
Aunt Maria was a little pacified by Harry's rejoinder the night before. She begun to wonder if she had been, by any chance, mistaken.
"Maybe I was wrong," she said, privately, to Maria. But Maria shook her head.
"She called me a sweet little thing, and kissed me," said she.
"Didn't she ever before?"
"Well, she may have taken a notion to. Maybe I was mistaken. The way your father spoke last night sort of made me think so."
Aunt Maria made up her mind that if Harry was out late the next Sunday, and the next Wednesday, that would be a test of the situation. The first time had been Wednesday, and Wednesday and Sunday, in all provincial localities, are the acknowledged courting nights. Of course it sometimes happens that an ardent lover goes every night; but Harry Edgham, being an older man and a widower, would probably not go to that extent.
He soon did, however. Very soon Maria and her aunt went to bed every night before Harry came home, and Miss Ida Slome became more loving towards Maria.
Wollaston Lee, boy as he was, child as he was, really suffered. He lost flesh, and his mother told Aunt Maria that she was really worried about him. "He doesn't eat enough to keep a bird alive," said she.
It never entered into her heart to imagine that Wollaston was in love with the teacher, a woman almost if not quite old enough to be his mother, and was suffering because of her love for Harry Edgham.
One afternoon, when Harry's courtship of Ida Slome had been going on for about six weeks, and all Edgham was well informed concerning it, Maria, instead of going straight home from school, took a cross-road through some woods. She dreaded to reach home that night. It was Wednesday, and her father would be sure to go to see Miss Slome. Maria felt an indefinable depression, as if she, little, helpless girl, were being carried so far into the wheels of life that it was too much for her. Her father, of late, had been kinder than ever to her; Maria had begun to wonder if she ought not to be glad if he were happy, and if she ought not to try to love Miss Slome. But this afternoon depression overcame her. She walked slowly between the fields, which were white and gold with queen's-lace and golden-rod. Her slender shoulders were bent a little. She walked almost like an old woman. She heard a quick step behind her, and Wollaston Lee came up beside her. She looked at him with some sentiment, even in the midst of her depression. The thought flashed across her mind, what is she should marry Wollaston at the same time her father married Miss Slome? That would be a happy and romantic solution of the affair. She colored sweetly, and smiled, but the boy scowled at her.
"Say?" he said.
Maria trembled a little. She was surprised.
"What?" she asked.
"Your father is the meanest man in this town, he is the meanest in New Jersey, he is the meanest man in the whole United States, he is the meanest man in the whole world."
Again the boy scowled at Maria, who did not understand; but she would not have her father reviled.
"He isn't, so there!" she said.
"He's going to marry teacher."
"I don't see as he is mean if he is," said Maria, forced into justice by injustice.
"I was going to marry her myself, if she'd only waited, and he hadn't butted in," said Wollaston.
The boy gave one last scowl at the little girl, and it was as if he scowled at all womanhood in her. Then he gave a fling away, and ran like a wild thing across the field of golden-rod and queen's-lace. Maria, watching, saw him throw himself down prone in the midst of the wild-flowers, and she understood that he was crying because the teacher was going to marry her father. She went on, walking like a little old woman, and she had a feeling as if she had found a road in the world that led outside all love.
Maria felt that she no longer cared about Wollaston Lee, that she fairly scorned him. Then, suddenly, something occurred to her. She turned, and ran back as fast as she could, her short fleece of golden hair flying. She wrapped her short skirts about her, and wormed through the barbed-wire fence which skirted the field—the boy had leaped it, but she was not equal to that—and she hastened, leaving a furrow through the white-and-gold herbage, to the boy lying on his face weeping. She stood over him.
"Say?" said she.
The boy gave a convulsive wriggle of his back and shoulders, and uttered an inarticulate "Let me alone"; but the girl persisted.
"Say?" said she again.
Then the boy turned, and disclosed a flushed, scowling face among the flowers.
"Well, what do you want, anyway?" said he.
"If you want to marry Miss Slome, why don't you, instead of my father?" inquired Maria, bluntly, going straight to the point.
"I haven't got any money," replied Wollaston, crossly; "all a woman thinks of is money. How'd I buy her dresses?"
"I don't believe but your father would be willing for you to live at home with her, and buy her dresses, till you got so you could earn yourself."
"She wouldn't have me," said the boy, and he fairly dug his flushed face into the mass of wild-flowers.
"You are a good deal younger than father," said Maria.
"Your father he can give her a diamond ring, and I haven't got more'n forty cents, and I don't believe that would buy much of anything," said Wollaston, in muffled tones of grief and rage.
Maria felt a shock at the idea of a diamond ring. Her mother had never owned one.
"Oh, I don't believe father will ever give her a diamond ring in the world," said she.
"She's wearing one, anyhow—I saw it," said Wollaston. "Where did she get it if he didn't give it to her, I'd like to know?"
Maria felt cold.
"I don't believe it," she said again. "Teacher is all alone in the school-house, correcting exercises. Why don't you get right up, and go back and ask her? I'll go with you, if you want me to."
Wollaston raised himself indeterminately upon one elbow.
"Come along," urged Maria.
Wollaston got up slowly. His face was a burning red.
"You are a good deal younger and better looking than father," urged Maria, traitorously.
The boy was only a year older than Maria. He was much larger and taller, but although she looked a child, at that moment he looked younger. Both of his brown hands hung at his sides, clinched like a baby's. He had a sulky expression.
"Come along," urged the girl.
He stood kicking the ground hesitatingly for a moment, then he followed the girl across the field. They went down the road until they came to the school-house. Miss Slome was still there; her graceful profile could be seen at a window.
Both children marched in upon Miss Slome, who was in a recitation-room, bending over a desk. She looked up, and her face lightened at sight of Maria.
"Oh, it's you, dear?" said she.
Maria then saw, for the first time, the white sparkle of a diamond on the third finger of her left hand. She felt that she hated her.
"He wants to speak to you," she said, indicating Wollaston with a turn of her hand.
Miss Slome looked inquiringly at Wollaston, who stood before her like a culprit, blushing and shuffling, and yet with a sort of doggedness.
"Well, what is it, Wollaston?" she asked, patronizingly.
"I came back to ask you if—you would have me?" said Wollaston, and his voice was hardly audible.
Miss Ida Slome looked at him in amazement; she was utterly dazed.
"Have you?" she repeated. "I think I do not quite understand you. What do you mean by 'have you,' Wollaston?"
"Marry me," burst forth the boy.
There was a silence. Maria looked at Miss Slome, and, to her utter indignation, the teacher's lips were twitching, and it took a good deal to make Miss Slome laugh, too; she had not much sense of humor.
In a second Wollaston stole a furtive glance at Miss Slome, which was an absurd parody on a glance of a man under similar circumstances, and Miss Slome, who had had experience in such matters, laughed outright.
The boy turned white. The woman did not realize it, but it was really a cruel thing which she was doing. She laughed heartily.
"Why, my dear boy," she said. "You are too young and I am too old. You had better wait and marry Maria, when you are both grown up."
Wollaston turned his back upon her, and marched out of the room. Maria lingered, in the vain hope that she might bring the teacher to a reconsideration of the matter.
"He's a good deal younger than father, and he's better looking," said she.
Miss Slome blushed then.
"Oh, you sweet little thing, then you know—" she began.
Maria interrupted her. She became still more traitorous to her father.
"Father has a real bad temper, when things go wrong," said she. "Mother always said so."
Miss Slome only laughed harder.
"You funny little darling," she said.
"And Wollaston has a real good disposition, his mother told my aunt Maria so," she persisted.
The room fairly rang with Miss Slome's laughter, although she tried to subdue it. Maria persisted.
"And father isn't a mite handy about the house," said she. "And Mrs. Lee told Aunt Maria that Wollaston could wipe dishes and sweep as well as a girl."
Miss Slome laughed.
"And I've got a bad temper, too, when I'm crossed; mother always said so," said Maria. Her lip quivered.
Miss Slome left her desk, came over to Maria, and, in spite of her shrinking away, caught her in her arms.
"You are a little darling," said she, "and I am not a bit afraid of your temper." She hesitated a moment, looking at the child's averted face, and coloring. "My dear, has your father told you?" she whispered; then, "I didn't know he had."
"No, ma'am, he hasn't," said Maria. She fairly pulled herself loose from Miss Slome and ran out of the room. Her eyes were almost blinded with tears; she could scarcely see Wollaston Lee on the road, ahead of her, also running. He seemed to waver as he ran. Maria called out faintly. He evidently heard, for he slackened his pace a little; then he ran faster than ever. Maria called again. This time the boy stopped until the girl came up. He picked a piece of grass, as he waited, and began chewing it.
"How do you know that isn't poison?" said Maria, breathlessly.
"Don't care if it is; hope it is," said the boy.
"It's wicked to talk so."
"Let it be wicked then."
"I don't see how I am to blame for any of it," Maria said, in a bewildered sort of way. It was the cry of the woman, the primitive cry of the primitive scape-goat of Creation. Already Maria began to feel the necessity of fitting her little shoulders to the blame of life, which she had inherited from her Mother Eve, but she was as yet bewildered by the necessity.
"Ain't it your father that's going to marry her?" inquired Wollaston, fiercely.
"I don't want him to marry her any more than you do," said Maria. "I don't want her for a mother."
"I told you how it would come out, if I asked her," cried the boy, still heaping the blame upon the girl.
"I would enough sight rather marry you than my father, if I were the teacher," said Maria, and her blue eyes looked into Wollaston's with the boldness of absolute guilelessness.
"Hush!" responded Wollaston, with a gesture of disdain. "Who'd want you? You're nothing but a girl, anyway."
With that scant courtesy Wollaston Lee resumed his race homeward, and Maria went her own way.
It was that very night, after Harry Edgham had returned from his call upon Ida Slome, that he told Maria. Maria, as usual, had gone to bed, but she was not asleep. Maria heard his hand on her door-knob, and his voice calling out, softly: "Are you asleep, dear?"
"No," responded Maria.
Then her father entered and approached the child staring at him from her white nest. The room was full of moonlight, and Maria's face looked like a nucleus of innocence upon which it centred. Harry leaned over his little daughter and kissed her.
"Father has got something to tell you, precious," he said.
Maria hitched away a little from him, and made no reply.
"Ida, Miss Slome, tells me that she thinks you know, and so I made up my mind I had better tell you, and not wait any longer, although I shall not take any decisive step before—before November. What would you say if father should bring home a new mother for his little girl, dear?"
"I should say I would rather have Aunt Maria," replied Maria, decisively. She choked back a sob.
"I've got nothing to say against Aunt Maria," said Harry. "She's been very kind to come here, and she's done all she could, but—well, I think in some ways, some one else—Father thinks you will be much happier with another mother, dear."
"No, I sha'n't."
Harry hesitated. The child's voice sounded so like her dead mother's that he felt a sudden guilt, and almost terror.
"But if father were happier—you want father to be happy, don't you, dear?" he asked, after a little.
Then Maria began to sob in good earnest. She threw her arms around her father's neck. "Yes, father, I do want you to be happy," she whispered, brokenly.
"If father's little girl were large enough to keep his house for him, and were through school, father would never think of taking such a step," said Harry Edgham, and he honestly believed what he said. For the moment his old love of life seemed to clutch him fast, and Ida Slome's radiant visage seemed to pale.
"Oh, father," pleaded Maria. "Aunt Maria would marry you, and I would a great deal rather have her."
"Nonsense," said Harry Edgham, laughing, with a glance towards the door.
"Yes, she would, father; that was the reason she got her pompadour."
Harry laughed again, but softly, for he was afraid of Aunt Maria overhearing. "Nonsense, dear," he said again. Then he kissed Maria in a final sort of way. "It will be all for the best," he said, "and we shall all be happier. Father doesn't think any the less of you, and never will, and he is never going to forget your own dear mother; but it is all for the best, the way he has decided. Now, good-night, darling, try to go to sleep, and don't worry about anything."
It was not long before Maria did fall asleep. Her thoughts were in such a whirl that it was almost like intoxication. She could not seem to fix her mind on anything long enough to hold herself awake. It was not merely the fact of her father's going to marry again, it was everything which that involved. She felt as if she were looking into a kaleidoscope shaken by fate into endless changes. The changes seemed fairly to tire her eyes into sleep.
The very next afternoon Aunt Maria went home. Harry announced his matrimonial intentions to her before he went to New York, and she said immediately that she would take the afternoon train.
"But," said Harry, "I thought maybe you would stay and be at the—wedding, Maria. I don't mean to get married until the November vacation, and it is only the first of September now. I don't see why you are in such a hurry."
"Yes," replied Aunt Maria, "I suppose you thought I would stay and get the house cleaned, and slave here like a dog, getting ready for you to be married. Well, I sha'n't; I'm tired out. I'm going to take the train this afternoon."
Harry looked helplessly at her.
"I don't see what Maria and I are going to do then," said he.
"If it wasn't for taking Maria away from school, I would ask her to come and make me a visit, poor child," said Aunt Maria, "until you brought her new ma home. I have only a hundred dollars a year to live on, but I'd risk it but I could make her comfortable; but she can't leave her school."
"No, I don't see how she can," said Harry, still helplessly. "I thought you'd stay, Maria. There is the house to be cleaned, and some painting and papering. I thought—"
"Yes, I'll warrant you thought," said Aunt Maria, with undisguised viciousness. "But you were mistaken; I am not going to stay."
"But I don't see exactly—"
"Oh, Lord, you and Maria can take your meals at Mrs. Jonas White's, she'll be glad enough to have you; and you can hire the cleaning done," said Aunt Maria, with a certain pity in the midst of her disappointment and contempt.
It seemed to Maria, when her aunt went away that afternoon, as if she could not bear it. There is a law of gravitation for the soul as well as for the body, and Maria felt as one who had fallen from a known quantity into strangeness, with a horrible shock.
"Now, if she don't treat you well, you send word, and I'll have you come and stay with me," whispered Aunt Maria at the last.
Maria loved Aunt Maria when she went away. She went to school late for the sake of seeing her off; and she was late in the geography class, but Miss Slome only greeted her with a smile of radiant reassurance.
At recess, Gladys Mann snuggled up to her.
"Say, is it true?" she whispered.
"Is what true?"
"Is your father goin' to get married to teacher?"
"Yes," said Maria. Then she gave Gladys a little push. "I wish you'd let me alone," she said.
Extreme youth is always susceptible to diversion which affords a degree of alleviation for grief. Many older people have the same facility of turning before the impetus of circumstances to another view of life, which serves to take their minds off too close concentration upon sorrow, but it is not so universal. Maria, although she was sadly lonely, in a measure, enjoyed taking her meals at Mrs. Jonas White's. She had never done anything like it before. The utter novelty of sitting down to Mrs. White's table, and eating in company with her and Mr. Jonas White, and Lillian White, and a son by the name of Henry, amused her. Then, too, they were all very kind to her. They even made a sort of heroine of her, especially at noon, when her father was in New York and she, consequently, was alone. They pitied her, in a covert sort of fashion, because her father was going to get married again, especially Mrs. White and Lillian. Lillian was a very pretty girl, with a pert carriage of blond head, and a slangy readiness of speech.
"Well, she's a dandy, as far as looks and dress go, and maybe she'll make you a real good mother-in-law," she said to Maria. Maria knew that Lillian should have said step-mother, but she did not venture to correct her.
"Looks ain't everything," said Mrs. White, with a glance at her daughter. She had thought of the possibility of Harry Edgham taking a fancy to her Lillian.
Mr. Jonas White, who with his son Henry kept a market, thereby insuring such choice cuts of meat, spoke then. He did not, as a rule, say much at table, especially when Maria and her father, who in his estimation occupied a superior place in society, were present.
"Guess Mr. Edgham knows what he's about," said he. "He's going to marry a good-looking woman, and one that's capable of supportin' herself, if he's laid up or anything happens to him. Guess she's all right."
"I guess so, too," said Henry White. Both nodded reassuringly at Maria, who felt mournfully comforted.
"Shouldn't wonder if she'd saved something, too," said Mr. White.
When he and his son were on their way back to the market, driving in the white-covered wagon with "J. White & Son" on the sides thereof, they agreed that women were queer.
"There's your mother and Lillian, they mean all right," said Jonas White, "but they were getting that poor young one all stirred up."
Maria never settled with herself whether the Whites thought she had a pleasant prospect before her or the reverse, but they did not certainly influence her to love Miss Ida Slome any more.
Miss Slome was so kind to Maria, in those days, that it really seemed to her that she ought to love her. She and her father were invited to take tea at Miss Slome's boarding-house, and after tea they sat in the little parlor which the teacher had for her own, and Miss Slome sang and played to them. She had a piano. Maria heard her and her father talking about the place in the Edgham parlor where it was to stand. Harry stood over Miss Slome as she was singing, and Maria observed how his arm pressed against her shoulder.
After the song was done, Harry and Miss Slome sat down on the sofa, and Harry drew Maria down on the other side. Harry put his arm around his little daughter, but not as if he realized it, and she peeked around and saw how closely he was embracing Miss Slome, whose cheeks were a beautiful color, but whose set smile never relaxed. It seemed to Maria that Miss Slome smiled exactly like a doll, as if the smile were made on her face by something outside, not by anything within. Maria thought her father was very silly. She felt scorn, shame, and indignation at the same time. Maria was glad when it was time to go home. When her father kissed Miss Slome, she blushed, and turned away her head.
Going home, Harry almost danced along the street. He was as light-hearted as a boy, and as thoughtlessly in love.
"Well, dear, what do you think of your new mother?" he asked, gayly, as they passed under the maples, which were turning, and whose foliage sprayed overhead with a radiance of gold in the electric light.
Then Maria made that inevitable rejoinder which is made always, which is at once trite and pathetic. "I can't call her mother," she said.
But Harry only laughed. He was too delighted and triumphant to realize the pain of the child, although he loved her. "Oh, well, dear, you needn't until you feel like it," he said.
"What am I going to call her, father?" asked Maria, seriously.
"Oh, anything. Call her Ida."
"She is too old for me to call her that," replied Maria.
"Old? Why, dear, Ida is only a girl."
"She is a good deal over thirty," said Maria. "I call that very old."
"You won't, when you get there yourself," replied Harry, with another laugh. "Well, dear, suit yourself. Call her anything you like."
It ended by Maria never calling her anything except "you," and referring to her as "she" and "her." The woman, in fact, became a pronoun for the child, who in her honesty and loyalty could never put another word in the place which had belonged to the noun, and feel satisfied.
Maria was very docile, outwardly, in those days, but inside she was in a tumult of rebellion. She went home with Miss Slome when she was asked, but she was never gracious in response to the doll-like smile, and the caressing words, which were to her as automatic as the smile. Sometimes it seemed to Maria that if she could only have her own mother scold her, instead of Miss Slome's talking so sweetly to her, she would give the whole world.
For some unexplained cause, the sorrow which Maria had passed through had seemed to stop her own emotional development. She looked at Wollaston Lee sometimes and wondered how she had ever had dreams about him; how she had thought she would like him to go with her, and, perhaps, act as silly as her father did with Miss Slome. She remembered how his voice sounded when he said she was nothing but a girl, and a rage of shame seized her. "He needn't worry," she thought. "I wouldn't have him, not if he was to go down on his knees in the dust." She told Gladys Mann that she thought Wollaston Lee was a very homely boy, and not so very smart, and Gladys told another girl whose brother knew Wollaston Lee, and he told him. After a little, Wollaston and Maria never spoke when they met. The girl did not seem to see the boy; she was more delicate in her manner of showing aversion, but the boy gazed straight at her with an insolent stare, as at one who had dared him. He told the same boy who had told him what Maria had said, that he thought Amy Long was the prettiest girl in school, and Maria was homely enough to crack a looking-glass, and that came back to Maria. Everything said in the school always came back, by some mysterious law of gravitation.
There was one quite serious difficulty involved in Aunt Maria's deserting her post, and that was, Maria was too young to be left alone in the house every night while her father was visiting his fiancee. She could not stay at Mrs. White's, because it was obviously unfair to ask them to remain up until nearly midnight to act as her guardian every, or nearly every, night in the week. However, Harry submitted the problem to Miss Slome, who solved it at once. She had, in some respects, a masterly brain, and her executive abilities were somewhat thrown away in her comparatively humble sphere.
"You must have the house cleaned," said she. "Let the woman you get to clean stay over until you come home. She won't be afraid to go home alone afterwards. Those kind of people never are. I suppose you will get Mrs. Addix?"
"They tell me she is about the best woman for house-cleaning," said Harry, rather helplessly. He was so unaccustomed to even giving a thought to household details, that he had a vague sense of self-pity because he was now obliged to do so. His lost Abby occasionally, he believed, had employed this Mrs. Addix, but she had never troubled him about it.
It thus happened that every evening little Maria Edgham sat guarded, as it were, by Mrs. Addix. Mrs. Addix was of the poor-white race, like the Manns—in fact, she was distantly related to them. They were nearly all distantly related, which may have accounted for their partial degeneracy. Mrs. Addix, however, was a sort of anomaly. Coming, as she did, of a shiftless, indolent family, she was yet a splendid worker. She seemed tireless. She looked positively radiant while scrubbing, and also more intelligent. The moment she stopped work, she looked like an automatic doll which had run down: all consciousness of self, or that which is outside self, seemed to leave her face; it was as if her brain were in her toiling arms and hands. Moreover, she always went to sleep immediately after Harry had gone and Maria was left alone with her. She sat in her chair and breathed heavily, with her head tipped idiotically over one shoulder.
It was not very lively for Maria during those evenings. She felt afraid to go to bed and leave the house alone except for the heavily sleeping woman, whom her father had hard work to rouse when he returned, and who staggered out of the door, when she started home, as if she were drunk. She herself never felt sleepy; it was even hard for her to sleep when at last her father had returned and she went to bed. Often after she had fallen asleep her heart seemed to sting her awake.
Maria grew thinner than ever. Somebody called Harry Edgham's attention to the fact, and he got some medicine for her to take. But it was not medicine which she needed—that is, not medicine for the body, but for the soul. What probably stung her most keenly was the fact that certain improvements, for which her mother had always longed but always thought she could not have, were being made in the house. A bay-window was being built in the parlor, and one over it, in the room which had been her father's and mother's, and which Maria dimly realized was, in the future, to be Miss Ida Slome's. Maria's mother had always talked a good deal about some day having that bay-window. Maria reflected that her father could have afforded it just as well in her mother's day, if her mother had insisted upon it, like Miss Slome. Maria's mother had been of the thrifty New England kind, and had tried to have her husband save a little. Maria knew well enough that these savings were going into the improvements, the precious dollars which her poor mother had enabled her father to save by her own deprivations and toil. Maria heard her father and Miss Slome talk about the maid they were to have; Miss Slome would never dream of doing her own work, as her predecessor had done. All these things the child dwelt upon in a morbid, aged fashion, and, consequently, while her evenings with Mrs. Addix were not enjoyable, they were not exactly dull. Nearly every room in the house was being newly papered and painted. Maria and Mrs. Addix sat first in one room, then in another, as one after another was torn up in the process of improvement. Generally the room which they occupied was chaotic with extra furniture, and had a distracted appearance which grated terribly upon the child's nerves. Only her own room was not touched. "You shall have your room all fixed up next year," her father told her. "I would have it done now, but father is going to considerable expense as it is." Maria assured him, with a sort of wild eagerness, that she did not want her room touched. It seemed to her that if the familiar paper which her mother had selected were changed for something else, and the room altered, that the last vestige of home would disappear, that she could not bear it.
"Well," said Harry, easily, "your paper will do very well, I guess, for a while longer; but father will have your room fixed up another year. You needn't think you are going to be slighted."
That night, Maria and Mrs. Addix sat in Maria's room. The parlor was in confusion, and so was the dining-room and the guest-chamber; indeed, the house was at that time in the height of its repairs. That very day Maria's mother's room had been papered with a beautiful paper with a sheenlike satin, over which were strewn garlands of pink roses. Pink was Miss Slome's favorite color. They had a new hard-wood floor laid in that room, and there was to be a pink rug, and white furniture painted with pink roses; Maria knew that her father and Miss Slome had picked it out. That evening, after her father had gone, and she sat there with the sleeping Mrs. Addix, a sort of frenzy seized her, or, rather, she worked herself up to it. She thought of what her mother would have said to that beautiful new paper, and furniture, and bay-window. Her mother also had liked pink. She thought of how much her mother would have liked it, and how she had gone without, and not made any complaint about her shabby old furnishings, which had that very day been sold to Mrs. Addix for an offset to her wages, and which Maria had seen carried away. She thought about it all, and a red flush deepened on her cheeks, and her blue eyes blazed. For the time she was abnormal. She passed the limit which separates perfect sanity from mania. She had some fancy-work in her hands. Mrs. White had suggested that she work in cross-stitch a cover for the dresser in her new mother's room, and she was engaged upon that, performing, as she thought, a duty, but her very soul rebelled against it. She made some mistakes, and whenever she did she realized with a sort of wicked glee that the thing would not be perfect, and she never tried to rectify them.
Finally, Maria laid her work softly on the table, beside which she was sitting. She glanced at Mrs. Addix, whose heavy, measured breathing filled the room, then she arose. She took the lamp from the table, and tiptoed out. Maria stole across the hall. The room which had been her father's and mother's was entirely empty, and the roses on the satiny wall-paper gleamed out as if they were real. There was a white-and-silver picture-moulding. Maria set her lamp on the floor. She looked at the great bay-window, she looked at the roses on the walls. Then she did a mad thing. The paper was freshly put on; it was hardly dry. Maria deliberately approached the wall near the bay-window, where the paper looked somewhat damp; she inserted her slender little fingers, with a scratching of her nails under the edge, and she tore off a great, ragged strip. Then she took up her lamp and returned to her room.
Mrs. Addix was still asleep. She had begun to snore, in an odd sort of fashion, with deep, regular puffs of breath; it was like the beating of a drum to peace and rest, after a day of weary and unskilled labor unprofitable to the soul. Maria sat down again. She took up her work. She felt very wicked, but she felt better.
When Maria's father returned that night, he came, as usual, straight to the room wherein she and Mrs. Addix were sitting. Maria regarded her father with a sort of contemptuous wonder, tinctured with unwilling admiration. Her father, on his return from his evenings spent with Miss Ida Slome, looked always years younger than Maria had ever seen him. There was the humidity of youth in his eyes, the flush of youth on his cheeks, the triumph of youth in his expression. Harry Edgham, in spite of lines on his face, in spite, even, of a shimmer of gray and thinness of hair on the temples, looked as young as youth itself, in this rejuvenation of his affection, for he was very much in love with the woman whom he was to marry. He had been faithful to his wife while she lived, even the imagination of love for another woman had not entered his heart. His wife's faded face had not for a second disturbed his loyalty; but now the beauty of this other woman aroused within him long dormant characteristics, like some wonderful stimulant, not only for the body, but for the soul. When he looked in Ida Slome's beautiful face he seemed to drink in an elixir of life. And yet, down at the roots of the man's heart slept the memory of his wife; for Abby Edgham, with her sallow, faded face, had possessed something which Ida Slome lacked, and which the man needed, to hold him. And always in his mind, at this time, was the intention to be more than kind to his motherless little daughter, not to let her realize any difference in his feeling for her.
When he came to-night, he looked at the sleeping Mrs. Addix, and at Maria, taking painful stitches in her dresser cover, at first with a radiant smile, then with the deepest pity.
"Poor little soul," he said. "You have had a long evening to yourself, haven't you?"
"I don't mind," replied Maria. She was thinking of the torn wall-paper, and she did not look her father fully in the eyes.
"Has she been asleep ever since I went?" inquired Harry, in a whisper.
"Poor little girl. Well, it will be livelier by-and-by for you. We'll have company, and more going on." Harry then went close to Mrs. Addix, sitting with her head resting on her shoulder, still snoring with those puffs of heavy breath. "Mrs. Addix," he said.
Mrs. Addix did not stir; she continued to snore.
"Mrs. Addix!" repeated Harry, in a louder tone, but still the sleeping woman did not stir.
"Good Lord, what a sleeper!" said Harry, still aloud. Then he shook her violently by the shoulder. "Come, Mrs. Addix," said he, in a shout; "I've got home, and I guess you'll want to be going yourself."
Mrs. Addix moved languidly, and glanced up with a narrow slit of eye, as dull as if she had been drugged. Harry shook her again, and repeated his announcement that he was home and that she must want to go. At last he roused her, and she stood up with a dazed expression. Maria got her bonnet and shawl, and she gazed at them vaguely, as if she were so far removed from the flesh that the garments thereof perplexed her. Maria put on her bonnet, standing on tiptoe, and Harry threw the shawl over her shoulders. Then she staggered out of the room with a mumbled good-night.
"Take care of the stairs, and do not fall," Harry said.
He himself held the light for her, until she was safely down, and the outer door had closed after her.
"The fresh air will wake her up," he said, laughing. "Not very lively company, is she, dear?"
"No, sir," replied Maria, simply.
Harry looked lovingly at her, then his eyes fell on the door of the room which had been papered that day. It occurred to him to go in and see how the new paper looked.
"Come in with father, and let's see the improvements," he said, in a gay voice, to Maria.
Maria followed him into the room. It would have been difficult to say whether triumphant malice and daring, or fear, prevailed in her heart.
Harry, carrying the lamp, entered the room, with Maria slinking at his heels. The first thing he saw was the torn paper.
"Hullo!" said he. He approached the bay-window with his lamp. "Confound those paperers!" he said.
For a minute Maria did not say a word. She was not exactly struggling with temptation; she had inherited too much from her mother's Puritan ancestry to make the question of a struggle possible when the duty of truth stared her, as now, in the face. She simply did not speak at once because the thing appeared to her stupendous, and nobody, least of all a child, but has a threshold of preparation before stupendous things.
"They haven't half put the paper on," said her father. "Didn't half paste it, I suppose. You can't trust anybody unless you are right at their heels. Confound 'em! There, I've got to go round and blow 'em up to-morrow, before I go to the city."
Then Maria spoke. "I tore that paper off, father," said she.
Harry turned and stared at her. His face went white. For a second he thought the child was out of her senses.
"What?" he said.
"I tore that paper off," repeated Maria.
The double question seemed to hit the child like a pistol-shot, but she did not flinch.
"Mother never had paper as pretty as this," she said, "nor new furniture." Her eyes met her father's with indescribable reproach.
Harry looked at her with almost horror. For the moment the child's eyes looked like her dead mother's, her voice sounded like her's. He continued gazing at her.
"I couldn't bear it," said Maria. "She" [she meant Mrs. Addix] "was asleep. I was all alone. I got to thinking. I came in here and tore it off."
Harry heaved a deep sigh. He did not look nor was he in the least angry.
"I know your poor mother didn't have much," said he. He sighed again. Then he put his arm around Maria and kissed her. "You can have your room newly papered now, if you want it," said he, in a choking voice. "Father will send you over to Ellisville to-morrow with Mrs. White, and you can pick out some paper your own self, and father will have it put right on."
"I don't care about any," said Maria, and she began to sob.
"Father's baby," said Harry.
She felt his chest heave, and realized that her father was weeping as well as she.
"Oh, father, I don't want new paper," she sobbed out, convulsively. "Mother picked out that on my room, and—and—I am sorry I tore this off."
"Never mind, darling," said Harry. He almost carried the child back to her own room. "Now get to bed as soon as you can, dear," he said.
After Maria, trembling and tearful, had undressed and was in bed, her father came back into the room. He held a small lamp in one hand, and a tumbler with some wine in the other.
"Here is some of the wine your mother had," said Harry. "Now I want you to sit right up and drink this."
"I—don't want it, father," gasped Maria.
"Sit right up and drink it."
Maria sat up. The tumbler was a third full, and the wine was an old port. Maria drank it. Immediately her head began to swim; she felt in a sort of daze when her father kissed her, and bade her lie still and go right to sleep, and went out of the room. She heard him, with sharpened hearing, enter her mother's room. She remembered about the paper, and the new furniture, and how she was to have a new mother, and how she had torn the paper, and how her own mother had never had such things, but she remembered through a delicious haze. She felt a charming warmth pervade all her veins. She was no longer unhappy. Nothing seemed to matter. She soon fell asleep.
As for Harry Edgham, he entered the empty room which he had occupied with his dead wife. He set the lamp on the floor and approached the paper, which poor little Maria, in her fit of futile rebellion, had torn. He carefully tore off still more, making a clean strip of the paper where Maria had made a ragged one. When he had finished, it looked as if the paper had in reality dropped off because of carelessness in putting on. He gathered up the pieces of paper and stood looking about the room.
There is something about an empty room, empty except of memories, but containing nothing besides, no materialities, no certainties as to the future, which is intimidating to one who stops and thinks. Harry Edgham was not, generally speaking, of the sort who stop to think; but now he did. The look of youth faded from his face. Instead of the joy and triumph which had filled his heart and made it young again, came remembrance of the other woman, and something else, which resembled terror and dread. For the first time he deliberated whether he was about to do a wise thing: for the first time, the image of Ida Slome's smiling beauty, which was ever evident to his fancy, produced in him something like doubt and consternation. He looked about the room, and remembered the old pieces of furniture which had that day been carried away. He looked at the places where they had stood. Then he remembered his dead wife, as he had never remembered her before, with an anguish of loss. He said to himself that if he only had her back, even with her faded face and her ready tongue, that old, settled estate would be better for him than this joy, which at once dazzled and racked him. Suddenly the man, as he stood there, put his hands before his face; he was weeping like a child. That which Maria had done, instead of awakening wrath, had aroused a pity for himself and for her, which seemed too great to be borne. For the instant, the dead triumphed over the living.
Then Harry took up the lamp and went to his own room. He set the lamp on the dresser, and looked at his face, with the rays thrown upward upon it, very much as Maria had done the night of her mother's death. When he viewed himself in the looking-glass, he smiled involuntarily; the appearance of youth returned. He curled his mustache and moved his head this way and that. He thought about some new clothes which he was to have. He owned to himself, with perfect ingenuousness, that he was, in his way, as a man, as good-looking as Ida herself. Suddenly he remembered how Abby had looked when she was a young girl and he had married her; he had not compared himself so favorably with her. The image of his dead wife, as a young girl, was much fairer in his mind than that of Ida Slome.
"There's no use talking, Abby was handsomer than Ida when she was young," he said to himself, as he began to undress. He went to sleep thinking of Abby as a young girl, but when once asleep he dreamed of Ida Slome.
Harry and Ida Slome were to be married the Monday before Thanksgiving. The school would close on the Friday before.
Ida Slome possessed, along with an entire self-satisfaction, a vein of pitiless sense, which enabled her to see herself as others might see her, and which saved her from the follies often incident to the self-satisfied. She considered herself a beauty; she thought, and with reason, that she would be well worth looking at in her wedding-clothes, but she also told herself that it was quite possible that some remarks might be made to her disparagement if she had the wedding to which her inclination prompted her. She longed for a white gown, veil, bridesmaids, and the rest, but she knew better. She knew that more could be made of her beauty and her triumph if she curtailed her wish. She realized that Harry's wife had been dead only a little more than a year, and that, although still a beauty, she was not a young girl, and she steered clear of criticism and ridicule.
The ceremony was performed in the Presbyterian church Monday afternoon. Ida wore a prune-colored costume, and a hat trimmed with pansies. She was quite right in thinking that she was adorable in it, and there was also in the color, with its shade of purple, a delicate intimation of the remembrance of mourning in the midst of joy. The church was filled with people, but there were no bridesmaids. Some of Ida's scholars acted as ushers. Wollaston Lee was among them. To Maria's utter astonishment, he did not seem to realize his trying position as a rejected suitor. He was attired in a new suit, and wore a white rosebud in his coat, and Maria glanced at him with mingled admiration and disdain.
Maria sat directly in front of the pulpit, with Mrs. Jonas White and Lillian. Mrs. White had a new gown of some thin black stuff, profusely ornamented with jet, and Lillian had a new pink silk gown, and wore a great bunch of roses. The situation, with regard to Maria, in connection with the wedding ceremony and the bridal trip, had been a very perplexing one. Harry had some western cousins, far removed, both by blood and distance. Aunt Maria and her brother were the only relatives on his former wife's side. Aunt Maria had received an invitation, both from Harry and the prospective bride, to be present at the wedding and remain in the house with Maria until the return of the bridal couple from their short trip. She had declined in a few stilted words, although Harry had sent a check to cover the expenses of her trip, which was returned in her letter.
"The fact is, I don't know what to do with Maria," Harry said to Ida Slome, a week before the wedding. "Maria won't come, and neither will her brother's wife, and she can't be left alone, even with the new maid. We don't know the girl very well, and it won't do."
Ida Slome solved the problem with her usual precision and promptness.
"Then," said she, "she will have to board at Mrs. White's until we return. There is nothing else to do."
It was therefore decided that Maria was to board at Mrs. White's, although it involved some things which were not altogether satisfactory to Ida. Maria could not sit all alone in a pew, and watch her father being married to his second wife, that was obvious; and, since Mrs. Jonas White was going to take charge of her, there was nothing else to do but to place herself and daughter in a position of honored intimacy. Mrs. Jonas White said quite openly that she was not in any need of taking boarders, that she had only taken Mr. Edgham and Maria to oblige, and that she now was to take poor little Maria out of pity. She, in reality, did pity Maria, for a good many reasons. She was a shrewd woman, and she gauged Miss Ida Slome pitilessly. However, she had to admit that she had shown some consideration in one respect. In the midst of her teaching, and preparations for her wedding, she had planned a lovely dress for Maria. It was unquestionable but the realization of her own loveliness, and her new attire had an alleviating influence upon Maria. There was a faint buzz of admiration for her when she entered the church. She looked as if enveloped in a soft gray cloud. Ida had planned a dress of some gray stuff, and a soft gray hat, tied under her chin with wide ribbons, and a long gray plume floating over her golden-fleece of hair. Maria had never owned such a gown, and, in addition, she had her first pair of kid-gloves of gray, to match the dress, and long, gray coat, trimmed with angora fur. She was charming in it, and, moreover, the gray, as her step-mother's purple, suggested delicately, if one so chose to understand a dim yet pleasing melancholy, a shade, as it were, of remembrance.
Maria had been dressed at home, under Mrs. White's supervision. Maria had viewed herself in the new long mirror in her mother's room, which was now resplendent with its new furnishings, and she admitted to herself that she was lovelier than she had ever been, and that she had Miss Ida Slome to thank for it.
"I will say one thing," said Mrs. White, "she has looked out for you about your dress, and she has shown real good taste, too."
Maria turned herself about before the glass, which reflected her whole beautiful little person, and she loved herself so much that for the first time it seemed to her that she almost loved Ida. She was blushing and smiling with pleasure.
Mrs. White sighed. "Well, maybe it is for the best," said she. "One never knows about such things, how they will work out."
Maria listened, with a degree of indignation and awe, to the service. She felt her heart swelling with grief at the sight of this other woman being made her father's wife and put in the place of her own mother, and yet, as a musical refrain is the haunting and ever-recurrent part of a composition, so was her own charming appearance. She felt so sure that people were observing her, that she blushed and dared not look around. She was, in reality, much observed, and both admired and pitied.
People, both privately and outspokenly, did not believe that the step-mother would be, in a way, good to the child by the former marriage. Ida Slome was not exactly a favorite in Edgham. People acquiesced in her beauty and brilliancy, but they did not entirely believe in her or love her. She stood before the pulpit with her same perfect, set smile, displaying to the utmost the sweet curves of her lips. Her cheeks retained their lovely brilliancy of color. Harry trembled, and his face looked pale and self-conscious, but Ida displayed no such weakness. She replied with the utmost self-poise to the congratulations which she received after the ceremony. There was an informal reception in the church vestry. Cake and ice-cream and coffee were served, and Ida and Harry and Maria stood together. Ida had her arm around Maria most of the time, but Maria felt as if it were an arm of wood which encircled her. She heard Ida Slome addressed as Mrs. Edgham, and she wanted to jerk herself away and run. She lost the consciousness of herself in her new attire.
Once Harry looked around at her, and received a shock. Maria's face looked to him exactly like her mother's, although the coloring was so different. Maria was a blonde, and her mother had been dark. There was something about the excitement hardly restrained in her little face, which made the man realize that the dead wife yet lived and reigned triumphant in her child. He himself was conscious that he conducted himself rather awkwardly and foolishly. A red spot burned on either cheek. He spoke jerkily, and it seemed to him that everything he said was silly, and that people might repeat it and laugh. He was relieved when it was all over and he and Ida were in the cab, driving to the station. When they were rolling rapidly through a lonely part of the road, he put his arm around his new wife, and kissed her. She received his kiss, and looked at him with her set smile and the set sparkle in her beautiful eyes. Again the feeling of almost terror which he had experienced the night when Maria had torn the paper off in her mother's room, came over him. However, he made an effort and threw it off.
"Poor little Maria looked charming, thanks to you, dearest," he said, tenderly.
"Yes, I thought she did. That gray suit was just the thing for her, wasn't it? I never saw her look so pretty before," returned Ida, and her tone was full of self-praise for her goodness to Maria.
"Well, she will be a great deal happier," said Harry. "It was a lonesome life for a child to lead."
Harry Edgham had not an atom of tact. Any woman might have judged from his remarks that she had been married on account of Maria; but Ida only responded with her never-changing smile.
"Yes," said she, "I think myself that she will be much happier, dear." Privately she rather did resent her husband's speech, but she never lost sight of the fact that a smile is more becoming than a frown.
Maria remained boarding at Mrs. Jonas White's until her father and his new wife returned. She did not have a very happy time. In the first place, the rather effusive pity with which she was treated by the female portion of the White family, irritated her. She began to consider that, now her father had married, his wife was a member of her family, and not to be decried. Maria had a great deal of pride when those belonging to her were concerned. One day she retorted pertly when some covert remark, not altogether to her new mother's laudation, had been made by Lillian.
"I think she is perfectly lovely," said she, with a toss of her head.
Lillian and her mother looked at each other. Then Lillian, who was not her match for pertness, spoke.
"Have you made up your mind what to call her?" she asked. "Mummer, or mother?"
"I shall call her whatever I please," replied Maria; "it is nobody's business." Then she arose and went out of the room, with an absurd little strut.
"Lord a-massy!" observed Mrs. Jonas White, after she had gone.
"I guess Ida Slome will have her hands full with that young one," observed Lillian.
"I guess she will, too," assented her mother. "She was real sassy. Well, her mother had a temper of her own; guess she's got some of it."
Mr. Jonas White and Henry were a great alleviation of Maria's desolate estate during her father's absence. Somehow, the men seemed to understand better than the women just how she felt: that she would rather be let alone, now it was all over, than condoled with and pitied. Mr. Henry White took one of the market horses, hitched him into a light buggy, and took Maria out riding two evenings, when the market was closed. It was a warm November, and the moon was full. Maria quite enjoyed her drive with Mr. Henry White, and he never said one word about her father's marriage, and her new mother—her pronoun of a mother—all the way. Mr. Henry White had too long a neck, and too large a mouth, which was, moreover, too firmly set, otherwise Maria felt that, with slight encouragement, she might fall in love with him, since he showed so much delicacy. She counted up the probable difference in their ages, and estimated it as no more than was between her father and Her. However, Mr. Henry White gave her so little encouragement, and his neck was so much too long above his collar, that she decided to put it out of her mind.
"Poor little thing," Mr. Henry White said to his father, next day, "she's about wild, with mother and Lill harping on it all the time."
"They mean well," said Mr. White.
"Of course they do; but who's going to stand this eternal harping? If women folks would only stop being so durned kind, and let folks alone sometimes, they'd be a durned sight kinder."
"That's so," said Mr. Jonas White.
Maria's father and his bride reached home about seven on the Monday night after Thanksgiving. Maria re-entered her old home in the afternoon. Miss Zella Holmes, who was another teacher of hers, went with her. Ida had requested her to open the house. Ida's former boarding-house mistress had cooked a large turkey, and made some cakes and pies and bread. Miss Zella Holmes drove around for Maria in a livery carriage, and all these supplies were stowed in beside them. On the way they stopped at the station for the new maid, whose train was due then. She was a Hungarian girl, with a saturnine, almost savage visage. Maria felt an awe of her, both because she was to be their maid, and they had never kept one, and because of her personality.
When they reached home, Miss Zella Holmes, who was very lively and quick in her ways, though not at all pretty, gave orders to the maid in a way which astonished Maria. She was conscious of an astonishment at everything, which had not before possessed her. She looked at the kitchen, the dining-room, the sitting-room, the parlor, all the old apartments, and it was exactly as if she saw old friends with new heads. The sideboard in the dining-room glittered with the wedding silver and cut-glass. New pictures hung on the sitting-room and parlor walls, beside the new paper. Wedding gifts lay on the tables. There had been many wedding gifts. Miss Zella Holmes flew about the house, with the saturnine Hungarian in attendance. Maria, at Miss Holmes's bidding, began to lay the table. She got out some new table-linen, napkins, and table-cloth, which had been a wedding present. She set the table with some new china. She looked, with a numb feeling, at her mother's poor old blue-and-white dishes, which were put away on the top shelves.
"I think it would be a very good idea to pack away those dishes altogether, and put them in a box up in the garret," said Miss Holmes. Then she noticed Maria's face. "They will come in handy for your wedding outfit, little girl," she added, kindly and jocosely, but Maria did not laugh.
Every now and then Maria looked at the clock on the parlor shelf, that was also new. The old sitting-room clock had disappeared; Maria did not know where, but she missed the face of it as if it had been the face of a friend. Miss Holmes also glanced frequently at the new clock. There arose a fragrant odor of warming potatoes and gravy from the kitchen.
"It is almost time for them," said Miss Holmes.
She was very much dressed-up, Maria thought. She wore a red silk gown with a good many frills about the shoulders. She was very slight, and affected frills to conceal it. Out of this mass of red frills arose her little, alert head and face, homely, but full of vivacity. Maria thought her very nice. She would have liked her better for a mother than Ida. When Miss Zella Holmes smiled it seemed to come from within.
At last a carriage came rapidly up to their door, and Miss Holmes sprang to open it. Maria remained in the dining-room. Suddenly an uncanny fancy had seized her and terrified her. Suppose her father should look different, like everything else? Suppose it should be to her as if he had a new head? She therefore remained in the dining-room, trembling. She heard her father's voice, loud and merry. "Where is Maria?" Still, Maria did not stir. Then her father came hurrying into the room, and behind him she who had been Ida Slome, radiant and triumphant, in her plum-colored array, with the same smile with which she had departed on her beautiful face. Harry caught Maria in his arms, rubbed his cold face against her soft little one, and kissed her.
"How is father's little girl?" he asked, with a break in his voice.
"Pretty well, thank you," replied Maria. She gave a helpless little cling to her father, then she stood away.
"Speak to your new mother, darling," said Harry.
"How do You do?" said Maria, obediently, and Ida said, "You darling," and then kissed her exactly as if she had been an uncommonly well-constructed doll, with a clock-work system which fitted her to take such a part with perfect accuracy.
Harry watched his wife and daughter rather anxiously. He seized the first opportunity to ask Maria, aside, if she had been well, and if she had been happy and comfortable at Mrs. White's. Then he wound up with the rather wistful inquiry:
"You are going to love your new mother, aren't you, darling? Don't you think she is lovely?"
Ida had gone up-stairs with Miss Holmes, to remove her wraps.
"Yes, sir, I think She is lovely," replied Maria.
Ida Edgham was, in some respects, a peculiar personality. She was as much stronger, in another way, than her husband, as her predecessor had been. She was that anomaly: a creature of supreme self-satisfaction, who is yet aware of its own limits. She was so unemotional as to be almost abnormal, but she had head enough to realize the fact that absolute unemotionlessness in a woman detracts from her charm. She therefore simulated emotion. She had a spiritual make-up, a panoply of paint and powder for the soul, as truly as any actress has her array of cosmetics for her face. She made no effort to really feel, she knew that was entirely useless, but she observed all the outward signs and semblance of feeling more or less successfully. She knew that to take up her position in Harry Edgham's house like a marble bust of Diana, which had been one of her wedding-presents, would not be to her credit. She therefore put herself to the pace which she would naturally be expected to assume in her position. She showed everybody who called her new possessions, with a semblance of delight which was quite perfect. She was, in reality, less deceptive in that respect than in others. She had a degree of the joy of possession, or she would not have been a woman at all, and, in fact, would not have married. She had wanted a home and a husband; not as some women want them, for the legitimate desire for love and protection, but because she felt a degree of mortification on account of her single estate. She had had many admirers, but, although no one ever knew it, not one offer of marriage, the acceptance of which would not have been an absurdity, before poor Harry Edgham. She was not quite contented to accept him. She had hoped for something better; but he was good-looking, and popular, and his social standing, in her small world, was good. He was an electrical engineer, with an office in the city, and had a tolerably good income, although his first wife's New England thrift had compelled him to live parsimoniously.
Ida made up her mind from the first that thrift, after the plan of the first woman, should not be observed in her household. Without hinting to that effect, or without Harry's recognizing it, she so managed that within a few weeks after her marriage he put an insurance on his life, which would insure her comfort in case she outlived him. He owned his house, and she had herself her little savings, well invested. She then considered that they could live up to Harry's income without much risk, and she proceeded to do so. It was not long before the saturnine Hungarian, who could have provided a regiment of her own countrymen with the coarse food of her race, but seemed absolutely incapable of carrying out American ideas of good cookery, was dismissed, and a good cook, at a price which at first staggered Harry, installed in her place. Then a young girl was found to take care of the bedrooms, and wait on table, attired in white gowns and aprons and caps.
Ida had a reception two weeks after her return from her bridal trip, and an elaborate menu was provided by a caterer from New York. Maria, in a new white gown, with a white bow on her hair, sat at one end of the dining-table, shining with cut-glass and softly lighted with wax-candles under rose-colored shades in silver candlesticks, and poured chocolate, while another young girl opposite dipped lemonade from a great cut-glass punch-bowl, which had been one of the wedding-presents. The table was strewn with pink-and-white carnations. Maria caught a glimpse now and then of her new mother, in a rose-colored gown, with a bunch of pink roses on her breast, standing with her father receiving their guests, and she could scarcely believe that she was awake and it was really happening. She began to take a certain pleasure in the excitement. She heard one woman say to another how pretty she was, "poor little thing," and her heart throbbed with satisfaction. She felt at once beautiful and appealing to other people, because of her misfortunes. She turned the chocolate carefully, and put some whipped-cream on top of each dainty cup; and, for the first time since her father's marriage, she was not consciously unhappy. She glanced across the table at the other little girl, Amy Long, who was dark, and wore a pink bow on her hair, and she was sure that she herself was much prettier. Then, too, Amy had not the sad distinction of having lost her mother, and having a step-mother thrust upon her in a year's time. It is true that once when Amy's mother, large and portly in a blue satin which gave out pale white lights on the curves of her great arms and back, and whose roseate face looked forth from a fichu of real lace pinned with a great pearl brooch, came up behind her little daughter and straightened the pink bow on her hair, Maria felt a cruel little pang. There was something about the look of loving admiration which Mrs. Long gave her daughter that stung Maria's heart with a sense of loss. She felt that if her new mother should straighten out her white bow and regard her with admiration, it would be because of her own self, and the credit which she, Maria, reflected upon her. Still, she reflected how charming she looked. Self-love is much better than nothing for a lonely soul.
That night Maria realized that she was in the second place, so far as her father was concerned. Ida, in her rose-colored robes, dispensing hospitality in his home, took up his whole attention. She was really radiant. She sang and played twice for the company, and her perfectly true high soprano filled the whole house. To Maria it sounded as meaningless as the trill of a canary-bird. In fact, when it came to music, Ida, although she had a good voice, had the mortification of realizing that her simulation of emotion failed her. Harry did not like his wife's singing. He felt like a traitor, but he could not help realizing that he did not like it. But the moment Ida stopped singing, he looked at her, and fairly wondered that he had married such a beautiful creature. He felt humble before her. Humility was not a salutary condition of mind for him, but this woman inspired it now, and would still more in the future. In spite of his first wife's scolding, her quick temper, he had always felt himself as good as she was. The mere fact of the temper itself had served to give him a sense of equality and, perhaps, superiority, but this woman never showed temper. She never failed to respond with her stereotyped smile to everything that was said. She seemed to have no faults at all, to realize none in herself, and not to admit the possibility of any one else doing so.
Harry felt himself distinctly in the wrong beside such unquestionable right. He even did not think himself so good-looking as he had formerly done. It seemed to him that he looked much older than Ida. When they went out together he felt like a lackey in attendance on an empress. In his own home, it came to pass that he seldom made a remark when guests were present without a covert glance at his wife to see what she thought of it. He could always tell what she thought, even if her face did not change and she made no comment neither then nor afterwards, and she always made him know, in some subtle fashion, when he had said anything wrong.
Maria felt very much in the same way at first, but she fought involuntarily against it. She had a good deal of her mother in her. Finally, she never looked at Ida when she said anything. She was full of rebellion although she was quiet and obedient, and very unobtrusive, in the new state of things.
Ida entertained every Tuesday evening. There was not a caterer as at the first reception, but Ida herself cooked dainty messes in a silver chafing-dish, and Maria and the white-capped little maid passed things. It was not especially expensive, but people in Edgham began to talk. They said Harry was living beyond his means; but Ida kept within his income. She had too good a head for reckless extravagance, although she loved admiration and show. When there were no guests in the house, Maria used to go to her own room early of an evening, and read until it was time to go to bed. She realized that her father and Ida found her somewhat superfluous, although Ida never made any especial effort to entertain her father that Maria could see. She was fond of fancy-work, and was embroidering a silk gown for herself. She embroidered while Harry read the paper. She did not talk much. Maria used to wonder that her father did not find it dull when he and She were alone together of an evening. She looked at him reading his paper, with frequent glances of admiration over it at his beautiful wife, and thought that in his place, she should much prefer a woman like her mother, who had kept things lively, even without company, and even in a somewhat questionable fashion. However, Harry and Ida themselves went out a good deal. People in Edgham aped city society, they even talked about the "four hundred." The newly wedded pair were frequent guests of honor at dinners and receptions, and Ida herself was a member of the Edgham's Woman's Club, and that took her out a good deal. Maria was rather lonely. Finally the added state and luxury of her life, which had at first pleased her, failed to do so. She felt that she hated all the new order of things, and her heart yearned for the old. She began to grow thin; she did not sleep much nor sleep well. She felt tired all the time. One day her father noticed her changed looks.
"Why, Maria is getting thin!" said he.
"I think it is because she is growing tall," said Ida. "Everybody seems thin when they are growing tall. I did myself. I was much thinner than Maria at her age." She looked at Maria with her invariable smile as she spoke.
"She looks very thin to me," Harry said, anxiously.
He himself looked thin and older. An anxious wrinkle had deepened between his eyes. It was June, and the days were getting warm. He was anxious about Ida's health also. Ida was not at all anxious. She was perfectly placid. It did not seem to her that an overruling Providence could possibly treat her unkindly. She was rather annoyed at times, but still never anxious, and utterly satisfied with herself to that extent that it precluded any doubt as to the final outcome of everything.
Maria continued to lose flesh. A sentimental interest in herself and her delicacy possessed her. She used to look at her face, which seemed to her more charming than ever, although so thin, in the glass, and reflect, with a pleasant acquiescence, on an early death. She even spent some time in composing her own epitaph, and kept it carefully hidden away in a drawer of her dresser, under some linen.
Maria felt a gloomy pride when the doctor, who came frequently to see Ida, was asked to look at her; she felt still more triumphant when he expressed it as his opinion that she ought to have a change of air the moment school closed. The doctor said Maria was running down, which seemed to her a very interesting state of things, and one which ought to impress people. She told Gladys Mann the next day at school.
"The doctor says I'm running down," said she.
"You do look awful bad," replied Gladys.
After recess Maria saw Gladys with her face down on her desk, weeping. She knew that she was weeping because she looked so badly and was running down. She glanced across at Wollaston Lee, and wondered if he had noticed how badly she looked, and yet how charming. All at once the boy shot a glance at her in return; then he blushed and scowled and took up his book. It all comforted Maria in the midst of her langour and her illness, which was negative and unattended by any pain. If she felt any appetite she restrained it, she became so vain of having lost it.
It was decided that Maria should go and visit her aunt Maria, in New England, and remain there all summer. Her father would pay her board in order that she should not be any restraint on her aunt, with her scant income. Just before Maria went, and just before her school closed, the broad gossip of the school came to her ears. She ascertained something which filled her at once with awe, and shame, and jealousy, and indignation. If one of the girls began to speak to her about it, she turned angrily away. She fairly pushed Gladys Mann one day. Gladys turned and looked at her with loving reproach, like a chidden dog. "What did you expect?" said she. Maria ran away, her face burning.
After she reached her aunt Maria's nothing was said to her about it. Aunt Maria was too prudish and too indignant. Uncle Henry's wife, Aunt Eunice, was away all summer, taking care of a sister who was ill with consumption in New Hampshire; so Aunt Maria kept the whole house, and she and Maria and Uncle Henry had their meals together. Maria loved her uncle Henry. He was a patient man, with a patience which at times turns to fierceness, of a man with a brain above his sphere, who has had to stand and toil in a shoe-factory for his bread and butter all his life. He was non-complainant because of a sort of stern pride, and a sense of a just cause against Providence, but he was very kind to Maria; he petted her as if she had been his own child. Every pleasant night Uncle Henry took Maria for a trolley-ride, or a walk, and he treated her to ice-cream soda and candy. Aunt Maria also took good care of the child. She showed a sort of vicious curiosity with regard to Maria's step-mother and all the new household arrangements, which Maria did not gratify. She had too much loyalty, although she longed to say all that she thought to her aunt, being sure of a violent sympathizer.
"Well, I'll say one thing, she has fixed your clothes nice," said Aunt Maria.
"She didn't do it, it was Miss Barnes," replied Maria. She could not help saying that much. She did not want Aunt Maria to think her step-mother took better care of her wardrobe than her own mother had done.
"Good land! She didn't hire all these things made?" said Aunt Maria.
"Good land! I don't see how your father is going to stand it. I'd like to know what your poor mother would have said?" said Aunt Maria.
Then Maria's loyalty came to the front. After all, she was her father's wife, and to be defended.
"I guess maybe father is making more money now," said she.
"Well, I hope to the land he is," said Aunt Maria. "I guess if She (Aunt Maria also treated Ida like a pronoun) had just one hundred dollars and no more to get along with, she'd have to do different."
Maria regained her strength rapidly. When she went home, a few days before her school begun, in September, she was quite rosy and blooming. She had also fallen in love with a boy who lived next to Aunt Maria, and who asked her, over the garden fence, to correspond with him, the week before she left.
It was that very night that Aunt Maria had the telegram. She paid the boy, then she opened it with trembling fingers. Her brother Henry and Maria were with her on the porch. It was a warm night, and Aunt Maria wore an ancient muslin. The south wind fluttered the ruffles on that and the yellow telegram as she read. She was silent a moment, with mouth compressed.
"Well," said her brother Henry, inquiringly.
Aunt Maria's face flushed and paled. She turned to Maria.
"Well," she said, "you've got a little sister."
"Good!" said Uncle Henry. "Ever so much more company for you than a little brother would have been, Maria."
Maria was silent. She trembled and felt cold, although the night was so warm.
"Weighs seven pounds," said Aunt Maria, in a hard voice.
Maria returned home a week from that day. She travelled alone from Boston, and her father met her in New York. He looked strange to her. He was jubilant, and yet the marks of anxiety were deep. He seemed very glad to see Maria, and talked to her about her little sister in an odd, hesitating way.
"Her name is Evelyn," said Harry.
Maria said nothing. She and her father were crossing the city to the ferry in a cab.
"Don't you think that is a pretty name, dear?" asked Harry, with a queer, apologetic wistfulness.
"No, father, I think it is a very silly name," replied Maria.
"Why, your mother and I thought it a very pretty name, dear."
"I always thought it was the silliest name in the world," said Maria, firmly. However, she sat close to her father, and realized that it was something to have him to herself without Her, while crossing the city. "I don't know as I think Evelyn is such a very silly name, father," she said, presently, just before they reached the ferry.
Harry bent down and kissed her. "Father's own little girl," he said.
Maria felt that she had been magnanimous, for she had in reality never liked Evelyn, and would not have named a doll that.
"You will be a great deal happier with a little sister. It will turn out for the best," said Harry, as the cab stopped. Harry always put a colon of optimism to all his happenings of life.
The next morning, when Ida was arrayed in a silk negligee, and the baby was washed and dressed, Maria was bidden to enter the room which had been her mother's. The first thing which she noticed was a faint perfume of violet-scented toilet-powder. Then she saw Ida leaning back gracefully in a reclining-chair, with her hair carefully dressed. The nurse held the baby: a squirming little bundle of soft, embroidered flannel. The nurse was French, and she awed Maria, for she spoke no English, and nobody except Ida could understand her. She was elderly, small, and of a damaged blond type. Maria approached Ida and kissed her. Ida looked at her, smiling. Then she asked if she had had a pleasant summer. She told the nurse, in French, to show the baby to her. Maria approached the nurse timidly. The flannel was carefully laid aside, and the small, piteously inquiring and puzzled face, the inquiry and the bewilderment expressed by a thousand wrinkles, was exposed. Maria looked at it with a sort of shiver. The nurse laid the flannel apart and disclosed the tiny feet seeming already to kick feebly at existence. The nurse said something in French which Maria could not understand. Ida answered also in French. Then the baby seemed to experience a convulsion; its whole face seemed to open into one gape of expostulation at fate. Then its feeble, futile wail filled the whole room.
"Isn't she a little darling?" asked Ida, of Maria.
"Yes'm," replied Maria.
There was a curious air of aloofness about Ida with regard to her baby, and something which gave the impression of wistfulness. It is possible that she was capable of wishing that she had not that aloofness. It did not in the least seem to Maria as if it were Ida's baby. She had a vague impression, derived she could not tell in what manner, of a rosebud laid on a gatepost. Ida did not seem conscious of her baby with the woodeny consciousness of an apple-tree of a blossom. When she gazed at it, it was with the same set smile with which she had always viewed all creation. That smile which came from without, not within, but now it was fairly tragic.
"Her name is Evelyn. Don't you think it is a pretty name?" asked Ida.
"Yes'm," replied Maria. She edged towards the door. The nurse, tossing the wailing baby, rose and got a bottle of milk. Maria went out.
Maria went to school the next Monday, and all the girls asked her if the baby was pretty.
"It looks like all the babies I ever saw," replied Maria guardedly. She did not wish to descry the baby which was, after all, her sister, but she privately thought it was a terrible sight.
Gladys Mann supported her. "Babies do all look alike," said she. "We've had nine to our house, and I had ought to know."
At first Maria used to dread to go home from school, on account of the baby. She had a feeling of repulsion because of it, but gradually that feeling disappeared and an odd sort of fascination possessed her instead. She thought a great deal about the baby. When she heard it cry in the night, she thought that her father and Ida might have sense enough to stop it. She thought that she could stop its crying herself, by carrying it very gently around the room. Still she did not love the baby. It only appealed, in a general way, to her instincts. But one day, when the baby was some six weeks old, and Ida had gone to New York, she came home from school, and she went up to her own room, and she heard the baby crying in the room opposite. It cried and cried, with the insistent cry of a neglected child. Maria said to herself that she did not believe but the French nurse had taken advantage of Her absence, and had slipped out on some errand and left the baby alone.
The baby continued to wail, and a note of despair crept into the wail. Maria could endure it no longer. She ran across the hall and flung open the door. The baby lay crying in a little pink-lined basket. Maria bent over it, and the baby at once stopped crying. She opened her mouth in a toothless smile, and she held up little, waving pink hands to Maria. Maria lifted the baby out of her basket and pressed her softly, with infinite care, as one does something very precious, to her childish bosom, and at once something strange seemed to happen to her. She became, as it were, illuminated by love.
Maria had fallen in love with the baby, and her first impulse, as in the case of all true love, was secrecy. Why she should have been ashamed of her affection, her passion, for it was, in fact, passion, her first, she could not have told. It was the sublimated infatuation half compounded of dreams, half of instinct, which a little girl usually has for her doll. But Maria had never had any particular love for a doll. She had possessed dolls, of course, but she had never been quite able to rise above the obvious sham of them, the cloth and the sawdust and the paint. She had wondered how some little girls whom she had known had loved to sleep with their dolls; as for her, she would as soon have thought of taking pleasure in dozing off with any little roll of linen clasped in her arms. It was rather singular, for she had a vivid imagination, but it had balked at a doll. When, as sometimes happened, she saw a little girl of her own age, wheeling with solemnity a doll in a go-cart, she viewed her with amazement and contempt, and thought privately that she was not altogether bright. But this baby was different. It did not have to be laid on its back to make its eyes close, it did not have to be shaken and squeezed to make it vociferous. It was alive, and Maria, who was unusually alive in her emotional nature, was keenly aware of that effect. This little, tender, rosy thing was not stuffed with sawdust, it was stuffed with soul and love. It could smile; the smile was not painted on its face in a doll-factory. Maria was so thankful that this baby, Ida's baby, did not have Her smile, unchanging and permanent for all observers and all vicissitudes. When this baby smiled it smiled, and when it cried it cried. It was honest from the crown of its fuzzy head to the soles of its little pink worsted socks.
At the first reception which Ida gave after the baby came, and when it was on exhibition in a hand-embroidered robe, it screamed every minute. Maria was secretly glad, and proud of it. It meant much to her that her baby should not smile at all the company, whether it was smiling in its heart or not, the way She did. Maria had no room in her heart for any other love, except that for her father and the baby. She looked at Wollaston Lee, and wondered how she could ever have had dreams about him, how she could ever have preferred a boy to a baby like her little sister, even in her dreams. She ceased haunting the post-office for a letter from that other boy in New England, who had asked her to correspond over the garden fence, and who had either never written at all, or had misdirected his letter. She wondered how she had thought for a moment of doing such a thing as writing to a boy like that. She remembered with disgust how overgrown that boy was, and how his stockings were darned at the knees; and how she had seen patches of new cloth on his trousers, and had heard her aunt Maria say that he was so hard on his clothes on account of his passion for bird-nesting, that it was all his mother could do to keep him always decent. How could she have thought for a moment of a bird-nesting sort of boy? She was so thankful that the baby was a girl. Maria, as sometimes happens, had a rather inverted system of growth. With most, dolls come first, then boys; with her, dolls had not come at all. Boys came first, then her little baby sister, which was to her in the place of a doll, and the boys got promptly relegated to the background.
Much to Maria's delight, the French nurse, whom she at once disliked and stood in awe of, only remained until the baby was about two months old, then a little nurse-girl was engaged. On pleasant days the nurse-girl, whose name was Josephine, wheeled out the baby in her little carriage, which was the daintiest thing of the kind to be found, furnished with a white lace canopy lined with rose-colored silk. It was on these occasions that Maria showed duplicity. On Saturdays, when there was no school, she privately and secretly bribed Josephine, who was herself under the spell of the baby, to go home and visit her mother, and let her have the privilege of wheeling it herself. Maria had a small sum every week for her pocket-money, and a large part of it went to Josephine in the shape of chocolates, of which she was inordinately fond; in fact, Josephine, who came of the poor whites, like Gladys Mann, might have been said to be a chocolate maniac. Maria used to arrange with Josephine to meet her on a certain corner on Saturdays, and there the transfer was made: Josephine became the possessor of half a pound of chocolates, and Maria of the baby. Josephine had sworn almost a solemn oath to never tell. She at once repaired to her mother's, sucking chocolates on the way, and Maria blissfully wheeled the baby. She stood in very little danger of meeting Her on these occasions, because the Edgham Woman's Club met on Saturday afternoon. It often happened, however, that Maria met some of the school-girls, and then nothing could have exceeded her pride and triumph. Some of them had little brothers or sisters, but none of them such a little sister as hers.
The baby had, in reality, grown to be a beauty among babies. All the inflamed red and aged puckers and creases had disappeared; instead of that was the sweetest flush, like that of just-opened rosebuds. Evelyn was a compact little baby, fat, but not overlapping and grossly fat. It was such a matter of pride to Maria that the baby's cheeks did not hang the least bit in the world, but had only lovely little curves and dimples. She had become quite a connoisseur in babies. When she saw a baby whose flabby cheeks hung down and touched its bib, she was disgusted. She felt as if there was something morally wrong with such a baby as that. Her baby was wrapped in the softest white things: furs, and silk-lined embroidered cashmeres, and her little face just peeped out from the lace frill of a charming cap. There was only one touch of color in all this whiteness, beside the tender rose of the baby's face, and that was a little knot of pale pink baby-ribbon on the cap. Maria often stopped to make sure that the cap was on straight, and she also stopped very often to tuck in the white fur rug, and she also stopped often to thrust her own lovely little girl-face into the sweet confusion of baby and lace and embroidery and fur, with soft kisses and little, caressing murmurs of love. She made up little love phrases, which she would have been inexpressibly ashamed to have had overheard. "Little honey love" was one of them—"Sister's own little honey love." Once, when walking on Elm Street under the leafless arches of the elms, where she thought she was quite alone, although it was a very bright, warm afternoon, and quite dry—it was not a snowy winter—she spoke more loudly than she intended, and looked up to see another, bigger girl, the daughter of the Edgham lawyer, whose name was Annie Stone. Annie Stone was large of her age—so large, in fact, that she had a nickname of "Fatty" in school. It had possibly soured her, or her over-plumpness may have been due to some physical ailment which rendered her irritable. At all events, Annie Stone had not that sweetness and placidity of temperament popularly supposed to be coincident with stoutness. She had a bitter and sarcastic tongue for a young girl. Maria inwardly shuddered when she saw Annie Stone's fat, malicious face surveying her from under her fur-trimmed hat. Annie Stone was always very well dressed, but even that did not seem to improve her mental attitude. Her large, high-colored face was also distinctly pretty, but she did not seemed to be cognizant of that to the result of any satisfaction.
"Sister's little honey love!" she repeated after Maria, with fairly a snarl of satire.
Maria had spirit, although she was for the moment dismayed.
"Well, she is—so there," said she.
"You wait till you have a few more little honey loves," said Annie Stone, "and see how you feel."
With that Annie Stone went her way, with soft flounces of her short, stout body, and Maria was left. She was still defiant; her blood was up. "Sister's little honey love," she said to the baby, in a tone so loud that Annie Stone must have heard. "Were folks that didn't have anything but naughty little brothers jealous of her?" Annie Stone had, in fact, a notorious little brother, who at the early age of seven was the terror of his sisters and all law-abiding citizens; but Annie Stone was not easily touched.
"Sister's little honey love," she shouted back, turning a malignant face over her shoulder. She had that very morning had a hand-to-hand fight with her naughty little brother, and finally come out victorious, by forcing him to the ground and sitting on him until he said he was sorry. It was not very reasonable that she should be at all sensitive with regard to him.
After Annie Stone had gone out of sight, Maria went around to the front of the little carriage, adjusted the white fur rug carefully, secured a tiny, white mitten on one of the baby's hands, and whispered to the baby alone. "You are sister's little honey love, aren't you, precious?" and the baby smiled that entrancing smile of honesty and innocence which sent the dimples spreading to the lace frill of her cap, and reached out her arms, thereby displacing both mittens, which Maria adjusted; then, after a fervent kiss, she went her way.
However, she was not that afternoon to proceed on her way long uninterrupted. For some time Josephine, the nurse-girl, had either been growing jealous, or chocolates were palling upon her. Josephine had also found her own home locked up, and the key nowhere in evidence. There would be a good half-hour to wait at the usual corner for Maria. The wind had changed, and blew cold from the northwest. Josephine was not very warmly clad. She wore her white gown and apron, which Mrs. Edgham insisted upon, and which she resented. She had that day felt a stronger sense of injury with regard to it, and counted upon telling her mother how mean and set up she thought it was for any lady as called herself a lady to make a girl wear a summer white dress in winter. She shivered on her corner of waiting. Josephine got more and more wroth. Finally she decided to start in search of Maria and the baby. She gave her white skirts an angry switch and started. It was not very long after she had turned her second corner before she saw Maria and the baby ahead of her. Josephine then ran. She was a stout girl, and she plunged ahead heavily until she came up with Maria. The first thing Maria knew, Josephine had grabbed the handle of the carriage—two red girl hands appeared beside her own small, gloved ones.